Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Strays thoughts

Travelling is good for thinking in many ways. Routines drop away, you meet people, and things seem to start anew. You think much and feel much. Doing both at the same time is always the best way to think. You get up early with too little sleep. As the hot summer makes you pause, you’re assaulted by memories and strange ideas. Instead of reading in a room you read on a bench, by the riverbank, on a train or in a café. You walk a lot. Your body loves it, feeling free, and your thoughts wander too.

It struck me today, as we were taking my son to kindergarten while he was sitting on my shoulders, that a boddhisattva cannot be a person who helps others out of pity. Theoretically, I know very well that this is nothing new. From a standpoint of non-duality, there is no helper and no helped. A boddhisattva who thought in such terms would be a contradiction in terms.

Perhaps a boddhisattva would rather be a person who, rather than thinking of herself as helping others, keeps searching for the boddhisattva in the other, recognizing the everyone she meets has the potential of being such a boddhisattva and waiting for it to appear – in the kindergarten teachers, the relatives who will visit us tomorrow, the homeless, the high school girls, the person in a suit who is hurrying past us, or anyone else in the throngs of Shijô street?

If I want to help others, it will surely not hurt if I recognize how much I myself am also in need of help. Listening to others as if their words could help you in some important respect – making you see things more clearly or enriching your life or whatever – is usually a good way of making you both feel better.  It’s not true that if you want to help others, you must help yourself first. If you want to help others, let them help you, or at least let them know that they have that ability.

There is a quote by Calvino, from Invisible Cities, which I think expresses this attitude, at least in part.
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
To help what is not inferno is not to act out of pity. Rather than simply being good yourself, Calvino seems to be saying, we should help goodness to spread and give it room. The one who helps others out of pity doesn't just risk appearing presumptous, producing resentment and irritating people. Even worse is that he monopolizes goodness, thus stopping its growth and keeping it tiny.

Let me put it like this: whenever you want to help another, do so in a way that helps goodness grow. If you help another, but in such a way that you produce resentment or shame, then goodness will not grow. It will be something you have gained only for yourself, but such a goodness is worth very little.

It may sound strange, but our common view of religious dogmas often sound true only if we invert them. A boddhisattva is a person who helps others by treating them as if they could help her. If we turn to Christianity for a moment, I've always thought that it sounds unconvincing that we should pray to God for forgiveness. How much truer isn't it to say, on the contrary, that it's we who must learn to forgive God?

Karma is not the law that determines the transmigration of souls. How could there be any souls, if there is no atman? No, there is no soul that can preserve its identity even over the course of a life-time. How, then, could there be any identity between life-times? Karma is nothing but the birth of goodness from goodness, or of hatred from hatred. There's no need to involve the idea of the soul. The first five verses of Dhammapada put it well. So, actually, does Richard Gere. Asked what he had learnt from Dalai Lama, he answered: "That anything I do that's motivated by any personal enrichment leads to suffering for me, while anything that enriches the happiness of someone else makes me happy. And it's never failed" (thanx for the quote to E., whose doors and walls have always been a source of wisdom for me).

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