Let’s Talk About Sex: The Third Precept of Buddhism…

“I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct (unless you’re a monastic, in which case you don’t get any sex, at all) –The third precept of Buddhism

I’ve spent the bulk of the last three weeks conducting extensive research, as well as taking some math refresher courses, because I’d begun to question whether the number three does, indeed, follow the number two. The reason I’d begun to doubt my numerical literacy was because if the number three does follow the number two, then that would mean that after already addressing the first and second precepts, I’d have to discuss the third (sex!)… So, I embarked on a massive research process to determine if the number three in Sanskrit, or Pali (the language closest to what the Buddha probably spoke) didn’t mean something like “the number following 5,365, 482,001.” Oh, well… Finally, after unexpectedly posting a piece on Donald Trump earlier this week, I decided that if I can discuss him on my blog, I can discuss anything…

Many people are under the impression that the Buddha didn’t think too highly of sex. If this has been your impression, you are greatly misinformed. The Buddha’s father was a king named Suddhodana, and the Lord Buddha, (prior to becoming the Lord Buddha), was known as Prince Siddhartha. Soon after the birth Prince Siddartha, a holy man informed King Suddhodana that Siddhartha would either be a ‘Buddha’ or a great king; but like any king, Suddhodana wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, eventually taking his place. So, the king set out to make sure that Prince Siddhartha wanted for no material happiness and that he was always too distracted by pleasure to think about such annoying trivialities as Oneness with the Atman, or human suffering. These distractions eventually included not only an unbelievably beautiful wife, but a very large harem, i.e., other women with whom he could engage with sexually whenever he desired. In addition to wanting for nothing, the king also made sure that his son had no exposure to the external world and its truths: old age, sickness, death, impermanence, etc. So, it’s fair to say that for a good while, Prince Siddhartha was probably happier than most people.

Supposedly, it wasn’t until Prince Siddhartha was nearly 29 that he decided to leave the palace and go on a day trip, accompanied by his friend and personal charioteer, Channa. It was during this trip that he encountered for the first time in his entire life, what today are known as “The Four Sights,” i.e., (1) an old man; (2) a person suffering from a terminal illness; (3) a dead body; and (4) an ascetic whose quest was to find the cause of “human suffering” (refer to sights one through three). Shocked that people aged; sickened that they became ill and died in the middle of the street (quite literally); and just not ‘feeling’ that dead body, or the fact that such was his fate, Siddhartha saw great value in following the example of the ascetic (the fourth sight), as it appeared to him that he was the only person he’d encountered that day who, for some reason, was not suffering. Finally, to put the icing on the Gulab Jamun, upon returning to the palace, the king, just to be sure Siddhartha hadn’t discovered temperance earlier in the day, arranged for beautiful dancing girls to welcome him back… as only “dancing” girls can do. This might have worked to lift Siddhartha’s spirits except for the fact that after the after-party, as he was walking back to his digs, he observed the dancing girls, exhausted, perhaps intoxicated, sprawled on the floor in varying states of unconscious disarray and disrobement, snoring, drooling, and no longer sporting that Cover Girl look with their sweat-smeared makeup . Not so sexy. Not sexy at all…

So, how, wondered Prince Siddhartha, do we deal with the ruthless, never-ending, unrelenting forces of change, i.e., impermanence? How to deal with the fact that he, himself, would soon look like the sick old man on the side of the road? How to deal with the fact that his dancing girls, who could now “drop it like it’s hot,” would soon, simply be dropping dead? Clearly, it would take some alone time, not to mention very deep thought, to work this out… Soon enough, he began to see his wife, his newborn child, his father’s political ambitions for him, and his dancing girls for what they were: distractions. And all of a sudden, he realized that despite all he had, he wasn’t happy anymore, or more likely, had never truly been…

Fast forward a couple years and Siddhartha is now an ascetic, observing the practices of not only denying his body all pleasure, and just about all nourishment, but also observing such special meditation practices as sitting by corpses, at charnel grounds, or on the side of the road where these unfortunate people had died without hope of cremation, much less being laid out at a charnel ground. This type of meditation, known as “corpse contemplation,” is still practiced today by some, but now with photographs, or visits to morgues. The point of such meditations, in a pistachio nutshell, was to expose them to the truth, i.e., that sexy as we may be today, tomorrow we’ll be wrinkled, literally tripping over a fair number of our appendages, and much less able to hide the fact that we are little more than “skin sacs” of blood, feces, and urine, soon to be riddled with maggots. And did I mention pus? Well, the Buddha did; so, I really needn’t have bothered…

So, you’re probably wondering when we’re going to get to the “sex,” and what all this talk of pus and maggots has to do with sex? Well, let’s fast-forward, once more, and just say that the Buddha eventually had to lay down some hard law regarding sexual abstinence. This is why you will find, in the Buddhist Canon, some amazingly detailed and shocking examples of what NOT to do. You see, sex with women was a huge no-no, but sleeping with dead women, which had not previously been overtly stated, seemed to require some extra detail for some… Boys will be boys… And I truly don’t mean to be sexist, but it would be a bit difficult for a woman to perform the same type of act with a dead man, if you know what I mean…

Sex with farm animals was also a no-no. And interestingly enough, there was even a hierarchy of what was worse than what. Please keep in mind that these various sexual proclivities, sometimes activated by pure “horniness,” are not Buddhist practices, but simply the Buddha’s acknowledgement of what was happening around him. Truly, the Lord Buddha was the personification of “keeping it real.”It’s fairly surprising that the Buddha was as cool about sex as he was because others’ sex drives were somewhat problematic. One example is the case of Sudinna, one of the Buddha’s monks. Supposedly, fairly early in the Siddhartha’s career as The Buddha, Sudinna had yielded to his mother’s request that he “provide a seed,” by laying with his former wife, so that the family’s bloodline could be continued and the family’s wealth not be lost to the government. Apparently, the Buddha was not happy about this ‘entanglement,’ and soon after laid down the law on celibacy for monks known as the vinaya, i.e., monastic disciplinary code. In one part of the vinaya, it says:

“Whatever monk should indulge in sexual intercourse is one who is defeated [parajika], he is no longer in communion [with the monastic order].”

Fast forward several more years, and Prince Siddhartha is now The Enlightened One, The Buddha. Even after everything he’d been through, he never said that sex was “bad.” He just didn’t think it was good for… monastics. And he knew that not everyone wanted to be a monastic, and certainly didn’t expect that. Terms such as “lay person” and “householder” came to represent those who followed the “faith,” but still elected to live “in the world,” i.e., marrying, working, bearing and raising children, and having sex… The monastic’s goal, liberation/nirvana, could, arguably, not be achieved on a part-time basis, when children, spouses, career demands (or just plain eeking out a miserable subsistence) also competed for one’s time and attention. The holy life was about freeing oneself of attachments, not daily acquiring more of them.

In the above quotation, the term “parajika” refers to an offense serious enough to require immediate expulsion from the monastic order. Examples of parajikas include:

“A monk commits parajika if he engages in consensual penetration of various orifices of a living female (human, animal or spirit), a person with non-conventional sexual characteristics, another monk, or even himself (cases of one monk’s supple back and another’s pliable penis are cited.”

–The Problem with Sex According to Buddha, Paul David Numrich

Yes, you heard me “right.”

Interestingly enough:

“Penetration of a decomposed corpse is also parajika, but penetration of an almost fully decomposed corpse is only thullaccaya, a third level offense…”

–The Problem with Sex According to Buddha, Paul David Numrich

Note: The term “third level” offense in the above quotation is an example of the “hierarchy” of offenses to which I referred priorly.

Obviously, there were a few folks who, though living the “holy life,” weren’t quite ready to give up the sexual aspects of the lay life (no pun intended)… I suppose it’s a little difficult to “rape” a corpse, or call it “consensual” sex, or even “non-consensual,” for that matter.. So, for numerous reasons, the Buddha was compelled to be detailed in his requirements for the comportment of his monastics. But as for the rest of us, not so much.

Now this is where it truly gets interesting. There was no condemnation of homosexual behavior in early Buddhism. This came later, way after the Buddha had died. As far as we can tell, for the Buddha, sex was sex, and if you wanted to be a monastic, you couldn’t partake in any type of it. As for “householders” (non-monastic/lay Buddhists), sex was fine. So, when lay Buddhists “take” the third precept, they say that they will abstain from “sexual misconduct”; whereas, the monastic version of this precept requires vowing to abstain from sexual activity of any type. Ever. The exception to this rule is when lay Buddhists visit monasteries for extended periods of time, which I did last year. While there, besides removing all my piercings (bodily decoration also being prohibited in one of the precepts), I also had to take the monastic version of the Third Precept (not to engage in any type of sexual activity, at all). Upon leaving the monastery, I was free to continue in that fashion, or not.

As a result, lay Buddhists can be homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or even automonosexual (those who are sexually attracted to themselves, alone). Additionally, “misconduct” for lay Buddhists is also quite different than it is for monastics. For example, if a married couple (gay or straight) decide that they want to have an “open” marriage, it’s fine so long as both partners agree that that is what they want to do. Of course, we know that this is easier said than done. Too often, one partner consents to such an arrangement out of fear of losing the other. Additionally, if two married couples decide to engage in “swinging” with each other, it must be with the full consent of all four individuals because the concepts of “cheating,” and “consensual” do exist. So, it is not enough that the sex be consensual between two people if other spouses, boos, or other committed individuals are involved with one of those two individuals.

Abstaining from all sexual activity has generally been considered to be necessary for those Buddhists whose sole goal in life is to achieve liberation. Nonetheless, there are a great many contemporary articles and discussions that claim that one need not be unmarried or celibate to “become enlightened.” And there are those say the same with a slight twist, i.e., that it will take those who are married, or sexually active, longer to become enlightened because they, quite literally, carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and in their responsibilities to family, employers, and others.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not, once again, address the topic of homosexuality during this especially difficult election season when States are suing President Obama for relief as a result of what are now known as the “bathroom laws,” among other things, with regard to restroom accommodations for transgender(ed) individuals. The Buddha, apparently unlike Jesus, or anybody else, did not have anything to say about this. There are some references to individuals who were rather “undecided,” sexually, or both undecided and prostituting, but one would have to have studied some Pali and probably be a monastic to even know where to start with that. These issues only became “hot topics” in Buddhism after the Buddha’s death — rather in the way that it often seems to be the most homophobic lawmakers, and even monastics of all faiths, who eventually get caught in the back seats of cars with under-aged boys.

So much for “brief commentary.”



If Buddhists are So Pessimistic, Why Do We Persist in This Futile Quest to Convince You Otherwise?

A not uncommon view of Buddhists is that we are exceedingly pessimistic and macabre. It’s difficult to argue with this because we read, everywhere, that the Buddha taught that “life is suffering.” Period. And of course, it’s difficult for people to accept this view because many of us are happy, at least part of the time, in between our sufferings. Thankfully, though, the Buddha said, “I teach one thing, and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering” (which, admittedly sounds like two things). His point was not that life is solely about suffering, but rather that suffering is our main problem, and the one that we all share — whether we admit it, or not. Additionally, as our critics well know, the Buddha actually suggested corpse meditation as a fine way of ‘getting real,’ though modern technology has allowed us to somewhat modify this practice and use photographs, instead… And even today, many monastics attend autopsies as a type of meditation on the impermanence of the body, and all things… Not surprisingly, it is not recommended that one undertake such types of meditation except under the supervision of a skilled, experienced practitioner. Nevertheless, there are instructions, from the Buddha, in the Satipatthana Sutta (I wouldn’t click that link if I were you…).

Have I ever meditated beside a corpse? No. Would I ever meditate beside a corpse? Probably not. I’m still trying to recover from exposure to the dead cat, in full rigor, placed on our table in biology class back in 1978. I had to be helped out of the room by two classmates. And at the end of the semester, my kind, but disgusted instructor offered to give me a passing grade if I promised to never, again, take another biological sciences course. Yes, really.

But this was a type of meditation (and medication) that the Buddha prescribed to his followers so they could learn to get real about suffering, decay, and termination from everything to our hopes and dreams, our children, our social status, the means of our talents, and of course, our very own bodies. And this provides the perfect segue into The Four Noble Truths, the Buddha’s prescription for the disease of “suffering,” also interpreted as ‘dissatisfaction.’ The Buddha’s given name was Siddhartha, not Buddha. Buddha is an honorific title meaning “Enlightened One.” Notably, the Buddha was also known as the “Peerless Physician,” precisely because he was a brilliant healer. Thus, when, in his first sermon, he revealed his Four Noble Truths, the foundation of Buddhism, he presented them in the same model as physicians of his time, in India, presented their own medical cases:

The Four Noble Truths

  1. There is suffering;
  2. Suffering has a specific cause;
  3. The ’cause’ of suffering can be ended while one is still alive (as opposed to in the Great By-and-By);
  4. The way to end suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Medical Model

  1. Identify the illness;
  2. Explain the cause of the illness;
  3. Reveal the cure for that illness;
  4. Demonstrate the treatment.

The Four Noble Truthes Contextualized Within a Medical Model

1. Identify illness and symptoms (The Buddha’s ‘patients,’ the human race, have ‘presented’ with with a number of symptoms indicative of a grave, terminal disease that he has identified as ‘suffering’).

2. Present diagnosis (The Buddha as determined the causes of the disease as clinging/craving/desire, i.e., we literally make ourselves “sick with (or by) ‘want'”).

3. Reveal cure (The Buddha explains how this disease can be cured, i.e., how we can stop victimizing ourselves with our own unhealthy, unreasonable clinging to unrealistic expectations and desires).

4. Demonstrate treatment (The Buddha prescribes following the Noble Eightfold Path as the cure).

I have highlighted the second noble truth, the cause or diagnosis of suffering, because it is precisely here that we learn the cause of the common, all-pervasive disease of suffering. Here, ‘clinging’ or ‘craving’ or desire, means our tendencies to want everything and everyone to be or act certain ways – ways that make sense to us, or seem right… to us. For example, there’s someone at our workplace who is driving us insane. We hate them with a passion. If only they’d transfer, or just die… But it appears that neither of those things will occur anytime soon. So, we seethe and suffer, inside, or sometimes engage in non-productive displays of temper, fueled by our suffering or dissatisfaction with their behavior. If enough time passes and nothing changes, we can either leave, or wait until they, or we, get fired. Or, we can change our perception of the situation through a specific process of “letting go,” and finding that we are not, as we feared, then un-moored or humiliated or weak…

Another example of how clinging/craving trips us up, and much more helpful to me, though much more general, is this: We consistently suffer because people and situations are not as we expect or want them to be. Then, when we finally get what we want, we suffer because we’re afraid that those situations and people won’t stay that way. And guess what? They won’t! Damned if we have, damned if we don’t! And the reason for this is the Law of Nature that the Buddha discovered and revealed (not created and implemented like some god). Impermanence. Everything is constantly changing.

Birth, joyous occasion it may be, is but the start of the journey towards death. Your beautiful child’s first tooth means that they are “gwoing” up; but it also means that they are getting older, and are, as every day, one day closer to dying. And as many parents know, children don’t always outlive their parents… Don’t like that? Whatcha’ gonna do about it? Flowers wilt; houses burn down; companies downsize; dancers get arthritis, and boobs (and other sets of things) sag. You might call that morose or pessimistic, I call it practical. It is only by acknowledging reality that one can expect to master it – or just deal with it…

Change can be one of the worst and scariest things in the world; yet, it’s also one of the best. Without change, those of us in impoverished states would never have the opportunity to improve our lots. Those of us suffering from terminal diseases would simply linger forever, instead of dying. And those of us doing well, could have no hope of doing better. Change is not only a terminator; it’s an equalizer, and sometimes even our champion. But it moves at its own pace, and plays out to its own satisfaction, first, and ours only secondly. So, if we don’t saddle up and ride hard, we’ll just get trampled underfoot. This is the underlying toughness in the so often inappropriately passive depiction of true grace.

Admittedly, change is a bitch. Nonetheless, no amount of crying, railing, hoping, praying, bribing, cursing or pretending can stop change from occurring. Buddhism asks us to stop expecting the impermanent to act as if it is permanent, and to recognize the un-reality of our synthetic “realities.” Buddhism asks us to stop trying to control the uncontrollable, and to stop expecting some “just” God to step in and act unjustly by not punishing us even when we know we deserve to have our asses whooped (though, of course, everybody else should get theirs whooped, particularly if they’ve wronged us…).

Buddhists don’t believe that one can spend one’s life screwing everyone over; then, at some beneficially and luckily timed deathbed conversion, be forgiven for everything and go to heaven. And Buddhists don’t believe that should one not convert in time, say, due to an untimely decapitation or stray bullet, that one will be raised from the dead, sentenced to a second death, and then spend eternity in a state of execution-but-not-dying, by frying like a gasoline-soaked flat of bacon on a rotisserie fueled by The Eternal Flame. Buddhists believe that if one’s negative consequences don’t find one in this life, they’ll find one in another, or another, or another… And this is why we are thankful that change is the only constant because what this means is that there will never be a “final judgment,” just seemingly endless suffering until we decide to follow a more fruitful… path.

Doesn’t sound so pessimistic to me…



Suggested Readings:

Years of ‘Corpse Meditation’ Now Serving Monks Well from The Washington Times

Life Isn’t Just Suffering by Thanissaro Bhikkhu from Access to Insight.org

Four Nobel Truths (Part I) from Buddhanet.net

All of Us, Beset by Birth, Decay, and Death by Sister Ayya Khema

The Number One Killer of Women…

Since leaving my full-time position in 2011, I’ve made my living doing something which my mother (my mother!) once told me I was incapable: being spontaneous. So, I’d been working a rather long string of part-time, temporary positions. In a bid to enter the full-time workforce once again, I recently decided to reassess my skills, seek training where needed, and revise my resume. Several weeks ago, just one day after applying for a position, I received a phone call inviting me to interview for a full-time position (I interviewed the next day, got the job, and that is why I took a little time off from this blog). While preparing my interview outfit, I suddenly felt compelled to add my “Little Red Dress” pin, the symbol for the  Go Red For Women.org  campaign. This campaign is near and dear to my heart because unbeknownst to many, heart disease is the number one killer of women, and this campaign is dedicated to making sure that everyone knows it.

For women, the symptoms of heart disease are much subtler than for men. As a result, a women can be in the midst of a heart attack and have no idea. Often, by the time a woman decides to seek medical attention, it can be too late. Admittedly, though I was not sure how appropriate such a piece of jewelry was for a job interview; I placed the pin on my lapel, trusting that it was the right thing to do. Interestingly enough, it would be only a matter of hours before I discovered that it was, indeed, the right thing to have done.

After what seemed like a successful interview, I decided to celebrate by going to Starbuck’s and purchasing an Oprah Chai Tea Latte, which unlike Oprah, I could then ill-afford. And I further justified this splurging by reminding myself that every Oprah drink purchased provides a donation to the cause of education – and we all know how much Buddhists loves causes – and effects…

Now, this is where things got truly interesting. The line at Starbuck’s was so long, I nearly left the store, twice. And despite being in the part of the line that was inside the store, it would be over half an hour before I got my drink. So, I decided to engage with the woman standing next to me, but she was going through her handbag, and didn’t seem disposed to speaking at that moment. I instead decided to speak to the woman in front of me and said, “You must really need some coffee to go through this!” She laughed and said, “Yes, only true Starbuck’s aficionados need apply!” About ten minutes later, I again leaned forward and whispered in quick succession, “Dunkin’ Donuts! Dunkin’ Donuts! Dunkin’ Donuts!” Again, we shared a quick giggle, and she said it was a tempting thought. About two minutes later, I felt someone lightly tap my arm. I turned around, looked down, and it was the woman behind me who’d previously been busy going through her handbag. She was in her eighties; barely over five feet tall; and had one of the most beautiful, soulful faces I’d ever seen. With a wistful expression, she said, “I, too, have that pin” (referring to my Little Red Dress pin). And a bond was forged.

I mentioned how sad and shocking it was that so few people were aware of the danger of heart disease to women. She nodded and said, “I just lost my son, two months ago, to heart disease. He was 50. He literally just dropped dead.” After a brief second of initial shock, I told her how sorry I was for her loss and we just stood there, looking into each other’s faces for a few moments. After that silence, I again expressed my condolences and said I couldn’t imagine how she must feel. She thanked me and told me I was very kind. We continued to chat, but about other things – especially the slow-moving line. Eventually, I told her to stand in front of me, joking that though it didn’t get her much farther, she’d be that much closer to getting her drink. After she finally got to the front of the line, ordered her drink, and prepared to pay for it, I placed some money in the cashier’s hand saying I’d take care of it. My new acquaintance insisted that it wasn’t necessary, but I insisted that it was. I, myself, totally exhausted after my interview and from standing in line so long, had decided to forget about Oprah and, instead, get a drink with two shots of espresso just to give me the strength to walk out of the store. I couldn’t imagine how someone her age must have felt, standing for so long. She thanked me, saying “You didn’t have to do that!” I said, “You touched my heart.” She said, “You touched my heart, too!” and much to my surprise, reached up and asked for a hug. I hugged her as best I could while holding my handbag, briefcase, and a bag of recently purchased items.

Despite being so deeply moved by what this woman shared with me, the thing that impacted me most was the depth of her sadness – so raw, and so recent, and her obvious state of shock. I lost my father two years ago and still tear up whenever I think of him; so, I did understand, to a certain extent, the depth of her loss, but this was her child, not a parent. Truly, no normal mother expects or wants to outlive her children. And this was a woman who had obviously raised a son of whom she could be proud, and who felt that she could die a happy woman knowing that someone she loved, so deeply, was living a happy, productive life. Now, he was gone, literally in the blink of an eye, and it was she who was left behind, her own heart, though still beating, seemingly broken beyond repair. Yes, heart disease is the number one killer of women.

This, for me, was just one more reminder that life and death, so inextricably intertwined, must always be in our thoughts because strangely enough, it is death, alone, which makes us comprehend the value of life. Among ancient Buddhist practices, it was not uncommon for monks to sit on the roadside for days, observing the decomposition of the corpse of some unfortunate creature, as a form of meditation on the nature of death (impermancence). In fact, to this day, though much, much less common as I understand it, it is still possible to find malas (rosaries) made of bone, tailored for such meditations. There is probably no better reminder that in the end, our bodies, our vehicles in this life, are merely fertilizer.

According to the Buddha, to fear death is to be dead, already; yet, not to consider death, at all, leaves us just as lacking. Many of us live our lives as though endless tomorrows are promised; but nothing is promised. Nothing is forever. The only thing that never changes is change, itself. And whether we are “good” or “bad,” rich or poor, death will find us, and our loved ones, as well. This is why I strive to live each day as if it were my last (sometimes failing miserably). I want to consider the nature of my speech, my actions, and my thoughts. I actually like to keep in mind a verse from the Christian Bible, Phillipians 2:12, which says:

“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

This reminds me both that I am solely responsible for my own actions and their effects in my life, as well as that I need to make a serious effort in this regard. Hopefully, my “fear and trembling” will not paralyze me, but instead, energize and motivate me. Thus loss, death being, perhaps, its greatest manifestation, is simply a part of life; and unlike most gifts, is something for which we all have to ‘pay.’ Part of ‘paying’ is understanding that the Universe taketh, and the Universe taketh away. It’s nothing personal, just the nature of life. We need to conscientiously contemplate this and make friends with the idea so we can stop pretending it just isn’t so. In the words of the Buddha: “Everything is changeable, everything appears and disappears; there is no blissful peace until one passes beyond the agony of life and death.”

Related Reading:

Buddha’s Last Words (Mahaparinibbana Sutta) from Somewhere in Dhamma… (blog) Note: I found this post, dealing with the death of a parent, relevant to the discussion because of how beautifully it deals with ‘unexpected’ death from a Buddhist perspective.

Go Red for Women.org from American Heart Association (Website)


Robin Williams: Depression Isn’t the Point…

There’s a man I see, roughly every other day, whenever I ride the bus. I doubt that I would have noticed him at all, except for one thing: He is always smiling. And that smile is warm, beautiful, and exuberant – almost to the point of hilarity. Normally, that would be a positive quality.

Now, at the risk of appearing ‘slow,’ I must admit it took me a good month to realize that I had never seen his face, which is now forever engraved in my mind, without a smile. In fact, if he wasn’t smiling, he was either laughing raucously or giggling childishly. And this morning, upon boarding the bus, he paid his fare, giggled like the stereotypical gay man screaming “Fabulous!” and literally skipped down the aisle of the bus laughing and conversing with himself.

I thought, “I’ve got to get to the bottom of this!” whipped out my cell phone, and Googled “condition when you are always laughing or smiling.” Here’s what I found: Angelman Syndrome. But before I explain, I must first give you a brief, physical description of this man. I won’t get detailed out of respect for his privacy, even though I am quite certain it’s not one of his major concerns. What I can share is that when he’s not skipping, he’s definitively masculine in carriage; taller than the average man; well-proportioned, and middle-aged. This is why he was particularly notable as he giggled and skipped down the bus aisle…

Angelman Syndrome is categorized not as a “disease,” but rather as a genetic disorder. Perhaps, unlike you, I’d never heard of it until today’s Google search. Those born with this disorder are always, as in unceasingly, smiling and/or laughing. Additionally, though they actually do feel the full spectrum of emotions, including anger and sadness, they cannot physically convey or portray those feelings through their facial expressions. They also have awkward, “jerky” movements, often flinging their arms, shaking their bodies, and stopping and starting, suddenly; and they suffer from a number of developmental disabilities. So, even if they were telling you that they hate you and wish you’d drop dead, it would be with the most radiant, warmth-engendering smile you’d ever seen. But that would not be likely to happen because like people with Down Syndrome, those with Angelman Syndrome are often very loving, warm individuals… This man has warmly greeted me, directly, on a number of occasions, and is always quick to point out that my bus is arriving —  and I’m not quite sure how he knows it’s my bus because I ride more than one line…

We spend our entire adult lives trying to be happy. When that doesn’t happen, we spend about 50% of our time trying to look happy. And when that doesn’t work, we get “depressed,” or worse… I’ve wondered if life would be any less exhausting if we didn’t have to try so hard to look happy, strong, unperturbed, and in control. In one respect, Angelman Syndrome would save us a great deal of energy; but, as mentioned, the disorder is not without its negative aspects. This man, who is always giggling, smiling, and moving spasmodically, still experiences the normal complexities of the full range of human emotion – perhaps, even embarrassment?

From a karmic perspective, which will no doubt offend those who either don’t believe in, or understand, karma, this raises a few questions, even for me, a Buddhist who believes in the laws of karma. For example:

  1. Was the man on the bus, in another life, someone who was never happy with what he had? Or,
  2. Did he expect others to act happy when he knew they were unhappy? And,
  3. If there is any truth to either #1, or #2, what, or how, can this man, with obvious developmental disabilities, learn anything from having this condition?
  4. So, is this man being punished? Or is this disorder the result of something someone else did?
  5. If  contracting this disorder is the result of past negative karma(s), could this be the way he expiates that karma? (Mind you, people often base claims of “No God,” on the “fact” that “innocent” babies suffer for “no reason” in this world; but in a world where karma is ‘law,’ few if any are truly “innocent,” hence the ‘justice’ of karma… Or,
  6. Is the man on the bus, strangely, blessed?

Yes, I realize that many people would tell me, “Some people are born ‘normal,’ and some are not. You’re the one who’s nuts!” But Buddhism teaches us that not only can we live many lives in the future, but also that we have already lived many lives in the past, and that our every ‘karma,’ i.e., ‘action,’ including our state of mind at the moment of our death, will determine the circumstances of our next re-birth. For a Buddhist, every death is a rebirth, and every birth the start of another round of dying.

Another thing to consider, here, is that in the **caste system of India, people are thought to be born into certain castes, or ‘classes’ as a result of their actions in previous lives. So, if you are born into the caste known as the ‘untouchables,’ whose “career path” might be cleaning latrines, or retrieving the dead bodies of animals, and sometimes people, with little or no hope of escape (upward mobility), there’d be no sympathy for you because you are simply getting “what you deserve.” The assumption might also be that your current state is an expiatory condition, i.e., the working out of your negative karma. And “karma,” more properly referred to as ‘vipaka’  (specifically the ‘fruit’ of your actions/karma) is always ‘just.’ In fact, the Buddha, who was Hindu, was born into this culture. And it is quite obvious, from his teachings, that he went the way of compassion.

**I want to make special mention, here, that while issues of caste are still relevant in Indian communities (in and outside of India), the confines of this belief system have become much less stringent. Discrimination based on caste, in India, is now illegal, but this doesn’t mean that it has been completely eliminated. The concept of caste is relevant to Buddhism because Buddhism was born from Hinduism. Nonetheless, just as Jesus of Nazareth never used the word, “Christianity,” the Buddha never coined the term, “Buddhism.” It’s important for us to keep in mind that nothing and no one exists in a vacuum.

All I really know is that neither money, nor family and friends (whether they love and support you, or not) can make you happy. The late comedian, Robin Williams, probably owned a tuxedo, or pair of cuff links, the value of which could have paid off my student loan, including the mind-numbing interest I’ve incurred from several forbearances. But Mr. Williams still wasn’t happy. For Robin Williams, there wasn’t enough money, love, cocaine, alcohol, comradery, family, friendship, recognition, or even “God” to make him “happy.” And when you look at the aforementioned string of “happiness triggers,” it’s fairly easy to see that they are all rooted in what the Buddha defined as ‘impermanence.’ Nonetheless, I’ve known people with Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, and other devastating diagnoses, with much less fame, money, and influence than Robin Williams who did not commit suicide. My own Daddy was one of them. And he was a physician. He could have written himself, or procured a prescription for a ‘death cocktail’ any time he wanted. And though I didn’t want him to do that, I often wondered, during his considerable suffering, why he did not do this. I neither fault nor criticize Mr. Williams for what he did. The choice is always ours, and few, if any, know another’s true circumstances or motivations.

Sometimes, we have to lose “it” all to discover that instead of being left with “nothing,” we’re instead in possession of the only item of true value we’ll ever own – the ‘say’ that we have in the creation of our own futures. The excruciatingly hard part is dealing with that initial loss. The past is gone; the future is not yet here; so, all we have is our ‘now,’ and what we decide to do with it.

Dear Mr. Williams, our Angelman of nearly half a century,

Thank you for imbuing some 20 years of our lives with gut-busting, body-wracking laughter. Our Mork from Ork, you were a blazing, breathtaking meteor shower across some very dark skies, fulfilling your promise, beautifully, and burning out, probably less suddenly than it seemed.  From the minute we are born, we are always dying; and death is but another beginning. All your good will be returned to you, and may your next life be your last. Happy goodwill hunting…


Related Reading:

The boy who can’t stop smiling: Genetic disorder means James, 11, always looks happy – even though he can’t speak from Daily Mail Online

Caste Is Not Past from Sunday Review/New York Times/The Opinion Pages (Website)

Living the Dead Life: Vampires Who Don’t Totally Suck – A Buddhist Perspective On Knowing Versus Realization…

Have you ever felt that your life is like one of those stunningly spectacular traffic accidents where pedestrians and drivers, alike, literally stop in their tracks to gawk in horrid fascination? Of course, nothing restores normalcy and order like a police officer motioning and admonishing the stunned onlookers to “Move along, folks! Nothing to see, here!” Honestly, I’ve never heard a real police officer say this – only in the movies; but then, I’ve never stopped to gawk.

Whether or not police officers actually say this, I recently discovered the equivalent of a personal police officer, or better yet, bodyguard, to direct traffic in the sometimes-seeming collision of my own life. I’d like to share it with this caveat:

Depending on where you are, or are not, in your meditation practice, or if you don’t have a meditation practice, you may or may not find value in this offering. I know this because just three months ago, after reading what I’m about to share, I would have said, “What the hell?” Really.

The following quotation is from the book  Meditation On Perception: Ten Healing Practices to Cultivate Mindfulness  by Bhante Gunaratana. I’ve never met this man, but I love him, and I love his work. And I was amused to learn that he is commonly and affectionately referred to as Bhante G, which seems like the Dharma equivalent of such celebrity names as Sheila E., Kenny G., or Heavy D. And mind you, I mean this with all metta and respect. So, let’s get to business. The following quotation is from the book chapter titled, “Perception of Non-Delight in the Whole World”:

As we discover, the mind purified of greed, hatred, and delusion is naturally free from excitement when perceiving anything in the world. There is nothing special in the entire world for such a mind to delight in. Nor is there anything to be disappointed by. Nothing is extraordinary. The same problems of impermanence, suffering, and selflessness exist everywhere. Recognizing this truth, the mind becomes relaxed, peaceful, and calm (pp. 81-82).

Waitress! I’ll have one of what he’s having! Can you imagine what a deep realization of this ‘truth’ (as opposed to knowledge about, or agreement with) could accomplish? First, it calls us to task regarding the alleviation of our own delusions; then, it causes us to question whether or not we are alone, extraordinarily, or otherwise, in our sufferings. Of course, we are not; but it often feels this way. Finally, it calls into question our core values or beliefs regarding that which is important, singular, or even remarkable about what might be happening to us – if anything. It’s about detachment (as opposed to indifference). And in a strange and tragic sense, people who resort to watching television 22 hours a day (which Buddhism considers an intoxicant, or form of ‘intoxication’), or abusing substances to numb the pain actually sort of “get it,” but their methodology is unhealthy and rooted firmly in ignorance. There’s another way! Another caveat, here, could be that this ‘other way’ could take years.

If it’s true, as the Buddha said in his Four Noble Truths (the very foundation of Buddhism), then it is only our ignorance of what constitutes “reality” that makes us suffer. The Second Noble Truth reveals that it is ignorance that is the cause of our suffering – not that someone might actually be racist, sexist, stupid, unfair, or __________ (fill in the blank). Isn’t it funny that when we invest in stocks, we want something stable but profitable, but when we invest our hearts in people, or situations, entities that are often not stable, and never un-changing, we wonder why we aren’t getting our money’s worth… We also learn, eventually, that we are usually our own worst enemy in the worst of situations, not to mention the best…

Finally, we learn that there is a way to “suck it up,” all up, without faking it, or becoming a closet addict, or having a nervous breakdown, and we can do it with discernment, objectivity, and uncommon sense, as well. But, it ain’t easy. It never is. As the First Noble Truth says, ‘Where there is life, there is suffering…”

Related Reading:

Gunaratana, B. (2014). Meditation on Perception: Ten Healing Practices to Cultivate Mindfulness. Wisdom Publications: Boston, MA.




Change Is the Only Constant

“What is truth?” – Pontius Pilate

It is not uncommon for me to add a post to my blog and later wake up in the middle of the night thinking:

Oooooooh… I probably shouldn’t have said that!


Mmmmmmmmm…. Maybe, I should have said this?


Perhaps, I should have said  that,  this  way?

Examples of the aforementioned “if-onlys” are:

I recently wrote about a Lutheran minister who, some two decades ago, refused to shake my “little brown hand” after delivering his sermon on love, as we filed out of the sanctuary of his church. [Shouldn’t have?]

I recently published a post about chanting in which I neglected to share that I chant every day, and why (because of length-of-content limitations and not intending to write a ‘recruitment’ post). [Should have?]

As for the third example, there are simply too many examples from which to choose — and I’m sure there’s a better way to have said that…

I’m always struggling with how to say what can’t always be said, or rather, the inefficacy of words as a mode of expression. Part of this struggle is due to the element of impermanence, or change, or anicca, as it is referred to in Buddhism. As soon as I “capture,” write down, proclaim, or ascribe to a “truth,” something shifts or changes. Hence, my not at all original assertion, “Only change is constant.” So, what is “true” for me, now, might not be true for me tomorrow, or for you, ever. Even the search for “truth” appears to be little more than “grasping” and attachment…

Of course, it would help, greatly, if I had some kind of expertise in Buddha-hood, but then again, if I did have “expertise,” I probably wouldn’t be talking about this, much less blogging.

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the work known as the Tao Te Ching; particularly, the first line of the first chapter. Derek Lin, on Taoism.net, has translated it as follows:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.

Mind you, the word, “Tao,” translates as “way,” or “the way.” So, here, in another translation by T.W. Kingsmill (1899), we have:

The way that may be traversed is not the Eternal way.

Then there’s Ron Hogan’s “modern translation” (2002, 2004) which says:

If you can talk about it, it ain’t Tao.

So, however one says it, I can’t help but think, “What the hell am I doing trying to write about this ‘stuff?’” It can’t be captured. It can’t be “known.” And it’s substantive in the most in-substantial way possible…

Then, when I really want to get depressed, I think about the Buddha’s “Flower Sermon” also known as the Flower Sutra (not to be confused with the Flower Garland Sutra, which is considered to be the longest sutra in Mahayana Buddhism). The Flower Sermon’s roots, if you will, are in Zen or Ch’an Buddhism. In a nutshell, not long before the Buddha died, he met with his followers near a pond. Once they’d settled down, silently, he uprooted a lotus flower and presented it to them for inspection. One by one, they examined it, confused and trying to discern the Buddha’s meaning or intent. Apparently, the last disciple to whom the Buddha showed the flower, Mahakasyapa, alone understood the Buddha’s message. As he looked at the uprooted lotus flower in the Buddha’s hand, he began to laugh. The Buddha then handed the flower to Mahakasyapa, and it was he who became the Buddha’s successor. In accordance with the fact that this was not a “verbal” teaching, the sutra, itself, is very short. Apparently, as Lao Tzu said, “The way that can be spoken is not the eternal way.” So, currently, I can’t  hear  it, and can only imagine what Mahakasyapa, himself, heard…

Nonetheless, I just keep pluggin’ away… Perhaps, I should make this my “disclaimer” page?


Everything Must Change…

One of my favorite songs is “Everything Must Change,” written by Bernard Ighner. While I am grateful for the link I’ve provided about him, I must apologize. There is an amazing dearth of information on this talented singer, songwriter, and collaborator. I was both grateful and amused to discover that I’m not the only person having problems finding information about Mr. Ighner. I learned, here, that as of 2006, he was still alive, and that his given name is not Bernard, but Benard! Additionally, Ighner wrote, “Everything Must Change,” but credit for the lyrics has been attributed to everyone but Josie and the Pussycats.

“Everything Must Change” has been performed by a wide and notable variety of artists, including Barbara Streisand, Oleta Adams, Lou Rawls, Peggy Lee, Arthur Prysock, and Quincy Jones, whose performance is, perhaps, the most widely recognized. I am providing, for your enjoyment, one of my favorite renditions, by the late, great Nina Simone, complete with a photo montage.

I meditate, quite regularly, on this song. The melody is haunting, and the lyrics are a velvet hammer. I found comfort in it when my father passed; I hum it when I look in the mirror; and I treasure it as a reminder of one of the main foci of my Buddhist practice: Impermanence.

“Everything Must Change,” by Benard Ighner, as performed, live, by the late, great Nina Simone.