After a long absence, a return to the pages of Elephant Journal with a brief yogic satire.
Two narratives. The one you’re likely to read in mainstream Canadian media: a group of First Nations people have set up a protest camp in Northern BC to block proposed pipelines. The other, which you will find championed on sites like unistotencamp.com, says that the Unis’tot’en camp, created by a clan of the Wet’suwet’en, are not a protest camp. They are camping on their own unceded land to protect it from invasion and abuse at the hands of corporations and the Canadian government. There is a world of difference between these two stories. One sees the Wet’suwet’en as having sovereignty over their land as an equal treaty partner with Canadians and the other sees them as First Nations resident in Canada and blocking public roads and waterways to protest a Canadian business venture. If the difference seems anything but momentous you have not yet grasped the new era of Indigenous politics in Canada.
As the clan website states, “The Unist´ot´en homestead is not a protest or demonstration. Our clan is occupying and using our traditional territory as it has for centuries….. Our traditional structures of governance continue to dictate the proper use of and access to our lands and water. Today all of our Wet´suwet´en territory, including Unist´ot´en territory, is unceded Aboriginal territory. Our traditional indigenous legal systems remain intact and continue to govern our people and our lands. We recognize the authority of these systems as predating and independent of Canadian law.”
The Unis’tot’en “camp” is not really a camp, it is more like a homestead. Freda Huson, one of the main spokespeople for the camp, has lived there for three years. Several cabins, gardens and other structures have been built specifically to act as obstacles to pipeline construction, and there is currently a project underway to build a healing centre. In accordance with Wet’suwet’en law, entry into Unist’ot’en territory is controlled by checkpoints at two locations on Unist’ot’en Territory. “Free, prior and informed consent protocol”, a concept enshrined in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is conducted at checkpoints leading into the camp. Visitors must in effect pass through customs before they can move what from a government perspective is simply one piece of crown land to another, but to the Unis’tot’en is a passage from Crown land to Wet’suwet’un territory.
Support for the camp is not unanimous among the Wet’suwet’en, whose five elected chiefs are in favour of some degree of pipeline construction. The opposition is being lead by the hereditary chiefs of the five Wet’suwet’en clans and particularly the Gilsehyu (Big Frog) clan, within whose territory the Unis’tot’en camp appears to fall (there are some internal disputes over land boundaries). The Unis’tot’en represent a movement within the Wet’suwet’en to lay claim to the authority and heritage of their people in a way which will preserve the land they live on and stop the pipeline projects.
The BC government is considering 6 different pipeline projects which would cut directly through Wet’suwet’en land. The Wet’suwet’en, like most other BC First Nations, never signed treaties relinquishing title or land rights. And while the Supreme Court has recognized that these territories are unceded in the landmark Delgamuukw v. the Queen the government continues to issue permits on land whose jurisdiction is disputed. According to the Unis’tot’en, the pipeline projects threaten the land and water of the Wet’suwet’en. There is particular concern over the ecology of the salmon population, as fishing is an essential livelihood for the Wet’suwet’en.
The clan is building a network with dozens of other First Nations protesting the coal mining, tar sands extraction, oil drilling, and natural gas exploration that have become major forces in the Canadian economy. Other clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, as well as the Gitxsan and St’at’imc Nations, have established occupations, or better “re-occupations”, this year.Throughout BC there are similar stories of small groups of Indigenous Canadians standing up against International energy giants who have been given permits and support from the provincial government. Lax Kw’alaams members voted earlier this year to reject a $1.15 billion benefits package with the Pacific NorthWest LNG project, which is led by Malaysian energy giant Petronas, over environmental concerns. The Lax-Kw’alaams are one of the allied tribes of the Tsimshian people, the largest Indigenous group in Northwest BC. They have set up protest camp on Lelu Island, where Pacific Northwest wants to create a port which would endanger the local ecology. More recently the Lax Kw’alaams went to court to claim title to the land in order to block the project. “The greatest threat to our traditional territories is that we forget that we own it”, said Christine Smith-Martin, who is identified by the band as a leader in their “reoccupation” camp.
Close to Vancouver a confrontation has been taking place for months between Kinder Morgan and various protesters, including prominent Indigenous and non-Indigenous players, on Burnaby Mountain. The City of Burnaby itself has been fighting the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion which would go through the Burnaby Mountain conservation area. The dispute dates back to Dec. 16, 2013, when Trans Mountain asked the energy board for a certificate for the expansion project. The City of Burnaby’s bylaw battle against the Trans Mountain pipeline was recently dealt a blow by a B.C. Supreme Court judge who declared that the National Energy Board rulings take precedence over that of the municipality.The Metro Vancouver city has tried to obstruct the laying the 1,100-kilometre-long pipeline between Alberta and coastal B.C. The expanded pipeline would ship almost 900,000 barrels a day of crude oil. Burnaby’s fight against Kinder Morgan and the Trans Mountain Pipeline now appears destined to go all the way to the Supreme court as Mayor Derek Corrigan intends to appeal the BC court decision. On Nov 20 Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, was arrested by RCMP, joining more than 100 others who had been willingly arrested since police began enforcing a court injunction issued a week before ordering protesters to stand down.
“I don’t know who Kinder Morgan is, they are not lords of my land,” Vancouver Metro news quoted Phillip as saying before his arrest. Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell told a crowd of protesters that his nation doesn’t consent to Canada issuing rights to third-party interests with no regard to Indigenous sovereignty, rights and title. Here too on Burnaby Mountain the word of the Chiefs is clear: this is their territory and they are not being consulted.
That these claims are being made in a Metro Vancouver jurisdiction is no longer surprising: last year, the Year of Reconciliation, City Council, headed by Mayor Gregor Robertson officially declared that the city of Vancouver exists on unceded aboriginal territory. “Underlying all other truths spoken during the Year of Reconciliation is the truth that the modern city of Vancouver was founded on the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations and that these territories were never ceded through treaty, war or surrender,” reads part of the motion.
“These lands belong to us,” Toghestiy, a hereditary chief of the Likhts’amisyu clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, recently told Yes! magasine. “They’ve never been ceded or surrendered to anybody. This place is not Canada. It’s not B.C. It in particular is Unist’ot’en territory, and it is occupied and protected.”
The new Trudeau government has said that it will implement the UN Declaration on The Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Article 32 of the declaration requires obtaining from indigenous peoples “free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories”. For some non-Indigenous Canadians the prospect is frightening. Tom Flanagan, professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Calgary and chair of the “aboriginal futures research program” at the Frontier Center for Public Policy, warns that endowing aboriginal peoples with too much power could “handicap Canada’s resource industries”.
For some non-Indigenous Canadians, the prospect of handicapping at least some of resource industries (like mining, oil and gas) is actually an attractive aspect of increased power for Indigenous peoples. As Canadian public intellectual John Ralston Saul recently wrote in his 2014 book The Comeback, “There is already a consensus between Aboriginals and the environmental movement.” That being so, some Canadians are slow to recognize the claims that Indigenous peoples have in accordance with the treaties on which Canada was built, treaties which view them not as subjects but as partners. As Saul recently argued in the same book, the Supreme Court has recognized that the “honour of the Crown” demands that Indigenous peoples be treated not only from a legal-technical perspective but from an ethical one which recognizes the history of Canadian violence and treachery towards Indigenous peoples and treats them in accordance with the original intent of the treaties. From this perspective economic concerns must take a back seat to the more fundamental question of honourable relations between the Canadian government and First Nations peoples. Yet the habit of seeking to limit Indigenous power and control resources is old and well entrenched in Canadian policy and public discourse, both consciously and unconsciously.
Nor is this issue limited to Canada. As Saul writes, “The relationship between the environment, indigenous people and commodities extraction is on the agenda everywhere.” It is clear to anyone breathing fresh air as opposed to sand that the future belongs to the environmentalists if it belongs to anyone. It will need to. This can only bode well for the hopes of those clans and bands who are linking their claims as Indigenous peoples to the defense of the land. It is also true, however, that recognizing Indigenous sovereignty is not inherently a means to protect ecologies. There are many in the Indigenous communities who wish to profit from resource extraction themselves, and recognizing their self-government in their own territiories necessarily means them making decisions which might or might not be ecologically sound. Only time will tell whether Indigenous peoples will be leaders in transforming the resource sector into a sustainable industry or not. Those who say that recognizing their sovereignty is a matter of justice, however, argue that taking a risk on increasing Indigenous power is not only reasonable but is required by conscience.
Meanwhile at Unis’tot’en winter is settling in. Indigenous and non-Indigenous volunteers are tending the permaculture gardens, hunting, and staffing the checkpoints and lookouts across the land.
November was a bad month, and December is not shaping up much better. In the last 6 weeks ISIS massacred civillians in Paris, and Jihadis also killed innocent people in Beirut, Kenya and Israel. In Israel random attacks on Jews are now a daily ocurrence and are becoming part of the daily run of life, while many Palestinian Arabs celebrate the deaths and hand out candy. A Saudi Arabia led coalition massively bombed Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, a city where it is estimated 10 children die from warfare every day. In the United States racist gunmen opened fire at a Black Lives Matter rally, killing 5. Another gunman opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic, killing 3. In Texas one man shot a waitress for not letting him smoke inside, and another shot someone for parking on the street in front of his house. On Dec 2, hours before I wrote this, 3 gunmen opened fire in, of all places, a clinic for people with developmental disabilities, killing 14. All of this is just the tip of the iceberg- a more thorough, more global search of the news would reveal more of the same.
All of these horrors have one thing in common: violence. We are living in violent days: days of rage. This violence is not limited to the physical. Anyone who spends time on the Internet soon becomes amazed by the fountains of vitriol, self-righteousness, hatred, aggression, insult and hostile caricature which are constantly being produced. This is not limited to the dreaded “comment area” on websites but is promulgated by many news and opinion sites on every side of every issue. Donald Trump mocks a disabled reporter and defends supporters who beat up african americans and homeless people. A popular leftwing website runs the headline “Ted Cruz, You Lying Sack of Shit.” Canadian newspaper comment sections are so inundated with racism against aboriginals that a leading First Nations academic calls for making comment sections anonymous no longer. A firefighter called to the scene of a burning Mosque is heard to say “Let it burn” over his truck radio. A “peacemaker” in Israel writes publicaly that she hopes two Israelis found guilty of killing an Arab teenager “rot in jail forever”. Violent speech is also endemic, and is not unrelated to the physical violence raging throughout the world, which in some cases is egged on and incited by online (and offline) aggression, caricaturing, and hatred.
In this atmosphere it is imperative that people of faith not contribute to the fires of rage. It has become more important than ever to be committed to nonviolence in thought, word and deed. This three part nonviolence does not carry any exceptions. It does not exclude whoever you think is really deserving of violence- it does not exclude Israelis or Palestinians. It does not exclude Republicans, Fundamentalist Christians or Fundamentalist Muslims. It does not exclude the Police, or Men, or Women. It does not exclude Abortion providers or Pro-Lifers. It does not exclude Racists or Jihadis, or Domestic Terrorists. It does not exclude people who stay stupid or offensive things. The only way to turn the tide of rage and righteousness which is poisoning the public atmosphere and spilling out in acts of anger and horror is to commit to absolute nonviolence in the way we write, speak, and act, as well as to withdraw support for any acts of violence against people, animals or nature. This applies to the way we treat our families and our colleagues. The way we drive a car. Our casual comments and our official statements. Our online comments and our Facebook postings. The world is on fire and every bit of water helps.
What is a Biblical idea of leadership? As you might expect if you’ve been reading my previous posts on Isaiah, it is different than some might think. In the 32nd chapter of the book of Isaiah he begins to spell out a vision of leadership:
See, a king will reign in righteousness,
and princes will rule with justice.
2 Each will be like a hiding place from the wind,
a covert from the tempest,
like streams of water in a dry place,
like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.
Isaiah’s vision of a leader is centered on “righteousness and justice” (tsedek u’mishpat) and results in the leader being a dramatically safe place of refuge for the endangered. S/he is pictured as saving from wind, tempest, desert and deadly exposure.
3 Then the eyes of those who have sight will not be closed,
and the ears of those who have hearing will listen.
4 The minds of the rash will have good judgment,
and the tongues of stammerers will speak readily and distinctly.
5 A fool will no longer be called noble,
nor a villain said to be honorable.
When the leader embodies these virtues the people suddenly acquire the ability to hear, see, and speak clearly. Villainy and nobility are called by their true names. Jeremiah (5:21) uses the same image of having senses but not using them to castigate those who don’t perceive the presence of God in nature and recognize his presence and power. The common theme here is not recognizing the reality of God and responding appropriately. Those who do recognize the reality of God are those who can use their eyes and ears to see what is right in front of them. What Isaiah thinks is the proper response to recognizing God’s power is laid out in the next verse first by negative example:
6 For fools speak folly, and their minds plot iniquity:
to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the LORD,
to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied,
and to deprive the thirsty of drink.
7 The villainies of villains are evil;
they devise wicked devices
to ruin the poor with lying words,
even when the plea of the needy is right.
8 But those who are noble plan noble things,
and by noble things they stand.
What is it to practice “ungodliness”? What is it to “utter errors concerning the LORD”? It is to “leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied and to deprive the thirsty of drink”, to “ruin the poor with lying words”. Isaiah’s assumption here is that recognizing the reality of God entails feeding the hungry and being a refuge to the endangered, defending the just cause of the poor and protecting them from being defrauded and exploited.
The Psalms use this same image of ears and eyes to refer to idols who cannot see or hear (115:6; 135:17) and warn that those who worship idols will become similarly deaf and blind. Those who worship dead things- money, possessions, land- will themselves become spiritually dead and insensitive.
There is only one idol whose “worship” is allowed in the Bible, and that is the idol of other human beings. In the Genesis creation account this is hinted at by the word used to describe the human being (ha’adam). The human is created “b’tselem elohim”, in the image of God. The Hebrew word used here, tselem, is used several times elsewhere in the Bible to refer to idolatrous statues (Numbers 33:52, 2 Kings 11:15, Ezekiel 7:20, etc) . The tselem in Genesis is the icon, the idol, of God. The only thing in Creation which images God in this sense is the living human being. Those who love idols become themselves dead. Those who love human beings, whether neighbour or stranger, love God and do his will (Leviticus 19:18, 19:33).
Who are the noble, the leaders? Those who “plan noble things, and by noble things they stand”. Their recognition of the reality of God leads them to plan noble things, and by these noble things they themselves stand in life- they live before God.
There is a barometer here not only for those of us who seek to recognize “godly leaders” but also for our lives. The degree to which we have ears that hear and eyes that see, mouths which speak truth and hands that work to defend the endangered is the degree to which we are really, truly recognizing the reality of God and not just worshiping what’s created by the “idol factory of the heart”. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “To meet God is to change.”
Six Churches have burned in St Louis this month, five African-American and the last mixed. The perpetrators and motivation are unknown but the latter, at least, is suspected. These arsons remind us of those that followed the murders in Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston last summer. As David Graham pointed out recently in the Atlantic, there is a long sad history of African American Church burnings in the US. There are, in fact, around 280 Church fires a year in the US (based on stats between 2007 and 2011), although how many are arsons is unclear, as well as how many are racially motivated, how many rooted in anti-christian sentiment, and how many simply “mischief”.
The rash of racist arsons this year reminds us too readily of the arsons of the 1960’s during the civil rights struggle, which Simon and Garfunkel addressed in this beautiful song, worth contemplating and singing today:
A church is burning
The flames rise higher
Like hands that are praying, aglow in the sky
Like hands that are praying, the fire is saying
“You can burn down my churches, but I shall be free”
Three hooded men thru the back road did creep
Torches in their hands, while the village lies asleep
Down to the church, where just hours before
Voices were singing and hands were beating
And saying “I won’t be a slave any more”
And a church is burning
The flames rise higher
Like hands that are praying, aglow in the sky
Like hands that are praying the fire is saying
“You can burn down my churches, but I shall be free”
Three hooded men, their hands lit the spark
Then they faded in the night, and they vanished in the dark
And in the cold light of morning, there’s nothing that remains
But the ashes of a Bible and can of kerosene
And a church is burning
The flames rise higher
Like hands that are praying, aglow in the sky
Like hands that are praying, the fire is saying
“You can burn down my churches, but I shall be free”
A church is more than just timber and stone
And freedom is a dark road when you’re walking it alone
But the future is now, and it’s time to take a stand
So the lost bells of freedom can ring out in my land
And a church is burning
The flames rise higher
Like hands that are praying, aglow in the sky
Like hands that are praying the fire is saying
“You can burn down our churches, but I shall be free”
© 1965 Words and Music by Paul Simon, “A Church is Burning”
Here in Canada, as in much of the Western World, there is a plethora of voices condemning religion. The essential claim is that religion is both false and harmful. The falsity or veracity of religions is open to honest debate and disagreement, and can’t be settled by simple argumentation. The means employed to argue for the harmfulness of religion, however, are frequently shot through with bigotry, misinformation, shoddy argumentation, and caricatures. These should be refuted.
What one frequently hears is that religion is bad for people. This is proven by taking the worst examples of people claiming religious motivation for acting badly and presenting them as “typical” of religious behaviour. Violence, hatred, irrationality, psychologically or physically harmful behaviour, when given a religious justification, become in anti-religious polemics “religion”. On one level this is no different from any other type of bigotry. Bigotry works by taking an “other”, some identifiable group, and then assigning negative generalizations to the group as a whole. Of course these generalizations, by stigmatizing the other group, make your own group superior. Anti-semites find examples of greed, corruption, or chauvinism among Jews and say “this is how Jews are”. White supremacists find examples of African Americans committing crimes or performing badly at school and say “these people are violent and stupid”. Buddhists point to examples of Christian intolerance or extremism and say “you see, Christians are like that” and Christians point to Muslim terrorists and say, “That’s Islam”. And here’s the kicker: secularists point to violent, irrational or intolerant religious people and say, “Religious people are like that.”
The truth is that some religious people are like that. Just like some Jews are greedy, and some some atheists are debaucherous nihilists. Some but not all, and not even most. Making the worst example of religious people stand in for the group as a whole is a polemical and psychological technique, not an attempt to approach the truth.
To understand this, consider: If a person wanted to understand medicine, who should they ask? An intelligent approach would be to approach an expert- someone who excelled in both the theory and practice of medicine. That person understands medicine, and embodies its wisdom. Going to an amateur doctor, or worse, a quack, would not teach you about what medicine is and can be. Taking that as a guide, when wanting to understand religion, who should one ask, to whom should one go? Those who have a superficial understanding of their religion, those who only practice it for an hour a week on Sundays, or worse those who use their religion to covertly or overtly seek power, money, sex, or the expression of their desires for violence and cruelty?
I am not saying that we have nothing to learn from studying the behaviour, individually or in groups, of religious people. Quite the contrary. There is much to learn both for the religious and the non-religious in studying the way different types of religious people tend to behave. For instance, one might argue that religion is a kind of neutral tool whose significance is entirely in the use put to it. Good people use it well, bad people badly. That does not appear to be true, however. Both scientific and historical studies of religion demonstrate that on the whole it more often a source of good things than bad. Studies of the effects of religious adherence have demonstrated over and again that it tends to promote happiness and longevity. Historical studies have demonstrated that in the West our human rights tradition derives mostly from the Bible, that Christianity “invented the idea of children as human beings”, that Judeo-Christian values reduced and then eliminated slavery, fought against racism, operated a massive hospital and orphanage system for centuries, were the seedbeds of science and amazing creativity in art and music. Hinduism has enriched the human understanding of the body and mind and expanded human ideas about the cosmos and the spiritual realms for millenia; Buddhism advanced all of humanities understanding of the workings of the mind and has been a voice for non-violence for 2,500 years. Speaking of the West it is surely also true that Christians and Jews often did not go far enough in their reforms, had blindspots, and sometimes resorted to religiously motivated violence. These failures are rightly sources of grief and self-criticism to religious people, but they say more about doctrinal or institutional practices that need reform, or about the human capacity for evil, than they stand as blanket condemnations of such an important and beneficial human activity as religion. On the whole religion has largely been, and is, a force to enrich life and address the needs of the soul, as well as to redeem civilisations.
It is this last point I would like to linger on for a moment. I would argue that a significant part of the meaning and purpose of religions lies in their ability to (at least partially) redeem the civilisations they exist in. What I mean by that is that religions have in the past reduced human vices like greed and violence, been a refuge for those who fall through the cracks, stepped in where the political structure failed, inspired art and culture, and acted counterculturally against the defects of their time (at their best). When civilisational structures changed one of two things happened: either old religions changed and developed (eg. the birth of Rabbinic Judaism, Hinduism developing out of Brahmanism, the Protestant Reformation) or new religions were born out of or on top of the old (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam). These new forms than struggled to develop in redeeming ways in cooperation with or in struggle against their own socieities. That has always been the case until today, a time when all of the old religions are struggling mightily to catch up to the fastest and most disruptive level of civilisational transformation in human history. My belief is that catch up they must and catch up they will, because we are homo religiosis. They must catch up because we need them. Those who say we can do without religion are making an assertion that is totally speculative, and which in fact has mounting facts against it. Some individuals seem fine without it, at least by their own estimation. Civilizations which leave it behind, however, are largely burning the leftover moral capital that religions created without making anything new. Time will tell whether science and reason, operating in a fluctuating human space with no centre and no limits, can guide the human race towards peace, love, and justice. I have my doubts.
Do you ever have one of those days where one or more of your primary relationships seems fractured, painful, dysfunctional- or maybe your work seems meaningless, a patina of play-acting laid on top of the unfulfilled desires of your soul- or you feel stupid and slow, worried you may have an early form of senility or a brain tumour-or suddenly the beauty of the beautiful people- which normally means nothing to you- is making you suspect that there may actually be something terminally wrong with you by comparison?
How do we respond? Well, first off I would suggest we recognize that we are vulnerable in this state. Things can easily go farther south. Indulging in old bad habits out of self-pity; being withdrawn, slothful, or irritable; or speaking an angry word. The first priority is not to make things worse. We should try to be patient, keep things simple, keep to our normal standards, and avoid complaint and the expression of anger. Last tip for not turning the dark turn into a total shit show: do not take your perceptions seriously. The way things seem to you is not the way they are. Objects in your fearview mirror may be much less important than they appear.
The next step is very important: do not feel bad about feeling bad. The reason is for this is very simple: feeling bad about feeling bad will make you feel: bad. Which you’re likely to feel bad about. Get the picture? For this reason you must accept that you are not feeling good. Do not resist. Today this is your cross to bear. By nature these things are impermanent and if you don’t make it worse it will pass. Whatever problems you think you have will then either no longer exist (because they weren’t real) or be better dealt with from a clear, balanced mental state, not a depressed, despairing, Nine Inch Nails type mental state.
After that? Practice ishwara-pranidhana. That’s Hindu for laying it at the feet of Christ. Or surrendering to Allah. Or visualizing the Buddha. I have my own go to- and you need one too. We need an anchor in the storm. Sometimes grabbing hold of this rope will not just keep us out of the quicksand (yes I know quicksand is much less common than saturday morning cartoons led me to believe) but lift us up in to the air where we may end up swinging around and singing, ecstatic in the blue. Or maybe not. But we won’t be in the quicksand anymore.
What do we do once we are free of the sticky downward pull of entropy, despair and the devil’s deceit? Once the skies clear we still need to turn towards the beauty beyond us. If when the storm clears we stop clinging to the boat and jump into the water we’re asking for trouble next time. We need to look into the mirror of God’s presence if we want to keep our vision clear. We need the hand of the spirit rewriting our software if we want to minimize future crashes. The rewrite only happens if we keep submitting our heart to the change. That change comes with keeping our mind’s eye on the highest we can conceive. This highest acts like a magnet passed over a soup of metal, sucking out all the impurities.
So, to summarize:
don’t make things worse. This is the priority.
don’t feel bad about feeling bad.
turn beyond yourself; be with the beautiful.
The Talmud (Shabbat 105b) compares one who gets angry to one who worships idols. Why? Clearly, on one level, the intention is to underline the gravity of the fault. Similarly the Talmud elsewhere compares one who humiliates another in public to one who sheds blood (Bava Metzia 58b). This is of a piece with the Talmud’s great concern to elevate the sensitivity of the mitzvot bein adam l’chavero (interpersonal commandments) to exquisite levels.
There is a deeper meaning to be found, however. What is idolatry? As the Psalms and Isaiah affirm (Psalms 97:7; 115:4; Isaiah 44:6-23) it is to worship the work of ones own hands. On that level, our technological age may be the most idolatrous in history. Pertinent to this discussion, however, is an understanding of the inner dynamic of anger. When we are angry, what are we angry at? The person who we believe has hurt us? Yet when we are angry we do not see that person as they are. We are in the possession of what Spinoza called “inadequate ideas”: conceptions which fall short of the full intelligibility of what faces us; ideas which separate aspects of the object of our thought from a larger causal web and distort that object in the fires of our passions (Ethics). As Spinoza wrote in general terms, and several Rabbis have also said with regard to this passage, anger separates the hated object from its reality as grounded in God and His will.
In short when angry we are worshipping a conception which is not of God but is the work of our own hands. We do not attend and reverence the being who we believe hurt us; rather we attend and reverence a being of our own making, a hateful caricature of Gods child formed of our own hands and lifted not only above truth but also above ourselves. Anger is never in our own best Interests. As the Buddha said, “Anger is like a flaming torch that we pick up to hurl at another, wounding our own hands first.”
Anger is like idolatry because it is the worshiping of a creature of our own creation which we hold above the reality of Gods creation. The actual human being, the infinitely complex personality mixed of good and bad, is in their essence, in their true name, formed in the image of God. The Hebrew word for image, tselem, is the same word used for an idolatrous statue in the Torah (eg. Numbers 33:52). This shocking congruence teaches us that the human being is the only acceptable idol, the only representation of God that we can approach with lawful reverence. It must, however, be the person as they actually exist. This is the living reality who can not be fairly caricatured and needs to be approached as much with unknowing as knowing, as much with love as justice. It is this balance that is obliterated by anger, which affirms a cheap and simplified knowing, an arrogant and superficial claim to justice, and is incompatible with love.
In the modern Western spiritual scene “ethics” and “nonduality” seem like strange bedfellows. Since nondual spiritual practice, which is sometimes conceived as nonpractice (and therefore certanly not as containing ethical practices and commitments) is about transcending the efforts and evaluations of the illusory separate self, it is frequently thought that attempting to improve the illusion of the self, to care for other illusions, or to train or consciously transform the illusion of oneself, is, well, illusion begetting illusion.
There is some truth to this perspective. Our ethical commitments are frequently much more grounded in our “self-project” than we realize. To put it differently, our ethical concerns, whether for our own behaviour or directed outwards to saving or serving the world, are often woven so tight with our concern to justify, maintain, and improve our self-image that in practice we cannot tell the difference. It is often wise to loosen the reigns on our ethical or salvific merry-go-round rides while we begin to look inward at how we are constructing who we are and to question our reality. Epictetus, the great Roman stoic, advised his students: “Until you know what to desire, it is better to desire as little as possible.”
That said, there is a problem here. Attitudes, habits, and actions which have been traditionally considered “vicious” (vices), or as immoral/unethical are considered so for good reasons: they cause long term harm and suffering, the very things that the spiritual path sets out to overcome. As Francis Lucille, a contemporary teacher of the “direct path” (vicara marga) and student of Jean Klein, says, the whole purpose of the path of Advaita is happiness.
The Buddha taught his students to cultivate “sila” (restraint) not for the grandiose purpose of saving the world or the endless struggle of becoming better people but for the purpose of “freedom from remorse” which leads to “joy” and from there to the ability to meditate and contemplate reality free from obstruction (Anguttara Nikaya 10.1). The actions he advised his students to refrain from include killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and becoming intoxicated from alcohol or drugs. These actions are ill advised because, as he put it, they lead to the “long term harm and suffering of both oneself and others” and to therefore to remorse, sadness, and darkening of the mind (Anguttara Nikaya 4.99 and elsewhere). The Buddha also classed certain internal states as harmful: greed, anger, and confused thinking.
The point I am getting at is that as nondualists failing to care for our mind and bodies, and/or failing to care for the ethical quality of our mental states and actions will lead, as a natural law (dharma) to complications, remorse, and suffering in a way which will obstruct our path to awakening to what we are. The qualities advocated by Shankara as prerequisites for awakening (though few sages regard them as literally prerequisites and I am unaware of any recent sage who has advocated for them being necessary) are all impossible to attain even a semblance of without ethical behaviour. Although some will balk at the idea that practices should be undertaken to make it easier to awaken, out of fear that a gradualist deferral of the ability to awaken is being advocated, that is not so. There is a difference between a precondition and a favourable condition. Jean Klein frequently affirmed that physical yoga practices (done in the right way) prepared the body in a way which made awakening easier and also advocated for eating in a mindful, sattvic way for the same reason. It seems obvious to me that cultivating sattvic behaviour and mental states is useful for the similar reasons, though these must not be fetishized.
To my way of thinking there are two possible reasons to pursue ethical behaviour and internal virtue on the nondual way. These are 1) simply out of natural love and concern for the beautiful and the true; ie. because it makes us happy to do so; and 2) to develop a sattvic condition of body and mind which makes awakening easier. Though this sattvic condition is not a precondition it is a favourable condition, and if awakening is our hearts desire, than aside from our natural desire to care for ourselves and others, why wouldn’t we cultivate favourable conditions?
Recently I came across a wonderful discussion of ethical decision making from the previously mentioned modern Advaitin sage Francis Lucille. In a recent satsang (April 2015) Francis was asked how to make decisions about whether and in what way to help other people. Francis’ answer, although it addresses that question, seems to me to offer a broader approach to ethical decision making which is very useful and is uniquely grounded in the internal logic and goal of nondual practice.
What Does a Nondual Ethic Look Like?: Francis Lucille
Francis: “I think the decision we make in any situation can not be predefined. It always has to be made in context, and the context is never twice the same. In any given context the first question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Do I really have to make a decision?’ Then, if the answer to this question is ‘yes’, then ‘what is the appropriate decision?’, meaning, ‘what is the impersonal decision in this context?’ The impersonal decision is one in which I am not identifying with any party in the situation, in which my endeavour is to make the decision which is in line with truth, love, and beauty. So that’s how we can come to the good within these situations.
The first thing is to ask oneself, ‘do I really have to get involved?’ My teacher (Jean Klein) told a story that once he was travelling in Italy and there was this man and woman vehemently arguing, screaming at each other, and then starting to hit each other. He went there and tried to separate them and then they both started to hit him! He said, ‘I took my lesson’. I don’t have to get involved in situations! It is your ego that you feel so important that you have to be there and to play God. So the first question is: does the situation really require my intervention? My teacher used to say also we shouldn’t completely deprive people of their suffering because the suffering is somehow the ‘homing device’, that which puts us on the path to truth. We should rather give them the means, the knowledge, to save themselves, rather than to save them. Of course if someone is drowning it is very clear, if there is an accident on the freeway it is very clear, you call emergency services. There’s all kinds of situations where what to do is extremely clear. But there are other situations where it is difficult and we have to remember that sometimes we are not going to be certain that we have made the right decision. All we can do is to try to do our best given our knowledge of the situation and our impression that some action is required, and in innocence we try to do our best.”
“Two different human beings in the same circumstance may have chosen two opposite decisions coming from the same place of innocence and truth because they have different means to look at the situation and therefore two different decisions in a given situation can be equally impersonal, and the converse is also true. In a given situation with a similar decision from two different persons one may be impersonal and the other come from ignorance: the magic is that the consequences of the impersonal decision will be harmonious and the consequences of the ignorant decision will be disharmonious because the universe in its wisdom knows and will reshape itself accordingly. That is the beauty, and it is very important to understand that. For instance, since it was mentioned with regards to politics, you can have two different attitudes in a given situation that are taken by two different human beings but each of them coming from a pure heart but with different experience and different knowledge of the world, of the events, etc. They may take two different, even opposed decisions with good heart and good intelligence but they will both be impersonal, and conversely the same is true.”
“The universe will respond to intent. It corresponds to the Christian saying, ‘It is the intention that makes the actions holy, that sanctifies the action.’ So the intention of a pure heart in fact makes the action holy. In other words, an action cannot be judged by itself but rather by the intention it comes from.”
This answer contains quite a lot. Francis here first of all cautions against dogmatism and “precepts”, or predefined ethical rules. He then warns against being quick to intervene in other people’s problems or attempting to play God. This could be called humility, but of course it also resonates with the Advaitin teachings on de-emphasizing doer-ship and decreasing attempts at control and self-assertion. He then says that when a moral decision is needed, one should attempt to take as impersonal a perspective as possible and choose the action that reflects the values of truth, love and beauty. Elsewhere he calls this “the just position”. It is a thought exercise where one tries to view the situation from everyone’s perspective and make the most just, most true, most loving, most beautiful resolution for everyone involved. He warns that certainty cannot here be attained and we must make our best decision “in innocence”. Francis also warns against judging other people’s decisions, and emphasizes that what matters in making moral decisions is not technical perfection but intention. The intention, here, simply put, is to benefit everyone involved, not merely oneself. So here we have, in effect, an impersonal ethic to meet an impersonal spirituality.
Upon reflection it seems clear that the ethics Francis elucidates here attempt to approximate enlightened action, or the way a liberated person would act. The liberated person does not act out of self-interest or attempt to control external situations or play God, and also is wise enough to be nondogmatic about right action and hesitant to judge the decisions of others from the outside. Francis’ ethic is designed to bring us closer to the position of the awakened mind while navigating the circumstances of the world. This position is both a modelling of the Self (atman) in the world and an approach to action which will bring us “closer” to the Self in terms of resonance with it and openness to it and therefore be favourable to to our awakening.