Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Sweeping the Mandala

I watched an amazing sand mandala video yesterday (sorry, I can't find it to share with you). As is customary, after the monks dedicate countless painstaking hours designing this gorgeous mandala, they wipe it away with brushes. This is a lesson in both impermanence and letting go. Since the mandala is made of sand, it won't last. That's its purpose, to illustrate how ephemeral the world is. Nothing lasts.

Even if the monks had wanted to preserve the mandala, they couldn't. Today, people have crafted all sorts of creative ways to preserve the moment. We take pictures, then share them with our friends digitally and in person, post them on Facebook and Twitter. Yet the moment is gone. It vanished right after it was over.

Which leads me to the second function of the sand mandala--letting go. These monks have spent hours bent over this mandala, pouring their attentive hearts into it, only to sweep it away when they are done.

Why? we want to ask. Why would someone spend all of that time only to sweep it away?

Why do we anything then? Buildings, books, poems, families, empires, all of these are impermanent, subject to dissolution. The sand mandala is simply a more visceral example of this same principle.

We cannot hold onto or preserve any moment. Sweeping the sand away is a gesture and exercise in letting go of our need to hold on and preserve. Wisdom is knowing when to hold on--fight perhaps for those we love or ideals that we believe in--and when to let go.

My family and I went to the beach yesterday, too, where the ocean taught me a lot about sand and impermanence. My children and I dug holes near the shoreline only to watch them get washed away moments later. It was fun. It can be, if we are playful with the tides of change.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Buddhist Magazines, Not Worth Your Time or Money

Against my better judgment, I borrowed a Buddhist magazine the other day. I stopped reading Buddhist magazine about five years ago because, frankly, I thought they were sheer drivel. Most of the magazine consists of advertisements of retreat centers and celebrity Buddhist teachers. "Come meditate for a week with..."

The content tends to be along the lines of, "How to make sure you're meditating correctly." These magazines are the Buddhist equivalents of Fitness and Mens Health. "Want to jump-start your meditation routine? Follow these three steps..."

But I borrowed the magazine anyway from our meditation center, mainly because the lead article piqued my interest. And besides, maybe I had been too critical, maybe their content had evolved since I'd last read them.

Inside, I was greeted by all of the same schlocky material that you'd find in an advice column. The article I was interested in turned out to be a panel interview with teachers from various Buddhist traditions. No one said anything compelling. Maybe the questions weren't substantive enough; I don't know. 

What irks me about these magazines is that they don't promote Buddhism; they are selling the Buddhist lifestyle. Like any other consumer niche, the Buddhist lifestyle requires its adherents to subscribe to all of the major Buddhist magazines, amass and quote serene quotations about mindfulness and forgiveness, and purchase books by all of the major Buddhist authors. And of course, attend retreats, the longer the better, preferably ones led by brand-name teachers.

In my opinion, Buddhist magazines exist to promote books and retreats. They provide revenue streams so that Buddhist teachers can continue doing...whatever it is that they do--teach, lead retreats, write books, travel. 

If Huang Po, Deshan, or Yunmen were alive today, they would burn every copy they could get their hands on. 

You don't need to read a Buddhist magazine to be a Buddhist. In fact, if you want to practice Buddhism, take the $20 you would have paid for a year's subscription to one of these magazines, and donate it to the charity of your choice. That's much closer to the heart of the Buddha's teaching than anything you will find in a Buddhist magazine. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Training Wheels - Dharma talk

The Buddhadharma is like a set of training wheels on a bicycle. Once they have served their purpose, by all means take them off. We shouldn't get attached to the teachings. However, they are very useful to help other people wake up too, so don't throw them out entirely.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Take Nothing for Granted - Dharma talk

Meticulous care and attention, that's what Zen practice consists of. In this Dharma talk, I discuss the importance of appreciating everything in our lives as expressions of the great mystery.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Drop your "but's"

In social situations, we are confronted with "but's" all of the time. Someone will say, "I'd love to come to the party, but..." Apologies are often punctuated with this conditional word, as in, "I'm sorry I said that, but you..." Which pretty much nullifies people's apologies, as the "but" tries to justify their behavior. It's a way of saying, "It's not my fault."
Sometimes admitting one's mistakes can be as painful as a physical injury. Our use of the word   "but" represents an attempt to protect our ego. The "but" shields us from judgment, both real and imagined.

I say imagined because there are no "but's" in nature. "But's" are products of the mind. We impose them over our experiences and forget that we've done so. 

For instance, when we say, "I'd love to come over but my car is broken," what we may mean is, "I'm angry that my broken car is preventing me from coming over." The "but" here is an imposition of our will on the situation. We can just as easily say, "Sorry, my car is broken so I can't come over. I'll gladly come if someone picks me up." Removing the "but" can dissolve our resentment.

To further the grammatical analogy, the conjunction "and" better expresses the inclusivity of reality. "But" closes doors while "and" opens them. 

Here's a practice: for the next day, notice how many times you use "but." What are the circumstances? Are you trying to alleviate responsibility? Are you afraid to be honest with others? Scared to disappoint people or hurt their feelings?

Study your language to learn about your own conditioned patterns of thinking and speaking. Use your "but's" as a lens to re-view your life. The Vow of the Bodhisattva is to save all sentient beings. That means removing false barriers and opening your heart to people. Our egos--our need to control people and events--prevent us from accepting the way that things are. They cloud our perception by making us mistake how we'd like things to be with how they actually are

There is nothing inherently wrong with the word "but"; it depends on how you use it. Is it an instrument of division or of harmony? Zen liberates us from the language game so that we can eventually use language--and all other means--to liberate others. 

To do that, we must pay meticulous attention to our use of language to make sure it serves our purpose, not the other way around.  

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Decorating Your Hyphen - Dharma talk

We spend so much of our time trying to make our lives carefree. We avoid discomfort at all costs, the equivalent to carpeting the entire world. Instead, why not learn how to live intelligently with discomfort?

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

How do we deal with losing?

Two days ago I brought my kids shopping. When I was packing the groceries into the car, I accidentally left the paper towels on the bottom rack of the cart. I didn't realize the mistake until I was two parking lots away, so by the time I returned, the paper towels were gone.

I checked customer service inside the store just in case someone returned the paper towels. No one did.

I was angry, both with myself for leaving the paper towels under the cart and at whoever found them.

My first thoughts were, Great, there's $15 down the drain. Then I tried to make myself feel better by considering all of the times that I had found items or money that added up to that amount. Surely over the course of my life, at least $15 had fallen into my lap.

But that was just rationalizing; I was trying to make the sting go away by convincing myself that things were okay, that everything evens itself out in the end.

But they don't. Things weren't okay, yet neither were they not okay.

I had lost some paper towels--not good, not bad. Sure I could think that someone else was now happy with a bulk-sized trove of paper towels in the trunk of their car. But again, that was just another attempt to numb the throb of my emotions.

The situation was what it was. There was no need to think away the experience. I had lost something and now I was angry.

In moments like these--and there are plenty of them in our lives--we can close ourselves off through a variety of strategies, or we can do our best to remain open.

My chest felt hot and tight. I was hungry and irritable. My kids were quiet in the backseat as I drove home. I tried to stay open to the bedlam of emotions, thoughts, and sensations. The Great Way is easy, wrote Seng-t'san the Third Ancestor of Chan Buddhism, just avoid picking and choosing.

It's when we try to edit our thoughts and emotions, selecting those we deem pleasant or appropriate, that we are cast into the cycle of gain and loss. Before that moment, there is only the tightness in our chests, the sweat in our palms, the sounds of the car carrying us home.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Things We'd Rather Pretend Don't Exist

Today was that time of the year again--time for me to clean out the bathroom sink drain. The sink had been draining slower and slower over the past several weeks, so I knew it was time to clean it. But I kept putting it off. I'll do it next week, I kept telling myself. And on the summer went until I had run out of excuses.

Cleaning the drain is the home-owning task that I like the least. Even though I know that most of the gunk inside the drain is the result of my shaving, I want to gag just thinking about it. 

In Zen, there is no good or bad; picking and choosing is the source of unhappiness. Thinking creates pleasant and unpleasant, beauty and ugliness. Still, I couldn't help but squirm in disgust at the slimy mess awaiting me in the drain pipe.

As humans, we seek pleasure and try our hardest to avoid discomfort. When I unscrewed and removed the drain pipe, then snaked a paper towel down it, Basho's poem echoed in my mind: 
Fleas, lice,
The horse pissing
Near my pillow
Deep down I know that, like the horse pissing next to Basho's pillow, it's all It. Nothing is left out of the great reality. Everything is vital, integral; it's all the body of Buddha. In our ignorance, we as humans would like to remove anything we deem unpleasant: flies, lice, the slime in the pipes.

Avoid picking and choosing, another voice said in my head as black jelly-like slime in the shape of a cylinder slid out of the pipe. My stomach clenched. How on earth could this be part of the Buddha's teaching?

The mistake we often make is to confuse our response--or reaction--to something with the thing itself. Just because I gag at the sight of something putrid doesn't mean that there's anything "wrong" with it. That's simply my reaction to it, conditioned in part by my upbringing, culture, and biology. But if I were a crow, a dead raccoon on the side of the road would be a feast.

Avoid picking and choosing, I reminded myself as I tied the plastic bag shut. I shivered when the task was done. Thank goodness! I suppose that I could feel guilty about my reaction--after all, what kind of Zen teacher gags in disgust at some goop?--but I didn't.
If black slime is it, then so is my instinctive revulsion.
When our bodies and minds naturally lean towards or away from an experience or object (we all prefer one meal over another), that preference too is the great reality. The impulse to pick and choose is itself It. The Buddhadharma includes everything, even our rejection of other things.

Good thing too because in another 300 days or so I'm going to have to clean the drain again. Fun...

Monday, August 8, 2016

Decorating Your Life

Most people spend most of their time trying to make their lives as comfortable as possible. Meditation--the act of observing our mental and emotional patterns--reveals to us how much we cringe from discomfort. The slightest sound can send our nerves into an uproar. When our knees and backs begin to ache, our bodies can feel like prison cells; and all that we yearn to do is escape.

In the middle of a meditation retreat, anything feels preferable to the torture of sitting completely still. Our bodies and minds crave stimulation, anything to break the monotony of our whirling thoughts.

Boredom can be a very powerful teacher.

One could argue that America's obsession with materialism is grounded in the human impulse to avoid discomfort. In the panoply of pleasure that is Western culture, it's amazing that anyone is interested in meditation, which by American standards is tantamount to asceticism.

In a wealthy, developed nation such as ours, there are very few reasons not to indulge oneself. America abounds with countless distractions--food, entertainment, mindless internet indulgence, and so on. We are a culture of distractions.

But if we are lucky enough to develop a practice of self-examination, we soon learn how conditioned we are by the pain/pleasure principle. Very simply, we crave pleasure and avoid pain whenever possible. We do everything in our power to organize our lives to eliminate discomfort. Air conditioning and aspirin are great examples of how accessible and second-nature our tendency to extinguish physical displeasure has become.

I don't have statistics on this, but I'd wager that modern people devote almost all of their mental time pursuing pleasure and trying to avoid pain. Buddhist practice turns the light of our attention to this impulse (and all others, as well). Then the moments when we would mindlessly react expand to become opportunities to exercise choice.

Instead of indulging in candy or binge watching Netflix when I'm stressed, how else can I respond? How can I learn to accept the stress?

Rather than lashing out with words when someone says something I interpret as offensive, how can I digest their supposed criticism and learn from it?

It begins when we identify the pleasure/pain impulse; then, with attention, a space emerges. In that space, we can choose. Do I move my legs while I am meditating? I will if it's too painful to endure or if I have a knee injury. I probably won't if it's just a general ache from sitting cross-legged. With attention, the choice becomes ours; rigid, habitual patterns transform into potentials for us to exercise freedom.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Grey Worm, the Unsullied

Image result for grey worm missandei

I just finished watching season 4 of Game of Thrones, and was amazed at the insight that one character, Grey Worm, displayed. Grey Worm was enslaved at the youngest of ages, neutered, and trained to become a killing machine. After he is freed from bondage, he pledges his allegiance to his emancipator, Daenarys. Targaryen.

In the scene I am referring to, Grey Worm is speaking to Missandei, with whom he is falling in love. Missandei shares his affections, and so says that she is sorry that he was neutered as a child (and therefore cannot be with her, so to speak). Grey Worm says that he isn't sorry. Puzzled, Missandei asks why.

Grey Worm explains that if he had never been neutered, then he would not have been a soldier. If he had never been a soldier, then he would not have met Daenerys, and therefore he would not be speaking to Missandei at this very moment.

What an amazing insight into conditionality! Grey Worm deeply understands that where we are now is the sum total of countless conditions. It is impossible to remove even one factor from our past without changing who we are entirely. We all have moments in our lives that we would like to re-do; but this is not only impossible, it is ignorant. As Marty McFly from Back to the Future knows all too well, altering one event in our past would alter everything.

Who we are and where we are in time (and space) is the matrix of infinite factors. Grey Worm understands this. And he loves Missandei so much that he wouldn't even consider changing his past--as painful as it was--because he knows that he would inevitably lose this moment with her.

Zen practice trains us to accept who we are in our entirety. That means all of the bumps, scars, and disappointments. It's the fantasy that we can go back in time to change our history, or the desire to be someone else, that causes us so much heartache. The Buddha Way is the footsteps right in front of you. The Buddha seat is where you are sitting. It is nowhere else but here.

Check out the scene here. (I can't embed it so fast forward to 1:42 to watch the exchange.)