There is a role for political discussion, for talking to people about what is meaningful. There is a role for political action and taking action. But when one is determining when and how to do that, it’s very important to understand that as practitioners of this path, you have stepped into a higher order narrative, and a higher order purpose, and you’re in possession of something which is far more important than the political debate of the day.Ajahn Nisabho
A few weeks ago, Ajahn Nisabho, of Clear Mountain Monastery, gave a bonzer talk on Right Speech (Sammā-vācā), political discussion, and our responsibility as dhamma practitioners to engage in skillful, compassionate discourse. I’m not much of a gusher re: dhamma talks. But I gushed a bit over this one.
You can get the talk as an audio download, YouTube, podcast. Below is a transcript up to the Q&A. With friendliness!
2023-04-15 Culture War Pacifism: The Dhamma of Dolly Parton
Ajahn Nisabho 0:21
The day I came back to the US after being in Thailand was, or this most recent time several years ago, was on Election Day of 2020. So a fortuitous landing. And when I was preparing to come back, one of the teachers who I spoke to, Ajahn Siripanyo, said, Look, when you return you can look at the news every now and again, but only if you can make the determination not to let it give rise to even one unwholesome mind state. It’s a tall order, right? I said, okay, and he said, Look, remember, America is just one big convention. It’s a convention. And I can’t say I’ve completely managed that. But this return to an America I found changed. Where people were still living lives that were, by and large, as beautiful as they had been when I’d left seven years earlier. They were surrounded by loving people doing beautiful things. And yet their hearts were ragged with talk of the news and the headlines and I saw people forgetting the Eden that their hands worked in for the faint distant whisper of a serpent.
Ajahn Nisabho 2:09
The Buddha has a term called “appropriate attention”, “Yoniso Manasikara”. “Yoni” means womb, and “Manasikara” is attention. Action of the citta, of the mind. And this idea of attention that goes to the heart, the womb, the source of things. And that attention is, in a very real sense, what berths all states of our mind and heart is a central teaching. The Buddha says that even as dawn, the band of light on the horizon, signals the coming of the sun, so yoniso manasikara, appropriate attention, precedes the arising of the Noble Eightfold Path.
Ajahn Nisabho 2:59
This idea of the importance of attention, it’s a Saṅkhāra, which in Buddhist terminology means it’s a program, a formation, which energizes what it looks at. And appropriate attention is especially significant because in, I think it’s the words of ~~Kierkegaard~~ [Žižek quoting Hegel], “Evil lies in the gaze that sees evil all around it.” *
Ajahn Nisabho 3:25
I hate to tell you all but the last three years haven’t helped too much in terms of that political thing. So this term, the “Culture Wars”, that’s a new one I didn’t hear before I left or came. And I remember my dad, he’s a practitioner, visiting some relatives a few years ago. It’s Easter so I think many of you will have the wonderful opportunity to practice Dhamma around the dinner table. There’s a famous saying in Buddhism that if you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family. So good luck, all of you. And the conversation turned to politics. And my dad got up and he went over to where the dog was laying on the ground, and he lay down with the dog. So how do we become conscientious objectors in the culture wars?
Ajahn Nisabho 4:25
It’s a bit of anathema to the American psyche, what it means to have a part of society that’s not political. And yet it’s one of the key functions of the Sangha in Thailand, is some realm where people can enter the monastery and they’re not this or that. They’re just Buddhist. They’re just practitioners. They don’t even have to be Buddhist. They’re just people come looking for refuge. And this is important for several reasons. If the Sangha aligns with a certain political party and the opposite party comes into power it can wipe out the Sangha. That happens. It also alienates half of society, if you get one alignment. And Democrats deserve Dhamma. Republicans deserve Dhamma. Everyone deserves Dhamma. It’s important to have a part of society where that connection can occur. Ironically that’s actually how a lot of these things resolve themselves is by having some space where people can come together and be human together. And that’s it.
Ajahn Nisabho 5:36
We have an institution in the US like this. It’s called Dolly Parton. And it’s one of the few places in the US where truckers and drag queens come together, and they can stand by each other. And that’s wonderful. And I’ve heard her referred to as the Dolly Mama. And her political leanings are a carefully guarded secret. And thank goodness for that. It’s pretty beautiful to have something in the US like that. But in some sense, Dolly Parton stole the role of the Sangha in the US.
Ajahn Nisabho 6:11
What’s important to acknowledge is two very large caveats. There is a role for political discussion, for talking to people about what is meaningful. There is a role for political action and taking action. But when one is determining when and how to do that, it’s very important to understand that as practitioners of this path, you have stepped into a higher order narrative, and a higher order purpose, and you’re in possession of something which is far more important than the political debate of the day. This Dhamma, which was given to us 2500 years ago, this psychology, is profound. And it has, I know it’s saved my life, in a sense. I know many who it’s, in a sense, given them meaning. And so few people have this or have access to it, that once you’ve come into contact with it, it’s very important to understand that if an interaction with someone comes down to engaging in the usual narrative or debate, versus maybe thinking that you can, for a time, put that aside, and assume that many of these people are hearing the opposite argument from many places already, but that you might be the one conduit in that person’s life, to something they really need. Practice, a refuge, right view, a spiritual path, and a canopy of meaning. which in our societies been left in tatters. And then you can weigh very carefully what conversations to have and what actions to take. And if it’s right to go lie down with the dog, you go lie down with the dog, and wait until the conversation turns towards something else.
Ajahn Nisabho 8:16
I find one really useful way of understanding this higher order narrative and feeling its power and gravity is to recollect the beings in the past who have carried on this teaching for us. To think of the Dalai Lama, and what that means for someone to touch him, in terms of come into contact, how that can change a life. To think in terms of beings, one of the Dalai Lama’s disciples in, I think, the 1970s was put into Chinese prison and tortured for 18 years. And when he emerged they asked him, Did you ever become afraid in prison? And he said, I became afraid, sometimes, that I would lose compassion for my captors. But he didn’t.
Ajahn Nisabho 9:09
There’s the monks and nuns in China during the Maoist revolution who, when beaten, and when the Maoist guard tried to get them to disrobe, they simply said, the name of their Bodhisattva again and again and remained. And this is why this teaching, this institution of the Sangha, which is humanity’s oldest institution, except for the Jains, they beat us by a few years. We always have to add that caveat. It’s outlasted the rise and fall of empires. And I don’t know if we really understand the impact it’s had over history to have this thin silver thread of these teachings. And I don’t think we can underestimate the impact that that flash, that supernova of insight that the Buddha gave us has had. There’s very good emerging archaeological evidence that the monastic form in Christian traditions came from Buddhist monks who came to the Mediterranean. There’s a famous church in Italy, dedicated to St. Josephat. And only later did they find that all of St. Josephat’s exploits were actually the exploits of the Bodhisattva… Josephat was the way they spelled “Bodhisatt”. Bodhisattva. And the Buddhist tradition had rippled out into even there.
Ajahn Nisabho 10:35
Similarly, the whole psychological tradition in the US, which was founded by William James in 1880 in Harvard, right when he was founding that he went to the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, where he met Anagarika Dharmapala. And this whole concept of separating yourself out from your thoughts, observing stream of consciousness, deeply influenced American psychology and psychology after that. One of his students was Gertrude Stein, who went to Paris and was instrumental in educating the Left Bank Paris artists, including Picasso, Hemingway, James Joyce. This ripple of this insight has spread throughout our history.
Ajahn Nisabho 11:28
And so then we come and we land in a world with smartphones and updates and Apple news, and some vague, nebulous conception of quote-unquote, staying informed. And it’s very important for us to look as practitioners at that term, what does it mean to stay informed? How many times a day do we really have to check the news to stay informed? And Ajahn Sona says, Look, you can totally continue to watch the local news. And by local news, I mean, what’s six feet away from you. I think that can be a little extreme. I don’t think we have to take it that far, necessarily, although you could.
Ajahn Nisabho 12:11
But understanding that, as practitioners, you have a responsibility to embody this path and carry it forward with integrity. And you represent it. And you might be the one person to represent it to someone in their life when they need it most.
Ajahn Nisabho 12:26
When we begin to practice, often, it’s as if you’re scraping off a crust that’s formed on the heart. And there’s a real period of rawness where the wound can become infected again. And you feel it; old stimuli you used to have no problem taking, and suddenly you feel its residue, its stickiness, its infection. And it’s okay to give yourself permission for a time to step back from it. To protect this precious thing you’ve created or created space for, to cultivate the heart and to consider that a real duty and your foremost duty. This means unsubscribing from the news in a lot of cases. If you need to read a long form article or two every week, that’s fine. Honestly, if you have a few friends who are up to date, if you really stop watching the news, you’ll find you get everything you need from those conversations. Truly. It’s enough. And then if you need to do a bit more research before you vote, great. But to protect your heart and to understand this anger … We have a responsibility to ourselves, to the practice, and to those around us to point to and embody and communicate a higher order narrative now because you’ve stumbled across it and so few people in the world have it.
Ajahn Nisabho 14:13
There’s a few really useful tools in this toolkit. One is in the Vinaya, the monastic code, we have to, as monks, meet several conditions before we can admonish another monk. (1) We have to have a mind of loving kindness. [Cv.IX.5.1] That’s a big one. I know a monk who’s had to wait a whole year before that could be accomplished. (2) We have to speak in a timely way. [Cv.IX.5.2] At monasteries we eat once a day, you don’t talk to monks before the meal. (3) You have to speak truthfully. [Cv.IX.5.2] (4) Speak what is connected with the matter at hand. [Cv.IX.5.2] That’s huge. And (5) ask for permission, and receive permission. [Mv.II.16.1] All five of those conditions have to be met.
Ajahn Nisabho 15:05
And you find that if before going into any… admonishing your parents who you just wish would, you know, get with it, or your child, or the blank-uncle, whatever it is, to see if those conditions can be met, and to be very careful when you engage in that. It’s this very beautiful wall. Because if there’s even a sliver of anger in the statement, in the conversation, it changes everything. And they sense it.
Ajahn Nisabho 15:33
In a sense, often, right speech can be embodied in listening. So often listening is right speech. And people are kind of confused by it. When you listen and are actually curious about where they’re coming from. And they’re touched. It’s very easy to find nice people, it’s very hard to find curious people. And often, that’s the key in a relationship. I very much notice when someone’s actually interested in you. And that’s such a pure form of loving kindness and people want so deeply to be seen. And in some sense, the volume with which they express a view is just them wanting to be seen.
Ajahn Nisabho 16:14
The Four Noble Truths are a foundational framework for Buddhist thought: to comprehend suffering, to let go of its cause, craving, to realize peace, to develop the path to that peace. And it all starts, often, with the initiating wound, the first noble truth, so much of our action comes from our pain. It drives, often, our whole lives. Jung said, That which is unacknowledged becomes your destiny.** This is useful in our own experience. If you lash out, can you see what vulnerability you’re protecting against? etc. But also using the found the framework of the Four Noble Truths to understand how someone’s coming to a view, because so often it’s based on suffering. If there’s a certain push for a powerful movement of some kind in the political arena, is it coming from communities which have been ripped apart by fentanyl, and want some means, or sense of control? And is that understandable? Can you see where that’s coming from? Can you trace it back to the shared wound of humanity? And can you do that in conversation, and just for time, take that space of listening, and kindness, and see where that goes.
Ajahn Nisabho 17:37
Often … I, as … a young monk would go visit my Idahoan relatives, and they were very confused with what I was doing. There’s a whole variety, a spectrum of political views there. And I just found, where we connected was the fact that they had deep, deep faith in God. They were profoundly earnest Christians. And that’s what I cared about talking about. And in a sense, the fact that so many realms of conversation right now are fraught, is a strange blessing, because it means you are forced to focus on what actually matters, because everything else will get you in an argument. So that’s a gift, can you focus on what matters?
Ajahn Nisabho 18:28
… There’s a certain type of compassion with a shadow, where you’ll hear someone lament something that came up in the news, and you know the next sentence is going to be, “And those people…” and can you begin to detect that? And is there a place for gently not feeding that? Just, can you point to compassion? Can you point to where those people might be coming from? Can you find, again, this thread back to the shared wound and transcendent narrative which we have.
Ajahn Nisabho 19:07
And this really feeds, finally, into the broader aspect in Buddhist practice of controlling anger and softening into loving kindness. Because one of the reasons that these political powers and narratives and debates have such grip is because we are very prone to anger. And it’s a part of us that we don’t acknowledge that much. We love to come into a meditation and spread metta and that’s great. But when the Buddha spoke about right intention, the second factor of the path, he spoke about the intention towards renunciation, the intention towards non-ill will, Avyāpāda, and the intention towards non-harming, ahiṃsā. So two of those are about giving up Aversion. Because we can really dwell in a low grade hum of aversion for most of our lives. It’s there a lot. And to acknowledge that one of the chief functions of Mindfulness in life is first to protect your morality, to keep on the path. But second, and very much second, is to avoid dwelling in ill will. Those two standards for right mindfulness are not bad ones to keep.
Ajahn Nisabho 19:10
So can we work on a whole to soften anger and to work with it? It’s very prominent, and you’ll usually have to bring out a wide toolbelt of tools to actually address it because it’ll shape shift and one method will work for a while and then stop. So the Buddha gave us a lot of methods. Ajahn Sona says, “If you can’t spread loving kindness to someone, spread it to their chair.” That’s good. Another great one is the Buddha said, if you feel aversion towards someone, try to spread loving kindness to them. If that doesn’t work, try and spread compassion, Karuna. If that doesn’t work, try to be equanimous to them. Notice that he skips the sympathetic joy, I think he knows that’s a tall order, to feel sympathetic joy towards someone we’re having trouble with. If that doesn’t work, reflect that they’re subject to their Kamma. And if that doesn’t work, don’t bring them to mind. [Ref?] And that’s a novel one in the US because we think we’ve got to confront this and figure it out.
Ajahn Nisabho 18:27
Sometimes it’s okay to write their name on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope, put it in a drawer and say, In six months, I’ll take this out. And if I’m ready to maintain a skillful, balanced mind state when I think of this person, then great. And if you take it out, and it’s still as raw as is it ever was, it may be all right to put aside for a time. So it’s okay. And that goes with politics. If you stop steering your attention to there every single day, the heart brightens naturally. So if there’s that politician whose name you don’t like, write in on a piece of paper and put it in.
Ajahn Nisabho 20:06
There’s a beautiful sutta [AN 5.162] where ~~the Buddha~~ [Sāriputta] says you should approach someone who is pure in speech, but impure in body, in bodily action, as someone would, encountering a soiled piece of cloth on the road, where they would use one foot to rip off the clean part of the cloth and pick that piece up. Even so you look towards the good qualities of that person. You should look towards someone with pure bodily action but impure speech as you would a man, dying of thirst, would bend down to a pond covered in algae and, gently sweeping the algae out of the way, would drink. Even so you look to the good. You should look to someone impure in body, impure in speech, but with occasional moments of clarity, as a man dying of thirst would if he came to a hoof print filled with muddy water, and gently bending his face down, so as not to disturb the silt at all, would drink carefully from that water, even so you look to the good. You should look to someone pure in speech, pure in body, and with clarity of mindfulness as a man dying of thirst, would… with clarity of mindfulness, so pure in all respects, would look to a cool oasis. And you should look to someone impure in body, impure in speech, without occasional moments of clarity, as you would look at a sick person, starving, stumbling across the desert with compassion. That’s our standard as practitioners.
Ajahn Nisabho 21:02
There was a radio program where they had different spiritual leaders speak from different traditions about the seven deadly sins, I believe, and every tradition except Buddhism said there was a place for anger. In Buddhism, there is never a place to express anger. It’s never skillful. The Buddha said even if you were being sawed limb by limb from bandits, one who gave rise to a thought of ill will would not be doing my bidding. So that’s a standard.
Ajahn Nisabho 21:45
It’s very important to put the caveat here, some people have never learned to express anger or to assert themselves, or to set boundaries. And obviously you need to do that. There’s also a very clear distinction between repression and suppression. Repression is saying I’m not angry, I’m not angry, I’m not angry. Suppression is saying, Okay, here’s anger, I’m not going to act from this. And then you wait an hour or two, you go for a walk, and then you speak from a place of kindness. You take it as a signal, but it’s never skillful to express.
Ajahn Nisabho 25:28
One of the most powerful tools in cultivating loving kindness and dispelling anger, sometimes that bright fluffy metta is just not available. Often, the best you can do is acknowledge that the metta needs to be for yourself when you’re angry. Instead of trying to spread it to the person you’re angry with, just feel how much it hurts to be angry. How painful it is. And spread the loving kindness there. If you get caught up in self righteous anger, just feel the draw of it so you understand. The Buddha said to let go of something you need to understand the attraction, the drawback, and the escape. And there’s a real attraction to self righteous anger. The Buddha called anger “with its honeyed tip and poisoned root”.
Ajahn Nisabho 26:18
One of the most powerful tools, I find, is to look at these people in our lives who do trigger us, who don’t have the same views as us, as teachers. In the Mahāyāna conception, there’s this idea that bodhisattvas can split off a piece of their mind and send it down as an incarnation of a situation, of your boss, of a drunk in the street, to teach you. And if you really turn towards those people in your life who are most difficult, not as obstacles to your path, but as exactly what you need to learn to develop loving kindness, patience, then that’s something that… take them as your teacher. And if you need to bow in their direction every morning, then do that. Maybe not when they’re there. But it’s useful.
Ajahn Nisabho 27:06
I remember one monk who I was having a lot of trouble with. And he was getting on my case for a lot of things. And I realized that if a senior teacher was giving this much attention to me and refining my conduct, I would be so grateful. And so for that year, he was my teacher, and it was one of the most powerful practices in my life.
Ajahn Nisabho 27:33
The magic of this is that if we do this, if we turn towards the Higher Order Narrative, if when someone’s getting into this discussion, if you just aim to find the first noble truth for them, what is meaningful to them? What’s difficult for them? Where are they coming from? Just ask questions. See if we can pull back on the expressing our opinions and assume that they’re hearing enough. And maybe we have something different to hear from them and to listen to and to say, that might be much more important as Buddhists, as practitioners, as whatever you want to call yourself. There’s a higher order narrative which you have in your hands now. And when you come to these gatherings, it’s in a gym, but you’re stepping into a tradition that’s 2500 years old. Do not underestimate the gravity of that commitment and responsibility, and duty, we have. It’s not just a gift, it’s a duty.
Ajahn Nisabho 28:29
In a sense, a lot of the culture wars, a lot of the back and forth, is because the canopies of meaning of our society have been ripped to shreds. And when people have no spiritual framework they’re forced to project that on to things that are not worthy of it. And ideologies are crippled religions. They limp along, they provide cohesion and purpose, but shallow. And ironically, if you can not engage in that narrative, but really, maybe give someone a deeper narrative, you’re addressing the root cause of this imbalance. If people get a spiritual path, they’re inoculated against the worst excesses of our culture. And that’s what you give. And you give a chance of connection, of resolution. And you’re embodying the true promise of this path and also following the example of Dolly Parton. So good luck
Speaker 2 29:40
Handa mayaṃ dhammakathāya sādhukāraṃ dadāmase. Sādhu, sādhu, sādhu, anumodāmi.
* See: https://www.reddit.com/r/askphilosophy/comments/bhjn0c/looking_for_hegel_quote_evil_resides_in_the_very/
** See: https://carljungdepthpsychologysite.blog/2020/01/29/popular-carl-jung-quotations-and-quotations-attributed-to-but-never-uttered-by-dr-jung/
3 replies on “Ajahn Nisabho, Culture War Pacifism: The Dhamma of Dolly Parton, 2023-04-15”
That’s just fantastic, Shannon. Found it quite moving to read. Thanks for sharing.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I know, right? In general I am skeptical of these ochre-robed beasties. But I thought he knocked this one out of the park. When you come to visit, I’ll introduce you. ;)
I’d better start saving my pocket-money.
Why don’t you just bring him here…?