Thursday, May 26, 2011

East meets East

In The Zen Monastic Experience, Robert Buswell points out a fact that I had never considered about the relationship between Buddhism in the East and West--that the interest in Buddhism in the West actually affects Buddhism in the East. "Indeed," Buswell writes, "Western interest in Eastern philosophy seems to have done as much to stimulate...a revival of interest in Buddhism in Korea as have the proselytizing efforts of the Chogye Order (Korea's largest Zen school) itself."

Duh, why hadn't I thought of that?

Of course Buddhism's growing popularity in the West would influence how Buddhism is practiced and viewed in the East. Why wouldn't it? Everything is interconnected and interpenetrating, so just as Western material cultural now permeates the East, the West's adoption of Eastern religions would naturally influence those religions in their native cultures.

But for some reason this blew my my mind. I had never considered that possibility.

Buswell cites several instances of Buddhist monks who ordained simply because they were inspired by Western books about Buddhism, namely Herman Hesse's Siddhartha. Imagine that: a young Korean man who has no interest in or knowledge of Buddhism decides to read a book that I teach in my English class in New Jersey thousands of miles away, and so he ordains as a monk in his local monastery.

If that isn't cool, I don't know what is.


Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Hildeborg.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

We can't control everything

"Is this yours?" one of my neighbors said, holding out a sopping wet wallet. It sagged limp in her hand like a dead, black bat.

"Ahh," I said, not knowing why my wallet would be in her hand and not in my pocket like it normally was. "Let me see." I took it and opened it, and sure enough there was my ID staring me blank in the face. How did this happen?

I think I even slapped my thigh to check if it wasn't in my pants pocket. It wasn't.

Immediately I took inventory of its contents. License, check. Credit cards, check. Cash, goner.

Damn it! I cursed inwardly, quickly trying to calculate just how much I had lost. As far as I could tell, there had only been about $20 in the wallet. But how had this happened

I stood dumbstruck on my doorstep. Once I regained my senses, I graciously thanked the Good Samaritan, made a mental note to buy her a thank-you present, closed the door and told my wife what happened.

Inside I was seething. How had this happened? I am usually very fastidious about details--how had this slipped by me? And my wallet of all things! Talk about flaking out.

The $20 mocked me with its absence. Think of all the things you could have bought with me! it taunted. Haha!

"It must have happened when you ran out of the car," my wife reasoned.

She was right; when I had arrived home, it was pouring rain outside and I had dashed into the house. I had just bought gas, so the wallet was in my lap--idiot, why didn't I just return it to my pocket like I always did?--when I got out of the car. The rest is history.

Some teenager probably found it, emptied it, and, having no use for credit cards, tossed it aside. I knew that I should feel grateful for finding it again, but my gut boiled--I had just flushed $20 down the drain.

The Buddhist super-ego in me asked why was I so upset? I should be beyond attachments to such paltry...

"Shut up," I shot back. I was in no mood for lessons.

The rest of the evening passed in a tense reflection. Why had this happened to me? Did it have anything to do with the fact that when I was a kid a friend of mine had found a woman's wallet and I had been extremely jealous? Was this karma? And why did I care so much? I had all my credit cards, even my ID. If a kid had returned my wallet to me, I would have gladly handed him the $20 as a reward for being honest, so why all the fuss? Was this really about money?

The longer I sat with the torrent of thoughts and emotions, I realized that I wasn't as upset about the lost cash as much as I was at the mere fact that I had allowed this to happen. This was totally preventable.

Something had slipped by my defenses. Whatever control I try so desperately to maintain on a daily basis had temporarily faltered. What bothered me was confronting the fact that I wield very little control over my life. At any given moment, disaster can strike. And there's damn little I can do to stop it.

This is what the Buddha meant when he said that life, death, and everything in between was dukkha. Life cannot provide us with the basic certainty that we as humans crave. Tomorrow is guaranteed to no man. Since we don't like this, we spend most of our time and energy fighting reality and building carefully constructed defenses to protect us from this basic fact. And so we suffer.

Crap happens, and the truth is that most of the time we are powerless to stop it. Losing my wallet, although a harmless example of this, revealed to me how illusory any sense of control in my life is.

At the Zen Center of Philadelphia where I practice, we chant, "Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher." Buddhist practice, on a fundamental existential level, is about radically accepting the circumstances of our lives, and understanding that we when we try to control life, we suffer.

Losing my wallet undeniably drove that home. Control is an illusion. In another chant at ZCP, we say, "Thus we bow to life as it is." Indeed. That's all we can do. I got a taste of that this weekend.

Wow, and I had thought my Sunday afternoon was going to be calm and relaxing.


Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: -Mandie-.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Nothing lasts forever

Lately, my four-year-old daughter has become increasingly interested in death. Whenever we discuss someone of historical significance--the Buddha, Jesus, Shakespeare--she wants to know if he's still alive. More often than not, the person isn't.



In the bathtub the other day she said to me, "Daddy, I want you to be around forever."


What do I say to that?


She and I have already discussed the Buddha's teaching regarding impermanence, but I never actually connected that to humans, the fact that we all die. I think she's putting the pieces together herself.


So when she said this to me, I hesitated. I was torn down the middle: I didn't want to be dishonest and assure her that I would be around forever. I could only imagine her cursing me some day in a very cinematic scene: "Damn you, Father; you said you'd always be here!"


And in the same breath, I didn't want to frighten her by teaching her about death too early.


These are the types of parenting dilemmas no one ever teaches you how to handle. In Lamaze class--the closest thing to a parenting class I took--when the teacher asked if we had any questions, my hand should have shot up. "Ahhm, yeah. How much time do you have?"


Back in the bathroom with my daughter, I answered her in a very forgettable way and then changed the subject to a birthday party we had coming up. Admittedly, not one of my most creative or eloquent moments.


Then a couple of minutes later she said, "Daddy, why can't I hold onto water?"


I looked down and sure enough, the water was escaping through her cupped hands. Here was the perfect response to her statement about living forever. She'd found it herself. It almost felt staged, like a scene in a book. Part of me wonders if she wasn't aware of the connection, on some level or another.


Because you can't withstand time any more than you can keep water in your hands. It's always moving, and so are we. But how was I going to explain that to her? And why reopen the whole death subject, now that it had passed?


"Because it's water," I said. "You can't grab hold of it."


And with that I just sat silently. Not the powerful silence of Vimalakirti, but the awkward one of a parent who doesn't know what else to say.


Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Earls37a.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Buddhism is not self-improvement

"Damn it," I scolded myself this morning as I was shaving. Yesterday I reminded myself to send out an email and I forgot. "I really need to start remembering things," I muttered, telling myself not to forget again. "Send the email, send the email."

How mindful could I have been if I forgot something that I intentionally reminded myself to remember?

The problem with this approach that it objectifies practice, turning it into a means to and ends, just another task that we expect to get something from.

But I don't practice Buddhism to become a better person. I don't practice to make myself calmer or happier. Buddhism hasn't cured me of any of my anxieties or neuroses; in fact, all practice does is make me more aware of them. If anything, we practice because it's an expression of who we are, and in a very real sense, because once we start doing it, we don't know how to stop.

Once you become attentive to the monkey mind, mindfulness comes naturally. Oh that thought is back. Hello! Sometimes I wish I could just go back to cruising on auto-pilot, take some time off. But there are no vacations in Zen.

Expecting mindfulness to turn me into some kind of mental or spiritual Superman with invincible powers of memory or patience is not only an exercise in futility, but a self-absorbed pursuit of perfection. I can't make myself remember something any more than I can make myself feel happy when I'm not or not angry when I am.

I just finished re-reading Barry Magid's Ending the Pursuit of Happiness (an AWESOME book that every Zen student should read, and I mean EVERY), and Magid reminds us that whatever emotions we don't deal with wind up being repressed. (Magid is a psychoanalyst, in case you were wondering.) Zen students are not an exception to the role of the unconscious. Simply saying that I'm not angry when in fact I am, is not Buddhist practice; its repression.

Buddhism is about becoming whole, which means owning those parts of ourselves that make us uncomfortable. Becoming one with the entire universe means all of it, including our emotions and thoughts. But instead we think that non-duality means only the good stuff, the spiritual parts, and not those aspects of our lives or mind that we would normally like to cut off. One Mind or Big Mind does not always mean good mind.

Treat everything as a friend, Thich Nhat Hanh is famous for saying. That includes ourselves. Our emotions and shortcomings are no different from any other dharma--empty and impermanent. So why should we treat them any differently? Be kind to all of them.

That's why I like to think of Buddhism as a path of radical acceptance. We accept everything--the car that cuts us off in traffic, our rising anger, and even our own limitations. Like not being able to remember everything.

Because in the end we're not trying to be anything other than what we already are. We're not trying to become anything--invulnerable, immortal, or infallible. Buddhism, despite how pop culture tries to sell it, is not a project in self-improvement. Self-transformation perhaps, but not the kind we normally think of; not one that we can will into being. If anything changes, it's over time, like a rock worn smooth by a river.

So in the future I'll either need to learn how to accept my memory blanks or start leaving myself notes.

Either way, the only thing I need to remember are two words: no gain.

That's shorthand for "Practice is not a form of self-improvement."


Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: audreyjm529.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dharma Transmission--what exactly is it?

Here's an interesting article about Dharma transmission. Written by Eshu Martin, "Do You Have a License for That Dharma?" explores the nature of transmission and its role in the West. Dharma transmission is to Zen what Papal authority is to Catholicism. Transmission, according to Zen tradition, represents an unbroken line of enlightened teachers who have received "mind-to-mind" transmission of the true Dharma, tracing its origins all the way back to the Buddha himself. It's a way for teachers to pass their seal of approval to students who have demonstrated an authentic Awakening. A kind of Enlightened litmus test. It's also a way to safeguard the Dharma from charlatan teachers.

Obviously the slew of recent Zen sex scandals throws a monkey wrench into this system, for how "Enlightened" can a teacher be if he (and I mean "he," since all of these teachers are male) is sleeping with his students? Or so the questioning go.

In his article, Martin links two other articles, also worth reading. The first, "Dharma Succession," written by Erik Storlie, challenges Dharma Transmission altogether. Storlie argues that transmission is an antiquated Confucian throwback with no place in the West, a mythic cultural accretion long overdue for jettisoning. As evidence, he quotes the Buddha's famous last words: "Be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in the truth. Look not to assistance to anyone besides yourselves."

The second article that Martin cites, "Blaming Dharma Transmission Is Like Blaming a Driver's License for an Accident," by Abbess Myoan Grace Schireson, refutes Storlie's article. As her title suggests, Schireson views transmission more like a driver's license. She writes:


Dharma transmission in the West has become a kind of credential, no different than an academic degree which
results in a Ph.D. In an academic program, you associate yourself with like minded instructors, you map out a course of study which is approved by a single advisor, and those who have already earned the credential approve of your work. Your hard earned Ph.D. degree will not stop you from writing rubbish or misbehaving.


Interesting. I don't know if I agree, but the implication of Schireson's analogy is that then Dharma transmission, like any other kind of license, can be revoked. No system is foolproof, so if someone is guilty of egregious ethical infractions, why can't their authority as a Zen teacher be withdrawn? Partially because that would call the entire transmission system into question. And the next thing you know, the whole edifice begins to crumble.

Read the articles. I think they represent a healthy and necessary dialogue for the future of Zen in the West. Conversations like these are vital, and I think we're going to see a whole lot more of them in the future.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Curative Fantasies

As I was reading Barry Magid's article "Ordinary Mind" in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism, I was reminded of what I think is Magid's greatest contributions to Zen: his identification of "curative fantasies." That's the name he gives to our secret motives for practicing, and probably coming to Buddhism in the first place. Perhaps it's to calm down or relax, lower our stress levels, overcome unpleasant emotions, or just plain old space out.

For me, it was the desire to become peaceful. I thought that Buddhism was an ancient form of self help, sprinkled with mind-bending meditation techniques. Images of beatific yogis and serene Buddhas came to mind. Count me in! I thought. And boy was I surprised when I didn't reach enlightenment in a week or even feel any different. To be honest, I'm just as tense, stressed, and angry as I ever was.

Ram Dass once said something to the effect that, "I'm just as neurotic as ever; now I'm just aware of how neurotic I am." Me too.

So why practice, if nothing is going to change?

Because with that awareness comes freedom, what Ordinary Mind Zen teacher Diane Rizzetto calls, "The Dead Spot." This is the moment when a trapeze artist is temporarily suspended in mid-air between trapezes. It's an empty moment charged with possibilities.

Our lives are filled with them: the moment before you say something hurtful or send out that angry email. Or even when you consider saying "To the hell with it," dumping your diet and gobbling down a mouthful of buttermilk pancakes.

So my anger hasn't changed, but I think my relationship to it has. I don't feel as ruled by my emotions or thoughts as I used to. "As" being the operative word.

What I really appreciate about Magid's work (Ordinary Mind and Ending the Pursuit of Happiness) is how he applies psycho-therapeutic wisdom to Zen practice. I think most of us come to Zen with an agenda, or curative fantasies. It's only natural, considering how goal-oriented Western culture is.

The key is to identify it, and see it for what it is--another mental construction. Identify it, acknowledge it, then let it go.

What I find most challenging is the seduction of other, flashier forms of practice. Awareness or mindfulness practice is...well ordinary. But this is another, more subtle form of curative fantasies--the desire to shop around.

"Don't get caught," I tell myself.

Identify it, acknowledge it, then let it go. Identify it, acknowledge it, then let it go. Identify it, acknowledge it, then let it go.

And so on. To infinity. That's the practice. It's not glamorous; it's not necessarily exciting. But it's Zen, and I love it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The myth of the self factory

Maybe it's the high school teacher in me, but more and more these days I find myself saying something like, "I'm so glad we didn't have cell phones when I was a kid." Or Facebook. Or hell, the Internet.

Hearing me say this, you would think I was 83 and not 33. Being a teacher will do that to you.

I can only imagine all of the stupid things I would have done, all of the trouble I would have gotten into if I were a kid today. Insulting Facebook status updates, insensitive mass text messages; you name it, I would have done it. BIG TROUBLE.

Then it hits me: who I am--or rather, who I think I am--is the result of countless conditions. Call it karma if you'd like, but growing up in NJ in the '80s and '90s, raised in suburbia 30 minutes from New York City as a first generation American--all of these variables influenced my development. I wasn't built in a self factory, but that's how it feels. Like who I am, my identity, self, whatever, is acultural, ahistorical, and unconditional.

The truth is, you couldn't transplant me as a teenager to 2011 without completely altering who I am. Imagining who I would be as a teen today is literally impossible, as I am the living embodiment of countless inconceivable factors. Kind of like the alternate realities that Doc kept talking about in Back to the Future. I am not a stand alone observer watching the world from the window in my head, a cork on the stream of time. None of us are. And yet it sure feels that way.

This is the self myth.

If I were raised today, "I" would not be the same. Who I am, who we all are, has and is determined by a myriad web of conditions stretching into the fathomless depths of space and time. Because there is no essential "I" to transplant; there is only an unfolding process of mutual interdependence. This is Emptiness, another word for conditionality, and yet still another word for interpenetration.

Musing about this time travel scenario illustrates the "self" delusion in its most concrete sense. This self is not substantial or self-sustaining. And it certainly isn't separate, as this little exercise showed me. This, I believe, is what the Buddha was criticizing when he rebuked the self--the instinctive grasping at some core "I" that exists in its own right, intrinsically and independently.

It's a hard realization to internalize, probably the hardest thing I can try to imagine. That's what Buddhist practice is aimed at demolishing--the deluded edifice of the false self.

I've got a lot of work ahead of me. But I'm still damn happy that there weren't cell phones and Facebook when I was growing up.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: nouspique.