Sunday, September 30, 2012

Laundry lesson

Photo credit: flickr user Chiew Pang.
We can learn a lot about ourselves from how we do the laundry. For me, the challenge is in folding the clothes and putting them away, not the actual loading and unloading the washing machine. As I'm sifting through--or wading, as it more often feels like--the pile of tangled clothing, I often catch myself wanting to rush.

Come on, I tell myself, I have more important things to do! But like what? More chores?

Why can't I simply concentrate on the task at hand, be satisfied with the underwear and socks and pillow cases? Why this near instinctive urge to rush to the next task?

In life, as in laundry, most often we don't get to choose what comes next. If it's a lone sock or a towel, that's what we take. Life comes at us all at once, and seldom in the manner or order that we want it. We don't choose to lose our jobs or step in puddles, but it happens. So Zen practice is about accepting whatever arises without discrimination.

A sock? Great. A flat tire? Sure.

The greatest spiritual freedom, I'm beginning to think, opens us up to to the continuously unfolding mystery of existence, infusing us with wonder and curiosity. Sunrises, rainbows, a blister on our foot, a broken plate--it's all the magnificent Dharma of the universe.

If only we can stop picking and choosing, saying yes to the things we like and no to those we don't. If only we can do the laundry one tangled article of clothing at a time.

That would be wonderful.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Work samadhi

Photo credit: flicker user postbear.
Yesterday I did some physical work and it was wonderful. I love my job teaching high school, but there is something extraordinary about working with one's body. And I don't just mean in terms of exercise. Sure, it feels great to work out the physical and mental knots we accrue throughout the week, but that is only a small part of it.

When work is best, we feel completely connected to it. There is no more worker; thought drops away and we become the work. That's what happened yesterday.

I was carrying some heavy beams, and in a form of concentration that is not concentration there just was. No work, no worker, just thus. The mind and self drop away, leaving nothing, not even no mind or don't know mind. It's what emerges when we don't get in our own way, when we let ourselves be ourselves--free. It's our natural state.

I love moments like this. They are so rewarding, refreshing, and cleansing. I think this is why the old worthies valued work so much--as the highest form of practice. Life in action.

It is life samadhi. Nothing beats it. So the next time you have a chance at some hard physical labor, leap at the opportunity, for anything can be a great chance to practice, to find our true nature not only in the midst of life, but as life itself.

Have a wonderful week. Work work and love a lot.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Diamond in the Silk

I just finished a magnificent and exciting book about the 1907 discovery of countless Buddhist manuscripts at the Caves of Thousand Buddhas in China. Among the treasured sutras, sealed in an airtight vault for upwards to eight centuries, rested the oldest printed book ever found, a copy of the Diamond Sutra

Journeys on the Silk Road is a fascinating historical account of how Aurel Stein, a Hungarian archaeologist in the service of the British empire, traversed the deadly climes of Turkestan to arrive at the Caves of Thousand Buddhas where he discovered one of the greatest archaeological finds in history.

"Enclosed by thick rock everywhere, except for the narrow walled-up entrance, and that too, covered up by drift-sand for centuries, the air within the small chapel could have undergone but slight change of temperature. Not in the driest soil could the relics of a ruined site have been so completely protected from injury as they had been here" (122). "Heaped up in layers, but without any order, there appeared...a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of nearly ten feet" (118). It was a veritable Buddhist El Dorado.

In truly captivating prose, authors Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters paint a gripping portrait of Stein, a man who resembles a reticent Ahab-esque explorer in the tradition of Marco Polo or the great Chinese Buddhist explorer-monk Xuanzang.

I was enthralled from Silk Road's very first pages. The authors trace Stein's journey from England to Turkestan to China in meticulous detail. I felt like I could hear Stein breathing on nearly every page--that's how much life the authors breathed into him--and so we share in his excitement as he "coaxes" the resident abbot, a Taoist monk, to part with many of the manuscripts. But that's just half the story.

Stein still needs to transport the relics to England, a journey just as challenging as retrieving the sutras. And of course, the scriptures still need to survive the devastating Nazi bombings of World War II. (Don't worry, they do.)

Ordinarily I enjoy strict Buddhist literature, but Journeys on the Silk Road was a pleasant and enjoyable departure for me. The book is an amazing tale of the survival of one of Mahayana Buddhism's most highly valued texts, the Diamond Sutra. I highly recommend you plumb the book's depths.

Thanks to Leyane at FSB Associates for sending me a copy of the book to review.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Whole World in a Single Smile

Photo credit: aldrin_muya.
School started for me last week. It feels good to be back. Even when I was a kid, I always looked forward to returning to school at the end of the summer. Although I would never have admitted it then.

On the first day I met a young man with a warm, eager smile. We began talking and through our conversation I learned that not only was he new to our school, but to this country as well. When I asked him where he was from, he said, "Palestine."

I paused, awestruck. I have taught plenty of students who hailed from foreign countries--Pakistan, India, Russia--but never one from the war torn Golan Heights.

Instantly I felt all of the pain and sorrow from that area of the world. When I asked him how life was in Palestine, he said, "Not good."

My heart ached for this young man and the horror that he and his family must have witnessed and endured. Hua-yen Buddhism teaches us that the entire universe is contained inside of a single atom. This radical perspective validates and honors all phenomena. I suppose that was what I was feeling--all of humanity's violence present in this young man.

And yet he had the happiest smile. There was so much warmth and optimism and kindness that it filled my heart with hope.

This reminded me that we also contain all of the hope and wonder and joy of the universe as well. It's amazing how powerful of a teacher a simple smile can be.

May we all awaken together and learn to live in harmony together.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Fun with skunks

Image credit: Creative Commons flicker user vladeb.
It was around nine at night; the kids were sleeping. I lay down in our sunroom porch after a long day of planting shrubs in the backyard, my skin hot with fresh sunburn. The day had been warm but the evening was proving to be cool. I had all the windows open and was enjoying a pleasant, brisk breeze.

I was about three pages into my latest book when I heard a crinkling sound from outside. My neighbor's house is very close, so at first I assumed it was her throwing out her trash. The sound continued, much too close to be my neighbor.

I placed my book down, stood up, and crept to the storm door. It was too dark to see outside, but the plastic crinkling was very close. I flicked on the outdoor light and saw my garbage can laying on the stairs. Exhausted from working in the sun, earlier I had thrown some garbage in the can and knocked it on its side; too tired to set it upright, I had let it lay there, figuring I would do it later.

I kneeled to investigate the source of the sound, assuming it was a cat, when I saw a black tail hanging out of the garbage can. Then it registered--a skunk. I had never been this close to one before. In fact, I don't think I had ever seen a real, live one.

Slowly, I rose, backed up, and began to close the door. The skunk remained unperturbed, too hungry or interested in the contents of my garbage to heed my presence. I swung the door shut until only a few inches remained open.

"Hey," I hissed, "get out of there!" and quickly closed the door. The expectant commotion did not follow. Neither did the stench of skunk spray. Warily, I stood on my toes and peered out of the door's semi-circle window. I couldn't make out much, except for that black tail poking out of the mouth of the can.

Son of a gun! The skunk hadn't run.

I tried again, and again met the same results. The squirrel was non-plussed; it was completely determined to get a meal, I suppose.

Finally, I closed the door and lay back down. There was no sense in bothering the skunk. I would clean up the mess in the morning.

A few minutes passed in silence until my curiosity got the better of me. Yes, you know where this is going.

Once again I investigated, but now the skunk was gone. I checked the can with a flashlight to guarantee that the skunk had fled before I crept outside. I scanned the backyard with the flashlight; the coast was clear. I was wearing a t-shirt, boxer shorts, and a pair of sandals.

I stood the can upright and began to re-arrange the other ones to make room for this can. I pulled a few cardboard boxes out of the corner where the cans normally stood when I heard a sound. I flashed the light into the alcove and saw black fur scurry.

Holy hell, the skunk was in there! What kind of silly animal hides a few away from where it has been shooed away from?

Very un-cinematically, I uttered a girlish scream and bolted into the backyard, fast enough to qualify for the Olympics that had just passed. I stopped at the fence line and crouched, my heart hammering in my chest.

I placed my hands on my knees and regrouped. I had just barely escaped being sprayed! My veins were thick with the rush of adrenaline. I smiled. What a thrill.

At that moment, there was just my heart pounding, the heavy draw of breath, and the moonlight. I felt so alive. Life was so immediate; there was no interlude of mental chatter like there normally is. There was just  the skunk, and then run like hell.

And for some strange reason I felt a deep kinship with all of the Zen masters of the past. I was a living koan. "What do you do when you see a skunk?"

You run. I don't care if you're the Buddha himself, you run when you see a skunk. That's what humans do. Buddha runs in the same way as Buddha mourns when someone dies.

Linji, Mazu, Chinul, they would all run when they saw a skunk. That realization made me smile. We spend so much of our lives in doubt. Am I doing this right? What will they think if I say that? What's wrong with me? Not to mention fear.

But here, panting in the moonlight, there was no room or time for doubt, there was just this. Action, flight. The path was clear. Humans run from skunks.

Laughing at the entire situation, I jogged to the front of the house, all of the Zen ancestors laughing with me.