Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Peeling Onions Day by Day

Eat supper. Wash dishes. Go to bed. What? You were expecting more from Buddhism?

By Brenda Shoshanna

From 'Zen Miracles: Finding Peace in an Insane World,' by Brenda Shoshanna, published by John Wiley & Sons.  Brenda Shoshanna is a psychologist, a relationship expert, and a longtime Zen practitioner. Dr. Shoshanna teaches at Marymount College and the Zen Studies Society in New York. Click here to visit her website.

Just the way everyday life repeats itself, just the way we get up every morning and go to bed every night, so Zen practice, too, focuses upon tasks of daily life that repeat themselves naturally breathing, washing, sitting, standing, raking leaves, peeling onions for the soup when we need them.

Most consider these events insignificant, something to do and get over with fast. They are irritating chores we'd rather allocate to others, while we think great thoughts or do "important work" that is designed to save the world. We are eager to take on complicated projects that give a sense of accomplishment. But no matter now much we accomplish or do not accomplish, our suffering and loneliness still go on.

In Buddhism, we learn that we don't have to be fancy or smart. We don't have to be anything. All we have to be able to do is to sit down. Can we sit down? Fine. Can we breathe? Great, a top student. Do we know how to listen when the bell rings? Can we hear it? Wonderful. Can we get up when it's time to get up? That's all we need to know. Can we manage to persevere? Actually, that is all we need to do.

Many people come from a background where there is so much pressure to make the grade, to succeed, to be impressive, that for them, this practice is a much needed relief. To sit when they sit, stand when they stand, not have to constantly focus on achieving something.

Psychologically speaking, when an individual is living under the pressure to constantly achieve, a subtle message is communicated, that he or she is not enough, not loveable just as they are. Love and value must be earned. Of course, this is never experienced as love or true nourishment. No matter how much praise or love such an individual seems to receive, deep down they feel that it is only their achievements that are being cared for, not them.

As we practice, however, we grow to realize that we are sufficient as we are. Rather than seek glory, we realize that everyday life itself, breathing and peeling onions are sufficient in themselves as well. However, most of the time we have not been available to them, we've been somewhere else. As we return to the moment and to the to the daily facts of our lives, to onions that need peeling, to wash that must be done, we are returning to the essence of life itself. Why throw this away for a mirage of glory we are only dreaming of?

THE ZEN GARDEN

A famous dignitary was coming to visit a Zen monastery and intense preparations were being made for the visit. The Zen Master instructed the monks to carefully rake up all the leaves that had fallen over their beautiful rock garden. The monks gave particular attention to this task as this garden was the source of great acclaim. The task was completed perfectly about half an hour before the visit.

The Zen Master then went to a deck that was directly above the garden to inspect the outcome of the monks work. He saw that every leaf had been raked, all the weeds removed, and the rocks hosed down so that they were gleaming in the sun. After the Master was satisfied with their work, he left for a moment and then returned with a huge bag of old leaves. To the monk's horror and without a moments notice, he immediately tossed them down all over the garden again.

"Now this is a perfect Zen garden," said the Master. "Don't forget that."

The master was teaching the monks that work itself suffices, to forget about results. Whatever life brings is perfect. One can not improve upon that.

ORDINARY MOMENTS

Just as we think we need to create perfect gardens or lives, we also need to think that spirituality is about peak experiences and personal ecstasy. While these moments, when they come, are precious, they can also be nothing more than a drug, removing us from what needs to be done, sitting through a painful sitting, keeping quiet so as not to disturb others, taking care of those who are needy, attending to that which is right in front of our eyes. Putting full attention to ordinary life, to simple moments, diminishes our ego. We realize that life is already miraculous and we become concerned with doing what we are doing, not building our false selves up. By not trying to take charge of anything, a strange thing happens; we become the masters of circumstances and are no longer in their grip.

Exercise 1: Peel an Onion

Peel an onion. Peel it again. And again. Peel some more. Keep peeling. Notice everything that's happening as you peel on and on.

Boring? Annoying? Why Are you searching for something? Trying to get to the core? Forget it. Just peel. Your responses are irrelevant. Watch them come and go. Do you base your life upon transitory responses like these? What have these kinds of responses really done to your life?

Keep peeling the onion. When there is nothing left to peel, peel some more.

Who's peeling? Where's the onion? What's this all about?

Exercise 2: Pick Up Your Coat from the Floor

What's lying around unattended to in your home or life? Pick it up right now and put it in its rightful place. Is it a piece of clothing, paper, toothbrush, person, relationship? Is it an old dream that has been hanging there a long time? Just pick it up, wash or dust it off and put it where it belongs.

Exercise 3: Persevere

Enjoy persevering at something. Pick one activity that requires a great deal of perseverance and do it for a designated amount of time every day this week. Whether or not you are in the mood to do it, do it anyway. When the time is over, put it down. Then pick it up the next day. See what happens as a result of this to you, and to the activity.

When we focus upon daily tasks, the false self has no place to take hold, and ego, which causes so much anguish, gives way to something else. As well as being a great medicine, this daily practice of doing what needs to be done, sweeping the floor, washing your place after you've eaten, walking to the beach with someone who needs you, is the practice of caring for life. No questions asked. No hesitation.


Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Long Live Impermanence

 

Long Live Impermanence

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains that nothing dies; it only changes form--whether it's clouds, corn, or even Jesus.

Interview by Lisa Schneider

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen monk, teacher, poet, peace activist, and the author of more than 100 books, including "Anger," "The Miracle of Mindfulness," and "Living Buddha, Living Christ." In his latest book, "No Death, No Fear," he invites both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike to look deeply into the nature of life and death.

Q: For someone who is dealing with a painful loss or a personal fear of death but knows nothing about Buddhism or meditative technique, what do you recommend as way to begin to let go of fear and grief?

A: I think there's a way of training ourselves in order not to become the victim of fear and grief -- that is to look deeply into ourselves and to see that we are made of non-self elements. And when we look around ourselves, we can recognize ourselves in the non-self elements, like a father looking at his children can see himself in his children, can see his continuation in his children. So he is not attached to the idea that his body is the only thing that is him. He's more than his body. He is inside of his body but he is also at the same [time] outside of his body in many elements. And if we have the habit of looking like that, we will not be the victim of our attachment to one form of manifestation, and we will be free. And that freedom makes happiness and peace possible.

Q: Other than meditation, is there any specific practice that can help you come to this understanding?

A: Yes. The Buddha advised us to bear in mind that everything is impermanent, that nothing has an absolute entity that remains the same. And when we keep that insight in mind, we can see more deeply into the nature of reality, and we will not be locked in the notion that we are only this body, this life span is the only life span we have. In fact, because nothing can be by itself alone, no one can be by himself or herself alone, everyone has to inter-be with every one else. That is why, when you look outside, around you, you can see yourself. And when you look into yourself, you can see the world outside. So that is a training.

Q: I wonder if you'd answer the question you say you like to pose to your Christian friends: "Where was Jesus before he was born?"

A: In the Christian tradition, people speak of the living Christ, the living Jesus. It means Jesus is not affected by birth and death. So the question can be rephrased, "Where was Jesus after he was born?" Because if you look at that manifestation of his body and you think that Jesus is only that body, you are misled -- Jesus must be much more than that body, that manifestation. So if you can answer that question, you can answer the other question.

It's like when you look at a sheet of paper and look deeply, you can see that the paper is made of trees and sunshine and earth and clouds, and even before the manifestation of the sheet of paper in this present form, you can only see the sheet of paper in the non-paper elements that existed before.

So we should be able to see Jesus Christ even with that manifestation. And before that manifestation, we cannot say that Jesus did not exist because the nature of Jesus is the nature of no birth and no death. And birth and death cannot affect Jesus. If we look like that we have a much deeper understanding of the person, of the nature of the Lord.

Q: Can you explain what you mean by that manifestation? What is being manifested?

A: Manifestation is showing a presence -- when conditions are sufficient, something manifests itself. And that is not a beginning, that is a continuation also. It's like a beautiful cloud in the sky -- that is a manifestation: before being a cloud, the cloud has been other things like water, vapor, heat and so on. So looking deeply, you can only recognize the presence of the cloud in the non-cloud elements that have been there before that manifestation of the cloud.

Q: You say that without awareness or mindfulness we live like dead people. Can you talk about what you mean by the practice of resurrection?

A: Usually people have a tendency to be caught in the worries concerning the future or in the regret concerning the past. There is some kind of energy that is pushing them to run and they are not able to establish themselves in the present moment. And that prevents them from getting in touch [with] what is there in the present moment. And life is available only in the present moment. If you abandon the present moment you cannot live the moments of your daily life deeply. That is why those who are not capable of being there in the present moment, they don't really live their life -- they live like dead people, like the French writer Camus used to say. That is why if you know the techniques of mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful smiling, you can bring your mind back to your body and you become truly alive at every moment and that can be described as the practice of resurrection. Resurrection can be at every moment for life to be truly possible.

Q: Is that what you're talking about when you say "When you come back to mindfulness and awareness the energy of the Holy Spirit is present in you"?

A: Yes, when mindfulness is there you are attentive to yourself, you are attentive to other people around you and understanding becomes possible, compassion becomes possible. And that improves the quality of your life and the lives of those around you.

Q: You say that we should not only accept but welcome the notion of impermanence. How is it that impermanence "makes everything possible"?

A: If things were not impermanent, life would not be possible. Suppose you sow a seed of corn. If the seed of corn is not impermanent, it cannot sprout and become a young plant of corn and you would have no corn to eat. That is why impermanence is very important, crucial for life. That is why instead of complaining about impermanence you have to say "Long live impermanence!"

Q: What would you say to someone, for example, whose child has just died? How should they understand what's happened?

A: I would say that when conditions are not sufficient, something cannot manifest itself fully. It may be waiting for a few other conditions in order to manifest. And if we keep that in mind and if we are capable of seeing that manifestation in other forms then we don't have to be the victim of despair and fear.

Suppose you are impressed with a particular cloud in the sky. When it is time for that cloud to become the rain you won't see that cloud anymore and you will cry. But if you know that the cloud has been transformed into the rain and the rain is calling you, "Darling, I am here, I'm here," if you have that kind of capacity of recognizing the continuation of that manifestation, you don't have to live in despair and grief. That is why for those who have lost someone who is close to him or to her I advise that they look deeply within and see that the one who was close is still there, somehow, and with the practice of deep looking they can recognize his or her presence very close to him or to her.

Q: Do you ever have doubts about these truths? How do you deal with your own doubts?

A: Doubt in my tradition is something that is very helpful. Because of doubt you can thirst more and you will get a higher kind of proof.

Q: Is there anything more you want to add?

A: I think concerning the question about the presence of Jesus. In the Bible there's a story telling us that there was a disciple of Jesus walking with him but not recognizing him at all -- that is after the crucifixion. And then only when Jesus begins to break the bread do they recognize that the person that had been walking with him is their teacher.

My suggestion is that Jesus is very close, if you have the kind of eyes that is free from attachment and you can recognize him at anytime and anywhere. So the same thing is true with the person who is dear to you. You may have thought that he's no longer there, she's no longer there and you are looking for him or for her elsewhere and in the future. But if you have that kind of eye that we call a "signlessness" you'll be able to recognize him or her right in the here and the now and you will no longer be a victim of fear and grief and despair.

Q: If our true nature is one of no birth and no death, what are our present lives for? How can we find meaning in the actions that we take?

A: Our life is a manifestation, and we can very well make that manifestation beautiful and meaningful and have a good influence on other manifestations in the now and in the future. If we know how to create the energy of love, understanding, compassion, and beauty, then we can contribute a lot to the world, influencing positively other manifestations. Because if the manifestations that happen in the present moment are beautiful and good, their continuation in the future will be also good and beautiful.

Q: You say that people of any faith can use these teachings.

A: Yes

Q: But most Christians and others profess a faith in an embodied life after death. How can your teaching of no-death/no-self be useful to them?

A: There is an interesting story I would like to tell you. There is a lady who believed very strongly that if she died she would go to heaven and she would meet her husband, who died at the age of 30. And she said that when she was 70, and I asked her, "When you go to heaven, how old do you expect your husband to be -- 30 or 70? If he's 30 and then you are 70, then that's no match at all!"

So because we are attached to a specific form of manifestation, that is why we suffer. If we are free from that kind of attachment, we can easily recognize ourselves in other people, in different forms of manifestation, and then we don't have to suffer.


Sunday, September 12, 2021

About the Blogger

    I'm Keith Bartlett, the author or editor so to speak, of this loosely assembled and sparsely populated blog at Dharmagates.org.  When I started the site in 2006 I collected some of my favorite writings and excerpts from Dharma talks, books, and other texts for sharing with interested readers.  I maintained the site until 2017 at which time it became inactive.  Rather than restart with a more comprehensive site as I had before I am beginning by adding the old content back to this blog.  

    I welcome all suggestions for additions, improvements, and corrections as I recreate Dharmagates.org.  I make every effort to properly credit all sources of the material I reproduce here. However, if you find that I have not properly credited my sources or if I have not honored any copyrighted material please let me know and I will promptly correct any omissions or remove any material as necessary.  



These photos are quite a bit aged but are of my trip to New York to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2007.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

No Birth, No Death

No Birth, No Death

If we are mindful of the true nature of reality, then we never truly lose anyone--even to death

By Thich Nhat Hanh


Excerpted with permission from "No Death, No Fear"

published by Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam.



    Our greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing. Many of us believe that our entire existence is only a life span beginning the moment we are born or conceived and ending the moment we die. We believe that we are born from nothing and that when we die we become nothing. And so, we are filled with fear of annihilation.

    The Buddha has a very different understanding of our existence. It is the understanding that birth and death are notions. They are not real. The fact that we think they are true makes a powerful illusion that causes all our suffering. The Buddha taught there is no birth, there is no death; there is no coming, there is no going; there is no same, there is no difference; there is no permanent self, there is no annihilation. We only think there is. When we understand that we cannot be destroyed, we are liberated from fear. It is a great relief. We can enjoy life and appreciate it in a new way.

    The same thing happens when we lose any of our beloved ones. The day my mother died I wrote in my journal, A serious misfortune of my life has arrived. I suffered for more than one year after the passing away of my mother. But one night, in the highlands of Vietnam, I was sleeping in the hut in my hermitage. I dreamed of my mother. I saw myself sitting with her and we were having a wonderful talk. She looked young and beautiful, her hair flowing down. It was so pleasant to sit there and talk to her as if she had never died.

    When I woke up it was about two in the morning and I felt very strongly as though I had never lost my mother. The impression that my mother was still with me was very clear. I understood then that the idea of having lost my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother was just an idea. It was obvious in that moment that my mother is always alive in me.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk, poet, peace activist, and the author of more than one hundred books, including the national bestsellers 'Anger' and 'Living Buddha, Living Christ.' He lives in Plum Village, a monastic community in southwestern France.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The True Meaning of Turn the Other Cheek

THE TRUE MEANING OF TURN THE OTHER CHEEK

By Marcus Borg


Both the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi said Jesus' Sermon on the Mount provided the foundation for their political protests. Yet the Sermon on the Mount seems to recommend passive acceptance of injustice and oppression.

According to Matthew 5:39-41, Jesus says:
  • If any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
  • If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well.
  • If any one forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
For much of Christian history, people have heard these verses as affirming political acquiescence, not active resistance. Yet King and Gandhi interpreted Jesus as justifying political action. Which interpretation was right? Recent Jesus scholarship suggests these verses are creative non-violent strategies of protesting oppression. Such is the persuasive argument of New Testament scholar Walter Wink.

In his books "Engaging the Powers" and "The Powers That Be," Wink argues that Jesus rejected two common ways of responding to injustice: violent resistance and passive acceptance. Instead, Jesus advocated a "third way," an assertive but non-violent form of protest.

The key to understanding Wink's argument is rigorous attention to the social customs of the Jewish homeland in the first century and what these sayings would have meant in that context.

To illustrate with the saying about turning the other cheek: it specifies that the person has been struck on the right cheek. How can you be struck on the right cheek? As Wink emphasizes, you have to act this out in order to get the point: you can be struck on the right cheek only by an overhand blow with the left hand, or with a backhand blow from the right hand. (Try it).

But in that world, people did not use the left hand to strike people. It was reserved for "unseemly" uses. Thus, being struck on the right cheek meant that one had been backhanded with the right hand. Given the social customs of the day, a backhand blow was the way a superior hit an inferior, whereas one fought social equals with fists.

This means the saying presupposes a setting in which a superior is beating a peasant. What should the peasant do? "Turn the other cheek." What would be the effect? The only way the superior could continue the beating would be with an overhand blow with the fist--which would have meant treating the peasant as an equal.

Perhaps the beating would not have been stopped by this. But for the superior, it would at the very least have been disconcerting: he could continue the beating only by treating the peasant as a social peer. As Wink puts it, the peasant was in effect saying, "I am your equal. I refuse to be humiliated anymore." That is not all. The sayings about "going the second mile" and "giving your cloak to one who sues you for your coat" make a similar point: they suggest creative non-violent ways of protesting oppression.

Roman law permitted soldiers to force civilians to carry their gear for one mile, but because of abuses stringently prohibited more than one mile.

If they ask you to do that, Jesus says, go ahead; but then carry their gear a second mile. Put them in a disconcerting situation: either they risk getting in trouble, or they will have to wrestle their gear back from you.

Under civil law, a coat could be confiscated for non-payment of debt. For the poor, the coat often also served as a blanket at night. In that world, the only other garment typically worn by a peasant was an inner garment, a cloak. So if they take your coat, Jesus says, give them your cloak as well. "Strip naked," as Wink puts it. Show them what the system is doing to you. Moreover, in that world, nakedness shamed the person who observed it.

Thus, these sayings from the Sermon on the Mount, these seemingly mild sayings, are actually potent ways of confounding and exposing injustice. King and Gandhi may not have been aware of the finer points of modern Biblical scholarship, but they were no doubt clear that Jesus was counseling a radical new way of empowering the underclass.

And so, those little verses from the Gospel of Matthew are the foundation upon which King and Gandhi built their world-moving campaigns for social justice.

Thich Nhat Hanh - Dharma Talk - No Birth, No Death

 I am thankful for the preservation of Thay's Dharma talks.

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