On Being Right and Being Wrong

Hell was once defined as a place where there is a Starbuck’s on every corner.  I guess I live in a sort of a purgatory. While there’s not a Starbuck’s on every corner, they are about a half-mile apart.  Sometimes stop at a Starbuck’s for a cup of coffee. If I get there before 10 am I get to hear the local North Shore Tea Party people hold their daily meeting.

They hang out on the couches in front of the fireplace after they ask anyone who has previously sat in their meeting place to leave. They are very important people these wealthy North Shore Tea Party types.

They sit comfortably speaking at great length about the problems of the world and how to solve them. The first thing they need to do is impeach President Obama, then repeal the Affordable Care Act, stop anyone with a “liberal” bent to not vote, and then pass anti-abortion laws and bring back the death penalty for misdemeanors.  They say these things at the top of their lungs, causing their hardened arteries to pop out at their collective forehead, and defy anyone to disagree with them. They seem to want to argue; argue about politics, religion, the economy and whatever passes for a controversial topic. They even want to argue with Obama – and he’s not even there.

Ever notice how many people argue? They seem to argue about everything. Mainly what they are arguing about is who is right? Everybody seems to be right, at least in his or her own mind. When you argue with your loved ones, friends and coworkers there is always the question of “who is right”. In a Dharma Center or a monastery the answer to that question is simple; it’s the abbot. The abbot is always right. Even when he is wrong he is still right. This is the first monastic rule.  The Sangha are not democracies.

In Asia there is a very famous true story. Once there were two monks arguing. The Abbot was perplexed wondering who was right and who was wrong. There was a visiting monk staying at the monastery and the Abbot asked his opinion as to the solution to the problem. After hearing the story the visitor, cutting to the chase, said, “Oh this is simple. If you have two monks arguing then they are both wrong. Dismiss them both.” And the Abbot did.

That’s the point of this teaching – if you are arguing it doesn’t matter if you are factually correct or not because you both are already wrong.

Arguing is in and of its self is wrong. One of the great teachings of the Buddha is if it’s really truth, Dhamma, then it leads to peace and freedom. If it leads to contention then it is not my teaching. If it leads to lack of peace and lack of freedom then it is not Buddhism. That’s not truth.

What a wonderful description of the spiritual path we call Buddhism. A spiritual path should be something that leads to peace and to freedom. One of the reasons Buddhism does that is because it gets to the heart of spirituality, what the life is all about. Instead of relying on something like a book it relies on the truth of human experience. We do have books in Buddhism, something like 6,000 volumes, but they are only guidelines. They are expressions of what Buddha discovered about life. The truth does not rest in books. Some books are truer than others, but if you claim that one book is the absolute truth then you wind up beating people over the head with it. The bigger the book the bigger the headache you give the other person. We don’t need a book to find truth; we can recognize truth. Truth is peaceful and harmonious.

If you can live in peace and harmony with others then you can live in peace with yourself. That’s a sign of understanding what truth is.

It really doesn’t matter about what views you espouse while sitting around the coffee table. Your opinion only has value to you. They aren’t really even real. They have no standing within the framework of truth. There’s nothing wrong with having a little debate, you know, arguing for arguments sake. That may even be helpful in day-to-day problem solving. There is really nothing wrong with that. The argument should never be stronger than the friendship. In the end, though, if the argument does get heated, the one who is right is the one who says “sorry” first. That person is the one who knows what is important.

It doesn’t really matter who was factually correct. That was in the past. Even a past that is 10 seconds ago is past, it’s gone and cannot be retrieved. It’s only a memory and somewhat blurred already. What matters now is what is important.  What is important is what leads to peace, that leads to freedom, and that leads to harmony. The one who is right is the one who asks for forgiveness first. That is an expression of love.

There is a great story from the life of St. Francis. Franciscan monks are very similar to Buddhist monks. They have no money and they beg for their food. One day a Franciscan monk was going on his alms rounds and he met a poor man.  He asked the man for food. The poor man said, “I can’t give you anything. I’m starving. Do you have anything to give me?”

The monk had nothing except his robe. So he took off his robe and gave it to the poor man. “Go and sell this in the market place. Then you can take the money and buy yourself some food.”

When the monk came back to the monastery he was naked. The other monks only saw this crazy naked man outside the wall. They told him to go away. They might have thrown in the equivalent to the modern “and get some professional help.” Finally one of the other monks recognized him. They let him in and asked why he was naked. They wondered if he was robbed. He told them what had happed.  The monks exclaimed that this was indeed a noble thing that he did.

Unfortunately, word got around. The monk was marked as easy pickings. So he came back to the monastery a few days later and he was naked again. This happened three or four times. Finally he was called to the Abbot’s office. The Abbot was quite upset. He very forcefully told the monk that he could never give his robes away again. People donated those robes for the use of the monks. “You can’t give these away. They are not your to give away. The supply was not unlimited. People were making a fool of him and the monastery as well.” The Abbot thought he should speak louder and more forcefully to make sure the overly generous monk got the message.

All during the scolding the monk just hung his head and listened. The Abbot finally dismissed the monk. The Abbot was sure that the monk got the message and was very pleased with himself at how well he handled the messaging. A few minutes later the monk returned with a bowl of soup. “What’s this for?” the Abbot asked. The monk simply said, “You were talking so much I was sure that your throat most be dry and that you are tired.”

This wasn’t said in sarcasm. It was said out of compassion. The monk never thought about himself. He thought only about the welfare of others. It didn’t matter who was right or who was wrong. All that mattered to the monk was the comfort and welfare of somebody else.

I’m a human being. You’re a human being. We see things differently but we can live together in peace and harmony. We live in harmony when we live from the heart and not the head.  We can ask for forgiveness even when we are really right and the other person was really wrong. That isn’t easy, but it can be done.

We have this wonderful teaching in Buddhism called karma (kamma).  The wordkarma comes with a lot of Hindu baggage, kamma not so much. If you are having problems with another person then you probably had it coming. How can you live with a husband or wife or neighbor like that? “Oh, it’s my karma.”  He said with a sigh. No matter what happens we can always blame our karma. Trouble is, that isn’t what the Buddha taught. It’s just a way of teaching about karma in the Buddhist community. The Buddha was sharper than most Buddhist teachers.

We really sometimes think that if my wife or neighbor abuses me it’s my karma. Well, if that is true than I had better say I’m sorry no matter what I am being scolded for. Then I am really being wrong if I am arguing. But kamma, what the Buddha taught, has more to do with how I habitually react to things like confrontation. If my kamma is to react with my ego, be offended, angry, afraid, self-defensive, then yes, that is my kamma’s fault. I am responding with my head and not my heart. I may as well be living three feet away from my body because I am not present. I’m in my head. I want to be right.

There is an interesting study. It comes out of the military, Marines I think. A number of recruits were in training at an interrogation school. They were each questioned for hours on a Tuesday.  The questioning was grueling, intimidating and often threatened violence. On Wednesday, the very next day, the interrogators were lined up in a police line up situation. The recruits were brought in one by one and asked who was it that interrogated them. Just 30 hours later their memories had failed. 70% could not recognize the person who had abused them for hours just the day before. Who did what, who said what, what did you do or say – none of these questions could be accurately answered, even after an intense encounter.

How can we be sure of what happened yesterday? How can we carry grudges? How can we say with any degree of accuracy that we were right and they were wrong? These answers to these questions all rely on memory. We as Buddhists are quite aware that memory is uncertain. The rest of the world is not so sure about that.

No one can ever think they are wrong. Is it even possible to think you are wrong? Even if you say you are wrong you are right. The best we can say is that we were wrong. Yesterday I was wrong. Today I am right about that.
One of the great things about the spiritual life is being able to make mistakes. You don’t always have to be right. Sure, I make mistakes. If we can learn to abandon our ego we can find a certain kind of freedom. That is the freedom to be fallible.

Because of the tremendous power of ego many will never know freedom. They have to be right and they cannot let go of that.

This is the psychology of how we make our views. We want to be right so much that we actually bend reality to fit our thoughts. We see what we want to see and we hear what we want to hear. How many times have you been talking to a person and suddenly you realize that they haven’t been listening? They really have been listening but only to the things they want to hear. It’s like when I talk to my cats all they want to hear is “love” and “treats”. Like us, they filter out the unimportant parts, the parts that don’t fit into their model of the universe. We bend and filter our perceptions so that anything we don’t want to hear does not come through into our consciousness. What we don’t want to see we won’t see. What we don’t want to hear we won’t hear.

This is where the word dogma comes from. This is where our religion and politics comes from. Like the Tea Party at Starbuck’s, if experience does not fit our views we tune it out. It doesn’t exist for us. We only want to know what we want to know. We form our views and opinions by starting off with a certain worldview and form our perceptions around that view filtering out everything else. If someone is a romantic optimist the world is beautiful and people are beautiful. When I perform marriages the shiny eyes, the wide smiles and the phrase “unconditional love” always strike me. For a couple of hours the world is a beautiful place.  Eventually reality and set in and each member of the happy couple will want to be right again. They will discover that the phrase “unconditional love” is an oxymoron.

Where do people go to fall in love? They don’t go to Buddhist Centers. Monks are terribly unromantic. They might go to a romantically candle lit café. They take long romantic walks in the moon light. They go to bars. People usually go to dark places to fall in love. These places usually serve alcohol. They tend to fall in love with people while in the dark and inebriated. They fall in love with people they would never have fallen in love with while sober in a well-lit room. But, having fallen in love they bend reality to fit their view that they could not have been wrong about the other person. People do it because it’s fantasy. They want to feel all warm and snuggly and “in love.”  They are willing to go along with the delusion. We concoct a new reality, seeing what we ant to see and hear what we want to hear.

Why is it that in the movies a young couple goes through 90 minutes of struggling with insurmountable odds only to fall in love and live happily ever after? (Let’s get a Tee and a Hee out of that.) That’s where they stop the movie, right at the happily ever after part. They hardly ever make a sequel with the diapers, money problems and arguments. We don’t want to see the sequel.

This is all wishful thinking, yes? If there was a religion that said you could pray yourself into happiness we’d go for it wouldn’t we? If I had a religion that promised that all you would have to do is chant the same words over and over again and you’d get the perfect partner or your current partner would be transformed into someone more to your liking or you’d become rich and beautiful, you might think about it. Too bad, that’s not Buddhism, that’s wishful thinking. It is that kind of thinking that causes us to make the facts of life fit into our view of what life should be like.

It’s sort of like going to the cemetery. People generally hate going to a cemetery or a funeral. Why is that? It’s denial. They don’t want to be reminded that they are going to die. “It’ll happen to my 97-year-old grandmother but it’s never going to happen to me.” This is the where the ego comes in. We are afraid of our impermanence and so avoid the death of others. Besides, it doesn’t fit into our worldview of how things are supposed to be. Life is supposed to be happy and we should live forever. That’s why we have the heaven and hell mythology. But then, guess what we do, we argue over who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. We want to avoid pain and suffering but don’t mind letting others experience it.

In Buddhism we tell it like it is. Your partner is going to get older, and probably smellier. You’re going to have arguments. You’re going to get sick. You’re eventually going to die. You might even wind up in hell. People will even disagree with you – a lot. There is nothing you can do about it. Sometimes you’ll be right and sometimes you’ll be wrong. It’s not the end if the world. That’s just the way it is. The point is that people don’t really want to believe the truth.

We have to careful and we ought to tell the truth. Religion should be the truth. Many religions feed into the wishful thinking and often avoid the truth or sugar coat it. It is truth not wishful thinking that leads to happiness and peace, the goal of Buddhism. Buddhism is about experience. That’s hat religion should deal with, human experience, not just thinking, not just reason but what it is that we are actually experiencing and thinking and reasoning all coming together.

There is a lot of peace coming from the knowledge that, yes, this is what marriage is like; this is what living is about; this is what my life is all about. There is a lot of peace that comes from being realistic about things. We are going to become old, we are going to be sick someday, and we are going to leave this world someday. And it always happens much sooner than we expect.

Would life be easier if we knew that on a certain date we were going to get sick? Would life be convenient if we knew the date and time of our death? The average man’s lifespan in America is about 72. Wow, I’m getting pretty close. I’m a lot closer now than I was 50 years ago. I only have a short time left. There are a few of you that are older than me. Think about that. How do I want to spend that remaining time? Do I really want to argue and try to impose my views on others? Do I really want other people subjected to my anger and biases?

Coming to terms with how life really is makes you more peaceful. It can make life more harmonious. It allows you to do the things that are really important instead of wasting your life on silly, temporary, unimportant things.

There’s a story of a young man who was a tremendously good athlete. He was a boxer. People who knew him had aspirations for him to be a champion someday. He had won almost every match he had ever been in since college. Suddenly he started losing. When asked what the problem was he simply told them that he realized that he didn’t have to win all the time. It was incredibly stressful for him to be the best all the time. He already knew that he would someday lose a fight and he didn’t want to live with that kind of pressure. He was really much happier and freer being himself rather than what people thought of as a champion. When he got rid of the pride of wanting to be a champion and living up to other peoples’ expectations he became much more peaceful and relaxed. He never became a champion but did become happy, with himself and with life.

How much of our lack of freedom comes from these views we have about ourselves and the way things are supposed to be? Who put these ideas into our head? It’s conditioning.

All girls want to be beautiful and all boys want to champions, heroes. I really feel for them. How much pressure is there on a girl to be pretty and popular? The pressure on being the best or the prettiest or the most liked is enormous. We do it to our kids all the time. It’s a condition we place on them. Many kids believe their own families won’t love them if they don’t adhere to this view of themselves. That is so unfair to them. It may or may not be true, but that is how they feel. Many feel they must live up to the expectations of other people, just as the boxer did.

Not all boys are capable of being champions. Only one boy can be the best and even then, not all the time. Sometimes there will be someone better.

Not all girls are pretty or popular. Look at all the stuff they have to put on their face and the clothes they feel they must wear. This past winter I saw young girls in their early teens walking around in shorts and mini-skirts during one of our famous Chicago blizzards. Why would they do that? It was the fashion. It was what was expected of them. I felt so sorry for these girls with their blue legs.

When you actually know how the mind works it’s all very simple. It’s conditioning that’s all. When conditioning works well it leads to peace and happiness. When conditioning doesn’t work well then you might buy a gun to protect yourself against the imaginary enemy next door. Or you might believe you have to convert someone to your view so you can go to heaven. The correct view of truth is a view that creates peace, harmony and freedom in the world.

For those of you who go to religious places, never trust anyone who wants to have more disciples and convert you to their view.  The people that run those places must be absolutely out of their minds. The more disciples you have the more late night phone calls you get from people who are experiencing problems or who want to commit suicide.

A religious leader ought to want to get rid of disciples. A good teacher is one who wants to get rid of you. It’s like school, the object of school is to graduate and get out. A good doctor is one who wants you to be healed so he doesn’t have to treat you any more. A good psychologist, analyst or therapist is one who wants to get rid of you by freeing you from your delusions. A good Dharma teacher is one who wants to liberate you from your wrong views so you’ll be at peace, happy and free. There is something wrong with a teacher who wants to grab you and keep you. There is something wrong with a view that entraps you and takes away your freedom.

I have seen many Dharma teachers who latch on to their students for dozens of years. They tell you not read anything except from their prescribed list. They tell you not to investigate other teachers or forms of Buddhism because of this or that reason. There is something wrong with that. Trust your instincts. You are being conditioned to lose your freedom, peace and happiness.

One of the reasons why some Dhamma or Dharma centers are successful is because no one is taking attendance. You don’t have to be there. No one is going to question you. Your liberation is up to you not to me or any one else. If you say you’re going to show up and then cancel two or three times in a row, that’s okay. Your showing up doesn’t help me. It helps you. You won’t be asked why you chose not to show up. Really, I won’t lay a tantric curse on you.

The force to show up comes from you. The force for you to believe what you want to believe also comes from you. The teacher helps in your conditioning, but the teacher is not the only cause. Your own conditioning, the condition you support or don’t support comes from you. You don’t have to buy into every thought that comes into your head.

So far I have said that the criteria for a spiritual teaching is that it must lead to peace, happiness and freedom. It should also stand up to the scrutiny of clear vision. By clear vision I mean that the teaching should take away your desires and fears, your wants and not wants.  This is not seeing only what you want to see; not denying what you want to deny. This is an act of courage and sometimes it means that you need encouragement to be truthful and honest with yourself, to be at peace with yourself and who you are in this life. This encouragement is nothing more than opening the door to the truth of this moment. Allowing things to be what they are, allowing you to be who you are, and allowing others just to be who they are without expectation.

This is a liberating and freeing truth. A love that attaches and holds, that is constricting comes from a place of clouded vision, of not seeing correctly. Can you really be in control of your life, the lives of others; your death and the loss of others?

These things catch us unawares. They sneak up on us. Nobody who is sane intends to get sick, intends to die, and intends their loved ones to die. The intention is always elsewhere. Yet, here is the beauty of life, if we accept the inevitability of these things it opens us up to the possibility of freedom, of peace, of happiness. Whenever we are sick we can use it to help us be more authentic and clear seeing human beings.

There is a saying, if you step into cow dung, take it home. Put it in your garden. Whenever you savor the flavor of the fruit of your garden remember the cow dung that made it possible. After all, what else can you expect a cow to do?

About Sensei Mui

Sensei Mui is a Buddhist monk who took formal refuge and bhikkhu ordination as a Theravada monk in Thailand during the early 1970s. Since those days he has both studied and was ordained in multiple Mahayana lineages. Today the main focus of his practice and teaching is from the Pure Land perspective. He currently acts as the Director and Administrator for Hongaku Jodo, an educational and practice oriented organization of Buddhist teachers of Dharma, pure and simple.
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