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. 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.
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.
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.”
Finding Your Center
By Rev. Master Seikai
In The Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi and Qi Gong (which I found and bought in a thrift store), one chapter is devoted to Finding Your Center. The author, Bill Douglas, says the following: “Being in center reduces the melodrama in your life so you can focus more attention on the big stuff. Standing in the center means aligning our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual selves so we function at our very best, using everything we’ve got in everything we do.”1
This reminded me of many years ago when my Zen master, Jiyu-Kennett, talked about “the stillness in the center of your being” and “the center in the midst of conditions.” This was for me a very transformative teaching, which in many ways really set me on the path of Buddhist training. I realized that, without consciously thinking about it, to be centered or to retreat often to the very center of my being is simply how I live life. Years ago it became second nature.
I was delighted to find this teaching rephrased in the context of a slightly different meditative tradition, that of Tai Chi. My understanding of T’ai Chi, which I practice, is that it is to bring a meditative mind into slow, deliberate movements which activate the chi, the body’s natural, internal energy, which circulates in much the same way that blood does. Over the centuries, the Chinese people figured out which movements are the most effective in maximizing the movement of chi in the body. It isn’t the same as Zen meditation, or zazen, but at the same time it isn’t fundamentally different, either.
We would all like to reduce the melodrama in our lives. The modern world, driven as it is by electronic devices and a super-fast pace, has a higher ambient level of melodrama than when I was young—not that there was any lack of it then. There is all the more reason to have resources that we can call upon to help us not get too caught up in the melodramas of politics, power struggles, interpersonal disharmonies, competitiveness. But in the Zen tradition we don’t really make a distinction between the “big stuff” and the “little stuff.” What the author is suggesting is that by not obsessing over little stuff, we can allow ourselves to view a bigger picture in which we keep larger considerations in view. This is hard for most people to do. We humans are chronically short-sighted and forget the big picture easily; or we give up responsibility for the bigger picture because someone else, really, is in control of that.
Bridging this dichotomy involves learning to sit still in the center of your being, and teaching yourself not to get too sucked into little psycho-dramas. You have to let go of the idea that you have the right answer all the time, or that if only people listened to you and did things your way, everything would work out OK. Experience shows all of us that this isn’t true; all we have to do is be willing to look with an open mind. Doing so has an enormously freeing effect. It allows us to function at our very best, using everything we’ve got in everything we do.”
That is actually a very Zen concept. Not trying to be in control, not trying to be the best, not trying to be right all the time allows us to focus on bringing the best we have to any task or situation. Life is kind of like a dance in which we have to learn not to lead the dance, but follow the steps. If you do that long enough, then it becomes more a case of dancing with life without either one being in the lead or following—it’s just a dance. It doesn’t mean that life will always be smooth, like a waltz, but it does mean that whatever happens, we know that everything is teaching us and will be resolved.
The Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi & QiGong continues as follows:
T’ai Chi slows us down inside and out. As our body begins to move more slowly, our breathing slows down. As we hear our breathing slow, our mind begins to ride on the rhythm of that relaxed breath, letting go bit by bit of the storming thoughts of the day. As the wind calms, it has a resonant effect on the heartbeat, the blood pressure, and the body’s healing systems. On some level, we begin to realize we are not in a state of mortal danger after all, which is a state that our ancient “fight or flight” response produces in us. It is this response more than the world around us that makes life seem like it is spinning way out of control…. Ta’i Chi promotes that ability to refocus, to disengage, to give the mind and body opportunities to heal so they can tackle real-life problems.
This is the physical side of what we are doing in Zen meditation and practice. Zen focuses more on the mind, the internal discipline and concentration; T’ai Chi is explaining more what goes on in the body when we engage in practice on this level. For myself, I have always looked upon these disciplines as being complimentary, as making up two sides of a whole. If you train your mind, you should have some idea how to also train your body to keep up with it, and if you are practicing ta’i chi, yoga, or some other mindfulness-based discipline, you need to learn how to train your mind to give up its egocentricity.
Body and mind are also paired up in a dance in which we normally allow the brain to lead. Rev. Master Jiyu explained that the brain is really like a computer which presents all the options available at any given moment, but really shouldn’t be in the position of having to make every decision. Decisions of any real consequence need to be made by the heart: in the center of your being. Our higher nature, whatever it is which decides to give up selfishness and live by a more ethically, spiritually sound standard, isn’t really the same voice as the voice of our rambling thoughts. It comes from a deeper place. All we have to do if we wish to hear it is to decide to tune into it, but that involves learning to sit still underneath the constant noise of the brain.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that they need to “turn off” their thinking mind and just sit there with a blank mind. This approach leads you immediately into a struggle in which there is no winner. It is essentially to have the mind divided against itself. What actually works is to focus the mind on something other than thinking; in the case of ta’I chi, the slow movements of the body, or in sitting meditation the in and out flow of the breath. Or, in sitting meditation, it is possible to focus on the stillness in the center of your being without being too distracted by what may be going on in the brain. That is the beginning of deeper meditation.
You can begin to realize that there are multiple layers of consciousness. Underneath the thinking brain there is a calmer place where you can reflect upon life, and reflect on the contents of your own mind without getting involved in the content. Underneath that layer of consciousness, the deeper stillness in the center of your being is a place of not holding on to anything—just letting water flow. That flow of water is sufficient unto itself and can’t possibly have anything added to it or taken away from it.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide describes meditation as being analogous to viewing a glass of clear soda from the side, with little bubbles rising to the surface from the depths of the glass. The depths of the glass are like the unconscious mind, from which so much of our lives issues forth. Bill
Our quiet meditations place us sitting on the side, observing the true depth of life. Here we see that experiences are really end results rather than big surprises. Events in our lives are actually results of patterns or habits we have below the level of what we usually see and feel. We set ourselves up for success or failure by how we think of ourselves every day. If we think of ourselves as valuable human beings capable of success, then we’re much more likely to form bubbles that pop on the surface of our lives in the form of success stories. Likewise, if we continually think of ourselves as bad or worthless, we will probably create bubbles to reflect that worthlessness in the form of relationship problems [and] we will attract people into our lives who will reinforce that reality.
Unlike a “man cave”, which is an escape from the cares and pressures of everyday life, the cave in the center of our being, which in the Zen tradition we often refer to as the temple of our own heart, is a place where we can confront those pressures without fighting them, and let them dissolve in the flow of water within meditation. That place of calm and acceptance is our birthright, the place where everything can be, just as it is; the true resting place.
Douglas, Bill; The Complete Idiot’s Guide to T’ai Chi & QiGong; Third Edition, copyright 2005; Alpha Books, New York, NY 10014; pp. 48-57.
Reflections on Perfection
By AnneMarie Mal
As I wipe down the kitchen counters in the Buddha house after morning meditation I contemplate my inclination toward perfectionism. I seem to have a habit of looking for what can be improved and taking initiative toward improving it (whether or not anyone else thinks it needs improving). Usually, I then proceed to point out to others what I’ve done, beaming with self-satisfaction.
The energy behind it is “Look how amazing I am. I saw this needed doing and I did it and now we all get to benefit. Especially me, who gets the double benefit of being recognized as a superior being for my keen eye, talent for cleanliness, and initiative”.
What I have realized while sitting on the cushion is that I cling to perfectionism as a way of creating purpose and self-worth for my life. When I can do something perfectly, I equate it as a reason for my existence. It is my cry to be seen, validated, valued by others; to be wanted for what I can provide: a space of perfection.
What I have learned in my short time on this planet is that when a human being is not willing to let go of what they are clinging to (in my case perfectionism), life has a way of creating circumstances in which we are forced to give up that thing. I want to change before I am forced to change. I sit in the conundrum of asking: How do I complete an action perfectly, without any attachment? How do I not cling to that sense of triumph upon which my self-value sits? How can I approach each activity with the intention to do my best, understanding that the outcome means nothing about me? I contemplate the idea that I do not have more or less value whether or not I complete something perfectly or imperfectly…
In the mirror of the Sangha, I see the impact on those around me who are expected to constantly applaud my perfection. I might imagine that it would be exhausting for people to constantly have to thank me for things they didn’t know they wanted or needed. It is also impossible to match or keep up with because my yearning for validation and valuation is unending.
Perfectionism also hits its limits when I cannot actually live up to my idea of being a perfect person. I see this in relation to wanting to be the perfect daughter, granddaughter, and niece. In my mind, the perfect daughter is there for her family whenever they need her. However, I have not been able to live up to that expectation. I watch my mind immediately spiral into distress at the thought of not living up to my ideal. The thing I use to measure my value against is in shambles because I cannot possibly be and do everything for everyone while getting my own needs met.
The scripture Sandokai comes to mind: “Lo!—With the ideal comes the actual, like a box all with its lid;…Lo!—Hear! Set up not your own standards…”
Friends have said that they look to me as an inspiration. This is most dangerous to me because it encourages me to be further self-sacrificing in the service of my imaginary standards. It feeds the perfectionism monster and leads to a life in which I am never relaxed. This is because I am always striving for new levels of perfection that inevitably cannot ever be reached as I constantly move the bar of measurement higher.
I am left on the cushion, facing the wall of perfectionism I have adopted that at once serves everyone and no one. I wonder if I sit long enough if I will get a breakthrough, or if it is a life-long challenge for me. Is there room for me to accept myself as I am: a perfectionist? How do I wipe the dirty glasses I am wearing that are smudged with perfectionism so I can see reality clearly?
At the same time, how can I have compassion for the being that is me that desires love? Does the cat not meow, asking for a head rub? Is it not our basic human desire to need and ask for love? Though elaborate, this mechanism was put in place borne of that basic desire. A normal, healthy call for love.
I imagine how I might ask for love without this elaborate game. “Hello, please love me. I am an imperfect person, and I will obsessively strive for perfection in the hopes that you will see value in me and respond with praise. This praise will then encourage me to continue my perfection-based, value-seeking activities indefinitely until I cannot possibly become more perfect and have a mental breakdown. During which I will hide from all of you so that you dare not see how deeply imperfect I see myself to be. I will gather myself up after a period of time and pretend that nothing happened and the whole program will ensue once more”.
How exhausting! No wonder I sigh with exhaustion everywhere I go! I am on a merry-go-round of an unwinnable game! And the hopelessness of it has me at once want to give up and try harder! How laughable our human existence!
Despite it all, I can see something in my mind turning away from this. There has been a development of distaste for gratitude given to me as a result of my compulsive perfection-based contributions. I don’t want to give in a way that expects gratitude. I want to be a contribution in a way that actually helps people in that they feel like they don’t owe me anything. Rev Phoebe says, that which recognizes error is not itself in error. Maybe there is hope for me yet…
I think about how my control issues go hand in hand with my perfectionist tendencies. Control for me always shows up in décor and design. When I cannot see or control the future, the only thing that seems to give me peace of mind is arranging my immediate environment into a place where I feel safe and comfortable. I am reminded of a dog adjusting his pillow until it is sufficiently fluffed and settling back down to relax upon it.
The moment I enter into an environment, I’m immediately looking at what I would change to make the energy flow better, feel more relaxed. In fact, I cannot relax in an environment until I have arranged everything to its maximum efficiency of use and highest level of organization and best energetic flow. It is a gift in a way, being able to intuitively create environments that feel like a warm hug. It is also a curse in the sense that I have difficulty relaxing in what I perceive to be incongruous places.
There are times it can also be annoying for the people around me to have environments moved around that they are already comfortable in. They know where everything is and have gotten used to it the way that it is. This push and pull process can create resentment, and the resulting discomfort of those around me can be at the expense of my comfort.
I wonder to myself: How do I make room for my self-expression without judging it as a “bad thing”? How do I let myself be good at what I’m good at? How do we all get our needs met when our needs for comfort are competing? I think of the chairs in the Sangha house. I vacuum and put them in a straight line. Order, Clean, Zen, I think to myself. Rev. Phoebe comes by and arranges them askew. She hates straight lines, she says. I laugh inside. The thing I do to make myself comfortable, to gain myself merit as a valuable contributing member of the community is not always the way things are done here.
I’m left grasping at emptiness and returning to beginner’s mind. The form I cling to for comfort is not available. I return to my cushion. I let all the questions float away. I breathe in and out. From the ocean to the shore, the waves of thoughts arise, form, crash, and retreat again.
THE SCRIPTURE OF AVALOKITESHWARA BODHISATTVA
I have sung the Scripture of Avalokiteshwara hundreds of times at the Temple, at the Abbey and at home. The Scripture makes the wonderful promise:
“When people hear his (Avalokiteshwara’s) name, and see his form,
And think of Him not vainly in their hearts,
All forms of ill, in all the worlds, shall cease.”
This is breathtaking, “All forms of ill, in all the worlds, shall cease” if I take Refuge in Avalokiteshwara. I meditate daily and work to deepen my practice. I could do even better if only these pesky fears and doubts in my mind and chronic aches in my body would just go away.
The Scripture goes on to describe a number of circumstances, from being pushed into a fiery pit to being oppressed by the military and says that if the victim thinks on Kanzeon’s (Avalokiteshwara’s) great power, they will not suffer harm.
At times I thought of these results as physical miracles achieved by Buddhas or Great Saints. They are inspiring, encouraging me in my practice. However, I could not imagine that I could think on Kanzeon and when thrown off a mountain would remain aloft.
I also thought of some of these terrible circumstances as metaphors. For example:
“If, wishing harm, an enemy should try to push another in a fiery pit.
The victim should, on Kanzeon’s great power, think, and straightway
That fiery pit shall be transformed into a cool and silver lake.”
I regarded the “fiery pit” as a metaphor for anger inside of me or directed at me and, if I remained still and thought on Kanzeon’s compassion instead of reacting, I could remain centered and at peace as in that cool lake.
But I realized there is more. One morning while singing this Scripture the following lines stood out:
“If, bound in chains, in prison, let a man just
Think on Kanzeon’s great holy power,
At once the shackles will then set him free.”
I realized that it was the shackles that set him free, not the prison guards. The shackles could be those mental fears and physical aches I thought were impediments to practice.
The Scripture was saying that these “impediments,” when regarded in Truth with the mind of Compassion, would set me free. The promise is that if I trained with them, accepting my body and mind, doing the best I can, not fighting the fears and physical aches, they become a door to deeper understanding.
“All forms of ill, in all the world, shall cease” takes on a new meaning. To the extent that I face and train with my “impediments” with the mind of Compassion, they become gateways to a deeper understanding, and they are no longer “forms of ill”. They have ceased.
I went back and reread the following teachings with deeper understanding:
Reverend Master Seikai: “If we want to know the deeper truth of things, if we want to know the Buddha Nature, we need to begin with seeing it in our own suffering. To see it within our own heartache, sense of failure, sense of inadequacy, is the way to open up the heart.”
Reverend Master Kinrei: “The deepest solution to all the problems we face lies not in changing and manipulating circumstances, but in finding the Buddha within everything.”
2 New Articles on October 2019:
Sweet & Savory, Bland & Bitter
By Rev. Master Seikai
In the nineteen-eighties I read a book entitled China: Alive in the Bitter Sea, by the Pulitzer-winning author Fox Butterfield.1 In his in-depth study of China, post Mao Zedong, post Gang-of-Four, but pre-Tiananmen Square uprising in 1988, Butterfield focused extensively on the Chinese turn of phrase Chi Ku: Eating Bitterness. Chi Ku means to endure hardship, but to do so with good humor. Over the centuries China, one of the oldest and most advanced civilizations on earth, has endured repeated floods, droughts, huge earthquakes, invasions, internal political strife, and every other calamity that can befall human society. Just reading about it made an impact on me, and gave me some perspective on how people can absorb prolonged difficulty and still keep a positive attitude about life—a lesson I was in the midst of learning over a period of many years.
Life can be bitter. In China, parents would have their children eat a very bitter variety of melon, just to impress upon them the likelihood, if not inevitability, of having to endure bitterness or hardship in their lives. Might as well get used to the idea when you are still young. But in America, which has so far in its 243 year history as a nation had a relatively smooth ride despite the usual ups and downs, foreign wars and a particularly bloody Civil War, we have no such concept. We expect life to be good; we’re supposed to smile when being photographed; we assume our standard of living will improve and that technology will solve problems; and we don’t anticipate having to eat bitterness. But now, finally, in the 21st century, this heretofore optimistic perspective may be changing: the truth of life, which must include a recognition of bitterness, is starting to hit home.
It is interesting that we tend to use the metaphor of food when talking about quality of life. Life can be sweet, and most people love sweet things, so naturally we have labeled life’s more enjoyable times as sweet. Too much sweet, however, and what happens?—you become obese. In life as with food, there can be too much of a good thing. Meanwhile, there is bland food, flavorless or nondescript. When life is bland it is boring and we look for stimuli: we try to spice it up. Some people find life so boring that they go to great lengths to try to feel anything in their lives, including fear. Horror movies and amusement park rides are boredom antidotes. Extreme sports now have moved in to fill a void in the lives of people who struggle with boredom. Blandness, or boredom, might be just as hard to really come to grips with as bitterness; bitterness at least has a sharp edge to it, however unpleasant.
Savory is a word derived from the Latin, sapor, meaning taste. The word found its way into the French language, and took on the meaning of salty or spicy, i.e. flavorful. Of all the adjectives we use to describe food, savory is the one which comes closest to neutral, or connoting simple satisfaction. It is not too terribly much of anything, but it can be tasted and is enjoyable. So naturally enough, as applied to life generally, savory connotes pleasant, acceptable or respectable, and the commonly used term unsavory connotes a disagreeable person or situation, dishonorable or unpleasant.
In some parts of Asia, Buddhist monks have traditionally gone on an alms round in the streets of a nearby village every day to get enough food to survive. Ideally, the monk would accept whatever was put into his bowl and eat it, not making any judgments about the quality of the food, or whether he liked or disliked something. This attitude and practice of all-acceptance became symbolic—not surprisingly—for how to live all of life: with reverence and gratitude. Not discriminating about food is not an easy thing to do, especially now in an era of hundreds of special diets, all of which presumably bestow upon the dieter some desirable benefits. And, given the prevalence of junk food in the modern world, it is almost a necessity to practice a certain level of picking and choosing with regard to food. Still, I believe the attitude of all-acceptance is the thing of utmost importance. Life serves us all kinds of dishes: some are sweet, some savory, some bland and some bitter.
There is an oft-repeated dictum among people who study Buddhism: Life Is Suffering. If that were true in the sense that suffering is all you experience, then life would be continuously bitter. The Buddha did say that human life is suffering but only in the broadest possible context: that the continual rounds of rebirth and dying, over and over is, taken as a whole, wearisome and imbued with suffering. In other words, there is a context in which the statement that life is suffering is true, but it does not apply to everyday life; I’ve never met anyone for whom life was uninterrupted suffering. I will say that earlier in my life, I experienced what seemed like almost unrelenting suffering for periods of time, but again that experience has to be put into its proper context, which is that by virtue of doing serious monastic training I was purifying my past karma, and that was what made life hard to bear for a long time. In the midst of that experience, I could also see that the heavy load I was dealing with was becoming progressively lighter, which in turn gave me the faith that it was worth continuing.
In the nineteen-seventies, Paul Simon recorded a song entitled Some Folks Lives Roll Easy which always spoke to me very directly and helped me eat bitterness. Here is part of it:
Some folks’ lives roll easy as a breeze
Driftin’ through the summer night
Heading for a sunny day
But most folks’ lives, oh, they stumble
Lord they fall
Through no fault of their own
Most folks never catch their stars
And here I am, Lord
I’m knocking at your place of business
And I know I ain’t got no business here
But you said if I ever got so low
I was busted
You could be trusted.
This song would play in my head and I would remind myself that knocking at the Lord’s place of business was exactly what I was doing and I had every reason to be there. I pretty much took up residence in the Lord’s place of business, which is a place of pure compassion, pure acceptance of things as they are. Whatever I was experiencing was neither better nor worse than anything else, and I could make an offering of it. To be deeply involved in that process was to be filled with relief from bitterness, filled with loving kindness. There is a pervading sweetness to be found in deeply accepting things as they are.
Last week a friend came up to the temple to visit Rev. Phoebe and I for the afternoon. He talked about how the temple was a sacred space that has a special vibe, a holy vibe, and he wanted for people he was helping to be able to experience it, even if just for a few hours. I replied that because I live here and have spent many years essentially helping to create that special vibe or feeling, to me it’s just home. I don’t have that outside perspective. But it did make me pause and reflect on all the difficulty that goes into actually creating a “sacred space”, and that if you persevere and get to the place we now occupy, life takes on a particularly sweet quality. But, you may just not always be aware of it; and meanwhile, life has its moments of difficulty, sameness, unexpected happenings, and ever-present challenges.
All of us act and react to situations and conditions based on a set of values. That set of values sits in the background and we don’t usually questions its validity—we simply act on it, the way a computer uses a program and everything it does is based on that program. To change our values requires consciously deciding to think and act differently than we have up to that point; the older we are, the harder it is to reprogram our values. But like anything else, it is mostly a matter of making a firm resolution to take a different course, or to think differently based on new information which has presented itself one way or another. We can change the course of our own lives when we decide to reprogram how we think and act, and in so doing exchange some bitter quality of life for a more palatable one.
Society as a whole, on the other hand, changes only very slowly. Society is made up of millions of people, all thinking and acting in their own particular way, the result being the “collective karma” of that society. Or the collective karma of the whole world. Politics is really the struggle to establish certain values as the operating system of a society, and so any society has a clash of differing values systems which plays out in the political arena. Any one individual can affect the outcome either minusculy if their only political power is one vote, or dramatically if they have a lot of power, as in the president or some high official. There is the ballot box and there is the court of public opinion, which are not necessarily synchronized or in harmony, as we all know.
Right at this point, in 2019, the whole world seems to be standing at a threshold moment, a moment of deciding whether or not to take immediate, dramatic action on the issue of climate change. We have on our hands the collective karma of the past two centuries of an exploding world population which has burned fossil fuels to obtain the energy necessary to propel ships, trains, cars, airplanes, heat homes, and operate factories. Scientific method, which checks and rechecks its results to be sure that its conclusions are correct, has shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is warming our planet at a rate far faster than it would if the cause of that warming was the work or nature, as opposed to the work of an industrialized race of bipedals, humankind. You would think that, armed with this knowledge, humankind would be quick to change course and try to reverse the continuing rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide. But again, as we all know, that isn’t happening.
People with the power to do so set the agenda and chart the short term course of society—and, in this century, humankind. A lot of people with a lot of power have effectively stymied all serious attempts to properly address our existential crisis as human beings: will be able to live in a radically altered environment? In other words, they have a values system which puts various short term considerations ahead of looming long term considerations—human shortsightedness at work. And now it has gone beyond simple shortsightedness into deliberate ignorance of undeniable truths. This deliberate ignorance, based on a demonstratively selfish set of values, makes any intelligent person upset. Why wouldn’t it? Our future, the future of our children and grandchildren and every generation after them is at stake.
What I want to look at is not whether or not there is a solution to the crisis of climate change; rather, I’m more concerned about the anger and despair that it generates in individuals who have enough sensitivity to see what’s going on. To me, it is clear that we as a species are not going to get around to addressing our own existential crisis—and that of every other living creature on this planet—in time to make much difference on how it plays out. Many people in the scientific community admit that the train has already passed that station and is hurtling down the tracks into an unknown future without any brakes. We can and should still try to apply the brakes and alter the course we have set by the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels, regardless of whether it makes any discernable difference—simply because that is the best any of us can do, given the lack of leadership in the world at large.
We appear to be headed into a bitter future. Many people feel this on a visceral level and are very uneasy about it, given the enormity of it. In our own lives we can change things that go wrong or are a constant source of unhappiness, but on a global level we cannot. Part of our response to the crisis now needs to include giving some thought to how we are going to accommodate this deteriorating situation on an emotional, psychological and ultimately spiritual level. For myself, I’ve been doing this to some degree for the past twenty to thirty years, since it became clear to me that A) the climate is changing in noticeable ways, and B) the political world is ignoring it.
One solution is to just not think about it, and continue to muddle through life as best you can. This is probably the default position for most people. If you push it away and don’t think about it, then at least it’s a problem that is deferred to the future. One solution is to just accept it, like the monk with his begging bowl, as something bitter to eat. We have no control over this aspect of our lives, fighting it appears to be futile, and so if we want to preserve our sanity, we need to dig deep and practice full acceptance. There is an old saying in the Zen tradition: “Don’t fret about the past; don’t worry about the future. Live fully today.” For me, the wisdom in this saying is immediately apparent, and at first glance seems like the best approach. But is it irresponsible because it turns a blind eye towards the future, saying in effect that there’s nothing I can do about it, so why worry?
Another solution is to do everything in your power to try to affect a positive outcome, and fight it with everything you have. The advantage here is that you might gain a little peace of mind knowing that you’ve done your very best in spite of overwhelming odds, and that you tried to be part of the solution. You can take this approach on two levels: you can enter the political arena and try to steer public policy, or you can stick with the private arena and do things like drive an electric car, recycle as much as you can (even that has been thrown a curveball by China no longer buying America’s recycled trash), not eating meat, not flying in airplanes, and so on. Not an easy row to hoe no matter which path you take.
A good example of this approach in the public arena is the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who on her own initiative started striking from school on Fridays, sitting outside the Swedish Parliament building with a sign. Clearly a very sensitive child, she starting thinking about the whole matter as a seven year old, and went into a depression at the age of eight. A few years later she decided to try to do something, an amazing act of courage for someone so young. Her school strike eventually caught on and started gaining attention and momentum, to where now this young woman speaks before large assemblies of adults willing to listen to her simple message: we can’t afford to not do something, and to do something now. Whether the rich and powerful can hear her and have her same level of courage remains to be seen, but it does seem that the climate crisis movement is gaining traction. I don’t think Greta Thunberg set out to become a celebrity: all she wanted was a future on this planet.
There is also the solution I’m attempting here, which is to try to help people come to grips with a drastic, life-changing situation over which they have no control. Teaching people how to eat bitterness. To eat bitter, you have to start by looking at your basic set of assumptions about life and see how realistic they are. For instance, do you think the world owes you a living, and a comfortable one at that? I don’t think so. Much of the world’s human population lives in poverty, and they say that these are the people for whom the effects of climate change will hit the hardest. Americans are loathe to lower their standard of living and live with less; but there may not be much of a choice in the matter in the future.
Another thing to look at is whether you think that you should not suffer. The doorway into Buddhism for many people is to simply recognize that they suffer in the first place, and to work in the direction of not making it any worse by fighting it. In the Buddhist paradigm, suffering is simply part of life: it is the First Noble Truth. The Buddha indeed taught that there are causes to suffering and held out the possibility of the cessation of suffering, but that does not magically change the fact that human life is marked by suffering—it is one of the basic facts of existence. We can know and taste the cessation of suffering for ourselves, but life will still be life. And it appears that life in the future will be pretty tough.
To accept suffering also involves accepting that the human realm is a rough-and-tumble realm of existence. We’d like it to be more peaceful, for people not to have to fight wars, for people to love each other, for people to take good care of the earth they live on….but it’s not like that. The Buddha repeatedly pointed out to his followers that the world is ill-natured, that there is misfortune and bitterness. On one level, what we need to do is extrapolate that thought out and realize that there are more favorable, peaceful eras of time and there are violent, difficult, unfavorable eras of time—and we appear to be in one of the latter. So be it. You can still bow to this set of circumstances and do perfectly good spiritual training right in the midst of it.
Usually what gets in the way of doing this is righteous indignation. We can blame other people, like oil company executives and misguided presidents for this colossal mess, or we can decide, first and foremost, to work with our anger about it. Anger does motivate and propel people to action, so I’m not saying that anger is all bad. But usually if you act out of anger, the results are not good—this is also a basic fact of existence. Anger as a background motivation might work better if, when contemplating whether or not to do something, you can calm down enough to do it without being angry.
I think what usually happens when people get angry en masse is rioting, or if the scale of it is quite large, revolutions. One might say that, in this case, the stakes are so high that a revolution is called for, and I wouldn’t be one to argue with that. However, the anger of a revolution has to be tempered by enough wisdom to steer the thing towards a desirable outcome—and that’s hard to do. Clearly, the intelligent and caring people of the world need to do something to at least try to stave off disaster. It might well have unintended consequences, whatever it is, as these things always do, but that shouldn’t prevent people from trying.
On a personal level, another solution is to spend more time outdoors. In the modern world people spend way too much time indoors, usually in front of a computer or a television. No wonder a large segment of the population has lost touch with reality: they live in an unreal world. It’s hard to stay upset when working out in your garden. Putting your hands in the soil, being with nature, talking to the earth; these things help keep us sane. City parks exist for a good reason: if you don’t have a garden yourself, or access to one, you can at least spend time with trees and grass. Walking, riding a bicycle, running, swimming; whatever it takes to let go of that pent-up rage and despair about the world, is worth every second.
Last but not least there is meditation. Going into the depths of your being, a place without an ego agenda, a place just to be without anything that needs to be done, is the ultimate source of peace. Whatever happens in the world, happens. After getting up from meditation you might be motivated to take action and you might not. But either way, you will have spent time in a well of sanity, allowing the clamor of the modern world to die down for a while. Find a quiet place, physically and mentally, where you go on retreat on a daily basis, even if the retreat only lasts five or ten minutes. It will make a big difference. Life is not going to get any easier or sweeter than it is now, in all likelihood. Surviving in this new world will be a constant challenge and you will need every resource that you can make use of.
All of us have to decide, at some point, how we are going to respond to the climate change crisis, and we will do it in one or more of the ways I have proposed. Many people already have, and are devoting their time and energy to try to affect a more positive outcome. But I think it is unavoidably true that there is no karma-free position to take, even if it is to do nothing. Doing nothing is essentially the inertia of the present moment, as Greta Thunberg constantly reminds the adult world.
Life will continue to be sweet, savory, bland and bitter as long as any of us are alive. What we need to do is accept all the tastes of life, ideally with the good humor that the Chinese have identified as being so helpful. Being content with what you have, but not being content to remain in a static condition spiritually makes all the difference in the world. ….
Ode to a Meditation on Peace!
By Beth Kaminaka
OM, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti
I emailed Reverend Phoebe and said I would come
A three-day silent meditation retreat for Peace
But I am conflicted
My life at home is busy and I am leaving
My husband, going to be without me, kisses me goodbye as I leave
I call him from Cuyama – I miss you – I love you
And then I arrive
Adoration to all the Buddhas
Adoration to the limitless teaching.
Peace! Speak! Blaze! Up! Open!
To the glorious, peaceful one
For whom there is no disaster,
There are three lay people for the weekend
United in this effort for Peace with the monks
Each probably wondering – as I do – what am I doing here?
What can I do for peace?
We recite the Precepts
We do ceremonial calling on Avalokiteshwara
Adoration to the Triple Treasure!
Adoration to Kanzeon who is the Great Compassionate One!
OM to the one who leaps beyond all fear!
Having adored him may I enter into the heart of the
Noble, Adored Kanzeon
We take refuge
We go for silent and contemplative walks into the back canyon
Some wild flowers are still blooming – why?
Silly things – its June
I have no words to name them all
I feel a sense of wonder come over me as we walk
I chant to myself “Om, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti”
I take Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
I give homage to all the Buddhas of the world, all the Bodhisattvas of the world, the Scripture of Great Wisdom.
Peace, peace, appeaser of enemies, conqueror of Mara; you who wear a garland of skulls, You resplendent one; You who look around, are pure and immaculate and remove all stains. You who look everywhere, who bind all evil and are yourself free from the fetters of Mara. You who are wholly pure, let all the devilish impediments vanish!
We have Dharma talks
Can humanity ever really have peace?
What is the cause of war – of unrest – of oppression?
GREED HATE DELUSION
What can we do?
Be aware of our own thoughts and actions!
Lead by example!
Hold merit for all who suffer!
Put the intent of Peace into the universe
Give it wings!
Let it ring out!
We have a Prayer Vigil for the Spiritual Well-being of America
Reverend Seikai wrote:
“In a time of spiritual crisis in America, we are gathered in recognition of a simple truth: if we wish to help our nation and the world, the best thing we can do is to counter hate with love; to counter anger with compassion; to counter greed with generosity of spirit; and to counter delusion with wisdom. What ever we put into the spiritual atmosphere of the world, eventually, in the fullness of time, it will come back to us.”
It may not seem like much given the state of turmoil the world is in but I think one person – with one prayer, one intention with passion and conviction – will make an impact on hearts and actions and will create a space to cultivate peace.
It is a start. One person at a time.
OM, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti
Peace in body, speech, and mind
July 2019 offers 3 articles:
My Original Vow vs. New and Improved Nonsense
By Rev. Master Seikai
March 24, which is my ordination day, landed on a Sunday this year, and Rev. Phoebe asked me if I had any words of wisdom for our small group that morning. What follows here is a rough summation of that little talk, plus a few after-thoughts. On that day, up to that point, I’d only had one thought with regard to my years as a monk; I said, “well, I didn’t become a monk to be famous, or a big name teacher, or to convert the world, or to make money. I became a monk to do something about my own suffering: that was my original vow”.
In the 41 years since then, I’ve seen many people start out with some kind of aspiration, or innocence, and with good intentions; and then many of them, through changing circumstances, or something unexpected, or what have you, lose sight of their original vow. It is said that it is “difficult to keep the original humility to the end.” (I don’t really know what “the end” is, other than this will undoubtedly be true until the day I die.) And it is hard, because life keeps throwing changes at us, and it keeps assaulting us with new and improved nonsense. But for me, I’ve managed to recall my original vow often enough, despite all the ups and downs that are a normal part of life, and the fact that I still suffer—because suffering is an innate part of human existence—keeps reminding me that all I really have is the training of this one day, today.
I can’t do anything about the past, and I can’t live tomorrow today: all I have is today, the golden opportunity of having a human body and mind, and the ability to train myself, today. That is really my original vow, it is still active, and what the world has to offer is pretty meaningless to me by comparison. New and improved nonsense doesn’t make anyone happy and it doesn’t relieve suffering. Only practice can do that.
The human condition includes the moment-to-moment tendency to crave for good things, nice things, pleasant experiences, whatever makes our little selves happy. When I began to study Buddhism I could see that this particular teaching of the Buddha was absolutely true, and that to begin to undo the various habit energies of grasping for pleasurable things was what I needed to do in order to truly be at peace within myself. The recognition that the insidious desires of the human mind lead to craving, and that unfulfilled craving is essentially what suffering—or chronic unsatisfactoriness—is, is one entryway into making a vow to train the mind.
Following upon this realization is the recognition that the mind also tends to push away things which are unpleasant, or threaten its little island of safety. So, learning to be still enough to see this mechanism in action, and to learn to accept all sorts of things which might otherwise be annoying, is another doorway into that vow to practice, to bring suffering to an end.
The human condition, at least in this era in which we find ourselves, also includes the habitual tendency to be distracted. Distraction takes us away from the moment, whatever the present moment holds, and replaces it with some little bit of stimulation. An undisciplined mind is easily distracted. I read recently that a few decades ago, the average attention span was twelve seconds, and that now, with the introduction of pocket-sized IT devices, that attention span is down to more like eight seconds. I don’t know how this figure is arrived at, but at the very least it suggests that in today’s world we have a big problem with constant distraction, overstimulation of the mind, addiction to that stimulation, and then the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms which spring up right away when the stimulant is not available. This would all seem to be working in precisely the opposite direction of where the Buddha’s teaching is pointing. Most people appear to have been sucked into a new source of addiction, a new way for the mind to be taken away from just being with things as they are.
In my talk I said that I often find myself taking steps back in terms of my perspective on life, i.e. that I look at things from a broader perspective more as time goes by. I reflect a lot on the human condition. 41 years is a relatively long time within the context of a human life, and in this era of rapid change, this span of time has been enough to see the world change quite a lot, at least with respect to the advance of technologies which have a profound impact on human existence. One way to look at all of these changes is to say that they’ve made life “easier”, i.e. many things can be done in a fraction of the time that it used to take; another way to look at them is to recognize that all of this stuff is, essentially, new and improved nonsense which has made life more stressful, because now we expect most things to be done right away. Improved quality of life remains elusive, however, and there is definitely not a cause-and-effect relationship between high tech stuff and quality of life.
I’ve come to the following conclusion: all technology, all new and improved stuff, is neutral by nature in the sense that it is made to perform a given task faster or more efficiently. So far so good. But technology also demands a corresponding rise in the overall maturity of the human race to be able to accommodate new technologies without them quickly becoming, in various ways, destructive. If you are going to have rapid technological advancement, then advances also need to be made in the psychological and spiritual development of humankind. In this area, understandably, the necessary development is lagging far behind the advances of the tech world. This is a cause-and-effect relationship which you don’t really ever hear about because it hasn’t yet really penetrated the collective consciousness of humankind. We are essentially children playing with powerful toys which, rather than being our servants, we have allowed to rule us in many ways. We are a self-destructive race of beings.
It seems unlikely that, as a species, we will agree that it’s time to put a stop to rapid technological advances in order to give our collective emotional, psychological and spiritual maturity a chance to catch up. The nature of our immaturity is that we simply don’t stop and reflect upon these things; we have very little self-restraint; we love our toys, and we don’t want to have anyone telling us that we cannot have them to play with.
Psychological and spiritual progress in human beings is slow—painfully slow. I would imagine it is entirely possible that, throughout the history of the human race, as it has moved from the Stone Age, with new and improved stone tools, to the Copper Age, with new and improved copper tools, to agricultural societies with new and improved food production, to the Iron Age, with new and improved iron tools, to the Industrial Revolution, this lag time has always existed. First you create new and improved ways to manipulate the world around you, and meanwhile your basic maturity, your basic capacity to incorporate compassion, cooperation, civility into the wave of change, lags behind. Perhaps there is always an intermediate chaotic period until people can adjust to the new and powerful thing they have introduced into their day to day existence—if they are able to do it at all.
The shortened attention span and the high level of distraction in the world of the present also have a profound impact on commitment. The more distractions there are, the harder it is to remain focused on a goal or a plan—particularly if that goal is one of a more subjective, intangible nature, such as a vow to train the mind. So many things can get in the way. People tend to bounce around more than in the past, both literally and metaphorically. So now the human condition has expanded to include the added challenge of staying rooted in a place, staying committed to a job or, more importantly, another human being. Staying committed to a spiritual practice seems out of reach for all but a small minority of people.
35 years ago I was living in a small urban temple, where I was usually the only resident. I taught meditation to beginners once a week. One time there was a group of people for such a meeting and one man said that he could feel that this place was very much slowed down by comparison to his normal everyday existence. He said it was something he really wanted in his life, and was amazed that it actually existed somewhere. I never saw him again.
It is very much the same for Rev. Phoebe and myself here in our remote mountain temple. Most of the people who come, for any length of time, say that they love it here, that it’s beautiful, and that they wish they could carry some of the peaceful atmosphere with them back into the world. Over the years I’ve had to accept that mostly what we do is plant a seed of how to live a sane, balanced life which is based on meditation and mindfulness. Most people we will never see again. It does happen on occasion that a person who had come for a retreat five or ten years previously will come back; inevitably they say that their first visit had a profound impact on them, and they always had it somewhere in the depths of their mind to come back. Many people have that quiet, inner longing for a saner way of life, but relatively few feel that they can act on it.
We have created a sanctuary, a small oasis of sanity in an uncertain, changing, hyper-driven world. That is essentially what has come out of the deep level of commitment, attention to detail and compassion for beings that characterize a monk, and to which Rev. Phoebe and I have devoted our lives. Fidelity to my original vow has made it possible for me to share with other beings the merit which has been created as a result.
Another of my musings is to dwell on an immortal question: why are we here in the first place? It is said, in Buddhism, that a birth into the human realm is a great gift, which an uncountable number of beings wish for, but only a relative few obtain. Once we come into this world, develop a personality, pursue some sort of a livelihood, become part of a community, culture or subculture, then we have the opportunity to ponder this question. But why do we even ponder it? Isn’t it enough to just live, in the same way that my dog, for instance, just lives his life, is grateful for his food, a place to sleep and the space to run around? I’ve heard more than a few people wish out loud that they could enjoy such an existence, and in some cases, wish that they were a dog.
Given how the human brain has evolved over time, it would appear that we have too much self-consciousness for this to happen. The very self-awareness that gets us into trouble and can seem at times to be such a great burden to bear is simultaneously also the doorway into higher consciousness on a spiritual level. It is also said, in Buddhism, that all people have an innate longing for the truth, or an innate longing to awaken to a greater awareness or greater depth of spiritual understanding. I don’t know if this is literally true: some people clearly seem not to have any such longing. But whatever the case, there are also a great many people for whom this longing is pushed by circumstances into an everyday awareness, a conscious thought. How to act on that longing, or how to live in a way which gives life some sort of real meaning, then becomes the central question in a person’s life.
It seems to me that right now, in the 21st century, we have a collective belief that human life is improved by stuff, rather than by spiritual practice. If we put aside the question of why we are here and proceed to just pursue the next object of desire that we think will make us happier, then we have bought into a whole false paradigm on the most basic level of human existence. And in doing so, we have really given away the meaning of our lives. If you sell out the meaning of life in favor of new and improved nonsense, it should come as no surprise that life seems not to have any purpose, and becomes a continuous exercise of chasing after dreams which, even if they come true, tend not to give life meaning or bring any real peace of mind unless the dream is rooted in something of real spiritual value.
To me this is the crux of the issues plaguing America (and for that matter the rest of the world) right at the moment. We want to make life better, we want to solve problems, we want more of the good things in life—and we’re lost as to how to make that happen. Most people look to politics to provide these kinds of solutions, but any objective observer can see that this rarely works out. Usually things just end up in a fight. The political world is really more like a reflection of the collective spiritual state of the people who occupy a region, state or nation. I sometimes say to people that it is fairly pointless to look for solutions to life’s problems—the real ones, the ones that we all live with from one day to the next, as opposed to all the social ills that we see on the television or the computer screen—from politics and politicians. They have a proven track record of being ineffective treating broad social ills, never mind the more private ones that we all live with. There is a saying you hear in this connection: Be the change that you would like to see in the world. I believe that there is real wisdom in this.
So why are we here? As a child I was taught that human life was a waystation en route to eternal life in heaven when we die. While we’re here we just have to have faith in God and believe in the right formula for salvation, and then when you die, that’s it. I rejected this belief system at an early age. It seemed patently ridiculous to me. The innate longing which I mentioned was far stronger than such a fanciful set of beliefs: I wanted to do something about me, to become a better human being, to gain some measure of control over, and peaceful existence within, my own mind. Another way to put this is that I longed to evolve on a purely spiritual level.
I’ve come to another conclusion, which in this matter is that for most people the meaning of life is to have children, to pass on what they have to their children, and to wish for them that they have a slightly better life than they, the parent, have had. I would imagine that for most of humankind this is just pure instinct. It is the animal part of ourselves which isn’t yet aware of the innate longing for something of a higher nature. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, complicated beings that we are, we experience a mixture of higher aspirations along with our more primal, animal ones.
My original vow was not unachievable, and in fact I have achieved the goal several times over. Life, however, doesn’t just stop and say ‘congratulations’ when you realize a new level of spiritual insight. If anything, the challenges get even harder because the bar has been raised, and require a whole new level of ethics, a new level of awareness, a new approach to life’s challenges. Nowadays I have to think hard to remember how my life actually was 40 or more years ago. But when I engage in this exercise, I always come to the same conclusion: training works. I am very blessed, and the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years of practice do accumulate, just as individual rain drops can fill a barrel.
It has been pointed out in popular news media that, over the past 40 years, the American middle class has been shrinking, that the richest stratum of society has essentially engineered all of society to its own benefit, and that the overall quality of life for most people has not improved. These conclusions are probably arguable, and would depend on what sort of statistics are used to arrive at them. But one thing is really very clear right now: a lot of people are suffering very deeply in our society. The use of painkillers and opioid narcotic drugs, on top of the old standards of alcohol and drugs like heroin, cocaine and the like, is on the rise. The suicide rate for veterans and working-class people is through the roof. In other words, new and improved stuff hasn’t created a better, more livable society; if anything, it has made it deteriorate.
None of us can change this situation; all we can do is to be the change that we’d like to see in the world. This is never easy, but my last little conclusion is that it is simply the nature of this realm of existence, the samsara realm. Within all the superficial changes, this is not likely to change. All we truly have is the gift of this body and mind, for as long as they last, and the opportunity to evolve spiritually. We can only do the best we can from one day to the next, from one moment to the next. But if we are able to keep this basic perspective in our minds, it makes it possible to live a sane, balanced life. We all have a secret, calm place within ourselves to which we can and must retreat on a daily basis. For myself, I’ve never been truly at peace for a day unless I do so, and to keep doing so one from one day to the next is the fulfillment of my original vow.
The Burning Coal
By Rev. Master Phoebe
Recently a friend was telling me about something that was happening in her life, which caused her a lot of pain and fear. She was quite aggravated and repeated the story several times, getting more and more upset with each repetition. There was nothing I could do about the situation, but I could and did try to help her get a different perspective by first offering sympathy and then a suggestion to “sit still”, or “take a breath” and see what the underlying problem was. In the heat of the moment she did not seem to hear me, but in a later conversation it was evident that she had. At that moment, however, she was just not ready yet to let go of her Very Important Story.
There is a story from the Buddha’s life in which a person who was holding a hot glowing piece of coal tightly in their hand asks the Buddha for help. It hurts badly. The advice of the Buddha was to let go of the coal. ‘How can I?’, says the person, ‘this is My Very Important Piece of coal, I do not want to lose it, I just want it to not be so painful’.
The burning piece of coal is, of course, the latest form of our suffering, the current story, and it is indeed of importance that we understand it and learn about ourselves. Letting go is not throwing it away by telling ourselves it is not real, or pretending we don’t care and are beyond it. This is called spiritual bypassing and is less than helpful in the long run. We do need to acknowledge our hurts and resentments, fears and desires for what they are, but this is not done by repeating the story over and over, even though it seems at times we need to go through many repetitions before we get good and tired of the exercise. This process of training the mind can take a long time and require a lot of patience, and sometimes the ear of a good friend or therapist can be of great help. While this is going on we consider the Buddha’s advice to let go, and make an effort to loosen our grip without trying to get rid of anything. When we hold something in a tightly closed fist it is painful and also hard to see. When we can open our hand the cause of our pain is now visible and we can begin to address not just the superficial story but our underlying feelings of fear or resentment. At this point a piece of scripture, a song, a poem, some spiritual advice, or even a casual remark by a stranger, might suddenly offer us a different perspective and some peace of mind.
Over time it becomes clear that the root cause of our suffering is always the same; meanwhile, the day to day story that gives form to our fears and desires changes endlessly. We can try to solve those stories endlessly on the superficial level of wanting it not to be painful, but there will always be another story to replace the previous one until we actually address the root of the problem. And even then, there will be more stories as long as we live; the difference, however, is that we no longer hold on to them so tightly. We can teach ourselves to be kind and patient with our familiar, painful thoughts and feelings. We can loosen our grip on our burning coals by seeing directly that we do, in fact, have the choice of opening our hand and allowing the coal to fall to the ground. This is how meditation practice works to relieve suffering.
The Four Noble Truths of the Buddha are not just a lofty-sounding philosophy of life, they are the mechanism by which we actually convert suffering into peace of mind. First we recognize that we are suffering; second we take responsibility for that pain, however it manifests, and decide to do something about it; third, we practice letting go of the painful thing we are holding on to so dearly, which is to realize for oneself that a reduction in suffering is possible; and fourth, having tasted for ourselves freedom from a familiar form of suffering, we resolve to continue practicing what we have learned. The Buddha gave voice to the ground rules for living; we can take his wisdom and put it into practice. There is an old saying: The secret of life is will; words are its key.
A Fistful of Frost
By Bill Wyatt
(This article appeared in Presence, Britain’s leading independent haiku journal, no 30. Bill Wyatt was one of Rev. Master Jiyu’s very early disciples and died in 2018.)
64 years old
Wide awake as any stone
I swallow the moon
I don’t know how long my Guest has been with me. Probably from birth, mixed in with my genes & DNA. Or karmic inheritance from a previous life. Genes, the scientific explanation for karma?
The train is late, electric power failure down the line. It means that I’ll be later, for that date with destiny.
I did not really know about my Guest, as of then. Though there were suspicions & premonitions. He’s the kind of Guest that creeps up on you, unawares.
The train arrives & I settle into the sweat, settle down within the calmness.
Old age creeping in –
Is it me, or the drifting moon
That’s slowing down?
Two scans so far. The first, as it happened, for a complaint that proved to be of minor significance. But it picked up on my Guest. “Mr. Wyatt, your scan shows that you have an enlarged prostate. We’d better do some tests.” Keep within the calmness. Blood & urine tests, followed up by a biopsy. “Yes, it’s prostate cancer, we’ll do another scan to see if it’s spread to the bones.” Keep within the calmness.
The third scan involved a radioactive injection, to pick up on any further intrusions. Does that mean I’ll glow in the dark?
A fistful of frost
Glowing in the dark, my bones
Light up the heavens
I do some research into phytonutrients, naturally occurring substances found in plants that help in the resistance of diseases. I check out those referring to prostate cancer, most of which have potent antioxidant properties. I make out a list. Isoflavones, found in soy & red clover & thought to be important cancer-preventing compounds. Substitute soya milk for cow’s milk, eat more tofu. Lycopene, which is the most abundant carotenoid found in the prostate gland, found in tomatoes, but more potent in fried toms & tomato sauce. Flaxseed, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, good for hormone balance & immune-supportive effects. Red pepper, cayenne (Capsicum genus). Calcium D-glurate, found in apples, broccoli, cherries & grapefruit, as hormone balancer that helps “burn up” toxins in the liver, especially carcinogens. Saw Palmetto, as it blocks DHT from binding to prostate cells. Armed with my list, I visit local health food shops, come up with all the goodies, except for D-glurate, which they have never heard of. Even a trip to Hastings proves fruitless.
Birth & Death
Like a spinning torch
Unless you wake up
You’ll spend your days
Like an old man in vain.
(Han Shan, the Cold Mountain Poet.)
Evening zazen, I mix up a prescription, portions from Zen Master Wu-chi’s Medicine to Cure the Deluded Heart. I stir up some humour, a slice of compassion, some gentleness, a bit of reasonableness, some enthusiasm, non-attachment, filial piety, forthright honesty, accumulated merit & skill in means. Roll it all up, then visualize the ingredients in the shape of a duck egg & place it on the top of my head. Then follow Zen Master Hakuin’s “soft butter” method. Visualize the egg slowly melting, oozing through my head, downwards, through the spine, lungs, heart, kidneys & liver, downwards into the pelvic region, circulating around & around through the prostate gland, bladder & bowels, slowly downwards, cleansing as it goes, down and through the legs & out via the soles of my feet. Hope my Guest approves of this gentle method, as a more aggressive regime will soon start to take over.
Midnight, & fall into a dreamless sleep. Does my Guest sleep & dream?
Old crow wakes me up –
Sun seeps through open window
Fall onto my lap
Barry writes me a terse note: “that’s rough you must be very yin?” Then goes on to say that “shaving foam has aluminum in it, everything’s toxic” & I recollect a poem written some 30 years ago:
How’s this for a diet:
Small grain brown rice,
Carrots, onions, celery
Now and then
Too much Yin
In that I like beer
& my potatoes served
With a large knob
Which also brings us
To the fact that I need
My teeth fixed
Then there would not be
So many holes in my head
The specialist, a lady doctor in her thirties, has my notes right in front of her. She askes the wrong questions, then glances at the notes. Keep within the calmness. “Your last scan shows that the cancer has not spread to the pelvic bones. We’ll put you on a course of daily hormone tablets, injections, to be followed up with radiotherapy. Any questions?” I ask her, “What’s your stance on phytonutrients?” She’s OK with them, but I suspect that she’s a bit suspicious. So I don’t tell her about my meditation practice, she might think I’m crazy.
So it looks like my Guest will remain with me for now, maybe for always, hanging on in the background. Still learning to stay within the calmness.
Stumbling through the grass
The great burden laid to rest–
fresh breeze arises.
January 2019, there are three articles this month.
The Offering We Call “Correction”
By Rev. Master Daizui MacPhillamy
[This article first appeared in the Winter 1998 issue of The Journal of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, pp. 4-20. At the time, Rev. Master Daizui was the head of the O.B.C. He died in 2003.]
This article represents my current perspective on one aspect of the teacher-student relationship. I do not consider it to be complete or definitive; this is a complex topic, and one which I find difficult to write about clearly. Indeed, I sometimes despair of being able to write anything helpful about it at all, because each statement one makes, when taken by itself, can be misleading. This being the case, I beg the reader to take what follows as a whole, and to see each point as part of an interwoven fabric whose meaning is greater than the sum of the parts. And, if questions should arise for you sometime about the teacher-student relationship, please do not rely upon this (or any other) written piece alone: given the matter the benefit of your meditation and wise discernment, and then discuss it with whomever you go to for sangha refuge. I would be, of course, also happy to discuss such things personally with anyone.
Let us start with two assumptions: first, Shakyamuni Buddha was right that the essential quandary posed by human life is the question of the cause of suffering, and second, the Second Noble Truth is true: that there is but one such cause and that is attachment. Then it follows that the work of Buddhist training is to give up our attachments by following the Noble Eightfold Path. In doing this work, it certainly helps if we have some awareness of what our particular attachments are: it is hard to let go of something that we do not even know we are holding onto. Over the millennia, many Buddhist traditions including our own have found that a teacher can be a great help in this regard, for the nature of the teacher-student relationship is such that, among many other things, it serves to point out our attachments. When I speak here of a teacher, I am speaking broadly, referring not only to one with whom we may have a disciple relationship, but also to our parish priest, abbot, preceptor, head monk, senior, or other qualified person whom we have asked for religious instruction. Of course, many of life’s other occurrences also serve to point out our attachments, and some of what is discussed below will also apply to these “natural teachers.”
From the point of view of the teacher, this pointing out of attachments is a pure offering, an offering of Dharma, to be placed in the “begging bowl” of the student’s training without expectation and without judgment. It is also to be done without contrivance: indeed, much of the time the teacher is not even aware of “pointing”; it simply happens naturally in the course of student and teacher training with one another. Now, sometimes “an offering” is just how the student perceives it, in which case things are relatively simple and straightforward: having become aware of an attachment, we have the ability to train with it. However, often the teacher’s pointing doesn’t feel like much of a gift: it feels more like a correction. And we all know what it means to be “corrected”: someone more powerful than us thinks there is something wrong with us, and we had better fix it fast or the next step is punishment—or something along those lines. And we feel hurt. Now by “feeling hurt”, I mean that we experience any of a wide variety of unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and sensations: anger, inadequacy, sick to our stomach, frustration, rejection, stiff neck, withdrawal of love, threat, fear dejection, inability to breathe, hopelessness, righteous indignation, confusion, worthlessness….; the list goes on and on. Another way of describing the common theme of these experiences is to say that we experience some form of suffering. And the natural response to suffering, at least among us vertebrates, is to do something to make it go away as soon as possible: the old “fight or flight” instinct.
But wait a minute. We know what it means when there is suffering: there cannot be suffering if there is not attachment. The Second Noble Truth. Now, this realization by itself will not make the suffering go away; indeed, I find it pretty cold comfort at the time. But it isn’t supposed to make me comfortable: as a Buddhist, I am seeking the End of Suffering, not just some temporary formula for feeling better. And, if for a moment we can suspend our instincts to react with fight of flight, we can do some really productive training here, because now we have the opportunity to be aware of, and thus work with, not just one attachment but two: the one originally pointed to by the teacher and the one implied by the fact that we have just felt hurt.
Of course, teachers point out other things besides our attachments, so sometimes the first pointing was not to an attachment after all: but, whatever it may have been, if we react with hurt, we know that there is at least one attachment present, and this is an invitation to Buddhist training. The same holds true if the “teacher” is the natural teaching of life experience: whatever the situation, and whatever other actions may be called for, if I am feeling hurt then I can make use of this fact to learn something about my own attachments. Here it may help to distinguish between feeling hurt and being harmed, and latter referring to actual damage being done to us, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. That natural assumption is that when we feel hurt it means that we have been harmed, for the one often does follow the other, but I would propose that the two are actually quite independent of each other. This is because, on the one hand the feeling of hurt can occur even when no harm has been done (or even when we have benefited, as for instance when an attachment has been pointed to), and on the other hand it is possible to have even grievous harm occur without feeling hurt (as, for instance, with the Buddha’s disciple, Ven. Moggallana, who is said to have maintained equanimity of mind even when being beaten to death by robbers). I find that making use of this distinction helps in discerning when it is appropriate to take corrective action, when to be still and reflect within, and when to do both.
As to the “feeling hurt” aspect, the best way I know of to suspend the urge to fight or run is to “sit still” within the hurt. This is yet another benefit of regular meditation: the more we learn to “just sit”, the easier it is to meditate within all manner of circumstances, including this one. Please note, however, that one does not sit still within the hurt as a “technique” to make the hurt go away (i.e. as a way to indulge our instinct to flee from it); we do it so as to be fully aware of, and one with, exactly what is going on. And that can sometimes make the sensation of hurt temporarily more painful, since we are not making use of the old strategies we have learned to dull our awareness of what is really there. But that temporary pain is the price of progress. Here, again, it may be of use to remind oneself that Buddhism does not promise that the trainee will feel better quickly: it promises the End of Suffering, and that takes awhile(!). Fortunately, the course of training is such that one does not jump directly from being a completely suffering-wracked mess to the arhat or Bodhisattva stage, so over the long haul we do indeed feel a whole lot better on average, which helps give us the courage to go further and face deeper attachments (during the facing of which, of course, we can temporarily feel quite as miserable as before). I should also mention that this sitting still within hurt does not imply a passive response to actual harm: one can have equanimity of mind and still take vigorous action. Indeed, the action is apt to be all the more effective because our mind is not clouded by the hurt. I am also not saying, by the way, that every emotion implies attachment nor that the fruit of Buddhist practice is a cold indifference; far from it (but that is a whole other topic).
Now, there is another alternative which I should mention besides those of sitting still within the hurt, fighting, or hiding: we can berate ourselves for feeling hurt. You know: “I’m stupid, bad, unworthy…. etc. to be feeling this way.” The fact that we feel hurt does not mean that we have made a mistake in training. Quite the contrary: we feel what we feel, and that is not a problem. The point of this article is that feeling hurt represents a positive opportunity. And if we berate ourselves for feeling hurt, that, too, is not a mistake; it simply represents yet another opportunity: now we have three attachments we can become aware of and work with.
Since this is just a little journal article and has no pretensions of being the world’s definite treatise on the teacher-student relationship, let alone all of Buddhist practice, I have no intention of discussing the various types of training that one might do after becoming aware of an attachment. It is quite complicated enough to just look at some of the aspects of the process of awareness and acceptance within the context of a teacher’s offering. One of these complexities is that we do not always “see” what the teacher is pointing at. Whether or not we feel hurt, we sometimes just don’t “get it”; what to do then? Well, it doesn’t seem to do any good to try to force oneself into an awareness: indeed, forcing seems to inhibit rather than encourage the process. It doesn’t work to try to force oneself to believe something about oneself that one simply doesn’t see. So about the only thing to do in this circumstance is to let the teacher know our state of uncertainty, ask honestly for clarification, and then put the issue in our mental “pending file”. One accepts that there may be something going on here that we don’t fully grasp; we neither obsess about it nor try to put it out of mind completely. And one is patient: time and training will clarify the matter. My own teacher, Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, used to call this “putting it on the back burner” and she continued with the cooking analogy: mostly just let it simmer quietly, stir occasionally and have a peek in the pot, and neither turn the fire up to full boil nor turn it off completely. The last time we talked about this, she still had one or two little pots simmering back there from her interactions with her own master, and he had died over twenty-five years earlier. What did I say about being in Buddhist training for the long haul?!?
This filing things in the “pending” drawer, by the way, is not at all the same as concluding that they are too unsafe to look at and hence must be locked away. While the former is productive, the latter is destructive, for a “lock” placed anywhere in our training (and particularly a lock that results in a collection of “thoughts that cannot be thought”) makes whole aspects of our life inaccessible to the benevolent effects of training, and hence tends to cause spiritual stagnation. From the teacher’s perspective, we have the responsibility to try to communicate with the student in such a way that he or she does get our point and is not unnecessarily tempted to fight, run, or lock anything away. Usually that means following the advice that Dogen Zenji gave to abbots in the thirteenth century that “when you admonish your disciples’ faults and remonstrate with them, you should not use abusive or critical words. Those who have aspiration will follow you even if you admonish and encourage them with gentle words.1 And, sometimes, the gentle approach is not what will get the point across, and then we must take a more forceful approach (while still refraining from being abusive or critical) and not worry about whether people like us. Being liked and avoiding conflict are nice, but not at the cost of dereliction of our duty as teachers.
All of this is hard enough, but suppose the teacher is wrong? Suppose he or she perceived an attachment in you that did not really exist, or perceived a different attachment from the one that was really there? It happens. As teachers, we are acutely aware that we are neither omniscient nor infallible, and yet compassion requires that we go ahead and do our best in this less than perfect state of affairs, since to withhold teaching is worse. And there is karma which accrues to us from our mistakes, even though they are made with pure intent. As students, the situation is actually simpler. If there is no attachment lurking nearby, we will not feel hurt by the teacher’s pointing: we simply won’t “get it”. In which case, we can do what was discussed above, and eventually either the teacher will realize that they were wrong and do something to rectify things, the student will recognize an attachment that actually was there all along (i.e. the teacher wasn’t wrong after all), or the whole thing will simply fade away because there was nothing of substance there in the first place. If there is attachment, and thus hurt is felt, then we have exactly the same opportunity to work on that attachment as we would have had were the teacher to have been right: in other words, the rightness or wrongness of the teacher doesn’t matter with regard to this second attachment, while the issue of the first one resides quietly in the “pending” drawer.
What doesn’t help, oddly enough, is to know with certainty that the teacher is wrong. First of all, in order to do this, we would have to have access to some universal, objective, Buddha’s-eye view of the universe. And we don’t. But we do have our honest best perceptions and discernments. If they indicate a discrepancy between what the teacher says and our experience of the world, then the valid inference is that there is a discrepancy, and that is all. Since one cannot ultimately know whether we are right or the teacher is right, conclusions about right and wrong can only be speculations, and ones based in the opposites at that. Now, we know what judgmental speculations are founded on: attachments. And since the whole point of Buddhist practice is to decrease our attachments, there is not much point in doing that which increases them, hence the futility of dwelling on who is right and who is wrong. On the other hand, one’s honest best perceptions and discernments are all we are ever going to have to work with, so it is also futile to ignore or suppress them (more on this later), for then we cannot learn how to refine and make use of them. Hence the conclusion drawn above: when there is a discrepancy, there is simply a discrepancy.The productive thing is to honor both your discernment and the teacher’s, tolerate the ambiguity, and put the whole thing in the “pending file’ to ripen.
Of course, the teacher doesn’t have access to a universal, objective, Buddha’s-eye view either. “So how come he or she gets to point out when I’m wrong but I don’t get to point out when they’re wrong?”, you may well ask. First of all, he isn’t: pointing to an attachment isn’t the same as judging you to be wrong (it may feel like it, but we have seen where that comes from). Secondly, unless you were pretty undiscerning in your choice of teachers, she is benevolent of heart and has more experience that you in this business of recognizing attachments, so you can afford to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt. Finally, you asked him or her to teach you, not the other way around. The teacher has their own teacher to teach them (and if their personal teacher is dead, they still have teachers in the form of sangha aunts and uncles, elder brothers and sisters, bishops, heads of orders, councils, boards of trustee, Buddhist association ethics committees, etc.).
Ah, but suppose the teacher is not only wrong in some ultimate sense but is also acting out of his or her own attachments? That, too, happens. Another thing we are acutely aware of as teachers is that we are not fully-perfected saints. And we have been asked to teach anyway, even while we are still training with our own attachments (and I used to think that being a student was risky!). From the teacher’s point of view, acting upon one’s attachments can be a real problem, for it means that I have allowed my attachments to cause me to harm a fellow being, and not just any being but one who has placed in me the trust of asking that I be their teacher. That is a very unpleasant place to be, karmically speaking.
But it doesn’t have to be a problem for the student. We each make our own karma, and the teacher’s karma is theirs alone to make and to reap the fruits of. If there is no attachment on the part of the student, once again there will be no feeling of hurt, and one can proceed just as discussed above, with one exception. The exception is that, if the student does respond without attachment, and hence responds with the natural compassion, love and wisdom that exist whenever attachment is not in the forefront, this will have a beneficial effect on the teacher.This is a totally normal, spontaneous, compassionate, and beautiful aspect of the teacher-student relationship, and it happens more often than you might think. And if the student then thinks, “Right, now I’m teaching my teacher”, then at that very thought-moment the roles have reverted back, and…..yet another attachment has surfaced.
Let us push this one step further. Next suppose that the teacher is not only wrong and acting from attachment, but has told you to do something which you cannot, in good conscience, do (e.g. engage in a serious breakage of the Precepts). Fortunately these situations are rare and you probably will not encounter one, but when they do occur they can be very serious; hence I offer the following discussion even though it will be largely irrelevant for most of us. First of all, remember that we cannot be sure of the part about the teacher “being wrong” and “acting from attachment”, since we aren’t omniscient. Nor can we be sure in some ultimate sense that we would, for instance, actually be breaking a Precept. But what we can be certain of is that our conscience is emphatically telling us that we must not do what we have been asked. To the best of my ability to discern, I have seen four types of approach to this sort of situation, and all of them are risky. This is a complex matter, so what follows is an oversimplification. Furthermore, the strong and contradictory feelings which such situations produce can make it very hard both to recognize just what the situation is and to gain clarity on how to respond. Fortunately, the student generally need not face this situation alone: he or she can go for refuge not only to the teacher himself (which, granted, may be hard to do at the moment, yet may be very productive) but also to the teacher’s teachers and the seniors of one’s sangha family mentioned above. This taking refuge not only helps the student but the teacher as well, as it brings the matter to the attention of those whose responsibility it is both to advise the teacher and to act so as to prevent serious harm from being done.
The first approach is to decline to do what one has been asked and to, as it were, draw a mental “line”: if the teacher steps over it, one ceases to accept further teaching from them; usually one then departs. The advantage to this approach is that one maintains ones integrity, prevents oneself from being abused by unscrupulous or deluded teachers, and does not willfully delude oneself. It takes courage to do this, and I respect it while not generally agreeing with it. I do not generally agree with it because there seem to be other alternatives and the cost of this one is usually the end of the teacher-student relationship. And the longer and deeper the relationship has been, the higher this cost becomes. In the case of one who has not yet established a strong teacher-student relationship, or of one whose primary teacher is deceased and the fundamental disagreement is with a secondary teacher, this termination of the relationship is not always detrimental to training. This is particularly true if one has found a way to disagree respectfully, bow, and quietly take ones leave.2 If, on the other hand, one has a full master-disciple relationship with the teacher, then the severing of that relationship appears to result in spiritual confusion and/or personal pain that can be enduring and severe, particularly if the student has publicly confronted the master in a hostile way. And, of course, there is always the possibility that one could be wrong. If one finds out later that one was wrong, it is never too late to repair the damage, but a hostile departure by the student may increase inner impediments which make this a whole lot harder to do.
The second approach is to go ahead and do what is asked while stifling the biddings of ones conscience (thus creating another category of “thoughts which are not allowed to arise”) and brainwashing oneself into the belief that the teacher is always right (and maybe also into the equally misleading belief that any bad karma from the act itself will accrue only to the teacher). The advantage to this is that one does not get into trouble with ones teacher or fellow students, and that can be a powerful incentive. Another apparent advantage is that one preserves the teacher-student relationship, but in reality the relationship has undergone a profound and crippling change: there is now an area of things “off limits” to the relationship. This, plus the consequences of the suppression of conscience and the self-brainwashing, appears to result over the long term in either a stagnation of training (until such time as this approach is abandoned) or an explosion in which everything shifts to the opposite extreme and the teacher-student relationship is abruptly ended. While taking this approach is understandable, and may be the easiest thing to do in the short run, it does not have much to recommend it.
Now, it may seem that these first two options exhaust all of the possibilities: after all, one either does what has been asked or does not. Indeed, much of what I have read about problems in teacher-student relationships seems to assume that this is the case. Yet, I believe that other options exist, and I think that I have observed both a third and a fourth one.
The third approach is the one of perfect faith. On the surface this may look like the second approach, but in reality they are vastly different. They look the same because here the student also does what has been asked, but not for the same reasons. There is a faith, not a simplistic “blind” faith that the teacher must always be right, but a pure faith in Something Greater than the pain of this situation which, unknown to the student (and perhaps to the teacher as well) is at work3. It is to this Something, which is at once within both the teacher and student and at the same time far greater than either of these frail, fallible human beings, that the student bows as he or she goes ahead into the darkness, knowing not what will come of it, neither suppressing nor clinging to their conscience but suspending it in the service of Something greater, and at the same time being fully willing to take the karma of their actions. By “suspending” instead of “suppressing”, I mean that the painful promptings of the conscience are most definitely still heard, and one accepts this continuing pain (and the uncertainty of not knowing where this is all leading) while going ahead in the faith that by so doing a greater good will manifest. While this may be the loftiest way of handling these situations, it is by no means easy to do, for if the faith fails or there is any element of self-deception, it can degenerate into the second approach. And, of course, when conscience suggests that really serious harm may be about to be done, the risks are astoundingly high: it leaves one open to being abused or manipulated by a truly unscrupulous or deluded teacher into doing horrendous things, or allowing them to be done to oneself. Yet even in this extremity, if the faith be strong enough, the purity of the student’s offering is sometimes sufficient to influence the course of others’ behavior in a way which leads them all away from harm and leads to the conversion of the teacher. And, sad to say, sometimes no amount of faith will accomplish this, and then sometimes we read about the consequences in the morning newspaper. Always both teacher and student will live with the karma of their actions. Now, when the harm that is risked is not great, there is a much more mundane version of this approach that is sometimes useful: the student consciously decides to go ahead and do what appears to be a small harm because he or she discerns that a greater harm will thereby be averted. This can be viewed as a special case of the principle of breaking one Precept in order to keep a greater one; and still one will reap the karma of one’s actions.
There is also a fourth way, and this one relies not so much on faith as on experience of the teacher-student relationship. If one knows deep in ones guts that it is impossible for the spiritual heart of the teacher and student really to be in conflict, and impossible for the teacher to truly wish the student to violate the Precepts or do similar harm, the one will know that any appearance to the contrary must be illusory. In other words, one will know that the situation as described above cannot be the true one: there has got to be a “piece missing”, at the least. From this position it is possible to refrain from doing what was required of one and at the same time truly ask for the teacher’s help. While this may look from the outside somewhat like option one, and the student may get into all sorts of “trouble” with the teacher (and with his or her fellow students), it differs in that no limitation is placed upon the teacher-student relationship. This, too, is not easy to do, for the certainty of the indestructible unity of heart between teacher and student must be strong enough to withstand the severe pain which the apparent opposition between them may create in the student (and sometimes in the teacher as well). If this approach cannot be maintained throughout this pain, then one is apt to fall into way number one or number two. But if it is maintained, and one keeps to the resolve to never give up on the teacher-student relationship no matter how painful it gets, then the “missing piece” will be found and not only will the situation be resolved but the relationship of trust between student and teacher will be deepened significantly. Of course, one cannot wish such an understanding to resolve into being, so this option is only open to those who have had considerable experience in their relationship with that teacher and who know firsthand his or her benevolent spiritual heart.
As with many important aspects of training, I can offer no simple formulas here: all four options carry substantial risks for unintended negative consequences, and not all seem accessible to everyone at all times. There also may be additional good options which I have not encountered as yet; indeed, I hope there are. I present these four because my experience to date suggests that numbers one and two tend (with the exceptions noted in the discussion) to be more likely to produce unfavorable results, yet they are the most often thought of. I suppose my “bottom line” advice to students in this situation is to proceed with all the care, awareness, endurance, wisdom and compassion you can muster, and not limit yourself to the obvious choices. And for teachers, the difficulty of such situations for students is all the more reason for us to keep open the lines of communication with our students, to endeavor not to place them in these dilemmas, and to take refuge in another in problematic circumstances.
Most of us never encounter these extreme tests of the teacher-student relationship, but we all face the lesser challenges described in the first part of this article. Lesser they may be, but they are quiet hard enough. And we face them, and learn from them and gradually, as attachment lessens, so do the painful aspects of receiving “correction”. Then something positively unnerving sometimes happens: the teacher turns around and asks our advice, or asks us to decide something that has important implications for more than simply our own training. After all these years of teaching us how to give up attachment to our ideas and opinions, has the teacher now done a complete flip-flop? On the contrary, she or he has discerned that the student is now mature enough in training that they are capable of making an offering from their own store of information, compassion and wise discernment without getting ensnared by attachments. Put another way, the teacher is inviting the student to move from the compassionate but passive Heart of Avalokiteshvara to the active, loving Heart of Samantabhadra and beyond4. Of course, being capable of doing something and knowing how to actually do it are two different things, so there are bound to be some mistakes made in the learning process. And here, by “mistakes”, what do I mean? The arising of attachments. And when attachments arise, what is the teacher’s duty? To make the offering of pointing them out. This is one of the things that can make this stage of training so unnerving: it looks like the teacher is two-faced: giving with one hand and taking away with the other. “First he asks me for my opinions, then he blasts me for giving it to him!” No, he didn’t ask for your speculative opinions, he asked for your information and/or wise discernment. No, he didn’t “blast” you for giving this to him, he did his duty and pointed to attachment when it arose in the process.
We speak in our tradition of the relationship between teacher and student as being both vertical (the one of lesser experience deferring to and learning from the one of greater experience) and horizontal (a partnership of spiritual equals on the level of Buddha Mind). In the beginning the emphasis is on the vertical, so that we may learn suffering’s cause and what to do about it; later the horizontal opens forth, so that we may learn to share what we have learned. In the beginning we usually long for more of the horizontal, because attachments chafe at the vertical; later we usually long for more of that familiar and safe old vertical, because the horizontal requires us to walk into parts unknown without always seeing the teacher’s footprints in front of us. But just as we cannot rush the horizontal, so too we cannot cling forever to the safety of the vertical. There is always, and only, “going, going, going one beyond, and always going on beyond—always becoming Buddha.”5
In conclusion, I would like to observe that the teacher-student relationship is not easy on any of us, and a little compassionate understanding goes a long way in this area. Here I am thinking not only of the compassion of teacher for student and student for teacher, but also of students for other students and teachers for other teachers. And, while it is not easy, it is worth every bit of the trouble we put ourselves through. At this point in an article such as this, where the head of an order concerns himself with the “troubles and difficulties” side of training and then calls for compassion, the reader may well wonder where this article is “aimed” and what is going wrong. Actually, it isn’t aimed anywhere, and, from my perspective, not only are things not going wrong in our little corner of the world, but rather they seem to be going along rather well. I write this simply because I have been around a while and have seen, heard, and read many things in this area, and I feel that I may perhaps be able to make a contribution. As for my own experiences on this topic, it is no secret that Rev. Master Jiyu and I occasionally had some hard times together, once or twice excruciatingly so. And neither of us gave up on the other. And I wouldn’t have been anywhere else in the whole wide world than at her side! I am unspeakably grateful to have been, and to be, her disciple. Perhaps she summed all this up best with that innocent little statement of hers, “You know, Buddhism is a religion for spiritual adults.”
- Eihei Dogen Zenji, Sobogenzo-Zuimonki, trans. Shohaku Okumura, (Kyoto, Japan: Kyoto Soto-Zen Center, 1987) p. 121.
- There are, of course, other reasons why senior monks whose master is deceased may choose to move from one temple to another, such as following a positive calling or joining a community with which they have a natural spiritual affinity. Undertaken with wise discernment and consultation, this can be a favorable development not only for the monk but also for the sangha family, for it enables that family to offer a diversity of training experiences within their underlying spiritual unity.
- For more information on the difference between blind faith and pure faith, see Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, “Perfect Faith” in An Introduction to the Tradition of Serene Reflection Meditation (Mt. Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, 1997), pp. 37 – 40.
- See Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, Zen Is Eternal Life (Mt. Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, 1987 edition), pp. 33 – 60.
- “The Scripture of Great Wisdom” (Heart Sutra), in The Monastic Office, trans. Revs. Hubert Nearman and Jiyu-Kennett, (Mt. Shasta, CA: Shasta Abbey Press, 1993), p 35.
The Empress Of Compassion
By Ilana Breger
“OK, so I wanted to be the poster child for Kwan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. And found out, not a big surprise, that I’m a beginner, not an advanced student in the kindness and compassion game.
“Evidently, I misunderstood a few things along the way. I didn’t get that I didn’t get the point. I wanted to demonstrate to myself that I’m very, very good at showing compassion. Turns out that that’s not exactly the best reason to show compassion. And once I realized what I was up to, I recognized my desire, my hope, my wish, my very deep-down wish, my very wish of wishes. I wanted to be, to become, the Empress of Compassion.” ©2018 Ilana Breger
By Steve Murray
I’ve got a mind in which habits easily take hold. This is good for remembering taking medication or paying bills but not so good for adapting to changes. I’m a bit better at adapting my physical habits to changes in my body, loss of strength and energy along with arthritis and diabetes. I walk shorter distances, take afternoon naps, do flexibility exercises, and watch what I eat. Sometimes my adaptation is reluctant. I have to get exhausted before I realize I don’t have the energy of Steve at thirty, but I do change.
More difficult for me is habits of my mind. Habits of worry or doubt about my worth, habits of reaction to criticism, habits of reaction to hurtful behavior. These habits can weigh me down. They create a barrier that protects the small self.
Years ago Reverend Master Daizui suggested that I was trying to control that which cannot be controlled. He counseled, “Take every opportunity, large or small, to relinquish control. Learn at every opportunity how you can survive and thrive without control.” More recently, Reverend Master Seikai suggested that I remain within discomfort for a time. Just stay there with stillness, no fight, no goal. While stuck, learn about your mind, probe into it, experiment with how it works.
It takes me a while and quite a bit of suffering, but eventually the teaching gets deep enough for me to start to let go of mind habits. Recently a worry arose while trying to sleep. So I decided to try an experiment with my mind. I recall experiments in science: the scientist would set up an experiment in a controlled situation limiting the danger to him. Several things would be tried not knowing what would happen. The scientist was disinterested because whatever happened, something would be learned.
The next time worry arose, my experiment was to hold off on the usual habit of fighting the worry, trying to make it go away or trying to fix it. Instead I would be still, follow the breaths in and out, repeat the mantra “There is no disaster” for at least thirty minutes. I promised my worried self that the experiment was temporary and I would not keep up the whole night worrying. Even if the worry remained, I would count the experiment a partial success because I waited.
On this night, I lost track of time because I fell asleep. The sleep was not that deep and I woke again after about two hours. I repeated the experiment when needed and slept off and on through the night. The effort of waiting in stillness, using a mantra, following the breaths, giving credit for partial success has been helpful for dealing with criticism and reactions to hurtful actions. Each time I experiment with nonreaction and enter the stillness, I learn about how my mind functions. It’s a door to the Buddha within suggested by teaching offered by mentors in the Sangha.
The Road Less Traveled By Rev. Master Seikai
The famous American poet Robert Frost wrote the following poem entitled “The Road Not Taken”, which has given birth to various similar expressions, such as “the path not taken” or “the road less traveled.” Mistakenly, I have always assumed that the expression referred to the religious life, or at the very least, a difficult path in life that few would dare to undertake. My mistake is understandable given that from an early age I devoted myself to celibate monastic life, which is perhaps the quintessential less traveled road. Here is Frost’s poem:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Quoting from Wikipedia, the on-line dictionary: “Metaphorically speaking, someone who takes ‘the road less traveled’ is acting independently, freeing themselves from the conformity of others (who choose to take ‘the road more often traveled’), generally making their own choices, and perhaps leaving a new trail that will become the road more often traveled (until, of course, someone takes the road less traveled from there, and happens upon something even better than the first improvement; in that way, the cycle always repeats itself…..)”
Meanwhile, there is a story behind Frost’s writing of this poem, which was intended for an English poet and friend of his, Edward Thomas. Apparently Thomas didn’t quite grasp Frost’s intended meaning, and apparently the same is true for just about everyone who has read the poem in the century which has passed since it was written.
Quoting this time from The New York Post (online): The poem is praised as an ode of individuality, to not follow the pack even though the path may be more difficult. Except Frost notes early in the poem that the two roads were “worn…really about the same.” There is no difference. It’s only later when the narrator recounts this moment, that he says he took the road less traveled. “This is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us, or allotted to us by chance),” Orr writes. “The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism,” he continues. “It’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.” [The writer being referred to, David Orr, produced a book entitled “The Road Less Taken” on the subject of Robert Frost’s poem.]
I’ll put aside the meaning of “the road less traveled” as a reference to religious or monastic life. Granted, my path in life is rarely taken by anyone, as it involves a high level of self-sacrifice and renunciation. Even in so-called Buddhist countries, Thailand for example, the rate of entrants into monastic life as a percentage of the whole population has plunged in recent decades. The world simply offers too many enticing choices, too many paths to take, any one of which might be that golden road which leads to human happiness.
So let’s start with the idea of the road less traveled as referring to a choice to act independently, to not follow the crowd, or to avoid what others expect of us. It may not be what Frost was writing about, but it nevertheless strikes a nerve in many people who do, in fact, act independently, or question authority and go their own way in life. I suspect that human beings to some extent inherit a predisposition to be either conformist or nonconformist. This would imply that for the natural-born nonconformist, it doesn’t take a great act of courage to go against the crowd; and similarly for the conformist, most likely it wouldn’t ever occur to them to do something different or buck the system. Many people are somewhere in the middle, however, and for them life’s decisions regarding which path to take might be fraught with worry, uncertainty, indecision, and second-guessing.
Those who do act independently, questioning authority along the way, face an uphill climb. The collective weight of conformity pulls against them. I have felt this my whole life, since I am one of those born nonconformists. The common reading of Frost’s poem is that for the person who takes the road less traveled there is ultimately a reward in spite of the difficulty, that the less traveled path “has made all the difference” in the end. This points to a basic truth about human life: most people are inclined to take the easy road, which leads to mediocrity; the wise will take the road less traveled because they know that, in order to find true fulfillment in their lives, it is what they must do—there is no question about it.
There are different levels on which this principle operates. There is the level of what direction to take in life, what sort of career to pursue, who to marry, and so on. On this level the pressure to conform to expectations of us is probably the highest. Our family, our friends, our social environment all encourage us to take the safe road. The next level is the emotional and psychological one. What kind of person am I going to be? Beyond the broad outline of the work you do, where you live, who you are married to, etc., we make all sorts of choices in life about what things we find interesting, satisfying, fulfilling: food, sports, art, music, entertainment and—here’s the edge of the next watershed—religion all enter into it. Then we enter the spiritual level. Up to now the roads we take and the decisions we make have been in the realm of tangible things, measurable things, but on the spiritual level we are dealing entirely with values and our very basic motivations as human beings. I’m not suggesting that values haven’t already played a role on the previous levels—that would be far too simple. But this is a watershed that many people simply don’t want to cross into; religion and spirituality go down into the heart and soul, and the critical choice here is whether to just stick with a belief system or to actively follow a spiritual path and attempt to change yourself. That is a hard choice to make. Every person has a belief system; even if they are not religious ones, we still have core values that may be largely subliminal, but they operate nevertheless.
Entering into the spiritual level of what road to take involves a degree of risk. Because it’s all invisible and has to do with matters of the mind and heart, we can easily get hurt. Knowing who you can trust for guidance is hard to arrive at, and there are plenty of people with less-than-pure motives posing as spiritual teachers. Just having a belief system which informs your life but doesn’t make any demands on you as a human being is the road more often traveled.
In my experience, to take the road less traveled on the spiritual level is to decide to seek the truth no matter what, and to practice meditation on a daily basis. At first meditation is difficult because the mind is so unruly, and truth can be painful, it can be inconvenient and disruptive; it can be the last thing that people want to hear. Most people, in order to arrive at the place in which they decide to seek the truth no matter what the cost, have to get pretty well fed up with the road more commonly traveled. By nature, that road tends to have all the most common human failings paved into it, and it rests on a foundation of covering up the truth. Deceit: in the Buddhist precepts, not to deceive or speak untruthfully is one of the Five Precepts that all Buddhists take, whether lay adherents or monastics. This is because it causes so much misery in human affairs, and is the source of so much suffering to the individual.
To get to this place of facing the truth no matter what the cost, we have to give up the three D’s: denial, deceit and despair. If life is hard, if we suffer or are facing a crisis, usually our first recourse is to blame someone or something, which is to deny personal responsibility for our own happiness. Even if we have been victimized in some way, it doesn’t help to continue to blame the perpetrator. We have to learn to put down the stories we repeat to ourselves about how much we’ve been wronged, or how life just isn’t fair. Meditation is the practice which gives us the strength to do so.
Climate change denial is a perfect example of how all this operates, and at root it is a spiritual problem. We have a looming crisis in the world: global warming and dramatic climate change; human overpopulation and species extinction. Rather than take this information on board and try to stave it off before it’s too late, what people on the easy road do is to deny that there is a problem in the first place, or at the very least deny that it is attributable to human activity (i.e. burning fossil fuels). Intuitively they recognize that it is a serious problem, an existential problem for humankind, so then the next step is to engage in deceit: twist scientific knowledge to an angle that somehow supports their denial. Or use religious beliefs to support it. It’s a delay tactic; it puts off the day of reckoning. Finally, when the evidence becomes so overwhelming that there isn’t really any way to deny it and still be taken seriously, you enter into despair. Despair, the conclusion that it’s no use, the game is over, nothing can be done, is to hit bottom. You stay there until you choose to face the truth fully and endeavor to put effort into changing what you can change—doing something positive.
To give up clinging to deceit, denial and despair is not the same as giving up, period. It is to give up clinging to a false reality and to decide repeatedly to face the truth. It is to climb uphill and look honestly at things, and above all, to look honestly as oneself. Whatever is happening in the world is one thing, but we can always look honestly at ourselves, and if we see deceit, denial, avoidance of truth, avoidance of life, choose to accept the truth. That is really the essence of meditation: to withdraw within and reflect upon oneself, as Zen Master Dogen put it.
The writer quoted above, David Orr, hasn’t quite figured out all the subtleties of what is going on here. He wants his readers to believe that in reflecting back on a path we have chosen, and deciding that it was the less traveled path, “is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us, or allotted to us by chance)…” Not so fast. The desire to either comfort or blame ourselves is a normal human desire, and can either be indulged or let go of, depending on our level of self-awareness. Our current position, meanwhile, is both the result of our own choices and of circumstances into which we were born and raised—it is not an either/or situation. And the truth, if we’re willing to face it, is that the older we are, the more this equation is weighed in favor of our current situation being the result of our own choices. If we cannot face this truth, then we are engaged in denial, telling ourselves a story that our difficulties are due to being dealt a crummy hand, bad luck, or someone else’s fault.
Orr goes on to say that Frost’s poem “isn’t a salute to can-do individualism. It’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.” That may be true, but it seems to me that there is a strong human tendency to imbue meaning into a poem, song or play, regardless of what the author may have been trying to say. And similarly, we assign meaning to the events of our lives and construct a story around those meanings. To do so is, again, perfectly human, but if we are going to construct as honest a story as possible then we need to face the truth about our lives, the choices we have made, and the results that have followed. Everyone is capable of deceiving themselves no matter how honest we are, which is why it’s so helpful to get a second—or third—opinion when constructing such a story.
I have stood at several crossroads in my life and chosen a road to take, leaving behind the other possible routes. In retrospect, I can’t ever say that I’m 100% certain that I chose the best route or that I chose the road less taken—even though on the face of it, that’s typically the route I take. Had I taken a different route, let’s say 25 years ago, I’d still be in exactly the same situation now, looking back. Which is to say that such conjecture is fairly useless. I believe that this is just the nature of life; we make choices and we take the consequences. Whether or not we are learning anything in the process or continuing to deepen our spiritual path is the real question, the one that matters.
A week ago I completed a nine-day backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada. It was an arduous trip into one of the highest altitude areas of the Sierra, let alone the continental United States. We climbed three very high mountain passes, all of them in the area of 12- to 13,000’ above sea level. Early on in such a trip it is normal to ask yourself why you are doing this, given that it is a difficult challenge….and when I did I quickly remembered that this is why I signed up and why I do it every year: it takes me out of my comfort zone. I want to be pushed to my limit; I want to explore new territory both externally and internally. It helps to put everything else in life into perspective, as if the majestic view from a mountain at 13,000’, looking into the distance, has the same effect on life generally.
There is no value in lamenting a road we have taken if it turns out to have been a “mistake” or a source of regret. As Robert Frost says in his poem, way leads on to way, and we won’t ever be back at that same moment of decision. On the other hand, life is cyclical and tends to present us with whatever opportunity is perfectly suitable to our current situation. Then we decide on a course of action. Learning to listen with the heart is the best we can do. Strife and struggle diminish in direct proportion to your ability to listen with the heart, but to do it you need to get the striving ego out of the way and just be still. Every day and every opportunity are new moments; we do not have to repeat old mistakes out of the force of habit. The story of our lives will take care of itself if we keep seeking the truth, acting on it even if that goes against the grain, accepting the consequences, and then taking the next step.
Flexible Mind By Rev. Oriana LaChance
[The following is reprinted from the Eugene Buddhist Priory website, 2018. Since the article appeared, Rev. Oriana was seriously injured in an automobile accident, and is now undergoing rehab treatment for several broken bones and concussion. We offer merit to her for a full recovery—ed.]
The more years of meditation and Buddhist practice I experience, the more I am aware of the essential nature of flexible mind. Is there acceptance without flexible mind? Can we act with compassion and wisdom without flexible mind? Can we actually listen without flexible mind? In the end, the lack of flexible mind appears to be a large stumbling block to giving up the idea of separation of self and other and to spiritual awakening.
In studying how we learn, scientists sometimes use the term “cognitive flexibility,” which has been broadly described as “the ability to adjust one’s thinking from old situations to new situations, as well as the ability to overcome responses or thinking that have become habitual and adapt to new situations.” We do not need to carry old habits and old stories and old views on right and wrong, good and bad, intelligent and stupid around with us. These habits and views are not who we are.
In Zen, cognitive flexibility is akin to shoshin, original mind or beginner’s mind, or the mind that doesn’t already have everything figured out, as in “That’s my story and I’m going to stick to it.” What I see here is rigid mind and the truth of impermanence working at cross purposes. All things are in flux all the time, and our rigid mind wants things to be like this. Since we cannot control like this, frustration and unhappiness result. We have a choice: we can be immovable (and unhappy) or we can accept the transience of all things and move along with everything else.
A key difference I have experienced between flexible mind and rigid mind is that rigid mind tends toward resistance and “no,” while flexible mind is curious and open. Rigid mind says “I know what I know.” Because we won’t let anything into our world that may challenge us, the world where we “know what we know” becomes smaller and smaller.
If having a flexible mind is one of the key elements in moving toward the end of suffering, then why is it so difficult to come by? Self is entrenched in self. When we talk about letting go or dropping something that comes up in meditation or in our daily practice, it occurs to me that it isn’t the thought or feeling so much that we are letting go—it is the self. Over and over again. And that is hard work. Self wants its own way and is most comfortable going along as it always has even though this only heightens our sense of separation.
In being aware of my own “entrenched self,” I have found that the following help me to encourage flexible mind:
- See the rigidity, the hardening, the tightness when it arises. Watch what it does to your body, your heart. Let your body teach you.
- Don’t act or shut down. Slow down,be still and turn inward rather than reacting. When you have the option, wait at least 24 hrs. until rigid mind has softened a bit before speaking or acting. (Hold off on those instantaneous, reactive texts and emails.)
- Turn toward the feeling or thought that has triggered rigid mind and observe it. What is this feeling or thought? What is it doing for me? My personal favorite: Is any good going to come from this? (If not, do your best to cease and desist.)
- Understand that what has arisen is only a feeling or thought. It’s not you and it’s not “the truth.” It is a cloud passing through a clear sky. No big deal.
- Give rigid mind some space and compassion. Reside in it but don’t beit.
- Relax and loosen your grip. Rigid mind generally comes from wanting something or someone to be a certain way. Relax and look around rather than being lost in your story. What is actually going on? What are we covering over or hiding from when we invite in rigid mind? Do we believe/act as if rigid mind will protect us, keep us from harm? Will it? Study that.
- Say, “I don’t know.” I don’t know how things are now; I don’t know how things should be. What would it be like to allow the future to unfold without knowing? When our mind is empty—flexible mind, beginners mind—we are ready to be aware, to observe, to learn, to invite and to not-know. This is where separate self begins to dissolve and where awakening arises.
July 2018 Vows By Rev. Master Phoebe
During the past few weeks I had the honor to officiate at two weddings, and also to witness and bless the renewal of marriage vows by a couple on their ninth anniversary. This last couple had been to the temple three years ago, also on their anniversary. They told me that every year they would visit a different holy place for the day to spend time together in meditation and renew their commitment. This year they were going through a difficult period and remembered how meaningful they had found the blessings I had given them three years ago, so they asked if they could come again. At the time I had given them a written version of what I had said, and the woman had kept that in her lap top case. Recently her computer was stolen with the paper in it and, she said, the loss of the blessings was worse than the loss of the lap top.
Of course a paper is only a paper, and blessings do not ever get lost, but as human beings we need physical reminders from time to time, so I was only too pleased to offer a new version.
As monks we make and renew our Vows daily at the time we put on our Kesa in the morning: “How great and wondrous are the clothes of Enlightenment, formless and embracing every treasure, I wish to enfold the Buddha’s Teaching that I may help all living things.” Then once a week when we shave our heads we remind ourselves again: “Now as we are being shaved, let us pray that we may leave behind worldly desires for eternity, after all, neither birth nor death exists.” And then once or sometimes twice a month the Reading of the Precepts reiterates our wish to study ourselves and refine our understanding of living the Precepts.
Marriage Vows are no different in that they express the intentions of a couple of individual mature people to dedicate their lives to each other and help each other be successful each in their own way. In a Buddhist ceremony this will be inspired by the Precepts as they apply not only to each person but in particular to the relationship: “Keeping in mind that all life is intertwined, we will do our best to protect all life and hurt no one on purpose; to only take what has been freely offered and to be generous with all we have; to cultivate friendliness and honestly in all our dealings with others and ourselves; to use our sexuality wisely as a deep expression of love; and to make our decisions and interactions with each other as clearly, as openly and with as much sympathy as we possibly can.”
This is a deep commitment and as all vows benefits much from being revisited regularly. Things change, we change and the relationships we build change too, and in order to understand ourselves and each other more fully it is important to not get stuck in habitual behavior. Once vows have been made something interesting happens. On the one hand they open our eyes to better see “how things truly are”, and therefor are always new to the present situation, and at the same time by repeating our vows regularly we build a momentum of our intentions that will carry us through difficult periods. Each person in a marriage will have to do this for themselves, and by benefitting the relationship they of course also benefit themselves.
The blessings I offer after people have expressed their vows are intended to encourage them to see the importance of their vows and to use those vows actively in their daily lives—not to have them simply become a lovely and vague memory of the one special day. Vows are too precious and potentially powerful for that. As you can see, keeping these vows looks like work, and it is. No magic here, and no wishful thinking. The initial intention that is given form on the wedding day with lovely decorations, celebrations and beautiful words, witnessed by family and friends or simply privately, has its own momentum but needs to be kept alive over time and continue to be relevant. So it is a good idea to keep that paper handy, or celebrate an anniversary with more than a delicious dinner or bunch of roses. And to keep in mind that a continued life together needs to include the intention to recognize and let go of preconceived ideas of one another that arise so naturally, and can be very hard to see, but are deeply damaging to the way of clarity and love. To recognize and let go of behavior that arises from selfish desires, attachments, and fears. To cultivate compassion for each other and for all beings, not just as a feeling but in real live words and actions. To support each other in creating a loving and compassionate home and finding good livelihood, and to promote harmony in our specific sphere of influence, be that our family, work place or society as a whole. In other words, try always to be mindful of each other, hold ideas and beliefs lightly, and remain open to the possible. Then your walking together will be a manifestation of the Bodhisattva Way and bring blessings to all beings, beginning with yourselves, and radiating out in all directions.
July 2018 All You Need is Love—Right?
By Rev. Master Seikai
In the 1960s, one of the many hit songs recorded by The Beatles was this iconic single: All You Need is Love. The song gave expression to a popular sentiment of the time, which stood in stark contrast to the strife that goes on in the world, and in particular the Vietnam War which was raging at that time. Not a lot has actually changed since then. There is still strife, competition, wars, hunger, and on top of it all a new wave of fascism in the world. Just what we needed.
Let’s look at the lyrics of All You Need is Love:
Love, love, love
Love, love, love
Love, love, love
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung
Nothing you can say, but you can learn how to play the game—it’s easy
Nothing you can make that can’t be made
No one you can save that can’t be saved
Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time—it’s easy
All you need is love, all you need is love
All you need is love, love, love is all you need
All you need is love
All you need is love, love, love is all you need
There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be—it’s easy
All you need is love, all you need is love
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.
I love the Beatles and their music, but at the same time this song epitomizes what my spiritual teacher called the love and light heresy. Heresy is kind of a strong term, but we do need to focus in on what the problem is with saying that all you need is love; or, in Buddhist terminology, all you need is metta—loving kindness.
What makes the idea so appealing is that is seems to offer a very simple solution to all the world’s problems. And, on one level of human existence, it’s also true. People say that “God is Love” and that what we need to do, first and foremost, is love each other. Jesus of Nazareth said: “A new commandment I give unto you: that you love one another.” It’s basically a true statement and unarguable. If it were the whole truth, that would be the whole of religious teaching, we could all go home and just love each other, and that would be the end of it. And of course, people have tried to do just that and it hasn’t worked out real well, in the end. This points to one underlying problem: human life is complicated.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to life’s difficulties. Some situations call for loving kindness,
some for remaining silent, some for getting out of the situation altogether, and many for drawing on the wisdom that comes from having tried various things and then witnessing the results. An underlying attitude of love is certainly helpful in all situations, but its outward expression is variable depending on what is happening.
In Buddhism we emphasize the practice of compassion, which is to have good will for all beings and to be willing to act in ways which are beneficial to them; sometimes we have to put our own selfish interests out of the way for that to happen. Compassion without wisdom is where we get into all sorts of trouble. For example in America we have introduced lots of alien species of plants and animals—usually by accident—and then had some of them multiply out of control because they do not have the natural predators to keep their numbers in check. So in response to that we introduce another alien species to control the first one, and then witness all the unintended side effects of that. And on it goes. We’ve all tried, at some time or another, to help another person only to have it all go terribly awry. Love and good intentions are the foundation of being compassionate; wisdom is the key ingredient which brings good intentions to fruition.
Learning how to talk about politics with a person from the opposite end of the values spectrum is one big challenge that most people face today, thanks to the extreme polarization of the political realm. It is a matter of learning not to be provocative, learning to listen and not make quick judgments, and above all learning to be at least a little bit still within yourself—enough so as not to take the bait of an emotional temptation. And, as I mentioned, sometimes getting out of such situations altogether is the wisest path to take. In this case, wisdom is the knowledge that most people have their minds already made up and that your efforts to convince them otherwise are likely not going to succeed. You may succeed, on the other hand, by giving an example of someone who can rise about the fray and stay still within themselves.
So, human life is complicated, and love isn’t quite all you need. Even if you have the best of intentions—both for yourself and for others—acting out of compassion can go awry if it is not accompanied by sufficient wisdom to know what will actually help someone or do good for a situation. Further, sometimes we can’t know what will help a situation unless we try something and see what happens: trial and error. Recently, I heard an old saying which goes: good judgment is the result of experience; and experience is the result of poor judgment.
Another recent event was that Rev. Phoebe was invited to participate in a panel of three “enlightened” women, for an evening talk and Q & A. The theme was universal oneness, and the panel included a minister of the church where the event was being held. The central message of the church is: ‘Love everyone—be a light unto the world’. Before the panel started we were talking with her and the other speaker about how hard it is for most people to really own up to their own suffering; to fully admit that they have lots of problems, that they suffer, that they fall short of religious ideals. She said that people in her congregation often feel weighed down by guilt that they aren’t loving all the time—sometimes they are angry, and have trouble controlling it. So a struggle ensues because there is an internal conflict between the ideal—to be a loving human being—and the actual—that being human involves having anger and learning how to deal with it.
Now we have a spiritual problem which can be stated as: Being human we all have anger, and being angry at your own anger doesn’t work. It ties you up in a knot. The solution is to have loving kindness for your own anger. Since we are so steeped in the dualities of right and wrong, good and evil, love and hate, it doesn’t occur to us to accept anger just as it is, and learn to work with it, be still with it, and patiently convert it into compassion or loving kindness. None of this is possible, really, without an internal discipline of contemplative prayer or meditation. So this is another challenge which underlies the one on top of it: In order to be loving human beings, we have to become familiar with our own capacity for anger; and in order to become familiar with our own anger, we have to meditate, and allow it to come to the surface of the mind. This means we have to stop trying to escape from our own anger, or stop suppressing it, and instead let it show its face and accept it.
The day following the panel of enlightened women, I said to Rev. Phoebe that it seemed to me that one problem with the love and light philosophy is that it seems to want to jump over just accepting people, and make a big leap to loving them. And similarly, on an internal level of being an ordinary human being who has anger to deal with, you can’t really make a big leap to loving your own anger until first you learn to just accept it for what it is and learn to be a little bit still with it. Or put another way, you need to first make friends with your anger before you can really love it. But if you can do that, then you are well on your way to learning how to love everyone, because you are aware that before that can happen, you need to start with just accepting people as they are—with their annoying habits, their crazy belief systems, their addictions, with everything that makes them human. Same as me.
I’d like to be a more loving person, too. But the reality is that I don’t have a very outgoing personality; I don’t often feel love as an emotion. I do feel emotional love at times but I generally don’t feel like I want to go around hugging people. Hugging my dog is different. Nevertheless, my own experience points to another thing we need to clarify, which is that there are many kinds of love, and not all of them are emotionally based. It is one of the deficiencies of the English language that we use the same word for so many different subtle shades of meaning.
You do not need to feel love as a strong emotion in order to be a loving person. I think that the words acceptance and respect probably do a better job of describing what it means to be a loving human being, or a compassionate human being, just on a practical level. You do not need to love someone to accept them or show them respect, and your own experience can readily show you that even if you actually have a strong dislike for someone—even bordering on hate, let’s say—you can still act in a respectful manner. This is probably one of the key ingredients to living in a civil society. People need to develop the capacity to put aside their emotional feelings for others, negative ones in particular, and be kind and respectful. In the modern world, this simple dynamic seems to be eroding steadily, especially in a culture which has facilitated selfish behavior and a lack of self-discipline. I have confidence that one day this will change, but for now it is a mess.
People often get the impression from reading Buddhist literature that in an effort to rid oneself of “attachment”, it is necessary not to have strong emotional bonds with other people, which would include having love relationships, or exhibiting loving behavior towards others. I think this is a misunderstanding of what the Buddha was actually trying to teach people. Having strong emotional bonds with another person—ones parents, for instance, or siblings, or children or close friends—is one thing, but within those human ties we can choose to have clinging or not. Clinging is probably a better word because it suggests that the problem lies more with holding onto, demanding things, being controlling, etc. than with having love for another person.
There is a different set of standards for Buddhist monks, in that personal, intimate love relationships are not allowed. It is regarded as too much of a distraction in the life of a religious renunciate, but that is different from saying that love relationships in and of themselves are wrong. A marriage or some other sort of love relationship can actually be a wonderful path for learning how to love another person without clinging, by giving ones partner the freedom to be themselves, not to make lots of demands on them, but to love and respect them without clinging. We recently had a wedding ceremony here in the temple in which the couple wrote their own marriage vows and then each in turn read them during the ceremony. I found it quite moving to see how basic Buddhist principles can be incorporated into married life and used as the North Star for making the relationship a vehicle for practicing Buddhism in the world.
All of us need to both love and be loved by other human beings. Even in the monastic environment it has been my experience that this is true, and to pretend that one is above and beyond the need for basic human love in that environment is a mistake. And again, I believe that a careful reading of what the Buddha taught in this regard supports this. To have good friends in the Dharma is the best of relationships, Ananda; in fact it is the whole of the Dharma is an often quoted saying of the Buddha. If you want to you can go looking for examples of the Buddha exhorting monks to go live alone in the forest, as he did for periods of time in his life, and find them. But all this proves is that it is easy to take any teaching out of its original context and superimpose a meaning that you’d like it to have. The Buddha recognized that for most people, most of the time, living with others in some sort of communal situation is just how it is in the human realm. What we need to do is learn how to be a success within that, and help others to do the same.
What I would view as the common denominator in having human relationships which are based on love in its aspect of respect and loving kindness, whether living the householder life as a lay person or living the life of a renunciate as a monk, is self-discipline. Love combined with self-discipline is what elevates human beings spiritually. It gives us the capacity to practice wise discernment—to combine wisdom with basic compassion and loving kindness—and free ourselves from the suffering which comes about as a result of unwise entanglements with others. Entanglements, i.e. relationships which have clinging, or anger, or revenge, or the attempt to establish superiority, happen across the board in both intimate love relationships and any other kind of relationship. Just having adversaries or enemies is to have an unwise entanglement with another person, based on anger rather than love and/or respect.
So going back for a moment to the Beatles’ song All You Need is Love, what we need is love combined with self-discipline. I still wouldn’t go as far as saying that this is all you need. I stay away from coming up with simple, very appealing solutions to life’s problems. Human life is complicated. Because the human realm is a realm of anger—anger being what lies at the root of the majority of conflicts, civil strife, domestic violence, gun violence, you name it—it instinctively strikes a chord in us to think that love is all we need to address the problem of anger. If only it were that simple.
The human realm is also a realm of trial-and-error. We try different things and it takes however long it takes to learn life’s basic lessons. Wisdom is based on experience, and experience is based on poor judgment—the lack of wisdom. Life gives us endless opportunities to learn its basic lessons; it is up to each of us to step up to the plate (to use a metaphor from baseball) and hit the ball of opportunity with the bat of a desire to learn and to grow wiser spiritually.
July 2018 The First Moment
By Judy Walters
The great question for Buddhists concerns birth and death, and the understanding of impermanence. Death is often difficult for people to consider, especially in our often- disconnected western culture. In our minds we know it is everywhere. We know of the existence of war, famine, tragedy, illness and every sort of circumstance that leads to the end of life. Until it arrives at our own door it remains a sad and tragic state of affairs.…for someone else. Many of you who are reading this may already know this in a deeply personal way.
When I was in high school, three friends of mine died separately during junior year. I experienced great sadness and grief, because I knew them personally. I remember being confused and having no way to comprehend the possibility that this could happen. It didn’t make sense because my friends were not old….only old people died, except for people on the news. My parents did their best to console me but it was difficult to process such a deeply spiritual matter.
In 2005, my husband and I had been meditating and practicing for some years. The day I got the news that my 14 year old nephew suffered a tragic accident was the day that death hit home for me. In the very first moment I was able to say the Three Homages, and to have a deep understanding that life would never be the same. I consider that to be a tremendous moment – a moment where I was not confused, and there was no judgment. There was of course tremendous grief to follow in the months and years ahead, but the first moment was one of clarity. To this day I can remember how my body felt grounded. Perhaps it was shock – but I believe the practice had held me, and it allowed me to be of greater help to my family members who were in a state of great suffering.
There was more to come. My sister, whose only child was now gone, was not healthy enough to continue living, and she died in her sleep of unknown causes a few months later. I am not writing this to cause sadness or disbelief that such a thing can happen, but to share how our pre-conceived notions of birth and death do not always align with what actually does happen. I don’t believe that any human being is prepared for this situation, and it was and is sometimes still difficult.
This was a turning point, and it changed how I experience my own family and life in general. I was able to be with each of my grandchildren in their first hours and days of life. I held them in their tiny just-born form, keenly aware of how precious and fleeting human life is, and how one moment can change everything. It is a reminder to practice gratitude for everything that is happening, and to just practice.…diligently and wholeheartedly. To me, it is a reminder to cultivate joy and kindness in the time that we are alive. It is also a reminder to seek the spiritual friendships and guidance of those who will help you be successful in, and understand, your practice, and who will be able to offer you great loving kindness in a time of great need. For the loving kindness shown to me I am forever grateful.
The teaching of Impermanence, which is at the heart of the question of birth and death, is now in my bones.
April 2018 Zen Poetry In this issue we will explore a little bit of Zen poetry, which is of course, a very large body of literature. Our teacher, Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, did not write poetry apart from some song lyrics, which were part of her effort to create a Buddhist liturgy for use in the monastery, Shasta Abbey. So as her disciples we have not put very much emphasis on poetry, even though it has always been an important part of Zen teaching and practice over the centuries.
Dogen We start with a passage from Great Master Dogen, founder of the Japanese Soto Zen sect, who lived in the 13th century. This passage is prose poetry, taken from a large essay entitled Gakudoyojinshu.
When you contemplate impermanence genuinely, the ordinary selfish mind does not arise and you do not seek fame or fortune because you realize that nothing prevents the swift flow of time. You must practice the Way as though you were tryin g to keep your head from being consumed by fire……. If you hear the flattering call of the god Kimnara or the kalavinka bird, regard them as merely the breeze blowing in your ears. Even though you see the beautiful face of Mao-ch’ing or Hsi-shih, consider that they are the morning dew obstructing your vision. (Taken from The Zen Poetry of Dogen by Steven Heine, 1997, p. 46.)
Fukakusa “On returning home from China, Dogen, eager to establish the Chinese style of Zen monasticism in Japan, at first stayed at Kenninji for three years and wrote Fukanzazengi, his manifesto on the priority of zazen-only practice. Because of the social and political problems plaguing Kyoto, as well as the decline of monastic standards at Kenninji and disputes over doctrine there, Dogen moved to Fukakusa in 1230, where he stayed for over a dozen years before taking up residence in Echizen. He first occupied the abandoned temple An’yoin, where he wrote “Bendowa,” which remains the leading introduction to his thought. In 1233 he took over a former Pure Land temple of the Fujiwara clan, Kannon dori-in, and composed “Genjokoan,” [the problem of everyday life] , the opening and in many ways the most innovative fascicle of the Shobogenzo [“Eye and Treasury of the True Dharma”], which uses the image of the unmarked pathways of birds and fish as a metaphor for traceless enlightenment. Three years later, Dogen built a new monks hall and reopened the temple as Koshoji, the first independent Zen center in Japan…… This verse, one of a series of six kanshi on the “time of my retreat,” suggests an atmosphere of profound mystery or yugen as the loneliness of a rainy night is transformed into a moment of religio-aesthetic solitude transcending the deceptions of ignorance and attachment and the polarity of life and death.
Drifting painfully in the whirwind of birth and death,
As if wandering in a dream,
In the midst of illusion I awaken to the true path;
There is one more matter I must not neglect,
But I need not bother now,
As I listen to the sound of the evening rain
Falling on the roof of my temple retreat
In the deep grass of Fukakusa. (From The Zen Poetry of Dogen, pp. 76-78.)
Here is another kanshi poem by Dogen, written whilst staying in a mountain retreat cabin, or hut. This has always been a common practice for monks in the Zen tradition: a period of time spent in solitary retreat away from the intensity of life in a religious community of (usually) many members.
Transmitting to the east the way the ancestors brought from the west,
My daily activities illuminated by the moon and shadowed by the clouds,
Because I revere the ancient way of the patriarchs,
The secular dust of worldly customs does not reach
When I remain secluded in my grass-thatched hut,
On a snowy evening deep in the mountain recesses.
Finally, as Dogen was nearing the end of his life—he is thought to have died from cancer of one of the internal organs—he has a wistful moment remembering the capital city of Kyoto and its beauty:
Just when my longing to see
The moon over Kyoto
One last time grows deepest,
The image I behold this autumn night
Leaves me sleepless for its beauty. (The last two poems are found in The Zen Poetry of Dogen, pp. 83-84 and p. 95.)
“As modernity dawned in colonial Korea, during the Japanese occupation, Kim Ilyop (1896-1971) found her voice as a feminist, radical writer, and poet. Born as Kim Won-joo and educated as a Christian, she was converted to Buddhism in her twenties through association with the Buddhist publishing company Pulgyosa. Won-joo was given the pen name Ilyop (also spelled Ilyob and Iryop), [meaning] “One Leaf,” by her “one true love,” Yi Kwangsu, who is called the father of modern Korean literature. He ended their affair by becoming a Buddhist monk. Before her conversion, she was an advocate for women’s rights through her magazine Sinyoja (New Woman).” This passage is somewhat redolent of Great Master Dogen:
Only when one finds the original spirit of human beings, which is non-existence, and is able to use it at one’s disposal, [does] the life of a human being open up. When that happens, one becomes an independent being who is not being swindled by environments, and thus whenever, wherever, and whatever kind of life with whatever shape of a body, one leads one’s life, one finds nirvana.
“This life of “nonexistence “ is described by Ilyop as the “unified I.” This unified I manifests only through courageous effort and strong intention and enables us to experience nirvana, freedom from suffering. Ilyop also stated that “the Buddha is another name for this ‘I.’” In other words, the unified I is our buddha-nature, in includes our entire personal existence interacting in a harmonious relationship with all that we encounter in our life. Ilyop challenged conventional roles for women, and she encouraged women to find their own moral standards to free themselves from conventional thinking.
I’d like to sing a song free of even the beautiful musical
melodies and beats….
It’s not a song of love, it’s not a song of sorrow, it’s not
even a song of inspiration.
I would simply like to sing the mysterious verse of com-
Then even the decomposed soil and dried by tree barks
would be moved. (All of the above is quoted from Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Masters, by Grace Schireson, Wisdom Publications, 2009, pp.198-202.)
Ilana is a poet who carries on a regular telephone correspondence with Rev. Phoebe. She lives in the Mojave Desert.
The Only Moment You Really Have Is Now.
Whatever happened, happened. And it’s over.
Whatever happened then is gone. The now,
This moment, now, is what you have today.
The now, this moment, the now, is all you have.
You may imagine that you have tomorrow.
You may hold onto troubles from the past.
You may believe that love can conquer all.
You may believe that hope will solve all problems.
Believe what you wish. Cling to the faith of your fathers.
Feel what you feel. Honor the ways of your mothers.
Be who you are, do what you do, remembering
The only moment you really have is now.
Rev. Master Seikai
Rev. Master Seikai wrote poetry as a young man, both before and after being ordained into the monastic Sangha. This first poem was written in 1976 while working and living in a Washington apple and pear orchard.
The broom stands in the corner
Dust lies upon the floor
The moon wanes and waxes
Emptiness is at my door.
The following poems are from the 1990s, when Rev. Seikai experienced prolonged hardship—which was inspiration for his poetry from that decade. After moving to Pine Mountain Temple in 2000, he continued writing, but that didn’t include poetry.
How should I live my life?
This is the ever-present question
Despite what others say or think
There is no guarantee
There is no best way to live.
I put on the robes of a Buddhist monk
For fifteen years I immersed myself
In physical and spiritual work
To purify this mass of karma;
Where has it gotten me?
Life is one long journey
For those who question everything
Looking deeply into what they’re doing
Looking deeply into why
Not accepting stock answers.
Thus far I have found one good answer
The unparalleled practice—zazen.
Sitting within all questions
Letting go of the defilements
Teaching me how to live.
What did I do today?
What will I do tomorrow?
Giving up my life—
It is like jumping off a cliff
I do not know where I’ll land.
I had a dream in which a beautiful woman
Took me down to the edge of the ocean
She said, “Listen to the sound of the ocean.”
In my dream I cried
I said I longed to hear that sound again.
I told her it was so hard to hear it because I lived
in such a noisy monastery;
She told me I must listen for it within the noise.
Frogs sing from their pond
The chorus swells up in response
To intermittent rain showers
They lapse into periodic silence—
The voice resting, introspection time of frogs.
Down in the red alder cathedral
A million windows made of new leaves
Filter shafts of lime-green light
With a hundred voices the creek sings praises
To eternal life—loudy and softly
Surely this is heaven.
Cutting a swath through impenetrable brush
Suddenly we could look down
Onto the roof of the cathedral
An emerald see folded in the hills
Spring rain has filled the rushing brook.
(Written at the Fugen Forest Hermitage.)
When the species are half gone, the rest on the brink
When there are ten billion people, out of control
When carbon dioxide has doubled, the weather terrible
When the rain forests are burned, erosion, cattle and termites
When people are always fighting, over resources, to survive
Then will we be proud of our achievement
Science over nature, lordship over the earth
When standard of living will seem a hallucination?
Economic growth—stop making sense
Who can see cancer for what it is today?
Who wants to walk instead of taking their car?
Who is realistic in the Age of Madness?
Who wants truth in the Age of Deception?
Who can truly call themselves a conservative
In an age where words have lost meaning
In an age where consumption is a virtue?
At one time there was nowhere to go except in tight circles
Now there is just nowhere to go.
Leaving the still center, all circles are weary journeys
On the Wheel of Becoming, birth and death.
All births and rebirths put one in nirvana
Samsara and weary journeys are enlightenment.
Oh to awaken fully to the truth of things.
This great karmic burden must be dealt with
If it can be seen for what it truly is—
Waves in a calm sea; holes in the clear sky;
Enlightenment from the beginning, nothing lost
The still center with nowhere to go.
The only thing in existence is the Mind.
“A master calligrapher, a writer of unusual and highly personal poetry in Japanese and Chinese, an eccentric holed up in a tiny mountain hut, a lanky beak-nosed cleric begging for food or playing crazy games with the village children—those are some of the images summoned up by the name Ryokan (1758-1831), a monk of the Soto branch of the Zen sect who lived in Japan in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. His works have long been loved and admired by his countrymen, one of whom predicted that the time would come when they would be appreciated in China and the West as well.”
Deep in the mountains
an old man
holed up for winter—
who’d come to see me?
who but you, friend!
Though frosts come down
night after night
what does it matter?
they melt in the morning sun.
Though the snow falls
each passing year,
what does it matter?
with spring days it thaws.
Yet once let them settle
on a man’s head
fall and pile up,
go on piling up—
then the new year
may come and go,
but never you’ll see them fade away
In the still night by the vacant window,
wrapped in monk’s robe I sit in meditation,
navel and nostrils lined up straight,
ears paired to the slope of shoulders.
Window whitens—the moon comes up;
rain’s stopped, but drips go on dripping.
Wonderful—the mood of this moment—
distant, vast, known to me only!
I remember when I was young
reading alone in the empty hall,
again and again refilling the lamp with oil,
never minding then how long the winter night was.
All of the above is quoted from Ryokan: Zen Monk-Poet of Japan, translated by Burton Watson; Columbia University Press, NY, NY; pp. 1; 21; 42; 82; 92. In the third poem, at the bottom of p. 11, Ryokan makes an unmistakable reference to Dogen’s Fukanzazengi (Rules for Meditation) as the correct way to practice zazen, or sitting meditation.
The Boat Moves.
The mind knows clearly
while standing on a boat
that is was the boat moving,
not the shore.
In the midst of a tide of loneliness
upset about coldness, unfairness –
it became clear that my mind was moving,
not the world.
Later a glimpse of diminished self:
realizing “it’s the boast that moves”
and feeling joy at this awareness.
Criticism would be heard for
what is being said – no more.
Feelings of fear and anger would
arise and pass on a still background.
Chronic physical pain would
be felt without a fighter or victim.
It is good news, joyful news;
The boat moves, not the shore.
The shore takes care of itself.
(Steve has been a lay minister of the O.B.C. and a member of Pine Mountain Buddhist Temple for many years.)
On Meeting Death
Tonight, Pluto, with the crescent moon as my witness,
I welcome you as my lover.
If you have come to break down my door,
See, I have opened it,
And wait here for you at its threshold.
If you have come to tear off my clothes,
I have flung them aside already,
And stand naked, shivering gladly.
If you have come to hurl me into the abyss,
Watch now, as I release all false supports, one by one,
And fall toward you in ecstasy.
Hear this, Pluto, lord of transformative fire:
What you have come to take from me, I offer you.
© Jennifer Welwood
By Steve Murray
In “The Most Excellent Mirror Samadhi” there is the line,
“Preserve well for you now have, this is all.”
I’ve recited this scripture many times. I was reading an article by Reverend Master Hakuun Barnhard (Spring 2008 Journal). Rev. Master Hakuun writes:
“We make no effort to replace whatever we have got with something better because there IS nothing better. We are content, and do not need to confirm our worth, neither to others nor to ourselves.” [Emphasis in text]
To me this means all of us, with our karma, hardwired tendencies to anger or fear or greed, and all manner of foibles, are perfect as we are. When I catch myself wishing to change my tendency to fear, I remember that this is just what I need to understand my body and mind and to lead a full life. There IS nothing better for me. Challenges become teachings when I find the Buddha within them.
Expectations A recent exchange in the January 2018 on-line group began with a quote from Reverend Master Jiyu:
“Gradually, as the trainer’s meditation deepens, he will discover that it is a joy to be alive, Another member of the group replied that she had been practicing for decades and can only remember a few occasions when she’d felt anything approaching joy and those times were more like an absence of fear and anxiety. I recalled Reverend Master Jiyu being told when entering Sojiji to expect very little at first and then to expect nothing. At first I didn’t relate to this because I came to practice expecting several things, mainly to get my life on track. Expect nothing seemed counter to the great effort it took to practice. After many years of practice my understanding of this teaching has changed. “Expect nothing” now means to me “Expect no specific thing.”
That is, if I have specific expectations about being calm or wise, for example, these expectations limit the wide openness of meditation. The strength of meditation practice is that it is different for every individual and to fully know this it seems best to “Expect no specific thing.” It seems best for me not to expect or worry about joy or peace or enlightenment states because each person’s meditation practice fits their unique body and mind. This is the “All is different.” It follows that Buddhist practice is not dogmatic.
That said it is wonderful to learn from other’s experiences, to offer sympathetic joy for the positive experiences of others, and to offer compassion for challenges faced by others. This is to take Refuge in and be enriched by the Sangha because “All is One.”
Reservoir of Stillness
I have come to see my daily meditation periods as times that add to the reservoir of stillness within me. During those times there is a strengthening of that which IS, the perfect stillness that lives beneath the fear, anger and greed. Meditation is enlightenment because it is opening up to the source of peace, the stillness beneath thoughts and emotions. Meditation is the realization that “I now have” and the awareness that “there IS nothing better” than the body and mind I have been given.
Rev. Phoebe’s Dharma Talk in NY, Feb. 22 in NY
On Silent Retreat.
These days there are many places that offer spiritual “vacations”, a time to be away from the daily stresses and recuperate in a nice environment with delicious healthy food and yoga, hiking and even some meditation. There is obviously a need for these and they can be a blessing for those people who can afford it. We have been approached by a few networking organizations who wanted Pine Mountain Temple to be on their mailing list for such sites. We have so far declined, because our retreats are definitely not a vacation, even though they do offer you a time away from your day to day routine. Our retreats are a time for people to develop and deepen their meditation practice, and to learn how to integrate the meditation mind into all daily activities, – so we do walking meditation, eating meditation, working meditation, chanting meditation and yes, resting meditation. This last one seems to be the hardest one, and most people fill resting or relaxation time with reading or napping or watching tv or a movie. Retreat weekends are a good time to experiment with different ways to practice relaxation meditation.
Recently we have been putting more emphasis on the practice of Noble Silence during retreat weekends and even a few longer retreats, and having had good feed back we are planning several more in the coming year. (See the Upcoming Events page on the website).
Noble Silence is more than not talking, it is a means to bring our attention back from being “in your head” to the direct physical experience of having a body/mind. Many people are so much occupied with the intellectual part of their minds that there is little room left to pay attention to the rest of the body and how that is situated in it’s surroundings, let alone experiencing the still, small voice of the Heart-Mind. So in order to be truly silent we have to also allow the intellect to be quiet for a bit. That means not using words as best we can, no thinking, no commenting, no analyzing and … no reading. For a day, or a few days, while on retreat. This is not something we should be doing all the time, just as we do not follow a retreat schedule all the time, or eat in silence all the time.
Reading, even spiritual reading, is a very helpful part of our practice: it provides information, inspiration and enjoyment, but it can also be a great distraction. Zen Master Dogen warns us not to be too involved in reading what other people wrote because while we do that we are “counting another’s treasure” and not finding our own. (And then he proceeded to write a lot, so his advice is certainly not an absolute ban on reading!) But while on retreat it might be good to refrain from reading for a period of time and see what effect that has. For many people the initial reaction is one of resistance and worry – “what am I going to do, will I be bored, will I be able to sleep?” – and for some it is immediately appealing. It helps to start with being mindful of the senses and we give guidance in focusing on feeling, seeing and hearing. And in order to make it a little easier we have been offering alternative ways to spend the time that is “free” from scheduled activities, and encouraged people to go for slow walks on the grounds, sit outdoors on one of our many benches, or do non-verbal activities like drawing, coloring or even a jig saw puzzle. Anything except getting into work mode and generating a lot of job satisfaction by giving in to the need to be useful. Or escaping into the world of the internet.
There are many things to learn about ourselves and life in general that are hidden behind or beneath the layer of words and thoughts that many of us are caught up in most of the time. It also fosters trust in our own ability to meditate and begin to see our innate wisdom without relying all the time on the wisdom of others. When we then go back to spiritual reading we may find some good advice, encouragement or even confirmation of our own insights.
Our Silent Retreats are not for people who are here for the very first time; even if you have previous meditation experience it is better to come for a regular weekend or day visit so you will know the basics of being at the temple and can really let go of the need for questions and directions. But anyone who has been here once before is very welcome to join us in the Silent Retreats and find out for yourself if this practice is for you.
By Rev. Master Seikai
For a brief moment in time, raising consciousness was a turn of phrase that you might hear or read about in popular magazines, newspapers and the like. This was in the late 1960s and 1970s. Since then it seems that such interest as there was then fell away and the general public returned to its preoccupation with more mundane aspects of life. One of my favorite songs from that era was a soul/funk hit by the group Tower of Power, What is Hip? One verse of that song went:
You went and found you a guru
In an effort to find you a new you
And maybe even raise your conscious level.
But while you’re trying to find the right road,
There’s something that you should know:
What is hip today might become passé.
The song issues a warning about a phenomenon that was pretty common back then: getting involved in some sort of religious cult or movement because all your friends were doing it and, well, it was hip. Pretty soon people found out just how difficult it is to actually raise your conscious level, that no one else can actually do it for you by some sort of spiritual magic, and so this popular movement—if can fairly be said to have been one—did what all popular fads do: it faded away.
Of course there are always a few people who take raising consciousness as a serious matter of human existence, including me. I made it the central aspect of my life, putting it ahead of everything else, like making a living, having a family, saving for retirement, traveling, etc. etc. But even for us, the question remains, what exactly is consciousness, and how exactly do you go about raising it? Is it a matter of becoming more aware of social issues, so that you can then get involved in trying to help the less privileged, help the world? Or is it a purely spiritual endeavor, of transforming your basic capacity for awareness, awakeness, or spiritual understanding?
A simple on-line search yields the following: “Consciousness raising (also called awareness raising) is a form of activism, popularized by United States feminists in the late 1960s. It often takes the form of a group of people attempting to focus the attention of a wider group of people on some cause or condition. Common issues include diseases (e.g. breast cancer, AIDS), conflicts (e.g. the Darfur genocide, global warming), movements (e.g. Greenpeace, PETA, Earth Hour), and political parties or politicians. Since informing the populace of a public concern is often regarded as the first step to changing how the institutions handle it, raising awareness is often the first activity in which any advocacy group engages.
“However, in practice, raising awareness is often combined with other activities, such as fundraising, membership drives, or advocacy, in order to harness and/or sustain the motivation of new supporters, which may be at its highest just after they have learned and digested the new information.
“The term awareness raising is used in the Yogyakarta Principles against discriminatory attitudes and LGBTstereotypes as well as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to combat stereotypes, prejudices and harmful practices toward people with disabilities.” [Wikipedia]
Although I think we are very much in need of the worldly side of consciousness raising, it falls within the realm of social action and responsibility. A debate goes on within Buddhist circles as to whether this kind of endeavor is actually spiritual practice or not; I think it is mostly a matter of personal choice. For many people, it is the best way for them to help put compassion into action in the world which, in its essence, has a spiritual origin and center. It does not need to be viewed as part and parcel of a religious belief system or practice, and many people deliberately stay away from a religious orientation to their work in order to avoid any such connotation or association with it. Working to help raise the public’s consciousness with regard to social injustice or inequality is a way to devote ones energies in life to helping beings, while putting self-interest aside in the process. At its purest level that would be true, but we all know that selfish interests always get mixed together with altruistic ones, meaning that we all are in need of some means of separating the two, or at least seeing that when we strayed too far into self-interest—which usually manifests in the form of insistence that things be done my way—we can step back from it.
The purely spiritual side of consciousness raising is harder to talk about and explain, but I think that if one is going to practice Buddhism with any real commitment, it is also necessary. An online search of “consciousness raising” also instantly produces: 11 Important Tips For Raising Your Consciousness; 18 Tips….; The Four Levels of Consciousness; 9 Ways to Raise Your Consciousness; and 20 Signs That You Have Raised Your Consciousness—Forever. I’m happy for my master, Rev. Jiyu-Kennett, that she didn’t live to see the day when 30 seconds in front of a computer would produce all that and a lot more. She had an intense dislike for the “spiritual smorgasbord”, as she called it—people taking in way too much information and then having a low level of commitment to putting any of it into practice, at least in part owing to the fact of it coming from so many different sources, and the inevitable lack of cohesion resulting therefrom. It could be that consciousness raising wasn’t so much a fad as it was a new entry into the vast stream of information which being human now seems to require we take in. It didn’t actually fade away so much as it was drowned out by the sheer volume of so much information available in the computer age.
The Buddha began his teaching career by talking about the Four Noble Truths, which contain the Eightfold Path as the fourth truth, and the Twelve Steps of Dependent Origination. A couple years ago I wrote the following as part of a ceremony to celebrate the Buddha’s Enlightenment. It describes that part of his awakening in which he contemplated those twelve steps and later described them to his followers:
“Shakyamuni, the Sage of the Shakya Clan, discovered the three transcendent kinds of knowledge during the first, second and third watches of the night. As dawn approached, the morning star, Venus, rose in the east. Light had dispelled darkness, and now he turned his mind to dependent arising, a sequence of twelve steps, each one arising as a direct result of the previous. What is the source of dependent arising? Ignorance. We humans do not see clearly, and the truth is often obscured. Why is it obscured? Karmic formations obscure the truth. Actions done out of ignorance, intentions which are impure bring about unwholesome karma. And out of karmic formations, consciousness arises.
“Thus have I heard: Shakyamuni continued his contemplation as follows:
‘“I thought: ‘With consciousness as a pre-condition, body and mind come to be; with body and mind as condition, the six-fold sense base; with the six-fold sense base as condition, sense impressions; with sense impressions as condition, feelings; with feelings as condition, craving; with cravings as condition, clinging; with clinging as condition, the process of becoming; with the process of becoming as condition, rebirth; with rebirth as condition, ageing and death come to be, and sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair; that is how there is an origin to this whole aggregate mass of suffering.’ The origin, the origin: such was the insight, the knowledge, the understanding, the vision, the light that arose in me about things not heard before.”’
“Shakyamuni then retraced the steps of dependent arising back in the opposite direction, the cessation of the whole aggregate mass of suffering. When there is cessation of ignorance, there is cessation of all the other conditions, one to the next, in order, leading back to the cessation of rebirth. This is the cutting of the endless chain of birth and death. But how is this cessation achieved? Shakyamuni then contemplated the Eightfold Path of liberation.”
In the Buddhist way of understanding, which evolved out of the Buddha’s enlightenment and early discourses, consciousness plays a key role in simply becoming a human being in the first place, and is based on karmic formations which have been set in motion in the lives of previous beings. The undertaking here is not so much to raise consciousness in the modern sense of becoming aware of social issues, but rather to purify it as a part of practicing meditation and living a morally sound life according to the basic ethical guidelines, or precepts, of Buddhism. The Eightfold Path is exactly that: how to live and how to think about the world, how to engage in a good livelihood and make wise choices that lead away from suffering and unhappiness towards enlightenment.
We come into human existence as a result of pre-existing consciousness, and then from the moment we are born, the values of the human community around us begin to be programmed into us. What we experience as infants and children, in particular, have a profound influence on how our consciousness as adults is shaped: whether we have a basic awareness of the needs of others or are simply focused on our own survival; whether we experience the world as a fight for survival, a dog-eat-dog world, or whether we know that those around us love and care for us, and that we are part of a supportive family and community.
A critical moment in life is mid- to late adolescence, when a person must take on full responsibility for their own well-being as an adult, make their own decisions, learn how to relate to others on their own and not simply as an extension of whomever has raised them up to that point. Up to that point, consciousness has pretty much been served to us on a platter, but now we get to decide what we choose to do with it. It is interesting to watch the development of young adults and see to what extent they decide to simply continue with the level of consciousness that they’ve been given, or whether they choose to improve on it—or purify it, in the Buddhist view of these things. Some people decide to think for themselves and others do not. Some people, if anything, go downhill from the consciousness of their childhood—sometimes due to deteriorating social and economic circumstances around them. That is a situation that we see in many parts of the United States today.
On this level, consciousness is a set of values and attitudes. That set of values is malleable and can be changed: the human mind is plastic, changeable, and can be vastly improved if a human being wants that to happen. It won’t necessarily be easy, and it will depend in large measure on whether a person has a supportive group of some kind to guide them in that process. That is why, in the Buddhist world, the Sangha exists—the community of practitioners, those who can help and guide us in the not-easy process of developing higher consciousness.
I believe that whole societies have a collective consciousness. Humankind probably has a collective consciousness, too, but that is much harder to gauge than a smaller subset, such as a local community, state or nation—which is hard enough. One thing that I find fascinating about American society at the moment is that it seems to have split in two, with one half trying to continue to raise its overall level of consciousness, while the other half seems intent on remaining static, or even going back to a more primitive level—as if that were, in some way, more desirable than higher consciousness. Why people actively choose to revert to a lower level of consciousness is a truly difficult question to answer. I think that, if it can be answered simply, the one word which comes closest is fear.
Deeply programmed in fear of the sort I am speaking of here is probably traceable back to childhood experiences, or even to the pre-existing consciousness of being born human. Either way, it’s a bucking bronco, not easily tamed. As the Buddha said: “the mind is flighty, rushing whichever way it leans, from side to side.” Just to even become fully aware of the fear that we carry with us, we have to practice self-awareness, or raise our consciousness through meditation.
I’m always impressed when young adults decide not to simply continue the momentum of their pre-existing consciousness, but choose to embrace something higher, or more real. Many young people sense the hypocrisy in the way adults think and the way society at large functions—its inequalities, its patent falsehoods, its outright stupidities. It’s a challenge not to simply become cynical or despairing about it all as a young adult—I remember that struggle as a teenager. But at 18 I started meditating and set myself on a course of raising my conscious level from which I have never deviated through thick and thin. For me it wasn’t simply a hip or cool thing to do; it was the purpose of human life.
Following the herd, not thinking for oneself, being unwilling or unable to mold your own consciousness is what ultra-conservative religious and political organizations require: they cannot exist without it. Many people have pointed out how frighteningly similar the world of today is, or seems to be becoming, to George Orwell’s 1984, the famous novel depicting a time in the future when humankind would be blindly subservient to Big Brother, the overarching ruling force of totalitarian government. I can’t predict if that is where we will end up, but I do know this: if we want to make a better world we need better human beings; and if we want better human beings, we need many more people to work on and raise their consciousness. There will be no positive change or revolutionary change in the world without it.
Let’s have a look and see what those 11 Steps to Raise Your Consciousness actually are:
- Be you in every moment.
- Let go of the fear of feeling.
- Identify with nothing (not even a spiritual identity).
- Don’t be so hard on yourself.
- Don’t make personal growth into a means to “get what you want.”
- Be more interested in your reaction than in who/what triggered it.
- Make friends with the unknown.
- Don’t over-analyze.
- Be in the body.
- Love freely.
- Look at a picture of Planet Earth.
There are a few paragraphs of explanation accompanying each of these 11 steps. Obviously I don’t have the space to include them here, and I wonder how many people would actually go to the trouble to read through all of it word for word. Nevertheless, I think it is actually a pretty good list, and it is apparent that much of it expresses ideas which have been extracted from Buddhism: letting go of the fear of feeling; not being hard on or hating yourself; being aware of your reactions to external events; being in your body: all of these are basic Buddhist practices.
For me the question is whether this information can really be absorbed and made use of without the larger background context of Buddhism, or some other religious path. For better or for worse, it is what our society does; it extracts things out of their original context and presents them in some kind of new packaging. Unless you were to make a firm resolve to read only Buddhist books, or perhaps even authentic Buddhist texts and scriptures, there really isn’t any way around this fact in a world which has the internet available to anyone with a computer. I’ve had to conclude that most people have to start somewhere. That the universe is forever teaching all of us, and making insight available to us when we are able to make use of it. Maybe, given enough time, it will tip the balance in favor of higher consciousness.
To Read or Not to Read
By Sally Brown
Last fall I attended a four-day silent retreat at Pine Mountain Temple. It was quite wonderful: the weather was perfect, the people attending were nice, and, of course, the food was good.
I had been on retreats before and was looking forward to the silence. In the beginning it was explained that this would be a silent retreat—all well and good. But then Reverend Phoebe added—without too much explanation—“No reading, no writing”. This was a bit of a surprise, and honestly, I wondered how I was going to fall asleep at night. I have always read myself to sleep. I suppose I could just lay there until overtaken by exhaustion and boredom!
The first night I cheated and played a game of solitaire on my phone under the covers. Yes, just like a kid. I’m glad I did because it didn’t feel right and I got to experience that—to listen to the small voice in the back of my head, to choose to make an adjustment over a small matter and to consciously experience making a good training choice. My choice was to not do that again. It didn’t feel right and I wanted to avoid that feeling.
What I did instead was given to me in an afternoon dharma talk. It consisted of breathing and being aware of the breath in the body and letting everything else go. Then using the eyes to see with no judgment, no chatter in the mind about what was being seen, just seeing and receiving the sites, nothing else. The third area was hearing. Listening with no mind, no thought of what it might be, no looking for the source of the sound. These techniques opened a whole new world of meditation for me.
I no longer needed words, I had the entire universe to experience and be a part of. I found that my mind fell into a state of relaxation, I saw more with less stress of looking, and the sounds were wonderful. Who needs music when there are birds?! I slept well.
The retreat ended with a feeling of connectedness among the participants – all without words.
Back home I continued to ‘not read’. My pattern had been to make a cup of tea in the morning, read an article from the Newsletter or the OBC Journal, and then sit and meditate. I also tried not going back to reading during the day or before bed. But this proved too much. I missed my down time. I had been used to taking a nap during the day; now I didn’t need to, but I did need to sit down and not do much. Reading was it—and so I went back to interest reading. A good novel can get me through a lot. And puzzles actually fulfill this need also—another gem I took away from Pine Mountain. But I wasn’t sure where meditative study-reading came in.
I found the place. Some months after the retreat, and after the gray of winter had set in, I fell into a funk. My meditation time was flat. I had a problem and couldn’t see through it. I turned to reading a randomly picked Journal article and as if given a gift, it hit the spot. Not only did I get a hand-up from the hole I was in, but I discovered there is a time and place for spiritual reading.
I still meditate in the morning, usually without reading first, but I will read when I need a bit of encouragement, or feel stuck, or can’t quiet my mind for a few days in a row. I often breathe and scan my body, or just look or listen. It’s difficult to find that peace of mind in everyday life. I bombard myself with information and thoughts, but I now know there is something else available.
I hope reading this article was helpful to you and not just a distraction.
Chapter 7: The Age of Desire
An old Taoist monk, living in a mountainous and remote area of China, said to Bill Porter, a translator and author of Buddhist books: “We live in the Age of Desire.”
Particularly since the advent of the industrial revolution about 200 years ago, we have exponentially increased the number of things that can be desired and the number of people alive to desire all those things. We have created a world dominated by one species, Homo sapiens sapiens, to the detriment of all other plant and animal species except perhaps domesticated ones. And our species seems intent on obtaining more and more consumable stuff. Obviously, as many people before me have pointed out, the earth, being a limited entity, cannot continue to accommodate our species indefinitely because natural resources and the space necessary for so many people and stuff simply runs out. Here in the 21st century we have already expanded to the point of having exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth, and so the key matter in all of the myriad problems concerning environmentalism, is whether or not the human species will find a way to control and ultimately reduce its own numbers. In a word: overpopulation.
Having said that, one place we might start is by looking at desire itself. The Buddha pointed out that desire and suffering are very interconnected, that they have a cause-effect relationship. In fact, the more we desire, the more we suffer. So, is there anything that can be done to reduce desire down to a minimum, to reduce it to what a human being actually needs to be alive, to flourish and to be happy? Well, actually, plenty. Right now, the carbon footprint of a human being is a topic that is widely discussed, and the many ways in which one can reduce one’s carbon footprint are put forward. We can consume less and we can recycle things. Once we really start looking, we can find solutions to the problem of desire and consumerism all around us.
Environmentalism, a bad word among those of consumer aspirations, is often where people who sense that things are really out of whack in this world start. Including me. I started recycling bottles, cans and paper as a teenager. I rode my bicycle wherever I needed to go around town and put off getting a driver’s license until I was 17, a year after the customary 16, because I thought cars were evil and were consuming the world’s resources at an unsustainable clip. That was in the 1970s. Then, as time passed and the 1980s came, with its culture of me-first, sensory gratification, the glorification of supply-side economics and the benefits to the economy of sheer consumption, the tide seemed to sweep dramatically in the direction of flat-out consumerism. Communism was defeated, and Capitalism, the paradigm that was left standing, seemed to have triumphed in the world at large. Federal funding for research in alternative sources of energy was slashed, tax credits discontinued, oil exploration was given new life, and the rich got richer. Triumphalism.
I was a monk throughout that decade and eventually formed the idea that Consumerism, and not the Judeo-Christian paradigm, was the true religion of the Western world, or at least of America. Taking Henry David Thoreau’s quote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”—which is a restatement of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth of the existence of suffering, I was inclined to update it as, Most men lead lives of consumer aspirations. Saltiness aside, I am not really an environmentalist. I am a Buddhist monk. I try to practice concern for and care of the earth and its resources, but that is not my main motivation in life. My true motivation is to find the root causes of suffering and bring them to a close. My focus is always to look more deeply at the underlying causes of human problems, to look at why we get tripped up so easily in our quest for meaning, or if not that, then our quest for ordinary comfort and happiness, or if that is still not enough, our quest for more and more consumer stuff.
This brings me back to the matter of desire, whether we can even recognize it, as the Buddha did, as key to understanding human problems, and if we can get that far, to look at how to rein it in. So to my mind, the essence of the matter is whether we can learn to chip away at the momentum of desire, eventually learning to stop it when it arises. Desire is a sneaky thing in the mind, because obviously we have basic human needs that have to be attended to: we need to eat, sleep, find shelter, wear clothes, and treat illnesses. And maybe take a few recreational drugs, and take a nice vacation every year, and have a wide screen television, and drive a nice car, and….there’s no end to it! That’s what I mean about sneaky: with our high standard of living, we have difficulty knowing where to draw the line and say, “that’s enough”.
Greed, or human desire that is unrestrained, contains within it the seeds of anger and, eventually, delusion. In Buddhism, greed, anger and delusion are another tripod, in this case the tripod of suffering—how it originates, how it expands, and eventually snowballs out of control. Right now we live in the Age of Desire, an age in which desire has been given free rein to become greed. Greed seems to have become the American ideal, replacing liberty and justice for all, or equal opportunity for advancement, or “the pursuit of happiness”, that powerful turn of phrase penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 when he authored the Declaration of Independence. We really do not know how to arrive at the ideal of happiness as a society, and so we are fairly lost in our greed and consumer aspirations. Some individuals know how to arrive at the ideal of happiness, but they are a small minority.
As greed slowly builds up within unrestrained people, so it builds up in a society, such as ours, as a whole. As greed mounts, anger will similarly accumulate and follow upon greed, if for no other reason than that greed, when it goes unsatisfied, quickly turns to frustration, and frustration is anger waiting to happen. As a Buddhist monk, it has been interesting to watch, over a period of three decades in this Age of Desire, how the steadily rising American standard of living has given birth to steadily rising expectations, which in turn gives rise to frustration when those expectations are not met, and finally, when frustrated, greed boils up, into anger over everything. The national news tends to focus on disasters and problems, of which we seem to have so many, and then the frustration, disagreement and anger about what to do in response. At some point, hopefully, we can begin to see—in the light of the Buddha’s teaching on the three root causes of suffering: greed, anger, and delusion—that all of what happens, even on a national scale, is an expression of the truth of how things work for us as human beings
A phenomenon that I have observed since being in my teens is that problems generally don’t get solved; rather, they change, and sometimes transform into a different problem or are eclipsed by bigger and more immediate ones. During the 19th century, a century featuring a major religious revival in America, sentiments were such that there was a large movement against the sale and consumption of alcohol—the temperance movement. This culminated in the passage of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. Nine years later came the financial collapse and the Great Depression that followed on its heels; President Roosevelt signed legislation repealing the 14th Amendment in 1933, as the nation struggled with sheer poverty and joblessness and needed the anesthetic of alcohol to help with the pain of that time. Today, no one suggests that we bring back prohibition, even though alcohol continues to be probably as great a social ill in terms of spousal abuse, health problems and highway deaths as it ever was. But now we have a whole host of other intoxicants, which make alcohol seem kind of tame. Methamphetamines, designer drugs of every description, crack cocaine—we can now add computer games and the Smart Phone—but the common denominator here is addiction, and addiction seems to be almost taken for granted in our society. It is as if we have collectively become numbed to the ubiquitousness of addictive behaviors.
We can begin to break down the whole vicious cycle of greed and addictive behavior by means of simple observation. The first observation to be made is that the cycle is, in and of itself, painful. It is suffering. Anyone who has ever worked with recovering alcoholics knows that unless a person recognizes his or her own suffering, caused by alcohol consumption, and wants to stop, there is really no hope for change. If there is willingness to move in the direction of stopping the cause of suffering, in this case alcohol, then the first step in the direction of freedom from suffering can be taken.
The 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous was founded as a systematized approach to taking that step, and using a support group of people who are in the same boat to provide the constant encouragement that we humans need to stay away from addictive behaviors. There is a strong religious tone to Alcoholics Anonymous, and the belief in a higher power, or a compassionate entity far greater than oneself, is an indispensable part of it. I have known many Buddhists who have traveled to Buddhism via the intermediate vehicle of AA; they tend to be people of significant humility, who have seen what an utter mess they can make of their own lives, and that they need a daily practice to maintain their equilibrium as human beings and stay away from their addiction. In the long run, Buddhism appeals to people who can see that it is very comprehensive in its approach to human suffering, its causes and effects, and also provides some very powerful cures for suffering.
The path that any one individual walks to find their own way out of the cycle of addiction or out of whatever quiet desperation they may be suffering from, is going to be a matter of seeking, trying different strategies, and above all, of not giving up. I have heard of Christian preachers whose main message is, Don’t give up; no matter how many times you fall down, keep picking yourself up off the ground and don’t give up! This is a simple message of hope from one human being to another and is not the exclusive teaching of any religion. It is most certainly contained in Buddhism. And in Buddhism, and particularly in the Zen tradition, there is a strong emphasis placed on meditation practice as the means by which we develop this ability to pick ourselves up off the ground and keep going.
Many people try to meditate and decide that it is too difficult because, no matter how hard they try, they just simply cannot stop their minds from wandering all over the place. That would be a reasonable conclusion to draw if the goal of meditation was to arrive at a place in which the mind does not wander—but that is not the goal of meditation. Meditation actually has no goal whatsoever. It is simply a practice of observation: observing what the mind does, observing the coming in and going out of the breath, observing that, if we have ears and hearing, there are sounds. The noise of the next-door guy’s sound system. If you have a nose that works, you ought to be able to smell things—perhaps the burning of a stick of incense, or someone cooking food next door. But just coming back to observing things as they are, rather than thinking and speculating about how we want things to be, or what we do not like about this, that and the other thing, is the essence of meditation. Everyone can do it. I often tell people that if they can watch themselves breathe in and out one breath, they can meditate.
When I say that meditation practice is a great asset in learning to pick oneself up off the ground of addictive behaviors, or of making the same damn mistake that we’ve made a hundred or a thousand times before, it is because meditation is the practice of waking up to this moment of being alive and doing that over and over and over, thousands of times. Doing it every day. And just as, if you want to be a physically strong human being you would go to a gym and lift weights every day to build up the muscle mass it takes to be strong, meditation is the practice that you engage in if you want to train your mind. The mind is not an easy thing to train. For example, having trained dogs, I can tell you that the human mind is far more difficult to train than a dog. But just because that training doesn’t come naturally or easily, it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t try. It also doesn’t mean that, if we have tried several times to meditate and have given it up as too difficult, that we shouldn’t try again and stick with it. Don’t give up, pick yourself up off the ground and just observe things as they are.
In getting to the heart of the matter of how to slow down desire and ultimately stop it right at the point of its arising, meditation is the powerful tool which makes it possible to accomplish this, because it is the practice of observing one’s own mind, just as it is. It might take a while, a period of just learning to observe the chaos of one’s own mind, before recognizing and clarifying the arising of desire, and that is to be expected. But it is via the practice of just quietly observing the chaos of the mind, the relentless chatter of it, all the many justifications, the legal battles, and so on that go on in the human mind, that we can slowly gain our bearings and just sit still with it all. Eventually it starts to quiet down just a little, in the same way that when a storm has blown what seems to be all its fury, the winds die down a bit and the driving rains cease.
We humans have desire wired into our brains. It is unreasonably idealistic to think that you can ever get to a constant state of no mental desire whatsoever; the mere fact of having sexual hormones virtually guarantees that the human brain will desire sex on a fairly regular basis, no matter what one does to train the mind. But fortunately, we always have the choice of what to do in response to thinking. Learning to create that small gap between the having of a thought and the decision to act upon it is actually what Buddhist meditation empowers a human being to do. So rather than having a mind full of thoughts, including a fair percentage of desirous ones, and being a virtual slave to that thinking because there is no reflective space wherein consideration can be made as to the wisdom of it, the fruit of meditation is the gradual opening up of a wide space in which all thinking is reflected upon, and slavery to the mind of desires is ended. It is the gateway to liberation from suffering.
All addictions have a common denominator, which is that desire arises in the mind. It may have the most innocent of beginnings; it may simply be the desire to dampen down the feeling of pain, which is so very pervasive in human life. The desire to not feel pain, to reduce pain to a manageable level, or to get rid of it altogether, seems to be the most common of motivations for people; but where we go from there is the crucial matter. Turning to look right at pain as opposed to running away from it is the most effective strategy for dealing with it. I am not speaking, for instance, of the sort of acute pain that one might feel when having a tooth drilled while sitting in a dentist’s chair—although the same principle applies here as well. What I am saying is that the dull ache of being human, the constant nagging desires we have that things should be better than they are, or the dull, almost subliminal but nevertheless constant fear we experience, is what I am speaking of. Learning to simply be aware of this wired-in aspect of being human and to look it straight in the eye is to stop the advance of dukkha, of suffering.
The human realm will always be a tough place in which to live in some respects, but what a human being can do to lighten it up, to make it a better place both for oneself and for other people, is to “grab the bull by the horns” by means of a sharp self-awareness. This is not the exclusive province of Eastern religions, because even in the Western world there is the old dictum, “know thyself”. It’s actually there in our culture already if we look for it. It does not help to pin the blame for our suffering on our parents, our environment growing up, or any other external condition that seems to have contributed to our current state of unhappiness. In other words, we simply have to stop blaming. Not to blame is to take full responsibility, and so now we have come full circle to our starting point, which is that suffering isn’t simply going to go away—unless we make up our minds to do something positive about it. And that is where Buddhism enters the picture. To give up being cynical, to give up blaming everyone else for ones unhappiness, and to undertake a spiritual practice is to set foot on the road of liberation from suffering, and that is the crux of the matter for us humans.
People have an innate longing to do good. Most people want to do good for the world, they want to reduce suffering in the world, and help in some way to make it a better place. We can consume less; we can recycle things; we can sponsor people who alleviate hunger and disease in the world; we can reduce our carbon footprint, and all of these things help the world. But what helps the world the most in the age of desire is if we work on ourselves.
River of Change
By Rev. Master Seikai
Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253), founder of the Soto Zen tradition in Japan, wrote a treatise entitled Uji, which my teacher translated as Existence, Time, Flow. The word Uji is the name of a beautiful river in Kyoto Prefecture in Japan, an area where Dogen lived before moving to the back woods of Fukui Prefecture, where he founded Eiheiji Temple. Dogen used the name of a river to talk about the nature of human existence, principally that our lives are forever in motion, changing, and that we are unable to keep things static for any length of time, no matter how hard we might try.
800 years after Dogen’s time, what remains unchanged is that change is constant. Just in my own life of 60 years, things have changed so much that I have to push down a feeling of disorientation which I experience, living in America. I have read that human beings are simply not designed to have to accommodate so much change in the space of their brief lives, and yet the reality is that none of us have any control over the changes occurring all around us, and we have no choice but to respond as best we can.
One of Dogen’s recurrent themes is his urging to let go of the little self, the self-oriented ego which all of us have and constitutes our main perspective as humans. This is always a challenge, and represents the internal aspect of dealing with change, which is to embrace our intrinsic insubstantiality. Meanwhile, to embrace the flow of changes that are going on around us is the external aspect of dealing with change. In both cases, we have to examine our inbred human resistance to change and look for ways to accept everything as it is.
A month ago we had a winter storm which dumped over five inches of rain on our temple and the surrounding mountains. Some of that water is absorbed into the earth, but there comes a point when much of it starts to run off, forming streams of water everywhere. A mile from the temple is a point where three small streams, which are typically dry, come together to form the Cuyama River. This river runs to the Pacific Ocean, but for most of the year has no surface water, the water flow being below the surface. During big storms like this last one, the dry river wash turns into a roaring flood, sweeping trees, bushes, debris and huge quantities of rocks and sand down its course towards the sea. The transformation is awe-inspiring. All you can do is stay well back from the raging torrent.
Recently Rev. Phoebe and I took our two dogs for a walk downriver to a place where a small lake was created as part of a gravel mining operation some years ago. The gravel business is gone but the lake remains, and typically has geese, ducks and cormorants on its surface. As we approached the lake we were brought up short because the road suddenly ended: water had washed it away leaving a small cliff. We looked over towards the lake and realized that the Cuyama River had eaten a gaping hole through a dike which formed one whole side of the lake, gone right into the lake, made a full meander and exited out the same side. It was a dramatic exhibit of the power of water to transform the landscape, moving vast quantities of earth materials in the process. A few days later we approached the lake from the other side where we could inspect the changes nature had wrought.
I couldn’t help but think that this scene was metaphorical for the sweeping changes which are happening in the world today, and affecting all of our lives. Climate change has created conditions favorable to mega-storms which dump larger-than-normal quantities of water on a given area in a short span of time. We’ve had two such storms in the past two years, and I have had to accept that this is a new normal. I have to think in terms of how to manage the flow of water across the temple grounds, where it comes from and where it is going. Fortunately, after the flash flood we had in the summer of 2015, most of the work of directing water away from buildings and into ditches was already accomplished, so this last storm had little effect on the temple. Still, it made me aware of a number of modifications that need to be made.
There are vast changes sweeping over the physical environment of the earth—mega-storms, desertification, climbing temperatures, rising sea levels—and there are vast changes sweeping over the sociopolitical climate as well, threatening to upend many of our social institutions in the process. More and more I am seeing this flood of change not so much in light of it being threatening to an established way of life, or being a bad turn of events, or an unwelcome sea change, as a fascinating saga being played out on a huge scale of just how insubstantial all things human really are. We get used to things being a certain way, which we then label as normal, or right or good, and expect that normal state to continue indefinitely. At some point we may all have to face an inescapable reality, which is that our social and political norms are being swept away as if by the Cuyama River.
In walking up and down the Cuyama River wash, Rev. Phoebe and I immediately noticed that the old features had been wiped out; gravel and sand bars removed; banks gouged out; the edges of farm fields eaten away; river channels moved over and rearranged. Is this not the Uji River that Dogen was talking about?—in fact, probably more dramatic than anything in that part of Japan? Sometimes we may not really notice change for several years, as it is happening at a slow rate, and then at other times there is a flood of change, and the landscape is completely rearranged. This seems to be the nature of life both for the physical environment and for the human social and political environment. How we respond, in essence, creates our own, immediate spiritual environment.
Insubstantiality, a word which suggests change over the course of time, when manifested on the external level, is known as anicca in Buddhism; the insubstantiality of a human being, our changing thoughts, moods, habits, likes and dislikes, and our changing bodies, is known as anatta. If we can see, even for a moment, that insubstantiality is the nature of our existence, then why do we fight it? That is a Zen koan, one might say—a question to be pondered. The more you can sit with that question, of why do I fight it?, the answer will at some point emerge that I want things to be a certain way, and the reality of the way things are is something else. Another way of putting this is a law of the universe according to Buddhism: The Universe is not answerable to my personal will.
It sounds pretty nice on one level—sure, the universe doesn’t answer to me; I’m not in control of much, after all. But this is really what lies at the root of virtually all human suffering and struggles: we want things to be one way, which they are not, and fight conditions to make them conform to the way we want them to be. This is the essence of all political struggle, all wars, all fighting. No two people see things exactly the same way, let alone two groups of broadly diverse people, as in a nation.
What is the point of being alive if it is not to accomplish some cherished dream of things being the way we want them to be? The human saga of overcoming all obstacles en route to achieving something great, something which will make a person admired or even famous. From a Buddhist perspective, even if those things happen, change might still sweep it all away, and at some point death is going to sweep us away anyway, the ultimate manifestation of change and insubstantiality. It is said, however, that the human realm is the best place for the working out of karma, for the learning of important spiritual lessons, for the realization of the truths of existence—to see things as they truly are.
Whenever I am confronted with a set of circumstances which I find difficult, or am confronted with yet another wave of some kind of mental suffering, I generally take the whole thing with me into my meditation practice. Life keeps changing; I may seem to have solved my problems one day, only to find the next day that they have returned in altered form. Meditation practice, meanwhile, is how I cut adrift, letting go of the seeming solidity of having an answer or solutions, and just riding the current. In other words, to meditate is to embrace insubstantiality on a moment-to-moment basis. My thoughts are of no consequence; they are like birdsong coming through my window. The flow of the river of change, the internal Uji, is my true dwelling place. In that place, change and insubstantiality ARE the true reality, not just characterizations imposed on reality as experienced through the senses.
So there is internal work and there is external work. Internal work is the work of letting go—of thinking, of expectations, of hope and fear. Just letting things be as they are, even if on an emotional level I may not like the way things are. It is, after all, far easier to let go of my own internal preferences than it is to somehow make reality conform to the way I want things to be. That struggle is, generally speaking, an exercise in futility. Sitting still with things as they are, on the other hand, is something we can do and is, in and of itself, satisfying and liberating. Internal work is the job of letting go of trying to be in charge of everything and learning to just observe, learning to just see what needs to be done, if anything.
In order for external work—whatever we do to make a living, of engaging with the world—to not be an unending struggle, it has to come from a deeper place than trying to impose our own will on other people and the world around us. For external work to be a kind of active meditation, it means entering into harmony with the conditions in which we find ourselves, and working within them. To be truly effective, external work needs to spring forth from internal work, the willingness to be still enough to see what, if anything, we can do to help a situation. It is usually not particularly dramatic. If we enter situations with a desire to gain praise, fame and attention, more than likely we will not, in the end, actually help anyone. But in getting the self that wants praise out of the way, we can at least glimpse what will actually help people around us. You may or may not be praised as a result; it’s just possible that someone might resent you for acting from your meditation. But to not get involved in the whole blame game which goes on constantly in the world is the beginning of real wisdom. Praise and blame are the twins which blind people to being compassionate. We can see this being acted out on a huge scale in how government operates in this country.
Trying to change other people is probably the most futile of exercises in futility. Children learn primarily from example, and it is really the same with adults: usually we can only adopt a new way of being if we’re able to witness it in another person. This doesn’t mean that we are unable to hear something of value, or read it, and then try to put it into practice; it’s just that we find that harder to accomplish than imitation of a role model. By implication, if we want to have a positive impact on the people around us, then the best thing to do is act in a way which serves as a good example. Realistically, we can change ourselves but we have to leave it at that and not expect that anyone else will do so. Other people are, in fact, changing and growing spiritually; it’s just that it happens in its own way in its own time, nobody is in control of it, and we need to practice patience or we will forever be unhappy with the way things are.
I’m aware that I’ve been immersed in a flow of change my entire life. Whether that change was the natural result of growing up, learning from experience, aging and making mistakes, or the result of spiritual practice is often hard to say. There is no clear boundary. But I also became aware, years ago, that meditation practice, combined with the effort to live a morally sound life, is a powerful life-changer. To this day I cannot explain exactly why or how this works, but it is observable in oneself. I have read that the human mind remains changeable for as long as we are alive—it has a malleable, plastic quality to it which transcends aging. This should give us all hope that it is never too late to change ourselves, or that to engage in practice late in life is a futile exercise. It also underscores the mantra of the Heart Sutra: “O Buddha, going, going, going on, and always going on beyond, always becoming Buddha!”
Welcoming the Unwelcome
By Rev. Oriana LaChance
[The following article, written in two parts, first appeared in the Eugene Buddhist Priory Newsletter, published on-line, Autumn and Winter, 2016 issues. Rev. Oriana is the Prior of the Eugene Priory.]
An ancient koan that speaks to us today:
A student asked, “When times of great difficulty visit us, how should we meet them?”
The Zen Master answered, “Welcome.”
It is helpful to begin addressing any difficulty from the ground of our meditation, as it encourages us not to amplify our delusions or aversions, but rather to be open-hearted.
How do we practice welcoming?
First, know that “welcome” doesn’t come from good intentions; it doesn’t come from wishing to impress anyone; it doesn’t even come from the belief that welcome will end the pain. Welcome has always been there. It is for us to find it in our hearts, to learn that even when we think we are not okay, we’re okay.
We can also practice welcoming through understanding that the bodhisattva path is the path of welcome. Finding openness toward our difficulties and empathy for the difficulties of others can change most things, including the difficulties. Welcome is to see, to feel, to know the flavor of connection, and to align ourselves with a deeper truth than our individual lives spinning around the eight worldly conditions: pleasure and pain; praise and blame; gain and loss; fame and disgrace.
There are a lot of things we cannot change, but we can accompany each other, walk together in the difficulty. A bodhisattva doesn’t abandon themselves or others–any others, not just those who agree with you.
We can practice welcoming by understanding that we don’t need to know how things work out. Welcome means not reaching a verdict about our lives or the lives of others, not needing to know. Each step is true and of value.
We can further practice welcome bay understanding the nature of delusion. We can see that our beliefs, even our beliefs about the difficulty in our life, or our beliefs about keeping true to any ideal, or our beliefs about Buddhist practice, are delusions. It is good to be aware when our beliefs imprison rather than guide us. Welcome can aid here by breaking down prejudices and habitual ways of thinking and behaving. Even difficulties can have welcome as part of their understanding. In this way we are not in opposition to our own lives. There is just: this is what is here now.
Poet Wendell Berry expresses it like this:
“The Real Work
It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go,
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
A Bit More About “Welcome”
You may recall that in our last newsletter I talked about welcoming what comes to us each day. Finding openness in our hearts to our difficulties and empathy for the difficulties of others, are we able to say “this is what is here now” without complaint or judgment? Yes, we have preferences. Can we lay our preferences aside and do what needs to be done?
This has been on my mind the last few months because of the ice storm that occurred in Eugene in mid-December—on-the-ground training in “welcome.” Due to several drought years, trees competing for limited light and then an ice storm that put great strain and weight on trees and branches that were already growing “sideways,” we lost many, many trees in the storm. This requires a major cleanup—figuring out what needs doing and in what order, hiring people, looking at the financial side.
So the question I asked myself was, “Am I able to welcome this demand, coming in from left field, on my time and energy and on the priory’s finances?” Too, there is a grief at losing so many fine trees and the wild life they helped to support. This has been difficult for me to do. I will gain and then lose equilibrium, gain and lose perspective—I want to say gain and lose control, but I never had control.
And yet, and yet, as I watch the process in me and am aware of how I respond as each thing comes up, I have learned that welcoming comes more easily in bits. Not can I welcome the whole mess, but how about what is happening today: can I welcome the insurance adjuster, the estimate for stump grinding, the various and often conflicting suggestions on how to proceed? So I am doing my best to welcome in bits—moment to moment—and some days I do better than others. And that’s okay. If I am feeling overwhelmed, I try to back up and take smaller bites.
I can put a great deal of effort in trying to make things happen now, when they just are not going to happen now. The sense of always pushing, chasing after and not accomplishing a lot—that is what wears me out. Can I drop all that? What is it good to do today, or even right now? Maybe it is good to make lots of arrangements, and maybe it is good to take a day off from the mess, step away.
What tires me, what is stressful is not trusting that everything is okay, and everything will be okay. Learning that “even when I’m not okay, I’m okay.” Yes, I can see that. There is something below the whole process that hums along, that is okay. Be quiet enough to recognize that place, act from that place.
A congregation member recently remarked that it is difficult enough to accept some things, particularly difficulties, let alone to actually welcome them. Yet what a load off if we can just open the door every day and say welcome, regardless of what is knocking. That can certainly lead to an end of suffering. At the same time, it doesn’t work to use welcome as an exercise or strategy because we think then life will be easier. (A begrudging, “Hey, I don’t like you, but welcome, since welcome will help to reduce the stress.”)
My teacher recently said to me that acceptance is much deeper than resignation or accommodation. That keeps floating through my mind. I can almost reach it. I tend to look at things in a practical way, acceptance as a way to “manage my life,” to convince myself that everything is fine. I understand this is not what is meant. A deep acceptance or welcome arises from a ground of sufficiency, a trust that we already have what we seek. It is not as if we need to “find” welcome; it is always with us, we are just asked to open the door.
So perhaps at this moment I cannot welcome and I just want to stay in bed and listen to the rain, comfort myself. Good. See that desire and bow to it. I don’t need to follow. And perhaps tomorrow, bit-by-bit, I can welcome with a lightness. Hello, what’s up today? Good. See that and be thankful for the teaching. I have learned more about suffering and the cessation of suffering by watching the consequences of being batted around by circumstances like a ping pong ball. It’s the “mess” in our lives that teaches us, when we are ready to listen.
The Great Grief and The Serenity Prayer
by Rev. M. Seikai, December 2016
In Japanese Buddhism there is a term, kororo kanashiku, which is usually translated as ‘grief of the heart’; Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, my teacher, rendered it as “great grief”.
The Serenity Prayer is the common name for a prayer authored by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, (1892–1971). The best-known form is:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The Serenity Prayer, as many people are aware, has been popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous as part of its 12-step program of rehabilitation from alcohol addiction. But of course, it’s a prayer which lends itself to a multitude of circumstances, and as a home base to which all of us intuitively know that we need to return to frequently. Life, after all, throws us all sorts of curve balls which by nature we find difficult to accept.
Grief of the heart also has a wide spectrum of contexts in which it might be applied, but for my purposes here I’m using it to refer to a condition of mind and heart which recognizes that, as a whole, humankind is profoundly ignorant on a spiritual level. At times conditions in some part of the world flame up to illustrate the painful reality of this, often in the form of wars between nations, or civil wars, or enduring strife which can be traced to conflicting religious beliefs. Right now, at the end of 2016, there are as usual numerous such conflicts going on in the world, the worst one being in the nation of Syria. That particular conflict boldly illustrates the depths to which people can plunge when extreme religious, ethnic or nationalistic views clash amongst a diverse group of peoples confined to a relatively small region.
This kind of grief of the heart arises naturally for anyone who has trained themselves deeply; I assume it would be known in other religious paths, but I can only speak as a Buddhist. It comes about as a result of reaching a place spiritually of seeing clearly. The Buddha was quoted as saying that “Only a few people in this world see clearly, those who have little dust in their eyes.” Inherent in that clarity of vision is a wish for the well-being of all people and sentient beings, i.e. compassion. To be Buddhist is to vow to not cause harm to other beings, to do only good, and to do good for others—which is the definition of compassion, and the foundation on which we build our lives.
Without that foundation, what do you have? Probably competitiveness, trying to get ahead, trying to be on top; winning and domination—control. All the usual impure human motivations. To the extent that we can spot these motivations at work in our own lives, we can see the dust in our own eyes, and take steps to wash it out. To the extent that we wash it out, we can see the world as it truly is: void, unstained and pure, and, simultaneously, tragic, marked by ignorance and suffering, a place where human beings are born, given the opportunity to do good, to advance spiritually, and along the way make every possible kind of mistake.
At the moment I have a sense, which won’t go away, that the tide of making mistakes and causing harm is rising. Certainly there are many, many good people in the world doing their utmost to make the world better, to alleviate suffering for those around them. Then there are those who have so much dust that they are blind to causality, and leave a karmic wake wherever they go. I don’t pretend to understand how this all balances out, what makes the tide turn one way or another, or who, if anyone, decides these things. Be that as it may, in my life I’ve observed in American societal norms a gradual, steady increase in the ambient level of narcissism, negativity, greediness, and anger when things go wrong. I have a sense of the deterioration of society at large, and that it has an inexorable quality about it, meaning that in spite of all the good that so many people do, society is nevertheless slowly falling apart. On one level, this simply reflects the teaching of Buddhism that all component things ultimately reach their zenith and then begin to fall apart and disintegrate, and that this is a law of the universe. On another, more emotionally oriented level, it is the cause of great grief.
It is a teaching of Buddhism that the world we occupy is perfect as it is; it needs nothing added or taken away; its natural laws function perfectly at all times. It is, in the words of the Heart Sutra, which we chant every day, “void, unstained and pure.” If the world needs no improvement or saving, then what is all the fuss about? And if we can see things from that perspective, does that mean that we then will thereafter be apathetic with regard to human suffering in the world, and make no attempt to alleviate it? Are we just in it for ourselves, however lofty and noble our aspiration may be, or do we have an obligation, a duty, to do all that we can to help other beings? If the latter is true, then we have to somehow reconcile that we live in a world which, on the most essential spiritual level, is fine just as it is, but which on the level of causality working itself out everywhere at all times, is marked by suffering, unhappiness, unsatisfactoriness and often despair.
The challenge in this is to be able to hold the two vastly different perspectives and keep them somewhat balanced, one in one hand, so to speak, and the other in the other hand. And perhaps this is where the Serenity Prayer can be of real value. Accepting what we cannot change, which is just about everything, and being willing to change for the better what we can change, which is relatively little, and the wisdom of knowing the difference. It seems so simple and yet it is a very tall order. In the midst of it all, we have to surrender something—our insistence that things be a particular way, or even our desire for things to be better according to our particular set of values. And then again, maybe that is one form of desire that we shouldn’t give up altogether, lest we become too docile about the erosion of values or the decline of society. It is a tightrope; it is not easy. For me it is a conundrum at the best of times.
On the level of causality, of cause and effect, good and evil working themselves out, I have come to realize that I am grieving for America. At least to me, it seems that what it used to represent—an open society which welcomed immigrants; a nation which was not, on the whole, corrupt, in which democracy, however imperfect a system of government it might be, was viable and working—is gone. Not completely gone, but very stressed and fading. On a wide scale the three poisons which Buddhism recognizes as the major causes of suffering—greed, hatred and delusional thinking—have not just taken root but taken over our entire political culture. Through my eyes, we live in a corrupt nation. I have felt this since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, long before the election of November, 2016 put an exclamation point on it. So now I have to ask myself how I can live and work with great grief since it looks like it has become a fairly static component of my mental landscape.
Webster’s Dictionary defines grief as: deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement. In this case, what we are dealing with is poignant distress caused as if by bereavement, i.e. the death of the spirit of a nation in which one has spent ones entire life. To get anywhere in dealing with great grief, my first question is to ask what good grief is: why do we experience it in the first place? I found the following in an on-line search:
Grief responses are natural reactions when you experience loss and separation from those you love. They express three things:
1. Your feelings about the loss.
2. Your protest at the loss and your wish to undo it and have it not be true.
3. The effects you experience from the assault on you caused by the loss.
However, the ultimate goal of grief and mourning is to take you beyond these reactions to the loss. It requires your working actively on adapting to it. If you fail to adapt following a major loss, if you don’t accommodate to the change but persist as if the world is the same when it isn’t, then you are not responding to reality, and this is quite unhealthy. The therapeutic purpose of grief and mourning is to get you to the point where you can live with the loss healthily, after having made the necessary changes to do so. What must you do to get to this point? You must:
1. Change your relationship with your loved one—recognizing he now is dead and developing new ways of relating to him.
2. Develop a new sense of yourself to reflect the many changes that occurred when you lost your loved one.
3. Take on healthy new ways of being in the world without your loved one.
4 . Find new people, objects or pursuits in which to put the emotional investment that you once placed in your relationship with the deceased.
The bottom line of this active work of grief and mourning, therefore, is to help you recognize that your loved one is gone and then to make the necessary internal (psychological) and external (social) changes to accommodate this reality.
Taken from Therese A. Rando, How To Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies. New York: Bantam Books, 1991, pp 18-19. [From Legacy Connect, an on-line grief counseling service].
This is talking about grief as bereavement, the loss of a loved one, but maybe it has some application to kokoro kanashiku, the grief of the heart in a broader context when looking at the world. The key sentence is this one: “If you fail to adapt following a major loss, if you don’t accommodate to the change but persist as if the world is the same when it isn’t, then you are not responding to reality, and this is quite unhealthy.” What is tricky to untangle here is that, in the first place, you are already responding to reality on a deeper level than most of humankind normally does, and that is why you are feeling the great grief. It comes from seeing with clarity of vision how things actually are in the world, what the actual spiritual causes of human suffering are, and that to move beyond superficial remedies towards actually reducing suffering, one has to do the necessary spiritual work. Most people do not want to come face to face with this basic truth, and spend their entire lives avoiding it.
But meanwhile the above sentence is also saying that if we persist as if the world is the same when in fact it isn’t—that is unhealthy. This must also be true on a spiritual level, just as it is true on an emotional level of being. Then we need to move on to living with grief and mourning healthily, which implies that we cannot simply get rid of it, but accept that it is a part of what we feel, at least for the time being, and that what we feel has some sort of meaning. In this case, the grief I’m experiencing is connected to a sense of loss, within society at large, of a set of deeply held values which are based on compassion for all life. I’m not about to give up my set of values, but something has to shift somewhere in this picture. In other words, now it’s necessary to live in a world in which those with the most power and influence, and who control many aspects of public life, have a set of values diametrically opposite to mine. To a degree this has always been true, but suddenly the contrast has become all the greater.
The Serenity Prayer is addressed to God, which might present a problem for an atheist. If a person were comfortable praying to the compassion of the universe, as opposed to an idea of a personal God, then it might not matter. I pray to the compassion of the universe every day; in Buddhism that compassion is given a name: Avalokiteswara, Quan Shi Yin, or Kanzeon. I pray because I suffer, and I’d prefer to suffer less if at all possible. So, because the great grief that I’ve been describing is a form of suffering—or at least melancholy, unsatisfactoriness or unhappiness—prayer works for me. I pray as much because the very act of prayer is in itself comforting and healing, as I do in hopes of getting any sort of response. But actually, I do always get a response. It may not be what I might hope it to be, but it is nevertheless a response. Three days ago, in the midst of a plumbing problem, I was praying to Quan Yin for help. I did actually harbor a small hope that I might succeed in plugging up this particular water leak. In the end what happened was that the leak became dramatically worse, and I had to shut off the water to the entire temple. It was as if Quan Yin, who is associated with water, was saying “You want water? OK, here’s more water!” The next day I drove to get the necessary plumbing part and fixed it right. That was the real solution to the problem.
A lot of things in life seem to work out this way. I suspect the great grief is beckoning to us to look a little deeper, and perhaps reflect on the nature of human life, seeing some nuance that we might have missed before. For one thing, if grief becomes the impetus to pray more deeply, or meditate more deeply, then that would be a very worthwhile function of grief. That actually did happen to me for a few weeks recently following the election. A combination of circumstances forced me to draw on all my resources spiritually, and go to a deeper place—it was hard, but it was also good. And on another level, grief might be pointing us to look carefully at whether we are holding on too tightly to a cherished ideal. My teacher used to say that idealism is actually a form of delusion. In the years since then I’ve come to my own conclusion, which is that idealism is more like a necessary evil in life as opposed to a flat-out delusion: if we live with it, we suffer, but if we live without it, we are without direction or aspiration.
It always helps me to take as many steps back as possible, in the sense of gaining a broad perspective on what is happening at any given time. Human beings are spiritually ignorant and deluded in their thinking—nothing new there. All component things have their time of coming into being, of being young, then middle-aged and strong, but then declining and ultimately falling apart—nothing new there, either. Humankind advances slowly, if at all, and for every two steps forward we probably take one back, sometimes one and a half. Transience and impermanence are laws of the universe; what do we really expect, in the first place?
To view human life from a Buddhist perspective entails seeing that things come and go, but also that there is a lot of suffering going on in the human realm. The sensitivity that comes about as a result of practicing meditation and making a sincere effort to do as little harm as possible, to keep the Precepts, makes us feel suffering all the more acutely than if we continued to stumble our way through life without paying much attention to the harm we cause. That sensitivity to suffering is what I believe lies at the root of the great grief. And when we see things taking a turn in the direction of more suffering, it hurts just to witness it. So this is a kind of paradox in which, in our efforts to help reduce suffering in the world, we open ourselves up to feeling it that much more immediately. I do not have an answer for this paradox, other than to continue to do the best I can in my practice, continue to listen to my own heart and what it is pointing towards, and pray a lot.
Right now humankind is mired in victim-perpetrator karma. Individuals, groups of people, nations and whole races of people become entangled in alternately being the perpetrator and then the victim in the struggles and the fighting that go on all the time. I inherited a very large load of perpetrator karma from the life of someone who was a sexual predator and committed atrocities which are horrifying to contemplate. So I understand in a sort of first-hand way the kind of suffering that comes about from people who ardently pursue some sort of noble but delusional political and social agenda, which takes an enormous toll on individual human beings who are pawns in the giant chess game which perpetrators play. We seem to be entering another round of this in the tumultuous human realm, and because I know what’s coming, it’s simply painful to think about.
One hopeful sign is that people seem to be coming together, more and more, when these violent victim-perpetrator episodes play out, holding candle-light vigils, etc. I would like to think that there is a slowly increasing awareness that to react with anger or with a big backlash to the harm, violence and death which perpetrators create, then that creates more even harm and nothing much ever gets resolved. To break the vicious cycle of perpetrator and victim, someone has to stop and sit still. All of us need to “be the change we want to see in the world” by behaving in a way that doesn’t perpetuate the karma that otherwise bounces back and forth forever.
Generosity of spirit turns the mind from complaining and looking for fault in the direction of gratitude for what we have. Most people, when they disapprove of the government or some other group of people, spend their energy blaming and knocking down the other side. It’s a difficult habit to give up, but worth the effort. It isn’t that you turn a blind eye to the failings of government or society at large, but that you decide to be a force for positivity in the realm of negativity. This goes against the current, and you will always be in a minority, but such is life.
I created an acronym to help myself in this endeavor, CALM: Compassion, acceptance, loving kindness, merit. One could substitute meditation for merit, but either way it is a useful mantra to use at times when the brain is complaining about the world. I repeat the mantra to myself and offer it to those in positions of leadership. For me it takes the Serenity Prayer once step further, because knowing how little I can change the world, it is still something positive that I can do any day, any time. It helps me stay in the Divine Abodes of compassion and equanimity. Combined with the knowledge that everything which arises also passes away, that everything runs its course, makes it possible to ride the waves of karma and maintain a peaceful heart.
At the Root of the Problem There is Fear
By Rev. Master Seikai
The presidential election of 2016 is upon us. Certainly it has been the ugliest one in my lifetime; my memory extends back to the election of 1964. There has been quite a bit of commentary in the various types of print and on-line media about why the political climate in America has deteriorated to the extent that it has, why facts and truth no longer seem particularly relevant to political discourse, and why the presidential candidate of one of the two major political parties is a bombastic, narcissistic, shameless speaker of ridicule, insults and untruth. We can peel away the layers of why this is so, going from the most superficial, obvious reasons, to the less apparent but more causative forces which are at work, down to the core issues of why people behave as they do, the realm of psychology. That is usually where the analysis stops—just short of the spiritual, which is the essence of who we are.
I’m not a journalist and cannot write with any authority about the political theories and forces at work in America and the western world in the 21st century. By nature, I look at the core reasons why things are the way they are—my realm is the spiritual. Rarely does the world produce a person who is both engaged in politics and social causes on the one hand, and is rooted in a deeply spiritual view of human affairs on the other. Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) was one of those rare human beings. Of the hundreds of Gandhi quotes which were recorded during his life, this is the one which seems to have the most bearing on what is happening today: “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but really it is fear.”
Gandhi was addressing the political situation of his day in India. India was beginning to work for independence from Great Britain, and was going through the difficult transition of throwing off colonial rule and all the many forms of oppression and subjugation of its people which came with it. One of the key elements in India’s independence movement was breaking the salt monopoly which the British held at that time. Salt is one of life’s indispensable commodities: we cannot live without it. If a political power can monopolize salt, they then wield considerable power over the people dependent upon it. Gandhi himself showed people how to make salt in defiance of British authority, and was jailed for it. He went on a hunger strike in prison. Eventually he was released and the movement continued. Due to the efficacy of the non-violent resistance to subjugation which he advocated, the independence movement slowly gained momentum and force, and finally succeeded in 1947.
So putting Gandhi’s quote into context, he was in the midst of a struggle on the part of a vast portion of humanity, the Indian people, against a colonial power, Great Britain—a classic us and them situation. Under such circumstances there is always hate, and it usually works in both directions, from the victim towards the perpetrator and vice versa. As we all know, hatred is an intensified form of anger, and it usually ends in violence. Actually it doesn’t end, it continues, given that the victimized party seeks revenge in the form of another act or wave of violence, thus reversing the roles and becoming the perpetrator. Unless someone stops the endless cycle with understanding, self-control and non-violence, it goes on forever. What Gandhi perceived was that there was a powerful force operating underneath the hatred: fear.
Conservative and Liberal
Take any group of people, any society no matter how large or small, and people will naturally divide into two camps, conservative and liberal. I’ve wondered for a long time why this is; perhaps because there are so many dualities in ordinary life: night and day, left and right, up and down, past and future. Whatever the case, we can’t seem to get away from it in the human realm. This phenomenon has been subjected to scientific analysis in recent years, and the general conclusion is that conservatives and liberals think differently. They make completely different assumptions about what is ultimately good for their society. Since the foundations of thought are different, everything that follows is shaped by the basic frame of reference, the assumptions, and even the meanings of words.
Rev. Phoebe and I have been reading a book entitled Moral Politics, by George Lakoff*, who is a cognitive scientist. Lakoff studied why conservatives and liberals have such a difficult time talking with each other, let alone coming to any sort of agreement on government policy, or the best course to chart for the future of the country. He discovered that the two groups have two distinct meanings for the same words. He also discovered that everyone uses metaphorical language to describe the world, and that one group uses their own specific set of metaphors, while the other uses theirs. So it should come as no surprise that meaningful communication has effectively ceased—because everyone has different meanings in the first place. It is as if we speak a common language, English, but we still are in need of interpreters. It would be an interesting experiment to see if, let’s say in the deliberations of the Congress, or a presidential debate, an interpreter was present, who had no particular stake in the outcome, to decipher exactly what a speaker was trying to convey, and the assumptions they are making in the process.
Marriage counseling works the same way. The marriage counselor is acting as a go-between and interpreter to get to the bottom of why the two parties feel and experience the same events so differently. In this case, the underlying differences are less likely to be the result of a different set of word meanings, although that might be a factor, but that one person is male and the other female. Men and women simply have different motivations and feelings. In order for any marriage to be a success, they have to communicate effectively, learn to be empathetic, patient, and willing to resolve the inevitable differences in perception and values when they arise.
I’ve spent my whole adult life in the monastic environment, which can be viewed as an idealized environment in which everyone, hopefully, is working on themselves spiritually. But even here, politics exist and have to be reckoned with. My teacher idealized spiritual endeavor at the expense of the political, which was pushed to the side. This created a dichotomy in which the spiritual was good, and valued, while the mundane, the political, was given reduced value. The net result was that the monks were not trained in matters of politics, and it showed whenever there were group decisions to be made. If you have a system in which there is an authoritarian, powerful central figure who customarily makes decisions for everyone, then this system kind of works, at least for a while. But the minute you adopt a more democratic system of government, then you have dysfunction.
As it happens, George Lakoff uncovered two basic family models which he proposes serve as the underlying template for the conservative and liberal political philosophies. The conservative template is the family with a strong, central, authoritarian figure: the father. Father knows best, and everyone else needs to respect that authority. Children should be obedient. Eventually, when they reach adulthood, they should stand on their own two feet as autonomous adults, responsible for their own welfare. They are being prepared for life in a tough, unsympathetic world. The liberal template is that of the family with parents who, together, nurture the children. Although children should respect their parents’ authority and experience, parents’ actions are nevertheless subject to questioning and evaluation by the children. In order for children to grow up into being responsible adults, they need to witness nurturing and compassion in action. They need to understand the whys and wherefores. Both templates have discipline and respect for authority in them, and both have nurturing in them, but the preeminence of the two is reversed.
I think Lakoff’s model has validity. Like any theory, it can’t explain everything about the differences between strikingly different political philosophies, but it goes a long way to help explain why things are as they are now, politically, and serves as a very useful springboard to finding ways to bridge the communication gap. If the hypothetical debate moderator, or interpreter, was conversant with Lakoff’s basic thesis, they might have some success in helping the two sides develop some understanding, and perhaps even sympathy each for the other.
If we look at how societies in the first world have been evolving over the past few generations, it seems pretty clear that they are moving slowly from the conservative template in the direction of the liberal one. You couldn’t possibly broadcast a television program called Father Knows Best and have a wide audience take it seriously. It would probably be ridiculed as hopelessly passé. But I can imagine that, for people who still think in conservative metaphors, their underlying belief that this is how things really should be has come under attack over the past 50+ years since that show was aired. They feel beset by eroding societal mores, and lament the loss of a time when there was more discipline in the home. Conservative pundits have said as much. The rise of feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment, the AIDS epidemic and the eventual acceptance of gay marriage, and the constantly shifting social relationships of the computer age all say to the conservative mind: our values are under attack and we need to fight back.
The liberal set of metaphors, meanwhile, includes Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, a widely accepted scientific theory. Applied to the realm of human civilization—the very term suggests a movement from wild or untamed towards domestic and civilized—one can very easily make the assumption that society, on the whole, is moving towards reduced racism, elevated human rights and greater social justice; equal opportunity in education and employment; the labor movement; gender equality; and benevolent governance. A march of progress. These after all have been the great social causes in the American experience, things for which people have fought long and hard, and continue to do so. And it is very easy to assume that this set of values is right or more advanced than a conservative set of values, which may not see things this way at all. So the experience of the past few decades, in which that set of values seems to be eroding, says to the liberal mind: our values are under attack and we need to fight to retain them.
Is there one political philosophy which is right and one which is wrong? Both sides assume their side is right, or more just, or more ideal. As in Gandhi’s India, there is an other, an opponent to be fought. The American political system, the two-party system, in fact sets the stage for an adversarial method of governance, in which the tide of battle inevitably swings back and forth as one side advances and the other retreats. Sometimes the bitterness of it swells up and you have a situation such as our current one, featuring anger, misunderstanding, condemnation at every opportunity, and precious little cooperation. And as Gandhi said, we think the problem is anger, but really it is fear. We fear, then despise the Other.
Desire and Fear
Fear has a partner in crime: desire. Lots of things in life are desirable, and when they slip away or become unobtainable, we become afraid. It is pretty much a natural progression in the way the human mind works. I believe this hard wiring of the brain comes from our natural instinct for survival; we want to live, we want security, we want enough food, we want our family members and friends around us—and then when those things are threatened, we become afraid. We also become angry, but the anger is a beat behind the fear, as Gandhi pointed out.
In the political world, people desire all kinds of things, but they are all based on values—wanting America to be strong and lead the world; wanting to go back to a former time when life was simpler, there was more respect and discipline and morality; wanting to simply save the planet from becoming inhospitable as a result of a rapidly rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; wanting to extend universal health care coverage to everyone, regardless of social standing or income; wanting to rev up the economy so that times are good once again, and everyone has money, preferably lots of it. The list goes on. But now, in 2016, it looks like no one is going to actually succeed in getting any of it. The frustration and bitterness of a dysfunctional system of government is boiling over. We simply cannot get what we want anymore, and that impotence has given rise to an empty slogan: Make America Great Again.
I also think that the subliminal level of fear in America increased by an exponential factor after 9/11. I’m writing this on the 15th anniversary of that infamous event, so there are many retrospectives being put forward in popular news media. They all serve to remind us that we no longer can rest easy in the knowledge and comfort that we live in a safe world—never mind that statistics supposedly paint a somewhat more nuanced picture, and that the world actually is safer than it used to be. The fear of Islamic fundamentalism and its associated terrorism has created a new Public Enemy #1, the new Other. An entity which you are entitled to hate, and vent whatever anger and rage you have about it. All of this proceeds from a primal fear that it could happen again, that we’re not really safe—just look at mass shootings perpetrated by Islamic extremists—and that the only really effective response is to fight back.
On the other hand, we could try not being afraid. Unfortunately, there is no government program for reducing fear. There is no anti-fear propaganda, propaganda by definition being a tool in the hands of those who master the art of using fear to manipulate human beings. We have to turn elsewhere for a solution to the problem of fear—ideally, you’d think, to religion. Or at least some sort of methodology—psychology, self-improvement, martial arts, whatever. And before that we must acknowledge and become aware that we are, in fact, afraid.
Having devoted my life to Buddhism and meditation practice, I don’t know any other way to accomplish this. There might be other ways, but I’m not familiar with them. Fear is something that tends to lie hidden in the mind, and acts as a silent motivator. Just to see it requires learning to sit still. If you can sit still enough to allow fear to actually come to the surface of the mind, then you can begin the painstaking process of letting its energy dissipate, but it isn’t an easy thing to do. Fear is a bully, and its energy is a chasing, demanding energy, forcing us to do things we are dimly aware we shouldn’t be doing. Sitting still with anger energy can be like riding a bull, actually. The good thing is that even a bull eventually gets tired. And even a bull can be tamed.
The experience of the past 15 years should have long since shown us that no external agency can actually make our lives safe and make fear go away. No politician has any business promising that they can achieve this, no matter how much money is spent in the process. I recently read a magazine article in The Atlantic, which asked the question: Since 9/11 we have spent a trillion dollars to defend against terrorism, but are we any safer as a result? The result of the writer’s research was that, in some ways, yes, we’re safer; but on the whole, there’s only so much anyone, or any agency, can do about it. In the end, we are all vulnerable.* To this conclusion I would add: so there’s nothing for it but to learn not to be afraid.
In my monastic life I spent years learning this. I had to watch my fear come to the surface of my mind, look it right in the eye and stare it down. It is an essentially lonely, individual process of spiritual growth and unfolding. It helps to have someone you can look to as an example of one who has let go of fear, and learned to live without it. There aren’t many such people, but they do exist. If there were (or are) group activities which can help people cultivate fearlessness, I’d be all for them. Ultimately, we are afraid of harm to our physical selves, and death. This means that, at the root of it, we have to learn to go into situations not caring if we come out alive.
There is harm to our physical selves, and then there is harm to our emotional, “me” selves. They aren’t fundamentally separate, and usually the me self is the one which makes the most noise. It is enormously liberating to reach a point within yourself where you don’t care whether the me self lives or dies. However much noise it makes in the mind about its own supposed self-preservation, if you can say to it that you don’t care whether it lives or dies, and that you’re simply plumb tired of it, you can, in that moment, transcend the self. It isn’t a matter of defeating or conquering it so much as a matter of letting its noise, self-pity, and attempts at self-preservation die out from a lack of energy being put into it.
An Aside on the Nature of Politics
Most Buddhists seem to stay away from politics. It might be different in Asia, where Buddhism is the predominant religion in several Southeast Asian nations, but meanwhile in America it seems that virtually all Buddhists are liberals politically. This is not surprising given that Buddhism puts primary emphasis on compassion for all life, and as George Lakoff asserts, the compassionate, nurturing family model is the basis of liberal thinking. But there is a conundrum embedded in this. Buddhist morality suggests refraining from criticizing others or speaking ill of others—which is virtually impossible to do in the realm of politics. So, how can you be engaged politically and still live as morally pure a life as possible? On the face of it, it doesn’t look possible, and hence the reluctance of Buddhists to even try.
It is also virtually impossible to write about politics for the same reason. I started out this article calling Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president, bombastic, narcissistic, etc. It’s a true statement, given the meanings normally assigned to those words. But where does calling a spade a spade end, and speaking ill of others begin? There is no clear boundary as such, only a gray area. Politics is very subjective; it doesn’t lend itself to hard and fast rules like physics, for instance, or accounting. In other words, it is a morass where morality is concerned. This gives a natural advantage to those who are less restrained in their offensive, intentionally damaging remarks. The only way a more disciplined, morally circumspect politician can gain the approval of the general public versus a loudmouth is if the general public has a relatively high moral awareness and sensitivity in the first place. That very thing has been deteriorating in America for some time, making it possible for the aforementioned candidate to win the primary slugfest and emerge as his party’s candidate.
I could easily write an article taking apart conservative political concepts as absurd, and promoting liberal ones, but that would completely miss the point. The point is that it is very difficult not to be part of the problem of pervasive negativity if you are engaged in angry speech—or even more analytical, objective speech (or writing) which takes apart one of the two main political paradigms and exposes it as absurd, backward, unenlightened, or any set of characteristics which will appear to be negative. It will just be one more political opinion piece. My main purpose is to talk about fear as an underlying force which skews our ability to see clearly, and everyone suffers from this to some degree, left and right. On this level, the bedrock level of being human, we are all basically the same: fear is a wrecking ball.
Given the nature of the Trump campaign, there has been a wide ranging discussion in news media of its similarities to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s. It has been a criticism leveled at the German people that, during the decades of the 30s, they were far too passive about the rise of Adolph Hitler, and should have spoken out against him. If that is true, it suggests that under certain circumstances, the morally right thing to do is speak out as loudly as possible against a potentially great evil. Some people in America are trying to do this today. Part of the problem is that we have the benefit of hindsight where Nazi Germany is concerned, and it may have not been apparent, or seemed likely, during much of the 30s that Adolph Hitler was about to start of war of aggression and attempt to exterminate an entire race of people in the German homeland. On the other hand, perhaps, if the German people had not been afraid of the Nazis in the first place, it wouldn’t have happened. Whatever the case, there are a lot of people in America right now who are very worried that there are enough similarities that we, as a nation, are in deep trouble.
My teacher said repeatedly that there is no absolutely karma-free way to live. You have to have the courage of your convictions and act accordingly, and be mature enough to accept the karmic consequences of those actions, whatever they may be. She would say that Buddhism is not a religion for children, using that word metaphorically. It’s no easy matter to navigate the world, as it is today, with a high level of moral awareness and sensitivity. I often think that my only ambition for the rest of my life is to stay sane in a world gone mad. It’s just possible that none of us can really aspire to much more than this, given that the forces at play are so great. Even the Buddha himself was unable to stop a war between his homeland of Kapilavastu and a neighboring kingdom, in which most of his kinsmen were wiped out—and he did try. This underscores another point which the Buddha often made, which is that the world is a rough place, and life is fleeting. However high our ideals may be, it is likely that the ill-natured aspect of human existence will subject them to a beating. That does not mean we should not have high ideals, only that we should hold them lightly, and lovingly, and not expect anyone else to live by them. Buddhism is a religion for spiritual adults, my teacher used to say.
The future of our world may be bleak. We might elect a crazed narcissist president, and then again we might not, but either way, there are forces which have been unleashed which will play out their energy and have their due effect. The Buddhist law of karma dictates that, whenever there is willful action, there are inescapable consequences. The cumulative effect of, for instance, a century of fossil fuel burning, is beginning to play out in the form of climate change, violent weather episodes, drought, and a rising sea level. The best we could hope for at this point is to mitigate the severity of those consequences. The world also appears to be spoiling for a fight, and it may or may not be avoidable; but the thing we can do which is of the most benefit to humankind is to not be afraid. If you are not afraid, it means that you do not really care whether you live or die. It means that you are willing to work for the good of the world and of all living creatures within it, knowing full well that it might make no difference on the larger scale. But on the smaller scale of our own lives and the people we come into contact with, we can make a difference.
Some years ago I had a vivid spiritual experience of seeing that fear and desire exist as a mutually reinforcing pair of forces—forces of the mind. They do a little dance together, a little chase, actually. It is like the merry chase of the pig, the cock and the snake depicted in the very center of the Tibetan Wheel of Life genre of painting. And having seen that this is how things work, I can come back to the place of fearlessness, knowing that external security is an illusion, and that the only true security lies within ones own Buddha Nature. There is no real peace to be found outside of the mind, and we should let go of the idea that any politician, political philosophy or political system can provide it. We cannot avoid politics, but neither should we place any hope in them. Without hope and expectation, we will not be disappointed; the only true peace is found within yourself, at the center of your being.
By Sally Brown
I’m tired. Not all the time, but enough so that I can not depend on not being tired. There are days when it seems relentless, and other hours where I think it is all in my head.
The strange thing is, I have never been happier. Happier because of all that I am learning about myself and Buddhist practice.
The other day I woke up with the mantra ‘I’m tired’ as the first thought of the morning. I opened my eyes and decided to lay there for a few moments. I usually get right up and get going – tea, reading, meditation, and on to the day. But this morning I lay there and looked out the window. Really taking a good deep look. It was beautiful. About four different colors with many shades of each blending together in a stormy sky, broken by the morning sun. It was so beautiful. If I hadn’t been tired, I would have missed it.
I remember when I first went to Shasta Abbey, before coming to Pine Mountain, we would have meditation periods, work periods, eating times, resting time, tea with talks, and more meditation. There was a schedule that had to be kept. At first I wanted to accomplish the task at hand, finishing perfectly to the end. Show everyone how good I was because I could accomplish. (It has taken me years to understand that this is a habit, not a necessity of life.) A bell would ring, or someone would look at a clock and whatever we were working on had to be stopped, finished or not, tools put away, and on to the next item on the schedule. It sent shock waves through my system to Not Finish The Task. Finally I learned the wisdom behind the training and I use it now with tiredness. When I start to sink, when my body says enough, when the interior bell rings – I stop. It isn’t always comfortable or convenient; sometimes I fight it, but I ask myself, is what I’m doing that important? How quickly can I get out of where I am and get to a resting place? Isn’t tending to my life force more important than finishing the task? Well, yes. Aren’t we here to listen to our Buddha Nature?
I was swamped with visitors this year. All were welcomed and wanted, and nobody overlapped. Where I live we have what feels like three months of summer and everyone wants to come then. So I was fortunate to have the proper spacing, but it did take a toll. One set of visitors were family members with whom I have things to work out. Each year I want more from them – more time, more conversation, more signs of affection – you name it. This year, because I was going slow, I thought I would try to do things differently. What if I was very pleased and happy with whatever was offered? Enjoy the moments I had? Forget about what I wanted, deserved, craved? It occurred to me then, that this is one of the basic principles of Buddhist teaching – giving up wants and desires to find true happiness. Because, believe me, there were few enough pleasurable moments and I was out to enjoy each and every nanosecond of them all! Wow, did that feel good! Pure loving happiness. It was difficult, for sure, to ask for nothing, to find ways to give joy (freshly made pesto!), and not fall back on the old wants and desires routine. I did it because I was too tired to beg for more. I took a step forward with the edgy relationships – going slower helped that come about.
I am not suggesting that anyone ‘get tired’ as a way to enlightenment. I am working to find out what is causing this state and get out of it. It is difficult on my mind. Now I try not to be involved in the community. I don’t volunteer to do fun things. Say no nicely. Tell friends I’ve had enough and need to go home. But I can do what I can do and that has turned out to be something I’ve wanted to do for years – sorting out and finding new homes for stuff that has accumulated in the house for the last 40 years. This is a huge task – right? Looks immense. So big I haven’t been able to touch it in all those 40 years. So, in keeping with the theme of going slow, I take an item, or a category (e.g. embroidery supplies) and find someone who wants or needs it. One item at a time. I am very slowly making space. I am cleaning out not only material objects that clutter my life, but psychic clutter as well. Once all those things that are not used or are held for memory value only are gone, what will come in? What will be left? Who can I be? I’m excited by the wonder. It feels like becoming a kid again. Emptying out and letting my Buddha Nature fill the space. I would never have started on a journey of this depth if it hadn’t been for the depth of the tiredness.
I am tired, and I am grateful for it.