Monday, November 25, 2013

Winter Buddha

I woke up this morning feeling a little "under the weather." Not quite sick, but not quite right either. When I went to bed last night, my apartment was warm. Waking, it was cold. This is how it goes, living in an old building with a middling heating system and a slightly cheap landlord.

It's not winter yet, but the past few days have felt like winter. Winter in Minnesota is a long slog, so much so that every moment which breaks through the icy grip on us is a moment worth celebrating.

However, many ways in which we Minnesotans tend to reject the dark, harshly cold days of January for example, are similar to how humans choose to reject whatever experiences and emotions they don't wish to experience.

In other words, our tough doggedness comes with a side of bitching and moaning.

I remember a story about Zen teacher Katagiri Roshi, during the early days of Hokyoji, a retreat center in southern Minnesota. He was doing zazen outside with a small group of students and it was cold, very cold. Someone asked Roshi how he was taking it, the cold I mean, and he responded something like "When it's cold, just be cold. When it's hot, just be hot." I can imagine this guy sitting in his robes with his teeth chattering as he said this. It's a pretty funny image, and also a quality example of not adding on to one's experience.

Talking about the weather is a common point of connection here in the land of 10,000+ (frozen) lakes. We use it as a gateway to bonding, an almost fool proof mechanism to bring ease between even the most dissimilar of people. But I think most of that talking is just adding on, and in many cases, in ways that promote rejection of what's present.

How to engage "weather conversations" differently?

Today, no answers. Just one frosty breath after another.

*Photo: Minnesota snow storm. December 2010.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

One Way to Let Go of Your Attachment to an Identity

Photo credit: clarita from

I originally wrote this post a few years ago, but find it's message still very relevant. Enjoy!

I walked into a coffee shop I hang out at a bit in downtown St. Paul. Among the folks in there was what I've come to term "the family." Over the last ten years or so, I've found myself in the company of this couple and their increasing number of children on dozens of occasions.

The scene is always the same. The children, in various states of unkemptness, run wild, while the man, older and dominant in a quiet sort of way, pontificates to his younger wife about some Bible passage. He frequently takes shots at all organized churches, and includes them among Satan's work. Meanwhile, for a long time, I wondered if the children were even getting home schooled, given how little they seemed to be able to read, write, or interact socially.

So, there they were doing there thing today. I sat down, and the guy sitting behind me starts leaving a message on the phone about a Bible study session. For a moment, I thought "Man, you're surrounded," then let it drop.

Over the years, I've struggled to not run a litany of judgments through my mind about that couple and their kids. Until a month ago, I'd never said a single word to any of them. Then the wife turned to me, as I was working on a blog post, and said "Aren't you that guy who goes to that Buddhist place?" I said I was and she looked at me, paused, and then said "I always found it funny that people would worship a guy who isn't a God." I smiled because it probably is funny from the outside, what we Buddhists are doing.

I'd forgotten that exchange this morning as I sat down and opened my laptop. As the couple gathered their children and started to leave, I was reading a post on someone else's blog. For some reason, I looked up just as the wife said "I'm wondering if ..." (short pause) "if you'd ever consider being challenged on you views?" Now, in the past, I probably would have been interested in such a debate. To prove that I could stand up as a Buddhist, even if the discussion went nowhere. However, as she said those words, I just thought "Life's too short for this." So, instead of engaging, I just said "I don't think it would be worth our time." And she nodded, stepped back, and said "Everyone has free will." And walked out.

The guy behind me, who was reading a passage in the Book of Romans (he'd said as much in the phone message he left), says "Do you know that woman?"

"Barely," I said, not knowing how else to explain this odd connection we'd had over the years.

"What was that all about?" he said. And I sat for a moment, wondering if telling him what it was about would just open up the same issue I had just cut off.

"We could have a long discussion about it, but it probably wouldn't be worth it."

He laughed a little at that, and said something about how that had been an odd exchange between her and I. I agreed, and then he went back to his Bible, and I to my blog. Which is where I am now, no less worn for wear.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Buddhist Liberation from Hatred

"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,"--in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.

"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,"--in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love alone.

These lines are from the first chapter of the Dhammapada, one of the best known collections of teachings from the Theravadan Buddhist canon. A few thousand years later, they are still completely relevant and contemporary.

After my parents divorced, my mother met a man that triggered a lot of hatred within my teenage mind. He could be highly controlling and demanding at times. I still remember him lingering over my should as I washed dishes, waiting until I was finished so he could inspect for spots, and make me wash them again. I hated him then, and for years afterward, whenever his name came up in conversation, or his image came into my thoughts, a tirade of miserable commentary poured out.

It took a dream I had a few months ago to finally break free of any lingering rage and hatred I had towards this man. Some fifteen years after I last saw him. He came to me in the dream seeking to hear my side of the story. Of the suffering I had experienced. And so I told him what I could, while we wound around the city in different forms of transit, until I suddenly woke up and immediately realized something had shifted completely.

In this way, he was a great teacher for me - someone I never want to see again, but who gave me the opportunity to experience a hatred deep enough to understand the damage hatred causes. None of my childhood "enemies" did this really; nor anyone else since.

The thing about the Dhammapada quote above is that people often want to leap from one end to the other. Don't you think? Instead of doing the difficult work of experiencing the pain and roughness of what's present, we want to have that shit over with so we can go on appearing more and more bodhisattva-like in the world. It just doesn't work that way though.

This is why we have to do continuous practice. Making the effort, and letting go of gaining any benefit from that effort. This is the way, and what working with teachings like the verses from the Dhammapada is all about.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veteran's Day: Another Abstract American Holiday

This "holiday" today originally was called Armistice Day, marking the end of the hell that was World War I. After at least 20 million deaths, and entire nations left in rubble, it was supposed to be a reminder of the call "Never again!" from survivors. Including many leaders of the day. It wasn't about abstractions like "heroism," "freedom," "patriotism," or even "service." It was about remembering the millions of humans murdered in a conflict that WWI veteran Harry Patch described in these terms "if you boil it down, what was it? Nothing but a family row. That’s what caused it." Even though the nature of Armistice Day shifted quickly towards honoring military veterans, I choose to honor the original spirit. The end of war. The weariness of ever going there again. The desire for peace to remain, however fragile it may be. I think it says a lot about a country, what it's people choose to honor and celebrate. We're entirely too fond of celebrating war and those who participate in it, colonialist notions of "freedom," genocidal "heroes" like Columbus, and events tied to the colonizer form of Christianity. And the major holidays like Valentine's Day and Halloween, which aren't intimately tied to those narratives, are driven by consumerism. Regardless of what good folks make out of all this, it says a lot about how the U.S. is in the world, and where our collective energies are still going to in large degree. And so, in honoring the original spirit of Armistice Day, I call out to that place in each of us that is peace incarnate. That recognizes kinship with all beings, across arbitrary lines and divisions of any kind. What a day like this truly should honor, so that we might all come back to ourselves, put an end the petty battles and greed driven land grabs before they put an end to us.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Seizing the Seasons: On Identity and Zen Effort

There is no I and there is no other.
How can there be intimacy or estrangement?
I recommend giving up trying to get there by meditation,
But rather, directly seizing the reality at hand.
The message of the Diamond Sutra is:
Nothing is excluded from our experienced world.
From beginning to end,
It inevitably exposes our false identities.

Layman P'ang (740-808)

This is quite a jolt of a poem, don't you think? This whole "exposure" process is interesting. Natural. How every spring, the snow melts away and reveals both a round of casualties and, also, a round of new life. Body of a squirrel. Barren tree. Rotting couch cushion. Tulip blooming. Burst of bee balm. Newborn robin. Shiny bicycle.

How every autumn the trees go bare, the grass goes brown, the wild growth of summer goes underground.

Natural, and yet how often are we simply afraid of being exposed. Of undergoing this expanding into view, and/or stripping away?

Spring comes to our identities. And so does winter. I once taught in English classrooms; now I do not. I once was afraid of public speaking; now I do it all the time.

But being in this movement between the seasons is easier said than done. Especially given how our mass culture tends to highly discourage such flow. And how so many of us are disconnected from the actual seasons themselves, the planetary ebbs and flows happening all around us.

This fierce call to "seize" from Layman P'ang, to me, is a reminder of that disconnection. How our minds figure out so many ways to impede our life from bursting forth completely. And because of this, there's a need for strong effort. For rousing up a willingness to be exposed again and again.

It seems to me that we have the option to be proactive, deliberately choosing to explore our various identities and ways of being in the world, or to be dragged by the world screaming and kicking into such work. Either through bottoming out experiences, or at the end of our lives, when there's no time left to live out the insights.

I invite you all to reaffirm your commitment to being more proactive. To reconcile with the seasons - inwardly and outside of yourself.

Today, I embrace late autumn, with all its cloudy, cold winds, sweeping away whatever needs to go.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Peace Isn't What We Tend To Think It Is

Photo credit: krosseel from

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 from Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life for many 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 an utter calm and peace. 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. Meeting them, however, isn't mere acceptance or some kind of resignation. It's not putting up with; it's allowing flow. Accepting what is in one breath, and then doing what you're called to do in the next.

In the cycle of samsara, the pain in your back during meditation, for example, can easily lead to tension, and then irritation, and then some kind of acting out. A few nasty words from some passerby on the street can easily lead to your own shouting, an escalation of conflict, and in some sad cases, violence and even death.

Many people come to Buddhism seeking calm and peace, but don't really understand what calm and peace actually are. And so whenever something disrupts what we've deemed to be calm and peace, we get upset and our lives are overturned.

I used to meditate like mad, associating calm with boredom, and thinking zazen was kind of an endurance contest I had to win somehow. Seems to me the "peace" I sought was otherworldly, some hyper chill state that couldn't possibly be located in the middle of this chaotic, suffering filled world.

In this, there was no room for the world to fully enter, to be "confirmed by the ten thousand things" as Dogen once said.

Things "growing light" does not depend upon outer conditions. As a social activist, I seek a more just, eco-centric, and peaceful world. However, if I get too attached to whatever is "lacking" now, or whatever vision I have for "the future," the flow of fully living stops. And the synergy of accepting what is and taking the next called for step can't happen.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Blogging the Buddha Here Again!

Yesterday was my final post over at Buddhist Peace Fellowship. They have a rotating Guest Editorship that is designed to feature a new writer every quarter, and I invite everyone here to continue checking out the work over there. You can also read co-director Katie Loncke's send off post on my efforts here.

What's next isn't fully determined yet. I have a few writing project ideas, and maybe someone else will come calling for more of my work :) Meanwhile, I'll be writing here again more.

Talk with you all soon!