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.