Thursday, November 29, 2012

Common Sense when Looking for Buddha Dharma and Sangha

Religions have made me uncomfortable since my mid-teens. Although I can cite a number of reasons, the important one for this post is that I was disillusioned after repeatedly observing others not living up to the ideal, i.e. not practicing what they preached.

What bothered me most was that the hypocrisy I observed extended beyond the binge-drinking and affairs that occur to, more importantly, a failure to maintain (or at least return to) attitudes of basic loving-kindness, open-mindedness, and forgiveness. I decided that friends outside these groups were being more honest and quit "religion." At the time, I thought I was quitting never to return. Who or what "God" was and ever shall be grew increasingly vague as I grew older.

It took me a long time to accept and admit that I was "Buddhist" in addition to being a meditator. (The start of this blog marks that decison.) When I did, given my prior experience, I acknowledged that:

(1) I did not expect any Buddhist to be anything more than a human being with flaws, even teachers. Nor did I expect perfection out of an entire community. I accepted that any Sangha I might find was not a "safe haven" or shield.

(2) I accepted that my practice was stagnating on its own. I wanted the support (and challenges) for my individual practice that interacting with a community or Sangha provides.

(3) I accepted that if I separate myself from religion or Buddhism, isn’t what I leave worse off for my absence? Why should I separate myself from the very people holding values most similar to my own?

I think a lot of people look to Sangha or similar communities for the "safe haven" or "shield" they appear to represent, as opposed to the experiential challenges. One of the things a person eventually learns with continued practice is that the safe haven exists inside, within each individual, not outside. This safe haven provides the ground or balance point from which each of us can extend trust outwards to include others, situations and circumstances as they arise allowing for all possibilities, even those we might fail to anticipate.

When a person is born into the world, each of us is gifted with "the eternal, joyous, selfless and pure" along with the inheritance of samsara. I consider the eternal, joyous, selfless and pure to be at least one definition of the Buddha-dharma, i.e. what the Buddha taught. In my view, every person has a responsibility to honor and protect what is eternal, joyous, selfless and pure within themselves. This is the source of the sincerity and wisdom-power that motivates practice, including zazen. This is also the source of kindness and compassion towards others. One of the things that seems true for me is that when I sit I tap into the "What" that is eternal, joyous, selfless and pure and uncontaminated by views. Sitting helps me be aware of It, even if I can't put what It is into words.

In my opinion, the most important question for any person to ask regarding their own practice is:

(4) Is what I am doing or not doing encouraging the growth of the safe haven* within, i.e. that which is eternally joyous, selfless and pure? 

As a member of a Sangha or monastery, the question also can be extended:

(4b) To question our own role in any community we may be a part of. For example, by rephrasing the question as: Is what I am doing encouraging the growth of the safe haven within other individuals in the community
(4c) To question the behavior of teachers in a community. Is what the teacher is doing encouraging the growth of the safe haven within myself?

In this regard, it's important to recognize that a good teacher will encourage the growth of the safe haven within a student not by pampering it, but rather by challenging it. A good teacher will challenge and thereby strengthen the safe haven of a student without seriously damaging it by going too far. How do a teacher or student know what "too far" is? I think it's the responsibility of a formally accepted teacher to be aware of and sensitive to where the student is in his or her practice, specifically what stressors and resources, mental and physical, exist for the student. I think that if a student is made aware of the three points mentioned above, it is also the responsibility of the student to question any situation they encounter as to whether that which is eternally joyous, selfless and pure is being expanded on by their experience and to challenge the teacher or situation if their own answer to that question is not clear.

*The commonly used term is refuge.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Reflections: The Art of Disappearing & Reappearing (III) ... and Notes on Sangha

When any person who has been sitting for awhile has the realization that everything in the Universe is interconnected by the same awareness (e.g., see An Exercise in Awareness), an almost simultaneous realization is that our karmic inheritance, i.e., who and where we are as a human being in relation to the rest of the Universe is a position in Indra's Net each person has a right, even a responsibility, to defend.

What has been more difficult, at least for me, is learning how to integrate those two realizations in a way that allows me to live and act. To me, God is that shared awareness and that awareness allows me to act from kindness, not only towards myself, but also towards others -- even as I realize that I can never accurately anticipate or know exactly where I or any other individual may be acting from. This dilemma is echoed in the impossibility of the Four Vows.

When I come back to the question of "who I am" that has run through the last couple of posts, and when I ask myself why I sit every day, one answer that resonates with certainty is that I believe in kindness, not hatred and vengeance. Isn't zazen, the ultimate realization of kindness to myself? And what a pity if I can't incorporate that lesson into life.

Image from Wikipedia

An interesting conversation I had with another Sangha member after returning from my precepts ceremony concerned her own reticence to take the precepts. She, having been a leader in another religious organization for many years had grown disgusted with the hypocrisy she observed, left, and took up Zen. My answer was to ask her, why she expected any person to be less than a human being with flaws, much less an entire community?

As human beings I think we each have a habit of trusting the organizations we belong to -- and that's true especially for religious communities, whether Christian or Buddhist. The codes of conduct, the ten commandments, the precepts, the robes and rituals provide a false sense of security and led us to expect perfection -- and, while it's not an excuse, no one is perfect. No one.

In terms of religion, I think that if we become a member of a monastery, we typically do so not only as a support for our individual practice, but also in hopes of finding a "safe haven" or shield from the darker side in each human being. Unfortunately, that "safe haven" doesn't exist. Learning to recognize that that darker side is present in every being, including ourselves, is part of how true compassion arises. In fact, while I believe codes of conduct are necessary, they can become the essence of what Ajahn Brahm calls "will power" and asceticism. Asceticism teaches separation and has resulted in some of the worst atrocities known to man. It teaches the expectation of perfection in ourselves and in others.

A story that recently appeared in the news, is that of Sasaki Roshi at Mount Baldy with what appears to be as yet unsubstantiated allegations of sexual abuse. I have no doubt that horrific cases of sexual abuse exist, but from what I have read to date, I'm not convinced it occurred at Mount Baldy. Instead, it could be a monastery with emphasis on a kind and compassionate interactions, or monastery run by a man with a disposition to having affairs. At the moment, in the absence of incontrovertible evidence, what has me more horrified is the almost mob mentality wishing to condemn -- which seems to be another case of fear getting the better of people who should know better.

In my opinion, the mob mentality that is the typical response to any reports of wrong doing is not a constructive response. For one thing, it decreases the likelihood that what actually happened will come to light and it causes people to distort their previous perception of what occurred, both in positive and negative ways. The sensationalism that often goes hand-in-hand with today's media, and the mob mentality that results, harms everyone by decreasing the willingness of anyone suspecting abuse to come forward, either with reports or a questioning attitude due to the shame and damage to self-image and the lives of all persons involved, not to mention Buddhism. The sensationalism of today's media, in my opinion, threatens the free speech of the individual.

Will more rigorous codes of conduct and restrictive conditions reduce the occurence of sexual abuse in monasteries or elsewhere? Not likely, since, in my opinion, they're likely to reinforce ascetic practice. In fact, it's entirely possible that more rigor and restrictiveness would increase the occurence of sexual abuse by increasing asceticism and by increasing the false sense of security codes provide.

I'm personally of the view that any environment that encourages people to let down their normal protective shield, especially those that emphasize kindness and compassion, run the risk of interpersonal entanglements and to expect otherwise is ignorance. Should the interactions of equals studying the Buddha-dharma be restricted equally when they occur in every day life versus the monastic setting? Every person has a responsibility to themselves to question whether how they are being treated is acceptable in any given context. It seems obvious to me that the expectations of acceptable behavior when eating dinner at a restaurant with friends are likely to be different from those a person might have when throwing a party or going to a topless bar. In addition, the same activities may carry different expectations in different cultures. Life in a monastery should be subject to the same personal scrutiny.

Of my friends in the Dharma, I have one question:

Is our experience of zazen one that we use to hide from life and teach ourselves separation? I know that's not why I'm sitting.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reflections: The Art of Disappearing... & Reappearing (II)

What is anuttara samyaksaṃbodhi, i.e. perfect enlightenment?

Lately, I've been asking a different question, namely: What is the way? The way is often summarized by the words "Just sit." Just sitting means just to sit regularly, preferably every day, and, for the majority of people, the mind gradually unlearns the bad habits of a lifetime and begins to appreciate the peace and ease that can be found in each moment, regardless of circumstances. It's a miracle of kindness, because it happens all by itself. A person has to put in the time and that's it. It's easy to miss the simplicity and essence of the meaning of "just sitting" when reading the Shobogenzo or other sutras. Which is why I appreciated Ajahn Brahm's The Art of Disappearing so much. He gave me a fresh perspective on many of the things I learned in the early days, now, at a time when it was good for me to see them.

Beyond that, the way in real life is different for each person, because each person is a unique individual and each person's circumstances are unique as well.

My own personal and preferred description of enlightenment these days (though partial and, therefore, in error), is when the peace and ease of sitting get up off the mat. With time, I think that more awareness gets up and comes along too. Walking meditation, chanting and the rituals in whatever tradition are good practices because they teach the transition. Each of these practices is subtly directing mind. Each activity can be a sort of meditation in and of itself. The eight-fold path and mindfulness strategies, such as dropping off views, also can be thought of as enabling strategies because they also teach the transition.

Siddhartha Gautama spent roughly six years as an ascetic before deciding that asceticism was not the way. I used to think of asceticism in those classical terms. One of Ajahn's Brahm's insights is that any form of goal-oriented behavior easily reverts us back down the ascetic path. The mind likes to default back to it's habitual way of functioning. Something is fundamentally wrong when sitting, ritual or various mindfulness strategies become an ascetic practice. It prevents the awareness, peace and ease of sitting from diffusing through the rest of our lives. When practice is pushed, the path of regress that is supposed to occur naturally is inhibited. The path of regress, the way, in a nutshell, is the path of gradually being comfortable with less and enjoying what is or can be present in each moment if we only know how to find it.

Not everyone choses to live in conditions as austere as those Siddhartha Gautama or even Ajahn Brahm himself endured. Real existential torment can result for the average practitioner when "just sitting" or any of the above other practices is relied on as an escape rather than facing changes that need to be made in life. It turns "wisdom-power" of the way back into "will-power." "Will-power" is indicative of holding onto to a view or perspective of how things should be. Defaulting to "will-power" instead of "wisdom power" is an error that occurs in monasteries as well.


I'm writing this post on a day when fighting has, again, broken out in Israel. And even though I very much want peace in Israel, the question I find myself asking of my own practice is how is it possible to live life without views? When does dropping off views result in injury, not only to myself but those around me? The answer is dependent on context and the circumstances of others and while I can aim for it, it's impossible to know. Sometimes metta may be the only option. I'm in the process of writing my own simple version of the metta sutta. ... it's the best I can do from here.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Reflections: The Art of Disappearing... & Reappearing (I)

When I first saw the title of Ajahn Brahm's book The Art of Disappearing, I rolled my eyes in a mild reaction of disbelief, although I'm not sure whether I was rolling my eyes at myself or whoever came up with the title. (Since it was not Ajahn Brahm who wrote the Preface, maybe it was not not Ajahn Brahm or an editor of sorts.) The reason for my reaction is that in my experience "disappearing" or "dropping off", while it becomes easy enough at any given instant with practice, has unpredictable and uncontrollable effects that create not "art" per se, but messes in my life -- like my mom's house and it's effect (see the previous post).

Then I thought of the chaos and confusion of our current times and allowed that not only "disappearing", but the resulting mess might be viewed as art, like in the Jackson Pollock painting below:


When I started meditating, I know I was drawn in because of the peace and simplicity I experienced at times as a result. I'm not sure exactly when, but at some point, I began to develop the expectation that if I learned and applied what the Buddha taught, my life would start feeling more peaceful as well. More like this Rothko painting:

From WikiPaintings

Sources of discomfort, suffering and pain arise not only (a) from the gap between reality as it is and what I want or expected it to be, but also (b) from a reluctance to recognize, accept and "drop off" views I hold of myself, the nature of the mind, others and life -- each of which contributes to my reality.

I've grown to suspect that most people who chose a monastic life style, like Ajahn Brahm, initially chose it hoping for a peaceful and beautiful life like depicted in the above Rothko. What they sacrifice or exchange is their freedom of expression and diversity of experience. And, since a person still has to retrain the mind, the challenges are similar whether inside a monastery or not.

Right now I'm experiencing that self, the nature of the mind, others and life is more like the Pollock painting and that once I accept that, I can "drop" into the detail of each moment and maintain the peace, stability and simplicity that is present in the Rothko... at least occasionally. It's relinquishing control, but with the effect of allowing original features to appear.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reflections: Practice-Experience & the Ten Thousand Things

One of the thoughts that's visited me time-to-time over the last week is that it's been nearly four years since the beginning of my online presence and nearly three years since the start of this blog.

Both of those decisions were motivated by a search for Sangha. (By Sangha I'm referring to friends that would be supportive of my efforts to practice and increase my understanding of what the Buddha taught). The start of this blog also marked my decision to get a divorce.

To quote from that first post: "At this particular moment, I am enjoying the not knowing, a sense of hope..."

What was I hoping for? More rewarding connection with other human beings, with a preference for people interested in what the Buddha taught because that was the direction I found most personally rewarding. The opportunity to feel fulfilled at least occasionally.

~ ~ ~

As I sit back and review the last four years, I see both positive and negative outcomes:

On the positive side: my on-line Sangha, my brief experiences at Antaiji and Sanshin, a living arrangement that allows more time for studies of the Shobogenzo and provides a quiet place to sit, study and sleep, at least two meals per day, and a local Sangha which although small, without a teacher and not very interactive, does provide me with company during zazen.

On the negative side, my actual interactive contact with people in real life is more minimal than ever in my life before. In fact, it's almost non-existent. One of the negative things I find myself saying to myself sometimes is: Most people in prisons and even the homeless have more conversations in a day than I do.

In short, I seem to have gone backwards in terms of what I was hoping for at the time I wrote my first post. I'm trapped in my circumstances for an unknown amount of time. I'm still trapped in the mortgage I share with my ex and, as a result, my current position. More recently, the double whammy of my mother's recent passing and dealing with what she left behind feels like more than I can stand.

~ ~ ~

For the past few months, Bodhidharma's encounter with Emperor Wu has run through my mind repeatedly:

Emperor Wu: "...Who is standing before me?"
Bodhidharma: "I know not..."

As I've practiced, one of the things I've learned is to "drop off" my views of who I am. In theory, by dropping off views of self, a person lives a more peaceful, richer and fuller life -- although not necessarily "happier" in the typical definition of happiness -- and is actualized by the ten thousand things. In the spirit of letting the ten thousand things provide the answer to the question of who I am,

As an example, the livingroom. (I'm going to delete this picture.)

I am encountering walls of resentment in myself as karma (or whatever) continues, without relief, to hit me over the head with answers like my mother's house and stalling even small efforts to get myself out isolation and interacting with people. This is all I am? 

The resentment I'm feeling is due to the fact that the above is not what I chose. I chose getting away from being a slave to inanimate objects and increasing interactions with sentient beings. 

~ ~ ~

Recently, rather than reading Dogen, I've been returning to some of Theravada literature as well as listening to some Dharma talks. This started when my friends at Amazon recommended The Art of Disappearing by Ajahn Brahm, which, by the way, may be one of the best and most straight-forward guides to meditation and enlightenment around (if enlightenment exists). To quote from the Preface: "Do not read this book if you want to be a somebody. It will make you a nobody." The Preface was signed "Not really Ajahn Brahm"... Because this post is getting long, I intend to write more in follow-up, including what I've gathered from Ajahn Brahm in regard to the issue I've mentioned, the resentment I'm feeling, as well as offer a few more comments about his book.