Friday, August 18, 2017

Keep Going: A Buddhist Response To Violence

I entered my first full-contact karate tournament when I was 13 years old.  I'd been training for several years at that point, and after watching Enter The Dragon one to many times, I decided that I wanted to test myself against a real opponent.  It took some convincing, but eventually my dad packed up the family car, and drove me to a tournament in Chicago, Illinois

That's how I found myself standing across from the child version of Ivan Drago.  My opponent was 6 inches taller than me with biceps as big as my legs.  In other words, he was bigger than me, stronger than me, and had a huge reach advantage.  Things didn't look good.

When the match started he opened up with a roundhouse kick to the stomach that took to the wind out of me.  The kick was followed by a right cross to the face which spun me around so that my back was too him.  Finally, a snapping front kick to the back sent me tumbling out of bounds.  Stunned and embarrassed, I looked up at the ring clock; only 15 seconds had passed.  

At that point, I saw my dad walking towards me.  I should stop at this point, and say that my father is what most people call a "hard" man.  He's very loving in his own way, but growing up on a farm gave him a very no nonsense approach to life.  So he was all business when he came to check on me.

"You have to keep your hands up, so he doesn't keep hitting you in the face," he said. "And don't let him get so close.  If he comes in striking distance, make him pay," he said feigning punches to my body and face.  "Are you ready to go back out there?"

Truthfully, I didn't want to go back into the ring.  My face hurt, I was embarrassed, and I wanted to go home.  But as I said earlier, my father is a hard man.  And he doesn't tolerate weakness.  So I gritted my teeth, and nodded silently.

"Good" he said, "Don't let him intimidate you."  Then he turned me around, and pushed me back into the ring...

Don't be intimidated.  As I try to make sense of the deadly violence that took place in Charlottesville, VA, I keep thinking about my father's words.  They give me something to focus on as I try to comprehend what happened.  Heather Heyer was killed and 19 people were injured when a white nationalist drove his car through a crowd of peaceful protesters.  Now I'm trying to figure out the skillful means, which will help me respond to this tragedy.

Don't be intimidated is a good start.  Don't be intimidated by swastikas.  Don't be intimidated by the Ku Klux Klan or the Alt-Right.  And don't be intimidated by madmen who run over protesters with their cars.  Dust yourself off, keep your hands up, and step back into the ring.

That works, but it doesn't tell me what to do once I'm back inside the ring.  How do I peacefully coexist with people who think my skin color makes me inferior? Is that even the right question?  I don't know.  But in his book Bright Dawn, my teacher, Rev. Koyo Kubose, states:
As individuals, we can decide what kind of person we want to be, and what kind of life we want to live.  This can be an unconditional and unilateral decision that is not dependent on how others act.
I find great comfort in his words.  They're a reminder that the power is always in my hands.  Because I've chosen to live my life with compassion.  And no amount of violence will make me forget the person that I've set out to be.  It's difficult to walk the path in times like this.  But Rev. Kubose teaches us to simply "keep going" when ever life gets hard.

Keep going.  That's all that I can do in this moment.  Keep going with my meditation.  Keep going with my activism.  Keep going in my attempts to make the world a better place.  Because the only way to get out of a bad situation is to keep going towards a better one.

Don't be intimidated... keep going.

My father's words have blended with those of my teacher to create a mantra.  And I've been reciting it a lot the last few days.  I don't know what the outcome of all of this will be.  But I know what I have to do.  Keep going.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

The Fifth Precept: Do Drugs and Meditation Mix?

I was a raver in my early 20's.  My friends and I spent our weekends going to semi-legal parties in campgrounds, warehouses, and abandoned factories in order to dance the night away and listen to EDM music

It was stupid, expensive, and extremely dangerous, but I'd be lying if I said that some of the best times of my life didn't happen at raves.  I was a weird, socially-awkward kid who was surrounded by other weird, socially awkward kids, and we all just wanted to feel loved and have a good time.  

But there was a dark side to all of that care-free partying.  Drug culture was a very big part of the rave scene.  In fact, many people went to parties with the sole intent of getting high in what they considered a safe place.  As a result, it wasn't uncommon for promoters to have designated "chill" rooms where the lights were kept low, glow sticks were banned, and people were able to come down off their highs in peace. 

Other precautions were also taken.  Some people sucked on pacifiers the whole night because they were on ecstasy, and they needed something to keep from grinding their teeth.  Others, tied themselves to sober friends with leashes because they were on acid (LSD), and they needed to be kept from wandering off by themselves. 

That being said, the precautions didn't always work.  I once watched someone tear a hotel lobby apart because he needed a phone to call his mom.  People were standing around offering him cell phones, but it was like he couldn't see them.  We found out later that he'd dropped acid earlier in the night, and he was having a bad trip.  Eventually, the cops showed up, and dragged him away.  I'll never forget the look of confusion on his face.

Later that same year, I watched a close friend overdose on bath salts.  One minute she was bouncing off the walls, the next minute she was on the floor screaming and clutching her chest.  That was the breaking point for me.  I loved dancing, and I loved EDM, but I was done watching friends almost die/ get arrested because of drug use.  I went home that night, threw away my glow sticks, and stopped going to raves.

So what does any of this have to do with Buddhism?  Well, it's become a semi-regular occurrence that when people find out I'm a meditator, they suggest drug use as a way to enhance my practice.  It's a lot like when dealers used to tell me Dubstep sounds better when you're high.  It's not an every day occurrence, but it happens often enough that I've decided to write about it.

Case in point, I was discussing meditation with someone last week, and he told me that magic mushrooms are a short-cut to enlightenment.  He shared fascinating stories about seeing colors more clearly, and feeling like he was floating through space.  Then he asked if I wanted to try it out for myself.  I politely declined.

To be frank, I don't think recreational drugs have a place in serious Buddhist practice.  I hold this position for three reasons:

     1)  My interpretation of the fifth precept

     2)  My past experiences with recreational drugs

     3)  There are no shortcuts to enlightenment

First, the fifth precept states, "I vow to not abuse intoxicants."  In other words, we must use common sense when it comes to these substances.  And my common sense tells me that if I'm serious about studying my mind, I can't muddy the waters with mind-altering drugs.  That would be like throwing dirt in my eyes because I want to see the stars.

Second, Buddhism is an experiential practice.  We examine the karma of our previous actions, and we use what we learn to make better choices in the future.  When I was a raver, my experiences with recreational drugs were terrible.  And I don't want to go down that road again.

Third, there are no short-cuts to enlightenment.  Buddhism is a life-long practice that helps you wake up over a period of weeks, months, and years.  I've had some scary thoughts come out of my head during meditation. But because they came up gradually, over a long period of time, I was able to work through them.  And I came out stronger on the other side.

I could keep going, but I think I've made my point.  Drugs didn't make the rave scene better, and I have no reason to believe that they're useful for meditation.  If others want to walk a different path, that's fine.  But please don't ask me to join you.

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Friday, August 4, 2017

Acceptance: Finding Inner Peace When Life Sucks

When I started practicing Zen in 2013, I was in a very dark place. I was broke, I hated my job, and I'd just ended a long-term relationship. My anxiety was at an all-time high, and I was searching for something that would ease the pain.

As a result, I was kind of excited when I read the first noble truth which states, "The world is full of suffering." "Finally," I thought to myself, "someone understands how I feel."

I was a little less enthused, however, when I read the second and third noble truths which state, "Suffering is caused by desire," and "The way to end suffering is to end desire."  Given my situation, those two items didn't seem logical.  After all, the natural response to suffering is to want it to stop.

Despite my misgivings, meditation was helping to calm my mind, so I decided to stick with it.  After four years of practice, I'm beginning to understand how the second and third noble truths can be applied to every day life.  The key is learning to be 100% accepting of the fact that most of my desires won't be fulfilled.

I want drivers to stop parking in the bike lane, I want people to be nice to me, and I want my right leg to stop falling asleep when I meditate.  I have an endless list of wants and wishes that pop into my head unannounced, and I used to spend a lot of mental energy trying to kill those desires.

But things have changed.  These days, I simply take note of the desirous thought (e.g. I want to sleep in, and not go to work today), I accept that my desire won't be met in that moment, and I turn my attention back to what ever it is that I'm doing.

That being said, sometimes life is difficult.  And it's easy to start feeling overwhelmed.  But when I respond to those difficult times with acceptance, my frustration is replaced with calmness.  And two questions naturally arise:

     1)  What can I control?

     2)  How can I help?

The first question brings my focus to the present moment.  I look at my current situation, and if the problem can be fixed by me, then it's a simple process of doing what needs to be done.  But if it can't be fixed by me, then the only logical path is to accept that my desires won't be met in this instance, and move on with my life.

The second question reminds me that I'm never completely powerless.  No matter how bad a situation becomes there is always something I can do to help; even if it's just choosing to not make things worse.  The situation may not improve overnight, but at least I can sleep knowing that I did my part to make things better.

When I accept that my desires won't be met, focus on the things I can control, and search for ways to be helpful, a feeling of inner peace arises within me.  This occurs because my happiness is no longer tied to getting my way.  Instead, it comes from knowing that I've done my best to ease suffering for both myself and others.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

International Day of Meditation

A few months ago, I was meditating at my local Zen center, and I did something that I almost never do during practice.  I opened my eyes, and I looked around at my fellow practitioners.  What I saw shocked me. 

The guy sitting directly across from me was wearing black from head to toe.  The sides of his head were shaved, which helped to accentuate his eyeliner.  To my right, there was a young woman sitting in the lotus-position.  Her brown hair fell to just below her shoulders, and her tattoo-covered hands rested in a perfect mudra against her pregnant belly.  She told me once that she'd started practicing Zen because people like to "test" her at home, and meditation helps her stay calm. 

Finally, to my left there was an older gentlemen who looked like he'd come straight out of a John Wayne movie.  He had tan leathery skin, and a propensity for flannel shirts.  I knew from conversation that he was a hunter who described his practice by saying, "I eat what I kill."

That being said, it wasn't the appearance of my fellow students that I found shocking; it was the fact that we were all in the same room together.  A goth, a young mother, a vegan, and a hunter were all occupying space together under the watchful eyes of monks.  We had nothing in common, and yet we were able to sit silently, and support each other's practice.  It was beautiful.

After meditation, we listened to a dharma talk from our teacher and drank tea.  This was the exact chain of events that happened every Tuesday night at the zendo, but it was like I was experiencing it for the first time.  I wasn't just seeing my fellow students; I was feeling them as well.  It's hard to describe other than to say that I felt a connectedness between us that I hadn't noticed before.  Yes, we were all different in terms or race, tattoos, eating-habits, and makeup preferences.  But there was something else underneath; something that was identical in all of us.  

Some Buddhist traditions refer to this thing as the dharmakaya.  Others call it our buddhanature.  These are all fine words.  But for the purposes of this article, I'm going to cop out and state that it's "beyond name and form".  I'm just happy that it's there, and I can become more aware of it through seated meditation.

As a result of this experience, I started a sitting group called Be The Peace, that meets once a month to practice meditation in public spaces.  I'm also working with my friends at The Tattooed Buddha to organize an International Day of Meditation.  On August 5th, individuals and sitting groups from all over the world will meditate as a united, human family and livestream the event!  

I still don't know exactly what I experienced that day in the Zen center.  But I'm hoping that if we can get a bunch of people to meditate together on August 5th, then maybe they'll feel it too.  And if we're truly lucky, everyone will be kinder, and more compassionate as a result.

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Click on the cities below for more event information!

Chicago, IL

Cleveland, OH

Philadelphia, PA

Indianapolis, IN

Vista, CA

Woodstock, IL

Email if you would like to add your city to the list!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Intoku: The Perfect Response To Suffering

Intoku is a Japanese word that translates to, "Good done in secret".  In Zen Buddhism, it's often used to describe the act of doing unpopular jobs without expecting praise or reward. For example, the guy who cleans the Zen center's toilets every day without being asked is practicing intoku. By performing acts such as this it's believed that the practitioner will gain merit and realize enlightenment more quickly.

That being said, intoku didn't appeal to me early in my practice.  In the face of layoffs, rowdy neighbors, and political unrest it seemed like the Zen equivalent of standing around a campfire and singing kumbaya.  It sounded good on paper, but did it really fix anything?  My opinion changed, however, when I noticed how house plants cope with suffering.

Case in point, there's a money tree (Pachira Aquatica) sitting peacefully on my desk as I write this. Sadly, it doesn't drop dollar bills from its branches, but my tree has a remarkable talent for turning carbon dioxide into oxygen.  And it does that all day, every day without fail.

My money tree is completely unperturbed when I have a bad day at work, when my neighbors shoot off fireworks at 2 am, or when disturbing news stories pop up on my social media feed.  It just keeps pulling nutrients from the soil, sprouting new leaves, and purifying the air I breathe without missing a beat.  This is the essence of intoku; to keep doing good works no matter how much suffering occurs around us.

However, the story doesn't end there.  The second part of practicing intoku requires us to do good works IN SECRET.  In other words, we must do them without the expectation of getting something in return.  Of course, that's not to say that receiving validation from others is a bad thing.  But if we're being honest, most kind acts go unrewarded.  People don't always say, "Thank you," when we hold the door for them, children aren't always respectful to their parents, and sometimes bosses don't appreciate our hard work.

But that's where we find the true marrow of intoku.  Because once we learn to do good works without desiring praise, we liberate ourselves.  We stop looking to others for validation, and our acts of kindness become their own reward.  When toilets are dirty, we clean them.  When people are hungry, we feed them.  And we go to bed at night happy in the knowledge that in a world filled with suffering, we made things a little better.

This is something all of us can do.  Each of us has a role to play in the world, and we make life better for everyone when we fulfill that role in a kind and loving way.  Intoku provides a method for doing that.  We just need to be willing to try.

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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Empty Your Cup: What Bruce Lee Taught Me About Spiritual Practice

I’ve had a deep and abounding love for martial arts for as long as I can remember.  The strict discipline, the cool uniforms, and the ancient traditions all led me to eventually earn a black belt in Isshin-Ryu karate.  It also led me to watch a ridiculous number of martial arts movies.  Of these, the Bruce Lee films were always my favorites. 

Bruce was a physical genius.  In fact, his punches were so fast that he had to purposely slow down in order for the camera to pick up his movements.  But he was also a great  intellectual.  Now that I’m older, I’ve started to appreciate his philosophy more than his skills with nunchakus

Bruce taught his students that they must become "empty cups" in order to be effective in combat.  That is to say, they had to let go of preconceived notions around punch/ kick combinations, and simply flow with what ever the moment demanded of them.  He called this fighting style Jeet Kune Do, and he summed up its core teaching by saying:

          "Empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality."

In other words, Bruce was telling his students that they must be "empty" of everything they thought they knew about technique if they were going to become complete fighters.  This is an excellent ethos for martial arts, but I think it applies equally to spiritual practice.

 Our habits might tell us that anger is the only way to respond to injustice, and some people are deserving of our disgust.  But this is a recipe for suffering.  We must be willing to let go of of our preconceived notions in order to progress on the spiritual path.  And that's where Zen Buddhism comes into play.

Zen is a rude house guest, and we’re the soon to be empty cup.  It tips us over each time we sit in meditation until our inner most thoughts come pouring out.  It waits until the red wine of our mental habits seep deep into our white carpet, and then it walks away.  “It’s your wine,” Zen says dismissively, “You clean it up.”

And that’s a problem because we don’t like being empty.  In fact, we’ve carried around our suffering/  mental habits for so long that we’re not sure we can be a cup without them.  So, we dutifully clean up the mess as best we can, and then we refill ourselves with new helpings of anger, anxiety, worry, etc. 

We justify it, of course.  “This is an important project,” we say as we scrub the carpet, “If I don’t have anxiety, that means I don’t care.” “He shouldn’t have said that,” we mutter as we reach for the bottle, "I deserve to be angry.” But Zen is nothing if not patient, and it keeps tipping us over until one of two things happen.
1.       We quit, and move on to another spiritual practice.
2.       We learn that being empty isn’t so scary, after all.
Sadly, there isn’t much to say about the first option.   But the second one is interesting.  Because if we can learn to be okay with emptiness, life becomes simple.  Empty cups don’t make messes when they tip over.  And they can be a container for whatever life needs them to carry.

In fact, when we make the choice to stop filling ourselves with anger, it leaves room for compassion to grow.  And when we break the mental habit of worry, life fills us with contentment.  If we’re really lucky, we realize that white carpet is impractical.  And we learn to enjoy the multi-colored messes that Zen brings to the surface because each one is an opportunity to grow in our practice. 

Bruce Lee was an "empty cup", and he became the greatest martial artist of all time as a result.  Imagine what we could accomplish if everyone followed his example, and let go of their mental habits.

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Shojin: Your Every Day Life is Enlightenment Itself

In Japanese Buddhism Shojin is a word used to denote elevation of the soul through intense focus on a single task.  It's most often used to describe the ritualized cooking of vegetarian meals in Buddhist temples known as Shojin Ryori.

During  the preparation of Shojin Ryori cuisine monks go to the market and "greet" their vegetables.  First, they smell each one individually.  Then  they use their fingers to massage the plant, and investigate it's texture. After that, they return home and slowly chop each one by hand.  Nothing is wasted.  The use of machines (including refrigerators) is frowned upon in Shojin Ryori, so cooks buy only as much as they need for a meal, and utilize every part of the plant.

They spend hours grinding spices with a pestle and mortar.  And then they create a dish which carefully balances the colors, textures, and flavor profiles of every ingredient.  The end result is that the mundane, task of cooking vegetables is turned into a literal work of art.  But more than that, it becomes a lesson in how beautiful life can be when we put our whole heart into the present moment.

"Just stir the pot", I can hear the Shojin teacher say.  Just chop the vegetables.  Just serve the food.  Do it over and over again. Do it until your mind explodes.  Do it until the training takes away every hope, dream, and desire that you have.  Do it until you realize that THIS is all you have in life.  And then learn to cherish this... whatever it might be.  Cherish the pot, cherish the vegetables, cherish the long commute, and the annoying relatives.  Cherish your boring, everyday life, and appreciate how lucky you are to have it.

This is an important lesson for me as I continue walking the Buddhist path.  For a long time I've felt that normal life is a hindrance to my training.  I sit in conference rooms at work and wish that I could live out my days in a monastery.  I go out with friends and feel guilty for not spending more time on the cushion.

In short, if I'm not sitting cross-legged, and staring at walls until my legs ache, then I feel like I'm slacking.  But what is Zen if not training in how to live our normal lives wholeheartedly?  What is meditation if not the stripping away of every trick, technique, and piece of technology that we use to escape the here and now?

I still believe that seated meditation is the most effective path to awakening.  However, practicing Shojin has taught me that what I'm doing in the moment is only one part of the puzzle.  It's my devotion to the task which turns ordinary actions into dharma gates..  If a cushion is a tool for awakening, then so is a chef's knife.  If sitting zazen is enlightenment itself, then so it cutting the grass.

When Buddhist monks practice Shojin Ryori, they turn vegetarian cooking into a pathway toward enlightenment.  When I live everyday life with a full heart, I do the same.  I ride my bike, I read my books, I go to work, and awakening takes care of itself.

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Gun Violence and the Illusion Of A Separate Self

     I was 15 years old when the Columbine High School massacre happened.  It was an incredibly sad and traumatic day for our nation, and I remember the utter confusion on everyone's faces as they discussed it.  The idea that someone could pick up a gun and start killing people at random was beyond comprehension.  And we honestly thought that a tragedy like that would never happen again in our lifetimes.  

     But we were wrong.  In fact, 155 mass shooting have occurred this year alone, and it's only June. Honestly, I'm not even surprised anymore when news of a massacre pops up on my social media.  I'm just sad.  Why do we have to be so cruel to one another?

     Personally, I think it's because we're trapped in the illusion of a separate self.  We've divided ourselves into increasingly smaller groups (Democrat vs. Republican, Rich vs. Poor, Boomer vs. Millennial, etc.), and all of that dividing has left us feeling isolated and afraid.  And our fear makes us think the world would be better if  "those" people didn't exist.

       That's where cruelty comes from... the idea that we can make ourselves happy by bringing misery to others. In contrast, some people think love will cure our addiction to violence, but I disagree.  If we want a peaceful world, we have to go further than that.

     We have to understand that there is no such thing as "those" people.  Yes, we are all separate and unique individuals.  But we make up a singular body called humanity.  And that body suffers each time one person harms another.  We don't have to love each other.  We don't even have to like each other.  We just need to understand that our survival depends one upon the other, and act accordingly.

     To put it a different way, our bodies are made up of billions of cells that come together to make individual organs.  On the surface, each organ is separate.  The heart pumps blood, the lungs deliver oxygen, and the brain keeps the whole thing running smoothly.  But all of these organs must work together in order for our bodies to survive.  It's not love that makes them cooperate.  It's commonsense.

     Sadly, common sense seems to be lacking in our national discourse.  We dehumanize people on the other side of an issue to the point where we actively wish them harm.  And then we act surprised when someone decides to shoot up a baseball game, or a church, or a mall.  I'm not saying that we should never disagree.  But we can argue about a host of topics without losing sight of of our shared humanity.

     To this end, we don't have to love each other for a peaceful world to exist.  We don't even have to like each other.  But we must free ourselves from the illusion of a separate self in order to stop killing each other.

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Friday, June 9, 2017

Gardening and the Bodhisattva Vows

One of my earliest experiences with growing food came when I practiced at a Zen center that had a garden.  In Zen, manual labor is considered an important part of spiritual development, so I spent every Saturday cutting grass, pulling weeds, and shoveling horse manure into vegetable beds.  "Shovel shit and become a Buddha!" was the running joke between me the other students.  It was difficult at times, but there was a brutal honesty in the work that I found appealing.

If I cared for the plants properly, they would grow and provide food for people.  If I didn't, they would die and I'd have to start over from scratch.  There was no complexity or intrigue involved in the process.  What I put into the vegetables beds was exactly what I took out.  It  was karma in it's purest form.

These  days, I have a garden in my backyard.  And I'm happy to report that the plants are still teaching me the dharma.  Lately, they've been teaching me about the bodhisattva vows which go as follows:

          -Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them all
          -Delusions are endless, I vow to cut through them all
          -The teachings are infinite, I vow to learn them all
          -The Buddha way is unobtainable, I vow to obtain it

The first thing any sane person notices about these vows is that they're impossible.  How are you supposed to save all sentient beings if there is an infinite number of them?  Thankfully, my plants have shown me the way.

The most important and time-consuming part of gardening is pulling weeds.  If you don't do it regularly, the weeds will crowd out anything you are trying to plant, so consistency is key.  That being said, it's an impossible task.  There have been many times where I spent  hours crawling through the dirt, pulling out invasive plants only to get up and wonder if I accomplished anything.

But I keep doing it because the small amount of time between when I pull the weeds and when they return gives my vegetables time to grow.  Eventually, the vegetables become strong enough that they start crowding out the weeds!

Similarly, when we walk the bodhisattva path, we do so knowing that it's impossible.  But we keep trying because each time we pull the "weeds" of greed, anger, and delusion from the world it provides space for "vegetables" like empathy and compassion to grow.  Eventually, compassion grows large enough that it crowds out the darker parts of human nature, but only if we're willing to keep pulling weeds.

There is a brutal honesty in this work that I find appealing.  The world is our garden, and what we put into it is exactly what we get out.  Every act of of kindness, no matter how small, provides space for good things to happen.  And each time we help another person, we create an opportunity for their compassion to grow.  It's hard work, and the struggle is never-ending.  But a good harvest is guaranteed as long as we never give up.

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Friday, June 2, 2017

Marine Corps. Training and The Illusion of a Separate Self

     When I arrived at Parris Island for Marine Corps. Recruit Training there were men from many different walks of life standing with me.  There were guys from the country who'd been hunting deer since they were 6 years old, guys from the city who'd never seen wildlife outside of Central Park, and then there was me.  I was a scrawny bookworm from the suburbs who was still trying to find himself.  We came from all walks of life, but our drill instructors stripped away any ideas we might have had of being different or better than one another.  They did that by taking away our identities.

     First, they took our hair.  One by one, we sat in barbers' chairs and had our heads shaved.  Next, they took our clothes.  Our civilian attire was placed in plastic bags with our names on them with the promise that we'd get them back IF we graduated training.  Phrases like "Hurry up!" and "Keep moving recruit!" were shouted over and over again as we ran between stations in our boxers gathering boots, shirts, and other uniform items.  

     Once we were fully dressed in military-issued attire, they sat us down in chairs and took our names.  For the next 13 weeks I was no longer "Alex".  My first name was "Recruit" and "I" did not exist.  As in I was literally not allowed to use the pronoun "I".  For example, if I needed to go to the bathroom or "head" as we called it in the Marines, the proper way to ask was, "Drill Instructor (insert last name here), Recruit Thompson requests permission to make a head call, sir!"  That's right, I was 19 years old with a year of college under my belt, and I couldn't use the restroom without permission. 

     It sounds like a nightmare... and it was.  But there was a method to the madness.  With everything that I thought of as "I" stripped away, I was forced to take a hard look at what was left. In the end, I was just a scared kid who wanted to make it to chow without being sent to the pit.

     This was also true for my fellow recruits..  We came from different places, and listened to different music, but we all just wanted to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom without being hassled.  We were different, but that didn't stop us from being the same.

     As a Marine, I watched men who wouldn't be caught in the same neighborhood under normal circumstances become close friends.  And I watched women who barely weighed 120 pounds carry 60 pound loads.  They were able to do those things because when we put on that uniform "I" didn't exist anymore. There was only "we".  And we were a bunch of bad asses.

     I think that's why Buddhist monastics shave their heads and wear robes.  That's why Buddha placed such a strong emphasis on leaving home and giving up worldly possessions.  Because when you strip away all of the nonsense that people think of as "I", then they can't help but see the shared humanity that exists between them and everyone they meet.  Throw in some seated meditation, and you've got the recipe for things like empathy, compassion, and inner peace.

     But in order for that to happen we must be willing to let go of "I".  We must be humble enough to look past the illusion of a separate self and see ourselves in others.  It sounds difficult... because it is difficult.  But it's certainly achievable.  Trust me, if the Marines can do it, anyone can.

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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Please Don't Step on My Sacred Shoes

     I've owned the same pair of running shoes for about 5 years.  I bought them in preparation for an obstacle race that I was running, and they've served me well ever since.  We've worked on farms together, swam across lakes, and pedaled endless miles on bike trails and country roads.  In short, my shoes and I have been through a lot over the years, and I guess you could say we've bonded as a result.  That being said, it's becoming clear that our relationship will soon be coming to an end.  The rubber soles are slowly falling apart, and tiny holes are forming in the cloth uppers.  It's not a good look.  And I should've bought a new pair months ago, but a combination of cheapness and sentimentality have caused me to hold off for the time being.

     I remember when I first entered a Zen center and carelessly kicked my shoes off by the door.  I came back after practice to find that they'd been placed side by side against the wall with my laces tucked neatly into the shoes.  In fact, everyone's shoes were placed in a similar fashion so they formed a uniform row against the wall.  I found out later that one of the senior students took it upon herself to check the shoes before practice and fix any that were out of place.  "What's the big deal?" I thought to myself, "They're just shoes."  But out of respect I started lining up my shoes neatly alongside everyone else's.  It didn't take me long, however, to realize that shoes weren't the only things that got special treatment in the Zen center.

     We bowed to our cushions before and after meditation, we washed our bowls in a ritualistic way after meals,  and our teacher gave us strict instructions for hanging robes in the robe room.  We did all of this because the Zendo was thought to be a sacred space, so by extension everything within the Zendo (shoes, bowls, robes, etc.) was also sacred.  We bowed to our cushions because they gave us a place to sit.  We carefully washed our bowls because they held the food which nourished our bodies, and we lined up our shoes because they carried us all day without complaint.  In short, my shoes were sacred because the Zen center was sacred.

     I like to think of this as the "shoe teaching", and over the years I've learned that it doesn't stop when I leave the Zendo.    The bowls that hold my food at home nourish me just as much as the bowls I use during retreats.  And the chairs I sit on at work are more comfortable than the cushions in the mediation hall.  So if these things are sacred objects inside of the Zendo, wouldn't they also be sacred outside of it?  Furthermore, if my shoes are sacred because the Zen center is sacred.  Is it a stretch to say that the Zen center is sacred because the world is sacred?

     With this in mind, I make it my practice to respect the sacredness of mundane objects.  I try to be mindful when I wash my dishes, and I marvel at my good fortune each time I sit in a comfy chair.  As for my shoes... I'm always careful to line them up neatly by the door each time I come home from work.  They've put up with me for five years, it's the least I can do.

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Friday, May 19, 2017

The Zen of Long Road Trips

     My eyelids are getting heavy as I drive down the interstate.  It's been a long weekend of college graduations, and late-night parties with family.  It was fun.  But the lack of sleep is starting to catch up with me.  I try all of the usual tricks to stay awake.  I roll down the windows, play loud music, and consume energy drinks until my chest burns.  But none of it helps.  I do some quick math, and calculate that I have about 3 more hours on the road before I get home.  There's no way I'll make it at this rate, so I make the decision to pull over and take a nap.

     But this leads to a new problem.  Where am I supposed to pull over?  It's illegal to sleep on the side of the highway.  I'm not above catching some rest in a Wal-Mart parking lot, but my GPS says that there aren't any nearby.  In fact, there isn't much of anything nearby.  I'm traveling through a stretch of country where the landscape is dominated by forests and abandoned farms.  As a result, highway exits are few and far between.  So I'm on the verge of falling asleep at the wheel with nowhere to pull over and no way to get off the interstate.  It doesn't look good.

     Terrible images begin running through my head of multi-car pileups and mutilated bodies flying through the air.  "Something's gotta give." I whisper quietly.  Suddenly, I see a blue and white sign on the side of the road, and a feeling of relief floods my body.  The sign says, "Rest Area 1 Mile".  

     I pull into the rest area and park my rental car in the first available spot.  There is a small brick building in the middle which appears to house restrooms and several vending machines.  The building is surrounded by a large grassy area with several large trees and picnic tables.  Under different circumstances I might grab a bag of chips and walk around for a bit.  But in this moment, my mind is focused on other things.  Without another thought, I set my phone alarm, lean my car seat back, and surrender to my exhaustion.  When the alarm sounds 1 hour later I feel completely refreshed.  

     As I drive out of the rest area, I look around one last time.  There isn't a single piece of trash anywhere to be seen, and the grass is perfectly cut.  I make a mental note to include the groundskeepers in my chanting tonight.  But then another thought occurs to me.  What about the construction workers?  After all, someone had to build this place, right?  That being said, none of the construction would've been possible without the taxpayers who funded the project, or the politicians who gave it a green light.  I make a mental to note to chant for the health and well-being of all of these people.  But as I continue driving, the thoughts keep coming.

     The landscapers who planted the trees, the cement company that installed the parking lot, and even the people who use the rest area each day without trashing it all played a part.  But that's not the end of it.  None of this could've happened without the people who built the highway that I'm driving on or the car that I'm riding in.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that every human being on the planet has assisted me in some way, shape, or form on my journey.  Without their help, I wouldn't be able to visit with family or travel between cities.  And who knows what would've happened if they hadn't given me a place to sleep.

     A warm feeling of gratitude fills my body as I think of how fortunate I am.  I live on a planet where all life is interconnected, and all of it's working for my benefit.  Who could ask for more?

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Saturday, May 6, 2017

How Tipping 20% Became My Spiritual Practice

     Before I started practicing Zen, I treated people the way I thought they deserved to be treated.  If someone was kind to me, then I would be kind to them.  If someone screamed at me, then I would scream at them.  And if someone really pissed me off... Well, you get the point.  Looking back, this mindset had a huge affect on the way I treated the waitstaff in restaurants.  To be clear, I was never rude to my servers, but I did tip more or less based on what I thought they deserved. In fact, if the service was especially poor, I wouldn't leave a tip.  The goal was to show them that they'd done something wrong in the hopes that they'd do better next time.  It sounds good on paper.  But my spiritual practice made me question if my tipping policy was effective in the real world. What if my not leaving a tip was simply perpetuating the cycle of disappointment and discontent?

     For example, what if I received bad service because my waiter was having a bad day, and then I made their day even worse by not leaving a tip,  Wouldn't that mean that the person who sat down after me would have an even worse experience?  Furthermore, what if the server went home after their horrible day and got in a fight with their spouse because they didn't make enough money.  How far down did this rabbit hole go?!

     The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I didn't know what happened as a result of me leaving a tip, or not leaving a tip.  But it was the one piece of this cosmic puzzle that I could control.  So I started leaving 20% no matter what.  At best it would result in a positive outcome,  and at worst it would result in a neutral one.  Either way, I could go to sleep at night knowing that I did my part to make the world a little bit happier.

     I've been doing this for three years, and the results have been good.  I generally don't go back to restaurants if I have a bad experience.  But there have been a few times where circumstances made me go back, and I was treated really well.  In fact, there have even been times where I got great service from the same person who treated me poorly the first time around.  Did my tipping policy sow the karmic seeds for a positive dining experience?  I don't know.  But I think it's safe to say that in the face of adversity, kindness is a good response.

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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Finding Oneness Through Public Meditation

     This photo was taken outside of the market by my house, and the poster is a mantra that I repeat to myself during times of distress.  

     I believe strongly that practice doesn’t stop when we leave the cushion.  As a result, I often find myself meditating in public spaces (parks, street corners, train stations, etc.). This is very different from four years ago when I practiced only inside of Zen centers and behind closed doors.

     Initially, I started meditating as a means of escaping the world around me.  I had hoped to find inner peace by detaching myself from the messiness of human life. But Buddhism has taught me that we don’t find peace and happiness by separating ourselves from the world. Rather, we must immerse ourselves more fully in it.

     When I practice meditation in the midst of laughing families and busy shoppers, the entire world becomes my zendo. More than that, I recognize my oneness with the world

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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.