Archive for March 2009
Looking down at sin, and corruption, and distraction, you are all swallowed up in it; but looking at the light that discovers them, you will see over them. That will give victory, and you will find grace and strength; and there is the first step of peace.
If George Fox had never written anything else, the words in a letter to Lady Claypole (Elizabeth Cromwell, the second daughter of Oliver Cromwell) would be evidence of Fox’s profound insight into human nature. Condemning those who fail in various ways is a sure route to being captured by failure. When the mind focuses on sin, it can never break free of sin; it lives in a world of awareness of sin, and this world is cramped and stifling and ultimately unsustainable. Literature is filled with stories of preachers and ministers who specialize in pointing out the sins of others and who eventually fall into the very sins against which they preach most passionately. One need not turn to fictional literature for such stories; they can also be found regularly in the daily news.
Fox’s words to Elizabeth Cromwell are more than a warning not to become too obsessed with the failings of others lest those failings become one’s own. It also has the positive advice to look at that which makes shortcomings known. Fox calls it the light that discovers—in modern English we would say “reveals”—these sins, corruptions and distractions. That inward light, which corresponds in part to what we might call conscience, shines equally on all sins, corruptions and distractions, including one’s own. When the light is shone on one’s own failures, it also reveals the way to stop failing. Nothing more is required than to stop doing whatever it is that is blocking success, and whatever that may be, it is obvious to anyone who recognizes that he or she if failing.
Probably all of us have become habituated at least to some degree to making excuses for our own failures. We know what we should do, but somehow we think we cannot help doing it. In talking about inability to act, the Chinese philosopher Mengzi said there are two situations in which a person says “I cannot.” As an example of one situation, Menzi gave picking up a mountain, tucking it under one’s arm and jumping across the ocean. This task is physically impossible, so it is legitimate to say that one cannot do it. As an example of another situation, Mengzi gave the example of helping an elderly person find firewood. Helping out in such a situation is something anyone can do, so when one says “I cannot help,” what one is really saying is “I do not choose to help. I do not wish to help.” One of our greatest tragedies as human beings, says Mengzi, is that we fail to distinguish between these two ways of saying “I cannot.” We deny our own unwillingness to be humane, benevolent, kind and helpful when being that way would be slightly inconvenient or would distract us from the immediate pursuit of some transitory and essentially meaningless pleasure or bit of fun. We fail to be ashamed of our own selfishness.
The light that discovers our own unwillingness to act on love also reveals everything that it is necessary to do to quit failing to act on love. All that is needed is to act on love. And all that is needed to do that is to stop thinking only of oneself. It is that simple.
An effective way to avoid being aware of one’s own selfishness is to focus on the selfishness of others, to see their failures and shortcomings. But being blind to one’s own failings is the only benefit that comes from focusing one’s vision on the sins of others. And that benefit is so piddling and empty that it should be easy to forgo it in favor of the enormous benefit of seeing one’s own failures, seeing the way out of them and then taking the way out.
For better or for worse, I see what I must do to be fully at peace. Can I do it? Yes. Will I do it? Suffice it to say, there is no good reason not to.
A longer excerpt from Fox’s letter to Lady Claypole is found in an online version of his Journal.
A post on E-sangha Alert asks whether anyone is a member or has any opinion about the FWBO. Having been ordained as Dayāmati Dharmacārī on January 26, 2000, I qualify as someone who belongs to the organization. I’m not sure I qualify as anyone who has an opinion about it. As much as I can, I avoid having opinions about Buddhist or other religious organizations, whether I belong to them or not. That said, I think there may be a misconception and a fallacy to be cleared up in the post in question. Let’s begin with the misconception. That post quotes one Anders Honore as saying:
the fact of the matter is that [the FWBO’s] teachings are still founded on the thoughts of a sexually criminal mind, who deliberately violated his precepts and whose misconduct in general is too well reported to be put down to the personal grudge of a few belittled souls.
The teachings of the FWBO are based on the thoughts of the Buddha, whose mind was not, so far as I know, sexually criminal. The FWBO draws upon materials from the Thevavāda canon and from a variety of Mahāyāna texts and gives its members the freedom to choose whichever style of going for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha suits their conditioning. Nearly all practitioners do mindfulness of breathing meditation and loving kindness (mettābhāvanā) meditation; in addition to those practices, ordained members of the order typically undertake a visualization practice on one of the buddha or bodhisattva personalities. The FWBO is not aligned exclusively with any of the paths (yānas) but strives to embrace all of them as valid and capable of leading a serious practitioner to enlightenment. It would be inaccurate to describe the FWBO as anything other than a legitimate form of Buddhism that has made an effort to avoid sectarianism and has striven to make adaptations to the social conditioning of modern people.
Now a word is in order about the fallacy in the statement quoted above. The name of the fallacy is the genetic fallacy. It consists in making the false assumption that if the founder of an organization was flawed in some way, then the organization itself is flawed in the same ways. So, for example, let us say that the founder of a corporation called Monumental Motors was a megalomaniac with paranoid tendencies. If one falls prey to the genetic fallacy, one would conclude, unreasonably, that Monumental Motors makes flawed vehicles or that those who drive the products made by Monumental Motors are prone to paranoid megalomania.
The founder of the FWBO, Sangharakshita (born Dennis Lingwood), is without a doubt a controversial figure in various ways. Many question his judgment. It does not follow from this that the thousand or so ordained members of the FWBO, or the tens of thousands of men and women who practice in FWBO centers, are prone to the same questionable behaviors as the founder of the organization. Increasingly, members of the FWBO are unlikely ever to have met the founder of the organization. What they are more likely to have done is to have read his books and found them an inspiring approach to Buddhism, or to have been inspired by members of the order.
Unlike many Buddhist organizations (but like most Japanese Buddhist orders), the FWBO is not primarily a monastic order. There are some celibate order members, but celibacy is not required. Many order members, like myself, are married and earn livelihoods doing secular work, but regard the primary focus of their lives to be doing dharma work. All of us that I am aware of strive to live simple, uncomplicated lives and to put compassion into practice in as many ways as possible.
I cannot speak for others. I can only speak for myself when I say that my experiences with the FWBO have been positive. It has come to my attention that there are people whose experiences have not been positive. Those who do not find the organization to their liking tend to leave and follow other paths. Some, when they choose to leave, cut their ties with former friends in the order; some do not. This is as it should be, I think. What makes most sense to me is that people use their common sense when affiliating with any Buddhist or other religious organization, and that they listen carefully to their own instinctual feelings and stay if the feel comfortable and leave if they do not.
In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose I should say that in addition to being a member of the Friends of the Buddhist Order, I am also a member of the Religious Soicety of Friends (Quakers). In both organizations, friendship is a principal spiritual practice. Like everyone else that I know of, my practice of friendship is imperfect. My aim, in the years I have remaining in my life, is to get a little better at being a friend.