Our particularities. How does a Buddha deal with his dog nature? Barry Magid October 9th 2010

Last night I had more fun than I’ve had in a long time watching the Yankees lose the pennant race, and it was especially gratifying that the game ended with A-Rod being struck out. It’s comparable only to watching the Dallas Cowboys lose or the Republicans lose an election. It was remarked on that perhaps it’s a tad unseemly for a Buddhist to take so much pleasure in watching somebody lose, rooting so much for one team over another. So I thought I might say something about this whole realm of likes and dislikes, but more than that, something about the particular versus the universal, and how there’s a kind of risk of pernicious universalism in this practice, and in many practices I think it’s an insidious tendency that people have to look for a kind of realization or philosophy or truth that’s going to eliminate all contradiction and all conflict and give us a kind of universal answer to any situation. This takes all sorts of forms.

In the eighteenth century there was a kind of faith in reason as the result of the Enlightenment and the notion that universal ideas of reason and liberty and natural rights would override all nationalist and sectarian differences, and that we would be able to achieve a kind of international sense of the oneness of humanity. And in the nineteenth century there was a fantasy of Marxism that the consciousness of the working class would extend beyond all international boundaries and there would be a universalism based on that kind of economic common ground that again would override all nationalism. Neither of these seemed to play out particularly well.

Cosmopolitanism was first coined, I believe, by the Greek, Diogenes the Cynic, who said somewhere that a cosmopolitan was someone who was a citizen of the universe rather than any particular city state of Ancient Greece. It was a very radical idea that you would be from everywhere rather than from somewhere. In our time we have more and more a realization that like it or not we are living in a pluralistic universe with very many competing senses of the good, many competing ways of organizing a life, of conceptualizing a good life, and that we can’t really find one overarching system that’s going to encompass all of these things without contradiction. One of my favorite philosophers, Isaiah Berlin, has written extensively about how the good turns out to be very multiple and goods can be in competition with one another, despite all our fantasies of getting a solution for our problems that will once and for all eliminate contradiction.

Now all this can seem very abstract but I think it’s important at the level of individual psychology as well, in terms of how we deal with our inner sense of conflict or multiplicity. Whitman said something to the effect, I’m sorry if I can’t remember the line exactly: Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes. And that is a realization that one way or another we have to incorporate into our practice, that we will contain multiple self states, some will contradict each other, and we’re going to have to find a way of encompassing that complexity and that contradiction.

Sometimes I hear people who are disturbed by not being able to maintain a life that seems strictly in accord with their ideals or their values, that they have an image of how they wish they were that they can’t live up to, or that parts of themselves just don’t seem to fit into. I find myself saying, often, you don’t necessarily, in every situation, have to ask yourself: What would the Dalai Lama do? You don’t have to try to imagine a kind of self state that is free of greed, anger, ignorance, conflict, desire, and preference, and somehow operate from that position. It’s nice to be able to hold on to values like fairness and justice, but it’s really a very bad idea to pretend that you’re not angry when you are, that you’re not full of desire when you are, that you don’t have preferences when you do. We can use precepts as a way of putting limits on our behavior, but we have to be very careful that we don’t try to put limits on our feelings and use practice as a way of putting a Buddhist smiley face over everything, to be a nice Buddhist.

This runs the risk of just being fancy hypocrisy. I think the history of Buddhism and many religions demonstrates that when we try to maintain too angelic a facade, that the devil in this will find a way out one way or the other. I think it’s very important that we maintain a sense of our uniqueness and individuality and particularities even as we have a practice and experience of oneness or interconnection. We don’t want to lose either side of that.

I think it’s important that we always realize that our view is the view of somebody from somewhere, and it’s always going to be local, local to a region and local to our particular psychology, and that we have to cherish and work within those particularities and not think our practice is about smoothing them all over. In one sense, you know, in a sesshin or in a traditional setting where everybody dresses alike in the same black robes and follows all the same rituals, it can look like individuality is disappearing into the sameness of ritual, but I believe Suzuki Roshi said, it’s only when there’s this backdrop of uniform practice that people’s individual differences become clear, that we can see how we each handle ourselves and manifest ourselves against the backdrop of a common practice.

We’re not here to smooth out all differences and eliminate all preferences. It may be part of my particular history growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey that I developed a deep horror of wall-to-wall beige carpeting and really I’m very afraid of that as a model for any kind of psychology or lifestyle that eliminates difference. I just start seeing beige and it makes me crazy. It can manifest in particular ways, and I think one of the things I’ve said in sesshin is I have a collector’s habit of liking unique objects. So I will buy a scroll like the one we have in the garden zendo. It’s old and unique and it has a particular history, and I think there’s something important about having unique objects rather than everything being mass produced or reproduced. We can go a little overboard with that. I’m sure I do. But it led me to be a letter-press printer, wanting to make individual, unique books, not just the same books as Barnes & Noble. Wherever you are in the country, the stores are the same, the books are the same.

There’s an aspect of Buddhist practice that wherever you go, any Buddhist temple in the world, perhaps you’ll hear the Heart Sutra chanted, but you probably won’t hear it chanted in exactly the same way or even in the same language. And while we want the commonality of our practice, I think we also want to hold onto the particulars of it. We have to hold on to the particulars of our personality. I think that’s really the main message today. Those things are not obstacles or problems in our practice. We have to figure out how to hold them and cherish them, to really be able to see This is me, This is me.

We’re going to have to take in all of our idiosyncrasies and all of our complications and find a container for them, whether that includes being a Yankee fan or a rabid anti-Yankee fan. But I’ll end with a nice saying that I will give Catherine credit for. She told me just before we came in here: We should not worry so much about whether a dog has Buddha nature. What we should be concerned about is how the Buddha deals with his dog nature.

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