It seems fitting that during the week the President of the United States was impeached by the House of representatives, that we return to Ming Zhen’s essay on The Habit of Seeking Truth. A few read throughs might enliven you to several periods of self-examination on what your personal duty is right in the middle of the life you live. It’s my hope, anyway. Enjoy!
People who write homilies and other spiritual tracts have a wish list:
We’d like a license to skew our grammatical constructions to allow for amphiboly. Ah… to be as oracularly correct as Delphi.
Think of it: A Greek general, contemplating war against the Persians, asks, “Which side will win?” Quoth the Oracle: “Apollo says, ‘The Greeks the Persians shall subdue.'”
It’s the sort of advice the CIA usually gives. That’s why they’re never wrong.
Also on that wish list there’d be a safety net that would catch us before we went into self-contradictory free fall – as when we rhapsodize about a spiritual experience, claiming that it is absolutely ineffable, and then plunge into the murky depths of pages trying to describe it.
We’d also like to call something ‘utterly unambiguous’ and be able to describe it in the photographic flash that that description suggests.
It would be wonderful to wish into existence a writer’s right never to be wrong and always to be succinct and clear.
Sometimes an essay is like putting a message in a bottle and casting it adrift. We’re never quite sure if, or when, or where it will be read and what effect it will have upon the reader.
I was sitting in a bordertown cantina, doing what folks generally do in a bordertown cantina, when I was approached by an off-duty Mexican motorcycle cop. He was young, handsome, fluent in English, and pleasant; and if this were not enough to induce conversation with him (and it certainly should have been) he regularly read our webpages. He had a question for me regarding the Lex Talionis essay: he wanted to know how to qualify and quantify desire. “If desire is so integral to the process of like-retaliation,” he asked, “what happens when we do the right thing for all the wrong reasons?”
Good question. I tried to look knowledgeable, wanting to say something oracular, like: “The Buddha says, ‘Desire must a man destroy.'” For, oddly enough, amphiboly provides the means for ruthless self-examination. The I Ching works so well because it is precisely so ambiguous. I could maybe let this police officer read into the answer the solution he was seeking. Stalling for time, I asked him to give me an instance of the problem. What specific experience had made him ask the question?
It seems that while he was on crowd-control duty outside a stadium, stationed there with several other police officers, four American tourists exited the stadium. One of them, a woman, was carrying a camera. Another, a man, had signaled a cab and called to the others to hurry and get into it. The woman asked him if he spoke English and when he said that he did, she asked if he would be kind enough to take the camera to the lost and found. She gave him the number of the seat under which she had found the camera and also a general description of the man who had been sitting in the seat. And then she hurriedly left.
The camera, he said, was a Hasselblad… and it was in mint condition. Immediately one of the other officers whistled enviously at his good fortune. Heaven had opened, and a very valuable camera had fallen into his lap. He was an amateur photographer. This was a crisis in faith.
He said that a variety of thoughts crowded into his head at that moment. “First, we have a saying, ‘For every peso another officer lets you get away with, he will demand payment of a hundred pesos later.'” He looked around at the three other officers and knew that if he kept the camera, sooner or later they would demand of him that he ignore much more serious misdeeds of theirs. He did the math and it was staggering. For the price of this camera they would own him, body and soul.
Still, the lost and found office was a quarter turn around the circular stadium. He could say that he was going to turn it in and then simply hide it in his motorcycle bag. No one would know. But, naturally, sooner or later somebody would find out that he had a Hasselblad and the truth would be out.
As he stood there examining the camera, one of the other cops said that if he turned it in, the attendant who accepted it would keep it for himself – the real owner would never get it one way or the other. And then he thought, yes… and if the attendant who accepted it didn’t keep it, one of those officers could easily send a friend to claim it. They all had heard the seat number.
So he righteously announced that he was going to turn the camera in and started off on his cycle; but once out of sight of the other three officers, he again considered hiding the camera. If he didn’t want to be caught later with a Hasselblad he could always take the camera into the U.S. and hock it. Then he said he disgustedly thought, “Jesus… why don’t I just hold up a bank and be done with it.” And so he dismissed that idea… and by this time he was at the office.
Very officiously, he proceeded to document the transaction. He demanded proof of identity of the attendant and he recorded it in his log book. He obtained a receipt for the camera… and on both the original and the carbon, he made the attendant write the seat number and description of the owner and the details about the camera’s make and style. “In short,” he said, “I covered my ass.”
But then, as he drove back to the others, satisfied that he had done the honorable thing, it occurred to him that honor had had nothing to do with it. “I should have done my duty because it was my duty. I shouldn’t have even considered taking the camera. This is the new Mexico. I’m proud to be a Mexican police officer, and there I was ready, willing, and able to act like a ladron, a common thief. So I did the right thing… but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of being glad to do right, I was just afraid to do wrong.”
Yes, Hamlet, Conscience doth make cowards of us all.
Fortunately there is a point at which we cease having to confront ourselves with the advantages and disadvantages of doing our duty, a point at which we do what is right because to do otherwise is simply unthinkable. That point comes when we figure out the common sense of religion and when, armed with that information, we revalorize the people, places and things of our lives. We acquire this strength of character in stages.
In the beginning of our Dharma journey, our ability to make ethical decisions can be calibrated on a scale of 1 to 10. A “1” usually thinks it is incumbent upon him to express moral judgments about everything. He’s read somewhere that Buddhists are non-violent and so he’s firmly against capital punishment. Not while he was around could anybody drive a stake through Count Dracula’s heart. Let the world swarm with vampires. The Buddha said we must not harm living things, and the un-dead surely qualify.
And beginners also have trouble with discretion: when to keep their mouths shut and when to speak out. I remember years ago when laws against marijuana possession were way out of proportion with the nature of the offense and a young man had been caught with half a kilo in his possession – and for this faced ten years in prison. I was in the jury pool waiting for the first group of temporarily seated jurors to go through the Voir Dire process, when one young man in that group haughtily informed the prosecutor that he was a Zen Buddhist and, further, that he thought the laws against marijuana possession were unconstitutional. He was immediately excused and as he walked past me out of the courtroom, I remember thinking, “Kid, if you were seated in that defendant’s chair, you would have wanted somebody like you on the jury.” I later wondered if he had ever bothered to learn that the boy had been convicted. Yes, discretion is always the better part of valor.
In matters of morality, we are like people standing by the edge of a lake noticing a drowning man. Always our first impulse is to jump in to save him. This is the natural inclination of Dharma. It is in the second moment that we should calculate our ability to accomplish the rescue. If we are strong swimmers and if we’re prepared to handle the panic of a drowning man, we can dive in. If we’re not strong or if we are ignorant of the facts of panic – that panic and ethics don’t co-exist, that panic prevents constructive thought or genteel deference, that a drowning man will push down his rescuer to stand on top of him to get air – then if we go out there, we’ll drown with him. (Of course, he just might save himself at our our expense – the First Aid equivalent of turning state’s evidence.) Weak, untested resolve soon gets us in over our heads.
A friend wants a slightly illegal favor. We say, “What the hell…” and then get sucked into the vortex of his swirling troubles. Later we’ll lament our lack of foresight.
But instinctively, if we keep our priorities in mind, we’ll learn to evaluate morally dangerous situations. With habit, we do the right thing automatically. It comes with having a cerebral cortex.
But suppose, I asked the motorcycle cop, he had kept the camera and one of the other police officers had come upon a wallet that contained a lot of cash… or a stash of cocaine… and that officer wanted to keep it. Having already compromised his own integrity, how would he have responded? Or, if after he turned in the Hasselblad, one of the other three police officers had asked a friend to claim it. When he learned about it, what would he do? Would he sacrifice a friend for the sake of a camera’s worth of integrity?
He assured me that he had been unable to think about anything else since that wretched gringa dumped the problem on him.
But he, in effect, had already “pre-emptively” answered his query. I pointed out to him the obvious: he had turned in the camera because it was the right and honorable thing to do. He had taken the attendant’s name to deter him from becoming a thief. He had obtained a receipt to protect himself and the owner of the camera. He had carefully recorded the transaction in order to discourage the other police officers from attempting to exploit the opportunity to get the camera. “When you got back to the others,” I asked him, “did you tell them exactly what you had done?”
“Yes,” he said, a little amazed that he had been so judicious.
“Then what makes you think you did the right thing for all the wrong reasons?”
The Buddha’s Five Precepts are eminently practical. If we don’t cheat on our faithful wife, we’re not likely to get AIDS. If we don’t get drunk, we’re not likely to drive off a cliff while intoxicated. If we don’t lie, we not only don’t have to remember what we said, we’re not likely to be convicted of perjury. If we don’t steal, we’re probably not going to be shot as a burglar. And if we don’t hate, we won’t murder… and then have to get bankrupted by the legal system.
But he insisted that especially when our actions involve persons whose friendship or loyalty we value, the ethical abscissa remained… the line on which confusing and conflicting negative and positive desires existed. “How do we clarify the ambiguities and decide which is the correct course to follow?”
We use our brain and force ourselves to become aware, to consider every aspect of the problem, and if we’re smart we anticipate the worst. We do just what that police officer did. Cynically, we play the Devil’s Advocate. We remember Hsu Yun’s story of the man who stole food for his family and his friends in order to gain their love and admiration. Many ate well and often; but when he was caught, none came forward to make restitution or spend a single night in jail for him. Worse, they all condemned him for being a thief.
We take a child through a toy store, and everything he sees, he wants. We know that if we yield to his desires, we will harm him psychologically. We want to be generous parents, but how do we say “No”? This is a drowning man problem. If we are strong swimmers and can handle panic, we’ll jump in. We’ll stop and talk to the child and reach an accord. He can pick one toy not to exceed a specified price. Does he understand? Sometimes he’ll astonish us and respond, “Can I have two toys that add up to that amount?” “Yes,” we’ll say, envisioning, “My son, the Secretary of Commerce!” An incompetent Dharma swimmer would yank the kid’s arm, scream at him, make false promises, and eventually drown with him.
But if, after all our analysis and expectation, we are still confused, we can rely on our instinctive ability to supply intelligibility even to the most enigmatic presentation of conflicting choices.
Philologist Benjamin Whorf once examined the logically absurd expression in English, “The exception proves the rule.” What does it mean? It was once a clear statement: “to prove” used to mean “to put on trial” and the saying indicated that an exception tested the validity of a rule by demonstrating its merit or lack thereof. But then came a semantic change: “to prove” no longer meant “to put on trial” as it did when the expression originated. “To prove” now meant “to establish the existence of a fact.”
We could have dropped the expression as being meaningless; instead we examined it and discovered new sense in it. So that when we now say, “The exception proves the rule” we mean that were it not for the exception we wouldn’t be aware that a rule even existed. It would be as if every baby at birth measured exactly 14 inches in length. Who would bother to measure the length of babies? It would have been as superfluous a bit of information as stating that Mrs. Jones gave birth to a human child. But not until someone delivered a baby that was a startling 18 inches long would we have realized that this exceptional child was exceptional precisely because he did not follow what was, for us, the rule of 14 inches.
Just as we know what is meant by “The Buddha says, ‘Desire must a man destroy,'” the Buddha’s audience, assuming that he ever made such a silly statement, would also have instinctively known that the “negative” element was desire and that the imperative was not that desire ought to destroy a man, but rather that if a man didn’t destroy desire, it would likely destroy him.
The man of conscience considers his actions and acquires the strength of character and the skill to handle any thrashing temptation. But if, on occasion, he still feels confused, he knows that with effort he can find insight into deeper meanings, just as he can calibrate desire.
If he repeatedly scans for intuitive insight into compromising situations, he’ll find that it’s rather like learning music well enough to get a billing in that great theater in the sky. He will find clarity in ambiguity.
The confused tourist asks: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”
The wise New Yorker answers, “Practice! Practice!”