Letters to the Editor Fall 2003

Of Like Mind
As a senior member of the Lotus Flower Sangha, I’ve heard many interpretations of uncontrollable mind chatter. After reading Wes Nisker’s “A Mind with a Mind of Its Own” [Summer 2003], I was compelled to share it with my fellow sangha members, especially the new students. Very well done, Mr. Nisker. Your story is one that we’ve all experienced, in one way or another. And I’m sure that your words will help to create a level of understanding for many who read them.

I close in haiku:

Once more I have vowed
to quiet this busy mind
again and again

—Juan Ando Rogers, Stormville, New York

Specious Speciesism
I admire Joe Franke’s courage in trying to unravel a perceived imbalance in nature [“The Appetite of Birds: The Challenge of Nonkilling,” Summer 2003]. He writes, “I will freely admit to assigning greater value to the native, the rare, and the endemic when there is a competing claim to existence with an introduced organism.” His note that the Buddha was perfectly clear about nonkilling being applied to human beings leads me to smell speciesism on the part of Mr. Franke in favor of his own kind.

His article suggests that the introduction of nonnative species is bound to lead to imbalance. Trying to restore balance through destructive means—killing—is a symptom of the mind’s loss of equilibrium, of no longer accepting what is present.

Presented with the dharma, with nature as it is, the way of things is to arise and pass away. Human beings interfere enough already with the planet, to ill effect. We have a great deal to learn by being in nature, by letting go the reins of control to observe the dharma as it is. Joe Franke’s practice is an interesting but devastating interference.

—Anthony Stapleton, London, United Kingdom

Joe Franke Responds
Mr. Stapleton points to one of the great dynamic tensions within Buddhism: the appropriateness of engagement. It may be the case that he is confusing engagement with causing “devastating interference.”

It’s clear that the Buddha made distinctions between humans and other species, with regard to our evolutionary status (in a dharmic sense). We are capable of understanding and practicing the dharma, with the achievable goal of eventual cessation of the suffering associated with a samsaric existence. We therefore have the ability to choose how we conduct ourselves, and are at this point the ultimate arbiters of the survival of most of the life forms presently existing on this planet. My point is that how we make our choices in the context of the present ecological crisis presents a major challenge within Buddhism, particularly if we are to think of Buddhism as being fundamentally “green” in orientation.

I must strongly disagree with Mr. Stapleton’s contention that the piece somehow reflects my “speciesist” worldview. On the contrary, my primary concerns lie not with single species, but with metaorganismic entities such as biological communities, viewed in their wholeness. True, in this context, we make choices about the fates of individuals of certain species that make up a part of that whole, but with an eye toward ecological integrity, and changes that maintain that integrity. This is a goal that simply can’t be accomplished without ensuring the survival of each individual species.

As far as choosing whether or not to “interfere with the planet,” we’re clearly way beyond the point where such a discussion is relevant. Plainly, we have interfered to the point where we must expand our involvement in order for the earth to heal and to continue to sustain its ecological integrity. It is incumbent upon us to come to grips with the ecological havoc presently arising. To choose not to act under such circumstances would be vastly more symptomatic of disequilibrium of mind, and not—as Mr. Stapleton contends—of passively accepting things as they are.

A Positive Psychology
I found Daniel Goleman’s article “Taming Destructive Emotions” [Spring 2003] interesting, but I am left with some questions and comments. I do not think that the line can always be so neatly drawn between “destructive” and “positive” emotions. The judgment is quite subjective and dependent on the specifics of a situation. Miriam Greenspan’s recent book Healing Through the Dark Emotions explores the purposes of these emotions and shows that there are ways of relating to them that can produce great wisdom, as is recognized in some Buddhist teachings.

It seems to me that Mr. Goleman jumps to the conclusion that the ability to detect microexpressions will lead to compassion. The Secret Servce agents who he says are best at this skill are not, to my knowledge, renowned for being compassionate or even empathetic. Perhaps it’s worth exploring why some people observe accurately and then feel compassion, while others don’t.

Mr. Goleman states that only in the past five years have people started to think about a positive psychology. While I fully appreciate the novelty of the work Mr. Goleman discusses in his article, those of us in psychology are impoverished if we ignore our dependency on our heritage and the efforts of others.

—Kate Wylie, Somerville, Massachusetts

Daniel Goleman Responds
Kate Wylie’s points are well taken. As is more clear in my book Destructive Emotions, no emotion is in itself “destructive”—rather, it is the actions we are led to that might make it so. Compassion—feeling with another person, and so feeling for them—requires empathy, but empathy alone does not guarantee compassion. And while pioneers have explored “positive psychology” for years, it has reached the mainstream only recently.

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