The Art of Disagreement

Transcribed talks by Ratnaghosa
Talk four of six on patience or kshanti 

 

 

Tolerance is not always seen as a virtue. Some of the connotations of the term tolerance are not very pleasant. For instance, to tolerate can mean to put up with something in a rather grudging or resentful manner or tolerance can be associated with weakness, an inability to stand your ground and assert yourself. I have heard tolerance defined as supercilious condescension. And tolerance is often thought to mean agreement. Tolerance is not always seen as a virtue and even when it is seen as a virtue it is often misunderstood.

From a Buddhist perspective, tolerance is extremely important and it has been a hallmark of Buddhism down the twenty five centuries of its history. Tolerance is the acceptance that other people hold different views from ourselves. Tolerance is the willingness to allow others to be different in their views and actions. Above all tolerance is the absolute avoidance of using power, violence or coercion to force oth Õer people to think and believe as we do.

Tolerance is an attitude of loving kindness (metta) towards those who hold views which are different from ours and even towards those who hold views which are repugnant to us. Intolerance on the other hand is the willingness to use and the use of force, violence and coercion to make other people behave as we want them to and hold the views we want them to hold.

There is also the intolerance that doesn’t want to force others to change but simply wants to exterminate or exile them for being different, There have been many atrocious examples of intolerance in the religious history of the world and also in the political history of the world. The systematic extermination of the French Cathars by the Catholic church, the systematic extermination of Jews by the Nazis, the inhuman treatment of black and coloured people under the South African apartheid system.

And it continues today. I read earlier in the year about the case of a man Ú in Kuwait who had converted from Islam to Christianity. Apparently there was the distinct possibility that the courts could single him out as someone who could be killed with impunity by any Muslim, because his apostasy was seen as such an insult to Islam. There is also the continuing case of Salman Rushdie.

There was the blasphemy trial against the editor and publishers of Gay News in 1977 which resulted in convictions. Tolerance is not about agreement or being vague about differences and disagreements.

Tolerance is, as I said already, maintaining metta towards those who hold views which are different from ours and which are even repugnant to us. Metta is the basic Buddhist attitude and tolerance is the application of that basic attitude to the area of difference and disagreement with others. Tolerance is the art of disagreement as my title suggests. Art implies both skill and creativity.

It also implies imagination. Tolerance is the application of skill, imagination Û and creativity to the areas of difference and disagreement. This of course takes time. As with any art or skill the art of disagreement takes time to learn. There are many areas of difference and disagreement between people.

There are different religious and political beliefs, different viewsabout art, philosophy, economics, ecology and so on. There are differences of lifestyle, cultural differences, different sexual preferences. There are differences of gender, race, colour, nationality and language.

There are differences of personality and temperament, different individual strengths and weaknesses, There are different ways of dressing, different colour preferences, different likes and dislikes Wherever we look there is difference; a rich, abundant profusion of difference. And this is what causes a lot of trouble in the world and between individuals, this fact of difference. Because the fact of difference leads to disagreement and not enough is understood about the art of disagreement. So how do we practise tolerance without being weak, vague or negatively condescending.

It will be argued that we surely cannot be tolerant of those who preach violence and prejudice. Fascists, racists and extremists of all sorts; are we to be tolerant of them? Being intolerant means using force, violence and coercion to make others change, therefore if we practise intolerance towards those whose views we find despicable, we will be joining them, descending to their level and in that way giving them a victory.

As the Dhammapada says, “Hatred is not appeased by hatred, by love alone is hatred appeased. This the eternal law.”(27) The truly Buddhist attitude towards those who hold repugnant views is one of compassion, because they live in a hell realm. This experience is very graphically illustrated by Brian Keenan in his account of his captivity in the Lebanon. Here he is describing an incident involving one of his captors w ×hose name is Said. ” Suddenly the dreaming silence was shattered. Said was weeping great shuddering sobs.

This was a diferent kind of weeping from the automatic religious melancholia of his prayers. He walked around the room crying, the whole room seemed to fill up with his anguish.I felt, as I never had before,great pity for this man and felt if I could I would reach out and touch him.

I knew instinctively some of the pain and loss and longing that he suddenly found himself overwhelmed by. The weeping continued. Said became fleshy and human for me. Here was a man truly stressed. His tears now wrenched a great wellspring of compassion from me.

I wanted to nurse and console him. I felt no anger and that defensive laughter which had before cocooned me was no longer in me. I lay on my mattress and looked up over the top of the sheet. Said’s shadow, caught in the sunlight, was immense. It flowed up the wall and across the ceiling.

He was now chanting, fleeing from his sadness into recitation His hands were clasped on the top of his head in the gesture of prayer. His body swayed and turned in a slow chanting circle. The room was filled with his eerie shadow and the slow rhythmic utterances choked with sobs. At times his voice broke and he cried out in desperation for Allah. I felt my own tears. I was transformed with a deep and helpless love for him. I had become what he was calling out for.

I remained watching. There was something unbearably beautiful about it. At once terrified and intrigued, my loathing for this man began to fall from me.

I no longer thought of him as nothing and felt guilty for having dismissed him so completely. Said,s violence against us was a sympton of his need for us.@(28)If we could all access this level of compassion and sympathy for our common humanity the world would indeed be a far happier place. As Buddhists we try to be tolerant and have an attitude of metta and compassion towards others but that does not mean that we believe nobody should ever be restrained against their will. Of course it is necessary to restrain people forcefully sometimes, so that others can live in peace and safety.

The principle involved here is the principle of the power mode being used in the service of the love mode. As Sangharakshita puts it, ” It will not, of course, be possible for even the most faithful observer of the First Precept to operate, all at once, in terms of the love mode, eschewing the power mode completely.

We live in a world dominated by the power mode. The love mode comes into operation only in the case of exceptional individuals, and even they may not always find it possible, or even desirable, to act in accordance with the love mode. In this connection two principles may be laid down. (a) Whenever one has to operate in accordance with the power mode, the power mode must always be subordinated to the love mode. A simple, everyday example of such subordination is when the parent, out of love for the child, forcibly restrains him from doing something that will harm him. (b) Within the Spiritual Community it is impossible to act in accordance with the power mode, for by its very nature as a voluntary association of free individuals sharing certain common goals the Spiritual Community is based on the love mode.” (29) To continue for a while looking at extreme cases, it could be asked of myself or other Buddhists, would you not have taken up arms against Hitler, surely National Socialism was an unadulterated evil.

I personally cannot give a straight yes or no answer to this sort of speculative question. I can tell you that my ideals and principles are the ideals and principles of the Dharma as stated in the Dhammapada -hatred is not appeased by hatred- and as laid down in the first precept- the undertaking not to harm living beings-, but I cannot say definitely that I know how I would Íact in any particular extreme situation. I will not know until I face the test. Even then I could not promise to be consistent. We are always changing and learning; how we act today may not be how we act tomorrow, because we learn from experience.

There is an example of this in Primo Levi’s book “If not now, when?” The Jewish partisans (guerrilla fighters) have travelled from Russia across Poland and into Germany, the war is ended. But one of their number is shot and killed as they pass through a German town. They return in the evening and take revenge by attacking the town hall and killing several of the towns leaders.

Next day, one of the Jewish fighters says that this is exactly how the Germans had behaved and he doesn’t want to sink to that level of violence and vengeance again. By killing his enemies he had realised that he did not want to kill his enemies.

So I do not know whether I would stand by my principles in an extreme situation. I suspect none of us can tell really. I wanted to talk about extreme situations because I have noticed that people often raise this sort of objection to Dharmic principles.

[What will happen to all the animals if everyone becomes vegetarian? What will happen to the human race if everyone becomes celibate?] However, I think there are many less extreme and more relevant day to day situations in which we can apply the principle of tolerance and the fact that we do not know how we would respond in an extreme situation does not have to be a hindrance to us.

The difficulty about tolerance and disagreement seems to be that often disagreement is interpreted as intolerance. So when a Buddhist says that he finds some of the doctrines of Christianity or Islam repugnant and totally disagrees with them, this is seen as intolerance. And of course Buddhists should not be intolerant. So expressing strong disagreement can be seen as going against the principles of Buddhism. However, you could say that the opposite is the case and that it is our duty as Buddhists clearly and distinctly to state our disagreement with views, beliefs, doctrines or behaviours which we consider to be harmful and an obstacle to the development of the individual.

For example, according to the Brahmajala Sutta, which is the first Sutta of the Pali Canon, belief in a personal god is a wrong view and constitutes an obstacle to spiritual development. There is no god to punish us or reward us. The notion that there is obviates the need to take personal responsibility and spiritual development requires that we take responsibility for ourselves completely.

The materialist view is also attacked in the Brahmajala Sutta because it denies the possibility of higher states of consciousness. There is more to life than the material and physical. There is a spiritual dimension and the current mass religion of consumerism and greed is a hindrance to spiritual development. We do not have to agree with what others believe or how they behave. We do not even have to accept, in the sense that acceptance implies approval.

We can reject views and beliefs that we do not find acceptable or useful. We do need to make a distinction however between people and the views that they hold. This is very difficult. There tends to be an identification of persons and views but this is wrong. We can acknowledge and experience our common humanity with those whose views we disagree with. We can disagree with Christianity without hating Christians.

We can be revolted by aspects of Islam, without hating Muslims. We can find the excesses of consumerism distasteful, without hating those responsible. According to the Dharma, nobody is beyond redemption and our attitude towards all should be one of metta and helpfulness. The Bodhisattva does not reject those who go against the Dharma. On the contrary, they are the ones who most need to be helped and one way of helping is to point out that they are wrong and to show them another perspective and other possibilities To disagree with someone may be the most helpful thing to do.

I must confess that it took me a long time to realise that it was possible to reject a doctrine or belief without rejecting or despising those who adhered to it. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic and subjected to a crude indoctrination from an early age. In later years when I came to understand what had been done to me I felt outraged and often reacted against priests and nuns in quite colourful language.

However, later still I began to understand that they meant well and in fact I could even see how I had benefited from their efforts. These days I would probably feel more in common with Christian monastics than with people who believe that money brings happiness. I would still totally disagree with the doctrines of Christianity, with its notions of sin and punishment and damnation. The point I am making here is that we need to be able to love the individual whilst attacking the views and doctrines. It is best to identify people as people, as individuals, as human beings rather than in terms of their beliefs or what they do.

It is not that someone is a Christian or a Buddhist or a Muslim, but rather that they are a human being who lives by certain principles and holds certain beliefs. If we identify people in terms of some group of other, we lose sight of their individuality and even of their humanity. So we say, Ratnaghosa is a Buddhist and Srisambhava is a Buddhist but what does that mean?

Are Ratnaghosa and Srisambhava the same then, are they identical? Ratnaghosa and Srisambhava are human beings who are both striving to find an answer to the human predicament. Most other human beings are also trying to find an answer to the human predicament, however unconsciously. The art of disagreement is to make a distinction between the person, the human being and their views.

To do otherwise is to fix them and to fix ourselves in a way that is not helpful. We are not our views. We are not Buddhists. We are much more than that and eventually we will realise that we are much more than that. That is when we will know that the Dharma is a raft to ferry us across the sea of ignorance to the shores of Wisdom. Wisdom itself, Enlightenment, Nirvana is something vast and ineffable, to be experienced, not to be explained.

As Sangharakshita puts it in his commentary on the Heart Sutra , “Avalokitesvara declares all these philosophical and even practical religious categories, all the operative bases of our religious life, including the idea of Conditioned Co-production and even the idea of Enlightenment itself, to be sunya, void, without ultimate validity. He is saying that if you want to develop – if your goal is Perfect Wisdom well, you have to go beyond Buddhism. In reality, you have to realise, there is no such thing as Buddhism. Buddhism is only a raft to take you to the other shore; then it must be abandoned. It is only a finger pointing to the moon. ”

There is nothing that hinders you in your search for reality so much as that which is there to help you, namely religion. What should be a means to an end is so easily taken for the end itself.”(31) In the same way then as we are not Buddhists, not just Buddhists, so others are not just Christians or Muslims or materialists. There are fathomless depths to human beings.

There are vast potentialities in all individuals, like unmined gold or diamonds, like hidden treasure and we should try to remember this rather than just identify people with the froth and fume of their views. This is the art of disagreement, the art of tolerance. So far I have been speaking mainly in terms of tolerance towards those whose views we disagree with or find repulsive. There is also tolerance to be exercised towards those who are simply different from us. Here tolerance has nothing to do with disagreement, but is simply the practice of metta. We may not find it easy to co-exist with people who are very different from us. We may not even like them. The difference may be cultural or temperamental or even just in terms of lifestyle. However, as Buddhists we need to go beyond our likes and dislikes and relate to others on a more basic individual level.

You do not have to like someone in order to feel metta towards them. You can have a consistent attitude of goodwill towards someone even if you do not like them. It is easier if you do like them of course.

Likes and dislikes are irrelevancies in the spiritual life and we need to strive to get beyond them to something more substantial. Often the difficulty we experience with others who are different from us stems from a tendency to make instant judgments or even to prejudge. So we have certain fixed ideas about people who dress in a particular way, or people of a particular nationality, or people of a particular skin colour, or people of a particular í age and we bring those ideas and prejudgments to our encounters, to stand between us and the other individual.

This is very common and often we do not even know that we are doing it. The solution to this is to try to communicate with individuals as individuals and to try to suspend our usual preconceived ideas.

The person in front of us is not young or old, the person in front of us is not white or black, the person in front of us is not Irish or English or Indian, the person in front of us is unique, unrepeatable and therefore not what we think they are. They are unique and therefore very interesting, if we take the trouble to discover them. We too, of course, are unique and therefore very interesting, if we take the trouble to discover ourselves. So, tolerance, whether it is towards those with whom we disagree on fundamental principles or simply those who are different from us, is a matter of seeing people as individual human beings and trying to relate to them from a basis of goodwill.

There is a story at the beginning of the Pali Canon, even before the Buddha outlines all the possible wrong views, where he tells the disciples how to relate to people who may say bad things about him or the Order and also how to relate to those who say good things about him or the Order.

The story takes place on the road from Rajagrha to Nalanda. The Buddha is going along the road with about five hundred disciples and following along behind is a man called Suppiya, with his disciple Brahmadatta. Now, Suppiya doesn’t like the Buddha or his disciples and he is making all sorts of disparaging remarks about the Buddha and the Order. His disciple does not agree with him as it happens and is defending the Buddha and praising him. When the Buddha and his disciples stop to rest, Suppiya and Brahmadatta stop too and they carry on their discussion.

Later some of the Buddhas disciples tell the Buddha about the exchange that had taken place between Suppiya and his disciple Brahmadatta and the Buddha says, ” Bhikkhus, if outsiders should speak against me, or against the Dharma, or against the Sangha, you should not on that account either bear malice, or suffer heart-burning, or feel ill-will. If you, on that account should be angry or hurt, that would stand in the way of your own self conquest. If, when others speak against us, you feel angry at that, and displeased, would you then be able to judge how far that speech of theirs is well said or ill?

ÔThat would not be so, Sir.” But when outsiders speak in dispraise of me, or of the Dharma, or ofthe Sangha, you should unravel what is false and point out what iswrong, saying: “For this or that reason this is not the fact, that is not so, such a thing is not found among us, is not in us.” But also, Bhikkhus, if outsiders should speak in praise of me, in praise of the Dharma, in praise of the Sangha, you should not, on that account, be filled with pleasure or gladness, or be lifted up in heart. Were you to be so that also would s Þtand in the way of your self conquest.

When outsiders speak in praise of me, or of the Dharma, or of the Sangha, you should acknowledge what is right to be the fact, saying: “For this or that reason this is the fact, that is so, such a thing is found among us, is in us”(32) So what the Buddha is saying is that the important thing is the truth. If others praise you or criticise you , your interest in it should be to see whether it is true or not and to respond accordingly. This is another perspective on the art of disagreement or the art of tolerance. We need to be concerned to discover the truth and proclaim the truth. Attack falsehood and wrong views and praise and encourage the truth and right view wherever you see it. The truth is the essential thing.

The truth is the seed of Wisdom and the attitude of goodwill with which we uphold it is the seed of Compassion. Our task as Buddhists is to nurture the seeds of Wisdom and Compassion. We are not concerned to mete out punishment or reward, but to encourage skilfulness in ourselves and others. We are concerned to nurture and encourage whatever leads to the development of higher states of consciousness and an understanding of the mutually interpenetrating nature of human consciousness. It may be some time before we are sufficiently clear ourselves to be able to help other people to clarify their thinking. We may need to spend some years discovering and clarifying our own wrong views before we can be helpful to others who are the victims of wrong views.

But nevertheless, the are some basic truths which we can know from our own experience such as “hatred is not appeased by hatred” and these basic truths we can uphold. In previous talks I have mentioned the need for us to have patience towards ourselves and to forgive ourselves for our imperfections. We also need to exercise tolerance towards ourselves. On two occasions Sangharakshita has outlined sets of fifteen points of advice to Order Members. In the second set, there is one point that says, “Don’t accept yourself.”

Elaborating on this Sangharakshita said that acceptance implies approval and since we are sometimes, if not often, unskilful, well, we shouldn’t accept this. We need to disapprove of what is unskilful in our behaviour or thoughts or speech. In other words we can, as it were, disagree with ourselves. At the same time we need to maintain feelings of metta towards ourselves, We can disapprove of our own unskilfulness without having to undermine ourselves, or think of ourselves as worthless or be angry with ourselves. This is what I mean by being tolerant to ourselves. Sometimes people acknowledge that they’ve done wrong and go on to completely negate themselves as if there were nothing of value in themselves.

That is intolerance. Sometimes people acknowledge that they’ve done wrong and say blithely, “Oh, thats me, thats the way I am, I cant help it.” That is indulgence. The Buddhist attitude of metta lies between these extremes of intolerance and indulgence. It is the ability to acknowledge unskilfulness, while at the same time maintaining a broader perspective on ourselves. As we progress on the spiritual path we may experience conflict within ourselves. It is as if part of us wants to lead the spiritual life and meditate and study and so on and another part of us doesn’t want to have anything to do with it, would rather go to the cinema, down the pub, watch telly and so on. I know I experienced tremendous conflict myself after Id been meditating for about two years.

It was as if there was a war going on inside me and it was tearing me apart. This went on for about a year. The only way I found of dealing with it was to identify as distinctly as possible the two sides to the conflict, even name them and then get them into some sort of dialogue. I carried out this dialogue in writing and with friends so as to objectify it. This proved successful in the end and the conflict abated. In order to progress I had to allow into consciousness, aspects of myself which didn’t seem to be on the spiritual path.

Paradoxically, when I did become more conscious in this way, I was in fact more on the spiritual path than ever. It was perhaps more of a case of difference than disagreement. In other words, even within our own psyche the may be different approaches to the Dharma and we have to extend metta to them all, not try to destroy some. We cannot progress spiritually by denying who we are. Everything must be brought into consciousness and transformed by the warmth of awareness and metta. Sangharakshita talks about this in his own life as a conflict between the poet in him and the monk in him.

For some years it seemed as if the poet was to be banished and the monk given precedence. However, the conflict was resolved and the Religion of Art is a record of that resolution. A higher synthesis is possible. At the beginning I said that tolerance has been a hallmark of Buddhism throughout its history. Although there are many different schools of Buddhism, there is not the same clear distinction between them as say between different sects of Christianity. Often monks from different schools have shared monasteries and revered each others teachers.

The Dalai Lama for instance belongs to the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism but is revered by all Tibetan Buddhists.I will finish with a story from the Tibetan tradition, because it illustrates very well the Buddhist attitude of tolerance. The story is about Pakpa who was the leader of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism in the 13th century C. E. and who is credited with having converted the Mongols. I will quote from Tibetan Buddhism by Sangharakshita. Speaking about Pakpa, he says, ” This celebrated Sakya leader was the guru of the even more famous Kublai Khan, who at the time ruled not only China, but also the whole of Central Asia and even parts of the West. Kublai Khan was apparently very grateful for the spiritual instruction and inspiration which Pakpa had given him, and very devoted to the Sakya School.

One day he proposed to Pakpa that he should make a law compelling all the people of Tibet to give up the other traditions and follow only the teaching of the Sakya School. Such was Kublai Khan’s enthusiasm. Now one might have expected Pakpa to have been overjoyed at this development.

One might have thought he would have agreed at once with Kublai Khan’s proposal and even urged him to punish those who refused to conform. But Pakpa did not agree. On the contrary, he dissuaded Kublai Khan from making such a law. Such a law, he said, would not be in accordance with the Dharma.

In effect Pakpa was saying that the other Buddhists of Tibet, the non-Sakyapas, should be free to follow whatever school they wished. There must be no compulsion, no coercion. This is, in fact, the Buddhist tradition, and it is very much the attitude of Tibetan Buddhists.

They are very devoted to their own form of Buddhism; they believe in it, and follow it wholeheartedly. But at the same time they respect other traditions. Rarely is there any attempt to coerce anybody into a particular school. This is indeed the attitude of Buddhists throughout the East. They are generally very tolerant, whether towards other forms of Buddhism or other religions.”(33)
Source: http://ratnaghosa.fwbo.net

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