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Author of this essay:

Yao Xiang Shakya
(February 10, 2014)

Stop Playing Around!
by Yao Xiang Shakya

In Anne Tyler’s 1991 bestselling novel, “Saint Maybe,” we find a young man, Ian Bedloe, who sacrifices his personal goals and life dreams to raise his brother’s children. It isn’t out of love for these children or even out of brotherly loyalty that he forfeits his plans, it is out of guilt.

Ian blames himself for the deaths of his brother Danny, and sister-in-law, Lucy. Ian, swept up in a moment of selfish desire and anger, chides Danny and accuses him of being stupid because he does not see that his beloved wife, Lucy, is running around on him. Sadly, this common but deadly allegation against his brother’s beloved ends in tragedy. On hearing Ian’s cruel accusation, Danny runs his car into a wall and kills himself. Lucy soon follows suit with an overdose of drugs, leaving three orphaned children, one of which might be Ian’s blood relative. Ian now faces the consequences of his selfish outburst and feels as though he must give up any hopes or dreams he had for his own life.

Driven to seek solace Ian finds himself at The Church of the Second Chance, a storefront church of atonement and forgiveness. Ian looks for help from the young pastor who willingly tells Ian that he needs to look after those kids, to show God he is serious about his repentance. It’s not surprising, this church is a no nonsense group that believes in living out their spiritual beliefs. The young 19 year old agrees, quits college and raises the three children as atonement. Ian’s intent is to repair the damage.

Moral rectitude, ‘youthful’ ambition and guilt are strong medicine to swallow. But Ian feels sick, so he is willing to take what is prescribed. The guilt goads against him as he drives towards a life of moral rightness. He thinks and believes and perhaps wishes that quitting college and looking after these three orphans will right the ship. He is relieved that there is a concrete path which promises to clean up the aftermath of his impulsive punch of indictments against his sister-in-law.

We may all wonder whether or not this formula may be of benefit to those who have done a similar thing. The nature of guilt requires reparation, but like all strong medicine it has some lethal and not so lethal side effects. Guilt is aggression against the self. It is when we take ourselves before a tribunal and declare ourselves found ‘GUILTY’ for whatever crime we may have done or believed we have done. Unlike shame, guilt carries with it a way of reparation. Shame’s sword, on the other hand, finds the only solution to be directed at the annihilation of the self. The Japanese are famous for shameful suicides as a way of saving face in the midst of humiliation. Danny and perhaps even Lucy may have sought relief from shame through the killing off of the self. Ian, as compared to them, feels guilty.

When we do something and find ourselves ‘GUILTY’ we look to repair the damage of what we have done. We tend to say "I am sorry" and follow it with a reparative replacement of what we broke, what we harmed. It’s the proper thing to do. When we break something that belongs to someone else, we replace it. We make it right. This formula may leave a trace of self-reproach but in time it fades and remains faded when we are able to recall the reparation.

There is, however, a problem with GUILT from a spiritual perspective, although clerics for centuries have used guilt as a prod to repent and join up. Guilt is an aggressive energy and often continues to harm the offender. Diffidence may shroud the once ambitious, lively offender and is often mistaken for reserve and worse, humbleness. The diffidence is merely a defense that the offender hides behind. Religious admonitions such as administered to Ian by this well-meaning street preacher, contains Ian in a culpable, harmful dulled down life that leaves him diminished and depressed. His guilt sours his life to such an extent that he withers. Furthermore, this situation is laden with self-interest, self-involvement, self-centeredness and so on. The guilt merely fortifies and compounds the self misery because the self is now bound up in reparation and blame. The ego is trapped, but it has not lost influence.

On the other hand, not taking responsibility for harm done is just as self-involved, shows lack of concern for others, is self-indulgent and arrogant. This privileged side is often covered by "entitlement" as though one has the right to do some harmful act. Wars are often defended in this way. This entitled side suggests one feels "justified." Reason, the flag bearer of the ego, rides out in front and continuously elucidates and enlightens in order to protect the beguiling mastery of the ego which feels secure to carry on as usual.

Both of these responses to doing harm are part of the ego’s armament. And both responses are the path to Hell. Hell, for those who may have forgotten, is a realm of acts of self-centered aggression. Ian’s self-centered aggression comes in the form of unrelenting guilt and the other, comes as entitlement that is harnessed and supported by reason. We recognize “entitlement” when we hear or sense the words ”by reason of.” The reasons are countless and actually hold no weight in the spiritual realm, and in fact may be the source of harm.

When in Hell we endlessly are pierced through the center or are piercing others, we boil ourselves and burn ourselves by fire or boil and burn others. We tend to devour ourselves or others to leave the vultures to pick the bones dry. Aggression is at a high level in this realm.

But unlike an everlasting Hell, this Hell follows the laws of nature and is subject to change. Despite the despair, depression and miserable inner states that are sure to follow those who are aggressive, relief is possible. Fortunately, no cleric who has even a smattering of enlightenment knows what to prescribe in exactitude. Although there does seem to be a preponderance of “self-help prescriptions” on the bookshelves and in the marketplace.

If not there is no precise formula, we may need to look to common sense. It is common sense to see that when we do not take responsibility for our harmful actions we must deal with problematic states, both personally and socially. Diffidence, arrogance, pride, coldness, smugness, stoicism, and indifference wall off and keep alive the rapscallion ego. Guilt goes underground and fortifies the gates of Hell. The offender needs to do one thing and that is to take a backward step into himself and begin to see for himself where he is and how he got there. Pointing to the problem is merely common sense. And yes, the problem is us.

Right in the middle of this miserable mess of guilty and indifferent aggression is the place to find the way out. It’s like asking for directions. You start by finding out where you are on the map. Once you know then you are ready to get some direction. It’s a little helpful to see how you got there, in hopes of not repeating it. It’s common sense to know that you can’t get where you want to go until you know where you are.  It’s not a blameworthy place, although we may find we feel sorrow for the harm done, we just find out our starting point. It is at this point we can ask where we want to go. In Ian’s case he wanted to get out of Hell, not the Hell after death, but the one he was living. The preacher meant no harm to Ian in his prescription however it left Ian a lifeless man in a lifeless life.

Ian aka Saint Maybe, polished his ego and remained captive to it. Reparation may be part of what Ian finds as a location on the spiritual map or not, but not as a redemptive measure. It’s a starting place. There is no guilt or aggression in the real world when we are in Buddha mind and body. Redemption is not a buffing of the ego-self in order to feel better, but a relief from it altogether. The recovery is not a patching or fixing up job of what we deem broken in the built-up false impression of a self. It is a dropping off, a setting down, a seeing through this crazy me-mind that affords us an opportunity to be with our True nature.

There’s no formula, there’s no antidote or prescription that can be given and taken as a remedy for our attachment to self-centeredness. One size does not fit all and there is no judge who can declare “THIS IS IT!” The conversion that Buddhism points to is a change of a greater magnitude than rubbing clean a wild self. Yes, common sense does advocate restraint. A mad dog needs to be leashed and trained. Restraint may be a more apt approach for the guilty, for those who failed to notice the law of cause and effect and are puzzled by the consequences that show up in their life time and time again as a messenger from the real world.

Restrain the wild self enough to settle into the presence of the Buddha body and mind right where we are and do this over and over again. In order to win the lottery, we must at least buy a ticket and so it is with spiritual luck, we must at least restrain the body, speech and mind from whacking at life in harmful ways. Restraint is our spiritual lottery ticket.

Buddhist tradition points to this spot again and again. It’s the old Zen story of the archer who after long preparation girds himself to hit the bull’s eye; when ready he raises the bow and releases the arrow into the air. This baffles those who do not know that the target, our True nature is everywhere. Restraint, concentration and training of the archer brought him to this realization.

If we demand to know where this spot is, we must reckon with the reality that we must labor to find it. But it is not through the doors of the intellect or mental powers of the brain. It’s not a set formula that we memorize. Spiritual awakening does not require conjuring tricks in the mind. It’s not a mental game we play. It’s not trickery.

And it is not in gathering “spiritual” information, that seemingly endless train of thought of knowing something we read or heard. Whether we are dull or keen are not the criteria for knowing our Awakened Self. It may, however, require a strong confidence to overcome obstacles, those artifices that are the flesh and bone of the ego-self. These artful deceptions we have built and believe to be “Me!” Ian, in his quest for forgiveness, builds a ‘guilt-ridden’ me; he did not find his True nature.

We further complicate the ego’s subterfuge by recalling each crafty strategy that builds a “Me” as hard won through “ME Effort” leaving us living on the edge of conceit and defeat; the two ever present bastions of the ego-self. We possess a charming guile and wear a badge of shrewd maneuvering when we feel success and when we trip up we feel despair and desolation. These are to be expected. We play on the edge of a razor that hangs over Hell until:

Common sense yells, “Stop playing around!”

Humming Bird