Sunday, April 23, 2017

The "One Punch" Method For Ultimate Enlightenment

     I recently started watching an anime on Netflix called, "One Punch Man".  The main character is an unemployed yuppie named Saitama who decides one day that he's going to become a super hero.  He takes on the name One Punch Man because... he defeats all of his opponents with just one punch!  I should stop here and note that the series is supposed to be a parody.  It makes fun of manga that take themselves to seriously with convoluted backstories, stylized heroes, and over the top fight scenes.  In contrast, Saitama's story is the opposite of all that.  His backstory is that he became a hero because he was bored, and his fight scenes are more comical than epic.  They generally involve him either making jokes or staring off into space before something finally motivates him to deliver his signature "one punch".

     So what does any of this have to do with enlightenment?  Well, Saitama has a disciple named Genos.  Genos is a cyborg who hits all of the check marks for a would-be anime super hero.  His attacks all have cool names, his backstory is appropriately tragic, and he monologues like no other.  However, none of this stops him from getting his butt kicked on a semi-regular basis in the show.  One day, Saitama saves Genos' life, and in typical anime fashion, he responds by pledging his life to Saitama in the hopes that he will learn how to become stronger.  And that's where things get interesting because the secret to One Punch Man's strength isn't actually a secret.  In fact, he tell's Genos right up front that he got his powers by doing the following every day for three years:
  1. Run 6 miles
  2. 100 squats
  3. 100 push-ups
  4. 100 sit-ups
  5. Never use the heat or air conditioning
     That's it.  Follow these 5 steps, and you can be a superhero!  Sadly, no one believes Saitama when he tells them his secret.  They all either think that he's lying or that he truly doesn't know how he got his powers.  As a result, Genos follows him around like a puppy and takes notes on his every move in the hopes of figuring out the "true" secret to One Punch Man's abilities.  Meanwhile, Saitama questions what else he should tell his disciple because he's already told him everything he needs to know.  When Buddha spoke to his students about enlightenment, I imagine it was a lot like Saitama talking to Genos about super  powers.

     That is to say, the secret to Buddha's enlightenment was never a secret.  In fact, he revealed exactly how his "super power" worked right out of the gate when he spoke to the ascetics in Deer Park.  The secret sauce to his awakening consisted of the following:
  1. The world is full of suffering
  2. Suffering is caused by desire
  3. The way to end suffering is to end desire
  4. The way to end desire is the 8-fold path
     That's it.  Learn to embody these 4 noble truths and you will realize enlightenment!  So why is it so hard?  Why are we still trying to figure out this Buddhism thing 2,500 later?  I think the show offers an answer to that.  Genos has a ton of respect for his teacher's power level..  So I don't think he doubts the teachings or the truth of Saitama's words.  Rather, I think he appreciates the power, but he doesn't like the method of achieving it.  Why would he want to do 100 push-ups a day when he can just get new cyborg arms attached?  Why would he want to vanquish his foes with a single punch when he can use a plasma cannon.  Granted, his plasma cannon isn't nearly as strong as Saitama's punch, but it's a freaking plasma cannon!  

     And so it is with us.  We understand exactly what we need to do, but part of us still hopes that there's another way.  We want enlightenment, but not at the cost of our desire.  We want peace, but not at the cost of our dreams.  In other words, we want Buddha's awakening, but we don't want to walk Buddha's path.

     As a result, we follow our teachers in the hope that they'll reveal an easier method.  Meanwhile, our teachers scramble to find new ways to tell us the same thing that Buddhist teachers have been saying for 2,500 years.  The whole thing is almost a parody in and of itself.  We keep trying to find the "plasma cannon" path to enlightenment even as our teachers tell us that the "one punch" method will do just fine.  That being said, I think the message will get through eventually.  It'll just take a few more episodes.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Impermanence: The Zen of New Tattoos

     Everything changes. These two words seem simple on the surface. But Buddhist teachers have spent the last 2,500 years explaining them to students. It’s almost so obvious as to be laughable. Day turns to night, winter changes to spring, and people grow older with every passing year. One is tempted to respond with a sarcastic, “Thanks, Captain Obvious” when they're told by 100 different teachers in 100 different ways that everything changes. And yet, it's a lesson that needs to be taught over and over again. Why is that?

     Personally, I think it’s because while the lesson of impermanence is easy to read, it's harder to embody and understand. A more complete reading might go “Everything changes, and sometimes it changes in ways that we don’t like.” Hmm... That's a little rough. Or what about, “Everything changes, and that includes the things we like exactly as they are.” Now, we're getting somewhere.

    Case in point, I’m fighting against impermanence even as I write this article. I recently got a new tattoo. For anyone who has ink of their own, you know that the pain of sitting in a chair and having a needle jabbed into your skin repeatedly is only a small part of the process. The hard part is the aftercare. You must wash the area with scent-free soap three times a day, and keep it moist with lotion in order to prevent scabbing for 3-4 weeks. Failure to do so could result in faded colors and blurred lines that may require touch-ups in the future. When I first started getting tattoos I thought that they’d be a permanent expression of my “self”. Anyone who saw me shirtless would know instantly that I was in the Marines, that I like poetry, and a host of other things about me. I thought my ink would be a permanent record of who I am and where I’ve been. But this isn’t entirely true. Taking care of my new tattoo has caused me to take a look at some of my older ones.

     Honestly, I’m a little troubled by what I see. I’m sure that no one will notice the changes but me, but there are definitely changes. Some of the text has become harder to read, and the color is a lot less vibrant. If my tattoo-based expressions of self are fading as I get older, what does that mean about the self that they're supposed to represent? Will my personality become faded and blurred as I age until it’s hardly recognizable to my loved ones? Or can I keep it vibrant and alive with the liberal use of moisturizing lotions and fragrance-free soap? Are we born just so we can fade away?

     It certainly seems that way sometimes. Maybe the teaching of impermanence is meant to help us be okay with that fact. As the life slowly bleeds out of us like the ink in a tattoo, maybe the teachings are here to help us smile as our lines begin to blur and our lettering becomes harder to read. We can’t stop the steady flow of change that will run roughshod over our lives. But maybe with further study we can learn to enjoy it.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

How To Leave The World Better Than You Found It

     Long ago there was a Zen monk who studied under the same teacher for many decades.  He was disciplined in mind, strong of body, and 100% devoted to his meditative practice.  One day, the monk's teacher fell ill, and it quickly became apparent that his beloved teacher was about to die.  On his death bed, the monk's teacher told him that he must not keep the dharma to himself.  Rather, he should go out and teach others in the same way that he'd been taught.  "Leave the world better than you found it." the teacher whispered.  And then he died without saying another word.  Unperturbed, the monk went into the city and found a public park that had many visitors each day.  After deciding that this would be a good place to set up shop, the monk placed his cushion on the ground, sat down, and began meditating.  

     That's where the story ends.  We never find out what the monk accomplished in that park or if he ever got any students.  We just know that he meditated before his teacher died, and he kept meditating after his teacher died.  Beyond that... (shrugs).  What's interesting, however, is where he chose to meditate.  He didn't isolate himself on a mountain top far away from the people he was trying to help.  On the other hand, he didn't try and force people to change their behavior.  Instead, he went out into a public space, and he set an example for others to follow.  I'm sure a lot of people walked by without giving him a second thought.  But maybe a few people sat down next to the guy in funny-looking robes.  Maybe their lives changed forever after that.

     When I think about working to create positive change, I think a lot about this story.  It's easy to feel overwhelmed when one looks at all of the suffering in the world.  Some people respond by lashing out in fits of violent rage.  Others withdraw into themselves and refuse to admit that there's a problem.  But the monk in the story has shown us a middle path.  He wanted to teach people meditation.  So he went out into the world, and he created a space where people could learn it.  He didn't lash out, and he didn't withdraw.  He just made himself available so that anyone who needed help could get it.

     A real world example of this would be Food Not Bombs.  They fight world hunger by cooking vegan/ vegetarian food on a weekly basis and giving it to anyone who's hungry.  I've been volunteering with my local chapter for about 3 months, and it's one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.   Some of the people we feed are homeless, some are poor or mentally ill, and some just want a quick snack before they catch the bus.  But the end result is always the same.  We go out into the world, and we create a space where positive change can happen.  When people walk into that space, they're hungry.  When they walk out of it, they're not.

     If you think the world is full of jerks, walk out your front door and be kind to everyone you meet.  If you think the roads are filled with unsafe drivers, buckle your seat belt, and use your turn signal.  We all have the power to leave the world better than we found it.  We do this simply by setting an example for others to follow.  Sure, some people will walk by and not give you a second thought.  But others will notice what you're doing.  And their lives will be changed forever.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Why I Became A Vegan Buddhist (Part 1)

     One of the beautiful (and frustrating) things about Buddhist practice is that there aren't any hard and fast rules for practitioners to follow outside of the monastic order.  In his wisdom, Buddha chose to give general guidelines (the precepts) and a tool (meditation) which allow us to make decisions for ourselves in terms of how best to walk the path.  As a result, there are many debates within Buddhist circles that have literally been going on sense the founding of this tradition.  "Should Buddhists eat meat" is one of those debates, and after 2,600 years I don't think a final answer will be found any time soon.  However, it's a conversation that needs to be had.  This is my contribution:

     I ate meat for the first 30 years of my life, and I never really thought much of it.  I liked cows, pigs, and chickens well enough, however, my brain never made the connection between what ended up on my plate and the animals I saw on TV.  It wasn't until I took my first tentative steps on the Buddhist path that the suffering farmed animals endure became real.  The process started when I was running late for meditation class one day, and I stopped at a steakhouse to pick up some food to go.  It was common for students to gather and talk before services, so I went into the sitting area and began enjoying my meal.  It wasn't long before one of the senior teachers came in and told me in a polite but firm tone that eating meat wasn't allowed in the Zen center.  I didn't want to offend anyone, so I went out to my car and hastily finished my food there.  But the experience made me ask a question that I'd never asked myself before, "Should I be eating meat?"

     Out of curiosity, I jumped online and watched some (warning: graphic) videos on how factory farmed animals are treated.  What I saw horrified me.  But it didn't make me stop consuming animals.  Instead, I compromised and vowed to only eat "humane" meat.  I spent hours in the grocery store searching for cage-free and free-range products, and I called companies to ask questions about their animal welfare policies.  What I found was disappointing.  While humane meat is certainly a step up from factory-farmed meat, the animals still aren't treated well.  For example, cage-free hens aren't allowed to go outside.  And free-range animals don't spend their days out on a pasture, enjoying sunshine.  More often than not, they're only given access to a dirt patch or a concrete floor surrounded by fencing. 

     During this time, the question I kept asking myself was, "What would Buddha do?"  The historical Buddha consumed the flesh of animals, and he allowed his monks to do the same.  The only restrictions that he placed on them was that they themselves could not kill the animal nor suspect that the animal had been killed specifically for them.  But this needs to be placed in perspective.  Buddha was a mendicant monk who lived during a time when starvation was a real threat.  He ate one meal a day, owned almost no possessions, and only ate the food that was given to him by lay followers.  By allowing his monastics to eat meat, Buddha wasn't dismissing the suffering of animals.  Rather, he was creating a middle path which allowed his monastics to ensure their own survival while causing the least amount of suffering possible.  

     The Buddha's response to the question, "Should Buddhists eat meat?" was completely logical for the time in which he lived.  But it doesn't translate into the modern era.  Case in point, I'm not a mendicant monk.  I'm an IT professional who lives in a house and buys his food at the grocery store.  The closest I come to starvation is when I forget to go shopping.  Eating meat isn't a question of survival for me, it's a question of preference.  Furthermore, the medical community has published numerous papers stating that plant-based diets are healthy for human beings and reduce our risk of cancer, heart disease, and type-2 diabetes.  If the Buddha were alive today, I have a hard time believing that he would be a meat-eater.

     The more research I did, the more I realized that the dietary middle path had changed from the time of the Buddha.  Eating a plant-based diet would allow me to meet all of my nutritional needs while eliminating the suffering of countless farmed animals.  With this in mind I took the first steps towards a completely plant-based diet and became a lacto-ovo vegetarian.

     

     

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Peaceful Suffering: How Buddhism Helps Me Cope With Anxiety

    Having anxiety means that my brain always jumps to the worst-case scenario in any situation.  If I lose my keys, I'm convinced that a sociopath is going to find them, come into the house, and kill me in my sleep.  If I text someone and they don't reply back right away, I wonder if I've offended them, and start thinking of ways to make amends.  These types of thoughts run through my head from the moment I wake up in the morning until the moment I go to sleep at night, and they're exhausting.

     Thankfully, Zen Buddhism has provided me with a series of teachings which help me cope with this emotional angst.  They are as follows:

1.  Seated meditation is important-  When I first started practicing, sitting for just 5 minutes without squirming or checking the time was a struggle.  However, I now sit for 20-30 minutes every day.  I've found that doing this has created a greater space between my thoughts and my emotional responses.  The more I meditate, the better I become at simply observing the anxiety without getting wrapped up in it.

    I'd almost compare it to standing at a bus stop, and having a bus named "that salad tasted funny and now I'm going to die of food poisoning" pull up to the curb.  Before I began meditating, I would have jumped on that bus and gone for a long, miserable ride that involved googling food poisoning symptoms for hours.  Now that I have a regular practice, however, I'm able to see the thought come into my brain and let it leave again without getting so worked up.

2.  Everything is out of control (and that's okay)- Buddha taught that desire is the root of all suffering.  There are many ways to interpret this teaching, but for me it basically means that there are two versions of the world in any given moment.  There is the world as I want it to be, and there is the world as it actually is.  The more these two overlap, the less anxiety/ suffering I have.

     Before I started practicing, I tried to get these two versions of the world to overlap through controlling behavior.  I tried to control other people, I tried to control the environment, and I tried to control the future by attempting to plan for every possible outcome of my decisions.  But it never worked.  Something unexpected almost always happened,  And on the rare occasion when things did go exactly as I wanted, I couldn't enjoy the moment because I was wrapped up in thoughts about how it could have been better.  My practice has taught me that the wisest path is often the path of least resistance.  I've learned that while it is important to do my best in every moment to ensure a good outcome, I must always be willing to throw up my hands and accept that the end result may not be what I want.

3.  All suffering comes from the mind-  As I've continued to study my mind, I've realized that my thinking is divided into two types of thoughts.  There are what I call "karmic" thoughts that arise through no control of my own as a result of past experiences, genetics, environmental influences, etc.  And there are volitional thoughts which are essentially my thoughts about my thoughts.  My anxiety is made up of karmic thoughts at its root.  I can't control those anymore than I can control the sunrise.  However, I can control my volitional thoughts.  And in this way, I can manage the intensity of my anxiety.

     I came to this realization a few years ago when I was running late for work.  I still had a car back then, and I was stuck in traffic.  We had an important meeting scheduled for 8am, and at 7:55am I was idling about 100 feet from the company parking lot.  I could literally see the building, but I was powerless to get to it!  A panic attack started to set in, but then I realized that I wasn't really upset about being late.  That hadn't happened yet, and I had suffered no negative consequences as a result.  Rather, my anxiety was caused by the idea of being late.  "I'm going to be late" was the karmic thought that I had no control over.  But all of the garbage that came after that about getting in trouble and having my boss be mad at me was purely volitional and in my control.  When I made peace with the fact that I wasn't going to get to my meeting on time and stopped trying to figure out what was going to happen as a result, my anxiety subsided.

     I wouldn't say that Buddhist practice has cured my anxiety.  However, it has certainly lessened the severity.  On a scale of 1-10, I would say that my panic attacks were at an 8 before I started practicing and now they rarely go above a 3.  I've also noticed that the frequency of the attacks are a lot less.  I still have anxiety, but it doesn't control me anymore.  Instead, I'm able to take a step back from my mental formations and see them for the random bits of karma that they are.

*Please note that anxiety is a medical condition.  This article is not intended to provide or replace treatment options for those who may suffer from anxiety or other forms of mental illness.







Saturday, March 18, 2017

Donald Trump Is A Great Buddhist Teacher

     My jaw clenches as I read the headline, "White House Says Cutting Meals On Wheels Is Compassionate" A fire burns in my chest as I continue reading, and soon it feels like I can barely breathe.  "So we can spend 14 billion on a wall, but we can't feed old people!" I scream at my laptop.  My breathing becomes rapid and adrenaline pulses through my muscles.  I want to punch something.  I want to burn things down.  Angrily, I standup and begin pacing around the room.  Cursing under my breath, I imagine elderly people sitting alone in their houses; their stomachs growling as the food they've depended on for years never comes.  My anger hits a fever-pitch.  And right when I think I can't take it anymore... I stub my toe on a chair.  

     The pain tears through my body like a bullet and wipes my mind clean.  In that moment, I look around the room and come to a realization.  I'm alone in the house.  No one is impressed by my temper tantrum.  No one is listening to my rants about the obligations of the state to the individual.  And the 10 minutes that I've spent filling my corner of the world with sound and fury have accomplished... nothing.  Embarrassed, I laugh quietly to myself, and look down at my laptop.  An image of President Trump is on the screen.  Without thinking, I place my palms together; and bow deeply.

     In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a strong focus on reincarnation and past lives.  I'm not sure I believe in literal reincarnation as it's taught in Tibetan schools, but that's another article for another day.  I bring it up only to say that one fantastic teaching that comes from the Tibetan tradition states that everyone you meet was your parent in a past life.  So every interaction you have with another sentient being is nothing more than a parent (them) trying to teach a child (you) a valuable life lesson.  If you're open to learning these lessons, then your progress on the path to nirvana will be swift.  If not, that's okay too because you'll have countless opportunities in future lives to try again.  You win either way!

     Clearly, I have not mastered this teaching.  However, meditating on it has caused me to realize that there is only one way for me to get through the next 4-8 years with my mental faculties in tact.  I must train my mind to see President Trump as a teacher and not as an adversary.  He is a Buddha.  And like all Buddhas he is acting with great compassion in order to help me along the path to enlightenment.

     I should stop at this point and tell you that I'm a progressive liberal.  If it were up to me, America would be the land of basic incomes, paid maternity leaves, and free college educations.  President Trump and his agenda represent the opposite of everything that I hold dear.  But that doesn't change the fact that he's my teacher.  It just means the lessons are harder to learn.

     I must learn to see the Buddha in people who engage in unskillful acts.  I must learn to show kindness to people who wish to do me harm. I must learn to maintain calm-abiding when anguish fills my heart.  And I must learn to do all of these things while working for the betterment of all sentient beings through activism and volunteer work.  A Trump presidency will teach me all of these things, but only if I'm willing to learn.

     This will be some of the hardest training of my life, but that's to be expected.  If enlightenment was easy, everyone would do it.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Enlightenment Is Simple. But I Want It To Be Hard

     Enlightenment is one of the great mysteries of spiritual practice.  Do we attain enlightenment or do we realize it?  Is it a higher plane of existence or a deeper understanding of our ordinary existence?  More importantly, how do you know if a teacher is truly enlightened?!  These are all questions that I’ve wrestled with throughout my time as a meditation practitioner.  Different traditions answer these questions in different ways, so I doubt a final consensus will ever be found.  As a result, I’ve come to think of enlightenment as just another concept that we scared, frail humans use to try and make sense of world that seems cold and unappealing at times. 

     For my part, I’ve practiced in Zen centers where even mentioning the world enlightenment was forbidden.  In contrast, I've also been told that realizing enlightenment is as easy as going to the movies.  I’ve even read a book by one teacher who was insistent that there is no such thing as enlightenment, and Zen is a waste of time!  Naturally, he followed up this proclamation by stating that we should practice hard in order to realize enlightenment in this lifetime.  How strange?
     I believe that all of these contradictions are the result of human beings attempting to describe something that is "beyond name and form".  It's like trying to explain the color red to someone.  There's no real way to put a color into words.  The best you can do is point at something that's red and hope they get the idea.  With this in mind, I've arrived at my own definition of enlightenment which I believe is helpful to Zen practitioners who are following the householder path.  Simply put,
Enlightenment is the ability to accept the world exactly as it is, while simultaneously working to make it better
     I like this definition because it's extremely practical and has applications in everyday life.  I remember when I first started practicing I had some concerns about how I would be able to live an ordinarily life once I realized enlightenment which at the time I envisioned as a near-constant, blissed-out meditative state.  However, if we define enlightenment as being able to live 100% in the present moment then that’s no longer a concern.  Suddenly, enlightenment is the mother who focuses with rapt attention as she feeds her baby, or the father who gets up early each morning without fail to provide for his family.  In short, enlightenment becomes a state of being which allows us to be completely open to the world and what it gives us while continuing our work to save all sentient beings from suffering.  Simple.
     That being said, there is a part of me, my ego, that rebels against this idea.  I don’t want enlightenment to be simple and ordinary.  I want it to be exotic.  I want the enlightenment that requires you to climb mountains in Nepal and learn secret breathing techniques that have been passed down for 1,000 years.  I want enlightenment on par with the movie Dr. Strange which opens my mind to the existence of parallel universes and magic talismans.  My ego doesn’t want to live fully in this ordinary existence so much as it wants to escape it.  And it secretly hopes that if I can learn to be ordinary enough, then one day something extraordinary will happen.
     I guess this is why practice is so important; it teaches us to experience the world exactly as it is while quieting the mind that thinks this world isn’t good enough.  Thus, while my definition of enlightenment is simple, it's also very difficult to accept. 
 
     Perhaps I need to realize enlightenment before I can truly be enlightened.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Prisoner's Dilemna or What's The Point Of Being Good?

     You wake up with a start and realize that you aren't in your bedroom.  In fact, you have no idea where you are.  Your heart starts pounding in your chest, and you feel dizzy as you look around the room.  It's a prison cell.  You're lying on a bare mattress in the corner, and as you look out the bars of your cell you see other people walking around in a courtyard.  They are dressed in orange jump suits just like yours, and they seem confused.  You walk out into the courtyard and begin speaking with some of them. 

     You quickly realize that no one knows how they got here or what is waiting outside of the prison.  But everyone agrees that you need to escape!  You spend the next several months working to find a way out of the prison.  You test the doors, you try climbing over the walls, you take turns throwing furniture against the windows in the hopes that you can break them.  But it doesn't work.  You're trapped, and there's no... way... out.

     Eventually, you all come to terms with the fact that you're going to be there for a while.  So everyone slowly begins going about their lives as best they can.  Unsure of how you want to live in this place, you sit under a tree and observe the other prisoners.  Over the course of six days you watch silently as people engage in various actions and take note of the consequences of those actions. 
 
     Some people lie, cheat, and steal.  Some even commit murder in the belief that such actions will bring them happiness.  But it doesn't work.  Their actions always come back to them in the form of karma, which cancels out any short-term pleasure that they receive.  The liars are not trusted, the cheaters and thieves live in fear of getting caught, and the murderers are either wracked with guilt or eventually killed themselves.  Their actions only serve to make life in prison harder on others which in turn makes life harder on themselves.

  On the other hand, you notice people who treat their fellow inmates with kindness and respect.  To be sure, their lives still have some suffering in them.  They're in prison, after all.  But it would appear that the people who treat others with kindness tend to be treated with kindness in return.  Also, you notice that when they help others, other people tend to be willing to help them.  But even when they aren't rewarded for their good deeds, they take satisfaction in living in the world without causing harm.  Even when they lose, they win.
 
     Slowly, ideas begin to form in your head.  The liars, cheaters, and thieves do what they do because they're trapped in a mind of desire.  They want something, and they want it so badly that they're willing to hurt themselves and others in order to get it.  "Suffering is caused by desire." you mumble to yourself as the neurons continue firing in your head
 
     In contrast, you look at the people who treat their fellow inmates well, and you notice something surprising.  They have desires just like the liars, cheaters, and thieves!  The only difference is that they mitigate those desires with a rational view of the consequences of their actions.  They understand that they're happiness is tied to the happiness of the people around them, and they act accordingly.  This allows them to live their lives in a way that minimizes suffering while maximizing happiness in any given moment.  You call this way of life the "8-fold path" in order to keep it straight in your head. 
 
     Excitement grows in your chest as all of these ideas begin to coalesce into a moral code that you can live by.  Eventually, you're able to distill your thoughts on the best way to live in prison to four lines that go as follows:
  1. Prison is filled with suffering
  2. Suffering is caused by desire
  3. The way to end suffering is to end desire
  4. The way to end desire is the 8-fold path
     You smile as you recite these "noble truths" in your head over and over again like a mantra.  It's all so simple! You're stuck in this place along with all of the other inmates and there's no way out.  So why wouldn't you try make life in here as good as it can possibly be?  And if your happiness is inextricably tied to others, it only makes since to take care of others in the same way that you take care of yourself.  From what you've seen, the best way to do that is by learning to control your desires and following the 8-fold path.
 
     Quickly, you stand up from underneath the tree and brush yourself off.  Walking back into the courtyard you wave at four of your friends and start moving in their direction.  You can't wait to tell them what you've learned!

Friday, February 17, 2017

On First World Problems And The Loss Of Human Connection

     A few years ago, it was really common to see people complain about "first world problems".  For example, someone my post on social media, "My phone charger won't reach my bed.  So I can't check my messages in the morning without getting up. #firstworldproblems"  It was a way for people to complain about things while simultaneously admitting that they really didn't have anything to complain about.  It's a goofy saying.  It makes light of the fact that there are people in the world with legitimate problems like lack of food or unsafe living conditions.  And I hope people don't use it anymore.  But I'm not cool enough to keep track of things like that.  My point, however, is that as Americans we have an amazing life when compared to most of the world.

     For example, have you ever thought about the miracle which is the flush toilet?  When I was deployed we had to use porta-potties like what you normally find at construction sites.  Now that wouldn't have been bad in and of itself except that I was in a warzone, so I couldn't just walk over in my boxers.  If nature called in the middle of the night, I had to get fully dressed in my boots and cammies, put on 50 pounds of armor, fumble around in the dark for my M-16, and then walk approx. 30 yards to the porta-potty.  After dealing with that for 7 months, I can't use a toilet without thanking my lucky stars for indoor plumbing.

     I'd stop short of calling the United States a paradise, but it's pretty close.  We enjoy a level of convenience that has never been experienced in human history, and we walk around with cell phones that can get anything from food to new clothes delivered directly to our climate-controlled homes.  We're literally surrounded by miracles, so why are we so unhappy?

     Why do we live as gods, but suffer like mortal men?

     My belief is that in our rush to make life more comfortable for ourselves we've created a cure that's worse that the disease.  At any given moment, we are inundated with text messages, emails, advertisements, and a host of other things that strengthen the illusion of a separate "self" which Buddha warned us about 2,500 years ago. 
 
     Our egos crave instant gratification, and now they have it. 

     That's a very bad thing.  Because if the illusion of a separate "self" is the source of our suffering, then the ego is the battery that gives that illusion power.  And we charge that "ego battery" every time we satisfy our cravings with same-day delivery, microwaveable food, angry political commentary, etc.  Additionally, the stronger our false sense of "self" becomes, the more cutoff we feel from the people around us.  Recognizing this, is it any wonder that we feel so alone in a society that places total emphasis on our sense of "me" and actively works destroy our sense of "we"? 
 
    To be clear, I'm not excluding myself from any of this.  I'm a slave to modern convenience just like everyone else.  But there's a reason that ancient Zen masters warned against the use of luxurious beds.  They felt strongly that a comfortable life made spiritual practice harder.  I wonder what they would think of us now? 
 
     Did we sell our souls for videogames?  Can we ever get them back?
 
     I think we can.  But we need to very strategic in our use of spiritual practice in order to counter the negative effects of our modern lifestyle.  We need to actually visit meditation centers as opposed to watching videos on YouTube.  We need to visit a relative or close friend when we're bored instead of turning on the TV.  In short, we need to tell our egos, "no" from time to time and give up instant gratification in exchange for real human connection.  Imagine what the world would be like if people did volunteer work for fun instead of "retail therapy" at the mall.  I'm not saying that I have all of the answers.  But I am suggesting that a text message will never feed our spirits the way a phone call will.  And a poke on social media will never warm our hearts like a hug. 
 
     Perhaps we should focus less on giving our egos what they want, and focus more on giving our spirits what they need. 
    
 
 
 



Friday, February 10, 2017

Poem Number Five

When a cold wind blows
Leaves fall to the ground
The leaves all die
But the tree remains

When the small self dies
What remains?

Hell Is Empty And The Devils Are All Here


      The life of an activist can be very painful.  Often times you find yourself fighting battles that seem hopeless.  Other times you are arguing for things that should be common sense.  And at the end of the day, you lose more often than you win.  It's a rough life, but every day you dust yourself off and keeping fighting because you're an activist.  And giving up isn't what activists do.

      That being said, the life of a Buddhist activist comes with its own set of challenges. Many of the environmental and human rights causes that I advocate for have taken some hits in the past few weeks.  It almost seems like humanity is trying to kill itself, and I don't understand why.  My equanimity is faltering as a result.  As a Zen practitioner, I'm supposed to see the Buddha nature that lives in all people.  I'm supposed to look at the chaos of the world and see perfection.  But sometimes I don't.  Sometimes, I look at people who disagree with me, and I see evil.  Sometimes, I look at the world, and I see hell. 
          
      So what's a Buddhist to do when they find themselves trapped in a world full of hellfire and brimstone?  What are the skillful means which will help me deal with all of this pain?

     The word that keeps coming to mind as I ponder this question is "practice".  Zen Buddhism is different from other faith traditions in that we don't have a supernatural deity.  Practitioners have no higher power to call upon when the world gets scary, no parent figure to wrap their arms around us and say things will be okay.  In Zen, we look to our practice for spiritual strength.  We train so that we're able to stand up in difficult times and walk the path alone.

     In other words, my mind is my responsibility.  If the world suddenly seems like a hellhole, that means I'm not practicing hard enough.  

     Recently, I've begun looking at my daily practice of sitting, chanting, and vow recitation, and I believe that I've found the problem.  I've been doing an excellent job of calming my mind each day and emptying out negative emotions.  However, I haven't done much to generate positive ones.  To remedy this I've begun reciting the following litany before meals which is based on The Four Immeasurables:
May all sentient beings be happy
May all sentient beings be free of suffering
May all sentient beings enjoy bliss
May all sentient beings enjoy peace and equanimity
      Of course, the key words in the above statement are "all sentient beings".  If I'm going to move forward in my practice, if I'm going to escape hell, I must learn to wish well for people that disagree with me on important issues.  This is hard to do.  In fact, it can be physically painful at times.  

     But the people who stand on the other side are human beings just like me.  They possess the Buddha nature just like me.  And whether they are wearing the devil-mask or the god-mask at any given moment, they are deserving of love and compassion just like me.  

     When I think in this way it allows me to do activism from a place of stillness and compassion.  It transforms my anger into useful energy that I can use to enact change.  More importantly, it allows me to fight for what I believe in without giving in to the poisons of hate and fear.

     This is important because when I became a Zen Buddhist, I took a vow to save all sentient beings from suffering.  It doesn't matter if I find myself in heaven, hell, or somewhere in between.  That vow doesn't change.





Saturday, February 4, 2017

Can You Show Me Your Way Of The Buddha?

     One of my all-time favorite anime's growing up was Naruto.  It followed the adventures of a group of children who were training to become ninjas in order to protect their village from rival clans.  For a kid's show, it dealt with some pretty adult themes like the importance of loyalty and the dangers of seeking revenge.  But my favorite part of the show was the way everyone manifested their ninja abilities in different ways.  One ninja might be an expert in hand to hand combat (taijutsu) while another might be an expert in creating illusions (genjutsu).  Meanwhile, a different ninja might have the spirit of his dead mother living in the sand that he carries around in a giant gourd on his back (long-story).  My point is that each of them showed their ninja-ness to the world in different ways.  Based on each person's personality and combat abilities they would develop their own "way of the ninja" and refer to it sometimes in the show; as in, "I won't abandon my teammates in their time of need.  That's not my way of the ninja!"

     As I continue to grow in my practice, I'm realizing that Zen works in much the same way.  We learn the rituals, we sit in meditation, and we read countless books.  But it's all pointless unless we develop our own, "way of the Buddha" and learn to express our Buddha-ness in everyday life.  Naturally, this will look different for everyone.  Some of us express the dharma by being loving and patient with our children.  Some of us engage in direct action.  Some of us express the dharma by eating a plant-based diet, and some of us teach meditation.  But as practitioners of the way it falls to each of us to take our practice off the cushion and into the marketplace.

     When we express our way of the Buddha, practice becomes a living thing. We engage in conversation with the world, and our darkest moments become our greatest teachers.  When we reach this level of understanding, we realize that the world isn't trying to hurt us.  It just wants to see what we're made of.  Forgive me, but I attempted to express this sentiment in a poem:
Show me your way of the Buddha
Manifest dharma in your life
The teachings didn't die with our teacher
But words won't keep them alive
You meditate and quote sutras
Preach compassion and love
I know you can talk like a Buddha
Now show me you can walk like one
      It would be nice if we could sit in our meditation halls and be blissed-out all day, but that's not what practice is about.  Buddha didn't hide under the Bodhi tree.  So we can't hide under our cushions.  Rather, it's incumbent on each of us to walk into the world, as he did, and face the challenges that each moment presents.  We can't just talk the talk of Buddhism.  We must walk the walk as well.  

     The world is saying, "Show me your way of the Buddha." How will you respond?

Photo Credit: Marc Ranum

Monday, January 30, 2017

Buddhism Gave Me Super Powers

     If I had to describe myself in three words, I'd probably go with "comic book nerd".  The mythologies and social commentaries that can be found in comics have enraptured me for as long as I've been able to read.  While other kids spent their summers playing video games and watching TV, I preferred to patrol the streets of Gotham with Batman and fight epic battles with the Incredible Hulk.  I was fairly small for my age growing up. I didn't have my first serious growth spurt until 11th grade, so the idea of ordinary people getting super powers appealed to me. 

     Of course, that idea isn't new.  In fact, if we go back to the Tang dynasty in ancient China (circa. 9th - 10th century A.D.) we find that people had very similar desires.  In those days superstition was the norm, and it was common for "enlightened" masters to claim that they had supernatural powers.  Firewalking, going days without sleep, and summoning spirits were some of the ways that spiritual teachers would demonstrate their level of attainment in order to get followers.  That might sound silly, but you have to remember that things were different back then.  Starvation was a real threat for most peasant farmers and banditry was common.  I can certainly see how uneducated people who were scared for their lives might want to be friends with a guy who can summon demons.

     That being said, there was a Zen Buddhist named Layman Pang who took a different approach.  His preference was to study the dharma through the wholehearted experience of everyday life.   To this end, he traveled the country with his wife and daughter studying Zen and selling bamboo chopsticks to earn money.  Despite the fact that Layman Pang had no formal monastic training, however, he had his enlightenment confirmed by several Buddhist masters.  In fact, Master Shi Tou was so impressed with Pang's realization that he once asked him if he had any super powers.  Pang replied by saying:
My daily activities are not unusual-
I am just naturally in harmony with them,
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing,
And everyplace there's no hindrance, no conflict.
My supernatural power and marvelous activity
Is drawing water and carrying firewood.
     Drawing water and carrying firewood may not seem very impressive on the surface.  But when we look at the karmic consequences of these actions, it becomes clear that carrying firewood is much more impressive than summoning demons.  Remember, Pang lived during a time without indoor plumbing or gas-powered furnaces.  The simple act of carrying firewood to someone's home meant that they would be able to heat their house and keep from freezing at night.  Furthermore, the simple act of carrying water to someone's home meant that they'd be able to prepare food and keep from starving.  Layman Pang showed his realization not by being superhuman, but by devoting himself 100% to the everyday actions that made life better for the people around him.  His superpower was learning to take joy in being an ordinary human being.  
  
    This is an important lesson for me in this time of social and political unrest.  It's easy to feel overwhelmed, and think that there is nothing to be done.   But that isn't true.  I don't have invulnerability or endless wealth like my comic book heroes.  But I have my body, and I can use it to do amazing things.  I can give food to hungry people, and I can spend time with my family.  I can be a shield for oppressed people, and I can be a voice for the voiceless.  But if all else fails, the sink is always full of dirty dishes that I can wash.  These are simple actions that anyone can do.  But my Zen practice has shown me that simple, ordinary actions are the most effective way to do good in the world.

     We all have super powers.  We just have to be willing to use them.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Can We Have Buddhism Without The Buddha?


     I just finished reading Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor.  I enjoyed the book immensely, and it's making me look at the dharma in a new way.  The secularized Buddha that Batchelor presents is completely lacking any religiosity.  In fact, he strikes me more as a scientist than a spiritual teacher.  I could easily picture him standing in an auditorium, presenting his data on the causes of suffering to college students, and then jetting off to give a Ted Talk on the eight-fold path.  As a result, I can't help but wonder what American Buddhism will look like 100 years from now.

     Will Buddhism even be called “Buddhism”?  Or will we give it a new, more modern sounding name?  Or maybe we'll keep the name, but strip the practice of all the trappings that are normally associated with Buddhist teachings.  Perhaps the robes will be replaced with button-down shirts, and the Buddha statues will be replaced with cool-looking rocks.  I don’t know.  But it’s interesting to think what will happen if the idea of Secular Buddhism, which Batchelor teaches, is taken to its natural conclusion; and meditation practice goes the way of Yoga.  Many people don’t realize that when Yoga came to the United States it was part of a spiritual practice that included ethics, mind-training, and even dietary restrictions.  However, it has now been secularized to the point that it's primarily a form of exercise that people squeeze in between brunch and their morning lattes.  Of course, this isn’t a bad thing, necessarily.  Healthy bodies often lead to healthy minds.

     But it's strange to think about a future where one can be certified as either a 200-hour, 300-hour, or 500-hour meditation teacher in much the same way that you find in Yoga.  The Mindfulness Based Stress Relief movement is certainly heading in this direction.  In fact, I once worked for a company that had a mindfulness coach come in to teach employees breathing exercises so that we could be more focused while working in our cubicles.  Will future practice require us to trade enlightenment for greater work productivity?  Will the Buddha still be welcome when American Buddhism comes into its own?  I don’t know.  But it’s interesting to think about.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Poem Number Four

A new president
But birds still sing in the trees
Winter is still cold

Monday, January 16, 2017

How Anger Became My Spiritual Practice

     In January of 2014, I made the decision to stop drinking alcohol.  I was meditating daily at that point, and my practice made it impossible to ignore the consequences of my drinking.  So I quit cold-turkey.  I'd like to tell you that sobriety has been all sunshine and rainbows, but it actually sucked in the beginning.  All of my friends were heavy drinkers, and most of them disappeared when I stopped partying.  The ones that didn't leave made a point of telling me that I was more fun when I drank.  Needless to say, I started spending a lot of time alone.  Worse than the social isolation, however, was being forced to actually feel my emotions.  I'd been using alcohol to keep myself numb, and getting through the week without that crutch was difficult.  That being said, it did allow me to learn some difficult truths about myself.  For example, I learned that I have an anger problem.

     Anger has been the fuel in my engine for as long as I can remember.  In fact, I joined the Marine Corps. largely out of anger.  I was mad at my parents, and I wanted to get as far away from home as I could.  So I walked into the recruiter's office one day and never looked back.  But the anger didn't go away when I enlisted.  Quite the opposite, in fact, during recruit training my drill instructors stoked the fire of my rage until I thought it would burn me alive. Then they taught me how to use it as a weapon.  Anger kept me warm at night during mountain warfare training.  It gave me energy during the last stretch of 10-mile runs.  And it gave me the strength during force-marches when I could literally feel my body breaking down.

     But anger is a two-headed snake, and you can't use it without being poisoned in the process.  The Marines gave me a useful outlet for my anger, but it didn't teach me how to cope with it.  I think that's why I started drinking.  I had all this pent up fury inside me and nowhere to put it; so I turned it on myself.

     I was a master at finding self-destructive ways to blow off steam when I was pissed.  My first instinct was always to lash out at the people around me..  Failing that, I'd attack inanimate objects.  I remember one time when I had a bad day at work and responded by breaking every stick of furniture in my living room.  Thankfully, I'm not that stupid anymore.

     My Zen practice has given me tools in the way of meditation, and an understanding of karma which help me cope with negative feelings.  Some people think that Zen is about getting rid of emotion.  But that hasn't been my experience.  Rather, it has taught me how to feel my emotions intelligently.  Anger is still a constant in my life, but I'm no longer a slave to it.

     Now when my temper flares I don't lash out at others or attempt to make myself numb.  Instead, I bring my focus to my breath. Malevolent thoughts come into my head.  But I ignore them as random bits of karma and focus on the actual feeling of anger itself.  It's hot and painful like a ball of molten metal that's stuck inside my chest.  It hurts, but the longer I sit with the feeling without judgment, the more I notice that there are small holes in it.  I sink into one of them.  Underneath the fiery top layer of my anger, there is a cold bottom layer of sadness.  I'm sad because the world has hurt me in some way, and anger is my defense mechanism.

     The pain is almost unbearable in this bottom layer. Feeling angry is much easier than admitting that I've been hurt.  But I stay with it.  The many hours I've spent in meditation, dealing with the pain in my legs have prepared me to deal with the pain of sadness.   Once again, I ignore the karmic thoughts that pop into my head and focus on the feeling of the emotion itself.  Slowly, it begins to dissipate until I'm left with a feeling of contentment.

     I rest here for a while and enjoy my newfound equanimity. Now that my mind isn't clouded by anger I can see the world more clearly.  I understand that this is all just karma playing itself out in a cosmic dance which is beyond my comprehension.  I realize that my anger is a part of that dance, and it's not a problem as long as I don't take it personally.  Naturally, this is easier said than done, but life gives me many opportunities to try.  In this way, coping with anger has become a key part of my spiritual practice.

     Sometimes I go through this meditation once a week.  Sometimes I go through it several times a day.  But practice makes perfect, and with each repetition, the feelings of anger and hurt become a smaller part of the experience.  They're being replaced by a feeling of calm as I let go of my attachments and my views on the way the world should be.  In this way, anger has stopped being a poison in my life.  Instead, it has become medicine which helps me along the path.



Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Barking At Ghosts And Worrying About The Future

     My roommate is a dog sitter in addition to his 9-5 job.  As a result, there is a small but steady flow of dogs running through our house at any given time.  Some of them are quiet, and I barely know they're here.  Others are obnoxious, and I can't wait for them to leave.  Some of them are house-trained.  Others leave "presents" all over the carpet. 

     As a result, I get many opportunities to observe dog behavior.  For example, I've noticed that they spend a good amount of time barking for no reason.  That is to say, one of them will run to the window and start sounding the alarm, and the others will start barking as a result.  But when I go to the window and look outside... there's no one there.  It happens often enough that I'll actually joke sometimes that the dogs are, "barking at ghosts" as they stare out the window and fend off imaginary intruders.  This can be more than a little annoying.

     However, as I sit and reflect on this strange course of events, I'm starting to feel differently.  Maybe there's something to be learned from their behavior.  After all, a dog's sense of hearing and smell is much more powerful than my own.  So there must be something out there.  Whether it's a trash can rolling down the street or a squirrel climbing a tree, I don't know.  I just know that the dogs are perceiving something outside that they mistakenly view as a threat.  It scares them, and they respond by barking incessantly.  The dogs mean well, but they're getting all riled up for nothing.  My mind acts in much the same way.

     That is to say, my mind is constantly on the lookout for threats, and it "barks" a steady stream of disaster scenarios at me throughout the day.  Even as I write this, it keeps asking questions like:

·        What if I lose my job? 
·        What if America gets invaded? 
·        What if I can't pay off my student loans?  

.    Thankfully, my practice reminds me that none of these threats are real… in the present moment.  Yes, there may come a day when I can't pay my student loans, but that's not happening in this moment. Yes, there may come a day when I'm unemployed, but that's also not happening in this moment.  What is happening, however, is that my belly is full, I have a safe place to sleep, and my roommate’s dog is resting quietly at my feet.  In this moment, the world is a beautiful place.  

     There are times in life when I worry so much about the "ghosts" of potential future events that I forget how lovely the world can be.   And that's sad.  Because I can't enjoy my weekend if I'm focused on going to work on Monday.  And I can't see the beauty of a snowflake if I'm thinking about shoveling the walk.  When I worry about the future, I rob the present of its joy.  It's like I'm living without being alive.

     To be clear, I'm not saying that planning for the future is a bad thing.  I set aside a window of time each week to plan for bills, travel, and basic emergency prep.  But outside of that window, I force myself to just live in the moment as much as possible.  Yes, bad things will happen.  And I'll deal with them when they come.  But for the time being, I'm officially done barking at ghosts.  May they rest in peace.