Sunday, 24 May 2015

No, Really, It's OK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 18 May 2015

The annoyance of other people

A touchstone for me is my favorite description of the goal of Buddhist practice taken from an article written by B. Alan Wallace and Shauna L. Shapiro entitled, "Mental Balance and Well Being" from the October 2006 issue of American Psychologist. The bit I like reads thus:
The goal of Buddhist practice is the realization of a state of well-being that is not contingent on the presence of pleasurable stimuli, either external or internal. According to Buddhism, this movement toward well-being is a fundamental part of being human. As the Dalai Lama commented,
I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness.
A fundamental insight of Buddhism is the recognition of the fluctuating, impermanent nature of all phenomena that arise in dependence on preceding causes and contributing conditions. Mistakenly grasping objective things and events as true sources of happiness produces a wide range of psychological problems, at the root of which is the reification of oneself as an immutable, unitary, independent ego. By first recognizing these ways of misapprehending oneself and the rest of the world, one can then begin to identify the actual sources of genuine well-being. The true causes of such well-being are rooted in a wholesome way of life, are nurtured through the cultivation of mental balance, and come to fruition in the experience of wisdom and compassion. In this way, the pursuits of genuine well-being, understanding, and virtue come to be thoroughly integrated.

Now, just because I like this bit of text doesn't mean, of course, that I apply its wisdom, earnestly. Hardly. I'm a bit of a crank. I often get my dander up and charge citadels of power in an effort to change the world!1 I am highly unsuccessful in all my efforts and am left to stew about it afterward. Often, after my Don Quixote thing, I ride my donkey back home and re-imagine all that I did, only with me being much more articulate with nastier retorts and with my opponents left writhing on the ground, shaking their fists at me, screaming "You've beaten us, again, Armstrong! Damn you, you golden-tongued genius! And you're handsome, too. Well dressed. And we like your hair!"

I joke a bit in the above paragraph, but what is certainly true from it is that I FAIL in my efforts to make a better world and I REVISIT my failed efforts in my head and allow that to multiply real personal misery.

One area in my life where I'm quasi-successful is in regard to the homeless community of Sacramento and West Sacramento. I am no longer homeless, but I still know many of the guys and continue to blog about homelessness and seek the best for the guys, to get them off the street having meaningful, productive lives.

Sometimes, thoughts cross my mind that take me out of the moment. Recently, I was talking to a really nice thoughtful homeless fellow I know, Milton2, when something I know about him occurred to me: He is 48 years old and has spent half his life in prison. What he has been convicted of, repeatedly, is child sexual molestation. I've read in academic journals that for every conviction of child molestation there are fifty instances where the crime is never reported or the charges against the perpetrator are dropped, often because the traumatized child cannot bear the pain of memory of her experience. Of course, the statistic does not mean that Milton committed fifty times as many felonies than those for which he was convicted, or even one more, but the thought that his record appears to show he is out-of-control bothers me.

So, how is it possible to have a cordial conversation with a very likable man, knowing that his background is reprehensible? I think it starts with the Walt Whitman idea that each of us are multitudes and that with this Encyclopedia of Self we can find empathy for anyone. Whitman wrote, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”

Now, my child-molester friend certainly isn't multitudes; he's a psychopath whose exclusive interest is doing things for his own enjoyment. And when I described Milton as "thoughtful" and "nice" this is true in the way he comes off, but only because he is actively striving to manipulate me. Nonetheless, he is interesting, good company and I am filled with compassion for him.

The world would be a better place had Milton never been born. Because of the real possibility that Milton will re-offend, I would be at best ambivalent to learn of Milton's death now, today, because I can enough imagine the horror for a child when she is sexually attacked.

It's a crazy-ass world we live in, but I have come to believe that people do the best they can with the twisted minds and crooked backs, sorrows and limitations that beset them. This is a different "frame of reference" than what most people have with others. Nonetheless, I'm convinced it's the correct one.


1. Recently, I made a mighty effort to get the child-hating book Go the Fuck to Sleep out of the library. "WHAT child-hating?" asked one librarian. "It's humor! It's a satire!"

2. Not his real name.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Faith, Buddhism and a Hurricane

The Average Buddhist has been quiet for a while. Life intervenes. Blah, blah. Yes, I’m busy, but the truth is my silence has more to do with existential angst than with my “To Do” list. I’m suffering from a serious crisis of faith. 

It has been twenty years since my first crisis of faith catapulted me from the Episcopalianism of my childhood. Growing up I was very involved in the church. We attended every week and I served as an altar girl throughout middle and high school. It was gratifying and centering at the time to be so intimately involved in the liturgy. Then one day I was sitting in the choir pew reciting the familiar Nicene Creed and I realized I didn’t believe what I was saying. It seemed sudden at the time, but it really wasn't. The words were etched into my memory and I could speak them like a reflex, but my belief and my faith were long gone. 

In Buddhism I found a refuge. The Four Noble Truths make sense to me as the fundamental way of the universe. One’s manner of understanding and interacting with those Truths supports a lifetime of evolution. In Buddhism, it is not necessary to believe in an omnipotent, omniscient superhuman being who blesses and damns, who prevents certain disasters but who in some undefined “plan” allows other tragedies to transpire. Even the words of the historic Buddha himself are open for proof by experiential testing. Some would say that faith is irrelevant in Buddhism. I’ve made the grim discovery that it’s not.

My my primary beef is with the teaching that the enlightened mind is the truth of human nature and that the horrible things people think and do are nothing but clouds covering the blue sky. As Buddhists, this is something we are asked to accept on faith and I just can’t do that right now. Despite that, I find myself paralyzed by the wish that I could do something more to disperse that cloud cover - something big, something heroic - that would turn the heads of the masses and wake everyone at once. Instead I am stuck with the drip, drip, drip. I am just one drop of water carving a canyon from a stream.

Merriam-Webster defines “faith” as “a firm believe in something for which there is no proof.” There is absolutely no proof that human nature is fundamentally good. There is ample proof that the opposite is true. As a person who desires enlightenment for all, where does that leave me? Suffering.

Still I should have learned by now, yes? Desire and attachment is the root of suffering. Desiring enlightenment for all is the root of an enormous amount of suffering on my part. So, what? Do I abandon it? Unfortunately to date I find that I’m unable to do that. Even if I could, what good would that do anyone else? If I become inured to the cruelty and the suffering of others, I become a part of the problem. Round and round. My cloud cover spins into a hurricane. I’m not sure how long the storm will last and the weatherman’s on break.

Anyone else feel this way too?

Thursday, 7 May 2015

"Real" Buddhism: Book vs. Folk

The following is a guest post from Eisel Mazard, a formidable self-taught scholar of numerous Buddhist languages, regions, and historical periods. Read more from his blog:
I received a request to make expansions to an already-long article.  I tried to make these as brief as possible, and in now glancing at them in isolation (i.e., without the rest of the article surrounding them), they seem as if they might make sense juxtaposed in a single blog.
How important is the example of Dharaṇi?  In North-Eastern Thailand, Hayashi Yukio observed the cult of Dharaṇi (here transliterated as Thornani) closely bound into the most intimate and ultimate of rituals, the treatment of the remains of the dead:
First [the mourners] gather before the ashes of the deceased and pour water […] onto them to cool them down.  At the same time, the phu liang and her siblings, (mostly women) place the tray of food beside the ashes and the eldest addresses the winyan of the deceased, and the earth goddess, Mae Thorani.  "We have come because today is the day for collecting the bones.  We will invite the monks and make merit. […] Mae Thorani, please take merit (to the deceased).  This is our merit (bun khong hao)." [Yukio Hayashi, 2003, Practical Buddhism among the Thai-Lao, p. 183]
If funeral rituals may be supposed to be central to religion (or at least to the anthropological evaluation of religion), Theravāda Buddhism is certainly not an exception to that rule.  In this example we see the goddess Dharaṇi taking on a crucial role in both the funeral rite and in what is commonly called "merit-transfer", acting as the intercessory deity conveying the merit to the dead.  This imagines her as having a place of tremendous power, moving between the realms of gods and men in the cosmology of Buddhism: "The merit transferred through these rituals […] is said to be delivered to the deceased after first being received by Mae Thorani or thewada (divinities) and notifying yommabun (officials who follow the Lord of Death [yom])."  That role, in the study of any religion, would be considered very important indeed, and yet we here see it assigned to a goddess whose name almost escaped notice in the Pali canon (and a name that, even where it does appear, most likely had its religious significance "reverse-engineered", as described above, or perhaps we might say "retconned", in the informal parlance of our times).
I can't say that I'm employing this example as part of a debate about folk Buddhism (vs. "Book Buddhism").  The notion of debate presumes that all parties have the capacity to be persuaded by the evidence; debates about abortion policy within the Republican Party are far more earnest than debates about the status of ancient texts within academia.  At the intersection of religion and politics, the human aptitude to be selectively blind to the evidence is developed to the highest levels of virtuosity.  In an old essay, I mentioned (briefly) the case of a professor "who felt that my work supported his own conclusion that the Pali canon contained no description of the Buddha as an historical figure at all", whereas my work supported the opposite conclusion. (Link here)  Although Pali scholars themselves are susceptible to selective blindness in their own way(s), those who cannot read Pali will simply offer any ideological justification imaginable for why it's unnecessary to learn to read the ancient sources.  There's no debate possible on that point: the written word is powerless against the self-righteousness of canonical illiterates --and they try to gain some support from the plurality of claims to canonical literacy (i.e., Pali vs. Chinese vs. Tibetan vs. echoes-of-Sanskrit, etc.), as if the possibility that more than one ancient language could be useful vindicates their position of reading none of them.

We have a very instructive example of this non-debate unfolding in the works of Martin Southwold (whom I critique at greater length in Chinese, here):
Southwold presents his own methodology in direct contrast to the earlier precedents of Richard Gombrich and Stanley Tambiah, both of whom explored questions surrounding the application of anthropology to Theravāda Buddhism in their early works.  Hayashi Yukio describes Tambiah's early writing (of the 1970s) as "attempt[ing] to integrate the methods of Indologists and anthropologists."  The resulting mixed-method proceeds from the crucial assumption that, "According to Tambiah, if it is texts that define Buddhism, then practices and concepts not found in those texts, even though they may evolve as the actions of Buddhists, belong to the domain of non-Buddhist behavior."  As an almost perfect antithesis, Southwold stated that he felt, "a rooted refusal to state, or even imply, that village Buddhism is not true Buddhism", in contrast to the views that Gombrich reported (and that Southwold admits he also heard himself, though mostly from middle-class informants), "that village Buddhism 'is corrupt', or 'is not true Buddhism', or 'is not really Buddhism at all'."
The problem here is not quite "a false dichotomy", but perhaps just the wrong dichotomy for the job: we can study "village Buddhism" with a warm, accepting, open-minded attitude while we remain acutely aware of how folklore differs from the more ancient, canonical texts.  Even if there were not so many centuries to separate the two, frankly, it would be worthwhile to remain aware of how popular religion differs from (unpopular) philosophy.  Conversely, if we're ignorant of the ancient texts, we cannot really remedy that ignorance by being (uncritically) flattering toward folk traditions, and refusing to regard them as corrupt (even if some of the adherents themselves do, etc.).

Either people believe there's a long-haired, near-naked earth-goddess who delivers "merit" from their funeral rituals to the spirits of the dead… or they don't.

Apart from the question of whether or not these beliefs can be vindicated by reason or evidence, we can ask (with an open mind) whether or not the given belief is consistent with the written record of Buddhist philosophy --and so on for all the other colorful local customs.

In some sense, I feel the whole debate is dishonest if the only possible outcome is an author deciding what his/her next essay is going to be about.  Real, earnest debates about religion (just like politics) have implications for how we're going to raise our own grandchildren, how we're going to bury our own grandparents, or how we're going to strive to "live the good life", in Aristotle's sense.  I don't think that any of the academic defenders of folklore-based Buddhism would want to teach their own children to believe in these rituals; by contrast, back when I was defending book-based Buddhism, I really, sincerely, wanted to encourage more people to learn Pali and read the books.