24 May 2012

A World of Wounds

I oftentimes find myself musing over the words of the great American ecologist, Aldo Leopold:
One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.  Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.  An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.
Leopold limits himself here to ecological matters, but the alternatives presented appear to be the same for anyone who discerns suffering in any context: batten the hatches and leave the suffering to itself or go out and try to fix it, despite any and all resistance.

But maybe things aren't so either/or.

The first duty of a Buddhist is to discern suffering.  The second duty is to find its causes.  The third is to realize that non-suffering is real.  The fourth is to do what it takes to make non-suffering real. So far, so good.

But "making non-suffering real" has never in the tradition been equated with "eliminating the conditions that give rise to suffering," at least not as far as I can tell.

What's the difference?

"Making non-suffering real" is achievable any time, any place.  I used to think Thich Nhat Hanh's line, "If you want peace, peace is with you immediately," was borderline hooey, simplistic Dharma drivel.  Now I find that I understand, in however small a measure, what he means when he says that, and he's right.  "Making non-suffering real" does not depend on anything at all except one's mindstate.  "Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes," is Hakuin's phrasing of the matter.

"Eliminating the conditions that give rise to suffering," however, is not so immediately attainable.  It means selecting out of the many, many variables in play at a given time which ones to remove and which ones to encourage in the hopes of creating a specific outcome.  In the process, further suffering, however unintended, will no doubt emerge as conditions pitch and fade.  The outcome is uncertain, and the means to achieve it are oftentimes draconian.  Like a kaleidoscope, the picture may change, but the pieces haven't gone anywhere. There is no success at this kind of game.

So somewhere between hardening the shell and making things different is the Middle Way of neither clinging nor rejecting.  To tell the truth, I don't know what that looks like.  I would even go so far as to say it can't be represented or described.  That doesn't make for great reading, but it does make for the sane navigation of life's course.

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