Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fireworks Meditation

I end my meditation early to go see the fireworks
with my friend and her daughter,
who is inconsolable when the bouncy castles close down,
then enraptured when the fireworks begin.
When the echo of the finale dies away,
and people begin to murmur their question,

"Is that it?"
she issues her demand:

And the thousands who have gathered for the show
will burst forth with color and noise,
then die away,
along with their unmet demands.
Anitya feels more solid than the ground beneath me,
and these thoughts, too, die away.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Finding Happiness

I wanted to share this masterful graduation address by David Guterson (the author of Snow Falling on Cedars) about the nature of happiness and how we might go about cultivating it. I really have nothing to add to his remarks. I understand that he has received some criticism for this speech, including some heckling at the event itself. His detractors have argued that the speech was too downbeat and beyond the understanding of many high school graduates. Personally, I found the speech liberating rather than depressing, and I feel sure that even as a new high school graduate I would have been hungry for this kind of honesty and wisdom. Hopefully the controversy will gain a wider audience for his remarks, and those who are prepared to listen will find something of lasting value in them.

Anyway, don't forget the sunscreen.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

For Whom the (Mindfulness) Bell Tolls

I recently listened to a talk by Joseph Goldstein entitled "The Buddha's Discourse on Non-Self" (no link, unfortunately, but you can find it on Dharma Seed). Naturally, I've already forgotten the name of the discourse, but in it the Buddha has a discussion with six monks about mindfulness of death. The upshot is that it is not enough to be mindful that we could die tomorrow or even at the end of the meal we are currently eating; we should consider that we may die after this breath or this bite of food.

This way of thinking would probably strike many people as rather morbid, and passages such as this may contribute to the common impression that Buddhism is about withdrawal from life. My experimentation with this perspective over the last couple of days has had precisely the opposite effect: the awareness of death has not only brought me immediately into the present moment, it has also changed the quality of presence. As the precious nature of the present moment is realized, preoccupations such as self-criticism or anger toward others become unaffordable luxuries. If all fear is really fear of death, as some have claimed, then fear itself becomes almost beside the point.

Though actual brushes with death can have a significant impact on us, the linkage of awareness of mortality and intimacy with life is such a commonplace in various forms of art and spiritual teaching that it has become something of a cliché. Aside from briefly snapping me out of the trance of life, I haven't found an awareness of mortality to be especially salutary, except as an excuse to avoid unpleasant tasks. Yet somehow, consideration of the possibility of death in the next moment, rather than the next day or even the next hour, seems to bring the mind more fully into the present moment. An hour or a day means time that needs to be planned.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Karma Confusion

A friend recently asked me what initially attracted me to Buddhism, and I explained that it was the straightforward and experiential nature of the core teachings, free of dogma and metaphysical mysticism. I told her that I have always thought of Buddhism as a practical psychology rather than a religion. Then she asked the question I was secretly dreading: “What about karma?” Writing anything about karma, whose workings were considered by the Buddha to be one of the Four Imponderables, is a daunting undertaking, especially for someone like me who’s not exactly an avid reader of the Pali canon. Still, it’s a teaching that’s too widely known and too central to the Buddha’s worldview to be ignored, and I think the basic idea is much less abstruse than it might at first appear.

When I learned about Hinduism and Buddhism in high school and college, I thought of karma as the ancient Indians’ answer to an age old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? And although there are certainly plenty of Buddhists who take a mechanistic view of karma, it is my understanding that the Buddha did not claim that everything that happens to us is due to karma. In fact, karma is just one of five natural laws that govern the workings of our universe. Though everything that arises is inextricably interrelated, different processes unfold according to their own nature. An earthquake arises due to conditions in the physical world; it is not the universe’s way of punishing the living beings that happen to be affected by it.
Regardless of the metaphysics, the heart of the Buddha’s teachings about karma relate to the effects of our own actions, not the meaning of impersonal forces. All of our volitional actions have the power to bring about karmic results, and the factor that determines the nature of that karma is our intention. We cannot easily predict the specific results of our actions, since the future is shaped by impersonal forces and others’ karma, as well as our own, but we can be sure that our current intentions will condition our future well-being. This conditioning need not involve mysterious forces; it operates most simply and directly through the formation of mental habits. This is where practices such as mindfulness can allow us to affect the course of our destiny.
Of course many people’s interest in karma does not relate to the critical but seemingly prosaic matter of intention; they are captivated by the supernatural possibility of rebirth. That is an issue on which I have little to say, owing to my lack of experience. I like the perspective of the Zen monk who, when asked by a layperson what would happen to her after she died, replied that “I am a monk, but not a dead one.” It’s worth noting that some teachers, such as Ajahn Chah, did not think belief in reincarnation was necessary to follow the dharma, since the egoic self is dying and being reborn all the time.
The possibility of reincarnation probably raises as many questions as it answers. For example, what is it that is being reborn? Also, why should the moment of death carry so much weight in determining one’s future conditions? This seems unfair not only because the moment of death is so often an unpleasant one, but also because there is so much variation in the degree of unpleasantness depending on the cause of death. Could anyone maintain the clear consciousness described by the Dalai Lama while being consumed by fire?

Well, I’ll leave these metaphysical questions to the scholars and philosophers. My point in writing this post is that karma is a lot simpler and more practical than all that.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Best Medicine

Q: What did the Zen monk say to the hot dog vendor?
A: Make me one with everything.

Sometimes meditation can seem like very serious business. That's certainly the impression of meditation that a lot of non-meditators have. I suspect that a lot of meditative traditions cultivate an aura of gravity and solemnity to discourage the uninitiated from noticing that practitioners are sitting around doing nothing. In my own experience, some of the most profound moments of insight have come with a healthy dose of levity. One such experience led me to ponder the nature of deep humor, and I thought I'd share what I came up with.

We laugh for all sorts of reasons. One of the most eye-opening presentations of research I ever attended was given by a sociology student named Tobiah Brown. Her disarmingly simple research question was this: Why do we laugh? She played snippets of conversation from brave souls who had allowed their phone calls to be recorded for research purposes. What surprised me was that the conversants' laughter had little to do with humor; mostly, they laughed due to discomfort or embarrassment. Even when it comes to humor, this article makes it clear that there's no consensus about what makes something funny.

I have no idea whether there is a common foundation underlying all humor, though I am skeptical of the notion. What I do know is that there is a common thread running through the humor I find most nourishing and profound: it provides a fresh perspective that snaps me out of the story of a separate self. Often, it is a reminder of the universality of human experience: either the situation described in the joke has happened to me, or the pattern is familiar enough that I can follow the other person's turn of thought. Meditation allows us to find this shift in perspective within ourselves, and when we do, it's hard not to be bemused by the limitations of our habitual ways of thinking. I like the way Hafiz describes this delight in possibilities:

What is the difference
between your experience of existence
and that of a saint?
The saint knows
that the spiritual path
is a sublime chess game with God
and that the Beloved
has just made such a fantastic move
that the saint is now continually
tripping over joy
and bursting out in laughter
and saying, "I surrender!" 
Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
you have a thousand serious moves