Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Truth

I saw this bumper sticker on a car yesterday:

"The truth will set you free": this, of course, comes from the Christian Bible, specifically the Gospel According to John, 8:32. It is a saying that has meant a lot to me over the years, from the time of my upbringing in a Congregationalist church. One thing it has said powerfully to me is that to embrace what is really going on brings freedom and life; hiding from and denying what is really going on brings pain and suffocation. No wonder Buddhism felt like home, once I found it.

But my idea of the "truth" in question has always been quite different from what the "truth" has traditionally been interpreted to be. The context of this verse is an argument between Jesus and the chief priests and Pharisees, and phrases from this chapter have been used to justify persecution of the Jews. John is my least favorite among the gospels, as it seems to be written as a polemic against all who reject this Jesus who proclaims himself Christ-as-Savior; to me, this telling of Jesus' life and teaching paints him as a raving narcissist. (He does go on and on about his wonderful self.) But I am sure that some of the potent sayings are indeed authentic; to give voice to them, the writers of the Gospel created a Jesus character who served their purposes. (As did the writers of each of the Gospels, and of all scripture, and the creators of any kind of literature or art).

But I digress. Seeing this bumper sticker got me thinking about what variety of truth the bumper sticker refers to, and what variety of anger. The car also featured a "Quakers!! Where?" bumper sticker, so I assume that the car belongs to a Quaker. If this is a Quaker of the universalist, New York Meeting stripe, the sticker is probably pointing a bit ironically to the truth-of-Christ-as-savior concept. It points more wholeheartedly to the truth-of-God-as-justice notion, which springs from the powerful message of the Hebrew prophets. The prophets such as Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, and Amos.

They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

And so the truth that sets you free, but first makes you angry, is the truth of power, of seeing who has power and who doesn't, and who is using that power in self-service. Once you see how the game is really being played, you are free from delusion. One could say that it is the truth of suffering, of the First Noble Truth: Suffering exists. And perhaps seeing the causes of that suffering, the endemic injustice within human society, is an echo of the Second Noble Truth, that suffering has discernible causes.

And those aspects of truth are enough to make anyone angry. As angry as the prophets of old.

But what do you do with that anger? Because feeling angry is not enough. Just as suffering is not enough (as Thầy says), anger is not enough. The Dharma teaches us to see ill-being for what it is, and to transform that ill-being into freedom -- freedom from the delusion that traps us into reenacting the causes of ill-being. How are you going to use that energy of anger in a way that will not simply perpetuate these causes?

I know I'm asking a lot of a bumper sticker, but I wish it had said something about love. Because our society has a very distorted view of anger. We conflate the energy of anger with the expression of anger. Many interpret the Christian tradition as teaching that we should never feel angry, that we should turn the other cheek, forgive immediately, and to someone who takes our cloak, give our coat as well. On the other hand, we're taught how important it is to express your feelings, to vent rather than to hide your feelings. So we have a victim mentality mixed with self-righteousness mixed with entitlement. What's missing is an alternative to so much self-involvement. What's missing is the idea of expressing your angry feelings in a way that shines a light on the situation that triggered the anger, without exacerbating it. You do that through love, through compassion.

In his book Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Thầy writes:

You have the duty to tell [your beloved] when you suffer. When you are happy, share your happiness, with her, with him. When you suffer, tell your beloved one about your suffering. Even if you think your anger was created by him or her, you still have to keep your commitment [to support each other]. Tell him or her calmly. Use loving speech. This is the only condition. (p. 57)

We have the duty (elsewhere, he says we have the right) to communicate our anger. But we must do so calmly and lovingly. Here he speaks of anger between family members, but because of inter-being, this teaching must extend to anger between constituents and governments, and to anger between nations.

Martin Luther King, Jr., worked hard to channel the energy of anger into prophetic, powerful, loving action. So did Gandhi and Dorothy Day. And Thich Nhat Hanh.

I would like to see a bumper sticker that reads:

The truth will set you free.
So that's what that funny little half-smile is all about!

A bit more about the Society of Friends:

During the two years or so that I attended the Brooklyn Friends Meeting, I learned that many of my assumptions about Quakers were wrong, or incomplete. The Brooklyn Meeting is unprogrammed, meaning that there is no pastor and no liturgy -- the meeting sits in silence, listening for leadings. But there are other types of Quaker meeting, more common in the Midwest and West (apologies for over-generalizations). Roughly speaking, the Quakers stream into four branches: Liberal, Conservative, Pastoral, and Evangelical.

Click to read about Liberal, Conservative, Pastoral, and Evangelical Friends' beliefs and customs.

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