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Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 12: Oneself

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.

I wrote about this chapter last time around! Feel free to compare by reading the old one after the new one below.


The key of this chapter is that effort is up to us.* It can only be performed by oneself. This leads to the conclusion that even with a guru, the spiritual path is your journey. You’re the one who has to walk it, even though they may point out the way or walk alongside you.

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This message hones the lessons on the consequences of karma that have come up in other chapters and the focus on bettering our minds, speech, and actions. This is all done by your efforts. Hence, here, we’re told to see ourselves as precious and treat ourselves as a prized treasure by watching over ourselves — our minds, speech, and actions.

This is made most clear in line 165:

Evil is done by oneself alone;
By oneself is one defiled.
Evil is avoided by oneself;
By oneself alone is one purified.
Purity and impurity depend on oneself;
No one can purify another.
-Trans. Fronsdal (165)

Another interesting corollary of this focus on our own efforts is an exhortation to master ourselves before we try to improve others. This seems doubly wise, as our own efforts are what lead to our own improvement, and in the samsaric world, we spend much time and energy worrying about the shortcomings of others, an approach that causes drama and judgment in return. Unless we have overcome the same issues in ourselves or are making great effort and progress in doing so, others will see through the hypocrisy of telling them what to do while we slack on those same issues. All of this is made clearest in line 159**:

As one instructs others,
So should one do oneself;
Only the self-controlled should restrain others.
Truly, it’s hard to restrain oneself.
-Trans. Fronsdal (159)

The inversion of the key I’ve presented is that we harm ourselves. I’m not saying this with some mystical explaining away of what happens in the worst of human interaction: violence, hatred, rape, murder, etc. Clearly, one human being harms another in these. However, the Buddha is telling us that we have the karmic choice to do the truly lasting harm to our mind by holding onto hatred, resentment, fear, and emotional anguish in reaction to the events of our lives. As we’ve outlined previously in the commentary on chapters 1 and 10, blaming others leads to an ongoing emotional malaise and mental suffering. So, this inversion of the key leads us to understand that:

Liberation comes in recognizing that you can purify yourself and then doing it.

In the final line, the Buddha tells us to focus on our own welfare, not giving it up for others, and in closing out this commentary, I wanted to point out that he’s not advocating for a dog-eat-dog system of every man for himself; rather, he’s telling you to worry about waking up — to worry about your own greatest welfare of cultivating a pure mind***.


May this lead you to see yourself as precious by recognizing your own greatest welfare and the realization that it’s up to you to reach it.

Gassho!

*I picked this terminology to compare this chapter with Stoicism once again, as Epictetus holds that our reactions, our mind’s take of things is up to us. In many ways, that’s precisely what we’re being shown in this chapter.

**The hypocrisy element became clearer to me in reading the story behind this line at this resource.

***If this still seems a bit off as an understanding, I’ll remind you that in the stories of the Buddha’s previous lives (whether we take them to be true or not), there’s one in which he sacrificed his very life to feed his blood to two starving tigers. This is most certainly not some call to worry about “me, myself, and mine” above others in a more casual, modern sense. Look at this as well.

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Living in the Light of Death

In a few days, it will be a year since my dad died. It’s been a very interesting and ponderous year. I’m reminded of the first book I read about existentialism, which explained the idea of an existential crisis in relation to Heidegger’s Being and Time as an event bringing a heightened awareness to our mortality in such a way that the experience of life is fundamentally altered for a period. That’s what this has been.

Of course, I have meditated on change at length prior to this. It’s evident in a large number of the posts here over the last few years, but being confronted with the situation of having to personally sort out one’s own story and relationship with mortality is different than cerebrally breaking down the sweeping, subtle, and slow changes of matter, mind, and heart.

Ironically enough, recently, I’ve been reading chapters in a meditation manual about meditating on change and death, and the writer/teacher emphasizes two phases to the sessions — one for thinking on ideas or images about change/death and the other to let the emotional depth of meaning really sink in and be understood, not just conceptually. This experience has been something like the second part of that process. For the last few years, I could have quoted on a whim a passage that struck me in the first translation of The Dhammapada that I read: “All states are without self*”, but what does that mean when a life ends? I’ve been slowly piecing that together over time.

I dream of him often. In the last few weeks, I can think of a time when he appeared in our lives again — a Doppelgänger, and I was the only one in my dream who remembered he had died and didn’t trust this imposter, and yet, I didn’t want to inflict loss on my family again by convincing them of the truth. In another, he wandered around a former city I lived in with me, but he had some sort of handicap and lacked the wit and mental acuity he had in life. I think I was imagining what his survival might have meant as a tradeoff, and it was tragic in other ways — “he” was still gone, but then again, all states are without self. Finally, I had a dream where he was a cold, heartless man, driven by greed. He was an ambitious entrepreneur, somewhat like the small business owner from my childhood but fully consumed by it as his only pursuit. He seemed dead to me in his cold grimace and methodical drive. This made me realize that there are other ways we describe people as dead — when their emotions seem to lack the humaneness of connection, of the passion and compassion of a beating heart, thumping out a song with the lives of others, always already around us. Just as change is a constant and identity is an abstraction, rather than an essence (“All states are without self”), we are always already born into a universe, billions of years old, on a small rock populated with other humans — as well as all their culture, history, language, minds, and hearts…

My dad in life was a warm man, very much unlike the cold, driven, hyper-capitalist in my last dream, but at this point, I don’t know how much more there is left of him other than the stories of those who remain. I hope to still learn from him like this in dreams and musings, and I hope that these thoughts of him continue to bring insights into what it means to live and how death is related to that living presence in this world. I can’t claim to understand what the process of life is about, as I’m convinced there isn’t some permanent essence, a soul, behind it, but going through all this has sharpened the sense of mystery to existence. In many ways everything has felt just as hazy and ethereal as a dream, and sometimes, I feel that I’m not sure if I’m dreaming of a butterfly or if I’m the butterfly dreaming of Z, so to speak, but I do as that meditation teacher suggests: rest in the looking — look in the resting. What else is there to do? I’m already in the thick of the mystery and there’s no way out. There’s only the ongoing path of being on the way.


A much more succinct passage from The Dhammapada’s opening chapter could get at the heart of all this much more quickly:

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.
– Chapter 1, (5-6), trans. Fronsdal

Maybe we’re better served by a statement about the nature of that mystery from The Heart Sutra:

‘Gate gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha.’

– Gone, gone, beyond gone, completely beyond gone, great awakening.***


May this provide comfort and camaraderie to others who experience the mystery of being.

Gassho!

*The point of this quote is that everything lacks essence. Another way I say this, riffing on Buddhism, is: “All composite things are impermanent, and all things are composites.” Our greatest spiritual battle is overcoming an unreflective, ego-protective sense in which we posit some permanent essence behind us, an unchanging self. I take this quote to mean that everything lacks essence and that “the self” is an emergent process, not a set entity. Here are a couple other translations of this passage to compare:

“All things in the world are insubstantial.” – trans. Ananda Maitreya

“All things are not-self.” – trans. Gil Fronsdal

The second translation is particularly exciting because one could possibly see the way that the Prajna Paramita tradition of emptiness (shunyata) is already indicated in these pithy remarks, and this particular quote also points to interdependence — if all things are not encompassed as a static entity in and of themselves, they’re in relationship with everything.

**Most translations say “love” or “loving-kindness” here instead of “non-hate”, and while those are more poetic, I prefer this more literal translation. The word has a negative prefix on hate, meaning the negation of hate, not another word that means the opposite. Negation in language can mean a returning to zero, so to speak, and I think that fits the meditation practice and ideas in the early texts better rather than telling people to react in the opposite. One must let go of the clinging and reactivity that gives rise to hatred. Only then can loving-kindness be cultivated as a new relationship with the world.

*** I pieced this together from reading several commentaries and translations.

The Shadow and Compassion

Recently, my dreams have seemed more erratic and emotionally charged. I think there are a few reasons for this.

  1. I misplaced my dream journal for a while, and even though I don’t write in it that often, it seems to have had an impact on my dream recall. When I found it again, my dreams suddenly were more remembered when I woke again, almost as though my dreaming process appreciated its reappearance.
  2. Last week, I underwent a bout of sickness that renewed my sense of mortality — my awareness of impermanence and gratitude for health are currently sharp.
  3. Recent events have made this summer feel like a charged examination of current cultural and social trends as well as the human condition.
  4. I’ve been reading a lot about The Heart Sutra and, therein, about the prajnaparamita teachings’ deep yet confusing pronouncements regarding emptiness and the view of no view.

Those dreams I mentioned have been all over the place. They’ve ranged from feverish problem-solving of work issues to brutal violence. The most unsettling thing about the violence, to my waking, analytical mind, was that I was perpetrating it, and although purposeful, it was still violence of the most disturbing and vicious sort — carnal murder with a blunt instrument of someone who wasn’t even fighting back.

My analytic, waking mind reacts to memories of this dream by lashing back, saying “I could never do that!” and “How horrible!” However, this judgmental simplicity covers over truths I know from both my academic and self-reflective studies. Furthermore, I recognize this quick reaction to be an attempt to shore up my ego-identity to fit a narrative in which “I” am a permanently righteous being, always wearing the white hat without any aberration.

Here are some truths I know to the contrary of my ego’s simplistic, self-defensive narrative: I know that the greatest finding of social psychology is that people do strange things when in strange situations. Study after study, ranging from Milgram to Zimbardo to Asch challenge our understanding of identity. Beyond that, my studies of Buddhism and existentialism make me question any simplistic appeal to an unchanging thing as the core of who I am. Even the most introductory of Buddhists should know that this is a concept to be cut through with Manjushri’s sword. Another truth: I’ve gone through enough life and have sat with my thoughts for hours in meditation, both leading me to know that I have a great capability for anger. If anything, it may be my greatest personal obstacle to overcoming reactivity for pure, responsive, and compassionate awareness. All of my experience in academics and in personal reflection lead me to know that I have a Shadow (as Jung would call it – but without the intended hard understanding of the term with a Jungian “Unconscious” at play).

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Knowing the truth of this Shadow takes me beyond the ego’s defense, and I have nothing to do but embrace these darker, incomplete, difficult feelings, for which I have a propensity. Those are all possible ways for me to be and feel, but seeing them, however, embracing their possibility even, doesn’t mean that I have to act out upon them. If anything, it allows me to potentially move beyond them to the compassionate awareness I just mentioned. Recognizing and accepting our feelings without repressing them or enacting them is a way to understand the emptiness of who we are and our connection to all other beings. Recognizing my own dark, destructive impulses allows me a point of connection with even the most pained or hateful of beings, giving some small ounce of understanding to see those current perpetrators in our world and hope to better understand how I can communicate with them to help them get beyond their own darkness.

When I think of this, I inevitably think of the closing section of Hesse’s Siddhartha, in which Siddhartha is shown to share the face of all people in Govinda’s mind — even thieves and murders. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do, and if you’d like to know more about The Heart Sutra, I recommend Karl Brunhölzl’s The Heart Attack Sutra. If you’re interested in social psychology’s findings regarding identity, I recommend this episode (The Personality Myth) of the wonderful podcast Invisibilia. If you’re interested in a more Buddhist take thereof, check out the Dalai Lama’s How to See Yourself as You Really AreFinally, to read more on dream yoga itself, Dream Yoga by Andrew Holecek is a good all around source.


May this help you see yourself as you really are and help you reach out to the world with compassionate wisdom.

Gassho!

 

Giving Heart (Part 2)

Our worries may zoom around the state of the world. “What happens if the economy plummets? If the ozone layer keeps decreasing? If we have more anthrax attacks? If terrorists take over the country? If we lose our civil liberties fighting terrorism?” Here, our creative writing ability leads to fantastic scenarios that may or may not happen, but regardless, we manage to work ourselves into a state of unprecedented despair. This, in turn, often leads to raging anger at the powers that be or alternatively, to apathy, simply thinking that since everything is rotten, there’s no use doing anything. In either case, we’re so gloomy that we neglect to act constructively in ways that remedy difficulties and create goodness.

Thubten Chodron, Taming the Mind, page 129


In Giving Heart (Part 1), I wrote about the importance of taking up your political privilege to vote for the candidate who will protect life through fighting climate change, social injustice, and other inequities. I argued that this is important and an act of affirmation rather than one of cynicism. This is how to get beyond thinking in terms of lesser evils.

Today is election day in the US. If you’re reading this, go back to the first entry and think about it. Then, go vote. This is important. You’re extremely lucky to live in a time and society in which you have the privilege to vote. Go do so with the bigger picture in mind.

However, in this post, I’m transitioning to give heart from the perspective of the quote above as promised in the last post; this post will be about how to “create goodness” in the interactions of your life to move beyond hoping for abstract ideals and leaders to provide the world you want to live in. You can do your own part.

You are always here, already in a world with other people and other life. What can you do to be at harmony with them and show them kindness, even in the smallest interactions? This is the question that should animate your interactions. However, it doesn’t mean being a pushover. Sometimes, the kindest possible thing is showing someone else how they are being selfish or harmful. Nor does it mean intellectually analyzing every choice you make; rather, respond to life holistically, trying to do so with openness and compassion. Try practicing that, and you’ll find your place in the unity that the poem points out: radiating wisdom and justice in your life rather than being lost in the deluded dreams of waiting for it to be realized in some system or political ideology.

As really analyzing this topic would take a lot more discussion, I’ll leave you with that question — “What can you do to be at harmony with the other people and other life you live with, with the universe, and show them kindness, even in the smallest interactions?” —  to point you along your own way, and I’ll add a few quotes from various sources to inspire you in your engaged practice.

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From the Tao Te Ching (Trans. Red Pine)

Thus the rule of the sage
empties the mind
but fills the stomach
weakens the will
but strengthens the bones

This excerpt from Verse 3 inspires me, always. Ancient commentators take the full stomach as sated desires – ruling people in such a way that they aren’t driven by yearning that leads them to steal, harm, and trample. There is definitely validity to this, but isn’t this so to a certain extent because the sage makes sure that others are fed and healthy? Isn’t the most simple compassion a taking care of others’ well-being in the most basic ways? Not that I’m exhorting you to sacrifice yourself, enable others, or only care about creature comforts, but there is a basic concern that could extend as wisdom through our engagement with others.

From the Dhammapada (Trans. Easwaran)

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time:
hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law.

There are those who forget that death will come to all.
For those who remember, quarrels come to an end. (Verses 5 and 6)

These lines come in the first chapter after twinned verses which explain that selfish thoughts and actions lead to suffering whereas selfless actions lead to joy. These lines both sum up the point and show that our time in life is short — there’s no time to lose in beginning to shape our selfless path of compassion right now.

Avoid all evil, cultivate the good, purify your mind: this sums up the teaching of the Buddhas. (Verse 183)

This summation is cryptic in its advice but when remembered in line with cultivating the path of selflessness, it becomes succinct and practical.

From Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (Trans. Robin Hard)

8.27. We have three relationships: the first to the vessel that encloses us, the second to the divine cause, the source of all that befalls every being, and the third to those who live alongside us.

This is key to all of these perspectives, I believe. The Buddha’s story is not one where asceticism is the answer: rather he reaches enlightenment after realizing that eating and nourishing his body is important too. Lao Tzu points out how feeding the bodies of all is important for the ruler. Last, Marcus Aurelius points out that we have to take care of ourselves, recognize our place in the big picture of what is, and realize that there are other people with whom we coexist — another relationship that deserves our care. All three of these sources would reverberate with this last set of reminders, and we might even question, to go very Buddhist, where the differences in these relationships arise. There may just be the one relationship of taking care, plain and simple.


May this give you heart to bring compassionate engagement to yourself, others, and life/the Universe as a whole.

Gassho!

Fear & Meditation

Disclaimer: I actually wrote this about 3 months ago, but it was in the middle of a dry-spell for posting, so I didn’t reflexively jump on to add it. Before that, I had thought of this topic and wanted to write about it several times for months but never got together the initiative to set it to paper. Here it is now.


One of the greatest changes that has come from my Buddhist practice in the last year or so is a new relationship with fear. I will have difficulty explaining the depths and nuances of this change, but writing is a dance with the indescribable that comes forth as artistry or a muddled attempt thereof in this case. Please, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, lend me graceful expression and smile with patience when I fumble through.

The best example that comes to mind is how I now experience spiders. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been terrified of spiders. How do you describe a phobia? It’s really difficult — in part, because not everyone has one. I know this because people have tried to logically rationalize me out of my phobia throughout my life. They speak to you as though this experience is based only on false premises, misapprehensions, that merely have to be rectified. Such a therapeutic strategy, while well-intentioned,  clearly does not understand the visceral and fundamental nature of this fear. You can’t just explain that the boogeyman isn’t real with a phobia because this isn’t based on some sort of belief. It hits fast and hard —  disarming thought before it can ever take place. Hence, there’s no chance to ever come to the conclusion that the little spider is tiny and harmless. Nope, its very existence is fear incarnate. There’s not even a gap to reach a judgment; there is merely and fully reaction. Pure reaction.

I remember moments from years ago when I noticed a spider near me in the room, and I either fled as quickly as possible, asking for help from friends and family or stood petrified, unable to escape this object of terror. That’s the part that’s really hard to explain to those who haven’t experienced a phobia. The object of horror is not something that is evaluated. It’s not a rational process in the sense of working through a line of reasoning. It’s more primal, more immediate. With spiders, it’s something about their shape, something about their movement. Their existence itself has been the embodiment of fear for me.

Let’s compare this with a recent experience with spiders after months of meditation and dharma study. About a week ago, I was in my garage. I plugged something into a socket in the wall. As I did so, the cord rustled some cobwebs along the wall below, and I saw a small black shape scurry through them. I looked down, and my immediate reaction was – “SPIDER!” I moved back just a bit, but then, I watched, transfixed. It had such a classic shape, and I leaned to the side to get a better look as it rushed to a small hole in the wood. I thought: “Wait! Is that a black widow?” Then, I paused, uncertain as I looked for the telltale splotch on its thorax. “Maybe, it’s a brown recluse,” I surmised, knowing that they live in this region in such conditions. I decided that I’d better be careful grabbing things off the shelves in the garage, but at the same time, I felt grateful to have seen this rare and beautiful creature as it lived in its dark, cozy corner. I wondered at what fear I must have caused it — invading its space as a giant with bright lights, even if only briefly.

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Notice, there was still a certain amount of reaction but only enough to readjust awareness to the situation at hand, and I still have the caution of knowing that I shouldn’t go grabbing and petting spiders. However, I am not terrified of them any longer. In them, I see the wonder of millions of years of evolution, of the entirety of the universe’s history. They are intricate and beautiful, a natural masterpiece and as wondrous as all of the mysterious unfoldings of existence.

How have I reached such a different perspective? Meditation. I’ve spent hours focusing on my breath, consistently unplugging from my stream of thoughts and reactions. I’ve never directly faced these particular fears in meditation although I’m an admirer of Chöd and would love to cultivate that practice. Instead, I’ve meditated on my mind and on impermanence. This has brought about a gradual dissolution of my reactivity in general. However, it is much harder to let go of anger and perceived slights of ego. That’s something I hope will find its own path of liberation with continued practice.


May this inspire others who have dealt with their own overwhelming fears, even if its merely a sporadically encountered phobia.

Gassho!

Reactivity

Careening –
Toward, against
Retreating –
Away, behind
Reactivity
On course?
No, bound

Locked, empty, and confused
Seeking to wrest control
From the jaws
Of existential angst
– A threat to overcome
A life overrun

Where is there to be found
A freedom from endless rounds?
– In letting go
In just this

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When you encounter difficulties, the feelings and stories that arise in reaction are just that, feelings and stories. They are whirlwinds of confusion, based not in what is happening now but in deeply held beliefs about you and your relationship to the world. Let them swirl — leaves in the wind. Sometimes you fall back into them and lose touch with the present, but a moment of recognition always comes. Right then, come back to your body, come back to your breath, and rest. The confusion, the stories and the feelings are still there. They continue to swirl, but you are not lost in them.

Just rest. Do not try to control your feelings. Open to all the stories and feelings as much as you can without being consumed by them. You will experience shock, disorientation, anger and self-blaming — reactive mechanisms that protect you from the full impact of what has happened. Sit patiently and let your system sort itself out.

As you rest in the confusion, bit by bit, you separate your confusion from the challenge you are facing. Still the impulse is to oppose. Ask yourself, “What am I opposing?” Then, “Do I need to oppose this?” And, finally, “Is opposing called for at all?”

When you no longer oppose what is happening in you, you are able to rest and see more clearly. What do you see? Look in the resting. Rest in the looking. In doing this, you are mixing awareness with what you experience and what you experience with awareness. Keep coming back to the clarity without losing the stability. Keep coming back to the stability without losing the clarity.

Learn to trust that clarity. Over time it enables you to act without relying on conceptual thinking or strategizing.

– In “Reflections on Silver River: Tokme Zongpo’s Thirty Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva” by Ken McLeod

May this inspire you to rest in your confusion and find the clarity to act with freedom rather than reacting from your stories.

Gassho!

Dreams and Waking Life

Fantastic places
Strange situations
Wonder & Terror
Exquisiteness & Hideousness
Uncanny: familiar yet foreign

Yet, all of it,
Ephemeral
Wisps of nothing
Real?–Yes
Rife with meaning & emotion
But also,
Empty

The secret?
Waking life is the same
Transient, in flux
Not concrete,
An unfolding of myriad magnificence

The dream yogi begins,
Repeating a reminder:
“This is just a dream”
Both while awake
And while asleep

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