Monday, April 28, 2014

Face in the Direction of your North Star

After I wrote the long post about the 4 Noble Truths, I also felt that I could answer my son using the idea of Right Intention or Right aspiration or Right vow;  all different translations of the Second Limb of the 8-fold Path.

Semantically speaking, I’ve trained myself not to use the word “goal”.  Goals are always seen in terms of success and failure and they are always seen in terms of the future.  Did I accomplish my goal or not?   I find that this way of thinking produces suffering.  It makes me feel that my life may be better or worse in the future and that takes me away from vitally engaging with what’s happening right now and what is in front of my nose.  And yet, we still have desires for what we want in life and we still need a direction to our efforts.

Dogen helped me so much in the Tenzo Kyokun, his writing on how to be the cook at the monastery, when he wrote that each moment has a direction.  When we are standing or sitting, we are always facing in a certain direction.   In this very moment, We are in the process of heading somewhere.

I use in my teaching the idea of having a North Star.  In the old days, the sailors negotiated their journey on the seas by the stars and the North Star was the primo indicator of where they were.  And yet because of the weather, the currents, and the waves, they never headed in a straight line directly into the north star.  There were a lot of zigs and zags.  However, the sailors can always recalibrate their journey and correct their position so they are again heading towards where they want to go.

We practice with this aspirational question.  What is my North Star?  That can be answered in the spiritual realm by our deepest vows and it also can be answered in our daily life by what direction are you heading in?  Life is a process, like a journey, and we are constantly negotiating the Way by zigging and zagging and recalibrating  our course.

In Buddhist spirituality, our deepest North Stars are our vows like the Bodhisattva Vows,
1.     Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.
2.     Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.
3.     The dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
4.     Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable, I vow to realize it.

But we can also take this idea of a “direction and not a goal” into our everyday decisions.  If you want to be a Doctor, you need to head in that direction.  If you want to be an artist, head that way.  Knowing that the journey is circuitous, every day you negotiate the Way, what is being presented? What are the conditions of this day? How has the weather changed this year or the next decade and try to follow the North Star of your direction you’ve chosen for your life. 

It seems that in the spiritual realm, our vows don’t change that much.  They are a deep current of inspiration and guidance.  But in our human life, our directions and circumstances change a lot.  For example, I didn’t know I wanted to have children until I was 40 and that decision changed my life drastically.  I have changed careers three times in my life.  My spirituality keeps me stable and my story unfolds as my individual story rides the currents of my karma and my life process as a human being unfolding.

From Uchiyama Roshi, “Refining your Life”, in the chapter on Direction and goal:

To express this concretely in terms of our daily attitude, it means to live without projecting goals while yet having a direction.  Since everything is impermanent, there is no way of telling what might happen to us in the next instant – we could very well die! To set up a goal or a purpose is to invite disappointment by seeing things move in a direction contrary to these goals.  Yet, we are certainly in trouble if we decide that since we have no future goals or expectations, there is no present direction.


In this world of impermanence, we have no idea of what may occur during the night; maybe there will be an earthquake or a disastrous fire, war may break out, or perhaps a revolution might erupt, or we ourselves could very well meet death.  Nevertheless, we are told in the Tenzo Kyokun to prepare the gruel for the following morning and make a plan for lunch.  Moreover, we are to do this as tonight’s work.  In preparing the meal for the following day as tonight’s work, there is no goal for tomorrow being established.  Yet, our direction for right now is clear:  prepare tomorrow’s gruel.  Here is where our awakening to the impermanence of all things become manifest, while at the same time our activity manifests our recognition of the law of cause and effect. In the routine matter of preparing tomorrow’s gruel as this evening’s work, lies the key to the attitude necessary for coping with this absolute contradiction of impermanence and cause and effect.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Four Noble Truths

My 19 year old son asks me:

“OK, I have a philosophy Buddhism question – so desire is a bad thing right? Hungry ghost? I think one thing I’ve been working on is understanding my desires and taming them so they don’t control me…. But my question is, isn’t desire what makes you do things?  Like what do you do in life if you don’t have desires?  Do you just get complete mastery of desire then go live in a monastery?  I feel like everything I do has been based on at least some part, on unhealthy desires, so now I don’t know what to do.”

These questions are the essential question in a buddhist life and perhaps in all life.
How do we live?  And how do we live with underlying Buddhist principles.  It goes back to the 4 Noble Truths.

1)   In life there is both joy and suffering.  Who has ever seen anyone who doesn’t suffer?  And most people come to spiritual life because they are indeed suffering and perhaps suffering a lot.  How do we handle suffering in our life? Didn’t Buddha actually say that He came to relieve our suffering?  Suffering is sometimes translated as dissatisfaction (which I actually prefer) or dukkha, the hardships that are inherent in a life in the form world and a life of a human being.  Sometimes this life of suffering is called Samsara.  The form life of the cycle of round and round we go, over and over our problems, over and over, can we fix this?  Over and over, is death an annihilation of “me, me, me?” 
2)   Then, Buddha went on to describe, what causes our suffering.  There have been many translations:  desire, craving, clinging or attachment.  We each, based on our sense of an isolated, individual unit of “me” against the world or environment, develops a whole system of self-centered desires to satisfy our self.  Usually these desires have to do with clinging to what we like, pushing away what we don’t like, and being indifferent or misunderstanding everything else.  These are the three poisons of greed (attachment), Anger or hatred or Aversion, and Ignorance, indifference, confusion.  We can be ignorant of the basic truths about life:
a.     That everything is constantly changing and there is no solid, permanent thing
b.     That because of everything changing, there is actually no solid, permanent self – no isolated unit of self – no centralized self. And the self is interdependent with everything else.
c.      That dukkha (suffering) can be transformed into Nirvana (freedom) in each moment depending upon how we practice with or receive the moment.  That dukkha and Nirvana actually become the same thing. They are One in each and every moment and we can bring this to our awareness and our practice.
There is another way to understand desire or attachment and how that causes our suffering.  We know that there are ups and downs in life.  This is obvious, but what can we do about them?  We have in Buddhism what we call the 8 worldly Winds.  They are couplets.
·      Pleasure and Pain
·      Gain and loss
·      Success and failure
·      Praise and blame
Our suffering is produced when we attach to the so-called “positive” side, which is Pleasure, Gain, Success and Praise and we push away or fight or try to get rid of the so-called “negative” side, which is Pain, Loss, Failure, Blame.  Then we are fighting with our life all the time.  Even if we try to hold on to our pleasure, one of these days, that pleasure is going to “change” to ordinary life or we are going to lose our pleasure.  Or if we avoid our sorrow or push down our failures, or suppress our negative feelings, they are Not Going To Go Away and they will pop up in us side-ways or even appear in really bad ways. 

This is a slightly more sophisticated way of understanding your question, “Isn’t desire a bad thing?”  It’s not exactly our human desires for our life that produce are suffering, it’s the way we hold on to them or fight for them, or harm other people to get our desires met, that is the problem.  How do we react if we don’t get that job we wanted, or can’t have children when we want them, or someone we love dies, etc.  These unavoidable parts of human life need to be met with Love, compassion and equanimity.  That is a practice.  We need to receive all parts of our life whether we like them or not.  This makes us more alive and truly a human being.

So, again, it’s not that we have to eradicate our human life or get away from life or our goals.  True understanding is not escaping life.  As you said, Master all our desires and go to a monastery.  No!  In the midst of all our desires:

Greed, anger and ignorance arise endlessly, I vow to end them all.

In the midst of all our desires, we practice receiving life, just as it is, working with our reactions and unwholesome behaviors, trying to figure out through wisdom, what to do with our one precious human life.  How can we be somewhat peaceful and satisfied with our life, and be of service to others and the world?  This is the great question that is answered differently for everyone.
This is called Bodhicitta – the arising of the Way-seeking mind.  What is my Way?  And when you are 19 that is the all-encompassing question.  What should I do? Where do I fit in? How can I rally my gifts into some kind of service to all beings or some kind of usefulness with my life?

3)   Buddha said that this can be done!  That we can find a cessation to: fighting with our life, and our desire, and trying to satisfy ourselves alone.  We can have a calm, balanced, integrated life.  Thich Nhat Hanh translates the third noble truth positively, Realizing well-being.
4)   The way Buddha said to do this, was to follow the eight fold path.  Here is his teaching on “how to” do a life.
a.     Finding wisdom.  Understanding impermanence and interdependence. And from this understanding, you can begin to perceive what is helpful and what is harmful.  We practice and follow what we think is helpful.  Under wisdom are two limbs of the Path:
                                                        i.     Right understanding or view
                                                       ii.     Right intention, aspiration or desire
1.     Contemplating what is healthy and unhealthy in your own life and having the strong desire, the strong bodhicitta, to try and act or conform to what you think is healthy.  And, laughingly or ironically, our understanding also changes of what is healthy as we go through the process of living.
b.     Finding concentration, or steadfastness, or stability in the moment
                                                        i.     Right concentration
1.     This is learning to place your mind.  This is a kind of mastery as you mentioned.  The ability to put your mind where you want your mind to be.  To lead your mind rather than your mind leading you.  It is an ability to be non-distracted.
2.     This is cultivated through concentration in meditation or one-pointedness.
                                                       ii.     Right mindfulness
1.     This is the ability to take our stability we find in meditation into the everyday movement of our life.
2.     As we go through the day, we are awake enough or aware enough, to notice the moments of choice between healthy or unhealthy.  We are aware enough to be settled in each activity we do.
3.     I have just been studying doing each activity wholeheartedly and completely and then, letting go of the results of our activity.  We do each thing completely and we have “no gaining idea” of how this is going to bring the so-called “I” more pleasure.
c.      We have control of our reactions enough to have ethical behavior.  Our actions in life match our wisdom.  Yeah, really really important.
    i.  Right Speech
                                                        ii.     Right behavior,
1.     Following the ethical guidelines of conduct, the Buddhist precepts
                                                       iii.     Right livelihood
1.     We find a way to make money that doesn’t harm ourselves or others.
2.     That we become content or settled within our careers.
3.     We find away to give back to the world, even if it’s a very humble way.
d.     Right effort I put into its own category, in the center of the whole thing and underlying everything. Right effort is about “trying”.  We are neither too loose or soft with our effort, nor too tight or rigid.  We are always trying to practice better but we are also okay with things as they are.  We don’t give up on ourselves and we don’t give up on society.  We accept things as they are and we try to do better.
                                                        i.     As Suzuki Roshi says:  We are perfect the way we are and we need a little improvement.  :)


Monday, April 14, 2014

Doshi's Statement on Buddha's Birthday

We, Minnesotans, turn our faces up to the sun
            Our hearts warming up after 30 below
We feel the warm breeze blowing through our bodies
            Without our coats on
The spring peeper frogs started this week
            A symphonic cacophony
A congregation of Robins surprise us in one tree

Buddha’s birth is a surprise within us.
It is the surprise of the freshness of one moment
It is the surprise of a transformation in ourselves
            Not done by our will alone
It is the surprise of unconditional love
It is the healing of our old wounds
            The ability to let go
It is the sangha’s love entering our bodies
            And allowing us to go beyond our stories.

We stand
Integrated in our spirituality
One finger pointed to the heavens
One finger pointed to the earth.
Ordinary and sacred expressed together
Seizing our one precious human birth
As buddha’s birth.

We see everything that arises
As Buddha itself
As the source itself
And that changes how we live
How we treat each other and how we treat objects.
This is the auspicious and great transformation
Of Buddha’s birth.

Having rejoiced together as a sangha
Letting the spring renew us,
arising with the cycles of our seasons,

We pray to continue our practice
To express our understanding and love
For the benefit of all beings
All beings and ourselves intimately entwined
And never separated.




Friday, April 4, 2014

The disease of wanting more

Since January of this year I have been using a new mantra:
Accept, accept, accept, enough, enough, enough, relax, relax, relax.

I have been contemplating the word “enough” which has its own Koan:  BOS 77 "Yangshan’s Enough”.  In the Jewish tradition there is a special word – Dayenu,  which means a certain action of God would have been enough to satisfy us, in and of itself.  We don’t need anything more.   This is gratitude for what we already have been given.  So many miracles already bestowed.

It also connects to the 2nd Noble truth – craving and desire. Wanting more is the cause of our suffering.  This “endless craving” is so important in Buddhism that there is even a realm of constant dissatisfaction and the feeling of never having enough – the realm of the hungry ghosts.  I must admit I am in this realm quite often.

A hungry ghost is a being who cannot satisfy her or his hunger because their esophagus is too skinny.  They are portrayed in Buddhist mythology as beings with enormous mouths, long skinny necks and bloated stomachs - the bloated stomach of a starving person. 

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on the Lotus Sutra, “Peaceful Action, Open Heart”(pages 219-219), he talks about how to transform and heal our deep cravings.  He surprised me lovingly by saying that the sangha is one of the ways hungry ghosts heal.  A sangha provides a safe, calm, stable space that will allow people to get in touch with what is nourishing and healing. A healing environment means that there is a welcome invitation to come in.  That people feel safe to open their hearts so that they can receive the spiritual nectar of the dharma, love, compassion, and understanding.  A place where people can feel heard and where they can share their painful stories. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The Buddha’s medicine is made of only two ingredients: Sangha and time.”


We can practice with healing and transformation.  I am working on countering the hungry ghost realm in myself with the understanding and conscious ingestion of spiritual nectar.  I try to help make a loving sangha and, the reverse, to allow the sangha to heal and love me.  This mutual sweet nectar can go down any gullet! And at anytime!  It has also been explained as the “temple of requited blessings” which is a conscious effort to dwell in the temple of our gratitude and lead our lives from that place.  How could we not be grateful if we are connected to the Whole Mystery?