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.

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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

Right Action – Flirting and Infidelity

And now something a little more personal:

In The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon a minor character advises the protagonist to, “Lay all the girls.” This was essentially my father’s implicit advice to me, the kind of thing a certain segment of Lethbridge’s working class cowboys believed in when my dad was growing up. My mother, on the other hand, taught me that I was supposed to take care of women because they were incapable of taking care of themselves. Here was a basic conflict, unresolved in my parents yet taught to me from birth, bred in my bones so to speak. Not that in my callow youth could I understand this built in conflict.

As a young man I apparently exuded sexual need even though I was incapable of speaking to a girl. I probably did a lot of long, silent, intense staring. When I finally found my tongue late in high school, no girl would go out with me. Once, in desperation, I invited the new girl in class on a date within 20 minuets of her arrival. Our evening was not a success. I was too polite and solicitous — and not at all fast. A few weeks later, the young woman told me she had defended me against the results of an informal poll taken by, and of, all the other females in our grade. The poll’s question was, which male in our grade had had the most sex? They picked me, and thereby classified me as too dangerous to go out with. And me a virgin who had never kissed a girl.

Not that I remained in that unloved state. But perhaps that early ranking was prophetic. I do have a somewhat checkered sexual past, not that it would be flamboyant, dangerous, dramatic or unique enough to sell books, or from which to make a movie. But the dilemma of ‘lay the girls’ versus ‘take care of them’ played itself out for years. Women are attractive. I was attracted to women who needed to be taken care of. Odd how compatible types (albeit as unfortunate and as doomed to suffering together as they might be) can pick each other out of the crowd in seconds flat and become riveted on the sight of the other by the intensity of their own need. Potentially co-dependant at first sight.

In my early thirties I walked into a chicken store. Behind the counter was a person who I came to referred to as The Moon’s Face. The instant recognition of type was like electric shock; she knew I was there to save her, and I knew she needed to be saved. There were always a lot of clerks behind the chicken counter, but she always contrived to serve me. Why not? She knew I was a serious saver of women, she knew I found her attractive and she wanted to be rescued from having to sell chicken livers day after day. The thing was, I was happily married (to someone who did not need saving), and I had no intention (only the desire) to save the woman from anything. But I was helpless, standing there gobsmacked by her beauty and mesmerized by her need to be saved. After some time, I couldn’t stand her growing disappointment or my reddening embarrassment in that I made no move to rescue her. Eventually I had to stop eating chicken so I wouldn’t have to go into the store and face her irritation because of my failed promise to prove the hero. The oddest thing is that not a word other than those needed for chicken transactions every passed between us. Our last interaction had her forcibly slamming the bag of chicken down on the counter. We could no longer meet each other’s eyes.

This kind of situation happened over and over: soundless, gobsmacked flirting and then running away.

I suppose lots of people might be able to flirt and yet hurt no one by doing so, both people knowing that flirting was all a mere game with no intention beyond the play. But every time I flirted, the heavy charge of sex, which my father’s example imprinted upon my mind/body reflexive behaviour, coloured any interaction with one particular kind of woman. But I no longer wanted to be the external cause of women’s anger simply because I didn’t have any follow through. For me, flirting was a dangerous activity because it harmed people, preventing any real friendship from developing (I could have simply bought chicken). So for me, flirting was a form of illicit sex (flirting is always about sex), and I eventually learned to avoid it, to turn it off, to keep my appreciation of a woman’s spirit to myself.

Flirting is somewhat like adultery. In my case there wasn’t an injured third party. My spouse was fully aware of my disease and also of the fact that I wasn’t going to stray. If anything she was a little miffed (just a little) at the women who would try to get me involved even when they knew I was with her. (Come to think of it, by causing her to have to deal with situations in which she had to get miffed, she was an injured party after all.) And I can’t blame the women who wanted me to save them. If I was so intensely attracted to them, it must have seemed to them that I wasn’t all that interested in my spouse.

I learned to stop flirting the moment… or rather, I slowly realized that my flirting was a symptom of an internal conflict (in both myself and in the woman) that fostered unreal views of people and situations. I cannot save any one individual from their own suffering. I can only save all sentient beings from suffering by not being the cause of suffering. I cannot ‘lay all the girls’ because to do so would break my contract with my spouse while at the same time lying to any potential lover who wanted me to save her when I knew I would not and could not. My problem now is how to safely interact with women who have been trained to feel that they need to be saved. I have to learn to interact in a manner that will not cause them or anyone else any further suffering. For me it is safer not to flirt at all, in fact it is better not to catch certain women’s eyes.

In general the previous argument holds true for infidelity. If with a spouse or lover one has a contract, implied or explicit, in which one promise to be monogamous, and then in secret carries on an affair with another person, one is doing harm to oneself, to ones secret lover and to ones spouse, and even to ones children, because the situation cannot not be seen in reality by at least one party, and must be acted out as a lie by at least two parties. The situation cannot truly be perceived in its reality. When Buddhism wants us to be aware of reality (Right View), the implication is that lies prevent all parties from being aware of reality. Having a false view of reality causes suffering. Having the idea that infidelity does no harm is a false view and a sure road to suffering.

Thus ends my inspection of Right Action.