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Keep Your Enemies Close, and Your Near Enemies Closer

posted by Ethan Nichtern

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.
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YouTube Preview Image



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Jerry Kolber

posted March 2, 2009 at 11:58 am


Hmm. Is nationalizing banks and discouraging private support of charities and hospitals by the nation’s top earners the near enemy of regulation and fiscal discipline? That’s the question on my mind this morning.



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Greg Zwahlen

posted March 2, 2009 at 12:05 pm


Ha, Bobby Jindal is totally the near enemy of Barack Obama. Except everyone recognized how pathetic his Mr. Rogers impression was.
I’ve concluded that whether you consider Buddha Nature a potentiality or an actuality, it doesn’t make sense either way. If all beings are already Buddhas, it is a contradiction in terms because the signature characteristic of a Buddha is absence of confusion. An unawake or confused Buddha is impossible.
On the other hand, if beings are not already Buddhas, it is hard to see how they could become Buddhas unless Buddhahood is a conditioned phenomenon, and therefore impermanent.



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localvore

posted March 2, 2009 at 10:32 pm


in the food movement, big organic business perhaps?
whole foods vs local greenmarket and csas?



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Julia May Jonas

posted March 3, 2009 at 1:16 pm


In the spirit of debate, I don’t think it works to say that Jindal is (or was) the near enemy of Obama or Palin is (or was) the near enemy of Clinton. Near enemy would be more like John Edwards to Barack Obama. Recycling (as you explain it) would definitely be the near enemy of environmentalism. I don’t think it’s an ersatz stand-in for the quality without any aspects of the quality, it’s more that it’s almost the quality, with the intention of the quality, but confused by our conditioning.



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Ethan Nichtern

posted March 3, 2009 at 1:25 pm


Good point TF (except some would argue BO was the near-enemy of JE and we got fooled).
It’s the spirit of trying to pull off a delusional look-alike that I was trying to go for, which is seemingly what the Republicans were doing with Jindal in the speech (I think at least).



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GZA

posted March 3, 2009 at 2:37 pm


An important point, though, as I understand it, is that the near enemy of a quality is superficially similar and yet fundamentally antithetical. So I think for that reason Bobby Jindal is more the near enemy of BO than Edwards.



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Julia May Jonas

posted March 3, 2009 at 3:14 pm


@rigden: Yes, I definitely think they were doing that.
@GZA: I don’t think so because Jindal is getting billed as the Conservative Obama. To analogize, that would be saying the near enemy of compassion was gentle ruthlessness, not pity. The way I’ve always heard near enemies discussed, psychologically, has been as traps that one can fall into in pursuit of the immeasurable states, not just the same outfit.



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GZA

posted March 3, 2009 at 3:23 pm


I would say that pity is superficially similar but fundamentally antithetical to compassion because it involves distance and condescension.



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Julia May Jonas

posted March 3, 2009 at 3:38 pm


Yeah but it thinks it is compassion. Jindal’s Republican’s don’t think that he is trying to do the same thing as Obama, they think he has the same effective outward trappings as Obama. Pity would be condescending to a homeless person as you gave them a sandwich. The Jindal comparison would be more like seeming to act compassionately towards a homeless person while picking their pocket.



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Greg Zwahlen

posted March 3, 2009 at 3:42 pm


Yes, but from the perspective of the undiscerning voter Jindal could be a near enemy of Obama.



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Julia May Jonas

posted March 3, 2009 at 4:00 pm


But the near enemy teaching is for the practitioner, not the undiscerning outsider.



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Greg Zwahlen

posted March 3, 2009 at 4:08 pm


The voter is the one who is the “practicioner” in the case of the analogy, in this case making a well-intentioned effort to cultivate a capable elected official.
Unfortunately, lots of voters are well-intentioned but undiscerning in this country.



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Julia May Jonas

posted March 3, 2009 at 4:31 pm


Well I suppose I thought that the practitioners were those that came to this blog, not the public as a whole. So I see what you’re saying. But I’ll still say because he’s a Republican it is different. If he were a hijacked, insincere Democrat who seemed Obama-esque that would be a different story but he’s not.
Oh and never unfortunately comma me again.



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Greg Zwahlen

posted March 3, 2009 at 4:37 pm


Yeah, I was thinking general public.



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