Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Tea Kettle Theory

I recently attended a dharma talk on the topic of forgiveness. When the speaker finished her elegantly simple discourse, she invited those in attendance to ask questions and offer comments. One of the participants, a young woman who sat near the back, raised her hand to speak. She said that she’d found the talk difficult because she had been a target of harassment and intimidation at work until just the prior week, and she couldn’t find it in herself to forgive the person who had treated her this way. She said that she felt ashamed because she was so angry with the person who had done this to her. Others in the audience expressed their surprise, empathy and concern softly while she recounted the details, and then all eyes turned back to the speaker. There was a momentary tension in the room while we waited for the speaker’s response.

The Buddha is quoted as having said that unleashing your anger on someone is like picking up a hot coal and throwing it at someone – you have hurt yourself long before you’ve hurt anyone else. For this reason, anger or hatred is seen as one of the three poisons. Anger agitates the mind and body, and it can also be intoxicating, filling us with a sense of power or righteousness that expands the sense of separation from everyone else.

In fact I believe that it is just this sense of righteous anger that causes people who engage in war and torture to feel justified. Consider the word “mischling,” which the Nazis used to describe Jews as less than a full person. By taking the sense of righteousness and separation to an extreme, the people of Germany created great suffering for themselves and for millions of others.

Anger arises. In this case, the young woman seemingly has a very good reason to be angry. Surely the principles of Buddhism don’t encourage people to tolerate harassment or genocide. Or do they? With regard to this question, the Buddha is quoted in The Dhammapada as having said,

“He abused me, attacked me, defeated me, robbed me!” For those carrying on like this, hatred does not end.

This is a very clear teaching. It points to the fact that we cannot blame our problems on others. We cannot correct hatred with hatred. We cannot address unskillful action with more unskillful action. We have to accept our feelings as our own, no matter how egregious the actions of others. And we can choose to set the feelings down, to allow the feelings in the body to subside and the feelings in the mind with them. In fact it’s said that a Bodhisattva, an “awakening being,” is able to have compassion for the person that is cutting her arm off. This is a very demanding practice.

However, even in the midst of that practice ideal, there is the question of what to do with anger that arises. So I would like to propose the Tea Kettle Theory. The Tea Kettle Theory goes like this: when anger arises, it is simply informational. It is like the whistling of the tea kettle – a signal to which you must respond. When the tea kettle begins to whistle, you don’t deny that it’s whistling, ignore the whistling, or complain that whistling shouldn’t happen or is too loud. You simply move to take the kettle off the fire. So in your life, when you notice anger arising, you can accept it as a signal, a way that your body/mind tells you that a response is needed. You can see that you need to respond, not react, to the signal right away. You can respond in a way that doesn’t burn you or others, but does skillfully address the information presented. There is no need for resistance to or judgement about anger. Anger is simply information that is encoded directly into the body/mind response. It is telling you something.

So, with that in mind, we can return to the young woman and to the Bodhisattva. They too can use the Tea Kettle Theory to identify the things with which they must practice, the situations that require a response. They too can study ways in which to show compassion for deluded beings – perhaps kind, gentle compassion, or perhaps the sword of compassion that cuts through delusion and unwholesome acts. They can discover the teaching that everything we do is a response to the contact we experience in the world and, when that contact causes anger to arise, we had better address it. So you might say that Buddhism teaches you to respond to oppression, violence and injustice not by blaming, but by acting from a place of acceptance, responsibility for one’s own emotions, and the wisdom that life is a study in skillful response. As we say in Zen, you have to say something.

And the wise speaker said this, “You have to show compassion, not just for the person, but for yourself.”

Reflections Over a Meal

The verses chanted before meals at Zen temples include a section called the Five Reflections. The first Reflection is, “We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us.” Performing this reflection is itself a complete practice.

When I reflected on the effort that resulted in the food on my table I thought of:

  • migrant workers in Florida fields
  • corn grown in Iowa and potatoes in Idaho
  • a forest in France where a farmer and a pig search for a truffle
  • soy beans and failed GMO labeling legislation
  • dairy cows not fed growth hormones
  • earth worms making compost into soil at Green Gulch Farm
  • bees on the roof of San Francisco Zen Center

Food offers us many opportunities for discernment. And humility. And awe. Today I give thanks for the vast field of interconnectedness that is life.

Get Found!

One of the basic teachings of Buddhism, with which you may be familiar, is that of interdependent co-arising – the view that, in every instant, many things are interacting with one another, and thereby appearing to come into existence, and to cease to be. That is to say, the world as we experience it is becoming anew in every moment. This is a view which implies that nothing can exist on its own, or in a permanent way. You might summarize this view by saying, “There is not one thing can be done alone.”

For example, when you are present in a room, you might think of yourself as being separate from the walls of that room. Yet, from a basic scientific standpoint, we know that you are hearing the sound of yourself in the room, and seeing the light and the way your presence changes the light. And, invisibly, you are changing the air in the room. So the thing that is “you” is completely interwoven with the room. At the same time, the walls of the room are effected by your presence. They receive the shadow of your presence, the sound waves created by you, and the movement and warmth of the air. So the walls are completely interwoven with you in the room at that moment. This means that you are not only what you eat, but also what you see and hear and touch too.

Often it’s easier to accept this view when it pertains to things than when it pertains to people. Particularly when we’ve had a long time to experience someone, it’s hard to encounter them without thinking that we already know who they are.  It can be equally hard to view yourself in that way as well. The view of interdependence means that you are defined by and defining everyone with whom you have contact. So your connections become the most important thing, because they literally create you and your experience of the moment.

A story which exemplifies this is about a group of kids who were playing hide-and-go-seek. Several children were playing, and one child in particular thought that he had found the perfect hiding place. So, when it was time, he went to his perfect hiding place. The child who was doing the seeking found one child and then the next. One by one, she found all of the kids, except for the one in the perfect hiding place. An adult, seeing this, approached the child that was still hiding and asked, “Hey kid, what are you doing?” The child responded, “I’m hiding in the perfect hiding place,” and the wise adult replied, “Kid, get found.”

Hide and Seek c. Center for Media and DemocracyI like the hide-and-go-seek story because it points out the fact that others can see things we sometimes can’t see about ourselves, ways that our behavior distances us from others. This is why monastics of many, many traditions usually practice in community. That way, they can reflect each others’ behavior and help them to fulfill their intentions and vows.

And, to be sure, what we see when our community reflects our behavior is not always pretty. Yet that may simply be another indicator of how important it is. In fact, I think that there are some aspects of ourselves that we can only see this way. Like the story about the monk practicing patience in a cave high in the mountains. She spent a long time cultivating patience and working diligently. Then, one day, another monk was walking in the mountains. He came to the mouth of the cave and, seeing her, he asked, “What are you doing?” She answered, “I’ve been here for many years cultivating great patience.” Considering this for a moment, the monk then asked, “What’s that good for?” Then the first monk replied, “Get the hell out of here!” Ha! You could say that, up until the point that the second monk came wandering by, the first monk was only practicing with her own idea of patience. But then, encountering someone else, she saw how her practice of patience really was.

In the same way, we can have many ideas about the self, about interdependence, about impermanence, but until we actually experience it in contact with trees and buildings and people, we aren’t really in touch with it at all. Are you really practicing with the impermanent self if you never encounter it?

Are you really in the game if you never get found?

It’s a Matter of Choice

Given that Americans are going to the polls this week, the topic of choice has been on my mind. How is it that I, or any practitioner, can skillfully discern when and how to take action? How is it that I, or any practitioner, can find the appropriate response to a situation or a decision when I fully acknowledge the continuously changing nature of the world? If there is no ground to stand on, how can I take a stand?

This dilemma reminds me of the koan of Nan-ch’uan (Nansen) and the cat. It’s said that Nan-ch’uan saw the monks of the East Halls and the monks of the West Halls fighting over a cat. He approached them, picked up the cat, and said, “If any of you can give me a reason not to kill the cat, then I won’t do it.” The monks were stunned and said nothing. So Nan-ch’uan cut the cat in half. Later, the Master encountered his disciple Chao-chou (Joshu) and asked, “What would you have done to save the cat?” Chao-chou put his sandals on his head and left the room. Nan-ch’uan said, “If you had been there, the cat would have been saved.”

Whether the cat was actually killed or not, we may never know, but one message from Nan-ch’uan is clear – failing to respond to the moment has its consequences. So you must say something, but what? If you simply apply your preference, you end up arguing with the other side. But is there an “other side?”

This is where the distinction between decision and discernment can be found. Typically, there are two practices that practitioners apply to any decision-making situation – zazen or seated meditation, and the precepts or ethical vows. So how is the great Master Nan-ch’uan upholding the precepts in this moment?

Pointing at the foundational teaching, Sekkei Harada Roshi said,

The meaning of the precepts is that there is no separation at any time, that we are one with all things. In other words, the true meaning of keeping the precepts is not to interfere with now…

However, the difficulty is in the details. In fact, this koan seems to fly in the face of one of the precepts. It is the first of the ten “grave” precepts which intones, “I vow not to kill.”

One way to think about it is that there are three perspectives on precepts practice: the ultimate, the mundane, and the maintained. And all three of them are necessary. Taking the ultimate view, there is no dualism at all and no conceptualization, so there can be no killing and no cat to be killed. From the mundane perspective, however, there was a being with fur and flesh, and there was a sword, both expressions of the ultimate. And then there is the cutting itself, a radical act of maintaining and upholding the precept in response to the delusion that presented itself at that moment. These three forms of precepts practice correspond to the three bodies of Buddha – Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya – and it is in the third, or transformation body, that we can study in order to see how the first two apply.

As Eihei Dogen Zenji describes it,

Carrying the self forward to confirm and verify the myriad things is delusion. When the myriad things come forward to confirm and verify the self, that is enlightenment.

That is to say, rather than deciding on our point of view and applying it to a given situation, we start by studying the way in which we are one with all things, and the way that causes, conditions and results effect one another. Then, an appropriate response will be clear.

Tenshin Reb Anderson Roshi puts it this way,

The precept of not killing life is not about restraint. It is about liberating our acts from delusion. It is concerned with awakened mind, which needs no restraint at all…

In other words, acting from the mind that recognizes the integrated nature of all things, and its manifestation in form and in activity, is inherently acting in accord with the precepts. There is no ground to stand on, and therefore no stand is needed. Instead, standing on no-ground we are an integral, skillful part of the great activity that is taking place in every moment. So, with this teaching in mind, I encourage you to put your sandals on your head, go out, and vote for a liberated life!

a monk's sandals