157 – Bodhicitta: The Critical Importance of Dissatisfaction
159 – Active Receptivity in Zazen: Surrounded by a Symphony

Recent events show how deep a divide has developed within the United States. Those guilty of crimes need to be held accountable, but how do we repair the social fabric of our nation? It may help to renew cultural respect for the value of decorum: Dignified behavior according to social standards for what demonstrates a basic respect for one another’s humanity and acknowledges our mutual dependence. I discuss the teachings on decorum in Buddhism, and how critical it is to social harmony.

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Headings:
Responding to Social Strife: The Quandary
The Forgotten Virtue of Decorum
We All Want Respect
Decorum in Buddhism
The Beauty of Mutual Respect and Affirmation
We Can’t Force Respect, We Have to Ask for It
Letter to the People Who Stormed Our Capitol
Decorum as a Virtue to Be Cultivated, Maintained, Strengthened

 

Responding to Social Strife: The Quandary

Last week there was a violent assault on the US capitol by people trying to stop one of the most central democratic processes of our nation. Two people were killed. Our lawmakers were directly threatened and feared for their lives; they had to run and hide in lockdown, or cower under furniture if they didn’t get to safety in time, sending texts to loved ones in case they didn’t get out alive. One of the primary symbols of our democracy was trashed and vandalized.

Understandably, right now, many people are focused on holding those involved accountable in order to try and make sure this never happens again. People, including me, are angry and there is a time and a place for this, but also on people’s minds, and not just because of this incident, question in this country and around the world, how do we respond to increasing antagonism and violence and division? How do we restore peace?

Our political system pretty much leaves us only one option: Fighting the other side until we win the critical 51% (actually, 60%, given the filibuster) that lets us get our way. There is no longer one or a few media sources that are held to high standards of accountability and that everyone hears from, so media can’t heal our differences. When we fundamentally disagree with many beliefs of the “other side,” we can’t compromise while maintaining our integrity. Do we respond to domestic terrorists like overindulgent parents, asking them what upset them and then appeasing them, with fingers crossed that they won’t end up encouraging their negative behavior?

It’s the job of religious leaders like me to counsel alternatives to anger, fear, and vengeance at these times. I imagine it can be hard to hear such messages, depending on where you are in your processing of what’s been going on. If you really need to remain angry and outraged for a while, that’s okay. Maybe listen to this episode in couple weeks. Or never. Anger is a sign we think something needs to be defended, and in this case our anger is justified.

Or, listen to this episode but try to hold two opposing realities in your mind at once:

  1. Society needs to hold people accountable for their actions, protect its beneficial institutions, and defend vulnerable people. There are times when it is appropriate to identify falsehoods and unacceptable behavior, draw firm boundaries, and even carry out severe punishments.
  2. Anger is a natural response to perceived threats, but hatred is a poison. All beings, with the possible exception of the rare extreme psychopath, simply want to avoid suffering and seek happiness. Some beings may be deeply, deeply deluded and cause great harm, but at our core we all want to be safe and loved. Therefore, as the Buddha said, “Hatred never ends through hatred. By non-hate alone does it end. This is an ancient truth.”[i]

I’ve spoken in other episodes about where evil comes from according to Buddhism, and how it’s entirely possible to transcend hatred while fiercely standing up for what’s right:

59 – Buddha’s Teachings Part 6: The Three Poisons as the Root of All Evil

65 – Dealing with Fear, Anger, and Hatred as a Buddhist

138 – Buddhist Images of Fierceness and Compassionate Anger

146 – Unconditional Respect for Terrible People: What Does It Mean?

 

The Forgotten Virtue of Decorum

In this episode I want to focus on the importance of a rather subtle virtue identified in Buddhist teachings: Decorum, and how the lack of decorum in our society has contributed to the breakdown of our social connections and harmony.

I’m defining decorum as “dignified behavior demonstrating a basic respect for one another’s humanity and acknowledging our mutual dependence.”  In the dictionary, decorum is defined as “behavior that is socially correct, controlled, calm, and polite;[ii] propriety and good taste in conduct or appearance;[iii] dignified propriety of behavior, speech, dress, etc.” Propriety is “conformity to established standards of good or proper behavior or manners; appropriateness to the purpose or circumstances; suitability.”[iv]

My sense is this virtue, decorum, has become viewed by people across the political spectrum as quaint and outdated except within the context of employment. We have good reason to be skeptical of the requirements of decorum, of course: Socially enforced expectations of behavior can be brutally oppressive to individuals and groups. But in throwing decorum out the window (the U.S. has had a president for four years who embodies the antithesis of decorum), have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

I propose that decorum is a much more important virtue than it might first appear – both to us as individuals, and to our communities and society. (And Buddhist teachings support me in this – more in this in a bit.) Acting with decorum – with consideration for how my speech and actions are going to affect you – emotionally and psychologically as well as physically – is a sign of basic respect for your humanity. Even if I don’t feel much respect for you, at least I am manifesting respect. At least we are maintaining the boundaries of respect together, acknowledging that we may at times be in conflict, but we exist within a web of mutuality.

I may be thinking angry or judgmental thoughts about you, but decorum restrains me from expressing my negative opinions unless the situation calls for me to set an important boundary with you. When I encounter people with various handicaps – physical, mental, or emotional – or people who are clearly down on their luck, decorum calls for me to treat them with basic kindness and refrain from staring at them or mocking them. I may be fiercely opposing someone over a particular issue, but decorum requires me to use civilized means to oppose them instead of resorting to name calling, threatening them, criticizing their appearance, or engineering their social outcasting.

Please note, I’m not saying that decorum is all that’s needed – that the only thing the capitol rioters lacked was a sense of decorum, or that we need to respond to violence with politeness. However, decorum describes daily behavior that maintains an atmosphere of basic respect in a society. It would benefit our society, I believe, if we started identifying and extolling the virtues of decorum again – as a strength as opposed to a weakness. It takes strength of character to treat our opponents as well as our friends with basic respect. And if acting with respect is optional, based only on my personal opinions and feelings, I reveal myself as being petty and small-minded. If acting with respect is optional, the social fabric of our society will break down (as it has already to a considerable extent), because we will always have differences of opinion, perspective, personality, and lifestyle.

 

We All Want Respect

It can be helpful to examine our negative responses to the actions of others and identify what’s underneath our anger, outrage, or fear. If we’re honest with ourselves, we often (always?) find a sincere desire for other people to treat us – and the beings, things, and places we care about – with respect. This desire for respect reflects our interdependence with others. If we want situations to improve, we can’t respond to conflict with the same disrespectful behavior others have shown, even though that might be our first inclination. Responding with disrespect will only inflame the situation and create more division.

Instead, we have to acknowledge our hurt and act in accord with interdependence, making use of the fact that our opponents desire our respect as much we desire theirs.  This desire in situations of conflict may be hidden – very hidden – under many, many layers of aggressiveness and defensiveness. Naturally, it’s kind of scary and counterintuitive to respond to negative behavior by acknowledging and confessing our vulnerability. However, we can learn to do this with dignity and strength. Needing others is not a weakness, it is a reality. Others may pretend they don’t need anyone, or don’t care at all what you think or do, but this either ignorance or a defensive façade.

Norman Fischer in The World Could be Otherwise:

“I have come to believe that there is a drop of love at the center of every conflict…

“We all need and want love. We all know that love lies at the center of who we are as human beings. We all understand the imperative to love the other as ourselves, however much we have forgotten or deny this. So when the other seems to be threatening us, there is a disturbing disconnect with something that lies deep within us – our intense need for one another. This is why severe conflict seems to rock us to our very foundation, much more than the issue at hand would seem to warrant…

“At the bottom of every important conflict is a sense of love having been betrayed…

“The magic of conflict is to recognize that there is a point of connection and even love at the heart of what is most painful. Because we care so deeply for on another – however much we are not in touch with this caring – we are capable of hurting one another. Once we know this, we can search within for the hurt and vulnerability. It is there somewhere – underneath the anger, defensiveness, or aggression. If we can let ourselves feel the hurt, grief, fear, and disappointment, eventually we will find the love – that place within us that contains the basic human feelings we all feel for one another.”[v]

Our need for respect manifests at the personal level all the way to the societal and cultural level. Respect manifests as friendliness, kindness, generosity, basic esteem, and a willingness to listen to and take into account another’s perspective. It manifests as honoring someone’s physical and emotional boundaries and property. Refraining from destroying or needlessly denigrating those things someone values. Valuing someone’s basic humanity and therefore doing what we can to ensure they are able to live with a basic level of safety, comfort, and dignity.

We need respect from individuals as an individual (just think of how angry and upset small signs of disrespect from strangers can make us!), and we need respect from one another as members of groups and as citizens. This need is emotional, but it’s also very literal and material. We are completely interdependent with one another, perhaps more so now than at any point in human history. There are many ways to demonstrate disrespect, but over the last five years in the U.S. there has been a dramatic increase in public behavior demonstrating a complete lack of decorum.

 

Decorum in Buddhism

One place I know decorum shows up is in the Abhidharma. This is ancient Buddhist philosophy. It can be described as Buddhist teachings that are presented, unlike the other types of teachings, sutras and what have you, they’re presented without literary devices or speakers. It’s not a story about how the Buddha taught this, it’s just kind of hard core teachings stripped of any of those devices, so it can be a little dry and overwhelming. 

The Abhidharma is a philosophy about reality and our experience of reality and awakening and all that, and it contains lists of dharmas. This is a dharma with a lowercase ‘d’ and according to the Abidharma, dharmas are the fundamental elements of existence or reality. If you will, this is like these philosophers contemplated reality and tried to find the atom of subjective experience, the atoms or elements perhaps. The dharmas are also categorized, they have elaborate lists and categorization. 

Just to give you a little taste, here is the summary of the different categories of the lists of dharmas according to the Abhidharmakosa of Vasubandhu:[vi]

  • 5 Sense Faculties (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind)
  • 5 Sense Objects (form, sound, smell, taste, etc.)
  • Mind
  • 46 Mental Factors
  • 14 Elements that are Neither Substantial Forms nor Mental Functions (e.g. life, birth, and impermanence)
  • 3 Unconditioned Factors (e.g. space)

I’m not going to even try to explain what those categories mean and the fundamental nature of dharmas. What I find interesting is the way that the mental factors in Abhidharma are further categorized. They go into different systems, have different lists. In the Abhidharmakosa, dharmas are further categorized into neutral (including feeling, will, attention), wholesome (including faith, energy, non greediness), afflicted (including ignorance, anger, arrogance) and indeterminate (including drowsiness, lust, doubt).

The following aspect of categorization is what I find the most fascinating about this Abdhidharma system:

  • a mental factor like delusion is categorized as an “omnipresent afflicted factor”
  • mental factors like rage, stinginess, malice, and dishonesty are categorized as “minor afflicted factors of wide extent”
  • mental factors such as anger, attachment, and pride are categorized as “indeterminate mental factors”

Only two mental factors are categorized as “major omnipresent unwholesome factors” and as “two general functions of evil (akusala-mahā-bhūmika).” This means that while the other factors may or may not be present in a destructive state of mind, these two always are:

Ahrikya: lack of shame, lack of self-respect, or lack of conscience (Pali ahirika)

Anapatrapya: lack of decorum, lack of propriety, disregard (Pali anottappa)

I like how these two factors are explained in the article “Primary Minds and the 51 Mental Factors” by Dr. Alexander Berzin (Berzin is from a Vajrayana lineage, and writes about all the different mental factors; this is what he says about Ahrikya, or ngo-tsha med-pa, and Anapatrapya, or khrel-med):

(11) No moral self-dignity (ngo-tsha med-pa, no sense of honor) is a part of any of the three poisonous emotions. It is the lack of any sense to refrain from destructive behavior because of caring how our actions reflect on ourselves. According to Vasubandhu, this mental factor means having no sense of values. It is a lack of respect for positive qualities or persons possessing them.

(12) No care for how our actions reflect on others (khrel-med) is a part of any of the three poisonous emotions. It is the lack of any sense to refrain from destructive behavior because of caring how our actions reflect on those connected to us. Such persons may include our family, teachers, social group, ethnic group, religious order, or countrymen. For Vasubandhu, this mental factor means having no scruples, and is a lack of restraint from being brazenly negative. This and the previous mental factor accompany all destructive states of mind.[vii]

Isn’t this a fascinating way to frame human behavior? Basically, we can feel and think all kinds of negative stuff and it’s not all that bad. We can feel angry and lustful and greedy. We can be arrogant, stingy, spiteful, and lazy – but as long as we are restrained by our conscience and a sense of decorum, our negative thoughts and feelings will not be destructive (at least not in the sense that they get enacted in real life).

 

The Beauty of Mutual Respect and Affirmation

Yes, decorum is arbitrary and socially defined. Like all human inventions, it can have good and bad results. Once upon a time a black American in the South had to avert his or eyes when responding to a white person, and respond with deference no matter what (yes sir or yes ma’am). Once upon a time women were expected to refrain from expressing their opinions, especially in public or if they had any potential to conflict with the opinions of the men around her (this is still true in many parts of the world, of course). Once up on a time it was believed children should be seen and not heard. So expectations of decorum have to evolve.

However, decorum reflects our existence within this web of mutuality. Individualism has value, but we don’t exist independently of society. And we don’t create society by ourselves. Our tribe doesn’t create society by ourselves. Like it or not, we need cooperation of “the other side” in order to have a peaceful and life-sustaining society. Affirmation, friendliness, acceptance, kindness… we so want and need this from people! Receiving them from a few people is a bare minimum for human well-being, but we really hope for it from everyone

I realize this may seem like a strange example in contrast with the violence at our capital, but in turning from outward engagement to examining our hearts, I’m reminded of an experience I had. A while ago, maybe about 15 years ago and long before same-sex marriage was legal at federal level, same-sex marriage was briefly legal in the county I lived in. There was a gay couple I knew who had lived together for probably 20 years, a very loving, stable relationship. They came to our Zen center to be married. Unlike in most weddings, the big deal was not so much the religious ceremony as being able to sign the legal document at the end. That’s what felt momentous. I was so touched by the fact that these men didn’t need society to recognize their relationship in order for it to be valid and warm and loving, but it still meant so much to them to be officially recognized by others – to be included in the society, to be affirmed.

There’s so much that we can give to one another, just by basic acceptance. When I go out in public with my bald head and my Zen dress, people don’t stare at me. They don’t make me feel uncomfortable. They don’t exclude me. They interact with me just like they would interact with anyone else, maybe occasionally just asking whether I’m involved with a martial art or something like that. How different it would be if every time I went out in public, people either averted their eyes or stared or treated me coldly because of how I look. How different if they yelled at me, taunted me, or vandalized my car while I was in the store. 

Many of our acts of decorum are very small things, perhaps, but the new term “microaggressions” reflects how devastating repeated, small acts of disrespect or lack of concern for others can be. However, I would like to see our social conversation transition away from my “right” to be respected, and away from how your failure to demonstrate respect for me is a transgression, and toward an acknowledgement of our interdependence. We’re one big human family, and it hurts me when you act in ways that deny that.

 

We Can’t Force Respect, We Have to Ask for It

We can’t force people to treat us with respect. We can’t force them to restrain themselves out of conscience or decorum. We can create rules and laws that make people act in a certain way (and certainly that’s necessary), but we can’t coerce respect.

I guess we can ask for it. We’re going to express our need for it. Isn’t that a radical idea? We can recognize decorum as an enactment of our interdependence and behave accordingly, refusing to stoop to the level of people who attack or bait us. —-if we’re asking for respect, particularly if somebody is not acting that way, doesn’t this put the disrespectful person in a position of power, that position where they get to grant to refuse us something we need? Don’t they owe us respect? We shouldn’t have to ask for it. —-in reality, the other person is in a position of power, not a superior position, but in the sense that we all affect one another.

 

Letter to the People Who Stormed Our Capitol

To demonstrate my point in a non-intellectual way, I’ve written a short letter to the people who stormed our capitol last week, and to those who supported it.

Before I share it, please know that I’m not in any way suggesting that we let people off the hook for participating in or encouraging the insurrection, especially those who planned to physically intimidate, harm, or even kill our elected representatives and anyone protecting them. A line must be drawn between free speech and protest, and violent attempts to override the outcomes of democracy; at this point in time, it’s especially important for conservatives and Republicans to draw that line and differentiate themselves from armed insurrectionists and the lies and conspiracy theories that fuel them.

That said, everyone agrees our society is deeply divided – in the U.S. as well as in many other nations. Each side feels entirely justified in fighting the other, and yet “Hatred never ends through hatred. By non-hate alone does it end.” We may not be able to leap straight to a society warmed throughout by brotherly and sisterly love, but we can at least start by calling for basic decorum in order to maintain and repair our social fabric. In making this request, it helps to start from a position of vulnerability and honesty, rather than moral outrage.

To the people who stormed the US capitol building on January 6th, 2021:

I’m a progressive, environmentalist Democrat who was thrilled that Biden won the presidential election. Exactly the kind of person you seem to hate right now.

When I first heard about your actions at the US capitol, as they were happening, I felt a knot in the pit my stomach. I was afraid. Things in this country can so easily turn horribly violent. Was this going to happen today? I wondered. Was I going to have to witness dozens of bloodied corpses strewn across the scene? Was another scene of unspeakable carnage going to be seared into my memory?

I was also angry, which kind of surprised me. I mean, I felt that anger even before I knew that some of you were directly threatening the lives of elected officials. Just watching you trash the capitol building made me angry, and I was surprised because I am actually very critical of our government. In so many ways our system is broken, serving the interests of the ultra-rich instead of making sure ordinary working people can live safe and satisfying lives. But when I saw you trashing the capitol, I realized how much I value our democracy, even it’s deeply flawed. It’s the best system we have right now. It’s lasted for over 200 years, making ours one of the most stable and lasting governments in the history of mankind. If we destroy it, we’re all going to suffer so much.

I know that each of you has family, friends, hopes and dreams. I know that in some area of your life you are kind, or funny, or hard-working, or generous. If we met over a good meal and didn’t discuss politics, if we discussed hobbies, kids, food, vacations, and house remodels, we might actually enjoy ourselves. When I think about that, I feel tears welling up in my eyes for what could be. How did you end up hating me so much? I wish you would get to know me as a person.

Maybe you think I hate you, but I don’t. I’m sorry for how progressive commentators sometimes insult and make fun of conservatives, southerners, rural folks and Trump supporters. I’m sorry that Hollywood and many major news sources are dominated by liberals and you don’t often see yourself or your concerns reflected in respectful ways in popular culture and media. I’m sorry that our government has largely abandoned investment in rural areas of the country.

I’m not going to agree with you on many things. In fact, I’m going to passionately disagree with you on many things – there are some things I’m willing to risk my life defending, and I know the same is true for you. But I don’t want to hate or disrespect you as I’m doing it. We’re all in this together. Let’s start repairing the social fabric of our nation by treating one another with decorum – dignified behavior demonstrating a basic respect for one another’s humanity and acknowledging our mutual dependence. This means behaving toward one another with basic politeness and decency, keeping in mind that Jesus said, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.”

I can’t demand that you act with decorum, but I can promise to do so myself. Please consider responding in kind as an act of dignity and strength, because it hurts me that you hate me, it hurts me that you attacked our capital, and it hurts me that you attempted to nullify my vote.

 

Decorum as a Virtue to Be Cultivated, Maintained, Strengthened

In closing… of course lack of decorum is both a symptom and a cause of our social breakdown. Simply acting with decorum without basic respect and social connectivity isn’t a miraculous cure for our social division and strife

But, in Buddhist practice we work our all aspects of ourselves – body, heart, and mind.

We can start by examining decorum carefully – what is it, really? What does it demonstrate? When do we find ourselves willing or even eager to act with decorum, and when do we let it all hang out? What are the effects of these different kinds of behavior? When we resist acting with decorum, why is that? When is it best to express or act out our desires or feelings despite what decorum might demand?

We can cultivate respect and goodwill in our hearts through practices like metta, and learn to challenge our self-attachment through practicing ethical conduct and examining the nature of self through meditation

And all the way along, we can enact decorum anyway, no matter how we feel about it, because acting in such a way is in harmony with reality. We’re constantly tempted to conflict with others because our self-interest doesn’t line up with theirs, but we’re also all completely interdependent with one another. Decorum means our actions accord with social interdependence regardless of our personal opinions, feelings, or agendas.

 


Endnotes

[i] The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic with Annotations (p. 2). Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.
[ii] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/decorum
[iii] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/decorum
[iv] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/propriety
[v] Fischer, Norman. The World Could Be Otherwise: Imagination and the Bodhisattva Path. Boulder, CO: Shambala Publications, 2019. Pg 102-103.
[vi] https://encyclopediaofbuddhism.org/wiki/Seventy-five_dharmas_of_the_Abhidharma-kosha
[vii] Primary Minds and the 51 Mental Factors by Dr. Alexander Berzin. https://studybuddhism.com/en/advanced-studies/science-of-mind/mind-mental-factors/primary-minds-and-the-51-mental-factors

 

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157 – Bodhicitta: The Critical Importance of Dissatisfaction
159 – Active Receptivity in Zazen: Surrounded by a Symphony
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