Same old same old

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I don’t have mental insights particularly often, but every now and then one will sneak up on me and leave a lingering taste after its light has faded.  There’s an intersection on my way home from work where traffic typically backs up during rush hour.  One day last week, I approached the intersection at around 4:00, fully expecting to have to slow down and stop.  My expectation was met.  I waited for my turn to cross the intersection, sitting in the same car, on the same road, in front of the same houses that I’d sat in front of at around the same time the day before…  yet something was different. Somehow, I didn’t feel the same as I had the day before.  I didn’t necessarily feel better or worse; just different.  I ran back over the day in my head, wondering what was different about today that caused me to feel different than I’d felt the day before.

Then it dawned on me: everything about that day was different than the one before.  They weren’t the same day and it wasn’t a case of a familiar experience repeating itself.  It never is.  This belief that I do the same thing over and over is just a function of consciousness wherein everything is labeled and categorized in order to make experience more digestible to the rational mind.  On a very basic, molecular level, the car, the road, the houses, and the “me” were not the same car, road, houses, and me that they’d been the day before.  This is a simple and irrefutable scientific fact, yet my mind prefers to reject this fact in favor of the notion that my experience basically consists of a bunch of static, unchanging objects with some occasional fluid activity happening around them. It’s interesting, then, that consciousness not only serves the function of dividing experience into “this” and “that,” it also bundles experience into “this” and “this again.”

Life might seem simpler when it’s all nicely folded and tucked into a pre-existing conceptual framework, but it can, I’ve noticed, get a bit boring.  Buying into the delusion that I’ve already experienced an event allows me the option of checking out and not paying attention, and boredom is nothing if not a lack of attention.  It’s like reading a book while watching a movie you’ve already seen, glancing up from the pages only when your favorite scenes come on screen.  Simply put, my takeaway from my flash of insight while sitting in traffic on Commonwealth Ave. is that you can’t actually watch the same movie twice.  Not if you’re really paying attention.  And truly paying attention, being on the head of the pin where every moment arises and passes away simultaneously, awakens us to the realization that each moment is fresh, each moment is unique, and each moment will never come again.

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The People We Met

 

 

I’m not a professional photographer.  I’m barely a hobbyist. When I arrived in India, I didn’t even have a camera with me.  I was there not as a tourist, I thought, but as a pilgrim, visiting the Buddhist holy land with Zen Master Bon Haeng and two other practitioners from the Open Meadow Zen Group in Lexington, MA.  We joined nearly two hundred other members of the Kwan Um School of Zen as part of the international school’s triennial Whole World is a Single Flower conference.  Our itinerary included visits to Lumbini, Nepal, where the Buddha was born, Bodh Gaya, where he attained enlightenment, Sarnath, where he gave his first discourse, and Kushinagar, where he died after nearly half a century of teaching.  Other points of interest included Rajgir, site of the ruins of Nalanda University and Vulture Peak, where the Buddha famously held a single flower aloft to wordlessly transmit his teaching to his disciple, Mahakasyapa.

Before we had left Delhi, I knew that I needed a camera, so I bought one from this guy:

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Around every corner, I was met by incredible juxtapositions of antiquity and modernity, affluence and poverty, the sacred and the profane, all rich in the varied textures of human experience and awash in every color of the spectrum beneath the hazy, unrelenting sun.  It was clear that one needn’t be a professional photographer in order to return home from India with an array of stunning, haunting images of a land that defies conventional Western understanding.

Shortly after coming home, I decided that it would be cool to display some of my photos at the local library, so I got on a waiting list for gallery space.  It’s been a long wait.  My intention in assembling this gallery display had originally been to showcase the various sacred sites we visited, but as I was perusing the couple of hundred pictures I ended up taking, I was reminded of something Zen Master Bon Haeng had said: “We go on trips thinking that we’re going to go to new places and see all kinds of incredible things, what ends up being most important is the people we met while we were there.”  As it turns out, most of the pictures I chose for the gallery, many of which are displayed above and in other blog entries, are of people.  I feel that this is somehow in keeping with the experience of the Buddha.  I don’t think that he spent a lot of time in temples; he just walked around and talked to people.  Among those pictured here are Hindu devotees, Buddhist pilgrims from around the globe, citizens of the ancient holy city of Varanasi in the process of living their daily lives on the banks of the Ganges River, and a surly camera salesman.

 

 

 

Death and Life on the Ghats

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Boatman pointing out his craft on the pre-dawn Ganges, Varanasi.

As I sift through photographs of my trip to India in preparation for an upcoming gallery display, I’ve dug out my travel journal in order to check my memories against my perceptions of the experience at the time.  I’m not sure if this particular photograph will make the cut, although there’s something about the composition that I like.  My impressions of the night it was taken, however, are worth sharing.  This excerpt is from October 20, 2011.

Several nights ago I bathed in the Ganges, an adventure that few embark on for the obvious reason that it is filthy and polluted, but I didn’t fly half way around the world just to look at the most holy river.  It began as a lark with me, Max, and James on  our last night in Varanasi as we wandered closer and closer to the river, eventually buying flip-flops and loogis and a guide along with them.  We decided to hire a boat to “the other shore,” something every boatman seemed reluctant to do; police frown on it so late at night, and this upped the fee to 2000 rupees to get three of us across.

We were led down ancient alleys in the oldest section of the oldest city, going places and seeing things that none of us had any business seeing.  The beggars were gone, as the tourists stopped flowing hours earlier and blocks away.  Scenes of depraved filth and poverty met us around every corner – dark, putrid, unpredictable; the type of situation where I knew I was way too close to the edge and wondered how much farther I could push it, since there was obviously no turning back.

Finally, we emerged at the ghats near where we’d taken a boat ride that morning… it all looked familiar, yet sinister.  The ghats of the Ganges look far different than they do in National Geographic.

The entry ends there, preempted no doubt by the deep sleep that was my only respite from the chaos and sensory overload that is Varanasi.  The boatman had taken the three of us very quickly to the far shore, fearful of being spotted and fined by the police.  We’d all agreed that the best course of action was to cross the river in order immerse ourselves, the better to avoid contact with trash, the odd dead goat, and detritus from the funeral pyres upstream.  The boatman urged us to “make haste” as we disembarked on a steep sand bar to wash away our sins.  My newly acquired flip flops sank deep into the muddy sand as I held my breath, shut my eyes tight, held my nose even tighter, and crouched down into the opaque grey liquid until the top of my head was completely covered in dubious holiness.  I never knew that water could actually be thick, but Max later concurred that that’s exactly what it was.  James opted to pass on absolving a lifetime of sins rather than risk debilitating, gut-violating infection.  Fortunately, Max and I were unaffected by full contact with the 5th most polluted river in the world, and James, as far as I know, has not been destroyed by his karma.

We climbed back into the boat, unaware that our night’s journey would take us even closer to the edge of the Void.  As we returned to the ghats, our guide offered to lead us to the funeral pyres, which it turns out, are basically large campfires fueled by wood typically purchased with the life savings of the departed soul whose earthly remains are placed on top.  Although each corpse is wrapped in white cloth and dipped into the sacred river before being cremated, the entire procedure is best described as “unceremonious,” as there is a colossal waiting line.  These fires have burned around the clock for over two hundred years in order to keep up with the demand, and not all those waiting in line are dead; there is a sort of hospice house above the ghat where the terminally ill await the good fortune of dying in this most holy city.

I was surprised by my lack of revulsion or emotionality at seeing a pair of human legs sticking out of the flames like two oversized sticks of cordwood, so close to my own bare legs that the hair on my calves was singed by the heat.  The unsentimental thought arose that the only difference between the two pairs of legs was a handful of years.  The sweet, earthy odor of the smoke reached me along with the realization that there’s more to us than these hunks of meat that we insist on calling “me.”  It’s humbling to consider that I’m not as limited as I’ve always assumed myself to be.

This glimpse of true nature, of the immensity of human potential is illuminated daily with the performance of devotional rituals as the sun rises over the Ganges.  After touring the Buddhist holy sites of Sarnath, Bodh Ghaya, Kushinagar, and Lumbini, we returned to Varanasi for another sunrise boat ride.  Struck again by how different, how alive, the ghats look by daylight, I recalled the night that my travelling companions and I had our foreheads anointed with ashes from the fire of Shiva, which has burned for three thousand years.  It occurred to me as I watched devotees doing morning ablutions that these same rites have been performed every single morning for at least that long.  The actors have changed, but the ritual has endured the millennia day after day after day in the same way the leaves are renewed yearly on a tree that lives for centuries.  Whether a leaf, a tree, a human being, or a river, we all have our part to play in the cosmos.  As I watched the faithful bathe, I thought how comforting, how humbling, and how extraordinary, to be nothing more or less than another leaf on a tree…SAM_0432

Morning rituals on the ghats at Varanasi

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a leaf on a tree

Dependent Origination

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Baby goats by the roadside, Bodh Gaya, India

I went to the bookshelf to pull out a copy of The Compass of Zen, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s magnum opus which basically functions as the central text for the Kwan Um School of Zen. I’ve never actually read it from cover to cover, but I’ve chipped away at it bit by bit over the years, and my intention was to chip away a few more bits when a small Kwan Um pamphlet titled “Dharma Teacher Training Guidelines” fell out from between the pages. The year before last, I participated in a precepts ceremony at Providence Zen Center in which I formally vowed to keep the second five Buddhist precepts, namely, to refrain from gossip, to refrain from praising self at the expense of others, to cultivate generosity, to refrain from indulging in anger, and to refrain from slandering the Three Treasures of Buddhism. In the Kwan Um School, the adoption of these precepts marks a member as a Dharma Teacher in Training, meaning that one is taking an active role in leading group practice and moving toward becoming a teacher in the school.

I feel as though I’ve been pretty diligent about pitching in and helping with group practice, but I’ve never been really big on studying the formal tenets of Buddhism, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  As the school’s guiding teacher Zen Master Soeng Hyang puts it in the “Training Guidelines” introduction, “it is not a coincidence that the sutras and other suggested readings are in the last section.  This rich tradition insists on live speech, direct understanding: ‘a special transmission outside the sutras.” In other words, practice is far more important than study, but there does come a time in a student’s development where study can inform practice, particularly the practice of helping others. It is in this spirit that a list of suggested topics for study is included at the end of “Dharma Teacher Training Guidelines.”

“Dependent origination” heads the list of topics, and with good reason. This concept represents the core of the Buddhist understanding of the human dilemma, though I’ve never quite understood it. I’ve never taken the time to really look at it, content as I’ve been to assume that the term “dependent origination” refers simply to the fact that nothing exists as a completely independent entity, but rather is dependent upon everything that it is not for its very existence. A tree, for example, depends upon sunlight, air, water, soil, fungi and insects in order to live. Everything in the universe is like that. This, however is a description of “interdependence,” which isn’t unrelated to dependent origination… it just isn’t the whole picture. The whole picture is a view of phenomena as process of interdependence between subject and object.

Spoiler Alert!!! I’m about to answer the most classically unanswerable koan in pop zendom. “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” “No.” It does not. If a tree falls in the forest, it emits waves of energy at a certain frequency. The thing that we call “sound,” however, is the process of those waves striking an eardrum and being interpreted by a brain. No ear, no sound.

You’re welcome.

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The good news here is that I’m a koan-answering genius (oxymoron intended). The bad news is that I’m still just barely scratching the surface of the phenomenon of dependent origination. Reading up on this doctrine a bit led me further down the rabbit hole. Or, more accurately further out of the rabbit hole, as the dharma has a way of guiding us out of the Darkness of Reason and into the Light of Reality…

In his discourse on Dependent Origination, the Buddha shed the Light of Reality on the fact that mind creates the separation between subject and object, and, in doing so, sows the seed of suffering. All phenomena must arise through a process of interdependence between subject and object because it can’t possibly be otherwise; “phenomena,” “subject,” and “object” were never separate to begin with. Before that pesky tree ever fell in the forest (or, more accurately,as it fell), mind created “tree,” “ear,” and “sound.” It is simply a function of our consciousness that we perceive ourselves as individual entities apart from all that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. This consciousness is born of a fundamental ignorance of the nature of reality. There’s absolutely nothing linear about reality, yet we insist on believing beyond a reasonable doubt that all that we survey is “real,” that everything begins, persists for a while, then ends. This ignorance, according to the Buddha, is the first link in a chain of bondage that leads through sensory experience, feelings, and desire all the way to death. So strong have we forged the links of this chain that it’s existence is noted as the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism. Suffering. Bad news. The good news? That would be the Third Noble Truth: there’s a way out.

I’m well aware from my own experience that to attempt to read and interpret a text on my own, will avail me little. “A special transmission outside the sutras,” as Zen Master Soeng Hyang reminds us, is necessary. As such, I welcome any and all comments regarding the readers’ understanding of Dependent Origination, as the last 900 words or so speak a little louder of my own confusion than perhaps I’d like them to.

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Return to the Mother

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Author posing with a street cow, Varanasi

It’s been just over three years since I travelled to India on a pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy land with a couple of hundred members of the International Kwan Um School of Zen sangha.  It doesn’t seem like that long; I think of the trip often, and most of the pictures on this blog, with the exception of the recent Thailand photos, are from India.  My brief time spent in that vast, strange, and beautiful land got pretty deeply into my bones.  I had the privilege of spending  a night under the Bodhi Tree at Maha Bodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, and the courage to bathe by darkness in the waters of the Ganges in Varanasi.  Both of these experiences can only be described as “life changing.”  After I’d returned home, an anonymous friend commented that such profound experiences take a long time to sink in; the psychological effects take a while to manifest.

I’m not sure if the psychological effects of my trip to India have manifested yet, but the opportunity to process the experience has.  Not long after I got back, I submitted an application to display some of my photographs in a gallery at the local library.  I was told there’s a long waiting list.  Last week, the library contacted me to inform me that one of the galleries is reserved for me for the month of November, 2015.  A year may seem like a long time to prepare for a gallery showing, but I tend not to move very quickly.  As I sift through my photo archives, I look forward to distilling my India experience through writing as part of the selection process.  I’ll be interested to see what insight the light of three years’ time shines on an adventure that was at once overwhelming and exciting.

What I find most unbelievable looking back is that I went there without a camera.  I didn’t own one at the time, committed as I was to the “full experience of the moment.”  I’d long been convinced that carrying a camera was an unnecessary distraction, that concern with setting up the perfect frame to capture a great photograph detracted from the enjoyment of the experience.  There may be truth in this, but thank God I relaxed my stance.  By the day after we arrived, I knew I couldn’t not have a camera.  The photo ops were way too good.  India is relentlessly colorful, with unignorable juxtapositions of modern and ancient, poor and affluent, sacred and profane around every corner. My photo exhibit will be titled “Walking In The Footprints of The Buddha.” I hope you enjoy the images, and, as they say in the trade, may they be of benefit to all beings.

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Footprints of The Buddha, Maha Bhodhi Temple, Bodhgaya

The Guest House

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Traditional Thai guest house on Mae Klong in the village of Ampawa

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness.
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Rumi

I chose this poem to share with the sangha after evening sitting recently at Open Meadow Zen Center, or, more appropriately, it chose me. I had signed up in advance to do a reading, but, as so often happens, I’d neglected to select anything until the day of the sitting. Shortly before leaving for the zen center, I grabbed Coleman Barks’ The Essential Rumi (New York: HarperCollins, 2004, p.109) and randomly opened to this page. The poem jumped out at me not only because it’s short, and a short reading is nice after a long sitting, but also because it reminded me of one of my favorite zen stories.

A hermit meditated in his mountain cave for years. Every night as he sat, a group of demons arrived outside his door, disrupting his silence with their horrifying shrieks and howls. Every night he’d run outside and shout right back at them, demanding that they leave him in peace. He’d stomp up and down and throw sticks at them until he collapsed from exhaustion, but the next night, the demons would be back at his door. One night, sensing the futility of his actions, the hermit finally gave up. When the demons showed up, he walked outside and said, “Come in. Sit by my fire and have some tea.” The next night, the demons didn’t come.

This idea of making “friends with our demons” is pretty widely regarded as being an effective way to deal with fears and neuroses, but Rumi takes the practice a step further. Beyond merely tolerating unwanted mental states, or even being hospitable to them, Rumi implores us to actually be grateful for them. To do this, I think, takes a broad mind and a big heart.

The practice of zen is a practice of continually putting aside our preferences. The teachings remind us again and again that aversion is simply the flip side of attraction; both are forms of attachment, unskillful mind states that don’t serve us on the path. If my own experience has taught me anything, it’s that I have no idea what I need, no idea what’s good for me. My practice, then, is to not reject anything that arises. The only option I’m left with is acceptance.

I’d planned on adding more to this post until my wife and I attended an evening of Rumi’s poetry and ecstatic dance put on by a local Sufi organization. This expression of Truth through music and movement renders the use of words ineffective by comparison. As a zen student, I’ve long misunderstood the Sufi paradigm of the individual as lover and the Divine as Beloved; it seemed to me a mental construct that merely reinforces the delusion of separateness. In reality, the Sufi path has little to do with concepts and everything to do with experience. What happens is that the illusion of separation is played with as a means to achieve unity. The idea of God as Beloved is the most apt metaphor with which we can approach our relationship to Totality. Have you ever loved another human being so completely, so fearlessly, so regardless of consequences that you held absolutely nothing back and cared not whether you lost yourself entirely in the process? Good for you if you have. Can you imagine taking the risk of risks and making that juicy, reckless leap of faith without the knowledge that your Beloved is even there? That’s what Sufism invites us to do. That’s the very zen spirit of 100% commitment with which Rumi dares us to leave our lights on and our doors open. It’s a tall order, but when you really stop and think about it, what do we have to lose?

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Where Did They Go?

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Golden Buddha at Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat in PhitsanalokSAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Thailand isn’t zen country. It’s deeply Theravadin, home to the “Doctrine of the Elders,” also known as Southern Buddhism, as it is characteristic of all of Southeast Asia. Other teachings took root farther to the north – Mahayana Buddhism in India and Tibet, and zen farther to the east in places like China, Japan, and Korea. True teaching, however, knows no geographical distinction, and takes place whenever one is slapped out of a dream and into reality. One morning during our recent pilgrimage, my wife, Jennie, and I stopped with several members of her family to make offerings at Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat in Phitsanalok, the town about halfway between Bangkok and Chaing Mai where her mother was born. We were told that the Wat is home to the most beautiful golden Buddha statue in the all of Thailand.

Candles, large bowls of sand for incense, and round trays for flowers were arranged along the portico outside of the temple. After making my offerings, I stood lazily in the morning heat waiting to get inside the temple when a streak of gray whizzed past the corner of my eye. I heard a sharp “Thunk!” and spun quickly to look behind me; I thought someone had thrown something. Turning back forward, I realized what the gray object was: a tiny pigeon chick. Glancing upward I could see its mother in a nest at the top of a column high above the marble floor. The chick couldn’t have been attempting a first flight; it was far too small and nowhere near fully fledged. It must have been accidentally nudged out of the nest. Whatever had happened, the fragile bald chick lay there motionless at my feet. It lay there dead at my feet.
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Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat

I was stunned into the reality of the present moment until a temple attendant came along and matter-of-factly swept the newly-born, newly-dead bird out of the portico with a straw broom. It appeared as though this was not the first time that this had happened. The attendant’s gesture seemed cold-hearted until it occurred to me that what had happened was a tragedy only in my own mind, conditioned as I am to the belief that life is vastly preferable to death. It also occurred to me that this unfounded belief is rooted in simple fear of the unknown.

Reflecting on the incident, I considered that the bird’s life, while brief, may well have been fortunate. My mind was drawn back to the words of Rampuri Baba commenting on the dogs, cats, rats, and monkeys that invariably hang around the temples in India; there’s really no earthly reason for them to be there. If it’s food they’re looking for, there are far better places to hang out. Rampuri speculates that these animals are drawn by the energy of sacred places… perhaps they heard the Dharma in a previous life and are attracted to the sound of the chanting. I’m no ornithologist, and, as such, can’t arrest to the level of sensory development of such a young bird, but even if she or he couldn’t hear the chanting, smell the incense, or see what is reputed to be the most beautiful golden Buddha in all of Thailand, the tiny pigeon felt the energy. Somehow, I feel as though I can attest to that. It seems likely that the vibration of love and devotion followed that being wherever it went after leaving its body on the marble floor of the temple in Phitsanolok.

The bird died at the beginning of the day that would be the culmination of our pilgrimage to Thailand. We had come to return Jennie’s mother’s ashes to the place of her birth. Her name was Nola Saisakorn, and her family’s memorial stupa is at the foot of the hills outside of town, on the grounds of a temple built by her father. A couple of dozen more family members joined us to walk the newly cleared, freshly cemented path through the woods behind the temple. There in a clearing stood the family stupa, some fifty feet tall and recently refurbished for the occasion by a thoughtful and devoted cousin. The photographs and ashes of Jennie’s grandparents are sealed behind a glass door in the pale yellow façade of the stupa, and behind the glass doors on each of the other three sides are three shelves; Jennie’s grandparents had nine children, and there is a place for a porcelain urn containing the ashes of each of them. Five orange-robed monks led us in chanting as we circumambulated the stupa three times.

The clouds broke as Nola’s ashes were set in the stupa by her eldest and only son, revealing a rainbow halo around the sun. The monks all concurred that such a sunburst is an extremely rare meteorological occurrence in that area. Was this a sign of a soul’s ascension on wings of love and devotion? I’m not qualified to comment. I’m merely recording what I saw, and it was beautiful. I don’t know where people go when they die. I don’t know where birds go, either.

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Better to Give

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Naam Phoo making offering to Thai monk on Mae Klong

“The meaning of generosity is very clear.  All human beings have possessions.  But why do you obtain and keep these things? Are they only for your own pleasure, or do they help you to help others?”  So begins Zen Master Seung Sahn’s discussion of the Six Paramitas in The Compass of Zen, his compendium of the essential teachings of the three main schools of Buddhism [1].  In the Mahayana tradition,  the virtue of generosity is generally regarded as foundational to the path of liberation.  In his introduction to a collection of essays titled Dana: The Practice of Giving, Bikkhu Bodhi explains that “in the Pali suttas, we read time and again that ‘talk on giving’ was invariably the first topic to be discussed by the Buddha in his ‘graduated exposition’ of the dhamma.” [2]   Why such strong emphasis on this quality of behavior that isn’t explicitly regarded as a component of the Noble Eightfold Path in its own right?

The answer to this question is pretty simple: the practice of generosity is the most direct route through the all-pervasive delusion of separation between me and all other human beings to the reality of oneness.  This delusion, created by thinking, can not be dispelled by more thinking;  it can only be cut through by action.  “When you help someone else,” Zen Master Bon Haeng has told me, “you’re really helping yourself.  There’s no separation.” I’ve seen him demonstrate this principle more than once. There’s a traffic island at the intersection of Route 2 and Alewife Brook Parkway where panhandlers usually stand; we pass it on the way to the Cambridge Zen Center. Without missing a beat in the conversation happening in the car, he’ll roll down the window and hold out a dollar bill for the homeless man or woman to take. No fanfare, no “teaching” involved, just simple, spontaneous, appropriate action for the sake of someone else.

I recently returned from Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country where the concept of “merit” is deeply entrenched in the local rituals. I’ve long disparaged this idea of gaining merit as reeking strongly of the Catholic religion in which I was raised, where good deeds done in this life are considered karmic money in the bank to ensure a comfortable position in the next. “The true Buddhist practitioner,” insists the Righteous Judge in my mind, “has no thought of self. Action is taken for the sake of others, not for the sake of one’s own future well being.” Merit-seekers, it logically followed, are deluded. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d never actually witnessed religious Buddhists in the act of meritorious offering. In the 12-Step Tradition, this is commonly known as “contempt prior to investigation.” Thankfully, my trip to Thailand afforded me the opportunity to investigate.

On our first night there, my wife, Jennie, and I, stayed with her family in a traditional Thai riverside house in the village of Amphawa. In the morning, a monk from a monastery farther down the Mae Klong canal paddled by in a wooden boat while making his daily alms rounds. We stood on the concrete walkway along the canal in front of the guesthouse to await his arrival, but the Mae Klong is a tidal waterway, and the tide was out; the monk’s boat could come no closer than 30 feet away from us. I observed all of this, wondering how the situation was going to play out… How would our donations make it from the shore to the boat?

It went line this: Naam Phoo, a young woman who manages the guest house, gathered up the packages of food, envelopes of money, and flowers that we’d amassed for the occasion and put them into a large basket. She kicked off her sandals and walked down the concrete steps to the mud exposed by the receding tide. Sinking deeper with each step, she was almost knee-deep in sludge by the time she’d reached the boat. Bowing, the monk accepted the offerings. Naam Phoo bowed back. Words are not exchanged in the formal practice of alms giving.

Witnessing this act of selfless sacrifice, it occurred to me that merit is not something gained at some future time, but rather something experienced in the moment by a human being who is available to act for others. It also occurred to me that as I speculated about how the scenario was going to “play out,” the possibility of me crossing the mud flat to the monk’s boat hadn’t presented itself… My “how can I help” mind was nowhere to be found in the situation. Perhaps I was too concerned with indicting the concept of gaining merit to act for someone else’s sake. Zen Master Seung Sahn warns us not to “check other people’s minds.” In 12-Step parlance, the admonition is “don’t take others’ inventories.” Where is my mind in this moment?

As our trip continued, we visited several temples, making customary offerings of incense, flowers, and money before entering. Following Naam Phoo’s example, I tried to make my offerings with an empty mind and a full heart. True merit has nothing to do with expectation, and everything to do with intention.

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Making an offering at a temple outside the Royal Palace, Bangkok

[1] Zen Master Seung Sahn (1997). The Compass of Zen, Shambhala: Boston & London, p.198.
[2] as quoted from Tiramit’s blog http://www.dhammafootsteps.wordpress.com

The Difference Between love and Love

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Sunrise over the Ganges, Varanasi, India

Since becoming what’s known in the Kwan Um School of Zen as a Dharma Teacher in Training by formally taking the second Five Precepts of Buddhism, I’ve come to notice something interesting about myself. I dislike correcting people even more than I dislike being corrected myself. Ours is something of a noodgy practice. There are lots practice forms and rituals, lots of dos and don’ts, and it’s taken me a while to let go of my resentment of being corrected. What’s arisen in its place, however, is hesitancy at correcting those who are new to the practice.

I was acting as Head Dharma Teacher at a recent sitting session, and someone was there who was attending for the first time. There’s generally some sort of brief orientation for newcomers to familiarize them with the Temple Rules, but there’s really no time to cover all the bases. As I’ve mentioned before, this practice is largely a game of follow the leader facilitated by periodic correction by more experienced students. This particular newcomer was the boyfriend of my partner’s friend, and I really wanted him to have a good first impression of the zen center. When his turn came for an interview with the zen master, however, he left the dharma room by walking in front of the cushions of those seated, rather than behind, as is proper. This particular faux pas I could overlook, as practice is a little looser at Open Meadow than it is at the zen centers in Providence and Cambridge. What was completely unforgivable in my mind, though, was that he didn’t bow to the Buddha when passing before the altar. How could anyone be so oblivious and disrespectful?

I elected to chew on the dilemma that this presented in lieu of doing anything resembling mindful meditation. As Head Dharma Teacher, it was up to me to keep everyone in line, and this guy was clearly out of line. I knew that I should correct him, but I didn’t want to sour his zen experience. What if he thinks I’m a jerk? What if he never comes back? (Incidentally, he never did come back. As to whether or not he thinks I’m a jerk, I have no idea.) When I passed him in the hallway between the dharma room and the interview room, I had only a couple of seconds in which to act or remain silent.

“When you pass in front of the altar, please bow to the Buddha,” I whispered as evenly and respectfully as I could. Time precluded any mention of the lesser infraction. He nodded and entered the Dharma Room. An appropriate comment and a spontaneous response. Nothing more. As I related my dislike of correcting others to the zen master, he responded with a remark I’ve heard from his lips many times.

“This practice is not about preferences.”

Although my misguided and selfish concern in this instance was to avoid alienating another, letting go of preferences is essentially the gateway to widening one’s circle of compassion. The living Indian saint Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better known as Amma, has said that there is a difference between “love” and “Love,” that being that we love our family, but not our neighbor’s family. We love our spiritual practice, but not all practices. Hence, we experience “love,” but not the “Love” that is available when we love without discrimination. The purpose of our practice is to make this shift from “love” to “Love,” letting our light shine without preference, like the light of the sun itself as it rises in the morning.

That Doesn’t Sound Like Much Fun

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Hindus performing morning ablutions on the ghats of the Ganges, Varanasi, India

A guy named Swami Magalananda once invited me to attend a day-long retreat he was leading. He’s a practitioner of Bhakti yoga, or the Hindu path of devotion. The colorful, love-filled gatherings of devotees tend to have very high energy, with lots of music, ecstatic chanting, and dancing in the spirit. Unfortunately, my spiritual dance card was full that weekend, as I’d already registered for a retreat at the Cambridge Zen Center. I told Swami Magalananda a little about our practice; completely silent save for the monotone chanting that’s markedly different from what goes on in the kirtans that he’s used to, a zen retreat consists of numerous sitting sessions punctuated by walking meditation, ritual-style meals, and a work period.

“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” Swami Magalananda remarked.

“No, it kind of isn’t,” I replied after brief reflection. But then again, it isn’t supposed to be. It’s a spiritual practice that isn’t about me having a good time. It actually has nothing to do with me and my personal preferences, unless I choose to make it about me and my personal preferences. That’s when it gets difficult, because that’s when my ego is threatened.

Zen Master Seung Sahn said that when my thinking stops and your thinking stops, our minds are the same. Zen practice has the power to cut through the delusion of “self” and “other” by uniting the sangha in the “together action” of chanting, walking and sitting. When I choose to let my ego get involved, however, I have the power to do exactly the opposite. It’s a strict practice, and although most Temple Rules are outlined our manual of practice guidelines, it’s pretty much a big game of follow the leader. Just show up, watch what senior sangha members are doing, and try to follow suit. This affords tremendous opportunity for mistakes.

I don’t like to be corrected. I’m pretty sure that most people don’t, so there’s nothing special or unique there. The important question is: how do I respond when my practice form is corrected? Do I resent the person who is trying to help me? Do I feel ashamed at having made a mistake? I could spend post after post psychoanalyzing myself, researching my past to locate the root of those feelings, but that’s not entirely useful. As Pema Chodron says, while it can be helpful to look at our lives to see how mental and emotional patterns may have developed, if we consider the possibility of reincarnation, these are likely “ancient wounds.” Lacking the backstory of all those past lives, all we’re left with is moment to moment awareness of those feelings as they arise, and a recognition that we have a choice of how to respond. It’s nothing more or less than an opportunity to change our karma. As they say in 12 Step Recovery, “if you want what you’ve always gotten, do what you’ve always done.” If you want something else, do something different.

The upshot of all this is that after several years of practicing both Korean Zen and 12 Step Recovery, I’ve come to notice that the work I need to do is always somewhere in between me and the work I think I need to do. My problem is always as immediate as my own mind in this moment. In other words, the problem isn’t that I sounded the wrong number of beats on the moktak at the beginning of a chant; the problem arises as I feed into resentment or shame when someone brings it to my attention. I’m essentially creating division at a point of choice where I could create unity by simply saying “Thank you.” Every human interaction is like that.