Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Long Road to Non-Duality

Various civil rights movements throughout history have called for non-discrimination, and today, San Francisco Zen Center joins the celebration of recent steps toward non-discrimination regarding whom consenting adults can love and marry. 

But non-discrimination is a very long way from the Buddhist concept of non-duality.  The former says I am equal to you.  The latter says I am you.  The former explains why Crash won Best Picture.  The latter explains why Brokeback Mountain didn’t.  The former asks us to examine our prejudices.  The latter asks us to give them up wholesale, no matter how cherished, advantageous and “true” they appear. 

Nagarjuna exhorts: If you don’t want the problems caused by discriminations, then stop making them.

Cohen warns: To label is to dismiss.

The Samdhinirmocana Sutra opines: Those who conceptualize difference … abide in conceit and are obscured. 

The bottom line in Buddhism is that there is no other, and all attempts to make other cause suffering.  This is why Right View is so important, and why without it true non-discrimination is sunk.  The ability to have perspective unfettered by fear and judgment is critical to being able to see other as self. 

In other words, discrimination is I.
Non-discrimination is we.
Non-duality is. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Well-Being for All Beings

At the moment, there are 76 names on our well-being list, an oft-updated roster that’s read every Tuesday morning in a service dedicated to the  “well-being, equanimity and recovery of our dear friends.”

Actually, there are 6 billion names on that list. 

Imagine what might happen if we started each day with the 15 seconds that it takes to say to them:

May you be happy.
May you be safe.
May you be free from fear.
May you be free from suffering.  

If we said that to the other drivers in traffic, to our fellow riders on public transportation, to the shoppers ahead of us in line -- they’d do their best to pretend we didn't exist.  So we’ll just say it silently, and offer a quarter-minute of peaceful abiding to whatever fraction of humanity happens to be in range.  They don’t have to know.  It can be our little secret that we wished them well.  They don’t have to know that we just saved all beings … from us.  From whatever less-benign thoughts we might have been tempted to cast upon the driver who cut us off, the oaf who spread out over several bus seats, the cad who cut in line.  For the length of an inhale, we’re not going to honk, glare, scold.  For the length of an inhale, we’re going to stop suffering. 

Now, shall we try it on the exhale, too?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Just a Mirror

As the head of the meditation hall, I am often asked for the meaning of the various forms.

They don’t mean anything.  They’re just a mirror.

We don’t generally come to spiritual places in order to do their (arcane) forms.  We come because a part of us – usually that part that’s been ignored or pushed down inside us – is tired of suffering and is ready to find its (our) voice.  We come because there is some dim, unarticulated sense that everything that is supposed to make us happy doesn’t.  And we suspect that the problem isn’t all “other people” or “out there. " In short, we come to spiritual practice looking for a mirror.  We’re ready for something that will show us in high relief both the kindness and meanness within us, that will allow their teaching to come forth, and that will sunder the veil of suffering that clouds our true nature.

A couple of mirrors (not unique to Buddhism):

Bowing shows us our reluctance to surrender, to be subservient, to not be able to see what’s ahead.  Americans don’t physically bow easily.  We do, of course, bow down (at least mentally) to electronic devices, self-improvement gurus, fund managers, 24/7 availability, and everything/everyone else we cede our power to.  Most of these things don’t help us be happy, kind and spacious.

Chanting reflects not only our ability to find our voice, but also our willingness to harmonize.  It takes courage to do both, exposed and personal, without the blogosphere’s easy anonymity that makes “right speech” so quaint.

But the biggest, brightest mirror is sangha, the company of other practitioners who unflinchingly reflect back to us who we are, in excruciating detail.  We don't like those people who reflect too well a part of ourselves we'd rather not see; we fall in love with those who mirror the best parts of ourselves.  Somewhere in between is community, dharma friendship, and the willingness to not turn away both from what we ourselves reflect, and from what we see.  

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Tree(People) Removal

Around 2:00 a.m. this morning, the police and fire departments arrived at the late Hayes Valley Farm to remove the humans who had taken up protest-residence in the doomed trees.  During the four-hour extraction, there were some cries and screams, and the occasional small-crowd cheer. (At what? A fleeting victory as a wily treesitter evaded the inevitable? We’ll probably never know.)  The official vehicles came and went without sirens, the officials without megaphones. 

The operation ended just as our sesshin, and the buzz-saws, began.  So many complicated precepts here:  To not take life (the woodcutters).  To not take what isn’t given (the occupiers).  To not speak ill of others, to not praise self at the expense of others (both sides). 

How to make sense of such a complicated, fraught scenario?  Nagarjuna’s Four Distortions don’t provide answers, but they do provide helpful paths of inquiry:

1.  Seeing the impermanent as permanent
“The trees should be left there forever.”
“Developers are always greedy.”

2.  Seeing the impure as pure
“The protesters have the moral high ground.”

3.  Seeing the selfless as having a self.
“I care about trees and you don’t.”

4. Seeing suffering as blissful.
“Sitting in this tree/arresting these people/developing condos makes me happy.”

(All quotes are hypothetical.)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Can I Practice for Me?

Yesterday, fifteen people took nearly four hours out of their weekend to attend the Introductory Afternoon -- practicing sitting and walking meditation, learning a bit of the history of Buddhism, chanting metta, talking about how to take the practices into everyday life.  And time and again the concern came up, Is it selfish to take time for myself like this?  Is it OK to direct lovingkingness to me?  

History is full of examples of the one calm person who made a difference -- Father Kolbe, Otto Schindler, Sujata, Mohandis Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Captain "Sully" Sullenberger, Aung San Suu Kyi, the 4th person (the monk) whom Prince Shakyamuni observed walking placidly amid sickness, old age and death.  It's not so much that these people heroically saved lives (some of them did), but that they gave courage to others to live, or to face death with equanimity, knowing they were not alone.

We practice for all beings, yet we often forget that we are one of those, too.  Endless giving outward breeds resentment inward, and taints the giving.  There's a persistent, tenacious, covert belief that I am not metta-worthy, that I really don't deserve happiness and tranquility.

Get over it.  Deserving, worthiness has nothing to do with it.  We don't have happiness and tranquility, we are them.  We just forget that sometimes.  The purpose of zazen isn't to develop or get anything.  The purpose of zazen is to give us a chance to remember what we are in the first place, to come home to our true heart, and to see therein our original kind face.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Good Question

During last Saturday’s one-day sitting, we did shosan, a formal, dharmic Q&A with the Abbot.  Most of the questions were about how to practice with strong feelings – fear, anger, shame, self-doubt.  Most of the answers weren’t prescriptions for a fix, but an offering of courage and support to stay with the feeling, make room for it, listen to what it has to say without letting it highjack our life. 

This suggestion to stay with the question permeates Zen teachings.  Buddhism is not a practice of answers, as one quickly learns when studying those maddeningly obtuse koans.  Time after time, we are asked not What is the answer? but What is your experience?  Specifically:
  • Where is it in your body?  
  • Is the feeling pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? 
  • What story do you have about that feeling?  
  • Has that story solidified into an object, an “I”?
These four questions, these four foundations of mindfulness, ask us to thoroughly investigate our thinking as the (only) source of both our suffering and our liberation.  As Robert Aitken noted in his introduction to the Book of Serenity, the difference between illusion and enlightenment is mind itself.  The point is not to transcend the mind (good luck with that, Nagarjuna says), but to transform the mind.  To loosen up on the idea of a fixed anything, to relentlessly practice non-reification, to first let things be as they are.