Friday, November 21, 2008

Pratītyasamutpāda & The U.S. BIll of Rights

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

I called a very close personal friend yesterday afternoon. We have known each other for many, many years, have served together, laughed together, trained together, and cried together. We have gotten into trouble together, and we have alternately gotten one another into various types of trouble (deliberately!). Each of us has rendered the other unconscious, drawn one another's blood, broken or sprained one another's limbs, and carried the other when it became necessary.

We have alternately watched one another build lives and careers.. and have watched as those same lives and careers came crumbling down. We have shared some of the most intellectually stimulating conversations that I have ever taken part in, and we share a connection that few people ever share. We give of ourselves, unquestioningly... and our friendship is deep and abiding. Somewhere within the first 15 seconds of knowing one another, we forged a brotherhood that has never wavered in over 20 years.

As they usually are wont to do, our conversation wandered over various and sundry topics... with each of us taking turns pouncing upon the other in mid-sentence and hijacking the conversation.

We discussed our feelings about the law and the constitution, the rights of gays and same-sex unions (neither of us are gay, and I would not say that either of us would be described as 'gay rights activists' - I *would* however be quite accurate in stating that we are both HUMAN rights supporters... and we both derive the same meaning from the rather unambiguous words of the American Declaration of Independence when it says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." and, "Article I. All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness."

We discussed the U.S. Constitution as it applies to this issue, specifically the Bill of Rights, and, recognizing that the principle reasons that have been cited for preventing same-sex couples from enjoying the benefit or marriage or civil union (i.e., the ability to make decisions regarding the partner's health care in the event of serious illness... funeral arrangements in the event of one of the partners deaths, the disposition of personal property, insurance coverage, etc., - benefits that the majority of people in this country quite take for granted!) are primarily based in religiosity.


This is a problem to my way of thinking, and also to my friend's, judging from his comments during our conversation. You see.. we have both served to protect that very same constitution. Both have shed sweat, and blood to protect it. Both have made considerable sacrifice to protect it... as have many other men and women who served before us, after us, or alongside us.

Simply because I do not share the lifestyle choices, opinions, or proclivities of my fellow human beings does NOT mean that I have free reign to impinge upon the rights that have been granted to others by the very documents and ideas upon which this country was founded and built.

Folks, it is simply wrong.

The Bill of Rights also prohibits Congress from making any law respecting establishment of religion and prohibits the federal government from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. Since we do not allow a State Religion to exist, the inference is that this due process should take place absent the influence of religious doctrine. This is a fundamental right due to every human being under the First & Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution!

Now, clearly, it is difficult to separate one's religious thinking from one's secular thinking... the brain doesn't work that way. However, it takes no stretch of the intellect to understand that we are talking about fundamental rights that are owed to fellow human beings - REGARDLESS of whether we happen to agree with the way they choose to live their life.

What is most mystifying to me is that we are discussing the prospect of allowing or disallowing one human being to LOVE another human being!! The very idea of making even a half-hearted attempt to dissuade one person from loving another person is simply too perverse for me to seriously entertain, and I am saddened and appalled.

We live in a supposedly enlightened day and age, folks... it is time to open up the hand of fear and anger... the fist of control.... and let go of this notional and pre-conceived mode of thinking.

We are all born into this world as equals, and there is not one among us with some divine right to make choices or rule over any other one of us. The very idea supposedly went by the wayside in the 18th century... so, perhaps it is time to buy a new calendar, huh?

You cannot simply pick and choose who is worthy of fair treatment and who is not.

Now, I am sure that my comments and opinions will anger and incense some of those who will read this...

I assure you that I am not trying to be deliberately inflammatory.

I know that in many cases, the religious upbringing of a person will make it extremely difficult for them to accept ways of thinking which extend beyond the boundaries of their upbringing.

My words are not meant to foment oppositional behavior... they are intended to spark thinking that I sincerely hope will enable some who will stop and consider... and perhaps open their heart... and realize that hurting other people is simply wrong... no matter the authority that condones it... and that they will extend a hand and accept even those people who are so different in their beliefs, appearance, lifestyle, and demeanor as brothers and sisters.

We are all in this belly-button together. One wrong sparks another wrong... eye for an eye & tooth for a tooth.... and pretty soon the whole bloody world is blind and toothless.

I have a countdown on the right side of this page... well, newsflash... you have one too! You might not be able to see it, and you might not be able to read exactly how much time you have left to live in this world... but, the countdown is steadily ticking away. We are all dying.

We all have less time to live right now than when we started to read this very sentence.

Is anything really so important that it is worth diminishing the quality of life of a fellow human being?

Can we not just STOP THAT!!.. once we realize the harm that it causes?

I both think and fervently hope that we can.

(I am absolutely not taking a 'holier than thou' stance here, by the way. It is not as though I have never made mistakes, or have never done wrong - either through negligence, knowlingly, or deliberately... I most certainly have. Guilty on all counts! What I have also done, however, was to accept my wrongdoing, face it squarely, learn from having done so.. and desisted. Over the years, I have become a nicer, more loving, gentler, and, I hope, kinder person. It isn't all that hard. Most importantly, it is better for all of us!)

People just want to live their lives, for the most part. They want to love those whom they love. They want that love to be publicly recognized. This is a very simple and easy to understand concept. The sky will not fall if they are allowed to do what is their RIGHT! I am groping for some idea of how one person loving and caring for another person can be harmful in some way to any other human being... but it just isn't coming to me....

People have tried to tell me that what gay couples do isn't right... that it is in some way unnatural... well, I have a hard time with that.

Look at the animal world and you will find that in nearly every case any and all types of sexual behavior can be found. This ability that we have been born with to engage in not only sexual behavior, but all types of affectionate and playful behavior is a form of expressing our love for one another in a playful and intimate fashion.

In a human context, this is a private occurrence which takes part out of sight of the general public. It is simply irrelevant with respect to how we should view or judge one another. What possible difference can this make? Sex should be like baby pigeons, I think... I *know* they have to be out there... but I have never personally seen one. It simply doesn't affect me in any way, and it certainly isn't an acceptable reason for me to discriminate or otherwise mistreat other people, *that* much I am certain of.

While it is true that inappropriate behavior, whether it is sexual or otherwise, can and does cause suffering, I think that it is equally true that when discussing a moral compass, however, you cannot force your own beliefs upon other people who are acting within the bounds of the law. To do so is to do some degree of violence or to practice some form of aggression upon others.

In creating and enforcing such laws... it it extremely important that they be fair, just, and also that they do not force any specific group or individual's personal religious belief system upon others. Each person has a right to live their life as they see fit. As they say; "It's a free country". That means for every single last one of us. Period.

I personally believe that a spiritual practice and belief are extremely important. I myself follow a relatively narrow path insomuch as my actions are concerned. Particularly within the past 8 or 9 years and continuing... however, I also recognize that a religious path or belief system is a very personal thing, and the decision to adhere to such a belief system, or to choose NOT to adhere to such a belief system is also a very personal thing; and both of those choices are protected rights under the U.S. Constitution.. so, if you live in this country, at any rate, this is the law, and the law of the land is the law... plain and simple.

Do I want to know what gay couples are doing behind closed doors?? Do I want to know what nearly any of my friends and family are doing with their significant others behind closed doors? is it ANY of my business??

After the conversation between my friend and myself meandered over this issue of same-sex marriage, and all of the implications... we began to discuss anger, hostility, and all of the other afflictive emotions which arise when confronting such things as injustice, unfairness, and the exercise of oppressive control over us... or the mere attempt at such.

We each shared our personal views, and we offered one another helpful components of our individual spiritual practices (He being a Vedic Priest, and I being a Zen Buddhist Monk... our lives have led (creepily) similar but slightly divergent paths..)

What I would like to offer here now... for anyone who may find it helpful, is the concept that what we do that may cause harm to another being, whether that being is great or small, or whether that harm is grievous or slight.. also causes harm to ourselves, and to every other being who shares this existence with us. (Including those we most love...).

This harm may be something as seemingly passive as looking the other way when someone else is being treated cruelly, inhumanely, or unjustly. By not deciding to take appropriate action when action is dictated by the circumstances, we, by default, are deciding not to take action. In this case, action may be defined as simply as monitoring our own thoughts and feelings, testing them according to our beliefs and our observations, and adjusting whatever must be adjusted to reflect reality when viewed with tolerance, care, compassion, and loving-kindness for our fellow sentient beings.

We are *all* connected.... we all share in the same interbeing, the same 'true nature'. We truly and really are one... we simply cannot escape the impenetrability of our lives and existences with one another and with our environment.. it is a bloody great web of connection, and not a single one of us can see all ends and predict how our actions might impact upon everyone or everything else... but, we should try to do our best to do as little harm as possible, in my opinion.

In this respect, therefore, it is vitally important that we look closely at our responses to such afflictive emotions as fear and anger, and to the impact that our response may have on the lives of others... whether that response is individual, or collective. In either case, we are responsible for our thoughts, and for actions which stem from those thoughts... just a gentle reminder.

So, in support of this concept, I am offering the following somewhat simplified Buddhist teaching in hopes that it may help you with your own daily spiritual practice;

Dependent origination (Pratītyasamutpāda): often translated as "dependent arising," is an important part of Buddhist metaphysics. Common to all schools of Buddhism, it states that phenomena arise together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. It is variously rendered into English as "dependent origination", "conditioned genesis", "dependent co-arising", "interdependent arising", or "contingency".

The enlightenment (or bodhi, a word that means "to awaken") of the Buddha was simultaneously his liberation from suffering (dukkha) and his insight into the nature of the universe – particularly the nature of the lives of sentient beings (principally humans and animals). What the Buddha awakened to was the truth of dependent origination.

This is the understanding that any phenomenon exists only because of the existence of other phenomena in an incredibly complex web of cause and effect covering time past, time present and time future. This concept of a web is symbolized by Indra's net, a multidimensional spider's web on which lies an infinite amount of dew drops or jewels, and in these are reflected the reflections of all the other drops of dew ad infinitum.

Stated in another way, everything depends on everything else. A human being's existence in any given moment is dependent on the condition of everything else in the world at that moment, but in an equally significant way, the condition of everything in the world in that moment depends conversely on the character and condition of that human being. Everything in the universe is interconnected through the web of cause and effect such that the whole and the parts are mutually interdependent. The character and condition of entities at any given time are intimately connected with the character and condition of all other entities that superficially may appear to be unconnected or unrelated.

Because all things are thus conditioned and transient (anicca), they have no real independent identity (anatta) and thus do not truly exist, though to ordinary minds this appears to be the case. All phenomena are therefore fundamentally insubstantial and empty (sunya).

Wise human beings, those who "see things as they are" (yatha-bhuta-ñana-dassana), renounce attachment and clinging, transform the energy of desire into awareness and understanding, and eventually transcend the conditioned realm of form becoming Buddhas or Arhats*.

* Arhat: In the sramanic traditions of ancient India (most notably those of Mahavira and Gautama Buddha) arhat (Sanskrit) or arahant (Pali) signified a spiritual practitioner who had—to use an expression common in the tipitaka—"laid down the burden"—and realized the goal of nirvana, the culmination of the spiritual life (brahmacarya). Such a person, having removed all causes for future becoming, is not reborn after biological death into any samsaric realm. The word "arahan" literally means "worthy one"[1] (an alternative folk etymology is "foe-destroyer" or "vanquisher of enemies"[2]) and constitutes the highest grade of noble person—ariya-puggala—described by the Buddha as recorded in the Pali canon. The word was used (as it is today in the liturgy of Theravada Buddhism) as an epithet of the Buddha himself as well as of his enlightened disciples. -- We don't really use this term in a Zen context... but, I thought it might be relevant to this teaching. Naturally, any error is mine and mine alone, I take full responsibility, etc., and the usual disclaimer applies: Individual mileage may vary, blah, blah, blah.....

With palms joined....

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Getting Down to It.


The past month has presented me with some of the most difficult moments of my year long experiment thus far. As it sometimes seems to happen with such things, life has curiously contrived to present me with some rather daunting difficulties to go along with all of the memories and incidents that my practice has uncovered and stirred up!

Here is a question; What do we do, as humans, when we are confronted with such painful and difficult situations in life?

Clearly, there is no way to avoid such things. Pain and suffering are part of our lot in life. We are of the nature to experience these things from time to time... and, naturally, at some point we are destined to grow ill, to become weak, to suffer... and, eventually, to die. This is not something that can be avoided.

Many people, particularly in western culture, go to some rather shocking lengths to remove all trace of this possibility from our daily lives. We no longer witness the slaughter of livestock that ultimately end up on our dinner plate. Instead, those who eat meat can obtain their dinner neatly packaged in cellophane & Styrofoam with hardly a trace remaining of the pain & suffering caused by the killing and butchering of the creature that now sits placidly on our dinner plate. Every last ounce of responsibility has been neatly swept under the proverbial rug.

We rarely verbalize death when it comes to our loved ones, opting instead for pithy euphemisms such as, "He (or She) passed away....", "Moved on...", "Went to heaven...", "Expired" (!! like a discount offer?), "Met his end..", "Was taken", "Resigned...", "Surrendered..", "Departed..", "Yielded up the ghost...", "Went the way of all flesh..".

Death has become the ultimate taboo... don't think about it... don't talk about it. And yet, it is one of the things that every single one of us holds in common; the inevitability of our death.

It strikes me as a bit, ah... "Ostrichy" to refrain from facing it and calling it what it is. What is wrong with saying that so and so DIED?? Why do we have to stretch it and pull it and put all of the lipstick on this pig that shall remain a pig regardless of what we try to do to disguise it!?!?

What is next? "404 ERROR - Pulse Not Found"??

Look.. no matter how fast we run, we cannot run fast enough to escape death. We carry the seeds of our own death within us.... along with most of the problems, pains, sufferings, and heartaches that we will ever experience. The good news is that we also carry the solutions, joys, happiness, and triumphs... or at least the potential for each.

As I face my days of late, I am confronted with problems... problems are good; By learning to face them squarely, to push our envelope farther and farther until we find viable solutions to the problems that confront us, we improve, we learn, we mature... we become stronger and we push our roots deeper and deeper into the earth. At the same time, we learn to be more flexible... to open the fist of force, arrogance, anger, fear, and all of the other afflictive emotions that often plague us, and to allow ourselves the vast and limitless growing room of the accommodating and loving heart. Only by learning to let go will we ever be able to hold on.

As I sit in meditation, working on my life review, I am uncovering some of the most painful memories that I possess.

These are memories that I have long pushed down into the farthest recesses of my mind... covered over with the detritus of time... shut the door upon and turned away from. It is peculiar to me that I now find myself digging down to uncover and expose all of this stuff and bring it out into the light of my attention and focus.

Somewhat surprisingly, these memories have not dimmed at all in their ability to cut, to sting, and to wound. I now realize, however, that only by actually accepting and feeling these feelings - completely and honestly - do I have any hope of ever exorcising them... or, failing that, ultimately accepting them just as they are, and then setting them aside and moving on to whatever happens to come next.

I don't need these memories, really, but, I cannot un-remember them.

This much I have learned.

The only alternative, really, is to open my arms to them... accept them... accept that they are a part of me... and, with some practice and skill... love them. This is really the only alternative that seems to be within the scope of my abilities. It isn't easy... but nothing that is worth anything ever is.

This process of accepting the facets of ourselves that we would prefer to forget isn't really so different from embracing death, is it? We don't like it... but it wont go away.. so, we live in fear, reacting and allowing the resulting afflictive emotions to guide us... and in the long run creating more pain and suffering for ourselves and for those around us.

Or, we stop, turn, and face this impending death. Recognize it for what it is. Accept that it cannot be avoided. Accept that it may claim us at any moment... for death is the ultimate 'Equal Opportunity Employer' - death has no respect for age, position, wealth... it cannot be bargained with..cannot be intimidated... and cannot be bought off. Death is coming, and we are absolutely and completely powerless to stop it. But, we are not powerless to accept it, and to love that part of our nature that we call death. And once we have learned to do this... we lose our fear of living.

By embracing death, and by thereby embracing life, we strike off our shackles, cut away the strictures, and allow ourselves, at last... to breathe... and to live. Rather than run, we stand. Rather than react, we respond. Rather than causing pain and suffering through needless (and useless) avoidance and aversive behaviors, we bring about healing and acceptance.

I don't like every part of my past. I don't like every part of myself. I don't like everything that has happened to me, and I don't like everything that I have done.

So what? What can I do about that?

If I continue to hide, to run, to avoid... it is like telling a lie. One lie necessitates the telling of another to support it... and soon, they exponentially increase until we find ourselves so tangled up in our own deceits that we are rendered immobile. Immobility = death; and so... by attempting to run from it... we have instead run directly towards it.. and perhaps quicker than would have otherwise occurred. And let me ask you; Is there much in this world that less pathetic than a life that is nothing more than a day to day living death??

What has happened, has happened... what we can do about it is to simply recognize it for what it is... and figure out the very best response available to us given the circumstances; whatever they happen to be. The perfect situation never comes. The perfect time never arrives. At least not in the sense that most people conceive of it. The truth is that the perfect time and circumstance is never NOT present... it is ALWAYS the perfect time.

How we approach the present moment dictates how the present moment will unfold. Our ability to respond to the moment is entirely up to us. If we allow ourselves to be blinded, shackled, and crippled by old baggage, notional thinking, pre-conceived notions, groundless fears, biases, prejudices, hatreds, and aversions; We are already dead.. already the victim of each and every one of our fears... and simply walking in a gray, tasteless, featureless nightmare ... a parody of a life.

I am beginning to learn that I am not actually "anything". I am completely and utterly empty.

STOP. Before you process those last two sentences, I want you to go back, read them again, but this time use the following definitions;

Anything= stagnated into a pre-existing list of qualities, conditions, traits, opinions, and actions.

Empty= devoid of pre-conceived attributes - completely open to all potentialities - accepting, open, attentive.

When I have conceived of myself in the past, I have often created a view of myself that I held somewhat dear and close to my heart. I was "this" kind of person, but not "that". I wore "these" kinds of clothes, but not "those". I am such and such and so and so, and this what I am. It was like painting a picture of myself; in essence, living life one-step removed, rather than living it firsthand. I have come to realize that all of these notions are simply my own creations... they are mental formations, and nothing more. In truth, I am none of that. I am not particularly honorable nor dishonorable, truthful nor deceitful, nice nor nasty, kind nor unkind... not in the sense that it is a concrete, unchanging reality.

What I am is what I choose with each unfolding moment... and with how I respond and act according to those choices. Nothing more. Nothing less. I don't have some narrow path that I must follow because I am 'such and such' or a particular 'kind' or 'class' of person. I am what I am when I act in a certain fashion. Period.

When I embrace a loved one... fully and completely... giving every last ounce of my being into that embrace... God is present in that 'God function' of loving and giving. This is what I have learned.

I feared this life-review, I feared standing up to my own judgment... my own opinions.. my own distastes. I did not want to hold up past thoughts, past actions, past circumstances to the harsh light of my own hindsight. But, you know what? We have to make both good and bad choices in life... and we have to live with the consequences of each.

A Rabbi friend of mine once told me that Jewish people are taught to give thanks for blessings before they have received them, because it is quite likely that they will not be able to recognize them when they arrive, as they often come cloaked in the guise of a curse!! Imagine that!! There is wisdom in that, I think... and it is pertinent to my life review. Why? Well, it is quite easy for me to sit and look back over my life, my choices, my mistakes, and even the willful harmful actions that I have perpetuated with a clear eye and pronounce them as 'wrong', and thereby condemning myself to being 'bad' or at least wanting in some way... However, each action that I have ever chosen was chosen in a particular frame of mind, at a particular time, and in a particular set of circumstances.... often, the decision point at which some incident or action could have been avoided was missed simply because I had not yet developed the coping skills or the ability to recognize it by having had the painful or difficult experience. And that is the key. We learn through our own mistakes. We learn (hopefully) through the mistakes of others.

Mistakes are gifts, in a way. They help us to fine-tune ourselves... they teach us... they help us to become better people.

I am slowly developing the ability to let go of these burdens. And I am beginning to teach myself to open both my eyes, and my heart.

Problems will come... difficulties will come... that isn't what is important.

What I choose to do when I am confronted with these situations is, however... and as I allow my heart to open, and as I learn to let go and give myself entirely into whatever situation arises, I am finding that I am better equipped to keep my legs under me, my feet upon the ground, my spirit in balance, and I am therefore able to step forward with confidence into whatever my life has in store for me.

My life review is not yet over... but it has already taught me a great deal about what I am, and what I am not.... and what I have learned is that I am not anything that I thought I was. I simply am... and I continue to be... I am like a work of art; I can never be finished really...

... only abandoned.

That isn't a part of my plan.