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.