Zen 101

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Common Sense, Part One

Common Sense, Part One

The phrase “Common Sense” has always bothered me. While seemingly innocuous, the phrase is often used to put intellectuals and academics in their place, meaning, knocking them off their high horse. Since I am both an intellectual and former academic I take issue with that usage.  

The most commonly understood definition of common sense is as follows: “…a basic ability, to perceive, understand, and judge things that are shared by (common to) nearly all people and can reasonably be expected of nearly all people without the need for debate.”  We might say common sense, then, is derived from what might be called common knowledge.  Therein lay the rub. Consider this:  common knowledge is clearly not common, nor necessarily shared by “all people.”  In any given society there will be subcultures, differing religious and political groups, seriously differing experiences, all of which color what each may considerer “common knowledge” and thus the phrase “common sense” may not indeed, be common or sensical.

Establishing the fallacy of common sense, then, leads to several questions.   What do people who use the phrase mean by it? Could it be simply a means of leveling the playing field in a discussion?  Or even establishing in the user a sense of superiority over another? Why use the phrase at all? 

From my experience, when the phrase is used it is usually met by laughter, suggesting it may be used to put someone down through dismissal.  So, when we might say, “So and so has no common sense!”  What do we mean? Partly, I believe we are saying the person doesn’t understand us or, more precisely, think like us. And we would be correct, but so? If we were a society that thought all alike (I don’t know about you) but I would be thoroughly bored, but more, would fail to learn anything.  It is through challenges to our belief systems that we grow and evolve as sentient beings.  

Secondly, I believe saying such things stops dialogue, if not conversation itself.  We may feels as though we have gained an advantage, but instead we have lost it.  Debate, conversation, discussion, and now in the forefront, “dialogue,” is always needed, especially if we are true believers.  Cracks in the paradigm are critical:  hammer on!

Tuesday, February 07, 2017


With palms together,

As Buddhists our practice is to look deeply, to not accept the superficial, and to resist simple, broad brush solutions to complex issues. We hear the word "resist" often in today's social media. It has taken on a political and moral connotation. But what does "resist" actually mean? The O.E.D. says the following:
A verb.
1 verb trans. Stop or hinder the progress or course of; prevent (a weapon etc.) from penetrating. lME.
b Withstand the action or effect of.
2 verb trans. Strive against, oppose, refuse to yield to, (a person, illness, influence, hostile action, etc.); refrain from (temptation); refuse to comply with (an order, a law, etc.). lME.
I suppose I take the second definition, especially the "refuse to yield to" aspect. We are under some pressure to yield to our government and it's edicts. We are like patients in hospitals told to follow the colored lines on the floors. And most of us do, I am sorry to say.
Liberal America, that America responsible for free and open thought, that America opposed to religious or civil persecution or oppression, has yielded too long to the supposition that it is weak, that it is passive and yielding in the face or an aggressive, conservative, right wing..We have even agreed with the authoritarian right in some ways keeping our liberal POV a secret for fear of ridicule.
No more.
While there clearly are exceptions, in most cases liberals are open-minded and passionate about freedom of thought. In most cases we are a forward-looking bunch, a bunch committed to social justice and individual responsibility. While the conservative right, in our silence, assumed the position of moral superiority, we passively accepted that theft.
We failed to have faith in our own ethical position in contrast to the conservative right's assumption of moral superiority based on a fundamentalist ethical position. We assume a relative ethical position, which is to say, our ethics are based in the context of a given situation with one principle rule: bring about the most good over bad for all concerned. Such a moral position allows for differences within and without social systems. It allows for a good that is evolutionary and not stilted by rigid rules which rarely apply to changing circumstances.
The morality of the right is easy: apply a rule. Carry the standard of religious faith as if it is a simple and clear cut thing. In doing so, its like an old paradigm trying its best to fit changing conditions. Yet, it has the appearance of certainty, an appearance we often feel we are in desperate need. It is such a need that can be our Achilles heel.
As Buddhists we know there are no certainties, that everything changes, as change is the true nature of the universe itself. We welcome great doubt as doubt brings questions and questions bring light. We live with great faith in our practice, practice going back to the time of the Buddha himself. As liberals we welcome the challenges of change knowing entrenchment in a belief is a path to darkness.
My commitment is to resist authoritarianism from its smallest glimmer to its full-blown manifestation. My commitment is to support freedom of thought and religion. My commitment is to resist simple solutions to complex problems. My commitment to to always try to see the Big Picture even in the smallest of details. For me, to resist is patriotic, it is the foundational support of truth itself. It is the crack that lets the light in. And folks, we are the light.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Don't Tread on Me

With respect,

When I returned from Vietnam, recovering from a bullet to my head, my Aunt said to me that my injury brought the war home to her. Yesterday I learned that the morning after the election a swastika was scrawled on the kitchen door of my son's restaurant in Georgetown, Tx. This made the catastrophe of Donald Trump's presidential win very real.  It brought it home to me. In the news of late many stories of racism and hate crimes seem to have increased.  It's as though a group of people (who always existed, but in the dark) now felt emboldened to take themselves into the light of day. I believe our now president-elect's campaign and post-campaign rhetoric has given tacit approval to such people.  He has fanned the flames and now we burn as he distances himself from the hate groups who so rabidly supported him.

Funny thing about hate, it spreads and it hurts. The Buddha argued that the antidote to hate is love. As a Zen priest I ought to practice loving my enemies.  I try.  Yet, we also vow not to kill and to me that vow also includes saving lives and preventing injury. So, a dilemma: to defend or not to defend.  The sort of hate being more and more openly expressed and the fear driving it is so similar to that in pre-WWII Germany that its actually scary and helps us resolve the dilemma. This is a hate that, left unchecked, will grow to include registering those we are afraid of: Muslims, Gays, Liberals, Intellectuals.  If you are a student of history you will recognize this tactic.

In Germany the Final Solution was facilitated both by fear and the fact that registration of undesirables had already been in place.  It was no problem to locate and round them all up. They were put behind walls away from sight as they were systematically murdered.  And we want to build a wall.  We want to vilify the press.  We insert false news stories and people begin to distrust the news outlets.  A propagandic tactic also used in Germany. Are we there yet?

We are headed in that direction.

Confronting hate with love is a good thing, yet those loved must be willing to receive it.  Often instead, the loved hater builds a wall around himself, creates mythic stories to make his hate OK and, at the same time, accuse their opponents of weakness at best, and of being co-conspirators at worst.  For me, the danger here is that many of us, like the Jews in Germany, believe good people would surely not harm us.  Fear and carefully crafted messages of hate will make good people chose to do bad things and one day, then, those good people come knocking on our door and they aren't bringing cookies.

I refuse to answer the door and welcome those who might hate me, and do me harm, entry. No, I will not. What I will do is address the hate directly, as in messages like this, and at the same time prepare for the worst.  What does that mean? Meet Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson, and over here meet Mr. Taurus, oh, and let's not forget Mr. Colt. All of these fellows are near the door and are willing and able to put you away if you come to through the door with a deadly threat. All the while, I will chant the Heart Sutra for you as they are doing it.

Some say that isn't very Buddhist.  I really wonder where they get that idea.  Monks have for millennia defended themselves with deadly force. Even Tibet had an Army under the command of the Dalai Lama. Monks train with bow, sword, knife, cane, and other Martial Arts weapons.  I train with  9 mm and .380 semi-automatic handguns, as well as a M-4 Tactical Carbine. The Zen of it is this: defending life is based in the precepts and more, an obligation of everyone wishing to live in an open society.

So, hate-mongers, I welcome you to try to take away my life and those of others around me. I will first offer you my love, but failing in that, I will prevent you from harming me or others. Don't tread on me.