The Catholic theologian Thomas Berry proposed that we need a "new story" to account for our place on the planet, a story that would replace the old Judaeo-Christian story of who we are and why we are here. He proposed that the scientific story of evolution could meet this need. Though, I believe, with some small modifications. Anyway, his idea was that evolution was part of an "earth process" which had its own wisdom and which, perhaps, was going somewhere, was not just a form of circumstantial or even random development.
I first came across Berry in the 1980s and in my own thinking immediately began to graft together his idea of the need for a new story with the Buddhist story of the bodhisattva. I thought that perhaps grafting the two stories together could point toward a way forward for humans, point toward a fundamental meaningfulness for humans as part of the earth process. At the same time I began to consider how the looming eco-crisis could fit into that new story.
The picture which began to emerge in my thinking was not entirely pretty, but I thought I would share it with others anyway, and being scholarly minded, wrote several articles on the subject and did some conference presentations. My work generally was received with a resounding lack of interest. That was not a huge surprise because I wrote about a time upcoming of great tribulations. Yet, having faith in both the wisdom of the earth process and the wisdom of the Bodhisattva path, I imagined that the tribulations could be followed by a sort of human "reset" to more sustainable and humane societies.
There is a perhaps apocryphal tale about the frog in the boiling water. Drop a frog into boiling water and it will hop out. But place a frog in water and gradually heat the water and you can boil the frog to death. This tale is relevant to our recent history of gradual climatic heating.
Now the climate crisis is upon us, as we all know. Gigafires in California, drought in the Southwest, intensifying hurricanes, etc, etc. Hundreds of thousands of migrating birds have been falling from the skies in New Mexico as they flee the west coast fires before they have the body fat to sustain their flights south. And of course the global pandemic. In the light of such suffering it is hard to imagine that there is any wisdom in the earth process. But humans are not the center of life in that process and it is pretty easy to argue that our ignorant arrogance of putting ourselves at the center has a lot to do with the crisis now upon us. Lynn White's famous 1967 article "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis" makes just that argument.
So the earth may care about us, but only as it cares about everything, and perhaps there is something larger going on, something that is hard for us to see with our anthropocentric perspective. Let me turn to that larger view, and again the implications are not exactly pretty, but they may be hopeful if one takes the long view.
Two years ago [October 2018], scientists with the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a landmark study, Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees, which found that humanity had to cut heat-trapping emissions roughly by half by 2030 to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown. Headlines warned we had "12 years to save the planet." Those 12 years are now 10.
Except more than two years have been lost, because in that time, the Trump administration has prevented the world's biggest economy from making "the dramatic reductions that were necessary to keep us on that path" of halving emissions by 2030, [the climate scientist Michael] Mann says. "So now the incline is steeper. It's no longer 5% [reductions] a year for the next 10 years. It's more like seven and a half percent." (As a comparison, 7% is how much global carbon emissions are projected to fall in 2020 due to the Covid-19 economic lock downs that shrank driving, flying and other carbon-intensive activities.)
Consider the final line in this quotation. The pandemic has accomplished what no government has been able to accomplish. In its own destructive way it is of benefit. This is hard to imagine; it is pretty tough. Is it possible, could it be true? What would it mean for humanity if it were true?
Homeostasis is the term for the process in which living things keep their systems functioning by keeping them in balance. I have to wonder if the pandemic is earth process homeostatic wisdom at work. Will we humans get this message from the earth, back off from our unbalanced petroleum madness, be smarter than frogs and jump out of the heating water? Perhaps I am a fool to have faith in the Bodhisattva path, to have faith that we humans can jump out of the pot of heating water and reset. Yet this is what sustains me in these dark times.
I am not sure exactly what Rinpoche would be referring to in Tibetan when he says "master." The usual term is "lama," which is the Tibetan version of "guru." But he does not use the term lama. Anyway, out of curiosity I took a trip to the dictionary. It tells me a master is someone who has control over others, or is in charge of a group. But a master is also a person who is skilled at some activity, who has mastered something. I think that both these ideas might be in Rinpoche's mind, and they suggest why some Americans have difficulty with deeply learning or adopting a spiritual practice. Of course some of us do want to learn how to practice meditation or whatever activity will put us in touch with the spiritual part of ourselves. Learning from a master meditator obviously would be desirable. But what about the other meaning of master? The master may have control over the essentials of meditation practice, but will we give her/him control over us? Will we surrender to a master? Do we need to? That, I think, is the rub for Americans. Our individuality, our sense of independence (even as mythically enshrined as our "declaration of independence") stands in the way.
These days of pandemic we are aware of the dangers of excessive individuality. "Wear a face mask? It is my constitutional right not to have to" is a line we all have heard. So some of us exercise our right to independence and sicken (or kill) others in the process. The critical conundrum for Americans seems to be "can I be independent and surrender to a master (or the common good) at the same time?"
The dictionary offers other meanings of master which might help with this conundrum. As an adjective master also means main or principal; as in "master bedroom." And as a noun it also means "an original from which copies can be made." How do these ideas help? In the Vajrayana (ie, tantric) path it is said that the disciple's relationship with the lama is the key to progress. In guru-yoga, which is foundational for this path, one practices the experience that the guru/lama, the disciple and the meditational image (of a buddha) are all one, all the same. Or as the Tibetans say, "all of the same taste," which adds an important element to the idea of oneness. Obviously this practice does not suggest that the personality of the teacher and the student are the same. Rather, the fundamental consciousness of the teacher (that is, the actual emptiness -- shunyata -- aspect of consciousness) and that of the student are practiced as being the same, as being one. In this way the empty aspect of the student's consciousness is understood as a copy (or perhaps reflection) of the empty aspect of the master's consciousness. The master's realization of this empty aspect of his/her own consciousness is also the main feature or principal feature of the master that matters in spiritual life. Not the master's personality, which may be quirky, or flawed, or noble and is a transitory aspect of the master, but the quality of consciousness of the master. That is what matters and that is what the disciple wishes to copy, to become.
One surrenders to this aspect of the consciousness of the master, which actually means surrendering to that aspect of oneself because this consciousness cannot be created. It already is buried within, it is eternal, so it "neither arises (is created) nor ceases", as the Heart Sutra puts it. In this sense the master's realization of the emptiness aspect of her/his consciousness actually can not be copied but is held out as something we can see in the master though we do not yet see it in ourselves. A light which shows us our own obscured light.
That mutual light is what we really surrender to. Or not. Actually that is our choice.
And if we surrender, the problem remains of disentangling the master's personality from the empty aspect of her/his consciousness. Why would I want to surrender to a flawed personality? We all have read stories of teachers who abused their students. No teacher is perfect, but is a work in progress, perhaps a bodhisattva on the path to buddha-hood. So surrender needs to be wise, needs to avoid magical thinking, needs to see clearly and needs to avoid shirking personal responsibility for choices. This is a real difficulty if one is devoted to the teacher, but at the same time this difficult work requires us to mature our own characters in our relationship to the teacher.
Suzuki Roshi, the founding teacher of San Francisco Zen Center, once said that living in community could rub away many quirks of personality in the same way as one can clean potatoes in water by rubbing them together. While he was probably only referring to students' relationships to each other, I think his wisdom might be applied to the relation of master and disciple as well. And even if the master does not change in the relationship with the student, the student can change and grow as they get bounced about by the master.
Perhaps this type of personal growth is a secondary benefit of the relationship of master and disciple. Or perhaps it is an essential part of the relationship, an essential part of becoming a true individual who can both surrender and be independent as circumstances dictate.
An anthropologist I knew once told me that humans make sense of things by telling stories. That was sort of a revelation to me. The importance of stories later was reinforced when I read the eco-philosopher Thomas Berry who asserted that
It's all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story.
By old story he meant the Christian creation story. You know -- 6 days and then God rested. For a new story he proposed a spiritualized version of scientific evolution. He died in 2009 and I don't know if he had come to think that the scientific story of the earth's genesis had morphed into a futuristic environmental nightmare.
We don't tend to think of scientists as story tellers. We think that they offer truth and facts. But really, when you connect the big-data-point-dots you get a story. The resulting environmental story looks pretty apocalyptic right now. But it is just a story.
I am not denying the science. I accept it. But the story is another matter. There could be a different story. The magma lake under Yellowstone could blow taking a chunk of the USA with it and spreading a cloud of dust and ash through the atmosphere which brought on a new ice age. No global warming. Temperate places like Africa could be the new centers of human civilization. This is another scientific story.
Zachoeje Rinpoche cautions his students about stories. Of course he means the stories we tell ourselves about our personal realities. "If only I had this or that, then I would be happy." "That SOB at work is making my life miserable." Rinpoche asserts that 95% of the stories we tell ourselves have nothing to do with reality. I've seen the truth of this in my own life. As the Dalai Lama says, happiness and misery come from within, not without. So the happiness our stories promise us probably is a phantom.
What about the apocalyptic stories scientists are telling us, or even our Christian friends' end-of-days story of the Rapture? There were apocalyptic stories in the past. Christians were sure that the year 1000 AD would be the last. They didn't expect the next thousand years, but here we are.
In good Buddhist fashion Rinpoche suggested that since we cannot avoid making up stories, why not make up pleasant stories?
Here is a story that is entertaining me these days. Five miles from my home there is a basaltic ridge whose crest is covered with hundreds of petroglyphs. No one is sure about why they are there, other than that the patina on the basalt can be pecked away to leave images whose meanings elude us. Just below the ridge crest there is a cave which is high enough to stand in and perhaps 15 feet deep. It has a wonderful view across the Santa Fe mesa to the Sangre de Christo Mountains. In my story ancient people came to the cave to fast, pray and seek a vision. They each left a record of their vision by pecking away at a basaltic surface. Hundreds of petroglyphs; hundreds of holy visions. Surely the ridge is a sacred place, though not to the teenagers who scamper over the rocks like gazelles. They have different stories than mine.
But I like my story. My home now is oriented toward this cave. The basaltic rocks on all sides of it are full of presence. They are a living earth which has embraced humans for millennia. In my story there is a future with people who once again come to the cave for visions. Their ancestors probably will have endured many tribulations. But the cave will be waiting. They will know that this ground is sacred, and they will come.
Growth and decay are natural cycles in our world. Unfortunately, most of us in this country don't live in a "natural world". We live in human-made worlds. Especially those of us who live in cities. It is fairly hard to see natural cycles if you live in a world of concrete, brick and glass. Some of us live in the suburbs, surrounded by trees; perhaps grass and flowers. Perhaps we have easy access to the countryside. So you would think that natural cycles would be apparent to us. But for some reason they are not.
As I write this I am 74 years old. It appears that old people like myself spend a bit of time looking back on their lives, which perspective certainly offers a different vista than looking forward. Looking into the future it seems like there will be a lot of winding down. In fact, the recent past looks the same. Why is this troubling? It seems like the natural order is to grow and then decay. So why do I feel distressed that I am in this phase of life? It is not that all my life is winding down. Certainly my body and finances are winding down and there does not seem to be any way to resist that. For that matter, my mind seems to be headed in the same direction. Yet another part of me seems to become clarified in this process, seems to be flourishing -- though growing might not be quite the right term for what I experience.
It seems that many things are being pruned away by time. I do not much mind having worn out cloths that sometimes are sewn together by my not-too-competent darning. At one time I would have simply replaced the worn out sweater. It might have made a bad impression at work. But when I work I do so from home now. What would my friends or neighbors think about my looking shabby? I no longer care too much, though I do try to keep up some appearances. I shave when I am going out.
I've never been successful with money. Never could grow it or invest wisely. I spent it on foolishness, or perhaps more wisely on meditation retreats. I invested in my inner life rather than my outer. So has my inner investment grown while my finances decayed? This is a critical question at this point in my life.
I expect that it is a critical question for many in my generation. Many folks my age of course invested in family, real estate, stocks and so forth. My early life was composed of wandering through bohemia and I didn't own a house until I was 50. Children were not on my agenda. Meditating with my lama Tara Tulku in Bodhgaya was more my style, and somehow I experienced a conflict between being bourgeois and bohemian, and though I tried to reconcile that conflict in the life I now look back on, I never succeeded.
Yet I never entirely failed either. I own the house I am sitting in (jointly with the mortgage company). And when I sit to meditate, broad mental vistas open before me. Lifelong assurances as well as uncertainties are part of that vista; some trivial and some important. I've written about these things.
If I am going to ponder death, then it seems that I will be pondering what that really is. Not just physically, because I have a sense of that. What about the non-material parts of me? That is where the questions arise. I don't have the cultural assurance about rebirth that a Tibetan might have. Nor even the assurances of a Christian who expects heaven (or worse). I grew up with a mother who never discussed such matters as life after death and a father who bluntly considered death "the big sleep." I am psychologist enough to know that their minds are merged with mine in some aspect of me because they raised me and I imprinted on them. But my life of inner journeys also inclines me to a broader vista. And what is in that vista? Ambiguity seems to best describe it.
It is clear that my rational mind can only understand so much, though it never ceases to define and box in everything. Like a hand that cannot grasp itself, my mind cannot know its source in any conventional way of understanding. This is almost axiomatic both from the perspective of modern psychology and Buddhism. But what cannot be comprehended seems to be something I can experience at times.
Like a lotus flower, the waking world seems to emerge from something fundamental to me. I touch it when I settle deeply into meditation. At night when I surrender to sleep and the lotus flower world is enfolded within, I rest there. Maybe that is why my father called death "the big sleep." Maybe he, like all of us, intuited what we can only vaguely comprehend, that the part of us that exists when we sleep deeply is the root and stalk of that lotus world.
So this brings me back to the mystery of sleep. And its partners, dream and wakefulness. I've written about this before, and will do so again because the winding down of my life has forced this upon me.
The rocks beside me once flowed molten hot. After eons their patina became a canvas for Tewa people. Their glyphs remain a mystery. What did they feel as their world wound down? They already had known drought and famine. In the end, did their eyes see demons in metal clothing, those ancestors of the enchanting Spanish accent of Santa Fe?
How did the Tewa face the end of their world? Did apocalypse figure in their stories?
My friends flee fire that incinerates places I know so well. Family returns to a devastated home. Here it is peaceful before my eyes but my heart is rent as deeply as the gorge of the river that has given life to this land from a time even before humans. It has meandered through the ages and though it will shrink and it will grow, it will not stop flowing.
And the mountains and rocks of the mother we have treated so shamelessly? Will they remember us, as they do the Tewa who respectfully left their marks upon her? Or will they think of us as but a passing dream?
Like the ancients, I am compelled to open my heart and inscribe my thought-images upon a canvas, but one much more fleeting than theirs.
Tibetan Buddhist practice is sometimes described with the terms ground, path and fruition. These are what we start with, our current situation of mind and body (the ground of practice), the process of transforming them (the path of practice) and the goal of the process, awakening or enlightenment (fruition, Buddha-hood). This is a nice schema, but for me, at least, it has had some drawbacks, such as feeling unwholesome dissatisfaction with the life of the present and frustration about whether I am progressing. And since fruition is nothing less than being a Buddha, frustration or dissatisfaction does seem inevitable.
When I think about this problem I have to wonder whether or not I, as an achievement oriented American, actually have created the problem with my own attitude. The Tibetan monks I've known don't seem to have the same dissatisfaction. It seems that for them life on the path is sufficient, and for whatever reason this attitude seems to actually yield greater progress toward fruition than my striving attitude.
In Zen one does not find the terms ground, path and fruition, but teachings about transforming the present situation are abundant. Zen is also quite insistent on recognizing that one is already a Buddha, though one is ignorant of that truth. Waking up (fruition) is "just" a matter of realizing this truth. In fact this idea is present in the Tibetan tradition as well, but seems to be obscured a bit by the emphasis on the path, as one finds in the gradualist Lam Rim (Stages of the Path) teachings.
In Tibet in ancient days there was a great debate between the Zen teachers and the gradualist teachers. The gradualist tradition won out, and for the most part has shaped Tibetan Buddhism ever since. As one of my teachers, Thubten Jigme Norbu, recalling his life in Tibet explained all of this, if you have buttermilk and want to butter your toast (or tea, in his case) you need to churn the butter out of the milk. We may have Buddha nature already, but it is obscured by our mental distortions. We need to remove the distortions (do the churning) to reveal ourselves as Buddhas.
This settling into peace has been key for me. Without my having this experience fairly regularly I find that ongoing practice becomes a burden. In this sense the goal and the path are not really different. It seems that I need to drink a glass of buttermilk once in a while to be reminded of the taste of butter.
So called primal peoples have other ideas yet and lend dreams significant credibility. As for myself, I tend to think of them as something like psychological weather reports. But sometimes it seems dreams present messages that require some extra serious consideration. If I doubted this, the experience of a local psychotherapist seems pretty convincing. An ardent Hillary Clinton supporter, this very wise lady was quite sure that Hillary would win the 2016 presidential election. A couple of months before the election she dreamed that the sky was rent open by a demon that come down to our world. This dream puzzled her --- until she reflected on the years following the 2016 presidential election.
I find her experience to be of significance; so much so that I pay special attention to those of my dreams which seem to stand out from the nightly crowd. Recently I dreamed that I was serving a 3 1/2 year prison term for some minor infraction. I woke up and immediately understood the dream. Though I tried to remember the nature of the infraction that had sent me to a prison that was like something out of a Count of Monte Cristo movie, I couldn't. But I remembered the prison: dark, stone walls, dirt floor. At the end of my sentence, before being released, I noticed a small hole in the dirt by one of the walls. Sticking my finger in the hole I pulled up a small statue of a holy person. The statue was covered with writing. But what really caught my attention was the palm sized cut diamond and ruby that came up with him.
Unlike Edmond Dantes in Dumas' story I did not have a sense in the dream that I would use my new found wealth get revenge on whoever or whatever had sent me to prison. My mind was neutral, yet filled with wonder at my good fortune, realizing that the reward for my years in prison was the wealth these three objects represented.
I understood that the prison was my 3 1/2 years of an insomnia characterized by the mental and physical near-paralysis of getting no more than 2 hours of sleep in a night and the profound anguish of going to bed haunted by the self-fulfilling anxiety that I would not get to sleep, or that if I did, I could not stay asleep. In the last two years I have found first a sleep doctor whose drug prescription actually helped me get some sleep and then an acupuncturist whose treatments and herbs released me from the sleep drugs and brought me to what I take to be normal sleep for a person my age.
So now I've been released from the prison of insomnia. And what am I to make of the treasure which accompanied my release? Any tantric yogi will recognize the meaning of the clear and red jewels. And the holy being? Perhaps it is my aspiration.
Kayla has for years told me that writing down dreams helps one understand them. As I wrote this little memoir some interesting typos showed up on my computer monitor. Whole for hole. Psalm for palm. Read for red. The treasure I have been given is plain to see.
These days I have taken up writing again. I meditate on wisdom and altruism and depend on the inspiration and sustenance of my lamas. Each day is just nothing special now. I am just here doing what I do. But I am actually here. What a treasure.
At Green Gulch Zen Center residents and visitors were called to the Zendo by the sound of the han. It was a large slab of wood which was rhythmically struck by a mallet. The han at Green Dragon temple was venerable: it had been struck so frequently that it had a deep depression that obscured the words inscribed on it. Do not waste time; consider the great matter of life and death.
I've been considering this matter for much of my life. Now that I am 74 I am watching my once muscular limbs wither and my mind get increasingly forgetful. This "great matter" has my attention with more salience.
In my previous essay about the finger pointing at the moon I wrote "And then of course, there is the moon itself, whose silver white light is a reflection of the sun’s light. Did the Zen masters know the source of the moon’s light? What might it mean that the luminescence of our mind is a reflection of something?" This question, in the literal sense, has occupied me for the better part of my life. I've asked many great lamas about this. What is the relationship of our mind-streams? Or in the metaphor of the sun illuminating the moon-like mind, ultimately, are our minds the same or different? When I asked Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, Tara Tulku Rinpoche and Denma Locho Rinpoche they all gave the same cryptic reply, "There are several answers to this question."
For me this question is like the depression in the han. It is the great matter. And it is intimately tied to the question of the reality of rebirth. For the Zen and Vajrayana Tibetan masters this may not have even been a question. But I am a modern person and the question remains. It is not only what is the relationship of my mind-stream and that of the masters, it is the question of the continuity of my mind or consciousness beyond death. I began the practice of meditation in 1966 with Thich Tien-an. Now, 54 years later, the great matter is unresolved. In fact, over the years, the question only has become more complex.
"There are several answers" the masters have said. How unsatisfying, in one way. But how open at the same time. It is almost like a Zen koan. Not "take your pick of which answer you like best" but something else I suspect. That there are different teachings is the obvious meaning. That the mind is limited in its ability to understand that which is its own foundation strikes me as another meaning. I prefer the later, though this does not cancel the former. In fact it almost proves the former. Perhaps the mind cannot grasp its true nature, just as a hand cannot grasp itself. Not being able to grasp itself, the mind makes up stories about itself because just as grasping is a function of a hand, story making and theorizing is a function of the mind. And as the finger on the hand points to the moon, so the mind points at its own nature through its stories.
It seems that different people need to hear different stories, and perhaps the stories even evolve as we change and evolve. Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey replied to my question: "There are several answers to this question." That was it. He shared some answers but did not say "this is the best answer." But when teaching in Seattle eight years earlier, he told students there that "... your own mind and the Guru's mindstream do become indivisible on your attainment of complete enlightenment." Apparently he decided I needed to hear a paradox, that I had to work on the problem.
Curiously, reflection on this great matter brings my thoughts to the ancient Gnostic Christians. The Church patriarchs declared the Gnostics heretical for many reasons, but Irenaeus was very specific in one of his many criticisms. You can't let people draw their own conclusions about spiritual matters. They either don't have the capacity to think and experience clearly or they might get it wrong and lose their souls. And since he was a patriarch of the Roman church there was also the power issue.
Buddha insisted that we not simply depend on authorities, that we figure it all out for ourselves by testing the teachings we are offered. On the one hand this is very unsatisfying. I just want to know about the consequences of my death and the deep relationship of my mind and that of others. Please just tell me and pacify my mind, as the second Zen ancestor said. On the other hand, the insistence that I explore and verify the truth for myself has been like the clock spring which turned the years of my life of exploration, of my questioning. It has forced me to be honest about the ambiguities of the human condition. "There are several answers to this question."
It is hard not to feel in one's bones that the world is off balance and deeply fear for the future. Powerlessness and anger seem to be the mood of the times. Act locally and think globally may be the best ecological option, but I can't help look around my house and see the mass of non-biodegradable stuff that fills it and realize what I am willing to future generations. If there are any. No less a public intellectual than Noam Chomsky wrote that he is not sure humanity even has a future.
How did it come to this? Does the past even matter, or is it only the future that matters? Perhaps it is the archer in me, but I can't help but think that seeing the flight of an arrow to any point in its trajectory will tell me a lot about its future trajectory and where it is going to strike the target.
The thing that occurs to me about my feeling powerless these days is that a couple of consequences derive from it. One is a sense that everything around me is in chaos, but the other is that we have arrived at this situation as a consequence of a natural process. Probably the Buddhist in me prefers the later, as the foundation of Buddha's teachings is causality: if this, then that.
So now what? What can I divine from the arrow's trajectory? What will I find when the pandemic is quelled? When the election has passed?
This morning I was sitting on my front porch, enjoying the cool (if smokey) morning air and watching one of our local hummingbirds zoom up to the feeder. Almost immediately another hummer chased it away. Hummingbirds may look cute but they are extraordinarily territorial. I've watched two birds do loops around our property as one keeps another away from the flowers Kayla cultivates with passion -- and lots of compost.
My mind drifted to the politics of the present and our self-gorging political system with its profound economic inequities. We humans are of course just animals in one sense, and so not much different than the hummers. It often seems that rampant individualism with its "I'll get mine and to hell with you" is what rules our society, with alpha individuals on top and the leftovers for everyone else.
Yet there are also abundant examples of animals who cooperate and care for each other. Perhaps humans combine both traits, and something more as well. Certainly that is also a voice in the current political discourse.
The sense of ego, of "I" as we currently know it, does not seem to have been a longstanding human trait. Some scholars believe that it emerged about the same time as philosophers like Confucius and Shakyamuni Buddha recognized the problems it creates, the suffering for all concerned. Manicheans and some early Christians seem to have drawn the conclusion that a version of that ego, which they called a soul, was actually just a transitory dweller in the animal body with its territoriality, inclinations for forms of communal dominance, and passions (sexual and otherwise). And they were not alone. It is not hard to find resonances of this dualistic portrait of humans in Buddhism and other presumably non-dualistic philosophies and religions.
So sometimes it seems like altruistic teachings about loving others as oneself (Christian) or compassion toward all (bodhicitta in Buddhism) actually push against the apparently dominant human inclination toward self-aggrandizement. But where could these teachings come from if they are really alien to our natural natures? I have often felt that they seem unnatural, contrary to our basic nature. I've felt that as a Buddhist I was sort of being asked to be unnatural, to swim upstream, while all the folks around me were just going with the natural flow of me-first and self indulgence in their pursuit of happiness.
Buddhists like the Dalai Lama assert that if you investigate closely, though, you will find that actual happiness depends on cultivating a concern for others as well as oneself and that total self absorption only leads to misery. And it seems that there is fairly obvious evidence of that. Every day I am confronted with a magnified example of extreme selfish self concern in Donald Trump. Here is a person who cares not a whit for the country he has mendaciously sworn to protect. And he appears to be about as miserable a person I have ever seen, seeming to prove the Dalai Lama's point.
There is more than enough nectar in the feeder for the hummingbirds to share. In fact, there is enough for a whole flock, though hummers do not flock. This reminds me of the migrating geese which overfly our house each year. They switch off the lead position in their V formation, which breaks the air and creates a slip stream for those that follow, making their flight easier. Cooperation and concern for the flock is as much in their nature as territoriality is for the hummingbirds.
Maybe that is what we Buddhists are doing: breaking a path in the mental/emotional air to create a slip stream for others. Maybe, contrary to the view of the toxic individualists, our so-called "higher" nature is simply our nature when we find a way back to our full, complete self and swim upstream against the current of hypnotic individualism. Maybe we are as much goose as hummingbird.
In Buddhist Asia the role of the meditation teacher is fairly well defined, though it varies by culture. In Japan the role might be inherited, as priests can marry, so a son might inherit a temple and the attendant responsibilities to the local community. In Tibet there were times when as much as one third of the male population was monastic, so obviously not all monks would have been meditation teachers. However, there were many kinds of teachers, and the elder monk who taught the junior monk how to read and write was considered a revered teacher. The sort of person we call a "lama" might have "inherited" his role from his previous lifetime, or might be a person who had achieved significant development in the present life. But in the end, as Tara Tulku told me, a person is a teacher or lama (lama is Tibetan for guru) simply because they have students.
None of this exactly fits the American situation. There are exceptions to this statement, as, for example, at San Francisco Zen Center all the priests are expected to teach at one time or another, even though they do not inherit the role. One feature of American Buddhism which is certainly unique in the larger Buddhist tradition is that of the university professor who teaches Buddhism both in the institutional context and outside of it. Here the sometimes difficult distinction to be maintained by the professor is that of teaching about religion in the university and teaching religion outside of it. Some names come to mind when I think about this situation, such as Robert Thurman. How is it that they are in such a situation and what is the basis, or even authority, for their teaching religion, ie, Buddhist meditation? In Thurman's case he was a monk and his practice of meditation preceded his Ph.D. and his university career. But I think more to the point is the fact of his commitment to the Tibetan people and the Vajrayana path which is usually associated with Tibetan Buddhism, though historically Vajrayana was dispersed across Asia at one time or another. On this path there are many historic instances of non-monastic teachers, such as Marpa in 11th century Tibet. But the main point is that Vajrayana conveys authority to teach from master to student, who then becomes the next master. In fact, the power to convey initiations and hence teach meditation is embedded in many of the practices and the vows. This is important to understand because taking up certain practices comes with a commitment to at least act altruistically, to teach Dharma if one has the capacity and to transmit the Vajrayana practices if one finds "suitable vessels" who request the practices.
So this brings us to me. I am now mostly retired from 36 years of university teaching and during those years I always taught about religion, and almost never taught meditation outside of the university. I offered hundreds of dharma talks in all sorts of situations and locations, but did not directly teach meditation to students until recently. This is in spite of the fact that Tara Tulku authorized me to teach meditation back in the late 1980s and even told a number of people that they could come see me for instruction if they were disposed to do so. To get at the question of why I chose not to teach meditation is to get at some of the problems Americans have with the roles of both meditation student and meditation teacher as well as my own concerns about personal attainment (or more precisely, lack of it).
Let me be illustrative. Those who have followed the history of the Dharma in the west are probably well aware of the scandals attached to a small number of teachers. For instance Baker Roshi was given the abbacy of San Francisco Zen Center by its founder, Suzuki Roshi. He was later deposed by the community for having multiple sexual relations with students. I don't know what was on his mind or that of his students when this was going on, nor am I familiar with the details of all the pain, anger, betrayal and confusion that was later expressed. I simply am aware of the scandal. Obviously there are dangers in the teaching role connected with charisma and authority. But authority is an American problem in general. We claim not to like it, but our relations with authority figures are in fact quite complex, and those in authority are subject to a considerable amount of what psychotherapists call projection. For example, on a deep emotional level it is hard to separate one's supervisor at work from one's parents. This might sound preposterous to some people who feel perfectly adult and mature in their work lives, but many psychologists assert that a child continues to exist in our unconscious mind, and that child views all authorities in the same way it viewed its parents. So the child within us seeks the approval of the boss, or fears his/her wrath. And then of course there is charisma. That is something else Americans have an attraction to. But as much as some Americans may admire movie stars, for example, others devour tabloid stories about "dark undersides." So there is American ambivalence about charisma, to say the least.
My own concerns about teaching meditation have been rooted in two things: an awareness of the problems of projection and an awareness of my own limitations as a practitioner. In the simplest terms, and using a simple example, how can I have the audacity to teach about the virtue of restraining anger and techniques for doing so when my anger all to frequently expresses itself in coarse and subtle ways? And when that happens, what are my meditation students to think and what will they project on me? Surely it will appear that I am not "walking my talk" and that I am a hypocrite.
I do not claim to be a master of anything, or a lama, and I certainly am not a priest. But I have spent the better part of a lifetime practicing Buddhism and trying to make a better person of myself. As required by my own tradition, every morning I begin my meditation practice by reciting a litany which begins with the following stanza:
In my heart I turn to the Three Jewels of Refuge.
May I free suffering beings and place them in bliss.
May the compassionate spirit of love grow within me
That I may complete the enlightening path.
Later I recite:
By means of holding both Sutra and Tantra,
May I liberate all living beings completely.
In that spirit of compassionate concern, and probably because I have the habit of teaching, I feel the need to share my experience and what I have learned with others who are also trying to improve their inner lives and relations with others. For the most part I am no longer constrained by the teaching about religion/teaching religion distinction, and am free to share, as well as run the risks of inflation and projection. And projection runs both ways: from student to teacher and from teacher to student. In fact, I am not sure I actually have a choice in this matter of teaching. Immersion in Mahayana Buddhism comes with a price tag of sorts. It is called the Bodhisattva Vow. To fully practice Vajrayana or Zen one needs to take that vow, and having done so one will be required to assist others in whatever way best suits one's capacities (viz, By means of holding both Sutra and Tantra, May I liberate all living beings completely.) To do anything else is to reject the fundamental teaching of the Buddha that we are all deeply interconnected and that our mutual happiness and freedom depends on our mutual progress on the Buddhist path. So in that spirit of mutuality, as a Dharma friend, I teach and write this blog.
Yesterday I sort of randomly (is there such a thing?) happened to notice Yvonne Rand's name in the San Francisco Zen Center weekly e-newsletter. I thought she might be doing an internet streamed Dharma talk that I could attend. But it was a death notice.
I hadn't seen Yvonne for at least 25 years, but her death still grieved me. It was not that we were close in any way, but my life would not be what it is without her, and as I spent some time thinking about her I also thought about our complex connection. Though she was a well known Buddhist priest and teacher in her time, she was not a teacher to me. Yet the shape of my life since the mid-1980s depended on her.
We Buddhists hear the teaching of interdependence (aka dependent origination) all the time, but we easily take it as no more than an abstract meditation theme. Now, however, as I thought about Yvonne I was reminded of the tangible reality of dependence. Nothing abstract. It was Yvonne who suggested Kayla do a grief retreat at Green Gulch Zen Center after the death of her husband. It was Yvonne who brought my lama Tara Tulku to teach at Green Gulch while Kayla was on retreat and through that contact he became her lama. And because of Tara Tulku, Kayla and I met. Our first date was a Christmas party at Yvonne's. And later she married us.
Yvonne Rand. Source: Cuke video
Without her existence what would the second half of my life have looked like? Could our intertwining and interdependence be one iota clearer?
I never thanked Yvonne for this life, until now, because I never really thought about how much of my life depended on her life.
Perhaps it would be good to reflect with gratitude on the other Yvonnes who have contributed to the shape of the life I am living.
We all have Yvonnes in our lives. The friend who arranged a blind date with the person we married, the person who hired us for a certain job that launched our career, the person who did not run the red light and did not cripple us. We think of ourselves as independent, as creators of our lives. But this is just a story we tell ourselves to feel in control of our world. It may be a comforting story, but that is all it is. We are not independent, but neither do our lives unfold in a completely random pattern. There was some attraction to the blind date; there was something in us that meshed with that person. There was something in that person who hired us for that important job, something that recognized something about us that was important to them. And is there also some degree of randomness, of chance? Why didn't the red light get run? We don't even know we were spared, just as we don't know how much chance and randomness might shape our lives. If it does. We can thank the person who arranged the blind date but can we thank the person who was paying attention to the traffic lights and stopped at that intersection we were crossing?
Perhaps we just need to have gratitude for our lives as they are and for all the people and animals, trees, winds and rains who brought us here, known and unknown.
This seems to be a time for me to be revisiting slices of my past. Maybe a deep letting go is taking hold of me, or maybe there is a need to draw something valuable for the present from my past. My teacher Swami Rudrananda used to say that you can draw energy from your past experiences. I am trying to learn to do that rather than just wistfully reminisce (though I have to confess that there is a lot of that going on).
Last week, for no obvious reason, I was drawn to Zoom into Reb Anderson's Dharma talk from Green Gulch Zen Center (just north of San Francisco). We have known each other for almost 35 years, though we have rarely met since I moved from the city. But our connection is important in many ways. Before Kayla and I left for our long retreat in the guest house of the Dalai Lama's monastery I worked out with Reb that upon our return to the USA I would be a "visiting scholar" at Green Gulch. And upon our return that is what I was for almost two years, which gave me the opportunity to complete my book Rehearsing Enlightenment.
Though my Buddhist practice is mainly in the Tibetan tradition, I have always had a foot in Zen. In fact my first Buddhist teacher was Thich Tien An, a refuge Vietnamese Zen monk, whom I met while a student at UCLA.
Reb began his talk with his own reminiscence, telling us that today was 50 years since he was ordained as a priest at Tassajara Zen Center by Suzuki Roshi. That would have been the summer of 1970. Were it not for the Viet Nam war, I most likely would have been living at Tassajara that summer, because I'd told Thich Tien An of my interest in living at there and he had offered to introduce me to his old friend Suzuki Roshi. But my draft board had other ideas and I never met Suzuki Roshi.
Perhaps in a parallel universe Reb and I would have become priests the same day. But in this universe, 25 years into his priesthood, Reb kindly offered Kayla and I refuge at Green Gulch. It was an important time in my life for many reasons, not least of which was that although I was a visiting scholar, I was put to work in the kitchen every morning. Initially I was somewhat taken aback by that expectation, but in the Zen tradition "a day of no work is a day of no food." Yet, as it turned out, learning to cook soup for over a hundred people was a wonderful experience. It grounded my Madhyamaka (middle way) Philosophy into the material world. It took dependent origination out of my mind and into my hands, knives, pots and carrots. And sitting zazen in the magnificent Valley of the Green Dragon, whose mouth bites the Pacific, introduced me to a deep well of silence.
The Green Gulch bell pavilion memorializing my old friend David Lueck.
Reb exposes the silence in his heart in his wonderful talk, which is linked here. Listening to Reb that morning I thought about the way in which my own meditation on emptiness has been divorced of Zen silence, divorced of that Zen stillness. It has been more visual. I can see things as dependently arisen, as impermanent, and see their lack of substantial existence. But I have not been experiencing their emptiness as silence, as stillness. Or better yet, I have not been present to the silence and stillness in the world's lack of true solidity.
Or maybe some part of me has been. I am waking up rather early most mornings, and I am appreciating the silence of my neighborhood. Maybe something in me is yearning for that Zen silence? Reb is hearing voices in his stillness and silence. What might I find in mine if I pay better attention?
It is amazing how un-reflective, how un-self-conscious we can be. Every day we go to sleep and wake up. But we rarely think about what might be happening in the process; it just does not seem all that important. If asked, we would probably reply that the world does not disappear when I am asleep because it is still here when I wake up. So of course this means that I must disappear when I am asleep.
Isn't that a bit odd that you disappear every day? Well of course, you think, my body did not disappear, it was still here relaxing in bed. So what did disappear? Your mind, your consciousness or awareness of the world disappeared, you might conclude. In which case you became conscious again when you woke up.
Sorry; now I am making you self-reflective (perhaps unfortunately so).
So now we have this new thing in which we believe: consciousness or mind. What the heck is that? We only know we are conscious right now because we believe we were not conscious when we were asleep. So does this mean that experiencing consciousness depends on not being consciousness? That the existence of mind depends on its nonexistence? That is a pretty strange phenomenon.
It is not as if this oddity is a new thing, a modern thing that only troubles over-educated elderly white guys like me. We have this 1,500 year old story from China about a conversation between the 1st and 2nd Zen ancestors:
Huike said to Bodhidharma, "My mind is not at rest. Please pacify it."
Bodhidharma replied, "Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it."
Huike said, "Although I've sought it, I cannot find it."
"There," Bodhidharma replied, "I have pacified your mind."
What does this mean that the 2nd Zen ancestor, Huike, could not find his mind? Probably not that he was "out of his mind." So, if we cannot find our mind, do we even know what we mean by mind? I am sure some people would say that they mean "thoughts." Maybe there is no such thing as mind, there are only thoughts?
Unfortunately no scientist has worked out how a hunk of meat can produce a thought, let alone a mind. On the whole, the philosophers are not doing much better. Rene Descartes famously stated "I think, therefore I am." He was a smart guy, but he did not write "I think, therefore I have a mind."
So what is this mind, this consciousness, this awareness, that appears and disappears every 24 hours? Are these three even the same or are they different? We don't really know because like Huike, although we can find our thoughts, but can't find our mind.
The philosopher Evan Thompson has some interesting ideas about all this. I suspect that he is doing better than poor Rene on this matter. Assuming that there is such a thing as consciousness, Thompson points out that for modern people all real knowledge is objective. There must be a subject standing outside of an object which is what is to be known. This object then can be scientifically tested by multiple investigators. However, this means that the investigators are conscious of what they are investigating. But if they are investigating consciousness, then their subject-consciousness can never stand outside of the object-consciousness they are investigating (because they are both just consciousness), which makes it scientifically unknowable.
What a mess! Is there anything more important to us than our bodies or our minds, and though we know some things about our bodies we cannot, in principle, objectively know anything about our mind. We have to lose our mind in sleep to find it when we wake up to even know we have a mind!
OK, enough for the moment. Have a good day and a peaceful night while you lose track of the mind you cannot find.
When Kayla finished her thangka of Shakyamuni Buddha Teaching the Lotus Sutra she began wondering about what next to paint. A personal work? Another thangka? Was there anything she could do that would put some positive energy into the maw of the pandemic? Then she learned about Parnashavari, a form of Tara whose function was to quell pandemics. At the time, few images of this goddess could be found, but she did locate several and determined to paint her thangka.
Then magic. Zachoeje Rinpoche, who had been in India when the pandemic set in, notified his students that he would be giving a live-stream initiation into the sadhana of Parnashavari. With that initiation Kayla would be able to properly prepare to paint.
In this video she tells us more about beginning the painting. The drawing is now complete and she has begun applying paint to paper.
I've been away from this blog for quite some time now and a lot has happened in our little world since my last post. In an ironic way the global pandemic has both isolated people and connected them. To the extent possible Kayla and I have quarantined ourselves. This is perhaps desirable for everyone who can do so, but we are in high risk categories, so it is specially important for us to do so. But the irony is that our connections with others have been magnified by our use of the internet. How astonishing that I can sit in my living room and take live teachings from the Dalai Lama -- on the other side of the planet.
The pandemic and quarantine has impacted all of us in our own unique ways. For Kayla it presented an opportunity to refocus on her painting and she completed a beautiful thangka that had sat unfinished for years: Shakyamuni Buddha Teaching the Lotus Sutra. How appropriate for these times.
In the Sutra the Buddha tells many stories of a metaphoric nature. The one which sticks with me is about children fixated on playing with their toys in a burning house. While the conflagration grows around them, they see and think of nothing but their toys. So it has been with most of us in this world of ours. We have distracted ourselves with our toys, our ambitions, our disappointments, our desires and our anger.
But the conflagration of the pandemic is upon us, and we cannot help but pay attention to it. It has taken away so many toys (and of course lives and livelihoods) that we cannot help but look around and wake up at least a little to what really matters, to what is essential. And to look into the depth of our hearts to find what we really care about.