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Quarrels — Defending Oneself

I had a moment last week when someone misinterpreted my behavior by interpreting it as driven by the worst of intentions. When I tried to explain, my explanation was batted away, and the person doubled down. It was very frustrating, and furthermore, this was done in a small space at work, so several other people overheard, and I was effectively publicly shamed (albeit on a small scale).

Even though I practice meditation, Buddhism, and study wisdom and skillful action regularly, this was a very difficult challenge for me to deal with — when feeling personally attacked, ideas of “who I am”, our ego, become activated, and we feel pressed to defend them. It’s an automatic fuse for an explosive reaction, and it’s very hard to defuse this and act mindfully. One may try to stop the ticking of these long-evolved self-defense mechanisms by stopping and creating logical rationales: “That doesn’t matter. I don’t know these people. I don’t care what she thinks about me. Etc…” These act as a stop-gap though. They may slow down the feelings a bit, but ultimately, the scenes and feelings of personal shaming, of the need to save face, can replay over and over again, on automatic. This is a perfect example of how clinging is at the root of samsara, how endemic it is to our day to day, and how it requires a strong dedication to the various aspects of the eightfold path to let go.

In the end, a day later, thinking of an example from Buddhist lore and reading a favorite passage in The Dhammapada allowed me to let go and see things without attachment.

The first is a famous story of a Zen monk from the feudal ages of Japan, Hakuin. He ran the local temple and was revered by the community. One day, a young, single woman gave birth to a baby, and she claimed that the monk was the father and took the baby to him. He accepted the baby with a flat expression on his face and said: “Is that so?”. He took care of the baby and didn’t respond to the public’s expressed disgust at his misconduct of having fathered a child while a monk — he lost his disciples and his reputation, but he took care and joy in raising the child. After some time, the mother confessed to her parents, explaining that Hakuin had not fathered the child. They went to him, apologized, and asked for the child back. Despite loving the child as his own, Hakuin gave the child back with a flat expression and the words: “Is that so?”

Hakuin is claimed to have written some famous koans, and is a revered ancestor in the Zen tradition. You can read a much more insightful and fuller description of this story here, if you find this interesting. The point is that things arise as they do, and the path of wisdom is to adapt to them, responsively, rather than reacting to them out of the defensive clinging of trying to avoid them. This is the Buddha’s way, and also, it fits with the wu wei of Taoism, which is fused into the traditions of Chan and its child, Zen, as well.

Furthermore, note the greatest gift in this story: the potential for this kind of insight is in the messy, drama-laden lives we’re already in the middle of everyday. Our practice is fueled by the surprises and circumstances that come from living in a world full of other sentient beings, all laden with their own problems and reactions. They provide the opportunity for us to exercise wise action at every turn. As another passage from the Lotus Sutra is broken down by Dogen Zenji: the Buddha lives in a burning house — i.e. nirvana is right here in the middle of everything we think we’re escaping by pursuing a practice of wisdom. It’s not separate — not two.

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The passage from The Dhammapada that brought a refocusing of mind was:

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.
–trans. Fronsdal (verses 5-6)

As a way to elucidate this, I compare this almost automatically in my mind to Stoicism which emphasizes that we’re all here very briefly, and that the only thing we can control is our own minds, as difficult as that might be. If one can see, even for a second, how transitory, how ephemeral, how impermanent you and your life is, then slights like this fall away as nothing, as moments of confusion. Only in that letting go of the reaction from something greater — from a position of realization above and beyond it, rather than reasons utilized as a sort of mental counter-force, violence against violence — can these automatic reactions be dispelled. Only wisdom deeply realized, at an emotional level, dispels this kind of confusion, and words like this do that for me. Quarrels driven by ego are actions of the the mind enwrapped in ignorance, a potent possibility for all of us that requires the constant practice of presence to see past. As one take of Dogen has it: delusion and enlightenment are two foci of experience. We can always pursue enlightenment, actualize it, but by so-doing, we do not leave behind our human delusion: another instance when we might bring forth the idea of a chiasm — not two.

May this help others let go of those reactions they automatically generate and cling to.

Gassho!


Note: I posted this quote in my last post too, and both of these have left me wanting to read The Dhammapada again. I started today and will try to write posts about each chapter in the text, as my previous posts on the book have been some of my most popular (and rightfully so for the fact that it’s such a wise book of the Buddha’s wisdom, not because of my own problematic attempts to explain it) — I hope to improve on those this time.

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Intricate Interdependence

Thich Nhat Hahn, the renowned Zen teacher, has described the Buddhist ideas of emptiness and interdependence (which he calls “interbeing”) by saying that to examine a flower, you have to see the existence and interconnection with the entire universe, indeed see its history as well:

A flower cannot be by herself alone. A flower has to “inter-be” with everything else that is called non-flower. That is what we call inter-being. You cannot be, you can only inter-be. The word inter-be can reveal more of the reality than the word “to be”. You cannot be by yourself alone, you have to inter-be with everything else. So the true nature of the flower is the nature of inter-being, the nature of no self. The flower is there, beautiful, fragrant, yes, but the flower is empty of a separate self. To be empty is not a negative note. Nagarjuna, of the second century, said that because of emptiness, everything becomes possible.

So a flower is described as empty. But I like to say it differently. A flower is empty only of a separate self, but a flower is full of everything else. The whole cosmos can be seen, can be identified, can be touched, in one flower. So to say that the flower is empty of a separate self also means that the flower is full of the cosmos. It’s the same thing. So you are of the same nature as a flower: you are empty of a separate self, but you are full of the cosmos. You are as wonderful as the cosmos, you are a manifestation of the cosmos. So non-self is another guide that Buddha offers us in order for us to successfully practice looking deeply. What does it mean to look deeply? Looking deeply means to look in such a way that the true nature of impermanence and non-self can reveal themselves to you. Looking into yourself, looking into the flower, you can touch the nature of impermanence and the nature of non-self, and if you can touch the nature of impermanence and non-self deeply, you can also touch the nature of nirvana, which is the Third Dharma Seal.
– Thich Nhat Hahn, The Island of Self; The Three Dharma Seals (retrieved here)

These concepts are so profound and simple yet so difficult to express. I feel like conceptual thought experiments can get us partway there, but to really feel the wonder of it takes some extra insight that is honed through meditation, as the consistent experience of seeing ourselves as separate things in a world of objects separate from ourselves limits and guides our normal, everyday perception. Meditation is needed to shake us out of this frame. In a sense, it takes a slowing of the discursive mind’s analytic thought processes to really just sense things as they are.

An example from my recent life: I came down one morning to make some coffee after having finished a morning meditation session. I picked up a knife from the drawer to scrape the coffee grounds off the sides of the grinder, and as I saw the knife and touched it, I suddenly was aware of its intricacy and the long history of civilization, development, and design behind it. Small bubbles protruded out along the edges of the hilt; these caught my eye, and I thought of the aesthetic design and metallurgy behind these decorations as well as how this wouldn’t have been mass-produced only a few generations ago. My mind exploded even further, thinking of recent books I’ve read about the history of the Earth’s mass extinctions and the epically long oceans of time that are behind the world we live in/on and the species that currently inhabit it, as well as how they’re related to this momentary brilliance of tool-making. These results of eons of evolution are both creator of the tool and the food for which the tool is utilized — neither of which would be without everything that came before. Even just a simple knife in my kitchen drawer implicates the entire history of the creation of knives, of buildings, of drawers, and other cultural conventions/industrial standards around design, metallurgy, and culinary etiquette as well as the entire development of civilization, the evolution of the human race, and all the forgotten biological and cosmic events that led up to now.

A few years back, I read a book that described the symbolism of the famous calligraphy circle from Zen Buddhism: the enso. The zen monk explained that it isn’t showing a border between inside and outside or a process of completion; rather, it’s supposed to indicate everything. All is buddha-nature. All is included. All is interdependently shown in the circle.

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A fractal enso? Cosmic interdependence?

These concepts go against so much of our standard operating procedure of discernment, but there is great wisdom in the flash of insight that our independent distinctions are cuts between the intertwined chiasm (to borrow the wonderful term from Merleau-Ponty) that is existence (note: the etymological roots of “de-cide” are to cutting off or cutting away. The same applies to the German: “ent-scheiden”).


May this offer a flash of insight into interdependence to all who read it.

Gassho!

Respir(it)ation

Note: To fully appreciate the title and the topic of this poem, read about the etymology of “spirit” here.


Air brushes in
Rasping gently through
Tight passages
Winding its way
Deep inside
Lungs fill
Oxygen crosses membranes
Blood absorbs
*Thump, tha-thump*
Heart beats
And the entire body
Is provided life
Breath, air, oxygen
Spirit

What was moments ago
Outside, separate, part of the World
Other, inanimate, simple gas
Has, in a breath,
Intimately entwined itself
Into the depths of the body —
Life, animation, blood and energy
Respir(it)ation
Me

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Blood flow returns
The waste, the exhaust
Exchange CO2 for O2
— Lungs never empty —
Inside for outside
Outside for inside
— The answer to life’s mystery:
A chiasm between inner and outer?
Between Self and World? —
Air pressed back out
As diaphragm asserts
Body becomes World
As remnants of
Respir(it)ation
Are secreted
This is the great secret
No separation
Where does one end
And the other begin?

Shadow

Shadow
Wispy lack – a “no-thing”
Not solid, no entity
A lack, a hole – privation
It is where the light does not go
Not the opposite of light
Rather light’s non-being
Intimately entwined
A chiasm

The fact that existence
Remains always
A potentia – a becoming
And an unfolding
Not Static – Dynamic!
Likewise, our darkness –
Not a thing
Not a reflection of “Me”
Seen as more solid,
Stranger
And more powerful (?)
Rather, the wispy lack of certainty
That bubbles with our attempts
To solidify “Identity”

Just as Self is a construction
So is Shadow a dynamic engagement
Of Being’s Non-Being

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