Posts Tagged With: buddhism

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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the New Multi-post 3000! many subjects handled half-assedly in a hurry. . . ,.

1) The book reading/signing with Brad Warner was awesome! Not only did we fill the place to capacity (30 or so by my reckoning) but Kevin Sousa treated Brad, Cara, and I to dinner at his  Salt of The Earth restaurant! It was really fun and I was happy to host one of the more important authors in my life. Sometimes we get to meet our “heroes” and even more rarely they are sometimes as cool as wed like to think they are.

jsn n bradSpeaking of Zen. . . .


2) It’s a given in the Zen world that every person who gets “involved” in zen comes into the room with the “wrong” motivation. We want to be peaceful, to have less stress, to love more, better, or with more honesty. We want to improve ourselves, we want “enlightenment” or wisdom, at the very least we want to be something other than what we walked into the room as. One of the wonderful things about zen is that even if you start with the completely wrongheaded idea, doing it long enough and regularly enough tends to “work” anyway! One of the funny things is that we come to Zen looking to fix a particular problem or set of problems and eventually we learn that not only will we not get the solutions we are looking for, but that we aren’t even asking the right questions!

In my younger, poorer years I neglected going to see a dentist for a long time. I had good reasons for this, I was broke,  dentists are scary, and my teeth seemed fine to me. One day I noticed a spot on a tooth that I couldn’t seem to brush away, “oh great, ” I thought ” A cavity so bad that it’s on the front of my tooth!” So I went to the local college school of dentistry which offered extremely reasonable rates since you get worked on by recent graduates doing a sort of residency. After taking x-rays and examining I asked what the bad news about the spot was and the hygienist said “oh that’s just plaque” and popped it right off with a pick, on the other hand the x-rays had revealed severe bone loss and a need for immediate surgery and aggressive cleaning if any of my teeth were to be saved from falling out! In other words what i went in with seemed like a huge problem for me until the dentist showed me that it was nothing and that much more sever, undetected issue was at hand.

Same with Zen.

I came into zen looking for peace of mind, a way to make the whole world not scary and to somehow take away all the bad parts of my life while leaving the rest of it basically untouched. Well, just like my dissolving jaw line, it turned out that all the stuff which was out of sight, undetected, was causing far more harm than all the surface stuff i thought was the real problem. I don’t care how smart, wise, or perceptive you are, until you sit down and stay very quiet with your own thoughts for a little while you really can’t see what is causing the suffering in your life. It goes way way back and our minds have gotten so used to shouting it down and covering it up with superficial problems that we not only don’t know whats really going on down there, we don’t want to know!

Why am I talking about this now? Well for one thing, even with 10 years of meditating under my belt new things continue to be revealed as I sit zazen. The other day I was sitting, my monkey mind just beginning to settle down after about 10 minutes when something, a thought or realization i guess, popped in and I realized “I do a lot of things to be validated by other people!” It’s almost as if I’m always performing for an audience in the hope that someone (apparently anyone) will recognize it and pat me on the head saying “you are very good!” I recognize that lots (maybe all) people do this to some degree I realized how strongly it affected my sense of self! As soon as I had this sort of light-bulb moment I also realized that it was harming me, getting in the way of being a genuine person and easing suffering, I can now begin the work of undoing the habit.

Once again, I didn’t come to Zazen with the knowledge that what was causing my suffering was the set of habits and conditioning that had begun even before i was old enough to talk, but sit long enough and they come up. Sit even longer and slowly, inevitably, they go away.


3) Trayvon Martin.

I try to keep this blog as inoffensive as possible, however occasionally something happens (like the Sandy Hook School shooting) and I feel like maybe I have something to say. I wont address the murder and trial of Trayvon, and I think anyone who doesn’t have their head up their ass will agree that it is a fucking shame when a young person loses their life for whatever reason. Rather Id like to address the ridiculous  notion that somehow this case was not about race, and the even bigger fable that race is no longer a factor in this country. The right-wing pundit corral has even claimed that to mention race in this event is the real racism.

It is, of course, a load of shit. I have my own opinions on the Trayvon Martin case, but I think aside from this specific case the notion that we in the US are somehow “Post-racial” or that racism is a thing of the past is ridiculous. Anytime you have a society with a past like Americas you are going to have long-term fallout, repercussions, and ripples by which events of the past still affect the present. When a race has been systematically suppressed and given second best (or third or worse) opportunity for education and advancement then that group is going to be saddled with that legacy for a long, long time. The idea that just because black people are now granted equality (or at least lip-service is paid to their equality) can’t erase the result of generations of second class citizenship anymore than we can expect the oceans to repopulate overnight just because we stop overfishing today. Time, whether we like it or not, is required to right our historical wrongs as a nation. No amount of self-righteous “I never owned a slave, don’t blame me” can change the fact that generation after generation of black American has been raised with one boot on their shoulder holding them down. Both in historically overt ways (Jim Crow laws) and psychologically subtle ways (equating black people with “inherent” criminality) have created a chasm between black people and the rest of American society and no amount of right-wing self-denial can bridge it.

The problem is, most of the racist people in this country don’t even know that they are racist. By accepting the “common wisdom” that “we” are not racist, we deny the reality that is all around us.

We are born into a society with its own history, behavioral cues, and a class/caste system in place that we are indoctrinated with birth, like it or not, we are fed a series of non factual cues and stereotypes (about everything, not just people) that we generally swallow so early and is reinforced by our parents, teachers, media, and peers so constantly that we seldom question them. Sometimes when forced to deal with the reality of this unrealistic conditioning we stop, look around and get a tiny glimpse of reality and modify our worldview. Far more often, unfortunately, we circle the wagons and declare our dedication to the “party line”. As reality seeps further and further into our world, as I believe it always does, that facade of bullshit gets more and more brittle. its defenders more strident, and eventually, finally, the truth bursts forth like flood-waters and the new “reality” asserts itself. What a shame that it has to take so long and be fought against by so many who would rather cling to a clearly mistaken idea than to be uncomfortable for the short time it takes to become acquainted with reality.

Whether you or I  like the idea or not, the Trayvon Martin case was also about race. I see  it is an opportunity to examine my own biases and behaviors, it has caused me to think deeper than I normally do day-to-day about my own acceptance of the conditioning that this society has trained into me since I was a child. When something terrible happens, sometimes the best thing we can do is to take that shock, sadness/anger, and outrage and use it to look at our own world rather than turning the blame outward, its much harder to do, but in the end it changes the world for the better.

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(Dis) illusion

It is a sad cliche that our heroes often, in time, are revealed to be all to human. Sometimes this is because they espouse something that they can’t live up to, or because they commit some action that seems to be counter to everything they stand for. Very often it is because our own expectation and ideal of them is unrealistic and after a time it dawns on is that this person we held up in our minds as a hero is simply, disappointingly, human.

Sometimes though, our heroes stop being so heroic in our eyes not because they failed, or because we weren’t looking at them realistically, sometimes they stop being our heroes because we become better than they are. It’s difficult to articulate something like this and not sound like you are giving yourself a compliment, but being honest with oneself includes not only finding our own faults, but also in seeing our own progress. If you only ever think “I suck” then you are as deluded and full of horse poop as someone who only thinks “I’m the best”.

Many years ago when I first became a tattooer I devoured any kind of information on tattooing that I could. There wasn’t so much media as these days and the few books out there (aside from Ed Hardys excellent “tattootime” books) were dated and generally full of mediocrity. So most of the best stuff came from tattoo magazines, and the best of those came from Europe since almost all the u.s. magazines were full of biker shit and shitty supplier ads.

I picked up an Italian mag called “tattoo planet” regularly. The art was awesome, featuring guys like Filip Leu, Theo Jak, Permenant Mark, and others who I idolized. One guy in particular whose interview and pictures inspired me to the point that I set my plan for my entire tattooing career on his example. This artist was an American like me but had eschewed the street shop and “low com denom” flash ( as in; mediocre art which appealed to the greatest number of uninformed tattoo public) that was my world at the time in favor of having a private studio off the street, doing large scale Asian inspired work, and generally avoiding all the trappings of cheesy tattoodom. Despite the fact that I was a pretty bad to average tattooer at the time something in the this guys approach resonated with me and right then, a mere 2 years into tattooing I decided that someday I would be doing that kind of work in that kind of environment.

Pretty lofty for a guy who couldn’t pull a straight line or draw better than a high schooler, but I knew that the goal was something for the future.

After a long time I got better at tattooing, and eventually did open my own shop off the street, doing mostly larger Asian stuff, with few of the trappings of cheesy tattoodom. In short, I actually did reach the goal I set in 1997, I never forgot that interview, and I still don’t know to this day if my life would look the way it does if I had read that piece. I was, and am, grateful to that tattooer for their inspiration, I would occasionally look for their work in books or online, but nothing really new seemed to show up.

Enter Instagram. I saw this persons comment on another tattooers thread a month or so ago and was really happy, at last I would get to see their newer work! Maybe I would write this person telling them how inspirational they had been to me. So I clicked on their name and was shocked. There was a few nice pieces but in general it was pretty average, and surprisingly, it was worse than the artists stuff I had seen in the 90’s! I kept following their work for a few weeks but eventually “un-followed” them, I use Instagram to be inspired by people who are killing it, people who I may never be as good as, but who inspire me to try anyway, and this persons work wasn’t anymore.

I want to make it clear that I am not saying that this artist is “bad” or that I am better than they, I also still owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude for showing me what was possible outside of the tiny fishbowl of tattooing I had lived in, but it was still a disappointment.

For little while anyway.

A strange thing happens when we have our illusions dissolved, even apparently beneficial ones like the inspirational illusion I had all those years ago. Assuming that we dont run right out and fill the void with another delusion (which is what we usually do) a space is opened up for the truth to sit where the illusion had been. I found myself suddenly inspired to draw a particular set of 1/2 sleeves that had been poking around in the back of my mind, I had a weird rush of new ideas fora big project we will be announcing soon, I suddenly felt at peace with my (slow but steady) progress in my own tattooing. In short, I like to think that letting that image go opened me up to new inspiration.

Illusions (and delusion) are a part of human nature, you can’t stop them for happening but we can learn to let them go. Sometimes we can do it quickly, like when we look at a menu at Arby’s and think ” that’s gonna taste good” and 10 minutes later feel like throwing up. Other times we have been indoctrinated with them from so early on that we don’t even realize its a delusion til something happens to shock us out of it (like realizing that getting a bunch of money and power still doesn’t stop us being miserable). But the end of an illusion is a wonderful opportunity, the humanizing of our heroes is a wonderful opportunity to be inspired by something greater and one person or ideal, it’s a chance to be inspired by the truth, by yourself, by all of us (which, coincidentally, are all the same thing anyway.)

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What is (Zen)Buddhism?

My friend Markus had this to say about a recent blog I wrote.


the way you tell it, buddhism doesn’t even sound like a faith. If it’s not about an afterlife and a way to deal with impotence and fear, what makes it a religion? I think you leave something out. I am skeptical.


Which is a really good question, a lot of people say the same thing so it is a good subject to address in more than just a short reply. Let me start by saying that when I write “Buddhism” it is usually Zen Buddhism I’m talking about, but Buddhism is a broad umbrella covering many different things.

First, you need to know a very stripped down version of Buddhist history; about 2600 years ago the guy we call the Buddha (which just means “awakened”) undertook a personal quest to find an end to suffering in his life. He tried all sorts of methods and eventually discovered a path the we call Buddhism. Please note that I did not call it a faith or a religion, while difficult to pin down to an easy description the closest thing to what Buddhism “is” might be to call it a path, a method of interacting with the universe and not a system of “isms”, (but more on that later.)

The Buddhas teachings resonated with lots of folks and eventually it began to spread beyond the part of Northern India where it originated, as it traveled to each new area the indigenous people would take their already existing religion and mesh it with Buddhism to make their own version of Buddhism. Some Indian Hindus simply added the Buddha to the existing pantheon of Vedic gods as one of Shiva’s many reincarnations.  In Nepal and Tibet there was already a strong local faith known as Bon and Buddhism was combined into it to form what we call Tibetan buddhism. As it moved along the Silk Road into China it was mixed with Chinese Daoism to form what was known as Chan Buddhism (the Chinese actually stripped off much of the ritual stuff the Tibetans had added) and eventually to Japan to form what we call Zen Buddhism. Zen buddhism was the result of Japanese Buddhists trying to get back to the original form of Buddhism as they understood it from the earliest writings. It sort of the protestant reformation of Buddhism. A “getting back to basics” if you will.

Buddhism in Tibet and Mongolia is one of the most colorful and dramatic forms of Buddhism and so it is the one most westerners are familiar with. The Beastie Boys and actor Richard Gere are practicing Tibetan Buddhists as is, obviously, the Dalai Lama. This type of attention would lead someone with only a passing knowledge of Buddhism to believe that is what Buddhism is, actually though, Tibetan buddhism is a tiny sect and their beliefs, based on the native pre-Buddhist animist faith, are often confused with all forms of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists believe in reincarnation, in magical beings and multiple deities, it is not that they are wrong, it’s simply that they are only one flavor of Buddhism among many different ones. An old Buddhist saying goes “there are 84,000 doors to the Dharma (teaching)” meaning what works for one person as Buddhism may not work for someone else.

In Japan the two main sects of Zen buddhism (Rinzai and Soto) both sought to strip away all the mumbo-jumbo that had been added to Buddhism over the centuries. Their effort was not to discredit other forms of Buddhism, it was to get back to what they saw as the essential meat at the heart of Buddhism that had been obscured by the cultural trappings it had acquired as it traveled from India to Japan. Some of those trappings include a belief in Reincarnation, spirits, the afterlife, the buddha as a divine being, and anyone’s ability to definitively say if there was or was not a god. The school I follow, Soto Zen, even did away with the concept of enlightenment as some special state that happens once you do Buddhism thoroughly enough. Everything, they said, was enlightenment, we are just to deluded in our normal lives to see it!

In Zen Buddhism you are not asked to believe anything, in fact the Buddhas last words were supposedly “be a lamp to yourselves” meaning “test the theories I’ve presented for yourselves, don’t take my word for it”. Since no one can claim to know for a fact about an afterlife, or the existence of God these questions are put aside in Zen Buddhism in favor of more practical matters. In one famous zen story a young monk asks to see the head Abbot of a monastery, a very experienced and wise man. The monk asks the abbot all sorts of questions like “what is mans true nature, is the buddha nature in everyone, is there life after death”. Instead of giving pat answers, the abbot asked a question of his own, “did you already eat breakfast?”, this confused the monk who said, “yes I did.” to which the abbot replied “then go wash your bowl!”

What the Abbot was saying is “all those questions are not answerable by man, but in the meantime your food bowl is still dirty! Go clean your fucking bowl and leave the unanswerable questions for later!” Zen buddhism deals with the questions of “impotence and fear” by directing your attention to where it ought to be, in this moment! It is about the very real problem of people not dealing with reality! they spend their lives worried about the coulds, shoulds, and what-ifs , yet all the while they are missing this actual moment as it is occurring. This habit of ours to dwell in a fictional past or an unknowable future is so ingrained in us that we seldom ever notice it. Spending time and energy on those sorts of questions is like wasting time worrying about whether the wizard of Oz wears black shoes or brown ones, it doesn’t fucking matter and no one knows for sure anyway! What does matter is how you live your life right now, are you kind to others or a prick, do you do what needs to be done or put off the hard things in life til they bite you in the ass, in short, are you living life causing more or less suffering to yourself and others? It turns out that our suffering comes about because we cause it! The good news is that because we cause it, we can also end it.

What the Buddha realized was that the less we were in touch with this actual reality as it occurred outside of our thoughts of how it ought to be, the more we suffered. He also realized that nobody else, not your family, not a priest, not the Buddha could show you the Truth. You had to do it yourself! This is one reason why Buddhists don’t try to “convert” people or sell you buddhism as an end to your problems, one simply comes to Buddhism when (and if) they are ready to look deeper than simple answers and easy to hear platitudes. What the Buddha could do, however, was show you one method to use that might help you to begin to strip away the bullshit and see things as they really are. He called it the eightfold path,” path” because it is something you travel upon your whole life instead of hearing someone else’s idea of the truth once and stopping there.

Zen Buddhism promises you nothing, asks you to believe nothing you can’t test for yourself, it is simply the teaching some folks have found to be helpful to live a life with less suffering for themselves and others. A faith, by definition, asks you to believe something you can not prove, Zen Buddhism does not do this. A religion promises sure answers to questions no human can honestly know, Zen doesn’t do this. Zen doesn’t even tell you what this unfettered view of the truth looks or feels like because each person must explore that for themselves (and words are not up to the task of something like that.)  Buddhism is called a religion or a faith because that’s what we are used to calling things that people use to guide their lives, but Zen Buddhism isn’t really either one of those things. Buddhist writer Brad Warner once said that Buddhism is closer to an Art than a religion and I think that is the best description I’ve heard yet.

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I found it hard, its hard to find*

In his wonderful book, “What makes you Not a Buddhist“, the author (Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse) points out that much of what we take as true Buddhism is really just the dressing that various cultures have added to Buddhism. In short, things like being a vegetarian, believing in reincarnation, being pacifist or living in a monastery are all actually not a part of Buddhism. As the author points out there are only 4 things that are integral to buddhism and these are the realization;

1. All compounded things are impermanent.
2. All emotions are pain.
3. All things have no inherent existence.
4. Nirvana is beyond concepts.

I have talked about the first three on this blog at various times but I’ve never really dealt with 4. (Nirvana is beyond Concepts) til now. It might be one of the toughest things to accept because we really have trouble conceiving of a thing which we can’t conceive!  For example, thoughts are almost invariable accompanied by some form of concept. if we think of a person we may visualize their face, or the way they sound when they speak, their smell or even how their skin or hair feels. But when we try to conceive of “nothing” there is almost always “something” in our heads we are conceiving of as “nothing”. Perhaps we envision an empty vessel, a barren desert, the vastness of space but none of these things are actually nothing, they are symbols of nothingness.

Nirvana is like this, whatever you wish to call the state (enlightenment, awakening, as-it-is-ness, seeing reality, etc.) the fact is that it can not be described because the very act of conceptualizing it means you have lost it. In the sect of Zen Buddhism I follow it gets even more diffuse because we believe that so-called enlightenment is really just this very moment! No clouds, no angelic fanfare, no blinding flash of inspiration, just this very moment. It is no wonder that lots of folks get a little taste of Zen Buddhism and decide it isn’t for them, after all it is one of the few systems of belief out there which tells you right up front that there is no reward at the end of this path (of course the path itself is the reward, but no one wants that when they believe they get a shiny prize doing some other form of philosophy). So why bother?

For one thing, there are results of a sort, but they aren’t sought after, can’t be quantified, and don’t really change the world into the way you think you want it to be. The fact is that by the time you start to feel different you realize that lots of the things you started off desiring out of Zen aren’t even all that appealing to you anymore. Its like going on a 100 mile bike ride to get some ice cream, and by the time you arrive you feel so healthy and energetic you dont want ice cream anymore! Besides, its far more subtle than that, after sitting zazen for a few years you find that life is simply a little calmer, that you tend to stop feeling put upon by the world and instead you feel very much a part of it. It isn’t dramatic, but it is very comfortable.

Is that a big enough reward? It is once you are in it, but from the outside it probably doesn’t seem as cool as the idea of being all “enlightened” and, like, peaceful and shit. Most people seem to believe that the state of Nirvana is being sort of high all the time but never having to come down. In fact it would be safe to say that most folks want Nirvana to be just about anything other than what is going on in their lives right at this moment. Too bad, cause this is Nirvana right here.

You can not conceive of it because our conceptions are what is fucking it up in the first place. When they line says “Nirvana is beyond concepts” it doesn’t just mean that its cooler or more amazing than concepts, it literally means that it is beyond Concepts, as in further-down-the-road! Once you get past concepts, when we  cease ignoring the real world for the one we make up in our minds it turns out that Nirvana is all around. It’s not something else that is keeping us apart from reality, its us.

I should admit right now that I’ve never been there, and I’ve been doing this Buddhism thing for some time now. Heck, I may never ever get to that point and I am absolutely sure that I will never get to anything matching my fantasies about what Nirvana is. What is amazing is that even though I feel like I’m 10,000 miles away from seeing it, I have found that even the first baby steps I have taken have substantially improved my own life and , I honestly believe, the lives of everyone else.The cool thing about Nirvana is that you don’t need to understand it, conceive of it, or feel it, you can just be it a little at a time.

*the only reference to the band Nirvana in this blog.

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Buddhism is not a faith, thank God!

In his expansive study of Mythology (which he wryly described as “other peoples religion”) author Joseph Campbell made an interesting observation. Namely that all past religions were in accord with the science of their day. The rules that governed the world of ancient peoples were not in conflict with the faith that these people practiced. To an ancient Egyptian the story of Horus in no way conflicted with the Egyptians ideas of how the Earth was formed, why certain events occurred throughout it and how the miraculous was made understandable. To an ancient Mayan the world really did require human sacrifice and the ritual games that were an integral part of their culture had cosmic significance. These people didn’t have to believe in their religion, they lived it! it was all around them, and it explained their world, their place in it, and their role in the society in which they existed. It would have been completely useless to try to make a Hellenic Greek believe the religion of the Zulus, it wouldn’t have agreed with the Greeks knowledge, his scientific understanding of his world.

Campbell went on to say that if your Myth, your religion, doesn’t agree with the science of your world, then it just isn’t working for you. You can not reconcile the story of a 4000 year old culture with that of ours today, and to try does a terrible disservice to both. No matter how fervently you believe, some part of us knows that the world took longer than 6 days to build or that a woman could not really be formed by a rib taken from a man, we may want to believe, but believing is not the same as knowing. If you want to see what happens to a world full of people know one thing scientifically and are told to believe another thing on faith just take a look at the world of religious violence we have today. It is the schism that comes when ones own mind is at war with itself, it is turned outward, toward everyone who wont help us to fool ourselves that what we really know isn’t what we really know, but at heart the problem is that Belief cannot overtake Knowledge. Faith is another world for believing the unbelievable.

Zen Buddhism is uniquely able to address the concerns that Joseph Campbell explains, and Western Zen Buddhism even more so. For me the first experience of this was when I realized that I didn’t have to reject any of the science that explains my world today at all to be a Buddhist. How pleasantly shocked I was the first time I read of a zen teacher telling a student that all the weird ghost stories ans supernatural stuff in the old zen stories was “just stories to prove a point” and not to be taken as facts. There has never been a point in my years of practice where I had to push away the facts before my eyes in order to swallow a “belief”.  We live in a world where seeing is believing, if you feel that this is a sad state of affairs or a great one is no matter, that’s simply the way it is now. We are given the choice to embrace the real world as it is now or to try to shoehorn ancient non-factual myths onto our lives today. We can see what happens with the latter, it isn’t pretty and it isn’t necessary.

At the same time there is in the Buddhist community a popular idea that as Buddhism has traveled “west”, that is to traditionally non-Buddhist countries, that it is in danger of losing its essential nature. In most of the Buddhist “press” there is repeated the idea that we western practitioners in dispensing with the rituals and accessories of traditional forms of Buddhism that we are turning it into a “self-help” exercise. Obviously though, there is the problem of “mistaking the cup for the tea in it”, that is, of falling in love with the chanting, incense, robes, and ritual and forgetting the essential core of real Buddhism. Most of the comments about western Buddhists failings are said and published by people with a vested (if subconscious) interest in preserving the older form of Buddhism, if you own a magazine that is full of ads for companies that sell statues and expensive retreats and some punk western Zen guy comes along and says “you don’t need any of that stuff” then as a seller or supporter of “that stuff” you get a little nervous. Understandable.  Fortunately Buddhism is a big (and rather tolerant) umbrella, there are, they say, 84,000 doors into the Dharma. Put another way, in Buddhism there is no one true way, only the way that is true for one (you).

In this sense western Buddhism should become a “self-help” exercise. Frankly that type of thing makes a lot more sense to the western world than reincarnated Lamas and transcendental floating do. The wonderful thing is that the essential character, the method that brings one into accord with the world carried on even as Buddhism traveled from one culture to the next.It is no mere coincidence that as Buddhism traveled away from India toward Japan that more and more it began to be pared down of its ritual elements til it was a solid core of stripped bare of all distraction. It was making that journey in time as well as distance and each culture was in the process itself of divesting the primitive science of their day for what they had newly come to realize. Today zen Buddhism is able to give me the spiritual contact with the world without asking me to ignore the facts in front of me. The fact that it has been able to do so throughout history (a history with remarkably less war and death than any other ‘religion’) while constantly being able to agree with the “science of our day” for over 3 millennia should give those concerned with whether western Buddhist are “doing it wrong” reason to relax and enjoy ever-changing and yet always essential nature of Buddhism.

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Word up!

The written word, it turns out, is a really really poor way to communicate. I read an article recently about an emerging area of psychology that studies how and why we make decisions. Not the decisions themselves, but the method that humans generally use to determine things. It was pretty interesting but to me the most fascinating part was the fact that scientists discovered that people had only a slightly higher than 50/50 chance of reading a written lines a sarcastic or not. In other words, almost half the time we are likely to read a serious e-mail or internet post as being sarcastic, and vice versa.  Anyone who has gotten into an argument over a text message or email because the reader completely misunderstood their intent already knows this, the fact that it is almost impossible to have a civilized discussion online is further proof if any were needed.

Communication in the real world, it seems, can’t be preserved in writing without some loss of essential meaning along the line. In fact writers of fiction depend on this strange disconnect to make their medium work at all. If you read the line “the killer came running out of the alley with his axe raised” you mind fills in what the killer, the alley, and the axe look like, but it does more! Your brain also fills in what the lighting is like, how fast the killer is running, how he is holding the axe, and his expression, none of which was in the sentence at all. This is great for fiction, not so great for any other sort of communication where the writers intent needs to be understood explicitly and not inferred.

Writing is an attempt to put reality into a conceptual form. It’s a way to take a bit of the real world and make it into a form we can show other folks, but when we do this it turns out that the real world we wanted to show gets changed! What the next person reads is their version of our concept of what we were trying to say!

Ok, so what is my point? Simply this; we live most of our lives as misinterpreting the real world as much as others misinterpret what we write to them. Our minds are forever trying to put the real actual world into some concept that we can grab hold of. The result is that instead of the fluid ever-changing reality of being a person we become “a tattooer named Jason” and then instead of accepting that later on we are “a guy eating a salad” we try to hold onto it all becoming “a guy named Jason who is a guy who is a  tattooer who is a salad eater” and on and on til we have 5000 layers of things our brain feels like it absolutely MUST hold onto or else it wont have a “clear” concept of reality. The fact is that if i meet you face to face and we talk there is very little chance that you will misinterpret what I mean to say (and bear in mind that spoken language is still conceptual, but with all the other cues a face to face discussion has it far more direct than writing) .

When we talk directly, we have a (more) direct experience of the other persons thoughts, when we do zazen for a while we have a direct experience of he world itself.

Sometimes the brain is not a fan of this, especially at first there is the very palpable sensation of trying to hold onto its habitual patterns and routines. Yesterday i spoke with a good friend of mine who has been sitting for about a year now, he recently got his car totaled by a driver who was on her cell phone and rammed into his car. Due to her lack of attention and her crappy insurance he will be getting almost nothing for his ruined car, he said to me “I know I’m supposed to be more upset by this, but i just am not.” His mind knows that in the vast majority of his past this situation would make him stressed out and rageful and yet he isn’t.  We marvel at the fact that we can SEE our minds trying to take us to that habitual place of conceptualizing, but we also now just watch it go without biting the hook. Of course he was upset when the event happened, and when he first got the news about her insurance situation, but his displeasure came and went naturally, without holding onto it, without reinforcing it;  we find that strong emotions have a finite lifespan.

The world just can’t be put into a conceptual thought and still accurately reflect reality. We sometimes need to use these concepts to function but we can do so without holding onto them unduly. I can go to work and be a tattooer without needing to carry all the baggage of acting or behaving in a way that reinforces the artificial concept of myself as a tattooer ( like growing a lumberjack beard and drinking too much). In the same way that writing doesn’t really convey the authors reality, our habitual patterns do not really convey reality. Life, it seems can only really be experienced, not ‘understood’.

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Right living and tattoo eating lasers

Today Cara and I wont be sitting with the nice folks at the Stillpoint Zen center because we are going to get some lasering action. So far my left arm has really started fading in earnest and I’m beginning to see hope that i will be able to get a sleeve started within a year or so. Tattoos fade naturally over time (and rather quickly once their owner stops existing in time), and this is one of the things that appeals to me about tattoos. From the moment we apply a tattoo the clock begins ticking, change, ever-present, is made manifestly visible by a tattoo and its natural evolution and dissolution.

A few years after I began tattooing I began meditating and reading up on buddhism. I came across the idea of “Right Livelihood”, one of the eightfold ways once can live to decrease suffering in your life and I became concerned. Was tattooing “right livelihood”? After all, tattooing is purely a luxury, no one ‘needs’ a tattoo so it can be considered superfluous to daily life. besides doesn’t it encourage a kind of vanity? and attachment to ones self?

Of course, like much about buddhism in my early experience, I was taking things too literally. The notion of right livelihood I now take to mean a living that doesn’t cause harm to others,( for example selling crack) AND is done with the intention to reduce suffering. Often right livelihood is brought out as a weapon for someone to admonish someone else about what they do (vegetarian Buddhists unfortunately often do this to shame people who are non-vegetarian cooks and the like).  but like much else in Buddhism it was not intended as a way for one person to direct the life of another person.

I came to terms with the idea of tattooing as right livelihood when i realized that each tattoo didn’t just make its wearer happy (which is good enough for me) but that each tattoo is also a mini-reminder about the constant change and impermanence that is a part of life. What is more Buddhist than that?

So today I get to experience this flux and change compressed into 20 minutes of really crappy feeling lasers on my arm. Most experiences when they are focused into a pinpoint become somewhat uncomfortable and 20 years of natural fading squished into the point of a laserbeam is no exception. Hopefully this blog will soon be about the progress of my new sleeve instead of being about the disappearance of my old one.

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Riding bikes, clearing minds.

A couple weeks back it began snowing here and didn’t stop for a week. Eventually, as Pittsburgh usually does fairly quickly, the snow began melting and I was able to ride my bike to work again. That 2 weeks was the longest I have gone without riding a bike since last March.

I didn’t like it very much. I missed my bike a lot. I got to see it every day as I headed down the steps to work, but It was like waving to an old high school friend, nothing new to say, just an acknowledgment that at some point we had been friends of a sort. I was shocked at how quickly Giants tires got flabby (I call my bike Giant because that’s what it says on its down-tube), when i got back on the bike I was also amazed at how quickly my legs felt flabby. But now, barring the occasional winter rain shower im back to daily riding. It feels damn good.

When i  riding an interesting  thing cropped up. I found that during my daily commute I would often get really angry. Sometimes it was at a specific driver who I felt had cut too close or seemed determined to make my life uncomfortable, but more often than not I was just generally surly and defensive. Far from being a relaxing roll to work I became  agitated and started running all sorts of scenarios in my head about how I would brain the next lousy car driver in the face with my kryptonite lock.

I really wasn’t sure why, it’s not like I haven’t been in stressful situations before and anger is not usually my go-to emotion. Around this same time Cara and I had talked about something, I don’t even remember what but I do remember saying something stupid and being really embarrassed by it. As soon as I felt that embarrassment a wave of anger came up with it. Later a thought occurred to me; the only time I get angry these days is when im ashamed or embarrassed by something I have done. It’s a sort of defense mechanism I suppose, but really came as a surprise to me how strongly those two emotions were tied together.

Since I had become aware of the connection between my anger and shame, I made and effort to be aware for the next month,  sure enough I found that the only times I really lost my temper or had a wave of wrath pop up  was always when I felt embarrassed. It didn’t take me long to put two and two together and realise I was embarrassed to be on my bike! I realized that I felt like I was in the way, or holding up traffic, I was afraid that I looked ridiculous on a bike, I also felt like in a contest between car and bike that I was a powerless force on my little bike!  My anger was a result of that shame and I hadn’t even realized it.

I used to believe that I knew myself pretty well, that because my thoughts and emotions were “mine” that I knew everything about them. It turns out that there is a lot going on in my brain that I have no idea of until it “comes out sideways”. So much of our lives work just like this, we react in certain ways because of our lifetimes worth of programming and conditioning and even when we are irrational we still find a way to prove to ourselves that this outburst of insanity is our “normal” way. It would be very easy to have told myself that my bike rage came from shitty drivers or the unfairness of the road system towards bicyclists, lots of movements start and are fed out of such notions. But I cant fool myself anymore with false rationalizations, meditating has taught me that if I’m feeling some unusually strong emotion for no valid reason there is something else in there pushing buttons. Perhaps an old grudge, a childhood experience, or a secret fear, something that takes a normal feeling and fans it into an out of control fire.

Now I’ve been keeping an eye on my embarrassment, I’m not trying to “solve” it or push it down, im simply aware that when I feel that flash of unreasonable anger that I need to look backwards a step or two and see the point where I became ashamed triggered it. Every single time it’s there, and in seeing it the anger disappears.

Irrationality, it appears, can’t stand the light of truth, and sometimes simply seeing the real deal behind an event robs it of all its negative power.

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The faith of the true believer

“Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. … Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching,’ looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards.”

-Pope Benedict XVI

Of course the pope is correct, if your goal is to have a pat answer for every nuanced thing that the world throws your way. In the world of religious fundamentalists there is no place for shades of grey, no room for the individual intricacies of the world to be accommodated. It’s like using a sledgehammer to do brain surgery.

The big problem with fundamentalism, of any sort, is that it relies on the assumption that one solution can be mandated for the messy, changeable world. One reason we have more people per capita in prison in the US than any other nation in the world is that for the last 20 years we have been passing laws that take the judge’s discretion out of sentencing. No two cases are the same, but they are sentenced identically regardless of the actual circumstances surrounding them. The result is that a person whose crime is stealing a bike is condemned to 20 years if it is his third offense but a rapist may only serve 5 for his first.

We are terribly afraid of change, of randomness, of a world moving beyond our control and by saying “the book (any book) tells us to do it this way!” it  gives us the illusion of a magical answer to all problems. The reality is that there inst a single solution to the real world and its chaotic way of occurring.

My real problem with fundamentalism, however, is that it is based on faith. it cannot exist without the ironclad faith that whatever book, law, or authority is being referred to is correct and infallible. Sadly the truth is that faith, however kindly applied, is based on a lie. Heres why:

Joseph Campbell once said “unless your myth works with the current scientific knowledge of your day, it isnt working for you.” What we are faced with today in the Judeo Christian tradition is a 3000+ year old set of rules and explanations about the world that we simply can not believe in with our own two eyes. You may be the most devout person int he entire world but you can not honestly believe that woman was literally created from a rib or that a snake tricked us into sin. So what happens? Your mind can’t be fooled, it simply can’t. Your true intuition KNOWS that  the world works in a certain way because it has seen it and tried it and has seen scientific evidence repeated time and time again that shows it works a certain way, and yet here comes these books that tell us “no the world doesn’t work in that way which you have seen with your own two eyes, it works in this other, magical way, that  these men wrote about 3000 years ago!” And if that werent enough of a mind fuck they go on to say “AND if you DARE to believe all this science nonsense, you are not only wrong, you are a sinner and you are bad in the eyes of God!”

This, unfortunately leads to  what is known as cognitive dissonance. In your heart of hearts you know the scientific, provable truth, but you want to be a good person in the eyes of your religion. How do you put away the real world and start to believe in this hocus pocus biblical world? One word: Faith. Faith is nothing more than your purposefully ignoring everything your senses (including common sense) tells you and pretending to believe the fantastical stories religion weaves.

The real problem is that it doesn’t work. You don’t really believe these things because your experience has disproven them over and over again. It’s like the child who spys on his parents putting out Christmas gifts, no matter how much he loves the idea, no matter how convincing his parents tales, he is forever unable to believe in Santa Clause bringing gifts from that day on. So the person trying to be a good Christian (or Muslim or Jew) is faced with  the idea that they are bad christians (or muslims of jews) if they dont really believe what they are supposed to.  Here  is where fundamentalism comes in. Because when we are lying, when we must say we believe in that we really do not believe in with our hearts and minds, we overcompensate. We yell louder, we are willing to die (or kill) we are willing to commit any horror in order not to face the idea that this idea we feel we MUST believe in is something that we, deep down, don’t really believe a word of!

Need an example? it is a commonly held notion that those who have a violent anger towards homosexuals are themselves closeted homosexuals. That their rage and violence against gays is a reaction to their own deeply hidden (and feared) gayness . Well, in 1996 the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia did this study.

The authors investigated the role of homosexual arousal in exclusively heterosexual men who admitted negative affect toward homosexual individuals. Participants consisted of a group of homophobic men (n = 35) and a group of nonhomophobic men (n = 29); they were assigned to groups on the basis of their scores on the Index of Homophobia (W. W. Hudson & W. A. Ricketts, 1980). The men were exposed to sexually explicit erotic stimuli consisting of heterosexual, male homosexual, and lesbian videotapes, and changes in penile circumference were monitored. They also completed an Aggression Questionnaire (A. H. Buss & M. Perry, 1992). Both groups exhibited increases in penile circumference to the heterosexual and female homosexual videos. Only the homophobic men showed an increase in penile erection to male homosexual stimuli. The groups did not differ in aggression. Homophobia is apparently associated with homosexual arousal that the homophobic individual is either unaware of or denies.

The louder you yell and the more violent your reaction the less real belief in whatever your faith is you have. these guys claimed to be viscerally repulsed and hostile toward homosexuals and yet their penises seemed to say quite the opposite. So no matter how loudly you scream, no matter how much you are willing to fight and die ‘for’ your faith, the fact remains that as a fundamentalist you are telling the world that in your heart of hearts you really don’t believe a word of what your ‘holy books’ are saying. This is no gloat either, both the homophobes and the fundamentalists are in a special kind of hell I wouldn’t wish on anyone, the hell of being at war with your own mind. They suffer because they can not bring the two worlds, the real and the ideal into harmony, they hate themselves even more for what they hate in everyone else.

So what is the solution? With apologies to the pope, it’s to learn to deal with the world as it comes, as reality currently reveals itself and not to react as if we live in a world of ‘shoulds and it-would-be-better-ifs” To admit that the holy books are best taken as metaphors, as guide posts to a life of peace and solidarity with the world not as a magical spell to hold the world and change at bay. It does seem to be coming despite the loudest yells and violence of fundamentalism, the world slowly seems to becoming more and more  tolerant of its wondrous variety. Sadly those deepest mired in their delusion will likely become more and more violent as the real world encroaches on their facade. On the good side, they also seem to be dwindling more and more as the rest of the world stops glorifying their willingness to use conflict to ‘defend their faith’.

The buddha told his students not to believe in him, not to have faith in his words, he said over and over “be ye a lamp unto yourselves”. His teaching was to question every deeply held belief, to look at the world and to find the truth that could not be denied. Strict rules, he discovered, were a cold corpse trying to direct we the living how to get by. He was not advocating hedonism or anarchy, he knew that the truth of the world meant that treating others as we treat ourselves was what we would find, you dont need a rule telling you “dont steal from yourself” and that if we looked carefully we would see that this is what stealing from another meant. He knew that we knew right from wrong and didnt need a “big man in the sky” to tell us that. he knew, in short, that we didnt need faith when we had the truth right in front of us.

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