The Parade of Horribles

| November 9, 2016 | 19 Comments
Image courtesy of 9comeback at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of 9comeback at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Hope is both blessing and curse. It is a blessing when it gives us the confidence to act, to see beyond temporary obstacles and problems towards the greater good that stands in the uncertain distance. Hope gladdens the heart, turns our minds towards optimism and brings energy when we are low and tired. Hope can be skillful when it turns our efforts away from greed and hatred and towards charity and friendliness.

But hope is a curse as well. It is all too often bound up in clinging, in identity, in seeing ourselves in our goals. Hope can be irrational, leading us into fruitless goose-chases or worse, into acting in ways that are to our own detriment and the detriment of others. When we hope for a certain future for ourselves and our loved ones, we can hope desperately, with a rigidity and singleness of focus that becomes brittle. Those who impede our hope become problems, become dispensable, perhaps not even human.

The thing hoped for can become indistinguishable from ourselves: I am my future, this is me, this is mine, this is my self. We identify with great or important people, with political movements, with social causes. We identify not only with the program and its ideals, but with the winning that we feel is our just due.

Hope can become itself a form of greed, and can itself foment hatred.

And the world turns. Change is a disease endemic in all things. As we identify, so we are brought low by change.

The last hours have not been easy for me, and I suspect have not for many of us. In meditation my mind is beset by papañca, by a whirlwind of proliferating thoughts, by a parade of horribles.

The Buddha’s dhamma was a teaching of internal investigation and effort, for he believed that it was only through seeing and knowing things as they are that we can be freed from our fruitless attempts to cling to a world that persists in slipping through our fingers. It is only in witnessing dukkha as it manifests in our lives day to day, as it springs up in proliferations that carry us away and keep us awake at night, that we begin to understand dukkha as dukkha. We begin to see that the world is by nature unsatisfactory; that it provides no firm ground on which to base ourselves. It provides no hope for stability.

So, as always, we begin again at the beginning. We turn our minds towards charity, towards friendliness, towards a willingness to see the other person as a deluded being like ourselves, just trying to make it in the world, and making mistakes much like we ourselves do all the time.

We strive to abandon attachment. To cease clinging to results, to cease identifying our fleeting selves with some future that may be mere delusion.

So we begin again.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (19)

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  1. mufi says:

    Thanks for this, Doug.

    Yet I hesitate to share your wise words with others, particularly with those who are not so familiar with Buddhist thought, lest they interpret it uncharitably…say, as something that’s easy for a middle-class white male like myself to say, but perhaps not so easy for members of more vulnerable demographic groups.

    Nonetheless, today I too suffer consequences from the unskillful mental states that you describe. Indeed, it’s time to begin [practicing skillful mental states] again.

  2. Marcello says:

    Thanks for bringing this up. It seems to me that how one defines “hope” or “optimism” makes all the difference. As you point out, it’s often just another guise of clinging. When hope or optimism are used to mean an expectation that things will work out in accordance with one’s wishes, it’s a round of samsara waiting to happen (the within-a-lifetime kind, that is).

    If find a more useful definition of optimism or hope to be the belief that no matter what happens, something can always be done. In the example where situation outcomes don’t match expectations, there is an option to change the situation in some ways, if that is possible. One can additionally can also, alternatively or additionally, make an “internal” change: develop equanimity with the reaction to the events, practice compassion, patience, etc.

    So it comes down to “hope” about what? Hope that your wishes will be met is different than saying hope that one can practice the dharma, to the best degree possible, no matter what arises and passes. I find the latter to be both encouraging and consistent with Buddhist principles.

    It’s somewhat akin to saddha, often translated as “faith” in the Buddha’s teachings. But it’s not a blind faith, it’s one that is tested and proven, which leads me to prefer a term like “confidence”. While varying somewhat in definition, I would put this latter definition of hope alongside saddha.

  3. Michael Slott says:

    Sorry, Doug, your response to the election just doesn’t cut it for me. I, too, have tried to be compassionately aware of the pain that I and others are feeling due to Trump’s victory. I have worked hard today to meet the challenge that a meditation teacher once posed on a retreat that I attended: “Can you be OK if your team loses?” And in my meditation today, I’ve tried to connect with metta, focusing on the phrase, “may we be held in loving kindness, may we be safe and protected from harm.”

    But that’s just a part of the response that this horrible political outcome demands of us. When a misogynistic, racist and narcissistic bully is elected President, it’s not enough just to strive to “abandon attachment” as you say. While we need to recognize the humanity of our political opponents, we need to focus as much energy, heart, and intelligence on creating a non-violent movement for social change which allows those who are exploited and oppressed to have the opportunity to fully flourish as human beings. That means understanding who our allies are, what are the projects which can contribute to such a movement, and how we, as secular Buddhists, can uniquely contribute to such projects.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Yes Michael and thanks, you are on step two. I was on step one.

      • Michael Slott says:

        I appreciate your response, Doug. I guess where I still see this issue somewhat differently is that I don’t think that the inner, personal work that we do is the first step, followed by engagement in society. I don’t view these dimensions of our practice (individual and social) as functionally sequential nor do I prioritize the personal, making it the first step. In my view, they’re equally necessary, complementary, and mutually interacting processes. However, we’re basically on the same page, and that’s what really matters. It’s a challenging time, and we owe it to each other to foster communication and connection that is helpful and compassionate.

        • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

          Michael, I didn’t intend to imply (see my comment below) that we sit around on our hands or in lotus position before reengaging. A temporal sequence isn’t involved, but I do think the ability to detach from the resentmemts and fears that inevitably ferment in the mind is a valuable thing in this “challenging time.”

  4. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    It will take awhile to sort out emotions and reactions. I don’t think it’s trite to say that Doug’s piece and all the comments on it are right and useful. Nor is it trite to say that we all need to tame and direct those reactions and emotions by mindfully examining them. Then we should act ….

  5. steve mareno says:

    Hope will do nothing. One needs faith in the practice, in the dharma, and in the fact that for thousands of years people have become enlightened by this type of meditation.

    I think that Shunryu Suzuki would agree that this election result has not been good or bad. That is duality, and not our way, as he would have said. To complain does nothing, and to protest will only make us feel better for a while, but I don’t think it will change anything. The time has come to think differently and act, as what went before does not work. Ever. This is actually a wonderful opportunity for change, and things do need to change.

    So I bought a domain called governmentbyenlightenment (shameless plug here), web hosting for one year to start, and am currently soliciting help to put the website together. I had wanted a less unwieldy name but they were all taken. While long, this is exactly what it is about, which is taking back the power we gave these morons and putting it back into the hands of the real government, you and me, as well as keeping to basic Buddhist principles.

    I have in mind a simple website w/ a short description and a paypal link that people can click on to make a donation. At this point all I have is my personal paypal account, so I will need to figure out how to get a separate one for this purpose, as well as get the site up and running. I may have to register as a non profit. Whatever needs to be done I will do it, or ask for help to get it done.

    The people who will be immediately affected by this defacto government coup will be the poor, the homeless, the ill and the elderly. Unless we fit into those categories, we are doing pretty good. I was thinking of having the funds sit in there for a year to build up, and then disburse them to qualified applicants who have been harmed by the “New Deal, Same As the Old Deal” policies. There should be some way to let the software administer this to a large degree, and a one year lead time gives plenty of time to get that software in place.

    People will be able to apply for assistance as well as a loan if they feel better about paying it back later. Limits would be set for maximum amounts and frequencies. Yes, there would be some gaming of the system, no system is foolproof. But most people are basically honest, that’s the Buddhist take on it. This is in sharp contrast to the government and society’s take, as they assume that everyone is a lyin thief, and that necessitates all these background checks, credit checks, etc. It diverts a lot of money away from where it needs to go. We have to build a society based on trust and higher ideals, not on mistrust, and down to the lowest common denominator.

    This same model could be used for medical care when Obama Care disappears. Let donors make contributions up to a certain level, and that would enable them to be seen at free health care centers set up for basic care (anything big and they would go to a hospital). By reserving a small amount over their pay ins, people who cannot afford to pay could be seen for free. The emphasis would be on preventative health care and catching problems in the beginning (or even before), which is much less expensive and less traumatic for the patient when they are full blown. This would eliminate the need for health insurance, which is primarily responsible for the ridiculous cost of today’s health care. People don’t need or want health insurance, they want and need health care. One is not the other.

    We are not powerless to create a better world, and I think that saving all sentient beings is what we need to focus our energies on. Let the government do what it has always done, we can run our own, and it will not be a threat to anyone because we won’t be in opposition to anyone or anything. You can’t disarm someone that is not armed, nor attack when no one is a threat.

  6. steve mareno says:

    I apologize for the tone of my initial comments above Doug. Upon reading what I wrote, it is not how I would have put it in person, or if I had, it would not have sounded like it does in typed words. That came about due to my inability to express myself properly by typing, and in my haste to get it our lest I “lose” the intent. What you said was absolutely valid, and I agree w/ every word of it. I am just not often able to put things into a written form in the same manner that I would if speaking. Steve

  7. Nick Nick says:

    Doug. I thought the following was the most accurate (realistic) I have read from you. Keep up the good work: “We turn our minds…to see the other person as a deluded being like ourselves, just trying to make it in the world, and making mistakes much like we ourselves do all the time.”

    Btw, have you ever left America & lived abroad for an extended period in a non-Western culture? If not, I think this may help you so much more than the Buddhism you seem to spend your time & money studying. If so, try again.

    I understand how living in America, “liberals” find distaste in Trump. However, when you live abroad (unlike myopic Americans) & witness the foreign policy crimes of Bush, Obama, Clinton, you pray for the man to win that gives even a glimmer of hope to stop the American wars all around the world.

    Clinton seems to not follow or honor the five precepts. Therefore, you can you mourn for her?

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Nick, you mean the guy who wants to “bomb the shit” out of Syria? The guy who wants Japan and Saudi Arabia to have nukes, and wonders aloud why we don’t use ours more often? Vlad Putin’s best buddy? If you think Obama and Clinton have committed foreign policy crimes, you ain’t seen nothing yet. I don’t mourn for Hillary. I mourn for a nation I thought wasn’t ignorant and hateful enough to elect a self-confessed moral degenerate and inveterate liar because he told them lies that made them feel good. I know, I was wrong. And that’s what is so terrible. Judge us all you want, but beware — you’re gonna wish your prayers hadn’t come true.

  8. Nick Nick says:

    From a Buddhist perspective, doesn’t it concern you that Bill Clinton was a multiple alleged rapist, a proven sexual philander; that his wife worked tirelessly to defend her husband & obstruct his female accusers; that their associates Jeffrey Epstein & Anthony Weiner were pedophiles & sexual deviants. As a Buddhist, have you not heard how many times Hillary changed her views & stances on various topics, i.e., how many times she engaged in false speech? As a Buddhist, do you simply believe the rhetorical words that come out of a person’s mouth (such as Obama & Clinton) or do you actually judge a person by their actual actions? Personally, I was praying for Hillary to lose. Yet you appear mourn & grief for her and appear to have to mask your worldliness under to disguise or cloak of ‘Dhamma practise’.

    • Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

      Hi, Nick. If I may ask, what is your intention with using the phrase “as a Buddhist” so many times? For me when I hear wording like this, here and in other contexts with other “as a …”, it puts me on alert. Like there is some appeal to authority, or some ideal I’m being guilted into adhering to.

      I think we may be better served by being informed by many different aspects of our culture, including Buddhism, science, poetry, education, psychology…. the list goes on. When we adhere to a single identity with tightness, we limit choice for what is most helpful in this unique moment. So, as a Buddhist I’m not going to give that thought a Self.

    • mufi says:

      Ah, the No True Scotsman Fallacy makes an appearance once again, this time in Buddhist guise.

      As a proud Clinton voter, I’ll say what Doug might not: This isn’t the place to argue the case (especially now that the election is over), but Hillary Clinton need not have been a perfect candidate in order to have been a superior one to Trump…and by virtually every decent measure, Buddhist or otherwise, at that. It’s too bad she lost to him, but it’s just about time we moved on to face the harsh reality likely ahead.

      The Buddha-Dhamma can help us in this regard.

  9. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    “mask[ing] your worldliness under [a] disguise or cloak of ‘Dhamma practise’.” Nick, I have say — please look in the mirror.

  10. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    I’m not sure exactly what this hasto do with the present topic (that is, with Doug’s original concern), but I do think it relevent. This is from a recent New Yorker article about Charles Taylor, A Canadian philosopher:

    “Taylor believes that, as individuals, we derive our sense of selfhood from shared values that are, in turn, embodied in public institutions. When those institutions change, those changes reverberate within us: they can seem to endanger the very meanings of our lives. It’s partly for this reason that events in the political world can devastate us so intimately, striking us with the force of a breakup or a death. (Similarly, a charismatic candidate can, like a new object of infatuation, help us find new possibilities within ourselves.”

    Since Taylor calls himself a “devout Catholic,” his concept of the Self differs from the Buddhist notion, but surely overlaps (even more so than the quote suggests, I think). He agrees that the Self is contructed from experience, and thus (Buddhist empasis added) changing, non-permanent. The social dimension of the process is surely important and has both positive and negative ethical implications.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks for that post, Michael. It certainly sounds like a similar concern. I imagine that much of the vote in this last election was premised upon folks who found it difficult to identify with the current administration, and who therefore wanted very much to elect someone like them. There is a well known scam called “affinity fraud” whereby the mark is put at ease by an implicit identification with the scammer.

      To raise matters a little, it is clear that self — or “sense of selfhood” — is constructed out of experience: how we identify ourselves, what we identify with, and so on. Since the self is malleable, it would be in our interest to discover the ways in which it can be changed for the better. We need as individuals and as a society to find ways to construct selves less prone to greed and hatred.

  11. jscottanderson says:

    This is a fantastic discussion and I want to thank everyone involved. Don’t let it die. There is so much to learn here. I’m at work for another couple of hours, but was moved to speak now. It is not important that I agree, but that I understand. I’ve never found my way telling others that they are lost. I’ve found my way by asking them where them where they’ve been, where they’re going, and what they hope to find there. And there is that word, hope, indicating that I’m not too far off topic. 😉

  12. jscottanderson says:

    There is a lot of implicit hope in my day to day experience, that I will manage to earn a living, act as an exemplar to others, enjoy good health, and live in a country where we have the unique responsibility of choosing someone to lead the most powerful nation on Earth. I could go on and on with all this, like my hopes for my kids (now grown) that they will have rewarding lives and a bright future and that they might one day be sitting in a place like I’m sitting right now. But all those hopes are based on a very narrow set of experiences. Any reflection at all informs me that my good fortune comes at some expense to competing hopes. And so it is with every one of us. I will admit that I was astonished and downcast at the results of this election, this based very much on the notion that there is a certain minimum set of qualifications required to steer this ship. But the truth of it is that the world as I’ve known it is a changing thing. To hope for an outcome is ingrained in me and it is my daily practice to set aside hope in favor of insight. I am thankful for the perspective of Nick even if my own incomplete understanding led me toward different conclusions. I will say this much, that I made a conscious decision about fourteen years ago to no longer pray as I had been raised to do. I don’t look for outside agency even though I know that I am moved by causes outside the realm of comprehension. By turning my attention to matters at hand, and particularly to holding an attitude of great friendliness and goodwill toward all beings, I sense the world a changed place. I am not here to rescue others from their choices, but to honor their struggles and my own.

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