Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Prisoner's Dilemna or What's The Point Of Being Good?

     You wake up with a start and realize that you aren't in your bedroom.  In fact, you have no idea where you are.  Your heart starts pounding in your chest, and you feel dizzy as you look around the room.  It's a prison cell.  You're lying on a bare mattress in the corner, and as you look out the bars of your cell you see other people walking around in a courtyard.  They are dressed in orange jump suits just like yours, and they seem confused.  You walk out into the courtyard and begin speaking with some of them. 

     You quickly realize that no one knows how they got here or what is waiting outside of the prison.  But everyone agrees that you need to escape!  You spend the next several months working to find a way out of the prison.  You test the doors, you try climbing over the walls, you take turns throwing furniture against the windows in the hopes that you can break them.  But it doesn't work.  You're trapped, and there's no... way... out.

     Eventually, you all come to terms with the fact that you're going to be there for a while.  So everyone slowly begins going about their lives as best they can.  Unsure of how you want to live in this place, you sit under a tree and observe the other prisoners.  Over the course of six days you watch silently as people engage in various actions and take note of the consequences of those actions. 
 
     Some people lie, cheat, and steal.  Some even commit murder in the belief that such actions will bring them happiness.  But it doesn't work.  Their actions always come back to them in the form of karma, which cancels out any short-term pleasure that they receive.  The liars are not trusted, the cheaters and thieves live in fear of getting caught, and the murderers are either wracked with guilt or eventually killed themselves.  Their actions only serve to make life in prison harder on others which in turn makes life harder on themselves.

  On the other hand, you notice people who treat their fellow inmates with kindness and respect.  To be sure, their lives still have some suffering in them.  They're in prison, after all.  But it would appear that the people who treat others with kindness tend to be treated with kindness in return.  Also, you notice that when they help others, other people tend to be willing to help them.  But even when they aren't rewarded for their good deeds, they take satisfaction in living in the world without causing harm.  Even when they lose, they win.
 
     Slowly, ideas begin to form in your head.  The liars, cheaters, and thieves do what they do because they're trapped in a mind of desire.  They want something, and they want it so badly that they're willing to hurt themselves and others in order to get it.  "Suffering is caused by desire." you mumble to yourself as the neurons continue firing in your head
 
     In contrast, you look at the people who treat their fellow inmates well, and you notice something surprising.  They have desires just like the liars, cheaters, and thieves!  The only difference is that they mitigate those desires with a rational view of the consequences of their actions.  They understand that they're happiness is tied to the happiness of the people around them, and they act accordingly.  This allows them to live their lives in a way that minimizes suffering while maximizing happiness in any given moment.  You call this way of life the "8-fold path" in order to keep it straight in your head. 
 
     Excitement grows in your chest as all of these ideas begin to coalesce into a moral code that you can live by.  Eventually, you're able to distill your thoughts on the best way to live in prison to four lines that go as follows:
  1. Prison is filled with 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
     You smile as you recite these "noble truths" in your head over and over again like a mantra.  It's all so simple! You're stuck in this place along with all of the other inmates and there's no way out.  So why wouldn't you try make life in here as good as it can possibly be?  And if your happiness is inextricably tied to others, it only makes since to take care of others in the same way that you take care of yourself.  From what you've seen, the best way to do that is by learning to control your desires and following the 8-fold path.
 
     Quickly, you stand up from underneath the tree and brush yourself off.  Walking back into the courtyard you wave at four of your friends and start moving in their direction.  You can't wait to tell them what you've learned!

Friday, February 17, 2017

On First World Problems And The Loss Of Human Connection

     A few years ago, it was really common to see people complain about "first world problems".  For example, someone my post on social media, "My phone charger won't reach my bed.  So I can't check my messages in the morning without getting up. #firstworldproblems"  It was a way for people to complain about things while simultaneously admitting that they really didn't have anything to complain about.  It's a goofy saying.  It makes light of the fact that there are people in the world with legitimate problems like lack of food or unsafe living conditions.  And I hope people don't use it anymore.  But I'm not cool enough to keep track of things like that.  My point, however, is that as Americans we have an amazing life when compared to most of the world.

     For example, have you ever thought about the miracle which is the flush toilet?  When I was deployed we had to use porta-potties like what you normally find at construction sites.  Now that wouldn't have been bad in and of itself except that I was in a warzone, so I couldn't just walk over in my boxers.  If nature called in the middle of the night, I had to get fully dressed in my boots and cammies, put on 50 pounds of armor, fumble around in the dark for my M-16, and then walk approx. 30 yards to the porta-potty.  After dealing with that for 7 months, I can't use a toilet without thanking my lucky stars for indoor plumbing.

     I'd stop short of calling the United States a paradise, but it's pretty close.  We enjoy a level of convenience that has never been experienced in human history, and we walk around with cell phones that can get anything from food to new clothes delivered directly to our climate-controlled homes.  We're literally surrounded by miracles, so why are we so unhappy?

     Why do we live as gods, but suffer like mortal men?

     My belief is that in our rush to make life more comfortable for ourselves we've created a cure that's worse that the disease.  At any given moment, we are inundated with text messages, emails, advertisements, and a host of other things that strengthen the illusion of a separate "self" which Buddha warned us about 2,500 years ago. 
 
     Our egos crave instant gratification, and now they have it. 

     That's a very bad thing.  Because if the illusion of a separate "self" is the source of our suffering, then the ego is the battery that gives that illusion power.  And we charge that "ego battery" every time we satisfy our cravings with same-day delivery, microwaveable food, angry political commentary, etc.  Additionally, the stronger our false sense of "self" becomes, the more cutoff we feel from the people around us.  Recognizing this, is it any wonder that we feel so alone in a society that places total emphasis on our sense of "me" and actively works destroy our sense of "we"? 
 
    To be clear, I'm not excluding myself from any of this.  I'm a slave to modern convenience just like everyone else.  But there's a reason that ancient Zen masters warned against the use of luxurious beds.  They felt strongly that a comfortable life made spiritual practice harder.  I wonder what they would think of us now? 
 
     Did we sell our souls for videogames?  Can we ever get them back?
 
     I think we can.  But we need to very strategic in our use of spiritual practice in order to counter the negative effects of our modern lifestyle.  We need to actually visit meditation centers as opposed to watching videos on YouTube.  We need to visit a relative or close friend when we're bored instead of turning on the TV.  In short, we need to tell our egos, "no" from time to time and give up instant gratification in exchange for real human connection.  Imagine what the world would be like if people did volunteer work for fun instead of "retail therapy" at the mall.  I'm not saying that I have all of the answers.  But I am suggesting that a text message will never feed our spirits the way a phone call will.  And a poke on social media will never warm our hearts like a hug. 
 
     Perhaps we should focus less on giving our egos what they want, and focus more on giving our spirits what they need. 
    
 
 
 



Friday, February 10, 2017

Poem Number Five

When a cold wind blows
Leaves fall to the ground
The leaves all die
But the tree remains

When the small self dies
What remains?

Hell Is Empty And The Devils Are All Here


      The life of an activist can be very painful.  Often times you find yourself fighting battles that seem hopeless.  Other times you are arguing for things that should be common sense.  And at the end of the day, you lose more often than you win.  It's a rough life, but every day you dust yourself off and keeping fighting because you're an activist.  And giving up isn't what activists do.

      That being said, the life of a Buddhist activist comes with its own set of challenges. Many of the environmental and human rights causes that I advocate for have taken some hits in the past few weeks.  It almost seems like humanity is trying to kill itself, and I don't understand why.  My equanimity is faltering as a result.  As a Zen practitioner, I'm supposed to see the Buddha nature that lives in all people.  I'm supposed to look at the chaos of the world and see perfection.  But sometimes I don't.  Sometimes, I look at people who disagree with me, and I see evil.  Sometimes, I look at the world, and I see hell. 
          
      So what's a Buddhist to do when they find themselves trapped in a world full of hellfire and brimstone?  What are the skillful means which will help me deal with all of this pain?

     The word that keeps coming to mind as I ponder this question is "practice".  Zen Buddhism is different from other faith traditions in that we don't have a supernatural deity.  Practitioners have no higher power to call upon when the world gets scary, no parent figure to wrap their arms around us and say things will be okay.  In Zen, we look to our practice for spiritual strength.  We train so that we're able to stand up in difficult times and walk the path alone.

     In other words, my mind is my responsibility.  If the world suddenly seems like a hellhole, that means I'm not practicing hard enough.  

     Recently, I've begun looking at my daily practice of sitting, chanting, and vow recitation, and I believe that I've found the problem.  I've been doing an excellent job of calming my mind each day and emptying out negative emotions.  However, I haven't done much to generate positive ones.  To remedy this I've begun reciting the following litany before meals which is based on The Four Immeasurables:
May all sentient beings be happy
May all sentient beings be free of suffering
May all sentient beings enjoy bliss
May all sentient beings enjoy peace and equanimity
      Of course, the key words in the above statement are "all sentient beings".  If I'm going to move forward in my practice, if I'm going to escape hell, I must learn to wish well for people that disagree with me on important issues.  This is hard to do.  In fact, it can be physically painful at times.  

     But the people who stand on the other side are human beings just like me.  They possess the Buddha nature just like me.  And whether they are wearing the devil-mask or the god-mask at any given moment, they are deserving of love and compassion just like me.  

     When I think in this way it allows me to do activism from a place of stillness and compassion.  It transforms my anger into useful energy that I can use to enact change.  More importantly, it allows me to fight for what I believe in without giving in to the poisons of hate and fear.

     This is important because when I became a Zen Buddhist, I took a vow to save all sentient beings from suffering.  It doesn't matter if I find myself in heaven, hell, or somewhere in between.  That vow doesn't change.





Saturday, February 4, 2017

Can You Show Me Your Way Of The Buddha?

     One of my all-time favorite anime's growing up was Naruto.  It followed the adventures of a group of children who were training to become ninjas in order to protect their village from rival clans.  For a kid's show, it dealt with some pretty adult themes like the importance of loyalty and the dangers of seeking revenge.  But my favorite part of the show was the way everyone manifested their ninja abilities in different ways.  One ninja might be an expert in hand to hand combat (taijutsu) while another might be an expert in creating illusions (genjutsu).  Meanwhile, a different ninja might have the spirit of his dead mother living in the sand that he carries around in a giant gourd on his back (long-story).  My point is that each of them showed their ninja-ness to the world in different ways.  Based on each person's personality and combat abilities they would develop their own "way of the ninja" and refer to it sometimes in the show; as in, "I won't abandon my teammates in their time of need.  That's not my way of the ninja!"

     As I continue to grow in my practice, I'm realizing that Zen works in much the same way.  We learn the rituals, we sit in meditation, and we read countless books.  But it's all pointless unless we develop our own, "way of the Buddha" and learn to express our Buddha-ness in everyday life.  Naturally, this will look different for everyone.  Some of us express the dharma by being loving and patient with our children.  Some of us engage in direct action.  Some of us express the dharma by eating a plant-based diet, and some of us teach meditation.  But as practitioners of the way it falls to each of us to take our practice off the cushion and into the marketplace.

     When we express our way of the Buddha, practice becomes a living thing. We engage in conversation with the world, and our darkest moments become our greatest teachers.  When we reach this level of understanding, we realize that the world isn't trying to hurt us.  It just wants to see what we're made of.  Forgive me, but I attempted to express this sentiment in a poem:
Show me your way of the Buddha
Manifest dharma in your life
The teachings didn't die with our teacher
But words won't keep them alive
You meditate and quote sutras
Preach compassion and love
I know you can talk like a Buddha
Now show me you can walk like one
      It would be nice if we could sit in our meditation halls and be blissed-out all day, but that's not what practice is about.  Buddha didn't hide under the Bodhi tree.  So we can't hide under our cushions.  Rather, it's incumbent on each of us to walk into the world, as he did, and face the challenges that each moment presents.  We can't just talk the talk of Buddhism.  We must walk the walk as well.  

     The world is saying, "Show me your way of the Buddha." How will you respond?

Photo Credit: Marc Ranum