Friday, December 31, 2010

Dukkha isn’t always a drag

There’s a saying that I often find instructive: If you want to make god laugh, make some plans.

While it’s good to have a plan, an idea of what you hope to do or accomplish, experience tells us that our plans seldom go as designed. If our plans aren’t flexible, when things go awry we can become confused, frustrated, even angry. Often we are the cause of our plans falling apart, but there are occasions when the world around us can throw a kink into things.

My recent trip to Boston revealed much to me in terms of how things can go and how my attitude influences outcomes. Originally planned as an arrive Thursday, depart Monday itinerary, a blizzard arriving Sunday night completely shut down Logan International Airport, stranding not only me, but thousands of others. Attempting to contact a travel agent at American Airlines to find out when I could fly back to Chicago was unsurprisingly frustrated. Sunday night, when I learned my flight on Monday had been canceled, I was on hold with American for 1 hour and 27 minutes before I finally gave up. I called again Monday morning and was on hold again for nearly an hour before I was able to talk to an agent.

Before the agent answered, I made some key decisions about how I was going to behave. First, I put myself in the agent’s shoes. By the time he or she would speak to me, the agent undoubtedly had spoken with hundreds of other stranded travelers who were tired, confused, angry and perhaps even hostile over their predicament. I told myself that I wasn’t going to add more by being a complaining drama queen. So when the agent answered, I said hello to her, and let her know I was sympathetic to her situation. After telling her I was aware that she had probably been dealing with a lot of angry and frustrated people, all I wanted to know was when I could return to Chicago. The earliest flight she could get me on was Thursday, Dec. 30. I said that was fine, I completely understood the situation. She told me she couldn’t get me a seat assignment, but a notice would be emailed to me shortly. I thanked her and wished her a happy new year, then hung up.

When my email arrived confirming my booking, I saw that I was assigned a seat in first class. That won’t happen, I thought to myself. But I did have three more days in Boston to explore, so I made a decision I would enjoy myself.

I took some good photos, persisted in my search of a good used book store until I found one, and had a wonderful chat with a taxi driver in a pub in Cambridge. There were other events that I had hoped would occur, but which did not. Oh well, here I am, the moment is now, where does it go?

Equanimity isn’t always so easily had. But it is critical to following the “middle way.” There’s a sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya Book of Fives on subduing hatred, but really it’s about how to deal with an annoying person. Step two was the most useful for me in my situation in Boston: “When one gives birth to hatred for an individual, one should develop compassion for that individual. Thus the hatred for that individual should be subdued.”

I didn’t hate the travel agent, but by developing compassion ahead of time when I was rearranging my travel I was able to be a pleasant person with her when she had probably already been dealing with rude people. I wasn’t going to add to her dukkha by sharing my own dukkha.

In Wings to Awakening, Thanissaro Bhikkhu describes equanimity as “an attitude of even-mindedness in the face of every sort of experience, regardless of whether pleasure and pain are present or not.” He explains that there are three steps to developing what he calls the “equanimity dependent on multiplicity.”

1) development, or a conscious turning of the mind to equanimity in the face of agreeable or disagreeable objects;
2) a state of being in training, in which one feels a spontaneous disillusionment with agreeable or disagreeable objects; and
3) fully developed faculties, in which one's even-mindedness is so completely mastered that one is in full control of one's thought processes in the face of agreeable or disagreeable objects.

The weather did more than just disrupt my travel plans. My two cats back at home were going to run out of food before I could return. This was a situation ripe for me to get all bent out of shape over, largely because I was practically powerless to do anything about the situation. Isn’t it funny how the situations we have the least control over freak us out the most? It was my acceptance of the fact, I believe, that I was completely powerless over the demise of my cats that helped me develop the equanimity to deal with the situation. A phone call to my landlord, who luckily was back in town, to coordinate letting someone into my apartment to check on the cats, plus the willingness of friends to help combined to easily solve my dilemma.

Of course, what would I have done had my landlord not been in town? No one else had a key to my apartment even if they were willing to check on my cats. What would I have done then?

This type of questioning is pointless, really. Because it did work out. And why did it work out? I would dare say that it was the result of my past actions, my kamma. Had I behaved like a prick with the people I know, had I been an awful or even just a disagreeable tenant with my landlord, then when I needed help from others, things would likely not have worked out so well.

Which emphasizes how important it is for us to consciously develop equanimity – we have to make the conscious effort to view both the good and bad in our life with a dispassionate perspective. A pleasurable event may lead us to an unhappy situation later on if we allow the pleasure of the moment to distract us from making skillful decisions. Just as an unhappy event may actually lead us to a better situation in the future if we avoid wallowing in self-pity.

Oh yes, and another thing; the first-class seating on my return flight was not a mistake.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Are you too sexy for your body?

Even though the Buddha renounced a lay person’s way of life, he remained a good father and did an outstanding job teaching his son, Rahula. We can conclude by the results that Rahula was probably an apt pupil, but that may only be because the Buddha was swift enough to re-focus his adolescent son’s mind on the proper topics for contemplation, or Rahula might have been a Brahmin-style Right Said Fred.

Rahula was hot, and he knew he was hot. Or at least that’s how the stories go. For example, in the notes to the Maharahulovada Sutta (MN 62), also known as The Greater Discourse of Advice to Rahula, we learn the reason why the Buddha directed his then-18-year-old son to perfect the meditation technique of contemplation of the body as body.

“According to (Majjhima Nikaya Atthakatha) … While Rahula was following the Buddha, he noted with admiration the physical perfection of the Master and reflected that he himself was of similar appearance, thinking: ‘I too am handsome like my father the Blessed One. The Buddha’s form is beautiful and so too is mine.’ The Buddha read Rahula’s thought and decided to admonish him at once, before such vain thoughts led him into greater difficulties. Hence the Buddha framed his advice in terms of contemplating the body as neither a self nor the possession of a self.” (Notes are from the hardbound text, not the online text)

So dang! Rahula was a hottie twink thinking he had it goin’ on, but the Buddha was wise to that nonsense and immediately re-directed his son before he started wearing Daisy Dukes and dancing on a box at a backwoods discotheque.

Contemplation of body as body is also a technique I use from time to time when I have difficultly remaining focused on my breath. It’s just a different focus point and it is very effective. Besides being a necessary step in meditation – if all you do is focus on your breath, you’re in a rut – when you learn to see body as just body, you come to realize that body isn’t so glamorous. As my teacher once said: “Isn’t it funny that the items we attribute beauty to on our body are dead – like the outside of our skin, our teeth, our hair – but the living parts of our body – internal organs and such – we describe as gross.”

Rahula learned well and became a significant member of the Sangha. A section of the Theragatha is attributed to him where Rahula explains how the root of sensuality has been cut out of him: “Cooled am I, unbound.”

I’ll say so.

Monday, December 20, 2010

OK this is scary

Not  really a Buddhist topic, unless you wonder about rebirth at times. But did Donny Osmond have a twin brother that died young? Is Justin Bieber the reincarnate of Donny Osmond's brother? Is this scary?

I think it's scary.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

What does it mean to be good?

Overheard talk: “So what does it take to be a good person?”

“Well, a good person doesn’t do anything harmful, he doesn’t say evil or hurtful things to others, he doesn’t want to do bad things to others, and he doesn’t earn a living by screwing people over.”

“Yeah, that’s sounds reasonable. I guess that makes me a good person because I don’t do any of those things.”


Ok, so that was a bit melodramatic. Let’s dial it back a bit.

“Holy cream cheese cupcakes Batman! That is so delusional that it makes my ridiculously colorful costume look like normal business attire!”

“Yes, I’m afraid you’re right, Robin. That is so delusional that it makes our relationship look platonic.”

“Oh, Batman, our relationship could never be that way!”

Erm, sorry, got carried away again. Hmm, what would the Buddha say about that? Perhaps something like, “If that were so, carpenter, then a young tender infant lying prone is accomplished in what is wholesome, perfected in what is wholesome, and ascetic invincible attained to the supreme attainment …”

And that is exactly what the Buddha said, according to the Samanamandika Sutta (MN 78).

We all want to be a good person, right? Well, except maybe Boris Badenov. Natasha’s no sweet pea either. And besides, they’re cartoon characters, not even real. But the rest of us, we want to be good, right? So it’s natural for us to want to know what it takes to be a good person.

Many of us reach the same conclusion that my “overheard” conversation reveals. If we do no evil, say no evil, desire no evil and don’t make money off evil, then we’re square with our kamma and good to go. This works for many of us homo-hedonists, or so we tend to think. So maybe we do a little Ecstasy at the club while we’re dancing. So maybe we like to indulge a little in our porn collection. So maybe we like to cruise the gay sauna from time to time. It’s all good, right? Maybe we like to head to the bushes for a little while after the Dunes closes in Douglas, no harm there, right? No one gets hurt, it’s all in good fun, and everyone leaves with a grin.

But this is a specious rationalization, which the Buddha quickly points out to a lay follower.

The carpenter Pancakanga, ran into this wandering aesthetic with a really long name – OK, I’ll tell you his name: It’s Uggahamana Samanamandikaputta (and if you can pronounce that, I’ll give you a kiss in public, even if you’re straight) – who told Pancakanga what he believed were the four qualities that made an “aesthetic invincible attained to the supreme attainment.” You know, the four qualities I mentioned earlier: do no evil, say no evil, desire no evil and don’t make money off evil. Our friend the carpenter doesn’t say anything to the guy with the really long name; he just gets up and politely leaves to go tell the Buddha what he just heard. When Pancakanga tells the Buddha about this, that’s when the Buddha replies with what I quoted earlier. The Buddha tells the carpenter that there’s no skill in merely avoiding the four things the aesthetic with the really long name identifies because a baby can do that. And why can a baby do that? Because a baby hasn’t developed a mind yet, a mind that is the source of all our troubles.

Being a truly wholesome person is a lot more complicated, skillful and difficult than merely avoiding bad speech, bad intentions, bad desires and bad employment. Don’t get me wrong, as these are great places to start. But if that’s all it took, then everybody would be pure and happy. Instead, the Buddha tells us that it requires the skillful application of the Noble Eightfold Path along with relentless execution of the Four Right Efforts. You really should read the sutta, as I won’t go into all that detail here. Because what I found really interesting in this sutta is that a key element of developing this skillfulness is once we realize that we are living a moral and wholesome life, we relinquish any attachment we might have to behaving that way.

Think of it this way. Initially, we do good things because it makes us feel better as well as makes others feel better. And this is great! But the Buddha tells us we must get beyond that quid pro quo manner of thinking and make skillful actions so much a part of our normal daily life that we no longer do things with the anticipation of feeling good about it. We just do it. And that’s not very easy. In fact, it’s pretty damn difficult.

Then again, that is, perhaps, why they call Buddhism a practice, and practice makes perfect.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Finding the Right Action

It’s been a while since I’ve addressed the Queer Eightfold Path, or the Noble Eightfold Path as Dorothy might have presented it to Oz .

Or would that be how Rahula would have presented it at Harvey Milk Memorial Plaza in the Castro? You know, Rahula was quite the hottie when he was 18, and the Buddha knew it; that’s when the Buddha instructed his son on the meditation technique of mindfulness of the body, except that the Buddha’s mindfulness of the body meditation isn’t all about, “Oh Jeezus I’m so Hot!” But I digress.

The nice thing about the Eightfold path is that it helps us understand better the nature of our actions as well as shows us how our actions are connected to immediate and future consequences. Another thing to keep in mind with each of the factors of the Eightfold Path is that they are dependent on each other. In other words, you cannot develop Right Intention without first having established Right View. And developing Right Speech can’t happen until you’ve developed Right Intention. Once we’ve established a sense of Right Speech, we’re ready to work on Right Action, because after all, speech is a form of action.

So what is Right Action? Let’s first get out of the way what it is not.

“No, no, don’t do it that way, do it like this, yes, like that, oh yes! That’s the right action! Woo-hoo!”

Erm, that’s not what we mean.

“Well, yeah, he’s cute. But he’s got all that hair crawling up out of his shirt and up his neck. I don’t need that kind of action.”

Uh, no, that’s not it either.

Let’s start first with what the Buddha said about Right Action in the Maha-cattarisaka Sutta (MN 117).

"Of those, right view is the forerunner. And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong action as wrong action, and right action as right action. And what is wrong action? Killing, taking what is not given, illicit sex. This is wrong action.

"And what is right action? Right action, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right action with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in the acquisitions [of becoming]; and there is noble right action, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.

"And what is the right action that has effluents, sides with merit, & results in acquisitions? Abstaining from killing, from taking what is not given, & from illicit sex. This is the right action that has effluents, sides with merit, & results in acquisitions.

"And what is the right action that is without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path? The abstaining, desisting, abstinence, avoidance of the three forms of bodily misconduct of one developing the noble path whose mind is noble, whose mind is without effluents, who is fully possessed of the noble path. This is the right action that is without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.

"One tries to abandon wrong action & to enter into right action: This is one's right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong action & to enter & remain in right action: This is one's right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, & right mindfulness — run & circle around right action.”

Yeah I know. That was some pretty esoteric stuff. Let’s simplify it.

The Buddha is telling us that there are two categories of Right Action. The first one he identifies as being “with effluents.” This is just what could be called mundane Right Action because it’s tied to everyday activities in normal lay life (Um, and that doesn't mean the life of getting laid). It’s connected to the effluents because all this type of Right Action assures us is that we are good people who can expect a reasonably happy and productive life, as well as a peaceful and easy death. In our next life, we can expect to be reborn into a pleasant existence.

The Right Action that is “without effluents” includes those actions associated with someone who is actively seeking liberation, actively seeking release: in other words, someone who wishes to attain Nibbana and end the cycle of rebirth. This more than likely would include monks and nuns.

For most of us, the mundane Right Action applies, which is fine. Mundane Right Action is not lame or unimportant. It’s very important. It’s just that most of us do not live a monastic life nor have any desire to do so.

The Buddha then identifies three key factors that describe what mundane right action includes, and what he identifies is three of the Five Precepts. Don’t kill, don’t steal, and don’t be a whore dog. Just in case you’re not clear what “illicit sex” or the Third Precept means for we moes, read this and this too.

The Buddha then talks about developing the proper frame of mind necessary to abandon wrong action and replace it with Right Action. Part of this includes Right Effort and Right Mindfulness, which, ironically come later in the Noble Eightfold Path. This might appear to contradict what I said earlier about how each step on the path is dependent on the preceding steps. But it doesn’t really, because the development of Right Action is accurately described as being a prerequisite to Right Effort and Right Mindfulness. If you don’t know what constitutes Right Action, how will you know what the Right Efforts are needed to develop it? And if you haven’t developed Right Action, how will your mind be at ease so you can develop Right Concentration?

Look at it this way. If your meditation is a struggle because you’re worried about who you slept with the previous night and what might happen with that trick, then you haven’t developed Right Action. And if you’re withholding your HIV status from your sexual partners, then you haven’t developed Right Action either. And all of these examples can be traced back to a failure to establish Right Intention and Right View.

Once we develop a clear idea of what is Right Action, we start to practice it and evaluate our outcomes. We develop skillfulness by paying attention to what happened before, during and after a particular action. What was our intention as a situation developed? Did our action in that situation result with pleasant consequences for ourselves and for the others involved? Will how the relevant situation was resolved lead to more pleasant consequences in the future, or might it lead to an unpleasant situation?

That’s a lot of thinking. But it’s precisely a lack of this type of thinking that we can always trace our mistakes to. If something went wrong with a situation, or the results we expected didn’t happen, it’s because we didn’t think about these factors or we lacked the proper frame of mind – we lacked Right View and Right Intention. So when you want to get the right action, you need to employ Right Action.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Was he a bodhisattva?

As I "imagine" whether John Lennon was a bodhisattva, I have to conclude if he wasn't, then he was awfully damn close. At the least, he is a Deva.

That which we touch remembers.