Killer & Killed, Right Now

Ahimsa is the Sanskrit word that is typically translated as not-harm. It’s the ethos, a principle as reflected in the First Precept: Honor life, do not kill. That’s pretty straightforward. Complications from corollaries and conditions come into play, and then there’s confusion about what is fairly simple. Honor life, do not kill. Don’t harm. I must admit, there are causes and conditions that all Precepts are subject to, but for me, those causes and conditions have never arisen. Much to my consternation, those causes and conditions may turn out to be as impermanent as everything, but maybe cause and condition won’t cross, and cause a condition I’d rather not encounter.

Right now, at this very moment, I have no intention to do any harm. I’m not doing any harm. I’m assuming that is the case for you as well, that as you are reading this, you are simultaneously not doing any harm. I’ll go out on a limb here, and say that even the most evil, vile, and violent person you can think of (I’ll wait, it’s a long list), that even they were not doing harm twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. They may have incited violent behavior in others, they may even bear responsibility for creating a climate where violence is encouraged and acceptable. But at least while they were asleep, on a micro level, they weren’t intentionally personally doing any harm or acting in a violent manner.

We can see things conceptually, abstractly, macroscopically, even jingoistically, and say that humans, or omnivores, or North Koreans, or Muslims, or Israelis, or Americans, or Evil Empires, are by nature violent. And we can also pontificate about banning guns, deporting immigrants, quarantining the “others” from the rest of us “good” people, but really, that’s nonsense. Even at our collective worst, not everyone is participating in violent actions constantly, no matter what we’ve been told. And past violent acts don’t necessarily mean future acts. Even Angulimala was converted from his serial-killing ways by the Buddha.

Regarding ahimsa, there’s a subtle difference between not doing harm, and not being violent. Violence is a subset of harm. Standing by and watching harm being done is de jure participation in the perpetuation of harm, if not de facto harming. The intention is to stand back, look the other way, talk about the weather a bit, and come up with some excuse cloaked in the costume of reason not to step in. In this case, Inaction is not-Right Action.

You’ve probably all seen some image of a Buddhist monk or layman self-immolating. Some say it’s a totally selfless act, a self-less act, a sacrifice for the greater good. I have to wonder how effective those acts are. Is it the act of a Bodhisattva, or an act of despair? We can’t really ask what the intention was after the fact, the only evaluation is its effectiveness in changing the situation that caused the immolation. Did the monk on fire do anything to change the Vietnam War of the Chinese occupation of Tibet? As of this moment, no...and yes. No, in that those situations are how they are as of this moment, and they can’t be another way than how they are. And yes, because the effects of the immolation have not necessarily be fully borne out, so change may yet come.

Ahimsa doesn’t just apply to those we like, or those close to home, or those with whom we feel some commonality. “Like,” “home,” and “commonality” are nothing more than empty concepts (as if a concept couldn’t be). As Buddhists, we may think we like other Buddhists, because of that commonality. We may at least feel some affinity toward our Buddhist brothers and sisters. Then again, maybe that affinity only applies to those whom we see as “good” Buddhists...not like those 969 guys in Burma who are massacring the Rohynga. For them, we have contempt, feel the righteous indignation that entitles us to criticize those other Buddhists, who must not be actual Buddhists anyway, because they sure aren’t practicing the First Precept particularly well, and besides that, haven’t they even heard of ahimsa? Were they absent that day in Buddhism 101?

And yes, what’s going on in Burma certainly seems horrific, although we’re really only seeing part of whatever story the media would like us to see, as the shock value of a violent Buddhist defies the stereotype. There are somewhere in the vicinity of twenty armed conflicts involving death at this moment. Odds are, someone is dying at the hands of another in armed struggle right now. Throw in acts of violence in non-war situations, the numbers climb. Odds are you’re probably only aware of two or three of these conflicts if that, maybe none of the other violent acts if they didn’t happen nearby, or involve multiple casualties in a school or a parking . Someone is killing someone else right now. Not as an abstract statistical concept, someone is killing someone right at this moment, and at least in twenty geographical instances, because of a nationalistic, jingoistic sense of threat and perceived superiority or perceived weakness. Mao said that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. Right now, tragedy. Now. And now. All deaths are one death.

A Bodhisattva doesn’t check what flag someone waving before s/he decides whether the save that particular being. To lean into the Absolute if I may, nations, religions, weakness, strength, and all the rest are just empty stories we convince ourselves to believe. “All beings” doesn’t discriminate between one being and another. There are no Kurds and Turks, or Kurds and Iraqis, or Kurds and any number of Syrian combatants. There are no “sides” in Syria, or Burma, or Burundi. There is a person with a weapon killing another person (who may also have a weapon) right now. One on one, one on many, face to face or anonymously, somebody is seeing the “other,” and thinking that it is correct action to kill them.

I can’t decide what correct action is for anyone other than myself. I practice ahimsa as best I can, from moment to moment. I can only hope that you as an individual will also see the wisdom the Buddha pointed to in his teachings of not doing harm. Perhaps if enough people start practicing ahimsa individually, then the stories about self/other, same/different, will be seen as nothing more than stories, as empty as everything else. Compassion fatigue may set in because of the sheer number of violent situations. But only if you look at concepts like flags and countries and religions and everything else that creates the story that separates one from another. But right now, someone believes the story, and is pulling the trigger. Right now...

Thunderous Silence

n the Vimalakirti Sutra, Manjushri asks the assembled Bodhisattvas to define non-duality. They all come up with answers, but none of them really nail it. Their explanations speak of entering into non-duality, but all of the 31 explanations descend into duality. Manjushri then poses the question to the layman Vimalakirti, who is silent. Then more silence. And then a little bit more. Manjushri then praises Vimalakirti, as having been the only one who correctly answered.

Sometimes silence is appropriate, sometimes not. Not-silence can often turn into polemics, proselytizing, and preaching. The thoughts behind the words may themselves be as accurate as Vimalakirti silence, but their delivery is less than skillful. The listener’s (or reader’s) ears may glaze over, or maybe they elicit praise, maybe they elicit anger. Same words, different responses, how so, great a Bodhisattva? The listener or reader determines how they feel about what the other person said. I could say to someone, “You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny,” and similar feelings can result. Friends who know me and my tongue firmly implanted in cheek delivery might laugh, ones that don’t might just look at me a little funny and back slowly out of the room, and the remaining may become extremely hurt by my evaluation of their physical characteristics and fashion sense, the others may get very angry to the point of thinking about being violent, and the last few might actually scream and throw a punch. All from seven little words strung together in a particular order. (Or are you too stupid to see that?) What just happened then? 

I teach a class that involves the Eightfold Path, and that’s one of my questions for the students regarding Right Speech—can your words make someone feel a certain way. Almost always their answers involve negatives, how words can hurt someone. I use the above answer about their responses being made by thinking. What’s really at the heart is the state of the speaker or writer’s mind. What are my intentions behind the words? Do I intend harm, do I hope to bring laughter, am I just blathering on to hear myself talk? Both of speaker’s and reader’s sides both involve a large amount of “I.” To use Zen grammar-speak, subject and object. Mighty dualistic, wouldn’t you say? (What just happened there.)

In the state of Florida, there was just another mass shooting at a school, with 17 fatalities. There are plenty of people who’ll pontificate about banning guns, others that contend that if there were a “good guy with a gun” that lives would have been saved. Others will offer “thoughts and prayers.” What do all these words exhibit? So far as I can tell, there’s a large amount of “I.” “I know better, the Second Amendment must be preserved at all costs,” or, “I know more better, Right to Bear Arms be damned!” These statements will result in any of the possible reactions I showed above, may some I hadn’t even considered.

All this subject/object is just duality, opening the door to potentially vehement agreement or disagreement. It could be that how the words are expressed more skillfully than they had been, and the result might have resulted in something more than involving at least one of the Three Poisons of “Greed, Anger, and Delusion.” I can’t really tell you how you should feel, let alone what you should do. Maybe at best I’ll give you something to think about you hadn’t considered before, but most likely that depends on how skillfully I present it. I can consider my intentions, and how much I consider your potential response. 

My action of responding to the shooting at the Florida High School is that I took a personal vow to be nonviolent. Ahimsa, it’s called, to do no harm. I may not always exhibit metta, or lovingkindness; hopefully I’ll at least avoid doing harm. I haven’t been in the situation that the students and teachers were, so I can’t even say for sure how I’d really react. I only can hope that as I develop everyday my wish for doing no harm, that it becomes more habitual think and act that way than a knee-jerk hard left/right, right/wrong descent into duality. At times like this, my own thoughts, intentions, and speech are all I can control. At times like this, I’d hope that even Vimalakirti wouldn’t be thunderously silent.

May all beings be happy, safe, and secure, and have the causes of happiness, safety, and security.


It’s All Happy, Merry, and Bright

It’s potentially an odd time of year for a Zen Buddhist, at least it has been for this Zennist. I didn’t grow up Buddhist, and my childhood was more than a couple years ago, so “Merry Christmas” was a pretty standard greeting at the end of December. It was ubiquitous, and subliminally assumed that everyone celebrated Christmas, and if you didn’t, it didn’t matter much anyway. Little thought was put into the notion that anyone wouldn’t celebrate it. After all, everyone was off work, so ergo, everyone must celebrate it. Well, except for the Chinese restaurants and movie theaters, and a couple other businesses. But, they didn’t celebrate anyway, being non-Christian and all, so no big deal.

Then, eventually people began to understand that Chanukah wasn’t the Hebrew word for Christmas, it wasn’t marked at the same time, and noted for something really different. So, “Happy holidays” was rolled out, there was even a song by some crooner, and hey, New Year day is just around the corner, so there were two holidays to be happy about, so that was fine. It was even acknowledged that other people celebrated something different, and wishing them any kind of Christmas made a lot of assumptions that demonstrated a lack of understanding about how others might feel about what was essentially not “their” holiday. Santa Claus was for everybody, he was an equal opportunity chimney slider, so slipping into “ Merry Christmas” every now and then wasn’t terrible, just an autopilot statement, much like “Have a nice day.”.

There came a time after I started practicing Zen fully that “Merry Christmas” was right out, and even “happy holidays” seemed somehow dualistic. There were even a couple years where I didn’t celebrate at all. I was living alone, and it was really just another day. In a way, it was very liberating, not having all the demands of family and present buying and all the other baggage that comes along with it. It showed my total non-attachment to a holiday that on so many levels was definitely not Buddhist, at least so I thought. And that was fine for that time, I suppose it was something I needed to do to further my practice. Eventually I did get invited to some dinners, but the words Merry and Christmas were never uttered by me, not next to each other in that sequence anyway. I wasn’t declaring “war on Christmas” any more than I was the winter solstice; it just didn’t feel like “mine” to celebrate.

Eventually I saw that feeling had nothing to do whatsoever whether I thought of it, or anything else, as “mine.” Whenever I did that, it was setting me in opposition to “yours,” which rarely works out well. Sure, it’s a good thing that I climb into my bed instead of yours, so I’m not getting all “We Are the World,” “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” attached to the Absolute here. But neither am I attaching to the Relative where “this” doesn’t intertwine inextricably with “that.” It should probably be written as thisandthat, but it’s the spaces between words and thought that help make sense of any of it.

Likewise, when I start thinking of “this” day as holy, that I start appending any meaning onto something that is totally arbitrary, that the potential for problems come. Woody Guthrie didn’t write “This Land is My Land, That Land is Your Land, so Get the Hell Out of My Land.” There are all those people throughout the world to whom December 25 means nothing more than that it’s not the 24th anymore. That some people are now virtually demanding that everyone wish everyone else a “Merry Christmas,” and that anyone who doesn’t is a subversive and should “Get the Hell Out of My Land” strikes me as a textbook example of greed anger and delusion, and not just in a Buddhist sense.

There’s really no reason to think of Monday as worse than Saturday, or December 25th is superior to the 26th. Zen practice has taught me that it’s not one, and not two. So if someone will be happier when wished a Merry This, I’ll wish them one. If they will appreciate a Happy, Wonderful, have a Happy. If they’re a little down on one day or the day after, wish them a whatever will make them feel better that day. If I’m paying attention, I’ll notice when someone leans to heavily on the “not one” side, and who is a little too “not two.” If in some skillful way I can help them think of any day being a good day, I should do that.

May all beings be happy every day, not on just an arbitrarily chosen one.

‘‘Tis the season to be jolly,” right? When ‘tisn’t it?



Forest, Meet Tree

The Buddha's teaching of anatman, or “not-self” is often troubling and/or misunderstood by practitioners, both seasoned and novice. A number of techniques have been used to allay the fear of losing “my self,” by the Buddha and subsequent sages. As with all teachings, the use of Upaya, or “skillful means” is crucial. The Buddha was addressing bhikkhus, not standard householders, and as such, their capacity for understanding anatman is likely to have been more advanced than that of lay people.

So, what is a skillful way not to cause more suffering with the teaching of not-self? Certainly, having just described the human condition as characterized by dissatisfaction and that there was a means to relieve this dis-ease, immediately introducing as horror-inducing a concept as annihilating “me” doesn't seem to be a reassuring approach, especially if you throw the word "emptiness" in on top of that. What a hollow feeling! If one looks at the Five Skandhas--Form, Feelings, Perceptions, Impulses, and Consciousness--seeing that they in and of themselves do not comprise a permanent entity shouldn't be too threatening. All of them are constantly changing, de facto pointing to their not lasting permanently, i.e., obviously being impermanent. These five heaps haven't any Self-Nature or permanence of their own, therefore are characterized by emptiness, so added together it can't be expected they would somehow comprise something permanent. If one looks at the Buddha's teaching directly, he doesn't so much say that there isn't a “self,” as that the Skandhas aren't it.

The Relative/Absolute approach may be less threatening to the much clung-to need for “identity.” In the relative, you're you, I'm me, and we'd see that truth if I went to the bank and tried to make a withdrawal from your account. In the Absolute however, where do you end and I begin? From 30,000 feet, vegetation may seen, but as to whether that's grass or trees may not be so obvious. Coming in closer, tress may appear, but not necessarily whether they're pines or oaks. Closer in still, that they're oaks becomes evident, closer in still, individual trees, and so on down into bark, xylem, phloem, and finally to individual cells. At what point can we see the forest for the trees? And while a plant cell doesn't make a mighty oak, neither can the oak exist without the individual cell. The cells are the Relative, the patch of vegetation is the Absolute. The tree only manifests through the cells, the cells only manifest through the tree.

In the Ananda Sutta as translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the Buddha and his cousin and attendant Ananda have a dialog:

"Ananda, if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism [the view that there is an eternal, unchanging soul]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism [the view that death is the annihilation of consciousness]. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?"

If one were to look at the totality of the Buddha's teaching of the Dharma, it doesn't stop at personal liberation. It isn't an annihilationist (you don't exist) No Self, and likewise is not an eternalist the Self is an unchanging, permanent entity, it is the Middle Path between either of those extremes. And what is the preeminent aspect of the teaching, and from a natural selection standpoint, the most important is being selfless rather than self-centered.

The Diamond Sutra refers to “all beings are no-beings, thus are they called beings.” The Bodhisattva vow is to save all beings. The Buddha says in that Sutra that anyone who thinks of him/herself as a Bodhisattva is not a Bodhisattva, because that reflects a belief in a self, an entity, a soul. It could also be inferred that thinking of oneself is a Bodhisattva is also an egotistical exercise, thinking of oneself as superior to the other beings who need saving. And yet, in a self-less mindset, the Bodhisattva saves all beings.

A Huayan approach to all this might be that “all beings” includes oneself, and that all beings are totally dependent on ALL beings, with no line dividing the Bodhisattva from other beings. Thus, do to the interdependence, the "individual" contains all beings, just as the more obvious ALL contains the "individual. There is no tree without a cell, a cell is no-cell unless it is a tree. Dogen Zenji's teaching of "Actualizing the Fundamental Point" contains:

"To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly." (Translated by Robert Aitken and Kazuaki Tanahashi, Revised at San Francisco Zen Center)

As much as anything, this typifies the journey the practitioner takes--clinging to the notion of self, seeing through that via meditation and analysis, seeing the interdependence of all beings, then seeing there be no need to cling to a "self." In not clinging, there is no worry of self/no-self, just join the world and do no harm. The tree doesn't care if it's in a forest, the forest doesn't care about trees, the trees just do what trees do, the forest does what forests do, and that is all perfect the way that is.


In Zen, you'll often hear things like Suzuki-Roshi’s statement, “You're perfect as you are...and you need a little work.”

ZM Seung Sahn quotes from “Song of Dharma Nature”: 

“The nature of the Dharmas is perfect. It does not have two different aspects.
“All the various Dharmas are unmoving and fundamentally still.
“They are without name and form, cut off from all things.
“This is understood by enlightened wisdom, and not by any other sphere.”

Some point to war, genocide, the Holocaust, child abuse, and all the other events typically perceived as evil as Not Perfect. It would be tough to think of any of those measuring up to “Perfect.” That's also the kind of thinking some use to “prove,” or at least question the existence of God, who is also thought of as perfect.

So it seems the first problem we encounter is using the common definition of “perfect.” Usually that's used to define a state that isn't imperfect, and that is just dualism and dissatisfaction--Dukkha in a nutshell. This neither perfect nor not-imperfect state is impermanent, so that's not what the Zen Masters refer to. Aiming for perfection is a decidedly non-Buddhist activity, as the Three Doors of Liberation are Emptiness, Signlessness, and Aimlessness. We can think of “aimlessness” as not expecting a payoff--we don't meditate to become buddha any more than we’d polish a brick so it becomes a mirror.

There could be a misunderstanding of the Three Doors that leads to complacency, even annihilationism. You could mistake the Heart Sutra’s message that “form is emptiness” or the Diamond Sutras all dharmas are no-dharmas, leaving out the second half of those two statements, leading to the annihilationist view that since everything is empty, nothing matters, so Par-tay! I'm pretty sure that if you read the Sutras, dialogs with the Great Patriarchs, and/or have a teacher of your own, that none of them will infer that these are the correct interpretation. You could say that “If you ain't doing what a Buddha does, you ain't  being what a Buddha is.”

But when we’re not feeling particularly Buddha-esque, when we don’t think our actions are what the World-honored one would have done in the situation we’re in now, when things are anything but perfect, there is still something Buddha-like that can be done. Our practice may include meditation as the Buddha did, in which we examine who or what it is that is feeling like not-the-Buddha. We may take refuge in our sangha, whatever that may be, and ask for some guidance, and if not guidance, at least a hint. We may take refuge in the Dharma, maybe by reading a Sutra, but maybe by going a step further and examining what the Dharma is, without so many dead words. “What is this that is asking the question?” “Help!” “Hmmm, the Buddha really read Ananda the riot act in the Shurangama Sutra. Ananda is asking the same questions and being confused just like I am. Maybe there’s something in there applicable to me.” And quite possibly, we realize that our mental image of “What would Buddha Do?” is a pointless exercise in just more thought, and more thought that we take as based in reality, when in fact, that’s not really the case. It’s just projecting our “selves” into a story that is no more real than sky-flowers.

Ultimately, we examine the self to forget the self, as Dogen put it. We examine and examine some more, just what is the Dharma in our life right here&now. What is the Dharma? What IS the Dharma, I need to solve this riddle now, as if there were no other time to find the answer. In a more honest and less cliched way, what WOULD a buddha do? But, most important, what is buddha. I can refer to what the Great Ancestors said, but they said them 1,000 years ago, and they said them to a monk in a Chinese temple, and frankly, I’m not a thousand-year-old Chinese monk, and that’s not who is thinking what I’m thinking.

One of the first times I went to sit with a Zen group, a man named Alan Drake took it upon himself to help coach us novices. I don’t know if he was ordained, I got the feeling he had at one time practiced Tibetan Buddhism, but he was there helping us get a handle on this thing we were basically clueless about. I’d read a lot of general Buddhist writings, and out of all of the traditions, Zen just felt right. I didn’t have a clue what any of it meant, I didn’t understand what kong-ans were when I read them, how much moreso did I not know what they did. I seriously didn’t know why he told me to read “Moon in a Dewdrop,” and really seriously didn’t know why he gave me a copy of Nagarjuna’s “The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way.” Oddly enough, I was able to wrap my arms around Nagarjuna more than Dogen, which in retrospect, is a bit odd. But Alan was there to guide us, to help us, to relieve our struggle and dissatisfaction with our situations, different as they may have been from one of us to the next. He said something that had never dawned on me, something I hadn’t even considered to consider, and that I never thought of as anything but a given.

He said that in Buddhism, there is no Original Sin. You could say the same for Judaism, but I wasn’t coming from that background, so to my thinking there was this blot on my, and everyone else’s, eternal soul. He also dispelled a number of other misconceptions is that sentence eventually, but his point was that, I, and every other being, was not born blemished. At the very least, I was starting with a blank slate; maybe not having the wisdom of the Sages, but also not any worse off than anyone else born into this world of struggle. He was planting the seed of our pristine nature in our fertile little heads, though we didn't know it at the time, or what it was called, or how much discussion has gone on about it. I didn’t attach name and form to it (whatever “it” was), didn’t have any attachment to expectations, what was right and wrong about it, whether I agreed with it, whether it was green or yellow or long or short. But it was as much as anything a relief.

Let’s say you just bought a new boat. It’s a beautiful boat, not a flaw to it. Great paint job, nice finish on the woodwork, comfortable furniture, no leaks. Nothing more could ever be asked of a boat. Taking it out on the ocean, it holds up well in both calm and choppy seas. Sure, when it’s choppy, it isn’t the same smooth ride as when it’s placid, but it holds up well nevertheless. Then the colder weather comes, and it seems like it would be a lot easier not to go sailing, at least not today...or tomorrow...or the next day. And soon, that pristine boat is starting to get a bit shabby. There was some food left in the fridge, and that was probably a bad idea, unless there’s a high school science fair coming up, or you’re trying to develop biological weapons. Some leaves got blown in from the shoreline, and they’re starting to accumulate in the corners of the deck. Someone apparently thought this boat would be a perfect place to toss some old beer cans, especially the ones that weren’t quite empty, and someone else decided the same about their soda cans. Between the leftover food and the liquids that once were liquid and now are some other consistency, there are flies, mice, a couple wharf rats spending time on deck. That’s all obvious, so cleaning it wouldn’t really take too much effort. What’s going on below the waterline however, is more insidious. Barnacles. Really well-attached, verging on embedded, barnacles. So far as the boat is concerned, it’s questionable how easily the boat can extricate itself from these little, multitudinous, calcified, clingy creatures.

Underneath all of them however, the boat is still pristine, the leaves and beer cans can go away, even the barnacles can be scraped off--they are clingy and they’re not coming off easily, but they can come off, to reveal the perfect nature of the boat. It’s never been imperfect, its perfection has just been obscured by a few things. Does that sound like any humans whose teeth you might brush in the morning? The being who only needs someone with a scraper to take care of those damn clingy, really tightly held karmic barnacles? The one who finds out he or she can be the only one to scrape those barnacles away themselves, but with others’ help humbly and gratefully accepted? And who might find out that being mindful of the next time a barnacle tries to attach itself? Those damn barnacles can always come back, we only need to keep from attaching themselves too tightly. But under the barnacles it is perfect, even with the barnacles, it is already perfect.

The barnacle is also a perfect barnacle, just doing what a barnacle does. Scrape anyway, and help the next boat owner scrape too. 

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