Sunday, 24 September 2017

“Buddhist” Violence

I don't pretend to understand all the nuances of whatever the circumstances regarding Myanmar, Rakhine state, or the Rohingya. My bet is that among the many people who have an opinion about this don't know anything more than what they've read on the internet. I'm curious about how many could find Myanmar on a map or could give its former name. This piece in fact, only tangentially involves that situation.

What this does involve is the drum beating about “Buddhist Violence” and “Buddhist Terrorism,” and the assumptions behind that. Western Buddhists (at least the most visible ones) seem to think that these “other” Buddhists should “know better.” We seem to have an odd attitude about our quaint little fellow Buddhists on the other side of the world, as if we have a better handle on the Buddha’s teachings than they do. To be charitable, let's call it the “zeal of the convert.” To be less charitable, it's another example of Western Superiority, of neo-colonialism.

I'll make a few broad statements here: countries tend to have armies. Armies tend to be armed with weapons. Weapons used by armies by definition are implements designed to inflict harm upon another person. Even “majority Buddhist” countries have armies, and they're armed with weapons. And their having weapons implies that their intent is that they will be used either defensively or offensively, to inflict harm on other people.

Without going too deeply into history, Buddhists have used weapons against other Buddhists and non-Buddhists. I tried looking up some facts about South and East Asian wars just since 1900, and the list was lengthy to say the least. Overall, a good number of these countries have at one point or another been ruled by “military dictatorships,” which is a euphemistic way of saying, “Fellow countrymen, agree, submit, or die.” In some cases, this was extended to “Conquered countrymen…” sometimes to “Invader…”

In no particular order, there were wars between the Japanese and Russians, Chinese against other Chinese, Koreans against Koreans, Koreans against Japanese, Chinese against Japanese, indochinese against Japanese, Vietnamese against Vietnamese, Cambodian against Cambodian, Laotian against Laotian, Burmese against Burmese, Sri Lankan against Sri Lankan, Thai on Thai, Chinese against Tibetan, Nepalese against Nepalese, Bhutanese against Bhutanese, and any number of the above against ethnic minorities and/or separatists within their own borders, and seemingly everyone against the French, British, and/or Americans.

That long sentence should point out that the “peaceful Buddhist” is an illusion. To return to Myanmar/Burma for a moment, think back to how “brutal” the military dictatorship was, as seen in the film Beyond Rangoon, pretty ruthless. It shouldn't be too much of a stretch to think that they're not “over it,” or more or less Buddhist than they ever were. Admittedly, I'm curious about what Suttas Ashin Wirathu and the 969 Movement read that said that inciting violence was a good idea, but I also look at them as representative of the Monastic Order as the Westboro Baptist Church is of Christian churches.

“Buddhism” as teaching is Lovingkindness, Joy, Equanimity, and Compassion. “Buddhists” as humans, are as liable to hate, become violent, become enraged, and commit acts of violence as the rest of humanity. That doesn't mean when we see atrocities that we don't protest them or call the perpetrators on their deeds. But let's not do it out of some sense of superiority or stereotype. Let's do it not because we're Buddhists, but because that is a reflection of ALL beings’ True Nature, not just a “Peaceful Buddhist,” as if there was a monolithic, uniform “Peaceful Buddhist.”

“....Subhuti, when I talk about the practice of transcendent patience, I do not hold onto any arbitrary conceptions about the phenomena of patience, I merely refer to it as the practice of transcendent patience. And why is that? Because when, thousands of lifetimes ago, the Prince of Kalinga severed the flesh from my limbs and my body I had no perception of a self, a being, a soul, or a universal self. If I had cherished any of these arbitrary notions at the time my limbs were being torn away, I would have fallen into anger and hatred.”
Diamond Sutra, Chapter 14 (excerpt) Diamond Sutra.com

There was, however, a peaceful Buddha.


Friday, 8 September 2017

Mindfulness in Waiting

I’m waiting for something to happen. Beyond the existential concept that says we’re all waiting for something, I am waiting right now for information about something very specific. The details of what I’m waiting for aren’t important. The experience of it is what I’m here to discuss.

Most of us can tolerate a certain amount of waiting without too much trouble. We wait in line. We wait in traffic. We wait for our loved ones to come home from a trip. Some kinds of waiting feel benign and others become suffering. This is the suffering kind of waiting. It’s the kind of waiting where I’ve done everything I possibly can to distract myself from obsessing over when I’m going to learn the outcome  and all that’s left is hyperawareness of not knowing.

After becoming bored with developing some killer skills in the game 2048, it finally occurred to me that this is exactly the kind of situation Buddhist practice is designed to address (light dawns on marble head, right?). Mindfulness is the answer! Yes, mindfulness. Be in the present moment. 

Unfortunately my present moment is fused with uncertainty. There is music playing in the coffee shop I’m sitting in right now. I can hear the sounds of the barista wiping the counters and her sneakers squeaking on the floor. I feel the smoothness of my laptop under the palms of my hands as I type. I’ve just eaten. So I feel well-sated. There is a lingering taste of chocolate on my tongue, since I decided to get a mocha today instead of a plain latte. And…there is an underlying discomfort in the background of not knowing this important information. 

It’s a common misunderstanding that the point of mindfulness is to make us feel better, to remove us from our discomfort. Turning back to Pema Chödrön I am reminded that the real instruction is simply to stay. Part of the point of mindfulness is to inoculate ourselves against suffering by practicing staying with the discomfort when it is present, to not distract ourselves or run away from it. Mindfulness in this case is to learn to be with what is, as it is. In learning this lesson, that is how the suffering is released, not by blissing out and just pretending everything feels okay.

Because I am a plan-ahead kind of person, this particular brand of waiting looks like it was special-ordered for me. In order to be relieved from my suffering, I need to stay with the feelings of insecurity and threat I get from not being able to make plans and from not having any kind of control over when or how I will finally get the information I need. I need to examine this suffering so I can become more informed about the result of being strongly attached to a particular outcome.

Having reoriented the purpose of my mindfulness exercise in this case, I bow to this teacher and hope to learn all I can from it before resolution comes.


Namasté. 

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Unintentionally Consequential

There's a line between “what we are,” and “what we do.” It's sometimes very blurry, sometimes may even overlap, and sometimes diametrically opposites. It's all based on self-identification. Depending on work, we may conduct myself as an engineer, or banker. If we're in a political mode, the identification might be as Democrat or Republican, Labor or Tory, Trotskyite or Stalinis, Liberal or Conservative. Vegan, vegetarian, omnivore, male, female, gay, bi, lesbian, transsexual, transgender, Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, Forest monk, Shin, Christian, Muslim, Sunni, Shiite, Jew, Orthodox Jew, Hasidic, Reform, etc., and that's a lot of round holes we square pegs might be forcing ourselves into! 

These demarcations often have behaviors we associate with them, and quite often, we make ourselves into cookie-cutter images of what we imagine those labels demand. Likewise the label we pick may even determine what hole we think we should dive into. It's one thing to be environmentally conscious and then become a member of the Greens, it's another to look at them and start acting like we think a Green should act. Neither is particularly good or bad, after all, we haven't necessarily thought of every way to be environmentally conservative and may have something to learn from what appear to be like-minded individuals.

To one extent or another, we also try to force others into round holes, and they may have a totally different hole picked out for themselves. It may come as a real shocker to find out that Hitler was a vegetarian and that he was kind to dogs. Animal rights activists might also be vegetarian dog lovers, but that doesn't mean they also have to be Nazis any more than Hitler was a tree-hugging liberal. “Fascists are evil!” we might say, and then to find out that they aren't evil 100% of the time can shake up some of our deeply held preconceptions. And lest we forget, Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, no tree-hugger was he, at least according to conventional wisdom. These examples of “other-identifications” are as mistaken as our own “self-identifications.”

Following the Buddhist path is to lead to liberation. Following the Zen path leads to seeing things as they truly are, to experience it fully, to see our True Nature, to help others, and thus become liberated. One could even say that we're already liberated, if we looked for something that held us in chains, we'd see that there really isn't anything. And not just in an “emptiness” nothing, but in reality “nothing” except our own thinking. To be liberated from our thinking is to stop thinking “I'm this,” “You're that,” and because of this and that, it means I must do something and you do something else. Dropping this thinking includes even the notion of unity and differentiation, the notion that there's a fallback position when things get difficult. We make difficult for ourselves, and we really don't need a fallback position. That doesn't really exist either. 

The bottom line is that there is no more a reason than an excuse for doing what we do. Negotiating the line I mentioned above can be tricky. Do I not eat meat because I'm a “vegetarian” or am I feeling compassion for all beings and therefore don't eat meat, so I look for the vegetarian section of a menu? Anything I do because I'm a “Zennist” is a poor excuse for doing it. Do I do things because I think it's correct action, and that just so happens to be what the Buddha would have done? Better reason for action. When I go the grocery store, do I put the cart in the little cart hut because that's what a Zennie “should” do? Do I see that someone's livelihood depends on people not putting carts back so he can gather them back up--which is what puts food on his family table? Honestly, sometimes I'll do either, largely dependent upon a whim. 

To use the grocery store example further, when they ask “Paper or plastic?” which do I choose and why? Do I immediately say “paper” because I think of myself as environmentally conscious Buddhist, and the Buddha wouldn't have used paper, so ergo I must use paper?. Making the choice isn't that straightforward if I really look at it. Paper requires trees to be cut down. These trees help the atmosphere, provide habitats for animals, help stop soil erosion and so forth. The power saws used to cut them down requires power, obviously. That power is most likely a fossil fuel, the trucks that transport the timber to the sawmill likewise uses gasoline, the saws at the mill use electricity, which may have been produced by coal, nuclear, or maybe by wind, solar, or water power. The rest of the paper-making process likewise requires power, and on it goes. As it turns out, I bring my own bags, because Northampton Mass has banned plastic shopping bags, so it's a moot point here. Previously I went with paper because for all the shortcomings manufacturing entails, plastic ends up not decomposing for the most part, so the long term result is probably the worse choice. Neither choice is pristine.

Until we stop creating karma, our actions will by and large not be pristine. Some may be wholesome and positive, some negative, and some neutral. The priest at an old Zen sangha I attended once said that meditation is one of the few karmically neutral actions we can make. Virtually any action we take--writing, grocery shopping, driving, being with loved ones, working--all involve other people, and therefore will have consequences. In my estimation, the same action will be perceived differently by others involved in the ripple effect of the action. The same person may have radically different reactions to the same phenomena, depending on the flexibility of perceptions. The reaction is dependent on any number of other factors in addition to the action I have taken. It would be very naive and self-important to think my actions happen in a vacuum, that they're the only stimulus that elicits a response. Even when I'm “just writing” this, the thoughts that come to me, the mood I'm in, my physical environment all figure into creating that “just.” In reality, what is it even possible to “just” do? 

As Bodhisattvas, the job of “saving all beings” may be as simple as trying not to do harm. Maybe the next notch up is to try to be helpful. We can't worry about how this help will necessarily be received, we can't be paralyzed by the possibility that an action may be taken to be other than in the spirit we intended. We do what we can, as skillfully as we can, to be of benefit to not only the one person we're interacting with, but with the realization that the ripples of our action will flow out like Indra’s Net. This is how we save “all” beings--by respecting and taking care of ourselves so we can help the next being with whom we come into contact, 

If we aren't paying attention, acting mindfully if you like, then our blind wandering throughout our environment may indeed result in our actions being “Unintentionally Consequential.”

Other Eunsahn Citta blogs can be found here:

http://nobodhiknows.blogspot.com/2017/04/unintentionally-consequential.html

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Zen and the Art of Tube Feeding

Overall my family and I have been pretty lucky with pets. My parents had two cats when I was growing up. The “baby” had a heart condition and I guess my mom had to give it medicine. That usually translated into my sister giving the cat the medicine, as she was destined to eventually work at a vet’s office.

When my husband and I had cats in the ’90’s through the early 2000’s, both passed after relatively short illnesses at 15 and 17 years of age. Until then, the most exciting veterinary experience we had with them was giving thyroid medication to our calico cat, Sheila. She also needed percutaneous fluids near the very end, but that was only a week or so and only once a day.

Nothing could have prepared us for…tube feeding a cat.

The cats we have now, Ichigo and Angel are total sweethearts. At least when Ichigo is not beating up his brother, they are sweethearts. They’re six years old. We were told at their last veterinary appointment in the summer that they were a little pudgy. So, we tried a few things changing their food around. We tried to exercise them more, but discovered that we really have no idea what is amusing to a cat. Most of our attempts resulted in us getting far more exercise than our fuzzy friends. So, when Ichigo looked like he’d lost a little weight, we weren’t that concerned. For some reason, Angel was spending a lot of time sitting next to him and we thought that was so cute! 

Cats are small animals though. So when things start going downhill (we discovered), they go downhill fast. Next thing you know, Ichigo was lethargic and not engaging in any of his normal activities. We were getting  concerned, but it wasn’t until one of our friends commented on how terrible he looked that I called my sister. Rather than waiting until the next day, she advised us to take him to an emergency vet right away.

  • Resorptive lesions on his teeth - six extractions
  • Pancreatitis - pain meds
  • Hepatic lipidosis (fat stuck in the liver from all the weight loss)
  • Three days in the animal hospital AND
…wait for it…
  • the feeding tube

Those of you who have had infants will laugh at my adventure, I’m sure. Certainly, the idea of chasing down a cat, plunging 48 ml of “slurry” into it’s esophagus…one…milliliter…a…time…six…times…a…day seems like nothing to you. Cleaning the splattered slurry off of the walls after he’s shaken his head vigorously with the tube cap off? Piece of cake. Making the slurry…smelling the slurry…crushing medications and mixing into the slurry? Eh - that’s nothing.

Dreaming about slurry...

In those moments at 2:30 am, after finally figuring out the sequestering the cat in the bathroom for tube feeding is best for everyone involved, there is time to ponder.

I started thinking about mortality and expectations. Pena Chodron once said (quoting someone I believe) “since death is certain and the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” This is a phrase I consider frequently when I’m faced with difficult situations. In this flurry of activity taking care of the cat, however, I was reminded that I actually do take each day for granted. That “the time of death is uncertain” has translated to my subconscious as “some time in the very distant future that I don’t have to worry about now.” I expect everything to keep clicking along just fine.

I’ve been fortunate in life. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I had the opportunity to have relationships with three of my great grandparents and that three of my grandparents lived well into their 80’s and 90’s. My father recovered completely from his cardiac arrest - which rarely happens in real life. My parents’s cats lived to be well over 10 years old - even the one with the heart condition. Our last cats lived into their teens. In my good fortune, I lost perspective on the precariousness with which we greet each day. It simply never occurred to me that Ichigo could die, but he almost did.


I’m trying to hold this thought in my head for a while, think about and manipulate it a little, let it sink in. The tube came out last week and my husband, daughter and I are currently obsessed with his gustatory rhythms. It would be easy to forget now and just go on as I did before. At some point, this lesson too will fade. For now though, I bring my palms together and bow to it’s wisdom. Katz!

 

Saturday, 31 December 2016

New Year, New Opportunities

"When they go low, we go high," Michelle Obama said during the recent campaign. If you're left-leaning, does this "high" mean we satisfy ourselves with a sense of moral superiority and passivity, at best preaching to the choir, to our like-minded FB followers? I hope not. Does it mean we'll take to the streets, but only when the weather is nice? Likewise, I hope not. Does it mean that we wait, giving the new administration a chance? Maybe to an extent on some issues, but not on others. What doesn't seem to bode well--LGBT rights, rights of minorities, respect for the Constitution, the Environment, Education, Foreign Affairs, Energy, Social Security--they are a few that come to mind without pondering too much. On war, I have no clue what the next few years hold. There have been both uber-hawkish AND isolationist messages, although there are an awful lot of generals running about, and about whom the next administration's "leader" says he knows more than in general.  Generals who have seen war are sometimes hesitant to send another generation into the horrors they've known, sometimes they look to prop up the military-industrial behemoth. 

The time for the Left's triumphalism transpired and has expired. The torch has been passed and in new hands, hopefully won't torch everything with it. these people with whom I so fervently disagree, probably felt the same way over the last eight years. Maybe they were inclined to light it up more then than now. There does seem to be a possibility that the Reagan era "Government isn't the solution, it's the problem" thought may be in evidence. Clear-cutting a forest is one thing when it's literal, and it becomes something entirely different when it's metaphorical. The metaphorical may lead to the literal, or vice versa. Nothing like destroying the environment by first destroying the Environmental Protection Agency. Those of us who see these issues as potential train-wrecks, we need to make our views clear. 

What I need to remember is that my "views" are only that--views. They aren't necessarily a reflection of reality, and even if they are, they're not necessarily perceived correctly by me. We can say "Correct View is no view" all we like, until that means relinquishing our firmly held opinions and what we cling to as Truth. Then it starts to require some efort and there are times when self-pity is just easier. Pointing the finger of blame at "these people" takes the onus of responsibility off our backs; creating a demonized "other" relieves us of any responsibility to do anything about this perceived "suffering" we're undergoing. And that can be quite the relief, albeit a short-lived one, in a really perverse way.

I also need to remember that "these people" have experienced struggles (Dukkha) the same as I have, and not just in a socio-political context. They and I and all others have created our current situations through our actions, words, and thoughts. We've created the karma that has ripened into the fruits or weeds of today. We can create karma which will add to the current situation or create karma that sets a new course. Our actions as a society have created our societal situation. We have allowed mass incarceration, a violence culture, a consumer culture, all to be the norm. If you like all of those things, keep doing what you're doing. If not, try something different. We are where we are because we we created it, as unpleasant a thought as that may be. If it is unpleasant, what do we do, think, say that will change that course? 

A bodhisattva adapts to ever-changing causes and conditions. "Saving all beings" is not one-size-fits-all. If nothing else, our baseline needs to be not to do harm. And we have to realize that what seems like it will not do harm may have unintended consequences. We can't possibly predict them all, but when we get a surprise, we have to pay attention and act accordingly at that moment. As ZM Seung Sahn would point out, there is correct situation/relationship/function. "Saving all beings" means just that--ALL. We need to function correctly depending on the relationship in a situation. Even people we don't like experience suffering and deserve compassion for that reason alone, if nothing else. Pay attention! Respond correctly, do no harm! If the action does cause harm, pay attention! Try another tack. But keep trying until all beings are saved. In that context, we'll have ample new opportunities. 

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Why a Buddhist Would Dig Ani Difranco

Distracted by technology and propaganda, unable to relate to the human condition and nature, who are we today? Ask feminist icon and activist Ani DiFrancno. In an upcoming album release, we look forward to the rest of the songs that share good company with “Binary”. This Buddhist is digging the message.

Her description of consciousness as “binary” and “spinning” reminds me of electrons and the Buddhist idea that nothing is truly separate from anything else. I only relate this because the Tao of Physics is what got me interested in Buddhism in the first place.



This song encourages to “complete the circuit”. This also involves progressive and engaged Buddhism by getting up the face of those who propagate the mythology of separateness by oppression and greed.


Here is her video of the song from the 30A Songwriter's Festival. Thanks, Linda Fahey, for introducing us to this on NPR. *explicit lyrics








Friday, 10 June 2016

Worry - Would It Help?

Over the years, I've tried numerous strategies to quell my anxiety. Truly it remains an uphill battle. Just being a Buddhist has given me a stronger framework from which to understand the mental storms that plague me. It is usually some form of tanha (thirst or craving either for or especially against something) that gets me going. Recognizing that is always easier than putting the brakes on it.

A couple of weeks ago, I remembered a movie I saw late last year. It was called Bridge of Spies. In it Tom Hanks played a lawyer in the Cold War. He was called upon to arrange a prisoner exchange with the Russians for a spy he had defended. Mark Rylance played the spy, Rudoplh Abel. I liked the movie. What sticks with me though is Rylance's character. Whenever there was uncertainty about what would happen to him or when he was in overt danger, Tom Hank's character would comment that he didn't understand how he could remain so calm and ask him if he wasn't worried about the outcome. Rylance's character always simply replied "Would it help?" Of course, the answer was always no.

When I can remember, I've been trying to apply this question to situations that trigger my anxiety. I look at the circumstance I'm in and ask myself, "Is this worry helping?" As in the movie, the question is always a resounding no. What it does do is increase my dukkha (suffering) exponentially. 

I can't tell you that my new mantra is a magic pill that has solved the problem of overreacting to just about everything, but it is a fun variation on the the meditation response "thinking" when applied to an overactive mind. 

Practice, practice, practice. 

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Qualities of a "good" meditation teacher

Meditation has taken off.

Meditation is the new yoga.

Meditation is the new kale.

Meditation is the new Crossfit.

And, maybe, meditation teaching is the new bartending. (?)

The first four of those are my assessments. The last one belongs to Ira Israel, a -you guessed it- meditation teacher.

This and more like it here.
As Israel points out:

Since there is no unanimously accepted meditation teacher training certification or licensure program, anyone can call himself a “Meditation Teacher” with that title currently being as legitimate as “Published Author,” “International Speaker,” “Urban Shaman,” “Sought After Visionary,” “Spiritual Advisor,” “Intergalactic Warrior Priestess,” “Intuitive Healer,” “Life Coach,” “Wellness Expert,”... etc.
This is true. And in today's Western, Progressive Buddhist world, what truly qualifies one as a "Meditation teacher?" 

Historically, the answer would have been something like, "appointment by a recognized master in a respected/accepted lineage." However, as any reading of the history of Buddhism will tell you, the religion is filled with "masters" who have split off from established sects. And, as an eye on the news can tell you today, plenty of established monks/priests/lamas/senseis etc are teaching rather strange things and/or acting in morally dubious (and sometimes criminal) ways.

So it seems that "qualification by lineage alone" isn't going to cut it.

A second option is the completely secular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (along with spin-offs, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and other "Mindfulness-Based Interventions"). But the MBSR route, according to the UMass website, requires:

  1. An 8-week intro course ($545-725 sliding scale)
  2. 4 long retreats ($500-1000 each)
  3. An 8 week practicum (price not advertised)
  4. A "teacher development intensive" (price not advertised)

If memory serves me, though, the whole process runs $10-12,000.

So that's out for most people.

Israel gives five "warning signs" one should look out for in finding a meditation teacher:
  1. They have an IMDB page (perhaps more of a problem around L.A. than elsewhere in the world)
  2. They are self-righteous - obvious enough. All of the meditation teachers I have learned from and respected were also incredibly humble. Granted they are all sharp and smart as a whip and can argue necessary points of doctrine and practice, but they also easily admitted when they didn't know something and didn't seem to go over-the-top when they disagreed with opponents.
  3. Talks like a seasoned brain surgeon (but isn't one). Again, that's a good sign. The medical benefits of meditation have been demonstrated time and again, but often in small, specific populations and with results that are really minimal or simply confusing to the non-scientist. 
  4. They have a publicist (sounds like another L.A. problem)
  5. They have their own "style" (brand) of meditation with no clear lineage. This is good advice. Remember James Arthur Ray, of "the Secret" fame, who led 3 people to their own death in an Arizona sweat lodge? 

So those are some good "warning signs" but what are key qualities for a good teacher? I'd tentatively propose the following:
  1. Meditation Experience: It's tough to say how long someone should have meditated before teaching. 5 years (minimum)? 10? At least 3, in my book, but 10+ is really best. A lot of good work can be done in a short time, especially if some long retreats are mixed in there, but it takes time for all of that work to "stabilize" into a whole life.
  2. Broader Education: Some of my favorite teachers were practicing psychologists, and this gives important foundation and language for understanding both oneself and others in meditative experiences. A solid academic grounding in the history, beliefs, and practices of Buddhism is great too. So is a background in brain science, human behavior, etc. 
  3. An on-going practice: A no-brainer I would hope. Your teacher should meditate. How much though? 10-20 minutes/day 5 days a week? 40-minutes plus, 7 days a week? More? Once again the rule seems to be "the more the better" and certainly if you find yourself meditating more than your teacher, it won't be long before you're having difficulties and/or experiences that he/she won't know how to deal with.
  4. Humility: see above. If you find yourself going to "teacher-x" just to be in his/her presence and to post on instagram/facebook about it, you're probably there for the pure celebrity appeal and not likely to get much of substance out of it. If the teacher actively cultivates a "cult of personality" around him/herself, time to get away, asap. 
  5. Support/Community: Therapists often need therapy, counselors need counsel, teachers need continuing education. So meditation teachers, unsurprisingly, should be expected to need and get ongoing education. 
Other points?

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Not-Perfect, Not-Imperfect

At this time of year, the Buddha could have just walked down 34th Street, pointed to Macy's, and said, “Dukkha,” and everybody would have gotten the First Noble Truth without a second word needing to be spoken. But 'tis the season of giving. Bright, fresh-faced, rosy-cheeked children sitting lovingly on Santa's lap in the department store, the jolly Salvation Army bell-ringers with kettles overflowing with donations, peace on earth, good will toward men, fake snow on palm trees in Australia and Africa, and all the rest of the Norman Rockwell world that is the holiday season associated with Christmas. Religious or secular, here it is, the time when people give. I could go into the realm of conspicuous consumption, commercialism, what's ostensibly a Christian holiday (with possible pagan origins) being thrust upon the rest of the world as a capitalist orgy, and I guess I just did. But that's not news.
Reality may be slightly different than the greeting cards might imply. It's not all “peace, love, and crunchy granola.” Families get together for the first time since the last wedding, last funeral, or last Christmas. And quite often, telling the difference between Christmas and one of the other two may not be easy. There's a good chance of excessive consumption of alcohol, much wailing and gnashing of teeth, arguments, and resentments. And then there are the funerals. Along with all that, there is a sense of being placed sometimes forcibly, into the role of gift-giver. Maybe random names are drawn from a hat at the office, where you get to play “Secret Santa,” which invariably results in wondering what face that name goes with, or maybe worse, drawing your boss's name: “Don't want to look unappreciative, so it's gotta be nice, but it can't be too nice, or he'll think maybe I don't need that pay raise.” What do you get for the person who...you don't even know, much less know what s/he has and wants/needs more of, or something that shows you care, or that they'd even like?
'Tis the season of giving, of giving grudgingly, mandatory giving, guilt-laden giving and the occasional giving associated with warm feelings for someone, out of compassion, maybe just to see the smile on someone's face when they receive something donated anonymously, and of being OK with someone appreciating a gift or maybe not. There's probably some of all the above to varying degrees with all of us. There are some assumptions in all these situations: A) There's a giver; B) there is a gift; C) there is the recipient of said gift from the aforementioned giver.
The first of the Six Perfections (Paramitas) is dana, or generosity. By the very act of giving, we release attachment and clinging, at least in a best-case scenario. Generosity is a perfection, so it must be a good thing, right? The temptation might be to renounce all our worldly possessions, to assume a post-ghost Scrooge stance, showering the world with all the worldly goods we can. And that's fine, so long as it's done in the actual spirit of generosity.. If we are generous just to be generous, without any expectation of reciprocation, maybe anonymously, Wonderful! Even if we are generous with maybe a tinge of puffing ourselves up, maybe to get a little pat on the back, Wonderful! Do it anyway, with more practice, maybe that will wear off. Maybe not. I'd guess the homeless guy who just received a gift of food really doesn't much care about the motives of the giver. There's just, “Mmmmm.” Perhaps spending some time on the cushion, looking deeply at our motivations might be in order though.
Then there's the version of the recipient actually asking for a handout. The original Sangha, including the Buddha, relied on donations of food and shelter. It's common practice in many countries that there is a day set aside for the laity to make donations directly to the monks. I'm not fond of megachurches and ashrams demanding donations, especially when the clergy end up living lives of wealth and fame. That's fine, it's just not where I'd choose to send my generosity, any more than to the organizations who run the $1,000 per week meditation retreats. Go to any Zen center website, and more often than not, there's probably a “donate” button. That's fine too. The Dharma is free, but mats, cushions, incense, rent, etc. tend not to be. So go ahead, donate. The Zen Center probably needs donations to stay afloat, and trust me, being a Zen priest isn't exactly the way to wealth and fame. (If you'd like to further investigate the commodification of Zen in the West, Dōshim Dharma wrote a book entitled “Brand-Name Zen,” which details all this quite well).
In China, where the peasantry probably had virtually nothing to give, Master Baizhang Huaihai is attributed with having set up the dictum of, “No work, no food.” Apparently when his student monks hid his tools because a Great Sage shouldn't have to do such menial chores as planting and spreading manure, Baizhang essentially went on hunger strike. This wasn't out of some Zen Master pouting, it was his way of living the ethic of “No work, no food.” It could be said that the monks' generosity to the peasantry was that they didn't demand that they support the temple. Baizhang generosity was to set the example of no one being special. There's also the story of the monk living alone as a hermit being visited by robbers one night. He remarked to them that they must really be in need, so he gave them what possessions he had--the clothes on his back. The monk's generosity, much less the sight of a naked monk, did nothing to deter them from stealing however.
My writing this, instead of finding someone in need of something and giving is probably “self” indulgent. I can justify it in terms of the Dharma being a gift, that any insight I might have that saves all beings demands it must be shared. If I really looked on this cold wintry night at 1:00 AM, I could probably find someone who needs something. But maybe someone will read this and be moved to find that homeless guy and give him a sandwich. Whatever merit is accrued can be dedicated to some other sentient being. It does call for some time on the cushion to investigate this further.
As I mentioned previously, there are three grounds to generosity: the giver, the gift, and the recipient. If any of the three is missing, then generosity is merely a concept, not an action. And our practice is all about action. “It is better to give than to receive” is at best a miscalculation if not downright wrong. “Lie” might be too strong a term for it, due the three grounds of generosity, but it falls way short of the entire process of generosity. Someone gave me the idea to write this. That's right, gave me the idea. I accepted it. It was an entirely natural process, give idea, receive idea, no thought required. That's much different from “No, I couldn't possibly accept this from you.” That attitude does nothing but perpetuate superiority, the duality of self/other, and give rise to false humility. It's as “I, I, I, I” “want,” want,” “want” as one would see in Macy's any of these days.
One of the acts of generosity that can be performed is to receive. There's no, “Oh, I couldn't possibly” to it. There's no false “I”-based motivation to it, if done in the true spirit of generosity. The Second Precept is “Do not steal; do not take that which is not freely given.” A corollary of that is to graciously and without attachment accept that which is freely given. Not to do so is in effect stealing the opportunity from someone to practice the First Perfection. Who am I to deny you the opportunity to perform the Perfection of Generosity? Would I deny you the opportunity to meditate or act morally, or any of the other Perfections? So far as I'm concerned, the “I-ness” involved in that is potentially as dangerous to the well-being of all beings as being greedy. Self-lessly giving is best accompanied by self-lessly receiving. To paraphrase the Diamond Sutra, if you think of yourself as a Bodhisattva, and that are beings to save, and saving to be done, you're not a Bodhisattva. But regardless, we act as Bodhisattvas and save all beings. Giver, gift, and recipient are all subject to causes and conditions and characterized by emptiness as giver and gift, but in the spirit of the Bodhisattva, give a gift, and just as willingly, receive a gift. Now go out and find a homeless guy and give him a sandwich. Thank you. You're welcome.




Friday, 11 December 2015

The Dilemma of "The Tree" at the Holidays

To tree or not to tree. That is the question.  

“The tree” has always been one of my favorite parts of the holiday season. It provides a comforting light in the darkness of winter. It adds sparkle to the world and reminds me that green and growth will return again soon. What’s not to love about the tree? Attachment, that’s what!

Randomly last week, I received two communications from two different friends who don’t know one another. Both expounded on their feelings about the tree.

Friend Number 1: A client. (I really hope he forgot I’m a part of his email address book, because honestly who exposes a business associate to a religious tirade. Oh wait a minute…never mind.) But I digress. I received an email from him excoriating people who call the tree a Holiday Tree instead of a Christmas Tree. He is apparently among those who feel there is some kind of war on Christmas and who takes offense to people who say Happy Holidays or excise the word Christmas in reference to the tree. 

Friend Number 2: A self-described born-again Christian. She wrote a post in social media stating that she will no longer put up a tree because it does not have a Christian foundation. She delivered no vitriol in her post. She simply shared her process of examining her past beliefs and behavior and talked about the ways in which she is trying to align her current beliefs with her behavior.

I'm a person who loves the tree, regardless of what you call it and I find this dance of opposites to be fascinating. It makes me think more about attachment.

The Holiday Season is replete with religious symbolism. Humanity’s need to celebrate the solstice in one way or another has resulted in an apparent universal desire to stake a claim to this time of year. There’s that word though - desire. Hence attachment.

I respect my second friend's decision to not have a tree, but it saddens me a little that her attachment to a symbolism that has long since expired is causing her to give up a tradition she previously enjoyed and around which she had built her own traditions.

The anger pouring out of my client and the distain he holds for people who choose to acknowledge that December is the home to more than one holiday reminds me of why attachment is considered the root of all suffering. He is making himself suffer with the anger he’s generating. He made me suffer when the shenpa hit me upon reading his words. He is making the participants of other faiths suffer by refusing to acknowledge space for them in his limited view of the holiday season. 


This December, I wanted to take a moment to remind us that the cultural call to desire and attachment is amplified at this time of year. The religious debates above, the pressure to buy gifts and concurrently think of something to want from others, attachment to having a particular family experience. It’s all pushed on us more intensely this time of year. Let’s make sure not to miss the forest for the trees. 

Who is Average Buddhist:
The Average Buddhist is a voice-specialized speech-language pathologist, health care advocate and singing teacher in Massachusetts. She writes the Average Buddhist blog at www.averagebuddhist.com and moderates the Average Buddhist community on Facebook. Her book The Average Buddhist Explores the Dharma, a humorous tour of Buddhism for every day life, can be found at http://booklocker.com/books/6071.html