When “Friendships” Are Merely Factions…

Nobody knows you when you’re down and out
In your pocket not one penny,
And your friends, well you haven’t any
Soon as you get on your feet again,
Then you’ll meet your long lost friend
It’s mighty strange, without a doubt
Nobody knows you when you’re down and out
I mean when you’re down and out.

-Lyrics by Jimmy Cox
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I’ve made no secret of the fact that I consider friendship to be a rarity. I have “Facebook Friends” with whom I’ve never spoken, and others with whom I have spoken, but except for an occasional [like] or comment, that’s as far as our “relationships” go. I consider most people to be acquaintances. This does not mean that I do not aim to value and respect everyone. I just understand that friendship goes much deeper than mere acquaintance. The result is that I have come to know the value and beauty of people who play a demonstrative and interactive part in my day-to-day existence, and I in theirs, even if we do not physically interact every day. In just the past few days, I can honestly say that without two of my closest friends, I would not have been able to achieve a recent, life-changing goal. And for that, and them, I am so grateful! The Buddha said that a good spiritual friend is “all of the holy life”; yet, if we cannot find a true friend, it is better to walk alone…

Some time ago, I  relocated to a new city where I knew no one. I soon became involved in a volunteer project in my apartment building and found myself working consistently with “Donna.” We discovered that we had much in common and could discuss almost anything. Her best friend, “Beth,” lived nearby, and she and I got along swimmingly, as well. Then, one day, I noticed that Donna and Beth would pass each other in the hallway of our building without so much as glancing at each other. Donna told me that Beth had stopped speaking to her for “no reason at all.” She showed me a “snippy little text” that Beth had sent her, went on for several minutes about all Beth’s negative qualities, then said, “F**k her! Who needs her!”

The next day I saw Beth in the hallway, I wished her good morning and asked how she was doing. She seemed shocked that I had spoken, but then smiled and we engaged in a few minutes of pleasant chit-chat. Later that day, Donna, Beth and I converged in the foyer of our building, and again, to the obvious surprise of Donna, I said “hey!” to Beth. It had not occurred to me that based on what Donna had told me about Beth, that I, too, should stop speaking to Beth. It’s not that I’m such a great person, but rather that I considered it their fight, not mine. Additionally, if you add our ages together, the sum is just a bit over 175. So, I’d gotten over the whole junior-high-schoolyard-faction thing years ago, baby…

This situation went on for three weeks until Donna got angry at me for dropping out of the volunteer project and we stopped speaking to each other. Immediately, Beth started speaking to Donna, and they were, once again, best friends. Then, the next time I saw Beth, with whom I had never stopped speaking, I said, “Good morning!” and she did not respond. Giving her the benefit of a doubt, I assumed she had not heard me and again spoke to her later in the day. Again, she did not respond. Another woman told me that I should keep speaking to Beth and “force” her to say hello. Instead, I chose to stop speaking, as well, because I do not believe in trying to force anyone to do anything. I also understood that I was dealing with people who consider friendships to be “factions.”

The primary definition of “faction” is “a group of people in an organization working in a common cause against the main body.” For Donna and Beth, I had become the “main body.” Also, due to my prior experience with Donna, I knew that she was probably now referring to me as a “b**ch,” and complaining about all my little annoying habits, imperfections, and fatal flaws. I’m thinking about this as I read the book, Divergent. If you don’t know the story, it’s a fascinating and disturbing piece of fiction about a society comprised of factions much more pronounced than we have yet to experience.

Remember Denzel Washington’s role as the attorney in the movie, Philadelphia? Whenever he wanted to understand something, well, he’d say, “Explain this to me like I’m a two-year-old.” Well, dear reader, I’ve got some bad news for you. Explaining this to you like you’re a two-year-old is not what I’m about to do because I don’t quite get it myself. I do understand how a man might stop speaking to his wife’s friend after she stops speaking to her. He doesn’t want to find himself “cut off” for several weeks or months… But in general, why would all, or most, of this woman’s grown-ass friends stop speaking to the object of her disaffection, as well? And mind you, I’m talking about adult women, not junior high girls. That, I get.

If I have a choice, I don’t let others make up my mind for me. If a conversation takes place between two people, and I was not anywhere in the vicinity, or one of those two people conversing with each other, the only thing I can “assume” is that I don’t know what happened, or what was said. Also, if I have an ounce of intelligence, I know that when someone is angry with someone else, they will often try to make the object of their anger look wrong, stupid, or unworthy, and expect their “friends” to support them. And with reference to the Noble Eightfold Path, this violates Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Effort, and Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration i.e., like, all but one step on the Path…

Obviously, there are exceptions. The object of someone’s anger could be a former abuser; a well-known busybody; or someone who has established him- or herself to be insane, a criminal, or dangerous in some other way. I “get” that. What I don’t get is why people shun others for no other reason than that of being told that they should do so… Even in our courts of law, which often fail miserably, a person is supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Perhaps besides criminal and civil courts, we need “friendship” courts…

Though we may not all believe in karma, we do all believe in “seed technology,” the theory that if one plants a certain type of seed, given the right conditions, a certain type of plant will grow. If we plant a seed of hate or discord, and the tree thrives, we might find ourselves freezing to death in its shade. And even if we, ourselves, do not plant that seed, we share responsibility for “watering” it. Forming factions is divisive, dangerous, and just plain childish; and any friendship based on faction-forming is a fatally-flawed encounter, not a friendship. The wise understand that everyone comes into their lives to teach them something. Some of those people will stay; others are just passing through. In Buddha’s Little Instruction Book, by Jack Kornfield, he says (in a quotation often erroneously attributed to The Buddha):

Imagine that every person in the world is enlightened but you. They are all your teachers, each doing just the right things to help you learn perfect patience, perfect wisdom, perfect compassion.

If we can remember this, we have less of the feeling that our lives are constantly under siege. We can even feel thankful for the opportunity to progress in our practices.We will be less likely to say, “S/he makes me so angry,” and more likely to realize that we, instead, often allow ourselves to become angry. Personally, it is the people who have “hurt” me most that have shown me my own large-scale weaknesses and foibles. Additionally, people who already know this “secret” have an option for dealing with their so-called “enemies.” They  can choose to take a close look at themselves before running out and seeking to recruit all their “friends” into committing a “hate crime” in support of their own overblown egos and hurt feelings.

Today, I will remember that just as “friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” friends do not require each other to take on the added burden of another’s hate or insecurity…

Namaste.

May You Grow Two More Legs and Always Be Close to the Ground…

Recently, as I rode the bus, I observed a most delightful sight. A small dog, a Maltese, to be exact, was quickly scampering across the surface of an icy parking lot, pulling behind him a thin boy of no more than seven years of age, and perhaps, sixty pounds. The dog looked like it was having the time of its life, and the boy, if not being pulled, was also running with no obvious concern for falling. The Maltese is a small dog and quite low to the ground. Its average weight is around five to seven pounds, with a height of about six to eight inches.

As a middle-aged woman living in a climate where winters last about four to five months with lots of snow, and the cold can be bitter and prolonged, I spend quite a bit of time trying  not  to fall. Despite my ascending age, my imagination remains quite vivid, and I am constantly involved in making connections. “Making connections” is my definition for ‘learning.’

So, it didn’t take long for me to put myself in that young boy’s place, imagining how different the picture would have been had it been I walking that dog. First, I wouldn’t have been dragged anywhere; and second, if the dog had been larger, and I had the potential for being dragged, I would have definitely been fearful, being much taller than that boy, of falling. Walking on only two legs and being over five feet tall, I’d have much farther to fall to the ground than that little boy or the dog.

Then, I thought of that tiny dog’s obvious joy in being outside, scampering fairly free, with no fear of falling. It literally had nowhere to go even if its legs went out from under it! And then I thought of the “four legs” of the joy of a Buddhist’s life: the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Working to live by, and meditate on, these Four Noble Truths can help us to remain grounded and less likely to fall by constantly reminding us that not only are we not as “tall” as we think, but also that should we find ourselves “sliding” on the icy pavement of circumstance, there is a sure way to regain our footing. They remind us that suffering is part of living and that we are not alone in this suffering.

There are many renderings of The Four Noble Truths. Two of my favorites are:

  1. Life brings suffering;
  2. That suffering is a part of living;
  3. That suffering can be ended;
  4. There is a path that leads to the end of suffering.

I’m currently searching for where I found the above rendering, and hope to soon post the authorship/location.

The second rending appears on the Website, Buddhaweb.org, under the title  Essentials of Buddhism:

  1. Suffering exists;
  2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires;
  3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases;
  4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing The [Noble] Eightfold Path.

These Four Noble Truths are difficult for many to accept because the implication is that we cannot simply pray to ‘God’ to take our suffering away, or expect to live a life free of suffering, immediately and easily. I was once a practicing Christian. And before I continue, I must say that I know many Christians who take great comfort in their faith and much joy in sharing it. So, if this works for them, I am happy for them. It’s just that one day, when praying to God to make something a certain way for me, I realized that if “He” did so, it would be at the expense, happiness, and possibly even safety of others. I wondered how ‘God’ answered every good person’s prayer fairly, justly, and to everyone’s satisfaction — at the same time. I also came to the conclusion that for me, it was not “enough” for me to simply say, “It was not God’s will” when something did not go my way. I was also disheartened and dissatisfied with the idea that, sometimes, our lives simply have to be miserable, and we must just deal with it because, in the “great by-and-by,” we will one day be happy forever. This is how slaves were taught to deal with their misery. “God will reward you after you die.” The Buddha said that we can be happy in this life. This life.

This is why, today, I wish for everyone to grow two more legs and always live life, joyously, and without fear, like that Maltese —  ‘close to the ground.’

Namaste.

 

 

Soka Gakkai: Nichiren Buddhism’s Purported Cult…

There are three main branches of Nichiren Buddhism: Nichiren Shu; Nichiren Shoshu; and Soka Gakkai International. I am intimately familiar with the Soka Gakkai International (in the U.S. known as SGI-USA), but only marginally familiar with the other two branches.

Soka Gakkai is the best known of the three schools, and has been heralded as everything from “The Answer,” to a cult. The “president” of Soka Gakkai (SGI), Daisaku Ikeda, is, perhaps, the primary reason for SGI’s reputation of being somewhat “cultish,” but that’s only because Nichiren Shonin, himself, was a do-it-yourself separatist who taught that enlightenment was more than a distinct possibility, within  this, one   lifetime, simply by chanting “Daimoku,” and of course, living a good life. And did I mention that SGI  believes that the clergy is superfluous? So, it is not surprising that of the three schools, only Soka Gakkai is, literally, without a clergy – so being ex-communicated by Nichiren Shoshu wasn’t such a big deal… OK. That was a gross understatement. And in place of a clergy, SGI practitioners, a lay organization, are all supposed to believe that Mr. Ikeda is their “personal mentor,” – whether or not they have ever met or talked to him.

The whole “mentor” idea probably seems more “cultish” to people who are not Buddhist and are unfamiliar with the fact that “mentoring,” by a teacher, guru, Rinpoche, etc., is a common feature on the Buddhist path, particularly for those seeking more than a casual affiliation or practice of this particular faith. So, it is not uncommon to hear SGI practitioners refer to Daisaku Ikeda as “my” mentor. Personally, though I progressed in other ways, I never got that far. I’d never met Mr. Ikeda; never expected to; and even wrote him once (several months ago), and have yet to hear from him (but in all fairness, I was only one of thousands, if not millions, who write him yearly).

Another unique aspect of Soka Gakkai Buddhism is that it is, quite obviously, the most racially diverse group of Buddhists just about anywhere. Rocker, Tina Turner, and jazz musician, Herbie Hancock, are two of the best-known Nichiren Buddhists. Never, either before exploring Soka Gakkai International, or after, have I ever seen so many Black Buddhists, i.e., “Black” people (not “Black Hat Buddhists”). Honestly, one certainly expects a few Asian folks to be there, but then everybody else is usually, always White/Caucasian. Mind you, there are exceptions, but outside of Soka Gakkai, I have never met a “person-of-color” Buddhist. Literally, all of the Buddhists I’ve met, in the Detroit, Vermont, and New York areas have been, apparently, Caucasian, if not Asian (mostly Tibetan Buddhist groups). Nonetheless, there was only one sangha (Buddhist community of believers) where I ever felt not-so-welcome. And that says a lot considering the (*)Missouri Synod Lutheran Church I attended in 1995 with a friend whose minister refused to shake my little brown hand at the end of the service. You see, I was, until the age of 12, raised in the Lutheran Church. But that’s another post…

Nichiren, known as Nichiren Shonin (1222-1282), was a radical Japanese priest who so agitated his neighbors, fellow practitioners, and local government that he was, literally, persecuted for most of his adult life. I mean, there were samurai running around trying to take the man out! And once, just a few minutes before he was to be beheaded, there was a meteor shower (or something) which literally scared the hell out of the executioner and guards, leaving only him, a few devotees, and some disappointed sight seers at the chopping… stone. And the story has it that he called after the executioner to return, finish the job, and quit wasting his time…

Nichiren (correctly) predicted that there would be all manner of natural, and unnatural, disasters (during an unusually disastrous period in Japanese history and weather) due to people not practicing  his  Buddhism. He also declared himself the “Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” (the Lotus Sutra, according to Soka Gakkai, being not only the Buddha’s last great transmission, but essentially the only one which truly matters). The Votary was someone long-ago revealed, through ‘scripture,’ to be the one who would champion the true Way.

That said, Soka Gakkai practitioners are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. There were several rather close-knit ‘communities’ of them in my area. Additionally, Soka Gakkai Buddhists are the most gung-ho Buddhists around in that they aggressively proselytize, something quite foreign to most Buddhist sects, because while they truly believe that only they practice the true faith, they can get along with almost anyone but the Nichiren Shoshu sect. But again, as I said, they’re nice folks; so, they still treat everyone with respect, and not even in private did I ever hear any one of them ridicule other faiths, or sects of Buddhism.

Nichiren Buddhists chant something called “Daimoku,” which translates as “the title.” And that title is the title of the aforementioned, all-important Lotus Sutra, or “Nam(u) Myoho Renge Kyo.” Soka Gakkai practitioners do not pronounce the ‘u’ in “Nam(u).” Again, the chanting, especially because it is their primary practice, is also something that many believe akin to “cults.” But I don’t know of any Buddhist traditions where chanting is not known. So, to call SGI a cult simply because they chant is, at the very least, uninformed. Nonetheless, chanting Daimoku is so fundamental, and such a primary practice to the Soka Gakkai that almost nothing else matters. Never once did I ever attend a meeting where anything like the Four Noble Truths or Noble Eightfold Path was discussed. But I could have been in the ladies room at the time… That said, chanting ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,’ through some of the darkest days, and nights, I’ve ever known, literally saved my life. And I know this because for awhile, that was literally all I had. Though I’m no longer part of SGI, I still chant Daimoku, among other things, and always will.

Additionally, I did eventually choose to leave Soka Gakkai (though I was never officially a dues-paying member because I was unemployed). And when I did finally leave, I wasn’t hounded, or threatened, or, as far as I know, the subject of any fire-and-brimstone-she’s-gonna-burn Buddhist talks (we didn’t have ‘sermons’). In fact, except for a couple of folks, I never heard from any of them again. And it’s important that you understand I mention this only to emphasize that no one ever tried to “drag” me back, or force me to do anything – except maybe believe…

Finally, unlike other Buddhists sects, Soka Gakkai practitioners, chant, unabashedly, and at length during marathon chanting sessions for things like cars, better jobs, raises, and nice houses. They are, unlike some people, very much concerned with  this  life. And I’m not saying that that’s good or bad; I just realize that it’s a very different focus and way of defining “life.” That’s why they claim that the secret to becoming happy and wealthy is… Oh, wow, wouldja’ look at that? I’ve reached my promised “never-more-than-two-pages-unless-it’s-a-book-review limit!”

Namaste.
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(*) During the 1960s, Black people dared not enter Missouri Synod Lutheran Churches due to a longstanding ban on then-“Negro” membership. The other faction, the LCA (Lutheran Churches of America) prohibited racial discrimination. It was this part of the Lutheran Church to which my father belonged, and in which I was raised in the early part of my childhood. Even so, we were one of only two Black families in a church full of kind, loving, accepting blond, blue-eyed people named Svenson, Anderson, Olafson, and so on… And interestingly enough, that church was located in the poorest, Blackest part of town. When I visited my friend’s church in 1995 (in the same town), I had no idea if the ban had been lifted, or not, and I truly wasn’t that concerned. I only know that my reception was especially frosty, and I don’t know where the Missouri Synod stands to this day…
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Related Reading:

Is Buddhism a Religion? from mgmgfilms: The Writings of Marc Ginsburg (blog)

(1) Is Soka Gakkai International a Cult? from Sweep the dust, Push the dirt (blog)

(2) Is Soka Gakkai International a Cult? from Humanism of Nichiren Buddhism/Soka Humanism.com (Website)

A Lotus, A Scotsman, SGI, and an Open Path from Fly Like a Crow (blog)

Unshakably Happy from Making Baby Buckley (blog)

 

 

Who Are You?

Who are you?
Who, who, who, who?
[I really wanna kno-ow!]

Who are you?
Who, who, who, who?

—The Who (Who else?)

I regularly visit a Community Center in which there are two rooms: one with two PCs, a printer, and a television; the other with a lone television. The use of these items is restricted to members, but their guests, particularly if they are young children, are allowed to use them within reason. Despite signs limiting users to 30 minutes, and requesting the use of headphones when listening to music on the PCs, this doesn’t happen. In fact, the signs usually disappear or, at least, get torn down. So, lately, the World Cup has been blasting on one TV while country and rap are blasting on the two PCs adjacent to that TV. Two YouTube videos and one large television, all blasting, so that no one can really hear anything struck me not only as impolite, but imbecilic. I’ve often wondered why this seems to bother no one but me…

Yesterday, I entered the community room to find only one other person there. He was listening to a music video, without headphones, and the television was on, loud. I sat down at the other computer and began typing. The young man immediately cranked up the volume of the music video. Nope! Nothing personal. We’ve never met. I got up and turned off the television; took out some ear buds; went to YouTube, and found one of my favorite recordings of Mozart’s Requiem. Which one, you ask? Well, it’s the only one he ever wrote — and he never finished it because he died. Nonetheless, it makes me feel… happy.

The man listening to the video got up and left as soon as it finished. Immediately after, another man entered the room. And he doesn’t like me very much because I’m not “friendly.” With him. He was with his son — one of the most adorable post-toddlers I’ve ever seen. About six-years-old. Once Rocky had set up his son on the PC next to mine, with a very loud video game, he went over to the television, turned it back on, and cranked up the volume to capacity. This was personal. And he does it all the time. I didn’t’ even bother to turn around. In fact, I started swaying to the beat of Mozart’s “Offertorium.” It  really  rocks. OK. Not really. But I’m sure you get the drift.

Rocky and I have had our disagreements in the past. That no longer happens because I do my best to avoid him and keep my mouth shut no matter what he says. He’s a blatant heterosexual — who hates women (yes, I meant ‘hetero’). And all women are stupid: from the mother who gave him away, to the wife who left him for someone else. If you don’t stop doing what you’re doing to give him your 100% attention because he feels like shooting the breeze, right now, even if you’re filling out a job application on a computer that could crash at any minute (and he  knows  this), you’re a female canine. And if you won’t turn around and talk to him while he “walks” his cute son, he’ll get your attention another way — like by turning up the volume of the television — to capacity. It’s all about “him.” And believe it or not, I don’t mean this in a critical or disparaging way.

If Rocky can’t get your attention in a positive fashion, he’ll settle for it in a negative one. If you and he are not able to politely chit-chat about the shape of your behind, he’ll settle for being yelled at for having had the gall to even imagine that topic was up for discussion. Without my attention or venom, or anyone else’s, Rocky does not “exist.” He has no “identity.” He needs our praise, or our derision, because either way, we are engaging with each other. Without that engagement, he is alone. Doesn’t matter. Isn’t “somebody.” Honestly, I’ve gone from hating this man, to feeling sorry for him, to realizing that in my pity, I was actually being arrogant. Because I am still miles away from figuring out how to have a civil, decent, respectful, or sacred discussion with him about the shape of my behind, I have elected not to speak to him, at all.  I’ve come to realize that Rocky thinks that his noticing my behind is what makes me  somebody, in fact, a woman. And this is not  meanness, or evil on his part. It’s ignorance. He believes that it is other people who make us “somebody,” and that there is “somebody” (contrary to Buddhist philosophy). Truly, if we can cease to exist because someone, anyone, looks the other way, depending on how one interprets it, that says a lot, or very little…

We all suffer from some type of ignorance – even if it’s just ignorance about the existence of our ignorance. The Buddha taught, in the Four Noble Truths, that there is suffering; a cause for that suffering, a way out of that suffering, and that that way is the Noble Eightfold Path. Conquering ignorance is the only way to end suffering. And when we suffer, others suffer, by default. This is why we ‘hurt the ones we love,’ as well as everyone else.

I can’t yank Rocky out of his suffering any more than the Buddha could have yanked me out of mine. Though someone can show me the ‘Path,’ it is I who must walk it. It is I who must do the work.  And I have work to do. I suffer every day. But one thing is different. I no longer think that yelling at Rocky to turn down the volume will make me “happy.” Yes, it would make Rocky “happy” for a minute or two; and it would make the room quieter, but that’s nowhere near being a permanent solution — for either of us. So, I offer Rocky my silence because it’s as close to acting lovingly as I can get right now, and much more compassionate than blasting him for his ignorance – a malady from which we both suffer. How can I hate someone for suffering from a disease, a disease from which I, too, suffer? This is why I suspect that ‘compassion’ is very personal, and in no way related to ‘pity.’

Mahatma Gandhi said:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

[An interesting note about the preceding quotation: The bumper stickers that say, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” are, apparently, a bastardization of this].

In closing, I’d like to share a brief excerpt, here, from the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. It has helped me grapple with the sometimes confusing concept of personal meditation as public activism, i.e., working on oneself as a way of changing the world for the better (or as I secretly like to think of it: “being an effective ‘meditation cushion quarterback'”):

“MEDITATION IS NOT TO GET OUT OF SOCIETY, TO ESCAPE FROM society, but to prepare for a reentry into society. We call this “engaged Buddhism.” ….How do you expect to leave everything behind when you enter a meditation center? The kind of suffering that you carry in your heart, that is society itself. You bring that with you, you bring society with you. You bring all of us with you. When you meditate, it is not just for yourself, you do it for the whole society. You seek solutions to your problems not only for yourself, but for all of us.”

Hanh, Thich Nhat. (1993). Engaged Buddhism In S. Bercholz & S. Chödzin (Eds.), Entering the stream: An introduction to the Buddha and his teachings  (pp. 247-249). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Namaste.

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Related References:

The Four Noble Truths: A Study Guide by Thanissaro Bhikkhu from Access To Insight.org

What is the Eightfold Path by Dana Nourie from Secular Buddhist Association

The Noble Eightfold Path by Walpola Rahula from Tricycle.com

Falser Words Were Never Spoken from The New York Times Opinion Pages

Mozart Requiem in D minor (K. 626) from YouTube