See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Four Noble Truths

It came to me during zazen last night that the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, as commonly expressed, are a bunch of crap. These form the core teaching of Buddhism as normally taught, and are usually stated something like this:

1. Life means suffering.

2. The cause of suffering is attachment.

3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.

4. The path to cessation of suffering is called the Eightfold Path.

No wonder Buddhism is commonly perceived as some depressive philosophy, or worse yet construed as some esoteric religion with a mystical path to Enlightenment. I think the problem of human existence might be better stated as:

1. The essence of human life is dissatisfaction.

2. The cause of dissatisfaction is the desire for satisfaction, or dissatisfaction with dissatisfaction.

3. One does not have to dwell in the endless reflection of dissatisfaction with dissatisfaction.

4. The cure for dissatisfaction with dissatisfaction is action in the present moment.

Thanks to Gudo Nishijima, Sensei, for the phrasing of the last one. My original version was "doing whatever the hell it is you're doing."

Of course, all of the above is just words, and words about fundamental understanding are never true. They are an attempt to reduce existence to language, and are sometimes true from a limited perspective, but must be false from others, because perspectives, if not beings, are indeed limitless.

For the most part, I have abandoned any attempt to attain truth through words. My least favorite part of any session of zazen, especially when it has been fulfilling for me, is when someone starts expounding truth at the end. Occasionally when a really good teacher gives a good dharma talk, I hear things which I realixe I always knew were true. This does serve to validate my experience, and of course to validate the teacher in my own mind. I do note that this only applies to live teaching; inevitably, everything read from a book, which I consider canned wisdom, sounds false. My "mind" argues with it, and the endless dialectic which is a symptom of the disease of language, which may have been held in abeyance by honest experience for a moment, is restarted. Thanks a lot, guys..

Sunday afternoon I watched a Buddhist teacher for whom I have respect dealing with the questions of an obvious newcomer about life and death, rebirth, and the nature of non-existence of the "self". Like most people on spiritual quests, the questioner really wanted to be assured that everything will be alright. We'd been discussing Dogen's Genjo Koan. She wanted to know how Buddhism allowed one to escape suffering in death. The real answer of course, is that it doesn't. It may at some level allow one to escape the desire to escape suffering, but you're still probably gonna scream like a bitch. A full acceptance of this may alleviate the dread you have at this moment of that future process. Or not.

Everything won't be alright. Human nature is not perfect. My fellow Board members on the Nashville Buddhist Festival are currently engaged in a debate about whether to accept the first five Precepts of Buddhism as a code of ethics for the Board. Now, I won't go into tiresome detail, but the precepts are unattainable. They are, in Zen, seen as Good Ideas, not rules for life. For example, the first one is Do Not Kill. Now I acknowledge that in a community of monks, or on the Board of a nonprofit corporation, it is a good idea for the monks or members not to be allowed to kill each other. I pretty much think this goes without saying. On the other hand, it is impossible to live as a human being without killing something. This is why I maintain that vegetarians are idealists; if you think animals don't die so that you can eat plants, you don't understand farming, the ecosystem, or your own digestive tract.

Human existence is not perfectible. I can live with that. You have to, too, whether you want to or not, so I advise you to try.....

As to the picture above: ugly little fucker, isn't he? I stole his picture off the ASZC website. He's probably unique and very expensive. Nevertheless, he looks like a newborn baby Buddha, all red and everything. Now for some Rufi:

Friday, March 14, 2008

There Really Is No Ordinary Moment

That's actually a misquote from Dan Millman, who wrote The Peaceful Warrior, a book I haven't read, which was made into a fairly bad movie that a lot of my friends seem to like. Funny about that movie; the first time I saw it I had just finished a zazenkai in Atlanta and it was recommended by one of my favorite teachers there, and I was expecting something profound and was very disappointed. The second time was at the Circle of Friends retreat three weekends ago; I was remembering the movie as a piece of crap and found that with different expectations I was able to enjoy it as a comic book. Which just shows what expectations do for you, I guess. Still, if you're going to go rent a comic book movie, see Resident Evil: Extinction instead. Hot chicks killing zombies wins out every time, in my book.

Anyway. The point was, I didn't have the month I expected, last month. I went to Atlanta for zazenkai on Feb. 1 and again on Feb. 29, with the Circle of Friends retreat the weekend of Feb. 22; between Feb. 7 and last night, two Nashville Buddhist Festival meetings with an unexpected degree of debate about incorporation and adopting Bylaws (after five years of existence!). So I had set myself up to get a lot done of the Buddhist front.

I set myself up, alright. Sometime after the first zazenkai I developed some sort of unnamed illness, as a lot of people did this winter, that I'm still recovering from. I normally do Yoga or step aerobics(!) four or five times a week, and at this point I haven't been to a gym or a studio in over a month. I'm still waiting for my body to tell me it's ready; I'm still trying to get rid of that heavy toxicity I often feel after an illness. Maybe tomorrow? I've learned to trust my instincts on this.

And then last week just as my brain chemistry was starting to come back to normal, my dad developed a medical problem and had to be rushed to the hospital in Nashville (and away from his hometown doctor, the murderous thug who killed my mother). He seems to be doing well. But it was a wake-up call for me (as well as it would have been for him, had he not already been awake, unlike most other 85-year-olds).

Because we expect our loved ones to live forever, although we know it won't happen. On some level I expect my dad to always be there, and someday he won't be. I expect Ms. Johnson (my 18-year-old cat) to live forever, though she can barely walk now. I expect to always have a job with enough money to live on, despite the continued ravenging of the economy by the Bush Cabal. I expect to alway recover from illness in two days like I did when I was twenty. We expect at the end of each day, to have an ordinary day the next day, and each moment to have an ordinary moment in the next one. And it never happens.

Because each moment is unique, the cutting edge of existence. Your consciousness is located on the prow of the ship which is the universe, traversing hitherto unknown seas. I was just listening to Brad Warner's podcast of the dharma talk (public version) he gave at ASZC on Sunday morning, March 2. Here it is. And I was there, thank you, but I have to wonder what it sounds like to someone who wasn't. Navel-gazing? He was talking (at the end of what the ASZC calls a Buddha schedule, which means no subject matter for discussion, only the sitting) about the concept of the self or the ego, and how that fragments during zazen. But I don't think it would make a whole lot of sense to someone who hadn't just been doing a lot of zazen; let me know if I'm wrong.

Which is one reason why, when I do rarely lead a Zen meeting, I refuse to do readings from books. As Shunryu Suzuki was fond of pointing out, there are no eternal truths. There are only truths of the moment, which can be pointed out in context. Canned Zen is like canned corn; vastly inferior to the real thing. Which is why you should sit down and pick your truth fresh.

And as often happens from intense experience, like the zazenkai two weeks ago and the month before, I have had a perceptual shift which is hard to articulate. Of course my personal stress factor over the last month has been a part of the process (and I would note that as I progress or at least go on with zazen, everything becomes zazen). You don't have to go to Zen books to get the kind of shift I'm talking about, and in fact, Don't! Try some good fiction. Try Sartre or Camus or Kathe Koja's early adult fiction.

It's kind of like this: Starting about the time of the February zazenkai or just before, I'd started seeing sort of a background to everything which I hadn't noticed before. Just sort of a raw background with no content that underlies everything. But it was seamless, though relentlessly present. Then, this month, I've been seeing the background break up and seeing the spaces in between things. Maybe I feel a little more detached, but that's not quite right. It's like relaxing into the void, living in the emptiness and watching the chips of conditional things float by, picking and choosing to observe, to touch or not to touch, then let them go. It's absurdly impossible to explain, so I'll stop trying.

Or maybe I still have a fever, thought I doubt it. Maybe the toxins will be gone by tomorrow. Maybe that will be an ordinary day.

"Ghost Bob" photo courtesy of Ana. That was how I felt that weekend. And now: a bonus video from Donita Sparks and the Stellar Moments' Transmiticate, my favorite new rock album in years! More later!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Hardest Retreat Ever

A week after my restful, peaceful retreat in east Tennessee the previous weekend, this weekend was the much-anticipated March zazenkai at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center. Those familiar with this blog know by now that it was Brad Warner's first book Hardcore Zen that brought me back to Zen in the first place in 2004; this weekend was my second chance to sit with Brad over a weekend, the first being the infamous Empty Well retreat in 2006, which showcased my ineptitude at organizing a retreat, Brad's steadfast good humor, and the disintegration of the Nashville Zen Center. Not only that, it gave me a chance to experience a retreat with both Brad and my current Zen teacher, ASZC Abbot Michael Elliston, as well as my second trip to Atlanta with my friend Nat, current NZC president and new ASZC disciple-in-waiting, and Ana, my MTAC Zen co-host. It turned out to be the hardest retreat I've ever done, and in retrospect one of the best.

I've done at least of fifteen of these weekend Zen retreats, between Nashville and Atlanta. Optimally, I go in with my brain chemistry optimized, almost manic, and it take me a while to wear down; still by late afternoon on Saturday I'm usually exhausted. I knew I was in trouble when I almost fell off the bench backward before 7:30 a.m. this time. Look at this schedule. I'd been sick a couple of weeks before and never really gotten my full energy back; the Circle of Friends retreat was laid-back enough that I was fine; this was grueling.

Now, Brad was great, of course; I have more observations to make on the experience of sitting with him later, but Ana's insights in her latest blog are dead on. And Sensei Elliston was also great, as usual, despite being still fighting his own physical malaise. But I found myself at this long-awaited experience with no energy, wishing I was home in bed. I found myself entirely doubting the validity of the Zen process. But I came home last night, slept for about eleven hours and awoke to found that I had made a great discovery:

Once you start, it's all zazen. Every minute, every day. Good sitting, bad sitting, falling-off-the-bench sitting. Once you start, it doesn't stop. Because this led me to a deeper realization.

It's all OK, all the time. There's no doubt I'd been feeling a big improvement in my life since I started my practice, but despite knowing better, there were "on" times and "off " times. If I had a fallow period, didn't sit for a few days, did stuff I knew wasn't "Zen-like" and I regretted it, I felt like I had abandoned my practice and would feel better as soon as I got back to it. So there was a "good me" who was a good Zen Buddhist, and a "bad me" who was a remnant creature who would be left behind someday as I emerged into the true perfection of my self. The fact that I intellectually knew better than all this was no help.

But fighting through a weekend of "bad" zazen finally helped me realize; caffeine-perky and upright, or comatose lunging for the windowsill, it's all zazen, and all the absence of me. So I am what I am, and am stuck that way, even though I'm nothing at all but emptiness, so I better just sit with myself and stop trying to lunge away. This was the first weekend I've ever run off during a sitting period and took a nap; best thing I ever did. I kept telling myself, I can do it, and I can do it, and guess what, little train, sometime you roll back down the hill and kill the conductor.

And what else? Funny, I was frustrated this time as I often am, at the "silence" rule, which is not absolute but tends to manifest itself just when you want to say something. Not only that, but I never get a chance to talk to these people, who I am increasingly experiencing to be my true Sangha, and I can't talk to them? Then I read Ana's stuff about how when it came to talk they have nothing to say. Hmmm.

I suspect my recent experiences will generate a lot more stuff; this is what swims to the surface so far. Stay tuned.