Shine As Brightly As You Can

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A friend read my recent post on Dogen, Spinoza, and Whitehead in hopes of finding reason for hope.  Dogen and Whitehead posited meaningful universes fit for humans to dwell in — Dogen’s universe nudging us towards Enlightenment and Whitehead’s towards greater novelty, complexity, and beauty. That sounds pretty hopeful, doesn’t it?  My friend worries about his mortality and about the future his children will inherit.  He wonders whether we humans have a future.  He wants to hope so.  He wants to believe, like Martin Luther King, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” that our lives are a journey into a better future.

Is there reason for hope?

Maybe not.

In the short term, we’re all mortal; in the longer term, all things are impermanent — things fall apart.  Astrophysicists say our sun has a limited shelf life.  Cosmologists tell us our universe will eventually succumb to entropy or collapse.

The intermediate term isn’t much rosier.  There’s the so-called Fermi Paradox — the contradiction between the fact that our universe contains an astronomical number of potentially habitable planets and our failure to detect signs of intelligent life elsewhere.  There are many possible reasons for this, including economist Robin Hanson’s notion of the Great Filter — a theoretical barrier which reduces the odds of any evolving intelligence surviving beyond a critical point.  Whenever a species reaches a certain level of technological sophistication, they — like the unfortunate Krell in the 1956 Sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet — unintentionally create the conditions leading to their own extinction.  We humans seem well on our way towards a multitude of Doomsday scenarios of our own devising: environmental catastrophe, nuclear holocaust, genetically engineered plagues, or potentially hostile artificial intelligences, just to name a few.  The odds of our inadvertently causing our own demise seem fairly high. While the universe may, as Whitehead thought, be generally evolving in the direction of greater complexity, intelligence, and beauty (at least in the short-to-intermediate term), it’s not placing all of its bets on us. We’re one of an almost infinite set of variations on an evolutionary theme, and the universe may well be indifferent to our specific success or failure. 

So hope may be unwarranted.

Except for this.

I once worked in a rehabilitation program for people with spinal cord injuries and other neuromuscular impairments.  All of the clients — without exception and against all medical evidence — believed they’d one day walk again. Their doctors sometimes advised them to “get real.”  It wasn’t going to happen.  One of the clients — a former dancer, now both quadriplegic and blind — responded to doctors’ attempts to disabuse her of her “unrealistic” hopes by educating them that “hope is what gets you through the day.” Hope is what gets you through a dark time to a better time when nothing else sustains you.  I learned never to discourage hope, however unrealistic, unless I’d something better to offer in its place.

Yet for me personally, hope for the future seems somehow unnecessary.  I prefer “not knowing” to “hoping.”  Not the “not knowing” of ignorance, but the “not knowing” of understanding that all ideas, conjectures, predictions, and expectations about the future are just that — merely ideas, conjectures, predictions, and expectations and nothing more — a gossamer web of thought.  The future is unknowable, yet to be born. We all have our ideas about it — we’ll moulder in the grave, or live in Heaven, or be reborn; the universe will keep on expanding or will collapse; the laws of physics are immutable or impermanent; the human race will become extinct or we’ll survive as space travelers, dwelling in the light of foreign suns.  We may have strong or weak convictions about all this, but really, who knows?  How many of your past strong convictions have already proven to be incorrect?

Suzuki Roshi once said that life was “like stepping onto a boat which is about to sail out to sea and sink.”   I like his perspective.  We don’t need assurances about rosy futures.  We’re here briefly and then we’re gone.  That’s it.  What use are we to make of our brief but precious lives?  If there’s to be a future, it will be due to the collective effect of our individual actions. There are no assurances that what we do will matter in the end — but what difference does that make? If we survive it will be because we’ve acted with sufficient awareness of our interconnectedness, sufficient intelligence, and sufficient compassion and love. If we don’t survive, if we’ve just one brief moment to strut upon the stage, why not make that brief moment one of presence and awareness, of love and connection?  Why not shine as brightly as we can? 

Regardless of our hopes and fears, every one of our actions is a vote for or against the future.  Every action we take, every dollar we spend or invest, every word we speak, ripples throughout time, changing the world in some small way, tilting the balance in one direction or another. Shine as brightly as you can!

Change happens. The last two centuries have given birth to a gradual extension of rights to people of color, women, and the gay and transgendered.  We’ve seen the fall of the Berlin Wall and an end to Apartheid. We’ve seen the emergence of new concepts of international law and universal human rights.  We’ve seen fragile, tentative movements towards international cooperation through institutions like the United Nations and the European Union.  We’ve seen sixty years of relative “peace” between the competing great powers who, while testing each other through gruesome proxy wars, have — so far— resisted direct combat and global catastrophe. 

There’s reason for hope.

On the other hand, we’ve endured the two world wars, genocides in Turkey, Nazi-occupied Europe, Cambodia, and Rwanda, fratricides in Yugoslavia and the Middle East, the Soviet Gulag and the Ukrainian famine, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, endless enmity between Pakistan and India, repression in Tibet and saber-rattling in the South China Sea, bloody American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Vietnam and Cambodia, the spread of Jihadism, and a thousand other failures of humanity. 

There’s reason for despair.

Are things getting better?  Are they getting worse?  Flip a coin.  Hope and despair are both “something extra” — projections of thought into the unknown.

Let thoughts drop away.

All we have is this moment; use it well.

Shine as brightly as you can!

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The Thicket of Views

In the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, the Buddha cautions Vacchagotta, the wanderer, against adhering to the “thicket of views,” i.e., forming an opinion one way or the other about a variety of metaphysical topics (Is the cosmos eternal or infinite? Are materiality and consciousness the same or different?  Do Buddhas still exist after death?)   The Buddha tells Vachagotta that any position one can take:

“is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering…. and does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full Awakening…”

Anyone can have opinions.  They come cheap.  I have a million myself  — If you want one just ask.

How’s President Obama doing?  Gay marriage: good or bad?  Are karma and rebirth real?  “The Tree of Life”: Cinematic magic or pretentious bore?  It’s amazing how much of an expert I am on everything!

In case it’s somehow escaped your notice, the Buddhist Blogosphere might more properly be called an “opinion-o-sphere.” The “Maha Teachers” Council: Promise or menace?  Stephen Batchelor: Visionary or turncoat? The Mindfulness Movement: diluting or spreading the Dharma? Buddhism: Religion or philosophy?  The Pali canon: Authentic words of the Buddha?  Genpo Roshi:  Sufficiently contrite?

We Buddhists are as contentious a group as any on the planet.  One might have hoped we would have turned out better — but we seem to be suspiciously human.

It’s fun to have opinions — they keep the conversation lively.  In any case, it’s  impossible not to form them.  The question is whether it’s possible not to be overly attached to them.

Zen Master Seung Sahn wrote a book entitled Open Mouth Already a Mistake[1], and was famous for admonishing students to “only keep ‘Don’t-Know’ mind.”  In a similar vein, Larry Rosenberg reported seeing a bumper sticker years ago which read:  “Don’t believe everything you think,” and thought it offered sage advice.  Shunryu Suzuki Roshi’s “Beginner’s Mind” is the touchstone of American Dharma, but admonitions to take opinions lightly have been part of practice forever.  Bankei (1622-1693) advised us not to “side with ourselves,” just as the Buddha himself warned millennia ago of “the thicket of views.”

The truth is, all of our interesting and colorful opinions seem to have very little to do with the progress we make, or fail to make, in our practice.  If anything, they separate us from the clear, still place we aspire to. Our practice is best when we have little or no concern for what others do or think — and even or especially what we ourselves think — and pay attention, instead, to how we unfold in our own unique dance with the present moment.

That’s not to say there are no such things as facts, reality, or truth.  It’s just that reality is often more slippery, nuanced, and multifaceted than what we’re able to capture in our net of words — and that the deepest and most meaningful truths often elude language altogether.  Alan Watts used to joke that his business was “effing the ineffable.”

As we say in Zen, there is just “this.”

That’s my opinion for today.

 

 


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  1. [1] Barry Briggs has pointed out this attribution is in error.  While Seung Sahn coined the phrase, the book is actually by his Dharma heir, Wu Kwang (Richard Shrobe). See Barry’s correction in the comments section.

Letting Go

Renunciation is not giving up the things of the world, but accepting that they go away. — Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Meditation is practice in letting go.  In meditation the ten thousand things arise, and we let them be.  A kaleidoscopic cacophony of sensations, thoughts, and reveries arise and vanish — fleeting specters in the Cartesian Theater of the mind.  We have hopes and expectations for what each moment of meditation will be like:  “I will stay alert, focused, calm, and peaceful.”  “My meditation space will be quiet and comfortable.”  “I will learn something… make progress… taste Enlightenment.”  Our practice is to continually let go of these hopes and expectations and let the ten thousand things be as they are.  We effortlessly open to each moment, accepting each moment as it is, embracing it, experiencing it fully.

Why practice letting go?  Polly Young-Eisendrath recently made the following point about practicing mindfulness, but it applies to letting go as well:

“The reason for learning… is not so that you can sit around and meditate. It’s like when you learn to drive a car in a parking lot. It’s not so you can drive that car in parking lots. You learn in the parking lot because it’s a restricted, safe area. When you [meditate] it’s like learning to drive in the parking lot. Then, in time, you take the car out onto the highway…. Practice is cultivated in order to get around in life….”

We meditate in order to learn how to let go in our daily lives.  We need to learn how to let go because trying to hold onto anything is like trying to nail jello to a wall:  Nothing sticks, nothing stays.  When David Chadwick [1] asked Suzuki Roshi to express the heart of Buddhism in just a few words, Roshi replied “Everything changes.” (If David had asked him another time, would he have gotten a different answer?)  We can’t hold onto a world that’s constantly changing and transforming — we can’t make the world stop being the world.

“Clinging” is another word for “holding on.”  The Buddha taught that clinging was the ninth link in the chain of Dependent Origination.  In that chain, craving led to clinging, and clinging to “becoming” (bhava), i.e., to continued stuckness in cyclical existence.  There are two places where the chain of dependent origination can be broken: at the point where a pleasant feeling turns to craving, and at the point where craving leads to clinging.  We can break the link of craving through awareness of its dangers and insight into where it will lead us.  We can break the link of clinging by simply letting go.

Sometimes the Buddhist message about craving, clinging, and attachment is misunderstood.  People misinterpret it to mean that we should be free from desire and interpersonal relationships.  In Buddhism there are good desires — the desire to help others, to be happy, and to become enlightened are prominent examples.  The desire to be a good parent or a good spouse are others.

Another way of saying this is that aspiration is all right, but craving is not.  Cravings are intense desires that are fixated on a particular object or experience.  There is a tightness, rigidity, stereotypy, or “must-ness” about them — like the addict craving a fix; the overeater, a binge; the miser, more wealth.  Satisfying a craving leads to transitory pleasure, but as the pleasure fades, more craving ensues.    Cravings have a way of taking over our lives and enslaving us.

Similarly, in Buddhism attachment is not the same thing as relationship. The Buddha never intended to discourage relationships.  Affection, love, care, and concern are the very essence of enlightened life.  Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche explained the difference between love and attachment this way in a recent tweet:

Love is when you are thinking ... "how can I make you happy?" Attachment is when you are thinking ... "why aren't you making me happy?"
@ponlop
Dzogchen Ponlop R.

In Buddhism attachment refers to a rigid, tight clinging and holding on to something, as if it were an existential life-raft.  Think, for example, of a person clinging to a relationship that’s already dead and unable to move on.  He keeps returning to a dry well, hoping for water, stuck in recurrent despair.  He may even resort to stalking and violence, hoping against hope to control the other person who wants nothing more of or from him.

Similarly, nothing kills relationship as quickly and thoroughly as clinging — clinging stifles and suffocates the loved one, dragging the loved one down into the swamp of the clinger’s neediness and efforts to exert control.

We can cling to other things besides relationships.  We can become stuck in an unrewarding job, or stuck on a goal that’s beyond our talents (or a poor match for what could really make us happy).  We can become attached to money, possessions, popularity, and status.  We can believe we’re promised or owed these things by life, and become resentful when they’re not delivered, thinking life has given us a raw deal.

We can become attached to all kinds of beliefs about how life is supposed to be.  “Life is supposed to be easy!”  “Life is supposed to be fair!”  “Bad things are not supposed to happen to me!”  “I should be further ahead in life!” “I’m not supposed to be ill, sick, handicapped, or dependent!”  “Raising children (or working for a living, or marriage) shouldn’t be this hard!”  “Other people should appreciate me more!” “I should be better, smarter, braver, more loving, more perfect!”  Psychologist Albert Ellis used to jest that whenever we placed demands on how life “must” be, we were engaging in “must-erbation.”  We are happier when we let go of our demands on life, and accept life as it is, and ourselves as we are.  That doesn’t mean we cease making efforts to improve ourselves and our circumstances – it’s just that we don’t demand that our efforts always succeed.  We understand that when we want to make God laugh (as Anne Lamott[2] so aptly wrote) we tell Her our plans.  We understand that there is no such thing as perfection.  There is just life as it is.

So we sit in meditation, practicing letting go.  Breath by breath.  Moment by moment.  Again and again.  We observe the places where we get caught, where we get stuck, the places where we get tight, the places where we separate ourselves from the moment with thoughts about how the moment ought to be.  And we breathe.  And we let go, loosen, and unfold.

Special thanks to L. J. Kopf ([email protected]) for permission to use Metaphysical Phunnies in this post.

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  1. [1] D. Chadwick (1999).  Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki. New York: Broadway.
  2. [2] A. LaMott (1995).  Bird by Bird.  New York: Anchor.

The Great Matter of Life and Death

Life is like getting onto a small boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.”  -Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

This past week I attended two funerals, one for an an uncle, one for a cousin.

This coming week I’ll be attending a birthday party for one of my grandchildren.

My family shrinks as elders depart, grows as children enter the world.

This week was also the autumnal equinox: the end of summer, the beginning of autumn.

The world ceaselessly instructs us in impermanence.  Nothing remains the same because there is no “thing.” Every “thing” is always a process in transition to becoming some “thing” else.

When I was young, my extended family seemed to be a stable, unchanging entity.  It was filled with uncles, aunts, and cousins. Two decades went by with only minimal change.  It felt like I could count on it forever.

Now all the uncles are gone.  Every one.

Now all the aunts are gone except for one.  She is ninety-four and suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease.

And now two of my own generation, my cohort of cousins, are gone too.

But those cousins have had children, and their children have had children.  One branch withers, another blossoms.

My body also gives me daily lessons in impermanence.  It reminds me of it when I take my insulin for my diabetes.  It reminds me of it when I visit my oncologist for my six-month check-up.  It reminds me of it when I wake in the middle of the night to pay obeisance to the prostate gods.   Ceaseless change.

Four years ago my first wife, the mother of my children, passed away after enduring the ravages of cancer.  Two months before she died, our son’s wife gave birth to twins.  One warm, bright April morning my wife and I took a cab from the emergency room at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center where we had spent another traumatic night to go to the neonatal ICU at Beth Israel Hospital for a first look at our beautiful new grandchildren.  Was there ever a day more filled with intense, contradictory emotions?

Now I’m remarried, and my new wife brings me the joys of her children and their wives and children.  My family contracts and expands.

This is what I want you to know.  We had no beginning.  We are part of a ceaseless chain of events that began, this time around, with the Big Bang.  We came from our parents’ DNA, and they from their parents’ DNA. The effects of our actions reverberate throughout time and ripple throughout history.  We are part of the vast tapestry of being.  In the absolute view of things, we have no end.

Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness there is no…. decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping…   (The Heart Sutra)

But from the relative point of view we have an end. The fact of our impermanence, of death-in-life, can sharpen our awareness of the limited time we have available to make use of our precious human lives.

Cambridge Insight Meditation teacher Larry Rosenberg tells the story of meeting Tara Tulku Rinpoche who repeatedly fingered the beads of his mala while reciting a mysterious mantra.  When Larry asked the meaning of the mantra, the lama replied “I’m going to die. I’m going to die.”  We all need reminders to focus on using our life wisely. When we realize our time is limited we can ask ourselves how we really want to spend it.  What’s really important?  We want our loved ones to know how much we care about them.  We want to improve things around us.  We want to leave something of value to those who come next.

As Dogen Zenji reminds us:

Life and death are of supreme importance.  Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.  Each of us should strive to awaken.  Awaken!  Take Heed! Do not squander your life!

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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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