This is the way I remember this story.  I’m sure there are details I’m not getting exactly as it happened, but the events described are real. 

In January 1992 my sister, Kerrie, and her husband, Kelly, who were living in Gretna, Louisiana, across the river from New Orleans, went out driving with their 3 month old daughter, Chelsea, who was fussy that evening.  Kelly had just gotten off work and was tired and Kerrie drove. They pulled up to an ATM at their bank to make a deposit.  When they stopped, another vehicle blocked their exit and two young men- probably only teenagers- jumped out wearing nylon stockings over their faces and weilding hand guns.  One ran to each side of the car.  Kerrie shoved her purse out the window thinking that was what they wanted. 

The man on the passenger’s side smashed the window and shot across the front seat, hitting Kerrie in the left thigh.  The bullet went clear through her leg, missing the bone but barely, and lodged in the door of the car.  Then the same shooter turned to Kelly who was turning to block Chelsea in her car seat in the back.  The gun was aimed at Kelly’s chest, but as he turned and raised his arm the bullet shattered his elbow. 

A courageous woman ran to their sides and held terrified little Chelsea and talked with them while they waited for the police.  She stayed with them in the danger and prayed with them and comforted them as much as was possible. 

My mother called to tell me, and I felt like I was in an elevator that suddenly dropped.  They were alive, but they’d been seriously injured.  Chelsea had only minor scrapes from flying glass. But someone shot my sister and her husband and the world was no longer safe for anyone.  Always before when I had thought of someone hurting my loved ones I thought that I would want revenge. There would be no revenge for this crime.  The young men shot and injured four people that night, but they were never caught. 

The surprise was that I felt no desire for them to be hurt in return. I wanted them to be stopped and incarcerated since clearly they were not safe members of society.  But the thought that haunted me was, “What happened to these boys to make them so willing to hurt my sister’s family?”  When I talked with my brother and mother and sister, they all echoed the thought.  What happened to them when they were little boys?  Who failed to love them?  What hurricane took their security?  What parent failed to provide them with unconditional love?  Who exploited their trust with pain so deep that the only way to expel it was to cause intense and overwhelming fear in others?

The police surmised that they were doing a gang initation, but they didn’t kill anyone.  They shot 3 women in the leg and one man in the arm… although I suspect if Kelly had turned less quickly the bullet would have entered his chest and the death count would have been one. But it wasn’t.  They weren’t good enough at evil to kill. 

I’m not sure why compassion was available to me then.  Compassion didn’t make me wish for those boys to have freedom nor to think that what they did didn’t matter.  It meant that for some reason I was able to see that a long chain of causes and effects led to what they did and that if not my sister’s family, someone else’s.  The chain of events was already in motion, rolling downhill and gathering speed. I was able to see that those boys were responding without introspection to things other people had initiated beyond and outside their control. 

In Shambhala and Buddhist study we are taught about lovingkindness.  It is also known as buddha nature, which we all have.  (Buddha was a man, not a god.  If he could do it, we, as humans, can also become buddhas.)  Basic goodness is in all of us. 

So, what of those boys that shot those good people on that dark night? Why did they behave in ways that were neither loving nor kind?  These many years later I think I know.  I think this knowing was with me all along, and revealed itself when those boys shot my sister.   

Shambhala

I just finished a weekend of Shambhala Training.  Level 2 was very difficult for me.  In Level 1 we learned about our innate goodness and lovingkindness.  In Level 2 we pulled our gazes inward, both physically during meditation, looking at the floor just in front of us rather than six feet beyond, and in terms of our mindfulness.  Rather than focusing on our inward breath, we focused on inhalation and exhalation.  It sounds easy, right?  Sit on a cushion, look at the floor beyond your feet and breath.  For an evening and two full days we sat and breathed and pulled our vision inward.  There were periods of walking meditation, interviews with our directors, talks, discussions and meals, but then it was back to the pillow.  We all struggled.  My avoidance for the weekend was fighting an urge to sleep, which has never been a problem for me during meditation before.  Sunday morning I woke up completely congested and unable to breathe through either nostril.  I got up and went to the retreat anyway, and the congestion went away.  It was like my avoidance realized I wasn’t going to fall for its trickery.  I was going whether I was sick or not.  I was not sick.  The congestion was completely gone by mid-morning. 

It was in this sitting and  breathing in and out and looking that we encountered those things in our lives that are holding us back.  For each of us it was unique, but many of us found similar obstacles.  For me, I came face to face with my tendency to avoid problems.  I’ve been working on this for ages.  In my youth if I ran into a glitch at my job, I would get a new one, or maybe a new apartment. Later if I had a problem with my marriage, I would talk and interrupt and insist that I was right. In my 40’s when things were challenging, I’d engage in some activity that kept me from having to face what was difficult. Stay busy, zone out in some hobby, don’t look anyone in the eye. 

In my 50s I began to meditate and running away or putting up barriers was revealed to be a way of attaching myself to pain.  Who knew that running away was a form of attachment?  I’ve been so attached to avoiding troubles that I haven’t learned how to deal with them very effectively. 

Compassion

So where does compassion come from?  It comes from a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of cause and effect in this world.  Those boys that shot Kerrie and Kelly have either grown into men or they have died.  If they are alive, they have either straightened up or they are still living their lives of attachments and pain.  If they have straightened up, it is because they found a way to look themselves in the eye and realize that they did possess basic goodness.  And if they are still living outside their basic goodness, it is still there inside them, untapped and unrealized.

There is no moral polarity.  Good does not exist without bad.  Black does not exist without white.  There is only awareness and its companion, lack of awareness.  Awake and not awake.  Once we recognize this, compassion arises.

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Dental Dharma

April 12, 2010

I have been getting some dental work done.  I needed a couple of crowns.  I hadn’t had anything like that done in years.  About 3 weeks ago the first tooth was shaved down, and I decided I would try to practice meditation while it was happening.  I had some moments of sort of knowing I was breathing, but mostly I tried to avoid choking.  Mindfulness can be hard, especially when you really want to be on a desert island or, heck, stuck in traffic, or anywhere but in that chair.

This morning it was better.  I figured out how not to breathe through my mouth despite having my mouth wide open, and how to concentrate on my breath while the dentist drilled his heart out.  I also learned to keep my tongue away from any gunk he puts in there- it is going to taste bad, that’s just a fact.  It’s a lot easier to meditate when you can breathe and when the most bitter flavor in the world isn’t eating a hole through your tongue. 

It was a good practice, though, both times.  Bringing yourself back to the present is challenging when you’re sitting on your zafu in a quiet room, but there is great benefit from learning to control the mind in tougher situations, too.  The fact that for seconds at a time I was able to stay with my breathe despite the drilling and nasty tastes in my mouth helped me understand that I have progressed.  I could never have done that just a short time ago. 

When Moh Hardin was here in January, he lead us on an awareness meditation, that involved walking up to stuff and just checking it out.  Truly paying attention, letting go of self-consciousness.  It was something I did all the time as a little kid, but hadn’t done, not really, in forever.  It is good. 

Now I find myself walking up to an iris and really looking it over, knowing that it will only be here a short time and then it will be gone, so now is the time to look and pay attention to it.  Now is the time to wake up.  Or else I take a really good look at the texture of the wall paper in some restaurant bathroom or the dimples and sharp textures of a brick in some wall.  Those things are going to be here for a while, but even they are fleeting. 

It’s important to understand that I am fleeting, too.  I am awake and aware, but now and only now.  And sooner or later I won’t be awake and aware at all… I will die and become part of the dirt and the bugs and the flowers. 

I hope someone will stop and look at the dirt I become in a bunch of years from now, and be awake and aware and alive in that one moment in time.  They will not see me or know I used to be made out of that dirt, but maybe they will have a little moment of presence when they will breathe in and find out they are glad they are alive.

The Buddhist Mark

April 12, 2010

When Archrya Moh Hardin was here earlier this year for a weekend retreat, in one of his talks he discussed the Buddhist Mark.  He said this is not a physical mark, but something that people can see, something that let’s them know you are on the path of mindfulness.  He told of someone he knew who was, on one occasion, standing in line to see a movie when a woman approached and said, “You’re a Buddhist, aren’t you?” and proceeded to inquire about details about some Buddhist gathering.  When she had answered the question, the friend said, “But, how did you know I was a Buddhist?”  She was just an ordinary person, dressed in ordinary clothes, standing in line to see a popular movie. 

“Oh, I can just tell,” replied the woman. 

For a long time I have noticed that each religion has it’s own facial expression.  Proper Christians are often beaming and beatific.  Republican Politicians who claim to be Christians have a mean, cutting gaze that isn’t loving at all.  Certain Unitarian Universalists have a tired intellectual look, and a college professor demeanor.  Which makes sense since a pretty good number are highly educated and if they aren’t college professors, they’ve spent their time with them.  

I didn’t know Buddhist’s had a “mark” until Moh’s talk, but if I had to describe it, it would be an expression that says, “I just woke up!”  It includes a slight hint of surprise.  Instead of making you feel like they think they have you all figured out, with a little air of smugness, which is how some Christians and some Unitiarians can make me feel, it just makes you feel like they’re paying attention to you right now.  Of course, they are.  Instead of making you feel like they have you all figured out, they make you feel like they are with you right here and now. 

This is not present in all Buddhists, and since I know only a few, I suspect there are a whole lot that don’t have that mark.  One Buddhist I know is more like a Unitarian and seems to think she knows pretty much all things Buddhist, including how I should interpret Buddhism and lead my life.  Unitarians are proud of their educations.  Some Buddhists make me feel accepted and welcomed, but I’m not sure how awake they are at any given moment.  I think like most people they struggle with distraction.  A very tiny few make me a little uncomfortable, but I don’t really understand why.  

The other day my husband said he didn’t really know how to say it but he felt that since I became a Buddhist I had changed.  When I asked how, he said, “You are easier.  You take things easier.”  I was surprised that he had noticed such a thing, although I suspect after 23 years of marriage change is tangible between two people.  And, indeed, I have noticed something like this about myself. 

I grew up in a family of people who like to be right.  I liked it, too.  I would argue points that didn’t really matter because I was convinced they did, I’d shut people down in conversation.  I would interrupt.  I am not saying that I have been cured of these practices, for sure.  But what I have noticed is that if I am truly being present with someone who is talking to me, I don’t have to be so right. There are so many things that just don’t matter, and if someone is talking to me about something that matters to her or him, what they need is for me to listen.  And if I shut up and listen, and remain mindful and present, I see things I didn’t used to have access to. 

I see their heartbreak and their pleasure and I can share it with them.  I see the answers they are looking for, sometimes, and provide a question that will help them find the answer themselves.  And I have the humility to ask the question rather than provide the answer, knowing that I might not be exactly right, but that if they answer the question themselves, they can definitely be right. 

There is a lot of power in just the simplicity of learning that the road leads to here.

Disclaimer:  I am still a Meditator Tot, not a nun or a high fallutin’ Lama.  I am also a skeptic.  What I believe in is the results I’ve obtained from the practice of Buddhist mindfulness.  Cause and effect is key. 

Feel free to skip through this for the parts you’re interested in. 

Today I was asked the following:  I’ve been studying up on world religions lately (from a philosophical viewpoint), and I’m having some difficulty with Buddhism. There doesn’t seem to be a defining text like most religions have…and that’s making it a bit difficult for me to direct my studies. Can you suggest a place/book/website for me to start studying? It really would help me out, as I’m a bit lost in the wealth of information out there. Thank you!

This is a great question and a common problem-at least it’s one I face daily as a fledgeling Buddhist. I’m going to give a little background I’ve gleaned and will recommend some books, one questioner to another.  I’ll list some books in the text and at the end. 

BACK STORY as I’ve gathered it:

Siddhartha Gautama lived some 500 years before Jesus.  His family was fairly successful, although his father was not a King as some writings claim. According to the Pali Canon he was probably more like a governor, and certainly did pretty well for himself and his family.  The name Siddhartha doesn’t show up until later writings, although the Gautama family name seems to be attached to the guy who would later become the Buddha from way back near the start. 

Legend has it that his Mom had a seer read his fortune, and it was determined that he would be either a great political or religious leader.  In that place and time to be a religious leader meant an austere life of self-sacrifice, living with a begging bowl and wearing tattered robes, so his Dad much preferred him to be a political leader.  He tried to protect him from exposure to life’s troubles like that whole pesky sickness and dying situation, but he went out with a servant, saw reality, left his cushy life and became an aescetic.  He wandered around starving for a few years, realized that starving didn’t explain anything, and went for what is known as the Middle Way, which is still recommended today.  A life of moderation.  The thing is, the whole king story was probably not exactly right, although everyone tells it as if it was the gospel.  No, wait, wrong religion.   

I found the following book very helpful in getting a grasp on what is probably as close to the Buddha story as we could possibly get:  Stephen Batchelor – Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.  He was a monk for many years as a young man, and then opted to leave for a life as a married lay Buddhist teacher.  He studied with many of the big names in Buddhism, and even had some time wtih the Dalai Lama. He writes about the Pali Canon and how he worked on sifting apart the fluff from what is likely to be authentic in those texts.  Like me, he questioned the Dalai’s tolerance of monks performing supernatural rituals and the treasuries of meaningful relics.  These seems to contradict a central tenet of Buddhist practice, that of letting go of attachments to things, to people, to outcomes in order to reduce suffering.

THE MEANING OF LIFE… Or… THE TRUTH ABOUT BEING ALIVE

The central Buddhist idea is known as the Four Noble Truths.  This is what the Buddha supposedly figured out while sitting under the Bodhi Tree, and it only took him eleven hours.  (Do you detect a hint of sarcasm? I suspect he figured it out, and he said anyone could do it.  Whether it happened under that tree in eleven hours is open for debate in my view. It’s a legend.)

1.  There is suffering in life.  (There.  Someone finally said it.)

2. The cause of suffering is attachments and cravings.  

3.  There is a way to relieve suffering.

4.  The way is to release attachments. 

ATTACHMENTS

Basically, we spend our lives running after things we want and running away from things we don’t want, applying expectations to things outside ourselves and being upset when they don’t come out the way we ever-so-deeply wanted them to.  These things we run toward or from are what Buddhists refer to as attachments.  We worry about the decisions our kids make even though they are adults; we worry about the amount of stuff we have, hoarding objects or throwing away money to get more stuff; we worry that our parents will die and our cars will get old and that we might miss our favorite TV show or forget to record it.  We attach to all kinds of worry.  We get mad when people cut us off in traffic because we are attached to moving along unimpeded.  Everything that we suffer over has to do with one sort of attachment or another.

Getting your brain around that is a huge deal.  Because the next question is, inevitably, “Are you saying I should leave my spouse and kids, and spend my life meditating under a bridge?  Am I supposed to knock off all my plans and goals… like learning more or eating right and exercising or saving for retirement?”  The good news is, no, you don’t have to.  Some people do, but frankly, I’m not convinced that isn’t its own form of attachment to an identity.   

What we do very little of is being present and awake in the moment.  Paying attention to the look and taste and shape and temperature and texture of each bite of food instead of eating while watching TV or reading or driving and not even appreciating it. (This is why MacDonald’s is popular. Americans do not pay attention to what they are eating, so we don’t notice if it tastes good or not, and we don’t feel satisfied when we eat so we eat more.)  Paying full attention to your job without thinking about something else.  To sit on the porch and be aware of the birdsong and the rustling leaves rather than dragging the boom box out there to drown it out. 

PRACTICE

So the central practice of Buddhism is meditation.  Formal meditation often takes place while sitting on a mat and pillow, or a chair or small bench.  It can also take place while walking.  But it also can take place in everyday life.  Meditation is not what it is surmised to be by the uninitated.  It is a practice to help you gain control of your mind and your life by being fully awake and aware in this moment here and now.  In my sangha (congregation) we perform sitting meditation for a while, then we walk for a while, then we sit again as the heart of each of our weekly gatherings.  The presentation that usually follows is brief and secondary to meditation.  We also have weekend retreats in which we participate in various arts or practice meditation, or both.     

This formal meditation is like the scales Ray Charles said were the staple of his daily piano playing.  He loved playing scales, throughout his life, long after he was famous, and up until he couldn’t do it any more.  He said it wasn’t a good day if he couldn’t do his scales.  Formal meditation is the equivalent of the scales of a mindful life. A regular practice is considered more important than long periods of meditation.  Five minutes a day is better than an hour of sitting every now and then. 

THE EIGHTFOLD PATH

Buddhism is full of lists.  Some get a wee tad fussy for me, but the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are biggies.  The Eightfold path is similar to the Ten Commandments except that they aren’t commanded by anyone… and there are only eight.  🙂  They are practices that will become part of your life naturally as you become more aware that every path leads to here and now, so you almost don’t even need to hear them, although why not take help when you can get it?  (I could get into a whole thing here about reincarnation, but I don’t consider that important, any more than I consider heaven and hell important.  I consider here and now important.  If I am awake and present, I make good choices that reduce my suffering and that of those around me.  I think attachments to a reincarnated life and to heaven and hell (and indeed hell can be an attachment in the sense that people are attached to avoiding it) are, after all, cravings that cause suffering.  If I live with awareness and it turns out reincarnation or heaven are in store for me, they’ll come.  I just prefer not to be attached to those concepts, both because they are attachments and attachments cause suffering, but also because they don’t match my experience of cause and effect. 

The Eightfold Path consists of ways to live a good life.  They are Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.  Here’s a link that explains them pretty nicely.  http://www.boloji.com/buddhism/00110.htm  . 

THE SUPERNATURAL

I don’t buy the supernatural in any religion, but I do think there are things we don’t understand and try to have an open mind in the here and now.  What drew me to Buddhism was the practice and the results I experience from practice.  There are Buddhists that are devoted to the supernatural.  From what I can tell at this stage in my study as a Buddhist they ignore the words of the original Buddha who said that if it doesn’t match your experience, don’t buy it, even if I (the Buddha himself) said it.  This convinces me that it is valid to be a Buddhist without all the beliefs in reincarnation, clairvoyance, and auspicious this and that. 

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.     Buddha     

LINEAGES

Like Christianity, Buddhism has a bunch of sects… even more than Christianity, probably.  After all, it’s had 500 more years to gear up.  Many of the sects claim a direct line to the Buddha, meaning that their teacher was taught by another teacher and another and another on back until one of the teachers was taught directly by the Buddha.  Just like the Church of Christ claims to be directly connected to the first century church Jesus started.  (At least they used to.)  I find this unlikely, but I’m okay with it in a philosophical sense, both for Christians and Buddhists. 

There are some good books that give overviews of the main schools, so I’ll let them tell you.  One suprisingly good book for an overview is The Idiots Guide to Buddhism.  Believe it or not.  The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism, 3rd Edition By: Gary Gach.

MY PATH

I belong to the Tibetan lineage, American-style, called Shambhala.  There is a lot of information on the Shambhala website:    http://www.shambhala.org/.  As I’ve said, I remain a skeptic, but have been supported in my skepticism by my fellow Shambhala Buddhists, so if something there doesn’t add up for you, don’t feel oblidged to buy it.  The Buddha wouldn’t. 

REFUGE VOWS

I took my refuge vows earlier this year, and when I had my interview with our Archrya (he’s an advanced teacher in our lineage and who is only here one time a year), he said that this refuge sticks even if I switch to another lineage, if I want it to.  I was given the Tibetan name, Shiwa Nyi-Tso, which means Peaceful Sun-Lake.   

It is not necessary to take refuge vows to practice the Buddhist ways, nor certainly to benefit from meditation and mindfulness.  Many members of Shambhala are not Buddhists at all.  They are Catholics and Jews and Atheists who have recognized the value of meditative practice and mindfulness.  When asked if one must give up their gods to become a Buddhist, Buddha replied, “You do not give up one good friend just because you have made another.”  Besides, the Buddha is not a god, and did not consider himself a god.  You might be surprised to hear that without digging deep because a lot of people really want him to be a god and make him into one. 

Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the sanga.  These are the Teacher, The teachings, and the Community of learners. 

THE RITUALS AND THE STUFF

For people raised in simple religions like the fundamentalist Christianity of my childhood, the iconography can be a bit much.  Even as a former Unitarian Universalist (who remains affiliated) I get a bit “attached” to avoiding the extravagant trappings.  (And it causes me suffering. Yikes!) The Zen lineage is actually probably more in alignment with my take on Buddhism than the Tibetan path, but I have found a family among my sangha. 

WORSHIP

We don’t exactly worship as Buddhists, certainly not in the Western sense.  When we bow to our archrya when we take our refuge vows, we are not worshipping him, we are honoring him.  When we bow to a shrine, we are not worshipping it or anything on it, we are focusing our mindfulness on it.  This is an alien concept to most Americans.  Americans figure if you bow you are worshipping.  But this is eastern bowing, and it’s a sign of respect.  Why have a statue of the buddha on the altar?  Just to center our minds.  In fact, at our sangha, the altar contains bowls of things that symbolize the 5 natural senses.  No Buddha there at all, instead we honor our own sight, hearing, touch, tastes and smells. 

SOME READINGS

There is so much to read that your head swims.  I find I’ve had to focus my reading, and if I pick up a book that is too nutty, I put it back down pretty quickly.  Maybe later it won’t seem nutty and I’ll try again, but I feel no obligation to buy it just because a Buddhist said it was so.  I bought this one book called A Buddha From Brooklyn.  WAY too nutty.  Do not get it. 

An Accidental Buddhist by Dinty Moore.  This is an awesome book, a story of a guy who went out in search of Buddhism in America.  Not a deep intellectual read, but really worthwhile, I thought.

Accidental Buddhist by Emily Dickinson.  I just ordered it.  No idea if it is good!

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism, 3rd Edition [Kindle Edition] By: Gary Gach  Surprisingly good. 

Confession of a Buddhist Atheist [Kindle Edition] By: Stephen Batchelor  Very worthwhile.  It tells the author’s story in an engaging way while giving a pretty in depth critique of some aspects of Buddhist practice. 

Buddhism Plain and Simple [Kindle Edition] By: Steve Hagen  I love this book.  It is well written, clean, and gets to the point of Buddhist practice. 

Meditation, Now or Never. For basic meditation instruction, this is a great book, also by Steve Hagen.  Instruction in meditation technique is very important and invaluable.  What most people think of as meditation, isn’t. 

Sit Down and Shut Up [Kindle Edition] By: Brad Warner Great read by a former punk rocker and Buddhist priest.  A very down-to-earth look at life as a Buddhist in the modern world.

Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate: A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity in Search of the True Dharma [Kindle Edition] By: Brad Warner  Another cool Brad Warner book.

A lot of the books by the modern Buddhist leaders are kind of heady and … well … sometimes seem impractical.  Yet, once you’ve been practicing a while, even a little while like me, they start to make more sense.  Here are a list of books from the Shambhala lineage:

http://shambhala.org/meditation/books.php 

Some of the traditional texts… there are thousands of pages of traditional texts.

Dammapada

Pali Canon

Tibetan Book of the Dead

FINALLY

Maybe that was more than you wanted to know, certainly it was just one woman’s view, and it was from a rank beginner, so take it all with a grain of your own intellectual salt. 

Stay awake,

Shiwa Nyi-Tso,

Aka Aunt Kellie

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

Auspicious Coincidences

January 27, 2010

A lot has happened since I last posted.  I’ve continued down the meditation path and had an auspicious coincidence or two. 

I started attending the Dallas Shambhala Center about a month or so ago.  I had looked for a place for a while and nothing seemed right.  I was actually looking for a Zen Center, but ended up going to Shambhala, which is Tibetan, because… well… er… because it was held at a Unitarian Universalist church.  I was a UU for years and years, and figured if Shambhala was too weird I could always go across the atrium to choir practice.

Well, Shambhala wasn’t too weird at all.  It was actually very nice.  Nice people of all ages, shapes sizes.  Some still practicing other faiths, some only Buddhists.  All willing to chat about what was up with their spiritual practice. 

It also turned out that the regional teacher, Archya Moh Hardin, was coming to town to do a retreat and a refuge ceremony.  I decided to attend the retreat, held at a historic downtown building.  And I also decided that I wanted to take refuge. 

Taking refuge just means becoming a Buddhist.  You take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.  But you’re really taking refuge in your own Buddha nature.  You don’t find it outside yourself, it’s already there.  But you do have to look for it, and the Buddha lead by an example of how to do that. 

The retreat was a delightful opportunity to get to know members of the sangha.  My hips hurt like a bad boy by the end of it, but my heart felt light.  I showed my rugs at the reception where people were invited to share their art.  They were well received.  And then I went home and left them there, so they got to spend a couple nights with sweet Margo, one of the center directors.  I feel like they have been blessed. 

I had already scheduled an interview with Moh.  When the time came, I asked him about it.  I told him about my recent journeys with grief, how I learned to deal with them by mindfulness meditation.  At first he said there wouldn’t be a problem with waiting… there was no reason to do it now.  But by the end of the conversation we both felt it was right for me to go ahead and go for it. In fact, he told me that he took his vows very early in his practice, too.  Toward the end, he said that perhaps it was an auspicious coincidence that he was in town at just the time I was ready to become a Buddhist.  As I stepped out of the room with him after the interview, I told him, “I feel peaceful.”  He said, “I feel good about this.” 

The next night was the Refuge Vows.  Five of us were on the front row on our meditation cushions.  Some of them had been practicing for years, but I didn’t feel out of place.  We did our usual meditations with the sangha (congregation), which consist of 20 minutes or so of sitting meditation, 10 or so of walking meditation, and another 5ish of sitting.  Then Moh spoke about the meaning of taking refuge, and that we were being asked to project an open attitude, a changed “mark” (kind of an adjective that people would notice about you… like… when you see someone who is in love and you can tell, even if they don’t say anything), and the offering of kindness to everyone.  He said that when he snapped his fingers at the appropriate time, the transition would take place and we would feel our new lives. 

I had my doubts at that point.  I was baptized twice in the Christian fundamentalist faith of my childhood, and didn’t feel anything different either time. 

We were asked to take 3 half prostrations (kneel and touch the hands and forehead to the floor) to symbolize the practicality of trusting the Earth.  One to the Buddha, which means, to the way of Buddhism, one to the dharma, which means, the teachings of the Buddha, and one to the sangha, which is a word that means something like fellowship or congregation.   

Then he talked about our lives on the path.  And he snapped his fingers.  And I felt it.  That was a really good set up!

Then he presented our new names, written by him in calligraphy in English letters, and in Tibetan script.  He said that these are our real names, they’re ours, and that if we want that’s the name we can go by, but that most in Shambhala reserve it for Buddhist occasions. 

The name I received was Shiwa Nyi-Tso.  It means Peaceful Sun-Lake.  So now, even though I remain a Meditator Tot, I have something else to put in my signature.  🙂

When I arrived, Moh’s wife, and one of our regional teachers, commented on my earrings.  I had seen them that day while out and about, and bought them because they featured a sunburst in the center.  I said, “I wasn’t shopping for earrings, but these just appealed to me.”  Afterwards she said, “First you said after your interview with Moh that you felt peaceful.  Then you bought these sun earrings.  And your name.  What a set of auspicious coincidences!”  Indeed.  Of course, saying peaceful was before my name was selected.  And although I don’t believe in magical coincidences, it was still a sweet coincidence… an auspicious one, you might say. 

Now I just need a lake and I’ll be all set!  In the meantime I have my little water garden which will get some fancying up this spring, that’s for sure! 

I’ll be back, with more reports on the path.  It turns out that my path leads to right where I am.  And yours leads to where you are.  So I guess at the moment, our paths lead to our computer chairs, eh?

I find so many parallels with training dogs. So many.  And the peaceful thrum thrum thrum of rug hooking is a mantra. 

Peace be with you,

Shiwa Nyi-Tso

Peaceful Sun-Lake

Also known as Kellie.  🙂  And Meditator Tot.

If you have been following this blog for any length of time, you know that I have been studying Buddhism.  There is much to love about this practice for a heathen scientist, but it is tarnished with myth and a willingness to fall for anything just like other religions are.  It’s not supposed to be a religion, yet it has adherants who worship the Buddha rather than following the teachings of Siddhartha the human buddha.  And the writings of the human Buddha are rife with the influence of the age and place in which he lived.  How could they not be?  We learn by interactions with our environments. 

Mindfulness and meditation have made a huge difference in my life in the short time I’ve been practicing them.  I’ve been disillusioned by the beliefs of so many learned Buddhists that some guy was really and truly born out of a lotus flower, and that we can all become clairvoyant as we ascend to nirvana and other such nonsense. 

What mindfulness can really offer is the ability to observe one’s life better and stop running away from reality– the exact opposite of most religious practices.  And that’s pure science. Instead of distracting ourselves with doing acts because we are told to by mythical or historical characters who threaten us with rebirth as a toad or with hellfire and damnation, we can do things because we observe and figure out what the antecedents and consequences are for our actions. Once we know that we can adjust them to improve our lives and that of those around us. That’s behavior analysis.  That’s real. Meditation and mindfulness help us get there.

In my last post I wrote that I’m not really a Buddhist.  I am studying Buddhism, but I don’t want to be defined as a Buddhist any more than I want to be defined as a Christian. Both faiths are enmeshed with superstitions I choose not to embrace.  I embrace evidence.  When contradictory evidence comes along, I adjust my beliefs.  People aren’t born from Lotus flowers, nor are they born from virgins.  I know lots of folks who have edited their Christianity to exclude the silly stuff and include only the good stuff, like “turn the other cheek” and all that. But you’ve got to keep in mind, in the Christian scriptures, Jesus cursed a fig tree to death when it wouldn’t give him fruit, and God refused to save his only son when he was being crucified.  These aren’t stories that comfort me.  They make me nervous.  They make it okay to kill those who don’t serve you and to walk away from the one person they are supposed to love most.  If I had to worship a god, it would be one that whisked his kid off the cross, healed his wounds, and said, “Yo, People!  I’ll do the same for you!” 

Which is why the Buddha was originally so appealing.  He was born wealthy, but when he saw how the rest of the world was, he gave up his wealth and tried to figure out what was up with all that.  He finally determined that The Middle Way is the best way.  Not extreme asceticism… which makes me confused about why Buddhist monks are supposed to support themselves by begging.  Not extreme wealth… which makes me confused about all the gold encrusted Buddha statues and offerings.   But the Middle Way.  Moderation in all things. I think the Buddha has been skewed just like the Christ has.  But I also think I’m going to have a hard time with a guru that existed in a time when fact-based science and equality were hazy at best.

I found this article online and all the way through I was thinking, Yes!  Yes!  I’ve copied some quotes, but please go to the source, the Shambala Sun, to read the entire article:  http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=2903Itemid=247

“Given the degree to which religion still inspires human conflict, and impedes genuine inquiry, I believe that merely being a self-described “Buddhist” is to be complicit in the world’s violence and ignorance to an unacceptable degree.”  Sam Harris, author of Tne End of Faith in the Shambala Sun.  [Harris was commenting on the general idea most people have of Buddhism as a religion.  Among the people who hold this idea are some practicing Buddhists.]

Harris continues, “…there are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison…Among Western Buddhists, there are college-educated men and women who apparently believe that Guru Rinpoche was actually born from a lotus. This is not the spiritual breakthrough that civilization has been waiting for these many centuries.”  [Indeed.]

Harris:  “For the fact is that a person can embrace the Buddha’s teaching, and even become a genuine Buddhist contemplative (and, one must presume, a buddha) without believing anything on insufficient evidence… In many respects, Buddhism is very much like science.”  [Wow.]

Harris:  “…the methodology of Buddhism, if shorn of its religious encumbrances, could be one of our greatest resources as we struggle to develop our scientific understanding of human subjectivity.”  [Yes!]

“Why is religion such a potent source of violence? There is no other sphere of discourse in which human beings so fully articulate their differences from one another, or cast these differences in terms of everlasting rewards and punishments.”  [Yes, yes!]

“Religion is also the only area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give evidence in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet, these beliefs often determine what they live for, what they will die for, and—all too often—what they will kill for.”  [So true!]

“…once we develop a scientific account of the contemplative path, it will utterly transcend its religious associations.” 

A scientific account of the contempletive path.

This makes me want to go back to school and conduct mindfulness research. 

Good Karma,

Meditator Tot