Vikshepa

Mental Distractions

15 Sep 2019

Regarding Stallman

I once went to a Buddhist meditation workshop where the teacher pointed out that if we were there in the room, it meant that we had not attained perfection, and that we still had something to learn. It’s also true that if we still believe ourselves to be here on the planet, living a separate existence, we have something to learn. And what we have to learn is basically that there is an underlying unity upon which everything depends. Our world is an illusion because our perception is false. It is false because it fails to include awareness of the unseen unity that gives life to all that we see. Including ourselves. There are many ways to express this truth, and none of them are going to do it very well, because we are attempting to express the inexpressible. When we do so, contradictions emerge – a Buddhist will say this in a certain way; an Adwaita Vedantin will say it in another way, a shaman in a third way, and to our minds they seem to be contradicting one another. When it comes down to words, there are always going to be contradictions. Words are a vehicle for our thoughts, and thought cannot capture the reality that underlies the thinker and her thoughts.

At one and the same time we are imperfect beings caught in an imperfect, illusory world and we are also perfect, because that upon which we and our world depends is perfect and indivisible. Our world is going to be populated by imperfect beings for the same reason that we ourselves are imperfect. We look at others and separate them in multiple ways. We check whether they belong to our group, whether we can trust them, whether we should admire or shun them, whether we can get something from them like knowledge, money, sanction, sexual gratification, whatever.

Somewhere among these divisions we place an Epstein or an Einstein, a Polanski or a Stallman. We decide whether, on the basis of their deeds and statements, we approve of them. Our approval rating depends on ever-changing standards. Behavior that was permissible a few years ago may not be permissible now. Some behavior was never considered permissible, true. Sometimes we can acknowledge that a person has been a great artist or programmer or teacher, but that their behavior has been reprehensible in other ways.

It is better not to elevate any person to a place that is beyond reproach. In so far as they walk the earth they carry its imperfections. At the same time, no one deserves to be demonized, because they simultaneously embody perfection. Behavior can be angelic or demonic; and can be lauded or castigated. Human beings can be vehicles for both, but not consistently. There are no demons or saints in human form, and everyone is a mixture of traits.

Because we too are not perfect, we should neither demonize nor sanctify persons. We can aspire to and praise good behaviors, and should do so, even if we sometimes fall down from them. We should call out bad action when we see it.

Stallman is not just a good programmer, but is also a clear voice drawing attention to many kinds of injustice. Most of us can only wish for his earnest vigilance in doing so. I hope he will continue to write his political notes, and will continue to read them even with the knowledge that his own behavior* is not above reproach.

*I should have written “and statements” or something similar, because the recent controversy was not about what he did, but what he said. I have previously heard criticism of his own behavior, though nothing authoritative. Anyway, in terms of behavior, he has now resigned from MIT and the Free Software Foundation. The latter say that they “welcome the decision.”

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