Lojong Practice Journal: Don’t misinterpret

The 59 slogans through a social justice lens

Lojong slogan card on a black card stand on a white bookshelf with books behind it. Card reads: Don’t misinterpret

“Don’t misinterpret” is one of the juiciest of the Lojong slogans. Truly, I was able to come up with four different takes for this commentary. Two simple words and yet, as with most teachings, much easier said than done and the applications are limitless.

One point of this slogan (and all the slogans beginning with don’t) is that we inevitably will misinterpret — it’s a feature of relativity! We each come into the world with a particular embodiment that gives us a particular interpretation of the world. While that interpretation is valid, validity does not mean correct or superior.

Tibetan commentaries on this slogan break down the ways we misinterpret into six different areas as a way to offer examples: patience, aspiration, joy, compassion, service, and rejoicing. While this is not an exhaustive list, examples of misinterpretation of each of these give us a sense of the kind of discernment we can cultivate to ensure we are applying this slogan in our lives.

Of these, I find compassion to be the most powerful to work with, as it seems like there are as many interpretations of it as there are people. It makes for a weirdly controversial topic! Often compassion is used synonymously with empathy. From that perspective, being told to have compassion smacks of a kind of “both-sides” energy — like it’s about being nice to everyone involved and not “taking sides.”

Compassion as a practice, however, is not just empathy. Empathy is more of an aspect of it, alongside discernment, love, and the heartbreak of Bodhicitta. Compassion as a practice is not about putting ourselves in the shoes of white nationalists or the head of a colonial nation-state (although it can be, if that works for you). Rather, it’s inviting us to consider the causes and conditions that lead to systemic violence while also holding the humanity of everyone involved. Compassion as a practice is about holding complexity while simultaneously responding to suffering.

Truly, the greatest explanation of this difference I’ve ever encountered didn’t actually come from a Buddhist teacher or a dharma talk or text, but from a video essay by Ian Danskin called ‘Lady Eboshi is Wrong.’ For those not familiar, Lady Eboshi is a character in the Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke. Lady Eboshi is the head of a heavily armoured village of people she is trying to protect and serve. She has taken in lepers and given meaningful work to everyone living within the village walls. She is also fixated on destroying the Spirit of the Forest so she can exploit the land’s natural resources unhindered, to further benefit the villagers.

Lady Eboshi is a complex, nuanced character, just as all characters are in Studio Ghibli films, and as Ian Danskin points out, she is also wrong to want to destroy the spirit of the forest. This doesn’t make her evil or beyond redemption, and it also doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be stopped from what she is doing.

Ashitaka, a prince set out to resolve the conflict, is the Bodhisattva in this movie, as he holds Lady Eboshi with compassion and does everything he can to support both the village Lady Eboshi has built and Princess Mononoke and the forest creatures in defending the Spirit of the Forest.

It may be seen as a children’s movie, but Princess Mononoke has a powerful message that we can all learn regardless of our age: There are no simple solutions to complex answers — interconnectedness makes everything complicated and that doesn’t mean we can’t determine right from wrong.

To bring this to a real-world, very present example, the continued Israeli occupation and suppression of Palestine is wrong. We can critique the Israeli government without being antisemitic. We can stand in solidarity with Palestinians and with Jewish people because this is not about religion but colonial domination. Compassion and accountability and boundaries are not mutually exclusive.

The path to liberation is not easy, but that also doesn’t mean it’s a slog or too messy to offer us clarity. Misinterpretation can lead us to put our energy in the wrong place, shelter us from growth, or outright avoid engaging with an issue.

Thankfully, antidotes to misinterpretation are found in other slogans, like ‘Three objects, three poisons, and three seeds of virtue’, ‘When the world is full of evil, transform all mishaps into the path of Bodhi’ or ‘Always meditate on whatever provokes resentment, just as examples. Overall, this slogan is about bringing nuance into our lives and how we approach any situation.

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This blog was originally published on Medium.

This is part of a series of posts I am doing to support my practice.

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