Paticcasamuppada and How Failure Can Be Liberating
Tricycle editor-at-large Andrew Cooper recently recounted events from the 1980’s, when he accompanied Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) on his first speaking tour of the U.S. Earlier in Thay’s tour, he gave a well-received talk at the Reverence for Life Conference in New York City:
At the heart of his talk, however, was a well-known passage from the Pali canon:
“When this is, that is.
This arising, that arises.
When this is not, that is not.
This ceasing, that ceases.”
… This is the most succinct formulation of the Buddhist teaching of paticcasamuppada, or dependent origination, one of Buddhism’s core ideas. Starting with this most simple of expressions—When this is, that is—Thay explicated dependent origination as a vision of radical interdependence, or what he called “interbeing,” in which all beings support and are in turn supported by all other beings. This elaboration of paticcasamuppada encompassed the foundation, the practice, and the fulfillment of spiritual life.
But the culmination of Thay’s U.S. tour was a weeklong visit to the SF Zen Center, which at that time was headed by Suzuki Roshi’s controversial successor Richard Baker. The visit started with a much-anticipated conversation between Thay and fellow peace activist Daniel Ellsberg. Things didn’t go exactly as planned! To make things worse, a film crew was there to document the event:
The discussion was being filmed in the front room of the Zen Center Guest House—the very room I’d dreamed about the night before. The room was packed with film equipment, electrical wires, and maybe thirty people, who filled in every inch of space that was left. In the center of the room, Daniel Ellsberg sat stage right, the Macys were in the middle, and Thich Nhat Hanh completed the arc. Thay got the ball rolling.
“I want to ask Daniel Ellsberg: Why does the American peace movement have no compassion?” That’s what he said. He might have said it a little differently; he might have said a little more; but that was pretty much the crux of it.
My guess is that no one there, except me and maybe Ellsberg, knew what this was about. But everyone recognized the peculiar note that had been struck. I just cringed: Oh no. Oh no. This is not what I meant. This is not what I meant at all. A knot began to form in the pit of my stomach.
I hoped that Ellsberg would find a way past this. Not that it would be easy. He had just been blindsided, targeted unfairly with one of those questions one can’t possibly answer because the premise itself is so askew. But if anyone knew how to think on his feet, it was Daniel Ellsberg. Maybe he could set this thing aright.
What happened next, however, couldn’t have been worse: Ellsberg took Thay’s question personally and responded defensively. He answered the unfortunate challenge with a few of his own, in particular, he challenged Thay’s passing judgment on who was and who was not compassionate. From there, the nastiness and absurdity just accelerated. Here they were, two great and good men, arguing like kids on the playground, about compassion—who had it, who had the right to talk about it, who really understood what it was. It was their pain talking, and neither seemed able to see it or admit it or get a handle on it.
Every so often, Fran or Joanna would jump in to try to change the subject, but Ellsberg and Thay weren’t about to fall for that. They were Ali and Frazier, LaMotta and Robinson, just waiting between rounds for the bell so they could get back to pummeling each other. There was no stopping them; they were going to go the distance.
Finally, and mercifully, it was over, and there followed another cinematic moment, but one very different from what had followed Thay’s talk at Reverence for Life. This was like the audience response to the performance of the jaw-droppingly awful musical number “Springtime for Hitler” (“We’re marching to a faster pace/Look out, here comes the master race!”) in the play within Mel Brooks’s movie The Producers: stunned silence and disbelief.
Soon people began slowly to file out of the room, but in a kind of daze, much like they were walking away from a pileup on the interstate. Joanna approached me and in a shaky voice asked, “What about paticcasamuppada?” It’s not often one gets to be part of an unqualified and incomprehensible debacle.
Needless to say, I was feeling just horrible about my role in the whole thing. I had pushed the event through, and I had suggested the starting topic, and while it was true that I had no control over the turn the discussion had taken, there was no getting away from the fact that my judgment had been just abysmal. But oddly enough, I also felt a sense of relief. For while that part of myself represented by those upright Buddhist priests was glaring down at me more harshly than ever, that davening Jew had hitched up his pants and stepped out of his corner and was ready for action. One must, after all, move ahead from where one is, not where one would like to be.
Everybody, even the best of us, will sometimes behave ingloriously, and to think otherwise is to be hemmed in by vanity. As sad sinners wandering through samsara, one of the few things we can count on is that we are on occasion going to screw up miserably. For those of us who are exceptionally reliable in this regard, it is nothing less than a saving grace, is it not, that in our guise as bodhisattvas, falling down on the job is the biggest part of the job, and sometimes, somehow, failure, if allowed to do its work, can actually be surprisingly emancipatory. It can even help make us whole. We have to try to be better—wiser, kinder, more generous—people, but mostly there’s no getting away from our embarrassing, maddening, harebrained selves.