Monthly Archives: December 2012

Getting Up from Your Seat

It is said that the Buddha did not immediately begin teaching after he awakened to ultimate wisdom. Several weeks passed before the Buddha arose from his seat, and it is believed to have been several months after that before he offered his first talk. Yet arise he did. And, in doing so, he again expressed his own unshakeable conviction that mankind is fully capable of transcendent compassion and inconceivable wisdom.3559084-Ruins_Sarnath

This is an important point to remember these days, when I often encounter people who worry about the state of the world and the people in it. They read the newspaper, watch television and talk to their neighbors and co-workers about unspeakable acts of violence and terrible natural disasters. They hear of murder and rape, and of theft on a scale so large that it becomes unimaginable. They talk of hurricanes, and earthquakes, and floods, and all manner of disease. They say to one another, “These things are wrong. The people who do these things are evil and the world is getting darker every day.”

Yet this is the same world that Shakyamuni Buddha spoke of when he said, “I and all beings are fully awakened on this day,” a day that is now celebrated as Bodhi Day, December 8th. He was not speaking of some world outside of this one. The beings that the Buddha spoke of are all beings; those of the past, present and future; those with and without understanding; those male, female and something else; those who are good and those who are bad.

So how do we discover this teaching for ourselves, right in the midst of so much troubling news? How do we learn to see the Buddha in every face, no matter how contorted or stunningly beautiful? In the 13th Century Dogen Zenji, a Japanese Zen Master, said “Without exception everyone is a vessel. Do not ever think that you are not a vessel,” expressing the same understanding as the Buddha, but in a different way.buddha bust That is, Dogen was pointing at each and every being as an expression of the great teachings of impermanence, emptiness and freedom from suffering. But you might say that you don’t feel free from this realm, that you are completely trapped in this world full of troubles and people with intent to kill. In one sense that is true; you are a function of millions and millions of conditions that happen in each instant, each dependent on the others. You exist only to the extent that you interact with the world around you, within you. Yet it is precisely because of this state of being caused and created by the myriad things that you are also completely free of them in each moment. That is, as an expression of the fully interconnected universe you are, in essence, stillness in the midst of motion. There is nothing you have to do to make this true. However, that truth explains why we sit zazen, the form of meditation which allows for transcendence of the moment through complete presence in the moment.

Now all of this may be starting to sound very theoretical. So I’ll offer an example. Take the example of spitting. Once I was walking along the street very early in the morning. It was dark, and I was in a town that I don’t live in, visiting a family member. I was wearing my work clothes, which to many people look like a karate outfit, and I had my hair shaved to something like 1/8th of an inch, what is referred to by folks in the armed forces as “high and tight.” A man was walking toward me in the opposite direction. I could tell that when he looked at me he didn’t like what he saw. I was a bit nervous as he approached, but decided that he didn’t look like he would get violent. Still, he came closer and yelled at me, “Go home, alien,” as he continued to walk past me on my left. Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw him turn his head toward me and spit. Thankfully it didn’t reach me. Yet it left a very strong impression. I have thought about that morning many, many times. And I’ve seen others spat upon. What is an appropriate response? Would it be different if it were a woman? Certainly, when someone spits at you, you might have thoughts of retaliating in some form. Certainly you can be expected to feel some “fight or flight” energy. But, actually, you express and experience the most freedom when you do not do anything. By not attacking the person or groveling to the person, you simply stand still and express your own powerful ability to be the skillful response. You allow that person who spit at you to completely receive their own consequences. You kill them with kindness.

This is not to say that the appropriate response is always to do nothing. Sometimes the most skillful thing is to do or say something. However, even then, you cannot relinquish your potential to express the stillness of the moment. Even then, you do not relinquish your authority to express the freedom that interconnectedness allows. Sometimes kindness expresses itself by not yelling at a spitter, and sometimes kindness expresses itself by stopping someone from shooting more innocent people. I’m reminded of an attack that took place at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee a number of years ago. The Rev. Chris Buice, pastor of the church, said of the shooter who had been subdued by the churchgoers that day, “He was a victim of his own hatred.”

So, when you learn about people that are doing great harm in the world, you can ask yourself what kind of response you want to offer. You can ask yourself whether you want to respond by offering kindness, freedom and skillful means to everyone you encounter, or by offering worry, and a sense of further separation and judgement. You can ask yourself how to best express your interconnectedness to them and to those that they harm. Then, just be it, knowing that the Buddha has already said that you can, knowing that the Buddha has already said you are.

The Gift for All Seasons

The “Paramitas,” sometimes translated as “perfections,” are six in number and they can be thought of as different perspectives of life – like looking at a jewel, in this case the jewel of life, through six different facets. The first of these facets is Giving (in Sanskrit “Dana”), and it is the first because all practice must begin with generosity. In particular, I believe that all practice must start with the gift of generosity toward oneself.

bamboo image croppedTo some this might seem to be a narcissistic way of thinking, but it’s really necessary if you are to persevere at Buddhist practice. This is because, if you are practicing the study of the impermanent self, then you will encounter over and over again the gap between your intention and your actions. You will be faced, time and time again, with the difference between your ideal and what you are trying to accomplish; between your vision of practice and the actuality of how you think, act and don’t act; between your idea of true self and your mundane reality. If you don’t apply generosity for yourself in those moments, it can be devastating.

Turning this around, it seems to me that this dynamic is also behind the tendency to criticize others. That is, you can look at others and see their gaps, their failure to live up to your ideal or their own ideals. And seeing that happening, you want to criticize them because that’s what you do with yourself. You find that want to be stingy with them for not being the person they could be.

It reminds me of something that occurred when I was new to Tassajara, the Zen monastery and retreat center in Carmel Valley, California. I had been given a job that included bringing in and taking out the garbage cans to prevent racoons from making a mess during the night. So, in the evening, I brought the trash cans to the shack where they were kept. However, in the morning, when I went to take them out again, they were already out. trash canSuddenly I was irritated. I didn’t focus on the fact that someone might have been trying to be helpful, or someone might have been impatient about having them out at a certain time. Instead, I had the thought that someone thought I wasn’t competent to do the full job. Or that someone assumed I’d forget, and didn’t give me a chance to get it right. I sat on my cushion and considered this series of events. I even thought of making a community announcement. It was then that I was struck by the absurdity of it all. To think that I might make an announcement complaining about someone having helped me, however intentionally or unintentionally. Then I had the thought, “Oh Sweetie! Look at what you are thinking. How silly is that?!” So, for me, those moments are now called “Oh Sweetie” moments, the moments of realizing how comparing mind takes my thoughts, feelings, actions and inaction, and creates suffering. And I’ve learned that even just naming them “Oh Sweetie” moments is a form of generosity toward myself, allowing me to hold lightly the so-called mistakes.

In truth there is no gap between our actual and our true self. Whether you are perfectly equanimous or you are “messing up,” your true self is always expressing itself as the you of that moment. It’s just that in the mundane reality of day-to-day life, you can and should discern between skillful and unskillful actions of body, speech and mind. This act of discernment is the second Paramita, Ethics (in Sanskrit “Sila”). It is the activity that helps to reduce the hindrances. In his “Instructions to the Tenzo,” Zen Master Dogen says that the Head of the Kitchen of any practice center must have joyful mind, vast mind, and nurturing mind. While vast mind is expressing the way of sameness, nurturing mind is expressing the way of difference.

Therefore, watching over water and over grain, shouldn’t everyone maintain the affection and kindness of nourishing children?

So, even as you disappoint yourself, please be generous with yourself – just as you would be kind to water and to grain and to children. This is the true gift for all seasons, and one which we would do well to give ourselves and others.