Ignorance Dharma Talk by Peggy Murray

The topic for this dharma talk arose as a result of a recent discussion. Some of you know that Joshin teaches a yearlong course called Infinite Circle designed to explore the personal, collective and systemic complexities of poverty. A second year is offered to those who choose further training as community-engaged Buddhist ministers. About half of the first-year participants didn’t feel called to the advanced training and yet wanted to continue meeting as dharma friends to explore topics that crop up in everyday life as practice questions for communal pondering. Our first meeting occurred just after the Jan 6, 2021 storming of the Capitol building by Trump supporters. One participant expressed outrage –not so much at the insurrectionists — but at various attempts to “spin” the situation, all of which tended in the direction of “this isn’t who we are” as Americans. The sangha member was incredulous that with 70+ million Americans voting to continue the Trump regime that anyone could deny that real Americans were involved.

The discussion expanded into the topic of shadow –the Jungian term that refers to the unconscious aspects of our personality of which the conscious ego is blind or disavows. These shadow aspects are often what many consider negative or more primitive human qualities like rage, jealousy, selfishness, lust and the striving for power.

It seemed to me that both of these topics—trying to make nice when things are not nice out there and the shadow aspects of personality that often drive our reactivity and habit energy map pretty well onto the Buddhist understanding of ignorance.

Ignorance is a basic Buddhist teaching—I think we have all read about the Buddha’s assertion that the roots of our suffering lie in what are called the three poisons: greed, hatred/ill-will and ignorance/delusion.

The word ignorance in the Buddhist understanding is a translation of the Sanskrit avidya, vid being the root for knowledge and the a before is a negation. Avidya has nothing to do with being illiterate or stupid and everything to do with not seeing in a way similar to blindness and also not having knowledge.

We’ve talked a lot here at Bread Loaf about the three tenets of Zen Peacemakers: not-knowing, bearing witness and loving response. But the not-knowing that I ‘m talking about here is not the creating of openness and letting go of fixed ideas, but paradoxically, it’s the not-knowing that is so attached to one’s opinion, view or conditioning that one doesn’t even recognize that one is not clearly seeing.

Let’s take the situation of the Capitol insurgence via the idea of ignorance or as it is sometimes translated: delusion. Many friends, and I myself have characterized the folks who stormed the Capitol pejoratively as delusional and make no mistake– I’ve used that term to separate myself outside that designation-i.e. I’m rational.

According to Wikipedia, in psychological usage: “A delusion is a fixed belief that is not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence. As a pathology, it is distinct from a belief based on false or incomplete information, confabulation, dogma, illusion, or some other misleading effects of perception.”

All of a sudden when I take that sentence into consideration, I’m not so sure I can characterize the insurgents as pathologically delusional. It seems highly likely to me that false and/or incomplete information was routinely supplied to them by right-wing media and as well, dispensed from the highest seat of power in the country—the President of the US. Further, when diagnosing delusion, one of the difficulties lies in that, “almost all of …[the} features [of delusion] can be found in “normal” beliefs. Many religious beliefs hold exactly the same features yet, are not universally considered delusional.” (Wikipedia)

Psychologists don’t really even fully understand what causes delusions but one of the causal theories of the onset of delusions states that some persons can be predisposed and might suffer the onset of delusional disorder in those moments when “…coping with life and maintaining high self-esteem becomes a significant challenge. In this case, the person views others as the cause of their personal difficulties in order to preserve a positive self-view.”  Think carefully about what you just read. To me, those conditions seem highly probable precursors to the Jan 6 situation.

The danger (imo) with labeling these folks as “delusional” is that it allows me to write them off as a waste of my time—if I assume that despite my best efforts, I will not reap the outcome I desire. (Which is to dissuade them from their erroneous views and resultant violent behavior).

Thus, I might feel reassured when the media and politicians assert that “this (meaning the insurgent behavior) is not who I am (we are)”. The implication is that I then am the real America/American: a rational, non-violent being who respects law and order and would not stoop to violence as a means to acquire selfish ends. Really? Am I sure that I fully fit that description?

One of the nuances of the translation of avidya as ignorance is easily discerned by the dictionary definition of that word: The word “ignorant” is an adjective that describes a person in the state of being unaware …and can describe individuals who deliberately ignore or disregard important information or facts.” Both aspects-being unaware and deliberate ignoring are concerning me at the moment.

Assuredly, I’m hoping fervently that unification and healing happens in our country going forward. But I’m also realizing that to think because we have a vice-president who is a woman of color and because I will be governed via more diverse cabinet and administrative appointees -do I believe that’s going to fix our racism and equity problems? I’d certainly like to believe that albeit it likely makes me delusional.

What about the ongoing situation with immigration at America’s borders? Because Biden is empathetic and increasing the numbers of immigrants allowed to enter America, will that be enough to quash xenophobic behavior in America?

As for the legislation slated for Congress to increase the minimum wage over the next 4 years to $15/hr., will that alleviate inequality? Address child hunger? Significantly decrease the ravages of poverty in the US?

Am I rational to think the American dream is a promise attainable for all given our current economic systems, policies and thinking?

Am I rational if I continue to invest in Wall Street corporations that support fossil fuel extraction, plastics production, factory farming, and other sources of elevated levels of carbon emissions and hope that the Paris accords are sufficient to turn the coming ravages of climate change around?

Is it rational to try and preserve my current lifestyle of buying avocados, citrus fruits and strawberries year-round; of eating almond butter( a monocultural bee killer), and chocolate bars (most brands use child slaves for harvesting the beans) and think that my paltry contributions to The Rainforest Network or the Environmental Defense Fund or the you-name-it environmental activist organization will slow the degradation of habitats, the loss of wilderness and the disappearance of thousands of species?

These are all examples of my ongoing ignorance—and in these instances it’s a kind of deliberate turning away. Why? Because to fully recognize my complicity in all of it demands that I change my behavior and that is going to negatively impact my comfort level.

And don’t all the previous scenarios involve shadow aspects of my own personality— are not my own selfish desires including greed and aversion, and clinging to privilege (and its power) at work here?

My individual shadow is now reflected in the collective shadow, is it not? My greed institutionalized in corporations that seek profits over public and planetary health and wellbeing. My dislike of certain others is institutionalized in a military industrial complex creating endless wars, acts of aggression and oppression, not to mention exploitation of the less powerful.

Ignorance is fueling all of it.

I want to ask myself, and frankly all of you to recommit, to strengthen our intention to not turn away and ignore what is difficult to face.

It takes considerable moral effort on an individual’s part to surface these oft repressed or suppressed shadow aspects of personality. So much of the dark side, the shadow of my society has surfaced vividly in the past 4 years. Thinking about it makes me squirm with shame.

The past few weeks have been such a welcome break from the daily chaotic and divisive drama and outrage that I’ve experienced during the past 4 years. I’m enjoying the drama vacation and frankly, I’m a bit terrified that I’m going to go back to the complacency and delusion that thought things were maybe not great, but certainly not a crisis—at least not for me—in the years leading up to 2016.

Bodhi means to awaken—and it means to awaken from our fundamental ignorance—avidya.

As a wise friend mentioned this morning on a Zoom call, my willingness and ability to explore my ignorance is directly connected to my willingness to accept the loss of my innocence. To come face to face with the fact that I may not be the righteous person I think I am. I may not be as anti-racist or compassionate or selfless or as Buddhist as I imagine.

We’re told in Buddhism that every stimulus that contacts our 6 senses (Buddhism considers mind the sixth sense gate) has an accompanying feeling tone. I either perceive the stimulus as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The neutral piece is what is interesting and important to tonight’s talk. In the Buddhist explanations of vedanā/feeling tone, neutral refers to things that I perceive as neither pleasant or unpleasant—they’re things that in truth, I’m likely paying very little attention to thus they don’t have any charge or salience to my ego. The things I find neutral are things that I think I have categorized correctly and thus they don’t warrant much further discernment.  The neutral feeling tone actually leans more toward the pleasant continuum because, since those stimuli don’t elicit a particular sense of threat or aversive reaction on my part, I perceive them as safe to ignore.

To bring awareness to what is not eliciting either a positive or negative feeling tone can be an interesting investigation for our meditation practice. I invite us to take a minute and just open our awareness to what we aren’t noticing. What in your inner or outer world is just not asserting itself? To what are you not even attending? First in your inner world, then move to your current surroundings and then expand that inquiry to the world at large—what/who are you choosing to just not think about?

Usually, what I feel comfortable ignoring is what my perception has already categorized –rug, chair, table, and thus there is a sense of security—I’m certain I know what those things are -I don’t need to pay further attention. This isn’t such a problem when it comes to overlooking the rug or the room’s furnishings or the humming of the fridge motor, but it can be a real deficit when we begin to think we have people categorized or situations all figured out.  When perception labels and stereotypes people or takes a simplistic view of complex situations, then ignorance gets fuel. This is the kind of fixed view that we attempt to freshen up with the not-knowing of a Zen peacemaker.

The not-knowing of the Zen Peacemaker specifically asks us to do another take, to look deeper, to question our tendency to rapid categorization and non-attending or ignoring by asking as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests: Am I sure? Could there be another reason then my first assumption as to why someone is behaving as they are? Or why this situation is as it is? What does a label (poor, houseless, addict, etc.) really tell me about a particular individual?

It takes training and practice to develop this kind of penetrating awareness. It takes discipline to look past the initial judgement, to be open and curious to complexity and nuance.

Being willing to engage ongoing relationships and situations with humility and curiosity is at the heart of beginner’s mind—that fresh openness so valued in Zen training.

Can I start to look at my own resemblance in relating to humans I perceive as different or other and see where we share the same desire to avoid suffering and acquire happiness despite the fact that we employ different strategies to achieve our ends based upon our conditioning, life experiences and the resources at hand?

Roshi Joan used to quip that to recognize an irritating behavior or mannerism in another was to come face to face with the mirror of our own shadow—”You spot it, you got it”. Granted that may be an over-simplified retort, but it is a pithy reminder.

The Tibetan Buddhists have very good techniques for cultivating this open receptivity to encountering fellow human beings. They include a practice which involves seeing everyone as having once been your own loving mother who cared selflessly for you when you were young and vulnerable in order for you to live your precious human life.

They utilize the technique of equalizing: Just like me, this person seeks happiness. Just like me this person seeks to avoid suffering. Just like me this person uses, as means to these ends, the resources they have been given.

For our future and the future of our offspring and generations to follow, we need to recommit to “waking up” from the deep-seated tendency to ignore or fall back into lazy habits of attention. We need to recommit to using mindfulness and meditation, not just to gain some inner peace and calm, but to develop the stability and sensitivity to not look away but to turn toward and be of service to a suffering world. We need to be open to losing our innocence; to facing our shadows and bringing them into the light of consciousness where we can do our work and reintegrate in healthy ways. We need to understand as privileged members of this society the variety and degree of sufferings we have never experienced and to be willing to receive new knowledge– to be taught by those whose have had these differing experiences. We need to recommit our hearts and minds to the Zen peacemaker precept that reads: “I vow not to be ignorant and vow to cultivate a mind that sees clearly.”

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