Saturday, November 28, 2009

Let’s talk about sex

Despite the temptation to be puerile, and goodness knows I have the capacity to be as campy as the next person (no promises here either, I might let something slip), the topic of sex is particularly important to lesbigay practitioners. The issue of right versus wrong sexual behavior – or more specifically skillful versus unskillful – is relevant to all Buddhist practitioners regardless of orientation. But it’s particularly important to gay and transgendered Buddhists because for our breeder brethren, sexuality per se is not the relevant issue. For us, however, it is.

As an aside, there has been a lot of debate, particularly within the Theravada monastic community, regarding the ordination of women. Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist has chronicled much of this, and at Sujato’s Blog, you can read more detail about the recent flap prompted by the ordination of women in Australia. The subject has also been drawing great interest in the gay Buddhist Yahoo! e-mail list Heartland. A debate like this, despite the discomfort it may create, is important to have. It provides an opportunity to not only examine the Buddha’s teachings about these things, but to evaluate how that teaching may have become staid, or even turned into a dogmatic principle that may constitute Wrong View. As the Buddha taught the Kalamas, just because something is a tradition doesn’t mean it is skillful or leads to knowing the truth.

A similar discussion about homosexuality is just as important; however, this discussion has largely been limited to the gay Buddhist community, which presents the danger that this discussion will be perceived by the larger straight community as simply being the queers trying to justify their abnormal behavior. Such a situation is paralleled in the Christian community where Christian gays are put into the rhetorical position of having to defend their sexuality against those who smugly point to biblical passages that unmistakably condemn same-sex activity, while at the same time ignore other passages that have been interpreted to be irrelevant in modern society.

It’s not a debate when all one side does is sit back and reply with the childish, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Yet the same sophomoric response is frequently encountered by gays in the Buddhist community as well. And there is a supreme irony in all of this that seems to escape many Buddhists, particularly those in positions of authority. These individuals point to the Tipitika to justify the position that same-sex activity violates the Third Precept as if they are saying, “See there? It is written!” (Although they frequently and misleadingly point to the Vinaya, which specifically addresses behavior in the monastic community, not the lay community) We come back to the teaching of the Kalamas, when the Buddha said not to rely on something as being true simply because it is written. But somehow, this is ignored because we’re talking about the Buddha’s teachings here. How convenient that these alleged “scholars” forget that the Buddha didn’t write anything down. His teachings were oral. They were written down later, and he wasn’t around at the time to provide editing. The Buddha knew that someday, everything he said would be written down, and because not all monks hold Right View, some of those transcriptions would be erroneous.

Complicating the matter is culture and its misunderstanding. For example, many Westerners have a perception that Thai society is accepting of homosexuality. This simple view fails to appreciate that just as in American society, there are urban versus rural sensibilities. And what happens and passes as acceptable in Bangkok or Phuket isn’t necessarily acceptable in Satun or Phayao. Even in locations like Phuket, much is taken for granted by Western tourists. I can remember seeing the local Thai men staring at the European women sunbathing topless on Patong Beach, but the Thai men weren’t ogling these women. Their stares held contempt for women who were showing disrespect for the local culture by carrying on as if they were at a nude beach in a Berlin park.

I also believe that many white Buddhists fail to appreciate the influence Confucianism and Taoism has on East Asian society and thought. Recognizing the fact that homosexuals exist and not harboring any outward ill-will for them does not equate with acceptance. Some of my Chinese friends who live in Asia tell me that they would never out themselves to their parents because the consequences would be swift and severe: the thinking with their parents is, “it’s OK that I know gay people, but if my son were gay, I would abandon him in a second!” The pressure on many of these individuals to marry and sire children is tremendous; failure to do so continues to bring shame on the family.

So it should come as no surprise to Anglo American and European Buddhists that the Dalai Lama hedges in his response to questions about his view on homosexuality, or that many well-known monks from both Theravada or Mahayana traditions tell gays that it’s OK, but you should remain celibate because gay sex violates the Third Precept, speaking as if they were Christian Evangelicals who say “love the sinner but hate the sin.” Nor should we be surprised by how the fruits of kamma are brought into this discussion by those who explain being born gay is the result of kamma, with the implication that it was some wrong act in a previous life that caused this.

We ought not be surprised by any of this, but that does not mean that such views are Right View; and in the case of kamma, even if it may be Right View, that does not mean that we ought to view our current condition as a punishment.

So how should we apply the Third Precept to our lives as lesbigay people? And what did the Buddha say about sexuality? My attempts to answer these questions shall be in another blog post.

Part 2 of this post can be read at zenfant's home for dirty Dharma.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Knowing the right questions to ask

People love to talk. And people love to debate. Often the debate, however, really isn’t an effort to persuade the other to your side; rather, it’s really a mild argument, just a simple game of “I’m right and you’re wrong” done for an audience with the hopes of gaining acolytes.

Monks love to talk. And monks love to debate. There’s a grand tradition among many Sanghas, particularly in Asia, of monks debating Dhamma when they gather together for festivals and other events. And monks within an individual Sangha debate each other to test their knowledge of the Dhamma. It is often a method of teaching other monks who may be listening to the debate, because there are times when someone has an incorrect view, they will hear that view expressed by another during a debate and then witness that view fall apart against the superior understanding of someone with correct view.

Monks, however, are also people and as a result, are not immune from having a debate devolve into pettiness. The Tipitika has many examples of a monk who stubbornly clings to wrong view. It is through these examples that the Buddha exposes a wrong view, contrasts it with right view, and corrects the monk’s misunderstanding, or course to everyone’s delight. This pedagogical technique is simple and timeless, but perhaps more importantly it is also effective: it brings about the desired results.

To say that there has been recent discussion within the iSangha and Twangha about what is the proper way to practice Buddhism is a bit misleading. Granted, the debate has taken form around the point of whether one can really have an effective practice if his or her absorption of the Dhamma is primarily through “discussion” via the Internet, which ostensibly would make such a debate appear to be “new.” Maybe even “different.” But it’s not any different from any other debate that has occurred within the Buddhist community, because at the heart of all this is the assertion that “my practice is the correct practice, your practice is false.”

For newcomers to the Dhamma, for those who have come to Buddhism with the hope that it will offer them something they could not find in other practices and faiths – inner peace and guidance on how to live a happy life that in turn promotes equanimity in all – encountering such debates within the Buddhism community can be disheartening. Because what I fear newcomers perceive when seeing these debates, which often are nothing more than flame wars in the old style of USENET, is that Buddhism is ensnared within the same political sniping and posturing that seems to dominate the monotheistic religions, as well as the general political culture of the West. To be skillful doesn’t seem to mean exemplifying the Noble Eightfold Path; rather, it seems to be clever in how you use your ad hominem – use just enough sarcasm, make your criticism just biting enough so that it doesn’t cause complete offense, but so that it creates an emotional rather than rational response.

The irony in all this is that the Buddha completely understood this, because, as he taught, at the root of all our suffering is ignorance – failing to see things as they really are. And the reason we fail to see things as they really are, as I understand his teachings, is that we have deluded minds. And because of our deluded minds, we fail to ask the right questions. Yet, cultivating the skill to ask the right questions is so simple that the Buddha taught it to a child, to his son Rahula (MN 61).

What the Buddha taught Rahula also seamlessly fits with what he told the Kalamas as well (AN 3.65). At the heart of these suttas – one given to a child and the other to an elite group of intellectuals – is guidance on asking the right questions. And a skillful question, as I understand the Buddha’s teachings, is one that seeks to honestly reveal our intentions.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains this very well in the essay “The Road to Nirvana Is Paved with Skillful Intentions.”

“At first glance, we might think that continual self-reflection of this sort would add further complications to our lives when they already seem more than complicated enough, but in fact the Buddha’s instructions are an attempt to strip the questions in our minds down to the most useful essentials. He explicitly warns against taking on too many questions, particularly those that lead nowhere and tie us up in knots: ‘Who am I? Am I basically a good person? An unworthy person?’ Instead, he tells us to focus on our intentions so that we can see how they shape our life, and to master the processes of cause and effect so that they can shape our life in increasingly better ways. This is the way every great artist or craftsman develops mastery and skill.”

Grasping this, I come to understand that most of my embarrassing moments of misstatement, or incidents of provocation on my part, can be traced to either one of two things: I either deliberately deluded myself about my real intentions for an action and as a result ignored the outcomes they would create, or I was careless because I failed to fully evaluate my intentions and the likely outcomes they would produce.

I would suspect that one of these scenarios was in operation in the production and publication of a recent article in Tricycle Magazine, an item that has created some angst among Buddhist bloggers, to be putting it mildly. Granted, the article “Dharma Wars” does reveal something that is true: there are some Buddhist teachers who become bullies as they become ensnared with dialogue over whose methods produce results. Recently, I attended a Buddhist gathering where the question was asked how was what this group believed and practiced different than what was practiced in other schools of Buddhism. The answer dismayed me. The respondent said it had been her experience that other “vehicles” tended to denigrate other methods, that the monks or teachers within these schools would disparage other teachers or schools. This was a “turn-off” for the respondent. I was dismayed because the answer, I thought, was unskillful in that the respondent’s answer was motivated by the same intention she was criticizing. Rather than answering the question asked – how is your practice different from others – the respondent answered a question that was unasked: how is your practice superior to others. The respondent was doing exactly the same thing that she found to be a turn-off: she focused on what she believed to be the negatives of other practices to place her own practice in a more positive light.

Similarly, it seems to me the Tricycle article failed to deliver on its supposed premise because the author asked the wrong question. The article’s summary asks this question: “What is it about the Internet that turns Buddhist teachers into bullies?” This question presumes that Buddhist bullies are not responsible for their bullying behavior because the Internet made them be bullies. It’s the old, “the Devil made me do it,” argument, a premise that conveniently absolves one of any personal responsibility. The other flaw with this premise is that it’s based on the notion that there is something about the written word appearing on the Internet that provokes disharmony, that it is more likely to encourage unskillful discourse by virtue of the fact that it appears on the Internet, which seems rather odd to me because after all, a written word is nothing more than a written word, and whether it’s placed on parchment or a computer screen is moot. It all comes back to who wrote that word and what were his or her intentions in writing it and was his or her action skillful? If a Buddhist teacher behaves like a bully, it is because the seeds of a bully were already present; the Internet did not create that seed. So it would seem the more appropriate question to ask is, “Are Buddhist teachers who respond with anger and behave like bullies worthy of receiving attention?”

Interestingly, the Buddha had an answer for that question: No. In part of the Lohicca Sutta (DN 12), the Buddha describes three types of teachers that should be avoided and who, in fact, ought to be criticized. Lohicca then asks the next logical question:

“But which teacher, Master Gotama, is not worthy of criticism in the world?”

“There is the case, Lohicca, where a Tathagata appears in the world, worthy & rightly self-awakened. He teaches the Dhamma admirable in its beginning, admirable in its middle, admirable in its end. He proclaims the holy life both in its particulars & in its essence, entirely perfect, surpassingly pure.”

But criticism in the Buddha’s view does not mean malign those who proffer wrong view. Skillful criticism is outlined by the Buddha in the Brahmajala Sutta (DN 1):

“Bhikkhus! if others should malign the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, you must not feel resentment, nor displeasure, nor anger on that account. Bhikkhus! If you feel angry or displeased when others malign the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, it will only be harmful to you (because then you will not be able to practice the dhamma). Bhikkhus! If you feel angry or displeased when others malign the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, will you be able to discriminate their good speech from bad?

‘No, indeed, Venerable Sir!’ said the bhikkhus.

If others malign me or the Dhamma, or the Samgha, you should explain (to them what is false as false), saying ‘It is not so. It is not true. It is, indeed, not thus with us. Such fault is not to be found among us.’ Bhikkhus! If others should praise the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Samgha, you should not, feel pleased, or delighted, or elated on that account. Bhikkhus! If you feel pleased, or delighted, or elated, when others praise me, or the Dhamma, or the Samgha, it will only be harmful to you. Bhikkhus! If others praise me, or the Dhamma, or the Samgha, you should admit what is true as true, saying ‘It is so. It is true. It is, indeed, thus with us. In fact, it is to be found among us.”

Indeed, two bloggers I am aware of who responded to the Tricycle article with great skill were Nathan at Dangerous Harvests, and NellaLou at Enlightenment Ward. There have been skillful responses by others and my omitting them from mention is by no means a commentary on their value, but these two are certainly worth reading.

There’s a reason why Right Speech is part of the Noble Eightfold Path, and that is speech is one of the ways we make kamma. If our speech is unskillful, our results will be unpleasant. As Master Hsing Yun wrote in “Being Good: Buddhist Ethics for Everyday Life,” most of our bad kamma is created by the words we speak.

“Speech is the single most powerful means by which we interact with other people. Our choice of words, our tone of voice, even our selection of subject matter can have the profoundest influence on other people. Intemperate or ill-considered speech often leads to misunderstanding, suspicion and anger.”

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Failing a test or provoking failure: Which is worse?

It’s a lovely Saturday morning and I’m feeling very relaxed, in part knowing that I have completed my personal challenge of blogging every day about a chapter in the Dhammapada. As I finished with that yesterday, I’m feeling like I can take it easy, maybe enjoy the day, go for a hike, and perhaps later catch up with my Frank Zappa blog, which I’ve been neglecting due to the Dhammapada blog posts.

So as I’m enjoying my morning coffee, I read the Kakacupama Sutta: The Simile of the Saw (MN 21, note this link is to only an except of this sutta, not the entire sutta, but it is the excerpt I’m concerned with), I’m getting what the Buddha is teaching here, particularly the similes being used to describe how to control one’s anger. But then I read the example about this woman Lady Vedehika who had a well-known reputation of being calm and gentle. Lady Vedehika also had a slave girl named Kali who is aware of this reputation, so she gets this big idea of “why don’t I test her?” Kali wants to know if Lady Vedehika is truly without anger, or whether Vedehika has anger that just hasn’t been provoked. And that’s what Kali does: she deliberately sets out to provoke anger out of Lady Vedehika and she is so successful that Vedehika goes into a rage and clobbers the slave girl on the head with a rolling pin. So what does that little bitch Kali do? She runs out and tells people that Lady Vedehika’s reputation of being calm and gentle is false, because look here! Our calm and gentle lady clobbered me on the head just because I didn’t get my lazy ass out of bed early enough like I normally do!

Of course, because of this, Lady Vedehika’s reputation gets trashed, all because of that conniving bitch slave girl Kali. And this is used as a lesson to show monks how important it is to abandon anger and not reacted with hatred toward those who might provoke it.

OK, I get that. It is a noble state of affairs to strive for, to develop the calm and serenity so that I completely abandon anger and not react to provocation with anger. But what’s this deal with Kali? In fact, the summary of this sutta provided by Access to Insight describes the story as being about “a wise slave who deliberately tests her mistress's patience.” Wise slave? To me Kali is a conniving little bitch! She deliberately went out of her way to engage in behavior she knew would likely provoke a response, just to satisfy her curiosity as to whether it was really true Lady Vedehika was calm and gentle, or just a bitch waiting to be provoked.

What’s worse here? Lady Vedehika failing a test of her anger? Or Kali deliberately setting out to provoke such a failure?

I could see a couple monks getting together to deliberately test the patience of another monk, because if the tested monk fails, he has the Sangha to help him overcome his hindrance and eventually abandon the unskillful quality. That would have been a much better simile, I think, to present such an example. But that’s not the case in the simile used by the Buddha. In some ways, this sutta is like a Buddhist version of the Book of Job.

It is as if I had a boyfriend, and together as a couple, we enjoyed a reputation of being trusting and loving. And that I also enjoyed a reputation of being trusting and loving because I showed no feelings of being threatened by how my boyfriend hangs out with other friends occasionally, other men who I do not associate with. I exhibit no jealousy because I have no reason to believe that my boyfriend would sleep with any of his friends, despite how good looking they might be. And my boyfriend becomes aware of the reputation of how trusting and loving I am by hearing others comment on it. Maybe they even say to him how lucky he is to have found a partner like me.

But rather than being content with the knowledge, “my boyfriend Richard is such a kind and trusting partner, so trusting he does not worry about me when I go out with other friends. He does not need to worry because I do not, in fact, sleep with any of my other friends. And people tell me how lucky I am because they have jealous boyfriends. What if I test Richard to see if he really is trusting and loving, or if he also can become jealous if he discovers that I flirt shamelessly with other men, and then have a sexual encounter with another man?”

Well gosh, how do you think I’m going to react? I’m not the bloody Buddha. I’m not even a flipping monk. I’m just a guy here, trying to do the best I can, and if you go out and deliberately behave like that, I am going to be mad as hell and I’ll kick your sorry ass out.

Funny, just thinking about this fictitious scenario really has me riled! I guess I should follow the Buddha’s guidance and abandon these unwholesome thoughts and focus on something positive. Like it’s a really freaking beautiful day out, perfect for a hike in the woods!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Brahmanavagga: Brahmans

Finally, 26 chapters and 26 blog posts in 26 days. This is it, the final post in my personal challenge. And I’m torn because in looking at the Brahmanavagga, I really don’t want to blog about the verses; instead, I want to evaluate what this experience was like.

I mean why did I set out to do this? I announced this endeavor in a blog post Oct. 18, revealing part of the inspiration came from Julie Powell, who decided to show her admiration for Julia Child by blogging daily about her experience cooking a different recipe each day out of Child’s famous book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” And just like Powell, I hit some low spots during this effort, days when I really didn’t want to do it, I just wanted to rest after work. I didn’t have quite the meltdown that Powell did, but there were nights when I just hated the fact that I said I would do this.

But that was the key that kept me going, that I said I would do it. How many times do we say to ourselves that we will do something, but in the end, the task is never completed, abandoned for a multitude of reasons.

I thank all of you for staying with me through this. Although there weren’t many comments, I could tell folks were stopping by to check out what this oddball was up to. There were so many times when I wondered what I was up to. Was I trying to show off? Or was I successful in being sincere as I could be about what the Dhammapada meant to me?

In the final analysis, I believe a major reason for taking this on was to get me through my separation from Benny. I had something I could focus on each day to keep me from dwelling in self-pity and melancholy. I had a my moments, but staying focused on getting something done, something written regarding the Dhammapada helped me keep moving forward. I know, I know, I could complain bitterly about how wretched our government is that it won’t allow people like me marry the people we love, let alone be able to sponsor them for permanent residency when they are not a citizen. And many of you would think, he’s got a right to feel that way, it is a shitty deal.

Well hello! Life is full of shitty deals. Always is, always was. And it always will be. I want to get beyond that. It’s not that I don’t want to feel sadness at all. Sadness really is a beautiful emotion, just as beautiful as happiness – when experienced appropriately. But like any emotion – even happiness – sadness can become disruptive and destructive.

We are all handed water drops during our life that we want to keep, but we can’t keep them; if we try, they dry up and disappear. So I always come back to the koan that I liked so much from the movie “Samsara.”

How do you keep a drop of water from evaporating? By giving it to the sea.

“He’s called a brahman
for having banished his evil,
a contemplative
for living in consonance,
one gone forth
for having forsaken
his own impurities.”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bhikkhuvagga: Monks

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about monks, the sangha and finding teachers. We’ve had the ordination of bikkhunis in Australia bunching up some panties in Thailand; others perplexed that their teachers seem to be less than perfect; and many discussions about the nature and direction of the Western sangha. And so I come to chapter 25 in the Dhammapada (only one more to go after this!), and with this background in mind, I look at the Bhikkhuvagga – or Monks – with an eye toward what it can tell me about Buddhism and the Sangha in the here and now.

And my conclusion is that it tells me nothing and everything.

On the one hand, the Bhikkhuvagga presents these idyllic descriptions of monks and a monk’s life.

“Hands restrained,
feet restrained
speech restrained,
supremely restrained —
delighting in what is inward,
content, centered, alone:
he’s what they call
a monk.

A monk restrained in his speaking,
giving counsel unruffled,
declaring the message & meaning:
sweet is his speech.

Dhamma his dwelling,
Dhamma his delight,
a monk pondering Dhamma,
calling Dhamma to mind,
does not fall away
from true Dhamma.”

Verses like these portray some serene individual that doesn’t get angry or even mildly perturbed, so when we encounter a monk who is a human being – and most are I think – the picture doesn’t quite fit. I can remember when I first observed my teacher smoking. I have to admit, I was disappointed! This guy’s a monk and he smokes Winstons! But where is the real problem here? It’s not with him, it’s with me, with my expectations about what a monk is and how a monk should behave. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a monk is not dwelling in the delight of Dhamma just because I perceive the monk is not living up to my own expectations. But because I have these preconceived ideas, I suddenly turn into the Sangha police and start issuing Dhamma tickets!

It’s the last verse, however, that portrays for me everything about monks.

“A young monk who strives
in the Awakened One’s teaching,
brightens the world
like the moon set free from a cloud.”

That image, of a moon set free from a could, is common in the Tipitika. And what I really like about this verse is that what it portrays, someone who lives the Dhamma and brings light to the world, is something that any of us can achieve. Whether we take vows or simply live good lives, we can bring joy to others. We can blow away the clouds over someone’s life, as well as our own. And that’s the beauty of Buddhism for me.

It sort of reminds me of the old story about the man and the starfish. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. A man is walking along the beach and he observes ahead of him someone stooping occasionally and throwing something out to the sea. As he gets closer, he realizes that the man is picking up starfish exposed on the beach from the receding tide and he’s throwing them back to the sea. The man witnessing this asks the other, “Why are you doing this? There are hundreds of starfish on this beach, you can’t possibly save them all. How can this matter?”

The other man just smiled, stooped down to pluck another starfish from the beach and toss it back to the ocean. He then said, “It mattered to that one.”

Just by being positive and striving to live the Dhamma in as much of what I do, I can be like that young monk and brighten a little part of the world.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tanhavagga: Craving

Ah, craving – the very heart of the Buddha’s teaching. That all of our dissatisfaction with life – all our unhappiness, disappointment, frustration, everything that is contained within the word dukkha – is largely the result of our craving. We get ideas in our heads that things have special intrinsic value and qualities that make them appealing and desirable and so we want them. And when we don’t get them, we feel sad.

It started when we were children because at that time we didn’t know any better. We didn’t know that a Sears bicycle functioned the same as a Schwinn; we just wanted the Schwinn because all the other kids did. Well, all the other kids that mattered. We wanted the latest game or toy, but a new game or toy always came along later that we had to have as well. And oh, we can only pick one?

“When a person lives heedlessly,
his craving grows like a creeping vine.
He runs now here
& now there,
as if looking for fruit:
a monkey in the forest.”

With the first verse the Tanhavagga makes use of the monkey mind metaphor to describe this craving of ours, because as we grew older and allegedly wiser, we dropped many of our childhood cravings. But did we drop craving altogether? Not likely; in my case I believe my cravings just became more sophisticated.

Am I supposed to not want anything? Have no desire at all? I don’t think that is what the Buddha was saying, particularly with reference to laypeople. We are social animals; we desire companionship and we have a desire to feel secure as well as useful to others. But craving, to me, is more than just mere desire.

Let’s examine sex for example. I like sex. Do you? I would like to have sex more often than I do, and I would guess most of you are of similar mind. But when does a desire for sex become a craving like what the Buddha described?

“Cleared of the underbrush
but obsessed with the forest,
set free from the forest,
right back to the forest he runs.
Come, see the person set free
who runs right back to the same old chains!”

I picked this verse because I believe it gets close to describing how a craving is different from a desire. In some ways, we are bordering on the concept of addiction. But addiction is one of those words that person can easily distance him or herself from. Craving is more subtle.

Let’s say you have a partner or spouse. And you see someone really hot. I mean, this person is so hot you can’t stop looking at them even though you know you ought to look away. The person walks away, but you’re still thinking about him or her. My god he was hot! Oh man, and did you see that ass?

When you see your partner or spouse, do you say, “Hey honey, I saw this really hot guy today with the most fantastic ass, it was like, man, I wanted to butter him up and have him for dinner!”

I know I wouldn’t, and I don’t think many of you would either. Because we know what the reaction would be. Saying something like that would create stress, it would cause harm. So we keep it to our self. It’s harmless, right?

But that was craving in action. And the Buddha in many places instructs us to learn how to recognize this craving immediately and put an end to it! We need to begin questioning ourselves, asking why am I thinking about this person? This only leads to harm. I need to re-focus my mind. And when do that, when we follow this guidance, the craving does dissipate.

Of course, now that I’m single, well, that’s a different line of thinking entirely!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Nagavagga: Elephants

When I began reading the Nagavagga, my eyes started to go out of focus and roll into the back of my head. Reading Dhamma has that effect on me occasionally. I mean, even when ellipsis are used to remove the repetitive language in the suttas, they can still be a chore for me to read. Hey, I never said I was a perfect Buddhist, or even a slightly better than average Buddhist. Remember, I like to collect things, drink wine and have sex with men. So that’s like two out of the Five Precepts right there, plus I’m ignoring the concept of non-attachment because I collect books and compact discs.

And now that I’ve reached Chapter 23 of the Dhammapada, I’m kinda running out of steam here. I’m beginning to sense the creeping approach of insincerity in my writing. But I can't give in now, I mean, after the Nagavagga, I only have four more to go! So I refocus my eyes and read the verses again. I don’t know a lot about elephants. And besides, I don’t have any photos of elephants. You’d think out of all those trips to Asia I would take at least one photo of an elephant. It’s not like I didn’t see any.

Anyway, that’s when the following set of verses grab my attention.

“If you gain a mature companion —
a fellow traveler, right-living, enlightened —
overcoming all dangers
go with him, gratified,

If you don’t gain a mature companion —
a fellow traveler, right-living, enlightened —
go alone
like a king renouncing his kingdom,
like the elephant in the Matanga wilds,
his herd.

Going alone is better,
There’s no companionship with a fool.
Go alone,
doing no evil, at peace,
like the elephant in the Matanga wilds.”

I can relate to this notion of going alone on many different levels. For example, there has been some discussion among the Buddhist bloggers I read recently about the value of having a teacher as well as the difficulty in finding one. And I don’t necessarily mean finding a good one, but being able to find any teacher within a 50 or 100 mile drive.

I was fortunate in that I found a good teacher who gave me a solid grounding in the Dhamma. I went to the Dhamma classes regularly, attended the guided meditation sessions regularly, and I went to the ceremonies too. I made my meager contributions to help the dhammasala’s financial health, as well as lent my sweat to help build a new meditation hall as well as repair a collapsed deck.

But now I am without a formal teacher, and the reality is that it hasn’t bothered me all that much. Granted, my practice lapsed, and frankly sucks for the time being. But I’m rebuilding my habits.

What these verses revealed to me was just how picky I’ve been about finding another teacher or another sangha on the one hand, and the overall disinclination I’ve had at bothering to seek one out. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing, because as these verses point out, it’s better to go alone than to hitch yourself up with a bad teacher.

You’d think living in Chicago there would be a plethora of teachers. Well, there are a lot of them. But I’m just not feeling that push yet to really go out and meet any of them. I have no doubt the time will come. For the time being, however, I am content to go it alone, doing no evil, and finding peace.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The nature of dukkha

Thanks to Ashin Sopaka for leading me to this site. You need to click on the image to see the entire cartoon.

Nirayavagga: Hell

There’s a song on the “Darklands” album by the Jesus and Mary Chain titled “Nine Million Rainy Days” that has a line that pretty much summed up a relationship I had with another person. Granted, this relationship was not a love relationship; he was not a boyfriend. But for a while we believed we were close until the relationship completely disintegrated, largely because of our mutual yen for hedonism and mass quantities of drugs and alcohol. Here’s the lyric:

“As far as I can tell/I’m being dragged from here to hell/And all my time in hell is spent with you.”

That song sums up the nature of that relationship; it was hell. Took me a while to realize it, but I finally did. I can honestly say I’ve been to hell.

Because of that experience, I tend to take all references to hell within the Tipitika as metaphorical. I don’t believe in a place, a destination, beyond my current reality that is “hell.” Hell is inside my mind, and if I’m not careful, my mind will very willingly take me there again. And even if there is a real place, a real destination called “hell,” the fact I don’t believe it exists is moot. Because as long as I pay attention to how I think, act and speak, as long as I behave with skill, I not only stop creating a hell during my lifetime, but I enhance the nature of my rebirth, thus avoiding this place if it is there.

The Nirayavagga covers some of the acts that result in “hell,” largely following the content of the Five Precepts. For example, false speech is addressed in the first verse.

“He goes to hell,
the one who asserts
what didn’t take place,
as does the one
who, having done,
says, ‘I didn’t.’
Both — low-acting people —
there become equal:
after death, in the world beyond.”

Liars live unhappy lives, as the liar must always keep track of his or her lies. And when the ruse is revealed, the consequences can be severe. So the liar is always trying to outrun the hell he or she created; but it always catches up. It’s kind of like the Fram oil filter motto – you will either pay now or pay later.

“Four things befall the heedless man
who lies down with the wife of another:
a wealth of demerit;
a lack of good sleep;
third, censure;
fourth, hell.

A wealth of demerit, an evil destination,
& the brief delight of a
fearful man with a
fearful woman,
& the king inflicts a harsh punishment.
no man should lie down
with the wife of another.”

An act of sexual misconduct is addressed here. While Buddhism teaches us to avoid attachment, the Buddha nonetheless recognized that in the layperson’s life, there are certain cultural norms that the wise and skillful pay attention to. The trouble created by sleeping with someone else’s partner is far reaching. Think about it this way.

A long time ago I was chatting up a fellow online and it looked like a rendezvous was possible. But then the guy said he needed to be very discreet, I couldn’t contact him later because he couldn’t risk his wife finding out. I said, “Wait a minute! If you’re going to all this trouble to be dishonest with your wife, someone you took a vow with, how can I possibly expect you to be honest with me about anything? Like your HIV status for example?” His response was like, “Huh? What are you talking about?” But the conversation was over.

“Just as sharp-bladed grass,
if wrongly held,
wounds the very hand that holds it —
the contemplative life, if wrongly grasped,
drags you down to hell.

Any slack act,
or defiled observance,
or fraudulent life of chastity
bears no great fruit.

If something’s to be done,
then work at it firmly,
for a slack going-forth
kicks up all the more dust.

It’s better to leave a misdeed
A misdeed burns you afterward.
Better that a good deed be done
that, after you’ve done it,
won’t make you burn.”

To behave with skill, constant vigilance over our motives is necessary. Even when we “think” we practice the Dhamma well, our squirrel minds will find clever ways to lead us astray if we’re not vigilant. And the consequences of the “lapses” can lead us into a self-made hell that may take us a very long time to crawl out of. Right on point is the next verse:

“Like a frontier fortress,
guarded inside & out,
guard yourself.
Don’t let the moment pass by.
Those for whom the moment is past
grieve, consigned to hell.”

Wrong view is problematic for all people, but sometimes I think my fellow brethren in “the life,” as it used to be known, have some real issues with this.

“Ashamed of what’s not shameful,
not ashamed of what is,
beings adopting wrong views
go to a bad destination.

Seeing danger where there is none,
& no danger where there is,
beings adopting wrong views
go to a bad destination.

Imagining error where there is none,
and seeing no error where there is,
beings adopting wrong views
go to a bad destination.

But knowing error as error,
and non-error as non-,
beings adopting right views
go to a good

Talk about emptiness, the Circuit Scene – particularly among gay men – is as empty as you can get. The circuit boys see danger in stable relationships, in monogamy, and see no danger in promiscuity. The line of thinking that justifies promiscuity is not limited to just sex; it reaches far beyond that to other areas. Of course, we may think there is no harm in such hedonism because we don’t observe any negative consequences being experienced by these fellows. But that’s only what we can see.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Visiting the dead

Today I visited an unmarked piece of ground. The photo accompanying this post is of my daypack on the ground in Mt. Olive Cemetery on the west side of Chicago. The day pack is lying in about the spot I think where a great-uncle of mine was buried back in 1917. The grave is unmarked in one of the oldest areas of the cemetery, way in the back almost against a fence that separates the Mt. Olive Cemetery from another cemetery. I had to guess as to the location.

What sent me to this cemetery was a request from one of my sisters. She had some information on this great-uncle, Frank Harrold. I knew a little about Frank as well. I knew that he occasionally traveled as a hobo, hopping trains in the early 1900s. He fell off a train one time, and I believe a rail car ran over his arm. It had to be amputated. A journalist from the Chicago Tribune interviewed Frank at the hospital while he was recovering. That was 1905 when Frank, I think, was 19. That will be my next endeavor, to find a microfiche with that 1905 article.

My sister sent me a copy of the receipt for Frank’s grave, which included the plot number. It was $10 for the plot and another $2 for the interment. The total bill was for $40.50, paid on Aug. 31, 1917. I don’t know how Frank died. It might have been in the war, or it might have been from the flu. I went into the cemetery office where a man kindly looked up the plot number, found it on a cemetery map, gave me directions to the spot, plus listed the names of several of the graves to either side of the spot.

You see, he told me, it might not be marked. That’s one of the oldest areas of the cemetery. You ought to be able to find a few of these names, he said, so you can locate this grave.

I drove to the very edge of the cemetery, past a few other gatherings of folks who were there for burials, others there to visit graves. When I found the section the caretaker had directed me to, I saw mostly grass with just a few old headstones. None of the headstones had any of the names the caretaker had given me. I wandered about to make sure I was in the correct area; I seemed to be as the few headstones that were there had similar dates of 1915, 1916 and 1917. That’s when I found these round, concrete cylinders embedded in the earth, each with a number on them; the plot numbers. But alas, some of these were missing as well. Frank was buried in spot number 195. I found one of these cylinders with a 189, then a 190, a 191 – good, the numbers were going in the correct direction. I was in the right spot. Then 192, but that was it, just a broad expanse of open ground, no more cylinders.

I then paced off the distance between each cylinder, which was about one good stride. They packed them in close back there. And so I counted three more strides beyond number 192. That must be it, a bit of ground covered with leaves. I brushed the leaves away with my hand, looking for any sign of a number cylinder, but there was none. I laid my daypack on the ground in that spot, placed the copy of the plot receipt on my day pack, and took several photos in various directions.

And that’s when the thought occurred to me about what that piece of ground was all about. It’s just a piece of ground. And if my great-uncle’s remains were under that turf, it would just be bones. Not Frank, because he was gone. And this spot of land was just that, a bit of dirt with some spotty grass, covered with decaying leaves. Was there ever a headstone to mark this spot as the final resting place for Frank Harrold’s remains? Something told me, probably not. Did anyone come to his grave during those first years after his death? Was there a wreath ever laid across it? Again, something told me probably not.

Over against a fence I saw a pile of concrete cylinders. I looked at them, pulled some of them out of the dirt where they had laid for so long they were partially submerged in the turf. The numbers on the ends had almost completely eroded away; none of them had the number 195. But why were they so carelessly discarded against the fence? Were they ever properly placed in the ground to mark the correct plot, only to be removed later, perhaps because they damaged a lawnmower?

I looked upward at the leaves that were still in the trees and I thought about what the Buddha said about questions; that most are like the leaves in the trees above our heads, so many and most irrelevant. Just because a question is asked doesn’t mean it warrants a response.

Pakinnakavagga: Miscellany

I have heard the complaint from some who say they don’t have time to study the Dhamma because it confuses them so. Their concern is understandable, particularly for a Westerner. The suttas are written in a very cumbersome style, using not only archaic language, but cultural themes that are readily understood by people raised in Asia. As my teacher once told me, “stop using a Western mind to understand the Dhamma!” Ironic, considering my teacher was born and raised in the U.S.

Things become a bit more esoteric with the Pakinnakavagga, the metaphors in the lessons a bit more difficult to grasp, in part because the images are very Asian, very Eastern.

For example, consider this set of verses:

“Having killed mother & father,
two warrior kings,
the kingdom & its dependency —
the brahman, untroubled, travels on.

Having killed mother & father,
two learned kings,
&, fifth, a tiger —
the brahman, untroubled, travels on.”

This metaphor means nothing to me, so I read the translator’s notes.

“This verse and the one following it use terms with ambiguous meanings to shock the listener. According to DhpA, mother = craving; father = conceit; two warrior kings = views of eternalism (that one has an identity remaining constant through all time) and of annihilationism (that one’s consciousness is totally annihilated at death); kingdom = the twelve sense spheres (the senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, feeling, and ideation, together with their respective objects); dependency = passions for the sense spheres.

“Next verse: two learned kings = views of eternalism and annihilationism; a tiger = the path where the tiger goes for food, i.e., the hindrance of uncertainty, or else all five hindrances (sensual desire, ill will, sloth & drowsiness, restlessness & anxiety, and uncertainty). However, in Sanskrit literature, ‘tiger’ is a term for a powerful and eminent man; if that is what is meant here, the term may stand for anger.”

Does that help? Only marginally for me. It’s too intellectual for me and puts me to sleep (I never understood how some get so enamored with the Abhidhamma; I just want to make it through the day without getting angry). I relate much more easily to the verses immediately following:

“They awaken, always wide awake:
Gotama’s disciples
whose mindfulness, both day & night,
is constantly immersed
in the Buddha.

They awaken, always wide awake:
Gotama’s disciples
whose mindfulness, both day & night,
is constantly immersed
in the Dhamma.

They awaken, always wide awake:
Gotama’s disciples
whose mindfulness, both day & night,
is constantly immersed
in the Sangha.

They awaken, always wide awake:
Gotama’s disciples
whose mindfulness, both day & night,
is constantly immersed
in the body.

They awaken, always wide awake:
Gotama’s disciples
whose hearts delight, both day & night,
in harmlessness.

They awaken, always wide awake:
Gotama’s disciples
whose hearts delight, both day & night,
in developing the mind.”

Admittedly, my mind is not always “constantly immersed” in things like the Dhamma. It’s more apt to be immersed in thinking about that hot Asian guy I saw while biking along the lakeshore yesterday. And I’m not always constantly trying to develop my mind; more likely trying to decide whether I should watch “Pirates of the Caribbean” or a James Bond movie (sometimes Clint Eastwood). And while I am frequently immersed in “the body,” it’s probably not the type of immersion the Dhamma is hoping I would be immersed in. Despite all that, I can relate to these verses because they speak to me in a manner I can grasp and put into practice (when I feel my hair on fire).

“Sitting alone,
resting alone,
walking alone,
Taming himself,
He’d delight alone —
alone in the forest.”

There’s a part of me that finds attractive what is described above. I enjoy being alone, I am comfortable doing things alone. But at the same time, I want to share my aloneness with someone. Sounds paradoxical, I know.

Only five more to go!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Maggavagga: The Path

Anyone who desires to practice Buddhism needs to have conviction; a steadfast belief that what he or she is doing will bring the desired results. Thanissaro Bhikkhu in part three of “Wings to Awakening” says this about conviction, that it has three parts:

“(S)ocial (whom to trust), intellectual (what to believe), and practical (how to act as a result). Because conviction is focused not on a descriptive proposition but on a course of action — the skillful mastery of the processes of kamma in a social context — these aspects are inextricably intertwined. The social aspect comes from the need to associate with people who have already mastered these processes, learning from their words and emulating their actions. The intellectual aspect — belief in the principle of kamma — is necessary because the development of skillfulness within the mind requires that one understand the nature of kamma, take responsibility for one's actions, and have conviction in one's ability to benefit from developing one's skills. The practical aspect is necessary, for if one does not follow through in developing skill, it shows that one's conviction in the development of skillfulness is not genuine, and that one is not fully benefiting from one's beliefs.”

It is with this in mind that I approach Chapter 20 of the Dhammapada, the Maggavagga, or The Path. Because in the Maggavagga, we get a series of verses that repeat the basic concepts of the Buddha’s teaching: The Noble Eightfold Path; the Four Noble Truths; the doctrine of anatta, or not-self (here is a delightful cartoon that explains succinctly the doctrine of not-self or no-self); the nature of dukha and the deluded mind.

“Of paths, the eightfold is best.
Of truths, the four sayings.
Of qualities, dispassion.
Of two-footed beings,
the one with the eyes
to see.”

The Buddha acknowledges that there are other paths, other doctrines, other dhamma. But he determined that the Noble Eightfold Path was the best the follow, a path focused on developing skillful thought, action and speech. By following the Noble Eightfold Path, the Four Noble Truths are realized, which then leads to dispassion. With dispassion, one sees how things really are. (skipping verses again)

“When you see with discernment,
‘All fabrications are inconstant’ —
you grow disenchanted with stress.
This is the path
to purity.

When you see with discernment,
‘All fabrications are stressful’ —
you grow disenchanted with stress.
This is the path
to purity.

When you see with discernment,
‘All phenomena are not-self’ —
you grow disenchanted with stress.
This is the path
to purity.”

Just about everything we do every day is a fabrication. My job is a fabrication that is driven to create more fabrications. That does not mean my job is not real. It just means our economy only exists because as a societal group we agree to a large extent that it does exist. If our mass agreement stopped, it would be gone, it wouldn’t exist. In poker, equivalent straight flushes are ranked on the suit of each hand, so a straight flush of spades will beat an equivalent straight flush of diamonds. The concept that spades are superior to diamonds in poker is a fabrication. The concept of spades as a suit is a fabrication. A playing card is real because it's matter, but any attempt to qualify the playing card as valuable or worthless requires a fabrication of thought.

“There are no sons
to give shelter,
no father,
no family
for one seized by the Ender,
no shelter among kin.

of this compelling reason,
the wise man, restrained by virtue,
should make the path pure
— right away —
that goes all the way to Unbinding.”

Death waits for no one, and no one is exempt from death. The Buddha commented on this frequently, instilling the notion that one can use death as a motivator and even as a teacher.

So I follow the path with conviction. And each step along the way, my conviction becomes stronger. It still wavers from time to time. Maybe I skip a day of meditation. Perhaps I stray from the path, misled by another. But eventually I return. It is a path that works.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Dhammatthavagga: The Judge

We’ve all grown up with the concept that authority comes with a uniform. And while this uniform can appear in a very direct manner, such as a police officer’s uniform, or a military uniform, there are other more subtle uniforms that we recognize as well.

There is the doctor’s coat, the three-piece suit, and the Major League Baseball cap that is tilted in a certain way.

But there are other cultural uniforms that signify authority, or so we are taught. The somber gray-haired sage, the well-learned scholar. And it is primarily with these “authorities” that the Dhammatthavagga is concerned with.

The bottom line in this chapter of the Dhammapada is don’t demure to someone because they carry the trappings of authority; one has authority only if their words match their deeds or teachings.

In the Lakkhana Sutta (AN 3.2) the Buddha instructs how to discern between a fool and a wise man.

“A person endowed with three things is to be recognized as a wise person. Which three? Good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, good mental conduct. A person endowed with these three things is to be recognized as a wise person.”

In the Dhammatthavagga, we have a series of verses that primarily focus on how one shouldn’t rely on appearances to determine whether someone is wise, because a fool can be disguised in such a manner.

“A head of gray hairs
doesn't mean one’s an elder.
Advanced in years,
one's called an old fool.

But one in whom there is
truth, restraint,
rectitude, gentleness,
self-control —
he’s called an elder,
his impurities disgorged,

Similarly, just because someone wears the ochre robes doesn’t mean that he ought to be followed. The world is filled with charlatans. And many of these tricksters write books, very important books, and they need to promote these books, so they talk a good talk to promote what they say so you will buy their book.

“A shaven head
doesn't mean a contemplative.
The liar observing no duties,
filled with greed & desire:
what kind of contemplative’s he?

But whoever tunes out
the dissonance
of his evil qualities
— large or small —
in every way
by bringing evil to consonance:
he’s called a contemplative.”

I’ve been searching for a sutta and I can’t find it, but it’s one where the Buddha outlines clearly how to determine whether someone is a suitable teacher. It’s really frustrating that I can’t find it. But the gist of the sutta is first determine whether the teacher knows the Dhamma and second determine whether the teacher follows the Dhamma, regardless of whether he or she knows it. So if you find someone who knows the Dhamma, but does not follow it, then that person is not a suitable teacher. Likewise, someone who does not know the Dhamma and does not follow the Dhamma is also unsuitable. But if someone doesn’t know the Dhamma, but follows the Dhamma, that person may be worthy of following. So there are good people out there that are worthy of following, even if they don’t know squat about the Dhamma. Living the Dhamma matters more than knowing it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Malavagga: Impurities

I’ve mentioned before that there is unresolved anger within me, which contributes to my quick flares of rage usually over the stupidest things. Driving really triggers most of these incidents. It comes down to my inability to be patient: someone cuts me off or is driving too slow. But there is also an arrogance within me that feeds this anger. I get in these moods when I delude myself with how superior I am to others: a better driver, or whatever. This anger, impatience and arrogance are all impurities, and impurity is what chapter 18 of the Dhammapada is all about.

What I like about the Malavagga is that you can take just about any set of the verses and contemplate them on their own. For example:

“Just as rust
— iron’s impurity —
eats the very iron
from which it is born,
so the deeds
of one who lives slovenly
lead him on
to a bad destination.”

That’s a powerful image, likening one’s careless and heedless deeds to rust on iron, slowly eating away at the core. It’s a slow process, but destructive nonetheless.

This set of verses is among my favorites:

“Life’s easy to live
for someone unscrupulous,
cunning as a crow,
corrupt, back-biting,
forward, & brash;
but for someone who’s constantly
scrupulous, cautious,
observant, sincere,
pure in his livelihood,
clean in his pursuits,
it’s hard.”

Being truly aware of my actions at all times is very difficult! Now consider being truly aware of all my thoughts! Wow, that seems impossible! Despite the suffering that it brings, being heedless of what I am thinking, saying or doing is really the easy way out. It can be a very easy existence until I wind up doing something really stupid that brings immediate and severe consequences.

“Whoever kills, lies, steals,
goes to someone else’s wife,
& is addicted to intoxicants,
digs himself up
by the root
right here in this world.

So know, my good man,
that bad deeds are reckless.
Don't let greed & unrighteousness
oppress you with long-term pain.”

The Five Precepts are clearly laid out here for us, as well as the consequences for not keeping them. The metaphor is that failing to keep the precepts leads to complete disruption in your life, so much so it is as if you had uprooted yourself, and an uprooted plant withers and dies.

This verse I really like as well:

There’s no fire like passion,
no seizure like anger,
no snare like delusion,
no river like craving.”

Passion is like a fire in many ways. Yes, passion burns hot like a fire, but just as fire does, passion consumes; it consumes you and it consumes the object of your passion.

Anger truly is like a seizure. When in the throes of a seizure, you have no ability to think, you are often unaware of what is going on, what you are doing, or even how it all started. Anger so easily turns into pure reckless action. It’s a complete loss of control. And like a seizure, it leaves you spent.

There is no snare like delusion, and there are many who know this all to well, as they prey upon the delusions of others.

Craving, like a river, creates its own inertia; once it begins, it just continues to roll on and on until like a large river it becomes an unstoppable torrent of desire. But also like a river, with water in constant flow, our craving never stops once it gets what it seeks. In fact, it hardly pays attention to the object of desire because as soon as it is grasped, craving’s attention is on a new target.

And so what is the impurity in all of these that brings such sorrow and woe, such dissatisfaction and uneasiness?

It’s ignorance.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Kodhavagga: Anger

This might look like I am trying to weenie out of writing a full blog post, but when I look at the Kodhavagga, I find myself only interested in the final set of verses. So that’s all I going to write about. And what I find in those final verses are three very good reminders, three items that are at the heart of my practice. The rest of the chapter of the Dhammapada is pretty straight forward. You can read it for yourself.

“Guard against anger
erupting in body;
in body, be restrained.
Having abandoned bodily misconduct,
live conducting yourself well
in body.

Guard against anger
erupting in speech;
in speech, be restrained.
Having abandoned verbal misconduct,
live conducting yourself well
in speech.

Guard against anger
erupting in mind;
in mind, be restrained.
Having abandoned mental misconduct,
live conducting yourself well
in mind.

Those restrained in body
— the enlightened —
restrained in speech & in mind
— enlightened —
are the ones whose restraint is secure.”

What I like about these verses is that they clearly present the three ways we conduct ourselves: in body, speech and mind. My guess is that for many of us, the first two are easy. We know that we should not react with violence when anger arises, and we should not use harsh words that we will undoubtedly regret. But what about the angry mind?

When you think about it, an angry mind is where it all starts. It is certainly skillful effort to control our behavior and our speech, but the need to constantly police our behavior and speech will always be there if we have an angry mind.

I will be the first to admit that I have an angry mind. And I remain baffled as to the source of my anger. But I know it’s there. And knowing that there is this deeply planted seed of anger within me, I do my best to relax my mind through meditation. Occasionally I chant to relieve the anger. And this blogging project of mine has helped as well.

I used to work with emotionally disturbed children, some of whom had significant issues with anger control. But it was easy to understand the source of their anger. They were unwanted children, most abused either physically or emotionally or a combination of both. They were raised in a household where they faced emotional warfare every day with the people that should have been nurturing them. A social worker I worked with at the time had a neat trick for kids when they were angry. He said just give them a newspaper and tell them to slowly shred it into strips.

You just can’t believe how cathartic that simple act is, to slowly, methodically tear a newspaper into strips while you’re angry. All the negative energy goes into the task, leaving your body. It is amazing how effective it is. Another thing that I’ve tried was something my teacher told me. When I am angry, I should find a mirror and look at myself. It’s difficult to stay angry while you are looking at yourself in the mirror. I mean, when I’m angry, my face looks really stupid. It either makes me laugh at my reflection, or I feel instantly at ease because I realize my squirrel mind wants me to be angry; it is trying to do whatever it can to keep me angry.

But when I look into the mirror, my mind is disarmed.

I may not know precisely what is the root cause of my anger, although I have some ideas, but I do recognize how destructive anger can be. I don’t like being angry, and fortunately, most of my episodes of anger are like a line drawn in water: it quickly disappears.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Piyavagga: Dear Ones (Affection)

I have noted some benefit coming out of my personal challenge to blog daily. And it isn’t that I am now more familiar with the Dhammapada than I ever had been before, although there is benefit in that, to be sure. No, the benefit I am experiencing is subtle, and yet profound. Because when I began this self-imposed task, I had only recently said goodbye to my partner. If I were to retreat in anyway as a reaction to his leaving the country, it made sense to retreat into the Dhamma, to seek refuge.

By sticking to this task of blogging daily about each chapter in the Dhammapada, I have diverted my sorrow into something more positive. It’s still there, but it feels diffused because I didn’t give it the opportunity to fester and build. And in the process, I’ve been able to sort through my feelings, my attachments. I have been able to contemplate in a way my relationship with someone very dear to me and face what goes on internally when separation occurs.

This sounds so analytical, so clinical, so unfeeling; but I assure you, it has been anything but a dissociative experience. One thing I can say is that this has been eye-opening. I have contemplated love in ways I never have before. I can remember my first experiences with men and at that time love was instantaneous and filled with infatuation. It was an all or nothing endeavor that often left me feeling like a gutted corpse. But slowly, painfully, this addictive behavior (we say things like “I need you, I got to have you, I can’t live without you!” My god, we could be just as well be talking about Vicodin) gave way to something more appreciative, more like the true kind of loving kindness, metta, that the Buddha talked about.

And so it is with a very different pair of eyes that I approach the Piyavagga today than, let’s say, nine years ago when I first encountered the Dhamma.

“Having applied himself
to what was not his own task,
and not having applied himself
to what was,
having disregarded the goal
to grasp at what he held dear,
he now envies those
who kept after themselves,
took themselves
to task.”

I’m not envious of those who have taken up vows, who have followed a monastic path. But I do wonder with greater frequency what bliss they have found that would cause them to give up on this wonderful and painful but beautifully sensual life.

“Don’t ever — regardless —
be conjoined with what’s dear
or undear.
It’s painful
not to see what’s dear
or to see what’s not.

So don’t make anything dear,
for it’s dreadful to be far
from what’s dear.
No bonds are found
for those for whom
there’s neither dear
nor undear.”

Not for a minute do I believe these verses to be telling me that not making anything dear means not to love anything or anyone. In this context, I believe the word “dear” is being used to mean something that is so valued that I must have it, I cannot be separated from it. So I can love someone and not be selfishly possessive. As Elton John sang, “butterflies are free to fly, fly away, high away, bye bye.”

The next set of verses are somewhat difficult to interpret usefully.

“From what’s dear is born grief,
from what’s dear is born fear.
For one freed from what’s dear
there’s no grief
— so how fear?

From what’s loved is born grief,
from what’s loved is born fear.
For one freed from what’s loved
there’s no grief
— so how fear?

From delight is born grief,
from delight is born fear.
For one freed from delight
there’s no grief
— so how fear?

From sensuality is born grief,
from sensuality is born fear.
For one freed from sensuality
there’s no grief
— so how fear?

From craving is born grief,
from craving is born fear.
For one freed from craving
there’s no grief
— so how fear?”

I get the idea of being freed from craving, freed from sensuality, and even freed from delight, or that is a bit more difficult. Does being freed from delight mean that I no longer feel that bubbly emotion we call delight? Does it mean I cannot delight is a lovely poem? A beautiful sunset.? A kind gesture? And when it comes to the idea of being freed from what’s dear, from what’s loved is more difficult. Am I free from Benny because he’s gone? And does that mean I stop loving him? This is a bit more knotty.

The notion of delight, or affection, gets turned around a bit in the final verses. For example, look at the last verses.

“A man long absent
comes home safe from afar.
His kin, his friends, his companions,
delight in his return.

In just the same way,
when you’ve done good
& gone from this world
to the world beyond,
your good deeds receive you —
as kin, someone dear
come home.”

In this example, the fact that a man’s return after a long absence to his kin, friends, etc., brings delight to these people is used as a positive to demonstrate the rewards one can experience by doing good: after death, the merit gathered welcomes you as if a long lost friend. Obviously, in the first part the people described held great affection for the returning man; they held him dearly. That’s a good thing, because it is used as a literary method to explain the workings of kamma and the accumulation of merit in our lives.

So it would seem to be a fine line between the type of “holding someone dear” that is infatuation or obsession, and this which is loving-kindness, a type of affection that is nurturing and non-binding rather than clinging and dependent.

When I think about it, I have to wonder, how can you have happiness without some type of object that is the source of that happiness? Or at least the catalyst for that happiness? The Buddha taught that all states of being are conditioned upon a prior state of being or condition. But Nibbana is an unconditioned state even though I cannot attain it unless I break all conditions, which is a condition itself.

Alright, I’m getting dizzy. Suffice it to say that I believe in love.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Sukhavagga: Happiness

The focus of the Sukhavagga is the happiness one feels when living according to the Dhamma. It’s a very straight-forward chapter that doesn’t take a lot of contemplation. It’s simplicity and clarity helps deliver the message that life is filled with all kinds of discomfort, but this can be avoided by living skillfully in the Dhamma.

“How very happily we live,
free from hostility
among those who are hostile.
Among hostile people,
free from hostility we dwell.

How very happily we live,
free from misery
among those who are miserable.
Among miserable people,
free from misery we dwell.

How very happily we live,
free from busyness
among those who are busy.
Among busy people,
free from busyness we dwell.

How very happily we live,
we who have nothing.
We will feed on rapture
like the Radiant gods.”

These first verses can strike one as being so childlike that it almost sounds like a vicious tease. “I know you’re miserable, but what am I? I’m happy!” But the Sukhavagga really isn’t leading with the chin. It’s just a simple message: there’s a lot of pain and suffering in the world, and you can live among it without being of it.

The competitiveness of the world is laid out clearly as well in the next verse.

“Winning gives birth to hostility.
Losing, one lies down in pain.
The calmed lie down with ease,
having set
winning & losing

Achievement is not the same as winning, and if I can learn how to view accomplishments as achievement rather than winning, which implies somebody losing, I don’t fall sway to my ego. This is a tough attitude to develop because the business world is all about winning.

I don’t see the need to spend a lot of time on this chapter, so I’ll skip to the last set of verses.

It’s good to see Noble Ones.
Happy their company — always.
Through not seeing fools
constantly, constantly
one would be happy.

For, living with a fool,
one grieves a long time.
Painful is communion with fools,
as with an enemy —
Happy is communion
with the enlightened,
as with a gathering of kin.

the enlightened man —
discerning, learned,
enduring, dutiful, noble,
intelligent, a man of integrity:
follow him
— one of this sort —
as the moon, the path
of the zodiac stars.”

What I get out of these verses is how important it is that I surround myself with good people, with true friends. It may mean that I don’t surround myself with a lot of people; in fact, I might have very few close friends. But the Buddha in many teachings emphasized how important is the company we keep in terms of staying on the path. And the further along the path we go, the more discerning we become.

Not every moment is filled with happiness for me. In fact, right now is a very difficult time for me. But I would never abandon my practice because it is the one thing I can count on to help me get through all this.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Buddhavagga: Awakened

I’m feeling better today, albeit just slightly. There is still a lot of emotional shit I need to deal with and resolve, or at the least come to terms with. These things happen, and I am frankly very thankful that I have challenged myself to blog daily about the Dhammapada. It gives me something to focus on and pull myself out of my maudlin moods. I’ve never been called a queen, but thankfully, I resisted pulling out the Judy cds.

Reading the Buddhavagga makes me feel more optimistic (however, notice that my state of mind continues to be dependent on external stimuli, in this case, a chapter in the Dhammapada). The first set of verses inspire that optimism by reminding me that the Buddha was an enlightened being, and in his teachings I can place my unwavering trust.

“Whose conquest can’t be undone,
whose conquest no one in the world
can reach;
awakened, his pasture endless,
by what path will you lead him astray?

In whom there’s no craving
— the sticky ensnarer —
to lead him anywherever at all;
awakened, his pasture endless,
by what path will you lead him astray?”

Indeed, craving is a “sticky ensnarer.” The fact the Buddha had gone beyond that (this isn’t faith, it’s a fact) instills confidence and encourages my perseverance. Skipping a verse, I come to a set that also comfort me with the knowledge that sometimes my whining is not without justification.

“Hard the winning of a human birth.
Hard the life of mortals.
Hard the chance to hear the true Dhamma.
Hard the arising of Awakened Ones.”

The hackneyed retort of “life sucks and then you die” is more than just a sarcastic quip that has found its place in the day-to-day lexicon. It is, in fact, the truth. But understanding this doesn’t mean I cave into endless feelings of remorse or melancholy. It means that the hardships I deal with are only different in content from what everybody else deals with. We all have to deal with it, we all have the choice to act with skill or be guided by greed, hatred and delusion.

Some may say it was chance that a past boyfriend of mine introduced me to Buddhism, but I am more inclined to believe that it was my kamma. Whether it was good or ill, things that I have done in this life as well as in prior lives brought themselves together into a force of direction that led me to that Dhammasala where I met my teacher. I was made aware that the place existed, and that this monk had said something while I was visiting that stuck with me. So a year later when the bottom of my bucket fell out, I instantly knew what to do: I drove the 90 minutes back to that Dhammasala and sought out that monk.

“The non-doing of any evil,
the performance of what’s skillful,
the cleansing of one’s own mind:
this is the teaching
of the Awakened.

Patient endurance:
the foremost austerity.
the foremost,
so say the Awakened.
He who injures another
is no contemplative.
He who mistreats another,
no monk.

Not disparaging, not injuring,
restraint in line with the Patimokkha,
moderation in food,
dwelling in seclusion,
commitment to the heightened mind:
this is the teaching
of the Awakened.”

It’s easy to dismiss the above verses as pertaining only to monks, but to do so would mean missing some points that are important for laypeople as well. Such as the focus on simply the “non-doing of any evil,” and the effort on being skillful. By putting effort into these activities, which are at the heart of the Four Right Efforts, we cleanse our minds. It takes practice. I can’t call myself a Buddhist if all I do is read a lot of clever books and listen to inspiring speakers; Buddhism is a practice, a way of life. I have to live it. So I work at not disparaging others (really hard for me) and not injuring others (very easy for me as I abhor violence), and show moderation in my food and drink consumption (also quite difficult for me because I love good food and wine). To accomplish that, I occasionally, though not frequently enough, examine the Five Hindrances to see which one(s) are problematic for me at the moment, then work more diligently at cultivating the opposite.

“Not even if it rained gold coins
would we have our fill
of sensual pleasures.
they give little enjoyment’ —
knowing this, the wise one
finds no delight
even in heavenly sensual pleasures.
He is one who delights
in the ending of craving,
a disciple of the Rightly
Self-Awakened One.”

I wouldn’t mind some gold coins raining on my life, but it’s still true, a windfall would not erase my troubles, just replace my present troubles with different ones. Ah, but to experience those different troubles!

“They go to many a refuge,
to mountains and forests,
to park and tree shrines:
people threatened with danger.
That’s not the secure refuge,
not the supreme refuge,
that’s not the refuge,
having gone to which,
you gain release
from all suffering & stress.

But when, having gone
to the Buddha, Dhamma,
& Sangha for refuge,
you see with right discernment
the four noble truths —
the cause of stress,
the transcending of stress,
& the noble eightfold path,
the way to the stilling of stress:
that’s the secure refuge,
that, the supreme refuge,
that is the refuge,
having gone to which,
you gain release
from all suffering & stress.”

These verses are so inspiring for me. Granted, I tend to “seek refuge” when I’m frightened and want a bit of protection. But regardless of the motivation, it’s the right thing to do, and each time, a bit more is absorbed and brought into my life.

Skipping to the last verse, I find something of value, but something that bugs me as well.

“If you worship those worthy of worship,
— Awakened Ones or their disciples —
Who’ve transcended
& grief,
who are unendangered,
there’s no measure for reckoning
that your merit’s ‘this much.’”

First, what bugs me. “If you worship those worthy of worship …” This is a case of when I disagree with Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation, because Buddhism has got nothing to do with worshipping anything. So the translation by Acharya Buddharakkhita is more appropriate to the verse’s meaning: “He who reveres those worthy of reverence …”

What is of value here is that the verse reveals that one’s reverence need not be limited to the Buddha himself, but can be extended to his disciples. So finding a teacher that teaches the true Dhamma and is skilled with his or her own instruction is a blessing of great magnitude that should not be ignored. This reminds me of a song from “The Sound of Music,” when Julie Andrews sings, “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.”

That lyric is the essence of merit. And the fact that I was led to my teacher must mean that somewhere in my past, whether it be this life or a previous life, regardless of how wicked I might have been, I had done something worthy of merit and that led me to the Dhamma.

That is no small thing. And it can be said of all of us who have found Buddhism. We are extraordinarily fortunate to have the opportunity to learn the Buddha’s teachings and to practice them. But that’s the key, it’s just an opportunity. The rest is work we must do.