30 August 2011

No Comprendo Lingo: "_____ Buddhism"

What is the question the answer to which is "Liberal Buddhism"?

What is the question the answer to which is "Engaged Buddhism"?

What is the question the answer to which is "Ecobuddhism"?

What is the question the answer to which is "Progressive Buddhism"?

What is the question the answer to which is "Postmodern Buddhism"?

And how is it that "dukkha, its cause, its end and the path to its end" isn't already a sufficient answer?

I don't know.  I just don't understand.

29 August 2011

Do I Serve Enough?

Yesterday I was very happy to hear what I'd always hoped was really the case but had never actually heard stated out loud: "progress" in Zen is marked by ever deepening and expanding levels of service.  It's not that I hadn't seen live examples of that; I have, and to be honest, if I hadn't I wouldn't still be hanging around.  It's just that in between "insight" and "enlightenment" and "awakening" and "prajña" and all the rest, "service" doesn't come up explicitly very often.

But why shouldn't it?  Service is nothing other than ego-attrition manifest.

As was pointed out yesterday, the opportunities for service are limitless: simply by virtue of signing on as a sangha member, one is saying, "I place myself at the service of all beings."  To the extent to which one is saddled with more responsibility in the sangha, one is agreeing to open one's life up more and more and more to the service of all. 

I've never been much fond of "awakening" and "enlightenment" talk.  Now I have a better way to address the matter.  Rather than wondering how deep my insight is, I can simply ask, "Do I serve enough?"

And yeah, I know the answer: "Not by a long shot.  Not even close."

28 August 2011

Nirodha, the Extinguishing

Wherever a problem arises it must be settled right there. Where suffering lies is right where non-suffering will arise; it ceases at the place where it arises.
– Ajahn Man
I don't think I've ever really appreciated just how unexpected the Third Noble Truth is.  Not the end of suffering part, for there isn't a religion, major or minor, that doesn't promise an end to suffering.  Rather, it's the manner of the end of suffering that's so profound – it just ceases.  Suffering isn't replaced, deferred, taken on by someone else, mitigated, transformed or anything like that.  It just ceases.  One isn't transported to a special somewhere else; the suffering just ceases.

Where it was, there it is no longer.  And that's all. 

That's all!

The end of suffering is no more remarkable than realizing, "Where I had a toothache, there is no longer a toothache."  It sounds silly to say that.  Who talks like that?  Once the toothache is gone it's just as soon forgotten, and one doesn't go on for the rest of one's days saying, "I used to have a toothache here.  Now I have a toothache-free life."

How much more silly does it sound to say, "Where I had clinging and aversion because of ego-attachment, I no longer have clinging and aversion because of ego-attachment"?  Who talks like that, either?

There really is nothing to say about nirodha, nothing at all.

26 August 2011

Precept VII

We're coming to the end of a two week break in the formal sitting schedule at the center, and having the time off has given me the chance to look at my relationship to the practice life of the sangha with some greater degree of clarity and perspective.

My goodness, I hope I haven't come across as half the arrogant weenie I know I've been! Give the guy a blue robe, the use of the stick and the keys to the place, and he ends up acting like he's somehow Ven. Zen!

So as the fall practice season kicks off, it's time for some shaping up:
- Entering the zendo, I will first of all consider that all those there are my superiors and that I am honored to sit with them.
- Taking my place, I will acknowledge the weakness of my own efforts and resolve to step it up.
- As Head of Zendo, I will be what the sangha needs me to be without demanding of them to be what I think they should be.
- Assisting the teachers, I will trust their judgment, rely on their insight and follow their direction with lowered head and shut mouth.
And at the end of the day I will remember that I'm just a son of the Buddha who has not yet come remotely close to the end of his own dukkha.

23 August 2011

Mirror, Mirror

It is said that at 50 you have the face you deserve.  So here it is!  I should run to the mirror today to see what kind of merit I've racked up.

But I won't.

What about the face I deserve?

Birds in the air.  Fish in the sea.

21 August 2011

This Life, Your Eternal Life

6.4311 Death is not an event in life.  One does not live through death.

If one understands eternity not as an endless period of time but as timelessness, then he who lives in the present lives eternally.

Our life is just as endless as our field of vision is limitless.
– Wittgenstein

A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the air. However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its realm. If the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once.

Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird and life must be the fish.

It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies. Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.
– Dōgen
I have to admit I have never thought of this perspective as anything other than wondrous.  That said, I hear (but oftentimes forget) the stern admonition it contains: keep the field of vision open, keep flying, keep swimming, keep practicing.

World without end.  Amen.

20 August 2011

Always Already

So twenty-some years ago in grad school I was introduced to the work of a philosopher that I took to with such abandon, I read just about everything I could.

Last year I was passed a .pdf of a work of a neuroscientist-turned-Buddhist-nun who had incorporated a lot of that same philosopher's work into her own.

Each of us had resonated with something in that work.  Each of us ended up in practice.

I have to wonder whether some folk are just – how to put it – disposed toward the Dharma from early on.  They might not know it as "The Dharma" along the way, but their basic intuition is never far out of step with it.

They may practice the religion they were raised in, but they focus on aspects of it that most of their coreligionists probably don't.

They may end up in academic or scientific studies, trying with the resources of the human intellectual fund to probe and give expression to what they know but cannot say.

They may not even put religious or intellectual expression on it at all.  They may walk the woods, sit on the bus, go about their trades, unwittingly giving shape to their lives and their families in line with what we clumsily label, "The Four Noble Truths."

I have found men and women of the Way in all kinds of non-Buddhist contexts, and I have found charlatans and dandies and dolts clad in robes and sitting in Buddhist temples. 

The truth is the truth and is not confined to this address or that practice.  It is always already here, the open secret, discernible in and among the myriad shapes and forms by all with but eyes to see and ears to hear.

19 August 2011

What I Learned On My Summer Vacation

I'm now officially within the gravitational tug of a new academic year at work.  The meetings have started, classes begin four days from now, and syllabus writing is (too slowly) nearing completion.  I need to sew a button on to one of my pairs of pants before then, and I need to look into a second long-sleeved shirt to teach in as well as a new sweater for when it's cold (after 10 years, the old wool cable knit was just falling apart).   So much to attend to.  I'm glad I'm feeling better.

If this summer's taught me one thing, it's this: stand right where you are and dig in.  No new plants can go in until the bamboo's out, no new habits can form until the old ones are put to rest, no timetable or map can replace responsiveness to conditions.

Actually, I knew that already, but it's good to be reminded of it in so many different ways. 

15 August 2011

I am of a Nature to Have Ill-Health

For almost three days now I've been running a 101+ fever with an increasingly sore throat.  Went to the doctor today and found out I have strep.

I find it fascinating being sick: the achiness that won't go away, the inability to be comfortable in any one position for long coupled with a feeling of utter indifference about most things, the lack of appetite, the chills, the sweating, the chills, the sweating.

And there's no off button, no escape hatch, no rewind function.  For the time being, this is it

I'm glad the center's closed right now, so I don't have to worry about dodging sittings, etc.  I won't get as much of the projects done as I need to, either, but that's ok, too.  There's time enough for that. 

What a gift it is to have a body that gets sick.  So much self-inflated nonsense just disappears when one feels like crap!

12 August 2011

How Great Beings Die

A sangha member died this week.

The account his daughter gave was nothing short of inspiring.  He had mentioned some wishes for his memorial service a week and a half earlier.  Although the dying had its trials, he never complained of pain.  Then, surrounded by a circle of family and friends drumming and playing the didjeridoo in the evening, expressing his appreciation and pleasure, his heart rate slowed and he passed peacefully a few hours later.

I am grateful for this demonstration of the spirit of Dae E's "Vow for Awakening":
Our only prayer is to be firm in our determination to give ourselves completely to the Buddha's Way, so that no doubts arise however long the road seems to be; to be light and easy in the four parts of the body; to be strong and undismayed in body and in mind; to be free from illness and drive out both depressed feelings and distraction; to be free from calamity, misfortune, harmful influences and obstructions; not to seek the Truth outside of ourselves, so we may instantly enter the right way; to be unattached to all thoughts that we may reach the perfectly clear bright mind of Prajñā and have immediate enlightenment on the Great Matter. Thereby we receive the transmission of the deep wisdom of the Buddhas to save all sentient beings who suffer in the round of birth and death. In this way we offer our gratitude for the compassion of the Buddhas and the Patriarchs.

Our further prayer is not to be extremely ill or to be suffering at the time of departure, to know its coming seven days ahead so that we can quiet the mind to abandon the body and be unattached to all things at the last moment wherein we return to the Original Mind in the realm of no birth and no death and merge infinitely into the whole universe to manifest as all things in their True Nature and with the great wisdom of the Buddhas to awaken all beings to the Buddha Mind.

We offer this to all Buddhas and Bodhisattva-Mahāsattvas of the past, present, and future in the ten quarters and to the Mahā Prajñā Pāramitā.
We're all headed on.  The issue isn't whether or when, but how.

Thanks, Mike. 

09 August 2011

The Wise Will Know for Themselves

I'm in a position now of sometimes being asked what practice is like, what kinds of ups and downs I've been through, what's changed for me over the years, etc.  These are hard questions to answer.  The person asking is usually looking for something to avoid or anticipate, fear or hope for.  At the beginning of practice, maybe he or she is trying to size up whether it will all be worth it in the end.

I don't know what to tell them.  I don't know whether my issues are their issues, whether what scares me scares them, whether what I aspire to they aspire to.  Having had no idea myself what things I would encounter and what kinds of decisions I would make in light of practice, I can't begin to figure out what they will end up going through or doing.  And here's the kicker: I still don't know what practice is like, when you get right down to it.

I'd like to tell them two things, though, that I think might serve them well.  First, go where it scares you most and let it at you.  And if there's more than one place that scares you, go there as well and let it at you.  Feel the resistance, and open up wide.  Maybe not all at once, but be ready to do it.

The second thing I'd like to tell them is that, once they've done that and gone through, they'll never – ever – ask someone else about their practice and their experience again.  They will know all there is to know.  And if they want to know more, they'll already know the path to take.

I recently read an account of what a Thai thudong monk, engaged in a practice that invited him to face his own fear, went through:
I cried!  The tears flowed down my cheeks.  I cried as I thought to myself, "Why am I sitting here like some sort of orphan or abandoned child, sitting, soaking in the rain like a man who owns nothing, like an exile?" …Then I thought further, "All those people sitting comfortably in their homes right now probably don't even suspect that there is a monk sitting, soaking in the rain all night like this.  What's the point of it all?"  Thinking like this, I began to feel so thoroughly sorry for myself that the tears came gushing out.
I remember going through more than a few sesshins where I would cry in the shower.  I kept the brave face throughout the day, but once I was completely alone and already under water, the tears just flowed.  It was the same sentiment as the monk's: "Here I am doing this!  I ache, I'm tired, and I'm scared, and no one on earth cares in the least.  Most would tell me I'm stupid for doing this in the first place.  Why?  Why do I do this?"  I couldn't even bring that to my teacher.  I never felt more alone.

But there's more to the monk's story:
I sat …sat and listened.  After conquering my feelings I just sat and watched all manner of things arise in me, so many things that were possible to know but impossible to describe.  And I thought of the Buddha's words … Paccattaṁ veditabbo viññuhi – 'the wise will know for themselves.'  … That I had endured such suffering and sat through the rain like this … who was there to experience it with me?  Only I could know what it was like.*
For the monk, all this took place in the space of one night.  For me, as I suppose for many, coming to the end of the fear and anguish is an ongoing process that proceeds in fits and starts.  The time frame isn't important.   

What is important is the truth of the Buddha's words: Paccattaṁ veditabbo viññuhi – the wise will know for themselves. 

* Tiyavanich, Forest Recollections: Wandering Monks in Twentieth-Century Thailand, 101.

08 August 2011

I'll Just Have Water

I'm guessing I'm not alone in having habits that, while not necessarily wrong or immoral, nevertheless cut against the grain of the kind of person I aspire to be.  They're in there among the "endless blind passions" no matter what else there is to say about them. 

One of mine, and I know this sounds stupid, is diet pop.  There isn't a trip to the grocery store without one or two 2-liter bottles going into the basket.  It used to have to be diet cola, but in the last couple of years I've gone over to the lemon-lime or the citrus varieties.  When it was diet cola, the preference order was Diet Rite - Diet Pepsi - Diet Coke.  Now it's Diet Sierra Mist - Diet Cherry 7Up - Diet Citrus Blast.  The preference order is, as always, subservient to the price, though.  The first pass down the aisle is for the sale prices.  I used to pride myself on never spending more than $0.99 on a bottle, unless nothing was on sale, in which case I just limited myself to one $1.69 bottle.  Until the next trip, often that same day, at which time I'd buy, again, just one.

Mine isn't an argument against diet pop.  I'll be among the last to get on some anti-consumer-item bandwagon, because it's never about the object.  My argument – maybe "wrestling match" is better – is with me.  I see what this stuff does to me.  It affects how I order my day ("I need to go to the store before working outside, so I have some diet pop when I come in"), how I order my finances ("If I toss in the bottle or two, what won't I buy with the rest of my $10.00?), and how I order my self assessment ("Hey, what's the problem? It's not like I'm buying booze or smokes!"). 

I happen to be the kind of guy who was capable of developing an attachment to diet pop.  It doesn't matter how it started or what fueled it.  What matters is that, having seen the fetters, I set to break them.  I know – I know – that life without (or at least with fewer) such fetters opens up the door for all manner of good things. 

It's been three days now since I bought any.

When I'm thirsty I get myself a glass of water.  I wonder at the way it feels going down, how I can actually feel the cool from the inside out.  I marvel at my body leading me to fill the glass again, at how I know when I've had enough. 

I'm not missing a thing!

07 August 2011

D-72762 RT

It's about this time of year that I have the greatest nostalgia for the 3 years the family and I lived in Reutlingen, Germany: afternoons at the Markwasen Freibad, runs through the woods that brought up Reutlingen's border with Pfullingen, picking Zwetschgen right off the neighborhood trees, renting boats on the Neckar in Tübingen, hikes up to the Uracher Wasserfall...  One August we went to Nesselwang for a weekend, rode the Sommerrodelbahn all day long, chilled in the ABC (Alpspitz-Bade-Center) in the evening. There's no getting around the fact that life moved at a very different pace then.

Sometimes I think about signing on for another two years there.  With the kids grown, it would just be me.  I imagine open expanses of time to sit, to go for walks and hikes, to sit some more.  I could do some writing, maybe, or take up a new avocation.  Last time I was there I took some courses at the Forestry School in Rottenburg; who knows what I might do this time?  I could go to Berlin or Sweden for sesshin, even. I'm sure I could twist the kids' arms into coming for skiing over Christmas.

And then I come back to my senses.

Just this.  Right here.  Right now.

05 August 2011

There is No Problem

I've needed a good amount of major dental work for about 8 years now, but I have been unable to do anything about it for lack of funds.

Usually it's not that big of an issue, but every once in a while, as more and more of this one tooth demonstrates the truth of impermanence, there's a bit of an ache or a small inflammation or infection.  Now is one of those once in a whiles.  I knew someone who got human grade antibiotics for his aquarium fish some years back, and he passed on the leftovers to me for such occasions.  As of last night, I'm starting to use up the last of the stash.  When that's gone, who knows?  The adventure will continue.

Part of what it means for me to have the life I do is that I get to deal with progressively missing teeth.  Whether it's because of genetics (my dad and two of my kids have teeth issues, too), poor eating habits (who sucks hard candy?) or financial realities (divorce, child support, two kids in college and one on the way there, etc.) – it doesn't matter.  There's no injustice here, no one to blame, no offense to be taken.

This day, like every day, is a good day.

03 August 2011

The "Middle" in the Middle Way?

While reading the chapter on Mahākassapa in Great Disciples of the Buddha recently, I came across a line that gave me some pause:
The true Middle Way is not a comfortable highway built out of easy compromises, but a lonely, steep ascent, which requires the renunciation of craving and the ability to endure hardship and discomfort.
It gave me pause, because I was immediately thrown back into the "what's so 'middle' about the Middle Way?" thicket.  How to understand the language of "renunciation" and "hardship and discomfort" in the same sentence with "the true Middle Way"?

If someone were to ask me about it today, I think I'd say something like this:  The Middle Way is the path that emerges when one gives up grasping and rejecting, when one stops aiming at either permanence or annihilation.  Seen like this, it's clear that the renunciation of craving is involved, because all craving tends toward either permanence or annihilation.  Seen like this, it's clear that hardship and discomfort are part of the picture, since, our habitual response to the world being one of craving, having done with craving is going to bristle and sting and chafe and ache. 

The measure of the middle in the Middle Way is not at all how it feels.  The measure of the middle in the Middle Way is the degree to which one becomes more and more able to navigate the world of birth-and-death with loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.  And all of that is compatible with a whole heap of ego-discomfort.  In fact, how could it not be, the ego being what it is?

01 August 2011

Not Two

While I was gone a couple of weeks ago, Shodhin all but disappeared.  Every ticket, my passport, all reservations, etc. were under my legal name.  For week, it was all I was known by.  Between my fellow resident saying, "See ya, Shodhin, have a good trip," and "Hey Shodhin!  Welcome back," I never, not once, heard the name I ordained to.

Of course on one level a name doesn't really matter.  Names are expedients, contrivances, mildly useful designations that mark me out from my neighbor for IRS purposes and the like.  But of course, that's only on one level, and I don't need to rehearse the arguments why names do matter.

So I ask myself: am I taking this far enough if I'm called Shodhin only on temple grounds and among sangha members?  Really?  Why not at the doctor's office, with my employer, with the State Department and my bank, too?  When I meet new people, do I need to keep sizing up whether the Dharma name or the legal name is most appropriate?  Is this embodying the Dharma – or playing dress-up?  Can I get past the picking and choosing here?

(Of course there are many who, for all kinds of very good reasons, can't but do this name dance, and this has nothing to do with them.  I have no constraints on me at this point in my life, and these questions are aimed at me, and me alone.)

I'm thinking it's time for me to end the split personality and do the paperwork for a legal name change.  It doesn't cost that much, and while it involves a bit of a paper chase in contacting all appropriate agencies and creditors, people who marry or divorce (or who were blessed with overly creative parents) do this all the time.  Surely the judge will look upon ordination as a sufficiently appropriate reason.  I won't be the first to do this.

I'll be honest, though; something scares me about doing this, too.  Having two names allows a bit of hiding room, and maybe I'm afraid to lose that as an option.  I don't know.

I'll give it a few months.  If by year's end I'm still tilting toward making the change, I'll do it.  I really have nothing to lose and a lot of day-to-day integrity to gain.