Trial by fire

I am reading, with much admiration, the blog recounting the efforts of the members of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a Soto Zen monastery in California, to cope with the wildfires currently ravaging the countryside. The blog is aptly called ‘Sitting with Fire’, and I am much struck by how calm and circumspect the reporting is by the team on the front line. We can all hope to be so serene in the face of our own, often far less life-threatening, crises.

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Sitting with desire I

The cause of suffering, it is often cited of Buddhism, is desire, attachment or craving. We suffer because we crave what we (think we) don’t have. And we crave any number of things, both tangible and ephemeral — ice cream, a bigger house, a bigger car, someone to love us, we may even crave a more fulfilling spiritual life.

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The practice of gratefulness

I was listening to a dharma talk by Joan Halifax roshi and Brother David Steindl-Rast recently on ‘Gratefulness in the Now’. They are also founders of the Gratefulness community which seeks to foster the spirit of gratefulness in a world that is in so much pain.

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Living with the dodgy wheel

I meant to post about the Noble Eightfold Path, and my own struggles with staying on it, and planned to start out of order with ‘Right Speech’, because it is speech that often gets me into trouble and causes the suffering of myself and others.

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Treeleaf and time

Fall leaves A member of my local sangha recently drew my attention to an online Zendo (I hesitate to use the word ‘virtual’, because it is very real) called ‘Treeleaf‘. It is led by Jundo Cohen, a Zen teacher in the Soto lineage of Masters Eihei Dogen and Gudo Wafu Nishijima.

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Meeting the Buddha

There is a saying, ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!’, implying that the Buddha is already within us, and that we ought to eliminate any deification projected onto external gods/men/things. I don’t know if it is an old Buddhist saying or a more recent manifestation, but the phrase was also popularised as the title of a book by psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp, first published in 1972.

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A foray into Buddhist purgatory

I was faced earlier today with a spiritual dilemma — to go for my regular weekly meditation meeting or to stay home and watch the Champions League final? :)

Football won out, I’m almost ashamed to say, and as I joked with a friend, luckily Buddhism doesn’t have the concept of burning in hell. Then recessed memories started to kick in. Hang on a minute. Doctrinal Buddhism may not conceive of hell in a similar sense to the Christian notion of eternal damnation, but it does speak of the six realms in Samsara, or the perpetual cycle of existence/suffering, which when taken metaphorically, can offer an almost liberating sense of the afterlife. I am myself rather intrigued by the possibility of having many lives, rather than just one, make it, or break it.

Taken literally, however, the six realms is a testimony to the richness of human expression and imagination. Cultural Buddhism, in this form, is replete with images of the unimaginable tortures awaiting the ‘unskilful’ (what a wonderfully non-judgemental designation) among us. I am reminded of the picture Soen Joon Sunim posted of Avici, the ‘Hell of hells’. I am also reminded of a childhood visit to Singapore’s Tiger Balm Gardens (Haw Par Villa), to its Ten Courts of Hell depicting untold human suffering of the most gruesome kind. These days the garden has been turned into a theme park, with an entry fee that deters all but the most trigger-happy tourists. Before its refurbishment in 1985, the park was open to the public, having once been the site of the mansion (or villa) of the famous Aw Brothers, who developed the Tiger Balm as a Chinese cure-all for aches and pains. (The balm contains no tiger in it, only minty oils that leave a cooling sensation on the skin).

What is really interesting now, as I plumb the depths of my memory, was that the hellish exhibits were out in the open, amongst pavilions and shady trees, and many a happy local family could be found picnicking among them. Just to confirm I’m not indulging a false memory, here’s someone else’s recollection. What the effects may have had on a child and his unconscious associations with wrongdoing and punishment, I shall leave to the psychology and psychotherapy experts amongst you, but my own experience, was not a fear of hell in the afterlife, but pain in the present one. I remember a slight twinge in a corresponding part of my anatomy as I looked upon each head that was chopped off, each torso speared, and each limb engulfed in flames. Even now the memory triggers a small shudder through my body that the more recent pictures I linked to above do not. The latter are of the ‘new’ exhibits, and seem more camp than the ones I remember.

Who would have thought a random thought about skipping meditation for football was going to bring all this up? The game had better be worth it. Otherwise, according to populist notions of karma, I may return in the next life as Wayne Rooney’s metatarsal (or whoever else may be the star at the time). Ouch.

Unwriting the I

I’m a great believer in synchronicity. Unwilling to sleep, unable to rid myself of the odd discomfort of my last post, I ended up surfing Buddhist blogs and encountered this one called One robe, one bowl on my second try.

Here’s a quote from the latest post which I don’t think requires any comment:

I mentioned my five-year-old conversion to Buddhism yesterday as well. Prior to taking precepts, I really believed that I could change the world through political and social action. What I never paid attention to was how I was engaging the world. I’d say, actually, that despite my well-meant intentions, I was living “without the world” before I took precepts. Buddhism didn’t prompt me to take a step back and examine how I was living in the world. I’d realized I needed to do so before I stepped foot in my first temple. What practice did give me was support and clarity for “shifting my paradigm of being.” And I didn’t shift right away, either. It’s not something that happens in a season, or even a single lifetime. It is something that we can observe, however; and I look back and see a difference.

Even as recently as last year, I still believed that I–we–could change the world and stop its suffering in a global and quantifiable way. What I’ve come to ask at this point isn’t how we can save the world, but if we can save the world.

What if we can’t stop the suffering? How do we practice from that point?

Her latest post drew me to read the other entries, but it was this one that prompted me to blog it:

Some things, however, do not vanish, not even with a new name and a self-erasing history. We wouldn’t want them to, anyway. Writing is still a part of my life and a part of my movement through the world. But where I once wanted to impose noise and “self” on stillness, now I’d like to try and find stillness in the noise. Rather than writing to bolster the idea of Me, I want to try writing to unravel the illusions that bind us.

It’s a paradox: how can I unwrite the I? Is it possible to admit an individual perspective while aiming at the Universal? …All I can offer is my trust in Paradox–that it leads us to our original home, and not away–and my best efforts on the journey.

I think I found the answer to my question, ‘Do I have the right to say I don’t care?’ The operative word isn’t ‘right’, it’s ‘I’. Dissolve the ‘I’ and any ‘right’ to anything becomes irrelevant.

This is one of the few things that has made sense to me for a long time, and one of the times I’m truly grateful for the internet.

Update, 28 November 2006: Note that One Robe, One Bowl is now gone. It has been taken down by the author. The URL is now used by a different blogger. But I am leaving my original post up there as it was.

Ourselves and each other

I came to meditation some years ago during a bad patch (do we ever seek help when things are good?). I started out with a CD, then found a group, and realised that like most activities it was much easier to keep up with a group than when you’re on your own.

The group is important for me in many ways. For one thing, it keeps me anchored to a weekly routine, and motivates me to maintain my daily practice (more or less!). But it also liberates me from my social identity. We meet to sit first, and to socialise second, so there is no pressure to ask or answer (and resist!) questions of who you are, where you come from, what work you do, and what car you drive.

I started this post thinking I was going to explain why it was I meditated, but I think the more important question is why I meditate with others. This is what I wrote in a blurb about my local mindfulness group:

‘We sit to learn how to be more in ourselves and with each other’.

Sure you can meditate alone, but meditating in a group allows you to step out of yourself and be with others; not talking at them, or judging them, or annoying them, or trying to get them to like you. Just being with other people in silence makes me better at being myself.

It probably isn’t an accident that the Three Jewels in Buddhism refer to the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings) and the Sangha (spiritual community), rather than the unholy trinity of ‘Me, me and myself’.

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