Monday, August 22, 2005


If wishes were fishes, we'd all cast nets, my grandmother used to say. She's been dead many years now, so I can't ask the question that has troubled me all my life. "Don't you mean" -- I would like to put it to her -- "that if fishes were wishes, we'd all cast nets?"

And supposing she rose from her neat Presbyterian grave, and said, "No, dear. I mean if wishes were fishes." Then what?

Well, it would be a little like Dave Bonta saying he doesn't believe in the pursuit of personal liberation. I have to stop dead and say to myself, which is it that I have badly misunderstood, over the years? My own understanding, or his?

Well. To unpack a little. There's the word "personal" in there, which smells a little odd. The whole Mahayana schtick, of course, is that you don't seek enlightenment only to help yourself. You seek it to help others. The motivation that I affirm in my prayers each time before I meditate is that I am doing this to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings and make them happy.

I might have sneered at this when I was younger and full of anarcho-socialist ambitions. After a few decades of watching, though, just how difficult it is to increase anybody's happiness significantly -- and how the primary reason for that is my own fear and craving and confusion, which continually distort my understanding of what help would really look like -- it doesn't seem either high-minded or far-fetched. It seems common sense to me. I want to carry water to people dying of thirst. That's good. But if my only water bottle is full of holes, it's not selfish to spend time mending it.

Progress, says Dave, is an illusion. There's only the present moment. But of course there isn't only the present moment. That's silly. If there were only the present moment, I'd be enlightened, and none of this would matter. My mind is a seething mass of moments, past, present, and future. I can say, "I'll just pay attention to the present moment." And I will. Here I am in the present. And the next moment, here I am in Walla Walla in 2007, and now I'm in England in 1978, and now I'm in bed with a girl I saw on the street yesterday, and now I'm clearing out the pocket of my pack, and did I lend my pocket-knife to somebody? and I can't believe that George Bush is saying whatever it is he's saying today.

I don't think progress is a delusion, although of course it is an abstraction and a generalization. It's really pretty easy to run my mind through last week and evaluate "roughly how much of my time was spent compassionately and uncompulsively last week, as opposed to a typical week five years ago?" There's nothing very complex or difficult about the exercise. The correlation between how much time I'm devoting to meditation and contemplation, and how much time I'm spending compassionately and uncompulsively, is obvious. (And verified by independent observers. And that's leaving the time actually in meditation and contemplation out of the reckoning, which I doubt is actually good accounting.)

So I "believe in" the pursuit of personal liberation and enlightenment, meaning by that, that I'm committed to it. It's theoretically problematic, of course. Just who is working on this liberation, and against whom is this putative person struggling? I don't "believe in" the pursuit of personal liberation and enlightenment as an accurate description of what's going on. That's a different matter.

Dave says that "If you make your own advancement a priority, your ability to empathize is fatally compromised." Nothing in my experience confirms that. I've spent a minute or two trying to picture that happening, and I'm drawing a blank. I need examples, I think. Of course, possibly I can't see it precisely because my ability to empathize is fatally compromised. In that case, I need someone to show me how it's operating in me. Because if it is, then I certainly need to abandon my commitment to Buddhist practice.

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