Lotus Sutra 18: Situational Ethics

The Lotus Sutra is forever promising that the Lotus Sutra will be taught, but it never happens. It is promised, remembered, its benefits extolled, its virtues highlighted, but the thing itself is missing. This teaching is about an emanation that has no substantiality. Like a person.  John emanates his John-ness everywhere, but there is no essence, no forever abiding nature, of John. When you look into his eyes, or your eyes, you find only conceptual proliferations. The self is a construct. Can we recognize that this person who we are do deeply invested in is only fluidity and interbeing? There is no such thing as a thing, because everything is infinitely divisible.

The entire Lotus Sutra is a giant spin – it’s not something you can patent or win.

Head Pat
The Lotus Sutra comes to a climax (of sorts) in chapter 22, at least in part because the entire sutra is about to how to pass on the Lotus Sutra. As it turns out, it can only be passed on by a Buddha and a Buddha. How is the dharma passed along? How is it transmitted? Between a Buddha and a Buddha. The quick way to becomes a Buddha is not to go on 20 retreats a year, but to see everyone else as a Buddha. Then you are a Buddha. And it’s not just extending your B-vision to people that you like, but also your nemesis, and the people inside you that you have rejected and resisted. Can you recognize these as a Buddha?

In chapter 22 the Buddha lifts his hands and pats the heads of all the bodhisattvas gathered. Could we develop a signature gesture for Centre of Gravity? Instead of a secret handshake and decoder ring? Perhaps you could start with your family, instead of a hug just try patting them on the head.

So in chapter 22 the Buddha is teaching, and then he shows his supernatural powers. He sticks out his broad tongue and extends it and lifts it up to the Brahmin realm. Then all the bodhisattvas extend their tongues up to the Brahmin heavens. After 12,000 years they roll their tongues back, they cough and snap their fingers and this causes a giant earthquake and then it starts raining flowers and pieces of sandalwood. Why are they so excited? Because the Lotus Sutra exists. Even though it hasn’t been taught yet. There’s a lot of faith on display here.

Light My Fire
Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue has practiced for 12,000 years, until he has reached a state of samadhi (integration) using concentration techniques. His samadhi is so fine that he can turn his body into any form. One of the ways we’re able to serve and show compassion is to take our wounds and turn them into tools. Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue has wrestled with his reactivities until he knows them intimately, until they become tools that he can use to serve others. Our tools come out of our wounds. And the range of his wounds gives him several tools he can use, it’s important to be able to figure out an appropriate tool for different situation, in other words, to practice upaya, or skillful means.

I worked with a schizophrenic who found meditation very helpful. When I mentioned this in a talk a few weeks ago I received a lot of emails from people who had schizophrenic friends or partners. They asked: would meditation be helpful? Perhaps, but it might not be the right tool. Some people might need a better room, or good food, or community (which is so often denied the mentally ill). One tool doesn’t serve everyone all the time, we need to have skillful means.

Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue wants to show how much faith he has, he wants to demonstrate his love for the Lotus Sutra. He pours fragrant oil over his head and body, he puts on fine robes, and then he sets his body on fire and illuminates all worlds. The flames are so bright that everyone in every world can see what they’re doing. He’s like Brigette DePape, the young page in the Canadian Senate. During the Speech from the Throne, which is read by the Queen’s representative in Canada, the Governor General, the page held up a sign carrying the message ‘Stop Harper’.”

DePape went as far as to prepare a news release, which a friend distributed after she was removed from the Senate chamber by security. “Harper’s agenda is disastrous for this country and for my generation,” DePape said in the release. “We have to stop him from wasting billions on fighter jets, military bases, and corporate tax cuts while cutting social programs and destroying the climate. Most people in this country know what we need are green jobs, better medicare, and a healthy environment for future generations.”

In 1963 the president of South Vietnam was a Catholic and wouldn’t allow vesakha, the celebration of the Buddha’s birthday on May 13. He also jailed many Buddhists and closed monasteries and persecuted them.

“The often-occluded relations among power, imperial politics, and the specific portrayals of religious issues is perhaps no more apparent than in the case of the interpretations American media and intellectuals gave to the much-publicized actions of several Vietnamese Buddhists who, beginning in mid-June of 1963, died by publicly setting themselves on fire. The first of these deaths occurred at a busy downtown intersection in Saigon, on 11 June 1963, and was widely reported in American newspapers the following day, although the New York Times, along with many other newspapers, declined to print Malcolm Browne’s famous, or rather infamous, photograph of the lone monk burning (Moeller 1989: 404). The monk, 73-year-old Thich Quang Duc, sat at a busy downtown intersection and had gasoline poured over him by two fellow monks. As a large crowd of Buddhists and reporters watched, he lit a match and, over the course of a few moments, burned to death while he remained seated in the lotus position. In the words of’ David Halberstam, who was at that time filing daily reports on the war with the New York Times,

“I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think… As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.” (1965: 211)

… a graphic example of an overtly political act directed not simply against politically dominant Roman Catholics in his country but also at the American-sponsored government of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. (http://buddhismtoday.com/english/vietnam/figure/003-htQuangduc.htm)

Thich Quang Duc had prepared himself for his self-immolation through several weeks of meditation and had explained his motivation in letters to members of his Buddhist community as well as to the government of South Vietnam in the weeks prior to his self-immolation. In these letters he described his desire to bring attention to the repressive policies of the Catholic Diem regime that controlled the South Vietnamese government at the time. Prior to the self-immolation, the South Vietnamese Buddhists had made the following requests to the Diem regime, asking it to: Lift its ban on flying the traditional Buddhist flag; Grant Buddhism the same rights as Catholicism; Stop detaining Buddhists; Give Buddhist monks and nuns the right to practice and spread their religion; and Pay fair compensations to the victim’s families and punish those responsible for their deaths.

When these requests were not addressed by the Deim regime, Thich Quang Duc carried out his self-immolation. Thich Naht Hahn: “The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, that is, to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people. This is not suicide…

I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, hatred and discrimination which lie within the heart of man. I also believe with all my being that the struggle for equality and freedom you lead in Birmingham, Alabama… is not aimed at the whites but only at intolerance, hatred and discrimination. These are real enemies of man — not man himself. In our unfortunate father land we are trying to yield desperately: do not kill man, even in man’s name. Please kill the real enemies of man which are present everywhere, in our very hearts and minds…” (from a letter to Martin Luther King Jr, by Thich Naht Hahn, in which he urged King to voice his opposition to the war in Vietnam).

“The self-immolation of the unemployed Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17th which helped to precipitate his country’s recent uprising has engendered not only an immediate change in Tunisia’s political situation but also a series of copycat conflagrations right across the continent. To date there have been seven further reported cases in North Africa: four in Algeria, two in Egypt, and one in Mauritania. And on Sunday a man in his sixties from Saudi Arabia’s south-western region of Jizan died in hospital after setting himself on fire using a petroleum product.

Clearly this is a phenomenon that is sweeping across the Islamic world, and in this sense self-immolation can even be considered as a more altruistic form of cultural protest than suicide bombing, which in recent years has come to signify the last resort of the subjugated and dispossessed in its often fractious and war-torn societies.

The history of self-immolation has its origins in Asia where it has been practised for many centuries, in particular by certain Hindu and Buddhist sects which have actively condoned its use. Indeed the first recorded instance is said to have been by Sati, one of the wives of the Hindu god Shiva, who according to myth married against her father’s wishes and then burned herself to death after her father insulted her husband.” (Mohamed Bouazizi and Modern Self-Immolation by Sean Patrick Bell)

Dalai Lama
Dalai Lama: “According to Buddhist psychology, most of our troubles are due to our passionate desire for and attachment to things that we misapprehend as enduring entities. The pursuit of the objects of our desire and attachment involves the use of aggression and competitiveness as supposedly efficacious instruments. These mental processes easily translate into actions, breeding belligerence as an obvious effect. Such processes have been going on in the human mind since time immemorial, but their execution has become more effective under modern conditions. What can we do to control and regulate these ‘poisons’ – delusion, greed, and aggression? For it is these poisons that are behind almost every trouble in the world.”

The Dalai Lama, a lifelong champion of non-violence, candidly stated that terrorism cannot be tackled by applying the principle of ahimsa because the minds of terrorists are closed. “It is difficult to deal with terrorism through non-violence,” the Tibetan spiritual leader said delivering the Madhavrao Scindia Memorial Lecture here (in New Delhi, in 2009). He termed terrorism as the worst kind of violence which is not carried by a few mad people but by those who are very brilliant and educated. “They (terrorists) are very brilliant and educated…but a strong ill feeling is bred in them. Their minds are closed,” the Dalai Lama said.

And of course the most profound kind of terror is wielded by the state, run by governments, efficient and overwhelming in its use of force.

The Dalai Lama emphasizes that non-violence is action not passivity. He said that you can’t judge non-violence by appearances, and offered an example of a good teacher working with sometimes difficult children. This teacher might raise her voice, she might appear tough, even angry sometimes. But her heart is golden, her intentions are good. She wants to help the children, using skillful means. On the other hand, what if someone wants to cheat you out of your money, how do they appear? They might smile, they treat you kindly, they look like the very heart of non-harming, but if their intention is to cheat you then there is harming in their language along with dishonestly. Non-violence comes out of a genuine sense of concern for another’s well being. Timidly withdrawing and not relating to anyone is not non-violence. But if you have an opportunity to act and abstain from violence, that is real non-violence in action. Non-violence happens at the edge of violence.

Situational Ethics
The Lotus Sutra critiques traditional descriptions of non-violence. Non-violence exists as an idea of action motivated by intention, but TLS adds this piece: it must be effective. It can never be only an ideology.

How to be non-violence? How to see other beings as Buddhas? How to extend this generous compassion to all beings, including sidewalks, trees and clouds, so that when you take action to protest the pipeline that is aimed at your land, non-violence is practiced on behalf of future generations? This view of non-violence takes it away from an ideology and resituates it as a practice of situational ethics.

The Buddha was not someone born 2600 years ago who got enlightened under a tree. The Buddha is you enlightening all beings right now and sometimes at the edge of violence.