Saturday, December 20, 2014

The World in a Cookie

This has been a week of intense cookie-baking, which equates to infinite opportunities to see the dharma in action.

As the poet Thich Nhat Hahn sees the sky in a piece of paper, the baker sees the world in a cookie -- here are the people who grew the things that went into the Earth Balance vegan butter and those who came up with the perfect blend of gluten-free flour in Pamela's Artisanal flour mix. Here is the extraordinary interdependence of science and ancient grains and my grandmother's cookie cutters, all in one extraordinary bite.

It's a story of ritual and lineage, of  causes and conditions, of interdependence and impermanence, fame and ill repute.


You can practice mindfulness while brushing your teeth, Thich Nhat Hahn says. You can experience the truth of the whole of the buddhadharma while baking cookies: the suffering that rises when you are attached to the idea that things will happen a certain way and that the cookies will look like the picture in the cookbook; the attachment to a self that earns praise or blame for the results; impermanence -- the whole point of all the effort that goes into making cookies is that they will disappear. The paramitas are there: Generosity, proper conduct (I choose to use vegan ingredients), patience, exertion, concentration.

Buddhism isn't about how long you sit on a cushion or how many mantras you say, it's about how you walk in the world -- or do the dishes or make cookies or answer the phone. And that, to me, is the beauty of it. Don't believe anything just because a teacher -- even the Buddha -- said it. Test it.

There are lots of books that show how cooking illuminates the dharma -- Edward Espe Brown's cookbooks (they come with commentary) or Roshi Bernie Glassman's Instructions to the Cook are some of my favorites. This is from The Chocolate Cake Sutra by Geri Larkin.

A melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cake is the perfect metaphor for where we can land if we introduce the correct ingredients into our lives. When the ingredients merge and melt together, we become spiritual warriors, able to take the slings and arrows of planet life in stride, with grace and a grin.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Buddha's Guide to Having a Good Time at a Party

The Buddha said that if you practice lovingkindness, or metta, meditation, you will experience scores of benefits (well, 11 specific ones). His list did not mention that you will have a better time at parties. Add that.

In the version of the Four Immeasurables practices that I do, you work with three people for each one: Someone you love, someone who irritates you, someone you don't really notice and have to cast around to bring into your meditation. Chances are these are the three types of people you will meet at a party (or really anywhere).

I like to get a head start. In the days before a social event, I bring people who are likely to be there into my meditation. Who will make my heart light up when I see them? That's the person I love. Who will make me sidle away from a group when they join? That's the irritating one. And who else was at last year's version of his party, standing next to someone who stands out in my memory? Oh, yeah. What's-his-name.

One by one, I offer them the aspirations of lovingkindness: May you be happy. May you be safe. May you be healthy. May you live with ease.

And a warmth develops -- toward all of them. The irritating person just wants to be happy. In fact, they are not irritating. I am irritated.That background person is also a human, with things that make her happy or sad. I wonder what they are? Maybe I will ask.

Extend that feeling of warmth and kind attentiveness to everyone in the room. Feel the judgments about their outfits or how much weight they've gained or the food they brought fall away. Here we are, just humans, just dancing each other home once again. How fortunate to have each other.

And extending the wish to everyone in the city, on the continent, on the planet. May we all be free from fear and know the happiness that brings.

When you get to the actual event, you will feel warm-hearted and curious, open and attentive. You will have a pleasant expression on your face, and people will be happy to see you. You will be happy to see them. Heck, devas will love you.

And if there are moments where that's not the case, you can stealthily emanate lovingkindness, silently making the wishes as you gaze around the room. Or extend it to yourself and leave, if it's that bad. Kindly, attentively, gently.

May you be happy. And may your days be merry and bright.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Tis the Season

At this time of year, hope takes center stage. Children draw up lists of presents they hope Santa will deliver. Everyone who lives north of a certain point hopes for a picturesque white Christmas -- enough snow to make it pretty but not enough to make travel dangerous or require strenuous
digging out. Family members hope that other family members will like their gifts, that the sweaters will fit, and everyone will behave themselves. Singles hope for an invitation.

Hope is all around.

Buddhism says the best gift you could give yourself is to give that up.

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron describes hope as an addiction to the idea that things would be better if they were somehow different. That keeps us from seeing and working with things as they are, which is the only way we actually can create change.

"Abandon hope" is one of the lojong, or mind training slogans.

“Abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning,” she writes. The hope we’re giving up, she says, is the idea that we could “be saved from being who we are.”

“Without giving up hope – that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be – we will never relax with who or where we are," she writes in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.  When we do relax and look around without a judgmental eye, we begin to see what is there, to realize that we are sufficient and the world is not out to get us. Life becomes workable.

Abandoning hope relies on a foundation of impermanence. To give up the hope that things will change for the better, you need the refuge of knowing that things will change, whether you want them to or not. The bad news and the good news about impermanence are the same -- things will change.  If you look around at where you are and realize you don't want to be stuck there forever, you can be assured that it won't stay that way forever -- it's already changing. What you do in this moment influences what that change will be. 

Ani Pema notes that hope is the other side of fear, and that pairing is the root of our pain.

“In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep looking for alternatives.” 

If instead we stay with the feeling of discomfort, get to know our true selves, we can find confidence in our basic nature and our ability to be ourselves in the world. We can identify the source of the discomfort, rather than escaping it or covering it over, and work with that. 

The practice of meditation is based not on how we would like things to be but on what is. We often do not have a proper understanding of what we are, of what we are actually doing. From the beginning, spirituality should be concerned with the actuality of who is involved in the practice. In the Buddhist form of meditation, we try to look at the perceiver of the universe, the perceiver that is self, ego, me, mine.
—The Sanity We Are Born With: A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy by Chögyam Trungpa

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Listen to the wisdom of anger

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?

This week, with its dream of justice denied, Ferguson, Missouri, exploded. A grand jury declined to indict a white police who shot and killed a black teenager. Riots started immediately -- buildings burned, police fired tear gas, looters stepped in, the media covered it all, and commentators condemned the rioting, forgetting the spark and the underlying fuel that fed the fires.

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. Martin Luther King Jr.
What is the sound of an unheard scream of anguish? Violence. A riot demands to be seen, the pain it expresses cannot be ignored.

Anger is an intelligence and an energy. It needs release. Or it explodes.

What if there was another way to be heard? What if there was space for that energy to flow without being met by a countering aggression?

What if, during the six or seven hours between when the grand jury said it had made a decision and the announcement of that decision, President Obama had flown to Ferguson and promised to stay there until everyone was heard? If he sat behind a table and invited people to line up and speak -- and he would listen -- sharing their emotions but focusing of how the process could change to include them? If he called the Secretary of State back from wherever in the world she was and brought in VP Joe Biden and the attorney general or a top representative? If he convinced CNN to carry every minute of it live until everyone had their say?
What if we made space for the anger, acknowledged it, and respected it instead of trying to repress it and shame those who feel it? Could we then find the wisdom?

In Tibetan Buddhism, there are masculine and feminine aspects, both of which must be present in all genders for their to be balance. The feminine aspect is space, and the masculine is action. For centuries, the world has been dominated by the masculine -- an action demands an immediate reaction -- and space, which allows for other possibilities, has been closed off. That needs to change.

In the Tibetan Buddhist system of wisdom energies, anger and clarity arise together. If we get stuck in the anger, we can't see clearly what is there and what needs to change, let alone how it can be changed.

The wisdom energies are arranged in a mandala -- the Tibetan word, khilkor, is more descriptive. It means center and swirl, and it presents a way of understanding how energies move or get stuck.

At the center is the Buddha family, whose wisdom aspect simply allows things to arise, without filters; the confused aspect is ignorance or ignoring or suppressing. In the east is the Vajra family of clarity and anger. To the south is Ratna, equanimity -- respect for all things equally -- or pride, valuing one thing above others. To the west is Padma, which is desire for a particular outcome or thing in its confusion but is discriminating awareness in wisdom; Padma sees the best option. And Karma, in the north, is all-accomplishing action, carrying out the option Padma sees. Or its envy of those who have it with no movement to accomplish it.

If the energy swirls through, a new state arises and the process begins again.

I imagine that enlightened people move through that at lightning speed. The rest of us get stuck. This can be a useful way of seeing where -- and what's needed to get the energy moving. Stuck in anger -- what is it pointing to, what is the clarity? Stuck in envy? Look with discriminating awareness at what you want.

The first step, though, is to listen -- personally and as a society. Where are we stuck? What can we do to move to the next step? Then do it.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Anger is an energy

The whole world is watching Ferguson, Missouri, as a grand jury verdict is expected any day on whether to indict a police officer who shot an unarmed black man. That action led to protests, arrests, and boiling anger. In advance of the grand jury action, extra officers, FBI, and the National Guard are in place -- and officials urge people to be calm.
In this space, the St. Louis/Bentwood Transcendental Meditation (TM) Center is offering a talk on meditation to relieve stress for all Ferguson residents.
The whole world is watching Ferguson, Missouri, as a grand jury verdict is expected any day on whether to indict a police officer who shot an unarmed black man. That action led to protests, arrests, and boiling anger. In advance of the grand jury action, extra officers, FBI, and the National Guard are in place -- and officials urge people to be calm.
In this space, the St. Louis/Bentwood Transcendental Meditation (TM) Center is offering a talk on meditation to relieve stress for all Ferguson residents.
This might seems a bit disengenuous, crass (TM is a trademarked technique that costs money to learn), or too little too late -- the talk is Dec. 2. But a phrase in the notice caught at my heart:
Stress can cause people to react in ways that takes away from a person’s message and make it harder for people to hear each other.
And that is true, whether the issue is the nation's racial history, police tactics, or Thanksgiving dinner and the debate over whether canned or fresh cranberry sauce is better.
I'm not saying that people shouldn't feel angry. Anger is an energy and intelligence that tells us something is wrong here. Anger points out problems -- it doesn't solve them. Hatred never ends hatred, the Buddha said.
Notice the anger rising and look at what it's pointing to. Then look for the skillful action that you can take to change that.
This might seems a bit disengenuous, crass (TM is a trademarked technique that costs money to learn), or too little too late -- the talk is Dec. 2. But a phrase in the notice caught at my heart:
Stress can cause people to react in ways that takes away from a person’s message and make it harder for people to hear each other.
And that is true, whether the issue is the nation's racial history, police tactics, or Thanksgiving dinner and the debate over whether canned or fresh cranberry sauce is better.
I'm not saying that people shouldn't feel angry. Anger is an energy and intelligence that tells us something is wrong here. Anger points out problems -- it doesn't solve them. Hatred never ends hatred, the Buddha said.
Notice the anger rising and look at what it's pointing to. Then look for the skillful action that you can take to change that.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Accepting death doesn't mean denying grief

Accepting the inevitability of death is woven throughout the Buddha's teachings. So why are Buddhists so upset at the news that Thich Nhat Hanh may be near death?

Thay, as he is known, has taught often on death and how it is neither an end nor a beginning, just a change in appearance. Focusing on interdependence, or interbeing, he teaches that conditions have come together to create this form that we consider to be ourselves, and when that form no longer functions, what is us will become something else. He even wrote a book called "No Death, No Fear."

There are contemplations on death throughout Buddhist teachings, from meditations that ask us to imagine the decomposition of our bodies, organ by organ, to rituals performed in charnel grounds using instruments made from human bones.

Death is inevitable; it comes without warning. ... This body will be a corpse.

So why, when faced with the death, do Buddhists turn to prayers for the person's recovery?

Thich Nhat Hanh is 88 years old. He had a severe brain hemorrhage. He has been an extraordinary teacher, an example of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness, a proponent of mindfulness. Why not let him go?

I have no answers, just a couple of thoughts.

-- Thay has been an extraordinary teacher who has touched many people deeply. Those people want to continue to receive his teachings and hope that even more people may be affected by him. That would, without question, make the world a better place.

-- Accepting death doesn't mean denying grief. To those whose hearts have been touched by Thay or whose lives have been changed by his teachings, his passing will be a cause for grief. Grief hurts. But it's how we know that someone has been important to us, that their absence leaves a space that is filled for a time by sadness.

I was reminded of that this week when I got the news that a friend had died. She wasn't a close friend, someone I'd worked with years ago, but we were Facebook friends with similar interests. I was used to her vibrant smile and her enthusiasm showing up there. And it was painful to learn that this 30-something woman whose last Facebook post was about her excitement at starting to plan an annual event for a local LGBTQ center was gone.

Every morning I recite a version of the four thoughts that turn the mind to liberation. The second, impermanence, includes this:

Everyone who is born will die. My death is certain; the exact time is unknown. Knowing this, what is most important?

The answer, inevitably, is that being present with life and the people in it is most important. If every conversation could be the last time we talk, then I want to be there fully, not biding time until I can check my email, not thinking about what other people might think about how I look, not reviewing a conversation with someone else a day ago.

Plum Village, Thay's monastery, provides updates on his condition. They include suggestions for how his followers can practice to support him:

Please continue to enjoy the blue sky for Thầy, the fresh morning air and the small pathways in nature for Thầy. Especially, please enjoy each other, your loved ones, and our togetherness for Thầy.
If possible, you can dedicate a day to eat vegetarian as a way to generate compassion to send to Thầy. You can reconcile with your loved ones, or to let go of your resentment of someone and write them a love letter. And in the same Winter Retreat spirit being practiced at our monasteries, you can participate in your local Sangha more, support the collective energy of mindfulness, consume less and reduce your time online.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Finding joy for the irritating politician

On Election Day, I was doing a practice of mudita, appreciative or empathetic joy. Like in metta practice, you choose a neutral person, a loved one, and an irritating person. In this case, you look to feel happiness in their happiness, taking joy in their joy. For my irritating person, I chose a politician, not one whose election would bring me joy.

The practice, though, doesn't ask me to approve of the source of their joy. It doesn't ask me whether I would feel joy in their shoes.  It simply asks me to be happy that they are happy.

But grrrrrrr. If he is happy, presumably about being elected, I am not. I do not think he would do good things in the near future, and those things he says he would do that I term "bad" would have wide and long-term consequences. How can I be happy for that?

What the practice really asks me to do is to see the irritating person as human, not as some kind of irritation-generating machine built solely to annoy me. He is not inherently annoying, and almost half of the voters actually choose him on their ballots, so he must not annoy a lot of people. The irritation is in me, not him.

And while I disagree with his ideas, if I drop my aversion I can see that his intention, as a human, is to feel safe and to secure that safety.  I happen to think that he's going about it the wrong way, but it doesn't change the fact of his humanity. I don't have to agree with him to see that. But by seeing him as human, my disagreement becomes less closed in, less of an angry ball of despair at the state of the world. And that creates more space to explore options -- even to have conversations.

It's not easy to have conversations with people who are locked into a world view. Some people are so defended that you can't hope to reason with them. Maybe all you can do is bear witness, be a reminder that there is another way of looking at the situation.

I'm reminded of Ajahn Amaro, a genuinely lovely Buddhist monk, who I took a class with a few years ago. The day before he'd gone to a demonstration in favor of bombing Iran in Central Park, not to argue, not to disparage, simply to stand there as a presence of peace in the midst of people calling for war. He wasn't there to change minds, just to be a reminder that there is another way.

A couple of his comments in particular have stuck with me:

-- "There's no excuse to be contentious, but sometimes we have to be fierce."

-- "Just because you're compassionate and kind to someone doesn't mean you won't obstruct their activities."

Sometimes you can do more -- and you should. Amaro also said, "If we are aware, with unbiased compassionate attention, our attitude will respond in the best way possible to what is needed." But being there as a human among human, relentlessly optimistic because impermanence and emptiness mean that nothing is going to stay the same forever, gives you the chance to influence the direction events will take.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Kleenex Karma

You know how it is when you're thinking about something and you begin noticing it everywhere? For me, this week, it was karma. I looked up the lyrics to a song and learned I could earn "karma points" by making corrections. I think those are like the ephemeral punk points or scene points rather than a constantly running total on a cosmic spread sheet -- but the popular conception of karma seems to lean toward the spread sheet.

Here's today's Dilbert:

That's now how karma works. It's not tit-for-tat. Karma, literally, means action. It is shorthand for cause and effect -- your actions have consequences, in the next moment and the next lifetime. Not listening to what's being said means you don't have that information; in the work setting, that may mean that you fail to do things that have been assigned to you and you get fired and can't find a new job and lose your house... In a relationship, the other person may decide you're not interested and move on. (None of this applies in Dilbertland, where no work ets done and no one leaves.)

Popular knowledge is a two-edged sword. On the one side, it's nice that more people know about the Buddhist teachings; on the other, they get it wrong a lot.

Companies whose products have become so popular that their names verge on generic -- like Frisbee, Kleenex, and Xerox -- have staff to police that.  At the newspaper where I work, we've received many letters warning us about referring to a large trash bin as a dumpster. Was it, in fact, a Dumpster? Or a knockoff brand?

Karma may be in  need of similar policing. Dilbert gets a pass. The karma points people get a written warning.

Something more serious awaits those who see material success as evidence of good karma. 

We might call this a belief in spiritual meritocracy. The implicit idea here is that our professional and financial growth depends on our spiritual merit, not on the presence or absence of social structures and biases. We are told that if we are grateful enough, if we put enough happy energy into the universe, then we will be rewarded with material wealth and earthly pleasures. (Think “The Secret.”) We are told that we actually can have it all: a rich spiritual life, leading to a rich material life.
You can have it all, a rich spiritual life and a rich material life. The problem is the "leading to." Spirituality that's practiced for material gain is false spirituality. It's manipulation, not exploration, a search for treasure, not meaning. It has no depth

For the last seven years I have dedicated myself to a Buddhist meditation practice ... As I have become more skilled, I have enjoyed moments of sublime bliss. And the more mindfulness I developed, the better I got at daily activities. I got a little better at surfing, playing poker, driving; the truth is, meditation helps me achieve whatever goals I set for myself, whether that’s being kinder to my friends and family, or earning more money.
One problem with a capitalist-inflected Buddhism is that it can lead us to a kind of spiritual cul de sac. I found that my practice was in an uneasy tension with my leftist politics. I found myself attracted to a glamorous Santa Barbara lifestyle that left me feeling unfulfilled and disappointed. I found that it became easy to deal with disturbing images in the news by dismissing the suffering of others as the karmic products of their own poor decisions. (They’re just not being positive enough!)
Karma doesn't forgive social institutions that lock people into poverty. The idea is misused when it becomes an easy way to dismiss problems rather than an opportunity to look at the causes that have created these effects.

The infamous Satya Nadella quote about how women shouldn't ask for raises but should wait for the karmic process to play out actually isn't that far off about the cause-and-effect action, on an individual level. But it fails to take into account generations of discrimination against women that also have contributed to their current economic status (and the need to ask for raises). In fact, by asking for raises, women are helping men to avoid the karmic effect of perpetrating discrimination.

Buddhism's not for the lazy. It asks you to look at your thoughts, speech, and actions, to let go of the explanations and justifications, to take responsibility for them and commit to using them for the benefit of self and others. It supports "leftist politics," in my understanding of what that term means. Renounce killing. Renounce intoxication. Feed the hungry. See the worth and dignity of every being, even those in prison.

Don't let karma become a flying plastic disc. Keep it a Frisbee.

Day of the Dead. Or Not.

November 1 is the Day of Dead in Mexico, when the the boundaries between life and death begin to blur.

Buddhism says those boundaries are never real. We are never separate from the dharmadhatu, the ground of being, the experience of great bliss. We just forget that -- and we scramble to get back there through all kinds of strategies that merely create suffering.

There has never been a birth, and there is never going to be a death.
This is unborn and undying consciousness. It has always been here. It is eternal, it is timeless. And how afraid you were of death, and how afraid you were of old age, and how afraid you were of a thousand and one things! And nothing has ever happened: all was a dream.
Seeing this, one smiles, one laughs. Your whole life up to now has been ridiculous, absurd. You were unnecessarily afraid, unnecessarily greedy, unnecessarily suffering. You were living in a nightmare and it was your own creation.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

There is no one more dear to me

The Buddha, as a man who left his wife and young child to seek enlightenment, doesn't give a lot of advice on marriage. As one of my teachers says, if you're having difficulty in your romantic relationship, is a celibate monk the best person to ask for advice?

The Raja Sutta offers this story:

At one time, the Buddha was staying in Savatthi, near Jetta's Grove. King Pasenadi Kosala and Queen Mallika were staying in the upper palace. He said to her, "Is there anyone more dear to you than yourself?"
"No, your majesty," she answered. "There is no one more dear to me than myself. And what about you, your majesty? Is there anyone more dear to you than yourself?"
"No, Mallika. There is no one more dear to me than myself."
The King went to the Buddha and reported this exchange.
Then, on realizing the significance of that, the Blessed One on that occasion exclaimed:
Searching all directions
with one's awareness,
one finds no one dearer
than oneself.
In the same way, others
are fiercely dear to themselves.
So one should not hurt others
if one loves oneself.
This is seen as a teaching on why we should not cause harm to others. Just as we want to be happy, all beings want to be happy, and we should not make ourselves happy in ways that make others unhappy. Interdependence and all that.

It's interesting, though, that it comes in a conversation between a husband and wife. Our romantic view of marriage is that finding the right person -- our Prince or Princess Charming, the One For Us -- will make everything OK for all of eternity. We expect that person to be devoted to our happiness, and vice versa, and everyone falls short and resentments develop.

My experience -- and I have 34 years of marriage experience as of today (happy anniversary, sweetie!) -- is that you have to love yourself enough to be present in the relationship, not erase yourself for the benefit of the other person. You have to respect yourself and your partner so that the relationship has space for two people, who can grow and change so the relationship can too.

One of our favorite stories is O. Henry's "Gift of the Magi," in which a poor couple celebrate Christmas. The man sells his treasured watch to buy his wife hair combs that she admires in a shop window; she sells her hair to buy him a chain for his watch. And when they find out what they've done for each other, they start making dinner, continuing to build a relationship of care and love.

The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Be the magi. Know that the other person is as important as yourself, listen to their heart's desires, be present. And keep moving. The ending of an episode is never the end of the story.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

lululemon and the Dalai Lama are in a relationship

If you were to go today, you'd see a photo of the Dalai Lama with a quote from His Holiness: "Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive." Presumably, pricey yoga clothes are not in the same category.

Am I being snarky? Yes. lululemon athletica inc. on Tuesday announced that it is partnering with the Dalai Lama Center "on a variety of initiatives including researching the connection between mind-body-heart, sharing the work globally, and expanding the reach of the Center's Heart-Mind education initiatives."

The company will donate $250,000 Canadian in each of the next three years to support the center's work.

Is that a good thing? Quite likely.

"At the Dalai Lama Center, our mission is to educate the hearts of children by informing, inspiring, and engaging the communities around them. We...look forward to working together to promote 'education of the heart,' which results in more peaceful, secure, engaged and compassionate children," said Fiona Douglas-Crampton, president and CEO of the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education.
The center, a secular, non-political, not-for-profit organization, was established in 2005, cofounded by HHDL and Victor Chan.

Still, seeing the Dalai Lama on a website identified as "yoga clothes and running gear for sweaty workouts" gives me pause. There's no indication that they'll be offering a line of running tights with HHDL's face on the butt, or that he'll start showing up in slightly see-through yoga pants, but it feels icky to have his image, bowing, on Click on the "learn more about our partnership" link and you get to a page headlined, "psst! we're in a new relationship."

lululemon is a company in need of good will. Its co-founder stepped down last year after saying that the company's clothes weren't intended to work on women with large thighs. But the way they're handling their "new relationship" doesn't make me like them more.

I don't think a straight-out donation would have bothered me. It's the "partnership," combined with HHDL's image, bowing, and a quote that includes the word "luxury." All of that creates a certain impression that helps to sell clothes, for lululemon. Thich Nhat Hahn's Foundation sells T-shirts with TNH's calligraphy to raise money. That's straightforward fundraising, not filtered through a for-profit company that's made some questionable choices in the past.

It reminds me of the corrupt Thai police official in John Burdett's books who makes donations at the local temple to buy merit so he can go on behaving badly.

What do you think?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

That is for you

One of my first encounters with Tibetan Buddhism was a weekend program with a lovely lama from Ohio. She was wise and funny and relatable. It was spring, and she brought in a chocolate Easter bunny to put on the shrine. I liked the idea of the chocolate bunny up there -- the gold foil made it fit in -- but I wasn't so sure about some of the other items. Relics? Really? The Buddha's fingernails or some such thing? C'mon.

I left the dharma center with a 10-page handout on how to set up an altar, what to put on each of the many levels and so on. It seemed overwhelming and suspiciously similar to Roman Catholicism, the altar and the gold and the relics and all that. As a former Catholic, I preferred the simplicity of Japanese Zen settings.

In another moment that tickled the dusty back realms of my brain, she recommended a practice of offering everything to the buddhas and bodhisattvas -- the beautiful day, the new grass, the chocolate bunny.

It was an interesting practice of noticing things to offer up, finding beauty in the world, but who was offering and what was the offered and who was it being offered to? How was this different from giving all glory to God because I was unworthy of it?

On the surface, not much. But, oh, there is so much below the surface. There is no offerer or offering or offered to. Nothing is permanent, you can't hold onto it, and you can't really give it away.

But you can let it go.

This probably was explained to me by the lama from Ohio, but I couldn't comprehend it at the time. When you give away the day, the light, the fluorescent orange maple leaves to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, you're relaxing your grasping mind, the one that wants to preserve the leaves, hang onto the day, save time in a bottle. You're seeing the impermanent, transitory nature of things, accepting that the satisfaction things bring is fleeting. And that you don't exist just as the buddhas and bodhisattvas don't exist -- but you do exist just as they do.

The deities in Buddhism are not separate from you; they are you. All beings have the same inherent, clear, compassionate nature -- buddhanature. In our human form, though, that's covered up by our humanity: Our fears, foibles, and judgments.

When you offer something to the buddhas, you're offering to your self and all beings rather than holding it in your grasp. 
“Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person’s face as you pass on the street: those faces are for you. And the street itself, and the ground under the street and the ball of fire underneath the ground: all these things are for you. They are as much for you as they are for other people. Remember this when you wake up in the morning and think you have nothing. Stand up and face the east. Now praise the sky and praise the light within each person under the sky. It’s okay to be unsure. But praise, praise, praise.”
-- Miranda July, No One Belongs Here More than You

Friday, October 10, 2014

Right Speech Applies to Self Talk

In one of my favorite passages in one of my favorite dharma books, "Loving Kindness," Sharon Salzberg talks about how she'd been practicing metta, loving kindness meditation, and wasn't sure it was having any effect -- until one morning when she broke something, said to herself what she always said, "You're such a klutz," and then surprised herself with, "But I love you anyway."

Wise or skillful speech is one of the steps on the Buddha's Eightfold Path to liberation from suffering. While it's often looked at as relational -- how we speak to others -- it also applies to how we talk to ourselves. Is it kind? Is it useful? Does it need to be said?

It's been a loud, short-tempered week in the office. Blame it on the full moon, Mercury in retrograde, new-and-not-yet-up-to-speed staff, a dozen other things. When I hear people talk meanly to others, I try to consider that they also talk that way to themselves. I know how uncomfortable it is to experience it coming from someone else. I suspect it sounds just as harsh directed at yourself.

NPR this week had a story on self talk as it's used in therapy for people with eating disorders. It quotes David Sarwer, a psychologist and clinical director at the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania, says that one of the first things he does with new patients is stand them in front of a mirror and coach them to use gentler, more neutral language as they evaluate their bodies. The goal, he says, is to remove "negative and pejorative terms" from the patient's self-talk.

It also matters how you address yourself, the report says.  Psychologist Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan studied the pronouns people use when they talk to themselves silently, inside their minds.
"What we find," Kross says, "is that a subtle linguistic shift — shifting from 'I' to your own name — can have really powerful self-regulatory effects."
... He asked volunteers to give a speech — with only five minutes of mental preparation. As they prepped, he asked some to talk to themselves and to address themselves as "I." Others he asked to either call themselves "you," or to use their own names as they readied their speeches.
Kross says that people who used "I" had a mental monologue that sounded something like, " 'Oh, my god, how am I going do this? I can't prepare a speech in five minutes without notes. It takes days for me to prepare a speech!' "
People who used their own names, on the other hand, were more likely to give themselves support and advice, saying things like, "Ethan, you can do this. You've given a ton of speeches before." These people sounded more rational, and less emotional — perhaps because they were able to get some distance from themselves.
"It's almost like you are duping yourself into thinking about you as though you were another person," he says.

This is interesting from a Buddhist perspective. Since the self is only a collection of constantly changing constituent elements -- the skandhas of form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness -- when we speak to our selves as "I," it's our confused mind talking to our confused mind. When we speak from awareness, from our innately clear and confident buddhanature, it has a different quality.

I just gave this a run-through. Looking in the mirror, "I" told myself I looked like I had gotten dressed out of the lost-and-found bin at the yoga studio. Awareness said, "Pay no attention. You look fine."

The practice -- and practicing it in meditation helps -- is to notice the self-talk before you act on it and question it. "I look fat," I say. "Really? By what standard? The irrational one in your head?" Well, yes.

Ask the magic questions: Is it kind? Is it useful? Is this the time to bring it up?

Kindness to yourself inevitably spills over into kindness to others -- genuine kindness, not indulgence. Covering up self-hatred in designer clothes doesn't actually make you feel any better. A person who feels at home in their skin does have to cover it in status symbols to prove their worth.

Try it. You, as much as anyone in the world, are deserving of your kindness.

Saturday, October 4, 2014


Buddhism is a path of personal responsibility. The concept of karma details how we are responsible for our actions -- across many lifetimes, if you want to take the long view. Buddhist teachings recommend that we constantly take stock of our actions to determine whether they create harm or benefit for beings. The goal is to create benefit, but, inevitably, there is harm done too. Someone interrupts our train of thought, and we snap in anger. We don't listen closely to someone and say something unkind.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there is a set of 59 slogans, called Lojong mind-training practices, that offer practical guidance for refining and purifying one's actions. They include the recommendations to start the day with the intention to do no harm and to end the day by reviewing our conduct to see if we've followed through.

And what if we have not? It's not an excuse for recrimination or beating ourselves up. It's possible to purify the effects of harmful actions.It starts with acknowledging the unskillful action, seeing that it has harmed us and others, and setting an intention not to repeat the behavior.

The idea here is to change habitual patterns -- anger, sarcasm, arrogance, envy -- that harm ourselves and others. We take responsibility for our behavior, acknowledging our unskillful response and not blaming the circumstances or the devil who made us do it, and see that we can choose to behave differently -- and promise (to ourselves) that we will try to do that.

Atonement, or purification practices, involve the two wings of Buddhism: wisdom and compassion. The recognition of our behavior and its effects requires wisdom, clear-seeing that is unfiltered by justification or judgment. Having recognized our behavior as harmful, we vow to change for the benefit of all beings, which is called compassion.

In Zen Buddhism, there is a formal atonement ritual. In Tibetan Buddhism, there are several purification rituals, including Vajrasattva practice. Both of those practices involve visualizing a deity who purifies the karma -- the deity is a symbol for your own inner, pure nature.

The practices don't require a deity. It's a simple reflection. The trick is to do it without getting caught up in the stories we use to justify or explain our behavior, and sometimes picturing an outside entity helps with that.

Another of the lojong slogans says: Drive all blames into one. That means that instead of blaming the weather or the traffic or the email from your new boss for your bad mood, you take responsibility for it. If someone backs into your car and dents it, you take responsibility for your reaction (but not the repair bill). Do you yell, call them names, moan about why this always happens to you? Or calmly make the calls and then move on? That's your choice, and that's what atonement or purification practice brings to light.

“We are not compelled to meditate by some outside agent, by other people, or by God. Rather, just as we are responsible for our own suffering, so are we solely responsible for our own cure. We have created the situation in which we find ourselves, and it is up to us to create the circumstances for our release.”

- Lama Thubten Yeshe, "Wisdom Energy" 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

I've often thought that if I were to get a word tattoo, it would be lines from the Heart Sutra
Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form.
The sutra continues: Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form, but I don't think I'd invest the skin space in the second sentence. (It's not pure repetition, though -- it says that form is not emptiness, but it's also not not-emptiness. And on.) 

Why choose one of the most confounding set of words in all of Buddhism? It's the pith instruction: Don't solidify anything, not even emptiness. Hold space open for everything.

Which is not to say that this wasn't a head-scratcher at first. Emptiness is a conundrum that takes some exploration to understand. While it is empty of fixed definitions -- like a permanent self -- it is full of possibility. Everything happens in emptiness.

Thich Nhat Hahn has released a new translation of the Heart Sutra that he says corrects that misperception -- which has been going on for about 2,000 years, he says in a letter of explanation.

Emptiness of self only means the emptiness of self, not the non-being of self, just as a balloon that is empty inside does not mean that the balloon does not exist. The same is true with the emptiness of dharma: it only means the emptiness of phenomena and not the non-existence of phenomena. It is like a flower that is made of only un-flower elements. The flower is empty of a separate existence, but that doesn't mean the flower is not there.
The Heart Sutra is a distillation of the much longer Prajanaparamita Sutra, which lays out the ultimate truth of emptiness. It counters the extreme views of nihilism and eternalism, detailing the parts that make up our personalities -- the skandhas of form, feeling, perception, conceptualization, and consciousness -- and says they don't exist.

Thay says that's the source of the misunderstanding.  
It removes all phenomena from the category 'being' and places them into the category of 'non-being' ... Yet the true nature of all phenomena is the nature of no being nor non-being, no birth and no death.
Instead of: "In emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness ..." Thay writes, "That is why in emptiness, body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are not separate self-entities. Even insight and attainment do not exist as separate self-entities."

The Heart Sutra, with its apparent negation of previous teachings, caused great consternation when it was spoken and ever since. The word "emptiness" confuses students who equate it with "voidness," a black hole of nothingness, when really it is the light that enables us to see -- sourceless, luminous, all-pervading wisdom. Prajnaparamita.

He calls the chant "The Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shores," in reference to the chanted mantra. See if this resonates with you.

while practicing deeply with
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore,
suddenly discovered that
all of the five Skandhas are equally empty,
and with this realisation
he overcame all Ill-being.
“Listen Sariputra,
this Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
and Consciousness.
“Listen Sariputra,
all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness;
their true nature is the nature of
no Birth no Death,
no Being no Non-being,
no Defilement no Immaculacy,
no Increasing no Decreasing.
“That is why in Emptiness,
Body, Feelings, Perceptions,
Mental Formations and Consciousness
are not separate self entities.
The Eighteen Realms of Phenomena
which are the six Sense Organs,
the six Sense Objects,
and the six Consciousnesses
are also not separate self entities.
The Twelve Links of Interdependent Arising
and their Extinction
are also not separate self entities.
Ill-being, the Causes of Ill-being,
the End of Ill-being, the Path,
insight and attainment,
are also not separate self entities.
Whoever can see this
no longer needs anything to attain.
Bodhisattvas who practice
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
see no more obstacles in their mind,
and because there
are no more obstacles in their mind,
they can overcome all fear,
destroy all wrong perceptions
and realize Perfect Nirvana.
“All Buddhas in the past, present and future
by practicing
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
are all capable of attaining
Authentic and Perfect Enlightenment.
“Therefore Sariputra,
it should be known that
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
is a Great Mantra,
the most illuminating mantra,
the highest mantra,
a mantra beyond compare,
the True Wisdom that has the power
to put an end to all kinds of suffering.
Therefore let us proclaim
a mantra to praise
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore.
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!”

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Goodbye, Dali Lama?

The Dalai Lama, the world's best-known Tibetan Buddhist, stirred things up this week with an interview in which he seemed to suggest that he should be the last to hold that title. “The 14th Dalai Lama now is very popular. Let us then finish with a popular Dalai Lama,” he told a German newspaper, which interpreted it to mean he did not want a successor.

Lots of people had lots to say, even Stephen Colbert.

Tricycle explicated the politics and tradition -- it could be a way to thwart China, to further remove the position from politics, to express the traditional humility of the position.

HHDL has speculated before about his return, saying he would reincarnate in the west, maybe as a woman.

While this obviously has a lot of meaning for Tibetans, those with an interest in geopolitics, and Richard Gere, what does it mean to you?

Some western Buddhists see the Dalai Lama as an anachronism, a symbol of an institution and tradition that doesn't translate to this culture, a way of keeping the teachings in the hands of a few and away from the masses. (Although HHDL has offered previously secret teachings to large crowds.)

Others see him as him as their guru, a teacher with whom they have a special relationship -- even if they've never met him. And others see him as an example of an enlightened being in human form, an inspiration, a for practice.

The outer guru is like the key, but when we open the door we discover ourselves, our true guru. (Yonge Minyur Rinpoche)

This 14th incarnation of the lineage has done a lot to explore the connection between science and Buddhism, to support women, and to be an ambassador of Tibetan Buddhism to the world, bringing  his ready smile and willingness to wear a local baseball cap around the globe.

What do you think?

Friday, September 5, 2014

That iPhone (and your happiness) is impermanent

It's a truth of existence that material things won't bring you lasting happiness. Things break. Or get outdated. Maybe the iPhone 5 brought you bliss -- but now the iPhone 6 is about to be introduced. And that might make you even happier. Until you find the bugs in it or the 7 is rumored.

Expecting things to make us happy only leads to disappointment, which leads to wanting new things. That desire for something to improve the present moment is what creates stress and dissatisfaction, aka unhappiness, the Buddha said.

A new study, Waiting for Merlot: Anticipatory Consumption of Material and Experiential Purposes,  found that people get more enduring happiness when they spend money on experiences than on acquiring things. That extends to waiting in line for those things.

People tended to be more competitive about purchases, and a comparison of news reports about people waiting in line found that long waits for material purchases were more likely to end in violence, researchers said.

One of the study's authors, Amit Kumar, a doctoral student at Cornell University, speculates that experiences give people the opportunity to bond and socialize. Even when if you aren't guaranteed a ticket to a concert or a taco from the cool new food truck, people often enjoy waiting in line. "While waiting for concert tickets, people reported singing songs together, or people would be playing games with each other while they're waiting," he says.

Waiting for the experience became part of the experience, not something that was preventing acquisition of The Thing That Would Give Us All the Happiness.

Westerners speak of the "pursuit" of happiness, which generally depends on running after external conditions ... There is only one problem: The very nature of desire is that it cannot be satisfied -- at least not for long.
The happiness that I'm talking about is not "pursued." In fact, the more we remains elf-contained and do not pursue thoughts or fantasies, or rush from one attractive object to another, the more we can access a wakeful contentment that is always with us. ... This wakeful state of ease is quite joyful and approaches a profound sense of well-being. -- Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
It's important to note that contentment doesn't require you to renounce your smartphone or wear nothing but caftans. It's OK to like things -- just know that the happiness they bring is conditional, impermanent, and dependent. It won't last. Contentment, though, is unconditional, luminous, and always there. Pursue that.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

I can't make you happy

The happiness or suffering of others is the result of their actions and not my wishes for them.

This was my mantra, and it was an important part of my path.  I grew up believing that my role was to make people happy, and my value was tied to whether I was successful at that. So Buddhism was a revelation in that it proposed that I have my own intrinsic value and that everyone is responsible for their own happiness.  I can't make you happy -- you have to make that choice. I can try to act ethically, with kindness and compassion, but I can't control whether that makes you happy.

So why metta, why wish for another's happiness, safety, health, and ease?

It's about training your mind, opening up to the common experience of sentient beings, loosening your grip on the solid people you project the wishes onto, letting go of your own definitions of what that means.

Metta is about letting go.

May you be happy -- however that manifests for you. You don't have to meet my definition of happiness. YOU DON'T HAVE TO SMILE. I wish that you have happiness that's not tied to a new iPhone or a text from your crush, that you find a deeper source of contentment that lasts, that you see that happiness is not tied to external circumstances. May you find that, in your time and your way, which may not be mine.

May you be safe -- I have adult children; I learned a long time ago that I can't control whether someone else is safe. With kids, ultimately, all you can do is hope that you've passed on enough information so that they avoid those dangers that are avoidable. Then trust. May you avoid the risks you can and not be so frightened of the ones you can't that you get paralyzed.

May you be healthy -- and may you have ease with whatever level of health you have. (See safety.)

May you live with ease -- I hope that you can find a way to accept what you cannot change and to change the things that you can. And the courageous wisdom to figure out which is which.

I can't make you happy or keep you safe or give you health or put you at ease. But I hope that you find it. May I create the conditions that will enable you to uncover that in yourself.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Kindness in the news

We crave stories of kindness. How else can you explain why a photo of a grocery store worker tying an elderly man's shoelace goes viral?

There are scary things happening all around the world today, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Iran and Syria and, seemingly, everywhere.

But there are also good things happening. Often those things are small actions performed by an individual -- like the grocery clerk -- while the scary things are big, like thousands of people trapped on a mountain or an angry crowd facing police cloaked in padded gear.

If you look only at the big things, it's easy to be overwhelmed by anger and despair.

If you look only at the small things, you can become a delusional Pollyanna, radically accepting the status quo when wisdom sees that the situation needs to change.

To me, Buddhist teachings often come back to balance -- finding the pivot point that holds the awareness that people and the situations they create are both kind and mean, avoiding the traps of despair and elation, seeing the good and how to mobilize it to work with the bad.

Anger is a contagion. It spreads in a flash. When met with anger, it roils and builds.

When met with kindness, it dissipates. The situation in Ferguson changed dramatically when the militarized police were taken out of the equation. Hugs replaced hate when highway patrol officers with visible faces and no body armor took over from the padded, helmeted local police.

Of course, the situation is more complicated than that in Ferguson and there are many things to be looked at and addressed. It's impossible to do that in the confusion of anger, which locks everyone into their own view.

Robin Williams' death also stirred up lots of emotions this week, not just grief but anger and hurt over the comments around suicide, addiction, and depression. And it brought stories of his great kindness behind the scenes, like this tribute from Norm Macdonald.

Kindness is all around. When you practice metta, you train your mind to notice it. And you train yourself to respond kindly. Practice in meditation is all about training your reflexes to respond in the post-meditation world.

Kindness is contagious. Here is a story, a true poem, by Naomi Shahib Nye, of what kindness can do. It's describes what happens at an airport gate during a flight delay when passengers and crew became a community rather than adversaries:

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This 
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that 
gate--once the crying of confusion stopped--seemed apprehensive about 
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other
women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Release your heart

Today is a full moon. I could tell even before I checked the calendar, based on the phone calls that came in to the newspaper where I work. That's not unusual -- the callers range from those with tomatoes that resemble Richard Nixon to ones who tell you they're wearing tinfoil on their heads while they talk on the phone about conspiracies.

Friday's calls had a different quality than the usual lunacy, though. The callers wanted to tell me about kindnesses they'd experienced. And they simply wanted to share their gratitude and joy -- they didn't even launch into the usual rant about how we only report bad news and how about writing something good for a change.

One was a big deal: A woman was lying on a downtown sidewalk in May, and another woman stopped to check on her, then called 9-1-1, saving her life. The woman didn't remember any details but wanted to thank her unknown helper. She couldn't write a letter to the editor because, she said, she had a stroke and "all I can do is talk."

Another caller praised a newspaper customer service worker, who had driven to her disabled brother's home to hand him a newspaper after a delivery snafu. Getting the newspaper is the highlight of his day, she said (giving me a highlight for my day), and getting a special delivery gave him great joy.

The calls reminded me of the importance of developing an attitude of kindness, seeing the small ways that the world supports us rather than focusing on the insults.

The magic of metta practice is not that it makes us more loving toward the person we love or tolerant of the annoying person. It is that it turns our mind. We begin to see everything with the wide eyes of compassion rather than the narrowed eyes of judgment.

The Buddha identified 11 benefits of lovingkindness (speaking to monks, so Buddha says "he"):

1. "He sleeps in comfort. 2. He awakes in comfort. 3. He sees no evil dreams. 4. He is dear to human beings. 5. He is dear to non-human beings. 6. Devas (gods) protect him. 7. Fire, poison, and sword cannot touch him. 8. His mind can concentrate quickly. 9. His countenance is serene. 10. He dies without being confused in mind. 11. If he fails to attain arahantship (the highest sanctity) here and now, he will be reborn in the brahma-world.
These advantages "are to be expected from the release of heart." What a beautiful phrase. If you released your heart from its constrictions, from its limits, from its cages, where would it go?

What if you looked for the kindness in the world instead of the meanness? What if you realized the ground-floor gratitude of being able to take in breath? How would that change your life?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014


Last month at a group meditation retreat, in silence, among people who aren't familiar with me, I was known to some as the woman with coffee -- coffee was something of a contraband thing, not prohibited but not provided. I brought my own. To others, who shared my assigned daily work of cleaning the community center, I was the one who obsessively went over the checklist each day to make sure everything got done. I was a meditator, a student, a roommate.

Without the usual social cues of speech and context, identity gets stripped down to behavior and appearance. Name and history and stories don't mean much when you aren't having conversations. And that's part of what happens when you sit in silence -- you get glimpses that identity is mutable, relational, contextual, rather than something solid that you own. The stories that we think define us carve habitual patterns that can be hard to break out of, but our minds are the only things forcing us into those ruts.

"If you're determined to think of yourself as limited, fearful, vulnerable, or scarred by past experience, know only that you have chosen to do so. The opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available." —Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche 

In any given day, each of us has many identities -- spouse, pet owner, parent, householder, employee, customer, etc. -- even though we're only one person. We can't be all things to everyone but we can be many things to many people.

Seeing the multiplicity of identities and the lack of solidity in each one allows us to wear our identities loosely, leaving room for things to move in a different way. A boss doesn't always have to be authoritative; sometimes listening to others' ideas is appropriate. A parent doesn't always have to know the answer -- knowing how to look something up or being willing to try something we're not expert at can be a good lesson too.

"Misfortunes and obstacles to practice do not exist intrinsically. For something to be a misfortune for me, I must identify it as such," Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace says. If we refuse to identify something as an obstacle but see it instead as an opportunity or a challenge, we approach it differently. "We can then rebound from these calamities with courage and understanding, instead of wilting under their pressure," Wallace adds.

The Buddha said that there is no solid, permanent self or identity -- all we have are our actions, our karma. And we can always choose to act differently.  We can't chose our race or whether we have a disability that affects how we move or other visible characteristics, but we can choose how we relate to that identity, just as others choose how they relate to that in us. Do we define ourselves by what others see in us or do we focus on showing them something that's hidden? Do we chose to spend time with others who share an aspect of our identity or to vote in a bloc -- identity politics -- or do we cast a wider net?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Beginner's heart, loving heart

In his classic book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind,  Suzuki Roshi succinctly pointed to our original nature as our true nature -- unfabricated, unfiltered, disentangled from preconceptions that color our view.

"In the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few," the book begins.

What if we extended that to our hearts -- if we cultivated beginner's heart? What would that be like?

If you could go back to the the firsts in your life -- the first time you drew a breath or recognized a caregiver's face, held hands, received a kindness, received a heartfelt thank you -- how would that feel? What would it be like to experience affection without all of the concepts and questions we layer onto it: What does this person really want from met? Is this The One? Will it last? Will they expect something in return?

What if we could simply see the world with an open heart, without anticipating arrows headed toward it?

I saw the phrase "beginner's heart" this week, and it stuck with me as I was thinking about the Interdependence Project's month of metta meditation in August. Metta is a practice of cultivating beginner's heart, of recognizing that underneath the labels we stick on ourselves and others is a common, untrained, open, and accepting space.

We all start out with open loving hearts, but as we gain experience we build walls. Noah Levine describes as building a papier mache shell layer by layer; each disappointment or heartache adds a piece of paper, maybe tissue paper, maybe corrugated cardboard, until the heart is well-protected. Nothing gets in or goes out. But the heart is constricted; it can't expand beyond the space the shell allows.

Beginner's heart, though, is as big as the sky.

When I do metta practice, I try to remember that each person -- the neutral one, the loved one, the irritating one -- has this heart inside them, covered over by their own layers of hurt and fear. And if I can touch my own beginner's heart and let go of whatever concepts I have about them that land them in those categories, I can reach out for that. And when my heart feels that shared space, there is an openness where love flows.

If all else fails, I think, "Well, their mother loves them." And knowing how I feel about my kids, it's possible to see them with the eye of lovingkindness rather than judgment.

In Buddhism, the heart and the mind are seen as one thing, the heart-mind, not the two distinct aspects of ourselves that Westerners generally see. We think the heart wants what it wants, and the mind knows what's good for it. The heart handles emotion, the mind does analysis. We can use that for this contemplation.

What if you could let down the defenses around your heart? Maybe for a 15-minute metta practice? Would that change the world? Or just your view of it?  


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Celebrating 50 years -- please continue for many more

I had the immense good fortune of receiving teachings from her in June on the 37 practices of a bodhisattva. You might think (I did) that someone who's been a nun for so long would be removed from daily life and, while admirable, be difficult to relate to. In this case, you would be so so wrong. She is delightful -- truly filled with delight -- and animated. She shares her deep knowledge with great humor and frequent laughs. Her smile stretches her face, and her blue eyes spark. She is fervent, intelligent, and experienced.

Fifty years ago today, Jetsun Tenzin Palmo was ordained as a novice Buddhist nun by Khamtrul Rinpoche, one of the first Western women to take the vows. Forty years ago on the same date, she became the first Western woman to be fully ordained. It was an auspicious occasion -- Jetsunma is still teaching, re-established a lineage of Tibetan nuns, and is fighting for women to get the teachings they've been denied for centuries.

 She discovered Buddhism as a teenager in England (and walked around town in what she thought approximated Buddhist robes until she met some actual Buddhists and saw they dressed like other people). She learned about an Englishwoman who ran a place in India where Tibetans who'd escaped from the Chinese takeover of their country, and moved there, meeting many newly arrived high lamas. She became a nun and spent seven years meditating in a cave in Tibet. (Her story is told in the book Cave in the Snow, or you can read the abridged version here.)

She was made for the solitary meditative life, but her plans to go back to deep retreat were repeatedly thwarted by events. Now she runs a nunnery, Dongyu Gatsal Ling, re-establishing the nuns lineage in her tradition. She hopes to get the nuns the teachings she was denied because she is a woman.

During a Q&A, Jestunma was asked if she had any disappointments about her experience. She replied that she feels like a failure -- causing audible gasps from the devoted attendees. Her goal was to become enlightened in this life, she explained, and she was unable to get the traditional teachings that would lead her there because she is a woman.

As heart-breaking as it was to hear this extraordinary woman, who has such deep understanding of things I can only glimpse, confess to feeling like a failure, it was also reassuring, in some ways. If she's not enlightened, that means she has to stay and teach us and return in future lives to lead us beings toward nirvana. And it was proof that feelings -- sadness, happiness, anger -- continue to happen even after years of study and practice and that it's possible to feel them, genuinely, and let them pass, like the clouds in the sky.

After all, as Jetsunma said, it's all rainbows.

You can see tributes to her on her Facebook page.