Sunday, October 6, 2013

With gratitude to S.N. Goenka

Several days have passed since the death of S.N. Goenka, who helped to make Dhamma accessible to many. I would like to express my gratitude.

Here are some links:
The Man Who Taught the World to Meditate
A Student's Appreciation
Changing lives
Be happy

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Are you missing the point of Buddhism?

The point of Buddhism is friendship.

That might sound trite, and it might conflict with the emphasis we think we have been taught. Isn't the point liberation, to be liberated from the bonds of greed, hate and delusion? Or, depending on one's perspective, to liberate all beings? Yes, you might say that. But in practice and in truth, it boils down to a deep, all-pervading friendliness.

The idea is portrayed in the movie Dersu Uzala, where a Mongolian guide on a Siberian expedition repeatedly and confusingly talks about the many "men" who come and go in the forest. Eventually it becomes clear he often means animals. He does what he can to take care of these "men," even if he never sees them directly. What wanders up, what presents itself, even what presents itself subtly, Dersu Uzala treats with friendship. He takes care.

Many people, even those well-versed in Buddhism, appear to miss that point. One look at how Buddhism is discussed on the Internet reveals a continuing drama of hardened ideology, confrontation, personalized comments, recriminations. Some of the "Buddhism" perpetrated on these sites is embarrassingly far, far from the Buddhadhamma. Some moderators unfortunately contribute to this spreading and pernicious misapplication of the teachings. "He is no friend who, anticipating conflict, is always alert in looking out for weaknesses." But it truly is this simple: If it is not friendly-minded, it is not Dhamma.

The Buddha taught: "Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life." ("Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life)" (SN 45.2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 1 July 2010, . Retrieved on 3 January 2012.)

The message in that sutta is much deeper than merely to associate with others who are admirable. When we stop for a moment and consider the anatta, impersonal nature of reality, we can appreciate that Dersu Uzala had it right: Men -- people -- are all around us, and how we treat them is a reflection of the kamma we are working with, a reflection like in a mirror. Our thoughts are our companions. Our feelings are our companions. Our sensations are our companions. And so on. They are the "people" who populate this field of experience, and we make of it what we do.

We can ask ourselves whether these companions themselves are admirable. If we do so, however, we have to be careful, because it can be easy to answer, no, and to fall back on the habit pattern of aversion. Alternatively, we can ask ourselves whether that friendship is admirable, whether that companionship is admirable. If we do so, then it is about the relationship. And then we have a greater opportunity to grow. What relationship do you have with these thoughts, feelings, sensations, mental constructions, and all of the companions who happen to wander up? Is it admirable? Can you meet them with equanimity, allow them to be, and not attack or reject?

Equanimity is not a state of apathy, of not caring. Equanimity is engaged, aware, open, ready. One might assume that equanimity is neither friendly nor unfriendly, but that is not the case. Equanimity is friendly-minded, at its core. And so must be awareness.

Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie involves meeting whatever arises with awareness and equanimity, understanding its not-self nature, understanding its changing nature, and then maybe we will smile. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Recognizing what is Dhamma and what is not

It's easy to get caught up in the Buddhism discussions that proliferate across the Internet. So many different kinds of Buddhism. So many different opinions. So many opportunities to compare oneself with others, to disagree, to speak out, to set things straight. Who's right? Who's even listening? Does anyone actually hear the words of Dhamma amid the din? Are the words even there?

The Buddha gave a wonderful teaching on how to recognize the Dhamma, found here at Access to Insight. Worth noting: the Dhamma is to be recognized by its qualities.

The Buddha tells Mahapajapati Gotami (who, incidentally, was his foster mother and also the first Buddhist nun) what is not the Dhamma:
'These qualities lead to passion, not to dispassion;
to being fettered, not to being unfettered;
to accumulating, not to shedding;
to self-aggrandizement, not to modesty;
to discontent, not to contentment;
to entanglement, not to seclusion;
to laziness, not to aroused persistence;
to being burdensome, not to being unburdensome'

And what the Dhamma is:
'These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion;
to being unfettered, not to being fettered;
to shedding, not to accumulating;
to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement;
to contentment, not to discontent;
to seclusion, not to entanglement;
to aroused persistence, not to laziness;
to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome':

One wonderful thing about this teaching is that it tells us these are qualities that we may know. Also: These are qualities one discovers for oneself, with regard to one's own experience. That means the Dhamma is not a yardstick by which to measure others. Nor is it a weapon to be used in debates.

This creates a context for what it means to go for refuge in the Dhamma. It is a personal experience, dependent on causes and conditions, reflecting qualities that one discerns through direct knowledge.

When I start to get caught up in the discussion, when I feel misunderstood, or when I feel slighted, or when I feel smug, for example, then I can know: This is not the Dhamma, this is not the Teacher's instruction.

And in recognizing that, I can loosen my grip, understand what is going on, recognize the habit patterns at play. And smile. And then I can know: This is the Dhamma, this is the Teacher's instruction.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

If you can practice even when distracted ...

My Twitter friend @_karmadorje has been tweeting each of the Lojong mind-training slogans, which I think is a wonderful exercise. Although they are from a very specific tradition within this Jackson Pollock landscape called "Buddhism," the slogans speak across traditions and even well beyond Buddhism. They are often surprising, usually challenging, gentle and firm at the same time, like a wacky parent who really loves you even though he seems to say crazy stuff. But when you really listen, it makes sense.

Each slogan could be a blog post of its own. I like this one:

If you can practice even when distracted, you are well trained.

According to tradition, when Atisha went to Tibet to bring the Dharma there, he decided to bring along his very annoying, very disagreeable Bengali tea boy, because he had heard the Tibetan people were so gentle and kind that he was afraid he would lose an opportunity for practice, being among such agreeable people. As it turned out, Atisha didn't need his Bengali tea boy.

Surprises are everywhere we turn. You'd think we'd know better, after all these years. But most of us don't. We sail along this daily life, bringing our expectations with us, often unconsciously. Maybe we think we've matured, maybe we think we've developed patience and wisdom. We pat ourselves on the back. And then it happens: The surprise.

That person at work says just the wrong thing at just the wrong moment, catching you off guard. And you snap back.

Or someone dings your door in the parking lot. Or the computer crashes before you've had a chance to save an hour's worth of work. Or you spill something on your clothes.

Sometimes the distractions are even more challenging. Your spouse is leaving you. A family member dies. You are in a serious accident.

You're dying.

It can be so easy to "practice" during times when there are no distractions. On retreats, in fact, that's exactly what we do: We seclude ourselves somewhere. We leave our phones at home. We observe noble silence. We might not even make eye contact for a period of many days. No distractions.

But the rubber hits the road in the real world, where distractions are the name of the game, where the baby cries at 3 a.m., where the telemarketer calls in the middle of dinner, where the electricity goes out just after dark and there are no candles or flashlights in the house. Where our spouse is upset, crying even, for whatever reason. Where total strangers walk up to us on the street and make incoherent demands. In this world, when our children are scared, or injured, and we're late, and we're out of money, and ... and ... how in the world are we supposed to practice then?

The truth is: If you can practice even when distracted, you are well trained.

Two things occur to me: We need our Bengali tea boy to fuel our practice in difficult times. What a wonderful thing it would be if we could recognize, in the midst of distraction, HERE, exactly right here and now, is my opportunity to practice.

And also: Training is vital. So we train when we are not distracted, just like an athlete does, developing lovingkindness and patience and determination and energy and generosity and all the other things we need in that moment when distraction rears its ugly, beautiful head.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Lessons from a reformed serial killer

So often, I have found myself inspired by the tale of Angulimala, the mass murderer who became an arahant.

The Angulimala Sutta (MN86) paints a portrait of a terrifying killer who slaughtered people and cut off their fingers, wearing them on a garland around his neck. It's hard to imagine a more miserable starting position from which to attain to awakening, and yet that's exactly what this tale conveys. At its core, this is a story of redemption, and that is the first lesson I took away from it: It's never too late. Whatever we have done in the past, whatever horrific state of mind might have occurred in the past, we can leave it behind. We can be compassionate, here and now. Our past mistakes don't need to hinder us from choosing kindness now.

If that were the only message from the Angulimala story to stick in my mind, it would be enough. But it's not. Again and again, bits and pieces of Angulimala's tale sometimes float to the surface of my mind as gentle reminders amid day-to-day life. Here are some of them:

"I have stopped." When the Buddha first encounters Angulimala, the killer can't catch him, even though the Buddha is walking normally and Angulimala is running as fast as he can. Angulimala calls out: "Stop, recluse!" And the Buddha says, "I have stopped."

Angulimala recognizes that the Buddha is a noble teacher not prone to telling lies, so he is inspired to ask the Buddha what he can possibly mean by claiming he has stopped when in fact he is still walking. And of course the answer snaps things right into focus:

Angulimala, I have stopped forever,
I abstain from violence toward living beings;
But you have no restraint toward things that live:
That is why I have stopped and you have not.

So often our world spins and spins, and we wonder, why does it have to be this way? And the answer is that we are the ones spinning. We have not stopped. So why not take a moment and just stop?

"By this truth, may you be well." On an alms round, the now Ven. Angulimala encounters a woman in labor, having great difficulty delivering a baby. This former killer, who had been bereft of compassion, sympathizes with the woman in her suffering. He seeks the Buddha's guidance.

At first the Buddha tells him to say to the woman: "Sister, since I was born, I do not recall that I have ever intentionally deprived a living being of life. By this truth, may you be well and may your infant be well."

Angulimala tells the Buddha he's not comfortable saying such a thing, because he thinks it would be a lie. So the Buddha clarifies what he meant, telling Angulimala to say the following:

Sister, since I have been born with the noble birth, I do not recall that I have ever intentionally deprived a living being of life. By this truth, may you be well and may your infant be well.

When Angulimala recited these words to the woman, she and her baby both became well. The stanza is still recited as a traditional chant of protection. And it underscores the extreme letting go that occurs when the noble path is attained. It is good for oneself and also good for others.

"Bear it, brahmin! Bear it." On another alms round, someone throws a clod of dirt at Angulimala. Someone else throws a stick. Someone else throws a piece of pottery. Bleeding from his head, and with his bowl broken and robe torn, Angulimala goes to the Buddha. And the Buddha tells him:

Bear it, brahmin! Bear it, brahmin! You are experiencing here and now the result of deeds because of which you might have been tortured in hell for many years, for many hundreds of years, for many thousands of years.

Through force of habit, we experience again and again the results of the kamma (volitional action) that we perform here and now. We amplify the results through our habitual reactions. We turn away from it. We hate it. And we try to salve it with something that we think is better, but that's really just something else to cling to.

Our problem is that we don't bear with it. Sometimes we really can't bear it, because we have not cultivated the capacity to engage with that deep place of pain and sorrow and anger that so often we wish to hide from. And as long as we allow it to lie there, hidden, unexposed, avoided, it comes back again and again. Because we refuse to bear with it.

The Dhamma path is the practice of cultivating the capacity to engage directly with all of this. With equanimity and awareness, we can see things just as they are. We do not turn away.

I also find inspiring how Angulimala's tale shines across the centuries and still illuminates the path, in its own way. As Angulimala himself proclaimed:

Who once did live in negligence
And then is negligent no more,
He illuminates this world
Like a moon freed from a cloud.