Mindfulness or Heartfulness?

 

Kannon by Hakuin Ekaku (1686 -1768)

The visitor to our Zendo wanted to be more mindful and to “get to know himself better.” “Good goals!” I readily agreed, but went on to say “the most important thing is to identify your strengths and use them for the benefit of others.”

He made a face. “Oh, the compassion thing. I’m not really all that into Buddhist dogma. I do feel compassion, though, when watching the evening news and seeing people suffering.”

“That’s good, but why start so far from home? What about the people immediately present in your life? And why stop at ‘feeling” compassion? Why not actually do something to make others happier?”

The visitor wasn’t so sure. ”You can’t really make other people happy, and even if you could, it wouldn’t last. The things that make most people happy are inconsequential, like dining out in a fine restaurant. My folks are like that. They’re growing older. What I’d really like is to teach them tranquility, to face their impending old age and death with equanimity.”

All good points: you can’t make other people happy, happiness is ephemeral, and people are often mistaken about what will make them happy, seeking after and investing in the wrong things on the path to well-being.

And yet, all these points are besides the point because using one’s unique gifts to benefit others is what brings happiness. It doesn’t come from self-absorption or developing deep insights into the self. As Dogen wrote in Genjokoan, “to study the self is to forget the self.” The ultimate point of practice isn’t mindfulness in the sense of savoring each moment — although stopping to smell the roses is nothing to sniff at. The ultimate point of practice is transformation: cultivating one’s Buddha nature, journeying along the Bodhisattva path, making one’s life a blessing for everyone one encounters, moment-by-moment.

Blessings don’t have to be big things. They can be small moments shared with one’s grandchildren with one’s full attention, letting them know they are valued. It can be expressing gratitude when someone has done something worthy of appreciation. It can be remembering to clean up the dishes after lunch.

Of course they can be bigger things too: donating one’s time and money, volunteering, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, teaching the Dharma, working ceaselessly for peace and justice.

I emphasize identifying one’s signature talents and gifts because each of us has our own pattern of strengths and weaknesses, and each of us can best contribute to the world in our own unique way. I’m able to write and teach, so these are some of the ways I can make a difference. All thumbs, I’d be worthless building houses for the homeless or coaching kids’ sports teams. I’m too much of an introvert to go into politics — let others do that. My math skills are limited; I’ll never make discoveries in physics or develop a computer program that benefits mankind. We make a difference where we can in the way we can — the way we can genuinely be the most useful. We approach every situation with the intention of cultivating and fulfilling our Buddha nature. The most important question is not a self-absorbed “who am I?” but a Bodhisattva’s “how can I help?”

The visitor to our Zendo was a good person, sincere and dedicated in his practice. If we’d met ten years ago I might have agreed that increasing one’s awareness was the raison d’etre — the be all and end all — of practice. Over the years, however, practice has changed me. I’m aware of how much more heart-centered my practice has become. I fantasize about replacing the word “mindfulness” with “heartfulness.” Of course, the mind-heart distinction is a purely western problem; Asian languages never dissected the human soul along those particular dimensions — the dharmas of human consciousness were neither “cognitive” nor “affective,” but only “skillful” or “unskillful.” If mindfulness isn’t also heartfulness, it’s not really mindfulness.

In the Zendo, our liturgy reminds us of sitting’s transformative purpose: Our robe chant invites us to be part of a “formless field of benefaction;” our Bodhisattva vows commit us to saving numberless beings; the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo declares that moment-by-moment, morning and night, our mind is one with the bodhisattva of compassion.

Meanwhile, I keep thinking about our visitor wanting to teach his parents tranquility in the face of death.

“Good luck with that,” I think.

Really, just a phone call would make them happy.

Start small.

Start where you are.

Start where they are.

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A Meditation on Politics

015abbeydharmaFirst, some background.

I moved to my current town when my wife and I married five years ago.  I wanted to be informed about local issues and had some spare time on my hands, so I started sitting in on the local Town Board work sessions.  One day, the town’s energy coordinator, who was also attending the sessions, invited me to become part of the town’s Climate Action Task Force, and I agreed.  I performed an energy audit of the town’s electric, gasoline, and natural gas consumption, and our task force came up with a number of recommendations for reducing the town’s greenhouse gas emissions.  One of them, changing the town’s lighting over to LED lighting, is happening right now.  In the process, I got to observe and interact with the town’s political figures from the  perspective of an environmental activist.

My wife and I also began attending meetings of our local neighborhood civic association as a way of my getting to know our neighbors better, and, to make a long story short, we ended up serving on the association’s board, my wife as president, and I as corresponding secretary.  We became advocates for the needs of our local community — a road needs repaving here, a water main needs replacing there –  and we got to interact with the town’s political figures over issues related to the town’s delivery of  services.

Our town supervisor is up for re-election this November.  We were appreciative of his availability, his willingness to listen, his integrity, and his genuine wish to be of service to all his constituents, so we let him know, via Facebook, that we supported his re-election bid.  We’ve also had the opportunity to observe his political opponent at town meetings, and were deeply concerned about his negative, divisive, and egotistical personality.  He’d opposed many of the initiatives we’d supported including funding the town’s energy coordinator and arts council positions, and enacting changes to the town code that required new construction to meet energy efficiency standards.

When our town supervisor asked us to get involved in his campaign, we were happy to assist him in getting the signatures he needed to get on the ballot.  Over a short period of time, however, we found ourselves becoming more involved in the campaign.  We wanted to be of assistance, and his campaign seemed to like our thoughts about his re-election bid, so we found ourselves being invited to more and more strategy sessions.  In some ways it wasn’t surprising: my wife was a public relations and communications consultant who had worked with a number of Fortune 500 companies; I love watching her in action.  The only thing I have to contribute is my Zen presence and my occasional two cents for what it’s worth.  As the readers of this blog are well aware, everyone is entitled to my opinion.

Which brings me to my main point.

The other week during zazenkai (a kind of six-hour mini-sesshin), my mind was filled with the buzz of the campaign.  As I tried to sit quietly with my breath and the early morning bird song, thoughts of campaign strategy zipped around my brain.  I’d let them go and return to quiet sitting, only to have them return with renewed energy.  Eventually, I gave up trying to not have them, and contented myself with trying to observe them without getting caught up or carried away.  Given their powerful energy, even that proved difficult, and I had to bring myself back to the present moment over and over.

Was this a bad sitting?  It wasn’t the one I’d wanted.  I’d wanted one of those sittings in which the mind was deliciously still and clear.  That was not to be.  Abandon all expectations, ye who enter here.

But it was the sitting I needed.  It was a wonderful lesson in how addictive political energies can be; how they can absorb us to the degree that we’re in danger of losing our quiet center; how we can easily become enamored with our own cleverness; how sooner or later, we can find ourselves devising strategies that are simply about winning, but which fail to reflect the purity of our original intention to be of service to the community. It was a wake-up call about needing to be careful and discerning; about being suspicious of my own thought processes; about keeping my recommendations in accord with my best intentions and not mere expediency.  It reminded me that elections aren’t about the candidates we support, but about our highest aspirations to benefit all beings.

Zazenkai ended with a new appreciation of the balancing act that’s required if we’re to maintain our integrity while participating in the rough and tumble of politics.

The next time you have a sitting that’s not the one you wanted, be grateful.

It’s a gift.

Not just to yourself, but to all beings.

 

The image at the top of this post is reprinted with permission from Tricycle Magazine.  

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The Second Precept

The Second Buddhist Precept states simply:

I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.

Adinnādānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

This means abstaining from taking what belongs to others — in other words, stealing. Unlike the Judeo-Christian Eighth Commandment, it’s not a divine edict.  It’s training in the practice of non-greed for the good of one’s character and for the happiness of oneself and others.

Most of us don’t go around breaking and entering, mugging, or shoplifting, so it would seem that abstaining from stealing should be a relatively easy matter — but it’s not. There are more subtle forms of theft — downloading and uploading copyrighted material without permission, underreporting cash income on one’s taxes, using ideas without attribution, bringing paper clips home from the office, inflating damage estimates for insurance reimbursement.  The temptation to petty larceny runs deep within the crooked human heart, and aspiring to impeccability requires some heavy lifting.

Corporations can also violate the Second Precept.  Ethical businesses obtain raw materials and labor at a fair price and create something of value which they sell at a fair price.  Ethical businesses also abstain from passing hidden costs along to stakeholders.  Companies that purchase raw materials from developing nations at unfair prices, exploit workers through unfair wages and working conditions, expose consumers to risk through unsafe products, and pollute the environment are engaging in a form of theft.  So are industries that systematically mislead others about the real costs of their products, for example, the health costs of tobacco and soft-drink consumption, or the health and environmental costs of mining and burning coal, deep sea drilling for oil, hydrofracking for gas, or storing “spent” nuclear fuel in cooling ponds.

Governments can violate the Second Precept through unjust confiscatory taxation.  Zen Master Hakuin (1686-1769) railed against the typical Japanese Daimyo (feudal lord) of his day who lived:

“a life of the greatest luxury… with never a thought of the difficulties of the common people under him. From the blood and sweat he wrings from them he is able to fill his tables with fine sake….  As there is never enough money to satisfy such appetites, he ends up dispatching merciless ministers….  Not only do officials reckon the tax rate yearly, they also raise the rate two or three times during the same year.” [1]

Closer to our own time, the American revolution was fought over taxation without representation, and some present day third-world countries are governed by oligarchies so corrupt they can only be called “kleptocracies.”

Political conservatives sometimes claim taxation levels in the United States are confiscatory.  In fact, personal U.S. taxation levels are considerably lower than most Western European democracies.  Additionally, federal tax revenues currently constitute a smaller percentage of our gross domestic product than they did during the decade of the nineteen-fifties.

The Bush era tax cuts have, however, contributed to a massive transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthiest Americans. This transfer is also a function of exponential increases in executive compensation while the hourly wages of American workers have declined.  Fortune 500 CEOs enjoyed a 23% increase in compensation in 2010 alone.  The wealthiest one percent of the country now owns 38% of all privately held stock, 60% of all financial assets, and 62% of all business equity, returning concentration of wealth to levels not seen since the Roaring Twenties and the Gilded Age. [2]  Current tax policy benefits the richest at the expense of improvements in infrastructure, education, and health care for all.

No doubt, the reasons for the increasing disparity in wealth are multiple and complex, including the globalization of the world economy, the loss of manufacturing jobs overseas, the decline of labor unions, the deregulation of the banking industry, the rising cost of energy, the failures of our educational system, and the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy.  The simple, unbridled exercise of human greed fits somewhere into the mix as well.  Not unexpectedly, the wealthy continue to vigorously advocate for a variety of policies (subsidies, incentives, tax write-offs, deregulation, union busting, shredding the social safety net, shifting medical risk from insurers to patients, ending the estate tax, hobbling Medicare’s bargaining power, etc.) that further accelerate the ongoing transfer of wealth.  We might also note that the Supreme Court’s “Citizen’s United” decision gives the wealthy even more of an advantage in shifting the political playing field to their advantage.

The Second Precept applies to more than just the theft of property and wealth, however.  It can also apply to the giving and receiving of affection, attention, and caring in personal relationships and the sharing of tasks and responsibilities within them.  Most imbalances within relationships are not regulated by law and some are reinforced by prevailing customs, making it easier to fail to recognize them when they occur, and allowing their justification since “everyone does it.”  Focusing on the needs of our partners and dependents more than our own is an important part of Buddhist practice.  We might consider replacing the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us” with the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would wish to be treated.”  This isn’t to suggest one should neglect one’s own needs — self-compassion is important too.  As Rabbi Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be?  If I am not for others, what am I?”  It’s just that most of us are so self-focused that a little overcompensation in the other direction couldn’t hurt!   Is it possible to give more of ourselves emotionally — to be more generous than we are at present — without resentment — without fearing we might give more than we get in return?  Can we make that our ongoing practice?

The beauty of the Precepts is that they turn all our interactions into fields of practice in a way solitary sitting never can.  They allow us to explore the degree to which we express integrity, generosity, and compassion in our daily lives.  In following the Second Precept we aspire to more than mere equity, the fair giving of tit-for-tat, but to being open-hearted, caring, and mindful of the needs of others.

Thich Nhat Hanh has rewritten and expanded the Second Precept to make its intention clearer:

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.

The beauty of Thay’s reformulation is that it turns a negative — abstaining from stealing and avoiding greed  — into a positive — the practice of generosity along with genuine activity to reduce individual and systemic suffering.

In discussing his reformulation in depth, Thay adds:

“When you practice one precept deeply, you will discover that you are practicing all five. The First Precept is about taking life, which is a form of stealing — stealing the most precious thing someone has, his or her life. When we meditate on the Second Precept, we see that stealing, in the forms of exploitation, social injustice, and oppression, are acts of killing — killing slowly by exploitation, by maintaining social injustice, and by political and economic oppression. Therefore, the Second Precept has much to do with the precept of not killing. We see the “interbeing” nature of the first two precepts. This is true of all Five Precepts.”

Buddhist practice is truly holographic — every part of the practice contains and reflects every other part of the practice.  If all we do is practice the Second Precept, we are decreasing self-aggrandizement, increasing generosity, increasing mindful awareness of our greed, grasping, and self-justification, and increasing awareness of how we depend on and influence the interconnected web of existence.

Not a bad payoff for one simple precept.

 

 

 

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  1. [1] Katushiro Yoshizawa (2009). The Religious Art of Zen Master Hakuin. Berkeley: Counterpoint.
  2. [2] http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html

The Fourth Precept

The current public discussion over the role vitriolic political rhetoric plays in creating an atmosphere that increases the likelihood of violent actions is as good a time as any to revisit the Fourth Buddhist Precept.

The Fourth Precept reads:

Musāvāda veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

I undertake the vow to abstain from false speech.

“False speech” is a faithful translation of “musāvāda,” but most Buddhists interpret this precept more broadly to include all forms of wrongful or harmful speech.  The Pali Canon identifies four types of wrongful speech: 1) lies, 2) backbiting and slander, 3) abusive and hurtful speech, and 4) frivolous talk.  This would include speech that is harsh, untruthful, poorly timed, motivated by greed or hatred, or otherwise connected with harm. Gossip, misleading arguments, verbal bullying, incitements to violence, rage outbursts, malicious ridicule, and poorly worded or ill-timed truths that cause pain without benefit all fall into the category of wrongful speech.

Thich Nhat Hanh has interpreted the fourth precept to include all forms of unmindful speech and unheedful listening:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

and elsewhere:

“Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things of which you are not sure. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.”

It’s hard to improve on either the aspiration or the advice!

Mindfulness of speech allows us to carefully guard what we’re about to say.  If we’re aware that we’re about to say something we might regret, it’s helpful to pause just long enough to ask ourselves four questions:

  1. Why am I saying this?
  2. Is it completely true?
  3. Is it the right time to say it?
  4. Is it liable to result in benefit or harm?

If the motivation is self-serving or hateful, if it’s not completely true, if it’s poorly worded or ill-timed, or if it is likely to cause more harm than good, then don’t say it.  It’s simple.

The Buddha often refrained from giving painful or unwelcome answers until the questioner had asked three times.  There’s an American Indian proverb that we should think things over three times before we say them.  Once certain things have escaped our lips, it’s impossible to take them back or undo their harm.  Mindfulness is the key.

It’s often said that there are three kinds of lies, “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” but by my count there are six different kinds:

  1. Lies to aggrandize the Self (exaggerating one’s accomplishments)
  2. Lies to avoid shame and blame
  3. Lies to take advantage of others (manipulation, con games)
  4. Lies to cause malicious harm (gossip, slander)
  5. Lies to protect others from embarrassment (“little white lies”)
  6. Lies to help others (“skillful means,” paradoxical therapy)

These lies are not all equally harmful or blameworthy.  Lies intended without harm and resulting in no harm seem less blameworthy than those devised with malice aforethought that succeed in injuring their target.  Self-aggrandizing speech reinforces patterns of “selfing” and causes others to doubt one’s trustworthiness but causes little other harm.  Virtuous lies are lies that may even have positive results.  We might include in this category the physician who offers hope to a terminal patient, or the Bodhisattva who uses “skillful means” to hasten a student’s enlightenment. Virtuous lies seem less blameworthy, however, if and only if both their intention and their effect is beneficial.  For example, the physician’s offer of false hope to the terminal patient might ease the distress of the person who is unable to come to terms with death, but it could also impede acceptance and preparation for death in a less psychologically fragile patient.

Inflamed political rhetoric fails a number of important karmic tests.  It is 1) not fully truthful, 2) spoken out of aversion, 3) slanderous and/or demeaning in intent, and 4) crafted to ignite passion rather than reason.  What good could possibly come from it?

As the Dhammapada notes:

“If you speak… with a corrupted heart, then suffering follows you — as the wheel of the cart, the track of the ox that pulls it.” [1]

Words, like actions, have consequences, and set the stage for our future happiness or misery.  This is the implacable law of cause-and-effect.  We can refrain from causing harm to ourselves and others only through mindfulness, discerning wisdom, and a compassionate heart.

This week the reckless use of language has not only clouded and impeded a true national dialogue on the important issues of our time, but it also has contributed to tragic deaths and injuries caused by a deluded mind with a semi-automatic weapon.

May all the victims, families and friends of the victims, and all beings find peace and freedom from sorrow.

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  1. [1] Thanissaro Bhikku, translator

What Practice Is

Every moment of our lives is practice: every breath, movement, and gesture.  There is no edge, no boundary where our practice life ends and some other non-practice life begins.

When we meditate we are practicing, but we are also practicing when we meet and engage another human being, and at the very moment when we decide to either open or close our eyes to what we see around us.

Our practice is to keep our eyes open.

Our practice is to not turn away.

Our practice is to accept reality and to respond to it.

Our practice is to attend to and to take care of every single thing that happens to fall within the little circle of our lives.

What does it mean to not turn away? To be responsive to what we see?

You and I are, after all, only one person. The world is so large. There are so many causes. Our time and energy is so limited.

What exactly does it mean to fulfill the Bodhisattva vow: “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them all?”

It seems so hopeless, so impossible.

There is a great temptation to contract one’s circle of caring; to just take care of one’s kith and kin and tend to one’s own garden.

This is not the Buddhist way.

The Buddhist way is that family, friends, and strangers are one and the same; all are to be responded to wisely and compassionately.

Our Buddha nature is one that is spacious and ceaselessly responsive.

The 8th Century sage Shantideva wrote the following:

“For all those ailing in the world,

Until their every sickness has been healed,

May I myself become for them

The doctor, the nurse, the medicine itself.

Raining down a flood of food and drink,

May I dispel the ills of thirst and famine.

And in ages marked by scarcity and want,

May I appear as drink and sustenance.

For sentient beings, poor and destitute,

May I become a treasure ever plentiful,

And lie before them closely in their reach,

A varied source of all that they may need.

May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,

A guide for those who journey on the road.

For those who wish to go across the water,

May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,

And a lamp for those who long for light;

For those who need a resting place, a bed;

For all who need a servant, may I be their slave.

Thus for every thing that lives,

As far as the limits of the sky,

May I provide their livelihood and nourishment

Until they pass beyond the bonds of suffering.” [1]

How overwhelming this all sounds!  What a challenge to our usual way of being!  What does this mean to explore this as an ideal?  What does it mean to manifest this as a reality?

This is what practice is.

Not just sitting on a cushion.

Not just forming the intention to be kind to all beings.

Practice is putting our intentions to work in the world.

It is wondering what it is to be more open and compassionate.

It is finding ways to manifest that in the world right now.

Practice has 84,000 manifestations:

  • Organizing
  • Voting
  • Donating
  • Educating
  • Volunteering
  • Tending to the sick
  • Investing in companies that respect workers and protect the earth
  • Reducing your carbon footprint
  • Working at a job that is consistent with your values
  • Raising children to be tolerant and compassionate

This is the practice of Buddhism.

(A version of this was given as a Dharma talk at Change Your Mind Day 2006 in New Haven, Connecticut.)

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  1. [1] Shantideva (2003). The Way of the Bodhisattva. Boston: Shambhala.

Too Darned Hot

A monk asked Tozan, “When cold and heat come, how should one avoid them?”

Tozan said, “Why not go to a place where there is neither cold nor heat?”

The monk said, “What kind of place is it where there is neither cold nor heat?”

Tozan said, “When it is cold, the cold kills you; when it is hot, the heat kills you.”

The Blue Cliff Record, Case 43

Russ was away, so we opened the Zendo ourselves for the evening sitting.  We turned on the lights but couldn’t figure out how to operate the overhead fans.  It must have been 90℉ inside: we sat, breathed and, sweated.  For one night, the buzzing of the cicadas and the chirping of the crickets could be heard instead of the whirr of the fans.  Something is lost, something is gained.

That day the temperature in Moscow was over 100℉.

July in New York had been the second hottest month on record.

This summer’s heat is just one more data point in the thousands of data points providing overwhelming evidence of global warming.

Annual Average Temperature (Departure from the 1901-2000 Average)

Our planet is rapidly warming with predictable results: floods, draughts, intense storms, desertification, shifts in flora and fauna, changes in disease transmission vectors, and one hot Zendo.  Despite scientists’s warnings, nation states have been disinclined to take effective action.  Coal and oil lobbyists together with political conservatives (who are distrustful of government action, ecological causes, and science in general) have succeeded in stirring up doubt in the public mind. As a result, the public remains aloof and skeptical, and politicians feel no great pressure to act.  Even the modest (and probably ineffectual) cap-and-trade bill stalled in the senate last month.

Maybe today’s heat can help concentrate minds.

As aware human beings who inhabit this planet, we have an ethical responsibility to stay informed, to communicate our concerns to our representatives, and to do whatever we can within the small circle of our lives to contribute to the Earth’s well-being.  We can and should hold our politician’s responsible for supporting solutions on a national and global level.  At the same time, we can and should examine our own lifestyles to see how we may be contributing to the problem through profligate energy use and thoughtless waste.

What is effective action?  Writing your congressman?  Writing letters to the editor? Reducing your own carbon footprint?  Something to sit and think about on a hot summer’s evening.

“Cold and heat are right in your face, right on your head!  Where are you?”

Yuan-wu’s Notes on Case 43


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What’s Buddhist About Buddhist Social Activism?

What’s Buddhist  About Buddhist Social Activism?

This is an excerpt from an article I wrote which appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of Turning Wheel

1) Buddhist practice is nondual. It allows no space of separation between self and other. The dichotomy of working on the self but withdrawing from the world, or working on the world but bypassing the self, is antithetical to Buddhism. Since everything is connected, when I change myself, I change the world; when I change the world, I change myself. How could it be otherwise?

2) Everything that happens happens right here, immediately, in one’s own experience.

This is true whether the happenings are bodily sensations and personal emotions, or the remembered images of Abu Ghraib prison, or one’s reactions to listening to President Bush on the nightly news. All of these are mental objects that call for an equal degree of mindful attention, wise reflection, and skillful response. All are part of Buddhist practice.

3) Buddhist practice is continuous. There is no dichotomy between the sacred and the profane; there is not one realm that belongs to Caesar and another that belongs to a deity. Nothing is excluded from Buddhist practice. We practice all the time, whether sitting on the cushion, talking with friends, shopping at the mall, or voting in the booth. Every moment is a moment of continuous, seamless practice. Social action is a realm of practice no different from meditation or sutra study.

4) Buddhist practice is universal. No thing is left out; no one is excluded. We apply our practice to all people: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We include animals and plants within our practice, too. We are not against anyone: we are not against soldiers, criminals, capitalists, landlords, Republicans. No one is left out of our caring and concern. We say, “May all beings be happy.” That is our practice.

5) We are not struggling against people but against processes: greed, aversion, and delusion. We work ceaselessly with these three poisons, whether they occur within us or within George W. Bush. We no more despise George Bush for his greed, aversion, and delusion than we do ourselves. George Bush is just a collection of the five aggregates, the same as we are.

The war in Iraq, for example, is the outcome of innumerable causes and conditions which include, but are not limited to: the history of British colonialism in Iraq; the ways in which modernity impinges on traditionally organized societies; the changing nature of the world order in the age of globalization and multinational corporations; the historic relationship between the Bush family and the house of Saud; the role Christianity played in helping George Bush overcome his drinking problem; the role that social class has played in shaping George Bush’s consciousness; the geopolitical consequences of the dependency of industrialized societies on petroleum; the greed of oil companies, and companies that produce the goods and services needed for war; Saddam Hussein’s sociopathic personality structure, which is itself a consequence of genetics and past experiences; the rise of neoconservative thought in reaction to the New Left of the 1960s; the post-9/11 fear of terrorism; and so on, ad infinitum. George Bush and Saddam Hussein did not create the war, but the karma of the world flows through their actions in an unbroken chain. We are here to be yet another influence in the great sea of causes and conditions. We are not here to control the world; no one ever does that. We are here to ceaselessly witness and ceaselessly practice. Our practice includes being present to suffering, being a friend to those forgotten, and being unafraid to speak our truth (with a small “t”) to those with power.

6) Buddhist practice is not overly attached to outcome.

When we sit on the cushion and we are not enlightened, we do not become discouraged and change our practice. When we demonstrate for peace and war breaks out, we do not become discouraged and change our practice. Not getting the outcome we want does not invalidate the value of working for peace. In her concept of the Four-Fold Way, educator, author, and cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien (www.angelesarrien.com) urges us to 1) show up, 2) pay attention, 3) tell the truth without blame or judgment, and 4) be open, but not attached, to outcome. This is the dharma, in short. Buddhist practice is about being here, being mindful, and speaking truthfully, again and again, without discouragement. Practice is, as Suzuki Roshi once said, making one’s “best effort on the moment forever.” If one can be deeply present, like Avalokiteshvara, and see the suffering of the world, if one can show up with the intention to relieve suffering whenever one encounters it to the best of one’s abilities, if one can include every being within the circle of one’s care and compassion, and if one can avoid anger and disillusionment when suffering does not always abate despite one’s best efforts, then one is engaged in a social activism that also epitomizes Buddhist practice.


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Don’t Side With Yourself

Bankei, the seventeenth century Zen master, had this to say: “Don’t side with yourself.” By this he meant don’t give your own wants and desires such importance; don’t reinforce your own sense of being a separate, unchanging self; don’t be selfish; don’t take sides. The Buddhist universe doesn’t have sides or edges.   It doesn’t have an inside or an outside. The universe doesn’t take sides.  It doesn’t side with the east wind; it doesn’t side with the west wind.  It doesn’t prefer sunny days to thunderstorms.  Everything is just as it is.

Zen Master Dogen once wrote about an eternal mirror of the Buddhas that had “no blurs or flaws within or without.”  Dogen went on to say, “The mirror is unclouded inside and out; this neither describes an inside that depends on an outside, nor an outside blurred by an inside.  There being no face or back, two individuals are able to see the same. Everything that appears around us is one, and is the same inside and out.  It is not ourself, nor other than self, but is naturally one and the same.  Our self is the same as other than self; other than self is the same as our self.  Such is the meeting of two human beings.”  This is our Buddhist practice.

What does it mean to be socially and politically involved if one doesn’t have a side?  Politics demands to know “which side are you on?”  The Abrahamic religions believe in dichotomies: good against evil, God against Satan.  Our Western culture reflects this everywhere.  We find ourselves in the midst of multiple wars both here and abroad, whether the war against terrorism, or the culture wars between fundamentalists and secularists, conservatives and progressives.

And yet, the universe does not have sides.  Buddhists do not see the world as a conflict of absolutes.  We see that everyone has his or her own limited interests, points of view, and desires and that these clash with each other. We see history as great waves of historical forces crashing into each other and creating cataclysms that resolve over time in the same way that air currents crash into each other and create weather.  The universe does not favor the east wind or the west wind.  The universe does not favor calm weather or hurricanes.  At the highest level of understanding everything just happens and just is.

Our Buddhist practice is one of cultivating compassion and wisdom and alleviating suffering wherever we encounter it.   This leads us to make certain choices in the way we vote, donate money, and communicate within the political community.  Is it possible to support a course of action without demonizing, demeaning, or ridiculing those who support another course?  Is it possible to view those who disagree with us with respect, caring, and loving-kindness?  Is it possible to do this even when we think someone’s views reflect their greed, hatred, or delusion?  This is Buddhist practice.

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