Monday, January 31, 2011

A Hair in Vast Space

"Though we master profound philosophies, it is like placing a hair in vast space. Though we learn all the truths in the world, it is like throwing a drop of water in a deep ravine." Deshan (Tokusan) Gateless Gate, Case 28

Rapid Change

Most of us acknowledge that changes are the nature of our life. And yet we seem to have a hard time when the changes occur rapidly, unexpectedly.

There is an ice and snow storm this afternoon, a forecast I heard only this morning. It is expected to continue through tomorrow and possibly another day. Despite knowing what winter weather can be like here in the Midwest, another one on top of the many snow and ice storms in recent weeks has led to all sorts of complaints that I hear from others; I even notice these appearing in my mind chatter.  Some reactions are particularly vehement.

In a way these weather changes, which we usually do not take personally, are easy compared to changes in people’s conditions, physical and mental. How is it when there is a rapid appearance of a cancer diagnosis? What is our reaction the first time we hear it – even for someone else? And when it is someone close? What about for our self? What are reactions, habitual reactions? 

What about when death occurs without the precursor of evident illness or old age, how are we? What is it that the precursors of illness and old age do?

What do we do when there are major changes in the behaviors or plans of others to whom we are close? Have you faced the consequences of the collapse of a business?  What waves in lives do the changes create and how are we in the midst of the waves on the ocean of our life? Or is our life something else – do we expect to be an island in the midst of an ocean?  

It is interesting that after the initial shock to beliefs, expectations, to images of what is - after the almost automatic reactions of anger, sadness, grief - somehow after a little while we include the new changed circumstances into the old habits of functioning. For many of us the initial reactive habit of sadness or anger dissipates and then…what? Are we in the midst of ongoing change, or do we incorporate the events into a new “permanence”?

How is it with distant events – how have the recent Tucson shootings or protests in Egypt led to reactions for you? Whom or what has been a target for blame, for speaking of faults and putting down? Are we reminded of our interconnected nature, of the interbeing of life, or do we take it as another way to justify dualistic thinking and judgment?

Buddhist teaching states that our life is arising and passing away more than six billion times a day; about 70,000 times a second we are born and die. Also, the Heart Sutra states, "not born, not destroyed" - no arising, no passing. These may be interesting to some, but for most of us they are just theories, maybe confusing and contradictory theories. Few of us appreciate these teachings or live our life actualizing them.

Despite knowing that conditions are constantly changing, our habit of expecting them to stay the same, or at least almost the same with only minor and maybe predictable changes, results in many things being a potential for harmful reactions and suffering, stress. Do we see what to do, how to respond skillfully, when the habits of reactions from fear, greed or anger seem take over our life, whether momentarily or for longer periods? Can this broaden our capacity to live compassionately in the midst of change rather than keep grabbing for fixed permanence?

Do we see when we are blown by the winds of the changing life we are, how easily or not so easily we react out of habits with behaviors and attitudes that lead to more suffering and stress?

Aren’t we humans such interesting beings?

(c) 2011 Elihu Genmyo Smith

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Einstein on Compassion

"A human being is a part of the whole, called by us "Universe," a part
limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings
as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his
consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to
our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our
task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of
compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its
beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such
achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner
security."     Albert Einstein

Letter of 1950, as quoted in The New York Times (29 March 1972) and The New
York Post (28 November 1972)

Words, Words, Words

Some scientists theorize that one factor in the evolutionary growth of the size of the brain of early hominids was a result of their use of words. They believe that because of the use of words the hominid brain size and capacity grew and in turn enabled some hominids to develop “better” abilities to adapt and make use of varying environments. This in turn allowed for better nutrition and health, longer life spans, more offspring and the ability to live in more varied environments.

Our ability to use words gives us wonderful opportunities. Unfortunately, we have recently seen ways that the use of words has exacerbated and continued ongoing conflicts. Here in the US the Republicans call it “deficit spending” which must be reduced and cut, while the Democrats and President Obama call it “investment” or “stimulus” which should be promoted. And of course, it is both; the “investments” do require taxation to fund them and there is an underlying question: are increased taxes "worth it" and do the “investments” by government lead to the creation of jobs and ongoing stimulus other than the government jobs and the immediate spending spiral – or is real job growth dependent upon the private sector and the way to do that is through tax reduction? But instead of facing this directly and speaking to each other in a way that will clarify these issues, maybe find expedient means  and serve the public interest and needs, the politicians and pundits fence over the words - do we say “investment” or do we say “tax increases" and "deficit spending?” And we fool our self even more if we allow anger and self-righteousness to cloud our life and determine our actions.

The recent release of the so-called “Palestine Papers” by El Jazeera shows more of this. The Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat is being lambasted by the Arab media and Islamist extremists for daring to use the word Yerushalaiyim (which is Hebrew for Jerusalem) in reported discussions rather than the word El Quds (which is the Arabic way of referring to the same city that I above call Jerusalem).  He is defending himself by denying that he said the word "Yerushalaiyim." The place does not change, the word is just a word, and yet it is seen as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. And if just the use of the wrong word is a betrayal, can there be peace? Can there be a way to reconcile conflicting visions and claims to the same city by two peoples, conflicting histories of a whole region which seek to deny the history of the other? In fact, in Israeli society and the world media the use of the word “West Bank” or the words “Judea and Samaria” are not only code words and short hand to refer to the same land area but also telegraph, knowingly or not, a host of political attitudes – some of which make very clear the road blocs to peace. 

Do we use the words or do the words use us? The release by El Jazeera of the documents has led to all sorts of accusations about who is betraying whom because of what deals they are willing to make for peace. El Jazeera is being accused by many different sides of betrayal and allying with "enemies" - whoever that is. Of course, where there are conflicting narratives and perspectives, peace requires give and take by both sides. But if there is only one true word then anything else is a betrayal.

Unfortunately, many of us do not see this “killing me softly with your words,” to appropriate the song’s words. So, please put down "your" words and be attentive to all the wonderful words you can use, act skillfully and appropriately to let life's words sustain and serve, nurturing this mystery that the universe offers.

(c) 2011 Elihu Genmyo Smith

Friday, January 21, 2011

Daughters Of Emptiness

Some books I read only one, two or a few pages at a time, savoring their contents and slowly allowing it to be digested, to resonate, to digest me.  Daughters of Emptiness by Beata Grant  is one of these.

This wonderful collection of poems of mostly Ch’an nuns spans a period of many centuries in China, from about the 5th century common era to the present. (Ch’an/Zen are respectively the current Chinese and Japanese pronunciation of the same ideograph  禪). The translations from the original Chinese by Beata Grant, along with her comments and notes, make these works  accessible for all of us who do not read Chinese. And if you read some Chinese you will appreciate the original texts, and see how she poetically offers them to us in English. Much of this work is not even well known among Chinese readers. For the rest of us, this is a connection with and opportunity to appreciate lineages of women Dharma practitioners that we probably did not know much about.  The Chinese texts from these women and works about their practice are often not available in English. They have not received much attention by scholars nor are they much appreciated even by the Chinese culture, in part due to patriarchal and Confucian biases.

These poems offer us the fruit of the women's matured practice, their True Dharma Eye. We are allowed to share a tiny bit of their life, of who they are, the clarity and insight of many years distilled into a few lines. And if we can absorb it, we will be able to all the more see who we are, this life that we and they share.

To get you started, here is the poem from the first nun, Huixu (431 - 499).

"Worldly people who do not understand me
Call me by my worldly name of Old Zhou.
You invite me to a seven-day religious feast,
But the feast of Ch’an never ends."

(I have taken the liberty of changing the English translation of a character from “meditation” to “Ch’an” to emphasize the fundamental fact that Ch’an is another word for true nature, not merely the description of a specific act called meditation nor the name of a school of Buddhism.)

If you are interested, the following audio Dharma talk is on a poem from this collection:

(c) 2011 Elihu Genmyo Smith

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Would Hakuin Join The Tea Party?

I have been reading The Religious Art of Zen Master Hakuin by Katsuhiro Yoshizawa and Norman Waddell.  Hakuin Ekaku Zenji (1686 - 1769) pioneered the use of the koan “the sound of one hand” and revived the Rinzai Zen lineages in Japan to the extent that almost all Rinzai Zen masters in Japan today are Dharma Heirs in Hakuin’s lineage. He placed great emphasis on what he called “post-satori practice” and the striving to fulfill the Four Great Vows, which he equated with Bodhi Mind.

The Four Great Vows are:

Beings are numberless, I vow to save them,
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them,
The Dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them,
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it.

Hakuin is also known for having many male and female lay students and successors. He travelled widely in his later years to teach and adapted practice to the life of ordinary people. Much of his surviving art and writings were done after he was 70 years old. Some of these works were threatened with or were proscribed by government censors – banned because of the political content. And he may have faced other political sanctions. This was surprising to me, but became quite understandable when I read Hakuin’s many criticisms of onerous tax burdens on the common people.

Hakuin writes that the political leader “can perform no greater act of virtue than to lighten burdensome taxation and maintain peace in their domain.” (p. 46) He is especially critical of the political leaders who live “a life of the greatest luxury…with never a thought of the difficulties of the common people under him. From the blood and sweat he wrings from them he is able to fill his tables with fine sake …As there is never enough money to satisfy such appetites, he ends up dispatching merciless ministers...Not only do officials reckon the tax rate yearly, they also raise the rate two or three times during the same year…” (p.47) In addition to his writings, Hakuin’s drawings and commentaries also criticize unjust tax burdens and governance, as well as the Daimyo’s lifestyle, often in folksy and hilarious ways.

Hakuin’s writings came to mind after a recent 5-day sesshin (Zen intensive/retreat) when  I saw a pile of local newspapers. A front page headline caught my eye, “I’m Just Drowning in Debt: Champaign women one of many worried about income tax increase; average family will see $1,000-plus hike.” The story told that this women, who earns about $30,000 a year, will face an annual $840 state income tax increase. The newly passed tax rate increase will not be progressive but will be the same percentage increase for all residents in the state, rich and poor. How would Zen Master Hakuin view this matter? What would he say about it or to these politicians?

At times, Hakuin almost seems to justify peasant uprisings and tax revolts in the face of harsh government policies, “wicked government ministers and dishonest samurai.”  At other times he appeals to local magistrates and higher officials for compassion towards the populace, especially regarding tax rates.

Here in Illinois, a lame-duck legislature in the final dawn before it was going out of existence, imposed a 67% rate state income tax increase. This was done despite opposition by all minority Republicans and was dependent upon the votes of legislators who had just recently (in November 2010) been voted out of office, some of whom had opposed tax increases during their campaigns. Additionally, a promised property tax relief which was to counterbalance the income tax increase was removed by the politicians from the final tax bill.

In fact, the deciding vote approving the tax in the Illinois House was reportedly given by outgoing State Representative Careen Gordon (who had lost the 2010 election). Gordon had previously indicated that she was opposed to a tax increase. And surprisingly, after the vote and the end of her legislative term, she was appointed by Governor Quinn to the State Prisoner Review Board with an annual salary of nearly $86,000. Governor Quinn was a very strong proponent of the tax increase. Was there a trade between them? We do not know, though journalists speculate. What is quite clear is that leading politicians here in Illinois and nationwide have in recent years given themselves high salaries and benefits while they squeeze the general population.  Even the various lower level Illinois state employees and those who provide services to the state have felt financial pressure, or to paraphrase Hakuin, have had blood and sweat wrung from them. Is the public being served? Where have the past years’ funds gone? What would Hakuin say to our political leaders? 

I continue to slowly read and enjoy this book of Hakuin’s work. It has already given me new perspectives on Hakuin and the wide variety of ways that Hakuin practiced and taught. 

I hope that we are all encouraged to live the Bodhi-Way, to refine and clarify our practice effort, relieving suffering and saving all beings.

(c) 2011 Elihu Genmyo Smith