Sunday, November 29, 2015

It is What It Is

My old sangha (Original Mind Zen Sangha) was in Princeton, NJ, and half-jokingly we had a rather Jersey-like motto: “It is what it is (you got a problem with that?)” I used to work with a crew of electricians in New York whose motto was, “It is what it is, we'll get it done. We always do.” We hear the phrase “It is what it is” so much, it probably has no meaning anymore. But if we dissect it, it is one of the most “Zen” statements around. 
We can look at the statement from a purely objective point of view, where there is a separate subject & object, and state that there is an “it” to be what “it” is. This “it” exists as totally separate from me, in fact may have nothing to do with me at all, other than I perceive that there is an “it” to be what it is. Is there an “it,” is there a “what,” is there an “is” all would be answered yes. Nothing more to it, it's there, it exists, and there is a “it-ness” to “it.” Everything is only ever seen in the realm of form. At this stage, we don't even ask any of these questions; it never dawns on us to even ask them, because the answer is only “It Is What It Is.”

We can look at it from the “emptiness” perspective and say, “What is this 'it'?” Is there any 'is' to 'it'?” What is implied by 'what'?” Is that a subject/object separation? Am I “it,” and is “it” me? Does “it” have any “it-ness” to it? Do I have any “me-ness” to me? Is that an implication of existence as a physical form? Is there an “is-ing” or “being” to be done? If we consider only the Absolute, the answer to the multiple-choice quiz would be “None of the Above.” Here, we're stuck in emptiness, asking questions that may stay as exercises in intellect and nothing more. Everything is only ever seen in the context of the Absolute, we're stuck in the Absolute, which is no better than being stuck in form. 
From a broad, geopolitical standpoint, neither of these views is particularly useful. Saying “There is no bomb, there is no Paris, no birth, no death, all is oneness,” would probably not be well-appreciated by someone who just lost a loved one in Paris last week. Subject being object, object being subject is only skillful in certain circumstances, and as Bodhisattvas, it's our duty to ascertain when that is. The other side, where subject and object are totally separate may result in, “We've got to keep them out of our country, they're all terrorists, they should go back where they came from.” Likewise, perhaps not the most Bodhisattva of expressing oneself.

On a more personal level, what do you or I have going on that's holding us back? Tonight is the last night we are sitting in this space, because financially it isn't feasible. The sangha is small, attendance swings widely from one week to the next, we don't receive enough in donations to justify continuing to rent the space. It is what it is. I asked Venerable Wonji about “trying to grow a sangha” when we were on retreat a few weeks ago. His response was, “Maybe you should stop trying.” 
Now, that can be taken a few different ways—I can stop putting up notices about our schedule, posting blogs and Dharma talks, put everything in the realm of, “If it's here, then they will find it.” Consequently, I could be sitting alone week after week, maybe happily, maybe angrily. Happy or angry is largely irrelevant to the matter of growing a sangha, because neither has any effect on whether anyone is here or not. So that's a “not-trying” that is purely passive, and probably ineffective on a number of levels. 
Another way I could take “not-trying” would be continue to do the same things that I've been doing, posting schedules, flyers, and so on, and if anyone comes, Wonderful! If anyone doesn't, Wonderful! This is fine, it's non-attachment to results, I do what I do, and the rest, “It is what it is.” That's a good attitude, except it leaves out a few things: am I doing this because I should be doing this? Am I doing it out of ego, out of stubbornly hanging on to the notion that “There's a Five Mountain Order Sangha, and I'll be damned if I'm the one to close it down.” The option I'm taking for now is seeing that neither of those views contains the “totality of reality.” For now, it is becoming financially difficult to continue to meet here. That doesn't mean that we won't meet somewhere else in a matter of weeks, months, whenever. For the moment, that's the “it is what it is.” It's not an either/or, it's a “for the moment, this is what I need to do.” Very practical, or so it seems at this moment. That may be proven to be incorrect as much as anything else. It is what it is.

In “The Compass of Zen,” Zen Master Seung Sahn talks about the Huayan Sutra:
If you wish to thoroughly understand
All the buddhas of the past, present, and future,
Then you should view the nature of the whole universe
As being created by mind alone.

Truth contains both correct and incorrect. Truth contains both greed and generosity. Truth contains good and bad, and simultaneously doesn't make good and bad out of there being good and bad, greed and generosity, correct and incorrect. Sangha is here? Wonderful! Sangha is not here, Wonderful! It is what it is.

But is we only leave it there, we're still in the realm of the Absolute without taking the Relative into account. Our thinking makes sitting here good and bad, and that is Truth. It's not necessarily reality, but it is Truth. So whether we're meeting here in this room Thursday evenings is only good or bad when we make it so. The next step after “thinking makes good and bad” is, what is the enlightened behavior that accompanies this? In any situation, what is Bodhisattva action? Bomb goes off in Beirut, bomb goes off in Syria, and Paris, and Nigeria. Bombs have already gone off. Don't make good or bad, just help the injured. See if there is something you can do to keep the next bomb from injuring people. 
Sit with sangha? Wonderful! Sit alone? Wonderful! Meditate in order to become a Bodhisattva? OK. Meditate and be a Bodhisattva? Wonderful. All we do is save all sentient beings. That is what it is. You got a problem with that? Wonderful!

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Equanimity Sucks!

Back in May, and again in September of 2015, I contributed to the Progressive Buddhism blog: 

These had to do with my partner finding out she had breast cancer, and what she, and to a much lesser extent I, did to progress through the process. The gist of those blogs was to give some insight into the analysis of what was going on, and to give potential responses to what others might have said upon hearing the news that she had cancer. 

One can imagine the tongue clucking, hand-wringing, verging on patronizing statements some people make when they hear the news. “But how are you? How are you really?” To which my response in the first piece was, “No, really, it's OK.” Later, in September, after she had completed radiation and was given a clean bill of health in follow-up oncologist visits, we could make the observation that, “Yep, it's still OK.” The conclusion that I came to from looking at what we did, said, and thought throughout those months was interesting. 
It seems that at least on my part, what would have been an opportunity to go absolutely nuts, just wasn't there. Admittedly, I've only known a couple people with cancer, and so far as I'm aware there's only one I can think of who died from it, and that was a classmate who died of leukemia when we were 6 years old. It's entirely possible that because I had no horror story reference point, that I just didn't know how one is supposed to behave when one hears their partner has cancer. But between that and some events that have come along since, I'm fairly certain that my Zen Buddhist practice has figured into it.

The Four Immeasurables in Buddhist teaching are “Lovingkindness,” “Compassion,” Sympathetic joy,” and “Equanimity.” They are the virtues that we as Buddhists hold as ideals in our behavior—thoughts, speech, and actions. We don't always stay true to them, but once you've learned about them, you can't unlearn them. They're there like a bee buzzing around the dark corners of our minds, and can be just as annoying when the buzzing gets loud just when we don't want it to.

This past weekend, my partner and I were at our storage space, trying to condense it down to a smaller space. We have a rental truck, and we're shuttling items around, trying to separate out what we're going to donate from what we will need in the future. We finish our work on Saturday, I dead-lift a couple of book cases off the truck—one of which went up a flight of stairs—and then we head back over for more consolidation. I drive over to the storage space in the truck, and she drives over in her car. I park in front of the large space, she in front of the smaller one. I put my key in the padlock, and it was turning suspiciously easy. But, given my good fortune of the key moving smoothly for once, I continue turning it. And then it got a little too easy. It was as if I were unlocking air. And at that point I was, because the key had broken off inside the lock.

I'd like to say that my imperturbable nature was maintained. But that was not to be. A couple of shouted expletives, that feeling in the chest when you have something happen that is beyond unexpected, that all happened. But what was unexpected, turned out to be how quickly it actually passed. By the time I walked over to the other space to tell her the news and walked back to the still-locked space, the feeling of anger, panic, and that thing that happens in the chest just sort of dissipated. Got to the truck, sat in it, and figured out what the next step was—which was to call locksmiths. 

As a note for future reference, locksmiths in Western Mass don't seem to work on Sunday. That being the case, it seemed like there would be no reason to hang onto a truck full of air for another day, so I drove it back down to the rental office. Then it dawned on me: People must leave padlocks on the back of trucks all the time, the rental guys must have bolt cutters! A second note for future reference, they don't have them. The guys at the office and I couldn't believe it, but that was the case. So the truck was left there. 

Our Zen practice teaches us to feel fully whatever is going on at the moment. Key breaks, anger and disbelief are felt fully. But anger and disbelief pass quickly enough if we let them. Feelings, emotions, attachment, aversion, they are like a container of milk. I don't think many of us would want to keep the milk past its expiration date, but those emotions, sometimes we just want them to stick around until they are Gorgonzola cheese. Anger, righteous indignation, boastfulness, sometimes even those negative emotions have a certain draw to them: “Screw lovingkindness, right now I want to scream in rage!” “May all beings be happy? Hell no, all beings shall be subject to my wrath!” “I shall smite thee with my terrible swift tongue (or keyboard)!”

When we aren't angry, we don't really want to be angry, it feels too good just to feel good. Good is good, angry is bad. We feel the good fully...and then maybe even that sticks around a little too long, turning into a thought-induced state of cranial Velveeta. And then it becomes undeniable that the time for “good” is gone, and that swing can be even more disappointing than feeling good. There's what the Buddha called dukkha—that propensity we have as humans that it's never quite right, or at least not for as long as we'd like it to be, nor will it end as soon as we'd like if it's something we don't like. They were the “good old days,” maybe “the future is bright,” but usually not, “it's all good—even right now.”

But equanimity, that imperturbability, that willow-like bending but not breaking, is an auto-correct for when the pendulum starts swinging a little too wide—maybe so wide it's stuck at one extreme or the other. Equanimity isn't being detached in the sense of aloofness or indifference that is sometimes associated with it. Having a sense of equanimity isn't even going through all life's trials with that half-smiling look of a Buddha on our faces all the time. It doesn't even require us to forsake all preferences for feeling good or aversions to what doesn't feel good. Equanimity is the Middle Path for emotions. With equanimity, the emotions come when they come, they go when they go, and maybe we experience them a little closer to what reality is; It isn't really going to kill me if I don't get that pay raise, and I'm not really “Top of the world, Ma!”if I do get it.

But when we have that sense of peaceful calm equanimity, and that is really getting in the way of our real desire to just vent, rant, rave, throw things, spew venom and flames, and carry on like a two-year-old throwing a tantrum, just because “we WANT to,” man, can equanimity suck!

To listen to the Dharma talk, click on the title, or navigate to:

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Hungry, Hungry Ghosts

The Huayan Sutra tells us that evil deeds cause rebirth in one of the Six Realms. There are, I believe Three Realms of Buddhists who have an opinion on this matter of Life & Death (and Rebirth). The first are those who fervently believe in the very strict interpretation of Rebirth, Karma, how they relate to one another, and that achieving the state of Nirvana equates with no further rebirth. The second group are the ones who disavow even the remote possibility of there being such a thing as rebirth; karma is out also, especially the part about karma spanning across lifetimes. The third are those who maintain a more open view of rebirth—not quite agnostic about it, maybe fitting cellular rebirth (every seven years, there's a whole new you! Except some of the new you is 6 years and 364 days old.). 
Most of the Zen practitioners I know personally tend to be in the camp of, “We can be, and in fact are, reborn every second.” That would include me. It's not something I can prove or disprove, not something I'm even particularly inclined to spend much time on, especially to be argumentative: “Of course there's rebirth!” “Oh yeah, says you!” (I must qualify that most discussions about rebirth I've encountered don't really sound quite that much like a script from a 1930's gangster movie, but they would be so much more entertaining if they were). I'm more inclined to pay attention to what I'm doing in the here&now, not so much on what got me here in the ancient twisted karma/rebirth sense, more in the “What I've done every second of my life has created my current situation, and the collective actions of everyone who has ever lived has gotten us all collectively to the point where we all are, right here&now in this very second” sense.

From the classical Buddhist version, there are the Six States of Existence, the Six Realms into which we as the current crop of humans can be reborn into:

Devas—godlike creatures who despite their lofty status aren't exempt from sickness, old age and death.
Asuras—sometimes called “titans” or “demons,” but not in the Western “Satan” sense of demon.
Humans—If nothing else, this is the plane of existence from which we can become enlightened. So in spite of the Three Dharma Seals of dukkha, anicca, and anatman—struggle, impermanence, and no self—it seems like a reasonable trade-off. I should add here that given that I have no reason to believe that I just sprung out as the first one of anything, so I'm here as a result of rebirth. The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment has a good take on that.
Animals—Not animals in a snarly dog-eat-dog way necessarily, more of the “it's a dog's life” way of not really having any responsibilities, a pretty basic, if limited, life.
Hungry Ghosts—They of the insatiable appetite, with massive distended bellies, needle-thin throats, and mouths either the size of a needle, or huge enough to match the belly.
Hell-beings—As unpleasant as you'd think from the name, but not really a “burn in hell for all eternity” unpleasantness that Western culture, myths, and legends have given us.

One of the reasons that I don't have any problem with these realms being states of rebirth is that I know beings who fit into those categories. I think most of us across the span from (re)birth-to-death probably fit into one or more of them easily, most likely all of them at one point or another. And as a matter of course, I have my own “here&now” interpretations of them, which will hopefully offend none of the Three Realms of Buddhists mentioned above. Rebirth doesn't necessarily imply a physical death is required.

Devas are the ones with First-World problems. They might even fit into the 1 percenters, but I suspect that any of us who don't have to worry about being bombed, shot, starved, homeless, or or generally “devastated,” might fit into the Deva realm on a lot of days. If we aren't there, we'd like to be. The issue with the Devas is that they have it so easy that it's totally unimaginable that others could have it worse than they do. There's no real wisdom in Deva-land, and certainly no compassion of empathy. No Bodhisattvas to be found. Succinctly, I refer to it as the “Let them eat cake” realm.

Asuras are the ones that try to appear to be above the fray. The kind of self-righteous, self-involved, self-important type who will talk your ear off about themselves, but would look at their watch and tap their foot impatiently if someone else has the audacity to waste the Asuras time by talking about themselves. Asuras will look down on others, they're prone to making themselves look good, either by inflating stories about themselves, or by pulling someone else down. Either way that the Asura accomplishes it, his or her self-serving nature is just a way to create a permanent sense of “Self.” A lot of “I,I,I,I” here, no “How may I help you.” It could be called the “They should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, the lazy bastards” realm.

Humans, as I mentioned previously, have the ability to become awakened, right here in this space in between (re)birth and death. Depending on your interpretation, if you attain Nirvana, “Ain't coming back, see ya.” Maybe reaching our Awakened nature means rebirth as a Bodhisattva, being reborn as many times as it takes for all sentient beings to attain awakening. And depending on how scripturally- inclined you are, you might even be able to pick the form of rebirth. Human isn't a bad rebirth as rebirths go, lots of potential, but no guarantees. There are probably some who take rebirth as a human as a cosmic consolation prize; “Better luck next time, pal.” And the there are probably those who, upon acknowledging their rebirth as a human say, “Ugh. This again?” Some days (or instants) it's great. Other days (or years), not so much. Sounds like The Three Dharma Seals to me. Overall, the pendulum swings, but never that far from the Middle Path, even though we may have our moments of, “It's the end of the world,” alternating with, “This is the greatest thing that has ever happened,” which will of course be replaced by “the end of the world” in an instant. Those extremes aren't real though; it's never as bad or as good as we think it is.

Animals, well, I'll get around to writing about animals, I need a nap now. The animal realm is full of the cat who is lolling in the sunbeam on the floor, then when the sunbeam moves, the cat's even too lazy to follow it. “Sloth” is about as good a word as there is for covering the meanings of “Animal.” Predictability is really important, because if it's predictable, there's no need to fear. There aren't a lot of demands, but the ones there are—like food being in our bowl, or being able to control the entire world with our hand firmly attached to the steering wheel of existence. Just not if that entails too much effort. Now can you get up and change the channel on the TV? 
It's tough to detach from that Western hell-fire & brimstone image of the pit of flames for all eternity. Being as that it's a realm of rebirth, that literally means that it is as impermanent as anything else, so once you enter the gates of hell, you don't have to stay there forever. Even that is no consolation though. If where we are is unpleasant, we will let everyone within earshot know all about it, and probably at top volume. Disagree? “Choose your weapon, sir. We're going to settle this once and for all!” But it's never settled, let alone “for all.” There will be the next issue to complain about. And complain is way too polite for the Hell-Being. Attack, rip your head off, throw in “How dare you” for good measure, and then we're approach the outskirts of Hellbeingville. The level of attack goes well beyond, “If mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.” Think of the crankiest kid you've ever come across, then hand him an AK-47. Now we're getting there. There are a few Zen stories about the Hell-Being realm. My favorite is that of Wonhyo, the “Buddhist Saint of Korea,” who was once a pious scholar, and then roamed among the prostitutes, drunkards, thieves, and all other “lowly” (re)born, because “Even Hell-Beings need saving.” The Hell Being isn't going to do any saving, so somebody had to go into the market place with outstretched arms, and Wonhyo was just the guy to do it. 
Hungry Ghosts are probably the realm with the most interesting back story. They're to whom Nancy Reagan in her infinite wisdom directed, “Just say no”, and in her infinite stupidity didn't seem to realize that a Hungry Ghost is incapable of just saying “No.” Dr. Gabor Maté worked among the addict population in Vancouver, BC, and he wrote a book called, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.” It's a really good crossover between some Buddhist elements and some medical. It's not just the drug addict who is the Hungry Ghost though. Anyone who has ever obsessed excessively about something, be it food, sex, alcohol, drugs, fame, fortune, money, or just wants more because what they have is never enough, could qualify at a Hungry Ghosts Anonymous meeting. That's why I like the massive mouth and the bloated belly image. That little tiny throat just doesn't allow for the appetite to be sated, no matter how much you try to stuff into the massive hole. It's just not going to reach the other massive hole. If there's some, that calls for more. And where the “more” comes from might be from you, and the means of obtaining “more” are completely inconsequential. Anything from murder to character assassination are on the table, so long as it provides “more.” Problem is, “more” is just never enough. That pendulum is swinging pretty wide with the Hungry Ghost, and usually only in one direction. Do you have maybe a little more than your share of Greed, Anger, and Delusion? Maybe a lot more? “Welcome to the Wonderful World of the Hungry Ghost!” Bodhisattvas need not apply. 
If we go to the moment-to-moment approach to rebirth, I think that one time or another, we've been reborn many times in all these realms...and without bothering to die in between them. At least it's not in the literal sense of dying. But in a way, something does die before each of those realms rolls our way. Generally, we could say that we're “killing” the innate Buddha, choosing a course of thought, speech and action that is anything but Buddha-like. Maybe we forsake View for view. Maybe Wisdom is too damn hard, concentration and paying attention are at best inconvenient. And you have to put food on the table, so we can convince ourselves that how it gets there is unimportant, just so long as the dough is rolling in.

Maybe we can't always see our hungry, ghostly selves when we're in that realm. But maybe we can see when that or any of the other realms is looming; that they will detract from our very humanity. If we see greed, we can be generous. We can care rather than look the other way because someone else's problems are just too much of a downer. A little “Big I” action will be more helpful than preaching from an ivory tower. A smile will beat a sneer, how much more than a verbal thrashing. Even if it means getting off the couch, sometimes we just have to make the effort so that it's not just about “I,” “Me,” “Mine.” If we succeed more often than we fail, Wonderful! And if we fail just a little too much, there's always, “Better luck next time, kid!” 

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Monday, November 2, 2015

Not-All the Above

Here's the problem with Buddhists: We make stuff up. Not that everybody else doesn't make stuff up, but we make some special stuff up. We hear about the Buddha, how “Buddha” means the awakened one, and we immediately jump to making opposites. “If the Buddha is enlightened, that makes him special, and I'm not so special, therefore I am unenlightened.” So we make “enlightened” into the opposite of “unenlightened.” We hear about the Two Truths--“Relative” and the “Absolute,” and we immediately think of them as different. Bodhidharma says “it's” beyond words, we immediately start talking and writing about “it.” (The irony is not lost on me). We hear about mind-to-mind transmission, we start thinking there are two different “minds,” that there's something to be transmitted, and that there's any transmission to be done, and somebody to do the transmitting.

I'll paraphrase from one version or another (or maybe more) of the “Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch:
Huineng addresses the monks, “I have an article that has no head, no name nor appellation, no front and no back. Do any of you know it?
Shenhui steps out from the crowd, quite pleased with himself no doubt, and says, “It is the source of all Buddhas, and the Buddha-Nature of Shenhui.”
Huineng retorts with, “I have already told you it has no name, and yet you call it 'source of all buddhas and 'Buddha-Nature.' Even if you confine yourself to a mat-shed (meditation room) for further study, you will be a meditation master of second-hand knowledge only,” i.e. no intuitive wisdom, just book-learning. Lots of knowledge, not necessarily any wisdom. (not to create opposites again).

Shenhui is clearly incorrect, but is Huineng correct? He actually explains it a little further, and that removes him from the gates of hell. 
One walking the Great Way should do away with all thoughts good as well as evil ones (opposites). It is merely an expedient, that the 'essence of Mind' is called that; it cannot be named by any name. This non-dual nature is called True Nature, upon which all systems of the teaching are based. One should realize the 'essence of mind' as soon as one hears of it.” 
Also in the Sutra:
Nanyue Huairang comes to Huineng's temple. Huineng asks him, Where did you come from?”
Nanyue says, “From Mt. Song.”
Huineng asks, “What is it that comes?”
Nanyue has no answer. Eight years later, Nanyue speaks to Huineng.
Nanyue says to him, “Master, I have an understanding.”
Huineng asks, “What is it?”
Nanyue's answer, “To say it's a thing misses the mark.”

If I pick up a bottle of water, do you know what my experience is—not from an intellectual level, but personally, right here&now? Is it warm, is it cold? Is it sweet or salty? Is it water or some other clear liquid? ZM Seung Sahn tells us that when we taste something, just taste. When we hear something, just hear. Leave out the nouns, use only verbs. No “thing” to be tasted, no “thing” to do the tasting, there is only, “Yum.”
A recent sign you might see around is, “If you see something, say something.” That just points us to when see something, we name it, assign form to it, decide where “it” ends and everything else begins—that “Universe + 1” tendency. As soon as we perceive something instead of just experiencing it, and we give it a name, we decide what its form is, we enter the realm of conception. And the world of conception puts (at least) one layer between us and the Great Way. (Of course, you could say that there is no Way, and that putting layers between us and it is just more dualism, and trying to define “it.” And you wouldn't be wrong, but as Huineng points out, it's an expedient. Throw it away as soon an you've stopped reading this sentence. Gone? Good.)

I lean toward being one of the 8-crayon box guys, my partner is somewhere north of 128. A myriad of things are called “red” by me, she has all kinds of gradations, shades, mixtures of other colors to make what I call “red.” She'll have a name for the color I've never even heard. I can listen to music, and tell whether it's minor key or major key, what instruments there are playing the song. I see what to me is “red,” I say red. She hears music, she says, “music.” That's almost ZM Seung Sahn's “red comes, reflect red,” although in his case, the word “red” wouldn't be involved. 
Is one right, one wrong? Are both or neither correct perceptions, given that we do perceive, and regardless of our perceptions being empty? If you say, “None of the above,” you are attached to emptiness. If you say “All the above” you are attached to form. Which is right?

However...all dharmas are buddhadharmas. “Yum” is as valid as, “I think this thing I'm tasting is quite yummy.” “Red” is as valid as “brick-red.” “Minor key 12-bar blues” is as valid as “music.” When we detach even from non-attachment, when it's not-one, not-two, and when we experience both “All the Above” and “None of the above,” and neither “All the Above” and “None of the Above,” we are Buddha. When we try to separate delusion from wisdom, it misses the mark. So far as reality goes, both exist. And simultaneously, they don't exist. 
So I ask you, “Is it None of the above or all the above?” Both? Neither? Both and neither? Neither both, nor neither neither? Answer quickly! But maybe without opening your mouth or writing to do so.

Click on the title to listen to the Dharma talk, or navigate to: