what’s on your zafu? practicing the great matter

Winter 2014-15 has been one of the most challenging we’ve had here in the NE corner of North America. Atlantic Canada and US have been pummelled by snow, blizzardly snow and by March even the most-hardened of optimists had stopped regaling us with their memories of winters past. And, to really bend the mind, it’s also been the warmest winter on record globally. Too bad we don’t live life in the averages or the picture my dear friend sent from California of an 82°F sunny day in San Francisco would have cheered me up.

A plow makes its way through heavy snow on Route 20 near Park Corner, PEI, 16 March 2015 (Facebook)

I wish I could also say this winter has been a call to deepen my practice by turning towards that Great Matter that hangs around like an optimistic stray which thinks you’ve only forgotten to feed it this time. In one way, I have actually committed to a more consistent practice by sitting everyday. But I must confess, it’s only by virtue of greed and clinging that I’ve managed that. You see, the Insight Timer gives its users a little yellow star – one for every 10 days with a session – and you even get a green star after a bunch of these sessions. I don’t know how the “50 days with a session” star system works. It’s cheesy, I know, I know! But it gets my butt to zafu and that’s really all that matters in the matters of the Great Matter.

Or not really. A couple of days ago I came across a Facebook post by the glossy magazine Mindful quoting ABC anchor Dan Harris (him of his book 10% Happier – which I thought was quite funny except that he never really copped to his drug addiction). Harris’ comment was excerpted from an interview with Charlie Rose: “I think meditation can be anything you pay attention to. I just think you need a couple of minutes a day of formal practice in order to really get it.”

Just think. Well, I could be paying attention to my Miss Vickie’s potato chips which I munch each day with the same dedication as my butt-to-zafu commitment. It takes less time – only a couple of minutes because they’re the mini packs – and I’m likely to get it! Of course, I do want to be fair because Harris doesn’t say what kind of attention or what the “it” is we would get, really. Would it be much different from the “sudden enlightenment” proponents of Zen, for example. Nah. For me, I do believe all I’ll get from my addiction to crispy, oily snacks would be another cardiac “event” or a different outcome to that couple of minutes of vertigo last night.

That Great Matter again, dammit.

Harris’ comments on practice are not unusual and quite apparent both in his book, subsequent interviews and co-hostings with his new-found pals who are meditation teachers. They are much like the aphorisms we throw out in the heart of winter when our brain freezes over and we regress to magical thinking. In our Zen group last evening, I asked why we practice. The answers were the typical round of “being,” “the present moment,” “here and now” and all the other catchy phrases we think great teachers are pointing to. It’s rare to push past that mind-muffling stage into the real question: What is it in the present moment that we are practicing?

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book The Buried Giant offers a piercing metaphor of what happens when we fall into a fog of forgetfulness. The inhabitants of the mythic land of post-Arthurian Britain live without awareness of their history or their relationships to each other except in the most rudimentary ways. They function quite well and feel safe in those wrappings of unremembered purpose. It serves to silence the competitiveness, the hatreds, the need for revenge and recompense. It also stops all process of forgiveness and growth. Our practice gets this way. And we fall prey to the quick sound bytes of shiny objects, characters and promises.

We think this is practice. And that’s the poison – we think. And we go no further.

What are the great teachers pointing to then with their commentaries of being, present moment, here and now? The same thing climate change, societal upheaval and our anxiety are pointing to: You don’t have the time you think; you only have the time you practice. And it’s going to take more than a couple of minutes paying attention to make a real practice of the Great Matter.

invitations from the buddha, rsvp: book review of Gowans’ philosophy of the buddha

Christopher Gowans’ Philosophy of the Buddha gives me some hope that I might get a handle on the convolutions philosophers tend to put into explaining the fundamentals of Buddhist thought. It’s well over 10 years old in print and I suspect some challenges have arisen around his explanation of non-self though I have yet to find anything via my oracle Google. I did however come across an essay by Gowans on Buddhist Well-Being that outlines his approach to this intersection of Western philosophy and Buddhist ideas.

Gowans’ interest in this meeting place of thoughts and ideas introduces his essay:

First, what is the proper philosophical elucidation of Buddhist ideas? Second, in what ways, if any, do these ideas relate to ideas in Western philosophy (contemporary as well as historical)? Finally, to what extent might these two domains—Buddhist philosophy and Western philosophy—learn from one another and challenge one another? That is, to what extent might they critically interact so as to advance our philosophical understanding?

The first point – the proper elucidation of Buddhist ideas – is the gist of this book where

(the) first goal is an accurate and insightful understanding of the Buddha’s teaching. We should assume neither that a perfectly objective account is possible nor that any interpretation is as good as another.

Gowans is insistent throughout his book that we are held tightly by our own perspective and, while not necessarily a negative thing, it would be naive to believe that objectivity would be possible. That being said, he does an excellent job of guiding us down the intricate path of Buddhist ideas and principles. Where the interpretations are likely to be convoluted or conflated with Western ideas, he sets up the investigation so that ideas are challenged not as a means of showing off but rather to truly tease apart the complex layers of understanding. His strategy is particularly helpful in working through the concepts of impermanence, non-self and suffering where he holds up the objections and the support all the while questioning the answers.

As for that thorny issue of non-self, Gowans does a remarkable job of breaking it down into substance-self and process-self; the former being a belief of the Buddhism-curious (he calls them stream-observers) that various aspects of form and experience confirms the existence of a distinct substance with an identity (think: sun and plant) while the latter proposes a self “consisting of over-lapping and ever-changing aggregates (p78 Kindle edition)” which have “no independent reality but do have a form of dependent reality (p60 Kindle edition).” Even more so is his explanation of dependent origination which includes imagery of aggregates as “neighboring sandbars…each is a unified nexus of processes that is part of the overall network of processes (p81 Kindle edition)” and the challenge of explaining causal conditioning and freedom to choose action “without recourse to distinctness” of the component parts.

After establishing the underlying Buddhist thought, Gowans tackles the Four Noble Truths and Eight-fold Path with the same steady and unrelenting intensity of examination all the while returning to a common sense rendering of the teachings.  These two sections of his book contain some of the best and most clearly written explorations of the core teachings of Buddhism. And they are enhanced by a tone and quality of writing that is absent of the writer’s need to show he is doing what he is doing.

The final chapter is perhaps the sweetest. In it, Gowans proposes the Buddha’s teachings are an invitation to live selflessly (the theme of ethics runs through all the chapters.

“The first invitation asks us to think about the quality of our life as a whole in a fundamental and sustained way.”

“The second invitation asks us to consider why the fragility of our lives is a source of dissatisfaction.” (Go beyond the obvious that we don’t have what we want, don’t want what we have and get confused regularly by all of it.)

“The third invitation brings us to a crucial juncture. What, the Buddha asks us, can be done to overcome this dissatisfaction?” (The answer can be one of despair, frustration or hope.)

“The (fourth) invitation asks us to reflect on why fulfillment of desires is so important to us.”

“The (fifth) invitation (and hardest to accept) is to consider whether piercing through the illusion of selfhood might reveal not nothing, but…everything.”

“The final invitation asks us to discover on our own whether there is any truth in what he says.”

Gowans book makes for a good introduction to Buddhism and a training in critical thinking that many practitioners would find useful, especially in these days of “quotable Buddhism” and a leaning to fundamentalist-type clinging to what we think is what the Buddha taught. This is definitely a keeper on the book shelf.

bundles, baggage & bye bye blackbird

Insight comes in the darndest ways. I was scrolling down my Facebook feed deeply engaged in avoiding the reality that I had to pack for a week-long business trip. The routine for going away is just that – a routine, tinged with annoyance about how many pants and sweaters to take and angst over trying to remain vegetarian in a city with the discerning palate of a cave. Snapping myself out of procrastination typically takes some concept or approach that elevates the routine to intrigue. This did: a video on how to pack enough clothing for 60 days into a 22″ carry-on bag.

I tried it. It was awesome. Everything packed into “bundles.”

As the week wore on and irritations became more charged (I get cranky when I’m away from home), it became very apparent that I had packed and brought along far more bundles than those in my suitcase. You know these heaps – or skandhas – well too: form, feeling, perception, mental formation & consciousness. You should; you never leave home without them. In fact, we’re pretty good at packing up all our cares and woe in tight bundles assuming we never have to unpack them.

Anytime I get too snotty about how well my heaps are packed away, I remember the steward on one fight announcing as we prepared to land: Please be careful opening the overhead bins as your contents may have shifted in transit. These life lessons always come from invisible Buddhas and Bodhisattvas crossing our path. Mostly though, we disregard their wisdom and get bonked on the head by cascading aggregates.

Practice helps. Sitting helps a lot. The beauty of leaving home is the liberation from the various scheduled obligations like feeding cats and dogs and elephants, making breakfast, lunch and dinner, doing laundry (for the short hauls) and all the myriad chores that shackle us just out of reach of our cushion. Here in the hotel room, I am liberated from all but my resistance to getting acquainted with my self, that someone waiting for me. Fair warning though, unpacking that carry on was as complicated as unpacking my cares and woes.

If you need more encouragement than taking along a good dharma book, do try the new Worldwide Insight teachings. Each Sunday a different teacher and so far (two sessions) it has been a terrific way to keep practice fresh.

 

a metta wish for all

Bearbrook-dec2

 

The sun is warming the snow and ice that cakes the lane way and the pups are enjoying their version of a Formula 500 race around the house. It’s quiet. Well, quiet except for the music from Songza – a recent discovery I made that takes the anxiety out of choosing music for various activities in the day and evening. It also seems to render the CDs obsolete though I’m told to stash them away until I truly want to send them along to wherever CDs go when their time is up.

Speaking of which, in teaching about the first precept I’m fond of telling people that everyone has a “best before” date. (Frank often adds, “But better after!”) Embedded in the First True Reality (Peter Harvey’s term) is the painful truth that we are not meant to be around forever. When I work with individuals with a terminal disease such as cancer, I feel a bit of a hypocrite simply because in the face of what they now know, I am still blind to my own “stale date.” Death happens as it has for a number of family members and friends since I last wrote. And those of us here remain helplessly blind to our own biological last moment.

And yet. There is also life. Grandest Baby turned one year old. Born 20 minutes short of the celebrated date of the Buddha’s enlightenment, she has been a teisho on equanimity, patience, letting go and all the other goodies we’re meant to practice. Cultivating grandmother-mind – robai shin – is an interesting practice. May I live long enough to see some buds break through these hardened branches!

Such a desire for sight, seeing, sight consciousness. I’m aware of how much that plays into our interactions. “Can you see what I’m saying?” “I can’t see my way out of this.” “See?”  In a conversation with a colleague, she asked about my paternal grandmother. Did she know, my colleague asked, the impact she had on your spiritual path?

At the entrance of our home in Rangoon on one side of the door was a statue of St. Philomena, a Christian saint with a problematic relationship with the Holy See who bounced her off the liturgical calendars in 1961 but still allows devotions to continue à la St. Patrick and St. Christopher. But such news had not reached us and my aunt in particular remained spectacularly devoted to her. Well, to the statue anyway, as she walked into the house, stood in ecstatic  prayer before it and at the conclusion would touch the saint’s eyes then her own. She believed that St. Philomena would cure her encroaching blindness from cataracts and no amount to explaining that it wasn’t in Philomena’s job description would dissuade her. Blindness, especially one that offered a forewarning of things to come, was terrifying and warranted an appeal to all saints available.

My paternal grandmother would enter the house, first dousing her cheroot in an empty oyster can Dad would leave at the door for such purposes, and turn towards the window. She would sit on her haunches with hands in prayer and shi-ko three times. The prostrations were quick and efficient with no great devotional drama. My memory of her was of an ancient elder though she was likely only (only!) in her sixties. I asked her if she was doing that because she too wanted to prevent being blind. No, she said. She knew she was already blind.

Understandably it was perplexing then. Not so now.

We are already blind. Some times we remained resolutely blind. Some times we claw at the blindness hoping to peel away the cataracts. Some times we forget we are blind and assume the rest of the world is careening around, banging into us and generally making life difficult. If only they could see!

Funny isn’t it?

Frank and I and the monstrous pups wish you all a season of enlightening joy. Our metta wish for you is that you are blinded only by the light of your wisdom, that it sears off the cataracts and you lead the rest of us mundanely blinded folk with compassion and love.

qi and the fasting of the mind: video by Edward Slingerland

A terrific lecture on Zhuang Zi by Edward Slingerland (Professor of Asian Studies and Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia) with a section by Evan Thompson (Professor of Philosophy at University of British Columbia) on cognitive science and meditation.

 

Posted with appreciation for permission by Dr. Slingerland.

writing the sutra of our life: a chinese detective, zhuang zi & hard nails

108zb-black-gold-post_2 Lokesh, the Tibetan monk, embodiment of Avalokiteshvara and conscience in Eliot Pattison’s Tibetan detective series, says to anti-hero Shan: “Jamyang told us his story…It is but for us to understand it. He left us the sutra of his life. We simply need to learn how to read it.” One of the most compelling detective series with a strongly Buddhist and pro-Tibetan message, Mandarin Gate(1) is the latest in the life of Chinese detective Shan and his eternal battle to fight wrongs with right. Jamyang is one of the characters in the novel but with Lokesh’s pronouncement, he can be any one of us.

How do we write the sutra of our life? How do we read and understand such a sutra? Sutras are complicated things, filled with mysterious allusions and verbal illusions. Recently, I had the absolute joy of being part of an art show with Kaz Tanahashi. Over a quiet lunch together (a snow squall had kept others stranded in their homes), I asked how best to study Dogen whom I said, “Is complicated though seemingly simple.” He chuckled and nodded: Dogen is in opposites. He writes “self” but he means “Self.” If you don’t know opposites, you cannot know Dogen.

I wish I could say that helped. It did in a reassuring way that one suddenly realizes the mountain is confirming it is a rather large and ofttimes impenetrable mountain which requires a good guide or key to its mystery. And it leaves me wondering what are the keys to these impenetrable lines of mysterious symbols and signs I’ve carved into my life. My spiritual life – though I hesitate to call it that any more, being saturated by the demands of the mundane world. Then again, that is what it is in its truest form be it Zen or any other form. Chogyam Trungpa wrote in The Myth of Freedom(2) that the intent of the discipline of practice (sit, cook, eat) is to go deeper into an intimate relationship with boredom. That is, we drop past the labels, preferences, gold stars (he calls them ‘credentials’) and addictions to form. We enter the naked lines of our scriptured life. We become entirely what we are in each moment, mountain, river, cloud, sky.

Our problem is that we tire of this ‘just is’ and want some reassurance we are on the right track. The unspoken demand is that this will be value-added to our life, our personality, our internal sense of worth. It will be a ‘credential,’ what Linchi called a ‘rank.’ I understand that it is hard to keep plugging along without some reinforcement. Truthfully the dishes wouldn’t get done without that promise of dessert after. And this is the key to understanding the sutra of our life: we make it all contingent on something happening for us (not in us).

After all, it says that in the suttas, sutras, and every teaching. Hearing the stone on the bamboo brought enlightenment! Seeing the ember, the raised finger…

Gutei-cropWait. What was that story? Gutei’s finger in the Mumokan! Gutei answered questions by raising his finger. His attendant started copying him and Gutei, seeing his mischief cut off the attendant’s finger. As the boy ran away crying, Gutei called to him and raised his finger. The attendant attained enlightenment! Boom! See, we take the raised finger as propellant to full realization and run around flipping it out. Instead of appreciating the simplicity of the one-fingered teaching, we elevate it and ritualize it.

There are all kinds of interpretations of this koan. The boy’s understanding was superficial. Teachings have nothing to do with fingers (sometimes they might with some fingers but we’re not going there today). The usual commentaries focus on owning our wisdom and not mimicking our teachers. The subtext to that is rarely mentioned; once upon a time our own teachers copied their teachers as did Gutei of his teacher Tenryu, finger and all. And there is the impenetrable “copy, yes; copy, no.”

In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh (may he be held in love and peace as he traverses the realms at this moment) makes a strong point that holding onto any teaching (as in holding onto to the raft that gets us across to the other shore) is to violate the percepts. He is quoted in the preface of Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree(3) that “if you have an ideology and stick to it, thinking it is the absolute truth, you can kill millions.”

While this subtext of rigidly copying our teachers calls for compassion for our limitations, the ultimate intent of practice is in learning to write our own sutra, penetrating our own mind. To fully study our self as Dogen teaches, we need to uncover our tendencies to get caught in various levels of mind. In the Book of Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi)(4), Confucius (the mouthpiece for Zhuang Zi) is guiding his pupil Yen Hui who is taking on an immense task of transforming a nearby king’s evil ways. Yen Hui had come up with various strategies all of which involved force and intimidation, most based on literal interpretations of Confucius and in his own pride. The master tries in many ways to exhort Yen Hui to see that forcing others to be benevolent is not the best approach. Finally, Confucius tells Yen Hui he has to fast. Yen Hui is baffled because he does fast and Confucius tells him it is the fasting of the heart/mind that is necessary.

Your mind must become one, do not try to understand with your ears but with your heart. Indeed, not with your heart but with your soul. Listening blocks the ears, set your heart on what is right but let your soul be open to receive in true sincerity, The Way is found in emptiness. Emptiness is fasting of the heart.

UBC professor Edward Slingerland states it clearly in a lecture on Chinese philosophy (i.e., with a key to those mysterious lines; see video). Zhuang Zi says:

Hearing stops the ears (it’s at the level of doctrine).
Mind stops with signs (it’s a process of matching up names to reality).
Qi is empty/tenuous and opens to things themselves.

We get caught at the ears (think sound of tree falling); we chant and are caught in mind, mapping to reality. It is only when we cut through these iron-hard nails that hold together our doctrines and assumptions that the sutra of our life can be understood and then written in clear, unimpeded language. That means willing to be vulnerable in our ignorance, exhausted by our anger, and bruised hopelessly by our attachments. With no desire or hope of reward. So write your sutra without the traps of facts and figures, without the compulsion to line up philosophies with actions. Rather write with a boundless transparency and simplicity of what you eternally are becoming.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

(1) Pattison, Eliot, Mandarin Gate (2012). Minotaur Books, NY
(2) Trungpa, Choygam, The Myth of Freedom (2002). Shambhala Publications, Boston MA
(3) Buddhasa Bhikkhu, Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree (1985/2013). Wisdom Publications, Boston MA
(4)Chuang Tzu, The Book of Chuang Tzu (translated by Martin Palmer with Elizabeth Breuilly) (1996). Penguin Books, London UK

Book Review & Giveaway: Meditation on Perception by Bhante Gunaratana

Book Giveaway: I won a softcover version of this book and much as I crave keeping it I will practice the essence of Meditation on Perception by offering it to a randomly chosen reader who leaves a comment on this post, Twitter, or Facebook. Giveaway closes October 17, 2014.

Meditation on Perception (Wisdom Publications) by Bhante Gunaratana is a gem of wisdom delivered in Bhante G.’s simple, clear style. Those of us who study the teachings of the Buddha have an almost facile response to the cause of suffering. It is craving, which is fed by perception; dukkha arises from the way in which we perceive the world and its events. True enough and this book unravels our misperceptions about perception.

(I)n its own nature perception is pure and clean. Yet it is also quite delicate and vulnerable to being distorted by the virus of concepts.

In my own practice, I’ve come to have an ambivalent relationship with my perceptions. A necessary evil in my mind, I engage them with narrow trust and a wide berth. Yet Bhante G.’s unwrapping of the process and mechanisms of perception reveal a subtle working of perception as the language between body and mind. This means a wider trust and more intimate relationship is called for if we are to be guided well by it.

As our mindfulness becomes more stable, we discover that the entire Dhamma is inscribed in our body and mind.

Meditation on Perception is exactly what it says: perception is the object of our meditation with the intention of fully understanding how the six senses (thoughts are one of them) feed us information from inner and outer sources. While the Girimananda Sutta, Buddha’s teachings on perception, forms the primary framework many other relevant suttas are tucked quietly into the chapters exposing us to a wide range of the Buddha’s teachings. Bhante points out that despite the initial purity of perception “concepts, ideas, opinions, beliefs, and many other categories of conditioning, have influenced our perception. In essence, our perception has become distorted. (ebook location 444)” We fall into the mirage of believing there is a fixed self, knotted by desire for permanence and suffering, and living through a preferential mind that leans into pleasurable experiences.

The good news is that perceptions can arise and cease because the causes and conditions that give rise to them also arise and cease. The tough news is that other perceptions take effort to bring into line. To borrow a phrase from neuropsychology, concepts that arise together, wire together. This unwiring takes effort, practice, and unrelenting diligence. Bhante offers several paths of healing distorted perceptions, all of which are applications of teachings from the Ānāpānasati and Satipaṭṭhāna Suttas. By cultivating awareness of breath and mindfulness, we begin to see how the distorted perception self-generate. When we understand that that tainted mind seeks validation from from inner and outer experiences to reinforce its perception, we can also understand the necessity for guarding the sense doors, developing presence to what is arising, and developing patience and loving-friendliness (metta) for our experience.

The ten healing perceptions, impermanence, nonself, unattractiveness, danger, abandoning, dispassion, cessation, nondelight in the entire world, impermanence in all conditioned phenomena, and mindfulness of breathing, are the path through this tangle of distorted perceptions. Meditations on these healing factors disentangle us from our preferences that world meet our needs in a precise, self-centered way. This profound attachment is the fundamental cause of our suffering and the Girimananda Sutta offers hope of release.

What I truly treasured in Bhante’s writings is the use of language that is natural and therefore accessible. Terms that tend to trigger argumentation in my head are rendered in ways that reveal their meaning without any esotericism. “Aimlessness,” one of the three gateways to liberation, is simply “wishlessness.” Disenchantment does not mean disappointed rejection; it is a stance of mature realization of what truly is. The five aggregates each “consists of three minor moments: the rising moment, the living moment, and the passing away moment.”

The living moment.

The delight in the book is also the opportunity to re-engage with the four foundations of mindfulness as well as a number of meditation instructions which place attention on perception, mind, impermanence, and liberation.

This is a welcome addition to Bhante’s prolific series of books that have brought the wisdom of the Buddha to our hearts.