Tuesday, July 23, 2013

That Bird Has My Wings by Jarvis Jay Masters (II)

The influence of environment on thoughts, feelings and behaviors is something that happens to each of us where-ever we are. It's instinctual for most of us to adapt to the norms of people we're interacting with, the people we feel closest too, and the expectations and norms of people with power. Both spoken and unspoken codes of conduct exist and the standards are different in academia, the arts, the business world and the military, as well as different religions. Within the Zen tradition alone, if a person were to visit several different monasteries, the rules, dress codes, meals, ceremonies and schedules would differ at each. Unspoken expectations also can vary within the same monastery at different times. As an example, I remember one retreat in which the Ino (person running the retreat) kept me awake working on her laptop much of the night. (I didn't mind. After the long hours sitting I don't sleep that well anyway.) During the next retreat, one of my roommates risked waking up the whole dorm to chastise me for waking up thirty minutes early to stretch my legs before zazen. I had no problem adjusting as opposed to challenging her wishes.

No matter what environment we're in, it's survival of the fittest. Each of us has a better chance if we meet the expectations of those around us. We typically do that by adapting with intelligence and/or with power.

It was the system that trained Jarvis in the ways of violence.

For Jarvis, each of the foster homes and institutions he was placed in had different rules and expectations. Jarvis learned to adapt early. At one school, two of the caretakers hand-picked boys to train and fight each other for their entertainment. Jarvis, as strong as he was, was one of those hand-picked boys. Because of his strength he also was able to protect others. In contrast, weaker boys got dragged into the toilets and severely beaten. At least one was beaten to death, several others were beaten and simply disappeared.

From early in the book:

When Jarvis' and his two sisters were separated from his mother and placed in foster care, Jarvis' first foster parents were very loving. But due to his foster mother becoming seriously ill, he was transferred to another home that not only misrepresented itself, but baited the foster children, and was almost as violent as the above school. One of the saddest moments in the book was when Jarvis' went to visit his first foster family and their views of him had been poisoned by the false reports of his second set of foster parents to his social worker.

Why has this book made such an impression on my mind? It's an impression that has grown tremendously since I first read the book. For one thing, it has reminded me to drop off views or at least to be more flexible.

Imagine for a moment that you are Jarvis and that you are judged by all the rules and expectations of each foster home and institution, not to mention family and society in general, all at once, overlapping at the same time. That's one way to view Jarvis' case.

I am not writing this post specifically to argue for Jarvis, even though from my perspective his case should win. I have to say to Jarvis and those individuals responsible for his case that based on my own experience on-line I have hesitated to say anything lest it damage rather than help. My own on-line experience has given me cause to worry and wonder.

I am writing because over the last few months it's become clear that the situation in this open on-line environment is very much like Jarvis' case. The rules and expectations of multiple belief systems and traditions, not to mention teaching and training techniques, both within Buddhism and without are simultaneously overlaid and interacting in an ongoing way. In many ways, this is exciting and progressive since it represents an interaction and co-mingling of traditions that may affect how what the Buddha taught is represented in the West and how society perceives it. The co-mingling of traditions also represents a threat to the individuality and values of each tradition. The effectiveness of teaching and the risks to students, practitioners, friends and family also is increased due to the openness of this environment.

Each of us is the system and each of us potentially is Jarvis, especially here on-line. How do we cope with the multiplicity of standards, not to mention the whole range of society's potential situations?

-- to be continued --

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