About Seth Zuiho Segall

Seth Zuiho Segall is a retired member of the clinical faculty of the Yale University School of Medicine and the former Director of Psychology at Waterbury Hospital. He has been a practicing Buddhist for seventeen years within a variety of traditions, but currently practices with White Plains Zen. He was cofounder and former spokesperson for the Connecticut Chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. He is the editor of "Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings" published by SUNY Press in 2003. He is not an authorized teacher within any lineage, and makes no special claims to knowledge or authority.

The Politics of Mindfulness

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In his 1942 essay, “The Yogi and the Commissar,” Arthur Koestler outlined two extreme responses to the exigencies of communal life.  One was the belief that social improvement could only occur through collective activity to alter the ownership of the means of production.  The other was the belief that change could only occur through individual spiritual transformation.  Each generation has seen these twinned Hegelian opposites reappear in new guises, viz., the beatniks and young Trotskyites of the 1950s, or the Hippies and Yippies of the 1960s.  Today, this same polarization is re-emerging in response to the introduction of the Dharma to the West.  Some see both Buddhism and secularized mindfulness as, for better or worse, a field of individual spiritual transformation, while others critique both Buddhism and mindfulness for insufficient social engagement. If one listens carefully, one can almost hear echoes of the original Mahayana critique of so-called “Hinayana” Buddhism for its alleged exclusive concern for individual liberation.  

It is Western Buddhism’s peculiar provenance that its early practitioners were drawn largely from politically liberal social strata: beatniks, hippies, peace corp volunteers, psychedelic enthusiasts, and disaffected intellectuals — I count myself among them — people who were alienated from the dominant culture’s emphasis on consumerism and conformity, its empty professions of piety, its worship of celebrity and success, its aggressive evangelization of American Exceptionalism, its insufficiently explored dark history of African slavery and native American genocide, and its profound unease with socially marginalized groups and unwillingness to share its largess with them.  It’s therefore not at all surprising that American Dharma has become an ideological battleground between those wishing to keep it arms length from politics, and those who take the Bodhisattva ideal as a mandate for political activism. Politically active Buddhists almost always continue to pursue their pre-Buddhist Leftist predilections under the Buddhist flag, providing, in some ways, a mirror image to Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christianity’s embrace of right-wing policies.

This debate over Dharma and politics has emerged with renewed energy as mindfulness practices have made their way into corporate America and the military, and the rhetoric of mindfulness has been adopted by wealthy elites.  The Left, reflexively suspicious of business, the military, and the rich, is concerned that mindfulness’s emphases on equanimity, acceptance and non-grasping may make it a tool for pacifying disadvantaged classes, encouraging them not to stand up and fight for what is rightfully theirs. It worries that secular mindfulness, divorced from a larger ethical frame, may help soldiers become better killers. It worries that, accommodating to the American gospel of success, it may become just another vehicle for promoting professional and material advancement.  It worries about a Dharma that “professionalizes” and becomes another way to “earn a living.”  It worries about a Dharma becoming just another brick in the capitalist superstructure.

In “The Yogi and the Commissar,” Koestler understood that the thesis of the commissar and the antithesis of the yogi required some new kind of synthesis, some Buddhist or Hegelian middle way.  On the other hand, he found the prospect of such a synthesis elusive:

“It is easy to say that all that is wanted is a synthesis — the synthesis between saint and revolutionary; but so far this has never been achieved. What has been achieved are various motley forms of compromise — the blurred intermediary bands of the spectrum — compromise, but not synthesis. Apparently the two elements do not mix, and this may be one of the reasons why we have made such a mess of our History.”

In dialectical debates of this kind, truth never abides in one corner. Every voice must be attended to, and hopefully people are not speaking past each other.  In fact, one hopes for dialogue rather than debate. That’s the best away to struggle towards a new synthesis.

That having been said, I have my own particular point of view as someone who is deeply interested in the future of both Buddhism and of secular mindfulness, but who is neither reflexively anti-business nor anti-military.  My general point of view is politically liberal, but not politically radical.  I don’t belong to a marginalized or disadvantaged social group, although I am sympathetic to their claims.  My family has historically benefited from the American experience. My father’s family emigrated to America from Romania in the first decade of the twentieth century to escape the rise of Romanian proto-fascism.  My father’s father was a simple cobbler who died in a work-related accident.  My father never graduated from high school.  He enrolled in the army before the onset of the second world war and trained as a flight navigator in the 8th air force.  When his plane was shot down over the North Sea, he endured fourteen months in a Nazi POW camp. After the war, he went to work driving a truck and then working in a small factory making vertical window blinds.  With a loan from a more successful brother, he eventually bought the blind factory, working long hours personally involved in sales, manufacturing, installation and repair for his product. My mother worked too, supplementing his income as a secretary in the New York City school system. My parents never owned their own home until they retired and used the proceeds from the sale of the business to help finance a small condo in Florida. My mother passed away that year and never got to enjoy it.

My father didn’t cheat or exploit people in his business. He made a superior product that people wanted and sold it at a fair price.  He was good towards his employees.  When one of his employees occasionally wound up in jail after a particularly rough night on the town, he was the one who showed up to bail him out.  My parents made it possible for my sister and I go to college and further ourselves. The American dream has been good for us, but I understand it has not been good for everyone. I also understand that there is some element to my own family’s success that may have been purchased at the expense of other people’s misfortune. The New York State Scholarship, the National Defense Education Loan, and subsidized state university education that enabled me to go to college were not available to everyone, and the monies spent on them might have helped someone else eat or get medical attention. The large corporations like the Chase Manhattan Bank and Union Carbide that bought my father’s vertical blinds for their international headquarters and helped put food on our table were not entirely benign enterprises. Just one look at the Bhopal tragedy attests to that.  I get that.  I only recite my background so that you can understand both my appreciation for and my ambivalence about the American experience.

I’ve also been someone who’s been politically active for liberal causes my entire life.  As a high school student I was involved in the movement to desegregate the New York City public schools, and as a college student, I organized the first demonstration against the Vietnam War in my college town of Binghamton, NY.  As an adult, I’ve demonstrated against the Iraq War and for changes in environmental policy.  I helped organize a chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, am an active supporter of Buddhist Global Relief, assist in my sangha’s soup kitchen, and helped write my town’s climate action plan.  I say all this to clarify my politics — I’m an old fashioned, unapologetic, dyed-in-the-wool liberal — the kind Marxists deride as being hopelessly petit-bourgeois.  

Having clarified where I’m coming from, allow me to move on to what I regard as several key points in the debate about the politics of mindfulness.

First, Buddhism, on its own, does not possess a social theory, anymore than it has a macroeconomic theory or a theory of particle physics.  While Buddhism is anti-greed and anti-hatred, it does not prescribe any specific remedies for social inequity or injustice.  While the Bodhisattva ideal requires us to hear the cries of the suffering and not turn away, it does not supply a social recipe for how to go about ending that suffering.  While the Buddha taught non-killing, he did not advise kings to abolish armies.  While the Buddha accepted women and members of all castes into his sangha, he did not advocate for the ending of the caste system. In saying this, I am not saying we should emulate the Buddha in this regard.  I am only pointing out the historic disconnect between Buddhism and social theory.  We can invent something new, a twenty-first century Buddhist social theory, but we cannot tell from historic Buddhism itself what the specific the content of that social theory ought to be.  It will have to be something altogether new.

Second, There is no reason why a new Buddhist social theory needs be dogmatically anti-Capitalist. I can imagine it being neutral about capitalist economic organization, per se.  While the Buddha eschewed personal ownership of more than a robe, a begging bowl, and a razor, he never advised kings to divest themselves of their treasuries.  Some people think that global poverty will only end when capitalism ends, but it’s possible to make the case that capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other form of economic organization.  Socialism in its various forms failed China, India, North Korea and the Soviet Union, doing little to end poverty and alleviate human misery — in fact, in many ways only tragically adding to the level of human misery though terror, collectivization, famine, slaughter, cultural revolution, and the Gulag. Some may argue that these governements were not really socialist, and that one cannot judge socialism by their successes and failures, but then it is up to critics of capitalism to provide a counter-example, any example, of a non-capitalist society that has significantly ameliorated poverty within its borders, and even more so, has done so without endless accompanying terror and oppression.  China and India are only now making great strides at lifting their masses out of poverty after having adopting capitalist methods. It’s true that the mixed-economy social democracies of Western Europe have been successful at both producing wealth and limiting the growth of income inequality — better in many ways than our more gung-ho, free-enterprise, individualistic United States.  Here in the U.S. there are arguments to be made for finding a better mix of planning/redistribution and the free market. There are reasons to think that adjusting taxation formulae, reinvesting in infrastructure development, providing universal day care and pre-kindergarten schooling, improving models of and access to lifetime education, providing for adequate nutrition and universal health care, and reforming the justice and prison systems will help to reduce the current level of income inequality. But this is only an expansion of the ends and goals of the old-style welfare state, not a revolution.  On the other hand, there is zero evidence that radically unwinding capitalism itself  — whatever that means — would lead to human betterment.   Capitalism is far from heaven on Earth, but we could do a lot worse.

There are some who argue that corporations, by their very nature, despoil the environment and exploit workers and third-world countries in their endless pursuit of shareholders’s interests.  One can point to innumerable disturbing examples of this, but there’s nothing inevitable about it. The problem with corporations is that they’re insufficiently constrained by both law and a countervailing moral ethos.  There’s no broad social consensus about how much profit is justifiable and how much is obscene.  There’s no extant social ethos compelling corporations to acknowledge their stakeholders and not just their shareholders.  Corporations can be morally constrained by the larger culture they exist within, but that kind of transformation is primarily an ethical and spiritual matter, and not an economic one. Socially important transformations of consciousness occur all the time — witness the changing world cultural consensus on matters like slavery and women’s suffrage over the past two centuries, or the rapidly changing consensus on gay marriage.  Marxists believe these changes are always economically determined by changing economic relations. While economics undoubtedly plays an important role in determining consciousness, reality is always a two-way street, with ethics and economics mutually informing each other.  We require a moral, social, economic, and political co-evolution — and moral evolution is something Buddhism has a great deal to say about.

In recent weeks I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a secularized version of the Dharma to employees of a large corporation.  I accept no money for this service, since it’s my belief that the Dharma should always be offered freely.  I also do not approve of the product this particular corporation is most famous for.  I do, however, appreciate the employees who come to learn what I have to offer. They are neither evil minions nor exploited workers.  They are people bedeviled by the normal existential issues of life and death, grief and loss, pain and illness, guilt and shame, success and failure that we all struggle with.  These are exigencies that owe little to capitalism, per se.  They are the same everywhere.  The Buddha, after all, taught that life is suffering, not that capitalism is suffering.  I’m happy to pass on what limited tools I can to make a difference in their suffering.  It’s heartening when something “clicks” and a member of the group “gets” what mindfulness is about — not adding to suffering through cognitive elaboration, touching the vital ebb and flow of life itself, becoming fully present, non-grasping and letting be, and finding all mental states ultimately workable.  I have no idea whether or not this will make them better “employees” or further their company’s “mission.”  I am unconcerned with that, and they’re there for their own myriad personal reasons. They come on their own free time and of their own free will.  It’s not a obligation placed on them by the corporation. I’m concerned that they have the opportunity to improve their emotional intelligence and find ways to more fully embrace their humanity.  If I wanted to change their corporation’s policies, I would write a letter to its president, or vote for change at a shareholder’s meeting, or organize a boycott of their products. Teaching the Dharma is an entirely different endeavor, and one that I believe transcends politics. 

In recent months I read concerns about aspects of the Dharma being appropriated by economic elites.  I’ve read criticisms of the Dalai Lama for speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, or Jon Kabat-Zinn for speaking at the World Economic Forum at Davos.  Some people react as if this is a kind of betrayal, as if the Dharma was solely the possession of the dispossessed.  This, in fact, has always been the way the Dharma has percolated through societies. The Buddha advised kings and Brahmans.  It was King Ashoka who spread the Dharma throughout India.  In China and Japan, Buddhism was adopted by elites before it disseminated throughout the broader culture.  Seminal figures like the Buddha, Nagarjuna, Shantideva, and Dogen were members of their respective aristocratic classes by birth, and often taught and advised other members of their class. 

Billionaires need help with the existential difficulties of life every bit as much as you or I.  You may not believe this, but they do.  The very rich, while more cognitively satisfied with their lives’s achievements, are not any happier on a day to day, moment to moment basis than you or I.  The Dharma is for them too, just as the Buddha taught that even the gods needed the Dharma.  Will their exposure to Buddhist ideas make them more socially responsible?  That’s a lot to ask from a brief encounter with the Dharma.  Years of deep and committed practice would probably be transformative, but not a mere dabbling acquaintanceship. On the other hand, for some CEOs, mindfulness can serve as a gateway to serious practice.  It may be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but wealth is not of necessity a barrier to enlightenment.  And then there are always individual cases like the Aetna CEO who learned meditation to deal with his chromic pain and wound up raising the salaries of his lowest paid employees.    

Lastly, let me briefly turn to the issue of mindfulness in the military.  Mindfulness has been introduced to the military as a means of preventing the degradation of attention caused by stress, and perhaps preventing or reducing the post-combat sequelae of PTSD, alcoholism, and suicide. These are all desirable outcomes.  No one wants soldiers, armed to the teeth, making thoughtless decisions in the midst of heated emotion and diminished attentional clarity.  No one wants young men who only wanted to be of service to their country or to escape the jobless poverty of their communities to suffer the life-long consequences of intense stress — burdens they then impose on their families and on the communities they return to.  None of this training is designed to disengage soldiers from their consciences and turn them into more efficient killing machines. The question of whether recent military deployments have been either moral or wise were questions addressed, well or poorly, by men in Washington, DC, and not in the field. The Dharma belongs everywhere, in the boardroom and in the foxhole, and not just in the zendo. 

None of this is meant to be summarily dismissive of critic’s concerns. We need to do more to make our sanghas inclusive and welcoming to marginalized communities.  We need to attend to the ethical issues involved as secularized versions of the Dharma move into the hospital, the workplace and the military.  We need to keep the flame of Dharma transmitted to us by our Asian teachers fully lit, and in constant dialogue with its secularized cousins, as we make slow and careful adaptations to the needs of twenty-first century Westerners. We need to think through what a socially engaged Buddhism looks like as we try to develop Buddhist social theory.  Let’s be thoughtful about the process, and let’s not turn this into an us against them enterprise, whoever “they” may be.  Businessmen, the wealthy, and soldiers are not our enemy.  Greed, hatred, and delusion are.  And let’s not saddle our new Western Buddhism with outmoded Nineteenth Century political and economic dichotomies that do no real service to the complexities of modern life and offer no real assistance to those most in need.

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Dogen’s Universe and Ours

Eihei Dogen

I’m auditing a course on Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) that’s being taught by Taigen Dan Leighton under the auspices of the Institute of Buddhist Studies. Dogen, the founding father of Japanese Soto Zen, was a prolific writer whose essays and recorded talks are, in turns, dense, perplexing, ironic, and poetic. He had an eye for imagery, an ear for language, an encyclopedic grasp of the koan and sutra literatures, and a perverse desire to torture ideas, turning them upside down and inside out until he had wrung whatever he could from them. Reading Dogen is difficult going because it’s often hard to tell when he’s being straightforward, when he’s waxing poetic, and when he’s pulling one’s leg.  He’s most challenging when he’s being absolutely straightforward  because he understood “time,” “space,” and “nature” as a medieval Japanese Buddhist would.   

Dogen’s view of time and space was influenced by the Flower Garden (Huayan) School which flourished in China from 600-845 and emphasized the “unimpeded interpenetration” of all phenomena. The Huayan Buddhists illustrated this unimpeded interpenetration through the metaphor of Indra’s Net, and image of the universe as a vast multidimensional net with jewels lying at each of its intersecting nodes, each jewel reflecting the light of every other jewel.  Each node was intimately and immediately interconnected with each and every other node, each and every node participating in and reflecting the totality.  A modern physicist might reinterpret this as each and every quantum particle being intimately and immediately connected with each and every other quantum particle.

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For Dogen, space is equivalent to everything that has form — objects, beings, and the distances between them. Space is inseparable from everything that’s happening within it, including our psychological states and our actions. Dogen thought that when we sit zazen, that moment is facilitated by all things in the universe, and at the same time transforms all things in the universe. 

When one displays the Buddha mudra with one’s whole body and mind, sitting upright in this samadhi even for a short time, everything in the entire dharma world becomes buddha mudra, and all space in the universe completely becomes enlightenment.

—Dogen (Bendowa)

Our twenty-first century minds view space as something abstract —  three Cartesian dimensions measured in invariant units, each centimeter equivalent to every other centimeter — an empty place with objects lying at specific coordinates within its grid.  This is space that has been disenchanted and killed.  Humans, with their feelings, intentions, morals, and sensibilities, inhabit a dead space, conscious presences in an insensate world. 

Space for Dogen, on the other hand, is responsive and alive.  Compassionate humans live in a compassionate Buddha-verse.  Apples, after all, grow from apple trees, not from rocks. (Except that apple trees do grow from “inanimate” minerals, at least in part!)

There is a path through which the complete perfect enlightenment of all things returns to the person in zazen, and whereby that person and the enlightenment of all things intimately and imperceptibly assist each other. Therefore this zazen person without fail… universally helps the buddha work in each place, as numerous as atoms, where buddhas teach and practice, and widely influences practitioners who are going beyond buddha…  At this time, because earth, grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles, all things in the dharma realm in the universe in ten directions carry out buddha-work, therefore everyone receives the benefit of wind and water movement caused by this functioning, and all are imperceptibly helped by the wondrous and incomprehensible influence of buddha to actualize the enlightenment at hand.

—Dogen (Bendowa)

Our modern conception of time is also an abstraction. Time is uniform, and linear, stretching back into the past and forward towards the future.  We think the only moment that actually exists is “now,” although “now” is inherently problematic.  “Now” is some abstract point of zero duration — an immediate past that’s already gone rushing off towards a not yet existent future, a fictional zero point that’s neither here nor there. 

Dogen, on the other hand, says existence is time.  Time isn’t abstract, anymore than space is.  My being “here” is also my being in “this time.”  If in Dogen’s chiliocosm all space interpenetrates, each locus intimately and immediately connected with every other locus, the same goes for time.  All times interpenetrate and reflect all others, past, present and future.  When we sit, we not only sit with all things, but with all times.  Each blade of grass is an expression of and reflects the entire universe.  Each moment is an expression and contains/reflects all moments.  We talk about being “here” and “now,” but this is already a mistake. We’re really here/everywhere and now/every-when.  We find all of space and all time reflected in just this moment, the “moon in the dewdrop,” as Dogen says, or William Blake’s “Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.”

“In essence, all things in the entire world are linked with one another as moments.  Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.”

  – Dogen  (Uji)

For Dogen, our commonplace belief that we sit now to get enlightened later is also mistaken.  We’re not sitting alone — we’re sitting with all the myriad things, and not only with all the myriad things “now,” but all the myriad things, past, present, and future. We’re sitting with all Buddhas/We are Buddhas.  We are/affect “them” and they are/affect “us.”  Awakening occurs in an unimaginable field of mutual interpenetration.  In a strictly psychological sense, the Buddhas and ancestors, through their teachings and example, help us forward and beyond.  Our “future ancestors” encourage us as well — we’re pulled forward by our imagined future “enlightened self,” and we practice for our grandchildren’s sake.  But Dogen means this in more than a psychological sense.  He means it in an ontological sense as well. It’s the true state of the way things are — all of reality awakened, all of reality awakening us, past, present, and future — and our awakening, not somewhere off in some distant future, but here right here, everywhere and right now, every-when.  “Just actualize all time as all being,” Dogen writes.  “There is nothing extra.”

Dogen offers us a seamless vision.  Any degree of awakening I obtain (but there’s no “I” obtaining “it” — the “world” and “I,” inseparable from the very beginning, are co-awakening) is affecting/affected by everything else that’s happened/is happening/will happen, including the very nature of spacetime itself.  As twenty-first century Westerners who live in a scientifically informed spacetime, Dogen’s understanding of the interaction between mind and physical reality seems alien and superstitious. Science hasn’t been able to integrate consciousness into its physicalist model except as mere epiphenomenon. Awareness is a “ghost in the machine” that can never transform space and time.

Yet there’s something appealing about Dogen’s idea of a mental life inseparable from physical reality.  As far as Dogen is concerned, there’s no reason why this seamlessness should only be a one-way street, why physical processes should only affect mental processes and not the other way around.  For Dogen, this is not some supernatural spookiness (or at least nothing spookier than the quantum entanglement of particles) but, as Suzuki Roshi might say, “the way things is.”

If modernity has killed God and disenchanted space, medieval Dogen dwelled in a spacetime filled with the awesome presence of innumerable Buddhas. 

What are the consequences of our taking Dogen seriously?  Of provisionally trying this vision on for size as a kind of thought experiment?  The next time you sit zazen, try sitting in this space that’s intimately connected with everywhere and every-when, that’s filled with the awesome presence of innumerable Buddhas.  Allow that the universe, ancestors, bodhisattvas and Buddhas, past and present, a sangha stretching throughout and pervading time and space, are present with you, co-participating in the Enlightenment of all beings and things, of space and time itself.  Imagine that just as we carry the intention to care for all beings, the universe cares for us right back, that we dwell in a caring, alive, responsive space.

Is this a fairy tale, or is it a reality? 

Which vision opens one’s heart?  Which vision enables one to feel more intimately connected with all things?  Dogen thought of life as a dream and that we live “expressing the dream within the dream.”  Seeing the world rationally and scientifically may be the best way to build spaceships to Mars, but Dogen’s vision may better actualize our full humanity here on Earth.  It may also better enhance our care and concern for the each other and the planet, sustaining and reinforcing an ecological vision that allows us and our fellow species a future upon it.

As twenty-first century Westerners, we can’t undo history.  The twentieth century Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt once wrote, “What was once thought can never be unthought.”  We are all children of the Western Enlightenment now.  We can’t think in the exact same way that medieval Dogen did, but maybe we can recast the heart essence of Dogen’s view in a more contemporary idiom. Physicists like David Bohm and philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead have tried. Living abstractly does nothing for the human spirit.  Modern concepts of space, time, and nature reinforce estrangement, isolation, meaninglessness, self-centeredness, and despair.  We need a reality that’s a suitable habitat for our caring, connected presence. 

Dogen’s life-world is a good place to start.

It is not only that there is water in the world, but there is a world in water. It is not merely in water. There is a world of sentient beings in clouds.There is a world of sentient beings in the air. There is a world of sentient beings within fire. There is a world of sentient beings on earth. There is a world of sentient beings in the world of phenomena. There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass…. Wherever there is a world of sentient beings, there is a world of buddha ancestors. Thoroughly examine the meaning of this.

—Dogen (Sansuikyo)

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The Meal Gatha

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We’ve just passed the Thanksgiving and Hanukkah/Christmas season, our modern harvest and solstice celebrations, and celebrated them with — if you’re like most people — family feasts: turkeys with all the trimmings for Thanksgiving, latkes on Hanukkah, perhaps a Christmas ham. Perhaps you went around the table taking turns to acknowledge all you were thankful for, or perhaps you began the meal by saying grace. In Jewish households, brachot are recited before meals and birkat ha-mazon afterwards to acknowledge God, the creator and sustainer of all things. Christians households recite grace before meals, thanking the Lord for blessings bestowed.

Zen has its own pre-meal incantation, the Meal Gatha, or Verse of Five Contemplations:

First, seventy-two labors have brought us this food. We should know where it comes from.
Second, as we receive this offering we should consider whether our virtue and practice deserve it.
Third, as we desire the mind to be free from clinging, we must be free from greed.
Fourth, to support our life, we receive this food.
Fifth, to realize the way, we accept this food.

 

The gatha is extracted from the elaborate, formal oryoki ritual described in excruciating detail by Dōgen in his Eihei Shingi, written in 1237 C.E.  Unlike its Judeo-Christian counterparts, the gatha isn’t an homage to a deity, but an attempt to establish one’s frame of mind for the meal to come.

The first contemplation makes mention of seventy-two labors. In the elaborate division of labor within Japanese monasteries, seventy-two positions, from the abbot to the cook, contribute to the conduct of monastery life. Seventy-two labors is a metaphor for acknowledging that our meal doesn’t come to us miraculously like Athena sprung fully-formed from the head of Zeus. Instead, innumerable labors contributed to it — farmers raised the produce, middle-men packaged, transported and sold it, family members prepared it, and an even larger cast of supporting characters built our kitchen appliances, constructed our electrical grid and gas pipelines, and provided the farmer’s seed and fertilizer, tractors and combines. While we’re at it, lets also acknowledge the vital contributions of the sun, the earth, the rain, the atmosphere, and pollinating insects. This meal arrives at our table by virtue of innumerable contributors. It’s an opportunity to both acknowledge the interconnectivity of all life, and to express our gratitude for it.

The second contemplation is an open inquiry into whether our day has been aligned with our vows and intentions, and whether we’re living out our aspirations in accordance with the Dharma. Are we worthy of this meal? The 8th century sage, Baizhang Huaihai, used to say, “a day without work, a day without eating.” Out of all the schools of Buddhism, Zen is perhaps unique in viewing manual labor as integral to practice. Work not only provides the wherewithal for our sustenance, but offers us opportunities for whole-hearted, mindful activity, erasing the dividing line between the secular and the sacred. So the question of whether we’ve earned this meal has both worldly and ultramundane implications. Have we contributed to the world through our labor, and have we contributed to the process of realization through our vows and intentions, through our zazen and our wise and compassionate activity?

The third contemplation is a truncated restatement of The Four Noble Truths — suffering comes from clinging and aversion, and liberation from overcoming greed, hatred, and ignorance. Meals are an opportunity for practicing non-greed — to eat what’s needed for our health and well-being, but not more; to accept the meal as is without comparing it to other meals we’ve enjoyed in the past; to be grateful for whatever has come our way. Unlike countless millions around the world, today we aren’t starving. We aren’t suffering from malnutrition. Can we be grateful for “enough” and “good enough,” even if this meal, right here, right now, isn’t our favorite? Even if it’s too cold, too overdone, too whatever? We suffer today from diseases of too much — diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. Just enough is better.

The fourth and fifth contemplations are statements of why we eat — the fourth, a reminder that we eat to live, the fifth that just living is not enough — that we eat to fulfill our vows and realize the Way. The historical Buddha spent years fasting and practicing extreme austerities before discovering that mortification of the body yielded not enlightenment, but emaciation and exhaustion. He attained enlightenment only after ceasing his austerities and embarking on a “middle way” between abstinence and greed. In the Buddha’s day, monks begged in the morning for food, eating once daily, and accepting whatever they received with gratitude. They ate enough to sustain themselves and their practice, but without becoming attached to tastes and preferences.  This is a far cry from our contemporary epicurean focus on deliciously prepared food as a cornerstone of la dolce vita.  Gourmands eat to enjoy, dazzle the palate, and sate the senses. Buddhists eat to cultivate practice. Dōgen’s Eihei Shingi instructs the monastery cook to give exquisite, mindful attention to the process of meal preparation, but to treat all the ingredients with equanimity.

In preparing food never view it from the perspective of usual mind or on the basis of feeling-tones… If you only have wild grasses with which to make a broth, do not disdain them. If you have ingredients for a creamy soup do not be delighted. Where there is no attachment, there can be no aversion. Do not be careless with poor ingredients and do not depend on fine ingredients to do your work for you but work with everything with the same sincerity… A rich buttery soup is not better as such than a broth of wild herbs. In handling and preparing wild herbs, do so as you would the ingredients for a rich feast, wholeheartedly, sincerely, clearly. When you serve the monastic assembly, they and you should taste only the flavor of the Ocean of Reality, the Ocean of unobscured Awake Awareness, not whether or not the soup is creamy or made only of wild herbs. In nourishing the seeds of living in the Way, rich food and wild grass are not separate… Wild grasses can nourish the seeds of Buddha and bring forth the buds of the Way. Do not regard them lightly.

Does this equanimity seem joyless to you? Not to Dōgen:

This life we live is a life of rejoicing, this body a body of joy which can be used to present offerings to the Three Jewels. It arises through the merits of eons and using it thus its merit extends endlessly. I hope that you will work and cook in this way, using this body which is the fruition of thousands of lifetimes and births to create limitless benefit for numberless beings. To understand this opportunity is a joyous heart because even if you had been born a ruler of the world the merit of your actions would merely disperse like foam, like sparks.

Dōgen even dares speak of love in this regard:

A parent raises a child with deep love, regardless of poverty or difficulties. Their hearts cannot be understood by another; only a parent can understand it. A parent protects their child from heat or cold before worrying about whether they themselves are hot or cold. This kind of care can only be understood by those who have given rise to it and realized only by those who practice it. This, brought to its fullest, is how you must care for water and rice, as though they were your own children.

In engaging in this practice, Dōgen asserts, one cultivates a heart as vast as a the ocean.

This vast heart does not regard a gram as too light or five kilos as too heavy. It does not follow the sounds of spring or try to nest in a spring garden; it does not darken with the colors of autumn.

With right view and right intention, everything becomes practice — shopping, cooking, eating, and cleaning up after — the whole world, a cauldron for our awakening.

I hope you’ve had a joyous holiday season, surrounded by loved ones, enjoying the bounty of the earth. Some of you may have spent the holidays alone, having but a few grains of rice to eat. Whatever your condition and circumstance, may every moment be an opportunity for awakening, may every moment be an opportunity to benefit others.  And may the new year be an opportunity to renew and sustain your practice for the benefit of all beings.

 

 

Oryoki photo taken from http://www.shambhala-toulouse.fr/shambhala/oryoki

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On Wearing Bifocals: Notes on the Sandōkai

sandokai-MTD-webI‘m studying the Sandōkai with Sensei Daiken Nelson along with the assistance of two trusty tour guides — Shohaku Okumura’s Living by Vow and Shunryu Suzuki’s Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness. The Sandōkai is a Japanese translation of an eighth century Chinese poem by Shitou Xiqian, a student of Qingyuan Xingsi, who was in turn a Dharma heir of Huineng, the sixth ancestor. It was during this era that Zen split into competing Northern and Southern schools, one emphasizing gradual enlightenment, the other, sudden enlightenment. The Sandōkai minimized that rift, stating “in the Way there are no northern or southern ancestors.”

The title, Sandōkai, refers to the unity, harmony, or meeting of sameness and difference, the relative and the absolute.  San-Dō-Kai. “San” means plurality, diversity and difference. “” means sameness, equality, oneness, or commonality. “Kai” means “to shake hands” or agreement. “San” is associated with the Japanese principle of “ji” or relative reality, “” with the Japanese principle of “ri,” or absolute reality. The poem shares its name with an earlier Taoist text, underscoring the historical influence of Taoism on emerging Chinese Buddhism. The poem is essentially about the unity of ri and ji, or non-dual and everyday reality.

Non-duality is an important concept in Zen, but it’s a relative latecomer on the Buddhist scene. The Pali Canon, the earliest strata of Buddhist sutras, makes no reference to it, and it only finds its full flowering in Nagarjuna’s 2nd century writings on emptiness and Asanga and Vasubandhu’s 4th century writings on subject-object non-dualism. Non-duality is also a crucial concept within Advaita Vedanta, a non-Buddhist philosophical school which developed alongside the Mahayana in India.

To understand non-duality is to appreciate that the concepts we use to demarcate the world are human constructions. Things-in-themselves possess neither color, warmth, wetness or solidity — these attributes are the sense our minds make of reality, a reality which science tells us is, at a “deeper” level, a web of interacting quarks and gluons in multidimensional spacetime. (The scare quotes around “deeper” are there to remind us that the physicist’s description of reality is itself a web of abstract concepts and not necessarily “more real” than the phenomenal world — it’s just a description that’s more useful for certain purposes, less useful for others.)

In our everyday life we understand things in terms of their use and value — a chair is something we sit on, food is something we consume — but these attributes only exist through our relations with things and don’t inhere in things themselves. Mental concepts are powerful entities that shape and guide our perception and action. The mind draws borders between countries, even though the Earth seen from space has no boundaries. The Big Dipper materializes in the nighttime sky, even though there’s no Big Dipper in space. The mind creates dualities based on skin color, religion, and nationality, setting “us” apart from “them.” It establishes ego boundaries separating “mine” from “yours,” and “self” from “other.”

Not only do conceptual boundaries not inhere to reality independently of ourselves, but everything that exists shares an interdependent existence with everything else that exists. Things do not exist in isolation. They only exist in interrelationship with each other. We can’t exist without oxygen, water, sunlight, plants, animals, gravity and a surface to move upon. We can’t come into this world without others who give birth to and care for us. The sun can’t exist independent of the laws of physics. The words and meaning of what you are reading right now depend on semantic and syntactic relationships, a corpus of knowledge, and the invention of writing, computers, the electrical grid, and the internet — all socially constructed and dependent on innumerable others, past and present.

“Tall” means nothing unless something is also “short.” “Inside” means nothing without an “outside.” “Here” means nothing without a “there.” “Good” and “bad” depend on each other for existence, and on humans whose needs and predilections define them.  A world without humans is neither “good” nor “bad.” Without humans, earthquakes and viruses are just natural phenomena, neither good, nor bad. No ethics are violated when a lion kills an antelope. When humans kill, ethics appear.

This is a conceptual understanding of non-duality, but Buddhism points to an understanding beyond the conceptual, and this is where Zen makes an extraordinary claim — that it’s possible to directly apprehend non-duality, not as a concept but as reality itself — that it’s possible through zazen or koan study or happenstance to have moments when the conceptual map drops away and we’re left seeing the world and ourselves in an unmediated, startlingly new way. The Japanese call these moments kensho or satori, and the metaphor often used to describe them is that of the bottom falling out of a bucket. Many people have told me they’ve had such experiences. I’ve been sitting zazen for nineteen years, however, and while I’ve had many remarkable experiences, I can’t tell you I’ve had this kind of direct apprehension of non-duality. I can’t even imagine what the phrase “direct unmediated experience of non-dual reality” actually means. I think I may be an unusually dull Zen student. The Sandōkai includes a line about human faculties being either “sharp or dull.” Commenting on the line, Suzuki Roshi says “a dull person is good because he is dull; a sharp person is good because he is sharp. Even though you compare, you cannot say which is best. I am not so sharp, so I understand this very well.” So I sit zazen without bothering myself about such things. When sitting, just sit. Maybe one day lightning will strike. Until then, I can only tell you what others say.

The main point of the Sandōkai, however, isn’t that non-duality is the ultimate way things are — or should I say — the ultimate way things “is”. It’s about the harmony of duality and non-duality, the relative and the absolute. The interdependency of all things is true. But so is our natural way of perceiving the world of separate, individual, and unique things. Just as this table in front of me is real and solid in its everydayness, although science informs us it is mostly empty space. Both realities are, in some sense “true.” I’m not really separate from and independent of you. If there were some alternate universe in which you did not exist, I would be a different “I,” the universe would be a different universe. But I’m also a unique individual with my own specific attributes, habits, and predilections. That’s why in Zen we refrain from saying “everything is one.” It is and it isn’t. Instead we make the more circumspect claim that things are “not two.”

The Sandōkai asks us to view the world with bifocals, to live life at the crosshairs of the relative and the absolute, to understand that “relative” and “absolute” are the same, like ice and water. Suzuki Roshi said that explaining this through words is like scratching an itchy foot through one’s shoes. Language is inherently dualistic, and explaining non-duality through language is, as Allan Watts put it, a matter of “effing the ineffable.” But what choice do we have? We either remain silent, or we point beyond words through words.

How does this bi-focality, this double vision, affect our everyday lives? How does an intimation of non-duality affect the way we live, moment by moment? Fifty years ago I had a profound religious experience on LSD, but I couldn’t relate that experience to my daily life. What did it have to do with the price of tomatoes? Fifty years later, I’m raising a similar question. Does any of this have cash value?

I think it does.

Imagine you’re with another human being trying to get them to behave in a certain way. You’re involved in a negotiation. You have an objective. You want something for your efforts. You want to present your case, influence the other, help him or her to get to “yes.” You have your toolbox. You can be eloquent, logical, manipulative, charming, or threatening in turns, depending on the situation. Maybe you want your boss to give you a raise. Maybe you’re trying to convince an enemy to surrender. Maybe you’re courting a loved one. This is all legitimate human activity. You want to do your best. Now imagine you’re putting on your bifocals. Now you see that your [boss, enemy, lover] is no different from yourself. Your [boss, enemy, lover] doesn’t exist independently. He or she is — like you — a part of the particular way the Dharmakaya, the Buddhistic universe, is expressing itself in this moment. This [boss, enemy, lover] is one of countless beings you’ve vowed to save. This [boss, enemy, lover] is a perfectly realized Buddha, here to save you. Bifocal perception changes the feel of the negotiation. You still want what you want, but now you’re as interested in the other person’s well being as your own. Your relationship has shifted, from I-It to I-Thou and beyond. The other is no longer simply your objective, but yourself as well.

Bi-focality also helps us understand that nothing’s personal. Hurricanes, tornados, and disasters don’t happen to us. They just happen, and we just happen to be there at the time. It’s the same when others behave badly towards us. The other person’s behavior is the product of one-thousand-and-one antecedent causes and conditions — all of history conspiring to bring us together in just this way. From the perspective of the absolute, it has nothing to do with the other person or us. We’re like tectonic plates being shoved up against one other by powerful geological forces. If we can see this moment as the end product of the ongoing unfolding of the universe, we can take things less personally, be less egoistically involved in our misfortunes. This is not to deny our responsibility for our actions. The absolute and the relative are equally real. No one is left off the moral hook. But if we can loosen our egoistic involvement, our personal saga of victimization and righteousness, if we can wear our suffering like a loosely fitting garment instead of our core identity, new possibilities are free to emerge.

Possibilities like forgiveness, negotiation and healing.

In light there is darkness, but don’t take it as darkness.
In darkness there is light, but don’t see it as light.”

                             — The Sandōkai

Calligraphy above by Taisen Deshimaru Roshi (1914-1982)

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Buddhism: Elephant or Duck?

IMG_5528At a dinner party the other night the perennial question — “is Buddhism a religion?” — arose once again.  I’m not sure why this question keeps getting asked here in the West— it probably never gets asked in Asia.  It’s only an interesting question if you have a dog in the fight — if you believe that religion’s either a good thing or a bad thing and need to decide which basket to toss Buddhism into so you can know whether you approve of it or not.  Buddhist scholar Damien Keown devoted the entire first chapter of his Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction to the question, thereby making his very short introduction longer than it might otherwise have been.  He enumerated various attributes of religions (ritual, myth, doctrine, ethics, clergy, temples, statues, pilgrimage sites, etc.) and explained why Buddhism ought to be considered one.  In doing so, he compared Buddhism to the elephant in the hoary story of the blind men and the elephant — how it appears to be different things when seen from different vantage points.  Gesshin Greenwood — a Californian-born Sotō Zen Buddhist nun residing in Japan — employed a different sort of animal metaphor when she addressed the question more succinctly:

I’m not an anthropologist and I don’t really know how to define religion, but you know how they say, “If it walks like a duck, and swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck?”  ….For me, Zen Buddhism is definitely 100% a duck.

The question seems to comes up more often since I began preparing for novice clerical ordination (shukke tokudo) later this year.  A religion without deity worship perplexes Westerners, so in the past I’ve sometimes resorted to categorizing Buddhism as “a way of life” or “a path” when trying to explain it to non-Buddhists.  Once I decided to become a priest, however, that kind of evasion seemed less credible and illuminating. 

So what does Buddhism-as-religion mean to me?  Is it an elephant or a duck?  To my mind,  religions are — first and foremost — commitments to matters of ultimate concern. Being a Buddhist means making a deep and abiding commitment to wholehearted presence with things as they are; to summoning up all one’s wisdom and compassion —  however meager they may be — and bringing them to bear on each and every moment, moment by moment.  By wisdom, I mean a radical acceptance of the universe-as-it-is and non-clinging to all its manifestations; I also mean a deep and profound understanding of the radical interdependence of Being.  By compassion, I mean an existential commitment to avoiding harm and reducing suffering, taking an active responsibility in the care of beings-and-things within our purview. 

Many of the attributes Keown enumerates — ritual, myth, clergy, temples, statues, and pilgrimage sites — are nonessential attributes. I’m not dismissing them entirely, only assigning them their due place. They help enable the survival of the tradition over the course of centuries, much like the outer protein coat of a virus helps protect its inner DNA. They’re helpful to the extent that they facilitate awakening in moment-to-moment living. They’re unhelpful to the extent that they become objects of clinging and fixation, making us rigid and constraining our heartful, aware response to the exigencies of life. They’re tools that Buddhism-as-religion makes use of — upaya or skillful meansbut not its core — its beating heart.   

So what does it mean to be a Buddhist priest, especially for an existentially-oriented Buddhist who’s allergic to dogma and the supernatural?

The short answer — I don’t know.

The longer answer —  I think it means being a handmaiden to awakening in whatever forms one’s own limited gifts allow.  Finding out — exploring the possibilities that ripen as a consequence — is a path that’s been calling to me for a lifetime, from my preadolescent rabbinical fantasies, to my middle-aged fantasies of becoming a Theravada monk — never a possibility for married men and householders.  Fortunately, history has been kind. The 1868 Meiji Restoration permitted the Japanese Buddhist clergy to marry, allowing me, one-and-a-half centuries later, to investigate that particular path.   

I had a conversation a little over a year ago with Ted Meissner of the Secular Buddhist Association about why, although I’m sympathetic to their project, I don’t consider myself a secular Buddhist.  I talked with him about the centrality of my experience of the sacred — of seeing all manifestations of the natural world as possessing a numinous quality of sacredness, and of the ultimate respect for beings and things that flows naturally from that experience. That particular variety of religious experience has been an integral part of my path. It’s what Buddhism means when it refers to the suchness of things — at least I think that term and my own inner experience share some congruence.  The secular world has no reference point for this.  Non-religious scientists talk about their experience of awe and wonder at the universe, but I’m not sure it’s the same thing.  I think there are dimensions of human experience that science can’t — at least not yet, at least not as it’s currently constituted — include in its account of the way things are. The secular world can assign rights and ethical obligations to beings and things, but never holiness. 

I suppose the other reason I’ve resisted being a secular Buddhist is that I’m an agnostic about many of the non-empirical questions Buddhist doctrine addresses.  I’m skeptical of them, tending towards disbelief, but at the same time open to the possibility that I might be wrong. I see a commitment to secularism and naturalism as closing off possibilities I prefer remain open. So I leave the door ajar a little. You know the saying — keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.

I know that for many, Buddhism-as-religion means something else — something that gives clergy and temples and statues greater centrality  — something that includes merit and prayer, rebirth and pure lands, hopes for protection and good fortune.  But the key question isn’t whether Buddhism is a religion, but what sort of religion it is.  And the answer is it means different things to different practitioners.  I suspect that’s true for every religion — it can be fundamentalist, obscurantist, and dogma-ridden, or it can be an open invitation to explore the sacred, its outer trappings protecting, and at times hiding, a vital inner core.

So, is Buddhism an elephant or a duck?

I personally cast my vote for an amphibious, feathered pachyderm.

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Let Ajahn Brahm Speak

 

Photo from www.bhikkhuni.net

Photo from www.bhikkhuni.net

I recently received an e-mail from Claralynn Nunamaker, a Theravada lay practitioner residing in Scotland, asking my support for her petition to the United Nations Day of Vesak Conference organizing committee urging them to permit Ajahn Brahm to address their 2015 conference.  Ajahn Brahm had been invited to speak about gender equality at the 2014 conference held in Viet Nam this past May, but the day before he was to deliver it his appearance was suddenly and unexpectedly banned. Apparently there was a split in the organizing committee, and Brahm was told that while the Vietnamese hosts supported his paper, the Thai delegation had organized opposition against it. You can read the full text of the excellent speech Ajahn Brahm would have given here.

What was all the fuss about?

Ajahn Brahm is a British-born Theravada monk, a former long-term student of the late Ajahn Chah, who serves as the Abbot of the Bodhinyana Monastery in Serpentine, Australia. In 2009 Ajahn Brahm committed the heinous crime of helping ordain four Theravada Buddhist nuns, or bhikkhunis as they’re called. Since no good deed goes unpunished, the all-male monastic sangha in the Ajahn Chah lineage subsequently severed Ajahn Brahm’s formal connection to it, a kind of Buddhist excommunication of sorts.  You can find Ajahn Sujato’s description of that occurrence here.

According to the Pali cannon, when the Buddha first created the sangha 2,500 years ago, it was initially an all male affair. The Buddha’s aunt and step-mother, Mahaprajapati, requested that he allow her to form an order of nuns, but he initially declined. The Buddha’s cousin and personal attendant, Ananda, then intervened on her behalf, asking if women didn’t the same potential for enlightenment as men. The Buddha agreed that “women are able to realize all the states leading to enlightenment and enlightenment itself.” Ananda then reminded the Buddha of all his aunt had done for him as an infant and child, and the Buddha finally acquiesced. Mahaprajapati founded an order of five hundred bhikkhunis and eventually attained enlightenment.

Fast forward through history: Indian Buddhism failed to survive the Islamic invasion of the sub-continent. The Sri Lankan Theravada order of bhikkhunis passed into history in 1017 AD after the island was invaded by the Chola Empire, and the Burmese and Thais never established their own orders. Cambodia, originally a Mahayana country, once had an order of bhikkhunis, but that order was extinguished when the country converted to Theravada in the 13th century. Since then, the Theravada sangha has been an exclusively all male affair. “Traditionalist” Southeast Asian Buddhists legalistically argued that bhikkhunis could only be ordained by other bhikkhunis, and since there were no surviving Theravada bhikkhunis, Theravada female ordination could never be restarted. (Fully-ordained Buddhist nuns have continued to exist, however, in China, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam where Mahayana Buddhism flourishes.)

Ajahn Brahm stated in a 2013 interview:

I thought too when I was a young monk in Thailand that the problem was a legal problem, that the bhikkhuni order couldn’t be revived. But having investigated and studied, I’ve found out that many of the obstacles we thought were there aren’t there at all.”

His banned 2014 talk goes into depth about the legal, textual, moral, and historical bases for restarting female ordination.

There have been a number of recent efforts to reboot the Theravada bhikhkuni line. In 1996 a Theravada bhikkhuni order was rekindled when 11 Sri Lankan women were fully ordained in Sarnath, India by the Mahābodhi Society with the assistance of Korean monks and nuns. In 2007 the International Conference on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha, attended by luminaries such as Bhikkhu Bodhi and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, unanimously endorsed the revival of full Theravada female ordination. In 2010, bhikkhunis were ordained in a Northern Californian ceremony attended by Bhante Gunaratana, and there was a 2011 ordination at Spirit Rock.  Bhikkhuni ordination was officially banned in Thailand in 1928, however, and continues to be banned within Thai borders.

Claralynn Nunamaker — an auspicious last name, no? —  forwarded her petition — along with over 5,000 signatures — to the 2015 UN Day of Vesak organizing committee earlier this week. I’m happy to be included among the signatories.  I urge the UN Day of Vesak Organizing Committee to correct its historic mistake and take a step towards restoring women’s rightful place within the Buddhist sangha.

Ajahn Brahm

Ajahn Brahm

 

 

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Book Review: The Present Heart

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If Western Buddhism has been shaped by an ongoing dialogue with Psychology, it’s in part due to the existence of a talented cohort of psychologically sophisticated practitioners who are also gifted writers.  I include writers such as Jack Kornfield, Larry Rosenberg, Barry Magid, Harvey Aronson, Jeffrey Rubin, Mark Epstein, Jeremy Safran, Bob Rosenbaum and Polly Young-Eisendrath in this remarkable group.  Polly, a Vermont-based Jungian psychologist and long-term student of both Phillip Kapleau Roshi and Shinzen Young, is easily the most prolific of these writers with some fourteen titles to her name.  Her latest book, The Present Heart: A Memoir of Loss, Love, and Discovery (Rodale) is a chronicle of her relationship with Ed Epstein — the remarkable story of their fated meeting and marriage, their decades-long love, and most poignantly, Ed’s tragic and inexorable decline into early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. 

I had the pleasure of meeting Polly and Ed at the 2003 Mind and Life conference at MIT in Cambridge.  We shared meals during the conference and established an immediate rapport.  Polly and I were on somewhat similar journeys as Buddhist psychologist authors, and while we never again met in person, we’ve kept in touch over the years through e-mails and holiday letters.  It was through these that I first learned of Ed’s precipitous decline and Polly’s efforts to creatively and humanely adapt to it.  Ed was undiagnosed but already in the early stages of Alzheimers when we met at Mind and Life.  At the time, his personal warmth and verbal facility hid any incipient signs of increasing disability from casual observers like myself.  I remember Polly as the more dynamic of the two and Ed as being somewhat more retiring — was that subtle evidence of the insidious onset of his dementia, or just the way things had always been?  One thing was clear — they were immensely likable as a couple, and clearly in love.

Polly has written a brave book exploring the dilemma of caring for Ed when he is no longer able to be her reciprocal partner — no longer the man she married — while simultaneously struggling to sustain her own inner aliveness, growth, and capacity for love.  The frankness with which she invites the reader to know her and her situation in all her and its unique and specific particularity makes this book a rarity and a revelation.  Part memoir and part meditation on the nature of love, the book distinguishes between true love, romantic love, and the one-way street of cherishing without reciprocation. True love, as Polly defines it, is based on a mutual seeing-and-being-seen within an embracing attitude of acceptance and letting-be — a relationship that’s neither fused nor separate, neither symbiotic nor idealized.  She describes her first marriages in which she was needed but never “seen,” her discovery of true love in relationship with Ed, and her rediscovery of true love once Ed could only be the object of one-way cherishing.

Polly’s solutions to her dilemma are wonderfully unique, humorously and heartbreakingly complex, and throughly unbound by tradition.  Without giving too much away, in the process of caring for and eventually arranging care for Ed she also ends up acquiring the responsibility of arranging care for Richard, her first ex-husband, a former philosophy professor who’s afflicted with both circumscribed paranoid delusions and an advancing dementia.  She, Ed, and Richard, soon establish the ritual of regular Sunday dinners at a local haunt — dinners that increasingly resemble the Mad Hatter’s tea party.  How she re-fashions a family from the shards of her life, present and past — the past is never over, it isn’t even past — and keeps her heart alive and growing, is the exciting crux of this story.  Some people succumb to adversity, others rise to the occasion.  Polly’s heroic quest to not be a victim — to accept the karmic flow of life and thrive within it— is an inspiration to caregivers everywhere.  In the course of all this, Polly elucidates how her Buddhist practice — being fully present, seeing and accepting reality, endlessly letting go, dwelling in groundlessness — gives her the tools she needs to cope with adversity.  She also finds Buddhism to be incomplete — it has little to say about personal love, as opposed to universal lovingkindness and compassion — so she learns to supplement the Buddhist path with lessons gleaned from life, psychological practice, and a group of distinguished mentors.

Although this is Polly’s specific and unique journey, I found it resonated strongly with my own personal experience — the final year of my first marriage to my wife of thirty-six years as she painfully succumbed to the ravages of cancer.  I recall how my years of Buddhist practice enabled me to stay present and not turn away, to let go into the reality of things, to cry and laugh along with her, and, after the end, to find new love once old love was gone.  If people wonder what Buddhist practice is practice for, this is it.

It’s funny how it’s the unique and particular stories that teach us what’s universal. 

I highly recommend this book to anyone struggling to be seen, to anyone cast into the role of caregiver, to anyone interested in Buddhist practice, to anyone thrown by unanticipated and undesired adversity and loss, to anyone struggling to be a genuine self, to anyone interested in love. 

Polly Young-Eisendrath

Polly Young-Eisendrath

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Buddhism and the People’s Climate March

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My sangha, White Plains Zen, is one of over 1,000 organizations co-sponsoring the People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014 in New York City. March organizers are hoping to assemble over 100,000 concerned citizens in support of global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The timing of the march is intended to coincide with the start of the United Nations Climate Summit two days later. The Summit is part of the process of developing a new international climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol which expired in 2012. The Kyoto Protocol— signed by 191 countries, but never ratified by the U.S. Senate — set binding targets for industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. At this year’s summit, world leaders are supposed to announce new actions their countries will undertake to mitigate climate change. As the U.S. Senate is incapable of acting due to the crippling influences of fossil fuel industry money, opposition from coal and oil producing states, and the oddball ideology of climate science denial, President Obama wants any new international agreement to fall short of a legally-binding treaty which would require Senate approval. Because of American legislative branch paralysis, the executive branch has had to go it alone through its EPA regulatory authority to reduce automobile and power plant emissions — a process that has, so far, met with judicial acquiescence.

Significant climate change is already upon us. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are now over 397 parts per million — well above the 350 parts per million Dr. James Hanson called the upper limit for preserving the planet. Temperatures are rising and rainfall patterns shifting in ways that affect watersheds and agriculture. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs dying, glaciers and ice sheets melting, and desertification spreading. One quarter of the Earth’s animal species may be headed for extinction by 2050. U.S. temperatures will rise between 4-11 degrees over the next century. Rates of very heavy precipitation in the Northeast U.S. have already increased 67% since 1978.  Rare weather events like Superstorm Sandy are becoming more common. The Pentagon is planning for increased regional warfare due to increased competition over scarce water resources. If we don’t find a way to significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, these effects will only get worse.

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Buddhism has a role to play in this world-wide emergency. As Buddhists, we recognize the reality of impermanence, the fragile interdependence of the web of life, and the interplay of causes and conditions. We recognize the importance of seeing things as they are, and our responsibility for the care of all beings. We understand karma — the ripple effects of our actions on others and ourselves throughout space and time. All of our understanding as Buddhists impels us to act with compassion and responsibility. There are things we can do on an individual level to mitigate risk — weatherizing our homes, installing solar panels on our roofs, swapping out incandescent light-bulbs for LEDs, buying more fuel efficient vehicles. But those individual actions, useful as they are, are not enough to make a real difference. We must also work together collectively to change the way we produce and consume energy on a regional, national, and international scale.

It may already be too late. Even if the industrialized nations step up to the plate, the rising nations may not. But we have to start somewhere. Every journey starts where we are. Every successful international movement — consider the abolitionists and suffragettes — starts with individual acts of conscience and a dedicated minority that persists until it prevails. Sitting back and doing nothing because someone else may fail to act is, on the other hand, a guarantee for planetary disaster.

So our little sangha — White Plains Zen — will be marching alongside other Buddhist groups from the New York area — groups like the Brooklyn Zen Center, the Buddhist Council of New York, Buddhist Global Relief, the Downtown Meditation Community, The Interdependence Project, New York Insight, the Rock Blossom Sangha, the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York, the Shantideva Meditation Center, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, the Village Zendo, and Zen Center of New York City, and alongside representatives from other faith communities.

You can find out more information here.

If you’re in the New York area, please join us.

After all, we’re all in the same boat —  fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth.

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The Good Heart

Doestoevsky's notes for Chapter 5 of The Brothers Karamazov

Doestoevsky’s notes for Chapter 5 of The Brothers Karamazov

My wife and I like to read to each other after dinner. One of us reads a chapter while the other of us enjoys listening while slowly savoring a cup of hot tea; then we switch off. I usually add a teaspoon of Kerrygold butter and a half-jigger of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey to my tea. While the Jameson’s isn’t strictly in keeping with the Buddhist precepts, it seems harmless enough, a guilty pleasure. In the past year we’ve completed Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, The Goldfinch, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (how does the Sesame Street song go? “Which of these things is not like the others?”) and we’ve recently begun Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling.

Good books, all of them.

It’s The Brothers Karamazov, however, that’s prompting today’s reflection, one that’s refracted through the lens of this summer’s discouraging news. This has been a particularly disheartening summer, filled with gruesome accounts of strife and mayhem in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Gaza. It almost seems as if the world is coming unglued. Machiavellian leaders like Syria’s Assad, Russia’s Putin, ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau seem to be having their way with the world. Tolstoy wrote that “God sees the truth but acts slowly.” This summer He seems to be asleep. As Mark Twain once wryly noted, “the Eye That Never Sleeps might as well, since it takes it a century to see what any other eye would see in a week.” I suppose its always been this way — from Caligula and Nero, through Stalin and Hitler, down to today’s assorted warlords and tyrants. For we, the observers, however, now and then, seeing evil triumphant — even if just for a hopefully brief moment — raises an almost inevitable and cynical question:

Are we Buddhists deluding ourselves? Is keeping a good heart really so important?

Maybe it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and there’s no such thing as karma. Maybe we’d all be better off if we thought a little more like psychopaths, feathering our nests at the expense of others. In a world of winners and losers, why not be a winner? The temptation to a lesser humanity is always close at hand.

Which brings me to The Brothers Karamazov. At the conclusion of the novel — after all the murder, melodrama, and hysteria has drawn to a close — Alyosha, the Karamazov brother with the saintly disposition, is talking with a group of young schoolboys after the funeral of Ilyusha, one of their comrades. The schoolboys had taunted Ilyusha and thrown rocks at him, but Aloysha helped reconcile them, and the boys learned to treat Ilyusha with kindness during his final days. In the final scene, beside the stone by which Ilyusha is to be buried, Alyosha bids the schoolboys to hold onto the memory of this kindness for the rest of their lives:

“Whatever happens to us later in life, if we don’t meet for twenty years afterwards, let us always remember how we buried the poor boy at whom we once threw stones… and afterwards we all grew so fond of…. And even if we are occupied with most important things, if we attain to honor or fall into great misfortune — still let us remember how good it was once here, when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which made us, for the time we were loving that poor boy, better perhaps than we are… If a man carries… such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving him… Perhaps we may even grow wicked later on… But however bad we may become… when we recall how we buried Ilyusha, how we loved him in his last days… the cruelest and most mocking of us — if we do become so — will not dare to laugh inwardly at having been kind and good at this moment! What’s more, perhaps, that one memory may keep him from great evil and he will reflect and say, ‘Yes, I was good and brave and honest then!’ Let him laugh to himself, that’s no matter, a man often laughs at what’s good and kind. That’s only from thoughtlessness. But I assure you, boys, that as he laughs he will say at once in his heart, ‘No, I do wrong to laugh, for that’s not a thing to laugh at…’ I say this in case we become bad…”

Alyosha exhorts the boys to safeguard their good hearts. This truth, that our good heart — our capacity for love and compassion — is the very best part of us — one that needs protection and nurturing — never seems more important than at times of discouragement, when cynicism seems within easy reach. When we sit zazen we know the warm glow of the heart’s expansion, and the cold chill of its contraction. When we perform acts of kindness, we know the feeling that accompanies them, the sense, for that moment, that we are, as Alyosha says, “perhaps better than we are.” When we are consumed by envy, vengeance, or hatred, some small part of us is still capable of noting that we are permitting a corrosive poison to flow through our veins. This vital answer, that we secure our well-being by nurturing our good hearts, our Buddha-nature, is all the answer we need to defeat skepticism.

Are the warlords and petty tyrants of this world ever truly happy?

Are they happy in the same way you and I are happy, or is their “happiness” in some way an inferior one? Maybe they’re tormented by fears of disloyalty and betrayal, preoccupied with endless plotting and scheming against enemies real and imagined. Maybe they never feel powerful enough, invulnerable enough, in control enough to ever enjoy the fruits of victory for more than an evanescent moment. Maybe they are paranoid and miserable despite outward signs of achievement. Maybe their stone-cold hearts — like the Grinch’s, several sizes too small — preclude their ever feeling fully human, fully alive, fully loved. Maybe there is a rough kind of justice in the world in that people who nurture their humaneness have a higher order of happiness — eudaimonic as opposed to hedonic, a pervasive sense of well-being — that’s hard to shake under even the most trying of circumstances. The sun always shines above even the darkest of clouds; the stillness of the ocean deeps is untroubled by the surface waves.

Maybe. Who knows?

Happiness is, after all a subjective thing, impossible to quantify. We can never know whether others mean the same thing by it as we do. All we can do is observe how our own happiness fluctuates with the expansion and contraction of our hearts. We can think about how much more we as readers love the saintly Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov than his passion-driven brother Mitya, his intelligent, cynical brother Ivan, or his spiteful, murderous half-brother Smerdyakov. All have grown up in the shadow of their narcissistic, brutish father, but only Alyosha has managed to preserve his good heart and enlarge on the better angels of his nature. This is why we read great literature and why we practice zazen — to keep the flame of our humanness lit, to blow on its glowing embers and help it breathe, to experience ourselves and the world more deeply.

So, dear reader, let us follow Alyosha’s admonition. Let us recollect our own acts of kindness and decency, and let us cultivate what we Buddhists call bodhicitta, the heart/mind of enlightenment — the wish to become enlightened for the benefit of others — our own good hearts.

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A Guide to the Perplexed

IMG_5021 - Version 2 The irreconcilable differences that exist, like yawning chasms, between the various historical and cultural strands of Buddhism sometimes threaten to overwhelm their important commonalities. Mahayana concepts such as emptiness and non-duality seem out-of-keeping with (and appear nowhere in — at least in their post-Nagarjuna sense) the Theravada literature, while Theravada’s no-self seems incompatible with Mahayana’s inherent Buddha-nature or with Vajrayana beliefs concerning reincarnation. Theravada’s Brentano-like assertion that consciousness is always a “consciousness-of-something” conflicts with Mahayana’s belief in pure objectless consciousness. These unbridgeable disputes create perplexity in the minds of thoughtful beginners who are bound to wonder “who is right and who is wrong?” The truth is that all of these propositions — and others like them — reside outside the realm of the provable or falsifiable. What objective interpersonally verifiable test could possibly determine whether we have no-self or a Buddha-nature, or whether consciousness must always, without fail, have an object? There is never any way to resolve these perennial debates except through a leap of faith or a resort to one’s possibly erroneous or self-deluded interpretation of one’s own private — and therefore interpersonally unverifiable — experience. It’s more useful to think of these ideas as pedagogical strategies rather than as ontological statements, that is, as potentially skillful means to promote and facilitate practice/progress on the path. They each may be more or less useful in this regard, and the extent to which they facilitate practice/progress is — at least in principal, empirically verifiable. I suspect — and this is pure fantasy on my part, but please indulge me — that if some future experimental Buddhologist were to test the pedagogical mettle of these ideas that 1) they would show equal degrees of efficacy, or 2) different strategies would be differentially useful to persons with differing sets of cultural beliefs and expectations, or with differing personality traits and issues. The Thai Forest monk, Ajahn Chah, once remarked when accused of self-contradiction in the instructions he gave to different practitioners:

“It is as though I see people walking down a road I know well. To them the way may be unclear. I look up and see someone about to fall into a ditch on the right-hand side of the road, so I call out to him, ‘Go left, go left.’ Similarly, if I see another person about to fall into a ditch on the left, I call out, ‘Go right, go right!’ That is the extent of my teaching. Whatever extreme you get caught in, whatever you get attached to, I say, ‘Let go of that too.’ Let go on the left, let go on the right. Come back to the center, and you will arrive at the true Dharma. ” (A Still Forest Pool, p. 115)

In other words, different strokes for different folks.

Each of these contradictory Buddhist teachings probably have some value, either by virtue of the way they point out important aspects of experience, or by the way they encourage greater devotion to practice. For example, the notion of no-self may help reduce attachment to conceptions of the self or clinging to various self-aspects, whether some image of oneself, one’s sense of superiority due to some skill or talent, one’s vanity over one’s appearance, or a delusional belief in unchanging health and youth. The idea of a Buddha-nature, on the other hand, can encourage a belief that progress on the path is possible for anyone, that calm and compassionate observation is always possible in even the most turbulent emotional waters, and that everyone is deserving of kindness and care regardless of how different or appalling their appearance or behavior. Similarly, the idea of “emptiness” encourages us to discover our interconnectedness with others and the world.

In each and every case, the important thing is not the concept itself, which is never more than a metaphor, but the aware, embodied practice that, like the finger pointing to the moon, it directs us toward. Does a teaching facilitate awareness, openness, and kindness, and decrease grasping, hatred, self-centeredness and self-involvement? While dogma can be muddy and complex, practice itself is always clear and simple: pay attention, open up, let go, be truthful, be kind.

Everything else is just gravy — or interference.

There are some who will object to the notion that these ideas are only skillful means. They will insist that their idea of ultimate reality is the objective truth of how things really are, and who knows, they might even be right. The point is that you and I, dear reader, will almost certainly never know whether they are or not, and — more importantly — it doesn’t really matter. Most of us are on the Buddhist path, not because we want to know the objective truth of reality — most of us nowadays turn to scientists for that — but because we want to be more present, more aware, more open-hearted, more connected, more alive, more centered, less egotistic, more responsible for our actions, and less interpersonally toxic. We want our lives to be existentially meaningful and contribute to the welfare of others. We want to love more, better, and wiser.

The answer to the question of whether or not we actually have a Buddha-nature is always mu.

On the other hand, the answer to the question of how to increase our awareness and open-heartedness, just like the answer to the question of how to improve any quality or skill, or how to get to Carnegie Hall for that matter, is always “practice, practice, practice.”

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