stillness of a river: book review of Sid by anita n. feng

Sid by Anita N. Feng is a surprisingly well crafted telling of the traditional story of the Buddha’s life alongside a contemporary version set a Western life.  It’s a risky undertaking: this attempt to demonstrate The Awakened One’s tale can be taken from the lofty allegories of becoming the Enobled One and make it applicable to the quotidian. The transformation from Siddhartha to Gautama Buddha is entrenched in details of its own, mythologies, and narratives that demand suspension of disbelief. And they have been re-written often, mostly with attempts to make the Enlightened Him more human – as if the very point of the root narrative wasn’t to showcase his deep humanity.

I avoided buying this book for those very reasons. After Chopra’s McPyschology attempt at interpreting the Buddha’s story, there seemed little need to wander back into that genre. But it arrived, unrequested, a solitary little package from what is likely my favourite publisher of Buddhist books, Wisdom Publications. (That’s full disclosure and then some!)

Feng enters into a lineage of authors who have tried to recast in modern terms this storyline of birth, loss, suffering, and death. But I think this is the only one that runs a parallel story to the main narrative. Hermann Hesse did so in the much beloved Siddhartha; however the characters were contemporaries and it ran more as an alternate universe: “what if the Buddha met himself across a time warp.” The writing in Sid, unlike Hesse’s romantic lyrics, has an unaffected tone that makes the slide from one stage to another easy and one goes along willingly. And stages there are. Like a Shakespearean play, we are carried from the stage with Suddhodana, Siddhartha, and Avalokitesvara to one with Professor Sudovsky, Sid, and Ava; from Yasodhara to Yasmin; from Siddhartha’s Rahula to Sid’s Rahula (this last a fascinating convergence of lineages). With a nod to the Jataka Tales, animals fill in narrative gaps like the Chorus of a Greek tragedy – observing, commenting, and imparting their wisdom. And with a deep bow to an honourable lineage, Feng offers homage to Hesse’s river that is the final teacher of Siddhartha and Sid in their last pages.

This isn’t an interweaving of two stories and perhaps those who attempt to do so fail because of the artifice of a forced relevance. These are life events that can unfold anywhere in any time. That, at its heart, is the intent of understanding the Buddha’s life. Of course, the book can be read as a sequence of the Buddha’s life in 4th c. B.C.E. followed by Sid’s life in the 21st c. C.E. – interesting and sufficient to feel reassured that nothing changes. It can also be, in some way that only physics can explain, contemporaneous stories whose details grip us for different reasons – a recognition that in stillness everything changes and in movement nothing changes.

sawaki kôdô & yokoyama: unexpected mercies of homelessness

Perhaps one of my most beloved source of teachings comes from the story of Yokoyama Sodô roshi, the grass flute monk. Arthur Braverman wrote of his life here. There is something ephemeral about the life and teachings of Yokoyama, a simplicity and dedication that often escapes us in our plunge forward into making practice something. Following the bloodline back from Yokoyama, we encounter his teacher Sawaki Kôdô roshi known as Homeless Kôdô. This moniker was not just a reference to his tendency to wander Japan teaching but also – if you read The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kôdô by Kosho Uchiyama and Shokaku Okumura (Wisdom Publications) – is reflected in his very perspective of the dharma. Yokoyama evokes a tender compassion for his approach to offering the dharma freely to everyone who walked past his corner of Kaikoen Park in Komoro; we feel ourselves leaning into that bower of leaves to hear his teachings. Sawaki evokes a fierceness born of his own experiences as a soldier fighting for the emperor and that he believed was right to do so as well as his ardent rejection of all things institutional. This determined attitude is in his words (leeway given for translation) on the purpose of the Buddhadharma:

A religion that has nothing to do with our fundamental attitude toward our lives is nonsense. Buddhadharma is a religion that teaches us how to return to a true way of life. “Subduing non-Buddhists,” or converting people, means helping them transform their lives from a half-baked, incomplete way to a genuine way. ~Chapter 2, Having finally returned to a true way of life, The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kôdô by Kosho Uchiyama and Shokaku Okumura.

No minced words here. Left to themselves, Sawaki’s teachings can seem harsh, strangely naive, and yet necessary truths about our “stupidity”. The structure of this book however offers different intonations for his words. Each chapter is presented with Sawaki’s teachings in a pithy quotable quote followed by his dharma heir Uchiyama’s commentary and then his heir Shohaku Okumura. Both Uchiyama and Okumura place Sawaki’s teachings in the context of post-war Japan and the culture that arose after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They make no apologies for Sawaki rather pointing out that even in a great master’s teachings there lie the foibles of constructed perceptions. And there is a sweetness in seeing three generations of thought evolve. Should you wish to walk away now thinking this is a book of teachings by an irascible, aged, male, grumpy, old Zen Guy, turn into that particular assumption. Not that we judge but rather that the judgement arises from a reactivity to some very real truths in being told we can be deaf, dumb, and blind about our motivations that transcend gender, culture, and time.

Sawaki: Heaven and earth make offerings. Air, water, plants, animals and human beings make offerings. All things make offerings to each other. It’s only within the circle of offering that we can live. Whether we approach this or not, it’s true.

Uchiyama: Heaven and earth, all the ten thousand things freely give us 99.99 percent of our necessities. Only 0.01 percent of the things we need are subject to our decisions whether to be greedy or not. (And even that) we should make efforts to reduce.

Okumura: However, Buddhism is not merely a teaching of social morality. If our deeper motivation is greed, then no matter how much we give our actions cannot be dana paramita, the perfection of offering… Yet if we take bodhisattva vows, our whole life becomes an offering, even if we have no material possessions to give.  ~Chapter 63, The blessing of the universe, ibid.

Yokoyama and Sawaki Kôdô lived very different lives. Who is to say which is better or which had more impact. What is more relevant is our attraction to one or the other. Or neither. Experiencing that moving towards, pulling away is the essence of Buddhadharma, the kindling point of our transformation. Not because we land on one or the other’s way of life – that way lies guru adoration and the cult of personality. To experience that desire for homelessness, for simplicity, for a life struck through with offering is also to experience our desires, motivations, and intentions in all its fallibility and unexpected mercies.

mindfulness, ethics & the baffling debate

buddha-rain(c) Mindfulness. Ethics. Buddhism. Therapy. It’s an ongoing and oft-times baffling debate. Over the last few years (since 2011 if I track the academic publications correctly), Buddhists have stepped up to express concerns about the frighteningly rapid secular applications of mindfulness that seem to dilute and disregard its core teachings and intention. Secular practitioners which include a very large clinical population of mental health professionals have either dismissed the call for a deeper understanding or been baffled by it.

[Edited to clear confusion in sentence reference] Related to this latter group, a quick scan of LinkedIn special groups on mindfulness is quite off-putting though the comments are instructive. They are mainly tinged with a deep fear of the religious – not the ethical – nature of being required regularly to attend silent retreats, imposing (insert “religious”) ethics in the curriculum, and otherwise bring an unfamiliar and foreign languaging into what is now taken as a neutral, clinical program.

The bafflement also arises from the unquestioned acceptance of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s repeated pronouncement that ethics in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (the original program) is implicit; nothing needs adding because it’s already there. In fact, my own notes from my MBSR training state, “ethics not necessary to mention…arises from insight to suffering.”

Now that’s more or less true when we have years to practice and watch the mind twist and turn trying to justify all matter of unskillfulness. Ethical speech and action can and does arise as we clarify, clarify, clarify our propensity to ignorance, greed, and attachments. Ethical livelihood can arise (economics and mastering our own greed notwithstanding). But not, in my experience, reliably so in 8-weeks sitting together trying to get past the delusional nature of our suffering, layered over by our “terrible personality” that is borne forth from a multitude of biopsychosocial causes and conditions.

Recently, my colleagues Jane Compson, Frank Musten, and I published an article in Mindfulness on the difficulties of trying to reconcile, assess, and dig deeper into the issues of secular/clinical concepts of mindfulness. You can read it here and I’d encourage reading the commentaries to our article (in the previous link) because scholarly practitioners such as Ajahn Amaro and Mark Greenberg/Joy Mitra have made excellent offerings on the topic.

Along with many others, I too have a deep concern about the way mindfulness is taught and proliferating in secular and clinical domains, how it is reduced to a pabulum of trite sayings and a mash-up of mindfulness memes. But waging war against this level of misunderstanding is exhausting and actually fruitless. The fear clinicians have of incorporating ethics/values into their work stems from an over-applied historic meme itself – that our presence is but a mirror, reflecting nothing of ourselves and everything of the other. It is based in a psychological Cartesian principle of separateness, not just of mind and body but also of you and me. In fact, to bring anything of myself into the room is often harshly dealt with in internships and trainings.

Now here’s the irony, mindfulness was a hope of many of us that this delusion of separateness would finally dissolve and we would be able to enter into an authentic – a more fully authentic – relationship with each other whether it is in the marketplace or the therapy room. Doubly ironic, the fields of moral psychology and counselling and spirituality have explored issues of the fallacy of values-neutral interactions in therapy. The findings are fascinating; in brief, clients over time take on the values of their therapists. But these examinations haven’t attained much traction in the huge momentum of cognitive-based treatments.

The underlying and frequently by-passed point is that there is no time when ethics is absent from our relationships. Be it in the therapy room, at the dining table, and even most especially in the all-purpose family room with the TV flashing its programs, it can no more be excised from the practice than heat from a chilli pepper. And it is never absent in the gathering place of mindfulness programs. So, if our fear is that ethics of the Dharma as it moves into secular domains are an imposition on our program participants, then that fear is misplaced. The fear should be more that we have been lulled into believing that we can be value-neutral participants at this intimate level as we connect with those who suffer deeply from this self-same disconnect from their lives. This is where the danger lies: that we are taking this arrogant stance and blindly leading others into the very vortex of ignorance that is the source of their suffering. And more, there is the equally arrogant and disrespectful assumption that the participants are tabula rasa to their own ethics and morality.

These assumptions are also embedded in Buddhist debates about sila and mindfulness where the fear is that the Dharma is being stripped of its moral foundations. Here too the confusion is based in assumptions of pre-existing personal ethics, religious influences and the nature of ethical living. Justin Whitaker on his blog American Buddhist Perspective published two posts that reflect the difficulties of finding some middle ground in the concerns and confusion. The first post addresses Tricycle’s recent blogpost by Richard Payne on the cultural assumptions that morality/ethics are connected to religious frameworks. The second post summarizes a discussion between Bhikkhu Bodhi and angel Kyodo williams on the issues of ethics and Buddhism. Again and with all due respect to Bhikkhu Bodhi and williams, we encounter the meme of secular mindfulness creating automatons in the workplace and military. (To be fair, Bhikkhu Bodhi has written in various publications that he sees the secularization of mindfulness a positive thing if it alleviates suffering AND if it honours its origins as a sacred practice.)

The ongoing debate among Buddhist, between Buddhists and secular/clinical practitioners, and all other permutations and combinations involved in the issue of placing ethics in mindfulness programs/teachings needs to turn back onto itself and examine its own assumptions about the nature of ethics and morality as well as how we acquire and embody them. As Ajahn Amaro points out in his commentary to our article, we need to examine the “subtle influences” of our own religious (even if disavowed) and cultural baggage that lead us to believe having ethics in a curriculum will create better people or that not having it will create monsters.

It’s time that we see the fear-inducing memes about religious infringement and mindful evil-doers as click bait, distracting both Buddhists and secular individuals committed to the teachings of mindfulness from the real issue of how to cultivate an embodied ethic.

Help for Nepal & surrounding countries

Picture from The Wall Street Journal-India.

Dear Friends,

We awoke this morning to the news of the earthquake in Nepal and the devastation it has caused. Nepal, India, Bangladesh and border regions of China are affected. Please take a moment to offer your support to the Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund here set up by the America Nepal Medical Foundation – ANMF. Other agencies are listed in the ways to help page on this site.

CANADIAN Sources for help – includes MSF, Red Cross, UNICEF.

CITTA – They will be on the ground in Kathmandu and going to the Gorkha district an area that has been completely devastated. The money will go directly to the people of Nepal.

Karuna-Sechen – Founded by Matthieu Ricard

Olmo Ling – Center supporting the Bon tradition

Kyabgön Phakchok Rinpoche for disaster relief here. Please indicate “Disaster Relief” in the “Purpose” field.

OXFAM is marshalling a response.

American Buddhist Perspectives has additional donations and help resources.

More sites here on how to help Nepal.

Abari.org – Building medical camps and accommodations.

Rolling updates are available here.

May all being be safe and find care in this difficult time.

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.