A heart of gratitude

My friend and Zen practitioner Maia Duerr provided me with the perfect context for Thanksgiving this morning.

Her email message for the week opened with this:

“It’s been a month of heartbreak, with terrible violence in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris. And we don’t have to look far to feel how heartbreak has pervaded throughout a great deal of this past year: too many guns, racial injustice, economic disparity, environmental collapse….
How do we find the strength to keep living and giving and loving, in the midst of such profound suffering? I am reminded of the first paragraph from Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful book, Being Peace:
Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us all around us, everywhere, any time.”

For me, Thanksgiving is always hard at best, being a celebration of the invasion of Turtle Island that led to the whole process of colonization and Empire-building that have created much of that violence and injustice proliferating in the world. Recent events – just think of all that’s happened since last Thanksgiving! – make that celebration even harder.

But if we remember that at the heart of it is gratitude, it transforms the event into an opportunity for interpersonal growth.

Maia’s message is drawn from an earlier dharma talk, How to Practice Gratitude When It Ain’t Easy, that she presented at Upaya Zen Center on a pre-Thanksgiving evening. In this talk, she presents a list from a Korean Buddhist text, Powang Sammaeron, that contains these guides from the teachings of the Buddha:

  1. “Treat illness as medicine, not disease”
  2. “Make worries and hardships a way of life”
  3. “Release is hiding right behind obstructions”
  4. “Treat temptations as friends who are helping you along the path”
  5. “Accomplish through difficulties”
  6. “Make long-term friends through compromise in your relationships”
  7. “Consider those who differ with you to be your character builders”
  8. “Throw out expectation of rewards like you’d thrown out old shoes”
  9.  “Become rich at heart with small amounts”
  10. “Consider vexations as the first door on the path”

Not a bad list of meditations for Thanksgiving.

Living in the Gift…

If you have any interest in the ideas of a “sacred economy” or “gift economy” and what it means to be “living in the Gift”, this is an essential essay.

Eisenstein, as usual, has delved into the deeps, the subtleties, the complexities and hidden aspects of this idea and lays it all out for us in clear, understandable ways. You do need to be willing to explore it in detail to really get it, as It’s not reducible to a simple formula. But this essay will definitely open up the issue…. along with illuminating a few other intriguing concepts along the way.

http://charleseisenstein.net/shadow-ritual-and-relationship-in-the-gift/

Rohatsu

In honor of Rohatsu, the day we celebrate the Buddha’s Enlightenment:

 

In gratitude we offer this incense to all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas throughout space and time.

May it be as fragrant as Earth herself, reflecting our careful efforts, our wholehearted awareness and the fruit of understanding slowly ripening.

May we and all being be companions of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

May we awaken from forgetfulness and realize our true home.

–from Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh

Branching out…

I am actively stepping out into a quest for a personally real path. My vague, desultory wandering for the past year (or two) is taking me nowhere.

These are some thoughts I just picked up that I want to build this post around, but I’m putting it out there in raw form so that I don’t vacillate or shrink from the challenge. I will edit this, well, fill in the gaps outlining what all this means and what I’m thinking, and then repost it with a better title.

My lojong/tonglen practice, weak as it has been, has been leading me in a tantric direction, essentially since I realized a year or so ago that a path based on renunciation does not and will not work for me.

These quotes and links are from my recent explorations into Vajrayana:

Chapman: “The Tantric attitude systematically reverses the attitude of mainstream Buddhism. If you are a non-Tantric Buddhist, and if the Tantric attitude seems attractive or obvious, you might want to wonder why you are practicing a religion based on its opposite.”

Sky Serpent:
“You can do magical practices without assuming anything about them. You can just do the practice, and see what happens. If you do those practices with naive expectations, like “I’m going to shoot fireballs out of my eyes”, you are most likely to get disappointed and not to pay attention to actual results. If you are too skeptical, you do not really go for it, and as such you do not do the actual practice. Ambiguity and playful attitude is the best position.”

Peter Snowdon:

“My hypothesis is, that ordinary people have always had such an ambivalent attitude towards the concrete power of healers, magicians, and other shamanic types, and that this is the natural and right attitude to have towards them. If you come from a materialist-scientific culture, then you are likely to fall into two, symmetrical two traps: total denial of these powers, on the grounds that they are incompatible with (i.e. challenge) your scientific world view, and supposing that people who make use of the services of such healers/magicians must believe in them in some straightforward, literal way, the way that you might believe in the force of gravity, and therefore need to be rescued from ignorance and illusion. Often, when we ascribe superstition to others, I think we are just back-projecting onto them our own superstitious confidence in science, and ignoring the complexity of thought that is natural to people who don’t read books or spend half their lives lost in ‘thought’, but who do have to deal daily with very real situations and who therefore assess methods and techniques not on the basis of their authority or theory, but by their results.”

Chapman: “For me, the heart of the Tantric path is not magical methods or esoteric concepts. It is an attitude; a stance; a way of being. It is the attitude of passionate and spacious engagement with this world. It is an ecstatic and agonizing love-affair with everyday reality.
…Any activity—mopping the floor, designing a web page—can be Tantric practice, if you approach it with whole-hearted, spacious passion. This open-endedness makes possible the constant creative innovation that marks much of Tantra’s history.”
Tantra: (from Arobuddhism.org)
“Tantric Buddhism employs the urgent energies of agony and ecstasy, lust and hatred, paranoia and greed to transform our confusion into enlightenment.

Tantra is radically positive insanity. Tantra is the hot blood of kindness. Tantra conjures with the electricity of being: the shimmering voltage that crackles ecstatically between emptiness and form. Tantra is the alchemy of transformation by which we re-create ourselves limitlessly according to the kaleidoscopic pattern of moments that comprises our experience.”

Lojong # 13 Be Grateful to Everyone!

Wonderful wonderful Lojong here!

“Be Grateful to Everyone” is such a positive admonition. Kongtrul, in his older version of these slogans, renders it as “Contemplate the great kindness of all.”

This is part of the ‘poison as medicine’ theme, or Transformation of Bad Circumstances as it’s called in Trungpa’s rendering. In this theme, the idea is that all the people and events of our lives are things to be thankful for because they are what provide us with the opportunity to practice, to follow the path, which means the opportunity to get beyond self.

Without all these apparent ‘obstacles’ in our lives, there is no path, no way to proceed on the project of developing patience and compassion, ways to transcend our normal ego-centered, reactive approach to everything. The contemplation of just how indebted we are to the others around us becomes a major part of each meditation, as well as an important piece of the mindfulness that helps us to get through the day without stressing ourselves and the others around us.

Becoming able to actually feel gratitude to someone who has hurt you or caused difficulty for you, intentionally or not, is a great transition in life. It’s not easy and it doesn’t happen in a short time, but with patience, it will come. It just takes ‘practice!’

This Lojong slogan is very close to the Christian idea of “Praise God in all things” as well as the Chinese notion of ‘disaster as opportunity’.

Lojong 12 Drive all blames into one

Ahhh… we resisted moving on to this one. It’s a bit demanding…. but so rewarding when penetrated deeply.

In everything problematic in one’s life, realize that all the blame starts with you… your uptightness, your ego-fixation… your tendency to protect this fragile ‘self’ that has arisen in your mind. Accepting the blame for what goes wrong in your life is the only way to enter the bodhisattva path. Then it may be possible to realize the truth of our own self- reification.

Accepting the blame on yourself can also defuse a tense situation, can open it up so that others are not defensive, thus communication is possible… then others may be able to accept and acknowledge their own errors.

This is Poison as Medicine again – by absorbing the poison in a situation, we make the rest of the situation medicine. This works at the personal level, and is also key to solving the great social ills, moving toward realizing an enlightened society.

J. Kongtrul says: No one else is to blame; this self-cherishing attitude is to blame. I shall do whatever I can to subdue it.

Lojong #11 When the world is filled with evil…

... transform all mishaps into the path of Bodhi.

[POINT 3, TRANSFORMATION OF BAD CIRCUMSTANCES INTO THE PATH – BUILDING THE PARAMITAS OF PATIENCE & GENEROSITY….]

(This is maybe my favorite – at least my favorite simple, straightforward one.)

Whatever occurs in your life can be transformed into a part of your wakefulness. The way to do this is to incorporate the obstacles, the distractions, the difficulties… make them the substance of your practice. Whatever is hardest for you is the thing from which you can benefit most…

This little slogan has gotten me through some difficult times… like the latter part of my teaching career and a lot of other challenging situations, as well as helping me deal with the whole course of the world descending into chaos in the past 25 years, which at times has seemed to me like evil.

Of course, we can’t get too hung up on the word ‘evil’ here, else we distort the teaching. Truly, there is no such thing as evil, and it isn’t meant in that dualistic, good/bad way at all. It’s referring to our human tendency to identify anything that’s a problem in our own lives as ‘evil’ – projecting the source of it out there somewhere, some malevolent force.

Trungpa says we should realize our own richness and not be mired in a ‘poverty mentality’, not be concerned with loss and gain or competitiveness. Then we can find generosity, which is the way to awakening, or Bodhi.

Pema Chodron, one of Trungpa’s students, has some wonderful teachings on “Poison as Medicine” that are related to this slogan. It’s based on the idea that the challenges are what allow one to practice, because without obstacles and difficulties, there’s nothing to practice with, so we just be grateful for these problems. It’s challenging, but an interesting way to approach life’s nastiness.