Wednesday, August 30, 2006

What is Life Offering You?

What is life offering you right now? Practice isn't just seated meditation. Life is practice. So I ask again, what is life offering you right now?

Life offers me struggle right now. This work week has strained my ability to cope. I have put in long hours, long, busy hours with more multitasking required than I am capable of. My saving grace has been my vacation over last weekend that left me mentally refreshed and rejuvenated. Just as there was a lesson I drew from my vacation, there is a lesson in this stress. Life is practice.

It's difficult to coax the lesson out from under the blanket of stress when I'm still lying on top of the blanket. So if I'm not ready for that yet, what is my practice? It is maintaining calm, slowing my breathing, remembering to release the tension in my shoulders. It is being with the stress, embracing it, rather than pushing it away.
I often notice that when people get up from the table on the patio, they don't push their chair back in. They have no commitment to that chair. They feel, "The chair isn't important, I have to get into the zendo and hear about the truth." But the truth is the chair. It's where we are right now. ... We're looking for the truth instead of being the unease and distress of where we are right now. [1]

The lesson arises of its own accord in the course of my practice. And if it doesn't? I practice.

1-Minute Contemplation: What is your life presenting right now? Are you chasing after something you don't have and forgetting to look directly at where you are right now? Are you pushing away what's in your life right now rather than embracing it, getting to know it? Now forget all this talk and just practice. Rising. Falling. I breathe in, my abdomen rises. I breathe out, my abdomen falls.

[1] Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck. 1989.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Ordinary Is and Is Not Ordinary

Nothing is exotic in itself.
Everything that is is very ordinary
or, rather, neither ordinary nor strange.

I was reminded this weekend of the exotic beauty of my very own city, a city I've lived in for 30 years that I'd stopped taking the time to really see. One of our closest friends stayed with us this weekend, and she had never been to Chicago, so we toured the city and took her to several of our favorite restaurants. In Zen, we train to be present, everywhere, every time, not caught up in worrying about what is to come nor what has gone by. In the too-few instants in which I've been able to attain moments of such clarity and presence, I can only describe it as deep happiness and contentment.

Over this weekend, spending time with two wonderful people, we put aside schedules, timelines, and unnecessary responsibilities, and enjoyed the environment and the people around us. It reminded me of the quote above, which I read in the September 2006 issue of Shambhala Sun. Often I've enjoyed vacations for the non-ordinary things I see—different people, different buildings, different cities, different cultures. But my fiance and our close friend helped teach me that my city is just as new, just as exotic, as any vacation destination. Everything changes constantly, just as the Buddha taught us. And the things I see and experience in the WGN building, Millenium Park, and Pizzeria Due are never identical to what I've seen and experienced in my previous visits, if I truly look and live, without worrying about what is to come, nor what has gone by.

1-Minute Contemplation: While you're out and about today, take a moment to first smell your surroundings. Don't necessarily struggle to name the smell, but smell deeply so you really "get" the smell. Then look, listen, and feel. This place is ordinary, you've seen it many times before today. Yet it's different this time than last. It has to be. Molecules have moved, different people are here or have passed through. Things have aged. Decorations may have changed. Enjoy your moment.

[1] Excerpt from the poem "Once I got a Postcard from the Fiji Islands" by Jaan Kaplinski.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Simple Pleasures, from Integral Options Cafe

A great little post by Bill at Integral Options Cafe on the simple joys of childhood, and how we seem to lose many of them as we age. I'd love to hear people's experiences on this topic, and any tips on reclaiming that lost wonder in our lives today.
Integral Options Cafe: Simple Pleasures

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Simplicity and Renunciation

I started writing about a single example of complexity vs. simplicity here. Some continued thoughts...

Another related manner in which complexity adversely affects us is in the possession of "things." How much "stuff" do you own? How much clutter lies around you in your home? Here, too, Buddhism teaches simplicity. But before we get to that, let's just perform a simple thought experiment. Imagine yourself sitting in your home; everything is clean and nicely put away. Your decor is arranged as you like it, in an orderly fashion. You have the minimum number of knickknacks for decor as you feel comfortable with. You surroundings are clean, orderly, and arranged nicely. Take a moment to feel yourself in this scenario.

Now, take that scene and clutter it up. Add in extra knickknacks, extra "stuff." You can keep it orderly, but just add more and more. Whatever you can think to add, add it. Surround yourself with more and more decorations. Look around yourself in this new scene. Take a moment to feel yourself in this scenario. How do your feelings compare to the previous scene?

In Buddhism, renunciation plays a vital role. Complete renunciation is to become a monk. But even as lay practitioners, we are counselled to commit to renunciation. There are several aspects to this practice, and the one of particular interest to us here is that of renouncing sensual pleasures, one of which is worldly goods. As lay practitioners, we cannot, and should not, give up all of our possessions as do monks because we need more to live in society. However, we should carefully examine our possessions. Do we really need 3 television sets? 18 pairs of shoes? Are we really interested in that new CD because of the brilliance of the artist, or is it destined to become another coaster?

The Buddha instructed us in this manner for three reasons. The first is to combat attachment to things. We should be able to give away our goods when they are no longer needed, without feeling undue attachment. If we cannot, this teaches us where to focus our practice. The second is to combat our attachment to self. Owning more leads to the concept of "ownership" arising in our thoughts more often, which leads to the assumption that "I" am the owner, which further cements the delusional view of self that entraps us. The third is the most pragmatic—more stuff makes you feel less calm and clutters your mind with thoughts of that stuff. The image of a zendo, a zen meditation hall, opened this post. Minimal, simple decor relaxes the mind, allows it to focus more directly, more calmly, on seeing one's true nature—the purpose of Buddhist practice.

Subdue greed for sensual pleasures,
and see renunciation as rest.
Let there be nothing grasped
or rejected by you.
Burn up what's before,
and have nothing for after.
If you don't grasp
at what's in between,
you will go about, calm.
One completely devoid of greed
for name & form, brahman,
no effluents
by which he would go
under Mara's sway. [1]

[1] Jatukannin's Question, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

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Pain is unavoidable, but suffering is caused solely by the mind. One of the greatest causes of our own suffering, our own lack of peace, contentment, and happiness, is the complexity that we allow to rule our lives. Complexity impedes our ability to look deeply at any one thing, to be mindful of what life presents, here, now.

In my life, complexity prevails in excessive responsiblities or, rather, what I interpret to be responsibilities. I'm not speaking of true responsibilities such as cleaning, laundry, or grocery shopping. Nor am I speaking of such enjoyable "responsibilities" as spending time with family, friends, and my fiance. I have many interests, many things I enjoy doing: I train very regularly for volleyball; I play volleyball; I am starting my Ph.D. studies in electrical engineering on Monday (gasp!); I write on this blog; I write offline in hopes of publication; I enjoy a number of strategy games; I am designing a campaign around one of those games; I read on a lot of topics; I enjoy one or two television shows; I raise bonsai trees. I'll stop here, but there's more.

The number of interests I have does not necessarily engender complexity. Complexity arises because I take many of these interests too seriously, and I want to improve my skill level in them. But to do so requires time. For example, I need to weight train at least 2-3 times per week and perform aerobic conditioning at least 3 times per week for volleyball; any less, and there's really no point because I'm not reaping any benefit from it. So life becomes complex for me because I see these activities as responsibilities—I need to train 3-5 days per week; I need to write every day; I need to work on this campaign if I want to have it ready to play by the end of September—and responsibilities weigh on our minds. My attachment to these interests, the need to accomplish "X" by "Y" date (a self-imposed deadline with no true consequences for missing it), causes me to suffer.

1-Minute Contemplation: How does complexity arise in your life? What can you do to simplify? Can you eliminate? Can you re-frame (i.e. learn to see "responsibilities" as interests)? What benefits might come from simplifying?

Monday, August 21, 2006

Buddhism in 438 Words

As our final topic in my time as a guest blogger at A Pagan Sojourn, we were asked to write, in 300 words or less, a synopsis of our path. Well, my attempt came in at 438 words. So sue me. :) This is cross-posted from A Pagan Sojourn:

Joseph Campbell observed that there are three ways in which mythologies—our current religions—reconcile our existence to the world’s conditions. The earliest mythologies affirmed existence. They taught that the world is perfect in all its horror. The next set of mythologies to emerge denied life, providing a means to escape the horror to something better beyond. The third type of mythology surfaced with Zoroastrianism: The world was originally good and subsequently fell, resulting in the "human condition." In this third type, which is the basis of the Judeo-Christian traditions, people are to align themselves with the forces of good and work to eliminate evil.

Early Buddhism may have tread on Hinduism’s heels as a "denying-type" religion. However, Mahayana Buddhism, the type I practice, is an "affirming" religion. The tagline for my blog, "This world—just as it is with all its horror, all its darkness, all its brutality—is the golden lotus world of perfection," says it perfectly. The world is as it is, beautiful, wondrous, awe-inspiring, even in its brutality.

Suffering exists. This is the first noble truth. Having been born, we will suffer. Suffering has a cause. This is the second noble truth. Look at the world around you. I challenge you to find something cause-less; suffering is no different. Next is the third noble truth. I like to call Buddhism the ultimate optimistic religion, and the third noble truth is the reason: Suffering can be ended. Like anything, if the cause is removed, the effect does not occur. If we remove its oxygen supply, a candle flame will expire. In the same way, if we can figure out a way to remove the cause of suffering, suffering itself will not occur. Toward this end, the Buddha discovered, and taught, the fourth noble truth: The path that leads to the end of suffering.

If we were only to seek for our own escape from suffering, Buddhism might register as a "denying-type" mythology. But a key practice transforms Buddhism into a life-affirming religion. While we work on the path noted in the fourth noble truth, we also realize that we are already Buddhas. We look for perfection within ourselves by recognizing that our intrinsic nature is ultimate perfection.

We are already endowed with Buddha qualities, or Buddha perfections, the moment we are born, even at the beginning of our existence. The only problem is that somehow we are trapped in samsara, which comes about from the accumulations of our defilements. So if we are able to purify our defilements, then we discover that we are already Buddhas, already enlightened ones.1


Saturday, August 19, 2006

Ringing of the Bards 9

Ringing of the Bards 9 is posted at something katy! Go check it out for some great poetry!

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Poem: Face in the Mirror

In the mirror I see
Myself not as I truly am
But as I think I truly am. The
Mirror shows me things
False things. People say mirrors
Don't lie. My mirror can't
Tell the Truth. The mirror is
Unlike looking into a polished
Square of aluminum or a puddle
That ripples on black pavement
They reflect distorted views. My
Mirror is perfect
But I see wrong.

I think I see me
but the mirror shows my form,

I think I see me
but the mirror shows my smile,

I think I see me
but the mirror just reflects light,

The mirror needs no polishing
Can Windex erase delusion?

(Inspired by the picture by Miss Sam Duffy)

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Buddhism and the Afterlife (Part 2 of 2)

Part 2:

This seemingly simple system of cause-effect is at the heart of Buddhist karma. Thoughts, actions, and speech have no inherent "goodness" or "badness." Rather, every action, every thought, everything you say, is the result (effect) of previous causes, including free will, and will act as a cause for a subsequent effect. For example, killing incurs "negative karma" not because of some inherent "evil" in killing, but because the effect of killing is to cause suffering to another—and to yourself due to the unskillful mental states that precede killing (e.g. anger, jealousy, hatred).

Applying this to rebirth, we are not reborn as a "higher" or "lower" being due to an inherent moral or immoral sum of acts in life. Instead, Buddhism teaches that our rebirth is an effect of causes—and that may not correspond to the apparent sum of one’s actions in this life! Hence, Mother Theresa may have been reborn in a hell realm, despite her wonderfully generous life, based upon the complex of causes in her past and "current" life. However, she would also be certain to experience the effects of her saintly life as well. When and how, exactly, is too complex to predict.

The same concept shows why Buddhist karma does not result in a ladder-like rebirth system. Taking the Mother Theresa example, in a ladder system, she would have been expected to probably have progressed to the next rung, although even there it is possible that she did not learn her particular lesson for this life, despite her compassionate action. Buddhism acknowledges and accepts that the interweaving matrix of causes has many effects still operating, even if repressed in the psyche. Hence, there is a chance that Mother Theresa may have been reborn in a less-than-pleasant realm, just as it is possible that she was reborn in a god realm.

This last point refutes misconception #4. Karmic effects can cause rebirth as a god in Buddhist cosmology. There is no overarching, greater God or Goddess in Buddhism. Rather, beings may experience rebirth in a wondrous heavenly realm as an effect of the causes of their thoughts, actions, and speech. It is said that, in a godly form, these beings do have some powers that we, as humans, normally do not. But Buddhism still views these gods, who were once people just like you and me, as afflicted. Eventually, the god-being will die and then causes and conditions will determine his/her next rebirth. In actuality, Buddhism views a human life as most desirable because the heavenly realms are too pleasant to give one a reason to work toward perfecting their development of skillful qualities like generosity, love, and compassion, while hell realms and animal rebirths often make it difficult to get the chance to practice—life is too difficult and distracting. How well could you practice generosity as a deer when predators are always about? Plus, your mental capacity is reduced, making it that much more difficult. Human rebirth is considered most advantageous because there is enough suffering to prompt the need for a spiritual path, enough happiness to continue motivating your practice, and the best opportunity to be exposed to teachings to guide you on the path.

All that being said, Buddhism is predominantly a pragmatic path. It is not about philosophizing about metaphysics or thinking intellectually over propositions and concepts. It is not even about being compassionate or loving or generous. It is about BEING compassion, BEING love, BEING generosity, in the here and now.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Buddhism and the Afterlife (Part 1 of 2)

(Cross-posted to A Pagan Sojourn)

The Buddhist concept of rebirth and karma are oft-misunderstood here in the West. What are some common misconceptions?
  1. People hear "rebirth" and think, "A soul that is me is reincarnated."
  2. People think they can be reborn as a slug based on violating moral principles in this life.
  3. People consider rebirth like a ladder—you learn a lesson in one life and move up a rung, or you don’t learn a lesson and you stay put or regress.
  4. Within this framework, there may be an overarching godforce with which you are trying to become one, or that is of greater absolute status than you.
Each of these is an incorrect assumption about the Buddhist understanding of karma and rebirth.

During the Buddha’s lifetime, in the 4th century BCE, Indians predominantly practiced Hinduism. In Hindu thought, an atman, a soul, animates each person. The atman is an unchanging, permanent kernel of Brahman, the "concept of the unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality that is the Divine Ground of all being in this universe." (wikipedia) Hence, Hindu practice centers around uniting one’s essence with all that is.

The Buddha refuted this principle by asserting the emptiness of all things. While that is a topic for another essay (or thousands of essays!), in short it does not mean that things don’t exist or that all things are illusions. Emptiness describes the condition that nothing exists as a permanent, unchanging, independent entity. The Buddha observed that all things are inter-dependent, i.e. we are not animated by unchanging, permanent "essence of Brahman," but rather are comprised of aggregates, all of which are also inter-dependent. Basically, nothing can exist in the world independent of other things. Everything in the world arises dependent on one or more other already-existing things.

Based on the principle of emptiness, there is no soul to reincarnate. But then what is reborn? I discuss it in detail in section 2.2.8 of my essay here. In essence, Buddhism views consciousness as a digital continuum. Each instant of consciousness is based on the previous instant of consciousness and one’s current mental state. For example, let’s say your sister tells you she’s getting married. Pretend you like the guy. :) That input, and her enthusiasm, will make your next instant of consciousness a joyful one. As you continue to talk to her about it, joy continues as a constant input from your interaction. This, combined with your previous instant of "joy consciousness," results in continued joy consciousness. Eventually, you two change the topic. The joy will then slowly dissipate as the previous instant of joy consciousness combines with a new input. Then that “reduced-joy consciousness” combines with whatever input your current mental state provides to form the next instant of consciousness.

In that same way, the final instant of consciousness of your life will act as one of the causes for another instant to be generated—in a new life! There is no soul to be transferred between bodies. There is simply cause-effect: one instant of consciousness acts as one cause of the subsequent instant, potentially modified by one’s current state.

Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow!

Inherent Nature, Good or Evil?

In a comment here, a friend of mine wrote, "Though I do believe we are all capable of 'good,' I tend to think we are more evil than good and society forces us to sublimate it and/or different religions/spiritual praxes condition us otherwise."

What I find particularly interesting about this statement is that we really cannot know for certain if that's ture, or if we are inherently good. Maybe we're not inherently anything! And of course, what do we mean when we use the terms, "Evil" or "Good"? She noted, "I know it reflects a sad state of mind and heart." But I really don't think so. We are all making the best choices and drawing the best conclusions we can, given the evidence with which life presents us.

She quoted the book of Genesis: "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood." (Genesis 8:21) I think it's accurate to say that this is a common Christian view presented in the Bible, that we are fallen and can only be made holy (whole?) again through Jesus. Obviously, other religions hold different views (i.e. Buddhism).

I truly do find it fascinating how we all view things so differently. You can say that we are more evil than good and we have to fight for altruism to shine forth in our lives. I can say that we are all ultimately perfect, but the defilements of anger, greed, and delusion obscure it—which is a product of our own making. The thing is that, from an observational standpoint, we see the same thing! People usually have to work at being altruistic and compassionate. You say that's because inherently, we're not nice. I say that's because our innate compassion and love are just veiled through our own doing.

She wrote, "You've got to fight to be good and do the right thing. It ain't easy. But it's worth it." You sure as h*ll hit the nail on the head with that one!

1-Minute Contemplation: What is the basis of our existence? Are we innately good or innately evil? Why? What do we even mean by "good" and "evil"? Are these arbitrary definitions? Or is there some ground upon which these terms are based?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Buddhist View of Nature (Part 2)

Part 2: (link to part 1)

In his forty years of teaching after his awakening, he continually returned to nature as a primary source of wisdom and practice. Just like Thoreau experienced at Walden pond, a life away from the excessive energy of the city creates a space of simplicity, of calm, that is necessary to penetrate the delusions we hold about the world and ourselves. That’s not to say that one cannot practice Buddhism as a householder. Rather, it simply shows us that simplifying our lives as much as we are capable within the constraints of our responsibilities is a good practice to undertake.

There’s a famous story that forms the source of Zen philosophy in which the Buddha silently held aloft a lotus flower in front of an audience of 1,200 monks who had come to hear his teachings. By this most simple of acts, one monk in the audience, Mahakashyapa, was fully awakened. Some of the other monks present were probably not in a place where they could benefit much from such direct teaching, and others likely gained some measure of wisdom. But the key here is that the calm, silent simplicity of seeing a flower in bloom contains all the wisdom in the universe.

We can also look at nature in terms of Buddhism’s teachings on compassion and peace. In the third chapter the Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva writes:
Thus, for every single thing that lives,
In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,
May I be their sustenance and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering.2
It is our vow, our practice, as Buddhists, to attain awakening not for ourselves, but for the benefit of all beings. This practice contains the seeds for the development of skillful qualities such as compassion, love, devotion, energy, and generosity. But more importantly for our purposes here, it exemplifies the inherent equality of all sentient beings: I see a dog, a raven, a cheetah, a jellyfish, as inherently no different from a human.

They are all living, sentient beings, and it is my wish that none should suffer. This is not some naive thought that we can, or should, prevent gazelle from suffering in the jaws of the predatory cheetah (because, truly, to prevent that would cause the cheetah to suffer eventual starvation). Rather, we see nature as it is. Life flourishes on earth due to its diversity and the adaptability of genetics under the pressures of natural selection. The predator-prey model plays a major role in this process. However, still we feel sorrow when seeing a great lion extinguish the life of a zebra to feed his pride, or a leopard kitten perish because his mother was unable to kill enough to feed him. We accept that this is the means by which species survive, and we see all beings as inherently equal, requiring our compassion, love, and respect.

2Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night, Dalai Lama. 1994.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Buddhist View of Nature (Part 1)

I have been given the honor of being a guest blogger for the next week at A Pagan Sojourn. On Monday, Thursday, and Saturday of this week, two other guest bloggers and I will be discussing various agreed-upon topics. I'll be cross-posting them here, possibly broken into parts for ease of reading. So on that note, here's the first part of A Buddhist View of Nature:

In Buddhism, nature is both seemingly irrelevant and of the greatest import. This paradox arises because Buddhist scripture rarely mentions nature directly in terms of its role in Buddhist philosophy. However, once one begins Buddhist practice, nature’s importance, its immediate relevancy and vitality and relationship to one’s practice is uncovered.

The Indian religious tradition historically praised the practice of leaving the distractions of city life by going forth into the wilderness to deepen one’s spiritual training. The Buddha himself renounced his guaranteed life of luxury and comfort as a prince—and eventual king—to go forth into the wilderness to find the answer to a single question: “How can we rid ourselves of suffering?”1

The Buddha’s awakening to the true nature of his existence came as he sat resolute through the night, under a starlit sky, meditating beneath the boughs of the Bodhi tree. During each successive watch of the night (which was likely calculated through observation of the heavens, not through the Buddha wearing a Timex :) ), he attained deeper levels of awakening that culminated with the rising of the morning star in full-blown Awakening. His mind was awakened, enlightened, to his true nature and to the true nature of all things. Additionally, near the end of this marathon meditation, the future Buddha conquered Mara, the personification of fear, greed, and hatred, and in doing so, reached down and touched the Earth, declaring that with the Earth as his witness, he had overcome those three poisons.

What does this say about nature? Nothing pedagogically. But if we look closely at these myths, the natural world was key in the Buddha’s awakening. He renounced his worldly life and pursued the life of a wandering monk, at home everywhere because he was not at home anywhere. The watches of the night framed his stages of awakening, culminating in the rising of the morning star. Mother Earth acted as his witness. The Bodhi tree symbolized his axis mundi—the immovable point of his universe, like the cross in Christianity or the altar within the circle, at the intersection of the Four Quarters, where Fire, Air, Water, and Earth meet.

Part 2 will be posted on Wednesday.

1 The Buddhist definition of suffering is something I plan on posting here later this week. Stay tuned!

Ringing of the Bards 8

Ringing of the Bards 8 is posted at Naked and Ashamed! Go check it out for some great poetry!

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Saturday, August 12, 2006

Love in Non-Human Animals

Another story from When Elephants Weep:

Tibby, an otter, was raised on an island by a man who used crutches. Eventually, the man became ill and asked Gavin Maxwell, the author of Raven, Seek Thy Brother, to care for Tibby. Unfortunately, the man never returned for Tibby, who did not seem to enjoy her new home—she was always sneaking out of her pen and visiting the nearest village. Maxwell wrote that Tibby found a man in that village who used crutches and built a nest under his home, but was chased away. He documented that after this event, he received a call from a person who had noticed an otter trying to follow him into his house. When Maxwell asked if the man used crutches, the man gasped, asking how could possibly have known that! The author of When Elephants Weep writes, "Tibby may have been imprinted on humans who used crutches, or she may just have been fond of such people because they reminded her of the affectionate man who had vanished from her life."

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Friendship in Non-Human Animals

A story from When Elephants Weep:

John Teal, a researcher whose work involved raising musk oxen (an endangered species), described that one time, he was sealed within the oxen pen when some dogs ran toward the outside of the pen. Immediately, the musk oxen snorted, stamped, and charged at John. He was afraid for his life but, to his astonishment, the oxen did not attack him. Rather, they formed a defensive circle around him, horns facing out, pointing at the dogs—exactly the same as they do when protecting their calves!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Bird Grammar

A study in the journal Nature by Timothy Gentner from the University of California at San Diego observed that starling birds can identify "acoustic patterns defined by a recursive, self-embedding, context-free grammar."

In other words, linguistically, starlings can discern between a basic bird song and one with specific inserted grammatical "bird phrases."

More details at the Deccan Herald.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Tag Meme on Books!

Bill at Integral Options Cafe tagged me with the followed neat tag meme.

One book that changed your life?
I really have to cite two here that work in conjunction: Richard Dawkins's Selfish Gene and Blind Watchmaker. These two books taught me the wonder, the awe-inspiring beauty, that exists in a world in which we need not create the idea of a creator god to enjoy.

One book you have read more than once?
I'm going to claim the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy (Fellowship of the Ring, Two Towers, Return of the King) in this section. These three books function as one—and actually were one, but Tolkien's publisher made him break it up under the fear that nobody would buy it otherwise. If this trilogy didn't take so long to read, I would read it once every 6 months.

One book you would want on a desert island?
Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. I would claim the entire Pali canon (the canon of early Buddhist literature), but this is calling for one book, and I think the Middle Length Discourses packs the greatest punch per page. All the early Buddhist teachings, the closest thing to a meditation teacher, and spiritual verse to contemplate—exactly what I'd like to spend my time reading.

One book that made you laugh?
Imajica by Clive Barker. The book was not particularly humorous, but its prose, its situations, and its characters had me smiling and laughing out of wonder, really enjoying myself.

One book that made you cry?
I can't recall a book that fully brought me to tears, but one of my current books, When Elephants Weep, has several sad stories of people's treatment of animals in the name of experimentation. It brought me about as close to tears as I can remember when I read that researchers restrained dogs and then proceeded to electrically shock them to induce helplessness and apathy. Then they proceeded to test the apathy and actually figured out that if they shocked the restrained dogs at least 4x per week, the dogs would just lay and whimper on an electric shock plate when not restrained, continuing to be shocked, making no effort to escape, having been conditioned to "learned helplessness."

One book you wish you had written?
Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces. The book is a wonder of scholarship and mythological information that transcends individual religions. It's an amazing work that should be on everybody's reading list—especially those of a religious bent.

One book you wish had never been written?
I'm with Bill on this one. I think all books have a right to be written, regardless of content.

One book you are currently reading?
As with Bill, I'm reading a number of books currently. To name the three that are currently occupying my time: When Elephants Weep by J.M. Masson and S. McCarthy, What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr (I would strongly recommend this one as a wonderful, lay-person readable work on the state of the art in evolutionary biology), and Ever Since Darwin by one of the most amazing writers I've ever read, Stephen Jay Gould.

One book you've been meaning to read?
Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. It's a somewhat difficult philosophical tome that I'm promising myself I will pour through in the next year. It discusses the implications of Darwinism and the brilliance of the theory philosophically.

Now it's time to pass this meme on (and all readers of this blog should know what a meme is! It's a replicator!!) So on that note, Angela, Jon, Don, and Dan: TAG!

Everyone else, please feel free to share your books in the comments. I find some of my best reads from others' recommendations.

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Monday, August 07, 2006

Flaws, Suffering, and Buddhism (Part 3)

Review of previous parts: We've invoked several tenets of NLP to describe a basic structure of approach necessary to effect change. We've also introduced the idea of the Four Noble Truths to provide a sound basis for finding the source of our flaws, which cause us suffering.

Part 3:

Let's examine what this teaching tells us about our fictitious person's parental problems. First, our person has to come to accept that suffering exists. Acceptance is the first key. Worrying about the problem shows that our person has not accepted that the suffering he's experiencing with his parents just “is.” It exists. Period. Thinking about why this is happening to him is not acceptance. The situation just is as it is, right now, and that, in and of itself, is the jewel lotus of perfection. Thinking that there is something “inherently wrong” with him or his behavior is not acceptance. His behavior is as it is in the moment, and it is based on his past. It is not getting him the results he wants, hence his desire to try something new, but there is no inherent wrongness. Accept that things are as they are, with no judgment of inherent nature.

Second, our person must come to the understanding that his suffering has a cause. The situation is as it is because of his past experiences. It cannot be otherwise, because we learn our behaviors as we go through life: we learn how to act, how to think, how to speak. If his problem involves other people, like our fictitious person, then those people also learned how to act, how to think, how to speak, based on their pasts. Hence, their interaction is solely a result of all parties' past experiences. To believe otherwise is completely disempowering, not to mention illogical—but our egos, emotions, and pride are rarely logical. Accept that there is a cause to suffering.

Third, our person must come to know that if he removes the cause, the source, the effects (symptoms) will cease. We know by experience that all things that occur have causes. If I raise my arm, the initial cause is my motivation to do so. Then signals are passed through my nervous system to the appropriate muscles to physically move my arm. Nothing can happen without a cause. If the motivation does not exist to move my arm, my arm will not raise. If my brain is incapable of communicating with the muscles in my arm, then my arm will not raise. If we remove the cause, the effects will cease. This third step is very important in the process because it is a common belief among people that they cannot change, that they are the way they are, and that's it. This belief is very dangerous because it raises an artificial barrier to success. But as soon as we realize that we can always affect causes, and hence change their effects, we become capable of anything.

The fourth Noble Truth has two aspects important to our fictitious person. First, he might accept that suffering exists, that it has a cause, and that if he stops the cause, the suffering would end. But he might not believe that there is actually a means to eliminate the cause. This belief is self-fulfilling. An amazing thing happens, however, when he gains the realization that he can eliminate all causes—he becomes capable of doing so, and the results start rolling in! The second aspect of the fourth Truth important to our person is that it actually lays the path in front of him, the Eightfold Path. The skills developed through the practice of the Eightfold Path bestow the ability to analyze situations and objects deeply, to penetrate through the symptom to the deep underlying causes. Herein lies the key to successfully eliminating our flaws.

We all have flaws. Anger, greed, and delusion underlie nearly every unskillful behavior, and in order to root out how, in fact, these three poisons are specifically damaging our lives, causing us suffering, we first have to realize that if we continue doing what we've always done, we'll continue to get what we've always gotten. We then have to accept that the situation is as it is. No benefit comes from getting angry at the situation, at oneself, or at another for causing the problem. It just is. We live. Suffering exists. We then have to realize that a specific cause underlies our suffering, and that eliminating the cause will eliminate the suffering—and we CAN eliminate the cause. Finally, following the practices described in the Eightfold Path gives us the means to penetrate to the source of our suffering and eliminate it permanently.

This brings us to the end of this series. Next, I plan on embarking on a discussion of the Eightfold Path, via several sutra references as well as personal explanations.

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Life is a Second-by-Second Miracle

From Everyday Zen by C. J. Beck:
It's not that "I" hears the birds, it's just hearing the birds. Let yourself be seeing, hearing, thinking. That is what sitting is. It is the false "I" that interrupts the wonder with the constant desire to think about "I." And all the while the wonder is occurring: the birds sing, the cars go by, the body sensations continue, the heart is beating—life is a second-by-second miracle, but dreaming our I-dreams we miss it. So let's just sit with what may seem like confusion. Just feel it, be it, appreciate it. Then we may more often see through the false dream which obscures our life. And then, what is there?

1-Minute Contemplation: Take a minute to close your eyes, and just listen. Listen to the first layer of sounds around you, the sound of your breathing, cars, typing, air conditioning. Then sink deeper and listen to the second layer of sounds, perhaps birds in the background or a deeper electrical hum. Then sink deeper and listen for the third layer—maybe you can even hear your heart beating. Then open your eyes, and maintain that deeper awareness as you continue about your day.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Flaws, Suffering, and Buddhism (Part 2)

Review of the previous part: In order to deal with our flaws, which cause us suffering, we have to realize that we cannot just continue doing what we always do. That is karma, our habitual response. Instead, in order to effect change, we have to try something different. But we have to do so objectively, because otherwise we will fall right back into our habitual actions when our emotions reach a critical mass.

Now, on to Part 2.

There are two more problems here. First, what I've described is H.A.R.D. This is why karma (habitual response) has such a strong hold on us. Second, our example problem has a unique difficulty—it involves another person. We have no control whatsoever over the person with whom we're interacting. And by all means our fictitious person should expect that his parents will NOT easily change their responses; they are trapped in the same snare of habitual responses that we all are. Therefore, this adds a level of difficulty in analyzing the results of our changes. Our changes might be good, but there will be a “propagation delay” between the time we effect our change and the time at which a new result can be observed. If we deal with a problem that involves only our own response to the world (i.e. jealousy over another's success), the propagation delay will be negligible—we can see the results of changes in our approach very quickly.

The NLP tenets we've invoked above are like a “black box.” Our problem is the input into the black box, and within the black box, the problem is funneled into the following structure: regardless of the incoming problem's specifics, we endeavor to act objectively in the situation, objectively observe the results, and then change our actions if the results are not what we want (after accounting for propagation delay). However, our black box provides little help in telling us WHAT changes to make. We're not looking for a band-aid, we want a long-term solution. Many approaches exist to ensure that our solutions are at a deep enough level to be long-term. I'm going to approach this issue using the frame given to us by the Buddha.

In my post here, I compared the Buddha to a doctor. If we use that analogy, we want to ensure that we make our changes at the level of cause, not at the level of symptom. As I noted in that previous post, putting a band-aid on the symptom is fine for immediate results, but for a change to last, we must remove the cause of the problem. To accomplish that, let's use the Four Noble Truths, which tell us that (1) Suffering exists; (2) Suffering has a cause; (3) Suffering can be ended by removing the cause; and (4) There is a path that leads to the end of suffering—the Eightfold Path.

Tomorrow, I'll post part 3, where we'll apply the Four Noble Truths to our problem solving method.

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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Flaws, Suffering, and Buddhism (Part 1)

Everybody has flaws, things they feel they need to correct or improve. However, how many times do we actually make progress toward our goals to correct or improve our flawed aspects? And how often do we keep seeing the flawed behavior unabated in ourselves after years of “effort?” In this essay, I am going to describe the nature of such problems and their solutions using a Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) frame, and then discuss effective versus ineffective processes from a Buddhist perspective. First, from the tenets of NLP:

“If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got.”

We very often get stuck in our methods. Consider someone who has a difficult relationship with his parents. The problem often arises because, over his years of life, their interactions have become predictable. People continue interacting in the same way they've learned to do so—it's the way our brains operate, and the basis of karma (habitual response). However, it should then be of little surprise to see that the results of their interactions are the same. If nothing has changed in the general means by which they communicate, then the same results will occur.

Our fictitious person with parental relationship difficulties often gets frustrated, and understandably so! However, here is where another NLP principle becomes relevant: “There is no failure, only feedback.” This principle espouses an objective view of the situation. Think about it. When you're embroiled in such a difficult situation, it is very hard to view things objectively. However, if you really want to improve the situation, you really have no choice. If you stay “caught up” in the situation, then regardless of the control you attempt to exhibit, your emotions will eventually exceed your tipping point, and you'll fall back on habitual responses. Therefore, the only real means by which to change your response (and, hence, potentially receive a different result!), is to remain objective and do something different from “what you've always done.”

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2, where we continue the discussion from an NLP perspective, and begin the transition into a Buddhist analysis.

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Friday, August 04, 2006

The Buddha as Doctor

When we're ill, what do we look for in a doctor? Do we look for a doctor who can see the symptom, maybe a cough or a sore throat, and just treat the symptom without ascertaining the cause of the illness? Sure this doctor provides temporary relief, but your illness (or a similar one) is bound to recur if you don't root out, and remove, the cause. Therefore, a better doctor, having observed your symptoms, also determines the cause of your illness. It will probably take longer to remove the cause than it would have to just treat the symptoms, so therefore it is ok to treat the symptoms, providing immediate relief, as long as one still undertakes the removal of the cause. A better doctor still, having relieved the symptoms and treated the cause, also instructs you in how to prevent the cause from recurring.

In the same way, the Buddha is a doctor of our lives. He first taught the most fundamental of his teachings, the Four Noble Truths. The first noble truth is that suffering exists. This truth is like identifying the symptoms. We look at our experiences and ask, "Is this suffering?" Through wisdom born of our practice, we learn to distinguish suffering from non-suffering. Many things might not seem like suffering, yet in the long-term, are. Just so, many things might seem like suffering now but, in the long-term, are not. With this truth, we identify suffering as it exists.

The second truth is that suffering has a cause. This is like the doctor identifying the cause of the illness. With concentrated insight, developed through our practice, we learn to identify the cause of our suffering. With limited insight, we are capable of finding superficial causes to our suffering. With increasing insight, our findings deepen, and we begin to root out the poisons truly causing our suffering.

The third truth is that we can bring an end to suffering by eliminating its causes. This is like the doctor who understands that there is more to the symptom than meets the eye—it has a cause, and if we remove that cause, the symptom will abate of its own accord.

The fourth truth is the path that leads to the end of suffering (the removal of the cause of suffering). This is like the doctor who relieves your symptoms, treats the cause, and teaches you how to prevent the cause from recurring—the perfect doctor.

With Right View, we recognize the views that cause suffering and learn how to eliminate them, while promoting the views that bring true joy and compassion. With Right Intention, we vow to devote all that we have to eliminating the causes of suffering and the practice of loving-kindness. With Right Conduct, we act in ways that do not (or minimally) harm others and that foster great virtue on our part. With Right Speech, we refrain from slandering others, lying, and inciting hostility or aggression. With Right Livelihood, we engage our lives with a job that is non-harming in nature. With Right Effort, we continuously direct our energy toward the abandonment of unskillful states and the generation of skillful states. With Right Concentration, we engage the ability to focus our minds and penetrate, with deep insight, into the causes of things, into our true nature. With Right Mindfulness, we place and maintain our attention, strengthened with concentration, on our body as it is, our feelings as they are, our thoughts as they are, and our consciousness as it is.

A good doctor is important; the Buddha much more so! Our doctor can heal us of our physical ills (and sometimes our psychological ills). The Buddha points us toward the path to the removal of all suffering, to peaceful loving-kindness, with total compassion and love for all beings, sentient and insentient.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Set Winning and Losing Aside

From the Sangama Sutra, trans. by Thanissaro Bhikkhu:
Winning gives birth to hostility.
Losing, one lies down in pain.
The calmed lie down with ease,
having set
winning & losing

The Buddha uttered this verse when told of the defeat in battle of King Pasenadi at the hand of King Ajatasattu. Given the context, this verse was a commentary on warfare. I think it is particularly appropriate given the violence we are seeing exploding around the world today.

What do we gain by having to win? Anything more than an ego boost? I think it's very east to get caught up in rationalizing our behavior, justifying the means by the ends achieved, and lose sight of the brutality inherent in the means. I think our government is caught up in this quagmire of rationalization and ego.

In an essay entitled A Human Approach to World Peace, the Dalai Lama wrote:
Of the many problems we face today, some are natural calamities and must be accepted and faced with equanimity. Others, however, are of our own making, created by misunderstanding, and can be corrected. One such type arises from the conflict of ideologies, political or religious, when people fight each other for petty ends, losing sight of the basic humanity that binds us all together as a single human family. We must remember that the different religions, ideologies, and political systems of the world are meant for human beings to achieve happiness. We must not lose sight of this fundamental goal and at no time should we place means above ends; the supremacy of humanity over matter and ideology must always be maintained.

Violence is never the answer.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Feelings vs. Survival

A park warden was watching a herd of elephants walk by when he noticed something. One of the adult females was very gently carrying a baby elephant who had clearly been dead for several days. When the herd stopped to eat or drink, the female placed the body on the ground next to her while she dined. After finishing her meal, she would pick up the calf and proceed to carry it to the herd's next destination. As one would imagine, the female's pace was slowed by the extra weight of the calf. Did the herd ever leave her behind? No. Instead, they walked slower, to accommodate the pace she was capable of maintaining. (When Elephants Weep, Masson and McCarthy, 1995).

Was the elephants' behavior in this situation a product of genetic survival, of some instinctive social urge? Or did the female adult feel sorrow and love for the deceased calf, causing her attachment to it? And did the rest of the herd respond with compassion by slowing their pace to accommodate the grieving female?

I'm not an evolutionary psychologist. I don't propose to be able to analyze and determine the survival value of the herd's behavior in terms of gene- or species-centered evolution. What I do know is that the behavior seen in the elephants is the same as we might see from a grieving human parent and her support network. Do we ever assume that the human parent acting in such a manner actually does NOT feel sorrow, but rather is just responding in an instinctual mode of survival?

The real question is, how much evidence do we need to accumulate to determine if a non-human animal experiences emotion vs. instinct? And, just as importantly, can we ever structure an experiment such that the results are definitive? And how do we know that, if non-humans feel emotions, that they are exact duplicates of our emotions—maybe they feel love, but it's different than our love. How can we even know that the romantic love I feel for my significant other is the same as the romantic love you feel for your significant other? If we can't really define the emotions we, as a species feel, how can we define the emotions potentially felt by different species?