August 29, 2009

Compassion for oneself

The issue of self-directed compassion has been coming up in a variety of ways lately -- in my reading [in Compassion: Conceptualisations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy and in Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego]; in sermons at the mission; and in discussion at Loaves & Fishes.

As a longtime believer in ego reduction, I come at this with bias against being soothing toward oneself [or, as I term it, "the dastardly deed of giving yourself a pass for doing a bunch of stupid shit].

But studies this century on ego have changed the terminology and a sense of what the ego might be and what stable egos might be like. Now, perhaps, ego at its "best," is either quiet or silent, and that it might be good, for some, if not all, to direct compassion toward oneself.
Input from the mission

While matters of outwardly-directed love and compassion come up rarely at the mission [either in the milieu of Homeless World or in the preachers' sermons], they do come up in rather weird ways. One usually-hate-mongering preacher said something I've been mulling over: "God doesn't love you (and everyone else, equally) because of who YOU are, but because of who HE is." The line got hardy approval from the congregants. [Congregants DO hear of how they are much loved, but not about how they should themselves love.]

My immediate reaction was "What the hell!? If He doesn't love us for who WE are, individually, but wholly because He is who He is, then He must love us conceptually, and not for ourselves. And, truly, one can only love a being for his/her unique constituent of qualities; otherwise, it ain't love."

[But, then, God being God, knowing us from the inside, as the Christian preachers claim, He may ONLY be able to know us as particular persons and NOT as conceptions. He knows the numbers of hairs on the head of each of us, it says in the Bible (Matthew 10:30 & Luke 12:7.)]

Later thoughts of mine on the matter were even less damning: We can evoke love of others. We have that power. We can direct ourselves toward loving our enemies (as Jesus famously instructed), for example. At least we might if they are not so narcissistic that they are constantly game-playing. [I don't think a mentally healthy person can love someone whose authentic self is fully shielded. "There's no there there," as is said by psychiatrists about sociopaths.] Still, I insist loving the particular person is necessary for it to be love; people (as opposed to God) cannot love someone conceptially.

From what I understand, when Jesus said "love thy neighbor as thyself," one interpretation is that he meant "love they neighbor instead of thyself." For him to have meant "love thy neighbor in the same manner as one loves thyself" -- which is the usual interpretation -- presents curious problems. For one thing, we don't know ourself in the same way we know others. While we may think of ourself in the third-person, we never experience ourself in the third-person. Our relationship with ourself is radically different than the relationship we have with others. We can't bestow love to ourself in the same way we can to others; the two "loves" are wholly, radically, spectacularly different beasts.

It's a more than a little like comparing making love to masturbation. These are greatly different experiences because you can't be "the other" to yourself.

To my way of seeing things, compassion necessarily comprises an element of ignorance that we don't have about ourself. [While we are ignorant about things relating to ourself, when we are compassionate toward ourself, the same "ourself" that is bestowing the compassion is receiving the compassion, thus it is fully informed. Compassion we give to ourself is directly, overtly twisting what we immediately beforehand had seen as the truth.

Compassion toward another is given from a different viewpoint, different worldview and from a base of different data about the situation than what "the other" is going by. Compassion, because of its otherness, is enlarging. Compassion you direct at yourself is skewing and screwy and very much NOT a second opinion, from another perspective.
Beyond the self

In their paper "Beyond the Individualistic Self" by Drs. Korsgaard and Meglino in Transcending Self-Interest, the writers/researchers tell us that those who attempt to be both self-regarding and other-regarding end up with conflicted decisions and end up choosing self over other. Thus, only those who are "Other Oriented" benefit from full-throttle compassion.






Mindlessness Thanatos

Other Orientation Quiet Ego


Rational Self-Interest Noisy Ego

Collective Rationality Phobos

In the chart at right, you can see the four types of egos that result from different combinations of high or low interest in self or others.

Mindlessness is a category that includes individuals who are low in both self-and other-interest. This mode of behavior is posited to involve functioning in obedience to commonsense rules. Behavior has been documented extensively in research on automaticity [Bargh & Chartrand: "The unbearable automaticity of being."] and mindlessness [Ellen Langer on Mindlessness, or, see her 1989 book Mindfulness].

Rational Self-Interest [High in self-interest; Low in other-interest] is egoism in its most-rigorous form (i.e., the "noisy" ego). Individuals pursue only self-serving goals. This type of reasoning underlies classical economics [unfettered capitalism!] and value expectancy models of attitudes and motivation [Ajzen: "Nature and operation of attitudes"].

Collective Rationality [High in both self- and other-interest] Individuals engage in rational judgment. While trying to maximize outcomes for both self and others, self-oriented goals triumph according to studies [That is, a self-serving bias wins out [Bazerman et al:. "Why good accountants do bad audits," in Harvard Business Review.] [Also, see DeDreu et al: "Motivated information processing, strategic choice, and the quality of negotiated agreement."]

Other Orientation [Low in self-interest; High in other-interest] Individuals are focused on benefitting others and apply principles or norms of behavior to meet these goals, obviating the need to consider personal consequences. [The "other" may involve a pair or group within which the self is subsumed.] This is the 'extreme' in quieting the ego. [See Meglino & Korsgaard "The Role of Other Orientation in Reactions to Job Characteristics" in the Journal of Management.]

But another view comes from Dr. Kristin Neff [in her Transcending Self-Interest paper "Self-Compassion: Moving Beyond the Pitfalls of a Separate Self-Concept" and from Dr. Paul Gilbert, editor of Compassion: Conceptualisations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy.

Writes Neff, "Self-compassion can be thought of as a type of openheartedness in which the boundaries between self and other are softened -- all human beings are worthy of compassion, the self included. In this way, self-compassion represents a quiet ego, because one's experience is not strongly filtered through the lens of a separate self."

I'm not sure I understand Neff, nor that she makes a good case for self-compassion, generally, but in case histories in Paul Gilbert's book I can see how some individuals are aided in overcoming trauma by soothing themselves with inward-directed compassion. For most of us, though, I have to think that loving ourselves is necessarily non-compassionate because of the self-other conflict that ensues.

At her website, Self Compassion, Dr. Neff writes, "When individuals feel self-pity, they become immersed in their own problems and forget that others have similar problems. They ignore their interconnections with others, and instead feel that they are the only ones in the world who are suffering. Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows one to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection."

Well, maybe so. Certainly Dr. Neff has researched the matter extensively. But I cannot see that people applying what they want to be compassion toward themselves doesn't become, really, self pity. One's relationship with oneself is, necessarily, self-oriented so only self pity occurs when one feels sorry for his- or her-self. Feeling sorry for others is the 'road in' for having compassion for others. Feeling sorry for oneself always, it seems to me, becomes self pity.

August 10, 2009

Homeless Tom honored by Progressive Buddhism blog and Four Honest Scrappy blogs

This blog was honored in a blogpost two days ago, "My Twelve," in the much esteemed Progressive Buddhism blog as one of the "best Buddhist blogs by individual practitioners." Thanks to Kyle Lovett for his very kind commendation.

With only a couple exceptions [ones I was unaware of], the blogs Kyle cites are excellent Buddhism blogs I have long read and admired. Those blogs I was unaware of are ones I am now aware of, have read them, seen they are mighty fine, and added them to my reader.

Of Homeless Tom [the blog], Kyle wrote,
Tom Armstrong is one of the most strong willed men I know. He has been through a lot of hardship in his life and he still has managed to be a powerful voice for all Buddhist bloggers with his annual administration of the Blogisattva awards and his Zen Unbound project. He also is a tireless advocate for the homeless and still finds time to write some very insightful and compelling stuff. He says what he thinks, and doesn't back down from talking about any subject.
Kyle also commended the individual blogs of several of his co-contributors to the Progressive Buddhism group blog. Again, these are some of the outstanding Buddhism blogs in the Buddhoblogosphere.


I am embarrassed to say that I had not acknowledged til now [and mostly didn't know about] kudos this blog has received from other Buddhobloggers in the expansive "Honest Scrap" awards. "Honest Scrap" winners are tasked with bragging about receiving the award, naming seven blogs they find to be awesome and inspiring and then listing ten honest things about themselves.

The magnificent and kind TMcG, blogger of Full Contact Enlightenment [formerly TMcG buddhablog ], wrote in her blogpost "Honest Scraps being handed out..." of May 23, 2009,
I’ve been reading Tom’s blogpost from the days of Zen Unbound and his journey on the path has been one which gives a strong first person account of the voice of homelessness. He’s whip smart, creative and a fresh voice and I believe he needs to get a book deal - STAT. I learn so much from him.
NellaLou of enlightenment ward was magnanimous in her Honest Scrap blogpost of April 30, 2009, "Yikes! Honest Scraps Makes a Visit Here," writing about Homeless Tom [the blog],
I have followed this blog since it’s inception and often been challenged by Tom’s astute viewpoint. I don’t always agree but I always pay attention here.
Monkey Mind blogger [and minister at Rhode Island's largest UU Church], James Ford, was generous in his May 7, 2009 post "Honest Scrap Comes to Monkey Mind":
Homeless Tom is Tom Armstrong's project. Tom is a Buddhist thinker and Dharma bum who is currently homeless in Sacramento. He is a first rate writer and a very interesting thinker.
Nathan, who has a fondness of squirrels and is an Honest Scrap winner for his blog Dangerous Harvests, wrote kind words about Homeless Tom [the blog and the fellow] in his May 13, 2009, blogpost "Blogosphere Awards": is such an eclectic experience. This guy writes about so many things, from homelessness in Sacramento to zen, to Christianity, even the Talking Heads.
I am grateful to Kyle of Progressive Buddhism, TMcG of Full Contact Enlightenment, NellaLou of enlightenment ward, James Ford of Monkey Mind and Nathan of Dangerous Harvests – nice and talented people, each, who ride herd on wonderful blogs. Tomorrow, or in a day or two, I will properly meet my Honest Scrap obligations. I bow.

August 5, 2009

On Jail, part I: Warehousing the Rabble

The following is from the beginning of John Irwin's classic study of jail existence, The Jail, published in 1986 and still considered relevant and keenly insightful. The blockquote is a rather long chunk of text – sorry 'bout that – but I believe worthy of your attention.
In a legal sense, the jail is the point of entry into the criminal justice system. It is the place where arrested persons are booked and where they are held for their court appearances if they cannot arrange bail. It is also the city or country detention facility for persons serving misdemeanor sentences, which in most states cannot exceed one year. The prison, on the other hand, is a state or federal institution that holds persons serving felony sentences, which generally run to more than one year.

The public impression is that the jail holds a collection of dangerous criminals. But familiarity and close inspection reveal that the jail holds only a very few persons who fit the popular conception of a criminal – a predator who seriously threatens the lives and property of ordinary citizens. In fact, the great majority of the persons arrested and held in jail belong to a different social category. Some students of the jail have politely referred to them as the poor: "American jails operate primarily as catchall asylums for poor people." Some have added other correlates of poverty: "With few exceptions, the prisoners are poor, under-educated, unemployed, and they belong to minority groups." Some use more imaginative and sociologically suggestive labels, such as "social refuse" or "social junk." Political radicals sometimes use "lumpen proletariat" and argue over whether its members are capable of participating in the class struggle. Some citizens refer to persons in this category as "street people," implying an excessive and improper public presence. others apply such labels as "riffraff," "social trash," or "dregs," which suggest lack of social worth and moral depravity. And many police officers, deputies, and other persons who are familiar with the jail population use more crudely derogatory labels, such as "assholes" and dirt balls."

In my own research, I found that beyond poverty and its correlates – under- education, unemployment, and minority status – jail prisoners share two essential characteristics; detachment and disrepute. They are detached because they are not well integrated into conventional society, they are not members of conventional social organizations, they have few ties to conventional social networks, and they are carriers of unconventional values and beliefs. They are disreputable because they are perceived as irksome, offensive, threatening, capable of arousal, even protorevolutionary. In this book I shall refer to them as the rabble, meaning the "disorganized" and "disorderly," the "lowest class of people."

I found that it is these two features – detachment and disrepute – that lead the police to watch and arrest the rabble so frequently, regardless of whether or not they are engaged in crime, or at least in serious crime. (Most of the rabble commit petty crimes, such as drinking on the street, and are usually vulnerable to arrest.)

These findings suggest that the basic purpose of the jail differs radically from the purpose ascribed to it by government officials and academicians. It is this: the jail was invented, and continues to be operated, in order to manage society's rabble. Society's impulse to manage the rabble has many sources, but the subjectively perceived "offensiveness" of the rabble is at least as important as any real threat it poses to society.
From my experience – a year in Homeless World Sacramento and forty days in Sacramento county jails – I believe Irwin is right, except that the radical fringe has withered and there are no longer protorevolutionaries in our midst.

I do believe, whether it is overt or blithering, a lot of effort is made in Sacramento to hide or impair the homeless in jails and in VOA's terrible Winter Shelter (an extra-legal jail) that violates people's freedom and keeps good people from re-entering polite society. It is a tragedy; something straight out of Chuck Dickens and Vic Hugo. [Oliver Twist and Les Miserables]

It is all especially sad because leaders in our homeless-help organizations are participants [albeit unwitting, I hope] in keeping the underclass corralled and under thumb and eerily tranquilized.

August 4, 2009

Homeless Lit: The Scarlet Letter

Title page, first edition of The Scarlet Letter, 1850.
This is the third in an ongoing series of posts looking at homelessness in literature. Prior posts in this series: Cannery Row [1/30/09] and The Tenants of Moonbloom [3/18/09]

In an NPR program last year about Hester Prynne, the heroine of The Scarlet Letter, one of the co-hosts commented, "one of the first things you learn about Hester Prynne is that she is drop-dead gorgeous."

Indeed and how! And it's far NOT a trivial factor at understanding the book and the journey Hester has in it. From the book's text:

The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam; and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was ladylike, too...

Also of significant importance in understanding this brave woman of literature is that from the beginning of the book she suffers a double whammy of homelessness. She was sent away from her homeland, England, to the wooded outland of a new continent, America, to a newly birthed town called Boston. Her husband, who was to follow her there, is presumed lost at sea since he had not arrived in over two-years' time. And, she is in jail with no abode to return to. As if she doesn't have enough problems, a babe is in her arms and the letter "A" is embroidered in scarlet on a patch at her bosom, an indicator of sin of some sort that readers of the book are left to guess at. Adultery, you think?

We are told, in the book's fifth chapter, that upon release from jail, Boston's leaders allow Hester use of an abandoned "small thatched cottage" on the outskirts of the community. From the text:

In this little lonesome dwelling, with some slender means that she possessed, and by the licence of the magistrates, who still kept an inquisitorial watch over her, Hester established herself, with her infant child. A mystic shadow of suspicion immediately attached itself to the spot.
Thus Hester, in fiction alas, became America's first known beneficiary of transitional housing.

Though it most readily seems the scarlet sin had made her at outlier, it was the homeless "sin" that best fits the depiction of her alienation from the whole of the Puritan society where she was. Most Homeless World Sacramento folk will feel the sting of the words that follow, from the text:
In all her intercourse with society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it. Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere, or communicated with the common nature by other organs and senses than the rest of human kind. She stood apart from mortal interests, yet close beside them, like a ghost that revisits the familiar fireside, and can no longer make itself seen or felt; no more smile with the household joy, nor mourn with the kindred sorrow; nor, should it succeed in manifesting its forbidden sympathy, awakening only terror and horrible repugnance. These emotions, in fact, and its bitterest scorn besides, seemed to be the sole portion that she retained in the universal heart.
BUT, Hester is a very, very resourceful homeless person that all of us aware of the homeless condition have to applaud! First off, despite her sad circumstance, she is a very very good mother to her young daughter, Pearl. And Pearl is this wild and intelligent child that is beguiling and a delight. The Hester-Pearl relationship is one of great benefit to each, as we would hope for any mother-child relationship.

Early in the book, clergymen consider taking Pearl from her disgraced mother for the benefit of the child. Somewhat ironically, it is Arthur Dimmesdale, the child's secret father, who voices the Puritan wisdom of why mother and child should be kept together such that they can stay together and do stay together. Wise words, these! Every homeless-family agency in Sacramento should mark these words, which follow (from the text):
"God gave her the child, and gave her, too, an instinctive knowledge of its nature and requirements--both seemingly so peculiar--which no other mortal being can possess.

... [Hester] recognises, believe me, the solemn miracle which God hath wrought in the existence of that child. And may she feel, too--what, methinks, is the very truth--that this boon was meant, above all things else, to keep the mother's soul alive, and to preserve her from blacker depths of sin into which Satan might else have sought to plunge her! Therefore it is good for this poor, sinful woman, that she hath an infant immortality, a being capable of eternal joy or sorrow, confided to her care--to be trained up by her to righteousness, to remind her, at every moment, of her fall, but yet to teach her, as if it were by the Creator's sacred pledge, that, if she bring the child to heaven, the child also will bring its parents thither! Herein is the sinful mother happier than the sinful father. For Hester Prynne's sake, then, and no less for the poor child's sake, let us leave them as Providence hath seen fit to place them!"
Of course, Buddhist heathen that I am I don't personally buy in to the Providence idea, but it is interesting and likely sound Christian reasoning.

To Hester's great credit she quickly gets to work laboring to fund the effort to take care of herself and her treasured Pearl. She begins a cottage industry, becoming a successful entrepreneur at her art, needlecraft. From the text:
By degrees, not very slowly, her handiwork became what would now be termed the fashion. Whether from commiseration for a woman of so miserable a destiny; or from the morbid curiosity that gives a fictitious value even to common or worthless things; or by whatever other intangible circumstance was then, as now, sufficient to bestow, on some persons, what others might seek in vain; or because Hester really filled a gap which must otherwise have remained vacant; it is certain that she had ready and fairly requited employment for as many hours as she saw fit to occupy with her needle. Vanity, it may be, chose to mortify itself, by putting on, for ceremonials of pomp and state, the garments that had been wrought by her sinful hands. Her needle-work was seen on the ruff of the Governor; military men wore it on their scarfs, and the minister on his band; it decked the baby's little cap; it was shut up, to be mildewed and moulder away, in the coffins of the dead.
Hester becomes more and more of a success as a person such that she makes major contributions to other poor people in the Boston community. Poor as she is, she is considerate and compassionate toward others. It comes to pass that the staunch Puritan society comes to appreciate Hester's many able aspects and basic good character.
Hester never put forward even the humblest title to share in the world's privileges--further than to breathe the common air and earn daily bread for little Pearl and herself by the faithful labour of her hands--she was quick to acknowledge her sisterhood with the race of man whenever benefits were to be conferred. None so ready as she to give of her little substance to every demand of poverty, even though the bitter-hearted pauper threw back a gibe in requital of the food brought regularly to his door, or the garments wrought for him by the fingers that could have embroidered a monarch's robe. None so self-devoted as Hester when pestilence stalked through the town. In all seasons of calamity, indeed, whether general or of individuals, the outcast of society at once found her place. She came, not as a guest, but as a rightful inmate, into the household that was darkened by trouble, as if its gloomy twilight were a medium in which she was entitled to hold intercourse with her fellow-creature. There glimmered the embroidered letter, with comfort in its unearthly ray. Elsewhere the token of sin, it was the taper of the sick chamber. It had even thrown its gleam, in the sufferer's bard extremity, across the verge of time. It had shown him where to set his foot, while the light of earth was fast becoming dim, and ere the light of futurity could reach him. In such emergencies Hester's nature showed itself warm and rich--a well-spring of human tenderness, unfailing to every real demand, and inexhaustible by the largest. Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one. She was self-ordained a Sister of Mercy, or, we may rather say, the world's heavy hand had so ordained her, when neither the world nor she looked forward to this result. The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her – so much power to do, and power to sympathise – that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Abel, so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength.
There is much much more to the novel -- about the men in Hester's life and the moral of the tale. And things come to a quick resolution of sorts that is somewhat dissatisfying. But all that is not our concern here. As a homeless person, Hester had spunk! She boldly took on the challenges in the unfair predicament she was in and always always forged forward, finally making a better life for herself while facing up to her responsibilities as a parent and as a compassionate member of a community.

Right on, Hester!

July 30, 2009

I'm baaaaack!

Howdy, y'all. Just a word to let you know I have returned from the hoosegow and am now, again on patrol of the homeless-, sacramento-, and buddho-blogospheres – to the extent the probation departmento of the Sacramento justice system allows.

The county jail facility in the city of Elk Grove where I've been for the past 32 days was interesting. I hope to blog about it soon. My biggest complains are that the dorm was noisy as hell much of the time which was nerve rattling and cognitively impairing; that cops/guards were excessively meanspirited, though I recognize they have a tough job, sometimes; and that the culture of black twentysomethings seems to be in particularly bad shape. Among many positive surprizes: My fellow inmates [and certainly including those who were black twentysomethings] were overwhelmingly interesting and sociable people; there were many acts of kindness coming from my brother inmates; and the level of chess playing was very advanced.

One thing I come away from my experience not understanding is the purpose of jail. I come away wondering what theories there are 'out there' on what jail is supposed to achieve.

Sure, basically it should be punishment. Is it proper, then, for inmates with the means to be able to buy items from the commissary, and have phone use, totalling more than $600/month, whereas poor inmates must make do with welfare, which consists of small quantities of basic toiletries, two stamped envelopes, two sheets of paper and a stubby pencil? Shouldn't punishment be wholly a function of time served and be equal, as can be otherwise, comparing one inmate with another?

June 29, 2009

6/29 Bleak House update

[FYI, Bleak House is the name of a Charles Dickens novel about a very long running legal dispute. I've snagged the title for my own very long running legal imbroglio.]

I'm scheduled to go to jail on Monday, today. Good friend Steve Curless has kindly offer to take me to Rio Consumnes Correctional Center.

You can click the link below to see the case record.

At the bottom of the record, you can see the sentence: 60 days; three years formal probation. And then there's what you don't see: Lots and lots of fees and charges. The sentence or trial is likely to be appealed.,THOMAS,EDWARD,4160766

Update: I wasn't accepted into The Sheriff's Work Project. I was told that this was because I was living at the Union Gospel Mission. I was given a time to report at the Rio Consumnes Correctional Center: 6/29 @ 2pm. I will serve for 32 days only, so long as I'm not cited for causing any problems. The reduction in time comes from eight days served when I was initially picked up on a warrent last July, before being released on my own recognizance. And a 20-day reduction, which is the standard 1/3rd-time reduced for good behavior.

To send me mail [after July 1 and before July 20], you should use this address:

Thomas Edward Armstrong, Xref 4160766
Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center
12500 Bruceville Road
Elk Grove, CA 95757

Remember, I'm only going to be there for thirty-two days, so I won't really need anything. And, not to worry, anybody, I will certainly be OK -- much as I am OK in Homeless World. If you write me, kindly send paper and a stamped return envelope so that I can write you back. Here's info on what the jail will allow inmates to receive.

I'll be offline until ~August 1. Til then, y'all.

June 25, 2009

Happiness is virtue itself

I thank my always-great friend Steve Curless for pointing out a blogpost in Bill Harryman's splendid Integral Options Cafe which discusses a modern view of karma via an article by the excellent David Loy that was in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

I've snagged a snip from the article that greatly appeals to me, that is both central to the article and relates to the sermon by Jimmy Roughton last night at the mission.
As Spinoza expressed it, happiness is not the reward for virtue; happiness is virtue itself. We are punished not for our "sins" but by them. To become a different kind of person is to experience the world in a different way. When your mind changes, the world changes. And when we respond differently to the world, the world responds differently to us. Insofar as we are actually not separate from the world, our ways of acting in it tend to involve feedback systems that incorporate other people. People not only notice what we do; they notice why we do it. I may fool people sometimes, yet over time, as the intentions behind my deeds become obvious, my character becomes revealed. The more I am motivated by greed, ill will, and delusion, the more I must manipulate the world to get what I want, and consequently the more alienated I feel and the more alienated others feel when they see they have been manipulated. This mutual distrust encourages both sides to manipulate more. On the other side, the more my actions are motivated by generosity, lovingkindness, and the wisdom of interdependence, the more I can relax and open up to the world. The more I feel part of the world and genuinely connected with others, the less I will be inclined to use others, and consequently the more inclined they will be to trust and open up to me. In such ways, transforming my own motivations not only transforms my own life; it also affects those around me, since what I am is not separate from what they are.
I love this snip because I think it is certainly true, even as I stumble often in living up to its sentiments.

Jimmy Roughton, I think, would agree to the core of it, but it would have to be cast in conservative Christian terms. He would not go for the idea of our being punished not for our "sins" but by them. And I think he would see things as Christians achieving the aims of the idea by separating from the secular world.

The whole of the article the snip comes from makes the point that a modern-day understanding of karma can view it not as merit and punishments passed on to a future life, but as the benefits and difficulties we give ourself (and others) near-immediately in our current life.

I have more of a pantheist take on things. I think that we are each "the whole of the reflected moon." Each of us is the complete consciousness package, though we are imperfect in differing ways. Karma is immediately felt in what we do to and do for each other.

Neither I nor David Loy sees karma as a means to rebirth. The stumbling block is that there seems to be no mechanism to accommodate it. But unlike Loy, I think that there is a capital-S Self that we all/each are that prevails.

June 24, 2009

Strange justice

The Bee's Marcos Breton always seems to be trying to be as controversial as possible.

Today, he writes that there's nothing skewy about the thief who stole Lance Armstrong's $10,000 bicycle getting a three-year sentence in prison in contrast to Donte Stallworth's 30-day jail term for killing a man while driving drunk.

The thief, Lee Monroe Crider, has a rap sheet as long as your arm. NFL-star Stallworth, meantime, is suffering punishment in other ways. Still, I would maintain, the specific punishment meted out by the justice system should be appropriate for the damage and circumstance of the specified crime.

AND, the rich and famous should not get different treatment than the poor!

Breton cites a fellow columnist expressing sentiments that I like: "So much for our justice system supposedly being blind," wrote Michael Mayo of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "So much for the law applying equally to all." Mayo's column of complaint appeared a week ago in "Mayo on the side."

Since Stallworth is rich, he was able to placate the family of the man he killed with lucre, something thief Crider couldn't do. Shouldn't this circumstance be fully outside the thinking of what penalty should be imposed on the criminal? Doesn't our criminal justice system break down if paying off the family – which clearly occurred here – is something that is allowed to happen?

Let us face it: Stallworth wouldn't have bought off the family if what he was really doing wasn't buying his way around a broken, corroding criminal justice system.

Breton thinks it's powerfully significant that...

Stallworth has been suspended indefinitely by the NFL. He will serve two years' house arrest after his release. He'll be on probation for eight years. He will lose driving privileges for life. He'll do 1,000 hours of community service, pay court costs and make donations to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
I would maintain that what punishment Stallworth may receive from the NFL should be disregarded by American justice. The thief Crider in comparison is worse off, if you think about it, having never had the opportunity to get rich and have the priviledges of being a star.

As for house arrest, let us face it: Stallworth's house is the lap of luxury. Crider, in contrast, isn't offered house arrest, even though his house is surely modest, at best.

Stallworth, as followers of his story know, doesn't lose much from losing driving privileges since he is used to being chauffeured around and can well afford to pay for that service far into the future. Crider, meantime, probably has trouble raising the scratch for an RT pass.

As for Stallworth's equivalent of six-months' work of community service, that is punishment, of course, but will be a rather painless work project – and will in context be of benefit to him, getting him out of his confined house. And he'll probably be able to take a chauffeured ride to and from the site of his community-service work.

Justice in America is not in good shape. The contrast here is evidence of the inequity between what the poor get as opposed to what rich people get in our nation's courts.

June 23, 2009

The collision of the finite and the infinite. Or, What Jesus was trying to tell us.

In my year-plus listening to nightly sermons at the conservative Union Gospel Mission, it is not frequent that I have been so impressed with a sermon that there's been something I've taken to heart.

I've been very impressed with the performances of various preachers, including, especially, Jimmy Roughton and Tom Mooney. Both of these fellows are very organized with what they come to tell the congregation. They have something to say; they can talk without mumbling and fumbling and ever losing their place. There's an arc to what they say, with their case building and leading to a cascade of important points. Beyond that, Roughton and Mooney are mightily charismatic (and I mean that, fully, in a good way). Each is bursting with talent, bigger than life, and convinces us of his true-hearted belief in his spiel.

Pastor Brett Ingells of Vacaville Bible Church, more than anyone, does impress me with messages he delivers that are stirring and have a clarion ring of truth about them. His wonderfully prepared and delivered messages invariably pierce my heart. Other preachers, too, from time to time "get their game on," with sermon messages that are fresh and profound.

Still, I haven't been motivated to consider Christianity as saying anything to me to cause me to embrace it, on the whole. Pastor Brett has said some wonderful thinks about being profoundly open hearted and forgiving and loving toward those who are still "of the world." [Almost all the other UGM preachers are quick to use worldly folk as subjects of ridicule and disparagement.]


Recently I read this scruffy little book I found at the public library, called The Gospel According to Us: On the Relationship between Jesus and Christianity by Duncan Holcomb. In just about every way, the book looks foolish and amateurish. The title is poorly chosen, the cover is silly and the foreword and first section didn't impress me. Then, the second section got me interested. And from the third section on, I was smitten.

What the book did for me, someone who was raised outside religion, is it takes a step back and shows me the whole of what Jesus and his disciples were like and what Jesus, if you look at everything he said, was trying to do. It was a means for me to see the forest for the trees; to understand what the picture was when the pixels where assembled.

An important first element in the understanding the book gave me was to see Jesus's general connections with everybody. Including, to my surprise, the much-derided [by the mission preachers] Pharisees. Quoting Holcomb in his book:

Strange to say, Jesus seems to fit in with the Pharisees better than any other group. ... Like the Pharisees, Jesus believes in a loving Father who will bring his children resurrection and eternal life. Like them, he scorns animal sacrifice. Like them, he preaches an ethical code that transcends all other loyalties, even loyalty to country. Like them, he believes that the children of Abraham are sent as a blessing for all peoples of the earth.
Of course, Jesus and the Pharisees differ with respect to the poor. Quoting Holcolm:

The "poor" constitute a broad segment of society that includes shepherds and prostitutes, beggars and day laborers, fishermen and itinerant craftsmen and a great variety of the immigrant, homeless, harried, diseased, and disabled. These are people who live precariously, who eat what they earn each day, who in war or famine are the first to die. they're accustomed to insult and injury, plagued by frustration, anxiety and disease, disdained by civil authority, deprived even of the hope or consolation of religious faith. They are the ones the Pharisees call "the rabble, who know nothing of the law," and whom Jesus calls "the poor in spirit." They simply don't have the time nor money nor disposition to observe properly the intricate and resource-consuming practices of orthodox Judaism (Fasting is a sacred act, you see; starving is a profane one.) Most of them can't even read the holy books, the great code of the Jewish faith. The verdict is unhappy but, in the Pharisees' judgment, inevitable: "They are the damned."
But why does Jesus preach mostly to the poor? And what is his message? It begins with a values system that is markedly different (1) from the Pharisees, (2) that in modern-day America, and (3) that of the UGM preachers. Jesus has a complete disinterest in money.

Quoting Holcolm:

[Jesus] pays no mind to the financial dealings of his shifty treasurer (coincidentally, another money-obsessed peasant named Judas). He never gives alms to the poor. He refuses to arbitrate between two men contenting an inheritance. He cares not at all that the fine oil a woman uses to cleanse and anoint him was very expensive. When Jesus does mention money he turns its face value upside down: in his stories money isn't treated even as a dependable measure of material value. This of the parable of the talents, of the dishonest steward, of the laborers who worked all day in a vineyard. The monetary values here are all skewed, and our first reaction is that someone has been treated unfairly. How can a servant with one talent be expected to do as much, or even obtain the same interest rate, as someone with five? ...
Jesus explains his worldview very carefully, says Holcolm. The Pharisees, with their great interest in outward behavior, have things backward. For Jesus, it is what comes out of a man that is his fruit, that either defiles him or is the merit of his being.

What Jesus was trying to tell us.

Jesus was trying to tell us, explains Holcolm, that we avoid being condemned by not condemning others. "In an astounding conceptual coup, he applies the fundamental principle of law – reciprocity – to the law itself. In this way he attempts to break the vicious circle of sin and condemnation and guilt, once and for all."

And yet, to do his 'work,' Jesus most certainly does condemn the condemners, but from a meta-position of rising above the fray and rising above his human self. Kierkegaard, following in Jesus's path, as an imitation of Christ, would, eventually, go from being judiciously non-condemning to being condemning of condemners. [Note that Jesus often sees himself outside himself. Being ego-less, he, on occasion, speaks in the third-person, in "witness mode." It is from here, the meta-position, that he condemns.]

Finite and Infinite

"If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern." ~William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Quoting Holcolm:

Sense tends to suggest that this tangible, visible, tastable, quasi-controllable world is all that really is, or at least all that really matters. There can be no sensory window on the infinite, since "what is flesh is flesh, and what is Spirit is Spirit." (Of God Jesus baldly tells his listeners "His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen.") We're unable to understand or assert our control over an infinite realm, so it's not surprising that we might prefer our own, and simply ignore the "radical" questions, those of spirit and truth. But Jesus wants at least to call to his listeners' attention their act of willful blindness. ...

Our spirits yearn to be liberated; our egos suppress the craving. Jesus is condemned by the religious classes for wanting to break out of the dull round of reason, to offer something more than just himself and the apprehensible world, to point beyond himself and it, to teach an infinite message instead of a finite one.
Re charity

Jesus never once mentions the material value of the work done for people by charity, the common justification for such efforts offered by Christians and agnostics alike. His unique emphasis is always on the benefit to the giver. We often do lip service to this sentiment, but Jesus actually appears to believe that it's a greater blessing "to give than to receive." So what is the blessing provided by giving to others? How does it enrich us? It's hard to say. There are no miracles where Jesus turns lead into gold. In fact, he never construes physical wealth as a sign of blessing.

What shall I do?

Near the book's end, Holcomb tells the story in Luke 10 when a lawyer asks what he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus is amazingly clever, here, Holcomb avers: beyond what Luke realizes! Jesus turns things around and asks the lawyer, "How do you read it?" The lawyer answers rightly and is praised: "Love God with all your heart and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself." Then, the lawyer asks "And who is my neighbor?"

In response, Jesus tells a story where a Jew is beaten and bloodied and is then aided by a Samaritan. The parable, then, casts the Jewish lawyer as the Samaritan! It is the Jew, in the story who receives the aid. You should love your enemy so thoroughly that you identify with him as yourself!

The New Covenant, "Love God with all your heart and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself" is, then, a single statement with only one part: You identify with Everyone, and make no distinction between yourself and others. Holcomb calls this New Covenant the "Love Commandment."

Writes Holcomb,

How should I act? How should I threat those around me? Well, how would I like to be treated? Look within yourself, Jesus suggests, and nowhere else. The Love Commandment thrusts us into a moral universe in which we have to make the determinations of what to do, how to act. No one else, not even God, will do that for us. (Jesus often refuses to do so for the disciples: "Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right?") There are no prescriptions provided to us by the Love Commandment, because it's not a traditional standard of law. If fact, it's not really "law" at all, but a way, a sign, a method of relation. Jesus points out what should have been obvious to us from the beginning -- that a moral code can make sense only within the context of our relation to one another. He tells people to act in accordance with the central human dynamic composed of Self and Other, I and Thou. Treat others based on how you want to be treated. Love others as much as you love yourself.

June 18, 2009

Another update from Bleak House

[FYI, Bleak House is the name of a Charles Dickens novel about a very long running legal dispute. I've snagged the title for my own very long running legal imbroglio.]

The judge has sentenced me for the window-breaking incident that the jury found me guilty of.

You can click the link below to see the case record.

At the bottom of the record, you can see the sentence: 60 days; three years formal probation. And then there's what you don't see: Lots and lots of fees and charges. The sentence or trial is likely to be appealed.,THOMAS,EDWARD,4160766

Update: I wasn't accepted into The Sheriff's Work Project. I was told that this was because I was living at the Union Gospel Mission. I was given a time to report at the Rio Consumnes Correctional Center: 6/29 @ 2pm. I will serve for 32 days only, so long as I'm not cited for causing any problems. The reduction in time comes from eight days served when I was initially picked up on a warrent last July, before being released on my own recognizance. And a 20-day reduction, which is the standard 1/3rd-time reduced for good behavior.

To send me mail [after July 1 and before July 24], you should use this address:
Thomas Edward Armstrong, Xref 4160766
Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center
12500 Bruceville Road
Elk Grove, CA 95757
Remember, I'm only going to be there for thirty-two days, so I won't really need anything. And, not to worry, anybody, I will certainly be OK -- much as I am OK in Homeless World. If you write me, kindly send paper and a stamped return envelope so that I can write you back. Here's info on what the jail will allow inmates to receive.

June 16, 2009

Is hatefulness outside the realm of Buddhism?

This is one of those opinion pieces that I think that only I am likely to write and that others are likely to tsk, tsk, look at me and say, "there but for the grace of Avalokitesvara go I."

As happens, a bunch of things suddenly came together that prompt me to write this essay.
  • A post in Danny Fisher's blog where Dano expresses disapproval for a hateful comment posted to his blog.
  • An incident in the mission dorm where several black guys decided to have a long, loud conversation before wake-up time about, in part, the terribleness of white people.
  • An article my friend Steve Curless wrote on the touchy subject of forgiving a serial child abuser and killer.
  • A paper written by Scott A. Mitchell about Buddhism getting all twisted apart by popular American culture.
  • Oh, and lastly, I got a book from the library called "Why we hate: understanding, curbing, and eliminating hate in ourselves and our world".
I tend to think that there are many benefits to having Buddhism undergo the bardo-like experience of adding "being interpreted by American culture" as one of its many manifestations.

American culture is rich, yet earthy; narcissicistic, yet there are many people with advanced spiritual development; and it's course & reeking, yet seeking & reaching.

Americans also tend to want to look into everything: uncovering hypocrisies; bringing down the powerful; fighting injustice. We consider ourselves the Center for this very sort of thing, which gives us some standing to think of the country as the Brightly Lit City on the Hill, the envy of the world (which is crap, somewhat).

But we Buddhists know better than others that America's chutzpah is its Achilles' heel. The arrogance and creaturely neediness of Americans dams the way to happiness.

So, how do we engage Americans? and make Buddhism comfortably a part of the American experience such that Buddhism shapes America at least as much as America has seemed to have overpowered Buddhism?

Surely, there is only One Way with a beast as multiheaded as America: we engage at every level.

The easiest of it ought to be to embrace what seems hateful: to understand it and engage it.

This is, afterall, the highest spiritual level. Christ went directly where he was most vulnerable (and got crucified; but I ask that you ignore THAT for the time being).

Though it isn't about Buddhism, at all, and was written just after the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, Why We Hate is pretty interesting and ends with a chapter called "An Enlightened Future."

Basically, the author advocates that we must move from an Us-v-Them world to one of cooperation, where all of us is us, which author Rush W. Dozier calls "us-us."
The problems of a worldwide consumer culture will ... have to be addressed. Is this culture sustainable given global resources? Because consumerism has no core values other than the market itself, it can be shaped by the changing tastes and desires of the consuming public. Those tastes are now heavily manipulated by the propaganda of advertising, which generally appeals to the primitive neural system. An us-us global civilization could move from limbic self-absorption within a culture of materialism to a culture of enlightened meaning. And in a more enlightened age – if tastes shift away from overconsumption and acceptance of the lowerest common denominator in cultural offerings – the market will shift as well.
The job ahead for us, then, is this ...
The task of the civilized world is not just to cease acts of terrorism but to curb and eliminate dehumanizing hate. We must expand the concept of "us" until it includes every human being and the idea of "them" falls into disuse as an obsolete stereotyping device. This can be achieved only through the constant and determined use of the advanced neural system when it has been bolstered by a first-rate education and supportive culture that protects the rights of all people. ... Humanity must embrace, both cognitively and emotionally [Wisdom and Compassion; prajna and karuna!!], what modern genetics tells us – we are a remarkably homogeneous young species within which, scientifically speaking, there is only one race: the human race.

Re-abolish slavery by a show of hands

June 12, 2009

Why was Jesus crucified?

My friend James gave me an explanation for why Jesus was crucified that overcomes one of my primary stumbling blocks for acceptance of Jesus' life-story being all-important.

I have been "blocked" by this set of components:

Since God is omnipotent, why would it be necessary for God to sacrifice his son, if that is all so painful. I mean, if God can do pretty much anything, He can get the result, forgiveness of man's sins, without any prerequisite.
Preachers at the mission have explained things in these terms: A sacrifice had been necessary as atonement for sins. Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice, relieving mankind of the necessity of sacrificing animals for sin in the future, and it gains man an opportunity to return to an edenic heaven. By accepting Jesus into our heart, we are saved from sin and may see God and praise Him forever.

THAT explanation seems wildly strange to me. There is simply no logic I can find in the set of conditions and what transpires.

James, though, explains the crucifixion in this way [paraphrasing]:

Jesus should be seen as an example for us. His goodness and humility are qualities we should emulate and make authentic for our self. We should strive to be courageous, willing to pay the ultimate price in our love of God and in our love of our neighbors (which are everybody, including those who see us as as their enemy).

June 8, 2009

SoHo Gallery tribute to Michael of One foot in front of the other

Be aware, any New York area readers, that, through July 4, photographs taken by Michael [blogger of One foot in front of the other] will be on display in a show at Soho Photo Gallery (map).

Our beloved Michael died on January 15, 2008.

You can read the notice of the gallery showing in a post put up by Michael's relatives in One foot in front of the other.

Spread the word, kind Buddhist bloggers who read this post, or, others who have a twitter account, or somesuch!

Here, just one of many excellent month's-worth of Michael's blogposts. Look at the pictures! Read Michael's powerful words!

[Ofifoto Blogisattva awards.]

Heart of Stone

At the end of his sermon Friday night, the guest pastor from Hillsdale Blvd Baptist Church, asked the rescue mission congregants to close their eyes and submit to his inquiries.

I don't remember exactly what was said, but this is the gist of it:

He asked those who had fallen away from Christ but wanted to renew their faith to raise a hand. He said, I see you sir; you in the back; you on the left aisle. He then said he would pray for them.

Then he asked those who had never been Chistians but were open to more information to raise a hand. As before, he identified a few hands he saw in the audience and said he would pray for them.

He did the same for another couple of categories of imperfect, but seeking possible-Christians.

Finally, he then asked for a show of hands from those who had no expectation of finding Christ. I raised my hand. He thanked me for my courage and said he would pray for me.

The pastor then publically issued a prayer for each category of people he identified. For the last group, in which I think I was the only member, he identified me as the man with the heart of stone, and began a prayer of admonishment.
I yelled out, though chapel rules preclude doing so, "I don't have a heart of stone," but the pastor went forward with his admonishing prayer.


As it happened, where the pastor stepped down from the dais is right where shelter guys line up who are doing "kitchen duty" that night. Since I was slated for kitchen duty, I was immediately very near the pastor, and I couldn't withhold from having a word to say to him – though my friend, Elgin, in line with me, had tight grip of my shoulder as a way of conveying to me his hope that I would pull back.

I wasn't angry, but I wasn't self-censuring, either. I told the pastor that I thought his words where unfortunate, that his words represented hate talk and were not in accord with the emergent church.

The pastor told me he wasn't a part of the emergent church, and I told him I apprehended that.


I'm not writing this post because I am so sure I did the right – or even, a good – thing. I don't know that I did. I'm getting A LOT of services and benefit from Union Gospel Mission without being a likely convert to Christianity. [Indeed, I'm a professed, happy Buddhist.] Still, I do wish a small minority of the preachers wouldn't talk up the curious idea that secular America, or all non-Christians, are, somehow, 'out to get' Christianity in this country. Or, that non-Christians are, necessarily, Satan followers.


Saying that someone has a "heart of stone" is a particularly scathing term in Christian circles. A "stony heart" is mentioned a couple times in the book of Ezekiel; but from what I'm learning online, Jeremiah 17:9 gives us the most deft understanding, even as stone isn't part of any mainline translation of the verse. The verse is this [King James]: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?"

But the immediate next verse is this: "I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings." And if you look at the whole chapter it is God who is searching people's hearts and making judgments, not something that is left to man.

Two verses in the book of Ezekiel, in chapters 11 and 36 are near identical. They both speak of a stony heart. They read thus:

Ezekiel 11:19: And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh.

Ezekiel 36:26: A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.
In context, both verses are about the new heart given the people of Israel as they become God's chosen people. The idea, then, in the Bible re stoniness of heart is with respect to God's tasks, and judgments, not man's or arrogant preachers.


But the bigger issue goes to hate-mongering by Christian preachers, something that comes from a minority of those who visit Union Gospel Mission.

One speaker, associated with Trinity Bible College [and not the congregation favorite, the beloved and UGM-alumnus Ron Smith], spend a bit of time talking to the guys in the chapel about "God haters," some months back. "God haters" is the term he used for those who hadn't confessed their allegiance to Jesus Christ or idolotrate worldly things above or instead of God.

Words/terms mean something, and "God haters" is powerful, specific and accusatory. And with its intensity, it more than implies that that these worldly folk are actively thinking about and denouncing God.

Of course, this isn't so. The thing about 'worldly folk' is that they are oblivious to Christianity, not attacking it. They are barbecuing burgers on Sundays and watching sports on TV, not thinking hateful things about God. In America, Christianity simply isn't being threatened. Next to nobody at all wants Christianity to go away, and there isn't even a whit of discussion anywhere about taking away any of the religion's exclusion from being subject to taxation.

These aren't Roman times! No one's rounding up the Christians. A few prominent atheist writers may on very rare occassions cross the line, but for practical purposes – for ALL purposes – there are no God haters. The country is washed nearly as white as snow on that one. Get off your hate-mongering, Christian preachers. Knock it off!! It is YOU who are way, way out of line.

June 5, 2009

Lincoln was a buddha

Writing in 1880, John Caird, looking back at the man's life, wrote these eloquent summarizing words
…[My overall impression] is that of a man who combined with intellectual originality other and not less essential elements of greatness, such as magnanimity and moral elevation of nature, superiority to vulgar passions, and absorption of mind with larger objects, such as rendered him absolutely insensible to personal ambition, also self-reliance and strength of will – the confidence that comes from consciousness of power and resource – the quiet, patient, unflinching resolution which wavers not from its purpose in the face of dangers and difficulties that baffle or wear out men of meaner mould. Along with these, we must ascribe to him other qualities not always or often combined with them, such as sweetness, gentleness, quickness and width of sympathy.
Caird's words are about Gautama Buddha, but can very much be said of Abraham Lincoln, as well – a person no less extraordinary and no less different from the people all about him such that his impact was astonishing. Events, time and place all had overwhelming influence in making Buddha Gautama and Abraham Lincoln immortal persons. But both had buddhaseeds sprouting when they were children. And both acted in ways that baffle ordinary men.

Buddha Gautama is a whole other story. He decided to try to let others in on what propelled him. Abraham Lincoln's strange life's journey led him to center stage during America's most trying time, just at that pivotal moment when the baton of the presidency needed to be passed … to that rare diamond, a buddha.

Caird's assessment is interesting in that he didn't apprehend Gautama Buddha as being a buddha. His opinion was what he came to know of Guatama as a man, from what documents he read, compared to ordinary men. Likewise, persons who knew Abraham Lincoln, most all of whom appraised him as an astonishing human being, did not have the wherewithal to assess his high spiritual attainment directly.

Young Mr. Lincoln

The shorthand for Lincoln's boyhood days are that his mother died when he was quite young, but, happily, a wonderful, loving stepmother took her place in his life; he lived in a log cabin; he was naturally athletic, but he was inclined to turn his head toward the pages of a book; and in all ways, even as a youngster, he was honest and wholesome.

All of the above is true. What is not understood is that it is true to an outrageous extreme. Furthermore, it is not understood, except by scholars, that Lincoln was very much not the pastoral, ah-shucks Huckleberry of legend and as portrayed in old movies, but was instead an outlandish alien freakazoid! If he had had a single eye in the middle of his forehead, pointy ears and the ability to fly he would have been a more natural citizen of placid rural Indiana & Illinois than the gawky, two-eyed, big-eared, non-flying Abe Lincoln reality who was born in 1809 and died from an assassin's bullet.

Rural Indiana and Illinois of the 1810s and 20s was the edge of the wild, uncivilized West. The land was rustic and primal as were the isolated homesteading inhabitants. Boys were supposed to be especially ornery and mean and scarred up and smelly. They would torture animals and torture each other and had distain for learning much more than how to shoe a horse or slaughter a pig. Constant hard physical labor was required of all members of a family to stave off death in the boggy, cold, isolated areas where Lincoln grew up. Poisoned milk killed Lincoln's mother, his maternal grandparents and others. A harsh winter killed scores of neighbors – some found only after the spring thaw.

One thing remembered by many who knew him as a small child was his love of animals. One schoolmate remembered that he quite seriously lectured others about ants' right to life; another, that he broke up a gang of 'mates that were torturing terrapin turtles for entertainment and that he composed essays against cruelty toward animals on multiple occasions.

Though hunting was one of the few pleasures for men and boys of the rural Midwest, Lincoln would not hunt. And though his farming background could have been of great advantage to him politically, he didn't speak of it – most probably since memories of it were admixed with the pain of having been hired out by his father to help slaughter pigs.

William Lee Miller, author of the book “Lincoln's Virtues” wrote “Throughout the life of that extraordinary hired hand whose name was Abraham Lincoln, there would be a recurrent pattern: an initial impression of the boy or the lad or the man, derived from externals and superficialities, would then be overthrown by the shock of recognition of this intellectual power.” Miller, it seems to me, has it mostly right, but from (my interpretation of) the words of others in his book and other books [and of these, most-especially William Herndon's “The Hidden Lincoln”] it is not “intellectual power” that throws people for a loop – rather it's Lincoln's emptiness of guile and ineffable Buddha glow that might find expression through his intellect, but might also shine from his compassion, humanity or just the way he held an ax.

A Religious Man

Mary Todd Lincoln said, after her husband's death, “He never joined a church; but still, as I believe, he was a religious man by nature.”

As a young man Lincoln would engage in discussions advocating a “doctrine of necessity,” that opposed unfettered free will. I think this is very much a young person's insight into the interconnectedness of all things and beings and the chain of causes that seem to determine all events. A less magnificent person than Lincoln is likely to develop from this beginning, a religious sensibility grounded in scientism. Compassion toward others then becomes just a wildly romantic indulgence. But Lincoln, above everything was vividly compassionate and it was through this lens that he increasingly sought wisdom.

The beauty of his character was its entire simplicity. … True to nature, true to himself, he was true to everybody and everything about and around him. When he was ignorant on any subject, no matter how simple it might make him appear he was always willing to acknowledge it. His whole aim in life was to be true to himself and being true to himself he would be false to no one. – Joshua Speed, one of Lincoln's closest friends.
Speed's statement is as clarion a depiction of authenticity as you might find. Authenticity is a requirement for spiritual advancement.

In his mid-20s, Lincoln wrote a manuscript showing that the Bible was false. He did not believe that Jesus was God and could not believe that a true God would bring punishment to his 'children' when the laws of cause and effect that he saw in the world were pre-eminent forces. His friends were shocked by his beliefs that his law partner, William Herndon, contends he maintained throughout his life. Fearing for his political future, one friend burned the manuscript to keep it from being published. Still, Lincoln – who continued to be forthright and outspoken on the subject – was dogged by a reputation thereafter for being an infidel which was politically damaging.

With Malice toward none …

Leonard Swett, a close friend of Lincoln's, said in an interview, a year after the assassination, “He was certainly a very poor hater. He never judged men by his like, or dislike for them. If any given act was to be performed, he could understand that his enemy could do it just as well as any one. If a man had maligned him, or been guilty of personal ill-treatment and abuse, and was the fittest man for the place, he would put him in his Cabinet just as soon as he would his friend. I do not think he ever removed a man because he was his enemy, or because he disliked him.”

Indeed, Swett's words are a gross understatement; Lincoln was incapable of hate. Lincoln included on his initial Cabinet men who were his rivals for the Republican nomination in 1860 -- and he was especially gracious to guarantee the acceptance of his chief rival, William Seward, to the post of Secretary of State.

Edwin M. Stanton, who was Lincoln's second Secretary of War, is a particularly curious case. Stanton (of whom Fredrick Douglass would observe, “Politeness was not one of his weaknesses”) had ignored Lincoln, utterly, when – many years before he became president -- they were two of three lawyers chosen to represent a company for a particularly important civil suit. Lincoln was not a well-educated East Coast attorney, like the others. Judged from the fact that Lincoln was a rural Illinois lawyer, gangly and not well dressed, he was kept silent at the lawyers' table and the closing argument which he had prepared went unheard and was curtly ignored: The text, that Lincoln had passed on to his colleagues in a sealed letter, was returned to him unopened.

In the first years of the Lincoln administration, there are public records of Stanton referring to Lincoln as an imbecile (twice) and a baboon, yet Lincoln was undeterred in his selection of Stanton as his Secretary of War. He selected the best person for the position and ignored all else.
Observes William Lee Miller, “[Lincoln's] 'ego,' as we call it now, did not distort his good mind's working. His considerable self-confidence notwithstanding, he would achieve a detached and proportionate sense of himself in relation to an unflinching measure of the scope and meaning of the enormous human drama that confronted him. His self did not get in the way.”


The biggest character flaw that William Lee Miller tags Lincoln with is ambition. It would also be an overwhelming obstacle to the thesis that Lincoln is a Buddha, if one agrees with Miller that at times Lincoln pushed himself forward, instead of doing the right thing that might have been politically disadvantageous.

For Miller, Ambition first comes up when looking at Lincoln's vocational choices. Instead of remaining in his rural community, either as a farmer or businessman, Lincoln chose to become a lawyer and move to the city of Springfield.

Despite his wide-ranging, superlative skills, Lincoln may have had fewer options than Miller supposes. Saddled with deep compassion for the suffering of animals, he was not suited for farm work. Much as a Buddhist is indisposed to take up the profession of being a butcher, Lincoln was indisposed to make his life's work one that included the slaughtering of farm animals.

Entrepreneurs need to be of a character such that they are eager to profit, overgreatly at times, at the expense of unwitting customers in order to make their businesses thrive. Lincoln did not have the disposition required for him to be a successful businessman. Indeed, young Lincoln's business ventures failed, putting him in a deep debt that took years for him to extricate himself from.

Becoming a lawyer, and tossing himself into the political maelstrom of his time and place, seems to have been the vocational path (and spiritual challenge) that was left to him after crossing off others. His wasn't a fulsome, consuming ambition; rather, it was that last path available that was suitable to his blend of talents and weaknesses.

Lincoln's Face

“At first glance, some thought him grotesque, even ugly, and almost all considered him homely. When preoccupied or in repose he certainly was far from handsome. At times he looked unutterably sad, as if every sorrow were his own, or he looked merely dull, with a vacant gaze,” one observer wrote. Still, as even the caustic Englishman Dicey observed, there was for all his grotesqueness, "an air of strength, physical as well as moral, and a strange look of dignity" about him. And when he spoke a miracle occurred. "The dull, listless features dropped like a mask." according to Horace White, an editor of the "Chicago Tribune". "The eyes began to sparkle, the mouth to smile, the whole countenance was wreathed in animation, so that a stranger would have to say, "Why this face, so angular and somber a moment ago, is really handsome!" He was the homeliest man I ever saw." said Donn Piatt, and yet there was something about the face that Piatt never forgot. "It brightened, like a lit lantern, when animated."

The poet Walt Whitman commented after getting a close-up view: "None of the artists or pictures have caught the subtle and indirect expression of this man's face." And again, some years after Lincoln's death: "Though hundreds of portraits have been made, by painters and photographers (many to pass on, by copies, to future times), I have never seen one yet that in my opinion deserved to be called a perfectly good likeness: nor do I believe there is really such a one in existence."

"Beyond a certain point Lincoln's appearance not only defied description; it also baffled interpretation. "There is something in the face which I cannot understand." said Congressman Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts. And the leader of the German-Americans in Illinois, Gustave Koerner, remarked: "Something about the man, the face is unfathomable. In his looks there were hints of mysteries within."

Buddha as a Man; Lincoln as a Man

In the middle of the 19th Century, when Lincoln was being assessed as a heroic and tragic figure, Buddha was being introduced and examined by Victorian England. Since others' assessments of Lincoln are colored by culture, time and place, I think it is interesting to see how similarly Buddha Gautama was viewed.

From the book “The British Discovery of Buddhism,” comes this quote:
Of all the qualities praised, it is the Buddha's compassion and sympathy that was most often remarked upon. Millions were won by his intense sympathy for suffering, observed Joseph Edkins [quoted in Remarks on Budhism (sic)]. According to The Westminster Review in 1878, his was 'the example of a life in which the loftiest morality was softened and beautified by unbounded charity and devotion to the good of his fellow-men'; and The Church Quarterly Review for 1882 viewed him as one 'who, born a prince, sympathized with the sorrows and the moral struggles of the meanest; who … opened his arms to receive as a brother every one who pursued goodness, truth, unselfishness, and his ideal …' George Grant remarked in 1895 that, after making all allowances for accretions, the picture remains of an extraordinary man 'the memory of whose unselfish life, thirst for truth, and love for humanity ought to be honoured to the latest generations.'
Fittingly, the last year of the century, William Rattigan drew together the Victorian assessment of the Buddha:
Having regard to the intellectual and religious darkness of the period, it is impossible not to accord a high degree of admiration to Gautama for the lofty percepts he enunciated, for the gentleness and sereneness which pervade his utterances, for the deeply sympathetic and profoundly humanitarian spirit which underlie his doctrines, and for the manly endeavour he made to arouse a true feeling of self-reliance amoungst a people prone to lean for support upon others.

Yes, we exhaust ourselves on the legend of Lincoln in the third grade, and for us he becomes a tired relic, like Mickey Mouse and Brittany Spears and Star Wars sabers. His face – unanimated and serene – stares out at us from pennies and five-dollar bills. His wise words are just etchings on bronze somewhere -- the life that once was in his words has been expelled. “Fourscore and seven years …” sounds like a tiresome history lesson to us today, not the beginning of a speech, rich and eloquence, that brought chills and tears to Americans for decades after the speech was spoken.

If you pull together all the assessments of Lincoln, it is a remarkable record. He was greatly beloved by all in the communities he lived in. He was the dazzling, pre-eminent person – giving, loving and vividly authentic. Absolutely honest. Absolutely dependable. Fully in touch with the pain of others'. He held no grudges and condemned no one. He believed there was clarion truth in the notion that created America – that all had equal rights to live and equivalent right to live in liberty and pursue happiness. No one could be a master since no one should be a slave. And no one could be a slave since no one should be a master.

Somewhere back in misty time, one of the buddhas that walked this earthy earth became president of the United States. And it made a difference.

June 4, 2009

O thy metaphorical B.I.B.L.E.

Preachers at the mission tell me that BIBLE stands for "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth." Well, maybe. But not in the way those preachers intend it.

The preachers think that it is the kindly-hearted, literal instructions of a mysterious three-aspect Father/Son/Ghost who is jealous and so compassionate and unconditionally loving He intends to toss 10 billion people into a lake of fire to be tormented beyond mere waterboarding, forevermore! Yipe.

A merciless, meanspirited god, that, I say.

No, no, you whacky literalists. You have it all wrong! The Bible is metaphorical/allegorical. So, forging forward from Kyle R. Lovett's post "Could the biblical story of Adam and Eve be a metaphor for Buddhist teachings?" in Progressive Buddhism, and my own fine post, borrowing heavily from Joseph Campbell, "Tom's First Sermon at Union Gospel Mission," let us look at other things from the Bible, both of what they truly intend, and the hash that's been made of them by believing them literally, in the backward, unknowing, childish way of the ancients.

One God
First, let us look at the idea of One God. Where did that come from? According to Solomon Goldman [in his book The Book of Books],

[The Bible] had its beginnings in the tales of a bold skeptic of whom it was recounted that, having rejected the beliefs universally adhered to in his day, he set out to transform the face of the earth. How he came by his skepticism or new faith is a question easier asked than answered ... Of this much we are certain: once, in the ancient world, there lived a Jew, or one whom the Jews came to regard and claim as their own, who, repelled by idolatrous creeds and pagan practices, groped his way to a glimpse of the One God, perfect in all perfection.
Let us face it, Goldman over- and under-states things here. The idea of One God has enormous appeal and can have been thought up by many. And, indeed, there are very many One Gods.

The "obvious" One God is inscrutable and acts outlandishly. Ancient people would credit everything to this One God, certainly including tempestuous weather, terrible illnesses and great good fortune.

And having God "on your side," has to have seemed to be the best, easiest way to win in all you transactions with others. And how might you get God on your side? It would seem an impossible thing, for God is God, he doesn't need anything.

What, then, can you do for him? For a backward, childish people, as the ancients most certainly were [compared to what's possible for US, that is], all you might do is praise him, and possibly give him things by denying yourself things. Thus, praise and sacrifice was all you could do.

But by praising and sacrificing to God, surely you are demeaning him. Is God an egomaniac? He doesn't need praise. What value could he place in praise from those pitiful [as compared to Him] human creatures? And what possible purpose can God have for sacrifices, unless God is sadistic and just enjoys the misery that comes from sacrifice?

Truly, the notion of One God doesn't help in formulating an understanding of the creation, structure and meaning of the universe. Besides, if you posit One God, you have to come up with an explanation of how He came to be.

Still, One God, a being with completely-free will, and total power, has enormous appeal. Why? Because we can imagine ourselves in His place, with the ability to completely clean up our messy lives. And wouldn't it be delicious [to a child] to be able to know everything and reign over everyone with the capability of crushing any opposition? Why, he's better than Superman, Spiderman and ALL the superheroes put together!

God was created, not in man's image, but in man/child's imagination of what it would be like to be all powerful.

And what could this One God do, all by himself, before there was anything? Why, create toys – aspects of himself. And so he made microscopic life, something that moved on its own, as he did. And plants, that grew in ways that took advantage of their environment. And animals, that had the freedom to explore and exploit. And people, capable of contemplating their situation as He could.

These are the obvious lines of thinking, absent any modern information, about how the world and life came into being. And, thus, stories were created along these obvious lines.

The One God is sustained because He can so easily be utilized, both as a justification for nations [God is on our side] and as a balm for the underclass [God loves us; after our miserable lives, God will redeem us].

Mankind noticed that he was unlike the other animals: he was self reflective. He thought abstractly and separated those things that were good [gentle weather; the smell of flowers] from those things that were bad [thunderstorms; the smell of feces]. Note that ancient times were before the concept of evolution occured to anyone. Now, of course, we know that feces, and pretty much all other 'bad' things are 'bad,' only because they are contrary to what aids with our success as a lifeform. Feces doesn't intrinsically smell bad; it only smells bad to us because our nose has evolved as a sense that, roughly, distinguises for us what's good for us from what's bad – usually with respect to what we should & shouldn't eat.

Ancient man wondered what was ultimately Good and ultimately Bad and figured that only God would know. God would surely know because God, himself, created the division between good and bad, ancient man, understandably, believed.

Some things that seemed good in an immediate sense, had long-term bad results. [Screwing your neighbor's wife, for example.] Some things that seemed bad, had long-term good results. [Lifting weights; eating broccoli instead of cookies, for examples.] Thus, ancient humans knew, better than other animals, that it was very helpful to plan and put off or avoid some pleasures for one's long-term betterment, or for the long-term betterment of the community.

But there were problems to overcome. Some people take advantage of others, ruthlessly. Others thrive by being paragons of virtue. Quick! Go to God; He'll sort things out for us.

Thus the tall tale of Moses coming down from the mountain with the stone tablets. Hard, fast rules of conduct. Sins are IDed.

As metaphor, this is to the good. Mankind recognizes morality, if only in broad strokes of absolute black and white. And he recognizes the need for a common morality such that everyone will tend to abide by the same rules of conduct.

But the rules are binary, commandments. There's no room made for situational exceptions. And a mere ten commandments don't begin to touch upon all the harmful things that people can do to each other. Where's "Thou shalt not sneeze directly on others and thus possibly cause others to catch your germs?," for example?

But the Ten Commandments [aka, the Decalogue] was a step forward. The laws apply equally to everyone. They don't give some people privileges and subjugate others.

Also there were myriad conflicts between what individual people wanted for themselves, and what served the good of a society at large. A heavy-handed and straightforward set of laws was purposeful in taming ancient societies.

Quoting H.A. Overstreet in The Mature Mind,
Animals know no moral law. For countless ages, man himself knew no moral law. In those animal-like ages, his self-restraints were those of custom, not of understanding in the area of social cause and effect. His relations with his fellows were instinctual, not moral.
Moses's descent from Mt. Sinai represents the insight that morality applied to all of us, equally. It was not, as the Jews experienced in Egypt, the arbitrary, self-engrandizing directives of a ruler. Thus, Moses's descent with the tablets represents a recognition that principles allowing us to live in harmony exist in a broadly defined way.

Indeed, Moses's "Thou shalt nots" are radically NOT directives from a King or God – except for the first Law.

That bold skeptic, or whomever he was who thought up the Moses tale, brought a liberating insight: Truth is one because the Source of truth is one.

Now watch what happened to this great insight – again, as reported by Dr. Goldman:

The people responded readily and agreed to do and obey. It resolved never again to be like unto the nations – but could not abandon their ways. It accepted the Eternal as God – but upon every hill and under every green tree it erected altars to wood and stone. It urged that man was God's image – but it would not abandon slavery ... It longed for justice . . . but, fond of bribes, it neither judged the orphan nor did it plead the cause of the widow. It looked forward to peace but periodically became enmeshed in the web of imperialistic ambitions of Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon as the case might be. In a word, it dreamed of the ideal society and even legislated for it, but never got down to build it.
This story of a people's noble belief and ignoble backslidings; of its inspiring faith and its failure to live up to that faith; of its spiritual triumph and unspiritual self-defeats is the story of immature men incapable of grasping the fullness of the truth that had been offered to them. It is the story that has been acted out in thousandfold ways through the ages and far beyond the limits of that small tribe of Jews.