Baldwin!

Damn!

Don’t know how I went so long without reading Baldwin’s fiction.

My recent look into his essays, sparked by reading Ta-Nehesi Coates’ wonderful Between the World and Me, led me to read Go Tell it on the Mountain.

What a mind-blowing novel! His characters and the intricately woven, powerful story are so captivating, and the whole impact of it just so devastating, that I don’t know why he’s not more popular. Wait. He’s a gay black guy who wrote in the 50’s. Maybe that explains it.

With such a sympathetic telling of the story of these “sanctified” (and otherwise) black people in early 20th century America that you’d swear he was one of them, rather than a lapsed saint who left the church after a spectacular beginning as a young preacher, Baldwin manages to reveal more of the psychology and sociology behind that world than could be explained in a raft of doctoral thesis papers.

Like much great literature, it manages to capture in its art many of our hard-won understandings from the patient study and analysis in the social sciences.

I’m sure he must be prominent in literature classes, as his mastery of prose is so magnificent and his finely crafted language carries multiple levels of sub-text.

He has an impeccable ear for the dialect, and I find myself carried back to my days in the Southern Baptist environment in which I grew up. Many of the phrases and the cadence of the language reflect what I heard in my youth here in the South.

But it’s the fascinating insight into the psychological and sociological realities underlying the practice of this ecstatic version of Christianity that make this book so truly astounding. With some of the most imaginative writing I’ve ever read, Baldwin carries us deep inside the psycho-sexual fantasies with which conversion experiences, “slain in the spirit” swoons, sermons and other church goings-on are richly imbued.

Though there are a few characters who stand back looking askance at all this tom-foolery, for the most part, Baldwin tells the story lovingly and uncritically – though below the surface, the implications are clear.

Of course, though also done with a light touch absent any bitterness, there is a strong social story showing the effects on the characters of the black diaspora, of the racism that pervades their lives both south and north, and the desperate lives to which so many were driven.

In addition, you see clearly the role of the church and the Christian teachings in supporting these people caught in truly abysmal social and economic circumstances – as well as their exploitation by those in seats of power.

It is a truly astounding little novel, and I highly recommend it as holiday reading! I plan to continue through his early novels and short stories in the Library of America collection I have, so I’ll share reactions to others as I feel led by the Lord… wait, as I feel motivated!

Hsin Hsin Ming

Long ago, early in my practice, I came across the line “Search not for the truth, only cease to cherish opinions.” It has always held much meaning for me, though I never really knew where it came from. This past weekend, my dharma mentor, Therese, sent me this old Chan poem:

Hsin Hsin Ming, or Trust in Mind

(attributed to the Third Chán Patriarch, Jianzhi Sengcan 鑑智僧璨, from the sixth century, but scholars think the poem may be from several centuries later in the Tang)

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent
Everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
And heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth,
Then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
Is the disease of the mind.

When the deep meaning of things is not understood,
The mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.
The Way is perfect like vast space where nothing is lacking
And nothing is in excess.

Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject
That we do not see the true nature of things.
Live neither in the entanglements of outer things,
Nor in inner feelings of emptiness.
Be serene in the oneness of things and such erroneous views
Will disappear by themselves.
When you try to stop activity to achieve passivity,
Your very effort fills you with activity.
As long as you remain in one extreme or the other,
You will never know Oneness.
Those who do not live in the single Way
Fail in both activity and passivity, assertion and denial.
To deny the reality of things is to miss their reality;
To assert the emptiness of things is to miss their reality.
The more you talk and think about it,
The further astray you wander from the truth.
Stop talking and thinking,
And there is nothing you will not be able to know.
To return to the root is to find the meaning,
But to pursue appearances is to miss the source.
At the moment of inner enlightenment,
There is a going beyond appearance and emptiness.
The changes that appear to occur in the empty world
We call real only because of our ignorance.
Do not search for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.
Do not remain in the dualistic state; avoid such pursuits carefully. If there is even a trace of this and that, of right and wrong,
The Mind-essence will be lost in confusion.
Although all dualities come from the One,
Do not be attached even to this One.

When the mind exists undisturbed in the Way,
Nothing in the world can offend,
And when a thing can no longer offend,
It ceases to exist in the old way.

When no discriminating thought arises the old mind ceases to exist. When thought objects vanish, the thinking subject vanishes,
As when the mind vanishes, objects vanish.
Things are objects because of the subject (mind);
The mind (subject) is such because of things (objects).
Understand the relativity of these two and the basic reality:
The unity of emptiness.
In this Emptiness the two are indistinguishable,
And each contains in itself the whole world.
If you do not discriminate between coarse and fine,
You will not be tempted to prejudice and opinion.
To live in the Great Way is neither easy nor difficult,
But those with limited views are fearful and irresolute:
The faster they hurry, the slower they go,
And clinging cannot be limited;
And even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment is to go astray. Just let things be in their own way,
And there will be neither coming nor going.
Obey the nature of things (your own nature),
And you will walk freely and undisturbed.
When thought is in bondage the truth is hidden,
For everything is murky and unclear, and the burdensome
Practice of judging brings annoyance and weariness.
What benefit can be derived from distinctions and separations?
If you wish to move in the One Way do not dislike
Even the world of senses and ideas.
Indeed, to accept them fully is identical with true Enlightenment. The wise person strives to no goals
But the foolish person fetters himself.

This is one Dharma, not many;
Distinctions arise from the clinging needs of the ignorant.
To seek Mind with the (discriminating) mind
is the greatest of all mistakes.
Rest and unrest derive from illusion;
With enlightenment there is no liking or disliking.
All dualities come from ignorant inference;
They are like dreams of flowers in the air: foolish to try to grasp them. Gain and loss, right and wrong:
Such thoughts must finally be abolished at once.
If the eye never sleeps, all dreams will naturally cease.
If the mind makes no discriminations,
The ten thousand things are as they are, of single essence.

To understand the mystery of the One-essence
Is to be released from all entanglements.
When all things are seen equally the timeless Self-essence is reached. No comparisons or analogies are possible in this
Causeless, relationless state.
Consider movement stationary and the stationary in motion,
Both movement and rest disappear.
When such dualities cease to exist Oneness itself cannot exist.
To this ultimate finality no law or description applies.
For the unified mind in accord with the Way
All self-centered straining ceases.
Doubts and irresolutions vanish and life in true faith is possible.
With a single stroke we are freed from bondage;
Nothing clings to us and we hold to nothing.
All is empty, clear, self-illuminating,
With no exertion of the mind’s power.
Here thought, feeling, knowledge, and imagination are of no value.
In this world of suchness there is neither self nor other-than-self.
To come directly into harmony with this reality,
Just simply say when doubt arises, “Not two.”
In this “not two” nothing is separate, nothing excluded.
No matter when or where, enlightenment means entering this truth. And this truth is beyond extension or diminution in time or space;
In it a single thought is ten thousand years.
Emptiness here, emptiness there,
But the infinite universe stands always before your eyes.
Infinitely large and infinitely small; no difference,
For definitions have vanished and no boundaries are seen.
So too with Being and non-Being.
Don’t waste time in doubts and arguments
that have nothing to do with this.
One thing, all things: move among and intermingle, without distinction. To live in this realization is to be without anxiety about non-perfection. To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,
Because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.
Words! The Way is beyond language,
For in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.

 

Beautifully Flawed — from Ramblin’ Rose

Source: Beautifully Flawed

My blogger friend Rosemaryanne, of  “almost dropped out”, has hit another home run!

This is a great insight into the truths we live with in the practice life, and so sweetly and personally related I had to share it. This is the central point, though it’s all worth reading:

I knew little about meditation before I began practising and like many newbies, I thought it would help to get rid of the nagging voice in my head. It doesn’t. It does help me to recognise her though and to stand back from her sometimes. I assumed that after many years of practice, I might become a “better” person. The coach thinks its all part of her strategy.

Gate Gate…

Gate Gate, ParaGate, ParasamGate, Bodhi Svaha.

Doing the dharani this morning during my meditation. A nice round of 108 of those does wonders for one’s stress level. Which I was definitely needing this morning.

The chanting and a few capsules of “Calm the Bitch” and I’m feeling much better! Ah, yes, that’s an herbal blend with an inappropriate name, perhaps, but an effective blend and a perfectly descriptive name!

Not sure exactly what’s in it as it’s a personal blend from our friend Hsin-Hsin, a Chinese Medicine practitioner who manages the herbal pharmacy at East-West College of Natural Medicine. One of her students gave it the name after discovering its power to calm anger and relieve stress. Mostly citrus and a little He Huang Pi (Collective Happiness bark), I think.

But, back to the chanting. It’s the dharani from the Heart Sutra, one I’ve been chanting for nearly 30 years now. Its literal meaning, if such can be assigned to a dharani, is something like: “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond. Enlightenment be praised.” Some English versions include the phrases “gone to the other shore” and “having never left.”

Its real meaning is more in the sound of it than the words, and that sound can be transcendent. Especially if one is immersed in the Heart Sutra itself. But that’s way beyond the scope of this blog entry! Red Pine has a great book on the sutra if you’re interested.

Chanting dharanis or mantras is not something I do much of. It is more like medicine to me than a practice. I use it often when driving to help with the stress of that situation. I don’t think a practice built on daily chanting has the power to bring the kind of liberation, deep and wide liberation, that I see a true meditation practice as capable of bringing. I could be wrong about that, but it seems so to me.

I needed its medicine today, though.

Life has been rather loaded with stress, even anger, lately. I find that dealing with the stress via meditation and herbs is better than living in denial or escape. Much of the social malaise which plagues us nowadays could be laid at the feet of a public who would rather ignore, escape from, or deny social problems.

Much of my stress comes from the deeply sad, wounded nature of the world today. Though I live in this quiet, lovely community, word seeps in of the incomprehensible terror and pain that so many in our world, our sweet and beautiful world, live in. So many of my fellow beings, human and otherwise, find their daily lives surrounded by a hostile world of greed, anger and delusion, a world where these three poisons are taking human form in monstrous ways….

Monstrous ways that seem to threaten the very lives of all of us on so many levels. If it is true, as some propose, that we humans have developed to be the means by which this planet or even the entire cosmos is self-aware, then we are sensitive to all this pain and agony to good purpose. Which is why I think it’s better not to hide from or deny these realities. But it can be unpleasant and stressful, to say the least.

This stress can impact our lives and relationships in many ways. The most difficult thing for me, in trying to live a meditation-based life, is that I find myself in a near-constant state of frustration that cascades into irritation and anger, with an occasional outburst leading to more stress and unpleasant, hurtful feelings for ones I love.

A recent outburst and the fallout from that is a big part of my current need for stress medication! Things are improving greatly today, but the last few days were — well, not so good.

The positive side – the “wisdom side” as the Tibetans say – of this experience has been that it shows me once again how important it is to be consistent and deep and real in my meditation practice. My first Zen teacher always said that his teacher said, “One hour or meditation, one hour of enlightenment.”

Keep sitting.

Or, as that great philosopher Dave Mason said long ago, “Can’t stop worrying about the things we do. Can’t stop loving, without it nothing would seem true.”

 

 

Waking Up to Your Life

Maia Duerr​ and Katya Lesher​ are doing the online program “Waking Up to Your Life” again, starting Sept. 20. I highly recommend this program to anyone who would like to start, improve, or even just understand better a meditation-based life practice.

I’m going for a second round, in fact several of us from the beta version are planning to participate again, so that’s a pretty good indicator of how helpful it was… and how enjoyable really! They’re all really great folks and provide such a supportive atmosphere that most anyone could benefit from this… it’s a perfectly open, inclusive approach that doesn’t require buying in to a specifically Buddhist – or any other – practice.

I think a big part of it is that you begin to relate to the others in the group as friends, and it really becomes a virtual sangha. I’m hoping at some point that some of us get together for an in-person retreat.

It was very helpful to me in getting myself back on track after a year or so of neglecting, or straying from the path of, my practice. As I blogged about earlier (A New Direction), I felt able to commit to a dharma mentoring practice after doing the Waking Up program, and am now as solid in my practice as I have been at any time in the 30 years or so I’ve been trying to do this!

It’s easy to sign up and the fee is entirely reasonable – amazing really, for a three-month program with lots of support materials. Just go to http://maiaduerr.com/waking-up-to-your-life/ to get on the list.

Daily devotional

In my efforts to establish, maintain, reestablish and re-maintain a meditation practice – a life practice based on meditation, really – I have found that the daily devotional is helpful and adds a dimension of delight to the process.

Though it has little in common with our culture’s general idea of a “devotional,” the Buddhist version of this practice does much to create an atmosphere of calm, focused attention that is supportive both of the meditation time on the cushion and of the efforts to bring this state of mind to bear during the process of daily life activities.

For someone trying to start a practice without much experience in a temple or meditation center, it may be helpful to outline how this “devotional” works for me. Of course, this is my adaptation and reflects my personal experiences, so it’s just one model to help in developing a practice that suits your temperament and experiences.

An altar is a good place to begin. My altar is a simple bamboo table with a few items that mean something to me arranged on it. The traditional Zen altar has a Buddha-rupa (a statue of the Buddha usually), a small container of rice, a candle, an incense holder, a bell, a vase of flowers, and perhaps a relic, a piece of wood, or some other esthetically pleasing natural element. Any other elements that connect you with the notion of larger spiritual practice are appropriate.

I light my candle and incense to begin, and offer an incense chant borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh, which contains the same elements as the traditional offering but with expanded content that makes them more meaningful for us: (the / represents sounding the bell)

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 fruit of understanding slowly ripening;/

May we and all beings be companions of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas;/

May we awaken from forgetfulness and realize our true home./

This I follow with the traditional verse on karma: (each of the rest are repeated three times)

All my ancient twisted karma,/ from beginning-less greed, anger, and delusion,/

Born of body, speech and mind,/ I now fully avow (or atone)./

Then a verse from a friend which seems to catch up the idea of social karma for me:

Now I will feel the old/ Force of forests held/ In each remaining tree./

The next is some lines based on Chogyam Trungpa’s recommendations for personal vows, but really reflects the things that I need to remind myself of in my vows. I usually mentally remind myself not to take the dualism in these statements literally:

I vow to pursue Bodhichitta and develop a sense of gentleness;/

I promise not to blame others but to take their pain on myself;/

I promise always to put others before self./

I end with the Soto version of the three great vows, in Japanese:

Shu jo mu hen sai gan do;/

Bon no mu gen sai gan dan;/

Ho mon murrio san gan gakku;/

Butsu do/ mu gen sai gan jo./

[As I don’t seem to have these written down, I’m relying on memory for the spelling – it’s 12th Century Japanese, so don’t try to translate! In English, it’s rendered as “Beings are innumerable, I vow to save them; Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to extinguish them; Dharma teachings are immeasureable, I vow to master them; the Buddha’s Way is endless, I vow to follow it to the end.”]

Then bows to the Three Treasures: (Buddha)/ (Dharma)/ (Sangha)/.

After sitting I usually recite some version of the dedication of merit and do the three treasure bows again.

In English, the Soto dedication of merit is: “We pray that this merit universally pervade all existence and that we and all / sentient beings achieve this understanding. We pay homage to all / Buddhas of the past present and future, the /World-Honored One, /Great Bodhisattvas, /Great /Heart of Wisdom.”

Real practice

I missed two days of sitting last week, and there were good, reasonable excuses for it each time, excuses not worth going into.

Because the real reason I don’t sit, when I don’t, goes deeper than these perfectly reasonable circumstantial issues. The real reason I don’t sit is because sitting can be hard. Not in the physical sense really, or even the boredom of which people sometimes complain.

Sitting can be hard because it reveals truth about me that I don’t always want to see.

——-

That’s why a real meditation practice requires more than a cushion, schedules and good intentions. Real practice requires moral courage and unflinching dedication to knowing those truths about oneself that are unflattering, difficult, even painful.

——-

Of course, that is the point. Unlike “McMindfulness” – as David Loy has called superficial practices – a real life practice is not undertaken to make one more productive at work or reduce anxiety in social situations (which it certainly will do), it is part of the heart’s commitment to living one’s life in an authentic way, aligned with the highest aspirations that we humans can generate: to be compassionate to everyone, to contribute to making life meaningful and happy for all, to being all those things we mean when we say “a good person.”

It’s not an easy commitment to make, and it’s not easy to remember that this is why one practices. That’s why daily vows are a good idea, because they keep that promise fresh in our minds.

And it’s not easy to stick with it day after day, because on the cushion we see clearly all those points of deviation from the path over the past day – and in our life in general. We see clearly all those things we’d rather ignore in our relationships, our work, our living.

So if there’s an excuse not to sit, we take it.

——-

Those days we don’t sit, though, do also show us the value of it, even in ways beyond the increased levels of stress and anxiety we may experience. Because if we get back to the cushion soon enough after the missed session, we may see what it was we were really avoiding.

And that’s real practice.

——

Related Links

My post on McMindfullness.

 

David Loy of BPF on McMindfullness.

 

My post on solutions that work for everyone.

Daddy – and back to Georgia

[This is Chap. 16 in the continuing narrative on My Way-finding. Previous chapters are Pages on this site, and links can be found in the menu to the left of the main entry.]

My daddy had a powerful influence on my life.

He was one of those larger-than-life characters who made an indelible impression on everyone, and he shaped me in ways that I’ve only recently begun to understand, though I’ve now outlived him by over a year. He was a tall, handsome man with a personal warmth and a charismatic speaking style that made him the best preacher I ever heard, though he wasn’t a preacher, he was a journalist.

His father and grandfather had both been Baptist preachers, active in the Georgia Baptist Convention and Mercer University, the Baptist college, but Daddy chose a different pulpit: a small-town weekly newspaper. He was a solid Baptist his whole life, and could fill any pulpit with a wonderful sermon, and he raised all of us to be dutiful Baptists as well. I was pretty much into that role until sometime in high school, and college broke me completely out of it (as I’ve related in earlier posts), but that never really came between us at the emotional level.

For much of my young life, I wanted to be him, but Vietnam – and all of the Vietnam era radicalism that I embraced – came between us in a big way. He had been a navigator on B-24’s in World War II, flying out of England in the storied raids on Hitler’s ball-bearing factories, and I became a war resister.

Well – first I joined the Air Force and became a pilot because I knew that would make him happy. But then I encountered the reality of the petty little empire-building escapade that we called, in our ignorance and arrogance, “the Vietnam War.” I went, despite my reticence, because I thought I really didn’t know what was going on there, going on in the world, going on in the exalted realms of the U.S. political system… so I should give up my foolish notions of knowing that it was all wrong and just go, like all the other people I knew who had gone and either died or come back.

And then I got there and found out it was every bit as depraved and stupid and immoral and deceptive and wrong as I had thought… and so after about nine months of it, I bailed. At least I tried to. I told them I wasn’t that into the war and wanted to be out of the Air Force.

They said, well, yes, but… no. You haven’t really done anything bad, you’ve played by the rules, been a good boy, so there’s no reason we should let you out before your commitment is up. So then I said, okay, fine, then I won’t do anything for you anymore. By then of course, I was back in the states and supposed to be an instructor, teaching guys to go there and do what I did for a year and ten days. (I was in country an extra ten days waiting for them to decide what to do with me, since I had an “administrative action pending”.)

It’s a long story, one I’ve related in my War Journal, which is on my website hoyama.org, but the upshot is, I finally got out. In the process of this, of course, my father and I had some serious, divisive, but inconclusive, discussions. He never really understood, though my mother supported me, and even after it was all over – my discharge, the war, the social debate – we never really talked about it at the level that we should have.

And then he died.

On his 66th birthday, really in the prime of his life, while I was living in Oregon, he went into heart bypass surgery and never regained consciousness. We rushed back to Georgia when they decided he needed the surgery, but he was still on the machine when we arrived, and his heart would never resume its work on its own, so he died as I stood in the intensive care ward watching him breathe and listening to the machines beep.

….

I was totally unprepared for the loss, and it flattened me.

I was pretty much lost in grief for some time, but eventually I repressed most of it and went back to my ignorance and denial. But it dug a hole in me that began to fester. All those unsaid things began to eat away my insides, All the regret and guilt of a lifetime eventually ate away my heart and my gut and replaced them with balls of molten metal.

About a year after Daddy’s death, Giana and Luke and I moved back to Georgia to be with my mom. She had been left pretty much alone when Daddy died, and though she was a strong and independent woman in many ways, the solitary life didn’t suit her. She needed family around, so we came.

Moving back to Georgia, I figured any hope of ever finding a Buddhist group to be part of was over. It was Georgia, the heart of Baptist-land. But I brought my Buddha-rupa, my carving, and set up a low-key altar in my house. I continued to think of myself as a Buddhist and read books about Buddhism.

And those balls of hot iron continued to grow inside me. I continued to descend into depression in longer and deeper spirals. I had never figured out that I needed to meditate on a regular basis. It seemed more like an exotic delicacy to be tasted at random, when in fact it’s as necessary as daily bread. So I suffered, and I visited that suffering on all those around me.

….

And then one day, our friend Claire came home from a weekend in Atlanta and told me about this wonderful thing she had found: a Zen center.

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.”