By David Edwards
Pain Is Pain
In his remarkable eighth century treatise, The Way of the Bodhisattva, originally delivered as a lecture (some of it, we are told, after he had vanished from the hall!) Shantideva permits himself only one form of anger in response to the awesome suffering of our world – anger at his own selfishness, at his own self-serving bias.
How dare he, he asks, put his own selfish needs ahead of the needs of others? What right has he to consider his happiness more important than the happiness of any other individual? Moreover, by what calculation does he presume that his personal suffering is of greater consequence than the suffering of all other people and animals – beings numbered, literally, in their billions?
Because, clearly, no one person’s welfare is more important than any other’s, it is quite wrong for us to lead our lives on the basis that our own needs should take priority. And so Shantideva declares with an all-embracing humanity almost unimaginable in this self-obsessed world:
“Mine and other’s pain – how are they different?
Simply, then, since pain is pain, I will dispel it.
What grounds have you for all your strong distinctions?
”Thus the suffering of everyone
Should be dispelled, and here there’s no debate.
To free myself from pain means freeing all;
Contrariwise, I suffer with the pain of beings.” (Shantideva, The Way Of The Bodhisattva, Shambhala, 1997, p.124)
The practical implications are clear:
“Just as I defend myself from all unpleasant happenings, however small,
Likewise I shall act for others’ sake
To guard and shield them with compassion.” (p.125)
And the cause of suffering is equally clear:
“All the harm with which this world is rife,
All fear and suffering that there is,
Clinging to the ‘I’ has caused it!
What am I to do with this great demon?” (p.129)
These are the words of someone who is not only +not+ determined to cling to the prejudiced priorities of self – of the “I” – as most of us are, he is determined to reject such prejudice as a “great demon”. This is someone who is willing to side with others in compassion and love, not just against the injustice of others, but against the injustice of his own tendency to favour himself! If there is a choice between self-interest and the interests of others – he will take their side, not his own.
As a child, I always surreptitiously took the largest piece of cake on offer (I was foiled by my older sister’s suggestion that I divide the cake and then allow her to choose!). Shantideva vows to take the smaller piece. If he finds a £20 note on the ground, Shantideva leaves it for someone else to find. If he is offered power, prestige and profit at the expense of others, Shantideva sides with the victims against his own advantage.
If this sounds neurotic, destructively self-mortifying, psychologist Erich Fromm argued exactly the opposite is the case:
“Whatever complaints the neurotic patient may have, whatever symptoms he may present, are rooted in his inability to love; if we mean by love a capacity for the experience of concern, responsibility, respect, and understanding of another person and the intense desire for that person’s growth.” (Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion, Yale University Press, 1978, p.87)
Or as Shantideva says (and Fromm agreed):
“Living beings! Wayfarers upon life’s paths,
Who wish to taste the riches of contentment,
Here before you is the supreme bliss –
Here, O ceaseless wanderers, is your fulfilment!” (p.53)
Here it is! says Shantideva, here is the great irony of human happiness – it is this simple and this difficult: true self-interest lies in concern for others, not in self-concern. Who would have thought it?!
The “Externalities” Of Greed
This insurrection against self-obsession is, as Shantideva says, a “flash of lightning” to illuminate the darkness of the ordinary way of things. It indicates the stunning human capacity to reverse the apparent order of nature “red in tooth and claw”. It is a glimpse of what it might mean to wake up from the “nightmare of history”.
It is not that Shantideva has been overwhelmed by sentimental naivety. He recognises that he, too, is a victim of his “great demon” of selfishness. What is it that powers the suffering in our hearts – the incendiary anger, hostility, resentment, vengefulness, jealousy, hatred; the fathomless avarice, dissatisfaction, boredom, despair; the bloated arrogance and pride – if not the fierce focus on what we want, what we need, what we must have? And what has the power to gently disperse this suffering, if not compassion, kindness, generosity, love, patience, tolerance and justice – that is, concern for others?
Self-obsession is not only unreasonable; it brings disaster to ourselves, to our society, to our entire planet. What motive force drives the storms of climate change, if not the “great demon” of unrestrained, all-consuming selfishness? Who can not find the source of infinite misery in the insatiable, psychopathic greed of corporate profit-seeking? In his book, The Corporation, Canadian law professor Joel Bakan explains the bottom-line for corporate executives:
“The law forbids any other motivation for their actions, whether to assist workers, improve the environment, or help consumers save money. They can do these things with their own money, as private citizens. As corporate officials, however, stewards of other people’s money, they have no legal authority to pursue such goals as ends in themselves – only as means to serve the corporation’s own interests, which generally means to maximise the wealth of its shareholders.
“Corporate social responsibility is thus illegal – at least when it is genuine.” (Bakan, The Corporation, Constable, 2004, p.37)
This astonishing ban on compassion has been established in legal judgements over hundreds of years. In a key 19th century court case, Lord Bowen declared: “charity has no business to sit at boards of directors +qua+ charity. There is, however, a kind of charitable dealing which is for the interest of those who practise it, and to that extent and in that garb (I admit not a very philanthropic garb) charity may sit at the board, but for no other purpose”. (Ibid, pp.38-39)
The inevitable consequence, Bakan writes, is what are known as “externalities“: “the routine and regular harms caused to others – workers, consumers, communities, the environment – by corporations‘ psychopathic tendencies”. (Ibid, p.60)
The same tendencies sacrificed the people of East Timor to Western business relations with Indonesia. They sacrificed millions of Vietnamese lives to the three magic words – tin, rubber and oil. They motivated the lies that took young British and American men to die, and to kill and injure civilians in their hundreds of thousands, in oil-rich Iraq.
Isn’t it obvious that centuries of self-interest have generated a runaway greed effect, so that avarice entrenched in the form of state-corporate power is now almost (but in fact not) beyond human control – manipulating us to smile and shrug away its madness even as it destroys us?
We all know from personal experience how greed gives little thought to costs and consequences. In his book, Emotions Revealed, psychologist Paul Ekman defines a “refractory period” in our minds as a state in which “our thinking cannot incorporate information that does not fit, maintain, or justify the emotion we are feeling”. (Quoted, Alan Wallace, Genuine Happiness, John Wiley & Sons, 2005, p.86)
Refractory periods occur when we desire and hate intensely – then our loved one is without fault, our enemy is without the tiniest redeeming feature. They occur when professionals cling to the rewards and status of their jobs. Upton Sinclair explained:
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” (http://classiclit.about.com)
But what, then, do we expect of unlimited greed entrenched in self-perpetuating political and economic systems over centuries?
Did Shantideva exaggerate when he talked of “this great demon”?
An Unmistakeable Odour
Shantideva argues that we should change places with others:
“I indeed am happy, others sad;
I am high and mighty, others low;
I am helped while others are abandoned;
Why am I not jealous of myself?” (p.133)
Why are we not cast down by the prospect of a single individual – ourselves – savouring abundant joys while so many are in complete despair, perhaps precisely because of our success?
Consider the example of the professional media. Mainstream journalists consistently side with their “great demon”. Why else do they focus endlessly, emotively, on the tragedy of 100 British military deaths in Iraq, while mentioning 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths as a cold, footnoted statistic (if that)? What is it that renders the thought of mentioning Iraqi +military+ deaths all but unthinkable, unworthy of even a single sentence? Why is the version of events presented by the powerful – people with the power and influence to help or hinder journalistic careers – always the benchmark for ‘neutral’ reporting? Is it not Shantideva’s “great demon” – self-interest – that has us conform to these carrots and sticks?
Journalists participate as cogs in a military-media killing machine that consumes hundreds of thousands of lives. The bland soundbites echoing what our leaders ‘hope’, what our leaders ‘sincerely’ believe, what our leaders are ‘genuinely’ trying to achieve, are quite as vital for the killing as the bullets and bombs. Most of the tankers, troopers and air force pilots don’t actually have blood on their hands, either.
The novelist Norman Mailer once remarked:
“There is an odour to any Press Headquarters that is unmistakeable… the unavoidable smell of flesh burning quietly and slowly in the service of a machine.” (Norman Mailer, The Time of Our Time, Little Brown, 1998, p.457)
The “flesh”, in fact, is our conscience – it burns slowly, malodorously, when journalists accept machine-pay at others’ expense.
There are ironies here. With our consciences charred, in thrall to self-interest, we all but guarantee a suffering future for the children we adore as part of ‘me’ and ’mine’. All around us loving parents do nothing whatever to safeguard the future of their children and the planet on which they will depend. And yet these are the same children they would give their very lives to protect from immediate harm. Of course we have to buy big, consume hard, fly cheap and work regardless of the consequences – anything else is literally inconceivable, isn’t it? The “great demon” of self-obsession has blinded us to our unthinking, conformist folly. Thoreau wrote:
“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” (Thoreau, Walden, Penguin, 1986, p.56)
One would think the political and economic conventions of modern man were more immutable, less amenable to challenge, even than the laws of a God. Self-interest has persuaded us that change is impossible, that alternatives are impossible. Why? Because maximised short-term self-interest +does+ indeed lie in cooperation with the powerhouses of state-corporate greed. If self-interest is everything, then there really is no other way – there is only one path to take.
But that is an illusion. The required revolution lies in challenging the greatest prejudice of all – the prejudice of self. What are the costs of selfishness? What are the deepest causes of suffering in ourselves and in the world? What are the benefits of shifting focus from our own needs to the needs of others? What happens when we make experimental changes in this direction? Is everything as clear-cut as it seems – or are we victims of the ultimate propagandist?
Across a gap of more than one thousand years, Shantideva calls on us to throw off obsessive self-concern and instead wage war on the causes of suffering. And he makes a promise:
“You’ll see the benefits that come from it.”