Friday, April 03, 2009

If you meet the Buddha on the 'net... You've been punked!

Many years ago, I met and became friends with a man who did more to bring Zen Buddhism to the west than any other. He was a prolific writer, lecturer, and teacher, who could create clear images from the most obscure Zen concepts, and turn koans into poetry. His name was Alan Watts.

I met the man while attending a disciples' retreat at Tasajara Zen Center in the early '70s. Emerging from my first semi-successful experience of shikan taza (just sitting) meditation, I opened my eyes to see his loving face, gazing down at me, both of us seemingly oblivious to the gentle rain that wafted down upon that verdant hillside. All he said was, "It's a beautiful place to be, isn't it?," and I knew he wasn't referring to our location in the woods south of Carmel. The man saw me. Clearly. And touched that place in me that understood. We spoke for some time, and I knew that I had a new friend and teacher.

I never saw Alan again after that retreat, and was saddened to learn, barely a year later, that he had died. His legacy, however, lives on, offering a taste of clarity to those who seek to understand the paradox of Zen.

Now that we're well into a new century - a new millenium, for those who find such things important - a new type of teacher has emerged, claiming to bring the Eight-fold Path to bear upon the world of commerce; a self-proclaimed "Buddha of the Internet," who preaches that the Buddha wants us to have everything we desire, and begs his followers to send him money, so that he can purchase everything he desires, such as an ever-expanding collection of expensive cars, a mansion... well, you get the picture.

This would-be guru also teaches that in order for one's spirit to truly evolve, it is necessary to focus one's gaze only upon positive things, and to turn aside from anything painful, disturbing, or otherwise "negative." He claims that by even acknowledging such "negativity," the seeker blinds him or her self to truth.

Any student of Buddhism knows the fallacy of such teachings. Siddhartha himself grew up in a life of privilege, shielded from the "negativity" of the world by his parents. Somewhere inside, he knew that there was much more to existence than what was visible from his pampered life, and ultimately fled the comfort of his parents' home to find out what it was.

What he found was a world of untold suffering, of people in deep despair and pain, and the discovery left him frantic, devastated. One day, sitting before the river, watching how it flowed so effortlessly, he awakened to a fundamental truth: The suffering we experience is a direct result of our efforts to change the course of our own life's flow. The river flows effortlessly across the face of the earth because it does not strive. It merely flows, guided by natural elements, to its destiny of mingling with the sea. And in that release, the river knows no suffering. If we are to find joy, we must flow like the river, observing the banks, the deeps, and the rapids as we pass, yet not striving to change our own course or the nature of the universe through which our life flows. Our place in the sea awaits, oblivious to our desires or efforts. Siddhartha realized that our suffering is an inescapable product of our desire. Let go of the desire, and suffering ends. With that simple yet profound realization, he achieved true Buddha-hood.

Unfortunately, this new "teacher" is many people's only experience of Buddhism, and they follow, blindly hoping for some morsel to fall from the table of abundance and joy that he claims to experience. While I have no doubt that he has acquired wealth as a result of his teachings, I know the man personally, and know that the joy he dangles before his followers eludes him. Faced with a challenge, be it from someone who doesn't agree, or with the fear that arises from his need to sustain an image, he bears little resemblance to the face he presents to the world at large. He becomes again that frightened little boy who lurked at the fringes of his childhood world, taunted, teased, abused, and feeling unloved and unworthy.

For that little boy that lives inside him, I feel only compassion, and would hug the fear out of him if such were within my power. Yet for the man who enriches himself by distracting and misleading others from their quest for truth, for joy, and for awakening, I feel only disdain. The man knows the fallacy of his words; he has studied enough to understand truth. Yet he chooses illusion, because illusion is easier to sell.

And yet, he does teach me lessons I need to learn. My own disdain is borne of my desire to see truth realized, amplified by my own judgment of those whom I liken to the money changers of Biblical stories. It is my own desire that I must conquer, not the behavior of others. I know this, intellectually, yet that knowledge fails to penetrate to that part of my consciousness that needs no words. And it is little comfort to me to realize that even the Christ grew enraged at the money changers of his day. He obviously had his human moments, times when his Christ-hood eluded him. How could I, a deeply flawed human, far removed from anything resembling Buddha / Christ consciousness, expect to rise above the desires that even those awakened beings felt? Truth is, I can't. My teacher once told me that as long as my footfalls were upon the earth, I wasn't finished yet. He was right. Yet I hunger for that awakening to fill every moment of my life, rather than dancing in and out to the tempo of its circumstances.

Perhaps the time will come when I will look upon those who would spread illusion and wish them well. Perhaps one day, I will know, in every fiber of my being, that those being misguided are at the perfect place on their path. Perhaps there will come a time in my life when I do not strive to right the wrongs I see, or even name them wrongs. I have a little secret to tell you, though. If I ever do get to that point, I won't be here to tell anybody about it, and I most certainly won't be trying to sell it to anyone. I will have joined those wise teachers who have brought truth to us, demanding nothing in return. To flow with my brother river, and to sit again with my friend Alan, delighting in the sound of rain...

Drawing courtesy of a talented old friend, with whom I've (sadly) lost touch - Jennifer Zimmerman

Thursday, February 05, 2009

"I hope he fails"

As expected, President Obama is getting slammed by the far right for everything he does. The same thing happened during the entire Clinton administration, but I actually thought that the fringe element would have gotten a clue - given the results of the last election - that the public has lost patience with partisan sniping at the cost of good governance.

It's been implied that Daschle's failure to pay all his taxes is a failure on the part of the president. First of all, someone in Daschle's position doesn't even do his own taxes, and probably doesn't even look very closely at the returns that are filed, yet the president is somehow supposed to know the details. Such an expectation is obviously agenda-driven, and I think we need to look more closely at that agenda.

We need to ask ourselves some hard questions, and look for some honest answers. For years, our country has been controlled by people we didn't elect, and who operated in an atmosphere free of real oversight. Corporate CEOs and industry lobbyists actually drafted legislation that eliminated government constraints upon their activities, then paid our elected officials to pass those laws for a willing president - whose "success" throughout his career was entirely beholden to the same CEOs - to sign.

The results? Insurance companies no longer have to actually pay valid claims. Credit card companies can charge pretty much whatever they want, literally trapping even honest cardholders into being responsible for paying exhorbitant additional fees, for actions over which they have no control. Oil companies post record profits, even as they drink deeply from the well of government subsidies. Corporations get tax breaks for eliminating American jobs and replacing them with foreign labor. Those same corporations are even given incentives to move offshore, where they are exempt from paying a significant portion of their taxes. Daschle's situation - even if it represents intentional avoidance, which nobody has established - is a drop in a very large bucket by comparison.

Mortgage lenders and financial firms have been freed of the constraints that prevented them from taking ridiculous risks and strongly encouraging their customers to spend money those customers couldn't remotely afford. Sure, those customers who bought homes beyond their budgets or made pie-in-the-sky investments share responsibility, but no more than does the industry that prodded them into making commitments that the industry knew would likely be broken.

Now that the bottom has all but fallen out, the right has plainly stated that they want a hugely popular president to fail, even if it means the destruction of the country's well-being. Rush Limbaugh, of all people, has come to be the titular head and spokesman of the far right. The very "conservatives" (and I use the term very loosely, with tongue firmly in cheek) who dug the hole in which we currently find ourselves are demanding that we give them back the shovel.

I think that the controversy over the capping of CEO salaries is a pretty good metaphor for the overall attitude of the right. They seem to feel that a CEO who has led a business into failure should justifiably be given millions of dollars in salary & bonuses, even as he (or she) dictates the elimination of thousands of citizens' jobs. Even worse, that CEO has the gall to literally demand that the government fork over billions of dollars to bail the company out, yet have no voice in what the company does with the money. Banks took $350 billion, with the intent that the money would be used to free up credit and stimulate the ecopnomy. Did they free up credit? No... they simply did what they thought would enhance their own bottom lines, and then refused to disclose what they did with the money. We took a real screwing on that one, and the banks are laughing, all the way to... well, you know.

Our elected officials are sworn to uphold the Constitution, and to defend it from all enemies, both foreigh and domestic. I say it's time we enforce that oath. If an elected official is complicit in drafting and enacting laws that enrich donors and lobbyists at the cost of constituents' well-being, they will have aided and abetted the criminal acts of a domestic enemy, and should face the full force of the criminal justice system. Same goes for officials who subvert the Constitution for their own cynical purposes. We've sat idly as our "leaders" have sold our children's future in order to line their own pockets. It's time to stop. If we don't do it now, things will just get worse. Better to fix a problem now, before the culture we so cherish is destroyed. Fixing it later will be infinitely more painful.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Just Sitting...

Some years ago, I taught several series of classes at a local church, presenting the principles of ZaZen meditation in a manner comprehensible to and practicable by the Western mindset. The instruction began by encouraging participants to recall childhood memories wherein external social/parental influences were absent (ie: daydreaming).

As children mature and are more effectively socialized, they learn to respond to "appropriate" stimuli with "appropriate" behavior, the result being that they are conditioned to ignore or set aside such frivolous activities in favor of more "productive" behaviors. "Don't waste your time! Get up and do something... Clean your room... Do your homework!" The message is clear: Put aside childish things. And the comforting silence we once knew is displaced.

As adults, we westerners are usually taught to access that meditative state by struggling to suppress all external stimuli, which is very difficult. The more we attempt to set aside random thoughts, the more we focus upon them. "Do not think of a white horse." What image is in your mind as you read that admonition? Inevitably, a white horse.

An alternative - and simpler, more effective - method is to allow the stream of collective stimuli to wash over us unchecked and un-responded-to. The internal "conversation" merges into little more than mental "white-noise," and we once again experience the sense of stillness / peace that we knew as toddlers, gazing up at the clouds, and turning them into grand galleons. The "matters of consequence" that so fill our minds diminish into a communal flow, with no single thought being any more prevalent than any other. It is during this process that we are able to look objectively, dispassionately at our life, to make pragmatic decisions and take truly productive action. Thus, allowing the free-flow of consciousness becomes every bit as important to our well-being as is cleaning up our room or doing our homework. We act with integrity, freed from the "issues" that cloud our reason and, ultimately, freed from the expectations borne of past hurts and lingering fears.

The ultimate goal of the practice of ZaZen meditation (at least in our physical state) is for the galleons to dissolve, and for even our thoughts to fade into white noise. Such a state is called Shikan-Taza, or "just sitting." The elation of perceived "victories," as well as the hurts of perceived "defeats" hold little sway over us. They, too, have dissolved into a place of balance, and the discord that once ruled our lives loses its power.

Of course, this state isn't permanent, at least, not so long as we're here being humans and getting what we need from our human journey. What does linger, however, is our memory of that sense of peace, and our deepest hunger is to return to that stillness. In our anger, we recall that serene place. In our sadness, we remember moments of joy. And even in the manic elation that so fills us in moments of supreme "success," the silent seed of "just sitting" beckons. The more we heed that beckoning call, the less time we spend in the illusion of discord. We learn that the only "Truth" is a place that transcends even our limited perception of Love. And in that sweet space, we REALize how profound is the statement that Love leaves nothing undone.

And even when we're being fearful, obnoxious a**holes, the memory of that stillness lingers a mere heartbeat below the turbulence. Not demanding. Just sitting...

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