New Year, New Opportunities

"When they go low, we go high," Michelle Obama said during the recent campaign. If you're left-leaning, does this "high" mean we satisfy ourselves with a sense of moral superiority and passivity, at best preaching to the choir, to our like-minded FB followers? I hope not. Does it mean we'll take to the streets, but only when the weather is nice? Likewise, I hope not. Does it mean that we wait, giving the new administration a chance? Maybe to an extent on some issues, but not on others. What doesn't seem to bode well--LGBT rights, rights of minorities, respect for the Constitution, the Environment, Education, Foreign Affairs, Energy, Social Security--they are a few that come to mind without pondering too much. On war, I have no clue what the next few years hold. There have been both uber-hawkish AND isolationist messages, although there are an awful lot of generals running about, and about whom the next administration's "leader" says he knows more than in general.  Generals who have seen war are sometimes hesitant to send another generation into the horrors they've known, sometimes they look to prop up the military-industrial behemoth. 

The time for the Left's triumphalism transpired and has expired. The torch has been passed and in new hands, hopefully won't torch everything with it. these people with whom I so fervently disagree, probably felt the same way over the last eight years. Maybe they were inclined to light it up more then than now. There does seem to be a possibility that the Reagan era "Government isn't the solution, it's the problem" thought may be in evidence. Clear-cutting a forest is one thing when it's literal, and it becomes something entirely different when it's metaphorical. The metaphorical may lead to the literal, or vice versa. Nothing like destroying the environment by first destroying the Environmental Protection Agency. Those of us who see these issues as potential train-wrecks, we need to make our views clear. 

What I need to remember is that my "views" are only that--views. They aren't necessarily a reflection of reality, and even if they are, they're not necessarily perceived correctly by me. We can say "Correct View is no view" all we like, until that means relinquishing our firmly held opinions and what we cling to as Truth. Then it starts to require some efort and there are times when self-pity is just easier. Pointing the finger of blame at "these people" takes the onus of responsibility off our backs; creating a demonized "other" relieves us of any responsibility to do anything about this perceived "suffering" we're undergoing. And that can be quite the relief, albeit a short-lived one, in a really perverse way.

I also need to remember that "these people" have experienced struggles (Dukkha) the same as I have, and not just in a socio-political context. They and I and all others have created our current situations through our actions, words, and thoughts. We've created the karma that has ripened into the fruits or weeds of today. We can create karma which will add to the current situation or create karma that sets a new course. Our actions as a society have created our societal situation. We have allowed mass incarceration, a violence culture, a consumer culture, all to be the norm. If you like all of those things, keep doing what you're doing. If not, try something different. We are where we are because we we created it, as unpleasant a thought as that may be. If it is unpleasant, what do we do, think, say that will change that course? 

A bodhisattva adapts to ever-changing causes and conditions. "Saving all beings" is not one-size-fits-all. If nothing else, our baseline needs to be not to do harm. And we have to realize that what seems like it will not do harm may have unintended consequences. We can't possibly predict them all, but when we get a surprise, we have to pay attention and act accordingly at that moment. As ZM Seung Sahn would point out, there is correct situation/relationship/function. "Saving all beings" means just that--ALL. We need to function correctly depending on the relationship in a situation. Even people we don't like experience suffering and deserve compassion for that reason alone, if nothing else. Pay attention! Respond correctly, do no harm! If the action does cause harm, pay attention! Try another tack. But keep trying until all beings are saved. In that context, we'll have ample new opportunities. 

Anchors A Way

“Only one person in a million becomes enlightened without a teacher's help."
― Bodhidharma

A Soto Priest once told me that some who practice with the notion of "gradual enlightenment" reach enlightenment sooner than those of the "Sudden School." Great Seon Sage Chinul described the process as "Sudden Enlightenment, gradual cultivation," as in once you have an awakening of some sort, continued diligence is required to keep from backsliding into some unawakened behavior. Whatever the process may be, it's just that, a process. I'm not sure whether I've met a Pratyekabuddha, the one in a million Bodhidharma was talking about. As I'm not quite sure whether I've met a million people, that self-awakened one may still be out there.
It's really not a numbers issue, nor is it a matter of sudden or gradual, or sudden/gradual. It has to do with the Great Way as a way. At some point via reason or practice, we start thinking that what we're doing isn't working, that there must be a better "way". In my case it turned out the way was to be Zen, but only after any number of other attempts at other ways that otherwise weren't the Way. At first I thought that Zen was the greatest thing ever, and that everyone should do it, try it, practice it, that all it took to be "enlightened" was just to sit! Hell, I could do that. I can't say that I went out preaching on street corners or went door-to-door handing out pamphlets, but if you had an ear, I'd fill it with pithy phrases that sounded like they came right out the the Hallmark greeting card Zen collection. Some of them may have been actual quotes, but from sources whom I couldn't cite, and the context of the quote I couldn't place either. Spouting on about "Kill the Buddha" or some other important sounding nonsense was good enough to show you how "Zen" I was, but that was a way to get to be “Zen.” (Whatever that is).
Since then, for the most part I've lost the ability to Zen-speak. When I do sound inscrutable these days, it's usually in as few words as possible, and more often than not in the form of a question. And that's not because the Way is beyond words and scriptures. Even though that may be the case in the final analysis, the Buddha used words and spoke what turned out to be the scriptures for forty years, so there's something to be said about words, and by them. It's just that it's a good idea to have some sort of clue as to what they mean, and if it's a quote by someone else, that the intended meaning or the teaching behind them be ascertained as best we can can before actually using them ostensibly to teach with them. The last thing I want to do is mislead, the next to the last thing is that I don't just want to give away the Way like a kindly old grandmother. It is after all, a means to discovering one's own True Nature, not the one I tell you it is. In that regard, I've already said too much right here, but I'll just keep on going because maybe you didn't quite get my point yet. Is your True Nature the same as my True Nature, or different?
Just as the Way is as simple as washing your bowls or hanging up your coat, it's not as simple as hearing that, repeating it, actually doing the dishes once after breakfast sometime, and then acting like you've got it nailed because you heard someone else tell you that it's that simple. ZM Seung Sahn's Compass of Zen starts at 0 and moves on to 360 degrees. At both points, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers, but he'd ask whether the mountain of 0 degrees and 360 degrees are the same or different? Is washing the dishes just washing the dishes? Answer quickly! I won't give away the answer. It's OK to have a different answer now than you do later. They're not called degrees for nothing,
When I set out to drive, I couldn't drive the Indy 500 when I first got into a car, or even after one lesson. I preferred that my driving instructor not only be able to drive themselves, but that they were taught by someone else who knew how to drive, and who didn't learn to drive just be reading about it, or even worse, only read the first page, said, "Yeah, I got this," and then hit the highway. On top of that, it was a plus when the teacher had some idea of how to teach according to my abilities, not his. No sense in being chauffeured by the Grim Reaper for no reason, or chauffeuring him either. Likewise, there's no sense in leading someone down a path that isn't the Way because of either of those reasons. Both are matters of life and death, albeit possibly one more literal than the other, and maybe not. The teachings of the Buddhadharma aren't supposed to lead to hell, they're supposed to show us how we can be the perfect buddhas we inherently are, and in turn, to lead others to where they can realize their own buddhahood.
We've already chained ourselves to our anchors. No need to add more links to our own anchors, or to anyone else's. The trick is not to think we've mastered the Way when we're still tethered to the anchor, but to use the anchor itself to untether ourselves. There is a way to use the anchor to take the anchor away, and just reading a sailing manual is most likely not it, unless you're one in a million.

To listen to the talk, click the title, or navigate here:

Claw Marks

Imagine that Nagarjuna was at a dinner, and he had the job of serving the dessert. “Ok, Bob, you and Mary, you both get pie. Now, Bob, you get pie, and Mary, you get no pie. Now Bob, you get no pie, and Mary you do get pie. Now, neither of you get pie.” And so the dinner is ruined. And he wonders why he sees all these dinner invitations go out and they all say, “And don't bring Nagarjuna. He's such a killjoy.”

The Three Dharma Seals are impermanence, no-self, and dissatisfaction (sometimes called suffering). I think it's pretty easy to wrap our heads around impermanence, things go impermanent on us all the time. It got to the point where the string on my mala didn't break, the mala just “went impermanent.” Have a bad day at work or an argument with the spouse, and unemployment or sleeping on the couch make suffering very obvious. But this no-self thing…just seems that  “if I want pie, then I WANT PIE. The only way I'm going to be “one with the pie” is when it's settled in my stomach.”

I've been talking a corresponding with someone who is totally befuddled by “no-self.” He's gotten to the point where he's hesitant to use the word “I,” at least when speaking in Zen context. I'm not sure, but I can imagine him having some guilt in everyday conversation. “Who wants more pie?” “Me!” “I do!” “Er, hmmmm, um eh…” and Greg gets no pie. 

And there's the rub. We hear we're “one with everything,” so technically eating pie should be satisfying, but right now, the lack of blueberries is causing me great dissatisfaction. But we keep hearing that “I, I, I,” “me, me, me," ”mine, mine, mine” is bad. “I'm so confused….er, somebody's confused, no, wait, All is confused! Now give me pie, and make it all better!”

“All beings are no-beings, thus are they called ‘beings’.” The Diamond Sutra teaches us this, but without a teacher, it's probably inscrutable, unless you're Huineng or Seung Sahn. The Heart Sutra says “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Again, with no teacher, blank stares most likely ensue. There are a couple of problems most people have with these Sutras, starting with the paradoxes and apparent contradictions they have in just about any given sentence. The second is that they appear contradictory to “real life.”

All or any of those statements may be effective in giving the shock to the system that gives rise to the “Don't Know Mind” of being awake. Conversely, certitude is the gateway to hell. “Oh, no! Not another paradox!” Knowing and understanding don't serve a purpose. Given everything being in a state of flux, what is there we can successfully hang onto?  If we take a step, will the ground be there to support us? Sure, in most cases, but there's always the possibility of the earth opening its gaping hungry-ghost-like hole and swallow us whole. Ask anyone who has lost a car in a sinkhole. Go to bed one night, your wife is there, wake up the next morning, she and the kids are gone. That's a concrete example of the rug, chair, and the rest of the house and everything you've come to expect to be there, and then not, all being pulled out from under you. The issue comes not from contradictions, or paradox, maddening wordplay, or general madness. Where is the “self” that can be assumed to exist predictably? Where is the self that exists in flux and paradox.

The Four Attachments are “Sensual attachment,” “Attachment to opinions,” “Attachment to rites and rituals,” and “Attachment to the idea of self.” Sensual attachment? As simple as “I like pie, pie makes me happy. No pie, no happy.” It's comfortable for home to be home, until home is no longer home. We assume it will be home, because it's always been, and it's been as predictable as foot hitting ground when walking. I get pie because I always get pie. But then, no home, no pie. Attachment to opinions? Name it, politics, religion, anything we’ve been warned against talking about at the dinner table. “Apple is better than rhubarb!” “Them’s fightin’ words!” Attachment to rites and rituals? Anything from, “I practice Soto Zen, and we face the wall, so you Seon guys are just plain wrong,” to “Dinner is always at 6:00, why isn’t it ready? And where's the pie?”

Attachment to the idea of “self?” All the above, plus anything else that shows “I” to be separate all the time from “you,” like I'm right and you're wrong. Note that it’s attachment to the “idea” of self. “Ideas” are something we make up in our heads. Conventionally, “I” go to work at “my” job. “I” sleep in “my” bed. If I find you in it, I may have an issue with it, not only because of my attachments, but because it’s incorrect behavior for you in this situation. It’s up to me to respond in appropriate way in turn to that though. Showing more “me,” will most likely get you to show “you.” It’s very easy to be threatened by someone else’s attachment the the “idea of self” when it comes in conflict with my “idea of self.” Even being hesitant to use “I” as the subject of a sentence does no good if there's an underlying “I” who secretly still is attached to it.

We need to admit to having attachments though, especially if we ever want to become non-attached, much like an alcoholic needs to admit to having a drinking problem before anything can be done about that. Denying attachment doesn’t help, and acceptance without realizing that change is possible and inevitable is likewise no help. Despite the inevitability of the object of attachment changing, unless we put in some effort, the change may not be a change into something more wholesome. Being a drunk and turning into a junkie isn’t quite as wholesome as being a drunk and recovering by whatever means keeps you from getting drunk again. 

An alcoholic who is still drinking can’t help someone who is trying to get sober if he isn’t at least making an attempt himself at getting sober. A bodhisattva can’t be of much help to a sentient being unless there is active effort in an attempt to be less attached, especially to the idea of self. We traverse the path of the bodhisattva without attachment to the “idea of being a bodhisattva,” or the attachment to the idea that a bodhisattva can “save” another being, or to the idea of “other beings” for that matter.  Attachments are attachments, and as such are hindrances to uncovering the True Nature of compassion. Diligent effort is required, and once one attachment is shed, we need to vigorously cultivate the shedding, and also cultivate not creating new attachments, and then cultivate not clinging to non-attachment as well. 

But let’s face it, we really like some of these attachments. Some have worked well, until they no longer do. What good is something that no longer works, even though we still want to think it does? We may fight against letting go of it, we may cling with all our might, dig our claws in, but it does no good. Just think, how does pie look if it's covered in claw marks?


I won't say there's more now, but there seems to be as much polarization today as there probably has ever been. Part of the human condition is to think dualistically. We like to categorize, fit things in little boxes so that we think we know what they are, what they mean, who they belong to. At best that only works on the most surface of levels, and even then, it's still illusion. That's not only the “all perceptions are empty” level, although that's certainly true, it can go to wobbling between misguided action and inaction.

Some people hear a chant of “Black lives matter,” then contrarily jump to “All lives matter.” Of course all lives matter, none more than any other. Maybe “Any life matters” or “Every Life Matters” would be a more accurate slogan on the macro level. But on the micro level, “Black lives” matter serves as a reminder that “Black Lives” constitute part of “All Lives” and that seems to be overlooked. It doesn't mean that if Black lives matter, others don't, or that the others matter less. If an arsonist is burning down all the Cape Cod houses, that doesn't imply that split levels don't matter, or matter less. It's a fairly straightforward “somebody is setting fire to this type of house, maybe we should keep an eye on that, be a little more vigilant if we want to catch the arsonist.” It would be easier to find the arsonist torching the Cape Cods by watching the Cape Cods rather than the ranches. Split level and ranch houses aren't diminished by that;  they just aren't the ones being burnt down.

But lumping all “Black” lives together is just another way we try to pigeonhole people and polarize further. It's a symptom of American culture, where if one is white, preferably WASPY and male, then you're in the one non-hyphenated American. Everyone else becomes an African-American, or Irish-American, Asian-American, and so on. I'm a middle-aged white male. That doesn't mean that the so-called “American Dream” is a given, but it probably does mean that I didn't come to bat with two strikes against me to start with. I'd imagine that a Cuban refugee who doesn't speak English, has dark skin, and is a female besides, may be coming to the plate not only with two strikes, but also possibly without a bat. We make projections, we make assumptions, we make metaphors about baseball based on where we put the hyphen.

Saying that her life is identical to every other Black female Latina is every bit as inaccurate as saying my life is typical of all white males. And yet, somehow it's easier to construct a monolithic “other,” to call them welfare queens, and that if someone doesn't have citizenship or at least their papers in order, that somehow they simultaneously are here “to take MY job and collect welfare paid by MY taxes”. Even if we don't carry it out to that wide side of the pendulum swing, we can very easily come to some equally absurd generalizations of our own. ALL Republicans are ignorant, gun-toting, religious zealots...ALL Democrats are spineless tree-hungers...ALL Protestants are imbued with a work ethic...ALL Jews are money-grubbers...ALL Muslims are terrorists...ALL Buddhists are shaven-headed pacifist vegetarians with that peaceful, calm equanimity that raises us above the fray. I think it's safe to say that in that multiple choice quiz of stereotypes, the correct answer would be “none of the above”. Pigeonholing people into boxes based on hyphens arbitrarily separates what is inherently not separate. I’m not a Black Latina, and she’s not a white male, and neither is she all Black Latinas any more than I’m all white males. Each being different renders difference moot. Recognizing what differences there are can be skillful; her needs are not necessarily my needs, but there are some common, basic human needs we share. Hyphens work well when writing; they don’t work when it comes to people.

Sengcan says not to pick and choose, Seung Sahn says don't make bad and good. Does that mean stereotyping is not-good/not-bad? That genocide is not-good/not-bad? Is making any “good” or “bad” characterization not-good/not-bad? If your answer is yes, you're making emptiness. If you answer no, you're making “good and bad” and attaching to form. This is what the Heart Sutra refers to in “form is emptiness” and “emptiness is form”. The Zen approach is not to be dualistic, not to attach to either form or emptiness, accept but not settle. So more accurately, maybe we don’t make good and bad out of the fact that people think stereotyping and arson are OK, and just accept that people do think these things. But that doesn’t mean we have also just accept, and tacitly endorse, the acts of stereotyping and killing. To go back to the house metaphor, if the inaction of not paying attention to the Cape Cod house fires gives license to the arsonist to move on to ranch houses, then split levels, townhouses, and so on, they all burn until there's nothing left but the arsonists.

Under the supposed guise of no-preference, a choice is made regardless. Allowing injustice to one is allowing injustice to all. The nihilistic choice has effectively been made that no houses matter. Not recognizing how differences between houses are indeed no-differences results in literally no houses. Cape Cods are not split levels, but they are both houses, not-one and not-two.

The Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) summed this up with “an injury to one is an injury to all,” and I doubt that anyone in the “one big union” was particularly well-versed in the Heart Sutra, or if they were, that they based their Union’s platform on it. Yes, they put labor and management into different categories, but “all” includes both. An injury to one worker would have ramifications across the spectrum, including to management. That would not be in the interest of any. It’s a no-brainer, and what could be more Zen than a no-brainer? One thing that’s more Zen might be to take that idea and put it into action. Before any thought, act to save all beings. What’s more “True Nature” than acting out of lovingkindness and compassion with no discrimination?  

Zen puts us squarely into experiencing reality directly. Some houses are burning, that’s reality. If we do nothing, other burning houses may be the next reality. We can live righteously, we can be indignant, but equivocating and being righteously indignant and leaving it at the level of thought and theory and inaction, eventually all houses burn. We choose not to wobble; and act like a Wobbly.


The Grey(t) Matter

Some ask, "What is the meaning of life?" Some say that life is more than just survival. When asked to describe "just survival," the answer may come that it's "to have a roof overhead, some food on the table, clothes to wear, keeping the lights on." That may be setting the bar low, or it may be the most noble activity of all. We don't do these things by magic, or by ourselves, or only for ourselves. But often, even if we set it to do those things to provide for our families, we complicate it because of what's happening between the ears.

Instead of going to work, getting a day's pay for a day's efforts, we get caught. Caught in promotions, in raises, in productivity, even in stabbing our co-worker in the back to achieve all of them. The carrot is just out of reach, the stick too near. What ostensibly is just a means to provide the food and clothes and an address and running water, seduces us, distracts us, diverts us onto side roads of delusion. Our thoughts run to more, then to even more, then to different, then to same, then to better, then to worse, then to like and dislike. That's ok, it's what we do. The amount of time we spend in distraction and delusion can end as quickly as it starts, but that entails the ability to see that we're being distracted and delusional. 

When asked why the Patriarch came from the West, we ask in return, "West of where? Here? Is that west of here? "What, Pennsylvania? Colorado?" Or maybe, being good, learned Zen students, we know the Patriarch is Bodhidharma, and that he came from India to China, so it must be "To spread the Dharma!" as if he were a missionary trying to bring civilization to the savages. Then the teachers says, "The cypress tree in the garden." Then the Great Student spends time thinking about what profound teaching, what symbolism lies behind that statement, missing the forest for the tree, the tree for the bark, the bark for the dog, the dog for Zhaozhou's dog, and meanwhile, acting more like Pavlov's dog. "Does Pavlov's dog have Buddha-Nature?" "Ding!" Lunch hour!

When working, just work, fully 100% work. When eating, 100% eat. When paying the electric bill, fully pay the electric bill. Pondering the dog and the tree, maybe ponder the dog and the tree, but not at the expense of working, eating, paying. Zen doesn't ask us to be mindless automatons, far from it. No Mind is not mindless. Its emptiness isn't non-existence, it’s full existence, infinite potential, open, clear, unobstructed mind. When the grey matter doesn't obstruct, when it doesn't get in the way, when it neither thinks that things are how they appear nor that they are otherwise, then all is open. The cypress tree is in the garden, the cypress tree is the garden, the tree is not the garden, nor not-the-garden, nor is it worth the time spent thinking about it, unless there's a cypress tree in the garden at the side of the road and we’re driving back from lunch. See the tree, let the tree be the tree, and go on attending to the Great Matter, which for a moment is seeing the tree, and making sure the car doesn't run into it, because we’re driving, fully 100% driving. When we've driven past the tree, do we think about the tree anymore? No reason to, there's a dog on the side of the road now, and it's not running into the road. No-mind? Maybe. Emptiness? Maybe. When you step outside the car, are you going to trip on the emptiness?

Finished driving back from lunch? Park car, go work.