25 May 2013

Family Secrets

I cannot deny that there is hurt and suffering around, but I cannot fail to see the very many ways, large and small, that people everywhere reach out in compassion, wisdom and love. 

This past week I attended my uncle's funeral, and as we were in the back of the church waiting for the service to begin, a woman came up to my father and introduced herself, asking if her name rang a bell.  My father didn't hesitate, "Yes, you lived with us in Litchfield for a while.  You wrapped butter at the dairy."  Seems my grandfather, the Baptist minister in town, and my grandmother had welcomed her into their home for about a year when she was 15 and in a tough place.  Here she was, some 60ish years later, at the funeral of my grandfather's son. 

I had never heard about that before.  I tear up just thinking about it. 

There is no monopoly on goodness; there are no privileged agents of compassion.  It is our birthright, as much a part of us as our navels.  We can cover it over.  We can pretend it's not there.  But in the end it can never go away.  It marks us as the beings we are and whispers to us of the deepest reality.

My grandfather set up all kinds of churches in rural Michigan in the advancement of his faith (he started the one my uncle's funeral was held in, no less).  This apple called "me" certainly has fallen quite far afield of that tree in that regard.  But he knew, I hope, as I do now, that of the things that last the greatest is love, the only one that really counts.

16 May 2013

Job? What Job?

A little less than nine months ago I picked up the 2012-13 academic year.  As of 9:30pm last night, I set it down.  Grades submitted, meetings attended, some socializing with colleagues enjoyed, it is now officially summer break.

I'm often amazed at the speed with which I can go from one thing to the next.  In the blink of an eye, all the concerns and worries, frets and frustrations of the job just simply evaporate.  What got done, got done.  What didn't, didn't.  And that's all there is to say about it.

And even that's too much to say, because to tell the truth, I'm already thinking about a day in the yard and garden, and the birds are singing and the sun is breaking over the treetops and the air is warm and the breeze is calm (and no trace of classes and discussions and meetings and grading remains).


09 May 2013

Are There Better or Worse Ways to Die?

I recently came across a few photos from the factory collapse in Bangladesh showing some of the victims.  I am reminded every time I drive the Interstates around Chicago just how many people have died so far this year in traffic-related incidents in Illinois, the figure prominently displayed on over-the-road signs.  Any number of organizations list the number of deaths in a year from AIDS, hunger, cancer, heart disease, suicide, guns, alcohol, bullying, and even wisdom teeth removal.  Practically every hurricane, tsunami, tornado, heat wave and snowstorm has a death toll attached to it.

Let's face it: there are all kinds of things in the course of a day, week, year or lifetime that can kill you, and one of them has your name on it.  Some of them are natural, some of them are human-caused.  And if somehow you escape a definable agent or situation as the cause of your death, in the end, age itself, with the increasing deterioration of the body, will seal the deal. 

There's no guaranteed life expectancy that announces itself with the cut of the umbilical cord, either.  Some live a minute, some an hour, some a day, some a week, some a month, some a year, some a decade, and some a century.  It's hard to make sense of a better or worse time to die.  After my friend died a month ago, I was walking in a grocery store and saw an old, enfeebled man making his way with a walker.  "At least Dan will not have to deal with old age," I thought to myself.  Of course, he will never enjoy a retirement, either.

None of this overstates the case.  Nothing in this is pessimistic.  Just the facts, folks.

It's at this point that I find myself settling into practice: what is this? what is this birth-and-death?  I didn't ask for birth, I don't ask for death, yet here they are!  There's no escaping this life; there's no escaping this death.

If you think you have an answer, you're fooling yoursef.

05 May 2013

Are We Missing Something? Well, Yes!

I came across this in the Huffington Post "Religion" section a couple weeks ago:
All main religious groups in France, with the exception of the Buddhists, have spoken out against marriage reform.
Why should this be the case?

I've got a few ideas why, one kind of straightforward, the other perhaps not so much.

The straightforward one is that Buddhism has historically never considered marriage to be more than a civil affair.   It would be about as appropriate for a Buddhist, as a Buddhist, to have a position on marriage statutes and provisions as it would be for a Buddhist, as a Buddhist, to have a position on car registration requirements, zoning ordinances, emissions standards, medical licensure, mining policies, and interment regulations.  Simply put, to the Buddhist mind, marriage regulations are best left to the prevailing social customs, demands, needs and expectations, and societies and governments will work those out in all the usual ways they have at their disposal.

The other reason is not so straightforward, but does, I think, go much deeper toward understanding the current religious brouhaha surrounding marriage equality.  Simply put, unlike its monotheistic friends, Buddhism paints no pictures of what an ideal life would look like.  There is no one privileged social formation, one special kind of governance system, a particularly enlightened economic structure or even a determinate familial or personal lifestyle that, as such, trumps all others. 

The root defilements of greed, anger and confusion yank at us the same whether we are gay or straight, progressive or conservative, monarchist or republican, capitalist or communist, parents or childless, and nothing that would seek to turn us into one or the other or elevate one and debase the other could possibly change that.

On the flip side, the prospect of waking up to our True Self is the same whether we are gay or straight, progressive or conservative, monarchist or republican, capitalist or communist, parents or childless, and nothing that would seek to turn us into one or the other or elevate one and debase the other could possibly change that.

I admit I'm painting with a broad brush here.  There are certainly segments of Christianity that are more than willing to extend the "neither slave nor free, Gentile nor Jew, woman nor man" further to "neither gay nor straight, black nor white, rich or poor," etc.  Conversely there are segments of Buddhism that sound very much like 60's-style activists retrofitted with a Buddhist framework who, as such, aim to create certain determinate social structures and eliminate others.

Nevertheless, "sangha-formation" has always marched to a very different beat from "people-formation," and, from the looks of things, it would seem to be keeping to that beat today.

01 May 2013

There is No Normal

I have a dear friend in the travails of a divorce.  Sometimes he calls me up to vent, and sometimes he calls me up in the hopes of just getting a break from the rollercoaster ride he's on.  The other day, he mentioned that he was doing his best to get back to normal.  His sleep was off, since he would lie awake at night ruminating on what the soon-to-be-ex had just said or done.  Because his sleep was off, his exercise schedule was off.  Because his exercise schedule was off, he was feeling more tired at work and would find ways to nap.  You get the picture.

My first thought was to assure him that things would eventually return to normal, that he would soon enough (a couple years, maybe, but soon enough) find that he could take the by-then-ex's words and actions in stride, etc.  I soon thought better of it, though, because there's a simple truth that is being shown to him quite clearly now, a simple truth which is everywhere operative, even when we don't perceive it: there is no normal.

There is no normal.  Of course we know that on some level.  Everything is in a state of flux, conditions are perpetually changing, everything responding to, reacting to, acting in concert with, arising in conjunction with, everything else.  And, of course, we often wish that just weren't so, that we could hold on to something for a while longer, that the target would just stay put for a few minutes, that our game plan might be given half a shot at succeeding.  And so, thus it is that we tread the gerbil wheel of dukkha, working up a sweat, going absolutely nowhere.

So I suggested he not fight it.  When he was tired, he should nap and not worry about whether he worked out that day.  When he was lying awake in the middle of the night, he should just know that this is what is means to be getting divorced.  When he had a good night's sleep, he shouldn't read any trends into it, but just enjoy a day well-rested.  I said it was just like sitting: some days you're focused, some days you're not, some days you have pain, some days you don't.

He got it, and he old me he was appreciative of that reminder.  I just need to remind myself from time to time!