Posted in Zen Buddhism

The Buddha’s Enlightenment Day

December 8th is the date generally agreed upon in Zen to celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment or awakening. The Buddha lived on the lunar calendar, so the actual date on our solar-based calendar would move every year. (Think of Passover or Easter – they move because they’re based on the lunar calendar.) In Japanese, Bodhi Day is called “Rohatsu.” It literally means “eighth day of the twelfth lunar month.”

Traditionally, the way to celebrate or honor the day would be to sit in meditation from sunset the night before until sunrise on the 8th. This is what the Buddha did. Today, in Zen monasteries around the world, the monks and nuns sit for the entire week leading up to Bodhi Day.

Householder Practices

As people with jobs and families, we may not have the time to sit for an entire week, or even overnight. Here are some ways to mark the occasion, going from the simple to the more elaborate.

Just Sit

Meditate more than you normally do. If you don’t sit at all during the work week, and December 8th falls on a workday for you, sit for five minutes. Go out in your car if you have to, but find some quiet and do it.

A Note About Posture

Sit however your normally sit: on the floor, in a chair, it doesn’t matter. Get comfortable. Do not allow any physical limitations to keep you from the task at hand.

Sit Under a Tree

The Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree, a Ficus religiosa or sacred fig. If you don’t have a fig tree, any old tree will do. If you have a Christmas or Yule tree set up, you can use that. The Buddha preferred to meditate outdoors (and I highly recommend that), but if the weather isn’t to your liking, you can stay indoors.

Review Your Precepts

If you’ve taken Buddhist precepts, this is a good day to read through them and check in with how you’re doing upholding them. Ideally, you are reciting your precepts every full moon and new moon. But who are we kidding? Householder life gets in the way. So if it’s been a while, do it now.

Read

Read something the Buddha said. Or read something by an historical or modern Buddhist teacher that resonates with you. If you have time, contemplate what you read. To retain the information better, read it like you’re going to teach it within 24 hours, then corner a willing friend or family member, and tell them all about it. Or you can journal about your reactions to the reading.

A Note on Journaling

I strongly recommend handwriting a journal as opposed to typing one. The reason is that it’s slower. And recording our thoughts more slowly slows the brain down. The ideas become richer. Don’t take my word for it: try it for yourself.

Practice Gratitude

The Buddha, born Siddhartha Gautama, went on an arduous, six-year quest to find the answer to his burning question: why is there suffering in the world. I’m grateful that he did that. But he didn’t do it for me; he did it for himself. What I’m most grateful for are the next 45 years: the time he spent walking and teaching anyone who cared to listen. When I deeply ponder the effort he expended on behalf of all beings, I am moved nearly to tears.

Then I consider all the additional people who taught in a direct line from him to me (82 of them), and the tears come. So many selfless people! So many obstacles overcome to share the Dharma! I am overcome by thankfulness.

Go Deeper: Write it Down

It doesn’t matter if you ever go back and review what your write. The fact is that writing about something engages a different section of your brain than merely thinking about it. So now you’ve recorded the information in two different places in your brain, doubling your chances of it having a long-lasting effect. Plus, writing slows down your thoughts, allowing them to expand in unexpected directions.

Personally, I’ve kept a gratitude journal since 2010, even during my cancer journey. Every day, I answer these three questions from M.J. Ryan’s book Attitudes of Gratitude:

  1. What am I grateful for?
  2. What did I enjoy today?
  3. Where do I feel satisfied?

Or you could use this list from Seventeenth Century Dutch Rabbi Baruch Spinoza:

  1. Who or what inspired me today?
  2. What brought me happiness today?
  3. What brought me comfort and deep peace today?

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

Meister Eckhart, 13th Century German Catholic mystic

Decorate

You can decorate your home for Bodhi Day. Adding lights to a tree is one traditional method, and with Christmas and Yule trees readily available, it’s easy enough to do. I have a number of Buddhist-themed holiday ornaments that I put on our tree each year and leave up until the tree comes down right after the new year.

You can also display images of the Buddha, especially statues.

Creating an Altar

There are many articles on the Internet about setting up an altar according to different Buddhist sects. Here’s a really simple one.

  • Place a statue of the Buddha on a riser, like an upside down bowl. (Use the nicest bowl you have. Drape a doily or napkin over it if desired.) If you don’t have a statue, print out an image from the Internet and lean it against something so that it’s upright.
  • Burn incense in front of the Buddha as an offering. Personally, I say “Thanks, Sid,” when I do so. (Yes, the Buddha and I are on a first name basis.)
  • If you wish, add two candles, one on each side of the Buddha. White is good, or use your favorite color.

Take the Day Off

This one requires some advanced planning and isn’t available to everyone. But if you can, take a personal day or vacation day from work and spend time in the Dharma. When I was a college professor, I used to swap days with one of the Jewish professors: I’d cover their class on the first day of Hanukkah and they’d cover mine on Bodhi Day – with our supervisor’s consent, of course.

Summing It All Up

Chose what works for you. Buddhism, like life, isn’t “one size fits all.” Here’s the core of what I do on this day:

  • Remember,
  • Be grateful,
  • Practice to honor those who came before and for the sake those who will come after.

Happy Bodhi Day! May all beings benefit.

Posted in Quote, Zen Buddhism

On Grief

One of my students lost a beloved pet two nights ago. She wrote me that she is taking refuge [in the Dharma], but she still misses her companion. She understands impermanence and yet remains effected by loss. 

I’ve always thought Buddhist priest Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) expressed this apparent disconnect best. He wrote this haiku on the occasion of the death of his daughter:

This world of dew
is a world of dew.
And yet…

Posted in The Spiritual Life

Keep Calm and Don’t Multi-Task

My Trip to Asda

Have you ever been waiting for the minimum-wage earning, high school student at the window of the fast food place to make your change while he or she is taking the order of someone behind you? And you just know the employee is going to get it wrong?

This is because our brains don’t actually multitask, according to the current research. They’re not built to. It’s no wonder is when the kid at the drive-thru makes a mistake. (The wonder is when he or she gets it right!)

Yesterday, VTH (that’s “Venerable The Husband”) and I did some grocery shopping. We’re in London for the summer and needed to stock up the flat. None of the grocery store chains here are familiar to us, so we simply went to the nearest one. While the checker was ringing up the person in front of us, a man came up to the empty check-stand behind her and started helping himself to the plastic bags. The plastic bags that the store charges 8 pence each for.

The checker asked him, politely at first, what he was doing. He went on about how the bags should be free. Honestly, he wasn’t making much sense. She shoo’ed him away and went back to what she was doing.

Then it was our turn. The man comes back, this time in front of her at yet another register. Now she’s yelling at him. He’s not stopping. So she’s shouting for the manager. “Hamet! HAMET!” All the while continuing to scan my groceries.

I pay with my debit card in the little machine. “HAMET!” she’s screaming. She’s pressing buttons on her register. She has Hamet’s attention now, and is yelling at him about the man stealing the 8 pence bags. (At the current rate of exchange, that’s 10.8 cents US per bag,) I finish my transaction and wait on the checker.

VTH says, “Hit okay.”

“I already hit okay,” I say. “I’m waiting for her.”

The checker hears me and presses a button. Hamet is chasing the bag thief away right behind me. The checker is watching the drama, occasionally offering her two cents. The little machine says “approved,” and I wait for my receipt.

“Are we ready?” asks VTH, who’s got one eye on the drama behind me.

“I’m waiting for my receipt,” I tell him.

“I don’t know what happened,” says the checker. “It should have printed. HAMET!”

I know what happened, I think to myself. You’re trying to do two things at once, and you messed one of them up. The checker is trying to get me to re-run my card. I decline because I’m concerned about being charged twice. Now I’m about ready to scream for Hamet.

Hamet shows up. “I don’t know what happened,” he says in precisely the same tone of voice the checker had used. I’m starting to think it’s part of their official script when something goes wrong. He wants me to rerun my card. There’s quite a bit of conversation about this, not rising to the level of argument due solely to my Dharma training.

Finally I agree to rerun my card provided Hamet gives me a phone number to call in case I get charged twice. Even this is long discussion, because he wants me to come back into the store if that happens. “You might have noticed from my accent that I’m not from around here,” I explain. “Coming back might not be an option.” I’m thinking I could be back in the US before my bank shows the extra charge. Hamet eventually agrees and provides me a phone number.

This whole scenario, from the time it was our turn with our roughly 15 items, took over 10 minutes. There was a long line of angry, fuming people behind me.

There are two take-aways from this experience. First, don’t multi-task. It doesn’t work. After that experience, I’ll never shop at an Asda again. With plenty of other choices, there’s no reason for me to give them a second chance. I’d be willing to bet that at least one of the people in line behind us won’t be back, either.

Multi-tasking isn’t efficient. The Buddha knew it over 2,500 years ago. Had the checker stopped scanning my items to deal with Hamet and the bag thief, then resumed when she had Hamet on the case, it would actually have been much faster. And I might shop there again.

It’s okay to pause one activity while focusing on another. In fact, it’s not just okay, it’s necessary.

Second, just stay calm. The whole situation could have been much worse had I reacted in an angry way. For the sake of complete “transparency” here, I was mad as hell. I just didn’t act on my anger. I never raised my voice. I didn’t cuss. I just looked Hamet in the eye and said, “I’m NOT happy.” Hamet was already having a tough day dealing the bag thief, and there was nothing to be gained by yet another person shouting at him.

When I was younger, I might have enjoyed telling him off. I might have felt a sense of righteous indignation. Then I encountered the Dharma and learned a more skillful way. I no longer enjoy inflicting my negativity on others.

And thank goodness. I’m much happier this way. And I think Hamet is probably happier with me this way, too, even though he doesn’t know it.

Posted in The Spiritual Life

Dealing with Disappointment

“Get used to disappointment.” – Westley, The Princess Bride

I’ve been dealing with several disappointments lately, some major and some minor. Since I’m an introspective person by nature, I’ve asked myself two important questions. First, what are the causes and conditions that have given rise to disappointment? And second, what’s the skillful way through it?

The “Why” of It

The threshold question we seem to ask in the West is, “Why is this happening to me?” Luckily, I’ve learned to let that one go. When I was going through cancer treatment, well-intentioned people (usually those into the New Age movement) asked me why I thought I had cancer. I told them I hadn’t thought about it, which was true. It didn’t occur to me to ask why I had cancer any more than it had occurred to me to ask why I got to work at my dream job or be married to the perfect man.

Someone asked the Buddha whether the correct question was “Who is this I who is experiencing this disappointment?” The Buddha said that that inquiry didn’t go deep enough. The better question, taking oneself out altogether, is “What are the causes and conditions that have given rise to disappointment?”

Simply by taking the word “I” out of the question, we relax our grip on a sense of a solid, separately existing self. We are reminded of the interrelatedness of all things. Now we’re ready to take a deep dive into causes and conditions.

Let’s use a gardening analogy. There’s a beautiful orange tree in my backyard. Why is it there? Because (for the cause of) a seed was planted there. But that’s not enough. Conditions must also be right. In this case, we need the right soil composition, sunlight, and enough water. When these causes and conditions line up just so, I get to enjoy the orange tree and make fresh OJ!

So, what are the causes and conditions of this current disappointment? The causes are that plans have changed. There was and is absolutely nothing I can do about those plans being changed. That’s outside of my control. What about the conditions?

Ah, this is where it gets interesting. The conditions were that I was looking forward to those plans, I had expectations, I was attached (in the Buddhist sense of being overly attached in an unhealthy way) to those plans!

There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to fun events. It only becomes a problem when we’re so attached to the future – as I was – that we create disappointment and suffering for ourselves when plans don’t go the way we wanted them to.

Looking at my inquiry, I can clearly see that my clinging to my plans was the cause of my disappointment. It’s just like the Buddha said in the Second Noble Truth:

“Suffering, as a noble truth … is the five categories of clinging [to] objects” (Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana-sutta — SN 56.11).

The “How” of It

So now what? The logical answer seems to be letting go of my attachment and clinging to my plans. But when have emotions ever been logical? What is the skillful way through this disappointment and self-created suffering?

Acceptance, taking life as it comes. Fortunately, we Buddhists have a practice for that: equanimity meditation.

The practice goes like this. You choose three people, things, or events from your life. Once should be someone or thing you’re overly attached to. One should be something you’re don’t like. At all. And one should be something neutral, or close to neutral.

Start with the person or thing you like, and imagine them sitting on one side of you. Spend a few minutes tuning in to all the feelings you have for them. Then imagine the person or thing you don’t like on your other side. Once again, tap in to your feelings about them. Finally, place the neutral person or thing in front of you, and allow your feelings to settle. You should feel generally positive about this “neutral” person or thing, but without any emotional intensity.

Then try to feel all three at once! Take some time to see if you can balance your feelings for the two extremes to match what you feel for the central figure. You may want to remind yourself that they all have an equal right to exist, even if you enjoy being with one more than the others.

Once your feelings have leveled off, just breathe for a few minutes before ending your meditation.

In my meditation, I place my cherished plans on the side of too much clinging. I place something I absolutely do NOT want to have happen on my other side. (I don’t “catastrophize” here, picking the worst thing that could ever happen no matter how unlikely.) Then I place some other event, which would be nice but isn’t terribly exciting, in the middle. After a while, I come to realize that there are many likely potential outcomes for my particular situation, and any of them would be okay.

Wrapping It Up

In short, I am the architect of my own suffering – by clinging to my plans – and I can relieve my own suffering – by letting go through meditation practice. May all disappointments be as easily alleviated!

Spiritual Wealth

“I focus on spiritual wealth now, and I’m busier, more enthusiastic, and more joyful than I have ever been.”

—John Templeton

What does “spiritual wealth” mean? For me, it’s simply time to practice the Dharma by bringing it into my awareness throughout my days. It’s how I keep my mind, moment to moment. It’s remembering to be my best in any circumstance. It’s listening to my Buddha-Nature.

That’s wealth, indeed. And you have it, too.

Dukkha

“People know they are lacking something, they are constantly wanting some kind of spiritual guidance.”

—Douglas Hurd

When the Buddha said that life is dukkha – “unsatisfactoriness” – perhaps this is what he meant: that vague feeling that there’s something fundamental missing from our lives. For those of us who perceive that void, a spiritual practice is the most “satisfying” way to fill it.

Posted in Zen Buddhism

Saturday Satori

The other morning, I was lounging in bed, savoring that sweet spot between sleep and wakefulness. And then I heard my neighbor’s wind-chimes.

Time stopped.

The universe expanded.

There were no wind-chimes to produce the sound and no “me” to hear it.

We had merged into the sound, itself. There was nothing else. In that moment, only the sound remained.

The best way I can analogize it is to compare it to the visual effect Sam Raimi made famous, the “push-pull.” (He uses a dolly to move the camera rapidly toward a person or thing, while adjusting the lens so that the subject doesn’t get larger in frame. The net effect is that it appears that the background is moving away from the subject.) Although the experience wasn’t visual. It wasn’t auditory, either, although it was triggered by an auditory stimulus.

Then I realized that “I” had attained something – a moment of full peace – and my “self” came rushing back, ending the moment.

This is what Buddhists call a “kensho” moment, a taste of satori, a foreshadowing of nirvana. This has happened to me more times than I can count over the course of my life, usually when I’m being still. While it’s nice when it’s happening, the trick is not to get attached to it.

When I start grasping and clinging to the moment, when I start wanting it to happen again, I only push it farther away. More than that, I set myself up for disappointment, as no two moments are alike. The Buddha taught that the origin of our unhappiness is wanting things to be other than as they are. Therefore, I try to accept each meditation experience, each breath, each moment, as it comes.

Once I got over congratulating myself on having had this experience, my mind settled, creating space for something new. I had three or four more kensho moments, when my thinking mind fell away and the universe opened. Each lasted for an unknown amount of time, but no more than a few minutes, then dissolved when my thoughts returned.

And that’s okay, as I need my thinking mind to navigate this human existence in the world of form. Eventually, the thought came that it was time to get up and start the day. I used my thinking mind to cook breakfast. Ah…!