Category Archives: Buddhism

The Practice of Contemplative Photography

The Practice of Contemplative Photography

by Andy Karr and Michael Wood

Shambhala Publications

As some of you may know, I am a bit of an amateur photographer. I came acrossed this book a year or two ago when I was browsing the Shambhala website, looking at what books they had upcoming. I was sent a digital copy of this book for review, but decided right away to buy it. This is huge. Other than my school books, I haven’t bought a brand new book in years. But this was extraordinary from the first images I saw. Plus, it’s a photography book. You need to hold this thing in your hand.

But it would be wrong to call this just a photography book, or just a book aimed at photographers. All students of Buddhism could appreciate this book. And that’s because contemplative photography isn’t about photography, it’s about seeing. It is a practice that directs our awareness away from conceptual thinking, and focuses it into an art form. From the book:

The practice of contemplative photography connects us with this nonconceptual awareness and strengthens that connection through training. The practice itself has three parts, or states. First we learn to recognize naturally occurring glimpses of seeing and the contemplative state of mind. Next we stabilize that connection through looking further. Finally we take photographs from within that state of mind.

The pictures alone in this book are worthy of any coffee table, certainly. But when a closer look is taken, the images inspire and help you to focus on the ordinary in extraordinary ways. I can’t reccomend this book enough. Again, this book is not just for photographers, but for everyone who wishes to see clearly.

But for the photographers out there, the book offers five different “assignments” to help in this art form. I’ve included some of the photos I’ve taken below for each different assignment.

Light

Color

Texture

Space

Simplicity

If you’re looking for more on contemplative photography, please visit the following sites:

Seeing Fresh – a website set up as sort of an extension of the book. There are discussions happening there, as well as a place where you can upload your own photos for the different assignments. I have a few photos up there too.

Shambhala Archives – Chögyam Trungpa’s photography – a collection of the late master’s work

Measart – a great photographer that has some very vivid contemplative photography

Dharma/Arte – A Brazillian (site is in both Portuguese and English) site that blends art, creativity, and dharma. A wonderful project.

108 Zen Books Tumblr blog – another dharma practitioner’s artful tumblr blog

Video of an Interview with author Andy Karr on Shambhala Sunspace

Seer Seeing Seen – my friend Shane’s tumblr blog with some great photography

Of course, there’s my tumblr blog where I post my photos and other dharma tidbits as well.

And on October 15th, there will be a live broadcast on the web with author Andy Karr. Click here for more information on that. 

Cheers.

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What I’ve come to understand of karma

“Monks, these four types of kamma have been directly realized, verified, & made known by me. Which four? There is kamma that is dark with dark result. There is kamma that is bright with bright result. There is kamma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result. There is kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.

“And what is kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma? Right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is called kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.”

~ from the Ariyamagga ( or Noble Path) Sutta

“Now what, monks, is old kamma? The eye is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. The ear… The nose… The tongue… The body… The intellect is to be seen as old kamma, fabricated & willed, capable of being felt. This is called old kamma.

“And what is new kamma? Whatever kamma one does now with the body, with speech, or with the intellect: This is called new kamma.

“And what is the cessation of kamma? Whoever touches the release that comes from the cessation of bodily kamma, verbal kamma, & mental kamma: This is called the cessation of kamma.

And what is the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma? Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is called the path of practice leading to the cessation of kamma.

~ From the Kamma (Karma) Sutta

Many of the Western lay Buddhists I’ve come in contact with over the internet have taken an agnostic or atheistic approach to the central doctrines of karma and rebirth in Buddhism, labeling them “mystical” or “supernatural” and therefore often discarding them almost completely. I’ve never been able to do this as rebirth (or probably better, re-becoming) and karma are found countless times throughout the sutras, in both the Pali and Mahayana cannons.

After trying to wrap my mind around how these two doctrines work, if they work, what that means, if they can be proven etc.. I just gave up on them both for awhile. But after reading through The Wings to Awakening, I stumbled on the excerpt up at the top, and suddenly things started to make sense.

However, I didn’t really have a desire to understand karma on a metaphysical level. Instead what I’m interested in is how it affects me in the here and now, and what I should be doing about it. I figure the more profound insights will happen as they happen, all in due time and when I’m able to take up a formal meditation practice once again.

So what I’ve come up with is more of a practical survey on karma, one that will keep me “mindful” (*puke* – I hate that word!) of karma as I continue to create it. It seems to me that karma is simply that which binds one to samsara, to re-becoming. We do this through our identification with the skandas, and living in ingnorance of impermance, and the dukkha that surrounds us.

The odd thing about samsara though, is that it appears to provide a cure to itself in the form of itself. This is why we reach out for it, crave more of it, and cling to it. Our constant wandering about this world, running from one experience to the next in order to scratch the itch is probably best explained by comparison to a drug addict. The best cure for an addict is rehab, and this is where Buddhist practice hits us right in the gut.

Ending karma is the work of ending the mental conditions we’ve come to associate with everything. Often I see discussions about non-attachment to money, or power, or fame, or worldly possessions. These are all no doubt valuable endevours. But they also fall short of that ultimate mark. What about your attachment to your skin? Your view of the thing you’re looking at right now as a “computer screen”? This is why renunciation doesn’t solve all of your problems. Even a monk in retreat still has to deal with the issue of “trees”, “fart”, “feet” “wet” “ground”. These are the type of attachments that ultimately create our most incredible dukkha, the dukkha that keeps us bound to the conventional world.

I write this post not as a “what karma is” type of post. This isn’t instructional. This is simply a statement of where it is that I’ve been focusing my thoughts around Zen at. I’m simply not interested in what the ultimate answers to the karma and rebirth questions are. At this point in time, I’m more concerned about how they play out in real life, in my day-to-day struggle to maintain a Buddhist practice. Understanding deeply the process of rebirth and how I was an ocelot in a previous life isn’t going to get me very far, at least not at this point. But understanding that it is these mental fetters that keep me stuck in the conditional world, now that is something I can work with.

Cheers.

 

 

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Empty Bowl

Infuriated with the stress of it all, the student closed his laptop in anger. He got up from the flat wooden chair, stretched his back and wondered out loud “what good is it all?” He wondered what good any of this talk of “Buddhism” ever got him. What good any of this “Zen” had ever done for him. For all his talk little benefit could shine through at that moment.

“Where is this Zen?” he thought. “What good are these koans I keep in my head, or the effort to focus on my breath and turn down the chatter in my mind that only returns moments later? Where is this Zen?”

He turned and saw an empty metal bowl on the floor that his son had been playing with earlier. Now it sat among the quiet clutter of midnight, reflecting the lone light left on for the student to work by. In that moment the Universe expanded forever, eternally empty was the vessel without name. Shining. Brilliant and Empty. Form with no form stretched across the cosmos until –

“Bowl”

Of course it was a bowl. But when it was a bowl, it was no longer empty. Filled it was again. Stories of Japanese masters pouring tea and chopping wood filled the student’s head. Now he wondered “what happened to this zen?”

Now he looked at the bowl deeply. It was empty, and he knew that, but it wasn’t the same knowledge of the bowl he had moments prior when all that he knew of the bowl dropped away. He tried to get back there again, but realized the folly in that pursuit.

What now was he left with? Ahh! Before, it was no longer a bowl. Then once it was a bowl, it was distorted. Bowlness, he thought, was all that could be thought about the bowl tonight.

The student turned off the light and went to bed.

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Lost in Translation

 

“Suffering, as a noble truth, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering — in short, suffering is the five categories [aggregates] of clinging objects.”

This is the 1st noble truth (1NT) as translated from the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta {Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth} as you often see it. Now, maybe I’m overstepping my bounds in calling this into question. I am but a novice when it comes to Buddhism. I don’t know Pali or Sanskrit, can’t read anything in any Asian character. As far as my foreign language goes, I know about 14 sentences in Spanish (thanks public schools!). But to me there is something that is being fundamentally left out of a translation like this, in so much that “suffering” is left to stand all alone. If you read other translations, you will find suffering substitued for “pain” or “stress”. Kind of all pointing at the same thing. But even these still seem to miss the mark.

The word dukkha is what we see being translated into suffering/stress/pain here. Dukkha is much more than the common translation suffering would imply though. Dukkha is the description for the fundamental delusion and off-centerdness of our experience of life. It has its root in its antonym sukha, which has as its root a word meaning a wheel that is in kilter, or an axle that is precise which would allow a wheel to spin flawlessly. This fits in well with other circular imagery found in Buddhism, like the wheel of Samsara.

So why do we translate dukkha? Why not leave it as it stands like we do with karma, satori, or any of the other terms commonly used in Buddhism? It almost seems more appropriate to do so. Often times I’ll see the word suffering used as a way to express physical pain or frustration or anger or any of the other types of “conventional” suffering. These are all things that fall within the wheelhouse of dukkha, but so is a birthday celebration, an unexpected kiss from a loved one, or the joy you receive watching your child play with her toys. These too, are dukkha. They are dukkha because they are phenomenal expereinces. “Birth is suffering” – and not just from the perspective of the mother! Birth is suffering because it brings us into the world of samsara, one filled with clinging to that which is temporary. It is not death in and of itself that is dukkha, but the fact that our existence here is marked by death, and can only ever be temporary, fleeting as fast as the Mayfly blinks in and out of existence. It is all dukkha because it is part of the up and down bumpiness that life as a human generally entails. A wheel out of kilter.

Buddha’s prescription is simply to put the wheel back on its axle, to be able to experience a joy that isn’t fleeting or temporary or bound up by any of the sensory experiences we so desperately cling to. His medicine for our illness is something beyond the aggregates. This is liberation.

So I’m keeping dukkha, dukkha. Suffering seems to imply something is wrong physically, when it should imply that physically is wrong.

 

Cheers.

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The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing

Awakening has nothing to do with outward actions or appearances. It is only achieved by ceasing conceptualization. There is no benefit in shaving your head, taking precepts, or wearing robes. Nor is there any disadvantage if you own a home, work in the secular world, and have a spouse and children. People in the secular world who cease conceptualization awaken. Monks and nuns in monastic communities who do not cease conceptualization remain in delusion.

These are the words of Louie Wing, the fictional character author Ted Biringer brings to life in The Flatbed Sutra of Louie Wing. This is a masterful work that gets right to the heart of Zen. It is inspired by The Platform Sutra of Hui-Neng and provides a very direct and profound explanation of some Zen philosophy. Ted delves deep into prajna, the five ranks of Zen, and some excellent commentary on the Genjokoan. But when I say deep, I don’t mean that the book just drones on and on with complicated metaphysics. Rather, Louie Wing takes on the role of a fierce bodhisattvha, using his wisdom and teachings like Manjushri’s sword, cutting deep but precisely into the real matters of Zen.

The book provides a departure from most books on Zen you might find at Barnes and Nobles or some other such store. Rather than hold your hand while you mindfully wash the dishes, The Flatbed Sutra cuts right to the heart of the matter, revealing the path of compassion and wisdom in the Zen tradition, focusing on prajna and non-conceptualization. That’s not to say that this book is some sort of harsh, ‘hardcore’ approach to Zen either. Rather, it is styled in the fashion of the Chinese and Japanese classics from which the body of wisdom we know as Zen emerged. It is direct, but not in a know-it-all way. It is classic in its approach, yet the context that Biringer gives to Louie Wing makes the Flatbed Sutra accessible to all students of Zen.

I can’t recommend this book enough. Every student of Zen should read this book at least once;  it is one I will likely keep on my shelf and come back to again and again for years to come.

Cheers.

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Buddhist Nun in New York refuses plea deal

Thanks to Arun for bringing this to attention.

Recently Ven. Hong Yuan (Baojing Li), a Buddhist Nun from Atlanta traveled to New York in hope of gathering enough donations to help support her home temple which had burned down. She stood on the street and handed out malas to people as they dropped donations in a tin can. She was arrested and detained without an interpreter, and could face a hefty fine and even jail time for being an unlicensed vendor. This is incredibly ridiculous and prejudice being displayed here is more than obvious. As Li’s lawyer has said “If this was a Catholic nun in a habit giving out rosary beads, I can’t imagine a police officer in the City of New York arresting her.”

Ven. Hong Yuan has refused a plea deal that would have her plead guilty to disorderly conduct and sentence her to 1 day of community service. So it is really up to the District Attorney at this point to realize how unjust this case really is. How can you help?

Well, the DA’s office has a Facebook account which I’m sure would welcome your comments…

And for those of you on Twitter, the DA’s office has an account: @manhattanDA

Hopefully this can be resolved soon and Ven. Hong Yuan can find her way back home to rebuild her temple once her work is complete in New York.

Cheers.

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Another Hsu Yun poem…

 

 

Found this poem, thought I would share

The water and my mind have both settled down
Into perfect stillness.
Sun and moon shine bright in it.
At night I see in the surface
The enormous face of my old familiar moon.
I don’t think you’ve ever met the source of this reflection.
All shrillness fades into the sound of silence.
But now and then a puff of mist floats across the mirror.
It confuses me a little
But not enough to make me forget to forget my cares.

 

~Hsu Yun

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Guest post from the good Rev. Danny Fisher

This post was originally supposed to be part of a big ol’ blog swap a few weeks ago. I had to decline to participate last minute because of a family emergency, and Danny was only now able to write the following. I hope you enjoy. You can catch Danny on his regular blog here.

 

First, many thanks to Nate at Precious Metal for once again getting us
all together like this. Thank you also, of course, to Adam for
hosting this post.

I was invited to comment on Buddhism and the media. I think I’ll use
part of a longer piece I’m working on about what has been called
“Buddhist journalism.” My pal and Shambhala Sun editor Rod Meade
Sperry calls me a “newshound,” which I am. But I also am a Buddhist,
so I’m particularly interested in this intersection of the tradition
and news-gathering — particularly news-gathering by Buddhists.

It’s interesting to me that in the introduction to his and Kenneth K.
Tanaka’s book The Faces of Buddhism in America, my friend Chuck
Prebish observes that “a strong new Buddhist journalism” is apparent
on the American Buddhist landscape in such publications as Tricycle:
The Buddhist Review, Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma:  The Practitioner’s
Quarterly, Inquiring Mind, and Turning Wheel:  The Journal of Socially
Engaged Buddhism, “as well as many publications of individual Buddhist
centers.” Although the book only addresses these publications in terms
of how they aid engaged Buddhist organizations in “bringing [their
visions of] activism and optimism to the American Buddhist,” it is
becoming clear to me that works of Buddhist journalism are beginning
to serve another purpose: as source material for historical writing
about the development of Buddhism in America. In 2006, the Duke
Divinity School Library began the first attempt at a systematic
collection of American Buddhist periodicals—works that certainly fit
Prebish’s description of Buddhist journalism.  Commenting on this in a
post for the earliest iteration of Tricycle’s weblog entitled “Help
Record the History of American Buddhism”, another pal and contributing
editor for that publication, Jeff Wilson, wrote:

“At the end of the day, we really know so little about how Buddhism
spread from India to other countries. Documents are lost, important
meetings never recorded, artwork destroyed–whole teachings,
practices, and schools of Buddhism have been swallowed by time with
barely a trace left to let us know they were there…The difference this
time is that we [in America] have the capacity to observe and record
this new turning of the Dharma wheel while it is going on [in our
country], and to preserve important artifacts from this transmission
so that they will be available to historians and practitioners for
centuries to come.”

Jeff was careful to say something about the limitations of these
periodicals in his comment that the Duke Divinity Library’s project
will offer future generations only “a glimpse of how the Dharma took
root on these shores.” Before more histories of Buddhism in America
are recorded, though, I think we do well to take time for substantial
critical reflection on the use of periodicals that might be fall under
the rubric of “Buddhist journalism” as source material for historical
writing. It seems to me that there are important historiographical
questions to consider here for would-be historians of Buddhism in
America. Namely, “What constitutes evidence?”, “Can journalism be
considered evidence?”, “Is ‘Buddhist journalism’ journalism?”, and
finally “Can ‘Buddhist journalism’ be considered evidence?”

I’ll have more on this in the future, but this is just something I’m
thinking about now. Thanks again, everyone.

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Excerpt from the Kalama Sutta

I posted this on my tumblr blog today, but thought I would share it here as well.

The Kalama Sutta is often cited (and it is usually only a few lines that are taken out of context) as the gold standard for free inquiry in Buddhism, and as such is often used to justify throwing out teachings that don’t agree with one’s “common sense” – something not found anywhere in the sutta itself. Instead what this sutta expounds is a process for finding the dharma, and this process is mostly self-reliant, but must be tempered by checking what we find by that which is also “praised by the wise”, or else we might come to identify only with “common sense” – which is something we’re trying to transcend in the first place. It is our thinking, clinging mind that makes up “common sense”, and abandoning that clinging mind is pretty much the whole point of taking up this path.

If read carefully, we can see that the Buddha is expounding the dharma using upaya (skillful means) to a specific group of people, but his advice to the Kalamas is universal. That is to say that when one has faith in the path Buddha laid out for us, it is important to take up the path with the intention of self-discovery. Teachers and roshis and wise people we meet on the way are there to help guide us, but we should never rely on an appeal to authority if we are to face our Buddha nature and escape samsara. I think the following excerpt help keeps all of this in context:

“What do you think, Kalamas? When lack of greed arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”

“For welfare, lord.”

“And this ungreedy person, not overcome by greed, his mind not possessed by greed, doesn’t kill living beings, take what is not given, go after another person’s wife, tell lies, or induce others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term welfare & happiness.”

“Yes, lord.”

“What do you think, Kalamas? When lack of aversion arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”

“For welfare, lord.”

“And this unaversive person, not overcome by aversion, his mind not possessed by aversion, doesn’t kill living beings, take what is not given, go after another person’s wife, tell lies, or induce others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term welfare & happiness.”

“Yes, lord.”

“What do you think, Kalamas? When lack of delusion arises in a person, does it arise for welfare or for harm?”

“For welfare, lord.”

“And this undeluded person, not overcome by delusion, his mind not possessed by delusion, doesn’t kill living beings, take what is not given, go after another person’s wife, tell lies, or induce others to do likewise, all of which is for long-term welfare & happiness.”

“Yes, lord.”

“So what do you think, Kalamas: Are these qualities skillful or unskillful?”

“Skillful, lord.”

“Blameworthy or blameless?”

“Blameless, lord.”

“Criticized by the wise or praised by the wise?”

“Praised by the wise, lord.”

“When adopted & carried out, do they lead to welfare & to happiness, or not?”

“When adopted & carried out, they lead to welfare & to happiness. That is how it appears to us.”

“So, as I said, Kalamas: ‘Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, “This contemplative is our teacher.” When you know for yourselves that, “These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness” — then you should enter & remain in them.’ Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

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Home, part 2 – Bodhidharma’s peace of mind

The following teisho comes from a podcast I frequently listen to from the Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji Rinzai temple in Seattle. I copied the koan online, and transcribed part of the dharma talk below. I only included a short bit of it, just the part that really struck a chord with me. I recommend this particular podcast but be forewarned that there is a bit of the Eido Shimano controversy involved there in the middle, as the teisho is given by one of his dharma heirs. However, this is really an excellent podcast/dharma talk and well worth your time to listen. I reccomend all of Genjo Osho’s dharma talks.

From the Gateless Gate (Mumonkan)

Case 41

Bodhidharma sat facing the stone wall. The Second Patriarch of Chinese C’han (Zen), Suika, stood long in the thick snow. Finally, he severed his own arm and presented it to Bodhidharma. He said, “Your student cannot pacify his mind. You, the First Patriarch, please, give me peace of mind!” The First Patriarch replied, “Bring that mind, I will calm it down!” The Second Patriarch said, “I search for it everywhere, but I cannot find it!” Bodhidharma replied, “I have already pacified it for you!”

Mumon’s Comment:

That toothless old chap from India proudly travelled ten thousand li over the ocean (to China). This was indeed as if he deliberately raised waves where there was no wave. At last, he got only one disciple, who was maimed by cutting off his own arm. Alas, he was a fool indeed.

The First Patriarch from India taught straight forward,
A series of all the troubles has initiated from him.
The one who disturbed the calm world,
Is Boddhidharma, you indeed!

From the teisho:

…that is a great insight, that we’re already whole, but never complete. We’re never perfect, but we’re already perfectly imperfect. From the beginning of Zen training, it’s always: not yet. There’s no end to it. Once you’ve begun, there’s no finish. And the insight is that that can be a life of great inquiry. And this great inquiry begins with Great Doubt. We, in order to begin this journey, feel as if something is missing, or lost. And we have some inkling that somebody’s got it somewhere, [said with a wink] maybe I should go find it. And we become seekers of the way. And we sense a kind of sick sense that we’re not home and we’re meant to be home, but somehow we haven’t found it. So we go on a quest, or a search; we begin a journey and examine different practices and teachers, communities, trying to find that method or teaching or path that will bring us home. Or help us find what’s missing.

I think this might start at birth. As we come into this life, and exit the womb, I think we feel expelled from “Eden”, if you will. And in a way I think we’re looking, at least initially when we start our search, I think we’re looking for a way home, back to the womb somehow. And a lot of times we take detours into something that gives us a womb-like experience. Whether it’s sexuality or an addiction, or some kind of comfort zone that hits a mark and we try that pathway of pure pleasure or comfort. But somehow that still doesn’t satisfy the itch. So we continue on our journey with the pendulum swinging the other way… somehow if we shed enough, maybe we’ll find what we lost. But that extreme doesn’t work either. We still have this itch that cannot be scratched, or this sense that we’re not home, we’re still not home. And this is this spiritual quest that is driven by this doubt, or a kind of knowing that something is missing. What is it?

First I’d like to start with the koan. I doubt very much that Suika literally cut his arm off! Instead this is intended to show the depth of his devotion to this great quest. And it makes me wonder how dedicated I really am. Would I be willing to cut off my arm saying “HERE! LOOK! THIS IS WHAT I AM WILLING TO DO TO PEER INTO THE DEPTHS AND FACE BUDDHA MIND!” Doubtful. If anything, this koan humbles me, and reminds me that at this point, I’m basically a tourist on the path. Not desperately seeking, but more casually trying to catch a glimpse of that buddha nature and develop focus so that one day I might have the courage to realize buddha nature fully. I find that getting through the days of work, family, and school often means putting any type of spiritual quest up on my shelf. This koan also makes me inquire: “do I face my wall? Or do I turn away from my wall?” – but the answer might be another post altogether…

What really hits home for me though, are the two paragraphs I transcribed from the teisho. This feeling of seeking “home”; these are the words I’ve been searching for to describe that spiritual itch I haven’t really been able to scratch. I think back to really understanding the second noble truth for the first time and I can see how right then, I identified that there was an itch, and I could at least start working to try to scratch it by taking up the Buddhist path. Fast forward a bit to me looking toward Zen, and I could see that it is this particular medicine that will best relieve me from my itch. Sometimes I see the Buddhist path phrased as “returning to the source” and I think this really strikes to the heart of what it is we’re searching for. That being separated from that source causes all kinds of strife, and if we can just get back there, and experience that source, we’ll feel home again.

When you’re searching for “home”, you’re never more than a tourist. Living and getting through each day becomes your routine. But living away from “home” starts to wear on you spiritually after a while. Pretty much everywhere you go, you feel like you aren’t really supposed to be there. The best way I can describe it is to provide an analogy, like when you get done with a shower, but you really don’t feel clean still even though you shampooed and soaped, and kind of want to take another one to see if you can get it right. Everything feels temporary and incomplete, like a house of cards on a shaky table.

I’m finding more and more that the physical influences the spiritual. A clean home just feels better. Sitting in meditation with proper posture feels better, and is more conductive of a better session (when I’m actually able to find the time…). Using right speech and being careful when choosing words makes the weight of the words you choose much heavier, and more conductive. Noticing those times when I use wrong speech, I can immediately look at myself and see my life condition lowered. Living somewhere that feels like “home” can be much more conductive to a sunnier disposition. Ritual and creating a sacred space aren’t necessary, but using them correctly can really help to get us to sort of… “tune in” to the station we’re looking for. When we find that station we’ll often get mostly static, but our dial is at least in a better position than it was before hand.

I know, I know; the Heart Sūtra. “Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form.” But I’m finding more and more that form can be conductive to finding non-form. That the physical can help manifest the metaphysical. That my search for home can help me find “home”. So I’m searching for home. That’s where I am now. That’s where I’ve been for a couple of decades now that I really look back. Don’t confuse the search with craving for “better”. “Better” is not really what I’m after. I’m after peace of mind, so that in due time, I can find peace of mind. I know that there is a place out there where I’m “supposed to” be (though I don’t believe in fate). And I know that I will find it. It has always been on the proverbial tip of my tounge. And I also know that somewhere out there is a “home” beyond touch that I’m meant to find. So for now I’ll keep searching.

Cheers.

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Thai Association of Washington at Folklife Festival

Every Memorial Day Weekend in the Puget Sound, hippies gather up their sneak-a-tokes, djembes, and Birkenstocks and head for the Seattle Center for Folklife Festival. It is four days of drum circles, vendors, musicians, artists, and other performers all in the heart of Seattle, and it’s pretty much all free. I’ve had lots of fun there in the past, though I’m not sure if we’ll head that way this year or not given that there isn’t much space for my 2-year-old to run around there.

If we do head down there, I’m sure to be checking out the Thai Association of Washington. From the Folklife site:

This year we are excited to welcome the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Thai Association of Washington to the Northwest Folklife Festival.  Visit them on the south side of the Fountain Lawn for a taste of Thailand!

At the Thai Village, there will be cultural demonstrations and authentic Thai cuisine including BBQ Pork, Thai Ice Tea, Crab Delight and an array of foods from Thai Heaven. For more demonstrations, catch the Thai Showcase on Sunday, May 29, from 4:00-6PM in the Center House Theatre for classical music and dance by the Chaopraya Ensemble.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) was established in 1960 by the Royal Thai Government to be specifically responsible for tourism promotion. In 1965, TAT opened its first overseas office in New York. Since then, TAT has established 21 offices in different parts of the world including the Los Angeles office.

The Thai Association of Washington are exclusively a non-profit charitable organization.  They hope to be the central point of contact for both Thai-Americans and Americans alike in the State of Washington and also maintain and promote the Thai language, arts and culture within the Washington region.

Asian Americans have made a huge impact here in the Pacific Northwest, so it’s nice to see some representation at a festival like Folklife. I’ve made some acquaintances with the owners of a local Thai food restaurant that we sometimes frequent, and hope to see their small chain represented in some way down there. There is also a Wat about halfway between here and Seattle that I hope to see some sort of representation of as well. May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and I think that this is a great way to showcase how diverse and inclusive the community can be in the Puget Sound area, as well as how important the Asian American community has been to the culture and development of this area. Maybe I’ll see you down there this weekend.

Cheers.

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The long journey out of the self…

Today David over at The Endless Further has a wonderful post up about the magic found in poetry, please check it out if you have the chance.

image of Roethke sourced from jungcurrents.com

It got me thinking about one of my favorite poets, Theodore Roethke, whom I haven’t dealt much with in years. Roethke is from my hometown of Saginaw, MI, and there are places he mentions in his poetry that were literally my old stomping grounds:

Out Hemlock Way there is a stream
That some have called Swan Creek;
The turtles have bloodsucker sores,
And mossy filthy feet;
The bottoms of migrating ducks
Come off it much less neat.

I used to dig in Swan Creek for golf balls to sell to golfers at the nearby hole-in-the-wall course. My father went through the ice of the creek as a youth while snowmobiling. It is a beautiful yet unassuming body of water. It really is just a creek. Creek creeks creek.

Upon digging around for some of my favorite works of his, I ran across the following two gems, and couldn’t help but be struck by the similarity to some of the old Chinese Ch’an masters works. The first poem is titled Journey into the Interior

In the long journey out of the self,
There are many detours, washed-out interrupted raw places
Where the shale slides dangerously
And the back wheels hang almost over the edge
At the sudden veering, the moment of turning.
Better to hug close, wary of rubble and falling stones.
The arroyo cracking the road, the wind-bitten buttes, the canyons,
Creeks swollen in midsummer from the flash-flood roaring into the narrow valley.
Reeds beaten flat by wind and rain,
Grey from the long winter, burnt at the base in late summer.
— Or the path narrowing,
Winding upward toward the stream with its sharp stones,
The upland of alder and birchtrees,
Through the swamp alive with quicksand,
The way blocked at last by a fallen fir-tree,
The thickets darkening,
The ravines ugly.
The first thing that jumps out is right there in the first line, “journey out of the self”. The rest of the poem goes on to describe the traps and hazards our phenomenal mind throws at us in our attempt to escape its binding reach.
 
Another that I stumbled upon was In a Dark Time:
 
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood–
A lord of nature weeping to a tree,
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks–is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is–
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark,dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

To me, this is all about finding the true self, making sense of the observer watching the observer phenomenon, feeling trapped that there is no hope, no way of getting to the Source.

Roethke suffered from depression not long into his life, fueled by the tragic deaths of his uncle and father that both occurred when he was 15. This colored many of his later works, though it is for his lighter, “greenhouse” poems that he is more well-known. These poems revolve around his direct experience and contact with nature and the beauty he found growing up around his uncle’s greenhouse in Saginaw (only a couple of miles from my childhood home). At the young age of 55, Roethke died of a heart attack in a swimming pool on Bainbridge Island, here in Washington. According to wiki the pool has since been covered and a Zen rock garden has apparently been placed on top. His remains are a stone’s throw from many of my great-grandparents and their siblings.

I’m not claiming that Roethke was Zen, or a Buddhist or anything of the sort. If anything he seemed to be a sort of pantheist or transcendentalist or something of that sort. But the problems that he digs at are universal, and strike at the heart of Zen. His desire to find pure Mind and make sense of it all mirrors the path of the 10 Ox Herding images well.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the magic that Roethke helped bring to the world. Cheers.

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Faith in Mind

As my time is limited these days, one of the ways I maintain a connection to the dharma at work is to listen to a few chants over my headphones. My favorite of which is currently Faith in Mind, or Affirming Faith in Mind (it is sometimes attributed to Jianzhi Sengcan, but that is under debate and unlikely to be proven). To me, this verse/poem points to many of the most important Buddhist teachings like karma, conditioned existence, dukkha, the Four Noble Truths, awakening to pure Mind, and non-conceptual wisdom. And it does all of that without the overlays of ancient Chinese culture that some might find bewildering or off-putting. It is a powerful work, one that will speak to many over countless generations.

I’ve included the text below. You can also listen to it being chanted here.

The Great Way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose.

When preferences are cast aside the Way stands clear and undisguised.

But even slight distinctions made set earth and heaven far apart.

If you would clearly see the truth, discard opinions pro and con.

To founder in dislike and like is nothing but the mind’s disease.

And not to see the Way’s deep truth disturbs the mind’s essential peace.

The Way is perfect like vast space, where there’s no lack and no excess.

Our choice to choose and to reject prevents our seeing this simple truth.

Both striving for the outer world as well as for the inner void condemn us to entangled lives.

Just calmly see that all is One, and by themselves false views will go.

Attempts to stop activity will fill you with activity.

Remaining in duality, you’ll never know of unity.

And not to know this unity lets conflict lead you far astray.

When you assert that things are real you miss their true reality.

But to assert that things are void also misses reality.

The more you talk and think on this the further from the truth you’ll be.

Cut off all useless thought and words And there’s nowhere you cannot go.

Returning to the root itself, you’ll find the meaning of all things.

If you pursue appearances you overlook the primal source.

Awakening is to go beyond both emptiness as well as form.

All changes in this empty world seem real because of ignorance.

Do not go search for the truth, just let those fond opinions go.

Abide not in duality, refrain from all pursuit of it.

If there’s a trace of right and wrong, True-mind is lost, confused, distaught.

From One-mind comes duality, but cling not even to this One.

When this One-mind rests undisturbed, then nothing in the world offends.

And when no thing can give offense, then all obstructions cease to be.

If all thought-objects disappear, the thinking subject drops away.

For things are things because of mind, as mind is mind because of things.

These two are merely relative, and both at source are Emptiness.

In Emptiness these are not two, yet in each are contained all forms.

Once coarse and fine are seen no more, then how can there be taking sides?

The Great Way is without limit, beyond the easy and the hard.

But those who hold to narrow views are fearful and irresolute; their frantic has just slows them down.

If you’re attached to anything, you surely will go far astray.

Just let go now of clinging mind, and all things are just as they are. In essense nothing goes or stays.

See into the true self of things, and you’re in step with the Great Way, thus walking freely, undisturbed.

But live in bondage to your thoughts, and you will be confused, unclear.

This heavy burden weighs you down– O why keep judging good and bad?

If you would walk the highest Way, do not reject the sense domain.

For as it is, whole and complete, This sense world is enlightenment.

The wise do not strive after goals, but fools themselves in bondage put.

The One Way knows no differences, the foolish cling to this and that.

To seek Great Mind with thinking mind is certainly a grave mistake.

From small mind come rest and unrest, but mind awakened transcends both.

Delusion spawns dualities– these dreams are nought but flowers of air– why work so hard at grasping them?

Both gain and loss, and right and wrong– once and for all get rid of them.

When you no longer are asleep, all dreams will vanish by themselves.

If mind does not discriminate, all things are as they are, as One.

To go to this mysterious Source frees us from all entanglements.

When all is seen with “equal mind,” to our Self-nature we return.

This single mind goes right beyond all reasons and comparisons.

Stop movement and there’s no movement, stop rest and no-rest comes instead.

When rest and no-rest cease to be, then even oneness disappears.

This ultimate finality’s beyond all laws, can’t be described.

With single mind one with the Way, all ego-centered strivings cease;

Doubts and confusion disappear, and so true faith pervades our life.

There is no thing that clings to us, and nothing that is left behind.

All’s self-revealing, void and clear, without exerting power of mind.

Thought cannot reach this state of truth, here feelings are of no avail.

In this true world of Emptiness both self and other are no more.

To enter this true empty world, immediately affirm “not-two”.

In this “not-two” all is the same, with nothing separate or outside.

The wise in all times and places awaken to this primal truth.

The Way’s beyond all space, all time, one instant is ten thousand years.

Not only here, not only there, truth’s right before you very eyes.

Distinctions such as large and small have relevance for you no more.

The largest is the smallest too– here limitations have no place.

What is is not, what is not is– if this is not yet clear to you, you’re still far from the inner truth.

One thing is all, all things are one– know this and all’s whole and complete.

When faith and Mind are not separate, and not separate are Mind and faith, this is beyond all words, all thought.

For here there is no yesterday, no today, no tomorrow.

 

Hat tip to Marcus for sending me the link to the VZC awhile back. The text used in this post, however, is from the Portland Zen Community site.

 

 

Cheers.

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The Four Noble Truths of Parenting

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress:[1] Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

~ Taken from Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation at Access to Insight

The Four Noble Truths form the foundation of all Buddhist thought, philosophy and practice. It is here that the Buddha diagnosed the fundamental “dis-ease” of the human condition, and provided us with a prescription to cure that dis-ease.

 

My son was sick this past weekend, and is also in the process of cutting his 2-year molars. This week he has basically been screaming and crying all day long at the drop of a hat. It has been very, very stressful for myself, and even more so for my wonderful wife that has to be face-to-face with him all day long. His twos have not been “terrible” so much as apocalyptically horrendous. At times I am quite certain I’ve seen his head spin a full 360 degrees around his head.

This morning his tantrums got me to thinking about Thanissaro Bikkhu’s translation of dukkha as stress. Often times you hear the first noble truth loosely translated as “all life is stress/suffering” and this morning all I could think was “all parenting is stress”. So I’ve taken some liberty with the Four Noble Truths, and re-written them for parents. I hope you enjoy.

1. Now this, parents, is the noble truth of stress: nap time is stressful, dinnertime is stressful, bath time is stressful, diaper changes are stressful, grocery shopping is stressful, car rides are stressful. In short, your entire day as a parent is stressful.

2. And this, parents, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: your child craving shiny objects, craving dirty faces, craving one more movie, craving chocolate chip cookies, desire to play with toilet paper as if it were confetti, desire to climb to the ceiling, desire to never ever sleep, this is the origination of stress.

3. And this parents, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress: the letting go of any expectation that your day will not at some point be stressful, the relinquishing of the feeling that everything will go according to plan, the passing away of the delusion that you fail when things fall apart.

4. And this parents, is the noble truth of the practice leading to the cessation of stress:  just this Noble Eightfold Path for Parents – right bedtime, right snack time, right babysitters, right grandparents, right hugs, right story time, right husbands/wives, and right love and affection.

 

Cheers.

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No cushion; no Zen. No cushion; zen.

People come to Buddhism for all types of reasons, and apply the teachings in just as many ways. For some it serves a religious purpose, for some a “way of life”, others a philosophy and so on. Whatever it may be for you, it seems as if it would be quite useless if its only benefits were found in one location, one posture, one turn of a phrase. I too often see people talking about how “just sitting” is the path to enlightenment. Or that only the full lotus posture will do when sitting in zazen, or more importantly that zazen happens on a cushion.

While inching toward a full lotus posture and regular meditation schedule are invaluable tools on this crooked path of Zen, they will leave us out naked in the cold if we leave our practice there with them. I have no desire to take up a path that isn’t able to be carried everywhere I go. Zazen must be the manifestation of whole-hearted inquiry into that mind-stuff of Buddha nature, and Buddha nature is not trapped on my pillow.

I’ve mentioned that recently my life schedule has become more than full. As such, my practice must evolve if it is to survive. I have no wish to take up the path of Zen for the label alone, nor do I wish to take it up just for those 20 minutes I could sit on a pillow and stare at my bookcase. So right now what Adam’s Zen looks like is reading a sūtra a day, practicing the paramitas, and throwing myself into polynomial factoring-zazen.

I haven’t the time to meditate. It isn’t there. And even if I were to attempt it, I guarantee I would just fall asleep 30 seconds into it anyway. So I practice my zazen in Math class. I found that I was making silly, elementary mistakes with some of the problems that were coming up because I was rushing or not checking my work  or some other mindless reason. Now I make sure and breathe the problems in, and breathe the problems out. It is helping my studies, and further more it is helping me glimpse at my monkey mind and find the cause of its monkey-nature. It is something quite unexpected.

This is something new for me, being able to see my self for the monkey that it is. In the past I’ve found it is easy to let that monkey turn into a stubborn ape, and when that happens it can seem as though hope is lost. That you’ll never be able to penetrate deep inside the luminous cavern of Buddha nature as long as that damn dirty ape stands in the way. But I’m seeing that ape less and less these days.

So this is where I will take Zen, and where Zen will take me for now. Off to math class I go.

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Thay in Vancouver, floods in Sri Lanka and other updates

I was very much considering shutting down this blog, but thanks to some encouraging words, I’ve decided to keep it up for now. With school, work, and family, I have very, very little time to post, or even think about posting here anymore, so posting will just be more infrequent than usual. I’ve found I have less and less time to spend on the internets as well. I’ve moved all the blogs I used to “follow” on Google’s Blogger into just an RSS reader to simplify things. I also deleted about 2/3 of my blog subscriptions. I simply don’t have the time to keep up with many of them anymore.

From time to time, I’ll do a search on Buddhist news, and I came up with some rather random things today, and thought I’d share:

Apparently, there are Maoist spies pretending to be monks in Bodhgaya, supposedly to try to destroy the temple from within or something. An interesting tidbit in how politics, religion, and power grabs.

Thich Nhat Hanh will be just a couple of hours North of me in Vancouver, leading a 5-day retreat. I rarely here of prominent teachers coming to Seattle (which I find odd, or maybe I’m just waaay out of the loop) and this made me wonder if someone like Thay or even Ponlop would ever come to my school, Everett Community College. Probably not!

There was a story in the Canadian Press about all those animals having to be put down in South Korea. Apparently there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, and 1.9 million animals are being put down. What an enormous amount of devastation. And we can almost certainly conclude that the root cause of this all was our treatment of these animals, and the living conditions we forced them into. Anyway, the Buddhist link was that there were hundreds of monks and lay people there offering prayers and flowers for the departed. I wonder if anyone here in the US would show up and demonstrate that type of compassion if the same thing were to happen in Oklahoma?

Apparently, there ARE Buddhists in Mississippi

(’nuff said)

And finally,

Recently there were some absolutely terrible floods in Sri Lanka. From the UN News Center:

In eastern and central Sri Lanka, the flooding – which reached an almost 100 year high – has driven more than 360,000 people from their homes, killed 43 people, totally destroyed some 6,000 homes and 23,000 others partially. People are now returning to their homes, but 10,000 people still remain displaced in temporary relocation centres.

Agricultural production is the main source of livelihood in the affected regions and this season’s rice harvest is now severely damaged, leading to increased food insecurity.

 

From the news I’ve gathered, the already stressed country (they were hit hard by the 2004 tsunami and only recently were able to end a decades long civil war) is now just about completely broke. No doubt they will seek aid from foreign governments, and no doubt the World Bank will be there to loan them money, and if you think that’s a good thing, take a look at Haiti. I wonder if we will ever as a people place more worth in the quality of life for our fellow humans than we do the markets that keep them in poverty.

Okay, back to work.

Cheers.

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Heart of the Buddha

Oregon Coast

No need to chase back and forth like the waves.

The same water which ebbs is the same water that flows.

No point turning back to get water

When it’s flowing around you in all directions

The heart of the Buddha and the people of the world…

Where is there any difference?

~ Hsu Yun Heart of the Buddha

I’ve been sporadically reading a bit of Zen/Chan poetry lately. Some of it I dismiss fairly quickly. Quite a bit of it doesn’t speak to me, though I know the reasons for this are many (they’ve been written by wisdom, meant to be read with wisdom). But some of it takes you somewhere.

Heart of the Buddha is one of those poems that really shouted out to me, even though it was just a whisper. I like the water analogies used in Buddhism, as I think they are usually the most accurate descriptions of mind, dualism, and non-conceptual awareness one can use that people can easily relate to. This poem in particular opened up to me almost instantly. Here is what I found:

No need to chase… – chasing, grasping, reaching, swimming – none of these actions will help you to realize Buddha nature. Buddha nature is not something to be found while scuba diving on a treasure hunt.

…back and forth like the waves – this is samsara. The phenomenal world of dukkha leading us here then there then here then there. We’re all chasing. And we’re all swimming with the tide.

The same water that ebbs is the same water that flows – this line brought many thoughts to mind. The same ‘stuff’ that brings us pain is the same ‘stuff’ that brings us pleasure. Buddha nature is defilement, defilement is buddha nature. No samsara apart from nirvana. Water waters water.

No point turning back to get water – That which we are chasing we have already left behind. Seeking Buddha nature outside the self is like searching for a wave already crashed back into the ocean.

When it’s flowing around you in all directions – no self no buddha. Our deluded mind is creating all this samsara around us, when we are able to free our deluded mind, we can find the heart of buddha, which is all around us. But when we turn back and seek, it is again unreachable.

The heart of the Buddha and the people of the world… where is there any difference? – This is just the non-dual nature of reality. Again, no nirvana apart from samsara. Also I felt like this pointed at the 10th Ox Herding picture a little, in the idea of bringing Buddha nature back down into the marketplace, or back to be with “the people of the world”.

Just some thoughts of mine. Yours?

Cheers.

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Raising spiritual children

A few posts have gone up recently regarding raising your children in a spiritual tradition, and all the samsara that goes with it. Check out Nathan’s post, John’s post, Mumon’s post, and Karen’s post for some interesting perspectives. (I would say that my post here is inspired by, rather than a response to these posts).

Interesting perspectives. That’s what they are. Perspectives. Of the 4 mentioned above, all are parents save Nathan, who speaks from experience of working with children and running a successful children’s program in his Zen sangha to which he is very much involved. When I read these posts I see a deep sense of caring. Really caring about the children, their lives, their minds, their future selfs.

And something else is there as well. Parents and caregivers projecting what they wish the desired outcome to be. Parents that want their children to be Buddhist or Christian or Atheist or open-minded or skeptical or whatever; they all want something for their children, all to take on a specific role or mindset. And that is part of parenting. You have to want something for your children, and most of us want what is best for them. We all have our different flavors of “best” peppered by the experiences and luggage we bring with us to the table of life.

Personally, I think telling a child what to believe, or “hey Johnny, you’re a Christian, so you believe in ‘x'” is wrong, and does them a disservice. It takes away the process of discovery and replaces it with dogma, at a time in their lives where fostering an attitude of discovery and imagination is most crucial. Spirituality is a very wonderous, malleable thing. To force it into a shape before a child has had the time to poke and prod at it robs them of an experience that is very special, something that will take a terrible amount of work to get back later in life, if at all.

Currently developing the "Rocks and Sticks" Sutra...

But what of raising a child Buddhist, or in a Buddhist community? Is there a difference? I tend to think so, at least to some degree. Buddhism has less to do with belief, and more to do with results. For instance, take the five precepts. This is a teaching I could explain to my children that will lead to examination, and more questions. There is no “because ‘x’ holy book says so answer; there are only questions of “why” and “how” to be met with their own experiences and guidance from father and mother. In Buddhism we seek noble qualities, not adherence to doctrine.

Why do we take the precept to refrain from taking life?

To affirm and honor life, because it is precious. Why else do think we should not take life?

Why do we take the precept to refrain from taking what isn’t given?

To develop generosity, and to accept ourselves wholly. Why else do you think we shouldn’t take what belongs to us?

Why do we take the precept to refrain from wrong speech?

To develop compassion, live our truth, and honor others. Why else should we tell the truth, and not speak unkindly of others?

One day my son and daughter will ask me about Buddha and meditation and being a Buddhist. The questions they ask will come from a genuine place of wonder and curiosity, and my answers should foster that state of mind.

What’s a Buddhist?

Someone that follows the teachings of the Buddha.

What did he teach?

He taught many things. First he taught us that life isn’t always what it seems or what we want it to be. At times this can cause us to be sad, or even angry. So he taught us to use compassion, wisdom, and have the right frame of mind so that we don’t have to live that way.

Oh. So why do you sit on that pillow in the living room?

That’s one way to help me develop the right frame of mind.

 

That is a nice pretend scenario of a conversation that might take place. But given my son’s nature I can only imagine the questions that will soon follow. It will be awhile until the questions begin to emerge, but in time they will. And when that time comes I have no qualms with asking him if he wants to practice with me. And if he says no, he says no and he will enjoy racing matchbox cars around the Kitchen 500.

Spiritual communities can be great environments for children. But when the activities include having them sing songs in praise of people and ideals they have no way of understanding, I draw a line.

Presently we have no formal sangha or spiritual community to raise our children in. Our religious practice revolves around our attempt to manifest spirituality in our daily lives and activity. So there is no temple to “drag” them to. And there isn’t much in the way of belief to indoctrinate them in. There are our daily successes and failures that will guide and shape them. For those with access to a sangha or dharma center, their perspective will be different; I cannot speak to the experience of others.

Or maybe they’ll never really take an interest in Dad’s Buddhism. Maybe they’d rather play with the Tarot cards on our shelves, mesmerized by the dozens of different artist’s depictions of the journey of The Fool. Maybe they’d rather read The Lord of the Rings and get lost in The Shire. Maybe they’d rather spend the day in the woods taking in deep breaths of dead leaves and cedar, running from whatever forest creature they might imagine is in pursuit.

It really is up to them. I’ll be steering them in a direction that keeps them on the road. But that is my perspective, and that is where I feel my children would benefit most. For now I’m focusing on raising compassionate, spiritual children. We can worry about the framework later.

Cheers.

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Just Patience.

The Great Bodhisattva of Patience wields a fiery spoonful of pudding!

I’m finding more and more that I’ve reached a bit of a plateau when it comes to this blog and Buddhism in general. Part of the reason I started this blog was to openly explore the dharma as I started on the path. I am nowhere near any kind of expert, realized master, or authority or any such person when it comes to Buddhism. But I do feel like I have a grip on enough of the basics that I have little where else to go as far as the online world is concerned. I’m finding more and more that what I’m looking for isn’t here, but lies closer to where my feet are planted, and my fingers meet the keyboard.

After awhile the basics start to get boring. I can only read the same thing said a million different ways so many times before it becomes Geography class. Geography class was always required in middle and high school. But it was useless. Once you learned where Bolivia was, that was it. But we had to learn where Bolivia was and what their climate and chief exports and natural landmarks were year after year. But nothing changed. Most of the basic concepts of Buddhism are like this, at least on an intellectual level. And quite frankly, you can only do so much with text.

Also quite frankly, you can only do so much while sleep deprived. I haven’t had but maybe 4 good nights of sleep in the past 2 years or so. Kids can do this to you. My kids do this to me. My wife has it worse. So I haven’t been meditating, and I struggle to even read the past few weeks. For my son Corbin, it’s been a struggle to get him to go down for the night. Once he does, he’s been mostly sleeping through the night (finally, after almost 2 years) but wakes between 5-6am. This wouldn’t be too bad if our daughter Zoa would allow us to put her down to sleep at a decent hour, but she’s a bit of a night owl and frequently won’t lay down for the night until between 11pm-1am.

Needless to say, I’m running short on patience. Patience with my wife, children, situation, self, work, strangers, family, you name it. It manifests in many forms. Anger, rudeness, non-compassion are the usual ones, though cold distance is there at times as well.

Concepts are great, but they don’t mean shit off the paper.

Spiritual traditions are great, but they don’t mean shit if you can’t apply them to your life. They don’t mean shit if they can’t help you deal with your issues in a way that brings about real, actual change. And those changes don’t mean shit if you can’t use them to better deal with those you love the most and keep the closest.

So I’m dedicating my practice to the pursuit of patience.

Patience.

                 Patience.

Patience.

It really couldn’t be a better time to do so. Financially, we’re hoping to put ourselves in the house market by the end of 2011. This will take work, sacrifice, and a ton of patience and non-attachment. Starting in January, I’m going back to school to pursue a degree in Enviromental Policy and Planning. The A.A.S. part will hopefully be done by Summer 2012, but looking down the road this is going to be tough. I’m going to have to put in a lot of work for this, and working 40+ hours while trying to be a family man and go to school full-time is going to really test ability to remain patient, calm, and present.

Oh, and I have 2 kids! Wow! They are a daily test of patience. My son’s new favorite game is just to knock shit over. He walks up to a chair, and just knocks it over, bam! Vacuum? Bam! High Chair? Bam! Our neighbors below must love us…

So what I’m getting at here in this long “me me me” post is that what I really need to do is forget some of my loftier dreams of group meditation or kensho and just go for what matters most to my life right now: developing patience. My family will thank me for it. I will thank me for it. To me it is more beneficial than digging through Nagarjuna’s thoughts on Dharmadhatu, though I do hope to make it there someday as well. Right now my practice needs to meet the pavement where I commute daily, in hope that my passengers will benefit.

Cheers.

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Filed under Buddhism, Parenting, Personal

Affirm life; do not kill

— On the grounds of a Buddhist temple, dozens of white plastic bags lay in carefully arranged rows. Each sack was knotted at the top and contained the remains of a fetus.

Thai authorities found about 2,000 remains in the temple’s mortuary, where they had been hidden for a year — apparently to conceal illegal abortions.

…Abortion is illegal in Thailand except under three conditions — if a woman is raped, if the pregnancy affects her health or if the fetus is abnormal.

…Suchart Poomee, 38, one of the undertakers being questioned, confessed Tuesday he had been hired by illegal abortion clinics to destroy the fetuses, police said. He said he had been collecting the fetuses since November 2009. It was not clear why they had not yet been cremated.

The above is from the following article, please take a short minute to read it.

I’ve been thinking about posting on the issue of abortion for a while now, and this article presented a good context for it. At first I was shocked and saddened by what happened, mostly it was just at the magnitude of that many dead fetuses. For me this article brings to light issues that fall outside of the black/white pro-choice/pro-life debate we usually hear about. I don’t know if there is a unifying theme to my thoughts here, so I think I’ll just go for it, and ask for your forgiveness regarding the scattered nature of this post..

First thing I think about is the entire premise of pro-life/choice. Seeing death of this magnitude definitely makes me question my long-held stance of being pro-choice. It’s hard for me to argue for someone else’s right to do something like that.

I find I sometimes have to remove the human element away from the situation in order to argue in favor of being pro-choice. I wonder if it is possible to feel empathetic toward all those involved in the process, and what that looks like.

I don’t want to force a woman to have a baby if she doesn’t want to, regardless the reason. And I sure as shit don’t want to see a return to back-alley abortions.

I wonder if it is more disheartening because of the magnitude of seeing thousands of fetuses all there, all at once. It’s in my face and not in the back of a clinic with no windows. I wonder what else I take for granted simply because it happens behind a door in a place I’ve never been.

I wonder what those at the temple have to go through when dealing with the aftermath of these illegal abortions.

I don’t like the term pro-life. It isn’t accurate. Many of the same people who call themselves “pro-life” are also “pro-war” and “pro-death penalty”. Clearly all life is not precious to them. Why the distinction?

The doctrine of dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) comes to mind when I try to think of this topic. Sometimes I think that I’d be okay with abortion if it was done in the 1st trimester if by choice (later for medical reasons). But then I start to wonder where it is that life begins. Is it when the brain has activity? The heart beats? When the sperm fertilizes the egg? When I try to think of this in terms of dependant origination I can’t pinpoint the moment where life begins. I keep going back to the sperm, and egg. The egg that was present when my daughter was fertilized in my wife’s womb actually grew in her mother’s womb, where an egg that was fertilized had been since she had been in her mother’s womb and back and back to all the ancestors of our collective past. All of this is precious.

I think that abstinence only sex-ed doesn’t work. Not at all. Clearly this is evidence of that. Humans want sex. Teenagers want it even more. (and yes, I did just draw a distinction between humans and horny teenagers)

Birth control is there to help prevent people from having an unwanted/unplanned pregnancy, but it’s only 98-99% effective. I have 2 children that can attest to the other 1-2%. Our planet can’t continue to grow at the rate we’re breeding and people shouldn’t have to be brought in this world to parents that want nothing to do with them when there are other options available. Sometimes biology happens. Sometimes you make the best of it, and alter your life and raise two beautiful children. Sometimes it isn’t possible to bring a child into the world and offer her what she needs.

  

Is killing sperm the same as killing an embryo the same as having an abortion at 4 months? If yes: Really? If no: how come?

When does a fetus become a baby?

Legislating morality in the way it seems to happen in Thailand (as well as in many other places) leads to situations like this. Illegal abortions. People put in awkward and potentially dangerous positions.

We legislate morality all the time. Don’t kill. Don’t steal. Who’s morality is better? There will never be a system that gets it right 100% of the time.

I believe that non-theraputic male circumcision is wrong. How do I justify that stance with being pro-choice?

I think there are too many filters to view this through, which is why we’ll never resolve this issue. Ever. It is legal, political, moral, and personal. All or none at once. The fetus has a right to attempt to become a person. The woman has a right to not be a mother. The doctor has a right not to perform the procedure. The courts have a right to say who is right and who is wrong.

How do we affirm life and support everyone involved? How do we apply the Bodhisattva vow when it comes to abortion?

The article says that the fetuses were placed in the bags by workers when they were found. Were they just out in the open before this? The image of thousands of fetuses just lying around a morgue is horrifying to me. I haven’t been able to shake it.

For the first time in my life I am able to understand those that picket outside of an abortion clinic. Most definitely there are those that are there for religious and political reasons, but I know that some of them just care. Deeply. And I identify with that.

I understand the desperation a soon-to-be parent can feel. I will never be able to feel that through the filter of motherhood, but as a parent I can say that those shoes are familiar ones. I feel for those that feel the need to end a pregnancy early. But I will never have a woman’s perspective on this.

I feel for those that miscarry. I feel for those that lose a child, no matter what age.

I think I am glad that women have the option, but I wish that it was an option rarely exercised.

I have no easy answers. The gray is too strong on this one.

Edit: I originally had a picture of my 2 children included, but after reading this over a few times felt that wasn’t a good choice for a photo. Not sure why. So I replaced it.

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Filed under Buddhism, Parenting

Jataka Tales, Zen Practice, and Daily Life

 

 

Once long ago, when Brahmadatta still reigned in Benares, the bodhisattva was born as a crow. In time he became the leader of a great, raucous troop of crows, nearly a thousand strong, that lived in the cemetery…

So starts The Wise Crow Jataka, presented in Chapter 6 of Endless Path. The Jataka tales are a collection of stories that supposedly tell the tales of Shakyamuni Buddha’s many previous lives. The Buddha appears in many forms, from God to crow, and from King to beggar. An obvious moral teaching can be at the heart of each tale, similar in some respects to Aesop’s fables. From my experience, in Western convert communities, the Jataka tales are generally seen as children’s stories, rather than important moral lessons for all practitioners. Enter Rafe Martin.

Rafe Martin is the author of several books, including The Banyan Deer, Straight to the Heart of Zen, and One Hand Clapping: Zen Stories for All Ages. With Endless Path, Martin has found 10 Jataka tales that relate directly to the 10 paramitas (also known as the 10 perfections). In so doing, he brings them off the children’s shelf and into the lives of every modern-day Buddhist, young and old.

The he uses is almost like that of a koan. First he presents the Jataka, each one given fresh new life as an original telling, all with a dash of Zen. Then he spends a few pages extolling commentary on each one. Martin’s commentary stays with the contemporary theme in order to reach a modern audience as diverse as the characters we find in the Jatakas. This is definitely the first Buddhist book that I’ve ever read with references to President Obama, iPods, and 9/11. His commentary roams from personal narrative to a bit of Buddhist history, and covers the morals, ethics, and finer details of each tale wonderfully.

Rafe Martin breathes fresh new life into these wonderful old tales, and in doing so, provides us with a much-needed perspective into our individual lives and practice. He doesn’t really touch on whether or not these stories actually took place. Certainly there are those out there that believe they did, and there are many out there that see them as nothing more than folklore and stories left over from a far-away culture. Instead, Martin prefers taking up the task of telling each story, and bringing out its full potential to a modern audience. It doesn’t really seem to matter here if the tales are true or not, because they are reflections on our own lives, here and now. In his commentary, Martin shows that each Jataka stands on its own, fiction or non, because the lessons we take from them can affect us deeply, here and now.

Something we fail to realize is that this life, right here, now, is a Jataka in the making. We might not be a talking crow or a monkey king, but we do each have our own stories of struggle developing these 10 perfections, developing the life of a Buddha. Something that I appreciated while reading these tales was how much the Buddha struggled through his previous lives! It wasn’t always so easy for him, and sometimes he failed miserably. It should give us hope then, that the struggles we work through here in this life are not just the mud of life, but they have the potential to become the very thing that drives us on this difficult path we walk.

I wholeheartedly recommended Endless Path to any practitioner out there. There are lessons we can all take away from these Jatakas and Martin’s commentary on them. As I said, these tales are for people of all ages. So those of you out there with children have the added bonus of being able to read these tales to them, and maybe create your own commentary, something that touches you and your family.

 

Cheers.

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Filed under Book Review, Buddhism

On and off the shelf

It’s about 1am on Thursday night, and we’ve just got our 1 month old daughter, Zoa, to sleep. It’s been and on-and-off (mostly on) struggle to get her down at night. And then my son Corbin wakes up. I go in, try to comfort him, but nothing works. I’m not able to get him back to sleep until nearly 5am, and then have to wake up at 6:45 to head to work.

In this 4 hour period I go from rage to depression to fear to calm to half-asleep to happy. No where do I find my Buddhism. Why? Because it is in its usual resting place, the shelf.

The Literal Shelf:

I haven’t meditated since before my daughter was born, which was a month ago. My son has been sleeping less at night, sometimes waking up for 4-5 hours, sometimes 30 minutes at a time 3-4 times a night. Or sometimes he sleeps right through. My daughter hasn’t been going to sleep well either. I used to do my meditation routine at night, right after everyone was in bed. Meditate, or sleep… meditate, or sleep…. not really a hard choice on my part now. Setting up the altar and meditating in the morning isn’t really an option, as I wake up with my son (anywhere from 4:30am-7am) and there is no chance in hell I can sit staring at the floor with him running around loose.

So right now, my Buddhism sits on the shelf, in the form of a book usually. I’ve decided that for now, study shall suffice, at least until we can get some kind of regular night-time and sleep routine going. I realize that meditation is only a tiny part of Buddhist and Zen practice, I do. I realize that really living the path means bringing the teachings with you into the mud of life. But I’m having enough difficulty just remembering to take out the damn trash, let alone to do it “mindfully”. I have no teacher, no formal sangha. My knowledge is a lacking, and my insights are few and rare. Right now study isn’t just a way to practice while being convienent, but is a necessary and important part of my practice for today and tomorrow. I simply wish I had the time, capacity, and patience to bring “it” off the shelf more often. Which brings me to-

The Figurative Shelf:

I notice more and more that the times when I’m “being a Buddhist”, come short and fast, and they are gone. I can remember to breathe from the hara, but then it’s gone as soon as my breath leaves. And when I remember again a few minutes later, I kick myself when I look at all the crap I filled my head up with in between.

But much of my life is no different from this. Those feelings I had late the other night, they came and went faster than I would have admitted at the time. I’m finding most of my life resides on the shelf. Little stories I have of “me” to be taken down and checked out when convenient. Some of them barely get out of their usual space before they come right back, while others are near impossible to put back once taken.

 

Anger in its many forms is one of these. Stress, rage, loneliness, burden. This story I call “Only my self and the fire” is an old and familiar one. One too familiar, and not old enough. I know how harmful it can be, yet its pages suck me in and keep me there longer than I’d like. But eventually a chapter or two in, and I realize how many times I have read this one, and how it always ends the same. As time passes I’m finding that it goes back on the shelf a little easier each time, and that it takes me a page or two less each time to get it there. Progress.

There is another, one titled “Riding on Cloud 9 in Fantasy Land”. This story sits on my shelf more often than not, but when I pick it up, I am transported. Taken away to a place where nothing can harm me. No bill collectors are allowed here and everyone has a perfect credit score. People don’t fight. Kids sleep through the night. Cats scoop their own litter box. Cars repair themselves for free. Everything works out in the end here. This book isn’t just hard to put back on the shelf, it’s impossible. The only way to get it back on the shelf is if another one of my stories knocks it out of my hand. I don’t like it when that happens. I really enjoy that story.

And this goes on and on and on. These novels and short stories that I’ve created for me and about me, are constantly going from hand to shelf, hand to shelf. The speed at which must be quite dizzying to onlookers, as I know it wears me out. And to top it off, there are times at which the books and stories I’m grabbing seem to have no real rhyme or reason, other than to grab them and hold on.

I’ve done this for years and my shelf is in disarray. Unfortunately, I’ve been viewing Buddhism and spirituality as just another story, to take on and off the shelf. If I had the presence of mind, I’d open up the pages, and realize that they aren’t things to be taken off the shelf and put back on at a whim. No, these are much more powerful. They are a Dewey Decimal system to keep these books organized. Help me clean them up and put them where they go. Separate the fiction from non-fiction. Buddhism and spirituality are there for when it’s time to let some of these books go, and reduce some of my inventory.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to do this type research needed into these very special ‘books’. They are there at home now, sitting on that damned shelf. Too often I leave them on that shelf, ignored until they are to be picked up when convienent.

In a flurry, on and off they go.

But they are an empty shelf!

Just hear without the noise.

Unite heart and mind.

Cheers.

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Dots, Portmanteau and taking requests

 

Just a quick hodge-podge today.

First, there is only 1 week left to get in your nominations for the Blogisattva awards! The awards were created “To recognize and honor excellence within the Buddho-blogosphere” awhile back by Tom Armstrong, and have since been brought back to life by Nate DeMontigny and Kyle Lovett. These awards have nothing to do with who is the best Buddhist, most dedicated practitioner, or anything like that. They were created as a fun way to foster a bit of community in the blogosphere and recognize excellence in blogging. There are many categories in which you could nominate someone you think deserves to be recognized like “Best Achievement in Skilled Writing” or “Best ‘Life’ Blog” or “Best Achievement in Kind and Compassionate Blogging”.

I’m not posting this just so someone will nominate me (seriously, there are better blogs out there than this one!), but so that when the time comes to decide the winners, there will be a diverse group of blogs/bloggers that will have been nominated. So if you know of a really excellent blog out there, go nominate it! Another really great thing about the site is the meta-list of Buddhist blogs, websites, and other things dharma/interweb related. Currently there are over 400 sites listed there. So if you have a Buddhist flavored blog and aren’t already on the list, make sure to include your site there on the directory. You can find the Blogisattva site here. (you can also click on the picture over on the right hand side there…).

Not sure who to nominate? Don’t read that many blogs, or are looking for some good new ones to read? Have no fear, Anoki Casey is here with Dharma Dots. Anoki is the man/myth/legend behind Buddha Badges, Altar Bot, and more interweb projects than there are Ganges sands. Dharma Dots is a blog aggregator with what I consider some of the best Dharma-flavored blogs out there. And many thanks to Anoki for adding this corvid to the Dot matrix.

And finally, I would like to ask all 7 of my readers if they have any suggestions or requests on blog topics. I’m really open to anything, but would like to focus on topics that might help to foster discussion. So feel free to leave a comment if you have any ideas or suggestions.

Cheers.

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The Lesser of Two Evils

It’s election day. Well, kind of. Here in Washington State, we receive our ballots in the mail a few weeks before the election. I love this as it gives me the ability to look at an initiative or candidate on the ballot, read through the voter’s pamphlet, and do some research online all at the same time, and all in my underwear with a bottle of home brew in my hand if I so choose.

I’ve really been struggling this election. Usually I refuse to succumb to the “lesser of two evils” approach to voting. Thankfully in my state there were 8-10 candidates running for President that made it onto our ballot in ’08, so I didn’t have to choose between 2 candidates I felt would have been bad for the job. However now that the primaries are over, I don’t really have that choice in the current election. It’s either red/blue democrat/republican (and all establishment) on pretty much all of the races. In the past I’ve voted as a way to endorse a candidate I felt would represent my and my districts/states interests well, and if neither candidate was worthy, I would abstain in that particular category.

The lesser of two evils? Not according to this interesting bar graph...

But I don’t have that luxury this time around. To not consider the ramifications of my actions is irresponsible and naïve. The Senate race between Senator Murray and challenger Dino Rossi is a close one, and could sway the majority in the Senate one way or the other. The race in my Congressional district is also a fairly close one. My choices in these two races are actually pretty easy as I like both Rick Larsen and Patty Murray, and feel like they do a good job most of the time. Some of the state races I’ve yet to decide about though. It’s an important decision as it is a census year. The congress that we elect will have the power to draw up new district maps, which will influence politics, elections, and federal money destinations for the next 10 years.

We also have several ballot initiatives here. 2 concerning the state liquor laws, one that proposes a state income tax on those making over 200,000/year (or 400,000 combined family) and one that deals with taxes on junk food and bottled water.

The reason I’m posting about this here is because in Buddhism we can’t leave our ethics and morality on the proverbial cushion. If we are to truly engage the precepts and teachings, then we must strive to apply them in all aspects of our lives. And at the core of those teachings is the process of examination. There isn’t a blanket list of “do’s” and “don’ts” (except for some directed at the monastics) in Buddhism. Instead we’re asked to examine each moment and situation as it is, fully and use the precepts and teachings to help guide our actions. We must contemplate the possible effects of our actions, as well as our intentions and the motivations behind those intentions. I don’t think there is a Buddhist Way to vote, nor do I advocate any such premise. But I do believe that we should bring our process of examination into those political actions that we undertake. Buddhist practice isn’t something to turn on and off like a light switch (though it is a stubborn switch to leave on, isn’t it?) when we please. It is something that we bring into the marketplace, into the dust and dirt of life.

The moral and ethical teachings are relative for a reason. There are no one-size-fits all answers to the questions and situations that arise in this vast world. Instead what we have are guideposts, and tiny bodhisattvas that sit on our shoulders and ask us “why?” “where does this volition come from?” And so it should be when it comes time to make a decision that will effect not only my life, but my children’s, my neighbors, and this whole world.

Take for instance the liquor law initiative. Right now in this state, if you want liquor, you have to go to a state-run liquor store to buy it. It’s kind of a pain in the ass, and the prices are pretty high. When I first moved here I was blown away at this draconian system. However if this initiative rolls through, the liquor stores will be gone and grocery stores can begin selling liquor on their shelves. With this comes the end of a government monopoly (something I usually oppose depending on the issue) increased access, and lower prices on booze. But this also comes with increased access for teens to obtain alcohol, a loss of revenue for the state (which we currently CANNOT afford) and a loss of jobs for all of those employees. Here, sticking to an ideal (government = bad, private sector = always better) would have potentially fatal consequences, and have ramifications that will stretch out far and wide. If this doesn’t pass, we still have booze, albeit an ineffectual system for distributing it. Personally I’d like to see some modifications of the current laws (more stores, open more hours, lower prices) that kept revenue flowing to the state and liquor out of the hands of kids as much as possible.

I hate broad brushes. I’ve never once voted straight-party. Liberal or Conservative, neither has all the right answers. The lines between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are blurry at times. Life is relative. And I think this is why the Democratic party consistently fails. They embrace the relative while the Republicans stick to their ideals and policy of absolutes. They always have 1 message. 1 platform. The Democrats have more messages and more platforms than The Flying Spaghetti Monster has noodly appendages. It’s a tough sell when your party slogan makes for a better .PDF than a placard. But this is a more accurate description of America, isn’t it? Do we have one voice about anything? I digress…

I have no interest in thinking about how The Buddha would vote, or voting in a “Buddhist” way. The Christian Right has been doing this for years in our country. Groupthink and religious politics largely disgusts me.  However I am interested applying the dharma to my decision-making process in and of itself. Not in choosing who to vote for, but in examining the process I’ll use in making my decisions.

Cheers.

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The Eight Gates of Zen and Invoking Reality

 

John Daido Loori, Roshi

Recently I read both the Eight Gates of Zen and Invoking Reality; both titles by the late John Daido Loori, Roshi. For awhile now I’ve been looking for a presentation of Buddhist practice tailored to a Western convert such as myself that didn’t also strip the dharma of all of the culture that it has inherited over its many centuries of evolution. Well, these books are it.

The Eight Gates of Zen is a manual written to explain the path being taken by a student at Loori’s Zen Mountain Monastery in New York State. The path takes up the Eight Gates (zazen, study with a teacher, academic study, liturgy, right action, art practice, body practice and work practice) and combines them with the 10 ox herding pictures to form a disciplined and formative way of practice. For the home practitioner such as myself, this book serves as a reminder that practice happens “in the mud of life”, and shouldn’t be put away with your meditation cushion after your daily zazen.

To me, it seemed as if the entire purpose of this book was to speak directly to the Western convert, espousing the dharma in a way that held on to its traditional roots while at the same time being an expression of our current time and culture here in North America. If you are looking for an introduction to Zen or Buddhism, I don’t think this book is the right one. Loori assumes you already know something about the basic terms being used and have a general knowledge base to work with. Terms like teisho, satoori, Mu; these are all used freely and if someone has no experience with these, they’d have to spend a decent amount of time making notes and referencing the vocabulary used. Thankfully I have enough experience with the language being used here, and this book seemed aimed at someone at right about my level (though it will be something to work with for years to come).

Loori makes it a point to establish two different paths for monastics and the laity, something which makes sense to me. I have no desire to take up the path of a monk; I have a family that I love very much and want to spend as much time with as possible. But this isn’t an obstacle as far as Loori sees it. Here he has laid out a path for the lay person that is just as involved, engaged, and intimate as the path for the monastic. However at the same time he brings us back to the heart of it by explaining that the two paths really are one, and that we both “leave home” in some sense.

I found the content in the book extremely well presented, it was clear (as much as Zen can be of course ;)) and the material was laid out so well that one could use this book as a study point for many years (which is something I know I will do). Additionally, in the end of the book Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers Sutta appears, the sutra that Loori drew much of his inspiration from. Upon first reading I really love this sutra, and plan to study it more intensely in the future. Following that, there is a Zazen checklist (wonderful for a beginner like me), an “Introduction to the Zendo”, Jukai, and a section of Daily Liturgy. For me the Daily Liturgy will definitely come in handy (anyone know of an audio version of the Heart Sutra being chanted in English?) as it will give me something new to recite and chant if I so choose. Also, at the end there is an extensive “recommended reading” list that I plan on working my way through over the coming years (decades?). Seriously if you haven’t read this book, go get it. So far this has been the best book on Buddhism I’ve read yet. It was engaging, poetic, and concise.

There were many “a-ha!” moments throughout the book, but none for me as powerful as the following paragraph in the chapter “The  Still Point: Zazen:

The very first sitting of the rank beginner, whether properly or improperly executed, is at once the complete and perfect manifestation of the zazen of countless Buddhas and ancestors of past, present, and future. From the zazen of countless Buddhas and ancestors, our own zazen emerges. From our own zazen, the zazen of countless Buddhas and ancestors is realized. As a result, we all live the life of Buddha, transcend Buddha, have the mind of Buddha and become Buddha.

I don’t know what it was about reading this, but all of a sudden there was this moment where the teachings of the Lotus Sutra were put into perspective, and it was as if for the first time I was really getting the Lotus Sutra. I don’t know if that makes any sense or not, but reading this really helped. I think it was just his style, and delivery to a Western audience that seemed to put much of the Lotus Sutra into a perspective that I could understand.

 

 

In Invoking Reality, Loori presents for us the moral and ethical teachings of Zen in the context of the Three Treasures, the Three Pure Precepts, and the Ten Grave precepts. From the beginning Loori states:

Enlightenment and morality are one. Enlightenment without morality is not true enlightenment. Morality without enlightenment is not complete morality. Zen is not beyond morality, but a practice that takes place within the world, based on moral and ethical teachings.

Living the precepts is living the life of a Buddha. Nothing could be clearer having read this book. It is quite a short read (only 97 pages) and in that sense did leave a little to be desired. I think he did a fantastic job of describing the precepts, how they function, and their role in our daily lives and practice. In Invoking Reality Loori assures us that the precepts are not some stagnant set of rules to follow, but they are a living, breathing dynamic system to follow in order to live this life as a Buddha. The whole phenomenal universe is co-dependant, constantly originating, coming and going. The 16 precepts are a response to this transitory nature of the universe we live, work, and breathe in.

Overall I really enjoyed this book, though I felt at times Loori got lost in his poetry. I love his style of writing but when presenting the 10 grave precepts, more specifics would have helped since this book seemed to be geared toward and introduction to Buddhist (Zen) ethics and morality.

This book is an excellent reminder that Buddhism is a moral and ethical system, and to divorce our practice from this realization is to divorce ourselves from the Buddha and what he taught. I plan on reading some more of John Daido Loori’s works in the future. Truly his was an original voice in Western Buddhism, one that has spoken to me directly. I appreciate his appeal to traditions of old while crafting something original and meaningful to a new audience in the West; all while focusing on the “mud” of life and dharma.

Cheers.

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Filed under Book Review, Buddhism

A Zen cage for my monkey mind: my journey into Buddhism (part 2 of 2)

 

So in my post yesterday I gave a little background into my motivations for taking up this Buddhist path. For me, recollecting this was an important part of my current journey. Ever since breaking ties with SGI, I’ve been fine being an “unaffiliated” Buddhist. However, I’ve been realizing more and more that this type of path is so crooked and covered in brambles that I’m never likely to make it far. I know myself enough to know that “loose-knit” just isn’t going to work for me.

On my last post a commenter asked if committing to a particular school was necessary (I go this question on Twitter as well). I don’t think that it is absolutely necessary. However, rather than finding it limiting or too narrow, I find practicing within a framework more liberating. I have no real access to a real life teacher/dharma center/sitting group which makes focus hard enough as it is. Family matters are my primary concern, along with my 40+ hour/week job. So for me, establishing at least some type of framework will be liberating in the sense that I’ll be a little less scattered and a little more focused in my pursuits.

So I’m leaning toward Zen. That’s something I never thought I’d say actually. In the beginning I thought Theravada was the path for me, being as close as one could get to one of the original schools of Buddhism. That was important because at the time I was only really concerned with what The Buddha™ taught. I thought that Zen was so far off from anything the Buddha taught that it shouldn’t really be called Buddhism. I also thought that since the Mahayana sutras were probably not conceived until well after the Buddha died, that made them invalid on some level.

Well that was then and this is now. I’m finding that Zen is a practice that better suits a lay person with my motivations than others I’ve encountered and looked into. I’ve realized that it doesn’t really matter if the Buddha delivered the Mahayana sutras or not, because they and the schools that use them work; for me the proof is in the pudding. I should also state that my decision to pursue Zen didn’t come about because of an aversion to another school. I don’t care about who is right or wrong. Dharma pissing contests are as important to me as Protestants who squabble over whether baptisms should consist of water splashed on the head or being submerged in a Louisiana swamp. I’m choosing this path because it speaks to me, not because all the other ones don’t.

It seems to me that Zen very much focuses on the nature of mind, but brings it down into the dirty marketplace of life. Particularly I have an interest in the Rinzai school and their greater focus on koans (I also so far enjoy Hakuin more than I do Dogen) though as I said without a teacher/center close by it doesn’t really make any sense for me to narrow things down that much. I also understand some of the limitations I’ll face by “going it alone” for the time being, but I’m fine with that. I have much to study, and a meditation practice to integrate more fully with my daily routine. Maybe once things are settled a bit with the baby and I figure out what I’m doing about school in the winter, I’ll drop by a temple in Seattle a few times next year and find out if that’s something I want to pursue with regularity in the future.

So there it is. For now I’ll be using a Zen cage to trap my monkey mind. That doesn’t mean that I’ve suddenly adopted a set of beliefs and now believe in the greater Zen dogma. For me it’s more like a rusty compass to help me get where I’m going.

Cheers.

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The 2nd noble truth: my journey into Buddhism (part 1 of 2)

If this sticky, uncouth craving overcomes you in the world,

your sorrows grow like wild grass after rain.

If, in the world,

you overcome this uncouth craving,

hard to escape,

sorrows roll off you, like water beads off a lotus.

— from the Dhammapada

My journey into Buddhism began long before I knew anything about the dharma. Lately during meditation, some memories that I had previously not paid much attention to have begun to surface. Memories of times when I was deeply interested in mind, the process of mind, and the nature of mind. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, somewhere between 8-13 though. I can remember moments where I became obsessed with mind. How is it that I could watch my mind, and the inner dialogue I was having? Were there two of me? And if I noticed that I was able to watch my inner dialogue, was that then a 3rd person/mind/self present? These issues bugged the absolute crap out of me at times, but as a child with ADHD soon I found something else to fixate upon and pass the time.

I also distinctly remember moments of timelessness. Where my concentration was so focused it wasn’t, where time was infinite and minute and neither of these, where the things around me didn’t exist with labels. But I remember them only as fading moments. Desperately I would try to get back to that state of concentration where the inner dialogue (which was always going at 100 MPH) was shut off. After awhile of this and the times spent contemplating my mind, I remember deciding that these things were impossible to figure out, and that if I spent my time attempting to, I’d probably end up in a padded cell. I never really gave these times too much thought the rest of my youth. Occasionally I’d do some quiet contemplation, but nothing formal or serious or anything really worth mentioning. I don’t want to label these moments as I fear that I’d be putting them through a filter that wasn’t there at the time.

I’ve spoken about my religious upbringing enough on this blog, so I won’t bore you with that again. I’ll flash forward to 3-4 years ago. After adopting some of my wife’s pagan beliefs and embracing a more pantheistic world-view, I still somehow felt that my true spiritual calling was still out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered. After we settled in to our new apartment in Bellingham, we decided to have a look around town, and it happened that there was an SGI center just a couple of blocks away from where we were living. I had no idea what SGI was, and my wife informed me that she used to practice with them. I knew she had chanted and practiced some kind of Buddhism as a youth, but never really dug into it. Well, considering the close proximity of the center, I decided to check out the whole Buddhist thing. I started by going to SGI’s main website, but that didn’t do much for my investigative mind. So I started at wiki, and searched around a bit at urban dharma and I found the Four Noble Truths.

Whoa.

This, to me was it. Life is unsatisfactory. There is a root cause for why life is in an unsatisfactory state. There is a way to make escape this unsatisfactory existence, and the way to do that is the Noble Eightfold Path.

What really hooked me was the 2nd noble truth. Yes, craving and desire and clinging and attachment are bad. But that isn’t all. Craving is so bad because what we crave is an illusion. Our whole lives are illusionary. Our eyes are liars. Our ears are liars. Our mind is the ultimate trickster.

For me this struck at the core of the problem of mind I experienced as a youth as well as some other unanswered questions I carried with me into adulthood. It was learning about the Buddha’s diagnosis of why we were sick and that he had a prescription that sold me instantly. So I began to read, investigate, listen to podcasts, and try to figure out a way to ‘be a Buddhist’.

For me it is still about the 2nd Noble truth more than the others (though I understand they all work in conjunction). My primary focus on this path lies in discovering the delusional self, exposing it for what it is. Quenching craving. Starving desire. Caging my monkey mind. Peering into the unknown.

I haven’t been doing much of that lately though! Too busy! Also I’ve been mostly reading, studying, thinking, questioning. I have yet to decide on a particular school of Buddhism and lately as far as my practice is concerned that’s where I’ve been focused. Part 2 of this post will deal with that in more detail as I didn’t want to post another TLDR. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a 5 day old baby girl to take care of!

Cheers.

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My thoughts on “Socially Engaged” Buddhism

There certainly has been quite a lot of talk lately about Socially Engaged Buddhism, and whether or not it is crap, real, necessary, or unavoidable. I’ve completely avoided commenting anywhere on any of the posts about this. I’m guessing that if you read this blog, you’ve seen some of the discussions come up elsewhere as well. If not, check out Nathan’s blog for his take (he also linked to most of the other discussions/posts there) as I think it’s worth reading.

I’ve thought quite a bit about this the last couple of days, and given it quite a bit of thought. Let’s start with defining it. From Wiki:

Engaged Buddhism refers to Buddhists who are seeking ways to apply the insights from meditation practice and dharma teachings to situations of social, political, environmental, and economic suffering and injustice. Finding its roots in Vietnam through the Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Engaged Buddhism has grown in popularity in the West.

John over at Point of Contact had this to say:

(via Jizo Chronicles) How is this different than mundane/non-engaged/boring Buddhism? Because still the only difference I see in the inclusion of social activism. And with that inclusion you can count me out. My activism is not dictated by my religion but is an organic creation from my personal, day-to-day practice.

Why put a meaningless label on it?

(via Point of Contact)Don’t practice social engagement as a Buddhist.  Don’t practice charity as a Buddhist. Don’t show compassion as a Buddhist. These are the things that every personal practice should contain without contraining them with religious identity.  When you chose to show charity, compassion or social engagement as a part of your personal practice you can do so without waving a religious banner.  Do it for the benefit for others.  Period.  End of sentence.  No strings attached.  No politics or banners.  Slogans or comments.  No conversions or evangelizing.

Part of me certainly agrees with John. When one is engaged fully in their practice, the changes one incurs will naturally be brought out into other aspects into their lives. But part of me agrees with what we find in the definition here. “Buddhists who are seeking ways to apply the insights” to me says that people are seeking a vehicle in which to apply what they have learned and experienced to greater social causes. This is the same thing we find with organized/structured religion. One might not want to use labels or constructs, but I think having a Zen or Pure Land or Therevadan framework is helpful and can be conductive. They are rafts to use when crossing the river, which are to be discarded when one reaches the other shore. I’m wondering if this is what those that consider themselves Socially Engaged Buddhists are doing as well.

Kyle over at The Reformed Buddhist had this to say the other day:

I don’t want this to come across as yet another rant against politics or social justice, as these are all fine undertakings, just as much as opening a soup kitchen, teaching a child to ride a bike or making dinner for the family. But when we attempt to justify these endeavors as the purpose or goal of Buddhist teachings, then the practice becomes something other than Buddhism. They are at best, distractions from our practice and are just more squirrel mind running ramped. And at worst, they are delusional additions to Buddhist teachings in order to create an artificial goal of happiness, or social change or whatever the extra desires may be.

What he and a few others referred to was that the goal (yes, I know….) of Buddhist practice isn’t to help others, do charitable works or any of the other things that fall under the “Socially Engaged” tent, but rather that the end goal of Buddhism is the cessation of suffering. Certainly I agree with that. Plenty of the Pali texts end with the Buddha bringing whatever it was that he was teaching in that particular sutta back to the Four Noble Truths. It always comes back to suffering, the source of suffering, the knowledge that there is a way to end suffering and then the path out of suffering.  And with this again, I have to agree.

And yet, Nathan had this to say regarding the “looking (only) within” aspect of the path:

This is an old, old debate between those who argue Buddhism is about working to disengage from worldly concerns, and those who see Buddhism as a path that includes coming back to “the marketplace” (Ox Herding Pics) if you will. I think everyone is on a continuum between these two extremes, from solitary monks living in the mountains to lifelong social activists whose work is deliberately guided by Buddhist teachings.

With Nathan I have to agree as well. But I think that even within each individual we find people fall into different places on their own continuum. Some of us bring our practice into politics, others check it at the door. But those who bring it into politics might not bring it with the same fervor when it comes to familial manners. And it is here where I think some of John and Kyle’s (and others!) frustrations over who gets to define what “Engaged Buddhism” means. I am no less engaged than someone else simply because I decide to not be as vocal about issues of race or gender equality as others out there who may not be as vocal about environmental or poverty issues as I am (examples). I also wonder if it’s a slippery slope into “if you are an Engaged Buddhist, you will vote/believe/speak out against/for topics a, b, and c.”

Along these same lines, I have seen plenty of suttra thumping over various topics around the blogosphere/forums/interwebs. Rather than analyzing their own intentions, opinions, and leanings; there are those that would simply say “I’m a Buddhist so I believe such and such”. If I ever say that, please kick me in the nuts. I didn’t adopt a specific set of beliefs when I decided to walk this path. I never said “Hey, I’m a Buddhist now, so I believe in “z” because it says so in X suttra.” Those are all appeals to authority and the Buddha-dharma has no room for those. Now I do believe that belief has a large role to play in Buddhism, but it is more of a trust-based belief. The way that you follow the advice of a doctor even though you don’t fully understand the science behind what it is he has to say. You apply the advice, and if it works, well, it works.

Much of this path lies in the process of discovery and inquiry. Something I’ve been digging at lately is the topic of abortion. Certainly it is a social and political issue. Does Engaged Buddhism allow for both Pro-Choice and Pro-life social activists? (I think I’ll save my personal thoughts on this for a later post.) If “economic justice” is included in Engaged Buddhism, does a Buddhist Tea-Partier that believes we shouldn’t tax the wealthy at a higher rate than the poor have the same voice as the liberal who believes we should tax people because they are wealthy? One could argue issues of economic “justice” for either side depending on one’s politics. Maybe that’s where things are getting messy for some. Maybe it’s that people are bringing their politics into Buddhism, rather than bringing their practice to their politics.

Is this all just coming down to “who gets to define ‘engaged'”? Is it just about the labels?

One final thought. John had raised some points about doing things in the name of Buddhism. Certainly many of us here in the US are familiar with Christian organizations that give out a side-order of proselytizing with their charity. During my homeless months in Seattle, I slept in a church basement at night. We were never preached to nor were we asked to even attend service. Some did and some didn’t. It was truly charity for charity sake. Of course, there was also one of the food lines I stood in where they handed out Vitamin C tablets with a Jesus pamphlet (had to take it if you wanted the vitamin). These two different approaches definitely left two distinct tastes in my mouth (and not just because of the vitamins).

So it got me thinking. Imagine the week after the earthquake in Haiti, two groups of people went down to dig two wells. The first group is a Christian/Jewish/Buddhist/Muslim/pick your religion group who goes down and announces that they are the “X religious group” here to dig a well. They dig, and leave without ever directly trying to convert anyone, but they are sure to mention that “hey, we’re such and such, of course we’ll help!” Awesome. Well is dug and people have clean drinking water.

The second group has no affiliation. They are just a bunch of random strangers that met on craigslist and wanted to help out in Haiti. So they go down and dig the well. The villagers ask “are you with such-and-such church?”. “No” they reply. “We’re just fellow humans, of course we’ll help.” Awesome. Well is dug and people have clean drinking water.

In then end isn’t the well still dug either way? Or is there a difference? Does it matter if the religous group leaves their conversion attempts at their door, even if they announce they are doing God’s/Allah’s/Cthulu’s work? (I have yet to see a charitable Cthulu cult but if you know of one, please let me know).

At first when I came up with this scenario I thought the second group’s impact would be much more profound in that the beneficiaries of their charitable actions would see that it doesn’t take any type of organization or religion to foster compassion for fellow human beings and such. But then I realized that compassion is a key component in many of the world’s religions, and something most of us could all work on in our daily lives. And that it’s nice to have an organization to support that effort. It’s nice to have a website and an organization to find like-minded people with which one can be of service to others. Because while the second group sure is a nice ideal, we all know what people really use craigslist for 😉

So really I’m fairly undecided about all this. And that was the real intent behind this post. I realized that I had no preconceived opinion about Socially Engaged Buddhism. And that listening to all the dialogue going back and forth was interesting, but it wasn’t an organic way to form an opinion that was mine. I’m usually quite opinionated, but for some reason this issue threw up a huge road block for me. It was awesome. I’ve no doubt that social conditioning has some part to play in whatever opinion I do ultimately form around this, but it’s liberating and refreshing knowing that I can walk into a discussion and have zero knee-jerk responses. I’m not sure the last time that has happened.

I came across the following from the Pabbata Sutta that I think fits nicely with this theme:

“ Like a mountain of rock
in the wilderness, in a mighty grove,
dependent on which there prosper
lords of the forest, great trees —
in the same way,
those who here live dependent on
a clansman of conviction
— consummate in virtue —
prosper:
wife & children,
friends, dependents, & kin.

Seeing the virtue of that virtuous one,
his liberality & good conduct,
those who are perceptive follow suit.
Having, here in this world, followed the Dhamma,
the path to a good destination,
they delight in the world of the devas,
enjoying the pleasures they desire.”

Cheers.

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Life!

Life has had me very busy these past few weeks. We had been planning on having a c-section scheduled for our daughter that is due to arrive in the next couple of weeks. Turns out that is no longer necessary, which is a huge relief. But that still means that lots of preparations have to be made, and a lot of my deadlines have been moved up at work. I have a few posts in the works, but my internet use has been fairly sporadic.

Speaking of internet use, I’ve created a little tumblr account. Photography is something I’ve always been mildly interested in but never really pursued. Lately I’ve had the bug to take more photos and focus on it a bit more. To showcase some of those photos (as well as force me to take some so I’ll have something to post) I created Dharma Snapshots. Nothing fancy. Just some photos that I’ve taken and liked, as well as some teeny tiny dharma tidbits I find and enjoy. Feel free to look around there. I’ve added a link up at the top of this blog that will take you directly there.

Cheers.

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Everyone is homeless…

I contacted Anoki over at Buddha Badges a few weeks ago about creating a special badge that centered around homelessness (something near to my heart as I’ve blogged about previously…), and using Homeless Kodo (Kodo Sawaki) as a theme for that badge. He produced a very cool badge with the quote “Everyone is homeless” on it. All proceeds from the purchase of this particular badge will go to an organization called Farestart. Farestart is an organization in Seattle that provides job training in the restaraunt industry to the homeless, as well as provide meals to those in need. It is an excellent organization, and one that I was familiar with from my days in Seattle. The badges only cost $1, and .90¢ from every purchase goes directly to the charity (the rest goes towards supplies). Please give the Homeless Kodo badge a look and support this charity if you have a buck to spare.

Cheers.

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“I never really cared for smells & bells” – an Interview with Jomon of the blog “Nothing to Attain”

Every so often, Nate over at the Precious Metal blog throws out a call for some sort of blog swap. This time we were tasked with interviewing the blogger we were paired up with. You can see a list of all those participating here. I was paired up with Jomon (Laura) from the wonderful blog “Nothing to Attain“. Update: my portion of the interview is up at Laura’s blog here. Here’s the interview:

In exactly 108 words, describe Laura to the world.

Hah!  I have really go to work on being too dang wordy!  108 words would be a great practice for the blog!

Speaking of transplanting (see her questions to me on her blog), what about it met your expectations? What about moving to the West Coast shocked you or failed to live up to your expectations? What is it that you miss about the Mid-West? What is it that you will never, ever miss?

I miss my parents and my mid-West friends but they now have a wonderful place to visit.  I seriously miss Major League Baseball.  Portland is tough for baseball fans, and worse for this third-generation Cardinals fan (my maternal grandmother used to take my mom out of school to watch games).  Not only does Portland not have a major league baseball team, we are losing our AAA team!  So my husband Patrick got the iPhone app that allows us to listen to all the MLB radio broadcasts.  We get to hear all the corny St Louis area car dealer commercials we grew up with.  And don’t hate me, but I still love Budweiser.  I know, seriously, I’m living in Beervana, and I still love Budweiser.  I tried, I really did.  I guess you can take the girl outta St Louis…

I do believe it is safe to say that I will never, ever miss pulling ticks off of my skin and clothing after hikes in the woods.  I continue to be shocked and awed by the beauty of the PNW.   That and the prevalence of Buddhism.  The midwest has pockets of teachers and practice centers, but not the wealth we have on the coasts, especially the number of retreat centers.  And Portland!  Throw a baseball in Southeast Portland and you’re likely to hit a Buddhist.

How do you balance your personal life with your practice/sangha?

Personal life has pretty much fused with practice / sangha.  My husband and I got married at Great Vow Zen Monastery.  We had a realization that spiritual practice needed to be at the center of our lives.  We didn’t need to be in the same tradition; we just happen to be lucky that we both managed to find our way onto the same path.

So now my husband is the president of the ZCO Board, and I’ve been the Portland Shuso for the past year, and serving on a few committees as well.  We both have held various service positions, like chant leader, and bell-ringer over the years.  I guess our center is benefitting from the fact that we don’t and probably won’t have children.  I feel something like motherly love towards our Sangha and temple.  Patrick and I sometimes look at each other, awestruck at whatever it is — luck, good karma — that brought us to such a place of deep, authentic practice.

Letsee, though, non-Buddhist stuff — dragonboating is a great activity — I’ve been taking a bunch of yoga classes, doing photography, going to basketball or baseball games.  We do our best to get out into the forests or camping on the coast.  And there may be another attempt at a dog this fall.  We are such dog people; it is painful to be without a dog for this long.

Do you have a favorite sutra, or one that speaks to you more than any others?

You mean like reading the Sutras?  Heretofore I have not done a lot of reading on Zen and Buddhism.  I know that is a bit backwards from many practitioners, who get inspired by reading then start practicing.  I have read some of the Vimilakirti Sutra.  Just reading Robert Thurman’s intro to his translation was enough for me to chew on for months!

We regularly chant the Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra.  That is where the name of my blog comes from:  “With nothing to attain a Bodhisattva relies on Prajna paramita and thus the mind is without hindrance.  Without hindrance there is no fear.”

One of my biggest struggles in life and in practice is with attainment.  Getting somewhere.  Being somebody.  Improving.  Meeting goals and objectives.  It gets at the heart of a deep assumption that I am somebody and that there is something inherently wrong, or unworthy about that somebody.  The words “nothing to attain” serve as such a great reminder that this is not at all the case.

Same question kind of, but instead of sutra, whats the one koan that has spoken to you, or ‘shook’ you more than any other?

This is a good question — my experience with koan practice in general is that koan practice itself shakes me to the core, and then shakes that ‘core’ apart!  Koans lure out all our best strategies and then they reveal those strategies to us as completely ineffectual.  I suspect they are all pointing to something more than just our best thinking and strategies.  I have most recently worked on “the True Person of no rank,” and that one flirted with me, charmed me, and then it grabbed me and held on.

What’s up with Rinzai?  What made you choose Rinzai? It seems that the Soto school of Zen is the more popular one here in the US, so I’m wondering what it was that drew you there.

Our teachers come from the Yasutani-Maezumi lineage, which is really a fusion of Soto and Rinzai.  Currently their teacher is Shodo Harada Roshi, a Rinzai teacher, and his influence can be felt deeply.  I certainly didn’t research all the branches of Buddhism and then pick “The One” for me.  I just happened to trip over myself and land in the laps of some very amazing teachers who have come out of this / these lineages.  It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t go all researching about.  I would have developed a bunch of ideas about what Zen is, what Rinzai and Soto is, and it probably would have made a convincing argument to myself to stay the hell away from all of it!  Zen has such a macho rep, and there is some truth to that, I suppose.  I hear some of that from people who from the outside say Zen is “too disciplined”, “too regimented”, “too cold”.  I have been fortunate to practice in a woman-led Sangha, and with such skilled teachers, and such a mature Sangha, that in my experience, there is a really huge, warm heart in Zen!  Roshi Chozen has been doing a Metta Sesshin for many years.  It was controversial at first because Metta is not officially a Zen practice, but she acknowledges there was some need to warm it up a little.

More on Rinzai: how would you describe Rinzai to someone that knows next to nothing about it? What advice would you give to someone thinking about diving in to that particular school?

I have rewritten this answer until it is hash.  And I still do not feel adequate to really say something useful and I am not exactly sure that the following is not  a bunch of bullcrap.  I can pretty much just say some of the things I have heard our teachers say about the distinction, and I have felt the distinction when they have done more Rinzai-inspired sesshin, so please, add grain o’ salt here.

One of the differences is that of gradual (Soto) vs immediate (Rinzai) enlightenment.  The Soto school stresses that we are already Buddha.  The Rinzai school stresses pointed effort and the experience of kensho.  To me, when you put them together, it is like Suzuki Roshi’s comment that we are all fine just the way we are, and we need to do better.

This intensity of Rinzai appeals to me very deeply.  We don’t know if this is our last moment.  So to practice intensely is in alignment with that deep truth.  And it reminds me of the wholeheartedness of dragon boating.  A close friend of mine described my husband and me as “constitutionally incapable of phoning it in.”  This is not to say that a Soto practice is not intense; that shikantaza is not an all-consuming practice.  This is why I defer an answer to an actual teacher.  What the hell do I know about it?

Rinzai, Soto, Zen, Insight, Shambhala… regardless of where you practice, the advice I would give anybody about diving into any spiritual community would be the same — to show up.  More than once.  To take your time, to observe, to pay attention to your heart and your head in equal measure, to ask around about the reputation of the place, to observe the senior students, to see if the people at this Temple have something you want.

If I knew anything about anything before I started practicing, I swear I would have thought I’d have to be an Insight Meditation practitioner wearing layers of colorful drapey clothing, and purple scarves, not so much Buddha, more mindfulness.  I never really cared for smells & bells.  I had to come at it slowly.  It took me a year to really begin a regular practice with the community downtown.  There was never any pressure, just a constant, open-handed offering.   I found that for me, it’s not really about the forms.  It’s the relationships.  The Sangha.  Whatever form that takes is not so important I think. I mean, it is, but the important thing is to practice.  To show up.  That is the most important thing.

What sparked the moment when you said Yes! Buddhism is it for me! (or whatever)

It was after my first weekend meditation retreat.  This was a super-gentle, Vipassana-led, women-only, completely permissive retreat at a really nice hippie-run hot springs resort out here.  You can’t get a more gentle intro to retreat practice.  And even so, holy shit it was hard!  All that sitting with my bored, pained, dissatisfied, worried, judging, self-critical self.  And while things did smooth out a little bit by the end of the retreat, it wasn’t until a few days afterwards that my soon-to-be husband and I were having a VERY painful discussion about our relationship, which was in crisis.  And for the first time in my life, I could actually HAVE that discussion, and actually hear him, and really hold his feelings and experience before just reacting with my own defensiveness.  It was not just mind-boggling, but it turned out to be what saved our relationship.  Yes!  Buddhism is for me!

Does your extended family all practice? Or are you the black sheep? How do they feel about it? Has it caused any strife?

My parents do not understand it at all.  I think they might worry a little bit.  They’re a bit old school Christians, and I know they’re a bit uncomfortable with the “graven images” of Buddha.  I get that.  But we can and do talk about it, and I think they have been reassured to some degree that there is no worship of an idol going on here.  There is nothing I could do to diminish my parents’ love for me.  They are worriers, though. As far as extended family Buddhists, I am apparently related to Jimmie Dale Gilmore by marriage.  It’s a fairly remote connection, but if you count my extended family out that far, then I’m not alone in practicing Buddhism.  Otherwise, yeah.  Becoming a Buddhist came totally outta left field for my family, but it’s not much of a struggle with them.  My dad isn’t interested.  I don’t talk about it much to them.  They really don’t get how we can take so much time off to attend retreats.  That is just so not in their Protestant Work Ethic frame of reference.  It’s become such a clear priority for our lives.  And our lives have been gradually reflecting more of this priority all the time. They just want me to be happy, and I think they can see a lot of the contentment and satisfaction, the fruits of practice, so that is reassuring to them.

What is it in life that you struggle with most?

Confidence.

What is it in your practice that you struggle with most?

Confidence.

What do you tell people who are unfamiliar with Buddhism when they ask you about it?

I think most people who are unfamiliar with Buddhism are surprised that all Buddhists are not necessarily vegetarians.  That and the Buddha is not worshipped as a God.

Why blog?

I have no idea!  Seriously!  I thought it would be for my Illinois friends and others.  I thought this would be how we could kind of stay in touch.  But they don’t really read my blog.  They’re always, “oh yeah.  What’s the address for that again?”  But now I have made a few connections through the blog that really does feel like community.  I am happy to be so focused on my own practice and the temple and all, but it is also really nice to have this broad sense of Sangha.  I think it’s a real connector for Gen X practitioners, too.  Our brick-and-mortar Sangha is comparatively well-dispersed generationally, but I know that is not really the case around the country, and there is some understandable concern about what will happen when the Boomer generation has gone.  Buddhist blogging can be a doorway into practice, I think.

What types of changes have you noticed in yourself/not-self since you began practicing?

Heh heh!  Not-self…  Yeah, that cookie keeps trying to crumble, which has not been a real comfy experience I tellya.  I am a lot less wound up and a lot less of a perfectionist.  My standards for myself and my surroundings have gotten a little more relaxed.  I was pretty hyper-organized, always 5 or 10 minutes early for everything, and while not a clean freak, there was a bit more of a tendency to lose the forest for the trees sometimes.  There was a point in my practice when all of that just kind of started melting down.  It was awful!  It was definitely against my will, and I just had to deal with it.  It seemed like there was a big part of self-identity that was held together by this anxiety, and once that started letting go, it all just started falling apart, and I would forget really important things, I would double-book appointments then forget both of them.  Missed appointments, forgotten promises dramatic screw-ups.  My old strategies just stopped working, and it was really disturbing.  And yet, I found that the world didn’t end.  My friends and colleagues still cared about me, even if I dropped the ball on some really important things.  This is similar to the lessons from being the chant leader.  The experience of making mistakes in front of the community.  Not only have I lived to tell, but the community still accepts me!  And that acceptance is not based upon being perfect at anything.  It’s not about a me that is doing.  It’s about just being.  I have observed practice having a balancing effect on others, too.  It is amazing, really.

What do you care about now that you may not have paid much attention to before?

I think before, my spiritual practice (probably universally), was about feeling better, or feeling more in control of my life.  I don’t know that that is necessarily changed,but now, in addition to continually being treated to the reality of no control, there is a deeper question: “What is TRUE?”  Which can just be there, control or no control, feeling better or feeling worse.  What is TRUE?

Thank you for taking the time for this interview/swap! It has been fun and informative!

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My personal Internet Usage Policy

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A few people posted some replies and discussions based in part on my recent post on race. I’d just like to clarify that it’s not that I don’t feel that race isn’t an important issue, or one worth taking up. It’s just that for me, I want to avoid it the topic when blogging and on the internet in general. There are some other things I try to steer clear from as well (most notably partisan politics). This got me thinking a bit about how I want to and should be spending my time online, and how my interactions truly reflect the person typing these words as well as the part of me that is trying to embrace wisdom, compassion, and kind-heartedness. This is something I’ve been examining and dwelling on for some time now.

So I’ve created my own personal Internet Usage Policy. These are some rules, guidelines, and reminders about how I spend my time online. I’d like to clarify now that this is MY list, and I don’t feel like anyone should have to adopt any of the following positions. However, it might be a worthwhile effort to create your own IUP, and see what you can do to stick with it.

1. Debate proves nothing other than who the best debater is. Debate exists solely to prop up a ‘right’ version of ‘me’. Therefore, I will avoid debate at all costs. Instead I will look toward discussion when engaging others, as discussion is a means to foster “us” rather than “I”. In a similar light, I should be mindful that my posts are responses to, rather than reactions from whatever their inspiration might be.

2. Regarding blog rolls, commenting, following on Twitter, and feeling “obligated”:

  1. I put up on my blog “roll” blogs that I read regularly, and would like to suggest to others to check out. That is why they are there. I don’t put up blogs simply because they have listed mine in their blog roll somewhere. If I didn’t include your blog, it should not come as an insult. I sometimes get overwhelmed by the number of items in my Google Reader, and can’t keep up with everyone on a regular basis. Also sometimes blogs just aren’t my cup of tea.
  2. I don’t often comment. That doesn’t mean I didn’t read your post, it just means that I didn’t feel compelled to say “nice post” or engage in discussion. Maybe it wasn’t warranted. Plenty of people do the same here. It’s okay. It was probably a great post, and I appreciate the effort you put into it. But this isn’t Little League, and we don’t all need a participation trophy every time we get up to bat.
  3. Regarding Twitter, I have the same policy as mentioned in (1). I follow people because I am interested in what they are tweeting. I don’t feel any obligation to follow anyone because they follow me, nor should you feel obligated to follow me because I follow you. I’m not on Twitter to have the most followers. I’m there to share information and listen to different points of view. If I don’t follow you back, don’t consider it an insult. Some people like mint chocolate chip, other people like pistachio. No biggie.

3. I won’t use the internet as a means simply to promote myself or to become more popular. In blogging the lines between self promotion and discussion/sharing certainly do get blurred at times, but there are boundaries one can adhere to, and I should remain mindful that I do so. When I post my blog or other blogs to reddit or twitter or other sharing services, it isn’t to get more views (I don’t have ads here, so what good do more views get me?) but to drive traffic in order to foster discussion. Understandably, not everyone will have an opinion on everything I write, so I should be okay with that. And when someone agrees with what I’ve written there is no need to comment saying “yup, I agree”. More or fewer comments should not affect my ego and I should be careful to notice when they do (because they will).

4. I will be careful not to get caught up in generalizations. For example, simply because I disagree with most of the GOP’s agenda does not mean I support the Democratic Party’s positions de facto. I should do well to remember the same for the rest of the world when it comes to such dualistic thought. My world is not black and white, I should not expect other’s to be so either.

5. I will always use my real name when applicable and reasonable. I will attempt to use a real photo of myself as well. This helps others to remember that those using the internet are human beings, not just words on a screen.

6. I will always remain skeptical of claims made on the internet, especially those without sources to back them up. Likewise I will only use Wiki as a jumping off point to find more information, never to be relied completely upon. Using just one source of information as a basis for my opinions will leave me more ignorant than if I had never read the source in the first place. Because at that point, I’ve become a parrot.

7. I will examine my motivations for writing a blog post, tweet, or comment at least 3 times before I click “submit”. I will examine the content at least the same number of times.

8. I will avoid commenting anywhere unless I feel that it will really further the discussion, or set some facts straight. However when pursuing the latter, I will do so in a manner that does not result in ad hominem, but only provides information, to foster a greater understanding.

9. I should not assume that a comment or blog post will change people’s minds. I should take into consideration the fact that presenting negative opposing views rather than positive alternative views will probably only entrench the other party more firmly into their view, and me into mine. Mother Theresa said it best:

I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.

10. I will use the internet to engage others, to seek information, and further my understanding. When it becomes a burden, obligation, or addiction, I will shut it off.

11. If I find myself getting angry or upset over what someone has written, I will not comment or respond for at least 24 hours. Then I will invoke #7.

12. At times I will undoubtedly fail to adhere to this list. When I do so, I should examine why, and attempt to clarify or rectify any wrong that I have done. With the vicarious nature of the internet, apologies should come more easily than they do.

I’m sure there are some other things I’m missing here, what do you think? Is a personal IUP worthwhile?

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Intentions and raccoons

Friday evening there was a knock on our door. An old man, out of breath from climbing our stairs was at our door, flashlight in hand. He was looking for his cat that had escaped. He informed us that she had never been outside in the 5 years that she lived with him, and was probably frightened. He gave us a description of the cat, her name, and went continued on to a neighbor’s house. Knowing cats, there was a good chance that she bolted and probably got lost and scared and hid somewhere.

It was a good thing he knocked on our door. We kept checking out of our living room window for the cat, and at about 10pm we saw her. Not wanting to scare her off, I went to the old man’s house, and got him to come to where she was. His front door was cracked and he was waiting in his armchair, hoping that she would remember the way back home. As soon as she heard his familiar gasping, she perked up. “Molly!” is all he had to say. He picked her up and held her close as he caught his breath. He got her home safely that night.

We’ve been taking care of 2 of the stray cats in our neighborhood by putting some food and water outside for them. One of them (we call her Fluffy Kitty) we brought inside a few nights last winter when the weather went down below zero at night. She was dumped in our neighborhood, and was loosing weight. The other (we call him just Stray Kitty) is still thin, but improving greatly. We’ll be catching him to have him spayed and get some shots at a local animal shelter that does that type of thing for feral cats. Without the food we put out, I don’t think Stray Kitty would still be alive.

It’s about 10:30pm on Saturday as I’m writing this, and we’ve just had another visitor(s) from the animal kingdom. We’ve had a female raccoon stopping out front of our apartment about twice a week for a few months now. Once I left the garbage sit outside, and woke up to a huge mess (okay, it happened twice!). She comes to find whatever scraps she can, and then moves on. But tonight she brought 3 baby raccoons with her to munch on the remains of the cat food we had left out. Usually, the cat food is all gone by nightfall, but occasionally there are still a few scraps for her. I’ve never intentionally left food out for the raccoon, as I know that feeding wild animals will only end in their harm.

Tonight we came face to face with that harm. We noticed a bit of blood on the steps a few days ago, but thought maybe one of the resident cats got into a fight. Turns out it was the mother raccoon. I’m thinking she was hit by a car. She was dragging her left rear leg as she walked. It looked shattered or dislocated. My best guess is that she was hit by a car and somehow survived. It didn’t look like she had been attacked by another animal. She was barely hobbling along, leading her children to where she knew there might be a free meal. Maybe she knew this might be one of the last opportunities she has to prepare them for the harsh world they’re about to face.

It tore my wife and I up to see her like that. I can’t stand to see animals suffer, and it was even more painful with the knowledge that she was taking care of those 3 young raccoons . In the morning I’ll call a local animal rescue to see what they recommend. Maybe there is still some hope left for her, and her family.

I’m sure there is some greater lesson about animals and humans and habitats and what not here. But right now, I’m feeling a little guilty.

I can’t help but blame myself a bit for leaving that food out there. Maybe it was my actions that led to this. Maybe she was on her way here when she got attacked. It was my garbage and cat food that helped to keep her coming back into the city.

And yet, if we hadn’t feed those stray cats and paid attention to which cats came and went and became invested in their health and well-being, there’s a good chance that old man’s cat wouldn’t have decided to hunker down where it did. It ended up sitting out on the sidewalk next to one of the stray cats. They seemed to be momentary friends, which is odd for cats to do. Maybe the stray knew that Molly was lost and scared and decided to sit with her so that she didn’t feel alone. If she hadn’t of sat there next to Fluffy Kitty, I probably wouldn’t have seen her.

Our intentions start out simply. They lead to actions, and those actions then have consequences in real life. That’s the only lesson here. Intentions.

Cheers.

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A practice of process/process of practice

Butterfly at the Pacific Science Center, Seattle WA

 

So as you can see down at the footer, I’ve been reading Thanissaro Bikkhu’s The Wings to Awakening for some time now, and the main theme I’m getting is that everything the Buddha taught comes down to a process of practice (or maybe a practice of process?) as well as a system of developing skills. It isn’t as simple as getting totally blissed out on some amateur enlightenment experience. And it isn’t so difficult that it’s completely untouchable and mystical. But it can be overwhelming, and at times seem paradoxical.

For instance, take karma. The conventional wisdom says that we need to develop good karma. And this is true. And isn’t. Because ultimately the goal is to develop the 4th type of karma, that which leads to the end of karma.

And what is kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma? The intention right there to abandon this kamma that is dark with dark result, the intention right there to abandon this kamma that is bright with bright result, the intention right there to abandon this kamma that is dark & bright with dark & bright result. This is called kamma that is neither dark nor bright with neither dark nor bright result, leading to the ending of kamma.

It is in a virtuous life that we lay down the foundation for practice we construct that will aid us in our goal of unbinding. But that isn’t really enough either. Because we need to have right view and right mindfulness and cultivate all the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. Developing “right view” alone could take years, decades, lifetimes.

This path at times can seem complicated, especially when one tries to look at the entire path and system all at once. It is easy to get lost in the old sutras, or even in the modern commentary of them. There is a whole site devoted to the lists of lists in Buddhism, and the list is quite extensive.

This is where it helps to see the dharma as a practice, and viewing the dharma as a process really comes in. First, go to the triple gem. Actualize the precepts. Focus on the breath. Then focus on the body without reference to the feelings on the body that come up… etc…

One step at a time. One breathe at a time. We all know that the bucket fills one drop at a time. But in Buddhism we’re trying to empty that bucket. Sometimes we forget that it will empty the same way it filled up. At times we’ll need to use a thimble to gently scoop tiny drops out; other times we’ll need a ladle to splash things around a bit. There are many skills to develop on the path that we can layer onto our practice that all help us to empty that bucket and reach nirvana. 

There is no way to do this all at once. There is no way to do it in a week, a month, a year. You can’t jump right to the 4th type of karma. You have to start with the basics, and know your limitations. It is a process and it takes time. The dharma was laid out in a system of steps to take to finally reach ultimate unbinding, nirvana. Use the steps to focus on where your feet plant firmly on the ground and with one eye look a few feet ahead. In this way the great process will unravel itself and reveal a ground upon which you can forge your path.

So this is where my practice is. I view it knowing that probably no great awakening will happen this month or year. My practice is a process that will evolve, in that I have faith. To see it in this way feels liberating. For now I will stretch, and sit with my breath, and keep an eye out for the ox. I will sit for 20 minutes at a time. Next year, it will look different, more developed (hopefully!). In 20 years, it won’t resemble anything that I’m doing now. It’s hard work and the results aren’t evident right away. This is where faith comes in. Faith that what I’m doing today will lead to a better practice tomorrow. This is the process.

Cheers.

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Bringing us back to shore

Life is like stepping onto a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.

~Shunryu Suzuki

 

The waves will bring us all back to shore. What form we return in depends on how we deal with the currents we face when out to sea.

When the waves come crashing do we try to navigate around them? Do we let them take us where they will? Or do we crash head first into them, waiting with heavy breath for the next one to do its worst, mocking the waves as they come rolling in?

When the sea has calmed, do we float majestically staring at the gulls passing overhead? Or is there a part of us that misses the torrent, so we flail about creating waves where there were none before?

Maybe we make it to the other shore. Shake ourselves off a bit. Take a look around. The ocean behind us, we have only to explore the new experience and the new shore. We may find that this shore is a lot like the one we left a long time ago, the time before the ocean. But our time spent swimming and struggling has changed how we view this new beach. The sand under feet feels the same, yet isn’t. The salty air tastes the same, but doesn’t.

Or maybe we never make it out of the ocean. Maybe we end up like this fish here. Our bodies left on the rocks waiting to feed those about to take the plunge and navigate the stormy waters. Their actions once out there will determine if they will taste the fresh air, or rot in the sun. Our actions become food for the next generation, or their inspiration.

Cheers.

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My baptism: growing up in a spiritual community

My childhood church - Ascension Lutheran Church, Saginaw, MI

Recently my dad sent me some of my stuff that he had been holding on to. A copy of my birth certificate and immunization record. My handprints. And a certificate from my baptism, along with that Sunday’s church bulletin.

I was baptized in a Lutheran church about two months after I was born. The prayer for the day upon entering the church was

Almighty Lord, you are aware of our problems. When troubles thicken, you do not desert us. We need to be reminded of your presence, your willingness to remain with us, even through suffering and pain. Help us to remember; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and rules with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, within our world today. Amen

The memories I have of that church are mostly all fond. Sure, when I was real little I hated putting on those stupid itchy clothes, but I can always remember finding something to enjoy when we were there. Most of the time it was the children’s sermon, a time during the service where the pastor would call all the children up to the front of the church and he would tell a story for them. I always liked that.

On that particular Sunday, a few hymns were sung. A few verses were read. The theme of the sermon that day was ” Faithful Examples”. The choir sang. Then my baptism. Obviously, I don’t remember it. But I do remember attending a few later on in life. They were fairly simple ceremonies. My parents would have stood there with me, and I’m sure an Aunt and Uncle and my Grandparents were there as well. The pastor would have said a few words, splashed my head with a little water, then dried me off with a baptismal cloth (which my dad also sent along). The concept of god-parents is present in the Lutheran faith, but we didn’t put as much stock in it as the Catholic tradition tends to. After that, another song or two, and service was over.

There is some more information included in the bulletin. That week, Mr. Landskroener was serving in the nursery, and Mr. and Mrs. Colpean donated that week’s flowers. You see, in my church, there was a strong sense of community. In the back of the church there was the “cry room” where mothers could take crying babies to quiet them or nurse them and still listen to the service through a speaker (there was  a large window there for them to watch as well). The nursery was there for kids that couldn’t sit still (toddlers mostly) so that parents could attend service and not have to worry about a sitter. Every week near the altar there were was a fresh arrangement of flowers donated by someone in the church.

Later in the bulletin the week’s events were listed. Tuesday was 7th and 8th grade catechism class. Wednesday youth choir (which I was later a part of) practiced. Friday the Luther-League mini-retreat began, and it ended sometime on Saturday in time for adult volleyball at the middle school gym. That next Sunday in March there was a couple’s home bible study at the Sanders’ house.

This is the church I grew up in. There was a strong sense of community, albeit relaxed. For the most part, no one was really pressured to attend or made to feel worse for missing a week or not attending bible study. Of course there were a few busy-bodies that fueled the stereotypical church-gossip, but they were in the minority and easy to ignore. Never once did I hear a fire a brimstone style sermon. They were always inspirational (though many times boring to an 8-year-old) and meaningful. I have an extremely hard time relating to the fundamental Christians I see carrying signs that say “God hates Fags” and the ones found on internet discussions condemning all non-believers to Hell. I never knew that.

My dad rarely went to church growing up, preferring instead to stay home and work on the yard, fix the house, all those dad type things that dads have to do. But when he did go and get involved, it always seemed to me like he was doing it out of obligation to the community, rather than service to God. My church community consisted of families. Families that knew each other and their children. People you would stop and talk to if you saw them in the grocery store. So it may come as no surprise that when I decided to no longer tread the Christian path that I wasn’t rebelling against the church. I never had a problem with church. My problem was with the belief system.. It just never really ever made sense to me, and never really spoke to me.

This idea of a spiritual community is something that my wife Alex and I have been searching out for some time, and have yet to really find one. I hope to find such an environment for my children to grow up in. One that fosters their spirituality and sense of community. I feel that it’s important for my children (and my self and wife) to experience something like that. It might not end up being a Buddhist community, as we both hold other spiritual beliefs as well. But being a part of something that shows them how to be in service to something greater to themselves (the community) and fulfills their spiritual needs is an experience I think they should experience.

Cheers.

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The path of least resistance

Scott River, CA

It’s always about what’s easy. Simple.

The path of least resistance allows us to glide, duck, and doge our way through life.

Never touching those things that are most important.

It’s easy talking to a stranger online. It’s easy to rip apart their beliefs or way of thinking.

It’s more difficult to touch deeply the ones we love.

Being cruel, distant, shut off. These things are easy.

They require no thought, no attention.

They are easy because the path leads outward toward others, but never inward towards ourselves.

Inside is the resistance. Obstacles.

Roadblocks waiting to be tore up.

Tear them up! Be brave! Breathe deeply! A voice calls out.

But it calls to us from the resistance, the loud static noise of our inner-selves. It’s noisy there.

Go have a cookie. A beer. Go watch TV. Forget about your worries. Rebuke him! Another voice calls out.

That voice is clear. It has a smell. A taste. Pleasure over pain.

Satisfying results. The voice is appeased.

The path of least resistance.

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A practice I can call my own

The Backside of Mt. Baker as seen from Highway 9 near Van Zandt, WA

So I’m currently shaping a daily routine for practice. As you may or may not know, I used to do the whole SGI thing, but left that behind. Now, I am attempting to set up something meaningful and unique that also fits within the scope of the rest of my life. I’ve been trying this out for the past few days (I missed a couple due to time issues coupled with exhaustion) and here is what I have so far:

First, a little stretch. I am probably the least flexible human being on this planet. Even thinking about sitting in full-lotus caused my groin to scream. My hips, legs, back are all in need of a good workout. I found this little routine on Tricycle blog that is supposed to help work/stretch the muscles needed to sit full-lotus. So I start with this. I try to hold each posture (an extremely modified version of each one) for 1 minute, then move on to the next. Next week, i’ll up it to 2 minutes, the week after that, 3 minutes. I’ll try to hold each one for 3 minutes for a while, and see where that takes me.

I’m thinking about adding in a bit of exercise here. Sit-ups, push-ups, yoga, getting on my elliptical. Something, but I don’t know what yet. I just know that my body is out of shape, and I need to do something about it. Sitting for 8+ hours a day at work is taking a toll on my body, and it needs to end.

Next, I chant. I still have all my materials from SGI, so I just chant a couple of chapters of the Lotus Sutra, and then dive into some diamoku. Now, when genuine Nichiren practitioners chant, there is meaning and purpose behind it. For me, I’m trying to use it as simply a meditative tool. Also I still struggle with the Japanese, so that adds a little humility to my practice. Maybe in the future I’ll try chanting something else. We’ll see.

At the end of chanting diamoku, SGI members typically offer 3 prayers that have been written down. Not one of them ever really spoke to me. They all have to deal with the organization and beliefs held within Nichiren Buddhism. Usually I would just try to clear my mind, or offer a prayer for the well-being of my family during that time. I decided that this needed a more personal approach, and so the other night I wrote out the following two “prayers” that I think I will use from now on:

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

All evil karma ever created by me since of old
On account of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance,
Born of my conduct, speech and thought,
Now I atone for it all.

The first one is the Five Remembrances. They are a reminder that life is short, it is not to be wasted. They are a reminder that life is temporary and frail. They are a reminder that we must love and love now, for there may not be a tomorrow. They are a reminder that our destructive acts in this life have profound consequences in this life. They are a reminder that compassionate acts in this life have profound consequences in this life.

The second one is The Gatha of Atonement, something the Zennies apparently recite frequently. I first saw it on John’s blog, and thought then how I would like to use this in some way. It kind of speaks for itself I think. It is a way to reflect on how much strife I’ve caused in my life. Upon examination, I can come to see how unskillful that behavior was, and in the future abandon such behavior. And sometimes it helps to say I’m sorry, even if no one is listening.

If anyone has a suggestion for a third one, I’m all ears.

Next, I meditate. I’ve just been doing 10 minutes at a time. Nothing too grandiose. Just spending some time connecting with my breath, which proves to be quite a challenge. I can usually make it until 3 breaths before my mind kicks in with all kinds of nonsense.

At some point in the day, I study. Even if it is just 15 minutes. Right now I’m working my way through The Wings to Awakening (check the footer).

This is how my practice looks right here, right now.

It is not perfect. It doesn’t include a real life sangha. It doesn’t include a real life teacher. Maybe at some point in the future I’ll live closer to a dharma center, and those will be both possible and practical.

This is my practice. I think it will work for me for now. It is organic, home-grown, and provides me with goals and challenges. I know I will fail and stumble along the way, but I believe that if I can stick to a routine like this, I can keep picking myself up when I fall down.

Cheers.

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Building the Mosque “at” ground zero, and crafted responses

Let me start by saying that I’m not a huge fan of the Muslim faith. There, I said it! I don’t hate Muslims, Arabs, or people from any geographic or religious background. But I’m not a huge fan of Islam. I don’t feel like it’s a very tolerant religion, nor does it treat women as equals, (or sometimes even as human beings) and I don’t feel that pride is man’s great fault or that submission is the answer to our salvation. I think Islam is due for a serious reformation, the details of which I have no interest in discussing here.

That aside, I say build the damn mosque. The organization that is proposing to build it is a peaceful one. They are moderates. They are just people who want to practice their faith together, and belong to an increasing Muslim community in lower Manhattan that has growing needs.

I’ve heard the argument that we shouldn’t have ANY religious institution built at ground zero. Well, first of all, they aren’t building the damn thing on the remains of the twin towers. They are building it 2 blocks away. That might not seem like much, but as a former major city dweller, I can tell you that 2 blocks can make a world of difference. Second, if you look at the map, you’ll see that there are already THREE churches there; The Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, and Saint Paul’s chapel, all of which actually border Ground Zero. So that point is kind of moot, isn’t it? It’s already surrounded by religious institutions. I’ve also heard that there is a strip joint and a porn store near there as well. Sounds like a great way to “remember the fallen” to me…

I’ve also heard that it is insensitive to build it there. Again, why? They aren’t building the Mosque on top of the remains of the towers. It’s being built in an abandoned Burlington Coat Factory building. It’s going to have a pool and rec area open to the public. It’s going to be an inclusive community center. It is a place of worship, not a terrorist training camp. Islam did not attack our country. It may have been used as one of many tools that day in 2001, but the religion didn’t attack us.

We have to remember that it was terrorists that took down those buildings. And their purpose wasn’t just to destroy the buildings, it was to terrorize. It was to instill fear into the hearts of Americans. If we oppose this Mosque out of a fear of Islam, then haven’t they succeeded? We are a country that is supposed to champion religious freedom, not hinder it. Muslim Americans are every bit a part of this country as every one else, regardless of how they choose to worship.

Bodhisattva of compassion

I wondered a bit about what the “Buddhist” response to this would be. Then I slapped myself. I don’t want to give the “Buddhist” response. That seems silly. I didn’t automatically adopt a new set of ideals and beliefs the moment I decided to walk this path. The Buddha was not a divine law giver. I didn’t all of a sudden become a compassionate bodhisattva the moment I declared myself a Buddhist. The dharma and sutras are not written in stone. I don’t ever want to say, “well, since I’m a Buddhist, x.” Rather, I want the dharma to help and guide me. What I want is for my practice to move me in the direction of compassion and insight and wisdom.

So I would say that since my practice is moving me toward compassion, I would seek a compassionate resolution to the matter, one that involves the least amount of suffering (dukkah). Clearly for the Muslim community the wisest choice would be to build the Mosque. But what about the families of the victims that do are suffering because of this proposal? Shouldn’t we take their suffering into consideration as well? Certainly we should, and that’s again why I say build the Mosque. These people seem are projecting their hate onto an entire belief system, rather than those that perpetrated the crime. I wonder if it’s because they’ll never really receive the justice they’re looking for, since the terrorists died in the crash. They’ll never be held accountable for their actions, so the ones left here to grieve seek vengeance with the next best thing they can find: Islam, Muslims, Arabs. The axis of evil. Ghosts living in caves halfway around the globe.

And this is why I say build the Mosque. Once faced with the reality of peaceful, community-building Muslims, those left with their anger might be forced to really examine it, because they won’t be able to project it on to those at 51 park place. They might actually be able to let go of some of that hate they’ve built up, and begin to heal when faced with the reality that not all Muslims are evil, and that these people are their neighbors, not their enemies. That to me is the most compassionate response because it is one that deals directly with their suffering, even if it might be a difficult process.

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

~ The Dhammapada

Cheers.

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Welcome!

Thank you for checking out my new blog, Fly Like a Crow.

First, what’s up with the name?

Check out the ‘About’ page at the top for more info on that. And take a moment to explore the other pages as well. They’re short and sweet, I promise.

So what is this blog about?

Beyond what you read on the about page, it will be a place to write and blog on a myriad of topics. Primarily, I’ll be focusing on Buddhism, and my family/being a father. I actually see these two things as being parallel lines on the same track of “me”. They are both an evolving practice where I work towards perfection. Every day brings a new challenge, struggle, and usually some success.

I might just try my hand at some more poetry here. It’s something I’ve only dabbled in before, and has been a long time since I’ve really written any.

I’m going to toss in some politics from time to time. Nothing hateful, no right vs. left narratives. There are plenty of those to go around.

I’ll continue to review books here, whether they get sent to me by authors or publishers, or ones that I just happen to purchase myself.

And there’s a slight possibility that I might get philosophical from time to time. I also might throw in some sutra study that I’ve been working on.

And sometimes, I’ll just throw up a picture or two. I’m also going to try to include a picture with more of my posts in general, and I’m going to try to only use ones that I’ve taken.

Whatever happens, it will flow naturally. Like my previous blogging endeavours, I have no ambitions to blog daily. Once, twice a week is about all I can muster given work and family responsibilities (and enjoying time with my family).

So, take a look around. You’ll notice all of my old posts from the past, minus a few I wasn’t proud of at all. Feel free to subscribe via RSS or email (head to the footer) and feel free to add this blog to your blog roll if you feel so inclined. Thank you for stopping by.

Cheers.

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Filed under Book Review, Buddhism, Home Brewing, Other, Parenting, Personal, Political

Stripped down Buddhsim, and study…

Taken at River Meadows Park, WA

So I was going to review a book I just read, but really couldn’t come up with much. After reading Steve Hagan’s Buddhism Plain and Simple, all I had to say was…. “meh”. It didn’t have much substance, and seemed to go too far in stripping down Buddhism.

A book I reviewed awhile back Buddha Takes No Prisoners… was a great book that presented Buddhist practice in a secular-ish, practical way, but didn’t seek to strip down Buddhism to simply “awareness”. Hagan kind of glossed over some stuff in his book, and really it seemed fairly empty to me. Now, I’m all about presenting Buddhism in a way that is accessible to the masses, and maybe this book would serve as a simple intro for someone who had never really looked into the dharma before. Or maybe it’s so stripped down, that it would be a bad first place to start. Anyway, it didn’t really speak to me. I understand that for some, stripped down Buddhism and Buddhism without Beliefs speaks to them, and is the direction they would like to go. But I don’t think that’s for me.

And that’s okay. Reading Hagen’s book gave me the motivation to pick up The Wings to Awakening and dive into that. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It contains some of the essential teachings from the Pali canon with excellent commentary and analysis by Thanissaro Bikkhu. If you’ve never read it, you need to. Also, it’s free to download/view, so you really have no excuse not to! I think I’ll be working with The Wings for a while.

This is sort of where my practice really resides now, in study, in absorbing the dharma. I think that’s just how my mind works. I need that basis of (sutra) study before I can really formalize any sort of practice. I spend some time with the breath here and there, but nothing regular, and haven’t chanted in months. But I think that’s okay for now. I view my practice as a process, and I’m in the beginning of mine. This will give me a solid foundation for whatever form my practice takes in the future, so I’m putting as much effort and time into it as I can for the moment. Skillful means, right? Cheers.

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Buddha: Man, Myth, or Legend?

It is said that soon after his enlightenment the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha’s radiance and presence. The man stopped and asked “My friend what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?”

“No.” said the Buddha.

“Are you a wizard or magician?”

Again the Buddha replied “No”.

“Are you a man?”

Again the Buddha replied “No”.

“Well, my friend, what are you then?”

The Buddha replied “I am awake”.

In my last post I broached the subject of deifying the Buddha, and Algernon wondered why it is that this has happened over the years. I’d like to say that personally, I find that when we make the Buddha into something other than a man, we devalue the practice of Buddhism. One of the strongest arguments I can find for walking the Buddhist path is that nibbana is open to anyone that is willing to put in the work necessary to achieve that final cessation. When we make the Buddha into something other than a man (though he was an extraordinary man and teacher) it seems to make nibbana an unreachable goal to us mere mortals. His amazing accomplishment was that he was able to escape samsara all on his own, without the help of any magical powers or the gods. There are plenty of myths surrounding the Buddha’s birth and life, and I am in no way arguing that we should throw them out. But I have to wonder, what’s the point in making the Buddha into anything other than an awakened person? Is it simply to give the Buddha more authority? Can’t we honor the man without turning him into a magical shaman?

Your thoughts?

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Conscious Breathing

Conscious Breathing: How Shamanic Breathwork Can Transform Your Life

Sufficient unhappiness pushes us to action. I had sufficient unhappiness and that led me to Vipassana meditation and then to rebirthing. There are times when sufficient unhappiness is a positive blessing. 

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Shamanic Breathwork? Really? But I requested this book almost for that exact reason. In the description it talked about how the author had used Vipassana and Zen meditation along with rebirthing and Holotropic Breathwork™ so I figured there would be at least some good information on meditation in general and how to incorporate it into my daily life. 

The book isn’t quite what I expected. It’s basically a textbook on all things related to breathwork, complete with case histories and over 30 pages of notes/bibliography/resources. Did you know there is an International Breathwork Foundation? As well as a Breathwork magazine? Me neither (yes, I just answered for you. Suck it!). I really had no idea this whole area of expertise existed in any sort of organized fashion. There are plenty more resources found in the book as well, so read it! 

On to the book. Author Joy Manné describes some of her personal experiences with breathwork at the beginning of the book, as well as her struggles with Vipassana. The rest of the book deals mostly with the different approaches to breathwork, how to ground one’s self before/after a breathwork session (as well as some safety precautions), and the different levels of breathwork. Just about every type of breathwork is described in detail along with what it’s application is. There are a ton of “case histories” using real-life examples of people who have used breathwork to discover something about themselves and alleviate their suffering. They are detailed and specific, and whether dealing with past lives or past trauma, the breathwork sessions described here seem to stir up a lot of hidden emotions and feelings. People walk away from these sessions with a better understanding of what it is that is making them tick. I hear people talk about removing layers of “themselves” during meditation, and this seems to be a direct approach to that. If you have even a passing interest in breathwork (how to do it, facilitate it, what to expect) then you should definitely grab this book. She also introduces Vipassana meditation as “advanced” breathwork, and that the other forms mentioned earlier in the book would help one to practice Vipassana more easily. 

The inner skeptic in me had some reservations about some of the content in this book at first glance. First is in her dealing with the Buddha: 

Shamans have psychic and magical powers and so does the Buddha. …This includes shamanic elements such as levitation, clair-audience, and thought-reading….He sees past lives. 

Okay, so, this stuff does appear in some sutras, but personally I have a very hard time taking this literally. I also feel that it devalues Buddhism as a religion when you make the Buddha into something other than an awakened man. One of the things that drew me to Buddhism was the fact that the historical Buddha wasn’t a god, and didn’t have magic powers. He was an (extra)ordinary man who was able to awaken to the true nature of reality. If he was anything but, nibbana wouldn’t be possible for anyone else. He led by example so that others could (and have) followed in his path. 

Then from the Womb Trauma Case History 1: Elaine 

I feel as if I have been it on the head with a stick. Why? I don’t know where I am. I feel and see a phallus. I get the impression I am a fetus. I am in my mother’s belly. I am frightened. … Someone is forcing my mother to make love. It is my father. She was nine months pregnant with me… 

There isn’t much in the way of science provided in this book as to the specific effects of what this type of breathwork does to the brain, and I feel that it detracts from the academic-ish nature of this book. There was a brief mention of peptides, but this book and approach would benefit greatly from some scientific evidence backing up some of the claims made here. Reading through some of the histories, I wondered if what was going on was more neurological than spiritual (or having to do with the ‘mind’). But who knows? These people seemed to be accessing some very deep, intense emotions and memories. Maybe through the breathwork they were tapping into some hidden memories that their brains had attached to these powerful emotions? I think it would be interesting to see some studies done like the ones we’ve seen regarding meditation in Buddhism and the brain. 

I’m not one to disparage another’s attempt to alleviate their suffering. If it’s Judaism, breathwork, Buddhism, Yoga, whatever; I have no issues with it (as long as you don’t force it on others or use it to harm another). Manné does also talk a little about the dangers of spiritual materialism, which is something you might not expect to find in a book like this. I absolutely don’t believe the author is just trying to sell us something here. Shamanic Breathwork has clearly worked for her, and she has had success facilitating sessions with many people, all of whom have been able to deal with some troubling issues in their life. She also cautions about making sure you are ready for a breathwork session, as well as recommending that you seek out an experienced breathworker. I’m not sure it’s an approach that speaks to me, but I would be willing to give it a shot. 

All in all, this was a very interesting take on just how powerful the breath truly is. Breathing is so simple, yet it is something we tend to spend very little time with! This book was yet another reminder of how little ridiculous that we have to actually go out of our way just to touch our breath because we are so conditioned. And for that, I am quite thankful. 

.

Cheers. 

Conscious Breathing: How Shamanic Breathwork Can Transform Your Life
Author: Joy Manné
Published by North Atlantic Books
This book was provided at no cost from North Atlantic Books for review

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And the winner is….

Congrats to Nathan on winning Present Fresh Wakefulness!

To select the winner, I entered in the total # of original comments, and went by the order they appeared in to determine each comment’s number. Nathan was the 3rd to comment.

Thanks to everyone that left a comment, I have quite the reading list now!

Cheers.

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Present Fresh Wakefulness – a review and contest

Present Fresh Wakefulness: A Meditation Manual on Nonconceptual Wisdom

By repeating the recognition of innate suchness, totally free of mental constructs, we lay the basis for accomplishing the mind of the buddhas.

Present Fresh Wakefulness is  straight-forward advice from Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche on how to do away with dualistic thought and awaken. It is a very practical approach to meditation and non-dualism which actually surprised me given the little experience I’ve had with Vajrayana Buddhism. I don’t have much of a knowledge base when it comes to the Vajrayana vehicle, and that was a small hurdle at times with this book. But Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche cuts through the “trappings” that might shy a novice away and delivers a message that is clear to all, regardless of tradition.

The book is written from a series of talks that Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche has given, and as such the dialogue can be informal at times, as one would expect when talking face-to-face with one another. He is very clear that committing yourself to nibbana is not a weekend retreat, hobby, or something to be done in your spare time. Awakening is a process that is inclusive of our every action and pattern of thought. The first part of the book dives into this deep, emphasizing time and again that there is “no samsara apart from thoughts”; and that it is dualistic, conceptual thinking that binds us to samsara. He then goes on to tell about the how of awakening in the Vajrayana vehicle. About this he says

Vajrayana is a very swift path, and to make it real, to actualize it, we need to use all sorts of methods. The Vajrayana approach has great advantages, but it is also very risky.

Anyone that can be this upfront and honest about their path earns a few gold stars in my book. He explains the methods used in Vajrayana without putting them on a pedestal above other schools/methods, which is something I greatly admire. Let your practice speak for itself, without disparaging others.

One thing about this book that I found difficult was that it was transcribed from talks that Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche gave, and in the transcription, something gets lost. When you write a book or blog post or article, it is true that you attempt to write using your own voice. But there was something choppy and slightly disconnected about it. It was as if the talk was happening in the next room, and you could only hear it through the wall. As a result, you’d miss out on his presence, eye contact, and all those other non-verbal modes of communication that accompany speech. So the “voice” of the book seems to stumble at times, and I think this leads to a little dryness as well.

But it is still well worth the read. I think a newbie Buddhist such as myself would be able to learn from it, but someone with a little bit more of a base understanding around Vajrayana would find it even more valuable. And as such, I’m going to give this book away to one of my readers.

All you have to do to win this book is to leave a comment on this post naming one book that has both challenged you and helped you on your path. I’ll use random.org on Sunday June 27th to pick a winner, so be sure to comment before then!

Cheers.

Present Fresh Wakefulness: A Meditation Manual on Nonconceptual Wisdom
Author: Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche/
Translated from the Tibetan by Erik Pema Kunsang
Compiled by Marcia Binder Schmidt
This book was provided at no cost via North Atlantic Books for review.

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We're all one, man!

An interesting discussion (here and here) has been happening around the interwebs around Stephen Prothero’s book: God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter. I haven’t read the book, but I understand that his basic argument is refuting the idea that ‘religions are all basically the same’ statement. And personally, I have to agree with that. I’m not going to attempt to defend his position here (because I haven’t read the book!), but rather talk about the “all religions are the same/we’re all on the same path to God” lines that get thrown around quite often.

I don’t understand how people can claim that all religions are really just the same thing. Each one seems to address a different problem and propose its own unique solution to said problem. In Buddhism, we find that life is unsatisfactory, and to alleviate the suffering that accompanies this, we need to follow the 8-fold path to awakening (that was the 25 word idiot version of the 4 noble truths). In Christianity, Sin is man’s greatest enemy, and the only way to be rid of that sin is salvation through Jesus Christ. In Islam, it is pride that gets in our way, so submission to God is the way to rid ourselves of that pride. In Scientology, there are space demons that take over our bodies, and the only way to get rid of them is to give Tom Cruise all of your money. The list goes on and on; these are all very different ways of seeing the world and making sense of our place in it.

Now some would argue that focusing on these ideas, and each religion’s respective dogmas and scriptures is a superficial way of approaching the experience of religion. Some argue that when looked at from a mystic’s perspective, you can throw out all of the definitions traditionally used and reach a higher definition that would transcend all the dogma, ritual, and beliefs people traditionally associate with their respective religion. But I have to wonder, at that point, why even say that you are practicing said religion (and aren’t you really just practicing New Age…ism at that point)? When you start to talk about Jesus not being the son of God that performed miracles, rose from the dead who said that anyone that wants into heaven has to come through him; what is it about your practice that you would consider Christian? Why even use that word? It is similar to when a New Ager or Pantheist would call everything “God”. Sure, monotheists don’t have a copyright on the word, but I have to wonder if what you are describing is so radically different from any interpretation or definition held by 99.99% of people who use it; why use it at all? Why put your belief under that same tent? A part of me wonders if this happens when people are afraid to completely let go of the religion they grew up with? And so holding on to a part of that past self/culture makes the new set of beliefs…safer?

Personally, I find it a little insulting when people say that we’re all practicing the same religion, or that all paths lead to God. Sorry, I gave up on God well over a decade ago. I took up the Buddhist path because it ends in liberation, not because I believe I’ll end up in a literal heaven with God for eternity. I also think it’s a little disrespectful to not recognize that there is a difference in what we are practicing and trying to achieve, and to then attempt to re-define my beliefs to more closely align with yours.

Okay, so there are differences, so what about our similarities? Isn’t there one central theme that runs at the heart of every religion? Nah. I don’t think so. While all religions have the capacity for such things as charity and compassion and respect, those aren’t the tenets or beliefs that they are centered around. Ask %99 of Christians what their religion is about, and I’m guessing you’re going to hear something like “believing in Jesus Christ”, “faith in God” or something along those lines. And while the man preached about compassion and charity at length, the religion itself isn’t centered around it. It accompanies it. I’d even say that compassion isn’t at the heart of Buddhism, but is rather an effect (vipaka) that one cultivates when practicing the dharma. Would many Muslims say that compassion is the heart of their religion? Taoists? I doubt that’s what you’ll hear. And remember, we’re talking about religions here. Not your individual experience which may or may not parallel someone else’s.

But, knowing that each religion has the capacity for these things does give us the hope that we can all connect with each other on such manners. Religion is largely a response to living life as a human, all of us trying to figure out our place in the cosmos and answer the questions that we have about our shared human condition. The religious are all connected in the sense that we are all searching for something (be it God or enlightenment or Elohim) and whether we are searching for that something inside or outside of ourselves, we should be able to respect whatever means we employ to find that divine something (as long as it doesn’t involve blowing your self up or burning “witches” etc…).

So why prattle on about the differences in the world’s religions when so much strife has been created because people can’t seem to get over them? I think it’s important to understand the differences because largely, we don’t respect them. A part of the fighting that occurs between the world’s religions stems from a basic lack of respect (and this lack stems from a whole slew of things) of each other’s beliefs and practices. If we can begin to accept the differences we all have, we can then place them where they belong and figure out how to best deal with each other in the most compassionate way. But I truly believe that as long as we keep talking about how we’re really all the same, or glossing over the sacred practices many of us hold dear, we aren’t going to be able to reconcile with each other in a meaningful way. Yes, most religions share some basic concepts (which are mostly secular anyway) and we should work together to strengthen those when need-be. But it’s hard to reach out to someone who isn’t even going to respect that you are on your own path, and that it’s okay that we don’t have everything in common. I believe it is extremely important that we develop compassion toward one another, and part of that compassion is respecting one another’s beliefs as being of the utmost importance to that person.

What do you think?

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Why you should(n’t) be a parent

Of the many hats I wear, “Father” is the one that feels most comfortable. I must admit that I was (am?) scared shitless when I found out that I was going to be a dad a little over 2 years ago. How could I be a Dad? How could I afford it? Can I still party hard? Did I have to put away my Tool CDs in favor of Barney or whatever other monstrosity was being marketed to kids these days? Would my wife and I still be able to maintain our close relationship? So many thoughts, mostly worries, ran through my head those first few months. And I really had no idea what to expect. No one does. My wife is due again in September, and I’ve been able to finally reconcile with myself that I have no idea what to expect this time around, and that revelation is okay.

But for the 4 of you out there that read this blog and don’t have children, I thought I’d put together a little list of reasons as to why you shouldn’t have kids. People that have kids and those that don’t live in two completely different worlds, and I thought this might put into perspective just how different things can be. The responsibilities are endless and paramount, but there are lessons to be learned along the way.

So without further ado, here are some reasons as to why you shouldn’t have kids (and if you stick around, there might be a few reasons as to why you should).

1. You shouldn’t have kids if you value sleep. I seriously haven’t slept more than 4 or 5 hours straight in almost 2 years. Routinely I’m only getting about 5 hours of sleep a night. And with another child on the way, I can look forward to not sleeping through the night for another two years or so. Yippee! Though I have heard rumors that they now make kids that learn to fall asleep, and I’m considering trading mine in for one of those…

2. You shouldn’t have kids if you value your free time. Because, there is no free time. There is only parenting time, work, and sleep. Sure, after the kids go to bed you can sit around, watch some TV, read or whatever, but usually for us that means fall down on couch exhausted. Might be partially due to the fact that Corbin never, ever slows down. His thirst for knowledge and inquisitive nature lead him to be constantly discovering and running around. The kid is a sponge. He’s just under 18 months and can count to 10, read letters in succession, name 16+ species of dinosaurs and 20 Marvel super heros. That’s not me bragging (I have no idea what other kids his age are fixated on) that’s just examples of the things he soaks up. He didn’t settle with just learning Spider Man  and Allasaurus, he wanted to know about Hulk and Rouge (he has a Marvel super hero poster, he calls them “super guys”) and pteranodon and diplodocus (dinosaur book). He simply has to know these things. He needs constant stimulation or he gets frustrated. Also, he’s pretty young, and not quite to the “hey I’ll just play in my room for the next hour” phase yet. Also, he figured out how to dismantle the baby gate, so there is no more baby prison around my place.

3. You shouldn’t have kids if you enjoy having extra cash. This one is a given. Extra mouths require extra food which requires diapers and clothes and toys and co-pays and Iron Man plates and boxes of crayons and an endless supply of paper.

So, okay those are pretty ubiquitous when it comes to parenting, and most people know (at least in some part) that these things will happen going in. But then there are a ton of little things as well. Like heading to a friend’s house that isn’t baby-proofed. And I’m not even talking about locks on drawers, but just stuff lying around in arms reach of my toddler. You put your child’s safety and your friend’s CD/faberge egg/replica Tie Fighter collection at risk. So then rather than visiting, you spend most of your time corralling.

Or then there’s shopping. It used to be we could head to 5-6 different grocery/supply stores in one day to do all of our shopping, but that can’t happen anymore. Now we can hit a max of about 3 (maybe 4) stores because we have to take into consideration his nap time, snack time, bed time, diaper changes, and general fussiness about being locked in a car seat/shopping kart for a few hours. Having kids can be a pain in the ass! There, I said it.

The point is, having a child doesn’t just change your life, it becomes your life. It affects who you are and what you do in every way imaginable (and many that aren’t). It used to be that scary/sad movies didn’t affect me much. But now I start to well up anytime I see a child in danger, getting abused or when anything bad happens to a kid on TV (or in the news). I am no longer Adam. I am now Daddy. And it is through this filter that I now view life.

With this change comes an opportunity to examine our selves. Parenting, much like Buddhism, is a process of discovery. We can look at ourselves and ask, “okay, why is it that I feel that having kids can be a pain in the ass sometimes?” Usually it comes down to an inconvenience, laziness, apathy, not being able to be okay with the present moment, or some such thing. You’re then able to uncover the motivations behind those excuses and really dredge some shit up. Which can then lead to the revelation that you loathe the person looking back at you in the mirror, because the person you see is a reflection of a person you don’t want to be. And that’s a good thing.

It’s a good thing because at that point, you’re able to actually do something about the “problems” and baggage we’re carrying around with us. You have to be a little disgusted by yourself to effect some change in your life. At this point you can then begin the process of striving for the change you are looking for. Those excuses you came up with about why it’s so damn hard to wake up in the middle of the night and why you’d rather be golfing with friends than feeding your kid dinner suddenly start to look ridiculous upon evaluation. They don’t go away overnight (or ever?), but you can begin to see them for what they are: hindrances. They hinder your ability to fully embrace this moment with kind-heartedness and acceptance. They hinder your ability to produce the end results you fantasize about (rather than put into action). And they hinder your ability to live with the love you usually feel about being a parent. Because even though the responsibilities of being a parent are enormous, a majority of the time we are able to embrace them with joy and a smile.

So if you can get over all the crap you have to deal with as a parent (which you may just fall in love with), that I talked about in the beginning of this post you might find there is a greater source of joy out there than you could ever imagine and discover quite a bit about yourself along the way.  For for me, that simple joy comes from moments like these, moments I wouldn’t trade anything in the world for:

 

 

 

Cheers.

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A Lotus, a Scotsman, SGI, and an open path…

There is something that I’ve been wresting with for a while now in my Buddhist practice. As some of you might know, I started my Buddhist path in the SGI. Well, kind of (I’ll get to the real beginning later). It’s been nearly a year, and there are too many things that have been nagging me about Nichiren Buddhism in general. So here, I’m going to attempt to explain my experience, and some of my thoughts/feelings on Nichiren and SGI. Please note that I admit that I am completely a dharma-noob, and am fully open to criticism if some of my facts are wrong here.

So, a little over 3 years ago, I started looking into Buddhism. When my wife was much younger, she and her family practiced Nichiren Buddhism in the Nichiren Shoshu school. Later some of the members split off and became the SGI (I’m not going into “the split” in any kind of detail here because it isn’t relevant) and her family practiced with that lay-organization. So she had some background with the SGI, and I started looking there first. I also wanted to know about Buddhism at large, so that’s where I started my search. I wanted to know about the Buddha, what he taught, why there were so many schools (and what each one had to offer) and what made the SGI so special. So I read wiki and listened to podcasts and dove into a couple of sutras here and there, read some contemporary literature and commentaries on sutras, and decided that yes, this is a path that I’d like to start on. It spoke to me like no other religion or philosophy had before. It was in the Four Noble Truths that I found more insight and wisdom than any other text or sermon I’d previously come across.

Flash-forward to last spring/summer. It turns out some of the SGI members that my wife and her family used to practice with years ago are in the area where we live. I didn’t know much about Nichiren Buddhism, but started to look into it. I found Nichiren to be a bit of an extremist in some of his writings, but as I learned a bit about the culture he lived in, it became clear as to why he was so adamant about what he believed. So I thought, okay, I’ll give this a shot. If anything, it was connecting me to Buddhists in my area (I didn’t think there were any up here!) and would give me real live people to talk to about the whole process.

Okay, and now we’re here in the present day. And after practicing for a while, I have some issues with SGI and Nichiren Buddhism in general. Before I get into them, I need to state that the issues that I have are my issues, and I’m not condemning anyone’s religion, nor am I trying to refute anyone’s religion (and hopefully I didn’t over generalize too much). So here are my grievances in no particular order.

1) Nichiren Buddhists claim that Nichiren Buddhism is the only “true Buddhism™” and all other teachings (and schools of Buddhism) are “lesser” teachings. Even the different schools of Nicherin continually attempt to refute eachother and claim ownership over true Buddhism. It’s all over SGI publications and I’ve heard it at several meetings as well. They characterize “old Buddhism” as being fatalistic, not open to the masses, rudimentary, and not generally valid. In the SGI, they talk about priests and monks as if they were just money-hungry hucksters trying to trick people into worshiping them.

This is just more arrogant bullshit. There are few things in the world I can stand less than religious pissing contests over who has the “true” faith. Quite frankly, I don’t give a shit. I also don’t give a shit if I’m “right” or “wrong’ (as if a thing like that could even be quantified). I really don’t. I didn’t pick the Buddhist path because I thought it was the One True Path™, I chose the Buddhist path because it is right for me. Some people like IPAs, I prefer an Amber Ale. There is no “right” beer. Get over yourself.

2) Nichiren Buddhists rely completely on the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin and The Lotus Sutra, and take a literal interpretation of much of the sutra. I’ve been told that The Lotus Sutra is the only valid teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha, because he supposedly (and this is to be taken literally and as historic fact) said that the Lotus Sutra is the highest teaching, and that every single teaching he spent those 40+ years teaching were only to prepare people for the Lotus Sutra. The SGI basically throws out every other teaching and sutra (both the older Pali and Mahayana) claiming that they are “lesser” teachings, and that everything related to true Buddhism can be found in The Lotus Sutra. They really couldn’t care less about the 4 noble truths, the 8-fold path, dependant origination, mindfulness, or cultivating compassion and equanimity the way the Buddha taught it. I’ve been told that those teachings are like “grade school Buddhism”, and that only the Lotus Sutra and the writings of Nichiren Daishonin are advanced enough to be called true Buddhism.

While I find there to be valid and useful teachings in the Lotus Sutra, I am not about to throw out any of the Buddha’s teachings. I can’t bring myself to believe that the Lotus Sutra was actually hidden away in a Dragon Realm for 500 years, or that it is the literal word of Shakyamuni Buddha. Most scholars seem to agree with me on that as well.  I also don’t find the teachings of the Lotus Sutra to be a good vehicle to be solely relied upon. For me, a better approach is to incorporate the teachings into my life alongside the rest of the Buddha’s teachings. I understand the metaphors as metaphors, and take the teachings to heart. (I should also emphasize that I don’t know if every school of Nicherin Buddhism takes the Lotus Sutra as a historical teaching or not)

3) Recently, I’ve been told that Shakyamuni wasn’t the true Buddha, and that he was simply preparing the way for his mentor who was reincarnated/reborn as Nichiren Daishonin who is the “true” Buddha.

Well, I didnt’ know there was such a thing as a “true” Buddha and an un-true Buddha. That also contradicts the fact that I’ve been told that I’m a Buddha (just haven’t realized it) as well. Does that mean that I’m an un-true Buddha? Crap. I guess I’ve been doing it wrong.

4) Nichiren Buddhism seems to hinge on two things that I find incompatible with reality. First, that the Lotus Sutra is historical and the literal word of Shakyamuni Buddha, and second, that Nichiren Daishonin is the Buddha of the Latter Day of the Law.

I’ve touched on this already, but basically I just don’t believe that the LS was preached by the Buddha, then hidden away in a dragon realm, only to then be revealed as a teaching that was made for the masses. It certainly seems inspired by his teachings, but his literal word? I can’t believe that. Nor does the evidence point in that direction. There are great and significant teachings to be found there, but they need not be taken at their word for them to be meaningful and beneficial to one’s practice. 

I found this comment on Barbara’s Buddhism Blog over on About.com back in December that sums up the myth of the latter-day of the law and Nichiren nicely. Basically, you’d have to believe that Shakyamuni lived 3000, not 2500 years ago in order for the timeline to work out. And you’d also have to believe that the Buddha was into making specific prophecies, neither of which I find realistic or necessary on a path of awakening.

5) SGI is a cult of personality (note: I didn’t say cult). Members are taught to look to the leader of the SGI, Daisaku Ikeda, as their leader, mentor, and sensei. It is taught that there is a line of succession from the Buddha to Nichiren to Ikeda, and that he is our mentor.

One of the main pieces of literature for the SGI is The World Tribune. It’s a 6-8 page newspaper that arrives in the mail once a week (for $30/year) and it is basically a press release for Daisaku Ikeda. You can’t go 4 sentences without either reading his name, or reading something that he’s written. I’ve tried. It’s filled with stories about how people’s lives were terrible until they realized their mentor/disciple relationship with Ikeda, and stories about Ikeda having the “heart of a lion king”, and it seems that every week Ikeda is receiving an honorary degree or award from somewhere. 

Personally, I find Daisaku Ikead to be largely uninspiring (though he has written some inspriational lines here and there), and wholly lacking any real spiritual presence. He seems more like your average stereotype of a Japanese businessman than someone who is on a path of enlightenment. Ikeda certainly has a skill for talking to people, but less in a Dalia Lama type of way, and more of an insurance-salesman type of way. Everywhere I turn, it seems like I’m being “sold” this religion; and as such, there is very little substance revealed in his or the organizations’ words at-large. It is mostly just dialogue promoting the religion and organization in some way, though at times it can focus on how the SGI is the only true Buddhism, and rhetoric that simply aims to validate their position as “true Buddhism.” And let’s not even begin to get into how many millions of dollars that man holds on to, and how many monuments have been erected in his name (all while he denounces people who have statues of the Buddha as idol worshipers) or how tied in the SGI is in with the government in Japan.

6) Members that turn away from the SGI are either harassed or attempts are made to get them back. It isn’t an issue of “okay, best of luck on your path!”. It is seen as something gravely disappointing and almost evil.

My mother-in-law recently sought out some local practitioners of the Nichiren Shoshu school, and when some of the SGI members found out, they flipped. We were then told that basically, the Nichiren Shoshu was evil, and that all they do is worship the priesthood, and likened them to horrible things like the Catholic Church and the Dalia Llama (exact words – theirs, not mine). We were then given some material which on the cover said that it was a refutation of the Nichiren Shoshu. I glanced at it, but really couldn’t have cared less. You would have thought they’d be happy that there were other Buddhists in the area, but apparently, it’s a very bad thing that they are even practicing here! 

Along with this is the whole concept of kosen-rufu and shakubuku which is basically a Buddhist version of what Christians call “witnessing” (basically an attempt at conversion). Personally, I hate it when people try to sell me their religion. Nothing will turn me off faster. I don’t want a one world religion. That doesn’t mean I won’t talk to people about what I practice, it just means that I’m not going to go up to people and try to convert them. I think a better approach is to live the best life that you can, and if your greater virtues are rooted in your practice (whatever it may be) and people want to know about it, then take that opportunity to let them in on it if you feel so inclined.

7)The reasons I started on the Buddhist path were many at the time. I sought a philosophy and religion that addressed mindfulness at its core. I have ADHD, and at times my mind resembles a giant projection screen with 40 small screens of picture-in-picture all going at once, each one changing randomly at times. It makes it nearly impossible to concentrate on anything, and it also makes it impossible to remember the little stuff. I’ve perfected the art of forgetfulness. My emotions can run wild at times, and lead me to suffer because of it. While I don’t want to offer up Buddhism as “self-help”, I do believe there are real world benefits to practicing, and much self-improvement can be gained along the way. I also believe that Buddhism integrates nicely with my other beliefs that center on inter-connectedness and compassion, and help to balance my life in favor of ethical conduct.

I find Nichiren Buddhism to be an unsatisfactory vehicle for most of these things. Again, these are my feelings on the matter. If you or someone you know is able to find comfort or refuge or benefit from practicing Nichiren Buddhism or with the SGI, by all means more power to ya’. I have a few other minor issues with the practice as well, but I’m sure there will be comments on this post (I hope anyway) and I’ll be able to address some of them there.

I should make mention that there are aspects of the practice that I enjoy (diversity in the organization, accessability, ritual, focus, something to share with my wife…. among others), and that it hasn’t been a completely terribble experience. I should also note that I don’t believe that every Nicherin Buddhist (or SGI member) is a fundamentalist, but that the statements made above seem to be part of the “party line”, if you will.

So, where does all of this leave me? Buddhist purgatory I suppose. At the heart of Nichiren Buddhism is the practice of chanting nam myoho renge kyo (daimoku). The act of chanting  is something I tend to enjoy, even though chanting in Japanese can be challenging and unfamiliar. For me, it helps to knock me down a few pegs, and bring me down to the mundane. And while I find little connection to the gohonzon itself, it does help to center my practice. I think I’m done with the SGI, though as for chanting, I’m going to make a real effort to chant more regularly. However, my intentions will be decidedly different from that which Nichiren Buddhists hold so dear.

My wife really enjoys the practice, though she’s no fan of Ikeda or the fundamentalism we’ve encountered so far (though we have found some really nice people too, and I’m sure there are plenty more reasonable members out there… somewhere…). As such, chanting together is something we can share, something that will bring us closer together. I haven’t been chanting much lately, and it’s largely due to the issues that I’ve stated here. Getting this out in the open will hopefully help me to re-focus my practice. I want it to be more personalized, and something that truly speaks to me.

So like I said, I’m going to chant with my wife. And sometime in the future, I’ll incorporate a meditation practice. I envision chanting, then spending 15 minutes (to start) afterward in meditation. I see chanting as a tool to use to clear my mind, to sort of “prep” it for meditation or contemplation. But what type of meditation practice? Samatha? Vipassana? Zazen? I have yet to decide. I have a stack of books to read, starting with The Wings to Awakening, followed by a bunch of Zen books (nothing with “and the art of…” in the title) and then I think I’ll move on to just the sutras (prob with commentary) and see what I can find in the way of contemporary Theravadin literature.

I’d like to say I’ll seek out a teacher, but around here there are practically none. I have had an offer to sit with a grassroots Zen group that’s a little over and hour drive from here, but that is simply too far. I have a 17 month old son, and a wife that will give birth to a baby girl at the end of September. My family is my main responsibility in life at the moment, so for now I will have to go it alone. Thankfully, I live in 2010, and am financially secure enough (for now…) to afford access to the internet. I can find many of the sutras online for free (or for cheap on Amazon or local used book stores), and teachers are making themselves more accessable online as well. I also am able to seek the greater iSangha for help and guidance (and laughs) if need be.

I’m not opposed to settling into a tradition at this point. Far from it. What is right for me at this moment is to learn. That’s how I work. I need the intellectual foundation first, and from there I will develop a practice that is meaningful and provides me with the direction and support needed to cultivate the mindfulness, compassion, and equanimity that I started searching for in the first place.

Cheers.

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More than just a weed…


Witnessing the joy your child finds in pulling up dandelions at the park does two things. First, it makes parenting worth it. It makes the sleepless nights, frustration, and absence of “adult time” all worth the effort and sacrifice. It’s hard to see that sometimes.

Second, in those moments, the entire world melts away, and it is just you and your child. Smiling. Engulfed in a moment. Equanimity.

And then he puts a ladybug in his mouth.

Cheers.

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