Archive | October 2013

Words, Boundaries, and Illusions

I am disillusioned with language in general.  My main issue is with descriptions and distinctions are no more than linguistic conveniences. Any international border, for example, is linguistically meaningless. “This grain of sand belongs to Idaho and this other grain belongs to British Columbia.” Doesn’t that even sound stupid? The distinction is artificial at best and totally illusory at worst.

 Words are necessary. How else could you say, “I’m thirsty. Please get me a cup of water,”? That’s how communication occurs and needs get met. That’s what words are for. 

The reality, however, is more interconnected than that. The distinction between groups of people is, like the grains of sand, artificial or perhaps even illusory. Everyone is related, if you go far enough back. Scary but true.

 The problems occur when we take what we say as real. Words are concepts. Dennis Genpo Merzel says:

“Without concepts we find ourselves unbounded, undefined; and our greatest fear is to live without boundaries, without definitions. Of course, when we have no boundaries, we are vulnerable. Everyone, everything can come in….First we define ourselves: me versus you, me against not-me….One day we turn around and we realize what we have done: we have imprisoned ourselves. We can keep the world out, now we are stuck inside.” (The Eye Never Sleeps: Striking to the Heart of Zen, p. 118)

 This is the misery of it all: instead of using words to communicate with and free each other, we use it to deceive ourselves and others into living in a self-imposed prison. We need to use language to free each other, not to impose power and control. Language is a means to connect. When it is used to dis-connect us, it serves no useful purpose and can be abandoned with no negative consequences.

                

Random Acts and Holy Fools

“The Four Wisdoms –Offering, Tenderness (Kind Speech), Benevolence, and Sympathy (Identification) –are the ways that we can help others, and these are the practices of a bodhisattva. Benevolence means to devise ways of benefiting others, no matter what their social position.” From buddhistdoor.com

Remember a few years ago, when people came up with “random acts of kindness”? We can all do these things. I try to find ways to bless people, or at least not be pains in their keesters. These are practices of a bodhisattva.

I believe in the concept of “holy fools”. Orthodoxy (and many world religions, including Buddhism) has the idea of someone that always goes around doing good and violating social norms. It looks sort of like benevolent political incorrectness. It is absurdity for the benefit of others. To argue against the holy fool is to argue for the maintenance of a dysfunctional status quo. The holy fool is free from the need of others’ approval, making them a nightmare for emotional manipulators. The holy fool is rebelling against stupidity in whatever form it may take, not necessarily against authority figures (that is, unless the authority figure in question happens to be stupid).

Let’s go out today and do something helpful for someone, even and especially if others disapprove.

What is Arising?

“Just forget yourself for now and practice inwardly—this is one with the thought of enlightenment. We see that the sixty-two views are based on self. So when a notion of self arises, sit quietly and contemplate it.” Eihei Dogen’s Guidelines for studying the Way [Gakudo yojin-shu], Ed Brown & Kazuaki Tanahashi ©San Franscisco Zen Center, 1985

I try to continuously practice my concept of “mindfulness,” which is noticing everything, including and especially those unconscious urges to move or think about something in particular.

 For example, yesterday I helped a friend with her resume. This was after an emotionally exhausting last day at church. Part of me thought, “I’m not sure I’m up to this.” But then I thought, “I’ll just see how it goes and be available to help her as much as possible.” I was able to notice a few things on the “Michigan Works” website she had missed and could explain them to her. I was willing to wait while she struggled to use my laptop without a mouse. I was commended for my patience by an observer.

 But what is patience? I had urges to do specific things for her and simply did not act on them so she could learn them for herself, as I had done a few years back. Thoughts arose and went away. Zazen teaches us to feel things fully and to not necessarily act upon any impulse. If you must scratch that itch, at least notice every impulse and sensation that goes with the itch. This is not passivity, but the deliberate cultivation of discernment and self-control.

 

 

“Buddhism is a process of discovery, not a list of principles. There is no book of Buddhist principles. Buddhism is about realization. It is about transformation of consciousness. It means throwing everything out, including Buddhism, and going very deep within yourself to find the foundations of your life. And once you have done that, to learn to live your life out of that which has been realized—not what you’ve been told you should or shouldn’t do.” Wisdom Seeking Wisdom, Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi, True Dharma Eye, Case 24, Xuansha Hears the Sound of a Swallow

 

I’ve learned (the hard way, of course) over the years that very few people are willing to “go deep” within themselves to find the foundations of their lives. We want a ready-made foundation. Religions claim to provide that. The problem is that they are someone else’s foundation, oftentimes based on long-dead cultures.

 Today was my last Sunday of church attendance. It seemed fitting that it was “Oxi” day, when the Greeks said no to something in the past. I don’t recall, let alone care, what that may be. Today, I said “oxi” to their traditions and the attitude of “that’s just the way we have always done things.”

 To dig deep to find your own foundation is to say, “Your foundation is not mine. Your traditions are not mine.” It is deeply insulting to those who believe they have the unique, universal answer to people’s spiritual questions.

 I still know nothing. I possess no knowledge. I expect honesty and transparency. I can’t not ask questions. At this point, these few things are enough to disqualify me from ever being an orthodox Christian again.

 

 

 

Church End

Tomorrow is my last day at church. It feels weird to say that. I feel excited and a little sad at the same time. I like the idea of being true to myself and not pretending anymore to believe things simply on the basis of someone else’s opinion or supposed “authority.”  Not pretending will be refreshing. I would grieve more except that I have done my grieving over the past several years. Also, it is difficult to grieve over the loss of a one-way relationship. I got along fabulously with everyone else, as long as I fulfilled all of their expectations and had none of my own. You mean that I will no longer be giving and not receiving anymore? Phew.

 Every end is a beginning and every beginning an end. Barry’s health is continuing its downward march. In a few weeks, we see Hamdan the oncologist. It’s only a matter of time before the other shoe drops. 

I mentioned Virginia to Barry in an off-hand sort of way. It’s my way of planting a seed in his brain that I am leaving Michigan after he is gone. I am tired of pretending that I will live here indefinitely.

 I don’t know who or what I am, but I am done pretending, being fake, and getting nothing. I can get nothing anywhere. Wait a minute. I already do.

No Promises or Debates

“This is part of what I like about Zen: using impermanence to your advantage. Skillful means are meant to help you appreciate the present moment. Once you are in the moment, the means can be abandoned. There is no promise or debate regarding eternal security.” The Direct Experience of Reality, Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori, Roshi 

Loori expresses my sentiment: gratitude and relief that even the means of Zen are disposable. “No attachments” applies to everything. Once you’ve crossed the lake, you don’t need to strap the canoe to your back. Means can be adapted to circumstances when necessary.

“No promises or debates” is a big part of what I appreciate about Zen. I spent too many years as a Christian in the realm of promises and debates. When a religion is language-heavy and action-short, after a while, all I hear is, “Blah, blah, blah.” I’ve spent too much of my life already listening to theological debates and believing unfulfilled promises. Zen makes no promises. Your life is what it is.

You deal with it openly and honestly and, even if your life does not dramatically improve instantly, you help create a less chaotic world. By taking responsibility for oneself, the world becomes more tractable. Changing others’ opinions is never part of the equation. When people see your life becoming simpler and more manageable, that speaks for itself more eloquently than any form of evangelization ever could.

 

 

 

Settling

“Anyway, the point is that the path of Zen goes from here to here and what we learn to do is be what we are – stay put, in other words. Does that mean that the practice suggestion is to sink, soak, slobber, and slump into a melancholy stuckness? No way! Sit up in it earnestly. Does that mean that the practice suggestion is to fight, figure, fidget and find just the right spiritual technique that will free us from stuckness? No way! Sit down in it earnestly.” Stuck! Oh, the Path of Zen,Posted by: Dosho Port September 29, 2013

This instruction is purely obnoxious to those who think meditation, religion, or anything else, for that matter, is for “getting somewhere” that they are not now.

This instruction is about settling, down not for. If something in your life is not working, then by all means, take steps to remedy it. Meditation is likely to offer insights and/or clarity for the path of fixing things. But as long as the mind is uncontrolled, it can be difficult to know what is needed, let alone the equanimity to pull it off.

 

 

Keeping Silent

 “Keeping silent and refraining from discussing the Way is a truly extraordinary practice. This is hearing what is impossible to hear, encountering what is impossible to encounter.” Planting Flowers on a Rock, Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori Roshi, True Dharma Eye, Case 232

Part of what attracted me to Buddhism was its emphasis on silence and its investigation of the mind. It labeled even thoughts as a form of mind-talk. True silence is about more than not babbling.

As a spiritual seeker, I saw that the what of religions varied widely (gods or atheistic, hierarchical versus more democratic, etc.), but the how of various religions was eerily similar. For example, the average day of a Buddhist monk and a Jesuit monk are so much alike that they could probably switch lives without a glitch. I have even heard the theory that Christian monasticism is based on Buddhist, due to the variety of cultures all living in the Middle East in Jesus’ time and the centuries immediately following. It would make sense. After all, Buddhism is a good half a millennium older than Christianity.

Silence is one of those universal values. Refraining from unnecessary conversation is almost always helpful. Much talk is useless, serving no purpose other than to paste over an uncomfortable silence. Personal depth often has an inverse relationship with a person’s chattiness. There is something to be said for the “still waters run deep” personality. When they speak, people listen.

 

 

 

Detachment

“The essence of the Way is detachment. And the goal of those who practice is freedom from

appearances. The sutras say, Detachment is enlightenment because it negates appearances.” Bodhidharma’s Wake-Up Sermon translated by Red Pine

 

This is similar to Faith in Mind, where it says that the way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. This ideal of detachment looks a little dreary to those addicted to excitement, I’m sure.

 

However, to those of us tired of the emotional roller coaster, it is a breath of fresh air and independence. Who wants to be one of those nasty people that leave ugly comments at the end of articles? True equanimity comes from not being emotionally invested in a situation. When you value peace above opinions, serenity is yours for the taking. Emotional manipulation of someone who accepts any and all outcomes is impossible.

 

I believe the reason to go beyond appearances is so important is that appearances can change at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, our interconnectedness doesn’t go anywhere. Get rid of an appearance here and, lo and behold, it pops up over there. What have to be gotten at are the causes of the appearances in the first place. There is no point screwing with a symptom that has no choice but to return.

 

The world is changing extremely quickly. Any appearance you are emotionally attached to is likely to dissolve. What you can do is to investigate more deeply into the themes of change and choose what changes you wish to be a part of. The flip side is that you need to make yourself stable enough to deal with all the changes that occur in the meantime. That’s where detachment and equanimity come in.  Today’s change agents are the ones that have the flexibility and margin to absorb the changes they create.

The World Needs Authenticity

“The world needs you. It needs you free of pretense; it needs you as you are; it needs you brave and loving.” —Roshi Joan Halifax

It is so hard to be pretense-free in a world that rewards conformity. The only way I can think of to do it is to live so simply that 1) I have nothing worthy of theft and 2) I can easily find a job to support my simple lifestyle (not be held hostage by a certain size of paycheck). I want to have the freedom to take time off or just be human and occasionally catch a cold.

I have begun my journey to being pretense-free by quitting church in a couple of weeks. It just got too hard to continually act like “it’s all good” when it hasn’t been good in years. I don’t know what I think or believe anymore and acting like I do is phony and exhausting. Putting on my church face every week is just not worth it. Some environments are just not authenticity-friendly.