Sunday, December 29, 2013

Why I'll Never Compile A Bucket List

Okay, it looks like my previous post was not the final one of 2013 after all…

Happy New Year, everyone! Have you compiled your respective lists of New Year’s resolutions? Yeah, I know, not everyone is a fan of such endeavors. However, to the extent that they help us clarify and actualize the purest of our intentions, then I think they can be a good thing. A bucket list, on the other hand, is something that I’ll never compile. Why not? I am so glad you asked that question! Let me begin with what I find appealing about resolutions.

Resolutions tend to act as guideposts in the back of our minds, subconsciously or unconsciously shaping our outward behavior: toward eating or living more healthfully, for instance, toward acting with greater patience or mindfulness, perhaps, toward spending more time with friends and family or engaged in spiritual practice, etc. Sure, they can veer towards end goals from time to time, such as when we vow to lose ten pounds, or quit smoking, or find a new job. For the most part, though, resolutions seem to me to be about intentionality.


Resolutions also encompass an appropriate time frame – one trip around the sun – a long enough period in which to affect real change, or at least dutifully attempt to do so, but not so long a time that the resolved intention becomes robbed of its immediacy. One year on also serves as an appropriate point of reevaluation. Did I really end up behaving in thus and such way last year? Was it right for me to resolve to do so? Should I renew that resolution and redouble my effort or should I just stop beating myself up over it?




Contrast these attributes of a list of New Year’s resolutions with those of the so-called bucket list. A bucket list is essentially a shopping list that applies to an entire lifespan. I want to do this. I want to accomplish that. I want to go here and see this and experience that. I want, I want, I want… Bucket lists are much more about product than process. But what’s wrong with that? Goals are good, aren’t they? They nudge us in desired directions just as those more process-oriented resolutions do, don’t they? Well…, maybe… But if you were to die before being able to check a single item off of your bucket list, would your life have ended in failure? By what standard?

By what standard? That is the $64,000 question. You see, the bucket list is created by the mind of today as if the mind of today is the same mind that will be present at the moment of “our” passing. The bucket list of today is created by the mind of today and is totally lacking the wisdom of tomorrow. We could spend hour upon hour thoughtfully composing some intricately detailed bucket list only to be diagnosed with a terminal illness the very next day, or to discover that our new-born child has a condition that will require of us every last measure of our energy, or to realize that all of our valuable ‘checking-off’ time is going to be taken up by a spouse or a parent who has been diagnosed with dementia. Perhaps the mind of today that creates the bucket list that rules the rest of our life is, in fact, a shallow, self-centered, and braggadocious mind – something that the mind of tomorrow will recognize if given half a chance. Ah, but still we have to live, don't we? And yet...

The mind of today doesn’t really know the true nature of that which it wishes for:
“Gosh, I always thought that I wanted to bungee jump... But if I’d known that I'd end up with a broken neck, I wouldn’t have risked it!”
True enough, life is risky and things happen. But if I were to end up paralyzed because of some bucket list activity, I would want it to be because the activity itself was what I found so compelling – not merely the idea of telling everybody about my engaging in said activity. Warning! Do not add any item to your bucket list unless you’ve discerned the difference between the two!  

Might it also be the case that the very knowledge that we are engaged in a bucket list experience ends up changing (for the worse) the very experience that we’ve always desired? Hmmm…
“You know, I always wanted to get married, and here I am at the altar. Check! And the honeymoon to Antarctica? Another fat check! Um..., what was that you said, Reverend?”

Similarly, might it be the case that our deluded belief that some bucket list item is what we truly desire actually keeps us from experiencing the reality that we seek right here and right now?
“I always thought that I needed to hang glide in order give myself up to the glorious vastness of the universe, but then I had the very same experience just walking down the bustling street!”
Indeed, we don’t really know what might nudge us toward having a peak experience.

Okay, and since you already know about my Buddhist point of view, I will even go so far as to opine that bucket lists are anathema to the practice of Buddhism itself. Now I’m really throwing down the gauntlet, aren't I? From a Buddhist perspective, though, there is no legitimate reason to differentiate this moment spent picking up trash from the alleyway from that moment spent standing atop Mount Everest. From a Buddhist perspective, the very act of saying that we must accomplish or achieve or experience this in order to be happy or contented or fulfilled is what keeps us forever unhappy and discontented and unfulfilled. From a Buddhist perspective, this "self" that so very much enjoys checking off interesting and exciting things from his or her bucket list is merely an aggregation of phenomena more or less conveniently referred to as “I”.

Yes, a bucket list  is essentially an extension of the "self" that we tend to become so attached to. Not only are "we" this and that and the other thing, but we want to be that and that and THAT. And by crafting our bucket list of desires we somehow have an even more substantial sense of this fragile aggregation that we delude ourselves into thinking has such solidity. Maybe I won't accomplish all of these things, after all, but the being that desires it to be so is my true self - the self that I truly am. Poppycock!


Happy New Year, everyone!

And have yourself one bucket list experience after another without ever even thinking them to be so!
  
     

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Sublime and the Profane..., Enlightenment and Shit (Part 2 of 2)


Readers of Part 1 might find it interesting as they read on that my unconscious mind was able to construct a far more refined metaphor for practice than the “sitting with a belly full of crap” one that my conscious mind was able to come up with. As you may recall, “sitting with a belly full of crap” refers to the fact that so much of our lives is comprised of situations and circumstances that we would just as soon flush away, if only we could. However, as stated in Part 1: “We can change our mind, we can even change our behavior; but the repercussions of our past mental and physical activity continue until such karma has been exhausted.” And so our practice becomes one of working with and working through our residual negative karma, all the while trying to refrain from creating such negativity anew.

I had a dream one night during sesshin. It began with me flying over a very picturesque city – with many lakes and streams, beautiful buildings and walkways, lush foliage and green spaces. Now, you might be wondering whether I was flying under my own power or not. Oddly, I don’t know the answer to that question. Anyway, I found myself strolling along one of those winding pathways with manicured lawns and trimmed hedges and bushes either side. It was a gorgeous day, and I was feeling very calm and content – so much so that I remained that way even after noticing a lion lying on the grass beside the pathway. He was sunning himself, seeming very calm and content as well. But there was no mistaking it; this was a lion, the real king of beasts, and he was not confined in any way whatsoever. Interestingly, this was more of a curiosity to me than any cause for alarm, and so I kept strolling on. Upon continuing, however, I began noticing lions everywhere I looked, each one just as calm and content as the first one –with just one exception. One of them had gotten up from his place on the grass and begun to follow me!


Oddly, I remained largely unperturbed. Yes, a wild beast was now following me, but there was a building just up ahead and I was confident that there was shelter there to be found. Unfortunately, though, the lion was closing on me, and so I walked a little faster. But as I walked faster, he walked faster; and as I broke into a speed walk, he broke into a trot. Then, just as he was upon me, the carcass of a huge bird – an ostrich, I presume – suddenly appeared on the path at my feet (aren’t dreams fascinating like that?). I picked it up and threw it to the lion, who instantly seemed quite satisfied with it instead of me. Given such a close call, I made haste toward the building, lest my luck should run out. It was a low, circular building with a bank of glass doors and an open courtyard in the middle with lots of sun and grass and plants – just like outside, as a matter of fact. Anyway, I was just about to open the door when I looked through it into that central courtyard where, lying in the middle, there lay yet another of the king of beasts – looking quite calm and content, so far...

Upon waking, I instantly recognized that this was a dream about my mind, although for some reason I was rather slow to realize that its inspiration must have been the statue of the bodhisattva Manjusri sitting atop the lion of his mind that had been staring over my shoulder for the previous few days. A simple enough dream, to be sure, but one whose meaning has continued to unfold for me over the ensuing weeks. (Please see Living With An Untamed Mind for more on the bodhisattva Manjusri and his lion.) Let me try to unpack some of this dream imagery…


Manjusri and Lion on Sanshinji's altar
Perhaps worthy of note to begin with is my lack of “real fear” in this dream. It was not a nightmare by any stretch. Whatever “fear” had me quickening my steps in order to reach the safety of the building was more akin to the kind of fear that we willingly cultivate when we watch a scary movie or enter a “haunted house” on Halloween. Even my realization while standing at the door of my presumed safe abode – that there was no escaping the wild beasts after all – was more of the ‘Aha! The jokes on me!’ variety than the ‘I am really screwed now’ variety.
So, the obvious lesson of the dream is that mind is everywhere; there is no escaping it. We don’t escape the wild beast by entering into meditation. We don’t escape it by saying goodbye to the mundane world and engaging in sesshin for a week. We don’t even escape it by going away to live in a monastery – a presumed utopian environment – for the rest of our lives. No, the wild beast is not one that can be escaped, although it might be assuaged for a time, it can only be met face to face so that it might be tamed. Which brings me to the symbolism of the ostrich carcass…

The wild beast of the mind is awakened by pain; it is awakened by being separated from whatever it is we think will bring us comfort and enjoyment in this moment. As I stated in Part 1, the rigor of sesshin – with its meditation periods one after another after another, day in and day out – nudges us inexorably to the limit of what we can mentally withstand. And the closer we get to our limit, the more desperately our mind seeks escape. Such escape takes the form of allowing ourselves to engage in daydreams and flights of fancy – anything that distracts us from the reality of the present moment. This amounts to throwing a carcass to the wild beast of our mind. It distracts it for a time, but does not tame it. It pushes off into the future that moment when we must really face ourselves. And so it is fitting that the carcass in my dream should be that of an ostrich – the bird that purportedly sticks its head into the sand in order to hide itself from danger!

Let’s return now to my dream’s beginning. As stated, I was flying over the landscape in some unknown manner. Perhaps this flying represents the pure consciousness of being – the ‘observing without attachment’ that accompanies deeper meditative states. Perhaps, commensurate with some belief systems, it represents the “spirit” surveying the manifest world for circumstances appropriate for a future rebirth. Each of these representations involves consciousness with at least one foot in the supramundane world, so to speak, observing the mundane world in which its next “footstep” will fall. Either way, the consciousness of my dream's beginning is one that recognizes the ultimate insubstantiality of appearances. This is the mind that adepts of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition implore us to cultivate in order that we might successfully navigate the bardo realm after the demise of our physical bodies. Thus, wild beasts do not invoke mortal fear, although in my dream they are not wholly ignored, either.

Come to think of it, this is very much like the attitude with which the bodhisattva faces this world of samsara, this world of cyclic death and rebirth – either on a moment-by-moment or a lifetime-by-lifetime basis. The bodhisattva realizes the ultimate insubstantiality of this manifest world, yet he or she does not deny the sufferings of the beings in this manifest world nor turn his or her back on them. Rather, even as the ultimate insubstantiality of the manifest world is recognized, the bodhisattva vows to save all beings “contained therein”. The reader may recall one of my earlier blog series on the Heart Sutra – the sutra related to the teaching that form is emptiness and emptiness form. At the close of the introductory post to that series I noted possible meanings for the fish carved into the mokugyo, the wooden fish drum that is used to keep time during the Heart Sutra’s chanting. The meaning that resonates with me as being most in keeping with Buddhist teaching is the one that says that the fish represent the approach to life that we should aspire to – the ability to navigate this ocean of samsara without drowning. Thus, when we encounter the vicissitudes of life, the suffering and loss that inevitably occur, let’s greet them as the reality of this great ocean in which we swim without allowing them to awaken the wild beast of our mind. And when we encounter others suffering due to the vicissitudes of their life, let’s be there for them in order that we might assuage their suffering in the present moment, and keep suffering from arising in their future. This is the Bodhisattva Way. This is the Middle Way. This is the way involving neither an attachment to, nor a denial of the reality of this world.


Mokugyo - Wooden Fish Drum
This will likely be my last post of this year. I wish everyone a  Happy New Year!  I wish for all of us that we might cultivate the mind that allows us to swim like fish in this ocean of samsara – no matter how “shitty” life might seem at times to have gotten!              


Image Credits

Lion photo courtesy of National Geographic via:


Image of Sanshinji’s altar with statue of Manjusri sitting atop the lion of his mind courtesy of the author.

Mokugyo image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via:



Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Sublime and the Profane..., Enlightenment and Shit (Part 1 of 2)


Siddhartha Gautama, after a long and (up until then) unsatisfying quest for ultimate wisdom, is said to have vowed to remain seated under the bodhi tree until either awakening to the true nature of reality or passing away. In between the time of that vow and the time of his awakening, Siddhartha is said to have been visited by many “demons” – demons that we modern contemplatives might best understand as the darker manifestations of Siddhartha Gautama’s mind. As the days and nights progressed these distractions became more and more intense, culminating, it is said, in the future Buddha facing one final but monumental doubt: What right did he have to such profound wisdom? It is said that Siddhartha Gautama then reached down to touch the earth, and as the morning star rose in the sky he realized enlightenment, he became Buddha – Awakened One. Much can be read into the symbolism of touching the earth, but I’m inclined to view it in terms of Siddhartha Gautama having recognized that his consciousness is a manifestation of the earth and all beings that came into being before him and with him, consciousness which would, in turn, set the stage for all beings yet to come.

From the PBS presentation: The Buddha

Zen Buddhists traditionally commemorate and imitate (as best they can, anyway) this important milestone in the development of human consciousness with a period of intense meditation known as rohatsu sesshin. Rohatsu, in Japanese, means “eighth day of the twelfth month”, and sesshin means “collecting” or “touching” the “heart-mind” (Aitken, 1992; Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994). Rohatsu sesshin, then, commonly refers to a period of intense meditation ending on the eighth day of December, the day that is recognized as the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment – sometimes celebrated as Bodhi Day.

At Sanshinji Temple, rohatsu sesshin consists of six days worth of fourteen 50-minute meditation periods commencing at 4:10 in the morning and continuing until 9:00 in the evening, and a seventh day of sixteen sittings ending at midnight. Perhaps it goes without saying that a week spent in such fashion is intensely difficult and challenging, but the precise nature of the challenge is only revealed as the days pass by and one’s personal karma unfolds within the general milieu of sleep and sensory deprivation, physical pain, and mental duress accompanying the seemingly endless rounds of seated meditation. This is the profane component of the story. The stress of so much sitting tends to bring out all of the ugliness that the mind is capable of generating – and that is actually quite a lot. Don’t say you don’t believe in the Jungian conceptualization of the shadow until you’ve spent some time in meditation in this way! And, yet, the process of watching as the mind reveals its shadows, without identifying with them nor denying them, provides insight into the nature of the self, i.e. its emptiness, its impermanence, its dependence upon causes and conditions. Such insight is truly sublime indeed.    

This story begins on the morning of my third day of sesshin (I arrived at Sanshinji a couple of days late due to my work schedule): Now, some people will contend that sitting zazen is good for digestion due to all of that diaphragmatic breathing gently massaging the lower alimentary canal and all. I suspect that this is probably true, in general. However, it is my experience that the effect on my aging digestive system of all of that deep, rhythmic breathing is to turn it into something more akin to a trash compactor than a conveyer belt…, if you know what I mean. And by the beginning of my third day my little trash compactor had been churning right along with no end in sight!

In a fog of sleepiness, I sketched out a plan for the coming few hours: I would “power through” the pre-dawn sittings without relying on any caffeine. Then, since I was not assigned any post-breakfast cleanup duties that day, I would grab a brief but suitably relaxing catnap – waking in time to brew a pot of coffee and partake in sufficient enough quantity thereof that my system might be nudged into, um…, “activity” prior to the commencement of the next round of five, count ‘em, five sittings.

The plan was going quite well. Breakfast was enjoyable, as always. The catnap was just enough to sweep away the sleepiness of having awakened so early. I watched patiently as the coffee maker gurgled its delightful mantra in the little kitchenette just outside of the zendo. It was going to be dark; it was going to be rich…; and, most importantly, it was going to be “energizing”. Unfortunately, though, that delightful mantra was interrupted by a little hiccup that preceded a muddy mixture of steaming water and coffee grounds overflowing from the brewing receptacle and spilling out onto the counter. What happened next was a flurry of activity that didn’t end until the mess was cleaned up and I’d salvaged as much of the priceless beverage as could be salvaged. All was not lost! My plan was still on track! Sip after quick sip, I partook of the fine brew – enjoying the sensation of it awakening my body and mind. My gut was talking to me again. “Varoom!” it said. Ah, but what’s this activity outside the kitchen door? People are beginning to assemble again for zazen. I looked at the clock. “Shit!” It was time to take my seat once again.

Almost as soon as I’d settled into zazen it occurred to me what a perfect lesson I’d been given – profane as it might be: Much of our karma is like sitting with a belly full of crap that we’d love to get rid of but can’t. Isn’t it the case that we often realize the error of our ways long before we cease experiencing the negative consequences of those ways? Yes, we can change our mind…, we can even change our behavior; but the repercussions of our past mental and physical activity continue until such karma has been exhausted. This playing out of karma is not magic. Think of it in terms of a chronic liar who must be proven truthful time and time again before people return to trusting him, or an alcoholic who must maintain sobriety for months or even years before her family will really believe that she has changed.

Much, or maybe even all, of spiritual practice takes place within the context of “sitting with a belly full of crap”. We want to get rid of so many things! That jerk of a boss, the illness that we’ve contracted, a relationship that’s gone sour, the financial mess we’ve become mired in, the meaninglessness that we feel, the depression that weighs us down, the anxiety that has our heart racing when least we expect it, our grief at the loss of a loved one, the contentiousness that seems to permeate all of our interactions – wouldn’t we love to simply wave our hands and make them all go away? And yet all we can really do is take a really hard look at the causes and conditions that brought these things into existence in our lives, recalibrate our outlook and our intention, adjust our behavior, and maintain patience as the karma that we’ve created plays out.

But here’s the beauty of it all: We don’t have to wait for all of the crap in our lives to get flushed away before realizing awakening. Awakening occurs just as soon as we see our lives as they really are, for what they really are. Flowers sprout from the compost pile if given the opportunity!

Part 2: A wild beast wherever I turn! Please stay tuned…

           

References

Aitken, R. (1992). Some words about sesshin for newcomers to Zen practice. Transcription of a lecture given at Sydney Zen Center, accessed via http://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/zen/aitken-0.txt

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

  

Image Credits

Image of Buddha, Bodhi Tree, and morning star via:
 


Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Friday, November 29, 2013

Tripping Through Life


Live each moment
as if you've just tripped
and you're using your entire being
to right yourself.
 
I’ve rekindled my love of trail running this past year. In part because I’m healthy enough to once again veer from the beaten path, but also because trail running is one of the times that I feel most fully alive – when the level of physical exertion sufficiently subdues my overly active brain such that consciousness and space and time are brought into perfect synchrony. Of course, the occasional tumble is something that goes with the territory when running trails – especially if you’re winding your way up and down steep single-track full of roots and rock. Such was the inspiration for the text and visual accompanying this post.
 
 
 
 

 

When we trip and lose our balance we instantly commence doing whatever must be done in order to right ourselves. We thrust a foot here and an arm there; we twist our torso and angle our neck in such a way as to precisely change our center of gravity and keep a tumble from taking place. And if our balance is too far gone, then we stretch our arms out in front of us in order to break our fall, or we lower a shoulder and prepare to roll with whatever the ground has in store. When we trip and proceed to right ourselves, or prepare for our inability to do so, we give to the moment everything that we have that is pertinent to our circumstances – unhindered by our neuroses, our delusions and misperceptions, our overvalued beliefs, or our feelings of inadequacy or superiority. The leg does not fight with the arm and the eye does not deceive the hand. All aspects of what we are work together in perfect measure and perfect synchrony such that we are once again brought into accord with that which is – the ground down there, the sky up there, the roots and rocks, the arms and legs.

 
I don’t know the origin of the following question, but I heard it posed within the context of a Zen talk for very good reason: “How does a tiger catch a mouse?” Of course, you know the answer already: “With the entirety of its being!” The tiger cannot assume that its size and strength will be enough to catch the mouse. It can’t assume that just a swipe of its paw will suffice. It can’t enjoy the warm sunshine with part of its being and devote the rest to the apprehension of that little mouse. No, if the tiger really wants to catch the mouse it must invest its entire being in the endeavor. Anything less and the mouse will very likely scamper free. Those of us with multi-tasking tendencies (and, yes, I am one) may want to ponder the implications of this some time when we’re not doing anything else!

 
For Zen Buddhists the world over, rohatsu sesshin is about to begin. Rohatsu, with its abundance of intensive meditation, is the perfect opportunity to practice living life as if we’ve just tripped and have instantly begun devoting the entirety of our being to regaining our balance. Moment by moment we are tripping and falling. Moment by moment we are marshalling every fiber of our being toward bringing ourselves into accord with what is.

 
Wishing everyone a solid sesshin practice and a very solid and stable life – with each moment spent tripping and falling and bringing oneself back into balance.

 

 
Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Dance Of Compassion And Gratitude


Compassion and gratitude are well-known fruits of spiritual practice – arising spontaneously as a result of our increasing awareness of the nature of our existence, its fleetingness, and the mystery of life itself. But compassion and gratitude are also like partners in a dance – with awareness of the compassion that has been shown to us inspiring gratitude, and gratitude for the sufficiency that we are blessed with inspiring us to act with greater compassion in the world. At times this dance of compassion and gratitude is engaged in with such grace that it is difficult to determine where one ends and the other begins. At other times, however, toes are stepped on or one of the partners trips and falls.

 
For example, have you ever been in a situation in which someone wants to show their gratitude to the group by bringing in a box of donuts or something only to find that everyone is either counting their calories or watching their cholesterol or boycotting ABC Donuts for not serving fair trade coffee, or who knows what else? And while counting calories and watching cholesterol and boycotting ABC Donuts for not serving fair trade coffee are all very important concerns, so is showing compassion to a sincere giver by accepting his or her gift with gratitude – however “imperfect” it may be. Joyfully receiving a gift is a gift in and of itself.

 
But what if it’s the case that Jacques has brought ABC Donuts in to work knowing full well that Marissa has been wrestling with her weight, and Lavon has been struggling with losing his father to heart disease even as he himself has been diagnosed with high cholesterol, and Suze, long an advocate of fair trade principles, has made it known repeatedly that she has tried to get ABC to serve a fair trade blend of coffee to no avail. So that leaves Sven and Li courteously nibbling on donuts that they don’t really like and Jacques taking home the remainder to go stale, wishing all the while that his coworkers would have been more receptive to his offer. Yes, yes, yes, it’s the thought that counts. But maybe Jacques could have expressed his gratitude to the group with a little more thought, a little more awareness, a little more compassionate sensitivity to the issues that are important to them. So it seems that the dance of compassion and gratitude is one that can be engaged in nimbly, seemingly without a leader or follower, or one that can be engaged in clumsily, with many toes stepped on and the potential for hard feelings all around.       



Blind Man's Meal by Pablo Picasso


 
Would it be too mystical of me to wonder whether this dance of compassion and gratitude is, in fact, the dance of life itself? Could it be that the tree shows its gratitude to the sun and earth and rain by compassionately providing shelter and food to other living things? Could it be that the rabbit shows its gratitude to the lush grass by compassionately providing a meal to the fox? And might it be the case that the fox, in turn, shows it’s gratitude to the rabbit by compassionately keeping them from becoming so overpopulated that they begin to suffer from hunger and disease? Sound crazy? Yes, I suppose it does when viewed from our usual vantage point. When viewed through the lens of Native American spirituality, on the other hand, such ideas no longer sound so crazy after all. In Native American spirituality, for instance, the elk or the bear is considered to have shown compassion to the hunter by allowing itself to be taken. Kirwan (1999) describes this process nicely:

[T]he act of hunting, or more precisely the taking of the sacred game that offers itself up to the Native American, is a process of understanding and communication between the animal and the individual. In many ways the hunter must almost ‘be’ the game, an exchange of identity aided by the Native American perspective of the union between nature and culture. (p. 7)

Being shown such compassion by the natural world is not unconditional, however. There are certain requirements that the hunter must fulfill. Kirwan goes on:

These requirements are the respect and thanks that the Native American offers to the caribou for giving up his life in order for the hunter’s people to live. (p. 7)

Perhaps, then, thinking of life as a dance of compassion and gratitude is not so crazy after all. And, yes, it is a dance that Native Americans understand must be engaged in with great awareness.

 
There is a version of a story contained in the Jataka Tales – stories purportedly detailing the previous lives of the Buddha – in which a prince, while out on a hunting excursion, happens upon a starving tigress and her cubs. With a compassionate heart the prince concocts a story to get his hunting companions to go off and leave him alone, at which time he allows himself to be eaten by the tigress so that she and her cubs might live. The interested reader might want to check out another version of this story in which the compassionate actor is a guru wandering in the forest with his ascetic protégé. Regardless of the differences, each of these versions involves an individual with much to be grateful for, whether a prince with material abundance or a guru with abundant spiritual insight, compassionately offering his own body as food for the sake of the larger web of life. Schelling (1991) says of such stories:

I do believe… that the Jataka Tales register the first instance in written literature of what I'd call cross-species compassion, or jataka Mind, an immediate and unqualified empathy shown towards creatures not of one's own biological species. Perhaps the tales retain traces of a universal contract between living creatures, so long ago vanished that no one remembers its ancient imperatives. With a bow to the old stories, jataka Mind is that conscious human behavior which bears a whiff of that old way of thinking. Tales like the one just recounted were meant to waken a notion of kinship that sweeps across animal species.

 
Call it “a universal contract between living creatures” or call it “a dance of compassion and gratitude”; either way it is an expression of Life’s mutuality – mutuality that our very existence requires, but with which we modern Western consumers could be a little bit better acquainted. Oh, sure, we understand the concept of gratitude well enough. In America we even honor it with its own national holiday. But instead of merely expressing our gratitude, perhaps we could be a little bit more practiced at showing our gratitude. No, no, no let’s become adept at living our gratitude by engaging in a more compassionate relationship with all of life and this earth that we share.

 
Must we head out west and offer ourselves up as grizzly bear food in order to express such compassion? No, that would probably not be the most productive expression of our compassion, and it would likely just end up with the grizzly being killed. However, we might take action to ensure that grizzly habitat is preserved so that we may peacefully coexist. Generally speaking, the healthy maintenance of large predator habitat such as that which allows grizzlies to thrive is indicative of a healthy ecosystem in total. So if lions and tigers and bears remain healthy and happy, the entire world is probably healthy and happy. We might also strive to eat less meat in order to diminish our impact on the environment, or at least strive to increase our awareness of how those animals that we do eat have been treated throughout their lives and during the process of their lives being sacrificed for our sake. In case you are not yet aware, many factory farming practices are simply inhumane and abhorrent. We might also strive to live a less wasteful and materialist existence so that we use fewer resources, thereby allowing more and cleaner habitat to exist for the sake of others both human and non-human.

 
Give it a try – consciously and with intention. With both compassion and gratitude, try bringing the well-being of all of Life into your awareness. You might just realize how much you like to dance after all!




Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

 

References

Kirwan, P. (1999) The emergent land: Nature and ecology in Native American expressive forms. PaGes – Arts Postgraduate Research in Progress; Volume 6, 1999. Faculty of Arts, University College, Dublin. www.ucd.ie/pages/99/articles/kirwan.pdf

Schelling, A. (1991) Jataka mind: Cross-species compassion from ancient India to Earth First! Tricycle; Fall, 1991. http://www.tricycle.com/feature/jataka-mind

 
 

Image Credits

Blind Man’s Meal by Picasso via:


 

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Friday, November 15, 2013

Tending Horses As The World Warms


At least one thing about reality on which we all can agree (I hope), is that it’s going to be whatever it will be regardless of what we might believe. We can argue all day long about how the world began and why, and what we’re doing here, but the only conclusion that we may ever agree on is that we’re here – period. The next step is to work together to figure out what we’re going to do about it. Perhaps that’s why Buddhist practice still resonates with me after all these years; because day in and day out, throughout all of the joys and sorrows of life, it keeps holding a mirror up to my face and reminding me: you’re here, now what are you going to do about it?

 
There seems to be a human tendency to get lost in our stories, to build grand cities out of brick-pallets full of concepts mortared together with belief, to invent metaphysical realities that are untestable until such time that we finally pass away – and maybe not even then if it just so happens that the observant soul embodied by each of us “scientists” ends up passing away along with the “experiment” that is our life and death. Perhaps that’s why Zen Buddhist practice in particular resonates with me; because it ultimately boils down to unbelieving everything that we’ve been taught to believe from a very early age, and replacing it with a very deep and profound realization of the reality that is right before our eyes: that every “thing” is dependent upon everything else, that no “thing” enjoys a permanent and independent existence, that every “thing” is empty of selfhood – even ourselves. In fact, contrary to all of the hype and romanticism, this is all that enlightenment is – a deep and profound realization of the interdependence, the impermanence, and the emptiness of all phenomena.
 

 
Satellite image of Typhoon Haiyan bearing down on the Philippines.
 
 

This past week Typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest storms ever recorded, plowed through the Philippines – proving, in case it needed any proving, that absolutely nothing that we call our own can stand up to the destructive power of nature. Our lives and our families, our homes and communities and cities – anything and everything that we can spend our whole lives building up can be torn down in an instant. Everything is impermanent.

 
In Shime, a fascicle of the Shobogenzo, Dogen Zenji relates the following teaching:

The Buddha once told his monks that there were four kinds of horses. The first, upon seeing the shadow of the riding crop, is startled and forthwith follows the wish of its rider. The second, startled when the crop touches its hair, forthwith follows the wish of its rider. The third is startled after the crop touches its flesh. The fourth is awakened only after the touch of the riding crop is felt in its bones. (Nearman 2007, p. 1045)

Forget what you might be thinking about animal abuse or the appropriateness of fear as motivation. The Buddha is talking about us waking up to reality – whether our awakening comes upon listening to his (the rider’s) teachings related to birth, old age, sickness, and death, or whether our awakening comes at the hands of life itself, riding us hard and putting us away wet (and old, and sick, and dead). Dogen continues:

The first horse is like a man who realizes impermanence when he learns of a death in a neighboring village. The second horse is like a man who realizes this when death occurs in his own village. The third is like a man who does not awaken this mind [the mind that realizes impermanence] until death occurs among his own family, and the forth horse is like a man who awakens this mind only when his own death is imminent. (Nishiyama, 1975; Vol. 3, p. 113)





 
The storm that swept through the Philippines this past week was so big that even this country that normally weathers some twenty typhoons each year was found woefully unprepared. Consider this extreme weather event along with those closer to our own “village”, like Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and you might be wondering whether there is a trend. Here’s what the somewhat circumspect National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) has to say about that, at least with respect to hurricane activity over the Atlantic Ocean:

A large increase in the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes [the most severe] has been observed in the Atlantic since 1980. But… this period is too short to be able to distinguish a long-term trend from the multi-decadal fluctuations that are known to exist in the Atlantic. (Source: NOAA)

By the way, such storms are called typhoons when they occur in the Northwest Pacific Ocean, hurricanes when they occur in the Atlantic and Northeast Pacific Ocean, and cyclones when they occur in the Southwest Pacific and Indian Oceans (NOAA).

 
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is a little more conclusive in its assessment of the situation. They point to greenhouse gas-induced global warming as the predominant factor increasing the likelihood of such weather events as Haiyan, Sandy, and Katrina, saying:

The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is very likely human-induced and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the past 1,300 years….

The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases was demonstrated in the mid-19th century. Their ability to affect the transfer of infrared energy through the atmosphere is the scientific basis of many instruments flown by NASA. Increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause the Earth to warm in response. (Source: NASA)




Levels of carbon dioxide from 400,000 years ago to this past July, 2013.




This same NASA source goes on to state that global warming due to human-generated greenhouse gas emissions is likely the cause of our shrinking ice sheets and glaciers, and the declining arctic sea ice. Such melting ice has caused sea levels to rise, thereby resulting in increased damage caused by the coastal storm surges that accompany those hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones that reach land. Warming oceans also have the potential to cause more intense ocean storms, and the ability of warm air to hold more moisture has the potential to cause more torrential inland rainstorms. Furthermore, dissolved carbon dioxide forms carbonic acid, which acidifies the oceans and makes it more difficult for corals and seashells to form, thereby endangering entire ocean ecosystems. Is there any better evidence than these interrelated causes and conditions that every “thing” is dependent upon everything else, that no “thing” enjoys a permanent and independent existence, that every “thing” is empty of selfhood – even ourselves. How can we even begin to think that we are independent of the environment?

 
The question for Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, then, is what kind of horse will we be? We have already missed our chance to that first kind of horse – the one that merely has to see the shadow of the riding crop in order to understand what must be done. Those scientists that first realized the potential consequences of the greenhouse effect are due that honor. We might have also missed our chance to be one of the second types of horses as well. So, will it really take each and every one of us experiencing some catastrophe impacting our families or ourselves before we become enlightened to the consequences of our actions – before we wake up and begin asking ourselves: “What are we going to do about it?”  Please consider making a cash donation to the American Red Cross in order to help our Filipino brothers and sisters in this time of great need.

 

Postscript: Now, some readers might be tempted to throw my words back at me, saying: “You said that everything is impermanent. Well, aren’t our climate patterns impermanent, too? Shouldn’t we just accept this as part of life?” To this I would respond: “Yes, and you know that everyone in your immediate family will one day die, but if you found out that you were inadvertently doing something that might poison them to death, you would stop, wouldn’t you?”

  

References

 
Nearman, H. (2007). Shobogenzo: the treasure house of the eye of the true teaching (H. Nearman, Trans.) Published by Shasta Abbey Press. (Shime was compiled and transcribed from Dogen’s original manuscript by Ejo in 1255.) http://www.shastaabbey.org/pdf/shobo/090shime.pdf

Nishiyama, K. (1975). Shobogenzo: the eye and treasury of the true law, Vol. III. (K. Nishiyama, Trans.) Published by Nakayama Shobo Buddhist Book Store. (Shime was compiled and transcribed from Dogen’s original manuscript by Ejo in 1255.)

 

Image Credits

 
Nov. 7, 2013 image of Typhoon Haiyan bearing down on the Philippines courtesy of the Japan Meteorological Agency and EUMETSAT via:


Image of atmospheric carbon dioxide over time courtesy of NASA via:  


 

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Friday, November 8, 2013

Zombies - The Perfect Other


What is it with this zombie craze, anyway? There’s got to be more to it than just a macabre fascination with images of the rotting and decrepit “undead” shambling after hapless humans or getting messily dispatched by the “good guys”, right? So, does it help us come to grips with the uneasy sense of entitlement we humans have sitting here at the top of the food chain? Does it reflect some vague realization that humankind is self-destructing before our very eyes? Does it amount to a cultural catharsis, comical at times, for what is otherwise a very dark and apocalyptic foreboding? Perhaps, as a reader of my Do Zombies Have Buddha Nature? post suggested, we recognize in those zombies just a little too much of our own entertainment-addled, substance-addled, and meaningless work-addled selves. I suspect that all of these elements and more account for our fascination with zombies. However, as the title of this post suggests, I’d like to focus on one in particular: zombies as the perfect other. Let me explain.

 
It is the usual state of affairs that we define ourselves in terms of both that which we are and that which we are not. No, this is not a very “Buddhist” thing to do in the ultimate sense, but we do it nonetheless, and from a Western psychological perspective it is generally considered part of healthy development. We individuate. We differentiate. We form a healthy ego. And so it is that we come to look at the world in terms of self and other.




From Tony Moore's 'Walking Dead'



The process of self-formation is gradual (generally speaking), continuous, and utilitarian. It is at times quite simplistic and at other times exceedingly complex. For instance, I am flesh and bone, unlike that rock over there. However, I might make use of that rock in order to build a house in which to shelter myself or to go rabbit hunting if I’m feeling particularly hungry. I am Mark Frank, unlike Gerhard Frost over there. No, I can’t just go walking into Gerhard’s house without causing a disturbance, but if we should happen to become friends, then he might decide to invite me in to share a meal or a drink or some good conversation. Furthermore, I am at times a mystical rationalist, at other times a rational mystic. I’m a Christian come Buddhist existentialist, a social and political progressive, an economic pragmatist, a compassionate empowerer, a selectively technology-embracing Luddite, a lover and a loner… Of course, I could go on; as could we all. And each time we name something that we are, we are essentially naming that which we are not. (See A Gestalt View Of No-Self for more on this idea.) So as we construct our concept of self we also, by necessity, construct our concept of other.



This ongoing construction of self and other is a process of practical negotiation and discovery. We discover that inanimate objects like rocks do not feel pain as we do, and even animate objects like Gerhard do not feel “our” pain – at least not in the physical sense. We find that Christianity is something that resonates with us in some meaningful way or it does not, or perhaps it resonates with us for a time and then ceases to have such meaning. And while this process of negotiation and discovery might be disruptive at times, it need not necessarily be violent. For instance, when my Christian faith began to wane, I felt the need for a time to be more critical of Christianity than perhaps the average “non-believer” would be. As the development of my concept of self continued, however, I became able to integrate more fully those Christian and non-Christian aspects of who I was/am, thereby resulting in a greater sense of peace and wholeness. I didn’t have to go to war with Christians in order to differentiate myself from Christians and Christianity.

 
Of course it is quite obvious that we humans do war with each other based on our conceptualizations of self. History has been a constant interplay of this self taking the land of that other, and that self enslaving this other for their labor, and the self that is in power ensuring that as many resources as possible fall under their control instead of being used for the sake of those others. Ah, but such warring requires justification, for we are “moral” selves, as well. That which we do for the sake of the physical well-being of the self must also be adequately self-justified in order for us to continue living with a sense of psychic and emotional well-being. And so it is that we ponder “just war” against others, and rationalize the inhumane and torturous treatment of others, and condone the remote drone-strike assassination of others – all in the name of the peace and safety of the self. This is not easy! We must expend incredible amounts of psychic energy in order to keep ourselves blinded to the fact that the other feels pain just as we do, that the other wants peace and safety just as we do, that the other desires to be happy just as we do. Enter, the perfect other!

 
The perfect other feels no pain. The perfect other has no will. Even its unwavering existential need to devour us is not willed – it is simply a predetermined matter of fact. The perfect other has no discernable reason to exist other than to threaten the well-being of the self. In fact, the perfect other is not even “really” alive! For all of these reasons, the perfect other can be annihilated without any sense of remorse, without any moral reflection, without any spiritual consequence whatsoever.

 
What concerns me, then, about this zombie craze, is that it strikes me as a way for us to toy with this idea of the perfect other, to try it on for size, to see how it fits our psyche just in case we decide to make use of it one day. And perhaps that day is already here. For one need not search for very long before finding evidence of the projection of zombification onto others. Whether we’re talking about terrorists who “just hate our freedoms” or those from another political party who “have no mind of their own” save for that which is deposited within the rotting fleshiness of their cranial receptacle by charismatic leaders or talk-radio hosts, we are, in essence, sizing them up to see how this concept of the perfect other might fit them. And heaven help us if we should ever decide that it does.

 
 

Image Credits

Walking Dead illustration by Tony Moore:


 
 

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

Friday, October 25, 2013

Do Zombies Have Buddha-Nature?


Okay, I’ve written a Buddhist Christmas post and a Buddhist Easter post…, why not a Buddhist Halloween post? If you think about it, Buddhism and Halloween do seem to go together well. After all, Buddhism – especially Tibetan Buddhism – has its fair share of stories about demons and hell realms and whatnot. And what is the bardo realm if not a veritable haunted house of the mind! Indeed, no matter what we might say to the contrary, any Buddhist who believes in reincarnation is without a doubt motivated, at least in part, by a desire to keep from being reborn in one of the hell realms, or as a hungry ghost perhaps. And those who don’t necessarily believe in reincarnation still seek to refrain from creating hell realms here in the present moment, or being reborn in one in the next. So why not bring our fears of these demons and hell realms out into the open by celebrating them at least one night each year!
 
 
From Tony Moore's 'Walking Dead'
 
 
I was inspired to write this post after catching parts of a couple of episodes of the Walking Dead television series with my partner and her kids. Being prone to over-thinking things, as I am, I started pondering the deeper psychological meaning of this current zombie craze. More on that later… First, though, we’ve got some very Buddhist questions to ponder: 1) Do zombies have buddha-nature? In other words, is it possible for them to one day become buddhas? 2) How should a Buddhist behave in the midst of a zombie apocalypse? 3) How much compassion should a Buddhist show to a zombie should one be encountered in whatever post-apocalyptic world might come to pass? Let’s consider these questions in turn.

Do zombies have buddha-nature? Depending on what school of Buddhism you feel most comfortable with, the answer to this question will range from ‘no’ to ‘maybe’ to ‘yes’ to ‘mu’. Theravada Buddhism, for instance, does not recognize the existence of buddha-nature at all. Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, posits that all beings are inherently endowed with buddha-nature (Schuhmacher and Woerner, 1994, p. 49). The question might then become: Are zombies actually beings? As you know, zombies are often thought of as being “undead” – something not “really” alive, but not quite dead, either. Would this make them non-beings? Frankly, this strikes me as little more than wordplay. For just as humans arise due to certain causes and conditions that give rise to human existence, so zombies arise as a result of related causes and conditions that give rise to zombie existence.

From a Buddhist perspective, when we call something “undead” we are merely revealing our continuing fixation on whatever “it” was that was once alive. Such fixation or conceptual attachment is, of course, something that Buddhists strive to move beyond. Sure, we might grieve for our friend “Pablo” who was recently zombied in an unprovoked attack by a wandering zombie. But the reality of the situation is that the erstwhile existence of “Pablo” combined with the bite of a shambling zombie has provided the causes and conditions for something altogether different. That something happens to be a rotting, ambulatory, and human flesh-eating entity, yes, but it is not “undead” at all. Life has merely transitioned from one form to another. 

Why are we so quick to think of zombies as being lifeless, anyway? It’s fairly clear to see that they do, in fact, display at least rudimentary sentience. They sense the proximity of food, (human flesh) and they ambulate toward it (us) in order to survive. This would seem to be at least as much sentience as a heliotropic flower, for instance. Now, that’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but do zombies have the potential to obtain buddhahood through appropriate spiritual practice – a capacity that is often associated with buddha-nature?

True enough, zombies are usually depicted as lacking the capacity of free will with which they might choose to engage in wholesome spiritual practice. It might seem then that buddhahood would be out of the question. But the same could be said of any non-human being – that they have no capacity to aspire to buddhahood. And is it not the case that the beings in the various hell-realms eventually exhaust their bad karma, thereby opening up the possibility of their being reborn in some way that is advantageous to their spiritual progress? Might the same hold true for zombies? Perhaps this plane of existence is merely the hell realm in which certain beings, as a result of their past bad karma, must abide in their zombie state until their bad karma is exhausted. Thus, it would seem potentially dangerous for our own spiritual well-being to treat zombies as if they are bereft of buddha-nature.

 
How then should a Buddhist behave in the midst of a zombie apocalypse? Indeed, this is a very important question. We wouldn’t want to behave in a way that increases suffering and causes the accumulation of bad karma, would we? After all, that might land us in one of the hell realms.

It would seem then – given the aforementioned discussion as to the specious nature of claims that zombies are somehow not really a life form at all – that the best course of action would be to treat zombies with the same compassion that Buddhists show all life forms. That is, we should consider very seriously that the taking of a zombie’s life – no matter how “undead” it might appear to be – might actually result in the accumulation of bad karma such that it would not bode well for our future existence. So, is there some way to behave toward zombies that doesn’t require the annihilation of either party? And that brings us to the third question.

 
How much compassion should a Buddhist show to a zombie should one be encountered in whatever post-apocalyptic world might come to pass? Aye, there’s the rub! And yet the only way that we can truly aspire to buddhahood is to let go of our dualistic ideas regarding “us” and “them”. Might we then attempt to find a cure for zombie-ism perhaps, or find a way to quarantine “them” so that “we” are no longer in danger, or find some other way to arrive at homeostasis – much like the foxes and the rabbits, or the bears and the spawning salmon?

Well, as much as I might hope for this possibility, a reasoned consideration of the matter reveals a bleak situation indeed. A study by Munz, Hudea, Imad, and Smith (2009) entitled When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling Of An Outbreak Of Zombie Infection considered various responses to what is commonly hypothesized to occur in the wake of a zombie apocalypse. According to this analysis, quarantining is likely to merely forestall the total eradication of human life in all but the most difficult to obtain circumstances. Thus, being humane and compassionate may, in fact, be detrimental to the continuing existence of human life.

What about a cure, then? The authors considered this possibility and concluded that, under the modeled conditions, homeostasis might possibly be reached with humans existing only in low numbers – vastly outnumbered by zombies. Many humans would find this to be an untenable situation, but it might serve us well to reflect upon why we think this to be so.

Perhaps a combined quarantine/cure model would yield a far more acceptable outcome from an anthropocentric perspective. However, this potential complication was not separately modelled. Instead, the authors recommended a course of action referred to as “impulsive eradication”. The “impulsive eradication” model involved the martialing of whatever human resources might be available in order to kill as many zombies as possible whenever such opportunity presented itself. The goal in this scenario is, of course, the total eradication of the zombies.

So, it would seem that the potential exists for us humans to reclaim “our” way of life – to the detriment of all zombies everywhere, of course. But at what spiritual cost to each and every one of us? What will we humans have become if ‘the martialing of whatever human resources might be available’ involves each and every one of us turning into ruthless and unrepentant killers bent on wiping out an entire group of beings – however “undead” that group might seem to be?

 
We know not if or when a zombie apocalypse might occur. However, of one thing we can be certain. Should a zombie apocalypse occur we will have little time to ponder an appropriate course of action. Scientific studies and zombie lore might tell us how to survive, but only deeper spiritual enquiry can tell us how to live.

 
Oh, yeah! And what about the deeper psychological meaning of this current zombie craze, anyway. I suppose I’ll have to leave that question for an upcoming post…

 

References

Munz, P., Hudea, I., Imad, J., Smith, R.J. (2009). When zombies attack!: Mathematical modelling of an outbreak of zombie infection. Tchuenche, J.M. and Chiyaka, C. Editors. Nova Science Publishers, Inc. http://www.mathstat.uottawa.ca/~rsmith/Zombies.pdf

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

  

Image Credits

Walking Dead illustration by Tony Moore:
 

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank