Saturday, November 17, 2018

Guns, God, Gridlock

When people get attached to ideas, entrenched in their beliefs, it becomes hard for them to see past their views because it appears as if their viewpoint is reality. So much of the division in America results from people's inability to see that their perspective is just one of an infinite amount of ways of viewing the world.

Those people who staunchly defend the 2nd Amendment are often so thoroughly committed to their position that they are unable to see any alternative to either defending or attacking it unconditionally. The same applies to other single-issue voters who, for religions reasons, oppose same-sex unions or a woman's right to choose whether she wants to reproduce--because God opposes it, they must too.

It's this inflexible approach to the complexity of life that gridlocks both people and the institution of democracy. Buddhists can fall victim to this very condition as well.

Whenever people allow their lifestyle and choices to define them, they run the risk of trapping themselves in into a fixed identity. Then ideas become ideology.

I try not to consider myself a Buddhist because that entails an entire ecosystem of meanings that I do not feel necessary for me to practice the Buddha's teachings. Instead, I simply like to think (or say) that I practice Buddhism.

One of the most beautiful and liberating implications of sunyata, or emptiness at is often rendered in English, is a lack of fixity, of having no set position or viewpoint. Rather than saying I support or oppose the 2nd Amendment--both of which fall prey to a single, landlocked viewpoint--I think that's it's more skillful to say that I do not own a gun, nor do I think in most circumstances that private citizens should own... and so on.

For me, Buddhism is not what I believe, but what I do. The former often entails a rigid identity, a calcified, unwavering this is what I believe under all circumstances attitude and viewpoint; whereas the latter allows us to become whatever the current circumstances require us to be. Or maybe it might be better to see Buddhism as the freedom that emerges from a series of practices and teachings.

Even though I'm not a carpenter, if my roof collapses, I may have to become one until a professional arrives. Instead of cornering myself with the belief that I'm not a carpenter; I'm a high school teacher, I can see through that belief and just try my best to repair the roof before it causes more damage. Or maybe not--if the task is too great or dangerous, perhaps I should just wait.

There's no formula to life; that's what sunyata means. Rise to the occasion, respond to life on its terms, not our own.

This is why upaya or skillfiul means is so vital to many schools of Buddhism. I don't need to commit unequivocally to the teachings of impermanence, rebirth, or karma. Rather, in the true spirit of sunyata, we can relinquish the human tendency for a fixed view, and instead respond to circumstances as they arise.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Forget about your butt. Where is your mind?

One of the most disappointing aspects of Zen is how ossified it has become in many organizations. What originally distinguished Zen from other Buddhist schools was its reliance on mind-to-mind transmission between teacher and student. Rather than some esoteric, mystical experience, this process is simply the mirroring of two minds--the recognition that each mind is already Buddha.

Yet, many Zen schools, especially those in Europe and America, have (in my opinion) lost sight of this guiding principle. Institutions have grown to protect what they see as the integrity of Zen, acting as a kind of self-appointed litmus testers to determine who actually has the Zen mojo and who doesn't. However, in doing so, they have fallen into the very trap that Zen itself was a response to--namely the rigid authoritarianism of tradition and dogma.

Zen has always been iconoclastic. The famous Sixth Ancestor, Huineng, was an illiterate lay person in his teens when he was given the mind-to-mind transmission ceremony from his teacher. Talk about a slap in the face to authority, tradition, and ritual!

Nowadays the yardstick for good Zen teachers is how many retreats they have attended (i.e., how many hours they can prove their ass has sat on a cushion) and how long they have been practicing Zen. But this reductive formula--designed and approved by the American Zen Teachers Association--defies the central tenet of Zen, namely that it's about awakening, not how much time someone has put it in. It's not about seniority, age, race, gender, sexual orientation, how many koans someone has answered, or even about how many Buddhist miles someone has accrued/earned.

It's about mind. That's the Dharma Seal.

Personally, I am much more concerned with the state of students' minds than I am with how many hours they have sat on their asses or where they stand in some koan curriculum.