Monday, November 29, 2010

Rebel Indeed

The West needs a great Dharma teacher, someone who understands our problems and neuroses; Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche may very well be that teacher. His latest book, Rebel Buddha, is testimony to his extraordinary insight into both human nature and the Dharma. He's a teacher who truly understands how to apply Buddhism to the lives of Westerners, because, despite being born and educated in India, he's lived in the U.S. since the early '90s. Which means he's familiar with all of the challenges of modern American life--everything from road rage and iPods to the stress of managing a career and raising a family.

What impressed me the most about Rebel Buddha is that Ponlop Rinpoche isn't trying sell you his brand of Buddhism. Rather, he wisely recommends that Western Buddhism grow organically. Instead of surgery, he recommends planting a seed and allowing it to grow in a shape reflecting the needs of its (American) practitioners. This is a very radical stance for Ponlop Rinpoche, considering that he studied for years in a traditional Tibetan monastery. But it should come as no surprise, especially in light of Rebel Buddha's title and main theme--Buddhism is a form of radical rebellion, one that runs, to use the Buddha's own words, "against the stream." We each have a Buddha inside, and it will take nothing short of a revolution to awaken it.

Ponlop Rinpoche recognizes that Asian Buddhism in American clothing cannot sustain itself for long; in order for Buddhism to thrive in America, it must take on a life of its own. Despite whatever backlash he might receive from his peers and teachers, Ponlop Rinpoche encourages us to see past Buddhism's Asian cultural legacy, to stop clinging to cultural vestments, and return to the heart of the Buddha's teaching--to the Dharma itself. Historically, Buddhism has always adapted; its migration to the West should be no different.

Rebel Buddha is written in accessible, humorous prose; its tone comfortably conversational. While reading it, I often had the impression that Ponlop was an old friend (or spiritual mentor) and speaking directly to me. I enjoyed it very much and highly recommend you read it. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche will surprise you on every page with his keen and good-humored wisdom.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black and Blue Friday

You don't have to be a Buddhist to see how greedy people are. It's textbook irony that the day after Thanksgiving--a holiday intended to show thanks but that often degenerates into mass gluttony--is dedicated to gratifying our deepest material desires. Shoppers literally fight one another in order to buy their loved one gifts--again, talk about irony. The apotheosis of American greed occurred last year when that poor employee was trampled to death at a Walmart in Long Island. And for what? So some guy could get a deal on his kid's DVD player?

I just don't get it. I don't understand the whole Christmas mentality, how people spend their hard-earned money on crap they don't need, or encourage this senseless materialism in their children by spoiling them with gadgets and gizmos galore. Call me Tyler Durden if you want, but when I turn on the TV this time of year, all I see is greed.

I can't speak for other spiritual traditions, but that doesn't fly in Buddhism. As a Buddhist, you can't make excuses for allowing your desires to run rampant. Chalking it up to "'tis the season" just doesn't cut it. Self-absorption is still self-absorption, and narcissism is still narcissism, regardless of what time of the year is. Mindfulness doesn't go on vacation, and greed doesn't get any "free bee" days. For Buddhists, the Dharma never sleeps.

My recommendation is to to stay home today. Spend time with your family. Show how thankful you are by not buying anything. Because in the end, you don't need it; you're perfect and complete the way you are.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Michael Holden.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Trouble at the book store

Here's a short one. I was in the bookstore today with a coupon but decided that I didn't want to buy anything. As I was leaving, I offered the coupon to another customer (to be nice, figuring that since I wasn't going to use it, someone else might as well--the whole Good Samaritan thing), when in swooped a snooty employee.

"Actually, you're not allowed to do that," he scolded in his snippiest voice. "The coupon was sent to you, not her."

"Oops," I said, feeling like an idiot. Then I accepted the coupon back and walked away.

Minutes later in my car, I replayed the scene over and over again in my head. I mean, here I am trying to be a nice guy, I reasoned, and this jerk comes in and makes me feel like a moron! So what if he was doing his job; he could have done it a little nicer.

This lasted for about two minutes when I finally remembered my practice and told myself to stay mindful, to stop fighting the embarrassment burning in my chest. I took a deep breath and opened myself up to the physical sensations. Soon they began to diminish, and so I started investigating the lingering embarrassment and anger. It was then that I felt their emptiness. Normally when I try to study a strong emotion, it feels like I'm chewing on a hot iron ball. But now, as the feelings were ebbing, I witnessed firsthand their transitoriness. In fact, I couldn't hold onto them even if I had wanted to. It is the nature of emotions (and all phenomena for that matter) to fade and change.

Whether or not I was right or wrong didn't matter. What mattered was that I didn't cling to the experience and its accompanying emotions. I let them arise and diminish, unchallenged. As this happened, I felt a subtle sense of freedom, which itself then faded. (Apparently it's just as easy to get caught by a feeling of freedom--trying to trap it into something solid--as it is with any other experience.)

I drove the rest of the way home, waiting for the embarrassment to return. It didn't. Now I kind of understand what the Dalia Lama means when he says that we should thank those people who challenge us.

They give us an opportunity to practice.

Maybe I should shop at that bookstore more often!

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr used: brewbooks.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mr. Tortilla Head

Just for fun, I'm always on the lookout for new ways to understand or apply the Dharma to pop culture. Last week I was watching Toy Story 3 with my four-year-old daughter and I found myself puzzling over a clever little scene Pixar cooked up.

Woody and the rest of the Toy Story gang have been accidentally donated to day care. There they are imprisoned by an evil gang of toys. As part of their impossible escape plan, Mr. Potato Head must free himself the sandbox where he has been locked. Because his potato body is too big to fit through the narrow hole in his cell, he tosses his appendages--arms, ears, eyes, mouth--through the hole. He then proceeds to attach his parts onto a tortilla! In a jelly-like, wobbly mess, Mr. Tortilla Head maneuvers his way around, eventually helping the heroes escape.

Immediately my mind was sent reeling. "Wait!" I thought, "how can his body parts operate without his potato body? That doesn't make sense."

Where was Mr. Potato Head's control center, his essence? Was it inside of his potato body, or in his individual parts? If the former, then the scene would be impossible because his parts were acting with a life of their own, without his body. If the latter, then in which individual part (eye, ear, nose) did his essence reside? Both were impossible.

By now you probably see the Buddhist connection. Buddhism posits the idea that there is no inherent self or essence abiding inside of us; rather, what we generally refer to as the self is simply the participation of the five skandhas--form, sensation, perception, mental formations (or volition), and consciousness. Nowhere inside (or outside, for that matter) of these will you find any evidence of a self.

The same goes for Mr. Potato Head. There is no essence to him; it can neither be found inside of his entire body nor his individual parts. Because it's a conventional reality. This self-clinging, from a Buddhist perspective, is the root of all suffering, for from it comes all subsequent forms of clinging. This is not to say that the day-to-day 'I' ceases to exist (because it never had any concrete or ultimate reality in the first place). I can still function and refer to myself as 'I,' but now I see the self for what it is--a construct designed for conventional purposes. Mental shorthand.

The Toy Story scene culminates in a symbolic masterpiece, at least in Buddhist terms. Mr. Tortilla Head is pecked to pieces by a pigeon. His tortilla body falls apart, thus exposing the conventional nature of the self.

Mr. Potato Head photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: KiSS_Ze_CHeF.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Smoking Buddha

Can a Buddha be a chain smoker? An alcoholic? Be a gambler or have some other kind of clinical obsession/addiction? This was the topic of conversation I had the other day. My friend commented that she was turned off by a Buddhist teacher because he was a chain smoker. She didn't know how seriously she could take a teacher who didn't have the will power to stop smoking. This may sound moot, but given Buddhism's emphasis on desire and clinging, I think it is a perfectly valid question; it begs us to ask, "What is a Buddha?"

Stories of the Buddha often paint him as a serene, beatific being, immune to the turbulence of events around him. Although still human, he has transcended all earthly desire. This picture reminds me of a saint--in the world but not of it. Clearly, smoking is inconsistent with this image of the Buddha. But we all have to use our own personal judgment to determine how much faith we put inside this image of perfection.

I think that part of the confusion has to do with the terms we use when discussing enlightenment. In Zen (some schools at least), a great deal of emphasis is placed on satori, a breakthrough or enlightenment experience. Much of Rinzai training aims directly at this. But is satori enlightenment?

Every couple of years the Buddhist community is shaken by scandal, where some highly respected teacher is accused of abusing power (usually sexual). So what about these guys? Are they enlightened? Obviously they don't match the traditional image of the transcendental Buddha seated on a lotus flower.

My best answer is that these teachers may have had an enlightenment experience but are not themselves enlightened--if they were, they would understand that their actions are harming others and would therefore refrain. Of course all humans are going to have habits and personality tics--I don't think that enlightenment scours all that away--but I have a hard time reconciling severe behavior disorders with the image of a fully enlightened being. Perhaps that is naive or idealistic of me.

So, can a Buddha be an addicted smoker, gambler, drinker? My gut tells me no, but then again I'm not enlightened. I'll tell you when I get there.

What do you think?
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: AndyRamdin/

Friday, November 12, 2010

Psychotherapy and Spirituality

I recently finished reading Mark Epstein's Psychotherapy Without the Self, and found his treatment of the subject fascinating. Let me begin by saying that I'm not a psychologist--I teach high school English--so I'm certainly no expert in the field of psychotherapy. Epstein, a psychotherapist himself, leans towards traditional Freudian psychonalysis. Most of the text synthesizes the work of Freud and a British psychologist named Donald Winnicott with the Buddha's teaching, namely that of anatman or no-self.

The book is denser than some of Epstein's other mainstream work (I'm thinking of Thoughts Without a Thinker and Going on Being), the prose tighter, the material more challenging. It certainly is not your usual feel-good Buddhism-meets-psychology title; this is serious psychoanalytical theory.

A point that resonated deepply with me was Epstein's response to Jack Engler's famous statement, "You have to be somebody before you can be nobody." I first heard this from Ken Wilber, the amazing American uber-philosopher. Basically what it means is that before you transcend the ego, you must heal it first. Jumping over neuroses won't cure them. You may experience transcendental bliss during deep samadhi, but the moment you snap out of meditation, your old mental hang-ups will still be there to greet you.

Epstein challenges this. He points out that this assumption may cause more pain than it relieves, in that it implies that psychotherapy and meditation are at odds, or at the very least that the latter picks up where the former left off. This tends to split the self into two: a psychological and a spiritual being--a false division, according to Epstein. It may also frustrate someone on the spiritual path, because the person, perhaps unconsciously or intuitively following Engler's dictum, thinks, "Why am I so depressed (or angry or anxious)? I meditate; I should be happy (or calm or less nervous)." I know I have.

This false dichotomy, "that the meditiatve path can begin only when a cohesive self is attainted[,] is to run the risk of ignoring meditation's impact on the infantile narcissistic residue" (38). In other words, meditation can help people confont and understand the source of their suffering. Meditation and psychotherapy need not be at odds; in fact, they can work cooperatively to reveal the true nature of the self--impermanent, conditioned, and empty.

I like this a lot. It highlights a conflict I have found in my own practice: why aren't I a calmer person as the result of meditation? This leads me to feel guilty and/or ashamed, because it's hard not to feel like a Buddhist failure when you find yourself still frustrated by the stress of mundane events (I should be above all this! the thinking goes). But that's not true (or fair).

There is no spiritual me as opposed to some mental, everday me.
Overall, Engler and Wilber, I think, create an unnescessary false dichotomy in the self through their maxim. Epstein puts it best when he writes, "My ultimate position [is] that both 'somedbody' and 'nobody' are fasely reified positions that do not do justice to what it means to be a person or to grapple with the self" (16). Well put.

As I think the above quotations suggests, in this book Epstein explores the self in all its complexity and inner conflict. I highly recommend this title, especially for those intested in psychology. Check it out; I think it's well worth the read.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I won't Kill Bill

Not so long ago I overheard two Buddhists discussing films, and was surprised when one of them said that Kill Bill was his favorite movie. Really? I wondered. Are Buddhists supposed to watch--or rather enjoy--movies like that?

If you haven't seen it, Kill Bill bears Quentin Tarantino's bloody signature--gore, violence, rape, and other nasty subjects. I haven't seen the movies in years, but I do remember disliking it. Not because I was a Buddhist (I wasn't practicing then), but because it just struck me as crude and senselessly violent (in one scene Lucy Liu gets her arm severed and paints the room--I mean literally paints the room--red with blood).

So should Buddhists watch these kind of movies? Zen sometimes takes a liberal stance regarding morality. Stories abound in Zen lore of eccentric masters who drink alcohol and visit brothels, all in the aims of saving people (the Bodhisattva's Vow) via upaya or skillful means. Or so the stories say. But then again, violence and drinking alcohol are two different things entirely.
And still, every book I've read about Buddhism disparages violence. Thich Nhat Hanh, a modern Zen master and near iconic Buddhist figure, rejects any form of anger as poisonous.

On a personal level, I question how I can claim to dedicate myself to a life of peace and nonviolence when I'm watching movies like Predator and Goodfellas on the weekends. Am I taking this too literally, am I being a stick in the mud?

Then again, don't movies saturated in violence violate the core Buddhist tenets of metta, karuna, and bodhicitta? Based upon the historical Buddha's teachings, he clearly rejects any forms of violence.

Part of me thinks that changing what we view or read to coincide with the Dharma is just taking Buddhist practice too far or too seriously; while another part of me thinks that this is exactly what practice requires--a complete and utter dedication to walking the Path. It's not just about sitting on a cushion, chanting, or walking meditation. If we want to transform ourselves we need to transform all of ourselves. Right?

And yet I still love Conan the Barbarian and Fight Club. I haven't watched them in years. Not because I'm Buddhist, but because I have children and don't have any time!

And if we choose to renounce violence, where do we draw the line? Shakespearean drama is rife with it--just read Macbeth or Othello. But that's considered high culture. And how about other explicit content? Should we give it all up?

Is there a difference between Hamlet and Laertes' duel and Lucy Liu slaughtering dozens of Yakuza mobsters in a literal bloodbath? I think there is.

Or maybe I'm just backpedaling. Maybe Thich Nhat Hanh is right and all violence is wrong. My gut tells me that the Buddha would agree.

Either way, at the end of the day each person has to make his or her own personal choice about what to watch, read, and view, and what not to. Personally, I know that I won't be watching Kill Bill or any film like that. And this time not just because of my children, but because I'm trying to cultivate compassion and stop feeding the flames of anger.

Basically because I'm a Buddhist.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: luvi.

Monday, November 8, 2010

American Buddhism

A popular discussion in Buddhist circles these days seems to be how "authentic" Western Buddhism is. I find this a puzzling debate for several reasons.

First, Western Buddhists, from what I've seen, appear to be very dedicated. Since many have converted to Buddhism--they haven't inherited the practice from their parents--they are energetic and engaged, as opposed to (and this, admittedly, is secondhand information, as I have never personally travelled to the East) some of the more "going through the motions" Buddhists in many East Asian countries. What I mean by that is that you don't see many Western Buddhists praying to the Buddha for a salary raise. Western Buddhists, for the most part (and again this is a generalization) are serious about their practice and don't expect worldly rewards from it (in the form of gifts or good health). They don't try to butter up the Buddha the way many people do God.

A more puzzling argument is that Americans are "Americanizing" Buddhism. This strikes me as just self-evident. For some reason people think of Buddhism as an a-cultural phenomenon arising in an a-historical context. This is absurd. Take Zen, for instance. Traditional Indian Buddhism evolved into Mahayana Buddhism, which then took root in China, adapting into Ch'an, Pure Land, Hua Yen, etc. Why should Buddhism's migration to the West be any different? To disregard the fact that Buddhism obeys its own teachings of impermanence is foolish; it invites a kind of sectarian elitism, the old "I got the real Buddhism, while everyone else doesn't" mentality.

Zen is a Japanese form of Buddhism; it's what happens when you transplant Chinese (Ch'an) Buddhism onto Japanese soil, the synthesis of Buddhism and Japanese culture. And Ch'an Buddhism is how Indian Buddhism takes form in China. Many Westerners, in their attempt to stay "true" to Buddhist tradition, fail to see this.

The fact is that Buddhism in the U.S. will not look the same as it does in Japan or China, or anywhere else in Asia. Why? Because America isn't Asia! Why should we disregard all that the West has to offer--psychology, science, etc.--simply to preserve something which by its very nature must change?

Buddhism will adapt; it has for 2,500 years, surviving persecution, political upheavals, and foreign invasions. I think it can sruvive a culture of iPode and cell phones. But the only way it will thrive in this new soil is by adapting. Thich Nhat Hanh has been extremely succesful at this by recasting the form of Buddhism to suit the needs and understanding of Westerners. For instance, he offers a positive approach to the teaching of shunyata or emptiness in the form of interbeing or interpenetration. This is far from the watered down "Western Buddhism" that many skeptics predict or accuse the West of.

I like to think of Buddhism's migration to the West as possibly the final dissemination of the Dharma, perhaps the greatest one in history.
Photo, "The Western Buddhist Order of the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara," borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Triratna photos.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Labeling thoughts - Part 2

In my last post, I discussed my practice of labeling thoughts. I realized later that I forgot to mention the most vital aspect to labeling--its long-term purpose.
Before I started Zen practice, I intuitively assumed that the ego was a solid, irreducible entity that existed inside of me and looked out on a separate, external world of objects. Meditation, and labeling thoughts in particular, has begun to erode that view of mine. The analogy I like to use is one relating to birth. When a women is experiencing labor contractions, her cervix begins to thin to allow the baby to pass through the birth canal. This process is called effacing. And that's how I see Zen practice--but instead of thinning the cervix, we're thinning the barriers of the ego.

The longer we sit and examine the nature of experience and this so-called 'I,' the less solid our sense of self becomes. In fact, no matter how hard we try to find the center of our being, to isolate some irreducible core, the more it eludes us. It's like the picture above--an endless hallway of shifting selves. In Buddhism, this is explained by the teachings of anatman and shunyata. According to the principles of no-self and emptiness, we lack the very thing that we falsely imbue ourselves with--an essence.

That's where labeling thoughts come in. The more we confront our ego-driven habits and impulses, label and acknowledge them, the more aware we are of them, and conversely, the less powerful they become. The barriers of this this false construct, the ego, begin to thin, to efface so to speak, and we experience moments of freedom. Freedom from greed, anger, jealousy, ill-will.

From my own experience, I have found labeling thoughts vital, in that it forces us to confront our own narcissism and eventually realize that the ego we are endlessly serving to protect and appease, is not a fixed, solid entity at all.

Like the thinning of the cervix, the effacing ego gives birth--to our true nature. Our true face before our parents were born.

Or so I'm told...

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: !unite.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Vote with compassion

Well, tomorrow is November 2nd, election day, and I couldn't imagine our country being more divided. Republicans, Democrats, Tea Party--everyone is playing the blame game. "See where that party has gotten you! Vote for _________." As I watch the tide of negative political ads stream by, candidates spewing hateful vitriol, I'm astounded by their complete lack of compassion. One of the problems in this country (as always) is that we're being divided along party lines, driven by people committed to their party's ideals.

As Buddhists, we know that principles are a tricky thing. Buddhism, unlike other religions, doesn't have commandments; it has precepts. Precepts are guidelines, not concrete rules of moral longitude and latitude that one has to obey all of the time. The precepts are flexible. If there's one thing that Buddhism stresses, it's living wisely, avoiding doing something just because someone tells you to do it or because you've done it that way in the past. The Buddha encouraged us to think, examine, and question. This includes morality itself. Political views can often degenerate into a series of holier-than-thou arguments--"You're wrong because I'm right." Which is basically a way of saying that I'm right because my parents raised me a certain way and I grew up under such-and--such conditions, and you're wrong because you...didn't. Or because you don't agree with me.

Too often politics is reduced to a battle of egos.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately, and the best advice I can come up with is to vote with compassion.

As corny as it may sound, whoever you vote for, whichever party you chose, I would hope that you vote for a candidate who is compassionate (as well as wise). Ask yourself, does _______ really have the People's best intentions in mind, or is s/he just trying to further his/her party's aims? Stir the pot? Exploit an opportunity?

Of late, I've noticed a lot of of angry politicians--do they have the best interests of humanity in mind, or are they just plain old angry?

I'm sorry to say, but I think there are a lot of candidates/politicians who couldn't pass this simple test.

So my suggestion is this: While you're in the voting booth, regardless of which party you belong to or which candidate you endorse, look deep inside and ask yourself why you're voting for this person instead of all the others. These are scary, turbulent times, and I think you would have to be a robot not to be emotionally draw into this political theater to some degree.

So close those curtains, peer deep inside yourself, past all the rhetoric and fear, and ask yourself, is this candidate the most compassionate? The most qualified?

Or do they just have my best interests in mind?

Be honest.

Let wisdom take it from there.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: laverrue.