28 December 2010

The Brighter the Light, the More Distinct the Shadow

I won't say that ordaining makes one a better person.  I will say that since ordaining, aspects of my life that need attention have become all the more clear to me.   Character issues that may have been understandable for "just anyone" now seem more and more unacceptable for someone in my state.  It still remains for me to do the work.  Maybe it can be said that ordaining gives one a new, focused kind of opportunity to become a better person. 

This time of year I find myself, like many, looking back at the year ending and looking ahead to the year about to begin.  This time last year I had six months left to ordination; now I have six months under my belt.  So much has changed.  I had no clue then what life would be like today.

So no resolutions.  Just a look.  A taking stock.  And a moving on...

26 December 2010

In Defense of the Fasting Buddha

I get the point of the Middle Way, though I deeply wish another expression had been found that didn't lead us immediately to geometry class or Goldilocks.  It's no one's fault, particularly.  Get this.  I was about to say something like "There are times when half-measures won't work" until I realized that there, too, was another mathematical analogy cropping up!  It really is hard avoiding the ruler, the compass and the calculator when the Middle Way is being discussed.

Here's my problem:  there are some things that I realize I cannot do at all without getting totally caught up in them.  That's the nature of addictive tendencies.  It doesn't matter what the addiction is, either.  It's just the nature of the beast that what is for someone else a "take it now, leave it later" proposition is for the addict a "take it now and take it again and again and again" kind of thing.  The addict has to drop it entirely if there's to be any hope of sanity.  In this case, the extreme position is the only tenable one, and my guess is that no one, not even the most vociferous preacher of the Middle Way, will disagree.

A member recently donated a lot of Buddhist figures to the center, and among those figures were a few "Fasting Buddha" figures.  They're stored away now, and there's some head scratching about what to do with them besides store them.  As one of the teachers here said, "The figure represents the wrong path."

If it were up to me, I think I'd set one out, replete with altar cloth and offerings.  Why?  There's something comforting in the serene face and knowing smile of the skin-and-bones Buddha-to-be.  It's good to be reminded that the categorical denial of certain things in my life needn't be a cause for a dour look and a grumpy attitude.  It may be precisely the path I need to be on toward my own Buddhahood.  I might feel like shit at times, and I might feel so poured out that I might as well be skin-and-bones, but somewhere deep down there is also the certainty that in this way my suffering will find an end.  How could that possibly be the wrong path?

24 December 2010

The Many Ghosts of Christmas Past

I'm given to understand that all studies on memory have come to the same conclusion: our memories are more fiction than fact, we revise our memories as time goes on, and the more "traumatic" the memory, the more likely and the more thorough the editing job will be.

I've come to be at least mildly suspicious of anyone's recounting of the past.  And that anyone includes myself.  And religious traditions.

And it's not at all just because the facts aren't somehow "right."  In the very act of recounting, I put distance between then and now, between that "reality" and this reality, between who "I," "he," "she," "it" and "they" were "then" and who-I-he-she-it-and-they-are-now.  The one I can speak of, since it's been so stripped of life; the other is so dynamic and close that words can't even begin to capture it.

If not now, never.  If not this, nothing.  If not me, no one.

21 December 2010

This Dark Night, This Short Day

It snowed last night, one of those nice, fluffy, cover-the-boughs-with-cotton kind of snows.  That means that the sounds of this morning are muffled, the cars not so noisy, even the snowplows' scraping muted.

And it's dark, the hunker down dark of the solstice time.

Now I get muffled, too, and I hunker down.  And I wonder.  And I sit.

I wonder about those tags on the trees in the drugstore, the ones that have some kid's wish on it.  "Boy, 13, camera."  "Girl, 8, Barbie."  I wonder about the tags that will still be on that tree on December 26.  I wonder about the kids on the other end of those tags, what circumstances have led them to be the ones who have tags on the tree at the drugstore.  And I sit.

I wonder at the cold and at the ingenuity some have found to keep themselves warm in it, despite the lack of a home address.  I wonder about their feet and hands and faces.  I wonder about those who are spending their first winter on the streets, how steep the learning curve must be just to make it to April.  And I sit.

I wonder at all of the ways I continually think and act less than skillfully, and how little my life matches what I know to be more skillful.  I wonder how to tell everyone I've ever offended just how much I would rather not have hurt them.  And I sit.

And yet I wonder at the resiliency of our spirit.  I wonder at the acts of kindness large and small that make this life joyous.  I wonder at the miraculous activity of being refreshed by a cool drink of water, of opening my eyes in the morning and seeing the clock.  I wonder at wondering.  And I sit.

I sit because I can't contain it all.  I sit because what I think "it all" is isn't even all of it.  I sit because I don't know what to do, will never know what to do, and yet have to move about all the same.

20 December 2010

The Undiscussables – One: Money

There used to be a social caution against discussing certain things among family and acquaintances: money, sex and religion.  I'm not sure if that caution still exists, since these days people seem to open up about anything and everything with anyone and everyone.  Still, as I look more deeply at my own reactions, I'm beginning to see why this list of three has the standing it does, or at least once did.

Today the issue for me is money.  I recently found myself in a situation where I tried to avoid a money conversation only to have the other party insist on having it.  And, just as I suspected, all of my usual negative responses sprang up almost instantaneously.   Now I have to deal with the fallout I had so assiduously tried not to have to deal with.  Shit happens, I know, so I'm not complaining.

What I find interesting is exploring the nature of the buttons that get pushed at such times.  Top of the list would have to be the arbitrariness of the whole money thing.  When someone who makes over two times what I make tells me they're really needing more money, I find I just don't want to hear about it.  I'm sure someone who makes half of what I do doesn't want to hear about my financial "woes," either.  The fact is that there is no standard of measure here.  John's "poverty" is Marcia's "opulence."  One person's "need" is seen by the other as just a "want."  With each sentence of the interchange, the distance between the two parties grows as they slowly lose the glue of a common language.  How could the conversation be anything but frustrating?

Because of its arbitrariness, money is a universal carrier for the greed, anger and ignorance that dog our every thought and action.  I think of the lengths I've gone to to get more.  I think of the contempt I've spewed toward the rich.  I think of the pity I've spewed toward the poor (remember: pity ≠ compassion).  I think of the clouded vision I've given rise to when putting price tags on the priceless.  I think of the ego expansion that has gone on when more money came my way.  I think of the ego crippling that happened when money was lost.

I am understanding more and more why men and women everywhere on this earth have, in the course of trying to chart a sane, insightful and moral life, felt inclined to deny money a place in that life.  It isn't about avoiding being polluted by the coinage or the plastic card; it's about consciously denying fuel to the fires of our self-induced suffering.

Until I'm able to have a money discussion with as much equanimity and dispassion as a discussion about the number of light switches on a wall, I'm going to have to work really hard at watching my step.

16 December 2010

Shh – sottovoce, ti prego

Some things are meant to be shouted in full voice.  "Fire!" is one of them.  There aren't too many others.

I find that the most poignant ways of verbally expressing the Buddhadharma are usually best delivered quietly, almost in passing, as if among intimates.  A small observation about a seeming trifle can often reduce to rubble massive chunks of my own ego-attachment better than a full verbal onslaught can.  A quietly expressed disappointment at one of my shortcomings generally evokes greater shame and renewed resolve out of me than a severe and lengthy tongue-lashing does.  A well-timed expression of wonder prompts me to perk up and notice much more than an extensive inventory of positive points or a detailed analysis.

My guess is that I'm not alone in any of this.

So I say: The reality of Buddhanature is an open secret.  No need to add much of anything at all!   And if I'm inclined to speak of it, let it be quietly and offhandedly, almost as an afterthought.

15 December 2010

What's New? More No Comprendo Zone

There are times, I suppose, when it's tempting to think that in earlier ages, in pre-industrial societies, in a world where there was no instant communication, no indoor plumbing, and no heat beyond the fire in the hearth, it was infinitely easier to practice the Dharma.  When the ancients cautioned against retreating into quietism away from the hubbub of everyday life, they had no clue just how noisy and congested it was going to get: sports stadiums, traffic jams, airports, stereos and iPods, shopping malls and parking lots were as yet nowhere in sight. 

But the issue has never been about the surroundings.

Whether we flush or shovel, pickle or deep freeze, microwave or heat with a wood fire, fly or go by foot, whether news travels as fast as a man on a horse or as fast as a satellite signal, whether commerce is local or global, the basic facts of the matter remain the same: our suffering, its cause, its end, and the way to its end have not changed in the least.  The work remains the same, and the difficulty of the work remains the same, for now, just as when the Buddha first pointed it out, the arena of the work is not the surroundings but us: "within this body, mortal though it be, and only a fathom high, but conscious and endowed with mind is the world, its waxing, its waning, and the way that leads to its passing away." 

I hear talk of adapting the Dharma to modern, Western (read: affluent, comfortable) societies.  I have no clue what that could possibly mean.  I just don't understand.

13 December 2010

Nowhere Over the Rainbow

A monk asked Tozan, "When cold and heat come, how can we avoid them?"
Tozan said, "Why don't you go where there is no cold or heat?"
The monk said, "Where is the place where there is no cold or heat?"
Tozan said, "When cold, let the cold kill you; when hot, let the heat kill you."
Blue Cliff Record 43

I recently heard some very disturbing background to an already very disturbing situation.  After my jaw dropped, after I cried for the pain I was now aware of, I found myself saying, "How can we bear it?  How can we bear it?"

I can well understand how someone might say, "OK, that's the last straw.  I'm out of here."  When shit hits the fan, clearing out of the room seems like a sound plan of action. 

Except, of course, that there is no outside of the room, and there is no place where there is no fan-hitting shit.

So bring it on, and let me not worry about bearing it; let it kill me. 

The gateway to upekkhā/upekṣā, the fourth Brahmavihāra, equanimity.

09 December 2010

Is there a Class on That?

I sometimes take calls at the center asking if we have meditation or other classes.

Of course we don't.  We practice, and we'll give newcomers pointers, and on an Intro Night we'll walk people through the form of practice here, get them propped in a sitting posture or two, let them do twenty minutes or so of this new thing in their lives, and pretty much leave it at that.  We invite them to come back.  Some never return.  Some make this the practice of a lifetime.

But no classes.

It's becoming apparent to me just how much of life has been turned into a variation on school, and just how often people default to that model.  There are parenting classes, relationship classes, marriage classes, "personal development training" classes, "authentic practice" classes.  The list goes on.  I don't presume to know the mind (better: conscience) of those who offer these things, and I don't presume to know the mind of those who pay for them, but it is clear that classes and schooling seem to have become substitutes for something more – what? – organic, lived, done over the long haul, emergent.

And it's not an unexpected phenomenon.  It's the natural consequence of a trend that's been going on for the last few centuries.  The Reformation, for example, pulled spiritual development out of the religious community (monastery or order) and housed it in the university.  Most of the Reformers were not holy men and women; they were academic theologians.  The practice of a lifetime was reduced to a curriculum, cleverness with language (papers, exams) became the highest skill, and a degree came to stand as the mark of attainment.  Now you can get an M.Div. at the ripe old age of 24 and be installed as the spiritual leader of a community.  You might even set up, you got it, a "Sunday School."

If classes were good enough to master the spiritual life, then they are good enough for everything else, or so it would seem.

I bristle when I hear calls for building an academic model into Zen priest and teacher training (a Master of Divinity, or M.Div. wouldn't be quite right here; maybe a Master of Emptiness, or M.Empt.?).  I teach at a university.  I have some idea of what classes can do, and I have some idea of what classes are not at all designed to do.  I know what papers and exams test for, and I know what papers and exams cannot possibly test for.  Something tells me the Sixth Ancestor would have flunked out – to our detriment and loss.

I'm grateful that, at least in the lineage I am part of, Zen is not a matter of school and classes.  It is, and I hope it remains, simply and plainly, the practice of a lifetime.

02 December 2010

Pass the Rohatsu Cookies

After years of thinking about how many Christians don't get the deep meaning of Christmas, of deploring the endless shopping and consuming and general craziness, of wishing it were possible to go deep this time of year, I started Zen practice and began sitting Rohatsu sesshin.  I had gotten my wish: a December that had within it the possibility of doing serious spiritual work, a week or so of the Great Matter rather than a week or so of the Big Sale, a time of discipline and focus in a season of indulgence and laxity.

I consider it a not insignificant point that the way we commemorate Śākyamuni's great awakening is by flat-out imitation.  We sit and resolve not to stop until we have realized what is ours to realize.

So this month I'll eat the cookies, exchange gifts and light a tree.  I'll tear up singing a song about Mary's boy child, and I'll ponder that what we call human and what we call divine are not two.  No need to chuck all that, really.  As a Dharma brother once said to me, "Nice decorations, gifts, good food – what's not to like?"

But I will also know something of Buddha's "How wonderful!" firsthand.  And I will know something of the deep communion that comes as many of us all over this earth sit very very still over the next week or so.  How wonderful, indeed!