The Three Jewels: Truth Without Irony

We have broken this article by Daniel Giloth into four sections. We'll post a section each week.

Truth With A Capital 'T'

One night at bedtime my daughter asked me to read her a book she'd started. It was entitled Yours for Justice, Ida B. Wells, and was about the great journalist who crusaded against lynching around the turn of the nineteenth century. I liked the book so much, that after my daughter was in bed, I re-read it. Two quotes that caught my eye were “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” and“Truth is mighty and will prevail.”

For me, Ms. Wells evoked a belief and time when “Truth” with a capital 'T' existed. People like Ida B. Wells believed deeply in the Truth. They weren't faking it.

Today, such faith in Truth strikes me as quaint. What we have instead is a constant flood of information. Much of the information hasn't been fact-checked; often, it's summoned to support political positions or opinions. Even when there are facts, they can be selected, arranged, and framed to disguise truth—as Michael Herr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam War correspondent points out in his memoir Dispatches. To paraphrase Herr, he asserts that the constant press briefings about operations, campaigns, and body counts had the effect of overwhelming reporters so the truth got lost. In Herr's view, there was only one story: suffering and death. Of course, this truth wasn't palatable to the American public. So the P.R. engineers of the war pushed massive facts out the door.

In place of faith in Truth in our age, it seems to me that we have an epidemic of distraction and irony. This isn't a novel thought. The distraction is well-remarked upon; the irony not so much. The late David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, blamed television for rampant irony in contemporary fiction and other art. As D.T. Max quotes in his biography Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, Wallace believed that “'irony and ridicule are..agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture...'” Wallace cautioned fiction writers against adopting TV's “'shallow rebelliousness.'” In his passionate, much-quoted “Kenyon College Commencement Address,” Wallace says (using Wikipedia's edits):

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day...The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't...The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.”

Members of Zen Life and Meditation Center might recognize that Wallace was talking about authenticity—a theme of this year's programs. With young folks, Wallace has a tough row to hoe. If you hang around teenagers and young adults these days (I have a niece and nephew in that category), you might hear a constant ironic tone. “Whatever” seems the (anti-) battle cry of the last few generations. I don't mean to pick on youth; Americans of all ages are reflexive ironists—I'm a repeat offender myself, though I've noticed the longer I practice, the more I say what I mean.

This is a blogpost about how the “Three Jewels” of Buddhism can help a person sort out the truth. What—to use David Foster Wallace's term—is capital-T True.

When a person becomes a Buddhist, s/he are said to 'take refuge in the Three Jewels.' The Three Jewels are: 1) Buddha (our awakened nature), 2) Dharma (reality; also the teachings Buddha left us), and 3) Sangha (community of meditators).

Buddha: The First Jewel

The first Jewel, Buddha, refers to our own awakened nature, our Basic Goodness, not to the Buddha. Another qualification: in Buddhism, when we speak of truth, we're not looking, like Moses on the Mount, for Divine Revelation. Siddhartha famously said, 'If you meet the Buddha on the path, kill him.' He wasn't trying to do a master-student challenge, or be like George Bush telling the Iraqi insurgents to “bring it on!” Siddhartha was saying: 'If you set up some external authority in your mind that displaces your own innate wisdom and direct experience, knock it down.' In other words, to use the terms of Moses, it's an idol.

Siddhartha also said, “Be a lamp unto yourself.”

“We got it,” said his first students.

But naturally they forgot. When Buddha was eighty-something, and was about to die, his followers—even his senior disciples—were in a panic. “Oh, Buddha!” they lamented: “What are we going to do without you? We're finished!” So Buddha pointed out that if they thought he was the source of wisdom, if they 'believed' in him, then they hadn't learned anything; wisdom comes from within. Truth was not revealed or based on belief, but discoverable, un-coverable within one's own being and experience.

Back to our Buddha nature. Unlike Christianity, which teaches that humans are 'fallen' because of sin, Buddhism suggests that all of us have a goodness that is always present. Buddha literally means “awakened one.” This isn't meant to be doctrine. Unlike conventional religion, Buddhism is always saying, 'Go ahead, check it out. If it doesn't hold true for you, fuhgeddaboudit!'

But let's say, for the sake of exploration, we assume Buddha is right about basic goodness. Then why was I so mean to my sister yesterday when she asked to borrow my car again? One analogy Buddhism (and particularly the Shambhala tradition) uses to explain this riddle is the example of the sun and the clouds. Sun represents our basic goodness; clouds represent our delusions and unwholesome intentions and acts they cause; in other words, the suffering we make for ourselves and others. Is the sun still shining behind the clouds? Yes, of course. So, then, how do we experience the sun? How can we penetrate or dispel the clouds?

By the way, you can see how the sun of basic goodness is a far cry from the Christian notion of Original Sin. Original Sin means you were guilty from the get-go, because of Adam and Eve defying God. By this account, even though you personally weren't there, you lost your innocence way back in the Garden of Eden. Only Christ can redeem you. Buddhism, by contrast, suggests that humans have not only original but basic goodness—always shining despite obscurations by delusions.

In my personal experience, sitting meditation dissolves the cloud cover, cultivates and reveals Buddha nature. This might happen only incrementally, but it's pretty dependable; about ninety percent of the time, there's a noticeable change.

For example, this morning I sat two hours at the meditation center, longer than my usual hour-long Sunday stint. The first hour was pretty cloudy, even stormy. A lot of my thinking was driven by fears: for example, this past week, in trying to be true to my authentic self, I relinquished responsibility for writing a grant application to a colleague. Like me, my co-worker doesn't want to do it. Plus, I wrote the last one, and am not sure he can do it—time-wise. So I was guilty over that. I also worried that, if the grant doesn't get written or approved, it could have some real consequences. This anxiety drove a lot of thinking, some of it directly connected, some of it just generated by the overall mind-state.

But I kept gently letting go of thoughts, returning my meditation to practicing awareness of the solid gravity of my body and the sound all around me (a cough, the hiss of tires on the street outside), and to minding the breath-feeling in my abdomen. As a memory device, I call this 'Ground-Sound-Breath'. And by the second half of the first hour, the energy of the thoughts tired out and clouds started thinning.

In the second hour, the skies were more still. By the time I hit the gong to end the second session, I felt like the sun was shining pretty brightly. Somehow, too, my thinking clarified. I had a small check-list of three things I needed to do before I left town for a Fourth of July get-away. I hadn't thought the list out while sitting, it just happened, kind of like when you go to sleep with a question and wake up with the answer. Rather than feeling like the tasks were unmanageable, they seemed finite and do-able. One of them was writing this blog, and I came away with a confidence I could get the writing done and the clarity with which to start it.

This fruition is why I meditate first thing every morning. Like exercise or yoga does for the body, meditation—even ten or twenty minutes—works out the mind, loosens and prepares it. In my experience, sitting cultivates a sensibility—sense-ability—a heightened capacity to perceive things inside and out—which makes my mind and my day more work-able. So I do it as habit, as a proven tool to a healthier life.

How does this mediation = clarity equation work exactly? I think it's simply that when we identify less with our thoughts, all of our being—including our thoughts—seems less ominous and more indestructibly okay, even natural and good. We stop resisting reality, and play with it instead. We are always meditating on something—regret for insulting a friend, planning a weekend. Sitting simply develops the distance to make choices about where to direct our attention.

By the way, the sun analogy doesn't mean 'good' in the sense of good versus bad—this is not a moral evaluation. As teachers have noted, no one ever argues about whether the sun is good or bad. It's a ridiculous question. The sun is good because it is. Likewise, so we are good because we are. And so are others. I'm not a very gregarious guy, but I always feel friendly after a long meditation. I've experienced my own completeness and goodness, and detect it easily in others. I'm compassionate to myself and others. My guard is down—way down. It feels very healthy.

But isn't this all kind of naïve? How do we know we're not practicing what Buddhism calls 'idiot compassion'? My full-time work, I like to believe, is fighting injustice. Right now, I'm organizing westsiders to dismantle a pervasive (illegal) business model in Chicago industry which uses temporary agencies to target and prey on immigrant—mainly Mexican, workers—and to shut out blacks, whites, and Puerto Ricans. Divide-and-conquer, an old story. Now, obviously, I believe this industrial strategy is bad. How do we reconcile the indivisibility of absolute reality (basic goodness) with the relative world we live in, where it's imperative—and compassionate—to make distinctions between good and bad and act on them?

On Saturday an acquaintance reminded me of a joke that gets at this contradiction. A master is overseeing students sitting in meditation. One student is leaning badly to one side. The master goes to him and hits him with his rod. The student is shocked to attention. A little later, the student is again falling asleep, leaning to one side. The master strikes him again. The student, irate, says, “What's the deal? I thought I, like everything, was perfect?” “Right,” says the teacher. “But that doesn't mean you can't improve.”

Funny, but what of true evil? Once I participated in a Shambhala Buddhist training class. Another person in the class, a father, described reading of a man downstate who was accused of torturing his daughter with a cattle prod. “I have a young daughter,” said the father. “I wanted to kill that man.” This prompted me to ask what a police force would look like in an enlightened society. The teacher didn't hesitate: “Before every shift, police officers would dutifully practice some form of mindfulness, in order to cultivate compassion and reduce neurotic and delusional thinking. Then they would go out and stop the man who tortured his daughter and put him where he could not harm anyone.”

To the non-meditator, the take-away might be that the Buddhist police just uses common sense. But common sense is often delusional. For example, all of us fall into the trap of thinking that 'I' exist—as a self with an independent essence. Buddhist, physicists, and social psychologists all agree the self is a social construct, not a reality. So the teacher in his response emphasized the mind-training aspect. With it, you stop projecting your delusions and aggression. Then you can see things more as they are, and have a greater chance to take effective, loving action.

The world is perfect and complete. Nevertheless, we must take smart, compassionate action to address endless suffering. If you can hold those two thoughts in your head—which our dualist conceptual minds militate against—you can be a Buddhist! It's a mystery, but a living one, a life-riddle to solve, not only an academic exercise. . .

Second posting to be continued next week.