Monday, November 26, 2018


Many Buddhists, as well as those in other contemplative traditions, often speak about nonduality, but what is it? And is it something we can experience living a worldly life?

Nonduality literally means 'not two,' implying oneness, unity. More deeply, it means seeing past conventional wisdom, conventional ways of seeing, speaking, and understanding. It means seeing left as being relative to something else from a certain point of view, but that such a thing as left doesn't ultimately exist. It means being able to see beyond our limited, human perspective, glimpsing the greater whole and totality of life, its oneness where our experience is relative and ephemeral, like globs of foam floating down a river.

Nonduality means being able to take in the present moment, as it is. It means that, in the words of Richard Rohr, "You learn not to divide the field of the moment or eliminate anything that threatens your ego, but to hold everything—both the attractive and the unpleasant—together in one accepting gaze." And that is something I think one can certainly do living a worldly life, although such a life can present challenges to developing (or uncovering) such a way of seeing.

Things arise and cease, but things are also empty, like globs of foam on a river—and nonduality is being able to switch our gaze from one reality or mode of seeing to the other. This idea of two ways of seeing brings to mind the line, "These are the world's designations, the world's expressions, the world's ways of speaking, the world's descriptions, with which the Tathagata expresses himself but without grasping to them" (DN 9).

Language itself is conventional, limited, and incapable of fully describing what we're talking about; it can only point us towards such experiences. Generally speaking, however, we don't tend to see life through the prism of nonduality, but quite easily see and make distinctions, likely due to the evolutionary advantages of such. Nevertheless, we do seem to have the ability to perceive the world from a nondualistic (or one might say, unobstructed) POV, penetrating into this ultimate reality or whatever you want to call it, while still functioning in, and speaking about, regular, conventional, everyday life.

To use another image from SN 22.95, one can see and interact with the mirage of dualistic experience (existence/non-existence, etc.) while apprehending its underlying emptiness.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


What is the Dhamma? In Buddhism, Dhamma is twofold. It refers to (1) the teachings/symbols pointing towards (2) a profound truth. That truth is an experience/way of perceiving reality that leads to a new mode of being; and that new mode of being is an existential transformation lifting us above the fear and suffering we experience through our ignorance and craving, the reality of things as they are when seen with a calm, clear, and ultimately selfless mind—a mode of being where, in the words of Jean-Pierre de Caussade, we're able to "embrace the present moment as an ever-flowing source of holiness."

Although I began my journey into Buddhism with meditation, I think my journey truly began when I read Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah, which inspired me to read the suttas starting with the Majjhima Nikaya and got me seeing things from a whole different perspective. I was inspired to practice, to change myself for the better.

But somewhere along the way, I fell into a sort of intellectual rabbit hole, and began to accumulate views rather than weed them down. I felt it important to be authentic and orthodox, which caused me to have a very closed-minded and narrow point of view, clinging to the finger rather than seeing where it was pointing. The Dhamma became just another possession; and it's only been through a combination of practice and interfaith dialogues and study that I've finally found myself slowing climbing out of that hole.

I realized things were different when I started to see through the appearances of the words and symbols and began catching glimpses of what they're pointing towards; and I eventually came to the conclusion that there's a universal truth which underlies the foundation of most spiritual traditions in some shape or form. For me, Buddhism opened my eyes to this truth, and contemplative Christianity, I think, is helping me to realize it.

From that perspective, then, I'd say that the first aspect of Dhamma is the study of the symbols pointing towards 'knowledge and vision of things as they are.' The next is the application of the various methods of achieving this gnosis until, eventually, everything becomes reflective of Dhamma, which isn't the same thing as saying everything is Dhamma. You just get better and better at recognizing it hiding in plain sight, at seeing through all the illusory distinctions and perceiving the fullness of the emptiness beyond.

But paradoxically, that emptiness isn't empty, it's full. And it's the fullness of that truth we're all seeking, whether it's the luminous mind defiled by incoming defilements due to ignorance, the light of the sun that's obscured within the cave of ignorance, or the presence of God dwelling within the temple of our bodies. The teachings of the wise (like Jesus, the Buddha, Caussade, Ajahn Chah, etc.) point the way; and all we have to do is pierce the veil of ignorance and discover it for ourselves.

Friday, July 10, 2015

some reflections on the passing of my mother

On June 24th, I got the call that I'd been dreading for years—the call that my mom was dying. She'd had a lot of health problems, and there'd been a number of close calls over the last couple of years ranging from illnesses to open heart surgery. Each time I thought, "This might be it. This might be the time I lose her." Looking back, I suppose one of the few graces of having a family member with a history of serious health problems is that it can help prepare you for the inevitable. At least it doesn't hit you out of the blue; you have the time and impetus to imagine the possibility, to emotionally prepare, to build up the reserve of strength needed to face one of the most painful experiences of your life, that of losing someone you love, without being completely overwhelmed.

Even still, I wasn't really prepared; I wasn't really ready for the fear, anger, and sadness that was looming over me, and my family, like a gigantic tidal wave about the crash down and all but obliterate my fragile being, sweeping away everything in its path—all of my hope, joy, and faith in the future. As I sat there in the airport Wednesday night, in the midst of struggling to deal with the reality of my mom's situation, I remember being struck by the nonchalantness and even callousness with which we often treat death and dying in our culture. It's as if, in our fear of death, we do everything in our power to deny it, hide it, romanticize it, or joke about it, anything to take away the power of its sting. But while these things may help us cope with its existence and inevitability, they rarely do much to prepare us for the reality and actual experience of watching a loved one die, of holding their hand as they spend the last few hours of their life gasping for breath.

I suppose that death can be beautiful or heroic depending on the circumstances; but in my experience, death is painful, torturous, heart-wrenching, full of monitors, needles, moans, tears, and parades of names and faces who do their best to be compassionate and supportive when they're not too stressed from being overworked, under paid, and/or trying to push your loved one out as quickly as possible in order to free up a bed for the next customer/patient. For anyone who's spent enough time in them to notice, hospitals are revolving doors of the sick and dying, although they could (and should) be more. Money should have nothing to do with caring for the sick, the elderly, and the dying. Money shouldn't dictate the level and quality of care, or the concern with which they're administered. And yet it does. Reflecting on everything my mom had been through and endured, not the mention the mountains of red tape, bills, and collection notices, I was saddened by how we've cheapened life, how we've made life more about making money (mostly for someone else), or else worrying about not having enough, than actually living. All those wasted years...

Suffice it to say that I was lost, heartbroken. My faith in something greater than myself was tested and destroyed before being raised up again like Lazarus. I had nothing to hold onto. All my prayers had seemingly gone unanswered. Any purpose to life I once believed in seemed all but imaginary. Only the pain and sadness I felt were real. I watched Aliens on the flight; and with every bump of turbulence, I thought that at least my pain would end if I were to die. Midway through, they called for a doctor. Someone was having a medical emergency. I'm not sure how serious it was, but after we landed a lady was helped off by EMTs before the rest of us could exit, and I hoped that she'd be OK.

Tracey, one of my closest and dearest friends, picked me up from the airport and took me to my parent's house. I thought it'd be better to go up with my dad, although now I kind of wish I'd just gone straight to the hospital to spend as much time with my mom as possible. As I sat there, waiting for my dad to drive us up to the hospital to see her, trying to let it sink in that we were possibly just a breath or two away from losing her, I felt sick, shaky, alone, wanting to cry and scream at the same time and hating myself for not coming sooner. I felt empty of everything except this sickening fear and guilt. I think I was still in shock, and I imagine that what I felt in that moment was similar to what someone who's just experienced a natural disaster might feel—half confusion and half terror. It was all a blur, and the next thing I knew, I was at the hospital, winding my way down corridors and past room after room while trying to mentally prepare myself for the worst.

No words can adequately describe the sheer emptiness I felt, nor the pain, grief, and despair that came bubbling out of that ineffable darkness. The sadness and tears came in waves that threatened to drown me. I was buffeted by anguish, and it was felt as if some sort of cosmic sinkhole had opened up beneath me, swallowing every ounce of goodness and stability from my world. By then, she was barely conscious/cognizant, but still seemingly in a lot of pain, moaning and what almost sounded like crying at times. I think part of her knew what was happening. When they came in to tell us they recommended putting her in hospice, it felt like everything was spinning. I couldn't think straight. I couldn't talk. I couldn't do anything but hold her hand, afraid to let go, as if she'd drift away the moment I did.

They said that everything was starting to shut down — her kidney, her heart, her respiratory system — and that there wasn't much more they could do. Once my dad signed the papers, they put her on a steady drip of pain medication to help keep her comfortable. I think it was hydromorphone, also known as Dilaudid; and after they started her on it, she slept heavily, which seemed to us better than the alternative. But at the same time, I was afraid, afraid that she'd never wake up again, afraid that I'd never be able to tell her one more time how much I loved her or hear her tell me the same.

My dad and sister were equally as devastated, as was my aunt Debbie. As we all sat there, taking turns holding her hand and talking to her, we were each overwhelmed by grief. A part of me wanted to die with her. Every time I tried to talk to Annie on the phone to let her know what was happening, I broke down into tears. Words would turn into sobs. Trying to find both privacy and decent cell reception, I passed by the gift shop where only a year ago we'd gotten something for my mom when she was in for her heart surgery, and the memory was like a dagger in my heart, letting my sadness bleed out in uncontrollable spurts over the phone. Annie got a flight that night and flew in the next morning.

Tara and I spent the night at the hospital. Neither one of us wanted to leave her side. Orlando, a friend of Tara's from school, came up to visit for a while. The next day, my mom's eyes were open, though she wasn't blinking, and her breathing had become more laboured and shallow. They said, in so many words, that it was only a matter of time, hours or maybe days, but definitely soon. People came and went — her cousin Cindi, her childhood friend Carol, some of Tara's friends who had known her — but what I remember most is sitting by her side and holding her hand, telling her that I loved her and that she wasn't alone. I remember crying a lot. It was like I was stuck in a bad dream I couldn't wake up from. My dad said some really touching, heartfelt things and I wished that she could hear them. At the same time, I was angry at him for not telling me sooner how serious things were. Maybe he didn't want me to worry, or maybe he didn't fully realize it himself, but neither thought comforted me or assuaged my feelings of anger and guilt.

By this time, Annie had arrived, alternating between being a silent watcher, a fellow griever, and an angel of mercy and comfort. She took time with each of us, and seemed to always say or do the right things, having the compassion of a bodhisattva and the patiennce of a saint, enduring her own grief and the burden of ours with a strength I still marvel at. Her presence was my only refuge, the only thing that kept me sane. That night, June 27th, my mom passed away sometime after midnight with Annie, Tara, and I by her side, her hand in mine.

I can't remember who called him, either me or Tara, but we let our dad know, who'd left only an hour before to let the dog out and get some rest. He came and said his goodbyes, signed some papers, and had the chaplain on duty come to say a prayer. I wasn't enthused about the idea of some random person who didn't know us saying generic things and quoting cliche scriptural passages at such an intimate and emotional time, but I figured if it'd make my dad feel better, what's the harm? Afterwards, my dad, who was close to inconsolable, went out to talk to the chaplain alone and, while expressing his grief, also managed to share his theories about aliens seeding life on Earth and possibly being what we believe to be angels/God with him. That poor man. We left the hospital around 3am, and headed home in the somber darkness and mournful rain.

For the next few days, almost every waking moment was consumed by worry and all the funeral arrangement. All I felt like doing was crawling into a hole and crying, but bureaucracy demanded otherwise. And the whole time, I had trouble believing that she was really gone. Her presence permeated the house, and I kept half-expecting to see her sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee. It killed me every time I reminded myself... Making all the arrangements was a surreal, as well as painful, experience; and in between all the phone calls and running around, I was trying to think of something to say at her memorial, but the words refused to come. In some ways, I don't think I wanted to make it final. I eventually settled on Rudy Funeral Home in part because it doubles as a small nautical museum. My mom loved lighthouses, and I love weird things, so it seemed like the right choice. In addition, Kathy was really nice and helpful.

We decided to have my mom cremated. It was her wish, which worked out well since it was also the only thing we could really afford to do. It's extremely expensive to bury someone once you factor in the cost of preparing the body, caskets, burial plots, and all the other related fees and expenses. Cards. Flowers. Food. You also need like a hundred copies of the death certificate (usually $15 each, although you get a discount after the first couple) because everyone will want one. Annie helped out with the planning and cost more than I expected, and I don't think I could have done any of it without her. Looking back, she was like a heavenly messenger, guiding us all through the darkest days of our lives with perfect love, compassion, and patience.

The memorial service itself, which we scheduled for July 1st (inadvertently falling on the full moon), turned out really nice. A lot of people showed up, many that I didn't even expect. Tracey helped pick out the main flower arrangements and paid for them, a pair of garden-variety flowers, one with 'mom' and one with 'beloved wife' on the ribbons, which were lovely. Annie's parents sent roses that were equally as lovely, and a few others sent arrangements as well, including the video game club Tara was the president of at Macomb Community College. We chose a picture of my mom from 1975 to display next to the urn. It was one of her favourites. She was young and beautiful and I know that that's how she'd like people to remember her. Like my dad said, it was more about celebrating her life than memorializing her passing.

It was a solemn occasion, but the day wasn't without humour. My dad's sisters mistook my friend Chris, who can't speak well due to a stroke, for me, and told him they were sorry for his loss while I was standing nearby. I just smiled, declining to correct the error, happy for the temporary respite from the obligatory stream of condolences. Kathy got a semi-retired Catholic priest, Fr. Dennis Nowinski, to lead the service. He was nice and soft-spoken, with a good sense of humour. The service was a lot like daily mass, with prayers, a couple of scriptural readings, and a short homily. The only thing missing was communion. It was a little awkward, though, since most of the people there weren't Catholic or even necessarily religious; but I think he did a good job nonetheless.

My dad, Tara, and I, along with my mom's cousin Cindi, Mrs. Sylvester, one of Tara's teachers from middle school, and Barbara, a long-time friend of my mom's, all got up to say something about her. My dad went first, and was surprisingly eloquent, if a bit long-winded. Next up was Cindi. Between the two, they said everything I'd planned on saying, although I did my best to follow them without being too repetitive. I talked about how my mom was our rock, an extraordinary source of comfort and strength who was always there for us, whether we needed advice or a shoulder to cry on or someone to bail us out of jail (definitely not one of my finer moments). I talked about how the Finnish word sisu (a stubborn kind of courage, strength, and resilience that characterizes the spirit of the Finnish people) summed her up perfectly, how her life was an example of sisu, and how she did her best to instill that quality in all of us. And I talked about how, now that she's gone, it's our turn to follow her example and be rocks for one another as much as possible, regardless of whatever else life decides to throw at us.

It's been almost two weeks now since she passed away, yet I still don't feel like I've had the time or space to let it all sink in, to really grieve or whatever it is that you're supposed to do. Instead, I feel numb, empty, and it kind of scares me. Then again, I've often had trouble expressing my emotions. Everything tends to get bottled up inside, like a pressure cooker, until it eventually explodes in a violent eruption of tears and anguish and self-loathing. It's the way I've always been. Thankfully, some of it came out at the hospital. But the moment she died, it became all about my dad, my sister, and the funeral. Once that was over, though, I was left feeling hollow.

I'm trying to go on with life as usual, taking things one day at a time, but it's not quite working. I can go through all the motions OK, but everything feels different, less real or fun or important. I'm just kind of sad all the time and doing my best to distract myself from the emotional void that's growing inside of me. On top of all that, the world seems even crazier and more absurd to me than before; and the people I find myself increasingly relating to the most are the religious hermits who turn their backs on the world because the world has turn its back on itself. The only thing that's helped to fill the void, the only thing that's helped to heal the hurt and pierce the numbness, has been the love and support of others.

Monday, June 22, 2015

climate change is a moral issue

Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote a response to the pope's recently-released encyclical on the environment, echoing the pope's call for everyone to take climate change seriously and take action:

On June 18, Pope Francis issued an encyclical letter, Laudato si’ (Praised Be), “On Care for our Common Home,” pointing to climate change as the overriding moral issue of our time. The encyclical boldly proclaims that humanity’s capacity to alter the climate charges us with the gravest moral responsibility we have ever had to bear. Climate change affects everyone. The disruptions to the biosphere occurring today bind all peoples everywhere into a single human family, our fates inseparably intertwined. No one can escape the impact, no matter how remotely they may live from the bustling centers of industry and commerce. The responsibility for preserving the planet falls on everyone.

The future of human life on earth hangs in a delicate balance, and the window for effective action is rapidly closing. Tipping points and feedback loops threaten us as ominously as nuclear warheads. What heightens the danger is our proclivity to apathy and denial. For this reason, we must begin tackling the crisis with an act of truth, by acknowledging that climate change is real and stems from human activity. On this, the science is clear, the consensus among climate scientists almost universal. The time for denial, skepticism, and delay is over.

Our carbon-based economies generate not only mountains of commodities but also heat waves and floods, rising seas and creeping deserts. The climate mirrors the state of our minds, reflecting back to us the choices we make at regional, national, and global levels. These choices, both collective and personal, are inescapably ethical. They are strung out between what is convenient and what is right. They determine who will live and who will die, which communities will flourish and which will perish. Ultimately they determine nothing less than whether human civilization itself will survive or collapse.

Since religions command the loyalty of billions, they must lead the way in the endeavor to combat climate change, using their ethical insights to mobilize their followers. As a nontheistic religion, Buddhism sees our moral commitments as stemming not from the decree of a Creator God but from our obligation to promote the true well-being of ourselves and others. The Buddha traces all immoral conduct to three mental factors, which he calls the three unwholesome roots: greed, hatred, and delusion. Greed propels economies to voraciously consume fossil fuels in order to maximize profits, ravaging the finite resources of the earth and filling its sinks with toxic waste. Hatred underlies not only war and bigotry but also the callous indifference that allows us to consign billions of people to hunger, drought, and devastating floods without batting an eye. Delusion—self-deception and the deliberate deceiving of others—is reinforced by the falsehoods churned out by fossil-fuel interests to block remedial action.

We thus need to curb the influence of greed, hatred, and delusion on the operation of social systems. Policy formation must be motivated not by narrow self-interest but by a magnanimous spirit of generosity, compassion, and wisdom. An economy premised on infinite expansion, geared toward endless production and consumption, has to be replaced by a steady-state economy governed by the principle of sufficiency, which gives priority to contentment, service to others, and inner fulfillment as the measure of the good life.

The moral tide of our age pushes us in two directions. One is to uplift the living standards of the billions mired in poverty, struggling each day to survive. The other is to preserve the integrity and sustaining capacity of the planet. A rapid transition to an economy powered by clean and renewable sources of energy, with transfers of the technology to developing countries, would enable us to accomplish both, to combine social justice with ecological sustainability.

At the very outset, we must start the transition by making highly specific national and global commitments to curb carbon emissions, and we must do so fast. The Conference of the Parties meeting in Paris this December has to show the way. The meeting must culminate in a climate accord that imposes truly rigorous, binding, and enforceable targets for emissions reductions. Pledges and promises alone won’t suffice: enforcement mechanisms are critical. And beyond a strong accord, we’ll need an international endeavor, undertaken with a compelling sense of urgency, to shift the global economy away from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy.

Pope Francis reminds us that climate change poses not only a policy challenge but also a call to the moral conscience. If we continue to burn fossil fuels to empower unbridled economic growth, the biosphere will be destabilized, resulting in unimaginable devastation, the deaths of many millions, failed states, and social chaos. Shifting to clean and renewable energy can reverse this trend, opening pathways to a steady-state economy that uplifts living standards for all. One way leads deeper into a culture of death; the other leads to a new culture of life. As climate change accelerates, the choice before us is becoming starker, and the need to choose wisely grows ever more urgent.

It adds a moral/ethical dynamic to a threat that faces all of us, one that urges all of us to recognize our interconnectedness and responsibility to one another and our home. I don't think Bhikkhu Bodhi is exaggerating when he says, "Pope Francis reminds us that climate change poses not only a policy challenge but also a call to the moral conscience. If we continue to burn fossil fuels to empower unbridled economic growth, the biosphere will be destabilized, resulting in unimaginable devastation, the deaths of many millions, failed states, and social chaos."

Climate change is something that affects all of us; and both argue that a collective response to it is imperative. I, for one, am inclined to agree.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


Friday night, I went to Matthew's sitting and discussion group for the first time in a long time. They were in the middle of exploring MN 2, which elucidates several methods of mental training devised to eliminate the defilements obstructing the realization of awakening. And as it happened, a few students from Jesuit High School were there, most likely as a part of a comparative religions course.

It felt good to meditate. I haven't sat and meditated in weeks, maybe more. It was also a bit challenging as the focus happened to be the three characteristics, i.e., impermanence, suffering, and not-self. Theravada Buddhism sees nothing in the world as fixed, static. All is in flux. One could even say all is flux. The only 'permanent' is nibbana, which is permanent precisely because it's unborn, unmade, unconditioned, etc., meaning it lies outside of space and time and is free from conditionality, from change and flux.

This is one of the more difficult areas to reconcile Buddhism and Christianity, although it's not entirely impossible. Suffering arises when we cling on a deep, psychological level to that which is inconstant, when we base our happiness on things that have the nature to change. But when we constantly examine our sensory experience, we can begin to cultivate a sense of dispassion that cuts through our clinging and opens us to something transcendent.

Although the dominant belief in Theravada is that there's no soul or self to be found, and the Dhamma and experience of nibbana are talked about in impersonal terms, neither is said to be impermanent, and each contains aspects and functions commonly attributed to God. Moreover, other traditions do have teachings about our buddha-nature (tathagatagarbha) or true self, which is a positive expression of emptiness. While paradoxical, it's not unlike the way Erigena approached the paradoxical nature of God:

Erigena used the dialectical method of Denys in his own discussion of God, who could only be explained by a paradox that reminded us of the limitations of our human understanding. Both the positive and the negative approaches to God were valid. God was incomprehensible: even the angels do not know or understand his essential nature but it was acceptable to make a positive statement, such as "God is wise," because when we refer it to God we know that we are not using the word "wise" in the usual way. We remind ourselves of this by going on to make a negative statement, saying "God is not wise." The paradox forces us to move on to Denys's third way of talking about God, when we conclude: "God is more than wise." This was what the Greeks called an apophatic statement because we do not understand what "more than wise" can possibly mean. Again, this was not simply a verbal trick but a discipline that by juxtaposing two mutually exclusive statements helps us to cultivate a sense of the mystery that our word "God" represents, since it can never be confined to a merely human concept.

When he applied this method to the statement "God exists," Erigena arrived, as usual, at the synthesis: "God is more than existence." God does not exist like the things he has created and is not just another being existing alongside them, as Denys had pointed out. Again, this was an incomprehensible statement, because, Erigena comments, "what that is which is more than 'being' it does not reveal. For it says that God is not one of the things that are, but that he is more than the things that are, but what that 'is' is, it in no way defines." In fact, God is "Nothing." Erigena knew that this sounded shocking and he warned his reader not to be afraid. His method was devised to remind us that God is not an object; he does not possess "being" in any sense that we can comprehend. God is "He who is more than being" (aliquo modo superesse). His mode of existence is as different from ours as our being is from an animal's and an animal's from a rock. But if God is "Nothing" he is also "Everything": because this "super-existence" means that God alone has true being, he is the essence of everything that partakes of this. Every one of his creatures, therefore, is a theophany, a sign of God's presence. Erigena's Celtic piety—encapsulated in St Patrick's famous prayer: "God be in my head and in my understanding"—led him to emphasis the immanence of God. (A History of God, 198-99)

I find the similarities between the two ideas interesting, and I suspect that mystics as a group tend to share a common point of view and experience of the transcendent that's often overlooked because of the divergent terms and concepts these ideas and experiences are filtered through. I don't think that all religions are one, but I'm starting to think that all religious truths are, or at least they're pointing towards the same proverbial moon.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

the contemplative vehicle

On today, a university student doing some research for an essay regarding contemporary Buddhism asked, Why does Buddhism appeal to you? My answer to such questions changes depending on the day, with certain aspects taking the forefront in my mind, and today was no different. Since recently starting Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, some of the things mentioned in the introduction and foreword have given me a new appreciation for what the Buddha taught from an evolutionary standpoint.

According to people like Dawkins, for example, there are two kinds of units in natural selection, the gene (as replicator) and the organism (as vehicle). And while the vehicle may be more or less altruistic, doing things out of compassion, generosity, love, etc., the genes are decidedly 'selfish.' In this context, deceit is arguably fundamental in animal communication, therefore, as Robert Trivers points out, "there must be strong selection to spot deception and this ought, in turn, to select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray - by the subtle signs of self-knowledge - the deception being practiced" (The Selfish Gene, xx).

Here we see that some of our motivations, influenced by a subtle form of selfishness (original sin?), lay hidden within us. This is akin to the Buddhist teaching that many of our actions are conditioned/coloured by greed, aversion, and delusion (i.e., selfishness and self-deception); and one of the Buddha's insights was that we can master these mental processes of conditionality in such a way as to 'go against the stream' of craving (tahna, which here can be seen as the influence of genetic selfishness on human psychology) and ultimately transcend craving altogether. As Dawkins puts it, "Our brains have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes" (xiv); and the Buddha was one of the greatest revolutionaries in this regard.

So looking at it from the perspective of evolutionary biology, I'd say that it's the contemplative aspects of Buddhism that appeal to me the most. Although other religious traditions have their own forms of robust contemplativism, Buddhism has a very thorough and explicit form that I think cuts straight to the heart of the human condition. By practicing things like mindfulness meditation and constantly observing our actions via MN 61, we begin to remove this evolutionary veil of ignorance or avijja ('not knowing'), allowing us to see within the hidden depths of our psyche so that we can begin to condition changes in our behaviour and perception that lead to fuller awareness, self-knowledge and control, and liberation via transcendence of our genetic programming.

Today, Buddhism comes in all shapes and sizes, arising out of a peculiar Indic culture, replete with its own religious traditions and worldview, and further shaped by the diverse cultures in which it's taken root, giving rise to numerous schools and approaches. Much of it may appear to be outdated and superstitious to the scientifically minded; but I think the underlying goal, as well as the various practices and insights that characterize 'Buddhism,' have a lot to offer us in terms of understanding and transforming ourselves.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

recognizing the dhamma

Yesterday, instead of going out with friends, I went to PFoD to see Ajahn Thanissaro, who's visiting from Wat Metta. The night followed the general schedule when monks visit: tea, casual discussion, meditation, Dhamma talk and Q and A. Being Halloween, the topic of the talk was fear, but with a Buddhist twist. Rather than being afraid of things outside, like ghosts, goblins, zombies, or even wild animals, we should really fear the unskillful things that come up in the mind and how acting on those things harms ourselves and others.

At one point, he said that one of the reasons zombies are so popular right now is because of our culture and how we're afraid, unconsciously or otherwise, of consumerism and other memes infecting us and turning us into zombies. He compared these things to the parasites in nature that infect other animals and make them do things that aren't in their best interest, but are in the best interest of the parasite. In the same way, things like greed, hatred, and delusion, or the things in society that arise out of and prey upon the greed, hatred, and delusion in our minds, make us do things that aren't in our best interest. When walking down a grocery store aisle, what makes us grab the things that we know aren't good for us?

In a sense, our minds can be our own worst enemies, and it's within our minds that real suffering arises. To help counter the influence of greed, hatred, and delusion, as well as to distill fear, Buddhism offers four guardian meditations to put the mind in the present, nourish it, and help it discern which ideas are worth listening to and which aren't: recollection of the Buddha, goodwill, foulness of body meditation, and recollection of death. From a transcript of a similar talk given at Wat Metta:

There's a series of meditations called guardian meditations, which are very helpful in using skillful perceptions to get the mind in the right mood, in the right attitude, with the right understanding, as you come into the present moment. You'll often find, as you're sitting here meditating on the breath, that the problem is not with the breath. It's with the mental baggage you're carrying with you. So you want to open up the bags and throw out all the unnecessary weight. There's an image they have in Thailand of the old woman who carries around a huge bundle of straw on her back. She's always bent over because she's carrying so much straw. People ask her why she doesn't put it down, and she says, "Well, someday this straw's going to come in handy, so I'm carrying it for the day I'll need it." So she carries it wherever she goes. Of course there are many other things she could be carrying, but she can't because the straw is such a huge bundle, and of course it's pretty useless.

So you want to look into your baggage to see how much straw you're carrying around, so that you can lighten your load. Then you can replace it with better things, things that really will be useful. And the guardian meditations are a good way of sorting things out in your baggage.

The first guardian meditation is recollection of the Buddha, keeping in mind his Awakening, reflecting on it as a central event in the history of the world. The fact of his Awakening shows that through human effort true happiness can be found. It's an important point to keep in mind because so much of our modern culture tries to say, "Hey. You can't have an ultimate and deathless happiness, but you can have the happiness that comes from our eggbeater with an MP3 player built right into the handle," or whatever. In other words, they keep you focused on what you can get out of buying their stuff, which is all pretty miserable. How many articles in The Onion are based on this: "Woman discovers that buying that new mop did not deliver the fulfillment that she hoped it would bring to her life." In other words, our culture keeps us aiming pretty low: "Go for the quick fix. Go for something that doesn't require any effort or skill on your part, just money." They dress it up, make it sound like you'll be really happy if you buy their stuff.

So it's important to keep in mind that there was someone in the past who found true happiness and it was through his own efforts. And, as he said, it wasn't because he was a special god or anything. It was simply through developing qualities of mind that we can all develop — man, woman, child, lay or ordained: ardency, resolution, heedfulness. We all have these qualities to some extent. It's simply a matter of developing them. The same with virtue, concentration, discernment: These are things we all have to some extent. It's simply a matter of learning how to make them all-around.

So when you're tempted to go for the quick but short happiness, remind yourself, "The Buddha says that true happiness is possible, and that it can be gained through human effort." Do you want to live your life without exploring that possibility? Or do you just want to write it off?

In this way, keeping the Buddha's Awakening in mind is an important perception, an important perspective, to bring to all of your experiences. And there are many other things that you can gain by thinking about the Buddha's life: the sort of person he was, his last message to be heedful. He was the sort of person who had already found true happiness. He didn't need to gain anything from anyone else, but he went out and he taught for 45 years, walking around Northern India. Wherever there was someone who was ready to be taught, ready to benefit from his teachings, he would walk there. That's the kind of person who taught this Dhamma. Not someone who was running a retreat center and needed to bring in cash, and who was willing to say anything to attract clientele, but someone acting totally out of pure motives, pure compassion. So that's the kind of practice we're practicing as we follow his path. And it's ennobling for us to practice in that lineage.

So these are good perceptions to hold in mind. Especially when you're getting discouraged or tempted to give up on the practice, or if you think, "Well, maybe I'm not up to this": Remember that the essential qualities for Awakening are qualities that everybody can develop. But we have to develop them ourselves. We can't depend on anyone outside to come and do it for us. That's the other part of the message of the Buddha's life, the part that keeps you on your toes.

The second guardian meditation is goodwill. You want to bring an attitude of goodwill to everybody around you. When the Buddha talked about goodwill in the brahma-viharas, it wasn't ordinary, everyday goodwill. It was goodwill all around, without limit. That's not easy. It doesn't come naturally to us. We tend to have goodwill for certain people, and not so much for other people. As a result, our actions very easily turn unskillful. It's very easy to do harm to the people we don't care about or who aren't on our list of people who deserve to be happy. And it's also easy to drop people from the list when the mood strikes us, to treat even the people we love in unskillful ways.

So to protect yourself from that kind of unskillful action, you've got to learn how to make your goodwill all-around, 24/7. That doesn't mean creating a cloud machine that sends out billowing clouds in all directions to hide your lack of goodwill. When you start spreading thoughts of goodwill, first you spread it to people who are easy — the people you already love and like — and then to people who are harder. Even though you don't like them, you can ask yourself: "Why would I not want this person to be happy?" After all, when people aren't happy, they can do cruel and miserable things. The world would be a better place if everyone could find true happiness inside, regardless of whether you like them or not, or whether they've been good or not, or whether they're on your list of the "deserving." And besides, who made you the National Bureau of Standards? Why should your likes and dislikes rule the world? In this way, goodwill meditation is meant to be a challenge for you to really think through why you'd want to limit your goodwill, and to remind yourself of why it's good to have goodwill for everyone. You can't act on harmful intentions if your goodwill is all around. This is why it's called a guardian meditation.

The third guardian meditation is of the foulness of the body. A lot of people don't like this one. If we took a poll of meditators here in the West, we'd probably find this at the bottom of the list of popular meditation topics, yet it's very useful. Some people say, "Hey, I've already got a negative body image. Why do you want me to make it even more negative?" Well, there's healthy negative body image, as well as an unhealthy one. Unhealthy is when you see that your body is ugly, but other people have beautiful bodies. Healthy is when you see that we all have the same garbage inside ourselves: Nobody's liver would win the Miss Universe contest. This contemplation is helpful because it's a guardian. It protects you from inappropriate lust. There are so many people out there you could feel lust for, but if you acted on it you'd create a lot of trouble. Even if you're not practicing celibacy, you need a way to guard yourself against that kind of vagrant lust. So the next time you see an attractive person, instead of weaving all sorts of narratives from the ideas and associations you've developed around beauty, it's good to teach yourself other narratives, other associations. Right under the skin, what have you got? You've got all these blood vessels and nerves and uck! And as you go deeper, it's gets more uck! And what do you gain out of lusting for that? Why would you want it?

This sort of contemplation really goes against the grain, which is one of the reasons why it's useful to reflect on over and over and over again. Ajaan Maha Boowa keeps making the point: Don't count the number of times you've reflected on the foulness of the body. Just keep doing it until it's done its job. After all, our lusting after the human body is what led us to be born. This is what keeps us wanting to come back, and it makes us do really stupid things. So this contemplation is a useful tool to have in your arsenal. It's a useful new set of perceptions to develop. Our perceptions of beauty are dangerous, so it's good to learn how to see that beautiful bodies are not really beautiful. All you have to do is look inside a little bit and you see all kinds of stuff that can kill the lust if you really allow yourself to look at the body as a whole, and not just at the few parts you tend to focus on as being attractive.

The fourth guardian meditation is recollection of death. For most people this is pretty disturbing and depressing, but it's meant to be used in a way that's inspiring, that helps us to follow the path beyond death to the deathless. Remind yourself that we've got this practice that allows us to prepare for death and transcend it. Have you fully developed it? Are you really prepared? And the answer is almost always No. Okay, then, you've got work to do.

This is a good antidote for laziness. There's a great sutta where the Buddha talks about eight reasons for laziness and eight reasons for being diligent, and for both lists the external conditions are the same. You can be lazy because you're feeling sick; you can be lazy because you are about to go on a trip; you can be lazy because you've just gotten back from a trip; you can be lazy because you just recovered from an illness; you can be lazy because you haven't eaten enough; you can be lazy because you've eaten too much. But you can also use those circumstances to remind yourself: "I don't have much time." When you just recover from an illness, instead of saying, "I'm still weak, I'm not quite well yet, let me rest," you remind yourself: "I could get sick again. I could have a relapse, but at least now I've some strength, let me give this strength to the practice." If you haven't eaten enough, remind yourself, "The body is light; I'm not spending all that time and energy digesting my food, so I've got more energy now for the practice." You've got the right conditions for sitting very quietly, very still.

So your attitude is what's going to make the difference between whether the circumstances you've got right now are reasons for laziness or reasons for diligence. When you remind yourself that you don't know how much time you've got, it should stir you to action — so that when the time comes, when you really do have to go, you're ready, prepared. You've got the concentration, you've got the power of discernment, you've got the strength of mind to deal with whatever comes your way.

If you sit around saying, "Please may I not die, please may I not die," someday you'll still have to die no matter how much you plead. A wiser attitude would be: "Please may I be ready when the time comes. May I have the strength to deal with any difficulty that might come my way." Then you realize that this is something you have in your power: to work on those strengths. After all, we've got the example of how the Buddha died. This is why these two recollections — recollection of the Buddha and recollection of death — go well together. The Buddha shows you how you can prepare. You look at the way he died: one last trip through all the jhanas. He died with no suffering at all and gained total release. It's possible for a human being to do this. If you think that comparing yourself to the Buddha is too much of a stretch, think about the members of the Sangha. You can read the verses of the elder monks and the elder nuns. Some of them were pretty miserable, total losers in meditation at first, and yet they were able to pull themselves together. They could do it; you can do it.

So these four contemplations are guardian meditations to bring wisdom into your perception of things, the labels and ideas you bring to your experience. The more you develop them, then the better the set of associations, the better the set of narratives you bring to, say, just the fact you're breathing, or the fact you're seeing, hearing, tasting, or touching things in the present moment. In other words, what you bring into the present moment is going to make all the difference.

Today, Ajahn Thanissro hosted a daylong on 'recognizing the Dhamma' based off of a study guide by the same name. The first half of the day was devoted to meditation, while the remainder was dedicated to covering the material. There were a lot of things covered throughout the day, and I've forgotten more than I remember, but the framework of the material was helpful. One of the strong points of Buddhist contemplativism, in my opinion, is the depth and structure with which the Buddha's contemplative practices and the ideas underlying them are laid out on the Pali Canon; and Ajahn Thanissaro is particularly skilled at collecting complementary teachings together in a clear, concise, and practical way.

The daylong both reaffirmed my appreciation for Buddhism and made me feel a bit discouraged by highlighting the sheer amount of work I still have to do. For me, the main thing I got from it all was that I really need to motivate myself more. Going through the passages in Recognizing the Dhamma, everything sounded so simple. But I know from experience that putting most of these things into practice is a lot easier said than done, and I felt a sense of shame in how lazy I've been in my practice. I feel like I've let myself down. And worst of all, I feel like I've let others down. I want to get serious about my practice, but at the same time, there are so many TV shows I need to catch up on and I can't stop thinking about what I'm going to do for breakfast tomorrow before mass. It seems like my life revolves around sensual pleasures and planning for the next pleasant experience.

Just about everything I do, in some shape or form, revolves around pleasure, even my suffering. It's not a novel thought by any means; but it's the first time I've really understood it on an intuitive level. Take something simple and innocuous like bike riding, for example. Riding in and of itself is pleasurable, especially on a nice day and a pleasant trail. Working out my body is pleasurable too, getting me in better shape — making me feel better about myself, which is psychologically pleasurable — and producing endorphins, which is both physically and psychologically pleasurable. But when biking ceases to be pleasurable, that absence of pleasure is a form of suffering. If I start to develop pain while riding, I suffer. If the trail is too busy, I suffer. If the weather changes for the worse, I suffer. My pleasure is interrupted or transformed into its opposite.

Same with just about anything, really. When I go out with my friends, it's with the expectation that their company is going to be pleasurable, as is the food we're going to eat, the beer we're going to drink, etc. But if the wrong people are around, or they don't have the particular kind of beer I like, suffering, unsatisfactoriness (a mild form to be sure). And when I decide to stay home, it's generally because I'm feeling depressed or generally just shitty and the thought of being around people at that moment in time seems like anything but pleasurable.

I used to think Epicurus' hedonist philosophy was overly simplistic, reducing everything to the pleasure principle; but the more I think about it, the more profound and pragmatic I find it to be, and I find a lot of similarities between the middle way of Buddhism (i.e., the middle way between the two extremes of self-mortification and self-indulgence) and the hedonism of Epicurus.

Epicurus' philosophy, for example, was aimed at attaining ataraxia, peace of mind and freedom from fear, and aponia, the absence of pain, via a system of ethics, rational thinking/contemplation, and a secluded, moderate lifestyle. His hedonism wasn't so much unlimited indulgence in sensual pleasures as it was about balance. Epicurus himself held that the absence of pain was the highest pleasure (compare that to the idea of nibbana being the highest bliss a la Dhp 202-04), and he favoured static pleasure over dynamic pleasure. The difference is explained by Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy using hunger as an example:

Dynamic pleasures consist in the attainment of a desired end, the previous desire having been accompanied by pain. Static pleasures consist in a state of equilibrium, which results from the existence of the kind of state of affairs that would be desired if it were absent. I think one may say that the satisfying of hunger, while it is in progress, is a a dynamic pleasure while, but the state of quiescence which supervenes when hunger is completely satisfied is a static pleasure. Of these two kinds, Epicurus holds it more prudent to pursue the second, since it is unalloyed, and does not depend upon the existence of pain as a stimulus to desire. When the body is in a state of equilibrium, there is no pain; we should, therefore, aim at equilibrium and the quiet pleasures rather than the more violent joys. Epicurus, it seems, would wish, if it were possible, to be always in the state of having eaten moderately, never in that of voracious desire to eat. (233)

This doesn't mean, of course, that you constantly stuff your face, but that you eat moderately, just enough to keep the body from experiencing the pain of hunger but not so much that it experiences the pain of overeating. In fact, Epicurus himself, contrary to popular belief, bordered on asceticism, renouncing sex and living off of little more than bread and cheese. The Buddha had a similar attitude towards food (among other things), as well. For example, from AN 4.37:

And how does a monk know moderation in eating? There is the case where a monk, considering it appropriately, takes his food not playfully, nor for intoxication, nor for putting on bulk, nor for beautification, but simply for the survival & continuance of this body, for ending its afflictions, for the support of the holy life, thinking, 'I will destroy old feelings [of hunger] & not create new feelings [from overeating]. Thus I will maintain myself, be blameless, & live in comfort.' This is how a monk knows moderation in eating.

Just as we seem to instinctively avoid pain because it's unpleasant and causes us suffering (motivating us to be rid of it if at all possible), indulging too much in sensual pleasures can quickly become unpleasant, a source suffering. I eat too much of delicious food, my stomach hurts. I drink too much delicious beer, my head hurts. And it can even get more complicated when we derive pleasure from pain itself. But at the heart of it is our desire for pleasure, and boredom is one of our biggest enemies, forever driving us to seek new pleasures—an endless cycle of grasping at shadows to fill a primordial void that can't psychologically or physiologically be filled. Thinking about it this way, though, is a little depressing.

Sure, we may find new and entertaining things that give us some happiness and pleasure and to help time go by; but in the end, it's really the same old shit that never truly satisfies us. Not only do we have to endlessly consume food to keep our bodies alive, eventually getting bored of eating the same thing, and often eating things that might taste good but aren't particularly good for us (causing suffering in the future), we also have to endlessly consume experiences that eventually bore us and/or aren't good for us in the long run. And none of them, in the final analysis, are truly satisfying—we go on craving and consuming, craving and consuming, until our bodies/minds just eventually give out.

Our thirst for pleasure seems unquenchable, and realizing this on a deep, existential level makes me appreciate philosophies that try to steer the ship of our desires away from the rocky shores of sensual pleasure and towards a true and lasting happiness that isn't dependent on any conditions whatsoever. Pleasant experiences aren't evil in and of themselves, of course; but if we spend most of our time and energy planning for them and acquiring them rather than training our minds, we're ultimately setting ourselves up for disappointment, something I think consistent with the spirit of James 4.