Interesting talk, as usual, at yesterday’s sangha—beginning with a passage read from the Tao Te Ching which included the proposition that “the world is perfect; we can do nothing to change it.” (I’m paraphrasing the translation here, though I hope without distorting it. My memory is not so trustworthy these days.)
So is it? Perfect, I mean. My argument was that it depends on the way you look at it—and on the way you understand the words. On the other hand, some of our group proposed what I understand to be a karma-based vision: that everything results from actions whose consequences are not always foreseeable, but which offer lessons from which, if mindful, we can learn. No matter how dire, and no matter whether we approve of them or not, events in the world may prove to be a part of its “perfection.” Perhaps this perfection can be understood as the necessity of the cause-effect continuum.
Which sounded uncomfortably Panglossian to me. Pangloss, remember, was the peripatetic mentor of that simple-minded literalist Candide, the hero of Voltaire’s merciless mockery of the philosophy that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” I myself have trouble accepting the agonizing death of millions of human beings as the result of war, disease, and famine as a part of some cosmic vision of a perfect world. I don’t even think that it’s perfectible. The enlightenment of the Buddha himself, after all, arose from the perception of the inevitability of suffering—manifestly in the form of aging, sickness and death. I doubt that he could have envisioned such present-day scourges as genocide and man-induced global warming.
It also seems to me dangerously close to trivializing the suffering of a vast number of human beings to see it, essentially (and I realize that this is to put it far more crudely than it was meant) as a teaching offered to our species. Okay, we should doubtless be learning from these dreadful outcomes of our unskillful actions and behaviors. But doesn’t it seem callous to attribute the suffering of all these innocent victims of their fellow man’s indifference and cruelty to some kind of karmic outcome of unknowable past actions?
On Than Geoff's monthly visits, after our meditation hour we join in chanting the Sublime Attitudes, a lovely litanyy that reminds us that “All living beings are owners of their actions, born of their actions, heir to their actions, related through their actions, and live dependent on their actions.” I see the wisdom in these words, and kind of grasp the concept behind them. But somewhere at gut level it remains a conundrum for me in the light of these troublesome thoughts. Which suggests to me that I have work to do before I more fully understand it.
Meantime, there's what one of our number felicitously calls the "insanity donut." In the middle is what you can actually be responsible for, surrounded by everything you somehow feel responsibility for without being able to control it. That's the part that's not so good for you, I assume. Nice metaphor, anyway. I recalled Than Geoff’s earlier responses to my questions about political and social responsibility: do what you can, he suggests, and have the good sense to recognize what’s beyond your capabilities. Know the limitations, and acknowledge them. Don’t waste time and energy on those things that you can’t hope to affect. And be aware that even the small things matter in the grand scheme. As the chaos theory has it, the beat of a butterfly wing in one corner of the globe can result in a tempest in another.