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.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Selflessly embracing this self

What is this fascination we have with the concept of some true, underlying nature? So often one encounters this notion of "returning to the source." What is this seemingly irresistible attraction that so many of us seem to have for a place, a time, or even a timeless, placeless something that somehow, finally, we can say is really me?

Ven. Thanissaro rips apart the idea in this new article, particularly in the section labeled, "No Innate Nature." He states that the idea of Buddha nature is "excess baggage on the path."

On the flip side of this coin, we find the type of perspective as apparently conveyed in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. One exposition of the concept can be found here in a blog entry titled, "No nirvana without self."

So which one is it? Self? Or no self?

In the Dhamma, there should be no confusion. When we look closely, we can realize that the question itself is ill-conceived, unhelpful, and ultimately of no benefit. We have in the teachings the clear idea of "not-self," Anatta, which is that visceral reality that nothing in our experience can be regarded as me or mine. That means we can know very clearly what is not self. Yet in MN2 the Buddha also makes clear that it does no good to dwell on a conceptual understanding pegged to the notion, "I am not." Indeed, the Buddha calls that type of thinking "inappropriate attention."

"This is how he attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?' Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: 'Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?'

We can recognize that this deep wish we might feel to find an underlying "nature" may be a manifestation of identity view. And if we look closely, we might see that the nature of this desire is suffering, and also that it is an impermanent, changing phenomenon, arising and then passing away, then perhaps arising again.

The apparent dichotomy between what sometimes is termed the "positive" teaching and the "negative" teaching -- using either the "self" or "no-self" position as a teaching platform -- reflects the underlying weakness of teaching with words. The Buddha taught in different manners to different audiences, depending on the disposition he detected in his audience. From that perspective, regardless of one's tradition, one might understand how seemingly contradictory teachings can be handed down. But remember: The Buddha's teachings are to be put into practice. They are not intended to be used as the basis for cultivating disputes and arguments.

It can be confusing, if we spend too little time on the practice side of things. We might hear that, yes, we are the owners of our kamma, heirs to our kamma. We might hear that, yes, luminous is the mind. And conversely, we might hear that, no, there is no abiding self beyond these aggregates, beyond this All. And all of it is true. But none of it is true in the way we might conceive it is true. Our opinions, our beliefs, all of these mental formations are themselves entwined with this round of samsara. But this Dhamma path is the path of liberation through not-clinging.

Yet the Buddha does not advise a practice of turning our backs on all of this. Indeed, in that very same MN2, the Buddha advises us to attend to it. But to attend appropriately:

This is stress... This is the origination of stress... This is the cessation of stress... This is the way leading to the cessation of stress. As he attends appropriately in this way, three fetters are abandoned in him: identity-view, doubt, and grasping at precepts & practices.

This appropriate attention is itself an expression of inner renunciation. What a wonderful freedom it is, to recognize that we hold such-and-such belief, to see it for what it is. Maybe we believe there is some underlying Buddha nature. Aha! There is our belief. I see you! There's no need to beat ourselves up about our beliefs. Nor is there any reason to try to defend or justify them. They are what they are. And from experience we know that they will change from what they are today.

If we are to walk the path that the Buddha teaches, the Dhamma path, then we must be kind to ourselves, recognizing that the beliefs we hold are part of this heap of aggregates.

The Buddha gives a seemingly unrelated teaching in MN21:

"Suppose that a man were to come along carrying a hoe & a basket, saying, 'I will make this great earth be without earth.' He would dig here & there, scatter soil here & there, spit here & there, urinate here & there, saying, 'Be without earth. Be without earth.' Now, what do you think — would he make this great earth be without earth?"

"No, lord. Why is that? Because this great earth is deep & enormous. It can't easily be made to be without earth. The man would reap only a share of weariness & disappointment."

"In the same way, monks, there are these five aspects of speech by which others may address you: timely or untimely, true or false, affectionate or harsh, beneficial or unbeneficial, with a mind of good-will or with inner hate. ... In any event, you should train yourselves: 'Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic to that person's welfare, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading him with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with him, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will equal to the great earth — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.' That's how you should train yourselves.

With awareness imbued with good will equal to the great Earth. Abundant. Expansive. Immeasurable. Free from hostility. Free from ill will.

According to tradition, on the night the Bodhisatta was about to attain to perfect awakening, he was confronted by Mara. And the Bodhisatta reached down and touched the Earth.

Sometimes one hears of the distinction between self with a small 's' and Self with a big 'S', as if the concept of self can be ennobled if we hold it in just the right way. But regardless of how we conceptualize it, whenever we conceptualize it we have an opportunity to understand what is happening, here and now. With awareness, with equanimity, we can see things just as they are.