After ordination by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Scott Tusa spent nine years as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Today, he’s an irreverent meditation teacher and a brand-new father. In this episode, Scott and I talk about some hard decisions we’ve faced in life, and that the world faces today, asking ourselves, What is the right thing to do? Is there a right and wrong from a Buddhist perspective? How did Scott and I deal with the painful decisions we faced in our lives to get divorced and to give up a monastic life? We also grapple with one of the biggest ethical dilemmas facing the world today, the violent conflict in Israel and Gaza.
[00:01:01] Scott Snibbe: Scott, I’m excited to have you back on the podcast. You’re strangely on of many Scotts that I have been close with over the years. It’s a pleasure having you back to talk about this meaty topic of what is the right thing to do.
[00:01:46] Scott Tusa: Yeah, thanks so much, Scott. It’s really always a pleasure to join you in conversation here, and two Scotts are maybe better than one, we’ll find out.
Making hard decisions
[00:01:58] Scott Snibbe: It’s been an unending joke for my many Scott friends over the years. Today the essence of this episode is for you and I to talk about what right and wrong mean from a Buddhist perspective. Buddhism can be very abstract and that can be appealing to a certain type of person.
But to make this real, I wanted to ground it in our lives; I was trying to think of moments when you and I faced a very serious decision of what’s the right thing to do, and all the different voices that came up in our heads, once we were Buddhists, how that manifests. The two things that came up for me was when I got divorced—although I’m happily married now—but I was married once before, and I got divorced. At first, I was married and there were a lot of conflict and problems.
Maybe it didn’t seem like we were the best match after a while, but I took a vow for a whole lifetime to honor, cherish, and stand by this person. I took that really seriously. Also, I had divorced parents. I had made a vow to myself even before I got married; I’m never going to do what my parents did. I’m never going to get divorced like that.
Did you go through anything similar as you were confronting that question of whether to remain a monk?
[00:03:26] Scott Tusa: Definitely, for me it wasn’t that dissimilar to a marriage, there just wasn’t another person involved. There was just like a set of vows and a lifestyle. I started to question, Is this going to be something I can sustain and or want to sustain? Because I think for me in particular, the issue was more isolation.
I’ve talked about this on your podcast before but I wasn’t advised to go into a monastery. I was advised to do more retreat, which is fine, but it also left me kind of isolated, without community. I think if we’re not having lovers and partners, and we don’t also have community, it’s sort of like there’s just a point where you can’t do it anymore. I think that is kind of natural.
[00:04:13] Scott Snibbe: You were lonely.
[00:04:14] Scott Tusa: I was lonely. It sort of was like, I know this is a right life to have. I had no doubt that being a monk was good. I just didn’t know if I could sustain it anymore and be a healthy human being. That was more where the decision came from.
[00:04:32] Scott Snibbe: It’s similar because as long as I was thinking, Even though this isn’t pleasant for me, maybe it’s the right thing; maybe it’s something I have to kind of grind through and learn through. But it was only when I was transitioned into thinking whether it was the best thing for my wife that things started to open up again a couple of years later.
This was through talking to teachers—whenever I asked Geshe Dakpa a question he never had an answer. He just said, It doesn’t matter. Actually, that was his answer to almost every worldly thing I asked him, which I think makes sense to a more realized person. But when I asked Venerable Sangye Khadro, she said, You have to look very closely and see what’s the benefit for her and for you, and what’s the harm, and if you’ve really reflected for a long time and found that is more harmful than beneficial, then for her sake as well as yours, it would make sense. That was quite bold of her.
I love Venerable Sangye Khadro because she’ll always go very deep and, typically you wouldn’t have someone, even your friends, or certainly not a Buddhist monk or nun, saying, Get divorced. But I think through the wisdom of someone who’s studied Buddhism for a long time, you’re willing to go there.
For me, that was kind of the door opening when I started to think not just about myself—which is important, I’m important—but also about her, what was the best thing for her. I don’t know if there was a similar cascade for you?
[00:06:15] Scott Tusa: I can relate to that in my partnerships. We sound similar in a certain way because I always have this doubt of, Am I just following my attachment? I take a long time to make sure it’s not just that. I sought a lot of advice over the year and a half.
One of my main teacher’s advice was mostly just to hang on, to wait. He wasn’t pressuring me in any way, he just advised me to wait. I really see the wisdom in that now, because if I could have hung on for three, four, or five more years, I don’t know. I’m a different person now, but I’m also a different person now because I decided to give back the vows.
Conflict from a Buddhist perspective
[00:07:11] Scott Snibbe: One of my heroes who’s not a Buddhist but is very Buddhist-sympathetic is Stuart Brandt. He created the Whole Earth Catalog a long time ago and he’s a big proponent of long-term thinking. One thing he said that stuck with me, that I heard before I became a Buddhist, was that good things happen slowly, bad things happen fast. I think one thing we’re both already saying is just to slow down big decisions, which for you and I these both took a few years. There was a moment for me when the decision finally collapsed into a certainty.
I’ll tell you how this manifested for me, there was a moment where a fight could have started with my ex-wife. I remember she turned to me and started saying like, You this, you that, you that, blah, blah, blah. I had this extraordinary moment where I just thought, I’m not anything. It’s meaningless what she’s saying. There’s no basis. There’s some conventional basis to it, but there’s nothing for me to get angry about. It’s a way that she’s seeing things. It’s not necessarily true or false, it’s relative from her perspective.
I had this extraordinary moment where I just thought, I’m not anything.
It wasn’t like I was just dismissing or ignoring what she was saying, there’s some truth to what she’s saying. But, in a greater sense, it’s just like reality is much more flexible than this, and I don’t have to respond, I don’t have to push back. I just didn’t react. I think it was one of the first time I didn’t react. Then that was the gateway out because once I was not angry, making a decision under the control of anger. I think this is almost universally unhelpful. It doesn’t lead you to make good decisions.
That kind of dissolved the anger and, finally, dissolved the conflicts. I had no more arguments or conflicts with her after that. Then I was able to think more clearly, again, what is beneficial, what’s harmful, through therapy, through this, through that, and eventually did decide to get divorced. But it was a bit more harmonious, we went through therapies and discussions and there were some conflicts, but it was relatively harmonious, as much as things like that can be.
I wonder if you faced any other gateway like that with relativity, emptiness, or interdependence?
[00:09:48] Scott Tusa: I love what you just shared. For me, it was maybe a little more simplistic at the time. With the example I’m using today of returning my monastic vows—when I pressed one of my main teachers more he was just sort of like, Do what you want to do. Do what you need to do. For me, it was just like this relief, this certainty that I’m not perfect. I don’t have to be a perfect monk. I don’t have to be a perfect practitioner. I don’t have to be a perfect person. I definitely want to keep practicing the dharma, and I just want to do that with a different lifestyle right now.
For me, it was just like this relief, this certainty that I’m not perfect. I don’t have to be a perfect monk. I don’t have to be a perfect practitioner. I don’t have to be a perfect person.
[00:10:28] Scott Snibbe: I like what you’re saying. I think a lot of what was holding me back was this idea that I was a failure. If I ended the relationship, then I had failed in marriage, failed in relationships, failed as a husband. It was that kind of opening up through that relativity, interdependence; I’m not a failure or a success. It’s just this is the thing that’s happening.
To try to be skillful and to live a compassionate life, do the right thing, as right of a thing as I could for each of us in the relationship, harming the least, benefiting the most, with uncertainty, knowing that I don’t know for sure what’s the best decision, but that we do need to make one. Fighting with someone every day is not a healthy way to live your life.
[00:11:31] Scott Tusa: I’ve been there. It’s no fun.
[00:11:34] Scott Snibbe: One of the things that surprised me the most when I first started studying Buddhism is I saw the Dalai Lama many, many times, and a few times people asked the Dalai Lama how to end war. He gave the same answer, which is, make up with the people you have conflicts with in your own life. He said that would be the greatest cause for peace. I don’t think that would make intuitive sense to everybody. It didn’t to me at the time, although it was very, powerful, but it breaks through the idea that there’s this separate, that there’s a war outside there and then there’s just me.
No, everything is made of individual people making individual decisions and even our individual decisions, here in a country far away, do affect conflicts in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and so on.
[00:12:33] Scott Tusa: Yeah, nothing happens in a box. There’s the beauty of interdependence as a teaching in Buddhism and practices that help us to access that because then we can start to ask more questions than have answers. What’s so beautiful in His Holiness’s expression there is it’s not quite a question, but it’s a prompt.
[00:12:53] Scott Snibbe: What about this conflict? Why don’t we, as compassionately as possible, wade into this extremely painful, extremely divisive conflict in the Middle East? In today’s world too, it’s probably important for us to acknowledge our own identities in the current language.
I come from a Jewish family, but we’re not practicing Jews. I was raised Christian and then became a Buddhist. I’ve been to Israel. I have relatives who died in the holocaust and things like that.
[00:13:28] Scott Tusa: I grew up Jewish, I had a bar mitzvah, I went to Israel. Similar to you I have a complex identity with being Jewish and it’s something that I’m always questioning and asking new questions about, so I’d love to jump into that. We probably have some unique perspectives because of that.
[00:13:52] Scott Snibbe: I find that as this topic has come up with different people on different sides of the debate over the last couple months, usually what I start with is the idea of nonviolence, and it’s funny how shocked people are with the idea. It’s so fundamental to the Buddhist worldview that you start with nonviolence. If nothing else, the very beginning is just nonviolence, to not harm.
[00:14:17] Scott Tusa: I see Buddhist ethics more—and this isn’t to contradict, I think it’s just an interesting conversation we can have—built in the foundation of nonharm, which has a little bit of a broader context.
[00:14:29] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, even broader than nonviolence.
[00:14:30] Scott Tusa: Yeah, violence can be interpreted.
[00:14:36] Scott Snibbe: My teacher Venerable Renee when he was talking about this, he said, Here’s a good way to think about when to use violence and how to use it. He said, Imagine if anybody is trying to attack you or commit violence against you, think of them as your mother. Like, what if your mother came at you with a knife, and you had a gun in your hand, what are you going to do? Are you going to shoot your mom? No, you’re going to put down the gun, you’re going to tackle her, you’re likely going to sustain some pretty serious injuries. But you realize that she’s acting under some powerful delusion, and she needs to be subdued and prevented from being violent, and also to preserve your own life, but equally.
Equally having equal concern for preserving her life and safety, as well as your own, and then finding some overarching, bigger solution to a problem that seems more rooted in mental delusion than a strong sense of enemy or friend. Reflect on that a little bit if you don’t mind, how do you think this bears on the current conflict?
[00:15:46] Scott Tusa: What you just said about enemy and friend was the thing that sparked me the most, because that is the thing that these binaries we create around our fixed ideas based on our reactive, destructive emotions to me, that is violent, that is hard.
A little bit more of what harm is, this is where I kind of was reflecting on what you shared from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, that harm is something that starts in our own minds, in our own emotions. Eventually we act with our body and speech, based on that if we don’t work with it in a healthy way. Looking at it that way, I think it kind of gets into looking at harm in a more inner way.
Harm is something that starts in our own minds, in our own emotions.
Then of course the worldviews at play in the Middle East are not the same worldviews at play for people who grew up in the United States. Even growing up reformed, Judaism, but I was born in the United States. I was educated in a different form of what Israel-Palestinian conflict, Israel Middle East, all that meant versus what it actually means. If that’s not taken into account, how are we ever going to figure out what has less harm? Because we’re not taking our own world view into account.
[00:17:28] Scott Snibbe: Even that is already very compassionate because compassion starts with empathy and acknowledging that there are different points of view. To even see that, you’re already halfway toward a solution. If you’re a very wounded Israeli person, and yet you can still see the level of wound and pain of Palestinians being bombed, having their children die in ways that Israelis had their children die, that’s the path toward compassion, toward resolving a conflict. The Buddha said, Only hatred comes from hatred. It’s so easy to say, and hopefully it doesn’t sound trite, but the only solution to problems grounded in hatred is love. And to start with the basis of love is to care.
The Buddha said, Only hatred comes from hatred.
The basis of caring at all is to think about another person’s point of view. It’s so hard for people to hear that. There’s even very strong political movements on the extremes of both left and right perspective where they really don’t want to consider the other person’s perspective. They say doing so limits your ability to be effective as an activist. That is a little bit at odds with the Buddhist worldview, which is that the roots of resolving conflict, peace, safety, security, and human rights, are in acknowledging the fundamental human rights and needs for safety, security, food, shelter, love, and compassion that all people have.
[00:19:10] Scott Tusa: Totally, it gets back to if we’re not able to enter some kind of process of developing that personally, and then of course, communally, all we’re left with is right and wrong. Then all we’re left with is choosing a side of who we think is right or wrong based on our personal lenses and habit patterns. It’s very limiting.
In a way, I have hope that there’s a decent amount of us who are pretty sick of this. We’re sick of war, sick of violence, sick of seeing suffering. But we’re also sick of people trying to force us into binaries all the time. To me, Buddhism is not the only thing, but Buddhism does offer us a way out because it offers us the freedom of opening to a way to look at interdependence and relationships and to ask more questions than to have more answers, which, as you said, can open into empathy.
I can understand both sides’ positions in the Israel-Palestinian conflict over many years. I see both sides of it. For some reason, people aren’t satisfied with it if you see both sides. Then you’re choosing either apathy, in some people’s eyes, or you’re choosing to sort of diminish the side that they think is suffering more.
For some reason, people aren’t satisfied with it if you see both sides. Then you’re choosing either apathy, in some people’s eyes, or you’re choosing to sort of diminish the side that they think is suffering more.
[00:20:36] Scott Snibbe: Well, the deepest principle of Buddhism, emptiness, interdependence, is about transcending dualities. There couldn’t be a bigger duality than choosing a side in a war; that one side’s right and the other side’s wrong. The side you would take, my understanding, my own perspective of the Buddhist interpretation is the side you take is the side of humanity, the side of human beings. That every human being has a right to life, safety, security, and property, to have the things that make their life flourish in our current society. That’s the side we’re on is the side of humanity and peace.
It was one of the nice things about the 60s, there are problems about it too, but the idea that peace was such a value, we don’t hear that as much. To be on the side of peace, nobody doesn’t want peace. We live in peace. It’s very nice to be able to walk down the street and not worry about being killed or bombed. It gives your life, so much sense of safety, meaning security.
That’s the context in which our world exists today is that people want a feeling of a nation, that they live in a nation that has secure borders and that they can live within safely. To acknowledge that at the root of this anger is some kind of need. The obvious ones in this case: a need for safety, security, health, and nonviolence.
The privilege of safety
[00:22:22] Scott Tusa: I grew up in the Bay Area, San Francisco, in a fairly privileged upbringing, I had my fair shakes of ups and downs, but in fairly privileged in the sense. I’ve lived in Latin America for the last three years and Latin America is not as dangerous as people think it is, it depends where you are. It depends who you are and sometimes, unfortunately, how much money you have.
But what I do notice embedded in my wife and others is a real concern about the basic safety you were talking about, being able to walk down the street and not get into some physical altercation or someone’s going to take something from you or there’s an internal war happening. That culturally wasn’t something I grew up with. Now listening to others and seeing and responding to their concerns that are different than mine, it makes me think about even safety as an idea. We can define safety on these basic levels, which I think a lot of people would agree with, like physical safety, and things like that.
It just made me think about how we frame safety as an individual too. I have noticed that sometimes having the trauma of growing up in unsafe environments creates a situation where those can appear, when maybe there’s not necessarily that safety concern. I’ve seen that happen to people I know. I’m this kind of hapless gringo, I don’t think about it that much, unless I’m in certain cities that I know I have to be more careful. I don’t think about it that much, which is maybe not so healthy because maybe I should be more concerned with it.
It’s a little bit of a privilege to be able to have that take. My question here is, where’s that barrier between actual safety foundational for us human beings? Part of our concern about safety is actually more cognitive and emotional, because I see that being blurred a little bit.
[00:25:02] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it is tricky. Coming from a place of progressive privilege, I live in Berkeley, California now—my first wife was from Memphis, Tennessee. I spent a lot of time there, and there’s much more racism and division between races and classes. And also much more dangerous areas of the city.
It’s really important to—through like empathy and compassion—understand these political divides. One of the saddest things, but understandable things, I hear people say is, I don’t understand how that person could vote for that person or how that person could have this perspective on the conflict or how they could go to that protest or whatever. From a Buddhist perspective, if I say to myself, “I don’t understand,” that’s an invitation to understand, because it is understandable, everybody’s actions make sense to them, from the cause and effect, from their birth, their culture, their politics, and so on.
From a Buddhist perspective, if I say to myself, “I don’t understand,” that’s an invitation to understand, because it is understandable, everybody’s actions make sense to them . . .
This one about safety is a great one, because it’s quite easy in Berkeley, California to be unarmed and to let my 12-year-old daughter roam freely around and for me to walk around safely. But for a person living in a very dangerous neighborhood in Los Angeles, that person might want to have a gun in their home. It is understandable. Going away from statistics and so on, because there may be good reasons not to do that. But from a psychological perspective, it makes absolute sense. You want to defend your family. You want to feel safe. You’ve already experienced violence and crimes and so on right there in your home and in your neighborhood.
Same thing with a right-wing person living in rural Mississippi or Texas. You’re isolated there with a lot of space around you and you want to protect your family and home. It makes sense to that person to be armed for that, to feel safe. They may have faced real conflicts in their life. It’s not just imagined. They faced real situations where someone else was armed and they were forced to do something or back away.
You can extend that to the very difficult mental exercise of trying to understand the most extreme perspectives, like in this Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because of course it’s not every Israeli, it’s not every person in Gaza and the West Bank, who has these perspectives. It’s more the most extreme factions, like the Israeli government, they’re quite extreme, right-wing perspective, then like the Hamas, a very extreme, violent perspective. But to do that exercise, if you’re ready to actually try to see the cause and effect. Not that what they’re doing is quote or beneficial, but just that there’s a logic to why they are acting that way.
There’s a reason to do that too. There is a logic to why these people are doing very extreme, very violent, harmful things on both sides. There’s a logic to a person in Gaza, whose parents were killed in a bombing and then they got radicalized. You can see if you think through it and you do a little bit of reading and research, you can see how people get radicalized on both sides of a conflict. Then the Buddhist perspective is that’s not just out of the goodness of your heart, that you do that mental exercise of trying.
If you’re going to fight for peace and justice and human rights, you really need to understand and you need to understand the person you’re in conflict with. You’ll actually be better at resolving that conflict if you understand the other side.
If you’re going to fight for peace and justice and human rights, you really need to understand and you need to understand the person you’re in conflict with.
[00:29:19] Scott Tusa: Thinking globally and opening our minds is great. But if we don’t act locally, it’s not good, there’s very little I actually can do to change the situation between the conflict of Palestinians and Israel. I’m not saying there’s nothing. There are things, obviously, through our political system in the United States. We didn’t talk about it, but the United States is a pretty major player in this.
[00:29:44] Scott Snibbe: Very big force, yeah.
[00:29:45] Scott Tusa: For as long as I’ve been alive, and more. We’re forgetting what’s happening is we’re almost losing our agency, because we’re not exerting efficacy or agency where we actually have it, which is locally.
[00:30:09] Scott Snibbe: But it’s also hard to have hope. It does feel really, really hopeless with this kind of conflict. Something that’s helped me is this sense of context. We were at war with Germany in 1940, they were our archenemy, Japan also. Now these are two of our closest allies, this is interdependence. This is change and interdependence and fluidity, a starting point to even feel like you can be the tiniest bit effective is to see that things have already changed a lot, even over the course of our lifetimes and our parents’ lifetimes.
Germany is one of our closest allies. They were absolutely our archenemy. We killed millions of each other’s people just like this other conflict. Same thing with Japan. Japan was willing to have the very last Japanese person die to fight the United States to lose to the United States, even that level of commitment to the war. We are now the closest of allies.
Healing suffering from the Vajrayana Buddhist perspective
[00:31:16] Scott Tusa: I don’t want to put out there some kind of religious idea. I just want to say it because I think it’s useful, Buddhism doesn’t have the idea that there’s a better world, it doesn’t have that premise that somehow we’re going to fix the world. It has the premise based on what we’ve already been talking about and to make it very practical and relatable that as long as one or two or three individuals or more are beholden or controlled by their afflictive emotions that suffering and violence is going to ensue.
I think that’s kind of revolutionary because it changes how we work with ourselves. It changes how we think of conflict and how we seek to resolve it. Kind of back to His Holiness’s advice and what we’ve been threading throughout this, really coming back to responsibility for our own thoughts and emotions, in understanding that they’re not as real as they appear, and that they’re quite harmful if we don’t work with them.
I just wanted to say that this is a tricky one and I’m not saying anybody has to believe that or you or anyone, but through a lot of reflection, I have that conviction now that I don’t think the world is fixable and this could go into the Vajrayana view a little bit, but the world is not fixable because there’s nothing to fix. This can be a very controversial idea in Buddhism, and can be a very challenging idea. It needs to be also filled in by teachings in Vajrayana Buddhism that I’m not going to give here.
The world is not fixable because there’s nothing to fix.
[00:33:08] Scott Snibbe: One way of looking at Vajrayana is just looking at how things could be, looking at how our nature is fundamentally good and trying to see what the world would look like if we realize that. In Vajrayana, there are aspects of Vajrayana that are secret and aspects that are open to everybody, at least in our tradition.
I led a war meditation for the podcast about a month ago. In Vajrayana, you find a real lightness in yourself, and you imagine that you travel there to the Middle East and look down and see the suffering on both sides and then imagine it different. Imagine giving those people safe homes, security, all the resources they need, the security of knowing their whole life, they’re going to be safe. Their family, their loved ones, their friends, for anyone who’s lost people in the conflict, giving them the ability to eventually get over that and heal from that pain. Even saying it right now, it actually feels quite good. That’s the thing is you can’t just be against something, you need to be for something.
Also, it’s not just abstract. You can’t just say I’m for peace. That’s not powerful. From the Vajrayana perspective, you really need to picture it. It’s not saying that this is some airy fairy magic that my thinking is going to solve this conflict. But it warms your own heart. It makes your own actions become genuine causes or more closely, toward genuine causes for peace.
Also, just practically, I think people are in anguish in the United States and everywhere else, people listening right now. It also just helps you get past that anguish to feeling okay. There is at least picturing a solution is the first step towards having one. A lot of people don’t do that. We’re focused on the conflict. But picturing what a solution looks like is absolutely an important step on the way towards having one.
Tell me more about your perspective on the Vajrayana and this conflict.
[00:35:35] Scott Tusa: Yeah, it’s a deep, there’s a lot to say. So it’s very superficial what I’m saying, but we imagine this world and ourselves and others as a pure Buddha field. It’s not for the sake of ignoring suffering and just magical thinking. That’s not the point. The point is actually to open our minds to another possibility in reality, which I’ve found to actually do the opposite of magical thinking. I found it to help me to be more engaged, more practical, more connected with others.
[00:36:11] Scott Snibbe: Exactly, just something to help us loosen and soften and stay open and connected to the people around us.
You kindly agreed to lead a meditation that would bear on these issues of what’s the right thing to do and conflict and the other. Can you just talk a little bit about what that meditation is?
[00:36:37] Scott Tusa: Sure, I was thinking we could meditate a little bit on an equanimity practice and the reason this came to mind is because we can access a lot of loving-kindness meditations and compassion meditations out there and in very secular and spiritual forms; but often, if I’m not meditating on equanimity, if I’m not having some connection to that, the love and compassion can still be biased. There can be some sense of one person or one group being more important than another.
In the Israel-Palestinian conflict equanimity is so needed, because I think then proper action can come from that. Again, we’re not defining what that action is today, but I think there’s some prep work to do before that, so equanimity is part of that.
[00:37:34] Scott Snibbe: That sounds great because I think everybody listening would probably say they believe in universal human rights, but it’s one thing to say it and another to feel it. That’s what this meditation can really do. I’m looking forward to doing the meditation with you.
Thank you so much, Scott. It’s a wonderful discussion, as always. I really appreciate you opening up and about your personal experience. I hope it’s a benefit to anybody who listened this far.
[00:38:08] Scott Tusa: Me too, thanks for all your wisdom, Scott. I think we ventured into a lot of areas. I do hope it’s helpful to some of the listeners out there.
[00:38:17] Scott Snibbe: Thanks a lot.
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