Friday, October 11, 2013

The Three Poisons

In Buddhist philosophy, the “three poisons”—that is, the three underlying causes of all the distress and suffering in the world—are identified as Ignorance, Greed, and Hatred. These are common tendencies within all of us—though with practice, these tendencies can be brought to our awareness, seen for what they are, and let go, leaving space for our innate capacities for benevolence, compassion, joy, and equanimity to flourish.

Ignorance is the root of our problem—but ignorance of what? Above all, it is ignorance of the plain, readily observable fact that, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality… [where] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In simpler terms, whatever goes around, comes around—especially on a finite planet!  And this goes not only for our use of resources, but for our concern—or lack thereof—for others.

Greed arises from ignorance—it is simply the toxic belief that we ourselves are more important than others, that more is always better, that there is no such thing as “enough.” Unfortunately, this toxic  ideology is embedded in our economic system, for money is nothing but an arithmetical transform of information about the relative value of commodities—of things that can  be separated from their matrix in order to be bought and sold. And the money system operates according to only two basic rules: (1) more is always better; (2) what is mine is not yours.  On an infinite planet, an unregulated free-market economy would work exactly as those on the right claim that it does—fostering innovation and creativity, rewarding the most talented, and causing a rising tide of affluence that lifts all boats. But on a finite planet like the one we inhabit, where “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly,” the money game behaves exactly like a monopoly game—wealth and power are concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, until finally one player has everything and the rest—nothing.

When Greed and Ignorance combine, they create Denial—which is willful ignorance, a refusal to acknowledge facts that threaten one’s self-serving ideology.  Denial takes many forms, such as racism—the belief that one “race” is superior to, and therefore entitled to rule over, enslave, exploit, or oppress another “race.”  Another form of rampant denial today is refusal to accept overwhelming scientific evidence that threatens your interests, such as the reality of climate change, or the simple fact, validated by every law of physics and confirmed by irrefutable evidence, that on September 11, 2001, the sudden and catastrophic collapse of the Twin Towers and Building 7 had to be caused by controlled demolition charges planted in advance, not by terrorists hijacking airliners.

The other spawn of ignorance, greed, and denial, of course, is hatred, especially of those who hold the mirror up to our ignorance and greed—like black people who refuse to play the subordinate role to which they are assigned, environmentalists who reveal the horrific biological consequences of my greed, or “lib’ruls” who would take my money away to provide food, health care, and education for the poor and destitute, or even “terrorist sympathizers” who question the ongoing policy of invading and brutalizing the Muslim world (and therefore are unpatriotic because they don’t “support our troops”), or who realize that the official story of 9/11 is arrant, unscientific nonsense.  

Today’s Republican Party, with the  aid of their corporate-funded propaganda machines, Fox News and Clear Channel Radio, has therefore adopted Greed, Ignorance, Hatred, and Denial as their party platform, and is busily sowing these poisons into the minds of ignorant, resentful white people everywhere, spawning the insurgent, neofascist “Tea Party” movement that has hijacked democracy itself in order to enforce its will on the rest of us.

So what can be done about this appalling situation? First—and whenever necessary--breathe, observe, let go, and abide.  As equanimity is restored,  remember that our nation and world order, just like our bodies, are impermanent, and are of the nature to get sick, grow old, and perish—that we will lose everything we cherish sooner or later, including our democracy, our freedoms, our security, the topsoil that grows food we eat, the water we drink, the biodiversity that sustains us, our families and friends,  the beauty that surrounds us—all are impermanent.

By embracing impermanence fearlessly, we embrace and transform our despair and rage, regaining the equanimity, hence the courage, to practice Satyagraha—the  discipline practiced by all the great Gaian Bodhisattvas of our past century—Gandhi, King, Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Aung San Soo Kyi, Wangari Maathai,  Vandana Shiva, and many, many others. Satyagraha begins, as Gandhi said, with renouncing the fruits of action—doing what needs to be done, without worrying about success or failure; that is, letting go of the illusory future and focusing on the present moment, which is all that ever exists.  Satyagraha consists of three strands of discipline:

1.       Swaraj, or self-rule. This means beginning with ourselves, casting off the ignorance, greed, and hatred in ourselves, and cultivating the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our planet, through relocalization—growing gardens, growing communities, and progressively withdrawing our money from Glomart  (the corporate order that thrives by promoting Greed and Ignorance) and re-investing it in Gaia (a healthy garden, healthy local economy, and healthy planet).

2.       Satya, or truthfulness. This means the ability to speak truth to power, and do so mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly—calmly and skillfully, without hatred or resentment. This is easier said than done, but when done, it can be immensely effective. It demands a high level of self-discipline, which means constant practice, honestly investigating our own motives before we say anything. All of the great Bodhisattvas have cultivated the patience to master this difficult art of speaking truth to power until power could no longer resist the truth they spoke.

3.       Ahimsa, or resolute nonviolence.  This is the difficult art of resistance without hatred or attachment. Contrary to the opinions of many, nonviolence is not simply a tactic to be abandoned for guns, knives, or rocks when it no longer works.  Rather, it is the foundation for effectively subverting the three poisons—Greed, Ignorance, and Hatred—both in ourselves and others.  In political terms, nonviolent direct action campaigns are always a last resort, after all efforts at negotiation have failed.  And their purpose is to create pressure on those in power so they have no choice but to negotiate. Any other purpose is futile and self-indulgent. To be successful, a nonviolent direct action campaign involves four distinct steps, outlined by Martin Luther King, Jr.: Investigation, Negotiation, Self-Purification, and Direct Action. Investigation establishes both the existence and the nature of the harm being done; Negotiation is the good-faith effort to persuade those in power that it is in their self-interest to right the wrongs that have been revealed by investigation.  Only when negotiation fails do the latter two steps become necessary. Self-purification, through meditation or collective spiritual practice, is an essential prerequisite to leading an effective nonviolent direct action campaign. Without it, rage and frustration can quickly set in, leading to hatred and self-defeating acts of violence or sabotage.  And Direct Action should violate laws only when absolutely necessary, for there are many forms of direct action, such as sit-ins and boycotts, that do not violate any law, but still apply the needed pressure for negotiation.

But above all, Satyagraha direct action campaigns must be disciplined and strategically intelligent in order to be effective, and they must be conducted mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly. However, most of us are not called to such courageous activism, nor do many of us have the courage to speak truth to power—for power can and will bite back when threatened.  Nevertheless, the rest of us can do our part by practicing Swaraj or self-reliance through three simple practices:

·         Good Buyassuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of the money we spend. Seeing money for what it is—a transform of information about the value of commodities—of information about what we actually value. With this knowledge, we start to see the dollars we spend as a vote, and we start “voting”—every day--for locally produced, sustainably grown food, local enterprises that recycle our money into the community in order to create jobs for our friends and neighbors, and sustainably produced, fair-trade merchandise—whenever possible. Remember that a dollar invested in Gaia is a dollar denied to Glomart;  that every time you spend money in a socially and ecologically responsible way, you make it easier and more cost-effective for everyone else to do likewise.

·         Good Work—assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of the money we earn and the work we do.  This is the next step—it is what the Buddhists call “right livelihood”—finding ways to earn a living in ways that regenerate the health, competence, and resilience of our community and the planet. The Benefit Corporation concept, for example, is an excellent approach to this, but Good Work can be any livelihood that involves learning, teaching, healing, or creating a better world. If the work you do does not involve these, and if it merely enriches the super-rich while despoiling the planet, it is a form of slavery to Glomart—and you should emancipate yourself from it as soon as possible, no matter how little or how much you are paid.

·         Good Will—assuming responsibility for the social and ecological consequences of your attitudes toward others—including those you resent or despise.  In Buddhist theory, there are four adaptive attitudes we can cultivate toward everyone, all the time: (1) Benevolence and gratitude; (2) Compassion or caring awareness of suffering; (3) Sympathetic joy, or quite simply, a good sense of humor; and (4) Equanimity, or the ability not to let people or situations “get” to you.  You can practice these at any moment on the four parts of any breath, using the following guided meditation:

o   Inhale (“Breathe”—with benevolence toward all you see and gratitude toward all who have made your present living moment possible);

o   Pause (“Observe”—with compassion and understanding, realizing that all bad behavior originates in inner suffering of some sort, so both perpetrators and victims need your compassion and understanding);

o   Exhale (“Let Go”—with joy and humor, “breathing out” good will toward all around you.)

o   Pause (“Abide” in equanimity—the “peace that passeth all understanding.”)

You can also use these four adaptive attitudes as a repertoire of behavior toward anyone you encounter:

1.       Your default mode is benevolence and gratitude—simply smiling quietly and authentically—without any agenda--toward everyone you encounter.

2.       If the person you see is obviously suffering, do what you can to alleviate it with active compassion—initially, just by listening and acknowledging their humanity, but then by seeing what you can do to help.

3.       If you see someone who is beautiful, happy, overjoyed, or full of fun, smile again, this time participating in their joy and validating it—again without any personal agenda (especially sexual—it is important for men especially to keep a mindful oversight on their own testosterone!).

4.       If someone gets in your face, snarls at you, or otherwise offends you, maintain your dignity and go back to your breath immediately, so you resist the temptation to lash out, and abide in equanimity until you have let go of your hurt or anger, so you can resolve the issue peacefully, if necessary. Don't repress your anger or seethe in resentment; rather, observe it, acknowledge it, and let it go, one breath at a time.

None of these practices are easy—they all require continual reinforcement and scrupulous honesty with ourselves, to prevent self-deception or self-aggrandizement. But our larger agenda—triggering the Spontaneous Remission of the Cancer of the Earth—makes it all worth it, no matter how long it takes.