Sunday Sermon

So first thing this morning when I sat down at my computer, I found this in my email:

"If one assumes a humble attitude, one's own good qualities will increase. Whereas if one is proud, one will become jealous of others, one will look down on others, and due to that there will be unhappiness in society."

It's a quote from the Dalai Lama. Sometimes I want to kick that old man...

I suffer from an inordinate amount of personal pride. It is very hard for me to be humble - I am frankly far too convinced of my own grandeur to be retiring. I acknowledged long ago that this is one of the main things I need to work on. To put it in Buddhist terms, it is one of the main impediments to my enlightenment. This quote however, reminds me that it's not just my enlightenment that I'm holding up.

I think His Holiness wants us to realize that pride is not just a personal problem. This is one of those places where Western thought and Buddhism collide most uncomfortably - in the West, especially in America, we have put serious effort into convincing the last two generations that they should be proud of themselves. We are unique, different, separate, and that is good. We may pay lip service to team work, but it is simply not the American way to think of ourselves as part of a greater effort. The American dream is not a vision of world prosperity, it is one of personal wealth, and those in our way be damned. In our attempt to give our children self-esteem we have created one of the most selfish societies in history. We make gods of ourselves in our own minds.

Setting aside for the moment the larger ramifications of this policy of Me-theism, let's just look at its effects on the ground. Are we happier? Are we more content? I look around this campus at the average student, completely self-absorbed, cut off from everyone else by hardened consumerism, and usually physically cut off from the world by an iPod - is that person doing well? Is he or she healthier, more capable of relationships, more in tune with humanity? Is the world a better place for it?

After I got over the feeling that the Dalai Lama was picking on me personally, I wondered how one could possibly get out of this mental cycle. It is so much a part of who we are as a people that it's very difficult to escape. Like so many other Buddhist teachings, it calls for tiny incremental steps. It's not a twelve step program - it's more like a twelve thousand step program. Sure, the Buddha taught it as the Noble Eight-Fold Path, but each of the eight aspects contains an infinity of tiny changes that together may amount to an enlightened being and a better world for all.

Begin with a tiny thing. Let someone go in front of you in line, take out the trash when it's not your turn, or just smile at a stranger. Self-esteem need not be built on pride; it could be built on unity instead. I know that makes me an un-American bleeding heart hippy communist liberal, but I'm ok with that.

Go in Peace.


Clayton said...

I must say that living where I do, I see the evils of the other side of the coin (ie. group above self mentality). Both have problems.

His Sinfulness said...

The only problem I see for a person with a group mentality is that other people who are not so selfless will take advantage of them. In that case, the issue is not really with the selfless one - as usual, it is the greedy bastard who is the heart of the problem.

Clayton said...

Interesting point; here are some problems I have observed:
*A tendency towards autistic behaviors, as well as shut-ins (it's getting endemic in Japan)
*A lack of independant thought (totalitarianism takes over easily)
*A feeling of meaninglessness to life that comes from the malaise of not feeling unique
*Bullying is somehow worse in these environments, maybe because
*People take advantage of this system and twist people towards their own ends
*World War II; the Japanese agression in particular could have been avoided if people would have taken a stand instead of going with the group mentality. The Japanese themselves lament their own group mentality at this point in history

Now, Maybe the problem you mentioned would go away if everyone thought of the group's needs over their own, but that is of course as unrealistic as all Christians being perfect like they were exhorted to be by Jesus.

His Sinfulness said...

None of the things you are putting forth are the result of a true group mentality. Obviously, being disfuntional, indecisive, unimaginative, manipulative, nationalistic, or supportive of offensive aggression of any kind is not truly in the group's best interest. None of this behavior is in keeping with the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path. You are mistaking weakness for selflessness - they are most defintely not the same thing.

It is considerably more realistic to expect humans to think of what's best for the group - when the group is all humanity - than it is to expect perfection from anyone. One is simply the logical outcome of realizing that we are all in this together, while the other is, according to the popular Christian definition, something humans aren't capable of without divine aid.

Clayton said...

ah but there's the rub: humans will think of the immediate group before the national or even the world group, and there is always someone higher in the food chain to take advantage. Also, I can't deny that I think the whole thing causes cognitive dissonance (most things, like individualism do). Like I said, I deal with the reality of this stuff every day. I didn't claim it has no merits, juts that both ways are flawed.
Ultimately, I think you are talking of an ideal just out of human grasp (IMO), whereas I am talking about what goes down here. Apples and Oranges.
Between thesis and antithesis is synthesis.

His Sinfulness said...

Thinking of humanity as a whole instead of thinking on a smaller level is a learned skill. From nationalism to high school cliques, to Judaeo-Christian ideas about who is going to heaven or hell, ANY form of "us vs. them" is a mistake, and it can be unlearned.

Of course it causes cognitive dissonance - that was what the Buddha was talking about. He was pretty clear about the fact that the world as we see it is an illusion. Getting past that illusion is the point, and cognitive dissonance is simply one of the sign posts along the way.

Clayton said...

Agreed. Though I do feel the need to emphasize un-learning over re-education.

Clayton said...

Oh and I just remembered: there is a Buddhist hell too, at least in Japan; I think it's divisive to say that's Judeo-Christianities bad.

His Sinfulness said...

Most of the time, Buddhists use the word hell in a very different way. It's not a place where you go for eternity - but it is a place of suffering. Like this plane... this life is certainly a hell, in the Buddhist sense of the word. Because of reincarnation, it is not an us vs. them kind of thing - everyone has been there before, and everyone can escape it.

Divisive? Possibly the most divisive force in recorded history has been Abrahamic religions. In terms of civil unrest, wars, and general mayhem, it's hard to outdo the combined efforts of Christians and Muslims (and Jews to a lesser extent). I believe this has to do almost solely with the idea that some people are going to heaven ("us") and some people are not ("them"). Us vs. Them is never a good idea. It makes people want to kill one another, regardless of how you sugar-coat it in "God's love".

Clayton said...

Well now, see I think we've come around to the groups thing again. Religion is just one social construct that can be exploited. I've never thought of life in terms of saved and sinners--maybe cause my religion is nonstandard and everyone gets in eventually, and therefore you may have a point that I am unable to satisfy.

Look, you can't have anything both ways. By arguing this out, I feel we are flexing the very egos that we need to relax, so I'm not gonna look to see what your response is. Not that I think it would be particularly upsetting to me, but because I think I would be contentious just cause I could.

His Sinfulness said...

Quitter... ;)

inkandpen said...

So I read this post Sunday, then again yesterday... and again today. So I'll try to hash out my thoughts on why this is haunting me, and perhaps Linus or his faithful readers might help me chew on it.

As an aspiring academic, I'm tightly tied in to these games of competition and personal bests. While I value collaboration and helping my colleagues, sometimes it feels I am paying attention to what everyone else is doing just to make sure that they aren't going to best me-- or worrying that they are.

Unfortunatly, the flip side of this competitiveness in my life right now is not humility, but rather self-loathing/low self esteem. Surely there's a difference. What does real humility look like? Is it possible to be kind to yourself and humble at the same time? Or does it necessarily entail an effacement of the self?

I know that effacement of the self is a part of the Buddhist path, but it seems difficult to reconcile with many life paths, mine included. However, increased humility seems like a good thing to cultivate even if not Buddhist... and I agree with the Dali Lama in your quote, that excessive pride is, in essence, an act of violence against those around you. But I can't quite picture what the ideal might look like, especially for a person still striving for intellectual achievement and career successes.

Enough ramble. Thoughs?

His Sinfulness said...

A way to deal with feelings of competitiveness is to remember that doing your very best can be one way to serve the overall good of humanity. In academics, we strive to expand human understanding of whatever subject we are working on - and the assumption is that expanded understanding is good, regardless of the topic (although I will admit that I frequently wondered what good I was doing humanity when I was forced to digest several hundred pages of Post Modern theory...). It is usually not the activity of striving to excel that is toxic, but rather the motivation.

As you work to be the best you can be at a given task, ask yourself why you are doing it. If the answer is something like, "I want the highest grade in the class," or worse yet, "I want a higher grade than him," then you probably aren't doing it for the right reasons. A better answer would be something like, "I want to understand this so I can build upon this knowledge and see where it goes."

As for the self-esteem issue, I believe that low self-esteem is epidemic in America. We have placed so much emphasis on material success that no one can ever have enough to feel good - there is always one more gadget or thingy that we will want, one more bit of bling to feather our nests with. The more complex our lives become, the more ornate our lifestyle becomes, the less likely we are to be happy. Simplicity is hard to come by, but the happiest, most secure people I have ever met were those with the simplest means. I am acquainted with several Christian monks and a few Buddhist ones as well, and they all radiate genuine happiness and self-security. I've met some others as well - a park ranger who was stationed to a very remote post, a native guide who led expeditions on tribal lands, a bike messenger from New York, a green grocer in Omaha... These folks were at peace with themselves, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they lead fairly simple lives, and live within fairly meager means.

In your case, working hard and doing well in school is not giving you an enhanced sense of self. Look within and ask yourself what is truly necessary in your life, and see about letting the rest go. That's a lot harder to do than it is to write... go slowly, and before you make any changes, let the idea sink in for as good long time. If six months pass and it still sounds like a good plan, THEN make the change.

Mark Travis said...

This has been a very interesting string of posts. I especially like the back and forth between Linus and Clay.

From InkandPen the question of "whether or not it is possible to be kind to yourself and humble at the same time?"

My experience tells me that being kind to yourself and being humble are the same thing, or at least two sides of the same coin.

It stems from the ability to live out of one's core, and to not look for or need approval from the outside world.

If one can live from within their core and still hold a profound sense of awareness of their surroundings, then that person can truly be called enlightened. "To be in the world, but not of the world."

Humbleness is the ability to live deeply within your own secure knowledge of God's love for you (a christian ideal). And this can be applied to Budhist thought as well of course.

And as for being kind to one's self, you can see how the above definition can fit that idea.

well, ya'll have fun ya hear?

Evydense said...

I know I'm four days late in jining in here, but I find the thread interesting as well, and have asked myself many of the same questions.

I don't see it as a debate between this view and that. I think my view is all-inclusive, in that it allows the tolerance of other views, while not necessarily accepting them as my own. As a visual person, I draw a mental "broken circle", where the ends of the line are the extreme opposite positions on any matter or issue, and my goal is to place myself in the opening left by the two ends not touching.

My choices are then the purest options, and my judgement is not present, because I choose to make a position between the two, rather than take a stand on an issue as one type of extremist or another.

I fail miserably at attaining this, but it is a goal I strive for. I evolved it as a result of being bipolar, and recognizing that I can imagine two diametrically opposed positions simultaneously.

I haven't studied religions, so can't comment intelligently on how that sits with various faiths.

Just my two cents worth!


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