Thursday, December 30, 2010

A lesson in impermanence

I recently purchased a wooden mala bracelet. I love it; each bead is carved into a tiny skull. When my wife, thinking it was morbid, asked me why I wanted it, I told her that "It's a reminder of impermanence, of the transience of life." That death awaits us all. As an English teacher, I couldn't help but appreciate how Shakespearean it was ("Out, out, brief candle...").

There's just one catch: the beads discolor after they are wet. It's not a huge deal, more of an inconvenience if anything. All I have to do is wipe them with some wood cleaner and they're as good as new. No big deal, right?

The first time I polished them, I thought, "This is pretty cool. It forces me to be aware of how impermanent things are." How naive of me.

Every time I wash my hands, I have to roll the bracelet up my forearm to keep it from getting wet. This happens about ten to fifteen times per day, as I have the bladder of a little girl.

Okay, no problem, I tell myself, I can handle this. I'm a good little Buddhist who appreciates the fleeting nature of reality.

When I bathe my kids, I have to take the bracelet off entirely. Same goes for when I go to the gym--even perspiration will discolor the beads. Then I have to remember where I left it and to put it back on. Admittedly not a big deal for your normal person, but lately I have the memory of a jar of tomato sauce.

You get the picture. What began as charming is now getting annoying!

We live in world of immediate gratification, where practically any material desire can be fulfilled with literally the push of a computer button. Entire books, virtual libraries containing the oldest spiritual wisdom the world has to offer, can be downloaded in mere seconds. I can get in my car and within minutes purchase a new TV that's premanufactured, buy a cheeseburger that has been slaughtered in the event that someone wants to eat it, even refill my prescription with life-saving medicine, all in mere seconds.

And here I am, a citizen (or "product," might be the better word) of this digital culture, foolish enough to believe that I'll have the patience to tend to a bracelet that keeps inconveniencing me. Maybe it's the English teacher in me, but I can't help but notice the irony--I buy the bracelet to remind myself of the Buddha's teachings, and within weeks I'm annoyed by its impermanence!

That's the rub.

For the most part, America is a "throw away" culture; we don't lie to be hassled with the details of maintenance. If a product or appliance breaks, it's probably cheaper to replace it than to fix it. So to the pragmatic American., the choice is pretty easy: buy a new one and get on with your day.

Now more than ever, I think the Buddha's claim that the Dharma goes "against the stream" is true. Every impulse in my body--from years of enculturalization, conditioning, and schooling--tells me I should have bought a "maintenance free" bracelet. But that defeats the its purpose.

There are two ways to read "care free" products. The first is that you don't have to tend to them. The second is that you need not "care" about them at all.

I don't want to fall into the latter category. It's the enemy of mindfulness, the anti-thesis of Buddhist practice. And yet, I'm a really impatient person.

So what's a Buddhist to do?

Who knows? Maybe I should just polyurethane the darn thing and get it over with.

Monday, December 27, 2010


I hate snow. I hate shovelling it; I hate when it thaws and floods my basement; I hate every aspect of it. And if you've been paying any attention to the weather forecast lately, New Jersey just got slammed with 18+ inches.


So this morning I climbed out the back door, bundled to the teeth, and began to shovel.

"Stay with the breath. Keep present," I kept telling myself.

Whenever anger or impatience would arise, I tried to remember that I was the one causing myself all this discomfort. The act of shoveling, or snow itself, is empty of all the emotions I inject into them.

One of the things that I've come to learn from Buddhist practice is that emptiness does not only refer to the lack of inherent existence; it also refers to the lack of anything I try to impose upon an experience, situation, event, or object.

Sunyata, according to Nagarjuna, means an emptying of fixed ideas--the ability to accommodate the spaciousness of experience without superimposing our own views onto the moment. I think this is what the Buddha means when he refers to "thusness"--the opennss or freedom from the confinement of fixed views.

So as I was slinging shovelful after shovelful of snow over my shoulder, I knew that any suffering I felt was the result of my own resistance. I was the one filling the activity with labels like "annoying," "waste of time," "painful." That was all me. None of that can be found in the snow itself.

Soon, however, in a Zen kind of way, I surrendered to the moment and lost myself in the act of shovelling. Then the snow was neither good nor bad.

My resistance melted, just like the snow. Now if I can only do that when I change my son't diapers, I'll be set!

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: bulldog1.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Peaceful Kiddy Meditation

I bought my daughter a copy of Peaceful Piggy Meditation for her fourth birthday last week. We've been reading it every night before bed ever since. She's heard the book so many times that she's memorized the pages and now pretends to read it.

So yesterday she was playing with her brother and got upset. She looked at my wife and said, "I'm frustrated. I think I need to meditate." How great is that!

She then sat down, crossed her legs, placed her hands in the cosmic mudra, and began following her breath. She sat like this for maybe two minutes--pretty impressive for a four-year-old.

As a Buddhist, I try to to instill in my children the values of peace, patience, generosity, and kindness. Like I said two posts ago, explaining impermanence to a pre-schooler is very challenging. I don't wan to force my practice onto my kids, but at the same time I think that Buddhist values--especially its emphasis on mindfulness--are exactly what this world needs.

During the holiday season, it's easy to get caught up in the commercial aspect of Christmas, especially for a child. As a kid, I remember "binge gifting"--receiving so many gifts I felt revolted, practically nauseated, by my own greed--and am certain that I don't want to raise my children that way. Mindfulness and meditation are tonics against such thoughtless grasping.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that values gifts more than it does mindfulness, money and success more than compassion, abundance more than quality. One of the biggest challenges I find as a parent, is raising my children in a world whose values I question.
I don't have all the answers--far from it. So until I do, I'll sit, breathe, and try to stay present. The best I can do as a father is to invite my kids to join me.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: DistortedSmile.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tricky parenting

Yesterday my daughter turned four. She was all smiles and sunshine, until out of nowhere she said with a grin, "I miss being three."

I burst out laughing and told her to tell Mommy that. She did, and I heard my wife giggle in the other room. But soon my daughter started getting upset.

"But Daddy," she pleaded, "I really want to be three again!" And then she started to cry.

I didn't know what to say; I was speechless. How do you tell a four-year-old that everything gets old, that it's the nature of the world to change? Talk about dukkha!

For a moment I considered telling her that age is just a convention (that the difference between being three and being four is only 24 hours), but how do you explain emptiness to a four-year-old?

I floundered. We were in the toy room, so I didn't have any chocolate chips on hand (my cure all: whenever a kid cries, I stuff a chip in their mouth!). My mind raced for an answer.

I knew that explaining that we all get older wasn't going to work. At the zendo, we haven an opening chant that says, "This Dharma is infinitely profound and minutely subtle." I never really understood how true that is until last night. Sure I've explained Buddhism to adults, but never to a child. It's tougher than I thought, which is one of the reasons I think we need more literature on how to raise a child Buddhist.

But that's besides the point. Back to the crying child.

Soon she started to get more upset: "But Daddy, I need to be three again!"

What do I say to that?

No answers came. Suddenly all my fancy Buddhist explanations dissolved in an instant. I was defenceless. Mindfulness and meditation didn't help me now. I wasn't a Buddhist anymore; I was just a dad trying to sooth his crying daughter.

I tried to distract her: "Look at what your brother's playing with."

But that didn't work; she's too smart for that.

This was getting sweaty.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I had to fire from the hip.

I said the only thing I could think of: "Well, if you're three, you won't need any of your presents."

She blinked as she processed the implications of my words--No presents! What is he crazy?--and stopped crying immediately. That did the trick.

Whew! Disaster averted. For now, that is. I'm good for another year, until she turns five.
Happy Birthday, Sweetheart.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Joccay.

Free Buddhist eBooks

I found two excellent websites that offer FREE Buddhist ebooks (as pdf's). The first is the Numata Center, publishers of Gudo Nishijima's translation of Dogen's masterpiece, Shobogenzo. This title, amongst a handful of sutras (the Vimalakirti and Lotus Sutras, Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, and the Hui Neng's Platform Sutra, to name a few) is available for free download. Click here to check it out.

Another great site is For an extensive list of free ebooks as pdf files, click here. For general resources, ranging in everything from Buddhist comic strips, audiophiles, to an online magazine, click here.

As these are free resources, please support them with a donation if you can. If you know of any other open source resources, please feel free to share them below.

Happy reading and tons of metta.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The impermanence of laundry

If you're anywhere as neurotic as I am, weekends are more stressful for you than the work week. I try to cram all of my chores--cleaning, vacuuming, laundry, yard work--into Saturday morning, so that I can "relax" the rest of the weekend. I don't know about the Zen"just doing the dishes," but when I'm unloading the dishwasher, all I can do is think about the next five items on my to-do list. When I'm home, I'm thinking about going to the gym; when I'm at the gym, I'm thinking about being home with the kids. It's textbook dukkha.

I'm stressed in the car ride home from work because I miss my family and can't wait to get a head start on ironing my clothes for the week (crazy, I know).

When I'm doing the laundry, I swear I have to fight back the temptation to take off the clothes I'm wearing and throw them in the washing machine. I'm haunted by the impulse to get things over with "once and for all," for finality. And of course it's unobtainable. As a Buddhist I'm well aware of the fact that nothing stays the same from moment to moment, not my mind and not the bathroom sink. No sooner is it clean than it's already getting dirty.

That's the nature of reality--impermanence. And the more I practice the more aware I am of my resistance to it. I think it's human nature to seek permanence, to assuage the existential dread of uncertainty. We cling to the dual fantasy that things are permanent and that they can actually satisfy us for good. ("If I only get this one last [fill in the blank with your obsession of choice], I'll be fulfilled." What a joke!) Both are impossible, and yet I still find myself fighting the circumstances of my life. Deep down I know that I will have to vacuum the stairs again next weekend, but that doesn't stop me from attacking them as if this time could somehow be the last.

Nothing illustrates this more than the laundry basket--the moment it's empty, it starts to fill back up. Whatever satisfaction I gain from completing the laundry is short-lived. Soon it dissolves, replaced by...dirty socks and towels.

I suppose that's the heart of our practice--learning how to accept things as they are, to stop resisting, not in resignation, but with genuine wisdom. That's easy to say, but harder to put into practice. For while I know this intellectually, I'd be lying if I said that next weekend that seductive voice isn't going to return, saying, "Hurry up and do the laundry," torturing me with the temptation of finality. Of control, of lasting fulfillment.

All of which are illusory.

I guess, like everything in life, it takes time to truly understanding this. We sit and meditate, pay mindful attention to the fleeting nature of the the mind, until we know impermanence in our bones. Until we are the impermanence, the flux and flow of life.

But that's a long way off.

In the meantime, I guess I might as well relax while I can; Saturday is still almost a week away.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons Flickr user: Sappymoosetree.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Happy Bodhi Day!

In Japan, December 8 is observed as the day the Buddha reached enlightenment. For Buddhists, I suppose, it's kind of like Easter is to Christians.
Last night, I tried to explain to my four-year-old daughter the significance of today's date. I told her the story of the Buddha, and to simplify it, I said that today, many years ago, Siddhartha Gotoma sat beneath the Bodhi tree and became a Buddha.

To this she said, "So it's his birthday."

At first I was about to correct her, but then I realized that in a way she was right. In a sense, the Buddha's awakening was a kind of rebirth.

Sensing this, she said, "Can we have a birthday party? With pink and blue balloons!"

I said maybe. I'm such a sucker.

Today is a very--if not the most--important day for Buddhists (or at least for those who recognize today as Bodhi day). If I could, I would take the day off work and sit in meditation. Next year I plan to. For me, today is the anniversary of one of the greatest moments in history--the day that Buddha realized the Dharma.

I can never express enough appreciation for the Dharma and the Buddha's selfless commitment to humanity. Every moment of every day I try to embody the Awakened One's extraordinary teachings. Thank you so much, Buddha!

With infinite reverence and gratitude, I bow.

Photo of Bodhi tree borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Peter Garnhum.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Don't forget to smile :)

Who ever said that Buddhist's don't have a sense of humor? Here's a little Buddhist cartoon I thought up:
"Gee, this sure doesn't feel empty!"

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Abraham Lincoln's Photography.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Where did my "I" go?

Last Sunday I was sitting zazen in the zendo when I started to feel woozy. My head became heavy and my mind spacey. I've had similar symptoms before when my blood sugar drops (I'm mildly hypoglycemic).

This put me in an awkward position. Should I get up and tell the jikido? I wondered. Or should I just sit it out? Trying not to get too anxious, I decided on the latter and just began to observe the sensations. Peering inside, I tried to penetrate the feeling of unreality. Quickly I found it, a kind of solid barrier in my nerves, almost a literal physical pressure around my body. It was manageable and not too unpleasant, so I decided to have some fun with it. I probed the feeling deeper, and what I found fascinated me.

The moment I located the sensation, my sense of "I" disappeared. Not in a non-dual, dropping of body and mind Dogen way; but in the sense that for the life of me, I couldn't identify who was experiencing any of this. Sure I knew who I was--my name and memories--but I couldn't locate this sense of I. I've had these kind of depersonalizing experiences before; they can be real creepy. You feel disembodied from your own thoughts and mind. It's very unsettling, not at all like the accounts of Buddhist breakthroughs I've read.

But this wasn't like that. It was more interesting than anything else. No matter how hard I tried to find this sense of I--something I take for granted virtually every moment of my life--I failed. Sure I was conscious and there was awareness, but it was a vacant awareness (I'm intentionally not using the word "empty," for it's a loaded Buddhist word and I don't think this was a case of sunyata. But then again, maybe it was).

Interested, I kept searching for my "I," but it continued to elude me. I think this is what the Buddha meant by anatman. There was nothing I could say with certainty was "me" or "mine," for my sense of "I" had vanished.

This persisted through walking meditation, all the way up until I ate an apple in the car. Then, either as my blood sugar leveled or the drive home distracted me, everything snapped back to "normal." It wasn't any kind of transcendental experience--I certainly don't feel changed by it--rather, it all felt kind of ordinary. Mundane even.

Since then, when a strong emotion arises, I've tried to play with it and search for the "I" feeling. And while the experience isn't as poignant as it was on Sunday, I still can't locate the person feeling any of this. There is only sensations and perceptions.

I feel like Derek Zoolander staring at his reflection in a puddle. "Who am I?" he asks, a goofy expression on his face.

"I don't know," his reflection says back, flashing his signature male-model "look."

And neither do I.

But then again, who is it that doesn't know?

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Jahnia.