Friday, May 31, 2013

The Heart is Noble: Changing the World From the Inside Out

Book Review: The Heart is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out by The Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje (Shambhala 2013)

This very good book is transcribed from teachings the young Karmapa gave to a group of American college students when they met with him over a period of a few weeks. He gives them some excellent advice that is especially applicable to young people. Building a foundation from which to work from is emphasized. Indeed, for a man of age 25, he seems quite a skillful thinker. This book is mainly not about how to change the world but about how to orient oneself so that one can best be able to change the world in a logical and positive manner.

Karmapa first says we all have a noble heart deep within, something we all share. Another thing we all share is the planet we inhabit. He also notes that this book is from a secular, rather than a Buddhist perspective. His attempt here is too share the wisdom of his own experience. He also says we should strive to learn from one another and to share both our aspirations and our experiences.

Karmapa explores the Buddhist concepts of ‘interdependence’ and ‘emptiness’ in order to demonstrate that life is endowed with infinite possibilities. The concept of emptiness means that nothing exists independently of the constantly shifting conditions and contexts within which they are embedded. Interdependence acknowledges that:

“Every person, place, and thing is entirely dependent on others – other people and other things – as a necessary condition for its existence.”

He also refers to interdependence as a state of “profound connectedness.” He insists on the practicality of these principles of emptiness and interdependence. We depend on others. We are responsible for others. We affect others and they affect us. He notes that impermanence is a fact of existence and that we can relate skillfully to this reality of constant change. Interdependence, he says, is also a fact of life and love can lead us to embrace our connectedness to others. Our happiness is tied to the happiness of others.

He also stresses the importance of taking a limitless view of things. He recounts his own unfulfilled wishes due to his life decisions being made for him as a specially chosen and trained spiritual leader. Meaningfulness need not be tied only to the fulfilling of one’s wishes:

“The trick is to strike the right balance between what you want for yourself and what you want for others.”

He mentions the Three Kinds of Aims: a self-interested aim which will usually backfire, an aim in which our interests are joined with others, noting our interdependence, and an aim solely for others, which is a noble but difficult form of altruism.

In examining one’s adoption of a meaningful livelihood he asserts that it is not what one does that really matters but how one does it. He mentions working from within one’s job to make the jobs better for everyone. He also warns against defining oneself by one’s job or career, saying that we are much more and that we are better defined by our positive qualities.

He examines healthy relationships by emphasizing how we orient ourselves to others. He talks about expanding ourselves to encompass whatever we are connected to – perhaps easier said than done. The idea is to think in terms of the goals of others rather than just our own goals. Habitual patterns pervade our relationships. Comfort and familiarity influence our habitual patterns. He talks about two forms of “I” – our innate or instinctual “I” and our fabricated “I”. The fabricated “I” refers to our habitual self that is learned through our culture and societal norms. The innate “I” is more subtle and tends to come to the fore when we are threatened. The fabricated “I” is what concerns us in relationships. The problem, he says, is grasping at “me” and “mine”, restricting our view of ourselves, and affecting how we relate to others. He contrasts unfeeling detachment and simple nonattachment. He suggests that our habit of looking for faults outside of ourselves results in our inability to recognize our own attachments. He also notes that attachment is based in self-interest. Love is concern for other’s happiness. Attachment is concern overly for oneself. Karmapa says that we should make love, or concern for others’ happiness, our practice. We do this by working on ourselves to be mindful of the happiness of others. The goal is to cultivate love that is unconditional. He notes the obstacles to ‘loving well’ as self-centered habits, attachment, aversion, and expectations. He talks about the death of loved ones, grief, the end of relationships, and impermanence. He notes that impermanence can be a positive, such as when we enjoy the changing of the seasons. He also notes that it is OK to give love without expecting love in return.

Karmapa points out that we fabricate identities not only for ourselves, but for others too. We project images and attributes onto them and this can erect barriers between people. He suggests learning to recognize and give up the unhealthy projections. Healthy relationships are based on acceptance and patience. Even our anger at someone usually involves projecting attributes to the other person. He suggests learning to distinguish the person from their actions, perhaps seeing them as a victim of their own emotions. Working with, or parting with faults, is another aspect of developing healthy relationships, which involves training in patience and forgiveness. He also mentions the practice of confession – not the religious-type guilt-infused confession of Christians and Buddhists, but more a general self-honesty. Such confession is simply acknowledgement of one’s faults and undesirable behavior along with generating a sincere wish to not repeat such behavior. Beware of guilt in this process, he says. Self-forgiveness here is important and can help one forgive others.

“Confession is the separation of the past from the future. You confess and then let go, so you can move on without repeating the mistake.”

Continuing on with the notions of projections and fabricated identities, Karmapa next examines socially-derived gender identities. He reminds us that gender roles are a product of our mind rather than “truths”. We should all develop our feminine and masculine qualities. Traditionally, in Buddhist terms the feminine is associated with wisdom and the masculine with skillful means. Depictions of tantric deities in sexual union symbolize this as a balance of these qualities. He says we should try to strike a balance of these qualities within ourselves. Yin and Yang and Mother Earth/Father Sky may be other examples of balanced gender. He notes too that gender identities change with the times. We are no longer hunter-gatherers.

“This should be a more “feminine” era – an era when women make more contributions to society. “…. these [feminine virtues] are precisely the virtues that the world needs most now.”

He notes that woman’s rights are human rights, that women face particular sufferings, and that mistreatment of women (as objects) is a serious problem in many parts of the world. Women face dangers in many places. Rape is simply unacceptable. Legislation does not seem to work. Changing habitual thinking and outlooks is needed. Karmapa also supports fully ordained nuns in Tibetan Buddhism. He warns against looking to Buddhist societies for good models of healthy gender constructs and practices – as there is yet much change needed. Gender ideals can harm men as well. He notes that he comes from an area of Tibet where men are supposed to be aggressive and hardened. There are, of course, biological differences between men and women that need to be acknowledged. He notes that in modern times the image of the body has been overly emphasized. When we associate happiness with how our body appears there can be devastating effects such as anorexia, cosmetic surgery, and excessive covering up of aging. He suggests working to find one’s value within. One’s noble aspirations can be a beautiful part of a person. Base your sense of worth on your own inner goodness, he says, and drop unrealistic expectations. Do not allow yourself to be defined by external qualities and the expectations of society. Here he notes the difficulty in fulfilling his own role as a revered spiritual teacher.

Consumerism and greed are problems that threaten to damage our society and environment. The way we relate to material goods is important. He suggests trying to cultivate contentment rather than falling into the pattern of collecting material goods. People, rather than governments, need to be the agents of change, regarding consumption. He suggests that to reduce greed in oneself in whatever little ways we can is to become a hero for the world. We should be mindful of the allure of goods and not be gullible to every advertisement. We need to see the ridiculousness of believing material goods will make us happy. He suggests a contemplation of ‘buying as connecting’ which means to contemplate the chains of interconnectedness of each part of something we buy and expressing gratitude to those who made it possible. We should also contemplate the usefulness, durability, and environmental cost of each product we buy. We should be wary of trends and of defining ourselves by imitating others. Being defined by one’s job or possessions can be problematic. In the end, he says, the greatest wealth is simply being content with what is available.

In evaluating social action Karmapa notes that we should not only identify what we would like to change but also what we would like to manifest in place of the old. He says that he does not really have anything tangible to give others since he is a Buddhist monk but he tries his best to offer sincere wishes for happiness to all those he encounters. His advice to social activists is to listen so that we can remain attentive to the well-being of others rather than simply imposing our views. Karmapa notes the simple sustenance contentment of growing up in a nomadic community in Tibet and wonders whether our modern civilized consumption society is really better off. He laments changing basic needs such as health care, nutritional food, and shelter into commodities only for people who can afford them. He says that seeing one another in terms of business tends to separate us from cultivating caring. He also touts diversity without division. Labels, stereotypes, and prejudice all tend to separate people. Groups are not homogeneous. Diversity should be welcomed and seen as valuable. He notes immigration as a test of a country’s commitment to compassion and equality. He talks quite a bit about immigration. He is an immigrant to India, having escaped from Tibet. He also notes America as a country that is in a position to lead. All Americans were at one time immigrants. Immigrants often fill the lowest rungs of labor. He points out that we should show gratitude for those who are willing to do things we are not and that we benefit from their cheap labor. We have a universal responsibility to care for others in our global society.

Environmental protection is another way to care for beings. He talks about cultivating loving emotions toward the earth. He notes that we (not they) are damaging our environment through demand for commodities. He notes that compassion is central to environmental protection. He offers a Buddhist aspiration:

May I be like the earth,
providing the air, the ground, water
and everything she provides
that is our sacred source of life.

Indigenous and traditional peoples often have a necessary respect for the environment. It is often superstitious but also admirable. Such cultures continue to disappear into modernity.

Karmapa offers an interesting section on fearlessness. Fearlessness in harming others, he says, is not true fearlessness. Even fanatics and cruel people can be fearless in harming others. He advocates fearlessness based on wise compassion, rather than on mere pity which enhances differences. Compassion, he says, is what we feel when we focus on the sufferer, rather than the suffering. Compassion may lead to courage and determination. Compassion and attachment can be confused. Attachment is rooted in self-interest while compassion is rooted in the interests of others. Attachment and greed are obstacles to compassion. He suggests a balance of compassion and intelligence in our quest to heal the earth with compassion seen like the king and intelligence his minister.

Karmapa advocates vegetarianism as an available means to practice compassion and help to heal the planet. Raising animals for meat has huge ecological and carbon footprints. He notes that it was a documentary about the meat industry that led to his giving up meat. This is what it took to move the compassion of not consuming animals from his head to his heart. He suggests that emotional stimuli are often more stable than ideas. He was surprised that his advocacy of vegetarianism, as simply a way to save lives, has had such an impact on Tibetans and the monasteries and practitioners. He offers a whole chapter on ‘Food Justice’ including vegetarianism, humane treatment of animals, and fair treatment of food workers. Changing our consumption patterns through awareness of the history of the food we buy is one method. The simple fact that people around the world suffer from starvation and malnutrition is evidence that our global food system is dysfunctional. Political situations and corruption aside, it is difficult to understand why people still starve in our world of technological wonders. Perhaps we should aspire to feed the hungry every time we eat. The benefits of giving up meat far outweigh any discomforts as can be quite logically shown:

“The reasons to be vegetarian are realistic and sensible, and based on long-term thinking. When we think seriously about the impact our food practices have on our body, on the environment, and on the animals themselves, it is clear that logic supports abstaining from meat.”

He warns against coercing people to give up meat but rather suggests sharing simple logic and easily available information as above to be the best means to encourage it. One should make one’s own choices. People like meat out of desire (for the taste) and habit. Other components of food justice are examined such as choosing organic, choosing gmo-free, choosing locally-grown, and avoiding overly processed foods. Here he suggests making a trip to the supermarket a mindfulness meditation where one contemplates and studies all one can about the origin and conditions of the food one chooses. It is our responsibility to be informed, aware, and to support or boycott with our purchasing power. Every little bit helps. Karmapa says we underestimate the value of small acts.

Conflict resolution is the next topic:

“ … it is helpful to acknowledge that conflicts are the logical outcome of the combination of self-interest and interdependence.” “[They are]… nothing to feel shocked or offended by.”

He says that conflict and harmony are both results of interdependence, the former imbued with self-interest, the latter with consideration of others. He examines the dangers of anger, particularly to the person experiencing it. Anger is disconcerting. It clouds our judgment. It is disturbing. It is toxic. It is hard to hold our center when angry. He says it is a temporary mental illness. He suggests trying to be cause-oriented rather than results-oriented by focusing on the causes that bring about conflict resolution.

“Once we recognize the connections between cause and effect, and self and others, we can learn how to direct ourselves toward causes that will bring the results we desire, and away from causes that bring the results we do not want.”

He mentions that diversity of opinions need not lead to conflict:

“We need to find ways to interact productively with people who are unable or unwilling to broaden their thinking in order to take in others’ perspectives. In such cases, it is up to us to find a healthy way to relate to their vantage point.”

Karmapa suggests that we could let go of righteousness and strive to see things from others’ perspective. The more close-minded those we encounter, the more open-minded we need to be.

“When faced with people who are inflexible in their views, that is the time for you to be at your most flexible and accommodating, and to bring all your wisdom and compassion to bear.”

We tend to cling to our anger and our problems, probably due to habit. Another source of conflict, especially for young people, is getting unwanted advice. He says we should encourage children to think and feel for themselves rather than bombard them with advice. “The best advice we give is given to ourselves, not to others.” Intervening constructively in the disputes of others may take considerable skill. The same principles may apply in global conflicts. Sincere motivation, sensitivity, and skill are needed to resolve most conflicts. He gives the example of America as mediator in many world conflicts but also notes that the influence of business and political interests may betray ulterior motives in some situations and these may be counterproductive. Regarding facing challenges, he notes the Buddhist saying (which I believe comes from Shantideva): “If you can do something to change the circumstances, why be upset about it? And if you cannot do anything to change the circumstances, why be upset about it?” After conflict resolution comes rebuilding of trust so merely coming to an agreement is just the beginning. From his own experience he warns against seeing trust as a bargain or exchange. Offering trust freely is better, he says. Trust is better based on one’s affection for the other person/party rather than contingent on their behavior. We can trust without conditions in another’s fundamental goodness, or noble heart. Trust can be akin to aspirations for the well-being of the other person or party.

In discussing spiritual paths he notes that what he is outlining in this book is a kind of humanist spirituality, but often based in the Buddhism in which he was trained. His own beginnings in Tibet were spiritual rather than religious. He sees himself as a follower of the Buddha – who used his own intelligence to discover the meaning of life - rather than as a Buddhist. I think what he means is that one’s spirituality should be rooted in one’s own experience more than in the tradition. He does say that science and religion/spirituality are both important to human needs. A simple analogy is that science is outer knowledge while spirituality is inner wisdom. Both need to be explored for a balance to develop. We can learn spiritual teachings from people, books, nature, etc. Examination (of the teacher) and mutual trust are important in learning from a teacher. He recommends keeping things simple. Doubting, especially for beginners, can be helpful. He talks of two types of doubt in Buddhist teachings: dismissive doubt which is not very useful, and inquisitive doubt, which is more receptive. Mindfulness and a flexible non-forceful sincerity can be key to happiness.

“One aspect of a spiritual life is to live consciously. For that, we need to be as fully aware as possible.”

Cultivating equanimity can be a major part of one’s practice. One aspect of this can be to remember not to take things too seriously. Skillful use of playfulness can diffuse tense situations.

We are all human. When we cling too tightly to our labels, especially our religious identities, we become alienated from those of different orientations. His analysis of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas is exemplary:

“From a certain perspective within Islam, these statues were offensive instruments of idol worship, while to Buddhists they were reminders of sacred principles and the very best of our innate human potential. Basically, we Buddhists use physical images in our spiritual practice, while Muslims worship without images. Clinging to either position was creating a wall between people. But they are just statues. Allowing ourselves to be pitted against each other over a statue – now that is really clinging to biases.”

Diversity is opportunity to practice tolerance. Ethics of various religions and ideas generally do not vary drastically enough to warrant conflict and aggression.

He says that sustainable compassion is a noble aspiration, that we should be mindful of it as much as we can. When one cannot directly benefit others one can always aspire to be able to do so in the future. A bodhisattva – one who dedicates oneself to removing the suffering of all beings – is an example, an ideal, of sustainable compassion. At first, our compassionate activity depends on our inclinations and abilities but eventually it can become more spontaneous. He suggests that caring for oneself and caring for others need not be in conflict. Inwardly directed compassion can be akin to renunciation (of attachment). This is a way of caring for ourselves. Challenging aspects of cultivating compassion include being equally concerned for victims and abusers and trying to distinguish between a person and their afflicting emotions. Enthusiasm can be a support for compassion. Developing a sense of responsibility for the happiness of others through contemplation and habits of kindness can bring about a sense of readiness. Joyfulness seems to be a result of compassionate practice as well.

All the ideas in this book, he says, are related, or interdependent: conflict resolution, the environment, food justice, consumerism and greed, healthy relationships, gender divisions, etc. Each issue affects the others.

“… the main point is to bring your noblest aspirations to all that you do.”

He says that knowledge is what one learns from others and wisdom is what one discovers from within. Keeping a light heart is recommended for dealing with the difficulties of life. A sense of humor may help with this.

Interdependence is a key theme of this book:

“Interdependence means that your happiness and mine are connected.”






No comments:

Post a Comment