31 July 2013

Beyond the Saved and the Damned

It has become a commonplace among those who believe in an afterlife that everyone goes to heaven.  I have yet to be at a funeral where the assumption wasn't held that the deceased had now entered into his or her eternal reward and that that reward was a pleasing one.  Not one. 

I'm not one for pre- and post-life talk at all, and yet there is something intimated by it that is, all the mystification notwithstanding, spot on.  It's the idea that what we see and hear and feel as ourselves and our lives are but momentary glimpses of a bunch of processes and forces that stretch out endlessly before and after.  The mistake, of course, is to think that this glimpse is definitive and exhaustive, perduring, and on some level unchanging.  A correlative mistake is to think that at the end of this brief glimpse enough is known for it to be given a final reckoning and assessment.  And since no one wants to be mean, I suppose a further mistake is to just to assume everything was just fine and that the balance sheet shows an overall positive sum.

Without wanting to throw the issue completely to the other side, I have to say things were probably closer to the truth when one approached death with a bit of fear and trembling, when the survivors prayed for mercy on the deceased, when the "Dies Irae" was sung.  At least then there was some acknowledgement that the deceased wasn't really all that angelic after all. 

I won't speak about others' faults, but I do know this about myself.  On the day I die there will have been work left undone.  On the day I die I will still be making lapses in body, speech and mind arising from those primal tugs of clinging, aversion and stupor.  On the day I die the "ancient twisted karma" I had acknowledged time and again in the Repentance Gatha will have just gotten another day older in a span of kalpas of kalpas of kalpas.

Positive balance sheet?  Ha!  I hope beyond hope that those who survive me will be kind enough to throw some merit in my direction.  I will most certainly stand in need of it.

18 July 2013

The Four Vows 2: Uprooting Endless Blind Passions

   Another time Joshu said, "I can make one blade of grass be a sixteen-foot golden Buddha, and I can make a sixteen-foot golden Buddha be one blade of grass.  Buddha is compulsive passions, compulsive passions are Buddha."
   A monk asked, "For the sake of whom does the Buddha become compulsive passions?"
   The master said, "For the sake of all people Buddha becomes compulsive passions."
   The monk said, "How can they be escaped?"
   The master said, "What is the use of escaping?"
It's not hard to enter into the monk's confusion.  After all, he no doubt recited, like us, the second of the great Bodhisattva Vows:
Endless blind passions I vow to uproot.
Surely he took those lines seriously, and perhaps he did his level best to fulfill them, but Joshu won't let him go where he wants to go with them.  Why?

The monk's first question, "for whose sake?," creates a split between two kinds of people.  Some, he's probably thinking, don't need Buddha to become compulsive passions.  In his mind, they might be so far beyond that kind of stuff, so not in need of the red dust of the world, that they can find their way without Buddha needing to sully or lower himself for their sake.  The others, benighted as they are, need Buddha to do precisely that.

Joshu counters that such special folk don't exist anywhere. We are – all of us – very much in need of the stuff of our lives, the tugs and pulls and prods and pokes that move us along.  In Zen, we represent Buddha as Shakyamuni, the flesh-and-blood one, the one who walked and shat and ate and fathered a child and knew all too well and then some the thick and thin of embodied existence.

"OK," we can hear the monk thinking, "but surely this comes to an end, doesn't it? Isn't that the point of the exercise? Didn't even the Buddha escape them in the end?"

Joshu's answer to this question can go in a couple of directions, depending on where one lays the emphasis.  "What is the use of escaping?" is not the same as "What is the use of escaping?"  In the same way, "Endless blind passions I vow to uproot" is not the same as "Endless blind passions I vow to uproot," and the parallel relationship obtains.  If I'm worried about getting rid of the passions to be in some passion-free place, then it's the endless blind passions that I'll focus on, and I won't be content until they're gone.  "What is the use of escaping?" is then Joshu's observation that one is never going to be free of them.

If I'm focused on the uprooting in the vow, however, I'll see that escaping is beside the point.  I don't need to hope the passions will go away, I just need to quit giving them a toehold in either my attachment or my repulsion.  They will come and go as so many clouds on a summer's day but won't have any more solidity or holding power.  "Escape? Wrong verb," Joshu tells us, "Just uproot." 

11 July 2013

On Coloring Like a Second Grader with an 8-Pack of Crayons

I love seeing kids' pictures where they color the top inch of the paper blue to represent the sky.  Since the sky is "up there," they represent it "up there."  It marks an important milestone in the child's development to bring the blue all the way down to the horizon and to know the sky is not just "up there" but "all around," too.

It's so easy to be doltish in much the same way in all areas of life.  How much of our personal and collective suffering is based on a much-too-simplistic rendering of reality?  How many times do we fail to see the spread of things, their fullness, their complexity, all their detail and nuance and shading? 

I find I can grab hold of one aspect of a situation, one facet of someone's personality, some tiny detail of an issue, and work it like a puppy with a slipper until it's utterly unrecognizable and rendered into shreds.  Only much too late do I realize that that aspect was one of many, the person wonderfully complex and interesting, the detail trivial.

The 64-pack is not even enough to capture the wonder and awe and worry and ache of the world, of our lives, of each other, much less the 8-pack.  And forget about coloring skills; it's already been laid out in magnificence right before our eyes.  All we need do is look.

08 July 2013

Empty Nest, The Void

There are only three more overnights here for my daughter in the next couple weeks before she heads off for some time abroad at her aunt and uncle's before starting college.  As of July 17, I'm done with day-to-day life with a kid in tow, and the process begun almost 21 years ago with the birth of her sisters will have come to its inevitable conclusion.

Wow.  It really is amazing to begin to see just how much of my self-understanding has been wrapped up with being a parent all this time.  As I'm looking forward on the calendar, I'm realizing I no longer have to plan around school events, track practice, karate lessons and sleepovers.  It's dawning on me that I don't need a Plan B any more for when a kid is sick.  I won't be running to the store for those foods the kids like but I don't when we unexpectedly run out.

I can easily see how couples who have defined their marriage around the kids can find themselves at this point looking at each other like total strangers.  I've had a lot of things besides parenting going on in my life, but even I'm looking at myself in the mirror now and wondering, "Well, what's next?  Who else are you?  What have you become after all this time?"

And I don't know the answers to those questions, but I know a different answer to a very similar question.  What is the way to Taishan?  Straight ahead!  Straight ahead!

04 July 2013

Do Your Thing, Just Don't Make a Fuss About It

I think there's a common enough tendency to think that the world would be such a better place if everyone were more… like myself.  If only everyone voted… like me.  If only everyone practiced… like me.  If only everyone recycled, composted, bought organic, espoused the proper social policies, had the same artistic, architectural, culinary or design taste, cheered for the same sports teams, held views on life, child rearing, family relations and international trade… like me.

What is that, really?

The biggest argument we have why someone should to something is that we do it ourselves.  Funny thing is, I don't even know why I do what I do, truth be told.  I find I'm a person who likes this kind of music, that kind of food, this kind of vacation spot, this policy perspective or that dating partner.  I discover predilections in me, propensities to this activity or another, an attraction to personalities of this kind rather than that.  Concerning those things of which I seem to exercise some choice, I have to admit that the range of choices I'm at all willing or likely to entertain is itself not chosen my me; there are all kinds of things it will never occur to me to do.  In the end, I could make up some story about how all of what I do is the product of sane, reasonable consideration, all sides having been weighed, all alternatives explored, but deep down I know it's not true for me, and I'd bet my bottom dollar it's not true for you, either.


I'm finding it more and more congenial to not say much about what I do or why I think it's a good idea.  I find it frees me from the mental chatter that accompanies my actions.  I find myself less defensive, simply because I have no prepared defense at the ready.

I'm also finding myself tuning out ever more quickly others' talk about their actions and why they think they're such good ideas.  I find it frees me from biting the bait and getting hooked into their discourse.  I find myself on the offensive less, simply because I have nothing to gain by entering the fray.

Are these good things for me to think and do?  Beats me!