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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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The River of Life–on Existence and “Separation”

Here’s another set of Morning Pages philosophical thoughts. Enjoy!


Floating through–a bubble on the surface of a river. The fragility of it and the shining beauty–yet not separate from muck and refuse also floating by in the water. Separate? Does such a word make any deep sense? Of course the bubble is distinct from the banks of the river, but where does the bubble end and “the river” begin? Also, could one truly be without the other? You may say that the river could, but it would be a different river, and would either be without the banks? What is separation?

This image is a metaphor for life, and the last point stands to remind us that “my” life as separate, as independent, is equally implausible. The universe would not be the same without me in it, but we usually stop there and make this into some sort of grand creed of the ego–“My existence is of universal importance!!!” Thus do we beat our chests at the confusion and existential anguish of the questions: “Why am I here? What is the point of it all?” Thus do we cover over our fear of death and nonexistence, trying to overlook how that bubble could so easily pop and that we cannot begin to understand or conceive of what it would be like to dissolve from bubble into river–to have the “I” dissolve into whatever it may become when this body pops in its own way.

We must not stop with this roar at the uncertainties of our embodied, impermanent life. The other point was that I am not separate from the universe. The bubble would not be, if not for floating along on the water. Words deceive here. It is not the river, and yet it is the river. It flows differently than the water around it, but it is composed of the same water and shows us merely a different way that all the particulars of the river’s flow can manifest, albeit briefly, as one possible occurrence in the ever-changing flow of flux.

Bubbles floating on a river...

Bubbles floating on a river…

Here is the mystery. Here is Tao, shunyata, Source, or the divine spark. Here is what you should spend your time observing. The universe universes the universe, right here, right now–right everywhere, right always–and “I” am not a separate, “independent” observer. I am that unfolding splendor in one tiny, localized manifestation, clearly not the whole yet not separate from the whole. Such mystery cannot be adequately represented in words, only indicated, only shownLook.

May All be happy.
May All be healthy.
May All be at peace.
May All live with ease.


May this bring you insight and inspire you to look deeply at all you encounter.

Gassho!

Spiritual Libertarianism

Here’s yet another set of pages from my Morning Pages. I started the practice just under 3 months ago, and I have almost filled the journal I bought. Amazingly, I’ve flipped through it recently and have found some very profound stuff. I don’t want to share much of it, but I’ll continue to share here when I think there’s something that fits well in this space.


I just floated away in thought. I was thinking about a video a friend sent me yesterday. It was a graduation speech by a famous comedian. My friend seemed inspired by it and wanted to know what I thought. It was… Well, I summed up his stance with what I have been thinking of as “spiritual libertarianism”. It’s kind of the norm in the New Age types with whom I used to spend time. Basically, it’s one that holds that the universe is here to provide whatever ask of it, and if I just ask hard enough, dream strongly enough, and believe, my wishes will be granted. The emphasis here is on myself above all else. The second but equally pronounced emphasis is on my desire.

Spiritual materialism in this instance has a brutally physical aspect. If I’m virtuous in the manner of asking right and showing up right, the universe will give me what I want. I suppose that there is a psychological materialism involved as well. “I’m successful because I dreamed big and have faith in the universe.”

Ironically, the comedian warns of the ego, when this entire line of reasoning is completely ego-driven. It’s all about how “I” can realize “my” dreams.

From such a stance, lip service is paid to others, but it seems to be passed over in a breath. I can do well by them by thriving, or I can thrive by giving them what they want. Either way, the emphasis is on I, and neither version is even close to the utter openness and connection of true giving. Separation is the modus operandi of spiritual libertarianism. Even in a community of such types, the emphasis is on how each person is an autonomous individual, and the group is a hodgepodge of these self-interested egos. A sangha, this is not.

Finally, he also spoke on love and fear as opposites. Hope and fear are opposites. You could broaden it and say desire and aversion are opposites, but those are both tied with the suffering of samsara. Choosing one over the other does not change that dynamic. Also, what is love here? Is it just a call to choose what I want rather than run away because I’m afraid of something? If that’s all, it’s not as profound as it first sounds. If it’s meant as choosing to do things for those I love or for the things I love, then it remains exclusive or self-interested. If that’s the case, it retains a dynamic of separation and seclusion and is not dramatically different than the dynamic at hand.


I actually just added the last couple sentences. Here’s what I would like to add further:

A spiritual belief system in which everyone is out for themselves, ultimately, is a pretty consumerist, materialistic, and empty cosmology. If the universe and my existence in it are all about me, then why are there billions of other people and countless other lifeforms, planets, and atoms out there that I have to live with? Is my good really the greatest good, and is a stance that promotes a certain “every man for himself” really a deep view of how everything is intertwined? There’s no intertwining evident here at all.

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Indra’s Net: All is intertwined interdependence

Ultimately there are many questions that aren’t even asked at all here. For instance, let’s start with: what is the self? Perhaps, that presumes too much. Asking the question in that way already presumes a certain form to the answer. Let’s go even more basic: is there a self? We have to ascertain some sort of answers to these two questions at the very least before we can say that the self’s gratification in desire, no matter how great the goals or dreams, is the path through life. Otherwise, such a stance is empty assertion, nothing more. As those questions were not even addressed, I find such a stance precisely that: empty, unanalysed assertion.

Cutting Through the Mask

Om mani padme hum…
Repeat again and again…
1000s of times…
Working for the liberation
Of all sentient beings
From Suffering
From Delusion
Goes on and on…

Can you hope to help
If you are still stuck
In your own delusion?
Compassion in action:
Om mani padme hum
Begins with seeing,
How “I” become special
“I” am advanced.
“I” will become enlightened
“I” am nearly a guru!
Such sentiment perpetuates
Delusion, is the core of
Delusion, is the beating,
Black heart of Separation

Suffering begins with
This separation that creates
“Your” mask.
A constructed aegis
To ward off inevitable Death
The black heart of Selfishness
Beats in a network of
Ego’s arterial stories.

Let go of such
Spiritual materialism
Compassion begins:
Cut through your “self”,
Open your heart
Let it beat
The ebb and flow of The Universe,
Tao
, resides in emptiness
Feel that you
And others
Are not two.

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It is a radical method for cutting through the inflation of ego-fixation through the willingness to accept what is undesirable, the disregard of difficult circumstances, the realization that gods and demons are one’s own mind, and the understanding that oneself and others are utterly equal.
-Jamgön Kongtrul, as quoted in “Machik’s Complete Explanation”

When there is no perceived difference
between square and circle,
light and dark in our minds,
we have attained the profound truth of Tao.
Everything in heart should be as one:

Emptiness
Emptiness

-Loy Ching-Yuen, “The Book of the Heart: Embracing the Tao”