The Acid Test of Religion

While it is indeed the case that anyone who is practicing meditation in a Buddha-hall is seeking enlightenment as some sort of distant goal, the fact is that the temples, practice centers, and the Buddhist path do not exist for any purpose other than for us to fully understand ourselves exactly as we are here and now. Where we are now, as shown in Tao Yuanming’s poem—the hut in the midst of the world of people—is precisely our practice center, and so it doesn’t do us any good to try to escape from it. We should think about the Buddha-path and the meditation hall in the way of the great recluse who “withdraws to the city streets.” This is the main reason this poem resonates with me, and thus I continue to re-read it.

— Tagawa Shunei “Living Yogacara“, trans. Prof. Charles Muller

In my opinion, the true test, the acid test, of a person’s progress in a religion is their ability to handle a crisis or conflict. If that is true, then I feel I have failed.

Recently, I had a nasty fight with my elderly neighbor next door. I have a lot of cedar (杉, sugi in Japanese) trees in my yard from the previous owner. Because of this, we don’t get much sunlight around the house, and a big mess to clean up. The largest cedar tree is actually in my neighbor’s yard, but it leans over on my side, which worries us because trees might fall over in a strong wind-storm. A while ago, I asked the neighbor (husband) if I could trim the branches hanging on my side, and he said yes. So, I hired some a tree-trimming company to come and remove a few trees in my yard (the sick ones, not the healthy ones), but I also asked them to trim the branches from the neighbor’s tree. US law states that you can trim a neighbor’s tree up to the property line, but not on the neighbor’s side of course. So, I assumed it was OK.

Unfortunately, the neighbor’s wife did not agree to this, so when the tree-trimming people came, she was very angry, and started yelling at the tree-trimming people, and me. At first, I tried to calm her down, and apologized for not consulting with her about the tree trimming (even though the husband had agreed). I assured her we would leave the tree alone, and I asked the tree trimming people to only cut my trees for the day. However, she did not stop. She kept asking the tree-trimming people to prove their qualifications, even after I asked her to stop, then she complained I had too many weeds in my yard and that if we trimmed her tree, she would have to see the play ground I setup for my children (in other words, she didn’t want to see it). Then she blamed me for not keeping my yard clean, and allowing rats to live there (this was the first I heard of the issue).

By now, I was getting angry with her, and I started saying, “Enough!” She would not stop, so I started yelling louder, “Enough, enough, enough!” until she finally went back in the house. When she came out again to bother the tree-trimming people, I had to yell at her again until she went inside.

Now, after talking with other people, including her own gardener (who described her as the “boss from hell”), I learned that she’s a very controlling person and difficult to work with. The husband is a nice old man, and easy to work with, but I guess his wife is very different.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that I lost my temper with her and let her “get under my skin”. For this reason, I realized that in spite of my efforts to follow the Buddhist path carefully, I still have much to learn.

Now someone might say I am over-reacting, or being too self-critical, but I remember the Buddha’s “simile of the saw“:

“Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.

Or the story of the “Bodhisattva Never-Disparaging” (常不輕菩薩) in the Lotus Sutra: a monk who never got angry with other people even when they hit him with sticks and stones. Eventually, he became a bodhisattva and those who hated him became his students.

The point is is that bad things like this happen sometimes,1 and we have to deal with some very mean or cruel people. A childish person will get offended easily, and quickly react back. A regular person will try to avoid a fight, but if cornered, they will eventually react and fight back. But a noble person, regardless of religion, can withstand that kind of abuse and not get angry. This doesn’t mean being weak, but it’s a kind of inner-strength, inner-discipline. And I realize that I do not have it.

I still have a long way to go.

Also, it’s a reminder that as people get older, their personality flaws get worse. If they are controlling at a young age, they are even more controlling when they are older. If they are greedy when young, they are even more greedier when they older, etc, etc. So, it’s important to remember this as we get older, and work hard to correct our own flaws before they get worse.

As Confucius said in The Analects:

[17:26] The Master said: “One who has reached the age of forty and is disliked, will be disliked to the end.” –trans. Charles Muller

Something to think about it. 😉

P.S. Related post from long ago.

P.P.S. Good news though: my yard looks a lot better since removing a few trees.

1 One of the Eight Sufferings (八苦) of Buddhism: having to be around people you don’t like. See the Buddha’s first sermon for details.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

8 thoughts on “The Acid Test of Religion”

  1. A very nice post, Doug. You were severely tested, and only replied with “Enough,” but forcefully enough to get her to stop. That was very good. You could have said a lot that you would now regret a whole lot more. It is not much fun to get angry, and not much fun to find out that one is not a saint or an arhat yet, ne. Good lesson for us all. Thanks for mentioning the passage from the Analects.

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    1. Hi Miriam and thank you.

      Yeah, I am glad I didn’t get “nasty”. But I felt toward the end she was somehow trying to bully me, and the trimmers, so I felt I had to put my foot down. Still, I could’ve handled it better.

      I don’t like the idea of yelling at old ladies.

      But yeah, point being, people can get sanctomonious or think they’re doing “pretty good” on a religious path until something like this happens. There lies the true test of one’s “attainments” I guess.

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  2. Yes, that kind of thing is kinda pivotal. I got into the Eight Verses for Training the Mind:http://www.lotsawahouse.org/tibetan-masters/geshe-langri-thangpa/eight-verses-training-mind
    And the one about offering the victory to anyone who attacks you was especially hard. Or considering oneself the lowest in any gathering. So unAmerican! But I like to think I am getting used to it (living in Japan has had some positive effects in that regard, and some very positive role models).

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    1. Hi John, yeah it’s pivotal indeed. For me, I sometimes think to myself “what would Spock do?” 😉 Kind of joking, but it’s also part of my theory that the character of Spock is a kind Bodhisattva anyway.

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  3. “the Buddhist path do not exist for any purpose other than for us to fully understand ourselves exactly as we are here and now”

    Great quotation – thanks Doug.

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  4. I have thanks Doug but you made me want to read again it soon.

    Btw/ I’ll be over your way in the fairly near future. Will drop you an email to see if we can meet up.

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