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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