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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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.

RICHES

Yesterday on the ferry I said these exact words, “Rich people are all psychopaths. Well, to be polite about it they are all sociopaths.” Ha! Ha! Ha! How funny can a man get? I was sitting with someone who was richer than me and with someone who was poorer than me. What a joke. Self-condemned by my own words. After all, I am richer than some + 90% of the human race. What? Life as an exercise in comparative psychopathology?

My only excuse for saying such an inane thing is that I was so tired that I had momentarily slipped into past brain patterns (way back when I was a callow youth and had read too much Marx) and it wasn’t until I woke up this morning that I remembered I had voiced such an foolish unkindness. This is my attempt to correct that mistake. Why would I not feel compassion for anyone who got rich instead of finding their true nature? Finding one’s true nature is far more important than money or no money. To paraphrase the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, “True nature will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no true nature.” But then I’m not burning any of my money.

My poorer companion proved that he was really rich by telling me about the importance of serving others.

Ah well, not all was a loss yesterday. In the grocery store a young man, juggling too many things to carry, dropped a bag. I bent down to pick up the bag for him. At least I pleased one person that day.

You might want to check out Peter Renner’s two blog posts on a similar topic:

what’s wrong with this picture and whats not right about yesterdays post.

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

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