Saturday, February 15, 2020

Do As Little Harm As Possible

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There's some bozo (or bozos, I don't know) in my neighborhood who empties his litter all over the road. Whoever it is, he has a drinking problem because most of his trash are those tiny tequila or rum bottles. He also likes to eat chicken wings and toss the whole plastic container onto the side of the road.

I find the blatant-ness of the act infuriating. Part of me would love to catch him in the act, follow him home, and then dump all of the trash onto his front lawn. In the meantime, when I walk my dog, I pick his litter up and add it to my own recycling and garbage cans. What else can I do, right? It beats leaving the trash there.

When asked about the heart of the Buddha's teachings, the Dalai Lama succinctly said, "If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them." While this bozo in my neighborhood is an obvious example of someone who causes harm to the community and environment through his carelessness, modern environmentalist and social movements reveal many of the subtle ways that people harm each other and their ecosystems.

How does shopping at Amazon contribute to pollution? In what small and subtle ways do we perpetuate prejudice? How do we harm others through our words, deeds, or silence? Do we eat responsibly or do we eat meat, despite the fact that modern factory farms cause an immense amount of suffering?

The core teaching of the historical Buddha is that all sentient beings suffer. The Bodhisattva Vow aims to help all beings transcend suffering. And yet how do we contribute to the suffering of others, either through our ignorance, laziness, or outright indifference?

One of the most beautiful and symbolic practices in a meditation hall occurs at the end of a meditation session. Before leaving, everyone cleans and straightens his or her meditation mat and cushion. The purpose is to honor our environment by leaving it in as good of condition as when we first encountered it.

More generally, are we leaving the world in as good of a place as it was when we first got here?

Modernity presents us with so many dilemmas about how to act conscientiously and responsibly. How do we dispose of our bodily and physical waste? Since most of us do not grow our own food, how does our choices as shoppers impact people and the environment, both locally and perhaps globally? Where does our clothing come from? And so on.

Sure, we can become paralyzed under the sheer burden of choices, or we can acknowledge that in no other period in history have people had so much control over their decisions.

Contrary to popular mythology, the world is not ours for the taking; it was not made for humans to use and exploit. We exist in a vast web of interconnection, where every act we perform echoes throughout eternity. The Dharma challenges us to live deliberately and morally, understanding that just as we suffer, so do others; that just as others' actions impact our lives, so too do our actions affect theirs.

There are no choices independent of morality.

We can dispose of our trash responsibly. Recycle. Choose not to support businesses that exploit people or the environment. Shop and consume responsibly.

In short, we can do our best to do as little harm as possible. After all, at the very least we owe the world that much.


Sunday, January 26, 2020

Things Don't Happen For a Reason

https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-chain-reaction-604899

I hate it when people say, "Everything happens for a reason." As if the entire course of the universe is predetermined or somehow micromanaged by some guiding force—call it God, karma, the universe, whatever. Not only does this trite viewpoint undermine our agency and responsibility for our actions, but it's dangerously myopic. Things don't happen for any one reason; they happen because of many reasons. Sure, some factors seem to play a more visible or immediate role in how or why an event occurs, but to assign one single cause is both lazy and reductive thinking.

Let's look at an example. Say I get food poisoning from some bad oysters that I ate last night at a restaurant. The most obvious cause would be the oysters themselves, or perhaps the bacteria in them; after all, if they hadn't been contaminated, then I wouldn't have gotten sick. That's how our minds work most of the time: we identify the closest and largest factor prior to an event taking place, then assign causality or blame to it. "If you hadn't called me when I was driving, then I would never have gotten into the accident!"

But what if the main reason that I visited the restaurant was because my coworker suggested it? Otherwise I would never have chosen that restaurant. Or say that same coworker told me, "You have to try the oysters at..." Obviously I wouldn't have gotten food poisoning from those oysters if I didn't order them from the menu, let alone if I had dined elsewhere. So aren't those two factors just as responsible for my getting food poisoning as the tainted oysters themselves?

Or say that the oysters went bad because the delivery truck's freezer broke down en route to the restaurant, which perhaps was the result of the truck company's financial inability to get the refrigeration system annually repaired. And so on and so on. Remove one of these conditions and the causal chain dissolves. 

Which is why I can't stand the reductive "Everything happens for a reason" logic. 

Everything happens because of a multitude of reasons. 

34 American soldiers in Iraq are suffering from traumatic brain injuries from the Iranian airstrike a week ago. The Iranian response was a retaliation for the U.S.'s assassination of General Soleimani. So is President Trump responsible for these U.S. soldiers' injuries? Yes and no, in the same way as my friend's restaurant suggestion or the truck's broken freezer are integral conditions for my food poisoning.

Decades of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East contributed to the political climate that allowed Soleimani and the Iranian regime to flourish. Every event interacts with every other one to produce an intricately woven tapestry of exchanges and counter responses. This inter-conditionality forms the heart of Buddhist thought and ethics, which one might argue are two words for the same thing.

Every choice we make echoes throughout the amphitheater of history. This knowledge can paralyze us with worry, for fear that any one of our actions could wreak or catastrophe. Or it can inform our actions so that we respond with wisdom and compassion in order to--as the Dalai Lama so beautifully and succinctly puts it--"Do as little harm as possible."

Monday, January 20, 2020

Such beautiful music

best-outdoor-dog-water-bowl

Yesterday, as I was meditating, I heard the most delightful pinging sound, almost like a note being played on a xylophone. Curious, I listened intently to discover its source; then I heard a faint jingling, accompanied by a slurping sound. And punctuating all of this was this intriguing xylophonic pinging.

It was my dog drinking. His water bowl was almost empty, so his flicking tongue made this intriguing metallic percussive sound against the sides of the bowl.

In a sense, that's Zen--moment to moment awareness of the mystery of life. It's not about achieving heightened states of god-like awareness or emotional aloofness. It's about awakening to the reality around and inside you, ones ordinarily drowned out by the confusing din of thoughts and emotions.

Life and reality are mysterious, always one step beyond the intellect's habit of and addiction to labeling things, trying to pin reality down the way butterfly collectors do their subjects. The ever-curious mind asks, "Where is the pinging sound? In the bowl, my ears, the air between the two, or better yet, my mind?" But such questions evade the fundamental experience itself.

It was just ping ping ping.

Life happens prior to words. Birds don't call themselves birds, atoms don't asked to be called atoms.  Those are human conventions, albeit very useful ones. Labeling and defining can be useful tools for curing diseases and building cars, but they can become cruel tyrants if we mistake them for the world itself. Reality in non-binary; it's slippery and defies final definitions.

This is why in Zen we say that not-knowing is most intimate because it allows a ping simply to be. Life is truly mysterious so pay attention.

Image borrowed from: https://outdoordogworld.com/best-outdoor-dog-water-bowl/


Saturday, January 4, 2020

War is Terrible - So Oppose It with Iran

If there is one thing that intelligent people of conscience should agree on, it's that we should avoid war at all costs. No single event or governmental policy can be more destructive to life on this planet than war. Regardless of race, creed, political persuasion, all sane people should oppose war whenever it is possible because war is catastrophic. It is barbaric, cruel, fruitless, and ultimately, self-perpetuating.

I hope that, despite how divided America currently is, we can agree on that point.

I write this because of the recent assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, an event which may provoke a war between the U.S. and Iran. I don't sympathize with the oppressive Iranian regime in any way; I simply oppose going to war with them.

If the past two decades have taught the world anything about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, it's that going to war is an egregious blunder. President Bush's invasion of Iraq has been a 17-year nightmare that destroyed a nation, killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians, and contributed to the birth of ISIS. Going to war with yet another country in that region is a terrible proposition, and unfortunately, a genuine possibility.

I sincerely hope that in several months I look back on this blog post and laugh at how unnecessarily worried I was today. But, based upon America's current political climate, I fear that this will not be the case. Rather, that in the short future we will look back on events of the coming weeks and wonder, "How did we allow this to happen? How did we wind up in yet another war?"

The sad and yet encouraging fact that history teaches us is that war is preventable. We don't need the advantage of hindsight to identify the tell-tale indicators that lead to conflict between nations. We simply need to be committed to finding an alternative to bloodshed, which often means the uncomfortable act of swallowing our national pride and devoting ourselves to the ingratiating, ignoble reality of diplomacy and compromise, rather than resorting to violence.

Regardless of whether you believe that this provocation with Iran is a tool for the Trump administration to distract the world from his impeachment hearings or a way to galvanize his political base, we should regard it as a genuine possibility to go to real war, in which real people will die.

17 years after the terrible decision to invade Iraq, it's time that America learns from its mistakes and avoids going to war again at all costs.

This is not a rant against American aggression or failed foreign policy; it's a plea to all people of conscience to oppose war. I'm afraid to check today's headlines for fear of how Iran might retaliate, and just as importantly, how America will greet that hostile response with open arms.

Whether you are a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, humanist, or atheist, Republican or Democrat, it is our responsibility as sensible beings to oppose war whenever possible.

This is that moment.

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Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Cause and Effect Are Obvious

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One of the earliest lessons that I learned about Buddhism is also one of the most valuable: you get what you put in. If you plant corn, you get corn. If you fill your head with angry, self-centered thoughts, then it serves to reason that the quality of your life will reflect the content of your mind.

And yet people are often mystified by the simple cause-and-effect processes that govern the world and their lives. They want to hack the system, so to speak, and find the easiest route to happiness without sacrificing the comfort of their lives. But life doesn't work that way.

Anyone who has ever been on a diet can attest to this fact: change requires...well, change. If we continue the same patterns of thinking and behaving as we habitually have, then it's foolish to expect different results. It's simple cause and effect. 

This reminds me of a joke. 
A man goes to the doctor, who asks him, "What's the problem?" 
He raises his arm and says, "It hurts when I do this." 
"Then don't do that," the doctor says and walks away. 
Buddhist practice doesn't seek some mystical loophole in the laws of the universe that will allow us to defy gravity; rather, it is completely grounded in the law of cause and effect. It fully recognizes the mundane fact that we get what we put in. If we want to find peace and happiness, then our minds and hearts must reflect that.  If we eat like shit, then that's how we will feel.

We cannot expect to find peace if our minds are constantly racing, scheming about the best way to exploit a situation or other people. Selfish people have selfish hearts, just as hungry people have hungry thoughts.

If we genuinely want to be happy, then we must stop the behavior that cause us to be unhappy. Transformation requires sacrifice. There is no way around it. Cause and effect are obvious.