Monday, January 31, 2005

Calling Myself a Buddhist

I remember when I became a Buddhist. About ten years ago. I read the last page of Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught, slowly closed it and set it on the nightstand, and said, "I think I am a Buddhist." I was startled to hear myself say the words, and I didn't know whether to believe them, but there they were.

I've never really wanted to deny that statement, since. I meant many things by it. That I thought the Buddha was fundamentally right, both about what was wrong with me, and how I might fix it. That I'd found a religion that didn't require me to believe arrant nonsense -- indeed, that didn't require me to believe anything at all. That I'd found a formulation of my task in life that subsumed, in one form or another, everything I had ever thought it might be: to see clearly, to lessen suffering, to connect people, to create beauty.

Later on it meant more. That Buddhist teachers had earned my trust. That I belonged to a community -- that I was willing, in some sense, to be held accountable for what Buddhists said and did. That I was willing to work on creating Buddhist institutions in the West.

But even then, I didn't call myself a Buddhist. I was not in the habit of calling myself any kind of -ist. Only in the last couple years has it become natural for me to say "I'm a Buddhist," and to check the "Buddhist" box, when filling out hospital forms, without hesitation. Being a Buddhist is one thing. Calling oneself one is quite another.

I have been told a story of Kalu Rinpoche, teaching to a large crowd, being asked, "Do I have to give up being a Christian to become enlightened?"

To the surprise and dismay of his audience, Rinpoche said, firmly and unequivocally, "Yes."

He paused, and then added, "You will also have to give up being a Buddhist."

And of course, it's obvious. To become enlightened is to give up being men or women, Americans or Tibetans, programmers or waitresses, parents or children. The whole task of the dharma is to stop mistaking the temporary and conditioned for permanent and essential. To designate myself a Buddhist is a plain instance of such a mistake. I sometimes meditate; I sometimes go to the Sangha; I sometimes say refuge prayers. But there's really no guarantee that I will ever do any of those things again, and I spent much more time not doing them, than doing them. To call myself a Buddhist implies that I have taken on some essential permanent characteristic, that there is now an inalienable buddhistness about me. Whereas it's obvious, all too obvious, that there is not.

So for many years I avoided calling myself a Buddhist. "I practice Buddhism, in the Tibetan tradition," I would say, with pleasing precision. But I wouldn't say "I'm a Buddhist."

I call myself a Buddhist now, and I wear a blessing cord around my neck -- a token that's recognized surprisingly often. I have declared myself a Buddhist. This may not be good for Buddhism's reputation, but it's good for me.

The biggest obstacle in my path is just that I stop walking it. I wander away. I forget to meditate; I lose track of my practice. I imagine that's the biggest obstacle for most people who aren't cloistered. "Being a Buddhist" draws me back. It doesn't bring me back elegantly. It brings me back for "bad" reasons. "Is that, like, a Buddhist thing?" a grocery clerk will ask me, looking at the knotted cord around my neck. And I'll suddenly uneasily check out what I've been doing while standing in that line. Have I been fidgeting? Ogling the woman before me in line? Registering amused contempt at the cover of the Enquirer?

This uneasiness, of course, is just so much ego-attachment. It has nothing to do with genuine practice. And if it stopped there, it would do me no good. It would be just one more round in my habitual circuits of self-reification. (Though it wouldn't do me any particular harm, either; if I wasn't reifying myself that way, I'd be doing it some other way.) But it doesn't stop there. At least sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it moves along from "have I been acting like a Buddhist?" to "am I being a Buddhist? Am I 'carrying my practice'? For that matter, do I have a practice to carry? When was the last time I sat? Do I have any business passing myself off as a Buddhist?" Sure, I'm still in the realm of ego-attachment. But I'm moving toward practice. I'm motivated to practice, now. It's hardly a pure motivation, but it's motivation. I'll take what I can get. After all, if my motivation were pure in the first place -- if I were constantly inspired to practice for the benefit of all sentient beings, and for no other reason -- then I'd have no need to practice.

Let them not challenge to themselves a strength they have not, wrote Richard Hooker, of the Puritans, lest they lose the comfortable support of that weakness which indeed they have.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Bringing us Home Safe

On the ride home Sunday evening, in the pitch dark, our skis back on the rack on top of the station wagon, I would sit in the back seat, longing for the warm air to make its slow way to the back seat. It would take me half an hour, sometimes, to undertake getting my ski boots off. First I had to lift the heavy left boot, still cold and wet, with snow-ice wedged between the laces, onto my right knee, which had only just gotten warm: always the cold water soaked the knee of my ski pants. Then I took my numb fingers and began working on the knots. There was all the time in the world. Another hour to home. Sometimes I'd take fifteen minutes, worrying at the knot for awhile, then holding my hands under my thighs to warm them back up for a while, then going back to it, and worrying some more. Eventually the laces would come untied, and I'd unwind them from their hooks (little slivers of snow-ice dropping onto the floor, onto the seat, onto me).

Finally I'd ease my foot out. Numb and stiff. Pull off the sock. Cradle my foot, as cold to the touch as the snow at first, in my hand. Such pleasure, to feel the warmth slowly come back, to be able to wriggle my toes. It hurt a little too. I'd stare out the window, watching the snowflakes appear in the headlights, gleam once, and streak over the windshield, back into the dark. Eventually I would lift the heavy right boot onto my left knee, and begin worrying that knot.

We never went into the lodge. We skied all day. That was what we were there for, after all. I had hot chocolate in a thermos. It wasn't very hot by the middle of the day, but it tasted wonderful. We kids discovered that we could climb down the snow-drifts and duck under the walls of the chairlift housing. There, in a secret, dark, hangar-like space, unheated but out of the wind, I would drink my cocoa. Except we always called it "hot chocolate" -- there was something vaguely self-indulgent about the world "cocoa." It was the kind of word people would use who would come up to go skiing and then hang about in the lodge with warm feet. Not for us.

(Not that my father cared about dignity. In town he held hands with us and skipped down the sidewalk. He would try to climb anything, appropriate or inappropriate -- bridges, fences, trees in someone's yard. He skipped stones across rivers with us; carried us piggy-back, as we called it; built sand-castles with us; taught us to yodel.)

All day is a long time to ski, when you're six years old. I was terribly proud, though. I skied with my legs shoulder-width apart, maybe, but the skis were parallel -- no snow-plowing for me. And by the time I was eight I took the chairlift clear up, and skied the most challenging slopes. People would remark on how little I was and how well I skied. (It never occurred to me that they were letting me hear them say that on purpose. And I would never look at them or show any sign that I had heard. But I would lift my chin and stand very straight.) And I was terribly proud of my father, in his huge baggy grey pants that fluttered madly as he swooped down the slopes. He skied beautifully. He always wore those absurd grey pants, and an ancient beat-up coat and silly bright-patterned hats with tassels, and his skis were unfashionably long and unfashionably wooden. (Short, fiberglass skis -- shorter than the people who wore them, for heaven's sake! were just becoming standard. I was crestfallen when he finally gave in and got a pair.) He was dowdy and ridiculous looking, maybe, standing still at the bottom of a slope. But no one would have thought that, watching him ski. Grace; confidence; sprezzatura, even.

Finally nightfall, and the long drive home. My Dad, no longer the dazzling skier, but now the cautious, slow-but-sure driver. Absolutely safe. He was the safest thing, the solidest, most reliable thing in the world. My confidence in him was boundless. Being his son might mean having achingly cold feet on Sunday nights, but it also meant that I knew I was safe. I didn't know, at the time, that I was lucky. I thought all fathers were basically safe. But my Dad was extra safe. He did mountain rescue and ski patrol. He did scuba-diving and spelunking. He could go anywhere, and take us anywhere, and bring us home safe. I spent my seventh birthday at the bottom of the grand canyon, having hiked all the way down. By the time I was eleven, I had written my name in the mazama registers at the peaks of half a dozen Oregon mountains, and rapelled down into the lava tube of little Belknap, and into Frog Cave, and into one cave we found once but could never locate again, on the far side of the mountains -- just an inconspicuous hole in the flat ponderosa chaparral, but it dropped into a big cavern, with tunnels snaking away in three directions. We explored them all. I gained a physical confidence that I see, with a pang, that my own city-bred kids have never acquired. I belonged in the wilderness. I belonged on cliffs, in the water, under the ground, on the ice. I might loathe and dread human beings, but nothing in the natural world scared me.

It sounds reckless, taking children into such places, but actually my father took his risks very carefully. He was endlessly patient. However long it took to get the belay just right, that was how long he took. He drilled us in what we had to know. How to fall down a snow slope. What to do if we got lost. How to make a fire. He never rushed anything. I remember vividly, still, watching him climb. He was deliberate, one-pointed. He tested every hold before he used it, and abandoned it at once if it didn't turn out as secure as he liked. There was always another route to try. There was always all the time in the world.

The contrast between the recklessness of the endeavor and its patient, deliberate, meticulous execution thrilled me, then. It still does, really. I've never left off admiring him. I still want to be him when I grow up.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


Oh dear my love. Be cradled in the wind, be polished by the sun. All things come to this.

And this has come to me. The world is not unfolding. It's folding, closing in on itself, each new year a new petal, wrapping closer; another layer of secrecy around the world.

And now you are wrapped in the first fold. The first petal has closed over you, and shut you off from me, and I must walk, disconsolate, on the world's outside, and watch the years layering over you, hiding you deeper and deeper, drawing you into the elaborate volutions of that unknown core. Already you are changing shape, curving and twisting. Already what you hold of me (the best part of me) is shifting, as you are wrinkled and puckered, kneaded and turned. What you hold of me is marbling in you, now; like the coils of cream slowly spinning, and losing themselves, in a cup of coffee.

And of course this grief is selfish grief, and I am mourning not you, so much as me. You have taken so much with you. What use is what is left? How should I try to make a whole person out of these limp shreds of habit and predilection?

Enough. Gently now. I once said you could have all of me -- will I renege? Now, of all times? No. No. The offer stands.

Monday, January 24, 2005


Filled the offering bowls with water this morning, and left them filled: a commitment to practice again tonight. I like to think of the water, by turns quiet and trembling, as the house is busy or still, while I am at work.

It's not possible to determine what I will do tomorrow, or next week. Not even possible to determine what I will do five minutes from now. Whether I'll be moving toward my goals or sliding away from them. It's not given to us -- fortunately -- to chain our future selves with present commitments.

But at any given moment it's possible to turn and change which direction I'm facing. That's what any vow or commitment is: a way of emphatically turning myself towards something. And no matter whether, in this life, I get closer or farther away. What matters, all that matters, is the turning.

The light is always there. Turning opens just a little hole in the shroud. What good, I might think, is opening a little hole? But that's to think of these functions as linear, which they certainly are not. The light gathers and accelerates, and worries any little hole open wider, till it's pouring in, and saturating even the rags of the shroud as they peel away. I know that from experience, as surely as I know also that the shroud grows, when I'm not looking at it. That, maybe, is a linear function. Gradually, imperceptibly but steadily, it knits itself together and spreads over my face, and binds my hands.

Does the light itself blossom and wither periodically? That's not the orthodox view, but that's what it looks like from here, and it's hard to understand, otherwise -- given the power and solvency of the light -- why it doesn't just win out, the moment of the very first turning, the very first glimmering of awareness. Where does the dark come from, in which the shroud grows? And is it possible to influence, or even see, when it's getting dark? Is there a skillful way to be in the dark, such that the shroud at least doesn't grow, or doesn't grow as fast, while I wait for morning?

Or maybe this is the skillful way to be in the dark. Just turning, whenever my mind can reach for it. Like sitting shamatha. There's no way to prevent distractions from arising, and there's no way to make them go away when I'm in the midst of them. But the time always comes, eventually, when I'm aware that I'm distracted. And at that moment I can bring the mind back. & That's the complete description of the task of shamatha. I think maybe it's like that. The critical thing is to recognize that moment of awareness, and to recognize that nothing, nothing is more important than to seize that opportunity to turn, without a moment's hesitation, without any bridling or negotiating or hedging or insuring. Turn, again and again, until it's a habit.

Saturday, January 22, 2005


Reading Heredia's "Sieste" in January

No sound of insect or of hungering bee.
All sleeps, in woods beaten by the sun
Where the thick foliage filters a light
Dark as velvet and soft as emerald.

A splendid noon swaggers above, sifting
Through the obscure dome, and on my eyelashes
A thousand furtive lights make crimson webs
Stretch and tangle across the heated shade.

Towards the gauze of fire woven by the rays
Labors a fragile swarm of butterflies
Drunk with the light and with the running sap.

My fingers fumble with each waning thread
And in the golden mesh of melting lines
I struggle to imprison what is gone.

Another of my unfaithful translations, even more unfaithful than usual. You can read the original

Friday, January 21, 2005


Scrabbling like a half-drowned rat at the corrugated steel walls, trying to pull myself out of this sewer of anxiety. When I settle down as far as actually thinking, I try to find what I persistently call the purchase-point, the place where I can get some traction. Is it getting back to daily meditation? Is it controlling my eating? Is it getting more than a couple hours' sleep a night? Is it getting better from this damn cold? Is it settling down to work on this damn project at work? Is it exercising despite the cold? Surely one of these things could enable some of the others? Surely there's one I should start with?

Hardly matters, since I can't get myself to do any of them. So I go on scrabbling. I used to get dead drunk when I found myself in this state. Which did sometimes have the effect of giving me a purchase-point, but at a price I'm not willing to pay any more.

The purchase-point was shame. I could motivate myself to do the things I needed to do, but would not, with a desperate feeling that I must somehow now redeem myself. I think a lot of binge behavior works that way. To shift my metaphor, it's like trying to push over a huge stone, trying to make it fall in a particular direction, and not being able to shift it more than a few inches. When you get frustrated enough, you try pulling the stone towards yourself, instead, hoping to use its momentum, when it falls forward again, to push it on over in the direction you want it to go. & the catch, of course, is that it's perfectly possible to pull the stone down on top of yourself.

Maybe it's time to just let go. Maybe I'll fetch up on the weir downstream.

But that's just another delusion, another way of scrabbling, another thing I can't really do. Ach. Tired of this. Very tired.

Thursday, January 20, 2005


A small subfusc thing that darts into the blackberries. Barely seen, just in the corner of my eye. It's under no illusions about its importance or its mortality. I don't know its name (don't tell me; I don't want to know.) I only know that our slender connection is, that I alarmed it.

Dull, drab brown. It's not an ornament. It has no name. It's nothing but a life. A tiny heart beating a drum-roll under that gleamless down; a flood of speculations running through a skull hardly thicker than its own eggshells. To think fast enough to fly through a blackberry thicket at top speed, is to think much faster than I can.

I don't think it's what we call panic. No creature could live with that much panic, even in such a short life. Maybe there's a lift to it, a small exaltation, the same we feel any time when we are doing exactly what we're suited for. Fleeing through the bramble-stems, brushing past the green leaves. flying toward that sudden stillness, that abrupt stop, that transformation from flight to hiding. In the dim shade, its heart drums silently.

O human being, it thinks. Enormous slow clumsy human being, what would you ever do if you needed to hide!

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Day's Vanity

Yeats wrote:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work.

An odd way of putting it. The intellect is forced to choose, but not the man? Maybe he means, not that we must actually choose -- how could we? -- but that we must make up a story about what we are doing with our lives.

Yeats was obsessed with creating perfect work, and I think this line tells us why. To create perfect work is to have an excuse for a botched life.

And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

I guess if you take the second, you get to indulge in fantasies about what would have happened if you'd chosen the first :-) We rage in the dark in any case. But

When all that story's finished, what's the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse.

What old perplexity? The only perplexity we've been told about is the perplexity of the choice between the life and the work. A perplexity, apparently, that's formed the currency of the work that supposedly denied it. But exhausted, at the end.

At the end we come the same place, then -- the place of recognizing the vanity of all our works -- to which presumably we would have gone had we chosen perfection of the life. But we are spent, exhausted by the habit of work -- by the mark it has left on us.

As so often, with Yeats, the swagger. I come to the end the poem with no doubt that he considers the second a nobler choice, the ubermensch's choice, the Great Artist's choice, and we're supposed to admire him for it, and pity the suffering it has entailed. Art may be vanity, but it's a higher calling than lounging about in heavenly mansions.

I loved Yeats when I was young. I still do -- what a fabulous line, The day's vanity, the night's remorse! -- but I no longer think of him as a guide. There is no such choice. There is no perfect work, and there is no perfect life, and even if there were, one couldn't compensate for the other.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

An Unwinding Sheet

Stop then.

Gather the few shreds around my shoulders. Step out onto the balcony. The glorious glittering blaze of stars; the night wind in the beach pines. Cast back.

If it is really true, then what I am doing with my life is almost entirely wrong.

If it is not really true, then what I am doing with my life is only largely wrong.

A familiar move of my mind. "Heads I win, tails you lose." Hardly adequate, in this case. Stop. Stop hard.

My jury-rigged life has set, and turned rigid, without my ever noticing. My careless, temporary solutions have petrified, and rule my minutes, and the rhythm of my breathing, and the frozen cant of my shoulder-blades.

Stop. This takes some delicacy. Peel back the thread.

Arcturus, glowing fiery orange. Have I forgotten so soon? I gave you to Tina, back when I was building all this. But that's a dead end, too. Start again. Find the end of the thread, thick-crusted, hardening. Peel again. Don't mind the fingernails. They'll grow back.

Vega, then. The first star. That brilliant clear sapphire in the triangle-headed parallelogram of Lyra. What was made when I made that? That's a closer question. Not good enough, still, though. Stop again.

When I got down on my knees in the wet grass, to wash my hands in the cold black water, I saw the stars jumping and skipping on the surface, changing places, as they're never allowed to do up in the sky. No wonder they come down here to play.

If I could take a whirling leap, and throw myself into the sky, if I could steal this one fire, I could back up far enough, maybe. To come before the thread was wound in the first place. No need to unwind the thread -- just back up. Such a seductive idea. But that's to think in nouns. Not good enough. We are an older race, a bitter, dying people. It's not our place to talk about beginnings. These are the ending stars. Our job is not to steal fire. It's to watch all the fires go out.

Now we're beginning. Taste this, before the end.

Monday, January 17, 2005


Westron wind, when wilt thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again.

Odd how seeing you at the Choling can throw me. It scrapes all the faint accumulated dishonesty off the sides of the cup, I guess, and I taste it, the accumulated bitterness of a half-finished life.

Now that I have mostly stopped flirting, people have started flirting with me. That's a bit comical, and a bit telling. A woman I'd never seen before asked my name and told me I had a wonderful laugh. Another introduced herself, and held my hand just slightly beyond the usual space of a handshake. A lovely woman. I watched myself generate suffering out of that. The fantasies and speculations, a lifetime (at a conservative estimate) of habitual thoughts, roll smoothly into play. Watch them arise. Cut them loose, and they wander off. For about three tenths of a second. Then they roll into play again. "You're getting a bit boring," I tell them, and cut them loose again. I amuse myself throughout a good part of the evening with that, as those thoughts periodically return. It is something, to be clear about it, to be able to see it as suffering lumbering into action, and to be able to nip it a little closer to the bud. You have helped me with that, you know, though I couldn't tell you how.

You came and crouched beside me to talk, your leg casually brushed against mine. I never quite recovered from that. You are so much more at ease than I am. Apparently, anyway.

The topic of the evening was patience. My strong suit, if I have one. The lovely woman was taking notes. I'm always puzzled by people taking notes, especially at Dharma talks. Do they go back over them, studying for the exam? Does the act of writing things down help fix them in their memories? Or is it just a habitual way of manifesting attention, of being good?

Patience. My downfalls are primitive ones, mostly. I am not patient with being cold, or with being hungry. My life is comfortable and orderly enough that I'm not often tested. People who admire me, though, would soon get over it if they saw how petulant a little drop in thermometer-mercury or blood-sugar can make me. Not sure how one works on that. Not, I think, by inflicting cold or hunger on myself. I guess that one starts, as always, by noticing.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Why I love living with Martha

Yesterday evening I went into the downstairs bathroom and found the top half of a magazine-page taped to the mirror. In big letters, as the heading of an article or advertisement, it read, "IS THE UNCERTAINTY OVER?"

Attached was a sticky-note, which read, "I'm not sure."

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Milarepa's Song on the Six Perfections: Commentary for the Dull-Witted

Lekshe posted Milarepa's Song on the Six Perfections. I wanted to chew on it a little, and make a commentary for myself.

Beyond ending the maintenance of a sense of self, There is no other generosity.

Looking back at my generosity, so much of it now seems ill-placed and ill-timed. Gifts given for the wrong reason, at the wrong time, to the wrong person. Given to prove something about myself. Given when I happened to have a surfeit, rather than when someone else happened to have a need. Given, typically, to someone young and female, rather than old and male -- not so much because I was attracted to them (though I was) but because my sense of myself as an attractive man hinged on their attention. And that sense I had to feed, at all costs.

I want to give. That's a good thing. But the goodness of it rises from just one place: the place of connection. And it's hampered by just one thing -- my sense of myself, of what's due to my dignity or necessary to maintain my character. Why does Mila say there is no other generosity? Not because this one special kind is so much better, that no other generosity even rates. But because the connection that becomes visible when my sense of self is stripped away is the single source of all true generosity. "Perfect generosity" isn't a special, better kind of generosity that only yogis know about. It's the living heart of any generosity.

Beyond ending deception and cunning, There is no other morality.

He means it. The beginning and end of doing the right thing is knowing what we are doing, and showing it transparently to other people. It's not possible to act badly in complete honesty. Do this: go back to the last three bad things I did, and look for the dishonesty. It will be there somewhere. Somewhere there will be the lie, the twist, the little wriggle away from honesty. Dishonesty either with myself or with others. Generally, both.

Beyond being without fear of what is ultimately true, There is no other patience.

Waiting in dread, afraid to see and afraid to act, is not patience.

Beyond being never apart from practice, There is no other effort.

Well, Mila should know. This is a hard one for me. I resist it over and over. How many times do I need to run the experiment, before I'll accept the results? I've tried ten thousand methods for fixing my life and making myself a better person. The farther away from practice they stood, the less effect they had.

Forget "real life." It's not real, and it's not life, and it's not getting fixed.

Beyond resting in composure, There is no other meditative stability.

Help. I don't have the faintest idea what this means.

Beyond knowing how things are, There is no other understanding.

Oh, that's harsh. How things are. If there really is no other understanding, then I have squandered so much, so much of my time and effort. I am in fact wasting my time right now, writing this.

Mila sits high in my refuge tree, long-haired and graceful. He looks at me with all that good heart, and with the flicker of mischief that never quite leaves his figure or his story, however be-sainted he has become. He has never had a word of discouragement for me. You would think my hardships in the Dharma -- sore knees, stiff back, and (above all) procrastination, would move him to scorn. I don't know why they don't, given all he suffered. But all he ever says to me -- as if our situations were completely parallel -- is, "I know. It's so hard. So hard."

Monday, January 10, 2005


Beth of Cassandra Pages wrote this, last week:

The only way I could see to cut through was to listen and try to connect very attentively and directly, bypassing the surface stuff as much as I could. Several of my priest and minister friends have told me that this is the spiritual dis-ease they see most often: the inability of many, even most, people to believe that they are worthy of being loved, just as they are. Yet every person at that party was wonderful, lovable, perfect in their own uniqueness. Is it possible to tell people that with your quietness, with your eyes, with your careful attention?

...which prompted this recollection.


I remember both -- weeping inconsolably, and just barely breaking into a couple of sobs. I don't know which memory is true. I was in trouble, and I had never been in trouble before. I could see the gulf opening in front of me. I would always be in trouble, from now on. There was no reason why it should ever end. I didn't know what was wrong, but I was broken, broken beyond hope.

The desks were arranged in a big square. That was the strange thing. I was opening my heart to this man, while I sat small at a row of small desks twelve yards away from his big teacher's desk. He made no move to sit closer to me. I made no move to sit closer to him.

I don't remember that he said anything to me at all. Seems like he must have, but all I remember is the silence, after I told him how I would always be in trouble now, and that I didn't know why.

He only looked at me, but his look was filled with helpless concern. It must have been the end of a dark winter's day, because the room was growing dark. I'm sure it was only a few minutes, but I experienced it as hours, a whole day waning into evening. Shadows filling up the room.

I can guess now, thirty-six years later, that he saw it as a moment of abject failure. The moment when he should have said something, the moment he could have steered that terrified, wretched boy onto a better path, with some well-chosen words. Reassured me with some banter, helped me understand that it wasn't all that important. Or told me a few home truths about life that I wouldn't hear at home. Instead he just sat there, paralyzed.

It was the best gift he could have given me. That my misery could actually stagger an adult, and move him to so much concern as to render him speechless, transformed it. It wasn't just my misery. He had undertaken to help me carry it. It was fine that he had nothing to say. There was nothing to say. Or rather, there was only one thing to say, and he said it with the expression on his face -- I mattered to him. Even if I was in trouble, even if I was going to be in trouble for the rest of my life, I still mattered.

I hold that memory, that moment of connection, as the anchor that kept me from sliding away altogether, sliding away to the place my misery would have taken me. It couldn't pull me back -- that would have to wait a couple years -- but without it I think that I might be dead or in prison now.

Go look at Suzanne's Snow Poem.
Siona wrote:

It must be the unlived parts of our lives that weigh the most heavily on us.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Imperfectly Overheard

Martha has a question for y'all. She overheard someone at a restaurant remarking that a third party was so strict a vegan that she eschewed condiments. Or maybe condoms? She's not sure which. Subsequent polling of the wait-staff yielded mixed opinions. So we pass the question on to our readership: which is it more likely to have been?

Friday, January 07, 2005

About Karma

This in response to wonderful post, and its comment thread, at Via Negativa

It's easy to misconstrue karma as justice. Some sort of intrinsic cosmic justice, whereby everyone gets what they deserve. But Buddhist karma is not justice. People don't get what they deserve. Their suffering is not their own fault.

"Karma" has become an English word, and as an English word, that's what it means, now. People use it commonly, and that's what they mean by it. Cosmic justice. But that's not what the word means as a Buddhist term, and it's important to be clear about the distinction, because to say that people only get what they deserve is, I think, abhominable. (This is not to say that all Buddhists have this distinction clear. Not by a longshot. There are plenty of Buddhists, East and West, who share this misunderstanding.)

Mind generates its own dukkha. We do say that. And possibly the least bad translation of dukkha is "suffering." But it -- like karma -- is a technical term. It has a broader application than "suffering" -- I've seen it translated by terms as widely apart as "dissatisfaction" and "agony." But that's not the problem. The problem is that dukkha, as a Buddhist term, refers specifically to the suffering (dissatisfaction, agony) entailed by delusion. We entertain the delusion that we are (or should be) permanent, and so we dread our destruction. We entertain the delusion that we are individuals, locked up inside our bodies, so we are lonely and alienated. We entertain the delusion that worldly pleasures and achievements will give us lasting happiness, so we yearn for them, and fret about losing them, constantly. We entertain the delusion that worldly pain and misfortune will give us lasting misery, so we panic at the very thought of them. That's dukkha.

One thing dukkha does NOT refer to is, for instance, the storm of nerve-activity caused by being punched in the face. I don't know if you remember that scene in "The Apartment" when Jack Lemmon is hit in the face right after realizing that Shirley MacClaine cares for him. He sprawls against the wall with blood running down his chin, smiling seraphically. "Are you all right?" asks his doctor-friend. "It doesn't hurt a bit," he says. And we know what he means. He doesn't mean that his nervous-system malfunctioned, and failed to report the damage. He feels the pain. He just doesn't care. He is completely free of the delusion that this pain has any importance beyond itself. (He's free of this because he's laboring under the delusion that requited love will bring him lasting happiness, but never mind that, for now.)

So. Mind generates its own dukkha. That is, in my opinion, true; it's maybe tautologically true -- that's simply the definition of dukkha. Does that mean that people deserve their dukkha?

It doesn't. People are what they are because of the thoughts they've had and the actions they've done in the past. That's what karma means, and all it means. Because of those thoughts and actions they are prone to dukkha. But they didn't deliberately choose it; in fact they were trying to avoid it. They just didn't understand how to do so. Some teachers (not mine) say that even our external circumstances were established by our karmic history. But that still doesn't make them our fault. There is no such thing, in Buddhist thought, as deliberate evil. There's only confusion about how happiness can be obtained. We never chose to be confused about that. We just are, and always have been.

It is supposedly possible -- I certainly wouldn't know -- for someone's understanding of dukkha to be so clear that he or she can avoid generating it under any circumstances. Such a person, we're told, would fall under the Tsunami, or watch their child marched away to the gas chamber, with plenty of pain, maybe, but with no dukkha whatsoever.

Dukkha may be caused by delusion, but it is not itself a delusion. Suffering is real. It matters. Lasting happiness may come only from spiritual realization, but someone who is suffering intensely enough can't even reach out for spiritual realization. We lessen people's suffering when we can -- our own, and others' -- to establish the conditions under which we all can reach out. Neither you nor I nor anyone deserves to suffer; nothing in the universe is restored to equilibrium by anyone suffering. Wicked deeds are not set right be being punished.

Karma is not a process by which the universe heals itself by making sure everyone gets their just deserts. It is simply cause and effect. Whether it reaches beyond the bounds of this lifetime or not, it has nothing to do with settling moral accounts. The events that I set in motion by speaking angrily today, are going to be part of the world -- internal and external -- that I live in tomorrow. No one's punishing me by making me live in an angry world. It's just that I've made my world an angrier place.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

What I Can't Say

Back when I was afraid it was not true, I could say that love, love was everything. The world, mind and flesh and mud, was made of love. Now that I'm certain of it, I can't say it.

I have always been, I recognize now, far more frightened that it might be true than that it might not.

You -- yes, you; don't look over your shoulder -- I need to ask your forgiveness. I have never done anything really bad in my life, except to doubt the love between us.

I have pretended we were strangers. Forgive me for that.