Saturday, July 31, 2010

One-armed push-ups

I was in the gym today and saw a guy doing one-armed push-ups while talking on his cell phone. No joke; I couldn't even make that up. When I told my wife, she said, "I got that beat. Some guy was in the cardio theater"--a movie theater with cardio equipment--"talking on his cell phone, watching Transformers, and jogging on the treadmill. All at the same time."

Talk about multitasking!

When I was hired as an English teacher, my supervisor told me that, besides teaching experience, she was most impressed with applicants who had waitressing experience. Because teaching requires you to juggle ten different tasks at once. Back then, I was impressed by someone's ability to multitask. Not anymore.

Now I call it multi-crapping, because all that winds up happening when you try to manage several tasks at once is that they all get done like crap. I don't have any research to back this claim up, but I'm sure it's out there. After a decade of praising multitasking, educators and employers are finally catching on to its side effects: inattention, carelessness, accidents, poor concentration skills, amongst other things.

As it relates to Buddhism, multitasking is the enemy of mindfulness. It forces you to be nowhere at once. Rather than concentrate on one task, we're spread thin across several. But I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.

As Zen practitioners, we often scoff at this kind of mindlessness (which it literally is), but let's not be so quick to cast the first stone. For there's a much more insidious form of multitasking that we're all guilty of: mental multitasking. While it's obvious when someone is physically trying to do more than one things at once--talk on the phone, cook, and watch the children--it's much more subtle when the brain wanders. For instance, when I saw the push-up guy in the gym, I automatically began writing this blog post in my head. Talk about hypocrisy: I was doing the same thing he was; the only difference was that I was doing it in my mind.

To be mindful means to be present with whatever life hands us. Whether we're physically juggling three chores at once or mentally planning our weekend plans doesn't make any difference--it all amounts to the same thing: are we present or not?

If we are, good. Let's keep it up. If we aren't, we're just doing one-armed push-ups on our cell phones.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Miniature Zen

Anyone who has ever spent time with a three-year-old knows that, in addition to being either hilarious or nerve-wracking, kids are great teachers. They retrain us to see the wonder and mystery in the world, to marvel at butterflies and clouds--all the things we as adults have grown too jaded to appreciate. But this week I learned that children and adults are not that different.

I played Mr. Mom this week while my wife worked--just me, my three-year-old daughter, and nine-month-old son. As I struggled to juggle what my wife can do with her eyes closed, I learned something from my daughter's temper tantrums: I'm like a giant three-year-old! As adults, we condescendingly tell children to "Relax," or "It's not a big deal," or my favorite, "This will pass; you'll see." But how willing are we to take our own medicine? Not very.

I watched, fascinated, as my daughter had a meltdown because she couldn't finish watching a cartoon before nap time, all the while thinking, "What's the big deal?" Meanwhile, if I'm interrupted while I'm reading or I want to go to the gym but have to wait fifteen minutes, I'm every bit as anxious, self-centered, and unreasonable.

Zen practice forces us to confront our ego--not in combat, but in accepting awareness. We're not trying to change anything about ourselves (although that is a likely side effect), but rather to shine the light of awareness on those habitual thoughts, tacit beliefs, and routine behaviors that drag us around by the nose. And the more awake we are to the present, the more aware we are of our karmic predispositions and unconscious drives, the less likely we are to be hijacked by greed and anger. A space opens, and we are free to make our own choices

And so, as uncomfortable and humbling as this revelation is, only good can come of it. It's like Pandora's Box; there's no shutting it now, no turning back. Now that I've spotted the behavior, I can't turn a blind eye to it; I have to face it and own it. Easier said than done--the ego is like a vampire: it hates being exposed to the light and is ferocious when cornered. Oh well, no one said Zen was easy!

It's also helpful as a parent: now I can try to be more understanding when my daughter is having a meltdown, because I know how frustrating it is not to get my way--even as a so-called "responsible" adult.

So after a week in baby boot camp, I learned that there are two three-year-olds in my house: my daughter and me. Not surprisingly, I don't feel the need to tell my wife; I'm sure she's known the all along!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

No separation

The Zen path leads, through the Gateless Barrier, straight to non-duality. Here, subject and object merge into an indivisible, seamless whole; there is no separation between me and the world. Boundaries dissolve, and I become the entire universe--and it becomes me. Ego drops off completely, what Dogen means when he says, "Enlightenment is intimacy with all things," and "to study the self is to lose the self." This is the primary purpose of koan study.

A common explanation of why we suffer is because we separate ourselves from the world. There's us on the one hand, and everyone and everything else on the other. We are subjects while the rest of the world, as outsiders to our inner experiences, are mere objects, usually standing in opposition to our goals. This kind of thinking turns the world into an obstacle to be overcome. On a psychological level, our lives slip into quiet antagonism as we try to squeeze our desires out of an obstinate, uncooperative world. This leads to feelings of anger, fear, frustration, alienation, and loneliness.

But I think there's an even subtler form of dualism at work here, one that is commonly overlooked in our conversations regarding non-duality.

Not only do we view the world as "other," but we see our very bodies and actions as "others" too. All too commonly, we treat our bodies as vehicles to transport our minds around, organic machines that obey our commands, which usually consist of gratifying one desire after another. Sure we experience pleasure from our senses, but as a distinct "I" who is separate from the sensation. This creates "the act of sensing" or "experiencing," rather than simply being the experience. We are housed inside of our heads, mere minds divorced from our bodies--the Cartesian mind/body split run amok.

Part of this disassociation (I use the term here, not in a clinical sense, but as a more emphatic form of differentiation) stems from our imagined separation from our actions. When we run, we imagine that there is some "us" inside our bodies commanding our bodies to run, or that running is somehow separate from our bodies! The same goes for eating, jumping, listening, seeing, etc.

But this is not the case at all. There is no "I" outside of this field of experience. There is only eating, jumping, listening. There's no need for this middle man called "I" to constantly "experience" our actions. To quote the Master Lin Chi, that's "putting a head on top of your own head."

Part of this confusion is linguistic. Wittgenstein points out that language limits our world, and unless we pay close attention to language, we can very easily get hijacked by it. For example, when I say "in my head," "in" means something different here than "in the house." But we confuse the two usages and think they're the same. This creates the sense of some me "inside" of my body. But where is it? Why can't I find it "inside" me?

Another grave linguistic misconception is how we cut up reality in terms of subjects separate from verbs, as if there could ever be a subject that wasn't doing something. This is an even subtler manifestation of the classic subject/object split (i.e., imagining a subject without an object). Talk about the tail wagging the dog!

The end result is a false view of the world that causes us and others pain and suffering.

One alternative is to stop thinking of ourselves as static nouns, but rather as verbs. If we truly internalize the Buddha's teaching of impermanence, we will see that change doesn't happen to us, it is us. We are the flux and flow or the universe, and in that sense we resemble verbs much more than we do nouns. For there's no part of ourselves that we can ever pin down--the moment you think you've caught some emotion or experience, it's gone. Transformed into something else. But the change isn't separate from us, it is us.

To resist is to cling, to suffer; to open ourselves is to find freedom.

Once we accept the changing, impermanent nature of our existence--in effect, obliterating the myth of a fixed self looking out at the world--we can then reclaim our bodies and our actions. And thus ourselves as change itself.

This is what the old Zen masters mean by "Just wash the dishes," and the purpose of rituals in Zen practice. "To be intimate with," as Dogen might say. After a time, there is no distinction between you and the act of washing the dishes or bowing or chanting, for there is only washing the dishes, bowing, chanting. This is everyday Samadhi, an experience we commonly overlook. Most of the time we would call it, "losing ourselves." Like when you get sucked into a great movie, a beautiful song, a game of basketball. The entire world disappears, including our sense of ourselves. Lin Chi's second head drops off--you, watching, and the movie, all collapse. Just this moment, that's all there is.

And you come to realize that beneath all our concepts, delusions, and dualisms, that's all there ever was.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Nature of Mind

I've always been fascinated by consciousness, the way a virtual world exists in our minds. I suppose that's what initially piqued my interest in Buddhism. Before I began studying the Dharma, I had all sorts of illusions and fantasies about what the relationship between consciousness and meditation--accessing higher levels of consciousness, cosmic planes, Buddha realms all that stuff. So I was surprised when I found out what the Buddha's view on consciousness really was. (For the purposes of this post, I'll be referring to the Pali Canon, not Mahayana sutras.)

To the Buddha, mind or consciousness is an emergent property, which means that consciousness is the product of a mind engaging an object or environment through a sense organ. Well, no duh! you think. Sounds pretty ordinary, right? I agree--until you begin to consider the implications.

Most of us take our consciousness for granted, in the sense that we consider it as a given that precedes interaction. In other words, the common assumption is that there is a little person (I'm speaking metaphorically) inside our heads looking out at the world. But, according to the Buddha, this isn't the case at all. To him, there is no consciousness without an object of consciousness. Which means, that until our eyes see something, there is no sight consciousness. The same goes for our other senses, including our thoughts.

This means that there isn't some thinker--or pure awareness--in our heads waiting around to think; rather, the act of thinking creates what we conventionally refer to as the thinker. Without thought, there is no thinker--literally. So, if we could somehow remove all of the objects of our senses--thoughts, sounds, tastes, odors, etc.--there would be no consciousness at all. This is what the Buddha means when he says that all dharmas are empty: none can exist on their own; they are all interdependent. From this emerges the principle of anatman, "no or not-self." Since no aspect of my being can exist of its own right, none of them can be said to be truly me or mine.

This challenges everything we take for granted about our existence--namely that we exist independent of our environment. It's the inverse of the "tree falling in the woods" question; except here it's you who doesn't exist without a world to interact with.

You may have heard a similar question posed by non-dualists, "Where do you go during deep dreamless sleep?"

The Buddha, at least according to the Pali Canon, would say, "Without mental or physical perceptions, there is no mind consciousness" (the part of ourselves that we most commonly identify ourselves with).

To the Buddha, consciousness, like everything else in the world, is conditional. It's not some privileged quality that exists beyond the laws of dependent origination. This is both a humbling and revelatory insight. It's perfectly consistent with the rest of the Dharma, and in fact is the only explanation of mind that would be consistent with the doctrine of emptiness. Seven hundred years later, Nagarjuna would elaborate on this by stating that all of the skandhas are empty. Nothing can exist of its own right, not even us.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Karma--To believe or not to believe...

Karma is a slippery subject. Many Western Buddhists (a la Stephen Batchelor) have chosen to jettison this teaching entirely, while others prefer a watered-down, science-oriented interpretation. And then there are the hardcore believers, those who see the Dharma as an indivisible whole; to them, choosing which parts I "like" and which I don't is just a skeptic's form of cherry picking. Honestly, I don't know where I stand on the issue of karma. Every time I try to accept the teaching, I find myself feeling grossly superstitious, even naive. The idea doesn't sit well with my modern, Western sensibilities. I'm entirely too rational (and this isn't meant as a compliment) to believe that the circumstances of my life are determined by my previous actions. There are too many logical loopholes for me.

For instance, if I'm walking down the road and decide to punch some random person in the face, is that the other person's karma bearing fruit? Traditional Buddhist doctrine says yes. But if so, then why should I accumulate any negative karma, since it was the other person's karma "calling" me? And what does this say about freewill?

Another problem I have is, if karma explains why everything happens (at least the events beyond our control), then what about hurricane or tsunami victims? Did these people "deserve" their plight because of the actions in their previous lives? If so, isn't that a bit convenient (all those people with bad karma being in the same place at the same time), not to mention deterministic? I suppose that you could argue your way around that one: that karma is being calculated on some kind of cosmic abacus, and every time something "bad" happens to you, it cancels out a bad deed from you past. But come on.... Really? Isn't that a bit orchestrated?

And another puzzling dilemma is, if I'm constantly changing, then why is karma still "trailing" me, so to speak. Every seven years my body recycles its cells, so why not my karma, too? Shouldn't it have just be washed away or something? I'm sure there's some technical Abhidharmic explanation for all this. After all, greater minds than mine have pondered this, I'm sure. Another related rub is, if, on an Absolute level, I am the entire universe (as Mahayana tradition teaches us), then how does karma return to me? How does the universe know who I am? What, does it have some kind of karmic homing system?

I've heard Thich Nhat Hanh explain karma as simple cause and effect. For instance, you harbor ill will towards someone, so you feel angry--a painful emotion. The old, you reap what you sow proverb. Maybe he's watering it down for Westerners; I don't know.

I'm a little fuzzy on the whole rebirth thing too, but I can accept rebirth much more easily than I can karma. I don't know why, karma just makes my brain cramp. It feels like a relic of ancient Indian culture, political dogma used to justify the caste system. We do have to remember that the Buddha lived 2,500 years ago, in a time dominated by superstition and mythology. Hell, they didn't even know about germs back then! I'm not suggesting that the Buddha was ignorant, but he certainly wasn't omniscient: the Abhidharma is rife with scientific inaccuracies concerning the material elements, methods of procreation, etc. Today, in light of our scientific understanding, Western Buddhists easily overlook these pre-scientific explanations as being emblematic of the world the Buddha lived in. Kind of like cultural leftovers. So why is karma any different? (See Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confession of a Buddhist Atheist for more on this.) Just a consideration.

What I appreciate so much about Zen is how little emphasis it places on these doctrines. It's not like there's someone waving a stick over your head, making sure you're a good Buddhist Kind of believer. In Zen, you can take it or leave it; make as big or little of a deal out of it as you want. What matters is the practice.

Recently I heard a funny story about this subject. It was about a Buddhist British soccer coach who made the mistake of telling the press his feelings on karma. He said that people who are less fortunate than him deserved to be because of karma. To him, blind people are blind because they "earned" it. The same goes for poor people, victims of accidents, and so on. The funny thing is, the coach got fired for saying this. Talk about karma biting him in the ass!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Buddha's life is our life

Traditionally, the Buddha's life prior to his awakening has been read as a parable or caveat for extreme living. The young prince was raised in a life of luxury, sheltered from the knowledge of old age, sickness, and death. Eventually though, he was confronted with the inevitability of these realities. His whole world was turned upside down, and so he vowed to find an end to suffering. He wandered the land as a religious ascetic for seven years, enduring the most extreme physical mortifications in India at the time. But none of this worked. So, weak, starving, and still no closer to awakening than he had been as a prince, the Buddha decided to abandon asceticism--look where it had gotten him!--in search of a Middle Way between these extremes. And this is the path that led him to Nirvana. The lesson here is that neither extreme--a life of indulgence or one of physical mortification--is the answer; the path lies between the two, in the middle. And that is the Buddha's Way.

But I think there's another way to read this story, one that has direct and immediate bearing on our lives. Rather than view the Buddha's life as an allegory about which paths to avoid, I see his life as a microcosm of human experience itself. Let me explain. The Buddha taught that we suffer because we are constantly trying to surround ourselves with pleasurable things and trying to avoid unpleasant things. It's the classic psychological pleasure/pain principle: we want more of the things we like and none of the things we don't. Well, that's how I see the Buddha's pre-enlightenment life: luxury and mortification are metaphors for the very processes that we experience on a moment to moment basis. At any given time, we face situations that we either like--and so we're happy, yeah!--or or don't like--and so we're angry, sad, upset, booh! For it's our responses to life that cause us to suffer, not life itself. So when the Buddha speaks about the unconditioned (Nirvana, which literally means "to extinguish"), he means a life not conditioned by greed, anger, and clinging (for their hold on us has been "blown out," so to speak). Don't get me wrong: they still exist; we don't live in some mystical bliss state. We're just not driven or controlled by them like we used to be.

You see, the Buddha's life is our life. We walk in his footsteps all the time. In fact, we can't help but walk in them, for his story is the human story, which is why it's so powerful, I suppose. We suffer because of the way we are blindly driven by habitual responses. And the Buddha's life teaches us how to find freedom from this self-induced suffering.

I find this reading perfectly consistent with Buddhist doctrine, for as Zen teaches, we are already perfect, complete, and lacking nothing (in other words, Enlightened). The path is to recognize our aversions and attractions, see them for what they are (conditional, impermanent responses), greet them with kindness and acceptance, but be bound (attached) to none of them. That's what the Buddha's Enlightenment says to me: the Middle Way lives in between aversion and grasping, rejecting and bound by neither.