31 March 2012

The Land of Enough

What moves us from one set of conditions to the next is craving.  Things rise and fall, come into being and pass away, but what turns it into a story line with a "me" involved and demarcated relations between that "me" and everything else, is craving.

"Craving" is a hard word to like.  It sounds so crass and banal.  That's because it is.   I can look at everything I've ever been driven to seek out or avoid and see in all of it nothing but pettiness and smallness.

Of course, at issue here is not the usual run of things in a normal life.  Part of growing up is discerning some suitable line of work, securing appropriate training, applying for a job, and doing one's work.  It's not craving to seek to pay one's own bills and make one's way in the world, put a roof over one's head or maintain a level of cleanliness and dignity.

Craving, at least in my experience, starts of with that little "bright idea" in the mind: "Instead of doing what needs doing now, I think I'll do this, because it's more fun/less stressful/makes me feel good/etc."  It's seeking the alternative to what's right in front of me that marks the first signs of craving arising.  How rarely do I find myself seeking what's right under my nose.  "Somewhere over the rainbow," "on the other side of the fence," and "in the future" are the places toward which craving tends.  "Right here, right now" never seems to be quite enough.

But it is.  At least that's what the noble ones say, and that's what I, in my better moments, have actually begun to see.  I heard recently that one of the Thai Ajaans spoke of the extinguishing of craving as entering "the land of enough."  What a cool way to put it!  Cuts right to the heart of the matter, doesn't it?

28 March 2012

Borne by the Dharma

The other day I made up some nonsense: "The whole tradition says over and over again that we are of such a nature as to be borne by the Dharma…"  Truth be told, I don't think I've ever read or heard anything like that before, so making a claim about "the whole tradition" is overstated.  Nonetheless, I still say, whether the tradition says so or not, "We are of such a nature as to be borne by the Dharma."

I am consistently struck at just how well the Dharma(-vinaya) meets my stupidity and attachment and defilement and shows – with utter clarity and directness – how it is I'm banging my head against the wall and what I can do to stop.  I've not been practicing all that long, but I've yet to be disappointed in what the Dharma teaches.  In fact, I've found that it is a teacher above and beyond my wildest hopes and expectations.  It hits all the right points in all the right ways.

A phrase that's often used in the canon with reference to the Dharma is "good in the beginning, good in the middle, good in the end."  Other substitutes for "good" here I've seen are "admirable" and "fine."  Any of them will work.  The Dharma cannot be esteemed highly enough.

26 March 2012

To Course Deep in the Dharma

I was reading something recently that used the phrase, "to course deep in the Dhamma and to have no drags […] whatever," and I was struck at what an apt metaphor that is for this practice. 

We have to take the water wings off if we're to swim.  We have to toss the ballast if we're to have any speed at all in the current. 

The whole tradition says over and over again that we are of such a nature as to be borne by the Dharma, and that refuge taken anywhere else will prove to be inadequate. 


23 March 2012

The Pañña Sutta: Discernment

I recently came across The Pañña Sutta: Discernment. The sutra lists eight requisite conditions that "lead to the acquiring of the as-yet-unacquired discernment that is basic to the holy life, and to the increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of that which has already been acquired:"
1. One lives in apprenticeship to the Teacher or to a respectable comrade in the holy life in whom he has established a strong sense of conscience, fear of blame, love, & respect.

2. One approaches him at the appropriate times to ask & question him: 'What, venerable sir, is the meaning of this statement?' [The teacher or respectable comrade] reveals what is hidden, makes plain what is obscure, and dispels perplexity in many kinds of perplexing things.

3. One, having heard the Dharma, achieves a twofold seclusion: seclusion in body & seclusion in mind.

4. One is virtuous, dwelling restrained in accordance with the Patimokkha, consummate in his behavior & sphere of activity. He trains himself, having undertaken the training rules, seeing danger in the slightest faults.

5. One has heard much, has retained what he has heard, has stored what he has heard. Whatever teachings are admirable in the beginning, admirable in the middle, admirable in the end, that — in their meaning & expression — proclaim the holy life that is entirely complete & pure: those he has listened to often, retained, discussed, accumulated, examined with his mind, & well-penetrated in terms of his views.

6. One keeps his persistence aroused for abandoning unskillful mental qualities and for taking on skillful mental qualities. He is steadfast, solid in his effort, not shirking his duties with regard to skillful mental qualities.

7. One, when he is in the midst of the Sangha, doesn't talk on & on about a variety of things. Either he speaks Dharma himself or he invites another to do so, and he feels no disdain for noble silence.

8. One remains focused on arising & passing away with regard to the five aggregates: 'Such is form, such its origination, such its disappearance. Such is feeling... Such is perception... Such are fabrications... Such is consciousness, such its origination, such its disappearance.'
Of course, pañña here is good ol' prajñā, but here I find none of the – what's the word – mystique that surrounds prajñā in most Mahāyāna contexts.  The Heart Sutra, for example, takes us straight to number eight (the Bodhisattva of Compassion sees the emptiness of all five skandhas, all right) but it's as though that insight came from nowhere without any back story.  There's always a back story.

It's not that we don't hear about the importance of a teacher in the course of practice, either, but there's a lot of mystique there, too, with teachers fond of saying, "I have nothing to give you, and you have nothing to get from me."  On one level that's perfectly true; on another, that "nothing" is not to be had by chatting with just anyone, and even if it were, it takes a great degree of trust and openness to develop that "strong sense of conscience, fear of blame, love, & respect" with the teacher that we just heard of.  The "nothing" of the teacher-student relationship is most certainly a kind of "something," otherwise it wouldn't be worth the bother.

It strikes me that much of 2-7 above is unnecessarily understated (maybe even ignored), at least in my experience.  That might have as much to do with the fact that what we've got going these days is for the most part a lay practice as with anything else.  I don't know. 

Once again, though, I find rich food for the nourishment of my practice in the Pāli canon, and I'm grateful that something once upon a time prompted me to open it up and start poking around in it. 

22 March 2012

The Buddha Didn't Work Out

A few weeks ago I got back to running again.  I took up running in 2000, and when I first started I couldn't go more than 30 seconds without getting utterly winded.  By 2006, I had completed a marathon and lived to tell the tale.

Since then, it's been on again, off again with the running.  For a while I couldn't afford the shoes.  For a while I had herniated discs and surgery to recover from.  For a while I had it in my head that running was an utterly bourgeois 20th-21st century kind of thing that had no place in practice life. 

I can afford the shoes again.  My vertebrae and all connective tissue are in good order.  I'm letting go of my bright ideas about the socio-economic, cultural and practice implications of a regular exercise program. 

I find that regular exercise keeps me much more physically and mentally on top of things.  I find that it helps me work with distracting thoughts and energies, and, because of that, it helps me in my formal practice.  I sit with much greater stability and concentration when I get some regular exercise in. 

Yeah, the Buddha didn't run.

But this one does.

21 March 2012

Driving Home with Ajaan Geoff

My Dharma brother has a collection of materials from the Theravadan tradition, and he lent me a CD of some of Thanissaro Bhikkhu's talks to listen to on my commute. 

I listened to the first of them yesterday, and at one point I felt like pulling over, stopping the car, and just sitting.  Such straightforward teaching, such an utterly bullshit-free approach to the Dharma!  The illness and the medicine so skillfully presented!  One of the ass-kickers for me in the talks was the reminder of Buddha's injunction to "practice the Dharma in accordance with the Dharma," and not in accordance with whim or personal exception.  I can always stand to hear that.

To my Dharma brother, to Thanissaro Bhikkhu and the line of noble ones stretching back these 2500 years I owe a debt of gratitude.  May their efforts bear abundant fruit. 

19 March 2012

Every Day is a Good Day

A 6-year-old girl was one of at least six people killed and dozens of people wounded as violence erupted across Chicago this weekend.
The separate incidents occurred Friday and Sunday mornings.
The girl's death reportedly has shocked those in her Little Village neighborhood.
According to witnesses, Aliyah Shell was on her front porch with her parents Saturday afternoon in the 3100-block of South Springfield when a pickup truck pulled up and started shooting, hitting the little girl twice -- once in the chest.

The 6-year-old was taken to the hospital where she was pronounced dead. 
Seems the unusually warm weather has ratcheted up the violence level along with it!

Funny thing is, I know something of this feeling.  On Friday I was speaking with a Dharma brother, and we both commented on just how much "really need to get out of my skin" feeling we were each experiencing over the past week or so with the warm temps and the switch to daylight savings time.   I told him that had I run into so-and-so the day before I'd have been tempted to kick him in the crotch! On Saturday, another Dharma brother confirmed the same kinds of feelings had been welling up in him the past week.  This is not an isolated, idiosyncratic phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination.

We are such curious critters.  Just when the world bursts into beauty, just when birdsong fills the morning, just when green returns as the dominant color of the landscape, we go stark raving nuts!  I haven't spoken with any women about this; maybe it's a y-chromosome trait, a form of testosterone poisoning.  Doesn't matter, really. 

It certainly doesn't matter to Aliyah Shell or to her parents or anyone else in the neighborhood. 

I wish it mattered to the two suspects in her shooting, but even here, there's not much to say.  How many countless little events and words and actions left me being the kind of guy who, when feeling stuff like this, goes for a run or rakes the leaves or cleans up the garden?  How many countless little events and words and actions left the suspects being the kind of guys who, when feeling stuff like this, can point a gun out a car window and shoot and kill children?

Some might say, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." 

I say, "There go I."

I am so much like the suspects that I have to watch myself and do my level best to keep my house in order.  I am so much like Aliyah Shell that I will perhaps never again go through a very early heat wave without wondering about which kid's going to get it now.  All this, even as I very much enjoy the flowers and the birdsong and the green.  

And still – and I know this boggles people's minds – it's not complicated.  On some unspeakable level all is as it can only be.  In some strange way only in utter stillness known, today, no less or more than yesterday or tomorrow, is a good day.

17 March 2012

Returning to Plainness

After this, Liezi concluded that he had never really begun to learn anything.  He went home and for three years did not go out.  He replaced his wife at the stove, fed the pigs as though he were feeding people, and showed no preferences in the things he did.  He got rid of the carving and polishing and returned to plainness, letting his body stand alone like a clod.  In the midst of entanglement he remained sealed, and in this oneness he ended his life.
Liezi, of course, is the third brightest light in the Daoist sky.  The Liezi was given the honorific title, Chongxu zhenjing (沖虛真經), rendered, depending on the translator, as True Classic of Simplicity and Emptiness or Classic of the Perfect Emptiness.   From a Daoist or Mahayanist perspective, high praise, indeed!

Hearing of Liezi's "return to plainness" points out to me just how very unplain my life and comportment still are.  Hearing of his "remaining sealed in the midst of entanglement" reminds me of how goshdarn unsealed I still am.  So much still to let go of.  So many burdens still to set down.

12 March 2012

This Exquisitely Unadorned Practice

I am increasingly awestruck at how unassumingly beautiful Zen practice is, and I don't mean nicely decorated altars or cool robes, pitch-perfect chanting or sparkling teishos. 

I mean the way in which it either pushes or coaxes you (depending on what you need) to the point where you let it all go and then just leaves you there, holding to nothing whatever.  There is no toy surprise at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box.  There is no door prize, no parting gift, no bit of this or that to show for your efforts.  Just...

...exactly what has always been from the very beginning. 

Sheer genius, really.  Utterly incomparable.

05 March 2012

Plum Blossom Sesshin

I put (fake) plum blossoms on the altar for this sesshin.  Even with snow on the ground, spring is beginning to break through.  Even in our clinging and defilements, all is void and clear.

03 March 2012

Praṇidhāna Pāramitā One More Time

I had my Dharma brother make me a deal the other day.  I made him agree that if he ever thought I was doing something stupid or out of line, or if he thought I was acting like an asshole about something, he was to tell me, straightforwardly and without hesitation.

There's a danger in ordaining.  People treat you differently.  They assume you know what you're doing, that you must have "your reasons," and that they're not at all in a position to call you on it.

From where I stand, I think ordaining means agreeing first and foremost to be exposed to the criticism of others.  They are not here for me.  I am here for them.  And if they aren't going to be some abstraction (the impersonal and utterly fictive "they") but the living flesh-and-blood women and men they are, then I need to hear from them.  My job is to become again and again the bodhisattva who hears the cries of the world; to do that, I actually have to listen to them.

I don't know.   I just think I need others to help me toward my own attainment.  And I'm not just talking about a teacher or someone to pass me on koans or something like that.  I'm talking about the whole goshdarn universe.  Everything is teaching me by showing me where there's still too much ego-attachment.  Everyone is giving me good feedback on where I'm still getting in the way, whether they express it directly or not.  I'd just prefer there be no ambiguity on the point.

01 March 2012

More Admirable Friendship

As of January our Wednesday morning sittings are longer by a half hour.  There is a solid core of people who stay through that extra time, and yesterday was no exception.

I was monitor and timer, and at the end of the sitting, once we had chanted the Four Vows, we all stood for the prostrations.  As I was striking the bell through the prostrations, I had this overwhelming sense of gratitude for these people, for their commitment to the practice, for their dedication week in and week out.  As I hit the deadbeat at the end, while everyone was still in place, I blurted to the group, "You guys are the greatest."

My one Dharma brother called back, "Love you too, bro."  As people were putting their cushions away, a few hugs were exchanged.  Someone added, "We need a little more of that around here."

Yes, we do.  Yes, we do.  It's all too easy to take this all for granted, to take our Dharma brothers and sisters for granted, to take our personal and collective aspiration for granted.

We're not here for some technical tune-up (adjust your breath practice, demonstrate another in a long line of koans) before getting on our way.  We're here to become the men and women we most truly are, our original selves, and to really be that in all circumstances of our lives.

I have watched significant and profound transformation in people through their practice.  I have watched people pull out of nosedives of one kind or another.  I have watched people become, in sometimes the most endearing of ways, the incarnate form of enlightened mind – without them even knowing it!

I just bristle when I see "Zen" carried out in ways that do not begin to do justice to that hard work of transformation.  I get discouraged when I hear of "Zen" commodified and yuppified, denuded of its simple and utterly unremarkable power.

Most of all, though, I fret that I am not doing enough on my part to be whatever these brothers and sisters of mine need me to be.  I worry that I get too much in the way.  I regret everything I've ever said or done that has contributed in the least way to them questioning or doubting the path.  I lament my own lapses in effort and dedication and commitment.  I am remorseful for the times I've put myself before the Dharma.

May we all be at ease.  May we continue to do our best -- and better than our best!

May all beings be at ease.