loving and dying with eyes wide open

'La mise en tombeau d'Atala' de Anne-Louis Girodet

I’ve been following Peter Renner’s blog (living and dying with eyes wide open) for some time now with much interest. A short while ago he did a series of posts about love and intimacy (Here and here and here). The posts themselves were (are – doesn’t everything exist forever on the internet!?) heartfelt, open and cogent to the problems we all have with loving ourselves enough to let others love us (and to let our selves love others). Even now after years of working on the problem, my early programed-in self-loathing can rear its head in response to the oddest triggers – dharma trying to teach me a new lesson about moment to moment love — and it can do so in the most dramatic and emotional of ways. The practice of zen, and a lot of therapy, has helped me to faster pop the rising bubbles of self-hatred (independent of the form it takes or the excuse it uses). But every once in a while a bubble can reach gigantic proportions before I can pop it and get back to being loving and caring towards myself and others, before I can stop hating myself enough to become compassionate again.

On the other hand, Renner’s post from August 28, 2010, raises what might seem to be a non-related matter: Death! Renner says that whenever he starts writing about death, the number of hits to his site go way down. He wonders if the reason is simply that people do not like to contemplate their own or anyone else’s death. Why not? Good question.

Ancient Greek thought had Eros and Thanatos as opposite heads of the coin called life. If this is so, love and death are necessarily intertwined. Buddhism tells us (please excuse the simplicity) that all is one, and that our task in becoming clear or enlightened or whatever, is to see how things really are.

So what is the relationship between love and death? Compassion is the highest form of love. Compassion for the universe requires us to see it as it is and then love it as it is while trying at the same time to alleviate suffering. The reality is that without death there would be no life or love. This makes me think that if we love life, or if the point of life is to love, then we must love death (all in its own good time, of course, no sense on missing out on our allotted life and love) for without death there would be no life or love.

But how to love death? Is not death the cause of the most suffering? Not necessarily. I argue that self-hatred (loathing, disgust etc.) is far more important. If we hate to think about death, then we do not love it. Why not? We all know the old saw: you have to love yourself in order to love another. Maybe we have to hate our selves before we can hate anything else, including death.

In one post Renner struggles (hard zen work) to learn the intimate difficulties of loving; and in another post, he struggles to learn the intimate difficulties attendant to the reality that we all die. Maybe the struggle is the same? All is one?

What I am trying to say here is that if we do not love ourselves then we cannot love others and more importantly we will fear death. To wit: one of the great difficulties in loving another being is the fear that the loved person will reject us. If they reject us it is easy to interpret the rejection as them saying we are bad. If we have any form of self-hatred then the rejection would confirm our worst thoughts about our self. The thing about death: we can see it as the worse rejection because it seems to totally remove any further chance that we can be loved either by our self (if we have not yet learned to do so), or by others. What it boils down to is that the prerequisite to being able to contemplate ones own death is that one must learn to have compassion for oneself.

Wish me luck in this endeavour and I wish you luck also. Or as they say, Namaste.


Emotional Radios

Broadcasting to the Universe

I had been working at a ferry terminal for about ten years. Every Sunday afternoon there would be four of us cramped into the small (five foot square) ticket booth. We all had radios that we needed for communication with each other while on the road and out in the terminal. But in the booth, we needed a place to store the bulky things (cell phones they were not) that allowed instant access when we weren’t immediately using them. The four radios would end up piled between the two cash registers on the small, 18” wide table (that’s about 38 centimetres to anyone not from the USA, or to anyone from Canada who is as old as I am). On that tiny table were also the log book, pens, piles of scrap paper, lists of reserved vehicles, destination tags and various miscellanea. The radios were pure irritation. Always piled on top, getting in the way.

One convenient thing about the radios: they had a strap useful for hanging them from one’s shoulder. So there I was one busy Sunday afternoon, deep in the middle of the rush, irritated yet again because I couldn’t find what I needed under the pile of radios. Ten years I took me to see the obvious. I don’t know what made me see the light. Whatever. I left the cash register, got a hammer and a couple of nails from the back room. Drove the nails into the wall. Took the radios and hung them up. Ten years. Problem solved.

Well It hasn’t been ten years, but the obvious just struck me. Here I am writing about the Bodhisattva Vows, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path and it wasn’t until just the other days that I realized that the Bodhisattva Vows are merely the Four Noble Truths tricked up into intentions rather than mere statements of theoretical fact.

The theoretical statement of facts called the Four Noble Truths:

1) All is suffering.
2) Suffering is caused by desire.
3) There is a way out of suffering.
4) Follow the Eightfold Path.

The Boddhsattva vows:
1) Sentient being are numberless, I vow to liberate them.
2) Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them.
3) Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
4) The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.

Both together:

1) All is suffering, therefore everyone suffers, and I vow to end the suffering.
2) Suffering is caused by desire, desires are endless, and I vow to stop desires.
3) Dharma gates are boundless. Dharma gates are the path out of suffering, and I vow to stop suffering by passing the lesson of each Dharma gate.
4) The Eightfold Path is Buddha’s way. It is unsurpassable, and I vow to embody it.

The Four Noble Truths are the theory; the Bodhisattva Vows state ones intention to embrace the theory (I suspect that all the sutras and all the writings of the sages boil down to the Four Noble Truths). The theory becomes fact once one has done the work to become aware, to be enlightened (or what ever name you use to name the end of suffering). There is not much more than that. When you are not engaged in suffering (and you are aware that you are not), then you have kensho (so simple to say, so hard to do). The trick in all this? Suffering is endless, vast in scope and covers all sorts of things beyond mere pain: envy rather than joy in other peoples’ joy; sadnesses rather than awe at the mystery of the universe; desire rather than delight in what one has; the need to gossip rather than searching out the unenlightened parts of one’s own being; the need to be loved (that statement will be controversial) rather than recognizing that one needs to love oneself first in order to love others. The list is endless: the need to be liked, honoured, admired, to judge, to be rich, to be better, to be exalted, to be enlightened above others…. No need to go on.

Oh, and sitting meditation? What does that have to do with anything? Meditation is giving ourselves the time and space needed to see what is going on inside and then practising to dissolve the attachments. And then maybe one day the light will come on and we will know what to do with our emotional radios.


Are we having fun yet?

This post was inspired by Nathan over at Dangerous Harvests.

According to Ludwig Wittgenstein (if I understand him properly), language is a tricky business in that all words have meanings that are idiosyncratic. Each one of us thinks and feels something completely different when we hear or use any particular word. Wittgenstein likens language to a large map. Each word inhabits one address on the map. Each person understands any particular word not in terms of the address but in terms of the route they took to learn the word. It is like going to school. We each took a different path to get there and had different emotional, intellectual and physical experiences along the way. It is the experiential route that brought each person to the word that informs, colours and gives meaning to the word.

What about concrete words such as ‘apple’? We can each experience an apple by biting into it and so come to some common idea of what the word apple means. But each one of us has an idea of the word apple that is coloured differently than all others’, depending on the apple pies our grandmother did or did not bake, by the day we fell out of the apple tree, by the wasp nest hanging in the midst of the fruit, by the story in the bible or by the story about Newton…

Abstract words are a different kettle of fish. In effect, the word ‘happiness’ only has a private address on the map. Worse, each person’s word ‘happiness’ has a private and undisclosed address. Only the individual knows where their experience of happiness resides. Because of this, the word ‘happiness’ is almost useless because it is not easy to know what others mean by the word. Happiness is a warm gun. I’m so happy to see you. What you did made me feel happy. Is everybody happy? Let me make you happy, baby.

Nathan asks if we can find out what everybody really wants. We already suspect that what everyone wants cannot be happiness because happiness always means different things? And we cannot say everybody wants the same thing when what they want is described by the word happiness which meaning completely different things for different people. So if happiness is ruled out, is there something that everybody wants?

One of my favourite stories (I do not know if the story is true or an urban legend, nor do I know where I heard it or if I only dreamt it, but I like it anyway):

Some people were studying gorillas, their social interactions and contracts, how they shared things and how they played scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Someone wondered what a sudden change of state would do to the social contracts in the herd (tribe, group). So they dumped a load of bananas into the gorillas’ clearing, far more bananas than the group could eat before the fruit rotted. The silver back, the toughest honcho, wouldn’t let anyone else near the bananas. I like to think that he thought that with more bananas than he could ever eat, he had enough to last him forever and so didn’t need to cultivate his mutual aid relationships with anyone else. He drove all the other gorillas away from the pile of bananas. No more scratch my back, I’ll scratch your. No more Mr Nice Guy.

When the bananas rotted, the silver back wanted back into the mutual aid society. All the other apes gave him a hard time, wouldn’t interact with him. It took him forever to win back his place.

What this story says to me is that, in terms of our type of capitalism, our western economic adventurers have figured out how to abstract the bananas and make them last forever (turned them into money), thereby allowing the monied to ignore the social interdependence that makes everything grow. The American Dream, the Western Dream, is to become wealthy, comfortable, privileged, beholden to no one.

I’d say that our biology tells us to want all the bananas. But in every animal society, the biological imperative of wanting all the bananas is tempered by the overwhelming need to live in a mutual aid network. Oh so clever humans have figured out how to do an end run around mutual aid networks by inventing non-perishable money to stand in for bananas. The idea of money allows our desire to have all the bananas run rampant, untempered by cooperative effort. As soon as money shows up in a society, everyone forgets their mutual aid pac and goes for all the money, for all the bananas. As far as I can see, cornering the market on bananas is merely a misguided attempt to stop suffering by attempting to control the universe (by buying it with the power of money), to make it do what we want. What we want the universe to do is to stop making us suffer. Yes, and if we stop suffering we might call that happiness.

You might think the word suffering is like the word happiness in that everyone suffers in different ways. Yes, but according to Buddha, all states of suffering can be alleviated in the same way for each person, but unless we learn to stop being attached to our suffering (more on this later) the desire for happiness cannot be fulfilled except in the most fleeting of ways. There is no one way to get all the bananas. There aren’t enough bananas in the world to allow everyone to get all the bananas. According to Buddha, instead of buying lottery tickets, the sure and only way to stop suffering is to rigorously apply the knowledge contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Yes suffering exists, and suffering exists because one desires all the bananas. But you don’t have to suffer just because it’s impossible to have all the physical and emotional bananas. Check out the Eightfold Path.

The Buddha’s Way in Art

The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.

I am getting ready for a small show at the Galiano Wine Festival tomorrow.
To embody the Buddha way, I must remain centred, kind, unflappable.
I must remember that I painted each picture without a thought for anything, least of all gain. If I sell nothing, that is as it is. I will meet lots of interesting people and have a good time, unless I don’t. The signs are good. The universe is unfolding as it does. What a life.

source of the two pictures above and all sorts of things

Cleaning Up The Back Yard

I heard this story from a carpenter friend. He was walking with a fully robed Thai Buddhist monk through downtown Vancouver. Hasting Street, poorest neighbourhood in Canada. It was late at night. As the carpenter and the monk were passing a bar, a rather large, hairy, tattooed man, wearing a torn and studded blue jean jacket, draped with chains, lurched intoxicated out of the bar. When the man saw the monk, he started yelling, threatening to wipe the road with the monk. “I’ll teach you,” he kept saying. The monk, a tiny man, placed his hands together and said, “You are magnificent. I have never seen a man with such wonderful power.” A few simple words. The hairy man paused, said, “Well, you better watch it next time,” and wandered off.

Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.

We can understand the idea of Dharma gates as lessons. That they are boundless can mean two things: a) either there is an infinite number of lessons, or b) each lesson is so large it connects with everything, or c) both. Dharma is an old word and it means different things in different religions. In Buddhism, Dharma refers to the Buddha’s teachings and, as well, to phenomena, to everything that happens. Dharma is the way things actually are: reality, right now. Therefore, in Buddhism, a Dharma gate is a place, time or event that gives us a lesson, an opportunity to see and understand the way things really are. If we want to really see things (the inner and the outer), we must have courage and refrain from glossing over every event with dubious stories, excuses, pities and other sufferings. Then we will be able to act skillfully (appropriately) in the event. Acting skillfully in the event is passing through the gate. Next gate? Coming right up!

By engaging the Bodhisattva vow to enter all Dharma gates, we are undertaking a path of endless, lifelong attention, awareness and learning – but it is always salutary to know that trying to learn everything is a mug’s game. Wisdom is seeing those things that are attendant to the event and leaving out all other things: the past, the future, the score of the ball game half a country away when the car in front of you has suddenly braked. The task is not to know everything but to see clearly in the moment — without forgetting that seeing clearly requires one to know as much as one can in a general sense. Ha. Ha. Isn’t this fun.

Here I am sitting in a situation (touch wood) which, when measured against all ideas normal to general human aspiration, can only be considered ideal. I eat every day. I live in a largish house. (I built it with my own two hands). I live with people I love. I have friends. I occupy myself with things that interest me. I have absolutely no complaints. Even the fact that I am growing older and the body is not what it was once is not a problem. Life gets better everyday simply because I am more and more willing to look at and acknowledge what ever happens right in front of me – and whatever happens right here inside of me. Paying attention and being aware is not always easy, but I grow more willing. So, the question (asking this is a technique that might engender a fuller understanding): Why me? Why am I so fortunate? And what should I do with my good fortune when the life of most people on the face of the earth are not so blessed?

In Pakistan, there are floods. People have died and people have lost everything. In Indian and China the gap between the rich and poor grows as vast as it has in the capitalist west. More and more people starve. War and rumours of war wash over the globe: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Korea, Somalia, the Sudan. Generally speaking, the overheated natural world seems indifferent to our fate, and people have the awful habit of treating others like dirt. Yes, there are many people who constantly try to help. And there are many more people who help to some degree or other. If we want to help but don’t know how we can help effect change in a distant, damaged area of he globe, how can we go about doing so? Do we give money to Haitian relief and wonder where the money went? Can we leave it up to our tax dollars at work through foreign aid when it is impossible not to notice how much better governments are at organizing war than at feeding people (one might think making food available would be the easier and less costly task given that governments usually have no trouble feeding their own army)?

What the idea of Dharma gate means is that right in front of us, right now, is a chance to demonstrate compassion. Treat yourself kindly. Treat the person next to you kindly — even if they are projecting some of their angst or anger your way. This is the only helpful thing that can ever be done. Kindness and Compassion. The more people who act this way and who refrain from blaming, judging and acting violently, the more exemplary lives there will be to inspire even more people to act kindly. Going and bandaging the wounded of the world is a kindness. Giving money to disaster relief is a kindness. Giving bread to the needy is a kindness. But being pleasant and non-confrontational every moment of ones daily life is the basic kindness from which all else flows.

The Illusion of the Perfect Loaf

While learning to develop and bake with a sourdough starter, I am mindful of a zen story about two monks:
Night approached while the two monks were traveling in the mountain. Needing a place to stay and remembering that a revered hermit was reputed to live in a shack nearby, they proceeded up a mountain stream to where they thought he lived. But then they noticed a lettuce leaf floating down the stream. Well, they thought, how wasteful to lose such a precious leaf. They were about to go on their way, avoiding the obviously overrated hermit, when the hermit himself, with a net in hand, came running down the bank of the stream intent on catching the leaf.

Most sourdough starter recipes suggest that you throw out part of the starter so you have room to feed it more flour and water. I can’t stand it. Some kind of teaching from my mother about waste that she learned during the depression. So I make pancakes using my wet starter. This is my recipe derived from the recipe from Wild Yeast (note that my starter is a pourable one, made from equal parts flour and water by volume, please excuse my terrible habit of mixing weights and measures but I just bought a new scale and will shortly convert everything to grams. Until then):

500 grams of starter
2 eggs
2 T sweetening, sometimes I use maple syrup, sometimes honey or sugar
2 T oil (try melted butter)
½ t salt
1/2 t baking soda
1-1/2 t baking powder
whip the starter, eggs, sweet and oil together into a suitable bowl
sift the leavening into the batter

grill in two large frying pans or griddle (heat = kind of low to middle).
Makes 7 – 8” round pancakes or there about.
Serve with yogurt, fresh fruit salad and maple syrup.

No waste.

Oh ya, the two loaves from the last post? I pulled them from the oven. Oh, what a disappointment. Busted open on the bottom, and the slashes I’d cut on the top were hardly superficial scars, unnoticeable. Cut the loaves open and there were no bubbles, just a wet heavy cake crumb. A little later when J was making lunch she mentioned how she liked this bread, not dry at all. Good for sandwiches. What am I to make of that?

Illusions are endless, I vow to put an end to them.

So was the illusion the wanting a perfect loaf (life, relationship, bank account) and not seeing what was there for the miracle that it was? After all, I had two perfectly edible loaves. Tasted okay, not really sour yet (see comment from Peter on last post) but I can work on all these things, n’est pas? Practice, Arnie. Practice.

Liberation and Bread Baking

ww and millet, score the top and pop into the oven

The very first post on this blog was just short of four months ago in April. It concerned the four Bodhisattva vows. Since then I have done an initial survey of the Bodhisattva vows, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Now I am starting at the beginning again and bring the ideas contained in these fundamental Buddhist texts to bear on my daily life. Right now my daily life consists primarily of making objects of art and baking bread. In art I am not exactly a beginner; but in bread baking I really am, least ways in terms of sourdough and steamed-oven baking using baking stones. My Iaido teacher always insisted on the cultivation of the beginner’s mind. So, today I will attempt to talk about my latest bread making experiences from the point of view of beginner’s mind and the first line of the Bodhisattva vows.

Beings are numberless I vow to liberate them.

I received a sourdough starter from my friend, Peter. I don’t know the starter’s provenance (was it started from the wild, or from a bought innoculant, or with the help of commercial yeast?), but my bread doesn’t seem to want to become sour for me. I suspect that to get a starter that is as sour as I want, I might have to start from the beginning, not that I am trying to insult Peter’s starter, but starters, as I surmise from internet research, do not travel well from one flour-environment to another. Yeasts get themselves sorted out for particular micro environments and have to adjust, evolve, to fit into new ones. It is also possible, after years of my store-bought bakers yeast bread baking and wine and beer home brewing, that these blander yeasts have leapt the fence so to speak and caused the yeast in my garden to become creamy and uniform instead of sour. And my bread now does taste sort of creamy, rather than sour. In which case even starting from scratch any new starter I might begin, using my own local yeast, will not produce that desired sour taste. On the other hand, maybe I just don’t yet know what I am doing.

What to do? What to do?

All the numberless yeasty beings floating around in the atmosphere, coating the apples on the trees, the grapes on the vines, or just floating in the air, waiting for a suitably wet environment and enough starches and sugars to act as a delectable food source to encourage their reproductive exuberance. Maybe I should just continue baking bread with the yeast I have and not worry (definitely do not worry) about how sour, or not, my bread might be. I will make the best bread I can.

Beginner’s luck for me began with a recipe for a sourdough sweet potato bread with pumpkin seeds. Everyone raved. However…. although the bread was a delight, after paying full attention to some basic critical benchmarks (as gleaned from the sourdough internet community) I must say that I screwed up the crust by not making it smooth enough and scoring it properly before baking, and what is it with all my bread that I never get that looked for large, holey crumb. I get a cake-like crumb. So what does the beginner’s mind do? Make more loaves of bread, of course, content in the realization that I may never solve the crumb problem but glad the bread tastes great. I feed it to who ever is around and thereby liberate them from the pangs of hunger.

Question of the day: quite often I have heard people say that they are on a yeast free diet and so only eat bread made with sourdough. Sour dough is, of course, yeast. So do I say anything to liberate these deluded people from their ignorance of the nature of sourdough, or do I leave them alone and let them get on with the delightful pleasure of eating yeasted bread by any other name.

For now I will go check on my loaves and maybe pop them in the oven.