Thursday, September 30, 2010

True Bodhisattvas

I always get frustrated when someone defines Bodhisattvas as people who hold off on entering nirvana until they have saved every other being in the universe. It's my Buddhist pet peeve. I've heard it put a better way: Bodhisattvas don''t wait to reach enlightenment for the sake of other beings; instead, they attain enlightenment in order to help others. The first definition makes Bodhisattvas out to be doormen holding a cosmic door for the rest of us to pass through into nirvana, like it's a lobby or theme park. This view, in my mind, tends to make nirvana into a destination, the way other religions do heaven. It objectifies enlightenment, and I don't think that it fits well with the Buddha's teaching. Nirvana--whatever it is: the extinction of craving, the Unconditioned--isn't some thing you can hold off achieving, a button you can press at your leisure, or a line (que) that you wait and opt out of because you want others to walk ahead of you. "No thanks, I'll let everyone go ahead of me."

I'm sorry if those are lame analogies, but they're my best attempts to understand this perspective. I just don't understand the logic. Why would you wait to reach enlightenment? Wouldn't being enlightened be the best way to help others? It's the old sinking ship example: put on your life jacket before you try to save others, lest you both drown. In other words, you can't help others until you've straightened yourself out.

Just look at the Buddha himself. He was so influential and skilled as a teacher precisely because he was enlightened. Awakening isn't something we should defer--as if that's even an option--but rather the Way, salvation itself.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user Casver/Rosemania.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Being and Becoming

I just finished reading Richard Gombrich's What the Buddha Thought, a title that puns on his former teacher Walpola Rahula's classic What the Buddha Taught. In his book, Gombrich, Boden Oxford Professor of Sanskrit and Founder-President of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, situates the Buddha in a cultural and historical context in order to identify the influences on the the Buddha as a thinker. The book draws entirely upon the Pali Canon and concentrates largely on the influences of brahminism and Jainism.

One thing that I found intriguing is Gombrich's proposition that the Buddha developed his ideas throughout the course of his 45 years as a teacher. I had never given this much thought, but when I did, I said to myself, "Of course, why wouldn't the Buddha develop his teachings?" For instance, Gombrich argues that The First Sermon represents a later development in the Buddha's career; in other words, his disciples edited the sermon at a later date (Gombrich argues after the Buddha's death). Interesting. Most orthodox Buddhists would consider this assertion as tantamount to sacrilege, but if all things are impermanent and subject to change, why would the Buddha's ability as a teacher be any different? And if his teaching got clearer over time (as he learned better ways to communicate the Dharma), why wouldn't his disciples take his best work and slip that into The First Sermon? If you have any doubts, check out the Vinayas, the Buddha's rules for monastics--the Buddha revises them several times, thus proving that he was in fact adaptable. Or so Gombrich argues.

By far, though, the most interesting point that Gombrich makes is drawing a clear distinction between the Upanishadic idea of 'being' and the Buddha's counter position of 'becoming.' For brahmins of the Buddha's time, being, reality, and truth, were considered to be the same--the Vedas (the Hindu holy books) don't draw a distinction between ontology (being or existence) and epistemology (knowing). For them being and knowing are one and the same. This fits in well with the Hindu principle of Atman, or divine essence in all beings. According to this teaching, we are all the pure consciousness of God, and so truth, being, and reality are synonymous.

The Buddha, on the other hand, saw this principle of pure 'being' as a ludicrous proposition. Instead of the brahminic eternal ground of being, he saw everything as a process of 'becoming.' Nothing stays the same from moment to moment, so how can something 'be'? For the Buddha, the notion of 'being' is ridiculous; there is only 'becoming.'

I'm not 32 years old, for that would imply stasis, a clear impossibility in nature. Rather, I am in a perpetual state of 'becoming.' As I've said before in my posts, the world is composed of verbs or processes, not nouns. Fixed, solid reality is an illusion.

Granted, the Buddha recognized the conventional value in the idea 'being' (as in the statement, "I was alone last night," for that serves a functional purpose of conveying information) but he wasn't fooled into believing that 'being' corresponds to anything in reality.

If you get a chance, check our Gombrich's book; I think it's well worth the read.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Rogaine Culture

"Stop losing and start gaining." That's the slogan for Rogaine that I hear every day I'm in the gym. (It's only topped by a local hair transplant surgeon whose motto is, "Every day you wait [to get the surgery], you lose more hair." Ouch!) I must have heard this ad fifty times before I actually heard it. Then it occurred to me--Rogaine is a great symbol for Western society.

We live in a culture whose economy thrives on fixing--or more accurately, 'replacing'--practically everything, even when it isn't broken. The anthem of our brave new world is that newer is better. For instance, at work this year, despite enormous budget cuts the powers-that-be replaced our phone system even though the original was working fine. And the ultimate irony is that the new one doesn't even work; I've been unable to check my voice mail for the past four weeks!

I'm not exempt from this cultural tendency. Last week, my washer started making a strained whirring sound. My wife said, "Let's call the repair man." I shook my head and said, "The last time he was here, he charged us $350 to fix our stove; a new washer is only $50 more!" Luckily I fixed it myself, but my first response was the Rogaine solution--if your hair is thinning, YOU NEED to fix it. Or in my washer's case, replace it. The last thing we as Americans want to do is leave something alone. "Hell no," our culture tells us, "complacency is for lazy losers!" But I'm not so sure I agree.

Another tacit assumption in Western culture is that bigger and more is better. "Stop losing and start gaining," the ad advises. Despite the fact that countless studies reveal that money does not guarantee happiness, most Americans are caught in the rat race. We want more and more and more. "Super size it?" You're damn right!

The unstated belief is that the more gadgets and gizmos and apps I have, the better.

Buddhism takes the exact opposite stance. In fact, Buddhist practice is about losing. Losing our greed and attachments, letting go of fixed ideas and beliefs. Becoming unstuck. It's the mirror that shows us that all forms of grasping are futile; and more importantly, that they are the very source of our pain and discontent. For there is no end to our craving, a fact that advertisers and corporations are more than happy to exploit. No sooner do we satisfy one desire (buy some shiny new toy) than we're drawn to another. And so the cycle goes--what the Buddha called samsara.

What the Rogaine companies of the world don't want you to realize is the fundamental Mahayana teaching that we're already perfect, receding hairline and all.

Buddhism is not about self-improvement; it's about self-realization. It's not some product companies can sell (although that doesn't stop them from trying!), or some fix-it program to help you land the six-figure job so you can buy the McMansion of your your dreams.

Buddhism is about seeing the absolute emptiness of such pursuits, realizing that we don't need Rogaine or some other product aimed at our insecurities (no matter what the corporations tell us). When everything--including us--is already complete, what could we possible need? All we have to do is wake up to that fact.

I find it only fitting that Buddhist monks and nuns shave their heads as a symbol of their abandoning attachment. Sorry Rogaine, you won't get any customers here.

Unlike other medications--for that's what the Dharma is--Buddhism isn't for sale.

"Retail therapy" borrowed with permission from flickr user karsoe.
"I want" photo borrowed with permission from flickr user ATIS547.
"Rat race" photo borrowed with permission from flickr user dullhunk.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Giving Tree

I planted a tree in my backyard on Friday--a Japanese Maple. It's beautiful. Tall and red and scrawny. While digging the hole, I wasn't thinking much about the tree. I was just trying to avoid straining my back, as I had an all-day sit the next day. But when the tree was in the ground and I stood back to admire my work, I was filled with a complete reverence for life.

Here was this tree in the soil, drinking water and ready to spread its roots, where there had been no tree an hour before. This was life--frail and vulnerable--and I had the privilege of nurturing it. I had a hand in the life of this tree.

In five years, when my wife and I sell our house, the tree will still be here. And in ten years, it will (hopefully if the new owners don't cut it down) still be here. And in another ten years.

And here's where it gets weird: it felt like the tree and I were one. Not like I experienced some mystical bond with the tree, because that would imply that the tree and I were separate. It's more like the tree and I were the same. (I know how corny that sounds, but it's as close as words will come to capturing the experience. "Not two, not one.")

Theodore Roethke wrote a great poem, "Cuttings (later)" about his intimacy with a plant (ha ha, you dirty-minded middle-schoolers):

"This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet,
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?
I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it --
The small waters seeping upward..."

Except for me, the grafting wasn't between two plants, but between a plant and me. I guess this is what Dogen meant when he said "to be intimate with all things." As a Mahayana Buddhist, I've read a lot about the inter-penetration of everything in the universe. But for the briefest of moments (and even still now, in a vague, purely instinctive way), I felt it. That tree and I were one.

Sure on a relative level it was still a tree and I was still a human--I have to go to work on Monday and it doesn't--but I was sensing a deeper connection: a bond that transcended logic or space. In the same way as the tree relies upon the soil and sun and water, it relied upon me. And I felt that vulnerability. I can feel it right now while I write this.

It's not some Awakening experience where a beam of light shot our of my forehead (wouldn't that be cool?), rather it feels like the boundaries of my identity have temporarily relaxed or expanded to encompass that tree. It's like the opposite of grasping, I suppose.

It makes me wonder, why a tree? Why not with my son or daughter or some suffering soul? Maybe because the tree is so simple, so selfless (in every respect). But it really doesn't make much of a difference whether it was a tree or a dog or a monkey, because the tree somehow is everything. It's the whole damn universe meeting at one point.

And so am I. And so are you.


Friday, September 10, 2010

One Buddha, One Dharma, One Sangha

When I first became interested in Buddhism, I was shocked--perhaps naively--to discover how divided the Buddhist community often can be. The Theravada/Mahayana split is the most obvious, though even amongst Mahayana schools there exists a rivalry regarding who has the "authentic" Dharma. Vajrayana claims that Tantra is the "highest" teachings is a great example. It's the old, "My school is better than yours" routine. The irony, of course, is that the Buddha warned us not to get attached to the forms in which the Dharma manifests itself--when we're done with the raft, we should abandon it. That the Dharma is a finger pointing at the moon, but not the moon itself. Despite these words of caution, many Buddhists wind up clinging jingoishly to traditions they practice. This degenerates into elitism and sectarianism.

Rita M. Gross recently addressed this issue in her article "Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners" (found in the latest issue of Tricycle). Gross is an author, Dharma teacher, and professor of comparative studies in religion. In her essay, she offers several suggestions on how to approach Buddhist history without privileging one tradition over another. One of her recommendations, which I have always agreed with, is to drop the term Hinayana (meaning "Lesser Vehicle," as compared to Mahayana, or "Great Vehicle"). It's insensitive and elitist. Elevating one school of Buddhism at the expense of denigrating another is a waste of time and energy that could be spent teaching or practicing the Dharma. I'm shocked that some Buddhists still think it's acceptable to use this word. It's got to go. The appropriate term is Theravada. It's 2010, let's get it straight.

Another suggestion that Gross offers is aimed at Theravadins themselves. It's equally elitist and divisive for Theravadans to claim that the Pali Canon is purer or more authentic (because it's older) than Mahayana sutras, or worse, that Mahayana sutras are disingenuous. On the other hand, the same goes for Mahayanists when they claim that their teachings are more advanced, and that the Pali Canon is a form of primitive or early Buddhism. Or that Bodhisattvas are superior to the Theravadin Arahants--just another ego trap that turns altruism into a competitive form of of holier-than-thou. This also applies to Vajrayana Buddhists who boast that Tantra is the highest or most sophisticated Buddhist teachings. It's jingoism, plain and simple; and more importantly, it gets us nowhere.

As Gross writes, "At the heart of sectarianism is the tendency to regard difference as deficiency." And this is simply not the case.

No one has cornered the market on the Dharma. Each time it blossoms in new soil, it changes form to suit the needs and times of its new environment; hence the emergence of Pure Land, Zen, Vajrayana, etc. For why should the Dharma be impervious to the very laws of impermanence that it itself espouses?

We live in a highly divided world where religions often degenerate into open hostility towards one another. (Just think of the Terry Joneses of the world.) Now more than ever, the Buddhist community needs solidarity, not division. For if we truly believe that the Dharma is the medicine to heal the suffering of the world, then we need to stop squabbling over whose Dharma is the best. As long as a tradition is consonant with the Buddha's core teachings--the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, impermanence, no-self/emptiness, dependent origination, etc.--then I would call it Buddhist. We need to drop the tendency to rank traditions like a football draft, and embrace our differences. All of this in the hopes of creating a global community for both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.

I am optimistic that this can and will happen. When I scan the names and faces of my friends on Facebook, they're from all over the world--from almost every Buddhist tradition. That tells me that we can unite to conquer sectarianism.
One Buddha, One Dharma, One Sangha.

All photos borrowed from flickr user @dipek, Adi Arfan Mikhail.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Extinguishing the fires of hate

As you've probably already read, Terry Jones, a Florida pastor, is threatening to host a "Burn a Koran Day" on September 11th. As a Buddhist, I immediately thought about how the Buddha would respond to this kind of belligerent ignorance. The Buddha committed himself to a life of non-violence, and on at least one occasion, actually prevented war from erupting. So what would would the Buddha do? Which roughly translates to: how should socially conscious/engaged Buddhists respond?

Well, before we can answer this question, we have to understand the root of the problem. Aside from the obvious questions--like what kind of a pastor burns another religion's sacred book, or worse, willingly jeopardizes human life?--lies a much more fundamental problem that the Buddha warned us against: the inherent futility of meeting hate with hate.

Using any religion to attack, vilify, or harm another human being is a perversion of that very same religion's central tenets. All of the major religions agree on one thing--that we should love, care for, and respect one another. Period. There aren't any exclusionary clauses, like "Only love those people who look like you, or those who pray to the same God as you." Be wary of anyone who claims otherwise.

Hate is hate is hate. A turd by any other name...

Buddhism is a religion of radical non-violence. Prominent figures like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalia Lama--both exiled from their homelands by aggressive military regimes--serve as models of the Buddhist spirit of loving kindness. They are shining examples of the Bodhisattva's vow, living reminders that we too have the power to reject ignorance, if only we choose to.

It's easy to succumb to anger and hatred; the path of peace and kindness is the hard one to walk. The truly challenging task, though, is condemning acts of bigotry like Jones's, without falling prey to those same qualities we so disdain.

As the Buddha taught, the only way to conquer hatred is with love. We need not look far in the textbooks for proof: Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name just a few. Admittedly, this is all easier said than done.
So what should we, as socially minded Buddhists, do? One suggestion I have--admittedly small and a little silly--is, on September 11th, to hug as many people as you can find. People of every faith and creed and color--black, white, brown, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist. Show the Joneses of the world the true spirit of democracy: that we're all of the same flesh and no amount of hatred will divide our humanity. Combat this Neo-Nuremberg book blaze with a warm, gentle touch of loving-kindness. An act, I think, the Buddha himself would certainly embrace.

Burning books photo borrowed with permission from flickr user pcorreia.
"Free Hugs" photo borrowed with permission from flickr user Jesslee Cuizon.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Open Window Practice

Yesterday, a small window opened in my practice. I was driving the family home from my in-laws when I hit a pothole and became angry. A week ago my wife got a flat tire because of a pothole, which cost us $140, so I was still a little testy last night.

I cringed when the front passenger tire smashed into the asphalt. "Great," I thought, "there goes another wheel alignment. That'll cost $75!" My chest swelled with the familiar sensations of an anger rush, when something new happened.

Somehow, for no reason that I can explain, I saw the emotion like a tangible object--something I could almost literally pick up and engage, or ignore. Naturally, I chose the latter (who wants to be angry, right?). At that moment, I was filled with an almost crystalline clarity, or rather, I became that clarity. The anger was like a cloud that I would ordinarily get lost or caught up in, but this time I simply identified it for what it was--an emotion that I had the choice of engaging. And here's the amazing thing: once this happened, I couldn't engage the anger even if I wanted to, because it completely dissipated. Just like cloud vapor in front of a strong fan, it vanished. Poof!

Sure I'd read about these openings in practice before, but had never had one myself. Let alone felt it in my bones.

The story goes on. This morning my 11-month-old son crawled into the closet where the upright vacuum was standing. Both me and my three-year-old daughter acted at the same time. I pulled him out and shut the closet door, but then she started crying.

"What now?" I wondered.

"I wanted to pull him out!" she cried.

I just shook my head and went back to reading.

She carried on like this for another half minute before she opened the closet door again. Oh, no you didn't!

(She wanted him to crawl back in so that she could then pull him out.)

Needless to say, that pissed me off.

"Close the door!" I snapped, my voice sharp with annoyance.

And just like that I was caught again. The window slammed shut. Where had that calmness, clarity, and equanimity from the night before gone? Here I was, riding this damn emotional roller coaster all over again. I thought I was done being entangled by emotions!

Oh, silly mortal.

At first, I was disappointed. Frustrated too, by my backsliding. But then I realized that I was only compounding the emotional mud pie by adding these new emotions.

But I'm glad that it happened. It woke me up the complexity of Buddhist practice. Life is open-ended, and rarely do we ever find a permanent solution to life's problems, especially regarding the sticky, messy substance of human emotions. I was looking for a fix, a panacea, some new approach to solve all my problems. But, for better or worse (I can't decide), life doesn't work that way. We can easily become attached to the very practices we use to free ourselves, like I did last night.

It would seem that one of the hardest practices, at least for me, is the ability to accept uncertainty, the very open-ended nature of life itself. Embracing the fact that life is dynamic, and that what works today may not work tomorrow. Ultimately, accepting that there is no ultimate solution for life's little bumps, nor should there be.

Photograph borrowed with permission from flickr user karenwithak.