Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Flowers and weeds

The other day, my four-year-old daughter came up to me with a handful of dandelions and said, "Daddy, look at all of the pretty flowers I picked."

The first thing that came to mind was: Those aren't flowers; they're weeds. The words almost slipped out of my mouth before I stopped myself.

I could just imagine my daughter in therapy twenty years from now.

"Then what did he say?" her therapist asks.

She fights back tears. "He said...he said, 'Those are weeds!" And then begins sobbing.

I have enough things on my conscience already, I don't need to add that to the list.

So instead I just congratulated her on her floral acumen and off she went exploring the rest of the back yard.

That's when it hit me: the biggest difference between her experience of the dandelions and mine is that I superimposed my dualistic grid onto them, whereas she was just open to the moment. I automatically saw dandelions as a weed that invades my backyard; she, on the other hand, just saw a pretty yellow flower.

Good, bad, pretty, ugly, useful, useless, these are mental constructions that we project onto the world. I couldn't appreciate the dandelion the way my daughter did because to me it was a weed, and weeds are a pain in the ass, plain and simple.

I'm not trying to romanticize childhood as some Edenic state, but there was a simplicity in my daughter's experience that cut away some layers of my mental grime. She hasn't yet learned how to differentiate ugly from beautiful, or a flower from a weed. That comes with time.

Zen practice often feels like de-conditioning. I'm trying to unlearn my dualistic mental habits. For instance, there was a moment, around 1 AM as Hurricane Irene was raging outside my window and water was finding its way into my basement, that I asked myself: Is this really bad? How much of this am I creating?

It turned into a kind of koan. When I opened myself to the moment, I could see how empty the events were. Why should water outside my home be fine but water inside be terrible? I was the author of my own suffering--all of it.

It was more categorical thinking, just like with my daughter and her dandelions. I had created good and bad then fooled myself into thinking they had a substantial existence. The Third Ancestor said, "The Great Way is very simple. Just avoid picking and choosing." Indeed.

My daughter did it. She inspires me to see with the wonder of a child where dualities have not yet intruded. Just a flower, just this moment, just "Daddy, look at all of the pretty flowers I picked."

Just, "Wow, they are beautiful." And really meaning it.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: tobym.



Monday, August 22, 2011

The rope and the snake

Last night my wife woke me up at 3:00 AM. "I heard someone downstairs," she whispered.


I shook my head and blinked myself awake.


"Where? What do you mean?" I asked, still bleary from sleep.


"I heard the gate squeak," she explained. We have a children's gate at the bottom of the staircase, and it squeaks when moved. "Should I call the police?"


I thought for a second before saying, "No." I didn't want to call the cops until I knew someone was in the house for sure. It would save me the humiliation of waking up the whole neighborhood for nothing.


I rolled over and rummaged through my nightstand drawer for my hunting knife. My dad gave it to me when I was around 13, and for some reason I have hung on to it ever since. For moments like this, I suppose.


I slipped on my glasses and the dark bedroom slid into focus. I took and deep breath. My heart was hammering with a surge of adrenaline. I climbed out of bed and made it to the hallway.


"What should we do?" my wife asked softly, her voice laden with worry.


I turned to face her. She sat at the edge of the bed, phone in hand, ready to dial 911.


"Hold on; let me check it out first. If you hear me yell, call the cops," I said, not sounding nearly as brave as I would have hoped.


I made my way down the black hallway, the floorboards creaking with each step I took. If there was an intruder, he would know that we were awake for sure. I stood at the landing at the top of the stairs and flicked on the lights. My pupils shrank, and I squinted in the sudden light.


"I called the police," I announced into the darkness downstairs, turning to motion to my wife that I was bluffing and that she shouldn't take that as an actual cue to call. "Leave now and we won't bother you." I had no intention of "bothering" anyone; I just wanted to protect my family if I had to.


Nothing. Silence. Then a muffled shuffling sound from the toy room, as if someone were rolling over in the bed there. My heart picked up its pace.


There was someone in here! Images ran through my mind of a drug addict, strung out on crystal meth or cocaine, passed out in my toy room bed like Robert Downey Jr. I clenched the knife handle tighter and gulped. What the hell was I going to do?


Cautiously, I crept down the stairs, my heart galloping like a race horse.


I won't draw the suspense out any further. There wasn't any intruder. All my doors were locked and the windows sealed. Now anyone who has read my blog before knows that I'm going to make a metaphor out of this.


I am. Sorry, it's the English teacher in me.


The Buddha said that most of the time we mistake reality in the same way as a frightened man in the dark mistakes a rope for a snake. Standing at the top of the stairs, I was certain that I heard someone. Later, I discovered the source of the noise--my son has a plastic bed frame, so when he rolls over, it makes a loud bumping sound. In my adrenaline-filled state, I had misidentified it as coming from downstairs instead of up.


My fear had made me the man in the darkness, mistaking the rope for the snake.


But it doesn't end there. The more I practice, the more I realize that I do this all the time--mistake my thoughts for reality itself. The old map and the territory deal.


Just yesterday I saw a couple in the gym. They were tattooed and in great shape, and I automatically concluded that they were using steroids. Can we say insecure, Andre? Maybe they are and maybe they aren't. But that isn't the point. It took me maybe fifteen seconds of speculating before realizing that I was lost in my own little fantasy world. I was telling myself a story about them that suited my agenda, reducing them to stereotypes (and cliched ones at that) to fit into a mental category.


We weave these little stories about people, events, and experiences, framing and labeling them to fit into our convenient world views. I did that with the couple in the gym and I certainly did that at the top of the stairs last night.


Wake up! That's the goal of Buddhism.


Despite what last night might suggest, I'm working on it. I'm working on it.


Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: paperbackwriter.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The real Hinayana

Here's something I learned in my Introduction to Buddhism course in the Five Mountain Seminary. I figured I'd share it with you.


We were learning about the true usage of the term Hinayana, the black-eye of Buddhist terms. Often it is used derogatorily to refer to Theravada Buddhism under the false assumption that it is a selfish practice concerned solely with individual Awakening. Hence the name, Hinayana, which means "Lesser Vehicle," as opposed to the Mahayana, or "Greater Vehicle," devoted to the universal Awakening of all beings. This is a very narrow, sectarian, and incorrect usage of the term Hinayana.


What Rev. Jiun Foster, my instructor, offered was a much broader and richer understanding of the word. Hinayana, viewed through this new lens, is the beginning stages of any Buddhist practice--including, dun, dun, dun, Mahayana. Hinayana practice is when a person is concerned with his or own salvation. Theravada Buddhism does not fall into that category at all. In fact, the Buddha himself dedicated the last forty-five years of his life to helping others, so how could any Buddhist school, which uses him as a spiritual ideal, be Hinayana?


Seen in this light, Hinayana is a stage that we all need to work through. For in order to progress we must internalize and embody the understanding that self and other are the not separate. We cannot develop spiritually if we cut ourselves off from the rest of the universe. That, I imagine, would only breed egotism and self-absorption--the exact opposite of the Buddhist goal.


So Hinayana is a stage that can be found in any spiritual practice, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. Correctly used, it does not refer to Theravada any more than it does to Zen or Vajrayana.


I really enjoyed this perspective of the term Hinayana. It has motivated me to practice hard and to re-engage the Bodhisattva's vow. I hope it does the same for you.


Thanks to Rev. Foster at Five Mountain Seminary for this lesson. Hapchang.


Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: El Caganer.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bad dreams

The other night my four-year-old daughter had a bad dream. She was so upset that I carried her into my bed and held her for the rest of the night. Last night, before she went to bed, she said, "I can't stop thinking bad things."

I felt wretchedly helpless; if there's one thing that's torturous for a parent its to see your child suffer. She was having so much anxiety about her dreams that she couldn't stop thinking about them. I said everything I could to put her at ease. I told her that thoughts are like clouds, and just like you wouldn't be afraid if a cloud looked scary, the same applied to thoughts.

That didn't work. Neither did my explanation that you can't eat a mental slice of pizza, so why be scared about other thoughts?

I should take my own advice. My daughter was suffering from the same habit that most people do--she was hooked by her thoughts, taking them much too seriously. In fact, thinking that they are real. We create these mental maps--simulacra--and forget that they are empty constructs. Like in the photo above, we make monsters out of shadows.

Suzuki Roshi wisely said, "Don't believe everything you think." I wish someone had told me that fifteen years ago!

Most of us are so caught in our little fantasies, our mental narrative where we are the star, that we can't even recognize when we're telling ourselves stories. And what's worse is our resistance to our thoughts and emotions. We want to eliminate any that we deem "unpleasant," and replace them with pleasurable ones. I think that we're hard-wired that way. This inevitably leads to more suffering and anguish as we try to escape the realities of the human condition. Like I said in my last post, pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional. We compound our discomfort by resisting it, just like my daughter did by trying to run from her "bad" thoughts. If only we could learn how to accept them--good, bad, regardless of their content--then those labels would begin to empty. Which is what they are in the first place.

That's why koans are so useful. They cut off all discriminating thought and bring us back to the here and now. They force us to respond with our entire beings, to drop all conceptualization--where are you right now? When answering a koan, the present moment feels razor thin. Who knows, maybe that's the way life always is, and koans simply wake us up to the fact. Because that's what the practice is about--waking up.

But obviously I couldn't tell that to my daughter. So last night I just held her, assured her everything was going to be fine, and waited for her to fall asleep.

I see my own struggles in her fears. My own nightmares and anxieties echoed in hers. And not just mine, but the suffering of the whole world was present.

There was a moment that first night when I was holding her as she slept--when all I wanted to do was make everything all right--that I felt like I finally understood Buddhism. A gap closed, or maybe something opened. And all that remained was the present moment. Pure, sharp, and clear.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: gfpeck.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Complex, not complicated

Life is complex, but it doesn't need to be complicated. Modern living is busy, busy, busy. We have grocery shopping, laundry, jobs, cars that require maintainence, and homes that need cleaning. Add children to the mix and you are probably searching for a 25th hour hidden in some pocket dimension. That said, as complex as things get, they don't have to be complicated.



We heap on all sorts of extra drama to situations, and then wonder why life is so hard. The other day I caught myself in the middle of one of my internal diatribes. Self-pity, anger, and frustration were the main cast and I had given them complete license to run the show.


"Why does this have to happen to me?"


"The whole world is crazy!"


"If only..."


You know the routine. Couple that with physical tension, and I was about to scream.


And then out of nowhere I spotted my role in all this. I wasn't sitting passively watching this unfold. Quite the contrary: I was complicating the situation by adding all these new layers to my hurt.


Suffering is optional.


I spotted how I was injuring myself and stopped. The anger remained, but I wasn't feeding it with a fictional storyline where I was the victim of some injustice. I've read "Just do the dishes" countless times; now I was "just angry."


It wasn't pleasant and I didn't enjoy being mad, but it was a traceless, unencumbered anger. It came and it went.


Life is complex, riddled with details and responsibilities. But we're the ones who make it complicated by resisting what's unfolding at this present moment, by spinning these soap operas in our minds. Most of us are much better artists than we give ourselves credit for.


The problem, I think, is that we believe our own stories and don't even realize when we're trapped inside of our thoughts. The goal of Buddhism is to wake up. The first step, though, is to realize when we're asleep at the wheel.


Moment by moment by moment.


Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: AJC1.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Rediscovering koans

Although it feels like much longer, about a year ago I stopped koan study with a Zen group with whom I was practicing for several years. At the time, koans felt dry, lifeless, and not at all related to my life. You can read my post about it here, if you'd like. I had begun koan study with enthusiasm, but after a few years I lost steam and didn't see the value in it.



That's when I started practicing with the Zen Center of Philadelphia, a school in the Soto lineage. Since then, shikantaza and mindfulness have been my primary forms of practice. And they've helped me immensely.


Recently, though, I have started studying koans again, this time with the Five Mountain Seminary. As a school in Seung Sahn's Korean Son lineage, Five Mountain sangha takes a totally different approach to koan study than I was accustomed. Seung Sahn stressed situation, relationship, and function. Clarifying those three dimensions--what is the situation? what is my relationship to it? and how should I act?--helps us "go straight," a phrase that Seung Sahn was fond of using.


While a year ago I couldn't transfer my koan practice to my life, now I'm finding myself integrating it more and more. Because that's what Seung Sahn's koan approach is intended to do--help us function. The stories about dead masters and their students are relevant and vital, not as parables or lessons to be analyzed discursively, but as vibrant expressions of the Buddhadharma. They are alive and waiting for us to embody them. But first we must become the koan, before the thinking mind objectifies it and creates another dualism.


That's how we normally experience our lives--as subjects in a sea of objects. Zen master Richard Shrobe says that most people live with the world at arm's length. If that's the case, then koan practice is a way, not only of bringing us and the world together, but of uniting the two. What Shrobe calls "alone," or "all-one." Koans disable the thinking mind and force us to engage the situation before thinking by becoming it, because in reality, we are it. Koans just remove the veneer of a false dualism.


If compassion is wisdom in action, then koans clarify how to act properly.


As you can probably tell, I feel re energized by and excited about my koan study.




--Thanks to Rev. Lynch for taking the time to help a blockhead like me. You're an extraordinary teacher and I appreciate all of your wisdom and patience. Hapchang.



Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: CaseyJ*.










Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Alternative temple bells

If you're looking for a temple bell for your home altar, check this video out.





It's called a Hapi bell. Granted it's not a traditional bowl gong, but it's very versatile, acting as a six-note bell, gong, and singing bowl. You can even hang it upside down. Pretty cool. Sure it's a little pricey, but compared to temple bowls of the same size, it's pretty reasonably priced.

I stumbled on the Hapi site a couple weeks ago and ordered a drum (not this model) for myself. It's in the mail as we speak. I fell in love with their instruments and figured I'd share it with anyone interested.

And no, I don't own any stock in the Hapi company. Wish I did, though! I just appreciate their craftsmanship.