Dukkha in Drag: Freaking out over Supernatural Beliefs

March 14, 2010


I got into Buddhism for some simple reasons. 

  1. It acknowledges that life involves suffering, and teaches you how to deal with it.
  2. It doesn’t assume that everyone is a sinner.  What you do creates suffering or it doesn’t, and the more you learn about living without suffering the more often you’ll choose not to do the things that make you suffer.  (One of the things that makes you suffer is creating suffering for other people.) 
  3. It doesn’t assume that the answer is “out there” somewhere.  It demonstrates that the answer has all about being aware of each moment, here, now.
  4. The question is not “How do I find the answer?”  But, “How do I stay awake right now?” Because if you’re searching for the answer you won’t find it.  You can only find it by staying awake. 

But I keep running across practices that absolutely didn’t fit that little outline.  For example, I picked up this book called A Buddha From Brooklyn.  It is about this Italian American chick that someone decided was a Buddha, so she started a meditation center.  She’s constantly getting married and unmarried.  Lots of suffering there for her and the guys and the people around them. She wears heels to meditation practice… not “wrong”, just not really practical. And it’s her goal over the course of this book to build the biggest stupa in her area … a tower with a certain  bulbous shape…  fill it with relics such as the finger bone of some dead teacher and some rice and beans so that when it’s finished if you walk around it in a clockwise circle you’ll be healed or have wishes granted.   She is believed to be clairvoyant. 

Oh, boy.  She wanted the biggest and best magical object.  Competition and the supernatural.  Dukkha in drag. 

So I asked some folks in my sangha about the supernatural.  Basically, does everyone here believe this kind of thing, and is everyone expected to believe it if they come here?  Because, honestly, I was going to have to do some serious thinking if that was the case.  The main answer I got was from Will, a guy I’ve come to respect a great deal who said, “I am a skeptic at heart and I hold my skepticism dear.  The Buddha said to be a light unto yourself and if what he said doesn’t match your experience, by all means go with your own experience.” 

Oh, whew.  But then he said to be open and explore each thing that comes your way… skepticism shouldn’t be about just discarding everything that is different from what you know now.  That’s just another kind of attachment.  And attachment causes suffering.  Oh my. 

Okay.  Alright.  Basically the basic Buddhist take is that the iconography is about helping you focus, and if it is distracting, you don’t need it.  You’re not worshiping when you bow, you’re focusing your attention. You’re not worshiping the buddha statue if you happen to have one (and there is not one in our sangha), you’re using it it acknowledge that he had a good idea when he figured out how much good being fully present in each moment does.  Such acknowledgement helps you center and focus on the now.  The rest is just decoration, and as such completely unnecessary.  In fact, our sangha’s shrine bears simple objects to symbolize each of the senses.  In behavior analysis we would call them discriminitive stimuli that act as cues to observe the environment.  Cool! 

Whenever people don’t fully understand something they think it’s magic, and where there is magical thinking, people do weird things.  More on that in a minute. 

So I asked another burning question that was more personal.  In the Buddhist teachings we are advised not to cause harm to any sentient being.  In my job sometimes I recommend euthanasia for animals that are behaviorally unsound.  The way I make my decisions is basically, if the animal is likely to cause someone harm or if the animal’s current suffering is so great as to be untenable and perhaps unresolvable, or if his condition is such that confinement is the only safe solution, and such confinement is likely to result in lifelong suffering for the animal, then I recommend euthanasia.  I do not technically have the last word, but in practice, when it comes to behavior issues, my decision is almost always the final one.  That’s hard, so I wondered if Buddhism offered any snappy answers to that one. 

This lead to some uneasiness in the sangha.  One advanced practitioner reminded me that we are called upon to engage in “Right Livelihood”, and while she was kind, it was clear that to her this meant I should be considering a job change at some point.  In fact, she approached me later and suggested that in a couple of years I might find that it was time to move away from this line of work.  She also suggested, completely innocently, that these animals be provided with sanctuary somewhere or even released into the wild.  Oh, my.  Knowing what I know, this would create really bad karma. I forget that most people really don’t know the whole story about animal suffering. Not even close.

One guy said, “The Dharma recommends not killing, but it also acknowledges that it is impossible not to kill.  There’s not solid right and wrong.”

That helped me distill my question down to, “What is more significant?  Prolonging life or eliminating suffering?”  

One guy suggested that perhaps this is one way I can either serve my Karma, or even create good Karma to carry forward.  He said, “Maybe you are meant to be there because you have the ability to protect other people from having to make such a hard decision.”  I wanted to hug him. 

I know that what I do prevents far more suffering than it creates.  But I often feel quite sad about it.  One time we had to euthanize this dog that the staff loved. He was a purebred pit bull who didn’t like other dogs and was just always right on the rough edge of our “he’s a keeper” policy for a long list of reasons. When he got sick and the decision was made to euthanize the staff was broken hearted, and some were quite angry.  My heart bled for them and for the dog, and it was one of those rare days that I broke my open door office policy and locked myself in to ponder the meaning of life and my place in it for a while.

Will said, “You’re not going to get a definite answer on this one.”  Hello, Buddha.

So I spent the next few days with some minor angst.  I even asked myself if maybe I should be thinking about finding different work.  That caused significant brain drama for a couple of days.  Talk about attachment causing suffering!  Just thinking about walking away from my job caused suffering. 

At one point in the discussion about the supernatural Will said that there are times in his work as a psycho-therapist when his clients think he’s psychic because he read their situation so clearly and even assumed correctly about some situation they had experienced but had not told him about. He said, “It’s not that I’m psychic.  It’s just that I’ve been doing this work for 30 years and I’ve seen the same patterns over and over again.”  It’s like me and the dogs.  Sometimes I know what they’re going to do next because I’ve seen the patterns before. 

Maybe that’s all clairvoyance is.  Maybe that’s what the supernatural is. It seems magical to Sam because he hasn’t seen it before, but Sue has seen it again and again and again, so she can predict what will happen next.  Sam worships at his altar filled with awe and longing, while Sue attends her shrine to remind her that it’s all available to her if she just pays attention, and she experiences no longing and is filled with peace. 

A day or two after the conversations, I found a book in my Kindle that I had not yet read.  Buddhism Pure and Simple by Steve Hagan.  It was the right book at the right time.  He wrote, “It’s not about whether you’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing.  It’s about being awake while you’re doing it.”  And if you are awake while you’re doing each thing, you will find yourself doing more things that cause less suffering and fewer things that cause more suffering.  You can only achieve this if you stay present in every moment.  The path doesn’t lead to anywhere out there, it only leads to right here where I am. 

Simple, but so alien. 

Peace (Shiwa) from the Meditator Tot.

Kellie

Shiwa Nyi-Tso

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3 Responses to “Dukkha in Drag: Freaking out over Supernatural Beliefs”

  1. Cathy G Says:

    Just found your blog. Thank-you for this post. You are the one for the job you have. To have the deep understanding of why it’s necessary and the compassion for the animal and the faith that what you do today can avoid suffering in the future for both humans and the animal is a gift. My deepest appreciation!


  2. I’m touched. Thank you so much.

  3. Laurel Says:

    This reminds me of Temple Grandin saying she can’t stop people eating meat, but she can make sure the animals are treated as well as possible on their journey. I agree with you and Cathy, the compassionate path is not always the sentimental or the obvious one, the suggestion to just “let animals go free” is in reality often a horrendous one. With the economic downturn the problem of horses abandoned and neglected in the USA is huge. Here in Australia abandoned, and now feral, dogs and cats pose a big problem to often endangered native wildlife, and cause suffering for farm stock. My own take on ‘super-natural’ is just that, things within nature a lot of so-called primitive people understood very well, but which our science first dismissed then took a while to catch up with. Like animals having emotions and thoughts. Like with the resistance to CAT, seems we can’t “see” it till we’re ready to change our mindset. Blog as always thought provoking…thanks Kellie (for the dogs as well.)


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