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Ming Zhen Shakya


Text of talk given to Interfaith Council, May 2001

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
(in Spanish)

When it was suggested that I give a general outline of Buddhism's basic tenets, I blinked a few times and explained why this just wasn't possible. There is not one Buddhist religion, there are dozens of different traditions.. and schools.. and sects within those schools. Although Buddhists are found in nearly all countries; we have no central seat of government such as the Vatican - or any universally accepted text such as the Koran. Nothing was written down in the Buddha's lifetime or for four hundred years after; and by the time Buddhist beliefs were recorded, they were altered by the cultural influences of the diverse areas into which they had spread. Today, each teacher has to select from a scriptural library in which no work was actually penned by the Founder, and all works have countless translations none of which ever seems to resemble another.

We all envy the solution to a similar problem discovered by the great Italian movie director Frederico Fellini. To satisfy the clamorous European market, Italian movies were immediately dubbed in many different languages. They were shot with actors from all countries who then helped in the hasty dubbing process. It being futile to attempt to synchronize lip movements with so many different sounds, Fellini often told his actors simply to count aloud in their native languages while maintaining an expression appropriate to the action. Everyone was shouting uno-dos-tres or eins-zwei-drei, and so on. It is said that only Fellini could direct like an orchestra conductor. He could tap his baton and shout, "Repeat, starting from number 82!"

So none of us can give any universally understood chapter and verse. Even Buddhism's vaunted Eightfold Path has many interpretations for each step. We cannot say, "According to Step Number Three..." and have a mixed Buddhist audience nod in affirmation.

Even though Zen, too, is seriously fractured, it does have a few common denominators. Tonight I'll discuss one of them: Detachment.

Zen is a difficult discipline, but the difficulties we encounter do not arise from studying Buddhist philosophy or theology. We don't study Buddhism. We study ourselves - our individual selves. And we human beings are always more difficult to understand than any philosophy.

Now, in order to effect detachment, we need to comprehend attachment. To be attached is to be emotionally involved, by desire or by aversion, with a person, place, or thing in our environment, to seize upon and use that object for our ego's purposes. We are not speaking now of normal interpersonal relationships, or patriotism, or favorite pastimes, or any other natural emotional connection such as the mother-child dyad. We speak now of those involvements that are disguised from us by our own need for self-delusion, those attachments which are instigated and maintained specifically by anger and pride.

Such attachments serve two pernicious functions: first, the ego needs constantly to discharge its "Shadow" load of guilt and fear - which it accomplishes through the projection of anger and contempt. Any target is a good target for such venom. If asked why we hate an individual or are prejudiced against an entire race or nationality, we can become quite eloquent in justifying our contempt. We hate people because we are certain they deserve to be hated. It never occurs to us that the real reason we hate is our own hidden fear and insecurity or our own secret shame of having done that which we are accusing our victim of doing. Our fear seeks allies. It manipulates and lures, always proselytizing, always looking for souls to convert to its dreadful creed. Guilt will smolder unbearably until we find the courage to extinguish it through confession, contrition, and, ideally, some form of restitution or atonement. But seldom do we care to take responsibility for our actions. We much prefer to fan the flames and vent the toxic fumes, over and over again.

It's amazing just how filled with anger some of us are. Rage takes many forms: Turned inwards it may become masochism. Kept secret, it may become passive aggression. Expressed, it is usually sadism disguised in any of the pain-inflicting forms hostility takes.

Second, the ego needs to reassure itself of its superiority, its "Persona" status. It achieves this by loftily dismissing all it regards as beneath itself and by favoring only what it regards as worthy of consideration. Believing in the adage, "Birds of a feather flock together," the ego strives to attain associative excellence by surrounding itself with persons and objects of quality, acquiring that which is important, beautiful, or powerful in order to reflect its mirrored glory. It shuns the unaccomplished, the absurd, the impoverished, the powerless. It seeks the rare because it needs to identify with the unique. It desires the best because it feels entitled to aristocratic things. We all know that the quality of a possession does not magically adhere to its possessor, that, for example, the woman who wears a mink coat is not a better woman - for many reasons - than one who wears a wool coat. We know this truth in our hearts, yet we fawn over the rich holding them in proportionately higher esteem than we hold those of middle or low incomes. We will not long remain sycophants. Jealousy takes a little time to gel. Give us fifteen minutes and then, in subtle ways, we denigrate the show of wealth. How ludicrous it is to attribute superiority to a display of such wretched excess, to such bad taste, to such unconscionable cruelty to animals for such a frivolous purpose, yet. Yes, we know the truth of material possessions.

And so we sneer and pronounce someone pretentious or vain, or, in a fit of concern for the world's treasures, sadly note that pearls have been cast before swine.

While we are quick to expose in others their misguided attempts to borrow excellence from material acquisitions, we never suspect that we resort to such ploys. In fact, much of what we do in the normal course of our daily transactions we do because we've been motivated by contempt and vanity. But we never attribute our actions to anything but some reasonable cause. If we buy an expensive car, we say that it is because "it holds its value when traded in." If we buy a house in an expensive neighborhood it is because we are "concerned about the crime rates of less affluent areas." We never suspect ourselves of vanity or prejudice.

Such self-deceit is the source of discontent. Anger and pride are ligatures which attach us to misery. Zen demands that we break these bonds. But before we can alter something, we have to acknowledge its existence. Our first task is to become self-aware.

Consider an old Zen mondo: A novice asks a master, "What is the secret of gaining enlightenment." The master replies, "Attention." The novice is confused. "What do you mean, 'Attention'?" The master hits him with a stick and shouts, "Attention? Attention means attention!"

Many people think that by "attention" we mean only "keeping our mind on what we're doing." When we slice a tomato we should be thinking 'tomato slicing' thoughts and nothing else. When we are raking a lawn we should be thinking 'lawn raking' thoughts and nothing else. This, of course, is true as far as it goes. But the kind of attention that is mandated for detachment involves a bit more than not allowing ourselves to become distracted with extraneous thoughts or daydreams.

Any time we feel the arousal of vanity or contempt - or any excitement for that matter - we're experiencing emotion. "E" is a prefix meaning 'away from' and motion means movement; and what is moving away from us is a disguised, misidentified, and therefore unrecognized part of our psyche, an often unconscious element that has been unleashed by our ego and attached to a person or object.

Self-awareness requires that we consider both the source and the consequence of our emotional attachments. Bringing the unconscious to consciousness is no easy matter.

Our Grandmaster Hsu Yun often used a dog to illustrate his teachings. He said that a desire or an aversion was like a dog passing a little window. We, inside the room, are not prepared for the dog-experience. Startled, we are no sooner aware that a dog is passing, then its head is already past. Then we see the body and finally the tail.

Likewise, the emotional head of an experience passes so quickly that by the time we realize that we're feeling an emotion, we're looking at its body. This is where we begin our investigation. Why, we must ask ourselves, are we feeling anger or jealousy or pride or gluttony, and so on. Why are we emotionally aroused? In order to determine what kind of emotional dog it is, we have to stop and do some thinking, some recollecting. Until we put the correct head on that dog's body, we cannot identify it. We can't select a head that is more esthetically pleasing to us - to put the head of a French poodle on the body of a bulldog. We need the true head, the real source of that emotion.

Since we've mentioned metaphorical dogs, let's jump to the real ones and consider the purchase of a dog. Many of us at one time or other acquire a dog. Why? What motivates us?

Let us leave out of this discussion those individuals who understand the nature of dogs and the responsibilities of dog-ownership, who know the truth in the quip, "Kids are what people have who can't afford pets." Whether they are dog fanciers or breeders, or employ dogs as work animals - for hunting or herding or guarding - or simply persons who appreciate the companionship of a good dog, they are usually responsible, honest in their decision to purchase and realistic in their expectations of dog-behavior.

For the rest of us - indeed, for the average person who acquires a dog - seldom is the proffered reason the real reason. Of course, we claim that we fully intend to provide for the animal and to hold it in the high regard warranted by that intention. But since the reason we give is not the real reason - the true egotistical reason - the dog cannot possibly fulfill our requirements. Disillusioned, we blame the dog, i.e., we transfer our guilt onto the animal.

How do we know this? Annually, so many thousands of dogs are starved or beaten or abandoned or killed by accident or by design that we know these dogs did not serve the purpose for which they were supposedly intended. It would be wonderful indeed to be able to blame a dog for having the temerity to behave like a dog. But dogs have only dog brains. We're the homo sapiens. The wise ones. What are we thinking and why are we so often wrong when we become dog owners?

The answer is that we are not thinking rationally at all. In fact, projection, as Jung insisted, initiates psychological blindness. We simply do not and cannot see the object upon which we have projected an archetypal desire or aversion in its true state. We see what we are desirous of seeing. But the true source of our craving is obscured by our ego's machinations.

Often, for example, we hear of a man who has a housefull of kids and yet keeps a loaded gun in his bedside table. Inevitably, one of the children shoots another. The man is incredulous. What irony! He kept the gun there to protect his children! We respond, "What? To protect children? Why didn't you expect children to act like children? Do you claim that your children needed your protection because they could not think or behave like adults - and then you placed at their disposal a weapon they could not distinguish from a toy!" We know that this man did not keep a loaded gun in his bed table to protect his children. It was another reason... one that merely masqueraded as paternal love to facilitate its accomplishment.

Just so, a man may buy a pit bull for his "children's protection". But pit bulls are supposed to bite. Their jaws are specifically designed for biting. They were bred to fulfill this purpose. When the dog bites his child or some other equally innocent person, the man will blame the dog or, worse, idiotically protest that the dog was provoked into doing what it was bred to do. Do we really believe that he brought a potentially dangerous animal into his home to protect its inhabitants? Would he have brought a crocodile home?

We readily see in other persons how dog-desire induces a kind of amnesia: a professor of zoology becomes oblivious to the fact that mammals eat and as a consequence of eating, eliminate waste. He takes his dog for a walk each night sensing that his dog does something strange when it squats on a neighbor's lawn. He does not understand why his neighbor disapproves of the practice. It is most puzzling.

An audio engineer is unaware of the noise his dog makes. He becomes indignant if told that his dog barks incessantly. Not even after neighbors point out this fact to him, occasionally even supplying a tape recording of the barking, will he cease his denials. He hears no barking.

A barber purchases a dog and discovers to his chagrin that dogs have hair... hair that sheds... and contains a kind of lice, too. He is astonished - as is a ditch digger is when he discovers that his dog can move dirt with those shovel-like paws, that it can burrow under fences and excavate flower beds. And even a dentist, who knows all about canine teeth, will yet be unprepared for the news that his puppy has cut those teeth chewing on table legs and leather shoes.

Nobody it seems has ever heard about the strange habits of dogs. And as to canine sexual conduct, well! This is quite beyond comprehension... and the less said about that, the better!

It is probably safe to say that in man's long history with dogs few persons actually expected their dog to defecate, urinate, reproduce, chew, bite, dig, shed hair, have fleas and ticks, and bark. That a dog requires veterinary care is also something that few owners figure on at the time of acquisition.

When the owner discovers that a dog is a living mammal that doesn't speak English or have respect for Persian rugs then he banishes the worthless cur from the only home it knows.

So what are the real reasons we buy dogs?

Some adults purchase dogs because they are satisfying their need for status. They claim that they've bought the dog for the family... as if every family needs a Keeshonden or a Dandie Dinmont; or they purchase an Afghan Hound, "the only dog mentioned in the Bible." In the same way that they desire a Lincoln or a BMW, they desire a valuable dog. Usually this is another instance of pride, of believing that the quality of the possession will adhere to its possessor.

Some adults are motivated by a macho impulse or perhaps an angry quid-pro-quo. Their neighbor has a Boxer... well then, they'll get a Doberman. Their neighbor's terrier has an annoying bark. Well, then, they'll get a great dane and give him a lesson in barking.

When pedigree is not a factor, we find other hidden reasons. A man may acquire a mutt because, he says, the poor creature needed a good home. He has a heart of gold and could empathize with the animal's dilemma. We admire his overflowing cup of kindness. We are not there when the dog chews his Florsheims and gets taken on a one-way trip down a country road.

Our child wants a puppy to love. He begs. He whimpers. He sobs. "Please," he whispers, looking up at us with brimming eyes. Do we buy him the puppy because we want him to love the puppy? No. We buy the child the puppy because we want the child to love us. The ego wants to be admired and respected, to be important; and according to the ego's reasoning, the easiest way to attain such esteem is to purchase it through the giving of gifts. This strategy is as old as humanity itself. We give gifts to those whose love we want. Sometimes it even works. It's true. There are occasions when the recipient of a gift actually remains grateful.

It might be a good thing for our child to have a dog... but loving us for purchasing it is not a good enough reason for us to give our child that dog.

If we cannot recollect the head of the dog-desire, we at least can acknowledge the tail. What will the consequence likely be?

Perhaps our child already has a cat that he loved when the cat was a kitten. But once kitty lost his charm to maturity's demands, our child lost interest in things feline. Is it likely that the same fate awaits the puppy? Sometimes we delude ourselves into acquiring what we want by extracting from the child a promise that is impossible for him to keep. A child is a child, and we cannot accept a child's pledge to care diligently for the new pet. Children make promises as easily as they breathe. Will we snarl at the child, badgering it into keeping its promise to feed and clean up after the dog? Or will we quietly allow the dog to be emotionally abandoned, grudgingly fed, exiled to the back yard, deprived of its family's society? Is it fair to teach a child that it's perfectly permissible to trash a loving creature simply because that creature has lost its cuteness or has become troublesome?

We have to think through the acquisition of that puppy to its logical conclusion and then make a rational decision, not a sleazy, sentimental one. We have to say "No" to ourselves, not to just our child.

Again, the moment we feel emotion rise... be it anger or contempt or jealousy or pride or foolish sentimental nonsense... that is the moment that we must stop and try to identify the source of the emotion. That is the time to force ourselves to unmask our emotion, to expose the true source of the impulse.

In every kind of egotistical acquisition, the same pyrrhic victory of desire over reason occurs. The same veil of ignorance covers our dreaming eyes. Zen obliges us to wake up, to tear the veil away, to see our desires for what they truly are - self-serving vehicles of anger and pride. This isn't easy to do. The ego is both an accomplished liar and a gullible fool. But salvation can be had only through truth; and truth humbles us as it ennobles us and frees us from bondage of delusion.

"Zen is a cauldron of boiling oil over a roaring fire," the master says. The attention we pay to handle it is the scrutiny we give ourselves.


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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