Quarrels — Defending Oneself

I had a moment last week when someone misinterpreted my behavior by interpreting it as driven by the worst of intentions. When I tried to explain, my explanation was batted away, and the person doubled down. It was very frustrating, and furthermore, this was done in a small space at work, so several other people overheard, and I was effectively publicly shamed (albeit on a small scale).

Even though I practice meditation, Buddhism, and study wisdom and skillful action regularly, this was a very difficult challenge for me to deal with — when feeling personally attacked, ideas of “who I am”, our ego, become activated, and we feel pressed to defend them. It’s an automatic fuse for an explosive reaction, and it’s very hard to defuse this and act mindfully. One may try to stop the ticking of these long-evolved self-defense mechanisms by stopping and creating logical rationales: “That doesn’t matter. I don’t know these people. I don’t care what she thinks about me. Etc…” These act as a stop-gap though. They may slow down the feelings a bit, but ultimately, the scenes and feelings of personal shaming, of the need to save face, can replay over and over again, on automatic. This is a perfect example of how clinging is at the root of samsara, how endemic it is to our day to day, and how it requires a strong dedication to the various aspects of the eightfold path to let go.

In the end, a day later, thinking of an example from Buddhist lore and reading a favorite passage in The Dhammapada allowed me to let go and see things without attachment.

The first is a famous story of a Zen monk from the feudal ages of Japan, Hakuin. He ran the local temple and was revered by the community. One day, a young, single woman gave birth to a baby, and she claimed that the monk was the father and took the baby to him. He accepted the baby with a flat expression on his face and said: “Is that so?”. He took care of the baby and didn’t respond to the public’s expressed disgust at his misconduct of having fathered a child while a monk — he lost his disciples and his reputation, but he took care and joy in raising the child. After some time, the mother confessed to her parents, explaining that Hakuin had not fathered the child. They went to him, apologized, and asked for the child back. Despite loving the child as his own, Hakuin gave the child back with a flat expression and the words: “Is that so?”

Hakuin is claimed to have written some famous koans, and is a revered ancestor in the Zen tradition. You can read a much more insightful and fuller description of this story here, if you find this interesting. The point is that things arise as they do, and the path of wisdom is to adapt to them, responsively, rather than reacting to them out of the defensive clinging of trying to avoid them. This is the Buddha’s way, and also, it fits with the wu wei of Taoism, which is fused into the traditions of Chan and its child, Zen, as well.

Furthermore, note the greatest gift in this story: the potential for this kind of insight is in the messy, drama-laden lives we’re already in the middle of everyday. Our practice is fueled by the surprises and circumstances that come from living in a world full of other sentient beings, all laden with their own problems and reactions. They provide the opportunity for us to exercise wise action at every turn. As another passage from the Lotus Sutra is broken down by Dogen Zenji: the Buddha lives in a burning house — i.e. nirvana is right here in the middle of everything we think we’re escaping by pursuing a practice of wisdom. It’s not separate — not two.


The passage from The Dhammapada that brought a refocusing of mind was:

Hatred never ends through hatred,
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.
Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.
–trans. Fronsdal (verses 5-6)

As a way to elucidate this, I compare this almost automatically in my mind to Stoicism which emphasizes that we’re all here very briefly, and that the only thing we can control is our own minds, as difficult as that might be. If one can see, even for a second, how transitory, how ephemeral, how impermanent you and your life is, then slights like this fall away as nothing, as moments of confusion. Only in that letting go of the reaction from something greater — from a position of realization above and beyond it, rather than reasons utilized as a sort of mental counter-force, violence against violence — can these automatic reactions be dispelled. Only wisdom deeply realized, at an emotional level, dispels this kind of confusion, and words like this do that for me. Quarrels driven by ego are actions of the mind enwrapped in ignorance, a potent possibility for all of us that requires the constant practice of presence to see past. As one take of Dogen has it: delusion and enlightenment are two foci of experience. We can always pursue enlightenment, actualize it, but by so-doing, we do not leave behind our human delusion: another instance when we might bring forth the idea of a chiasm — not two.

May this help others let go of those reactions they automatically generate and cling to.


Note: I posted this quote in my last post too, and both of these have left me wanting to read The Dhammapada again. I started today and will try to write posts about each chapter in the text, as my previous posts on the book have been some of my most popular (and rightfully so for the fact that it’s such a wise book of the Buddha’s wisdom, not because of my own problematic attempts to explain it) — I hope to improve on those this time.


Letting Go and Generosity: Some Tales of Buddhist Ancestors

I’ve recently finished a wonderful book by Lama Surya Das called Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be. Just before the ending of the book, he shares a couple of tales about Buddhist ancestors, letting go, and generosity. I’d like to share this passage. I’ll also write another post related to the closing chapter of the book as it fits well with some of the difficulties of growth and healing that I have been going through recently.

Patrul Rinpoche’s life exemplified generosity; whenever he was given money or offerings, he quickly handed them over to others, giving generously to the poor and the homeless. It is said that there was little that Patrul Rinpoche loved more than being able to give to others. A favorite story my teachers told concerns a man who approached the learned teacher and begged him for some money.
“Oh my poor friend,” Patrul said. “Just say to me, I don’t need any money, and I will give you some.”
The beggar thought that he had been misunderstood, so he repeated his request for money. Once again Patrul answered, “Just say to me, I don’t need any money, and I will give you some.”
Finally the man uttered the sentence Patrul had been requesting. “I don’t need any money,” he said. Patrul in turn rewarded him with a handful of silver coins.
Then Patrul told the beggar the following story about Lord Buddha.
It seems that one day as the Buddha traveled through India, a poor man came up to him and gave the Buddha the only gift he had, a single piece of milk sugar candy. As the Buddha was looking at the candy and wondering what to do with it, another man, known for his greedy inclinations, saw the candy in Buddha’s hand and asked if he could have it. The man, of course, knew that the generous Buddha never said “no” to such a request.
The man was quite surprised when the Buddha did not immediately hand over the candy. Instead the Buddha spoke to the man, saying:
“Just say to me, I don’t need this milk sweet. And then I shall give it to you.”
The man did as the Buddha requested, and he got the candy which he promptly popped into his mouth.
Later the Buddha’s disciples asked the Buddha why he wanted the man to say these words.
“Because,” the Buddha replied, “through hundreds of lifetimes this man has never even once said the words, I don’t need. By saying these few simple words, he may have momentarily experienced the feeling of needing nothing. These words undermine greed and may help plant the seeds of generosity.”


I don’t need any candy…

Padma Sambhava, the great Indian master who introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century, told his disciples that when asked, they should say, “I don’t know, I don’t want, I don’t need.” I try to remember that.
This is a lesson in nonattachment and acceptance. It is a lesson in learning to love unconditionally without expecting results, rewards, or payments of any kind. It may feel counterintuitive, but acceptance does have a transformative effect. Nonattachment and acceptance have their own magic and can transform anything. Letting go is the ultimate act of generosity and faith. And every good deed is a gift to both giver and recipient.
– pp. 209-210 Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be, Lama Surya Das

Try it yourself. Say: “I don’t need …” and let the attachment slip away. An even better practice: give away some small thing (you can work up to bigger things later) that you feel attached to. Give it to someone who would be happy to have it. This is a very mindful experience of attachment and its hooks. If you can do this and say to yourself I don’t need this, you’ll find the peace of liberation after the pangs of attachment pass.

May this inspire your own ability to let go and to be generous to others.