Sunday, June 26, 2016

Birth & Death, and the Suffering in Between

I've got some critters inside the wall of the bedroom. They're scratching or gnawing away at whatever critters scratch or gnaw on. I'm hoping that they haven't developed a taste for electrical wiring, because that generally doesn't work out well for them, the dwelling, or the human occupants thereof. We live out in the woods, and it amazes me that a critter, here on the cusp of summer, would think being inside my wall is preferable to the great outdoors, where food sources would offer at least more variety than the rough side of Sheetrock or the aforementioned electrical wiring. But apparently one has. A month or so ago, we had an invasion of carpenter ants. A wood-frame house would no doubt be a banquet for them in most cases, at least at certain times of year. However, we live out in the woods, so again, one would think they'd be able to find a more appetizing menu mere feet away from the house. For the ants, our landlord called a pest control service, and I was relieved when he said that what he sprays isn't toxic to animals or humans, and it only repels the ants. That may not be the case when it comes to critters.

One time, the famous monk Xuanjue visited the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng. After entering the great hall at Nan Hwa Ssu, he circled the Patriarch three times, hit the floor with his staff, and just stood there without bowing. The Patriarch admonished him for violating the rules of etiquette and asked him why he was so arrogant. Xuanjue replied, “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, “When don’t 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.”

The Cambridge Zen Center's pet cat, Katzie died after a long illness and was given a traditional Buddhist burial, but a little girl named Gita remained troubled by his death. One day after practice, she came to the great Zen teacher for an explanation. He relays the exchange in “Dropping Ashes on the Buddha:”
“What happened to Katzie? Where did he go?”
Soen-sa said, “Where do you come from?”
“From my mother’s belly.”
“Where does your mother come from?” Gita was silent.
Soen-sa said, “Everything in the world comes from the same one thing. It is like in a cookie factory. Many different kinds of cookies are made — lions, tigers, elephants, houses, people. They all have different shapes and different names, but they are all made from the same dough and they all taste the same. So all the different things that you see — a cat, a person, a tree, the sun, this floor — all these things are really the same.”
“What are they?”

“People give them many different names. But in themselves, they have no names. When you are thinking, all things have different names and different shapes. But when you are not thinking, all things are the same. There are no words for them. People make the words. A cat doesn’t say, ‘I am a cat.’ People say, ‘This is a cat.’ The sun doesn’t say, ‘My name is sun.’ People say, ‘This is the sun.’
So when someone asks you, ‘What is this?’, how should you answer?”
“I shouldn’t use words.”
Soen-sa said, “Very good! You shouldn’t use words. So if someone asks you, ‘What is Buddha?’, what would be a good answer?”
Gita was silent.
Soen-sa said, “Now you ask me.”
“What is Buddha?”
Soen-sa hit the floor.
Gita laughed.
Soen-sa said, “Now I ask you: What is Buddha?”
Gita hit the floor.
“What is God?”
Gita hit the floor.
“What is your mother?”
Gita hit the floor.
“What are you?”
Gita hit the floor.
“Very good! This is what all things in the world are made of. You and Buddha and God and your mother and the whole world are the same.”
Gita smiled.
Soen-sa said, “Do you have any more questions?”
“You still haven’t told me where Katz went.”
Soen-sa leaned over, looked into her eyes, and said, “You already understand.”
Gita said, “Oh!” and hit the floor very hard. Then she laughed.
As she was opening the door, she turned to Soen-sa and said, “But I’m not going to answer that way when I’m in school. I’m going to give regular answers!” Soen-sa laughed.

So here is this present moment, right here&now. Are you alive? Are you between birth and death? Don't expect to be anywhere else. Don't expect NOT to be in the world of the dissatisfied, the satisfied, the struggling, the content, the happy, the sad, the relaxed, the tense, the celebrating, and the mourning. This is the stuff of life—that period between when our physical body breathes its first and its last. The “no-birth/no-death” we chant is Truth, but to live only there is only half-correct. There's the other “Truth,” where we don't waste our time in between birth and death. Huangbo says, “Throughout this life, you can never be certain of living long enough to take another breath.”

Right now, maybe the critters are performing critter function. Tomorrow when the pest-control service comes, maybe they'll perform pest-control function. Maybe that will involve killing the critters, maybe not. If it does, there's a pretty good chance that I'll be sad on some level, bec ause that's how I react to that sort of thing. That's OK, it shows I'm alive, experiencing human life. The Buddhist ideal of “Peaceful, calm, equanimity” doesn't mean to be without emotions, it doesn't mean to be cold and aloof. Not picking and choosing doesn't mean there's no difference between happy & sad, it means that when they come, we experience them as they are. They aren't opposites, we just experience them. Denying them isn't The Great Way, that's just denial. Not abiding in the world of “should” is The Great Way. “Should” is just guesswork. It's telling a critter how to be a critter. Critters don't need to be told how to be critters, they're just critters. They're very good at being critters. They're probably not so good at being anything other than critters.

When we hold something up in front of a mirror, does the mirror decide, “I'm going to reflect that, but not that other thing, I don't like that so much. I'll just reflect what I like.” When we see something, when we're actually just seeing something, can we decide what we're actually looking at? When we smell something, can we actually pick and choose what we smell? “Ah, cooking garlic, I like cooking garlic. Sweaty Tae Kwon Do studio, no, I don't like that, I'm not going to smell that.” When you taste something that's too salty, can you not taste the salt, just because you don't want to? When the cars come by, can my ears somehow not hear them because I don't want to? If I stick my hand over that candle, can I decide that it won't burn me, and when it burns me, that it's not going to hurt?

The only time we pick and choose, out of the six senses, is when we're thinking. “Oh, I don't want to think about that, so I'm not going to.” I'll think “should,” I'll think, “I wish,” I'll deny what's going on, I'll lust for what isn't going on, just because I like it better. That's not a critter being a critter. That's not you being you.

The Bodhisattva lives in the Immeasurables—Loving-kindness, active good will towards all, even the people we don't like; We have Compassion, and that results from lovingkindness. It is the identification of the suffering of “others” as the suffering of “me.” When they suffer, I suffer. On the other hand, we also have sympathetic joy, when just because someone else is happy, we're happy for them, whether we had anything to do with it or not, whether there's any ego-gratification in it or not, whether they even know that we're happy for them or not. They're happy, we're happy. Equanimity is even-mindedness and serenity, but it's not being cold and aloof. It means that when “happy” comes, “happy” is there. When “sadness” comes, “sadness” is there. Our “even-mindedness” doesn't mean that we don't have emotions, our “even-mindedness” means that we don't swat away the emotions, just because we don't want to feel that particular emotion.
This happiness, sadness, celebration, mourning, that is the matter of Birth & Death; “birth” and “death” are just names. The suffering in between—is where we live.

You can listen to the Dharma talk by clicking the title, or navigating to:

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Gravity of Karma (Part 2)

This past weekend in the early hours of June 12, 2016, approximately 50 people were killed, another 50 wounded in the "worst mass-shooting in US history." I'm not going to expound upon the need for gun control, I'm not going to share an opinion whether everyone in the nightclub were packing a weapon, then a lot fewer people might have died. There are plenty of politicians and people from all walks of life that will supply the sides of that coin, and my opinion will add nothing about the subject. In the Dharma talk titled “The Gravity of Karma,” I mentioned the Sandy Hook school shooting of December 2014 (a classroom of 20 six-year-olds and six adults were killed), and the December 26, 2004 tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people.

In an unfortunate twist of serendipity, the original blog came out hours after the Orlando nightclub murders; the talk had actually been given a couple weeks previously. What I'd mentioned about Sandy Hook and the Tsunami, is now applicable to Orlando, and any future disaster and to previous ones as well. If you were to look at the Saṃyukta Āgama from the Pali Canon you'd come across this:
"According to the seed that’s sown,
So is the fruit you reap therefrom
Doer of good will gather good,
Doer of evil, evil reaps,
Down is the seed and thou shalt taste the fruit thereof."
That could be taken literally, and there's nothing wrong with doing so. I find it an oversimplified reading of Karma-Vipāka, what some translate as cause-effect. Thich Nhat Hanh would point out that the "seed" requires other factors to sprout: Sun, rain, soil, etc. Seed doesn't just sprout simply because it's a seed. Causes and conditions are required. 

The Madhyamaka school of Nagarjuna would investigate karma as it would any other empty, impermanent phenomena. There are four possible takes with karma: First is that cause is the same as the effect. Next, that the cause is different from the effect. Third that the cause is both the same as and different from the effect. And finally that the cause is neither the same as nor different from the effect. What the Madhyamikas would conclude from this is that there are problems in each argument, and conclude that the Middle Path is where Truth is.
The later Huayan school was more inclined to investigate the interpenetration of all phenomena, where in regard to the action/following action karmic sequence, "cause" results in "effect," but this effect is in turn the “cause” of the following “effect.” This virtually renders any difference between "cause" and "effect" moot. It's a dependent origination chicken/egg situation, where both sides could be argued for, and both against, and equally correctly and incorrectly. For my interpretation, the Middle Path is interpenetration, where cause is effect, effect is cause, and they are neither same or different.

But enough academics. Fifty people were killed in one night in Orlando, and honestly, there are probably any number of other locations in the world where murder is happening, maybe more victims, maybe fewer, and a great number will never be known through the media. Regarding Orlando specifically, there will be some who say, "How could God allow that to happen? There is no God." Others will forthrightly contend that because it was a nightclub frequented by the LGBTQ community, that as obvious sinners, that their deaths were not only God's will, but that they deserved to be killed as well. There are also some who, looking at the Saṃyukta Āgama, would conclude that the patrons of the the Pulse were merely reaping their karmic seeds. If that were the case, that would likewise have to apply to Sandy Hook, the tsunami victims, the 29 coal miners at the Upper Big Branch mine, etc. That interpretation strikes me as no less fundamentalist than those who judge than the "Gods will/they deserved it,” and equally naive. 

But being judgmental is not what this is about. Judging that a victim in a disastrous death is more horrific than another requires that multiple simultaneous deaths are "worth" more than individual deaths. The second judgement is that death is somehow a punishment rather than simply what happens. I don't say that to be cold or callous. Going back to the "cause is effect is cause" line, we have to observe what “cause” that the death “effect” will have, and what we can do about it. We can wring our hands, offer prayers, and in a few days when the media uproar stops (as it always will), and let it slide into being a statistic rather than tragedy. What is required is response rather than reaction, wisdom rather than revenge. 

Some will point to the Orlando gunman's religion, and say it was an act of Islamic terrorism. Others will point to the victims being in a gay bar, and classify it a hate crime. It may be both, but likewise it may be neither, and possibly neither. If either of those designations are taken as a cause for the action of murder, what “effect” was it that caused that "cause?" And that's not to make any excuses, or even to hypothesize about reasons. Understanding as best we can the relationship between these A►B events is what we can do here&now to affect what happens now, and help us to decide on a course to affect the future.

Hate for LGBTQ, hate for Muslims, hate for guns, hate for gunmen, hate for gun-control advocates, hate for nature, hate for God, will only maintain the status quo. Where does lovingkindness come into play, and if not that, at least respect, or at least tolerance, and if not that, at least a willingness to stop hating, to stop being willing to do harm. A bodhisattva vows to save all beings. "All" may be really tough to swallow any day, but in the aftermath of a headline grabber, even moreso. But we need to get there, regardless of the difficulty, regardless of the emotions that fuel hate today and tomorrow.

Rage is a natural reaction to events such as mass-murders. Clinging to rage will only serve to be another "cause," which be be another "effect," an A►B
A►BA►BA►BA►BA►B simplistic rhyme scheme that goes nowhere other than "self-" perpetuation. Rage is impermanent, but when we decide to let it dissipate will be when we decide to live in the here&now rather than the past, and work diligently to have an effect on the future that benefits all beings, even the ones with whom we might be vilifying with righteous indignation today. And maybe when we observe our own emotions, we may be able to see the interpenetration of emotions that take place in everybody, everywhere, every day, and decide what we can do to break the causal chain of hate and replace it with love.

Indeed, karma is relentless.
To listen to the Dharma talk, click on the title or navigate here:
To read the original blog “The Gravity of Karma, go to:

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Gravity of Karma

Zen doesn’t spend a lot of time on karma compared with other subjects, but any number of Zen Sages have taught and commented on it, starting with Bodhidharma, and continuing through to the present day. And karma is, along with rebirth, a major point of contention between various practitioners--Secular versus non-Secular being one dividing line. Are karma and rebirth just vestiges of the Gangetic Plain of 2,500 years ago, and as such not really Buddhist? There are statements the Buddha made about karma in the Sutras, but the Secularists might argue that these were added in by others as the Sutras evolved from oral to written forms. That may be the case. But I don’t really spend a lot of time arguing for or against them, as I just take them as a given.

I also don’t spend a lot of time on thinking about gravity. Right here&now, I’m subject to it. If I drop a glass on a hard floor, more than likely it will break. That’s just how gravity works, as well as floors and glasses, and clumsiness. Likewise, my volitional actions produce karma, and karma is produced in turn. The word Karma just being Sanskrit for “action,” and specifically intentional action, speech, and thought. In addition to the no-brainer that one action producing another seems to me, it’s also a no-brainer that karma isn’t just a simple A►B, cause-and-effect chronology. There may be times when it seems a simple as “drop glass, glass breaks,” but even there that resulting action of glass breaking, is still just the latest action in a line an infinite number of previous causes and conditions and their resulting actions.

Simple “cause and effect” and the Newtonian physics of “each action has an equal and opposite reaction,” also strike me as inaccurate. Given that the effects may be well-removed from their causes, and thereby subject to subsequent additional causes, A►B doesn’t work; it’s an oversimplification. “Equal and opposite reaction” may work for a while with those little balls on strings that clack back and forth against each other, but they don’t clack ad infinitum due to having expended energy with each swing, inevitably just running out of steam. The  A►B of committing a robbery and subsequently being robbed is likewise an oversimplification, as is the popular notion of “paying it forward.” I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think there’s a big cosmic piggy bank in which we make a deposit every time we hold a door open for someone. If there were, I’d better be able to cure disease A, just so someone else can discover a cure for disease B, and this cure discovery will be purely rooted in my having cured disease A, just in case I come down with disease B. Again, many more causes and conditions figure into the equation.

If someone sits in a bar and thinks it will be a good idea to drink for ten hours, then decides it would also be a good idea to hop in the car, it’s really not such a surprise when we find out that his car got wrapped around a tree with him behind the wheel. That would even seem to be pretty close to an A►B karmic flow as it gets, but many other factor have contributed--what happened earlier that day that got him to thinking that a 10-hour bender would be a good idea, and what led up to the events of that day, how did home or job or study contribute, how did childhood contribute, how did the bartender’s day contribute to his thinking it would be a good idea to continue to serve someone who’s been there through a couple of shift changes, was there a defective steering mechanism that came with the car from Detroit, did the most recent tire change at the garage contribute negatively to the car’s steering, and so on, going back well beyond Henry Ford and the assembly line and whoever it was that invented the wheel and intoxicating substances. Pinning it all on the Egyptians in this case may seem reasonable, but what came before the Egyptians to cause them and create the conditions where all these other thoughts, words and actions came to be?

Negative karma and negative outcomes, positive karma producing favorable outcomes is likely true, although when the positive seed bears positive fruit may not take place chronologically close enough for the correlation to be obvious. “Good” and “bad” karma are often seen as reward and punishment, as the fate of heaven and hell, and that’s really not a particularly Zen take on karma. Making one action “good” and another “bad” is the first problem. Who is it that’s making good and bad out of them? Rain on a wedding day may be a disaster for a bride and groom, and a godsend for a farmer. Rain may be followed by sun, maybe hurricane; sun may be followed by rain, maybe by drought. Thinking of these as karmic consequence isn’t correct, or incorrect. Taking them personally would be. 

Sun followed by rain is one thing, one might say a natural example of impermanence, of everything changing. Sun followed by drought may likewise be a natural sequence; both rain and drought are subject to causes and conditions, not only directly by the atmosphere, but also by the contributions of all who create karma on the planet that may affect weather and climate. Taking a rained out wedding personally, as in that’s the payback for stepping a a bug yesterday is probably not correct thinking. In the same vein, the farmer who takes credit for a well-needed rainstorm because he swung a chicken over his head three times last Thursday may also be flawed. I can’t honestly say for sure.

My thought on karma, and rebirth for that matter, is that they’ll take care of themselves, that is if there’s a “they” to be taken care of in the first place. If the result of one’s belief in “good” and “bad” karma, of “heaven” and “hell,” of “reward” and “punishment” really doesn't matter. As a concept, karma is as empty as any and every other concept. Taking that to be an excuse for nihilistic behavior would be incorrect, as general denial of “this” being involved in the rising of “that.” I can’t say you’ll be return as a fox for 500 rebirths, but I also can’t say you won’t. Even if it’s a Pascal’s Wager situation where performing correct action is a good idea, just in case there is some sort of cosmic retribution to come from it, that’s OK. Maybe not 100% correct, but maybe not incorrect either. What matters is that we ask ourselves “who is it that’s acting like there’s no downside to correct action,” “who is it that considers ‘this’ bad, and ‘that’ to be good,” “who is it that has created this karma,” “who is it that has had this fortunate rebirth, to hear the Dharma?” What really matters is that for whatever underlying reason there may be, we perform bodhisattva action, saving all beings. It may start out as a means of accruing good karma or merit, maybe as a means to avoid rebirth in one of the lower realms, and then eventually, for “no merit whatsoever,” as the Red-Bearded Barbarian once said.
Bodhidharma has another quote attributed to him that sums up karma as well as any other: “When something unpleasant happens, don’t be angry, it only makes sense.”

That’s the gravity of karma: It’s relentless.

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