The Disobedience Sutra, the Duty Sutra, and in the End, a Sutra of Interdependence

The Disobedience Sutra, the Duty Sutra, and in the End, a Sutra of Interdependence May 30, 2021



The Disobedience Sutra, the Duty Sutra, and in the End, a Sutra of Interdependence

James Ishmael Ford


I’m quite fond of the science fiction cartoon series, Futurama. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it follows the adventures of a late twentieth century Pizza delivery man accidentally frozen and then revived in the thirty-first century. One of the principal characters is a robot, as Wikipedia tells us, “foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking, cigar-smoking, kleptomaniacal, misanthropic, egocentric,” and “ill-tempered.” In other words, pretty much everyone’s brother-in-law or cousin.

There’s a scene where the main characters are threatened with imminent death. The robot immediate grabs a couple of his human friends and holds them in front of his body, in order to buy himself a nanosecond or two, more of life. For some of us there is nothing for which we will die. And we will do anything within our power to extend our life to the bitterest of ends. Even measured in nanoseconds. Even at terrible cost to others.

There is that.

But, for most of us, life is rather more complicated. And most of us perhaps even feel there are things more important than living that nanosecond longer.

This is Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day in the United States is a time set aside to honor those who have died while serving in America’s armed forces. For many of us it is a time rife with emotion. Some of us have lost family or other loved ones to wars. Others among us, especially within our liberal tradition, are particularly conscious of the terrible costs of war. And how usually they’re pretty hard to justify. And, so, find this a most difficult and complicated civic holiday.

So, there is that.

In this complexity, all of us, I hope, at least for a moment, find ourselves invited to some reflection. These reflections can touch on many things. War and peace, obviously. But also, responsibility. Honor. Duty. The good. The higher good. Principals. Ideals. Love. Those thigns that cluster when we think of what might be more important than life. And with that a flood of questions. To whom do we owe what? Is there anything for which we lay down our lives?

Most of my life I’ve been haunted by E. M. Forster’s line about if he “had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” Okay. And what about those who chose, sometimes freely, most times in some conflicted way, to die for that country? Or, that idea? Or, really, even that friend?

Betrayal is something worth thinking about. Certain recent events come to mind. But let’s cut to the chase. For what are we willing to die? And with that, because it cannot be separated from death, for what are we willing to live?

On this day, on this weekend, perhaps worthy questions?

I’m a big fan of Henry David Thoreau. Today I find my heart wandering back to his essay “On Civil Disobedience.”

If it’s been a while since you read it, Thoreau opens his essay with a romantic vision of an anarchic utopia, something that rings well with our contemporary libertarians. While it is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the famous line “that government is best which governs least” comes straight out of this essay. Thoreau is wary even of democracy, and he warns against majoritarianism. He constantly calls for the primacy of individual conscience against the weight of various majorities.

At bottom, however, Thoreau was deeply concerned with something he called higher truths. Elsewhere, in Walden, he attempts to touch on those higher truths, or higher laws, which he found from a minute examination of the natural world. It didn’t lead him toward some red in tooth and claw survival of the fittest perspective. Rather he felt called toward something that probably demands languages of reverence. And it takes shape in conscience.

What gives Civil Disobedience its power is not his superficial libertarianism, but rather his call to some profound moral vision.

He challenged the duty of submission to civil government specifically when it offended the moral sense, asserting instead if submission to the rule of law means “…you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.” He held up slavery and the Mexican war as examples of an evil which anyone with a conscience needed to object to, and to refuse to support such things even tacitly, even if that meant prison.

Or, and it isn’t a reach, even if it meant death.

So, it wasn’t a question of one’s whims, or appetites as an individual. The libertarian thing. They count. But never alone. Rather it is all about a web of relationships with those two centers. The individual. And the community. Or, using contemporary Unitarian Universalist imagery, the preciousness of the individual and the interdependent web, both. Conscience is that place where these two centers meet.

Toward the end of his essay Thoreau points to the source of conscience, when he wrote, “They who know of no purer source of truth, who have traced up its stream no higher, stand, and wisely stand, by the Bible and the Constitution, and drink at it there with reverence and humility; but they who behold where it comes trickling into this lake or that pool, gird up their loins once more, and continue their pilgrimage toward its fountain-head.” These are on their way to the source of conscience.

I think about that source beyond Bible and constitution, and what it might mean, a lot.

I wrote a sermon about Thoreau’s essay once, which I titled “The Disobedience Sutra.” It’s one of those things that has come to have a small life of its own, and its been republished at various places. I’m pretty sure our crowd understands “disobedience.” In the moment, it’s the term “sutra” that I want to hold up. Sutra is the term for spiritual texts across the Indian subcontinent, used by Hindus and Jains and Buddhists. Why we should think of Thoreau’s essay, as a sutra is that the word shares the same Indo-European roots with sew and suture. Sutra is most commonly translated as thread. Thread as in what binds us together. It echoes another image in the Zen tradition, the crimson thread, or, crimson ribbon, the thread of life itself. It’ that ribbon which runs through us and time and space, and which connects each individual with that mystery we hesitatingly call the interdependent web.

I think Thoreau’s conscience has something to do with that thread. A ribbon that runs through our liberal spiritual traditions. Where I didn’t go, at least not directly, when I thought about “Civil Disobedience” as a Sutra of sorts, was how Thoreau, himself, had another text which he dug into deeply. And which I think informed him profoundly. Another sutra. And I think could be useful for us to note it as well. I believe it pairs well with the essay Civil Disobedience.

In the early and middle parts of the Nineteenth century Eastern spiritual texts began to become available in English versions. Some have observed Thoreau’s line about the best government governing least is pretty much a paraphrase of one of those texts. It’s basically the 17th verse of the Tao De Ching. And the Tao does hang in the background.

But I’m thinking of another. For Thoreau and, maybe for us, it’s the Bhagavad Gita. It doesn’t take a lot to see how the Gita pops up all over the place in Thoreau’s thinking. Actually, the Gita is all over the thoughts of the Transcendentalists, writ large.

I love pointing out Ralph Waldo Emerson’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Bhagavad Gita as a great “Buddhist” classic. For me, in part enjoying emphasizing his mischaracterization of the great Hindu classic. But, not to be missed, Emerson’s enthusiasm for the text itself, if sorting out the differing spiritualities of the East wasn’t quite yet in place.

In Walden Henry Thoreau tells us:

“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.

When we lived in New England, we often visited Walden. Sacred waters, indeed.

In the Gita I find another sutra, another thread that calls to the heart and tells us something about death and birth, and life, and our choices in that place among the living. Chapter three is devoted to “karma yoga.” Here yoga means spiritual discipline, while karma means both the sum of a person’s actions, and here those specific actions that create a spiritual life. Conscience and action.

In that meeting of intention and action we begin to find a sense of conscience that is both spiritual, and very much grounded in this world. For me Thoreau’s value is often found in how he sought the spiritual, the sublime, in the dirt of the world, in the substance of things. In the specifics of life.

The karma yoga of the Bhagavad Gita is the spiritual practice of action in this world. It is informed by seeking a proper understanding of what is going on. And then, well, and then acting. In my own life I’ve learned we have to act on insufficient information. Pretty much always. But, nonetheless, we must act.

In this world even opting out, a choice to not acting, is itself an action, of course. Because everyrhing is connected, and every choice has a consequence. Or really there are many actions coming together in any given situation, and many consequences flowing from the moment of choice. That crimson ribbon, knotted for a moment.

And, so, conscience. What is it that we find when we dig in deep, when we look honestly at our hearts and at the world? What is it that says it would be okay to lay our life down for another, friend, or country, or something else?

And. Here is what I’ve found, the third sutra of this reflection, the continuing of the thread into our lives. This text, however, is not written with ink on paper. It’s found in the reality of our humanity.

Our human experience is buffeted and tossed, bruised, and banged; and somewhere along the line all of us, every precious one of us is damaged. You. me. No one escapes. If you think otherwise, you’re a master of denial. And, while denial might be a pretty good strategy for a while, in the long haul it betrays us.

Instead, I invite us all to not turn away from the hurt, the hurts. Along with our teacher, Henry, look at what is. And from that to take a next step. As the Gita tells us, notice, and act.

The reason these hurts become a great hurt living a coiled serpent within us is simple enough. Our sense of these hurts rises out of our intuitions of wholeness and the fact of our separateness.

We need to see how we are separate, where babies die, and old people starve to death, where each and every one of us has experienced loss and longing. For some harder than for others, but none escapes. In this realm all of us are damaged goods. And, somehow, damaged or not, each separate thing, each of us, is precious beyond saying. That, too, is true.

Withing the bruising, if we allow ourselves to experience it, we see, we taste, we know another truth.

Wholeness. Just about everyone, maybe everyone, has some body-knowing we are connected, totally connected each of us with everyone and everything else. Why is this so? I don’t know, although I have opinions. What I do know is that our sense of this wholeness comes to us unbidden out of our experience of separation. A grace. A thread, a crimson ribbon winding around our hearts tugging us in directions.

It is the source of our conscience, it tells us who we are, and it tells us our place in this world. It is the sacred text written on our hearts. We notice how our dreams are invaded by this deep knowledge of our source and home: our radical interdependence. Our quiet moments proclaim it. Instances of grace intrude it into our lives, singing the angel song of deepest connection.

Our bodies know the connection. And, so, I invite the critical step of turning our hearts to noticing this unity when it presents.

And then, perhaps, another question comes to us. If we continue to follow the ribbon we discover a mystery: we are separate and one. A conundrum. But a reality. It’s not that we are either separate or we are connected. And with that the thread leads to another invitation, to move beyond the conundrum, beyond self and other.

Out of that wonderment the great invitation sung to us from before the creation of the heavens and the earth. The words and the music proclaim a connection deeper than two or one.

A healing way that can be found as we explore the connections, as we follow the thread, as we trace along the ribbon.

It’s the birthing of the conscience that leads us true. That tells us what our lives are, and that allows us to know when to lay it down.

In the Jewish tradition there is something called tikkun olam, healing of the world. I love that line, the healing of the world. I find this work of healing is our calling as we’re born into the mess of joy and sorrow, of unity and separateness.

It is found when we don’t turn away, but don’t rest in one place, either.

The path is through opening.

And more opening.

This is the invitation. If you will a Memorial Day reflection, a guide to life and death, and the wholeness within all our broken hearts. The invitation: Just follow the thread, the crimson ribbon, the sutra of our lives: in the end it takes you home.


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