A few days ago, I took up an exchange with someone who is leaving me feeling wonderfully righteous and quite holier-than-her. I’m enjoying this. It’s always a delight to my dark side to see clearly how greed is operating in someone else, how it has motivated her subversive actions, and how it’s revelation to the larger community is causing her grief. Now, I’m certainly not enjoying the resonant experience of her suffering. As a good Buddhist, how could I? But as a karmic accelerator for her unskillfulness, I do feel I’m acting in her best interest by confronting her craving and grasping. After all, it’s not only that she’s violating the precepts (or at least, if she were Buddhist, she’d know they were precepts) but that the larger community is being harmed in many different ways.
Incredible exercise, isn’t it? I thought I’d write from my real Dark Side. This is the side that easily justifies all manner of unskillfulness and likes to throw the victim/recipient under the Dharma Wheel. It was scarily easy to write and very uncomfortable to read. And a good lesson for my quickly inflatable ego.
But let’s not rush past this. The shadow side of morality or virtue is a hugely challenging practice for me. So easy to climb up onto that pedestal. If it wasn’t such a cardio workout to get up there, I’d install one of those side-saddle chair lifts.
The incident is real. I can’t judge my skillfulness in confronting the person. Opinions vary. However, I heard two things that made me stop and question my own practice of shila. The first was a response from a colleague that said, “Wow. Remind me never to piss you off.” If the translation of shila is “cool and peaceful” then my interventions were hardly that; nor were they perceived to be that. This is the first clue that virtue has slid into the shadow of righteousness. Oh yes, I can defend my actions as the skillful outrage designed to protect the innocent. Hell, it took me two hours to craft my written letter to the supposed antagonist. But that’s an inadmissible defense because not only did it cause ripples in the system, it created an edge with others that they fear to tread over. And, ironically, collateral damage to relationships is the very thing I was confronting in the first place.
The second thing I heard was in the person’s response. After a long and winding explanation of how she had and had not meant to do what she did and did not do, she said, “But I don’t know what I did that was seen as unethical!” It’s hard to feel righteous in the face of helplessness. I suppose I should know by now that our scars create blind spots in our vision of self and of others. I mean both for her and me. And Manjushri’s sword is no scalpel that can carefully excise away someone else’s scar tissue. In fact, wielding that Bodhisattva’s sword is about the only time we can do brain surgery on ourselves.
I hate it when I’m right. I hate it much more when I’m righteous.
Thank you for practising – at least one of us is…
ah yes so easy to slip into the subtle cloak of self righteousness! thanks for your honesty in sharing this little story so we might look at where we do the same thing.
rubbing our rough edges against those of others, there’s where the training is! I find my view is so limited that I can only do what seems right at the time (with care) and move from there.
ZDS, I am grateful for honest friends – who are also gentle. They are also models of being fearless in seeing their own shadow side. Your comment makes me think of them as the finishing cloth after a good sandpapering! 😀
Self-righteousness — my drug of choice. Great post.
Jomon, I like mine dipped in chocolate.
Yeah, people who think they know it all are rather annoying to those of us who do 🙂
Seriously, great post!
David, you’re only saying that because you know everything and you’re always right! 😉
It’s interesting – I kind of question adhering to the “cool and peaceful” definition in all situations. I don’t know if you’re implying that, but recent events in my own sangha have shown me that we Buddhists sometimes use this view to avoid confrontation. Seems that applying skillful means might mean – at least in the form world – needing to look “hot” and be fierce.
At the same time – if someone says to you “I better not piss you off” – then you’ve probably stepped over the line. Folks at my old job basically said the same thing to me a few years back, and that was certainly an eye opener. I saw clearly that I wanted to knock my old boss down a peg, and compassion was the furthest thing from my mind.
Hi Nathan! In this case, I was clear that compassion was not my intent (not in the sense of “I’ll hold your suffering gently”). The damage had gone on long enough and had to be stopped. While everyone involved agreed, no one was willing to bell the cat. So yes, my intent was to look hot and fierce… but wow… I still can’t do it without getting into that righteous mode.
I should add that righteous wasn’t in the form of “I’m better than you” but my MO of “you know better and this is the standard we’re expected to adhere to.” Maybe they’re one and the same.
I need to dig more into the “cool and peaceful” definition to really get it. Agreed that we often get into what I call the “flower-child-speak” which is just avoidance of the unpleasant. But I’m pretty sure there’s a path between tip-toeing through the tulips and a scorched earth I need to embody more consistently. 😉