You might think that I am going to write about the political situation here in Wisconsin where (presumably) the “pro-life” Christians voted that we should reinstate the death penalty, while also “preserving” marriage by making sure that gay people cannot have the same legal rights as straight folks in regards to their partner. If you wanted to read something like that, I am sorry to disappoint you.
In my own life, I have been quick to throw around the “H-word” and I have more than once in the run up to this election. Even though I might live in a glass house, I was somewhat secure in using that word, because we in the West have a role model for this.
Now it is true that when Jesus referred to people as hypocrites, he was calling us each to examine ourselves, to remove the log from our own eye, as it were. But it is inescapable that a running theme of the Gospels is “Jesus vs. the Pharisees.” The Pharisees were, of course, a real group within Judiasm of the time, but as with any group not all of them would show the charicature of behavoir that the Gospel writers ascribe to them. But the “Pharisees” that Jesus has a problem with are a part of all of us. Those “Pharisees” go through the motions of religious observance, but their heart does not match those motions. They are “hypocrites” because their insides and outsides do not match, or even worse maybe polar opposites. In many ways, this is simply calling a spade a spade, or at least this is the way I have seen it throughout my life.
Then I heard Pema Chodron give a Buddhist perspective on this. And frankly, I was quite moved.
She was talking about a situation where some habit was getting in the way of your spiritual growth. In Buddhism, any habit (unthinking repetition of a behavior pattern, that is) keeps you from being fully awakened. So let us just say the habit is an addiction to chocolate, just to keep things simple. She pointed out that there are basically three positions you could take in regard to your chocolate habit once you decide that it is a hinderance to you and you need to stop.
The first might be called complete faith or even enlightenment. You stop. For whatever reason, you just know what to do and you do it. Your inside and outside match perfectly and at least in this small area, you have awakened. But not many of us fall into that category.
The next position she calls “half faith.” You know you should avoid chocolate, you know it is bad for you — but that smell. The anticipation of the sweet taste! Temptation! This, says the Buddha, is also the path to awakening. If you are mindful of your struggle — even if you sometimes fail — you will bring an awakened presence to your decision to avoid the sweet temptation. In fact, you might even say that starting from this position, even with its inevitable failures, leads to a “greater” awakening than the first instance, as you have been fully aware of both the temptation and the need for restraint. Most people would not refer to someone trying so hard to “do the right thing” as a “hypocrite,” but sometimes this person’s inside and outside might not match.
The third position is less than half faith. Sometimes much less. This is a person who can, say, intellectually agree with the position that chocolate is a hinderance, but is not going to make a serious effort to actually give it up. If they intellectualize to much — that is to say, if they shoot their mouth off too much about how bad chocolate is — but eats it anyway, we have ourselves a hypocrite. And the Buddha says, this too can be a path to enlightenment.
What? Saying one thing and doing another can be a path to enlightenment? Yes, if it is done with mindfulness (remember too, that we are talking chocolate here, not genocide or something). If you are going to eat the chocolate anyway, do it mindfully. Look at the circumstances that lead you to the craving. Look carefully at the results of your “slips.” See how it feels to say one thing and do another. You can actually look at all those things about yourself non-judgementally and non-moralistically. In really examining your habit, even as you succumb to it, you may find yourself awakening — and moving to the first position.
I can’t speak for him, but I think that if the Buddha was confronted with the Pharisees, he might say something like “Your desire to serve God is admirable, and your strength in carrying out the religious observances can serve you well. But do we not serve God by serving others, as Rabbi Hillel so eloquently pointed out? How do the laws and observances help us serve our people?”
Yes, Jesus was saying essentially the same thing. But you have to admit he set sort of a trap for us. In judging the Pharisees he tempts us to judge — and therefore be judged as well. It is a trap I have fallen into far too many times.