This morning, I read an elegant and crystal-clear essay by Brian Victoria about the ways in which spiritual endeavor has been used to enable all sorts of bloodshed. Fact by fact, incident by incident, name by name, century by century ... religious constructs used to facilitate and encourage enormous killing sprees ... all without guilt or a moral backward glance. Glory, God ... and guts. The very quietness and care of the essay (which I would reproduce if it were open for Internet usage) left my mind glum.
Glum and glad.
Those who despise religious approaches might delight in a fact-based compendium like Victoria's. But to my mind, caterwauling enemies are small potatoes: It is the friends who pose the greater threat.
Having been steeped in Buddhism as my spiritual endeavor of choice, naturally I paid attention to Victoria's dissection of "compassion" and "emptiness" and "no (abiding) self" and a variety of heavy-hitting sutras used to support and encourage bloodshed. Oh look -- there's Zen Buddhism! oh look -- there's the Dalai Lama! oh look, oh look, oh look. This was serious scholarship Victoria offered and as someone who admires and employs aspects of spiritual endeavor, I felt duty-bound to read and heed.
And there's the rub: Duty-bound. As sure as the cyanide pills given to the CIA-trained Tibetan guerrillas in the 1960's, without acknowledging the downside of things, the upside looses any real substance and becomes a trinket hung around a whore's neck.
Bapa Legshay, one of 259 Tibetan guerrillas trained by the CIA in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, explained how he felt at the time he and his fellows parachuted back into Tibet: "Thanks to Buddha, even if we were to die, our spirits were high. The CIA had given each of us a cyanide capsule to take in case of capture."A part of me writhed within as I read this essay. I don't much care for bad news and in general I would prefer to think that spiritual life has some seriously -- and not just air-head -- good news to offer. But how good could my good news be if I would not or could not address some very palpable and quite nasty fallout? I'm talking about a no-excuses embrace, not some mealy-mouthed, analytical bobbing and weaving.
A part of me hated Brian Victoria ... and lord knows there are plenty of people who feel the same for somewhat different and self-serving reasons.
But another part of me rejoiced. Without an embraced confession, where would spiritual endeavor be? Can anyone live a substantive spiritual life by relying on the likes of "Mr. Rogers?" Can anyone skip over the bad bits and extol the good as a means of wooing more and more needy customers? How honest is that? And, in the end, how kind?
Well, everyone figures it out on their own time and in their own way.
My own half-baked response is this: It's not just the good bits and it's not just the nasty bits. But it is something that might be called all the bits, each of them offering potential for decency and deception. And in general, it is better to heed words attributed to Gautama -- really take them to heart:
It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern.Let others 'defend the Dharma' or revere the relic or marvel at an unbridled joy. If you must shed blood in some noble cause, shed it honestly within, not standing beneath another's flag.
It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern.
In this regard, as a practical matter, I think zazen or seated meditation is a worthwhile pursuit. But I could be wrong: As Victoria points out, that too has enabled devotees to do harm.
It's all pretty confusing, but I would rather be confused than assured. Nailing things down never works very well.