man embraces night
darkness observes city
whirring laptop glows
By James R. Ure
Meditation, simply defined, is a way of being aware. It is the happy marriage of doing and being. It lifts the fog of our ordinary lives to reveal what is hidden; it loosens the knot of self-centeredness and opens the heart; it moves us beyond mere concepts to allow for a direct experience of reality. Meditation embodies the way of awakening: both the path and its fruition. From one point of view, it is the means to awakening; from another, it is awakening itself.
- Lama Surya Das, "The Heart-Essence of Buddhist Meditation" (Winter 2007)
James: This is one of the best and most complete yet concise descriptions of meditation that I have come across in my years of practicing Buddhism. The following analysis is one aspect to how I've come to understand meditation. I don't claim it to be the ultimate analysis, explanation or "answer."
I am not an ordained teacher, so please, don't just believe what I write here as truth--contemplate upon it for yourself and if you find it helps you in your life's quest then great. It not, then I hope you at least enjoyed the Lama Surya Das quote. Meditation isn't about relaxation despite it bringing that about at times while sitting. It isn't about some metaphysical experience though such experiences are possible. Those are both interesting things but are still distractions along the path from the true goal of awakening to the ultimate reality that we are not ourselves because we are bigger than ourselves.
We are not ourselves because we are interconnected with all things and are more than just the summation of our personal experiences. Buddhism does not require destroying all of the things that make up your personality--that is a partial truth. The full truth is that you are more than just, "you" and that realization allows us to let go of defending what we perceive to be "us" because that interconnected nature surpasses it. The "self" no longer seems like something to protect and hang onto but rather as a limiting box of suffering that isolates us from each other and the interdependent wonder of an awakened view of the world.
~Peace to all beings~
Jeff Bridges has been one of my favorite actors since The Big Lebowski, so I was thrilled to hear about his interest in Buddhism. He was featured in a great discussion between himself and Zen Peacemaker Bernie Glassman. This is part 1--Part 2 will be released next week. Watch the video from Tricycle, (Click here) before reading my analysis of this interview below:
First off, I too found a hint of Zen in Bridges' character "The Dude" in the aforementioned movie but I was more struck by the idea of bringing dignity to those who need some assistance with food. We are good at having pity upon people but being able to help others while helping them maintain their dignity and sense of importance as a human being is less evident in some programs--especially government ones. So, I'm excited to hear about what Bridges and Glassman are up to.
I also liked the idea of setting up Dharma centers that include a cafe that helps feed those who might need a meal or two but doing it in a way where they feel good about being there. That's why Glassman is calling them cafes where they'd be designed to be a comfortable place that you'd want to visit even if you didn't have a hungry stomach. Places that have live musicians providing a nice atmosphere including kid friendly elements. I like that he is working to bring the Dharma center to everyone and not just those who are attending for the day like attending a spa as he put it. Sometimes we can get so self-interested (ironically) while practicing the Dharma instead of how can we use our time at the Dharma center to also help others in our community.
I was even more happy to hear that Glassman would set these up, so that there isn't any proselytizing or "spiritual strings attached" to the help. I get really annoyed by spiritual groups who help people but only after those needing the help listen to a sermon. That's using their basic human needs against them to further push an agenda that is based less on unconditional help and more on running up the numbers of believers. Overall a great intimate discussion. Can't wait for part 2.
The one and only Dalai Lama will be coming to Radio City May 20th-22nd teaching six sessions of holiness and you can receive a free pair of tickets to hear him speak on May 20th! All you have to do is Follow @MSGnyc on Twitter and RT (re-tweet) the following tweet below to enter:
RT @MSGnyc: Win a pair of tix to see the one and only @DalaiLama 5/20 at Radio City! Follow & RT to enter! http://bit.ly/bbxASu
More info on the sessions here: http://www.radiocity.com/
James: I've been reading the excellent blog, "Genkaku Again" for awhile now and always come away from reading his posts with a view of something that I hadn't noticed before. For example, I've often wondered about the authenticity of the canon's claiming to be the words of Buddha but I eventually realized that it's more important if the teachings work than who actually said them. So, when I read this post about the literal nature of Buddhist writings and teachings over at Genkaku's blog--I was riveted:
On a BBC Buddhist bulletin board, in a thread asking "what was the source of Buddha's wisdom?" one fellow, who describes himself as a "peaceful Muslim" posted this:
Do we have anything written by the Buddha himself; or you have guessed it simply in your imagination?I purely love the question because I purely love the answer that I come up with, i.e., yes, we have simply guessed it in our imaginations. Of course there is nothing written by Gautama Buddha himself any more than there is anything written by Jesus himself or, for all I know, Mohammad himself. Everything was written after the fact, usually out of a strong oral tradition, by disciples and friends and adherents. So it's all second hand at best. And even those who get the word straight from the horse's mouth -- who heard some exalted poo-bah uttering one pearl or another ... STILL we "guessed it" in our imaginations. And so it goes in all spiritual endeavor. Anything called "authentic" is not yet authentic because the one hearing it has not yet put it to the test.
The political situation in Thailand of late (the past two months) has been intense to watch unfold and tensions seems wound tighter than a stretched and fraying rope. There have been protests of the elitists in Thailand (The government, military, entrenched business interests, and some claim the monarchy) by the poor and working classes called, "The Red Shirts" over a perceived lack of say in affairs of the state. In the past the King has intervened during protests to calm the situation but some say that the monarchy has been too politicized this time. In part because the royalist/elitist faction claims the red-shirt goal is nothing short of tearing down the monarchy itself. Irregardless the King has not done much anyway to tamp down the conflict.
So, in that vacuum of leadership there was no one to keep things from escalating into full-blown rage, which we Buddhists know can easily ignite a bigger emotional fire that involves the spilling of blood. Just so, violence has erupted and is now dangerously close to evolving into full civil war. As it is the military has called the demonstration areas, "live-fire zones," and so far, 37 people have been killed. This is a risky option given the issues in Sri Lanka of monks being (perhaps) too politicized, but is the only institution capable of bringing Thailand back from the brink the great Sangha?
Is it possible they could mediate as the Great Buddha once did during his time walking this Earth? It would be the hope of this humble member of the Greater World Sangha that they could without directly undertaking a political role in the long-term governance of that beautiful, Buddhist, Southeast-Asian country. That all said, however, some wheels once set into motion gather enough speed to be unstoppable. Sometimes violence is what develops from a long string of less than helpful actions by groups and/or whole countries. This collective "karma" of a mass of people has a lot of force behind it and sometimes the only way a person can respond is to do the best in living as mindfully in that storm as possible. It's during massive turmoil such as these where one's practice becomes very helpful.
Perhaps that message is germinating amongst the two parties. A representative of the government who spoke today hoped the countries Buddhist culture would be nourished in this time of need. He claims that because of this culture the Thai people people aren't predisposed to violence. “Between 80 and 90 per cent of Thai people are Buddhists,” he said. “Buddhists are taught that to kill — even animals — is just wrong.” Still, even Buddhists aren't immune from anger and violence. As well as being manipulated to fit a political ideology.
To prove the point, Buddhism was called upon, even while protesters vowed to keep up the fighting, "As night fell, defiant Red Shirt leaders led followers in Buddhist prayers." This is still the realm of samsara after all. May Thailand soon know a greater peace and achieve recalibration upon the middle-path through political reconciliation. I wish my brothers and sisters in Thailand well, and please know that you are all in my thoughts.
PHOTO CREDIT: Thai monks join red-shirted anti-government protesters before donating their blood during a mass demonstration.
Buddha said that different beings have different capacities for understanding, different ways of thinking, different personalities and mentalities and cultural attitudes; and that teachings should be in accordance with this. The essence of Buddhism is lovingkindness and compassion and understanding emptiness. And all these different approaches are just many ways of allowing these real, innate qualities to manifest.
When we teach, any example that is understood by the teacher and the student can be used. Also, sometimes with people in the West, when they try meditation, they try too hard. They become very tight, their bodies become tense. Everything becomes blocked and difficult. Then they need to learn to relax and to rest the mind - with awareness but not so much tightness.
-Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, "Trust through Reason" (Summer 2007)
James: This quote is courtesy of Philip Ryan at Tricycle Magazine.
~Peace to all beings~
Previously I had only known Zen master Seung Sahn through short YouTube clips but I was enlightened by what I heard. However, just before we left for a vacation in Costa Rica, I wanted to find a book that would help me stay grounded despite all the activity we'd be experiencing.
We all enjoy fun but given the reality of samsara, even the most enjoyable activity can become a source of suffering after too much indulgence. I don't necessarily believe in fate, (though I do believe in karma) but when selecting a book I couldn't find any of the half a dozen books that I was searching for at the local bookstore.
So, I wandered over to the Buddhist section as is my customary starting point when I don't have a specific book in mind. I perused the various ones taking time to flip through the pages and soaking up the relaxing smell of crisp paper. After going through several books I discovered Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn's book, "Wanting Enlightenment is a BIG MISTAKE."
I immediately performed my test of a book I haven't researched ahead of time. I flipped through the book to random pages to see if it caught my attention. After several minutes passed I realized that I had started reading the book from the beginning, and so I knew my decision was made up. This book is very easy to read but is full of teachings that will have you contemplating even the seemingly simplest teachings. Seung Sahn was never afraid of controversy, blunt speaking or odd language when the lesson required such behavior.
As one of his students said of his broken English, "You had to drop underneath his words to grasp his true meaning." I have found during my nearly decade long practice that the best Buddhist teachings come across in the fewest words.It is full of short but powerful teachings on everything a modern society struggles with. Including abortion, which is too often a topic that is avoided in Buddhist circles. During a visit to Poland a student asked the master if abortion was wrong. Seung Sahn first emphasized the first precept against killing is to be taken into consideration but that hte most important thing to consider in making such a decision is why do you do something?
"So what kind of direction do you have? Why would you abort this baby? Determining that clearly in your mind is most important. Whether or not you go to jail is not the way to decide this. The only thing that must be clear is why or why not you would have this abortion. Of course this baby is a human being. He goes on to tell the story of a person has to decide what to tell a hunter, which direction the rabbit he is pursuing went. "But if your direction for keeping the precepts is to truly liberate all beings from suffering, then you will maybe tell a lie. Our teaching says that you must not kill, especially human beings. But when a bad man comes and hurt many people, a policeman sometimes kills that person. But this policeman is not killing for himself, because of his own angry mind. His action of killing is to save sentient beings from suffering.
Every day, between seven and eight thousand people die from one or two diseases alone. Every day. No food, no clothes, no house. Babies are suffering. Why make all this suffering for babies? So, whether or not babies should be born is not the point. Instead, what is human beings' correction direction? How does this action help other beings? That is great love. That is great compassion.James: This was my general thesis for being supportive of a woman's right to choose but it's nice to have a recognized Zen teacher underline the point. I believe that sometimes bringing a baby into the world actually causes more suffering for all involved than not. If the baby will simply be born addicted to crack or already dying from HIV/AIDs then to abort them would be in my view the compassionate thing to do. Or what if the child is born but like many become stuck in the cycle of foster homes--many of, which are abusive and neglectful as the parents are simply looking for the check they get from the government to care for the child/children.
I know some people find him controversial in Buddhist circles but I have thoroughly enjoyed all of Stephen Batchelor's books. So, it was with excitement that I opened the envelope from his office containing the new book, "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist."
The beginning is the story of his journey East on the "Hippie Trail" toward India and Asia where he studied Buddhism as a monk in Dharamsala with the Dalai Lama. Then, later, studying Zen in Korea.
Of course a lot of the conclusions reflect an atheistic view but rather than give away the juicy parts I'll let you discover those for yourself. I highly recommend this book to the contemporary Buddhist. To quote the book jacket, "A stunning and groundbreaking recovery of the historical Buddha and his message." Sounds interesting, huh? If so, read on.
The parts that caught my interest most were the chapters on getting back to the basics of Buddhism as found in the Pali cannon. One example that comes to mind is Mr. Batchelor emphasizing a teaching from Buddha that has been lost on some over the years, and is the idea that doubt is not only acceptable in Buddhism but essential to waking up. Batchelor underlines this with the Zen aphorism, "When there is great doubt, there is great awakening."
This deep agnosticism is more than the refusal of the conventional agnosticism to take a stand on whether God exists or whether the mind survives bodily death. It is the willingness to embrace the fundamental bewilderment of a finite, fallible creature as the basis for leading a life that no longer clings to superficial consolations of eternity.This is unknowing is in part why some Zen teachers purpose seemingly illogical questions for the conditioned mind, known as koans. They often confound the "logical mind" which "resets" things allowing for awareness to arise and enlighten in that open space--that open moment. Hagen's Koren Zen teacher, Kusan Sunim explains further, "If you continue inquiring in this way, the questioning will become more intense. Finally, when this mass of questioning enlarges to a critical point, it will suddenly burst. The entire universe will be shattered and only your original nature will appear before you. In this way you will awaken."
This Sunday, May 9th on the American T.V. Channel PBS there will be a documentary on inmates at a maximum security prison who are studying Buddhist meditation.
It is titled, "The Dhamma Brothers." Check your local listings for times. In the Mountain Time Zone (U.S.) where I live it will air from 1:00a.m. to 2:00a.m.
I believe it's a re-airing of the original program but still might be of interest to you. I haven't seen it yet, so I'm looking forward to it.