Sunday, April 30, 2017

Finding Oneness Through Public Meditation

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

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

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

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



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Sunday, April 23, 2017

The "One Punch" Method For Ultimate Enlightenment

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Impermanence: The Zen of New Tattoos

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 9, 2017

How To Leave The World Better Than You Found It

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Why I Became A Vegan Buddhist (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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