theoblogger challenge: god in 100 words

Patheos is a fascinating site offering a “balanced view of Religion and Spirituality.”  Debra Arca Mooney of Patheos contacted me about 10 days ago and offered a “theoblogger” challenge:

Who/What is God?

In 100 words or less

A previous challenge had been issued to a selection of Christian writers.  As a result of the responses to that challenge, bloggers across a variety of faith traditions were asked to participate.  As a Buddhist, I wondered how to even begin since Buddhism didn’t carry a premise of “God”.  Yet, there is an experience of the sacred – at least as I comprehend it in my own limited mind.  If nothing else, participating has forced me to struggle with the slip-sliding nature of language in trying to articulate the experience, result, and outcome of practice.

My response:

The concept of a singular God is not in found Buddhism.  There is only practice as Buddha, which means “One who is Awakened.”  An adjective, Buddha describes our capacity to cultivate joy, love, compassion, and equanimity.  Being Buddha means full engagement in life without preference for something different to be happening for or to us.  It is practicing authenticity and the courage to live ethically.  It cultivates living fiercely, fearless of the crucible which transforms our greed, rejection, and disconnect to generosity, open heartedness, and wisdom.  Then, we see sacredness in the ordinary: a cup of tea, a falling leaf.

It, along with the other featured bloggers, can be found here.  Please visit Patheos to read the variety of responses.  Also share your response – here and there – to the question (in 100 words or less!).

Thank you for practicing,

Genju

Special Guest Justin from American Buddhist Perspective on Irritants & Ethics

It’s my honour to welcome Justin from American Buddhist Perspective and Buddhist Ethics as our Guest Author for today.  Justin is completing his PhD in Buddhist Ethics – a path fraught with ethical dilemma itself, I’m sure!  And a journey to the PhD would also give him extensive practice in dealing with issues of irritants from the mild to the supra-humane.  So, we are in good hands today.

Let me begin by thanking Lynette Genju for providing me this space and for Nate DeMontigny for organizing this second round of Article Swaps.

In the random assigning of topics I was given the task of writing about practicing with what irritates me, and Genju asked if I could incorporate some Buddhist ethics into the discussion. The topic is, I’m afraid to say, pretty difficult because, quite frankly, so much irritates me. Trying to be mindful of the irritants in my life only seemed to show just how irritable a person I am! Studying at a coffee shop, I now couldn’t help but explore my irritation with one man’s overly loud and shrill laughter, or the way a woman opened the door and then proceeded to start a conversation, still holding the door open (it’s about 9°F/ -13°C here). My study partner stumbles over a sentence (we translate Pali texts together), skipping a key word here, inserting a word there; my brow furrows, I sometimes unconsciously shake my head at him, which he has regularly called me on. I come home, my girlfriend asks me the same question she’s asked two or three times in the last two days. I give her the same answer. She tells me not to roll my eyes at her – which is when I realize I’ve rolled my eyes at her!

Such is life.

Plenty to practice with, I should think. But then I wonder how exactly I should practice with all of this: perhaps extend metta to all of these irritating people and metta toward myself for being so irritable? Or how about looking for some underlying connections, seeking the roots of all this irritation. I could begin this latter analysis by thinking that perhaps all of this irritation is connected by people’s mistakes: if those people at the coffee shop were more thoughtful, they’d modulate their volume or take notice of the icy draft sweeping in across the front of the room (not to mention the heating expenses incurred by the business and the unnecessary contribution to global warming); if my Pali partner would just slow down, he’d get the sentence, and if my girlfriend had paid attention the first two times she asked me the question, she wouldn’t be asking me again! So I’m irritated by people’s mistakes!

But that’s still a pretty shallow analysis. I could go further by saying that everyone’s mistakes were caused by unawareness. Now I’m sounding Buddhisty. I could depersonalize it and say I’m irritated by unawareness itself.  And hey, aren’t we all?  But I’m still far from getting it if I fail to see my own role in all of this.  And that’s where practice comes in.

Buddhist meditation is generally divided into two parts: calming and insight.  First we need calm; we need a mind which is made malleable through one-pointed concentration exercises such as following the breath or cultivating metta.  Without an easily directed mind, analysis meditation quickly becomes distracted. So a practice like metta-bhavana for irritations is very useful. It counters the ill-will which arises in times of irritation. One should recall the line from the Dhammapada, “All people tremble at the rod, all men fear death.  Putting oneself in the place of another, one should neither kill nor cause to kill.” (verse 129)

Once the mind is calmed, two other insights become clear. First is that I, too, make these irritating mistakes! I too am unaware of what I am doing often enough. Kind of like the “three fingers pointing back at you” idea. Second is the perhaps deeper realization that these people are all, in a way, part of the play of my own consciousness. It is my own mental states that bring these people – or their irritating aspects – into existence in the first place. This is an insight used heavily in Vajrayana Buddhism, but it can be applied by anyone.  It’s necessary to have the calmed mind, but now when something I would typically label “irritating” arises – today it is a loud truck passing by my window – I simply watch the experience. In this case it is sound, rising and falling, moving left to right through my embodied awareness.

That’s it. Amazingly simple, but profound in its effect. Now the mind is present in the experience, instead of judging and demanding a return to the quiet past. It is that clinging to the past that is irritation. So by being present the mind cannot be irritated, plain and simple.

That’s the practice. And the ethics are the too often unseen foundation for the calm mind.  Buddhist ethics can be  described in countless ways, but the basic touchstone tends to be the five precepts: refraining from harm/killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false or harmful speech, and taking intoxicants. All of them cloud and disturb the mind. Quite beautifully though, we each have our own relationship with them: some come quite naturally, others take years or lifetimes of work.  But, like the things that irritate us, they serve as a mirror for us on our practice, and as an opportunity for growth.

But Buddhist ethics is not just a matter of static ideals. The precepts are guidelines for the path to awakening. And the realization that life/spirituality/awakening is a path can instantly remove a great deal of weight from one’s shoulders. It is not about trying to be “right” and always coming up short in this way or that, a way of thinking that leads quickly to judgment, aversion, and irritation. This reevaluation, or re-valuation as one of my teachers puts it, of life makes those difficulties opportunities for being more ethical, seeking firs t that calm mind and then watching as compassion,
generosity, patience, and the rest fill the space where irritation once ruled.

Justin Whitaker
PhD Candidate, Buddhist Ethics
Goldsmiths, University of London

+++++++++++++

Thank you, Justin!  I admire your skillfulness in touching both heart and mind on this difficult topic. The ease with which you make the transitions from sensation to assessment to insight speaks to a deep practice.  May we all benefit from your teachings now and forever.

Please visit Marcus at Marcus’ Journal where I am being graciously hosted in this Blog Swap.

getting on the “I”-list

We are headed towards the 2nd Buddho-Blogger Swap and Justin Whitaker, author of the American Buddhist Perspective will be Guest author here on Friday January 8th.  This time we are assigned topics at random and Justin will be writing on how to practice with irritation.  Since much of my work both in my Buddhist and livelihood sanghas involves the cultivation of ethics (well, what doesn’t!) I asked Justin to let the topic take an ethical slant (how could it not?).  This in no way locks him into that perspective because, as I have learned in these few months of writing this blog, I have no idea where the first typed word will take me.

Anyway, I began to think about this issue of ethics.  No grand ideas.  Just a curiousity about what it means, in a very ordinary way, to live an engaged and committed life.  A long time ago I use to make resolutions just as I used to send out Christmas cards.  Now, instead of the Hallmark Christmas mail-out, I wait for Valentine’s Day to send out a love letter to my family & friends expressing my gratitude for their presence and encouraging them in their practice, whatever form it may take.  Last year, my letter garnered a few astonished replies from friends over the fact they had made the “A” list.  I pointed out to them it’s actually an “I”-list.  That’s “I” for integrity and Integral – the first I see as central to who they are and the second as central to who they are to me.

I have a similar approach to making New year’s Resolutions.  I don’t.  That’s not to say I don’t have these moments when I swear by all that’s holy in the sutras that I will for sure absolutely begin to (fill in the blank).  These moments of pseudo engagement with my life tend to be driven by guilt about the effort I put into my practice, my greed for more and more of what I don’t have or just got a taste of, my fear of total annihilation when emails and phone calls aren’t returned, or (fill in the blank).  Anything promised in these moments will have as much power over me as a fifth helping of cheesecake after I swear not to have the first.  There’s a simple reason for it: the desire is not for the object or outcome I claim I want.  It’s for the soothing of the anxiety I feel because I don’t have what I want. So these days, when I find myself promising I simply will not engage in something or absolutely will achieve something else, I stop for a moment and try to sit with what’s getting me so hot and bothered.

Justin states it beautifully in his post on Resolutions:

If you find yourself repeatedly going down in flames in this or that aspect of your life, it would do you much more good to figure out what started you on fire in the first place before resolving to rise from the ashes.

He also says:

Resolutions are only as good as the awareness with which they are made.

I like this.  If I’m going to be a phoenix, I first have to be willing to burn up with awareness.

Could it be as simple as putting myself on an “I”-list of integrity and being integral?  I don’t know.  There is a challenge and cost to living with integrity.  Once aware, I don’t get to be deaf, dumb, and blind again.  The tough part is, just as my eye can’t see itself nor my hand hold itself, I can’t tell you if I live with integrity.  And even harder for me as I’ve had to learn, I can’t make myself integral in anyone else’s life.

And that perhaps was the greatest challenge I faced in 2009: realizing that I was not integral in the lives of some people but to continue to hold them as integral in mine.  Does that constitute living with integrity?  Damned if I know.  May be someday they’ll let me know.  Or not.  Either way it resolves something.

Thank you for practicing,

Genju

zen of being the Kid

Our daughter is travelling through New Zealand.  It takes a lot of guts to set off for strange shores with nothing more than a knapsack and Netbook.  Then again she’s been trained well just being our Kid.

One summer day, she may have been about 7 or 8, we went for a walk through the fields on the farm.  With the time to talk about everything under that sun, she asked why the sky was blue, the grass green and what were those little red berries tucked under the alfalfa.

“Those?  I don’t know.  Let’s see?”  I plucked one and popped it in my mouth.  And toppled over.

She shrieked.

I opened one eye.

The rest is a story of how her school teachers for many years wondered how to call Children’s Aid to complain about my perverted sense of humour.  In my defense, my sense of humour was finely honed to protect against her father’s and her own twisted views on life.

triple ginger cookies

I like to think that through the trials of being our daughter, she has picked up a few survival skills.  Baking awesome desserts is one.  Writing incredibly well is another.

She posts on her blog – though not as frequently as her fans would like – missives from the North and South Island.  Interspersed with the posts are “The Becca Chronicles“.  Way too racy for a mother to read; but I do because that’s what mothers do.  Dad, on the other hand, just mumbles about the Southern way of managing things.

Crow’s Nest is one of her latest posts and it really caught me.  Of course, it’s about books… after a fashion.  Or maybe, more accurately it’s about the loss of dreams and wishes, the things we build and infuse with hope which then languish from lack of sustenance or fail from things out of our control.

I’m sharing it without her permission – but then I’m her momma and she’s the one who taught me to colour outside the lines.

The Kid’s Mom

The Kid decking the rose garden for me

Guest post: Dwan from Budding Buddhist on Waiting

It’s the day of Nate at Precious Metal‘s brilliant and fun idea of Blog-Swapping!  Nate is hosting my post on Sustaining Practice and I’m hosting Dwan from Budding Buddhist.  To see the interconnected blogs click here.

It’s my pleasure to introduce Dwan from Budding Buddhist.  I wandered through her site and was struck by the balance of her engagement with her inner and outer experiences.  She says she’s a beginning practitioner (I would disagree) so I went to her very first post to see what was lying there, dormant.  It was a moving expression of her strength and steadiness.  I think you will enjoy that first post when you visit her on her home turf as you will in reading where she is in this moment.

The fabulously patient Genju writes:

I was struck by the image of the empty waiting room and wondered if you’d like to write about your practice as it has evolved (a series of empty waiting room where you’ve practiced to be with what is?).

It’s amazing how “obvious” ideas become once we “get” them.  One little sentence and all the fluffy unformed ideas I’ve got floating in my head solidify into something tangible, present, and already-there!  I think the idea of a series of rooms is an excellent metaphor for my practice, though the dour humorist part of me insists on suggesting that a better metaphor might be a creaky wooden roller coaster. -.-

No different than any other student (I imagine.), my practice has ebbed and flowed.  At first it was all about learning form, technique and content.  So that first waiting room was crowded – full of ideas and concepts, goals and expectations.  I stayed here for quite a while, checking out all the nooks and crannies but not really venturing into them.  This room was more about broad strokes and lots of fidgeting.  I guess if it had a theme it was dust and tchotchkes.  It was pretty noisy, too.

Since that first initial bloom of practice I’ve had a lot of ups and downs.  Life has quite frankly gotten a lot harder and there have been periods of relative darkness and struggle.  My practice has reflected this.  When I struggled to breathe and simply be in these places, these “waiting rooms” echoed this – they were dark and cramped and sometimes it seemed to take forever to find the door.

I never ever stopped looking for the door, however, so every once in a while I slipped into a new room with a better view.  These rooms have windows, which I love to throw wide open.   Taking the time to renew my dedication to practice and to the moment is always a breath of fresh air, invigorating on so many levels!

There’s a pattern to my rooms – a sequence of light and dark almost like tree rings, and this is how I’ve come to see the ups and downs of my practice – as markers of the passage of time and effort.  A while back Venerable Ashin Sopāka wrote a really great summuppance of Mechanics of Kamma and Rebirth.  In it he uses a metaphor of a long line of people passing a sack of seeds from one person to the next, each person dropping a seed and adding a new one to the bag.  While taken well out of context, I think this idea applies the progress of my practice.  Things change, things rise and fall, but essentially the root is the same.  So “I’m” still here, even as the rooms come and go.

My “waiting rooms” *are* growing quieter and plainer.  It *is* getting easier for me to hear my breath.  Sometimes knowing that it’s just me, my breath and the present moment is a tremendous comfort and other times it can be positively maddening.

In any case, returning to that breath is the frequently the extent of my practice right now.  There’s no time or peace for a more formal practice.  I take comfort in that, however.  Reverend Danny Fisher’s Gift of Dharma for 11.30.09 speaks rather eloquently into this, in my opinion:

What then, is the correct Mahamudra practice?

The ordinary mind is itself the correct practice. That is to say, to let the ordinary mind remain in its own natural state.

If to this mind one adds or subtracts anything, it is then not the ordinary mind but the so-called ‘mind-object’ [Yul].

To make not the slightest intention and effort to practice, and yet not to be distracted for a single moment, is to practice the natural mind correctly.

Therefore, as long as you can keep your Self-awareness, no matter what you do, you are still practicing Mahamudra.

the Ninth Khenchen Thrangu Tulku, Karma Lodrö Lungrik Maway Senge