Posts Tagged ‘paramitas’

Dale S. Wright

Recall, if you will, the last time you felt deeply angry. Someone had hurt and offended you, and the more you dwelt on the indignity you’d suffered, the angrier you became. You felt your anger rising in your stomach, your chest, your body generally. You wanted to retaliate, and you imagined what you might say or do. At the very least you wanted to break the nearest plate or throw your cell phone against a wall.

Now imagine some future indignity, but this time with a very different response. Rather than fuel your anger with destructive scenarios, you choose simply to feel and acknowledge it. “Anger has arisen in me,” you might say to yourself, while practicing conscious breathing. And rather than reflexively condemn the words or actions that have occasioned your outrage, you elect to look into their causes. What personal or social conditions prompted that person to speak or act as he or she did? What specific event triggered that insulting remark? Might that trigger have had little or nothing to do with you?

As you pursue this line of inquiry, you notice internal changes taking place. Your anger is beginning to abate. You’ve begun to calm down. Your vision has begun to clear, and, rather than seeing red, or through a cloud of righteous indignation, you can now assess the situation more objectively—its gray, ambiguous areas as well as its black-and-white moral outlines. And, slowly but perceptibly, the quality of compassionate understanding is beginning to emerge.

In his book The Six Perfections, Dale S. Wright, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Occidental College, closely examines this transformative process. After considering several ways of managing anger, including the employment of diversionary tactics and the scrutiny of underlying beliefs, he arrives at this conclusion:

Why would this person have acted so cruelly? Upon what would such an act depend? Following this line of thought, we can often see how it depends on many prior conditions—the way this person was treated, either recently or over time, by everyone—his parents, family, friends, at work, and on the street. If we can see that others, including ourselves, operating under similar circumstances, would have probably reacted similarly, then the weight of blame we attribute to that person is diminished. Understanding is always the solvent that cools our anger and directs us to more constructive relations.

Central to this perspective is the word depends. “Upon what would such an act depend?” Undergirding this question and its pivotal verb is a foundational principle of Zen teachings. Known as “dependent origination,” that principle can be stated in a few words:

This is, because that is.

This is not, because that is not.

This comes to be, because that comes to be.

This ceases to be, because that ceases to be.

As this formulation implies, material things do not arise without cause. Nothing comes from nothing. Likewise, our words and actions depend on multiple causes and conditions. When certain conditions are present, corresponding words and actions manifest. They in turn cause other words and actions to come into being. And this chain of causation, operative in everyday interactions as well as in the physical universe, gives rise to endless suffering, our own and others’. Anger, in short, begets anger.

To be sure, not everyone will agree with this analysis. According to one widely held belief, harmful actions stem not from external circumstances but from the malice inherent in the human heart. Adverse conditions may aggravate our destructive tendencies, and particular conflicts may cause them to erupt in harmful speech and actions, but their root lies in human nature itself. And the appropriate response may not be compassionate understanding but reciprocal aggression and forceful containment.

That issue has been debated for centuries and is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. For the most part, however, Zen practice is less concerned with our philosophical views than with the ways in which we conduct our everyday lives—ways that either increase or decrease the quotient of human suffering. Toward that end, the solvent of understanding can play a crucial part. “Meditation,” Wright observes, “is the womb in which understanding is nurtured.” And should we wish to cultivate that capacity in ourselves, the faithful, daily practice of meditation is a good place to start.


Why would this person: Dale S. Wright, The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character (Oxford, 2009), 120-121.





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Shohaku Okumura

Shohaku Okumura

“I live in America as a foreigner and need a great deal of patience,” writes Shohaku Okumura Roshi, a respected Zen scholar, priest, and teacher who lives in Bloomington, Indiana. In the United States, he explains, “the spiritual and cultural backgrounds are very different from Japan.” And actually, he adds, “any two people who live and work together will sometimes have conflicts and need to practice patience.”

Like other spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism accords the mental factor of patience a place of honor in its hierarchy of values. By cultivating and exercising patience, we forestall unnecessary suffering. By developing patience as a quality of heart and mind, we avoid causing harm to others and ourselves. With that end in view, Zen teachings offer a wealth of insights and practices, which those willing to make the effort can incorporate into their everyday lives. Four of the most helpful might be summarized as follows. (more…)

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Earthquake memorial monument, Kobe, Japan

Are you an extrovert or an introvert? And if you happen to be the latter, how do you cope in a culture biased toward extroversion?

That is the central question posed by Susan Cain, a former corporate attorney, in her new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. According to studies cited by Cain, introverts make up thirty to fifty percent of the American population. Numbering herself among that cohort, Cain explores ways by which introverts can navigate a culture enthralled by what she calls the Extrovert Ideal. Those ways include adopting an extrovert’s persona, creating a “restorative niche” in one’s daily round, and negotiating respectfully with extroverted colleagues, friends, and spouses. (more…)

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