Confronting the Now

Introduction

I want to talk about the world we live in at this moment—the world we see when we open our newspaper or our news reader, when we turn on our TV, when we walk down to the Square or drive to town or to Chicago or fly to Tokyo or Rio. Originally, I used the term “modernity” as a name for what I wanted to talk about, but that won’t do. If you Google “modernity”, you’ll find a lot of academic blather by historians and cultural theorists looking to make the word their own by fixing its meaning, each in his or her proprietary cultural theory or historical dialectic. Nowhere in any of their words will you find anything to indicate that “modernity” has anything to do with “googling”. But the act of “googling” something has everything to do with what I want to talk about.

So instead of talking about modernity, I’m going to talk about the Now.

The Now and the Then

At any given moment, wherever we happen to be, a complex interplay of politics, technologies, ideas, power, commerce, culture, biology, and personal history determines our experience of that moment. Let’s call what determines experience at this moment “the Now”. Let’s not worry, for the time being, about trying to fix its meaning. Just let us note that the Now is defined by its difference from the Then, which we may take, for the time being, to refer to what used to determine experience.

Considering the Then

Family dinner

Considering the Then, we have recourse to memories—memories of our youth, of what we learned from our elders, of what we’ve read in books of history, of stories we’ve heard about life in those times. Considering all that, we are likely, at least in this society and at this time, to construct a Then characterized by certain distinctive marks:

  • Then, there were stable hierarchies, in families, in society, in such institutions as schools, scout troops, and churches. People knew their place.
  • Then, there were trusted authorities making laws, passing judgment, setting standards, preaching sermons, drafting wills, publishing editorials, issuing prescriptions.
  • Then, there was One God, although He might be called by many Names, and there was One Nation, under God.
  • Then, there were Principles, by which one must live, and for which one must be prepared to die.
  • Then, there were rules, indistinguishable from the aphorisms in which they were encoded—rules about hard work, and honesty, and good manners, and patience, and thrift; one might snicker at the aphorism, but one must admit that the rules held things together.
  • Then, there were things that could be known: electrons, protons, and neutrons; valence numbers; scientific laws; the fossil record; the names of the planets; grammar; history; lives of famous persons; how automobile engines worked; how to use common tools to solve common problems; what was possible and what not.
  • Things were getting better then. We were making progress. We had enough, or more than enough, of what we needed.

Not always, of course, and never really. But if we surrender to nostalgic review it seems to have been that way, mostly. Then, much of the time, we could simply accept that things were that way; then, we could experience the world conditioned by that acceptance. There were, then, few who would publicly challenge our common experience of the world, and those few could be ignored, dismissed, or punished. That is how it is in our memory and our myth. How it should be. Then.

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What to think. What to say. What to do.

First off, I want to apologize to all for my scarcity around these parts. Joan and I have spent the past two weeks in the agonizingly beautiful city of San Francisco being miserably sick. After a round of Z-Pac, I’m in full recovery mode, coughing only intermittently and able to spend several hours at a time doing something other than “resting”. We took Joan to the UCSF Urgent Care facility Monday morning, because she was getting worse, and we found that she has pneumonia. So she’s on a course of more powerful antibiotic, with pretty good prospects for a speedy recovery; so far, they seem to be working, as the Z-Pac did not. I’m back to getting Benno from school in the afternoon and attending to Joan. We should be able to make the trip home without problems (leaving here next Tuesday): SF -> Elko, NV -> Cheyenne, WY -> Des Moines, IA -> Cincinnati, arriving Friday evening.

Surveillance video

For the past two weeks, in between bouts of semi-drugged sleep, I’ve been thinking about the Boston Marathon Bombing, not trying to make sense of it, because there is no sense to be made, but to understand it, because even senseless acts can be understood, and to find the words to express my developing understanding, because the right words must be found to allow the understanding to emerge, and to figure out how I have to respond, because every experience of dukkha insists on a response.

Because I’ve not had a fully working consciousness through much of that time, and because I’ve not had the energy to face a keyboard, a lot of what I’ve thought is still inchoate, seeking the words to express it, and the actions that I think I have to take are still untested. So this is an interim report (but aren’t they all?)

Two young men, by all accounts sane, healthy, and relatively fortunate – not impoverished, or obviously victimized; well-educated; with many who loved them and who had sacrificed for them – struck out in a well-planned and ruthlessly executed act of violence that left many dead or maimed and many more terrified and desperately confused. How can I think about that, without becoming myself terrified or confused? What can I say to others that will, in some way, work to reduce the harm: the terror and confusion. What can I do – is there anything I can do, or anyone can do – to counter whatever poisons brewed this mess?

There are all kinds of places to begin looking for answers to those questions: belief systems, psychological theory, bloggers, twitterers, and pundits. I’ve been looking at all those, and also at the Buddha’s Dhamma, as I’ve come to understand that through study and meditative contemplation of the teachings in the Pali Canon. And I’ve been struggling to condense what I’ve found into a blog post. I’m not there yet—I’d guess that I’ve got a couple more days of work—but I’d like to offer, as a set of readings for Sunday’s Dhamma.now gathering, the following links:

  • Patten Oswald’s Facebook Post. You’ve probably seen this; it was posted within minutes of the blasts and went viral almost immediately. Oswald, as far as I know, is no Buddhist, but his post is informed by the Dhamma; we can’t run away from danger; we must run towards it, look it in the eye, and oppose to the evil we find there—the pride and willfulness and greed and hatred—whatever good we, and those who stand with us confronting the evil, can muster.
  • Nathan is a Zen blogger. I know no more about him, but his post following the bombings does, I think, present an honest and thoughtful take on the events, well-informed by his Buddhist practice. My only difficulty with Nathan’s post is that there is no resolution; while I find almost everything he says to be on target, the post leaves us with little to do.
  • On the New York Shambala Foundation website, meditation trainer Lodro Rinzler offers some practical guidance on how to use a Tibetan compassion meditation practice called tonglen to confront our experience of the bombings.
  • Within the Pali Canon, the opening lines of the Dhammapada, which we looked at a couple of months ago, are still relevant:
    Never by hatred has hatred been defeated—
    Only by kindness; this has been so forever.
  • For a final reading (or an only one, if you’re short of time) I’d suggest the final section of the Satipatthana Sutta, the great Discourse on the Bases of Mindfulness. That section deals with mindfulness of the dhammas; you might think of these as the irreducible components of the Dhamma, as the entire body of truths comprise the Truth, or the individual laws in all the many codes comprise the Law. The five hindrances are dhammas, as are the khandas, the essential elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Space), the fetters (sensual desire, resentment, pride, speculation, etc.), and the four Dominating Facts of Life themselves. As you read that section of the sutta, think of each dhamma in the context of the bombings, of what you know of the perpetrators, the victims, the public response to the event, and your own emerging understanding of what happened and why. Is there a way to integrate that kind of deliberate scrutiny into a program of meditative practice?

I wish I could be with you on Sunday. If we continue to heal and our trip home is without major problems, we’ll be back in time for the gathering on May 5th

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More on Mara

Stephen Batchelor

I’ve just been listening to a wonderful audio Dhamma talk by Stephen Batchelor, called Buddha Nature, Mara Nature (right-click to download; click to stream). In addition to cutting through some of the misleading implications of the word “nature”, with its distinctively non-Buddhist implications of “essence” or “self”, Batchelor does a masterful job of examining how the multifold hindrances, as personified in the canonical texts by the iconic figure of Mara, block the capacity that we share with the Buddha, “the capacity to wake up, to understand things, to see clearly, to be free”. Batchelor is lucid, witty, and wonderfully knowledgeable, not only of the Nikayas of the Pali Canon, but also of the several Tibetan traditions and both Korean and Japanese Zen. He’s a good guide; his books are good reads; and this is a good listen. I’d be eager to hear what you might take from it.

More on Correct Effort

Applying Correct Effort to Correct Effort

Whenever we’ve talked about the Buddha’s Dhamma, it’s been easy for each of us to accept the basic proposition: understand these basic facts of life—essentially dukkha, how it arises and ceases, and the eightfold path that leads to its cessation; cultivate that path in our daily lives; and experience the many wonderful benefits that attend on a life lived in open friendliness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. Not only do most of us accept the Dhammma as an intellectual proposition, we’ve also caught glimpses of what it’s like to experience a life lived in the Dhamma, at moments during meditation, or with the sudden flash of insight that comes occasionally during a particularly insightful discussion, or afterwards, while driving home, waiting for sleep to come, or waking up next morning.

Given how easy it is to see the truth in the Buddha’s message, given the moments in which we’ve directly experienced its promise, why is it so hard to keep working the program? Why is it so hard for every one of us to maintain the schedule of regular meditation that we know would help us; why is it so hard to keep our energy focused on getting rid of those qualities we know are blocking us from flourishing as we’d like; nurturing those qualities of skillful purpose that will bring us closer to becoming the kind of person we want to become; protecting such qualities as already exist in us; and preventing the emergence of new qualities that threaten our well-being and our course on our chosen path? In other words, why is it so damned difficult to maintain samma vayama: the correct application of effort?

Temptation of the Buddha by Mara

The answer, as last week’s post pointed out, involves the Five Hindrances—attachment to worldly things, ill will, restlessness, torpor, and doubt. The first two of those are relatively easy to identify as they arise in the course of meditation (and they almost alway do, at one point or another). And it’s also easy to understand how to deal with them—notice them at the earliest possible moment, probe until it seems they’ve lost their emotional affect, and gently return attention to the breath.

It’s the last three hindrances that create particular difficulties for most of us. Partly because the three are difficult to tease apart; we’re sitting there and we’re suddenly overwhelmed by a powerful combination of weariness, desire for the meditation to be over, discomfort at our position, and the feeling that this is never going to work and it was a fool’s undertaking from the beginning.
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Correct Effort

Samma Vayama, Correct Effort, marks the transition between the “Virtue Group” of Path factors (Speech, Action, and Livelihood), and the “Concentration Group” (Mindfulness and Concentration), and Correct Effort, itself, is classified as belonging to that latter group.

lonely tree

The correct application of energy, expressed one way or another, is close to the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. In the Canki Sutta, in which the Buddha taught the Brahmin youth Kapatika Baradvaja about the truth–how to preserve it, how to discover it, how to finally arrive at it–Kapatika asks the Buddha what the most important step is, of all the steps they had discussed, for that final arrival at the truth. “Striving,” the Buddha answers.

“Striving is the most important step for the final arrival at truth, Bharadvaja. If one doesn’t strive, one will never get there. Striving, one may hope to arrive, finally, at the truth.”

And the Buddha’s very last words, as reported in the great Mahaparinibbana Sutta, establish the ultimate importance of this path factor:

And the Fortunate One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: “See here, bhikkhus, I charge you. All that you experience will come to end; strive diligently!”

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Correct Livelihood

Statue from Metropolitan Museum

(The first two paragraphs are an excerpt from a work in process dealing with engaged Buddhism.) Correct Livelihood is a particularly tough one in our highly interlinked and increasingly complex world, especially for those of us who came relatively late to the Teachings, after we had settled into a career that involved our learned skills and creative powers, and while we were still obliged to fulfill our duties as householders.

The Teachings tell us that Correct Livelihood rejects dealing in living beings, including both the slave trade and prostitution, as well as the raising of animals for slaughter or other misuse, dealing in weapons, in meat production and butchery, in poisons, and in intoxicants. The teachings further identify as wrong livelihood practices that involve trickery or exploitation, including fortune-telling and usury. But what about working as a night clerk at a convenience store to pay one’s way through college? That involves selling beer and cigarettes, charging exploitative prices for things like phone cards, selling lottery tickets, and handling a variety of publications that are full of lies, sexual pandering, and ill will. And just about any employment with a multinational corporation, no matter how benign one’s job duties might seem to be, involves one with an organization that is almost certainly, in one place or another, with one arm or another, dealing out poison, deception, exploitation and environmental degradation. Even a job in academia is on shaky ground with regard to right livelihood, as colleges and universities succumb more and more willingly and completely to operating models based on continuing growth and the blind imperative of profitable revenues.

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The Superior Eightfold Path

The Superior Eightfold Path is, in some sense, more central to the Buddha’s teaching than the Four Dominating Facts of Life. When the Buddha presents his “Middle Way”, the way between ambition for material success, which is a dead end, and mortification of the material body, which is also a dead end, he presents it as “exactly this Superior Eightfold Path”. The Four Dominating Facts of Life, after setting Dukkha up as our existential condition, unquenchable desire as the cause of craving, the abandonment of such desire as the cessation of Dukkha, then presents, as the final fact of life, the way (pun intended, by the Buddha) to abandon desire as, again, “exactly this Superior Eightfold Path”.

In other discourses, he identifies the Dhamma with the Path (and reminds us that one who knows the Dhamma knows the Buddha); in the famous story of the one who discovers the path to the Ancient City, whose restoration will lead to a new stage of civilization, the City is identified as the Four Dominating Facts of Life, and the path to the City is, of course, the Superior Eightfold Path. It is certainly, in its radically pragmatic nature, its sophisticated structure, and its virtually universal relevance, the most revolutionary and distinctive of the Buddha’s teachings.

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Gathering 22: Community Values

Contemporary Sri Lankan illustration of the Buddha tending a sick monk.

I’m excited by the direction which our discussion has been taking toward an examination of the values that inform our actions (kamma) as individuals and as a community. Particular concern has been expressed about how we can create a community whose members are involved with one another at a personal level, and not just as fellow students of the Buddha’s teachings. I think this is what is essential to the task of cultivating the Superior Eightfold Path in our lives; it’s way more important than just developing an intellectual understanding how the various Path factors relate to one another, dynamically or logically. And way more difficult.

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Gathering 21: More Action

[The following mail message went to the community mail list on 3/7/2013. It's here for historical purposes; nothing was posted on the web for this gathering.]

Gathering 20: Action and Consequence

In the Upajjhatthana Sutta, the Buddha recommended that everyone, “women and men, householders and renunciants”, set five truths in mind and take time each day to contemplate those:

  1. It is in the nature of beings to age, and I cannot expect to escape aging.
  2. It is natural, in the course of things, to experience injury and disease; I cannot expect to avoid injury and disease.
  3. All who live will die; I cannot expect to evade death.
  4. In time, I will lose and be separated from all that I cherish and hold dear; I cannot expect to prevent that loss.
  5. My actions have consequences; I am the owner of my actions, born of my actions, heir to my actions, related to the world through my actions; whatever I do, rightly or wrongly, I alone will reap the consequences; I cannot reject responsibility for my actions.

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