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.


When you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him

This post is in response to the series of posts on Natan’s blog concerning the continual corruption of various Zen communities.

I am always surprised at how people are resistant to learning lessons from history. To wit:

Institutions and organizations are often subverted by corrupt people. Young women are often prey to the machinations of self-interested father figures. People join cults to find an ideal family and then end up drinking poisoned kool-aid (figuratively or literally). A young man promises to love a young woman for ever but he has told the same thing to five other women concurrently. Zen teachers seduce a string of students. Etc., etc. An endless history of avoidable disasters. It isn’t like these kinds of disaster haven’t been written about extensively. Why aren’t they common knowledge? And corruption! It isn’t like we haven’t tried to set up institutions that prevent corruption. And then the institution becomes corrupted. Why are we surprised when these everyday things happen? What makes people ignore all the good advice from the past? Ah, but of course – the old ‘it can’t happen to me’ syndrome. And why do people always trust people who say, “Trust me.” It isn’t a matter of trust. It is a matter of keeping ones eyes open to spot one of the deepest characteristics of human nature: the tendency toward self-interest in spite of the unfortunate effects ones actions might have on other people.

What to do? What to do? In terms of Buddhism the path isn’t about finding a perfectly enlightened teacher who does no wrong. Buddha didn’t find one and he did well enough on his own. The purpose of the path is to become enlightened oneself; it is not to blindly follow the enlightened one. Teachers can only suggest things that might help you; they can’t give you anything except their attention and their compassion. The only legitimate thing a teacher can want for or from you is your enlightenment. The moment they start telling you how to run your life is a really good time to turn on your Sceptical Nature. Why would any teacher want you to do anything except to get enlightened? You can get enlightened any old place. Why exactly are they telling you to do this or that? What is in it for them? What is in it for you? How tricky. No easy answers. Stay on your toes.

Maybe in the case of Zen communities there isn’t enough emphasis placed on the necessary lesson that the teacher is merely another human being with the same problems of life that everyone has. I read somewhere that a Zen teacher, when asked what the difference was between himself and his students, answered that he corrected his mistakes faster than the students did theirs. If the basis of enlightenment is seeing what is, and if a teacher is constantly having to correct their own mistakes, then why would we set any teacher up as exemplars of anything other than people who can admit to their mistakes and who try to correct them? Yes, a teacher can be someone who knows lots about the minutia of tradition and ritual, but minutia and ritual are not enlightenment. Yes, any particular teacher might have great wisdom and experience beyond mere mistake correcting, but maybe not. But how can any of us inexperienced fools (who might be thinking about paying attention to the lessons of history as exemplified by a Zen community) pick a teacher or community that isn’t going to prove a screw up?

Maybe what we should look for is a teacher whose first lesson insists that the student remain sceptical of any teacher’s authority. My Iaido teacher constantly stressed the old saw, “If you meet the Buddha on the road kill him.” What I took this to mean is that any person who by their action or words insists that they know what you should do with your life is probably a fraud. When will we learn that the true teacher is one who primarily teaches by the example of their life. Given that we do not know much about other people’s lives, if we only know them only in the short-term, would we not be wise in being circumspect in following them? Where are they going? Where do they want you to go? Listen, reserve judgement, try everything on for size. But always be sceptical of the teacher. More, always be sceptical of what we think we know. Better yet be sceptical of what we think is a good thing for us to do. And if the teacher proves a screw up, don’t follow him/her. Are you sleeping with your teacher. Is your teacher sleeping with others? How are you going to feel if you find out they are? I’m not interested in how hurt you might feel, your situation is after all a common story, although I do feel compassion for the fact that you are a suffering being. But I wonder, what you were thinking to get into the situation? What don’t you know about your own emotional motivations? That is what is interesting.

If I was going to start an institution to regulate Zen communities, I would only institute the following few rules: 1) teachers are required to send their students to other teachers (who are unknown to the first teacher) to avoid the psychological problem of transference (on the part of the student) and the problem of cronyism (on the part of the teachers). 2) students should always be taught to figure it out for themselves using all available information from all sources while remaining sceptical of any authority.

Shop around. Get a little experience. Read history. Pay attention to what is really going on, not to what do you want to go on.

Right Concentration

bald-faced hornet (but really a wasp)

I have mentioned before how it seems strange that the third subsection of the Eightfold Path, Concentration, had stacked inside it the sub-subsection called Right Concentration. After thinking for a while about this sub-sected subsection, I realized that every part of the Eightfold Path is stacked inside Right Concentration. What I mean is that you can’t do anything useful (in terms of Buddhism) unless you concentrate on the exact thing you are contemplating or doing. If you are going to breathe, concentrate on breath. If you are going to dig in the garden dig in the garden. If you are going to contemplate the idea of Right Action, concentrate on it.

But what is concentration? According to the dreaded Wikipedia, concentration is simply turning your mind to the task, and then turning it to the task yet again — and again. If you are breathing, then constantly turn your mind to awareness of the breath. This is necessary to the start of zazan practice. Zazen practice is nothing so much as constantly turning your attention…

To be silly, concentration is the process of concentrating on concentrating on whatever you are concentrating on. The trick in using this technique to further oneself along the path to the ninth and tenth part of the eightfold path (ten parts to the Eightfold Path? who knew?) is that one must remove all objects of thought that are counter to Buddhistic ideas: always limit harm to oneself and others, remove dualist thoughts, refrain from judging, banish biases and prejudices, etc., etc. This is necessary as these types of thought prevent one from seeing what really is. When studying any of the eight parts of the Eightfold Path one has to concentrate, to constantly turn ones mind back to the item of study. The result of all this concentration? Attaining #9, Superior Right Knowledge and #10, Superior Right Liberation. But attainment is complex in the doing because concentration requires you to be cognizant of all eight parts of the path all the time.

When I am digging in the garden I have to consciously try to develop the Right View. And here I do not mean merely the politically correct view. I mean being conscious of every effect that I am having in the garden. When I put bird netting on the cherry tree, the robins had a harder time finding food — until they discovered the raspberries. When I rip out the kale plants because they have gone to seed, I have to know that I am preventing the kale plants from continuing into newer generations. And if you discount a plant’s desire for life and progeny, then consider the effect on the world you have when digging with a shovel. How many worms do I kill? How many worms and bugs do I expose to the ravening appetites of birds? The right view is inescapably that I live and die by helping and by killing. Doing no harm is impossible. All I can to do is minimize the harm I do — and I can only do that by being aware of my harmful actions, concentrating on them (so I can understand them), fessing up, and then trying to limit the harm — and that is a good definition for Right Intention.

Inextricably interwoven with the fabric of life as I am, as I strive for right intention while I work in the garden, I sometimes talk to the birds, the plants, the bugs. I don’t want to get all mystical and magical here, but I want to tell you about the long conversation I had with the wasps in the garden. Big black and white striped things, about the size of the first joint of my baby finger, and I’ve got large hands. Makes your arm swell up, from the finger tips to the shoulder, just thinking about getting stung. In the spring their nest was the size of a quarter, hanging in the lilac tree right over the compost heap. I’d stand there and talk to them as they buzzed me. Talked about how we are all in it together, that our needs did not interfere with each other, that there was plenty of room for both of us, and weren’t they pretty wasps (once you get over the terror of stings). That was in the spring last year. By mid summer the nest was larger than a football, about eighteen inches long (that’s about 40 centimeters for those initiated in scientific reckoning). There were so many wasps that going out to the compost heap was like running across a twelve lane highway at rush hour. Every once and a while one would crash right into me, bounce off. Never got stung once. I’m not saying that talking to the wasps made the wasps tolerate me, that some special bond was formed (don’t need one beyond that which is already there). What I am saying is that talking, right speech, made me not afraid of the wasps. No harm in that. And I did not have to destroy the nest for prevention of stings that never happened. This year the wasps went elsewhere, probably not wanting to be around me anymore. And that is a good definition of Right Action.

Concentrating on right livelihood while in the garden, is noticing the effort it takes to grow things, noticing how much you need to know about general gardening practices, and noticing the things you need to know about your garden’s micro environment. And what is the right view about gardening in general, about gardeners and farmers? Acknowledging our absolute dependency on growers of food! We are willing to give hockey players millions of bucks to play a game while knowing that if hockey disappeared we wouldn’t die of it. But if farmers all refused to grow food? Can you grow enough to feed yourself? How much do the pickers of that necessary indulgence, coffee, get paid? What is right effort if not trying to understand what is really going on and trying to act so that things (oneself) are brought into line with actuality? Keep that thought in your right mind by constantly concentrating, turning your attention, again and again, to what is right there if front of you right now.
source for picture of

Right Livelihood

On to a topic that is a little lighter than the past few that were inspections of Right Action. But then, Right Action is bound to be heavier than all the other parts of the Eightfold Path in that action is what we do directly each moment of the day. All the rest of the stages of the eightfold path are more mental, more what we have to consider before we act generally. Thinking before acting is not completely irrevocable; doing often is, or at least it is harder to correct the mistakes of doing than to correct the mistakes of thinking.

Right Action = each moment doing no harm. But the long term decisions that make us undertake certain occupations, such as the fact that I worked as a carpenter for so long, fall into the category of Right Livelihood. Right Livelihood is more specific than Right Action and therefore seems lighter as we can take the time to decide what to do. Right action is what one does right now, no time to think. It is equally true, however, that when one is engaged in one’s livelihood, moment by moment, one is also faced with the problem of Right Action.

From a Buddhist point of view, all things, all aspects of one’s life need to be approached from the perspective of doing no harm* and engaging fully with life. The Eightfold Path is merely (wonderfully) a device for looking at the central concern from various angles. Constantly considering the need for Right Livelihood is a way of looking at one’s job from the general point of view of doing no harm and being fully engaged. Constantly being engaged with the problem of Right Action is a way of inspecting all aspects of one’s life (that’s why I said earlier that Right Livelihood was lighter, even though it isn’t really, everything can be light or heavy or not; it’s up to one’s self).

I don’t work as a carpenter any more, but I did so for years. I started when my father refused to sign the paper that would have let me take music in grade ten. We were only allowed one option: either art, music or industrial arts. I wanted music. Dad made me take industrial arts because, “It will always give you something to fall back on.” Well, I was apparently good enough at it to fall back on it for far too long. Worked away with hammer and chisel for about twenty years. I built my own house with my own hands (and with kind help, here and there, from family, friends and from the occasionally hired electrician or dry-waller when I got sick of doing those particular jobs), which proved my father right: industrial arts did do me in good stead. But I was never happy with it and complained about my lot all the time, even as people congratulated me on making beautiful things.

Wikipedia has Right Livelihood meaning don’t do this or that kind of job: selling weapons, making poisons, killing animals, etc. But I don’t want to look at Right Livelihood using negative language. I’d rather look at Right Livelihood using positive language – what is the livelihood that is in you to do? Well, for me it wasn’t really carpentry.

I know now that I wasn’t really complaining for all those years about doing carpentry; I was actually complaining about the fact that I hadn’t figured out what it was that was in me to do. I complained about doing carpentry because somewhere deep inside I knew I was not doing what I really loved – more importantly, I was not yet capable of loving whatever I was doing. It was a great relief, momentarily, when I escaped carpentry by getting a job at the ferries. But then I spent fifteen more years doing another job that never fit my skin very well.

Luckily, when I was forty-five years old, I bought myself a bass guitar, thinking that maybe music was what I needed to do. I learned to play that guitar, not like a pro but good enough to decide to buy a bunch of recorders and learn to play them. Took singing lessons. Not a livelihood by any stretch of the imagination, but I was working towards something. Then one day, five years after buying the bass guitar, I walked into a room full of my friend’s sculptures and that was it. Something clicked. I started pounding away on wood, sculpting. Then five years after buying the guitar, I committed myself to painting full time. No more carpentry jobs. No more ferry job. I had found what I believe is my Right Livelihood. Painting is what I do to make money, but more importantly my right livelihood is my zen practice.

Painting lowers my blood pressure. Talking about painting lowers my blood pressure. I can’t imagine my painting hurting too many people. Painting teaches me to be focused and engaged. How can this be other than Right Livelihood? Although the livelihood proves a pittance, I’m not complaining. Doing the right thing to make money makes whatever money you make riches.

When I paint I naturally fall into the space that I struggle to attain when sitting zazen. Totally focused. Infused with two kinds of awareness. Aware of the point in front of me, and aware of everything that surrounds me: the cars honking miles away on the country road, a ship’s horn sounding out in the strait, the bird alighting on the balcony railing, the breeze blowing through the firs, the sudden movement of the brush on the picture plain.

My Iaido teacher tried to impress upon his students that the meditative awareness attained in practice needed to be taken into one’s day to day life or there was no point in practising. I suppose that is also why we practice sitting: in order to learn a type of focus and awareness — an engagement with moment after moment — that we can take into the daily life. In my case, I try to take the focus, awareness and engagement that I attain while painting into my practice of sitting, and into my practice of day to day life.

Yes, we can avoid livelihoods which cause harm for other sentient beings, but it is also possible to chose livelihoods which increase the wellness of ourselves and others. May we all be blessed by the blossoming of Right Livelihood.

(* what a bag of worms the topic of doing no harm is going to prove to be when I get around to it. How in the name of the universe can one do no harm?)

the above image from my website

What is Buddhism For?

robes and rituals

Let’s back up a bit. Buddhism is a methodology for becoming aware in that true awareness relieves suffering. We do not have scientific proof for this assertion so we take it on faith. Through faith Buddhism becomes a religion. The danger with religions, for those of us who have the habit of attaching themselves to externals, is that religions can become elaborated with all sorts of easily misunderstood and rather seductive rituals, rules and robes. To be more exact, it is easy for people who join religions to get cluttered up with believing that the rituals, rules and robes are the point of the religion rather than just helpful tools for reaching the ‘goal’ stated by the religion. In Buddhism, when we forget that the RRRs are only there to help us realize the main purpose, we are no longer on the path to awareness, to being awake. We are merely falling into the delusion of dogmatism. This causes suffering.

The purpose and methodology of Buddhism is simply stated in the Four Noble Truths. The Forth Noble Truth unfolds to become the Eightfold Path. The first two parts of the Eightfold Path, Right View and Right Intention, tell us what we need to cultivate in ourselves in order to realized full awareness. The next three parts, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, outline what we need to do in the external world, on a daily basis, in order to realize the promise of the first two parts of the path. The last three parts, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, give us the tools for dealing with our own monkey mind while we live in the day to day world.

According to Buddhism, the prescription for our day to day suffering is the Eightfold Path. The difficulty in taking our medicine is that we are being told that we need to pay attention to each one of the eight at each moment of our lives. How hard is that?

We can approach the problem of applying the eightfold path to our daily lives in the same way we approach the monkey mind when we are meditating. When we notice our minds (or our lives, or our actions) wandering away from the concerns indicated in the eightfold path, gently take ourselves back to an awareness of our situation. Watch how we are being. Do not judge. (Sit with it, run with it, work with it, eat with it) See if there is anything at the present time that we can do to align ourselves closer to the eight injunctions. This is what the religion of Buddhism is suggesting. This is what being a Buddhist means. Day by day, bringing oneself back to awareness. How hard to take on. How much easier it might seem to simply focus on the robes, or get caught up in the daily excitement of mass culture, or go looking for love, or fight for money. How much easier to externalize our aspirations. How much easier to think that the solution to our suffering lies outside our self.

picture of chinese monks in robes and ritual

Eightfold Path – 3 – Right Speech

Out in the garden the other day, two robins erupted in squawks, screams, and a flurry of tumbling blows with their wings. Over on the garden bench, beneath the overhang of the shed, a pile of sticks and moss lay scattered over my clutter of pots, trays and bags of various plant foods. Something had gone on. What exactly, I don’t know. But those two birds had no trouble telling each other in the most physical of ways what it was they wanted to impart. Communication. And then it was over.

For the last decade or so one of the big buzz words has been “communicate,’ as in,” I’m all about communication,” or, “I’m taking communication,” or, “If only people would try to communicate with each other better.” What is communication? Telling each other the important things? What are the important things?

Taking a step sideways:

Okay. I’ve been avoiding this topic for the last week because it makes me feel humiliated by my past actions. But I’d have to give up this blog if I don’t write about it.

Right Speech. Hoisted on my own petard. In my case, my petard was my penchant to talk. Not that I intended to do harm to anyone. But I am aware that more than one person did not want to know me because I talked too much and did not listen. Communication to me was telling everybody all about ‘me’, what ‘I’ was doing, thinking and feeling. But by being focused on me, on my pitiful state, justifying it, explaining it, and (the real kicker) telling others what they should do to solve their problems, I was doing inadvertent harm to myself and others because I could not see I was like a kid playing around with chemicals and inadvertently blowing himself up. Anyone standing nearby would get wounded – irritation being, in effect, a wound of the emotions. How could I listen to anyone, or to the world, when all my attention was taken up in thinking up things to say? How could I know what was really going on if I wasn’t paying attention to what was around me? Just lately, when I finally learned to shut up, I gained a friend.

I took me at least 27 years to learn that I had nothing really important to say. In 1975, a then friend told me that all I ever talked about was myself. It was so true, it was the best gift he ever gave me. Since then I had been working on the puzzle: Why did I need to talk so much? The short answer is because of anxiety. An anxiety caused primarily from the original sin, the birth trauma, which makes us all feel like we are personally responsible for all that happens in the universe. The anxiety is caused because we never seem able to fix the world, and yet we feel we should.

In my family you either shut up or you talked all the time. I was one of the talkers. None of the things I ever said was really important. I was merely wailing out my own suffering. Oh sure, I would answer questions and tell you the time of the day or the state of the weather. But all the other verbiage was just blowing off the panic caused by my inability to understand the world I found myself in. When I told you whatever I was going on about that day, I was trying to get you to act in ways that made my world better. Sort of like blaming you for me feeling bad.

Another friend told me I stalked the ferry looking for someone, anyone, to whom to impart the answers of the universe. He avoided me then. Now he says I listen. Thank heavens. Listening feels so much better.

How did I get out of my excessive verbiage trap? It was that fateful day when I discovered not only that I knew nothing but that I could know nothing (I mean in an absolute sense). All I could ever know was what was right there, now. So what am I doing writing these long screes? Hoisting myself on my own petard again?

What are we trying to communicate? Why are we communicating? The third of the Eightfold Path advises us to abandon false speech, in other words, to tell the truth. The truth is only that which is directly in front of us right now and that which we think we saw (admitting that we are all unreliable narrators). How we feel about what is right there is up to us. Talking about it is a tricky business. Are we elaborating beyond what we know in order to bolster our claims? To make people like us better? In order to make people make us feel better?

We are advised to avoid talking about people in a way that will set one against the other. Warmongering is thus to be avoided. As is gossip of a malicious kind. When we meet with others we want to have a good time. Abandon speech that is abusive.

I got in an argument early on in my attempts to clear my muddled mind. My ‘opponent’ and I were saying some terrible things to each other. Luckily enough, I remembered something my therapist told me: Our emotions are not caused by others. They are feelings we have about our own reactions to the world. If we use angry or hateful words about others, we are only illustrating our own feelings about ourselves. In the middle of the argument I apologized for all the hurtful things I had said. Moreover I told the man that what I had said was really about myself, about what I was feeling like in the situation and not about him at all. It took the next three weeks to figure out why I had blown up (hoisted!). The harm I did to him was that it took him about three years to speak to me again without fear or suspicion.

Now whenever I feel bad about something, if I get irritated or angry at, or if I get upset in any way at (or in response to) another, I know I am really upset about myself. I know to walk away from the fight because what I am feeling is my responsibility, not the other’s. I cannot feel better except through my own effort in working with my own angst. No other person can make me feel better. I can only feel joy in their joy or sadness at their suffering. If I speak, the Eightfold Path advises me to say kind words. This is the practice. Knowing when to speak and when not to speak those few things which can be known.

So, the birds I mentioned above? What were they arguing about? The mess of sticks and moss. Was it a nest? Why weren’t there any eggs? All the birds have lain their eggs…. And on and on trying to figure out who was to blame. That one or the other?

Birds rage.
Abrupt flight.
Then silence.

picture of buzzards fighting