Saturday, October 14, 2017

Etched in Pencil

I once heard someone say, “If it ain’t a paradox, it ain’t true.” If you’re a Zen practitioner, you’re on board with that. A twist on that would be that would be the opposite is true—you practice Zen and hate paradox, but thats paradoxical...so it must be true. Kong-ans are often used as a means to help the Zennist get past conceptual thought, which can also be before conceptual thought. And no thought doesn’t actually mean no thought literally, just not having THAT kind of thought, or at least not being attached to thinking thoughts. But it also means that if you do have THAT kind of thought, that’s OK too, so long as you don’t attach to it, and if you do, don’t attach to non-attachment..

On one hand, the Heart Sutra says “No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind,” and likewise there being “no sight, no hearing, no smell, no taste, no touch,” “no object of sight, and so forth until no realm of mind consciousness.” It even starts with Avalokiteshvara perceiving that “all five skandhas are empty,” and slightly later perceiving that perceptions are empty too. Lest we forget, there’s “nothing to attain” followed shortly by fearless Bodhisattvas “attain anutara samyak sambodhi.” To top that off, to paraphrase to Diamond Sutra, “all this is not-this, thus is it called “this.” What about the other hand? The kong-an asks “what is the sound of one hand?”

Still other teachings say with equal validity, “just seeing, just hearing, just smelling,” and so forth until “just” thinking. Is Zen teaching  so non-committal that it can’t decide on what the teaching is? Today it’s this and not that, tomorrow it’s that and not this, the next days it’s this and that, and on the next day after it’s anything but this and that. Throw in Bodhidharma saying that the Great Way is beyond words, which he said with words, and has subsequently been written down for people to read and quote, which some then take as an excuse not to read Sutras, but Bodhidharma quotes are fine, Cleary’s translation of the Buddha’s Flower Garland Sutra is about 1400 pages long, and the Buddha’s Flower Sermon involves no words, just holding up a flower, Mahakashyapa smiling, and thus the transmission of the true Dharma Eye in Zen is born...and you could just as easily say that it’s also beyond birth and death, as its “thusness” is beyond impermanence. 

Zen is equal parts One Mind and No Mind, but without any sort of dividing line between the two, because there’s no separation, and even saying “equal parts” implies the possibility that there’s an “or” rather than an “and,” and that’s not quite right either, because they’re not separate, even to the point where using the word “they’re” implies a “them” plurality, which clearly there isn’t, because the 10,000 return to the 1, and where does the 1 return, and to call it an “it” is not correct. Got it? What have you got, and what’s doing the getting?

All that Zen points to is that we pay attention, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, boxing in a ring of quicksand where sinking is just as good as staying afloat. As the late Myozan Keegan once said to me, “take the teaching seriously, but carry it lightly.” The teachings, the Dharma, and life itself, are not etched in stone but rather etched in pencil, and it’s one with an eraser. I’ll leave it to the reader’s discretion of what “one with an eraser” means, bearing in mind that what it means now will likely mean something else tomorrow...or not.


Monday, September 18, 2017

Forest, Meet Tree

The Buddha's teaching of anatman, or “not-self” is often troubling and/or misunderstood by practitioners, both seasoned and novice. A number of techniques have been used to allay the fear of losing “my self,” by the Buddha and subsequent sages. As with all teachings, the use of Upaya, or “skillful means” is crucial. The Buddha was addressing bhikkhus, not standard householders, and as such, their capacity for understanding anatman is likely to have been more advanced than that of lay people.

So, what is a skillful way not to cause more suffering with the teaching of not-self? Certainly, having just described the human condition as characterized by dissatisfaction and that there was a means to relieve this dis-ease, immediately introducing as horror-inducing a concept as annihilating “me” doesn't seem to be a reassuring approach, especially if you throw the word "emptiness" in on top of that. What a hollow feeling! If one looks at the Five Skandhas--Form, Feelings, Perceptions, Impulses, and Consciousness--seeing that they in and of themselves do not comprise a permanent entity shouldn't be too threatening. All of them are constantly changing, de facto pointing to their not lasting permanently, i.e., obviously being impermanent. These five heaps haven't any Self-Nature or permanence of their own, therefore are characterized by emptiness, so added together it can't be expected they would somehow comprise something permanent. If one looks at the Buddha's teaching directly, he doesn't so much say that there isn't a “self,” as that the Skandhas aren't it.

The Relative/Absolute approach may be less threatening to the much clung-to need for “identity.” In the relative, you're you, I'm me, and we'd see that truth if I went to the bank and tried to make a withdrawal from your account. In the Absolute however, where do you end and I begin? From 30,000 feet, vegetation may seen, but as to whether that's grass or trees may not be so obvious. Coming in closer, tress may appear, but not necessarily whether they're pines or oaks. Closer in still, that they're oaks becomes evident, closer in still, individual trees, and so on down into bark, xylem, phloem, and finally to individual cells. At what point can we see the forest for the trees? And while a plant cell doesn't make a mighty oak, neither can the oak exist without the individual cell. The cells are the Relative, the patch of vegetation is the Absolute. The tree only manifests through the cells, the cells only manifest through the tree.

In the Ananda Sutta as translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the Buddha and his cousin and attendant Ananda have a dialog:
"Ananda, if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism [the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of consciousness]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?"
If one were to look at the totality of the Buddha's teaching of the Dharma, it doesn't stop at personal liberation. It isn't an annihilationist (you don't exist) No Self, and likewise is not an eternalist the Self is an unchanging, permanent entity, it is the Middle Path between either of those extremes. And what is the preeminent aspect of the teaching, and from a natural selection standpoint, the most important is being selfless rather than self-centered.

The Diamond Sutra refers to “all beings are no-beings, thus are they called beings.” The Bodhisattva vow is to save all beings. The Buddha says in that Sutra that anyone who thinks of him/herself as a Bodhisattva is not a Bodhisattva, because that reflects a belief in a self, an entity, a soul. It could also be inferred that thinking of oneself is a Bodhisattva is also an egotistical exercise, thinking of oneself as superior to the other beings who need saving. And yet, in a self-less mindset, the Bodhisattva saves all beings.

A Huayan approach to all this might be that “all beings” includes oneself, and that all beings are totally dependent on ALL beings, with no line dividing the Bodhisattva from other beings. Thus, do to the interdependence, the "individual" contains all beings, just as the more obvious ALL contains the "individual. There is no tree without a cell, a cell is no-cell unless it is a tree. Dogen Zenji's teaching of "Actualizing the Fundamental Point" contains:
"To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly." (Translated by Robert Aitken and Kazuaki Tanahashi, Revised at San Francisco Zen Center)
As much as anything, this typifies the journey the practitioner takes--clinging to the notion of self, seeing through that via meditation and analysis, seeing the interdependence of all beings, then seeing there be no need to cling to a "self." In not clinging, there is no worry of self/no-self, just join the world and do no harm. The tree doesn't care if it's in a forest, the forest doesn't care about trees, the trees just do what trees do, the forest does what forests do, and that is all perfect the way that is.




Friday, August 4, 2017

Barnacles

In Zen, you'll often hear things like Suzuki-Roshi’s statement, “You're perfect as you are...and you need a little work.” 

ZM Seung Sahn quotes from “Song of Dharma Nature”: 
“The nature of the Dharmas is perfect. It does not have two different aspects.
“All the various Dharmas are unmoving and fundamentally still.
“They are without name and form, cut off from all things.
“This is understood by enlightened wisdom, and not by any other sphere.”

Some point to war, genocide, the Holocaust, child abuse, and all the other events typically perceived as evil as Not Perfect. It would be tough to think of any of those measuring up to “Perfect.” That's also the kind of thinking some use to “prove,” or at least question the existence of God, who is also thought of as perfect.

So it seems the first problem we encounter is using the common definition of “perfect.” Usually that's used to define a state that isn't imperfect, and that is just dualism and dissatisfaction--Dukkha in a nutshell. This neither perfect nor not-imperfect state is impermanent, so that's not what the Zen Masters refer to. Aiming for perfection is a decidedly non-Buddhist activity, as the Three Doors of Liberation are Emptiness, Signlessness, and Aimlessness. We can think of “aimlessness” as not expecting a payoff--we don't meditate to become buddha any more than we’d polish a brick so it becomes a mirror. 

There could be a misunderstanding of the Three Doors that leads to complacency, even annihilationism. You could mistake the Heart Sutra’s message that “form is emptiness” or the Diamond Sutras all dharmas are no-dharmas, leaving out the second half of those two statements, leading to the annihilationist view that since everything is empty, nothing matters, so Par-tay! I'm pretty sure that if you read the Sutras, dialogs with the Great Patriarchs, and/or have a teacher of your own, that none of them will infer that these are the correct interpretation. You could say that “If you ain't doing what a Buddha does, you ain't  being what a Buddha is.”

But when we’re not feeling particularly Buddha-esque, when we don’t think our actions are what the World-honored one would have done in the situation we’re in now, when things are anything but perfect, there is still something Buddha-like that can be done. Our practice may include meditation as the Buddha did, in which we examine who or what it is that is feeling like not-the-Buddha. We may take refuge in our sangha, whatever that may be, and ask for some guidance, and if not guidance, at least a hint. We may take refuge in the Dharma, maybe by reading a Sutra, but maybe by going a step further and examining what the Dharma is, without so many dead words. “What is this that is asking the question?” “Help!” “Hmmm, the Buddha really read Ananda the riot act in the Shurangama Sutra. Ananda is asking the same questions and being confused just like I am. Maybe there’s something in there applicable to me.” And quite possibly, we realize that our mental image of “What would Buddha Do?” is a pointless exercise in just more thought, and more thought that we take as based in reality, when in fact, that’s not really the case. It’s just projecting our “selves” into a story that is no more real than sky-flowers.

Ultimately, we examine the self to forget the self, as Dogen put it. We examine and examine some more, just what is the Dharma in our life right here&now. What is the Dharma? What IS the Dharma, I need to solve this riddle now, as if there were no other time to find the answer. In a more honest and less cliched way, what WOULD a buddha do? But, most important, what is buddha. I can refer to what the Great Ancestors said, but they said them 1,000 years ago, and they said them to a monk in a Chinese temple, and frankly, I’m not a thousand-year-old Chinese monk, and that’s not who is thinking what I’m thinking.

One of the first times I went to sit with a Zen group, a man named Alan Drake took it upon himself to help coach us novices. I don’t know if he was ordained, I got the feeling he had at one time practiced Tibetan Buddhism, but he was there helping us get a handle on this thing we were basically clueless about. I’d read a lot of general Buddhist writings, and out of all of the traditions, Zen just felt right. I didn’t have a clue what any of it meant, I didn’t understand what kong-ans were when I read them, how much moreso did I not know what they did. I seriously didn’t know why he told me to read “Moon in a Dewdrop,” and really seriously didn’t know why he gave me a copy of Nagarjuna’s “The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way.” Oddly enough, I was able to wrap my arms around Nagarjuna more than Dogen, which in retrospect, is a bit odd. But Alan was there to guide us, to help us, to relieve our struggle and dissatisfaction with our situations, different as they may have been from one of us to the next. He said something that had never dawned on me, something I hadn’t even considered to consider, and that I never thought of as anything but a given.

He said that in Buddhism, there is no Original Sin. You could say the same for Judaism, but I wasn’t coming from that background, so to my thinking there was this blot on my, and everyone else’s, eternal soul. He also dispelled a number of other misconceptions is that sentence eventually, but his point was that, I, and every other being, was not born blemished. At the very least, I was starting with a blank slate; maybe not having the wisdom of the Sages, but also not any worse off than anyone else born into this world of struggle. He was planting the seed of our pristine nature in our fertile little heads, though we didn't know it at the time, or what it was called, or how much discussion has gone on about it. I didn’t attach name and form to it (whatever “it” was), didn’t have any attachment to expectations, what was right and wrong about it, whether I agreed with it, whether it was green or yellow or long or short. But it was as much as anything a relief.



Let’s say you just bought a new boat. It’s a beautiful boat, not a flaw to it. Great paint job, nice finish on the woodwork, comfortable furniture, no leaks. Nothing more could ever be asked of a boat. Taking it out on the ocean, it holds up well in both calm and choppy seas. Sure, when it’s choppy, it isn’t the same smooth ride as when it’s placid, but it holds up well nevertheless. Then the colder weather comes, and it seems like it would be a lot easier not to go sailing, at least not today...or tomorrow...or the next day. And soon, that pristine boat is starting to get a bit shabby. There was some food left in the fridge, and that was probably a bad idea, unless there’s a high school science fair coming up, or you’re trying to develop biological weapons. Some leaves got blown in from the shoreline, and they’re starting to accumulate in the corners of the deck. Someone apparently thought this boat would be a perfect place to toss some old beer cans, especially the ones that weren’t quite empty, and someone else decided the same about their soda cans. Between the leftover food and the liquids that once were liquid and now are some other consistency, there are flies, mice, a couple wharf rats spending time on deck. That’s all obvious, so cleaning it wouldn’t really take too much effort. What’s going on below the waterline however, is more insidious. Barnacles. Really well-attached, verging on embedded, barnacles. So far as the boat is concerned, it’s questionable how easily the boat can extricate itself from these little, multitudinous, calcified, clingy creatures.

Underneath all of them however, the boat is still pristine, the leaves and beer cans can go away, even the barnacles can be scraped off--they are clingy and they’re not coming off easily, but they can come off, to reveal the perfect nature of the boat. It’s never been imperfect, its perfection has just been obscured by a few things. Does that sound like any humans whose teeth you might brush in the morning? The being who only needs someone with a scraper to take care of those damn clingy, really tightly held karmic barnacles? The one who finds out he or she can be the only one to scrape those barnacles away themselves, but with others’ help humbly and gratefully accepted? And who might find out that being mindful of the next time a barnacle tries to attach itself? Those damn barnacles can always come back, we only need to keep from attaching themselves too tightly. But under the barnacles it is perfect, even with the barnacles, it is already perfect. 

The barnacle is also a perfect barnacle, just doing what a barnacle does. Scrape anyway, and help the next boat owner scrape too. 








Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Lobster in the Tank

If you go to a seafood restaurant in the Northeastern US (maybe elsewhere), you may encounter what at first looks like an aquarium. But it’s only stocked with lobsters, and there aren't the typical deep sea diver toys, little castles, and fake seaweed as you might find in a common home aquarium. The lobsters are in fact packed really tightly, and sometimes fight leaving one or both without a claw, and maybe whatever other appendage a lobster might have that they can lose. It could be said that it’s just lobsters doing what lobsters naturally do, except lobsters aren’t typically crammed by the dozen into a 20-gallon tank. Maybe that makes them a little more irritable, like when in the evening rush hour on a subway, someone is just a little too close for comfort, and in this case “close” might mean no air gap whatsoever between him and you...and he had garlic for lunch.
The lobster tank always seemed a bit off to me. Seemed like going to a steakhouse and picking the cow you wanted your steak to come from. It seems like in both cases, this would be a really obvious violation of the old precept of not having anything killed specifically for your lunch. But, lest you fear this is going to turn into a pro-vegetarianism screed, it isn't. And likewise I’m also not endorsing omnivorism, so you can’t get any free passes justifying that either. If anything, this will be a rant against the number of “lobster tank-esque” moments we have all too often.
Virya is one of the Six Perfections, and it’s sometimes associated with “Right Effort” in the Noble Eightfold Path as well. It’s usually translated as diligence, effort, perseverance, and so on. The Sanskrit root is the same as the English “virility,” I think “strength” can work just as well.  We should practice as if “our hair was on fire,” as an ancient once said. If we extend our practice to beyond the cushion, we should live as if our hair were on fire, treating each day as the only day to do what needs to be done. If You don’t think strength isn’t part of your makeup, diligence, persistence, and effort will be short lived.
Most people think of Zen as a noun, or as a translation of the Sanskrit dhyana,, by way of Chinese Ch’an, by way of Korean Sŏn, and then Japanese Zen. Starting with dhyana, they all refer to seated meditation, but are also inclusive of the entire practice of whichever sect. That still leaves “Zen” as an umbrella noun, which in turn refers to various verbs--seated meditating, chanting, bowing, walking, practicing koans, holding a huatou, and so on. All of these on their own turn are actions. Even the “quiescent” or “silent illumination” end of things actively just sits. When fully done, it can take the fullest concentration and mindfulness as chanting or walking. When not so fully done, it might be the equivalent of lolling in a lounge chair, conceptual thinking, wandering thinking--with generally half-hearted effort.
The reason I prefer to refer to Zen as a verb is because the practice when done fully extends well beyond the edge of the cushion, covering the other 23 hours not spent there. It is active! Zen, being among the Mahayana schools of practice sets the Bodhisattva as a role model for the practitioner in addition to the Buddha(s). The Bodhisattva eschews entering the state of Nirvana until all beings have entered, according to some definitions. Once again depending on what text you refer to, there are stages of Bodhisattvahood (Bhumis), but we’ll go with ten:

  1. State of the joyous (Pramudita)
  2. The stainless (Vimala)
  3. The light maker/the luminous (Prabhakari)
  4. The radiant (Arcismati)
  5. The very hard to conquer/Difficult to cultivate (Sudurjaya)
  6. The turning towards/The manifest (Abhimukhi)
  7. The far going/Gone afar (Durangama)
  8. The unshakeable/The Immovable (Acala)
  9. The good mind/The good intelligence (Sadhumati)
  10. The cloud of Dharma (Dharmamegha)

In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha spends a fair amount of time on the 8th Bhumi. It’s just past the turning point. Up to now, the Bodhisattva could say, “Yep, I’m good, let's bring on that Nirvana thing.” When the Bodhisattva hits #8, there’s no backsliding. There is a full commitment to fulfilling the Bodhisattva vows, entering into, assimilating, living the Dharma, for the sake of all beings. It’s not repeating the words of there being an infinite number of sentient beings and vowing to save them all, it’s gotten to the point where it has become, “I will help all people I come in contact with (throwing in whatever other sentient beings one might come across like lobsters and cows, for example). At this stage, the Bodhisattva is unshakeable in his/her determination only to help. No fame, no fortune, no vilification, no economic distress, nothing. You could call it “no gaining notion,” but also “no losing notion.” The notion of saving infinite beings doesn’t phase him/her any more than there being a notion of there being no beings, no Bodhisattva, nor any saving to be done. It’s just, “How may I help you?” And to do is to take fearless action.
That can be really liberating, even if a little daunting. Not being hindered by worry sounds great! Not having to second-guess ourselves because of what others might think--positive or negative--sounds like a pretty good deal. Of course, the “helpee” may be appreciative, may not notice, or may be angry for the “help.” Doesn’t matter. Takes some effort? Don’t care. People may think I’m a jerk? Meh. Likewise, people might think I’m really cool or smart? Likewise meh. If you carefully consider real-life situations where you’ve acted as a Bodhisattva, you’ll probably see that all of these potential outcomes have probably been the result of whatever the action amy have been, maybe by the same person, maybe by many. Considering Bell Curves, there's probably more “Meh” than “Magnificent!”
There’s good news in all this if you’d like a little validation before fully embarking on the path of the Bodhisattva. The 8th stage is also where we are without reservation on the path to Buddhahood. And this means that you are seeing your True Buddha Nature, which is as the Great Sages of the past have said, is indeed “Buddha.” You may think you’re at stage -1, and maybe a lot of the time, your are acting, thinking, and speaking that way. But in this fickle, ever-changing state of being/non-being, it's not out of the realm of possibilities that you are not only at stage 8, 9, or 10, but that you are a Buddha. And for that moment, there’s no backsliding. The next moment? Well, that’s the next moment. That kind of thing doesn’t bother the 8th Bhumi Bodhisattva anyway, so why worry?
What all this entails, whether it be Great Faith, Great Courage, or Great Doubt, practicing the Perfections, having the Immeasurables at the forefront of our minds, is a matter of discerning what the skillful action is at that moment. To be what a Buddha is, do what a Buddha does. We already know what that is. It will take effort, diligence, strength, and action. Can't help all beings without the act of helping, whatever form help may take at the moment. We have our choices though. We can strive to act as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, or we can be lazy and live like the lobster in the tank, waiting for that hungry ghost trying to sate itself on us.




Saturday, April 22, 2017

Unintentionally Consequential

There's a line between “what we are,” and “what we do.” It's sometimes very blurry, sometimes may even overlap, and sometimes diametrically opposites. It's all based on self-identification. Depending on work, we may conduct myself as an engineer, or banker. If we're in a political mode, the identification might be as Democrat or Republican, Labor or Tory, Trotskyite or Stalinis, Liberal or Conservative. Vegan, vegetarian, omnivore, male, female, gay, bi, lesbian, transsexual, transgender, Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, Forest monk, Shin, Christian, Muslim, Sunni, Shiite, Jew, Orthodox Jew, Hasidic, Reform, etc., and that's a lot of round holes we square pegs might be forcing ourselves into! 

These demarcations often have behaviors we associate with them, and quite often, we make ourselves into cookie-cutter images of what we imagine those labels demand. Likewise the label we pick may even determine what hole we think we should dive into. It's one thing to be environmentally conscious and then become a member of the Greens, it's another to look at them and start acting like we think a Green should act. Neither is particularly good or bad, after all, we haven't necessarily thought of every way to be environmentally conservative and may have something to learn from what appear to be like-minded individuals.

To one extent or another, we also try to force others into round holes, and they may have a totally different hole picked out for themselves. It may come as a real shocker to find out that Hitler was a vegetarian and that he was kind to dogs. Animal rights activists might also be vegetarian dog lovers, but that doesn't mean they also have to be Nazis any more than Hitler was a tree-hugging liberal. “Fascists are evil!” we might say, and then to find out that they aren't evil 100% of the time can shake up some of our deeply held preconceptions. And lest we forget, Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, no tree-hugger was he, at least according to conventional wisdom. These examples of “other-identifications” are as mistaken as our own “self-identifications.”

Following the Buddhist path is to lead to liberation. Following the Zen path leads to seeing things as they truly are, to experience it fully, to see our True Nature, to help others, and thus become liberated. One could even say that we're already liberated, if we looked for something that held us in chains, we'd see that there really isn't anything. And not just in an “emptiness” nothing, but in reality “nothing” except our own thinking. To be liberated from our thinking is to stop thinking “I'm this,” “You're that,” and because of this and that, it means I must do something and you do something else. Dropping this thinking includes even the notion of unity and differentiation, the notion that there's a fallback position when things get difficult. We make difficult for ourselves, and we really don't need a fallback position. That doesn't really exist either. 

The bottom line is that there is no more a reason than an excuse for doing what we do. Negotiating the line I mentioned above can be tricky. Do I not eat meat because I'm a “vegetarian” or am I feeling compassion for all beings and therefore don't eat meat, so I look for the vegetarian section of a menu? Anything I do because I'm a “Zennist” is a poor excuse for doing it. Do I do things because I think it's correct action, and that just so happens to be what the Buddha would have done? Better reason for action. When I go the grocery store, do I put the cart in the little cart hut because that's what a Zennie “should” do? Do I see that someone's livelihood depends on people not putting carts back so he can gather them back up--which is what puts food on his family table? Honestly, sometimes I'll do either, largely dependent upon a whim. 

To use the grocery store example further, when they ask “Paper or plastic?” which do I choose and why? Do I immediately say “paper” because I think of myself as environmentally conscious Buddhist, and the Buddha wouldn't have used paper, so ergo I must use paper?. Making the choice isn't that straightforward if I really look at it. Paper requires trees to be cut down. These trees help the atmosphere, provide habitats for animals, help stop soil erosion and so forth. The power saws used to cut them down requires power, obviously. That power is most likely a fossil fuel, the trucks that transport the timber to the sawmill likewise uses gasoline, the saws at the mill use electricity, which may have been produced by coal, nuclear, or maybe by wind, solar, or water power. The rest of the paper-making process likewise requires power, and on it goes. As it turns out, I bring my own bags, because Northampton Mass has banned plastic shopping bags, so it's a moot point here. Previously I went with paper because for all the shortcomings manufacturing entails, plastic ends up not decomposing for the most part, so the long term result is probably the worse choice. Neither choice is pristine.

Until we stop creating karma, our actions will by and large not be pristine. Some may be wholesome and positive, some negative, and some neutral. The priest at an old Zen sangha I attended once said that meditation is one of the few karmically neutral actions we can make. Virtually any action we take--writing, grocery shopping, driving, being with loved ones, working--all involve other people, and therefore will have consequences. In my estimation, the same action will be perceived differently by others involved in the ripple effect of the action. The same person may have radically different reactions to the same phenomena, depending on the flexibility of perceptions. The reaction is dependent on any number of other factors in addition to the action I have taken. It would be very naive and self-important to think my actions happen in a vacuum, that they're the only stimulus that elicits a response. Even when I'm “just writing” this, the thoughts that come to me, the mood I'm in, my physical environment all figure into creating that “just.” In reality, what is it even possible to “just” do? 

As Bodhisattvas, the job of “saving all beings” may be as simple as trying not to do harm. Maybe the next notch up is to try to be helpful. We can't worry about how this help will necessarily be received, we can't be paralyzed by the possibility that an action may be taken to be other than in the spirit we intended. We do what we can, as skillfully as we can, to be of benefit to not only the one person we're interacting with, but with the realization that the ripples of our action will flow out like Indra’s Net. This is how we save “all” beings--by respecting and taking care of ourselves so we can help the next being with whom we come into contact, 

If we aren't paying attention, acting mindfully if you like, then our blind wandering throughout our environment may indeed result in our actions being “Unintentionally Consequential.”

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Whose Right/Who's Right?


For followers of the Way, one of the big differences between the Zen of today and the Zen of the days of the Ch’an Patriarchs is access to the Dharma in all its forms. We may have an in-person, three-dimensional teacher, a two-dimensional on-line video teacher, academic courses, the internet, and writings from the past 2,500 years. That’s quite a bit to sift through, and other than random stumbling onto something, my experience is that one source has led to another. Sometimes they even come in chronological order, though that’s never been Buddhism’s strong suit. The Pali Canon was divided into short, medium, and long discourses, so skipping around is hardly anything that can really be avoided without a lineage scorecard that puts things in some semblance of chronological order, though even any list is not entirely complete. On any given day, anyone can read anything from any source, hear about anything from any time, learn about the Dhammapada one day, Dahui the next, followed by a little Huineng, a First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, a little ZM Seung Sahn, with maybe a little Robert Aitken Roshi on the side.

Back in a mountaintop Chinese temple in the Song Dynasty, the selection was a touch more limited, and not just because 1,000 years of writings hadn’t been written yet. I can’t really say for sure that the Abbott of this temple was as well-versed as a beginning poly-Buddhist is today. How much was translated, by whom, and at what year would be more of an issue for those Ch’an monks than it is for us. When did someone write it? Even if one were capable of reading all the scriptures, I doubt there would be any time left for any actual practice. Even a hermit has to plant, harvest, and eat. In a modern temple, there are other people with whom interaction takes place, chores, meditation, chanting, bowing, interviews with the teacher, and more chores. After all, dishes don’t wash themselves after food doesn’t cook itself. The rest of us in the marketplace have to do our marketplace things.

An undercurrent of today’s Zen practice involves what’s often referred to as “Engaged Buddhism.” If your sangha isn’t as actively involved as Zen Peacemakers or Upaya Zen Center are, it may run a soup kitchen, run a hospice, maybe even meditate and chant for the benefit of all beings in the marketplace. All of them are valuable, none more than the others. Some may have more immediately visible results, but the unseen results matter, possibly more. I say more, because when the result is just out there without my hand firmly controlling the soup spoon and my eyes seeing the gratitude expressed by someone who came in hungry and is leaving sated. It’s just out there. It’s like mudita, the empathetic/sympathetic joy for someone else’s good fortune. I may have had nothing to do with the cause of the joy, the fortunate one may not even know I’m joyous for them. How not-validating! How not-instant gratification can it get? Both types of actions put the benefit of others before our own.

Where the Song Dynasty monk may not have heard much about the Eightfold Path while sitting at Linji’s feet, the monk received teachings nonetheless--teachings that were aimed at providing the opportunity to awaken, equally as much as the aforementioned Path. I daresay that the Zennist of today who didn’t know his Eightfold Path from a Six Pack would run the risk of being laughed out of the meditation room by the less charitable, and given some guidance in Buddhist basics from the more charitable. I wonder sometimes whether all the teachings in all their value and all their length and breadth may just be a distraction from the task at hand for the Zen practitioner who has taken the Bodhisattva Vows. The lay Precepts are based in the Eightfold Path. Right Livelihood, for example, mentions livelihoods that should be avoided: Trade in deadly weapons, trade in animals for slaughter, trade in slavery, trade in intoxicants, and trade in poisons. A couple Precepts are covered right there, and the other Seven of the Path follow suit in much the same way. Of course, in true Buddhist fashion, it’s a combination of what to do, and it’s what to avoid doing. If there are 84,000 choices of what to do, practicing Right Livelihood still leaves you with 83,995 other things to do. If we are living by the Precepts we’ve received and Vows we’ve taken, the “Rights” of the Path take care of themselves. If simply pondering the Path precludes practice, is it practical?

In today’s society, where do Right and right meet the road, and where they do, is there a head-on collision? One interpretation of Right Speech is not lying, slandering, using harsh words and gossip, and I’d add speaking in a tone of perceived superiority to the list. In the US and elsewhere in the world, there is the right to freely expressing oneself, and this often includes “the right to freedom of speech.” Unfortunately, this right to free speech often doesn’t always equal Right Speech. As a Zen Buddhist in the US, how do we deal with what we perceive as right and wrong, harmful and helpful, lovingkindness in speech and hate speech? From an Engaged perspective, how do we tolerate the hate speech, and as Americans point out the intolerance perceived in this expression of at least perceived malevolence? Third Patriarch said the Great Way was easy for those with no preferences, those who eliminate love and hate. But how do we not prefer Right over “wrong,” how do we not love “love,” and hate “hate?” How do we “man the barricades” without engaging in the same vitriol as our perceived opponent?

As per usual, we make it more difficult for ourselves. A differing view (as opposed to Right View) are simply an element of relative reality. We accept that. We don’t even have to think of the differences as creating the two sides of the coin, it’s all just speech and opinions on no coin.They cover a broad spectrum of greys, even if it looks black and white. We accept it, but don’t have to settle and leave it as is. It’s said that Right View is No View. If we maintain the view that those greys have evolved from previous greys, and will change into the next shades of grey, it’s a more accurate View, maybe even No View. We don’t have to attach to our view/opinion as incontrovertibly the correct one. To this end, Great Faith, Great Doubt, and Great Courage--three great legs of the Zen tripod--are used, and not just one of them. Great Faith without Great Doubt is falling into the hell of relying on dogma. Great Doubt without Great Courage can lead to nihilism and inertia. Great Courage (or Great Determination it’s sometimes called) without Faith and Doubt can manifest as anger or thoughtless action rather than thoughtful action. Faith, Doubt, and Courage can manifest as correct action through No Thought, or put another way, before thought. Living in accordance with our True Nature can’t help but be right or Right.

Is it unawakened intention or awakened intention our “view” supplies? Sencan’s nondiscrimination is manifested through looking deeply at our motives and intentions, and what leads up to them. Clinging to a Right View is still a view, and therefore negates the awakened nature of it. Not thinking this is Right or right, but just acting, speaking of doing them in accordance with our True Nature. We doubt that our mundane views are necessarily right or Right. We have faith in ourselves--more accurately our True Selves--are innate and don’t need force to emerge. And we have the courage and determination that this manifestation, this unveiling comes to be. It hasn’t gone anywhere, and doesn’t come from anywhere, it just is. No birth or death, just there. But where is it in a protest march? It’s with us all the time, but maybe in the heat of the moment doubt is pushed aside by faith in our virtuous cause. Torching a car or throwing a brick may seem to be a good idea at the time, but will it stay the same after some introspective investigation? Participating in injustice, even through inaction, is complicity with the oppressor. It is no more correct than actively denying food to the hungry or incarcerating someone who is innocent. Fear is most certainly the opposite of courage, and to be in a state of fear is not great. Quite often, fear is what drive the lack of determination. 

Not having a preference does not mean not engaging. Somewhere between fighting a “just war” and passive pacifism is awakened action. This could even take the form of having the courage to point out to the “opponent” that their thoughts, words, actions, views, etc. are open to question-- their faith without doubt. Likewise the skepticism they express toward your stand may be their doubt in you and your cause, but no doubt in themselves.  Their determination just to plow under the opponent and bulldoze the barricades may not be too courageous, just a manifestation of fear, hatred, or simply unawakened behavior. It shows disinterest in finding out what the awakened version might constitute. We don’t have to point out how unawakened “they” are and how awakened “we” are at the top of our lungs. Sometimes No Speech is Right Speech--silently man the barricades without engaging the other on their terms. If you’re on a football field, play football, even if the other team is cheating. We don’t have to play their game and cheat in return. 

One thing Zen Masters have done is to allow their student to go down through their own path. They may see that the direction the student is headed will probably not work out so well, but having learned that heading South is not the shortest direction to North, but it is a way to get there. The teacher may give the student the compass of the Dharma, but if the student still decides heading South is the better course because directly North has an obstacle or two, the teacher will not forcibly turn the student around, just let them go, and “letting go” in more ways than one. The student has the right to be wrong in his or her own way. The teacher has faith that the student will right themselves eventually, and if he really crashes and burns, the teacher will be free to use the fire extinguisher of lovingkindness. We could take this approach with those whom we think of as going down the wrong path politically or socio-economically, but I have my doubts about this being Right anything. If one were to just let others cause suffering to another being, isn’t that being complicit in the harmful act itself. Even when justified by such maxims of freedom of expression or freedom of speech, letting injustice just happen because it might lead to the final goal of enlightenment may not be all that skillful if the reason behind it is fear or misapplied doubt.
 
In the final analysis, it’s a balancing act, as much of our work as engaged Bodhisattvas is. We must act quickly, decisively, and naturally as an awakened being would. That entails practice until instant where the awakening happens. It may be on the barricade, it may be on the cushion, it may be hearing a rock hit bamboo, or bamboo or truncheon being firmly applied to your shin or head. Awakening can happen if we peel away the firmly head beliefs about it, and everything else. We need to be able to discern whose right is being violated, and who’s right about standing up for the right. As I write this, it comes to mind that this may be the huadu of the barricade: Whose right/who’s right? Don’t know. Act from a stand of True Nature, there’s no knowing that matters.



Saturday, February 11, 2017

What's Left?

Three symptoms of being unawakened are said to be greed, anger, and delusion. Concrete ways to replace them would be to act in accordance with the Four Immeasurables—lovingkindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. You could also practice the Paramitas—the Perfection generosity, morality, patience, diligence, meditation, and wisdom. These are often combined into “morality, intense concentration, and wisdom”—or "sila, samadhi, and prajna.” We can intellectualize them, and make up hypothetical scenarios about how we would do all these things, and invariably, we'll be comparing them to the opposites, which is fine—this is greedy, this is being generous. That's not being dualistic, that's a recognition of the reality in which we live. We might reflect that “I shouldn't have taken the last slice of pizza, that was greedy of me. Next time I'll make sure everyone else has had enough first.”


Unless we are deeply reflecting only on our own behavior, the comparison is with someone else will entail duality. “That (political party) (class of people) (race) (gender) (ethnicity) (religious practice) is really evil! Those greedy (fill in blank) are really ignorant! They don't pay attention to anybody other than themselves!” You might even call it a samadhi gap, if you're in a global conflagration frame of mind. You're not in a samadhi race, even moreso when the other party doesn't even know they're competing in the "Who's more meditative" contest. Nowhere in the perfections, Immeasurables, Precepts, Sutras, or what mom told you does it say that having a sense or superiority, morally or otherwise, is proper. “My” righteousness, is more righteous than "yours," isn't a mark of anything other than this sense of superiority. What it makes it even more interesting is that you spout about how the “other” side is trying to divide us into “us” and “them.”


It's as easy as taking candy from a baby to point out the greed in others. It may not even be an incorrect assessment of their actions. We probably don't know what led to this greed—it could be childhood poverty, it could just be because a neighbor or political candidate or even religious figure—said it was alright, that it's understandable and justified. If you're in the 99%, you may feel you're being treated unfairly by the 1%, and maybe you are. The 1% probably thinks they worked hard for their financial success, and the rest of you are just leeches, welfare queens, and maybe even genetically inferior. In some cases a sense of entitlement may trump an equal playing field.


Some may take to physical violence to show their anger over this sense of injustice. If for no other reason than "they're" not behaving as "we" think they should be, and we've got to “show them,” there will always be another “them” to anger us. It could be the result of the other guy “threw the first punch.” What caused this to seem like a good idea? It could be an childhood where beating or at least berating was hanging in the air. Maybe it was “falling in with the wrong crowd.” It could also be some plain old garden variety really misguided thinking.


Some may say things that are perceived as malicious—a form of verbal violence. In response, those who were being maligned may retaliate with malicious vitriol of their own. Sometimes one side of the words may try to prevent the other side of the words from even saying those words, or maybe just to prevent them from saying them to anybody else. There may even provocateurs who are really on one side, who join the other side while not really having forsaken their own side, to contribute some verbal vitriol and to elicit some perceived “intolerant” behavior from the side whom they haven't actually joined, but happen to be on the same side of the barricade, but whose side they really aren't actually on but appear to be. They're loud and obnoxious to the other side, while “telling it like it is” to the first side. Maybe they got yelled at a lot when they were kids, or have a spouse or boss that thinks that whomever yells loudest wins the battle. Just because someone says something you don't like doesn't mean they don't have the right to say it, much in the same way that you can say how you don't agree with them. The "freedom of speech" pendulum swings both ways. No one has a lock on it, regardless of how loudly you say it.


It seemed like a good idea at the time” isn't going to stand up to any scrutiny in the long run. “I know what's best” may be difficult to prove, especially when the other side says the same thing. “God is on our side” when said by both sides, presents another problem, especially when you can't really ask who is right about it. “It's God's will” is likewise going to be a bit tricky to prove. When clouded by verbal or physical violence, it's easy for thinking to fall into the “fog of war.” That's just what it is though—foggy thinking. That fog can really thicken the thinking when there's a crowd of equally foggy thinkers in our bubble, because when in our bubble, who's going to say anything to the contrary? What brought about the verbal violence or the violent actions? If you're in a Buddhist bubble, some may even confuse “Right View” with Right Opinion, which I'm pretty sure doesn't appear in any Sutra.


I'm also pretty sure you can pick out a number of the scriptures right from the first spin of the wheel onward that none of these actions, thoughts, and words really contribute to a sense of permanent satisfaction for any period of time, especially when based on the us/them divide. In the heat of the moment though, Right View may just not feel that right. It may even seem so unsatisfactory in the moment, that it can't possibly be Right, right? “Right View is No View” just is not going to cut it when it's all about the "My View". Deep down we really want to be able to justify the adrenaline rush of confrontation, and don't care about whether it's going to last. The “living in the moment” crowd might even use that rush as the justification itself, since it's happening in this moment, and this is the only moment there is, and it feels good, so ergo that's “thusness,” right?


Admittedly, it can be really tough to have those kumbaya, “We are the World,” “I'd like to teach the world to sing,” moments with everyone all the time, especially when they seem really disinterested in sharing that can of soda with you, unless “sharing” equals pouring it over your head. So, what do we do when all this decidedly un-Buddha-like behavior manifests itself in us? For me, the first step is to step back from the abyss and reflect on what is Buddha-like or not-Buddha-like. It may appear at that moment that the sword cutting through my perceived opponent's neck is less appropriate than Manjushri's sword cutting through my delusions. That reflection may even show me that my perception that there are “wrongs to be righted” and “foes to be fighted,” is not quite on the mark. My perception of the wrong and the foe may more accurately start with my perception being the problem, and then maybe everybody else has an opinion and perception that's a misguided as my own. And maybe at that moment, perceiving emptiness and mistaking that for equanimity may be as empty as my previous attachment to the form of fight that seemed appropriate. Half-way is better than no way, but it can just as easily be said not to be “The Way.”


Not having preferences” might seem like walking away from bombs exploding, but it may also be noticing that there are bombs exploding. The preference in this case that would be “not had” could very well be the preference to not get involved at all. Selfish reasons, lazy reasons, dualistic reasons masquerading as non-attachment would still be subject to Manjushri's slice of wisdom. Then not “having preferences” may first be transformed into “not having a clue” as to what is correct action in a situation. Then what? Chant at least silently, take refuge, until the thoughts of anger can no longer get a foothold. Chant a Sutra if I remember one, mentally bow to all beings, whatever it may take to get out of the cave of aversion and hatred.


Some clarity may come that makes it evident that just as my karma has created the moment I'm experiencing, just as the karma of all others has created the moment they are experiencing. The karma of this moment will create the karma of the next, and that rather than being doomed by my past choices, I can see it as an opportunity to create more wholesome karma. Maybe others will make that choice also, maybe not. But since my choice is as dependent on the causes and conditions of their choices, maybe even my momentary choice sets in motion a cascade of karma that is of benefit to all beings. I can't really be all that concerned with their action.
The tenth of the Oxherding pictures is of the Bodhisattva going into the marketplace with outstretched arms. Outstretched arms in the context of engagement in social change does not necessarily mean taking up arms. Arms outstretched to hurl a Molotov cocktail, is probably not a way to avoid doing any harm. Peaceful engagement may not feel saving all beings, it may not even seem like helping all beings, it may not even be being nice to all beings, but at least I can try to ask if I can help.


When you subtract the greed, the anger, and the delusion, what's left?  I'll leave that answer up to you, Buddha.
Buddha bows to Buddha.