24 June 2013

What to Do?

I recent came across a notice for an article in The New Yorker about a Buddhist monk in Japan who is doing good Dharma work by meeting with suicide planners and helping them open up to the possibility of actually living.

It resonated with me because here was an ordained doing something concrete at the point where people are suffering, and I have of late been contemplating ways in which I might do exactly the same.

It's one thing – and a very important one, of course – to work to make a practice center possible.  There is no getting around the paucity of places where one can show up and do the serious work of seeing into one's true nature.  Helping to keep a practice center's door open is a task I am all too grateful for and eager to perform.  I can honestly say I love the sangha here, warts and all, and I'm heartened to think I can be of service to them in however small a measure, with my warts and all.

But the sea of suffering is great, and the those who present themselves at our door are going to be few, few, few in number, indeed.  Can I not do something to be the voice of the Dharma among people who will never spend time on the mat, never attend a sesshin, never hear a teisho, never even smell the incense or hear the han?  Can I not be a Zen priest to them, even if it means not coming across as "a Zen priest"? 

I've done the math, and I'm happily convinced that there is no plausible alignment of conditions that could result in me being sanctioned as a Zen teacher.  None.  I could not be more relieved!   I take that as a kind of carte blanche to take the Dharma in any direction that is skillful and beneficial.

A variety of circumstances are moving me to a point where my life is going to have to shift from its present course.  Here is the top of the 100-foot flagpole.  Time to take a step!

11 June 2013

be • lieve verb \bə-ˈlēv\

I started on this one a few months ago.  That I kept nursing it along is perhaps the best indication of how truly baffled I am by the issue.

The longer I'm around, the harder the time I'm having making sense of the verb, believe.  It's troubling to me, since I find it's a word that carries a significant load in current parlance and contemporary politics, and I just don't see how it could possibly bear that load up.  It is also troubling to me, since people often ask me about my Buddhist "beliefs" or what a Buddhist "believes," etc., and I find I just don't know what to do with such questions.

I'll leave the first worry to the side, since it's tied up with so many other issues I wouldn't know where to start.  The second worry is trouble enough but it's probably a bit less tangled of a knot.  Off we go:

I take refuge in the reality of enlightened Mind, in what it shows forth, and in the company of those who, like me, seek to attain it.  I have confidence that these mark out a reliable path for my practice. I resolve to do my best to follow the way that leads to the end of suffering by rooting out its causes in my own body, speech and mind.

That's plenty already, I should think.  Anything else that comes up in conjunction with any of the above – like seeing into the fact that all phenomena (all of them, my embodied "self" included) are marked by non-self, impermanence and unsatisfactoriness – aren't matters so much of belief as much as accurate assessments of states of affairs that make a sane life possible.  I guess you could say that I "believe" in conditioned co-arising the way I "believe" in gravity.

As in the case of gravity, I don't see a need to discuss these things much; I just use them accordingly.  If I'm tossing someone a garden glove, I reckon my throw with gravity as a given.  If I am navigating my way with another person, I reckon my assessment and course of action with respect to the marks of conditioned existence.  I can screw up my throw, and I can screw up my interpersonal relations, but these are not because gravity or, say, impermanence are wrong; it's because I didn't rely on them accurately or enough.  It's called "user failure" in that case, not a matter of a "false belief."

The unseen is woven into the seen, and the absolute is inherent in the relative.  There is no need to create a parallel universe populated with beings and ideas that do not belong in this one.  No need at all!

07 June 2013

The Other Smile of the Buddha

I've been laid up for a few days now with an infection that – ok, I won't head into TMI territory – has me moving much more slowly than usual.  After visits to a GP and a specialist, with a follow-up ultrasound, I'm now on two weeks' worth of anitbiotics, orders to do nothing strenuous for a few weeks, to apply an ice pack for another day yet, then to sit in warm baths thereafter.  The specialist says things won't be completely back to normal for 6-8 weeks, but I should be able to be more active after 3.

Fun, huh?!  Good thing I got most of the garden taken care of already, though there's some speculation that's what brought this on.

I have to say that, as much as I prefer health, vigor and activity, I can use situations like this once in a while.  I'm watching issues come up for me that I usually don't see much of or all that often.  Inadequacy is in there, and a good measure of loneliness (though my DVD supplier has overnighted another collection for me to watch during my convalescence, and I'm quite grateful to him for that), not to mention the aches and pains, the yukkiness of fevers and all the rest. These provide a necessary corrective to my over-inflated sense of self, my shows of having it all together, my sense of connectedness and bodily integrity.  I am reminded of the finitude and radical aloneness embodied existence carries with it.

But, and all of a sudden, the lives of those laid up in hospitals and nursing homes and hospice care become more real to me as well.  The loneliness of those truly without family and friends becomes more significant to me.  All at once, I feel a renewed kinship and bond with all of us, old and young, doing our level best to make it through this life.  Every one of us, each in his or her own way, probably has something going on now he or she could use a hand with, a pat on the back for, a sympathetic ear to talk to about or just a shoulder to lean on.

A couple weeks ago I gave a talk here on the Fasting Buddha.  I made the point that, far from representing the wrong way to practice, it strikes me as representing a necessary form of practice along the way.  It's the first step out of the palace and its cushy life and ignorance of the world for the Buddha on his way to awakening.  It can be our way out of the many kinds of "palaces" we build that keep us safe and secure but, for all that, lacking in wisdom and compassion.  We need to do without and get a taste of suffering and disorientation every once in a while to discern just how deep the roots of self run.  Life sometimes gives us enough of those, but if we're finding things going just smashingly well, maybe we need to head straight in under our own power, to probe the depths and so come to see even more clearly that we're not at all what we thought we were.  The Buddha found his limits and then took food again.  I can honestly say I have not yet found mine and that my practice remains incomplete as a result.

Still, even though I'm not all skin and bones I can still smile faintly the smile of the Fasting Buddha.  It's the smile that comes with seeing sickness and setback as welcome teachers and guides.  If I have one wish, it's that I can smile this same smile under even worse conditions, right up to the very end.

06 June 2013

The Four Vows 1: The Liberation of All Beings

All beings without number, I vow to liberate.

If we treat this as a standard declarative sentence, with subject, verb and object doing their usual work, the first of the Bodhisattva vows is meaningless.  I, being the kind of fathom-high critter I am, do not even know how many numberless beings there are (it's a commonplace that we have not yet neared the end of taxonomizing beetles, let alone the rest of the insects, for instance), and it is not at all clear what it would mean to "liberate" them.  "Liberate them" from what?  How?  By myself?  Really? How much time will that take?

No, the first of the Bodhisattva vows is not uttered in the realm of conditioned existence.

If we treat the first vow as an expression of enlightened mind, in which the emptiness of "I" is seen through and through, then there is no I and no numberless beings, either, and they are, in their radical non-selfhood, already liberated. 

Indeed, the first of the Bodhisattva vows is uttered in the realm of the absolute.

Now here's the rub: it's a bogus move to start in the realm of the absolute and derive from it something about what should be done in the realm of conditioned existence.  There is nothing in the absolute on which to hang anything about conditioned existence.  That's precisely why the one is the absolute and the other conditioned.

Put differently: uttering the first Bodhisattva vow commits me to nothing particular whatsoever in terms of day-to-day action in the world.   Since I cannot derive something about conditioned beings from the absolute, I cannot derive what action to take with respect to them, either.  With an even finer point on it: the first Bodhisattva vow cannot be used as leverage for any kind of action or ethical position or theory or principle or maxim or -ism.

None, near as I can tell.

And yet….

I have seen what happens in the actions of everyday men and women, conditioned beings in a conditioned world, once they have begun to glimpse the absolute.  And it's not like, "Oh, John's doing thus-and-so, and that's a sign of his insight."  No, it's infinitely more subtle than that.  It's more like, "Oh, I hadn't expected that out of John.  Wow, where'd that come from?"

And in being able even to say that much, we find ourselves, the world and all beings therein – even if only for a moment – all very much at ease.

03 June 2013

The Scarlet and the Black – And the Blue?

A few months back I received a box of DVDs reflecting a friend of mine's likes, interests and the rest.  I'd watched most of them since, but there was one I hadn't yet, and this past Saturday I put it in and watched.

The film was The Scarlet and the Black, a made for TV movie from the early 80s about the activity of Msgr. Hugh O'Flaherty in Rome during the Nazi occupation from 1943-45.  He coordinated an underground network that hid downed Allied soldiers, Italian resistance fighters, Jews, etc.  The film is part drama, part comedy, part mystery/detective story, as we follow O'Flaherty's tricks in dodging the Nazi authorities, who were soon on to him but unable to touch him because of Vatican diplomatic immunity.  Particularly gripping is the cat-and-mouse game played between O'Flaherty and Col. Herbert Kappler, the SS officer responsible for overseeing the occupation, and at one point Kappler has O'Flaherty in his crosshairs, but O'Flaherty moves, and no shot is fired.

Towards the end of the film, as the Allies are advancing on Rome, Kappler soon realizes his days are numbered, and that it will not go well for his wife and two young children.  Knowing of O'Flaherty's connections, Kappler arranges to meet him privately to make a startling request: that O'Flaherty secret his family to safety.  O'Flaherty gives him a talking (ok, shouting) down, and walks away.  As the film ends, it becomes clear that O'Flaherty did indeed get Kappler's family safely to Switzerland, much to Kappler's surprise – and relief.  What's more, we're informed that after the war, Kappler was held for many years in Regina Coeli prison and that O'Flaherty visited him every month, his only visitor.

I love/hate hearing about this kind of thing.  I love it, because it speaks to me of the depth of human selflessness and compassion.  I hate it, because it reminds me of how truly shallow mine is by comparison. 

01 June 2013

Trivial Pursuit

I was a young adult at the height of the Trivial Pursuit craze.  Geography was my favorite category.

I remember finding out that there was more than one set of boxed questions when I got invited to play the German version.  All of a sudden, I was thrown into SPD and CDU questions rather than Democrat or Republican.  Pop Culture included some of the first German-language TV and radio shows, and History meant, in large part, German history.  All of a sudden, whatever sense of mastery I had was thrown out the window.  I still did well enough at Geography, but what did I know of hot-shot players in the 2. Bundesliga in the '60s or the Prince Archbishop of Magdeburg back in the day?

It strikes me that we are, all of us, in a somewhat similar situation in our everyday life as well.  Each of us has, as it were, our own boxed set of ideas, memories, expectations and wants.  We think we know it inside and out (though there are always a few surprises!).  Get exposed to a different box, however, and we lose our bearings, prove our limitations, find ourselves knocked down a peg or two.

I've added a few boxes to my repertoire over the years, but only a few.  I watch other people play out their cards and know that those are not part of my set.  I can never master them all.

So I dream of being box free, and I wonder if that's possible.  Actually, I know it's not.  Who am I kidding?

It's probably enough to know that mine is a box or two among many.  It's probably enough to not attach any significance to the fact that I play my box particularly well or another's box particularly poorly.  And it's probably enough to know that, at the end of the day, it's only a game, a trivial pursuit, if ever there was one!