Friday, October 29, 2010

Metaphysical grasping is still grasping

I'm currently reading Paul Williams' magnum opus Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. It's a fascinating read, packed full of information regarding the development of Mahayana. I'm about halfway through the book, and what I've begun to find is that as Mahayana evolved throughout its several-hundred-year development, its metaphysics grew increasingly more complicated.

From the Cittamatra's "mind only" philosophy (Buddhism's brand of idealism) to the Tathagatagarbha sutras' Buddha Nature, I find Mahayana writers/philosophers becoming more and more concerned with metaphysical speculation. Subtle and causal bodies, storehouse consciousness, dharmakaya/Tathagatagarbha/Buddha Nature, all of these seem to delve into the territory that the Buddha warned us about--metaphysical speculation. On many occasions, the Buddha cautioned us about getting caught up in philosophical quandaries, such as "Is the universe infinite?" "Do we have a soul? Is it eternal?"

To quote Stephen Batchelor, in the Pali Canon the Buddha repeatedly said, "Don't go there" to these types of questions. And yet, it seems to me that this is exactly what these Mahayana philosophers were doing. They were debating and speculating about ethereal bodies, the Self, etc.; meanwhile, the arrow of suffering is still buried fast in their legs. The danger, of course, in all this philosophizing is that we're just creating another object to cling to. Mental candy.

Perhaps I am being reductive, but what strikes me as the ultimate slate-cleaner regarding metaphysics is the fact that most of these philosophies don't agree. And since they can't all be correct, reason tells us that, in every place except in bizarre Quantumland, all but one of them must be wrong (unless you argue that they're all different ways of expressing the same thing--a form of upaya--a proposition that I'm growing leery of accepting).

A good question to ask is whether these paradigms are useful. If so, then use them, but don't grow attached to them; they're simply models of reality, not reality itself. When you're done with the raft, the Buddha says, you discard it. If they're not useful, if they're just causing us to run around in circles creating more and more theories, then I think we already have our answer.

Zen tends to avoid all this, in that it demands the immediate engagement of life as it is. Right here, right now. No philosophizing. "If you have a subtle body," a Zen master would say. "show it to me." Uhhh....


I don't intend for any of this to profane, but rather to express my own difficulty in synthesizing these later Mahayana developments into my practice.

For me, the Buddha always returned to the same project--relieving suffering. The way to do that is to stop clinging. And for the life of me, I can't see how positing some subtle ethereal body or complex metaphysical cosmology does that. To me, that's just another example of people getting caught in the cycle of speculation, a form of mental grasping.

What do you think?
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: sand dragon.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Anchoring the mind

Over the past several months, the core of my practice has been mindfulness and labeling rogue thoughts as they arise. I learned the technique from Charlotte Joko Beck's Nothing Special, and its emphasis on using emotions and everyday mind states as practice is what drew me to the Ordinary Mind Zen school. In the past, trying to practice mindfulness, during meditation or while unloading the dishwasher, I would simply note a thought as it arose, let it go, and return to an open awareness of my breathing and other bodily sensations. But the difficulty, I found, is that the thoughts would almost immediately return. Pesky little devils!

Now, when I stop, acknowledge the thought with a label such as, "Thinking about meditation again" or "Angry about so-and-so's comment," the thought tends to stay away. Sure, it will rise again, but less frequently. It's as though the label is an anchor weighing the thought down.

An additional advantage of labeling is that it allows me to mentally catalogue which thoughts repeat themselves--to identify where I'm stuck. Whereas when I simply snapped myself awake and returned to the breath or the task at hand (as was my former practice), I lost a vital opportunity to track my thoughts. Now I can monitor what patterns are arising? What rut do I keep falling into?

This practice brings everything to the forefront of my awareness. It shines the light of attention on those slippery little thoughts that tend to slither in beneath the radar of my mind, the pesky ones that just keep returning. It identifies them so that the next time I spot them I say, "Oh you again?" Once I identify a thought, it's hard to overlook it or pretend I haven't seen it when it keeps surfacing.

But like any practice there are pitfalls: it's easy to get caught in the act of labeling and try to analyze or engage the thought itself. That's a trap. It takes practice to get the hang of spotting the thought, gently acknowledging it, applying a label, and then letting it go. But I definitely think it's worth it.

Give it a try.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Plbmak.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Fragmented Self

A few years ago I read The Dhammapada, translated by Eknath Easwaran. It's an excellent edition, with a beautiful introduction and insightful chapter notes. In the introduction, Easwaran explores the Buddha's meditative insight and experience of nirvana. He says the Buddha experienced something like a particle decelerator of consciousness, so much so that during deep samadhi the Buddha could actually witness individual bursts of consciousness arising and diminishing like quantum matter.

How cool! I thought. I wonder what that would be like. And what's in between those quantum flashes of mental activity?

Lately, as I've been sitting zazen (miles far from deep samadhi), I've been marveling at how discontinuous consciousness actually is. I've found that consciousness--whether it be visual, mental, auditory, etc.--is discrete; it's broken into distinct moments of experience, and any continuity is illusory, a product my mind "filling in the gaps."Kind of the way a film appears to be continuous, but is really composed of a series of rapid-fire frames.

Take sight, for instance. When I stare at my kitchen table, an image appears in my mind; but when I shift my gaze to the sink, there's actually a gap in my visual consciousness as my eyes jump from object to another. What I've been noticing during zazen, as I pay attention to how my mind works, is that consciousness is far from fluid; there are gaps, and it's actually my mind that's filling in those blanks. Sometimes, in the calm of meditation, I get the impression that my whole sense of self is a mental story that I keep telling (or worse, believing); a series of habits, dispositions, attachments, that I have artificially frozen and ignorantly call a solid person. What the Buddha called clinging to a view of self.

Slowly, after enough practice, being aware of this process begins to erode our attachments and ego. For it's hard to think of ourselves as continuous, enduring (permanent) entities when we are constantly observing how fragmented our consciousness actually is.

This has forced me to redefine how I view my practice. I try to view mindfulness as an extension of zazen, where I'm paying close attention to how my brain works, to how my mind creates and edits experience. Not for the sake of mere cognitive awareness, but to help me spot when I'm being reactive and caught in a cycle of clinging. For the more aware I am of my attachments while we're experiencing them, the less likely I am to get caught by them.

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: robayre.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Stop...meditation time!

I just recently purchased a meditation timer. Until now I have been peeking over my shoulder at the clock--a real bad habit. Ten minutes into a 25-minute sit and I'm starting to wonder what time it is: Have the laws of physics failed or what? Why is this taking so loooong!

So I glance at the clock every ten minutes or so. Suffice it say, my meditation was both disrupted and agitated. I had a hard time "settling in," to use meditative parlance (or medi-speak as I like to call it). Meditation felt like--although I wouldn't have used this word then--a duty or chore to be performed. So I finally broke down and decided to buy a timer.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into! Meditation timers range from $6.99 to $125. Now if you're anything like me, you're thinking, "$125 for a meditation timer! What, does it meditate for me? Cook me dinner?"

I won't go into any of the specifics or name any brands, but I couldn't fathom for the life of me how a timer could be worth that price. Eventually I settled on a cheaper model and my meditation thanks me.

The first time I used it I felt like I was lost at sea. Every few minutes I had to fight back the temptation to check the clock, or worse, check the timer! Old habits die hard--This piece of junk must be broken! There's no way 25 minutes takes this loooong. You get what you pay for; I knew I should have bought the $125 timer!

After an excruciatingly long time--my brow lathered in sweat and fists clenched--the timer finally chimed. It's about time! I thought.

It took a while for me to adjust. As silly as it may sound, it was an exercise in surrender; I needed to train myself to let go and allow the timer to do its job. What was interesting is that the transition really highlighted my control issues. I never realized how much I was holding back from the meditative experience until I asked myself to truly let go.

Now I'm free (or freer, I should say) to settle into the moment and dedicate myself to sitting. Just be one with the moment and try not to worry about when the timer is going to chime. Let it do its thing and I'll do mine.

Now if only that damn dog across the street would stop barking...
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: jakeliefer.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Great Koan

This weekend I attended a sesshin with the Orindary Mind Zendo at the Garrison Institute in New York state. It was my first retreat with the group and I had a wonderful experience. It's humbling to sit facing the wall for hours at a time--at the mirror of your mind, as Barry Magid the OMZ teacher calls it. You're consumed with thoughts, fears, frustratitions, anxietes--"Am I breathing too loud?" "Why is he swallowing so much?" "What did I get myself into!" "Damn my knees hurt." "Did the jikido(time keeper) fall asleep or what?--this is way longer than 30 minutes!"

And what I came to find is that the thread running through all these thoughts was always I, I, I. Every thought had me as its center. Not once did I think about someone else's discomfort. Naturally, I knew that other people were uncomfortable, frustrated, and anxious; but when you're sitting cross-legged and your back hurts, all you can think about is yourself and your own problems.

Although it might sound mundane or intuitive (duh-uh!), the greatest thing I learned from the retreat was that, even though you may not know the fellow meditators' names or even what their voices sound like, chances are they are just like you. They are uncomfortable and uneasy, perhaps sad and afraid.

If there's one Buddhist teaching that sesshin really drives home, it's that we all suffer. It's our shared inheritance as humans. It binds us together. And with that comes compassion for others' suffering. A sublte shift occurs between "I"- and "you"-oriented thinking, where the center of your mental and emotional gravity is reverses. You realize that your wants and desires are not the imperatives that you once thought they were. A space opens, and in flows the suffering of everyone around you. And with that compassion, and maybe even a little joy.

Sesshin is an extraordinarily transformative experience. I have never felt as close to my practice as I did this past weekend. But the true task, as always, is to carry that into our daily lives. Lay practice is hard--juggling work, family, exercise, friends, hobbies, and of course, practice itself. But there doesn't need to be a dichotomy between practice and our everyday lives; in fact, our lives are the best places to practice. But you already know that.

Charlotte Joko Beck put it best when she said, "Why do you call it a retreat? What are you retreating from?" It's a great question, a koan of sorts. Some might say that for lay practitioners, it's the one great koan--the Genjokoan, as Dogen might call it.

For in truth there is no seperation between our lives and our practice; they are one and the same. The task, of course, is, in the midst of our hectic and frustrating lives, to realize or remember this.

Easier said than done.


Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: h.koppdelaney.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fork in the Dharma

"If you come to a fork in the road, take it!" --Yogi Berra
Lately I've been reading Geshe Tsering Tashe's The Foundation of Buddhist Thought Series, six books that cover everything from the Four Noble Truths all the way to Emptiness and Tantra. I highly recommend them. But as I've been reading, I can' help but be struck by how different these Tibetan teachings are from Zen.

Zen stresses non-duality, the ultimate interconnectedness of the universe. To a Zen master, any sense of a separate self is simply conventional. What I commonly regard as "me" is simply a case of mistaken identity--I am so much more than this limited, individual "me"; I am the entire universe. To quote Charlotte Joko Beck, the ego is a syndrome. It's like mistaking your fingernail for your entire body. In Zen, this is the common explanation for why we suffer--because we think that we are separate from everything and everyone else in the universe.

Tibetan Buddhism, or at least Geshe Tsering's Gelug school, sees things differently. From a Madhyamika Prasangika perspective, we suffer because we falsely imbue objects (including ourselves and others) with a false sense of independent, inherent existence. In other words, we think that objects and people have essences. There is some overlap between the two different schools, but the Tibetan emphasis is clearly on Emptiness while Zen leans towards non-duality.

Are Emptiness and non-duality the same thing, two sides of the same coin? Or maybe two different perspectives on the same principle?

If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have said yes. But I'm not so sure anymore.

When I first began studying Buddhism I was shocked to learn that not all Buddhists believe the same things. Imagine that! (How naive I was to think that people of different cultures would resoundingly agree on complex spiritual matters, simply because they all considered themselves "Buddhist.") I'm often amused when writers of a particular school try to pass off their tradition's interpretation as the definitive Buddhism. Enlightenment is..."seeing self and other as the same." "...seeing the emptiness of all phenomena, especially the self." "...the abandonment of clinging." And so on.

And just for the record. I don't even think that these writers do it intentionally. It's probably just a residual force of habit from studying in their school for so long.

Give this a try: Read four of five books of a given tradition, and you'll find that they all keep saying the same thing--"this is what Buddhism is." Then read five books from another tradition and I guarantee you'll find the authors making the same exact claim, except they won't agree with the first school!

So who's right? Maybe "right" is a lousy word, but come on...if they disagree, they can't both be right, can they?

Take Dogen, for instance. His most influential teaching (I feel) is that practice itself is Enlightenment. When you sit zazen, sit zazen. Don't try to attain anything; that's just adding another head on top of the one you already have. You are a Buddha when you practice wholeheartedly.

You would think that since Dogen was awakened, every other Buddhist master would agree with him, right? Far from it.

The whole "Sitting zazen is Buddha" is unique to Zen, and Soto Zen at that. A Tibetan lama would look at you like you're crazy if you said that you were a Buddha while you sat zazen.

"Are you nuts?" he'd say. "You're just as deluded as you were before you sat on the cushion! You haven't eliminated the tree poisons (greed, hatred, and ignorance)., let alone penetrated Emptiness."

And these are not minor philosophical differences; they're major enough to influence every aspect of practice, which explains why Vajrayana looks very different from Japanese or Chinese Buddhism.

Some people may chalk this up to upaya, or skillful means. "Maybe Dogen was simply trying to get us to forget about reaching Enlightenment," they'd say, "and just practice with all our hearts. Striving to 'attain' Awakening like just some other goal objectifies practice." It's possible. But sometimes I think that Buddhists use upaya as a kind of blanket statement to cover up the fact that not all Buddhist traditions believe the same thing.

"So what if koans are radically different from shikantaza. Not to mention Tantra or Mindfulness practice. They're all upaya."

I don't want to turn this into a "What's the real Buddhism?" conversation, but at some point each of us needs to make a decision as to which form of practice best addresses our individual needs. Personally, Zen works well for me, but I am also very interested in the philosophical end of Buddhism, an area of practice that Zen tends to neglect (or at the very least, under emphasize). So I'm supplementing. Is Madhyamika philosophy compatible with Zen practice? I'll soon find out.

One of the most difficult aspects of Zen practice (at least for me) is accepting uncertainty, and that's where I find myself every time I consider this topic. If we're looking for a definitive answer to this dilemma, then we're going to be disappointed--different schools of Buddhism have different doctrines, determined by culture, geography, and politics (to name just a few influences). I haven't found the "real" Dharma, and doubt whether such a thing exists at all.
Part of the problem, I think, may be the need to search for it in the first place. Certainly all of the schools of Buddhism agree on more than they disagree, and finding common ground is more productive than concentrating on philosophical differences.

But I would be lying if I said that the disagreements in Buddhist doctrine don't tie my stomach in a knot and send my head reeling.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: tonystl.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Not to harm a fly

This weekend I had company over. The weather was gorgeous, and so we ate outside. By sundown the mosquitoes were on the hunt. I try not to kill mosquitoes, so when I caught one on my arm, I tried my best to brush it off. I started this habit a couple years ago, about the same time I became serious about Buddhism. Sometimes, accidentally, the mosquito dies in the process.

If I spot a spider in the house, I try to catch it under a cup and release it outside. The same goes for beetles, ants, or other creepy crawlies. You get the picture.

I have to admit, sometimes I feel silly. It is, after all, only a bug, right? What's the big deal?

As a high school teacher I'm very critical of teenager's behavior. (Ten years in the classroom will do that to you!) If there's one thing that I've learned from teaching it's that kids and adults are not that different. The same attitude that upsets me in teenagers is prevalent in most adults I know--namely that they think the world exists for them. Literally, that the world was created for them: animals exist so we can make Big Macs out of them, and trees grow so we can cut them down to make notebooks out of them.

They think that the world was created for humans to do with as they please. To them, Earth is a giant playground for people to have fun in. Or worse still, a giant diaper... (you imagine the rest)

That's why Buddhism is so radical. Buddhists understand that, not only does every action have a consequence (karma), but that the world is a vast interconnected network, so that what I do affects you, and vice versa. In that way, Buddhists are committed to living mindfully to insure that they cause as little harm as possible (which is not to say that you won't find so-called "Buddhists" doing unsavory or unethical things--far from it!).

To come back to our little blood-sucking insect, the reason I don't kill them is not because I think I'll generate bad karma or that squishing the bug will have disastrous environmental consequences in the unforeseen future, but because I know that the way I treat a bug translates to how I treat other people, to how I interact with the world as a whole. If I think that a bug is annoying and squash it for entertainment or because its mere existence is "inconvenient" to me, then how tolerant and compassionate can I really be? (Alan Watts has a great spiel about this, where he criticizes humans for being selfish: we feed off of the world, consuming countless plants and animals throughout the course of our lives, but can't even spare a single drop of blood for another creature. How true it is!) The way we treat an insect, as small and insignificant as it may appear to us, reflects our relationship to the entire world.

That's why I became a vegetarian. I can survive without eating meat, so why make another living being suffer because I don't want to be inconvenienced by adjusting my diet?

That being said, what would I do if my house was infested with termites? I'd hire an exterminator. The Buddhist precept against killing is just that--a precept. It's not a commandment passed down from "up high," something to be clung to at all costs; it's a general rule for living. And like all rules, life will force us into situations where we must make exceptions. My house is built out of wood, the byproduct of dead trees. That's a fact, one that no amount of idealism will change. We live in a world where we must kill other beings in order to survive. As unfortunate as that is, it's a biological fact--right up there with the truth of impermanence itself.

And still...

I'm still far from seeing myself and "others" as the same, but I try my best not kill mosquitoes, or spiders, or ants. They are part of this world too, and have every right to live. (Until they threaten the integrity of my home, that is!) If my body or circumstances demanded it (if, say, I was trapped at the bottom of a well), I would eat an animal to survive. But only if I had to. The mosquitoes in New Jersey don't carry malaria or some other life-threatening disease, so I won't kill them on sight. I'll brush them away. For how I treat them reflects how I view others.

None of this makes me better or superior than anyone else. And yet, I do think it makes a difference--admittedly a small one, but a difference nonetheless. I try to make the world a better place, or at the very least, not a worse one.

I think that, more than anything else, is what makes me proud to be a Buddhist.

Photograph taken by Creative Commons flickr user: James Jordan.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

What does a Bodhisattva mean by 'saving'?

Recently I had a conversation with a friend online and the question came up, "What does the Bodhisattva Vow mean by 'saving'?" I've recited and read the vow so many times that the question took me aback. What does 'saving' mean in this context?

The most obvious example is the form that it has taken in Western Buddhism over the past several decades--social engagement. Charitable organizations spearheaded by such Zen pioneers like Bernie Glassman and Thich Nhat Hanh epitomize this kind of social altruism. There is so much suffering in the world, and we can all do out part to help alleviate it.

But while that may relieve people's physical or even mental suffering, is that what the Boddhisattva's vow mean by 'saving'? (Please don't take that as criticism of these very noble causes; I have the highest respect for anyone who dedicates themselves to helping others. I'm just trying to dig deep into the question.) Isn't there a deeper problem at root here, one that can't be relieved by any amount of charitable work--the source of suffering itself? As Buddhists, we find ourselves in a precarious situation, in that we know the real problem in most people's lives is grasping, attachment, whatever you want to call it. But how do you actually 'save' someone from their own self-inflicted suffering?

I know what the books say--cultivate bodhichitta, prajna, compassion. But what does a Bodhisattva actually do? What does this 'saving' look like? In some abstract sense, I know that sitting zazen and following the precepts helps others, but besides proselytizing (wouldn't it be funny to start a door-to-door Buddhist "salesman" movement? Sorry, I just thought the image was funny!), what does 'saving' mean?

Again, as in most of my posts, I genuinely don't know. I personally would love to become a dharma teacher to help others. It's something I feel passionately about, and think (hope is more like it) I would be skilled at. I guess that's one way of helping others in a dharmic sense. But how else? A kind smile to a stranger, a loving embrace to a loved one, being caring and compassionate to someone in need...sure. But how else can this vow manifest itself in daily life?

I guess what I'm really asking is, "What does Bodhisattvahood actually look like?" I suppose all I have to do is look at people like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalia Lama--men who have dedicated their lives to the Dharma, humanity, and global harmony--for the answer.

Wow, that sets the bar pretty high!

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Devil.Bunny

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Who authored the Mahayana sutras?—and does it matter?

Here's a touchy subject. Modern scholarship suggests that Mahayana sutras were composed centuries after the Buddha died. The traditional Mahayana explanation is that the Buddha gave these teachings to his closest disciples to disseminate at a later point because the sutras were too advanced for followers to understand during his lifetime. Some teachers take this literally, while others view this as an attempt by early Mahayanists to legitimate the sutras they themselves were composing. Advocates of the latter theory have no quarrels with the possibility that the Buddha himself did not recite these sutras, for as far as they are concerned, the teachings represent a deep, absolute truth, so it doesn't matter who composed them.

I've been ruminating on this subject a lot lately. Did the Buddha recite the Mahayana sutras? And if he didn't, does it matter? I don't know. I suppose that as long as the Mahayana sutras don't contradict the Buddha's other teachingswhich, to my knowledge, they don't; rather they expand on ideas that were already present in the earlier Canonthen it doesn't matter to me who composed them.

What really interests me is whether or not early Mahayanists believed this. In other words, when Mahayana Buddhism was spreading to Tibet, China, Korea, and eventually Japan, did these "founding fathers"to borrow a phrase from American historythemselves question whether the Buddha himself recited the Mahayana sutras. I think the answer is a clear no. Fifteen hundred years ago, Buddhists didn't have access to the breadth of the Buddha's teachings like we do today. It's probably safe to say that the average Buddhist only heard/read several sutras in his/her entire lifetimehence the reasons why some Mahayana schools devote themselves almost entirely to one sutra. So there would be little if any opportunities to compare the style, vision, and scope of the Pali Canon to Mahayana sutras. For these early MahayanistsTsongkhapa, Bodhidharma, the Fifth Patriarchnot only were the Prajnaparamita sutras the Buddha's teachings, but they may have been the only teachings familiar to them. Or at the very least, these teachings would be considered the most important ones.

This offers a viable explanation to a quandary that has fascinated and perplexed me for a long timewhy Mahayana schools like Zen and Vajrayana tend to de-emphasize what other schools view as core Buddhist teachings (i.e. Mindfulness, the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path). The reason may be that their founders didn't have access to these early sutras, and instead relied almost entirely upon the Mahayana canon. This would explain why, in addition to the influences of local cultures, these traditions branched off in the directions that they didZen emphasizes non-duality while Vajrayana concentrates on emptiness. This would also explain why some later Mahayana masters' teachings don't easily fit with the Buddha's original suttas (I'm thinking of Dogen, who on at least one occasion argues against rebirth, and whose understanding of nirvana is drastically different than the one found in the Pali Canon).

This is a pet theory of mine. I'm no scholar, and I'm sure that greater minds than mine have explored this topic. If you've read about it, please let me know. Either way, tell me what you think.

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: nathan x. sanders