Monday, 23 February 2009

The Worst Sit Ever

No exaggeration. Well, barely. My wife and I joined our sitting group yesterday morning for our usual Sunday hour-long sit, and I had what has to count as my worst sit ever--and I've been doing this for fifteen years! Perhaps some of my meditating friends out there could help me with their insights.

Here's how it went: I noticed something "wrong" from the start. It usually takes me no more than a few breaths to get settled in, to slow down to meditation speed. Yesterday, though--and for no discernible reason--my heart was pounding at an unusual rate and my breath was jerky and uneven. I tried the usual tactics. Keep breathing, watch the breath. I moved on into metta, the goodwill practice, first for myself, then for family and close friends--I went through all the usual faces--then those I don't know and have no judgment about one way or the other, those I dislike or distrust, those in power, those without it, who are suffering from hunger, disease, or violence. My mind kept wandering, nowhere in particular, and my body was inordinately restless. Legs, arms, neck... I did my best to bring some rest to them with the breath. No luck.

Undeterred, I moved on to my body scan, starting at the centerpoint and working through the abdomen, the flanks, chest and heart, neck, head... and down the back to the legs and down from the shoulders to the fingertips. I could NOT get settled. Neither mind nor body. I ached, literally, to be out of there. Several times, I nearly got up and left. I resorted to measuring the passing minutes against the breath, and every minute seemed like a half-hour. It wasn't as though there was anything particular on my mind--not that I could identify, though I resisted trying to identify it.

Then came the panic. This was perhaps forty minutes into the sit. It manifested first in the form of body heat. I felt my body begin to burn, a kind of fever which intensified into a sweating anxiety. My head kept saying, gotta get out of here. NOW. Fighting the panic, of course, results only in more panic. I had to MOVE. I found small ways to release the tension, a shift in the position of the legs, a slight stretch of the neck. Small comfort. My head began to go into black-out mode... Fearing that I would quite literally and imminently pass out, I leaned forward, placing my head between my knees.

Then it was over. For perhaps no more than the last five minutes of that long, long hour, I managed to find a place of serenity. I began to breathe easy. I managed to let go of everything that had gone before. My mind was content to accept stillness and peace. Then the bell rang. I was never so happy to hear that mellow sound...

I wonder, then, if any of my fellow meditators have had similar experiences? I have, in truth, had minor episodes of this kind in the past--particularly the body heat and, of course, the struggle with the mind and the breath. But never this intense, or this prolonged. I wonder to what extent it might have to do with our current global malaise, about which I'll be posting more tomorrow on my blog, The Buddha Diaries. Have you been losing sleep?

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The End of the Buddha-Dharma: or "demythologizing numbers"

I have heard many scholars debating the meaning and so-called "prophesy" of the Buddha, who claimed that his Dharma, or teaching, would last only 500 years (later revised to 5000). In fact I had a class once in which a student tried to 'calculate' the end of the world based on the 5000 year cut in half prediction (and it was coming soon!).

This is especially discussed in light of his other controversial claim, that the life of the Dharma would be cut in half when he began ordaining women.

But all of the academic speculation seems quite beside the point as I read today in the Rhys-Davids and Stede Pali Dictionary that:
Note. When Gotama said that his "religion" would last 500 years he meant that it would last a very long time, practically for ever. The later change of 500 to 5,000 is immaterial to the meaning of the expression, it only indicates a later period (cp. 5,000 in Nibelungeniled for 500, also 5,000 men in ambush Joshua 8. 12; converted by Peter Acts 4. 4; fed by Christ with 5 loaves Matthew 14. 21). Still more impressive than 500 is the expression 5 Koṭis (5 times 100,000 or 10 million), which belongs to a comparatively later period, e. g. at DhA i.62 (ariya -- sāvaka -- koṭiyo), 256 (˚mattā -- ariyasāvakā); iv.190 (p. koti -- mattā ariya -- sāvakā).
I've read several accounts showing that the number 84 (84,000, 84,000,000, etc) is similarly of mythical significance in ancient India. Likewise, in a recent Journal of Buddhist Ethics paper, Charles Prebish points out that the number 100 was probably at least at times used as a mere approximation.

But this is the first I had heard of a similar clarification in regard to the 500/5000 years issue. Very interesting...

* image from Kit's Bits.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Texas Holdem Poker and Buddhism

No limit Texas holdem is considered by many to be the 'Cadillac' of poker. It certainly has become a very popular past time/sport in the last 5 years. The reason? The skill involved in being able to read another player's motives, not by words, but just watching and observing. In poker, we call this a tell; 'a usually unconscious bodily movement or gesture that gives away the players hand strength or motive'.

I have enjoyed playing in a few home games over the last couple of years and found my ability to meditate on other players movements and tics has been of great benefit when it comes to the game. In Texas Holdem, its said you play the player and not the cards, and this is true, not only for poker, but in a metaphorical sense for life as well.

In Zen, many times you'll hear teachers and masters talking about communications without words. When we can learn to listen to the motives and intentions of not only others, but our own mind, we can begin to lift the fog of Samsara. I know we have all experienced this in our lives many times, that one person you know very well, whose look can give you the message without a single word. I know my ex-wife had that look and my mother too. Wait....I'm sensing a connection here...but I digress.

Perhaps, if we can learn to be present and observational, we can learn to listen to the communication of the unspoken. It is said 80% of communication is done via body language or tone of voice rather than the words themselves. I think that number is much closer to 100% if we care to listen close enough to the universal language of the unspoken.

Or, I could be bluffing.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Morphology of Western Buddhism

Buddhism has changed every time it has entered a new culture. However, we can justifiably say that in its meeting with modern Western culture, Buddhism is at a unique crossroads in its history for several reasons:
  • For the first time in it's history, all the various strands of Buddhism are able to be examined and compared together.
  • Sophisticated scholarship and archaeology allow us to accurately identify what the original teaching's of Buddha probably were and trace their evolution.
  • Science and psychotherpeutic theory are much more advanced than they were in Buddha's time and can now be applied to his teachings.
For many years there has been a debate within Western Buddhism as to what extent the dharma should be kept traditional and to what extent it should be adapted to western culture. Is the dharma already perfect and in no need of change? To what extent are cultural trappings superficial and unnecessary? Are all religions essentially the same? Is Buddhism essentially a sort of therapy?

Answers range from the very traditional to the radically reformed. It's like watching Darwin's finch arriving on the Galápagos Islands and seeing it evolve into many specialised species. I suspect that the question is no longer 'what form will Buddhism take in the west?' , but 'how many forms will Buddhism take in the West?'.

Here are a few examples, skewed by my greater knowledge of Zen than other schools. Please share any more examples types you can think of and I'll add them here.

Keeping things as traditional as possible.

Association Zen Internationale:
Traditional dress and ceremony preserved, content sometimes liberalised into therapeutic or Judeo-Christian language.

San Franscisco Zen Centre:
As above, slightly more liberal.

Some modification of teachings and/or form.

Dogen Sangha International:
Ceremony and precepts largely dropped. Zazen-only focus. Some integrative theorising. Reform begun in Japan. Brad Warner combines some Buddhist thought with punk counter-culture.

Throssel Hole
Teachings and ceremony integrated with Judeo-Christian concepts and culture

Buddhist Syncretism
In spite of their various expressions, all forms of Buddhism are essentially the same and can be largely taught as a whole.

Friends of the Western Buddhist Order

Western Insight Meditation/Vipassana Movement:

Rooted in the Theravadin Thai Forest and Burmese traditions, liberal, primarily a lay-led movement (no ordination of monks). Leaders include Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzburg.

Integral Movement/Spiritual Syncretism
All or most religious, spiritual and psychological thought are all ways of talking about the same thing and can be integrated into one philosophy. This approach is often associated with New Age thinking.

Ken Wilbur

Eckart Tolle
Tolle is essentially informal accessible zen without formal meditation, using Judeo-Christian, New Age and Psychotherapeutic language

Therapeutic Adoption
Buddhist techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on depression, stress, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Using a religious format is not necessary.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy
Combined with cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness meditation (which is essentially the same as Zazen) is used to treat long-term depression and other issues. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is another variant. Religious/spiritual language is absent. Philosophical content, while close to Buddhism, is adapted and reformulated.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Not Now

I was sitting in meditation with members of our sangha yesterday and struggling with an unusually busy mind. I once asked Thanissaro Bhikkhu for his wisdom on the scattered mind and he advised me to tell myself: "Not now..." A simple instruction, yes. But as with all things simple, I have found that it's easier said than done.

Here's the thing: as a writer, I find that the silence and concentration involved in meditation provide me with an ideal time to "write"--not with the pen, of course, but in the head. And because it's in the head and I want to remember each brilliant construction before it recedes into oblivion, I find myself writing and rewriting every phrase a dozen times, committing it to memory to insure that I'll have it ready to write down when I'm done. This leads me inevitably into an obsessive cycle of thought--and out of meditation.

"Not now." What a simple and obvious thing to tell the mind when it gets into this state. And in fact, when I manage to listen to myself and simply postpone the work I got engaged in, I find that the work has been continued somewhere in the unconscious mind and is ready, waiting for me, when I choose to return to it. It's a matter of trust, then, that whatever it is that's engaging me will not be lost--unless, of course, it was so trivial that it need not have engaged me in the first place. Which is, regrettably, all too often the case.

It's the same with worrying and planning--both activities that address a future I am not empowered to know, let alone to determine. It's the kind of futile work the mind delights in, teasing itself with alternate scenarios until it whirls, hopelessly lost in the activity it has created. My mind, as it turns out, does not much like "Not now." It resists, insists, persists. Time and again I bring my attention dutifully back to the breath, and time and again the mind gets back to its wandering. When--and if--I manage to quiet it, though, what a comfort it is, what a relief! To drop back into the simple awareness of the body and its breathing, the ambient sounds and the attendant sensations. When--and if--I manage to bring myself into the present.

Why, I often ask myself, should it be so hard, when the result is so incontestably pleasant? When what awaits me is a kind of ecstasy, or at the very least, an inner calm? I suppose that my mind has been trained since childhood to believe that it should be "doing something," that idleness is somehow reprehensible.

Then there's the horror vacui (I googled the familiar words, to be sure I had the Latin spelling right, and to my surprise I came upon this wonderful painting by the self-taught artist Adolf Woeffli...

... no vacuum there; but I digress)--the "natural" abhorrence of the vacuum, an emptiness too frightening to contemplate. So the mind does its work. It creates structures of words and images, it noodles with the unknowable and flirts with risks and challenges yet to be realized. It considers this action to be its sacred duty, and sulks or sinks into "boredom" when deprived. It thumbs its nose at "Not now" and tells me to get lost. Which I promptly do.

Ah, yes. "Not now." Such a concept, such a challenge. And, when heeded, such a release! The wisdom of "Not now" is not limited, of course, to meditation. I often reflect on how much the quality of my daily life might be improved if I could just stay present to what is happening in the present, and quit worrying about things over which I have no control--such as the future, or the past.