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.

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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.