abbot_laugh_smallTUCSON 2011 - WHO IS TO BLAME?

The events that took place in Tucson last week are tragic, but not surprising. The usual frenzy of finger-pointing and media mania is likewise not a surprise, though it can be distressingly tiring. What to do in a case like this, an event more and more the predictable and depressingly normal outcome of the way we live? Who to blame, and what good will it do?

The Tao te Ching includes a phrase that translates something like, “When the blaming begins there is no end to the blame.” So we suffer the usual witch-hunt that follows in the immediate wake of all such tragedies, featuring polarization into comfortingly familiar stereotypes of liberal and conservative, far right and far left, pro- and anti-gun. Self-anointed saviors and pundits-for-hire weigh in on all fronts with the same tiresome opining, feckless analysis and self-regarding commentary until we all just want to jump off a cliff. Lemmings, only leaderless.

Bumper-sticker catchphrases and handy one-name labels are bandied about, like the cluckings of so many chickens driven to mindless frenzy at feeding time, afraid we might lose out. The event tags fade into foggy and fickle communal memory, with Oklahoma City, Columbine, West Virginia, Fort Hood, forming a beginningless and endless chain, a railroad of train cars pulled by the engine of time itself, moving slowly but ineluctably backward into the event horizon of history, with Tucson only the most recent to come on line, and no caboose in sight. Becoming mere metaphor.

We blame those who play the blame game, demonstrating that it is impossible to engage without falling into the selfsame trap. Just as committing suicide, while one way to avoid killing others, necessarily involves killing one’s own body, which is also “other.” This is the existential no exit we confront in real existence. Naturally, we long for a way out.

It is wearing and wearying, and we wonder when, if ever, anyone will wake up to the underlying problem that is at the heart of the matter. When asked to define the problem, everyone has an opinion grounded in certainty, and when everyone has a ready-made opinion, all opinions are equal even if contradictory; and so there is no resolution humanly possible. Confronting yet another newspaper column about the disaster du jour, read only the headline, the first sentence, or at most the first paragraph, until a knee-jerk term or phrase defining and demonizing the enemy as them pops up, and we can then safely ignore the rest of the commentary as entirely predictable in its central point; we’ve heard it all before. This saves us a great deal of time, the lonely and sole upside to what passes for journalism. We can always blame the media.

It is easy enough to blame the perpetrator, but we must be careful to say “alleged” perpetrator. Others, usually of a professional or pop psychological bent, will insist that the identified outlaw is not solely to blame but also a victim. And then there will be the usual self-consciously profound and deep analysis that manages to blame the victims. Or the posturing politicos. It is absolutely necessary that we maintain and sustain these diametrically and dialectically opposed pairs. Otherwise, what would we have to say? And once we have sucked all of the melodrama, ratings, ad sales and anguish that can be squeezed out of this particular turnip, not to worry — another will fall off the truck soon. And then we can begin the caucus race all over again, hopefully getting dryer as we run around in the same circle, following our own footsteps.

Meantime we are witness to all manner of calamities of a contrary and downright dispiriting nature, so-called natural disasters, for which it is next to impossible to fix blame directly. In these cases it is more difficult to imagine, or believe, that we can put policies and procedures in place, passing more criminal laws named after the victims, to ensure that this “never happens again,” the palliative nostrum dependably offered up by the identified leadership of the moment. In the case of earthquake or hurricane, we must work harder, do a bit more research, to find the guilty ones, like those who profited from shoddy construction in Haiti, or going even deeper into the receding mists of time, those who now return, like the prodigal son turned savior, the baby docs who would bind up our wounds, and profit again, in turn, though perhaps in the currency of respect, adulation and redemption, rather than in the coin of power and filthy lucre. Or we may turn in our anguish to curse the creator, if we attribute such events to his inscrutable intent. If it is God’s will, then we can also blame God.

The most difficult form of blame to be placed is on the most innocent of the victims themselves, the young people, children, even infants fresh out of the womb, and perhaps thankfully ignorant of what hits them when they are caught in the crossfire of events that no one can explain, and which even the adults involved cannot fathom as to root causes. It helps little to set up the ultimate duality, that of good versus evil in the world, which only serves to exacerbate the situation with the temptation to see us as the good and them as the evil.

In Buddhism, or Zen, good and evil cannot ultimately be separated into actual entities, forces conspiring against one another, as both are flip sides of a concept coin, a mutually defining dual. Like all such manufactured opposites, they suffer from the severe limitation of being subject to the humanity of the person perceiving them. Further — and this is no help with the grief and loss — there is no real innocence in Buddhism. That is, an infant is only marginally more innocent than an adult; their innocence is comprised mainly of ignorance, gradually eroded by socialization. This is the most difficult lesson of all to learn, that even our most cherished loved ones — our children — cannot ultimately be protected from the laws of nature, the accidents of natural disasters, or the predations of the other members of the so-called community of humankind. Of these three threats, the one we would most desperately if optimistically hope to control, as good stewards of our own species, would be the latter; and is reasonably the source of most dimensions of the social contract, law and government. If the people were totally good, there would be little or no need.

Closely associated with the blame game is the notion of fault, as in confessing our own, but more humanly, finding fault with others. Sokei-an, a noted Rinzai Zen priest who settled in New York in the 1930s, caused a great stir when he commented, in a public newspaper column, that those who died in the sinking of the Titanic — the cream of high society at that time — were at least 50% responsible for their own deaths. He later explained, with some prodding we may be sure, that in Buddhism we are responsible for our own life, as it is a result of our own desire to exist. So we are also at least partially responsible for our death, no matter how it comes about. This was not a popular sentiment at the time and would not be now. But it is difficult to refute the logic, without resorting to another primary cause for birth, such as our parents, or God’s will.

So even the most unfortunate and most innocent of victims shares in the responsibility, if not the blame. This does not exonerate the murderer, for example, or those who profit, directly or indirectly, from irresponsible behavior that leads to suffering of others. Karma, the balancing out over time of the yin and yang of opposites, is not a respecter of persons. Nor is it individuated. We share each other’s karma, based partly on proximity, just as we share the atmosphere and water, and other resources necessary to life. But such consequences provide the only true justice.

This teaching from Buddhism is difficult to accept, let alone “fully understand,” as we are told the Buddha instructed regarding dukkha, or the existence of suffering, the first Noble Truth, and its three complements, its origin, cessation and path of daily practice. This first is usually misinterpreted as “life is suffering.” But life, or existence, is everything, not just suffering on the human scale, as human beings interpret it. It is the universal principle of inescapable, constant change, in which human beings are enmeshed, along with all other sentient beings, and even the insentient. When galaxies collide, it is dukkha at work.

The good news from the Zen Buddhist point of view is that these tragic deaths, of human beings or of galaxies, result in rebirth. In fact we may say the death is the rebirth. According to this theory, the only thing that is “laid to rest” at the funeral of the victims in Tucson (another comforting turn of a phrase) is the remains, or ashes, of the person. The one that is reborn — and in the vast majority of cases, there is such a one, again, according to Buddhism — is not the same person as the one that died, and is not a spirit exactly. In fact, neither the one that dies nor the one that is born is properly a person either, in the sense of a separate and distinct entity. But life and death, in Zen, cannot be separated as conventionally understood. What survives is life, but not in the form of a self-existent soul. Heaven and hell exist, but either on earth, or not at all.

In Zen we observe Precepts — as I often say, primarily by breaking them — beginning with Do no harm, the mother of all precepts. In the scathing light of events such as that in Tucson, let alone those in Darfur, it is difficult to see how to avoid the harm done, in that context. It is also difficult to see how all parties to the event, and its aftermath, are to be regarded as not contributing in some wise to the resultant harm, at best unintentionally, or at worst, self-righteously. Actions have consequences, and words count, as we say — so often that the phrases, ironically, have lost their meaning, an unintended consequence, which is by far the largest class of consequences. Zen Precepts are received in order to challenge our innate precepts, which amount to “the unexamined life” not worth living, mere preconceptions, or opinions.

The sixth and seventh of the Ten Grave Precepts, the first two that demark the separation between an Initiate of Zen and a Disciple entering upon the path to priesthood, go to this point of finding fault, a form of placing blame:

See only your own faults — Do not discuss the faults of others

Know self and other as one — Do not praise yourself at others’ expense

That these are the first two additional Precepts defining a more serious commitment to Zen practice illustrates the social nature of the role of the Disciple or Priest of Zen Buddhism. We are entering into a service to community (sangha) that emphasizes the interdependently co-arising of society. Seeing our own faults is necessary in order not to praise ourselves, which is always at the expense of others. Knowing self and other as one, somehow — without denying the obvious differences — makes it impossible to see the faults of others as theirs alone. As Master Dogen is said to have pointed out, in his revered position of teacher, “If I make a mistake, it is my fault; if you make a mistake, it is my fault.” This is wisdom to which all teachers might aspire.

If we take this attitude to its logical conclusion, it brings us to a not-very-satisfactory conclusion. The incident in Tucson is my fault. Others there, whom I don’t even know, committed grievous errors. And yet, it is my fault. If it is not my fault, then I cannot learn from it. Monks in Vietnam who understood this point immolated themselves, helping to bring that holocaust to an end.

Likewise, unless we are all able to see clearly that the suffering in this world — especially the unnatural, unnecessary suffering inflicted by us upon others and upon ourselves, is our fault — we can never come to fully understand the natural suffering that is intrinsic to existence itself. If we do come to see and accept this suffering as built-in, then we can forgive each other our inability to cope very gracefully with it. If all come to forgive reality and themselves for this universal attribute, then it will be easy to forgive others for failing to. Those of us of a deistic persuasion, for or against, may even come forgive even God, for creating this unholy mess. Then for the first time in history the possibility of peace on earth may become a reality, and we will all find ourselves standing in the promised land. Dr. King and all the other martyrs will be there with us.