Wednesday, March 26, 2014

On 仁 and rudeness based on perceived difference

The Confucian notion of 仁 - close enough to Buddhist compassion here - can lead one to understand why a) I need to model 仁  in my day to day life, b) nobody should use rudeness towards them as a reason to escalate conflict, and  c) those who have been harmed and inclined towards rudeness and abusiveness, especially on matters of difference between  groups of people are not exempt from manifesting 仁 - they have an added burden to cultivate the expression of  仁 but they are not exempt.

I can't seem to find the quote on line verbatim and you can look it up yourself.  The quote I'm looking for is from the movie Ip Man,  where in an off-camera soliloquy before fighting General Mura, Ip Man explains why he won't teach the Japanese 詠春券.  The quote goes something to the effect of, "Although martial arts involve armed force, the Chinese martial arts are Confucian in sprit. The virtue of kung fu is benevolence. You Japanese will never understand the principle of treating others as you would yourself because you abuse military power. You turn it into violence and oppress others. You don't deserve to learn Chinese martial arts."

There is a real and profound truth to the claim that the point of 功夫 is benevolence - 仁 as would be rendered in Japanese and Chinese.  It just simply is not possible to practice or use 詠春券 if one is hostile and tense.

Benevolence as meant here is more or less a term from Confucianism  but, at least to me, at least in English,  it is very close to the concept of loving-kindness (慈, じ ), and my on-line dictionary lists 慈悲心 (じひしん) as synonymous with benevolence.  Buddhism came to China after Confucianism became established, and perhaps this explains why  仁 is more associated with Confucianism than Buddhism and concerning the relative differences between Confucian 仁 and  Buddhist 慈悲心 suffice to say that there are such differences, but it's not really the main subject here, and for our intent we can say they're close enough. Also I note in passing there has been historically some friction between Confucian adherents and Buddhist adherents in China (visit Qufu, Confucius' home town for more) which is only to say that nobody's particularly close or far from the angels here.  So perhaps being rude to both traditions as only someone without enough knowledge can be I will consider  仁 and  Buddhist 慈悲心  close enough  to render either as benevolence.

The structure of the character 仁 though is interesting, and is like many characters in that its radical (人, the character for person) has the same pronunciation  as the character itself. The rest of  仁 might be taken to be the character for two.  Person - two, two people,  Wikipedia notes though that while it's tempting to  consider 仁 is about people together it's about humaneness as well as benevolence.  Wikipedia explains:

人+二=仁 (rén) man on left two on right, the relationship between two human beings, means humanity, benevolence, seed. Originally the character was just written as丨二 representing yin yang, the vertical line is yang (male, penis, heaven, odd numbers), the two horizontal lines are yin (female, vagina, earth, even numbers), 仁 is the seed and core of everything. The character 人 (man, rén) and 仁 have the same pronunciation. When a human is unable to be humane, he or she does not qualify to be a human but an animal. But when a human is able to be humane, for example, when Buddhism first introduced to China in the Han Dynasty the Chinese people translated the Buddha's name into "able to be human" or someone with ”ability and humanity" (能人,能仁) because Confucius's teachings and Buddha's teachings are "one to two, two to one."

 The Wikipedia goes further in its discussion of 仁 in Confucian teaching; from the Wikipedia article (仁 is romanized from Mandarin as rén):

Rén relies heavily on the relationships between two people, but at the same time encompasses much more than that. It represents an inner development towards an altruistic goal, while simultaneously realizing that one is never alone, and that everyone has these relationships to fall back on, being a member of a family, the state, and the world.[9]
Rén is not a concept that is learned; it is innate, that is to say, everyone is born with the sense of Rén. Confucius believed that the key to long-lasting integrity was to constantly think, since the world is continually changing at a rapid pace.
There have been a variety of definitions for the term Rén. Rén has been translated as "benevolence", "perfect virtue", "goodness" or even "human-heartedness".[10] When asked, Confucius defined it by the ordinary Chinese word for love, ai, saying that it meant to "love others".[11]
Rén also has a political dimension. Confucianism says that if the ruler lacks Rén, it will be difficult for his subjects to behave humanely. Rén is the basis of Confucian political theory; the ruler is exhorted to refrain from acting inhumanely towards his subjects. An inhumane ruler runs the risk of losing the Mandate of Heaven or, in other words, the right to rule. A ruler lacking such a mandate need not be obeyed, but a ruler who reigns humanely and takes care of the people is to be obeyed, for the benevolence of his dominion shows that he has been mandated by heaven. Confucius himself had little to say on the active will of the people, though he believed the ruler should definitely pay attention to the wants and needs of the people and take good care of them. Mencius, however, did state that the people's opinion on certain weighty matters should be polled.
Rén also includes traits that are a part of being righteous, such as hsin, meaning to make one's words compliment his actions; li, which means to properly participate in everyday rituals; ching, or "seriousness"; and yi, which means right action. When all these qualities are present, then one can truly be identified as a chün tzu (君子), or "superior man," which means a morally superior human being. Confucians basically held the view that government should be run by ethically superior human beings who concentrate solely on the welfare of the people they govern.

I think one can see the differences with Buddhism  are in spirit not much - 仁  being innate is one aspect of Confucian philosophy that seems different from Buddhism.  On the other hand there are people who appear to be truly pathological narcissists but at any rate, from a Buddhist perspective, doing a little bit of violence to the concepts, I  think it stands that one should cultivate 仁 to be able to be a human being.

Wikipedia also states that the parental love for a child is among the purest manifestations of 仁 .

Now that I've put forth how I'm using 仁 and its notions I'd like to point to related series of thoughts I've seen in discussions on perceived difference:

  • It's unrealistic to expect that someone who has been harmed by another is going to be voluntarily  polite to that person.
  • Some people generalize this concept to classes of people.
  • And generalizing this lack of politeness to a perceived dominant class of people is justified because of past acts by members of a dominant class of people
  • And if questioned those who employ a lack of politeness toward the perceived dominant class of people the rejoinder, "I learned not to complain when it's done to me, so why are you complaining?" or some such thing.
  • If this sequence is even politely remonstrated against  or the behavior's  ineffectiveness logically pointed out one might be called  the name "tone police" as an attempt to distract from the rudeness.
  • And some people from supporters of the dominant class will use this to "prove" that "they" are "racist", "sexist" or whatever.

Now let me consider these points in light of 仁 :

  • 仁  has often been expressed as "not doing to others what you wouldn't want done to yourself." While it may be unrealistic to expect that one demonstrate 仁 towards a perceived oppressor, the expression of 仁 itself is an expression of freedom from oppression.   To be able to express 仁  in the face of a perceived difference in power or social standing is truly the mark of a person of accomplishment, and such a person is able to achieve much in this world; bringing much of the world along with them. 
  • On line I have seen some real abuse directed towards people who have experience more oppression as a perceived member of a dominant class than some members of some "underclasses" might ever receive. 
  • The above point, notice applies to behavior towards a perceived harming person or a class of people.   Like most people, I've been one of those harmed people.  It's had an effect on me.  But point is, to be able to act from 仁  in spite of being harmed is really to act from a position of more fundamentally human power than any oppressor can ever cook up.
  • As a Buddhist, I think 仁  needs to be taught and modeled, and is innate to the same degree in everyone.  I think though some have not been taught that.   What I'm saying here applies ten-fold to myself: I need to model 仁  better in my interactions with people.  
The last two points really sum it up for what I'm trying  to express here: the harm done to one's self or group should be the basis of the germination of a seed of compassion which we - I especially - have an obligation to  cultivate the expression of  仁 in my day to day dealings with people.

Now I haven't even touched the subject of how this relates to the expression of Buddhist right speech, but rather considered such speech from the aspects of precious metal rules.  The reason I approached it this way had to do with some particularly harsh on-line speech I'd seen from an avowed Buddhist, which involved a denigration of Confucian ideals mixed in with rudeness directed towards individual  members of perceived dominant classes.  In another case I saw though, an attack on a person in relatively dire straits was met with hostility and a complete lack of empathy.

Such people have every right to be impotent and ineffective, and perfect entitlement to be rude and even express hostility towards members of dominant classes. Such people have a right to ignore what others - such as me - would point out is an ethical oblgation here.

But being having a right to do something does not make it wise to do it, and does not demonstrate any kind of skill in dealing with people.  Or as John Lennon put it, "If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/ you ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow."  Or, as the scriptwriter for Ip Man would put it,  activists who do not understand and practice the principle of treating others as they would themselves abuse the notions of activism and liberation, and  turn those notions into violence and oppression of others. Such folks desperately need to  learn the true meaning and practice  of  功夫 and 仁, and will marginalize themselves.

People like me don't need to do anything if people like them are attacking me - they are attacking only themselves. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Once upon a time I was going to write a book called "Why the revolution hasn't come"

It's name was taken from the title of a show on WBAI a long time ago, hosted early Saturday mornings by a guy named Simon Loekle.   The show morphed into "As I Please," which was very literature-centric.

Ah that was then.

I knew why the revolution hadn't come: the revolution hadn't come because the revolution was a manifestation, a projection of what we thought we were lacking in ourselves.  What I didn't see is why the revolution hadn't come was what I was not seeing and living from in my own life; or to put it another way, we included me.  And I certainly couldn't put in motion anything like a revolution because it wasn't operative in my own life. The revolution happens when the Wheel turns.  If you are personally stuck no wheel is turning.

Emma Goldman might not have said, "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution!" Apparently she did say,  "I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things."  But it's not clear that her revolution ever really came.

Somehow, somewhere along the way I lived a life and met some remarkable people, and somehow somewhere along the way I actually did participate in a revolution, and you may have benefited from my participation in that revolution.

Some folks are still stuck.  Some folks may not know what Mazu was talking about, and think that cultivation is unnecessary.  Some folks may be too concerned with polishing a tile or not polishing a tile.  It's possible to get stuck in the notion that you're complete as you are without X, because it seems so good, right, on the side of the angels.   But of course having that expression is still attachment.  And what I wrote is still attachment.  Take the I out, or replace it with you or some other noun; play Mad-Libs with it, and it's still 90º off target.

I don't know about anyone else (though I have conjectures), but as for me, the encounter with my own suffering, and the idea that this suffering could be everyone's (see last paragraph) was useful for me to get beyond that. And beyond that is something wonderful.  

There is a heck of a lot of suffering out there.  Some people are in a particularly difficult place; they feel (often with justification) that they have been marginalized, and feel impotent to act with those who are seen as marginalizers.   

The revolution comes when the First Noble Truth is begun to be apprehended.  

Friday, March 21, 2014

Alliance, from a European-Descended Male Buddhist Perspective...

First, I'd put other qualifiers in if I could...but I can't, because I don't think I can abide those other qualifiers frankly, whatever they are.  I really can't.  And that's a subject for a whole other post dealing with leftist moral panics. And I'll use the term "European-descended" here because I think it's  a) more accurate, and b) is not based on outward appearances leading to a dualism.  I haven't even started writing this and I'm digressing.  I'm like that.

In the course of recent social media discussions on gender and ethnicity,  and what seems to be to me to be characteristic of what has been called a moral panic,  I came across this article by Rachel Safeek, which I found rather helpful to engage in a conversation.  I am grateful to her for a reasoned view of the situation.  I have stated earlier that I am ready, willing and able to ally with those who are ready to empower themselves, and will offer help if needed based on what I've learned.  I have also said to her that I would have more comments, so here goes.

Rachel writes:

When members of minority/oppressed groups call out allies for being insensitive, overshadowing minority groups, or overlooking certain things because of their privilege, allies can oftentimes become offended and get defensive...

It happens - it has happened in my case - that despite my background, and my immersion into Asian society and culture (maybe more than some of my critics; I can point out sexism in the structure of  East Asian languages some of them can't read, and I've probably lived in Asia longer than they have ), and other things (see my reservations about other qualifiers), that I've been reduced to a category.  In fact, I was reduced to a category into which I can't rightly put myself, in fact.

Sorry, but that is offensive.   

I note with understanding that of course I have been the recipient of privilege.  But I also note that I have been marginalized, as have people in my family.

Rachel tweeted:

I agree with the profound importance of listening.  Listening is hard work. Let me repeat that: Listening is hard work.  Whether you read what someone is saying or listen to what someone is speaking you should listen in the same sense that you might "listen" to fine incense.  It's the only way peace and harmony can be approached. I'm being serious as a heart attack here.

Now let me say something else: Nobody, but nobody, is exempt from listening.

If you, as  a relatively privileged group are not listening, of course you will offend the less privileged group, hurt them, hurt yourself, propagate division, give fodder to rightists who want to continue the game and thus be extremely counterproductive.   But if you as a rightly perceived less privileged group are not listening to someone you believe is from a more privileged group, and you respond with a mapping of that person to the "Other," you're no better than those to whom you're trying to ... to what? To get them to convince you to join them in a fight for equality? OK, let's say that. just might be that your supposition is wrong.  There are so, so many variables that might demolish one's preconceptions about things.

I was aghast at some of the things I was reading on Twitter recently; a complete ignorance of how, for example,  at least one of the (IIRC)  #notyourasiansidekick tweets might be seen by Asians who were adopted or have step-parentage of European-descended folks.   This is not theoretical; being in my position in society I know some of them well.  That was disgusting, and there's no sugar coating or justifying it.  They are part of the oppressed too.

I was also aghast at how some of the situations I've dealt with first hand were dismissed as irrelevant, which I've had to respond to facts on the ground first hand,  were minimized; these were situations involving my wife and son and mother in - law.  I don't need to be given a primer or lecture on how "insensitive" I am to certain groups frankly, when I have fought for them (with at least one success)  against the strongest political force on earth, and they're doing... what, "hashtag activism?"

On the other hand, there are ethnic groups, for whom I have not had nearly enough interaction and sensitivity...until recently.  But with regard to that, let me put it this way: I think some of those hashtag activists would have a real epiphany  practicing a sparring-centered martial art with an African American or Latino.  I have, and when I did I realized how profoundly deep my own inclinations to  racism are, and how profoundly important it is to overcome it, and how grateful I was to have a space where I could practice overcoming it.

I have spoken before as well that I have been "in-between" in some way or another, excluded some way or another, all my life.   Yeah, I've been privileged,  but marginalization is ubiquitous.  Reification of people who are perceived as privileged to ethnic classes categories, and using denigrating language to describe such people is harmful; it's harmful to all, and it's harmful to overcoming oppression.   If someone wants to overcome oppression I can help, but if someone's engaging in (especially unwarranted)  personal attacks they're not achieving their objective.  To put it politely, they're wasting their lives.  We should be working towards overcome oppression, rather than reifying others.

Like I said, I will gladly ally myself with anyone willing to consider and study themselves, to cultivate themselves to develop the power and skill to help themselves and others. And I will help if asked, and I won't provide help if not asked.  If one wants to ignore people because of perception, or disconfirm or mystify people because of their perception as being in a category, they are hurting us all, and (preview of future post) engaging in a leftist moral panic about it only plays into the hands of the real problem.   It is foolish and disempowering to think that listening is a one way street.  It sure as hell is not.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The 道 of patriarchy, whiteness and privilege

Warning: This post may contain ideas that are not what people want to read.  I apologize in advance,  and am willing to revise my views, but not out of coercion.  I'm nobody's guilt-ridden white liberal. 

I, like many people of European descent, come from a background of privilege, compared to people of color, and African Americans especially, though it certainly does not seem like it on a day to day basis.   

But compared to any other number of groups I'm in and depending on the time and place, I'm not privileged at all (e.g., being an American in a foreign country).    And because I am married to a woman of Asian descent, well I'm in an interesting place.  Sometimes in the in-between place nobody will have you.   I have heard remarks from European-descended people that were as rude as things I've read from those of Asian descent.  I have seen and been collaterally involved with racial profiling, but there are those who would deny me a voice, even when it's my immediate family involved.  That, by the way will not happen, whatever your politics, class, identity group or whatever. 
Call it a vestige of patriarchy if you will, but the instinct to protect one's family is primal.   And if you minimize overlook, or are in any way involved in anything that hurts my family, whether it's some random fool on a social network on the United States government,  I will speak and act appropriately. 

But there is privilege, and it really can't be denied. Being born at a particular time, working in a particular field, and being reasonably successful at that has improved my lot financially.  I have been involved in technologies that changed the world.   But privilege is distributed like wealth, and put in those ways (and much of wealth is privilege).

Sometimes in the in-between place nobody will have you.  My parents grew up poor in the Great Depression, and I was raised as though we were poor, even though we were not.   Both my parents, despite being descended from Europeans, were discriminated against by groups with self-perceived higher social standing, and by "higher social standing" I mean the class of folks that only years before had its members perish in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

My parents would have made excellent Reagan Democrats, except for the fact that  they were too right-wing to have ever been Democrats in the  first place.

My parents' privilege had to do with a confluence of things, not the least of which was America's opportunism in World War II,  civil rights and Communist revolutions, etc. etc.   They worked hard and suffered and would never have used the term "privileged" to describe themselves.

Much of my life has been a response to all of this, especially as I, a middle child, an ethnic minority white person in an all-white school,  has been in-between for pretty much my whole life.  And yes, yes, yes, I've seen some of the horrors of class and divisiveness and marginalization, things I can't talk about here, but suffice it to say I've seen the effects of marginalization of people of color, sexual minorities,  and known people who were affected, and have been on a first-name basis with a few of them.  And, as for me, I have not always been privileged with wealth myself;   I have been in my own financial state rather precarious for a while.  I was unemployed for the better part of a year while in graduate school with bills piling up and no health insurance.

Anybody who tries to deny, marginalize mystify or disconfirm my experience does the same, in part to their own experience, and holds themselves down as a result.  

I also, from my life's experience am firmly committed to acknowledging that yes, there is privilege or lack of it due to ethnic background, and this privilege should be subverted and deconstructed, but in a way that, like good 功夫, moves with the forces of things, not to reinforce power structures that exist, but to erode them.  ("Be like water my friend.")  And yes, to do that one needs a certain amount of power one's self - it's not for nothing that the 功 in 功夫 contains the character 力, which means "power," "strength," "proficiency," and "ability."

I wish for all to develop 功夫, without regard to status, gender,  class, rank, or any other category.   But I cannot - nobody can - help all to develop 功夫 without developing it myself, without cultivating 気 and hence 力 myself.  Nobody can help others if one is powerless, and nobody who is trying to cultivate such in the service of all beings has anything for which to apologize.

So here's a few points on the 道 of patriarchy, whiteness and privilege:

  • Privilege exists, especially the privilege of being descended from Europeans, at least in the current era.   Those who have it have a moral obligation to do what they can to help others, and to change the system to help others, if they give a damn about helping all beings transcend suffering.  And that includes the erosion of privilege so that more people can help other people.
  • Nearly everyone is marginalized somehow.  Some people who you might put into class ethno-demographic or other boxes might have suffered  tremendously, and you just might know about from superficial interactions. And as a result one should strive to treat all without regard to rank but as you would be treated, you who are like a prince that was denied his kingdom, if I'm referencing Blaise Pascal correctly.
  • Patriarchy exists, and it exists in a Confucian form amongst Asian cultures that Europeans might not recognize as such.  
  • Privilege is truly is like a 太极 - everyone has some in some in some areas and contexts, and even the most privileged can and are marginalized from time to time.  Nobody consciously created that, but despite that structure we're obligated to help others.
Much of this is impermanent, to say the least:  For much of recorded history Europeans were highly marginalized.   But this is the way things are now.

If you think you are marginalized, disempowered, and unprivileged, you'd do well to consider and study yourself, to cultivate yourself to develop the power and skill to help yourself and others.   I will gladly ally myself with anyone committed to that, but alliance is a two way street; it's not capitulation, and I can't compromise what in my conscience is the best way I'm learning to help others.   And this isn't theoretical.  It's the way things get done.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

座禅 hiatus...

I have had to try to move my practice to other areas of my life, as "sitting zen" has been a problem for me of late, since it was extremely painful to set in any of the positions for a long time.  Yes, including a chair.

I have now had surgery to repair a torn meniscus.  It is amazing that this is a relatively straightforward operation these days (costing about as much as a first class intercontinental air fare, in case you're interested).  Hopefully within a few weeks I'll be right as rain.

If you have such  an operation  it gives that whole merit thing a whole new perspective.  Look, if you can sit, great.  If you can penetrate through the Great Matter, great.  But don't pretend that any merit you'd gain this way is better than those for whom such effort is a real tribulation because of physical limitations or economic limitations or family commitments.  It just isn't.

There is a Great Matter to be penetrated, there is a world hurting  to be in the midst of a practice of deep love and compassion, but please don't pretend your practice is better than any greedy person's shiny new toys bought with alienated labor, because you're just making that practice into a shiny new toy.