Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Walking The Path

Yesterday I bought a pound of incredibly overpriced coffee from a boy scout named Aidan.  The twelve-year-old was also selling batteries and Christmas wreaths to help him become an Eagle scout.  I had to put a smile on little Aidan's face so without hesitation, I bought a pound of coffee.  This surprised me.  I don't know Aidan.  I don't know most of our neighbors.  But I'm connected.  I know that now.  If Aidan is smiling, so am I.  This is new for me, this luscious feeling of altruism and brotherhood.  In the past, I would not have even gone to the door, unless, of course I thought the person ringing the doorbell had seen me inside.  I would have huddled in the back of the house, waiting for whoever it was to leave.  Don't bother me, I'd think.  I didn't have kids for a reason, I'd think.  Why should I pay for someone else's kids... in fact, some kid I don't even know.  But I do know Aidan, on a spiritual level.  Aidan is me.  And I am Aidan.  We are all Aidan.  And Aidan is all of us.

For over a year, due to a severe injury, I suffered from a lonely isolation, physical pain and disability, hopelessness and fear and blinding anger.  Today and everyday, my life is truly blessed with joy.  How did this happen?  Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hahn, said something which describes my story perfectly:

"In the ash of suffering a Phoenix can be born."

I am that Phoenix.

I have at last found the right path.  I have become a realist.  Some call it Buddhist.  Some call it Love.  I am love.  I know it sounds mushy, but it is true.  We are all love!  It is our true nature.  Most of us just haven't realized it yet.  There, again, is the connection, the deciding factor... REALIZE REALITY.  Until I did that, I was hopelessly lost.  I guess everyone has their own version of reality.  But I really love Buddhism.  As for me, I've always been a part-time realist.  I have always run like hell from any preaching, altar worship with or without idols, praying to someone else or something else, some deity beyond my reach, far up in the clouds. If I can't see it, prove it scientifically, it remains to be proven and I just can't buy into it.  I'm certainly not going to change my ways based on "faith."  Buddhism is fact-based and all of its tenets, save for the afterlife or reincarnation, can be easily proven by just observing life.  I have observed it and now I know this is the path for me.  Without a doubt, I'm 100% committed.  Of course, my closest friends and family have been saying I should be committed for years, but they were talking about something else entirely.

Here I am, over a dozen Dharma books and two months of intensive study and practice later, and I can honestly say, "I am a part-time Buddha."  You see, that's part of the attraction.  In the original Buddha's eyes and his own words, anyone can be a Buddha.  You don't have to have any special qualifications or be born into a select lineage.  Enlightenment is possible for anyone, from a tiny gnat to a human being and everything in between.  All sentient creatures can attain enlightenment.  The original Buddha or "Awakened One" (Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni), as well as a number of spiritual leaders including His Holiness, The Dalai Lama said this is so.  This is no men's-only club.  Enlightenment is open to all.  And you are not forced to speak through some robed figure standing above you.  You can speak to the Buddha directly.  Because the Buddha is YOU.

I am laughing more, seeing the big picture of life, listening better (to myself and to others), having genuine moments of joy and appreciation for every day, the sunshine and the storms!  I am so crazy in love with the whole philosophy of Buddhism that I simply MUST write a blog entry about it in more detail.  If you are interested in learning about Buddhism, read the rest of this blog entry.  If you are bored silly or on an entirely different path, that's cool, too.

What is Buddhism?  For me, it teaches how to let go.  One of my favorite Buddhist Masters, Ajahn Chah, said:  "If you let go a little, you a will have a little peace; if you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely, you will have complete peace.”

The original Buddha said, "I teach only two things:  Suffering and the end of suffering."

We need to "let go of what causes suffering."  What do we mean by suffering?  It doesn't mean physical pain, but emotional such as dissatisfaction, confusion, anger, fear, addiction, restlessness, boredom, etc.  Also, any kind of emotional stress only heightens the pain or sense of debilitation felt from an injury or illness.  I know this from direct experience as I went from taking strong painkillers around the clock to just one before sleep at night.  Physical pain of any sort doesn't frighten or agitate me any more.  Wisdom helps me bear it, even to feel gratitude for pain because it is my body working normally as part of the natural alarm system.

And as for emotional suffering, how does one end this?  First off, let's distinguish between pain and suffering.  Pain is unavoidable.  Suffering is not.  Remember that there will always be pain, trouble, challenges, injury, illness, etc.  People we love will die, and we will, naturally, be sad for a while.  It doesn't mean we cannot feel.  All of these are part of life.  But the question is:  Will we let these situations cause us to suffer greatly, to dismantle us or destroy us?  Or can these experiences make us stronger?  More fully alive?  Will suffering help us understand and to develop compassion for others when they suffer?  It is how we deal with these troubles and challenges that prevents further internal suffering, ie. anguish, anger, jealousy, etc.  Without exception, the answer can be found on the inside, within each individual.  You have to take some time alone and focus on the very suffering you are avoiding or running from or clinging to, whatever it is, a person, a situation, and all the feelings it evokes.  With practice, you begin to see that suffering, again, without exception, is caused by aversion or attachment (clinging) to something or someone.  With deep meditation, we can let go of these causes of our suffering and be truly FREE.

In our relationships with others, it is challenging for most of us (it is for me) to be honest about what is causing our suffering.  We like to blame everyone else, but is that true?  Really?  When the inevitable conflicts arise, and I get "hooked" (the preface to drama), I often ask myself this question:  Do I want to be right or do I want to be happy?  This has helped me a lot in my life, to be the water and not the rock, to try and go with the flow.  Buddhism helps me stay serene despite any chaos around me.  I am more mindful and open to the suffering of others.  Meditating each day gives me clarity so I can observe and feel compassion for the suffering of others.   Then it becomes possible to let go of my resentment, anger (aversion), etc. toward them, or my expectations (attachments).

Here's a great video of Tibetan nun Thubten Chodron about the topic of relationships from the Buddhist standpoint.  It's humorous and illuminating:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qfS9vK35UA.

A large part of Buddhism is in the awakening.  This comes from meditation and mindfulness, learning to still the constant drone of noise in our minds, the distractions that keep us from our true, content and compassionate selves.  It comes also from learning to be fully present.  An awareness begins to develop.  It's like the whole world has opened and you see it for the first time, like a newborn baby.  You see it with wonder and gratitude and joy.  You let go of the worry, the anger, the judgment of others and yourself, the need to be certain of anything.  You see that the mystery is life is beautiful.

Other significant Buddhist teachings are:  1) Realizing that life is impermanent, everything changes at all times (so why attach oneself to any of it?).  2) Human life is precious and rare so have gratitude for every moment you've been given.  3) We are all connected, and therefore, there is no self, no I.  4) Everything we do or do not do creates a karmic imprint.  Another term for this reality is cause and effect.  Even our "intention" brings karma in this life (or the next, if you believe in reincarnation).  You can do a good deed, but what you think while doing it matters as much or more.  We are all subject to karma.  5) Everyone, every living being can attain enlightenment, the awakening.  This is the end of suffering.  Once this state is reached, a newfound compassion for others and love for life radiates from the heart.

His Holiness The Dalai Lama said, "My true religion is loving kindness."  This is something we can all follow, words to really consider as you go about your day.  The earth and all of life on it is precious. Why not practice more kindness?  Share more of your heart?

Among Buddhism's most basic principles are the Four Noble Truths (Suffering, Its Cause, Its Cessation and The Path to Cessation), as well as the Noble Eight-Fold Path. The path is as follows and is circular, like a lotus blossom:

  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration
  • Right Understanding
  • Right Thought
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort

Buddhism has around three-hundred precepts, taken by Monks or Nuns, but only five basic precepts are expected as a day to day training for a lay Buddhist.  A lay practitioner doesn't have to adhere to these vows, but I believe that doing so enhances one's practice and naturally fits in with all the other teachings.  It is no effort to follow them for most people.  In fact, for most people attracted to Buddhism, these are already part of their belief system.  These vows are:

1) To undertake the training to avoid taking the life of beings. This precept applies to all living beings not just humans. All beings have a right to their lives and that right should be respected.

2) To undertake the training to avoid taking things not given. This precept goes further than mere stealing. One should avoid taking anything unless one can be sure that is intended that it is for you.

3) To undertake the training to avoid sensual misconduct. This precept is often mistranslated or misinterpreted as relating only to sexual misconduct but it covers any overindulgence in any sensual pleasure such as gluttony as well as misconduct of a sexual nature.  For lay folks, this means abstaining or being in a committed relationship or marriage and being loyal to that.

4) To undertake the training to refrain from false speech. As well as avoiding lying and deceiving, this precept covers slander as well as speech which is not beneficial to the welfare of others.

5) To undertake the training to abstain from substances which cause intoxication and heedlessness. This precept is in a special category as it does not infer any intrinsic evil in, say, alcohol itself but indulgence in such a substance could be the cause of breaking the other four precepts.

Fairly early on, within days of studying Buddhism and meditating, I began to have glimpses of enlightenment.  It is the greatest joy I've ever felt.  But I've learned that, like all good things, it takes practice to stay awake.  lt takes time and diligent effort to shed our negative habits and distractions.  My life has purpose, to evolve as fully as I can and help others along the way.  Developing more gratitude, serenity, wisdom and compassion are my highest goals.  To me, nothing else is more important.

I will end with a wonderful, easy-to-follow suggestion from Tibetan Nun and author, Pema Chodron (http://pemachodronfoundation.org):

"At some point, if you’re fortunate, you’ll hit a wall of truth and wonder what you’ve been doing with your life. At that point you’ll feel highly motivated to find out what frees you and helps you to be kinder and more loving, less klesha driven and confused. At that point you’ll actually want to be present—present as you go through a door, present as you take a step, present as you wash your hands or wash a dish, present to being triggered, present to simmering, present to the ebb and flow of your emotions and thoughts. Day in and day out, you’ll find that you notice sooner when you’re hooked, and it will be easier to refrain. If you continue to do this, a kind of shedding happens—a shedding of old habits, a shedding of being run around by pleasure and pain, a shedding of being held hostage by worldly concerns."