The Melodramas That Surround US

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Giant Buddha statue outside the Japanese Temple, Bodh Gaya, India

 

“To become awakened, one must give up his identification  with the melodramas that surround him.”  Swami Ajaya

This one-liner of wisdom came across my path via the spiritual-quote-a-day tear-off calendar near the coffee pot at work.  This calendar, which appears year after year at this gathering spot, gleans wisdom from across traditions; sometimes I find them helpful, often times not.  As a Zen practitioner, I tend to find many of the quotes either too wordy or too esoteric, but this one struck me like an arrow, as any good teaching should.  Definitely a keeper, it went on the bulletin board next to my work station after its designated time had expired.  That’s a great place for it because, like all good teachings, I forget it every single day.  Spiritual practice is a process of continual remembering.

Friday night was a very important time for “re-membering” in the sense of reconnecting with a spiritual community and the intention that we share.  It was Inauguration Day, a day that shed a bright, harsh spotlight on the melodrama that the country and the world is currently embroiled in.  My partner and I had the opportunity to join our voices with about 200 others at kirtan, the ecstatic singing of the myriad names of the Divine that has been part of the Hindu tradition for millennia.  Prajna, the kirtan wallah who leads the band on harmonium and leads the voices in chanting, used to bring us all together on a monthly basis until she “retired” last year at the age of 70.  Basically, she called an emergency kirtan because she felt that, given the urgency of the situation, the world needed our voices.

What I realized as I chanted my devotion to the Divine in Her many feminine aspects was that it wasn’t just the world (out There) who needed my voice, it was me (in Here) who needed it.  This truth points to a fundamental flaw in the Swami’s statement that one must “cease to identify with the melodramas that surround him.”  As Zen Master Seung Sahn might say, this statement contains a “big mistake.”  (Actually, two big mistakes, one being the gender bias.)  The second big mistake is the perception that the melodramas surrounding me are problematic… it’s the melodramas within me that cause me to suffer.  I’m referring to what Pema Chodron calls my “storyline,” my precious notion of who I am and how I fit in with the world that I perceive as being separate from myself, a world that is never exactly the way I want it to be.  Attachment to my storyline is the cause of my suffering, and it always has been.  Office holders merely present themselves from time to time as convenient scapegoats.

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Western practitioner on the ghats of the Ganges, Varanasi, India. (Blindfold not recommended for giving up identification with the melodramas that surround you.)

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Giving it All Away

 

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Sculpture of the Virgin Mary and Child, Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, AZ

Selflessness in action is humbling to behold.  I was reminded of this after driving to a nearby town to be in the presence of Mata Amritanandamayi.  Amma, or “the Hugging Saint,” as she’s also known, travels from India to the seemingly inauspicious hamlet of Marlborough, Massachusetts every year as part of her North American tour.  Those who come for darshan, or the blessing of seeing her, have the opportunity to wait in line to receive a hug.  Part of Amma’s mission on this planet is to put her arms around as many human beings as she possibly can while she’s here.  Her love and service to humanity goes way farther than that, though;  charitable organizations in her name have made significant advances in the areas of housing, education, and public health in her home country and beyond.  Her foundation is called “Arms Around the World.”  It all comes back to the hugs.

I didn’t get a hug this year, unfortunately, as Amma’s arrival in the States was a little earlier than usual, and it sort of snuck up on us.  To be able to get the full Amma experience, you really need to schedule in a day off.  The hugs are an all-night affair, beginning around 9 at night and continuing until the wee hours.  The hug line is long, and the people in it come from far and wide; on the way through the parking lot, we counted license plates from over a dozen states and Canadian provinces.

What I did get, however, was nearly as great as physical contact with a living saint… I got a chance to witness the continual outpouring of unconditional and unapologetic love.  I sat among the rows of folding chairs facing the raised platform where she receives her devotees, alternating my gaze between the stage and the large monitors that offer up-close views of Amma and her inner circle throughout the night.  Her smile doesn’t fade.  The enthusiasm with which she greets each new person that approached her didn’t wane.  She doesn’t get up from her seat, even for a bathroom break, until the last person in the hall receives a hug.  Her energy seems inexhaustible.

I didn’t know that people could do that.  I’m not just talking about sitting all night without using the bathroom; I didn’t know that a person could just pour out their love like it flowed from an endless fountain.  No one ever told me that that was something you could do.  The instruction I got seems to be that you’ve got to hang on to some love, you can’t just give it all away… What happens when it’s all gone, who are you then?  It’s uncharted water, and there’s a lot of fear there… What’s the price of that much openness, that much selflessness?  I can’t say that I know, I’ve never taken the risk.  It’s nice to know that someone else has, and has lived to take that risk again and again.

I might not be ready to throw my arms around the world and hug it like it’s my only child, loving every last drop of its tragically flawed, misguided and beautifully brutal, cruel insanity, smelling its hope and fear as if it’s the same aroma… but I can definitely do more than I’m doing now.  These are dicey times, to say the least.  A little more love certainly won’t hurt.  No one’s asking me to sit all night on a platform hugging the multitudes, but I can ask myself to be a little kinder to whomever happens to be in front of me in any given moment, maybe even to ask, “are you okay?  Is there anything I can do for you?”

How about you, reader?  Are you okay?  I haven’t blogged in a while.  Please consider this final post of the year to be my sincerest wish for you to be happy, healthy, and free of suffering in the new year.  Wherever you are…

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Together Action

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school children in Kushinagar, India

Last weekend, I attended a workshop on practice forms at the Cambridge Zen Center.  It struck me as an unfortunate waste of time on such an unseasonably warm, spring-like February day; I’d rather have been outside enjoying the weather or inside the Zen Center doing actual practice rather than simply talking about it… Somehow, though, knowing that it’s important to both learn and teach the myriad rules and customs that govern our formal practice, I put my preferences aside and sat in the dharma room as the forms were described and demonstrated one by one.

The forms that govern formal practice in the Kwan Um School of Zen were brought to the United States by Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1972, having been adapted from the temple rituals of the Chogye Monastic Order of Korea.  They’ve since been codified as the Dharma Mirror, which serves as the practice manual for the entire Kwan Um School.  It’s edited and updated periodically, and is currently being overhauled by a teacher in the school, and this workshop, which included at least one Zen Master, was a way for that teacher to get some input and get us all on the same page before it goes to press.  In this sense, the Dharma Mirror is sort of a living document, open to amendment and interpretation as time, geography and culture might dictate.

As heartening as it is to be part of this tradition, it’s still tough to sit through extended discussion on such minutia as whether candles should be lit from left or right or from right to left when opening the altar (it’s right to left, I think… our right, not the Buddha’s), whether an offertory bowl of water should be open or closed during special chanting verses normal chanting, and what to do with our feet during full prostrations (the left foot should be crossed over the right; in Korea, it’s considered an insult to show the soles of your feet to another person, so I guess it’s the best we can do to at least cover up one).  As soon as I found myself wondering “what the hell’s the difference?” I knew that this question was at the heart of my practice in that particular moment.  The practice forms themselves aren’t as important as my relationship to them.

Somewhat limited in his English ability when he arrived here, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s slogan was “Just Do It” long before some ad man spun it into gold for Nike.  He gave this brutally simple, straight-to-the-point instruction to his students not only because his linguistic disadvantage precluded more extensive explanations, but because he immensely valued practice, or action, over speech and concepts.  There are always reasons and rationalizations for the things that we do in practice, but it’s all pretty much just ego food.  The real point is to do what Seung Sahn called “together action” with others, free of individual preferences and opinions.

Zen Master Seung Sahn was often asked by students why we chant in Korean if we have no idea what the words mean… He’d answer that the meaning is irrelevant, but the spirit of the chanting is extremely relevant.  We can chant “Coca Cola, Coca Cola” as long as we do it wholeheartedly and with a clear mind, without like or dislike, and without attachment.  He famously said, “When your thinking stops and my thinking stops, our minds are the same.”  This is the point of chanting, and the point of all our practice: together action to attain One Mind.

As I was sitting a week-long retreat at Providence Zen Center a few years ago, I was struck by the realization that the practice forms and rituals of our school are like a vessel that contains the teachings, in much the same way that the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous create the framework that recovery takes place within.  Like the Twelve Traditions, however, the practice forms not only contain the teachings, they are the teachings.  Through these simple, deliberate, together actions, we have the opportunity to get our minds out of the way and let our hearts do what they were born to do…

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Same old same old

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I don’t have mental insights particularly often, but every now and then one will sneak up on me and leave a lingering taste after its light has faded.  There’s an intersection on my way home from work where traffic typically backs up during rush hour.  One day last week, I approached the intersection at around 4:00, fully expecting to have to slow down and stop.  My expectation was met.  I waited for my turn to cross the intersection, sitting in the same car, on the same road, in front of the same houses that I’d sat in front of at around the same time the day before…  yet something was different. Somehow, I didn’t feel the same as I had the day before.  I didn’t necessarily feel better or worse; just different.  I ran back over the day in my head, wondering what was different about today that caused me to feel different than I’d felt the day before.

Then it dawned on me: everything about that day was different than the one before.  They weren’t the same day and it wasn’t a case of a familiar experience repeating itself.  It never is.  This belief that I do the same thing over and over is just a function of consciousness wherein everything is labeled and categorized in order to make experience more digestible to the rational mind.  On a very basic, molecular level, the car, the road, the houses, and the “me” were not the same car, road, houses, and me that they’d been the day before.  This is a simple and irrefutable scientific fact, yet my mind prefers to reject this fact in favor of the notion that my experience basically consists of a bunch of static, unchanging objects with some occasional fluid activity happening around them. It’s interesting, then, that consciousness not only serves the function of dividing experience into “this” and “that,” it also bundles experience into “this” and “this again.”

Life might seem simpler when it’s all nicely folded and tucked into a pre-existing conceptual framework, but it can, I’ve noticed, get a bit boring.  Buying into the delusion that I’ve already experienced an event allows me the option of checking out and not paying attention, and boredom is nothing if not a lack of attention.  It’s like reading a book while watching a movie you’ve already seen, glancing up from the pages only when your favorite scenes come on screen.  Simply put, my takeaway from my flash of insight while sitting in traffic on Commonwealth Ave. is that you can’t actually watch the same movie twice.  Not if you’re really paying attention.  And truly paying attention, being on the head of the pin where every moment arises and passes away simultaneously, awakens us to the realization that each moment is fresh, each moment is unique, and each moment will never come again.

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The People We Met

 

 

I’m not a professional photographer.  I’m barely a hobbyist. When I arrived in India, I didn’t even have a camera with me.  I was there not as a tourist, I thought, but as a pilgrim, visiting the Buddhist holy land with Zen Master Bon Haeng and two other practitioners from the Open Meadow Zen Group in Lexington, MA.  We joined nearly two hundred other members of the Kwan Um School of Zen as part of the international school’s triennial Whole World is a Single Flower conference.  Our itinerary included visits to Lumbini, Nepal, where the Buddha was born, Bodh Gaya, where he attained enlightenment, Sarnath, where he gave his first discourse, and Kushinagar, where he died after nearly half a century of teaching.  Other points of interest included Rajgir, site of the ruins of Nalanda University and Vulture Peak, where the Buddha famously held a single flower aloft to wordlessly transmit his teaching to his disciple, Mahakasyapa.

Before we had left Delhi, I knew that I needed a camera, so I bought one from this guy:

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Around every corner, I was met by incredible juxtapositions of antiquity and modernity, affluence and poverty, the sacred and the profane, all rich in the varied textures of human experience and awash in every color of the spectrum beneath the hazy, unrelenting sun.  It was clear that one needn’t be a professional photographer in order to return home from India with an array of stunning, haunting images of a land that defies conventional Western understanding.

Shortly after coming home, I decided that it would be cool to display some of my photos at the local library, so I got on a waiting list for gallery space.  It’s been a long wait.  My intention in assembling this gallery display had originally been to showcase the various sacred sites we visited, but as I was perusing the couple of hundred pictures I ended up taking, I was reminded of something Zen Master Bon Haeng had said: “We go on trips thinking that we’re going to go to new places and see all kinds of incredible things, what ends up being most important is the people we met while we were there.”  As it turns out, most of the pictures I chose for the gallery, many of which are displayed above and in other blog entries, are of people.  I feel that this is somehow in keeping with the experience of the Buddha.  I don’t think that he spent a lot of time in temples; he just walked around and talked to people.  Among those pictured here are Hindu devotees, Buddhist pilgrims from around the globe, citizens of the ancient holy city of Varanasi in the process of living their daily lives on the banks of the Ganges River, and a surly camera salesman.

 

 

 

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To the Other Shore

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I love this photograph.  It’s a mistake, a simple and predictable result of my boundless tech un-savvy.  It was supposed to be a picture of Carlos, a travelling companion and dharma friend, diving off the bow of a boat into the Ganges at dawn.  He’d insisted on performing this inadvisable feat because a couple of us had submerged ourselves in the waters on the far shore a few nights before, and he didn’t want to be outdone.  He wasn’t.  Where we’d timidly dipped ourselves into waist-deep water, he dove out of the boat in the middle of the river, swam to the far shore, then swam back through the increasingly filthy water to the ghats of Varanasi.  He’d asked to be photographed for posterity.  I snapped the picture just as he was suspended in the air between the boat and the surface of the water, oblivious to the fact that there’s a split second delay between the pressing of the button and the digital capturing of the image.  What I was left with is a picture of the scene immediately after Carlos disappeared below the surface of the water, a not-too-useful memento of his unsurpassed act of bravery and devotion.

The picture has remained disregarded in my photo gallery for four years owing, again, to my behind-the-curve tech skills; I don’t know how to delete pictures from the file, and I’m too lazy to figure it out.  I ran across it recently as I perused my photo gallery in search of India pictures for an upcoming showing at the local library.  It caught my eye immediately.  I’d never realized that, although Carlos isn’t visible in the photo, the splash he created as he dove into the water is.  Here, then, is one of those delicious cases where two wrongs make a right: a picture that shouldn’t have been snapped to begin with and should have been deleted years ago will be one of the coolest photographs on the wall, a strikingly simple, beautiful image of absence and emptiness worthy of a Pink Floyd album cover.

This photograph is noteworthy not for what it shows, but for what it doesn’t show; there’s no one in it.  Not Carlos.  Not  me.  Not the boatman or either of our other two travelling companions.  Not a single one of the four million people in Varanasi.  It’s an interesting reminder of what’s going on just beneath the veneer of drama that we unconsciously lay over reality on a moment to moment basis; namely, not much.  Universal energy manifests as various forms and shifts from action to reaction, but it’s all the same energy.  All that happened in the moment that this photo was snapped was that God jumped off of God into God while God took a picture.  In other words, nothing happened.

In the classic analogy explaining the necessity of leaving behind teachings and practices that no longer serve us, we’re reminded that when we reach the other shore, we leave the boat behind rather than carry it with us.  Looking at this picture, I wonder if it’s sometimes necessary to leave the boat behind before the other shore is reached…

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Death and Life on the Ghats

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Boatman pointing out his craft on the pre-dawn Ganges, Varanasi.

As I sift through photographs of my trip to India in preparation for an upcoming gallery display, I’ve dug out my travel journal in order to check my memories against my perceptions of the experience at the time.  I’m not sure if this particular photograph will make the cut, although there’s something about the composition that I like.  My impressions of the night it was taken, however, are worth sharing.  This excerpt is from October 20, 2011.

Several nights ago I bathed in the Ganges, an adventure that few embark on for the obvious reason that it is filthy and polluted, but I didn’t fly half way around the world just to look at the most holy river.  It began as a lark with me, Max, and James on  our last night in Varanasi as we wandered closer and closer to the river, eventually buying flip-flops and loogis and a guide along with them.  We decided to hire a boat to “the other shore,” something every boatman seemed reluctant to do; police frown on it so late at night, and this upped the fee to 2000 rupees to get three of us across.

We were led down ancient alleys in the oldest section of the oldest city, going places and seeing things that none of us had any business seeing.  The beggars were gone, as the tourists stopped flowing hours earlier and blocks away.  Scenes of depraved filth and poverty met us around every corner – dark, putrid, unpredictable; the type of situation where I knew I was way too close to the edge and wondered how much farther I could push it, since there was obviously no turning back.

Finally, we emerged at the ghats near where we’d taken a boat ride that morning… it all looked familiar, yet sinister.  The ghats of the Ganges look far different than they do in National Geographic.

The entry ends there, preempted no doubt by the deep sleep that was my only respite from the chaos and sensory overload that is Varanasi.  The boatman had taken the three of us very quickly to the far shore, fearful of being spotted and fined by the police.  We’d all agreed that the best course of action was to cross the river in order immerse ourselves, the better to avoid contact with trash, the odd dead goat, and detritus from the funeral pyres upstream.  The boatman urged us to “make haste” as we disembarked on a steep sand bar to wash away our sins.  My newly acquired flip flops sank deep into the muddy sand as I held my breath, shut my eyes tight, held my nose even tighter, and crouched down into the opaque grey liquid until the top of my head was completely covered in dubious holiness.  I never knew that water could actually be thick, but Max later concurred that that’s exactly what it was.  James opted to pass on absolving a lifetime of sins rather than risk debilitating, gut-violating infection.  Fortunately, Max and I were unaffected by full contact with the 5th most polluted river in the world, and James, as far as I know, has not been destroyed by his karma.

We climbed back into the boat, unaware that our night’s journey would take us even closer to the edge of the Void.  As we returned to the ghats, our guide offered to lead us to the funeral pyres, which it turns out, are basically large campfires fueled by wood typically purchased with the life savings of the departed soul whose earthly remains are placed on top.  Although each corpse is wrapped in white cloth and dipped into the sacred river before being cremated, the entire procedure is best described as “unceremonious,” as there is a colossal waiting line.  These fires have burned around the clock for over two hundred years in order to keep up with the demand, and not all those waiting in line are dead; there is a sort of hospice house above the ghat where the terminally ill await the good fortune of dying in this most holy city.

I was surprised by my lack of revulsion or emotionality at seeing a pair of human legs sticking out of the flames like two oversized sticks of cordwood, so close to my own bare legs that the hair on my calves was singed by the heat.  The unsentimental thought arose that the only difference between the two pairs of legs was a handful of years.  The sweet, earthy odor of the smoke reached me along with the realization that there’s more to us than these hunks of meat that we insist on calling “me.”  It’s humbling to consider that I’m not as limited as I’ve always assumed myself to be.

This glimpse of true nature, of the immensity of human potential is illuminated daily with the performance of devotional rituals as the sun rises over the Ganges.  After touring the Buddhist holy sites of Sarnath, Bodh Ghaya, Kushinagar, and Lumbini, we returned to Varanasi for another sunrise boat ride.  Struck again by how different, how alive, the ghats look by daylight, I recalled the night that my travelling companions and I had our foreheads anointed with ashes from the fire of Shiva, which has burned for three thousand years.  It occurred to me as I watched devotees doing morning ablutions that these same rites have been performed every single morning for at least that long.  The actors have changed, but the ritual has endured the millennia day after day after day in the same way the leaves are renewed yearly on a tree that lives for centuries.  Whether a leaf, a tree, a human being, or a river, we all have our part to play in the cosmos.  As I watched the faithful bathe, I thought how comforting, how humbling, and how extraordinary, to be nothing more or less than another leaf on a tree…SAM_0432

Morning rituals on the ghats at Varanasi

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a leaf on a tree

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