No. 8, August, 2019
Lessons from a Master Spy

Today's newsletter was prompted by the events over the weekend. One often feels helpless in the face of such tragedy, but I've come to be suspicious of that feeling. It is just not true. We can all do something. Hence, this piece today.

The article comes from practices that mean a great deal to me personally and from readings that have affected me more than a little. I apologize for its length, but I find myself returning again and again to the paragraph on which the article is based. I feel that I have really only scratched its surface, but my hope and wish is that you find this paragraph as helpful and full of wisdom as I do.

On another note, the Spanish edition of Reflections on Silver River is now available. Right now, the only way to get copies is to order them through me. The cost is US$19.95. If you are ordering 10 or more copies, you will receive a 40% discount. It will be available on Amazon and other online sites, but I'm not sure when. If you are a bookstore, you can order directly from Ingram. The title in Spanish is Reflejos en el Río Plata:: las treinta y siete prácticas de un bodhisattva de Tokmé Zongpo.


Practice Tip: Compassion as a basis for life
two women crying
If you are not part of the solution,
you are part of the problem.
—Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice

I read these words when I was 20, and they have always stayed with me. In the current cultural environment I encounter polarization in one form or another no matter where I turn. This is a problem to which I do not want to contribute, but what is the solution?

I have come to the conclusion that the only way that I can be part of the solution is to stay in touch with the practice of compassion. Not the well-meaning but questionable compassion of pity, or the self-serving compassion of those who seek to feel better about themselves by cultivating a practice of compassion, or the materialistic compassion of those who aim to “do well by doing good.” No, I mean the kind of compassion that sees clearly what is happening yet does not contract into self-protection, the kind of compassion that sees through the cultural projections that hide inconvenient truths or unpleasant ironies, and the kind of compassion that understands that it is not so much about making a perfect or even a better world but about being able to be present in the pain and suffering of the world, the conflicts that produce them, and the tensions that produce the conflicts, and seeing what can evolve from there. 

Many years ago, I came across a paragraph in one of Le Carré’s novels. It is part of a speech given by his principal character George Smiley on the occasion of Smiley's retirement from the British Secret Service. Smiley is a master spy in the middle of the Cold War, the ideological battle between communism and capitalism that occupied much of the 20th century.

I have quoted this passage more than a few times, in particular in the compassion section of Wake Up To Your Life . Up to now, I have let it speak for itself, but today, I want to comment on it because there are more than a few ideas here that are relevant to the times we are in, and, from a practice perspective, relevant to how we relate to them.

I only ever cared about the man. I never gave a fig for the ideologies, unless they were mad or evil. I never saw institutions as being worthy of their parts, or policies as much other than excuses for not feeling. I believe that almost any political system operated with humanity can work. And the most benign of systems without humanity is vile. The trick I suppose is to find the system that gives the least leeway to the rogues. The guarantee of our virtue is our compassion. And if you allow this institution, or any other, to steal your compassion away, wait, and see what you become. The man is everything. And if your calling is anything, you will always prefer him to the collective because the collective is humanity's lowest and the collective is most often spoken for by people who are nothing without it.

I only ever cared about the man. 

Compassion is not about groups or identities. It is about individuals, about actual people. Smiley has more to say on this later, but this first point is important. For many purposes, it is convenient to talk about people belonging to different groups, but we all too easily forget that these groups are composed of individuals and treat everyone in such and such a group as being the same. People lose their individuality when they are regarded as belonging to a group, and we become unable to see their individual and particular characteristics and circumstances. Stalin acknowledged this with his singular bluntness when he said, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

All of us, from the time we are born, belong to many different groups, family, school, team, profession, country, economic or social class, etc. As we live our lives, we let go of some affiliations and take on others. We move from one group to another. Some we are part of all our lives, but even then, our relationship with that group usually changes. None, not one, of those groups define who or what we are, and we limit ourselves when we say, “I am this,” whatever “this” may be. Smiley’s point here, and the point of Buddhist practice, and, in particular, the bodhisattva vow, is to see people as people first, not as members of this or that group. The moment we dismiss a person because he or she belongs to a certain group, we undermine, if not violate, both our commitment to compassion and our own intention to be awake and present in life.

I never gave a fig for the ideologies...

Groups form for a reason. They share a common perspective, need or aspiration. All too often that common ground becomes a belief system and members of the group have to conform to it or, suddenly, they do not belong to the group and lose its protection and support. This is one way ideologies are born. Ideologies are systems of belief, usually created for specific purposes (and not always the well-being of the group). Here Smiley says in effect that these systems of belief get in the way of understanding and seeing the difficulties, the pain and the suffering of individuals.

Historically, Buddhism takes the same position as Smiley: it doesn’t give a fig for the ideologies. For instance, in the Separation from the Four Attachments (Wake Up to Your Life, pg. 446), Manjushri (the bodhisattva of awakened intelligence) says to Sakya Pandita, “If you are attached to a position, you do not see clearly.” Granted, this is usually understood in a mystical context, but mystical truths often embody deep wisdom when considered judiciously in cultural or social contexts.

U Thant, the second secretary general of the United Nations exemplifies what is means to be a world leader and a practicing Buddhist. A skilled diplomat, he was widely respected for his ability to create settings in which people with deeply conflicting views could actually talk with each other. He did this by not giving a fig for the ideologies, but by focusing on the individuals instead. There is something deep to be learned here.

...unless they are mad or evil

This phrase speaks for itself. There is simply no justification or rationalization for any system of belief that is based in insanity or intentionally creates pain and suffering. I find it quite bewildering, for instance, that the writings of Marquis de Sade have had as much influence in the West as they have had. I cannot imagine a comparable figure in Eastern culture having such influence. Equally, the ideology of continuous revolution was effectively discredited as madness for all time by the horrors visited upon countless individuals during the Cultural Revolution in China. 

I never saw institutions as being worthy of their parts…

We live in a society in which institutions are necessary. Without organizations, we could not deliver the necessities of life to the thousands or millions of people that comprise the populations of virtually every country in the world today. That being said, it is the nature of institutions to dehumanize people. They have to because they are dealing with large numbers of people, and to do so, they have to identify the characteristics of the population which they are going to serve (by providing either goods or services). Differences and variations are averaged out. The particulars of individual circumstances cannot be taken into account. If you are too far outside the bell-curve distribution, you are out of luck.

In my view, the current emphasis on leadership is little more than a distraction from a key question in our times: how do we live in a society comprised of organizations and still retain our humanity? When you are engaged in practice, you will inevitably come to a point where you see through the illusions that provide the cohesion, the social glue, for any organization or group. At that point you face a deep question of identity: Who am I? As is typical of Buddhist instruction, why stop there? Why not take the next step and ask: What am I?

The answer is a deafening and paralyzing silence that sends us straight back to the conceptual mind before we have even registered the silence. With practice, the practice of returning to that silence, we can build the ability to stand at the edge of that abyss, and then we might begin to see. When we see that we are in fact nothing, everything changes. In particular, when we see that we are nothing, we also see that all institutions are nothing in and of themselves. That is an important understanding.

or policies as much other than excuses for not feeling.

Not only do institutions dehumanize those they serve, they dehumanize the people who provide those services or make the goods, because they, too, have to learn to see people as objects, not individuals. All of us know this, particularly when we are dealing with insurance companies, cable networks, government services or any other large organization. Equally, it’s a wonderful breath of fresh air when we come across an individual in those organizations who makes an effort to treat us as a human being. We feel the difference right away.

Thus, one of the implications of compassion is that we see people as people first, and members of collectives second, no matter how inconvenient that may be in our lives. Here is where I have found the four immeasurables essential. When you cultivate equanimity, loving kindness, compassion and joy, you will find it virtually impossible to see people as objects. You may also find it impossible to work in a setting that requires you to apply or enforce certain policies, but that is one of the costs of practice. 

Here, also, is where the practice of taking and sending is so important. In taking and sending, we take in not only the pain and suffering others experience, we take in their whole world view, the way they think and feel, the way they understand the world, and how they react to what they see and hear. This requires an active imagination on our part, and the willingness to open, understand and experience behaviors and ideas that may be completely contrary to our own values. In the process, we will come to the understanding that, whatever our values, the way others experience pain and suffering is exactly the same as the way we experience pain and suffering.

When we send our own joy and well-being, we have to do the same. What would it take for them to experience joy and well-being? How can we send that to them? Again, a creative imagination is called for, and through that creative process, we come to understand that they experience joy and well-being in exactly the same way that we experience joy and well-being. We are not different.

In short, taking and sending, at least for me, brings me in touch with the essential humanity in each of us in a way that I feel viscerally and cannot ignore for the sake of policies, systems or structures.

I believe that almost any political system operated with humanity can work.

Smiley is saying that the system doesn’t matter. What matters is how it operates and, in the end, is up to the people that work in the system. Needless to say, if institutions large and small were to operate this way, they would be less efficient and less profitable, but perhaps we could live with that if the result was that they were more responsive to each and everyone’s needs. The problem is that whenever you have a less efficient system, someone comes along with a way to improve efficiency, but usually at the price of flexibility. When you have a system that is less profitable than it could be, then someone comes along with an idea about how to increase profits.

Our responsibility, then, is to use our practice and understanding to operate whatever systems we find ourselves in for the benefit of actual people, not just ourselves. In other words, to live our practice of compassion, and do so as skillfully as possible. 

The trick I suppose is to find the system that gives the least leeway to the rogues. 

The least leeway to the rogues. What a great way to think about designing a system! Communism, as.a system, has shown that it provides too much leeway to the rogues. It is extremely susceptible to domination by a small dictatorial group who, with remarkable consistency, visits death and misery on much of the population. Fascism is not any better because it gives rise to systems that are largely composed of rogues. Smiley is being realistic and acknowledging that no system will be perfect. But the aim is clear: give as little leeway as possible to the rogues—those who would disrupt or exploit the system for their own benefit.

For instance, Western democracies have demonstrated that one of the best methods to counteract corruption is to create an independent judiciary, a judiciary that consists of people with proven legal acumen who are appointed for life and come from different segments of society. They are not chosen for their political persuasion (as in communism or fascism) or loyalty to a particular individual (as in dictatorships). Here is where diversity is important, not simply racial, ethnic or gender diversity, but philosophical, ideological, and economic diversity as well. Why do I pick the example of the judiciary? Because justice is the social expression of compassion in the same way that courtesy is the social expression of loving kindness.

The guarantee of our virtue is our compassion. And if you allow this institution, or any other, to steal your compassion away, wait, and see what you become.

Without compassion, we are not human. I find the same thought expressed in much of David Graeber’s writings (Debt: the first 5000 years). Older cultures were based in gift-giving, not in trade. They regarded any form of trade as theft, because in trade you are concerned about your own welfare, rather than the welfare of others, or of the community.

Buddhism says it differently. Again, from Separating from the Four Attachments , “If you are concerned with your own welfare, you won’t experience awakening.” One of the questions I’ve asked people about their careers again and again is, “Does your job allow you to be human?” Jobs that actually enable you to be human are quite rare, but what is the point in taking a job that doesn’t even allow you to be human? The price, in my opinion, is too high.

The man is everything. And if your calling is anything, you will always prefer him to the collective…

To put it another way, awareness resides in the individual, not in any institution, organization or other form of collective. The mindful organization, the mindful society, the courageous organization, the compassionate organization, these are all fictions, phantoms of the imagination designed to seduce people into substituting an organization’s agenda for their own sense of right and wrong. Instead of trying to build the perfect world according to this or that ideology, put your attention in how you live and interact with others in each moment of the day.

One of the best places to start is with how you speak. Train yourself to take a breath before you say anything, When you do this, you will never interrupt another person. And listen to your voice when you talk as if you were listening to another person. You will hear all the exaggerations, distortions, the moments that an edge creeps into your voice, or when you are just blathering. It’s a little uncomfortable at first, but it will make a difference in how you speak.

Above all, this practice will make it impossible for you to engage in meaningless or misleading conversation. It will force you to engage fully with the person or people with whom you are speaking.

because the collective is humanity's lowest...  

People in large groups tend not to behave as humans but as animals. We are animals. We live and die. We need food and shelter. Our most basic drives, be they reproduction, defense, or social organization and hierarchy greatly precede the beginning of human beings. They are found in most animal societies, and even in plants and trees. They are the product of millions of years of evolution and we will not easily free ourselves from their grasp.

Our animal nature tends to come out when we gather in large numbers—when we cease to be human individuals. When people in large groups do maintain their humanity, they can exert tremendous power for good, and we have seen examples of that in recent times. But large crowds easily turn into mobs, the humans acting and behaving as an unthinking collective. Forget about leadership skills. The genius of many supposedly great leaders lies largely in their effective use of methods that channel collective behavior into those animal instincts. This is what Machiavelli wrote about and why he was so threatening to both kings and the church.

Because we are social animals, it is difficult for anyone to maintain their presence and awareness in large groups. Thus, in your practice, do not seek the great teachers with throngs of the faithful, but search out capable if little known teachers with whom you can meet in person and really learn what you aspire to know.
and the collective is most often spoken for by people who are nothing without it.

When I hear people talking about “We this” and “We that” I always want to ask, “Who is this we?” I came up against this way of speaking over and over again in my corporate consulting. As a consultant, however, I was often able to ask “Who is this we you are talking about?” The question was not always appreciated and the results were often interesting. Usually, the person using the pronoun “we” had assumed a level of cohesion and agreement that just wasn’t there. Once that was exposed, he or she realized that they had to do a lot more work to build real agreement.

The use of “we” is used often used to avoid doing the hard work of building real consensus and agreement. I’ve also noticed that those who use “we” feel that they are speaking for the whole group when, in fact, I know that they aren’t.

Finally, I have noticed that whenever I am thinking or speaking in terms of collectives, I am often doing so in order to avoid inconvenient cases, gloss over what I would like to regard as minor differences, and, above all, persuade others of my position.

Here is where the practice I mentioned earlier, about listening to your own voice as if you were listening to another person, is very effective. You hear the “we” and you hear the doubt or stridency behind it.


Compassion has been one of the pillars of my training and practice, and I’m deeply grateful to my teachers who, not always gently, made sure that I took its importance to heart. Among the many practices that develop compassion, easily the most important for me has been Mahayana Mind Training, and taking and sending (tong-ten) in particular. In addition, one needs a goodly collection of supporting practices, everything from basic attention in how you live to all of the four immeasurables to insight practice and the questions that lead you to understand that you have no fixed identity.

I don’t know what the right or the best combination of practices is for you, of course, but this I can say. Compassion is probably the most reliable way to move from being part of the problem of polarization in today's world, however unwittingly, to being part of the solution. Take George Smiley’s (or Le Carré’s) words to heart, and find a way to uncover the compassion that is your human heritage. It is there, in your heart, waiting for you.
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