Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The consciousness of God, a dog, and a rock all taste the same.

Wherever you go, there you are“When I was a Buddhist, it drove my parents and friends crazy, but when I am a Buddha, nobody is upset at all.”

Mindfulness, awakening, and enlightenment are dreadfully and wonderfully ordinary. These days I sometimes say, the consciousness of God, a dog, and a rock all taste the same. Be at home in this moment – this relationship, this job, this face; truth is knocking – do not send it away in pursuit of truth. Ask yourself often, am I awake? Don’t just do something, sit there!

Karma refers to the conditions of our current life. I was relieved he did not get into past or future lives, which I cannot take seriously. Karma is a gridlock defining my current self and reality. Mindfulness changes the “energy patterns” of current reality; it warps reality. Feel the malleability of the current moment. That last idea I sometimes find potent enough to be scary. I keep finding that sense of vertigo with Buddhism. An idea that seems almost too simple is suddenly spooky in its depth.

Buddhists say there is no self, which is tough to wrap one’s head around, but as Kabat-Zinn says, self is real in practical sense. It is a changing shifting construct we build as a point of reference, handy but not permanent. It is a “strange attractor” of chaos theory, “a pattern which embodies order yet is also unpredictably disordered.” A less rigid self is open to the universe making things happen.

Some think meditation is an escape. Meditation is not about zoning out, but zoning in. Rushed time is wasted time – hurry patiently; patience increases clarity and right action; impatience causes suffering. Desire is a stickiness, compelling us to drag the world around with us; let go for more satisfactory wholeness. When the universe is your employer, interesting things start to happen, even if another cuts the cheque. Ahisma is the philosophy of walking lightly on the planet. Be gentle to oneself and others. It is the core of non-violence. Finally, do not discuss religion; as Eckhart says, you are lying. I suppose when I stop talking about it, I have it right.

The Art of Happiness at Work, by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler. Surprised by his lack of insistence on finding a ‘higher’ job.

The Art of Happiness at Work“There are only two or three human stories …” said Willa Cather. Fed up with hearing the same frustrating stories going nowhere, I left my early counselling career in the social services. Three hour meetings, fundraising my own job, bureaucracy, politics. Helping is not a profession, I concluded. I stumbled my way into information technology. 15 minute meetings. Good pay. Working for a multinational IT company, I never stayed long enough with a client to get mired in politics. Programming has about five years of juice in it. At first it seemed that a technical job escaped people problems, but all problems are people problems. I noticed how I only speed-listened; people rightly regarded me a prick. The juice tapped out. If not social services, and not IT, then what? I saw librarianship as a blend of the two trades. Five years later, part-time library degree completed, I have yet to find the right library job. What now?

I picked up The Art of Happiness at Work by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, a psychiatrist. The Dalai Lama honestly admitted that his work as a spiritual and political leader differs from the average job. The book is deliberately light on Buddhism, and his advice sometimes just seemed common sense, e.g., we should be grateful for the opportunity to work. My recurring finding with Buddhism, however, is that its seeming simplicity can yield unexpected depths. The Dalai Lama suggested that one who unceasingly changes jobs is failing in normal human adaptation. It is unexpected advice coming from a Buddhist; their primary philosophy is that everything changes. It stung because it hit home. I change jobs often, only staying with my IT firm for ten years because I can change clients often.

Cutler and the Dalai Lama discuss the vital role of self-understanding in happiness at work. Employees need to realistically appraise their skills. Personally, I cast a pretty good spell at interviews, only to panic later about my claims. It is ego talking, of course, the usual cause of suffering. Honestly, I am slow to process new ideas. This slowness is a function of my introverted brain. Like all introverts, I engage long-term memory when processing new information. Slowness can be a strength. It is also true that I sometimes miss the central point of a discussion. On the other hand, I have a radar for the offbeat, for inventing unusual solutions when none seem available, for anticipating long-term consequences others miss, for appreciating underdogs whose talent often goes unnoticed. This kind of self-assessment helps employees find their sweet spot at work.

Right livelihood is part of the eight-fold noble path of Buddhism. I had this idea that librarianship would be right livelihood for me, using my information management talents to serve people. Maybe, but the more I learn about working in a library, the more I see it may just be another job after all. The Dalai Lama surprised me by his lack of insistence on finding a so-called ‘higher’ job. His modest advice, “If you can, serve others. If not, at least refrain from harming them” (173). Evolution may have us wired to need work for happiness, but it is important to see the limits on finding meaning at work. Do the job, okay, but complete your meaning elsewhere. We can serve people, not because we are in a helping profession, but simply by being more mindful of those at hand. I remember the other half of Cather’s quote, “… and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before”. Human stories may vary little on the surface, but most meaning comes from the small details of our lives. I find myself listening more to co-workers and clients, as people. It helps.

Living with the Devil by Stephen Batchelor. We are all strangers in a strange land.

Living with the DevilI was impressed with Stephen Batchelor’s book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, so I read his more recent work, Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil. The earlier work was a statement of original Buddhism, relieved of the dogmas of karma and reincarnation. Suffering stems from a belief in an unchanging self or soul, driving our perceptions, desires, and actions into anxiety. Yielding up this belief takes the sting out of suffering. This simple statement smacked of truth, and was a refreshing break from mystical mumbo-jumbo. Still, there were more questions. I found that practicing mindfulness of contingency frees up energy, both positive and negative. After all, if we yield up any larger system of beliefs, where do we direct our energy? Does Buddhism without beliefs hold up or fall apart? According to Batchelor, even Buddha tangled with it. He called it Mara, the devil, and lived with it all his life.

Mara, Satan, or any devil, says Batchelor is a metaphor for trying to hang on too tight, constricting the contingency of life. In Dante’s Inferno, Satan is depicted as frozen to his neck in ice. Fixations are opposite to the Buddha’s truth that there is no permanent self. We come by it honestly. All of evolution has prepared us for survival, for perpetuation of the self. In the end, it is false. Entropy will have its way. We will age and die. To deny it is to invite suffering. “Each time something contingent and impermanent is raised to the status of something necessary and permanent, a devil is created” (34). Batchelor recommends an attitude of homelessness. Reality is finally unfamiliar. We are all strangers in a strange land.

I guess I’m not enlightened yet. Buddhism seems tilted toward openness and against fixity. I think of things cosmic as a two-step, yin and yang in perpetual oscillation. Is fixity always evil? Think of the small stories we tell ourselves, things we fear and fancy that give small meaning to our lives, the tents we pitch to defy the night sky. To be fair, I have yet to find a Buddhist who denies that self exists in a practical sense, or that well-intended planning is vain. They might talk about compassion or care. Quoting a lama, care is “a keen engagement and letting go” (182). It is a matter of not gripping too hard, not severing out the life in things. That would be evil. Batchelor says that “Buddha and Mara are figurative ways of portraying a fundamental opposition with human nature” (180). If so, they both represent poles on a continuum from open to closed, neither extreme preferable. So sometimes fixity is the better choice.

If fixity is evil when we clench too hard, then how hard? What about our grand narratives, the meta-stories we tell about the destiny of our lives and the world. Our small stories tend toward more complex ones. We need them to keep faith. Is the faith misplaced? Are we just compounding illusion? Are grand narratives too hard a clenching? If so, why is it that apocalypses never happen, and why do complex social and information systems keep chugging along? As I see it, we should not stop imagining grand narratives. Rather, we should refrain from insisting on only one. Buddhism without beliefs holds up if Batchelor is only rejecting rigid beliefs, not speculative ones.

I have my own speculative grand narrative. It is not particularly consistent or inconsistent with Buddhism or other religious views. At the heart of this narrative is the dualities discussed here. Contingent and essential, small and grand, self and the world. Why do these dualities exist at all? Batchelor says the illusion of self is a function of evolution and I agree with him, but toward what? These splits, I fancy, serve a larger purpose. It is only when a thing is split that it can observe itself. Self is temporarily cut off from the world, and mind captures reality for a fixed moment like a photograph. Maybe the universe is trying to catch a photo of itself. Is entropy inevitable or contingent based on what god sees in the mirror? Who knows? I’m not fixed on it.

Introduction to Emptiness by Guy Newland – What is a Book or a Reader, Really?

Introduction to emptinessTitle notwithstanding, Introduction to Emptiness is a weighty book. In just over a hundred pages, Guy Newland provides a coherent description of the Buddhist concept of emptiness. According to Buddhists, the cause of suffering in life is rooted is our illusion of the permanence of things, especially our idea that we possess an essential self. Through meditation we come to see that there is no permanent core in self or any other thing; ultimately, they are empty. Emptiness may sound undesirable, but this insight is key to achieving peace and happiness for ourselves and others.

The book is an exposition of the writings by Tsong-kha-pa, a fourteenth century Tibetan Buddhist leader. He cautioned against mistaking emptiness for nihilism, a view that claims no objective morality or meaning. Ultimately things have no permanence, but from a conventional perspective, self and the world of phenomena do seem to exist and make a difference to living beings. An entity such as a school does not come into being on its own. It is a product of interests and people and labour. It serves a purpose for a time then later is closed and dismantled. Conventional reality is called dependent-arising, always in flux, but it is also where Buddhist compassion and service is most applicable. Newland suggests the metaphor of a radio with two channels, ultimate and conventional, neither more valid than the other. Philosophers may be concerned about dualism, but no ontological claim is being made about ultimate existence. Existence is a conventional concept; there is no ultimate nature to things.

Tsong-kha-pas recommends rational analysis as a meditative practice on the path to enlightenment. The meditator can employ the logical principle of the excluded middle to dispel the illusion of an intrinsic self. According to this principle, a thing cannot both have a particular property and its opposite at once. He asks whether self is the same as one’s mind and body or different from them. If they are the same it is redundant to refer to a self and would imply there are many selves. If the self is different from the body, it should be locatable. The belief in an intrinsic self is like a person who suffers from the delusion that there is an elephant in the house. To dispel this illusion, one can take the person searching through all possible places the elephant might hide. With no results, it is difficult to maintain the delusion. Logical proofs like these can provide insight, but I do not find them any more convincing than Christian “proofs” of God. What is compelling about Buddhism is that they agree on this, cautioning against reification; emptiness is the core of their philosophy. Rational analysis need to be paired with concentrative meditation practices for nirvana, a direct, non-dualistic experience of reality.

I read this particular book at this time because I am trying to understand the fundamental role of permanence or fixity in information theory and cognition. The common view is that digital technology is freeing information from its history of fixity in print, presumably making us smarter. It is tempting to think of this process in Buddhist terms. What is a book or a reader, really? It is an ontological question, and Buddhists would agree that there is no essential book or reader, so it makes sense that book forms and reading styles will change over time. We know more information than before, and we know how to access it on demand. We feel enlightened. As the above discussion shows, however, the better part of Buddhism is rooted in conventional reality where fixed forms are pervasive. Newland states it can be dangerous for a seeker to detach from his or her sense of self. Print books persist, and I suspect a key reason is their quality of fixity, valuable for comprehending rich and complex ideas.

I add that Buddhism and the role of fixity are also reflected in Western physics. According to the second law of thermodynamics, energy moves from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration. This is what has been happening to the universe since the big bang, so everything changes, just like the Buddhists are saying. There is no essence. The second law also states that in local systems, energy patterns in equilibrium will remain stable. Intelligence evolves in local habitations like earth while the larger universe moves toward chaos; see Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines. Local context and fixity is required for the intelligent use of information.

Readers should not be misdirected into thinking Newland’s book is about information theory. It is an advanced inquiry into the Buddhist concept of emptiness. When I read books like this on Buddhism, I sometimes think their talk of permanence and change is too obvious, then I turn a page and experience vertigo at their depth. I find it easy to agree that self is an illusion, until I am in a real-world stressful situation. I am making an effort to be more conscious of this idea under pressure. It helps.

Becoming Enlightened by the Dalai Lama. The fascinations and fears that lead us by the nose cause us grief until we finally give up the self.

Becoming enlightenedWhen the Dalai Lama visited Canada in 2007 a Catholic asked if he should convert to Buddhism. The Dalai Lama replied that the man should use Buddhism to become a better Catholic. A humble answer, it seemed, but it was also a clever one. Buddhists do not wish to compete with other religions. How rare, I thought. It took some time to sink in, but the Dalai Lama’s reply also positioned Buddhism as a meta-religion, a perspective from which to understand and enhance other religions. Clever. Each new insight I get into Buddhism confirms that position is not presumptuous.

Becoming Enlightened is written by the Dalai Lama. I have knee-jerk resistance to claims about enlightenment. What is enlightenment anyway, a state of perpetual bliss? When asked what the Buddhist outlook is, the Dalai Lama says “its view is dependent-arising, and its prescribed behavior is nonviolence”. Let’s unpack that. Dependent-arising means that all the fascinations and fears that lead us about by the nose cause us grief until we finally give up our illusion that self has any permanence. Most pleasures we seek are rooted in suffering. I learned years ago that the only pleasure in smoking is the relief from withdrawal caused by the previous cigarette. Like wearing tight shoes for the pleasure of removing them. We eat and drink and shop too much to smother the stresses of daily life, mostly the jostling of other people against our wishes and egos. Year by year I lay down my addictions and discover another kind of pleasure, rooted contentment and brimming creative energy. It feels very enlightened but the Buddhists ultimately insist on altruism, committed service to others. From this view, my enemy is more instructive than my friend, for it shows where I still cling to the illusion of a separate self. I still have a long way to go.

Reading Becoming Enlightened I am again challenged by one core tenet of Buddhism that I have always found illogical. As discussed above, we do not have a permanent self. The Dalai Lama is careful not to use the term, soul, but it seems to me that is exactly the thing he is saying does not exist. The Buddhists also say that actions in this lifetime affect our reincarnations in future lives. But if we have no soul, how can there be any personal connection between one life and the next? It seems like a contradiction.

Frustrated that Buddhism could be so right about practical things and so wrong about this metaphysical issue, I asked the question of Aardvark social search. The responses were very helpful. Mark quoted Rapola Wahula, “If we can understand that in this life we can continue without a permanent, unchanging substance like Self or Soul, why can’t we understand that those forces themselves can continue without a Self or Soul behind them after the non-functioning of the body?” Ah ha! I am still tripping over the assumption of a permanent self, both in this lifetime and possible future ones. This answer turns my question on its head. Our self is just a gathering of physical and mental energies with no permanent core (“dependent-arising”). We do not require a permanent self for continuity past death; moreover, it is not until we give up the illusion of self that we can finally stop reincarnating. Heady stuff. Another one of the social search answers gently suggested my fixation on soul reflects a Christian bias. Point taken. Perhaps there is wisdom in the Dalai Lama’s advice to stick with the religion of your parents.

Becoming Enlightened is a worthy source of reflection for outsiders to Buddhism like me.

Shambhala by Chögyam Trungpa. Inner homesteading.

ShambhalaMy job has recently required me to travel and the quiet times at night are a good time to explore something I’ve been curious about, Buddhism. I visited a Shambhala Meditation Centre for an introductory session and picked up a recommended book, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chögyam Trungpa.

What is Shambhala? What is this warrior thing all about? (I could not help but think of Klingons.) Trungpa was a Buddhist teacher closely associated with the Dalai Lama. He was a scholar who researched the legendary kingdom of Shambhala and used it as a metaphor for a secular discipline. It does not teach Buddhism, but rather the principles of warriorship that were embodied in ancient India, Tibet, China, Japan and Korea.

I very much like Trungpa’s description of meditation as “developing a sense of our spot, our place on this earth” (20), a kind of psychological or inner homesteading that helps us be at peace. Gentleness and bravery create a regal sort of person fit to rule a kingdom. He suggests that many of us have a “setting sun” attitude toward life and advises visualizing a “rising sun”. Seems a bit too simple, but I tried it and it does facilitate a change of attitude. There’s more to it than that, so if it piques your interest, grab the book to learn more about it, and also about the powerful windhorse metaphor.

Trungpa’s basic aim is to show that the best of life can be enjoyed in even the most ordinary of circumstances. Its secular approach appealed to me. The best Buddhist teachings do not fuss over theological details, and my favourite book so far is Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor (see my review).

Dharma Punx by Noah Levine. How do you reconcile punk with Buddhism?

Dharma PunxHow do you reconcile punk with Buddhism? What I remember about punk is shaved heads, leather, and angry music targeted at Reagan and the arms race. Hmmm, in the aftermath of two Bushes and two Gulf Wars, it makes more sense than ever.

We enter the world clean, brimming with energy. In learning to deal with the world, we make compromises, bridle that energy, and grow into decent citizens. Years later, on a Wednesday afternoon, a certain angst still gnaws at our innards, begging for expression. Noah Levine, author of Dharma Punx, denied himself nothing, diving freefall into a teenage wasteland of alcohol, drugs, violence; making a few bucks stapling up posters for the punk concerts that ruled his life, and stealing whatever else. His memoir tells an intimate story of the chaotic life that nearly killed him, and his journey to becoming a Buddhist teacher.

Desperate for another option than suicide, Levine embraced the Straight Edge philosophy of punk, a clean lifestyle that still encourages full expression of anger though its music, dance, and art. We think of addicts as weak-willed people, but the opposite is true. It takes a mighty will to deny all and worship a vice. Once on the right track, Levine is unrelenting in his pursuit of truth. His story matures into Buddhist practice, forsaking violence and cultivating compassion. Still, he never abandons his identity in punk. Levine makes the combination make sense. While I reject any philosophy that wallows in fear and anger, I disbelieve any that denies their persistence on the border of our every day.

This book will be especially interesting to younger searchers. However, with so many dull books on Buddhism on the book store shelves, this middle-ager found it a very satisfying read. I will make good use of Levine’s “soft belly” technique.

See also my review of Brad Warner’s book about punk and Zen Buddhism.

Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor. As for karma, clearly my past actions in this life affect my present, but I do not believe there is a connection with future lives.

Buddhism without BeliefsEastern religions have always had a certain appeal to me, a way of getting a fresh take on the big questions, something I lost growing up in a fundamentalist church. I had to break away from that, but the big questions remained. I studied Eastern religions only to find them equally laden with dogma. Many years later, I visited a Quaker meeting hall, where friends worshiped in silence. No one preached. No one spoke for an hour of worship. To be honest, I cried a little. I was home. When the talking stopped, there was truth. I am not a Quaker by membership but they have it right with silent worship, and it is a good fit with Buddhism, especially when Buddhism is relieved of the weight of its dogma. It was with some excitement that I discovered the title, Buddhism Without Beliefs. I was not disappointed.

Batchelor goes back to the source, to the teaching of Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha. Buddha grew up sheltered from suffering, then left home to become an ascetic. After living those two extremes, he sat under a tree, and awoke. The truth Buddha taught was fairly simple: desire is the cause of suffering, and desire is caused by a belief in an unchanging self or soul. Giving up this belief awakens one to the reality in front of one’s nose — the ordinary is extraordinary. Buddha was not interested in elaborate systems of theology; he never appointed a successor. Much of what has become Buddhism was developed by followers over the centuries, often motivated by a desire to maintain power.

Batchelor revives the authentic spirit of Buddhism, asserting that the more fantastic claims about reincarnation and karma can be unloaded for greater insight. Reincarnation is the belief that after life, a person comes back to live another life. Karma is the belief that one’s actions in past lives affect one’s present life. Both ideas assume a connection between lives, a soul. Personally, I can accept a variant of reincarnation. There was a time I did not exist. For the moment, there is this being that has this sense of me-ness. After that being has gone to fertilize the earth, a time could come again, where there is a being with that same sense of me-ness. But there is no connection between the two. As for karma, clearly my past actions in this life affect my present, but I do not believe there is a connection with future lives. Like Batchelor, I will not insist that the traditional Buddhist beliefs are wrong, I just don’t have anything to corroborate them. As Wittgenstein said of metaphysics, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Relieved of its theology, Buddhism provides a simple compelling truth that fits well with my Quaker views.

The intellectually compelling aspects of Batchelor’s book — that of Buddhism without reincarnation and karma — tap out fairly early, and rightly so. Most of the book is a refreshing retake on Buddhism, free of jargon and ideology. The text is a meditation that I enjoyed reading in small, thoughtful portions over several days, a highlight of this summer.

Sit Down and Shut Up by Brad Warner. “Drop the A-Bomb on meeeeeeeeeeee!”

Sit Down and Shut UpI only have one irrational fear: boredom. After many years of getting to know myself, I admit I have a fear of boredom. I go to great lengths planning for new things to happen so that I will be spared a moment of boredom. What’s so bad about boredom? It can be relaxing. I did say it was irrational. Boredom feels a little like death because nothing is happening; maybe that is it. But apart from boredom, I do not have any irrational fears. Well, except maybe of really high heights, but that is rational, a fall would kill me. And then there’s claustrophobia. The idea of being awake in a closed coffin really spooks me, but wouldn’t it spook you? Wait a minute, are all these fears rooted in a fear of death, in the end of me?

In Sit Down and Shut Up, Brad Warner provides a fresh take on the Buddhist view that “self” is at the root of our troubles. The notion of self as a permanent thing is an understandable mistake. Our self is a constant through our many changing experiences, so we mistake it for a permanent thing. “When a man is sailing along in a boat and he moves his eyes to the shore, he misapprehends that the shore is moving” says Dogen, an ancient Buddhist teacher. Dogen’s book, Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye, is the subject of Warner’s dialog. It taught him many of the insights on his path from a bassist for the hardcore punk band Zero Defects to becoming a Zen priest.

While many books on Buddhism cause my eyes to glaze over (in boredom?), Warner’s perspective on punk brings extra punch. Take anger, the mantle of every punker. “Drop the A-Bomb on meeeeeeeeeeee!” According to Warner, angry music is different than an angry musician. When they were writing or playing music, there wasn’t any anger involved. Angry music was intended to say something true, and playing it shifted him out of his petty self. Anger is about me being right, and you being wrong. If you dispense with self, it is tough to remain angry.

This shift is the essence of Zazen, a meditation practice. Zazen is quite simple. Find a quiet spot, sit on a pillow in full or half lotus, keep your spine straight and your eyes open, and cease the “ten thousand things” that your mind gets distracted by. Turn off the chattering mind, and just sit there. Yeah, pretty boring. But according to Zen Buddhists, ordinary reality is the essence of enlightenment. Sitting in Zazen, we gain a clear perception of the present moment, and unhinge from the self and its complicated yearnings for the past or its plans for happiness in the future if only such and such occurs. “Real happiness comes when you are truly living this moment, no matter what it is.”

Warner admits the story of Buddha is a boring one. Nothing like the life of Jesus, with miracles and betrayal and all. Buddha was a young prince who lived the first part of his life indulging the pleasures of the body, and the next part denying them in ascetic rituals. In the end, he rejected both, sat under a tree, and was enlightened. He stopped being distracted and beheld reality as it eternally is, right in front of his nose. Yipee. Now what? I’ve heard it said that the only cure for boredom is curiousity, but look what happened to the cat. There’s that death thing again. Maybe my fear of boredom is less a fear of physical death and more a fear for the permanence of self. Dropping the illusion of self feels kind of liberating. Next time I’m stuck waiting for a train, or in line at the grocery checkout, I’ll think about it, or better still, I’ll stop thinking about it and practice a little Zazen.

Hardcore Zen blog by Brad Warner