Wednesday, December 6, 2017

White Clouds: A Buddhist Perspective on the Purpose of Life

What's the purpose of life? This question has followed me like a shadow since I was a teenager.  That is to say, I've always wanted to know why I'm here, and if there's some special meaning to my existence. 

In the past, this was the cause of a lot of hand-wringing and sleepless nights because it's one of those questions that doesn't have a definite answer; at least not in a conventional sense.

In college, I attempted to find a solution in existential philosophy. I tore through the works of Nietzsche, Camus, Kierkegaard, etc. in an attempt to solve the puzzle of my life's meaning. It was an exciting time during my studies, and I read many fascinating works. But I'd be lying if I said that I found an answer to my question.

In the end, I learned to make peace with not knowing my purpose. This wasn't a perfect solution, but it helped me sleep at night. After all, there were some things in life that my frail, human mind wasn't capable of piecing together. And I felt no shame in admitting that.

Later, I became Buddhist, and I decided that my life's purpose was, to save all sentient beings from suffering. This is a wholesome, noble endeavor. But it's not without problems.

After all, how does one go about saving all sentient beings? And what happens if we fail?  To be clear, I haven't abandoned this goal as the attempt to save all beings is an incumbent part of Mahayana Buddhism. But I no longer think it's proper to call it my life's purpose.  My thinking changed as a result of reading the following koan.

A monk once asked Shozan, "Is there any phrase that is neither right nor wrong?" Shozan answered, "A piece of white cloud does not show any ugliness."

In this dialogue, the monk was wrestling with one of life's big questions. In his frustration, he asked Shozan, "Is there any phrase that is neither right nor wrong?" In other words, he wanted to know if we can ever truly escape duality. Can we live a life without criticism or fear?

Instead of giving a direct answer, Shozan turned the monk's attention to the clouds in the hope that he would learn from their example.

White clouds don't show ugliness because they don't seek validation.  They don't look to others for guidance or ask questions like, "What's the purpose of my life?"

Instead, they focus on existing 100% as a cloud; without fear or reservation. That's all that's required, and that's more than enough. Because a white cloud that lives fully eventually becomes a rain cloud. And it delivers precious water to rivers and trees.

In it's wisdom, the white cloud does not seek the purpose of life. Rather, it lives each moment of life with purpose.

As I pondered this thought, I realized that my search for meaning was rooted in dualistic thinking. I was convinced that there must be, "something more" than normal life, and this conviction caused me a great deal of ugliness/ pain.  Furthermore, my search suggested that my life was lacking in some way.

However, this koan has shown me that I don't need to try and become a good Buddhist, brother, or friend. I simply need to embody those roles fully. I need to focus on living 100%, and being present to the people around me. If I do that, then like the white cloud who eventually delivers rain, I'll give the world what it needs, precisely when it needs it.

I don't need to find the purpose of life. I just need to live.

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White Clouds: A Buddhist Perspective on the Purpose of Life  

Friday, December 1, 2017

3 Dharma Lessons I Learned From the Ocean

My first experience with the open ocean came in 2005. I was serving with the U.S. Marine Reserves, and my unit was sent to Louisiana to do disaster relief after Hurricane Katrina. The situation on the ground was terrible, but it only got worse when we found out that Hurricane Rita was about to make landfall.

We jumped on the U.S.S. Shreveport, a navy ship, in order to ride out the storm at sea. It was while I was cruising around the Gulf of Mexico during a hurricane that I found out that I get sea sick. We were on the ocean for the better part of a week, and I spent most of that time throwing up.

Unable to keep anything down, I got dehydrated and light-headed, but I still had a job to do. So, each time it was my turn to go on duty I fell into a not so pleasant routine of getting up, throwing up, and getting back to work. Needless to say, I was one of the first people off ship when we finally came back into port.

Thankfully, not all of my experiences with the ocean have been negative. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to go body surfing in Huntington Beach, CA, whale watching in Cabo San Lucas, and splash around like an idiot on Florida beaches. While doing all of this, I learned the following lessons from the open water that have truly inspired my spiritual practice.

Know When to Float, and When to Swim

The ocean is incredibly beautiful, but I’ve learned that it can also be dangerous. This is especially true where riptides are concerned. A riptide is a localized current of water that flows directly away from shore. People that get caught in them can find themselves rapidly pulled out to sea. Despite the danger, however, one can survive getting caught in a riptide if they keep their cool.

The key is to never fight the current. Doing so will only result in exhaustion and increase your potential for drowning. Instead, float on your back and locate the shore, then swim parallel to the shore until you are out of reach of the riptide (they are usually less than 30 feet wide), then swim towards the beach.

This is good advice for swimming in the ocean, but I’ve found that it’s also an excellent way to approach life. The world is full of riptides (both real and metaphorical) that can drown us if we aren’t careful. It can be tempting to waste precious energy fighting against the current in order to prove a point or get where we want to go faster.

But the direct path isn’t always the best path. In other words, we must use our inner wisdom to know when it’s time to center ourselves by going with the current vs. when it’s time to swim hard towards our goals.

Build a Container for Good Things to Happen

One of the truly incredible things about ocean water is how much life exists within it. According to scientists, there are over 1 million individual species of plants and animals in the sea. This includes massive humpback whales who live in all major oceans and tiny seahorses who are only found in tropical waters. There’s the great barrier reef which is composed of billions of coral polyps, and octopi who can change color at will.

The amount of ocean life that exists is fantastic, but what’s even more interesting is why it exists. We must remember that there are no magical incantations or preternatural powers being used to create all of this abundance. Rather, the ocean is simply the perfect container for different forms of life to manifest.

It provides the right salt content for tuna, the right temperatures for jellyfish, the right pH levels for sea weed etc. And then the universe takes care of the rest.
Over the years, I’ve learned that this is also true of human interaction. For example, we have no control over what people say to us throughout the day. Conversations may be pleasant, or they may be absolutely dreadful. It’s completely out of our hands. But like the ocean, we can create a container that encourages good things to happen.

This can be as simple as smiling when we see our coworkers in the morning. Or making a point to compliment a friend’s outfit. These small gestures create an environment where pleasant conversation can occur in much the same way that ocean water creates an environment where sea life can flourish.

This is true in all aspects of daily life. If we focus on building a suitable container for good things to happen, then the universe will take care of the rest.

Work with What Life Gives You

Countless rivers flow into the ocean each day. Some of them are clean and teeming with life, and some are heavily polluted. But the ocean accepts them all. Over time, the ocean’s currents are able to mix the good and bad river water together until it’s purified, and suitable for supporting life.

In this way, something that could be a source of great suffering, polluted water, is transformed into a source of happiness.

As human beings, we have the power to do the exact same thing. It’s inevitable that both good and bad life experiences will flow into us throughout the day. This can be a cause of great suffering. However, we have the ability to end that suffering by learning to practice acceptance and working with everything that the world gives us.
There is a very simple, but profound quote from Rev. Gyomay Kubose which sums up this teaching perfectly.  It states, “Acceptance is transcendence.”

Of course, this isn’t to say that we should sit passively like roadkill in the street. But the simple truth is that there are many things that happen to us each day that are out of our hands (traffic jams, bad weather, layoffs, etc.) If we can learn to approach these things from a place of acceptance, like the ocean, then we can use the currents of our spiritual practice to purify them.

The ocean is a source of life for every creature on earth. It’s also a fantastic spiritual teacher. Through careful practice in the laboratory of daily life we can use its teachings to work with what life gives us, create containers for positive change, and discern the appropriate times to either float or swim with life’s currents. In this way, we can make life better for both ourselves and others.

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Saturday, November 25, 2017

3 Buddhist Practices for Creating Harmony

Sangha (community) is one of the three jewels of Buddhism.  Buddha cultivated the practice of building community when he created the monastic order, and laid out rules which allowed his monks to live in harmony.

These rules have changed slightly as Buddhism has spread between different countries and sects.  However, they are still a key part of practice.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for practitioners to recite the rules of their sangha together prior to a meditation retreat as a reminder of what is expected. This ensures that whether one is visiting the center for a couple of hours or a couple of years, they will have a quiet, contemplative space to train.
That being said, it’s not just monastics who need to live and work peacefully together. Householder Buddhists who have bills, jobs, families, etc. also have a responsibility to build cohesive communities.
Thankfully, there are several Buddhist practices that help lay Buddhists live harmoniously with their neighbors.  Incorporating the following gems into daily life will allow you to live happily with everyone you meet.


The practice of wisdom encourages us to see past the conceptual world which separates people into groups.  Of course, that isn’t to say that everyone is identical.  Rather, it means that our differences are only surface deep. 
At our core, each person possesses Buddha-nature which is the pure, undefiled mind of Buddha.  In other words, all people are basically good, and we are united by our shared potential to realize enlightenment.
In times of conflict, however, we may resort to an ‘us vs. them’ mindset.  This divisive thinking can result in hurt feelings and physical violence. 
That’s why the practice of wisdom is so important to creating harmony. It reminds us that while surface-level distinctions are real, they are only a very small part of who we are as people.  
Thus, even if we are at odds with the person standing before us, we can still strive to be kind and respectful to the Buddha that resides within them.


One of the simplest and most effective ways to build strong, healthy relationships is through generosity.  However, this practice is multi-faceted, and easily misunderstood. 
People without large financial resources may believe that they aren’t able to help others. But this isn’t true.
While money is an effective tool when working with charities, the practice of generosity can take many forms. We can give our time by volunteering with organizations that we admire. 

We can give our labor by performing a service (cooking meals, giving rides, babysitting, etc.) for friends and family. Or we can simply brighten someone’s day by paying them a compliment. The opportunities are endless!
Acts such as these help to break down the illusion of separateness between ourselves and others that often leads to conflict.  Even better, this isn’t a one-way street. 
Buddhism teaches that the practice of generosity often results in Mudita (sympathetic-joy). In other words, we experience happiness ourselves each time we bring happiness to others. 
In this way, being generous allows us to create harmony both in our communities and in our own minds.


Of all the Buddhist teachings which lead to a harmonious society, effort is probably the most important. In much the same way that a car doesn’t run without gasoline, spiritual practice is impossible without effort and dedication.
That being said, it’s easy to become discouraged by a 24-hour news cycle, which only shows us the worst in humanity.  The key thing to remember is that the practice of effort is not about perfection. It’s about progress
It’s about being willing to try, and keep trying over and over again to make our corner of the world a little bit better.  Because if we’re willing to try 10,000 times, then that’s 10,000 seeds of love, compassion, and decency that have been planted into the soil of human consciousness.  
It’s inevitable that good things will grow from that soil as long as we make the effort, do our best, and keep planting seeds.
Sangha is one of the three jewels of Buddhist practice for good reason. When people are able to exist peacefully with one another, it creates a harmonious environment where we can live more authentic lives.  
The practices of wisdom, generosity, and effort help to build communities where this is possible. We just need to put in the work.

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Friday, November 24, 2017

Zen Koans: Preparation for Life's Tough Questions

We're reading Zen Koans by Rev. Gyomay Kubose as part of my lay minister training. The class discussions have been challenging, insightful, and they've caused me to reflect on how koans have affected my practice through the years.  

My deep love of koans actually started before I was Buddhist. I have a B.A. in philosophy, and a large part of the curriculum was studying and writing papers on thought experiments like The Trolley Problem and The Prisoner's dilemma. 

The goal in these investigations was to stretch my reasoning abilities to the max, and force me to investigate the root cause of my ethical choices. These exercises planted the seed which allowed me to be open to koan practice.

That being said, it has become clear to me over the years that koans and thought experiments have very different goals. The thought experiments worked to help strengthen my conceptual mind. In contrast, koans work to help me see past it.

The way I work with koans is fairly informal.  When I read them on my own, I simply sit with each one for a while, and search for what the deeper meaning might be.  Other times, I don't even do that.

Instead, I read them, and enjoy the conversations from all those years ago.  The word koan has a very heavy, formal meaning these days.  But I can see many of them being birthed from the notes and idle gossip of aspiring Zen students.  In my mind, I imagine them sweeping temple floors, and trading stories about teachers they met, and turning words they heard over the years.

For me, koans have never been about solving some great riddle or seeing through the fabric of space and time.  They've been about catching a glimpse of the life of ancient Zen teachers (Joshu, Tozan, Nansen, etc.), and bearing witness to how they lived in the world.

In this way, they remind me that life itself is the most difficult koan of all.  How do I  walk a spiritual path in a secular world? How do I build relationships with  people who have different religious/ political views than me? How do I balance my checkbook!?

As I continue to read and study Zen koans, they give me insight into these questions.  They assist me in hearing the sound of my inner wisdom during difficult times.  And they help me know what to do.

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Saturday, November 11, 2017

Keep pedaling: The Buddhist Secret to Effective Meditation

Attack the hill is a catch phrase that's heard at least twice during every group bike ride.  It's usually shouted at the bottom of elevation changes as a way to motivate cyclists.

People have a tendency to slow down when they start climbing a hill. It's an instinctive attempt to avoid the tight muscles and extreme exertion that comes with a hard climb. 

The phrase attack the hill is meant to shake us out of that mindset, and remind us of what we really need to do in order to reach the top; pedal harder.

This is necessary because as the bike begins to climb, gravity takes over, and we lose forward momentum.  In fact, if we give in to the initial instinct to slow down, we may lose all momentum and come to a complete stop.  That's why we have to pedal hard, with everything we've got in the beginning.

Once that's completed, the name of the game is to keep pedaling.  It sounds simple, but when our quads start to burn, and shortness of breath kicks in, it's very tempting to coast for a minute. But the momentary relaxation that comes with coasting results in the loss of forward momentum; momentum that we have to work twice as hard to get back.

Finally, it's important to keep the bike in the highest gear possible. The rookie move is to shift to a low gear so that pedaling will be easier. That's okay for beginners, but all of that easy pedaling results in very slow-going. The more efficient route is to pedal slower, in a much higher gear. It's harder, but it results in more forward motion with each revolution of the pedals. It's also a better workout.

To recap, if we want to ride up a hill in a reasonable amount of time, we need to do three things:
  1. Attack the hill, and pedal hard in the beginning
  2. Keep pedaling until we reach the top
  3. Use the highest gear possible
This method is both simple and effective., but most people don't use it.  It's hard, and people don't like doing things that are hard. So we shift to a low gear, or pick a path with no hills when we ride. Maybe we even go so far as to not ride at all because staying where we're at physically/ emotionally is easier than dealing with sore legs and a sweaty body.

Meditation works in much the same way.

There's a lot of mysticism and expectation built up around the practice of seated meditation. We hear words like enlightenment and satori, and we think there must be a secret to being a good meditator. In truth, the method for this practice is quite simple. 
  1. Sit on the floor or on a cushion in a cross-legged position
  2. Place your hands in your lap with the palms upward, right hand resting atop the left, and thumbs tips lightly pressed together
  3. Adopt a noble posture with the spine straight
  4. Breathe from the stomach, and focus on the feeling of air moving in and out of your lungs
  5. When your mind wanders, and it will, bring your focus back to the breath without judgement
  6. Don't move
That's it. That's everything involved in seated meditation, the practice that Buddha himself used to realize enlightenment.  But if its so simple, why are people so unwilling to do it?  Perhaps it's because meditation is a lot like riding a bike uphill.  It's simple on the surface, but there's a lot of hard work involved.

For example, in order to do this practice successfully, we must be willing to sit with whatever unpleasantness comes up.  We have to experience the anxiety of wondering, "Am I doing it right?" We have to endure the ache of sore muscles and stiff backs without moving, and feel every bit of emotional hurt that manifests itself.

In short, we must be willing to struggle a little bit in order to practice meditation just like we must be willing to sweat if we want to make it up a hill .

The only secret if we want to use that word is consistency. Just like our legs get stronger each time we jump on a bike, our minds get stronger each time we sit on the cushion. Over time, the practice acts as a sort of exposure therapy for our minds. The more we feel anger without giving in to it, the more we experience mental pain without reacting, the less control our emotions have over us.

Eventually, we start to get bored with our thoughts. The same trigger that used to illicit a level 12 meltdown gets downgraded to a 7, and then a 3.  As our confidence grows, we start going for longer "rides", and the hills we experience during meditation seem smaller.  Eventually, they get overshadowed by the inherent contentment that lives within us.

But that can't happen if we don't keep pedaling through the hard parts.

That's why we must attack our cushions in the same way that cyclists attack hills.  Even if we only meditate for 1 minute a day, through consistency and hard work we can realize enlightenment in this lifetime.

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Saturday, November 4, 2017

Stolen Goods: A Hard Lesson on Life and Nonattachment

I walk out of the yoga studio feeling like I might start floating.  My skin is rippling with energy, and I feel incredibly relaxed.  Even the 40 degree temperatures and light rain don't dampen my mood as I walk happily down the street. 

On a whim, I step into a nearby book store, promising myself that I'm only there to look.  Then I notice that they're doing a sale, buy one get the second 50% off, so I treat myself instead.

Once my purchases are tucked safely in my book bag, I head over to my favorite coffee shop and do some writing.  But things are different today.  It's like my heart has cracked open, and the words are flowing out of me like river.  Hours pass without me realizing it until I finally stop, mentally exhausted, and read over the several pages of text.

Hmmm... it's not perfect, but it's still pretty damn good. Smiling, I gather my things and head back out into the street.  I've got just enough time to ride home, drop off my stuff, and pick up my donation for Food Not Bombs.

Humming to myself, I walk around the corner of a nearby building expecting to see my vintage, baby blue touring bike waiting for me... but it's not there.  . 

For a moment, I stand on the sidewalk and stare dumbly into the air.  As the reality of my situation hits, my heart drops into my stomach, and I forget to breathe. But there's no denying the truth.  My bike has been stolen.

It's hard for most people to understand the bond between a cyclist and their bike.  But if you're a serious rider who puts in lots of miles or lives as a full-time bike commuter like me, your ride starts to become a part of you.

You have stories and matching scars that bind the two you together.  There's that slight tear in the bike saddle from when a truck ran you off the road.  There's that scar on your left forearm from when you crashed during a rain storm, and fond memories of 100-mile rides that left you feeling both exhilarated and exhausted.

In other words, it wasn't some random piece of metal that went missing. It was my friend.

In a daze, I walk around the neighborhood hoping to locate the perpetrator.  But after an hour of searching I give up hope.  My bike is gone, and it's never coming back.  My initial sadness is replaced with anger as I ponder my next move.  The food share is in less than an hour, but helping others is the last thing on my mind.  I feel hurt and pissed off, and I just want to go home.

I take a few steps in that direction, mentally preparing myself for the 3 mile walk back to my house, but then I stop. I start thinking about the men and women who come each week, and how much they depend on the donations. 

The guy who gets extra apples to share with people at his AA meeting, the woman who gets grapes for her son, and the random people who just want a snack before jumping on the bus; they didn't do anything to me.  Why should they suffer because of my misfortune? Is my attachment to my bike getting the best of me?

Buddhism teaches that we can end our suffering by practicing nonattachment.  Often times, this is misunderstood to mean that we shouldn't care about things.  But that's not correct. Caring isn't the problem; it's the holding on.

Buddha discovered this when he left the palace and witnessed the four sources of suffering:
  • Birth/ Living
  • Aging
  • Sickness
  • Death
The thing to remember, however, is that it's not the things themselves that cause dissatisfaction. It's the loss they represent.  For example, aging is a cause of suffering because of our attachment to youth.  

This is why Buddha taught the middle-path as a means to liberation.  He didn't reject the world.  But he also didn't grasp onto it.  Instead, he allowed things to come to him when they were ready.  And he allowed them to leave just the same.  In this way. he held onto life with open hands.

Is this the lesson that I'm supposed to learn; that life giveth, and life taketh away? 

It certainly seems like it.  Because there will come a day when everything I am will be taken from me.  My body, my mind, and my memories will all crumble into dust.  Eventually, even the dust will be gone.

Bicycles are no exception to the rule.  I was always going to lose my ride. It just happened sooner than I expected.  It hurts, but there is no need to dwell on it.  I just need to accept what happened and move on with my life.

With this in mind, I take a deep breath, and try not to look at the people zipping around happily on their bikes.  The world took something special from me today, but it gave me something better.  It gave me this moment, and I've got to make the most of it.

With renewed purpose, I turn my steps towards the market, and start making a list of the produce I'm hoping to collect.  The food share is starting soon, and I have work to do.

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Sunday, October 29, 2017

3 Buddhist Practices For a Better Life

The practice of Buddhism is full of rules and rituals that can be over-whelming to the average person.  Remembering when to bow, how to sit, and where to go to the bath room can be frustrating when all we want to do is ease our mental suffering.

Thankfully, there are many dharma practices that translate easily into everyday life, and they don’t require years of practice to learn.  Incorporating these gems into your daily routine will make life calmer, simpler, and more fulfilling.


This is a Japanese word that is most often translated as mindfulness. However, in the context of Buddhism it would be more accurate to call it loving attention.  This practice is demonstrated in the way that Zen practitioners carry themselves during meditation sessions. 

Everything is done with ceremony.  The hands are held just-so when bowing. The incense is placed on the altar in a very specific way, and there is often an elaborate ritual for signaling the beginning and end of practice.

The reason for all of this attention to detail is that Buddhism teaches that every moment is sacred.  In fact, this present moment is the only thing that's real! The past is a distant memory and the future is a dream.

So the here and now is treated as a rare and precious gift because it's literally all we have.  The practice of menmitsu trains us to appreciate how special this moment is by causing us to focus with rapt attention on what ever we happen to be doing at the time.

However, you don't need to be in a Zen monastery to practice menmitsu.  Remember, every moment is sacred. And that includes the mundane ones in which we are going about our day at work or having dinner with friends. 

Menmitsu isn't about what we are doing, rather the focus is on how we are doing it.  By giving loving attention to the minutiae of every day life (driving, washing dishes, speaking with friends, etc.) you gain a greater appreciation for the specialness of every day life. 

In this way, putting away the groceries takes on the same importance as attending the altar in a Zen center.  And getting dressed for work is just as special as putting on bowing robes for meditation.  By attending to regular life with menmitsu we can recognize the sacred beauty of life's mundane events.


This is the word for effort or great zeal in Japanese Buddhism.  Nothing in life gets better without hard work and dedication.  Life itself is no exception to this rule. It's common in conventional society for people to think that hard work should be reserved for only the most important things in life.  We do calculations in our head, and we decide how much energy will be devoted to a given task based on the expected reward.

That being said, Shojin requires us to take a different approach.  We don't do a task in the hopes of getting a reward.  Rather, we train ourselves to see the task as its own reward.  In this way, we elevate ourselves by elevating the importance of our work and the energy that we put into it.

An example of this can be seen in the practice of Shojin Ryori which requires Japanese monks to prepare vegetarian meals without the use of modern equipment.  A delicious meal is the end result, but the process of creating that meal is where the real training is done. 

The early morning visit to the market where vegetables are selected, the long hours spent chopping them by hand, and the meticulous process of balancing colors and flavor-profiles into a tasty, visually-appealing meal are where the true marrow of shojin are found.

In this way, we can turn literally anything into part of our spiritual practice by doing it with a mindset of shojin.  There is no such thing as busy work or killing time.  Every task is important, because each one is an opportunity to practice the dharma. 

Standing in line at the grocery story teaches us patience. Being stuck in traffic teaches us how to endure.  And a friend who asks us for help is kindly letting us practice generosity.  When we approach the world with a mentality of shojin we shift our mindset.  And when we shift our mindset we simultaneously change our lives for the better.


A rough translation of intoku is, "good done in secret".  It epitomizes the Buddhist ideal that we should do good works without expectation of reward. This is empowering because a sad fact of life is that doing the right thing is no guarantee of a good outcome.  When this happens it can be easy to think, "Why did this happen to me?" or "I don't deserve this."

But intoku teaches us that we don't do good deeds in the hopes of a reward.  Instead we do them because the deed itself is the reward.  The feeling that comes from helping someone in need is priceless. More importantly, it's very easy to do. 

We can listen intently while someone talks about their day, compliment a friend on their outfit, or simply refill the coffee pot at work when it's empty.  This practice isn't about doing something big and flashy.  Instead, it's about constantly being on the look out for small things we can do to make life nicer for both ourselves and the people around us.  In this way, we make the world warmer, and more welcoming for everyone.

Over the past 2,600 years Buddhist teachers from countries all over the world have found ways to incorporate the dharma into daily life.  To that end, the practices of menmitsu, shojin, and intoku represent three methods that have been proven to create positive change.  By incorporating them into our daily lives we can make things better for all sentient beings.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Rick and Morty: The Szechuan Sauce of Desire

I'm what you would call a late-adopter when it comes to T.V. shows.  Maybe I'm part hipster and I shy away from trends. Maybe I'm too lazy to keep up with what's cool. Or maybe not having cable cuts me off from the world more than I realized. 

I don't know.  I just know that I rarely find out about the "hot new thing" on TV until it's been out for several seasons, such is the case with Rick and Morty.

The show is about Rick; an alcoholic, genius scientist who's constantly dragging his family into adventures all over the universe.  Sadly, he spends part of every episode ranting about how life is meaningless.  But no one's perfect.  Rick's comic relief is his 14 year-old grandson, Morty, who is both well-intentioned and painfully na├»ve.

The show is interesting because it's multi-layered.  You can watch it at a surface level and simply enjoy the dark humor, or you can explore some of it's deeper, philosophical concepts. 

I choose to do the latter.

Case in point, some fascinating, real-life events were recently inspired by the show.  In one episode Rick goes on a rant about the great-tasting Szechuan sauce that McDonald's put out several years ago as part of a promotion.  The sauce is no longer available, but Rick swears that he won't stop searching until he finds that sauce, even if it takes 9 seasons!

Eventually, McDonald's got wind of the episode, and they decided to do a one day promotion where they would make the sauce available.  Countless Rick and Morty fans lined up hours before the restaurants opened in the hopes of getting sauce.  But the universe played a cruel joke.  Only a small amount of Szechuan sauce was available at each store, and most people didn't get any.

Madness quickly ensued.

It's easy to stand on the outside looking in and write this off as a bunch of fan boys with too much time on their hands.  But was their behavior really that strange?  If you switch out the words Szechuan sauce with IPhone, money, or enlightenment, are they any different from the rest of us; constantly striving for more.

This begs the question, would life be better if we learned to stop wanting? Would suffering end if we let go of our desires; trading them for contentment with what we already have?  Is that even possible?

Or are we the hungry ghosts of Buddhist legend who wander the earth, eating constantly, but never feeling full?  For a hungry ghost, their quest for satisfaction is the source of their despair.  This can also be true of human beings.

In my practice, I've found that the less I want from the world, the more I appreciate what I've been given.  And the less I live in the future, the more I appreciate the present.  Happiness isn't found in sauce, religion, or consumerism.  It's found in the here and now.  But we can't enjoy this moment if we're always looking for something better.

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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Puja: A Perfect Offering to The Buddha

Puja or 'the act of showing reverence' is a key part of Buddhist practice.  It's often done as a sign of respect for the Buddha and his teachings, and is part of the reason you see Buddha statues and altars in most practice centers. 

Tibetan Buddhists have very elaborate forms for their Pujas.  The ceremonies can take up to a half-hour or more and include the offering of flowers, fresh water, and fruit. In contrast, Zen groups tend to be a bit more low-key; restricting the ceremony to the lighting of incense, chanting, and several prostrations before starting meditation.

That being said, taking part in the more devotional parts of Buddhist practice was difficult when I first started training.  Dropping to my knees and prostrating before a statue felt like idol worship.  And placing food on an altar that would never be eaten felt silly.  But I accepted that it was part of the package, and muddled through without complaining.

However, something started to change during my second year of training.  More specifically, I started to change. It was like each time my forehead touched the ground during a prostration my ego softened just a little bit.  Each time I lit incense and placed it on the altar, my heart became a little more humble.  In short, I started to realize that the world didn't revolve around me.

I was holding on to a lot of hurt feelings and old grudges back then. I felt like the world owed me something, and I was angry because I hadn't been able to collect.  But puja showed me the error of my thinking.  The world didn't owe me anything.  Quite the opposite, I was the one with a debt to pay.

I was walking around with tremendous gifts, and I didn't realize it.  I had my life, I had my family and friends, all of my material needs (food, water, shelter, etc.) were being met.  And to top it all off I had the dharma; a pathway to awakening.  The world had given me so much, the least I could do was bow in gratitude.

More than that, the devotional practices helped me understand the inherent worthiness of all living beings.  I was practicing with the Kwan Um School of Zen at the time, and we were taught that the Buddha on the altar was representative of the Buddha nature that lives in all sentient beings.  So when we paid homage to him we paid homage to everyone.

Sadly, I no longer live near a Kwan Um Zen Center, however, that lesson has stayed with me over the years.  Recently, I started to realize that I don't need to be inside a temple in order to practice puja.  Because if Buddha resides within everyone, then everyone is worthy of devotion.  And I can manifest that in a number of ways.

Instead of placing water on an altar, I can refill the coffee pot at work. Instead of chanting a sutra on the cushion, I can call a friend, and make sure they're well.  I can do these things because Buddha is more than the statue that sits atop my altar.

He's the homeless man who panhandles near my work. He's the coworker who doesn't know how to make coffee, and the motorists who drive past me on the road.  Buddha is every person I meet, and each time I make an offering to them, I make an offering to Buddha.

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

You can also connect with me on Twitter

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.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Buddhist Faith: A Stepping Stone to Enlightenment

I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, so we spoke a lot about faith, and what would happen if we allowed our faith to waver.  At that time, faith for me meant placing my trust in a supernatural power that I could neither see or feel. 

The idea was that if I had enough faith in this supernatural power, then I could use petitionary prayer as a means of having my desires (good grades, better health, more friends, etc.) fulfilled.

However, as I got older I was introduced to a different kind of faith via my studies in science and technology.  This faith was not in a supernatural force.  Rather it was faith in a method, the scientific method, and our ability to understand the world around us if we followed it.  My teachers taught me that if I followed the scientific method closely, was careful in my lab measurements, and honest in my reading of the data, then the truth would be revealed.

In Buddhism, I've found a faith that is a blending of these two ideals.  First, we are taught to have faith in the method that was taught by Buddha to the ascetics in Deer Park.  If we wish to be freed from suffering, we must trust that by earnestly studying the three seals of the law, the four noble truths, and the eight fold path, we will be able to achieve our goal; liberation from suffering.

Second, Mahayana Buddhism instructs us to have faith in our own basic goodness (e.g. Buddhanature or Dharmakaya) which we can neither see or feel.  We must trust that the seed of enlightenment exists within us even in darker moments when we don't feel good or enlightened.  Additionally, the practice requires us to trust that this same enlightenment-seed exists in all sentient beings without exception. 

However, just as a farmer must cultivate his seeds with good soil and plenty of water in order for them to grow, we must cultivate our own basic goodness through meditation and study in order for it to be fully realized

In this way, the two types of Buddhist faith feed off of each other.  We are given the desire to continue in our spiritual inquiry by the belief in our enlightened nature.  And we are given the practical means to make that inquiry via faith in the teachings that Buddha gave us 2,600 years ago.

That being said, faith without effort is dead.  That's why Shojin or 'ceaseless effort' is one of the 6 paramitas.  Like a gymnast who wakes each morning at 5 am to train for the Olympics, we must approach practice with a religious spirit in order to realize enlightenment. 

Of course, this doesn't mean that we lose our common sense or accept the dharma unquestioningly. After all, Buddha did tell us to be lamps unto ourselves. Rather, practicing with a religious spirit means that we center the dharma in our lives, and we prioritize our training in the same way that we prioritize our job or school work.  We have to be committed.

By having strong faith in both the dharma and ourselves we provide fuel for our spiritual inquiry.  And by maintaining a strong dedication to our practice we build a vehicle that moves us along the path.  In the end, we have everything that's needed in order to realize enlightenment.  We just have to put in the work.

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 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.