One of my favorite ideas from Buddhist psychology has always been the “near-enemy.” The idea of the “near-enemy” is that for every beneficial habit or more enlightened quality that we might develop in our mind, there is a devious, and highly intelligent version of confusion which tries to masquerade very closely as the positive trait.
For example, the near-enemy of metta or lovingkindness is not spite or malice, because those qualities are too clearly different from love. They are instead considered “far enemies,” easier to spot (not necessarily easier to transform, though). Instead, the near enemy to metta is conditional love, commodified care, affection which only enters into contractual obligations that begin with any form of the phrase “I love you if …” The “if,” usually means “if you conform exactly to my narrow view of comfort and security.”
The reason that the near enemy is such a potent teaching to contemplate is it gets right at the heart of our confusion. If we believe that inherently human beings are awake, compassionate, creative and smart, then how is it that delusions can survive in us at all? How does ignorance survive in the face of Buddha-nature? I hope this question has kept you up at night at least a little bit. It’s kept me up a lot.
The only answer I can come up with is this: confusion is NOT DUMB. Confusion is very smart. Ridiculously smart and sneaky. It knows how to co-opt the language of Wisdom, knows how to steal compassions logos and use them to its own advantage. That’s the only way delusion has a shot of avoiding Buddha-nature’s powerful gaze. To get smart and crafty.
What I’ve been toying around with is how the near-enemy works in the external world, outside the realm of personal psychology.
Here’s a good one: in the world of environmentalism, I’m starting to believe recycling is the near-enemy of true environmental action. I was first fully introduced to this argument in the seminal work Cradle to Cradle and now in the Back to the Sack project it has become clear that the plastics industry is incredibly supportive of recycling legislation over a more long term vision of the reduction of disposable culture.
In politics, Sarah Palin was the near-enemy of Hillary Clinton. That turned out not to be such a convincing one. Thank you Tina Fey for exposing that delusion.
And now, last week, the Republicans (yes I am equating them with the samsaric forces of delusion, more and more every single day that passes – wanna argue?) have seemingly found President Obama’s near-enemy, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. The skeptical side of me thinks maybe they got into a back room before last Tuesday’s Presidential Address and said, “wow, boys, they really got this popular handsome young dark-skinned fella up there. We can’t beat him, but maybe we can find someone of equal pigmentation.” If the ultra-conservative Jindal is Obama’s near-enemy, his national debut is being hailed as a Massive Fail, but I’ll let you judge via youtube below in case you missed the speeches.
What other good examples of near-enemies can you think of, either psychologically or culturally? Funny near-enemies preferred. Tragically funny are best.