Scientific Buddhism

Religions can be used to form a dogma of belief for a community of followers. On the benefit side, a religious dogma would be a listing of a set of activities that, if practised, would lead one to spiritual benefit. On the down side, dogma can become a means whereby one group of people oppress others. Buddhism, as a religion, has for the most part been a religion of the former type, allowing the development of communities of people who work together and support each other in their spiritual quest. But even in this positive light, Buddhism as a religion can have a negative side. A sanga can form that supports our attachment to the difficulties we have in struggling with our own psychologies. On example: lots of us get caught up in complaining about the difficulties we experience. Our sanga members treat us kindly, hug us nicely, and listen. We suffer. And while we get support in our suffering, nothing changes; we continue suffering. On the other hand, I remember one spiritual teacher who fought this tendency very nicely. After a weekend meditation, he asked all those present to put up their hand if they had experienced physical pain during the sits. Everyone put up their hand. The teacher’s only comment was, “Good. Now no one needs mention pain again.”

But what if Buddha had been alive today; would he want to form a religion? Looking at what he said ~2600 years ago, I would say that what he brought to the world was essentially a scientific theory, not a religion. Science is a neutral device that lets us look at things analytically. Scientists think up theories, and then they develop methodologies to test the theories. After a theory is proven useful, then a technology is developed to exploit the knowledge that was revealed in the scientific experiment.

Buddhism’s major focus is the eradication of suffering; Buddhism as a science is the idea that there is a systematic way of doing the same. Many people react negatively to the idea that Buddhism could be approached scientifically. And there are two major difficulties in pursuing Buddhism as science: 1) it is hard to be aware of ones moment to moment suffering, and of ones moment to moment, suffer-inducing thoughts; 2) we are fragile beasts that suffer fear of extinction, and as our minds are naturally wired in such a way that we identify ourselves with—we believe ourselves to be—our suffering, we naturally fear to give it up: without our suffering, who would we be?

The first of Buddha’s four major scientific statements is that all is suffering. This statement is translated in various ways, but I think that the simple translation, ‘suffering exits’ is perfectly good to work with. This is a scientific statement because it is a simple observation. Buddha’s second main statement posits that suffering is caused by attachment to desires. This is a hypothesis which can be tested by experimentation: a simple survey could be devised by social scientists to check on the nature of any particular example of suffering (as opposed to pain), and this survey could help in determining the cause of that suffering. In my own experience, I have found that every instance of my suffering (as opposed to pain) was caused by attachment to some desire I had. The self analysis was hard and took a lot of work. And I am still being surprised by the up-welling of suffering.

Buddha’s third statement concluded that suffering can be alleviated by removing attachments to desires. Having made this scientific conclusion, Buddha then described a course of action, a technology that if followed would bring an end to ones suffering. This technology is found in the Eight Fold Path.

In science if you repeat an traditional experiment you get the expected result. If you use a developed technology, you get the expected result, as long as the machine is not broken. We are the machine, our brains are the software that makes the machine perform wonderfully—or makes it suffer.

But the Eight Fold Path is not merely a technology that gives a recipe for action, it also reveals the major causes of suffering. Where Buddha prescribes Right Thinking, he can be read to mean that incorrect thinking is the cause of one type of suffering. This holds true for all Eight elements.

If Buddhism is a religion then the Eight Fold Path is something to aspire to, attainable only through hard work, allusive insight, and the help of innumerable friends. One is not expected to succeed, one only hopes to succeed.

If Buddhism is a science, then Buddhism is a machine, like a car, that should diligently take one to the destination: the destination is a state of non-attachment and non-suffering. The technology is laid out in the Eight Fold Path. It is as simple as this: if one is thinking bad thoughts about another person, thoughts that if they became manifest would cause that person suffering, then one would do well to think something completely different, something that is positive, that would cause no one suffering. Go play the piano, take a walk. This process, of becoming aware of ones thoughts and then changing their nature by abandoning them and doing something else, will rewire ones brain, recalibrate ones machine into a more and more enlightened state. It is something that one can do safely at home alone.

Luckily, the religion of Buddhism has brought us one extremely well-honed and useful scientific exercise that can help us pay attention to, and to become aware of our moment to moment attachments and desires, and thereby point to the thoughts that give rise to our suffering. This honourable practice is meditation. The scientific companion to the cultivation of awareness through meditation is that when a suffering-causing thought or pattern is identified, then one can take the technology of the Eight Fold Path, think and act in a different way than one usually does, and thereby rewire our beings. All we have to do is have faith in the machine and use it.

It’s as easy as learning to be a software wizard on the computer. Re-hack your brain. One day I might complete the job on my own head.


Pain versus Suffering

I know a fellow who had an abscess that made him moan, and groan, and carry on in a pitiful manner. At the dentist he was told in no uncertain terms to stop complaining. The dentist had seen more than one person with a far worse abscess, with half of their face swollen up into an angry red welt, who hardly complained at all. (Technically, the pain of an abscess is caused by pressure being put on the nerve, which then sends out a pain signal to warn of the infection). Years later, this same person was able to fall asleep in a dental chair while undergoing a root canal job. Don’t get me wrong. I can imagine pain so severe that all I’d do is cry and scream. But just last week, I read a news story about a Buddhist monk who lit himself on fire in a protest. He did no complaining while he burned. Not that I am saying that we should all burn ourselves. But isn’t it interesting, the different ways we all respond to pain?

What exactly is pain and what is its relationship to suffering? The other day I heard an advertizement/plea by a cancer research charity. The spokeswoman was speaking about someone who had a severe form of cancer. What she said was, “He suffered the…cancer.”

Odd how English allows one to say things in different ways. Notice that pain is a noun and suffer is a verb. And yet we confuse the two and let them stand in for each other. We say, she suffered a broken arm, rather than, she felt the pain of a broken arm.

In this online dictionary, here, ‘suffer’ is defined as covering everything from pain to loss, from distress to punishment. It also means to appear at a disadvantage. Did the cancer research spokeswoman mean he was a a disadvantage because of the cancer? He undoubtedly was at a disadvantage. But ‘disadvantage’ does not carry the emotional freight of the word ‘suffering’.

The roots of the word ‘suffer’ comes from Latin: “Latin sufferre : … to carry.” She suffered the pain: she carried the pain. At what point did the word start to mean to feel pain?

I like to think that the two concepts should remain separate. Pain is a mental/physical object, and suffering is our reaction to it. I want to define ‘suffering’ as ‘carrying the idea of the pain beyond usefulness’.

The zen story about the two monks going on a journey together: They come across a woman who is having a hard time crossing a swollen stream. One monk picks her up and carries her across. Some while later, the second monk upbraids the first because they have taken vows to avoid women. The first monk replies, “I carried her across the stream. You are still carrying her.”

Buddha said that suffering exists, that it is caused by the attachment to desires. In respect to pain, is it not our desire to be completely free of it? And yet, the reality is that pain happens. You can’t avoid it. But what is pain? If you stick your hand into a candle flame, you get pain. This pain serves a function. It is a signal telling you to take your hand out of the fire. Sometimes, of course, pain can be so persistent there is no way to pull the figurative hand out of the flame. Is the result necessarily suffering?

Buddha said that suffering is caused by attachment. As pain is not caused by attachment, it would be inconsistent for Buddha to say that pain is suffering. Suffering is caused by attachment. Suffering is caused by carrying the import of the event in one’s mind. The second monk in the story above was in no pain, but he was suffering all during his journey because he could not let the event alone. He kept rolling it around in his mind. He kept worrying about the significance of it, about the right and wrong of it. Was he envious that the first monk got to carry the woman and he didn’t? Or, how come the first monk transgressed and didn’t get punished? Or,…. Endless strings of monkey mind.

What is the significance of pain? It is a mere signal. How can it have significance beyond being simply a signal that something is going wrong, and we should do something about it if we can? What if we can’t do anything? Are we attached to the idea that we should be so powerful that we always had the ability to cure each instance of pain, whether it be our own or another’s? Each one of us, in suffering, gives the pain signal, the phenomena of it, extra import. It is when we do this, when we think that life is not fair to cause us so much pain, that we suffer. Pain is unavoidable. Suffering, in the sense with which I am applying it, is (however unconsciously) self-afflicted.

I do a pretty good job of pretending that this sciatica I have shooting down my leg in electric bolts is merely pain. My struggle is in trying not to think that the universe is being unfair to me in giving me this pain. My struggle is to not complain to myself or others. When the pain becomes distracting, I take codeine. I would probably do well if I did more yoga.

What would a life of pain be like if we could see pain merely as pain, as just a sensation, with no significance beyond its message? What would our lives be like if we gave up our attachment to the strange notion that we should live a life that is pain free, that we should live forever, that we should be strong enough to cure all the world’s ills?

Politics, Sex, Commercialism, Education

the scream

”Though they become our sworn enemies, reviling and persecuting us, we should regard them as bodhisattva manifestations who, in their great compassion, are employing skillful means to help emancipate us from the sinful karma we have produced over countless kalpas through our biased, self-centered views.” Torei Zenji (second entry, down the page a bit, under other sutras)


I’m cutting my latest loaf of sourdough this morning, and I think it is too wet and heavy. My partner again states that she really likes my bread because it is good for the sandwiches that she takes to work. She says the tomatoes don’t make the bread soggy. All well and good, but what am I doing worrying about making the perfect loaf (a delusional goal) when all around the world most people have a hard time finding enough to eat? I live like the kings of old were accustomed to living, in terms of creature comfort, not in terms of life and death over others. At least not that I’m aware of, or am I?

I was in at the swimming pool a couple of days ago and a fellow in the change room was musing about how it would be nice if the pool bought a heat-less spin dryer to dry the swimming suits. I pointed out that we were going to have to do it the old-fashioned way and dry the suits on a line. He pointed out that the ‘Y’ had a spin dryer. “Maybe the pool management is saving the cost of the electricity and the machine?” I suggested. And then he made what I thought was a nonsequitur. “Somebody pays,” he said. I offered,”Taxes.” He came back with, “Even people in the third world pay for us. They send us all their stuff.” He suggested I look up The Story of Stuff, which I pass on to you in the spirit of dancing lessons from god, or being aware of what is really going on in terms of commercialism and economy.

On many Buddhist themed blogs lately I have been reading various musings, some tortured, some determined, all reflecting on the sorry state of the world today. Topics range from poverty, sex, politics, commercialism to war. The eternal human stuff. Well, if I am going to write yet one more blog about zen, what is my stand on these topics? I started musing about what I thought about politics, although the topic, politics, stands in for all the other topics as a test case.

Lessons learned from Nathan’s blog and Peter’s blog. Nathan writes from a zen perspective, often wondering how things in the world look when subjected to a certain amount of introspection and analysis. Peter directly points to common concerns and often asks how certain difficult topics affect your life, how zen practice affects your perception of the world. Or at least this is sort of what I take from the two of them.

What does Buddhism tell us about the world? This is territory for the Four Noble Truths.

Looking at all the world’s problems from the perspective of the 4NTs

If all is suffering then all the worlds peoples are suffering. What causes suffering? Suffering is the result of having desire, but desire results from having an incorrect or incomplete view of reality. In short (in terms of Buddhism), suffering is the state of not being enlightened. If the great majority of the world’s peoples are short of enlightened then their pursuits, for the most part, can be nothing other than an engagement with and a further perpetration of suffering. When suffering is caused by misapprehension of self and the world, we have to ask what is the major error in perception. It seems to me that the major error is a person’s idea of self. The old zen saw: the problem of the ego. Suffering people often feel that they are more important than other suffering people, that their suffering is somehow more important or significant than other peoples’ suffering. Politics is often called the art of the possible, but it is really the art of one suffering person tying to get advantage over other suffering people. Yes, compromises do happen, but few people are ever satisfied with a compromise. Compromise rarely (like never) stops the suffering.

What is the enlightened person supposed to do? Or more realistically, what can anyone who is writing about zen do about politics when confronted with the solipsism of suffering? Suffering is a real thing. It is everywhere. As zen nuts we vow to alleviate it. Should we get involved with politics if politics does not really relieve suffering? That depends.

So what am I doing writing this blog? I am trying to look at the world from a zen perspective. Trying to be aware of what really is going on. What is really going on in politics is that people try to thrash out some workable compromise. But how can a compromise work unless it makes deluded suffering peoples stop blaming each other for their suffering? If we want to engage in politics we need to point out that what is good for one is what is exactly good for another and that unless the good becomes general, suffering ensues. Supposed enemies are not really enemies in the long run. They are merely suffering people who have the misguided idea that someone else is causing their suffering. Oh, yes, someone might shoot you. But the reason they do so is because they are suffering and have mistakenly blamed you for it. The only way to stop someone or their brother or sister or friend from shooting you in the future is to help them alleviate their suffering. To try to subject your enemies to suffering is no solution at all. The proof of this pudding is that we have an endless history of people blaming each other for their suffering and going to war to put and end to the situation and yet we still have suffering and war. All attempted solutions have so far not worked.

Politics to a zen nut has to be an attempt to educate people about the nature of suffering, and it cannot be making accusatory or judgemental statements, or trying to get the advantage over another. Zen does not cast blame. The “beam in your own eye” is the blame you (I) give others for your suffering.

This is a hard lesson, especially when someone is coming over the hill with guns intent on killing you. How does one have compassion for the person who is causing you pain? The only reason they are causing you pain is because they blame you for causing them pain. This situation is the universal suffering circle from hell.

I have absolutely no idea how to go about educating the world. All I can do is argue that the first step in ending suffering is to stop blaming others for your (mine, our) disease of suffering. Have compassion for the (metaphorical) suicide bomber who sees his/her life as so awful that the only way they can stop their suffering is to cause others to suffer. How to make their life one of less suffering? What do you think?

loving and dying with eyes wide open

'La mise en tombeau d'Atala' de Anne-Louis Girodet

I’ve been following Peter Renner’s blog (living and dying with eyes wide open) for some time now with much interest. A short while ago he did a series of posts about love and intimacy (Here and here and here). The posts themselves were (are – doesn’t everything exist forever on the internet!?) heartfelt, open and cogent to the problems we all have with loving ourselves enough to let others love us (and to let our selves love others). Even now after years of working on the problem, my early programed-in self-loathing can rear its head in response to the oddest triggers – dharma trying to teach me a new lesson about moment to moment love — and it can do so in the most dramatic and emotional of ways. The practice of zen, and a lot of therapy, has helped me to faster pop the rising bubbles of self-hatred (independent of the form it takes or the excuse it uses). But every once in a while a bubble can reach gigantic proportions before I can pop it and get back to being loving and caring towards myself and others, before I can stop hating myself enough to become compassionate again.

On the other hand, Renner’s post from August 28, 2010, raises what might seem to be a non-related matter: Death! Renner says that whenever he starts writing about death, the number of hits to his site go way down. He wonders if the reason is simply that people do not like to contemplate their own or anyone else’s death. Why not? Good question.

Ancient Greek thought had Eros and Thanatos as opposite heads of the coin called life. If this is so, love and death are necessarily intertwined. Buddhism tells us (please excuse the simplicity) that all is one, and that our task in becoming clear or enlightened or whatever, is to see how things really are.

So what is the relationship between love and death? Compassion is the highest form of love. Compassion for the universe requires us to see it as it is and then love it as it is while trying at the same time to alleviate suffering. The reality is that without death there would be no life or love. This makes me think that if we love life, or if the point of life is to love, then we must love death (all in its own good time, of course, no sense on missing out on our allotted life and love) for without death there would be no life or love.

But how to love death? Is not death the cause of the most suffering? Not necessarily. I argue that self-hatred (loathing, disgust etc.) is far more important. If we hate to think about death, then we do not love it. Why not? We all know the old saw: you have to love yourself in order to love another. Maybe we have to hate our selves before we can hate anything else, including death.

In one post Renner struggles (hard zen work) to learn the intimate difficulties of loving; and in another post, he struggles to learn the intimate difficulties attendant to the reality that we all die. Maybe the struggle is the same? All is one?

What I am trying to say here is that if we do not love ourselves then we cannot love others and more importantly we will fear death. To wit: one of the great difficulties in loving another being is the fear that the loved person will reject us. If they reject us it is easy to interpret the rejection as them saying we are bad. If we have any form of self-hatred then the rejection would confirm our worst thoughts about our self. The thing about death: we can see it as the worse rejection because it seems to totally remove any further chance that we can be loved either by our self (if we have not yet learned to do so), or by others. What it boils down to is that the prerequisite to being able to contemplate ones own death is that one must learn to have compassion for oneself.

Wish me luck in this endeavour and I wish you luck also. Or as they say, Namaste.


Are we having fun yet?

This post was inspired by Nathan over at Dangerous Harvests.

According to Ludwig Wittgenstein (if I understand him properly), language is a tricky business in that all words have meanings that are idiosyncratic. Each one of us thinks and feels something completely different when we hear or use any particular word. Wittgenstein likens language to a large map. Each word inhabits one address on the map. Each person understands any particular word not in terms of the address but in terms of the route they took to learn the word. It is like going to school. We each took a different path to get there and had different emotional, intellectual and physical experiences along the way. It is the experiential route that brought each person to the word that informs, colours and gives meaning to the word.

What about concrete words such as ‘apple’? We can each experience an apple by biting into it and so come to some common idea of what the word apple means. But each one of us has an idea of the word apple that is coloured differently than all others’, depending on the apple pies our grandmother did or did not bake, by the day we fell out of the apple tree, by the wasp nest hanging in the midst of the fruit, by the story in the bible or by the story about Newton…

Abstract words are a different kettle of fish. In effect, the word ‘happiness’ only has a private address on the map. Worse, each person’s word ‘happiness’ has a private and undisclosed address. Only the individual knows where their experience of happiness resides. Because of this, the word ‘happiness’ is almost useless because it is not easy to know what others mean by the word. Happiness is a warm gun. I’m so happy to see you. What you did made me feel happy. Is everybody happy? Let me make you happy, baby.

Nathan asks if we can find out what everybody really wants. We already suspect that what everyone wants cannot be happiness because happiness always means different things? And we cannot say everybody wants the same thing when what they want is described by the word happiness which meaning completely different things for different people. So if happiness is ruled out, is there something that everybody wants?

One of my favourite stories (I do not know if the story is true or an urban legend, nor do I know where I heard it or if I only dreamt it, but I like it anyway):

Some people were studying gorillas, their social interactions and contracts, how they shared things and how they played scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Someone wondered what a sudden change of state would do to the social contracts in the herd (tribe, group). So they dumped a load of bananas into the gorillas’ clearing, far more bananas than the group could eat before the fruit rotted. The silver back, the toughest honcho, wouldn’t let anyone else near the bananas. I like to think that he thought that with more bananas than he could ever eat, he had enough to last him forever and so didn’t need to cultivate his mutual aid relationships with anyone else. He drove all the other gorillas away from the pile of bananas. No more scratch my back, I’ll scratch your. No more Mr Nice Guy.

When the bananas rotted, the silver back wanted back into the mutual aid society. All the other apes gave him a hard time, wouldn’t interact with him. It took him forever to win back his place.

What this story says to me is that, in terms of our type of capitalism, our western economic adventurers have figured out how to abstract the bananas and make them last forever (turned them into money), thereby allowing the monied to ignore the social interdependence that makes everything grow. The American Dream, the Western Dream, is to become wealthy, comfortable, privileged, beholden to no one.

I’d say that our biology tells us to want all the bananas. But in every animal society, the biological imperative of wanting all the bananas is tempered by the overwhelming need to live in a mutual aid network. Oh so clever humans have figured out how to do an end run around mutual aid networks by inventing non-perishable money to stand in for bananas. The idea of money allows our desire to have all the bananas run rampant, untempered by cooperative effort. As soon as money shows up in a society, everyone forgets their mutual aid pac and goes for all the money, for all the bananas. As far as I can see, cornering the market on bananas is merely a misguided attempt to stop suffering by attempting to control the universe (by buying it with the power of money), to make it do what we want. What we want the universe to do is to stop making us suffer. Yes, and if we stop suffering we might call that happiness.

You might think the word suffering is like the word happiness in that everyone suffers in different ways. Yes, but according to Buddha, all states of suffering can be alleviated in the same way for each person, but unless we learn to stop being attached to our suffering (more on this later) the desire for happiness cannot be fulfilled except in the most fleeting of ways. There is no one way to get all the bananas. There aren’t enough bananas in the world to allow everyone to get all the bananas. According to Buddha, instead of buying lottery tickets, the sure and only way to stop suffering is to rigorously apply the knowledge contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Yes suffering exists, and suffering exists because one desires all the bananas. But you don’t have to suffer just because it’s impossible to have all the physical and emotional bananas. Check out the Eightfold Path.

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.