Sunday, February 27, 2011

Grip 'N Grab ego

Yesterday, at sesshin, for work practice I was assigned to clean graffiti off of the public garbage cans. When I was done with that, I was to clean up litter. I should mention that the Zen center is located in Philadelphia, so there's plenty of trash.

Okay, I told myself as I gathered the cleaning supplies, I can do this. No biggie. Stay present--become one with the task. But as I neared the garbage cans, I started to get nervous: a few feet away were a couple of loud young men, joking and kidding. It was the perfect recipe for a confrontation.

That's when anxiety came to say hello. What would I do if one of them said something sarcastic, like, "Yo , check this idiot out. He's cleaning a garbage can!" Or worse, what if they started harassing me?

I felt like an actor on stage, trying not to break character as he's getting heckled. After all, this was my work assignment; I was supposed to be a good little Zen student and remain silent. But that didn't mean I had to bear insults, or worse, risk danger. Besides, what could I say: "This is part of my work practice?" They wouldn't know what the hell that meant. I considered saying, "Community service," but was sure they would misunderstand.
Acutely, I felt the boundaries between Zen practice and "real life" blurring.

With my back to them, I scrubbed the can's dome lid with Comet and a scouring pad, waiting for the heckles to come. But they didn't.

The same scenario presented itself at another street corner, yielding the same results--trepidation, nervousness, but ultimately no confrontation.

I thanked my lucky Buddhas and returned to the Zen center for my garbage bag and Grip 'N Grab (a robotic arm-looking device with a trigger, that allows you to pick up trash without touching it) and went outside again.

I'd done trash pick-up as work practice before, so I wasn't too concerned; however, in the past I'd been partnered up with someone else. And although we weren't supposed to talk, I took comfort in my partner's company.

But now I was all alone.
Immediately I was filled with embarrassment , not because I thought that picking up trash is beneath me--I don't--but because I felt... I don't know, absurd. There I was, Grip 'N Grab in hand, filling a garbage bag with crushed Steel Reserve cans and cigarette butts, while people just strolled right past me. They probably thought I was crazy.

It doesn't take long for the ego to rear its ugly head when you're picking
up trash in the streets of Philadelphia.

It was a sunny, yet chilly day outside, so I had my hood up. As each person walked by, I literally felt like retreating deeper inside the hood.

I can't exactly say why, but it felt humiliating, like I was some kind of weirdo.

I was checking my watch for the third time, contemplating whether I should just return early to the Zen center, when I realized that this was a great opportunity to practice. My ego, my sense of self, was bristling.

What would the Buddha do?

I always talk about no-self, no ego, and here I was feeling...well, embarrassed, even ashamed. And why, because I was cleaning the streets? How dumb is that? After all, I was the one cleaning it up, while passersby turned a blind eye to the litter. They were the ones who should be ashamed, not me. And chances were that they lived in this neighborhood--I lived an hour away, in New Jersey!
But even that was just the ego rationalizing. I needed to dig into the experience. I was here to practice, not to flake out at the first sign of discomfort.

So I bit my lip and attacked the trash with new found gusto, all the while paying close attention to that wounded sense of pride that was blazing in my chest. The feeling was real, but as I stayed mindful, the embarrassed ego subsided to a dull kindle.

I was just a guy picking up litter on the streets. La la la.

When I eventually did return to the Zen center, I felt relieved. I didn't chicken out or allow myself to get sidetracked; I had taken full advantage of the work practice.
When I bowed to the Buddha in the zendo, I felt a little more humbled--not because I had cleaned up trash, but because I had witnessed the ego's instinctive appearance firsthand.
Talking about no ego is all well and good, but when the fit hits the shan, all it takes is a little nudging and that ego will rear its head like a wild rhino.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Lulu vision.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hua yen

I can't think of a more beautiful, harmonious, and sophisticated vision of reality than Hua-Yen Buddhism's. Indra's Net, now synonymous with Buddhism's teaching of interdependence, exemplifies the Hua-Yen vision of a universe where everything is connected and literally contains everything else. Originally found in the voluminous Avatamsaka Sutra from which Hua-Yen borrows its name (meaning "Flower Ornament"), Indra's Net imagines the universe as a vast web. At the intersection of each of the lattices sits a sparkling jewel; and inside each jewel we can see every other jewel in the entire universe. It's a beautiful expression of non-duality.

Though I won't pursue it here, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Indra's Net anticipates David Bohm's holographic universe theory by almost two thousand years.

Hua-Yen represents the philosophical basis for Zen, for as D.T. Suzuki famously said, "Hua-Yen for philosophy, Zen for practice."

Hua-Yen is a Chinese synthesis of Mahayana Buddhism. Where Indian Mahayana is concerned most deeply with emptiness, Hua-Yen, in a very Chinese way, emphasizes fullness. For if sunyata means that nothing has an independent, inherent or self-existing nature, then the inverse implies dependence and connection. Fazang, the most popular Hua-Yen systematizer, captures this best in his metaphor of a house.

Just as each jewel in Indra's Net "contains" every other one, the central beam supporting the house is not only a part of the house, it is the the house. For just as we cannot speak of the house without its parts, we cannot speak of parts without the whole. A beam is not a beam until it is part of the house; prior to its functioning as a beam, it is only a piece of wood. As the house represents Totality (dharmadhatu)--Hua-Yen's true interest--it's inane to speak of the beam existing outside of the house, for that would mean the beam was somehow outside of Totality, an obvious impossibility.

The first time I read Fazang's Golden Lion essay, I felt an immediate spiritual resonance with him, the same way I have with Thich Nhat Hanh's writing. This isn't surprising since Thich Nhat Hanh's emphasis is always on the positive aspect of emptiness in the form of interdependence and interpenetration.

Two excellent titles on this subject are Francis Cook's Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra and G.C.C. Chang's The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen Buddhism.

I'm desperately in search of any new titles on Hua-Yen, or Fazang's writing translated into English. I found a translation of his commentary on the Awakening of Faith sutra, but it's very expensive--over $100--and Philosopher, Practitioner, Politician: the Many Lives of Fazang
--even pricier, over $200. If you know of any more affordable titles, please share them.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr use: dorena-wm.

Monday, February 14, 2011

"Empty of self" or "Empty self"?

I'm reading G.C.C. Chang's The Buddhist Teaching of Totality and an interesting doctrinal question occurred to me regarding emptiness. The answer you get, as always, depends on who you ask.

When we say that something (a dharma, object, person, phenomena, experience, event) is empty, do we mean that it is empty of a self? Or that its self is empty of inherent existence?

I've thought about this quite a bit, and don't think these are expressions of the same position. Chang's book seems to fall into the former camp, while the Prasangika Madhyamika literature I've read falls into the latter.

Both positions have very interesting implications and firm philosophical bases for their positions, and yet for the life of me I can't seem to resolve the issue. If a self is constantly changing and is empty of self-existence, then in what way can it be considered a self? Isn't that a contradiction in terms?

From my understanding, the self as a noun--a concrete, unchanging entity--is a fiction and the source of clinging and suffering. For this reason, it is more accurate to think of ourselves as unfolding processes, or verbs. Constant flux, without a center or core, empty of a self or essence. So does that mean "empty of self" or "having an empty self"?

I realize that I'm trying to apply logic to the Absolute nature of things--admittedly, an inevitably futile task that a Zen master would cudgel me for--but isn't reasoning the very bedrock of Madhyamika philosophy?

More importantly, I can't overlook another obvious question begging my attention: Why must I know? Why do I feel the need for certainty? Isn't this just another form of grasping? The more I gnaw on this question, the more I feel like a dog chasing his tail--tying myself into a mental pretzel.

Which leads me to my final question: How does the answer to the emptiness question affect my practice? It's not like adopting one position is suddenly going to lead me to Enlightenment. If only that were the case!

With that said, I'd still like to know the answer. Please tell me what you think.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Sebastian Mary.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Who made "you"?

When we conventionally speak about language, we think of it as a system of mental and verbal symbols created by humans to help them communicate. Or at least that's how I think about it. David Loy, in his book Nonduality, says we've got it all backwards. We don't create language; it creates us.

He writes: "It is not the 'I' that names and intends, but rather the reverse: subjectively--the sense of a subjective consciousness that is doing the seeing, acting and so on--arises because of the naming and intending" (Loy 121).

Talk about mind blowing! According to this, language is responsible for creating (or at the very least, reinforcing) this sense of an "I." And what do I mean by "I"? A discrete subjective agent who thinks, acts, etc., is independent and self-existent. And as it pertains to Loy's book, a separate subject (which according to nondual school is an illusion). In short, the grandest piece of fiction that we all subscribe to.

Is this consistent with traditional Buddhist teachings? I think so. The 12-link chain of causality identifies name and form (nama-rupa) as being the condition that leads to discrimination, the act of separating objects or slicing up reality into what appears to be "independent entities."

And what's the source of all this naming and discriminating? The traditional Buddhist answer is ignorance. Naturally the next question is: Well, what are we ignorant of? It depends who you ask. Loy as a Zen Buddhist would say nonduality. But to ask the question itself is to get trapped in the language game, which only helps perpetuate the problem itself! For the question is inherently dualistic, in that it presupposes that the one who is ignorant is separate from the reality being ignored. It's a vicious cycle, and whenever we look to concept or words for help, we get pulled right back in.

Loy suggests that it is desire (trishna, link 8) and its concomitant grasping (upadana, link 9) that creates and perpetuates this sense of "I." For example, whenever I find myself at odds with the "outside" world, my sense of "I" is heightened. The same goes for when I desire something. My sense of "I" feels virtually tangible at such moments. *

But this is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. If Loy is right, and I happen to think he is, then the simulacrum of language has trapped us into believing that it and its conceptual world is real. Talk about The Matrix!

The irony of course, is that we--our sense of "I"-ness, how we habitually tend see ourselves as separate from everything else--are ourselves a product of that very same process.

So how do we get out? By seeing language for what it is--conventional, limited, the map and not the territory. A finger pointing at the moon.

I think this is what Zen masters mean when they say, "Die on the cushion!" It's a type of ego death, though not in the modern psychological sense. It is only when we forsake all notions--for they are discriminatory and thus dualistic--of ourselves, others, the world, inside, outside, that we can hope to end our suffering. For inevitably, any sense of a separate "I"--an "I" divorced from the world, and thus at odds with it--is one doomed to suffer.

Picture borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Jason-Morrison.

*Now I know what some of you are thinking: links 8 and 9 follow link 4, so how could grasping create nama-rupa? But we must remember that the 12-link chain can begin at any link; it need not start at link 1. Ignorance is conditioned by our past lives, our past clinging, and so on. And of course the reverse is true for clinging. So I think Loy is safe.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The prison of language

I'm surrounded by ideas, or at least the way I engage the world is through ideas and concepts. "Inside," "outside," "me," "mine," and "yours," these are all ideas. According to most Buddhist traditions, this is the root our delusion, and the source of human suffering. We reify thoughts by superimposing them over reality, and then forget that we've done it-- classic case of what George Orwell would call "Doublethink. Then we grasp at the "objects" in the hopes of possessing them, all to satisfy the most complicated concept of all--"me."

For instance, when I hold an apple, I tend to think that there is a solid entity in my hand possessing some sort of "appleness." This is far from a conscious process; for if you ask people whether they think a boat possess "boatness," I'll put my money on it that they'll say no. But that doesn't change the fact that on an intuitive, pre-rational level we grasp at objects, experiences, and phenomena as though they were solid.

And no idea is more subtle, persuasive, and dangerous, than this"I"--some separate, solid entity that lives in my body. The ghost in the machine. With it comes a whole host of other supporting concepts. For instance, no matter how hard I try to shake it, I can't escape the idea that "I" am "in" my head. There's "me" "in" here, looking out at the world "out there." Even though I'm fully aware that what I call "me" (which is a whole other subject unto itself) isn't "in" my head in the same way as a fish is "inside" a fish tank, that doesn't change the fact that I've been so subtly conditioned by language that I can't break free of this conceptual prison. I feel like Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce's famous character, when he says, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

I am bound by the confines of language. This obviously causes all sorts of problems, the most obvious being the subject/object duality, which pits me against the world. Living this way--where my will is posed against the world's, in silent antagonism--is sheer madness; it really is. I don't have to look beyond my own frustration, anxiety, and downright anger, to know that something is wrong with viewing the world this way. It feels like bending a finger back too far--"OWWW!"

That's where practice comes in. I like to think of zazen and mindfulness as the practice of letting go--to false views and our attachment to them. Now when I sit, I can literally spot an idea, see it for what it is (an empty, conditioned phenomena) and identify all of the unstated consummate assumptions that support it--"me," "mine," "them."

I don't think that ideas in themselves are inherently bad (or good, or inherently anything for that matter); it's our inability to see them for what they are (empty) that causes attachment, and thus suffering. For it needn't be this way--Dogen is a classic example of someone who uses thoughts and language to express Enlightenment, without being trapped in them. It's not about transcending language (for that traps us inside yet another duality) so much as it is about liberating ourselves and language.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user :DaR.