Posts Tagged With: buddhist

A daily dose of emptiness

A lot of the older teachings compare the teachings of Buddhism to medicine. Its an apt analogy for many reasons, if suffering is the sickness then the medicine would, logically, alleviate suffereing. The comparison works on another level as well, something that I only recently became aware of. Like medicine, Zazen and buddhism in general, seem to only be measurable in their results and not in the actual actions themselves. What I mean is that when you have a headache and take an aspirin the action of taking the pill does not bring instant relief (despite what the ads would have you believe), popping that pill does nothing for your headache at the instant you swallow it. Rather the medicine must be dissolved in your body and then travel throughout your bloodstream until it reaches the specific part you are trying to affect. After enough time has passed for all this to occur then you begin to feel the effects of the aspirin, you feel relief from your headache once the medicine has had time to be processed through you, not the second that you swallowed it.

I feel like it is safe to say that anyone doing Zazen (meditation) for more than a few months will develop doubts about it. After all, we are told over and over again that there is no goal to our sitting! Without a goal our normal, conditioned minds think “why the fuck am I bothering to sit here with my knees aching and my brain doing somersaults if there is no goal!?” Ive done it many, many times myself. At first I outwardly agreed with the “no goals” message while secretly hoping for some kind of pay-off like peace, or enlightenment, perhaps an end to my struggles or even just wishing for cessation of my desire for a goal! After awhile even those goals will go away and this then is when the “dark night” of the Buddhist soul begins, because once you stop secretly having goals the mind says “why bother?” and without that secret goal I think a lot of folks quit sitting all together, I quit a few times myself and thats when a funny thing happens…

See, the whole time you have been sitting “wrong” it has still been working on you. Like medicine you dont “feel” the effect at the moment of ingestion, the effects are only noticeable in how they affect the “symptoms”. If you have been sitting regularly and then skip a few days you will notice that a lot of old conditioning comes back, for myself that manifests as feeling very edgy and irritable, I begin thinking of scenarios and old grudges where I felt humiliated or attacked. The first time I quit meditation I was shocked at how quickly I turned into the same dissatisfied, frightened, angry person I had spent my whole life being. I was argumentative, unable to compromise or move passed a perceived slight, I just felt at odds with the world instead of in accord with it. Once I got my dumb ass back on the cushion all those negative habits and thought traps quickly disappeared. It still happens, I suppose I am “cursed” to meditate for the rest of my days but if all it takes to get my shit together is 10 or 20 minutes of meditation a day then I’m glad to do it.

The funny thing is that when I’m actually meditating, as in when I’m sitting on a cushion (called a zafu), I don’t feel any of this change occurring. It’s usually boring, often distracting as my monkey mind send one thought after another that I dutifully let go of and return to my breath. These days the knees don’t hurt anymore and I don’t find myself lost in a daydream for 8 of the 15 minutes I’m sitting for, but I also am not feeling more “peaceful, enlightened, or calm”, I just feel like I’m sitting and not much is going on. Now, however, I know that something is happening though I can’t feel it, the medicine of meditation is working on some level I can’t (or even care to) fathom. Amazingly, the years of doing “nothing” have produced something wonderful, a life I could never have imagined. I have learned to trust that when I take the pill by actually sitting daily that the suffering is alleviated, it’s not quick or “exciting” but it does work astoundingly well.

Even if I can’t feel it.

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Attachment and Buddhists

In the comments of my previous blog PD wrote this:

when I was reading about you getting married (congrats man!). Many buddhists deny themself relationships. I have gathered it is because the fact, that by doing so you dont create yourself an attachment. I once asked a person who was into Buddhism the following (when he told me the 4 noble truths) “You have kids. Do you let go of them because they create an attachment and possibly make you hold onto things when you should let go?” Didnt get a answer.

Have you thought about all this Jason?

Its a good question and on the surface it makes sense. After all, we Buddhists are always going on and on about not being attached to this or that. If you are new to Buddhism it is easy to read this as an admonition not to “get stuff”, material stuff AND emotional stuff (like relationships). I used to believe this myself, I would see a book or jacket I wanted and then I would get mad at myself for wanting that object! How, I reasoned, was I ever going to “get enlightened” if i still craved material things!? As usual, it turned out that I had the entire question upside down. Fortunately, the longer one ‘does’ Buddhism the more these kind of logical fallacies work themselves out. In this case the actual story of the Buddha provides the first part of the answer.

Briefly, when Gautama left his life as a prince he began his journey to awakening using various methods that were already common  in India, these included various focused/guided meditations, visualizations, philosophical pondering, and rituals, but  finding that none of these satisfied his quest to end suffering he next tried Asceticism. He mortified his body with pain and starvation, he gave away all his clothes, didn’t bathe and ate less and less until ( in the legends) he existed on a single grain of rice per day. Statues of him from this period show a frightful picture of a man dying, his ribs protrude, his eyes are sunken and his veins in stark relief against his emaciated skin.

Gautama the Ascetic

Gautama the Ascetic

In an effort to transcend the suffering of the world he was killing himself. Gautama was denying himself  everything, even the very basic sustenance that humans need to survive. He had achieved the “highest” level of asceticism short of death and yet he realized that he was no closer to ending suffering, that in denying himself he had, in fact, made it impossible to think or function at all. After this part of the story he decides to eat again and when a little healthier begins to meditate, a meditation that eventually lead to his awakening as the Buddha (Buddha meaning “the awakened one”).

The story of the ascetic Buddha isn’t just to show us how bad ass Gautama was or to add drama, whether it really occurred or not, the point is to show that the Buddhas path is the Middle Way. Neither clinging to things or rejecting everything will end suffering the tale tells us. When he was a well fed prince, Gautama suffered, when he was a starving holy-man he still suffered, it was only when he let go of both craving and renouncement that he could see the reality of the universe.

So to believe that being a Buddhist means to “avoid attachments” is really missing the real point, which is;

the objects (whether a new car or a wife and children) are not ‘attachments’, they simply are things that exist, the ‘attachment’ happens in YOU! (or me) Without you and me to desire that new car, it is simply a pile of metal, glass, and plastic, it has no inherent ‘attachment-ness’ until one of us came along and decided that we needed it so badly that we suffered.

Buddhism is not about changing the world outside of us to fit our ideals, its about living in the world as it really and truly is without getting so hung up on those ideals that we suffer. To deny ourselves things that we need to exist (and I believe that love is one of those things) is to become the Ascetic. Attachment also doesn’t have to be for an object, the Buddha suffered because he was attached to the idea of transcending his body even to the point that he nearly died of starvation, he was ‘attached’ to his ideal. It was not until he acknowledged that his body was not the source of his suffering that he could work on the real problem of suffering and its causes.

Buddhism is also not about denying reality. In fact, to the Chinese Chan Buddhists to be ‘enlightened’ was often described as “seeing with your original face”, that is, the mind that you had before we added all sorts of conditioning, ideals, and cravings to it. Your Natural Mind. Buddhists understand that part of a natural mind is the desire to mate and pass on your genetic line as children, that we naturally desire enough food, shelter, and company to feel safe. Once again the Middle way is the ideal. To crave too much food causes suffering, to deny enough food is suffering. We need to desire enough food to keep us sustained and healthy and that’s it. Food (or any other object of desire) is not the problem, our attitude toward it is the problem.

So what do we mean by ‘attachment’? Well,  what it literally means, to hold onto something beyond a level that is natural and healthy. To cling to an object, person, or idea to the point where it becomes unnatural is “attachment” (and suffering). In practical terms this means that we can desire a new car so long as that desire doesn’t cause us to feel bad if dont get it, or as long as it doesn’t cause us to desire it so much that we steal in order to have it. In personal terms this means that I can and do love Cara, but not to the point where I become agitated if she is gone for an hour or want to fight every male she talks to besides me. On the other side of the coin if I were to decide that my natural desire for her was ‘bad’ and  then If I began to  try to crush that part of my mind would be the other suffering extreme (like some Catholic monks who whip themselves if they feel any sexual desire)  It means to be aware that desires are natural without clinging to them or avoiding other things, it means The Middle way!

So some Buddhists (mainly monks) swear off romantic love because it is easier to focus on the moment without wanting to run off to the woods with your girlfriend all the time. But in many traditions (like Japanese Zen) monks and priests are free to marry. Being celibate is not mandated except in many monastic traditions. Buddhism is imminently practical, and to deny one of the basic human needs would not only be silly, but would lead to the kind of craziness we see in the more sexually conservative religions.

What Buddhism finally teaches us is that it isn’t the kids or the mate that are the attachment, its our very own grasping minds.

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No quarter asked, none given

One of the funniest things Ive ever heard about Buddhism is that it is a “passive” philosophy. That its about not doing ‘anything’ and sitting around zoning out. That it is a religion with no morality. This is funny because once you see through the outer trappings it quickly becomes apparent that being a Buddhist is non-stop, intensely moral activity!

I suppose seeing a bunch of folks meditating might seem to be just so much sitting around, but ask anyone whose tried zazen and they will tell you that the simple task of sitting for 20 or so minutes can be one of the most challenging things they have ever done. What is actually ‘passive’ is allowing your monkey mind to roam all over chucking its own poop around inside your consciousness and doing nothing about it as one suffering hits you after another. Its easy to suffer, its hard work to end it.

Observing and controlling yourself is non-stop and becoming aware of real morality is a one way trip, once your eyes have opened to the right way to treat yourself, others, and the world you can never go back to being ignorant again. Take morality for example;

we all know that stealing is wrong, but why is it wrong? Well before I sat on these concepts for years I might have told you it was because if you steal then you get in trouble or that it hurts that other person financially or emotionally, and thats fine as far as it goes. . .but it doesnt go far enough. This sort of morality leaves the door open for all kinds of rationalization. If we believe that stealing is wrong because of consequences then our oh-so-slippery minds can come up with reasons why it would be ok to steal. . . like what if you are stealing from someone who will never know it? (Like taking toilet paper from your giant corporate office.) Or What if you steal from someone who ‘deserves it? ( Like downloading music from those ‘greedy’ record labels). All of the sudden we have made it ok to steal in our minds. But Buddhism doesn’t allow you any refuge from what you know is the truth, and the truth is that stealing is stealing, even from work and even from ‘greedy’ people.We dont do it because its wrong, period.

These days if you ask me why stealing is wrong i would answer this way; stealing is greed and this causes suffering, stealing is imposing my needs over another and this is suffering, stealing causes friction among all and this is suffering, stealing is laziness and this is suffering, and stealing is harm to myself and others. Stealing is wrong because it brings suffering into the world.

Becoming a Buddhist and undertaking to end suffering means that this kind of thinking is applied to everything you do. It means you can not hide from your responsibility or conceal you own failings. It means eternal vigilance.

this doesn’t sound very passive to me.

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Delusion pt.2

If there is one misconception that people (including myself) have about Buddhism its the concept of emptiness. Its been used by fundamentalist types for years to insinuate that Buddhism is nihilism or advocates people turning into emotionless, ego less drones. Anyone who has met a group of Buddhists or listened to a zen teacher can tell you that they may be a lot of things, but emotionless isn’t one of them!

The problem is that the Buddhist definition of ‘emptyness’ is far far more nuanced and subtle than our western definition of the same word. Unfortunately language, even when sublimely applied, is a crude tool to try to show something as delicate as a concept that, by definition, is beyond conceptual thought.

But ill try anyway heh heh. . .

When speaking about Buddhism emptiness is used to describe several different concepts, what has several definitions in Chinese, Sanskrit, and Japanese like Saotori, Kenshin, Nibbana, etc are all lumped into that one general word ‘emptiness’ in English. So when we read someone talking about ‘achieving emptiness’ it sounds  a little frightening as if you are giving away or rejecting some part of yourself. Maybe even your personality or soul! Of course Buddhism isn’t about giving up anything that isnt actually part of the real you.

In fact one of the main definitions of Emptiness in Buddhism is simply the state where you see things as they really are, minus all the accumulated biases and fear and desire and modifiers that we have gathered in our lived up to this point. it means to be ‘empty’ of false views, of looking at the world with greed, aversion or ignorance. A state the Chan/zen Chinese used to call ‘seeing with your original face’, the you that exists underneath all the layers of junk we have learned to call ‘me’. When we strip that away and just experience the moment as it really is we are empty of delusion. Does that sound scary?  It sounds pretty sweet to me.

When we live in the world this way we are not devoid of emotion, we are FULL of feeling! Rather we let the world (including how we feel) arise and pass away naturally. We don’t cling to the momentary happy bits or try to run away from the momentary sad bits.  The result is a way of being in the world while empty of the suffering we cause to ourselves and others by that clinging. Its deciding to get off of the roller coaster of joy which turns into fear, its trading chaos for contentment.

The other kind of emptiness that is discussed is the ‘empty your mind” bit which really seems to frighten folks. The truth is that no form of Buddhist meditation will tell you to ‘empty’ your mind, actually its the very opposite! In zen sitting we are there to see things as they are, to experience the moment as it occurs, you cant do this by trying to have an empty mind any more than you could taste soup out of an empty bowl! What we do is to let the thoughts come and pass away without playing with them, we watch and feel without trying to make them go away or change them into something else. The trick isn’t to be free of all thoughts, its not to get caught by one thought over another, its like watching trees go past as you ride a train, we want to watch them go without one particular one catching our attention so fully we have to turn our heads completely around to keep it in view. What we learn is that our thoughts are just thoughts. they are not ‘us” and we don’t have to believe something just because our brain coughed it up, by sitting an observing our thoughts without trying to avoid some or hold onto others we learn to let them come and go without having to act on every single one!

It took me many many years of meditation to understand this. We think of ‘empty’ as such a negative thing that to ‘seek emptiness’ seems dangerous and bizarre, once you see beyond the word itself and the idea most of us have grown up it goes from sounding like something exotic and strange to simply the natural way things really are.

An old zen story tells of a famous zen master who was illiterate. A nun asked him to help with some literature she couldn’t understand.

“well, i cant read,” the Zen master said “but if you read it to me maybe i can help”

the nun was astonished, “If you cant read, then how can you understand what its about!?”

the Zen master simply pointed at the moon. “If I point at the moon this way you don’t mistake my finger to be the moon do you?”

“of course not” the nun answered

“well then, why do you mistake writing for the truth that it is pointing at?”

In other words, dont get hung up on the words, try to understand what they are pointing to. Sit zazen and you will see what we mean by emptiness, it wont happen overnight, but it will happen. Hell, it only took me 5 years to understand what that story about the illiterate zen guy meant! (then again, im pretty dense . . . *sigh* )

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Delusion pt.1

“Comparison is the lowest form of thought.” -David Chadwick

Im afraid that I labored under some very mistaken notions about Buddhism for quite a long time. Of course, the more I feel I understand the more reasonable this seems, after all one of the most basic teachings of Buddhism is that we are deluded. This delusion doesn’t mean we dint ‘get’ things as they really are,but rather that the WAY we try to ‘get’ it is fundamentally flawed. The way that no amount of using more force will let you use a shoelace to pound a nail, no amount of trying to think harder using our deluded minds will make things any clearer.

For me several things that seemed so difficult to understand or make sense of now seem so simple that I have to laugh at myself a little for having so much trouble. For example, the whole “God” question. One of the things that appealed tome about Buddhism was that I believed I could remain an atheist and still be Buddhist. i suppose this is true, the same way a fundamentalist christian could be a Buddhist and still remain a fundamentalist, but the reality is that if you spend any amount of time meditating and living the dharma the less likely you will be able to hold onto your old views no matter how cherished! The problem with my atheism was that it relied on too small a definition of what ‘God’ could be ( which, ironically, is the same problem with trying to remain a fundamentalist and a Buddhist at the same time). In my delusional mind I was arguing against a judeo-christian idea of what god was, and so I believed I had no faith because their version was something i couldn’t accept. Needless to say that once you open your eyes and see “God” as just another word for ‘everything in the universe’ then it becomes quite a bit more sensible and ‘believable.’ The other part of being deluded about God this way is that its worrying about a question that a0no one can know for sure and b) doesn’t really matter! As Ive written before, i was amazed to read over and over that when the Buddha was approached with questions about whether there was a god or a heaven and hell his answer was “The question does not fit the case.” which is simply a kind way of saying “why are you wasting your time worrying about shit that doesn’t matter to your real life in this moment!?”.

Or as a great Zen Koan put it once, a king once asked a monk “what happens after we die” to which the monk replied quite reasonably with “I have no idea”. the King was surprised and said “How can you not know ? You’re a monk!” The monk turned and left saying “yes that’s true, but I’m not a dead one.”

My other problem was with the concept of Karma. Like most folks my idea of Karma was like a bank account. You put in a ‘good deed’ and eventually the karma came back as something ‘good’ and if you did something ‘bad’ then your karma would punish you later. It made me mad to think that someone like Hitler didn’t seem to suffer much ‘bad karma’ while perfectly innocent folks got shafted by life without having seemingly committed any ‘bad deed”. Once again, i found that my concept of Karma was sadly inaccurate. To start with Karma simply means ‘action’ and the concepts we have of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are constructions of our deluded minds. On top of this Buddhists generally don’t believe in a past or a future that exist. To be brief, the future is a concept, and the past was a moment that is never again going to come back (or even be able to be recollected accurately) so the only moment in existence, ever, is this moment right now. How is my deluded idea of Karma supposed to work if the future never occurs and the past doesn’t exist!? The answer, finally after years of wrestling with this, was that our Karma is arising and falling the exact moment the action that ‘creates’ it does! You don’t do a bad deed, wait a while and then suffer some consequence, you reap that bad news instantly, its only our delusion that makes it take so long to see the results! The more i sit and the more I become aware of the present moment the less time it takes for me to see the results of my actions both good and bad! Karma, it turns out, is the commonsense fact of cause and effect. No magic required!

Buddhism has taught me that not only was my view of the world fundamentally wrong (and thus a source of much suffering) but that the very method I tried to use to observe it was flawed. once my understanding began to develop all the sudden the world started to look recognisable to me, in fact the first few months I got almost giddy telling my friends that for the first time in my life I felt like I ‘fit’ in the world. The amazing thing was that nothing ‘really’ changed, i didn’t adopt sopme systems of belief that required me to ignore facts or to pretend to believe the unbelievable or miraculous, i simply wiped a little of the dust on my perception away and saw an iota clearer than before. i have a long long way to go still, but I have also understood that Buddhism is a path not a destination, I’m content knowing i will never “arrive’ because the journey has been so amazing.

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Meditation for me?

In my family we have this problem. . . see we just dont ask for help, ever. So when we are learning something new it requires a lot of trial and error, and often something that could be shown to me by a competent teacher i instead muddle my way through taking twice as long to get half as far. This was definitely the case for me and meditation. When i decided to learn about this whole Buddha stuff I had the same preconceptions as lots of folks do and spent way too much time arguing with my mistaken notion of what Buddhism is and what meditation is ‘for’.

eventually through practice, muddling, and reading I began to separate my goofball notion from the reality of the whole deal. Buddhism is both much simpler and much more sublime than the crude stereotypes i had associated with it. One of the main things I came to understand was that Buddhism is something you DO not something you BELIEVE. In fact belief is absolutely besides the point.

So I found this rather relaxed and accurate guide to starting meditation on you tube. I really wish I would have seen this 10 years ago, but hey, its there now. If you have any interest this little quick guide is all you need to know.

heres a few things that confused me about meditation that hopefully i can help you avoid.

1. you arent trying to achieve any special state. You dont need to stop thinking, you dont need to ‘feel peaceful’ or float, or any other wacky trance like shit. a trance is not meditation. meditation is being in reality moment by moment and just being with that moment.

2. meditation is not a way to feel better. it not going to make your bad day go away (though there are meditation-like exercises to help with stress, they arent technically Buddhist meditation) however, after some time with the practice you will find that all that stress simply stops arising and your ability to withstand the blows life inevitable throws your way becomes easier and more natural.

3. reincarnation, god, heaven or hell, all this stuff has nothing to do with Buddhism. they are questions that no person can answer with actual experience so in Buddhism we dont bother to ask them. Is there life after death? who knows!? I guess we will find out after we die, til then there is more important stuff to deal with now.

4. after many years I can tell you that meditation never gets fun. you never get trippy experiences (if you are doing it right) and it never feels like you have ‘gotten enlightened”. Were not looking for any sort of goal, and yet the ‘side effects’ of meditation do have beneficial results, the funny part is they dont show up til you quit looking for them.

5. its not a tough guy contest. its better to meditate for a few minutes every day than for 3 hours once a week. like anything in life worth doing, you build it gradually, stick with it regularly rather than doing it intensely every so often. The example that is often used is trying to make a fire by rubbing a stick against another stick, rubbing the stick for a few seconds here and there wont do anything, but doing it steadily for some time will get that fire lit!

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