Yesterday on the ferry I said these exact words, “Rich people are all psychopaths. Well, to be polite about it they are all sociopaths.” Ha! Ha! Ha! How funny can a man get? I was sitting with someone who was richer than me and with someone who was poorer than me. What a joke. Self-condemned by my own words. After all, I am richer than some + 90% of the human race. What? Life as an exercise in comparative psychopathology?

My only excuse for saying such an inane thing is that I was so tired that I had momentarily slipped into past brain patterns (way back when I was a callow youth and had read too much Marx) and it wasn’t until I woke up this morning that I remembered I had voiced such an foolish unkindness. This is my attempt to correct that mistake. Why would I not feel compassion for anyone who got rich instead of finding their true nature? Finding one’s true nature is far more important than money or no money. To paraphrase the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, “True nature will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no true nature.” But then I’m not burning any of my money.

My poorer companion proved that he was really rich by telling me about the importance of serving others.

Ah well, not all was a loss yesterday. In the grocery store a young man, juggling too many things to carry, dropped a bag. I bent down to pick up the bag for him. At least I pleased one person that day.

You might want to check out Peter Renner’s two blog posts on a similar topic:

what’s wrong with this picture and whats not right about yesterdays post.


Right Livelihood

On to a topic that is a little lighter than the past few that were inspections of Right Action. But then, Right Action is bound to be heavier than all the other parts of the Eightfold Path in that action is what we do directly each moment of the day. All the rest of the stages of the eightfold path are more mental, more what we have to consider before we act generally. Thinking before acting is not completely irrevocable; doing often is, or at least it is harder to correct the mistakes of doing than to correct the mistakes of thinking.

Right Action = each moment doing no harm. But the long term decisions that make us undertake certain occupations, such as the fact that I worked as a carpenter for so long, fall into the category of Right Livelihood. Right Livelihood is more specific than Right Action and therefore seems lighter as we can take the time to decide what to do. Right action is what one does right now, no time to think. It is equally true, however, that when one is engaged in one’s livelihood, moment by moment, one is also faced with the problem of Right Action.

From a Buddhist point of view, all things, all aspects of one’s life need to be approached from the perspective of doing no harm* and engaging fully with life. The Eightfold Path is merely (wonderfully) a device for looking at the central concern from various angles. Constantly considering the need for Right Livelihood is a way of looking at one’s job from the general point of view of doing no harm and being fully engaged. Constantly being engaged with the problem of Right Action is a way of inspecting all aspects of one’s life (that’s why I said earlier that Right Livelihood was lighter, even though it isn’t really, everything can be light or heavy or not; it’s up to one’s self).

I don’t work as a carpenter any more, but I did so for years. I started when my father refused to sign the paper that would have let me take music in grade ten. We were only allowed one option: either art, music or industrial arts. I wanted music. Dad made me take industrial arts because, “It will always give you something to fall back on.” Well, I was apparently good enough at it to fall back on it for far too long. Worked away with hammer and chisel for about twenty years. I built my own house with my own hands (and with kind help, here and there, from family, friends and from the occasionally hired electrician or dry-waller when I got sick of doing those particular jobs), which proved my father right: industrial arts did do me in good stead. But I was never happy with it and complained about my lot all the time, even as people congratulated me on making beautiful things.

Wikipedia has Right Livelihood meaning don’t do this or that kind of job: selling weapons, making poisons, killing animals, etc. But I don’t want to look at Right Livelihood using negative language. I’d rather look at Right Livelihood using positive language – what is the livelihood that is in you to do? Well, for me it wasn’t really carpentry.

I know now that I wasn’t really complaining for all those years about doing carpentry; I was actually complaining about the fact that I hadn’t figured out what it was that was in me to do. I complained about doing carpentry because somewhere deep inside I knew I was not doing what I really loved – more importantly, I was not yet capable of loving whatever I was doing. It was a great relief, momentarily, when I escaped carpentry by getting a job at the ferries. But then I spent fifteen more years doing another job that never fit my skin very well.

Luckily, when I was forty-five years old, I bought myself a bass guitar, thinking that maybe music was what I needed to do. I learned to play that guitar, not like a pro but good enough to decide to buy a bunch of recorders and learn to play them. Took singing lessons. Not a livelihood by any stretch of the imagination, but I was working towards something. Then one day, five years after buying the bass guitar, I walked into a room full of my friend’s sculptures and that was it. Something clicked. I started pounding away on wood, sculpting. Then five years after buying the guitar, I committed myself to painting full time. No more carpentry jobs. No more ferry job. I had found what I believe is my Right Livelihood. Painting is what I do to make money, but more importantly my right livelihood is my zen practice.

Painting lowers my blood pressure. Talking about painting lowers my blood pressure. I can’t imagine my painting hurting too many people. Painting teaches me to be focused and engaged. How can this be other than Right Livelihood? Although the livelihood proves a pittance, I’m not complaining. Doing the right thing to make money makes whatever money you make riches.

When I paint I naturally fall into the space that I struggle to attain when sitting zazen. Totally focused. Infused with two kinds of awareness. Aware of the point in front of me, and aware of everything that surrounds me: the cars honking miles away on the country road, a ship’s horn sounding out in the strait, the bird alighting on the balcony railing, the breeze blowing through the firs, the sudden movement of the brush on the picture plain.

My Iaido teacher tried to impress upon his students that the meditative awareness attained in practice needed to be taken into one’s day to day life or there was no point in practising. I suppose that is also why we practice sitting: in order to learn a type of focus and awareness — an engagement with moment after moment — that we can take into the daily life. In my case, I try to take the focus, awareness and engagement that I attain while painting into my practice of sitting, and into my practice of day to day life.

Yes, we can avoid livelihoods which cause harm for other sentient beings, but it is also possible to chose livelihoods which increase the wellness of ourselves and others. May we all be blessed by the blossoming of Right Livelihood.

(* what a bag of worms the topic of doing no harm is going to prove to be when I get around to it. How in the name of the universe can one do no harm?)

the above image from my website

Right Action – Flirting and Infidelity

And now something a little more personal:

In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon a minor character advises the protagonist to, “Lay all the girls.” This was essentially my father’s implicit advice to me, the kind of thing a certain segment of Lethbridge’s working class cowboys believed in when my dad was growing up. My mother, on the other hand, taught me that I was supposed to take care of women because they were incapable of taking care of themselves. Here was a basic conflict, unresolved in my parents yet taught to me from birth, bred in my bones so to speak. Not that in my callow youth could I understand this built in conflict.

As a young man I apparently exuded sexual need even though I was incapable of speaking to a girl. I probably did a lot of long, silent, intense staring. When I finally found my tongue late in high school, no girl would go out with me. Once, in desperation, I invited the new girl in class on a date within 20 minuets of her arrival. Our evening was not a success. I was too polite and solicitous — and not at all fast. A few weeks later, the young woman told me she had defended me against the results of an informal poll taken by, and of, all the other females in our grade. The poll’s question was, which male in our grade had had the most sex? They picked me, and thereby classified me as too dangerous to go out with. And me a virgin who had never kissed a girl.

Not that I remained in that unloved state. But perhaps that early ranking was prophetic. I do have a somewhat checkered sexual past, not that it would be flamboyant, dangerous, dramatic or unique enough to sell books, or from which to make a movie. But the dilemma of ‘lay the girls’ versus ‘take care of them’ played itself out for years. Women are attractive. I was attracted to women who needed to be taken care of. Odd how compatible types (albeit as unfortunate and as doomed to suffering together as they might be) can pick each other out of the crowd in seconds flat and become riveted on the sight of the other by the intensity of their own need. Potentially co-dependant at first sight.

In my early thirties I walked into a chicken store. Behind the counter was a person who I came to referred to as The Moon’s Face. The instant recognition of type was like electric shock; she knew I was there to save her, and I knew she needed to be saved. There were always a lot of clerks behind the chicken counter, but she always contrived to serve me. Why not? She knew I was a serious saver of women, she knew I found her attractive and she wanted to be rescued from having to sell chicken livers day after day. The thing was, I was happily married (to someone who did not need saving), and I had no intention (only the desire) to save the woman from anything. But I was helpless, standing there gobsmacked by her beauty and mesmerized by her need to be saved. After some time, I couldn’t stand her growing disappointment or my reddening embarrassment in that I made no move to rescue her. Eventually I had to stop eating chicken so I wouldn’t have to go into the store and face her irritation because of my failed promise to prove the hero. The oddest thing is that not a word other than those needed for chicken transactions every passed between us. Our last interaction had her forcibly slamming the bag of chicken down on the counter. We could no longer meet each other’s eyes.

This kind of situation happened over and over: soundless, gobsmacked flirting and then running away.

I suppose lots of people might be able to flirt and yet hurt no one by doing so, both people knowing that flirting was all a mere game with no intention beyond the play. But every time I flirted, the heavy charge of sex, which my father’s example imprinted upon my mind/body reflexive behaviour, coloured any interaction with one particular kind of woman. But I no longer wanted to be the external cause of women’s anger simply because I didn’t have any follow through. For me, flirting was a dangerous activity because it harmed people, preventing any real friendship from developing (I could have simply bought chicken). So for me, flirting was a form of illicit sex (flirting is always about sex), and I eventually learned to avoid it, to turn it off, to keep my appreciation of a woman’s spirit to myself.

Flirting is somewhat like adultery. In my case there wasn’t an injured third party. My spouse was fully aware of my disease and also of the fact that I wasn’t going to stray. If anything she was a little miffed (just a little) at the women who would try to get me involved even when they knew I was with her. (Come to think of it, by causing her to have to deal with situations in which she had to get miffed, she was an injured party after all.) And I can’t blame the women who wanted me to save them. If I was so intensely attracted to them, it must have seemed to them that I wasn’t all that interested in my spouse.

I learned to stop flirting the moment… or rather, I slowly realized that my flirting was a symptom of an internal conflict (in both myself and in the woman) that fostered unreal views of people and situations. I cannot save any one individual from their own suffering. I can only save all sentient beings from suffering by not being the cause of suffering. I cannot ‘lay all the girls’ because to do so would break my contract with my spouse while at the same time lying to any potential lover who wanted me to save her when I knew I would not and could not. My problem now is how to safely interact with women who have been trained to feel that they need to be saved. I have to learn to interact in a manner that will not cause them or anyone else any further suffering. For me it is safer not to flirt at all, in fact it is better not to catch certain women’s eyes.

In general the previous argument holds true for infidelity. If with a spouse or lover one has a contract, implied or explicit, in which one promise to be monogamous, and then in secret carries on an affair with another person, one is doing harm to oneself, to ones secret lover and to ones spouse, and even to ones children, because the situation cannot not be seen in reality by at least one party, and must be acted out as a lie by at least two parties. The situation cannot truly be perceived in its reality. When Buddhism wants us to be aware of reality (Right View), the implication is that lies prevent all parties from being aware of reality. Having a false view of reality causes suffering. Having the idea that infidelity does no harm is a false view and a sure road to suffering.

Thus ends my inspection of Right Action.

Right Action — Illicit Sex — Child Abuse

Wouldn’t it always be fun if when going through this exercise of mine I could always be nice, amusing, gentle and lyrical. But I’ve found that inspecting the basic tenets of Buddhism can throw some curve balls at you. Thinking about illicit sex is one such.

Illicit sex is defined on a continuum that runs from violence with a sexual component, through seduction with nefarious intent, to sexual harassment, to infidelity, to plain old-fashion sexism. It is a continuum that brings all sorts of suffering. What can we do to protect ourselves and our loved ones from harm? How should we treat the perpetrators? Buddhism requires us to treat both the victim and the perpetrator with compassion. But in order to do so, we have to have a good analysis of why illicit sex occurs and what its effects are. And we have to understand what compassion is, in general and in regards any specific event.

The oddest thing happened. As soon as I started thinking about the nature of illicit sex it became a topic of conversation around me. People kept asking me what I thought about the situation on Mayne Island where a known sex offender, a child sex tourist, is building a residence for himself. The amount of concern, distress and intellectual umbrage I have heard expressed has been impressive. The two most memorable statements, made from completely different points of view, have been, “Killing’s too good for them,” and, “How can we protect the children?”(You may want to listen to B.C. Almanac on CBC radio for June 2nd for a particular view on the subject.)

Sexual child abuse comes in many forms that run from the extreme causing death to the more common, physically non-violent form. Let me be clear, child abuse in all its forms is always violent. But when no physical violence other than the sex act itself occurs the violence is predominantly to the psyche.

A Quote from Wikipedia: The effects of child sexual abuse include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, propensity to further victimization in adulthood, and physical injury to the child, among other problems. Sexual abuse by a family member is a form of incest, and can result in more serious and long-term psychological trauma, especially in the case of parental incest.

Another qoute: Approximately 15% to 25% of women and 5% to 15% of men were sexually abused when they were children. Most sexual abuse offenders are acquainted with their victims; approximately 30% are relatives of the child, most often brothers, fathers, uncles or cousins; around 60% are other acquaintances such as ‘friends’ of the family, babysitters, or neighbors; strangers are the offenders in approximately 10% of child sexual abuse cases.

Think what you want about the accuracy of Wikipedia, it gives blunt numbers, whereas other sources, i.e. research statements, are necessarily more conditional, as befitting the intellectual constraints imposed on a scientific paper (see this for an example).

I give these few quotes and sources in order to show how necessary it is for us to figure out how to best abuse-proof our kids, and also, to show that we need to figure out how to prevent people from becoming abusers.

A question that has haunted me for some time: why does it often take an abused child years, decades to voice the fact that they were abused? Why should such a simple act as rubbing body parts together have such profoundly negative effects on an abused person’s life? — and negative effects are surely what happens, as outlined above.

The whole topic of child abuse is fraught with conflicting cultural attitudes. The most damaging attitude floating around is the often voiced defensive posture and the sometimes legally expressed belief that the child had agreed to have sexual relations with the abuser. A case in point happened in a famous Canadian court case where the judge stated that the abused person was partially implicated in his abuse in that he traded sex for favours from the abuser. The day after the verdict, the abused child, by then a grown adult, threw himself off a bridge.

I am aware of one case where a child, a boy, about four or five years old, after numerous sexual encounters, was told by his abuser that girls were better. The child was subsequently ignored by the man. The boy, knowing that he wanted the love of this relative, apparently the only adult to have spent any ‘quality’ time with the boy, found himself for the next many decades longing to become, thinking he should become a female. The longing only disappeared when he realized that he had always felt self-loathing for being a male because he felt his maleness made him not good enough to love.

I think the boy picked up the idea of not being good enough not only from the male relative’s verbal rejection but from the male relative’s own feeling about himself, which was likely self-loathing. Self-loathing transferred one generation to another through some kind of genetically programmed mimicry. We learn from the examples around us. We internalize the emotional realities of our role models.

An abused child also becomes aware of our culture’s general disapproval for anyone who engages in sex outside of marriage. Go read Saint Paul’s opinion that marriage is the only way to save yourself from the damnation of sex.

Self-hatred and self-loathing in all their various forms hinder the abused person in all their future endeavours. There are only a few people who can succeed in spite of their bad self-image.

Another reason sexually abused people might not like to reveal themselves is that perpetrators, for the most part, are themselves sexually abused children, albeit grown older. Given the faulty logic rampant in our culture’s attitudes and expressions, the child would naturally think they are going to be perceived as abusers, or as potential abusers, if they ever tell their story. There is no logical reason to assume that if you were sexually abused you will go on to become an abuser: there are many many more who are abused than who are abusers.

Compassion for the abused child is an easy thing to feel. But it is not so easy to help them overcome their understandable fear and unfortunate guilt.

What about Buddhistic compassion for the perpetrator? If we have compassion for the sexually abused child, how do we feel towards the perpetrator when we know that he or she was once an abused child?

Try to look on the act of abusing someone as an expression of an emotional disease (admittedly a disease of great magnitude with great negative effect upon the body and mind of others). What do we do with people who have horrid diseases that have horrendous symptoms? Do we get mad at them? Do we kill them? We do not. If the disease is contagious and cannot be cured, we isolate the infected. Other times, due to the lesser severity of a disease, we inoculate the population in order to make them immune.

Infected people need to be identified, and the people most vulnerable to the effects of the infection need to be kept away from the infected until they are strong enough to fend off the disease themselves. At no point should we mistake someone who was affected by early contact with the disease, but who fended it off and who did not become a further point of contagion, for someone who succumbed and became infectious. Just because a person has been abused is no reason to think that they are a danger. A sad fact of life is that we can only know the abusers (the murderers, the thieves) after they have done the deed. They best way we have to prevent child abuse is by teaching the children how to avoid illicit encounters.

On Mayne Island the perpetrator has been identified. Parents will not let their youngest children near him. Children there who have somewhat independent lives need to have him pointed out to them, they need to be taught to stay away from him, and they need to be taught the reasons for doing so. As for the rest of us, we need to feel compassion for the man in his pain, even while we try to prevent him from projecting it onto others. Better still, our compassion might take the form of trying to find a way of curing him.

Unfortunately, in our time, we have not yet figured out much about what makes someone tick, nor what do about it once their tick is broken? (In this time of cultural greed we no longer support much in the way of research) Compassion is in not condemning the man (condemn only the disease). In the case of sexual abuse of children, compassion can be expressed by personal education and by supporting psychiatric research in the hope of finally finding a cure for the disease so we can prevent it from flourishing.

Right Action — Again — Illicit Sex


My faulty intellectual brain has been turning the problem over and over and has come to the conclusion that the injunction to avoid illicit sex is more complicated than at first it might seem. What forms of sex are illicit? Some sects of Buddhism suggest that, while being a monk, one should give up sex altogether. This steps around the explosive nature of sex while the monk learns, in general, what it means to do no harm. Those of us who are not monks, those of us who are in the sexual market place (and maybe even those of us who are monks) might benefit from a more fuller analysis of the problem of sex, generally, and illicit sex in particular. As always, I offer the following not in terms of knowing about the subject in any expert way, but as an exploration of such with the hope of stimulating discussion.

One of the main injuctions you hear in Buddhism is to do no harm. How exactly is avoiding sex doing no harm? Why should sex be such a difficult and dangerous thing that it must be avoided? The answer is that if we use sex in a careless way we can do such extreme emotional or physical harm to ourselves and to others that the rest of their lives (and our own) are adversely affected.

The doing of harm or the doing of good all comes down to the use of power. Power is, scientifically speaking, the ability to get work done. Work done is measured in horsepower. In terms of human interaction, work done is usually measured in money. But power can also be measured in emotional and physical well-being.

If we have more than the average amount of power then we can get more things done. If we have more power than we can personally use, we can either give it away or we can get other people to do work for us. If we use our power in such a way as to increase the well-being of those who work for us, well and good. If we use our power in such a way as to cause harm to those who work for us, then we are abusing our power.

Normally in non-coercive encounters involving work, negotiation is undertaken between all the concerned parties. All the cards are laid out on the table and a mutually beneficial result is looked for. Contracts are agreed upon and carried out. This process can result in a non-harmful interaction — if everyone sticks to the program.

In the context of human emotional interaction, sex can be seen as the product of work done. Sex is normally hard to get, sweaty work, and a positive outcome is never guaranteed. It takes time, time is money, money is power and power can be abused. How to get sex without harming others?

Abuse of power regarding sex can occur in a number of ways. There might be no negotiation, non-disclosure of the real or possible results, and/or the breaking of contracts. Some of the things that occur when power is abused in regards sex: sexual assault, child abuse and infidelity — nothing good ever happens by way of these acts for either the perpetrator or for the victim. Right Action = do not force people or lie to them, and stick to contracts until mutually renegotiated.

The only reason a human being would abuse their power is because they feel a lack of personal satisfaction with life: they suffer. Making others suffer is no solution for one’s own suffering, no matter if one’s actions results in a momentarily feeling that one’s own suffering is alleviated. If we sow suffering all around us, we make a diminished environment to live in. How can less pleasant surroundings increase our satisfaction with life in the long term?

Even animals have this problem. I watched a program in which a troop of chimpanzees raided a neighbouring troop’s fig tree, drove them off and killed one of the ‘enemy’ chimpanzees. The victors proceeded to eat their kill. The look of despair on one chimpanzees face as he ate showed how little long term benefit the thrilling rush of adrenaline in the attack ultimately gave him. The troop now had more enemies. Danger was increased.

Right action: do not kill. Killing is non-consensual, usually secretive, with no beneficial results in the long run. Any of these three things makes killing useless.

And so too with illicit sex.

In later blogs I will look at some of the problems that arise for both the perpetrator and for the victim of illicit sex.

Personal Attacks, Suffering and the Great Vow Monastery

According to the rules I set myself for this blog, I was to post once a week. I was to talk about various specific parts of fundamental zen thought as they pertained to my daily life. Well, if I set the rules, I can break them. The problem for me today being that according to those rules I should be writing about sex as it pertains to Right Action. I’m having a hard time with the subject. But then I suspect that this would be normal, at least for most people of my generation, many of us being afflicted with a somewhat checkered past in respect to sex, specifically how we were harmed and how we harmed others. It’s not that I have any trouble remembering all the humiliations I caused myself, or the pain I felt because of sex, its just that sex is a pretty fraught subject and cannot be thrown off lightly.

Don’t talk about politics, religion or sex!

I want to get what I say right. I want to get what I say right from a Buddhist point of view. Is there a right point of view? What I mean is that I want to make sure that I don’t say anything that might be misunderstood. My post is in draft and it is coming along.

Instead, today, I want to say a few things about the Great Vow Monastery.

My friend Peter has just gone down for a three week residency at the monastery. At the same time I have been presented with a rather emotionally charged situation in that someone I know is dumping a rather complicated set of emotions at my feet and implying that I caused them and so am responsible for their feelings. Things said hurt my feelings. But the hurt did not last long because I can see that the attacks are not really personal. The poor distressed person has, through their stories, told me often enough that they have felt badly in this way (and act out because of it) all their life. And I haven’t known the person long enough to have caused the great suffering the person is blaming me for. So what has this to do with Great Vow?

When I was there I was totally impressed by the dedication of Chozen and Hogen, joint head teachers of the monastery, both allowed to hold the title of Roshi. I saw them living side by side with a large number of impermanent and permanent guests, all of whom, being human, suffer histories. The role of Chozen and Hogen appeared to me to be like benevolent loving parents (in loco parentis) for a whole lot of people who had not been loved properly but who seemed to want to learn to love. I am not trying to say that the people at the monastery are anymore screwed up than anyone else in the world. The fact that they are at the monastery is a great sign in that they are on the road to recovery. I’m saying this from the point of view of someone who thinks we are all screwed up (including myself), and that some of us unfortunately do not know it. The some of us who are fortunate enough to know the extent of our suffering are sometimes inspired to try to learn how not to suffer and how not to cause suffering.

My role in my present situation is that I have to be the local parent for the someone who is suffering and acting it out against me. My partner says that in a way the person is doing so because they see in me someone strong enough not to screw the situation up and who will act with compassion in the face of the personal attacks. Well, I don’t know if I am strong. But given that I can remember two teachers who seemed to be holding up well in the face of the hard and exhausting demands of their position as exemplars of compassion, I can have faith that such a thing can be done and therefor, if I try hard, I won’t screw up my situation too badly.