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The Opportunity of Now

The third topic in this series of six posts about the bodhisattva practices known as the paramitas is kshanti or patience.

deercropped

Overall, I think of kshanti as an aspect that balances the others. Generally one can see the first two paramitas – giving and ethics – as compassion in action, and the last two – meditation and wisdom – as equally expressions of wisdom. Balancing compassion and wisdom, the two broadest areas of Buddhist practice, are the two paramitas in the middle of the list – patience and effort. Effort, or virya, is our topic for next time. For now, I would like to say a few words about kshanti.

Kshanti is the practice of patience. You might say that it has two primary aspects. The first aspect is that of forbearance. This may be closest to its original meaning, when the teaching was developed, around the beginning of the Common Era. This means that when you practice kshanti, you cultivate the ability to endure hardships. You practice being present with even the most difficult things in your life, receiving them in a way that doesn’t reject them or turn away.

This way of practice brings to mind a teaching by Shantideva, the 8th Century Indian sage whose teaching was very encouraging. Shantideva taught, “If you can do something about it (your problem), why be discouraged? If you can’t do something about it, why be discouraged?” One can equally say, either way, why be impatient? Either way, you don’t turn away.

frog in India

The second aspect of kshanti is allowing. That is to say, the patience you are practicing is specifically patience with what is. It is a practice of acknowledging what is, as it is, without judging whether it is good or bad. It is the practice of allowing what is to be what it is.

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And how is it? It is changing, always changing. Nothing remains in one state forever; nothing is permanent. In fact, each moment is a completely new state, the result of innumerable conditions that have arisen and dissolved.

Thus, many centuries after the teaching of kshanti was first expounded, Zen turned it, bringing forth another aspect. Putting the two sides of kshanti together – not turning away from what is, and seeing it as a new expression in each moment – Zen Masters understood that each moment is an opportunity. In deed, each moment is an opportunity to awaken to the true nature of things, to see how your life is teaching you about suffering and freedom from suffering. Each moment is an opportunity to awaken, if you are able to truly be present with what is. This is the opportunity of now.

Seeing it in that light, it’s easy to understand why sitting zazen is so important to Zen practice. For it is in sitting that you find the capacity to encounter your life. It is in zazen that you learn that you can face whatever is in this moment. It is in zazen that you find, again and again, that the opportunity of now is always available.

InstagramCapture_4e3ca6e3-519b-4a10-8a24-d68608f9034b

So I hope to encourage you to practice patience and, to do that, I will  share a quote from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center. “If you become too serious, you will lose your way. If you are just playing a game, you will lose your way. So, little by little, with patience and endurance, we must find our way for ourselves.”

Finally I would add, moment by moment, we do find our way for ourselves. The question is, which way?

The Virtue of the Flower

In everyday life it’s fairly common go around judging the objects with which we come in contact. It’s a habit that is an extension of  the vedana, or the charge, that each thing has for us. So, before even naming it, you have an experience of positive, negative or neutral when you see a flower. Then you might go on to develop an idea about it and, sometimes, to verbalize that thought. For example, you walk by a flower and you say, “That flower is beautiful.” In this case, “beautiful” is a judgment about the flower, although it is a positive one.

dahlias IMG_0895 IMG_0902Perhaps that’s why Shunryu Suzuki Roshi taught that when you say, “The flower is beautiful,” you separate yourself from it. That is, you reinforce your sense of separation of subject and object by making a judgment. I would add that even if you only say, “The flower is,” then you have separated yourself from it. And even if you only say “flower” you have separated yourself from it. In fact, the Diamond Sutra can be seen as a teaching about the way in which people develop an idea of something, rather than have a direct experience, and then come up with a linguistic label for the idea that reinforces that perception. This stands in contrast to the direct experience of things as lacking solidity and existing only in the sense of a temporary flux.

Successful Flowers

virtuous flowers

However, you have to use language in everyday life. So how is it possible to practice with the flower, and with your judgment of it, without separating from it?

To respond to this question I suggest you turn to one of the key teachings of the Zen school, the understanding of the physical world in the context of the Dharma. In Zen all objects that we encounter are understood to be equally teaching the Dharma. That is to say, the various and sundry things that we encounter in the physical world we live in are all expressing some form of wisdom. Thus, in Zen, we can practice with things as much as we can practice with people.

One form of practice that you might consider is the practice of observing the virtue of the flower. Virtue is a word that, according to Merriam-Webster, means “the beneficial quality or power of a thing.” Or it can mean “a commendable quality or trait,” presumably of a person, place or thing. Thus, you might say that the flower has the virtue of enabling the pollenization, and therefore the continued life of the plant. You might also say that the flower adds color to the landscape. These are some of its virtues.

However, at a more fundamental level, Zen teaches that the flower has the virtue of speaking the Dharma. It has the virtue of being completely, fully what it is and thereby speaking the Dharma of pollen and transformation, of color and attraction, and of growing and withering. It has those virtues simply by arising as flower, and not due to any comparison, or any words we might associate with it. Also, by manifesting those virtues, the flower is espousing the seals of the Dharma: impermanence, lack of inherent self or core, unsatisfactoriness, and the liberation that is peace amidst these facts of life.

By really settling with this teaching it is possible to experience the virtue of the flower, and by finding the virtue of flower we may very well find our own virtue and the virtue of everyone around us.

Loving Haters

Sitting in the sandwich shop the other day, I noticed a young man wearing a baseball cap. On the back of the cap, in lovely embroidery, it said “I love haters.” At first I was put off by this statement. I thought to myself, “What?! You enjoy and encourage people who hate? Don’t people who hate cause all kinds of harm in the world? Don’t people who hate cause suffering?” I wondered whether this young man was simply wearing the hat to cause a stir. Or whether he was identifying with haters, loving them as only a fellow hater could.

Frowny Face by Colin T Griffin

Frowny Face by Colin T Griffin

But the more I thought about this phrase, the more I realized that this is a wise person’s statement. I love haters. I embrace even those that have aversion to me, or to someone or something else. I am able to find a warm place in my heart for those who cannot find a warm place in their heart. Whether or not I agree with them, whether or not others agree with them, whether or not they understand or I understand, I am still able to embrace them.

It puts me in mind of Shakyamuni Buddha’s oft quoted teaching in the Dhammapada:

“Hatred never ends through hatred.

By non-hatred alone does it end.”

That is to say, the only way to deal with haters is not to hate them. Hating haters only robs you of energy for life, and gives them more energy to fight against. Responding in kind only adds fuel to the fire of hatred. Hating hatred allows hatred into your own heart and mind. Why would you want to do that? The only way to have peace in your heart is to make peace with haters.

In fact, one thing you might notice when you begin to love haters is that you may have a bit of hater in you too. There may be some part of you that is a hater. So the same teaching applies. You could to treat the hater in you with non-hatred and see what happens. See whether that helps the situation, whether it helps you to let go of the hatred, instead of fueling it or covering it up.

Now, to be clear, that may or may not have been that young man’s message. But for me, the phrase “I love haters” takes on a new meaning. And to be clear, loving haters does not mean allowing them to be destructive forces in the world. That is more like ignoring haters. I believe that the best way to love one another is to ensure that our behavior has appropriate consequences, both positive and negative. Yet those consequences have to come from the mind that embraces haters, or it will simply be destructive and arbitrary. It is like the difference between verbally reprimanding a child for disrupting the class, and hitting the child with a ruler. In the end, hitting the child only teaches them the lesson that the one with the stick gets their way. This is not the Buddha Way. The Buddha Way is, “I vow to embrace haters. I love haters.”

Leadership on the Eightfold Path

Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Eightfold Path of practice as the Fourth Noble Truth, as a path of liberation from suffering. Though this occurred more than two millennia ago, these teachings are relevant to leadership in modern times.

NOTE: The word “right” is the usual translation of the Sanskrit word “samma,” but that is a bit rough. The word samma does not have the understanding of right versus wrong. It has the meaning of integral or whole. Some have used the word “sound” as a translation. As in, “that is a sound decision.” This more closely reflects the sense of skillfulness that arises from the Path.

Right View – Our way of being in the world can be a way that increases our suffering, reduces our suffering, or liberates us from suffering. It is our fundamental view of the world, of our experience, that makes the difference. The Buddha taught that the view which would liberate us from suffering, rather than make it worse or mitigate it temporarily, is the view of emptiness. When Buddhists speak of emptiness it simply means empty of inherent existence, empty of the ability to arise completely independently. This makes sense intuitively. All things arise due to causes and conditions. They cannot come into being or cease to be without reliance on causes and conditions. Then, from this standpoint, you can begin to see why the corollary to emptiness is impermanence, the fact that people and things are always changing. The conditions of each instant are shifting and moving, in ways that you can see and in imperceptible ways. The ability to accept change, and understand that it is inevitable and neutral, is the starting point for sound leadership. That is, sound leadership accepts that change will occur. Sound leadership incorporates this fact in planning and makes the most of change.

Example: State governments requiring electric companies to develop wind turbine farms.

V838 c. NASA

V838 c. NASA

Right Intention – Naturally, it is not enough to know how to view the world. You must put it into action, but action stems from intention; it starts with our motivation. A great practitioner once famously said that he wakes up every day and cultivates his motivation. This is because actions and speech reflect intention, even when you don’t want them to. So it is important to establish right intention, which stems from the fundamental acceptance of change and the vow to work in harmony with it. This is not passivity, but rather seeing clearly what actually is, so that you can respond most skillfully. Right intention is based in the ability to respond, rather than react. Sound leadership flows from the motivation not to ignore or resist change, but to respond in a skillful manner.

Example: Establishing Virgin Galactic even while developing Virgin Atlantic.

Right Speech – The extent to which your words express acceptance of what is, and an intentional response, is the extent to which those words express right speech. There is a lot that can be said about right speech, but the Buddha offered five simple guidelines. He said that right speech is timely, helpful, truthful, kind, and not spoken out of ill will. These aspects of right speech remind you that words are meaningful, and it is important to consider their impact, both on yourself and on those who hear them. Sound leadership knows the impact of speech and uses it skillfully, to express an understanding of impermanence and an intention to harmonize with it. It uses speech to bring clarity to any situation.

Example: “Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.” – James Thurber

Right Action – Based upon a sound view of emptiness and impermanence, and a sound intention to live in accord with that view, your actions must also be in accord with the Way. As with speech, right action will provide clarity and harmony. Thus, right action is usually associated with ethical action. It involves finding a skillful way to operate in the world, guided by what is most fundamental. It acknowledges ambiguity, and does not use it as an excuse to set aside the necessity to respond. This is why the Buddhist precepts, or moral guidelines, are not commandments but rather vows, expressions of your underlying intention. Sound leadership recognizes ethics as an integral aspect of life. It acts in harmony with life.

Example: After finding a handful of bottles poisoned, Johnson & Johnson pulled Tylenol off the shelves.

Right Livelihood – This teaching is specifically about work. It is based on the understanding that, in emptiness, each instant contains within it the causes and conditions for the next instant. So this is the teaching that the work that you do has consequences, and it is important to consider those consequences and ensure that they create harmony in the world. Sound leadership recognizes that work is not different from other action. Sound leadership takes responsibility for its results.

Example: If you are a fisherman, not fishing a particular species into extinction.

Right Effort – This is the teaching of sustainability. The Buddha practiced asceticism to the point of death, and then realized that this kind of effort would not lead to liberation from suffering. So he taught the Middle Way. This is the way of wholehearted engagement, because anything less than that is not enough. Yet, it is also the way of embracing limitations, because your effort should not damage your capacity. It must be sustainable, or it misses the mark, risking the full rewards due to shortsightedness. Sound leadership knows that effort must be balanced in order to be effective.

Example: Staying home sick, instead of vomiting at a fancy dinner.

Right Mindfulness – While much of the Eightfold path is focused on activity, right mindfulness is about finding the still point in each moment. It is discovering the inherent steadiness of the mind, and the way that can be a foundation for everything else. This teaching is typically associated with meditation, stripping away momentary distractions to encounter the essence of what is already there. It is pausing to gather the mind, living in the present moment. Sound leadership values steadiness and a clear head.

Example: Phil Jackson teaching the Bulls basketball players to gather themselves before a game.

Sunrise c. NASA

Sunrise c. NASA

Right Awakening – The teaching of Buddhist wisdom is that this very life can be one of awakening to your innate freedom and the abundance of the world. It is within your capabilities, if you are willing to live in the present moment and respond skillfully, in harmony with the natural function of cause and effect. Wisdom is not something that can be given to you, yet it is manifest in relation to others. In Zen it is sometimes expressed as “not one, not two.” Wisdom is both an individual experience and a group function, and it is based in true discernment. Sound leaders are like great conductors, they help to make a symphony by energizing many individuals.

Example: Cooperative competition all over Silicon Valley.

 

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.