Sunday, December 20, 2015

Not-Perfect, Not-Imperfect

At this time of year, the Buddha could have just walked down 34th Street, pointed to Macy's, and said, “Dukkha,” and everybody would have gotten the First Noble Truth without a second word needing to be spoken. But 'tis the season of giving. Bright, fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked children sitting lovingly on Santa's lap in the department store, the jolly Salvation Army bell-ringers with kettles overflowing with donations, peace on earth, good will toward men, fake snow on palm trees in Australia and Africa, and all the rest of the Norman Rockwell world that is the holiday season associated with Christmas. Religious or secular, here it is, the time when people give. I could go into the realm of conspicuous consumption, commercialism, what's ostensibly a Christian holiday (with possible pagan origins) being thrust upon the rest of the world as a capitalist orgy, and I guess I just did. But that's not news.
Reality may be slightly different than the greeting cards might imply. It's not all “peace, love, and crunchy granola.” Families get together for the first time since the last wedding, last funeral, or last Christmas. And quite often, telling the difference between Christmas and one of the other two may not be easy. There's a good chance of excessive consumption of alcohol, much wailing and gnashing of teeth, arguments, and resentments. And then there are the funerals. Along with all that, there is a sense of being placed sometimes forcibly, into the role of gift-giver. Maybe random names are drawn from a hat at the office, where you get to play “Secret Santa,” which invariably results in wondering what face that name goes with, or maybe worse, drawing your boss's name: “Don't want to look unappreciative, so it's gotta be nice, but it can't be too nice, or he'll think maybe I don't need that pay raise.” What do you get for the person don't even know, much less know what s/he has and wants/needs more of, or something that shows you care, or that they'd even like?
'Tis the season of giving, of giving grudgingly, mandatory giving, guilt-laden giving and the occasional giving associated with warm feelings for someone, out of compassion, maybe just to see the smile on someone's face when they receive something donated anonymously, and of being OK with someone appreciating a gift or maybe not. There's probably some of all the above to varying degrees with all of us. There are some assumptions in all these situations: A) There's a giver; B) there is a gift; C) there is the recipient of said gift from the aforementioned giver.
The first of the Six Perfections (Paramitas) is dana, or generosity. By the very act of giving, we release attachment and clinging, at least in a best-case scenario. Generosity is a perfection, so it must be a good thing, right? The temptation might be to renounce all our worldly possessions, to assume a post-ghost Scrooge stance, showering the world with all the worldly goods we can. And that's fine, so long as it's done in the actual spirit of generosity.. If we are generous just to be generous, without any expectation of reciprocation, maybe anonymously, Wonderful! Even if we are generous with maybe a tinge of puffing ourselves up, maybe to get a little pat on the back, Wonderful! Do it anyway, with more practice, maybe that will wear off. Maybe not. I'd guess the homeless guy who just received a gift of food really doesn't much care about the motives of the giver. There's just, “Mmmmm.” Perhaps spending some time on the cushion, looking deeply at our motivations might be in order though.
Then there's the version of the recipient actually asking for a handout. The original Sangha, including the Buddha, relied on donations of food and shelter. It's common practice in many countries that there is a day set aside for the laity to make donations directly to the monks. I'm not fond of megachurches and ashrams demanding donations, especially when the clergy end up living lives of wealth and fame. That's fine, it's just not where I'd choose to send my generosity, any more than to the organizations who run the $1,000 per week meditation retreats. Go to any Zen center website, and more often than not, there's probably a “donate” button. That's fine too. The Dharma is free, but mats, cushions, incense, rent, etc. tend not to be. So go ahead, donate. The Zen Center probably needs donations to stay afloat, and trust me, being a Zen priest isn't exactly the way to wealth and fame. (If you'd like to further investigate the commodification of Zen in the West, Dōshim Dharma wrote a book entitled “Brand-Name Zen,” which details all this quite well).
In China, where the peasantry probably had virtually nothing to give, Master Baizhang Huaihai is attributed with having set up the dictum of, “No work, no food.” Apparently when his student monks hid his tools because a Great Sage shouldn't have to do such menial chores as planting and spreading manure, Baizhang essentially went on hunger strike. This wasn't out of some Zen Master pouting, it was his way of living the ethic of “No work, no food.” It could be said that the monks' generosity to the peasantry was that they didn't demand that they support the temple. Baizhang generosity was to set the example of no one being special. There's also the story of the monk living alone as a hermit being visited by robbers one night. He remarked to them that they must really be in need, so he gave them what possessions he had--the clothes on his back. The monk's generosity, much less the sight of a naked monk, did nothing to deter them from stealing however.
My writing this, instead of finding someone in need of something and giving is probably “self” indulgent. I can justify it in terms of the Dharma being a gift, that any insight I might have that saves all beings demands it must be shared. If I really looked on this cold wintry night at 1:00 AM, I could probably find someone who needs something. But maybe someone will read this and be moved to find that homeless guy and give him a sandwich. Whatever merit is accrued can be dedicated to some other sentient being. It does call for some time on the cushion to investigate this further.
As I mentioned previously, there are three grounds to generosity: the giver, the gift, and the recipient. If any of the three is missing, then generosity is merely a concept, not an action. And our practice is all about action. “It is better to give than to receive” is at best a miscalculation if not downright wrong. “Lie” might be too strong a term for it, due the three grounds of generosity, but it falls way short of the entire process of generosity. Someone gave me the idea to write this. That's right, gave me the idea. I accepted it. It was an entirely natural process, give idea, receive idea, no thought required. That's much different from “No, I couldn't possibly accept this from you.” That attitude does nothing but perpetuate superiority, the duality of self/other, and give rise to false humility. It's as “I, I, I, I” “want,” want,” “want” as one would see in Macy's any of these days.
One of the acts of generosity that can be performed is to receive. There's no, “Oh, I couldn't possibly” to it. There's no false “I”-based motivation to it, if done in the true spirit of generosity. The Second Precept is “Do not steal; do not take that which is not freely given.” A corollary of that is to graciously and without attachment accept that which is freely given. Not to do so is in effect stealing the opportunity from someone to practice the First Perfection. Who am I to deny you the opportunity to perform the Perfection of Generosity? Would I deny you the opportunity to meditate or act morally, or any of the other Perfections? So far as I'm concerned, the “I-ness” involved in that is potentially as dangerous to the well-being of all beings as being greedy. Self-lessly giving is best accompanied by self-lessly receiving. To paraphrase the Diamond Sutra, if you think of yourself as a Bodhisattva, and that are beings to save, and saving to be done, you're not a Bodhisattva. But regardless, we act as Bodhisattvas and save all beings. Giver, gift, and recipient are all subject to causes and conditions and characterized by emptiness as giver and gift, but in the spirit of the Bodhisattva, give a gift, and just as willingly, receive a gift. Now go out and find a homeless guy and give him a sandwich. Thank you. You're welcome.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Not Another Way

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to come to the conclusion the we don't like what we don't like, and we like what we like. We don't like it when things don't change as quickly as we'd like them to, and when we want them to stay as they are, we get upset when they don't stay that way. Someone who first looks at the Buddha’s teaching and sees these as examples of the First Noble Truth might have the reaction of, “Well, obviously. Everybody knows that. I thought this Buddha guy was supposed to be smart or something.” Of course, if the Buddha's Teaching of the Dharma stopped there, I'd have to agree. Fortunately, they don't. If you don’t know there’s a way out, that’s one thing. But if you do know the teachings can help, that's another. It’s not like clinging even to suffering is unheard of. But it doesn't really stop there.

Looking deeply into the causes of our tendency to be dissatisfied and struggle, is where the teachings take off. It's not just that we don't like what we don't like, so much as the amount of stubborn struggling we do because of it, because of how attached we are to what it is that we like.

A person who doesn't like that they don't like, and then doesn’t like the fact that they don’t like it the most may be a Buddhist. We think we should know better. We know all about impermanence, no-self, and struggle. So we should just be able to accept what comes along, and when we can't, we’re Bad Buddhists. We beat ourselves back to the cushion.

With a certain amount of practice, maybe we've come across a number of situations where we've been able to apply the teachings. Flat tire? No problem, it was impermanent anyway. Maybe after having led a self-centered life, we do something selfless, and then we realize that those Immeasurables really do mean that, I'm really not different from you, self-less. And sometimes, life is just miserable. Intellectually we know why it's miserable, and that the misery is as impermanent as everything else. Sometimes we forget that when misery changes, it won't necessarily turn for the better. Intellect does nothing to ameliorate the misery. And sometimes life is great. “Misery” and “great” are just things that appear from between our ears.

What got Gautama to leave home when he and his driver went for their jaunts around town? The sight of an aging man, a sickly one, and a corpse en route to the pyre. When you haven't seen them before, it really packs a punch. They provided the impetus to figure out the aversion Gautama felt at seeing them, and the suffering that the outsiders felt when involved in old age, sickness, and death.

My discovery of these was much more gradual. My parents fought like cats and bigger cats, so I never really thought that life was, or even should be, struggle free. My grandparents were ancient--but probably no older than I am now. Mrs O’Donnell next door had been in a wheelchair for as long as I could remember. And a kid in my first grade class died of leukemia, not that I knew what that was any more than I knew what death was, other than he wouldn't be coming back to school. I still remember it now, so it left an impression.

But, the Buddha was right: old age, sickness, and death do indeed bring about suffering if we let them. And there’s nothing like some or all of them happening to a loved one to prove it. Over the course of a few decades, I've certainly seen people age, myself included. When I was young, I couldn't wait for change to come: to be an adolescent, then to be in college, then to be working. (As it turned out, “misery” of being in college has not been replaced by some glorious stint in the working class).The next manifestation of change may or may not be to my liking. Bearing that in mind, I appreciate right here, right now, because I have no clue as to what causes and conditions will rear their ugly or beautiful heads and bring what's next. “How could it be another way,” I'll sometimes say to myself. And sometimes, I even believe it. And then sometimes I have to confront the fear of losing someone close, and then “another way” looks mighty appealing.

The prominent monk Xuanjue went to see the Sixth Patriarch of Chan, Huineng. He entered the hall, and the story goes that he circumambulated Huineng three times, hit his staff on the floor, and then didn't bow. The Patriarch scolded Xuanjue for his being impertinent, and asked why he was so arrogant. Xuanjue said, “The great question of life and death is a momentous one. Death may come at any moment, I have no time to waste on ceremony.”
The Patriarch said, “Once you attain the substance of ‘no birth’, then the problem of death and its coming will not concern you anymore.”
Xuanjue replied, “Since substance has no birth, the basic problem of death and when it comes is solved.”

We don’t know what came next for Xuanjue, so how well this came to be integrated into his whole being is just conjecture. But the point is well taken--do we really have enough time to worry and procrastinate?
The problem lies not in birth, old age, sickness, and death per se. It's the aversion we have for them, and the attachment to their counterparts--no-birth, youth, health, and no-death. We struggle to keep what we like, and avoid at all cost what we don't. But how could it be another way, on all counts, including that we cling and have aversion? Bodhidharma said something to the effect of “When something unpleasant comes, don’t be angry. It only makes sense.” I’d add that anger coming makes sense also.

When my father was nearing death, the closer he was, the less he seemed to fear it. My mother is nearing 90. She's almost entirely blind, and she's still struggling with that. This suffering is one she's creating for herself, in that region behind the eyes and between the ears. She generally struggles with having gotten old, to the point where she once said to me, “I hope you never get as old as this.” My response was, “That's probably not the kind of thing you should say to somebody else.” Maybe when she actually nears death, she'll have come to terms with it and not suffer so much from the thought of it. Her method of dealing with it may change, maybe not. Maybe it will be more to my liking, maybe not. What is my discomfort from her reaction to it? Is it because I don't want her to suffer, or is it that deep down on a molecular level, that I don't want to confront my own impending sickness (maybe) and death (definitely). Good question, sounds like some more time on the cushion may supply the answer, or at least clear up my denial of the answer. Some say, “You already know.”

Zen practice tells us to accept things are they are, or more accurately as Suzuki-Roshi said, “Things as it is.” Wind blows, the willow doesn’t complain about wind, it bends, then returns to its natural state. Don’t like it? Accept not liking it. Don’t like not liking it? Accept that also. When dislike comes, accept it. “It” comes, reflect “it.” Or not. Not comes, reflect “not”. Bending all along, not breaking, and returning to the natural state, accepting it, and not-it alike.

What is the Middle Path between birth and death, between no-birth and no-death? Right now? Typing. How could it be another way? And for you? What is it? Answer quickly! How could it be another way?