Sunday, January 30, 2011

Staring at a wall...to save the planet

I went to sesshin yesterday, and like always at one point I found myself asking, "What the hell am I doing here?" I think we all ask ourselves this at some point during an extended retreat. There we are, sitting zazen, staring at the wall, trying to be good little Buddhist meditators, while our minds are as frantic as Robin Williams doing stand-up.

"What the hell am I doing here?" I wonder. What kind of father am I? Here I am staring at the wall when I could be home spending time with my family. Man, my priorities are backwards!

And most people would agree. But then again, sitting motionless for 30 minutes while staring at a wall would be most people's definition of cruel and unusual punishment. But not for us Buddhists. No, this is what we live for.

Zazen. Practice.

The question doesn't rattle me like it used to. The first couple sesshins I was on, the question tore through my nervous system like a jolt of adrenaline. "Get the hell out of here!" it screamed.

Now it's more like a gentle knocking. "Ahem, sorry to bother you. But do you really plan on sitting here all day."

"Why yes I do," I say back, and return to my breath.

Disappointed, the doubt crawls away and sulks in the corner for the rest of the afternoon.

How can something so simple--meditating--be so damn hard? And more to the point, why is it so important to meditate?

Sure meditating is now part of my "routine," to the point where if I skip a day it feels like I forgot to shower or brush my teeth: that I-don't-feel-right-unless-I-do-it feeling, which in other circles people might refer to as "addiction." But it's more than that.

At the end of sesshin, my teacher asked us to go around in a circle and talk about our experience. When it came time for me to speak, I talked about resistance and how we can open ourselves up to it. Moments later, after the last student had spoken, I realized something much more visceral.

It had to do with that nagging voice in my head asking, "Why are you doing this?"

The answer is: because there is nothing more important in the world for me to be doing. I am sitting for the sake of every being in the universe.
As I sat there, reciting the final lines of our closing chant, I marvelled at how incredible it was to have eight people so dedicated to practice that they would sacrifice their weekend to sit and stare at a wall. And not just there at the Zen Center of Philadelphia, but the entire Buddhist sangha--everyone who has dedicated her/his life to practice.

I realized how blessed we are to hold the Dharma in our hands, to have this precious opportunity to practice.

Later, this morning, I finished reading David Loy's Nonduality (an incredible book that I'll be writing a review on later this week), and, as if by providence, Loy ended the book with the perfect quote: "Perhaps the future of our [planet] depends to some extent on the quiet, unnoticed influence of those working to overcome their own sense of subject-object duality."

Sitting and staring at a wall, staying present and following the breath can make all the difference. In the end, I think it has the power, not only to transform the world, but perhaps--dare I say?--to save it as well. This is the Bodhisattva's Vow.

Zazen is so simple, and yet so difficult.
(Thanks to my incredibly supportive wife, a true Bodhisattva, who doesn't understand my Buddhist obsession, but still lets me run off on retreats once per month anyway. I couldn't do it without you.)
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: holisticgeek.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Feeling under the weather? Smile!

New Jersey, like much of the nation, has been covered in snow for the past month. As I was shoveling 18 inches of snow today, I thought of the following cartoon:

When Larry told his Zen teacher that he hated shoveling, she
told him to "be the snow." But something was telling
him that this wasn't quite what she had in mind.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user:choener.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Buddhist Fiction

I'm a fiction writer by trade, or at least I fancy myself one. That's where the majority of my writing experience lies. I've written several novels, none of which has found a "home" with a publisher (that's a nice way of saying that I have shoe boxes filled with rejection slips).

Two summers ago I wrote a work of speculative fiction about a world that had the technology to identify exactly who we were in our past lives. I used the Buddhist principle of rebirth as the basis for the novel. The book explored how our world would change as a result of this technology. Could you claim yourself as Beneficiary in your Will?--after all, if you "inherit" your karma, why can't you inherit property from your previous life? What would we do if we found Abe Lincoln, or say Hitler, in their next (for lack of a better word) "incarnations"?

I thought the book would take right off, but alas I was wrong! What surprised me the most was the lack of Buddhist fiction out there; or rather, the lack of interest in Buddhist fiction. I haven't found one book--besides fictional accounts of the Buddha's life (a la Herman Hesse, Thich Nhat Hanh, Deepak Chopra)--by a contemporary Buddhist author written for a Western audience.

Personally, I see the need for Buddhist fiction. Fiction is a great medium to explore Buddhist-related themes: impermanence, delusion, emptiness, and most of all suffering. For while these are common topics in Western literature, they're perfect for Buddhist fiction. I also think that Buddhist fiction would help solidify or further establish Buddhism in America. (I know that I've said it before, but I'll say it again. Did anyone notice that in President Obama's inaugural address, he acknowledged Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians, but left out Buddhists? This is telling. Buddhist fiction would help give Buddhism the voice it deserves in Western art and culture. Not to mention, it could help educate non-Buddhists, for Buddhism is all too often misunderstood by the average Westerner.)

Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by Buddhist fiction--stories set in the West with a Buddhist audience in mind, where Buddhist characters (although they don't need to be, but it would be a nice change of pace from the standard Judeo-Christian characters who take the lead in most fiction) grapple with traditional Buddhist themes. How cool--not to mention refreshing--would that be?

I teach Creative Writing, and whenever my students tell me they don't know what to write a story about, I tell them, "Write the story you wish had been written." In other words, write the kind of story you would love to read.

So I'm going to follow my own advice. In the next couple of weeks (or "months," would be more like it) I'm going to write some Buddhist-themed stories and posting them here. After a year or so, I might have enough to string them together into a collection. I already have a couple story lines in mind.

What do you think? Is there a demand for such titles, or is this just wishful thinking? Also, if there are any authors who currently explore this genre, please let me know.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: dolmansaxlil.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Walking the Buddha Path

I was talking to a Zen friend today and he made me laugh. We were discussing the challenges of Buddhist practice when he said, "What other choice do we have but to practice Buddhism?"

What he meant was that Buddhist practice--with it's unflinching insistence for honesty, awareness, and introspection, not to mention meditation--is tough; but life's a hell of a lot tougher without it!


Even while I was laughing I knew that he had hit on something powerful. Often times, through mindfulness, we're forced to confront the darkest aspects of ourselves--selfishness, greed, fear, hatred--and it's unsettling. The first couple weeks of practicing mindfulness I thought I was the most wretched, narcissistic person in the world. (I'm still not convinced otherwise.)



But what other choice do we have? After practicing Buddhism for several years now, I know that there's no other path for me. I'm beginning to understand what the Buddha meant when he said that, after practicing the Buddhadharma, you cross a point where there's no turning back. And it's not about making progress as much as it is about knowing that you'll never be able to return to the life you led before you met Buddhism.



Nor will you want to.



After a while, you begin to feel that the Buddha path is your path. You're walking in the Buddha's footsteps.



"Honestly!" my friend said, "I don't know how people do it without Buddhism?"



Again I laughed, because I knew exactly what he meant.



Buddhism stares reality right in the eye.; it doesn't sugar-coat anything. "Everything is impermanent. There is suffering everywhere." It doesn't blink.



What it does is offer, though, is a way to understand and transform that suffering. Buddhism isn't about coping or self-improvement; it's about learning to let go, to stop clinging, and as my Zen teacher says, "Learning how to open your heart."



And once you start down that path, you realize there's no turning back. And for me, that's reassuring,

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Fred Jackson (Free Tibet).


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Two Truths

In my last post I talked about the teaching of anatman. Upon further reflection I realized that I didn't emphasize the Two Truths--the Absolute and Relative--enough. This is one of the most brilliant insights that Buddhism has to offer (although it appears to have Upanishadic origins that predate Buddhism).

The Absolute and Relative dialectic (although "dialectic" may not be the best word, it works much better than "dicohotomy") offers a framework to balance the realites of the every day world with the insights of emptiness--in other words, the ultimate nature of reality. Ultimate and Relative are not opposed; rather as Shitou writes in "The Sandokai," "Ordinary life fits the Absolute like a box and its lid," "like two arrows meeting in mid air." Or as David Loy writes, "[this] doctrine is a shorthand way of expressing a difference between two modes of experience."

The Two Truths helps us understand the Buddha's radical insight into emptiness (of self or inherent existence) while still acknowledging and honoring our day to day self.

That said, it's so easy to get caught up in these lofty teachings--to appropriate the infamous raft metaphor: to turn a life jacket into an anchor, another object to grasp! For at the end of the day, when it comes down to it, even though my ego or sense of self may be empty, it sure doesn't feel that way when my feelings get hurt or when something in life disappoints me. Then, me--I, Andre, whatever you want to call it--seems to be the only thing that is real. The hurt, anger, frustration, while empty and conditioned, feels as hard and permanent as a rock. Because, truth be told, while I'm mired in the Relative it takes a lot of faith in the teachings, in the Dharma, to believe that there is an Absolute at all.
As always, it's a matter of walking the Middle Way between extremes--between faith and doubt, study and practice. For though the Absolute and Relative, samsara and nirvana, may be two sides of the same reality, it takes the Middle Way to see that.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: johnmuk.

Monday, January 17, 2011

No-self: what did 'the Buddha' teach?

The more I study Buddhism the more confused I become. Not because I don't understand the teachings, but because the deeper I dig, the less consensus I find. Take anatman, for instance.

There are at least four different interpretations--that I can think of--of the Buddha's most radical teaching:

1.) There is no self. What we normally conceive of as a self or "I" is really a matrix of converging sense perceptions, volitional patterns, feelings, and habitual, pre-conscious responses to stimuli. It's like seeing a constellation in the sky. Sure there are stars, but the constellation itself is a mental creation as your mind plays connect the dots.

2.) There is no permanent self. The entire world is in flux, and if we study our mind states, body, feelings, etc., we find that they too are constantly changing.

3.) There is no separate, independent self. All phenomena are conditioned, which means they cannot exist on their own, or "from their own side." In other words, they lack a central essence or self. So everything in the universe is connected because they are all empty. I borrowed this almost word for word from Thich Nhat Hanh, except he would use words like "interbeing" rather than emptiness.

4.) The self is conventional but lacks inherent existence on an ultimate level. This means that on an empirical, day-to-day level, the self serves a utilitarian function--it allows us to negotiate our way through the world. Try telling your landlord that you shouldn't have to pay your rent because you aren't the same person who signed the lease! On an ultimate level though, the self is empty of inherent existence.

Obviously some of these overlap and are not mutually exclusive. Each, I think, reflects a different Buddhist perspective. For instance, #s 1 and 2 are more Theravadin and originate primarily from the Pali Canon; #3 is Zen or Mahayana, influenced by the Prajnaparamita and Tathagatagarba sutras; and #4 Madhyamika or Tibetan, influenced by thinkers like Nagarjuna and Tsong Khapa.

Contrary to what some may say, I don't think that these are all expressions of the same principle. Each emphasizes the teaching differently, resulting in unique practices, teachings, and cultural expressions. Nor do I think this is a subject that we can just write off as mere metaphysics, as the body of the Buddha's teachings rests on the principle of anatta. Sure, no-self can itself become an object of clinging for some people, but the Buddha did teach it for a reason--to relieve the root of all suffering, self-grasping.

I'm currently reading Selfless Persons by Steven Collins. The book is about the teaching of anatta in the Pali Canon, the primary literature of the Theravadin school. Collins constructs a pretty convincing argument that the historical Buddha taught that there is no self; that belief in a self is the source of grasping, and thus all suffering. I find that Western Buddhists, and Americans in particular, are extremely apologetic about no self. They tend to dismiss this teaching, not only because it doesn't sit well with our psychologically oriented culture, but because they don't think the Buddha would have taught that there is no self. The argument commonly levelled at this reading of anatta is that it is nihilistic. But is fair to call the teaching nihilistic if the self doesn't truly exist, like horns on a rabbit or the value we place on money?

As a Zen Buddhist, this confuses the hell out of me. Because modern scholarship has pretty much proven that the Buddha did not recite the Prajnaparamita and Tathagatagarba sutras, contrary to what the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions claim (which in no way invalidates them as legitimate expressions of the Buddhadharma). So, if Mahayana sutras are the ones stressing the interconnected aspect of annatta while the Buddha's own words from the Pali Canon don't, where does that leave me, a student trying to understand anatta?

In other words, what did the the Buddha--not later Buddhists--the Buddha himself, teach about the self? That's what I'm interested in.

Please share your thoughts, any titles you recommend, especially ones that deal with inter-Buddhist dialogues about the self.
Photo borrowed from Creaive Commons flickr user: vice1.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundation

"Mahayanas," that's what I comes to mind when I think of Paul Williams' Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundation. Boy was it naive of me to imagine that Buddhism could be neatly cut into two camps--Theravada and Mahayana. Far from it. To say that Mahayana is a singular, cohesive entity is the equivalent of saying that China and India are the same country because they both are located in Asia. Mahayana is as rich and varied in beliefs, doctrine, and practice as any widespread religious tradition. In fact, after reading the book, I have a hard time identifying what they all have in common!

"Mahayana" is an all-encompassing term, used to refer to everything from Pure Land to Zen, from Nichiren to Vajrayana, and from varying doctrines like Original Enlightenment to Buddha Nature, to the Dharmakaya and Tantra. It's a vast body of literature that represents a breadth of differing teachings, some of which openly contradict one another. Sure, there's the Bodhisattva ideal (as opposed to the Theravadin emphasis on the Arhat) and the common elevation of the Buddha (sometimes to an almost cosmic level, with an accompanying devotional dimension), but many of the Mahayana schools differ so much that it's hard (at least for me) to see why they're all considered "Mahayana." For some of them have practically jettisoned the Buddha's original teachings, such as the Four Noble Truths, entirely.

This is because Mahayana development was not an organized movement. It spanned several hundred years, in regions all across Asia. Many of the Mahayana themes are developments or expansions on the Buddha's original teachings (take sunyata or emptiness, for example, an elaboration on the principle of anatman, or no-self.). However, many of them were new, perhaps developments resulting from meditative experiences. Soon, denominations, responding to the human spiritual need for an object of worship, became more visionary and even devotional.

Before I read Williams' book, I might have questioned whether these traditions were in fact "Buddhist," but as Williams points out, this is simply being legislative. In an upcoming post, I will explore Critical Buddhism, which claims to do just that--define what is, or more importantly, what is not, Buddhism. But more of that later.

What I walked away from Mahayana Buddhism with is a richer understanding and appreciation for the diversity of traditions conveniently lumped together and called Buddhism. It's a scholarly work, so it's a little dry at times (I felt completely lost during the Yogacara chapter, but then again that's a complicated subject, to say the least); but one that I think all Buddhists should read. Williams is a Professor of Indian and Tibetan Philosophy and Co-director of the Centre for Buddhist studies at the University of Bristol. He's not some nitwit with a blog claiming to be an authority on Buddhism (like me!); he the real deal. This book, to quote its jacket, is commonly regarded as "the standard introduction to the field, used internationally for teaching and research." It was originally written in 1989, but was revised in 2009, so it's very current.

It's a little pricey, but well worth the money. If you're looking for some solid facts on Mahayana Buddhism, this is a great place to start. Soon I intend to read D.T. Suzuki's Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism. (I downloaded a Kindle copy for 99 cents on Amazon--can't beat that!). I look forward to comparing the two.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Plea for the pine tree

It's that time of the year again. Millions of pine trees litter the curbs throughout the country, awaiting Monday's garbage pickup. Now I know that cutting down a Christmas tree is actually better for the environment than buying an artificial one (it leaves a smaller carbon footprint), but I still don't understand how people can kill another living organism just so they can decorate their living room for a couple of weeks with it. All in the name of peace and goodwill, nonetheless. I'm also aware that many people's livelihoods depend on the sales of such trees, but then again many people's livelihoods depend on the flesh of other animals, a trade I refuse to endorse, regardless of the economic consequences.


Wouldn't it be more responsible and ethical--not to mention setting a better example--to take your kids to the woods and plant a tree than to cut one down with them? Gee kids, let's hop in the minivan and kill a tree for fun--whe-hew!

Sounds like fun.

I think it stems from the dangerous mentality that many people have that the world was created for them. And I'm not talking about on an unconsious or intuitive level. No, many people literally believe that the world was created for them to inhabit--animals to be eaten, trees to be cut down, land to be "cultivated." As if Earth is a giant fun park made just for them. And unfortunately many of these people run our country.

To me, this post isn't about an environmental issue; it's about an ethical one.

In Buddhism, we take a vow against killing. To me, this means that I don't kill another organism unless I absolutely have to. Sure my house is made of wood, but what's the alternative? If I can safely remove a spider from my house, I will. A man-eating wolverine, probably not. (Don't ask why a man-eating wolverine would be in my house.)

Buddhists, however, don't have the luxury of discriminating between which living beings are important and which are lunch. In Buddhism, all beings have the right to live. So I don't understand why people think it's okay to senselessly kill another organism like a pine tree.

If you want to cut the tree down and then use it as firewood next season, I'm cool with that. But throwing it to the curb to add to a landfill just because "that's what we do for Christmas," that's most definitely not cool. I say we start a new, more humane tradition next year.

Here's what I suggest: this summer, plant a pine in your yard; then in Decemeber, decorate it. String it with tasty yummies for the local critters to snack on. It's cheaper than cutting one down (which can run you well over $100 per year), it helps the environment, and you can watch it grow. It can be a tradition for the whole family.


And best of all, you didn't have to kill a tree.


That's what I would call a Buddhist Christmas.



Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: TAPorto.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Can't grasp this!

I'm a book junkie. I spend a ridiculous amount of money every week on books. If I could afford a therapist, I'd get one to help me lick this book obsession. But until then, I'll keep spending my my hard-earned dollars on books.

To say I'm not a huge fan of the whole ebook revolution would be an understatement. As an aspiring author and book enthusiast, I pretty much view ebooks as a dangerous threat to my very way of life. If I were McCarthy, I'd start a witch hunts for ebooks.

But I'm getting better.
My wife and I just bought an iPad. There are tons of cool Apps, and it acts as an eReader too (one, I might add, that allows you to buy from any source--Barnes and Noble, Borders, Amazon--while most others don't).

What's really interesting is my first experience of purchasing an ebook. First off, it's instant gratification. You spot a book you want, press a button, and Presto! it's yours. Pretty cool. But the buzz doesn't last long; it's gone in about the same amount of time it took to download the book.
What's more interesting, though, is the cognitive dissonance of knowing that you own a book but don't actually have it in your possession. Because owning an ebook isn't the same as owning a real one. Buying one doesn't give me the sense of fulfillment that purchasing a hard copy does. It leaves me feeling empty because I literally don't have something to hold onto, something to grasp in my hand.

By now you know where this is going.
It isn't that digital media is impervious to the mind's habit of clinging--that's not what I'm suggesting--but rather the exact opposite. Its intangibility highlights the emptiness, the unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) of any object we try to grasp. Objects, experiences, events can never truly fulfill us because they lack the very thing that we seek from them--namely, a self.

All phenomena are empty. The ebook is just a, dare I say, more concrete example of one. There's nothing to grasp.

But then again, there never really is.


In case you're wondering about the picture above: that's Kali, the Hindu goddess, clutching eReaders galore. I couldn't have asked for a better match for my post. It's from Creative Commons flickr user: kandinski.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year's Altar-ation

What better way for a Buddhist to start the new year than by getting a new altar? Okay, maybe meditating might be better. Or performing some selfless deed like volunteering at a soup kitchen or saving all sentient beings.

All right, so buying a new altar isn't the most Buddhist thing to do on New Year's Day, but that's what I did.

For a couple months now, as my practice has grown more serious, I've wanted to get a real altar. Sure I know that the real altar is inside--is in fact my practice and life itself--but I still wanted something more concrete, more visible, as a symbol of my commitment to walking the Buddhist path. I forget which monk said it, but when asked if a Buddha statue is an image of devotion, he said, "No, it's a symbol of inspiration." Because as a guy once said during a sesshin I attended, "If you can do it"--he said as he bowed to the Buddha statue--"so can I." I couldn't put it any better.

So I was looking for an altar to solidify my practice. I have a beautiful white ceramic Buddha that I have been using on top of a makeshift altar--my son's dresser. Two weeks ago, I bought a 2o-inch carved Buddha relief. It's highly detailed, serving as a nice contrast from my ceramic statue; I like it very much. Check it out:
As for the altar, I didn't want anything that stood out too much from our fairly conservative furniture--an altar by nature tends to draw all eyes to it("Is that an altar?" everyone thinks as they enter the room), so I wanted to avoid a loud one...like say a bright red altar painted with vibrant Tibetan Bodhisattvas. My wife already thinks I'm crazy with this whole Buddhist thing; if I carried one of those through the door, she would call the men in the white suits.

I searched the entire Internet. Twice. But everything I found was either too pricey, too Eastern, too big, too small, or too chintzy. Finally, out of boredom more than anything else, I checked Craigslist.

What are the odds that I would find one that suited my tastes within driving distance to my house? Pretty good, because hit the jackpot!

It's a '70s-style pine corner table, with the legs removed. It's subtle, understated, and the perfect size. The throwback to the '70s reminds me of my furniture from when I was growing up; maybe that's why it resonated so much with me. Here are some pictures:
Now all I need are some altar supplies--vase, candle holder, incense burner, offering bowl. Any suggestions where I should get them?