A Dangerous Game
- By Fa Guang, OHY
- May 01
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The Internet has a peculiar way of grabbing us and taking us off course, often without us even being aware it's happening. Recently as I was searching the Internet for a particular book I came across a list of forum posts relating to religious beliefs. I don't generally take the time to read forum posts, blogs, and the like, but I thought it might be educational to find out what people were finding interesting enough to talk about publicly. The subject of the threads and posts related to an observation by one of the members that there seemed to be more animosity between Christians than between Christians and atheists or agnostics. The discussions were from a variety of viewpoints, some thoughtfully written and researched, others irrational and defensive. In the midst of the deteriorating rhetoric I considered "setting them all straight."
As fast as that idea came to me I realized how foolish it was.
I was startled, though, that I had become entrapped, even for that brief instant, like a bystander at a drinking fountain, listening in to others' gossip, all the more ready to chime in. I had felt drawn like a pin to a magnet to offer my two cents worth of nothing. At the instant of that realization I thought to myself, "What are you thinking? Are you nuts? What value would it be to post my opinions in response to a conversation that was so clearly the domain of self-righteous egos?" It was obvious that there was nobody posting to this forum who was overtly suffering, no one asking for help or assistance, nobody looking for answers.
So, just as quickly as I had been pulled in, the pole of the magnet flipped and I was forcibly expelled. Zen practice does this kind of thing to us. We develop an inner eye that watches things and guides us. It helps protect us from the ego's harmful self-gratifying actions.
With practice we become conditioned to sound an "awareness alarm" at the instant of the second nen of a thought stream. It's like being kicked beneath the table by a friend who is experiencing embarrassment from their companion's inappropriate remark.
But it disturbed me that I got caught up in such a ridiculous situation, even for the brief instant it was. In the Chan spirit, I had to investigate this further. What was my motive at the time of that impulse to want to join in? Was it that I believed I had something to "teach" them? Something profound that would save them from a seemingly endless game of "opinion catch?" If I had offered anything for thisreason it would have been as if I had knocked on their door and handed them an unsolicited pamphlet. Was I so self-righteous that I believed my spiritual and religious path was better than theirs? No religion has a monopoly over god. As a practicing Zen Buddhist, it was obvious to me that arguments as to the ownership of the road to salvation are harmful, and the domain of the ego alone. Such battles not only raise an invisible barrier, preventing each from understanding the other, it denies our own spiritual independence, our own humanity.
Why are we so driven to be correct, to show to others that we know more, or are more righteous than they are? Is there anyone who has the real, right, absolute answer to anything? A line from an old gangster movie came to mind: "f'get about it!" Preaching won't get anywhere if the motivations aren't selfless and pure, based on compassion and understanding. But even more importantly, the preached-to has to want to be preached to.
The question I continued to puzzle over was why I had let myself be nearly captured by such a combative, irreverent, event. And also what happened that I knew to pull away from it.
I know my Zen practice has provided internal warnings against such trappings and I imagine that anyone who practices Zen experiences these warnings as well. Perhaps a few who were debating different Biblical interpretations in the forum were also experiencing the same kind of nudge but were not interested in paying attention to it, either out of habit or out of an overpowering need to prove themselves. Perhaps the practice of Zen or regular meditation makes it not only easier to hear the alarm but to act on it as well.
Sometime ago I took a vow to do no harm to any living being. But when we're not aware of the motives behind our actions, we can't know if we're doing harm or not. The first thing we have to do in fulfilling this pledge is to become aware of ourselves: understand why we do the things we do.
Getting into a discussion or debate between opposing views inevitably plays into the ego game. Games have winners and losers. If opponents decide to play a game that has referees and rules, and agree to abide by those rules, fine. No harm done. The difference is that the ego game, although it also has winners and losers, has no referees or rules. It's more like street fighting. The losers come out of it with feelings of loss, anger, frustration, remorse; the winners come out of it inflated with self-gratification that inspires them to want to play again. The "losers" tend to avoid such contests in the future or try to figure out ways to "get even." The "winners" continue eagerly playing, honing their skills, continually growing their sense of self-importance. On and on it goes, the never ending spiral of samsara. The only way to get ourselves out of it is to say to ourselves, "Stop! Enough!"
Changing someone else must take a backseat to changing ourselves. People won't change themselves, regardless of the help available to them, unless they first want to change. Attempting to help someone who has not recognized suffering and expressed a sincere desire to do something about it is simply pursuing another ego game. It can only cause harm. Remaining silent may offer no help, but at least it also does no harm.
Of course there are appropriate times to help others even if they haven't asked for it: in times of extreme danger or threat to the health or survival of another. In times like these, when there is no time to think about the appropriate response, no opportunity to have a contest of egos, action alone determines the Way. There is no time to make judgment or ask permission. There is no "correct" or "incorrect," no winner, no loser. We simply do what is necessary. In such situations, if we have to have a dialogue with ourselves about whether or not to act, then it is unlikely that we will be able to act according to Dharma and it is unlikely that however wedo end up acting will be of much benefit to others or ourselves.
Working attentively at being aware of what is really going on, what our own true motivations are, every moment, is essential to the Dharma of Right Action. It involves the practice of listening rather than preaching, especially listening to that tiny gap that follows the first impulse to act. We ask ourselves at that point if our response to the situation is based on selfless kindness or self-inflation. Zen's Middle Way instructs us to tend our own garden first while being ready, willing, and available to assist our neighbors with theirs when the need arises.
Chan Master Han Shan's works from over 400 years ago still resonate timelessly:
The person who considers himself superior to others constantly renders judgments and perceives differences. He rigidly deals in opposites: good or bad, right or wrong. If he follows his own standards of fairness, he'll have to reject at least half of creation.
A person who follows the Dharma strives to unify himself with the rest of humanity. He doesn't discriminate and is indifferent to qualitative distinctions. He knows that Buddha Nature is the One, Indivisible Reality. A person who follows the Dharma strives to remain ever conscious of his inclusion in that One.