Lojong Slogan Practice: #1 – Train in the Preliminaries

I’m taking up the challenge of going through Atisha’s 7 point training of the mind from Tibetan Buddhism and will attempt to write a breakdown for every one of the associated 59 slogans. I hope this will add depth and a movement towards effortlessness, sudden meditative non-meditation, and well, healing for myself and offer a breakdown of each slogan in the hope that it will help others as well.


I actually wrote on this slogan a while back when writing about struggling with suicidal thoughts. That post had some good insights, but I thought it worth returning to this slogan with the purpose of intentionally grouping and setting off the slogans and to pay this slogan the respect it deserves.

Honestly, that in itself is easily overlooked. I have five commentaries on the slogans, and many skip past this in a very brief description. Pema Chödrön doesn’t even address the four parts of the preliminaries, and Trungpa doesn’t speak much further to them than that and tying it to guru practice, but in that regard he is right in line with the scriptural master, Jamgön Kongtrül. Dzigar Kongtrül, on the other hand, as well as Norman Fischer, speak at length about the four preliminaries and the full reason why they are crucial for us to understand in moving forward in Lojong practice. They are the mindset needed to cultivate bodhicitta and walk the path of the bodhisattva.

This slogan is the first and only slogan associated with the first of the seven points of mind training.

The descriptions I’ve read for this slogan break down “the preliminaries” into four parts. I summarized them in my own words years ago and still have the post-it note I used at the time to do it. It’s on my fridge (and is pictured in the other post). I’m going to take this as a chance to revise and express them again in the hope of capturing more nuance and empowering them better in my own words for my own understanding.

  1. Human life is an especially rare and precious gift; a human life able to encounter and practice the dharma even more so
  2. We here must die, and we know not when
  3. All action, speech, and thought are entwined with results: all action, speech, and thought are karmic
  4. Samsaric existence is one of dukkha

I had intended to really tie aspects of the Dhammapada into the last of these, but I just did it with 2, 3, and 4. In reading through these and thinking about how to present them here, I decided I think it’s better to reorder them for a structure of mindset, and I hope this will become clear below.

I propose we approach these in the order of 4,3,1,2. The reason to start with 4 is that it represents the entry point to the entire Buddhist path. It’s a marker that points to the first of the Four Noble Truths, and thereby all of the Four Noble Truths. Some summaries of Buddhism emphasize the importance of this teaching, as it’s the first teaching the Buddha gave after attaining enlightenment, and it’s his diagnosis of the spiritual/existential problem of human life and the cure for said ailment – the eightfold path. In a sense, it’s his greatest moment of being a medicine Buddha, and it is accurate to claim that it is the summary of all of his teaching.

Furthermore, in recognizing and accepting the Four Noble Truths as a starting point, a practitioner should also be compelled to take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, which is key in moving forward with the mindset of the other preliminaries and the later slogans’ focus on bodhicitta. This preliminary is the starting point: one must recognize there is a spiritual problem to address in order to undertake the spiritual journey like the Buddha and become a bodhisattva oneself. Without this first step, the other preliminaries, and honestly, Buddhist practice in general, don’t have much purpose behind them.

We should look at 3 next because it is another foundational basic of the Buddha’s teachings. The opening lines of the Dhammapada, not to mention most chapters throughout, emphasize that mind precede action (whether speech or bodily action) and that the results following the mind’s intentions match those intentions – either pure or impure. In other words, action, speech, and thought is karmic: it is a chain of cause and effect, and intention and view inform the cause and thereby influence the effect. In a sense, as karma is often expressed in metaphors like seeds and giving said seeds sustenance to grow through subsequent repeated action, we could summarize with “You reap what you sow”, but this also applies to thought patterns and worldviews – you strengthen them through repeated intention, thinking, doing, and speaking. This addition is what makes the Buddha’s teaching a bit more nuanced and profound. Hence, the concept of taming the mind through meditation and focus on ethics (i.e. pure intention and action) – meditation brings mental concentration, which strengthens the intentions and mindfulness to continually choose to enact pure thoughts and speech. Recognizing the laws of karma (cause and effect as described above) at play in our lives is another core realization needed to begin the Buddhist path. These first 2 reordered preliminaries are basic premises without which, one cannot even begin.

Now, let us look at the first of the preliminaries. This is the one I’ve struggled with the most in recent times. When struggling with dukkha in the most painful physical, mental, or emotional anguish, it’s hard to see life as a precious gift. However, the commentaries make it clear just how many animals are out there who are not human. This science article and graph makes it clear that humans are only a small part of the animal biomass on Earth. If one were to be any animal, it’s statistically unlikely to end up as a human (clearly, this plays along with ideas of reincarnation, but let’s just go with it for now). Furthermore, as we’ve already said, dukkha is the spiritual problem of existing as a sentient being. Human beings are the only sentient beings with the awareness and attributes to both realize this and work towards nibbana. Beyond that, one must be sound of mind as well for those attributes to truly apply. On top of this, it’s even more fortuitous to be born in a time where a buddha has realized and spread teachings on the dharma. Even more fortunate: to have access to said teachings – for instance, the Buddha lived roughly 2500 years ago, but his teachings only have become widespread and understood in the West in the last few decades. Even now, just being born in certain areas or cultural milieus might forever cut one off from the opportunity to encounter these teachings. As such, having the opportunity to take up the eightfold path and quench the suffering/dissatisfaction (dukkha) really is a precious gift that cannot be taken for granted. Being aware of this capability and opportunity as rare and precious should spark inspiration and gratitude.

Finally, let’s look at the second preliminary. It’s easy to lose sight of how another set of Buddhist teachings apply to our lives: the marks/seals of impermanence and anatta. I chose “we here must die” out of a favorite translation of some of the early lines of the Dhammapada (Fronsdal’s translation). I’ll quote them briefly again:

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.

The Dhammapada, trans. Fronsdal, (5-6)

There is no permanent, ongoing “I”. Our time is limited. Standard Buddhist thought grew in a culture with a deep metaphysical background of reincarnation, but even if we buy that, this particular life could end at any time. I could die before even finishing this post from some unforeseen accident.

If we really take this to heart, we can understand the importance of authenticity to our existential projects in Heidegger’s Being and Time. I use this as a contrast to emphasize the motivation. In Being and Time, Heidegger posits that Dasein (human beings) live in a state of distraction from our own mortality. We live with the reality of our finitude out of sight and out of mind. As such, we are always already fallen away from our true potential for authentic revelation of a fully human life, except when existential crises wake us up to the truth of our mortality and we work towards it with resolution. This stance ultimately riffs on other aspects of ancient Western philosophy, even just summarizing it now, I can hear echoes of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics in Heidegger’s position. The point in this summary: there is something to this. We don’t generally see that our life is always already a possibility that could shift to impossibility at any moment. We don’t live this way. To some extent, a full-hearted focus on mortality like that would make the mundane efforts of life inconvenient, but on a greater level, there is an anxiety of facing the big unknown of death in our self-distraction. This preliminary is telling us to remind ourselves again and again as groundwork for our spiritual efforts. Why? Like Dasein’s existential authenticity that comes through resolution towards death, embracing our impermanence, even the flux that there is no permanent self day to day, makes us see that all we have is this moment, so we must practice now. We must work on generating compassion and wisdom now. There is no other time, and there is no guarantee that we’ll have another chance to take up the precious opportunity we summarized above. Time is of the essence – the present moment is the only essence, and it’s empty.

If one focuses on these four preliminaries, the impact can be profound. It truly sets the mind in a different view. They act both as some key facts to set one’s perspective and some points of inspiration to put in effort. I had just started studying them when my dad died, and the fact that I had been focusing on these preliminaries for a few weeks beforehand helped me shift through that transition more gracefully than I would have otherwise. In writing this to better explain them all and inspire others, I find myself settling into the mental framework again for moving along to the next point of mind training. I hope you will come along with me.


May this summary explain why the four preliminaries are a crucial first step in training the mind and generating bodhicitta. May it inspire others to research this practice as well (I’ve linked books by different authors on this text above in the initial paragraphs).

Gassho!

Reevaluation | Doubt, Patience, Purpose

Recently, I have thought about gratitude a lot. I know it’s crucial to a healthy mindset, and at times about a year ago, I had a fair amount of it, even as things felt like they were falling apart around me. Now, not so much. It’s all I can do to hope that my life will make sense again some day. Every day, I feel like I’m waiting to die, and the only gratitude I have for the last couple years is the clarity of boundaries I need to uphold for the future and for the friends who’ve shown they care when I have felt utterly worthless.

A tarot reading recently brought this into focus. It showed two paths forward for a question – one was trying to find gratitude and convince myself that those perspectives were valid. The other was sitting patiently in confusion, in mourning, in meaninglessness and despair, sitting with the feelings of doubt — being intimate with the mysteriousness of being rather than trying to explain it away. The second of the two actually looked like the more positive long-term path, and ultimately, it made me feel more at ease with a sense of failing my own values.

How so? I doubt everything – I doubt there’s any point to existence, the full-on absurd of Camus as a felt existential experience. The key with that comparison is that the task is then on me to affirm and create my own purpose. That seems impossible. More daunting, and more painful, I doubt ideas of the dharma. In my best days, I feel like showing up and doing well for myself and others is all that matters, understanding that we all share the pain of samsara, but at times, the nihilistic overtones in my perspective make me wonder if that’s even true, if it all washes away in impermanence.

However… I hold to the idea that those doubts are precisely the strongest possibility for seeing clearly and really feeling compassion and wisdom fully. I’ve remembered that Zen emphasizes doubt as crucial to breaking through to enlightenment, and Dogen emphasizes a chiasm of intimate intertwining between delusion (doubting the dharma in this case) and enlightenment. My own feelings of doubt are rooted deeply in personal loss, and when I really pause, I can’t help but see the impermanence of it all – love is empty. It’s a passing construct like all the rest that exists, and as a Buddhist nun I know speaks about such things regarding gain and loss, “How could it be otherwise? Nothing is more natural.” As such, why do I cling???????

All I do know is that showing up for others teaches me time and again that my own pain is not separate from the human lives around me all the time. It’s easy to fall into your own ego narrative, but when you see the passing of time and the confusion and pain of others, it’s easier to be patient with their own selfish treatment towards you as their own delusion from a misunderstanding of time and life, of dharma, as well as to see your own moments of being lost rather than skillful, and furthermore, it’s clear that those moments of seeing clearly and helping others are the most fulfilling, even when life seems meaningless. I hope that continuing to invest in this and to take up practices like meditating on the brahmaviharas, which feels right, will grow the seed of new purpose through the nutrients of patience, growing in the rich soil of doubt – just as the lotus grows in the muddy water

Here are a few quotes that I hope will fit with this – first a quote regarding the Tibetan slogan practices and the cultivation of bodhicitta. I find the Tibetan practices some of the best at overturning our understanding and valuation of self.

How bodhicitta works is very simple. When we look outward and see how much all other beings are suffering–even though they want to be happy just as much as we do–then our care for our small, individual self naturally transforms into care for a much bigger “self”. We grow from having self-care to universal care. Right away our own suffering becomes smaller. It doesn’t instantly and totally disappear, but diminishes naturally and progressively as we free ourselves from attachment to the small self. When the sun shines, it absorbs all the light of the moon and stars into its brightness. Similarly, when we have bodhicitta, the brilliant light of our universal love and care outshines and absorbs our concerns for this one individual.

– Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, The Intelligent Heart: A Guide to the Compassionate Life, p. 12-13

Once again, I’m going to throw in Dogen’s Genjokoan, but I’ll use another translation this time, regarding self-involvement, buddhahood, delusion, enlightenment, and practice:

To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening.
Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings. Further, there are those who continue realizing beyond realizations and those who are in delusion throughout delusion.
When buddhas are truly buddhas, they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas. However, they are actualized buddhas, who go on actualizing buddhas.

– Dogen, “Actualizing the Fundamental Point” (Genjokoan) in Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Shobogenzo), trans. Kazuaki Tanahashi, p. 29

Finally, Mumon’s commentary on the famous first koan of the Gateless Gate (the Japanese/Zen version of the Chinese/Chan originals) emphasizes the importance of doubt for breaking through and having a great experience of kensho. Aside: I’ve actually written previously about this wonderful koan in relation to a heavy song by my favorite band here.

For the practice of Zen, you must pass the barrier set up by the ancient patriarchs of Zen. To attain to marvelous enlightenment, you must completely extinguish all thoughts of the ordinary mind. If you have not passed the barrier and have not extinguished all thoughts, you are a phantom haunting the weeds and trees. Now, just tell me, what is the barrier set up by the patriarchs? Merely this Mu (Z note: the key word of the koan that means “nothing”) — the one barrier of our sect. So it has come to be called “The Gateless Barrier of the Zen Sect.”

Those who have passed the barrier are able not only to see Joshu (Z note: the master in the koan) face to face but also to walk hand in hand with the whole descending line of patriarchs and be eyebrow to eyebrow with them. You will see with the same eye that they see with, hear with the same ear that they hear with. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful joy? Isn’t there anyone who wants to pass this barrier? Then concentrate your whole self into this Mu, making your whole body with its 360 bones and joints and 84,000 pores into a solid lump of doubt. Day and night, without ceasing, keep digging into it, but don’t take it as “nothingness” or as “being” or “non-being.” It must be like a red-hot iron ball which you have gulped down and which you try to vomit up but cannot. You must extinguish all delusive thoughts and beliefs which you have cherished up to the present. After a certain period of such efforts, Mu will come to fruition, and inside and out will become one naturally. You will then be like a dumb man who has a dream. You will know yourself and for yourself only.

Then all of a sudden, Mu will break open. It will astonish the heavens and earth. It will be just as iff you had snatched the great sword of General Kan: If you meet a Buddha, you will kill him. If you meet a patriarch, you will kill him. Though you may stand on the brink of life and death, you will enjoy the great freedom. In the six realms and the four modes of birth, you will live in the samadhi of innocent play.

Now, how should you concentrate on Mu? Exhaust every ounce of energy you have in doing it. And if you do not give up on the way, you will be enlightened the way a candle in front of the altar is lighted by one touch of fire.

– Mumon, The Gateless Gate, trans. Koun Yamada, p. 10

Two last notes: Hakuin, a Zen patriarch, is quoted as saying, “The greater the doubt, the greater the awakening,” although I’m struggling to find a solid source for where he said this, but the idea is clarified well here in this article from Tricycle about great doubt in Zen, written by the very translator for The Gateless Gate above. Furthermore, Yamada Roshi, said translator, is summarized as seeing Zen practice as such in the foreward to his translation: “Genuine fruit of Zen practice, he repeatedly maintained, is manifested when a human being is able to experience an emptying of one’s ego, and truly live out one’s humanity with a humble heart, at peace with oneself, at peace with the universe, and with a mind of boundless compassion” The Gateless Gate, p. xii. I think that’s a fantastic inspiration to close this with and a guiding aspiration, one I didn’t have when I started to fumble through writing this post. It’s a happy accident, the best thing that I could find in writing this.


May this inspire others to break through their perspective with great determination and great doubt.

Gassho!

Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way – Presence | Each Moment is the Universe

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I recently wrote a post on the best albums of 2021 in post-rock, so I recommend checking that out if you find the music in this post interesting. A recent release of an old favorite band inspired this post.


A few weeks back, an old post-rock favorite released a revamp of a previous album. The second song grabbed me in particular, leaving me almost in tears due to several layers of personal meaning in the album.

First, this album was one of the first post-rock points of connection between myself and the woman whom my heart was still broken over. Second, the album was being released on the 2nd anniversary of the day we met. Third, the song feels like an exploration of the faith in facing each day with perseverance, even in the difficulty of a human life.

I had meant to write this post earlier. Now, it feels out of tune with my emotional landscape, but I still feel the poignancy of that idea/sentiment should be shared: the presence of getting up and doing one’s best to be present, kind, and open-hearted to whatever arises day to day, no matter the difficulty involved. In my other blog, I’ve spoken many times about the Zen saying of “before enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water; after enlightenment, chopping wood, carrying water.” So much of the pursuit of release from suffering, no matter the pursuit (including many practitioners takes of Buddhism) falls into an idea of deliverance from suffering, such as nirvana/enlightenment being a fully different realm or life, but that’s not the case. I touched on this in my most recent post on my other blog – the Buddha lives in the burning house, i.e. nirvana is right in the middle of the burning suffering of samsara. There’s no other life or existence out there. Opening to the moment vulnerably and being present to the full unfolding of it is key to showing up with an appropriate response that is the wu wei skillful action of a buddha. I struggle to express this, but ultimately, this comes forth in the realization of selflessness and the interdependence of all things: each moment is the universe.

Another much more beautifully poetic and philosophical way for us to express this is some evocative statements from Dogen’s Genjokoan (my title here is somewhat inspired by Katagiri Roshi’s book on Zen and Dogen of the same title). Warning – these truly are confusing to the extent of almost being infuriating to standard logic: truly a koan. I posted some of this on facebook years ago, and several friends got full on annoyed because they didn’t understand. However, in philosophy, and especially in Zen koans, we need to open ourselves to the conundrum and let it break our standard conceptual barriers.

Since the Buddha Way by nature goes beyond [the dichotomy of] abundance and deficiency, there is arising and perishing, delusion and realization, living beings and buddhas.

Therefore flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them. Conveying oneself toward all things to carry out practice-enlightenment is delusion. All things coming and carrying out pratice-enlightenment through the self is realization. Those who greatly realize delusions are buddhas. Those who are greatly deluded in realization are living beings. Furthermore, there are those who attain realization beyond realization and those who are deluded within delusion.

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off. There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization.

When a person attains realization, it is like the moon’s reflection in water. The moon never becomes wet; the water is never disturbed. Although the moon is a vast and great light, it is reflected in a drop of water. The whole moon and even the whole sky are reflected in a drop of dew on a blade of grass. Realization does not destroy the person, as the moon does not make a hole in the water. The person does not obstruct realization, as a drop of dew does not obstruct the moon in the sky.

When we make this very place our own, our practice becomes the actualization of reality (genjokoan). When we make this path our own, our activity naturally becomes actualization of reality (genjokoan). This path, this place, is neither big nor small, neither self nor others. It has not existed before this moment nor has it come into existence now. Therefore [the reality of all things] is thus. In the same way, when a person engages in practice-enlightenment in the Buddha Way, as the person realizes one dharma, the person permeates that dharma; as the person encounters one practice, the person [fully] practices that practice.

Translation of Dogen’s Genjokoan as presented in Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo – Shohaku Okumura (pp. 1-4)

This may all seem obscure, but it’s worth summing up with pointing out how Dogen focused on the practicalities of life. Practice was outlined in such examples as how a cook should prepare food to stay fully present to the process. The day in and day out is precisely this: the actualization of reality that is chopping wood; the actualization of reality that is carrying water. In other words, it’s a mindful openness to the interdependence of each moment, and furthermore, that engagement is not one where delusion is forever left behind, it happens within our deluded life. Buddhas are those who greatly realize delusions – sitting awake right in the middle of them. The Buddha lives in the burning house.

When I listen to this song, “When I Rise & When I Lay Down”, I feel this engaged, living practice. Another way we could think of it – that realized delusion – is the creative affirmation of Sisyphus that closes out The Myth of Sisyphus. Even in struggling to push a damned boulder to the top of a hill in the afterlife over and over, we have to imagine Sisyphus happy in some of the most poetic, heartlifting, Nietzschean words you’ll ever read:

One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus. Trans: Justin O’Brien (p. 123)

Oddly enough, Old Solar is a Christian band with religious themes resonant throughout – the album is called “Quiet Prayers” and has other songs with titles such as “Help Us to Be Faithful”. As such, taking a deeply spiritual tone as a call to holding to a faithfully engaged life throughout the burdens of the day to day is perfectly on point with this song, just with a very different perspective of what that kind of practice entails: not one of the grace of God, but one of the practice of actualizing this moment in its totality, even in the midst of suffering.

This song may have made me cry for personal reasons, but these considerations I’ve outlined are so much deeper and more profound, and I hope you’ll find them in listening to it too.

Reevaluation | Taking refuge

Today, I saw a facebook memory post from 2 years ago. I’ve been thinking a lot about the last 2 years recently, wishing I could somehow jettison it all or twist it into something completely different. The post reminded me instead to find strength in reaffirming my values and path in its ongoing depth of intention that has gone above and beyond the pain of obliterated personal goals and the loss of meaning.

The post:

“Hat man sein warum? des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie?” – Nietzsche (One who has their why of living can withstand almost any how.) Tonight was cold, and I felt tired, old, and unenthused, but ultimately, if you commit to practices like running, like philosophy, like becoming a bodhisattva, the “warum?” of being engaged in such a life carries you along through the challenge of such obstacles.

In the last several months, when it was all I could do to pick myself back up every morning and try again, to not give in to the despair that made me want to commit suicide, I focused on things like bodily exercise, digging into spiritual texts, and caring for those in my life – just like the post. We could call this: body, wisdom, and compassion. To me, this is the “chopping wood, carrying water” of the ongoing path that is life, and no matter what I may lose or how much I may feel dead in comparison to past versions of myself (does such language even truly make sense?), these continue to move me forward and hold me accountable to myself and the universe from which “I” have no separation. In a weirdly resonant note, I think of this challenge and self-destruction in both Nietzschean ways of the “going-under” that is progressing forth as human over the abyss and the Buddhist insights of realizing that all this form and meaning we cling to is empty. It’s all a dream, even the things that “defined” us, even the experiences we cherished, even the pain that arises. The condition of a human life in all that becoming is the constant, and that’s what can inspire the larger choices to awaken: be present and do your best to do well to yourself and to do so for others by offering understanding and care.

In looking through quotes to match up with this Nietzschean inspired post from the past, I found a great section in Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart about the Buddha facing and overcoming Mara to achieve enlightenment. It halted me in my tracks of wanting to throw away the past with some sort of harsh reevaluation, instead taking refuge in the dharma of tenderly opening to just this – all the experiences of pain, loss, disappointment, doubt, fear, heartbreak, depression, despair annoyance, self-criticism, and the absurd – and trying to bring my best intentions of wisdom and compassion forward as I have continued to do from the past, knowing that it will always be an “on the way”, a process and path upon which I walk. I feel so much to be the person who’s thrown off by big events in the quote below, doubting that his efforts are any good at all in that very process, and the insight is to embrace that difficulty and continue in it. In a sense, the refuge of buddha, dharma, and sangha is finding peace right in the middle of everything being on fire (The Fire Sermon), of recognizing that you are in the burning house (The Lotus Sutra), and sitting in it with ease. As Dogen says, the Buddha is in the burning house:

I think maybe all of the maras arise from fear of death, but yama mara is particularly rooted there. When we talk about a good life from the usual samsaric point of view, what we mean is that we’ve finally gotten it together. We finally feel we’re a good person. We have good qualities, we’re peaceful, and we don’t get thrown off balance when arrows are shot at us [note: allusion to the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment from the beginning of the chapter – basically here a metaphor for the various daily things that our mind pursues and pulls us off a steady path of mindfulness]. We’re the person who knows how to turn an arrow into a flower. We feel so good about ourselves. We’ve finally tied up all the loose ends. We’re happy. We think that’s life.
We think that if we just meditated enough or jogged enough or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who is awake, that’s death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn’t have any fresh air. There’s no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Doing this is setting ourselves up for failure, because sooner or later, we’re going to have an experience we can’t control: our house is going to burn down, someone we love is going to die, we’re going to find out we have cancer, a brick is going to fall out of the sky and hit us on the head, somebody’s going to spill tomato juice all over our white suit, or we’re going to arrive at our favorite restaurant and discover that no one ordered produce and seven hundred people are coming for lunch.
The essence of life is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter. Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes or opens. Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100 percent healthy. From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.
To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in a no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life. Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together. So even though we say the yama mara is fear of death, it’s actually fear of life.
We want to be perfect, but we just keep seeing our imperfections, and there is no room to get away from that, no exit, nowhere to run. That is when this sword turns into a flower. We stick with what we see, we feel what we feel, and from that we begin to connect with our own wisdom mind.

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (pp. 93-95)

May this offer inspiration to those who need it and help them find their own refuge in difficulty.

Gassho!

Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way – Majesty | A Hymn to Impermanence and Emptiness

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I recently wrote a post on the best albums of 2021 in post-rock, so I recommend to check that out if you find the music in this post interesting. A recent night drive with a sudden return to a favorite song from years back inspired me to write this post.


Summer 2014
I live in Seattle, making my way through the drudgery of a job in customer service after years in academia. In time to myself, I work on reading and running – taking care of body and mind. Many a run is empowered by 65daysofstatic’s album “Wild Light”. The first song in particular feels like some electric thrum into the core of my being: “Heat Death Infinity Splitter”. It feels like a defiant stand against the difficulties of life with strength and aplomb. As the opening sampling says: “No one knows what is happening. No one knows what is happening. There is a lot of danger out there. OK?” The overwhelming electronic reverb after these lines tears apart fear, hesitation, and any sense of separation from this very moment, and pushes me forward into it with an open heart.

February 2022
I’m driving home from a friend’s and my cigarette lighter charger adapter for my phone is broken. I can’t use my phone to play music. I recall having seen a few old cds under the driver seat. I reach behind me as I start the drive, and the 3rd CD I grab is 65daysofstatic’s soundtrack to No Man’s Sky. When I open it, though, I find “Wild Light” instead. I excitedly pop it in, having not listened to it in some time. I am immediately entranced and destroyed by the static.

My heart has been awash in heartbreak for months. My spiritual journey has been one of trying to refind my way on a solitary path, while questioning and reevaluating, possibly even annihilating my concepts of love, partnership, and romance. In my worst days, meaninglessness, depression, and suicidal thoughts abound.

Listening to it now, versus my younger experience, this feels like a hymn to impermanence and by extension, emptiness. Perhaps this pops in my mind because earlier in the day, I had been reading a book by the Dalai Lama on Buddhism and the path to nirvana. In the first chapter, he goes over the four seals of Buddhism, the first of which is impermanence; the second is suffering; the third is anatta – no-self; the fourth is the potential peace beyond suffering. The thing is: if I were to summarize all of these, I’d say that the entirety of the four seals are the conundrum of living within emptiness but not seeing it. Impermanence is due to things being empty of inherent substance. Suffering is due to clinging to things as not-empty. Anatta follows as a corollary of impermanence as emptiness – there is no permanent soul/essence/substance behind phenomena. Peace is achieved through rectifying clinging by seeing things as empty. A longer description: there is no permanent essence behind any phenomenon – all is empty, i.e. a fluctuating process of appearing and disappearing without some ongoing entity/soul/form behind it, and yet, we suffer by clinging to things as more solid than this empty fluctuation, and therefore, peace can be achieved by the cessation of such clinging through the wisdom and accordant action in relation to seeing things as they really “are” (even such verbs as “is”/”are” can get us into philosophical trouble of unnoticed reification).

This song points to the whole flowing decay of the entire universe. It’s all a heat death infinity splitter – i.e. even atoms will eventually come apart into a splitting of the unfolding infinity we’re currently a part of.

With that in mind, the thrum of noise feels like a musical display of the wondrous unfolding and the seeming danger of everything falling apart, but much like the younger me felt emboldened by this song’s “lot of danger”, the realization of this impermanence invites us to let go of fear – there’s no self/soul/”I”/being that continues in this flux; it’s all merely flux.

For myself, I listen to it now and feel something I’ve been pondering for some time: even concepts, feelings, and attachments are impermanent. My desires for love, for the person who broke me, and for some sort of meaning attached to all the struggle start to decay in the static flux of the emergent abiding sway’s decay into the emergence of the next (riff on Heidegger). To return to Tibetan Buddhism: “Regard all dharmas as dreams.”

All is impermanent – even my “self” and any experiences it may have. Those are just as empty as anything else. All conditioned things are impermanent – even the very atoms that make up “me” and every single thought and feeling that arises as experience upon these component parts.

Philosophy Riffing | Heartbreak | Lack of anger, Chöd, the Hermit, Truth, and Kindness

This recording was about as much a pensive self-care/processing exploration as any kind of philosophical analysis, but there are some good ponderings in here without many real answers. I hope that it will be of value to others who are also stumbling along the Way of the Hermit/Sage.

Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way – Love | Destiny | The Red Thread

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I recently wrote a post on the best albums of 2021 in post-rock, so I recommend to check that out if you find the music in this post interesting. I had to write this post about one of my favorite post-rock songs with vocals. I hope you enjoy it as well.


One of the most moving post-rock discoveries for me last year was Akai Ito by we.own.the.sky..

This is one of the rare post-rock songs that has lyrics, and coming at the end of the album, the words make it even more powerful. Furthermore, the lyrics are short, simple, and moving, yet also somewhat cryptic:

The stars. They fall.
Like threads unfurl.
They guide me home.
Where I belong.

Lyrics – “Akai Ito” by we.own.the.sky

This is only repeated a few times, the final time being with a full chorus instead of a single voice.

Hearing this song immediately made me look up what “Akai Ito” means. It’s a reference to the Japanese version of the Chinese myth of the “red thread” a concept of love and destiny in which lovers are connected by a red thread of fate.

I don’t really believe in soulmates or some sort of destiny like that, but I can understand the pull of profound love and how powerful it can be. It truly is a sense of home and belonging, a seeming deep fit of shared connection that seems so meaningful and powerful that it feels like maybe greater forces are at play.

I’m not sure what to think of my own experience of this at this point in my life. I feel that I’ve lost that sense of belonging and home but feel the connection still, no matter what events have come forward. It’s hard, confusing, and sad. I’ve actually meant to write some Buddhist sutra inspired poetry on my other blog about this sense of heartbreak in such feelings of loss and coping with them. I’ll link here when/if I do.

That said, one thing I’m certain of is that the way to approach these surprising great feelings in life is to let them arise and wash over you, not clinging to the joy, but just sitting with it while you’re fortunate enough to experience it, and also not trying to cling to it when despairing that its impermanence makes it fade, wither, and disappear. All things are impermanent. The only way to maintain them is by effort by both parties and circumstances supporting that continued thriving. I’m reminded of a post I wrote about change and cultivating something ongoing regarding Taoism on my other blog, but more precisely to sitting with the joy and the sorrow without clinging, I always think of Dogen:

Therefore, flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them.

Dogen Genjokoan – as translated by Shohaku Okumura in Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo

Furthermore, I’m reminded of some thoughts about love I’ve shared on my other blog, particularly here and in a podcast-esque recording about some experiences of love I’ve had. The key quote was from Stanley Cavell’s The Claim of Reason in which he’s talking about learning words as a child and that there are some concepts that are so huge that they do not express all they could take from us. In some regards, myth and song bridge that gap a bit – pulling us to grander feelings regarding these concepts, and when I hear this song, that’s what I feel – a more grandiose sense of love and connection, without ever mentioning either word.

But although I didn’t tell her, and she didn’t learn, either what the word “kitty” means or what a kitty is, if she keeps leaping and I keep looking and smiling, she will learn both. I have wanted to say: Kittens–what we call “kittens”–do not exist in her world yet, she has not acquired the forms of life which contain them. They do not exist in something like the way cities and mayors will not exist in her world until long after pumpkins and kittens do; or like the way God or love or responsibility or beauty do not exist in our world; we have not mastered, or we have forgotten, or we have distorted, or learned through fragmented models, the forms of life which could make utterances like “God exists” or “God is dead” or “I love you” or “I cannot do otherwise” or “Beauty is but the beginning of terror” bear all the weight they could carry, express all they could take from us. We do not know the meaning of the words. We look away and leap around.

Stanley Cavell – The Claim of Reason pp. 172-173

Walking Along the Dhammapada — Chapter 18: Corruption

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


This chapter has two key focuses:

  1. There is an apparent ease to the corrupt path, but this overlooks the ongoing samsaric suffering of such an approach to life.
  2. Focus on your own efforts – it’s easy to see the faults in others and to hide your own from yourself, and moreover – your goodness is achieved through your own efforts, so focus on purifying yourself.

So what does one purify? It’s come up multiple times throughout the previous chapters, but let’s take a moment to look at three passages that line out everything regarding these two points.

Easy is life
For someone without conscience,
Bold as a crow,
Obtrusive, deceitful, reckless, and corrupt.

Difficult is life
For someone with conscience,
Always searching for what’s pure,
Discerning, sincere, cautious, and clean-living

The Dhammapada, 244-245, trans. Fronsdal

This speaks to both points – it seems like life is easy for someone who selfishly does for him or herself, but ultimately (as is emphasized in other lines and in all the other chapters), it is not. This chapter doesn’t necessarily elucidate this well, but we might think here of Plato’s discussion of the tyrant in the Republic. When taken to the ad absurdum, someone who acts with impunity in life moves into a path of obsession of self-protection and protecting his/her possessions. It’s a life of paranoia and clinging. This is perhaps a good transition into our next passage, as it emphasizes exactly what ails the mind of one who lives that life:

There’s no fire like lust,
No grasping like hate,
No snare like delusion,
No river like craving.

The Dhammapada, 251, trans. Fronsdal

More pithy poetic examples could certainly be provided, but the point is that a life of apparent selfish ease is actually a life full of samsaric pain.

However, we’re then counselled not to judge the faults of others. In a sense it’s the bad faith (as from Sartre) of Buddhist practice. It’s easy to look outward and just miss the efforts that oneself must make.

It’s easy to see the faults of others
But hard to see one’s own.
One sifts out the faults of others like chaff
But conceals one’s own,
As a cheat conceals a bad throw of the dice.

If one focuses on others’ faults
And constantly takes offense,
One’s own toxins flourish
And one is far from their destruction.

The Dhammapada, 252-253, trans. Fronsdal

As elsewhere in The Dhammapada, the emphasis is on self-mastery and that the path to Nirvana depends on your own efforts. Perhaps the simplest game to avoid that difficult path (the difficult path of continually searching for what’s pure from our first quote above) is to find fault in others, while hiding your own, thereby appearing to shine and not need any effort. However, this is simply a mild version of the grasping of hate and the snare of delusion.

As such, let’s close with one of the most poetic passages in this chapter as our focus for purification:

As a smith does with silver,
The wise person
Gradually,
Bit by bit,
Moment by moment,
Removes impurities from herself.

The Dhammapada, 239, trans. Fronsdal

May this inspire the ongoing purification of mindfulness of self and world that is practice and purification.

Gassho!

Philosophy Riffing | Karma, Emotional Reactivity, Free Will, and Ressentiment

This session ended up being a journey into a lot of topics with quite a lot of musing and meandering through Buddhism, Taoism, Nietzsche, and Stoicism. May it provide benefit to those who listen to it.

Heartbreak | Sitting with Suicidal Thoughts

I’ve kind of touched on the thoughts here in a recent post, but I thought they were important and weighty enough to address a bit more directly rather than abstractly. I’m hoping the vulnerability and sharing of process will support anyone else who needs it as finding the acceptance of friends and family has been crucial to continue sitting through these difficult feelings, whereas those who tell you you’re wrong, confused, or self-involved make it much more painful. I can only hope to give some companionship and feelings of being seen to those who need it.


I’ve honestly dealt with depression off an on throughout my adult life. It’s always around big changes and losses though – not the seemingly random nature of major depressive disorder, more the grief of the difficulties of a human life.

I’ve never really felt suicidal in depression, no matter how empty or meaningless life has felt. Not until this time. I’ve had the deep yearning to die regularly and escalating ideas of suicidal ideation since around mid-summer. It’s hard, and ultimately, it’s scary and tiring. Part of me has to struggle continuously not to sink into the abyss. Honestly, as someone deeply involved in existential psychology, I feel like it has to do with the famous quote: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How” (Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning). I’ve personally seen the withering away when a “Why” is lost. In many ways, this is precisely the problem of suicide that Camus lines out in his discussion of the absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus. Facing one’s existence and projects in life as meaningless is the ultimate existential angst. It’s facing the feeling that life wouldn’t matter if I wasn’t here. Rather than the Heideggerean state of being verfallen and covering over one’s death, it’s the inverse – staring life in the face and asking why you were even born at all while struggling to find any answer, as any you used to have have dissolved in your hands.

That’s all cerebral, but the experience is anything but – those are just philosophy riffs to explain the experience. The embodied experience is much more raw and crushing. I’ve thought numerous times how great it would be if I had the courage to jump out my window. I even had a sudden urge to stab myself with a knife recently, but ultimately, none of this has ever escalated to the point of having true plans, means, or intentions enough to where I felt I needed help, beyond some time to sit, cry, and be mindfully present for my feelings.

For me, it’s been all pulled forward by having attached to ideas of partnership and love – ideas that I didn’t fully realize were such a strong piece of my identity, desire, and meaning in life. Now, I’m just not so sure of those ideas, and ultimately, I don’t think the answer is to try to find them again with someone else, so it feels as though my life doesn’t really have something to aspire to, to build, to find meaning in.

Speaking of attachment – this is a klesha: clinging. Clinging to those ideas has caused such a traumatic crash of meaning and identity, and it doesn’t seem effective enough to take the existential, well, rather, Nietzschean, approach of building some new meaning/project/values, i.e. creating some new take on love or relationships. Instead, I’ve been inspired by the Buddhist ideas regarding attachment. I’ve tried to sit with the feelings of attachment and let them dissolve. Instead, I try to show up, connect with people, and provide my kindness and compassion for the struggles they go through, and ultimately, every time, it has led to gratitude and sometimes, even, growth in the engagement.

I feel that showing up to these hardest of feelings is like what I’ve posted about previously as a famous quote from Zen that before enlightenment you chop wood and carry water, while after enlightenment you chop wood and carry water. Facing the toughest moments of life is about mindfully sitting in them, realizing that it’s just more life. The world is as it was before. Your perception and emotional reactions are all over the place, but ultimately, the same billions of years of history are before this moment as in the past. The same world is there. It merely seems different because of that Wittgensteinian idea that the world of the sad person is different than that of the happy: i.e. your evaluations of it are different, but the aspects of living your life as a human being in your life and home are the same in the broader sense (this could very much be lined up with Stoic ideas as well, especially Epictetus).

Mindfully being present and being focused on showing compassion for others is a simple and yet deep shift in approaching the mystery of living in an existence that’s always greater and more mysterious than the meanings you find in your personal projects and interpretations. Being present and vulnerable in such a way offers the possibility of seeing life as precious, just as it is, just as painful and heartbreaking as it can be in its most samsaric of moments.

Which brings me to the greatest counter-perspective I can emphasize to that of the suicidal abyss: experiencing life as precious. I’ve recently been thinking of Atisha’s slogan practices from Tibetan Buddhism. The first slogan “First, train in the preliminaries” was key to facing my dad’s death a few years ago, and recent Buddhist classes I’ve been attending have been key to bringing these ideas back to the fore.

There are four “preliminaries”. I’ll attach a photo of a post-it note I wrote years ago with my own take of them to remember them by. It’s on my fridge. I took a picture of it before a recent trip because I was thinking about these suicidal thoughts and the counter effort I’ve been working on in seeing compassion and wisdom to pull me back into this more engaged mindset.

My summary of the preliminaries

I’ll speak of slogan practice more thoroughly in the future (hopefully), but I’ll summarize these points here. Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes how rare and precious it is to be born as a human being in a time and place where you can learn the Buddha’s dharma – the truths and wisdom that offer you the possibility of breaking free from the painful reactions that make life so difficult. In a way, this summary of preciousness captures the point of the other 3 preliminaries as well as the Four Noble Truths in one go. A sentient life is one of the pain, disappointment, and suffering of dukkha. It’s one of standard patterns of action, walking through life with the same conditioned ways of re-acting (writing that way because we think of it as action, but it truly isn’t – reactivity is the most passive of ways of being. The only truly active freedom is in being able to sit with challenges and see your inclinations and choose differently in ways that do not continue the reactive patterns of suffering in your life). Waking up to a different way of being requires seeing the opportunity and wisdom that is available to you, embracing it with gratitude, and rethinking your actions based on the outcomes and results you bring to yourself through them (recognizing the 3rd preliminary that all action is karmic), working now to embrace that opportunity because you see your time is limited (recognizing the 2nd preliminary that death is coming), and finally, doing all of this out of the understanding that there is dukkha (the first of the Four Noble Truths which opens the whole Buddhist path before you).

When I think of the samsaric pain of loss and meaninglessness that I’m going through with all the suicidal thoughts attached to them, in other words, when thinking of the fact that there is dukkha, I remember another Buddhist passage I’ve brought up before, the poetic lines from Dogen’s Genjokoan: “Therefore flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them” (Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo). Desire and aversion put us at odds with the changing circumstances of the impermanent world around us, but if we recognize those samsaric poisons within us, we can take pause and sit more patiently with the difficulties of life, allowing us to instead continue on with compassion for others and mindful presence for the moment at hand. We may no longer have the flowers of beauty, or we may need to contend with the weeds popping up, but we can be right in this moment, doing our best in it, and giving to all the others who are here struggling with their own pain at the changing circumstances they’re in.


May these words inspire and offer companionship to those who need them.

Gassho!

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