Posts Tagged ‘Six Perfections’

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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“Everything we have is disposable,” lamented Brian Milo, a former autoworker at the G.M. plant in Lordstown, Ohio, in an interview with Sabrina Tavernese of the New York Times (July 5, 2019). “Everything is made cheap and disposable. And I think that trickles down into our daily lives. I mean, you see marriage success rates are down. Things are disposable, even on a human level. I mean, I’m an employee, I’m disposable.” Milo lost his livelihood when sales of the Chevrolet Cruze, the principal product of the Lordstown plant, fell precipitously, and G.M. eliminated 5,000 jobs. Adding insult to financial injury, the company notified its workers of their termination through impersonal, unsigned letters. Milo had been a loyal employee for ten years. What caused him to feel disposable was not only G.M.’s decision but the manner in which it was handled. Conspicuously absent was a quality essential to harmonious human relations. (more…)

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