Saturday, October 30, 2010

Thoughts on Attachment (and Some Creative Writing Links)

I did something else with the previous post about writing, which you might see at a later time. But for now, I'd just like to offer a few comments and links to my new creative writing blog, as well as a post here about attachment. For those of you who have an interest, I have posted the following over at Creative Writing the Dharma:

*a poem about second language learning

*some haiku
from my early days as a Zen student

*an essay about medieval maps, the painter Vermeer, imagination, and Europe.

* and a short prose poem.

Now, let's take a look at some comments from Dean's current blog post on The Mindful Moment. About his 16 month old son, he writes:

The process of attachment, in seeing him do this, is really quite interesting. If I spot him before he makes his way over to the TV remote and remove it before he arrives he's not too upset. He'll just stand this a little disappointed look on his face and watch you walk away with this prize. If I get to it when he's already hovering over it he'll cry a little that something so close to his grasp was taken away. If I'm too late and he gets hold of it the level of emotional angst he'll experience will be proportional to how long he's had hold of it. If only for a second then not too bad. If he had it for 10 seconds or more then he'll let us know he's upset that we've taken it away.

But isn't this something we all do? I see people craving after their iPad's or iPhones (or whatever it is they desire) and if the deal falls through they are a bit disappointed. If we get our hands on it however and it gets stolen we'll wail and cry much like my son. Even as adults we do the same thing!! Our level of suffering is in proportion to our level of attachment.

This last line is most interesting to me. It gets at the way in which, for example, the habits we have for a long time are the hardest to break. For example, the fact that I sometimes bite my nails in response to stress and/or anxiety. This is an old, old habit of mine, dating back to childhood. And even though it's not as strong as it used to be, it's rare that my finger nails make it a month without being chomped on, at least a little bit.

But habits are just one kind of attachment. Or one way to describe how we might attach to someone or something. Lately, I have experienced a lot of opportunities to pay attention to attachments around identity. Honestly, they seem almost endless. Just when there is a letting go that happens, and some relief seems to come, right behind it another narrative comes flaring up in an effort to fill the gap. This isn't a terrible thing; it's just how it is.

Dean talks in his post about pushing beyond the boundaries you've created in your life. How the attachments to a certain way of living limited him and how he's been making some conscious effort to shift that. Right effort has really been on my mind lately, especially given that I had spent much of the past several years living a busy, sometimes in overdrive life, and now am in a period that's quite the opposite.

Attachment to spiritual teachings, rituals, and methods are pretty common. And I think as such, it's probably a good idea to go against the grain of whatever it is you hold precious once in awhile, to check that attachment. What's this have to do with Right Effort?

Here is a traditional set of teachings from the Maha-cattarisaka Sutta: The Great Forty:

Abandoning the wrong factors of the path

"One tries to abandon wrong view & to enter into right view: This is one's right effort...

"One tries to abandon wrong resolve & to enter into right resolve: This is one's right effort...

"One tries to abandon wrong speech & to enter into right speech: This is one's right effort...

"One tries to abandon wrong action & to enter into right action: This is one's right effort...

"One tries to abandon wrong livelihood & to enter into right livelihood: This is one's right effort."

All good stuff I'd say. And yet how easy it is to get hung up on "right" and "wrong," trying to maintain some sort of purity. If your like me, you probably have had some of that "good Buddhist" story running through your head. It's insidious. And if you have a whole community of people running that narrative, then it's doubly reinforced for each member.

So, what would it be like to deliberately enter into say "wrong speech" or "wrong action," not to be contrary, but to notice attachments to being seen as a good practitioner? For most of the past two years, I have been skipping out on retreat practice. The reasons behind this are a mixed bag, but lately it has occurred to me that doing meditation retreats is something that some Buddhist communities - including my own - view as part of being a dedicated practitioner. Dedicated is really just another word for "good" when you look at it closely. And I've noticed the tension I have experienced around this issue - how I sometimes get hooked on what my fellow dharma brothers and sisters are thinking about my absence from retreat practice. It's kind of silly when I think about it - wanting to be "seen" as a "good student" - because in the end, it's really not about that at all. Being respected and elevated within a community doesn't mean squat when it comes to breaking through greed, hatred, and ignorance. But it's so easy to forget that when you've spent much of your life trying to be liked and cared for by others.

Friday, October 29, 2010

What's Mindfulness Got to Do, Got to Do With it?

A few days ago, Trevor had a post on mindfulness I enjoyed. Mindfulness has become one of those spiritual words that has entered the popular culture, been applied to almost anything, and now is virtually meaningless. It's been really interesting to be studying the Anapanasati Sutra - mindfulness of breathing - under these circumstances. Trevor writes:

I don't practice mindfulness. That is, I don't practice mindfulness in the way we often talk about it. One does the laundry or sweeps the floor, or answers the phone, or types a blog entry, and one says, "I should do this mindfully." This gives you another thing to do, maybe even two more things to do. First, there's the task at hand, and then there is the task of bringing mindfulness to the task, and then there is some ideal state of "doing things mindfully," which - according to some folks - means you're smiling at your breath, or something like that.

I've noticed this adding on experience at times while working with verses from the tetrads of the sutra. This afternoon, I sat with the phrase "gladdening the mind," saying it to myself as I breathed in and out. Basically, I found that I would ride it with the breath for a few rounds, and then go silent, watching what was there. A few minutes would go by, and then I'd say it again a few times and then go silent. What I found was that if I went beyond saying the phrase to myself more than a few times, it felt forced and contrived. Added on. However, I found that once I had done the pattern I just described a few times, then out of the silence, the phrase just started coming now and then. In other words, once I let go of trying to focus on "gladdening the mind," it came up on it's own.

This is where I find a certain rub in formal practice. There seems to be a need at times for a bit of effort to turn yourself in the "right direction." And yet, I'm guessing that a lot of the time, we fail to let go of that efforting, and think that it's all about maintaining such activities.

Trevor continues along similar lines:

This makes me wonder, Is it helpful for us to suggest that someone do something "with mindfulness"? I've often found that to be a confusing instruction. I remember visiting a communal house here in Austin, where a group of young people live and practice together. The gate of their fence had a sign on it that read something like, "Please enter mindfully." And I thought to myself, Well, crap! I was doing OK until you told me to 'enter mindfully'! I was just walking through the gate, and now I'm all self-conscious! Well, that might sound angry when you're reading it, but I wasn't angry, just a little confused. I think that's when I started thinking a little more critically about how we talk about the practice of mindfulness.

I have two reactions to this example he brings up. The first is that it's interesting from a practice standpoint to examine what happens in these kinds of moments. This "enter mindfully" sign triggers a self focus for Trevor. I'd imagine it might for many of us. So, what's that about exactly?

Secondly, though, I think the instruction that's trying to be given by the sign here isn't clear. Just how does one "enter mindfully"? Screw pat answers, and consider it for real the next time you enter a door or gate. Every entry point is different, and thus a single approach isn't going to fly.

I think this, for me, is one of the main troubles with all this talk about "mindfulness." It tends to be pre-packaged. And kind of lifeless in a certain way.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Valley Girl Dharma

Inspired by Daniel's comment about Valley Girls and Buddhist blogs, I decided to write a short, three act play. In case some of you think I'm always a thought, but serious guy, this piece of writing should blow a few holes in that theory. And because I'm not only a blogger, but also a long time reader and writer of various forms of creative writing, I decided to start another blog. I don't know how often I'll update it, but I plan on linking to it from Dangerous Harvests whenever I have new material. It's all set up for you to become a follower as well, so feel free to join thew revolution, lol!

Anyway, here's the play for your viewing pleasure. Like, oh my God! Enjoy!

Eat Shit and Love Fully

There seem to be a lot of posts recently about the messiness of life. I highly endorse this, and think it should become a regular practice. Shiny, attractive posts filled with gorgeous chunks of wisdom are all fine and well, but really, don't most of us have enough candy in the house already?

A few nights ago, I watched an old Japanese film about wealthy young adults rebelling against tradition in post-WWII Japan. Given all the destruction they had witnessed as children, perhaps you'd think they would have a deeper appreciation for life. But for most of the characters in this movie, the opposite is true. They frequently claim boredom as the driving force behind their actions. They believe in "nothing" in particular, and spend their days drinking, screwing, water skiing, playing cards, and generally wasting their days away. Because nothing is really fulfilling, there are frequent attempts to escalate things, including an older brother who attempts to steal his younger brother's girlfriend because he wants some good sex. It's a man-driven film, but I can think of women-driven films that fit the same bill, like any number of Valley Girl centric films from the 1980's.

What's so fascinating about the people in these films, and those who live like them in real life, is that although they dive into dark, rejected, and sometimes dangerous areas of experience, it's done so in a surface kind of way. In other words, these people are in the messiness of life, but they never learn embody and integrate it into the rest of their experience. They are the opposite of the "always look on the bright side of life" types - cue Monty Python. Whereas the former drown in the sea of samsara, the latter try to avoid looking at the sea completely.

Emma, over at The Chronic Meditator brings up a favorite subject of some Zennies: shit.

Who ordered this truck-load of dung?

Life is like this. You’re sitting in your monastery, or you’re sitting at home or in your office, and then someone delivers you a whole truckload of shit. It’s right in front of your house or office.

There are two things about this delivery of shit in your life. The most important thing is, you did not order it. Life is like that. ‘Why me?’ you say. You didn’t deserve it, this thing just happened to you. You didn’t order it and you’re not responsible for it.

But, the second thing is that no-one saw it coming so you can’t ring up someone and get them to take it away. You’re stuck with it. So the first thing is that these things can happen and no-ones to blame. And the second thing is that you’re stuck with it.

As Emma goes on to point out, even though we are "stuck with the shit" in a certain sense, this doesn't mean we actually have to be stuck with it. Do you understand? Every moment is an opportunity to either hold on or let go. To try and carry more or to be carried more by the world.

And I think when it comes down to it, it's helpful to look your view of shit - whatever you think is shit - straight in the eyes. No flinching. No attempts to justify it - the attitude I mean. Because behind the story about how terrible something is or how much you don't like it, is an attempt to solidify yourself, to put a definitive cap on what is happening or has happened.

Recent reappearances of old girlfriends in my life have shown me how useless those attempts at narrating finality are. Recent disappearances of a few people I thought were going to be new friends have shown me how important it is to hold lightly any narratives about beginnings. In fact, an hour after my nephew was born, I had an emotionally intense, dramatic dream where my father and I both dropped him and let him get too close to a drain, then watched him get sucked down it. Even though I didn't put a lot of stock into it, until I actually saw the baby with my own eyes, a tiny part of me worried I'd be walking into a tragedy as I went down the hall in the hospital.

Barry over at Ox Herding offers this:

the Buddha Way goes through the self, an untidy and unruly place that contrasts with our aspirations. So grab some gloves 'cause we're gonna get dirty.

Mumon, who writes Notes in Samsara, posted this passage from the Lankavatara Sutra on Tuesday:

The Tathagatagarbha* holds within it the cause for both good and evil, and by it all the forms of existence are produced.

Similary, the Roman playwright, Terence (2nd century BCE) wrote:

Homo Sum: humani nil a me alienum puto

I am human; nothing human is foreign to me.

If we sustain our practice, we will inevitably encounter the foulest of aliens and demons (along with angels and devas). We may not want to touch but this is the soil that nourishes our relationship with all humanity.

The challenge is to develop the ability to "get our hands dirty," but not be poisoned by that dirt.

When facing life as it is, it's often helpful to remember this, from the blog of Jodo Shinshu Minister Toshikazu Arai:

Whenever I hear of natural calamities, I cannot help realizing that our seemingly "normal" and "eventless" daily life is actually a miracle, a gift from nature. We humans have developed science and technology and are acting as if we were the rulers of the entire earth. We are even trying to extend our influence to the moon and other planets. However, we mustn't forget the fact that the human species came into existence after many rises and extinctions of other species. It is said that even the human species faced extinction several times in its existence of about 5 million years. We should appreciate the fact that we are only granted a limited time of existence on this planet and on this universe.

Whether something is abundantly joyful, devastating, or fairly neutral, just being here and experiencing it is kind of amazing. The whole planet could be taken out by something in space, or by own stupidity, tomorrow for all we know. Since I tend to lean too hard on the side of being "good" and "upstanding," keeping this in mind has allowed me to let go of some of that purity bullshit. Alfred Lord Tennyson famously penned these lines in 1850:

I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

True love includes the whole works. It includes the times your handed a truckload of shit, and the times you transgress even your own deeply cherished values. In other words, you have to learn how to embrace your inner asshole in order uphold the Bodhisattva vows, or whatever vows you have taken into your life. And you also must learn that the very definition of a "transgression" can never be fixed in this fluid life of ours. That which we think was a terrible mistake might not turn out to be so. And that which we thought was a pile of shit dropped at our doorstep may actually be the perfect meal for this moment in your life.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"Land Hurricane"

What a wild night. We've have such strange weather here in Minnesota. The temperature dropped. The winds are blowing everything all over the place. I saw the first snowflakes of the season this morning. A local news outlet called the storm a "land hurricane," which is a bit much, but still it made for tough sleeping.

I woke up at 4:45 am and walked out into the living room and looked over at my phone. All was quiet, so I went back to sleep. About an hour later, I woke up again, and did the same thing. This time, I saw the message light blinking. Half awake, I listened to the message. The baby had come, a few days early, to the surprise of almost everyone. I'm now an uncle!

At 3 am, my sister and her boyfriend had been at home, awake for most of the previous day. They knew it was close, but I guess it didn't feel as close as it really was. Yes, it is their first child, but both had been preparing for months, doing everything they could to learn about babies and the birthing process. So, it was surprising to say the least to wake up to that phone message, and find out that they had made it the hospital maybe 45 minutes before the birth happened.

I have never been much of a baby person. In fact, I've often worried about getting girlfriends pregnant in the past, feeling like having a kid wasn't part of the script I had about my life. Maybe it still isn't, however, holding my nephew this afternoon, I felt some of that baby angst slide away, and realized to some degree why it is that most people gush over the little ones. There aren't really words for it. But it's truly amazing that the kid in my arms had been in my sister's stomach just eight hours earlier.

And that he came during a wild storm, appearing after a wild rush across town to the hospital in the middle of the night, makes it that much more amazing.

May he be happy, healthy, and joyful!

*Photo of a house in St. Paul, MN after Tuesday's storm.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Overriding the Desire for Social Acceptance

There is a strong desire running through most of us to both appear happy and healthy to others, and to actually be happy and healthy ourselves. When the latter is absent, often the pressure to put on appearances is heightened. Others worry, and you don't want others to worry. So you try to manage yourself and also others by sweeping all the shit under the rug. Pretty damned screwy.

It's vitally important to explore the rough edges that appear in your life. To not automatically default into a view that says feeling depressed or sad or upset means you're faulty, in need of therapy, or some other such story. It's true that some of us fall too deeply into despair or rage, for example, and need to go for intensive help of some sort. However, I believe in this modern world littered with psychologists and spiritual programs emphasizing psychology, it's really easy to embrace the story that you're in trouble, and need to "do therapy."

One of the symptoms of all of this is over-emphasizing "positive thinking and acting." I found two recent posts addressing this issue, which are worth a look.

The Dalai Grandma has been writing, among other things, about her experience with needing a kidney transplant. One of the reasons I'd recommend her blog is that she presents the whole situation honesty, and in detail. Sometimes, she's living in hopefulness and joy. Other times, she's cloudy and disconnected. And still other times, it's crankiness and frustration. In other words: reality.

I don't like to be told to look on the bright side, though of course there's a reason I undertook this kidney transplant, to live much better, much longer, once we're through this. But as for putting a spin on my experience, there is this experience, what it is, in total, though it's only that - experience. Today it's been unpleasant. Much of the day in bed trying to be warm, cold sweats, blurred vision, inability to concentrate, nose running. Immunosuppressants are very strong. My nurse told me to eat when I take them (3 times a day) and that cut down on stomach pain and belching. At least I'm not nauseated. (I know, that's thinking positive. And at least I haven't come down sick in some other way, and there are many ways. And I'm not "in rejection." In other words, this is working fine. A good recovery.)

It seems to me it's best when whatever one might call "positive" thinking comes out naturally, manifesting through one's experience, and not out of an attempt to please or pacify or avoid. And we don't need to be dangerously ill in order to experience a shift in perspective about something that we've suffered over in the past. But obviously, when such things come, the intensity is hard to ignore.

Emma over at the Chronic Meditator has some similar reflections in her latest post.

Here's what I'm exploring...

If I have a day when I feel miserable, bitter, and very ungrateful about being sick...should I feel a preference that this day not be that way? Should I feel a preference that I feel at ease and peaceful being sick? Or should I have no preferences ?

For me, this exploration is very rich. I'm suddenly allowing all these really difficult feelings to flow through my body - boredom, frustration, anxiety about the future, terror, emptiness, and despair. I know this all sounds really miserable, and not like 'good news' at all, but I have this strong feeling that allowing these feelings to flow is really my path.

I resonate with this sense of flow, and letting go of claiming or privileging one set of experiences over another. One of the challenges I have experienced with allowing this kind of flow, or paying attention to the flow, is that it shows you the instability of "yourself" and your identities. People ask you how you're doing and you aren't quite sure what to say. Who am I? becomes more central of a question, which probably means you're pointed in the right direction, but it also shifts how you interact with others - to the point, where some of the significant people in your life might struggle to relate to you, and you to them.

When faced with this awkward, unstable ground, I often, you often, all of us often choose some sort of bypass. Positive thinking is just one form. But the point is that instead of feeling awkward, unstable, and not terribly in knowing, we opt to do something that plugs us back into the socially accepted field. In other words, we opt to maintain social acceptance over discovering who we truly are.

This shouldn't be something we "get down" about. It's pretty hardwired into humans to do what we can to maintain some level of social acceptance. But I think awakening in this life requires some bucking of that, some willingness to override that collective impulse that drives us to turn away, disown, and even hate part of our experience.

p.s. The image is a nod to my sister, who loves Napoleon Dynamite. I didn't care for it much to be honest.

Friday, October 22, 2010

No Resolution from the Outside

I have been sitting with longing this morning. It's been interesting to watch it shift and change over the past hour. A few minutes of irritation. Followed by a curious uproar of suspicion towards the strangers sitting next to me, which then morphed into a desire to be invisible, and then some bone deep sadness, and finally these words running through my mind "There is no resolution from the outside."

This week has been filled with unfinished conversations. Phone calls missed. E-mails coming and going with questions not answered, or perhaps answered by not answering. I have been on both ends - not responding to a few people, and also not being responded to by a few others. It's gotten me noticing how attached I can get to having human contact, and specifically, to being loved and appreciated by others. There is nothing unique in this. I don't know a person on the planet who doesn't, at some level, long for love and appreciation (even if in sometimes very warped ways). But when you start to pay attention to this longing closely, you'll notice something interesting about it - nothing is ever enough to fulfill it.

When I was younger, I believe I tied my entire "self-worth" or sense of how I was in the world to how others viewed me. Again, this is probably pretty commonplace, but I'm starting to think most of us lie to ourselves as "mature adults" by saying that we outgrew that phase in our lives. Have you? Are you sure?

During our class at the zen center Wednesday evening, a fellow student talked about her excessive checking of e-mail during the day. For her, it was about distracting herself from some larger project or commitment, a way to check out of being present with what was currently on her plate. I also check my e-mail too often, and when I am at home, I also find myself checking the phone for messages, or listening for a ring a bit too often. And sitting here now, I can see that it's all about trying to fill that longing which cannot be filled in such a way.

There is no resolution from the outside. Having a lot of time on your hands, without many obligations, allows for interesting things to happen. Some days, I have found myself cycling through all kinds of energy - from painful loneliness to an amazing sense of connected - all in a matter of hours. It's funny. I can almost see my father now (who is a regular reader), writing me to say he's sorry I'm feeling down. But what I've been experiencing lately is too fluid to label in that way. When I started writing this post, I did feel down. Now, I don't at all. Yesterday evening, I felt discouraged by how many unfinished are alive in my life right now, and then stepped out of my apartment, saw a gorgeous sunset, and all of that disappeared.

Living is an unfinished story. This is something else I'm seeing more and more. An old girlfriend, who lives a block away from me, but who slowly backed out of my life over a period of six month three years ago, suddenly reappeared for a few days in my e-mail in-box. I had figured our particular story was closed at "and now she lives down the street from me in silence." But that didn't turn out to be the case, and even if I now never hear from her again, which is fairly possible, what I thought was an ending turned out not to be.

Past lives. It seems to me that anything past is a past life. And yet, even those who have definitely gone from my life, like the dead, aren't completely past. Yesterday, my father sent me a quote from my grandfather, joking that it would make a good t-shirt slogan. Grandpa used to say "Life's great if you don't weaken!" Given how he went, several years of disappearing from the world through Alzheimers, his words seem pretty damned true. And this little fragment, among others, is still with me as I write this now. He's gone, but also not.

That longing to love and be appreciated also is a longing to love and appreciate others. To be able to. And to keep being able to. When I'm thinking about an old girlfriend, or my dead grandfathers, or a handful of old friends I never see anymore, it seems that more than anything else, I want that mirrored effect to come through us again. To have that person love me and appreciate me in person. Right now. And to be able to love and appreciate them in person. Right now.

Yet, that is living your life from the outside of a locked window. You keep thinking if only such and such happens, if only so and so were here, you would get inside. But it doesn't work. This longing is deeper than anything, or anyone, you can find to try and feed it with. So, stop trying to feed it. Enjoy your friends. Family. Lover. Job. Whatever. But stop believing that any of it will be enough to fill that hole.

I'm saying this to myself, right now, but also to anyone who is interested. Perhaps it sounds a bit depressing, that we all have some hole you might call longing that can't be filled. But I think it sounds depressing because few of us have bothered to study it, to really pay attention to it, and maybe come to some understanding. If you're like I have been much of my life, you hear about a longing that can't be fulfilled, and you run. Or start throwing things in the hole. Anything but stay with it, and see how it shifts all the time.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Buddhist Commodities Through French New Wave Cinema

I've been watching a lot of foreign films lately. One particular period I have been hanging out in is the French New Wave. Given the current upheavals in France over pensions, retirement, immigration, and a whole host of other things, it's fascinating to watch these films from half a century ago that ruminate on many of these issues' beginnings. A pair of Jean-Luc Godard films, Made in the USA and Masculin,Feminin, I have found particularly interesting for their blunt exposure of crash consumerism, and the vapid selfishness that seems to come with those who embrace it.

I stumbled upon the t-shirt above on a recent ID Project post. It almost could have come straight from a Godard scene, framed by some character reading from a Buddhist sutra (Godard often has characters reading from some grand work of fiction or non-fiction.) Part of me loves the boldness of the shirt, it's offering to us a reminder that this isn't going to last. Another part of me sees this thing consumerism does - turning every last word, object, and experience into a product for purchase.

If you filled a city full of people wearing such t-shirts, the radical jolt would disappear almost completely. It would become mostly, just another hip shirt. And eventually, not a "hip" one, but just another shirt. And eventually, no one would produce them anymore, and those wearing them would wear them all out.

What I find so interesting about the 60's Godard films is that the characters are soaked in pop culture, often saying wise things, but you never truly believe that any of them have actually learned to be wise themselves. They are kind of like sprinkler systems, putting out the fires of emptiness and stupidity by dispensing some smart language. But it only lasts a little while, and before long, they need to do it again, because anyone watching has grown bored of them as people, and they are also bored of themselves.

I suppose t-shirts with Buddhisty sayings are helpful at some level. Anything can be a dharma gate. And yet, how easy is it to think that such props are great tools - that certain fancy experiences are required to awaken - that we are each the stars of some movie that will someday be loved by millions.

Whose dreams are you living out anyway? Do you know? It's very true that "this body will be a corpse." Now what? See, already I'm looking for another cookie to eat.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Maybe Impermanence isn't what You Think

Melody over at This is Me had an interesting post about relationships yesterday. Here are the first two paragraphs:

From time to time I've had patients tell me that everyone who comes into their lives eventually leaves them. Upon discussion, they are usually able to identify at least one person who has consistently been there for them (thereby acknowledging that not everyone leaves them). Still, they feel abandoned and unlovable.

I've given this some thought and have reached the conclusion that it is the rule - and not the exception - for most people who come into our lives to eventually leave. Sometimes there are reasons - someone moves away or you have an argument - and sometimes there really isn't any reason. You simply "lose touch" with one another.

This coming and going has been on my mind a lot lately. There has been plenty of it happening for me over the past few months, more intensely it seems than at many other times in my life. Old friends going. New friends coming. Old girlfriends peeking out again from behind the tress. Others not sure if they are coming or going. A new family member coming. Maybe there will also be one going soon as well. Hard to tell for sure.

On one level, no one stay with you all the way. Whether it's through breakup, growing apart, or death - everyone eventually "goes" from your life. On another level, even the people we are the closest to are coming and going in every moment, eluding our grasp even as we hold them closely. And on still another level, this coming and going of people in our lives is just what we see, feel, and experience as such. It isn't happening in the way we think it is at all.

Like Melody's patients, I sometimes feel abandoned. It's easy in this fleeting world of ours to sometimes feel that you're being left behind by others, tossed away for someone or something else. In fact, you can feel this even when someone or a group of someones is right in the room with you, talking to you and spending time with you. So it's not really about them in some senses. It's about something nagging at you from within, hoping that another person will come and rub a balm all over you.

It's been many years since I felt "unlovable" as some of Melody's patients do, but I remember that one as well. For me, it was always tied with making mistakes, and not being "perfect" whatever that meant at the time.

But even if those of us who feel like we are loved, and lovable, can still get mired in abandonment. The wondering why someone has gone. Or why they have returned to muck around at the edges, but not really to fully come back into your life. It's not easy in a world full of impermanent people, places, and things to be truly ok with all the coming and going that goes on.

So, maybe it's best to let yourself not be ok sometimes. To not try and be stoic, hard-nosed, and faux enlightened about the ways in which you struggle with relationship comings and goings.

Because, think about it, most of the time, it's difficult to know if someone is coming or going for sure. Part of the struggle, much of the struggle perhaps is in wanting to have things defined, finalized, boxed away as past or present. And life just isn't like that. My long dead grandfather still "comes into my life" at times. And I have had a friend for well over a decade who seems to be long gone, even though he pops up in my life from time to time.

Maybe all of this is pointing to the fact that impermanence itself isn't exactly what people tend to think of it.

*Image - Picasso, Girl Before Mirror

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Catholic Church Closings, Rational Buddhists, and the Murder of the Imagination

The local Archdiocese just announced the closing of 20 churches, with mergers of others to follow. It's the largest restructuring in the Twin Cities Catholic history, and clearly shows that attendance is lagging at best. The announcement comes just weeks after the release of a controversial DVD that was sent to the homes of over 400,000 Minnesotan Catholics. It's main thrust is an anti-gay, pro-heterosexual marriage message that urges people to vote for candidates that represent those views, and to push for a Marriage Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution. While a certain percentage of Catholics stand right behind the current archbishop and his highly conservative political agenda (he recently denied communion to supporters of gay marriage), it's definitely not a majority. In fact, even some parishioners who are against gay marriage and abortion - the two heaviest planks on the local Archdiosese's docket - aren't happy with decisions to deny communion and marginalize GLBTQ members of the broader church community.

As far as I'm concerned, the out of tuned-ness of the Catholic church hierarchy these days - for God's sake they're trying to bring back the Latin mass - is a major reason for the disappearance of their congregations. Any group that doesn't balance history and tradition, with innovation and modernization, is doomed to fade. I think this is especially true when it comes to groups tapping into core human values.

Which leads me to article taking aim at Stephen Batchelor's approach to Buddhism. Batchelor might be considered a member of the opposite extreme in Buddhism to people like our current local Archbishop. Whereas Bishop Nienstedt represents clinging to tradition (or what's believed to be tradition), Batchelor represents a clinging to innovation (albeit one to an imagined tradition). They are, in my view, doing similar things in opposite ways. Whereas Bishop Nienstadt is suppressing all forms of progressive congregational leadership and message, Batchelor is trying to jettison elements of Buddhism, such as rebirth and the law of karma, that have been present from the beginning. Both use foundational texts - the Bible and the Pali Canon - as platforms for their arguments, another fascinating similarity.

My interest in all of this concerns the point I made above about balancing tradition and innovation. This seems to be something humans struggle with in general, not just in matters of spiritual life. And perhaps it's supposed to be that way. In relative world, everything is impermanent, right? No matter how well we bring the most vital of the past forward, eventually that past will simply be past.

One of the reasons I dislike the Buddhist model presented by Stephen Batchelor is that it is too rational, too heady - and dare I say it, kind of boring. There's little room in it for the wacky, mind blowing irrationality of koans, even if Batchelor doesn't explicitly dismiss them. There's zero tolerance in his model for the wild narratives of the Lotus Sutra, the Jataka Tales, or any number of other spiritual teaching stories. And really, when it comes down to it, I'm not terribly sure where the heart, with all it's difficult to "know" influence on the mind, within Batchelor's framework.

It would be foolish to suggest that Stephen Batchelor is a lone wolf crying out in the wilderness. All across the Global North Buddhist landscape, there are efforts to eliminate or downplay the less rational, practical elements of Buddhism. And I think to some degree this is a mistake, precisely because even in this modern age, humans need vibrant stories to learn by. Perhaps we can use the tools of scientists and secular humanists, for example, to understand these stories in a different way from our ancestors, who might have been prone to believing they were concretely real too much. But to eliminate all traces of the irrational, the fancy, the wild is, in my view, like destroying a rain forest and replacing it with fields of corn and soybeans. Sure, there are practical benefits here. But at what cost? In other words, say we moderns discredit and banish all those mythological tales about the Buddha, and other teachers that follow. What will we have then?

The way I see it, there is a kind of murder of the imagination going on in both the Catholic church hierarchy and in rationally bent Buddhists. For the church leadership, there is a marked failure to imagine how Jesus might actually apply his wisdom to the world we live in today. And for Buddhists like Mr. Batchelor, there is a failure to imagine how stories which may have no basis in reality can lead us straight into reality.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Calm is Not Boring

To some extent, in our culture, we associate calm with a certain relaxed dullness, like lying in a hammock on a summer afternoon after a hard day's work. On the other hand, we are often alert but tense, as when we face danger or financial problems ... We associate alertness with a crisis mode. But this polarization is not intrinsic to human consciousness. What we are gradually learning in this practice is utter calm that is highly alert, like the frog that Suzuki Roshi used to talk about, sitting on a lily pad.

Larry Rosenberg, Breath By Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation

I experienced this utter calm during our weekly class at the zen center last night. As people talked about their experiences, or ideas about the teacher's talk, I found myself listening simultaneously to what was being said and what was coming up within. I took in the visuals - the lights outside our zendo, the piles of dirt from the road construction, my dharma brothers and sisters, the jagged crack along the floor. And I sat with the rising and falling of my chest, the entering and fading away of every breath. Until a few lines from Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life arose, I experienced the familiar anxiety that comes before wanting to share, and then I spoke them:

There's nothing that does not grow light
through habit and familiarity,
putting up with little cares,
I'll train myself to bear with great adversity.

I've been working with these lines for about two and a half years now. In order to keep them with me daily, I chant them silently to myself as I brush my teeth every night before bed.

Sitting here now, I can see where this teaching is a gateway into that utter calm I experienced, and Rosenberg and Suzuki were speaking about. Because all of those "little cares" that arrive in our lives have the ability to muck things up greatly, if we can't meet them as they are in the moment. The pain in your back, for example, easily can lead to tension, and then irritation, and then angry acting out of some kind. So it often goes.

Many people come to Buddhism seeking calm and peace, but don't really understand what calm and peace actually are. And since it's easy enough to get to that "relaxed dullness" through things like television, drinking, eating, and other such commonplace activities, some of us fail to notice the presence of actual calm and peace.

I know I used to meditate like mad, associating calm with boredom, and thinking zazen was kind of an endurance contest I had to win somehow. In this, there was no room for the world to fully enter, to be "confirmed by the ten thousand things" as Dogen once said.

Can you be like the frog, taking it all in, ready in a moment's notice to eat the meal that comes?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Yoga Activism and its Discontents

I have been reading and commenting on some fascinating posts about yoga and social action, including this one and this one. It's a fascinating discussion that really, in my opinion, shows the many struggles to merge spiritual practice with social action in the larger world. Please go over and read the posts and the comments that follow each for more details.

The following issues struck me as noteworthy.

1. Many commenters slammed the author of the Tikkun post, Be Scoefield, as having an overly aggressive, shaming, and mean-spirited tone. While I think he makes unsubstantiated generalizations in places, I honestly feel that much of the "tone argument" is really a smokescreen for hurt feelings and bewilderment as to why the author is criticizing the work of the program in question, Off the Mat. Perhaps I'm just missing something here.

2. The responses of one of the program's trainers, Nikki Myers, are troubling, especially given the influence someone in her position would probably have with participants.

Her first response offers some clarification of one of the programs in question.

There seems to be some confusion about the OTM programs that you “investigated”. The 7 week program is designed to help people uncover their passion and how they can turn that into action within there local communities. Many outstanding projects have been created from this work all over the united states. One of which is the blossoming of my project the yoga of 12 step recovery, serving those affected by addiction.

The Seva Challenge is designed to mobilize the yoga community into action. Not sure what you mean by exotic, but that is certainly not what I would call working in a toxic garbage dump in Cambodia or laying bricks in the pouring rain while building a school in Uganda.

This is helpful in terms of showing that Scofield's focus on the international part of the program is only one facet of the work being done. However, Ms. Myers moves on into suggesting that the entire post made by Mr. Scofield is about the author's personal failings and hangups.

Your blog on spiritual activism seemed to focus a lot on activism with little emphasis on spirituality. Spirituality and healingis a huge component of the work in the 5 day intensive. This program takes into consideration the emotional well being and motivation of a person who wants to serve. It recognizes that without the tools to process the shadow aspect, it is their shadow that motivates their action. This leads to reactivity, judgement, shut down, defensiveness and burn out – the tone of which was evident in the blog as well as in the comments where you openly took ownership for your emotional fatigue and the resulting reactions. . This is precisely the work that OTM suggests that those who choose to engage in outreach consider because these are the tools necessary for activism to be done from a place of equanimity, patience and respect. The inner work reflects upon the outer work. This is precisely the environment I recommend you explore for clearly the work you’ve done is a reflection of your own shut down. Unfortunately with your intelligence and incredibly capable skills, you can create more harm than good when what is driving you is unresolved anger.

Scofield responds to this by saying:

Myself and others have been wondering about how and when feminist, cultural awareness and power dynamics factor into the trainings. What texts, articles, ideas, methods, workshops and teachings are presented. Again, I haven’t found it yet.

And he receives the following from Ms. Myers in response to his question:

I can’t help wondering why it is so important for you to examine articles, text, publications, etc. Given your writings, perspective, and history of taking things out of context – why would OTM ever offer to show you anything? Besides that, who made you the sheriff? This occurs to me as arrogance gone wild. Please consider taking the training.

I don't know if there is a history with this particular writer concerning the OTM organization which is playing into the defensiveness of this response. If there is a history, then I would respond quite differently to what I am seeing. But as it stands, it's troubling to see an important member of an organization that portrays itself as dedicated to "seva" (self-less service) responding to criticisms in such an un-reflective, defensive manner. Certainly, there are probably issues with the way Mr. Scoefield portrayed the organization, but it's the job of the organization (in my view) to demonstrate the teachings it claims to live in handling such criticisms. Or to simply ignore such criticisms if they are deemed not worthy of consideration for some reason.

Along these lines, someone else from the OTM organization offers a critique of the post, which I felt brought up a lot of valid concerns, including his mistaken assumption that all of the leadership and participants in the programs are white women. However, towards the end of the response is this, directed towards Mr. Scofield:

Are you aware that your continued assertion (and assumption) of our
race, gender and socio-economic circumstance places you in the same
racist, elitist and unconscious position that you claim us to stand?
Through all these judgments and uninformed opinions, you simply created
an unnecessary division, when you could have chosen to use your
experience and education to inform us on how to proceed with even more
awareness and sensitivity. We could have benefited from your support
and information, and would have appreciated useful suggestions to
improve our work. You could’ve been a great ally, but instead you chose
to perpetuate separation; and ultimately that is the divisive tool that
creates conflict and undermines the connectivity within each other and
the world.

What I find astounding is that the view that the author "could have been an ally," but apparently blew it because his article wasn't the kind of critique they were receptive to. Unless this man has a history of attacking the organization, I don't understand how such a swift dismissal fits into the values and mission OTM claims to represent.

How often does anyone present their criticisms or misgivings well the first time around? How many of us can say we have sorted out all of the personal hangups we have from the valid concerns we want to present before doing so? Maybe this was a case where the author should have sat a little longer on his concerns to make sure he had some clarity. However, sometimes you have to say something as best as you can, and then wade through the mess that follows.

As a yoga practitioner and zen student who is deeply interested in bringing my practice into the world in a socially engaged way, I want to see projects like Off the Mat succeed. It's wonderful to see yoga practitioners like Seane Corn actually attempt to do powerful work, and buck the commercialized, self-focused trend in much of the North American yoga community. Off the Mat is a new organization doing something uncommon in its field, and as such, it's important for anyone offering criticism to also offer patience. Having helped start a service organization from scratch myself, I know how challenging it is in the initial years, especially when it comes to having a clear direction and focus that actually represents the sincere intentions behind its founding. Sometimes, it takes years for a group to figure out how to actually clarify how to manifest their intentions in the world, so I recognize that OTM is probably in such a process.

But this is exactly why it's important now for them to be open to reflections, criticisms, and ideas from others. Being open doesn't mean you have to agree with everything others critique you for or suggest you change, but it does mean that you should do your best to listen to what people have say about your developing programs, and then decide how best to respond. The responses from those who represent the OTM organization on Scofield's post fail, in my opinion, to demonstrate such openness.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Public Speech - Right Speech

There is a powerful post over at Bookbird's blog I urge all of you to read. It's heartening to see this relatively new Buddhist practitioner standing up with clarity and expressing the dharma in her own unique way without apology.

Today is National Coming Out Day, an effort to bring public awareness to issues impacting the GLBTQ community, and really, all of us, regardless of sexual identity. Here in the U.S., a string of teen suicides, one of which I wrote about recently, has illuminated the limitations of polls suggesting that more people hold Queer friendly attitudes than in the past.

As Bookbird points out so clearly in her post, how we speak to each other - the words we choose to use - sometimes have a much longer lasting impact than we might wish them to have. A comment made in anger by a Zen teacher awhile back still haunts her, for example, even long after apologies were made and others have moved on. Before you suggest that she, too, move on, read this:

As a new Buddhist my heart was breaking watching this craziness unfold, but I tried to stay clear. Until the teacher levels a particular criticism at the student. “You and your butt buddies...” he begins. Yes, yes, yes... his insult is to call this student gay. My heart fell into pieces, and tears leaked from my eyes.

Who are we? What do we stand for? And more than this, by our silence, what do we permit? What do we condone?

And did that teacher know that those words, said in haste, said in anger, would continue to bite at people? That words written in this way extend homophobia again, and tell me that my identified sexuality is just a joke to throw at people we dislike? That his comments would breed self hatred in some of our most vulnerable people? That I would read this comment and again wonder, how welcome am I in this community?

So to the Buddhist community I would like to say – make the link. Make the link between our everyday actions to the hurt that stays with others. Our words can become so casual when we are continually talking – commenting on blogs, tweeting, chatting on forums. But those words stay – and people who come after us will read what we say, and will think about the way we have said it.

What I love about this is the broader call to all of us to basically watch our words, whatever we are talking about. It's not always easy to do. Sometimes, we make mistakes. Big ones even. And that's part of the process of working with Right Speech.

I remember a heated argument I had with an old girlfriend. Our relationship was on its last leg after three years, with both of us having had piled up way too many grievances against each other, so that the particulars of that day really were about our whole relationship. I had spent several hours over the course of a week researching for an upcoming vacation we were going to take, when she suddenly announced that she couldn't afford to go. There was a threat of a strike at work, which I fully supported, but I couldn't get over how this decision was like so many others with her. She made a lot more money than I did, but somehow was often broke when it came time for us to do things together. I stupidly leapt from my anger about this pattern, called her "selfish," and went into a litany about various disappointments I had about her. And then I walked out of her apartment and didn't speak with her for three days.

It was a low point for me. And after a few more months of trying to keep things going, she told me she never got over what I said to her that night, and the way I said it. The relationship might have been doomed anyway, but that outburst on my part was a major factor in the drawn out and unclear ending that followed.

Fortunately for both of us, this happened in private. Sure, various friends and family ended up hearing about bits and pieces of our struggles, but it wasn't something left to hang in the public eye for months and years on end. There was definite hurt done to her - and amends I had to made. But it's not like the sometimes hate filled arguments and diatribes done in the public eye, which go on negatively impacting strangers long after the initial parties involved might have moved on.

This, to me, is one of the great challenges of the world becoming "smaller" and more globalized. Everything people say and do has more potential to impact strangers living half way across the planet. Obviously, this can be of great benefit when the best of the human experience is upheld for everyone. But it also can have terribly consequences when the worst is upheld.

Let us endeavour to give the best of ourselves to the world, and to work with our mistakes with an honesty and sincerity that transforms them into gold.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Are You Choosing to Die Already?

I'm in my mid-thirties - old enough to have some experience under my belt, but still pretty young in the grand scheme. And yet, when I look around at many of my fellow late Gen Xers, I can already see it - the choosing to die syndrome. This is not the living and dying in each moment that we all experience, nor is it about a physical death. No, this is about something else entirely.

The Choosing to Die Syndrome

What is it? It's the slow accumulation of decisions towards a fixed identity and away from the fresh aliveness of your life. It's giving in to the prevailing views of what life is about, and the building up of habits and defenses that maintain those views. It's the murder of curiosity, and the killing off of exploration. It's the embracing of certain certainties in order to soothe to pain of living in an ever changing world.

Even Buddhists do it - Gasp!

The longer I practice Zen, the more I have developed a faith in it's ability - somehow - to be totally transformational. It's not about becoming a different person, but is about the fact that when you're completely you, it's a very different experience from living out of habits, fixed views, and emotional states.

I've gotten the sense, though, that a lot of us convert types - and maybe a lot of Buddhists of all stripes - don't really have much faith in such a transformation. In fact, many maybe aren't even thinking about it. Buddhism is mostly a way to be calmer, or a little more present, or accepting, or whatever positive quality you want to fill in the blank with. There's nothing wrong with any of those qualities mind you, but when I chant the Bodhisattva Vows, for example, it doesn't make any sense to hope for being "a little better" - whatever that is. No, those vows aren't about improvement at all - they are about transformation.

Are You Transforming or Killing Yourself Slowly?

The word "transform" means to alter or be altered radically in form, function, etc. If you are like me, you often attach the word to major changes in a form, like in a building project or melting down metals and then reshaping them. It's easy to get fixed on form, just ask any longtime meditation student who can't sit in full or half lotus anymore. However, in the context of Buddhist practice, transforming doesn't really look like anything at all. It's not something you can explain well. You can point to appearances, but what exactly is going on, it's kind of hard to say.

I have a retired friend who has, in certain ways, transformed over the past few years. After years of defensive efforts to maintain her "self," she's dropping that off, and risking being out in the world as she is. While many women her age have decided that their lives are basically over, and are content to sit in a chair and watch TV, my friend joined an on-line dating service, found a new partner, and spent much of the last six months traveling, trying out new things, and loving life. She has renegotiated relationships with her family by being more open and honest with them. And she left a church community where she liked the people, but didn't feel connected to in a deeply spiritual way. If you would ask her how this all happened, she'd probably point to her meditation and yoga practices immediately. But I think it's something more than doing the forms going on. It's an again and again and again process of choosing not to kill yourself off, which happens within forms, but also fully bleeds into one life completely.

Killing Yourself Off is Society Approved

My friend's life is an anomaly amongst her age group. Major changes often do happen for elder folks, but it's usually not coming from conscious decisions and openness to not knowing. It's usually about illness, loss of a spouse, or money issues that press the person into a different life.

It's more likely to find the kind of conscious decisions and openness to not knowing amongst younger people, who haven't yet killed off most of who they truly are. But you know, I think the pressure and desire to fit in makes a lot of us "decide" to accept certain stories about how to live as the only way, even when human history and current reality suggests otherwise. Take employment. How long have people been working for hourly wages at companies and other organizations? Two, three hundred years maybe. And yet, if you asked a hundred Americans what it meant to work, ninety of them would probably describe some variation of a salaried job. Even people who are entrepreneurial gravitate towards time segments and money payments based on time. Which goes to show you how fixated most of us are on a certain view of time, and how we believe it functions in our lives.

The point here isn't to denigrate salaries jobs, or the conventional view of time, but to suggest that when a person has attached to these things as "common sense truths," they have killed off part of life.

Form Can Be Deceptive

I have met people who, on the surface, seem to be living very conventional lives - jobs, houses, children, etc. - but who have a very fluid sense of what life is all about. At the same time, I have met people who are very radical looking on the outside - piercings, tattoos, open sexual relationships with multiple partners, unusual work - but who have very fixed views about their lives and the world around them. So, forms are tricky. It's easy to think, for example, that doing meditation practice is going to radically change you. But that's just another story.

What is This Guy Rambling on About?

If you are a Buddhist practitioner, or interested in Buddhism and reading this blog, what's your deepest intention? Is it really just to feel better, or be a little kinder, or more helpful, or is that just a story you've chosen to protect yourself with? Are you inspired by Buddhist practice to transform your life completely, or is it just a better tasting, more holistic add on than going out and buying a new TV?

I have no idea if the kind of transformation you see in the stories of the enlightened masters will occur in my life, but I figure why the hell not aspire to awaken fully anyway. The times I have been most depressed and miserable in my life have been the times I have chosen to either kill my largest dreams, or cling to them fiercely and defiantly.

You can have the most expansive vision possible about everything without making it into something you must defend and force into existence. You can make choices that might lead you to transform, or you can do things that are pretty certain to kill off your life. It's your call.

"What are you going to do with your one precious life?"

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Short Wild, Cranky Ride - Complete with Mild NY Yankees Bashing

Well, I just got back an hour ago from watching another loss to the New York Yankees, the best team money can buy. Sure, they've got 27 championships and oodles of Hall of Fame candidates, but really, after a certain point, being one of the biggest and the best most of the time is a sure fire ticket to hell. Just ask the good folks at Bear Stearns or the Lehman Brothers.

Anyway, since I'm in a jovial, but slightly cantankerous mood, let's take a jaunt through the blogosphere together.

Nella Lou has a good post taking aim at those who argue that the internet is a terrible breading ground for bad behaviour and general meanness. Frankly, anyone who is worried about the horrors of the internet might best check themselves in the mirror as they crank down the highway, cussing out every last driver in their way. Or perhaps, if road rage isn't your fare, you might consider the latest gossip you shared about your relatives, or how you tore political candidate X a new asshole over lunch with your co-workers. I mean really, anything you see on Twitter or Facebook is just a mirror for what's going on in the "real world" folks.

Speaking of politics, Kyle over at Reformed Buddhist asks whether the political "center" is disappearing in the U.S., to which I'd say, yes. The same goes for the "left," the "progressives," the "Greens" and anything else not associated with a conservative, right wing agenda. Sure, plenty of us still hold ideas that fit into the "center" or "left" politically, but the power and control - right now - are firmly in the hands of right wing, corporate conservatives. And really Obama supporters, it's time to get over the apologies and recognize that the Obama Administration is mostly invested in maintaining the status quo.

Perhaps, enough of us will collectively take a hint from someone like Jodo Shinshu Minister Toshikazu Arai, who writes:

It is high time that humans mobilized their wisdom. They should all sit down together and solve existing territorial issues by establishing ways to share natural resources and dropping territorial claims for peaceful coexistence.

Or maybe more of us will start to feel that we have had enough, as Barry asks over at his blog, and begin to wonder what happens once you have burned through "enough" accumulated things and experiences that you thought would bring you happiness.

It seems to me that, at the very least, bringing about shifts in the world we live in begins with, as bookbird points to, fully accepting ourselves.

And if you aren't there yet, you can always take a seat and do some zazen, even if, as Petteri suggests, it might be good for nothing.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Anapansati Sutra

Sitting in the central branch of the public library right now, listening to a pair of women discuss the obituary of another woman they are trying to locate in a newspaper from 1974. I am about to head off to my class at the zen center on the Anapansati Sutra, which is essentially a condensed training manual for awakening through breath study. Outside, red, yellow, orange and brown leaves are blowing across the sky and across the busy downtown streets. It's the end of another workday for many, although for me, it has been another day in the bardo I currently am in.

The life of the breath is something I have paid some attention to for many years now, but if I'm honest, not terribly closely. Just as the appearance of a tiny field mouse in the park yesterday surprised me, so too does the ebb and flow of breathing. How does it keep changing it's appearance in my life as it does? No two breaths are alike, which points to the fact that there is no "self" that is stable either. It's always moving, always changing, even if only in the slightest way.

The field mouse I saw had a short, happy gallop across the grass behind me. That is, until a blue jay broke ranks, doing it's best raptor, swooped down and gobbled it up, before disappearing into a tree above the nearby waterfalls.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The I That Feels No Terror

Let's take a look today at a little teaching from one of the first Buddhist nuns, Uppalavanna, in the sutra named after her.

the bhikkhuni Uppalavanna, having understood, "This is Mara the Evil One," replied to him in verses:

"Though a hundred thousand rogues
Just like you might come here,
I stir not a hair, I feel no terror;
Even alone, Mara, I don't fear you.

I can make myself disappear
Or I can enter inside your belly.
I can stand between your eyebrows
Yet you won't catch a glimpse of me.

I am the master of my own mind,
The bases of power are well developed;
I am freed from every kind of bondage,
Therefore I don't fear you, friend."

Then Mara the Evil One, realizing, "The bhikkhuni Uppalavanna knows me," sad and disappointed, disappeared right there.

In the Pali Canon, Mara often appears to be a devilish spirit that comes and goes, threatening to destroy everything in his way through various means. He looks to be outside of the practitioner, every bit the troublemaker that the Christian Satan is in the Bible. However, Mara isn't a separate being - Mara is our own troubled, ordinary mind.

"Though a hundred thousand rogues/Just like you might come here..." Where is this "here"? In the story, it's said to be in a forest, where Uppalavanna sits alone. You can imagine what it's like to be alone in the middle of a forest. Maybe you have been there yourself.

But I think this sutra is more than just about conquering fear while sitting in a forest.

I stir not a hair, I feel no terror;
Even alone, Mara, I don't fear you.

I can make myself disappear
Or I can enter inside your belly.
I can stand between your eyebrows
Yet you won't catch a glimpse of me.

Who is this "I"? It certainly isn't the "I" that I think I am in this world. This "I" is riddled with fear, and anger, and confusion, and all sorts of other things.

No, when I sit with this teaching as a city dweller in the 21st century, what I see is a calling to reorient ourselves to the "forest" living in each of us, and also all around us. That is "I" of Uppalavanna speaks of cannot be found in anything we can know or possess, because both knowing and possessing are forms of grasping.

In addition, given how we modern folks are so attuned to psychology and emotions, I think its' vitally important to sense that this "I" in the teaching that "feels no terror" is found nowhere else but within the very body-mind that is often riddled with various terrors.

And finally, I believe that us city dwelling, internet using, inside of building living types best heed teachings like this as calls to remain connected to the untamable wildness of the earth. It's good to remember that Buddhism was birthed during a period of great commercial development that led to a lot of society building, with an emphasis on economics, political power, and warfare. As such, I can't help but feel that the very setting of many of the Pali Canon teachings, and the ways in which the setting (in this case, a forest), teach us, are imploring each of us to see how who we are can never be divorced from the earth we live in.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Zen Burn Out

There was a time when I did 1 1/2 to 2 hours of sitting meditation everyday. When I was a fairly regular retreat practitioner, and when I would look around at the people who only attended Sunday services at our zen center and thought to myself "these folks aren't very dedicated." Those thoughts were certainly smug, and that level of devotion wasn't, at least for me at that time of my life, sustainable. I can point to many reasons why "my practice" changed over time, but what I'm more interested in these days is the sometimes huge tension between predominantly lay people trying to practice in Zen communities (or even on their own) from teachings that are predominantly monastic in flavor.

You may notice that my dharma name, Tokugo, is translated as "Devoted to enlightenment." It's a pandora's box once you start paying attention to it. I have a regular zazen practice, chanting practice, study practice. I'm pretty deeply involved in my sangha, as you have seen from previous blogs. And yet unlike in the past - I do almost no retreat practice. It has almost no draw for me right now. At the same time, I have spent the last month unemployed, not rushing, watching myself be a person in the world with no job, no partner, a shifting group of friends - in other words, being a person who is doing his best to stand in the middle of the flow of life as it is.

What does "devotion to enlightenment" mean for a lay practitioner? What are some necessary ingredients and what is simply form that might be helpful and might not, depending upon the circumstances?

When I plunged head first into what I believed was THE correct way of practice several years ago, what I saw was an interesting mix of wise renunciation and madness. Even though I seem to have a lot of tension these days around what "devoted" looks like, one thing I'm confident in is that it involves renunciation. If you want to see into the nature of this life, you have to give up a lot of the "entertainments" in your life. This is not only about ending the video game addiction you have or forging the weekly music concert binge - it's also about renouncing the stories you have about your life and the world, and giving up ownership of the various certainties you have collected over the years.

At the same time, I remember once having to decide if I were going to use the only paid vacation time I had to attend a meditation retreat. And feeling like if I chose to do something else, I was a "lesser" practitioner for it, but also sensing that if I didn't take some time to rest, I was going to burn out sooner rather than later. Although I don't attach as much to this notion of being a better or worse practitioner these days,I still find these quandaries coming up because the line between being lazy and self-care isn't always too clear to me. And when I read the great monks of old, or even many teachers of new, steeped in the tradition of those monks, I find myself thinking Yeah, that makes a hell of a lot of sense when you're in a monastery. What about the rest of us?

To be quite frank, when I hear some Zen teachers say things like "Well, this is why our tradition has always been small, and not for the faint of heart," I'm not terribly impressed. It sounds true, and points to the intelligent rigorousness that I have always been inspired by in Zen. But it's also a cop out, a way to skirt around the real life tensions between what's been handed down to us, and how our lives are in the world today, 2010, as lay practitioners.

Simply put, I don't buy it that the only way to practice Zen in a completely devoted way is to increasingly immerse yourselves in meditation practice, retreat practice, even monastic practice. And when I hear people saying things like "Oh, I'm not much of a Zen student. I don't do such and such. Just look at so and so..." I think - what good is that? How does all this comparing helping you, me, or anyone?

There are plenty of warnings about the trap of "comparing mind," and yet I also think the lack of honest reflection around the tensions between studying and implementing Dogen's teachings and being a lay practitioner set up a lot of ready made comparisons. Those who immerse themselves in zazen - good. Those who take up the various monastic roles in the sangha - good. Those who don't - slackers. I'm saying this as someone who has done some of those roles, been immersed in zazen, and also who has had times where I was definitely slacking and letting myself off the hook too easily.

Now, the black and white dichotomy above isn't what actually happens most of the time. It's more of a subtle undercurrent within Zen communities. Like what's upheld as "good practice" or who is considered a community "leader" and why.

I know I'm not alone in feeling these tensions, and having the kinds of questions that I do. But what I find frustrating is how often conversations about the various issues around the lay/monastic tension either slide into privileging monasticism (and it's forms), or platitudes about how "it's all good." The former is just a fast path to an inferiority complex, and the latter is a niceness that just makes everyone feel good, but doesn't really aid us in living our lives more in a more awakened way.

When I see discussions, for example, about how all Zen teachers should have X number of months of retreat practice under their belts before they are considered legitimate, I think "Is that the only way to wisdom?" It's hard not to view such requirements as akin to standardized tests - these tools we have determined to be the magic bullets that someone prove our children or college students are smart, capable, and ready to succeed in life. The thing is, wisdom isn't uniform. Awakening doesn't follow a single track, nor does it manifest the same for even two people, let alone everyone.

There are times when I think "maybe Zen just isn't your thing," whatever that means. I have seen others facing some of this stuff who have decided to move on, and find something else. But that just feels like going shopping to me. And to be honest, I find this tension pretty fascinating, even if it grates at me at times. And I love those old Zen dudes, and their monastic or wandering Zen ways.

So, in some ways I'm like the famous Catholic monastic Thomas Merton, who spent much of his life questioning and bucking the very tradition he also loved. How odd, but there it is.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Tyler Clementi, and the "Little Secrets" We Spread About Each Other

I've been thinking about the freshman college student in New Jersey who committed suicide recently after a tape of him with another male student was spread around the internet. It's really easy to forget that our minds can go wild when our secrets are exposed, especially ones with a social stigma attached to them. In addition, it's really seductive to be amongst those in the "know," who first spread such information around, hoping to stick it to someone or a group of someones we don't like.

Tyler Clementi's case is an extreme one, but at some time or another, all of us probably dip our toes in the stream of gossip and/or sensitive information spreading. And when we do, we override memories of our own experiences of being surprised, or even shocked, when something secret came out behind our backs.

I'm not really sure how best we collectively can address tragic cases like Tyler's. The two students involved will probably receive jail time, and there will will probably be a lot of talk about cyber-bullying, homophobia, and the like. Which is fine. But I think it all begins with each of us in our everyday lives, watching our words, checking in on whatever variation of Right Speech our ethical code provides on a regular basis. Because there are many more Tylers out there counting on us to do so.