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DOCTORS AND DEATH

I am writing in response to the special section on euthanasia (Winter Issue). I write from the perspective of a physician as well as a Buddhist practitioner. There seems a tenor to the arguments, both in the general media and also in the recent Tricycle issue, that I would like to address from these perspectives. It seems that euthanasia is discussed in almost consumer-driven terms. The patient is demanding the right for full self-determination of his or her time of death. The physician is then put in the place of deciding which patients are suffering enough to benefit by having their lives ended in an artificial way. This has nothing to do with pain relief or other necessities of nursing and medical care. From the physician’s perspective, it seems impossible to be placed in the position of attempting to objectify what is adequate suffering to allow one person to die and what is insufficient to participate in an active death of another. From the perspective of a Buddhist practitioner, relieving suffering is certainly a noble concept but, at the same time, suffering is a natural part of human existence. To be granted the notion that if that reality somehow becomes too much for us, we can turn it off or transcend it in an artificial way by ending Our lives, seems to violate the Buddhist notion of the first noble truth. It seems to speak to a spiritual materialism that robs us of our relationship with death itself. To allow some patients but not others to exactly determine the mode of their exit seems to me to speak to the moral and spiritual bankruptcy in our civilization. While proponents of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are, for the most part, well-intentioned, loving, and caring individuals, the core of their argument seems to be a running away from the true experience of human existence.

David H. Shapiro, M.D.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

 

PRO-LIFE

In the last few issues of your review, much cleverness has been spent obscuring something obvious: opposition to abortion flows directly from Buddha’s teaching, namely, the rejection of killing as a means of solving personal or social problems, the emphasis on the incalculable value of a human incarnation, and the teaching of compassion for all sentient beings.

In the Sutta Nipata, the Buddha teaches that “Just as a mother at the risk of her life loves and protects her child” so we must extend our protection to all living beings “without exception,” including the small, the frail, the invisible, “those that are here, those seeking to exist.” In the Jataka tale of the Banyon King, the Buddha declares that killing a fetus is exactly as serious as killing an adult.

Four thousand fetuses are killed each day in this country; in the four hundred second-trimester abortions daily the unborn child is often dismembered in the womb to preclude live birth. The Buddha, who fought to put a stop to animal sacrifices, would surely have considered this an appalling injustice. There can be no question that the Buddha would have concurred in Mother Theresa’s assessment of abortion on demand: “When it becomes permissible for a mother to kill her child, all is lost.” Nor can there be a question as to what we must do if socially engaged Buddhism is to be more than a series of fashionable moral postures.

Buddhism is pro-life.
 

Judith Crane and Jim Stone
Philosophy Department
The University of New Orleans
New Orleans, Louisiana

 

PRACTICE VS. PRESTIGE

I’ve been a feminist activist for twenty years and a Buddhist lay practitioner for five, but I found both the feminism and Buddhism in Rita Gross’ article “Buddhism after Patriarchy” (Winter Issue) unrecognizable. My understanding and experience of Buddhism tell me that “sacred” and “mundane” are illusionary distinctions, and that practice is a matter of how I use my mind, not what I do. Working in the monastery garden or my own, sitting sesshin or taking care of a child can all be practice, if I make them practice. Feminism has taught me to see my preconceptions of people based on sex, race, nationality, and so on, and to try not to let them stand in the way of what I think people can do or be.

Rita Gross begins her article by saying that, “maintaining one’s livelihood and taking care of one’s environment and family needs to be accepted as an alternative that is not inferior to monasticism.” Her real concern seems to be with the relative status of monastic and lay practice. She assumes that lay practice is female and monastic practice is male, and understands what she perceives as the lower status of lay practice as the result of the devaluation of anything that is primarily done by women in a sexist society. This is a standard feminist analysis of the status differential between male and female work within patriarchies, and I agree with the analysis. However I do not understand how lay practice can be considered female and monastic practice male, especially in this country at this time. This is an unspoken assumption in Ms. Gross’ article, and she presents no information or argument to support it. In my experience both men and women are both monks and lay practitioners (and teachers) in this country.

Beyond that, why should we be concerned with the relative prestige of monks and lay practitioners at all? Does a seat closer to the altar bring us closer to realization? What was Buddha’s status when he realized himself? In discussing this, Rita Gross mentions neither responsibility nor priorities, which seem central to the difference between monks and lay practitioners. Monks put aside the responsibilities and security of family and career and make their first priority practice and their first responsibility the good of the dharma and sangha. Lay practitioners put worldly priorities and responsibilities first and pursue theIr practice within that context. If some people believe monastic practice has more status than lay practice perhaps it is because they think it involves a higher level of commitment.

Personally, I find that the things which stand in the way of my practice are internal. I am grateful for the opportunities for lay practice in this country, including endless sesshins and retreats, lay lineages like Aitken Roshi’s, and the seriousness with which my practice has been taken by my own teacher and others.

Linda Futai Peer
Phoenicia, New York

NOTE: Tricycle has received a number of letters regarding Keith Dowman’s article “Himalayan Intrigue: The Search for the New Karmapa,” which appeared in the last issue. At this time. Mr. Dowman, who lives in Kathmandu, has not yet had a chance to respond. Letters relating to this article will be published in the next issue. -Ed.

THE CASE FOR BUDDHIST AGNOSTICISM

Stephen Batchelor’s article on “Buddhist Agnosticism” (Fall Issue) provided a truly welcome relief. As an ex-seminarian, I have no desire to replace Catholic doctrine with Buddhist. Aren’t beliefs such as reincarnation and heaven and hell largely “convenient explanations,” a way to numb the terror of confronting the unknown?

Attempts to explain away this mystery too often separate us from direct experience, and create an illusory manageability. But life is not manageable, and here rises the age-old need for liberation. Explanations that seek to contain the ultimate mystery of existence, it seems to me, are vain attempts to escape the suffering described by the Buddha as the central aspect of incarnated existence.

William Larsen
Grass Valley, California

 

DHARMA DANCING

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This letter is written on behalf of Sujata and Asoka Rubener. They were happy to see their friends Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn featured in the Winter Issue.

Sujata and Asoka are in the same category of dance and I enclose a few of many hundreds of photographs. These, by the way, included Tibetan dances taught to Asoka by Lama Govinda.

Felicitas von Ostau
Sedona, Arizona

 

SELLING BUDDHISM

At the risk of belaboring a previously discussed topic, may I add my voice to the debate over the use of Tibetan monks in an advertisement for Apple’s Powerbook laptop computer.

In your Winter 1992 Letters section, you stated in an editor’s note that “the exploitation of Buddhist imagery in commercial advertising (is) . . . cause for concern. “

Seeing Buddhist imagery in a Madison Avenue product isn’t necessarily cause for calling out the morality police. It could help more than it hurts.

One Tibetan Buddhist teacher I know advised students to display images of the buddhas and bodhisattvas at their place of business. The images, the lama said, would be subtly attractive to the customers, who would then be connected with the dharma.

Personally, I rejoice when I see Buddhist imagery anywhere, because the Buddha operates on many levels. Even the opening scene of the fanciful Eddie Murphy movie “The Golden Child” had benefit, because millions of theatergoers were exposed to the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, recited earnestly by red-robed extras on a Hollywood soundstage. Kalu Rinpoche once said that hearing the Mani mantra even one time would connect beings to the compassionate Chenrezig.

So, until monks and nuns start making multi-million-dollar product endorsement deals for personal gain, I’ll hold back judgment on such “exploitation,” thank you. I would rather see a familiar face and be reminded of who and what I really am than see Mickey Mouse or Michael Jordan selling products to America.

Kathy Wesley
Karme Ling Retreat Center
Upstate, New York

 

FANFARE

Just finished reading the Winter 1992 Tricycle. Most hearty thanks, this issue is outstanding.

The article by H. H. the Dalai Lama was superb: the text and commentary are marvelous teaching, and the editor did an outstanding job in condensing and presenting the material in so readable and flowing a form.

The “Himalayan Intrigue” article also was riveting though very sad. You will probably get much flak because of it, but I, for one, am extremely grateful for it and hope that if similar situations arise in the future you will continue to print this type of article.

The section on “Buddhism and Euthanasia” too was remarkably good. The parts standing alone as well as reflecting off of one another made the section alive. Simone de Beauvoir’s piece was just wonderful. I felt particularly close to the interview with Stephen Levine. There was much experience, care, and delicacy in his voice. So many other articles stood out. The one on the Nichiren Shoshu, Pico Iyer’s, and Rick Fields’ articlehad a wonderful touch of magic. Rita Gross’ article I found important, thought-provoking, and careful. The book reviews by Joanna Macy, William LaFleur, and Dean Rolston were terrific.

Stuart Lachs
New York, New York

I’m afraid to analyze things too much—I might find something wrong, you know? I don’t know if I’m a Buddhist or not. I wonder if “being” anything is akin to the words in an old Edgar Winter song: “You’re cool when you don’t know it—when you know it then you ain’t.” Maybe if you don’t know you’re Buddhist then you are, and if you know you are then you ain’t. I don’t know. Too much analysis.

I sure like your magazine. It’s really got class. When I get it in the mailbox, I feel like I’m part of something—like I’m somebody. Like when Steve Martin got his new phone book and then he was somebody.

Vance Stevens
Laurel, Montana

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“Samsara for Lease,” 1993 photograph by Diane Rosenstein

GENOME BUDDHA
I would like to respond to “The Science of Compassion,” by Jeffrey Zaleski in the Winter Issue. Many Buddhist teachings point to some quality of our existence as it is, and say, “This is it! This very body is the body of the Buddha. This very mind is the pure mind of the Buddha.” We might find this somewhat difficult to accept, but if you reflect on something as miraculous as the structure and function of chromosomes—which are present not only in the human genome, but in all the so-called biological realms—you might accept that the very foundation of our “composite” existence is subtly and wonderfully pure. They function in a realm which we call form because we can describe its morphology, but which we cannot grasp, like the rainbow.

I don’t believe that there is any quality of the genome itself which denies or restricts the possibilities of our Buddha-nature.

Ultimately, I believe there is no gap at all between chromosomes and compassion or science and compassion. The enlightened state of mind, which is the background of all phenomena, provides the fuel for intellectual speculation in the same way that the sun is the first source of all chemical bonds in nature that provide energy for life.

Biological science does not hinder my understanding of Buddha’s teachings. However, how any scientist can come to a full understanding of the subject he or she studies without the teachings of the Buddha, I don’t know.

I’m reminded of Dogen Zenji, the Soto Zen Patriarch, who wrote in the thirteenth century, “That we move ourselves and understand all things is ignorance. That things advance and understand themselves is enlightenment.”

Rinchen David Stopher
Alpine, Texas

I am grateful to Jeffrey Zaleski for his insightful observations relating my field of sociobiology to certain fundamental issues in Buddhism. I must take issue with some of his points, however. First, it is—fortunately—not true that “Each of us shares no genes with the vast majority of humanity, much less with the rest of sentient life.” Population geneticists have demonstrated that we share about ninety percent of our genome with chimpanzees, and at least ninety-eight percent with other human beings, even those not in any way countable as our “relatives.” The basic mechanics of cell function are identical in virtually all animals which leads in turn to genetic identity at the overwhelming majority of chromosomal “loci.” The biology of altruism to which Mr. Zaleski refers depends for its cogency on the one percent or so of human genes which we do not share.

Second, behavioral tendencies—even if “biological”—only rarely lead immutably to social results. As I emphasized in The Whisperings Within (Harper & Row) from which Mr. Zaleski kindly quotes, our genes are not tyrants. They do not command, or shout. It can be misleading, moreover, to interpret genetic predispositions as fixed especially among Homo Sapiens, the most adaptable of living things. To be sure, cultural tradition often distorts biological inclinations, a process that in a subsequent book (The Hare and the Tortoise) I labeled “cultural hyperextension.”

Finally, Mr. Zaleski imagines “the double helixes of my DNA coiling through my cells, chaining my aspiration for compassion to the inexorable fact of my genetic inheritance as certianly as gravity chains me to the earth.” The crucial question for Buddhists—as indeed for anyone else—is not whether we are innately compassionate, with the implication that if we are not, all is lost. Rather, it is, How shall we live? If our “natural” inclinations were all good and worth following, or if they were incapable of modification, there would be little call for teachings and teachers, or for extended periods of training and study. Gravity is an inexorable law, but the simple fact that things fall down does not mean that we cannot build.

David P. Barash
Redmond, Washington

A couple of thoughts about science and compassion. First, the closer science intrudes on subjects that are ruled by emotions, the hotter things get: I doubt anybody got too excited when mathematicans proved the impossibility of squaring the circle. But with physics and astronomy—supposedly neutral subjects—the temperature starts to rise Gust ask Copernicus). And by the time we get to Darwin, Freud—and Richard Dawkin’s book, “The Selfish Gene”—we’ve got an existential free-for-all.

And second: how would our modern thinkers think if they lived in the optimistic atmosphere of, say, the Renaissance? Let me pick on Dawkins again: how would he view science and compassion if he had the realization of Shakyamuni Buddha or the Dalai Lama?

David Dixon
Indianapolis, Indiana

 

Jeffrey Zaleski Responds:

Strictly speaking, David Barash is correct about the near universality of the genome. I meant my statement about gene-sharing in the colloquial sense, in the way that allowed the straw man of my article, Richard Dawkins, to write in The Selfish Gene that “Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes which is anyone of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth Il is a direct descendent of William the Conquerer. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a simgle one of the old king ‘s genes. “

Mr. Barash’s other points, and those raised by David Dixon and Rinchen David Stopher, are also well taken—particularly the latter’s comment that a scientist can come to a full understanding of his or her subject only by examining it in the glow of enlightened teaching. Indeed, that was the basic point of my article. I wrote about the science of compassion, but the law surely must apply to every inquiry based solely on logic and relative empiricism: that the “existential free-for-all” of which Mr. Dixon speaks will necessarily ensue, absent the insight of wisdom mind.

 

EXPLANATION REQUIRED

One day my friend and I cruised into his favorite avant-garde bookstore/cafe, and lo and behold, Tricycle: The BUDDHIST Review jumped out to me and practically knocked me off my feet.

I thought I had a gold mine in my hands, but it seems I’m not “into” Buddhism enough. I have no idea what you are talking about! I put aside the last three issues and made myself read them. In the Fall 1992 issue, the only story I liked was Stephen Batchelor’s “Rebirth” (it was in English). Please, I’m trying to understand. For example, you talk of samsara, sangha, dharma—I know those are basics, but why can’t you have explanations for them?

Joan Tsatsonis
Fairhaven, Massachusetts

Tricycle Responds:

We do appreciate your frustration but we’re doing our best to accommodate the needs of a wide range of readers. We try to provide parenthetical definitions of unfamiliar terms and are now considering the inclusion of a glossary. -Ed.

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