Saturday, October 31, 2009

Lokavagga: Worlds

I must be in a sour mood, because I am getting annoyed as I read the Lokavagga. I do feel out of sorts. I went down to Boystown to watch the Halloween parade, and I suppose I should have felt festive; it will be another seven years before Halloween will be on a Saturday again. There were plenty of people in some fantastic costumes all set to have a good time. But I couldn’t connect with any of it.

I took the El back to the Rockwell station where my car was parked, then drove home. Then I look up the next chapter in the Dhammapada and I see the Lokavagga and I feel like what’s the point?

“Don’t associate with lowly qualities.
Don’t consort with heedlessness.
Don’t associate with wrong views.
Don’t busy yourself with the world.”

Maybe, you think, I am already feeling the distance from the world that the Buddha taught we should strive for. But that’s not what I feel.

“Get up! Don’t be heedless.
Live the Dhamma well.
One who lives the Dhamma
sleeps with ease
in this world & the next.

Live the Dhamma well.
Don’t live it badly.
One who lives the Dhamma
sleeps with ease
in this world & the next.”

No, what I feel now is emptiness and a sense of frustration. Old feelings are coming back and I sense some kamma is nearing fruition. It makes me uncomfortable.

“See it as a bubble,
see it as a mirage:
one who regards the world this way
the King of Death doesn’t see.”

But it’s not a mirage. Pain and loneliness are real. I don’t want to dwell in such thoughts, but there they are.

“Come look at this world
all decked out
like a royal chariot,
where fools plunge in,
while those who know
don’t cling.”

I would have liked to do some plunging into the world tonight, but at the same time I felt so distant. And again, it’s not because I have managed to attain the proper mental attitude for regarding the world and its delusions. Rather, it’s that sense of apathy that arises after you lost something very dear to you – or someone.

“Who once was heedless,
but later is not,
brightens the world
like the moon set free from a cloud.

His evil-done deed
is replaced with skillfulness:
he brightens the world
like the moon set free from a cloud.”

I like these verses, as I feel like a moon obscured by a cloud. Or rather, a completely overcast sky. But it will pass, I know that. It just takes so damn long.

The final verses really don’t mean anything to me. They touch nothing within me. Instead, I want to feel the excesses of the world, I want to take another plunge and feel the fleeting bliss of pleasure, even though I know it won’t last. And despite that desire, something within me holds me back, a realm of melancholy that feels too comfortable at the moment.

As much as I want at times to feel the safety net of the Dhamma, there are times like these when things just plain suck. And I’m OK with things sucking right now.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Attavagga: Self

Self is one of those concepts in Buddhism that at times strikes me as a paradox. On the one hand, the Buddha taught that there is no real or true self, because we are constantly changing. So there is no static self you can point to and say, “That is me!”

Yet we all recognize, if perhaps unspoken, that we have something that can best be described as uniquely us, which we universally call “self.” There is an “I” identity, and for many of us and for a long time, it was a comfortable and automatic notion.

Then the Buddha shook my world. “I am not my body, I am not my mind, I am not my perceptions, I am not my consciousness, I am not my feelings: then what the hell am I?”

What really kills me is that other people have their own sense of who “I” am. And the Buddha recognized this, as many of his teachings are about how we are “defined” by our actions and by the company we keep. You see it in the Dhammapada as well, verses about how the wise behave and avoid association with fools, etc. And that’s partly what Chapter 12 is about.

With the Attavagga, the Buddha is treating the self as something real as well as something that needs protecting and nurturing. Because whatever the self is not, it does do things, and one of those things is create kamma. And creating kamma is what binds us to the endless cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, etc.

“If you hold yourself dear
then guard, guard yourself well.
The wise person would stay awake
nursing himself
in any of the three watches of the night,
the three stages of life.”

We all hold ourselves dear, right? But it’s so easy just to cruise along and not pay attention. As a result, we are often careless and wind up doing things that are harmful to us. But regardless which of the “three watches of the night” we finally wake up – in youth, middle age, or old age – it’s not too late to properly nurse oneself and develop wisdom.

he’d settle himself
in what is correct,
only then
teach others.
He wouldn’t stain his name
: he is wise.

If you’d mold yourself
the way you teach others,
then, well-trained,
go ahead & tame —
for, as they say,
what’s hard to tame is you

The Theravada tradition often gets knocked because it is “selfish,” because of a perception that it is focused entirely on the self. To some extent, this is perhaps true, it is a selfish practice, but not in a negative sense. As the verses above describe, I am of no use in helping anyone else if I haven’t got my own shit together. I’m not going to be a bodhisattva and help all other sentient beings if I can’t even control my own squirrely mind. I mean, think about it, even in the Mahayana tradition, when practicing loving kindness, where do you start? With yourself!

Skipping a few verses:

“They’re easy to do —
things of no good
& no use to yourself.
What’s truly useful & good
is truly harder than hard to do.”

It is so hard for me to control my anger when I’m driving it’s pathetic. I know that anger is bad for me for so many reasons that I can’t count. But besides giving me headaches, making me tense, raising my blood pressure, leading me to use abusive language and to become distracted, when I become angry I am surrendering myself to the whims of the world, I am relinquishing control.

And most importantly, I am continuing to create kamma. And it’s kamma I don’t want.

“Evil is done by oneself

by oneself is one defiled.
Evil is left undone by oneself

by oneself is one cleansed.
Purity & impurity are one’s own doing.
No one purifies another.
No other purifies one.”

Next to the opening verses in the first chapter of the Dhammapada (which are posted at the top right of my blog), these verses are my next favorite. This is so important for me to remember. Only I can defile myself, no one does it to me. And only I can cleanse and purify myself. It’s not done by some deity or deva or saint or witch doctor or whatever. Only I can cleanse myself of the clutter I’ve accumulated through all my pasts, and I start by paying attention to what I am doing right now.

If I may use a baseball metaphor, in some ways I am like the home run hitter. I can bang that ball out of the park, do something spectacular that really elevates my practice, or say something that is really insightful. But like the home run hitter, I am very inconsistent. More often than not, when I step to the plate called life, I swing and miss. I need to stop being the home run hitter with the .210 batting average, and be the consistent base runner who hits .325.

“Don’t sacrifice your own welfare
for that of another,
no matter how great.
Realizing your own true welfare,
be intent on just that.”

I want to thank all my readers who I don’t know, and my followers who I do (sort of), as I plod my way through this project. I’m learning a lot about myself as I do this. Nothing remarkable or earth-shattering, but important nonetheless.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

Jaravagga: Aging

It’s been a long day. Nothing particularly taxing, just long. I’m tired, feeling run down, and anticipating my task for the night. I sigh. And I’m not terribly motivated; haven’t been all day really. But dutifully I sit at the computer and I look up the next chapter in the Dhammapada and what do I see? Commentary on old age.

Fer crying out loud, do I really need this? And frankly, this chapter is not all that inspiring. I mean, how can you get jazzed up about anything, how can you fire up any intensity or resolve, when faced with verses like this:

“Worn out is this body,
a nest of diseases, dissolving.
This putrid conglomeration
is bound to break up,
for life is hemmed in with death.”

Oh yeah, this Buddhism shit is real fun. Get to meditate on how my body is a bloody mass of flesh and slimy sinew and gooey oozing shit like pus. Mmmm. And then I die!

I get all that. Believe me. At 51, I’m dealing with a body that is slowing down, getting achy and unwilling to do what it used to. I’ve slipped from – dare I say? – a dashing slim man of 6-feet-1 and 185 pounds who kept in good shape and could bed just about any man I wanted, from that I’ve slipped into this tired heap that’s about 215 pounds and lucky if I can get a smile out of a cute guy. In the gay world, I am now known as a bear, which just means I’m fat and hairy.

I still work out to stay in decent shape, swim several times a week, plodding my way through the water getting in about a half-mile in 30 minutes. But about all I can do now is swim and use the elliptical machine because anything else hurts. My right ankle and my left shoulder both have arthritis. Let’s see, what else can I bitch about? Oh yeah, my feet, ugly skinny things are gnarled so bad that I need to wear orthotics. And being 51, I can have issues with flatulence. Doesn’t help much on a date.

And that’s what I observe about my own body. I watched as my mother’s health deteriorated, slowly at first, but in the last two years of her life, it was quite rapid. And when she died at 89, I stood for a moment in the hospital room where she lie, alone, and meditated on her corpse. It was actually quite a special moment. When my mother died, I felt relief – her suffering was over for now.

Mick Jagger had it right when he sang, “What a drag it is getting old.” Wonder how he feels about that line now?

“Through the round of many births I roamed
without reward,
without rest,
seeking the house-builder.
Painful is birth
again & again.

House-builder, you’re seen!
You will not build a house again.
All your rafters broken,
the ridge pole dismantled,
immersed in dismantling, the mind
has attained to the end of craving.”

It is very unlikely I will find release in this lifetime, so I am destined to build another house – a bag of bones with ooze and blood and guts and shit and piss and … blech – that will also eventually fall apart into ruin.

I just try not to dwell too much on it for now. Death can be a powerful motivator, a force that can get us to do the right thing right now and not delay. But tonight I’m tired, and I think I’d like a glass of wine.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dandavagga: The Rod

I’m falling into a bit of a routine. I know that when I get out of work and return home there is a task for me to complete. And now that this is the tenth chapter in the Dhammapada, I am beginning to realize something, and that is the unifying theme within each of the chapters.

So in looking at the Dandavagga, I am struck (no pun intended) by the image of a rod. Regardless of what the individual verses state, as long as I bear in mind the concept of the rod, the message become clearer.

The rod can be literally a weapon used to punish and to strike fear in a person. The person who wields the rod is menacing.

tremble at the rod,
are fearful of death.
Drawing the parallel to
neither kill nor get others to kill.

tremble at the rod,
hold their life dear.
Drawing the parallel to
neither kill nor get others to kill.

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

“Whoever doesn't take a rod
to harm living beings desiring ease,
when he himself is looking for ease,
will meet with ease after death.”

Here the rod is a weapon used to kill, cause pain or oppress. But the rod is also a tool.

“As a cowherd with a rod
drives cows to the field,
so aging & death
drive the life
of living beings.”

The cowherd uses the rod to drive his cows; in the same way our lives are governed and guided by aging and eventual death. In this way, the rod is portrayed as a tool of subjugation: we are like cattle being herded.

But we need not carry the rod, we have the option to let go of it.

“Neither nakedness nor matted hair
nor mud nor the refusal of food
nor sleeping on the bare ground
nor dust & dirt nor squatting austerities
cleanses the mortal
who’s not gone beyond doubt.

“If, though adorned, one lives in tune
with the chaste life
— calmed, tamed, & assured —
having put down the rod toward all beings,
he’s a contemplative
a brahman
a monk.”

I used to do a lot of hiking and backpacking, particularly when I lived out West. When I moved to the northern Rockies, I believed that the likelihood of a bear encounter would increase; not only that, there would be grizzly bears. So I went to a gun shop to inquire about a pistol I could carry with me when I backpacked – just incase more peaceful options didn’t look like they would dissuade a bear from attacking me.

Oh, but a pistol would be pointless, I was told. I would need at least a .45-caliber magnum, and not only that, I would have to wait until the bear was about six feet from me and my shots would have to be spot on and kill the animal right there. What I needed, the salesman suggested, was a 12-guage sawed-off shot gun that was probably of legal length, fitted with a pistol grip and a sling so I could carry it hanging from my neck and have it right there when I needed it. And the loads would be these steel darts, not shot or slugs, but martial arts looking darts like you’d seen in a James Bond movie.

Of course, it was illegal to kill a bear unless it was attacking you, and in a national park, I would have to be discreet because weapons (at the time) were illegal in the national parks.

I looked at the seller’s wares, asked a few questions, then put everything back down on the counter and “said, no thanks. I think I will take my chances.”

In all my days of backpacking, I never encountered a bear. Snakes and scorpions? Oh yeah, plenty of those. And once a millipede that was about 11 inches long and about 2 inches wide. It had the nastiest pinchers I ever seen!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Papavagga: Evil

When I think of the word evil, I think really seriously malicious and harmful acts. I mean, evil is EVIL! The connotation this word carries is ominous. The icons of evil in almost all cultures are easy to spot, as they are normally represented by fierce and ugly looking creatures or people. Evil is scarey! It’s not a word you would necessarily run into much disagreement over with others.

I think we can agree that murder is evil; stealing from an 80-year-old woman is evil; torturing a child is evil; rape is evil.

What about theft? I think we can find agreement that it is wrong, but is it evil? And to what degree? What about lying? It is evil to promise someone you will do something for them, and then intentionally fail to deliver on that promise, making up an excuse as to why you didn’t do as you said you would? Wrong, yes, but evil?

This is why I believe that for some folks the Papavagga in the Dhammapada might be read as common sense advice, but probably not something that directly relates to them.

“Be quick in doing
What’s admirable.
Restrain your mind
from what’s evil.
When you’re slow
in making merit,
evil delights the mind.”

No one thinks of themselves as being evil. Yet when I look at the alternative translation of this chapter, I find that the word “evil” is still being used. And the term is juxtaposed with the term “merit,” which certainly doesn’t carry the connotative weight that the word “evil” does. So for me to get anything out of these verses, I don’t think of the word “evil” as meaning “EVIL.” Rather, I think of it as representing any intentional, unskillful, malicious and ill-mannered act, because as you read the rest of the verses, you begin to see that the consequences for any of the enumerated traits I listed are the same as for what is generally considered as “evil.”

“If a person does evil,
he shouldn’t do it again & again,
shouldn’t develop a penchant for it.
To accumulate evil
brings pain.

If a person makes merit,
he should do it again & again,
should develop a penchant for it.
To accumulate merit
brings ease.”

That repetition is the mother of learning is a universal concept in all cultures. Everything becomes easier with repetition. The first lie you ever told in your life I bet was a real chore to get out because you knew it was wrong to lie. But I bet the last lie you told was accomplished with greater ease, even if you still felt guilt while telling it or remorse afterward. And each time you tell one, it will get easier. Which is why the Buddha instructed us to stop these actions before they develop into habits. And it is also why the Buddha instructed that making merit, or doing good things that benefit others, will also become easier to accomplish if done repeatedly. For some of us, being altruistic doesn’t come naturally; we need practice.

“Even the evil
meet with good fortune
as long as their evil
has yet to mature.
But when it’s matured
That’s when they meet
with evil.

Even the good
meet with bad fortune
as long as their good
has yet to mature.
But when it’s matured
That’s when they meet
with good fortune.”

While the essence of kamma is the law of cause and effect, that unskillful acts bring poor results and skillful acts bring good results, kamma is not strictly linear. It is a very complex set of feedback cycles that includes everything we have done in the past, as well as what we are doing in the present. It is very possible that despite all the good actions we engage in, we may still encounter unpleasant results, uncooperative people, even resistance or pain. And yes, everyday we see people do shitty things to us or others and we see them get away with it.

Indulge me with a story. Consider one of my best friends, a man with the kindest heart and a willingness to do what he can to help others. Why does he suffer with AIDS? In the late 1990s, his doctor was trying a new medication on him. He developed a peculiar ache and coldness in his right leg from about his groin down to his foot. He called the doctor because he thought it was a reaction to the medication, but the nurse, who would not bother the doctor at home, assured him that was not the case; just keep taking the medication. Like a good patient, my friend listened to the nurse’s advice.

But later the pain in his leg was so intense he couldn’t stand it, plus he noticed his foot was turning blue. He attempted to hobble into his car to drive himself to the emergency room, but he couldn’t do it; he called an ambulance. Within minutes of his arrival to the emergency room, the cause of his pain was identified; his new medication had caused a clot to form in his femoral artery, blocking virtually all blood to his right leg. The clot was so severe that had it come loose, it could become lodged in his lungs, heart or brain and kill him. They put him on a slow drip dose of a blood thinner that slowly dissolved the clot, all the while keeping a close eye on his lower leg and foot; they weren’t sure the limb would fully recover, that amputation might be necessary.

My friend fully recovered and found a new doctor who knew a heck of a lot more about how to treat AIDS than his previous doctor. Many suggested to my friend that he should sue his former doctor for malpractice, but he said no, “I’m not that way. I’m not a vengeful person.” However, a month or so later, an outlet in his former doctor’s home shorted out and caused a fire, and the doctor’s $1 million home was razed.

More than 10 years after this, my friend is still alive while so many others have died.

“Don’t underestimate evil
(‘It won’t amount to much’).
A water jar fills,
even with water
falling in drops.
With evil — even if
habitually —
the fool fills himself full.

Don’t underestimate merit
(‘It won’t amount to much’).
A water jar fills,
even with water
falling in drops.
With merit — even if
habitually —
the enlightened one fills himself full.”

Yes, at times it can seem that we’re not getting any benefit out of the good things we do, and sometimes we think that a minor slight here or there won’t amount to much. But kamma is cumulative, as is merit.

“Like a merchant with a small
but well-laden caravan
— a dangerous road,
like a person who loves life
— a poison,
one should avoid
— evil deeds.”

It’s just good sense, right? There are a few more verses, but there’s no point in mentioning them here. Just read them for yourself. But I will end with the final set as a reminder that no matter where you go, there you are.

“Not up in the air,
nor in the middle of the sea,
nor going into a cleft in the mountains
— nowhere on earth —
is a spot to be found
where you could stay & escape
your evil deed.

Not up in the air,
nor in the middle of the sea,
nor going into a cleft in the mountains
— nowhere on earth —
is a spot to be found
where you could stay & not succumb
to death.”

(Note: The photo with this post is of Raja’s Noodle House in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia, which was hit by one of three terrorist bombs in October 2005. I took the photo three weeks after the bombing. There was still bits of broken glass and shrapnel on the sidewalks all along the street.)

Are we stuck?

A slight diversion here from my normal posts, or at least what has recently turned into my normal routine of posting.

Last night just before bed I picked up my copy of the Majjhima Nikaya to continue my reading of all its suttas from beginning to end. I am up to MN 14, the Cula-dukkhakkhandha Sutta, or The Lesser Mass of Stress. I was struck – nay, stunned might be the more appropriate term – by a paragraph in the sutta, which I present now (the text below is from my hard copy of the Majjhima Nikaya, while the link I provide is to a different translation that has some minor differences).

The sutta describes Mahanama, a householder or layperson, approaching the Buddha with the question of why, despite understanding what the Buddha teaches, does he continue to experience greed, hatred and delusion. To this question, the Buddha replies with:

“Mahanama, there is still a state unabandoned by you internally, owing to which at times states of greed, hate, and delusion invade your mind and remain; for were that state already abandoned by you internally you would not be living the home life, you would not be enjoying sensual pleasures. It is because that state is unabandoned by you internally that you are living the home life and enjoying sensual pleasures.”

Is the Buddha saying that the only way to completely rid myself of greed, hate, and delusion is to abandon the householder life, to give up my “normal” life, and become a monastic? Because if I don’t, will I will always be tethered in some form or manner to feelings of sensuality and desire for sensual pleasure, and as long as that connection exists, will I always have greed, hatred and delusion?

In other words, because I choose to live my life as a layperson, I am stuck in this cycle of samsara? There’s no getting out of it?

I guess I already knew this. I have stated before that I have no real interest in becoming a monk because I do enjoy sex, I do enjoy traveling and seeing things, I do enjoy good food and good company, I do enjoy good music, a good book, and vigorous ride on my bike along the lakeshore – I enjoy all these things. But because I enjoy all these things, I will always feel greed, hate and delusion?

Am I stuck? Are we all stuck because we opt to live life as lay people?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Sahassavagga: Thousands

It’s been one of those days all day long; not a bad day, mind you, just one of those. The kind when it spits rather than rains, a fine mist that covers your windshield, but doesn’t make it wet enough to let the wipers really clean it off. It’s either a Mamas and the Pappas kind of day – you know, “Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day” – or the kind where you almost feel like slipping the Karen Carpenter into the player so you can hear her sing, “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.”

And at the end of the day, I’m in my office dreading the fact that I must write my daily blog about another chapter in the Dhammapada. I’m tired, it’s raining, I’m tired. So before I leave the office I decide to check out the next chapter, Shassavagga, and as I scan the verses I let out a sigh of relief. It’s a sigh brought on by the realization that tonight the task isn’t so bad, because the message is so simple, I really only need to present the opening verses.

than if there were thousands
of meaningless words is
that on hearing
brings peace.

than if there were thousands
of meaningless verses is
that on hearing
brings peace.

And better than chanting hundreds
of meaningless verses is
that on hearing
brings peace.”

This brought me peace, because as I read through the rest of the text, the remaining verses were simply repeating this succinct message using different consonants and vowels.

There’s been plenty of discussion recently about returning to the essence of Buddhism, of redefining Western Buddhism, or American Buddhism, or Eastern Buddhism, or just plain Buddhism; finding the core elements that are necessary for the practice and perhaps discarding the trappings that are merely decoration, the ritualistic exercises that are more about culture than anything the Buddha taught.

This thing called Buddhism that we practice is like a big, scratchy ball of Velcro; you roll it around and stuff sticks to it. The stuff gets so stuck in the clinging fibers that it can be hard to remove it. Ever try to remove bits of thread and dust and nits from something like Velcro?

In some respects, the fact that Buddhism is so flexible, that it can in one region accommodate such things as nagas, and in another region absorb the idea of writing prayers on bits of cloth to be carried by the wind, is also a testament to its strength. And yet, the message can, at times be lost in all these fancy chants and dances and offerings and this gobble-dee-gook.

My teacher once told me that the only reason to perform any of the rituals at all is to develop mindfulness. There is no significance to the rituals, the rites; they are empty.

So do I use this notion that rituals and perhaps pedantic exercises are pointless and abandon my goal of blogging about a chapter in the Dhammapada every day?

No way. I am developing mindfulness.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Arahantavagga: Arahants

This is almost becoming onerous. I’m going to stick with this, but I have to admit that I am developing a sense that in blogging about the various chapters within the Dhammapada I am being very superficial. However, how can I be otherwise? Faced with chapter seven, I see the subject of the Arahantavagga is Arahants, which in the Theravada tradition is a term referring to an enlightened being. I’m not certain, but I believe in the Mahayana tradition, an Arhat is similar, but is someone who’s not quite there yet.

Regardless, I am not an Arahant. And I have no real desire to strive to attain enlightenment. And I’m sure that most lay practitioners have similar sentiments, even if they don’t outwardly express them. We just want to be decent people and avoid as many hassles inherent in samsara that we can. We want to have a pleasant abiding in the here and now. And we’d like a reasonable assurance that in our next lifetime we aren’t going to find ourselves in a Kafka novel reborn as a bug. So what relevance does the Arahantavagga have for folks like me?

“In one who
has gone the full distance,
is free from sorrow,
is fully released
in all respects,
has abandoned all bonds:
no fever is found.”

All right, I get it: Enlightenment is a pretty sweet deal. You have total release from all suffering because you have cut all the connections the mind creates to impermanent things. But it’s so far away for me it might as well be the moon. Hell, it might as well be a quasar on the edge of the known universe.

“The mindful keep active,
Don’t delight in settling back.
They renounce every home,
every home,
like swans taking off from a lake.”

This doesn’t help all that much either. It’s more descriptive, and the image called up by this simile is quite beautiful in a way; I can picture swans taking off from a lake, leaving the water behind. But what does this “renounce every home, every home,” mean? I admit that I’m stuck on that one.

“Not hoarding,
having comprehended food,
their pasture — emptiness
& freedom without sign:
their trail,
like that of birds through space,
can’t be traced.

Effluents ended,
independent of nutriment,
their pasture — emptiness
& freedom without sign:
their trail,
like that of birds through space,
can’t be traced.”

These verses have more meaning for me. I understand that the goal is to move through life without leaving a trail behind you, like a bird flying through the air. A snake leaves a tell-tale sign in the sand of its passing; deer leave deep impressions in the earth that allow a skillful hunter to locate and kill them. These footprints, the trails left behind represent kamma; everything we do, think or say creates kamma and the goal is to stop creating kamma, to be like a bird flying through the air that leaves no trace behind. It is kamma that holds us in the cycle or rebirth and death; eliminate kamma and we are free.

“He whose senses are steadied
like stallions
well-trained by the charioteer,
his conceit abandoned,
free of effluent,
even devas adore him.

Like the earth, he doesn’t react —
like Indra’s pillar,
like a lake free of mud.
For him
— Such —
There’s no traveling on.

Calm is his mind,
calm his speech
& his deed:
one who’s released through right knowing,

These verses more clearly recall for me the literary mechanism that was employed in the Dhammapada, and the frustration I feel at times when faced with what I perceive to be impossible goals fades. For example, it’s worth revealing what the notes to the above verses say about Indra’s pillar: “Indra's pillar = a post set up at the gate of a city… there was an ancient custom of worshipping this post with flowers and offerings, although those who wanted to show their disrespect for this custom would urinate and defecate on the post. In either case, the post did not react.”

I may not be an Arahant, I may not be enlightened, but I can be more like an Arahant, I can at least strive for that. Because everyday I react to thins, to people, and events. Everyday I let some little thing send me into a frenzy of emotion. I’m not about to let people shit on me, but I can strive to be more like Indra’s pillar. And every day I have opportunities to practice that.

“The man
faithless / beyond conviction
ungrateful / knowing the Unmade
a burglar / who has severed connections
who’s destroyed
his chances / conditions
who eats vomit: / has disgorged expectations:
the ultimate person.”

This verse is pretty freaking graphic. I mean, eating vomit? But again, there is a literary mechanism going on here. On the left side of the slashes is a negative state or quality or action, while on the right side of the slash represent positive alternative. “The negative meanings are so extremely negative that they were probably intended to shock their listeners,” read the notes. Indeed, eating vomit is pretty shocking. But then knowing that, you read the left side of the slashes as a verse unto itself, and the right side similarly. Hence, the left side reads as:

“Faithless, ungrateful, a burglar who’s destroyed his chances, who eats vomit.”

And the right sides reads as:

“Beyond conviction, knowing the Unmade, who has severed connections, has disgorged expectations.”

Reading it like that, it becomes clear to me what the vomit sequence is getting at, and that is the Arahant has purged him or herself of all the toxic conditions of samsara, while the unskilled eats what the Arahant has purged through his or her ignorance. The Arahant knows that these kammic connections are toxic, but the unskilled doesn’t know that: despite it being like vomit, the unskilled – the ignorant – think it’s good, the essence of delusion.

“In village or wilds,
valley, plateau:
that place is delightful
where arahants dwell.

Delightful wilds
where the crowds don’t delight,
those free from passion
for they’re not searching
for sensual pleasures.”

These final verses now tie together how I can apply the lesson here. I begin to see that it doesn’t matter whether I live in a big city (which I do), or in the desert or in a rain forest or in a secluded valley or a high plateau or even a cave near a mountain top. Running away from the world to find seclusion to work on my squirrel mind isn’t going to help on its own. This is also made clear in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta (MN 131) when the Buddha instructs that “living alone” means being in the present moment.

There is also the Theranama Sutta (SN 21.10), which deals with a monk who lived in the forest alone, eschewing contact with everyone, including other monks. The Buddha instructs that “living alone” does not always literally mean physically separating oneself from the rest of the world. Rather, it can simply mean refining the mind to the point where one is fully present in the here and now, unconcerned with the past, unconcerned with the future, knowing that how goes the present moment, there goes the future. Achieving that focus of mind does not require isolation.

So maybe I’m not destined to be an Arahant. But clearly, there are some things I can learn from making a few meager attempts to emulate some of their characteristics.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Panditavagga: The Wise

After covering fools in the Balavagga, it makes sense that the Buddha would next bring up the wise, which he does with the Panditavagga, a word that is almost as fun to say as Balavagga. What I find nice in this chapter of the Dhammapada is how I am able to recognize within these verses facets of the Buddha’s teaching in other suttas, particularly the verses pertaining to friends and friendship.

The first pair of verses, while talking about a sage or teacher, can easily be applied to how one ought to select his or her friends.

“Regard him as one who
points out
the wise one who
seeing your faults
rebukes you.
Stay with this sort of sage.
For the one who stays
with a sage of this sort,
things get better,
not worse.

Let him admonish, instruct,
deflect you
away from poor manners.
To the good, he’s endearing;
to the bad, he’s not.”

And the next verse is more explicit.

“Don’t associate with bad friends.
Don’t associate with the low.
Associate with admirable friends.
Associate with the best.”

What these verses call to mind for me is the Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31), also known as the Layperson’s Code of Discipline. In this sutta, the Buddha guides a young householder on how to identify the four types of harmful friends – “foes in the guise of friends” – and the four types of good friends – “warm-hearted friends.” The company we keep is critical to the level of skillfulness we are able to attain, and if you feel that something is holding back your progress, take a look first at the people you associate with; your hindrance just might be another person.

A sense of stoic resolve is also described in the Panditavagga as being a characteristic of the wise: the wise are like a deep and calm lake; like a rock that won’t budge in the wind. But this steadfastness is not apathy, or even descriptive of someone who doesn’t know how to have fun. Rather, it is a quality of consistency, of having a lack of caprice.

“Everywhere, truly,
those of integrity
stand apart.
They, the good,
don’t chatter in hopes
of favor or gains.
When touched
now by pleasure,
now pain,
the wise give no sign
of high
or low.”

So what this tells me is that it’s not that the wise don’t experience pain or pleasure – they do. It’s just when these experiences occur, the wise aren’t like a chatty Cathy, running around telling everyone about it and drumming up the intensity like a drama queen. It’s not always an easy thing to do, retaining that sense of equanimity in the face of any extreme. We are, after all, human beings filled with the capacity of experiencing emotion. And things happen that can overwhelm us. Of course, at the root of this are all our attachments.

“There he should wish for delight,
discarding sensuality —
he who has nothing.
He should cleanse himself — wise —
of what defiles the mind.

Whose minds are well-developed
in the factors of self-awakening,
who delight in non-clinging,
relinquishing grasping —
their effluents ended:
they, in the world,
are Unbound.”

In our mundane lives, this “relinquishing grasping” is no small feat. I am by no means a fool, but I am far from wise. It wasn’t easy for me to say goodbye to Benny at O’Hare, knowing he was leaving and not coming back. Attachments can be a positive in our life, provided that what we hook ourselves up to enhances our skillfulness, supports our happiness and leaves us a better person. But we must remember that even this will pass because all phenomena – people, places, things, events – are impermanent.

It does help a little bit when I recite each time after I meditate: “All that is mine, beloved and pleasing will change and vanish.” It helps prepare me for the eventual, but this thing called samsara can be a real bitch at times.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Balavagga: Fools

So this makes five blog posts in five days on the first five chapters in the Dhammapada, so not a bad start. But I can tell you, I am already feeling the pressure. Like right now, I’ve been at work all day, I would much rather laze on the sofa and watch TV than sit here and write about the Balavagga.

I like saying that name – Balavagga. Kind of a pirate-like scowl, a scurvy knave kind of thing – Balavagga!

Yet, persist I shall, because setting the goal to blog about the entire Dhammapada isn’t about being academic, pedantic or an exercise in self-absorption. It’s really about perseverance. It’s so easy to find an excuse to not do something, to put it off to later, or to suggest that following through on something really doesn’t matter. I mean, what is it that the apathetic Buddhist will say? “It’s all an illusion. It’s all relative.”

Illusion? Say something nasty to your significant other and after he or she slaps you, tell yourself that was all illusion. Try walking out of a grocery store with a cart full of food without paying for it, and tell me if that law that landed you in jail was an illusion. Life is real, and the consequences of our actions are real. Even a fool can see that.

Uh, um, wait, that’s what the Balavagga is all about – Fools!

This is very straight-forward stuff; so straight-forward that out of the 16 sets of verses in the Balavagga, there are explanatory notes for only one set.

Right off the bat, the Buddha aims a shot across your bow.

“Long for the wakeful is the night.
Long for the weary, a league.
For fools
unaware of True Dhamma,
is long.”

Yes, samsara, this shit that life can be at times can be very long when one behaves foolishly. It’s basic: Everything I think, say or do, I own. The same goes for you buddy.

With the next verse, there seems to be an implication that the reader, or listener, already has a modicum of sense.

“If, in your course, you don’t meet
your equal, your better,
then continue your course,
There’s no fellowship with fools.”

This is pretty common advice among spiritual leaders. Jesus, after all, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke instructed his followers that should they ever encounter a village or house where they wouldn’t be received or listened to, they were to shake the dust of that place off their feet and leave! Of course, the Buddha said as such 500 years before Christ. But I digress.

“‘I have sons, I have wealth’ —
the fool torments himself.
When even he himself
Doesn’t belong to himself,
how then sons?
How wealth?”

Basic stuff. I am not my body, my body is not me. So if I am not my body, I do not possess it, how is it possible to think that I can “have” other people or things? Now that is illusion! Or more accurately – delusion.

Skipping ahead (I’m not covering every verse), I find this, which kind of hits home with recent events in Chicago.

“Fools, their wisdom weak,
are their own enemies
as they go through life,
doing evil
that bears
bitter fruit.”

And this verse as well is relevant.

“As long as evil has yet to ripen,
the fool mistakes it for honey.
But when that evil ripens,
the fool falls into

While youth violence is a major issue everywhere, it has garnered particular scrutiny here in Chicago. And as I read about or hear about another incident – and there have been many others with young men left in comas – my heart aches and I weep wondering how did this happen? How did we get to this? Yet, these children are blinded by a notion that what they are doing gives them status, power, whatever, a feeling of superiority. But it’s temporary. Because the fruit of kamma will ripen.

“An evil deed, when done,
Doesn’t — like ready milk —
come out right away.
It follows the fool,
like a fire
hidden in ashes.”

Our use of the term “fool” is often so frequent and careless that it is more commonly used in the sense of a buffoon, a clown. But how the Buddha is using this term is different. The fool in this case can be evil or stupid, intelligent or clumsy. But in each of these cases, the fool is ignorant, unknowledgeable of how his or her actions bring about the bad results he or she is always commiserating over. I frequently behave as a fool, either unaware of what consequences I am preparing for myself, or reacting viscerally to some event or situation as out of anger or fear. The fool is careless and often thinks he or she is not.

“Only for his ruin
does renown come to the fool.
It ravages his bright fortune
& rips his head apart.

He would want unwarranted status,
preeminence among monks,
authority among monasteries,
homage from lay families.

‘Let householders & those gone forth
both think that this
was done by me alone.
May I alone determine
What’s a duty, what's not’:
the resolve of a fool
as they grow —
his desire & pride.”

Ah yes, I would be a rich man if I had a dollar for every foolish act I committed and which I thought was wise. Or at least out of debt.

Balavagga! I love saying that word!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Pupphavagga: Blossoms

While the first three chapters of the Dhammapada lay out the basic notions that we create and own our own kamma, as well as outline the characteristics and consequences of skillful versus unskillful acts, the fourth chapter and much of the remaining chapters go into greater detail and describe more specific issues and concepts. With the Pupphavagga, the qualities and rewards of skillfulness are explained using similes of blossoms and flowers. And at the start, a template is laid out for the reader.

“Who will penetrate this earth
& this realm of death
with all its gods?
Who will ferret out
the well-taught Dhamma-saying,
as the skillful flower-arranger
the flower?

The learner-on-the-path
will penetrate this earth
& this realm of death
with all its gods.
The learner-on-the-path
will ferret out
the well-taught Dhamma-saying,
as the skillful flower-arranger
the flower.”

It’s an invitation to be a “learner-on-the-path,” to develop the skill to “ferret out the well-taught Dhamma saying.” But what is this simile saying?

Let’s consider the Third Precept. What is the “well-taught Dhamma saying” that can be found in the Third Precept? And how do we “ferret out” its meaning?

The easy way to explain the Third Precept is to merely recite it, and then inject our own cultural bias into what it means. The Third Precept directs us to refrain from sexual misconduct, or others might say that it prohibits wrongful sexual conduct. The lazy way of explaining this is to say that homosexual conduct qualifies as wrongful sexual conduct because it is perceived negatively by the larger culture, or that it’s misconduct because it departs from the norm. But an answer like that is not ferreting out anything, let alone what may be within a “well-taught Dhamma saying.”

Because further investigation leads us to various suttas (such as this one) that quote the Buddha as specifically identifying what sexual misconduct entails. And if we further investigate these examples, we see it to be well-taught because of its consistency with the Four Noble Truths. An act is misconduct – or rather, unskillful – because it results in pain, suffering, disappointment, hardship, separation: It results in dukkha. And the reason it results in dukkha is that the conduct was motivated by either greed, hatred or delusion. In other words, the intention behind the act, not the act itself, is what defines the outcome.

And that is what is meant with the simile of the flower arranger. Given a certain set of flowers, the skilled arranger “ferrets out” the best display. Likewise, the skillful student of Dhamma seeks the appropriate lesson for the circumstances facing him or her at the moment.

Blossoms in the Pupphavagga are used to both represent good and skillful qualities as well as unskillful qualities. For example, in verses 47-48:

“The man immersed in
gathering blossoms,
his heart distracted:
death sweeps him away —
as a great flood,
a village asleep.

The man immersed in
gathering blossoms,
his heart distracted,
insatiable in sensual pleasures:
the End-Maker holds him
under his sway.”

Contrast that with verse 53:

“Just as from a heap of flowers
many garland strands can be made,
even so
one born & mortal
should do
— with what’s born & is mortal —
many a skillful thing.”

In the former, the blossoms are a distraction, an intoxicant, that lead the man astray. Yet, the fact that flowers are beautiful is not a bad thing on its own, because in the latter verse, things of beauty can be arranged and turned into pleasing things. And there are many things of beauty within ourselves – undeveloped skillful qualities – that can be nurtured and brought forward.

The fact that some blossoms are scentless and others have sweet scents is used as a simile to explain the pointlessness of hearing the Dhamma and not acting on it.

“Just like a blossom,
bright colored
but scentless:
a well-spoken word
is fruitless
when not carried out.

Just like a blossom,
bright colored
& full of scent:
a well-spoken word
is fruitful
when well carried out.”

Verses 54-56 continue with the metaphor of scent, demonstrating that even the pungent scents of flowers like jasmine or sandalwood are carried by the wind, whereas the “scent” of virtue can go against the wind.

And the final verses of this chapter bring back the image of the lotus flower rising out of the mud.

“As in a pile of rubbish
cast by the side of a highway
a lotus might grow
pleasing the heart,
so in the midst of the rubbish-like,
people run-of-the-mill & blind,
there dazzles with discernment
the disciple of the Rightly
Self-Awakened One.”

It doesn’t matter who we are, what circumstances we come from, how deluded we might have been in the past or how deluded we are right now: we all have the potential to turn into that lotus flower, we all have the Buddha nature inside of us. We just have to get out of the way.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cittavagga: The Mind

I don’t know if members of the industrial metal band Ministry have ever read anything by the Buddha, but the title of their fourth album – “The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste” – goes to the heart of Buddhist doctrine. Virtually everything the Buddha taught, from his lessons to Rahula to the descriptions of Jhana, revolves around taming the mind, bringing focus to one’s mind so that discernment develops. Without discernment – the ability to tell the difference between what is skillful and unskillful, what brings good results and what brings negative results – I continue to create kamma that keeps me bound to the endless cycle of my mundane existence. I continue to feel restless and dissatisfied; I continue to experience dukha.

The third chapter of the Dhammapada quickly gets to the point with the opening verse to the Citttavaga.

“Quivering, wavering,
hard to guard,
to hold in check:
the mind.”

I particularly like the visual associated with this verse:

“Like a fish
pulled from its home in the water
& thrown on land:
this mind flips & flaps about
to escape Mara’s sway.”

Our experiences with meditation provide plenty of evidence of how difficult it is to keep our mind focused on something as simple as breathing. We’ve come up with plenty of ways to describe the mind, often using various animals to portray it: the monkey mind is a common metaphor in the Tipitika, and meditation is frequently compared with taming an elephant. Elephants and monkeys aren’t ubiquitous here in North America, which is why the notion of the “squirrel mind” is more meaningful, a moniker that Kyle uses along with photos of squirrels at Zen River.

However, there is a reason why taming an elephant was the dominant metaphor in the Buddha’s teaching on how to control the mind. While the antics of a monkey or a squirrel are excellent at portraying how fickle the mind can be, how it jumps about from one thing to another, the metaphor of taming an elephant gets to the heart of what the mind is, or rather, what it is not.

First, let’s look at verse 37 in the Cittavaga:

“Wandering far,
going alone,
lying in a cave:
the mind.
Those who restrain it:
from Mara’s bonds
they’ll be freed.”

The commentary explains that the cave is the body. The verse is describing the mind as being bodiless, yet it dwells within a cave. Just as the Buddha has instructed that I am not my body, I am also not my mind. Rather, I can use the mind like a tool to attain freedom.

This is why I prefer using the simile of a wild bronco to describe the mind, as it is more meaningful to my American way of thinking, and the wild bronco has the essential characteristics embodied in the elephant. When taming an elephant, the animal is often tied to a tree. Similarly, when a wild horse is to be “broken,” it is frequently tied to a post within a corral. Meditation is how we restrain the mind; like the wild horse tied to the post, we “tie” our mind to breath. But the horse rebels against this restraint, pulling violently at the rope in an effort to escape.

Eventually, the horse ceases its struggling and becomes calm. But it’s not over yet. The horse isn’t broken yet. Because the next step is to saddle and get on the horse to ride it. And if you’ve ever seen a Western movie, you know what happens then; the horse rebels against the saddle and rebels against having a rider on it. But if the rider is persistent, he or she eventually tames the horse and is then able to use the horse for many purposes; the horse gives in and allows itself to be directed by the rider.

And if you’ve seen as many Western movies as I have, you know something else about the horse/rider relationship. That the rider develops a strong personal relationship with the horse, and the horse develops devotion to the rider; each becomes mutually dependent on the other.

Having this type of relationship with one’s mind is essential, as revealed in the last verses:

“Whatever an enemy might do
to an enemy,
or a foe to a foe,
the ill-directed mind
can do to you
even worse.

Whatever a mother, father
or other kinsman
might do for you,
the well-directed mind
can do for you
even better.”

The above are beautiful verses; almost as sublime as the opening verses to The Pairs.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Appamadavagga: Heedfulness

Things were pretty simple and straight-forward in the verses found within “The Pairs,” the first chapter of the Dhammapada. The idea that we own our outcomes is laid out pretty clearly, and with language that allows lay people to immediately grasp the lesson.

But chapter 2 of the DhammapadaAppamadavagga: Heedfulness – comes off as a bit more esoteric. The message appears to be more directed toward the monastic community, with less overt applicability for lay people. And it’s structured around a pair of terms that may appear easy enough to understand, but which nonetheless retain some ambiguity: heedfulness and heedlessness.

The Buddha made a big deal out of “heedfulness.” In fact, I think it is safe for me to presume that no one, lay person or monastic, can progress along the path without being heedful. In the Anguttara Nikaya Book of Tens, there is the Appamada Sutta where the Buddha outlines ten examples of the importance of heedfulness. Each of these examples concludes with: “In the same way, all skillful qualities are rooted in heedfulness, converge in heedfulness, and heedfulness is reckoned the foremost among them.”

What’s nice about the Appamada Sutta is that the examples the Buddha outlines to emphasize the supremacy of heedfulness come from facets of everyday life; it is a lesson for lay people using real life language lay people can understand.

But if that isn’t clear enough for you, take a look at the Upajjhatthana Sutta, which starts off with this: “There are these five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained. Which five?” The five facts the Buddha outlines are the Five Recollections, also known as the Five Remembrances. These five facts the Buddha presents are central to anyone’s practice – lay person, monastic, rich or poor. And through contemplation of these five facts, we develop a keener awareness of the results of our actions through a deeper understanding of these five basic facts of our existence. Out of this practice, out of this contemplation, arises this quality the Buddha called heedfulness. Hence, being heedful of something is more than just paying attention to it, more than just noticing it or acknowledging it: Heedfulness means you are aware of it, and upon awareness you pay attention to it, and from paying attention to it, you allow it to motivate you into skillful action.

I can be aware of all the traffic in the street, but I am only heedful of that traffic when I use that awareness to wait for a pause in traffic that will allow me to cross the street without being struck by a car.

There is something very powerful in the first verse of the Appamadavagga, and that is the notion that people who pay no heed to what is occurring around them, let alone what they do, are like the walking dead.

“Heedfulness: the path to the Deathless.
Heedlessness: the path to death.
The heedful do not die.
The heedless are as if
already dead.”

That verse alone is worth repeating to yourself everyday before and after you meditate. And not inside your head; say it out loud.

Verse 25 acknowledges that this takes effort, but the effort is rewarded.

“Through initiative, heedfulness,
restraint, & self-control,
the wise would make
an island
no flood
can submerge.”

Through initiative and being heedful, we can develop the skills to keep ourselves from being distracted and distraught by all the crap that goes on around us. We are, then, like an island that will not be flooded over by this wave of chaos called the world around us. But some may read into verse 28 a sense of condescension, and perhaps even indifference:

“When the wise person drives out
with heedfulness,
having climbed the high tower
of discernment,
he observes the sorrowing crowd —
as the enlightened man,
having scaled
a summit,
the fools on the ground below.”

There are people may read this to exemplify what some already think about those of us who follow the Theravada vehicle, and that is we are selfish and self-centered, that we would prefer to retreat from the world rather than engage within it. But this notion, to me, is another example of, as the rock band Aerosmith put it, “talk with yourself and you'll hear what you wanna know.” Let’s not forget that the next line in the song is, “gotta rise above cause below it’s only getting’ worse.”

The metaphor of the lotus flower rising out of the pits of a cesspool or swamp is instructive here, because the beauty of the lotus flower contrasted against the filth around it is what brings our attention to it. And when I encounter someone who seems to be unflustered by the world around them, someone who can move with ease within it, he or she will attract my attention. And who knows? Perhaps it will embolden me to ask, “How are you able to do that?”

Monday, October 19, 2009

om mani padme hum

For those of you who enjoy chanting.

Courtesy my friends at the Transgender Buddhist Sangha

Yamakavagga: The Pairs

The first chapter in the Dhammapada is “The Pairs.” And the first pair of verses is among my favorites for its simplistic clarity. I find these verses so profound that I have given them a prominent position on my blog: they are the verses just to the right of this column.

The repetition of the origin of phenomena is both instructive (these verses identify kamma as the root of all things) and soothing. And because phenomena arise from the heart, I own everything I think, do or say.

Combined with the repeated description of phenomena are the two choices we face in everything we think, do or say: we can act with skillfulness or unskillfully. I really love the metaphors used to present this message.

With unskillful actions, I create burdens for myself that weigh down my progress, just like the laden cart an ox is towing behind it. The ox is a perfect animal for this as well because in addition to being a beast of burden, the ox is often attributed with stubbornness and stupidity.

However, with skillful actions, happiness is the result, and with happiness there are no burdens; in fact, it is likened to a shadow that is always there, yet never felt.

Really exquisite.

The next pair is something I really struggle with, because at the heart of this group of verses is the notion of resentment and how we cling to it.

I frequently fail to remember that if I am feeling bitter about something someone may have done to me in the past, that bitterness is lingering solely because I continue to think about it. It’s like a photo album of bad and hurtful memories that I continue to pull out and go through with the intention of making myself feel bad. The message is pretty basic: If I don’t like the way thinking about these past hurtful events makes me feel now, then all I need to do is stop thinking about them! I am feeding my own anger! And yet, why do I continue to do it?

“Unlike those who don't realize
that we’re here on the verge
of perishing,
those who do:
their quarrels are stilled.”

With the next pair, a method of practice is introduced that actually saved my ass a few times, and that is the practice of attending to what is foul. Sounds all eew and icky, but in my situation, it was very helpful.

“One who stays focused on the beautiful,
is unrestrained with the senses,
knowing no moderation in food,
apathetic, unenergetic:
Mara overcomes him
as the wind, a weak tree.

One who stays focused on the foul,
is restrained with regard to the senses,
knowing moderation in food,
full of conviction & energy:
Mara does not overcome him
as the wind, a mountain of rock.”

Before I had found Buddhism, I was – for lack of a better term – a bit of a slut. For a while, there wasn’t a boy on the circuit I didn’t want and couldn’t have. But that kind of attitude makes establishing more meaningful long-term relationships rather difficult. It’s hard for a boyfriend to have trust in you when he can see that your eyes are following every bit of candy that strolls by. It also makes it difficult to remain faithful if you are tempted continuously. Ahhh, but attending to what is foul saved me from this peripatetic lustfulness. Whenever I saw a cute guy and I instantly started to sex this man in my mind, I switched over my mental imagery to picturing the cute boy as having just got out of bed, hung over and taking a shit. Not a pretty sight, and soon enough, my infatuation passes.

Verses nine and 10 overtly link skillfulness to the monastic life, suggesting that someone who cannot be truthful and lacks self-control is not worthy of wearing the robes. However, the robes can be interpreted to mean any type of commitment, so lay people ignore the lesson in these verses at their peril.

I remain befuddled by what is meant in verses 11 and 12 regarding “essence” and “non-essence.” However, seems to me the basic premise of these verses is anyone who sees white and calls it black lacks the ability to develop the proper determination to do the right thing because he or she is incapable of proper discernment. Maybe someone else has a better way to explain what is going on in these verses.

The notion of the undeveloped mind is presented again with the metaphor of the poorly thatched hut. Just like the hut with the leaky roof, an undeveloped mind can’t filter out what is unworthy of attention because of the distractions created by “passion,” which really means any strong emotional attachment or reaction to anything.

The impact of one’s kamma and the seriousness of the cause-and-effect relationship between events are sublimely revealed in verses 15-18. But in the final verses, the charlatan is warned.

“If he recites many teachings, but
— heedless man —
Doesn’t do what they say,
like a cowherd counting the cattle of
he has no share in the contemplative life.

If he recites next to nothing
but follows the Dhamma
in line with the Dhamma;
abandoning passion,
aversion, delusion;
his mind well-released,
not clinging
either here or hereafter:
he has his share in the contemplative life.”

Such verses are a shot across my bow, because I can be a “learned” person when it comes to the Dhamma, but if I don’t make these lessons part of my daily life – if I can’t walk the walk – then, as Bob Dylan sang, I’m just releasing an idiot wind every time I talk.

A note: please bear with me as I find “my voice” as I blog about the various chapters in the Dhammapada. This is, after all, an experiment in developing persistence.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Home is where the struggle lies

I recall a time when my teacher, the Venerable Bhikkhu Khemasanto, said something that recently popped back into my mind. He said many people have this idea of how difficult daily life is for a monk; but the truth is, he said, it is much more difficult for a lay person to follow the path than it is for a monk.

Evidence of these difficulties has recently emerged in the iSangha within a couple blog posts. Over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt, Jack Daw has from time to time touched on this issue, and recently Kyle at Zen River wrote about how daily habits can be a hindrance.

We lay practitioners face many obstacles to our practice every day, almost every moment. I live in an apartment where finding quiet moments to meditate is a lost cause. When my neighbors above me walk, their footsteps creak through the ceiling. Jets approaching O’Hare fly low over my neighborhood all day and all night. And then there are the delightful times during my sitting when my cats, who normally ignore me during my meditation, decide it’s time to test out their singing voices, or rub themselves against my knees. Maintaining a level emotional state while driving to work on the tollway is twice-daily challenge. There are the daily indulgences in sensual pleasure, whether it’s dining out with friends and enjoying some wine, watching movies, listening to music, watching television to keep up with current affairs, or the pursuit of other vigorous activities.

As lay practitioners, we have to interact with the world around us, and frequently that world is unkind. The world around us also offers us a plethora of distractions, many of which I willingly embrace.

Monks and nuns living within a Sangha have each other to lend support, as well as a fairly clear routine that allows them to practice mindfulness in a safe environment. Yes, there are rules and lots of hard work, but there is also the palpable sense of relief and ease one can feel when stepping into a temple or walking the grounds of a Wat during a retreat. It is, indeed, refuge.

Routine can be of assistance. Despite the challenges, I meditate every morning. I am beginning a new routine as well of some simple chants before I go to sleep. Persistence is part of Right Effort within the Noble Eightfold Path, as well as among the characteristics of the Four Right Efforts. And so I will be adding another routine that I hope will benefit my study of the Dhamma. I’m stealing the idea from “Julie&Julia.”

Just as Julie Powell challenged herself to blog daily about cooking a recipe from Julia Child’s groundbreaking “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” I am challenging myself to blog daily about something from within the Tipitika. It won’t be random, as I need to bring focus to this endeavor if I am going to be successful.

At first, I thought I would read one sutta a day from the Majjhima Nikaya and write a blog post about what I got out of that sutta. But there are 152 suttas in the Majjhima Nikaya, some of them quite long and difficult. That would take me five months. So I’ve opted for something a bit easier. I’m going to start with the Dhammapada. There are 26 chapters in the Dhammapada, which means I could get through the Dhammapada in less than a month. Plus, each series of verses is much easier to digest in a single blog post than an entire sutta. At some point, however, I do want to tackle the Majjhima Nikaya.

Why am I setting out to do this? I’m not exactly certain, but I guess it’s my way of attempting to overcome the Five Hindrances by stepping up my practice another notch. I hope you will continue to follow my blog; it’s not my intention with this to be pedantic. Rather, I hope you all will join the discussion by leaving comments. I don’t want to fall into the trap described in the Aerosmith song “Movin’ Out”: “Talk with yourself and you'll hear what you wanna know.”

I start tomorrow. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In the beginning, there was sound

A few years back I was at a celebration at the first temple I attended when a group of visiting monks had arrived for the festivities. Part of the day included chanting. While I had heard chanting on television shows about Buddhism, I had not, until that day, experienced it “live.”

It was an awesome experience.

Interestingly, I also love Gregorian chant. And while I have not attempted to recite Latin chants, I have dabbled in Buddhist chanting. Listening to those monks – as well as the other temple members already familiar with chanting – reciting these ancient words in a beautiful, sonorous voice was almost transcending.

I can remember the Abbot explaining to the newcomers that they needn’t worry if they couldn’t follow the Pali text of the chant, copies of which were distributed among the group. Just sit back, he said, relax and meditate on the sound of the voices. Let your mind, he said, become calm while listening to the chanting. And it was true, just sitting there listening brought my mind to a stillness and focus that I seldom am able to attain during my regular sitting meditation.

I wanted to learn how to do this myself. I managed to pick up the easy parts, the phrases that were repeated plenty of times, such as, “Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma-sambuddhassa.” This is part of the Refuge chant that includes this repeated part that I was able to learn as well:

Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
I go to the Buddha for refuge.

Dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
I go to the Dhamma for refuge.

Saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
I go to the Saṅgha for refuge.

Dutiyampi buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
A second time, I go to the Buddha for refuge.

Dutiyampi dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
A second time, I go to the Dhamma for refuge.

Dutiyampi saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
A second time, I go to the Saṅgha for refuge.

Tatiyampi buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
A third time, I go to the Buddha for refuge.

Tatiyampi dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
A third time, I go to the Dhamma for refuge.

Tatiyampi saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
A third time, I go to the Saṅgha for refuge.

Recently I learned a new chant from another Buddhist group that I have found equally as soothing. This group chants, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. I had to laugh to myself when I first heard the words to this chant, because there are so many episodes from the British sit-com “Absolutely Fabulous” during which Edina Monsoon butchers this chant as she attempts to recite it in her uniquely hedonistic and totally self-centered way.

Interestingly, a member of this particular group, which is affiliated with Soka Gakkai International, gave a brief explanation of the chant, saying that a scientist had become interested in it because the sound created by the chant was something that could be found in nature, in space.

I know what some of you are probably thinking: “Yeah, right, I bet it is.” But that was not my reaction. I found nothing absurd about this man’s explanation, and here’s why.

Among the things I am passionate about, Buddhism being just one, is Frank Zappa. I have a blog about Frank Zappa’s recordings. What, you may ask, has Frank Zappa got to do with Buddhist chanting? Not much, to be honest with you, although among the many religions he studied and poured over as a teen in the 1950s was Buddhism. But that’s not where I’m going. In doing the background research for my blog entry on the album “Lumpy Gravy,” I found something very interesting.

Among the random conversations recorded for this album is a brief discourse when someone talks about the “big note.” Here’s the relevant portion of this seemingly inane soliloquy (picture this being said by a complete stoner, who most people would look at and think, “This guy’s an idiot.”):

“Everything in the universe is, is, is made of one element, which is a note, a single note. Atoms are really vibrations, you know. Which are extensions of the BIG NOTE, everything’s one note. Everything, even the ponies. The note, however, is the ultimate power, but, see, the pigs don’t know that, the ponies don’t know that.”

Hmmm, the Big Note, the universe was created by the Big Note. Hmmm, not sure about this, but wait, hold on! There has actually been scientific investigation into this by a man named Hans Jenny. Herr Jenny, a Swiss scientist, founded the scientific field known as cymantics, as opposed to semantics. And through this, he made what he perceived to be a very, very important discovery. He conducted experiments that showed that sound gave shape to matter, concluding that sound was the creative force in the universe.

So there you have it. You may have intuitively known or felt that chanting was awesome, amazing, significant, but you probably didn’t know why.

Sound really is an elemental part of the universe, and perhaps the mystics of the great religions knew this.

So the next time you think disparaging thoughts about someone who chants Nam myoho renge kyo, or who relishes in the Pali “Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma-sambuddhassa,” because you think this person is a bit touched or affected, think about Hans Jenny. Then think about Frank Zappa and THE BIG NOTE.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Five Recollections

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had read an item by Jack Daw at his blog Sweep the Dust Push the Dirt that reminded me of something that had been missing from my daily practice: reciting the Five Remembrances.

The Five Remembrances are:

1. I am of the nature to decay; I have not got beyond decay.
2. I am of the nature to be diseased; I have not got beyond disease.
3. I am of the nature to die; I have not got beyond death.
4. All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will change and vanish.
5. I am the owner of my kamma, heir to my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported by my kamma; whatever kamma I shall do, whether good or evil, of that I shall be the heir.

To assist me in making these Five Remembrances concrete for my simple mind, I have arranged a few items on the shelf that I face while I meditate. My practice includes reciting these Five Remembrances aloud so that they penetrate my thick head to remind me that all of the things I don’t like or want to think about are going to happen to me regardless. Ergo, if I recognize these five items as being real and happening to me right now in this moment, it can energize my mental focus and bring Right Effort into my daily activities.

I am of the nature to decay: I have not got beyond decay.

At the heart of this is the fact that I grow old. I am growing old. I am not staying the same. That’s why I have the photo on the right, which is a picture of me from the second grade. It’s to remind me I’m not that person any more. And moment by moment, I am constantly becoming a new individual. It also reminds me that my body is always changing. I can’t eat and drink like I did when I was 35 and still stay a dashingly slim 185 pounds. I can’t climb mountains like I used to, as I have arthritis in my right ankle. Oh wait, that’s number two.

I am of the nature to be diseased; I have not got beyond disease.

Because I live in this bag of bones, I am subject to tiny little creatures called viruses and bacteria that make me feel like hell from time to time. And in general, time takes its toll as well. So yes, my shoulder aches, my ankle gets puffy, I can swim two-thirds of a mile in about 30 minutes, but that’s the best I can get this old heap to do nowadays.

I am of the nature to die; I have not got beyond death.

Lots of folk say so-and-so died of cancer, or died of old age, or died from a heart attack, or died from a broken heart. Doesn’t matter, we are all going to die. And it’s birth that kills us. It just might take a while. Now, this may sound really depressing. Maudlin even. But that’s just an excuse for not paying attention to it. And as a result, we end up living carelessly. Death waits for no one. It is what unites all life. Don Juan used to tell this to Carlos Casteneda – death makes all forms of life equal.

All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will change and vanish.

Oh, how true, how true. This is the toughest. Whether it’s your spouse, a partner, a parent, a brother, a sister, a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, a friend … everyone changes, everyone dies, or things change. A young parent might delight in their new child, laugh and play with them, but then becomes shocked when that child becomes a teenager and no longer has the same interests or desire to be with a parent. And the parent becomes hurt. Why? Because this inevitable change was not anticipated. Key word there: anticipate. It’s different from expecting something to happen. To anticipate means that you not only expect the event, but are prepared for it. It can also mean you took steps to avoid that uncomfortable future.

I am the owner of my kamma, heir to my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported by my kamma; whatever kamma I shall do, whether good or evil, of that I shall be the heir.

It all belongs to me. The parents I had was kamma; the fact I am gay is kamma; the fact that I am male is kamma. That doesn’t mean it’s bad or good kamma, it’s just kamma. And as long as I am clear on this, I can recognize that what is done is done. What counts now is the moment, because out of this very moment arises my future. If I screw up now, I am screwing with my future. Which is why I really like the last line on side 2 of “Abbey Road.”

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Death as a teacher

Jack Daw over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt, always has great posts, but lately he’s written a couple that have really sparked my thoughts, prompting me to share my own experiences on these topics. His post regarding death really struck a chord with me. In particular, his mention of the Five Remembrances, which I know as the Five Recollections, prompted me to resume something that had been missing from my meditative practice for quite some time.

Contemplating death ought to be an important part of anyone’s Buddhist practice, but as Jack points out, it’s a subject often treated superficially, if it gets any attention at all. Yet our serious contemplation on this subject can be transformative, as indicated by this passage, taken from Ten Dhamma Talks by Sister Ayya Khema:

“If we really believe in our impending death, not just use the words, our attitude towards people and situations changes completely. We are no longer the same person then. The one we have been until now hasn’t brought us complete satisfaction, contentment and peacefulness … If we were to remember each morning that death is certain, but now have another day to live, gratitude and determination can arise to do something useful with that day.”

Let me take the risk of boring all of you with my personal journey with death. Fair warning, I’m afraid this is going to be a long post. But death has been one of my teachers for a long time, despite the fact I was, for the most part, completely oblivious to its lessons.

It was either Flag Day or Independence Day in 1968 when I awoke at home completely alone. It unnerved me a bit, as I was only 9 years old, that I could wake to an empty house like that. I don’t have a clear memory of how the news was eventually delivered to me, but I learned later that day that my father had a heart attack while he was putting the flag up on our front porch. He was in the hospital in something called intensive care. That was it, that’s all anyone told me. And for years I had no idea what a heart attack was, or that my father had a very close brush with death.

Fast forward to 1972 when I was 14. I was out riding my motorcycle around a lake where my parents were building their retirement home when I came upon a scene of people watching a rescue crew pull a body from the water. I watched and listened, gathering enough information to learn that a man was water skiing in an area of the lake that he shouldn’t have been, because when he fell, he struck his head on a stump in the water. It was the first dead body I had ever seen, yet my reaction to seeing the corpse was barely discernable. I didn’t know who this man was; but there it was – death.

I’m pretty sure it was that same summer when I begrudgingly helped my father and a brother-in-law dig trenches around what was to be our new home near the lake to bury Styrofoam around the foundation to increase the house’s energy efficiency. I hated doing this laborious work and wanted to be doing anything but that. My utter uselessness led to my father’s frustration and he angrily told me to get the hell out of there and do whatever I damn pleased. I did and went off riding my motorcycle. When I returned later in the afternoon, dad was lying in bed. Mom told me that he had angina; again, no real explanation of what that meant. But I remember quietly walking down the hall to peak into their bedroom to see him lying on the bed, resting. At that moment, I finally understood what a heart attack was.

An interesting aside: My father was born in 1910 when Halley’s Comet passed by the Earth. He died in 1986 when Halley’s Comet last passed by the Earth. It was a heart attack that killed him.
My father, I slowly learned, was a very compassionate man. We had Siamese cats, two of them. They both caught feline leukemia. When the first was so sick it was beyond help, he placed it into a large hat box, which he took out to the edge of the woods by our house where he would shoot it with my .22 rifle. But he couldn’t bear to see the animal as he shot it, so he left the lid on the box. Of course, he missed making a fatal shot. Up in the house as I watched out the window, I could hear the cat’s shrieking and reflexive thumping against the side of the hat box as my father fumbled with the rifle, a single-shot bolt action weapon, as he tried as quickly as possible to insert another bullet. When he successfully managed that, he pushed the lid off the box and fired point-blank.

When the next cat became so ill that death was inevitable, he and I together did things differently. He was a biology teacher. We went to his classroom and picked up a plastic funnel, a large wad of cotton, and a bottle of ether. We soaked the cotton with the ether, put the cotton into the funnel then placed the funnel over the cat’s head. It was so weak it just lied there. Slowly, quietly, it died.

I didn’t “come out” to my family until I was 35 years old, and the first person I told was my mother. I was quite fearful of her reaction as the Catholic Church was her life and we all know how accommodating the Catholic doctrine is of homosexuality. I had been away from home for a very long time and did not know that the priest in her parish at that time had brought a very positive message to the congregation about gays and, most importantly, AIDS. She showed me an article about the priest that mentioned another man named Mark who was living with AIDS. The writer quoted Mark as saying that he lived in a remote area and sometimes needed help with simple things like housekeeping or getting to the doctor. I decided to give Mark a call and offer my help.

I could tell Mark was suspicious of my intentions when I called him, but he agreed to meet me at his uncle’s house, as he did not want me to know where he lived yet. When we met, he revealed that he knew who I was, that he remembered me because we went to high school together. He was a year ahead of me, and we had never associated with each other, so I had no recollection of him. We became friends and I would visit him from time to time to watch movies and call him more frequently to chat.

One night I gave him a call to see how he was doing. When he answered, I could hear he was weak, his voice distant and faint. He told me he was having a bout of fever. I asked if he needed anything, but he didn’t reply. All I could hear was his wheezy, raspy breathing. I told him I was on my way over. It was about a 20 mile drive. When I arrived he appeared to feel better than he sounded on the phone. As long as I was there, he suggested, why don’t we watch a movie? During the movie the fever returned; I could hear his raspy and labored breathing. I moved from my chair to the couch where he lay, sat so he could lay against me and I put my arms around his chest. We sat like that and watched the rest of the movie.

It was very late when I left. He later told me that the following day he drove himself four hours to the V.A. hospital in Ann Arbor (he was ex-Navy, honorable discharge) where he was treated for PCP, a rare form of pneumonia that was a common killer among AIDS patients. A year later, he drove by himself from Michigan to San Francisco where he died a few months later.

At that time, I think every gay man thought about how he may die. We all, I think, wondered what we would do, how we would behave, when we received that information that many of us believed to be inevitable – that we have AIDS and were going to die. Getting the results for every HIV test I had was always a time when I had to face my mortality. And every time I wondered what I would do, how I would feel, should I learn I was positive. I’ve been fortunate when so many others have not.

And so when I came to Buddhism, my teacher impressed upon me how important recognizing the inevitability of death was, its utter certainty. And I realized how much I had already encountered death, and how I was continuing to encounter it. I just hadn’t always been paying attention.

My teacher talked about how monks would go to cemeteries in the middle of the night to meditate and contemplate death. I couldn’t do that, but interestingly, I had a book about homicide reporting – I was a police reporter for a newspaper at the time – that had all kinds of grisly photos of corpses in various states of decay. I didn’t like looking at those photos because my monkey mind always set an emotional trap for me, leading me to think about that “poor dead person,” how they “must have suffered at the hands of their killer.” But the point of meditating on death, my teacher emphasized, it to realize that our body is not who we are, it’s just a body. And the photos of decaying corpses and dismembered homicide victims in my book were not images of people – they’re just bodies.

I have a different attitude about death now than I did in the past. But there is still something very important for me to do that I haven’t done, and that is use death as an appropriate motivator. Death can be a useful tool to prompt us into action, to take the steps we know we ought to, but just haven’t gotten around to taking.

The notion that death waits for no one is a worthy one for contemplation.