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