Story-ing

Here’s another excerpt from Morning Pages that got to the heart of my walk along the Path of late.

Edit (7/27/15): I’m adding the end of a second and a third set of Morning Pages (excerpts) separated by second and third horizontal lines. They are both closely related to this post and add to it, extending the depth of the questions and ideas presented here.


That reminds me of story-ing. I finished, “The World is Made of Stories” last night. This small book is truly a seminal philosophical work presented in a simple style. I’m pulled back into hermeneutic analysis again. It’s refreshing.

I’m realizing that some of the most sound advice I ever provided was when I told my ex to be careful with the stories she told herself. She had some intense storying and revising of history. That led her down the path she’s on now, and I’m not sure whether she realizes all of this.

I don’t say these things in judgment. It’s not that her story is the “wrong” story, rather a story. All of our understanding is an interpretation–a story, and as all stories are, it is one that interprets things in a particular way, thereby drawing particular consequences. There’s nothing wrong about this, but each interpretation casts things in a particular way.

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We all tell and re-write our stories about ourselves. There’s nothing inauthentic to that. It’s a coming to grips with our place in the universe–a making sense. However, we should be aware of how we are creating a “self” through story.

I’m starting to think of the stories I’ve told myself, and I think with time, I’m moving away from standard ones. I’m moving towards those of the bodhisattva instead of the individual trying to get conditions just right for happiness.

Does that make all of my reading and writing a sort of narrative therapy? Perhaps it does. I’ve been gaining particular story-telling skills, stylistic usages, archetypes, and genres to help me re-story my-“self”.

The interesting thing about this as pointed out in the book several times is that this story is about unstorying, not-storying, de-selfing. The Buddhist path is about finding the “no-thing-ness” at the heart of existence that is the formlessness behind form–emptiness. The emptiness is the Truth to our existence and cannot be storied. It defies the personal security of identity built up in stories.

How do we balance that with living a storied existence? I’m not completely sure. That’s where the path of study and discipline continues to lead. I look forward to discussing that with others who walk this challenging Way, who tell this unique and beautiful Story.


I suppose that you could argue that this (the previous part of this entry talks about just writing whatever comes to the pen in jotting down Morning Pages) clears the mind as well. “The Artist’s Way” described it as though that were the case. There’s something to be said for this–letting juices flow and getting them all on paper. However, I think that simple expression doesn’t always make idle thoughts/feelings go away/come out for good. If they’re part of a larger pattern, expressing them as important could reinforce them.

We are storied beings, and the stories we tell ourselves can get stronger and more nuanced with repetition. Individuation is pushed as a boon in this culture–our story. However, this leads to our feelings of separation and loneliness. It’s a never-ending game to assert “my” existence. Samsara spins here, round and round.

So, ultimately, although I’ve tried to write simply and without intention toward pre-thought ends, I have tried to avoid letting this just be a space to spill out all my “me” stories–letting it instead be a place to express the ideas and discoveries that blossom as words run across the pages. The stories we tell are the patterns that bind. I try to let this be a space that is free of those patterns, but of course, at times, I throw these thoughts/difficulties/stories that I’m dealing with on the page. Sometimes, there’s much more difficulty to write around them than to simply write them.

Can this be done from simple awareness? Can it be an identification of the thoughts and stories at play without continuing them? “Thinking”? Can one freshly see that these stories are arising without clinging further to reactions which spin the story onward? Can these simply be mere thoughts passing by without becoming sold as solid, enduring truths? Can we experience this moment without clinging to “my” story?


As I hear the music, I think of “stories” again. We truly write the narrative of our lives for better or worse, yet we can’t control all of the elements–born prince or pauper, in America or Africa, raised in a religious community or by a small family of atheists–we can only control how we write our reaction to these elements–how we weave them together into our story. However, we tend to either overemphasize “My” Story–the aspect of myself in it–or act as though my interpretation is not part of it at all, as though meaning were just cast upon me–pre-written. In other words, we often overlook this act of story-ing and how it works in our lives. We then overlook how our stories are intertwined with myriad others. The world, our lives, are made of them.


May this make you aware of the “story” of “your” life and the deeper aspect that cannot be storied.

Gassho!

Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada–Chapter 14: “The Awakened One”

“Avoid all evil, cultivate the good, purify your mind: this sums up the teaching of the Buddha.” – Chapter 14, Verses

All right. We can go home now. Here’s the teaching, and it’s easy… Wait! No, it isn’t. What does this mean? What is evil? What is good? How do I purify the mind?

I’ve chosen my first two commentaries on the Dhammapada with the hope of making these clearer, but let’s try to untangle them. Here’s our Manjushri sword to cut through this Gordian knot: the Buddha said again and again that he taught the truth of suffering. This was his whole teaching. Also, “The Four Noble Truths”, his four part analysis on the nature of suffering and how to be liberated from it, was his first sermon.

So, his teaching is about liberation from suffering, but it can also be summed up as the three tenets above. However, how are these related? If this sums up his teachings, yet his teaching is that of the truth of suffering and the path of liberation from it, how do we understand them together?

To put it simply, the three point summary offered in this chapter of the Dhammapada is the direction of the path to liberation from suffering. To some extent, to live is to be in pain: we all will undergo the pain of birth, death, illness, and aging. However, we cultivate suffering through our own actions and, perhaps more importantly, reactions. These activities keep us walking in an endless circle of suffering, and our desire to gain a secure setting where “I” am gratified is at the center of this circle. This is our orbit of samsara.

The Buddha offers a path that goes beyond this endless orbit: a path to nirvana. This path is precisely the three points in the quote:

  1. Avoid all evil: Evil has been clearly presented in the Dhammapada as selfish thoughts and actions. Sorrow will always follow these–they keep us locked in samsara’s orbit.
  2. Cultivate the good: the good has been shown since the opening to be selfless thoughts and actions. We might readily think of this as being a martyr. However, a martyr is still caught in the game of “self”–sacrificing him or herself, sometimes for recognition, sometimes for self-gratification. The Buddha’s questioning of self is more radical. He questions the enduring entity of “I”, of atman–revealing that the self is a process that can be mastered, not a static entity. As he says in Chapter 20:

    All states are without self; those who realize this are freed from suffering. This is the path that leads to pure wisdom.

  3. Purify your mind: This one follows from the other two. The task of the spiritual path is to master yourself–recognizing that you “are” an unfolding karmic set of conditions and acting in such a way that recognizes this impermanence, this ongoing flow: “states” without self. To put it simply, we can offer two verses from the opening chapter of the Dhammapada as guiding principles–lanterns lighting the path of purifying your mind:

    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.

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I would suggest an interpretation of the first that moves past more standard understandings of these words. If we think of love as the greatest connection to what “I” like, we’ll remain lost. This keeps us rooted in the reactive patterns of suffering that the Buddha tries to free us from–desire, aversion, and ignorance. If love is just a cultivation of the “I”‘s desire, then we’ve understood nothing. Instead, for us to love, not from the love of attachment and I, me, and mine, we have to develop the wisdom of insight–coming to realize that although in a sense you and I are separate (when I eat, it doesn’t fill your stomach), ultimately we are both part of the same unfolding moment, part of the universe’s emergence right now. We’re both part of an intricately interdependent set of conditions not separate in the slightest and not enduring as we “are” in this moment. If we can see this, even for just brief moments from time to time, we can move from “hate” which is the aggressive push for “my” illusory position/preferences as reality over and above those of others to “love” which is a recognition of the interdependence of All and the illusion of separation as well as the delusions of our myriad other stories. In short, I take “love” here to be closer to what is standardly expressed as “compassion” in Mahayana Buddhism–mostly because “love”, as it is standardly understood, is an extremely loaded term for us.

Furthermore, our second lantern from the quote is giving up our quarrels by seeing that we all will die. This reveals our own impermanence and the pettiness behind our strife with others. Realizing that we all will die leads us, much like Stoicism, to understand how those things that we struggle for and suffer over are ephemeralillusory, and empty (Tibetan Buddhist dream yogis would express this by telling us life is a dream–see my related posts here and here. Be careful though! Don’t misunderstand what this statement about existence means!). So, we can learn from this insight to let go of our selfish plans–locking us into suffering of desire, aversion, and ignorance. Through this shift, we can purify our minds.


While writing this post, I read a passage by Dainin Katagiri on these three precepts of the Awakened One. His own commentary offers an excellent companion to my own, and the synchronicity of reading the passage made me feel that I should add part of it here for further elucidation and another voice. The rest of this commentary can be found in his You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight (“Buddha’s Mind” pp. 40-42):

At the beginning of practice, you might believe the precepts are moral rules. But you must learn to take them as expressions of the Buddha’s activity. In doing so, you will study your everyday life, and before you are conscious of it, these teachings will penetrate your life. In this way, you can live naturally the life of a buddha.

The first two precepts are to refrain from what is unwholesome and to practice what is wholesome. The third precept is to purify your own mind. In order to perfect these, and the other precepts, we have to sever three ties. The first of these is doubt, or wrong view, which occurs whenever we attach to our cherished or tightly held ideas.

In Buddhism, human life is seen in light of the teachings of impermanence and cause and effect. These teachings seem contradictory, but actually they work together. On the one hand, everything is impermanent, so there is nothing we can grasp or cling to. On the other hand, there is cause and effect. If you do something, it will very naturally have results. These two seeming contradictory teachings account for much of why we are confused by human life.

Whatever we plan for our lives, we must take impermanence into account. It’s a basic fact of existence. Impermanence doesn’t have any form or color or smell. We only see it in the process of continual change. It’s a kind of energy–always moving, functioning, working. This impermanence–this continuous movement, change, this appearance and disappearance–is what supports our lives. We have to care for our lives with impermanence in mind. We cannot attach to the results of what we plan.

People tend to ignore these teachings of impermanence and causation. This is called wrong view. But we have to accept them. They are facts of life.

The second tie to be severed is selfishness. To be selfish means we attach to our self as our first concern. It’s very difficult to be free of this.

… … …

The last tie we need to sever in order to perfect the precepts is superstition. This is expressed in the precepts of taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, or the Triple Treasure. To take refuge is not about escaping the human world. True refuge is seeing the depth of human existence. True refuge is where everyone meets.

A buddha is any person who understands human life on the basis of impermanence and cause and effect. If you live like this, you are Buddha. Everyday life is difficult. We are loaded with preconceptions, prejudices, customs, and hereditary factors. This is why we have to come back to this moment and take refuge in living the life of a buddha. A buddha’s efforts never cease.

Dharma is the teaching given by any person who understands the human world on the basis of impermanence and cause and effect. All we have to do is hook into this teaching and grow. To do this, however, we need help. We need the sangha.

The sangha is made up of those who come together to practice the Buddha’s Way. Without this, Dharma teaching will not be transmitted to future generations. So all of us are needed to practice the Buddha’s Way.

When we take up the Buddha’s Way, the precepts are not rules but ways to manifest ourselves as buddhas. In our daily life, we must return to the precepts again and again. This effort is very important. It’s the effort of simply walking forward, step-by-step, just like the tortoise.

May these words help guide you with the lantern’s light upon the way, the light of the Awakened One, enlightening and purifying your own mind.

Gassho!

“Me River”

The mind flows:
A river
Rippling, swirling
Thought to thought
Eddies form
Whirlpools spin
As thoughts stick
And twirl again

Thoughts wash away,
Never to return
Over time,
The river changes:
New courses
New shapes
Even moment to moment
It’s never
The same river twice

Yet, we overlook
This dynamism
Seeing it instead
As the “Me River”
Static, known object
Clearly defined on a map.
Not seeing the “selfing”
In every moment…

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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”

Thoughts without a Thinker

The following is another example of the things I write in my Morning Pages. Sometimes, it’s amazing what streams forth when the space and time is offered.


Another morning, three more pages… What to write today?

It’s interesting how many thoughts and feelings flutter in a quiet moment. I suppose the point is that they’re always fluttering by, but usually, we collude; we run along with them, often at breakneck speed. However, if you just sit for a moment and close your eyes, not “thinking”, thoughts will come rushing in of all types. Perhaps, part of the lesson to draw from this is that many (all?) of our thoughts are thoughts without a thinker. The mind whirs along, churning through content, but that doesn’t require an “I” to be there, actively making it happen. You might point and say that these are the products of the Unconscious. However, there are problems with that. Positing the Unconscious is saying that there is an unknown/unknowable puppetmaster behind much of our psychic life. First, the unknown/unknowable problem is one that is never clearly analyzed in the psychology and philosophy I have read. There’s a big difference. If unknown, it’s possible to be known, and we merely have to find the right way to approach it. If so, the mysterious nature, nigh on supernatural, fades precipitously. If unknowable, the Unconscious stands supreme at the same level as the supernatural. It is something that cannot be approached by any epistemological means. You may as well say that God has put these thoughts in your head in this case. It amounts to the same problem–the ineffable. F’ that.

Here’s an alternative–a way out of the fly jar, perhaps. Both of these are taking thought and thinking as having a thinker. It’s almost a grammatical necessity to have an agent at work with these terms. The Unconscious merely becomes agent when the more familiar conscious agent cannot be said to have “thought”, i.e. actively crafted these thoughts. However, what if thoughts arise without an active creator involved? What if they simply pop up and grow from the soil, water, and air, the ecosystem, of the mind? Then, “the unconscious” and thoughts themselves become radically different. Now, the problem is no longer to find the thinker behind the thoughts and unmask him/her/it. Rather, it is to learn to sit with the myriad thoughts in the mind and no longer water the nettles and weeds with collusion, attachment, and reaction.

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Somewhere in this process, you will come face-to-face with the shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you never noticed. –Henepola Gunaratana, as quoted in “Wake up to Your Life” by Ken McLeod

May this help you sit calmly with all of your thoughts–without collusion, attachment, and reaction.

Gassho!

Reiki: The Five Precepts (Gokai – 五 戒) – 3rd Precept: Gratitude

Just for today:
Don’t hold on to anger
Don’t focus on worry
Honor all those who came before
Work hard on self-improvement
Be kind to all living things
– Reiki Center App, Windows Phone

Now:
Peace
Faith
Gratitude
Actualization
Compassion
– My shortened mantra of the precepts


“I want”–there may be no more fundamental aspect of our psychology, or at least, our standard psychology of samsara. Freud placed the wanting aspect of the self as the original identity of the psyche. In doing so, he hardly broke the mold (no matter what the psychology or literature textbooks might lead you to think)–stealing from and echoing his precursors in Western philosophy, reaching all the way back to Plato. No, this position is not new or radical. Reading Plato’s “Phaedrus” will quickly disabuse the reader of any notion that Freud’s positions regarding the systems of the tripartite psyche or the driving nature of desires were revolutionary. He took a lot from Nietzsche, Plato, and his mentor, Charcot, at the very least. However, Freud succinctly identified a part of our experience with his descriptions of the id as primary: we feel driven through life by desire. In a certain sense, how could it be otherwise?

On another philosophical note, Aristotle’s entire system is about the becoming of things into their end product (a woefully quick and dirty summary that does not do full justice to this dynamic thinker). His physics and his understanding of behavior are teleological–that is, everything is oriented toward its telos: its goal, its fruition, its end. Desire drives us towards ends. For Aristotle, the end that all behavior aims at is happiness (eudaimonia–which is not quite the same as our standard understanding of “happiness” now; just as one swallow does not make a spring, for Aristotle, a fine moment does not make eudaimonia. Rather, eudaimonia is always in action, always in development through a well-lived life by sets of standards that cultivate excellence requiring an ongoing examination and engagement). We desire happiness and we act to move toward it.

Buddhism actually agrees that we all aim for happiness. However, and in a certain way Aristotle would agree: Buddhism thinks that we misunderstand happiness and its pursuit. True happiness is not to be found in the neverending chase of desire. As Zen Master Dainin Katagiri said, “Desires are endless.” How could we ever think that we could pin them all down just right to get an ongoing sensation of tickled nerves? It sounds silly, but that’s precisely what we do when we seek “happiness” as it is standardly understood. No, happiness is not that, Buddhism reveals; rather, it is finding joy in this moment, whatever arises. This doesn’t mean that we obliterate desire, as some people imagine when they envision a Buddhist monk. Hardly. Meditation and mindfulness are not about blotting out every thought and desire. That’s precisely why Katagiri Zenji said that desires are endless: it would be ridiculous to even posit blotting out the flow of thoughts as a path. Instead, we are supposed to see them arise one by one without investing in them and getting entangled with attachment. From a related perspective:

Desire that has no desire
is the Way.
Tao is the balance of wanting
and our not-wanting mind.
-Loy Ching-Yuen, The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao

Such a path takes a lifetime of training the mind, or rather, it’s an ongoing engagement of a present mind in every moment. Every moment is a journey, walking the way with mindfulness. With cultivation, the happiness of being simply what one is comes forth instead of the ongoing chase after what one wants to be (or have), the anxious flight from what one does not want to face, and the hazy-eyed ignorance of the ways of the universe. As Dōgen Zenji would remind us–every moment is a miracle; miracles are not the grand, crazy moments when huge desires are fulfilled, fears avoided, or laws of nature superceded. On the contrary, every moment is a miracle–even the mundane annoyances like washing the dishes.

A key first step to finding the miracle that is in every moment is cultivating gratitude. Usui-sensei’s 3rd precept tells us to be grateful, and perhaps, its position as the 3rd of 5 precepts, the middle precept, is no accident, as it is the heart of practice. In fact, the precepts are meant to be recited while holding the hands together in the pose of “Gassho” (have a look at my original post on the Reiki precepts for a refresher on this). This gesture is an expression of gratitude. So, as we recite all the precepts, they are framed by this gesture, and this precept of gratitude stands in the middle of each recitation–its beating heart.

The Reiki center app translates this precept as “Honor all those who came before”. True gratitude does not lie in the hazy avoidance of averting your gaze from that which you don’t want to see/admit. That’s merely bad faith. Instead, gratitude sees this moment in all its particulars, all of the conditions at play in it–arising and disappearing, just as they are. “Whatever arises”. True gratitude honors all of these current conditions as well as all of the conditions that came before–the causes and precursors to now, necessarily entangled with this moment. True gratitude is grateful for this unfolding karmic situation, no matter whether “I” like “it” or not.

Again, the moment of washing dishes deserves our gratitude just as much as the moment of a bite of ice cream that made those dishes dirty. Seeing the entire karmic unfolding of each moment and smiling at it, whatever arises, that’s our true path to happiness. If we can even begin to do this for just a few minutes a day as Usui prescribed (30 minutes in the morning and the evening: “Do gassho [the hand position of gratitude and blessing in Buddhism–hands held in front of neck/face with palms together] every morning and evening, keep in your mind and recite” (Steine, The Japanese Art of Reiki”)), we’ll find that there is truth to what he said about the precept recitation practice: it’s a key to health and happiness. This practice can truly grant “happiness through many blessings”. The heart of this happiness beats with the pulse of gratitude.


Buddhist lore states that the Buddha taught the precious opportunity of having a human life. His parable: imagine a planet that is covered by one giant ocean. On the ocean, a wooden yoke floats in the water, tossing violently to and fro with the ebb and flow of the ocean’s waves. A blind turtle swims in the ocean and rises to the surface once every 100 years. Being born as a human being is even more unlikely than the blind turtle rising to the surface and sticking his head through the hole of the yoke by “blind” luck. The conditions of your life are greatly precious, and each moment is an opportunity to take up a path of enlightenment and compassion for all. If you see this preciousness instead of your myriad stories of “me” which are intertwined with a neverending web of desires, gratitude can open to the way things are, and action can be taken to walk this path with open eyes, knowing that the opportunity of this life–the chance to cultivate wisdom and compassion–is not permanent and could end at any time.

May this inspire you to gratitude for your precious life, and through the regular practice of reciting these precepts, may you find gratitude for the way things are as well as the true happiness that goes beyond the eternal game of fulfilling selfish desires.

Gassho!

Previous Reiki: The Five Precepts Post – 2nd Precept: Faith
Next Reiki: The Five Precepts Post – 4th Precept: Actualization

Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada – Chapter 12: “Self”

Disclaimer: This book has 26 chapters, and I highly recommend you get a copy and read them all. I’ve had to pick and choose, and in so doing, much is passed over. I only hope to emphasize what is key for getting to the other side, but even in my choices, it would be too long to write out each whole chapter, so I have to pick selections from them as well.


Learn what is right; then teach others as the wise do. Before trying to guide others, be your own guide first. It is hard to learn to guide oneself.

Your own self is your master; who else could be? With yourself well controlled, you gain a master hard to find. (Chapter 12, Verses 158-160)

Stephen Ruppenthal introduces this chapter in my translation with an analysis of how the Buddha does not specify his position on what the self is; he cites the Buddhist scholar/philosopher par excellence, Nagarjuna. The Buddha, indeed, does not posit: “The self is X”. However, both here and in the opening lines of the first verse, (“All that we are is the result of what we have thought” see my previous post on the first chapter here), the Buddha makes clear that the self is something that can be trained. As such, it is something that can change; thus, it follows the Buddha’s emphasis on impermanence as does all else. The Buddha does not posit here that there is no atman (a soul), but he does say that the self is something that can be trained, mastered, and he indicates that the spiritual path is one in which you master yourself. The Buddha doesn’t posit anything about the self’s nature, as that would go entirely against the point (i.e. positing something that “atman is”.). Rather, he indicates selflessness, or as is often described as the Buddha’s position: no-self. As he says later in chapter 20: “All states are without self; those who realize this are freed from suffering.” He displays to us that what we label self is not fixed or permanent, rather a dynamic process: one that can be trained and mastered. A permanent, unchanging thing is not open to such dynamism. A biography I have recently read about the Buddha expressed the subtleties of this stance very well:

This was the last thing Gautama wished to communicate. He believed that in this life we inherit the karmic consequences of our actions in past lifetimes, and that when we die, our future existence will depend on our moral state in this one. Having been brought up to believe implicitly in rebirth, this didn’t raise for Gautama or his listeners the metaphysical problems it brings to many who hear these ideas today. He was trying to get away from metaphysical abstractions and point people towards the kind of experience they could detect and observe. Of course, Gautama was saying, every person, including a Buddha, thinks, feels and experiences; the point is that how we think and feel shapes the kind of people we become in the future. The self, therefore, is a process and the task is to shape it. The wanderers should stop asking of life, ‘What is it?‘ or ‘Where is the true self?‘ They should look, instead, at their actual experience and ask, ‘How does it work?‘ Sue Hamilton succinctly encapsulates Gautama’s approach: ‘That you are is neither the question or in question: you need to forget even the issue of self-hood and understand instead how you work in a dependently originated world of experience.’ (Blomfield, Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One, p. 151)

whirlpool-waves

The self is a process that changes with time like the flow of a river (read Hesse’s famous “Siddhartha”) or the waves ebbing and flowing on an ocean. Note: the flux of some processes can take a very, very long time–such as the erosion of a mountain. That does not make the mountain a permanent, solid entity…

In the quoted passage from Chapter 12, as elsewhere in the Dhammapada, the Buddha tells us to guide ourselves to develop our own wisdom (especially if no wise people are around to guide us–he clearly states it is better to go alone than follow the spiritually immature) and master our own minds. No one else can master them for us. This is the most fundamental aspect of the path–the aspect that wholly depends on our own efforts and no one else’s.

The evil done by the selfish crushes them as a diamond breaks a hard gem. As a vine overpowers a tree, evil overpowers those who do evil, trapping them in a situation that only their enemies would wish them to be in. Evil deeds, which harm the doer, are easy to do; good deeds are not so easy. (Chapter 12, Verses 161-163)

This injunction to not do evil comes right after the call to master the self. How are they connected and what exactly are we supposed to avoid? The answer could readily be seen in the twin verses of the opening chapter already discussed in my previous post. Self-mastery, the proper way to guide yourself, is to tame your thoughts in such a manner that will bring you away from sorrow and closer to joy beyond death–nirvana. It’s a taming that cultivates selfless thought–thought in accordance with the Eightfold Path, rather than the selfish thoughts that our mind is constantly lost in as untamed monkey mind. Selfless thought shapes the mind in a way that brings joy and nirvana. Selfish thought molds the mind in a way that brings sorrow and samsara.


May this help you see your “self” in a light that allows you to cultivate joy for yourself and others. May you be inspired to read through this great spiritual work and find the path to liberation from suffering. May you have the generosity, energy, discipline, patience, meditative insight, and wisdom to walk it.

Gassho.

Nothing to Do…

If, if, if…
A set of checkboxes
Mark them all, and…
Get happiness?
Even a spiritual path–
A pursuit of spiritual materialism
An accumulation of ego
The doing of an “I”
“My attainment”
A misperception
Of Truth
“I” am not solid–an illusion
The word, a placeholder,
A Transcendental Unity of Apperception
My “Higher Self”?
Not like anything conventionally conceived:
The ebb and flow of everything
Not separate from it-
A divine chaos–unfolding
The beautiful, empty, mysterious Tao
Emerging-abiding sway of all difference
The path: There’s nothing to “do”
Nowhere to “go”
Enlightenment is here: in this moment
Nirvana in samsara
Just live: realize this one step.

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Inspired by a wonderful meditation this morning and all the wise things I regularly read: in this case, I’ve been particularly moved by Dainin Katagiri’s You Have to Say Something. This passage clarifies some of the final lines:

So, how can we practice zazen as an end in itself? All you have to do is take a step. Just one step. Strictly speaking, there is just one thing we have to face, and nothing else. If you believe there is something else besides this one thing, this is not pure practice. Just take one step in this moment with wholeheartedness. Intellectually, we think about the past and the future, but if we take one step, this shore and the other shore are now. Taking one step already includes all other steps. It includes this shore and the other shore. This one step is zazen.

I’ve also been amazed by a recent find of Loy Ching-Yuen’s The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao. I would put it up alongside the Tao Te Ching and the Dhammapada; it’s a beautiful intertwining of Taoism and Buddhism written by a true master from about a century ago. I plan on writing about several passages in the future. For now, enjoy these selections from the sections On Tao:

3. Life is a dream,
the years pass by like flowing waters.
Glamour and glory are transient as autumn and smoke;
what tragedy–for with the sun set deeply in the west,
still there are those
lost among paths of disillusionment.

Our heart should be clear as ice.
Forget all the worldly nonsense.
Sit calmly, breathe quietly, heart bright and spotless as an empty mirror.
This is the path to the Buddha’s table.

5. What labor we expend sorting out our mundane chores year after year.
But doing them without regret or tears,
without resistance,
that’s the real secret of wu wei
like the mountain stream that flows unceasingly:
Elsewise, all we do goes for nought.

We can hold back neither the coming of the flowers
nor the downward rush of the stream;
sooner or later, everything comes to its fruition.
The rhythms are called by the Great Mother,
the Heavenly Father.
All the rest is but a dream;
We need not disturb our sleeping.

To see his brilliant fusion of Buddhism and Taosim better, compare this quote with my analysis of wu wei here and my analysis of the famous lines about flowers falling in Dōgen’s Genjōkōan here.
Finally, my words here make subtle references to Chögyam Trungpa, Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, and Gilles Deleuze, and this meditation and wordplay would never have come to be if I hadn’t recently read the Dalai Lama’s How to See Yourself as You Really Are, all of which (these myriad sources!) I highly recommend to anyone willing to begin a spiritual path with heart.


May this inspire your own investigations and journeys along the path, fellow wanderers. May you find ideas to play with and solace in the beautiful words of all these masters who have brought these insights into my life.

Gassho!

Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada – Chapter 1: “Twin Verses”

This opening chapter shows the way by pointing out the enlightened path and comparing it to the deluded path. The amazing thing about this opening passage is its balance between solid ethical philosophy/cognitive-behavioral psychology and more austerely poetic spiritual maxims. It’s pretty long, so I’ll only cover part of it, and I’ll go through that part in pieces.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfish thoughts cause misery when they speak or act. Sorrows roll over them as the wheels of a cart roll over the tracks of the bullock that draws it.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: we are formed and molded by our thoughts. Those whose minds are shaped by selfless thoughts give joy whenever they speak or act. Joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves them. — Trans. Easwaran

This initial chapter is called “Twin Verses”, and the reason is clear here. We have the deluded and enlightened paths–samsara and nirvana–side by side, twinned in the same structure and style of explication.

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The first sentence is the same in both, and it reveals the importance of karma in a way that resonates with Western philosophy and cognitive psychology. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics couches virtuous (that is excellent) action in an ongoing awareness of oneself within a social landscape. This requires an ongoing examination of how I have been molded by my background–upbringing and origin–and how I am molding myself further with each thought and action. Another familiar parallel is cognitive-behavioral psychology, which is more or less the successor of a Stoic understanding of the mind. Our thoughts mold our perception of ourselves and the world. In that sense, all that we are and all that the world is are the thoughts that mold us/it. Therapy, then, becomes an engagement to change the thoughts that harm us and the related behaviors to those thoughts. With these comparisons, the relevance of the Buddha’s position for us from the West is made clear.

Our two paths are displayed before us, and this is where the Buddha goes dramatically beyond these familiar points of comparison. The deluded path of ongoing suffering is the path of selfish thoughts. This includes all the plans oriented on my own aggrandizement. Out of the just listed Western parallels, the Stoics would be the only ones to make this dramatic leap (I’m reminded here of Marcus Aurelius speaking of being a citizen of the Universe). Selfish thoughts, even those oriented toward my success, my story, and my truth, even when they don’t harm others, will lead ultimately to dukkha, i.e. suffering, discontent, and continual yearning.

Why? This is a path that continually tries to get beyond the inevitability of impermanence. It’s an ongoing attempt to rig the game just right to get me that happiness of success that will never dissipate, never change, never fade. If I try hard enough… If I plan thoroughly enough… If I get the conditions just right…

Notice how all these thoughts are turned inward. If the world gives to me just right, I will be happy. That is the crux: external conditions have to be right, whether following the path of avoiding pain or pursuing pleasure. The energy of this system goes from outside to inside, from the world to me, thus the inward nature of these thoughts. “I” become the focus and goal of thoughts set up toward making my life just perfect. Even if that perfection includes others, it’s still about my perfect life.

In comparison, the enlightened path is one of selfless thought (and action). Such people (at least attempt to) give joy to all in all their speech and action (that which follows from thought), and hence, they are regularly cultivating joy in situations. It follows them everywhere. This invites a larger discussion of Buddhist psychology and karma, but let’s put this simply: the first path keeps the selfish person in an ongoing chain of cause and effect. His or her actions bring consequences that maintain an enduring cycle of felt dissatisfaction and of fighting to be free of this dissatisfaction with subsequent action … which is ultimately not fully satisfying. Selfish thought leads to selfish action which leads to the karmic consequence of this never-ending cycle: samsara. The other path invites us to at least see the difference. Then, perhaps, we have a gap after selfish thoughts arise–before we speak or act on them. Realizing that they lead only to sorrow, we instead change our thoughts, speech, and actions to more selfless ones. With time, this practiced self-reflection becomes a new mold for our thoughts, and selfless thoughts come on their own. With such a shift, we attempt to give joy to all, attempting to help them find peace, happiness, and health (by inspiring them to step beyond sorrow-laden paths as well). With this, we first begin cultivating more positive chains of consequences (as if that’s a necessary motivation), and ultimately, we step beyond the cycle of ongoing dukkha–that karmic chain is broken.

Notice that this second passage focuses on the selfless person giving joy, not getting it. Here, we have the contrast that this path is not inward-oriented like the first, in the sense of seeing the world’s purpose as to give to me or for me to take from it. Instead, this is outward-oriented. My thoughts are aimed out from myself toward the joy of all. The energy of this system now moves from me outward, rather than the inward grasp of appropriation for self. Through such a step beyond concern about my own joy, beyond “I”, me, and mine, I paradoxically realize that very joy in myself.

Let these discussions open one other passage for consideration:

“He insulted me, he struck me, he cheated me, he robbed me”: those caught in resentful thoughts never find peace.

“He insulted me, he struck me, he cheated me, he robbed me”: those who give up resentful thoughts surely find peace.

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

Again, I’m reminded of Western philosophy in that one of Nietzsche’s greatest concerns is man’s propensity for “ressentiment”–more or less, resentment. The problem is precisely how inwardly driven this is–it’s literally a feeling again and again, a “re-sentir” (to feel again). This keeps us trapped and tortured, perpetually reactive, rather than vibrant, active, and creative. We get again and again, but we only get the pain of a stung mind, an envenomed heart. As in the passage of Thus Spake Zarathustra (II, 29–The Tarantulas), we feel the toxic bite of the tarantula, again and again, stagnant and rotting with emotional poison, and with Nietzsche, according to Deleuze, the problem is that this reactivity, this “feeling again”, lies throughout our entire human psychology. So the question becomes how do we step beyond this into that active state, rather than feeling reactivity everywhere?

To exemplify this problem, we can take another verse from chapter 18 of the Dhammapada:

There is no fire like lust, no jailer like hate, no snare like infatuation, no torrent like greed.

Notice that all of these are reactive evaluations–wanting to have what one does not have or jealousy of what someone else has (which is really another version of the same). In each, we become trapped in or tortured by reactivity. Hate, the jailer, is an instance of not wanting, and as such, it is wanting. It is not wanting a situation or person to be as he/she/it is, so it is wanting to have the world be completely different for me. (See my comments on love and hate in Love, Rebounds, and Relationships: Part 3 – Love and Metaphysics and also my comments on hope and fear in Reiki-The Five Precepts: 2nd Precept-Faith)

In comparison, the Buddha offers the selfless, enlightened path, one that is not stung by holding on to the continual, reactive poison of internalized wrong done to self:

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

To let go of the resentful thoughts, the bars of the prison of hate, we cannot negate that person or thing out there which has wronged me. This is the most basic impulse in us, but as Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye makes the world go blind.” Selfish action to escape pain, begets another and another, and moreover, it begets this same resentful and retaliatory (as with hatred) reactivity in others. The only way to get beyond this is to selflessly give–to love–rather than to selfishly take–to hate (remember that hate wants the world to be utterly different in a way more suitable to me; it is a wanting, and it can lead to the subsequent action of taking, through negation). This means even giving up the self-righteous thoughts of being wronged. You instead give yourself to the world, finding connection with it, finding the suffering in those who have “wronged” us, finding the compassion of an awakened heart.

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In conclusion, let’s offer this passage of Red Pine’s translation of Verse 63 of the Tao Te Ching which I discussed in a recent post. These guiding words for the Sage go hand in hand with the Buddha’s words for the arhat who walks the selfless path of love, peace, and joy:

Act without acting
work without working
understand without understanding
great or small[,] many or few
repay each wrong with virtue
– Trans. Red Pine


May this inspire you to read the rest of this beautiful chapter and the whole book. May it show you the first steps on the selfless path, and may you begin to walk it towards joy, peace, and love.

Gassho!

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