Sunday, 23 April 2017

Unintentionally Consequential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Eunsahn Citta blogs can be found here:

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

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Zen and the Art of Tube Feeding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreaming about slurry...

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

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

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


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