Saturday, October 31, 2009

Intentions and Imperfections



A short time ago, Marguerite from the blog Mind Deep left the following thoughtful take on my post of yesterday:

May I share a different take on your story? How about accepting the yoga teacher with all his imperfections, "wrongs" and all? It's interesting I did not get same feeling from your story about him. I saw him more as a man concerned with helping his students attain correct posture, which in yoga is important for maximal benefits. Maybe his tone was wrong, maybe not, given the job at stake. I have heard similar stories about Mr. Iyengar. And also reputed zen teachers. Most important is to discern person's intentions. Lots of your friends' reactions seemed to come from an 'I', wounded place.


Instead of responding in the comments section, I thought a new post would be more helpful for those who read the initial post.

In terms of my view of the yoga teacher in question, what's interesting is that after the initial emotional "jolt", I didn't really have a clear sense of either accepting the yoga teacher or rejecting him. I honestly didn't know, so I just tried to keep listening. The one comment I made towards the end was that, too often, yoga is reduced to a superficial focus on physical posture and physical benefits. Even if the teacher doesn't intend this, that can be the outcome for many students if there is too heavy a focus on posture "correctness." Since I don't know this teacher's work firsthand, I couldn't say much about him in the original post. If what I said came off as outright rejection, I apologize to him, as I didn't mean to imply a rejection of him and his work.

I do think, however, that we can both accept someone completely and comment on things being done or said which may be causing trouble in the world. It reminds me of Suzuki Roshi's statement "All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement." If we just go about accepting people as they are, and never comment on "problem areas," then how will any of us ever learn to live more healthy, integrated lives?

From my own life, a series of people commenting on the anger I was displaying a few years ago led me to closely examine the way anger manifests in my life. It's an examination that continues to go on today, and I feel grateful to everyone who kindly, if sometimes firmly, pointed out these issues to me initially. At the same time, one of the main reasons these comments were such catalysts in the first place was that they came from people who knew me fairly well. Thus, they had enough insight about me to approach the issue of anger in ways that illuminated the problem, and didn't simply shut me down or create defensiveness. Odds are a stranger, or even a teacher who wasn't familiar with my life, wouldn't have had such luck.

There's a very interesting recent podcast from the Buddhist Geeks interviewing Insight Meditation teacher Rodney Smith that is influencing some of my comments in the post. Specifically, Rodney speaks about the ways in which the dharma is presented in North American sanghas, and how some of these ways might actually be hindering people, even if there is no intention to do so. You can check it out here if you're interested.

I'm a strong believer in being intentional, and yet sometimes, the best intentions still bring about messy results. This is definitely a teaching that calls for acceptance on a deep level, and a letting go of thoughts about perfection. And yet, it also requires of us that we see intentions as only one part of our work in the world.

On the other hand, it can also be true that different teaching styles will meet the needs of different groups of people. The fellow practitioner at my center spoke of how he felt the group was connected to this teacher, and thus didn't have an issue with the tone of the teaching. So, I really couldn't simply dismiss the guy's work, given that kind of comment.

As for woundedness, we all have some. It's important for each of us to work through those places, and to not put that work on the plate of anyone else. At the same time, those who are in teaching positions need to do their best to recognize these wounded places in their students and themselves, and incorporate skillful means into their teaching methods. When it comes to powerful, charismatic teachers, I think this is especially important, as they can easily be working the edge between being a liberating agent for people, and being a cause of serious damage.

Friday, October 30, 2009

To Hell With Perfection



I had a very short discussion with a few fellow practitioners before a class Wednesday night. Essentially, we were a bunch of zen students talking about yoga and yoga teachers. It was really enjoyable to share with others the blending of zen and yoga as a spiritual path, and to hear a little about other teaching styles than the precise, but balanced approach I have experienced. However, a few minutes before we all headed into the zendo, the discussion took a turn I wish we would have had more time to explore.

There was talk about a teacher whose approach included what sounded to me like harsh, command-like language. The practitioner speaking grabbed his foot, positioned it twisted awkwardly, and then said his teacher would say something like "Not like that. Wrong!" He quickly turned the foot outward as he said "Like this. I should look like this. This is correct." This isn't a word for word quote, but the words "wrong." "should," and "correct" definitely were in there. I felt a jolt through my stomach as I listened to this.

This morning, I stumbled upon the following post on Yoga Spy that speaks to the reaction I had during that conversation. These lines in particular struck a chord:

Just as straight A’s aren’t necessarily proof of smarts, perfect asanas aren’t necessarily proof of real yoga. Some with perfect asana skills are also true yogis, who manifest the philosophical and ethical teachings, while others are strictly acrobats.


Seeking perfection is a troubling form of attachment, as far as I'm concerned. There's definitely some of that attachment in my life, although less now than when I was younger. I remember as a 6 year old in 1st grade getting perfect scores on all the spelling tests we had to begin the year. It was, I think, some sort of badge of honor for me, proof to my little mind that I was a smart person. And then it happened: I got a test back and saw a single red mark next to a word. One wrong. Still an A, but not "perfect" in the technical sense. I had a fit. Tore the paper up, and even flipped my desk if I remember correctly. Not a pretty sight, and the spirit of that I took into my teens and twenties, as I got more and more wound tightly about succeeding, being liked by everyone, and not failing. It was a heavy burden, and ultimately an unsustainable one.

In Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, Suzuki Roshi writes the following:

“In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Those who can sit perfectly physically usually take more time to obtain the true way of Zen, the actual feeling of Zen, the marrow of Zen. But those who find great difficulties in practicing Zen will find more meaning in it.”


I recall a certain air of perfectionism that tainted our zen center during the first years studied there. We had a large community, lead by a charismatic teacher and his many well-seasoned students. In some ways, the energy and intensity of the place was exactly what I needed to start to break through my own addiction to perfectionism and it's cadre of emotional and behavioral followers. In other ways, I gravitated toward a community that was manifesting the very same issues I had, including especially that perfectionism. I can remember the days after the mirror cracked and shattered in pieces - how the disgraced departure of the teacher led to a hell of a lot of soul searching about what it meant not only to be zen practitioners, but also to just be healthy, balanced humans.

There's something violent about saying there is one correct way, or even saying that you have the "best" way. Even though I don't know anything about that yoga teacher my fellow practitioner was speaking about, I find myself a bit suspicious, perhaps because of my own experiences of perfection and "the correct way" to do things. When you do asanas, the physical poses of yoga, no matter what it will be an expression of you in the moment. It has it's own perfection contained in it, regardless of how technically correct it looks. And the same is true of zen practice - no matter what, each of us will be different in a certain way, even if we're all lined up and sitting straight and upright. How can it be any other way?

And yet how many of us are, on a daily basis, caught up in that mind that seeks the perfect? How many of us Buddhists condemn what we're doing now as "half-assed" practice that will only become "true" practice when we have attended long retreats and made some sort of earth shattering breakthroughs? There's a place for pushing yourself, and it's important to keep going beyond what you thought was your limits, but how much of our pushing ends up just being violence to ourselves?

In the end, one of the main problems seems to be that we don't even know what "perfect" is. Do you know? Can you really experience what perfect is without trying to push imperfect out in the process?

I'd like to think that I've grown up a bit from that little boy who tossed his desk to the floor because he missed an answer. I'd also like to think that convert Buddhism in North America has gone beyond that little boy energy as well. But in both cases, the reality seems to be mixed. Sometimes maturity, sometimes little boy who can't handle the truth of the present moment. Maybe that's how it is and will be. Or maybe we all just need to dig a little deeper, but in a more gentle, compassionate way for the truths of this life.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Jaws of Clarity



"Seek movement and there's no movement,
Seek rest and no rest comes instead.

When rest and no rest cease to be,
then even oneness disappears."

Sengcan "Xinxinming"

I'm a clarity junky. I love being clear, and being able to demonstrate to others that I have that clarity. A confession? Yes. One with a swamp of guilt and shame attached to it? No.

Clarity in life is a beautiful thing. when someone can see through the wild muck of a situation and clearly declare its truth in words and/or actions, much suffering can be alleviated. However, this same skill can become an addition, and lately, I have seen how this is the case in my own life. I've wanted to have an answer about my career future so badly that there's no space for anything new to arrive. And at the same time, I have desired a break from the very same chase for answers so strongly that my actual "rest" (i.e. sleep and free time) has been anything but restful.

The opposite of clarity is cloudiness, or being unclear. Preferring one over the other is just as much trouble as preferring any other member of a binary (Gain or loss, Praise or Blame, etc.). Being clear and decisive, however, seems to be a preference for all of us humans. I've met very few people who actually enjoy living in the mud of not being clear. Sure, many of us are attracted to altering our minds with drugs of various kinds, and like the "cloudy high" that comes from drugging ourselves. But just hanging with the mud that comes up on its own in our lives without any monkeying around? That's not something we humans seem to like much because it's such a strong reminder of how little we control in this life.

How often are you in the jaws of clarity?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Hell of Work Delusions



Living in the muck of my workplace the past few days, and all the thoughts I have about it, has taken it's toll. I slept poorly last night, and when I did sleep, it was dreams about "meetings" at work attempting to once again try to get things righted and back on track. I've also become keenly aware of how much I'm struggling with letting go of the potential opinions of others about it all.

Specifically, the following:

1. Fears of being viewed as a failure generally because I can't find a new job to transition into.

2. A belief that if I ask for any help at work at this point, that means I "owe them" and need to stay longer.

3. If I resign, the negative opinions that could come about a thirty-something man quitting a job and being unemployed in a down economy full of people desperate to find work.

4. A general sense of compassion-fatigue, coupled with a view that I need to keep giving out because my job requires it of me.

A lot of confused delusions, I know. It's very clear to me as I write them out how narrow and binary they all are. And yet, I also know that when I'm in the middle of it all, I'm struggling to let go of which ever one of these stories arises.

Some people tell me: just quit. Others say don't quit until you find something else.
The reality that I'm seeing how I have bought into the view that I must be giving back, contributing to the greater good in some tangible ways at all times in order to be worthy, to be ok in this life. This isn't sustainable, nor enlightened, and yet there it is, a truth of my mind on this particular day.

I know there are many others struggling with work issues out there, especially given the pressure cooker of a world economy we are living in right now. I, personally, want to transform my whole relationship to work and working in the world. So, airing these struggles is partly an attempt to let them go into the world. I also want to help spark a conversation about work and working, as it seems so vital that we living the Buddha Way have a more "righted" relationship to what we are doing in our lives.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Circulation, No Circulation



It's been a cool, wet fall here in Minnesota. This following nearly two months of drought. We had our first frost in early October, not unheard of, but definitely not the norm. The trees have definitely seemed confused, some of them continuing to hold their green leaves, while others shed the same green leaves weeks ago. There have been wonderful displays of bright yellows, oranges, and reds, and yet it's difficult to ignore the ways in which weather patterns are off.

I've noticed how I have also become more in-tune with similar patterns of joy and "offness" in my life. Yesterday afternoon, as I contemplated writing a post, an old acquaintance sat down next to me in the coffee shop I was writing in. This is someone who loves to talk sports, and not much else. Once he gets going, he's going to eat up 45 minutes at least, unless you leave or deliberately say "I have work to do." In addition, he's one of those guys who listens poorly, and is mostly looking for an audience for his ideas about team X or player Y. I felt myself tensing up, and thinking of ways to avoid a conversation. I kept my face to the computer and avoiding eye contact, as I heard his feet clicking against the floor and papers shuffling between his hands. My mind wandered, and I began surfing websites, and checking e-mail. In an effort to avoid him, I lost my original purpose of writing a blog post. It was then that he said, "Hey Nate, how's it going?" And I responded simply, "Busy, very busy." What's funny is that, even though it wasn't the kind of busy he assumed (he thought I was working on lesson plans for class), it was no lie. My mind was very busy creating stories, and fighting those stories with more stories. Meanwhile, he seemed to be ok with me "being busy," and went back to whatever he was doing. I laughed to myself about it all, seeing how silly the whole thing was.

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about how when things are off, we have poor circulation. Getting caught up in storylines blocks the natural flow of our lives, and takes us away from experiencing what actually is. Instead of saying something like "I'm trying to write now," and leaving it at that, I held tightly to the green leaves of before my old acquaintance came in, wishing that I could keep that space where no one would bother me. What good was it though? It was merely an attempt to stop activity, as master Sengcan said, with the predictable result of filling me with activity.

When I pulled a muscle in my back last week, and couldn't move without pain for most of the afternoon, it was natural to return to the breath. Breathing in, I felt both the pain in my body and also the greater sense of things functioning together within me and all around me. Unable to do a whole lot, I simply stayed with the movements that didn't require any effort on my part. This was quite different from all the efforting that occurred in the coffee shop yesterday - and yet, even in the mistakes, there was a space for learning about circulation.

It makes me think that our lives are similar to trees adapting to the weather. Sometimes, what's around us is easy to work with, and we are able to flow with it. Other times, conditions around us are more difficult, or is perceived to be more difficult, and the flowing isn't so smooth. We cling, push away, jump around a bit. But eventually, if we remember that the flow of life is still there to tap into, we release our old leaves and slide back into things as they are.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Haunted Activity



When I cam upon this tree a few months ago, I couldn't help but stop and take a few pictures of it. With its bare limbs raised in the air, and almost everything around it dead as well, it's the perfect image of our repetitive, habit driven minds.

Chan Master Sengcan, in his great dharma poem Xinxinming, wrote "When you try to stop activity, your very efforts fill you with activity."

So, we have a quandary, don't you think? There's the mind dipping back into the past over and over again, bringing forth the same old muck, same old ways of acting and believing. And then there's this line, reminding us that suppression only brings more activity - and I'd say haunted activity at that.

Take a haunted house. How the spirit of someone that lived there, or spent time there in the past, now clings to the walls and floorboards, unable to let go of whatever it was that had happened there. Having no peace itself, the ghost fills the entire house, and everyone in it with dis-ease. It's a miserable existence, being trapped between incarnations, and also caught between the desire for liberation and the itchiness of recreating old misery.

In a way, all of us are like this at least some of the time. Some old event or dysfunctional way of acting or thinking arises and, instead of breathing into it and letting it be as it is, we pour ourselves into it, until we become like a forest filled with dead trees.

It's so easy to fall for it, to believe that whatever is arising is real, solid, requiring that we either indulge it or pound it dead into the ground. Maybe it's time to try a new approach, if only to lean towards liberating the ghost from it's haunted house.

Halloween is almost here. Will you be the one who smiles at the passing array of costumed children? Or will you feel a twinge of anxiety when the little ghosts and goblins arrive at your door, looking for candy?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Too Much Change?



One constant that is always with us in our lives is impermanence. Things change. It's so commonplace that you would think everyone would be keenly aware of it's presence in every moment. But, more often than not, most of us are living out storylines suggesting that certain things will last and, as a result, we experience a lot of suffering when those things don't end up lasting.

That's a pretty basic teaching of Buddhism: that things come together and fall apart all the time.

I've been reflecting today on a different, but related issue. What happens when you either push too hard for changes to occur, or you don't do enough to support beneficial changes to occur?

At the school I work at, we have open enrollment. In addition, we currently are struggling financially and as a result, are trying to fill our classrooms in order gain more state funding from student hours. The reality these two issues, combined with a few others, is classrooms that have almost weekly changes in student composition. You can imagine the effect this has had on our teaching.

If you untangle this situation, you can find both too much pressure for change, as well as not enough support for beneficial changes to occur on their own. The panic from lack of certain funding has taken over the wisdom of allowing for more gradual changes to come to classroom composition, and as a result, the teachers, including myself, have had to drop long term planning for classes in favor of more self-contained lessons and short term projects. In other words, instead of a more organic process of change, what we have at our school is runaway snowball change.

I know our little school isn't alone in having this problem. Think of all those drug companies that have rushed a medication to market without proper research. Or laws that have been made in haste, which then spawned more problems than they solved. Or even in your own life, how you failed to have patience and tried to force something to come, or simply didn't do anything and expected it to just occur.

There's a danger in just believing in impermanence. Without a skillful mix of patience, and practice, it's very true that things will change, but probably in ways that you definitely won't enjoy. Sure, it's possible that no matter what you do, a shift in your life might be crappy. But it's more likely that with patience and practice, the circumstances of life will in a beneficial way.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sting of Truth



Over at Genkaku-again, Adam Genkaku Fisher has a great post on honesty, niceness, and the stories we make up about others we perceive as "savior" figures. What struck me most was the following:

But who is it who says that Jesus or some other guru has to be nice in my terms? Who is it who imagines that kindness only resides in a "yes?"


I appreciate the willingness to go beyond commonplace views and really ask how much of our longing for compassion, and for people to just be nice, is simply what we want to happen. I've noticed how I get upset sometimes when people working behind counters at coffee shops or restaurants feel cold or irritated. What's interesting about this is that even though I do not subscribe to the view that people in customer service should always smile and be nice, there's still a piece of me that sometimes takes personally the cranky remark or flat affect of those same folks. What it comes down to is that I don't want the inconvenience of their pain coming into my life, or on that particular day, my own suffering is already enough, and I see theirs as simply an addition that I better shut down or marginalize before it pushes me over the edge. This is all story driving me. That customer service people should at least try to keep it together. That I can't handle a few minutes of crankiness or less than friendly service. It's all story. And entitlement as well. Who said we deserve to get a smile and friendly service from every minimum wage clerk in the country? Why are we so willing to reduce our fellow humans into simply means of exchange that better behave accordingly?

When you start to see the pervasiveness of this, there is a sting to it. It's not pleasant, and yet, without this awareness, there will never be awakening.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Too Much Happiness



I cam across this interesting post by Marguerite of the blog Mind Deep. She write about how, in the midst of a day full of happiness, she longs for quiet, and for a chance to meditate. It's an interesting quandary, isn't it? People talk about wanting happiness and yet, when there's too much, or it's too intense, there's something off about it too.

Partly, what Marguerite describes is an externally-focused happiness. Great feeling produced by being with her family, celebrating life in a warm, comfortable house. Definitely wonderful, but still transient. Not the bedrock joy that exists and can be tapped into at all times if only we are awake to it.

However, I think Marguerite's post gets at one of the main problems of striving after constant happiness: it's not very balanced. Yesterday, I went out for coffee and cake with a couple of good friends. I rarely eat cake, and find that as I get older, the desire for sugar has weakened greatly. It just doesn't satisfy very much, and the side effects from too much aren't so pleasant.

Our longing for constant external happiness, when it actually manifests for a short time, is like eating an entire chocolate cake. In the beginning, there is euphoria. Life is absolutely wonderful, and the laughter and giddiness can drive you for hours. But eventually, the body has to process all that energy, and as it does, the mood shifts, turns heavy, hazy, and even sour. Then you go through withdrawal, wanting to push everyone and everything away. In some ways, it's a less dramatic version of drug addiction and withdrawal.

This is why I have grown suspicious of commentaries that suggest that Buddhism's goal is one of happiness. It seems like a big trap for people, especially in a country like the U.S., where the term "pursuit of happiness" was codified in our Declaration of Independence, and has an almost religious quality to it now. Along these lines, one of the few Buddhist books to reside on the Bestseller list for a significant period of time was the Dalai Lama's book The Art of Happiness, which has sold over 1.5 million copies in the past 11 years. Yes, it's accessible, and was written for the general public. But I'd argue that the title taps into that deep longing most Americans have to be happy, to have happiness. In fact, if you look at the original quote from John Locke, which was "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property," you can see how, even though Thomas Jefferson (in consultation with Ben Franklin) replaced "property" with "happiness" when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, there actually wasn't really any change. We want to own happiness, feel we have an absolute right to continual happiness, just as Locke felt people had a right to own property. And it's in this ownership aspiration that we really screw things up.

If you never question and dig deeply into the "ownership mind," liberation will always be far away. For those of us living in lands of abundance, where capitalism and material prosperity are commonplace, dismantling the ownership mind is one of our most important tasks. May we all be liberated from it's limits.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Study: Majority of "Calm Downs" Ineffective



I'm sure you've been in a situation like this. Someone you know, maybe a friend, relative, or significant other, is wound up about something. You can hear it in the edging upward of their voice, and see it in their bulging eyes and pitch-red face. As the shouting roars into the now dead silent air, you're beginning to wonder if a murderous punch is far behind. You reach for their hand, trying desperately to fake a smile. And then you hear the words that almost never work - "Only 9 percent according to a recent study at Cornell University" - crawl out of your fear-mangled mouth: "Calm down." "Calm down." You keep saying it, trying out slightly different sound variations, hoping one of them will be the one that will cut through the madness.

The title for today's post is from "Americas Finest News Source" = The Onion. For those of you who aren't familiar with this fine publication, you can check it out here. This is not your average newspaper, nor is it a muckraking political journal, although at times it may seem like that. No, The Onion is just good old fashioned, well informed comedy. A little balm for your real news-tired eyes. In other words, there was no "calm down" study done at Cornell University.

However, what's really funny is that even though the whole article about the ineffectiveness of using the phrase "calm down" was made up, it's actually pretty true. People who are wound up, who are either intensely angry or intensely sad or some other intensely tend not to respond too positively to the kinds of interventions that imply they are out of control or overreacting. In fact, saying something like calm down sometimes makes things worse because the person it's directed at thinks you're talking down to them, or trying to shut them down. Notice how often the word "down" appears in the previous sentence. It's no coincidence. Calm down. Talking down. Shutting down. There's an increasing level of pressure at play in each of these phrases when activated in the brain. The good intentions of the person uttering the original phrase thus are lost as the other person either escalates or stuffs everything.

It's important to see that this particular pattern isn't always true, or even mostly true. And it's definitely the case that with the right person, under the right circumstances, the use of a phrase like "calm down" is exactly what's called for. But when it comes to being skillful in intense, or even not very intense, situations, it's helpful to respond in a fresh, of the moment way. "Calm down" isn't very fresh, is it? It's the kind of cliche that we fall back on when we feel scared or confused, and haven't trained our minds well enough to be settled in the muck and still be able to respond.

So, next time you're in an escalated situation, remember the research that Cornell University never did, and pause before saying or doing the same thing you always do.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Admit it! You Don't Want to See the Truth!



In a memorable moment in the film "A Few Good Men," Jack Nicholson shouts at Tom Cruise, a courtroom full of people, and at all of us really "You can't handle the truth!" Now, anyone that knows me knows that I'm not much of a movie buff. I enjoy seeing movies now and then, but if I go a year without seeing one, it makes no difference to me. So, the fact that this single line in an otherwise forgettable movie (well, I've forgotten it anyway) has stuck with me all these years says something about the power of the statement.

However, I have to disagree with the statement completely. You and I - we CAN handle the truth. In fact, we were built to handle the truth from the beginning because it is nothing more or less than our lives. But we don't want to. We choose time and time again to turn away, deny, fight off, massage, or cover over the truth of the moment. This is true in "good" times and in "bad," although probably more so in the "bad."

In Chan Master Sengcan's dharma poem Hsin Hsin Ming, or Faith in Mind, is the following line:

"To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind."

Notice that the focus is on "setting up," and not actually on the opinions themselves. When something is happening in your life that you like, you go with it. Right? I'd argue probably not as often as you would like to think.

Instead of living out that experience, you often cling to it, worrying about the problems that might come, will come, in the future. You want to live in that which you like all the time, so you conjure up all the potential demons that could arrive to destroy your good time. Or, when the good feeling starts to slip, maybe you do something to perk it back up, like indulge in a fantasy, or have a few beers, or a cigarette, or if you really get desperate, some heroin or sex with a stranger, or some other wildly dangerous thing. Anything to maintain the edge of that which you like in your life.

On the other hand, there is that which we dislike. Methods for pushing away are almost infinite, aren't they? And why do we give in time and time again to the desire to get rid of, or at least take the edge off of that which we dislike? Because we believe our inner Jack Nicholson! Things start getting irritating, uncomfortable, frustrating, or even merely dull, and up pops Jack shouting his one liner just loud enough, and forceful enough, to knock you into the land of doubt and fear.

"Oh, oh," you say to yourself, "maybe he's right. Maybe this will go on for ever and I won't be able to handle it." If you pay attention, there's always some bit about "forever" lurking around in your noggin. Some teenager fills the bus with his loud music and you think "Ah, shit, this will never end, will it?" Your boss makes a policy that requires you to work more for less pay and you think "Am I going to have to put up with this forever? Will it ever change?"

Our Inner Jack is pretty damn persuasive when we let him be. And that's just it; it's our decision to let him be a powerful force, even when the decision is so quick that it's almost invisible.

So, the first thing to do about all this is to admit it. Admit that you often don't want to see the truth. Drop all the "I'm a truth seeker" bullshit and just admit you're not as keen on the truth of this life as you though you were. It may seem like caving into good old Jack there, and you might even feel him smile a bit for the moment, thinking he's got you again. But actually, in admitting you're actually converging with your life as it is. You're stepping into it; not going away from it.

A paradox for sure, but even if you have never seen "A Few Good Men," you've got some form of Jack lurking around within you. Feeding off of the buffet of you. It's time to cut him off. Take down that All You Can Eat sign and close down the kitchen. Life's too short to have such a bad adviser leading the way.

You can handle the truth. Tell it to him. Tell it to yourself. The time for "I don't want tos" has passed, don't you think?

Blog Action Day - Global Warming



Today is, apparently, Blog Action Day around Global Warming and Climate Change. Having just made a politically driven post a few days ago, I think I will save writing extensively about the many ways in which humans have damaged the planet and themselves for another day. Instead, here's a link to Rev. Danny Fisher's blog and to a wonderful post by Adam over at Home Brew Dharma. Where else could you find an article that weaves Buddhism, Global Warming, and Beer Brewing together?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hotbutton Political Issues and Buddhism



The two political issues in the U.S. that seem to be most hot button right now are the War in Afghanistan and health care reform. One thing I have always found strange, and extremely sad, is that the debate on health care has been riddled with commentary about cost, while cost is almost never brought up in the debate about the war. When I contemplate Buddhist teachings about suffering and the first precept of non-killing, I can't help but view the manifestations of these separate, but linked debates as terribly wrongheaded. Let's face it: health care has been reduced to a cost/benefits analysis, while any talk of ending either the war in Afghanistan, or it's counterpart in Iraq, has been taken off the table and labeled crazy talk by both major political parties.

Over at his blog, Algernon posted the following about a series of protests occurring on October 15th. There is a grassroots effort developing in response to the Congressional shutout of any government-run options, as well as in direct response to the outrageous greed being displayed by the insurance industry.

As for the war, I stumbled across this post at the blog Breathe about self-identified Buddhists in the U.S. military. I'm not sure how accurate the study is, but it reports just over five thousand self-identified Buddhists currently serving in the military. A tiny number amongst 1.4 million total people in the military.

I think it's faulty to assume that Buddhists would be less interested in serving in the military because of the tenants of the religion. Indeed, there are strong peace teachings in all the major religions, not just Buddhism. But I do wonder about that small number. Is it a miscount? Does it reflect the fact that until recently there was no Buddhist spiritual guidance and support available? In recent years, there have been claims and lawsuits suggesting a heavy, oppressive Christian bias in the military. Does it have anything to do with this?

Although everyone who has read my blog for awhile probably knows that I am ardent pacifist, I have always tried to show respect for my fellow Americans who have chosen to serve in the military. Over the years, I have heard stories of soldiers who felt that joining the military was the only chance they might have to get a better education, or to support their family. I've heard others tell of how they initially felt joining the military was a way to give back to their country, and then realized that the government in power lied to them. Still others continue to view their work in the military as honorable, even as they might question some of the specifics. It's complicated, damn complicated. And I have always felt a strong sense of frustration with the failure of many peace activists to separate out their disgust for war and violent political policies from their views of people who are in the military.

I feel that both of these issues are calling us in the varied and diverse Buddhist community to offer up some of the wisdom of our tradition. Why? Because in both cases, the debates are stale, and the rhetoric used is so often anti-humane and highly suffering producing for people on all sides.

A few questions to ponder.

What does it look like to both support a shift to non-violent approaches, and also to recognize the buddha-nature of our brothers and sisters serving in the military?

Why do we collectively continue to allow political and corporate leaders to frame discussions about health care primarily in terms of cost, while also allowing those same leaders to frame military issues almost solely in terms of national defense?

What is the point of talking about interdependence if it doesn't also apply to large scale social issues?

How can our practice help us take a long range view of these kinds of issues, while also inspiring us to not be complacent in the present?

As far as I'm concerned, our practice is about penetrating the whole works of your life. If you have family members, friends, or colleagues in the military, that issue is part of your life. If you know anyone that has been killed in war, or who has served in a war and been effected by it, it's part of your life. If you feel strongly about the first precept, it's an issue in your life, no matter what you believe about any given conflict. And health care, well, how could it possibly not be an issue that impacts you?

We really can't turn away, even when we try. Eventually, social issues come knocking at your door just like everything else. It can be overwhelming; it's often overwhelming. So, then what? Is this not the pivot point of practice? To work with, to live with, completely, whatever is present?

If you view the political, the social, the collective-scale, as separate from your spiritual life, I'd like to ask: how so? How is it possible? This isn't about endorsing a particular political view, or suggesting that everyone become a social activist. This is about seeing your whole life, all of it, from the most intensely "personal" emotions to the most intensely "impersonal" political decisions that impact us all. If you look hard enough, I'll bet you will start to see that even the divide between the "personal" and "impersonal," between that which is in "my" sphere and that which isn't, is itself nothing but a fiction of self-protection.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Same old Same old



I woke up this morning to falling snow: the second time in a week this has happened and it's not even the middle of October. And yet, as it is in Minnesota, by the end of the week it could be sunny and 70 degrees out. Predictability isn't a strong suit when it comes to the weather in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.

What about your life? How is what actually is happening different from how you see it?

I'm often either in conversations, or overhearing conversations that go something like this.

A: Hey so and so! How are you?

B I'm fine. You?

A: Yeah, me too. What have you been up to?

B Not much. You know, the same old same old."

A: Yeah, it's about the same here, expect for..."

Unless something dramatic enters into our lives, we seem to be very good and missing the smaller changes in life.

A fresh coat of snow in early October is kind of dramatic.

The slow fade of the large, green garden squash plant leaves - not so dramatic.

A cancer diagnosis is dramatic. The shift from mild sore throat to mucus-filled nose not so much.

How much of the statement "the same old same old" or ones like it is simply our devaluing of the less dramatic, greater bulk of our lives? Even if you, personally, value those things, I'm guessing a lot of the time, you, too, suppress these things in order to conform to cultural expectations and/or not to bore others. I know I do.
If you bring up the ballgame, or TV show X, or concert Y, then you have something to talk about. If you tell someone about the albino squirrel you saw chasing a half dozen other squirrels up and down an old oak tree, you'll receive many a glazed over looks.

This is part of the separation occurring in our lives. It's just one of the many ways we fail to be present, and to embody being present with others. It's strikes me that often we have a strong preference to have something dramatic to report to others about our lives. Either that, or we just say nothing is new. Which is false - there's always something unfolding, but often we just can't see it. Or we see it, but discount it. Or believe others will have no interest. And living in a society that trains us to not have an interest in a lot of our actual lives, many people aren't interested.

So, given all this, what to do? If you don't start examining your need for the dramatic, you'll miss the bulk of your life, guaranteed.

Friday, October 9, 2009

If You Wish to See the Truth



First off, great bows to John Daido Loori Roshi, who died a few hours ago. Thank you to Barry for delivering the news on his blog. We all have a short time here; what are you going to do with the rest of your precious life?

I am continuing to study and reflect on Master Sengcan's dharma poem "Trust in Mind" or the Xinxinming. Here's another line that caught me, and a few others in my sangha over the past week.

"If you wish to see the truth,
then hold no opinions for or against anything."

Take a look at those first words - "If you wish to see the truth." How often do you truly wish to see the truth? And how often do you do anything in your power to turn away from it?

This line seems to point at the choice that's required of each of us in every moment to want to see the truth. We have to aim ourselves in the right direction - or, more accurately, allow ourselves to be aimed in the right direction by life itself. If we're too busy being obstructionists, propping up sham arguments about ourselves and others, there's no room for the truth to seep in.

In the second part of the line, the word "hold" stands out in my opinion. Last night, I was in a conversation about politics, and felt myself holding on to an opinion about the current leadership here in the U.S. I noticed how there was a tightness in my body, and also an increasing sense of shutting down occurring for the guy I was talking to. So, I decided to pull back, and let go of the point I was trying to make. We continued to talk, and I was very aware of the calming that came to my breath and body after letting go, and how I was still able to talk about what I thought, but in a more open way.

What would it be like to have all opinions be like this? Like birds floating across the mind's landscape, accessible, able to be conveyed, but also free to pass on through at any time?

A powerful aspiration, and one worth working towards realization. Bows to us all for our efforts, however great or small.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Power of Language



The impact of language seems to be constantly surrounding me lately. Or maybe I'm just paying even more attention to it lately. The way I viewed the term "stepping down" when it came to John Daido Loori's resignation as head of the Mountains and Rivers Order. Nothing in the term prepared me for the letter a few days later saying he was dying. The way U.S. President Obama speaks of searching for "a middle ground" when it comes to the war in Afghanistan: a war that was entered into out of hatred and revenge, and has gone on for eight years at the cost of tens of thousands of lives, billions of dollars, and unknown costs to the environment.

So, when I came across these opening words in an otherwise rather convoluted post by zen teacher Brad Warner, I paused.

I've been thinking about compassion lately. People keep asking me about it because Buddhist teachers are supposed to talk about compassion all the time. But I hate talking about things I'm supposed to talk about. Whenever some idea starts wending its way through a culture it very quickly turns into a cliche and dies. Compassion died a long while ago.


I've had similar thoughts on occasion. There seems to have been an explosion of books, classes, and conversations that focus around how to be compassionate. In some ways, that's probably a positive thing. However, what does the word mean? What is it that people are talking about when they say "Compassion?"

Sometimes I wonder if talking about compassion is taking the place of actually doing the hard work of embodying compassion. I also get the sense that the popular definition of compassion is something very warm and fuzzy, which isn't really hitting the mark. Sometimes being compassionate requires a soft, warm touch. Other times it's a hard kick in the ass at the right time. Being compassionate requires Right View - that we have spent time with a person and/or situation, and have seen enough of what's going on to act skillfully. How many of you have had someone come into your life when things are down with overbearing advice or help that only makes things worse? My guess is probably all of us have.

When it comes to words, there is both a power built into them, and also a diminishing returns quality that comes from overuse and misuse. The term "Zen" itself has been bastardized enough in popular culture that it's meaning, when used by those of who actually practice it, often has to be expanded upon or redefined all together. This is probably true of compassion now as well. It's overuse and misuse requires us to be more careful, and to clarify what it is that we actually mean when we say it.

This isn't a bad thing. But maybe if we were more careful in the first place when we speak, we wouldn't have to do so much work at the other end to get our point across.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Impermanence and John Daido Loori



I haven't had much time to post the past two days, but the quick turn of events with John Daido Loori Roshi at Zen Mountain Monastery caught my attention. Recently, it was announced he was stepping down from his leadership position. Seemed like a regular transition, with the elder teacher going into "retirement" - which, of course, doesn't mean hours of sitting in front of the TV and lawn mowing. However, this morning, Rev. Danny Fischer posted the following letter, which basically says that Daido is on his death bed.

I remember early on in my zen practice studying Daido's book Eight Gates of Zen with other newcomers at my sangha. Later, I worked through a few of his koan commentaries, as well as writings of zen and art. He's a gifted artist, and a powerful dharma teacher. If he is indeed in his last days, I wish his community and all those who have studied with him a peaceful mourning period, and blessings in the coming days. And thank you Roshi for your wonderful teachings, beautiful art, and for your part in planting the seeds of the dharma in it's newest home. May you be completely liberated from suffering, whatever happens in the coming days and weeks.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The "Need" to Describe and Define

video

I'm doing a little experiment today. Instead of a written blog piece, I recorded a few thoughts on what we are currently studying at my zen center - Chan Master Sengcan's dharma poem "Trust in Mind." You can read a translation of the poem by Robert Clarke here.

As part of the current practice period, I'm also chanting a version of Trust in Mind every night before bed. Maybe, by the end of November, when the practice period is finished, I will have chunks of the poem memorized. Having learned nearly a dozen chants by heart over the years, and large parts of others, I have found this internalization of teachings to be most valuable for my practice. No matter where I am, or what I am doing, little pieces of the dharma are always there.

I hope you enjoy the video above. If anything, it allowed me to practice using another feature of my computer, and to try to speak about the dharma through a different format.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Motivation and Illusions in Practice



I really enjoyed reading this post on Brad Warner's blog (Use Your Illusions. Not that I agreed with everything he said, but I found that there were many points in it worthy of considering.

The first one is the old "Is online a good place to study and practice?"

Brad writes:
I spent a lot of one-on-one time with my teachers and that’s how I got to know their character — not through books or blog postings or videos on YouTube. Those tell you next to nothing about a person’s true character. No matter how many of them you read or watch. Whatever picture you have in your mind of people you see on your computer screen is false. Absolutely fictitious. You don’t have a clue.


In some ways, I completely agree with this. Human interaction and connection in person is so essential to our lives, and given that we are in the middle of the digital revolution, we don't really have a full awareness yet of how things like the internet are effecting our relationship, communities, and ways in which we structure our lives. However, I think Brad is a little too dismissive of the written word, and how it does portray parts of people's lives and character. A few months ago, I read the teaching letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn, which you can read here. Now, at least for some of these people, these letters were the primary relationship they had with their teacher. It may be that they had a lot of illusions about their teacher because of a lack of in the flesh experience, but it's also true that many of us in sanghas are filled with illusions about the teachers we see on a weekly, or even daily basis. In my opinion, true character can appear anywhere - in person, in a kind or nasty letter, even in a fleeting glance or word said over the phone.

Another point Brad brings up is the commonplace desire for a perfect teacher, and the man ways in which this ends up not holding up in reality. The upheaval at my own zen center about five years ago broke through the illusion of a perfect teacher for me, and many others there. The downfall of our charismatic teacher, and subsequent period of questioning and searching for a new leader, was extremely fruitful in terms of providing continuous teachings on how teachers are still humans, and how it's essential that you take responsibility for your own practice, and not expect someone else to lead the way for you.

Finally, there's the issue of motivation. I'm definitely familiar with this one. Even though some see me as a pretty dedicated practitioner, my motivation sometimes flags, and laziness sometimes is the tune of the day.

Brad writes:

What our questioner today has seen has convinced her that there is nothing to this Zen shit, that even after 20+ years of practice its teachers are still not perfect people. So why bother?

And it seems to go even beyond that for her. She despairs that she will never find the answers she seeks – even if she understands those answers won’t make her a perfect person.


Why bother? It's actually a damn good question. What is all this sitting and chanting and bowing and reflecting on your life about? Why not just crack a cold one and watch the ballgame?

Well, here's the funny thing. Any answer I come up with seems to crumble like rotten wood. I'd love to give you all an elegant, clear sounding answer that you will all quote for years on end. (Insert wild laughter here.) However, the reality is that I don't know why I bother for sure. Yes, my vows are important to me. Yes, I want to do what I can to lessen suffering in the world. Yes, I want liberation and ease and joy and all that. But somehow even all those things, as important as they are, still feel a bit self-focused to be answers to the question "Why bother?"

The pretty sounding words we Buddhists speak can be traps as well. I'm really noticing this lately. Claiming to want peace or liberation or a bucket of chicken isn't the same as actually manifesting those qualities in your life. How many of us claim to want one thing, but in reality really want a bucket of chicken? (Or chocolate or a pat on the back). I'd argue that a lot of our motivations are mixed, terribly unclear, and littered with the chicken bones of our desires.

Zen teachers often talk about the practice as being a "goal-less" one, which complicates the picture even more. Why bother? becomes a koan under these terms because whatever answer you give, it's probably going to contain a goal. Maybe not every answer, but most.

So, then what? Why do you bother doing all this? Don't rush to answer, or you'll be nothing more than a bucket of burned chicken. I suppose there are worse things, but then again, maybe we're all burnt chickens trying to heal our way back home.