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Ming Zhen Shakya

Ulterior Defenses

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

       "Say what you will, you can't keep a dead mind down."
             Samuel Beckett, More Pricks Than Kicks

People buried in their egos - victims of their own poisonous anger, lust, or ignorance - find release only when they can spew that venom onto others. It's the only catharsis they get. We hear them on moonless nights, stalking the land, targeting anyone within spitting range.

To avoid the mess during these Nights of the Living Dead, the rest of us have to find a Refuge... and wait for sunrise. It helps to understand - if not the source of their venom - at least the display of it. Sometimes we encounter it "in kind" and sometimes "in degree."

The "degree" is easier to see. We all feel that we've imposed ethical limits upon our behavior, limits that constitute a boundary between acceptable and unacceptable actions. "He is a terrible man. He beats his wife for no reason at all. (Pause) I beat my wife, too, but I make sure she deserves it before I strike her." In prison ministries we often see a rationalized hierarchy of crime. "I may be guilty of armed robbery, but I've never raped anybody!" Sometimes the hierarchy stumps us. A man who is serving three life sentences for multiple murders can say, with perfect equanimity, "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a thief."

No, it is difference in "kind" that gives us trouble. A change in kind is an apparent change in genus and species. We think we're seeing one kind of animal, but in reality we're seeing its natural enemy. This is not quite the "wolf in sheep's clothing" motif. The wolf knows he's a wolf and the wooly garments are a conscious disguise. If caught with his toes or his tail showing, he knows he's been busted. The wolf is not deluded enough to growl and bare his fangs and insist that his accuser is a vicious sheep hater - the only reason he could possibly have for calling him a wolf. This kind of response is a purely human one.

In such a self-absolving defense tactic, the person unconsciously assumes an identity opposite to that of his true victim, i.e., the person he can righteously accuse of having the very same faults as those that got him buried in the first place. If he is a fearful coward - one that would betray his country at the slightest inconvenience, he may emerge from his interment as a martinet, swaggering with stick and sneer, exhorting his subordinates to commit acts of cruelty upon some 'cowardly' enemy, deriding his men as wimps and unpatriotic pansies, and punishing them harshly if they are in any way reluctant to inflict such injuries. If there's one thing he hates, it's a coward.

If, on the other hand, a person is consumed by violence, he may rise to extol the virtues of peace, castigating those who would commit what he considers to be unconscionable acts of cruelty against a helpless and innocent victim. If the innocent victim is on death row for having tortured and murdered, awaiting execution by lethal injection, the protesting cry will be an accusation that the state and all its citizens are ignorant barbarians. He raves on, describing in excruciating detail the horrors of all state executions from the disembowelments of the Inquisition to those of faulty electric chairs. He never describes the tortures the killer inflicted upon his victims. The most painful and prolonged deaths imaginable are somehow incidental, for he has unconsciously identified with the killer.

Again, it is in the exaggerated response that we find a clue to the nature of this inversion.

Recently in Phoenix, Arizona, a group of animal-rights activists produced a billboard that protested slaughtering animals for food. The obvious intention of the billboard was to denounce all killing as wrong. This objective seems to be a good one, but how was it presented? It showed two large side-by-side photographs: one of emaciated Holocaust victims and the other of healthy pigs. People who ate meat were compared to Nazis. "The Holocaust on your plate!" read a caption. Jewish leaders were understandably appalled by the comparison. Since when and on which planet can the persecution and murder of six million human beings be in any way compared to the meat industry? The man who designed the billboard said that he was Jewish and had relatives who had died in the Holocaust. He could not understand why ethical people could possibly object to his artful concept.

The fact is that without the meat and poultry producers and the fishing industry much of humanity would be condemned to starvation in or out of concentration camps; and the fact is also that the production of vegetables takes its own toll on animal life, for when forests are felled to make farm land, bird and animal habitats are destroyed; and when that land is plowed and the crops are fertilized and sprayed with pesticides, creatures die. Being a vegetarian is a conscious choice we make and we don't consider others who make a different choice to be cannibals or Nazis. The Chinese sangha is usually completely vegetarian; but Buddhists in Sri Lanka eat sea food and do not consider this to be a violation of their rule against killing animals; and many Japanese orders also eat meat - usually with the proviso that the meat is donated rather than deliberately purchased.

Freud once studied the violent tactics of a group of anti-vivisectionists - a group which opposed the use of animals in the study and perfection of surgical techniques. He concluded that many of these people harbored a terrible streak of cruelty in their own psyches. They projected evil intentions upon the physicians and concealed their own fascination with torture and pain under the guise of being gentle and protective champions of the innocent. It was in the extremity, the exaggerated protest, the proffering of sensational photographs of such surgical experimentation, that their fascinations were rewarded and, ultimately, the nature of their tactics was revealed.

This is not to say that surgeons - and cooks and hunters, too - are exempt from the ordinary restraints of civilized behavior. Of course they must act with mercy and respect for the creature they are using, capturing, or cooking. But our reflections about their moral responsibilities are best left to moments when we are inclined to be more judicious. Tossing a living lobster into a pot of boiling water is not something we like to think about before we put that bib on. And when it is our child who is under a brain surgeon's knife, we don't want to review the records of the surgeon's practice on dogs. A collar decorated with the fur of an animal who died wretchedly with its foot clenched in a trap would be nobody's idea of a fashion statement - if we paused in our admiration to take a conscientious moment for that idea to occur.

It is when we do take time to reflect upon moral issues that we need to consider the motivation of those who so vehemently question other people's morality - and this includes our own outcries as well.

The mature person who objects to capital punishment does not make a hero of a condemned man or a villain of the judge who sentenced him. Neither does he identify with the executioner. He speaks instead of Constitutional issues; or to the raising of civilized standards; or of spiritual prohibitions against the deliberate taking of life. He petitions and editorializes and lends his support to those organizations which further his aim to change the judicial system. We readily see the difference between this reasoned and determined approach and the approach, for example, of certain antiabortion groups who, in the name of the sacredness of human life, murder doctors and other medical personnel; or of those who have been so traumatized by the poultry industry that they make a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant the equal of Auschwitz, The Colonel an Eichmann.

Buddhists who've been buried in their own egos often get their disinterment passes by shouting that somebody in the vicinity is violating a Precept or one of the Vinaya Rules. It never occurs to them that they are shifting a burden of guilt onto someone else. Whether the transfer is hissed or shouted, the theme is always the same: the assumed superior stance of one person over another.

I recall a strangely nasty transfer by one very moral Buddhist lady. In Taiwan I was indebted to a nun for having helped me, and since she refused to be compensated, I said that I'd take her to breakfast at the Grand Hotel for her birthday the following week. The Grand Hotel is an extremely imposing structure; a kind of Camelot to most local people, and the nun was excited finally to enter the building. As we sat in the dining room she giggled as she looked over the menu, trying to decide what to order. She selected an omelet that had some kind of mushroom filling. She loved eggs, but because of their expense they were never - except in egg-drop soup - served in the monastery. The waiter took our order and then a woman, who was sitting at a nearby table, got up and went into the kitchen. Then, imperiously, she came to our table, trailing the waiter. That she was rich and Buddhist was obvious... she wore much diamond and jade jewelry along with a humble wooden-bead bracelet. She called the nun, "Sifu..." and, in crisp Mandarin which I did not understand, informed the nun that pork fat had been used in the preparation of the mushroom filling... that pork fat had been so extensively used in the kitchen that the only thing she could recommend that the nun eat was oatmeal or rice. She said that it was because she was so concerned for the nun's adherence to the principle of nonviolence that she was troubling herself to issue the warning. I didn't know what she was saying, but before I got the translation, the nun simply asked, "Would you mind having oatmeal?" I said that I didn't care. The nun's mood sank, and we ate oatmeal. My companion confided that the woman contributed money to the monastery and that her 'recommendation' was therefore a kind of command. I glanced at the sumptuous meal on the woman's table and wondered how this public benefactress could be so petty in private. I know only that her motives had nothing to do with the nun's spiritual welfare. Nobody uses pork fat to soft-boil an egg or serve one poached on toast.

Recently I had to pacify a Buddhist gentleman who had been publicly humiliated because he wasn't sufficiently peaceful to suit the leader of his Sangha. A war protest march had been planned in his town and he, a Viet Nam veteran, declined to participate. For some reason he assumed that stating he was a combat vet would serve to explain his refusal; instead it made things worse. Someone in the group said, "And you're proud of that?" This insulted him, and he responded at the same level of insensitivity. His Roshi informed him that if he didn't publicly express repentance for his military activities he would have to be expelled from the Sangha and, worse, could not even be considered a Buddhist - the Vinaya Rules made this absolutely clear! He wanted my reassurance that he was still a Buddhist. I knew his Roshi to be a rather unabashed sexual predator and so I found it privately amusing that he, above all people, would cite the Vinaya Rules as a standard of behavior. These rules are listed in a worst-first order, and that the absolute worst of the worst sins was committing any kind of sexual act ("carnal knowledge of any one, down even to an animal"). I didn't tell him that his teacher was the last person in Christendom to accuse anyone of breaking Vinaya Rules; I just explained that these rules applied to monks and monastery life.

Many Theravadin orders still adhere to the Vinaya Rules; but the Mahayana orders do not. I know of no Mahayana order that forbids, for example, eating after the noon hour.

But even when a Mahayana school insists, "A Buddhist may not eat meat!" it is always with the understanding that he lives in an area in which he has a choice and can eat other foods. We do not deny the Dharma to Eskimos or other northern people or to desert dwellers because they cannot grow vegetables, fruits, and grains. Populous island areas are also heavily dependent upon seafood as protein sources. Self-imposed starvation is not an option in The Middle Way.

Pointing accusingly at other people's offenses requires scrupulously clean hands. This is a universal principle in law except, perhaps, in the judicial proceedings of the Cosa Nostra. When two men rob a bank, intending to split the loot, and one of them runs off with all the money, the victimized robber cannot charge him with theft or seek redress of his grievance in the civil courts.

Seeing that our hands are dirty requires a degree of self-awareness that we usually don't possess. As the Buddha said, "The faults of others are easily seen, but one's own faults are seen with difficulty. One winnows the faults of others like chaff, but conceals his own faults as a fowler covers his body with twigs and leaves."` (The Buddha, Dhammapada, XVIII, 252.)

Ordinary flaws, those convenient hypocrisies we devise to get out of uncomfortable positions or to gain personal advantages, are far easier to recognize than the ones that are not just covered by twigs and leaves but are buried beneath them.

If we haven't yet used a defense mechanism to dig ourselves into a pathologic hole, we can try routine Buddhist self-help techniques. Success depends on luck and on having attained a certain proficiency in meditation. There is a line that is crossed when fascination becomes emotional involvement. Whenever we notice that we are aroused - by either attraction or aversion - we can try to analyze our response. Unfortunately, by the time we are emotionally "hooked" we have passed the point of disinterested observation and our conclusions are likely to be prejudiced. Hsu Yun noted that the best time to become aware of our connection to a person or object is at the very beginning, when fascination has not yet progressed to emotional involvement. Initial actions and reactions are rather like the experience of seeing a dog pass a narrow window. By the time we're aware that a dog is passing, we note only the dog's body and then its tail. In order to identify the dog we have to put a head on it... to go into our subliminal data banks and retrieve information of which we originally were not quite conscious. This task is referred to in the mondo concerning the master and the novice who asks when he will achieve enlightenment. "When you came here tonight," the master asks, "on which side of the door did you leave your slippers?" Naturally, the novice does not have the meditative proficiency necessary to recall details that his brain recorded, but which he made no conscious attempt to remember. Just as a journalist learns to ask the relevant questions, "Who?"; "When?"; "Where?"; "Why?"; "How?" and so on, we have to try to connect various stimuli, to establish a causal link, and try to determine the critical point - the point at which our interest was aroused. We often find that we make the same kind of mistake over and over. We can never "catch" ourselves before we fall into the trap. If, on our own, we cannot reconstruct the chain of impulses, the actions and reactions, the events that led us into the troublesome situations, we should seek the assistance of a good therapist.

It's only when anger, lust, and ignorance of the true nature of reality progress, unimpeded by constructive and corrective review, that we find that the defensive foxhole becomes a trench, and the trench a spiritual grave. 


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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