I recently had a long and animated conversation with several friends about politics. It’s the kind of discussion I usually enjoy—a small gathering of thoughtful, knowledgeable friends chatting about things we care deeply about. Yet as much as I enjoyed this conversation, there was something about it that left me uneasy. It also occurred to me that this was a familiar feeling, one I’d rarely given much thought to.
When I considered it afterward, something another friend once said came to mind. Although we tend to believe that we arrive at the endpoints of our thinking by putting together an array of facts, ideas, experiences, and so forth, it may more often be the case that things move in just the opposite direction. We start with what we already think is true and work backward from there, lining up our perceptions with what we thought to be true in the first place. That explained the familiar unease, the sense of being stuck. Working backward from the views we already hold, we come away unchanged. There is something stale in that.
In putting together this issue, I came up against this tendency in myself more than once. For example, I am by temper often pessimistic and sometimes even complacent in my gloom. In particular, when it comes to the overriding issue of climate change and looming ecological doom, I veer toward hopelessness, and I am skeptical of those I view as optimists. But reading Paul Hawken’s new book, Regeneration, forced me to rethink my attitude. Hawken writes, for instance, that “climate science now indicates that global warming would begin to recede after we achieve zero carbon emissions,” which ran counter to my understanding that the climate will warm well beyond that point. I don’t mean that Paul Hawken is offering an optimistic view to challenge my pessimism. Rather, his grasp of and ability to articulate the complexities and possibilities we face shook me out of my simplistic thinking, framed within the limiting spectrum of pessimism and optimism. Get rid of that and there is room to breathe and think, and, most importantly, to act.
Another way of understanding our tendency to remain stuck is attachment to view, and Jim Forest’s memories of life with Thich Nhat Hanh offered another opportunity to challenge my own assumptions. While Thich Nhat Hanh is now best known for his teachings on mindfulness, peace, and interbeing, maybe less known or appreciated is his full-throated critique of ideologies of all sorts, including Buddhist ones. Jim recounts as an illustration the explanation given by Nhat Hanh of the injunction to “kill the Buddha”—Linji Yixuan’s antidote to a complacent attachment to even the teachings. Although nonattachment to view is a consistent theme in Buddhism, it is perhaps not surprising that a teacher who witnessed so much violence and misery caused by ideological conflict would place such emphasis on that. So much, in fact, that when he formed a new order, the first three precepts focused not on the familiar injunctions to refrain from killing, stealing, or indulging the senses, but rather on not falling into the traps of ideological attachments of any kind.
Like many others I’m in touch with, I’ve been thinking about what Buddhism has to bring to the table for living in our polarized world. It could be Buddhism’s history of affirming what it regards as our most deeply held values while at the same time calling into question our attachment to their formulations. When I consider this, my gloomy complacency loses some of its appeal. I come away a bit lighter—and even optimistic.
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