30 January 2011

Charter for Compassion

My attention was drawn today to the Charter for Compassion.  It would be hard to find a more rubber-hits-the-road statement of the bodhisattvic quality, the supreme abode, of karuā – all without the least hint of "Buddhism"!

May many find their way to affirm what it states.

28 January 2011

Good Luck With That

I've heard it said that one doesn't have to change anything about one's life to practice the Dharma.  On the one hand, that's absolutely true.  "From the very beginning all beings are Buddha," etc.

Give it a shot.  And we'll see how long it lasts.

25 January 2011

That February Feeling (A Bit Early)

Almost every February I go through some kind of phase in which I want nothing more than to clean out the Augean Stables of my life and find some kind of bedrock.  I'm not sure what prompts it, exactly.  Maybe it's the light returning, maybe it's the cold not yet going away, or maybe it's the lull between the holiday season and springtime.  Doesn't matter, really. 

Sometimes a ruse I had been maintaining for a while had become pointless, and I was ready to let it drop.   At other times, a line of interpretation I had had about something or someone had run out of steam, and I was put in a position of rethinking matters afresh.  Sometimes these two went hand in hand.  Things had to change.

It's happening again, even though it's still January.

It's fine though.

In Southwest Germany, Fastnacht, which now has been tied to pre-Lent practices, was originally a festival of driving out winter.  Unlike carnevale or Mardi Gras, which were more on the order of "party hard before saying goodbye to the flesh," Fastnacht is marked, in part, by dressing up as various grotesque figures which make their appearance and are then sent on their way out of the town.  The monsters are confronted in full daylight, seen for what they are, and then are sent packing.

Time to eye my monsters head on and then show them the door, too.

21 January 2011

Common Hours

These lines from the Conclusion of Thoreau's Walden have always given me pause:
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.  He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favour in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.  In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.
They give me pause, because in articulating some of the fruits of practice they remind me of just how afraid I am to head in that direction.  I find I am less than confident to live the life I have imagined.  I find that my endeavors are marked by a perduring reticence to leave some things behind, to cross the boundary without hopes of return.  Not entirely, of course, but enough that I need no one else to tell me just how weak my practice is.

18 January 2011

The Price of Admission

I recently got tapped at the last minute to teach a couple of sections of a course on Japanese Zen for a continuing ed program here in town.  It was not an opportunity I sought out, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that they are able to staff this course in the future with someone besides me.

It's not that I mind terribly.  It's just that the course involves the discussion of four texts over the quarter, and if there's one thing that characterizes all of them, it's that they were penned by people who had sat a lot of zazen.  Discussing them with people who have never pursued meditation practice is, well, nigh onto impossible. 

The fact is that there are some things one can say only after putting in a lot of time on the mat.  The fact is that there are some things only those who have practiced long and hard have any chance at all of seeing.  And one who has not put the time or effort into it is just not positioned to say much in response. 

Some secrets are perhaps best kept within the family.

11 January 2011

Let Us Hold Our Tongues

Let us hold our tongues and not speak of psychopaths.

Let us hold our tongues and not bring up gun laws.

Let us hold our tongues and not comment on the state of American civility.

Let us hold our tongues and not mention the name of a political party.

Let us hold our tongues and not utter 2012.

Let us hold our tongues and not assess blame.

Let us hold our tongues and not catastrophize.

Let us hold our tongues and not heighten security.

Let us hold our tongues and not speak of the government, its agents or the elected officials.

Let us hold our tongues and not by using them make ourselves look good, open minded, conscientious, engaged, informed and effective.

And in that silence, may we find the heart to realize our deep connection to victims and perpetrators, onlookers and profiteers, those who will cower in fear and those who will rise in anger.  May we do our jobs today with diligence and right effort.  May we be loving in our families.  May we wash our dishes, clean our homes and shovel our snow with humble appreciation for the sheer ability to do so.  May we greet our neighbor with a smile, hold open the door for the person following us, and give way to merging traffic.  May we continue to walk the path we know most right.

May we all be at ease, at least as best we can.

08 January 2011

A Modest Proposal

My one daughter, when she was nine or so, took it upon herself to clean up the family's speech.  On an 8.5x11 piece of paper she wrote:

Instead of nibble say small bite
Instead of tidy say clean
[there was one more, but I forget it now]

There’s a lot of chatter these days, both in my local sangha and in the wider Buddhist world, about the nature of enlightenment and how supposedly deeply insightful men and women can turn out to be cheats, thieves, abusers and liars.

One can pass all the known koans and capping phrases and still be an asshole. 

One can have mastered all the sutras and still widely miss the mark of common decency.

One can have perfected robe-wearing, Dogen-reading and ceremonial minutiae and still be a slick salesman aiming at nothing so much as parting people from their money.  (“Fridays with Roshi” for $15.00?  The Catholics might as well put a debit card swiper on the confessional box!).

Instead of "enlightenment" how about if we say, "ego-attrition"?  Instead of "kensho" how about if we say, "dropped a big chunk of self"?  Instead of "passed the first (or xth) koan" how about if we say, "got a little more unstuck from one's attachment to self" (and make sure that passing a koan means exactly that and not something like "had a nice chat about what the koan might represent")? 

Might spare many the pitfalls of (self-)congratulation over something that, really, isn't anything at all!

07 January 2011

Let's Just Speak as Men and Women

This week started off a new semester of teaching for me, and there's an element of reinventing the wheel every time a new semester starts.  The first day is usually given over to pointing out that some statements demand more attention than others, that the absence of "one right answer" doesn't mean that there aren't better and worse answers, and that just because one happens to think something doesn't mean that one is immune from critical feedback from others.  For some, this is nothing new. For others, this is a revelation.  For yet others, this is a threat.

The first day of class is also a learning experience for me, as new faces and minds make themselves known.  Some try to be clever.  Others use big words.  There's usually at least one smartass.  Some think they're in a different world, perhaps like the one student yesterday who began to offer a comment but stopped himself short and said, "I don't know how to put this philosophically, but...."

I had the student hold his thought while I announced to the class that it was perfectly fine, in fact downright expected, that we conduct our business speaking as everyday men and women and that the point of doing philosophy was not to speak another language but to speak our own more clearly and intelligently.  The student was relieved to hear this.

Of course this happens in Zen, too, and I have seen all kinds of cases where someone starts speaking "Zenese" when plain ol' English would do the job.  And, of course, the point of Zen is not to live a different life but to live the life we have more clearly and with greater insight.

I'm not so sure that many who practice would be as relived to hear this as my student was!

05 January 2011

There is Nothing Exciting About Zen

I vaguely remember the general moment when it dawned on me that what I was doing in the zendo was pretty damn ordinary.  I sat.  I breathed.  And when I did more than sit and breathe, I came back to sitting and breathing.  Even while working on the first koan, it never got much beyond this, except that breathing and "muing" were now intertwined until even sitting and breathing and muing became sitting-breathing-muing.

For hours.

And hours.

And years.

I also vaguely remember the general moment when it dawned on me that the difficulties I was having in practice were directly related to the conduct of my life.  If I was going to have obstructionless zazen, I needed to be living a more obstructionless life.  Coming to see how I actually acted in the world rather than how I thought I acted in the world was instructive.  And sobering.  And completely free of glitz.  In fact, it was quite the opposite.

I recently came across this bit of "Zen humor" on a Buddhist blog

It's funny because it's true.  And it's because it's true that so few people practice Zen over the long haul.  One has to be really comfortable with boring, and plain, and unexciting, and unglitzy in order to stay with it.

Either that, or one has to be so sick of exciting, and fascinating, and fast, and showy that one figures there's nowhere else to go.  (I think that was my point of entry.)

Last night a visitor came to his first formal sitting with any center or temple.  After explaining the "25 minutes, no moving" rule (it was Beginner's Night), he offered that he hadn't engaged in any form of common spiritual practice in a decade (and he was lucky to be in his 20's).  The upshot was that he liked to do it his way and did not like to be corralled into a herd. 

He made it through the evening and sat stock still the whole time, though, so who knows?  Maybe already he's sensing the limits of doing it his way and that the end of suffering means checking one's preferences at the door.

02 January 2011

Waiting for the Maid, Thinking Layman Pang

I often puzzle over how lifestyle or standard of living issues fit with practice.  I want to say, "Look, if 'chopping wood and carrying water' is such marvelous activity, then why pay someone else to clean your toilet?"  I want to say, "Look, if 'dried shit stick' is Buddha, then why the upscale shoes?"  I want to say, "Look, if 'the storeroom, the temple gate' is your light, then why the chic address?"

But I don't know if I can say that.  Maybe I'm just being clever with words.  Maybe I'm just trotting out my own issues.  Maybe maid service, designer shoes and chic addresses are also wonderfully sparkling gems in the overpoweringly beautiful Net of Indra.  Maybe that's just what lay practice looks like, and maybe that's why there has always been a distinction between householder and home-leaver practice in Buddhism.

I don't know.

I do know that the people I have learned the most from, the ones I most respect, whether householder or not, didn't have maid service or designer shoes or chic addresses, and I have a sense that their lifestyle and their insight stood in inverse proportion to one another. 

I guess I do know:

The ones I learned from and respected didn't say boo about my lifestyle; they just lived theirs.  And that was enough.  And if someone, like me, happened to catch the spark from that, then fine.  And if no one ever did, then that was fine, too.

Glad to have that settled.

01 January 2011

This New Day

May the grip of our defilements loosen
May the resolve of our wayseeking mind grow
May we be blessing to all
And may we find our heart's peace.