Friday, 11 September 2015

Close to home.

Closer than you think:

I arrived to the United States when I was three years old. I was young and new no real world that I can truly remember. My parents lived in Moldova for 16 years and 3 of those were with me. I was their first child (and only) and they were in their 40s when they had me. Their childhood and early adulthood was spent in Uzbekistan. Now we reside in the Midwest. Migration is nothing new to my family, but, also the trouble it brings.

I was raised with a very old school Russian mindset. The conservativeness was not of American taste and was never backed with religious argument, just tradition and utility. They gave me the tools to live in a world foreign to me, while they had to learn to live in a foreign world. It's been tricky along the road and "otherness" is is a potent feeling. 

I suspect we all had those moments when we realized we're a bit larger in ways we could imagine and completely non-existent in others. Culture is powerful but it is also a good comfort. I was raised with two. My parents didn't have a philosophical leaning. They both still linger in the news as my mother watches Russian pop concerts while assembling dozens of jigsaw puzzles. The world inside their minds would shock me.

The people migrating have each other and also the hands that reach out to them. It will not be enough to simply offer refugees asylum without fully acknowledging their humanity and deep needs such as a strong sense of community and a togetherness with those who gave them good shelter. The bond that can form between very different people is at hand if we all somehow play a part in showing nothing but good human, simple compassion then a lot of what is going on in this world: the worship of guns, the violence, greed, many of those suffering would push toward a history where "east and west" "us versus them" "Islam versus the west" can be laid to rest. 

It takes with the movement of history and grasping the moment. If we are aware, if we can see over what has happened and take a spiral staircase out of darkness (to use Karen Armstrong's autobiography title) then we can achieve great things.

It will take a deep long breath and a constant effort to stay clear minded. I dream big.

Note: I do not really trust politicians. I never really did, it's a Russian thing apparently, but the few who stand by an awareness of change and the possibility to mature out of huge mistakes would have my vote. All people matter.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Common Threats can lead to Compromises

In his blog post four days ago, "Avoidance of Fellow Humans," Justin Whitaker challenged bloggers associated with ProgBud to write about "reaching out and coming to deeper, clearer understandings, across the political spectrum and toward those we might see only in their 'otherness.'"

Philosopher Jonathan Haidt has been a hero of mine in writing about the different moral values that liberals and conservatives have, and how in understanding each other across the seeming miles-wide abyss of our near-polar differences is possible.

At the time of the presidential election in 2012, he offered a means to get the Federal Government functioning, again, such that the needs of people could be met and the dangers that were "out there" could be addressed.

Sadly, nothing much has changed since Haidt's TED Talk in 2012. Most of the dangers America faces are still "out there" -- from climate change to a dwindling Social Security fund.

As a perhaps good starting place to look at where we are and how we, as a country, are polarized in separate camps, I recommend listening to the Talk, titled "The asteroids club - common threats can lead to compromise." It's fast-paced and under seventeen minutes in length.

The cure that Haidt puts forward -- recognizing common threats -- seems still out-of-reach. But perhaps there is an opportunity, after such a long period of having a do-nothing congress, that Washington politicians can find a way to work together to get some important things done to prevent catastrophes that are on the near horizon.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Avoidance of Fellow Humans

"Within a state of ignorance, we become avoidant of our fellow human beings if they fall into any available category of "otherness," categories that are easily constructed and manipulated in order to accentuate fear. Who, after all, in this interdependent world of commuters, is *not* an immigrant? And what leader hasn't made a mistake?" (The Road Home p.242)

Book cover - the road home

I chanced upon this recently as I was skimming contemporary writings on Buddhism. It struck me as apt, now as much as ever, considering the growing plight of refugees from Syria and Iraq and the continued callous silence from much of the rest of the world. Of course the problem is not limited to Syria and Iraq. Economic refugees flee toward and into the United States daily, the Rohingya of Burma have become stateless refugees in their own nation, many thousands dying at sea or finding only slavery or continued exploitation as they flee that country.

While we have seen many beautiful responses to these mass movements of humanity, open arms and homes, we also see plenty of fear, anger, and exclusion. Much of that is certainly rooted in deeper greed and the worry that "those people" will somehow threaten "my" livelihood or possessions. And all of that, of course, is based on the delusion of "otherness".

In this election season we hear talk of building a giant wall along the Mexican border, which speaks so much about many Americans' fear, cruelty, and disregard for greater humanity. Stranger yet, some have even talked about a wall along the Canadian border, showing just how deeply ignorant some politicians (and presumably their constituents) are.

And yet I don't want to simply make another "other" of those responsible for and supporting these attempts at institutionalized separation. Rather than saying "these people are wrong" or "these people are bad" can we point instead to the ideas and delusions they carry, saying "these ideas are wrong" and "this continued harm is bad"? Can we -really- reach out to those so steeped in fear and anger that they'd buy into messages of hate? Can we hold them in our hearts long enough to understand that they too are immigrants in a way, that they too are simply making mistakes?

In the coming 14 months, I'd love to hear stories of reaching out and coming to deeper, clearer understandings, across the political spectrum and toward those we might see only in their "otherness". In this way I think Buddhists of all political allegiances - or none at all - can actively engage in what is so often layers upon layers of contention, finger-pointing, accusations, and put-downs. Let's engage with the world in all its messiness and all its impermanence and see what, if any, change for the better we can bring.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Yep, It's Still OK

To recap a blog I wrote here a couple months ago ("No, Really, it's OK"), my partner had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. There was some question as to whether chemotherapy would be needed, but at the very least radiation was required after the surgery. To make a 6-week long story short, radiation finished today. Five days a week for six weeks, radiation. Tomorrow, no more radiation.

In the previous blog I remarked how neither of us panicked about it, or projected too far ahead, and for me, that was a credit to my practice. I'm sticking with that. The main difference between the way she handled it and I did, was that when she heard chemo was a possibility, she went out and bought hats, and talked to her hairdresser about what to do about the possibility of hair loss. The furthest I went down that road was to volunteer to sympathy-shave my head, and that was basically an excuse to do that. (How many Zen priests do you know with full heads of hair, I ask you?)

Zen Master Seung Sahn told a story about when he was in the hospital for heart problems. His doctors suggested to him that he might try meditating to help his heart heal. If it had been me in the bed, I might have given them one of my "one-eyebrow-raised-in-chagrin" looks, but Dae Soen Sa Nim smiled and said he'd give it a try. This was back in 1977, so meditation was the cool new thing at the time, I suppose. He did meditate, and his heart problems lessened fairly quickly. But what he told the doctors was that this "fix your body" meditation was not correct meditation. 

"Clear mind," [he] told them, "means moment to moment, what are you doing now? When you are with your patients, only 100% keep doctor's mind. When you leave the hospital and you are driving home, 100% keep driver's mind. When you meet your wife, 100% keep husband's mind. This means, each moment, only go straight--don't make 'I', 'My', 'Me'. If you make 'I', 'My', 'Me', then your opinion, your condition, your situation appear. Then, you have a problem".
For the doctors, when they were operating, they just operate. When driving, just drive. Those are some pretty clear examples of those "life and death" times when intense concentration and reflexive action are called for.
But in mundane daily life, where are not those "life and death" situations confronting us, how often can we go about our business and keep clear mind? This is bigger than just "mindfulness," as it seems to me that is much like meditation was in 1977. Real mindfulness isn't just a trick to reduce stress--although it can. It's not even necessarily about "being in the present moment"--although that's certainly part of it.

True mindfulness is being in the present moment, even those moments we don't like. Correct meditation, true mindfulness, is laying on a table with some laser beam from the 22nd Century pointed at you, arms up in some contorted position, and not feeling sorry for yourself, not taking cancer personally. For me, it was listening, being as supportive as I could, and at least to some extent, not freaking out if only to help her not feel like she needed to freak out.

It's easy to be "one with everything" when it's all rainbow/unicorn kittens with wings. When it's sitting in the umpteenth  meeting that day, trying to fill out a government form, listening to political talk shows and the like, not so easy. But Sengcan, Third Zen Patriarch Patriarch said in the Xinxin Ming, "The Great Way is easy for those who do not pick and choose." 

There's a lesson in that, if only about the amount of picking and choosing we do. And I guess until we all realize the Buddhas we're capable of being, we can see when we pick and choose, and even get to a point where even the uncomfortable is only uncomfortable, not the wrath of the gods raining down on us. It isn't easy to do 100% of the time, but by applying the practice, especially when you don't think, "Oh, I'm applying what I heard in the Dharma Hall," it gets closer to Sengcan's "easy". 

When driving, just drive. When wielding a scalpel, just wield a scalpel. When radiating, just radiate.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

A Buddhism and Pali scholar's journey into and out of the academic tradition

For those of you interested in a career in academia, be forewarned. It's not a very welcoming place at the moment. The people are pretty decent imho, but there are currently far too many PhDs for what "the market" needs. Or, put another way, massive governmental cuts (in most if not all English-speaking countries) on education spending over the last 20 or so years have led many departments to freeze hiring, let great professors go, and/or replace retiring teachers with adjunct labor.

These days whenever an undergraduate asks me for a recommendation letter for graduate school I send him/her here: (I do write letters of course, but I've taken it on as a duty to warn any/all prospective graduate students of the perils ahead of them). It's not glamorous. And it's not easy. And many who start PhDs don't even finish (up to 50% in the humanities, according to some estimates).

It's a broken system. But it's still the best one for some of us. I'm reminded of the Churchill quote:
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
Academia is the route to follow only when you've realized there is nothing else you can do with yourself and be happy.
In any case, I continue to lumber through the "thicket of views" which is modern-day academia while Eisel Mazard, as you'll see below, does not. In my lumbering I came across some writing by Eisel, who I would describe as an autodidactic solitary scholar. In 2011 I drew from one of his writings when I wrote "Imagining the Buddha as bald... and black?" Since then I've read several of his works and we've conversed now and again and I respect his scholarship in a number of areas that I'm interested in. 

Below, Eisel describes his journey into and out of early Buddhism / Pali scholarship and some of the joys and perils that came with it. Every experience will be different, the interests and expertise brought into the study, the influences and advisors, and goals of each student will be different. So, while Eisel's journey may be completely unlike that of any other scholar, it does provide a perspective not often seen or discussed in academia today. As he says:
…there were a lot of wonderful things about it. With nothing but a backpack, a bicycle, and a lot of hard work, I went everywhere, I did everything, I lived my dream.
When that dream was over, I had to look at the reality of the tradition as it exists today and say, "I can't be a part of it".

Sunday, 21 June 2015

This is Water

Back in the 80s, I was interested in fiction in large part because I was interested in writing fiction. An author that snagged my attention at that time was T. Coraghessan Boyle. I liked that he was crazy with an intimidating vocabulary and I was jazzed by the madcap way he slung words around and the odd notions in his short stories.

A competing writer for my attention was David Foster Wallace with his first novel The Broom of the System. I liked the book and I sensed many similarities in Wallace’s writing that I found in Boyle, but, at the time, I thought Wallace to be a distant second to Boyle’s lovable variegated strangeness . Wallace’s next book, a collection of short stories, Girl with Curious Hair, just didn’t seem to me to measure up to Boyle’s short stories.

So, when Wallace’s next book was a 1,000-page novel [Infinite Jest], I said, “No, no, no, no, no,” and left the orbit of Wallace, moving on to other writers and interests. [Infinite Jest is now considered by some to be one of the ten greatest novels of the 20th Century.]

There was something obvious that I missed seeing in the 80’s in Wallace’s fiction: his luminous compassion in the midst of all the helter skelter of his oft-crazy stories.

Wallace, who had a decades-long problem with depression, hanged himself in 2008, but will be getting renewed attention as result of a movie coming out about him on the last day of July, titled “The End of the Tour.”

But the reason for this blog post is primarily a tiny book of Wallace’s that contains the text of a commencement speech he gave in 2005 to the graduating class at Kenyon College. A person can read the whole of the book in ten or fifteen minutes. It’s pithy and brilliant as hell. The book’s full title is “This is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.”

The “water” in the title has to do with fish in water and the idea, therefrom, that fish are unaware of the water they’re in because it is so altogether obvious. From a beginning with wet fish, Wallace makes some obvious but oft-missed points in his speech about what humans might overlook if they don't pay attention.

Anyway, here is a GREAT video based on "This is Water" that delivers its central message:

This is Water from Patrick Buckley on Vimeo.

And Here, as an added bonus, is the trailer for "The End of the Tour," coming out on July 31.

UPDATE: The viewpoint of another, more knowledgeable than I am on DFW, his commencement address, his masterwork Infinite Jest, and what his life meant and means to us, today, can be found at the Vulture website, in a long article titled "The Rewriting of David Foster Wallace" by Christian Lorentzen.

Lorentzen describes the Kenyon College commencement address -- "This is Water" -- as being "treacly." HA, I say. BUT, it is possible there is some wisdom in others of Lorentzen's words.  --T.A.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

God and Buddhism

Greetings readers!

I believe in God. I am a Buddhist. Are these two views compatible, truly? Do most Buddhist sensibilities tend to go against any possibility of believing in God? Does it matter if we do believe in God or not as Buddhists? If we do, what kind of God would we believe in? 

These are all questions that many of us westerns face since God is always in our face somehow.

The idea of God and Buddhism has been explored by many scholars and has sat on the back of my mind and many of our readers, for sure.

I will not attempt to spell out or construct some kind of Buddhist theology because I don't think that's possible and that's how God likes it.

So why can't we construct a Buddhist theology? Are Buddhist questions and problems completely alien to the incorporation of Divinity?

There are two answers to this question and they both differ according to the way one views/believes in God. If one believes in God that is somehow above and separate from the world, is unchanged and can't change, is eternal and houses spiritual realms, then one has entered into fallacious and deluded ground. I do not believe there is much room for supernaturalism in the mind of modern folk. I state this across the board for any believer of anything. Supernaturalism not only enters into language it cannot speak, makes claims it cannot validate, damages the existential "make-up" of the person but also, strangely perpetuates conflict. 

The question now that I am begging is: is God necessarily a supernatural belief, and are all faiths that are theistic necessarily supernaturalistic? The obvious is no if one looks at an introduction to religious thought, or speaks to many modern believers. Yet, we must also not be under the misconception that every sensible person has the truth. (Not that I do....)

Buddhism does not escape supernaturalism often and remains atheistic in the same occasion making it another example that theistic belief is not an necessary part of any supernaturalism. Now that we have dismissed God from the corruption of supernaturalism where does God go?

This is where Buddhist "checks" can be setup to avoid ignorance, suffering, hate, and greed. The annihilation of supernaturalism is a big step in the process of clearing ignorance. We must constantly dig deeper, our endeavor is never over; we must constantly search for deeper premises. 

What kind of check ensures we do not suffer because of a faulty view in God? (All things are connected.) Can God decide to act in this world, intervening on certain occasion? Is God a player in history? The Buddhist answer is no. Is God a player in history is much more complicated and and a short no will not suffice. Buddhism demands transparency, proclaims temporality and an intensity of Life in the moment and those things are only "part" of God. I will come back to this.

Does God demand? Does God demand things that are not God's? Does God perpetuate a greed---my prayers are more and better than your prayers. Does righteousness, which is a combination of greed, hatred, and ignorance have any place within Buddhism?

We have setup a huge roadblock for God. There are a lot of things God cannot be:
1) a "being" outside the world.
2) Completely absolute with no connection to life lived in the moment.
3) the answerer of the traditional, or more supernatural intended prayers. 
4) supernatural 
5) an understood concept that is exhausted by words. We have no such capability. If we have any honesty at all then we ought to know that our most intense and mindful endeavors in the pursuit will only lead us to Wisdom and not always to answers.
6) God cannot be described in any anthropomorphic terms. No male, no female, no see where this is going? (The heart sutra)

So if God cannot be certain things then it is not God. It goes against the very definition of God to be limited outright in so many ways. This is a valid point. Creating a God of the gaps, a concept that places God in any moment where "mystery" pops up in language that is alien, or damaging. God is not the explanation for any astronomical mystery, however twisted, from creation onward. This is just as reductionist as limiting God.

So what now? I stated earlier that we are on a constant pursuit for premises. Buddhism gives us tools to avoid certain blocks that will lead us away from a vision of awareness and mindful community. God must be a center, no, the center of all of this. From the depths of the abyss in the complexity of the Heart Sutra, the great call to Live Life on the Path comes with such assurance that it is a path worth walking. We know this because we breath every moment and think-I made it here-then breath again and stop thinking. The intensity of all experience that is felt only partially by humans is felt by all of the Universe itself, fully, in its transparency, in its awkward Absoluteness, in its totality.

Must we believe in God? No. Some would say that we do no matter what, some proclaim an entirely pluralist vision, I'm not sure where I stand. 

None of this is supernatural; it is more than humanistic because it affirms life with a grounding in reality itself and no temporal contract that we have written up.

We check as Budddhists that God can only be God if God is completely present in every single experience while being completely transparent as such. The absoluteness of God is language that Buddhism doesn't really speak, and that's okay. Yet God can be the center of it all, the confidence in the life of the path, the (for me, also Jewish) the burning bush dynamically burning my feet as I tread incinerating paths of wisdom.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

No, Really, It's OK

"May all beings be happy
May they be joyous and live in safety....
Standing or walking, sitting, or lying down
During all one's waking hours
Let one practice The Way with gratitude

"Not holding to fixed views
Endowed with insight
Freed from sense appetites
One who achieves The Way
Will be freed from the duality of birth and death"

From the "Metta Sutta" or "Lovingkindness Meditation" as found in the San Francisco Zen Center's Chant Book

 It is said that Siddhartha Gautama's encounter with sickness, old age, death, and a begging monk led to his leaving home, searching for The Way from other teachers, and not finding it from without, commenced to meditate with great determination under the Bodhi tree until he awakened, from within, with what had been there all along, merely covered over by layers of delusion. Self-indulgence didn't work, self-denial didn't work, but coming upon the denial of self worked.

It's Vesak season. I say season because the actual day celebrating the birth of the Buddha (and the Awakening and Paranirvana as well) happens in the 8th day of the 4th lunar month, and that seems to fall anywhere from April 8 to June 1 this year. I practice in an American Zen order in a Korean lineage, so I'm going with China and Korea celebrating May 25.

The reason I bring up Vesak, the Metta Sutta, and the pursuit of The Great Way is because were it not for the Buddha having been born physically, and basically doing the heavy lifting for the rest of us, I'd probably be a mess right about now. In a nutshell, my partner has been diagnosed with breast cancer. And the unexpected thing is that we're both OK with it. Maybe OK isn't the most accurate way to describe it, but we are OK with it in the sense that neither of us is in panic mode, there's been no wailing and gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, or any other biblical-referenced behaviors pertaining to what people do when they freak out. 

On a personality/idiosyncratic level, I'm typically pretty neutral. I don't really go that overboard when something "good" happens, or, well, do all that biblical stuff when "bad" happens. People have told me that I should be grateful for any number of things, and it's not that I'm un-grateful, I'm just sorta... well, neutral. I've been that way for a while too. Maybe cynicism and suspicion were used as a coping technique in the past. Somehow now, there doesn't seem to be that "waiting for the other shoe to drop" attitude that had permeated my standard operating procedure.

I have to say, that it really seems like the years of practice have had an impact. This isn't how I handled things like cancer a few years ago. To some extent, it feels like I really haven't wrapped my head around it, and maybe that's OK too. I really don't try to be a mind reader or fortune teller so much. Right here, right now, she's sleeping, I'm typing, and that's OK. 

In this Vesak season however, I'm actually grateful. I'm grateful that Gautama was born, I'm grateful he spent time as an ascetic, I'm grateful he found out that didn't work any better than being a rich kid, that he remembered that feeling from under the rose petal tree, I'm glad he sat under the Bodhi Tree, and I think I'm most grateful that he got up from under that tree, turning the wheel of Dharma, and sharing it. 

I'm grateful to Mahakasyapa, to Asvagosa and Nagarjuna. I'm grateful to Bodhidharma and Huangbo. I'm grateful to Seung Sahn and Wonji and Doshim. I'm grateful for the sanghas of my past and present, for giving me the opportunity to take refuge, to support me in my practice, and perhaps the opportunity to be of some help to them in their practice. 

I've found that practice is what happens when I take the meditation cushion with me into the world of birth, old age, sickness and death. And so far, that's OK.

Deep bows to the Buddha, to his teachings, and all sentient beings throughout the world. Thanks for being around for me to take refuge in, and helping me see that it is OK to feel happy and sad, and all the other transient emotions. 

"May all beings be happy." No, really, it's OK.

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