Thursday, July 17, 2014

Seeking Peace

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 chanted these lines from Shantideva daily for about four years, and still bring up them up from time to time.

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 relief from all of this. Seeking something they call "peace" and "calm." But how many of us really understand what peace and calm actually are?

It's easy to mistake a kind of relaxed dullness for peace and calm. Some think things like television, video games, comfort eating or drinking, and other such commonplace activities will bring them peace and calm. Others reject such notions, and try to avoid those activities all together, thinking that a certain "purity" will bring peace and calm. Of course, neither way "works."

I had a period of the latter during my early years of Zen practice. In some ways, I think the extreme of cutting out and avoiding all together many commonplace activities was helpful. A form of renunciation needed to gain clarity. However, it wasn't true renunciation, because I was still attached to "not doing" those activities. My identity of being a Zen student seemed tied to it in some ways in fact. Not eating meat. Not watching TV. Not drinking a drop of alcohol for a period. Never playing video games and similar "distractions."

Avoidance based renunciation is useful for breaking old habits, however in the end, it becomes a cage. It also ends up being a way to stall or push away the little cares of life. You can hide out in your meditation practice. Hide out in your view that you are a "good Zen student." And you can rationalize away whatever problems that arise, blaming others or dismissing them as not existing at all.

Those who are mostly lost in comforts and dullness, and those who live in ivory Zen towers, are easily thrown off balance when adversity arises. And this is often when learning to "put up" with little cares can slowly lead one to the peace and calm that is our birthright.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Degenerate Zen

Having taught weekly meditation classes for over a year now, one of the repeated themes that comes up is that of the "bad meditator." It's rare that a month goes by without hearing someone say something about not being "good" at meditating, or having tried it "once," but found that their minds were really noisy, or that they couldn't sit still.

There are a lot of stories about what meditation "should" look like, and most of them are hindrances. You're not doing it right if you're mind is full of thoughts. The "goal" is to force all thoughts into silence. You have to sit in full lotus or half lotus. Meditating on chairs isn't meditation. If I can't find a perfectly quiet room to meditate in, I can't do it. The list goes on and on.

I have meditated on buses, park benches, in the middle of protests, and in public restrooms amongst other places. I also frequently chant while bicycling, and for two winters in a row, did lovingkindness meditations while walking in the skyway system in downtown St. Paul. Of course, I also do the normalized formal practice on my meditation cushion at home, at zen center, and in my classes at the yoga center.

And sometimes, I do none of the above.

One of the problems with meditation culture in general, and Soto Zen in particular, is a fixation on one practice. As if it's the only gateway to awakening. Or even the "best" one. I personally think it's an excellent gateway, but that's about as far as I'll go.

Meditation has been a good friend for most of my adult life, always ready to hang out and just be, regardless of how I am. But I have other spiritual friends, and actually, I think we all do, even if we've given in to the notion that whatever practice is the one and only for us.

The dharma name I was given is Tokugo, which translates to "Devotion to enlightenment." Not "to zazen" or "to Zen," but to awakening itself.

I sometimes wonder how the old Zen masters really lived. Not the carectures that have been handed down to us, but the actual people. I'm guessing they weren't really like what we think they were.

The Buddha predicted the eventually decay of the teachings, and lately I've been wondering if we aren't living in the degenerate age he spoke about. There's obviously high levels of social corruption and oppression present in the world today. However, the past was no where near perfect either. The main difference, as far as I can see, is that we have become more efficient as a species, globalizing many of the hells that once were localized.

When I think of all the noise and distractions in the world today, it's hard not to wonder if even issues like "the bad meditator" narrative aren't indicative of causes and conditions of a degenerate age, where the dharmas of awakening are easily overshadowed. At the same time, I'm open to the idea that Joanna Macy and others are putting forth that we are in the middle of a "Great Turning" that is transforming the way we are in the world towards a more awakened, shared experience.

Perhaps both sides of the coin are true together. Devotion seems to keep calling me in that curious direction.