Scorn and Being Despised
Scorn is a great and inevitable experience. It’s a visa stamp allowing entry to the human realm; if you haven’t suffered from it you have missed something necessary. You see it in dogs who drive a spare dog out of the pack, and chickens who peck at the funny looking chicken, and it touches an atavistic fear that during the long winters of the ice ages we will not have warmth or our share of mammoth meat, and this because, because our hair isn’t right, our teeth aren’t straight, we said the wrong thing, we transgressed, or there is something fundamentally wrong with us. Scorn is a strong force in our culture at the moment. It produces fear which in turn produces more scorn, Fox News producing more Fox News. So if we want to find out what Zen is useful for, and what it might free us from, scorn would be a good test case to examine.
If you are scorned by others and are about to drop into hell because of evil karma from your previous life, then because you are scorned by others, the evil karma of your previous life will be extinguished.
The koan takes the approach that scorn is a something in the world, like a hailstorm or the sound of a drum. It doesn’t have to be taken personally. And what if it’s OK anyway—if someone thinks I’m terrible, then sure I am, thank you.
The Uses of Being Scorned, Despised, Cast Out and Looked Down upon from a Great Height
Once I taught retreats for men. One of the faculty had been a village boy in a small, poor West African country who had undergone done the traditional shamanic training of his people. He had been educated and, by his account tormented, by Jesuits, and had acquired advanced degrees from great universities. Having achieved escape velocity from the Jesuits, he had undergone the initiation his village gave to young men, rather later in life than was customary. Even though he was already native, he had gone native, and he seemed still to have a lot of the French intellectual about him. Then, rather early in life, he received the initiation given to elders. This advanced initiation was interesting to me and I questioned him about it. It took three days and only men were around. He sat naked and covered with ash in the center of the village, his eyes were closed and sealed with mud. It was as if he were dead. Then people said things to him which stripped him in other ways. Grudges poured out of them, old things they had held against him since childhood, and a terrible bitterness and envy. Under the rules, he could not respond. Their loathing and dislike pierced him and he had no defense. “By the end of that time,” he said, “I felt thinned out and chemical like a piece of fax paper.”
When it was over they cleaned him up, congratulated him and held a celebration. One of the men who had been pointed and harsh came up, to him and asked, “Would you be able to lend me the money to buy a truck?”
“What were you just saying to me?” he thought.
This is in the territory of the koan of scorn, scorn has become an official part of the ordeal that ushers you into leadership.
It starts with a bang but you don’t need to be prepared.
For no obvious reason a woman who sat Zen began to lose her sense of the ground. She lived far away from her group but would come in for most retreats and so was known and liked. She often sent out emails to the list group but gradually the emails became stranger, indicating pain and perhaps disorder of thinking. A man who had worked with her at retreats was concerned about this and tossed out her name at a service at the moment when people who are sick or need something are remembered.
Then she sent an email to the list which was full of odd thoughts and suddenly swerved into an attack on him, a personal and harsh insult for everyone to read: Scorn, being despised.
“First,” he said, “I felt shock, dismay, but surprisingly, not a millisecond of anger or resentment came forth. The colors got bright and the room became full and peaceful. As I sat in front of my computer everything at that moment felt right for me. I remembered a little prayer, ‘When I think of the virtue of abusive words, this is the Buddha appearing before me…’ I thought kindly of her.
The beauty of all of this is that I didn’t have to do anything. Everything came to me.”
Really it’s dancing
You might have had an interaction in the street in which a person who seems crazy comes up and gets in your face. Last night while I was writing this piece on scorn, a friend opened a Google chat. Here is a record of it.
10:18 PM Michael: knock, knock
had a very, very weird thing happen while walking home from dinner
me: Hi Michael
10:19 PM Michael: this crazy black guy, semi toothless, possibly drunk, more likely on something more stimulative, was yelling and slightly lunging at passersby... as I got closer, I heard what he was yelling, and as we met on the sidewalk, he yelled "YOU'RE A NIGGER! YOU'RE A NIGGER!"
10:20 PM and I said "Thank you."
and he smiled and reached out and touched me on the shoulder
10:21 PM me: well you passed that koan
10:22 PM Michael: pretty much
me: Did he give you another one?
10:23 PM me: You pass one you pass them all.
Sometimes there is no need to resist the scorn.
Yes I am French: Sometimes an Apparatus Will Set You Free
An American friend felt lucky to find a spot as she parked her French rental car in a small hill town in Tuscany but an Italian driver took deep offense. He approached and started yelling at her in broken French. Though her French was fairly good, he didn’t really speak French enough to convey his meaning or to understand her. Her Italian was much better than his French but he couldn’t hear her in Italian because he was convinced that she was French. Eventually he stalked off angry.
As she joined her husband and kids she was arguing with the other driver in her head, asking the right questions, soothing, explaining, defending. She formulated in Italian how to explain to him that she was speaking in Italian. She wanted him to understand that she could speak to him in his language and that he didn’t have to play out the ancient grudges of the Italians and the French. She was having an identity issue, he mistook her for someone she wasn’t and she wanted him to have her understanding of who she was—his story seemed so alien to her view of herself. She realized she had to stop the argument in order to join her day, and it came to her that she had the choice whether to be right or to be happy. And she realized that it had to be okay to be whatever horrible criminal she might be. And suddenly it was, alright, and she was free. She tried on all the horrible things she could possibly be—mother raper, father stabber, murderer, thief. “So what if I’m somebody who has been so incredibly inconsiderate, I didn’t understand, I didn’t know, I parked my car too close to his….” And she thought, “Well what if I am?” And that way it her inner conflict disappeared.
Language and scorn go together; trash talk and insult are venerable arts.
In this case her freedom wasn’t immediate and she had to notice what was going on and try to deal with by using unwieldy tools but they worked anyway.
The Thusness of Scorn
All these stories are examples of moments in which more awakening comes from being scorned and despised than if scorn and despight had not happened. That which is is always more endearing than that which is not.
Questions since they are sometimes more interesting than answers
- What’s the first time you remember someone making fun of you, scorning you, reviling you? What’s the most recent time?
- What do you do when you think someone disapproves of you? What happens in your mind?
- Have you ever hurt anyone’s feelings on purpose?
- What does scorn look like in the animal world? among plants? singles celled creatures? atoms?
- What’s the meanest thing anyone’s ever said to you? What’s the nicest thing?
- How do you work at a practice level with being despised or scorned?