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On Expedience
 by Vivian Tsang
 April 9, 2015

In discussing the Buddhist practice, the word “expedience” tends to go hand in hand with “wisdom.” One slant of expedience can be seen as “appropriate to the situation,” as in, there exists a way that works for you. Say if you are a scientist, you may have a tendency to look at things the scientific way. Even it is not always the only way to look at things, it is still a valid (starting) point. A typical Buddhist saying says that there are 84,000 practices to Buddhahood. It is likely analogous to “all roads lead to Rome.”

On the surface expedience may appear to refer to a kind of moral relativism. Perhaps it is, but the word itself is not only to express an abstract moral high ground such as “equality” or “democracy.” If you observe its use in the English language, it carries within it a meaning of action. What is to be done such that it is practical? If it is merely a moral high ground about equality, it could easily degenerate into something not unlike the heated discussion of “religious freedom” in the US, where one person’s rights simply cannot co-exist with another’s. There is always a fight on whose rights reign supreme.

My first taste of the idea of co-existence in expediency was through the study of traffic flow in my graduate student days. The traffic consists of cars, bikes, pedestrians, and other moving objects and animals along the way. You need all these things to make up the traffic flow. Some are in motion, some are stationary, and some transitions from one mode to the other. There is a set of rules governing the flow of the traffic, such as the use of traffic lights and the dividing median on the road.

There are elements that may cripple the traffic, most notably, an accident or a massive construction. Even if it’s cripplingly slow, it is still a flow.

Someone I know was travelling to Beijing for work. Beijing, known for its pollution, is a deterrent for some. This person did not hesitate to express that sentiment. Knowing his penchant for the mathematical, I pointed out something as a leisurely distraction for him – the traffic – one major source of Beijing’s pollution.

You see, I have never been to Beijing but I heard stories about it. I used to know someone from Tianjin and he used to rave about how the dividing median could change on the spot (to adapt to the varying flow of opposing traffic), and that after years not visiting, it takes him a long time to get used to crisscrossing without getting hit by fast moving vehicles.

He claimed that the system is not accident-prone. And I believe him! Even without having to experience it myself. Living in Canada means that there are enough people coming from other countries making jokes about the tameness of the Canadian traffic in comparison to their home country’s. Now I come to think of it, I used to know a Mexican whose description is equally colourful.

Going back to the rights issue, I admit to be a terrible driver. Much as I pay lip service to the overall movement of traffic, my eyes are not always relaxed enough to pick up on things peripheral. At times of a free right turn, my husband has to warn me of, for example, an upcoming biker to the right of the car, or a distracted mother stepping out without looking.

It is not even a case of who has the right of the road. No one wants to get hit, right? Right? There are times one has to cross a busy road when there is not a traffic light or pedestrian crossing in sight. Sometimes an on-coming car would slam on the gas just to intimidate the person crossing.

In the end, what makes a traffic flow a flow is that the different moving objects co-exist in such a way that even with different destinations, they each gets to where they have to go.

Here, the sense of equality is beyond the conflicting of rights. As well, it is practical; it is rooted in action because one has no choice but to merge with the traffic, whether it is fast moving or slowed to a crawl.

One can still speak of rights. The sirens on the ambulance signal a need to urgently transport a patient.

In the Buddhist practice, we ask the person to learn to “rest.” How do you rest? Is sleeping rest? Is not thinking rest?

You see, the mind can be like a microcosm of the traffic flow. This rest begins with neither ignoring nor suppressing what comes to mind. The negative things tend to the hardest. They can be like the emergency vehicle sounding an alarm, they are not to be ignored or suppressed. But this does not persist on forever. When the vehicle has passed, the alarm goes away too.

There is a lifetime to all things. Imagine you are on your way home from work. When you arrive home, you (or your car) cease to be a part of the traffic. This goes with the things that come to (your) mind. A step of the resting is analogous to be part of the traffic, be it as a pedestrian, a vehicle and whatnot.

This rest is an active rest, not unlike the planets circling the sun. This rest can lead to a kind of pervasiveness, that one is one with the traffic. Of course being one with the traffic is already true even without the above mumbo jumbo. Isn’t it interesting?

The resting is not the be all and end all. But there is an action associated so it is not merely a moral discussion on right and wrong. In action, one has to be engaged with the situation where expediency/convenience matters. E.g., would you rather drive or take the bus? What if there is a major construction and perhaps walking twenty minutes to the subway isn’t so bad anymore?

In Chinese, a practitioner is 行人. Taken literally, it can be construed as a pedestrian or a traveller.

This is a grossly simplified take on expediency. I have not explicitly touched on wisdom much here. That is a discussion for later. Until then, safe travels.

 
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