Everybody has one

In the last post I questioned why Ezra Bayda called our fears “imaginary.”  Before continuing with these questions, I would like to comment on how I question and at times criticize other writers.

Ezra Bayda helped me during Laura’s illness and then with my grief afterwards. See, for example, the post I made in my Tricycle community blog at the outset of my family leave for Laura’s final two months.

The Helper Syndrome.   Posted by Kenneth Daly on November 26, 2009. http://community.tricycle.com/profiles/blogs/the-helper-syndrome

At 10:30 last night, I told her I was going to go and do some taiji. I really needed it after the usual day-before-Thanksgiving brouhaha. She said, “That’s disgusting.” At first I was confused. I keep forgetting that her brain cancer causes not just aphasia, but dysphasia. What she wanted was for me to stay and talk with her more before she went to sleep. I did.

Earlier this year, about five months into our struggle with glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), I subscribed to Tricycle’s Daily Dharma. Many days, not all, but many, these insights have helped me stay on track. The Daily Dharma for November 11, 2009 from Ezra Bayda’s “The ‘Helper’ Syndrome,” Tricycle, Summer 2003, went right to the heart of the matter for my practice. There is another quote, a series of questions in that article, meant for the cancer caregiver to ask and answer each day

Do we need to be seen as a helper?
Do we need to feel and believe that we are, in fact, a helper?
Do we need to see people as benefiting from our help?
Or do we serve in order to be seen as a worthy person?
Are we helping out of a sense of “should”?
Can we see how attached we are to our self-image, our identity?
Who would be we without it?
What hole are we trying to fill with it?
How are we trying to avoid the insecurity of groundlessness?”

In this blog I am using Bayda’s article about fear to clarify some points, not to score points against him.  The same might be said of my arguments with the writings of Soelle and Scarry, for example.  In this blog I work to look openly at what others have written, not to equate my view with wise view, much less right view.  Nor to pigeonhole theirs as wrong views.

The Buddha explains how to look openly in the Paramatthaka Sutta (Sn 4.5.)

 A person who associates himself with certain views, considering them as best and making them supreme in the world, he says, because of that, that all other views are inferior; therefore he is not free from contention (with others). In what is seen, heard, cognized and in ritual observances performed, he sees a profit for himself. Just by laying hold of that view he regards every other view as worthless. Those skilled (in judgment) say that [a view ties one up like] a bond if, relying on it, one regards everything else as inferior. Therefore a [monk] … should not present himself as equal to, nor imagine himself to be inferior, nor better than, another.  http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.4.05.irel.html

We need to be careful about what the Buddha means when he goes on to say that we should abandon our old views, that we should not adopt new views, even if just to ground our knowledge, Nor should we take sides in a dispute or hold “a fixed viewpoint” in order to investigate the teachings of others.

We need to be careful here because the Buddha is not asserting an epistemological or ontological view.  The Buddha does not mean that everything is relative.  When we read his advice, we need to be careful not to read it as if the Buddha is doing exactly what he is advising against.  He is not asserting a view about, nor even making any claims about or how we know or can’t know “becoming or non-becoming, here or in another existence.”    Rather he is giving practical advice to his monks on how to engage in the contentious scholastic disputes that were the norm in ancient India.  I translate that advice to mean—be open; be humble; listen; question.

I’d say that he means “question everything,” but with the caveat that skepticism is a view, too. Question skepticism.  Yet, the first step of the eight steps—wise view, looking openly—means both more than and less than to question.  The best way I can think to present what that means is to relate one of my experiences as a student of taiji.

One begins doing taiji from a stance called wú jÍ, roughly translated as “not doing taiji yet.”  The position looks like you’re standing upright with your legs slightly apart, your hands by your sides, and very relaxed.  The 20th Century master Cheng Man Ch’ing, who did much to popularize taiji in the United States, concludes a detailed description of this stance: “Externally and internally, the whole body should be relaxed and completely natural.  …  I become quiet, waiting for the opponent’s move  ….”  (Cheng 114-116)  To the onlooker wú jÍ seems very passive, weak, ready to be pushed around by the first opponent who comes along, very much as the Buddha’s debating advice appears.

To help us learn what’s really going on with wú jÍ, one of my teachers frequently would have the students pair off.  One student would assume the wú jÍ stance and the other would put both hands on one of the shoulders of the person standing and then try to push that person out of wú jÍ.  It took me two years to learn to relax more when being pushed, not to get rigid and try to resist being pushed.  The more I worked at not getting pushed out of position, the more easily my opponent would knock me off balance or otherwise dislodge me.  The less I resisted, the more I relaxed, the more difficult it became for someone to knock me off balance.  There’s nothing mystical going on here.  What I call “relaxing,” letting go, means physical actions such as lowering one’s center of gravity and giving your opponent less structured muscle and bone to push against.  But no amount of telling me that when we first started the exercise would have helped me get any more quickly to where I was after two years of practice.  In fact thinking about such details of doing wú jÍ made me more vulnerable, even after two years of practice.

My point is that just as there’s nothing wimpy about learning to stand openly, there’s nothing intellectually mushy about looking openly.  The Buddha wouldn’t express it this way, but one of my son’s favorite expressions is “Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one.”   He does not say this when he’s about to roll over and concede a point.   This statement usually prefaces an explanation of what part of someone’s anatomy that person’s opinion came from, and why.  A more polite version is the bumper sticker I’ve seen—you don’t have to believe everything you think.

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