This Too, Will Pass ~ DROPPING OUT

The following extract is from a letter of Leo Tolstoy, and was sent to me by someone in a Florida jail, who was deeply touched by it, as was I; although it was written at the end of the 19th century, much if not all of it is still relevant.

It was …….. written to a Russian woman in 1896 who asked Tolstoy for advice when her "Literature Committee" was closed by the government. The committee had been formed to spread literature among the Russian people, but the committee’s views as to which books were good for people to read did not conform to those of the government. In his letter, Tolstoy reveals that seeking approval from an unjust government is worth little, if anything at all, and examines one route to building true public enlightenment and a just government.

"There are people (we ourselves are such) who realize that our government is very bad, and who struggle against it. There have been two ways of carrying on the struggle; one way is by force. The other way is that which is preached and practiced by you—the method of the "Gradualists", which consists in carrying on the struggle without violence and within the limits of the law, conquering constitutional right bit by bit.

"Both these methods have been employed unceasingly within my memory for more than half a century, and yet the state of things grows worse and worse, and the power against which we struggle grows ever greater, stronger, and more insolent. Now that both methods have been ineffectually tried for so long a time, we may, it seems to me, see clearly that neither the one nor the other will do—and why this is so.

"The first way is unsatisfactory because (even could an attempt to alter the existing regime by violent means succeed) there would be no guarantee that the new organization would be durable, and that the enemies of that new order would not, at some convenient opportunity, triumph by using violence such as has been used against them, as has happened over and over again in France and wherever else there have been revolutions. And so the new order of things, established by violence, would have continually to be supported by violence, i.e., by wrongdoing. And consequently, it would inevitably and very quickly be vitiated like the order it replaced. So I think that, guided by both reason and experience, we may boldly say that this means, besides being immoral, is also irrational and ineffective.

"The other method is, in my opinion, even less effective or rational, because government, having in its hands the whole power (the army, the administration, the Church, the schools, and police), and framing what are called the laws on the basis of which the Liberals wish to resist it—this government knows very well what is really dangerous to it, and will never let people who submit to it, and act under its guidance, do anything that will undermine its authority. For instance, take the case before us: a government such as ours (or any other), which rests on the ignorance of the people, will never consent to their being really enlightened. It will sanction all kinds of pseudo-educational organizations, controlled by itself—as long as those organizations and publications serve its purpose, i.e., stupefy people. But as soon as those organizations, or publications, attempt to cure that on which the power of government rests, i.e., the blindness of people, the government will simply, and without rendering account to anyone, or saying why it acts so and not otherwise, pronounce its ‘veto.’ And therefore, as both reason and experience clearly show, such an illusory, gradual conquest of rights is a self-deception which suits the government admirably, and which it, therefore, is even ready to encourage.

"But not only is this activity irrational and ineffectual, it is also harmful. It is harmful because enlightened, good, and honest people by entering the ranks of the government give it a moral authority which but for them it would not possess. If the government were made up entirely of that coarse element— the violators, self-seekers, and flatterers—who form its core, it could not continue to exist. The fact that honest and enlightened people are found who participate in the affairs of the government gives government whatever it possesses of moral prestige.

"This is one evil resulting from the activity of Liberals who participate in the affairs of government, or who come to terms with it. Another evil of such activity is that, in order to secure opportunities to carry on their work, these highly enlightened and honest people have to begin to compromise, and so, little by little, come to consider that, for a good end, one may swerve somewhat from truth in word and deed. Entering into compromises—the limits of which can't be foreseen—enlightened and honest people (who alone could form some barrier to the infringements of human liberty by the government) fall at last into a position of complete dependency on government. They receive rewards and salaries from it, and, continuing to imagine they are forwarding liberal ideas, they become the humble servants and supporters of the very order against which they set out to fight.

"Thus, both reflection and experience alike show me that both means of combating government, heretofore believed in, are not only ineffectual, but actually tend to strengthen the power and irresponsibility of government.

"What is to be done? Just what those have done, thanks to whose activity is due that progress towards light and good which has been achieved since the world began, and is still being achieved today. And what is it?

"Merely the simple, quiet, truthful carrying on of what you consider good and needful, quite independently of government, and of whether it likes it or not. In other words: standing up for your rights, not as a member of the Literature Committee, not as a deputy, not as a landowner, not as a merchant, not even as a member of Parliament; but standing up for your rights as a rational and free man, and defending them, not as the rights of local boards or committees are defended, with concessions and compromises, but without any concessions and compromises, is the only way in which moral and human dignity can be defended.

"Only from the basis of a firm stronghold can we conquer all we require. True, the rights of a member of Parliament, or even a member of a local board, are greater than the rights of a plain man; and it seems as if we could do much by using those rights. But the hitch is that in order to obtain the rights of a member of Parliament, or of a committeeman, one has to abandon part of one’s rights as a man. And having abandoned part of one’s rights as a man, there is no longer any fixed point of leverage, and one can no longer either conquer or maintain any real right. In order to lift others out of a quagmire one must stand on firm ground oneself, and if, hoping the better to assist others, you go into the quagmire, you will not pull others out, but will yourself sink in.

"If, in order to pass most liberal programs, it is necessary to take part in public worship, to be sworn, wear a uniform, write mendacious and flattering petitions, and make speeches of a similar character, etc.—then by doing these things and foregoing our dignity as men, we lose much more than we gain, and by trying to reach one definite aim (which very often is not reached) we deprive ourselves of the possibility of reaching other aims which are of supreme importance. Only people who have something which they will on no account and under no circumstance yield can resist a government and curb it. To have power to resist you must stand on firm ground.

"And the government knows this very well, and is concerned, above all else, to worm out of men that which will not yield, in other words, the dignity of man. When that is wormed out of them, government calmly proceeds to do what it likes, knowing that it will no longer meet any real resistance. A man who consents publicly to swear, pronouncing the degrading and mendacious words of the oath, or to ask of the head censor whether he may, or may not, express such and such thoughts, etc.—such a man is no longer feared by government. Alexander II said he did not fear the Liberals because he knew they could all be bought, if not with money, then with honors.

"People who take part in government, or work under its direction, may deceive themselves or their sympathizers by making a show of struggling; but those against whom they struggle—the government—know quite well, by the strength of the resistance experienced, that these people are not really pulling, but are only pretending to. And our government knows this with respect to the Liberals, and constantly tests the quality of the opposition, and finding that genuine resistance is practically non-existent, it continues its course in full assurance that it can do what it likes with such opponents. The state of things is becoming worse and worse. And I think all this would not have happened if those enlightened, honest people who are now occupied in Liberal activity on the basis of legality, had merely claimed their rights as men, abstaining from taking part in government or in any business bound up with government.

"You wish to make trial by jury a mere formality; that is your business, but we will not serve as judges, or as advocates, or as jurymen. You wish to organize cadet corps, or classical high schools, in which military exercises and the Orthodox faith are taught; that is your affair, but we will not teach in such schools, or send our children to them, but will educate our children as seems to us right. You decide to reduce the local government boards to impotence; we will not take part in it. You prohibit the publication of literature that displeases you; you may seize books and punish the printers, but you cannot prevent our speaking and writing, and we shall continue to do so. You order us to serve in the army; we will not do so, because wholesale murder is as opposed to our conscience as individual murder, and above all, because the promise to murder whomsoever a commander may tell us to murder is the meanest act a man can commit.

"What can a government do with a man who is not willing publicly to lie with uplifted hand, or who is not willing to send his children to an establishment which he considers bad, or who is not willing to learn to kill people, or who says and writes what he thinks and feels? By prosecuting such a man, government secures for him general sympathy, making him a martyr, and it undermines the foundations on which it is itself built, for in so acting, instead of protecting human rights, it itself infringes them.

"And it is only necessary for those good, enlightened, and honest people, whose strength is now wasted in revolutionary, socialistic, or liberal activity, harmful to themselves and to their cause, to begin to act thus, and a nucleus of honest, enlightened, and moral people would form around them, united in the same thoughts and the same feelings; and to this nucleus the ever wavering crowd of average people would at once gravitate, and public opinion—the only power which subdues governments—would become evident, demanding freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, justice, and humanity. And as soon as public opinion is formulated, not only would it be impossible to close the "Literature Committee," but all those inhuman organizations against which the revolutionists and the liberals are now struggling would disappear of themselves.

"So those two methods of opposing the government have been tried, both unsuccessfully, and it now remains to try a third and a last method, one not yet tried, but one which, I think, cannot but be successful. Briefly, that means this: that all enlightened and honest people should try to be as good as they can, and not even good in all respects, but only in one; namely in observing one of the most elementary of virtues—to be honest, and not to lie, but to act and speak so that your motives should be intelligible to an affectionate 7-year-old boy; to act so that your boy should not say, "But why, papa, did you say so-and-so, and now you do and say something quite different?" This method seems very weak, and yet I am convinced it is this method, and this method only, that has moved humanity since the race began. Only because there were straight men, truthful and courageous, who made no concessions that infringed their dignity as men, have all those beneficial revolutions been accomplished of which mankind now have the advantage, from the abolition and torture and slavery up to liberty of speech and of conscience. Nor can this be otherwise, for what conscience (the highest feeling man possesses of the truth accessible to him) demands, is always, and in all respects, the activity most fruitful and most necessary at the given time. Only a man who lives according to his conscience can have influence on people, and only activity that accords with one’s conscience can be useful."

There are keys to many locks in this passage. Which of them should I use first?

When I was in school, the teachers used to appoint bully-boys—and girls—as prefects, to do their dirty work for them. Unable to control them by discipline, they found it easier to recruit them by flattering them with a higher position than the other students, and a little bit of power. We had some awful types as prefects—regular tyrants, they were—and few who were offered such positions turned them down. Power is so seductive and corruptive.

It is often said that every man has his price and can be bought. I don’t know if this is absolutely true. Are there really none whose principles are so strong that they can resist all offers, all attempts to make them compromise their stands?

Personally, I find it rather disgusting that Paul McCartney is now styled Sir Paul McCartney. It isn’t that it makes a mockery of the knighthood, but that he accepted instead of rejected it. He, from a working-class background, and as a member of the most-famous music-group in history, was a spokesman for his generation, and was tremendously successful as such. When the Beatles broke up, however, and he went solo, the songs he wrote and sang were mushy and sentimental, quite different from those he wrote with John Lennon, who was clearly the backbone of the group.

Early on in their career, in 1963, the Beatles played and sang at the annual Royal Command Performance, before members of the Royal Command Permance, and John declared, "Those of you in the cheap seats clap your hands; the rest just rattle your jewelry." He was a rebel, had his own dignity, and refused to bow and scrape before others; he later returned his MBE medal to the Queen, as a protest against Britain’s support of America’s involvement in Vietnam. I can’t imagine him approving of Paul’s acceptance of a knighthood; it is a betrayal of all they stood for. He can have his knighthood and immense wealth, but he lost his dignity and integrity in getting them, and was absorbed into and by the system he earlier defied. I recall how they shocked the establishment by being among the first to wear their hair long; they symbolized revolution and rebellion to the older generation, which greatly feared their influence on the young. And now, the generation that was young then, and of which I was a member, has, in turn, become the establishment, with opinions of its own about ‘the young generation.’ It’s always like this. No-one remains young, and our minds change.

At this point, let me come out with it and say that I was and am a ‘drop-out’; just look at me! I cannot and do not deny it, as this is the way I have come. I dropped out several times, not just once. I dropped out of the normal, workaday world to become a world-wanderer, getting drawn into things along the way that I now in some ways regret, but for which I am also grateful. I am not—like Silly Billy—going to admit to smoking marijuana but claiming that I didn’t inhale. I both smoked and inhaled it. Why? Because I was part of another system, and not yet able to stand alone and say "No." How hard it would have been to avoid those things in the ‘Sixties, traveling where and how I did!

Now, as I look back, I feel embarrassed at the silly things I did, but cannot deny I did them, and why should I? It is up to me to try to extract something good and useful from those days. I am now in a position to explain to others why things I did then were foolish and unskillful, and that there are better ways of opening one’s mind than by using a battering-ram.

When I finally saw how stupid and empty was the world of that drop-out, with its drug-use, and selfish hedonism, I cut my hair short as a symbol of turning my back on it, and dropped out again. By this time, however, I had discovered Dharma, so I had something to drop into, something better than I had ever known before or since, something which has sustained me through times of difficulty, and enabled me to resist being absorbed into another kind of system, something that gives me the strength to stand alone at the times I need to do so.

I became a monk. And if a monk is not a drop-out, what is he? It is the ultimate in dropping-out, is it not? To change so radically is to say—without words—that the life-style we have changed from is not worth much to us. It is a criticism of the accepted or standard life-style, with job, house, family, and so on. Why does the monk drop out and leave all this behind? He doesn’t have to do; no-one forces him to; it’s his choice. Is it worth it? What does he get in place of that which he walks out on? The respect of lay-people, with their bows and offerings? A seat on a higher level? A comfortable life in a building bigger than the one he left? Titles and fame? If so, how sad; such things are part of the life he is supposed to have rejected, are they not? They are Mara’s daughters! If this is all he gets, and is content with such baubles, he hasn’t really dropped out at all, and has not made it; he’s failed!

The Buddha was the greatest drop-out of all. Look what He walked out on: He left behind a life that most people of that time would have done anything for, and left it without looking back. And see what became of His dropping out: not only did He become enlightened Himself, but was able to lead so many others to enlightenment, and His influence continues until now.

More than 2,500 years on, however, we are back where He began, with a fully-formed system, an establishment, an organized hierarchy similar to the caste-system He so strongly rejected and denounced. Is it to become part of all this that we become monks, or to find something of what He found?

Just by donning a robe and shaving one’s head is enough for some people to respect us to the point of worshipping us. Isn’t something wrong here? No-one bows to the Queen of England these days (not to mention the President of the US, who is rather a joke now); people just shake her hand. How come, then, that people are still bowing to monks? Isn’t this practice out-of-date now, a thing to be outgrown? Monks who are worthy of respect neither need nor want such excessive respect, as they surely have something better and less fickle than public opinion. Those who are not worthy of it should not be shown it, as it can be more intoxicating than whiskey, and give rise to vanity, pride and other unwholesome qualities. There should still be respect, of course, but the respect of common courtesy,1 not that of unrealistic worship which expects something in return.

Respect should be earned, not just bestowed as a matter of course and tradition. And if it doesn’t come, never mind; there are better things than that, things that do not come and go. Find yourself!

Tolstoy spoke about being honest. It is a most difficult thing, for we must begin with ourselves. How to be honest with, and not deceive ourselves? It means to confront, acknowledge, accept, understand and overcome the image of ourselves that has been painstakingly built up over the years since our birth. This image is seldom accurate and usually very inaccurate; it is not us, or even a reflection of us. We and others have constructed it— consciously and unconsciously—to help us cope with life, to enable us to play a part and act on the stage of life. And what parts we play! But do we realize it is only a play, and that we are only acting? I mean, look at the popular ‘soapies’ that people like to watch: Peyton Place, Dynasty, Dallas, Coronation Street, and so on: they all feature characters that we like, dislike, admire, respect, loath, etc. But those characters, in real life, are probably quite different than they are on screen. They know they are only acting, and doing and saying things that they themselves would find amusing, shameful or loathsome in real life; but the things they would laugh or rage at if ‘real,’ make the play interesting. If asked about things they said or did on screen, they would not deny them, and would probably give quite a good account of and explanation for; they would not feel ashamed of them, otherwise no-one could be found to play those parts.

In real life, however, dare we be honest about the lower, selfish motives and feelings that we all have? Would—could—we ever admit to being jealous of another, for example? It's not easy, is it? It's much easier to rationalize, excuse, sugar-coat and cover them up, even if our attempts to do so are transparent to other people. Why do we do so? Why do we deceive ourselves so much? It is because of our immaturity, and the image that is so important for us to maintain. Actually, we fool no-one, not even ourselves; our efforts are a waste of time, and time is not money—as the old saying has it—but life. We waste our lives with our posturing and image-holding; it serves no purpose, and only causes suffering.

Can you—dare you—admit to disliking someone, and face and examine that feeling? Can you be honest instead of hypocritical about it? Could you say to that person: "I don’t like you?" and still carry on a working relationship with him/her, not letting your dislike rule everything, but putting it aside as a personal and subjective thing? Why is liking people so important? Why is it so important to us for others to like us? Are we not too concerned about others liking us? The desire to be liked is an impediment, and causes much trouble.

Are you—am I— a nice person? If you were someone else, would you like you? What are the qualities that are likable and unlikable in us? We are so complex, and such a mixture of many different qualities, are we not? Which of us is so complete, so perfect, that there is nothing about us that we do not feel ashamed of and would not like others to know about? Can we be honest about our imperfections and feelings, and accept ourselves as we are? Yes, we can. If we love, and if we feel loved, we can open up, without fear or shame.

When we are in love, we are more aware, and enjoy life; we live nearer to the moment, seeing it as an adventure. Love is an essential ingredient of the spiritual life—not the sensual, self-centered love fixed on a person as a possession, not the love that always asks more for self, but the love that sees and feels the unity of things, and radiates outward.


1.Not that courtesy is common; in fact, it becomes rarer and rarer as time goes on; I fear that this is one of the results of Democracy, whereby people are given equal rights and therefore think they are equal. No such thing! That is ignorance!

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