Monday, July 7, 2014

The Coats, Why We Wear Them, and What They Do (To Your Brain!)

Hmmm this is interesting.

Drew Weston, of Emory University published a study during the 2004 presidential election.  He examined people who identified themselves as “committed” republicans, and “committed” democrats.

He showed the groups videos of George Bush and John Kerry, with each candidate making contradictory statements.  Each group was very quick to point out the contradictions in the opposing party, and each was eager to offer creative justifications for their own candidate’s lapses.

That’s not so surprising.  That’s what you would expect.

But, I’m saving the best part of this study for last, because people won’t read on if I write it here.

I’ve  often thought that the most troubling thing about Zen is that, when problems pop up, there is more effort put into not doing anything then there is effort to make simple, obvious changes.  The speeches from the “masters” seem more focused on whitewashing their tradition than taking any real responsibility.  That goes on, to this day.  I suppose that is understandable, because it is the masters who have something to lose.  

But other people don’t have anything to lose.  So, you would think they would at least talk about new solutions. Or they would stop listening to the committed “Zen” people.

In my time in the monasteries, this was the most sad, and confusing thing, to me.  I wasn’t a “victim”, in any monastery.  But I was a witness to many abuses, and I was privy to terrible deceit.  I went through this a number of times.

Each time, within the group, and to an extent, within the greater Zen community, I found it very difficult to communicate with Zen students.  It seemed as though it was completely impossible for them even to hear what I was saying.  The more you try to talk about something, the more you are dismissed, derided, etc. – and much of this comes not from the “masters”, but from others – the “normal” people who, themselves, would never have behaved in the manner the masters and immediate followers would.

This is a hard thing to go through, because you wonder what exactly is going on.  

I figure there must have been many people in my position, in the past.  The institutional group-think is something you hear about, but only when you come up against it do you start to see how powerful a force it is.

There are worse examples than mine.  I remember reading about some child victims of clergy sexual abuse.  The victims recalled attempting to bring up the matter with their parents, and being rebuffed, dismissed, or even attacked.  This, from their own mothers.  These men and women expressed that this experience contributed, as much as anything else, to the pain and confusion that they had suffered.

So, what exactly is happening?

Dr. Drew Weston has an answer, as does Goatama Buddha.  They have the same answer.

This is the juicy part – the one that I mentioned people wouldn’t bother reading past if it was in the front of this post.

In his experiment, Dr. Weston had observed his “committed Republicans” and “committed Democrats” during an MRI scan.  He scanned them while they were going through the interviews. 
As I’d mentioned, Dr. Weston had found the Republicans were quick to criticize John Kerry’s contradicting remarks, while rationalizing, or justifying those of George Bush.  The “committed Democrats” behaved in the same manner, only the other way around.

But what surprised Dr. Weston was the MRI readings.  He found that the parts of the brain that control logic and reasoning virtually shut down while the test subjects were giving their feedback. 

So, they were not just being stubborn, or argumentative.

They truly could not process.  

That is to say:  People who identify with a particular group have an actual inability to address the behavior within said group.  The stronger the identification, the weaker the ability.
Brain activity flatlines.   Reasoning centers cease to function.

Well, that certainly explains part of the problems in Zen, and the Catholic Chruch.  At least, it explains how so many abuses went on for so long, in so many different places.  “Catholic” becomes a blinding idol, “Zen” becomes a blinding idol.  Quite literally, thinking doesn't progress beyond "us" and them".

And this, in a very literal, scientifically verified sense.

OK.  What does this have to do with Buddha?

People forget this:  Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist, and he wasn’t a monk.  He didn’t commit himself to anything.  He wandered, for years, from place to place.  And, after he left his tree, he continued wandering, until the day he died.  

So, what he actually did was “un-commit”, from “Prince”, and from “Caste”, “Hindu”, and so on.
In my view, this has very little to do with meditation.  It has much, much more to do with compassion itself.  Buddha was moved, and hurt, by the suffering of those less fortunate than he was.

That is obvious, from his story.

What is not so obvious is how he came to see these things – these “identities”, like “Prince”, or “Noble Caste”. I don’t have an easy word for these things.  I usually call them “coats”.  They are the things that people think (or don’t think!) they “are”.

So, “Republican” is a coat.  “Democrat” is a coat.  

And, it is not that simple, because “Successful” is a coat, too.

So is “Unsuccessful”

Of course, it is easy to see where this is heading.  Because “Catholic” is a coat, too.

So is “Buddhist”, and “Monk”.

So – how did Buddha come to see these coats?  How was he moved?

Well, if you take a universal view – if you pretend you are a perfectly benevolent spirit, hovering up there above the clouds, and looking down on the world, then these words will surely have to sadden you.  They are simply sad things, from a universal view.  They don’t really mean anything (again, from a universal view, as everyone has their own definitions), and yet they manage, always, to divide people.  They create boundaries. They lead to war, oppression, and so on.  

If you speak of humanity as a whole, that is the case.  They take away from cooperation, kindness, sharing.   They make it all but impossible.  “Prince” gets all the gold, for example.  “Untouchable” climbs through the garbage heaps, looking for food.

Why? Is there any substance to these ideas?

No, not really.

So, it is a sad thing, this “Prince” word, and this “Noble Caste” idea.  It just doesn’t matter that that is the way the world is.  They are simply sad things, because of the suffering they cause, in others.

So, again, if you take this view of “universal benevolence”, which I am saying that Buddha took, then you see that it is best for everyone if these things were dropped.  It is best for everyone if we all, as a group, managed to rid ourselves of our “coats”.

That sounds like an easy thing to do, but it isn't, because, alone, you will end up in everyone's blind spot, which is not always an easy place to be.  

It is also difficult, in part, because there is no set path.  The given structures of “Budddhism” isn’t the path.  “Christianity” isn’t the path.  It is only compassion that will lead one to take the universal view, and to take responsibility, and actually burn one’s coats off.  There is no “Zen”.  

It is only compassion that will turn someone around, to take a look at themselves, to dive through Dr. Weston’s “committed identities”, to burn them off.  They just are not what we are.  They are blinding.  They are scientifically proven to be blinding.  They serve no good purpose, at all.

The Zen masters talk about “Emptiness”, but they speak a great deal about their “great tradition”
.  When a Zen master does this, what is he actually talking about?

Hint:  Who is he actually talking about?

We are not here to be “Zen”.

Just because all the masters say so, doesn’t make it true.

They are just throwing the words around.  It is only “Emptiness” when all the coats are gone. That is when we see clearly.  That is when we can truly apply our minds toward what is best, for everyone.
We are here, in this world, to shine our hearts on our blind spots, and burn through them, as Buddha did.  We do this to become the most spontaneously benevolent human beings we can, to see all that is before us, and to stand on our own, in this way.

"When you strip naked without being ashamed, and take your garments and put them under your feet like little children and tread upon them, then [you] will see the child of the living. And you will not be afraid."  -- from the Gospel of Thomas