Sunday, October 8, 2017

Existence: A Buddhist Response to Mass Murder

I'm standing in the break room at work, preparing to make a cup of tea.  Then a news alert appears on my phone, and I learn there's been a mass shooting in Las Vegas.  My heart drops, and I reflexively focus on my breathing. 

The impromptu meditation keeps me standing as I stare at the screen; 50+ dead, and hundreds wounded because of one man.  Lives have been shattered, and families torn apart because of one man.  Unimaginable suffering caused by one man, in a hotel room, with a small arsenal of guns;  it's hard to comprehend.

And yet, life goes on.  I have to attend meetings and answer emails.  I have to ride my bike home at the end of the day and make dinner.  I have to keep living in the midst of this tragedy, and find a way to move forward. So I return to my desk, empty cup in hand, and get back to work.

A few days later, I ride my bike to a nearby church.  A nonprofit called The Interreligious Task Force on Central America is located there, and I volunteer with them once a week. They deal with a lot of tragedies.  In fact, the organization was started when four activists were murdered in South America while advocating for indigenous rights.  

Today they have me stuffing envelopes in preparation for a fundraiser.  I go about my task dutifully, methodically, trying to focus more on the feel of the envelopes in my hands and less on the ball of sadness in my stomach.  50+ dead and hundreds wounded; how do I respond to that?

The answer comes when I read one of the flyers that I've been mindlessly stuffing into envelopes for the past hour.  The title states, Mi Existir es Resistir which translates to My Existence is Resistance

It goes on to talk about the atrocities that have occurred in Central and South America along with different ways that people can get involved.  The overall message is that the most powerful thing an activist can do in the face of cruel and unjust systems is to keep being an activist, and keep fighting for what's right in the face of insurmountable odds.

After I finish reading the flier, I shoot a quick glance around the office to make sure no one is watching.  Then I place my hands in gassho and bow. 50+ dead and hundreds wounded; it hurts more than I can bear.  But I know what I have to do.

I have to keep practicing the Dharma. I have to keep studying, meditating, and living a compassionate life.  I have to let people cut in front of me in traffic. I have to smile at coworkers and do volunteer work.  I have to take the fear and pain inside of me and use it as fuel for my practice.  

My life, my very existence will be a response to this tragedy. It's not enough, but it's all I have to give.  People can be cruel.  This was true in the time of Buddha, and it's still true today.  Sadly, it will keep being true as long we're trapped in the illusion of a separate self.  But in the face of endless suffering and death, the most powerful thing I can do is to live kindly and compassionately until all sentient beings are saved.

In a world filled with suffering, kindness is an act of resistance.

If you enjoyed this article, please like The Same Old Zen on Facebook!

Upcoming Events:

I'm giving a talk for the Cleveland Animal Rights Alliance (C.A.R.A) on Monday, Oct. 23rd at 6:30pm.  The talk is entitled, "How Organic Farming Led Me to Being Vegan".  I'll discuss my experiences living and working on organic farms for 8 months, my Buddhist practice, and how the two led me to become vegan.  The event will take place at the Cleveland Heights Public Library, 2345 Lee Rd, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118. Learn more by clicking here.

I'm leading a Meditation Flash Mob in Cleveland on Saturday, Oct. 21st at 4pm with Be The Peace.  The event will take place in Tower City (on concourse level 1, next to the fountains).  The address is 230 W Huron Rd, Cleveland, OH 44113.  You can find more event information by clicking  here.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sisyphus: Laughing In The Midst of Suffering

According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king in modern day Corinth, and a renowned trickster of both men and gods alike. 

He famously escaped death by convincing Hades, the god of the underworld, to put on a set of hand cuffs in order to show him how they worked.  Once Hades was locked up, Sisyphus threw him in a closet, and continued living his life as if nothing had happened.

In spite of his cunning, however, Sisyphus did eventually die, and his soul was sent to Tartarus, the ancient Greek version of hell.  As punishment for his crimes, he was condemned to spend eternity rolling a heavy boulder up a hill each day only to have it roll down again once it got to the top.

It was a grueling task.  Between the boredom of doing the same thing every day, and the back breaking labor of pushing a boulder I imagine that Sisyphus endured great suffering.  In this way, his story is an excellent metaphor for our lives.

We all have boulders/ suffering that we deal with every day.  Perhaps it's a job we hate.  Perhaps it's poor finances or a body that doesn't work the way it should.  Often times, we can change our circumstances, and alleviate discomfort.  But sometimes we can't.  Sometimes we're like Sisyphus; left with no other choice than to roll a giant rock uphill each day.

In our weaker moments, we try to hide from our pain.  We close our eyes and pretend it doesn't exist. We numb ourselves with television, bad food, social media, etc. in the hopes that we can find an escape.  But these are temporary solutions that leave us feeling unsatisfied.  In spite of our best efforts, the boulder is always there.

Other times, we grit our teeth, and suffer violently.  We rage against the boulder as we push it up the hill.  We curse as waves of grief and frustration wash over us with each step.  And when we finally reach the summit only to have the rock slip from our fingers; we stand there for a moment. And we wonder why life is so hard.

In contrast, Rev. Gyomay Kubose implored his students to take responsibility for their suffering. It sounds harsh, but this is the Buddhist view on dealing with mental anguish.  We don't try to escape it, and we don't get bent out of shape about it. 

Instead, we take responsibility for our pain.  We put it under a microscope, and we study it.  We tear it apart until we find the root cause of our anguish (hurt feelings, disappointment, fear, etc.), and then we learn to be at peace with those feelings.

Once we accept the boulders in our life, a shift occurs in our thinking.  Our pain lessens as we stop piling emotional baggage on top of it.  Eventually, the job sucks, but we tolerate it.  Finances are tight, but we make it work.  And our life gets a little bit better because we've trained our mind to stop making it worse.

Over time, we may even learn to appreciate the experience, unpleasant though it may be, and laugh a little at our plight.  After all, life can only be exactly what it is.  And it's funny each time we think it can/ should be different.

Finally, we begin to enjoy life not in spite of our suffering, but because of it.  Because this pain, this struggle, this constant fight is the juice that life is made from.  It's how we know we're alive.  Thus, we end our suffering not by trying to escape it, but by learning to embrace it.

If you enjoyed this article, please like The Same Old Zen on Facebook!

Upcoming Events:

I'm giving a talk for the Cleveland Animal Rights Alliance (C.A.R.A) on Monday, Oct. 23rd at 6:30pm.  The talk is entitled, "How Organic Farming Led Me to Being Vegan".  I'll discuss my experiences living and working on organic farms for 8 months, my Buddhist practice, and how the two led me to become vegan.  The event will take place at the Cleveland Heights Public Library, 2345 Lee Rd, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118. Learn more by clicking here.

I'm leading a Meditation Flash Mob in Cleveland on Saturday, Oct. 21st at 4pm with Be The Peace.  The event will take place in Tower City (on concourse level 1, next to the fountains).  The address is 230 W Huron Rd, Cleveland, OH 44113.  You can find more event information by clicking  here.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Critical Mass: Will Authentic Buddhism Please Stand Up?

I'm fortunate to be part of a very tight-knit cycling community.  Once a month, we do something called a critical mass ride in which several hundred cyclists get to together and "take over" the streets. 

It started off as a protest in the early 90's as a way to bring attention to the cyclists that were being killed by hit and run drivers, and advocate for more bike lanes and trails within city limits.  

However, it's become mainstream in recent years, and the droves of hippies and punks cruising down the street on upcycled bikes have some surprising company riding with them.  There are grandmas that participate every month, and soccer mom's that carry a toddler on their bike racks.  There are "tall boy" riders who have custom-made bikes that stand 10 feet tall. And there are spandex-wearing account executives who only break out their bikes on the weekends; if it's not raining.  

That being said, as different as all of these riders are, it can't be argued that any of them aren't cyclists.  Their rides all have two wheels, pedals, and handle bars.  And they all move forward via leg-power.  Culture, history, and personal preference cause every rider in a critical mass to manifest cycling in a different way,  but the fact that they're all riding bikes means that every single one of them is a cyclist. The same line of thinking applies when we talk about authentic Buddhism.

Instead of a bike, of course, we start with the four noble truths, and the eight-fold path.  That is the core of Buddha's teachings as they were given to the early monastics in Deer Park.  These lessons are the bicycle in the "critical mass" which is the last 2,600 years of Buddhist literature.  Anyone who has these 12 items at the core of their sect is practicing authentic Buddhism in the same way that anyone who rides a bike is a cyclist.

Of course, this doesn't mean that all schools are created equal.  Just like there are certain rider/ bike combinations that work better for speed or personal comfort, there are different ways to manifest the dharma that will be more effective based on an individuals personality or country of origin.  When viewed from this perspective, it seems silly to think that there should be one Buddhism to rule them all. Just as it's silly to think that that there is only one way to ride and operate a bicycle.  

In this way, having many schools of Buddhism isn't a bad thing.  In fact, it's a natural occurrence of the teachings spreading throughout the world, and being touched by millions of people.  This is why I enjoy the Bright Dawn method which encourages us to approach these many manifestations of the Dharma from a nonsectarian viewpoint.  This allows the practitioner to learn from everyone they meet, and manifest their Buddha-Nature in a way that's appropriate to the moment.

If you enjoyed this article, please like The Same Old Zen on Facebook!

Upcoming Events:

I'll be giving a talk for the Cleveland Animal Rights Alliance (C.A.R.A) on Monday, Oct. 23rd at 6:30pm.  My talk will be entitled, "How Organic Farming Led Me to Being Vegan".  I'll be discussing my experiences living and working on organic farms for 8 months, my Buddhist practice, and how the two led me to become vegan.  The event will take place at the Cleveland Heights Public Library, 2345 Lee Rd, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Oneness: How We Can Achieve Community Harmony

This Saturday, I'm participating in a panel discussion with a group of faith leaders at the Heartfulness Meditation Center in Cleveland.  The theme of the event is "Achieving Community Harmony Amongst Various Traditions and Paths."

It's a noble idea; getting everyone to live and work together in peace.  And I've spent the last two weeks agonizing over what I'll contribute to the discussion.  After lots of meditation, and a few sleepless nights this is what I came up with:

Buddhism teaches us that everything exists simultaneously in two separate planes of existence.  There is the relative world that we are all very familiar with, and then there is the absolute world.  In the relative world, our mind creates distinctions between everything.  There is man and there is woman.  There is good and there is bad.  There is light and there is dark.  Essentially, the relative world is a world of opposites.

On the other hand, everything is a part of Oneness in the absolute world.  That is to say, everything is interconnected in ways that we'll never fully understand.  More than that, everything in the universe depends on everything else for it's existence.  So while everything appears to be separate in the relative world, when we step back into a place of stillness (via meditation or prayer), we realize that everything is also connected in the absolute world.

One way to think about this would be to look at the organs of the human body.  Our brains are separate entities from our hearts.  And our hearts are very different from our lungs.  However, if the heart stops pumping blood, the brain dies.  And if the lungs stop collecting oxygen, the heart can't pump blood.  So in the relative world our bodily organs are completely separate and different from one another.  But in the absolute world they are part of a singular human body.  And that body requires all of them in order to be healthy and strong. 

They're separate, but they're part of a single Oneness.  

Similarly, human beings are all very different from one another in a relative sense.  We have different races, religions, cultural backgrounds.  However, in the absolute sense we are all part of a single Oneness called humanity.  And while we can't track the connections between people as easily as we can track the connection between our organs, that doesn't change the fact that humanity needs many people of different races, religions, and cultural backgrounds in order to be strong.  

There have been times in history when people thought that the way to create community harmony was to force everyone to be the same.  They thought that if the world only had one race, one religion, one culture, etc., then there would be peace on Earth.  But this is a mistake.  These people were trapped in the illusion of a separate self, and they caused terrible suffering as a result.

In order to create harmony between people, we don't need to make everyone the same.  After all, would you try to make a person healthy by replacing their heart with a second brain?  Of course not, the heart is different from the brain, and that's a good thing.  That difference is what allows a person to survive.

In order to create peace, we must pay less attention to the relative world, and pay more attention to the absolute world.  We must learn Oneness, and appreciate the interconnectedness of all living things.  Each person is unique, and different from everyone else.  And that's a good thing.  That difference is what allows humanity to survive.

By celebrating our differences, and learning to appreciate our interconnectedness, we can build a community where people live happily with each other.  By recognizing the Oneness of all living things, we can achieve peace in our lifetimes.

If you enjoyed this article, please like The Same Old Zen on Facebook!

Upcoming Events:

I'm taking part in an interfaith discussion panel on Saturday, Sept. 23rd at the Heartfulness Meditation Center in Cleveland.  The theme of the event is Achieving Community Harmony Amongst Various Traditions and Paths.  The event runs from 9am to 12pm, and the address is 5425 Warner Road, Valley View, OH 44125.  You can learn more about the event and some of the other speakers by clicking here.

I'll be giving a talk for the Cleveland Animal Rights Alliance (C.A.R.A) on Monday, Oct. 23rd at 6:30pm.  My talk will be entitled, "How Organic Farming Led Me to Being Vegan".  I'll be discussing my experiences living and working on organic farms for 8 months, my Buddhist practice, and how the two led me to become vegan.  The event will take place at the Cleveland Heights Public Library, 2345 Lee Rd, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Barking Buddhas: What Dogs Taught Me About Buddhist Practice

I have a confession to make. I'm not a dog person. It's not that I dislike dogs; quite the opposite.  I grew up with them, and I think the world would be a better place if people as whole were more dog-like.  But dogs require a lot of time and patience. 

They need to be walked, and played with, and they take up more than their fair-share of the bed at night.  Dogs are wonderful. But they're also a very big commitment. 

That being said, I am literally surrounded by canines.  All of my siblings have dogs, and the same goes for my parents.  Even my room mate has a dog.  As a result, I spend a lot of time dog-sitting for the people in my life.  I feed their fur babies when they go out of town, I walk their pets when they have to work late, and I share my home with four-legged friends when ever the situation requires.

Currently, I'm watching my sister's dog.  He'll be with me for at least a month while she gets settled in graduate school.  Having him here has been a huge change in my daily routine.  Every morning my alarm goes off at 6 am, and every morning he wants to be walked IMMEDIATELY when the alarm goes off.  No amount of pleading or swearing on my part will change his mind, and hitting the snooze button is futile.  He needs to be walked every morning at 6am. Period.

At first, this caused a lot of frustration on my part.  However, having him here has taught me many important lessons about the dharma.  The three biggest ones are:

1) Surrender to the Form

When I walk into my Zen center, there are countless forms that I have to follow. There are correct and incorrect ways to bow to the Buddha, etiquette that must be followed when addressing the monks, and rituals that must be observed when getting up from the cushion.

All of these forms can be overwhelming.  However, I've learned that if I surrender to them, and simply do what needs to be done in the moment, a feeling of contentment arises in my mind   Furthermore, I've learned that life in general is also full of forms.

There are forms for going to work in terms of dress code and what time I need to be there.  There are forms for gardening, and bike maintenance.  And there are countless forms that go with caring for a dog.  Life is full of forms, and when I surrender to them in the same way that I surrender to the forms inside of my Zen center, life becomes much easier.

When I stand before the Buddha, I bow.  When I stand before a hungry dog, I bow, and then I feed them.

2) Compassion Comes From Humility

I care for pets who treat the whole world as their toilet. And I deal with others who are more particular about where they do their business. In both cases, however, I'm responsible for the aftermath.

Thankfully, scooping up dog poop from the sidewalk and scrubbing pee out of a carpet both make for excellent Buddhist practice.  I'm humbled each time I walk down the street with a leash in one hand, and a bag of manure in the other.  And I learn a lesson in karma when a dog leaves "presents" on the carpet because I waited a too long before taking them out.

All of this has showed me how humility and compassion intersect.  The dogs in my care are sentient beings, and I want to take good care of them.  But I can't do that unless I humble myself and become their servant.

They can't eat unless I throw 40 pounds of dog food on my bike, and ride home from the store.  They can't exercise unless I take them for walks.  And they can't stay clean unless I bathe them.

If I want to be compassionate towards dogs, I must be humble, and put their needs before my own.  This is also true when dealing with humans.

3) Desire is a Source of Suffering

It's a little frustrating for me to write this part.  After thousands of hours on the cushion, one would think that I'd understand this point in my bones.  But I still need to be reminded of it every day. and dogs are excellent at doing that. As I stated earlier, my sister's dog absolutely has to be walked at 6 am every day.  He has a small meltdown if it doesn't happen.

This was a point of intense suffering for me the first week that he was here, but then I realized something. It's 100% normal and natural for him to want to pee in the morning.  I do it, so why shouldn't he?  Furthermore, it's not his fault that he lives in a house, and not in the wilderness like nature intended.  So what right do I have to be mad at the dog for something that's both completely natural and not his fault?

I don't have that right.  And the suffering that I experienced had nothing to do with him.  It was caused by my desire to lounge in bed.  Instead of surrendering to the form and walking the dog, I was surrendering to my ego, and I suffered as a result.  These days I simply go to bed a bit earlier in preparation for our morning stroll.  That works much better than complaining.

When dealing with dogs.  Focus on what you need to do, not what you want to do.

Despite my misgivings, dogs have been some of my greatest teachers over the years.  In the process of caring for them I've managed to learn a great deal about Buddhist practice and life in general.  But the greatest lesson that I've learned is this; the Buddha doesn't just reside on my altar.  Sometimes he walks around on four legs.

If you enjoyed this article, please like The Same Old Zen on Facebook!

Upcoming Events:

I'm taking part in an interfaith discussion panel on Saturday, Sept. 23rd at the Heartfulness Meditation Center in Cleveland.  The theme of the event is Achieving Community Harmony Amongst Various Traditions and Paths.  The event runs from 9am to 12pm, and the address is 5425 Warner Road, Valley View, OH 44125.  You can learn more about the event and some of the other speakers by clicking here.

I'll be giving a talk for the Cleveland Animal Rights Alliance (C.A.R.A) on Monday, Oct. 23rd at 6:30pm.  My talk will be entitled, "How Organic Farming Led Me to Being Vegan".  I'll be discussing my experiences living and working on organic farms for 8 months, my Buddhist practice, and how the two led me to become vegan.  The event will take place at the Cleveland Heights Public Library, 2345 Lee Rd, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Selfishness: The Key To Long-Term Happiness

Before he discovered the middle-way, Buddha searched for happiness in a variety of ways. In his early life, he was a hedonist. As the son of a wealthy warlord, Buddha was given access to the best of everything as a child. Women, wealth, and fine food were always at his finger tips. He excelled at sports, and he seemed destined to rule over a great kingdom once his father died. 

But while this lifestyle gave him a great deal of short-term satisfaction, it didn't lend itself to a feeling of peace or fulfillment, so he left the palace in search of something else.

Next, he practiced asceticism in his quest for spirituality.  Eventually he reached a point where he was eating only a single grain of rice a day, and he was so thin that he could poke his stomach and feel his spine.  He continued on this path until one day he passed out from the physical torment that he was experiencing.  Once again, Buddha realized that this path wasn't giving him the long-term happiness that he was looking for, so he went in search of a better way.

With this in mind, he started eating regularly again.  And once he'd regained his strength, Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree with the intention that he wouldn't move from that spot until he either realized enlightenment or died.  He stood up 6 days later as a fully awakened being.

After his awakening, Buddha spent the next 45 years living as a mendicant monk, and teaching the dharma.  But why did he do that?  Why didn't he return to the palace and live as an enlightened ruler, or remain under the Bodhi tree; enjoying his newfound peace in solitude?  Personally, I think it's because his idea of what constituted the self had changed.  As a result, he understood the importance of skillful selfishness in achieving the long-term happiness that he'd hoped for.  

Let me explain.

Early in his life, Buddha had a very limited view of what constituted the self.  Like most people, he thought that the self was limited to his ego and his physical body, and he acted accordingly.  As a hedonist, he worked to fulfill his earthly desires, and as an ascetic he worked to destroy them.  Both philosophies worked to give him short- term pleasure.  But they failed to give him long-term happiness because his focus was too limited.

However, when Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree he realized that the self is not just limited to the ego and the physical body; it includes all living things.  

This can best be understood by thinking of a tree that is planted in rich soil.  The soil feeds the tree nutrients, and helps it to remain strong.  In exchange, the tree drops leaves every winter which die and feed the soil; keeping it healthy. 

If too much attention is given to the tree, and the soil is neglected, then the tree will eventually starve and die.  Conversely, if too much focus is given to the soil, and the tree is not properly cared for, the soil won't have leaves to replenish it.  A skilled gardener cares for both.

In this example, the tree represents the self as most people understand it, and the soil represents all living things.  The larger self which Buddha discovered under the Bodhi tree is represented by both the tree and the soil together as a single unit.  And the long-term happiness of a human being is represented by the long-term health of the tree.

As a hedonist, Buddha cared for the tree (self), but he ignored the soil (other living things).  As an ascetic, he did the opposite.  But in order for long-term happiness (a healthy tree) to exist, both the tree and the soil must be cared for; this is the middle-way.

We accomplish the middle-way by practicing skillful selfishness.  Like the Buddha, we must find a mode of living that cares exclusively for the larger self.  That is, it must fulfill all of our physical/ emotional needs while still being beneficial to all living things.  Why?  Because our long-term happiness is directly tied to the happiness of everyone around us.  

When we help others, we help ourselves.  And when we hurt ourselves, we inevitably end up hurting others.  This is the truth that Buddha discovered under the Bodhi tree.  However, by practicing skillful selfishness, and only acting in ways that are beneficial to both ourselves, and the people around us, we can ensure our long-term happiness.

If you enjoyed this article, please like The Same Old Zen on Facebook!

Upcoming Events:

I'll be leading a Meditation Flash Mob in Cleveland on Saturday, Sept. 16th at 4pm.  The event will take place in Market Square (across from West Side Market).  The address is 1979 West 25th Street Cleveland, Ohio 44113.  You can find more event information by clicking  here.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

A Guaranteed Method for Entering the Buddhist Pureland

One thing that always struck me about Buddhist cosmology was how the gods are treated in various texts.  In some schools, the god realms are seen as literal places where people go based on the karma they accumulate before dying.  In other schools, they are seen more as archetypes that convey symbolic truths and act as teaching tools.  In any event, every school seems to think that we as humans should pity the gods.

This seems strange on the surface.  Why would we pity beings with perfect teeth, perfect health, and perfect lives?  The Buddhist answer is that being a god is undesirable because gods don't suffer.  And without suffering, they have no opportunities to practice the dharma.  In fact, I've often heard it said that suffering is the mother of the Buddha.  And I believe this is both literally and figuratively true. 

Buddha, Shinran, Dogen and a host of other Buddhist patriarchs all had some sort of tragedy in their past that drove them to the cushion.  Could they have attained their great realizations without that push; without that suffering? I don't think so. 

So the gods with their perfect lives are to be pitied.  And we mere mortals are left here on earth to practice the dharma as best we can.  But this is interesting because the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism teaches that if we practice hard enough, we'll eventually live in the Pure Land.  But that begs the question, "What is the Pure Land?" and more importantly, "Where is it?"  This question perplexed me for a long time until I read Rev. Gyomay Kubose's translation of Tan Butsu Ge which translates to A Song In Praise of Buddha.

The text is a poem written by one of Buddha's students, Hozo, in order to describe both the radiance of his teacher, and the great motivation he has to practice as a result of Buddha's example.  In my favorite verse from the poem, Hozo states:

When I become Buddha, I will make my country the first.  All the beings in my country will be unique and beautiful.  That place will transcend all.  My country will be like Nirvana -- nothing to equal it.  Now, I am filled with compassion.  I will enlighten all.

To me, this passage suggests that the Pure Land isn't somewhere we go.  Rather, it implies that the world we live in currently is the Pure Land; not because it's perfect, but because it gives us the opportunity to practice. 

Case in point, Hozo doesn't state that he will realize Buddhahood and ride off into a god realm.  Instead, he vows that he will make his country (e.g. the country that he is currently living in) like Nirvana.  But he wouldn't be able to make all the beings of his country unique and beautiful unless there was some ugliness there to work with.  Similarly, none of us can become Buddhas unless we have the requisite amounts of suffering in our lives that will allow us to practice the dharma 

In typical Buddhist fashion, the passage gives us an impossible vow.  However, it also gives us a ray of hope; that the suffering and disappointment we endure is not meaningless.  Rather, it's a gift that helps us to become Buddhas, and realize that our world is a Pure Land.  In this way, we can continue working to enlighten both ourselves and each other.

If you enjoyed this article, please like The Same Old Zen on Facebook!

Upcoming Events:

I'll be leading a Meditation Flash Mob in Cleveland on Saturday, Sept. 16th at 4pm.  The event will take place in Market Square (across from West Side Market).  You can find more event information by clicking  here.

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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