Thursday, June 23, 2011

Somewhere Between Rage and Serenity

In the movie X-Men: First Class, a prequel in which we meet the younger, more innocent versions of the characters from the later movies, the ever-wise and telepathic Charles Xavier (later known as Professor X) coaches Erik -- the vengeful, angry young man who will eventually become his arch-rival, Magneto -- on how to use his metal-bending superpower. Erik cannot seem to unleash the full extent of his power except when he is swept away by emotion -- specifically, anger and sorrow. Xavier instructs him on how to control his mind in order to control his power: "True focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity."

Like most dialogue in superhero movies, this line is too cute by half, but within it there is a kernel of truth. From the Buddhist point of view, the key to working skillfully with our emotions -- both the pleasant ones and the painful ones -- is to find a balance between, on the one hand, feeling the emotion and opening to its energy, and on the other hand, having enough space around the experience of the emotion that we do not get swept away by it. It's rather like the way the Buddha instructed one of his students who was struggling with meditation practice: "Not too tight, not too loose."

In the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, and particularly in the view of "formless" meditation practices like Mahamudra and Dzogchen, whatever arises in the mind -- even powerful, afflictive emotions such as anger, jealousy, or rage -- is regarded as the path of awakening. We don't need to apply any antidotes, or try to get rid of our thoughts or pacify our emotions. Every experience is the play of mind's natural luminosity and emptiness. The only question is how we relate to what arises in our minds -- whether we see its true nature or mistake it for something it is not.

Usually we cling to the thoughts and emotions that make us feel good or reinforce our egos, and we reject and push away the ones that feel unpleasant. Or, like Magneto, we go the opposite way and cling to what is actually painful; we nurse resentments and keep scratching at wounds that eat us up from the inside and become the whole storyline of our lives. In either case, we project a degree of reality and solidity onto our thoughts and emotions that they don't really have. As Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche said, "When you know that thoughts are illusions, you can take thoughts of desire and anger as friends." The stronger the emotional charge, the more it reveals or points to mind's awakened nature. It all depends on whether we can experience the raw energy of our emotions without buying into our own concepts and storylines about them, and without blowing our emotions up into something they are not.

The story of how Erik became Magneto is, of course, a cautionary tale. In the end, Erik was just too consumed by his rage and his thirst for vengeance, and his obsession turned him to the dark side. From Charles Xavier he learned how to unleash his full mutant powers, but not how to let go of his own concepts. He didn't quite grasp the real meaning of Xavier's advice about working with the power of emotions: "True focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity." In other words, it's about finding the middle way.

I think Professor X was on to something. He might even have been studying Buddhism.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

More Apocalypse Now

Just 24 hours after posting my article on our modern obsession with apocalyptic narratives and religious visions of doomsday, the doorbell rang and I was greeted by a smiling Jehovah's Witness in a suit and tie. He wanted to let me know about an upcoming convention in the area, and gave me a flyer with the details. The flyer's content -- about the coming apocalypse and the promise of redemption for the lucky few -- could not have been more perfectly attuned to what I wrote even if I had written the copy for it myself.

"Violence, immorality, and global warming," the flyer asks, "along with oil spills and other environmental disasters -- all these problems have led concerned people to ask, WILL HUMANS RUIN THIS EARTH?" It invites me to attend a three-day convention, where a talk will be given that "will show how this planet will soon be transformed into a paradise and how you and your family can qualify to live there."

This particular vision of apocalypse and redemption is based on a dream recorded in the Book of Daniel (2:31-45), interpreted as a prophesy that details the successive rise and fall of multiple empires: the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the British, and the Americans. The dream itself has to do with a statue whose toes are made of iron mixed with clay, and a huge rock that smashes the statue to pieces and establishes God's Kingdom on earth, which will last forever and ever.

The apocalyptic narrative put forth by Jehovah's Witnesses may differ slightly in its content and sources from the narrative put forward by Harold Camping and the Rapturists. But the message is essentially the same, and it perfectly demonstrates what I wrote in my previous article. It plays directly upon people's awareness that there are real and serious problems in the world: violence, global warming, environmental pollution, "immorality," and so on (I won't open the Pandora's Box of what constitutes "immorality," but there it is). It plucks at the strings of people's fears that all of this is building towards some kind of imminent turning point, a day of reckoning and dramatic change. For those who are inclined towards interpreting contemporary events in the light of ancient Biblical prophecy, those fears are easily diverted into a consoling vision of how to turn the threat of apocalypse into an opportunity for you and your family!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Apocalypse Now

Last week the American public was treated to an amazing amount of hype about the so-called "Rapture" predicted by a self-styled evangelical prophet named Harold Camping.

I come from an evangelical background (I bear the scars of a Southern Baptist childhood), so Rapture fever is nothing new to me. But I was astounded at the level of hype and media coverage garnered by Camping and his followers. As a prophet, Camping may have been quite mistaken; but as a marketer, he demonstrated a certain genius. There were at least 27,000 articles published on the topic; Camping and his followers spent an estimated $100 million on billboard advertisements promoting the coming apocalypse. On Facebook and Twitter and on late-night shows last week, Saturday's scheduled Rapture was the subject of seemingly endless commentary and derisive satire. While some of this satire was quite funny and richly deserved, in the end it was depressing to see that our public discourse could be so completely hijacked by a story that really merited discussion only in psychiatric journals, as a case study of religious mania.

It was also sad to see how shamelessly religious believers' fears were exploited for profit. On eBay, one man last week was selling, for $99, a fail-safe message delivery service ensuring that those lucky enough to be taken up could have their goodbye letters post-Rapturously delivered to loved ones who were left behind. Another service was offered to insure ongoing care for beloved pets forsaken by those pet owners who were expecting to be levitated into the sky and escorted directly to Heaven.

As some have noted, the amount of hype and discussion generated by last week's Rapture bubble is probably miniscule compared to that which has already been building for several years in anticipation of the apocalypse predicted by the ancient Mayan calendar for December 21, 2012. If, like me, you quickly tired of the Rapture bubble, just wait: there is still a year and a half to build up a proper media frenzy about the Mayan doomsday. It has already been the subject of a major Hollywood film with a $200 million budget -- twice what Camping spent to promote his brand of apocalypse.

The ascendancy of apocalyptic narratives in popular culture belies deeper forces at work within the American mind. Apocalyptic narratives are the clothing in which we dress up our fears of the future, our dread of change and loss, our basic fear of death. If our need for such narratives is growing, it indicates a corresponding amplification of fearful mind. Behind our fear, and fueling the narrative, is the collective awareness that we are playing a game that is nearing its inevitable end. The way we live today is not sustainable, and people sense that the repercussions are building towards a day of reckoning. That awareness -- which isn't necessarily mistaken -- is easily hijacked by apocalyptic narratives of any kind.

It would be much better if we could begin to face our fears -- and their causes -- directly, rather than projecting them into mythological narratives of apocalypse. We are right to sense that our modern human life is out of balance, and that we are nearing a tipping point. We may also be right to sense that a moment of truth is approaching, and that facing the truth may not be easy or comfortable. But when we divert this awareness into apocalyptic narratives derived from ancient prophecies, we only distract ourselves from our real problems.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Love's in Need of Love Today

This morning I attended a funeral service for an acquaintance who died last week. Most of the small, Acadian town here turned out for the service -- a very traditional Catholic funeral in the town's single, large cathedral.

Having grown up Baptist, I always feel like I've stepped into another world when I visit a Catholic church, with its alien liturgies and rituals and rich iconography. The feeling of being a visitor from another planet was heightened, this morning, by my being dressed conspicuously in the robes of a Buddhist monk, which literally marked me as an alien presence and made it impossible to pretend otherwise. But the local people here are accustomed to having Buddhist monks in their midst.

Since this morning, I've been reflecting on something the priest said during his homily. "In order to experience life in its fullness, we must share the fullness of God's love with others." To put that into more secular language: no man is an island. We are relational creatures, and we find and experience the fullness of meaning in our lives through the love, kindness and compassion that we give and receive in relationship to one another.

The Buddha expressed this as the truth of interdependence. We do not actually exist as solid entities, separate from one another; we "inter-are," as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it. In the fullness of realizing our interdependence, we feel others' pain as our own, and there are no barriers to the natural flow of love and kindness. Sounds like heaven, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, back on earth, there seems to be no shortage of barriers blocking the flow of kindness and compassion between human beings. Open the newspaper or turn on the TV. The world is hurting, burning with violence and conflict. "Hate's goin' round, breaking many hearts," mourns Stevie Wonder. "The force of evil plans to make you its possession. And it will, if we let it, destroy everybody. We all must take precautionary measures."

In his book Awakening Through Love, the Dzogchen teacher Lama John Makransky writes:

"Everything that is most important to human beings is dependent upon love. Powerful and enduring love, grounded in wisdom, is the panacea to cure the ills of this world, starting with our own. We all have this curative power of goodness within us; all we need are the means to unveil it."

Replace "God" with the "power of goodness within us," and that's pretty much exactly what the Catholic priest said this morning.

Oh, and here's that Stevie Wonder song, from 1976. Its message couldn't be more true, or more timely.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Descend into Your Body and Wake Up

Cross-posted today at the ID Project.

Lately I've been seeing more and more meditators and teachers talking about Mindfulness of Body -- which makes me very happy. Last month, Kate Johnson published a thoughtful piece at the ID Project blog called "Mindfulness of Bodies." Will Johnson had a fantastic article, "Full Body, Empty Mind," at Tricycle. A little further back, in November, I published (also at the ID Project blog) "You Are Not a Brain on a Stick (Or Are You?)".

In that piece, I wrote:

"...We modern people have become tragically disembodied, alienated from the most basic level of our own experience as human beings.... Most of us have lost the felt sense of what it is to be embodied, to experience the world in and through the medium of this material and energetic body into which we have been born.

"We think about the body a great deal, sometimes obsessively, but this is not the same as being in and with the body on its own terms. Our allegiance to thinking about everything -- mediating and managing our experience and our lives through the conceptual thought function -- is the very root of our disembodiment in the first place. For the most part, we think of our bodies as mere tools (and sometimes obstacles) to serve our ambitions and our ego's goals of attaining happiness and comfort; we rarely descend into the darkness of the body itself and witness, without an agenda, the naked experience that arises there."

As Reggie Ray says in his book Touching Enlightenment, it's not simply that we can find realization and awakening in the body -- there is actually no other place to find it.

But it would be just like us (wouldn't it?) to sit here in cyberspace and chit-chat and theorize about Mindfulness of Body, without actually doing it. So -- enough talk. Embedded below is a simple, 20-minute guided meditation on Mindfulness of Body that I led about a year ago at Nalandabodhi New York. You can download the MP3, or listen in streaming audio online. Close your Facebook and Twitter windows, silence your mobile phone, sit down in a comfortable meditation posture, click "Play," and explore the mystery of being alive in a human body. There is a world of somatic experience unfolding in your being at this very moment -- just waiting for you to notice it.

Note: Email subscribers may need to click through to One Human Journey's web page in order to see the embedded audio controls.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


This poem was written in Pleasant Bay, Cape Breton, on December 20, 2010 -- the night of the winter solstice and a full lunar eclipse.

Winter had urgent business elsewhere.
She stopped by to leave a note:
"I'll be back late this year:
don't wait up for me."
Her note lies melting in raggedy patches
of late December snow that pepper the ground.
Confident, we wait for her to return
and give us her full, devoted attention.
She never fails to come home to us --
although, last winter, she forgot
to freeze the Gulf of St. Lawrence
for the first time in fifty years.
Perhaps her memory isn't what it used to be.
Like a dancer, the mountain behind us flashes her eyes
through a veil of fog hiding her face.
First one eagle, then two, swimming above in a lazy circle.
Tonight, the longest night, the full moon will rise,
then dissolve in our shadow, and emerge again.
Stiff spruce trees, unruffled in the breeze,
flex their branches upwards, anticipating
the burden of snow they will be asked to bear
when winter returns as promised.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Practicing Dharma Without Becoming a Doormat

Recently someone wrote to me with the following question:

How does one who is on the path practice love, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, etc. without becoming a doormat? Our culture is so plagued with fear greed, ignorance and anger that I find it difficult to rise above it all and work from a higher spiritual plane. When people violate me, I want to fight back instead of sort of "stepping off the playing field."

Over the years, I've found that this is a frequently asked question -- especially among people who are new to the path of meditation and Dharma practice. That is not to say that it's a naive question. It's a fundamental one, for it goes right to the heart of the matter. And there is no easy answer for it. The path of Dharma does not provide us with easy, prefabricated answers to living questions; we must find our answers in each moment, and then find them again in the next.

But I've observed that this is one of those questions that ceases to plague people as they continue going deeper into their practice and spiritual path. It's not that it ever really goes away; but we begin to understand that the question hinges on a perceived separation between life and spiritual practice that doesn't truly exist.

Practicing love, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness and so on does not, of course, mean that we should make ourselves into a doormat for other people's abuse. For starters, we should extend the same friendliness and compassion to ourselves that we aspire to extend to others. The Buddha said that we could search the entire universe and we would not find anyone more worthy of our love than we ourselves are. So putting ourselves in a position of being repeatedly violated by another is not practicing compassion or love towards ourselves.

The Buddhist path is often misunderstood (and mis-applied) as a practice of passivity -- dis-engaging from the world and retreating into oneself. Certainly, retreat (in the literal sense) has its purpose and value for a practitioner, in terms of deepening and stabilizing one's own experience of truth. But real Dharma practice is not navel-gazing, or fiddling while Rome burns -- it's being fully engaged in one's life and world and relationships, with no separation and no prefabricated rules.

In the Sadhana of Mahamudra, Chogyam Trungpa described -- in poetic language -- the wisdom of a fully realized being:

He is dark red in color, symbolizing the oneness of everything within compassion. He is inseparable from peacefulness and yet he acts whenever action is required. He subdues what needs to be subdued, he destroys what needs to be destroyed and he cares for whatever needs his care.

If being inseparable from peacefulness and yet acting whenever action is required seems paradoxical, that's good -- because it is. As Zen master Suzuki Roshi said, if something isn't paradoxical, it isn't true.

As we grow on our path, we begin to see that we can act whenever action is required, but that action can come from a different motivation. It's no longer "fighting back" in the usual sense, which comes from aggression and fear, a sense of closing down and tightening. Rather, our action can come from a place of compassion and staying open to other people's basic goodness (even when they're behaving atrociously).

Sometimes that means retreating from the situation and giving it space. Sometimes it means sitting down and having a frank conversation, and sharing your perspective. Sometimes it means protesting. Sometimes it means walking away entirely, and never looking back. Sometimes it means giving someone a gift to show that you care. Sometimes it means calling the police and pressing charges. You get the idea.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, no predetermined course of action. We meet each situation that arises with fresh awareness and open heart, and we respond in whatever way is most beneficial. Making ourselves into a doormat is rarely the appropriate response.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Practicing Equanimity in Times of Terror

A few weeks ago, my friend Hokai shared on Facebook this incredible Fiona Apple video, her version of the classic Beatles song, "Across the Universe." I became slightly obsessed with it, and watched it repeatedly.

The original Beatles song, which some critics have argued was more the product of hippie-era drug culture than any kind of authentic spiritual practice, does seem slightly naive today (as my friend pointed out when he shared the video). But what Apple and her director Thomas Paul Anderson did with the song in this video took it in a whole new direction.

Apple's unyielding, peaceful, undistracted focus amidst the chaos and violence taking place all around her has, I feel, something deceptively simple and instructive to say about the practice of equanimity in difficult times. It reminds me of the legend of King Ashoka of ancient India, who looked out with sadness and horror over the desolate battlefield strewn with the corpses of his troops and enemies, and saw a monk walking through the fray with an aura of peace and dignity about him. Seeing that monk's equanimity was the spark that led to Ashoka's own spiritual awakening. As legend has it, he went on to become a benevolent ruler and did many noble and compassionate things, like building some of the world's first hospitals.

This week, the news coming out of Japan -- the earthquake, the tsunami, the ongoing nuclear crisis that seems at this moment to be heading towards catastrophe -- has rocked everyone's equanimity. Like so many others, I've found myself glued to the awful news reports; my emotions have been locked in a seemingly endless cycle of hope and fear, even at times despair. I've found myself wondering once again how to continue practicing equanimity in the light of such tragic and fearful circumstances.

Last night, I turned back to Fiona Apple's video for consolation, and for a reminder. For all its brilliance as a music video, a more cynical person than me could easily dismiss her message as a glib, staged celebrity portrayal of the practice of equanimity -- like the song itself. And, from a certain perspective, that may be so -- but it doesn't bother me. Surely the practice it is pointing to is still a relevant reminder, even in times like these -- perhaps most of all in times like these. If, after all, our practice of equanimity disappears when things look really bad, then what is it good for?

A word of caution: in traditional Buddhist teachings, it is said that equanimity has two obstacles or enemies -- near and far. The far enemy -- which is easier to recognize because it's so obviously the opposite of equanimity -- is losing your cool, getting swept away in aggression or attachment. But the near enemy -- which is harder to recognize because it can look superficially like equanimity -- is indifference, not giving a shit, a "couldn't-be-bothered" attitude. There's a lot of that sort of thing going around these days, too, but that's clearly not what is meant by the practice of equanimity.

In a way, it seems like a perfect koan: how to let the suffering of the world into your heart and to respond in whatever way is most helpful, while not getting swept away in attachment or hope and fear.

What do you think? What is the role of equanimity in times of tragedy and terror? How do you maintain your balance when the world around you seems to be in chaos?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Revulsion Is the Foot of Meditation

Cross-posted today at The Interdependence Project.

I've been thinking a lot lately about this quote by Robert Aitken Roshi:

Renunciation is not getting rid of the things of this world, but accepting that they pass away.

Renunciation is one of those widely misunderstood and misrepresented Buddhist ideas. The misunderstanding usually has something to do with what Aitken Roshi refers to here: getting rid of the things of this world.

As Western Buddhist practitioners this may be an easy groove for us to slip into. Our cultural religious heritage is one that regards this world and its things (and us, as creatures embedded in the world) as fallen -- fundamentally corrupt. According to this view, there is a pure and uncorrupted world somewhere else waiting to be exchanged for this one -- but to go there requires getting rid of the things of this world. This idea finds its most vivid expression in those zealots who flagellate or otherwise mutilate themselves as a way to mortify the flesh and aspire to a world beyond this one -- but it also comes in much more common and more subtle flavors.

It would be natural to carry that kind of trip into our Buddhist practice, and think of renunciation as some kind of ascetic mortification. But the Mahayana Buddhist view of renunciation to which Aitken Roshi was referring is quite different. It is an internal attitude of renunciation towards the cause of suffering itself: the ego-clinging that distorts reality. "The primary cause of unhappiness," says Eckhart Tolle, "is never the situation but your thoughts about it."

So much of our suffering in life arises not from the things of this world, but from the way we relate to them with our minds. We cling to things; we do not want to accept that they pass away. With possessions and relationships and circumstances, we grasp at what makes us happy and push away what makes us suffer. But maybe at this point we have begun to suspect why the mahasidda Tilopa advised his student Naropa: "You are not bound by appearances; you are bound by clinging. Cut through your clinging, Naropa."

Appearances -- the things of this world -- are just what they are. They come and go. Sometimes they rock and sometimes they suck. But we get ourselves all in a twist trying to control things, and trying to keep them a certain way. Refusing to work with things as they are, we suffer. Accepting that the things of this world pass away means that we do not hold on to anything. Appearances have no real power to bind us if we do not cling to them.

In the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, there is a famous lineage prayer that includes the line: "Revulsion is the foot of meditation." We have to be sick and tired of our own suffering, and able to see how much of it we cause ourselves -- and willing to stop. That revulsion towards our own self-created suffering, which is rooted in ego-clinging and misunderstanding, is the basis, the foot, the foundation of everything else on the Buddhist path.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Towards Open-Source Buddhism

Towards Open-Source Buddhism

I have a guest post today at the Tricycle blog that uses Linux and open-source computing as a metaphor for the evolution of Western Buddhism. Here are two short excerpts from the post:

What we call Buddhism is a widely distributed network phenomenon designed to optimize the human experience. Like the Internet, it started out as someone's idea, but then spun out of control: no one person or group now owns it, and it is being modified and updated from day to day in millions of little increments, from every corner of the known world.

Where is “the Internet?” It seems to adhere somehow to the computers and networks that are part of it, but the Internet itself can't be found. Where is “Buddhism?” It seems to adhere to the people and networks that are practicing it, but the Buddhism itself can't be found. Yet both the Internet and Buddhism can be demonstrated, utilized, applied in countless ways.


In my own practice, I have benefited from [the fusion of different traditions]. Although I study with a Tibetan teacher and look towards the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism as the primary lighthouse by which I navigate the waters, I have at times experienced bubbles of conceptual confusion and intellectualization that were helpfully popped by the sharp concision and no-nonsense directness of Zen teachings. At other times, exposure to the Theravadan view of the stages on the path of awakening—different in many ways from the Mahayana and Vajrayana views—has helped me view the teachings and practices in a more expansive light. I have even deepened my Buddhist path, at times, by incorporating spiritual teachings and practices from outside of Buddhism altogether. As long as I feel firmly rooted in my “native” tradition, I find this sort of cross-fertilization to be fruitful.

I now have to admit, though, that I know less than I once imagined I did what “Western Buddhism” is, or what it may become. It feels sometimes that there are as many “Western Buddhisms” taking shape among us as there are Western Buddhists who practice them. As with the emergence of Linux in the world of computers, perhaps what we are witnessing in the West today, with so much polymorphous blending of traditions, is the emergence of Open-Source Buddhism. (This moniker is, in fact, already in use on numerous websites.) Like the populist software movement from which it borrows its name, Open-Source Buddhism proposes a grassroots, do-it-yourself alternative to the old closed, proprietary operating systems. And it may yet produce new applications that were not possible within the framework of those systems.

However, buyers beware: I have dabbled in Linux, and frankly it gives me a headache....

Check out the full post at Tricycle to see what lessons can be drawn from the emergence of Open-Source Buddhism. Add your comments and join the conversation.