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Decency Is the Absence of Strategy

Snowy Sunrise, photo by Sarah Lipton

Snowy Sunrise, photo by Sarah Lipton

COLUMN: Dispatches from the Front Lines

Dispatches from the Front Lines is a new column designed to support the many Shambhalians currently experiencing upheaval at their centers and groups. It is specifically intended to penetrate the sense of isolation common to these painful situations, and to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas and experiences that arise in bringing our conflicts to the path of warriorship. Submissions are welcome!

article by Shastri Jennifer Woodhull, Column Host
Cape Town, South Africa

“Decency is the absence of strategy,” the Vidyadhara, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, told trainee Shambhala teachers. This simple statement stopped my mind and led me to a deep contemplation of its meaning. What is indecent about strategy? I wondered.

Shambhala teacher Cynthia Kneen has remarked that “there is no alternative to the experience you are having.” Yet we tend to reflexively reject those experiences we don’t like. From a Buddhist point of view, rejecting an experience is an aggressive act. This is why the opposite of aggression is said to be patience: the practice of sitting, nonreactively, with whatever experience we may be having in this moment.

When we strategize in response to conflict, our strategies can add up to aggression. Certain human activities do require forethought and planning, of course. We need sometimes to implement job-hunting or fundraising strategies, for example. But I believe that the kind of strategy the Vidyadhara considered indecent is the kind we invoke in order to manipulate human interactions in ways that confirm and cultivate our habits of suffering.

This is the kind of strategizing that, when enacted in sangha conflicts, deepens personal rifts and undermines the natural hierarchy of the Shambhala mandala. What best serves our own path of warriorship and the health of the sangha is not clever strategy, but skillful means.

photo by Jennifer Woodhull - the yellow flower stands in front of the same Jim Creek that washed Jamestown, CO off the mountain during the recent flood

photo by Jennifer Woodhull – the yellow flower stands in front of the same Jim Creek that washed Jamestown, CO off the mountain during the recent flood

Strategizing vs. Skillful Means
It can be difficult, in the heat of conflict, to distinguish strategy from skillful means. Here are some preliminary thoughts on the differences between the two.

The Ground
We’re taught that all situations are basically good. Strategy operates on the belief that the current situation isn’t. It strives to manipulate people and activities according to our own limited, often fearful, view of what would be better.

The Buddha’s first Noble Truth proclaims that suffering doesn’t reflect an error in the natural order or a personal failure. Suffering is a given, and our practice is to revise our relationship with it. Conflict is suffering, and indecent strategies seek to distance us from it. When we’re somehow buffered from suffering, we don’t get to practice.

When we recognize the current situation as basically good, we align ourselves with the natural flow of events. We relinquish our fearful attempts to control the energy of the situation. Then our practice of skillful means strengthens our trust in our own basic goodness, for we proclaim our innate capacity to meet whatever arises.

The Path

photo by Jennifer Woodhull - This winter shed is one I lived in up in Jamestown, CO twelve or so years ago.

photo by Jennifer Woodhull – This winter shed is one I lived in up in Jamestown, CO twelve or so years ago.

The Buddha saw reality and told us what it looks like. Everything arises temporarily as a result of constantly shifting causes and conditions; every cause has an effect; only love can overcome hatred. These are natural, universal laws. They operate continuously without the slightest reference to our preferences, beliefs or opinions.

Strategy, by contrast, is purely conceptual. In the world of concepts, natural laws such as karma and dependent co-arising are simply nice ideas, products of disembodied intellectual intelligence. Removed from these basic truths of reality, strategy resorts to heavy-handed conceptual formulas designed to eliminate risk. It’s an attempt to circumvent the tender and often painful aspects of everyday warriorship. Yet genuine practice is necessarily risky.

The powerful practice of skillful means entails relaxing our insistence on a particular outcome, disidentifying with aggressive fantasies and bringing ourselves back repeatedly to the raw, immediate experience of conflict. As always this is a practice, rather than an ideal. I might not be an accomplished enough practitioner to generate genuine goodwill toward my perceived enemy, but I can at least practice to cut my compulsive, vengeful storylines and keep redirecting my mind toward a larger view.

The Fruition
All actions are performed with some outcome in mind. Why act, after all, if not to accomplish something? I pour coffee in order to drink it, and start my car so I can go somewhere. Skillful means do, of course, generate outcomes; but it does seem that strategies are primarily shaped by the future outcomes we want, whereas skillful means respond to the dynamics we’re experiencing now. To the extent that both generate outcomes, perhaps the difference lies in the kind of outcome we’re looking for.

The worst kind of strategizing aims for the defeat of an enemy; genuine skillful means are dedicated to the benefit of others. A positive outcome must surely be one that improves communication between the conflicted parties and increases the capacity of all concerned to be of benefit to the world. What does the overall situation most need? How can I help things get unstuck? This kind of thinking is more likely to give rise to skillful means than to strategies.

photo by Jennifer Woodhull - This harbor scene is just down the coast a little from where I live now in South Africa.

photo by Jennifer Woodhull – This harbor scene is just down the coast a little from where I live now in South Africa.

Skillful means reflects both the ground and the fruition of the path of warriorship. It flourishes in the rich soil of comprehensive, dedicated mind training; and at the same time, that training blossoms in the form of skillful means. Skillful means reflects an alignment with the energy of reality that strategy can never hope to contrive. Another way of saying this is that strategy is a product of contraction, whereas skillful means is born of relaxation. Skillful means arises naturally out of a gap; strategy is forcefully wrung from the illusion of solidity.

After all this thinking, I’m thrown back on my original question: What is indecent about strategy? The answer must surely lie in the ways we interact with one another. Treating others decently is grounded in acknowledging the basic goodness of self and other. From this ground of decency, we pursue the ongoing practice of conducting personal relationships. And bringing enlightened society to fruition relies on the ultimate decency: our dedication to working for the benefit of others. The entire logic of this ground, path and fruition collapses when we turn conflict into a win/lose game of strategy.

The seduction of strategy is that we can avoid the hard and painful practice that decency demands. To fall for that approach is to lose much more than we can ever gain by “winning” the conflict, whatever that may mean.

Read the previous article in this Column: Dispatches from the Front Lines by clicking here. Contact us with your story!

Shastri Jennifer Woodhull

Shastri Jennifer Woodhull

Jennifer Woodhull
grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and returned there after 30 years in the U.S. She took refuge at Karme Dzong, Boulder in 1984 and was empowered as a shastri in 2012. Jennifer is a full-time PhD student in religious studies at the University of Cape Town.

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7 responses to “ Decency Is the Absence of Strategy ”
  1. Jennifer Woodhull
    Feb 5, 2015

    Thanks for that, Sherab. Well said! I certainly don’t dismiss conceptual mind out of hand: as Ani Pema has noted, “Try booking a plane ticket without it!” It’s conceptuality used as a substitute for wisdom that I’m questioning here. I meant to convey this distinction through my use of terms such as “purely conceptual” and “disembodied intellectual intelligence”. As an academic, I’m in fact a great fan of intellectual/conceptual mind. My experience, though, has been that it runs amuck when not allied with an embodied sense of the choiceless nature of experience.

  2. Sidney Luckett
    Feb 4, 2015

    Thanks Jennifer, lots to think about here …yes using concepts ;)
    The underlying assumption by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (and accepted by yourself and Sherab and probably everybody else ) is a problem.

    It seems that you’re all assuming that strategy is generic in all circumstances and there is no distinction between personal and organisational strategy. The two are conflated.

    I’m no expert in psychology, so I don’t want to venture into the realm of personal strategy. My minimal knowledge of personal strategy and decision making is through the writings of David Eagleman Eagleman (a neuroscientist) and Daniel Kahneman (a polymath). However, both would contest the understanding of strategy implied here which in organisational literature would be classified as the ‘Design School’ of strategy.

    There is a world of difference between the Design School metaphor at the one end, and the Learning School somewhere in the middle (of about 10 versions of strategy.) I mention the Learning School because it seems closest to what you and Sherab are proposing as a ‘better way’. In the Learning School strategies are ’emergent’. They originate in consensus through mutual adjustment. The actors (in an organisation) converge on patterns that become that become pervasive in the organisation. For the Learning School regulation is not by means of goal setting, rather it focusses on the maintenance of relationships. Formal planning is not dispensed with but it happens without sweat i.e. without “resorts to heavy-handed conceptual formulas designed to eliminate risk.”

  3. Sherab Gyatso
    Feb 1, 2015

    Interesting contemplation. However I don’t understand why you give conceptual mind such a bad rap. Without it, people would be vegetables. It seems to me that the question is not about not using conceptual mind, but about how to use it.

    There’s a difference between understanding and realizing: you can just read about and “accept” karma, or you can look at your world and try to understand in what way karma does seem to apply, and notice where it doesn’t: is that a fault in the model, or are you misunderstanding it — you test your own understanding of every teaching constantly, and look for the painful points where it doesn’t seem to make sense.

    There’s a richness that flowers from thinking deeply, from testing any theory with your real experience, and from considering and taking into account all foreseeable consequences of your actions. If you don’t stop doing this, you will be willing to change your understanding based on whatever new information comes to you.

    This is very different from strategy, where people first decide what the goal is, but do not question it thereafter. This leads to the empty, destructive theatre that characterizes much of modern corporate life. People stop responding to the world, don’t care about the larger consequences of their actions, and start pretending that the authority given to them by a system is equivalent to expertise: “I’m in charge, I know better”. Ultimately it leads to what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil.

    To sum up, there are two ways of using conceptual mind: an ignorant way, and a useful way.

  4. jane arthur
    Jan 30, 2015

    Thank you Jennifer. This is excellent and a great reminder.

  5. Chris Wenger
    Jan 27, 2015

    Thank you for this very insightful reflection, Jennifer.

  6. Christine Sloan
    Jan 26, 2015


    Thank you for this very relevant and heartfelt reflection on decency, a word both the Vidyadhara and the Sakyong have used many times. As we go forward working with challenging situations and conflicts in our lives and in the world, this teaching will be invaluable.

  7. Jan Watson
    Jan 26, 2015

    Excellent article, well written, clear thinking, good dharma. Let’s do it! :-) Jan

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