Sunday, October 22, 2017

Why Isn't the World Enough?

It seems that humans have an innate impulse to seek transcendence. A god of some sort, soul, spirit, or some realm beyond our own.

I don't understand why. Perhaps it's that the world is too mundane for some, and that the spiritual imagination seeks broader, more idealized horizons--some truth untarnished by time, something purer than the world of form with all of its imperfections and disappointments.

Again, I don't understand this impulse, which is not to say that I am immune to it. From time to time, I too find myself instinctively yearning for some truer reality not subject to the vacillations of life--as if one existed.

One of the many marvels of Chan Buddhism is how it redeemed the physical world. Indian Buddhism often eschewed the natural world of form and time as something to be transcended and relinquished. Chinese Buddhism, on the other hand, fully embraced the world that we live in. The song of birds, the heat of the noon sun, the pain in our hearts: these are not imperfections to be overcome, but the very expression of reality itself.

The earth beneath our feet and the air in our lungs is the great reality. Why seek salvation in some speculative reality--call it God, the soul, or the Dharmakaya--when the only world we have ever known surrounds us every moment of our lives?

That's the great irony: people seek to escape into some truer reality when in actuality, the world they wish to abandon is actually that which they seek! We chase phantom ideals when the breathtaking vistas of the human spirit are always present--the air that we breathe, the longing in our hearts, the pain of a stubbed toe...

Time and space are not impure obstacles on our spiritual path to some greater reality; they are reality. Why can't that be enough?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Mysteries of the Universe

My dog likes to walk around with socks in his mouth. This morning I told him to drop my daughter's sock and he did, but the moment I left the room my family started laughing because he picked it up again.

"He's found the secrets to the universe in her sock," I joked. But it's true; the greatest mysteries are everywhere--in a drop of water, a smile, an angry expression, even a wet sock.

We don't need to sit for hours in meditation to realize this. It may help, but that's not the only way to realize what has always been in front of us.

In many version of the Bodhisattva's Vow, we recite that Dharma Gates or the Buddha Way is endless, meaning that practice never truly ends. We don't simply hang up the reigns and say, "Ok, I'm enlightened. Have a great life, everyone."

But if practice is truly endless, then it is also beginning-less. This means that we are never truly attaining anything; we are just seeing what is always there, just in a new way, perhaps with a sense of wonder or openness, less rigidity.

According to legend, Huineng, the Sixth Ancestor of Chan, awoke without ever formally meditating in his life. He received transmission of the Dharma from the Fifth Ancestor before he had even ordained as a monk. This is an important lesson, suggesting that it is the quality of our minds, of our ability to see and respond clearly, that it important, not how many hours we spend on a cushion or how many retreats we attend.

This is not to diminish meditation, for as the story goes, Huineng did later ordain and spend the next twenty years devoted to meditation in order to digest his insight. I have spent most of this summer playing guitar, exercising, renovating a bathroom, and sitting in meditation. I meditate because I want to, not because I need to or because some authority is logging the amount of hours I spend on a cushion. And because I enjoy it.

I suppose I do it for the same reason that my dog steals our socks--it is an expression of who and what I am.

But no more so than playing my guitar or mowing the lawn. Lifting weights is meditating, driving to work is meditating. Wherever you are, where is your mind? If it is fully present, immersed in the moment, then you are embodying the Buddhadharma, regardless of whether you are sitting, lying down, or standing.

Your life is the Zen center.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Dharma talk - Whether Sitting, Standing, or Lying Down

Zen may begin on the meditation cushion; however, true practice should extend into every aspect of our lives, not just the seated position.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Dharma Talk - For The Sake Of

True Zen practice does not expect anything in return. It is not a means to an ends, but the ends itself.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Dharma talk - The Good News and the Bad News

The good news is that everything is impermanent, changing; every moment is brand new. This means that we are ultimately free. However, if we expect certainty and fixedness from life, then impermanence is also bad news. Buddhism teaches us how to stop clinging and accept things just as they are--free from both bad and good.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Strange Bodhisattvas

Last night I watched Dr. Strange with my son. There's a scene at the end of the film that spoke to me as a Buddhist. Dr. Strange, battling an evil entity that lives outside of time, traps himself and his nemesis in a time loop.

Knowing that Dr. Strange cannot possibly win in a battle, the evil being says,"You can never win."

Dr. Strange replies, "No, but I can lose again and again and again--forever." The scene continues as the monster kills Dr. Strange but, due to the time loop, Dr. Strange reappears only to die again and again. In this way, at the price of his own life, he has saved humanity against the destruction of the evil being.

This is the Bodhisattva's Vow--trying to help all beings for eternity, no matter how futile or painful. Dr. Strange is willing to die an infinite amount of times to save the universe just as a Bodhisattva vows to be reborn for eternity to save all sentient beings. This vow may or may not refer to actual rebirth. In a more figurative way, the oath means to return to the present moment of the here-and-now and dedicate our lives to the well being of others. Even if that means losing forever.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Dharma talk - Buddha Is Your Birthright

Probably the most staggering teaching in Buddhism is that we are already Buddha. Our minds and the minds of all Buddhas are fundamentally identical.


Dharma talk - Treat Every Being Like Buddha

Every being and blade of grass is sacred. All deserve our kindness and respect, even those we view as unpleasant.

Dharma talk - The Pollen In Your Nose

The hardest thing to accept in Buddhism is that even the aspects of the world and ourselves that we dislike the most are magnificent expressions of the great reality. It's simply our picking and choosing minds that distract us from this point.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Dharma talks

Even the Worms

In Buddhism, everything is sacred. If we treat the smallest organisms with respect and compassion, imagine how we could treat our fellow humans.

Neither Gain Nor Loss

Zen practice walks the middle path between trying to gain or lose anything. Just as we eat to eat and sleep to sleep, we practice to practice--not to gain patience or lose stress.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Dance on the Lines - Dharma talk

We don't have to live any single way. What constrains us the most is not our circumstances, but our own minds and the ways that we view the world.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Where Did I Leave My Enlightenment? - Dharma Talk

Zen practice is not about recovering some pristine stare or original purity; it's realizing that we were never separate from it in the first place.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Passions Are Empty - Dharma talk

When we investigate our thoughts and emotions--the internal experiences that often have so much power over our happiness--we find that they are fleeting and substance-less. Then we find that there is no need to fight or abolish unpleasant emotions because they are empty of the very power that we imbue them with.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Why Are We Here? - Dharma talk

If we pay attention to what is actually in front of us--as opposed to what we are thinking about--then we know exactly why we are here: to change the diaper, help a friend, write an article. Whatever appears before us then becomes our purpose.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Buddha Way is Endless - Dharma talk

Practice never ends. Awakening is not a destination; but rather, like reality itself, continues endlessly.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Opportunities to Awaken - Dharma talk

Every moment is fresh, new, and an expression of awakening itself; we simply need to pay attention to it to realize that.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Delusions Are Countless - Dharma talk

We don't need to uproot or annihilate our passions; rather, we must simply understand them. Seeing clearly reveals that our demons are really only shadows. No exorcism necessary.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Why We Help - Dharma talk

When we assume that we our view is better than someone else's, we can easily fall prey to egoism and dogmatism. If we strive to "liberate" other beings, we can may begin to think that we know what is best for them. "Helping" others, on the other hand, means assisting people on their term and according to their needs.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Everywhere is the Center - Dharma talk

We often think that some beings matter more than others. Buddhism challenges this view by revealing that all beings are of the highest value and that no being is any more important than any other.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sarcasm and Right Speech

Over these past few weeks I have been trying to bite my tongue as much as possible when I get the urge to post a negative comment about some news update. After all, what good will adding my voice to the babel do?

Then the English teacher in me had a bright idea--sarcasm. The beauty of sarcasm is its indirectness; it bites like a mosquito when you're sleeping--from the side or under the covers. Sarcasm and irony have long been tools for political writers like Jonathon Swift, George Orwell, Joseph Heller, and modern political cartoonists. Saying one thing but meaning another is a powerful communication device that functions by insinuating the truth of its opposite.

For instance, if I say, "Boy, I'm so happy you insisted I come to this party; I just love being around drunk people!" Eye rolls for emphasis. The message is: I'd rather be somewhere else so please stop telling me what to do.  

Then I began wondering, how do irony and sarcasm fit into Buddhism's teachings about Right Speech? The Buddha said that we should consider three criteria before speaking:

1. Is it true?
2. Is it timely?
3. Is it helpful?

The last one resonates the most with me. Are we helping anyone when we post a political commentary? Fundamental to speaking correctly is our intention--for whom are we speaking?
Are we trying to help other people or are we just blowing off steam?
If our intention is for the benefit of others, then I think that sarcasm may be a very useful tool in exciting change in people's worldviews. Too much of anything can become excessive. (We all know someone whose every other sentence is sarcastic. This shtick gets old very fast, degenerating into negativity, not wit.). Yet sarcasm in small doses can challenge the status quo. The difference between satire and parody is enormous. The former seeks reform while the latter just mocks.

If the purpose of sarcasm or being ironic is change--to seek justice and equality--then I think that a moderate, skillful use of them may be very constructive.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

As a Brother and Sister - Dharma talk

The entire universe is one family. All beings are intimately connected--not just humans, but every plant, animal, insect, and atom. Compassion and wisdom mean treating all beings with the care, patience, and tenderness that we normally reserve for our closest loved ones.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Earth Is My Witness

The earth was not created; it most likely formed from the accumulation of interstellar dust in a process called planetary accretion. I raise this, not to undermine the notion of creationism, but to point out creationism's most dangerous logical conclusion--that the earth was created for humans.

This fundamental error, endorsed by some of the world's most influential religions, has been the root of many of our ecological and moral crises--pollution, animal cruelty and exploitation, the decimation of endangered species, fracking, deforestation, and so on.

I wish that this were a massive exaggeration, but the United States is currently facing one of the greatest threats to the environment that it has seen in decades (if not ever). The Trump administration seeks to deregulate the EPA and its related protective legislature to promote business expansion. If modern industry is left unchecked to do as it pleases, the result of this could be disastrous.

And at the heart of this lies that fundamental error--that the world was created for humans to do with as they please. Whether Trump and his administration genuinely believe such a fallacy is irrelevant because millions of people do, and not just his constituents. I would wager that even those Americans who don't identify as being religious subscribe to this destructive myth.

Stated directly:
Humans are not the owners of earth. This planet was not created for our entertainment, amusement, or consumption. And most importantly, humans are not the center of the universe.
Buddhism understands that humans are interconnected to everything else. While it is our habit to privilege humanity above other species or the planet as a whole, this tendency is not grounded in reality. Earth wasn't created for us; we are earth. We cannot exist without the soil, air, and food that grows. Humans--while an evolved species and a magnificent expression of life--do not live in a vacuum; inseparable from our environment, we are our environment. In the vast web of life, distinctions are arbitrary. There is no clear line demarcating where we begin and the earth ends.

We are an expression of that great unity called life, and as a conscious embodiment of it, we are responsible for how we treat the rest of the world. Because of developments in science and technology, humans have risen to become a dominant species on earth, but that does not make us the planet's rulers. Far from it, we are stewards at best.

We must learn to govern, live, and share this world responsibly. This begins with seeing clearly. I challenge--and encourage you to challenge--the destructive myth that animals were created for us to eat; that the earth was created as our playground. Nothing could be further from the truth, or more destructive.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Styrofoam Cake: Perfect Symbol for Trump's Presidency

Donald Trump commissioned his inaugural cake to be identical to President Obama's cake from 2012. (See photo above: Obama's is on the left. Click here for the story.) While this may seem a bit strange, it's not what I find most fascinating about this bizarre story. As an English teacher deeply interested in literary symbolism, I was captivated by the fact that the cake was fake.
The cake is made of Styrofoam.
Only one portion of the cake--the part that is ceremoniously cut--is edible; the rest is a facade, just like our current president himself. More than a successful real estate mogul or casino owner, Trump is a brand. He has amassed much of his fortune based on his name, through licensing deals with golf courses and land development.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, what's in a brand? It is not land, natural resources, or gold. While extremely valuable, a brand is a formless phantasm. Like Trump himself, it lacks substance. Besides his mythical wall and a promised return to Reagan-era tax breaks for the wealthy, I can't identify any solid policy that Trump has proposed.

Because he hasn't proposed any. Trump got elected because of his ambiguity, not despite it. Like his shallow cake, he has no political platform other than a vague agenda to "make America great again," which is a campaign slogan, not legislation or policy.

Just as with so much of Trump, his Styrofoam cake is phony--a sugary veneer covering a sterile, unpalatable core.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Is religion sacred?

When I was watching the Presidential inauguration yesterday, I was struck by the sheer amount of times I head God (and Jesus) mentioned. Besides alienating groups of people not represented in or affirmed by the inauguration ceremony--Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists--I just didn't see why religion has any role in politics.

As a firm believer in the separation of church of state, I started thinking about why religion holds such an elevated status for people. I consider myself a reasonable person; I don't subscribe to views that empirical evidence or science cannot avouch. If I held a belief that was rationally untenable--like there were 10,000 Buddhas dancing on the tip of a needle--then I would re-assess my belief.
Religion should not be exempt from reason and logic. That's why I appreciate Buddhism so much; the Buddha encouraged thoughtful, skeptical inquiry. 
Yet, religious view, no matter how preposterous, are considered sacrosanct. Why? Religion does not exists in its own unassailable sphere.

For instance, why are religious organization tax exempt? While this runs counter to the notion that most Americans have about religion--that it's somehow sacred in a way that playing tennis or playing
guitar aren't--I think that it's an important question that we need to ask, especially now that the religious right controls both the congressional and executive branches of our government.

In America, religion intrudes into politics all of the time, and it is considered perfectly acceptable, so much so that during the presidential debates, both candidates were asked how their faith influences their lives. Both Clinton and Trump gave the same stock reply, neither of which was acceptable in my opinion. I want a candidate who says, "My religion, or lack of religion, will have no influence on the laws I pass." I don't want my elected representatives' religious views meddling into policy.

Still, we see religion insinuating itself into conversations about marriage equality, birth control, and even sex ed. While the Constitution protects Americans' right to practice religion, I don't think that it should allow religion to intrude into the common public sphere. Treat religion like any other facet of society.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Happy New Year - Dharma talk

Every day is brand new. Every day is an opportunity to awaken. Living with this in mind every moment is walking the Buddha's Way.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Don't be cruel

The fundamental tenet of nearly every spiritual tradition is to do good; don't cause harm or inflict unnecessary suffering. Help others whenever possible. This all sounds good in theory but putting it into practice is another matter entirely.

In the modernized West, food of all varieties is available to people of all incomes, and yet Americans consume more meat than ever before in history--even though they know that animals are virtually tortured in the process. I don't understand this willful ignorance. I'll paraphrase Thich Nhat Hanh and say that a hamburger is pain. We support cruelty when we buy factory farmed meat.

Another example of the same principle: although many of the white Americans who voted for Donald Trump may not actually be racist, they are okay with racism. When Muslims or Mexicans are persecuted because of racist legislation that Trump passes, Trump voters are responsible for that injustice. They may pretend that they aren't or argue otherwise, but they are accomplices to racism and discrimination.

A large part of contemplative practice is about being honest--owning oneself and one's actions. If we endorse racist politicians, we are permitting racism. If we eat meat, we are a contributing to cruelty. Our actions and their consequences are our responsibility. If we poison the river, we are responsible for all of the harm that it causes--not just immediately, but generations from now as well.