Thursday, April 27, 2006

New Address

The Pagan Bodhisattva is moving to JayAndrewAllen.com. Please update your links. Thanks!

Paganism, Spirituality, and the Body

Inanna of the blog At the End of Desire has a long post up about the body, and how sensual pleasure fits into her Pagan practice.
Within a Pagan belief system, then, we're talking not about "the body" but about bodies. Part of developing one's skills in magic involves learning to sense the subtler realms. Fortunately, since we live in a postmodern age, we have the wisdom of other traditions to help us. For me, yoga has been crucial. It's helped me learn the joys of an embodied spiritual practice and to experience the communication between physical and energy bodies moving together, carried on muscle, tendon, and breath. Lying in corpse pose, I wonder what becomes of the energy bodies when the physical body dies. Are our bodies inextricably linked one to another, or does energy persist, perhaps dissipating, while matter decays and transforms?

Our bodies are no less holy for being temporal, for being born and dying. I eschew any belief system that would rank the physical body less than "spirit" because of the former's inevitable demise. Once I read a poem about the holiness of fragile and temporary things. Yes. Illness is as sacred as health. Purity is a false ideal, and one that hates the body. We're a mess, all of us - earthy, bloody, broken. And we're perfect that way. There is nothing to save.
It's an excellent point, worth emphasizing repeatedly in this day and age: there is no separation between samsara and nirvana. Everything in the material realm is equally divine, equally a glorious manifestation of the Goddess.

But there's a subtle point that needs to be made, as this can easily veer off into hedonism. (I should know - I've veered it.) There is no problem with pleasure; the problem is our attachment to pleasure - our belief that it can fill the void left by the absence of direct knowledge of Spirit.

There are a series of talks between Ken Wilber, George Leonard and Michael Murphy on Integral Naked (get yer free one-month subscription here!) regarding Integral Transformative Practice, which attempts to unite body, mind, and spirit. Murphy talked a little about the early days of Esalen, which served as a kind of "human potential laboratory" for a wide range of ancient and modern spiritual practices. The students and teachers there were so adamant about getting aspirants to stop dissociating from their physical form that people kept putting up signs that read, "Get out of your mind and into your body." In response, Leonard remarked dryly, "I always tore those signs down."

Wilber, Murphy and Leonard, have the mystic's ideal in mind. The goal should not be to denigrate matter in deference to Spirit, or to denigrate Spirit in deference to matter. The goal ought to be to align everything with Spirit.

How do we do this? It's easier to talk it than to walk it. Most of us have trained our minds, paradoxically, to do most activities mindlessly. For me, the first task is a long, slow, arduous training in mindfulness. In every action, word and thought (or, as the Tibetans would say, in body, speech, and mind), I aim to bring my full presence and my full awareness.

When I eat, I endeavor to eat with my full focus on my meal. If my thoughts wander anywhere, I want them to wander to thoughts of people who have far less than I do - people who are going hungry or starving to death in the street while I sit contented in comparable luxury. When I exercise, I want my concentration on my limbs, my muscles, my subtle energies, the firm ground of my being. When I talk to someone, I want my attention focused with intensity on every word, my mind treating every syllable that drops from their lips as important and potentially life-altering. When I write, I want my soul to drip off of every word.

And there's the important distinction. While I don't want to belittle matter in the face of Spirit, I need to make matter subordinate to Spirit. This is not to denigrate matter, but to put it in its proper place. I am not my body. I am not a hunk of accumulated food. I'm a visitor on this splendid Earth, here to celebrate, unfold, and evolve Divinity during the measly 70 to 100 years I expect to live. My life hardly even amounts to a speck of a fraction of a sliver of infinite Being. I can't afford to waste time in the pursuit of empty pleasure, as I've done most of my life. What pleasures I do enjoy, I must enjoy in the spirit of the infinite compassion of Divine embrace.

In the Charge of the Goddess, the Goddess says, "Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices, for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals". For years, I thought of "love" and "pleasure" as two separate concepts. As a Buddhist/Wiccan acquaintance pointed out, however, these must be conjoined: a pleasurable act, to be a celebration of the Goddess, must be a loving act. It's not a matter of picking one over the other, but practicing both simultaneously.

Done properly, a pleasurable act ought to be born out of both relative and absolute bodhicitta. Relative bodhicitta involves our cultivated compassion for all living beings, and our desire to serve their welfare as we would our own. Absolute bodhicitta brings the recognition that the dualistic separation of self and other is a nightmare from which all beings must awaken.

Inanna is spot on. We mustn't denigrate our physical beings. We should celebrate them. But our celebration ought to be a transcendent enjoyment. Our nature dictates that we deserve nothing less.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Look At Me When I'm Talking to You, Young Man!

During the work week, I break out of my office around 2pm to take a power walk. I used to run, many years ago. But I've been out of shape since shortly after moving to Seattle. I've tried before to jump right back into running, and every time it's proven to be murder. I've fallen back to walking - at least until my respiratory system recovers from years of Adult Swim and Hostess Fruit Pies.

Yesterday I went out about 1pm for a 50-minute hard stroll around the neighborhood. It was a beautiful day - 65 and blue skies for miles. I was wrapped in natural splendor. All around me, the foliage was iridescent with the rebirth of spring.

And here I was, scuffling along madly, thinking about work and looking at my feet.

I realized early on that I wasnt focused on the beauty that enveloped me. I consciously fixed my gaze forward, paying more attention to nature and to my path than to my black Nikes. I found it hard to hold this. My eyes felt like they were burning from the sunlight, like I had plucked them from my skull and soaked them in acid.

I laughed and thought, What an apt metaphor. My eyes turned away naturally from the sun, not because it was uncommonly bright that day, but because I'm accustomed to looking downward like most people do. (No wonder sunglass manufacturers do such a booming business.) I had to will myself to look straight and soak up the beauty that erupted around me, pushing my way past the temporary inconvenience.

Likewise, my mind turns away from Truth, not because it's too hard to behold, but because it's trained to swaddle itself in the comforts of its fictions.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The (Re-)Ascent of the Spiritual Scientist

Just discovered One Cosmos, the blog of one Robert Godwin. His writing on Spirit is extraordinary, and very much in line with Integral thinking. Here's a sliver from his recent post:
Here is what is at the ultimate root of the so-called “culture war”: are we going to live in an ascending culture or a descending one? In just my lifetime, I have seen how these positions have been reversed. When I was a boy growing up in the 1960’s, there were still many elements and reminders of ascent all around. There were plenty of virtuous and heroic men to look up to, both in real life and in the media. There wasn’t the secular hatred of the higher life, nor was there the obnoxious celebration of everything that is coarse, vulgar, and “authentic.” There was implicit awareness of a spiritual hierarchy, and some acknowledgment that it was worthwhile to try to aspire upward--not materially, but spiritually.

Today everyone is equal, but the only way you can achieve that is by assaulting and negating the vertical. I hope my son always knows that there are people lower than him to whom he is obligated, and people higher than him to whom he has the obligation to revere and emulate. Never emulate someone lower, and never presume to instruct or consider yourself equal to the truly Superior Man. Both stances are spiritually toxic. Schuon is just one of about a dozen such personages to whom I look up with reverence, awe, and gratitude.
What is it that has caused this postmodern flattening? I think the problem, sociologically (and mind you, I speak with only a thimbleful of the knowledge that guys like Godwin and Wilber possess), is that spirituality became religion, and mysticism became ritual. When religion was institutionalized, it cut off the individual seeker from direct communion with the Divine. We'll mediate between you and God, they said - don't worry your pretty little head about surmising the Divine Will.

If "religioning", as Godwin puts it, is going to have a significant revival, it will need to re-dawn as a creative mystical exercise. Somewhere between the models of Campbell and Wilber is a religious "sweet spot" where we can have creativity without chaos, mysticism without irrationalism, Deity without mediation, reverence without institutionalization.

Each of us must become a spiritual scientist. Each of us must take our faith and our destiny in our own hands, and do the hard work required to discover the truth of our own nature for ourselves.

What is Meditation?

Deliberate daily exercise in discrimination between the true and the false and renunciation of the false is meditation. There are many kinds of meditation to begin with, but they all merge finally into one.
- Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Time Is Always On My Side

Integral Awakening has a great post up on what he calls "time yoga", or the art of using your time efficiently. Check it out.

Time yoga has been a big concern for me lately. During the past two years of my depression, I've engaged in more than my fair share of mindless Net surfing. Let me face facts: it was an addiction. It didn't help that I was contributing four to 10 times daily to two blogs. Even beyond that, however, I can't count the hours I wasted trolling political blogs, reading news sites, and Googling obscure trivia.

(Speaking of which, did you know that earwigs don't really crawl into your ear and lay eggs in your brain? Gah. Sorry. Old habits and all that...)

I've managed to pull myself out of this addiction largely through the method that IA suggests. I ask myself, whenever I find that I'm lolligagging, "Am I making the best use of my time right now?" Usually, the answer I get is, "You know it's not, skippy."

I've overcome the worst wastes of my time by confining my news surfing to 10-minute increments throughout the day, and foreswearing any and all political blogs. My next goal in the campaign to reclaim my time: keeping my email window closed, and only checking personal mail two or three times daily. I'm doing it s-l-o-w-l-y, though, lest the digital withdrawal send me into anaphylactic shock.

IA points out that valuing your time is a form of valuing yourself. If you're wasting your time on trivia, you obviously don't care that much for who or where you are. This was an eye-opening statement for me. For over two years, I wasted mucho time on my job. At the time, I told myself it was the company's fault. My job was unfulfilling, the company was making moronic decisions, etc. In reality, however, it was no one's fault but mine. I was disengaged, angry, and chock full of self-loathing.

So, note to self: Mindless Net surfing == downward slide into depression. Check.

Lately, I've found that posing the "Am I making the best use of my time" question is even more effective when I give it a bodhisattva twist. I ask myself: "Are my actions at this moment benefiting both myself and others?" Fundamentally, this is just an explosion of the word "best" in a spiritual context. For me, it helps to make that explicit, since historically my warped definition of "best" has been...well, let's just say not that beneficial to myself and others.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Devotional Improv: Stimulate Spirit by Making It Up As You Go Along

Great Goddess, Divine Mother, Cosmic Creatrix,
may the ambrosia of your compassion overflow
the chalice of my being.
Recently, I've noticed that I feel compelled to compose devotionals and poetry in moments when I'm overcome with Divine love and joy. ( I define "devotional" here as "contemplative prayer in praise of Deity or Spirit". I prefer this to "prayer", which in mainstream American religious thought is often interpreted as result-oriented prayer - asking Deity to give you a raise, smite the heathens, etc.)

I wondered: Is this process reflexive? Could I be overcome with Divine love and joy by composing my own devotionals? The answer, thankfully, is "yes". Based on this work, I've made "Devotional Improv" a daily part of my practice.

Devotional Improv is easy:
  1. Still your mind using whatever technique works well for you. A la Genpo Roshi's "Big Mind" technique, you may ask to speak to the Wise Mind, or speak to the Non-Grasping Mind. Or, you may choose to recite a mantra with great fervor and devotion.
  2. Once you have reached a state of stillness and clarity, create your devotional as you pray. Don't concern yourself with getting it "right" the first time.
  3. If you feel the need to restart, to change the phrase you just uttered - do it. (The above devotional took three tries before it came out in its current form.) Seek out the words and meanings that cause your heart to swell.
  4. Keep yourself open to wisdom. Let wisdom work through you. Let wisdom traverse your synapses, stimulating and re-wiring your mind. Tap into past learning, intuition, and the universal Spirit of infinite Knowing.
  5. Neither get frustrated by your lack of wit, nor ensnared within admiring your own cleverness. This is an offering you're making to Deity. Your offering is no better and no worse than anyone else's. What matters is that you stimulate the movement of Spirit within you and through you.
  6. Once you have composed a devotional prayer that stimulates your Spirit, repeat it 3, 7, or 21 times.
  7. Write your devotional down in a journal for later reference.
Since I'm a Deity mystic, my devotions are directed to the Goddess. You can easily create impersonal devotions to Spirit as well.

Surviving an Ego Attack

Saturday: Bad day. We're adjusting to life with my grandson in the house, which has temporarily turned our schedule upside-down. My wife is spending evenings upstairs with her daughter, teaching her the ins and outs of breastfeeding a screaming baby at 3am. Me? I'm on duty with the four little ones, with the gracious (and invaluable) assistance of my mother and mom-in-law.

On top of this, we learned on Friday that my grandmother has severe colon cancer. Doctors are going in on Monday afternoon to see if they can remove the tumors and save her from this scourge.

The stress with my grandmother, plus the diversion of attention toward the new wee one, set my consciousness on a downward slide Saturday. My Child Ego kept screaming to me that we weren't getting enough attention - we were shouldering too much housework and kid detail - we didn't even have sufficient time and energy to meditate, for crissakes. How am I supposed to transcend the limits of the self and weaken my attachments IF I CAN'T FUCKING MEDITATE??!!

I let the feelings of my Child Ego run through me all morning and afternoon, neither condoning nor condemning them. I applied the appropriate antidotes: taking the second-person perspective (reminding myself that my wife, steppdaughter and moms were working as hard, if not harder, than I was); reminding myself of my Pagan bodhisattva mission; meditating when I could on the Four Thoughts; reciting Goddess mantras and devotionals - the whole nine yards. All to no avail. There seemed to be no antidote to the poison in which my mind was steeped.

But I was being bitchy and short with people nonetheless. I had to face facts: I was too tired to police my thoughts successfully. My mother-in-law kindly let me grab an hour's nap while my youngest son slept. My mind was wracked with thoughts of defeat. This path is hopeless. I'll never overcome my own defects. Wouldn't it be easier just to give up?

Somehow, though, I managed to let these thoughts and feelings pour through me without disappearing entirely down the rabbit hole. I awoke an hour or so later - still somewhat grumpy, but feeling refreshed enough to tackle the challenges remaining in the day without tearing anyone's head off.

Sunday: Excellent day. I was not only better, I was ebullient. I caught the wave of the Tao and rode it 'til the sun went down. Egotistical thoughts reared their head constantly, but fell away just as quickly when they discovered that they weren't winning my endorsement. Every action, no matter how insignificant, became a service to the Goddess. I was filled from the start to the end of the day with passion and joy for life. I felt like I was here to serve as an end in itself, without reward - and I was pleased to be of service.

The lesson learned: Counter-programming (viz. applying "antidotes" to self-limiting thoughts) is effective, but in the long run. Some times, I'm just in a bad fucking mood. I slip out of the Goddess groove and into my old funk, and no amount of counter-programming will lift me out of it. There may be no better solution in these times than to abide in faith and knowledge, check my behavior the best that I can, and wait for the clouds to pass over. Once they pass, I will likely find myself filled with joy and awe at the wonder of the Divine all around me.

Being on this path is no guarantee that I will never be out of sorts. But my path gives me the wisdom to know that such moods, like all other thoughts and feelings and desires, are impermanent. Like the thoughts that bounce around in my field of consciousness during meditation like possessed Mexican jumping beans, these moods too will not only arise and abide, but subside.

Rather than dread these moods, I learned this weekend that I should cherish them. They are unique challenges - and facing them brings Divine rewards.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Integral Options on Tarot, And Other Great Posts

I'm really enjoying Bill's writing at Integral Options Cafe. (Not so much that I'd have sex with him or anything, mind you. I'm sure both of our wives would object.) Bill has three great posts up this week:

Friday, April 21, 2006

On Meditating and (Still) Being an Insufferable Asshole: Robert Augustus Masters on Integral Naked

The Integral Naked discussion boards are buzzing about the dialogue between Robert Augustus Masters and Stuart Davis. I've never read Masters' work. I'll be rectifying that error in due course.

One of my favorite points was when Masters talked about how common it if for spiritual folk to cover up pre-rational problems with trans-rational mannerisms. In other words, we slather spiritual "special sauce" over incidents and attitudes - anger, resentment, selfishness - that have crystallized in our consciousness. We tell ourselves that we're good and selfless and full and love and light. These ideas of ourselves are not realities, but conceptions we use to beat down the knowledge of what's actually inside our minds. It affords us the convenience of pretending we're healed without ever actually healing.

What Masters proposes is radical: not freedom from one's phenomenal self, but freedom through intimacy. By knowing and interacting deeply both with others and with ourselves, we learn to look compassionately upon our traits - some of which may be like "mineral deposits" that are embedded in us for life - and relate to them skillfully.

Does this mean meditation is useless? Not from my experience. If anything, this dialog emphasizes - albeit indirectly - the importance of meditation.

Stuart Davis' point is accurate: Spiritual practitioners in the West are waking up to the fact that you can meditate for 30 years and still be an asshole. But recent events have taught me that meditation is an invaluable backdrop for this moment-by-moment intimacy that Masters and Davis rightly covet. Meditation has taught me that I am not my thoughts, feelings, and desires by giving me the tools to stand back from them and observe their ebb and flow. This stillness of mind that I'm developing has helped me disidentify with my mind so that I can work with it.

What's more, my daily meditation has brought my shadow self to the fore, so that I can deal with that and heal from it as well. I've learned over the past several weeks that I have a dark, angry side to my self that manifests at odd moments. It's a side that feels constantly oppressed by conditions and circumstances, that wants to lash out violently at everyone and everything in its path. It's the part of me that doesn't want to be held responsible for the choices it's made. Instead of owning up, it projects those choices onto others, and revels in being the outraged martyr. If this shadow had its way, I would either wallow in hedonistic pleasure until my life was left in tatters around my feet - or (more likely) snap some evening, down a shitload of pills, and drive my car off the nearest high bridge.

It's not that this shadow has never emerged before. It's that I'm unable to ignore it any longer. Previously I would feel such shame and regret over its emergence that I would shove it back down under whatever rock of my subconscious it had scurried out from under. That's harder to do when you're working with your self every moment of every day. It's like swatting flies off of the elephant in your living room, while pretending that the elephant doesn't exist.

Without the foundation of my daily meditation work, this shadow would be much harder to work with. The knowledge I've gained about the nature of my own mind through meditation is what has given me the courage to engage it.

Ken Wilber said at a recent talk with Andrew Cohen that meditation changes "the fundamental fabric of the cosmos". I don't doubt it. Meditation graces me with the realization that everything - both outer and inner - is dependent arising. I may have created it through my choices; some of it may have been impressed upon me by my parents, my friends, my culture; some of it I may have created uncnsciously, never realizing what subtle conclusions and limitations I was weaving with the yarn of my neural net. But none of it is "me" in any fundamental sense. It's all phenomenal, unbidden, the cumulative effect of a million causes both monumental and miniature.

When I first started on my spiritual path many years ago, I assumed that my mind was infinitely flexible, and being happy was merely a matter of going from room to room in the palace of my mind and evicting the lousiest of its tenants. These days, I'm more in tune with Masters' view. My goal is to use techniques from psychology and spirituality to develop habits of thought and action that manage and, ultimately, transcend these ingrained habits. They may still be with me when I die , but in a weak, neutered form.

What is Shantideva's first piece of advice for dealing with emotions such as anger and pride in the Bodhicaryavatara?
When the urge arises in the mind
to feelings of desire and wrathful hate -
Do not act! Be silent, do not speak!
And like a log of wood be sure to stay.
In other words - STOP! Don''t feed the kleshas. Instead, step back and observe them impartially, neither fueling nor condemning these feelings. The ability to do this well - to step back and avoid getting hooked - comes from meditation, from the direct knowledge that I am not identical to my body, my thoughts, my feelings, or my desires. There is a greater Me that transcends dependent arising, is unconditional, diamond-like, sovereign. Get in touch with that Self, if even at a surface level, if even for only half a minute. Tap into that solemnity and stillness, not to avoid my "bad" emotions, but to face them impartially and without judgment. Only then can I decide on the most skillful course of action for addressing them.

Today's Thought

Discover the opportunity inherent in every moment.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

We Don't Need Diets

The Diet Blog is posting about a plant from India that is reputed to suppress appetite. I'm on board with this comment:
Whether appetite suppressants in a pill form are effective or not - the overall concept is flawed. Any time you take a pill in the hopes of easy results - you fail to learn anything about healthful nutrition, better eating habits, or physical fitness.
I'm not judging people who use pills for weight loss. I've done it myself in the past, when being thin and beautiful were important to me. Now, however, I find it more important to be fit, so that my body and mind are fit receptacles for Spirit, and an appropriate channel for the greater work I have to do. I couple this motivation with mind training, breaking my attachment to food and examining my motives whenever I eat. (Am I eating for nutrition? Or because I'm bored, or depressed?) Whenever I find myself fancying the "vanity" benefits of being fit ("I'm gonna look so fucking hot!!"), I let the feeling pass through me, then gently remind myself that my devotion is to the Goddess, not to this temporary vehicle.

"Diet" has come to mean "something you do for four months to shed 80 pounds and bag babes". IMO, we don't need dieting. What we need is to make permanent lifestyle changes:
Anything less is just suffering.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Important Matters

Not much from me today in the way of high-falutin spiritual thoughts. My wife and I have spent the day enjoying the arrival of our grandson. :-)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Bodhisattva Field Notes #1: Don't You Tell ME Not to Be Stressed!

My wife had a hectic schedule today, and succumbed to stress early in the am. We were chatting via IM, and I offered what I thought was sage advice: "Honey, don't be stressed. Just relax."

If you're thinking that this didn't work so well...well, you win the prize. As my wife said later, "Telling someone to 'relax' when they're stressed is like telling someone who's depressed to 'cheer up'."

Looking back on it now, I can see that when I first realized my wife was stressed, I reverted to thinking about myself. I thought about how frazzling it can be to be around her when she's stressed. I wanted to neutralize that ASAP - not for her sake, but for mine. I didn't realize it at the time, but what I felt was what Pema Chodron calls "the tug of shenpa": the feeling of being "hooked" when a powerful emotion is about to take over our thoughts, words, and actions.

The moral? Telling someone when they're in the thick of an emotion to drop it is a losing strategy. Better to do something constructive - like offer to perform one of their chores, or look at their list of tasks for something that can be put off until another day. Let the person deal with their emotion in time, in their own way. Beyond that, be there for them - lovingly, selflessly, completely. Let the tug of shenpa work its way through you, then rediscover your connection to the Divine and operate from Her radiance.

What is Enlightenment? Issue 32 - Thoughts

Other interesting stuff in this issue that I haven't finished digesting yet...

Monday, April 17, 2006

Meditation VERSUS Concentration?

I'm partial to agreeing with Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati:
Using mindfulness and concentration is not really a process of gluing together two systems. Because of various teaching lineages pulling them apart and creating the appearance of separateness, it can now seem that we are integrating two systems. It is only an appearance. Mindfulness and concentration have both been part of the same, one process of meditation for a very long time.
In Tibetan Buddhism, according to masters such as Deshung Rinpoche, there is a strict serial correlation between shamatha (calm abiding) and vipassana (insight): you master the nine stages of calm abiding before moving on to insight. Swami J's reasoning, by contrast, is that mindfulness alone results in "
the mind [being] trained to always have this surface level activity present". We use concentration when we reach a point of stillness in the mind in order to zero in on that stillness, and pierce the veil of ego to discover who we truly are.

I find Swami J's words more persuasive because they accord better with my meditative experience. Since I've been able to sit for progressively longer sessions ever since my recent plateau jump, I've noticed that at a certain point, perceptions and thoughts fall away; the stillness rises out of the noise like a lotus rising out of the mud, and I hone in on that and hold it for as long as my currently feeble powers of concentration will allow.

Every Time You Swallow, Someone Starves to Death

Watch this counter while you eat.

Talk about appetite control.

The Goddess of the Four Quarters

Great Goddess of the East -
Bone of my flesh,
Refuge of the Dead:
i worship at your lotus feet.

Great Goddess of the South -
Fire of my passion,
Spirit of my Self:
In You my soul has found its home.

Great Goddess of the West -
Elixir of Life,
Ocean of Awareness:
Though i lay upon your breast,
i long for Your touch.

Great Goddess of the North -
Breath on my cheek,
Divine Will:
Even in Your darkest corners
Can i see Light.

****

The following devotional flows from my own Goddess Devotional practice. Some might find it overly personal, or even servile. But the tradition of bhakti - or absolute devotion to a specific Deity - has a long and storied history in religion, particularly in India. When asked to explain why he worshipped Mother Kali as opposed to the Divine Being of Brahman, the Divine without Form, the great mystic Sri Ramakrishna replied:
Satchidananda is like an infinite ocean. Intense cold freezes the water into ice, which floats on the ocean in blocks of various forms. Likewise, through the cooling influence of bhakti, one sees forms of God in oceans of the Absolute." (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 191)
Think of faith, then, as diving headlong into the ocean of the Absolute. Faith is not blind obedience to a scriptural authority. Faith is open trust; nondirected confidence; unconditional love; and intense longing. Devotion is the practice of faith - an act of both Creation and Identification in which the heart overrules the body-mind and sweeps one away in a joy that can only be experienced.

I can't explain my devotion to the Goddess, except that I know it is part of my spiritual destiny. Though I have many excellent, holy teachers helping me at various times on my path, ultimately, I regard the Goddess as my Guru.

I perform the devotional below at the beginning of my daily meditation ritual. It incorporates the "four quarters" of the Western Hermetic tradition, with North assigned to Air per Mike Nichols. The words incorporate both so-called "light" and "dark" aspects of the Goddess.

Before I recite each paragraph, I sit in the Burmese lotus position facing the appropriate direction, still my mind, and bow my forehead toward the floor, resting it on my clasped hands.

The Sleepy, Wandering Mind

There are two times that I'm most frustrated by my mind:

When I go to sleep, and when I wake up.

Early on in my spiritual practice, I discovered that the hardest times to keep guard over my mind were when I was tired. When my thoughts are blurry and every third muscle in my body aches, it's simple to let my attention drift away into whatever thoughts and fantasies manage to worm their way into my mindstream. Hell, it seems downright natural.

As a result, I usually end up in the morning spending a half-hour in bed letting these thoughts tease and torment me before I have the smarts to yank my ass out. In the evening, I'm beset by strange ideas well into my dreams (which would explain last night's ditty in which Japanese schoolgirls had taken over the local police force, and were laser-frying everybody in sight).

How do I get past this? The only solution I see is "practice, practice, practice". I've defined night-time and rising rituals to counteract mindlessness. When I wake up, I recite the Bodhisattva Vow from Shantideva three times:
Just as the Buddhas of the past
Embraced the awakened attitude of mind,
And in the precepts of the Bodhisattvas,
Step by step, abode and trained;

Just so, and for the benefits of beings,
I also will have this attitude of mind,
And in those precepts, step by step,
I will abide and train myself.
If I find I need to stay in bed a little longer (I sleep with my two-year-old son, and sometimes he wants to get up a bit too early), I'll recite the Eight Verses of Thought Transformation, or various Goddess prayers and devotions I've composed. At night, I'll recite the phrase, "I will enter lucid dreaming tonight, and my dreams will bring forth deep wisdom" over and over until I fall asleep. I also may perform a trick I picked up from Stephen Laberge's Lucid Dreaming, and do reality tests to ensure I'm not already asleep.

This has all been...eh, somewhat effective. My mind tends to race less in the early mornings. More specifically, it races, but I snap to attention much more quickly, and can get a handle on it before I'm far off into the nether-reaches of Waking Dreamland.

I haven't noticed much appreciable difference at night yet. I've managed to lull myself into a deep dream sleep a few times, and have had some amazing dreams as a result. But this is inconsistent, and none of the dreams have been lucid. This may be due to a certain fear. The last few times I've been on the verge of lucid dreaming, it was brought about by the realization that time was moving irrationally in my dreams. For example, I'll be on the first floor of a house, where light is pouring through the windows, and then move up to the second floor, where the only light is a few scant moon rays. Both times, I was so terrified by the disparities that I bolted out of sleep. I have no idea how to counter this yet.

What else is there for me to do but to keep practicing? I've gotten discouraged by setbacks and plateaus in the past, but I feel like I'm past that point now. I've had enough success now that I know even the wildest mind can be reined in by daily meditation and bhakti. And I have faith - a faith bordering on scientific consensus - in the realizations of the great mystical teachers and practitioners who have gone before me. I know there will come a day when there is never a second that I feel myself detached from the embrace of the Goddess, and from the direct perception of my true, unborn nature.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Measurable Four Immeasurables: Wishing Happiness, One Being at a Time

A popular Tibetan Buddhist prayer is the Four Immeasurables. There are many variations on this, short and long. The one I have memorized goes:
May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and from the causes of suffering.
May all being abide forever in bliss,
And may they reside in equanimity, harboring neither attachment nor aversion,
Believing in the equality of all.
I recite this as part of my prayers before the beginning of every meditation session, and recite it to myself throughout the day.

I've never used this prayer as the subject of its own meditation, however. Roger Walsh's Essential Spirituality has an idea for doing just that. Walsh offers a very condensed form of the Four Immeasurables - "May all beings be happy, joyful, loving, and peaceful." Rather than start with the universal, however, Walsh suggests starting by saying, "May I be happy, joyful, loving and peaceful." Then gradually extend this to relatives, friends, co-workers, acquaintances - eventually out to people you regard as your enemies, people who have wronged you. The advice, as usual, is not to repress or ignore any non-loving emotions that may arise as a result, but to let them work through you so you can gradually move past them.

I tried this a little this am while cleaning the house, and found it quite an engaging practice. I enumerated my entire family before moving on to colleagues and friends, and then on to people with whom I've had conflict in the past. I found it both relaxing and liberating.

I'm not going to replace my daily shamatha with this, but I may add 15 minutes of this practice to my daily schedule. I have a two-day retreat coming up near the end of May - this seems like a wonderful practice to perform for an hour or so. I'm sure that if I add celebrities and politicians into the mix, I can keep this sucker doing for a good long while!

Judas: The Original Suicide Bomber?

The recently translated Gospel of Judas is available from National Geographic. While the Pope may not think much of it, but for many others it is no doubt a fascinating find. Here's my favorite quote:
Jesus said, “[Come], that I may teach you about [secrets] no person [has] ever seen. For there exists a great and boundless realm, whose extent no generation of angels has seen, [in which] there is [a] great invisible [Spirit],

which no eye of an angel has ever seen,
no thought of the heart has ever comprehended,
and it was never called by any name.

The Nazarene then goes about giving Judas a lesson in Christ Cosmology, setting up a situation which actually lends some sense to Genesis.

I'm unsure this story actually makes Judas more admirable than the traditional Gospel narrative. Judas supposedly betrays Jesus at Jesus' own behest in exchange, not for coin, but for a cosmic job promotion. Haven't we had enough killing in God's name lately?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Desires and Attachments

Desires are a necessary and natural part of life; attachments are an unnecessary source of suffering.
- Roger Walsh, Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Mary Dwelley: "Close to a Saint"

A special tribute to a special woman.

Previously: Prayers for Mary Dwelley

I Am NOT Food By-Product

I had quite an experience lately that's had a profound impact on my meditation. I wanted to share it, in case it proved of some help to others.

My wife and I have been seeing a Reiki energy healer who works with our therapist. She's quite good, and has helped both of us shift a lot of energy around. In my case, I've felt a lot of freeing of the first, second, and fourth chakras from the work we've done together.

My last session, however, was...unique. In fact, it was a turning point in my practice. I laid on the table, as usual, and cleared my head as we began working with the subtle energies of my body. Now, I'm a normally nervous person, physically speaking. I scratch, shift, and fidget more than your average bear. During meditation, I'm apt to start moving my feet around the 15 to 20 minute mark, afraid that they're permanently fall asleep.

About 15 or 20 minutes into this session, however, after feeling energy circulate out from my second and fourth chakras, I felt a distinct urge to dissociate from my body. What caused this? Perhaps it's the reading I've been doing of A Simple Feeling of Being, the first part of which is a collection of various "pointing-out instructions" from Ken Wilber: "I am not my body; I have a body, but I am not my body. I can see and feel my body, and whatever I can see or feel is not the true Seer." - and so on for desires, emotions, and thoughts. I've been reciting this to myself throughout the day for a while now.

For some reason, however, the recitation about the body was the most striking for me. Perhaps it's because I'm starting at Ground Zero as far as meditation and spiritual progress goes. The past four to five months represents the longest stretch of time I've ever meditated, day in and day out. Whatever the reason, I let myself go into this recitation: I am not my body...I am not my body...I am not my body...

Some time later, I had a realization. It was partly visual, but mostly gut-level. I felt how my body had been composed since birth. I saw clearly the physical connection between everything I had eaten since infancy and the composition of my corporeal form - my skin, hair (well, what's left of it), bones, nails, teeth, cartilage, blood, sinew, muscle fiber, nerves, arteries, capillaries, neurons, synapses. I saw myself being built up from the nutrients of everything I or my mother had ever digested. I realized that some of these same atoms and molecules that were composing me through our food were some of the same atoms breathed by Julius Caesar, the same atoms that composed a species a million years extinct, the same atoms that were remnants of the dust of the birth of our aeon.

And it dawned on me.

The body CAN'T be me. The body is just meat. No, it's not just "meat" - it's
food by-product!

And from there, I was off into deep meditation. Thoughts arose and abided and subsided, but nothing carried me away from my self.

By the time the session had finished, I had lain, totally immobile, for an hour. Since then, I've been able to extend my meditation sessions up to 35, 45, even 50 minutes, where previously I would have to struggle to hold on for 25. What's more, my meditations are much deeper now. I don't fidget; I don't move at all. When an itch appears, I am aware of it, but can let it arise, abide, and subside, just as I do with my thoughts. Thus I can concentrate solely on the task of letting my thoughts arise and abide as mere objects of awareness.

While I'm jazzed by this progress, I'm also staid about it. This is only one of the first dozen or so mile-markers in my 100-mile journey to a pathless destination. It's progress, but progress that signals the beginning of a new phase of my labor to gain that which I've never lost.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Celeb Worship and The Guru Concept

Wow. And you thought people got excited at a chance to meet Brad Pitt. Somehow, I doubt an angry mob will try and force entry into Mr. Pitt's home after his passing.

I wonder: Does the prevalence in Indian culture of the guru concept make such hero-worship more likely and more rabid than in the West?

Prayers for Mary Dwelley

My mom lost one of her closest friends yesterday. Mary Dwelley of Rochester, NY was taken in a horrible, freak car accident. (There's a photo of the car here.)

My mom was very close to Mary, having cared for her husband Bob during the last year of his life. As my mom says on her blog:
After her husband's death, Mary continued to devote herself to others in any way she could. "We are on this earth to take care of each other," is what she told me one day.
I didn't know Mary as well as my mother, but I met with her and even stayed in her home when I was on break from college. She was a sweet, giving, wonderful woman. This world grieves her loss.

Please keep Mary Dwelley's soul in your thoughts and prayers today.

Please also keep Tommy Baker and his family in your thoughts. Baker was driving the car that slammed head-on into Mary. He has had two surgeries so far; when he recovers, he stands to face charges. There hasn't been a full accounting yet, but if initial reports are accurate, Baker made a bad mistake while driving - a mistake that will undoubtedly haunt him and those who love him for years.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Haiku from the Depths

The firm scientist
peering through the lens of this
body: That is I.

Radical Spirit

I know what's next on my reading list after I finish The Simple Feeling of Being.

Has anyone read this? What do you think? The endorsements are pretty much off the hook.

The Breaking Point of Enlightenment

I have no idea what to think of Andrew Cohen. There are people who defend him passionately, and also Web sites that spare no pains in abusing him. His critics seem to be fuming with hatred, which makes it hard to cull wheat from the hyperbolic chaff. At this point, it's hard to say what's true and what's fabricated.

What seems clear is that Cohen takes drastic steps to try and awaken people, and that this has pushed many out of his circle. If some of the stories are to be believed, a few were pushed to the brink of collapse. I wondered why someone would take such a rough-and-tumble approach to awakening Americans - who, as a rule, aren't a psychologically secure bunch to start with.

Then something struck me: How did I get to the place I'm at? It was a life tragedy that brought me here, a life crisis that broke down many of the barriers to practice that my ego had erected. I thought about other people whose spiritual journeys started in a similar fashion: Pema Chodron, who embraced Buddhism after the collapse of her marriage; Lama Surya Das, who went off to the mountains of Nepal after the Kent State shootings; Eckhart Tolle, whose profound realization came when he was on the bring of suicide - and countless, countless others.

Could this be what Cohen is attempting to do with his practice? Is he seeking ways to induce life crises that cause profound shifts in consciousness?

I have no idea if Cohen is himself enlightened. But if he's using such a potentially fruitful yet dangerous tactic to awaken people, he damn well better be.

(And someone should update his damn blog too. Sorry, had to get that out there.)

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Buddhist Blogosphere Roundup

Zen Unbound does a wonderful job of pulling this together every week. Go check it out, and keep yourself busy for a few hours with chock loads of Dharma and Integral goodness.

This Is What We Are

Never forget that we ourselves are acts of compassion.

Heart-Pouring

A couple years ago, during bhakti meditations on the Goddess, I had some profound experiences which resulted in me crumpling over and breaking down into sobs. After that point, I felt my heart open - literally, physically, felt an energy of connectedness pour from my heart. I didn't achieve any type of absorption; I certainly hadn't entered the subtle realm, as Wilber has described it in his journeys. I just felt more...open. More free. More loving and accepting. It was a physical presence that swirled around in my chest and exploded out to all of my extremities, causing me to radiate hope to the four quarters.

Several days after that experience, I lost the feeling. The connectedness was gone. I wept to the Goddess that it might return, but to no avail. I felt stuck. Lost. Abandoned. My spiritual practice waned, and I didn't return to it in a dedicated fashion until recently.

After about four months of dedicated meditation practice, however, that feeling has returned. I feel whole and connected again, suffused with the energy of boundless love. I feel like doing nothing but acting for the good of all, bringing others to the realization of this tremendous joy, this limitless heart-pouring that drinks in life and yields tears and laughter in return.

The meditation and the calming of my mind have certainly helped. While walking around during the day, I feel that it's easier to recapture some of the peace and tranquility I sometimes manage to achieve during shamatha. This time, however, it's different. Deeper. More profound. Still not a subtle-realm experience, but definitely stronger, less shakeable.

I feel that's because it's based, not just on devotion to the Mother Goddess, but on the cultivation of bodhicitta. It is part of the Goddess - part of the compassionate unfolding of this matrix of existence - but it transcends even her. The work I've been doing in developing relative bodhicitta, practicing tonglen, equalizing and exchanging self and other - it has done wonders in purifying my motivation.

This is the great gift that Tibetan Buddhism has brought to my spiritual practice. It is the gift given to me by the masters of this particular tradition. The emphasis on motivation - a weekly subject of HH Jigdal Dagchen Rinpoche's Sunday teachings during Chenrezi - has done wonders in helping sift the selfishness out of my practice. Before, I was meditating solely for the benefit of my personal connection with the Goddess, and for personal glory. Now, I sit for the benefit of all beings. This is a lesson I hadn't learned prior to my spiritual breakdown; it took my life crashing down around my head for me to open my heart and soul to these teachings.

It is because of their teachings that I ask in any personal conflict, "What can I do or say at this moment to bring this person true happiness?" It is because of their insights that I work diligently with my reactivity. It is because of their example that my spiritual practice has been renewed, and I have found a greater sense of purpose.

It's not about me. It's not about any one of us. It's about all of us - we who are in truth one without a second, the Original Face behind the myriad of masks we've donned since beginningless time.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Morning Prayer

Great Goddess of the Four Quarters,
On this day:
May I make the utmost of this precious human life.
May I be of ultimate service to others.
May I see and correct all of my imperfections.
May all living beings be my holy guru.
May I recognize the dream-like nature of existence.
May I radiate the truth of Your loving embrace.
May I bask in my true Self.
May all borders vanish.

Yogani on Spiritual Experimentation

More Yogani:
If your path is serving you well, stay with it. If you are finding fulfillment over time, you are in the right place. However, if your tradition is mostly serving you well, yet seems to be lacking in some way, find the courage and flexibility to try and fill in what is missing. In the end, it is you who will unfold bliss consciousness by your own efforts through devotion and application of the most comprehensive practices you can find. This point of view may fly in the face of traditions that insist we cannot achieve salvation by any other means but theirs. Maybe so, but that approach also shuts the door on further inquiry and scientific investigation into the practices of human spiritual transformation. The methods of Western science can offer much in this regard -- highly integrated and collaborative approaches for discovering and applying knowledge. The success of Western science in many fields has been astounding. It is time for these methods of knowledge development to be applied in the arena of spiritual knowledge.
Oh, I like this guy.

Who is Yogani?

Reports claim he is "the first spiritual eGuru." I don't know any of his history (few do, apparently). But he's laid out all of his knowledge on a Web site. It's extensive, erudite, and accords with what I know about the practices discussed. The chapters about Kundalini and sex are exactly what you'd expect from a successful Western practitioner: honest, fearless, and useful.

He seems to know little of the Integral movement, but his words are perfectly in agreement with it:
That is why you will be hearing the phrase "integrated practice" a lot here. It is not a new idea. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali lay out an eight-limbed path of practice. Most traditions lean toward one limb or another. It is natural enough. How many balls can anyone keep in the air? But if you want to really make progress in this life, you must multi-channel your efforts in the direction you want to go. It is like that in all things. Spiritual practice is no different.
While he sells this info in books, the meat of all of the lessons are available on his Web site. For free. Isn't that the way it ought to be?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Sex and Buddhism

On one of the email lists to which I belong, someone brought up that Buddhist scriptures frown upon homosexuality, oral sex, anal sex, and masturbation. In other words, everything that makes America great.

As a bisexual man (not to mention a firm believer in the joys of oral sex), I can't help but bang my gavel whenever someone brings this up.

All religious works are the works of man, and are subject to corruption of one form of another. Any religion that carries great wisdom also carries with it myth, superstition, and the cultural prejudices of its time period. The Bhagavad Gita contains great wisdom - and it also contains paeans to, and enumerations of, the caste system. Arjuna is exhorted, not to do what is good and right for a human being, but what is appropriate to his caste.

Should the Gita be thrown out? No. Gandhi didn't throw it out; even though he disagreed with the caste system, he viewed the Gita as a monumental work of religion. He lived its life by its teachings. Modern spiritual seekers should take from it what sings to the soul, and leave behind what is an affront to conscience.

The only "sin" for a Buddhist is an action that clouds the mind with anger and confusion, and embeds one further in the delusion of samsara. Calling homosexuality a "sin" in 21st century America is nothing short of discrimination.

And before someone brings it up: Yes, we should respect and venerate the great spiritual masters. Part of respecting them is challenging them in those areas where we believe their wisdom is outdated. Spirituality is not static - it evolves. If we treat their work as static dogma, we betray their teachings.

So let's please refrain from propagating vicious dogma that instills prejudice against our brothers and sisters.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Integral Wiki

This is damn cool. The temptation to scribble useful bits all over it is almost overwhelming.

Religion Piece Leaves Out the Non-Book Religions

Jason Pitzl-Waters has the skinny on a piece that appeared in Slate talking about the religious left. He noticed the same thing I noticed: the article excludes any mention of anybody outside of the monotheistic religions.

Jason's irked that they left off Pagans. As well he should be. Looking at the numbers provided by Adherents.com, we can see that Paganism is at least half a million folks strong. Just above this number, Unitarian Universalists (my family's umbrella faith organization) number close to 1 million.

These may be drop-in-the-water numbers compared to 224 million avowed Christians. But, let's face it: that's a bullshit number. The number of denominations subsumed under the "Christian" label, and the radical differences separating those denominations, makes this total all but worthless. Break this number down into meaningful denominations, and the numbers are much less intimidating. And let's not even get into the fact that many UUs are Christians! (And then there are the radical differences in adherents to Islam. You can't exactly lump Wahabists and Sufi into the same stew pot. Damn, son, this religion thing is tricksy...)

But that's not the point. Both UUs and Pagans are very politically active, much more than the average citizen. The article ignores large blocks of liberal activists, whose influence undoubtedly surpasses their numbers, simply because they have the audacity to be "non-Christian". And it entirely ignores American Buddhists, who equal the number of adherents of Islam in the US.

Jason makes a good point about why this is important:
It matters because when terms like "religious left" (and "religious right") become defined as "lefty Jesus vs. righty Jesus" or even "lefty patriarchal sky father vs. righty patriarchal sky father," then the voices of the faithful who don't hold those views are shoved out of the big tent.
I think such attitudes also undermine those Christians who are becoming part of the larger interfaith experiment in this country. As I've noted previously, we're moving toward a time where faith is becoming more flexible, and people pick and choose those spiritual technologies that work for them, metaphysics be damned. Phenomena like the Episcopagans are becoming increasingly more common. The Integral movement is leading the revolution in this regard; I have no doubt the same type of technology-centric view of spirituality as Integral promulgates will come to dominate American society in the coming years.

We're a technological, scientific society which is becoming more technologically and scientifically minded about our spirit. Like the great mystics of the past, more and more people are unwilling to let an anointed priest mediate between them and the Divine. They yearn to experience the Mystery of their own Being for themselves - and are willing to use whatever techniques and insights the great teachers of spiritual history have left behind to accomplish this.

Labels as such are becoming less important in progressive spirituality. Any "religious left" worth its salt ought to regard such boxing as an evil that hinders more than it helps.

Dream and Nightmare

Here's a nice talk by Lama Surya Das on enlightenment as "just being".
True meditation is wisdom, it is the Buddha's way of life. In this manner, we come to be living the enlightened life. Not just trying to catch the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but appreciating every step along the way. The whole rainbow, not just those colors in the distance, but everything as a form of light. And not just the rainbow, but also the shadow, the cloudy rainstorm. Maybe not always smiling. Also appreciate the tears, the concerns, and so on. Everything is part of it. Let's not just be love-and-lighters, but learn to appreciate the entire spectrum of dream-like, magical experiences, just as they are.
I've found much of my practice lately consists of being sick and tired of being sick and tired. It's like the story of Ananda becoming enlightened after he gave up on achieving enlightenment. There's nothing to achieve, nothing to "get". There isn't anything I can obtain, spiritually, that isn't already my essential nature.

Seeking the Witness or nondual awareness as a goal or path is just more of the same: more grasping, more desire, more suffering. I find myself repeatedly and pointedly asking my mind, "Why can't you just give up? Reality will never bow to your conceptions of perfection. Why do you persist on witholding happiness and joy from yourself and others? Why are you constantly making yourself miserable?"

I've been a big proponent of process and working to absolve one's self of "obscurations". Lately, I can't help viewing that all as crap. So long as you're constantly believing you have to purify yourself of obscurations, you won't get it. So long as you're waiting on a lama or guru to nod his head sagely and bestow upon you this or that empowerment or blessing, you won't get it. You'll keep denigrating yourself, setting yourself back, deeming yourself "unworthy" of receiving the Great Truth. You'll talk yourself straight out of the direct perception of who and what you really are.

And isn't this what we do every second of every goddamn day? From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, life is a constant confusion of our true selves with the objects of awareness. The Witness is fries, and we insist on drowning it in ketchup. We see ourselves in our minds, our thoughts, our feelings, our spouses, our kids, our bank accounts, our jobs, our cars, our worries, our hopes, our fears, our plans. We're like Leonard Shelby in Memento: we may have a passing realization of our true nature while walking through the woods or driving to work - but just like that, it's gone, our memories wiped clean of everything true and good, forcing us to fill the emptiness with alternating doses of dream and nightmare.

It's frustrating. Maddening. Insane.

And it has to end.

Now.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Judas Iscariot's 1700-Year-Old "Get Out of Hell Free" Card Put Back Together Again

A fascinating story about the lost Gnostic gospel. Anyone who loves the depiction of the Ju-man in The Last Temptation of Christ will be heartened by this restoration.

The big question in my mind: Will this discovery help re-acquaint people with the Gnostic gospels, and empower more people to redefine their approach to the Christian faith? Here's hoping.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

My Ego Beat Up Your Superego

Idea:

The ego of the typical Westerner isn't strong enough for him or her to be selfless.

Discuss.

Gandhi Meets Buddha - and the Monastery Dies

Love this new interview with Robert Aitken Roshi in Tricycle, if for nothing else than for the description of how Gandhi influenced the Nichiren monks in Japan to become engaged with the world.
...traditionally Buddhism was confined to the monastery, where the vow to save
the many beings was very abstract on the one hand, and quite confined on the
other. In the early years of this century some Buddhist monks, influenced by
Western thinking, joined in the Tokyo streetcar strike. And their bishops were
admonished that they could lose their status if this kind of radical action
continued. From the beginning, it has behooved the Buddhist establishment in
Japan to toe the political line. Now, the Myohoji sect of Nichiren Buddhism
exploded this pattern after the war, under the influence of their teacher,
Nichidatsu Fujii, who had studied with Gandhi. Today the Myohoji monks chant at
trouble spots all over the world. In Sri Lanka two Myohoji monks were
assassinated as they walked along chanting. The Myohoji monks have put
themselves on the line as active peacemakers.

This is how it should be: the best ideas from the great traditions crossing boundaries and interpenetrating one another.

Aitken Roshi also believes the monastery is dead. I'm inclined to agree.
Yeah. It doesn’t fit our culture. It’s time to move out. Certainly, as religion
evolves, certain things are lost or dropped and certain things are gained. I do
not want to convey the Japanese Buddhism that I learned. What I am seeking to
do, as best I can, is to convey what realization is for us in the Americas and
in Europe and in Australasia, without losing the fundamental points. When
Yun-men said, “Every day is a good day,” he was saying something that completely
transcends Zen. Completely transcends anything cultural. And if you really see
into what Yun-men is saying, nothing is lost. A certain cultural accretion or
cultural clothing is dropped off because when I say that to you now, I’m not
standing on a podium with my monks standing before me, with the expectation that
someone will come forward and make three bows and challenge me.

He also thinks we're living in dark, degenerate times, and is pretty pessimistic about the fate of the world. I don't agree, but neither do I blame him.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Thoughts on Tonglen

Tonglen is the Buddhist practice of breathing in the world's suffering, and breathing out peace and relief. Not only does this practice get you in touch with the suffering experienced by others, it enables you to transcend your own suffering.

I've been using this technique to great effect, but have been concerned recently that it was pretentious. What am I saying when I employ Tonglen? Am I saying that I am stronger than everyone else in the world? That I can take on their suffering without it collapsing my heart, like some Atlas of the spirit realm?

A talk by Ken Wilber on Tonglen helped me gain perspective on the practice. (Integral Naked subscription required to view.) Before beginning the practice, Ken urges the audience to bring forth the non-grasping mind using Genpo Roshi's Big Mind technique. He emphasizes that it is necessary to call forth this mind because "charity saves from death. Spirit is 'I' and 'We' and 'It'....Rest in the Diamond mind, rest in the everpresent non-seeking mind that you are. Because otherwise you're just a finite thing emoting over another finite thing."

It's a dramatic point, one that made total sense the minute it flowed upon the shore of my feeble mind. You can only exchange self and other on a level deeper than that of phenomenal awareness. In phenomenal awareness, we are all separate; in infinite, ever-present awareness, there is neither self nor other, nor the absence of self or other.

It's not that I, personally, am strong enough to take on the world's suffering. My ego is not that strong. (That's not a point against the ego - it's simply stating that the ego is phenomenal and limited.) It's that I must attain a state of awareness that goes beyond suffering. Tonglen is the practicing of attaining that awareness on the spot, in the moment, whenever you sense yourself getting hooked.

Later that day, something else occurred to me regarding Tonglen: it is the model of all pure selfless action. When I do something good for someone else, without expecting anything else in return, I am doing Tonglen.

My family is sick and needs me there; I take their suffering without complaint and spend all day cooking, cleaning, and caring. I am hurt, angry, and lonely; my wife drops what she's doing, listens to me, feels for me, lets me cry on her, gives strength to me. Someone donates money anonymously to charity, without thought or desire for reward. A teacher bestows the gift of self-knowledge on her students, giving the teaching freely to all worthy of receiving it.

It is all Tonglen. It is absorbing a piece of the world's suffering, and giving back peace and relief - even if only temporary - through one's actions.

Monday, April 03, 2006

HH the Dalai Lama: Westerners Are a Bunch of Whiny Bitches

The bad news? HH still believes blowjobs and buttfucking are taboo. (His loss on both counts.)

The good news? Westerners suck!

He told the broadsheet that Westerners had become self-absorbed, burdened with too much choice.

"It is fascinating. In the West, you have bigger homes, yet smaller families; you have endless conveniences -- yet you never seem to have any time. You can travel anywhere in the world, yet you don't bother to cross the road to meet your neighbours," he said.

"I don't think people have become more selfish, but their lives have become easier and that has spoilt them. They have less resilience, they expect more, they constantly compare themselves to others and they have too much choice -- which brings no real freedom."

I don't think the problem is "too much choice" as opposed to a sense of convenience and entitlement. But otherwise, I agree with HH 100%. And not because of what I've observed Bob Jones of 1056 Riverside Drive doing, but because of my own personal experience with being a big whiny bitch. I've been a perpetrator of "bourgeious suffering" throughout most of my adult life. Latte took two minutes longer to prepare than I demanded? Give your barista a boot to the head! Cut off in traffic? Fuck mantras - lay on the horn! Nothing like a good road rage incident on the 6 o' clock news to balance out all that boring gab about social security reform.

I think about what I could have accomplished with all of the mental energy I've wasted fedding myself stories about how badly life sucks, and it makes me want to try cry. [Damn typos.]

Mother Goddess, Cut in Twain

One of the most fascinating stories I've ever read is the life story of Sri Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna was a Hindu mystic, a man of little education but of vast spiritual powers. Through his life, he was a devotee of the Goddess Kali Ma. But he also explored the mystical mysteries of other religious traditions, including Christianity and Islam. In one experience described in his biography, he decided to attain a realization of non-dual awareness, which culminated in him slicing his beloved Mother Goddess in half with a sword. Even after this experience, however, Ramakrishna's devotion to Kali Ma never wavered.

I fell into worship of the Great Goddess several years ago, after stumbling on to Paganism and Wicca. For some reason I was drawn to the idea of a universal Creatrix, who breathed life-energy through the matrix of creation. Connecting with Her through various rituals - from elaborate ecstatic dances down to simple gestures, such as leaning against a tree or beholding the clear night sky in awe - felt like connecting with the energy of my own being. It was my first awareness that I was no longer a name and social security number on the header of a credit report. There was more to "I" than met the eye.

I never fell into a full-fledged Wiccan practice, though. Despite my Pagan beliefs, the contemplative traditions held much sway over my consciousness. The idea that my "self" was an illusion fostered by a deluded mind had an allure that never lost its sheen. When I followed the recommendations of meditation masters and examined my own mind, I could see an inkling of the truths they propounded. I knew I had to widen my practice beyond ecstatic ritual and energy work.

I didn't feel like the final piece of the puzzle fell into place, however, until I studied the concept of bodhicitta. Many good people swear by the "Wiccan Rede": "An' it harm none, do as thou wilt." These people are kind and open-hearted, and in many cases are pillars of their community. For me, however, this dictum seemed lacking. I didn't simply want to avoid inflicting harm - I wanted to help! I wanted to find ways to take others along on this journey. It felt, in my heart, like an obligation I had to others; it wasn't optional, and it didn't allow putting my interests above theirs.

[In all fairness, many interpret "thou" in this statement the same way that Aleister Crowley did: as a reference, not to one's egoic self, but to one's "Higher Self" - one's Atman or Holy Guardian Angel. This Higher Self's will is supposed to reflect, not just one's own good, but the good of all mankind. Interpretations, however, vary. Sadly, Crowley's actions didn't really sing of a life spent serving others.]

What's more, the Bodhisattva ideal - which is the implementation of bodhicitta, or loving-kindness, as one's life mission - struck me as an excellent conjunction of the truths of Goddess-worship and Enlightenment. A Bodhisattva refuses to quit the world until his or her mission of liberating all sentient beings from existence is achieved. Bodhisattvas don't retreat from the world; they engage it. While much of Buddhist tradition has a strong renunciate flavor, the Zen and Vajrayana traditions pointed the way to a Buddhism that combined natural pleasure with transcendent realization. And hadn't the Goddess said, by way of Doreen Valiente, that "All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals"? So long as an action is undertaken in a spirit of true giving and loving-kindness, it can be used as a step along the spiritual path.

The Bodhisattva ideal, in other words, pointed to way to teach oneself and others how to turn away from hedonism, not by escaping into asceticism, but by transmuting pleasurable experiences into transcendent ones. It's an idea that has a long and venerable history in the Jewish tradition, where believers are encouraged to "serve God by acknowledging that the fruits of this world are His gifts to us, and by willfully accepting and enjoying those gifts". It's an idea expounded in modern times throughout Ken Wilber's writings, and throughout the works of folks like David Deida.

So that's the short story of how I ended being a Pagan Buddhist operating in an Integral framework.

I used to think that this strange configuration made me "special" or unique. I guess it does, in a way - but if it does, it makes me special like everyone else. Scratch the surface of the "Buddhist" label that most folks adopt, and you'll find a complex net of belief that refuses to confine itself to Buddhadharma. This is hardly a new phenomenon: people have been stitching together immigrant theologies with their native belief structures since the advent of worldcentric religions. What's changed about it in modern times is that it's (1) more open and vocal, and (2) more aggressive. Changes to religious beliefs and structures which used to take generations now occur within a single person's lifetime.

I believe we're looking at a day and age where belief systems - and even "maps" like the wonderful ones created by Wilber and II - will not survive in the long run. As a species, man has grown humble. We realize that grand theories of "everything" are just that: temporary maps that are only as good as they are useful to us in a particular time and cultural context. We'll still have belief systems, but they will be dynamic, not static; they will survive as traditions, as thoughtstreams - not as rigid structures.

What will survive are individual ideas. As each of us experiments with the technologies and beliefs of different wisdom traditions, certain ideas will become prominent in an increasing number of individual belief-systems. I'm merely a single unit in this phenomenal multiprocessor, so my own conclusions are tenuous, but I suspect that many of us will end up on a path of enjoying the gifts of Divinity as we strive to awaken bodhicitta and ultimate awareness in ourselves and others.

We will all still have our own individual beliefs, our thoughts about who or what Divine presence fuels this cosmic charade. We will follow individual moral precepts - things we allow or forbid ourselves, duties we feel bound to perform by our faith. We will have our own unique rituals, prayers, and techniques for awakening the pure heart of compassion.

And we will each have a sword.

In Love and Honor

I love, cherish, and honor those who bring me happiness:
They bring me buckets of sunshine.

I love, cherish, and honor those who bring me grief:
They remind me that my labor outpaces the sun.

I love, cherish, and honor those who are joyous:
They glow like distilled moonlight.

I love, cherish, and honor those who grieve:
They bring me hope for humanity.

I love, cherish, and honor those who praise me:
They give me momentum.

I love, cherish, and honor those who condemn me:
They give me pause.

I love, cherish, and honor those who are kind:
They trace the footfalls of our teachers.

I love, cherish, and honor those who are cruel:
They make learning a duty.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Stargirl

If you want to awaken the heart of bodhicitta, read this book. It is a 21st-century manual of loving-kindness.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Bridge Hugging - or, Why Christian Men Won't Kiss God

There's a great post over at Pagan scholar Chas Clifton's blog about Why Men Hate Going to Church by David Murrow. I'll let Chas speak for himself:
But he is dead-on--and even humorous--when he identifies the reasons why most men avoid church: the indoor confinement, the lengthy yackety-yack sermonizing, and church language that places heterosexual men in an uncomfortable role:

I saw a new book for Christian men: Kissing the Face of God. An ad for the book invites men to "get close enough to reach up and kiss His face!" Time out--this is a men's book? Yikes! With the spotlight on homosexuality in the church, why do we increase [heterosexual] men's doubts by using the language of romance to describe the Christian walk?

And then there is "praise music." Here I could not agree with Murrow more: "Not only are the lyrics of many of these songs quite romantic, but they have the same breathless feel a Top Forty love songs."
Okay - I'll admit, both men have a point about the praise music. But the rest of it doesn't wash with me. It may be what is, but not, IMO, what ought to be.

I just watched the movie Iraq in Fragments at the Seattle Arab and Iranian Film Festival, and the image of two Kurdish Muslim male teens holding hands on the way to school is still fresh in my mind. No one would think they're gay. Heck, most Islamic countries are more violent in their oppression of GLBT folk than any Christian in the West left of Fred Phelps. Clear proof that you can give your best male friend a peck on the cheek without going all Will and Grace.

I don't know whether you can pin down Christianity as the cause, but it's clear that most male friendships in the West lack physical intimacy. Touch is one of the best ways to express friendship, solidarity, and love - and most men avoid it like the plague. We're so seized up with homophobia that most of us are afraid even to hug one another. I joked about this with my wife one night by pointing out to her the typical Western male "bridge hug": arms around the shoulders, with torsos leaning in so that groins are as far apart as physics will allow.

While this makes heterosexual male friendships shallow, it makes the lives of gay and bisexual men miserable. It's a type of subconscious programming that can take years to overcome. It's sad to see Murrow suggesting that Christian men not only embrace this homophobia, but form their personal religion around it.

Boys DO cry.

Goddammit.

*sniff*

"Laux, who prefers to use his Dharma name, Shirley,..."

How awesome is Sujatin? Even in the midst of great personal tragedy, she manages to mine life's humor. Here's her pointer to a story about a group of Zen men who are paving the way for equality of the sexes in their sanghas...by dressing as women themselves.
These individuals, who call themselves the Order of Dudes in Drag (ODD), say this form of practice has existed for more than 1500 years, tracing their lineage back to the bodhisattva Kannon. Kannon, also called Avalokiteshvara, is sometimes depicted as a man and sometimes as a woman. But ODDs are quick to distinguish their practice from other forms of androgyny. One member clarified, “I’m not a transvestite. I’m a mu-sexual.”

Just ask Jon Laux. A member of the Zen Center for several years, Laux was quick to see the truth in Gross’s message. “We always wear robes, which are kind of girly anyway. But then all at once it hit me – BOOM! – I could complement the robe with some strappy sandals and a pink rakusu. Gorgeous. It was a total kensho moment.”
My favorite bit. I think this arrogance comes through, in more (ahem) subtler ways, in all of our practices.
Other members of ODD have difficulty working with the sartorial rigors of women’s fashion. Shirley explains: “Some of the guys have been trying to gain extra merit by tottering around on these stilettos. Well, the Buddha went through an ascetic phase too, and it didn’t do him any good, either.”
Aaaah. Zenfolk have an irreverent exhuberance for life that is like a breath of fresh air wafting its way through a charnal pit.

Imperfection

Being a Buddhist is not about being perfect; it's about the willingness to challenge your imperfection.

Many teachers have taught this, in one form or another. But it really came home to me recently when reading this talk by Ven. Thubten Chodron on the Four Opponent Powers. (Link is to Google's HTML version; PDF version here.) Her talk addresses the purpose of purification, which is our way of addressing mental imbalances throughout the day. Instead of looking at our actions as right and wrong, she stresses seeing them in relation to whether they cloud or uncloud our mind. Instead of thinking, "Wow, look at what a dumbass I was today!",
[w]e can think, “This is an opportunity to learn something about what’s going on in my mind. This is an opportunity to stop for a minute and check up what’s happening and to get myself balanced again, because if I don’t get balanced, I’m going to get further and further out of whack.” You can see how this happens. Something happens in our life and we get a little bit angry, but we don’t take care of our anger. So then every situation we meet, we get angrier and angrier, because everybody starts appearing to us as if they’re harming us and bugging us. Or we get a little bit jealous but we don’t recognize it. We don’t take care of it. So then everybody starts appearing in a very competitive, threatening way to us. And then we start acting our jealousy out, and then other people get more and more apprehensive around us.
The key, in my mind, is not to use this as an excuse for bad behavior. If you are in the act of doing something you know contradicts your ethics and training and just shrug and say, "Well, I'm only human, what can I do?" - that doesn't cut it. That itself is an unskillful act, another kind of mental imbalance.

A key goal for me is to apply this rigorously to other people as well. When I see others acting out of anger or selfishness, I try to remind myself that they're "just like me". At various points in my life, I've been all of the things other people around me are: hostile, inflexible, dogmatic, frightened, petty, vindictive, arrogant, etc. When I'm not mindful, I still slip into these habits, in spite of my better intentions.

But even this isn't enough to keep me from judging others, or thinking myself as superior to them. It's because I'm still looking at their actions in terms of right and wrong, not in terms of skillful and unskillful. This isn't a mere terminological switch, mind you. When viewing other's actions as right and wrong, I'm judging their impact to me. When judging them as skillful and unskillful, I'm evaluating their impact to them. As Shantideva laid out eloquently in the Bodhicaryavatara, another person's anger is an opportunity for me to practice patience - but they're still mired in the suffering of a wild mind. Looked at this way, another person's anger "bad behavior" becomes a deep cause for sympathy and compassion within me, because it's doing nothing but buttressing that person's belief in their illusory "independent self".

I'm not sure if any of this is insightful to others. This all hit me in an "a-ha!" moment while reading Venerable's talk. "A-ha!" moments don't translate well verbally to others, and I'm sure they seem even more tepid and self-serving when reflected into the Buddhasphere. Hopefully someone, somewhere, will benefit from it, and from Ven. Chodron's wonderful teaching.

(For you Seattleites: Ven. Thubten Chodron will be giving a teaching at Sakya Monastery on April 28th at 7:30pm. Her talk is on Dependent Arising. Tickets go on sale to the general public starting April 17th. Based on what I've read of her teachings, this promises to be an excellent talk. Be there if you can!)

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