Don’t Win the Argument, Rouse the Conscience

I’m continuing to think about right speech, and the welfare of sentient beings, and our politics, and our online ecosystem, and the Buddha Way.

I think often of a favorite teaching of my ordination teacher, Seido deBarros.  It’s from Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo Zuimonki.  I put the full text at the end of this post, but Seido’s paraphrase captures it:

“Never win an argument.”

What if this were our motto for online speech?  What if this were our motto for social engagement?  What if this were our motto for Dharma discussions?

“Never win an argument.”

I’ve been listening to sermons of Dr. King recently as I continue my study of the civil rights movement, and I’m struck by the absence of an emphasis on “winning the argument” and by the presence instead of the idea of “rousing the conscience.”  I don’t say “winning the argument” is not an element—maybe it is, but it’s certainly not the frame.

The frame is: a nonviolent appeal to conscience.

The frame is: words and actions intended to rouse the conscience of the nation.

This is more simple, more direct, and more straightforward than winning arguments.  It is making suffering and oppression plain and public, and by doing so reaching in to touch the listeners’ compassionate nature.  This touching must come anyway whether or not the argument is won, because even if we win some argument, in the absence of that touching—that rousing of conscience—there’s just another argument behind it.  So why not dispense with the argument winning and just move directly to the conscience rousing?

Appealing to conscience feels to me much more vital, energized, alive, and awake than winning arguments.  It feels much closer to right speech, right action.  Like nonviolence itself, it has no relation to forfeiture or collapse.  It is not complacency.  It is active, courageous, engaged.  It is, and requires, the practice of the Buddhadharma—contacting our deep nature and allowing that nature to contact others’ natures.

So I don’t need to win you over on this, and that’s not my intention.  But to those who feel this call resonate in their own conscience, please let’s consider taking up this practice together.  Not to win arguments, but to rouse conscience.  To rouse the conscience of those who “agree,” that we all step up and let this awakened conscience truly guide our every day.  And to rouse the conscience of those who “disagree,” that they may be touched in their conscience and not just convinced in their minds.

And through this practice especially may we rouse our own conscience, our own innate compassion and Way-Seeking Mind, and entrust to that roused conscience all of our actions, moment after moment, of body, speech, and mind.

Shobogenzo Zuimonki 5-7, translation by Shohaku Okumura

Dogen instructed,

There is an old saying which goes, “Although the power of a wise man exceeds that of an ox, he does not fight with the ox.” Now, students, even if you think that your wisdom and knowledge is superior to others, you should not be fond of arguing with them. Moreover, you should not abuse others with violent words, or glare at others angrily.

Despite having been given great wealth and receiving the favors of some person, people in this age would definitely have negative feelings if the donor were to display anger and slander them with harsh words.

Once, Zen Master Shinjo Kokubun told his students, “In former times, I practiced together with Seppo. Once Seppo was discussing the dharma loudly with another student in the monk’s dormitory. Eventually, they began to argue using harsh words, and in the end, wound up quarreling with each other. After the argument was over, Seppo said to me, ‘You and I are close friends practicing together with one mind. Our friendship is not shallow. Why didn’t you help me when I was arguing with that man?’ At the time, I could do nothing but feel small folding my hands and bowing my head.

Later, Seppo became an eminent master, and I too, am now an abbot. What I thought at the time was that Seppo’s discussion of the dharma was ultimately meaningless. Needless to say, quarreling was wrong. Since I thought it was useless to fight, I kept silent.”

Students of the Way, you also should consider this thoroughly. As long as you aspire to make diligent effort in learning the Way, you must be begrudging with your time. When do you have time to argue with others? Ultimately, it brings about no benefit to you or to others. This is so even in the case of arguing about the dharma, much more about worldly affairs. Even though the power of a wise man is stronger than that of an ox, he does not fight with the ox.

Even if you think that you understand the dharma more deeply than others, do not argue, criticize, or try to defeat them.

If there is a sincere student who asks you about the dharma, you should not begrudge telling him about it. You should explain it to him. However, even in such a case, before responding wait until you have been asked three times. Neither speaks too much nor talks about meaningless matters.

After reading these words of Shinjo, I thought that I myself had this fault, and that he was admonishing me. I have subsequently never argued about the dharma with others.

5 thoughts on “Don’t Win the Argument, Rouse the Conscience

  1. I write, and the exercise for me is to teach myself, even if I’m ostensibly in conversation with someone else. I know what I’ve said before, and I know when I am saying something that in some way or another is new to me.

    Actions do follow belief, in my experience (“roused conscience”), and yet:

    “Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be apparent.”

    (Genjo Koan)

  2. Would you be willing to expand on the idea of rousing the conscience? In my experience, it seems some people are so out of touch with themselves and their conscience that touching on it – this very thing which they have not been able to look at or face – brings out much pain and sometimes violence (Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed, beaten and eventually killed, I believe, because he indeed roused the conscience of many people who were afraid to face their own pain). It feels like there’s more there, so I’m curious about this.

  3. Dr King did NOT avoid argument, but created it … without relenting … both inviting violence upon his own body and willingness in advance to reconcile with those who would beat him. That degree of insistence to BE (and not merely to bloviate about) what was right is what aroused (both good and bad) conscience. Key, was his willingness to disrupt everything that the dominant paradigm could take for granted … which is as good a definition of ZEN … “taking nothing for granted” … that I can imagine. Dogen’s teaching is nothing like Dr. King’s … but is instead both arrogant and condescending. To arouse the conscience one must be willing to live among, dress and to work like those whose suffering needs and must no longer be allowed to be taken for granted. Showing up in faux 13th century Japanese habit, sitting in nice smelling rooms on cushions only arouses aloofness and spiritual bypass.

  4. So true. Winning an argument is a zero sum game, inviting resentment from the one who loses. Rousing the conscience invites understanding from the opposing view to see a different perspective. It may be more difficult and may not have instant results, but it plants a seed and preserves harmony and balance, rather than allowing conflict to destroy.

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