The Lex Talionis and Desire
by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
...a likeness of something else.
-- Plato, Timaeus
According to the lex talionis, the aggressive desires that we cast against others have reached only halfway to their target. To complete their mission, they must return and strike us: we stand at both ends of the violence.
The problem we face is twofold: how to rid ourselves of our self-generated devils - those we harbor within us and those we project upon others - and how to prevent ourselves from acquiring any new ones. It is their presence in our world that constitutes Samsara's bitterness and pain.
Throughout the Regimen we must remain aware of what we're doing and why we're doing it, and we have to be willing to make sacrifices of convenience and comfort.
Read through the entire regimen and then make the preliminary arrangements, i.e., doctor's appointments; setting up a private meditation space at home; getting a beeper if necessary; making appointments for lessons in any of the physical disciplines; and so on.
The first group of corrections involves mostly physical adjustments and as such is relatively easy to accomplish. The second group is more difficult since it requires mental discipline - the attitude; introspection; prayer; meditation; dedication; devotion; humility; and all those other states of mind and soul the lack of which got us into trouble in the first place.
The order in which recovery efforts are listed is not intended to be the order in which they are attempted. All are important and need to be practiced simultaneously.
(1) Estimate the extent of the problem
A spiritual regimen can go a long way towards keeping a person sane, but it can't be relied upon to cure him when he's already ill: a tormented mind often cannot cooperate in its own curative process. We can perform a spiritual practice as an adjunct to psychotherapy, but when the stakes are so high, not as a substitute for it.
(2) Anti-addiction support
Telling people that smoking is harmful often misses the point. Many people smoke precisely because it is harmful. This aggression becomes sociopathic when others cannot escape the radius of damage, as when parents extend the risks to their children. Alcoholics and drug addicts also cut a wide swath of social destruction.
Every environment routinely entered - home, car, office, coffee shop - contains sights and sounds which trigger an habitual response. This is akin to the placebo effect in which expectation itself supplies much of the cure attributed solely to the medication. The force of the addiction often consists in greater degree to the effects induced by a ritualized, conditioned response within a specific environment than it consists in the physical effects of the actual substance. We need to understand this.
Of the thousands of men who became addicted to hard drugs while they served in Viet Nam, few returned to drug use when they returned home. Once they were removed from the setting and conditions in which they used these drugs, the impulse to use them attenuated to such a degree that they easily overcame physiological dependency. The few veterans who did resume drug use were those who came out of drug environments at the time they entered military service. They merely re-entered familiar conditioning sites.
We often hear about heavy smokers who, upon being removed from the setting of their most intense usage, find their cravings reduced or eliminated. (I recently spoke to a heavy smoker who signed up for an ocean voyage with a captain who prohibited smoking on his sailboat. The smoker claimed that for the entire time he was at sea, he never once craved a cigarette. I've also known smokers who while hospitalized for long periods did not smoke at all and also did quite well. Yet, all of these people resumed smoking when they returned home.)
Anyone who smokes while drinking coffee should switch to tea. It works. He should remove all ashtrays from his home and be crass enough to put "No Smoking" signs on his coffee table or front door. He should also insist upon sitting in no smoking areas of restaurants regardless of what others in his party want to do. If they don't want to join him, he can eat alone.
Since the setting in which we victimize ourselves with addictive habits contributes so much to what we mistakenly regard as a wholly chemical effect, we need to use the 30-day recovery program to alter our routines.
In the case of alcohol we absent ourselves from all our old haunts, explaining to anyone who actually misses us that we've undertaken a spiritual regimen that prevents us from joining them anytime, anywhere. (And we may not fall for the sucker-bait of becoming a regular "designated driver." Being a non-drinker at bars is rather like being an atheist at a Revivalist Jamboree. We either convert or become misanthropes.)
At home, we get rid of all the alcohol in the house and don't permit anyone to drink it on the premises... not for any occasion.
We need to appreciate the difference between having "friends" and being friendly. One requires a precarious emotional investment, the other keeps us in a neutral demilitarized zone. Nobody needs the kind of friends who help him to destroy his life.
A rule: Stay away from persons, places and things associated with addictive behaviors. Don't court temptation.
(3) Assume all suffering to be Devil related
Every illness, injury, or condition should be considered the result of some psychological accommodation or retribution. Without this steadying assumption we lapse into denial and find external causes for all our afflictions. Granted, if we are unhappy and we also happen to have been in a tornado's path, it is difficult to blame a personal devil for the broken bones we received.
But the person whose psyche is free of self-destructive desires suffers only that pain and disability proximate to the event. Despite the magnitude of his losses, he retains his poise and resumes his life with grace and dignity. The self-destructive person, having no equilibrium to regain, will not even be grateful to have been more fortunate than other victims. Standing at their gravesites he wails, "Why me? Why me?" No matter how great or small his wounds or losses, his mind seizes the opportunity to intensify and to prolong his suffering. He may become so transfixed by this single event that he alienates or neglects others around him whose lives require his attention. He broods; and whenever his lamentations become too tiresome, the secondary problems created by such neglect come to refresh them.
It is one thing to have an immune system weakened by shock or stress and to suffer the consequences of that temporary debility, it is quite another matter to let that one trauma be the perpetuating cause of countless others.
(4) Assume 100% of the responsibility
If the goal is to "beat the devil," it serves no purpose to support him with justifications for his existence. It may be entirely true that the person we despise is a sadistic brute who would face execution in every civilized nation on earth. But this is not our problem. It is not his malice that is at issue, it is our own.
It is our hateful desires that, in fulfilling the lex talionis, come back upon us and cause our distress.
In many eastern religions the doctrine of reincarnation requires that a believer take personal responsibility for his unhappiness, financial misfortune, illness, or injury. Present-life unpleasantries are seen as punishment for a previous-life's evil deeds. But Zen requires us to live in the present moment only and to regard the ego as a pathetic fiction. To us "the archer, the bow, the arrow, and the target are a unity." Never is this more true than when we entertain malicious desires.
(5) Eliminate Sensory Overload
Most information is gathered in order to gain status for ourselves or to lessen someone else's. Knowing about an event gives us the illusion of power, as if we were influencing the event and not merely manipulating the people with whom we discuss it.
When not at work, we turn off all communication devices... telephones, fax machines, computers, everything. Off means off. (We don't leave our answering machine on so that we can monitor our calls.) If our job requires that we be subject to emergency calls, we get a beeper. A telephone is an instrument of torture. Do not fear to tear it out by its roots: this is an excellent way to vent aggression.
As to television, during the 30-day recovery regimen, we leave the room and tell everyone to keep the volume down. We can always watch the Simpsons, King of the Hill, and Frasier in re-runs. But for 30 days... nothing... not even sports or soap operas. Ouch.
A rule: Remember that if we were in a morgue or a jail or a sanitarium or a monastery, we wouldn't even get the pleasure of seeing Tammy Faye weep for Jesus or Jimmy Swaggart weep for whatever it was he was weeping for.
(6) Acquire a perspective into our own identity
We therefore serve notice that for the next thirty days we will be unavailable for meetings, chats, doing favors, sports, email, or anything else. We explain to people that we are following Hsu Yun's advice "to cultivate the poise of a dead man" and that they should try to cooperate with us by regarding us as being just that. We need to be let alone. Until we know who we are we cannot change into someone we like better.
Except for teachers, only our spouse, children and associates at work (during a specifically limited period of working hours) are allowed to exist in our world.
One thing we don't do is run out and join a religious group. There are 168 hours in a week and spending 2 of them in an ersatz monastic environment is not likely to supply anyone with sufficient holiness to sustain him during the other 166 hours.
Just as a caterpillar undergoes a cocooning period to realize its metamorphosis, anyone who desires change requires a respite, a retreat from troublesome situations. Every recovery program benefits from a halt in the action, a lull that facilitates rest and the time to deal with those problems that already exist. Nobody needs any new problems.
(7) Study the Path
We learn the Five Buddhist Precepts - the rules against violence; lying; stealing; intoxicants; and illicit sexual activity; and the Eight Steps on the Eightfold Path: Right Understanding; Thought or Purpose; Speech; Action; Livelihood; Effort; Mindfulness; Meditation. We also review St. Gregory's list of the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, anger, and jealousy. All of these sins involve emotions; and emotion means projection - a moving of the unconscious, archetypal, "god-like" contents of our mind onto some person, place or thing. When we fall under the spell of the 'gods' to whom we're responding when we feel emotion, we become vulnerable to disillusionment's bitterness and pain. Our judgments and abilities even to see our situation are compromised. To any combatant - martial artist, fighter pilot, or devil-slayer - his worst enemies are his own emotions. This is also why lawyers don't defend themselves and surgeons don't operate on their children.
The fact is that, over and above considerations of slaughter house sadness, a balanced vegetarian diet is not only superior from a nutritional standpoint (providing it is heavy on such protein-rich items as soybeans), but it is free from medications such as antibiotics and female hormones given to promote an animal's weight gain, substances which collect in fatty tissue. Many people are physically and emotionally affected by these additives. (The difference between good steak and cheap hamburger involves more than price.) Where cholesterol is not a problem, dairy products are also a reliable substitute for meat.
Also, (aside from such medical concerns as diabetes) we eliminate refined sugar from the diet. Sugar jolts the body's insulin production, leading to unfortunate events which send us plunging into emotionally ugly places. When blood sugar falls precipitously, we can get extremely irritated. Many people will awaken at 4 AM furious at somebody or something. Eating a snack that can be converted quickly into glucose will bring relief, but such blood sugar problems need medical management.
Empty calories are to be avoided since they also upset blood sugar levels and, therefore, emotional states. Anyone who has the ability to read labels is well advised to avoid products made from cheap "enriched" flours and buy those made from whole wheat. He should avail himself of vitamins, proteins, and other required supplements - although these cannot be relied upon to fulfill nutritional needs. It's a gestalt thing: fresh food and grains supply a complete array of vital nutrients which cannot be duplicated simply by taking a synthesized version of a few of the principal ingredients.
Many food allergies arise from camouflaged self-destructive accommodations. Possible psychosomatic origins need also to be investigated.
No discussion of the importance of diet on a 30 day Devil Elimination Program would be complete without a reference to overweight or underweight people.
If we ordered a man to carry a 50 pound stone around with him 24 hours a day, he'd get violent and probably drop the thing on our foot. Yet he'll guzzle beer and scarf pizza and donuts and if he weighs only 50 pounds more than he did when he was twenty, he's way ahead of the game. If he had a pick-up truck that could carry a ton of weight, he wouldn't dream of dumping two tons in it. But many men and women will double the weight they had as young adults... and then suddenly decide that they are 'big-boned' or that girth is a function of aging.
Stuffing calories into a devil is a pathetic way to destroy him but even worse is trying to starve him to death. The person who eats just enough to keep himself conscious and ambulatory may be trying to starve his devil to death. (I exclude from this victims of anorexia nervosa, a much more complicated problem, involving, as it does, the hallucinatory effects of excessive fasting.)
Meal time provides an opportunity to perform necessary acts of humility. Usually we sit down to a meal and wolf it down without the slightest thought to its preparation or the slightest feeling of gratitude.
In a Zen program no matter how humble the meal, it is eaten reverently. We don't make a spectacle of saying Grace since affecting a pious demeanor is not part of the regimen. Grace said silently before and after meals is as important as the food.
A rule: If possible, we use lunch time or coffee breaks to do some yoga or other exercise and we're not afraid to brown-bag it.
(9) Tension reducing stretches
If the cost of these lessons is a problem, a municipal recreation department can be consulted. A surprising number of inexpensive classes are given by qualified instructors for people of all ages.
A rule: when stretching, if you feel pain, you are doing it wrong. Stretch the way you stretch upon awakening in the morning.
(10) Act out aggression
When choosing a program, look for one that offers the most ritualized discipline (bowing, terms of respect, apology, etc.). This is more important than any particular martial arts'style.
(11) Cultivate the Zen attitude
This little joke encapsulates the true Zen attitude.
The Zen attitude is not to say "I don't care" for that states a chosen position, one of indifference or rejection, that the ego is taking. It is rather to say, "I do not care and I do not not care." (Appreciate the difference.)
In this negative, double-negative construction - which we often see in the Sutras - lies the key to liberation. It doesn't free us from desiring to do the kind deed, but it does eliminate the need to take a personal, samsaric attitude towards any objective. It uninvolves our ego and frees us to act in accordance with the Dharma.
The Zenman acts; but whatever he does, he does in devotion to Dharma: not for money, glory, or power though he may in fact receive money, glory and power. He does his duty because it is his duty. These principles are all incorporated into Wu Shi Dao (Bushido), The Zen Code of the Warrior.
If he has to destroy an enemy, however grim this duty is, he performs it "cleanly," i.e., without taint of malice. War, self-defense, or any legitimate destruction of human life is an event that can be understood; and when it is understood in terms of duty, Dharma, the embattled person feels the gravity of his actions and sorrow at having to perform them, but if he does not have self-destruction's secret agenda, he will not feel guilt.
His efforts consist only in removing his ego from the execution of his duty so that, regardless of gain or loss, he acts with poise and grace. What matters is Dharma. Duty.
There is much Persian (Mithraic) influence in Mahayana philosophy. No other religion in the world ever emphasized the sacrality of contract, of fulfilling an agreement, as the Mithrasians. Mithras, for the record, is Maitreya, our Future Buddha.
(12) Esthetic outlets
It is essential to remain both egoless (no fantasies of personal achievement) and mindful of performing the work in a sacred manner (as an offering, atonement, or expression of gratitude). Catering to the ego is obviously counter-productive.
(13) Meditation regimen
Additionally, and in accordance with Avalokitesvara's assertion in the Surangama Sutra that sound is the most efficacious form of meditation, we perform an intense, concentrated form of meditation on music. (I'll give the instructions as I usually give them to individuals.)
To perform this meditation, you'll need two CDs: Mahler's 5th Symphony as conducted by Solti or by Boulez; and Mahler's 9th Symphony as conducted by Boulez. If you buy them both at the same time, don't listen to the 9th until you have completed the requirements of the 5th. (You will learn much about yourself if you can't follow this simple instruction - if you can't resist listening anyway, or if you want to argue about which composer, or which conductor, etc.)
Listen to the 5th Symphony at least once a day. If you are unfamiliar with the symphony it will be agony. You will squirm and try to invent a thousand valid reasons for doing something else besides sitting there listening. Pay attention to the music. What are the violins doing? What are the brasses doing? When is Mahler repeating a phrase? Concentrate fiercely upon the music (as if you will be tested.)
Those of us who have profited from this meditation like to say that in the first movement Mahler takes your brain apart; in the second he cleans the parts; in the third he puts them back in their proper places, and in the fourth movement he lets you stand back and look at your mind the way God intended you to see it. It's very curious but for some unknown reason, along about the second week, everyone who does this meditation cries. It's rather like post-partum depression: Ask, "Why are you crying?" and the answer is, "I don't know." Crying is purgative. Continue to listen to the 5th until all of the movements are equally interesting or beautiful.
Then try the glorious 9th. It will be agony. You will squirm... but it will be a different kind of experience because you are different. (Devils cannot tolerate Mahler; and they will kiss you off the moment they realize that you are going to subject them to Mahler despite their insistence that you do something else.) When you find yourself gently rocking back and forth to the subtle throbbing of the 9th's fourth movement, you're home free: you've scored a run. No, the game's not over; but you're on the scoreboard. Of course, if you play this music loudly (as it should be played) within earshot of others, you will be more than home free. I have these big Bose speakers.... and I get up at 5....
There must be physiological reasons - rhythm entrainment, harmonic resonance (stuff I didn't understand when I "understood" it) that account for this strange Mahler phenomenon. The regimen does work - as everyone who sincerely tries it agrees.
With a little common sense and even less effort we can convert stressful occasions into rewarding ones. If, for example, we usually encounter irritating traffic problems going to work or school, we make a deliberate Dharma sacrifice of departing half an hour earlier than usual. This extra time will obviate that "hurried" state of mind (that frantic need to get someplace quickly) and reduce our tension level. A traffic delay will actually give us more time to review old mistakes and plan constructive responses to problems we might encounter later in the day. A freeway confessional, providing it is aimed at correcting our own life and not the lives of others, is a marvelous way to start a day.
A rule: Never begin a thought with "I should have" and finish that thought with "what he needs to do is..." It's always the "I" that is the subject and the object of correction.
For example, in our consideration of Pride, we must try to simplify our lives and scale down our so-called standard of living. Did that vicuna coat and Lamborghini we purchased have anything remotely to do with warmth and transportation? Or did we buy those things to make someone else feel inferior by way of making ourselves seem superior? This is aggression and we will suffer for it. It ought to occur to us to review the law of supply and demand from a slightly different perspective: it is easier to lessen demand than it is to produce the money to pay for increased demand.
Constructive thoughts about our own domestic situations will lead us to certain inevitable conclusions. Time spent with families does not need to be expensive time. In fact, usually an inverse relationship exists between enjoyment and cost. Working more hours to pay for toys or spousal amusements during those times we are absent is frankly idiotic. We would cringe at the thought that we could be easily replaced in our own household, especially in our own bed; but then we arrange our lives so that anybody with a checkbook or a little spare time can replace us. Toys are not substitutes for parents. Tennis pros are not substitutes for spouses. When did we start thinking they could be?
During these periods of reflection, we examine our standards. Do we alter them in accordance with the people who violate them? Is it permissible for us or someone else we like to violate one of our strict rules.. but not permissible for someone we dislike? The devil grows strong on a diet of hypocrisy. Whenever we find ourself becoming judgmental about other people, we have to rethink our position.
One of the most significant aspects of the devil problem is that the fault we find in others is often the very one of which we're guilty - but unaware. Our protests against something are usually masks... we are compensating... paying tribute to some "righteous" cause because we feel guilty of its opposite.
Vehement "reaction formation" is usually a sign of the unconscious, i.e., blind, compensating advocacy we often find in crusaders, as, for example, people who excoriate the National Rifle Association. Since these people are frequently city-dwellers, they are easily able to differentiate themselves from outdoorsmen. The gun, being an obvious symbol of destruction, then becomes their sigil of evil. They will discourse on the evils of sport hunting and fishing while dining on veal, pate de foie gras, or fresh boiled lobster - as if they have no idea of the suffering involved in the production of such foods; or, perhaps they are good vegetarian Buddhists and on principle despise the killing of animals for food - even by the poor who require this food source; and then they offer as some kind of proof of their own profound sense of financial responsibility that they have had a few "convenience" abortions. The terrorist mentality of many "peace-loving" groups is often astonishing - fervent anti-abortion activists who in their support of the "right to life" will incite or commit murder and mayhem; clerics who piously condemn from pulpits all forms of sexual misconduct while committing in private the most egregious and abusive acts of lust; outspoken critics of social welfare programs for the poor who exploit every tax loophole and apply for every governmental grant, subsidy, or support program known to man. This is not overt hypocrisy: these people are often absolutely sincere. They have never exposed their own motives to the light of conscious reflection. Unable to deal with their own culpability, they project their devils upon others.
Sometimes this "hidden aspect" is not quite so apparent. Since it is so important to the act of Reflection, let's further illustrate the problem:
I once had an acquaintance whose secure and well-paying position in the judicial system brought her into daily contact with women who were on public assistance. She despised these women "who couldn't feed their children but did have the money to buy jewelry and get their hair done at beauty parlors." To her, women on welfare were all lazy, stupid parasites. She became livid if she encountered a woman with a new tattoo.
Friends would remind her that even rocket scientists and savings and loan administrators can mismanage money and that if these poor women knew how to spend money wisely, they wouldn't be in her office; and that surely they purchased jewelry and other beauty services to decorate themselves hoping that they'd attract some rich man who'd solve their problems. But no explanation or excuse could change her opinion.
Now... she, herself, was frugal to the point of meanness. She would scrupulously save her money and then, incredibly, be conned into investing it in the most harebrained schemes... again and again she was defrauded. But to see her when she was euphoric in her dreams of making millions always struck me as the unreasonably hopeful way one of those poor women who "invested" money on jewelry undoubtedly felt about making herself more attractive... and being rescued from poverty by some fairytale prince. Despite their differences in income, neither this woman nor her clients enjoyed a lifestyle that was much above the poverty level, and at least as fantasy goals were concerned, she was no different from the people she detested.
A rule: The clue to our own devil's identity is usually found in our passionate criticisms.
In active atonement we try to make amends or restitution, to apologize and to correct an injustice or inequity for which we're responsible. There has to be a temporal boundary: the consideration of a wrong can never extend farther back than this point, i.e., the Karmic chain must be initiated at this specific link and not at some connecting, previous cause. "I wouldn't have done this if he hadn't done that."
The tendency is always to excuse our own actions because we see them as a reasonable response to someone else's actions. Atonement requires that we begin and end with our own actions irrespective of the other person's. Without attempting to cure somebody else's problems, we seek out our old adversary and apologize for our behavior. "I shouldn't have done (_____) (fill in the blank). I was wrong, and I just wanted you to know I'm sorry."
A rule: Never complain and never explain. Do not continue, "BUT if you hadn't (_____) (fill in the blank) I never would have, etc.
If this apology is extended with the proper humility and sincerity, the offended person will likely be so shocked that in his confusion he will insist upon taking much of the blame or responsibility on himself. This, in turn, will shock the apologist. A detente will follow, one which will last only so long as both parties resist the temptation to trace back the links of the Karmic chain.
A rule: Those who remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Passive atonement is necessary when there is no possibility of direct redress. Perhaps our enemy has left the planet or died. Then, while keeping our mind fully on the fact that we are performing an act of atonement and not an act designed to gain us the approbation of an adoring crowd, we do some volunteer community work. If it is impossible for us to do charitable work, prayers of atonement will suffice providing we are sincere and diligent in our prayer schedule. Prayers should take the form of an interior dialogue, confessing our guilt and regret and our resolve to reform.
(16) Combat obsessions
The best way to combat an obsessionary thought is to select a short prayer and to recite it, cutting down the obsessionary thought every time it arises. The length of the prayer is significant: it cannot be so short or familiar that we recite it absent-mindedly. It can't be so long that we are reluctant to use it or that we need to look it up to read it. The trick is to keep our mind completely fixed on the meaning of the prayer as we mentally recite it. Here is a sample prayer from the Desert Fathers: "Lord, I, a beggar, ask of you what a thousand kings dare not ask. Kings ask for mere wealth and power, but I ask you to give me yourself."
(17) Talk to a cleric
(18) Understanding the Illusion of it all
It's always easier to spend or to save anger than it is to immolate it. Aggression represses or releases wild forces: pride, greed, revenge, machismo. Peace requires discipline; a forgiveness that clears and erases; and the ability to reach the thought that comes before the angry thought, the pre-emptive thought of Dharma understanding. Peace requires the elimination of aggressive desires.
In the Real World of which this physical world is only a convenient simulacrum - a secondary reality, there is neither bitterness nor pain. Our own devils guard Reality's gates against us. Until we defeat the devils, we can't try to enter the gates.
But that, of course, is another month's agenda.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts