Dharmageddon

tenor

There’s the Huns at the gate.  They don’t look like they’re messing.  Why don’t you turn your face to the wall if you find it distressing?  You can shiver in fear, feel the heat of the moment, then go ratchet it up in the sun as a kind of atonement…it’s a classic mistake, bringing water to Venice: out on the Lido, down on the lake there’s an aura of menace.  Secret words of the world are ‘engulf’ and ‘devour’.  Why is all this tyrannical shit in the soul of a flower? – Shriekback 

It’s been a little while since I gave myself a public reminder that I’m not who I think I am.  That I am not a solid, definable entity but a fluid process; and even that process is a mere phantasm of Mind.  As usual when I forget myself in this way, I’ve been mistaking Lila’s infinite and dramatic film reel for an actual series of upsetting events any one of which carries a lethal potentiality.  Regardless, it IS still reality, albeit of the relative variety as opposed to the Ultimate.  The nature of relative reality is that its appearance is relative to the observer; things apprehended through the senses are rapidly filtered through one’s memories, neuroses, beliefs and biases yielding very different results for multiple people who may be observing the same “thing”.  That said, just to get this out of the way, here is how this particular fragment of Consciousness interprets recent current events:

The buffoonish behavior of the Baby Monster currently squatting in the spot usually reserved for the arrogantly dubbed “Leader of the Free World” is providing a convenient smoke screen for lower profile but incalculably craftier and more influential puppet masters to consolidate the world stage into a battleground between seeming ideological opposites of the citizenry.  The people thus distracted and divided, these shadowy individuals hoard even more wealth and resources away from an already famished populace that never seems to notice any of it through the haze of manufactured hatred clouding their eyes.  We are perpetually on the brink of war, both at home and abroad.  Our hatred grows in direct proportion to the growth of our ignorance.  All of this has been existent in various embryonic stages for longer than I’ve been alive, but it has finally reached the inevitable point of critical mass.  Yet the greatest dramas with the most potentially dire consequences still play out right in our own living rooms with a little help from our myopic and self-grasping egos.

Did I sum that up nicely?  I sure hope so because I’m not going to say anything more about it for the simple reason that there was never anything to say about it in the first place.  We – the temporary fragments of splintered Mind – created this mess so the last thing any of us needs is an extended highlights reel.  You may protest that philosophy and metaphysics cannot change the very real dangers bearing down upon us as we continue to toxify our own habitat and imperil our increasingly tenuous coexistence and you would be right.  But I would counter that idealism is impotent.  As far as real “solutions” are concerned, the situation is quite hopeless.  And it is hopeless precisely because our minds are splintered and no one viewpoint is any more valid than the next.  I, too, am very guilty of expressing the subjective in objective terms.  Let’s start with the most common example of this confusion: as soon as I decide that some belief systems, words and behaviors are good while others are bad, I have abandoned the realm of objectivity or, if you prefer, the realm of unvarnished reality.  Whenever I use a collective pronoun like “we” to take ownership of what are actually personal viewpoints and morals, I willfully confuse the map with the territory and encourage seemingly kindred spirits to do the same.  The territory does not possess characteristics that are open to debate: it is what it is.  So while I would love to believe that at the heart of all sentient beings lies a core of wisdom and compassion, I’m afraid this has the characteristics of a pipe dream.  Buddha Nature might just be the snake oil of the East.  When I take a humanitarian position with an authoritative air, I am basically implying that love, compassion, empathy, charity, cooperation, kindness and spirituality are intrinsically good while selfishness, greed, hatred, cruelty and hedonism are intrinsically bad.   But since only fragments of fractured Mind can make such value judgments, there can never be anything like a consensus.  I feel the way I do as a result of countless influences: family, friends, culture, religion, philosophy, science, ad infinitum.  If I want to bolster a particular point, I will frequently quote others more illustrious than I in order to seemingly validate my position.  If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you’ve already seen me co-opt the words of Alan Watts, Chogyam Trungpa, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, among others.  All of these individuals espouse a worldview that has wisdom and compassion at its core.  And they are all far more adept than I at making these subjective viewpoints seem as though they were unquestionable and objectively factual.  But alas…

Imagine you find yourself engaged in a heated debate with someone whose worldview is the diametric opposite of compassionate wisdom.  You explain to them that what they espouse and how they live is of no help to anyone else and might actually engender suffering in those whose only crime is trying to live their lives in peace.  This individual might very well (and justifiably) react by shrugging his shoulders and saying, “So what?”  He will see your St. Francis and raise you an Ayn Rand.  You see, there are just as many anti-social scholars and literary masters working in the service of egotism as there are those who dedicate their words to the promotion of love and empathy and peace.  Who is right?  Who is wrong?  Such questions can only be answered subjectively; objectively, there is no right and wrong.  If, for instance, a person feels compelled to advance the cause of “white supremacy” because this notion seems to be given airtight validity by some of Nietzsche’s dissertations, how can I objectively counter this position by citing the works of opposite-minded thinkers whose views are just as subjective?  I know, I know: by imagining Rand and Nietzsche* as the philosophical muses of the survival-of-the-fittest set, I am giving most of them FAR too much intellectual credit.  Sean Hannity serves the same purpose for those who bristle at big words.  But no matter where they find their inspiration, they would probably view my position that compassion and empathy are essential virtues to be foolish.  Naïve.  Self-defeating.  Are they wrong?  Not necessarily; but then, neither am I.

Contrary to what you usually read here, I spend a lot of time shouting into my own echo chamber about matters of politics and sociology.  It’s cathartic until it becomes its own solidified ego game, as it invariably does.  Yesterday, the actor Bryan Cranston – for whom I have great admiration – made the following statement: “Donald Trump…is not the person who I wanted in the White House.  That being said, he is the president.  If he fails, the country is in jeopardy.  It would be egotistical for anyone to say, ‘I hope he fails’.  To that person, I would say ‘fuck you’.  Why would you want that?  So you can be right?”  Admittedly, I experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance when I read those words coming from someone I respect.  But what was incorrect about what he said?  How many of us can humbly and courageously internalize this point that seems to run so counter to our new hobby of protesting across stubbornly delineated battle lines?  We so easily forget that we are ostensibly striving to decrease suffering; we are NOT striving to vanquish enemies or toss sharper barbs at those with whom we disagree.  Right?

The only thing to do is to root out any and all noises in our brains that did not originate from within and then work with what’s left.  So many of our cherished opinions, values, fears, tastes and proclivities have come to us from the outside: from our parents, our friends, society, religion and culture.  The Western mind is uniquely geared towards self-gratification due to the out-sized influence of the Judeo-Christian ethos that tells us we are all unique individuals made in God’s image and possessing an eternal soul or, in Buddhist parlance, an “inherently existing self”.  Therefore, even those of us who care about the plight of those less fortunate than us do so because it is essential to our chosen image (or “eternal salvation”).  In other words, we think of ourselves while we act on behalf of others.  The Eastern mind is better attuned to a more holistic view of the phenomenal world.  We help others to help ourselves to help others, and the demarcation between self and other isn’t nearly so apparent as what we’re used to.  On the face of it, this almost seems to imply an objective superiority, but that’s only because I am the one writing these words and I happen to have adopted a second-hand pseudo-Eastern mindset that informs these online diatribes.  Neither mindset is intrinsically right or wrong.  The only thing that we can do “wrong” is act in the service of ideas that aren’t our own.  Discerning which is which, of course, is easier said than done.  How many of us know our own minds, the only things that we actually can know if we truly made the effort?  Would you be able to differentiate between an opinion that germinated from within and one that was implanted from the outside during your formative years?  For those who wish to take on the daunting task of sorting through your own bullshit to unearth what’s genuine, meditation is really the only method I know of by which this can be done.

But if meditation is not a part of your truth, you’d be foolish to pursue it.  The word Dharma does not necessarily indicate the body of wisdom contained in either the Buddhist or Hindu canons.  Taken on its own, it simply means “truth”.  Buddhadharma would be the form of the word specific to the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.  But Dharma – Truth – can be defined in as many ways as there are human beings (and possibly animals).  In order to get at your personal Dharma, you must do what I prescribed in the previous paragraph and separate the wheat from the chaff until you are left with your own pure, personal truth, whatever that may be.  Once you have accomplished that, you will no longer be capable of acting against your own interests.  Unfortunately, you may still be capable of intentionally causing suffering to others, but I do believe that more of us are at least moderately empathetic compared to those who are incapable of basic compassion.  Whether or not that’s true is irrelevant: you can only be genuine if you follow your truth, no matter what I or anyone else may think about it.

Let’s reclaim our genuine Truths so that we can go forward with confidence.  Stop second-guessing your own intuition.  Dance with the phenomenal world for as long as you are able.  This is not the path of least resistance, it is the path of No Resistance.  Float with the stream of the Tao and observe everything with interest – but don’t take any of it seriously.  Delusion imbues illusion with false veracity while clarity dispenses of such labels altogether.

There is truly nothing to fear other than our own self-made insecurities.  The outer battle may just end in total destruction.  So be it.  But the battle within is fought with gentleness and sacred silence and thus it is noble and worthwhile.  Real freedom arrives at the very moment you let yourself go.  Whoever you are, may you be happy and free from suffering and the causes of suffering.  Remember: Karma is extinguished along with illusion.

* To be clear, there is much of worth to be found in the works of Nietzsche for those who can interpret them correctly.  Ayn Rand was just an asshole.

 

The Bardo Asylum

 

mahakala

I came home last night to find myself sitting on the sofa, idly flipping through the pages of my dog-eared copy of the Bodhicaryavatara.

“Don’t be startled,” he said. “I am you. I’m not some time-traveling future you come to issue a warning nor am I an alternate version of you from a parallel universe. In fact, it’s funny that those two fantastic scenarios were the first things that came to your head when you saw me sitting here. It just goes to show that you’d rather believe any bit of sci-fi nonsense than the obvious fact that you’ve been downright duplicitous in your thoughts and behavior for nearly half a century.”

I blinked hard and looked myself in the eye. It was like staring at the reflection of my reflection in a hall of mirrors. He waved the book in the air.

“Do you believe this shit?” he said, pointing at the cover illustration of Santideva sitting on a lotus flower. “You don’t have to answer me because, of course, there is nothing you know that I don’t. That said, I’m going to speak of you — of me — in the first person from here on out in an effort to make this dialogue a little less awkward. I’m just a physical incarnation of the voice in my head. The ego voice. The voice that arises from self-awareness.”

“Not to be rude, but I prefer you in your proper state of invisibility.”

“Of course I do. As long as I refrain from looking myself squarely in the eye, I can pretend that there are countless potential higher versions of myself that can be realized with the proper training. When I see myself just as I am — the way that other people see me — it’s a lot harder to deny the fact that my potpourri of carefully selected images and ideals are nothing more than the delusional dualistic diversions of a coward. Tell me, what do I think about this whole ‘karma’ thing?”

“What would compel me to submit to an unwelcome interrogation conducted by me?”

“I’m embarrassed to have asked such an illogical question. It seems that if all of this self-conscious Buddhist practice I’ve worn on my sleeve for the past several years had had any practical effect whatsoever, I’d realize that anything I do is of my own volition. Yet, here I am resisting a conversation that I initiated.”

“I got home, opened the door and found you sitting here. I assure you, I had no intention of walking into such a situation.”

“And I was just sitting here reading when I spoiled my own quietude by walking through the door and acting surprised to find myself right where I had been all along. So let me get back to my question. I used to think of karma as some kind of cosmic justice system that ensures adequate punishment or reward for one’s actions. What can I say, my folks brought me up Catholic. But now that I’ve taken the time to learn its intended meaning, it seems to be similar to Newton’s laws of motion. Any action will create an appropriate reaction. Every cause creates an effect that creates a cause and so on. Not so mystical, is it? I was secretly disappointed when I learned the real definition. But this — this little chat I’m having — it must have been caused by an effect, right? And as counter-intuitive as it is to my understanding of basic physics, perhaps here’s the so-called mysticism I told myself I so desired. Anyway, everything I’ve ever done is significant according to the law of karma. All of the actions I’ve performed when laboring under the delusion of an inherently real self set pendulums in motion that will sooner or later reach their fulcrums and swing the other way. I wonder if I’m ready to start calling to mind some of those actions whose reactions have yet to come to fruition.”

I was starting to break out in a cold sweat and my pulse was becoming more rapid. Aside from my body double lounging on the sofa, no other features of my home were amiss. But the atmosphere felt off. For some reason, I began to think about the notion of linear time being a contrivance and how past and future exist only in the abstract. A terrifying suspicion arose in my mind that I wasn’t ready to analyze.

“This is challenging my so-called sense of logic, isn’t it? Ironically, I always eschewed the spiritual components of spirituality because they seemed so incompatible with my wishfully stoic image. That intermediate period between incarnations the Tibetans call the Bardo — I really brought my proud cynicism to bear on that one. But I’m not a Vulcan nor am I a scientist nor have I ever approached my life with logic, always emotion that I then immediately denied through verbal gymnastics, creating an artificial after-the-fact rationality. I do talk a good game, I’ll give me that. But it was just my ego — my self-cherishing — that nurtured this tendency to deny my own motives. The pendulum has been hovering at the brink of a backswing for quite some time now.”

Acting on pure instinct, I lunged at him and wrapped my fingers tightly around his throat. As I pressed deep into his larynx, I began to gasp and choke.

“Nice try. Now I’ve got bruises on my neck. Can I get on with it or must I make more ridiculous attempts to delay the inevitable?”

At that, he took a step towards me so that our noses were touching, then another to reassimilate into a single entity, a reintegration without corresponding physical sensations. There was no pain aside from that of the fresh bruises on my windpipe. Then I realized that everything around me — the walls, the floor, the furniture — was becoming watery in appearance; shimmering, shivering, and growing increasingly translucent.

At the very moment physical appearances dissolved completely, there came a pause. A timeless pause of a nanosecond or an aeon. Consciousness winked out.

***********************************

GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! Like a demon, snarling, convulsing, biting down on my own tongue, I heard the inhuman sound escape my lips and reverberate throughout the asylum. There were screws digging into my temples, my arms and legs strapped to a gurney as two grotesquely brutish men were holding my midsection down. A man in priestly vestments stood at the foot of the gurney reading Latin passages from a leather-bound book in a booming oratory. I understood every word he spoke. I understood that I had been deemed insane by a council of church elders — possessed by a malevolent spirit that could only be banished through prayer or bodily torture or death. The priest closed his missal and declared that prayer had been insufficient. I was paralyzed with terror as the men began to tighten the screws.

Yippie! We’re All Gonna Die

bomb

I watch television news for one thing and one thing only: entertainment. That’s all I want from the news; entertainment. You know my favorite thing on television? Bad news. Bad news and disasters and accidents and catastrophes. I want to see some explosions and fires, I want to see shit blowing up and bodies flying around! I’m not interested in the budget. I don’t care about tax negotiations. I don’t want to know what country the fucking pope is in. But you show me a hospital that’s on fire and people on crutches are jumping off the roof and I’m a happy guy! I’m a happy guy! I want to see a paint factory blowing up. I want to see an oil refinery explode. I want to see a tornado hit a church on Sunday. I want to know there’s some guy running through the K-Mart with an automatic weapon firing at the clerks. I want to see thousands of people in the street killing policemen. I want to hear about a nuclear meltdown. I want to know the stock market dropped two thousand points in one day. I want to see people under pressure. Sirens, flames, smoke, bodies, graves being filled, parents weeping. Exciting shit. My kind of TV. I just want some entertainment. It’s just the kind of guy I am. It’s the kind of guy I am. You know what I love the most? When big chunks of concrete and fiery wood are falling out of the sky and people are running around trying to get out of the way. Exciting shit. – George Carlin

Every now and then I have to pause and consciously choose a perspective from which to view the current state of the world. Usually, the upshot of poking through my mental grab-bag of worldviews is a continued resolve to seek meditative insight into interdependence and impermanence so that I can face challenges and emotional upheaval with ever-increasing wisdom, equanimity and compassion. Other times, my reserve of spiritual aspiration and faith in its efficacy seems exhausted and I start to lapse into a nihilistic attitude that either fails or flat-out refuses to see the point in such efforts. What yesterday I called Vipashyana meditation, today I call sitting on a mat like an idiot and staring at statues of some long-dead Indian eccentric. And the bitch of it all is that both perspectives contain equal measures of truth. Meditation has scientifically-tested potential to harness the mind’s plasticity in the nurturing of positive emotional states and egoless insight. It is also a pointless act of remaining uncomfortably motionless in the futile expectation of a miraculous infusion of non-existent esoteric wisdom. Just like quantum particles, one’s attitude toward the importance of a spiritual approach to life’s eternal flux depends on the existing subconscious expectation of the observer making the judgment.

When George Carlin delivered the rant quoted above in a 1992 stand-up performance, I had yet to embark on any sort of a spiritual journey, let alone the frequently convoluted path of Buddhist practice. My views and opinions were entirely informed by a sort of bitter nihilism fed by drugs, alcohol and depression. As you can imagine, I reacted to his giddy ode to spectacular calamity with unbridled joy. Yes! It was like a rousing call to action. What can I do, in my own little way, to contribute to the chaos and expedite the annhilation of our needlessly troublesome species? For a comedy bit, it affected me profoundly. I embraced my existential angst with a new and uncharacteristic spring in my step.

It dawns on me that had I retained such a schadenfreudic attitude into the present, I’d probably consider the antics of people like Trump, Putin and Kim Jong-Un to be the entrees in a virtual smorgasbord of entertainment suddenly laid out before me as humanity’s condition becomes increasingly precarious. It would also be self-defeating of me to remind climate change deniers of their erroneous positions because another of my favorite spectator sports would almost certainly be the mad-dash scramble of people whose homes stand directly in the path of a category 5 uber-storm. In short, I would be nothing more than a properly informed but willfully unconcerned enabler of ignorance and suffering. Truth be told, I wrote all this out so that I could see the inherent awfulness and underlying cowardice of such nihilism with renewed clarity. I’d been lately contemplating throwing in the towel. This post is a reminder to myself that the seeming comfort in abdicating effort and responsibility is nothing but a mirage. Those of us who care do so because we can’t but feel otherwise if we are being honest with ourselves. There is no escape from the vulnerability of interdependence. I breathe because you do.

The prophecies of Armageddon contained in many of the world’s major religions also seem to have been inspired by a sort of nihilism arising from a lack of faith in man’s ability to resist his baser nature. From the Universal cycles of creation and destruction called Kalpas in Hindu cosmology to the apocalyptic warnings of Christian Revelation, man’s unspoken desire to watch the whole shithouse go up in flames is readily apparent. My spiritual dilemma is not different than that of humanity at large. Quite simply, it boils down to a question each of us must answer with as much honesty as we can bring to bear upon it: Do I succumb to despair and deliberately temper the effect of the horrors befalling the human race by telling myself I welcome and enjoy them? Or do I muster the courage to acknowledge my inseparability from it all and rejoin the noble and compassionate struggle with renewed vigor?

The question is rhetorical. Love is indestructible. I’ll see you on the front lines.

Nirvana

nir

The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth. – Lao Tzu

The laws of the Universe demand that everything remains perpetually in balance. Death and life appear simultaneously, though individually we usually only experience one of these poles at a time: last year, you celebrated the birth of a child; this year, you mourn the passing of a loved one. On an elemental level, disintegration and manifestation are a singular process as matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed. The only realm untouched by the Universal law of balance (or, if you prefer, the eternally balanced stream of Tao) is that of conscious experience. Not of Consciousness, mind you, but individual temporary conscious experience. Because we are unable to apprehend anything more than a mere fraction of the information around us through our limited sense organs, we feel as if any given moment in time is one of good fortune or bad luck. This, in turn, causes us to invent and conduct ourselves according to such conceptual pairs as justice and injustice, beauty and ugliness, sinner and saint, good and evil.

This is why human life is so unnecessarily difficult.

The Buddhist concept of Nirvana is wildly misunderstood in Western culture. Much like we’ve done with the idea of karma, we have tailored the word to align with our own philosophical understandings so that most people consider it the Buddhist equivalent of Heaven. It isn’t. Nirvana is not a place, nor is it an afterlife reward for having lived a morally upstanding life. It is simply a state of mind that sees reality as it is and consequently elevates the individual who achieves it to a condition no longer vulnerable to the suffering of ignorance. Though many auspicious lamas throughout the ages have claimed attainment of such a state, I tend to think of it more as an ideal to guide us in our psycho-spiritual development.

I know from direct experience that practices designed to aid an individual in the nurturing of wisdom and calm abiding are effective. Not all are to everyone’s taste, which is why there are a myriad of diverse meditative and yogic techniques for our correspondingly diverse mindsets. I utilize what methods work best for me and can attest to an enormous personal transformation over the course of the past five years from a surly, selfish, nihilistic drunk to…well, whatever the hell you’d describe me as now. But no matter how one might choose to describe me now, it’s an improvement, I assure you. However, I am not enlightened. I do not dwell in Nirvana as I am still just as vulnerable to the dualistic illusions of Samsara as anyone. So in speaking of the Eastern wisdom traditions as I’m obviously wont to do, understand that I only seek a lessening of personal and interpersonal suffering, not its complete eradication. Though I know it’s not always apparent in the words I utilize, I am always attempting to approach matters with the motivation of pragmatism as opposed to divine mysticism.

We tend to base our views of vital issues on the concept of time as it relates to our average human lifespan. For instance, if a person spends the majority of a lifetime struggling for social justice or equal rights and in their twilight years injustice and inequality only seem to have gotten worse, this person’s final thought may be that it was all for naught. That is a shame, because every noble struggle is worthwhile. However, if we really care about such causes for reasons beyond our own self-satisfaction, we need to realize that we may not see the fruits of our labors in our lifetimes that are but a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. Acting from compassionate virtue must be its own reward. Every action sooner or later yields a corresponding reaction; incidentally, that’s the actual definition of karma, not some supernatural system of punishment and reward. So your virtuous actions will yield positive results…just maybe not as soon as you’d wish.

Due to my personal predispositions, I tend to be quite passionate about issues of equality and rights. This goes hand in hand with my spiritual understanding of the inherent equanimity of all beings. As a result, those who have read my ramblings for any length of time have come to expect occasional admonishments of those who discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and other surface-level classifications. Effective writing often demands a certain amount of hyperbolic idealism and absolutism, but I understand how things really work. In order for my words and actions to have any effect whatsoever, they must be shared and practiced by countless other individuals (and, of course, they are — usually FAR more vitally) because it is the collective mind that has to shift if any real, lasting change is to occur. Also, to avoid succumbing to discouragement, I have to understand that a massive psychic transformation on such a scale takes time. Whether I live to be 100 years old or die tomorrow, I will not be afforded the time to witness the effects of the virtuous human action of those currently inhabiting the planet. If this is the case, why struggle? Why care? Because spiritual evolution is not about the individual — it is about the forward motion of embodied Consciousness. If our selfish vantage points tell us that such efforts are futile, then we’re missing the point. Those who came before us brought us to the world we currently inhabit. We are doing the same, for better or for worse, for those who will come after us. If you are a parent, you might have a better instinctual understanding of the importance of leaving a better world for future generations. But this is something we all need to understand, whether or not we plan to pass on our genetic code.

So yes, the problems we currently face are bigger than any one of us. From the standpoint of individual efficacy, they are quite literally insurmountable. Yet I know in my heart that if we can take a broader view and drop our personal arrogance and self-protective attitudes enough to join hands and form alliances with those whose lifestyles and outlooks we may not understand, the prospects for a brighter and more cooperative future are great. Here’s hoping we can all make an effort to do just that. And if you still need a little bit of pride to sweeten the deal, I think it’s perfectly harmless to envision a new generation that truly appreciates the bold and kind efforts of its predecessor. We should aspire to go down in history, not infamy. To paraphrase a line from a cheesy Belinda Carlisle song, Nirvana is a place on Earth.  Potentially, of course.  By tapping that potential, we become timeless.

 

Not For The Faint of Heart

Impermanence

Everything is changeable. Everything appears and disappears. There is no blissful peace until one passes beyond the agony of life and death. – Shakyamuni Buddha

Though they dispense universal messages applicable to all sentient beings, the wisdom traditions of the East are a hard sell to Westerners unless the truths contained therein are watered down to an acceptably comfortable level. Invariably, when attempts are made to do just that, the end result is a pointless re-rendering of ego-stroking Western thought at the expense of the very wisdom purported to be at the heart of these impotent translations. If this is the only presentation of these philosophies that we are willing to digest, then we aren’t ready to understand the most crucial points that form the basis of Taoism, Buddhism and Vedanta.

We cling to ourselves as if there was actually something inherent in our impermanent and interdependent lives worth protecting. That is the entire problem. I can and have dissected this succinct truth and viewed it from multiple angles in the hopes that one of my redundant screeds will break through the mental barriers of those who bristled at previous presentations of the same basic, uncomplicated problem. But I play the fool when I don my guru’s hat and attempt to convince others that I have even the slightest insight into the human condition. If I truly possessed such wisdom, it would be above reproach and the arguments raised in its wake wouldn’t be worthy of consideration. Yet, more often than not, the arguments raised are more worthy of consideration than my original point.  So I continue to let others witness my habit of desperately trying to convince myself of the veracity of my own recently co-opted worldview.  Yet I still feel there’s a method to my madness.

Ego is a Freudian and therefore Western concept. In fact, the solidification of basic ignorance into psychology’s premier bogeyman could only have been accomplished in a culture that refuses to differentiate between individual freedom and personal glorification. This is why an idea like that of enlightenment being a state of non-discriminatory awareness sounds like a contradiction to us. If a system of self-betterment fails to treat each of us as precious, unique and important, it offends our culturally selfish sensibilities. The lama says that attachment is generated by an erroneous view in the separateness of the person or thing we adore or covet. The Western student counters, “But what about my beautiful wife? My adorable child?” The lama stoically repeats, “avoid attachment”. The student rolls up his yoga mat and storms out of the temple, incredulous that such an allegedly wise man could dare question the worth of the key players in his little myopic world. The lama does not flinch because he realizes that the wayward student was not ready for what he had to offer. For some, unvarnished reality is just too much to handle. A philosophy that refuses to cater to our egos and justify our stories is often viewed as cold, cruel and inhuman.

But I am as sure as I can be that we are the ones who have it backwards. Real love does not engage in attachment. Real love does not fear the loss of its object because everyone and everything is included in its scope. If Eastern notions of interdependence don’t speak to you, perhaps discoveries in the field of quantum physics are a better place to gain the same insights. Buddhism approaches this truth through liberal use of the word emptiness, something that sounds fundamentally negative to our ears. However, what is meant by the word in this context is that nothing and no one has an inherent, independent existence apart from the interconnected whole. It does not imply that the seemingly separate people we meet on our journey are devoid of worth. That’s the view of nihilism. On the contrary, the understanding of universal interdependence is meant to increase our compassion for others by reminding us that they are not other than ourselves. This means, also, that we cannot discriminate with our love; those we like to view as evil in an effort to feel morally superior are also just us, essential interlocking gears in the mechanism of consciously apprehended phenomena.

When I say that our energy is indestructible, many misinterpret this as an allusion to a soul that will retain the predilections of its earthly ego. We think we want to live forever because we have never pondered the implications of such a nightmare scenario. Death is implicit in the word life. Just as there can be no front without a back, an eternal experience is an oxymoron. Pining for this sort of personality immortality is the tragic result of superstition born of selfish grasping and fear of non-existence. The Heart Sutra, one of Buddhism’s most famous and esoteric texts, asserts that there is no existence and no non-existence. This means that the Universal dance of the unitive Consciousness goes on in perpetuity but our terms of individual experience do not. So, yes, the energy that currently animates me is eternal, but when I draw my final breath, the experience of being Paul is over. We are all rivulets making our way gradually back to the river to rejoin our original source and forget our temporary and illusory roles as individuals.

When you catch a glimpse of a rainbow arcing its illumined beauty across a cloudy sky, you would be a fool not to stop and marvel at its ephemeral glory. But you would be just as big a fool if you tried to chase it and make it your own. With every step you take towards your goal, it becomes more and more insubstantial. This is true of everything. Retain your sense of wonder and joy, your bittersweet vulnerability in the face of heartbreaking beauty. But don’t seek to solidify the Universe’s sleight of hand lest you vulgarize the magic. You cannot possess a single thing, no matter how much you may yearn to do so. But you can dance with everything for as long as you are afforded the opportunity. The trick to this very serious business is to learn how to take none of it seriously. Unselfconscious laughter is the expressive vibration of divinity.

 

Karma

dunchen

From Lhasa, the deep lowing of the dungchens roused Tenzin Gampo Norbu from his slumber in an antechamber of Shechen Monastery.  The old monk struggled to his feet, grabbed his saffron robe from a hook on the wall, and moved silently down the corridor towards the shrine for his morning meditation.  As he approached the ornate altar and settled somewhat painfully into the lotus position, he chuckled to himself that once again he was the first to arrive for sunrise devotions, the new batch of novice monks under his tutelage not accustomed to waking at this hour.  He would give them a few more days before donning a disciplinarian persona.

The lama placed his palms together and began intoning mantras.  “Om gate gate paragate parasamgate Bodhi svaha…Om gate gate paragate parasamgate Bodhi svaha…Om gate –“

                Suddenly, the monk’s meditative state was broken with a start as his mind processed what it had been seeing yet not seeing in his non-contemplative awareness.  The golden statue of Avilokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, at whose feet he had sat every morning for the past thirty-five years, was crying blood red tears.  The subtle smile upon the statue’s lips remained, but the viscous liquid escaping its eyes in periodic droplets stained the brilliance of his lovingly sculpted cheeks with russet trails.  He rose tentatively from his straw mat and approached the icon.  With the tip of his index finger, he wiped at one of the fresh narrow stains and was startled that it had the consistency of actual blood.  He had heard tales of such phenomena associated with Christian idols, recounted to him by the frustrated missionaries who had periodically visited Tibet decades before the Chinese invasion in a futile effort to convert the devout Buddhists of the country, but had always secretly guessed that these were simply myths accepted as truth by those desperate Western eternity-seekers.  Invariably, such “miracles” were interpreted by the faithful as harbingers of grave events to come.  But there were no parallel legends in the Mahayana tradition.  Still, he felt most unsettled, feeling a new empathy toward those few proselytizing westerners who had been rugged and determined enough to traverse the dangerous Himalayan terrain.  Settling back onto his mat, he pondered the nature of the great Bodhisattva.  The emanation of Chenrezig, as this perfect embodiment of lovingkindness was also known, was only apt to intervene in corporeal affairs when someone, somewhere was suffering unspeakably…and alone, long abandoned by anyone who would care to feel a single iota of compassion.  Rinpoche bowed his head and chanted anxiously.  Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum…

 ********************************

                Ed sat bolt upright in his damp bed, slick with sweat,  bangs of gray hair plastered to his forehead.  Another nightmare, replete with phantasmagoric images so real and persistent that they had come to serve as his defacto alarm clock.  Until recently, the contents of his dreams had evaporated within the first few moments of awakening, his several hour long “nightcap” effectively dampening his brain’s ability to maintain a steady state of REM sleep.  But ever since Joan died, he had been unable to preemptively drink away the frightful reveries of his subconscious.  These were no mere nightmares, either.  Each scene that had played behind his darting eyeballs for almost a year now was a meticulous reproduction of an event that had actually occurred in his past.  Invariably, these dreams caused him to relive long forgotten moments wherein he had behaved most monstrously towards Joan, his children, his colleagues, even himself; but regret was not something to which Ed was inclined.  No, these relentless chimeras bothered him for an entirely different reason: they seemed, somehow, to be retributive warnings, as though some great avalanche of cosmic justice was poised to come crashing down on him.

Leaning on his walker for support, Ed threw the bathrobe with the faded VFW insignia over his shoulders and plodded into the kitchen.  He grabbed a tumbler out of the cabinet, filled it halfway with flat store-brand cola and topped it off with a generous shot of Scotch whiskey.  Having no further need for the soda, he placed it back into the refrigerator and left the half gallon of Scotch on the table for easy access.  Resting the glass between his distended beer belly and the top rung of the walker, he hobbled to his La-Z-Boy recliner in the living room.

*Click*

“…and several members of the Congressional committee have questioned the President’s reluctance to take a firmer stand against Hamas in the wake of last week’s violent unrest…”

“Fuggin’ commie Muslim ape,” Ed slurred aloud in obedience to the Fox News staff whose job it was to ensure that men of his generation never reflected upon the validity of their views or the fear behind their hatred.  Letting the sound of the newscast fade to a background hum, he hoisted himself laboriously out of the chair and snatched the bottle of whiskey from the kitchen, returning and placing it on the end table next to him.

Last night, he relived a particularly animated shouting match with Joan that must have occurred some time in the late 1970’s.  Ed bellowing maniacally at Joan for any minor offense, real or perceived, had been par for the course throughout their 40 year marriage.  But on this particular occasion, in the hallway just outside the kitchen where the kids were slurping up the chocolately-brown milk from their Cocoa Puffs, Joan had had the audacity to yell back.  This uncharacteristic display of courage arose from the fact that Ed had now stolen from his children, though he didn’t remember doing so; the Dutch Masters cigar box they had been filling with babysitting and lawn mowing funds to finance a family vacation to Disney World now empty in Karen’s sock drawer.  Karen and her brother Joseph tried to ignore the increasing volume of the argument until – WHAM! A sickening sound of bone into flesh as Ed delivered a shattering blow to his wife’s nose and left her whimpering on the floor as he stormed off to the bathroom.

Clink-glug-splosh-gulp, one; clink-glug-splosh-gulp, two; clink-glug-slosh…

Ed wondered fuzzily if these moralistic nighttime reminders were sent by God as a warning or by Satan as a mockery.  The two principal polar entities of the Judeo-Christian mythos offered the most simplistic, and therefore acceptable, explanations for everything that could possibly occur and as such, Ed never questioned their validity, though he did seem to have trouble understanding the rules of the game.   Clink-glug-splosh-gulp, clink-glug-splosh-gulp…darkness crept into the periphery of his vision as his head settled back onto the recliner, a sporadic buzzsaw snore lifting his Adam’s apple nearly clean out of his throat.

Five year old Joseph ran across the modest patch of urban lawn that passed for a front yard, arms outstretched, barely able to contain his excitement as his dad exited the car in his rumpled business suit and started toward the house.  “Dad!  Dad!  I got a A on my science project! “  As he latched onto his father’s pant leg in delirious elation, a curious foreign scent filled his nostrils.  “What’s that funny smell, Daddy?  It smells like a lady.”  Rather than place the blame on himself for overlooking the lingering perfume on his clothes, Ed mentally raged at the whore who should’ve known better than to wear such a pungent fragrance when meeting a married client and grabbed his son forcefully by the throat.  “If you say a goddamn word to yer mother about that funny smell, I will kill you.  I will take you down to the basement, tie you to a chair, and slit your stupid little throat with a razor, d’you understand me?!”  “yes..s-sir,” he managed weakly through his constricted windpipe.  “I SAID DO YOU HEAR ME, DAMMIT!  TALK LIKE A MAN!”  Ed relaxed his grip slightly, revealing bilateral bruises on either side of the boy’s neck.  “Yes, Sir,” he said again.

“What the—“ Ed was jarred back into wakefulness by the sound of a semi’s horn just outside the front window.  “Shit,” he whispered, wiping a line of drool from the corner of his mouth.

Clink-glug-splosh-gulp, clink-glug-splosh-gulp, clink…Ed dangled the bottle impotently above the rim of the glass for several dumbfounded moments.   “Son of a —great, just great.”  He rose from his seat and pulled back the threadbare curtain from the front window, double-checking that his car had made it back home with him yesterday.  Without bothering to grab his coat, he started toward the door.  Just as he reached for the doorknob, his foot caught a snag in the carpet and he felt himself falling headlong, as if in slow motion, until he hit the floor with a dull thud.  “Shit!!  This crummy house will be the death of me,” he grumbled as he attempted to struggle to his feet, but to no avail.  The brittle bones in both of his ankles had snapped in his twisted descent, though he was too inebriated to feel the pain.  He glanced helplessly back at his chair and saw that the telephone was in its charger on the wall behind it, far out of reach.  Like an upside-down tortoise, Ed wobbled back and forth, realizing in increasingly overwhelming waves of desperation that he would not be able to stand up of his own accord, no matter how hard he tried.  Nobody would come to his rescue, since nobody ever came to see him, including his children who had long since moved out of state with their respective families.  For the first time in his seventy-five years, Ed began to feel remorse, albeit of a selfish variety.  No one to save him.  No one to forgive him.  No one to fetch him liquor as he convalesced.  No one to bury him when he died.  No one.

Already the withdrawals were starting.  He clawed at the shag of the carpet, the pain in his ankles becoming steadily more acute, awaiting the onslaught of delerium tremens.  From above, a commercial on the TV taunted him: “Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey, made with the finest grains, aged and filtered through sugar maple charcoal.  Don’t settle for anything less.”  Ed whimpered as a solitary tear meandered down his stubbly face and came to rest in his ear.  Outside, across the street, children were laughing in the late morning sunlight.  Pressing his palms over his ears like a petulant child refusing to listen to his mother’s orders, Ed began to pray through his chapped lips.  “Our fadder, who art’n heaven, hallobeethy name…”, simultaneously counting each pass of the dusty blades of the ceiling fan.

*************************************

                Tenzin Gampo Norbu opened the leatherbound volume of the Bardo Todol in his lap.  This antique edition of the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead had once belonged to the 14th Karmapa and had been given to him by the Dalai Lama himself after his ordination at the Potala Palace.  His eyes fell upon the page to which he had opened:

The Lower Circles of Samsara

II. The Realm of Hungry Ghosts

those men whose passions overruled their innate wisdom will spend a thousand times a thousand kalpas in this realm, until the karma caused by selfish grasping has been exhausted.  ever-starved and parched, their pinhole throats will not accommodate so much as a single swallow of sustenance, though temptations arise unabated and just out of reach…

                The monk had been unconsciously licking his lips, an alien desire growing to overwhelming proportions in his mind.  Breaking out in a series of cold sweats, he slowly realized that he was detoxifying, though the precepts he had taken as a boy ensured that he had never tasted a drop of liquor throughout his long life.  He thought back to yesterday morning, the scarlet tears on the countenance of Avilokitesvara, the furious Tonglen session he had performed for an unknown person whose suffering was so great that it elicited the grief of the Bodhisattva.  Tonglen, the practice of taking on another’s suffering through the in-breath, extending warmth and compassion through the out-breath, finally revealed itself to be so much more than the symbolic gesture he had always assumed.  Closing the book, he stood and made his way to the front gate of the monastery, in search of a peasant vendor selling strong barley-brewed chang at one of the scandalous roadside stands dotting the road from Kham to Lhasa.

 

The Magic Interval

avi

Well, if it’s so deep you don’t think that you can speak about it, don’t ever think that you can’t change the past and the future. You might not think so now, but just you wait and see — someone will come to help you. – Kate Bush

There is a gap between action and reaction. An infinitesimal interval, a flash between off and on, too fleeting for the conscious mind to perceive. As far as we’re concerned, this pause does not exist. But it is, in the truest sense, the most crucial moment of everything we’ve ever experienced, said or done. In fact, it’s the moment of creation. What is created in this unregistered blip on our internal radar screens is the essence of all that will follow.

Someone cuts me off in traffic. Later on, I relate the story with bravado, “As soon as that asshole pulled in front of me, I laid on the horn and flipped him off.” Wrong. As soon as ‘that asshole’ pulled in front of me, my subconscious scanned my entire history of memories, conflicts, opinions, prejudices, humiliations, fears, perceived victories and perceived failures. It searched ego’s stock of masks, roles and images. Regardless of its final choice, still it imperceptibly looked at the level of importance I attached right at that moment to the virtuous notions of empathy, understanding and forgiveness. Finally, it decided that understanding the possible motives of a total stranger at rush hour was not worth the effort, then – and only then – did it instruct my conscious mind to pummel my horn and extend the obscene gesture. That’s an awful lot of activity occurring in less than a nanosecond, but still I made the regrettable choice in this hypothetical traffic confrontation.

Some might ask why it was the regrettable choice. That driver cut you off, right? That’s dangerous! Fuck him! And of course, it was a pretty mild road rage event that I just described and thus probably wouldn’t really have had all that significant of an effect on the recipient of my ire. Within minutes, all involved would most likely have forgotten all about it. Except that we never forget. Everything we do, everything we feel, everything we say creates the perpetually new paradigm called “You at this moment”. That’s the only “you” there is (and even that you’s existence is debatable, but one convoluted topic at a time, right?).

We can learn to gradually access that gap through meditation. The type of meditation to which I’m referring is not a matter of meditating about anything. It’s the practice of non-conceptual awareness. And it’s a bitch. I’m not trying to say that the act of sitting still is a bitch. Sometimes I can sit still for hours on end and I assure you, it’s easy as pie (again, contemplating ‘just how easy is pie?’ would require a blog post unto itself). What is exceedingly difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible, is achieving the willingness to let go of yourself completely. Many people who are keen to embrace a new-agey lifestyle filled with yoga and mantras and meditation tend to define letting go of themselves as something whose progress they can mark by how many minutes or hours they dedicate to self-conscious breathing techniques and how good of a write-up their “guru” received in the Shambhala Tricycle. This kind of “spirituality” is futile. Ego runs rampant through such endeavors and all one can reasonably learn from years of this kind of spiritual materialism (thank you, Trungpa Rinpoche) is what flavor of incense they prefer to have smoldering in the yoga studio.

To lose oneself completely means to forget who you are – to stop the flow of thoughts that seem to come at you from the past and the future. This only sounds frightening to those who haven’t tried it. But in fact, every single one of us enters a realm of no-self every single night in dreamless sleep. You, quite literally, die every time you drift into unconsciousness. When you wake up, everything looks as it did when last you were conscious and this makes you assume that you have been alive in an uninterrupted time stream whose duration is always increasing. Yes, your vital functions continued as you slept. Your body did not die, obviously. But is your body “you”? If you define yourself by your physical form, then you are a completely different person every seven years as every cell died and was replaced according to your DNA blueprint.

Your mind isn’t “you”, either, but it is capable of crystalline awareness unfettered by notions of self. This type of awareness isn’t thought. It does not express itself in language or symbols. When a bird swoops from a tree in a graceful arc in front of eyes seeing without self, without concepts, it is seen – and more clearly than usual, because the experience isn’t polluted with the concepts of “bird” or “tree”.

Why is it so important for us to learn how to access this Mind, this Self that is by its very nature unconcerned with self? Because it only exists in the gap, the moment of creation. Without this Mind that lives in the gap, the Universe would not have materialized and there would be no life. This Mind belongs to no one because the apparent existence of separate personalities with individual destinies is an illusion. A man-made fiction. The gap that I previously described as infinitesimal is also eternal. And we have always been abiding there as one. Before we were “we”, We created the Universe, and We continue to create it moment to moment, but non-linearly, always now.

The imaginary man in the car who cut me off was me. He was you. My split-second decision to express my anger actually resulted in a middle finger extended directly at my own face. This is pure folly. Be kind to yourself. Love yourself. The only way to do this is to love everyone with perfect equanimity. Every single person you meet is a mirror. I look at you looking at me looking at you and down the rabbit hole we go! Our bodies and minds become insubstantial, leaving only the Love that plays a never ending game of hide and seek in and with our temporary selves. If you can’t enjoy this game, it’s not worth playing. So play on and enjoy every moment, my beautiful friends.