28 May 2012

A Wedding in the Works

Yesterday I received a call from a Dharma brother telling me he was getting married.  I've known him for about 10 years now, and I met his fiancée last fall.  I couldn't be happier for the two of them, and I have every reason to believe they are going to make a great couple together. 

He asked if I would officiate at the wedding, and I couldn't have been more honored.  I asked if this meant I had to say something, and he said he was counting on my sarcasm and wisdom to make the occasion special.  Great.  Nothing like being put on the spot!  Fortunately all eyes will be on the two of them, and whatever I say will get borne away on the afternoon breezes out in the garden where the ceremony will be held.

Still, what is there for me to say, really?  What they are about to say to each other is about as absurd and ridiculous as the vow to liberate all beings.  And in saying that, they will have said it all.

26 May 2012

Becoming Who We Haven't Really Been Yet

For the past four or five years certainly (but in all honesty long before that even) I've made it a personal practice to aim low on the "I want" list.  In fact, whenever anyone would put the question, "What do you want?" to me, I would 9 times out of 10 be at an utter loss for words.  It's not that I didn't have rather definite opinions about how things ought to be done or something like that (ask my students about writing, ask sangha members about zendo etiquette).  When it would come to my personal preferences, though, I found myself taking a pass.

It hasn't helped at all that I've fallen in with religious viewpoints that take seriously the business of ego-attrition.  As with most things, however, there are healthy and skillful forms of that, and there are unhealthy and unskillful forms of that. Turns out, I've been rather unhealthy and unskillful, putting up with things I really didn't need to put up with and keeping myself from doing things I would have really liked to do, all in the name of cultivating "not picking and choosing" to the point of absurdity. 

What rot, made even stinkier by any association it could possibly have with practice.  New leaf turning time for this, too!

24 May 2012

A World of Wounds

I oftentimes find myself musing over the words of the great American ecologist, Aldo Leopold:
One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.  Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.  An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.
Leopold limits himself here to ecological matters, but the alternatives presented appear to be the same for anyone who discerns suffering in any context: batten the hatches and leave the suffering to itself or go out and try to fix it, despite any and all resistance.

But maybe things aren't so either/or.

The first duty of a Buddhist is to discern suffering.  The second duty is to find its causes.  The third is to realize that non-suffering is real.  The fourth is to do what it takes to make non-suffering real. So far, so good.

But "making non-suffering real" has never in the tradition been equated with "eliminating the conditions that give rise to suffering," at least not as far as I can tell.

What's the difference?

"Making non-suffering real" is achievable any time, any place.  I used to think Thich Nhat Hanh's line, "If you want peace, peace is with you immediately," was borderline hooey, simplistic Dharma drivel.  Now I find that I understand, in however small a measure, what he means when he says that, and he's right.  "Making non-suffering real" does not depend on anything at all except one's mindstate.  "Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes," is Hakuin's phrasing of the matter.

"Eliminating the conditions that give rise to suffering," however, is not so immediately attainable.  It means selecting out of the many, many variables in play at a given time which ones to remove and which ones to encourage in the hopes of creating a specific outcome.  In the process, further suffering, however unintended, will no doubt emerge as conditions pitch and fade.  The outcome is uncertain, and the means to achieve it are oftentimes draconian.  Like a kaleidoscope, the picture may change, but the pieces haven't gone anywhere. There is no success at this kind of game.

So somewhere between hardening the shell and making things different is the Middle Way of neither clinging nor rejecting.  To tell the truth, I don't know what that looks like.  I would even go so far as to say it can't be represented or described.  That doesn't make for great reading, but it does make for the sane navigation of life's course.

19 May 2012

Road Trip!

Yesterday I drove from Evanston to Washington, DC to pick up my daughter from college for the summer.

I've come to cherish a full day on the road every now and then.  It provides a contained environment, just the car and I, in which to do whatever non-zendo-related mental clearing I need to do.  Sometimes I've made the whole 12 hour trip in silence.  Yesterday, I cranked up the major-chord-sing-along-driving-drum-beat-feel-good-to-be-alive music wherever I found it on the radio (not that it was always easy; that one strech in PA after Pittsburgh yields nothing but Christian and country programming for a 60 mile stretch, but even Bedford, PA has a decent rock station after that).

I was so into it, I got a speeding ticket as my jamming to the music translated into overly heavy metal on the pedal.  I didn't even care.  After getting a ticket on this very trip in August 2010, I  actually inflated the "Fetch Kid" and "Drop Kid" lines in my personal budget in anticipation of further tickets (who knows which jurisdiction is going to have a speed trap set up just when I'm passing through?). From where I sit, I'm not even out the money.

My Dharma brother loaded me up with 3 CDs of Thanissaro Bhikkhu's talks for the trip.  "It's a long one," he said, "You'll need them."  I listened to two of the talks on one of the CDs in the Pittsburgh-Bedford radio desert.  There will be time enough for that.  For now, I'm bowing in homage to the bodhisattvas Journey, Smash Mouth, Queen, the Fray, the Police, Green Day and all their ilk for their particular unfolding of the Dharma.  Theirs, too, is medicinal salve for the hurts of the world.

17 May 2012

Becoming Who We Are

I feel I owe all kinds of people a sincere apology, and that "all kinds of people" includes myself.

It is only this week that I've begun coming out at the Center.  While my family and close friends have known for about six years now, when it comes to the practice environment, I only ever told my first teacher, and he appears to have kept a pretty tight lid on it.  

On the one hand, it doesn't matter.  On the other, it makes all the difference in the world.  Not the being gay part, but the being open about it part.  What was I afraid of?  Who was I afraid of?  What took so long?

Of course, I was somewhat afraid, and, as with so much else, these things unfold in their own good time.  I'm not going to beat myself up over it, but I'm not proud of the way I behaved, either.  Time was lost.  Opportunities were lost.  Parts of life were lost.

I take great consolation in the fact that this is exactly how it is with everything connected to practice.  What is practice, if it is not overcoming the fear that comes with a carefully-maintained ego-identity by letting go of that very ego-identity?  What is practice, if it is not slowly, sometimes painfully, yet always rewardingly (if that's a word), coming to be exactly who we are – without gloss, without veneer, without pretense? What is practice, if it does not yield that great ease and joy that comes with knowing that none of the nonsense was ever needed in the first place?

Sir Ian McKellan commented that people said he was a better actor once he had come out.  I'm hoping this might just make me a better priest.

15 May 2012


Benedict, that mastermind of structured religious life, acknowledged that one might well choose to live as a hermit, but he pointed out that a hermit would be exposing himself to psychological and spiritual danger if he did not first become firmly established in the cenobium.  Without having come to understand deeply his participation in a wider community, without having internalized the cadences of contemplative life, the alonetime the hermit enjoyed would quickly become the stage on which all manner of fantasies, temptations, unhealthy mind states, and the like would make their appearance.

And why?

Because, shy of deep and great awakening, we need to have our arrogant asses kicked and our fearful egos comforted every once in a while.  If no one is around to do that for us, we'll get crazy, stupid, envious, depressed, odious, despondent, etc.

It's certainly no accident, then, that the Buddha left two lifestyle choices to those who would practice the way: either become a renunciant in the community of fellow renunciants or become a householder in the company of a fellow householder.  Both provide a context in which one is held accountable for the precepts.  Both provide a structure of support and encouragement.  Both provide a means to see oneself reflected in the lives of others.  Both provide a wide open field for the cultivation of the pāramitās.

It finally dawned on me this past week that part of the reason I'd been going stir-crazy and getting crabby of late is because I find myself neither a renunciant in a community of fellow renunciants nor a householder in the company of a fellow householder, and I'm so far from deep and great awakening that I'm nowhere near in a position of being able to live a healthy hermit's life.  If I'm going to live up to service to all beings, I'm going to have to take a little better care of this vessel of the Dharma.

You'd think I'd have figured that out by now!

10 May 2012

Right Bemusement

I had a student from the sitting group on campus come up to me yesterday asking me about makyo.  He didn't use the word, but that's what he was talking about.  He seemed utterly bemused by what kept coming up for him (it was some kind of visual thing, if I remember right) whenever he began to sit, and it was his bemusement that caught my attention more than anything.

I can't imagine a better approach to all this.

Somewhere between "we're already enlightened" and "we need to scratch and claw our way to the other shore" is "wow, this is a pretty curious thing, this mind, and just look at what funny things it kicks up."  It's an attitude that has just the right amount of "touch" to it (for lack of a better word): a picking up but not a grasping, a letting go but not a chasing away.  There's enough "mind candy" about it to entice to further practice, but also enough of a "you've got to be kidding me" quality about it to see that it needs to be gotten past as well.

If there were a contest for adding a ninth factor to the Eightfold Path, my submission would be Right Bemusement.

06 May 2012

About What Cannot Be Otherwise

A lot of the time I find myself coming up against situations or conditions that I wish were otherwise than they are. These aren't the kinds of things for which there is a quick fix, as in "My car's dirty, I wish my car were clean."  If I want a clean car, I can wash it.  No, these are the biggies, the kinds of situations and conditions that involve other people, whether a few or a great many, or that involve my own life on so many different levels, I can hardly begin to count them.

Here's one:

The other day I was going to pick my daughter up from school.  To get there from here, I usually go down Ashland Ave., a major north-south artery in Chicago.  It was one of those wet and chilly spring days, and the wind was stiff enough to make being outside for long downright unpleasant.  As I was stopped at the light at Division St., a woman with a cup in her hand came waking between the cars begging.  She was slight of build and looked old enough to be a grandmother, a babushka if ever there was one.  What got me right then was that, grandmother or not, she was, or at least had been, someone's daughter.

I looked at the passenger seat next to me knowing that in a few minutes my own daughter would be sitting in it.  She's in high school now, doing really well, running on the track team (proud papa moment: she and her teammates took 1st place yesterday in the 4x800s in the city championships), keeping up with friends, and all the rest.  She has her whole life ahead of her, and she has dreams she hopes to realize. But she also has choices to make and conditions to navigate, and it's not clear how anything will turn out.

Maybe the woman had been kind of like my daughter once.

As much as I wish the begging babushka didn't find herself out on the street that dreary day, as much as I wish there were a net that would catch her and everyone else before things got to that point, her situation is the consequence of many choices, large and small, and many circumstances, most of which she and I and everyone else are utterly powerless over.  I can no more fix her situation than I can watch over every decision my daughter will make or shield her from everything harmful or arrange conditions to always turn out according to my idea of well. 

I expect everyone over the age of, oh I don't know, 14 to be able to sense something of the incredible complexity of the world, of our relationships, of our own lives, something of the sheer number of decisions made by this group of some 7 billion of us, each of whom is held sway by the root defilements of greed, anger and ignorance.  I think we all do sense something of this complexity as soon as we look past the ends of our noses.  The question is what to do in the face of it, since, truth in advertising here, it can't be made to respond to my (or anyone else's) bright idea of how much better it would be "if only…."

Here's a possibility: don't look for the fix, but look ever more deeply into the suffering.  See no one's particular fault in it, whether it be the fault of a God who could have done better or the fault of an evil genius who might have done worse.  Don't blame the victim, but don't blame the perpetrator, either (we're not talking a criminal case here, so no need to play prosecuting attorney).  Rather, see all of this as just the state of the world, but be sure to see it as the state of the world with the right eyes.

In the Lokavipatti Sutta, the Buddha taught that the world spins round and round as things give way to their opposites.  Gain follows loss follows gain.  Status follows disgrace follows status.  Censure follows praise follows censure.  Pleasure follows pain follows pleasure.  On and on they go.  Over and over and over and over, sæcula sæculorum.  Such is the world, and it cannot be otherwise without the world not being the world any longer.

But I can change my attitude towards it.  Knowing the conditions of the world to be marked through and through with impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self, I neither have to look for my fulfillment in it nor see it as a threat:
Gain/loss, status/disgrace, censure/praise, pleasure/pain: these conditions among human beings are inconstant, impermanent, subject to change. Knowing this, the wise person, mindful, ponders these changing conditions. Desirable things don't charm the mind, undesirable ones bring no resistance. His welcoming & rebelling are scattered, gone to their end, do not exist. Knowing the dustless, sorrowless state, he discerns rightly, has gone, beyond becoming, to the Further Shore. 
Then, since I am no longer bound to it as before, I can respond to it with compassion for the first time.  The babushka comes by my car window.  I give her a buck.   My daughter hops in the car.  I give her a fist bump for a job well done. 

And that is enough.

04 May 2012

This Place

This past Sunday I did a cannonball off the high dive and plopped into the deep end of website design.  The Center's site had been in need of some overhauling, and on Sunday I found in an old email the access info one of the guys involved in the setup sent me, so I went in and started messing around.  Next thing I knew, just about every page had been reworked.

I don't claim any merit here, and I don't know how effective the site will be at doing what sites are supposed to do.  I am definitely no expert in any of this kind of stuff, and I'm open to all suggestions for making it better.

I do know one thing that's happened over the course of the week, though:  in writing copy and uploading pictures I've been reminded of just how proud I am of this Center, how appreciative I am of all the work that people have done to make it what it is today, and how grateful I am to have ever stumbled upon the place to begin with. 

There are sittings most days of the week.  There is dokusan offered most of the days we have sitting.  There is a sesshin or a zazenkai most months of the year.  There is some kind of ceremony or celebration every other month on average.  There is enough money in the bank not to have to nickle-and-dime people for the slightest little thing or have sideline "classes," "seminars," etc.  There are teachers who are well-versed in the Dharma and who have coursed deep in their practice.  There are men and women who come here from every race, most economic strata, all walks of life and every age group – all of them sincere, all of them buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Most of all, though, there is a focus on practice here.  I found myself almost getting tired of typing in "practice" on all those pages, but what else is this all about, really?  Practice.  Practice.  Practice.

I find myself once again renewing my resolve to serve this place and these people with even greater dedication.  I prostrate myself before all those who have sustained such a place as this for people to realize what there is to realize.