Listening to the stories…

Like so many others I have been haunted and troubled by the news coming from the Middle East and from southern and eastern Ukraine. Images from a UN-run school used as a shelter which came under Israeli fire in Gaza, from a bus overturned in Jerusalem by an as yet unknown man driving a heavy digger, from the wreckage of Flight MH17 in the beautiful fields outside Grabovo, just will not go away.

The pressure to take sides is all but overwhelming. The news media report atrocities and the responses to atrocities, the Facebook and Twitter streams are full of grief and the demands for justice. As Quakers with a history of “speaking truth to power” we seem to ourselves to be called to take sides in the appalling conflicts which have given rise to such bitter suffering on the part of the innocent.

Yet the taking of sides leads inevitably and logically to violence. Ghandi said, “There is no escape from the impending doom save through a bold unconditional acceptance of the non-violent method. Democracy and violence go ill together. The States that today are nominally democratic have either to become frankly totalitarian or, if they are to become truly democratic, they must become courageously non-violent.” We can see this clearly in the responses, both here and in the United States, to, ultimately, the events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. In the years since then, both our nations have become more nominally democratic, more effectively totalitarian.

Dharmavidya wrote recently in Amida Newsletter Number 19:

There is “little faith” and there is “great faith”. Little faith is the kind of faith that unites a practice community by separation. The community could be a branch of any religion or it could be an ideological group of some kind. Little faith is essentially about identity. It says, “We are X” with the implication that “We are X and not Y”. Little faith always relates to an out-group from which people are distinguishing themselves and, implicitly, condemning. It says, “We are the true believers who are different from the infidels,” or “We have the right practice unlike those others,” or “We are the virtuous and we oppose the sinners.”

“Little faith” leads to violence as surely as dropping something leads to its impact on ground beneath. The cries of the media, whether on Facebook or in the tabloid newspapers, for a justice which is indistinguishable from revenge, are the rallying cries of little faith – the assertion, often spoken but always implicit, that if you are not fighting the enemy then you are yourself the enemy.

Dharmavidya goes on:

Many faith groups operate in this way. Membership cements a person into a way of practice and belief and provides strength and courage to face a difficult world. Even humanistic and supposedly progressive groups can be in the same kind of mentality. How many progressive groups do you know that thrive on petitions and campaigns to condemn this or that idea or practice that is different from their own? One might then ask… But should one not condemn what is bad, cruel or corrupt? Isn’t progress a function of eliminating the bad? It is easy to see how an oppositional way of thinking comes readily to the human mind and appears to be self-justifying. Yet, it is not our way to condemn. We are not in the business of demolishing Hell; we are in the business of building an alternative; yet we cannot do such building alone and unaided; we need the help of the Buddhas.

In his recent book Consider the Blackbird: Reflections on Spirituality and Language, Harvey Gilman quotes Peter Bien (Words, Wordlessness and the Word, 1992):

Naming divides. Grammar divides, distinguishing subject from object, masculine from feminine, past from present, even the self-consciously perceived ‘me’ from the perceiving ‘I’. But silence unifies… Whether we consider the Godhead as being or becoming, language stands as an impediment whereas silence is a perfect ritualistic means to renew our connection with true reality.

In our contact with that which always stands over against, above if you will accept the term, our human dividedness, we are always at risk of losing that separate, wilful individuality with which we are named and defined. Gilman writes, later in the same chapter which opens with the Peter Bien quote:

At its most intense the question of who is communicating with whom ceases to matter. The individual is expressing him or herself with others in the presence of God or something for which ‘God’ is the agreed metaphor. Although Orthodox Judaism is wary of talk of union with God – since God is always the Other – there is blurring of the self in an outpouring into otherness. Prose becomes poetry, silence becomes music, the body dances, words become wordless.

Dharmavidya goes on:

It is important, therefore, to understand great faith. Great faith is faith that transcends difference and does not rely upon rejection. Great faith encompasses faith in great compassion and great love, great peace and great equanimity. Great love is the love of Buddha who loves all sentient beings. We might not be able to manage that personally, but we have faith in it. We have faith that that is the way of the Buddhas and it is to them that we look for refuge.

This means that while we express our faith in a particular form, such as saying Namo Amida Bu, we do not understand that expression as excluding other expressions, but as embracing them. The hundred names of Allah are simply more names for the same great faith. The prayers of Christians and the dancing of Sufis, the rituals of Confucianists, the hopes of Humanists and the sitting of Zenists, are ultimately expressions of the same essential heart. The actual practitioners of this or that approach may or may not be enmeshed in small faith just as members of our own congregation may be, but true refuge is not exclusivist. True refuge is an expression of faith on behalf of all beings.

When we say Namo Amida Bu, we are also saying “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me, a sinner”, we are also saying “Hari Krishna” and “By the mercy of Allah, the compassionate.” This is not to say that all these different faiths are really the same. They evidently all have different forms and customs and different ideas. Yet there is a parallel between the spectrum from bigness of heart to littleness in all groups, and to say Namo Amida Bu is to celebrate the prevailing of bigness of heart and bigness of faith not only in one’s own group but in all.

Language is so often defined in terms of definition, if you will forgive the pun. I mean that it is used to describe distinctions, to set apart one thing from another, so that we can think about things, tell each other things, debate things, argue about them. But Wittgenstein, as Gilman himself points out earlier in Consider the Blackbird, famously made the distinction between what language could say and what language could show. (When I was teaching creative writing many years ago, I often used to ask those who were learning to write poems to give up trying to tell us about things, and instead to show us the things themselves.)

Gilman again:

The division for me in the religious life is not between members of one religion and another, or even between sceptics, atheists and followers of religions. It is between those who include the stories of their fellow humans and those who exclude them.

Our stories are so often the places where we find ourselves, and each other. In the Australian Aboriginal world view, the Dreaming stories “cover many themes and topics, as there are stories about creation of sacred places, land, people, animals and plants, law and custom. It is a complex network of knowledge, faith, and practices that derive from stories of creation. It pervades and informs all spiritual and physical aspects of an indigenous Australian’s life.” (Wikipedia) Our stories can be told among our fellows, or they can be told in exile. But the greatest gift we can give another is to listen to their stories.

Dharmavidya concludes:

In Buddhism we have the teaching of truths for noble ones. The first truth for noble ones is dukkha. Dukkha includes having difficult neighbours. Sometimes this even means having neighbours who throw bombs over one’s borders. One might be tempted to throw bombs back. When things reach this degree of animosity something has already gone badly wrong. Too much little faith has been going on for too long already. Yet, from the perspective of great faith, one knows that there are people of good heart on both sides and those who are lost in littleness are only so because of their fear. One, therefore, prays for and takes refuge in a bigger faith that can encompass both sides. One seeks to take away the causes of fear.

The reason for dukkha is so that we can find liberation by liberating one another. Liberation starts in our hearts, extends into our open arms and finds fulfilment in expressions of love, or, it starts in expressions of love, extends into open arms and finally lodges deep in our hearts. All true religion is a reminder of this inner and outer movement. In Buddhism, we say that our neighbour is our teacher. It is through such relations that we find the barriers to our own freedom and if we find them then we can take them down. This is, perhaps, a never-ending task in our own case, but it is sustained by that greater universal love in which we find refuge and take faith. Let us, therefore, not condemn little faith, but seek always to go beyond it into that great faith that encompasses all sentient beings and is the unique and sacred vow of all Buddhas everywhere, no matter by what names or forms they present themselves.

Let us listen. And then we can pray.

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