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The Skeptical Buddhist: Skepticism or Cyniscm, and How to Love Your Warrior Friends

Hi.  I'm skeptical.  Of a lot of things.  I am highly skeptical of people who do yoga.  Dreadfully skeptical of anyone who calls her/himself a Buddhist.  Rabidly skeptical of anyone who does anything I do.  Probably skeptical of you.

Or, at least, I was.

This skepticism is wild.  It is extremely powerful, but very dangerous.  In my case, it leads me to reject people who I should embrace.

Or, at least, it did, until I figured out how to manage it.

I wanted to take the Bodhisattva Vow April 8th at IDP.  Then I came across the three guidelines you had to follow to take that vow.  One of them was to have taken the Refuge vow.

I didn't know what the Refuge vow was, but I was highly skeptical of the requirement to take this Vow.  My wild and ornery mind thought I didn't need to have my avowal sanctioned.  Either I meant what I said in a Vow or I didn't.  Whether I was with a million people or alone wouldn't make a shred of difference.

I wanted to challenge this requirement, but I had to prepare my offense.  I found an article online by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche describing the Refuge Vow at length.  There are three parts to this vow.  The first is to take refuge in the light of my own wisdom--I knew the wisdom discoverable while meditating alone, so this one was easy.  The second is to take refuge in the truth of what has been shared--I had found a lot of truth in Buddhist philosophy, so that was easy too.  The third is to take refuge in the people who are doing the same things as I--mediators and practitioners of Buddhist philosophy.

The third was nigh impossible for me.  You might recall that I said I was highly skeptical of Buddhists who are doing what I do.  I was thrust into contemplation--am I going to refuse this part of the vow?

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche describes the third part of the vow at length, but one particular phrase resonated with me during my first reading:  "Those who are in the sangha are warriors, because they are trying to overcome samsara."

Warriors.  They are warriors.

At that moment, I found myself face to face with my own solidified confusion.

That very day, my father, who has had to manage chronic pain for years, called.  In our previous conversation (a week ago), I had tactically screamed my head off at him because he was choosing methods of managing his pain that I saw (accurately) as dangerous and unhealthy.  I wanted to help him, and didn't know what else to do, so I thought screaming instructions at him would work.  After that conversation, I felt horrible, but I also felt like I was all out of options, and I could not talk to my father anymore.

So on the day I was contemplating the third part of the Refuge vow, the very first thing my father said to me was, "Bobby, I thought you were mad at me."  He said it very quickly, and moved swiftly on to something else, but I didn't miss his hurt and fear.  I didn't miss the harm I caused.  We didn't have time to discuss it, but Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche's characterization of warriors on a path resonated with me.  Usually I would see someone like my father as a failure, as weak, as lost, as confused, and would see his confusion as a character flaw.  I would then declaim it, concretize it, and denounce it, as if it were acceptable to see someone else as permanently and wholly flawed while I myself, free of confusion, was the one subject to the laws of impermanence and emptiness.

I stared into the distance as I listened to my father.  He didn't sound that different.  I was not wrong about his dangerous and unhealthy pain management.  His tactics for coping hadn't changed very much.  In the last conversation, I would have started criticizing him; but this time, in my mind, I kept repeating over and over, "He is a warrior.  He is a warrior.  He is a warrior.  He is a warrior."  As I did this, I was calmer.  Instead of screaming at him, I was listening to and looking for his inherent warrior wisdom.  He was already doing things that were wise, but I was not listening for them; instead I habitually looked for what was wrong.

Granted, my skepticism was right. My father was very confused.  He was (and is) doing very dangerous things.  That is one benefit of skepticism:  it helps you see the confusion of beings and philosophy.

Yet, it can also lead to creating more confusion.

You are a warrior.  You are standing on the front line of truth with me, and previously, I would have seen you as enemies.  That was absurd of me, but it was what it was.  Yet, don't we all have people we see as 'wrong,' as 'enemies,' as 'incorrect,' or 'foolish,' and who we see as permanently and inherently and frustratingly flawed?

In the few weeks since I've had this discovery, I've had to call people warriors a million times to avoid the habitual criticism and harshness that would arise.  It is amazingly foundation-shaking to see how often I've had to do this.  But, if it weren't for my skepticism, I wouldn't have realized that I had to do this, and this paradox ultimately led me to a conclusion.  In what way should a Buddhist approach skepticism?

A skeptical Buddhist searches for the truth amidst confusion, and, helps illuminate what is behind the confusion, what is struggling to get out, what is already and always present.  A skeptical Buddhist finds clearer ways of saying things that were said clearly; a skeptical Buddhist tests things that have some wisdom that he/she does not understand.  A skeptical Buddhist trusts the inherent goodness in all things and helps carry ideas and practices forward in a forgiving, yet ultimately precise way. 

This column "the Skeptical Buddhist" will be my embodiment of what it means to be skeptical in this manner.  I see it as vastly different from cynicism; in fact, as a polar opposite.  Skepticism can, and should be, revealing, helpful, energetic, and precise.  Cynicism is cruel, acts to close things off, sees things as permanently flawed, and promulgates confusion.

Thank you for reading, and welcome to the Skeptical Buddhist column.  I hope you'll join me in my practice of seeing the warrior within all of us, and using your powerful and wise mind to help reveal the truth that is inherently present in all beings.

See you in two weeks!

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Thank you.

Thanks Isaac for sharing your story. I am happy to have a friend to walk on a similar path with.

Thanks Nancy for your wisdom. I appreciate the time you took to share your knowledge.

May we all do what we can to help those we see and love.


I look forward to your future posts. Skepticism is a very important aspect in Buddhism -- the Buddha himself said don't believe anything just because I've said it to you; try it out for yourself and see if it's valid. that's one of the things that draws skeptics to Buddhism -- and something you did with your warrior response. very cool.

skepticism is sometimes described as a form of doubt. and the thing that I've found important in working with doubt is to keep asking questions, consider the answers, and ask more questions, not freeze into a position of "this is not for me."

metta for you and your dad. that's a very hard situation. he is a warrior, but it sounds like he's using some dangerous tactics in his battle.


Me too...

My father has been an esoteric Instructor in a sect for many years, and I felt very frustrated every time he or his wife doesn't whants to listen to my point of view when I don't agree with their sect believes. At some point, I noticed that I was dealing with this issue in a wrong way, but still couldn't find how to deal with it in a better way.

Thank's, your sincere efford opened me a new perspective, I wish you the best.

Greetings from Mexico. (Sorry for my broken english)


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