Articles April 2020

Monks are keeping the practice of meditation and services going and we especially offer blessings to all who are directly or indirectly affected by this experience.  The temple is still available for private retreats for anyone who is not sick; we can offer you a single room and keep our distance at meals.  Offers to bring us supplies are gratefully received as are your donations.   Please feel encouraged to use email or phone to stay in touch with us and let us know if we can do anything in particular.

It is a strange and difficult time for all of us and a good opportunity to put the Buddha’s teaching into practice.   Often in times of crisis people are naturally more inclined to come together, be generous and help one another, but now that we are asked to keep our “social distance”,  the sense of togetherness is eroded, maybe even replaced by fear and hostility.  We mistake other people for the invisible enemy, the virus, and use our forced time at home to read more and more bad news and develop an unhealthy sense of dread.  Better to use this time to practice reflection and meditate or pray for the wellbeing of all around us, and quietly do what can be done from home.  There is great benefit in spending time thinking kind and loving thoughts, counting our blessings and wishing others well.  There are benefits in society slowing down for a while, it cuts down on pollution and stress, if we let it, and allows people to perhaps get some much needed rest and sleep, and time to simply be together.    We can also cultivate our social connectedness by reaching out to friends and family with a positive attitude, not to complain or stoke anxiety, but to love and reassure each other.

In other words, this is a time for home practice, and we encourage you to make good use of it and even enjoy it while it lasts.  This, too, will pass.

Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid

By Rev. Master Seikai

Recently I was scrolling an on-line site of some kind and saw a headline which announced Why You Should Be Afraid of the World’s Nuclear Weapons Stockpile. My reaction to this dictate was to think that, thank you very much but I’m going to decide what I will and will not be afraid of in the world. And if something seems worthy of a worry investment, I’ll take that into consideration.

This article was one a genre of periodical writing, especially for on-line websites, which inform you of why you should be afraid of whatever it is. On one level it is a service—again, thank you very much—to inform the general public of a potential threat lurking out there in the world at large. But if you took all those threats and added them up and worried about the whole lot, you would be filled with fear and worry every waking moment of your existence.

Perhaps that is the emotional state that many people find themselves in today. You can read about every potential threat to our continued placid existence, and doubtless there are more that you do not yet know about. They may even be worse than the ones of which you are already aware; but, if you think about it, so what else is new? This is simply a description of life in the human realm.

Today, as I’m writing, people are worked up over two things: politics and coronavirus. Both have the quality of being out there beyond our immediate control, and both seem to command a lot of attention and inspire fear.  You can cast your vote for a presidential candidate, as I did a couple of days ago, but after that you are powerless unless you get involved in a political campaign. And that, of course, is no guarantee of success.

Similarly, with the coronavirus, some people wear breathing masks, many people have cancelled trips abroad, or decided to stay home from any number of things. But in the end, an epidemic is an epidemic, and once it’s out there, chances are good you will be exposed to the pathogen sooner or later. At that point, a strong immune system is your best hope for survival.

We can try to take precautions against the many ills which the world has in its arsenal of diseases, social upheavals, random acts of violence and natural disasters. But there is really no guarantee that any of those precautions will work, which is to say that the world is a dangerous place. On the other hand, the world is considerably safer than it was, say, in the 14th century, when the bubonic plague wiped out a substantial percentage of the population of Europe; or even one century ago, when a strain of influenza (of which coronavirus is one) killed tens of millions of people in the first few years following the end of World War I. Humankind has gained a lot of traction against these formerly devastating diseases over the past 100 years, thanks largely to antibiotics. But now, many common pathogens are becoming immune to even strong antibiotics, meaning that the whole cycle may start over again.

Everywhere you look there is something lurking which can potentially kill you, but the simple truth of this situation is that it has always been true. The question which I ponder, which is perhaps a timeless question, is: why are we so afraid of our mortality as human beings?

The Buddha, 2500 years ago, pondered this same question when he encountered an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a holy man in the streets of India or Nepal. Not having been previously exposed to most of life’s hardships, he was shocked at the sight of what happens to people when age or illness or misfortune take their toll on them. In the modern world it is almost as if we react with the same naivety that the Buddha had when leaving his royal palace and witnessing human suffering and mortality. Except we do not have his excuse of having been totally walled off from such realities.

Instead, we are just afraid. One tentative answer which I have arrived at in questioning why we are so afraid is that western societies—and maybe the whole world—have bought into a big lie: that lie is to think that we can overcome difficulties and live happily ever after. Just like in fairy tales.

Our multi-layered conditioning

When I was still quite young, living in a Zen monastery which was also in its early years and quite poor, we relied on resourcefulness and youthful vigor to accomplish things which would otherwise have cost a lot of money. For instance, we tore down condemned houses in order to salvage the lumber, bring it back to the monastery, pull the nails and hardware out of it, and use it to build stuff. I built several sheds and a greenhouse using such recycled materials. One situation which would often present itself was that I would take a piece of wood which had been painted, and set to work sanding off the paint. It wasn’t uncommon to discover a second layer of paint below the outermost layer, and at times a third layer underneath the second one as I kept sanding.

This isn’t a bad metaphor for human conditioning. As infants we start as bare, relatively unblemished wood, and then the adult world starts to paint us with its particular shade of beliefs, fears, worries and misunderstandings. First coat of paint. Then, we grow up and decide that, actually, we don’t really like that color very much and so we apply a new coat of paint of our choosing. Second coat. We can and do go through life adding coats of paint as desired. Those coats of paint penetrate pretty deeply into the wood of our consciousness and will remain there unless one day we decide to sand them down. Sanding them down is the work of spiritual practice.

Recently a young man came to the temple for a weekend, hoping to learn more about meditation and find out what Zen practice is. He’d quit the church in which he was brought up and was exploring a new path for himself. Arriving on Friday he was enthusiastic and doing fine until mid-Saturday; at that point we held a full morning service, as we usually do on that day. Evidently, the music and the ceremonial was resonant enough of his church upbringing that by the end of it he was beside himself, really quite worked up. He said that all the old guilt came up and hit him hard; the indoctrination against worshipping false idols in the temples of non-believers, etc. all came right up for air. We talked for a while, and I assured him that, having been brought up in the same denomination of Christianity as he, I knew exactly what he was talking about. Nevertheless, he was quite shaken that he hadn’t gotten that old conditioning out of his system, and having had all he could handle, decided to go home. It was his first real experience of how deeply old conditioning penetrates into the wood of the human heart and mind.

Pushing this metaphor a little further, paint isn’t all bad; it is, after all, a wood preservative. Most of our layers of conditioning are built on a desire for survival in a world full of dangers. We get taught how to look both ways when crossing the street, wear enough clothing when it’s cold, and hundreds of other little survival tools. Our parents love us, and that love is a good part of what keeps us alive as children. Our protective sheath of survival armor is part of being human, the main problem being that, on a spiritual level, it can be fairly suffocating. And if a religion uses fear of an eternal punishment as a means of keeping people on the straight road as they see it, that becomes a deep-penetrating stain.

Being afraid is suffocating. What we need to learn to do is distinguish between having legitimate concerns and being afraid without just cause. Protecting your private information against hackers, the predators of the on-line jungle, by making up really unique passwords is an example of a legitimate concern. But being afraid of the world’s arsenal of nuclear weapons is not; there isn’t a thing we can do about that. We all have a sphere of influence in which we can actually have a positive effect on our own well-being and those around us, but that sphere doesn’t extend very far out. So why be afraid of stuff over which you have zero control, and thus carry around this big weight of fear-consciousness?

Sanding down our layers of fear-oriented conditioning can only happen if we really question the authenticity of all the many fear alarms with which we are bombarded. It isn’t that it’s all a bunch of hooey; there are legitimate concerns mixed into the assault. But if peace of mind is what you really desire as a human being, you simply need to get to work on the old paint. You need to decide that the care and maintenance of a healthy state of mind and consciousness trumps all the bad news. And that is a discipline in the modern world, an undervalued one.

Positivity Training       

Within my tiny sphere of influence I try to practice positivity, knowing that it’s probably my greatest gift to the world. Negative energy is like a tsunami at the moment, washing all over everything in its path. During a recent weekend Dharma talk at the temple, one person remarked that, given the state of the world, if you are plugged into electronic media, following the news, etc., there is almost no way you cannot be either afraid or despairing about it all. That is, unless you have a solid spiritual practice of disconnecting from the world of negativity and immersing yourself in positive energy on a daily basis. Relatively few people do this, which is why negativity is the real epidemic, far more damaging in its long term effects than something as transient as a flu virus.

Life is transient. Supposing you contracted the coronavirus and died from it, then what? When you review your life you will most likely regret the time you wasted on foolish stuff that had no lasting value and was part of an endless loop of negative energy, like being glued to CNN. People who study end of life phenomena have reported that most people, when facing death, have more regret for things undone than done, things that would have gotten them out of their comfort zone, out of their fear cocoon. In other words, fear is suffocating, and it takes an act of will to step out of it.

To enjoy life, or to find peace of mind, you do not have to feel good all the time, or even most of the time. That is the subconscious assumption that most human beings make, and it is a mistake. Peace of mind is not dependent upon feeling good, having money, or any other external condition; it is dependent upon letting go of fear, letting go of wanting everything our own way. Bowing to what life brings, on the other hand, accepting and deciding to work with whatever we encounter from one day to the next is totally liberating. That act of bowing to life and accepting it is what converts fear into equanimity.

All of us have to decide that we are not going to buy in to the world of negativity. Constant blaming, back-stabbing, not taking responsibility, denial of what is clearly true are what make up that world, and in a word it is what in Buddhism is known as dukkha: unsatisfactoriness. Chronic suffering brought about by striving to be first. Fear is the primary underpinning of the whole painful mess.

I would like to share two quotes in concluding this article. The first is from Psychology Today, on-line version, posted February 27, 2020, entitled Corona Virus is Worse Than You Think, by Paul Veissierre, PhD: 

“The bad news for you is that, if you live in a densely populated area, you are very likely to contract the coronavirus — if not this year, next year, or the year after as it undergoes its seasonal global migration pattern with its zoonotic cousins.  

The good news is that you will almost certainly not die from it, and it may not even register that you are slightly more sluggish than usual for a week or two. Much more relevant to the terrible threat caused by our Pathogen Overlords, you can prepare to fight the yearly Corona invasions to come by resisting your own neuroticism, your own prejudice, and your own irrationality. As far as numbers games are concerned, our Pathogen Overlords are much more noble, and much more worthy of our hatred than our fellow human pseudo-enemies in political, religious, and culture wars.”1

This second quote is from Paramahamsa Yogananda (1893-1952), author of Autobiography of a Yogi:

“Don’t depend on death to liberate you from your imperfections. You are exactly the same after death as you were before. Nothing changes; you only give up the body. If you are a thief or a liar of a cheater before death, you don’t become an angel merely by dying. If such were possible, then let us all go jump in the ocean now and become angels at once. Whatever you have made of yourself thus far, so will you be in the hereafter. And when you reincarnate you will bring that same nature with you. To change, you have to make the effort. This world is the place to do it.”

We can make the world a better place if we chose to do so, but it will take work on your part. Giving up the imperfections of neuroticism, prejudice and irrationality, like sanding off layers of paint from an old piece of wood, takes regular, constant effort. If we don’t do so, we end up collectively with the world being as it is today.

Footnote

This last sentence isn’t very clear apart from the rest of the article. The point being made is that as human civilization has evolved, we have created conditions favorable to the survival of pathogens, which in turn thin out human populations. Thus, as our overlords, they are as influential in the course of our history as we humans are. Whether or not you wish to take another step and hate the role pathogens play in human affairs is a matter of personal choice, as is hating your human “pseudo-enemies.”