Om Shemhamforash

One thing that I’m pretty big on is separation of church and state. I was raised with Eastern religions in my environment thanks to my hippie parents, but I grew up in Mid-western suburbia where science and history class teachers felt fairly comfortable saying that they really supported New Earth or Creationist viewpoints; where the gym teacher felt comfortable disseminating anti-abortion propaganda; and where “non-denominational” prayers before games and at assemblies were not uncommon.

I was always hyper aware of an understood if unofficial endorsement of Protestant Christianity as the correct worldview by my suburb’s and school’s administration. And that, frankly, frightened me. Not only did I grow up knowing jataka tales and Zen koans, but I also grew up with Nova and went to Space Camp when I was in elementary school. I very much knew the basic tenants of scientific process and the commonly accepted scientific theories of the day in many prominent fields such as astronomy, biology, and geology.

So sitting in a classroom or assembly hall and hearing people telling other, less informed and likely more impressionable kids “facts” that were based solely on their religious convictions or worse influence children to see people of other viewpoints and religious backgrounds as outside the group and worthy of at least disdain really struck fear in me. I mean literal fear.

I read Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible when I was in my teens and his open and candid protest against the conformity and willful ignorance demanded by a society that either does or borders on overtly supporting one religious worldview over others and often over reason itself really struck a positive chord with me. And I have to say that I very much support the actions of the modern Satanic Temple as they stand to date to equalize the playing field. As Buddhists, we often are less confrontational and take a hands-off approach to attempts by de facto theocratic administrations to preempt the right of everyone to understand the most well established facts of this world and to hold their own opinions and traditions for those much less established. I think sometimes standing up and distributing a Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities to show those on the other side how it feels to have benign and yet contradictory religious views forced on captive audiences and why separation of church and state is so important.

I Find Authority Always Wins

There’s that old phrase “question authority.” Usually, it means to actively investigate and be skeptical of orders and information provided by authority. But sometimes, I find it more helpful to mean “Question if the person issuing those orders and information is an authority.” This came up for me a couple times in the last week in relation to sanghas I’m involved with.

One was asking myself how much authority I have. Not authority in the sense of being able to boss anyone at any sangha around, but more in the sense of presenting myself as someone who knows about Buddhism. Certainly, I’m better educated on the subject of Buddhism in general than your average or even, frankly, slightly above average person in America. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who could identify your Buddha statue or explain the key differences between most major denominations active in the West better. But, I’m not clergy by any means, and all my education comes from visiting sangha; talking to clergy, professors, and dharma teachers; and reading, reading, reading!

So when someone presents herself as a senior authority to me on Buddhism, I’m left questioning if I should defend my own “authority” or not. In the first instance that happened last week, I didn’t defend. I accepted that this person, while also a lay practitioner, truly has studied more directly with senior clergy in her denomination and practiced extensively for many years—again, within her on denomination. If she were to stray into my own denomination, I might have some grounds for saying I know more on a given topic. But on her own playing field, she’s clearly the expert over me and I deferred to her without even a pip of defense for myself.

But then there was another sangha leader, also a lay practitioner, who sent out an email last week to the group he runs. It was a voluminous piece full of exposition on various theological points as interpreted by this individual. While it might have made a good blog post, I felt it was a bit heavy handed and high horsed being sent out by a lay practitioner to a study group. While the study group does meet at a proper Buddhist temple, the group is a separate lay resource for Westerners and not really a part of the clergy run Eastern sangha that the temple first serves. So this study group has the air of authority by association, but the leader has only been a Buddhist for 5 years and is not ordained. I’ll admit that with this one my feathers were a bit ruffled by having a lay person present himself as an expert. And I wondered if I, as another lay person, do the same from time to time.

This post is a bit open ended. I don’t really have a point to make or even necessarily a question to ask. It was just a subject running through my mind that I felt like sharing.

What Bullshit is Trump?

I was an asshole to someone a while back. I know, I know, real shocker, right!

It was at a social gathering. This older gentleman who’s a friend of a friend heard I was Buddhist and told me he wrote a blog that was “sorta Buddhist.” And I, honestly not meaning to be derisive, labeled what he described as “Western Buddhism,” meaning Buddhism that’s much more about Zen pithiness and sitting meditation and much less about Buddhas. He took offense and said he wouldn’t call it “Western,” which was when I was an asshole. Because I replied that it sounded pretty “Western” to me. He got his own dig in later about something completely unrelated, and it was clear that I’d offended him.

So why did I have the need to label? Telling it back, it sounds like I was very intentionally being holier than thou (or holier than him, at least). But I honestly didn’t think that was what I was doing in the moment. It’s just… Well, you read this blog. You know that I sometimes have less than tolerance for the proliferation of Buddhism as a label for what really is very much not classically Buddhist or only Buddhist by association. I couldn’t keep from proselytizing that viewpoint and wound up being a dick because of it.

How do you do it? How do you defend what you feel is right, and in so doing not become the bad guy? It’s a universal question, isn’t it? It’s the question at the heart of lots of popular fiction.

Certainly Shakyamuni was ready to shake people up. When he announced some of his truths, they ran heavily against much of the status quo. That couldn’t have made the Brahmins and other people of authority around him happy. And we read of murder plots against him and groups, even nations, that didn’t like him.

So does espousing one’s own bullshit opinion give him/her the right to tread on another’s ego? It’s a universal question that I’m not sure I have an answer for.

Storm Trooper or Smuggler?

One thing that I’ve been dealing with lately is conformity vs. isolationism. Buddhist thought often seems to advocate both—perhaps because the Dharma is non-dual and doesn’t take sides! For example, if you do a retreat with most Buddhist denominations, you’ll find your time highly regimented. Sit when told to sit, walk when told to walk, clean when told to clean, eat when told to eat, etc. And that concept, the concept of a regimented, controlled life is a large segment of monastic life for many Buddhist clergy and retreat life for those who can only be monastic a weekend at a time.

However, Shakyamuni was certainly no system follower. He did plenty of monastic retreats himself with many different yogis, etc., according to legend. And in the end he might have incorporated their teachings into his own final theology and practice, but he rejected them as single systems. Shakyamuni was a major maverick, who very much bucked the Brahmanic system in place at the time and presented his own, unique approach.

So which is it, are we to be a drop of water in the river, flowing with the system as it moves? Or are we to run the straight course, even if it takes us across the banks when the river bends?

I don’t know! Certainly, I tend to think of myself as a bit of a maverick. C’mon, I’m the Bullshit Buddhist for crying out loud! But I’m not a total anarchist. And I do see a great value in following the teachings of others. I’m not a fan of always believing my own bullshit trumps the bullshit filtered through two thousand or more years of sages much wiser than me that comes down to us as organized forms of religion.

How do you choose?

I find sticking with just one tradition difficult. I’m fully of the school of thought that many traditions can be correct for different people but you should pick one and stick with it without trying to syncretize your own. But my thoughts and actions don’t always line up!

The difficulty for me is that I’m a knowledge hound. My brain’s happiest when it’s learning new systems and exploring new modes of thought. Two dimensions is fun, but three is even better. And if you can see an issue from all eleven dimensions m-theory style, well then you’ve got a real party on your hands!

What’s the danger in mixing and matching and pulling out what I like and what I don’t? Well, I imagine it’s much like physical exercise. Finding a trainer who is fit and has demonstratively proven he or she can make someone else fit, too, is a good way to get yourself in shape. Do what the trainer says pretty much to the letter, and you should be golden. Conversely you can pick up the South Beach diet and the Atkins diet books and then P90x and Insanity DVDs and try doing everything all four of those systems say at once while picking and choosing through just shear untrained intuition and find yourself completely flummoxed and lost.

The other, other half of that argument, though, is that when I did get the most physically in shape I’ve ever been in my life, I didn’t use either method above. I didn’t find a trainer, nor did I study every system I could and then try to combine. What I did was pretty revolutionary. Seriously, I lost 40 pounds doing this. Wanna know how to lose weight and get in shape? It’s a secret the whole internet’s dying to hear… Eat less and exercise more. That’s the system. I ate less and I exercised more. Do that and you’ll get results every time.

And here’s where those “We just meditate” Buddhists have something going for them. Keep your mind calm and quiet and act with empathy. That’s all there really is to it. If you want to be a living bodhisattva, do the above and you’ll be there. No systems, no gimmicks, no nothing. Just do it.

Nowhere Man

The nature of anatman means that faith evolves and changes constantly. There is no constant “me,” so there is no constant definition of my faith. But like my personality, there are themes that tie one moment of my faith to the next. 

I often wonder what form of anatman I accept. The concept ranges from a strict “there is no soul” on the far atheist side of things to “the soul is masked by the self you pretend to be” on the far New Age side of things. And my pendulum swings back and forth between the two in a fairly wide arc. 

It seems self-evident that there is no soul. I have no memories from before my organic brain formed, so it holds that I had no existence before my organic brain formed. What has happened in the past is often a good indication of what will happen in the future. So it holds that when my brain dies, I will once again no longer exist. Reincarnation then becomes an intellectual exercise not tied to metaphysical rebirths but to my constant moment-to-moment rebirth as I enter new situations or revisit familiar situations. Each moment is a new birth in which we find this illusion of self playing and interacting and we live a million different lives as parents, lovers, employees, and everything else we become. 

Of course, that can be a very dissatisfying answer. If there’s no self, then what’s the point? If I didn’t and won’t exist, why not say to hell with it all and go nuts and have fun? And believe me, that hedonistic nihilisms snuck in on me more than once.

The other side of this is what if there is some part of me that exists in some meaningful way beyond this saha world? What if that ground of consciousness exists and persists after my death and I meld back into it? Then what’s the point of practice? I’ll meld back into the all one way or another? Some sects say the point of practice is to avoid the melding so that I’ll remember who I am and stop being reborn as someone else. If that worked, then why isn’t there even a single proven case of anyone coming back fully aware of who he or she had been outside tales from long ago and far away of the Buddhas themselves?

In Hinduism, the concept of atman paints the current self as a form of multiple personality disorder. We each are the eternal soul but have slipped ourselves into multiple personalities that lack awareness of being just another aspect of the other personalities they see around them. This concept is actually applied in some Buddhist circles where anatman means essentially the same thing, but the “no” in “no self” applies not to an eternal self but to the temporary personality.

Out of all these choices, the idea that I find easiest to hold in my head is one that’s very Buddhist and also practical. Imagine that everything is Buddha—literally every thing. Not that Buddha nature exists in all things, but that each rock, person, plant, and animal is a piece of the Eternal Buddha. I am a cell in the thumb on Buddha’s right hand. This doesn’t mean that as part of Buddha I am the totality of Buddha or have any chance of taking control and becoming the whole Buddha. But it does mean that I am part of the Buddha. When I die, what I was will pass on into the other cells around me. The blister I helped form will persist even though I’m gone. The scar from that time he cut himself stays even though all of we cells there at the time die and are renewed. In this way, my karma continues on and in some ways I am reborn, but I as a specific cell am not eternal nor am I finite. 

It’s a big concept. But pantheistic thinking like this stands the test of theology and atheism. So I try to run with it.

Birds Do It and Bees Do It

Sex. It’s a dirty, dirty word. Oooh, the evils of carnal pleasure. 

Except, I don’t really mind carnal pleasure. In fact, I rather enjoy it! Don’t get me wrong—I’m not up to Lyndon B. Johnson levels of womanizing mania. Heck, I’m not up to any levels of womanizing mania. In fact, I’ve been in a monogamous marriage for almost 11 years and wasn’t much of a player before that. But I don’t have much of a problem with sex. 

That’s one sticking point with me in my Buddhism. There’s quite a lot of Buddhism that frowns on sex. Of course, some forms of Buddhism are more or less OK with it. Obviously in Tantra, sex plays an important role, though more as an intellectual exercise and less as a physical act.  

FWIW—Shakyamuni Buddha wasn’t chaste up until his renunciation of his princely life. He had consorts and a son and was sexually active. It didn’t stop him from eventually reaching enlightenment.  

So what’s the deal with sex? Why are monks and nuns traditionally held to celibacy in Buddhism? 

I suppose that from an attachment standpoint, sex is a big culprit. We often want the things we want in order to impress or entice sexual partners. Sports cars and fancy clothes are all about sex appeal. And once we get that sex, then it’s not uncommon to form deep emotional attachments to the object of our sexual attraction even if he or she might not be the right fit for us. 

So there’s some dangers there. But there’s also love, and companionship, and good ole fashioned exercise, too. I have a hard time completely placing sex in the evil category. In fact, sex can be a very good thing. It can boost self-esteem, encourage social interaction, and even lead to meditative moments of bliss and compassion. 

Nothing is good or evil but thinking makes it so. There’s some real truth in that, I think. And it’s a very Buddhist idea, isn’t it? Lust can be dangerous and bad. But lust can also inspire in us a desire to protect, honor, help, and love. Love can be a very good thing. But it can be turned to obsession and blind devotion not only in sexual interactions but also in societal ones. Love for a country or symbol or flag has caused many if not most wide scale acts of manmade horror and suffering in the world. 

Sex can be evil. Or it can be insanely good. Without sex, my wife wouldn’t have given birth to my sons. And without my sons, I wouldn’t have a reason to be Buddhist. I’d go be something that required me to be much less well behaved. But I want to set a good example for them. So sex can be directly linked to my devotion to the Dharma.

Whadda You Think?

How should the division of schools be viewed in modern Western Buddhism? Is it fair to lump Nichiren and Tantra under the same Mahayana banner? Does Therevada even exist in the West outside Asian communities? “Mindfulness meditation” claims to be Therevada but it’s a lay practice intended to help achieve enlightenment in this lifetime, which makes it much more a Mahayana tradition even if it dismisses the Mahayana sutras.

It’s a tough call and a debate I’d love to see a little more publicly and often. I think we’ve all but lost the banners of Vajrayana, Mahayana, and Therevada and are working under all new Western paradigms that might be better served by identifying the traditions individually as themselves. Kwan Um Zen, a Mahayana branch, doesn’t really belong under a blanket with Sokka Gakai, which is also Mahayana. But it would fit just fine under a blanket with, which is a Theravada organization. The lines of allegiance and connection I think are changing drastically in Western culture.

In some ways, I see this as really good. Because I think it points to the gestation of an American Buddhism or two. Throughout its history, Buddhism has changed deeply and significantly as it’s encountered new cultures and peoples. The kingshuck tree is different depending on where and when and who you are. And we as Americans and Westerners are beginning to develop our own vision of it.

Or maybe everything I’m saying here is total bullshit. I’m going to break form and throw this one out to you. What do you, my majority of readers, think of the current system of labels for Buddhism in the West? Do you think that we’re developing our own forms that are wholly different than the traditional labels we apply to them. Do you think the mindfulness meditators will remain dominant in the West? Or do you think the more spiritual versions of the faith that dominate the East will rise up? Does it matter?

What Did That Sign Post Say?

We hear a lot about the four noble truths and eightfold path and what game changers they were. If you just know those, I’ve heard Buddhists say, you’ll be OK. But, the truth is we often don’t deal with the four noble truths or eightfold path. Usually we’re caught up in counting our breaths and wearing super hip loaner robes and chanting in some old language.

The four noble truths often get the edges polished off. And, I’m actually someone who tends to do the polishing. But just presented straightforward here’s the whole shebang. If you remember this, you’ve got the four noble truths and eightfold path all together in one tidy little package:

“Life sucks. It sucks because you want shit you can’t have and are bored with or afraid of losing the shit you do have. But don’t worry, that can be fixed. You just need to start acting with wisdom and ethics while concentrating on what you do.”

That’s it. If you’ve got that paragraph, you’ve got the four noble truths and eightfold path. Wisdom covers view and intent. Ethics covers speech, livelihood, and action. Concentration covers mindfulness, meditation, and inner effort. The fourth sentence is the fourth truth with the eightfold path spelled out and the three sentences before that cover the first three truths.

If you strip Buddhism down to just this, I’ll grant you it’s irreligious. This little nugget is just a way to approach life. It’s a bit like Christ’s “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That’s it. That’s all we need. If you do this much, you’ll be a better person.

Of course, Shakyamuni had a bit of a negative bent in there. Life sucks. It’s an inescapable truth of the four noble truths. Yes, dukkha is translated in different ways than “major suckage.” But at the heart of it, that’s what dukkha is. It’s things just sucking.

But stuff stops sucking so much if you stop sucking so much. What a weight that is to lay on someone. If you stop sucking so much, the world will seem less sucky. Damn, that’s a head trip.

 “When human beings are truly faithful, honest, and upright. Gentle in intent. Single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha. Not hesitating, even if it costs them their lives. Then I and the assembly of monks appear together on Holy Eagle Peak.” That’s from the Burton Watson translation of the Lotus Sutra. I’m gonna propose something a little odd. I’m gonna propose that this piece of the Lotus Sutra is the same as the four noble truths and eightfold path. Compare my earlier paragraph with this one. It gives you another way to remember the Buddha’s most famous truth.

Right now we live in a mundane world full of crap. But if we’re faithful, honest, and upright (ethical). Gentle in intent (wise). Single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha (concentrating). Then this saha world melts away and we stand in an assembly of monks on Holy Eagle Peak.

Missing Time

Sorry I’ve been quiet the last week. You know the old saying “When it rains it pours”? Well, I think I got caught in a tsunami!

The worst of it was that our dog got into a bunch of candy and made himself deathly ill. We’ve had quite a struggle to get him headed back toward healthy, which has taken a lot of time. Add on that my work having done quite a few downsizing in the recent past, a buyer on eBay who I think has committed fraud and completely cleaned out my PayPal account, and sundry other unpleasantries, and it’s been hard to be Buddhist lately!

Of course, that’s the point of being Buddhist, isn’t it? Anybody can be Buddhist when things are going great. Being serene and peaceful and forgiving are all simple to do when nothing’s going wrong. But when Mara shows up with those demon armies, what do you do?

One bright note in this last week is that I started volunteering at a local Buddhist center. I’m just doing the water offering one day a week, but it’s nice to be helping out and be involved. I even got my own key! Since I’m fairly new to this center, I’m a little amazed out the trust they’re putting in me. I mean, I know I’m a trustworthy guy overall, but they just met me. Guess I just have one of those faces.

How have all of you been? Hopefully doing a little better than me 🙂