Saturday, December 17, 2011

How to avoid a hangover, or the Bliss of Blamelessness

Maybe you've heard this old joke ( advanced practitioners, visualize Rodney Dangerfield):

A man goes to see his doctor and says, "Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I do this." (Visualize the movement of your choice.) The doctor says, "Then don't do that."

Ba-dum-pum. (Rodney shrugs his shoulders, adjusts his tie, and adds, "I don't get no respect," before fading back into the ether.

Rodney Dangerfield as purveyor of the dharma? Yeah, sure. Everything is dharma.

The precepts -- the Buddha's guidelines for living a mindful, joyful, and ethical life -- are Siddhartha's version of Dangerfield's doctor's response. It's as if you went to him and said, "Buddha, Buddha, I suffer when I lie, drink, sleep around indiscriminately, whatever." The Buddha, in his clear, concise way, replies, "Then don't do it."

Sounds harsh, doesn't it? We don't like the idea of giving up our old ways -- but we also don't like the way they make us feel. Hungover. Checking our sent texts to see what we told to who. Wondering who this person is in our bed, in our aching head.

So let's flip the equation. Renunciation in Buddhism is not so much about giving up bad habits as it is about adopting good habits. We give up what makes us feel bad about ourselves, at least in retrospect, and take on what makes us feel good about ourselves. Practicing the precepts is said to result in the bliss of blameless.

I love Thich Nhat Hanh's re-statement of the precepts in his book "For a Future to Be Possible."

1. Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kills, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.
Thich Nhat Hanh has a commentary on the 1st Precept.

2. Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well being of people, animals, plants, and minerals.I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material possessions with those in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

Thich Nhat Hanh has a commentary on the 2nd Precept.

3. Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.
Thich Nhat Hanh has a commentary on the 3rd Precept.

4. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.
Thich Nhat Hanh has a commentary on the 4th Precept.

5. Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or other intoxicants or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.
Thich Nhat Hanh has a commentary on the 5th Precept.

Happy New Year, dear ones. May it be auspicious!

Joy to the world!

According to Gallup pollsters, 95 percent of Americans celebrated Christmas in 2010, including 80 percent of nonbelievers.

Gift-giving and visiting friends and relatives is near-universal, even among those who skip religious services, the pollsters found. The war on Christmas is over, and the materialistic culture has won. That's not all bad. I call it giftmas, and I celebrate those I love by giving presents and gathering with as many of them as possible over the weeks around the day.

The Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek of the Unitarian-Universalist Society: East says: "The season is not only about peace and good will; it is also about fun. It is also about rejoicing just for the sake of rejoicing. We need the glitz and the glam, as corny and as tacky and as crass as it often seems. As long as people have celebrated the return of the sun at the darkest time of the year, they have done so with a certain amount of irreverence, with a certain amount of excess. They have always let down their guard, gotten a little raucous and taken themselves a little less seriously."

It's also a rare time in our culture when compassion is celebrated -- when giving to others is as important as getting, when we're aware of those who have-not and we feel an urge to share what we have. There was a lovely trend of people paying off the layaway balances for families at Kmarts around the heartland. Shelters, soup kitchens, assorted nonprofits get more awareness and donations than at other times.

Again, not new. In ancient Rome, they celebrated Saturnalia: It was an offense during this period to punish a criminal or start a war. The meal normally prepared only for the masters was prepared and served first to the slaves, and in further reversal of the normal order, it was served to the slaves by the masters. All people were equal.

Now, I might wish that we could spread our goodwill out throughout the year, that we gave more attention to changing the structures that result in inequity and hardship for most Americans than to making sure poor kids get presents and a healthy meal one day of the year, but any awareness is better than none. It could be a seed to be watered and brought to fruition.

Beside, we need roses as well as bread in order to live flourishing lives. Hearts starve as well as bodies.

We need to acknowledge joy as well as suffering -- or we won't know why we want to alleviate suffering. Joy walks hand in hand with compassion; it protects our hearts from the bitterness that might arise if we see only suffering. And together they take us to equanimity -- the ability to find balance with whatever comes up.

Joy, which gets sung about a lot at this time of year, isn't just happiness. Joy comes from the deeper well of knowing that we're OK even when we're unhappy. From knowing that others are inherently good even when their behavior is bad. And seeing that while we work to bake the bread for all to share, we also all need to smell the roses.

To hear more on this, come to IDP on Dec. 26 for my talk on Appreciative Joy, the third of the Brahma Viharas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Be merry

Tis the season for expectations -- gifts to be given and received, parties to be attended and thrown, plans to be made and carried out and implemented, stockings to be filled, food to be cooked and consumed ...

So much to be done. And so many ways that things should be done. Because that's how they have been done.

So little time to simply be.

Go ahead and pout.

'Tis the season to be jolly.

But what if you're not?

What if you're sad? Grieving? Lonely?

Well, you'd better not be. That's the message we get -- and not just during the winter holidays. That's the message advertising is built on. Any unhappiness can be overcome with a new car/bra/yogurt/romantic match. That's the truth of suffering and the cause of suffering: Life is unsatisfactory, but something outside of us can give us satisfaction.

We think that, but then -- through meditation-- we begin to touch in with our inherent richness and see that we already are enough.

That doesn't mean that we'll never feel bad again. Even the Buddha -- who knew non-self and impermanence as much as anyone -- grieved when his friend died. Accepting the fluid nature of existence doesn't insulate you from pain.

But you can know when you are sad that you are sad -- and not reflexively grab for a pint of ice cream to make it go away. (That doesn't work, anyway.) Know that you are grieving when you are grieving and let yourself explore the textures of grief: how it shifts, how its colors bleed and morph, how it thins and then coagulates, spreads, and shrinks.

Our society is uncomfortable with unhappiness. When we see someone who is unhappy, we want to cheer them up, send them flowers, make them smile. When we do that, we give them the message that sadness is a flaw and must be fixed or must be hidden.

Sometimes, though, sadness is the heart's wise response.

And sometimes you'd better cry.

Pouting, though. Maybe not.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Papier mache heart

it takes tears
to melt the rice paper shell
that life builds around your heart
piece by piece
-- a small square
for a slight, a snub,
an unanswered call,
a whole sheet
for the boy who left
in the middle of the night.

it takes tears
to melt
the papier mache heart
that protects your own bloody one,
to soften the slips
of hardened paper,
and kind patience to peel them off.

"I remember you," you say
to the damp, torn
image held gently
"It's OK. I don't need your protection,"
and you let it dissolve.

There are more tears to be cried,
more layers to melt,
to get to the muscle
of your own
great heart,
to let it grow
big enough
to invite the world
to share
its refuge.

Monday, December 5, 2011

WWDSD? or Learning to right-size your heart

You think to yourself, "Well, what would Dr. Seuss do in this situation?" Instead of using it as ammunition against yourself, you can lighten up and realize it's the information that you need in order to keep your heart open. If everybody on the planet could experience seeing what they do with gentleness, everything would start to turn around very fast.
-- Pema Chodron on the Lojong slogan "Don't be jealous"

The best authors of children's books do so much more than entertain the young ones. They teach life lessons.

Dr. Suess -- cited by no less than Pema Chodron -- was a master, packing a serious message into the light touch of a feathered fan held by a strange creature who appears to be a hybrid of a bird and a mammal. And who acts human.

In "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," Dr. Suess tells the story of the Whos, happy beings who live in Whoville, and the Grinch, who lived on the mountain overlooking Whoville and who was not happy. You could say he never takes off his cranky pants, except that being a Dr. Suess character, he doesn't wear pants.

The Whos speculate on the cause, of course, as even happy Whos will gossip -- or share their legitimate concern about another being. It may be, the narrator says, that his shoes are too tight. Or maybe his head isn't screwed on just right.

"But I think," he intones thoughtfully, "that the most likely reason of all
"May have been that his heart is two sizes too small."

Ahhh ... how's your heart feeling? Is it filled with joy and generosity, overflowing with tidings of comfort and joy? Is it expansive, spreading appreciative joy to the world?

Or is it, maybe, a little closed down? A little boxed in? Are you putting on your cranky pants, fashionable though they might be, as you encounter shoppers and tourists and expectations, of and from you, and wish lists and bank accounts and noisenoisenoisenoise?

Don't feel bad -- even if you feel bad. Be gentle with yourself. And don't let resentments pile up like presents under a holiday tree. No one is making you do any of this; you are choosing to do it because of what you believe will happen if you don't.

The celebration season will be ruined if you don't bake 15 dozen cookies, stand in line in the hope of snagging the last remote-controlled helicopter, find a book that Uncle Irving won't mock to your face, go to every last holiday party with a smile on your face, an eggnog in your hand, and sequins somewhere on your person.

But you don't have to take it all that seriously. As Ani Pema suggests, you can lighten up. Give yourself (and others) a break.


Be aware of those thoughts. Instead of grabbing at them like they are the last artisanal panetone on the display, let them go. Focus on what is front of you. When you're stuck in a long line in a heavy coat in a hot store, know that you are uncomfortable and see if you can be OK with being uncomfortable instead of blaming it on all the other stupid people who decided to come to this store at this moment.

Consider: how important is it in the scheme of things to be doing what you are doing right now?

This takes some practice in stepping back from your thoughts, seeing that your thoughts aren't reality, so take time for yourself to meditate.

You are not your wish list. Or your to-do list. And the people in your life are not purchases to be checked off. They are tender-hearted beings with unspeakable hopes and fears that may be subsumed under believing that a chocolate diamond is just the thing to prove their worth.

The greatest gift you can give or receive is to know that you are enough. Good enough, bad enough, pretty enough, valuable enough -- and that the others in your life also are enough, just as they are.

When you see that -- as the Grinch saw that the Whos were happy without all the pantookas and puzzlers, let alone the roast beast -- your heart will grow several sizes, as his did. It will grow beyond measure.

And you can simply be.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Is non-violence workable?

Eleven Tibetan Buddhists monks and nuns have set themselves on fire since March to protest China's repression of their country for the last 60 years.

The first of the five Buddhist precepts, or ethical guidelines, is to abstain from killing.

London's Daily Mail reports that the deaths raise theological questions about non-violence and highlight a long-standing schism between the elderly Dalai Lama's softly, softly approach to China and activists who want to fight for independence.

The government-in-exile in Tibet has promoted events in solidarity with a quiet protest movement in Tibet called "White Wednesday." Since 2008, each Wednesday, a day considered auspicious for the Dalai Lama, an unknown number of Tibetans shun Chinese businesses, attend monasteries, wear traditional dress and speak in their own language.

But some Tibetans are questioning whether non-violence is effective; one youth leader even suggested that a symbolic suicide was no longer enough to grab the world's attention.

Tenzin Chokey, general secretary of the Tibetan Youth Congress, said: 'How many more lives exactly does the world need?

'Is it the method? Is it too soft for the world? Because you are only taking your own life and not that of others?'

Occupation? A class of young Chinese military recruits gather in Beijing for a ceremony prior to their departure for Tibet

Occupation? A class of young Chinese military recruits gather in Beijing for a ceremony prior to their departure for Tibet

Dealing with difficult emotions

It is crucial to know when it is appropriate to withdraw our attention from things that disturb our mind. However, if the only way we know how to deal with certain objects is to avoid them, there will be a severe limit as to how far our spiritual practice can take us.

- Lama Thubten Yeshe, "Introduction to Tantra"

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A lotus in a sea of fire

Since March, 11 Buddhist monks and nuns have set themselves on fire to protest China's policies toward Tibet.

Roshi Joan Halifax of Upaya Zen Center reflected on the self-immolation of Buddhist monks during the 1960s:

I remembered the image of the first monk who immolated himself. His body in flames, he sat still in his own inferno, a "lotus in a sea of fire." ... I believe that the precepts protected him as he gave his flesh to the flames. In taking his own life, he knew he might save many. And it takes keen and radical discernment, as well as great love, to make such an offering to others. Breaking the precepts, he kept the precepts.*

(From the introduction to For a Future to Be Possible: Buddhist Ethics in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh.)

The Karmapa has asked the monks and nuns to stop.

The Dalai Lama has neither endorsed nor condemned the practice, but has said he believes it is a desperate response to "cultural genocide" by the Chinese.

I breathe in the thick oily smoke that must result when human flesh soaked in gasoline, both internally and externally, burns.

I breathe out peace.

May it reach all beings. May I help bring it to them.

ItalicThe precepts:

*1) To abstain from killing
2) To abstain from stealing
3) To abstain from false speech
4) To abstain from sexual misconduct
5) To abstain from intoxicants

Read more about the recent self-immolations
from Reuters here
from London's Daily Mail here
from the (Chinese) People's Daily online here

Photo by Malcolm Browne won the 1963 Pulitzer Prize.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Not dead yet?Are you sure?

Imagine yourself sitting across from Aunt Susan at Thanksgiving dinner as she shares her opinions about Occupy Wall Street, Barack Obama, and the Defense of Marriage Act -- of which are the opposite of your own. You're biting your tongue, recalling the paramita of patience, when she asks: "So, what's this I hear about you joining some cult?"

Close your eyes and find your breath. Check in. What are you feeling?

Now imagine that you're at Aunt Susan's wake or memorial service. Your mother, her sister, is at your side. Your cousin, who you've known all your life, is crying in the reception line.

Again, close your eyes and find your breath. Do you feel differently?

Here’s a story:

Venerable Ajahn Chah was the abbot of Wat Nong Pah Pong Monastery, which follows the strictest rules of monastic conduct as laid out in the Pali suttas, believed to be the Buddha's earliest teachings. As a monastic, even though he was the abbot, Ajahn Chah’s only possessions were his robes and his begging bowl. Imagine no possessions … it’s not easy, no matter what John Lennon sang.

But a westerner who had come to study at the monastery noted that Ajahn Chah seemed to have a preference for a particular glass, that he would choose that glass for his tea. Being a westerner, he confronted Ajahn Chah with this seeming contradiction.

The abbot admitted that he did, in fact, have a fondness for the glass. Whatever it is that makes us fond of inanimate objects, that glass contained it for Ajahn Chah – the shape, the weight, the color. But, he added, the glass, even in its existence, contained its non-existence. It would fall to the ground and break, or develop a crack, or get lost. Maybe a monk would take it outside and forget to bring it back.

When he looked at the glass, Ajahn Chah said, he saw that it was already broken.

Noah Levine of Against the Steam Buddhist Meditation Society told this story in a talk on death. What if, Noah asked, instead of merely accepting the inevitable truth that everyone will die, we saw them as already dead? Does that subtle shift make a difference?

Try it out (in silence).

I work next to a person I occasionally refer to as The Swirling Vortex of Negativity. She is my irritating Bengali tea boy (a story for another day), the difficult person in my metta practice, the reminder throughout the work day to strive to embody kind, compassionate detachment.

But seeing her as already dead, my heart broke a bit. The things that bother me are just the confused end of characteristics I would admire: energy, loyalty, clear focus. Were I writing a condolence card, there would be qualities I could truly say I loved in her.

Can I appreciate them now, when she’s not dead yet?

And if that doesn't work, I recommend finding a quiet place and repeating this mantra, courtesy of the Buddha: The happiness or suffering of others depends on their actions, not my wishes for them.

In other words, you can't make someone else happy; you can only make yourself miserable.

Monday, November 14, 2011

So you're a Buddhist now

My family belongs to a Unitarian-Universalist meetinghouse, a spiritual/philosophical/religious tradition even more obscure than Buddhism. A lot of people have some idea of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths. Even most UUs couldn't list all seven of that tradition's principles.

Our minister has on occasion talked about the need to have "an elevator talk" ready. Say you are waiting for an elevator, and you get into conversation with someone. For some reason, it comes up that you are a UU. The person asks, "What's that?" just as the elevator arrives, so you have the time it takes for the elevator to get to the floor of whoever gets off first to explain it.

I've been thinking about this because I find myself in a position where I will be publicly identified as a Buddhist. This is something new for me -- representing for Sid in a forum that is not primarily a gathering of Buddhists.

I feel it probably would be wise to know what to say to curious -- or conversational -- questions. (Side note: If you'll be dealing with relatives over the approaching holidays who aren't aware or accepting of your explorations into Buddhist life, it might be something you also want to contemplate.)

Being able to answer curious -- or vaguely hostile (what, the Catholic Church isn't good enough for you anymore?) -- questions from others means that I have to look at my own questions and look even deeper for the answers. Contemplation breeds clarity.

The best answer I've ever heard to the question "what is Buddhism?" is that it's how we walk in the world. It's meditation and study and learning endless lists of things with funny names, but all of that is in service of ending suffering for ourselves and others. It's a way of uncovering our own deepest values and living in accordance with them. It's being present and developing presence.

Generally, when people ask me about Buddhism and my relationship to it, I gauge their interest before going in too deeply. As every mother knows, answer the question you're asked with information that's at the level of the questioner. Don't explain reproduction to a 5-year-old who wants to know where they come from before determining that the appropriate answer isn't Brooklyn, and don't feel that you have to explain the meaning of emptiness and non-self to someone who says, "So what's Buddhism about?"

For me, it's a practice of trying to be present with what's in front of me and to interact with the world with kindness. To do that, I meditate and I study.

Feel free to change the subject now. But if you're interested, I can go into more detail. Or we could talk later.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Reasons to be cheerful

Back in the day when Johnny Rotten, now known as John Lydon, was retching out the words to "God Save the Queen" -- I'm thinking here of the anthemic chorus of "no future/no future/ no future for you" -- and the Clash were going on about the white man in Hammersmith Palais -- there was another song that got some airplay on WXRT in Chicago, which was "Reasons to Be Cheerful" by Ian Dury and the Blockheads. It was not all that different stylistically, but it provided a different view, one that listed delightful things large and small.

A bit of grin and bear it, a bit of come and share it
You're welcome, we can spare it - yellow socks
Too short to be haughty, too nutty to be naughty
Going on 40 - no electric shocks

The juice of the carrot, the smile of the parrot
A little drop of claret - anything that rocks
Elvis and Scotty, days when I ain't spotty,
Sitting on the potty - curing smallpox

Sweet, eh?

But what does this have to do with Buddhism?

Buddhism, you see, is about breaking habitual patterns of thinking -- and by extension patterns of action. If our habit is to see the world as bleak and unfriendly, we will find the world to be ... bleak and unfriendly. But when we become aware (through meditation and inquiry) that that is our pattern, we can choose to continue to think that way or we can change it. We can begin to appreciate things instead of complain about them.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala, a western Buddhist tradition, famously exhorted his students to "Cheer Up!" He also exhorted them to appreciate all phenomena without prejudging it, seeing good and bad as two sides of the same coin, so I imagine we would have appreciated "sitting on the potty -- curing smallpox" as two reasons to be cheerful. And since the song came out in 1977, which was his day, maybe he, in fact, did.

So now that that's clear, why I am I bringing it up this week? So glad you asked.

It's been a trying week here in State Woebegone, aka Connecticut. One week ago, over a foot of heavy, wet, widowmaker snow fell, bringing down many branches on our abundant trees and power lines. In my part of the state, pretty much everything was without power on Sunday and Monday. I got power back quickly at home, but my workplace was operating on one-third of its usual electricity. Since I work in news, less-than-adequate power is no reason not to come to work; it is actually the reason we do work -- to bring information to people who can't get it otherwise.

Needless to say, things at work were tense as we worked with less equipment on tighter-than-normal deadlines. And cold -- there wasn't enough for heat. And people were coming from cold homes, where they could not shower or make coffee.

Nevertheless, there was surprisingly little complaining. And there were reasons to be cheerful. Bagels and cream cheese. Halloween candy that no trick-or-treaters came by to collect. A co-worker's child who drew colorful pictures during his day at work with mom.

Out in the world, people took turns at intersections where stoplights didn't work and had conversations with strangers because "do you have power?" replaced "hi." And yet the conversations always came around to what was good: The sun was shining. The trees limbs didn't damage houses or cars or cats. The grocery store was open in the half dark. The Thai restaurant cooked even though it couldn't take credit cards.

The situation wasn't as impermanent as most people would like -- 300,000-plus still without power on Friday and rumors of a two-week wait for some towns -- but there wasn't as much suffering as many feared.

Accept that the situation kinda sucks. Know that it will change. Find something to appreciate about the day.

Let's close with some words from John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, a man who gets crowds singing along enthusiastically to "I hope you die/I hope we both die," the chorus from the classic "No Children." This is a different sentiment:

It's OK to know to face the sun is forward
with no fear of shadows spreading where you stand.

Can you think of a reason to be cheerful?

For the moment, mine is the gluten-free vegan peanut butter chocolate chip cookies my son and I made this week. And then there was the brilliance of the stars in the clear morning sky. And ... it would take more than a song to list them all. Which is another one.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Beginner's mind: Kiss me like a stranger

Everything was thrilling/ When nothing was the same -- Tom Waits

We all have habitual patterns, ways that we prefer to do things. When we get locked into them, when we're unable to do things another way or to accept deviations in the patterns, we suffer.

When we're in relationship with another being, each person has their own habits, often interlocked with the other's, and the relationship has its own set. Meanwhile, the relationship (and the people) operate in the larger society, which has its own rules and expectations, its own pre-dug ruts.

In Buddhism, we try to approach every moment with beginner's mind, not with jaded we've-been-here-before mind. That mind says, You never take the garbage out. We always hang out with your friends. You looked better when we met.

Beginner's mind says, instead, look at this being across the table from me, full of feelings and experiences. Who is this person, who has sat across from me all these mornings and evenings? What, in this moment, do I truly appreciate about this person? Can I see that this is another being, not simply an extension of my habits?

Shared history, shared culture puts a heavy sweater of experience and expectation on each person. What does the tender and dear person under there look like without the layers?

What would you say if you didn't think you already knew how your partner would answer?

I defer to the master, Tom Waits:

You wear the same kind of perfume
You wore when we met
I suppose there's something comforting in knowing
What to expect.
But when you brushed up against me
Before I knew your name
Everything was thrilling
When nothing was the same
I want you to kiss me
Like a stranger once again

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The demons aren't out there

It's the time of year when, as my pagan friends say, the veils between the worlds are thin and the living and the dead come into closer contact than usual. Or at least become more aware of their proximity.

Fear of what might be over there abounds, so we bring out vampires, zombies, evil spirits.

But our fears are misdirected.

"Demons are our obsessions and fears, chronic illnesses, or common problems like depression, anxiety, and addiction. They are not blood-thirsty ghouls waiting for us in dark places; they are within us, the forces that we fight inside ourselves. They are the inner enemies the undermine our best intentions."
--Tsultrim Allione

To the ancient Greeks, demons, or daemons, were guiding spirits, divine creatures to be trusted and relied upon. That changed in the middle ages when the Christian church attacked pagan beliefs, and demons were blamed for all the evils of the world.

Buddhism sees both aspects.

The malignant male and female demons
Who create myriad troubles and obstructions
Seem real before one has reached enlightenment.
But when one realizes their true nature
They become Protectors,
And through their help and assistance
One attains numerous accomplishments.
-- Milarepa

If you're not yet enlightened and you find the demons troublesome, there is a rather delightful solution.

"If you think nonhumans might be trying to harm you because you are indebted to them in some way, you can give them 'offering cakes.' ... It is not necessary to make a proper ritual cake. You can offer anything or just imagine that you're making some form of restitution. ... It is not the ritual that is important here, but the psychological process of saying, 'Come in, have some cake, and stop bothering me.'"
--"The Practice of Lojong" by Traleg Kyabgon

Works for me.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ritual, red cords, and Rimbaud's fork

So I have this red string around my wrist. At the NY Shambhala Center last weekend, I stood in line, bowed to Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche -- we smiled at each other -- I stepped to the left, and some high-ranking person draped a red string around my neck. The line kept moving, and outside the shrine room, people were tying them on with a certain amount of fussiness about how it was done. By eavesdropping I learned that the pre-existing knot was supposed to be in front if you tied it around your neck.

Some research turned up this from Lama Surya Das:

The red string is called a "protection and blessing cord." Traditionally, a lama ties a knot in the cord, then prays over it and blows the power of his mantra into it. Then he places it around one's neck as a blessing. When I first asked my own lama, the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, about this, in 1973, he told me the cord is symbolic of remaining within the protection of his compassionate embrace even after departing from his physical presence. Other lamas have told me they take the protection cords off only to have dental work or surgery, and then put them on again afterward, as the strong protection field might impede the medical procedure.

I was wondering whether I would need to take antiobiotics before some planned dental work. But maybe the combination of a weak immune system and a protection cord arrives at a middle ground.

If I believe in the power of a piece of string.

Last weekend the question of Buddhist relics arose in an IDP teacher training weekend. I once went to a Buddhist center where they talked about relics and gave me a 10-page set of instructions on how to set up a home altar. A little too high church for me. That's the extent of what I know on the subject.

Surya Das goes on:

The Tibetan blessing practices remind me of the tradition of blessed protection medals, amulets, as well as relics of the saints commonly used in many religions, such as Catholicism and Hinduism. Objects touched or prayed over by holy beings are believed to be imbued with their spiritual energy and blessings. The practice of relic worship found in Christianity, such as around pieces of the cross or bones of the saints, finds common ground in Buddhism's tradition of venerating the teeth of the Buddha or pieces of bone or ash from his cremation pyre, which were divided up among his main disciples and enshrined in stupas--reliquary monuments around India.

It does, indeed, remind me of my Roman Catholic childhood. It makes even less sense to me in the context of Buddhism -- the Buddha was a mere mortal whose message was that all us mere mortals can achieve enlightenment ... just like him. He was not the Son of God or a divine being. We don't need to be blessed by something outside of ourselves; we have, within us, everything it takes to become enlightened.

Back to Surya Das: All these spiritual traditions of healing and enlightenment help deepen our spiritual development. But of course, that development depends more on the faith of the individual than on the material substances themselves.

On Thursday, I went to the opening of an exhibit of photography by Patti Smith at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. The photos are prints of Polaroids she took, mostly of items -- Rimbaud's fork and spoon, Jim Carroll's bed, Nureyev's slippers. Relics of people to whom she felt connected.

In the exhibition catalog, she is interviewed by the Atheneum's director, Susan Talbott, who curated the exhibit.

"As a child I had great respect for the inanimate object," she told Talbott. "Both my grandmothers died young. So a mandolin or a lace coverlet belonging to them seemed very precious. Their objects were the only way I could invoke them. I guess that sense of things extended to the poets and writers I loved."

She describes shooting Virginia Woolf's bed: "I only had two shots and really wanted to take a nice picture. … I sat down in a chair and asked for her counsel. I didn't want to fail. I pushed it to the darkest setting and concentrated on her single bed. The crease and the eyelet of the coverlet formed a cross. I felt her with me."

The exhibit also contains a display with a rock from the river where Woolf committed suicide by drowning after filling her pockets with rocks, along with a thangka for Woolf. (A thangka is a Tibetan devotional painting.) The power of the items was extraordinary -- from outside the glass, I could feel the weight and smoothness of the rock, the weight of depression, the connection that flows through a line of introspective women.

Another display case contained a cracked cup Smith had given to her father and separate photos of her father and mother as young adults with the year written in the white margin at the bottom -- just as my mother dated our family photos. Again, the connection is palpable.

The Polaroid photos are black and white and grainy -- none of the fine detail we've come to expect from digital cameras. But they convey so much. I wanted to touch them -- I didn't -- even though I knew the photos themselves had no texture.

The Polaroid is part of the point, Smith says: They are pictures of a moment. They develop over a minute or two. And they fade.

A reminder of the ephemeral nature of life.

(Confession: I own a Polaroid, which I love for the same reasons.)

At one point, I noticed Smith standing in the gallery. I talked to Lenny Kaye, her guitarist, about how practicing guitar is like meditating. I told Smith that looking at her photos gave me the same experience as listening to a great talk by a Buddhist teacher; it brought me to a place of presence within myself that is presence with all beings.

She paused for a moment. Yeah, she said, they came from a place of deep presence.

To go back to my red string, I don't feel that it has any protective powers of its own. Wearing it is not like having Wonder Woman's bracelets; I can't deflect bullets.

But it brings me to a place of presence, the deep, still liquid center of shared humanity that lies under the waves we ride through most of our days. It connects me to the lineage of wise beings of the past and present and future who are doing their best to recognize and live from that place of inherent richness -- and it reminds me that I am one of them.

Maybe that is the power of relics and rituals -- not veneration but connection.

Monday, October 17, 2011

who can turn the world on with her smile?

To smile is not to smile only for yourself; the world will change because of your smile. Thich Nhat Hahn


You'll enjoy what you do mostly because you resolve to enjoy it. ... You'll receive invitations and other nifty perks as people respond to your smile. (Gemini, Oct. 18)


I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
famous to sticky children in grocery lines,
as the one who smiled back.

Naomi Shihab Nye