Sunday, January 30, 2011

"These four things, monks, I have taught you..."

I recently have been struggling with depression. Not my own. Somebody else’s. And I find it truly uncanny how a person with depression can find the gloomiest part in everything, how easily he or she can focus and latch onto even the merest bit of negative element in even the most beautiful things.

Those of you who have suffered with depression in the past, who are dealing with it now, must admit something that is very clear: you people can be very manipulative. It’s as though you treat those around you who seek to help as if they were balloons – you suck the air right out of us until we have nothing left to give.

Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand that depression is a serious matter. I don’t blame you for draining my enthusiasm; after all, it was my decision to be involved, to offer help. I am the owner of my own kamma. But the refusal to see how one’s own distorted thinking feeds and nurtures one’s depression, and that this distorted thinking is often deliberate, absolutely astounds me. Finding the right mix of being blunt and supportive is difficult. Yet to abandon someone suffering a mental health issue is precisely what the illness desires. If we think of depression like a parasite that has latched onto a vulnerable host, it wants others to abandon the host, to give up on the host. So the depression feeds the mind with distorted logic to confuse, frustrate and even anger anyone who tries to help.

I don’t think there is a clearer example of the First and Second Noble Truths than a person with depression. Maybe I don’t get it. Maybe I’m not showing compassion or empathy. Maybe I need to work a little more on my loving kindness.

I showed my friend how to chant the Daimoku and that has helped. He feels some relief with that. However, it’s difficult to ensure he is really doing it. OK, we haven’t met face-to-face. Our communication has strictly been by email, text message and phone. While I think his depressive thinking had been developing for a while, it only recently became acutely severe because of a harsh breakup he went through with another man. While I want to help, offer support and even love, I am worried that a personal meeting with this man would just lead to him latching onto me as a new boyfriend. He is very cute and admittedly, my initial attraction to this young man was based pretty much on his appearance. So already, I cannot trust my intentions. And yet, I am afraid that it is too late for me to walk away without making matters worse. I have reason to believe he has already made one attempt on his life; the gesture was really quite superficial. He also admits that he is afraid of dying, that he doesn’t want to die.

I Am a Rock

So what to do? I ask you, my readers. If you’ve ever suffered with depression, or if someone close to you ever suffered with depression, your insight would be very helpful. Maybe all I need is patience and to work on my compassion and loving kindness. But knowing how to communicate with such a person without falling for their manipulative traps would be very helpful right now.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Teach your children well

A former colleague recently asked me to come up with an outline of how to teach the Four Noble Truths to children ages 4 to 14. It was going to be part of a presentation at his Unitarian Universalist congregation. I did a quick search for some online material, but was surprised at how scant the resources were when it came to teaching kids about Buddhism.

A monk once told me that in many Thai families, for example, the first thing parents teach their children is how to hold their hands when bowing. Then the parents move on to teaching the correct way to do the three bows before a Buddha image. Do they teach these prostrations and gestures because they are part of the rites and rituals of Buddhism?

Not really. While that does play a part, doing the bows and holding your hands correctly takes concentration. It requires that you pay attention to what you are doing. And rather than teach a very young child something as esoteric as cause and effect, Thai parents teach their children how to concentrate so they can do something correctly. Concentration is, after all, one of the three legs of Buddhism: Concentration, morality, wisdom.

I know there are others who despite their own Buddhist practice refuse to “indoctrinate” their children. Frankly, I find this attitude a bit self-serving. For most of us Buddhist converts, we came to Buddhism because we rejected our (most likely) Christian upbringing. The reason goes, I suppose, is that our children can “find” their own way just as we had. But this, to me, is a very flawed way of thinking.

For example, let’s consider all the people who accepted their Christian upbringing and continue practicing a Christian faith. Likely they did so because as children, their parents made sure they attended church, probably attended religion classes also because to truly know one’s faith, one ought to study its texts. And these children participated in many Christian rituals, no doubt – everything from saying grace at the dinner table to participating in activities at the church where the family attended.

The children accepted this and continued to hold on to their “religion” into adulthood.

We converts were undoubtedly raised this way as well, but along the way we began to question the doctrines and the practices. Supplied with unsatisfactory answers, we sought something else. For many of us, it was Buddhism. Now, ask yourself this: would you have found Buddhism if initially you hadn’t felt satisfied with your Christian upbringing? If you hadn’t been exposed to Christian practices within your family, would you have likely searched for something else? Maybe, maybe not.

The point I’m trying to make is that your childhood exposure to one religion prompted you to search for something else. However, let us not forget that a much larger group of people raised in similar circumstances found comfort and peace in the same religious practice as their parents and never developed a need to search elsewhere.

Yet, for some Buddhist converts, there is this odd desire to deny their children this same opportunity. Why not teach your child about Buddhism? Why not “indoctrinate” them? Teach and let go. If they accept your guidance, then they will be happy. And if they are unsatisfied, they will search for something else, just as you had. And maybe they will join an evangelical Christian church and be happy. Isn’t that what we want for our children, for them to be happy?

Some of you refuse to “force” your children to learn Buddhism and develop a practice because you don’t want to be like your parents who “forced” you to practice Christianity. But teaching your children Dhamma doesn’t need to be a “forced” activity.

The Buddha used the very common image of a mirror to teach his son Rahula when the boy was just 8 how important reflecting on our actions is to our welfare. Paying attention to what we do is critical to our Buddhist practice. And there are many ways to teach that to our children without “forcing” a doctrine on them. If you teach your children the cause and effect relationship between their actions and the outcomes those actions create, then you’re teaching them Buddhism.

One of the Five Recollections is: I am the owner of my kamma, born of my kamma, made of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide supported in my kamma…” Being related to your kamma is literally just that: your children are representations of the fruits of your kamma. They’re your children for a reason. Contemplate that during your next meditation session and see what bubbles up in your mind.

Anyway, below is what I came up with after finding this site. It’s very basic, but it’s a start. Feedback is welcomed.

Four Noble Truths for children

1. We aren’t happy all the time; there are times when we are sad, angry, frightened, or lonely.
2. We feel sad, angry, frightened or lonely mostly because we can’t get what we want, or we’re told to do something we don’t want to.
3. It’s our fault that we feel this way, and we can stop it when we learn how to want the right things.
4. The Buddha gave us Eight things to remember to help us learn how to want the right things and accept that life doesn’t always go the way we want it to.

The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path essentially tells us there are right ways to do things and wrong ways. Doing the right thing is much more than being moral. Doing the right thing brings us a happiness that causes us to feel at ease, unworried and unafraid of what may happen next. It’s a happiness that doesn’t go away. The Buddha compared this type of happiness to a person’s shadow: it’s always following you but you can’t tell it’s there unless you look at it.

Doing things the wrong way is what brings us those feelings we don’t like. If we say mean things, we’re going to make someone else angry, and what do most people do to someone who has made them angry? They get even, they do something to harm the other person. So it starts with us. We create our unhappiness, and this can cause us to feel hopeless, like we’re stuck dragging a heavy weight all the time. The Buddha described how our wrong actions create burdens by using a simile of an ox dragging a cart. The cart is heavy and burdensome. It’s as if with each wrong action we take, we are tossing another heavy rock into a wagon we are tugging along behind us. If we’d just stop putting heavy rocks in the wagon, it would be easier to pull.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

I used to hate drag queens

I really did. I called them freaks, mentally ill, made fun of them. I did not want to be around them. When I went to a gay bar and a queen was coming my way, I went the other way. Effeminate men irritated me too. It was like, why do you have to be so gay? I mean really gay?

But then it dawned on me: Why do I have to be such an asshole?

My discomfort with drag queens and effeminate men/boys was really about me, not them. It was all tied into my fear of being associated with that type of gay man. I was afraid of them. I was homophobic and I was gay!

Man, did I need to get over that shit. And I did. Now I’m irritated by gay men who complain about gay stereotypes. Some have posted comments to my blog. I’ll get over these dweebs too someday, but again, I just want to scream, “Get over it! We’re here, we’re queer, get a freaking hobby!”

Anyway, I wanted to share this video about the Princess Boy. I love this! It makes me cry every time I watch it. Shit, I am such a fag.


By the way, I found this video on the blog Gay Andy. This is a blog written by a 17-year-old Hispanic boy that has proved to be an enthralling read. I must admit that at times I have doubts as to whether Gay Andy is real. But then again, these doubts are mine, and one day I will understand their origin.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Four Right Efforts for 2011

So it’s that time again when many are making their resolutions for the New Year. I pity them as most will be unable to make good on their resolutions before the end of the first week. But I also have pity for those who succeed on these resolutions because of their clinging to this notion that their success will make them an overall better person. In fact, to the entire concept of making New Year resolutions I say screw it.

Every day is an opportunity to practice the Dhamma with greater skill than the previous day. And every day holds the potential of being our last. Jan. 1 is no more special a day in this regard then March 12, or Aug. 7. Every day is an opportunity for us to better ourselves and to be of greater service to others. Every day is a chance to wipe away a bit more of the film of delusion that covers our eyes and sedates our mind, to rattle our helter skelter actions and bring them out of the self-induced soporific trance of false comfort, to open our eyes and see things for how they really are, not what we wish them to be.

That takes effort; four of them to be precise. And to correctly apply these four efforts, we need to be well-grounded in the present moment.

There are many sayings that reflect to a degree the importance of remaining focused on the present. There is “One day at a time,” perhaps the most common and very effective at reminding us that we shouldn’t dwell too much on the future. But this axiom can be used for selfish ends; for some it is a more palatable form of “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die,” because it can make us sound like we’re being more responsible. It would be something like spending your life in a gay disco, dancing away the days with all the hot go-go boys, waiting for that moment at the end of the night when all the studly men and boys take off their shirts.

There is “carpe diem,” or “seize the day,” which is a much more aggressive way of reminding us that today may well be our last, so we ought to get as much out of it as we can. This does, however, allow hedonism to run amok in our life because this saying tends to give permission for unrestrained indulgence in sensual pleasure. It would be like spending your life in a gay sauna where you aren’t so much seizing the day, but turgid appendages of flesh.

This adage gets closer to the heart of the matter: “If yesterday is a canceled check, today is cash, and tomorrow a promissory note, go with the cash and spend it today.” But even this allows for personal indulgence in empty spending purely for immediate gratification. It’s like throwing away all your credit cards and using cash only, but you’re still acquiring objects that have no real value and bring you no closer to true happiness as there will always be some new item you don’t and must have.

No, living in the present moment is simpler than that, and yet it’s more difficult to achieve. In the Theranama Sutta, we hear about a solitary monk named Thera who brags about the virtue of living alone. When the Buddha hears about this, he tells Thera that there is his (Thera’s) way of “being alone,” but there is a better way.

“And how is living alone perfected in its details? There is the case where whatever is past is abandoned, whatever is future is relinquished, and any passion & desire with regard to states of being attained in the present is well subdued. That is how living alone is perfected in its details.”

The Buddha relays this message in a slightly different form in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta as well.

“You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
is left behind.
The future
is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
right there.
Not taken in,
that’s how you develop the heart.
Ardently doing
what should be done today,
for — who knows? — tomorrow
There is no bargaining
with Mortality & his mighty horde.

Whoever lives thus ardently,
both day & night,
has truly had an auspicious day:
so says the Peaceful Sage.”

So there it is. Living in the present moment means to avoid dwelling in the past because the past is gone. It also means that we recognize that where we are right now is because of what happened in the past. The past is important because it brings us to the here and now, but to dwell on the past cripples us. Pining for the future, or even just thinking about the future, is of no use as well because the future is not here. But recognizing that our future is built upon our present actions is very important. It is only by behaving skillfully in the present can we erase the kamma we created in the past and build a happier future for ourselves.

To help us accomplish this, the Buddha gave us the Four Right Efforts. They are:

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

There are bad actions that we already don’t do, and that’s good. But we need to make sure that these bad actions never manifest themselves. For example, if we’ve never smoked, then it’s wise that we make sure that we don’t start.

No one is a saint, so there are negative actions we engage in that we need to identify and remove. If we smoke, it would be wise to stop smoking. This example oversimplifies matters, so don’t be beguiled by its apparent simplicity. We all exhibit many subtle negative behaviors that we may not immediately recognize. When we do, we need to strive to remove them.

We all have good qualities. We don’t want to lose them, so we need to strengthen them, just as we would strengthen our body through exercise. If we don’t, we may lose these good qualities, and that would be a bad thing.

Then there are the qualities that we wish to have, that we want to develop. Qualities that we admire in others and wish to emulate. We must work at developing these qualities, because they don’t spontaneously arise. We cannot become more compassionate toward others unless we practice compassion daily. We won’t become more empathetic unless we seek to understand others around us. Our concentration during meditation will not improve unless we work at mindfulness in everything we do and say.

This takes work; that is why they are called “efforts.” And frankly, there are many who call themselves Buddhist who don’t bother to put forth any effort. Even well-known teachers fall into this trap, this “thicket of views” that beguiles one into thinking he or she is following the path. They are like wolves in the coyote stories told by American Indians, an animal capable of rationalizing anything in its own mind (I’ll have to do a post soon about this particular coyote story, it’s an excellent one), or like the eel-wrigglers the Buddha speaks of in the Brahmajala Sutta.

And this is why I have no use for New Year resolutions. Of course, the Buddha did teach that it is alright to use common turns of phrase when speaking with others, provided that we clearly understand the emptiness of these phrases. In particular, the Buddha talked about the self, that it was alright to speak to others about our “selves” as long as we understood that it was just a term of common use and has no real meaning. New Year resolutions fall into this category. In which case, perhaps a skillful resolution to share with others would be to strive toward being more focused on what I am doing right now and how it will shape my future.