Thursday, December 24, 2009

Second Life take 2

For those of you interested in viewing my talk in Second Life, you can watch it here on YouTube.

One of the key questions that arises for me is "How does the visual interface in Second Life affect interaction?" My initial feeling was that it adds a layer and increases the probability of confusion and that Skype, or even phone, despite the limitations, is more direct. The experience of others seems to be different. One person describes how he or she finds the visual interface better than the floating video head that one has in Skype or the disembodied voice over the phone.

This observation set me to thinking. Even though one has set up an avatar and one is meeting with another avatar, the visual interface and the action of two people meeting for a conversation has a potential for ritual that would be more difficult to create in Skype. For formal interviews, as in the Zen tradition, the Second Life setting may actually be richer.

Two other observations may be relevant.

In one session of the teacher development program I have just completed, I had the participants create masks and explore the difference between teaching (and interacting as a student) while wearing a mask and teaching and interacting while not wearing a mask. People's experience varied widely. Some simply couldn't teach if the student was wearing a mask. Others could. Some taught more naturally while wearing a mask. Others taught more naturally when they were not wearing a mask. In our discussion afterwards, I noted that in formal teaching situations in some traditions everyone is "wearing a mask". And, in some sense, we are always wearing a mask. From this perspective, the avatars are a form of mask and may enhance interaction for some just as the inhibit it for others.

Second, given how the human organism depends on visual and physical cues, many of them subliminal, the quality of communication deteriorates when those cues are not present. I certainly find this with phone conversations, and though I can tune into subtleties in voice and the general energy, I still feel that I'm missing a lot. This was confirmed by my interaction with one student. When I met with her in person, I was usually pretty accurate in my responses to her questions. But when we conversed over the phone, which was usually the case, I often found myself guessing as I was missing all the usual cues. She also noticed that my responses weren't as accurate over the phone.

Now, the physical cues supplied by an avatar bear only the most rudimentary correlation (if that) with the person's emotional state, but I'm wondering if the visual image itself facilitates a fuller interaction on levels that are hard to recognize or identify.

A final point. When two people converse, communication takes place not only at the verbal level, but also at the emotional level, as each is continually sensing and responding (or reacting) to the emotional energy in the other and in themselves. How does the Second Life interface affect the ability to sense emotional energy? Does the visual interface mislead or enhance the interaction?

Idle thoughts on Christmas Eve. Have a lovely holiday!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Second Life

What was it like, to teach the Dharma in Second Life?

That question has been posed to me quite a few times, since Adam Tebbe, founder of Kannonji Zen Retreat in Second Life invited me to teach there on Dec. 16, 2009.

A week before the date, Adam introduced me to Second Life, created an avatar for me, and taught me how to sit down, strike the gong, and other basic movements. I was struck by the tasteful design of the temple. Clearly, care and attention had gone into creating this alternative reality.

At the appointed hour, I came into the temple, more or less materializing à la Star Trek, into a throng of about 30 people (there are 1300 in this particular community). Everyone, except me, had their audio muted to avoid what would otherwise have been a cacophony of feedback. For the first few minutes, I had the same feeling I had when I did a tele-teaching with Tricycle, about three years ago: the disorientation that arises in the absolute absence of any sense of being with other people. I moved to interaction as quickly as possible, to have some sense of who was present (hmmm, interesting context in which to use that word). Responses to my questions came back through instant messages, but the messages scrolled by a little too quickly. This was a small problem, but it did inhibit my ability to respond to all the questions and comments.

During the actual teaching, it quickly became clear that, to judge from the questions and responses, some of the people "present" had a good level of experience. I did my best in my comments and approach to meet them, yet one can't read much in terms of body language or emotional energy from (or through) an avatar, and I could only guess at how to respond.

In comparing Second Life to other online teaching I've done, Second Life, for me, is a bit thin for two reasons: the setting seems to add an additional layer of separation, the appearance of speaking to a group of people sitting, and the interaction is limited to speaking and responding to comments and questions.

I've used a couple of online classrooms (wimb and dimdim). While they don't provide a visual scene as Second Life does, they do allow people to see a video of me, and, in addition to the voice and IM communication in Second Life, I have the use of a whiteboard, slideshow, screen-sharing, and web links to enrich the interaction.

Of course, Second Life provides a completely different experience and was not designed as an interface for teaching, so the comparison may seem unfair. But I was there to teach and that was what I was trying to do.

Having said all this, I was impressed and intrigued by the size of the group, the level of interest, the level of experience, and, not least, the ability to make it sustainable financially, all of which says that something is happening here (but I'm not sure what it is).

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Goldilocks and the Middle Way

Not too hot, not too cold. Not too hard, not too soft. Goldilocks finds that the baby bear’s porridge and bed are “just right” for her.

A few months ago, a friend or a student (and I really can’t remember who) pointed out that most people practice the middle way in the same way. They try to find the path that is the most comfortable, or, failing that, the least uncomfortable. This is how children approach life.

The middle way is not a comfort seeking approach to life. It is a way to open to everything we experience, a way to address imbalances as they arise moment by moment. The key is found in its definition: not to fall into an extreme.

Life is full of polarities: pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and obscurity, respect and disdain. Whenever we pursue the “positive” pole, we set in motion forces, internally and externally, that inevitably bring about the opposite pole.

If we look to find comfort in each moment, we end up going to sleep when we find it and then being woken up and chased by changing circumstances, just as Goldilocks was chased away by the three bears.

This illustration came from Steedman, Amy. Nursery Tales. Paul Woodroffe, illustrator. London: TC & EC Jack, n.d.

For a history of the story of Goldilocks, see this article in Wikipedia.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

where the rubber meets the road

Over the last two years, I’ve been meeting three times a year with a group of twelve people, focusing on some of the deeper aspects of practice and teaching. This group, like most of the groups I’ve worked with, has presented me with a consistent challenge: passivity. (For more on passivity, click here.)

Role-playing is a good tool to develop people’s capacity and to put them in touch with their internal material. It’s challenging. It’s revealing. And, yes, it can be frightening, but to be present in fear is a good way to build capacity.

With this group, when I asked for volunteers for a role-play, there was always an awkward silence. Sometimes one or two people would reluctantly step forward, but usually, I ended up picking a couple of people. The air was thick with resistance and discomfort. Once into the exercise, people usually appreciated how helpful it was, but the passivity continued.

At our meeting in June this year, however, something happened that made all the difference.

After lunch one day, when we met for our afternoon session, I again asked for a couple of volunteers. Instead of the awkward silence, every hand shot up! It took me a moment to adjust. This was a completely different situation — or was it?

In one sense, nothing had changed: I still had to pick a couple of people for the exercise. In another sense, everything had changed: I could now focus on picking people who would benefit most from the exercise or who could demonstrate the points I was trying to convey. I no longer had to be concerned about pushing people against their will.

What had happened? Apparently, over lunch, the group had decided that they were fed up with my constant pushing and organized a conspiracy. Everyone had agreed to step forward whenever I asked for volunteers.

The shift in energy was dramatic. The air almost sparkled with the energy of engagement. Most important, we were all able to work at a much deeper level.

The same dynamic applies in other settings. Two or three times a month, I lead Sutra Sessions, at Against the Stream and Insight LA here in Los Angeles. More than the meditation period, the Q&A that follows is where the real learning takes place. The few people who pose questions are not being passive. They are presenting their questions, challenges, or insights, and inviting a response. We go back and forth until they are clear in their experience. The interaction is two-way, not one-way, and this two-way interaction is crucial if one is to deepen practice and make it a way of life.

Most teaching situations are one-way interactions. A person listens to a talk, reads a book, or plays a podcast or other recording. However beneficial a person may feel the talk or the book is, the flow is one-way and it is difficult to say what, if anything, has actually been learnt.

In the two-way interaction, both teacher and student find out very quickly what they know. Does the student stand in his or her own experience and give expression to their understanding? Does the teacher respond to the student without concern for position, identity, status, role or other forms of protection? Is there a meeting of minds? And what happens then?

This two-way interaction is challenging for both parties. Neither one knows where things are going to go. It can be uncomfortable, even frightening, but when minds meet, understanding arises, and with it, a subtle joy. This is where the rubber meets the road — where our practice comes alive and active in our lives.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

rules for the road

I know I can be deceived by patterns. I can feel that what I'm seeing is true and what I'm doing is fair and just, and still be completely wrong. Perception is always limited, by conditioning, by patterns, by circumstances. I cannot know what is beyond and yet, often, I have to act.

Consequently, I've evolved a few principles to help me in such situations. I won't claim that they are exhaustive or comprehensive, but they seem to work pretty well most of the time.

It's never about fairness or justice.
As I said in a previous post, I've consistently found that any clinging to notions of fairness or justice is a way of avoiding some aspect of the situation I don't want to acknowledge. I now take such clinging as an indication that I haven't penetrated my own confusion and projection. Eventually, I come across a pain or a hurt that tells me why a person acted as he or she did, or why a person can't go to a place that I think he or she should.

Equanimity does not mean fairness.
To practice equanimity is to understand that everything everybody ever does — I repeat, everything everybody ever does — is because at that moment, he or she feels that their action will improve their world. In other words he or she is just trying to be happy. The actions may be, and often are, tragically, catastrophically self-defeating, but that is the motivation at the moment of action. Equanimity, then, is a profound acceptance of each person's humanity. Fairness may be the result of equanimity, but it's not the practice of equanimity.

Whatever is there is there, calmly licking its chops.
When I encounter a powerful, overwhelming, painful or massively unpleasant (or pleasant) feeling, it's there and there is nothing I can do about it except experience it. I sit in it using bare attention, do taking and sending with it to form a relation with it, or mix the feeling with awareness — whatever I'm capable of. In all these, the aim is not sitting with the feeling, but sitting in the feeling. There's a difference.

Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.
— H. L. Mencken

Go to the body.
When there are feelings of injustice or lack of fairness, stories abound. When there are feelings of being misunderstood or unappreciated, stories abound. The stories are almost always projections, and are, by and large, unreliable. Engagement is fruitless: one inevitably gets lost in them. I go to the body, and sit in whatever physical sensations are there, including the sensation of no sensation.

Not feeling anything is a sensation.
This may seem like a paradox, but not being able to feel your body is a sensation, and often quite a vivid one at that. It usually indicates that one is in some kind of shock. I sit in that experience, too.

Let the sun shine.
A simile I've found helpful is that the feeling at the core of a pattern is like a flower bud and one's attention is like the sun. Let the sun warm the bud, and the flower will open in time. You can't hurry the process. To force the bud to open damages things beyond repair. When an issue is up, I work with it regularly and consistently, but I don't try to work through it in one session or in a limited period of time. In fact, I don't even try to work through it at all. If it's there, that's where I sit. If it's not, then I don't go looking for it.

(If decisions have to be made, I make them, cognizant that they may not be the right ones, and cognizant, too, that I will have to receive the results, whatever they are.)

When you feel resolved, look to the stars.
In astronomy, any observation or theory that places the earth in a privileged position indicates a mistake in the data, the method of observation, or the interpretation of the data. Any resolution of the issue that leaves you in a privileged position (the usual ones are hero or victim) is suspect. These are identities, and are pretty reliable indications that the "resolution" is serving some unacknowledged agenda.

It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings.
The origin of this phrase isn't clear. I remember it from one Salinger's novels, but Wikipedia suggests it came from a sports writer in the '70s. The singer here is an internal admission or allowing of a weakness, a hurt, a prejudice, or an ignoring, that you haven't acknowledged before. It comes with its own set of body sensations, emotions, and stories. In other words, you are back in the mess, or another mess, and all the previous principles apply. How many arias or choruses will she sing? No one knows. That's part of the mystery.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Fairness and Justice

In societies in which there is one overarching world view, fairness and justice are complex issues. Interpretations of the law, in Judaism, always include the minority opinion, a way of saying that fairness and justice are contingent, not absolute, principles.

In a society in which there is multiplicity of perspectives and world views, different views compete and fairness and justice can become functions of power.

Spiritual practice goes nowhere if it follows this path. Everything gets lost in interpretation, conceptual thinking, unacknowledged prejudice and bias, etc.

In spiritual practice, we have to dispense completely with appeals to justice and fairness, precisely because they are open to interpretation and dependent on position. And if we claim access to a higher truth, we are, in effect, claiming the power and the right to decide for others.

Aside: I dislike and avoid the notion that spiritual truth is a higher truth, in terms of society and the world, etc. Spiritual practice is based on a principles that run counter to many principles of society. To claim that spiritual practice is a "higher truth" is another form of prejudice. Instead, I have to acknowledge that the principles on which I base my decisions are different from the principles that a person in a social context may base his or her decisions.

I now rarely try to persuade people to adopt a specific perspective, Buddhist or otherwise. Rather, I seek to help them find what is true for them in the world they experience. As we explore this together, appeals to justice or fairness are almost always stories that hide or protect unacknowledged hurts or pains. As they open to those pains, people frequently find clarity on their own and know what to do, not because it is "fair" or "just" or "right" (these are, in the end, somewhat childish motivations), but because, when everything, inside and out, is included in awareness, often only one course of action is indicated — the direction of the present, to use Uchiyama's phrase.

In other words, the illusion of choice is an indication of a lack of freedom.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

clarifying oranges and deities

Three words that, clearly, should not be in the same sentence together.

An email exchange prompted by an earlier post.

The question:  
Dear Mr. McLeod, I greatly value your teaching but found the latest email about concentration not being meditation a bit odd. My experience with both shamatha and (even more so) deity practice is that they are unequivocally concentration practices. Yes it's important to drop any sense of undue struggle or will but the whole point at least for a long while is to drop (but not supress) thoughts that distract one from focus on the object and return to it. There is a clear preference for one object over all others and an ever clearer preference for concentration over distraction. What am I missing?  

And the reply:  
I'm not sure you are missing anything. My aim was to move people away from trying to bind the mind to the object by force of will and toward bringing about stable attention by resting with the object (or more accurately, in the experience of the object). This particularly applies to deity practice. Here, one is not actually focusing on an object, but resting in the sense of being the deity. All kinds of internal voices rise up against this (we experience these as distractions). Concentration tends to lead people in the direction of suppressing those voices, creating tension in the system, which undermines stability in attention. Resting in the whole experience allows the emotional material driving those voices to be experienced, releasing the emotional tension, and thus the distractions, and now one can rest more completely as the deity. This way of practicing is not what most people usually understand from the word "concentration".

Monday, June 1, 2009

Concentrate is what we do to oranges

Several times now, I've had occasion to meet with groups of practitioners whose practice is based on focusing attention on an object or observing thoughts and sensations or watching the breath. They frequently report difficulty, a kind of catch 22: either the effort they make in concentration works against stability or they lose clarity when they try to relax. They are usually trying to control their experience, to make it conform to certain expectations of how meditation should be.

All forms of practice that involve such effort, i.e., "I am doing something", inevitably reinforce that sense of separation from experience that arises as "I".

A monk sat meditating in the courtyard of a monastery.

"What are you doing?" asked the abbot.

"Meditating to attain enlightenment," replied the monk.

The abbot sat down beside him, picked up stone, and started to polish it with his robe. After a while, the monk's patience ran out.

"What are you doing?" he asked.

"Making a glass tile," replied the abbot.

"You can't make a glass tile by polishing a stone."

"Nor can you reach enlightenment by meditating."

Part of the problem is the word concentration. It has, unfortunately, become an accepted translation for the Sanskrit samadhi, a choice that was made about 100 years ago before many Westerners had much experiential understanding of Buddhism. And it sets up expectations, always a problem in meditation practice.

Samadhi denotes a deep level of attention, usually accessed through some form of meditation. In samadhi, it is said that the mind joins with the object of attention. But this union is not brought about by concentration on the object. That just squeezes the mind. It comes about by resting in the experience of the object.

When I suggest in these groups that, instead of concentrating or observing or watching, they just rest and open to what arises, they have a very different experience. The sense of "I" subsides naturally and they come to rest in experience, not separate from it.

We truly rest only when there is no enemy: we include everything that arises
in experience, excluding nothing. We have to build the capacity to do this, of course, but we can build that capacity through resting and opening, not concentrating or focusing.

Catch 22

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," Yossarian observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Stones Stand Cold

Sisyphus is tired.

Too clever by half, inevitably

He draws the gods' revenge.

Things are the way they are

For a reason.

But he never learns.

Teachers teach.

And they all agree

A quiet colloquy may be desired, maybe needed.

But the fire calls them

To their calling

And they go.

The stones stand cold

As he waits,

Angry and alone.

And the gods have their revenge.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Evolution and Buddhahood

Let no one suppose that evolution will ever exempt us from struggles. 'You forget,' said the Devil, with a chuckle, 'that I have been evolving too.'
— William Ralph Inge

When I read about the stages of practice and buddhahood in Tibetan texts, I come away with the sense that there is some ideal state to which all paths of practice converge. One finds elaborate descriptions of various stages, culminating in the final attainment of buddhahood. At the same time, I haven't seen any evidence for such a convergence, whether in the various teachers with whom I've studied, my own practice, or the countless hours I've spent with students.

Instead, I've come to appreciate that things just evolve. What went before shapes what follows. One can often and easily trace how a person's way of experiencing life has evolved out of family and childhood experiences. At the same time, something new and unsuspected can arise at any time. Education, social interactions, finding a life partner and other events introduce different strands that mix with what is already there and influence the way we develop. It's rich, it's complex, it can be utterly amazing, and it can be utterly dismaying. Sometimes what happens is all too predictable and sometimes it's completely unexpected.

The Middle Way, not falling into extremes, captures, very simply and very wonderfully, this complexity. We are not just body or just mind; things are neither ordered nor chaotic; the universe is neither one nor many, and so on.

The implications for practice are profound. Systems of practice such as the Path of Purity in the Theravadan tradition or the Graded Path texts in the Tibetan traditition lay out stages of development, types of practitioners, what practices are suitable for whom and when. These are extraordinary collections of the wisdom and experience of masters over the ages, but we can easily feel that something is wrong with us if we don't recognize our experience or can't fit ourselves into those descriptions.

We need to remember one thing: there is no such thing as normal. Normality is an average and no one is actually the average. All classification schemata are after the fact, seeking to ascribe an order to the chaos and complexity of evolution. Such schemata necessarily average things, but there are always aspects of experience that don't fit or lie at one or other extreme of the bell curve.

There are general principles in spiritual practice, just as there are general principles in evolution theory. But each plant, each organism grows its own way, and we need to respect that we, too, will grow our own way.

The Buddhist concept of causality reflects this sense of evolution. It's based on the notions of genesis and conditions. Just as an acorn is the genesis of an oak tree, the genesis of awakening in us is the very awareness that is present in experience. Just as an acorn requires water, warmth, nourishment, and shelter to begin its evolution into an oak tree, we need to provide the conditions for attention, awareness, and presence to grow and evolve in our own lives.

And how we evolve is how we evolve.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

...somewhere behind the most universal comprehension there must be an individual mind...
Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, page 508

We generally think of spiritual practice, and the training it involves, as something we learn from a teacher, a community or a tradition, or some combination of these three. We study texts and teachings. We are taught the particulars of practice, or a particular practice, from someone who is familiar or at least knowledgeable. Our study often includes stories about the struggles, experience, and achievements of others, usually the more famous, the more remarkable, or the more articulate. We are exposed to systems of discipline, systems of practice methods, and systems of philosophy. Our teacher or teachers may require, or we may choose, to discuss our experience with them, formally or informally, and we receive feedback, guidance, suggestions, cautions, etc.

We feel that we are becoming part of something and often forget that every spiritual practice, every teaching, every discourse or explanation began with ONE person's need to come to terms with his or her own experience. It is what worked for him or her, and his experience and understanding is what is being passed down to us.

The task, for each of us, is to ask, "Does this help me to resolve my own questions?"

One way to start is to ask, "For what question about the experience of life is this teaching an answer?" — a spiritual version of Jeopardy, if you wish.

We can begin with the usual suspects, basic meditation, death and impermanence, karma, and then move on to more subtle ones, such as bodhicitta (awakening mind), the two truths (apparent and ultimate), the two kinds of non-self (individual and experience), etc. Rather than give you my thoughts, please add your thoughts about these questions in the comments below.

We generally find that the questions we come up with are universal questions, in the sense that they have been asked for as long as history records (and probably longer). Each of the practices and teachings is how one person came to terms with that question. Maybe others find his or her answer or way of answering helpful, but not everyone, as we have so many different approaches.

The other day I watched Bab Aziz: the prince who contemplated his soul. It's a beautiful movie about a Sufi wandering in the desert with his grand-daughter. The movie opens with this quotation:

There are as many ways to God as there are souls on the earth.

And that is where I close.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Is your hair on fire?

Practice like your hair is on fire!

A traditional aphorism, which probably goes back to Buddhism in India. Gelek Rinpoche makes it the theme of his recent article in Buddhadharma. And it shows up in the Zen tradition and elsewhere.

One meaning, obviously, is to make full use of this fleeting human experience to wake up. But there are two assumptions here: the experience of being human is but one of many and waking up is the highest purpose of life.

How do approach practice if you don't buy one or other of these assumptions?

Another interpretation is that this phrase expresses the kind of totally awake clarity that one is aiming for in practice. Again, there is an assumption, namely, that this level of attention is to be sustained for long periods, if not indefinitely.

What happens to a person who is not able to sustain such a level of attention but tries to do so anyway? Frequently, he or she tries harder and harder, growing tighter and tighter, moving further and further out of the balance and rest in which clarity and freedom arise. Eventually, he or she is forced to rest, and then something quite different happens. This recognition can, as it did for Buddha Shakyamuni, lead in a very different direction. Or, a student, broken in body and heart, can just give up, and lapse into a cynical view of spiritual practice.

In traditional settings, students, by and large, had access only to instruction appropriate to their level of ability and practice. Often, students had to be encouraged to practice what they were given.

In today's world, we have access to practice instructions at every level. This access creates a different kind of problem, how to know what practice is appropriate for one's level of understanding, ability, and interest. Anyone who has practiced for any length of time knows that what works at one phase of practice may be counterproductive at another.

The consequence is that, ultimately, we have to take responsibility in determining what to practice when and how to practice it.

So, I put the question very simply: is practicing like your hair is on fire a good way for you to practice?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

reference and loneliness

The person without a range of reference is not more authentically human for being so. He is just more alone.
— Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, pg. 391

I picked this book up out of curiosity. In this instance, the curiosity has paid of manifold, for this rich, textured book contains fascinating accounts, observations, and insights into the lives and works of many who formed and shaped our cultural heritage, from Keats to Einstein, from Trotsky to Tacitus, both the famous and, at least for me, the obscure. An added bonus is James' writing style, a marvel of depth, beauty and simplicity on complex and often controversial topics.

This quotation struck me in light of the weight placed on no reference in Buddhist practice, e.g., non-referential awareness, or non-referential compassion. One may perhaps object that the word reference is being used in two different ways, but what happens if what if one considers that there may be something in common in the two phrases awareness that has no reference and the person without a range of reference?

In either case, one has a sense of open space, infinite, without center or circumference, a feeling that reminds me of the location in north-eastern New Mexico where I've taught retreats for the last few years, right at the edge of the Great Plains, where heaven and earth are somehow joined in the dusty blue of a distant horizon. When I walk out into the plains, there is no reference. One is completely alone, and, ironically, the very experience of aloneness is a reminder that this thing we call life consists of precisely of physical, emotional, and mental sensations arising from our interaction with the world around us.

To have no range of reference is to cut oneself off from life.

In an odd way, this quotation embodies the two most salient aspects of human experience: we have no idea what this experience is, yet we meet and respond (or react) to what arises in every moment of our lives.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Awakening? Peace? Truth? Freedom?

All that is conditioned is impermanent.
All emotional reactions are suffering.
All experience is empty.
To go beyond misery is peace.

The four seals, as these four lines are called, make it clear that the aim of Buddhist practice is peace. It is the end of suffering.

A prevailing myth in Western Buddhism is the maxim "know ye the truth, and the truth will make you free". This misleading Christian myth (John 8:32) can, perhaps, be laid at the door of Socrates and his followers. They envisioned an ideal world of forms in which beauty, goodness, and truth were one and the same. This sentiment has, in our age, led people to ignore the fact that the various values of a democratic society — equality, justice, freedom, etc. — often conflict with one another.

The myth is deeply embedded in the Western thought and, inevitably, has insinuated itself into Buddhist thinking in Western societies.

What leads one to embark on Buddhist practice? There is only one answer: a mind (or heart) that is not at peace. One may call the aim awakening, or freedom, or presence, but these are all misleading terms, each of them implicitly suggesting a "higher" or "truer" way of living, or being, or whatever.

We cannot know what is true. As Chuang Tzu says, "How do I know I'm not a butterfly dreaming that I'm Chuang Tzu?"

Awakening? The best we can do, as Wittgenstein said, is to awaken to the understanding that we are asleep and dreaming.

Freedom? The more clearly one sees things, the less choice one has. The illusion of choice is actually an indication of a lack of freedom.

Presence? When I say that I am present in a situation, I mean that I am not being distracted or torn apart by internal or external tensions, in other words, a kind of peace, no?

If you look at the actual experience that these terms refer to, you find peace, peace from the tension of not knowing what experience is, peace from the tension of feeling bound and conditioned, peace from the tension between subject and object, etc.

Monday, February 16, 2009

another view of tradition

A tradition is an accumulation through time of inspired works, created by people who do not have tradition on their minds. If they have anything on their minds, it is their own uniqueness: the ways they do not fit in, not the ways they do.
— Clive James

In Buddhism (and elsewhere), much is made of preserving tradition. I've long felt that there was  problem with this notion, namely, the things one tends to preserve are dead, perhaps to be eaten later, or only to be viewed in a jar of formaldehyde, or after being subjected to a process that preserves form, shape, and perhaps color but certainly not the thing itself.

This quotation, from Clive James' book Cultural Amnesia, is a delightful reminder that tradition is only a concept applied to a certain phenomenon. The phenomenon itself is created by people doing "untraditional" things — writing, painting, or teaching in ways that generate new energy, new responses, new possibilities.

Recently, an old colleague of mine called to describe how a group of people at a center had asked him to translate a text for their practice, and then had turned around and changed some of the words and phrasings in his translation to more "traditional" vocabulary. The translator here has long and deep experience and has come to understand how the "traditional" vocabulary leads people astray or limits their understanding of their practice (not just the text, but their practice). Against stupidity, even the gods struggle in vain.

In our culture, we try new things, find what works, and discard what doesn't. We go down wrong paths, we get into trouble, but we learn, through experimentation and innovation. When they limit themselves only to what is tried and true, most people in this culture grow restless and impatient, unless they die of stasis and boredom first.