May You Grow Two More Legs and Always Be Close to the Ground…

Recently, as I rode the bus, I observed a most delightful sight. A small dog, a Maltese, to be exact, was quickly scampering across the surface of an icy parking lot, pulling behind him a thin boy of no more than seven years of age, and perhaps, sixty pounds. The dog looked like it was having the time of its life, and the boy, if not being pulled, was also running with no obvious concern for falling. The Maltese is a small dog and quite low to the ground. Its average weight is around five to seven pounds, with a height of about six to eight inches.

As a middle-aged woman living in a climate where winters last about four to five months with lots of snow, and the cold can be bitter and prolonged, I spend quite a bit of time trying  not  to fall. Despite my ascending age, my imagination remains quite vivid, and I am constantly involved in making connections. “Making connections” is my definition for ‘learning.’

So, it didn’t take long for me to put myself in that young boy’s place, imagining how different the picture would have been had it been I walking that dog. First, I wouldn’t have been dragged anywhere; and second, if the dog had been larger, and I had the potential for being dragged, I would have definitely been fearful, being much taller than that boy, of falling. Walking on only two legs and being over five feet tall, I’d have much farther to fall to the ground than that little boy or the dog.

Then, I thought of that tiny dog’s obvious joy in being outside, scampering fairly free, with no fear of falling. It literally had nowhere to go even if its legs went out from under it! And then I thought of the “four legs” of the joy of a Buddhist’s life: the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Working to live by, and meditate on, these Four Noble Truths can help us to remain grounded and less likely to fall by constantly reminding us that not only are we not as “tall” as we think, but also that should we find ourselves “sliding” on the icy pavement of circumstance, there is a sure way to regain our footing. They remind us that suffering is part of living and that we are not alone in this suffering.

There are many renderings of The Four Noble Truths. Two of my favorites are:

  1. Life brings suffering;
  2. That suffering is a part of living;
  3. That suffering can be ended;
  4. There is a path that leads to the end of suffering.

I’m currently searching for where I found the above rendering, and hope to soon post the authorship/location.

The second rending appears on the Website, Buddhaweb.org, under the title  Essentials of Buddhism:

  1. Suffering exists;
  2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires;
  3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases;
  4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing The [Noble] Eightfold Path.

These Four Noble Truths are difficult for many to accept because the implication is that we cannot simply pray to ‘God’ to take our suffering away, or expect to live a life free of suffering, immediately and easily. I was once a practicing Christian. And before I continue, I must say that I know many Christians who take great comfort in their faith and much joy in sharing it. So, if this works for them, I am happy for them. It’s just that one day, when praying to God to make something a certain way for me, I realized that if “He” did so, it would be at the expense, happiness, and possibly even safety of others. I wondered how ‘God’ answered every good person’s prayer fairly, justly, and to everyone’s satisfaction — at the same time. I also came to the conclusion that for me, it was not “enough” for me to simply say, “It was not God’s will” when something did not go my way. I was also disheartened and dissatisfied with the idea that, sometimes, our lives simply have to be miserable, and we must just deal with it because, in the “great by-and-by,” we will one day be happy forever. This is how slaves were taught to deal with their misery. “God will reward you after you die.” The Buddha said that we can be happy in this life. This life.

This is why, today, I wish for everyone to grow two more legs and always live life, joyously, and without fear, like that Maltese —  ‘close to the ground.’

Namaste.

 

 

The Anatomy of a Head Game: When the “Fish” In A Barrel Are… People

“It’s as easy as shooting fish in a barrel…”–Anonymous
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Last year, I found myself in the position of being bullied. And I’m a middle-aged woman. I’d dealt with the situation, quite sanely, by reminding myself that I was not the only person being bullied by this man, and by remembering something that the Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön said:

“If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.”

Thinking along these lines has helped me to realize that sometimes, the only difference between my “goodness” and someone else’s “perversity” is only that I, unlike that person, am aware of the integral and overwhelming part that ignorance plays in each of our lives. And as I always like to emphasize, when I use the term ‘ignorance,’ I use it not in the common parlance of meaning “stupid” or “idiotic,” but rather in its truest sense. And for the Buddha, ignorance was, and is, the cause of all suffering…

To be ‘ignorant’ of something is to be ‘unaware of, unenlightened regarding, some issue or aspect of one’s existence, persona, or “reality.” And idiocy is not a necessary ingredient. I have, more than once, come to be truly appalled at my own actions, finding them to be based on what I can only refer to as ignorance of the most stultifying proportions (yes, the assumption here is that I am not an idiot), and it has been these types of realizations that have helped me to find compassion for people and situations where, previously, I had none.

The bullying I’d experienced was not physical, but rather verbal, with implied promises of physical violence. I eventually learned not to engage with this individual (which turned out to be an excellent strategy), thus depriving him both of any knowledge of how I truly felt about what he was doing, and any type of bearings for knowing how much further he needed to go before lighting my fuse, or even if it had already been lit.

Nonetheless, he still bothered me. I could feel myself tensing up every time I found myself in the same room with him. I was upset whenever he said anything to me because it was always foul, and I was upset when he didn’t say anything to me because I was anticipating that he would say something. Then, one day, as I walked by, I heard him say to a friend, as he stood, one foot up on the edge of a picnic table while smoking a cigarette, “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.” And they laughed.

Though I couldn’t honestly determine if that comment was directed towards me, I did realize that I had a problem because I’d taken it quite personally, anyway. I’d heard that expression, “…like shooting fish in a barrel,” at least a hundred times, but had never used it myself, or thought much about it. Generally, we take it to mean that if something is like “shooting fish in a barrel,” it’s easy. And I realized that I was, for lack of a better word, ‘easy.’ And whether he’d been referring to me or not, I was his “fish in a barrel,” his ‘captive audience,’ his ‘sure thing.’ He knew he’d riled me up on more than one occasion, and that he could do it again, whenever he wanted. So, I decided to do a little research on this popular expression.

Here’s what I found:

One of my favorite television shows is the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters; that is, if I had a television, I’d probably watch it on a regular basis. I discovered that the hosts of this popular show had actually dedicated an episode to testing the ease of shooting fish in a barrel. The hosts, Jamie and Adam, filled a barrel of water with 30 plastic fish. Using a shotgun, Jamie fired into the barrel, hitting only three of the fish, which is a 10 percent hit rate. What they were able to calculate, as a result of their experiment, is that the damage to real fish isn’t so much the bullets as the changes instituted to the fishes’ environment by those bullets. In other words:

“Fish are extremely sensitive to the slightest water pressure change thanks to a specialized organ they have called the lateral line, which detects water displacement, force and direction. When a bullet moving faster than the speed of sound strikes the water, it forms a high-pressure acoustic shockwave in front of it. The MythBusters calculated that a 9-millimeter gunshot delivers around 100 g-force units of pressure into the barrel.

Similar to how a loud noise can injure a person’s ear drum, such an intense pressure fluctuation from the ballistic shockwave would rupture the fishes’ blood vessels and mortally wound them, proving that you don’t even have to shoot a single fish to kill a barrel full of them.” –From MythBuster’s Database, Discovery.com

Again, this is all in view of the fact that while only hitting 10% of the fish, all will die…

So, how is this relevant to us as human beings? Well, it’s all about our physical, mental, and emotional environments. It’s also about our proximity to others, i.e., even if we’re concealed in “the crowd,” and it’s our neighbors taking the direct hits, those hits can still be fatal to us – and the ‘shooter’ not only counts on this, but also counts on our not knowing it. After learning of the latest Malaysia Air disaster of July 2014, the horror and revulsion we experienced was palpable and universal — except for the case of a few sick or tragically misguided individuals. We were all affected. And that’s how terrorists operate. Whether members of Al Qaeda, our workplace, or our personal living environment, their goal is to cause us to wake up in fear, and lie down in despair. When we are not actually experiencing harassment, bullying, or mortal threats, we are, instead, anticipating them. The fear and dread are, as they say, in the water…

So, we can pretend, as much as we like, that we’re not affected by what’s going on around us, by the bullets of hate and discord, but that doesn’t change the fact that human beings also have a type of special organ, similar to a fish’s lateral line, which detects violent “displacements” of what we generally consider to be the humanitarian norm. For a great many people, becoming invulnerable to such “displacements” would require something like the practice of substance abuse or the manifestation of psychopathy. As with fish, becoming invulnerable to our environment isn’t something we can do, naturally; but unlike fish, we can, nonetheless, examine, rethink, and reposition ourselves to better absorb “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” (that’s Shakespeare, baby). And this starts with learning to sever our connections to our superficial environments by following some of the last advice the Buddha ever gave: “Be an island unto yourself.” Yes, the Buddha significantly differed with John Donne’s pronouncement that “no man is an island”…

When our feelings of safety and security depend on other people’s acceptance, good will, dependability, or decency, we are destined to be forever in search of the same, and consistently disappointed. Unfortunately, and in reality, everything is in flux. The only thing that never changes is change, itself. And we must include people among those “things,” as in the Tao Te Ching’s “ten thousand things.” So, though we eventually get what we want or need, someone is always rude enough to die, have a nervous breakdown, move to another country, or simply change their mind. And often, situations which seem interminable (particularly in an unpleasant way) are just about to change, if only we can “stick it out.”

Not playing the game is a good start to personal freedom, but understanding the forces, or g-force(s), if you will, that are pressing against us on every side is the only way to truly gauge our position in the battle of wits that is daily life. It simply isn’t enough to pretend that we are above it all, especially when we are literally stuck in that most unnatural of places, “…a fish in a barrel.”

And it is exactly this kind of being ‘stuck’ that the Four Noble Truths address:

  1. There is suffering…
  2. There is a cause to that suffering…
  3. There is a remedy to that suffering…
  4. And the remedy is…

Namaste.
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Related Reading:

Obliterating A Fish In A Barrel: MythBusters (A YouTube demonstration)

Is Shooting Fish In A Barrel Easy? from MythBusters Database (brief text explanation)

And Oh, yeah… The Four Noble Truths from About.com/Buddhism

Soka Gakkai: Nichiren Buddhism’s Purported Cult…

There are three main branches of Nichiren Buddhism: Nichiren Shu; Nichiren Shoshu; and Soka Gakkai International. I am intimately familiar with the Soka Gakkai International (in the U.S. known as SGI-USA), but only marginally familiar with the other two branches.

Soka Gakkai is the best known of the three schools, and has been heralded as everything from “The Answer,” to a cult. The “president” of Soka Gakkai (SGI), Daisaku Ikeda, is, perhaps, the primary reason for SGI’s reputation of being somewhat “cultish,” but that’s only because Nichiren Shonin, himself, was a do-it-yourself separatist who taught that enlightenment was more than a distinct possibility, within  this, one   lifetime, simply by chanting “Daimoku,” and of course, living a good life. And did I mention that SGI  believes that the clergy is superfluous? So, it is not surprising that of the three schools, only Soka Gakkai is, literally, without a clergy – so being ex-communicated by Nichiren Shoshu wasn’t such a big deal… OK. That was a gross understatement. And in place of a clergy, SGI practitioners, a lay organization, are all supposed to believe that Mr. Ikeda is their “personal mentor,” – whether or not they have ever met or talked to him.

The whole “mentor” idea probably seems more “cultish” to people who are not Buddhist and are unfamiliar with the fact that “mentoring,” by a teacher, guru, Rinpoche, etc., is a common feature on the Buddhist path, particularly for those seeking more than a casual affiliation or practice of this particular faith. So, it is not uncommon to hear SGI practitioners refer to Daisaku Ikeda as “my” mentor. Personally, though I progressed in other ways, I never got that far. I’d never met Mr. Ikeda; never expected to; and even wrote him once (several months ago), and have yet to hear from him (but in all fairness, I was only one of thousands, if not millions, who write him yearly).

Another unique aspect of Soka Gakkai Buddhism is that it is, quite obviously, the most racially diverse group of Buddhists just about anywhere. Rocker, Tina Turner, and jazz musician, Herbie Hancock, are two of the best-known Nichiren Buddhists. Never, either before exploring Soka Gakkai International, or after, have I ever seen so many Black Buddhists, i.e., “Black” people (not “Black Hat Buddhists”). Honestly, one certainly expects a few Asian folks to be there, but then everybody else is usually, always White/Caucasian. Mind you, there are exceptions, but outside of Soka Gakkai, I have never met a “person-of-color” Buddhist. Literally, all of the Buddhists I’ve met, in the Detroit, Vermont, and New York areas have been, apparently, Caucasian, if not Asian (mostly Tibetan Buddhist groups). Nonetheless, there was only one sangha (Buddhist community of believers) where I ever felt not-so-welcome. And that says a lot considering the (*)Missouri Synod Lutheran Church I attended in 1995 with a friend whose minister refused to shake my little brown hand at the end of the service. You see, I was, until the age of 12, raised in the Lutheran Church. But that’s another post…

Nichiren, known as Nichiren Shonin (1222-1282), was a radical Japanese priest who so agitated his neighbors, fellow practitioners, and local government that he was, literally, persecuted for most of his adult life. I mean, there were samurai running around trying to take the man out! And once, just a few minutes before he was to be beheaded, there was a meteor shower (or something) which literally scared the hell out of the executioner and guards, leaving only him, a few devotees, and some disappointed sight seers at the chopping… stone. And the story has it that he called after the executioner to return, finish the job, and quit wasting his time…

Nichiren (correctly) predicted that there would be all manner of natural, and unnatural, disasters (during an unusually disastrous period in Japanese history and weather) due to people not practicing  his  Buddhism. He also declared himself the “Votary of the Lotus Sutra,” (the Lotus Sutra, according to Soka Gakkai, being not only the Buddha’s last great transmission, but essentially the only one which truly matters). The Votary was someone long-ago revealed, through ‘scripture,’ to be the one who would champion the true Way.

That said, Soka Gakkai practitioners are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. There were several rather close-knit ‘communities’ of them in my area. Additionally, Soka Gakkai Buddhists are the most gung-ho Buddhists around in that they aggressively proselytize, something quite foreign to most Buddhist sects, because while they truly believe that only they practice the true faith, they can get along with almost anyone but the Nichiren Shoshu sect. But again, as I said, they’re nice folks; so, they still treat everyone with respect, and not even in private did I ever hear any one of them ridicule other faiths, or sects of Buddhism.

Nichiren Buddhists chant something called “Daimoku,” which translates as “the title.” And that title is the title of the aforementioned, all-important Lotus Sutra, or “Nam(u) Myoho Renge Kyo.” Soka Gakkai practitioners do not pronounce the ‘u’ in “Nam(u).” Again, the chanting, especially because it is their primary practice, is also something that many believe akin to “cults.” But I don’t know of any Buddhist traditions where chanting is not known. So, to call SGI a cult simply because they chant is, at the very least, uninformed. Nonetheless, chanting Daimoku is so fundamental, and such a primary practice to the Soka Gakkai that almost nothing else matters. Never once did I ever attend a meeting where anything like the Four Noble Truths or Noble Eightfold Path was discussed. But I could have been in the ladies room at the time… That said, chanting ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,’ through some of the darkest days, and nights, I’ve ever known, literally saved my life. And I know this because for awhile, that was literally all I had. Though I’m no longer part of SGI, I still chant Daimoku, among other things, and always will.

Additionally, I did eventually choose to leave Soka Gakkai (though I was never officially a dues-paying member because I was unemployed). And when I did finally leave, I wasn’t hounded, or threatened, or, as far as I know, the subject of any fire-and-brimstone-she’s-gonna-burn Buddhist talks (we didn’t have ‘sermons’). In fact, except for a couple of folks, I never heard from any of them again. And it’s important that you understand I mention this only to emphasize that no one ever tried to “drag” me back, or force me to do anything – except maybe believe…

Finally, unlike other Buddhists sects, Soka Gakkai practitioners, chant, unabashedly, and at length during marathon chanting sessions for things like cars, better jobs, raises, and nice houses. They are, unlike some people, very much concerned with  this  life. And I’m not saying that that’s good or bad; I just realize that it’s a very different focus and way of defining “life.” That’s why they claim that the secret to becoming happy and wealthy is… Oh, wow, wouldja’ look at that? I’ve reached my promised “never-more-than-two-pages-unless-it’s-a-book-review limit!”

Namaste.
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(*) During the 1960s, Black people dared not enter Missouri Synod Lutheran Churches due to a longstanding ban on then-“Negro” membership. The other faction, the LCA (Lutheran Churches of America) prohibited racial discrimination. It was this part of the Lutheran Church to which my father belonged, and in which I was raised in the early part of my childhood. Even so, we were one of only two Black families in a church full of kind, loving, accepting blond, blue-eyed people named Svenson, Anderson, Olafson, and so on… And interestingly enough, that church was located in the poorest, Blackest part of town. When I visited my friend’s church in 1995 (in the same town), I had no idea if the ban had been lifted, or not, and I truly wasn’t that concerned. I only know that my reception was especially frosty, and I don’t know where the Missouri Synod stands to this day…
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Related Reading:

Is Buddhism a Religion? from mgmgfilms: The Writings of Marc Ginsburg (blog)

(1) Is Soka Gakkai International a Cult? from Sweep the dust, Push the dirt (blog)

(2) Is Soka Gakkai International a Cult? from Humanism of Nichiren Buddhism/Soka Humanism.com (Website)

A Lotus, A Scotsman, SGI, and an Open Path from Fly Like a Crow (blog)

Unshakably Happy from Making Baby Buckley (blog)

 

 

Who Are You?

Who are you?
Who, who, who, who?
[I really wanna kno-ow!]

Who are you?
Who, who, who, who?

—The Who (Who else?)

I regularly visit a Community Center in which there are two rooms: one with two PCs, a printer, and a television; the other with a lone television. The use of these items is restricted to members, but their guests, particularly if they are young children, are allowed to use them within reason. Despite signs limiting users to 30 minutes, and requesting the use of headphones when listening to music on the PCs, this doesn’t happen. In fact, the signs usually disappear or, at least, get torn down. So, lately, the World Cup has been blasting on one TV while country and rap are blasting on the two PCs adjacent to that TV. Two YouTube videos and one large television, all blasting, so that no one can really hear anything struck me not only as impolite, but imbecilic. I’ve often wondered why this seems to bother no one but me…

Yesterday, I entered the community room to find only one other person there. He was listening to a music video, without headphones, and the television was on, loud. I sat down at the other computer and began typing. The young man immediately cranked up the volume of the music video. Nope! Nothing personal. We’ve never met. I got up and turned off the television; took out some ear buds; went to YouTube, and found one of my favorite recordings of Mozart’s Requiem. Which one, you ask? Well, it’s the only one he ever wrote — and he never finished it because he died. Nonetheless, it makes me feel… happy.

The man listening to the video got up and left as soon as it finished. Immediately after, another man entered the room. And he doesn’t like me very much because I’m not “friendly.” With him. He was with his son — one of the most adorable post-toddlers I’ve ever seen. About six-years-old. Once Rocky had set up his son on the PC next to mine, with a very loud video game, he went over to the television, turned it back on, and cranked up the volume to capacity. This was personal. And he does it all the time. I didn’t’ even bother to turn around. In fact, I started swaying to the beat of Mozart’s “Offertorium.” It  really  rocks. OK. Not really. But I’m sure you get the drift.

Rocky and I have had our disagreements in the past. That no longer happens because I do my best to avoid him and keep my mouth shut no matter what he says. He’s a blatant heterosexual — who hates women (yes, I meant ‘hetero’). And all women are stupid: from the mother who gave him away, to the wife who left him for someone else. If you don’t stop doing what you’re doing to give him your 100% attention because he feels like shooting the breeze, right now, even if you’re filling out a job application on a computer that could crash at any minute (and he  knows  this), you’re a female canine. And if you won’t turn around and talk to him while he “walks” his cute son, he’ll get your attention another way — like by turning up the volume of the television — to capacity. It’s all about “him.” And believe it or not, I don’t mean this in a critical or disparaging way.

If Rocky can’t get your attention in a positive fashion, he’ll settle for it in a negative one. If you and he are not able to politely chit-chat about the shape of your behind, he’ll settle for being yelled at for having had the gall to even imagine that topic was up for discussion. Without my attention or venom, or anyone else’s, Rocky does not “exist.” He has no “identity.” He needs our praise, or our derision, because either way, we are engaging with each other. Without that engagement, he is alone. Doesn’t matter. Isn’t “somebody.” Honestly, I’ve gone from hating this man, to feeling sorry for him, to realizing that in my pity, I was actually being arrogant. Because I am still miles away from figuring out how to have a civil, decent, respectful, or sacred discussion with him about the shape of my behind, I have elected not to speak to him, at all.  I’ve come to realize that Rocky thinks that his noticing my behind is what makes me  somebody, in fact, a woman. And this is not  meanness, or evil on his part. It’s ignorance. He believes that it is other people who make us “somebody,” and that there is “somebody” (contrary to Buddhist philosophy). Truly, if we can cease to exist because someone, anyone, looks the other way, depending on how one interprets it, that says a lot, or very little…

We all suffer from some type of ignorance – even if it’s just ignorance about the existence of our ignorance. The Buddha taught, in the Four Noble Truths, that there is suffering; a cause for that suffering, a way out of that suffering, and that that way is the Noble Eightfold Path. Conquering ignorance is the only way to end suffering. And when we suffer, others suffer, by default. This is why we ‘hurt the ones we love,’ as well as everyone else.

I can’t yank Rocky out of his suffering any more than the Buddha could have yanked me out of mine. Though someone can show me the ‘Path,’ it is I who must walk it. It is I who must do the work.  And I have work to do. I suffer every day. But one thing is different. I no longer think that yelling at Rocky to turn down the volume will make me “happy.” Yes, it would make Rocky “happy” for a minute or two; and it would make the room quieter, but that’s nowhere near being a permanent solution — for either of us. So, I offer Rocky my silence because it’s as close to acting lovingly as I can get right now, and much more compassionate than blasting him for his ignorance – a malady from which we both suffer. How can I hate someone for suffering from a disease, a disease from which I, too, suffer? This is why I suspect that ‘compassion’ is very personal, and in no way related to ‘pity.’

Mahatma Gandhi said:

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

[An interesting note about the preceding quotation: The bumper stickers that say, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” are, apparently, a bastardization of this].

In closing, I’d like to share a brief excerpt, here, from the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh. It has helped me grapple with the sometimes confusing concept of personal meditation as public activism, i.e., working on oneself as a way of changing the world for the better (or as I secretly like to think of it: “being an effective ‘meditation cushion quarterback'”):

“MEDITATION IS NOT TO GET OUT OF SOCIETY, TO ESCAPE FROM society, but to prepare for a reentry into society. We call this “engaged Buddhism.” ….How do you expect to leave everything behind when you enter a meditation center? The kind of suffering that you carry in your heart, that is society itself. You bring that with you, you bring society with you. You bring all of us with you. When you meditate, it is not just for yourself, you do it for the whole society. You seek solutions to your problems not only for yourself, but for all of us.”

Hanh, Thich Nhat. (1993). Engaged Buddhism In S. Bercholz & S. Chödzin (Eds.), Entering the stream: An introduction to the Buddha and his teachings  (pp. 247-249). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Namaste.

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Related References:

The Four Noble Truths: A Study Guide by Thanissaro Bhikkhu from Access To Insight.org

What is the Eightfold Path by Dana Nourie from Secular Buddhist Association

The Noble Eightfold Path by Walpola Rahula from Tricycle.com

Falser Words Were Never Spoken from The New York Times Opinion Pages

Mozart Requiem in D minor (K. 626) from YouTube