May 25, 2010

Buddha: “Our Enemies are our Greatest Teachers.”

Atisha and the Tea Boy; or, the People who get on your nerves help you wake up.

Don’t just listen to those you already agree with. Don’t just hang out with those who make you feel good.


This article was penned in 2010. Sadly, it’s all the more true, today.


Here’s a Spiritual Value for us:

The difficult Keep your Friends close, + your Enemies Closer Principle.

In an increasingly polarized partisan atmosphere, Agreeing to Disagree—with Respect is vital to our democracy.

These days, even bleeding-heart liberals are filled with hatred for the Palins and Rushes of the world.

This post is inspired by a little blog I put together today about the Harvard Business Review’s “The Dark Side of Social Media,” which discussed how Sarah Palin was adept at using the sound-bite, 140-character culture that social media embodies to insult and denigrate, not just build and inspire.

But a funny-thing happened on the way to the forum: I titled the article rather blandly: Sarah Palin: Mistress of Social Media, by way of discussing her prowess on Facebook and Twitter and discussing how technology, like any tool, can be used to unify and uplift, or divide and conquer.

On our Facebook Page, within an hour, there were 15 comments (there are now twice that) saying things like “I can’t stomach anything about that woman, not one word out of her ignorant way below average intelligence racist mouth….just sayin’!!! what!!?? Wait why is she on Elephant Journal ??? Nooooo! , say it ain’t so, I hate seeing her face…”


Which is understandable.

I, personally, am no fan of Sarah Palin’s—though I am a fan, literally, of her Facebook Page (it’s useful by way of keeping track of what she’s up to). I do regard her as a force to be reckoned with—a generally skilled manipulator of “the common man.”

The reaction to my blog reminded me that, more and more, it’s difficult for all of us (myself very much included) to listen to “the enemy.” Why, a few months back, I tried watching Fox for a few minutes—it was painful. I literally had to turn it off. It was like sitting down with Iago for a pleasant conversation about Othello and his lady—everything was subtly twisted, and venemous.

But in his recent Commencement speech in Michigan, President Barack Obama urged all of us, on both sides of the aisle, to stop listening to those we already agree with. To stop nodding and preaching to our own choirs. To mingle:

“If you’re someone who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in awhile,” he said. “If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post Web site.” Mr. Obama has followed his own advice, a White House spokesman said afterward, and tunes in to his critics on the cable television channels, particularly when he has time during travel on Air Force One.

“It may make your blood boil,” the president said. “Your mind may not often be changed. But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.” …for the rest, click over to the NY Times.

A few years back, I had the honor of interviewing then-Representative, now-Senator Mark Udall. I’ve always been inspired, as I was again that day, by his “agree to disagree” philosophy. He said, that said, “I can get much more done for my causes if I have a history of respect and working with my opponents. They’re good people. We can agree to disagree.” I’m paraphrasing—you can read the conversation here.

And that’s the kind of country I want to live in, and help protect, and see my future children grow up in and be inspired by. The more we mix and mingle and get to know one another, the harder it will be to hate one another. Hate is not a virtue. Respectful disagreement, on the other hand, I’m all for. And that’s how I feel about Gov. Palin.

Atisha, the great Indian Buddhist teacher who helped bring Dharma to Tibet, is the star of a famous story about the Enemy Principle.

He’d heard lots of good things about the Tibetans: how they were sweet, mild, gentle, peaceful. Since he was going there for a long time, traveling around teaching, he brought along a “tea boy” with a horrible, vicious, divisive personality.

Asked why, he replied that he needed some obstacles, some enemy, to work with. Otherwise his Dharma path might not progress, things might be too smooth and easy and tractionless. Our enemies are our greatest teachers, he said. They’re the ones who expose our lack of patience and compassion, and inspire us to work harder to become truly gentle warriors for peace. Again, I’m paraphrasing—story is here.

So, our enemies are our greatest teachers. I’ll try and watch a little Fox News. Climate Change deniers, try to go a week without calling Obama socialist?

It’s a deal.


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