Everyday Life: Cause and effect are clear

Let’s talk about Newt Gingrich. Who was having an affair with his now-wife while married to his then-wife while excoriating Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky. Who claims to believe that Freddie Mac paid him $1.6 million for his historical expertise. Whose other ethical lapses fill page after page on the Web.

Let’s talk about Newt Gingrich because when we talk about Newt Gingrich, we are talking about us.

The common thread running through Gingrich’s actions is called personal exceptionalism: the belief that you are so extraordinary that the usual rules don’t apply. But Gingrich isn’t exceptional at all. Google “hypocritical gay Republicans” for one, and don’t forget Bill Clinton (“I never had sex with that woman!”) and former Louisiana Democratic Rep. Bill Jefferson ($90,000 cash stashed in his freezer). And on and on.

Or you could just look in the mirror. Because there is not one of us who secretly doesn’t think s/he is exceptional. Addicted to drugs or booze? Cheating on your spouse? Taking big risks with other people’s money? If you think that it’s okay if you’re the one doing it, that’s personal exceptionalism.

There’s a Zen story about that. It’s an old story, going back to the great eighth century Ch’an master Pai Chang, in Tang dynasty China.

Every week Pai Chang would give a dharma talk — a sermon — and every week there was this old man who would slip in quietly, sit in the back of the room and leave right after the talk. Nobody knew who the guy was. But one day he came up to Pai Chang after the talk.

“Long ago I used to be the Zen master on this mountain,” the old man said, “but I gave a wrong answer to someone and have been reborn a fox now for 500 generations.”

A little context may be needed here: being reborn a fox even once was not a good thing. Foxes were tricky shapeshifters (which is why this particular fox could look like an old man) who could not be trusted.

Pai Chang naturally asked what mistake the old man/fox had made 500 generations ago. “Someone asked me, Is an enlightened being subject to cause and effect? And I said no.”

And there it is, folks, personal exceptionalism at its most naked. The old man/fox had believed that it was possible to be so special, so extraordinary, so exceptional that you were exempt even from the laws of nature. So the laws of nature being what they are (according to ancient Chinese belief), this foolish man became a fox. Again and again and again — thus showing that, in fact, he was not exempt. That nobody is.

And what did Pai Chang say? “Cause and effect are clear.”

So next time you’re tempted to think you’re special, that the usual rules don’t apply to you, just remember: Cause and effect are clear. And nobody is exempt. Not Newt Gingrich. Not Bill Clinton. Not Bill Jefferson. Not me. Not you. Not anyone.