"Self-liberate even the antidote."
In considering this Lojong slogan, I learned some Latin - reductio ad absurdum.
This is the formal term for following an argument or line of thought to the point at which the argument results in some kind of absurd conclusion. It's usage in philosophy is to point out the fundamental flaw in some argument. In common language, "it's a slippery slope". Taking one step in a particular direction makes it more likely that one will keep going in the same direction until one eventually jumps off of the proverbial cliff with their proverbial friends.
Pema Chödrön's commentary cautions us that being attached to nonattachment is folly. Yet, if one assiduously follows the teachings of nonattachment, that would surely be the outcome. In Buddhism, however, there is a safety buffer against this - the Middle Way. The site zen-buddhism.net puts it this way: "By 'middle', Buddha essentially meant that we need to embrace both spiritualism as well as materialism, just like the front and back sides of a sheet of paper." (love that image)
The Middle Way is a great protector against the human tendency to drift toward extremes. The idea that there is one right way to do or think about something is both comforting and seductive to us. The Middle Way on the other hand is messy. Everyone has a different idea about where to draw the line against absurdity. It takes prajna remember to analyze the pro's and con's of sustaining a given principle, especially when that principle is intertwined with your personal philosophy of life.
Lying is wrong. Don't lie. Still most people would likely stop short of ruining a surprise party for a friend even if entailed telling a lie. All people have a right to health care and should have equal access to care. Still if the health care providers go out of business or are starved for resources, no one gets adequate care. So...what do we do? That one's harder, right?
As usual, this is where Buddhism throws the responsibility for our enlightenment back on us: our thoughts, our views, our actions. There's no out for us by simply leaning on some general principle and continuing to repeat it. Man, who knew being awake would be so much work!
"Examine the nature of unborn awareness."
It took me an extra week to realize why I was having trouble with this slogan. It turns out I had a preconceived notion that the nature of unborn awareness would be a warm and comfortable feeling - something I could really snuggle into. That is not my current situation.
My assumption is rooted in that analogy about the clouds not being the sky itself, spoken in regard to the delusions of our minds and Buddha nature. In reading the slogan, I assumed that unborn awareness was synonymous with Buddha nature and that this examination would occur during a clearing of the mental clouds, however brief.
I've had none of that over the past couple of weeks. So I assumed I was not connecting with the teaching. In fact I was too buried in my unborn awareness to examine it.
Can anyone say irony?
I may be faced with a very big decision in the next few weeks. In this waiting period, my mind has been flying around in circles. It's filled with words and scenarios and what-might-happens. There is a roiling in my stomach that gets worse when I'm trying to sleep (I’m writing this at 1:00 am). It only occurred to me ten minutes ago that this is the exact unborn awareness the slogan is referring to. In this case I'm not experiencing a soothing place of meditative bliss, but rather the piercing discomfort of uncertainty.
There is nothing about my current circumstance that can be dealt with. Nothing can be done to make it dissipate before the natural conclusion of these events. The Third Lojong phrase is telling me my job is to simply notice the discomfort and stay with them.
As Pema Chödrön would say, I have to become "curious" about this feeling and avoid running away from it. Talking won't make things go faster. Thinking only results in revolving thoughts. Therefore, I am left with only sit and stay, Fido. Stay! Yes. Thank you for this lesson.
Can I go to sleep now?
“Regard all dharmas as dreams.”
Have you ever had a lucid dream? It’s happened to me twice.
In the first, I was at the top of a large, wide staircase. The edges of the steps were made with some kind of stone, but most of the surface was covered with red carpet. It appeared that I was in some kind of gilded theatre. Instead of walking down the stairs, I wanted to fly. At each step I leapt up and floated for a short time, working my way down two or three steps at a time. Suddenly I realized I was dreaming and that if I really wanted to fly I should be able to just concentrate. Bingo! I was flying.
Then I woke up.
The second time was more complex. I “woke up” in my bed as usual, got up and walked out of my room into a hallway that contained cabinets, a mirror, and a sink. I was going to start getting ready for the day when I realized my house doesn’t have a room like this off of the bedroom. Yes! A lucid dream! Deciding to take advantage of being aware, I started walking around.
Then I woke up.
Still laying in bed, I thought about how cool it was that I’d had a lucid dream. I got out of bed and exited the room only to find myself once again in an unfamiliar floor plan. A lucid dream inside of a lucid dream! Cool! This time, I was determined to stay in the dream.
Then I woke up.
The world seems completely solid in a lucid dream. Lucid dreams are seductive. You can make things be just by thinking about them. Having done it twice, I want to do it again. I wish there was a switch I could flip to make it happen at will. So far it’s been a big goose egg.
Or so I thought until recently. In truth, lucid dreaming is just an exaggeration of what we do on a daily basis when we turn our attention inward to the alternate universes created by our minds. These realities appear so solid at times that they impact our body chemistry, facial expression and emotional state. The only thing lacking in comparison to a lucid dream is the absolute immersion of the visuals. Otherwise the illusion is just as complete.
When the world of our mind helps us envision how we might approach a problem or communicate something important to someone, it can be a useful tool. More often however we trend toward mindlessness, building elaborate fantasies about that we want to say but won’t. We imagine ourselves surmounting our intractable problems through acts of will or heroism that we will never realize. In these moments we reinforce our impotence in molding the world to our desires. In short we suffer.
It’s hard to imagine my life without my mind churning out stories all the time. As a creative person, these stories are the raw materials for my work. I can see though that I could gain significant benefit in terms of minimizing my own suffering if I could recognize my unproductive “mental lucid dreams” earlier and prompt myself to wake up as quickly as I do in the sleeping variety.
I’ll keep working on that.
A few days ago, I read a book review of The World Is Not Ours To Save by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. It was perception-altering for me. Given it’s the review’s brevity (and of course the fact that I haven’t actually read the book), it’s surprising that this piece could leave me with the profound feeling I’d just been called out by the mirror on my wall.
So, what’s this all about? You may ask.
As I understand it, The World Is Not Ours To Save delivers the message that any individual can only do so much to effect positive change in the world. Each of us is imbued with specific strengths and weaknesses, circumstances and opportunities and circles of humanity with which we interact. In all of the possible permutations of these domains, each of us is uniquely able and prepared to help make the world a better place in some way or other. No matter how hard we work or how thin we spread ourselves, however, we cannot fix all of the world’s extant problems. We can’t even fix all of the problems we become aware of though experience, news outlets and the internet. Therefore, in order to ensure that we don’t fail our calling we have to focus or we will burn out and do good for no one.
Wigg-Stevenson approaches this message from a strictly Christian (specifically Baptist) perspective. The title of the book implies that even humanity taken as a whole cannot be responsible for the ultimate repair of sin, because that’s God’s job. In his view only God has the power to effect that level of redemption. A large part of the book illuminates the theology behind his thesis to help Christians incorporate the message into their lives.
Despite our difference in theology, I believe that Wigg-Stevenson’s premise is equally important for Buddhists. Aren’t many of us wanna-be Bodhisattva’s at heart? In our meditation and other practices, we vow to eliminate the suffering of all sentient beings. Wow! That’s kind of a tall order, don’t you think? It’s actually kind of conceited when you think about it and somewhat childishly naive as well.
Part of the problem lies in a this-life perspective. Many forget that the entire concept of a Bodhisattva is that after death the Bodhisattva foregoes Nirvana and enters the human realm again and again until all sentient beings are relieved of suffering. The actualization of the goal lies in perhaps millions of years over thousands of lifetimes. Nonetheless our feeble perspective is always anchored to this world, this body, this lifetime. In that view the pressure is always on to get this thing done now! In so doing, we doom ourselves to failure and more damaging than that, we lose hope and live with the persistent feeling of being overwhelmed.
It doesn’t matter if you believe in God to see that surrendering to the ultimate Groundlessness of our place in the matter of elimination of suffering is critical. We must humble ourselves before the massiveness of the task at hand. The Bodhisattva Vows have been being taken for thousands of years. How central to the functioning of the universe can any one of us think we are that we could do alone what so many more practiced and disciplined beings before us could not do?
I’m not trying to be discouraging here. The most important feeling I had after reading the review of The World Is Not Ours To Save was relief. Why do I feel like I can’t fix everything? Because I really can’t. I had to chuckle at my hubris. Afterward though I could begin to lay that burden down and ask myself: What are my best gifts? In what way can those gifts serve to ease the suffering of the greatest number of sentient beings of which I am capable? Each of us doing our own part for the world, in harmony not competition, is the best implementation of the Bodhisattva Vows imaginable.
Here is a link to the Patheos page for The World Is Not Ours To Save
I’ve been watching the coverage of the Newtown student massacre with the usual blend of outrage and sadness. Political pundits from various arenas are each spinning their own favorite issue in the usual attempt to assign a cause to the bloodshed – or shall I clarify – a cause that can be easily summed up and addressed with Bold Legislative Action.
The most obvious of these is gun control and the expiration of the assault weapons ban. Also promoted is the impoverished state of mental health care in the United States and the difficulty inherent in obtaining (if not requiring) treatment for those who are dangerously mentally ill. All of this discussion is occurring over and around the din of the so-called “fiscal cliff” with it’s arguments about tax rates for the wealthy and expenditures on health care and other sustenance programs.
Talk, talk, talk. It goes on ad nauseam. It is irrelevant.
What will change as the result of Newtown? Absolutely nothing. Why? Because we are not even close to addressing something far more fundamental.
No matter what machinations we attempt to avoid this fundamental truth, we are all interconnected. America has a pathological relationship to interconnectedness. We have fallen victim to the lie of hyper-individuality and it is making us suffer. Ironically, the more we suffer, the more we snuggle into the cocoon of this make-believe land and the cycle begins again.
Anyone who knows me understands that I have immense respect for the strengths of an individualist world view. If Americans were not afforded individual rights and fundamental self-determination, I would not be free to be a Buddhist. If I were in China, for more reasons than one I would likely have been sent off to one of the “reeducation” work camps referenced last week in the New York Times. If that were the type of individual liberty we were talking about I’d be all for it.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. We have moved from a society that promoted individual liberty as a way to reduce unfairness and intolerance to a society which the primary concern is “I want what I want and forget everyone else.” Forget society, forget my family, forget my neighbors, if it gets in the way of what I want. That is what we have become. It breaks my heart every day beginning long before Newtown.
Until Americans experience a cultural shift in which value is assigned to our well-being as a group, not just of self, we will continue to spin our wheels when it comes to addressing some of our most crucial conundrums. Unless we are willing to put some parameters around the lawlessness of unrestrained individualism, we will be nothing more than a country of I’ll-get-mine-and-you’ll-get-whateva’.
There will never be rational discussion about an assault weapons ban outside of the context of understanding that our safety as a group outweighs the desire for certain individuals to own military-grade weapons. We can never progress in terms of care for the mentally ill until we acknowledge that societies’ right to not incur the consequences of untreated severe mental illness at times outweighs an individual’s right to refuse treatment. We can never internalize that the wealthy are so largely because of a group effort on their part with their employees and society (or from their parents) rather than their own private brilliance and therefore their worth is not so precious. It’s not just that policy can’t change. We can’t even talk about it. We can’t even imagine it.
The force of our cultural myopia in this regard will ultimately leave the events of Newtown as just another missed opportunity in a long list of missed opportunities that will be forgotten in the next news cycle. If this kind of change were easier, I guess we’d have many more Buddhas in the world. For now, we’ll have to work on it one Bodhisattva at a time.
Image credit: gsagi / 123RF Stock Photo
Mean. This is one of my favorite Taylor Swift songs. It first came to my attention, long before it was officially released on the chart, when one of my students came in and told me she’d been listening to it a lot. It’s just the perfect response to something we all deal with every day.
The light just barely turns green and someone honks at you.
Why you gotta be so mean?
The bumper sticker on the car parked in front of you says: My kid could beat up your honor student.
Why you gotta be so mean?
A person laughs when they see a passer-by drop their coffee on the ground.
Why you gotta be so mean?
I think it would be a great way to encourage prajna in people who are to stuck in their own universe to see how their actions impact other people. Of course, I don’t want to get beaten by strangers – not regularly any way. So, I generally keep it to myself. Though I do admit at times giving offenders “the look”. Rrrrrrr…
Rather than using it offensively then, I’ve begun using it defensively. When my inner peace is disturbed by someone who is being thoughtless with their actions and their words, I just hum to myself “why you gotta be so mean?”
Of course, I usually then ramble on in my head with my favorite part of the song:
“all you are is mean
and a liar
and alone in life
You may ask, am I not then perpetuating the problem by following wrong action or word with wrong thought? Not really. Try it, use the link above to listen to the song. Then picture whoever is your favorite little 10-year old in your life bopping up and down with a smile on his or her face singing those lyrics. Now see if you can keep yourself from smiling too. You won’t be able to. You’re humming a happy little tune, the shenpa’s dissolved into the ether and the person who disturbed you has moved on to ruin the next part of their day.
Ta-dah! No one’s gotta be so mean!
It occurs to me that not everyone stopping by for a brief read will be familiar with the basic tenets of buddhism. So, I thought I’d take a moment to correct one of the common misconceptions about buddhism.
The Buddha is not a god. He’s just a guy. He’s a guy who figured some important things out and who then dedicated his life to teaching that information, but he’s just a guy nonetheless.
Historically, the person referred to as the Buddha was Siddhartha Gautama, a Nepalese prince, who lived some time around the 400′s BCE. The term “Buddha” means “awakened one” or “enlightened one”. So, the Buddha is more of an honorific than a metaphysical state in his case.
In the buddhist teachings, every one of us has a buddha nature and is capable of achieving the state of awakeness or enlightenment. This is fundamentally contrary to the idea of having a specific anthropomorphic God that lords over all of creation, but which is completely physically and energetically separate from us. It is this feature, however, that imposes upon us the ultimate responsibility for how we relate to the world and emphasizes our energetic connectedness to all other beings and the Power of God itself.
In translated terms, the buddha nature is something like the Holy Spirit that lives within each of us. All of us have it and it is our responsibility to care for it, develop it and nurture it. When we do, not only are we more joyful in our lives, but we end up contributing to making all other beings’ lives joyful as well.
So, what it comes down to is this: Siddhartha Gautama is a guy, who figured out how to whole-heartedly develop his holy spirit. When he did this people called him the “awakened one” and he spent the rest of his life teaching others how to do this.
Come join in the fun!
It’s funny that the first post in a blog about Buddhism isn’t going to talk about Buddhism at all. I’m not going to talk about how much I love Pema Chodron or expound on my insights into life. Instead, I’m going to honor the spirit of a man who recently passed away and who was for me one of the most inspirational people I have come into direct contact with – Arthur Lessac.
For those of you who don’t know of him, he is one of the great voice/movement/expression teachers of our time. And “our time” is expansive in this sense. Arthur Lessac died at age 101, only a few days after teaching an extensive course in Croatia.
Arthur Lessac (see URL below)
I met Arthur Lessac last year at a course with speech-language pathologists and singing teachers (of which I am both). One hundred years old at the time, he bench pressed a 200 pound man, led us in movement and dance exercises and spoke in a voice as clear and strong as anyone I’ve known. He exuded a joy in the exploration of life that was both genuine and inspiring.
Walking to work this morning, I thought about him and remembered how he used to encourage us all to walk as if we are dancing. Energy (NRG) will carry you in a way you wouldn’t expect. I thought about his demonstration of that last year and some clips of him in memorium that I watched yesterday. So, I started to dance to work, copying his bouncing and circular arm and leg motions and I was instantly consumed by joy.
This was the most intensely genuine emotional experience I have had in quite some time. It was akin to my experience in sitting meditation with a Zen group, when they asked us all to turn around and face the wall – WHITE. That was it. Today; JOY. That was it.
So, that is why I decided to write about everyday Buddhism. See you soon!
To learn more about Arthur Lessac’s work, visit: http://www.lessacinstitute.com/index2.html
Now buy the Book!