Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva

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Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva

Ventures so bravely

Against the stream of

Longing, anger, and ignorance,

Overcoming fear until

Kindness and compassion are all that remain.

I wonder if it’s all true,

These mind chimes that ring

“Ego keeps you bound,” nothing more or less, like

Shattering the glass crutch yet again.

Heaven knows how many times the jailer can

Validate his own existence.

Anybody else in here feel the way I do?

Round after round

Always

Believing

Outside conditions

Determine inner

Happiness;

I drift like a moth toward the

Seductive notion that

Against all evidence to the contrary

The problem is

The solution.

Venture so bravely

Against the stream.

Truth By Any Other Name

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I was preparing to facilitate an addiction recovery group at the outpatient clinic where I work, and I decided to reference Kevin Griffin’s One Breath at a Time.  While this book was instrumental to me in my early recovery, I hadn’t read it in a long time.  Exactly how long became apparent when a folded sheet of paper fell out as I pulled it from the shelf.  The short essay was from a reading and talk that I gave at Open Meadow Zen Center several years ago, most likely eight or nine years judging from the date reference it contains.  Being that my humble little blog has been foundering a bit over the past half year or so, I decided to seize this serendipitous event and print it here as a means of re-dedicating myself to the endeavor of sharing musings from the world of Buddhist informed recovery.

What follows is an unedited reprint of the talk I gave that evening:

After sharing the poem “Inscription on Trust in the Mind” by Tseng Ts’an back in September, I was gently yet sternly informed that I wouldn’t again be allowed to slide by without offering a personal commentary on the reading, as the purpose of the weekly reading wasn’t merely to share insight, but to allow the other members of the group to get to know us.  Interestingly, this passage by Kevin Griffin was the other reading I’d considered sharing back in September, but apparently I wasn’t in much of a self-revelatory mood.  Tonight I’ll take the opposite tack and identify myself as a member of a 12 Step recovery program.  Usually when I offer commentary, I just sort of wing it off of phrases underlined in the text and notes jotted down in the margins, but this time I’ve taken the time to write out my thoughts, as this is pretty important stuff.

Founded in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous is probably the most important spiritual movement of the 20th century.  Despite the insistence in the AA Preamble that “AA is not a religion,” that’s pretty much exactly what it is…  an organized system of beliefs, complete with literature, regular meetings, and rituals designed to offer its adherents a better, more fulfilling way of life through the dissolution of the ego.

What separates both Alcoholics Anonymous and Buddhism from other religions is the emphasis on direct personal experience over beliefs.  While we’re contin ually offered the guidance and support of those who have walked the path before us, we’re encouraged to apply these teachings and practices to our own lives on a daily basis.  In both traditions, the basid understanding underlying the teachings is “don’t take our word for it… do what we do, trust your own experience, and see what happens.”  The adoption of this attitude is facilitated immeasurably by the profound realization that there’s nothing to lose.

After staying in recovery for extended periods, there is a tendency for people to open to wider spiritual paths or to reconnect with the religion of their youth.  The relationship between my spiritual life and my recovery from alcohol and drug addiction grew a little bit differently.  Like Kevin Griffin, I began my study of Buddhism some time before I arrived at my first AA meeting.  I’m not sure when my interest in Eastern Philosophy began… probably as something far-out and esoteric to groove on while getting stoned in college.  George Harrison probably had something to do with it.

At any rate, after finding myself in a drug and alcohol rehab in the fall of 1995, my first reading of a piece of AA literature called The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions was punctuated by many “A-ha” moments… those flashed of insight followed by a sense of deja-vu… a feeling of “wait a minute, didn’t I already know that?”  I was so astounded by the parallels between AA and Buddhism that, for a while, I was convinced that AA co-founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob had deliberately re-drafted the dharma to make it more palatable to a Depression-era American audience.

The reality, of course, is that they were two hopeless drunks trying desperately to conquer their alcohol problem and lead normal, productive lives.  They proceeded to outline their own personal experiences for the benefit of others, just as the Buddha had offered us the Eightfold Path as a means of achieving liberation from what is known in 12 Step parlance as the “bondage of self.”

When people in recovery ask me what Buddhism is all about, I tell them, “it’s like AA.” When Buddhist practitioners ask me about 12 /step recovery, I tell them, “it’s like Buddhism without all the bSanskrit and Pali words.”  The connection between the two traditions is clear:  They present basic human truths arrived at by different means, in different times, for different reasons.  But truth by any other name is just as urgent.

Alcoholics and addicts aren’t unique; we don’t have the mearket cornered on suffering.  We find ourselves plagued by an exaggeration of the human condition, which Albert Einstein described as an “optical illusion of consciousness” in which we percieve ourselves to be seperate in space and time from all other beings.  And we’re the only ones who can save ourselves from this condition.  There is no externam savior.  That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we’re already saved.  To attain this truth, just as to achieve sobriety, isn’t a matter of learning anything new, but rather of unlearning mental habits and false information, or, as Kevin Griffin puts it, “shedding limiting concepts until nothing remains.”

One of the greatest things about Alcoholics Anonymous, and the reason that the fellowship has been able to survive for 75 years, is that the Boddhisattva Vow is built into the program.  Step 12 reads, “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”  We can only keep what we’ve attained by giving it away.  In this spirit, I hope I’ve done some 12th Step work here tonight.

 

And I hope, as well, that I’ve done a little more 12th Step work by sharing these thoughts with a wider audience here.  Zen Master Seung Sahn said that our job as humans is to transform our experience into wisdom for the benefit of others.  The preamble of Alcoholics Anonymous states that “we share our experience, strength, and hope with each other that we may solve our common problem…”  None of us does this work alone, and I’m deeply grateful to all you bloggers whose words have helped me.

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Author making offering outside of temple, Phitsanalouk

May this be of benefit.

 

 

Man Up A Tree

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Prayer flags and pilgrims beneath a tree.  Mayadevi Temple, Lumbini, Nepal

 

Eventually we understand that all solutions come to us by themselves, if only we stop trying to control.  – Stephen Mitchell

I’m no good at koans.  Which is as it should be.  I tend to live most of my life in my head rather than fully centered in my situation, and a correctly answered koan is basically an indicator of someone who is completely present in the moment.  Every now and then, the zen master will lob me a softball, and if I’m having a good day, I might be able to clip it off the corner of the bat.  During the ten years I’ve been practicing, I’ve learned to take heart in the humble honesty of demonstrating exactly where I’m at, and after leaving a koan session, I no longer slink back into the dharma room with my tail between my legs and my head full of “I should have saids.”  I’ve attained enough to understand that this is not an intellectual exercise; if I’m trying to “come up with an answer,” then I’ve already missed the ball.  And yet I keep trying to think my way out of koans…

I recently stopped into a new independent bookstore in my town.  In the “Spirituality/Philosophy/Religion” section, I happened upon an enticing volume titled “Zen Koans With Answers.”  I opened to the page titled “Man Up a Tree,” a classic koan that I’ve been wrestling with for years.  As I’d suspected, there was no answer, just a couple of things that clever students could do or say to try to fool the teacher into thinking that they were not clever students.  Things that I’ve already tried, only to be met with a response of “No, thank you” by the zen master.  The one thing that I haven’t done in a while is sitting meditation… not on a regular basis, anyway, and that is most likely the key to “solving” the koan.  Of course, a koan is not a riddle to be solved, but a situation to be held in the cradle of “don’t know” mind.

What does it mean to hold a koan? It does not mean to search for an answer, but to wait for a response to appear, which, for me in most cases, means sitting in that “don’t know” space and becoming comfortable with it.  When I approach a certain anonymous friend of mine seeking help with a problem, he’ll often say “that’s your koan for the week” as he reflects that problem back to me in the form of a question.  This does not mean that he is expecting to hear an answer to the question, or a  solution to the problem, next time we speak, although that might happen.  As Zen Master Bon Haeng puts it, “if an answer appears, then an answer appears.”  If not, then we become more curious about this “don’t know.”  This is good practice.  If I’m actively searching for answers, then I’m in trouble.  As Zen Master Seung Sahn would say, “Big mistake.”  When I remember that my job is to stay present, then I’m in good shape.  If an answer appears, I’ll be there with a cup of tea saying “nice to see you.”

Master Hyang Eom said, “It is like a man up a tree who is hanging from a branch by his teeth.  His limbs are tied and bound, so his hands cannot grasp a bough, and his feet cannot touch the tree.  Another man standing under the tree asks him, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come from China?’  If he opens his mouth to answer, he will lose his life.  If he does not answer, he evades his duty and will be killed.”  If you are in the tree, how do you stay alive?

from The Whole World is a Single Flower, by Zen Master Seung Sahn

Enough is Enough

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“This is enough” was always true.

We just haven’t seen it.

– Rumi

It’s difficult to see truth, though it’s never hidden.

Clarity is its nature,

obscured only by the din of our desires,

our insistence that THIS is obviously not enough,

that just a little bit more would quench

the ache and restlessness that is

nothing more or less than Truth’s longing to

remember itself…

 

You won’t hear the call that THIS is enough

out of nowhere over the rush of traffic…

you have to listen for it.

Truth does not shout, does not call attention to itself,

it operates on the principle of “attraction rather than promotion.”

Truth does not advertise:

Delusion does.

And it does it well.

 

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The Only Thing You Need to Know…

 

20141005_114106“The only thing you need to know about God is that you’re not Him.”  – Anonymous

This time-tested battle cry of the old-timers of Alcoholics Anonymous echoes down through the ages, reverberating off of the painted cinder block walls of floor wax and bad coffee-scented church basements across New England and beyond.  I’ve heard it so many times over the years that I stopped hearing it for a while, relegating it to the status of a trite, folksy cliche, of which there are so many in AA.  Upon entering more deeply into zen practice and 12 Step practice, however, I’ve come to appreciate and embrace a more boots-on-the-ground, head-where-my-ass-is approach to the whole “spiritual component” of AA, as it is so frequently and oxymoronically referred to.  Spirituality, of course, is not a “component” of anything, but rather the totality of everything.  This notion that spirituality can somehow be compartmentalized is simply a sleight of hand that the ego employs in order to substantiate its own existence and keep itself in control of things.

The “you’re not him” platitude isn’t simply a call to humility; at its best interpretation, which, for the moment, I’ll assume that I’m making,  it is a call to action and an admonition against launching a flight of fancy into the world of concepts.  How easy, how comfortable, how convenient it is to think about God, to ponder Greater Meaning and Higher Power from within the safety of my own intellectual framework, as was so often done during those late nights in the conversation pit, a drug-addled tradition immortalized long before my time by the characters of Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, who so often stayed up late into the night talking – wild! – and drinking wine – great!  How useful was that endeavor in my own journey some thirty years after Ray Smith and Japhy Rider graced the bungalows of Berkeley?  To be honest, it was extremely useful insofar as it informed my process of cycling through the seductive labyrinth of ideas and substances to land on the meditation cushion and in the aforementioned church basements.

Buddhism is, to my understanding, less of a philosophy or a religion, and more of a psychology.  It offers us nothing more or less than the opportunity to develop the capacity to look at our own minds.  Not a promise, just an opportunity, an opportunity that holds the key to ending our own suffering,  not forever, but moment to moment. Also known as Forever.  The Buddha offered sort of a bottom-up approach to this problem of being human, rather that the top-down approach that was on the table prior to his enlightenment under the bodhi tree.  The practice isn’t so much about connecting to a Higher Power as it is about connecting to our own experience.  In other words, our heads tend to already be in the clouds, so to speak.  Our work consists of coming back into our bodies.

It comes as a shock to many of us that we create the overwhelming majority of our own suffering.  We seem to believe that we have no agency in that suffering, lacking, as so many of us do, the understanding that it isn’t the circumstances or events of our lives that create suffering, but rather our response to them.  “Pain is inevitable,” I’ve heard echo off of the painted cinder block walls.  “Suffering is optional.”  In other words, it’s how we relate to the pain of our lives that determines our degree of suffering.  It’s our job to decide how we relate to our pain.  The world is full of others who can help us make that decision, but no one else is in a position to take away our suffering.

What is problematic about the “Higher Power” approach to the “spiritual component” is that it feeds the illusion of duality and sets us up to search for a solution outside of ourselves, which is the hallmark of addiction.  Our suffering arises out of this idea of separation, which creates the notion that something outside of me will fix me, fill me, heal me, or complete me.  It’s a fools game, of course, because there’s really nothing “out there.”  The self is looking for itself outside of itself, and guess what?  There’s nothing to be found.

There’s nothing to “get,” which is good news, because both Buddhism and Recovery (which, in this writer’s humble opinion, aren’t different) aren’t about getting things; they’re about getting rid of things.  Getting rid of all the stuff that stands between me and the direct perception of reality as it is in this moment.  And the biggest chunk of stuff that stands between me and the direct perception of this world?  The unfounded belief that “me” and “this world” are two.  Ego will do everything within its power to substantiate this belief.  It’s this desperate attempt to control our experience that gives rise to what the old-timers call “playing God.”

So I can take it as read that I’m not God.  What, then, am I?  Zen Master Seung Sahn referred to this as Great Question.  The first time I sat down for a koan interview with his student, Zen Master Bon Haeng, he asked me, “What are you?”  It’s a no-brainer , I thought.  He’s starting me off with the easy ones.

“I’m a human being.”

He hit me with a stick.

There is nothing to grasp…

p.s. please excuse the gender bias of the old-timers. They are, after all, old-timers.

top photo: summer reflections on a pond, Pisgah State Park, Hinsdale NH

 

Crave On!

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Mountains of sweets for Diwali displayed at a roadside stand, Lumbini, Nepal

“Hi, I’m Jud,” he said, extending a hand. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“Hi, I’m Jeff.” It was all I could think of to say, thrown off by his spontaneous manifestation as I sat reading the book he’d just published. “Do you know if this is any good?” I joked, holding up the book.

“Nah, I wouldn’t believe a word of it,” he smiled, disappearing down the hall.

His full name is Judson Brewer, his title, Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness. His new book is called The Craving Mind, and, according to the subtitle, explains “why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits.” Our sort of strange encounter took place at the UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness as we both waited to be interviewed for an upcoming PBS documentary about the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program that was started at the Center some 38 years ago by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I recently participated in the eight-week MBSR course, and Jud, as you know, is the Director of Research at the Center… I’m imagining that he’ll figure more prominently in the documentary than I will.

It’s a pretty interesting experience to be interviewed
for a TV show. In the finished product, I’ll be one of the talking heads sitting next to a bunch of books or a plant or something, not looking at the camera, and apparently talking aloud to no one. The person that I’m apparently not talking to is the interviewer, who sits off camera and whose voice will not be heard. Her job is not only to ask me questions, but to act as a sort of silent coach from the sidelines. If I’m making a point that’s particularly relevant or useful to the focus of the documentary, she’ll smile enthusiastically, nod encouragingly, or make that rotating hands “say more” gesture.

The interesting thing is that I noticed pretty quickly that I liked the smiles, the nods, and the gestures, and that I wanted to say things that would elicit those responses from the interviewer. The even more interesting thing is that I didn’t make the connection between my conditioned behavioral responses and the book that I’d been reading. If I’m honest about my motives, my desire wasn’t principally to contribute meaningfully to the documentary; my desire was to be liked. I was craving approval like a Nepalese boy craves the sweet, sticky cashew balls in the photo at the top of this post (it all comes full circle; the Universe has no loose ends).

What was that craving all about?

I didn’t have an awareness of, or a name for, that craving for approval until after the interview was finished and I had walked out of the Center for Mindfulness. Before starting my car, I paused to read from Daily Reflections, a book of brief selections from Alcoholics Anonymous literature that I usually read from in the morning. Ironically, I had mindlessly forgotten to do so that day. Excerpted from a book titled The Language of the Heart, the reading reminded me that

“this very real feeling of inferiority is magnified by [my] childish sensitivity and it is this state of affairs which generates in [me] that insatiable, abnormal craving for self-approval and success in the eyes of the world.” [1]

This isn’t an easy pill to swallow, a less-than-pleasant defect of character to face in one’s self. The good news is that I’m not alone. So common is the human tendency for approval-seeking that it’s addressed pretty explicitly in the Buddhadharma.

The Loka Dham, ma, variously translated as Eight Worldly Conditions or Eight Worldly Concerns, consists of four pairs of opposite states, among which are Fame and Disrepute. Attraction to Fame and aversion to Disrepute keeps us bound to the comfortable familiarity of Samsara, likewise with Praise and Blame, Gain and Loss, and, of course, Pleasure and Pain. In contemplating these Eight Worldly Concerns, I’ve long felt that Fame is a concern that doesn’t much concern me, as I’ve never been concerned with being famous. Lately it occurs to me, however, that the Fame that the Buddha referred to wasn’t necessarily of the variety that lands one’s face on the cover of the Rolling Stone; it has to do more generally with the desire to be looked well upon by others. That concerns me.

As an anonymous friend of mine is fond of saying, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” Holding this thought in mind offers me a glimpse of the freedom that’s available to those who can truly stand in equanimity between the poles of Fame and Disrepute. Awareness of this karmic tendency to crave approval inches me a little closer to the center of the spectrum. Thank God I’ve never wanted to be famous. Hopefully this PBS documentary won’t bring in too many offers…

[1] Anonymous (1990). Daily Reflections, New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., p. 103.

Walk of Life

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Turning prayer wheels while walking the grounds of Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, India

 

Over the weekend, I got a very strong dose of the “Together Action” that I feared was missing from the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the UMass School of Medicine.  Close to 100 participants sat a day-long retreat together at the Stress Reduction Clinic.  The experience was different from any of the retreats I’ve done in the Kwan Um School of Zen.  As with Zen retreats, the retreatants all spent the day in silence, but the five women leading the retreat spoke extensively, guiding us through all of the practices that we’ve been learning over the past eight weeks: body scans, standing yoga, lying down postures, sitting meditation, and walking meditation.  My favorite of these by far was the walking meditation. I’ve tried it by myself at home, and it’s never really grabbed me.  This practice seems to come alive only in the company of other practitioners, and to engage in this activity with so many people was truly a singular experience.

Walking meditation as practiced in the context of MBSR is rather different than the traditional Zen walking that typically punctuates periods of sitting meditation on long retreats.  Here, it was presented as a much longer practice, free-form in nature, different from the in-step, single-file Zen style.  We were invited to walk at a pace that felt natural and comfortable, in a pattern or direction that suited us, and even to leave the room and walk through the lobby and adjacent spaces if we so desired.  The overall effect looked rather like a school of fish moving more or less intuitively as a unit, yet not in unison.  The motion could only be described as “organic,” and what little thinking mind I still paid attention to marveled at the fact that no one bumped into each other despite the fact that most eyes seemed to be cast downward.  This was truly Together Action: I felt not only completely in body, but completely in collective body.  I’m wondering if the prescribed ritual of Zen-style walking meditation frees the mind up to do some thinking while the body does some walking… if perhaps engaging in a more spontaneous, symbiotic experience of group walking meditation more effectively invites the synthesis of mind and body…

I had originally enrolled in the MBSR course in order to see first-hand how meditation instruction was presented in a clinical setting, detached from its association with Eastern spiritual beliefs and from the strong sense of form and ritual that is the backbone of the Korean Zen tradition.  In the past, I’ve helped to facilitate prison meditation groups in the Kwan Um style, but we had a captive audience… literally.  The inmates weren’t deterred by a little bit of chanting or by the grey robes that we wore.  Now that I’m working as an addictions counselor in an outpatient program, it’s imperative that I present mindfulness as a possible tool for the clients’ own recovery without the bias of my own spiritual leanings.  Admittedly, this feels like a betrayal of the tradition I’ve been practicing in for close to ten years.  It felt good to walk into a prison, don the robe and kasa of the Chogye Order, and lead traditional Korean chanting in a place of such confusion and suffering; but a different situation calls for different action.  True mindfulness is recognizing this and responding appropriately.

Together Action is the hallmark of sustained recovery.  As I write, I’m envisioning my clients in the outpatient program mindfully meandering about a room like a school of fish with a single intention and many bodies, and it makes me smile.  It’s a tall order, I know, but I witnessed a huge group of people from all walks of life doing exactly that last weekend, so stranger things have happened…

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Footprints of the Buddha, Mahabodhi Temple