Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why America Needs Buddhism

This is the title of a book I want to write. If there's one thing that Republicans and Democrats agree on, it's that the U.S. is in desperate need of repair. Environmentally, economically, morally, educationally--you name it, practically in every arena you can imagine, we're on the brink of a crisis.

As naive as it may sound, I honestly think that Buddhism is the solution. If the definition of madness (or stupidity) is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then sanity is having the wisdom to awaken from this mindless cycle and try something new.

For me, that's Buddhism.

2,500 years ago the Buddha identified the roots of human suffering--greed, hatred, and ignorance. Take one look at the New York Times headlines and you'll see that this diagnosis is just as relevant today as it was two and a half millennia ago. Our current predicament stems from a variety of causes and conditions, but at the heart of them lies the three poisons. Which is why Buddhism is the perfect antidote--its primary focus is on transcending/transforming/transmuting these fetters and awakening to a reality not governed by greed, hatred, and ignorance.

This doesn't mean that Buddhism has to (or can) do it on its own. I don't expect some kind of radical Buddhist revolution--monasteries springing up along the American countryside!, or mass jettisoning of American culture. This isn't about trading Western culture (with all of its benefits) for Eastern culture. The grass is always greener on the other side, and the fact of the matter is that grass is only grass; it's not medicine. I'm not so deluded as to believe that the East is a panacea; they have just as many problems as we do. Materialism, decadence, and moral nihilism don't recognize national borders.

Competitive sectarianism, whether it be political or religious, is not the solution. I'm not talking about exchanging one religion for another. That's just more of the same ideological tug of war that dominates the American political and religious scene. In my mind, it's part of the very problem. The antidote to ultra-conservatism is not liberalism, nor is the answer to the far left to be found in religious fundamentalism.

We need something new--the Middle Way. This is not to be confused with a mere mid-point, the mere product of political or religious equilibrium, but rather a radical shift in cultural values. From religious dogmatism to humanitarianism, from materialism to an understanding that greed and ignorance are destructive to everyone, from pettiness to nobility.

It's about healing a sick world, about responding with wisdom rather than divisive cynicism. And I honestly don't think there's any practice that's better equipped to doing this than Buddhism.

That's why I want to write the book. I considered calling it Why America Needs a Buddhist President, but felt that that suggested I didn't approve of our current Commander in Chief. That's not my intention, although I think this title has a niftier ring to it and would be easier to write.

Just something to think about this 4th of July weekend. Best wishes to everyone for a safe and peaceful holiday.

Gassho.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: jayKayEss.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Peculiar Stories

Though there are scores of religious books for children, in my opinion, there aren't enough for Buddhists kids. Peculiar Stories, by Mora Fields, while not exclusively written for a Buddhist audience, is a great book to share with Buddhist kids under the age of ten. It explores many Buddhist themes, such as the illusory role of the ego, mindfulness, how the mind influences experience, and the non-dual nature of the universe. Talk about a book chock-filled with religious wisdom!

Peculiar Stories is a collection of tales about a nine year old girl's relationship with her zany Uncle E. Each chapter offers readers an opportunity to see the world in a fresh light, through quirky Uncle E's eyes. My favorite story is"Intergalactic Beans," in which Uncle E explains people's true nature. He says,
"I am really not who I pretend I am...I am only wearing a costume. You know, an Uncle E costume. So here we are, thinking we're grownups, kids, surfers, rock stars, Chinese, Swedish, smart, dumb, whatever--when those things aren't who we are at all. We just wear those ideas about who we are, like costumes. Underneath, we're really all the same."
What a beautiful way to explain non-duality--the ego as a costume that we confuse with our true nature. Uncle E sounds like a Zen master!

Peculiar Stories is a fun and humorous book, perfect for parents raising their children Buddhist or any other non-dual religion. I enjoyed reading it, and can't wait to share it with my kids once they're old enough to understand Buddha nature.

Now if I can only find my own Uncle E, I'll be set.


I would like to thank Mora Fields for offering me the opportunity to read this wonderful book. When is the sequel coming out?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

You hungry, man?

The other day I was driving through a densely populated suburban area when I saw a man holding a "Will work for food" sign. It stabbed me in the heart. Here was a man standing on the side of a heavily trafficked road (Woodbridge Ave in Edison, NJ), declaring that he was hungry, and no one could care less.

What the hell kind of world do we live in? I asked myself. This man was hungry; he wanted food--not money for drugs or alcohol as most cynics would predict, food.

That's it, I promised myself. If he's there on my way back, I'm giving him some food. By sheer chance, I had an apple, a bagel, and half of a can of cashews in my lunch bag.

Sure enough ten minute later on my return route he was still standing there.

"Excuse me," I said as I pulled up, "are you hungry?"

He was a middle-aged white man, his skin creased from years in the sun. He climbed off the curb, rubbed his spine, and said, "Yeah," in a way that sounded more like "Why, do I look hungry?" I reread his "Will work for food" sign just to make sure I hadn't asked a complete stranger if he was hungry.

"Would you like this?" I offered him the bagel in a plastic bag.

"Sure," he said. For some reason I imagined that he would tear into the thing right there and then, but he didn't. I guess he wasn't hungry at this very moment.

I extended the apple in his direction.

"Can't eat that," he answered matter-of-factly, and patted his stomach, "Gastritis." Or at least that's what I think he said.

Another surprise. I never heard of a hungry person refusing food; it never happened that way on TV. But if the guy had dietary restrictions, why shouldn't he say no? He wasn't going to eat something that made him sick.

Next came the cashews.

He waved them away too. "Can't eat them either," he muttered.

And then it was over. He walked back to his spot on the curb. Before I drove away, I saw him place the bagel on the hood of a blue van with some business advertisements on the side.

Was that his van? I wondered as I drove away. If so, he must own some kind of business. Maybe that was the work he was offering on his sign.

The whole situation was very odd. I don't know what I had been expecting, but it certainly wasn't this casual of an interaction. I guess something more cinematic: a gesture of Buddhist compassion in a cold, callous world.

Dogen says that compassion is like a hand adjusting a pillow in the middle of the night--natural, spontaneous, selfless.

My act was none of these. It was too intentional and self-satisfying.

True giving has no expectations.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: technosailor.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Open Mouth Already a Mistake

Many modern Zen books are in fact transcribed Dharma talks that teachers gave to their students during sesshin. Some are better than others. Those I don't care for I sound too colloquial for my reading tastes, and though they may make great Dharma talks while you're seated in the zendo, they don't come across too well on paper.

Zen Master Wu Kwang's (Richard Shrobe) Open Mouth Already a Mistake is not one of those cases. Shrobe, a student of eminent Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, is a practicing psychotherapist in New York City and head teacher at Chogye International Zen Center. Open Mouth Already a Mistake has got bite to it. Every Dharma talk is better than the last.

I first encountered Shrobe's work in Don't Know Mind a couple months ago when I became interested in Korean Zen (see post), and really enjoyed reading it. Open Mouth, his first book, is no different; in fact, I think I enjoyed it more than Don't Know Mind. The title refers to Zen's anti-intellectual stance and its insistence on experiencing reality and your true nature, before words or thoughts--what Seung Sahn called "don't know mind."

These aren't Zen pep talks; they're jewels of wisdom condensed into several pages. What I find most refreshing about Shrobe's writing is, as a student in the Korean Kwan Um lineage, he incorporates a lot of Korean Zen (from ancient Masters like Taego and Chinul to more modern ones like Ko Bong), much of which is probably unfamiliar to American Zen students. Open Mouth is full of koans and traditional Zen anecdotes. Halfway through I found myself wondering, "How the hell does Shrobe remember all of these stories, and names!"

It's because he's the real deal: a genuine, modern day Zen Master.

Open Mouth Already a Mistake, although not as popular as Suzuki Roshi's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, is bound to be a classic. I'm looking forward to reading his latest book, Elegant Failure: A Guide to Zen Koans, in the coming weeks.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Buddhist humor

Here's a little Buddhist humor to brighten up your Father's Day.



Have a great day, everyone!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Farewell to Joko

Yesterday, Buddhism lost one of the greatest Zen teachers in American history. Charlotte Joko Beck, author of Zen classics Everyday Zen and Nothing Special, passed away on Wednesday, June 15. Joko Beck was an extraordinary teacher, writer, and contributor to American Zen, and will be missed by all.

As a member in the Ordinary Mind lineage, I offer sincere thanks and gratitude to Joko Beck for her commitment to the Dharma and the living legacy of Zen she left behind. She was a true Bodhisattva, who dedicated her entire life to saving all sentient beings.

May we always remember. May she live forever in the Dharma.

Gassho.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The way life is

Two weeks ago my daughter Julianna found a caterpillar. She and my wife then collected leaves and twigs and made a little mini-habitat for it in this mesh "butterfly tube" we bought for this exact purpose. So every day Julianna excitedly checked the butterfly hut to see how the caterpillar was doing. A couple days later the caterpillar wove itself into a cocoon. You can imagine her four-year-old excitement as she eagerly awaited the arrival of the moth or butterfly.

The whole thing really was very cool--watching nature takes its course, and all that.

So Monday the moth arrived and Julianna was thrilled. Now it was time set it free. Hooray!

She sat on the front steps, unzipped the butterfly hut, and gave the newborn moth its first taste of freedom. It fluttered out into the world for the first time, past the Buddha statue in my flower garden, and up to the side of the house.

Just then a bird spotted it, swooped down, and ate the moth! I'm not joking; I couldn't make this up. The moth hadn't lasted more than twenty seconds outdoors before its life ended.

I felt awful; I couldn't help but feel responsible. If we hadn't let the moth go at that exact moment, maybe it would have survived. But for how long? I won't pretend to know the lifespan of a moth, but my vague memory of seventh grade Science class tells me that it's brief, like a week.

Or maybe we shouldn't have bug-napped the poor caterpillar in the first place. But then again, who's to say it would have survived in the wild on its own? Nature is a tough place; bugs die all the time.

I'll never know the answer to these questions because life is unpredictable. Death can come at any moment, as it did for our little moth.

Who the hell knows what's going to happen next? It's the Buddha's first noble truth: life, death, and everything in between is suffering. Nothing's certain. Talk about existential anxiety.

For me, this example of the moth, captured in all it harshness and brutality, is a great metaphor for life. Our lives may be longer and more complex than the moth's, but in a fundamental way they're the same.


Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: withrow.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

As far back as I can remember...

When I was a kid, my best friend Bruno and I wanted to be priests when we grew up. His father had been one before he immigrated to the U.S., and or some reason once Bruno started saying he wanted to become a priest, I started saying it too. I don't remember my parents objecting to it, even though my family wasn't Catholic (my mom was Lutheran, my dad Muslim). They seemed to be more amused than anything. They were probably thinking, "Yeah, you say that now, kid; but try being celibate when you're a grown up."

The funny thing is, I am becoming a priest, just not the kind I had originally envisioned. I'm not ordaining as a Catholic priest, but as a Buddhist one! As you may already know, I'm enrolled in The Five Mountain Buddhist Seminary, and scheduled to begin classes in October. The other day, however, I received great news: my cohort's starting date has been moved up to July.

I'm excited and nervous; I can't wait to begin my journey towards ordination. And not because I'm fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a priest--to be perfectly honest, I forgot about the whole Catholic priest thing until about a week ago--but because I see ordination as a concrete on the Bodhisattva's path.

To me the Bodhisattva's Vow--to save all sentient beings--is not just a mental declaration; it's an activity. To save means to act. So what better way to save sentient beings than to dedicate your life to the Dharma? And what better way to do that than to ordain? I realize it's not a step for everyone, in the same way as ordaining as a monk would be impossible for me, given my commitments as a parent and husband.

We do what we can; for me, that means becoming a priest.

I consider ordaining the greatest honor I can imagine, to walk eyebrow and eyebrow with the great ancestors, to dedicate my life to this beautiful gift called the Dharma.

I'm very excited to begin my courses, and am thrilled to start the Seminary early. It's a double blessing.

Now, when I come back from summer vacation (I teach high school English) and someone asks me what I did over break, I can say, "Well, I began my courses in the Seminary."

That beats any vacation.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Impermanent as thinning hair

I’m bald. I mean, I shave my head, but lately there isn't as much to shave as there used to be, if you catch my drift. When my high school students ask me, “Is it by choice?” I just nod. Yeah, let’s pretend that’s the case.

So
yesterday my four-year-old daughter Julianna was seated at the table, picking at a slice of bread, deep in thought. Lately, she’s been pondering a lot about the Buddha’s teaching of impermanence.

“You know what, Daddy?” she said with pride.

“What ‘s that?” I said. My wife turned in the kitchen to hear.

“You used to have hair,” Julianna said.

I nodded. Yep, I sure did.

She went on. “And now you don’t.”

“Right,” I said, unsure of where she was going with this.

“Well that’s impermanence.” She beamed. “You had hair and now it’s gone, that’s impermanence, right?”

My wife and I burst out laughing. Of all the examples she could have chosen, she picked my receding--or receded, I should say--hairline.

“Yes, that’s impermanence,” I said. “But next time concentrate on Mommy’s impermanence, okay?”


Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: licorice medusa.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Art of Flourishing

"Many of us fight a daily war," writes psychotherapist Dr. Jeff Rubin in The Art of Flourishing, "in which life--as well as our feelings--is the enemy. We strive to force and direct our world, mightily trying to get what we want even when it isn't possible."

Tell me about it; it's the story of my life: trying to get people, events, and circumstances, to do what I want them to. If only the world would listen to me and do what I want it to, I tell myself more than I would like to admit, then my life would be perfect.

I think we are all familiar with this inner monologue.

But the problem is that our lives will never be perfect. No matter how much we try to bend and manipulate things, our lives are always going to come up short. Partly because once we satisfy one desire, another emerges.

But even though our lives will never be perfect, we can still thrive and blossom. The Art of Flourishing shows us how.

Dr. Rubin has been practicing meditation, yoga, and psychotherapy for over thirty years, and is a pioneer in integrating wisdom from the East and West. In The Art of Flourishing, Dr. Rubin's newest book, he shares his decades of experience as both a meditator and therapist by incorporating them into one cohesive whole, into what he calls meditative therapy.

Many meditative traditions encourage us to ignore the content of our thoughts and feelings, viewing them as obstacles to spiritual development. But in meditative therapy, Dr. Rubin prompts us to explore our emotional and psychological lives through a process he calls emotional composting.

"When we compost a garden," he writes, "we take organic refuse...and break it down...to nourish the soil. In emotional composting we use unpleasant feelings that appear to be waste or garbage--such as anger, guilt, and fear--to enrich our lives. We study painful emotions...which deepen self-understanding and expand our empathy."

If that's not a great description of Buddhist practice--deepening self-understanding and expanding our empathy--I don't know what is.

Meditative therapy and emotional composting remind us that our emotions need not be obstacles to our practice, but can actually be our practice itself. As Dr. Rubin explains: "We can practice emotional recycling by treating both our adversity and our symptoms--from sadness to outrage--as our teachers. Instead of trying to get rid of such feelings, we can ask what they teach us about how we are conditioned and what we need to change."

Our emotions are not going to disappear, no matter how much we repress them; they're simply going to manifest themselves in more subtle, and probably more painful, ways. Like it or not, we can't trick our unconscious.

So why not be open to our emotions and learn from them; in fact, use them as practice itself?

The Art of Flourishing, while not exclusively Buddhist, provide an invaluable complement to any Buddhist's practice. Its treasure trove of psychological and meditative approaches can help us be open and honest to relationships, our emotions, and ultimately, ourselves, to avoid what Dr. Rubin calls a lopsided self--the tendency in spiritual practice to neglect or ignore aspects of ourselves. Lopsidedness leads to disassociation and division, not wholeness, which is the ultimate goal of Zen practice.

The Art of Flourishing is the kind of book that makes me jealous because, even more than wishing that I could have written it, I wish I had half as much wisdom as Dr. Rubin. The book is available on June 7. Definitely check it out!

Authors on the Web has graciously offered Zen and Back Again two free copies of The Art of Flourishing to give away to lucky readers.

Click HERE for a chance to win. See below for rules and regulations.*

I would like to thank Dr. Rubin for writing such a wonderful book. May it help all sentient beings. Also, special thanks to Wiley at Authors on the Web for offering me the opportunity to review the book.

* Contest ends on midnight, June 12, 2011 EST. Two winners will be chosen using random.org. Y0u must have a U.S. or Canadian mailing address to be eligible to win. Odds of winning depend on number of entries. No purchase necessary. Winners will be notified via email. Void where prohibited. One entry per person.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Zen Master Huang Po

Now when someone asks me for a single title that explains Zen well, I'd definitely recommend The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, translated by John Blofeld. Sure there are plenty of great modern Zen books--The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim, The Zen Compass by Seung Sahn--but I found this book from an ancient Master to be particularly insightful and inspiring.

The book is anecdotal, capturing a series of dialogues that Huang Po has with students. Depending upon the student he is addressing, these range in topic, but all inevitably focus upon one theme--Awakening.

Huang Po has one teaching: Find your true nature, One Mind, the true non-dual substance of the universe. The way to do that? Cut of all discriminating thought. He writes:
Only when your minds cease dwelling upon anything whatsoever will you come to an understanding of the true way of Zen...[T]he way of the Buddhas flourishes in a mind utterly freed from conceptual thought processes.
We live in a world of concepts. Self, other, me, mine, yours, up down, inside, outside--these are all ideas, ones that Zen Master Huang Po obliterates with one swipe of Manjushri's wisdom sword. Time and again he reminds us that neither merit nor scholarship can lead us to the One Mind. It is our true nature--indeed the nature of the universe--so we don't need to strive too hard to find it. In fact, the more we strive, the farther away Nirvana goes because we are separating ourselves from in, when in reality we are it.

Huang Po accepts nothing more than complete and utter non-duality. According to Zen, reality is one seamless, undifferentiated whole, in terms of time, space, cause, effect, thought, matter, and so on. It excludes nothing. Anything less is incomplete, or an idea masquerading as reality.

I'd feel like I was misrepresenting Huang Po if I didn't mention that he was also a proponent of sudden enlightenment, a school of thought that argued that enlightenment does not occur in stages (for that would mean someone can be partially enlightened) but rather all at once. Apparently this was a big deal back in the T'ang Dynasty (around the 800s) in China, but not so much now. I think people today would be happy to take any kind of enlightenment they can--sudden, slow, complete, incomplete, diet, regular.

If you haven't already, put The Zen Teaching of Huang Po on your short reading list. It's an invaluable addition to any Zen library.