Monday, January 30, 2017

Buddhism Gave Me Super Powers

     If I had to describe myself in three words, I'd probably go with "comic book nerd".  The mythologies and social commentaries that can be found in comics have enraptured me for as long as I've been able to read.  While other kids spent their summers playing video games and watching TV, I preferred to patrol the streets of Gotham with Batman and fight epic battles with the Incredible Hulk.  I was fairly small for my age growing up. I didn't have my first serious growth spurt until 11th grade, so the idea of ordinary people getting super powers appealed to me. 

     Of course, that idea isn't new.  In fact, if we go back to the Tang dynasty in ancient China (circa. 9th - 10th century A.D.) we find that people had very similar desires.  In those days superstition was the norm, and it was common for "enlightened" masters to claim that they had supernatural powers.  Firewalking, going days without sleep, and summoning spirits were some of the ways that spiritual teachers would demonstrate their level of attainment in order to get followers.  That might sound silly, but you have to remember that things were different back then.  Starvation was a real threat for most peasant farmers and banditry was common.  I can certainly see how uneducated people who were scared for their lives might want to be friends with a guy who can summon demons.

     That being said, there was a Zen Buddhist named Layman Pang who took a different approach.  His preference was to study the dharma through the wholehearted experience of everyday life.   To this end, he traveled the country with his wife and daughter studying Zen and selling bamboo chopsticks to earn money.  Despite the fact that Layman Pang had no formal monastic training, however, he had his enlightenment confirmed by several Buddhist masters.  In fact, Master Shi Tou was so impressed with Pang's realization that he once asked him if he had any super powers.  Pang replied by saying:
My daily activities are not unusual-
I am just naturally in harmony with them,
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing,
And everyplace there's no hindrance, no conflict.
My supernatural power and marvelous activity
Is drawing water and carrying firewood.
     Drawing water and carrying firewood may not seem very impressive on the surface.  But when we look at the karmic consequences of these actions, it becomes clear that carrying firewood is much more impressive than summoning demons.  Remember, Pang lived during a time without indoor plumbing or gas-powered furnaces.  The simple act of carrying firewood to someone's home meant that they would be able to heat their house and keep from freezing at night.  Furthermore, the simple act of carrying water to someone's home meant that they'd be able to prepare food and keep from starving.  Layman Pang showed his realization not by being superhuman, but by devoting himself 100% to the everyday actions that made life better for the people around him.  His superpower was learning to take joy in being an ordinary human being.  
    This is an important lesson for me in this time of social and political unrest.  It's easy to feel overwhelmed, and think that there is nothing to be done.   But that isn't true.  I don't have invulnerability or endless wealth like my comic book heroes.  But I have my body, and I can use it to do amazing things.  I can give food to hungry people, and I can spend time with my family.  I can be a shield for oppressed people, and I can be a voice for the voiceless.  But if all else fails, the sink is always full of dirty dishes that I can wash.  These are simple actions that anyone can do.  But my Zen practice has shown me that simple, ordinary actions are the most effective way to do good in the world.

     We all have super powers.  We just have to be willing to use them.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Can We Have Buddhism Without The Buddha?

     I just finished reading Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor.  I enjoyed the book immensely, and it's making me look at the dharma in a new way.  The secularized Buddha that Batchelor presents is completely lacking any religiosity.  In fact, he strikes me more as a scientist than a spiritual teacher.  I could easily picture him standing in an auditorium, presenting his data on the causes of suffering to college students, and then jetting off to give a Ted Talk on the eight-fold path.  As a result, I can't help but wonder what American Buddhism will look like 100 years from now.

     Will Buddhism even be called “Buddhism”?  Or will we give it a new, more modern sounding name?  Or maybe we'll keep the name, but strip the practice of all the trappings that are normally associated with Buddhist teachings.  Perhaps the robes will be replaced with button-down shirts, and the Buddha statues will be replaced with cool-looking rocks.  I don’t know.  But it’s interesting to think what will happen if the idea of Secular Buddhism, which Batchelor teaches, is taken to its natural conclusion; and meditation practice goes the way of Yoga.  Many people don’t realize that when Yoga came to the United States it was part of a spiritual practice that included ethics, mind-training, and even dietary restrictions.  However, it has now been secularized to the point that it's primarily a form of exercise that people squeeze in between brunch and their morning lattes.  Of course, this isn’t a bad thing, necessarily.  Healthy bodies often lead to healthy minds.

     But it's strange to think about a future where one can be certified as either a 200-hour, 300-hour, or 500-hour meditation teacher in much the same way that you find in Yoga.  The Mindfulness Based Stress Relief movement is certainly heading in this direction.  In fact, I once worked for a company that had a mindfulness coach come in to teach employees breathing exercises so that we could be more focused while working in our cubicles.  Will future practice require us to trade enlightenment for greater work productivity?  Will the Buddha still be welcome when American Buddhism comes into its own?  I don’t know.  But it’s interesting to think about.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Poem Number Four

A new president
But birds still sing in the trees
Winter is still cold

Monday, January 16, 2017

How Anger Became My Spiritual Practice

In January of 2014, I made the decision to stop drinking alcohol.  I was meditating daily at that point, and my practice made it impossible to ignore the consequences of my drinking.  So I quit cold-turkey. 

I'd like to tell you that sobriety has been all sunshine and rainbows, but it actually sucked in the beginning.  All of my friends were heavy drinkers, and most of them disappeared when I stopped partying. 

The ones that didn't leave made a point of telling me that I was more fun when I drank.  Needless to say, I started spending a lot of time alone.  Worse than the social isolation, however, was being forced to actually feel my emotions. 

I'd been using alcohol to keep myself numb, and getting through the week without that crutch was difficult.  That being said, it did allow me to learn some difficult truths about myself.  For example, I learned that I have an anger problem.

Anger has been the fuel in my engine for as long as I can remember.  In fact, I joined the Marine Corps. largely out of anger.  I was mad at my parents, and I wanted to get as far away from home as I could.  So I walked into the recruiter's office one day and never looked back. 

But the anger didn't go away when I enlisted.  Quite the opposite, in fact, during recruit training my drill instructors stoked the fire of my rage until I thought it would burn me alive. Then they taught me how to use it as a weapon. 

Anger kept me warm at night during mountain warfare training.  It gave me energy during the last stretch of 10-mile runs.  And it gave me the strength during force-marches when I could literally feel my body breaking down.

But anger is a two-headed snake, and you can't use it without being poisoned in the process.  The Marines gave me a useful outlet for my anger, but it didn't teach me how to cope with it.  I think that's why I started drinking.  I had all this pent up fury inside me and nowhere to put it; so I turned it on myself.

I was a master at finding self-destructive ways to blow off steam when I was pissed.  My first instinct was always to lash out at the people around me..  Failing that, I'd attack inanimate objects.  I remember one time when I had a bad day at work and responded by breaking every stick of furniture in my living room.  Thankfully, I'm not that stupid anymore.

My Zen practice has given me tools in the way of meditation, and an understanding of karma which help me cope with negative feelings.  Some people think that Zen is about getting rid of emotion.  But that hasn't been my experience.  Rather, it has taught me how to feel my emotions intelligently.  Anger is still a constant in my life, but I'm no longer a slave to it.

Now when my temper flares I don't lash out at others or attempt to make myself numb.  Instead, I bring my focus to my breath. Malevolent thoughts come into my head.  But I ignore them as random bits of karma and focus on the actual feeling of anger itself. 

It's hot and painful like a ball of molten metal that's stuck inside my chest.  It hurts, but the longer I sit with the feeling without judgment, the more I notice that there are small holes in it.  I sink into one of them.  Underneath the fiery top layer of my anger, there is a cold bottom layer of sadness. 

I'm sad because the world has hurt me in some way, and anger is my defense mechanism.

The pain is almost unbearable in this bottom layer. Feeling angry is much easier than admitting that I've been hurt.  But I stay with it.  The many hours I've spent in meditation, dealing with the pain in my legs have prepared me to deal with the pain of sadness.  

Once again, I ignore the karmic thoughts that pop into my head and focus on the feeling of the emotion itself.  Slowly, it begins to dissipate until I'm left with a feeling of contentment.

I rest here for a while and enjoy my newfound equanimity. Now that my mind isn't clouded by anger I can see the world more clearly.  I understand that this is all just karma playing itself out in a cosmic dance which is beyond my comprehension. 

I realize that my anger is a part of that dance, and it's not a problem as long as I don't take it personally.  Naturally, this is easier said than done, but life gives me many opportunities to try.  In this way, coping with anger has become a key part of my spiritual practice.

Sometimes I go through this meditation once a week.  Sometimes I go through it several times a day.  But practice makes perfect, and with each repetition, the feelings of anger and hurt become a smaller part of the experience. 

They're being replaced by a feeling of calm as I let go of my attachments and my views on the way the world should be.  In this way, anger has stopped being a poison in my life.  Instead, it has become medicine which helps me along the path.

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How Anger Became My Spiritual Practice

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Barking At Ghosts And Worrying About The Future

     My roommate is a dog sitter in addition to his 9-5 job.  As a result, there is a small but steady flow of dogs running through our house at any given time.  Some of them are quiet, and I barely know they're here.  Others are obnoxious, and I can't wait for them to leave.  Some of them are house-trained.  Others leave "presents" all over the carpet. 

     As a result, I get many opportunities to observe dog behavior.  For example, I've noticed that they spend a good amount of time barking for no reason.  That is to say, one of them will run to the window and start sounding the alarm, and the others will start barking as a result.  But when I go to the window and look outside... there's no one there.  It happens often enough that I'll actually joke sometimes that the dogs are, "barking at ghosts" as they stare out the window and fend off imaginary intruders.  This can be more than a little annoying.

     However, as I sit and reflect on this strange course of events, I'm starting to feel differently.  Maybe there's something to be learned from their behavior.  After all, a dog's sense of hearing and smell is much more powerful than my own.  So there must be something out there.  Whether it's a trash can rolling down the street or a squirrel climbing a tree, I don't know.  I just know that the dogs are perceiving something outside that they mistakenly view as a threat.  It scares them, and they respond by barking incessantly.  The dogs mean well, but they're getting all riled up for nothing.  My mind acts in much the same way.

     That is to say, my mind is constantly on the lookout for threats, and it "barks" a steady stream of disaster scenarios at me throughout the day.  Even as I write this, it keeps asking questions like:

·        What if I lose my job? 
·        What if America gets invaded? 
·        What if I can't pay off my student loans?  

.    Thankfully, my practice reminds me that none of these threats are real… in the present moment.  Yes, there may come a day when I can't pay my student loans, but that's not happening in this moment. Yes, there may come a day when I'm unemployed, but that's also not happening in this moment.  What is happening, however, is that my belly is full, I have a safe place to sleep, and my roommate’s dog is resting quietly at my feet.  In this moment, the world is a beautiful place.  

     There are times in life when I worry so much about the "ghosts" of potential future events that I forget how lovely the world can be.   And that's sad.  Because I can't enjoy my weekend if I'm focused on going to work on Monday.  And I can't see the beauty of a snowflake if I'm thinking about shoveling the walk.  When I worry about the future, I rob the present of its joy.  It's like I'm living without being alive.

     To be clear, I'm not saying that planning for the future is a bad thing.  I set aside a window of time each week to plan for bills, travel, and basic emergency prep.  But outside of that window, I force myself to just live in the moment as much as possible.  Yes, bad things will happen.  And I'll deal with them when they come.  But for the time being, I'm officially done barking at ghosts.  May they rest in peace.