“Only a Crazy Person Would Do That”

Rev. James Ford wrote on the Arizona tragedy in a sermon he delivered Sunday at his Unitarian church in Providence. The piece was called “TREMBLING BEFORE THE THRONE OF GOD A Meditation on the Attempted Assassination of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the Necessity of Speaking Truth in Violent Times” It’s worth a read.

The signature phrase in that piece is:

…I will not be silenced.

In response to all those issues of inequality, injustice and unfairness that divide. And in spite of those who would silence all dissenting discourse through subtle intimidation or more directly at the barrel of a gun.

The conversation, as heated as it may get, cannot stop. Because if it does we have lost, all of us, everywhere, everything.

But note I wrote conversation. Not violent one-way directives. The latter are the domain of the truly weak attempting to appear strong.

Some specific things have been bandied about as blameworthy with regard to the violent tragedy. People seem to be looking for causes and meaning.

Terms and Preamble

1. Guns

Guns in and of themselves don’t kill people. They are not sentient or mobile so naturally it is not possible for them to do so. People with or without access to guns do kill people and quite frequently. It is far more likely that people with access to guns will kill people, as opposed to simply injuring them. I’m not against guns in and of themselves. I’ve fired guns enough to know that prefer a .22 pistol with a laser sight to anything else, light and not much kickback so one doesn’t have to worry about wrist injuries because of that or shoulder injuries as one might with a long gun. But I consider a gun to be a piece of sports equipment, with a time and place for use that fulfills that purpose, and therefore won’t own one, even if I could, for the purposes of personal protection.

Being from Canada and living mostly in India, both of which have severe weapons restrictions (guns, martial arts weapons, knives-even hunting is not allowed in India), I have a real hard time getting my head around the idea that everyone needs to walk around armed to the teeth. It seems to me that the more weapons there are in any given locale the more insecure the place seems. Go somewhere that martial law or high alert security is in force and check the tension levels. Both practically and symbolically where weapons are numerous a sense of security is conversely lacking.

2. Political rhetoric

It may be in some factions interest to maintain a strategy of tension. If people have a sense of insecurity it is more likely that they will fall in line with the ideas, programs and directives of those who appear to have the power to implement and enforce security. It was Chairman Mao who said “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” and apparently many still believe that either literally or metaphorically.

Power is often about perception. Visibility is often equated with power. We hear about the power of celebrity for example. The choice of Charleton Heston to head the NRA was no accident.

But are the most visible necessarily the most appropriate leaders? Probably not in many cases because it takes a great deal of effort to manufacture and sustain visibility and/or celebrity. If a good deal of someone’s resources are spent doing that, how much time do they have left to actually study the issues which they purport to address? Even with the most qualified entourage and best access to advice and information the presenter is still left on their own when the spotlight comes on. So they are left with talking points that have to fulfill double duty, that of attempting to address the issue and that of maintaining visibility. Often the latter wins out. So we get sound bites about “reloading”, “targeting” or what have you.

Those who defend violent rhetoric often claim that rhetoric alone is not the problem and that those who disagree cannot demonstrate causality nor are they aware of the mindsets of people using such rhetoric.  Yet in almost the same breath many of these same people are diagnosing the perpetrator with all kinds of pseudo-psychological problems, attributing political affiliation to the point of propagandizing, again without demonstrating causality or knowing the mindset of the individual. A person can read both The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf and not have any desire whatsoever to go on a shooting rampage. I know because I’ve read them both and do not have any desire or thought whatsoever to go on a shooting rampage. I read them because they have been hugely influential social documents and so I could have an informed opinion should either of them be mentioned.

Let’s illustrate that point about attribution. We have Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) stating:

It’s probably giving him too much credit to ascribe a coherent political philosophy to him. We just have to acknowledge that there are mentally unstable people in this country. Who knows what motivates them to do what they do? Then they commit terrible crimes like this. (quoted in Huff-Po)

Not only does the Senator seem to know what kind of philosophy, or lack of, the perpetrator follows but that he belongs to a particular group of people labeled with mental disabilities. One might presume by making that statement the Senator is a licensed psychological professional, He’s not, he’s a lawyer. Or that he has interviewed the suspect at length. As far as I can find out only the police and forensic psychiatrists have and he’s evoked his 5th Amendment rights against self-incrimination so isn’t talking to anyone. Or that the Senator also has some credits (even a minor) in political philosophy.  I haven’t seen his transcript so I don’t know.

The link above about the 5th Amendment also states that the suspect had political motives in mind and planned what, in his own handwriting, he labeled an “assassination” based on a filed affidavit regarding materials found in his place of residence. He may have also had some other motives. We don’t really know.

3. Delusion, even psychotic delusion

After reading a Twitter post by cabell which said “Bottom line: blaming mental illness is both #ableism & a failure of sociological understanding” [ableism is the position of discriminating against people with disabilities for those too lazy or lame [example of ableist talk] to look it up-it’s another privilege position] Mumon wrote in his post Those responsible for violent political rhetoric DO have to bear responsibility for their words

…putting this on “insanity” is a compartmentalization that does not do justice  to the reality.

The psychotic boogey man is a convenient scape goat. By remanufacturing the image of the perpetrator into that culturally iconic figure of the psychotic boogey man it all at once, objectifies him, dehumanizes him, distances him from the social sphere and attributes blame solely to that individual. That’s what I mean by scape goat, not that the person is not responsible for his actions but that he is being made responsible for the actions of all others who may have influenced him directly or indirectly, in an attempt to deflect blame and responsibility. That’s how scapegoating works.

Many, particularly in the news media, have tried to isolate this person as some kind of “anomaly”.  A “deranged” mind does not exist in isolation.  “Derangement” is fed by context, circumstances, learning, exposure–environmental input. If a person is severely deluded, even psychotic, the content of those thoughts come from somewhere. They are not self manufactured. Work with or know people labeled psychotic and this is abundantly obvious. What also is obvious is that those with severe perceptual issues are even more sensitive to the environment than many others. Ask anyone with knowledge of psychology who’s worked in milieu therapeutic approaches. Ask anyone who’s ever worked in or resided or otherwise spent time in a psychiatric facility why the situation is so strictly controlled, why stimulation is severely limited.

None of us is an isolated entity. We are all both products and expressions of our environments and we express that back into the environment through whatever mental filters we may have acquired.

On the continued demonization of the differently conscioused person here’s a fantastic blog post on that subject Discussion of an assassination: ableism & the failure of sociological understanding and another that just appeared as I was writing this ‘Psycho killer’? The Jared Lee Loughner case brings out the usual abuse


Causality is never simple. It is not some 1 to 1 correspondence. A does not always follow B. When we take those three elements-guns, political rhetoric and possibly altered perception we may wish to tease out one or the other of these elements and try to make it into a sole causative factor.

However, in this case, and in many others:

1 + 2 + 3 ≠ 6

Defies apparent logic if logic could be defined that simplistically. But usually it can’t.

It often comes out in other ways. The combination of these three elements could be expressed:

(1 + 2) 3 = 9

1 x 2 x 3 = 6

3 x 2 + 1 = 7

1 + 2 – 3 = 0

3 – 2 + 1 = 2

3 ÷ 1 + 2 = 5

2³ – 1 = 7

1 + 2 + 3 = 6 [sometimes it does = 6]

Then of course there are amplification effects and various other distortions. If some element is continually reinforced or combined with others, over time we might end up with something like this:

√12 + 3 – 11 x w +  2f x 33³³ – 1 ÷ 2 + x =  ??? (I have no idea)

1, 2 and 3 are as described above. Let f=family relationships and let w=work relationships and there could be dozens of other unaccounted for variables (x).

The point is none of gun ownership, violent rhetoric or altered perception is solely responsible for this situation. They and a host of other things, many of them socio-cultural  and possibly some of them genetic or neurologically based are responsible.

There is no sure formula for assessing blame. But no one is utterly blameless either. As cultural participants, even on a global level there is some connection. It may be vague or difficult to discern. It may be related to some memory of similar circumstances. It may be an action we couldn’t be bothered to take because it was too inconvenient. It may be a destructive impulse we didn’t want to control because it just felt better to lash out violently. It may be that we see all this as somebody else’s problem.

Some have advocated not speaking about this tragedy at all. As if silence will drown out the calls for targeting, removing, assassinations and so on.  There is also some presumption that reflection on the current situation should be done without evoking any socio-cultural references particularly of a political nature. And sometimes it is implied or even stated that discussion of such is not examination and is only being disrespectful to those who have been killed or injured. In some cases that may be true, but not for most people.

Perhaps by discussion some are examining it. In a time of social dissolution or at least with the feeling that is what is happening, people try to get some meaning out of the situation, both individually and collectively. A frenzy of insecurity and reassurances ensues. Yes some will exploit this to bolster or defend their hardened political position but others will examine that in the social context. It isn’t only the tragedy of the deaths and injuries, but a rend in the entire social fabric. Rather like a hole in a boat. And with all the various reactions to that kind of scenario.

Most of the talk is about “this country” meaning the United States. The United States is part of the global community. It is not an autonomous, isolated entity. What happens there reflects elsewhere, and vice versa. The same is true of both the perpetrator and the victims in this situation. They are not some isolated entities that have no connection to everything and everyone else.

In that way again no one is utterly blameless or disconnected.

Some people wish to simply write off the perpetrator as a “crazy person”, “nut job” or other short dismissive label. Labels are easy to dispense. One can then usually dispense with thinking too deeply about the situation as well. The blatant ad hominem is the refuge of the nincompoop. [Yes I do get it that sentence can be highly self-referential] It’s a strategy of isolationism and avoidance. It’s lazy and far to easy to indulge. Anyone can call anyone else an asshole without having to put any thought whatsoever into another’s point of view. I’ve done it a few times, sure, mostly when I’ve sought to dismiss someone unpleasant, but it’s far from my personal modus operandi. It is far from many people’s way of dealing with issues. An issue or opinion and a person discussing an issue or holding an opinion are two different things.  Many Christians use the phrase “Love the sinner, hate the sin” to distinguish between a being and a behavioral action. To engage the issues and the actual meat of the discussion is the real challenge.  Even in the most heated  of debates.

There is a huge difference between passionate debate and eliminationist rhetoric. Violent threatening speech is not debate. It is not a conversation, nor does it even acknowledge fully its subject or even it’s listeners who are perceived as unthinking, passive receptacles . It is a one way directive communication that does not await or even expect response from that which it labels as other. Its only purpose is to diminish its target and make them go away. One way or another.


[I’ve had to bold some sections because apparently a few people missed some of the crucial points and want to put words in my mouth and attribute positions to me which I did not utter. Maybe try reading what I actually said as opposed to what you imagined I said.]

The Myth of the Wise Child

[at the bottom is a list of some other posts that prompted this one]

Billie Holiday-God Bless the Child

Them that’s got shall have
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own
Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own
Money, you’ve got lots of friends
Crowding round the door
When you’re gone, spending ends
They don’t come no more
Rich relations give
Crust of bread and such
You can help yourself
But don’t take too much
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own
He just worry ’bout nothin’
Cause he’s got his own
Yes he’s got his own

Children are great. I don’t have any, deliberately, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy their company. For a number of years between high school and university I worked as a temporary nanny (filling in for full-time nannies) and enjoyed it a lot. The kids were always great. The parents not so much. I’ve come to the opinion that the majority of those who employ a nanny are rather narcissistically self-involved and neglectful as parents. Many not only don’t have the time to parent, they are not all that interested in parenting. The child in that situation is kind of a labor intensive and high maintenance prize or a rather noisy piece of furniture. I felt sad a lot of times in some of the jobs. More so in the bigger houses than in the smaller ones I found.

I got some stories. I was trying to decide if I wanted to put some of them in this post or not but I will put a couple because I think they serve the point I’m after.

One couple I worked for had 3 kids.  The oldest one I hardly met because he spent every day doing activities, both before and after school and basically only came home to sleep. The middle one was in school too but didn’t participate in much and preferred to stay at home and read in his bedroom. The youngest one was 4. And was pretty much ignored by everyone in the family including the parents. The woman was a successful business person who owned THE designer boutique in town. She was head of the women’s committee of her religious community and was often on TV promoting charity events. The husband had a very large collection of toupees displayed on decapitated foam heads throughout several rooms upstairs and seemed to spend most of his time sleeping through the day and going to nightclubs in the evening. I still have no idea what his job or source of income was.  Every day the woman would closet herself in her home office, which was actually a suite of rooms full of clothes racks, which I think held samples for her store. She had large collections of catalogues and spent most of her time looking through these and talking on the phone. I only surmise that because she locked the door when she was in there. And I don’t know how long she was actually in there because this suite also had a back entrance so she or her clients and associates could come and go at leisure. In the morning as soon as I arrived she would go into that office. The youngest child would then sit outside the door and cry. For hours. She would admonish me-by phone-after an hour or so, “Take that child away.”  Believe me I tried everything.  The only time the child saw the mother was for the few minutes it took for her to walk from the bedroom into the office. I made the breakfast for the kids.

It was a bit of a tough gig. Everyone in the family lived in their own little bubbles. No interaction, no communication-except through me sometimes.

Another family I was briefly acquainted with consisted of 2 kids and their parents who were a television executive and a fitness instructor.  One day when I arrived the kids were engaged in painting on rocks at the kitchen table. Their mother was there giving them encouragement. Then the father came home. He looked at the creations made by the children and said “Where did you get these rocks?” The kids said, “From beside the driveway”. The man went ballistic. He shouted at them, “Don’t EVER take those rocks! I had the landscapers order them all the way from Italy. NOW wash them off and put them back where you found them.!” The mother retreated to her home fitness studio as soon as she saw his mood. The man then went to his media room with his bottle of personally branded scotch and locked the door. The kids were left to undo all their afternoon’s work.

There’s a lot more stories like this I could tell (the woman who would lock her children in their bedroom for hours every time she wanted to get drunk and laid-which was often-I had to unlock the door in the morning-and change the bed sheets, kids with odd bruises “from falling” who were ecstatic as soon as I stepped in the door-I didn’t see anything happen so what could I have reported?, kids who were nearly ODing on Ritalin and tranquilizers for “hyperactivity” who were perfectly calm and fine as soon as the mother left for work-I was instructed to dose them as soon as she left so I saw the difference environment and its participants made-it was stark). There’s some really good stories too so it wasn’t all so disturbing.

And in other work with children, like being a teaching assistant in an aboriginal school in northern Canada, as well as years working in libraries, including school and public libraries, I’ve had quite a variety of opportunities to observe parents and children.

Not having children of my own may, to some minds, disqualifies me from having a valid opinion on the subject of children. That’s fairly narrow minded. I was after all once a child myself, and I do live in a world that contains children with whom I interact on a daily basis. It’s the same kind of thinking some “progressive” literary theorists used to put out in writing school. The thought was, at the extreme end of political correctness, that men could not write valid female characters, nor could authors of a particular ethnicity write anything that contained subject matter pertaining to any other ethnicity or culture other than their own. If we were to strictly apply that rule then we’d have to erase about 99% of the literature of the world. This extreme relativism still persists in some radical activist circles as well as in the general population regarding some topics.  Examples “You’re not female/xyz nationality/poor or what have you therefore you can’t have an opinion about something.” Well if one is not a,b or c then they have to work all the harder to understand the perspective. This mindset is one that is pretty contrary to fostering empathy and compassion as well.

On the topic of bearing children in general,  I sometimes wonder how much work and conscious effort some people have actually put in before having children. In many cases it is quite evident that no thought at all has been put into it. “You get married and have kids. That’s what you do.”  is the cultural norm and it is followed, often unquestioningly. Even sheepishly. I’m recalling a couple of friends who got married or had kids right out of or sometimes in high school and one young woman in particular who had 8 kids by the age of 24, she was a “devout” Catholic-all the kids were from the same guy-he never married or supported her. When you see stuff like that going on questions arise.

The question of parenting and the treatment of children comes up a lot in India with it’s very high population and high rates of infant mortality as well as the reported practices of sexual selection and female infanticide. [No it’s not widespread and life is not “cheap” as the often biased and sensationalized reports would like to indicate. Most people are as appalled in India by these practices as anywhere else.] Pretty much all of our ways of dealing with and viewing children are the result of cultural conditioning. Doesn’t matter if it’s an American or an Indian family. Culture is determining and “normalizing” parenting behavior. [That’s why so many population control measures don’t work. It’s not as simple as distributing some kind of birth control. And the “population bomb” is an untenable theory as well, which I’ll take up in another blog post] In the next section I have some further thoughts about certain Asian Buddhist practices that I often hear denigrated in the West, but I’ll save it til then.

Children are different than adults. Back in Victorian times and earlier, children were considered miniature adults. That’s part of the reason there was such an acceptance of child labor back then. They were to be trained to be adults and expected to behave as such even at an early age. If you ever watch old movies about that time period, especially regarding the aristocracy (or the episode of Star Trek Voyager where the captain is in the holodeck reenacting Wuthering Heights) you see the little children all prim and proper talking as if they are about 50 years old. And there weren’t exactly any manuals about child rearing-only the old standby “Spare the rod and spoil the child”.  Everything else was about making these little people into proper well-behaved obedient conformist adults. [I’m doing the eye-roll here. Still that way in some places]

That has to some degree changed. [or not] [I want to add that now some adults never grow up but that’s a whole other blog post]

Whether a parent chooses or doesn’t choose to expose their children formally to religious training specifically or in general is up to them.  That includes meditation or what have you.  But there are a few tangential issues regarding children and our relationship to them, whether we are their parents or not, that I do want to look at.

In her article not teaching children to meditate Karen Maezen Miller writes:

The aim of all Buddhist practice is to return to our natural state of wide-eyed wonder and unselfconsciousness that we can observe in our children many times a day.

Nathan at Dangerous Harvests took some exception to this  in his blog piece (2). And so do I. Do go read his piece as I’m riffing off it a bit here and I don’t want to quote a whole bunch as I already know this post is going to go long.

Here’s a bit of a caveat and statement of my intention. I am not trying to pick on Ms. Miller as I think she speaks with a pretty sane voice in general and seems well intentioned and kind. And certainly I am not questioning her parenting, or that of anyone else. There’s just a couple of issues that come up mildly in her post, though much stronger elsewhere (which I’ll get to) that I want to address. These are related to the cultural position  of children and how certain ideas about children and childhood influence Buddhist views and practice sometimes, particularly in America among convert Buddhists and some other “spiritually” inclined people. Whereas Ms. Miller and others have been discussing the influence of parents and their Buddhist practices on children, and whether it is a good idea or not to introduce Buddhism or any religious practice in some form, including meditation, to children, I want to look at it in a larger context.

Firstly the part about the purpose of Buddhist practice I feel compelled to mention. I’ll just quote a couple of others, with whom I am in agreement and not belabor that particular point. Then I’ll get on with the larger point.

Jack Kornfield wrote on The Goal of Buddhist Practice:

If our goal is, as has sometimes been said in the Western psychological tradition, to reach an ordinary level of neurosis, then the goal of Buddhist practice takes us far beyond that. It is to free us from neurosis or to shift identity so that we are no longer subject to those forces in an ordinary way; we are liberated from the power of those forces. And the fact that this is possible for us as human beings is tremendously good news.

Ted Biringer had an interesting post called The Sole Purpose of Zen Buddhism In it he quoted from the Shobogenzo written by Dogen:

"What was given to him was given solely for the purpose that he might master the wise perception of a Buddha. It was solely the wise perception of a Buddha which he was to master—and without being averse to contemplative meditation and diligence in practice."

The Myth of the Wise Child

Now the kind of thing mentioned in those quotes is not within the purview of childhood. Children do not have the conscious apparatus to apprehend this kind of perception. Nor do they have the requisite ability to self-examine at this kind of level.  Their identity is still in the formative stages so how can it be shifted “so that we are no longer subject to those forces in an ordinary way”?  If one is familiar with developmental psychology it is quite evident that whatever is going on in a child’s life is continually shifting and shaping that identity in various ways. There is little or no ability to decide to shift consciousness in any particular direction on the part of the child nor is there the ability to direct focus for such specific aims. Yes children can concentrate but often have little control of that ability. Concentration is focused on that which is attractive, novel or serves an immediate gratificatory purpose. It is concentration focused on the most interesting and distracting situation. And has been mentioned in some of the articles, it is quite difficult to have a child redirect their concentration and attention when they have become entranced by and absorbed in such a situation. This is quite the opposite of meditative practice. In fact relieving ourselves from our addiction to and obsession with shiny objects be they material, conceptual or otherwise would probably be a useful direction for our meditative purposes.

We cannot undo the conditioning that has resulted in the formation of identity and consciousness. We cannot “return” to a childlike state or remain there since it is the result of consciousness developing. There is no static “state” of childhood to return to. We can only work through the conditioning and understand the identity formation processes as adults. And maybe at a certain point, when we have understood that set of phenomenon adequately we can reach the nirvanic perspective and perceive things as they are.

Childhood perception with it’s wonder and amazement may seem nirvanic but it is of quite a different order. Partly because it contains little in the way of wisdom and is more like a series of moments of stupefaction at the attractiveness of the novelties of the world (adults too-ever watch fireworks?) and partly because there is no ability to make use of that perception skillfully.

Children are developing and live wholly in their developing identities/egos and are reacting from that vantage point. They do not have the conscious framework to explore that vantage point much. It is utterly unquestionably real to them-as are dragons, unicorns etc. Certainly children have imaginations and can temporarily adopt various “selves” for, usually unknown, expedient purposes. Playing dress up or behaving in particular ways in particular circumstances are within a child’s range and somewhat under their control. But if you were to ask a child why they are behaving in a certain manner the answer usually relates to some desire if an answer if forthcoming at all.  It seems to me that to expect a child to understand wisdom, in Buddhist terms, would terrorize them to no end. A concept like no enduring solid self at all might be rather hellish. It’s hellish for a lot of adults. Attempting to look into what can, from a beginner’s perspective, only be deemed “The Abyss” is enough to scare anyone.

Consider it from a neurological perspective. The child’s brain and body are growing and physically changing in a rather drastic fashion. Compare the percentages of physical change between the ages of 0-10 with the percentages of physical change between say 30-40. Height alone in the first instance will change nearly 400%.  It’s pretty startling. And the cognitive changes even more so. The child acquires physical coordination and the understanding of 3 dimensional space and navigation within it, the ability to attend to the senses and begin to understand that input develops, language, both spoken and in many cases written is learned, social conventions are discovered and much more. The foundation for the entire socio-cultural milieu in which the child has been born is laid down. Between 30-40 we might learn a new job or take up study of a language or something but the scale of that learning is rather miniscule in comparison. Which may be why so many cognitive resources become utilized for other things like picking fights with our spouse, becoming addicted to gaming, entertaining ourselves into a stupor, shopping until we are bankrupt,  multitasking until we are frazzled, daydreaming about our perfect lives to escape our current situations,  as well as attending to our work, relationships, homes, families, health, etc at some half-assed distracted level.

Even in Buddhist writings we can see some justification for considering the differences between the cognition of the child and the cognition of the adult.

…this body of mine is made of the four great elements, is produced by mother and father, supported on rice and bread is subject to change through decay, brushing, breaking up and destruction and my consciousness is attached there, bound there.

MN 77: Mahāsakuludayi Sutta(Advice to the wandering Ascetic Sakuludayi) (also available here)

That has been rendered “consciousness is dependent on the body & the body is impermanent” at it’s most stark. [I lost the link, sorry]

Dependence upon the body and its changes also reflect in changes in the consciousness of the child especially.  With such flux going on in terms of expansion, routing of neural circuits, development of particular brain areas at particular times a child is rather like a volcanic island emerging from the ocean. Maybe that’s a little dramatic but you get the picture. Parents often document the changes-first steps, first words, first haircuts, first teeth, pencil marks on the door frame and so on.

Here’s a cool little video that illustrates part of that.

The thing about returning to childhood states or likening Buddhist practice to this sort of goal is that it is incongruent with the reality of both childhood and adulthood. If we are practicing a meditative discipline and if we want to look at it in terms of stages, which I don’t necessarily agree with, then reversing course is not going to work. The enso is round for a reason. And even if we are making some kind of “round trip” (which I also don’t necessarily agree with) it isn’t done by doubling back and going over the same territory. That’s called a rut. Practice can stall if we are not willing to continue to break ground into the as yet unexplored.

One of the reasons I think the “childhood” metaphor is so common is that it evokes a sense of security, ease and innocence that is very attractive especially in the current cynical atmosphere. If we could only go back to that “golden age” when everything was so perfect (was it?), serene (was it?) and our worries just drifted away like the clouds we observed on a lazy Saturday afternoon (did they?), then all would be right with the world and more importantly all would be right with ME.  There never was a “Golden Age” anywhere, any time in any context. That is a fantasy.

But really climbing back into the womb is not an option even if we do see “the face we had before we were born”. It’s a different metaphorical womb.

On the topic of Buddhas in wombs best to read up on the Tathagata-garbha which means Buddha Womb or Buddha Matrix or Buddha Embryo, and which is explained in the  Mahaparinirvana Sutra.  Here is a video called Tathagatagarbha: the “Womb” and “Embryo” of Awakening [WMV format-161MB] on that subject by Dr. James Kenneth Powell  of Open Source Buddhism which is a rather quick and intense description of the Tathagatagarbha theory and it’s use as upaya and here’s a nice 584 page PDF translation of the complete Sutra. And no we are not already complete and developed Buddhas just because we sit on a cushion-take that Mr. Warner etal.

“Undifferentiated” is a word that is used occasionally to describe children’s perceptions as well as that state to which Buddhists may aspire.  Children are “one with” their activity or perception. They are deemed to be inseparable from their acts of ideal production, that is imagination and play. That undifferentiated state is due to the developing consciousness and not some wise insight into the nature of things. Adults who subscribe to similar beliefs are often labeled superstitious, eccentric or worse. But sometimes the  mental fomentations  become culturally accepted delusions. [Actually that is all the time since culture is a cognitive production and not a “thing” in itself but I’m confining this point to the most obvious imaginary productions.] Connections are made between the ideal (in the mind) and the material [the process of moving through the nama-rupa], both being given equal validity and both being deemed true. Is there much difference between ghosts and imaginary friends? How about black cat superstitions and bogey men under the bed? Or guardian angels and Prince Charming swooping in to save us? I might even add the concepts of devis and demons to this too. But the question is, how literal are such things meant to be in Buddhadharma?  Outside of Buddhist teachings many people, both children and adults take some of these things to be real. And some take mentions of such things within Buddhist texts literally too.  I don’t think that is the kind of undifferentiated phenomenology that is contained in higher Buddhist thought.  Here’s a good article about Addiction to Belief that touches upon some of this in the political realm as well.

The whole question of monism and non-duality is significant in this discussion of “undifferentiated” because there is a level of perception that has to be acquired before the meaning of undifferentiated becomes clear. It doesn’t mean that there is no difference between things or that everything is the same as everything else. The sublime perception of the undifferentiated is what underlies equanimity. With equanimity everything is at once the same and different and neither. [Form and emptiness in the Lotus Sutra-here’s an old translation and the first chapter of a later translation (more chapters can be found via google) and here’s a page with Zoketsu Norman Fischer’s in depth talks about the Lotus Sutra also]

Children do not have equanimity. They have very definite preferences and strong desires for those preferences down to the minutest detail.[“It has to be green jelly beans on the front of the gingerbread house. M&Ms only go on the chimney!”] They prefer that which appeals to the developing self in the moment and are averse to that which does not. Probably why so many parents so often say “It’s for your own good.” on the way to the dentist since the child has no complete concept of either themselves and what that self involves, what is good or beneficial and how that relates to their own wellbeing. There isn’t the ability to take some distance from the “self” and examine that even on a basic physical level. And there isn’t the knowledge or life experience to extrapolate that either.

There is a somewhat bigger issue here than the cognitive inadequacy of children to understand adult idealistic viewpoints. Or to embody them.

The romanticization of children’s viewpoints including the notion of "wise children" is one of the most overblown myths in Western culture. Now children do take note of things and often blurt out the obvious but to mistake that for "wisdom" in the Buddhist sense does a disservice both to children, who become put upon to be "seers" into things that are far beyond their years, as well as the Buddhist perspective.

One of the biggest examples I can think of is the New Age phenomenon of Star Children, and their latest incarnation Indigo Children.  These little labels have been around for quite some time and serve either to elevate children to some kind of special status vis-à-vis  a coming New Age or to re-label behavior that has become pathologized such as ADD/ADHD. The Indigo Children in particular are believed to have some kind of psychic abilities and such. The whole phenomenon is a real mess of woo belief mixed with dysfunctional rationalization and parents projections onto their “special” children.

The thing with “special”, “gifted” or allegedly precocious children is that many parents will label their children in one of these ways to the exclusion of all else that is very ordinary about them. I am personally acquainted with this phenomenon since I got such a label “gifted” from both the school system and parents. It was no favor.

Part of the thing that is involved is what is called a confirmation bias. Parents adopt a label and then work to make that label fit by selectively encouraging/discouraging behavior in the child that conforms to that label. Then when the child performs, especially when others take note of it, parent’s ideals and beliefs seem to be confirmed. As well that which does not conform is essentially ignored.  It is also a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy since the environment is set up in order to make this situation become true. Children are sent to special teachers or shown off performing in their specified role and rewarded for that performance. And it is a performance.

It is the same for any child who may have a penchant for some specific activity such as music and arts, math, science, spiritual behavior, languages, sports, sociability or worse if the child has a certain look that the commercial world deems to be viable in terms of earning big bucks.

Any measurement or estimation of a child’s “specialness” is dubious. Being able to do something does not necessarily indicate a wish to become identified with the doing of such a thing. And the development of particular talents is not necessarily genetic or something that only comes naturally. People can be trained to do just about anything with quite a high level of proficiency even if they may not initially be deemed to have “the gift” for such an activity.

This leads me to another point and that has to do with the brainwashing of children to fulfill adult fantasies. Sometimes that happens with those labeled “gifted” but it also happens with some frequency in general. In his piece on Progressive Buddhism, entitled Stop Screaming! Start Meditating., John Christopher Harrison, a middle school teacher discusses some of the baggage children are carrying as they go into school:

We start by blasting Mozart (or Jay-Z) into their little ears as they’re lying in their cribs.  As soon as they’ve developed enough muscle in their tiny torsos to sit up by themselves, we plop them down in front of the television and assault their brand new brains with mindless atrocities like the Teletubbies.  Not long after we get them hooked on T.V, we introduce them to their first real DRUG:  Sugar.  We fill their baby bottles up with soda and pump their little stomachs full of High Fructose Corn Syrup…

As soon as they develop enough dexterity in their cute little fingers, we hand them a video game controller to teach them how to kill zombies.  Some kids spend six hours a day using their thumbs to shoot at innocent civilians and gore their way through screen after screen of rebel, Nazi soldiers.  Before long, they’ve got their own cell phone, an iPod, a Facebook account, and they’re staying up until 2 AM to watch the latest Saw movie. 

That’s not to mention all the medication we dole out to them in the name of good science.  Kids eat more Ritalin than they do fruit. 

That situation is evident everywhere to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention. The point about blasting Mozart is the one I want to pick up upon in this context. Some parents expose their fetuses to “education” and when the child is born become determined to make them into “Baby Geniuses” or whatever through structured programs that are specifically designed for that purpose. Tutors and special classes ensue, just as the stage parent will enroll their 2 year old into drama classes or sports programs. On the latter I know of a couple who have a two year old boy. His name is Jersey, named after the father’s favorite hockey team. The kid can barely walk and is in skating classes. All his clothes have team logos on them and the father says his boy will win the Stanley Cup one day. That’s a lot of pressure on a little kid with poopy pants.

This just strikes me as a real Frankenstein kind of parenting. And it does make monsters, or at least people who become so uncomfortable with themselves that it takes years to unravel the damage. And some never do. Michael Jackson comes to mind in that regard. What the parents, and their accomplices start, sometimes the person finishes themselves as they carry on acting out that identity which has been so strongly reinforced and rewarded.

It’s not only in the West, I should add. There’s the issue of child Tulkus in Tibetan Buddhism or child goddesses in India that is similar. I wrote a post touching on some of that in What of Tulkus?  So “special children” are the kind of conceptual thing that manifests in many cultures for many reasons. I think it is partly related to any culture’s desire to both recognize the different status of the child and to align that with a culture’s highest values. Consider the contexts of the “math” genius or artistic prodigy or the child Tulku. These “representatives” are deemed precocious in that they seem to embody those things that a particular milieu value and respect.  [On the flipside what does that say of the rise in pedophilia? Hmmm. Some kind of current of value change that asserts and enforces the value of sexuality above any other and perhaps merits some attention.]

As well in the general population the reinforcement of these projections upon children seems to relate to the concept of potential and continuation, both sources of hope and comfort for many people in any culture.

In 4 Simple Steps to Teaching Meditation to Children on Point of Contact blog, John wrote:

Don’t apply adult labels to a child’s mind.

This is exactly what I’m talking about. And a little more.

A few other don’ts I might add:

  • Don’t over-focus on either a child’s talents or defects. They are whole developing beings.
  • Don’t project your own failures and expect the child to make up for them.
  • Don’t assume your child’s ambitions are either the same as yours or at the same level of intensity of yours.
  • Don’t assume anything. Find out the truth.

So to return to Karen Maezen Miller’s post. She states:

I always remind myself that I’m not trying to raise a Buddhist child. I’m trying to raise a Buddhist mother, and it’s taking all my time! Not only my family, but also everyone everywhere will be served by my devoted discipline in my own training.

The point of the parent dealing with their own situation themselves rather than trying to foist that onto children to resolve is really important. A parent without wisdom is worse than useless. And wisdom takes a good deal of effort to develop.

Jaye Seiho Morris has a lovely post called Origami in which he states:

Babies are not folded up into unrecognizable objects, distant from themselves or anything or anyone else for that matter. They are completely open and free. There are no elaborate labels, definitions or boundaries. There’s no thought of time, what will I wear today, what will happen at work, what can I buy, are people going to like me, am I going to offend somebody, no manipulating, no impressing, no winning, no time, just completely being, without grandiose elaborations of who we are or are not. This absence of so-called “baggage” can strike something within us where our whole being feels like I smile with no need to defend something that’s not real.

We can’t be like that again, once we’ve been folded, spindled, bent and shaped. But we can recognize what we have been through to develop to the point we are at. We can, as adults,  see how that has all come about. But only by growing up and really looking at it with a fully conscious mind, sustained effort and some amount of guidance from a teacher and/or the Buddhadharma and/or that Tathagatagarhba in which we are en-wombed and enwomb. We are both parent and child in such a scenario. Birthing throughout our life times.

That birth needs to be guided by wisdom.

As does any birth.

Children’s viewpoints are mediated with different filters than adults but they are nonetheless mediated and conditioned and as likely to miss the mark as adults who are also not self-aware or introspective or willing to develop, through effort, the requisite wisdom to bring about birth and development. The expectation of some kind of “childhood wisdom” is fallacious and even dangerous. Childhood wonder is a lovely thing but not something to be envied since in that state we cannot have any appreciation for it. We all recall moments of wonder but it is only well after the fact that we appreciate that wonder. Never in that moment. That is the major difference between the childhood and the developed adult consciousness.

Nor are children’s viewpoints something to be exploited because of adult’s misperceptions, desires or lack of self-knowledge, which is the point.

Let children be children without placing some kind of metaphysical or idealized burden of romanticized idealism or "wisdom" upon them.

And one other thing–Pay attention, real, full attention–not money, not tuition, not entertainment costs, not the price of designer clothes, not a nanny to pay attention for you.

Recent posts by others that also relate to children:

  1. 4 Simple Steps to Teaching Meditation to Children on Point of Contact

  2. Buddhist Children? – Thoughts on Children in Buddhist Families and Communities on Dangerous Harvests

  3. not teaching children to meditate on Cheerio Road

  4. Just Patience.  and Raising spiritual children on Fly Like a Crow are a couple of a number of good posts by Adam

  5. Children and Others Who Are Reflections of Ourselves from Notes in Samsara

  6. Stop Screaming! Start Meditating. by middle school teacher John Christopher Harrison on Progressive Buddhism

  7. Origami from Digital Zendo

A few others have had occasional posts on parenting and practicing Buddhism.

  • Sweep the dust, Push the dirt.

  • Slow Zen…Again

  • Somewhere in Dhamma

  • A Conversation About Engagement

    There have been a lot of posts about engaged Buddhism. Commenting back and forth with John has brought up what would be my position on that. Read John’s post Buddhist Banners first to get the starting point.

    John wrote:

    "And that is what I fear will happen to Engaged (TM) Buddhism when we begin to look more into organizational activism and less towards personal activism."

    I wrote:

    Has this actually happened? We can speculate from a fearful point of view yet none of the results will be whatever we speculate. When and if this should happen then it needs to be pointed out and rectified. But it seems to me getting twisted up about things that have not yet happened, or may never happen is somewhat counter-productive.

    If one checks out the words of the three individuals you mention they are very certainly informed by their religious views. They may not say bluntly "I am X religion" but most of their engaged work (social change) definitely comes from a religious viewpoint. TNH wrote the book-literally-on engaged Buddhism, Gandhi attacked castism using Hindu rationales and MLK did say among many other religious references "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

    The engaged precepts you mention go well beyond the basic precepts. I happen to agree with them too, but I do not think they are an appropriate guideline for Buddhist practice for everyone since they do emerge from and lead to a specific viewpoint. If someone’s not in that head- or heart- space then it is better for them not to go there than try to fake it. It could even ruin their practice.

    Buddhist practice has to be about authenticity and has to acknowledge within where someone actually is. Otherwise it’s just another act in the drama-which I think may be part of your point.

    John wrote:

    "Buddhist practice has to be about authenticity and has to acknowledge within "


    "They may not say bluntly "I am X religion" but most of their engaged work (social change) definitely comes from a religious viewpoint"

    As I said on twitter (and I think we agree somewhat on this): We should let our politics be a representation of our practice. Not our practice a manifestation of our politics. That is authentic. It may lead some of us to activism and others to engagement in other venues.

    It should be of little doubt to anyone that I am very wary of religious organizations. Buddhist as much as any other.

    I wrote:

    "We should let our politics be a representation of our practice. Not our practice a manifestation of our politics. "

    I agree strongly with this. The foundation has to be realized in social or personal transformative efforts. This is where I get into a beef with psychology co-opting Buddhism too. The discipline of psychology is about making a more comfortable prison of the ego. Politics is often about making more comfortable social prisons for certain segments of the population. [usually at the expense of other segments of the population]

    The point of a Buddhist foundation in both these cases is to bring freedom from these prisons.

    So that succinctly sums up my viewpoint.