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 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 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

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

The allure of Akira Kurosawa's film Ikiru

Watching Akira Kurosawa’s unusual movie Ikiru is a fascinating experience. I love the film and offer it to my fellow Buddhists, thinking many of you are likely to find it amazing, as well. The film was made in 1952 in Tokyo and is in Japanese. All parts, including those by many hundreds of extras are played by Japanese actors.

The movie opens with a picture of an X-ray. We are told by an opinionated narrator that the X-ray is that of our protagonist’s stomach which shows that he has an aggressive cancer that will kill him. [The screenplay leaves viewers with the certain knowledge that death is in the offing. There will be no switched X-ray ruse. The main character will be dead in five months. Absolutely!]

This protagonist is a middle-ranking city official, Mr. Wanatabe [played by Takashi Shimura] who’s about 55 years old, I’d say, with the title Public Affairs Section Chief.

Wanatave and the piles and piles of papers.
We first see him at his desk stamping documents. Behind him and all around the walls and blocking windows and around the desks and walls of his subordinates are stacks and stacks and piles upon piles of loosely bound papers.

The narrator tells us:
Ah, here is our protagonist now. But it would only be tiresome to meet him right now. After all, he’s simply passing time without actually living his life. In other words, he’s not really even alive. … In fact, this man has been dead for more than 20 years now.
The narrator is speaking metaphorically, of course. He’s setting up the situation which is one perhaps many of us can relate to: our life is a drag; we’re only just sleepwalking through it, following our routine which prepares us to follow our routine without let up.

Wanatabe playing pinball with a young co-worker
Wanatabe is just a player in a mindless bureaucracy where departments pass work to other departments and fop off encounters they should be having with citizens off on other departments, endlessly, such that citizens give up on getting a problem fixed. Paper piles up endlessly and it is extremely rare for something meaningful to ever get done.

The tone of the movie is an important element. It is a serious film with conversations most of which are serious. But there is always, just out of reach, this world of absurdity. The piles of papers. The do-nothing bureaucracy. The acclimation of the workers to their world of madness.

These are things all of us can relate to, at least a little bit. After all, the backdrop to our lives is that Donald Trump may be our next president and if he doesn’t kill us, ISIS might, and if we survive that, climate change will finish off the last of us.

We can all come to be comfortable in a world of meaningless madness and never know how to get off our duffs to do something about it. [And we can fail to think of something to do once we’re off our duffs.]

Terry Gilliam used Ikiru as an inspiration for his comedic film Brazil in 1985. Brazil is brilliant, about being trapped in bureaucratic madness. Ikiru, superior in my opinion, includes an element about finding a path out.

Another thing I have to emphasize, that dazzles me, is how well done everything is in Ikiru. The acting is consistently superb. And there are scenes where an awful lot is going on, including in the background.

In the early part of the movie, Mr. Wanatabe befriends a mediocre novelist who pulls Wanatabe out of his deep depression and shows him how to have fun. There’s then a succession of wonderfully filmed scenes of drinking and women and playing with Wanatabe getting some relief from his depression. In one scene, they go to see a striptease where, as the stripper’s clothes come off, Wanatabe lets out a satisfied yowl.

Wanatabe: So happy. On a swing in the snow.
One interesting thing I noticed: During the sequences of gaiety, the music is American, sung in English. On walls, some English-language words can be seen: “Beer” “Cabaret” The movie was made seven years after WWII. I suppose the reality is that Americans were in Japan affecting the culture. Still, no non-Japanese persons are seen.

Despite these diversions, Wanatabe is vexed with dread, at times. His life was a waste; he is just waiting to die. But a ditzy young woman he works with says some things that sparks an idea.

I didn’t find the back-half of the film to be as intriguing as its first half, but is it where Wanatabe figures out what to do. Not wanting to spoil things any further, I will leave things at that except to say that it seems clear that the message that comes from Buddhism plays a vital role in the movie, even as there is no mention of Buddhism in the film.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Progressive Buddhism has gone Social

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