Thursday, April 28, 2011

Spider on a Drum

One of the things I appreciate the most about Zen master Seung Sahn's teaching style is his application of koans to everyday life, what Dogen might call genjokoan. As Seung Sahn explains it, traditionally when students sit with the koan Mu and try to penetrate it, become one with it, Mu fills their entire being. Everything they do is Mu. When they drive, Mu drives. When they eat, Mu eats.

The problem, of course, is when someone else needs help, Mu can't help them. Mu doesn't allow for compassion (at least not in this stage of a student's training). So Seung Sahn stresses an emptiness of mind, what he calls "mirror mind." This allows for compassion to arise when it's needed. It's a form of upaya or skillful means--the ability to adapt to meet the needs of others.

As I was reading Branching Streams Flow Through the Darkness by Shunryu Suzuki, I encountered a type of koan that captures Seung Sahn's koan teaching method. I didn't make this scenario up; it actually happened to one of Suzuki's students. It goes like this:

You're beating the mokugyo (a small wooden drum) during morning Zen service--a task you take very seriously. The entire chant depends on you beating this drum. If you slip up, the service will be ruined. Suddenly you notice a spider crawling on top of the mokugyo. What do you do?

We see the dilemma: if we stop to save the spider we interrupt the chant and the service, risk embarrassment and perhaps a scolding from the teacher. However, if we continue, we'll kill the spider--a violation of the first Precept. We must act. We must step off the hundred-foot pole.

What do we do?

Mokugyo photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Big Mind Zen Center.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Psychoanalysis and Buddhism

“You have to be somebody before you can be nobody,” Jack Engler famously said in his 1986 Transformations of Consciousness. What he means is that in order to transcend the self, we must first have a full developed one in the first place. As Barry Magid, psychoanalyst and Zen teacher, explains: "No spiritual practice can truly undo a dualistic perspective without engaging and working through previously disassociated experience. Otherwise, momentary experiences of 'oneness' will only serve to further split off and sequester disassociated traumatic affects with a false promise of attaining a transcendent state beyond the reach of the old trauma." In Psychoanalysis and Buddhism, edited by Jeremy Safran, Engler revises and elaborates upon this statement he made over 25 years ago.

What I find most fascinating about Engler’s treatment of the subject of anatman (no self) is his systematic deconstruction of the stages leading from our ordinary self to the experience of no self. According to him, the jhana states represent ascending levels of reality construction that our minds perform on a pre-conscious level. So as meditators proceed upwards through the jhanas, they are in fact retracing how their minds create this dualistic world, where subject and object appear to be divorced. The final state resembles a quantum experiment, where reality is experienced in its rawest form—as flashes of discontinuous, impersonal quanta (for lack of a better word). Impermanence, emptiness, and interdependence, while only words, are the ones best suited to describe the realm of anatman. Engler draws upon the voluminous, painstaking detail of the Abhidharma (and I believe, though am not certain, upon his own personal experience) as evidence. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you agree with him or not.

Another fascinating topic that Engler tackles is why we experience the self in the first place. If, after all, the self has no ontological reality (as opposed to a psychological reality, which Engler agrees does exist) Engler suggests that the reason we rely on this representational construct called a self is because our minds' emptiness terrifies us. In fear of our own emptiness, we try to reify the representational "I" into a separate, concrete, unchanging entity with a core or essence. This, according to Buddhism—the false belief in a substantial “I”—is the root of our suffering. So it’s not, as some might assume, the fear of death that prompts the “I” delusion, as much as it is fear of our own emptiness. For why fear death if, as Barry Magid puts it later in this same book "[t]here is no essential self to defend"?

Overall, Psychoanalysis and Buddhism is a bit of a mixed bag. Some essays are better than others, or at least more suited to my tastes. Barry Magid’s essay “Orindary Mind” rocks. But what else would you expect someone in the Ordinary Mind school to say? More about that in future posts.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Where is this Dharma?

I've intentionally avoided writing about the latest Zen sex scandal, mainly because I'm not interested in Zen politics. But I just read an article by Barry Magid, a teacher in the Ordinary Mind school in which I practice (my teacher's teacher), and it made me realize how I grasp at Buddhism for a sense of self. It's entitled "There is No Zen, only Zen teachers," and I strongly encourage you to read it.

Whenever a "Zen master" falls from grace, a series of questions naturally arise. (Since all of these scandals involved male teachers, I'll use the masculine pronoun.) "Was he enlightened?" "How could someone abuse his power like that?" "What does it mean to be a Zen master?"

What Barry Magid points out in his article is the human pitfall to think that there's some essence, not only to being a Zen master, but to the Dharma itself. And if there's one thing that Buddhism teaches us, it's that everything is empty of an essence. Why should the Dharma be an exception?

So what makes someone a Zen master?--enlightenment? And if so, how could someone who is "enlightened" act so unethically? All these questions, while important, beg another larger one, namely: doesn't this presuppose that there's some "essence" to enlightenment, Buddhism, the Dharma?

The beauty of the teaching of emptiness is that it's self-reflexive. And so emptiness itself is empty.

To ask the Zen master question is to assume that there's some "thing" that makes someone a Zen master, or enlightened. To extend this idea to Buddhism itself, the Dharma is just as empty as any other social or mental construct, which explains why Tibetan Buddhism appears so much differently than Japanese of Thai Buddhism. Like everything else in the world, Buddhism changes because it's empty. Often times we hear someone say, "But the heart of the Buddha's teaching is the same" in all these schools.

But, again, doesn't that presuppose some essence or core to Buddhism?

And if so, what is that essence--the Four Noble truths, emptiness, dependent arising/interdependence? All of these are ideas designed to reflect the nature of reality; but the more we try to pinpoint the "heart" of Buddhism, the more we are seduced by the idea that there's some "essence" to it.

In his article, Magid challenges the bedrock of these assumptions by asserting that there is no Zen, only Zen teachers. He uses art as an example:

"Art, ultimately, is simply what the artists of a certain time and place
create. Artists, musicians, priests, teachers all occupy their respective
cultural niches and the products of their activity are inseparable from the
lives they lead in the making of it. There is no Platonic essence of
capital A “Art” that one generation of artists transmits to the next. Artists
learn from, imitate, challenge and subvert the art of their contemporaries and

"Dharma teachers likewise learn from, imitate, challenge and subvert the
teaching of their teachers. The nature, the meaning of, the Dharma in any
generation is nothing but the teaching, the behavior, the lives of those who are
teaching and living it at any given time. The Buddhism of America both is and is
not the Buddhism of Shakyamuni, and our Chinese and Japanese ancestors. The is
no Zen, only Zen teachers."

After all, where else can the Dharma be found but in the living embodiment of Buddhist practitioners? To idealize the Dharma is to reify it and assume that there's some "essence" to it, which runs contrary to the Buddhist teaching of emptiness.

So when we say that someone is a Zen master, what does that actually mean? Isn't such a title just another form of grasping (and I'm not immune to it; I find myself asking similar questions all the time)?

I think that the questions we ask can help us in our practice. For after all, why do we feel the need to define Zen or the Dharma in the first place? Are we simply grasping at a subtle sense of self by trying to define Buddhism, and by proxy, ourselves?

Emptiness is a tricky thing. The human mind craves something solid to hold onto, to dig its teeth into, and if we're not careful, as Magid reminds us, we'll find ourselves reifying Buddhism itself.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Self-denial or compassion?

If people were curious about my eating habits when I was a vegetarian, then they're absolutely captivated when they find out I've "gone" vegan.

"Wait, you're a vegan? So don't eat any meat?" they ask incredulously. As if vegetarians eat meat on the weekends.

"No," I say.

This is about the time they start to shake their heads as they mentally scroll through all the meals they enjoy that contain meat: Meatloaf, Italian subs, lasagna...

"And no eggs or dairy," I add.

Their eyes bulge. "No eggs! Or Milk!" This is where they pause and consider. "Well how about cheese?"

"No." I say. "Not if it comes from an animal."

"Ahh!" They toss their hands in the air in feigned exasperation. "No pizza? Or cream cheese? How about yogurt or ice cream?"

Now I'm the one shaking his head. I'm tempted to tell them that there are non-dairy cheeses and ice cream, but know that will only lead to a mock finger down the throat, followed by an audible gag.

Then the inevitable: "I couldn't do it," they say.

Sure they could; they just choose not to.

Yesterday someone asked me, "Why would you intentionally deprive yourself of something you enjoy?"

I paused, considering a polite way of answering this. The question itself, I think, reveals a lot about personal and cultural values, not to mention unstated expectations. Most people think that you only have one shot at life, so you might as well enjoy this one while you've got it.

There's also the underlying assumption--which we as sophisticated Buddhists scoff at--that you must satisfy any desire that pops into your head. After all, what would happen if I didn't act upon my desires? I might...I don't know...melt?

And all the way beneath this is the tacit belief that, even if the world doesn't revolve around me, it sure does revolve around humans. The whole God made man in his image thing.

Most people, without questioning, believe that humanity is the center of the universe. This belief verges on a tacit religion. Even if on a rational, scientific level they understand that humanity plays only an infinitesimal role in the scope of the entire universe, their actions suggest otherwise. Your average Jack or Diane sees nothing wrong with the idea that millions of animals suffer in tiny little cages so that humans can eat or milk or get eggs from them.

But Buddhism isn't human-centered. According to Buddhism, being born as a human offers the unique opportunity of reaching enlightenment; but it doesn't privilege us to treat other species any way we please. Just take a look at the impending environmental crisis for where that type of behavior is leading the world. In fact, it only puts more responsibility on our shoulders because we as humans are capable of understanding the moral implications of our actions; whereas animals can't.

In a non-dual tradition like Zen, all things are One, so any hierarchy that poses humans above animals is purely relative.

Now back to the person's question, "Why deprive yourself of something you enjoy?"

I don't think that it's a question of self-denial or self-restraint as much as it is one of compassion. As an American, it's not like I have to choose between eating meat or starving. There are other options. In impoverished parts of the world where food is scarce, eating meat is necessary for survival. That's cool; I would never begrudge someone for eating meat or eggs to survive. But for most Americans, avoiding meat is more of a matter of inconvenience than anything else.

For instance, I heard a rumor (so please don't quote me on this) that after An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's global warming documentary, came out, an interviewer asked Gore, "If you're so interested in protecting the environment, why don't you make the biggest impact that an individual can by becoming vegetarian?" (On a purely environmental level, animal rights issues aside, the argument goes that sustaining livestock is an extremely inefficient use of resources, which could be devoted to feeding humans instead.)

Mr. Gore didn't have an answer to that, or so the rumor goes.

This shows that it's easier to get people to recycle or drive a hybrid car than it is to get them to change their day-to-day to choices like what they eat.

As I begin to study for the Precepts, the first one weighs heavy on my mind: "Promote life; do not kill." I consider all the ways that I kill, or contribute to killing, on a daily basis--my furniture is made of wood; I use paper on a daily basis. The list goes on and on. All of these are the byproducts of killing. Is there a way to avoid taking life, or harming for that matter?

Realistically speaking, living in a modernized, post-industrialized country, I don't know. But there is a way I can make a change, and for me that's not eating meat, or consuming products that I know come from exploiting animals. In other words, from an industry that I know for certain causes suffering.

Take clothing, for example. I shop at Kohls because it's cheap and convenient. If I discovered that their brand clothes exploited workers in a developing nation, I would stop buying those clothes. (However, something tells me that the more I inquire into the practices of these industries, the fewer shopping options I will have!)

But rather than to get into all this with the questioner, I just say, "I don't want to cause any more suffering in the world."

And it's the truth. Am I making a difference in the world? Well, Buddhism teaches that everything is connected, so in that sense, yes.

But even if my actions didn't make the slightest ripple, even karmically, I'd like to believe that I'd still avoid eating meat. Just because I can. Because it means living a little more compassionately. And if there's one thing this world could use a surplus of, it's compassion.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: campra.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A brush with death

I had a scare on Monday. I checked my email during lunch and there was a message from my wife: "The doctor called. It sounded urgent."

Trust me when I say that no one, under any circumstances, wants to receive a message like that.

My throat tightened and my heart began to race.

What the hell's wrong with me? I immediately worried. Was it my liver? A couple years ago my liver enzymes were imbalanced--maybe it was that. What else could it be?

My mind raced through all of the worst possibilities--kidney failure, appendicitis, cirrhosis of the liver.

The menacing shadow of cancer loomed above me. Could they even identify cancer from a routine blood test?

Calm down, I told myself. It could be nothing.

Then again it could be everything. Suddenly I imagined my whole changing at this one moment. I would be on Oprah some day (don't ask me why, but I have these talk show fantasies) and an audience member would ask me, "So Andre, when did you first discover that you were dying of_____?"

And I would remember the email, the blank stare of the computer screen, the hum of the heat in the back of the classroom.

"Enough already," I snapped. "You're not dying yet." With that, I picked up the phone and called the doctor.

They had me on hold for at least ten minutes, all the while I had to fight back the temptation to scream. I was scared. Really scared.

Sure I've thought about death before. Honestly, I have no idea what happens once our heart stops beating and our brain functions cease. All I could imagine--or try to at least--was cold, silent oblivion.

While I waited for the nurse to pick up, I sat and investigated my bodily sensations--the tightness in the chest, the shallowness of my breathing, the sweat in my palms. My thoughts were surprisingly lucid; it was my nerves that were about the burst as I listened to the elevator music drone over the telephone speaker.

"Come on, come on!"

At some point, I don't know exactly when, I distinctly remember thinking: I don't want to die. There's so much I haven't done: I want to watch my kids grow up and get married, travel with my wife, to become a Zen priest.

Talk about clinging. It's no wonder why the Buddha said that clinging is what keeps the wheel of samsara spinning--clinging to life, to notions of self. That all became startlingly clear to me at that moment.

And then, out of nowhere I realized, that even if everything is fine today, some day--maybe not this year, or next, maybe not for ten or twenty years--I will one day get a phone call telling me that things are not fine. And if not about me, then about someone I love.

Some day I will die. At some point I am going to face the certainty of my own death. Not in an abstract, indifferent sense, like "Yeah, I know I'm going to die someday. Hurry up and pass the chips." But there will come a day--if I'm lucky--when I will realize, "This is it. I'm going to die today."

If not today, then some day.

Or maybe not. Maybe I'll die in my sleep or get run over by a reindeer. But the point is, I--all of us, in fact--have a death sentence on my head.

The visceralness of this understanding was terrfying in an existential sense.

But I won't hold you in suspense any longer. The nurse came on and said everything was fine; my blood work looked good.

But it isn't fine. I am still going to die someday, and I'd be lying if I said that isn't really freaking scary. This is what the Buddha meant when he said that "Life is dukkha."

Life--impermanent, conditioned, imperfect--cannot provide us with the certainty, the stability that we as humans so desperately seek.

That's why we practice.

Photo borrowed from Creatiev Commons flickr user: Leo Reynolds.