Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Take refuge

One of my teachers once described walking meditation as the "zombie walk." It got a big laugh. Walking mindfully, paying attention to your feet on the ground, your body in space, your posture, leaves you with a somewhat blank expression on your face.

Many people who haven't studied Buddhism may think that's emblematic of the path. After all, if you're more calm, if you're not acting out the drama, if you're not your Self, then you must be a zombie, right?

Oh so wrong.

Being a Buddhist has made me more myself because I'm not as concerned about what others think about my Self. I feel connected to my buddha nature, my basic goodness, my center -- which is also your center, and takes me out of the anxious buzzing in my head where I wonder what you think of me, where I feel a need to prove my Self is worthy, where there's any question that it may not be. (Note: Am I always in that place? No. But I've been there enough to feel confident that it's there even when my awareness is elsewhere. That's why I meditate.)
I don't think anyone who knew me before would say I am more zombie-like. I think, in fact, that I'm more comfortable with being a little outrageous and daring, maybe even more fun.

Becoming a Buddhist doesn't mean giving up your personal quirks, although it means looking at how attached you are to those quirks and why.

Taking refuge -- which is when you officially become a Buddhist -- doesn't mean that you give up your own thoughts and blindly accept everything that teachers say. The Buddha himself told his followers not to believe anything just because it was in scripture or tradition or said by a teacher. "When you know in yourselves that a teaching is wholesome, blameless, wise, and when put into effect leads to happiness and well-being, that teaching you can believe," he is said to have in the Kalama Sutta.

Christina Feldman, in her excellent book "Woman Awake: Women Practicing Buddhism," writes:

Nurturing our inner capacity to question and inquire is essential in developing a path of spirituality that recognizes our uniqueness. A part of that questioning is learning how to honor our doubts. We must not be cowed or intimidated by the weight of authority or traditions if we are to be enriched by them rather than be oppressed by them.
I took the refuge vow and got my cool Tibetan name four years ago. But it was a formality. I had already been saying a refuge vow and a bodhisattva vow every morning as part of my own practice. Why make it formal, say it before a preceptor? It's like getting married -- there's a force behind stating your intention in public and in accord with the ritual of the culture.

Having been raised a Roman Catholic, I was wary of surrendering to any ideal, no matter how admirable. In Buddhism, you take refuge in the example of the teacher, the teaching -- which you must experience for yourself for them to be true and valid, and the community.

This three-part refuge vow comes from Thich Nhat Hahn. I like it because it clearly states what you're taking refuge in, how you live it, and that it's in you.Link

I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life.
I take refuge in the Dharma, the way of understanding and of love.
I take refuge in the Sangha, the community that lives in harmony and awareness.

Dwelling in the refuge of Buddha, I clearly see the path of light and beauty in the world.
Dwelling in the refuge of Dharma, I learn to open many doors on the path of transformation.
Dwelling in the refuge of Sangha, shining light that supports me, keeping my practice free of obstruction.

Taking refuge in the Buddha in myself, I aspire to help all people recognize their own awakened nature, realizing the Mind of Love.
Taking refuge in the Dharma in myself, I aspire to help all people fully master the ways of practice, and walk together on the path of liberation.
Taking refuge in the Sangha in myself, I aspire to help all people build four-fold communities,* to embrace all beings and support their transformation.

*monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen

dakini image from sacredmysteries.com

is my friend Pablo Das singing about refuge.
Here are monks chanting the refuge in sanskrit.
Here is information about taking the refuge or bodhisattva vows at the Interdependence Project April 7-8.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Conscripting outrage

Maybe it's the warm weather -- summery temperatures turn a person's thoughts to protest. This week brought an abundance of social action on causes that I feel are important. Action brings requests for time, energy, and money. Being unable to give that can bring feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem, I was told in my formative years.

But how big a part of the solution do you have to be? And what does being "part of the solution" look like? Do you have to be on the front lines? Do you have to sign another Internet petition, attend another rally, make another donation?

Bodhisattvas vow to lead all others to nirvana before going there themselves. But you can't lead people somewhere if you don't have an inkling of where you're going. First you have to work with your own mind and your own life. Then you can be of the most benefit to others.

This doesn't mean that only those who have fully accessed the enlightened aspects of their being can do social action. Not at all. It's important for us to question what we see, to challenge injustice, to work for change.

But it's also important for us to see our biases and filters. Seeing them doesn't have to stop you from acting; it may make action more skillful. I'd re-posted something on Facebook to "raise awareness," and a friend pointed out that awareness always has a story. I think that's true. When people say they want to raise awareness of something -- a disease, a political situation -- it's generally because they think something needs to be done about it. In meditation, awareness works with mindfulness of the present moment to see what is needed. But people who are "raising awareness" of an issue often are attached to a particular view of how that issue should be seen.

Angelo Izama, a Ugandan journalist, wrote an excellent essay in the New York Times, "In Uganda, Kony is Not the Only Problem." He noted that his country has a long history of violence and imperialism, and simply getting rid of Joseph Kony, who was kidnapping young men and forcing them to be soldiers, won't solve the country's deep-seated problems.

He writes:
Campaigns like “Kony 2012” aspire to frame the debate about these criminals and inspire action to stop them. Instead, they simply conscript our outrage to advance a specific political agenda — in this case, increased military action.

African leaders, after all, are adept at pursuing their own agendas by using the resources that foreign players inject and the narratives that they prefer — whether the post-9/11 war on terror or the anti-Kony crusade. And these campaigns succeed by abducting our anger and holding it hostage. Often they replace the fanaticism of evil men with our own arrogance, and, worse, ignorance. Moreover, they blind us by focusing on the agents of evil and not their principals.

In Buddhist terms, you have to address the root causes, not just the visible problems. It's the same for ourselves and for our culture.

Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan poet, writer, and blogger living in Beijing, wrote about the conflict between Tibetans and Chinese that has led Tibetan monks and nuns to set themselves on fire in protest and three men to undertake a hunger strike outside the United Nations. She notes the deep views each culture holds that have contributed to the problems.

There’s a Tibetan saying: “Hope ruins Tibetans; suspicion ruins Han Chinese.” I’m not sure when this saying came into being or what its background is. I only know that this expression falls off the lips of many Tibetans, who use it meaningfully, mockingly, or helplessly.

For the Han Chinese, who make up more than 90 percent of China’s population, there is a similar expression engraved in their history books: “Whoever is not among us must be of a different heart.”

Originally, these words were not frightening. Over the years, though, the sentiments they express have created an atmosphere of raw violence. Minorities stand in the way of the grand unity of China’s different peoples; they must be Sinicized or extinguished. The ethnic minorities who live in China, the Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians and others, understand that this view of ethnic minorities is actually quite widespread, that it is the mainstream, that they receive little empathy from the majority.

For me, this is a contemplation that opens the door for some empathy. Is that really so different from how we look at things: Whoever is not among us must be of a different heart. Does that include people who don't support our cause, or don't support it in the way or to the extent that we feel is required?

But the truth is -- THE truth, as I see it -- is that we are all of the same heart. Demonizing anyone only closes off the possibilities for compassion and reduces the likelihood of finding a resolution that people can live with. Acknowledging the essential humanity of all beings leaves open doors for conversation. That doesn't mean accepting what is unacceptable. It means not freezing people or groups into certain positions that make movement impossible.

That starts with yourself. It means not locking yourself into a mindset of inadequacy because you can't remake the world the way you want it or guilt because you can't do everything.

The most important thing you can do is to be gentle with yourself and others, to treat them with the dignity they deserve. If you are acting from the heart that is shared with all beings, from that deep still place, I believe you are part of the solution.

Buddhist psychologist John Welwood, writing after the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks on the World Trade Centers and Pentagon, says terrorism stems from the same place as individual unhappiness -- wounds that hurt our hearts so badly that we seal ourselves off. To protect ourselves from being hurt further, we lose touch with empathy, compassion, kindness -- anything that makes us vulnerable. That's true for societies that hold onto grievances, he says.

My initial response to the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the war fever they unleashed was anger and indignation. Yet I soon saw my reaction was part of the same problem that troubled me in the world at large. .... Despite my fervent wish for a world at peace, as long as I regarded terrorists and warmongers as some kind of adversary to harbor a grievance against, I too was putting on the mantle of war. Seeing how my investment in grievance was the very same thing that drives all the hatred and violence in the world catapulted me int a process of soul searching and inner discovery. (Welwood, "Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships)

(top photo by the Associated Press, marchers protesting the lack of an arrest in the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager who was shot by a civilian patrolling a gated neighborhood.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Everything is dharma: Irish edition

Once Buddhist philosophy starts to get under your skin, everything becomes dharma -- books, movies, plays, news. I saw Chris Rock in "The Motherfucker with the Hat" on the Saturday night of an urban weekend retreat, and all I could think was, boy, these people are suffering; if only they meditated, there'd be a lot less drama.

That's not bad, necessarily. Open hearts are more easily touched.

I bring this up because today is St. Patrick's Day(Lá Fhéile Pádraig), a day of debauchery in the U.S., descended from a solemn religious holiday on the old sod.

While the Irish, with their strong religious heritage, aren't the most likely candidates to be explicitly Buddhist, they are so very good at being human.

In Buddhism, we practice sitting with our emotions, staying with painful feelings, and being present with whatever comes up. Well, who does that better than the Irish? They sit -- through books, memoirs, poetry, and song -- with intense emotions (even if they're sitting in a pub with a pint in front of them, to throw in a potentially offensive but not groundless stereotype). And they share. And they offer support. And do it in powerful, poetic language.

So today I bring you two bodhisattavas, courtesy of Sebastian Barry:

In "The Pride of Parnell Street," a play, Janet is describing the aftermath of a bombing on a Dublin street:

And Patty Duffy, the greatest woman that ever kept a shop, I tell you, the pride a' Parnell Street herself, a lovely big comfortable round woman, kneeling beside this poor man, like a fella in a war film, his legs blown completely off oh yeh he was, and Patty kneeling beside him, and whispering, yeh, yeh, and stroking his hand, like a mother. Oh Patty Duffy, you were a saint that day ...

I call Patty Duffy the pride of Parnell Street because it was people like her put the pride back into the place after the desolation. In the months after, people could look back and remember how all the human feeling rose up in Patty and in themselves, and that they looked after the wounded and the dying and the dead, and cried for them and stroked their suffering hands.

In "On Canaan's Side," Lily Bere, the daughter of a Dublin police officer after the first World War, moves to the United States because Republican politics create problems for her. She gets a job in the house of a wealthy Irish-American woman:

How I feared when I first worked for Mrs. Wolohan's mother that she would cast me out if she discovered who I came from. Of course like her daughter she was an Irish-American, who loved Ireland, and the idea of Irish freedom, which for her was heroic and inspiring. As it was indeed, I am sure, unless you are on the wrong side of it. And I did feel obliged to touch on that a little, because I did not want her to think me something other than I was. ...

But she showed no great surprise, no disapproval. She was
interested in it. ... Her whole being lit up with interest, the hallmark of her personality. This is a person truly democratic in her thoughts. That is a merciful person. Because she knew who I was, I gradually came to see myself better. When a criminal gets out of prison, he looks for work, but must be upfront about his prison term. Whoever takes that man knows all about him, and if he is lucky enough to find such a person, he might well find a strange and unexpected happiness working for them. ... Not so much on probation as given a new lease, a new term among the living and the just. And she did that it seemed to me with her whole heart.

May all beings be happy
May all beings be healthy
May all beings be safe
May all beings know peace