One of the pitfalls of accepting dogma — or anything we might accept as a model for thought or behavior — is not so much the presumption of its authority but the transferring of that “authority” to ourselves.

Taking on this authority is not a matter of the authenticity of the body of doctrine but a matter of our own psychology of submission, acceptance, and consequent arrogance. We want to accept a teacher or guru or model because of their appearance of authority or piety, but in the process we have suspended a vital function. We ought to listen first, and test what we hear, using experience and expectation, using our deepest intuitive criterion.

Not that we must do anything. Rather, we must explore the logic, the motive, the genealogy, the affective ramifications of whatever is presented to us. Above all, we must not fill a psychological gap that our downtrodden ego may need. At that point, the content of the thought is not relevant; we are entertaining authority regardless of the body of thought. In turn, many people subsequently preempt the psychological needs of others, having violated their own need to pursue the process of self-discovery.

The Buddha himself asked his hearers not to accept what he said without testing it first. His saying is famous:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe anything because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything because it is written in religious books. Do not believe in anything simply on the authority of teachers and elders. Only after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

How can we genuinely advocate for something or live it out in our lives if we really have not pursued its significance, its meaning, its import, its ramifications? And, after that, extrapolated it to others?

Even then, can we ever be sure? Shall we become skeptics of everything, doubters of motives, suspicious, even paranoid? The answer is that is that if we remain in skepticism and doubt it is because we have failed to bring an important component of experience to what we hear. We have failed to listen not only to what is presented to us but failed to listen to our own heart.

Listening to oneself, one’s conscience, one’s heart, is risky because it presumes that we know how and know what to look for. This seems circular. How can we listen if we don’t know what to listen for? Part of the problem is the modern dependence on externals for feedback, without a measured and careful self-examination of our own feelings, emotions, fears, comforts, and capabilities. In exploring ourselves honestly we do not need to judge. What we discover may be discouraging, unpleasant, unfortunate. We may find that we are not motivated as much as we thought, not as independent-minded as we thought, rather fearful and stretched in our construction of a social mask. Once we remove the mask, do we replace it with an equivalent one? The masks we construct are obstacles not so much to others, who can quickly dispose of them if they are clever, but to ourselves in wondering why we are what we are when we wish we might be otherwise. Time to stop wishing and to accept ourselves, foibles, false masks, aand all.

Hence the testing recommended by the Buddha has some prerequisites. We cannot test without some background — not in an academic or scientific sense but in a psychological way. We need to make the testing a complement to the process of self-discovery. We have to listen to how the testing is resonating within our minds and hearts. Of course, we need to be ready to do this even before we embark on listening. We need to nurture the seed within us before sprouting it, because once it sprouts it won’t withdraw into itself again.

We are none other than ourselves — trite and simple as it seems. Not the contrived self, the self full of thoughts and plans and illusions but the deep still pool that should govern, regulate, and listen. Our eagerness to fit into the social schema around us should not drown out the solitude within us, from which our selves emerge. In the process, we may realize that we are the sum of many factors over which we have had little control — or devoted little reflection. We may conclude that there is no “self” within, nothing that we actually worked on, shaped, molded.

Out of these diverse factors that comprise our “self” — these many causes and effects — we nevertheless represent our “self” as the center point of a circle around which everything sits. This is a necessary artifice of the mind to maintain cohesion and character. But not all of these factors are out of our control. We have assembled a cumulative deposit of ethical, experiential, and affective sensibilities (from the moment of birth) with which we must work before we can reach a point of progress, of integration, of spiritual well-being. That is the process of transcendence. Most people are simply trying to function, not transcend, are trying to keep the mass of thought swirling round the center, not letting it stop for fear of what they may find.

If we make progress, are we eager to share our insights with others? Share — or, rather, show it off? Those who don’t know speak, and those who do remain silent — goes the saying. It is for each one of us to make this effort to self-understanding, and the ability to allow others the space to make their own discoveries, errors, and assumptions is part of our own job of self-understanding. What we know or think we know is true may be bursting within us to tell, to shout, but all we are doing then is making noise in somebody’s ear, spreading self-serving, not self-understanding. Helping others often means silence, watching, and listening. Helping personalities — seldom solitaries, by the way — are exquisitely courteous, patient, reluctant to intervene, not loud or self-centered, and almost intuitive in their ability to read the other person’s unspoken thoughts and respect them.

There is a wonderful story in Dae Gak’s book Going Beyond Buddha that illustrates the pitfalls of paying attention to others to the point of overlooking of our sensibilities, our own pure nature receptive and constructive as it is. It is adapted from Tolstoy’s “three hermits” story and makes it more conveniently one. The story also illustrates the folly of free advice, of assuming that we are right, even when we “technically” may think we are — but fail to keep silence. For this story, the reader can substitute truth or integration or wholeness or Absolute for “God” as desired. Here is the story:

Once there was a man who was very devout. He had lived a life of confusion and abandon but changed his ways and found God. He became quite pious, and where there was once self-consciousness and inferiority, there was now a strength and belief that was apparent in every step he took. His religion had served him well, and he was generous in his willingness to share his beliefs.

One day he was rowing a boat and came near an island. A hermit who lived on the island was praying. He heard the prayers of the hermit, and knowing as he did the true way to call God’s name, he beached his boat and instructed the hermit in the correct way to pray. The hermit, grateful for the instruction, bowed, and the religious man was on his way. As he pulled away from the shore, he was joyous as he heard the hermit pray as he had instructed. But the boat was no more than a few feet off the shore when the prayers changed, and the hermit was back to his mistaken prayer forms. Disgusted, the religious man said to himself, “He is useless, he will never learn the right way to call God’s name.” As he looked up from his rowing, he saw, running across the water, the hermit yelling, “Sir, kind sir, how was it that I was supposed to pray God’s name?”

So Sahn stories

Two stories by 16th-century Korean Zen master So Sahn capture the compelling sense of ahimsa or nonviolence that ought to be the ground of the mind and heart.

Here is the first story:

A monk was traveling alone along a deserted highway when robbers fell upon him and stole his bowl, beads, and robe. They tied him up at the roadside with the thick grasses there and fled. The monk did not wish to harm the living grasses by struggling to unbind himself. He lay alone into the cold night and into the hot day that followed, when it happened that the king and his retinue passed on horseback on their way to a hunt. They stopped when they saw the monk, and understood what had happened. The king himself dismounted from his horse and unbound the monk. So impressed was the king (especially given that he was on his way to hunt) that at that very moment he declared himself a Buddhist.

Here is the second story:

A monk was traveling alone when he reached a village. He presented his begging bowl at each door, arriving at last at the door of a jewel-maker, who was in his workshop fashioning a jewel for a wealthy client. A goose wandered about the place. The jewel-maker went into the house to get some food for the monk. In his absence the goose came to the workshop table and swallowed the gem. When the jewel-maker returned and discovered the jewel gone, he screamed angrily at the monk, throttling him and beating him, all the more because the monk would say nothing. The monk knew that if he said what had happened, the jewel-maker would kill the goose. At last, the jewel-maker bound the monk and threw him into a corner, waiting for his confession. After a few hours, the monk noticed the goose excreting. Then he said to the jewel-maker that he could find his gem there in the pile of excrement.

Among other things, these stories are simple conveyances of the idea of nonviolence being not merely passive but even to the point of suffering while upholding the principle. The monks in the stories could well be Hindu sadhus or forest hermits, or Jains, or Buddhists. The concept of ahimsa was the common inheritance of these Eastern religions.

The continuity of this virtue shames the proponents of a lax or flexible, circumstantial attitude towards sentience. So Sahn notes the extreme character of the first monk, who did not even want to injury the grass — which technically is not sentient in the sense that it does not have the mechanism for sensing pain — as contemporary science can now confirm. The story-teller knows this but wants to emphasize a point, one which Jains especially, sensitive to the reality of interconnectedness — the grasses harbor insects, for example — would appreciate.

Extending non-violence to common objects, even inanimate ones, simply reflects an inner disposition towards the entire hierarchy of beings, a recognition of the mingling of life force in all matter of objects. Shinto also appreciates the life presence within rocks, trees, rivers. Whether literally or figuratively, what we do externally molds the inner heart, and our physical actions record a pattern that brings feedback to our vital selves, however subtly and unconsciously. As most people know, psychologists see a child’s abuse of insects as a danger sign. But they would probably also have to see a child pounding angrily on rocks or trees or even grasses as equally suggestive.

The first story is also about change in the human heart. Here the highest potentate of the land still regards himself as open to compassionate action, and can be brought to shame by the example of one of his subjects. The Buddhist King Asoka is suggested, whose short-lived reign attempted in naive fashion to institute virtues without force or violence. Asoka’s brief reign (and the brief reign of nonviolence as a public institution) was like the monk’s day and night, a voluntary witnessing to the effects of nonviolence on others.

In the second story, the jewel-maker is king of his household, and he binds the begging monk until he will confess, that is, until he will kill the goose. The king of this household is ignorant of the truth because he is ignorant of his actions, blindingly lashing out at the monk, imagining him to have “slain” the gem. The monk is willing to suffer not so much on behalf of the goose but on behalf of the truth of his principles. Such courage and stamina must accompany principles if they are to make their way to light — if the truth of the situation with the gem is to be revealed. Who can refrain from a knowing nod to the monk who points to the pile of excrement to identify the gem. What, indeed is the difference between them?

The Western world has never perceived the compelling nature of ahimsa, always viewing itself as privileged to dominate nature, environment, animals, trees, rivers, etc. Early in the history of religious consciousness in the West, Yahweh bids humans “fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth” (Genesis: 1,28). This ruling over and subduing commenced from that point on in animal sacrifice and war, culminating directly in our technological subordination of nature, animals, and peoples to systems of suffering and violence. These systems are always seen as necessary for human vitality, be it factory farms, war, or nuclear power. Ultimately, these systems project themselves into every capacity of human effort, a virtual civilization built on violence and suffering.

The genius of ahimsa is both philosophical and psychological. To practice is to be transformed, to confirm the rightness of its way, to feel more in harmony with nature — healthier, more tranquil, without the unconscious need to evoke a violent response if pushed too far becuse we are everywhere and nowhere. Ahimsa is without agenda, pretense, necessity, or emotion, without the need to do something to something or someone else in order to be at peace. Ahimsa is to not feel angry, resentful, passionate, or sad. It is simply to be as everything else is — the empty mind, the trees, the grasses, the sentient beings.