Growing up at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, (Colorado) spending decades climbing their heights and summer's backpacking into remote, mountain lakes for a week's stay, has been monumental in helping my Dharma practice.
It is also why I am so attracted to the way of the Buddhist hermit who's monastery is the mountain-tops (or forests) and his sangha the wildlife. Nature teaches you patience, paying attention, doing more with less, appreciating what you have and expecting the unexpected. In short -- it teaches you how to live in the present moment.
In the high mountains, (10,000 ft above sea level and higher) circumstances can change faster than a blink of an eye. The altitude changes everything to where you have to be alert at all times to survive. It can be warm, short's weather down in town during the month of August when we go backpacking; yet you still have to pack winter gear. You can be hiking in shorts and sunshine one minute and the next minute find yourself in a driving snowstorm. I have spent more than one August, summer's day held up inside a tent at 11,000 ft. above sea level, gazing out of the tent at a snow storm settling in around the camp site.When backpacking you take a fold-out backpacking stove (seen above, with fuel canister) to cook freeze-dried food, which isn't gourmet but when eaten after hiking up an 11,000 foot mountain, it tastes better than what any five-star chef in Paris could whip up. That's because you appreciate it more after having busted your ass-off and spent all your energy on putting one foot in front of another, slowly, up and up the mountain. It is the best food you've had all year because it is literally the only food you have. You take care not to let one drop hit the ground because each bite is precious for needed calories. Yet, how much food do we waste at home? Each bite of food is savored mindfully like it was the first meal to cross your lips in ages--even the bowls and kettle are licked clean of sustenance. It teaches you to focus on simply eating and enjoying it.
Everything in the mountains must be done with great care and attention to detail, which, again is why it's a great place to practice and live the Dharma. For example, getting a drink of water entails an entire process of purification pumps and water storage bottle balancing. It's not like flipping on the tap at home; but that water is the best water you'll ever taste because of the attention you put into gathering it. And, you see it as a lot more precious than the water you pour out of the tap at home. You find yourself rationing it out throughout the day because if you guzzle it all at lunch, then you have to hike back up to the glacier to pump some more because you don't ever want to be caught out in the wild without water.
Then there is shelter, which takes on a whole other importance when backpacking. Carrying everything you need for a week on your back means you're near-homeless and that makes you cherish your flimsy tent as though it were a palace. It makes you thankful for a warm place to sleep with some cover over-head. And you begin to realize that you don't need a big house let alone a mansion. I guess I relate so much to these hermit monks because I have lived the last two decades preparing for just such a life. One day perhaps, when, (and if) I feel the time is right, I will disappear into the mountains and build my small hut to spend the rest of my days meditating in. Not out of searching for the, "enlightenment treasure chest" but out of letting go of it.
Not to become some fabled "mountain-top guru." In fact, if you try, and come looking for me to be my student, I will shoo you away because there are much better qualified teachers than this crazy-eyed Buddhist. It's about being an anonymous being living out the rest of his days in the natural world--our true home. A home that humans have nearly abandoned for the accouterments and attachments of city life. We need to reclaim that home. I don't think everyone can or should become a mountain hermit but for me, it's in my karma. I have known from a young age that my life would find me living a life of solitude in the mountains at some point.
I will no longer feel attached to the desires of city life; and the choice will be made for me. I'll leave that city life chaos to more capable hands. At that stage of spiritual life, the best place for me would be in nature, where life exists at it's most basic foundation. A good place to leave this world from when the moment arrives.
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Growing up at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, (Colorado) spending decades climbing their heights and summer's backpacking into remote, mountain lakes for a week's stay, has been monumental in helping my Dharma practice.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
The chaos of life streams through this mind, yet ownership isn't imposed upon it. It's free to pass through like a stranger in the night; registering its frenetic, holographic delusions but streaming out the other side due to keeping the mind open and relaxed. Tonight is a night where balance has returned. Tonight there is simply stark but relieving acceptance.
Like Buddha before us, letting go is gaining freedom. Once we let go of trying to control everything, life seems to flow with greater ease. It's not unlike a twig floating down a meandering river. It doesn't try to stop or force the current into an unrealistic upstream reversal of flow. It just lets go and enjoys the ride. Letting it take it where it will.
Life is like that it seems. We try and control the journey with some imagined belief in a power we don't have. There is no power over altering the flow of life. It will take us where it wants, so the only thing left to do is let go and learn to adapt to each bend in the river and enjoy the scenery while it lasts. It's once we let go that we notice a world that we were missing while being so focused on changing how our life is unfolding.
Suddenly we notice a sharpness, beauty and softness to life that we missed before. The trees seem to take on a new sacredness that brings us peace when before we pushed through them on our way to nowhere. It's why the cliche of "stopping to smell the roses" persists. When we stop trying to push toward a specific expectation we start to see that life has more to offer than we had ever realized before.
So, tonight, I've dropped the heavy backpack of the burdensome stones of expectations and am moving freely and effortlessly across the middle-path like a light and unconfined cloud. Relaxed to take whatever form the moment molds. Acceptance of being overwhelmed at times; unburdening myself of the chains of worry that enslave me and delay realignment with the peace that is an uncluttered mind.
Expectations are like fairy tales and myths; they are alluring but ultimately leave us disillusioned and disappointed, which are the fore-bearers of suffering. Today, I am letting go and it couldn't be more liberating.
Sunday, December 19, 2010
This is a long treatise, so to speak of me thinking out loud on where I find myself on the Dharmic path; in a manner of speaking. Or, whatever mumbo-gumbo is the lastest Buddhist slang going 'round. It's a bit of a rant I guess but take it for what it's worth and nothing more, or less. It's simply me in the process of sorting through a lot of spiritual baggage. Some of it I keep, but a lot of it I frankly no longer have use for. I'm cleaning out my Buddhist closets and shooting for the simple and minimal. Enjoy it, hate it or don't read it. I wrote it out to help me put into words what I'm experiencing. I'm not here to appease or please anyone. This isn't a post I'm writing necessarily for anyone. It's just my thoughts that I didn't know where else to put them. So, if you're going to bitch me out then go ahead but I've got bigger issues than whether people "agree" with me. Agree, disagree--whatever. I've got enough work to do besides babysit those who want to throw firebombs from the anonymous, dark, alley ways of the cyber world.
DATELINE: December 19 - Midnight - Colorado - USA - planet Earth hurling through the vastness of space. Here are the rantings of a Buddhist without a Buddhist card.
I'm not interested in enlightenment; it's the sand trap of wide-eyed ideologues. I'm not interested in monkhood as I don't believe one has to leave the world to learn how to live within it and amongst it without letting it dominate your life. I don't really care if Buddha was real or not; the teachings work for me--period. If they didn't work then I wouldn't mindlessly worship an archetype out of tradition and romance for a mystical realm where rainbows cascade from our rears. These teachings are utilitarian; and that's what I like about them. They don't make me levitate, perform miracles or transform me into some Hollywood cliche "wise man" at the top of a mountain.
They help me be a person who is less selfish, nicer and a person with less stress. I'm not a Buddhist because of "Buddha"; I'm a Buddhist because I can't deny the results. I'm not saying I don't find benefit from the symbolism of the Buddha and monks; It's simply that I don't worship them--or, anyone for that matter. I see them as experienced philosophers; teachers who present the self-help system and leave you to figure out what that means to you--if, anything. I don't feel the need to defend my Buddhist pedigree to anyone because, frankly, I'm not too interested in being a, "Buddhist" anyhow. I just want to be a better person, and Buddhism helps me be that person. And, to survive this wacky world without losing my marbles (going crazy).
I'm not interested in being a spokesperson for Buddhism or "Buddhism in the west." I'm simply trying to make sense of the same crap as anyone else. Yes, I do happen to practice Buddhism from a foundation of scientific secular humanism but I don't think that makes one less of a practitioner of the Dharmic path. And, honestly? If it did I really don't have time to concern myself with the sanctimoniousness of people who are interested in such fraternal, fundamental religiosity. I'm not in this for the honor and pride of a tradition. I'm following the Dharma because it helps me worry less, stress less, anger less, relax and just be. I don't have the strength, will power or desire to wrap myself up in a theological pretzel and debate what tradition is the most pure. I'm just trying to make it through life with a little less stress and ability to stop and just enjoy the still moments. Those precious minutes that remind you of the true beauty of life--of being alive in that moment. A profound realization of being at ease with it all -- the chaotic and the serene.
I'm not concerned with the future of Buddhism one bit as Buddhism is just as fragile a construct as the ego. It's a shell that has a role to play but it is the curtains as opposed to the real moments unfolding through the window. I am trying not to take all this religiosity so seriously anymore. If one isn't careful, Buddhism itself becomes a vehicle for attachment and suffering. It's the ego's natural desire to "be apart of the pack." Instinct from the evolutionary days when ego was what kept us alive. We want to be apart of the club. However, after a certain level of gorging upon the outward hipness of the robes, bells, monasteries and shaved headed old dudes, the shine of that unrealistic, wide-eyed delusion that we picture Buddhism should be wears off. The starkness of it dawns sharp peal of the morning bell; stirring us from our dreaming slumber.
It's not the trinkets and esoteric stories that bring one relief from suffering. That's all the decorations on the outside; inside Buddhism is a stark, one room cabin with no heating and no where to hide. The perfect place to slaugther the Buddha--that ego that grabs onto the specialness of Buddhahood. So, if it can't thrive and drive us like usual it adapts to lust after "englightenment" "Buddhahood" or "monkhood." Monk hood, which tends to be a station along the wide-eyed, westerners, pilgrimage to find Shangra-la. Well, I'm hear to tell you there is no such place. There are no levitating monks, there is no old, monk living on top of a mystical mountain, there aren't many people who are enlightened, (which is a word I cringe to use but it's ubiquitous) and the sharp truth is that practicing the Dharma can be hard, long work. It's not for everyone.
But don't listen to me--seriously. Don't listen to the Dalai Lama, don't listen to Thich Nhat hanh, doesn't listen to the 130th incarnation of Buddha himself. In fact, if you see the Buddha--kill him. In other words, don't let the iconography and tradition wrapped around Buddha prevent you from living the Dharma for yourself. Follow your gut and return to the archetype of Buddha; not the legend but the archetype or example. He was alone and on his own when he wandered off into the forest to find himself.
I'm not an expert. I'm not a holy guru and I don't profess to be any better than anyone else. I'm still a beginner after 8 years of going the rounds with my ego. I'm not perfect, never was and probably never will be but the important thing is that I'm "O.K." with that. It's not about being perfect; it's about find a place grounded in reality where suffering isn't gone, but manageable. I'm perfectly content in letting whatever happens after this life happen, however it will--or, won't. I'm not going to spend what precious few days I have left on this curious but fascinating world ruminating over a possible life after this one. I have a hunch that there's something else but I'm not clinging to it. If I die and that its the end--well, c'est la vie!! (that's life). Besides, it's not going to matter either way if your dead and obliterated into oblivion. There's no "you" there to fret over it!!
So, I'm nothing special--I'm just a guy, trying to be better person. Buddhism is like a guide that points me on a grounded direction and the rest is up to me. I wouldn't have it any other way. Buddhism is a way of life for me rather than a trophy to collect and lord over others. I'm happy and working on improving my treatment of others and hoping for the best!! There's nothing left to do except, "be." Once you give up searching, it somehow has a way of bubbling up with-in you; when you least expect it. I've only realized fleeting moments and glimpses of it but once you experience it, you're never the same. But I don't call it englightenment -- there is no "name" that can truly define or convey what those moments of oneness are. It's beyond words, and I've gone on long enough anyway. I'm sure most of you didn't get this far, so if you're still with me--thanks for listening. Stay strong, be brave and don't forget to just be yourself. I love you all.
Friday, December 17, 2010
Per, Jason Burke at The Guardian. A tip o' the hat to Rod at Shambhala Sun for turning me on to this story:
The Dalai Lama told US diplomats last year that the international community should focus on climate change rather than politics in Tibet because environmental problems were more urgent, secret American cables reveal.
I think the Dalai Lama is on point because we may not have an Earth capable of supporting either a communist Tibet or a free, independent and democratic Tibet. As usual the DL understands interconnection and it's importance. All links in the chain that make life live-able on Earth are essential. If too many of those links get bent toward a breaking point then it's not going to do the Tibetans any good. Unfortunately, many of us do forget about the animals, and state of the environment. It can seem to be, "just scenery" to some but it's vital for undertaking everything we do on this planet. Even the smallest things are integral to a life-sustaining Earth.
Coral, for example, is one of the smallest beings on Earth but it is essential and important in controlling the amount of carbon dioxide in the ocean. So, thanks to carbon dioxide pollution from our cars and factories, we have less of a carbon dioxide fighter in the corals. And, so, we see that environmental degradation occurs at a rapid rate, which compounds exponentially. So, not only do we lose a carbon dioxide fighter but we make the air and oceans warmer, which kills off phytoplankton. Without phytoplankton we make the air even worse for those of us on land!!
Dalai Lama is truly a man who understands the interconnection of life, so profoundly that he understands what's most important--and it's not politics.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Countless cultures throughout the dusty pages of history have depicted cats as very mystical, spiritual beings. So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that I find cats to be good examples of Buddhist concepts. Cats do everything with complete concentration and deliberation. They are totally absorbed with living in the now--living in the present moment. I find this most evident when they stare out the window for long periods of time; just watching the world go about its business. Observing all the movement outside with calm awareness. When the cat observes the birds flitting about in the trees it does so with complete concentration. It focuses purely on that moment; such is mindfulness. In doing so the cat maintains that cool demeanor it is known for and I think we can learn a lot from their relaxed state of being.
Perhaps we should all take some time to just sit and stare out the window at the birds. Doing so helps reduce our suffering because we cultivate a practice of staying centered in the present moment instead of trying to be in three moments at once -- the past, present and future. The more we are simply aware of what's going on presently, rather than trying to be all things, to all people, at all times, the less we will find ourselves mentally and physically exhausted to where we suffer.
Cats also sit calmly when not staring at much of anything; with little fidgeting. Notice, I said little fidgeting because I don't believe in sitting in meditation with too much discomfort. I say that because, while there is something to be learned in observing our mind's reaction to discomfort, it can also cause one to not meditate at all. So, stretching a leg out now and then isn't necessarily "bad."
But back to the cat sitting for the sake of sitting. It is totally absorbed with just being, which is a common piece of advice from teachers when meditating; to just let the present moment we are meditating with to happen, however, that might unfold. Maybe we'll think about something for a minute, and then it passes and we breath in and out. Then we could find ourselves simply listening to the sounds around us and simply enjoying being able to hear. Again, we breath in and out; and the moment passes. Always coming back to the breath to ground us with the present moment.
Then finally, the cat stands up, stretches and returns to other activities. That's another good reminder; to stretch after meditating so we don't fall down when we stand back up from lack of blood circulation in the legs!! Another nice observation I learned from cats is to do your meditation in a warm spot where the sun shines forth from the window!! Ah, but be mindful to not fall asleep in that position!!
PHOTO: Photographer unknown.
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Buddhism appeals to many of us because we are simply exhausted from the pace, chaos and suffering that too often is the price of living in a modern world. Unfortunately we aren't always able to slow down enough to meditate daily and/or savor a in-depth tome on the Dharma. Fret, not!!
The contemporary, Buddhist greats have thrown us a life-line yet again. Once again, this time, we are in-depted to Jack Kornfield. He has compiled short, easy to digest, essays and snippets of wisdom from today's great, Buddhist teachers; perfect for a lunch break that is too short for deep reading but long enough for a quick boost of inspiration. Titled, "The Buddha is Still Teaching: Contemporary Buddhist Wisdom" published by Shambhala Publications.
Case in point, a short paragraph from Tara Branch's book, "Radical Acceptance that is listed in the book:
When we are free of mental concepts and our senses are awake, the sounds, smells, images, and vibrations we experience connect us with all life everywhere. It is not my pain, it is the earth's pain. It is not my aliveness but simply life -- unfolding and intense, mysterious and beautiful. By meeting and changing dance of sensation with Radical Acceptance, we discover our intrinsic belonging to this world. We are "no thing" -- not limited to any passing experience -- and "everything," belonging to the whole.James: I must tell you that this short, but profoundly insightful paragraph brought as much relief and motivation to my current situation as entire books I've read recently. Especially the way in which she explained how we don't have to suffer alone. We are all in this together and therefore even in our darkest moments, all alone, there is someone out there going through the same thing. And that, I think, makes the pain a little less powerful because the reality is that there are countless people who are ready and willing to help ease that suffering a bit. Just because we don't know who they might be right now doesn't mean that we should give up and assume we are completely alone and always will be.
You never know who you'll meet. Or, who is just a blog comment or email away from helping you see a way out of your suffering. I know it seems daunting but as long as there are people who believe in compassion; there will always be a friend out there. Just knowing they exist is sometimes enough to keep you sane because it's so easy to feel alone or like you are the only one in your life who feels the way you do. Don't give up -- especially in today's digital age. Kind-hearted and compassionate people are just a finger tip away.
That is why books like, "The Buddha is Still Teaching" are so valuable in a world that can so quickly get overwhelming and isolating. I highly recommend it -- especially if you are looking for a light read. Pick it up at Shambhala.
The Blogisattva Awards have been announced and as usual they represent some of the most thought-provoking, English-speaking, Buddhist blogs on the internet today. I am honored to know these valuable writers, and highly recommend ALL of the blogs honored. Online Buddhists have really carved out a vibrant and supportive sangha over the past decade. I am quite excited about the future and know that Buddhism is in good hands on the internet.
Wednesday, December 08, 2010
One of the reasons that I refer to the month of December as, "the holidays" in America is because it's so much more than Christmas. The Jews celebrate Chanukkah, the Muslims Ashura and many African-Americans celebrate Kwanzaa. And, for Buddhists we celebrate the enlightenment of Buddha on this day, December 8th. In honor of his endeavor, many Buddhists spend the day or month in meditation and honor his memory through acts of kindness. Often meat eating Buddhists will buy and release an animal that was in captivity--usually fish.
For this year, I found a great little piece by Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara. It is a great angle on how modern day, average Buddhists can take a moment to celebrate/honor the day despite a hectic schedule and life:
The legend says that as he gazed at the morning star, he said, "How marvelous, I, the great earth, and all beings are naturally and simultaneously awakened." This phrase teaches us the great lesson of interdependence, that we are not separate from all that is, but rather we are interconnected, a piece of the grand whole of the universe. And at the same time, this very piece, this "I" sitting here is an integral and vital component of the whole. When we take care of this "I", we can take care of the whole universe. So, even if we cannot devote a week or a full night but are only able to meditate for a few minutes on Bodhi Day, it can be a reminder of the wisdom that is naturally available to us, the wisdom of cultivating our minds and recognizing our relation to the whole.
James: Each year, on Bodhi day, I sit and picture all the Buddhists in the world and imagine us all together in one place, sitting united to awaken to peace in oneself, and peace in the world as Thich Nhat Hanh says. Then I broaden that picture to include the world and imagine people seeing us all sitting. Then watching them gravitate toward that peaceful energy to just sit with us, regardless of religion; to simply enjoy that moment--together, as a world, as a species, as a planet. It always makes me smile and recharges me for the new year. So, to you, dear reader; I wish you a peaceful Bodhi day and Happy New Year.
~Peace to all beings~
Wow. The 2010 Blogisattva Award nominations have been announced and The Buddhist Blog has been honored. The blog was nominated in three categories: Best Engage-the-World Blog, Best Achievement in Kind and Compassionate Blogging and Best "Life" Blog. The blog also received honorable mentions in other, categories: Best Achievement Blogging Opinion Pieces or Political Issues, Best Blogging on Matters Philosophical, Psychological or Scientific and Best Blog of the Year!!
I know that some of you nominated the blog for these nominations and I am humbled by your appreciation. You, and the Blogisattva Awards committee honor the blog greatly and I will use this positive energy toward keeping the voice of the reclusive Buddhist alive. Perhaps the boring side of the blog is that I write mainly because it aids my practice but it also is a labor of love in honor of the Dharma. It is a testament of how amazingly beneficial Buddha's teachings are to humanity. I credit the Dharma in being the catalyst to helping me emerge from a very dark, angry and self-destructive life-pattern that I was on before.
It is fitting perhaps that these honors come on a day when we recognize the enlightenment of Buddha (Bodhi Day) and the priceless gift that he bestowed upon all humanity. None of us would be benefiting from the Dharma without his self-sacrifice. After his great awakening (or, enlightenment), he could have wandered off into the mountains to live out the rest of his last incarnation before merging into parinirvana. Instead he chose to share the path he realized with the world and we are his heirs.
But I digress. Buddhism has been a great help in reducing the symptoms of my psychiatric condition and that is another reason that I write. To show others that Buddhism can be of great benefit to the restless mind wrapped up in psychiatric turmoil. The Dharma has been like another medication but one without negative side effects. So, any recognition that I am honored with must be given back to Buddha and those who honored me with these nominations. I cherish my readers as friends and family. It is my hope that this new year will bring greater acceptance of online interaction in the Buddhism community at-large.
Whether the blog actually "wins" any awards is secondary to what I have gained through interacting with all of you. You have truly enriched my life and I look forward to our interactions each day. May this next year be a wonderful year for Buddhist blogging. There are a lot of great blogs out there that keep the online Buddhist community going and I am forever honored to be mentioned alongside them all. Be sure to check them out!! Thank-you, again for the humbling honor that you have shown. Here's to a new year!!
P.S. - It's hard to sound honored without coming across as cliche but I really, really mean what I wrote. Every word. Thanks again to the judges and everyone else at The Blogisattva Awards.
Wednesday, December 01, 2010
As a guy who breaks out in hives at the very thought of shopping, I don't have a problem equating samsara with handbags/purses and/or shopping!! However, I think the makers of Samsara handbags weren't thinking of torment and suffering when they set out to market their product. Sadly, their research department left them, "holding the bag" so to speak (Sorry, about the pun; I couldn't resist. If you're wondering what "holding the bag" means, just click here for an explanation). That's because according to the products website, "Matt and Nat" the phrase samsara is Sanskrit for "rebirth."
This, however, is only partially true. I'm not an expert on Sanskrit but what I believe the term Samsara means something along the lines of "perpetual flow." Meaning, the cycle of life, death, rebirth. Taken by itself, the idea of "renewal" after death can sound appealing but Buddhist teachings go deeper with the concept by showing that this cycle isn't something to desire. It's like a roller coaster that looks like a good time at an amusement park but once you get on it you find out that the coaster has no brakes!! The fun would disappear like a fart in the wind after about the 3rd, 4th or 10th time you vomited from the endless looping. And by the 1 millionth time it would become full-blown torture right out of the Medieval period.
That's, true samsara. Yes, rebirth is apart of it but rebirth isn't the ideal because it's only a brief respite. Once you are born again you're plopped right back into the same mess of greed, desire, delusion and suffering that was there in the last lifetime. So, rebirth is less of a goal than it is a "do-over" card. It's like the teacher saying you failed a course but the good news is that you get to retake it. It's nice that you get another chance, but do you really want to spend the rest of eternity retaking that same course? So, in Buddhism samsara is something to free ourselves from--not desire. We practice Buddhism to liberate ourselves from the consequences of our past karma that keeps us locked into the incessant cycle.
As with many fashion products, the makers of this handbag are looking to cash in on the latest fad in pop-culture; to incorporate anything Buddhist into marketing a product. I'm sure they mean well but the cynic in me has to chuckle a bit at the idea of using the phrase "samsara" to sell products that don't bring lasting happiness; and thus, keep us locked in samsara!!
At least they are donating some of the money to charity; and it is made from non-leather products. But, overall this handbag is a good reminder to how the desiring mind feeds off of marketing signals in our modern consumer culture. How many times have we bought something that just sounded essential to our wardrobe or lifestyle, yet realized a bit later that the product no longer satisfies us? The longer time passes we realize that we have too much stuff!! At that point the mind feels frustration on how to get rid of it!! Thus, the cycle of suffering from materialism continues. I'm certainly no saint when it comes to materialism. I try to be conscious in my purchases but I don't always resist that urge to splurge. Still, it's worth trying because over-consumption can lead to a nasty hangover.
P.S. - Yes, I do see the irony that in raising this topic I'm giving this company free advertising and thus propelling consumerism. However, the only people that can avoid total consumption are monks in monasteries. Yet, even then they still have to buy things for up-keep of the monastery. So, I think the key is to be conscious of what we buy and learn not to attach to those products; because clearly we can't live in this world and never buy anything.
PHOTO CREDIT: Matt and Nat