Saturday, August 24, 2013

Buddhism and the Virtue of Selfishness

N implied that combining Buddhism and Selfishness would be an oxymoron, and I think it would be "birds of a feather."

Before I begin, I think part of the confusion here is that there are two brands of selfishness. One is a psychological illness, where a person is unable to give, share, or love. The other applies to people who work to fulfill their dreams and ambitions, and who create the life of their dreams.

To gather information on this topic, I went on a field trip to a doctor's office, a drug store, and a grocery store (just because the drug store didn't have the right kind of diapers for Charlie).

I wanted to see why people do things. There was a receptionist at the doctors' office who had a big smile on her face. I wasn't sure if it was her hot date last night, or if she was high on some cool drug, or if she was just a smiler. Then I saw the nurse to give me a shot. She was trying to be helpful, giving me screwy information that made no sense in my situation. I tried to be nice about it. Both of these people are paid for their services and wouldn't do their jobs if it wasn't for the pay. They did their jobs relatively well ... well enough that they were still there after an extended period of time. Were they essentially benevolent beings, or were they just doing what they were asked to do? You tell me.

Then at CVS (the drug store), a nice clerk asked me if she could help. I knew that if I just said "diapers" she'd think they were for me. So I asked for "baby diapers" (though I don't think of anyone but a complete new born as a baby) and she told me what aisle I should go to. Again, a helpful person, paid to do a service. Would she stand there without the pay? I doubt it.

I pulled my car into the parking lot of the grocery store, and noticed a woman in the car next to me loading her groceries into her trunk. It looked like she had forgotten two large cans at the bottom of the basket so I mentioned that to her. She said that she had not forgotten them. Then I asked if she'd like me to take her two carts. She looked tired and I thought that would be a nice gesture. It actually gave me a lot of pleasure to do this for her, especially after she smiled and seemed appreciative. I didn't debate with myself about whether I should do this or not. It seemed like doing this would make the world a better place, and would make her day a little better. It gave me a lot of pleasure to contribute this positive energy to her world.

Driving home, I started thinking about how and why my wife puts hand cream on her hands. Is this an altruistic act? Surely it would be if she just did this for me. But actually I think she treasures her hands and treats them with respect. I'd say it was primarily a selfish act.

As I drove home, I saw a golf course, streets, stores, telephone and electrical wire, cars and busses. All of this was made by people who have no particular attachment to each other ... yet it is these “selfish” acts that make the world go around. Sure we have the good Samaritans, but generally most of what we do, and what others do, is quid pro quo. I do this for you and then you do something for me.

The primary goal for the Buddha (I think of Buddha as a view rather than a man) is to relieve suffering (sometimes translated as anguish). What better way to do this than to develop and practice skills that make the world a better place? Why do we do it? Usually because that's our job. That supports the people we love and ourselves. That contributes to our feelings of self-worth. Do we relieve suffering? Absolutely. Is this what makes the world go around? Most assuredly.

P.S. Please watch Milton Friedman's piece on ”I the Pencil.” He describes how many people, with nothing in common, with neither love towards or affinity with each other, produce a common good. He once told a mom, "you are primarily concerned with helping your family. I'm concerned with helping the world." Is this far from Buddhism?

Thursday, August 22, 2013


I tell her that her work is sacred. She asks why. I feel uncomfortable and don't want to admit that my litmus test for sacred is when my heart goes thump in a certain way.

I think of the passionate DH Lawrence who differentiated between ideas and experiences. He says that we like to make experiences into ideas so we don't have to feel them. I do that, fitting ideas neatly into a square hole. But experiences are all over, bursting into the sky and running down our legs like the dribble from a melting ice cream cone.

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I attempt to deconstruct sacred. I ask “what makes something sacred.” That's easier for me than telling why I think it was sacred. I fool myself into believing that taking something apart is a more intelligent response. She stops me in my tracks, yelling “whatever” as a referee would yell “foul.”

Our zen patriarch Dogen said there was no place to spit. After being rebuked for stacking some chairs under an altar, I learn that some spaces are more sacred than others.

I remember the rubrics that some teachers use, assuming that if a student fulfills a number of expectations they would have a good essay. I rebel against the idea, and realize that one could do everything right and say nothing, and they could do everything wrong and say much.

When I label something good I acknowledge that I’m touched in a special way. I’m slowed down and realize what is important. Suddenly there is quiet. Everything glows. I feel an energetic breeze. I see goose bumps on my arms. Big ones. I want to step very carefully, not to disturb anything, hoping I can stay in that space for a moment longer. I become sacred, watching time and space collapse into the here and now.

That's sacred. And when zazen is over, one meditation leader rings the bell twice, as if a walking meditation is to follow. But no, it’s to let us know that as we walk back into our lives, we are just moving to another sacred space.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Intentional Letting Go

Happy go lucky is what many people think is letting go. I've been thinking about another letting go, more like intentional letting go. It is almost a contradiction in terms. I think about this when I prepare to be the doan in the Zendo.  I ring bells to indicate the beginning and end of sitting, and at different points during the service. But before that, I need to get from the front door of the temple to the shoe rack. In other words, I need to walk. Yikes, a challenge! Lifting up one's foot for the first step isn't so hard, at least compared with setting one’s foot down.

Or is it? Actually there is the physical act of lifting one foot up at a time, and then there is the intention. What will I think about as I walk to the shoe rack? Will it be about the tires on my car that need replacing or about the man who promised to send me a report today but didn't? Wait, where am I? “Calling Kim, calling Kim.”

The photographer Minor White spoke of photographers who go on vacation and forgot to take themselves with them. Is this much different than anyone going anywhere and leaving part of herself behind? If I really want to go somewhere wouldn't it be good to take myself along?

I decide to step over the threshold and leave my old tires and the unsent report outside. But wait, isn't this supposed to be about letting go. I did let go of the tires and the unsent report, but what about intentionally lifting up my foot. I could easily become a very affected with a self-conscious gait. So the challenge is to lift my foot up as if that's all I've ever done in my life. “Now my foot leaves the sacred floor and moves like a bird into the sky.” The separation of the foot from the ground will be silent, as in Japanese tea ceremony when a tea bowl is carefully lifted from the mat, without a sound, to be shared with a guest. It is a dance, of sorts. It is the moment, just after touching something, when the moving away is as gentle as the touch itself.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Void Contemplates Void

I read that yesterday. I've been struggling understanding emptiness. Unfortunately, the more I hear about it, I less I know. My modus operandi for understanding is to isolate the object on a pedestal and differentiate it from all other things.  Then I (erroneously) thinking I understand. I describe it by color, weight, mass, temperature when it freezes or turns to gas. I even watch it change, not realizing that I'm looking at just one piece of an infinite puzzle. Or maybe I'm just looking at looking. Or even looking at looking at looking.

When I meditate, I drift between two places. One is being somewhere else, like engaged in a fantasy of some sort, developing a project to do, or worrying that someone just stole a wallet from the zendo's shoe rack. Or I watch my breathing. But I sense my Zen practice could be something else. I separate my mind from my body from my breathing and become a trinity of three desperate elements. I'm exhausted just at the thought of it. I'm discombobulated. Totally discombobulated.

Sunday, in preparation for my Tao study class, I mistakenly read the wrong passage. It was about how a tiger, viewing his prey, has a choice of two actions. One is to leap to devour the prey, and the second is to do nothing. I loved that in the Tao world (actually our world) not acting is an action.

Then I was searching on the Web for the Heart Sutra today to send a prisoner. Lo and behold, the version I came across used the word void for emptiness. How nice I thought! My walking partner reminds me that before things there really was nothing. Space was not a container without contents. It wasn't. No outside. No inside. Nada.

So I've been trying to not busy myself with watching myself breatheseparating the breather, the breath, and the watcherbut rather I'm trying to do none of that. And not to pursue the alternativedrifting off into lala land. Hovering between being present and being vigilance is hard workwork that qualifies under the auspices of the protestation work ethic. No, I want to do something else. A while back we called it be here now, though at that moment when we observe ourselves being here now, we aren't here, but rather observing ourselves being there.

Coming back now to the void contemplating void. What was refreshing to notice when I quit trying so hard to observe was that my body was still breathing. All by itself. And I realized I didn't have to tend to it ... or even watch it. It was the leader of the pack.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Fright on Saturday Night

I've been going through my artifacts box by box as if I've been digging with a spoon into the recesses of my brain. One day I found a creative writing award that my daughter won when she was 11, and a few days later, found the actual story that she had written to win the prize. She said I could put it on my blog.
Melissa at 11 (or so) and her long-haired gerbil, Kinky

Friday, August 2, 2013

My Deepest Secret

At the college where I worked, we’d send troubled students to a psychologist. She'd ask the students, right off the bat, "What is your deepest secret?"

When I shared this startling invasion with others they were often shocked. My colleagues thought that secrets should come in time, but not be sought after at the beginning of a first session.The therapist might ask something like “why are you here” but certainly nothing as abrupt as demanding the revelation of one’s darkest secret.

I started thinking about my secrets and finally realized that they probably aren't much different than anyone else. Freud spoke of the Oedipus and Electra complexes that probably date back to the Garden of Eden. As a kid, I was sent for some psychological testing. Afterwards my mom consulted with the psychologist and was told that I had “extreme hostility toward my dad.” I couldn't wait to tell him when he came home. We laughed (which for Freud would have cemented the deal).

Back to the Garden of Eden, where we feasted on the forbidden fruit. We smoked and drank and swore, and God forbid, touched our bodies in places that felt good.

We all lied and cheated at some point in our life. When shopping, I would complain if I was “short changed” but not if I was mistakenly given a five instead of a one in change.

We injured others. We said hurtful things and did harmful things to others. Sometimes it was to get what we wanted, and sometimes because we didn't know the effect of our actions. We now wish, perhaps, that we could turn back the clock and reverse our actions, but that is not in the cards.

We swim from one fantasy to another.  We are essentially romantics, falling in love again and again and again. For me, it might be a food, a new place, a new teacher, a newly discovered artist or writer, or a friend. Today it is 12 oz vintage Tupperware tumblers. It or they become the object of my fantasies, until the next fantasy arises like a phoenix. The cycle continues, over and over again.

What is your deepest secret?

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