When I was a teenager, I wrote an article about the relationship between love and truth. Both are desirable, but which one is greater? I am sure that as adults, we often have to struggle when we are forced to choose between the two. Sometimes, it seems that the two are mutually exclusive. We cannot have both at the same time. As a writer, I am often caught in this dilemma — if I speak the truth, some people may not like it. But if I don’t speak the truth, then I am essentially choosing untruth in order to maintain harmony. Is this really a loving thing to do? Am I true to myself?
Reginald Horace Blyth is a well-known author in the world of haiku and Zen literature. I have always been impressed by his insights. About a month ago, I posted this quote of his on my Facebook timeline:
“Christ’s Zen is love, but where is the wisdom? Buddha’s Zen is truth, but where is the humanity?”
This posting caused many strong emotions among my friends and readers. Some thought it is a great quote. But many disagreed with it vehemently. I can see why some people agree strongly while others disagree strongly. It depends on one’s personal experience with Buddhism and with Christianity. As a teacher, I understand that meaning is constructed through experience. Since each of us has a unique set of experiences, it is most likely that we won’t see eye to eye.
I have been a regular contributor to our Buddhist magazine, Wisdom Voice, for the past three years. The topic for this month’s issue is the relationship between the arhat’s path and the bodhisattva’s path. An arhat is an enlightened human being and a saint of the highest ranks, while a bodhisattva is a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so through compassion for suffering beings. Traditional understanding is that the arhat’s path is focused on self-realization and liberation. In contrast, the focus of the bodhisattva is on helping other sentient beings, even to the point of sacrificing himself or herself. One immediate question is whether the two paths can be practiced simultaneously. Some Buddhists believe that self-realization (or enlightenment) has to take precedence over the attempt to help others.
There is no doubt in my mind that the two paths can be practiced at the same time. The Buddha taught the simultaneous cultivation of wisdom and compassion. There is no conflict between the two. More compassion and concern for others means that we become less self-centered and less driven by our own ego. As we turn our attention to the service of others instead of constantly seeking self-gains, we will have more inner peace. That certainly helps the cultivation of wisdom. On the other hand, more wisdom also makes us more capable of helping others. Without wisdom and mindfulness, we may think that we are doing others a great service when in fact we are doing them harm. Further, many people think that they are doing charitable deeds when in fact what they are doing is primarily to seek self-gains. Charity work can also be ego trips. It is very important to have that inner clarity, which allows us to be cognizant of what we are actually doing.
This is why the practice of mindfulness is so crucial. The cultivation of wisdom hinges on our level of mindfulness. Vipassana or mindfulness meditation has become very popular in the West. But my impression is that most of the mindfulness workshops focus on the mindfulness of the body. It is crucial to also become mindful of our intentions while we go about our daily activities. Can we detect the role of the ego even as we engage in activities which are supposed to serve others? In addition, it is crucial to become aware of our attachment to various mental objects — doctrines, ideologies, ideals, religious beliefs, values, Utopian thinking. Religious literature often warns us of our attachment to material things and to sensual pleasure. But what is more difficult to detect is the attachment to dharma or “truth.” Yes, there is such a thing as attachment to dharma. Historically speaking, many atrocities have been committed by people who think that they are propagating or defending truth.
Atrocities committed in the name of serving God or Truth can be found in virtually all religions. They are not monopolized by any single religion. In fact, the same phenomenon can be found in atheist regimes and atheist ideology. The ego is a trickster. There is a saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” So many atrocities have been committed in the name of serving the Common Good. In March 2000, Pope John Paul II delivered a sweeping papal apology and expressed repentance over the errors of the Church over the last two millennia. This was an unprecedented and highly significant historical event. “We cannot not recognize the betrayal of the Gospel committed by some of our brothers, especially in the second millennium,” said the Pope.
Which atrocities was the pope referring to? There are many very serious ones. They include atrocities committed during the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of heretics and the forced conversions of Indians, Native Americans, and Africans. Because Christians believe so firmly that they are on the side of God and serving God, they have often violated the rights of ethnic groups and showed contempt towards other people’s cultures and religious traditions. Vatican authorities used a blanket term to describe this phenomenon — “sins committed in service of truth.” The pondering of such possibility should send chills down our spines. It is possible to commit evil while one is convinced that one is serving God, Truth or the Common Good. If one knows clearly that one is committing a crime and harming others, perhaps one would not go to the extremes of persecution. But the conviction that one is doing good emboldens because there is no conscience to hold such a person back!
I am not singling out Catholicism to criticize. The tendency to do harm in the name of doing good is universal. It is a form of “attachment to dharma/truth.” I applaud Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church for their boldness in admitting historic errors. It is not easy to admit fault, especially faults of such immensity. It is always difficult to see one’s own errors and to apologize for them. But the Roman Catholic Church has done it. Frankly, I don’t know of any human institution that has openly admitted fault of such magnitude. It takes great courage. I must give credit to the Church leadership. Persecuting peoples of other faiths and cultures is at odds with the principle of universal love that the gospels proclaim. But it takes a high level of awareness to see what one’s beloved institution — the Mother Church — is really doing.
It is in this sense that the cultivation of wisdom is more important than the practice of love and compassion. While wisdom and compassion can be cultivated together, wisdom and self-knowledge is more important than good intentions. Without the light of mindfulness, one is effectively blind. Much harm can be done as one embarks on projects to help others.
The famous Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, once said that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” Let us take this to heart. This applies to many different situations. It is applicable to romantic love. It is applicable to well-intentioned public policies. It is also applicable to foreign aid which is supposed to help developing countries. It is imperative to practice mindfulness.