Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Meditations Upon Cleaning the Cat-Litter Box

There is much wisdom to be gained from the simple, mundane, and often forgotten tasks that life requires of us. Today, as I washed the dishes, cleaned out the cat litter box, and emptied the garbage, I rejoiced in the 'such-ness' of my work!!

As I washed the dishes, I relished the feel of the clean, hot water, the scent of the soap, and the squeaking sound of newly cleaned dishes. Rather than absent myself from my task, I remained silently mindful and appreciative of this moment as being as much a part of my life as any other moment... and this helped me to remain 'present' as I worked.

Washing dishes is a supremely optimistic activity, if one thinks about it at all; If we had no expectation of yet another meal to come, why wash the dishes at all? Truthfully, the act of washing dishes is cause for much appreciation - in order to have dishes at all, we must have had the means of acquiring them... in order to wash them and to have them, we must have some place in which to both store them and wash them.. a kitchen perhaps!! To have a kitchen is to have a place to prepare meals, maybe a place where one can live, and rest... or sleep. The fact that I could do dishes rather than remain wary and be constantly on guard is due, primarily, to my sense of security. I must feel safe from harm to be able to focus on dishes... rather than on my personal safety.

If I consider one dish, I have reason to be grateful to a vast number of people whose efforts were brought to bear in the design, manufacture, transport and sale of this single item. Someone had to conceive of its design, and sit down to draw the design out. That person needed a table, pens and pencils, rulers, and other tools, inks, erasers, a chair, clothing.. and an office.. in a building! Each of these items, in turn must also be designed and manufactured!

Once a dish is designed, it must be made. Clay must be obtained, and tools are needed to excavate the clay... perhaps an area must first be cleared of trees... a road constructed for access... vessels in which to store and move the clay... and machines or devices to process it. Molds are needed, as well as racks, a kiln, paints, glazes, packaging, vehicles, and all of these things in turn require the work of many... for each step of the way some item is required ... and each item is brought into being only as a collective process... the trees are felled with tools... someone must survey the area to be cleared... the direction that the road will take... and so on. Accountants, administrators and managers must ply their trade... drivers, receiving clerks, packagers, salespeople, cashiers.... all work so that a dish will come into being, and I will be able to use it! I must have some means by which I can earn money in order to purchase my dish... and clothing to wear in order to shop... and someplace to bring the dish once I have acquired it. This one small item involves the work and cooperation of literally thousands,... if not millions of people.

And it is only one dish.

How wonderful to realize how my life is intertwined so inextricably with the lives of so many others! Many of whom I shall never meet, or see!! And yet... I have a dish from which to eat food that nourishes my body, and the bodies of my loved ones... so that we may continue to live, love, be healthy, and stay happy!!

How grateful I am to be able to do the dishes!!

Cleaning the cat litter box seems very unpleasant... it smells foul, it is dirty, and I must be in an uncomfortable position as I work... and yet, in order to have a cat litter box to clean, I must first have at least one cat. In fact, I have two. Two beautiful, perfect, silken wonders... two generous non-judgmental spirits who love me unconditionally. It makes no difference to them that I be rich, famous, honorable, or truthful... only that I be kind. What matters to them is that I am me. And we are of the same tribe. They never speak.. but, when I move from one part of the house to another, they silently get up and follow, in order to be near me. They ask nothing of me. They give whatever is in their heart to give. Each and every day. In order for them to use the cat litter box, they must be fed.. and in order for me to feed them, I must be at least wealthy enough to be able to afford to purchase food for them. It occurs to me that I am very lucky indeed to be fortunate enough to clean the cat litter box. There are many people in this world who have not a single friend as loving or as loyal as my cats are to me.

Taking out the garbage seems to be a nuisance at first glance... however, when I realize that what I throw away... no matter how thrifty my habits may be, is often more than many people ever own in all of their lifetime. I take the garbage out to the trash can, and it is picked up by men who are paid to do this.... and carted to the landfill or dump... this process involves the work of many... and indicates to me that I am enfolded in the protective arms of a society that is wealthy and organized enough to have such luxuries as a garbage disposal system. The plastic garbage can that I line with plastic garbage bags... and the bags themselves are beyond the means of many, many people in the world. Some of whom would feast on the bits that I consider garbage.

Washing dishes, cleaning cat litter box, taking out garbage... these are as much a part of my life as my greatest triumph... and pray that I will always have the presence of mind and the wisdom to appreciate the many, many gifts that these seemingly unimportant tasks reveal to me.

These tasks which are mine to perform are a gift to me from the whole universe.

Each item that I own represents a sacrifice of time, effort, and perhaps a sacrifice of life by some being... may I be always worthy to receive that.

May the wisdom that I gain through the performance of my work give me, each day, the strength to transform my unwholesome qualities into wholesome ones...

May I be ever grateful of the marvelous blessings, however small, that are bestowed upon me each moment that I live...

Kshanti Paramita

The Third Paramita is called Kshantí Paramita (Sanskrit) (Khanti in Pali) which variously translates as patience, forbearance, forgiveness, tolerance, endurance, acceptance, etc.

When we practice exercising patience or tolerance towards situations, circumstances or behavior which may not necessarily deserve it, we are practicing Kshanti. The practice of Kshanti should be seen as a conscious choice to actively and wholeheartedly give our patience and acceptance – as a gift – rather than to do so out of some feeling of social or personal obligation. Kshanti stems from feelings of compassion and love rather than oppression, and we therefore practice Kshanti as a voluntary action, and not because we have been forced or manipulated into acting in such a way.

To exercise patience in the sense that is implied by the practice of Kshanti doesn’t mean to simply ‘put up’ with something... it means having some balance, a sense of restraint. Often, when confronted with unpleasant or difficult situations or people, we react rather instinctively (and often negatively!) rather than respond appropriately. To exercise Kshanti is to open our heart to the world.. to life.. to others... being patient instead of being totally irritable and reactive. It means persevering through whatever twists and turns the path requires. Life most often does not unfold according to our pre-planned expectations. Often, our expectations are not even realistic, and yet, when we fail to realize them, we become frustrated, irritable, and unhappy. This unhappiness brings unhappiness to us, and to those around us. Practicing Kshanti, we freely accept that we will face obstacles, difficulties, failures, problems.. this is life.. and this is what it is to be a human being. What truly matters is what actually happens, however, since this is, in fact, our life and our story. So; although we naturally hope to achieve all of our goals and to meet with success in every venture that we undertake, it is a wise person who realizes and accepts that often life simply does not go according to plan, so, we must be patient not only with others and with circumstances, but, more importantly, with ourselves. To truly practice Kshanti is to start by having patience and tolerance with our inability to meet our own expectations, to accept our weaknesses, faults, hang-ups, and neuroses – to love ourselves, and to accept ourselves, just as we are. Once we can practice Kshanti towards our self, we can open our heart to others, and to the world, the universe, the cosmos. Accepting oneself in this way, totally and completely, gives us access to the vast open spaces of our own heart; space in which we may live and grow.

Whatever happens as our life unfolds is our story, so, why not simply accept this gift of life, whatever it happens to be?? In actuality, regardless of what we may hope for or expect, the truth is that we are all here for the whole show, so we should exercise Kshanti Paramita, and willingly see it through, wherever it ultimately takes us. It is our story. It is our life!! To avoid it or to miss it is not only a shame, and a waste; it is a crime!.

The simple (or not so simple!) fact is this: What life offers us is what we have to work with, period!

We are not going anywhere else; this is it! Very often, wisdom comes to people as they get older and this realization sets in. They realize that no matter what they do, they are going to keep on keeping on. That's the most secret, mystical meaning of the Kshanti Paramita.

People have often pointed out at this point that there are many who have decided to commit suicide.. and they ask me, “What about so and so who committed suicide?” Well, each of us is struggling with something, and, often our suffering and pain drives us to act in ways that are not in keeping with our true nature, or with our innate wisdom. Even then there is a type of flow, continuity or ‘on-going-ness’. We are all in it for the whole journey. Don't be deceived by mere appearances. Throughout nature, no matter where you look, death always results in new life and new beginnings, and I suspect that the ‘big picture’ is too big for me to understand. So, I am left with the decision, with each breath, to practice Kshanti Paramita... or not. We are always dying.. in every moment... we carry the seed of our own destruction within us... or, more accurately, the seed of our own destruction *IS* us... and not a separate thing or quality. We are also being born in every moment... always arriving... and never reaching our destination. Life is a process... and it is constantly flowing, and evolving, and happening. Life does not wait. Life simply is. We cant fold it up and put it neatly into a labeled pigeon-hole. We must exercise Kshanti.. be patient, accept what life unfolds in the eternal and ever-changing moment.

Whatever life confronts us with.. whatever we may be forced to engage, we will do it more skillfully and more artfully with a calm, clear, serene and tranquil mind. No matter *what* comes to us... if we have the presence of mind to call our wisdom and experience to bear, even if we have few options other than to endure what comes... we will do it better if we respond with forethought, wisdom, and an open, accepting, tolerant, loving, and patient mind than if we simply react out of irritability, fear, frustration, and anger.

Have patience!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"May I be be pure and virtuous."

Sila Paramita, the perfection of ethics and morality represents the Bodhisattva's abstention from the commission of evil deeds involving his body, speech or mind.

The abstinences of the body consist of abstaining from killing living self-aware beings, taking that which is not freely given, or indulging excessively in sensual pleasures, sexual misconduct or ingesting substances which cloud the mind or cause confusion.

The abstinences of speech include abstaining from falsehood, slander, and finding fault in others.

The abstinences of mind consist of refraining from thoughts of jealousy, envy, wrath, hatred or greed.

These abstinences are sometimes referred to as precepts (though both my teacher and my Roshi tend to dislike this translation, simply preferring to use the term 'Síla' instead.)

These Síla or precepts offer us a moral and ethical guideline. For the most part, those of us who were raised, particularly in a Western Judeo-Christian society, are more or less used to morality being defined by rules, and most of those rules are preceeded by the word "don't".

In Buddhism, the 'rules' are mostly guidelines which help us to ameliorate or to lessen the effects of the Three Poisons (anger, greed and delusion) by warning us to avoid the acts that result from those poisons.

We are not expected to blindly follow a set of rules that have been written down without first comparing them against our own wisdom, and against our own life experience.

Naturally, there are often times when our wisdom may not be so great, or our life experience painfully wanting in certain areas, and, it is in this case that we look to our mentors, our teachers, or others who fill this role in our lives, to help us to gain some better understanding of how to apply these precepts to whatever we may be confronting.

The Six Paramitas give us a different perspective on ethics, and our teachers help us to apply them to our own lives and circumstances. The close relationship between student and teacher in Zen is extremely important for this reason, and for many other reasons as well. For those who are not Zen practitioners, there are others who may very well fill this place in your life; parent, teacher, priest, rabbi, friend, whoever we look up to, whoever we wish to emulate, whoever is a positive example for us to follow. As in many things, it is very important that we choose carefully who we allow to fill this role for us.

In a previous post, I mentioned that the word 'Paramita' (Parami in the origninal Pali) actually means, "To cross to the other shore." So, the paramitas are also the ways by which we cross away from the Three Poisons (anger, greed and delusion) to live a better life.

Síla means virtue, ethics, morality, self-discipline, impeccability. Síla is a beautiful Sanskrit and Pali word. It means that which cools the intense broiling, roiling stew of passions and conflicting emotions. It's like a shade tree in the desert of blazing, conflicting emotions, a shelter where we can find relief. Non-attachment, integrity, and a righteous, honest, impeccable life provides a shelter, a true refuge in our increasingly confusing times.

On an external basis, Síla is somewhat akin to 'Ahimsa' or 'not harming'.

On an internal basis, this means exercising integrity and honesty.

Every human being has this innate capacity to be honest and pure of heart, even if it is only dimly viewed at times, and not revealed so very often. We each have the capacity to be impeccable, honest, virtuous. Not self-righteous, but to live what is known as the righteous life. That's enlightened living.

We can approach our training and our practice from the outside in, by restraining or vowing not to harm, not to engage in improper behavior, not to kill, lie, steal, intoxicate ourselves, and so on.

We can also simultaneously approach our trainng and our practice from the inside out, from our innate goodness and integrity, by resting in the natural state without clinging, free from concepts and attachment.

By utilizing this approach of working both from the outside in, as well as the inside out, we allow our natural morality, natural integrity, and natural impeccability to flow forth without vows, without having outer strictures. We allow our true nature to shine forth, and, we improve our own life, and the lives of others around us.

So, it is best to train is from outside in and inside out at the same time, not just blindly following rules, but allowing our true nature to flower and our highest character to develop. This is enlightened living. When we allow ourselves to change for the better, our children and grandchildren and the world change, too.

Morality and ethics is, at its most basic form, about expressing a love for others. A sense of kindness, tolerance, and compassion for every other being. It is better, from a Zen standpoint to exploit that innate, natural resource of love and compassion, and to let it guide our actions towards other, rather than exploiting others for what we think we need and want. Let's exploit our own natural resource within, our own true spiritual inheritance. That is something we can never really lose; no one and nothing can take it away from us. It can only be given away, bartered or sold... but never taken.

The essential nature of this paramita is that through our loving-kindness and compassion we refrain from harming others; we are virtuous and non-harming in our thoughts, speech, and actions. This practice of ethical conduct is the very foundation for progressing in any practice of meditation or spiritual growth and for attaining all higher realizations on the path to enlightenment.

The practice of Dána (generosity) must always be supported by the practice of Síla (ethics); as this ensures the lasting results of our generosity.

We should constantly strive to perfect our conduct by eliminating harmful behavior and following the precepts of the Six Paramitas.

The Paramitas are not meant to be a burden or a restriction of our freedom. We follow these precepts so we can enjoy greater freedom, happiness, and security in our lives, because through our virtuous behavior we are no longer creating suffering for ourselves and others.

It is important to realize that unethical behavior is always involved somewhere in the cause of suffering and unhappiness. If we consider, even to the slightest degree, the advantages of cultivating ethical behavior and the disadvantages of cultivating unethical behavior, we will certainly view the practice of ethics with a greater sense of enthusiasm.

In practicing the perfection of ethics, we become free of negativity, we cause no harm to others by our actions, our speech is kind and compassionate, and our thoughts are free of anger, malice, and other delusional or otherwise wrong views.

Those whose commitment is strong in the practice of ethics are at ease, naturally confident, without stress, and happy because we are not carrying any underlying sense of guilt or remorse for our actions, and thus, we have nothing to hide from anyone! Maintaining our personal honor and integrity, our moral impeccability, this is the cause of all goodness, happiness, and even the attainment of enlightenment.

Nobody is perfect. Each of us has likely committed some act in our lives for which we are ashamed or regretful. There is little or nothing that can be done to change what has happened in the past. We can attempt to make amends for whatever we may have done, if this is possible, or, we can accept that it was an unskillful act, realize that it was caused by a series of wrong views and wrong choices, and resolve to begin developing right views, and making right choices based upon them. It is through the practice of Síla Paramita that we are able to develop these right views.

Not a one of us is a snapshot. Nothing that we do, either good or bad is indicative of our nature, or of who or what we are. It is simply something which took place. We are a process... continuously flowing and changing, and each breath provides us with a brand new opportunity to begin anew!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Two Out of Three

In Buddhist practice we teach about the 'Six Paramitas', which are often translated as the 'Six Perfections' or 'Transcendences' or something similar. These are all suitable translations, however, the Sanskrit word Paramita (Parami in the origninal Pali) actually means, "To cross to the other shore."

What does this mean? Clearly it is a metaphoric statement, and what it is making reference to, at least to my understanding, is the process by which we cross over the sea of suffering (Samsara) to reach the far shore of happiness & awakening (Nirvana). This is also, in turn, metahphoric, and is used to explain how we transform ourselves, through the tenets of Buddhist thought and practice, moving or 'crossing over' from ignorance & delusion to enlightenment.

This process of self transformation is not an easy one, and there are volumes upon volumes of Buddhist writings, scripture, and doctrine which describe methods by which this may be achieved.

Dying practice is, in a sense, a concentrated form of Buddhist practice in which one is primarily practicing the Six Paramitas. Perhaps it would be best for me to simply list them, and discuss the first of the six in this post, and the others in subsequent posts.

The Six Paramitas:
  1. Dána Paramita (The Perfection of Generosity): Dána means to give, or, generosity. The English words donor, donote, and donation are derived from the word 'Dána'. Dána means the practice of compassion; it is charity, offering, and generosity. The essence of this paramita is unconditional love, for all beings. It is the practice of giving freely, without attachment or expectation. This can be giving in the monetary sense, or giving of our time, our love, and ourselves - giving of our presence. Regardless of what is given, or why it is given, the very act of giving must, by definition, involve the act of 'letting go' by one of the parties involved. Being able to let go is paramount in the practice of Dána Paramita, and is also a critical factor in the ability to successfully live one's life fully, properly, without reservation or equivocation and authentically. In Buddhism, Dána is broken down into three major types of giving;

    1. The giving of wealth, material resources. This is the giving of what one has to give for the purpose of giving, and not for the purpose of receiving some recognition or any other benefit. In order to be able to give selflessly, we must first find a method by which the human sense of self, the idea of a separate, distince entity or body/mind complex can be reduced to zero; By allowing the 'Ego self' to dissolve away, one finds that all of the thoughts, hopes, and desires cease at last - and we find ourselves surprised by the utter cessation of these desires. (coincidentally, the Sanskrit word 'Nirvana' {'Nibbana' in Pali} means 'extinguish' or 'blow out' and is not the name of some type of paradise or heaven, as many people (particularly in the west) seem to envision). A step towards this achieving this reduction of the sense of self is the practice of Dána Paramita; due to the fact that, in order to be able to be truly generous, one must be able to diminish one's sense of not only a self, but a sense of ownership or possession. Doing this, i.e., removing 'me' also goes a long way towards removing 'mine;, 'my', 'ours' etc. a common tendency to stockpile resources to one's own benefit, and to the benefit of one's family, whereas Buddhism, Zen training, Dying Practice, and similar types of mental training strive to de-emphasize this inborn focus upon the self - upon the 'me', 'my' and 'mine' in favor of a more inclusive view of the world and of the cosmos. The practice of facing, considering, contemplating and, if successful, ultimately accepting the imminence of one's death/dying, must, by force, lead one to consider that there is a greater self, or greater nature, which exists beneath the overly of the 'Ego self' (the 'I' or 'Me' what we commonly envision as living somewhere 'behind my eyes' and looking out on the world, making choices, passing judgments, and having opinions, preferences, and other types of notional thinking and afflictive emotions.

    2. The giving of Teaching. As monks, we tend to spend a fair amount of our time teaching the Dharma (Dhamma in Pali) (The word dharma literally translates as that which upholds or supports, and is generally translated into English as law. The word "dharma" can also be translated as "the teachings of the Buddha") to others. Indeed, we are obligated to teach the Dharma when requested to do so. One does not have to be a monk, however, to practice this type of Dána Paramita (Teaching others). When we take the time to teach others, we go a long way towards helping them to learn how to be more self-reliant. To stand, in essence, upon their own two feet. The giving or donating of material resources helps us to solve immediate needs. If we wish to find solutions to more long-range problems, however, we must teach. One doesn't have to have exceptional skills as a teacher. If we simply focus on teaching whatever we are knowledgeable or skilled at and what others are not, we can be highly successful. To a monk, however, the highest form of teaching is the teaching of the Dharma, which can help people find lasting happiness and liberation.

    3. The giving of Fearlessness. I began discussing this form of giving in a previous journal entry; Please see my previous post on this topic for an in-depth discussion on this form of giving. In this post I conclude the discussion of Dána Paramita (giving) by offering a teaching not only on the giving of resources, but on the giving of teaching itself. I hope you will forgive my not repeating or adding to my entry on the giving of fearlessnes... after all, two out of three is not so bad!!

    So. In this post and in my previous post, I have discussed the first of the Six Paramitas (Dána Paramita - The Perfection of Giving. This is appropriate for Dying Practice, for, when one dies, the act of dying is the supreme act of giving... for one gives the very essence of oneself... every last thing that we possess. Perhaps, then, if we practice Dána Paramita starting today, we will not only improve the lives of others by way of our generosity, but, also improve and transform our own.. indeed, we may find that we have been transformed. When it is time to die for us, we will be so practiced in the perfection of giving that it will simply come to us in our natural stride, with ease, with dignity, and with beauty. I have discussed a portion the first of the Six Paramitas in the previous post, and in this one - albeit slightly out of order, discussed the remainder. I intend to discuss the remaining five Paramitas in upcoming posts. These remaining five Paramitas are:

  2. Síla Paramita (The Perfection of Ethics):

  3. Kshantí Paramita (The Perfection of Patience):

  4. Virya Paramita (The Perfection of Joyous Effort/Enthusiastic Perserverance):

  5. Dhyana Paramita (The Perfection of Concentration):

  6. Prajna Paramita (The Perfection of Wisdom):

I have not decided whether I will cover each in a separate post, break each one down and cover it over a series of posts, or cover all of the remaining in one single post.. but, I will do my best to present it in the best way that I am able.

In any case, for those of you who either enjoy what is written here, or find it helpful to your practice, or in your daily life, perhaps you will visit again to learn a bit more about these perfections.

With palms joined....