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