Thursday, September 12, 2019

Earth we have a problem.

“Houston, we have a problem!” Those exact, iconic words, while capturing the essence of the situation, were not spoken by astronaut John Swigert during the Apollo 13 mission to the moon in 1970. On the way, the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded, crippling the service module upon which the command module had depended. For some harrowing times following the explosion, it seemed nearly certain Apollo 13 would not only never reach the moon but also be lost in space forever. The message was timely since the engineering ground crew on earth came up with a solution and the craft, along with those on board, were saved.

Fast forward 49 years to 2019 and that same iconic message applies, only it doesn’t concern a spacecraft in an ordinary way. Instead, it concerns our spacecraft earth and we too have a problem. There is no ground crew of engineers, separate and apart from our craft since we are already on the ground and there is nobody but us to fix our problem. And what’s the problem?

We have created a use-it-and-lose-it, planned obsolescent, throw-away society and are paying the inevitable price. Our military personnel are an anomaly: They are supposed to die and not become a liability to society. Our parents (and now those of us who are nearing the end) are an anomaly: We were not supposed to live as long when the Social Security System was established. We too are now an unaffordable social liability, which given current political ideology, must be cast adrift to save those we produced. We take pleasure in what is unwrapped but are drowning in the tossed away wrappings. We enjoy luxuries never even imagined in previous centuries but are breathing in toxic fumes, roasting in unbearable heat, living in the residue of devastating hurricanes, and combatting diseases with a diminishing supply of antibioticsall the residues of manufacturing and living with such luxuries. We made a bargain with the devil and love one side of the bargain but hate the other side. In our inability to look at the consequences of our choices we have created a monster scenario of us destroying us. We are no longer citizens but rather exclusively consumersusing and throwing away.

We are like the insurance salesman in The Truman Show who discovers his entire life is actually a television show, yet we have not discovered our charade. Instead, we remain proud and unaware, inclined to throw a parade and celebrate our genius, but be sure it does not last not too long for fear we will be late for watching our favorite reality TV show. We have collectively become nothing more than that reality TV show with a reality TV show host as our leader. We have forgotten who we are and have not heeded the advice of the Dalai Lama: “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” There is no “them.” There is only “us,” and we are destroying ourselves, all by ourselves.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Selling snowballs to Eskimos

There’s a fundamental law of economics: People will purchase things they feel they need. No perceived need=No demand=No sale. The entire economic engine begins with that fundamental principle. The next principle that emerges from that one is that demand must be stimulated. People may actually need something but are not aware of solutions. That’s where marketing and advertising come into play. As an ex-marketing man, I understand both of these building blocks which are foundational to economic success.

If I wanted to create an economic success it is first necessary to persuade someone of their need, and the best way to do that is by telling half-truths. I have never seen a successful marketing campaign that told the whole truth. Instead, marketing people dwell on the part, which appeals to people and intentionally avoid telling about the downside. The downside always comes along for the ride and often times becomes apparent later, but by then the sale has been made and it’s too late to get your money back. There is no such thing as any product or service that is 100% good. In our ignorance, we are easily hoodwinked into being sold a bill of goods that looks to be without flaw.

I am no longer a marketing man. I am now a spiritual man. So what in the world does this have to do with spiritual matters? Simple: Snowballs. The most fundamental of all sales jobs is to persuade people that they are inadequate, in any and every way. If that can be done then the rest is a piece of cake. What we believe about ourselves, fundamentally, lays the ground for everything that follows. If I believe I am inadequate then I will be open to making choices and buying things I don’t need but believe that I do. Nobody is going to be vulnerable and want to buy things when they are already adequate. That would be nuts. So the first task is to bring adequacy into question.

In the most fundamental way, that is what life is all about: nothing more. Virtually from birth onwards to the grave, we are being sold a bill of goods about being inadequate. We are Eskimos with plenty of snowballs but are being duped into believing that we need more. If you want to put that into a spiritual context try this on for size: Like one in water crying, ‘I thirst!’ Like the son of a rich man wandering poor on this earth we endlessly circle the six worlds.” That’s from a very famous Zen Master (Hakuin Ekaku). And if you prefer the same message from a Christian context, try the story of the Prodigal Son, who wandered away from his birthright of splendor and ate from the trough of pigs. And if you wonder how this might translate into the economic context of today’s world, click here and watch a humorous yet insightful summation of the challenges of our world today; the growing gap between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of us, international trade wars (for that matter, any war), an out-of-control Federal Debt, global climate change, massive world-wide immigration problems, restructuring the fabric of nations, the corruption of cherished values (such as telling the truth) and how our freedoms are compromised.

The half-truth of life is that we are inadequate. The whole truth is that we are also adequate and complete already. Both of these are true together. Neither is true alone. That’s the whole truth and when we realize this whole truth then only do we cease lusting for what we already have.

Monday, September 9, 2019

The Warren Buffet axiom of spiritual wholeness.

That is THE question.
“If you aren't willing to own a stock for ten years, don’t even think about owning it for ten minutes.”—Warren Buffett

This is not a post about earning money. It is instead a post about not earning your life. I begin with that quote from Buffet because it aligns with the flip side of a spiritual principle that has made a difference in my life: 

“If your spiritual experience doesn’t last 40 years, don’t consider giving it credence for even 40 seconds.” 

Of course, that’s only possible in hindsight after having lived a long mortal life. Longevity comes along with a firm perspective that can only be established by looking backward and noticing two phases: 
  • The first is the phase of “chasing the white rabbit,” sparked by curiosity, wedded with the conviction that down a magical hole lies what Alice sought.
  • The second phase answers Alice’s question of “who in the world am I ?” and in spite of her twisted journey she says to the Queen of Hearts, “My name is Alice, so please your Majesty.” 
What Alice doesn’t learn, but we must, is that while Alice thinks she has affirmed her identity with a name, neither she nor we are a name, not even an identity. Our names may change, we may continue phase-one without realizing we are still on a quest to find ourselves, but no-one needs to go anywhere to find themselves.

But going on a quest is important to have the experience that it is a trip to nowhere. Until then we will continue the chase, or simply give up thinking we will never truly answer the question of “who in the world am I ?”. And that is where the flip side of Buffet’s investment philosophy comes into play. If we don’t give up what all of us find is we are far, far beyond an identity, name or any other means of defining ourselves. We are instead, contrary to the messages of our world, already complete, whole and full of love. There is nowhere to go and nothing to possess that we don’t have already. That is not a fantasy, nor does it take place in “never-never-land.  Instead, it is real and it takes place in “ever-ever-land.   

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Life, taxes and death.

According to Ben Franklin, nothing is more certain than death and taxes. I would add to that list one more: Life. And while it may seem that life and death are not directly related, hopefully, by the time you finish reading this post that opinion will fall flat.

Have you ever considered what would occur if we didn’t pass from mortality into immortality? All mortal things are conditional. As such they are born, grow, eventually, die and are conditioned by the very nature of being objective entities, whether humans, any sentient being or for that matter; anything (e,g., plants, insects, other animals, etc.) In psychological terms, there are two factors that determine how a human life turns out: Nature (what everyone is born with) and nurture (e.g., circumstances or conditions to which we are all exposed). All mortal things go through the same process of birth, growth, and death. If this were not so (e.g., never die, mortally) not only would we humans be standing on each others head, with the ancient on the bottom and the babies on top, but there would be no regeneration of anything. 

Mortality is fleeting, and by design is conditional. In The Diamond Sutra, The Buddha taught: “All conditioned dharmas (e.g., phenomena) are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, or shadows; Like drops of dew, or flashes of lightning; Thusly should they be contemplated.” Likewise, Bodhidharma (the father of Zen) taught: “As mortals, we’re ruled by conditions, not by ourselves.”

Mortal death is essential to continuing mortal life. Yet it is among the last things we want to talk about. Consequently, when the unavoidable inevitability occurs, the living are left with a mess to sort out. That’s the nature of mortality—in the end, a conditional mess (and often before the end). That part is beyond dispute. It is easy to understand and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with spirituality because mortality is something tangibly perceptible, and we are all mortals. But there are those who question anything imperceptible; that can’t be measured because they regard themselves as scientific.

The nature of immortality is another matter. It isn’t born, it never grows and never dies. Immortality is not perceptible, it isn’t measurable, is eternal and is the unconditional, true nature of you and me. This delineation between what passes away and what doesn’t is not limited to Buddhism. It is a spiritual principle in Christianity as well. There are several passages in the Bible that address this. But here is just one:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”—2 Corinthians 4:16

But there is a difference. A fundamental teaching of Buddhism (that doesn’t appear in Christianity) is dependent origination and this principle is likewise easy to grasp. It too is beyond dispute. Think of an easy example: “up” and “down.” These are two ends of the same stick. They come into existence as opposite pairs, and they disappear together. Neither can exist separate and apart from the other. And this fundamental is true of all things. Everything has an opposite that enables existence and defines the other. That’s an easy matter to understand. What seems hard to understand is the extension of the same principle, such as conditional/unconditional or mortal life/immortal life. These also enable mortal existence and mortal non-existence (otherwise known as immortality). So if this is so, (and it is), why do we concern ourselves with just the tangible/conditional (which we know passes away) but pay little attention, if any attention, to what does not pass away? It’s a logical contradiction but one most people live with, along with taxes.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Who are we? A view from linguistics.

Who Dat?
Our sense of who and what we are determines how we relate to the world. In a prior post, I stuck a little toe into the great sea of language to illustrate a point of significance regarding the matter of identity. Today I want to further the discussion by beginning with Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (26 November 1857—22 February 1913). He is known as the founding father of semiotics—the study of signs and symbols as elements of communication behavior. His concept of the related chain of sign/signifier/signified/referent forms the core of this field of study. In brief, Saussure noted that something signified (an objective thing) is represented with a sign (a coded language form) by a signifier (a person) in terms of references to the thing. For example, the color black (a thing) must have a reference or contrast to something different from black (perhaps the color white) to be signified or detected. Once signified in a differentiated way from the referent, the signifier can then create a sign (the word “black”) to represent what has been signified.

If there is nothing signified, the entire language chain collapses since a sign can’t be established. We can’t create a language form other than to sign what is missing. For example, if there is nothing to be signified the best we can do is to create a sign called no-thing or nothing, to signify the lack of a thing. Since nothing is signified, the validity of a signifier is brought into question. Then we would have a no-signifier. In essence, the principle of signifier and signified must come and go together in matching cases. Nothing signified, no signifier. Something signified, signifier. That awareness is the beginning of language and communications and broadly acknowledged throughout the realm of linguistics.

This chain is quite similar to the Zen chain of causation in the following way: thing, thought, thinker; No-thing, no thought, no thinker. To remove any one of these, causes the chain to collapse. For example, a thinker only has meaning in reference to what a thinker does: thinks. If there is no thinking then the meaning of thinker is meaningless. Remove a thing and there is nothing (no-thing) and thus no thought. The central Zen question concerns the identity of “thinker.” Is a thinker who we imagine our self to be? The ordinary presumption is yes: we are a thinker who thinks thoughts. Rene Descarte established this seeming fact with his now famous, “I think therefore I am.” But this is an impossibility since when we stop thinking we don’t disappear even though the thinker does, thus the real us and a coming-and-going thinker must be two different entities.

What Saussure brought to the realm of language formation, Zen brings to the realm of identity formation. And the conclusion of Zen is that we—the true you and me are independent of a vacillating signifier/sign we call ego. Our true identity is solid and doesn’t move because while things change, the referent is no change since we are not an objective thing. Instead, we are a subjective non-thing. And how is this awareness established? Through the Zen practice of not thinking which reveals the true, never-leaving you and me. The image of us (an objective sign) is meaningless without something signified (an objective thought), thus there is no signifier, which is a central premise of Zen: no-self (at least in an objective sign form). Our true non-sign self arises when there is no thought. We are the one signifying the lack of thought as well as the presence of thought. We see either the presence or the absence of thought and it takes both signified thought in reference to no thought for either to have meaning and this is true of all things, which must have a referent of difference to be signified. In physics, that principle is called relativity, and in Buddhism, it’s called dependent origination.

In the end, the self/no self-referent reveals the interconnected fabric of us. The sign (objective self-image/ego) can be seen to move and gyrate and the real us (no-self) never moves, and this, in turn, reveals a fabricated and discriminate mind (thoughts and emotions) and a real not-to-be-found indiscriminate true mind. The first is based on changing objective conditions/things (and is thus not substantial) and the second is based on the lack of objective things, which is unconditional and therefore substantial. Consequently, we are both real unconditionally and not real (based on objective conditions) at the same time. One part is born, grows big (unfortunately too big some times), decays and dies. The other part (the real us) is never born, doesn’t decay and lives forever. Unfortunately, the common-coin self-understanding is just the objective sign/symbol, which we label ego and unless we go to extraordinary means we rarely discover the real person that we are.

Friday, September 6, 2019

The critical nature of genuine self awakening.

When contemplating the myriad problems of today’s world you might come up with a list such as the following:
  • The Middle East debacle
  • Unchecked global climate change (warming)
  • A growing gap between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else
  • Spreading violence
  • Hatred and intolerance
  • Political gridlock
  • Toxic pollution of the environment
  • Loss of genuine liberties
  • (add your own)
While all of these are problems of enormous concern, there is a core root that underlies and drives them all: a misidentification of who we are individually and collectively. So long as our answer of identity boils down to a vacillating self-image (ego) the natural result is fear, greed, possessiveness, selfishness, isolation, irresponsibility, despair and a victim mentality that leaves us all heading for a cave of seeming security. 

Recently Avram Noam Chomsky observed that “As long as the general population is passive, apathetic, diverted to consumerism, or hatred of the vulnerable, then the powerful can do as they please and those who survive will be left to contemplate the outcome.” While a grim statement that shocks us into states of denial and disbelief, his observations are true.

The question is, what must we all do in order to escape from this inevitable outcome? The answer is not the ostrich method of avoidance, denial, and ignorance. On the contrary what we must all do is transform our self-understanding, from an isolated individual to a connected member of the human race, which was (and remains) the solution to suffering offered by The Buddha more than 2,500 years ago. The solution does not change because the nature of being human does not change. 

At the central core of all of us is an indefinable state of unconditional consciousness that is the same for everyone. The problem is that while this state is the source of all aspects of awareness, in itself is not detectable and we are all prone to consider “real” only things with conditions that can be detected. This is a case of the eye not being aware of the eye. However, in this case, it is the inner eye (URNA) instead of the detectible eye, and as the father of Zen wrote, it is in this state of mind that all discrimination ceases to exist. Out of this indiscriminate state arises sentient discrimination that leads us to the mistaken notion that each of is a dependent ego at odds with every other human, vacillating and contingent on an uncertain world and that ego idea then produces the undesirable qualities listed above.

Within the past several years a form of meditation (MBSR) has become prominent in helping many to cease attachment to waves of thinking, many of which are destructive to self and others. While very helpful, it only one of two dimensions outlined by The Buddha in his Eight Fold Path. MBSR rests upon one of these two: right mindfulness (Sanskrit: samyak-smṛti/sammā-sati) and is the essential path to a genuine awakening of our true, indiscriminate nature (who we truly are). The other dimension of mind (right concentration (Sanskrit: samyak-samādhi/sammā-samādhi) is not widely known, but by any other name is Zen/Dhyāna, with a history going back into an unrecorded time long before The Buddha. 

The two disciplines were intended to be practiced as a combined pair but in today’s world, they have been split apart. MBSR has become quite useful in stilling the mind and helping practitioners to stay present instead of lost in speculation. However, the issue of identity remains an esoteric matter leaving those who practice MBSR only, still holding fast to a perceptible and insecure self-understanding. Importantly it is Zen that produces the desired result of a sense of SELF that is unconditional, whole, perfect and unshaken. This quality alone delivers the awareness that we are all unified, none better; none diminished in any way. 

As awful as the laundry list of contemporary problems may be, those and unknown others will flourish unless we can experience this state of indiscriminate, undiscovered unity, inherent in us all. 

The true you and me.

The Ancient Greek aphorism to “know thyself” is familiar even today. Most people throughout time and place believe they know themselves and can go to great length to describe their attributes, personality characteristics, along with strengths and weakness. Of course, as we age our comfort with these definitions changes and we seem to have an evolving self that morphs as the world changes around us. In that sense we seem lost to the vagaries of life, and are like sponges, soaking up the dimensions of our conditional world and that method is the standard way of “knowing ourselves.”

There is, however, another way of coming to self-understanding that was articulated by The Buddha in the Śūraṅgama Sūtra. The dialogue in this sūtra is between The Buddha and his cousin, Ananda. And one of the principal teachings in the sūtra concerns this alternative way of knowing. In the process of the ensuing conversation, The Buddha identifies two types of minds; one that leads to unending suffering and the other that leads to genuine self-understanding. Here is what is said:

“The Buddha then compounds his cousin’s confusion by stating that there are fundamentally two kinds of mind:
  1. First, the ordinary quotidian (e.g., ordinary) mind of which we are aware and which is entangled, lifetime after lifetime, in the snare of illusory perceptions and random thoughts;
  2. And second, the everlasting true mind, which is our real nature, and which is the state of the Buddha.
Ananda, what are the two fundamentals? The first is the mind that is the basis of death and rebirth and has continued for the entirety of time, which has no beginning. This mind is dependent upon perceived objects, and it is this that you and all beings make use of and that each of you considers to be your own nature.

The second fundamental is enlightenment, which has no beginning; it is the original and pure essence of nirvana. It is the original understanding, the real nature of consciousness. All conditioned phenomena arise from it, and yet it is among those phenomena that beings lose track of it. They have lost track of this fundamental understanding, though it is active in them all day long, and because they remain unaware of it, they make the mistake of entering the various destinies.”

Unfortunately, even in the present day, we misunderstand  “mind as the first and this leads to all the suffering of the world. And the second is the one the vast majority of humanity has missed. The obvious conclusion to this observation is that the solution to our contemporary troubles must begin with a proper grasp of our true mind, because we are prone to understand ourselves and others in the same fashion as this first kind of mind understands anything: as mutually discreet, perceived objects, all different with no connective spiritual tissue, only. Beneath our bodily form lies our true spiritual nature which never dies and is connected to all.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The certainty of failure.

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”⎯Alan Watts

Our vision is limited. We tend to see what lies within our immediate sphere, without consideration of how we got here, or where our footsteps are leading. Our presumption is that there is a straight path from the past to our present. To make matters worse we then enshrine our words and actions into hard and fast rules, forgetting that how we got to where we are was 100% unpredictable. 

Some years hence Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a New York Times best seller called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. According to Taleb few if any of the major human tides were, or could have been, predicted. He was, and is, of course correct. And one of the key reasons for his accuracy is uncertainty. Just as very few swans are black (most are white), very few tides happen as we predict, simply because of the constancy variable (e.g., the uncertainty factor). Change is the only thing that is certain and nobody can predict the precise nature of change.

This may seem like a huge problem to our collective wellbeing since many of the most significant tides appear as dangerous and we grasp for straws trying to meet creeping challenges by crafting fixed, and more times than not costly, solutions. While this admonition may look global in nature the truth is collective consciousness is the result of small individual contributions. On an individual basis such behavior is known as clinging to dogmaThe epitome of inappropriate conduct.

As Voltaire indicated, while doubt is an unpleasant state of mind, the presumption of certainty is absurd. One of the essential differences between Buddhism (which is based on the certainty of change) and other religious institutions concerns this matter of uncertainty, and what to do about it. Since change is certain, The Buddha promoted upaya which translates as “expedient means.” There are no fixed solutions that always work and to continue down the road of life based on the expectation of certainty is a fools errand.

Right, wrong and the realm of harmony.

My way or the highway?
Two of the most prominent figures in the history of Zen were Nagarjuna and Bodhidharma. Both had meaningful perspectives on the matter of discrimination—not the ordinary way of judgmental opposition, instead of the ability to discern differences. By itself, perceptual discrimination is unavoidable and without contention. The color white is discriminately different from the color red (although some may argue about the particular nuance of red) just as up is clearly the opposite from down. Seen in that way it is a matter of common sense to perceive differences.

However, when the matter of egoic judgment enters the arena, conflict is sure to arise. Calling someone egotistical is a sure-fire way of creating hostility, yet the vast majority of the human race functions in a way to protect their egoic views, without the awareness that most all of the time, hardened views are rooted in the soil of their egos, where defending their views is the same as defending their sense of self. None of us can possibly perceive anything in the same way. We all are looking through lenses of our histories, experiences, personality traits, predispositions, hardened beliefs and mostly driven by a defensive ego, all convinced that their views alone are right at the expense of those who disagree. 

Our world would be a heaven on earth if setting aside our view that only our views are right. Everyone would then see things in the same way with peace, harmony, and joy reigning universally. It might be boring but it would bring harmony. I have never met anyone who pursued a path they were convinced was the wrong path. If they are not wedded to an intractable position to which they have taken claim (e.g., rooted in their egos), and remain open to the lessons life can teach, it is quite possible to learn that what seemed certain in the beginning can be transformed into a perspective contrary to what they initially thought. However, even with an enlightened perspective, the ego will resist the admission of being in error.

Nagarjuna, in explication of The Buddha’s understanding of the Self, created what has since become known as The Two Truth Doctrine,” which says that enlightenment begins by first becoming aware of the difference between ordinary truth (e.g., the realm of right vs. wrong) and sublime truth where unity prevails, but we are only freed from bondage by intuitively experiencing this sublime realm. Until that experience occurs, the process remains a fabrication of intellectual discernment: an idea. It is the “experience” of penetrating the constructed and defensive ego to find our essential Self that liberates the human mind from the bondage of “versus” and conflict.

Bodhidharma, in a somewhat different way, spoke about this realm of unification in one of his favorite Sūtras—The Laṅkāvatāra: “In this world whose nature is like a dream, there is place for praise and blame, but in the ultimate Reality of Dharmakāya (our pure, indiscriminate state of essence) which is far beyond the senses and the ‘discriminating mind,’ what is there to praise?”

Much of these ancient words and concepts appear abstruse and incomprehensible to modern man, but the core principle elaborated here is that the ego is a fabricated idea we all take for who we are, not realizing that an ego is a fantasy defined by particular characteristics including greed (and associated manners such as avarice, stinginess, and possessiveness); anger (and associated manners such as rage, brooding, vengeance and revenge), and finally delusion; remaining oblivious to our true essence, and taking on egotistical behaviors such as those just listed.

When we compare the states of conflict in the world to the realm where “versus” ceases to exist, it convincingly illustrates that truly, at the core level of our essential Selves, the solution to all conflicts must begin and end by removing the impediments that blind us to our true natures where hardened ideologies cease to exist, anger is non-existent, “my way or the highway” is replaced with unity and unveiling our inner essence where the common coin of harmonious joy for all prevail.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Irrational exuberance and the tradition of silence.

Dogma is the thorn in our collective side. It is always heated, exuberant and close-minded. The message of dogma is one of self-righteousness and is based on obdurate and unyielding ideologies. All dogma is based on conceptual thinking—impacted points of view arising from a perceived beautiful, rational perspective (at least in the eye of the ideologist). A contrary ideologist sees this perceived beauty as sheer ugliness. So long as dogma reigns, no reconciliation is possible and both opposing forces become irrationally exuberant.

In sharing the dharma some have said, “You’re closed-minded to my perspectives but are asking me to join you in your close-mindedness.” There is a difference between Zen and other perspectives. The tradition of Zen is a silent one and is fundamentally rooted in a transcendent position, which reaches “across the aisle,” not favoring one position or the other. From that platform, you might say that Zen is being closed-minded to being close-minded.

The most revered figure following the Buddha was Nagarjuna who is best known for his doctrine of two truths. The essence of his teaching is that we have no choice except to employ conventional means, which are admittedly delusional, to ultimately destroy delusion. By using words (conventional abstractions: conditioned phenomena) the goal is to go beyond words to find ultimate truth.

The famous Diamond Sutra, held in high regard by Zen advocates, teaches this point, saying:

All conditioned phenomena
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, or shadows;
Like drops of dew or flashes of lightning;
Thusly should they be contemplated.

The identity we value (self-image, the imagined “I”) lives within the illusion of what we ordinarily regard as mind―that is, the manifestations, which emerge from our true mind. According to Chán Master Sheng Yen, (Complete Enlightenment—Zen Comments on the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment)

“… there cannot be a self (e.g., ego) that is free from all obstructions. If there is a sense of self, then there are also obstructions. There cannot be obstructions without a self to create and experience them, because the self is an obstruction.”

Rationality came out of the Age of Enlightenment as a solution to religious dogma, but it has become a different form of dogma. I am not suggesting that we return to religious dogma. Dogma of any kind is what happens when we close our minds to suchness—to things as they truly are. Rather than swing from one dogma to another, or one set of illusions to another, what we need to do is dump all dogma and illusions and rid ourselves of bias, and delusion. That is the thrust of Zen. It is about seeing clearly, seeing things as they are rather than how we imagine they ought to be. Zen is about balance, integration, and harmony, and is opposed to imbalance, disintegration, and chaos.

Zen Master Huang Po spoke eloquently about the difference between conceptual ideologies and ultimate truth. He said, “If he (an ordinary man) should behold the glorious sight of all the Buddhas coming to welcome him, surrounded by every kind of gorgeous manifestations, he would feel no desire to approach them. If he should behold all sorts of horrific forms surrounding him, he would experience no terror. He would just be himself, oblivious of conceptual thought and one with the Absolute. He would have attained the state of unconditional being. This then is the fundamental principle.” (The Zen Teachings of Huang Po—On The transmission of Mind). Yes, Zen is dogmatic but the target of this dogma is dogma.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Lessons from a hurricane—The great paradox.

Things are not as they appear, nor are they otherwise.

Complacency and apathy are indeed comfortable. They lull us into the illusion that all is well when the wolf is near our door. Disasters may fall upon others but not us. Just when we think all is well, the storm of change comes upon us. We so wanted the security of eternal bliss but it rushes suddenly away like a hurricane through our fingers, ripping our pleasure away and leaves us with a devastated spirit. All spiritual traditions address this looming catastrophe, yet we assume it won’t happen to us. In 1 Thessalonians 5, the Apostle Paul wrote,  “…for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them  suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.”

What is this “day of the Lord?” Many would argue it is the day of final judgment when we must stand before God and be held accountable for our actions. Judgment seems to be extraordinarily important and justice will at last prevail, or so we’ve been led to believe. However, there is an alternative that is worth considering.

An aspect of being human is to think that our way alone is secure while all others are in jeopardy. There is a psychological term to explain this. It’s called either the optimism or normalcy bias and is central to the nature of self-destruction. While in such a state of mind we deny the obvious, at least for ourselves and justify our choices because of our self-centered sensed need. Destruction is someone else’s problem but certainly not ours. Our attitude is governed by a self-understanding that appears to keep us apart from others, secure in our sense of superiority. Today there are many who choose to live in states of denial and they will discover too late that, contrary to belief, we are not apart. What we choose collectively affects us all, and this is made clear when in the midst of a hurricane that rips everything apart, indiscriminately. 

While in such a state of mind we are sure that, given our sense of self as unique and special, we are above the suffering of others. But all too often we make choices we are not proud of because we misidentify as someone unworthy, far beneath the unrealistic standards of perfection we set for ourselves. Or we may do the opposite and imagine that we alone are superior. The moment we awaken from our sleep of self-centered delusion is our personal day of reckoning; our “day of the Lord.” In that very moment, we discover that we are no more special than anyone else, yet we and they are pure of heart. Before that moment we lived in a state of complacency and delusion, sometimes called normal.

The very first of the Buddha’s Four Nobel Truths explain the nature of suffering and it has three aspects:

  • The obvious suffering of physical and mental illness, growing old, and dying;
  • The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing; and,
  • A subtle dissatisfaction pervading all forms of life, due to the fact that all forms are impermanent and constantly changing.
The second of his truths is that the origin of suffering is craving, conditioned by ignorance of the true nature of things (most particularly ourselves). The third truth is that the complete cessation of suffering is possible when we unveil this true nature, but to do that we must first let go of what we previously thought. And the final truth is the way to this awakening: the Eight Fold Path. What we discover along this path to a higher level of consciousness is the same driving force of suffering that moves us out of ignorance and towards awakening: the first truth. It is both the cause, and the compelling force, of change. 

“Things are not always as they seem; the first appearance deceives many.”—Phaedrus, circa 15 BCE

Monday, September 2, 2019

Laws and Order.

Law and Order?
In 1970 Alvin Toffler wrote and published Future Shock, a book many considered to have caused a paradigm shift in how we think about, and react to an unfolding future, particularly a future that speeds up and disrupts fixed societal standards. He followed with The Third Wave and Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century in which he further delineated the plight of those who resist inevitable change. His solution? People who learned to ride the waves of change would be most likely to survive and do well. And those who didn’t adapt would be drowned by those waves of change.

Toffler was unusually prescient and fairly well defined the turbulence of the present day. The short takeaway of Toffler’s thesis is this: We humans resist effervescent conditions that disrupt the status quo and thus cling to fixed standards, even when such standards may never have existed. Or if they did exist we tend to imbue them with inflated and idealized values. In short, we don’t embrace change and end up trying to bulwark thin air. Furthermore, when such changes wash away set standards, we yearn for the “good old days” when law and order prevailed and seemed to ensure stability.

Some years earlier Alan Watts came to mainstream attention with his book The Wisdom of Insecurity in which he observed that our lust for stability was grossly out of kilter since nothing in the phenomenal, mortal world is stable⎯all is  changing each and every moment, and to cling to the idea of stability was a sure-fire prescription for failure. I offer these two summations for a reason that is particularly germane today, and what it should tell us about the value of fixed standards, otherwise known as “laws.”

We, humans, are creatures of habit and once we have made decisions, we are reluctant to admit the error of our ways. That peculiar habit has a name and a well-founded pedigreed in psychological terms. It is known as a “confirmation bias” which means we are much more inclined to seek confirmation of our preconceived ideas than to seek the truth. While it may be understandable and even desirable to live with standards, it is likewise a problem when we try to box in change. It can’t be done, since no law, or set of laws, can ever counter continuous change. So what to do?

The Buddha offered the perfect solution which he called “upaya,” a Sanskrit word that translates as “expedient means,” where justice is a built into the premise of change. Instead of inflexible laws, upaya is flexible guidelines that allow for the nature of change. Upaya is rooted in the inherent wisdom of all of mankind, whereas the desire for inflexible standards is rooted in the opposite incorrect thought: Because we are by nature immoral, the lack of laws will result in anarchy, thus we must have a crutch to compensate for our lack. Ultimately this issue boils down to what we think of one another. Are we naturally moral? Or naturally immoral?

Another ancient sage by the name of Lao Tzu said this in chapter 57 of the Tao Te Ching: 

“The more laws and restrictions there are,
The poorer people become.
The sharper men’s weapons,
The more trouble in the land.
The more ingenious and clever men are,
The more strange things happen.
The more rules and regulations,
The more thieves and robbers.

Therefore the sage says:
I take no action and people are reformed.
I enjoy peace and people become honest.
I do nothing and people become rich.
I have no desires and people return to the good and simple life.”

Given the vector in the world today it is high time we reconsider how we understand one another, and rethink how we relate. This may seem like a risky venture but how much greater is the risk of the direction in which we are now heading?

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Dreams and reality.

Ignorance based fear.
A while ago I came across a greeting card, intended as encouragement, that said, “Don’t let reality get in the way of your dreams.” The implied message was that we should not be discouraged by events that can bring us down. There was something that troubled me greatly about the message and started me thinking of ostriches with their heads buried in the sand having dreams that ignore what surrounds them.

In 2018 I reposted a title, The high price of choice: winning battles, losing wars (originally written four years earlier) and in that post, I spoke about our normal way of discerning reality, delusion and how these relate to dreams. The conclusion of the post was—according to the Buddhist way of understanding reality—the vast majority of humanity imagines a reality in a distorted way that leads us to remain completely unaware of what is ultimate reality. Consequently, we walk around in a dream state, all the while thinking our perceived world is reality.

Persuading anyone of this view is most difficult. Instead, we prefer fantasy to reality and this dream state is very often based on fear and consequently adopting an attitude of denial, pretense and unrealistic hopefulness. In the Nipata Sutra there’s a conversation that occurred with the Buddha that said: “What is it that smothers the world? What makes the world so hard to see? What would you say pollutes the world and threatens it the most? The Buddha replied: It is ignorance which smothers and it is heedlessness and greed which make the world invisible. The hunger of desire pollutes the world, and the great source of fear is the pain of suffering.” Twenty-five hundred years later there remain clear examples of this dilemma.
  • It is far easier to ignore advancing devastation of global warming and our contributions that exacerbate the growing threat. It is fear of suffering and losing one’s livelihood, or alienating those attached to vested interests with whom we align ourselves. The desire for shortsighted greed in maintaining a destructive status quo traps us all in states of fear. 
  • It is easier to ignore many aspects of family discord that corrupt ones spirit and fills us with fear of suffering the loss of expected love that could come from a family based on openness and acceptance. 
  • It is easier to ignore our civic obligation to vote as an expression of our moral convictions than it is to risk having others discover our true values that conflict with theirs, and thus suffer the loss of facile relationships, which we reason are better than none at all. 
  • It is easier to maintain a duplicitous relationship of pretense where we risk standing nakedly exposed than it is to risk being discovered and suffer loss from being ourselves.
Dreams built on the sands of delusion are doomed and ensure our ultimate suffering in many ways, none of which we hope for. The very first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is that we all suffer—none can escape. And the second of these truths is the cause of suffering is attachment (e.g., craving) to the blowing sands of change. If there were only two noble truths then despair is the only possible result. However, The Buddha didn’t stop at two. The third is there’s a solution and the fourth directs us to the Eight Fold Path that leads to experiencing ultimate reality and the discovery of our always loved, and always loving true nature. When we arrive at that place of enlightenment we find that we were living, not just in a dream, but in a horrible nightmare that was, and is, based purely on an expected fear of suffering.