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Kannon (Guan Yin)

Right Understanding

The First Step on the Eightfold Path

Why is it so necessary that we temper our judgments with humility? Why are we all so worried about understanding Dharma: duty, law, truth, the right Way to proceed, the privileges and obligations of position; while at the same time we ignore Karma, the network of causes and effects that places us in the position we find ourselves?

The secret of Zen lies in understanding why we do the things we do and why we are the way we are. We begin by doing a little mental housecleaning.

1. Judging good and evil, and other foolish notions.

Zen requires us to rid ourselves of the comfortable but mistaken idea that when we act in ways that are considered good, it is our ego who has acted so meritoriously, who has earned, through the determined display of various virtues, all the honor due it; and when we act in ways that are considered evil, it is somebody else who is to blame. Such an attitude, we know, is childish - but at what point do we cease being children.

Where, precisely, is the line of maturity drawn in time's sand. Somehow the age of reason comes upon us, "sudden and awful" - as it says on medieval tombstones, without our seeming ever to be prepared for it. One day we are callow youths, able to rescind a contract we have signed to buy a car because we are too young to be forced to honor our agreement - though we are quite old enough to operate the vehicle in traffic - and the next day we are fully responsible adults, subject to capital punishment or even law suits if such should be the punishment prescribed for an offense. We have reached our majority and therefore have attained the age of reason.

Too often we forget karma's basic lesson: that until the Archetype of Transformation commands us or permits us to change, what we do in our life's twelfth chapter is largely determined by the previous eleven. Only a fool, crowing with hubris, would announce that the sun now rises upon one who is the master of his fate.

To see how thoroughly confused we can become by these expectations of responsibility, let us pretend that once upon a time identical twin brothers were put up for adoption at birth. Baby A was given to a couple who were rather like ourselves (were it not for a harsh and undeserving fate and a couple of unmentionable in-laws): kind, genteel, prosperous, educated, and responsible.

Aware of the diverse requirements of children, the new parents of Baby A were lovingly disposed to provide the best food, nutritional supplements, medical care, protective clothing, sleep environment and so on, as they possibly could. They taught him good manners and other games and when he attended school they helped him to memorize lists, dates and formulas. They always reviewed his homework and were easy marks for door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen.

Baby A never lacked for supplies or equipment to assist him in his studies. When he did particularly well in a test he was rewarded with special treats. He became an habitue of zoos, planetaria and natural history museums. On Sundays he went to church with Mom and Dad and, as they strolled home together, engaged them in spirited elucidations of the sins referred to in the homily. He had a dog, a cat, a scout troop, a guitar, a bicycle and a paper route which all conspired to teach him personal, social and financial responsibility. Baby A, Mom and Dad were, in all ways, a formidable family unit.

Baby B was not so lucky. A year after he was adopted, his father died in a traffic accident. His mother, overcome with sorrow, first squandered the insurance money on drugs that soothed her grief and then on the cure of the drugs that soothed her grief. Eventually Mom remarried. Step-Dad was at least classifiable as a primate. He was bipedal, hairy, unequivocally hot-blooded and had opposable thumbs. But beyond certain mammalian ways, he gave not much cause to be included amongst homo sapiens for wise, he was not. He was drunk much of the time and frequently beat Mom and Baby B. Mom drank, too. There were terrible fights and binges.

Baby B not only didn't get enough vitamin supplements, he didn't get enough food. Many nights, cowering from the battery, he went to bed hungry. Encyclopedia were not a big item in the family budget. And unlike his twin brother who received medical treatment for warts, Baby B did not receive medical treatment for those three-inch cranial gashes that evidenced some rather serious trauma. The only other stars he ever got to know well were on the lapels of the deputy sheriffs who came to quell the family riots.

Baby B liked music, too. But there was no money for an instrument or lessons. A teacher lent him a guitar but Step Dad smashed it ending Baby B's music career permanently. Under threat of bastinado, Baby B lied and said that he had lost the guitar. The admission of carelessness did not endear him to his maestro.

Baby B was less than well groomed. His frequent dirtiness subjected him to frequent scorn and when one of his front teeth was knocked out during a domestic skirmish, scorn elevated itself to ridicule. He was bitter, lonely, hungry, confused and mightily ashamed of everything about himself and his existence.

Now, the question is this: Which baby, Baby A or Baby B, is more likely to become a bank president? (Granted, there have been of late a distressing number of bank failures and not a noticeable dearth of embezzlements, but it must be conceded that before a man can become an incompetent bank president or even a crooked one, he still must demonstrate some competence and honesty on his way up to that position.) Baby A is our clear choice.

Conversely, we may ask: Which baby, Baby A or Baby B, is more likely to become a car thief or a pimp or both? Clearly, Baby B is our candidate for crime.

Knowing what we do about their respective upbringing, would we dare say to Baby B as he is being carted off to jail, "You scum! You worthless piece of excrement! Look at your brother over there... a credit to God, family and the American Way... while you are not worth the cost to feed you in jail. You could have been clean and good like him, but noooooo... you had to be scum..." etc. etc.

Would we say that? Yes, we would; and yes, we do... for we believe in the majesty of ego, in the display of virtue as a simple exercise in noblesse oblige. Baby B behaved ignobly. He was old enough to have known better. Off with his head.

Would we feel justified in commending Baby A for his good deeds? Of course. We would never tire of rewarding him for his goodness. His office walls and shelves would be full of plaques, trophies, and documents which all attested to our appreciation of his excellence. He would live in the best neighborhoods and belong to the best clubs. His kids would get into the best schools and would marry into the best families. They would ski and swim and play tennis. They would speak French. And when Baby A passed away, we would eulogize him with tears in our eyes because we so admired him for his many qualities and accomplishments. Who would mourn Baby B?

The Buddhist position is that Baby B is no more deserving of blame than Baby A is deserving of praise.

Emperor Wu: I have done many good deeds. How much merit have I earned?

Bodhidharma: None whatsoever.

In point of fact, Baby A could no more help being 'good' than Baby B could help being 'evil.' Life may, indeed, play out as melodrama but, ultimately, when the audience finally cries "Author! Author!" we aren't the One who bows... or who runs from the hook. We are not the creators of ourselves. Genes, environment and fate have collaborated to write all our life's scenarios.

Whenever we are inclined to judge someone we should remember that a painful history does not always show itself on a person's face. There are many kinds of wounds and the scars that most of them leave are not proudly worn on our cheeks like a Prussian fencer's schmisse. Most of them are deliberately hidden precisely because we regard our vulnerability as shameful.

Although the tale of our twins was an obvious exaggeration, the simple truth remains. People are not born into equal environmental circumstances. Neither are they born with equal genetic endowments. Baby B as a fraternal twin could easily have been born as mentally dull as he was socially unlucky. Our personalities are so constitutionally different that some of us will survive the worst sorts of psychological abuse while others are felled by a single act of rejection.

The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 11: Right Understanding, Page 1 of 4