Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Dukkha of Christmas

I come from a family with six kids, and as a young child my Christmases were usually anti-climactic, and sometimes worse than that.  Every year my parents would buy clothes that were cheap, unstylish, and identical to my brother's who was 18 months younger than I.  They also contained assembly flaws now and then.  There were usually a couple of toys, but as the middle kid in a cohort of 6, basically Christmas for me was marginalization,  with my older brother and older sister and youngest brother and youngest sister.  I'm sure my 18 month  year younger brother felt similarly to me.   There was extreme pressure given by my parents to accept any and all gifts, which was strange because my parents weren't so much giving gifts often as buying a whole lot of junk and distributing it.  They were filling orders; about the only thing that was often taken into consideration (and often not) was clothing sizes.

And I might add the stuff my parents bought was junk not because my parents were poor, but because they were  miserly.   The Depression had screwed them up mentally.  And one result of that was they bought a whole lot of low quality stuff for a lot of kids rather than less stuff but higher quality.  Their Christmas approach was maximizing the amount of stuff to unwrap and open.  Period.  In a sense then, I don't think any of my brothers and sisters often got what they wanted for Christmas; in a sense my parents weren't actually  buying stuff for any of us.

I come from a large family, and traditionally, for Christmas, that once one was old enough everyone got gifts for everyone else, and of course as nephews and nieces started getting born, well doing a gifting Christmas (literally) became exponentially more difficult.  I was single until I was 43, and what this meant  in practice is that this time of year I was redlining work,  Christmas preparation,  and social life.

At some point I had had enough; that point was sometime after I moved out to the Pacific Northwest from the New York area.  I've sort of resolved to have a minimally labor intensive Christmas efforts.  I have not wrapped any packages this year.  Yes, we don't have that distracting tinsel on our tree either.  But we do have a tree representative of our family.

What remains is the idea of social obligation.   It's that little voice in the back of the head saying you have to get something for X because otherwise Z won't get something from Y.

But that's not a gift giving at all is it? One should give a gift in thought that there are people at the other end, and forgetting yourself. And luckily those to whom I give gifts now are mostly nephews and nieces and their kids. 

But YES,  all the stuff above notwithstanding, I give 'em all gift cards, because frankly, our lives have unfortunately  diverged, and yes, I'm very busy these days,  and so while they're all the same gift, when the receivers do with it is exactly what they want.  In that sense my gift cards are empty too!  

I try to treat social obligation as an itch on my nose when I'm sitting in zazen.

So to me, Christmas has always had and will always have an aspect of emptiness, of a nullity.  Christmas is the stuff of dreams unfulfilled,  of the cheap toy that is broken upon opening the package, after the transient joy of opening the package fades.   Christmas is fundamentally empty.  Christmas is about eternally receiving less than you give.  It's really why it's better to give than to receive - because what you receive will always fall short of what you had hoped, and when you realize that,  you can give without fear or hindrance in the mind, knowing that we're all in the same boat with receiving falling short in our lives; it's a form of dukkha

I am able to be at peace with that.  Christmas is the memory of being forgotten.  And in remembrance of being forgotten on a day that is supposedly joyous,  I will try to be  aware of others.

A peaceful, if not merry Christmas to all. 

Sunday, December 04, 2016

座禅, after 25 years or so of practice, is worth it.

I've practiced Zen for something like 25 years or so, that is, Zen meditation or Zazen (座禅). I don’t often talk or write about it (unless you count 書道/書法) on FB, and I haven’t written about it on the blog much lately, but I do think it’s a good time to write something about Zen practice that appears on FB.

Having done Zen practice for as long as I have, as well as Wing Chun practice now for 5 years, I cannot un-experience what I have experienced. Hakuin, the Zen ancestor in whose tradition I practice, stated more or less that everything that rights what’s wrong, cures what’s sick, etc. that arise from Buddhism arise from 座禅. There's truth in that. Before you go somewhere, you need to know where you are in order to get to a place in which you are not presently abiding.

Many years ago, when I started practicing, I went to the Zen Studies Society in New York City. I attended a teishō (提唱), a talk on the Buddhadharma given by the now disgraced Eido Shimano. The disgrace part is a long story, involving abuse of some women, and if you want to know more you can Google it, since it’s not the point of this writing. The point of this writing is something Eido Shimano said during his 提唱; he said if you practiced 座禅 for ten years, and if you derived no benefit from it, you could cut his head off. While it may be true that Eido Shimano might deserve to have his head cut off, he does not deserve to have his head cut off for recommending 座禅. I myself, who continually still screw up in many ways with many people, might deserve to have my head cut off, but not for recommending 座禅. Hakuin was right about 座禅, but like any skill, 座禅 takes time to master, and I’ve only just started.

When you do such a practice as 座禅 for a long enough period of time, it cannot but unalterably shift your perspective. Your perspective of who you are, your nature, your relationship with others, with the world, with what you experience, all of that is changed. (Though as they say, at the same time nothing changes.) After a certain point, there’s no going back. And because of the way in which perspective is shifted, one tends not to be categorically rigidly fixed in one position mentally. One acquires the capability to transcend the slavery of one's thoughts. I know some folks on FB may think I have rigid fixed positions on things, but that is usually because they, themselves, have rigid fixed positions and are often surprised that their views don’t get unconditional approval and encouragement. Instead they think they are facing diametric opposition. There’s a great 詠春拳 metaphor for this, but most folks wouldn’t get it. Suffice it to say the world doesn’t work at all according to the presumptions of American football, or one's thoughts. It's not what you or I think it is, whatever it is.

So for example, most folks have views about Donald Trump one way or another. Truth is, he’s likely to be the next president. I admit to the view that anyone who voted for Trump or supported him who wasn’t on the gravy train of grift was conned, and any sincerely expressed outrage about expression of that view has more to do with stages of grief than it does my view. But my views about what to do are tempered by the perspective shift I’ve acquired over the years. It’s why though I am pretty left of center to some rightists/conservatives/libertarians, it’s only because it is seen by them from the perspective of rightists/conservatives/libertarians, many of whom don’t get that the world doesn’t work at all according to the presumptions of American football, or one's thoughts. It's not what you or I think it is, whatever it is.

I’m very grateful for the practices that have been demonstrated to me; personally, I would not know how to survive in this world with everything more or less intact. And I’m grateful to my family for giving me the space to practice, and to try and fail, and try and fail again.

Friday, December 02, 2016

I wouldn't go that far...I'd go further

Many of us, perhaps even many Trump voters, don't want fascism in the US.

Brad Warner I think finds the tumult in the aftermath of Trump's election a bit much.

Ven. Warner says:

What distresses me is that a large part of the Buddhist community in America has demonized all of Trump’s supporters and made a lot of blanket assumptions about them. I am not a fan of Trump either (I have made that clear already in my blog). But unless we start communicating with each other, the problems you’ve cited will only get worse.

I will plead to being loud and vocal about my distaste for the politics and outlook Trump's supporters.  They are nothing less than a clear and present danger to the health, wellbeing, and livelihood of most Americans, including themselves.   Ven. Warner may call what I just wrote demonization, but I would submit it is objectively true.

Many of us, perhaps even many Trump supporters, don't want fascism in the US.   But those of us who are fans of history see far too many parallels to remain silent.

Ven. Warner is right that we have to start - or continue - communicating with each other.  But the primary thing we should be communicating now, when US fascism is a threat is this: We will not refrain from defense of ourselves and others out of a sense of compassion and benevolence.  Rather, because we act out of a spirit of compassion and benevolence,  we will not refrain from acting until fascism, racism, sexual and other forms of oppression are extinguished.

This does not mean "the precept throws the bomb," but it doesn't not mean that we  ignore what is really meant by "skillful means," according to the Lotus Sutra.