Friday, December 2, 2016

Dialogue May Not be Possible

Before Thanksgiving, my husband, Brad, and I travelled to South Dakota – land of a very large Byrum clan. I knew it would be difficult to travel to a state where almost every white person voted for Trump, because I am unabashedly, passionately distraught over the election results. Many of my fellow Buddhists have been recommending dialogue with those of an opposite viewpoint. I knew that preserving family harmony trumped (as it were) political discussion.

I had one ally: my young step grandson is half Lakota Sioux. So at the huge dinner gathering – held in a hunter lodge – I started discussing my sympathy for the Water Protectors, privately with him. One of the more outspoken Trump supporters jumped into the conversation to inform me that the protestors were all paid by Black Lives Matter and were throwing kerosene bombs at the police. I got sucked in. Moments later he was telling me that Obama was full of hateful rhetoric. I could see my mother-in-law looking at us across the kitchen; she said, “No politics!” I said, “I agree hundred percent!”

I have been thinking of the millions of primarily white voters who voted for a man so stupendously unfit for office. One demographic is the Christian evangelical, conservative vote.  I am particularly aware of this group, because Brad used to be a minister with Assemblies of God. They have one issue: Pro Life. They willfully ignore Trump’s racism, misogyny, narcissism, and proto-fascist tendencies –because of this one issue.

To me, this is ignorance. The Latin root of ignorance is “not knowing,” but I think it is ignoring the truth. Many of these people probably know that Trump could dismantle Social Security, Affordable Care Act, and Medicare, but they choose to ignore it, because of their One Issue.

Brad has used the analogy of two pick-up trucks driving toward a precipice. One is blue, full of people shouting, “Unity in Diversity” and the people in the red truck shouting, “Make America White Again!” Global, corporate greed is driving the truck, and we are all headed for disaster: global destruction, if nothing else.

Also, political discourse may be impossible with Facebook and the Internet and Twitter, where one can put forth an opinion with great certainty, but with no basis in fact. This morning I saw a video clip from CNN in which the moderator was interviewing Trump supporters. One woman was convinced by Trump’s statement that millions of illegal immigrants voted for Hillary. When asked about the source of her opinion, she said: “Facebook.” We know that Trump mastered this technique of manipulating social media. John Daily used to call his show “false news.” But now it is more difficult to distinguish between true news and false news. More and more, I have even become suspicious of posts by Facebook friends: Is this really true?

How would dialogue even be possible in these instances?

So what is our Buddhist practice at this time? Well, on the one hand, a meditation practice and a general grounding in the knowledge of the impermanence of all phenomena, can be very helpful in regaining some equanimity. And, of course, we know we can be compassionate because all the Trump supporters are each suffering in his or her own way.

But the unanticipated result of this election is a waking up to the reality that we need to take action, we need to stay informed. Every day. Complacency seemed safe, but now we know, for sure, that it is not.

Monday, August 8, 2016

What is Nirvana Anyway?

I have been listening to a talk by Shohaku Okumura on the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the teachings of the Buddha at the end of his life. In Sanskrit Maha means great beyond great; Parinirvana is the death of the body of one who has attained nirvana in his or her lifetime. A verse from the sutra says:

Then the Lord said to the monks, “Now, monks, I declare to you all conditioned things are of the nature to decay. Strive on untiringly.” These were the Tathagatha’s last words.

I have been thinking of nirvana, perhaps the most important idea in this sutra. In Soto Zen, we chant the Heart Sutra regularly. One of the lines is “Far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana.” When I pause for a moment to think about the words that I am chanting, I am always amazed by the complexity of just one word. What do I think that nirvana means?

The Sanskrit word nirvana means “blown out,” as a candle is blown out. In the Indian tradition, nirvana means complete freedom and liberation from samsara, or the wheel of birth and death, the wheel of earthly existence. The individual soul, or Atman in Sanskrit, is extinguished and merges with Brahman, the supreme divine consciousness (God.) Nirvana can be attained in this lifetime with intense and lifelong yogic practice.

In pre-Mahayana Buddhist practice, nirvana can be attained in one’s lifetime, but as in the case of the Buddha before his death, nirvana is considered incomplete, because he still had a physical body. Complete nirvana, or Parinirvana, occurs when the five skandas (body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness) are dissolved. When the Buddha died, he entered complete nirvana, because he no longer had body and mind.

The insight I had while listening to Rev. Okumura’s talk is that in the Chinese version of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, a Mahayana text, there is an important difference in the meaning of nirvana. In fact, the meaning of nirvana has almost completely changed. Nirvana is not the cessation of the skandas, the death of the body and mind. Nirvana is the cessation of arising and perishing.

As I understand it, then, complete nirvana can occur in this lifetime, while you still have a body and mind. Nirvana is not the cessation of conditioned things. Nirvana is a state of mind, according to Rev. Okumura, in which the idea of arising and perishing ceases. This state of mind is freedom from suffering.

Now I need to look at my life and figure out what this means. Well, clearly things arise and cease. That is, a person is born. I gave birth to my son. And a person dies. The other day I was sitting next to a corpse, and that person was clearly dead and gone. To deny that things arise and cease in this world would be absurd.

So what does this cessation of arising and perishing mean? Rev. Okumura says, So the time when arising and perishing, a dichotomy, ceases means we are really right now, right here.” He gave the example of firewood and ash, from Dogen’s Genjokoan: when firewood is firewood it is 100% firewood; it is not ash. And ash is 100% ash. So I would relate this to my own life, thinking when I am alive, I am 100% alive, not dead.  When a body starts failing, it is often said that the person is dying. But, no! That person is alive until the final breath.

For me, this isn’t just about birth and death. It means a radical acceptance of what is right now. We accept that things are born and die, that things come and go. It is the clinging to perishing that can be so painful. My birth family relationships are gone. My son has moved 1500 miles away. My body is changed and weakened.

These are facts: things arise and cease. Nirvana would be cessation of wishing things were different. Acceptance doesn’t mean denial of events that are sad, such as the loss of a child. It would mean that at a deep and radical level, we accept the inevitable suffering in our life. We understand and accept that things arise and cease. This would be equanimity. This would be peace of mind.

Does this make sense?

Friday, May 13, 2016

Sitting with the body of Zenkei Blanche Hartman Roshi

Great teacher, Archarya Zenkei Blanche Hartman, died last night. I am grateful to have sat with her body this morning in the Buddha Hall at Zen Center. She lay to the Buddha’s right. She was surrounded by long- stemmed yellow flowers. Her brown okesa was perfectly draped around her.

What I noticed the most were her hands.  A long mala was gracefully arranged around her hands.  I could imagine her fingers moving the beads. Did she repeat a mantra?  Did she touch a new bead with each breath? I could imagine her chest – now completely still – gently going up and down.  Millions of breaths in 90 years.

I thought of her hands that had touched and rescued thousands of rakusus. If you made a mistake in the sewing room, and thought you would have to take out a row of stitches, she would re-do the stitch and tie a knot from 2 or 3 millimeters of thread. I watched this miracle with amazement. I was fascinated with her patience and care – a lesson in itself, especially for someone like me.

I saw her slender gold wedding band and thought of her life’s devotion and love for her husband Lou. I remember sitting with Lou’s body at Zen Hospice. When I left, I could see Blanche sitting on the front stairs of Zen Center. I crossed the street. I have not been one of her close disciples, so I was moved when she stood up and embraced me.

I saw the brown marks of old age on her hands.  I saw the bruises from needle sticks and all the medical work done on her body.

So this was Blanche Hartman, a woman who was born, who matured into a great beauty, who loved her husband, was the abbess of Zen Center, and who had children and grandchildren and maybe even great grandchildren. She was born and she died.

I have no idea what happens after death. I may even be a heretic, because I really insist that I don’t know and won’t guess. But I felt that Blanche Hartman, as a person, was gone.

I did, however, have a sense what “beyond the duality of birth and death” might mean. Her life was entirely in the stream of practice. She was a portal for hundreds (thousands?) who entered Zen Center and who were awakened to the aspiration to free all beings. She ordained lay practitioners and priests, gave dharma transmission, and for the most part, sent them off into the world to do the work of the Buddha. She was the mother of bodhisattvas.  What a magnificent life!

I think of her sitting zazen for years and years.  I wonder, was she trying to know herself, or drop away body and mind, as some people suggest is the purpose of zazen?  As I looked at her body, I thought that she practiced zazen purely out of devotion to the practice.  I think that she sat zazen for the sake of zazen. And along the way, brought thousands to the dharma.

So this is how she is beyond the duality of birth and death. Her body, her mind, her heart are part of the lineage, the unbroken flow of practice through Suzuki Roshi and the ancestors.

This is the undying transmission.

Thank you, Blanche, for your beautiful life.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Getting Old is Letting Go of One Damn Thing After Another

I don’t know where I heard this joke. Maybe Sue Moon’s book This is Getting Old. I will attribute it to her, whether she wrote it or not!

Two old friends were at a restaurant. One woman said, “I was just at a Zen retreat on aging!” Her friend replied, “I don’t need a Zen retreat. I know that getting old is letting go of one damn thing after another.”

The Buddha’s fundamental teaching on suffering and the cause of suffering is summarized by the phrase “letting go.”  He taught that the cause of suffering is desire and clinging, and that the end of suffering is letting go.

We so often hear about letting go that we actually believe that we know what this means. If I just let go, I will be happy. But I think the reality of clinging and letting go is profound and elusive and subtle.  It is perhaps the most difficult spiritual work that we have to do, if we want to be truly happy and present in our lives.

We hear the word “desire” and think of lust or greed. But desire is the deep, endless yearning for things to be other than they are.  We want more and more and more.  We had a joke in my college dorm, “Too much is never enough.”

This dissatisfaction with our life as it is may be the single greatest cause of our unhappiness.

Another word for desire, in the sense I am using it, is clinging. And this clinging is entirely expected, especially as we age.  We cling to a more youthful me. We cling to the idea of a body that used to be strong. We cling to our lovers and partners and children. We cling to life.

There is nothing wrong with these kinds of clinging. It is normal. It is human. But this clinging causes immense suffering.

It causes suffering because of impermanence and change. Things change every moment. Things come, things go. Thoughts come, thoughts go. People come, people go. There is nothing to hold onto, not even ourselves. Not even our own identity. Every moment we are born anew.

We cannot remain as we were in our thirties; our bodies are always changing. We cannot cling to our parents and our partners and friends, because they will eventually die. We can’t cling to our children.

We wish to possess that which we can never possess, because it was never ours in the first place.

Kahlil Gibran wrote:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

This is a huge challenge to me. I cannot let go of my child, nor would I want to. But my child is an adult man. I can no longer have the intimate relationship of mother and child. I cannot fix his problems and I cannot make his life easier. I can only pray for his well being. As most parents know, we are powerless. I am not sure after what age of the child we are powerless, but probably when they get their drivers license.

So how can we practice with impermanence and change?  We practice acceptance – radical acceptance. We accept life as it is.  This is not giving up; it is an aspirational act.  As we get older, I think we realize, more and more, that we are not in control. We do our very best and accept the rest.

One of the great truths in spiritual living is that we can’t open fully to this life that is right here if in any way we are ignoring or warding off the truth of impermanence, mortality and death.

Our capacity to live and love is directly related to our acceptance of change and loss.
However, I am always aware of spiritual bypassing.  Letting go, especially of loved ones, is very, very hard. It is not done in an instant, although, maybe it can.  Letting go and forgiveness and gratitude are life practices. But first we have to remember to do them.

Angeles Arien said, “I think that a reason to do spiritual practice is to commit ourselves simply, consciously to say, Yes, yes, yes to this whole process …  that we will undergo anyway: aging, sickness, and death.”