Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Separation is stress – Duh!

On Monday I took my partner of the last 27 months to the airport and said goodbye. His visa was about to expire and there was no way an American employer was going to hire him in this economy when thousands of American citizens are looking for work. I had really thought that I had found someone to spend the rest of my life with, to grow old with. And even if we had taken the drive over to Iowa and been married, in the end that would not have made a difference with yesterday’s outcome.

Silly me how I forgot about how all things are impermanent.

For weeks I was preparing myself for Monday’s eventual arrival. I wasn’t so much holding my emotions in check as I was actively observing them. Moments of anxiety were inevitable, but knowing right away their source eased their impact. What I was really preparing for was what I presumed would be my ultimate failure to control my emotions. I held this mental image that after I dropped him off at the airport, I would go home and cry away the rest of the day. After all, I had been through a similar situation in the past when I had also fallen in love with a man on a temporary visa, who also had to leave the country because he could not find a job because the economy at that time had also tanked.

But it didn’t happen that way this time. Yes, I feel sadness, but it’s not this heavy, weighty sadness as I had experienced in the past. No, I have not become indifferent, unfeeling. Rather, the emotion is quite rich and varied, definitely there to be experienced. What’s different this time, I think, is that while I am experiencing these emotions, I am also observing them.

There is no doubt that I deeply love and care for Benny; I always will. There is no question about this, nor is there any doubt within me about how Benny feels about me. It is as certain as I know my own heart. And I have the Buddha’s teachings to thank for this.

Don’t get me wrong, I am by no means an expert in Buddhism, nor am I someone who practices the Dhamma as if my hair were on fire. There is hardly a time while driving that I don’t experience an outburst of anger because of some pigheaded driver in another vehicle; I drink and swear too much; I am horrible with money management; and I like sex way too much to even dare think about the eventual day when I may not be able to perform.

But I do practice.

Perhaps the most meaningful of all the suttas for me is the Bhaddekaratta Sutta (MN 131), which is translated under a variety of titles including Discourse on Living Happily in the Present Moment; The Discourse on the Ideal Lover of Solitude; and An Auspicious Day. I will quote a portion of the sutta from the former, as translated by Thich Nhat Hanh.

“Do not pursue the past.
Do not lose yourself in the future.
The past no longer is.
The future has not yet come.
Looking deeply at life as it is
in the very here and now,
the practitioner dwells
in stability and freedom.
To wait until tomorrow is too late.
Death comes unexpectedly.”

In the rest of the sutta, the Buddha explains that the past is done, it’s over. By dwelling on the past, commiserating over what has already happened, we distract ourselves from the present moment, which often leads to very unskillful actions yielding poor results. It is paramount, the Buddha instructed, that we focus our minds on the present moment, because it is out of the present moment that our futures arise. You want to ensure yourself a happy future? Then pay attention to what is going on right now. Want to undo some stupid things you’ve done in the past? Then pay attention to what you are doing right now.

There is no question that I would prefer that Benny would have been able to stay with me, or that I would be able to go with him; however, he is not Audrey Hepburn and I am not George Peppard in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” But I haven’t lost him either.

This brings to mind a koan I learned from the movie “Samsara.” It goes like this: How can you ever prevent a drop of water from evaporating?

By giving it to the sea.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Recommended post

I highly recommend you take a look at the 5-Minute Dhamma post regarding dependent origination by Ashin Sopaka at his blog A Raft. Dependent origination is one of those Buddhist concepts that’s key to practicing the path, but which is also one of the more complex teachings that can be easily misunderstood (very much like kamma). But Ashin provides a good metaphor to explain how the process of dependent origination works and how it can be interrupted.

“Take the passing of a ball, for example. While ‘passing the ball’ is a condition for ‘catching the ball’, so is ‘running to the spot’ and ‘dodging the interceptors’ and ‘blocking the defenders’, in addition to all the other activity on the field/court.”

Friday, September 25, 2009

Extinguishing anger

No one needs to look very far to find relevant passages in the Tipitika that show the Buddha’s teachings on anger. Anger is, after all, considered one of the Big Three evil things that doom us to the endless cycle of birth, life, death, and then rebirth for another round.

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha tells us:

Whoever takes a rod
to harm living beings desiring ease,
when he himself is looking for ease,
will meet with no ease after death.

In the Yodhajiva Sutta: To Yodhajiva (The Warrior), the Buddha tersely explains that even a soldier acting valiantly in war will not escape his punishment for willingly being engaged in battle, killing his enemies (SN 42.3).

In the Kodhana Sutta: The Wretchedness of Anger (AN 7.60), the Buddha enumerates the seven results of anger, which include that the angry person will be ugly and in pain.

There are hundreds of such passages in the Tipitika. It’s pretty clear, anger is no good. I get that, it’s clear to me that anger is one of the three primary causes of my suffering. I know that I shouldn’t be overcome with anger, hatred, rage, or any of these similar states of mind.

But how do I do that? How do I stop being angry? How do I let go of this awful burden that anger buries me under?

I am not afraid to admit that I am an angry person. As a gay boy growing up in a Catholic hegemony that included Catholic school for a while, as well as in a society that supported what I was hearing in the catechisms, I felt alone, isolated, and extraordinarily insecure.

I was also angry. Angry at many things and many people. I was angry with school, with the Catholic Church, with God, with the other boys I hung around with, and I was angry with my parents.

There was also that dreaded word growing up – faggot.

For many gay boys growing up, sarcasm becomes a well-honed skill – we turned our anger into a rapier wit to belittle those who dared to call us names, and we did so with such aplomb that we gained friends at the same time.

I still occasionally have a sharp tongue, but what I have gained over time is an awareness of when I unleash it, and a feeling of shame when it occurs. While I became somewhat skilled with sarcasm, my fear of the “dreaded word” led me to become all things to everyone just so I could satisfy myself that people liked me. I was friendly with virtually everyone, but friends with no one, as there was no one I could really be myself with.

I have also learned over time how to let go of my anger much more quickly than the days when I would hold onto my anger as though it were a prized possession.

But it’s still there.

Buddhism is no different from other religions in that it, too, has the message that anger and hatred are bad.

I have found, however, that Buddhism is significantly different from other religions in how it treats anger. While other religions, particularly the monotheistic ones, cite anger as an emotion that can bring about one’s downfall, it is nonetheless glorified in many ways, with many angry acts often exalted as being righteous: the righteous war, as an example.

And this is where a key difference between Buddhism and other religions become apparent. The Buddha provided steps to follow to rid oneself of anger – he didn’t just say that anger was bad; he actually taught how you can rid yourself of it. The Buddha provided all these handy lists of qualities follow, and when it comes to anger, there is one of these lists that is particularly helpful.

It is called the Four Right Efforts. Yeah, ridding myself of anger is going to take effort, but there is right effort that is effective, and wrong effort that is futile. The Four Right Efforts are:

To prevent unskillful qualities from arising.
To denourish and remove unskillful qualities already present.
To strengthen and further develop skillful qualities already present.
To nurture and develop skillful qualities not present so they may arise.

So first, I need to be sure I don’t start doing terrible stuff that I’m not doing right now. For example, I’ve never killed anyone. Sounds silly, but this is exactly what the Buddha was talking about. If you have never killed a human, then don’t start.

Ah, but the second step is much trickier, and that is to “denourish” and remove my unskillful anger that is already there. And that “denourish” term can sort of hang people up a bit. That term implies that the anger I have has been nourished, and that it has been me providing the nourishment. To withhold that nourishment, I need to understand the origin of my anger. Jeez, this is going to take work, because to do that, I need to have a focused mind. Aw crap, and to have a focused mind, I need to practice my meditation to make sure I am focusing on the right things.

Gosh, this denourishment thing is difficult! No kidding, and this is where I see a considerable number of people abandon Buddhism. They wanted Buddhism Lite, they just wanted to wear the label. As soon as it became apparent that being a skillful person takes effort, it was adios my friend! Hmm, do I sound angry about this?

But I digress. Because the choice is pretty clear for me. I want to stop being angry. It’s no fun. And no one’s going to do it for me. So I accept the work and do the best I can to uncover the seeds of anger inside of me so that I can get rid of them.

There is good news in all this too. I am not a total screw up. I have good qualities. The third effort is to strengthen the good qualities I already have and nourish them rather than nourish my anger and other unskillful qualities. And the more consistent I am with that, the easier it will become to cultivate the skillful qualities I don’t have but desire.

I’m still an angry guy. But each year when I go to Boystown here in Chicago for the annual Pride Parade and I pass the lonely, angry and virulent man that stands every year with his bullhorn at the corner of Clark and Belmont, shouting out warnings that all us gays are doomed to hell, I can smile at him. I’ve let go of the anger related to him.

Now if I could just let go of the anger I have for those jerks on the Jane Adams Tollway who don’t know scat about driving.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Origin of Stupidity

This has little to do with Buddhism, but it is so hilarious, I thought I'd share it. Besides, my next post is going to be all about anger. We all could use a laugh.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Spiders with boots?

I know I may be splitting hairs when I assert that morality is conditional rather than relative, but I prefer the term “conditional” because I believe it forces me to be realistic in my evaluation of whatever circumstances I am in at the moment.

That’s the key – the circumstances I am in at the moment, not what might happen or could happen. What is happening right now. Because how I act right now – either via speech, action, or thought – is going to create consequences that will influence events in my future. Worrying about what might happen is a waste of time. I need to pay attention to what is happening right now to exert positive influence on what might happen later.

Yet, I encounter these “what if” scenarios in Buddhist groups all the time. For example, with the First Precept, to refrain from killing living creatures, someone always has to come up with some hypothetical situation to begin a discussion on whether there is such a thing as a justifiable killing.

A common scenario is one in which your mother is being attacked by a knife-wielding man and you have the opportunity to intervene because you’re carrying a gun. So if you shoot this man, would your kamma be “excused” because you were acting out of a desire to preserve life, not take life?

When I hear this blather, I’m like, “Whoa, where did all this come from? Why are you reaching to the very top of the tree to pull down leaves we don’t need to be concerned with at all?”

There are so many things wrong with discussions like these, but here’s just a few.

For one, in such a scenario, there appears to be a presumption that shooting and killing the attacker is the only solution. I’ve yet to encounter someone who offers the possibility that you could talk the attacker out of committing violence.

For another, the scenario presumes that I would ever be in that type of situation to begin with. The whole point of living skillfully is to avoid such encounters by associating with the right people, by paying attention to your surroundings, and not going into places where you shouldn’t be.

We think such discussions are valid and meaningful, but it’s just a trick by our deluded mind, a mind that would rather contemplate meaningless scenarios rather than contemplating something of value, such as, “How do I cause my suffering? And how can I stop doing that?”

Sometimes I respond to such hypothetical scenarios by describing one of my own.

“What if spiders wore boots?”

You can imagine the responses I get to a question like that. And the sad thing is that when I ask this question, people think I’m the weird one.

In case you didn’t get the allusion I was making above regarding reaching to the tops of the trees, I suggest you read the Simsapa Sutta: The Simsapa Leaves (SN 56.31).

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Morality is not relative

It astounds me every time when I encounter someone who, despite saying they are Buddhist, will assert that morality is relative. I don’t believe that assertion one bit. But I do have an understanding of how that assertion arises.

Wow, I’m sounding like a know-it-all right now, aren’t I? Let me explain.

Morality is not relative – the Buddha never taught that. At least, I cannot find any place in the Tipitika where he succinctly stated such a premise.

The Buddha, as I understand the teachings, did, however, instruct that morality was conditional. In fact, he taught that all things/phenomenon were conditional.

“Umm, if something is conditional, as in dependent on the conditions which surround it, doesn’t that make it relative as well?”

Umm, no, it does not. Let’s take the Third Precept as an example, which is, “To refrain from sexual misconduct.”

In the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta: To Cunda the Silversmith, from the Anguttara Nikaya (AN 10.176), the Buddha is explicit in his description of sexual misconduct. Speaking of a skillful man, the Buddha says:

“He does not get sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man.”

So let’s parse this out. “He does not get sexually involved with …” The Buddha never said that sex per se was wrong, or even that sex out of wedlock was wrong or immoral. He places a condition upon sexual behavior to identify when it may be immoral or lack virtue. And the circumstances that defined unskillful sexual activity varied dependent on the Buddha’s audience.

So if the Buddha was speaking to monks, as in the Vinaya, then he would present a specific set of sexual prohibitions. When speaking to lay people he would provide another.

Does that mean that sexual mores are relative in the Buddha’s point of view? Of course not. What defines sexual activity as unskillful is dependent on the circumstances, and that has nothing to do with cultural relativity. A cultural more may define what is skillful sexual behavior, but that doesn’t mean what constitutes skillful sexual behavior is relative.

And the Buddha was quite clear that there are some sexual behaviors that are simply immoral under all circumstances, such as forced sexual activity, I.e. rape (“those who entail punishments…”).

We define relativity. Our minds define relativity. And our minds, by nature, are deluded.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Four Noble Truths for gays

It doesn’t really matter if you’re gay or straight when it comes to practicing Buddhism. The basic elements remain the same. What may need some tweaking, however, is how the basic elements are presented. For example, how I explain the Four Noble Truths to a fellow gay would be different than how I might explain them to someone straight. And the reason I would explain the Four Noble Truths differently is based on my perception that most gay people don’t like to think of themselves as causing their own stress.

“Excuse me? Sorry, but it’s the straight world that is giving us grief. I didn’t bring this upon myself.”

Well, it all depends on what you mean by the term “this.” So when explaining a basic Buddhist concept such as the Four Noble Truths to a fellow mo, I do so something like this.

1. Life is dukkha. OK, so I get the fact that this is a strange term, dukkha; most of the time it gets translated as something like suffering, or unsatisfactory. Which would mean that the Buddha was saying that life is suffering, or life is unsatisfactory, but that doesn’t quite get it, right? I mean, who wants to practice a religion that is basically telling you that life sucks? We get that, right? But we have our moments of happiness; times when we’re with our friends feeling good, safe and secure. So it doesn’t suck all the time. But that’s where the dissatisfaction comes in; the good times don’t last. Add to that we get old, so old that the young handsome guys don’t pay attention to us any more. So a better way to think about dukkha is to think about it meaning impermanence: Life is impermanent, as are the good times and people we like to hang with, which is frustrating.

2. There is a cause of dukkha. The Buddha said that these causes were greed, hatred, and delusion, which sounds kind of esoteric and all, but it’s actually simpler than that. Greed is greed, but greed is also hunger, as in hungry for action, hungry for sex. We don’t get action, we don’t get sex, we feel bummed. We tend to be greedy about material things as well. Hatred is also anger. We get angry. Don’t tell me you don’t know any angry queens. We’re pissed about how people and the larger society dismiss us. And this leads into the more difficult one, delusion. We think that an endless chain of tricks is the way we’re supposed to live, but is it ever satisfying? Are we ever truly satisfied if all we’re doing is searching for the next trick? Which means, if you think about it, all this dissatisfaction is really brought on by us – we do this to ourselves. Yet we think we are these victims. I mean, seriously, you think it’s OK to expect people to just say, “Oh, he’s gay, so it’s OK that he sleeps with as many guys as he wants”?

3. There is a way to end dukkha. But the only way to really understand that is to be sure the fact that we cause our own dissatisfaction is fully understood. When that happens, it becomes clear: end my endless hunger for action, sex, pretty things, brand new Audis, front row Madonna tickets at $500 a pop, a maxed-out credit card, if I stop all that, then I bring an end to all my dissatisfaction. I’ll be able to accept life on life’s terms. But how do I do that?

4. The way to end dukkha is the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. Well now, that sounds a bit elitist, doesn’t it? The Noble Eightfold Path. But if you can get beyond that moniker for the time being, it’s really quite simple. Because there are right ways and wrong ways to live, or perhaps even a better way to say it, there are skillful ways and unskillful ways to live. The skillful ways bring us what we want – less hassle, more happiness, greater peace of mind and contentment. It’s the unskillful things we do that bring us pain, unhappiness, anxiety, fear, and all the other negative feelings we encounter. As we become more skillful in what we think, say and do, we develop a wiser view of things that strengthens our skillful habits, a wisdom that helps us understand that all things have a beginning, middle and end – not just our lives, but our feelings, our thoughts, and our actions. And unpleasant things will continue to happen to us because before we got wise and started being more skillful, we were living very unskillfully: all our past unskillful actions will continue to bring unforeseen consequences that, provided we live skillfully now, we will be better able to accept and deal with when they arise.

No one is ever converted by this explanation, the reason most often being many people’s inability to fully grasp Noble Truth number two – that we are the source of our own suffering.

“What’s wrong with wanting to get a front row seat to see Madonna, even if it does cost $500?”

Nothing, unless you can’t pay the credit card bill when you receive it, because you’ve been using your credit card to buy a lot of things you want, but don’t really need, which has put a huge pinch on your cash flow in terms of paying for the things you do need. And why does it have to be a front row ticket? Is it so you can hear and see Madonna better? Or is it so you can tell others you sat in the front row at the Madonna concert? Or is it because you want to impress the guy you went to the concert with?

We think we want real things, that what we desire is real, but when we look at it with a clear mind, it becomes apparent that most of what motivates us really doesn’t exist. Bragging rights aren’t real; status is not real.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Of kamma and the Fifth Precept

Please take some time to visit the blog “The Raft” and look at the post regarding kamma. Ashin Sopāka provides a very concrete example of the functioning of kamma and rebirth. It’s definitely worth reading.

Also, take a look at this post at “Dangerous Harvests” regarding the Fifth Precept. It’s a fascinating discussion that really opened my eyes. I am probably much like many others in that I have always thought of the Fifth Precept as dealing with drugs and alcohol. But Nathan’s discussion reveals that many activities can qualify as an “intoxicant.”

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Trapped in dogma

During a recent online debate on a Yahoo! Buddhist group, I happily stumbled upon the Maha-kammavibhanga Sutta (MN 136). It was a delightful find, because the message within this sutta is particularly applicable to the gay community.

There are really two messages being delivered by the Buddha in this sutta: one is regarding the trap of dogma, and the other is that kamma operates in such a complex manner that even the well-learned student of Buddhism can have difficulty understanding it. Kamma is one of those Buddhist paradoxes: the concept is very simple – when this is, that is – but how kamma operates is extraordinarily arcane.

For example, why is it that person A, who’s been a slut all his life and has the emotional warmth of a lizard is still alive and healthy while person B – who everyone recognizes is the sweetest guy around, who has been a community activist most of his life, and who has been loyal to his partner – dies of AIDS at a young age?

Imagine this being taken a step further, however, because in the Maha-kammavibhanga Sutta, the Buddha offers the scenario of someone having the ability, through meditation, to see what happens to these people after they die. Suppose you were able to discern that a violently homophobic man who brutally murders a gay man winds up reborn as an animal after death? What might you generalize from this?

The Buddha explains with examples, such as of a learned monk who, during meditation, reaches a state of concentration when he “sees” what happens after death to someone who has committed transgressions: that person goes to hell. From that “insight,” a very rigid conclusion is reached that all people who commit transgressions are destined for hell. Rather than true insight, this point of view becomes trapped in a narrow dogma.

How many of us are trapped in dogma? Such rigid dogma is all over the place within the gay community when you think about it. We even have terms to identify these dogmas and place people in their respective “camps.” There are the “sex-positive” queers; the “circuit boys;” the “assimilation-ists.” There are those who believe that monogamy and nesting is the only responsible way to express our sexuality, and anyone who has multiple partners is irresponsible. And there are others who believe that having multiple partners unencumbered by the heterosexist norm of marriage is the only true way to express our homosexuality, while the pro-marriage folk haven’t fully come to grips with their sexuality and still secretly wish they were straight.

Does this sound like anyone you know?

The Buddha in his great teaching on kamma explains that such a rigid interpretation of kamma is false. That, in fact, there are people who commit transgressions during life and who reach heavenly states after death; conversely, there are people who live virtuous lives who at times find themselves in hell after death. The Buddha’s point is that kamma is a complex interaction of many events, intentions and actions, and the results of kamma develop in different ways for different people. Add to that the fact that we cannot know everything about a person’s life experiences, so how can we possibly know what type of kamma he or she is developing?

That, however, hasn’t stopped us from talking like we do know someone else’s kamma, or that we do know how kamma functions for us in light of the precepts – particularly the Third and Fifth precepts. For example, a gay man who is in an open relationship mutually agreed upon with his partner may believe that his kamma is “good” because he finds his other sex partners at bars or circuit events. And this same person may have a dim view of someone who seeks partners in a bathhouse. Yet, the guy in the bathhouse may completely abstain from all drugs and alcohol and practices safe-sex only.

What of the closeted gay married to a woman? He is the guy who has long ago stopped having sex with his wife, but continues to furtively masturbate to gay porn. He’s remained faithful to his wife, hasn’t he? The Third Precept has been kept, right? And yet he is miserable. What type of rebirth is he destined for?

What can get overlooked in discussions like these is that the men I previously described are equally “trapped” by the fetters of their sensual desires. They are all accumulating kamma, a kamma that will play a deterministic role in their rebirth. The Buddha did not teach that following his path meant the accumulation of kamma; rather, he teaches that liberation from suffering is accomplished through the diminishment of kamma.

We all want to understand the nature of kamma. But more and more I am realizing that all I can really discern is whether the actions, thoughts and words I am involved in during the here and now are paving the way for future benefit, the future diminishment of kamma. And I must be prepared for unexpected results that may be the fruition of kamma that might have a source I cannot identify. Which is why I find refuge in the Lonaphala Sutta (AN 3.99), The Salt Crystal.

Gay or lesbian, I believe we can be sexual beings and live a moral life; the Buddha’s teachings not only allow for this, but provide very useful guidance on this. But of the three ailments all of us humans suffer from – greed, hatred, and delusion – the ailment of delusion is the most difficult to deal with because it can be the most difficult to identify within ourselves.

By the way, I want to thank everyone for reading my posts and for your comments. Keep them coming.