June 29, 2008

Living Life, Rather Than Writing About It

All is nirvana. Or at least it seems much closer to it lately. Ironically, fewer obstacles mean less to overcome, less possibility for growth. One has to learn how to grow and develop in the face of a world in which everything seems to be going well, for now at least. It helps you to notice the good things.

First you notice that nothing has gone horribly wrong for a few weeks. Then you start to wonder what it is you have failed to notice. A horrible noise coming from you car maybe? A bill you forgot to pay? A dirty look from a coworker you didn't notice? But no, another week goes by and all is still well.

Then you start to notice just how well things are. There is praise from you boss. Long evenings talking over bottles of wine. Fun lunch outings to interesting new restaurants paid for with the boss's company card. The car zips through beautiful rocky canyons with nary a hiccup, where you can lay by the river and listen to the rush without feeling at all disappointed that it is far too cold to swim in. You start to notice the wonderful weather, the flowers, good food, good people, all of them. And you can be grateful, so grateful, for everything.

Then you family comes to visit and lo and behold, things go well. They say your boyfriend is "nice" and no one threatens to toss him out of your cousin's wedding reception. No one starts an awkward discussion while trapped in the car on the way through Rocky Mountain National Park. Your parents don't grumble (too much) about your tendency to wander out of sight down tiny game trails, climb on tall boulders, or to the top of 12,000 foot tundra covered peaks where you can experience the sensation of skydiving without ever getting in an airplane. Said boyfriend is still happy with you after meeting your family and takes all their none too subtle hints about unspoken commitments in good humor. Your family finally meets the place you think of a home, complete with shrines and stupas, and men and women marching and chanting in uniformed unison. (Really, Mom, it's not a cult!) And they don't seem terribly concerned by it all. They kiss you cheek and say goodbye and head back to Nebraska secure in the knowledge they will see you again in August.

You actually look forward toward Monday and go to work every day with diligence, not begrudgingly. You look forward to going back to school, because you suddenly remember you get to write for the paper again and sit on the senate (really, four hours a week arguing with 45 other people - what could be better?). And you enjoy today because it is today. And you wonder, do I sound slightly high or something, because this is all sorta surreal in a way. And you remember the slogan card that once sat on your desk. "Regard all dharmas as dreams." It is surreal, and that's okay. It's all going to blow away on the wind, and that's okay too.

And you learn the true meaning of gratitude is living life as it comes.

June 20, 2008

Random Mutterings

The New York Times says Obama is holding more intimate meetings in an effort to show he is not simply a glamorous speechmaker, but an average joe. "I don't want my president to be average! I want my president to be extraordinary!" I flick the paper strongly with my finger.

NPR mentioned the newest McCain camp criticism of Obama who supports the recent Supreme Court ruling that the Guantanamo Bay inmates are entitled to a civilian trial (about time!). They said he had a September 10th mindset and that "safety is more important than the economy." "Schmucks! Freedom is more important!" with my hands covering my eyes.

It's gonna get really annoying before November, isn't it?

June 14, 2008

Everything Is Not Suffering

“Is Everything Suffering?” Thich Nhat Hanh asks in the title of Chapter Five. The First Noble Truth and Three Marks of Existence or Three Dharma Seals would seem to indicate that it is. According to the All-knowing God Wikipedia, the Three Marks of Existence are annicca, anatta, and dhukka, or impermanence, non-self, and suffering. It’s interesting to note the first two are more a lack of something than its presence. All things are impermanent. All things lack a separate self. And all things suffer. Or do they?

Does a buddha suffer? I would think not, because isn’t that sort of the point of buddhahood? Or maybe a buddha does suffer, they just don’t mind because they are a buddha, and if they don’t mind (have to aversion/attachment) is it still suffering? Well, for arguments sake, let’s say a buddha does not suffer. Then by the logic of the Three Marks of Existence, neither does the buddha exist, and don’t we know that’s not the case?

As Thich Nhat Hanh points out, that argument “is illogical.”

“To put suffering on the same level of impermanence and non-self is an error. Impermanence and non-self are “universal.” They are a “mark” of all things. Suffering is not. It is not difficult to see that a table is impermanent and does not have a self separate from all non-table elements, like wood, rain, sun, furniture maker, and so on. But is it suffering?”

TNH points out that it is our attachment/aversion to the table which causes us suffering, our mistaken understanding that the table is permanent and separate. And doesn’t the Third Noble Truth tell us that we have the ability to cause the cessation of suffering.

“In several sutras the Buddha taught that nirvana, the joy of completely extinguishing our ideas and concepts, rather than suffering, is one of the Three Dharma Seals.”

This makes much more sense in light of the understanding that nirvana is now. Nirvana is the present moment, the beauty, the basic goodness of every thing and every moment hiding behind the distorted lenses of our attachments, concepts, desires, and ignorance.

Everything is not suffering; rather, everything is nirvana.

June 08, 2008

The Next Moment

One of the first books I bought at the beginning of my path was The Heart of Buddha's Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh. It was the first one which really clicked with me, which compelled me, and showed me what I already knew if not in so many words. Two years ago, I gave that book to my friend Marilyn, who had cancer. She told me when her daily cocktail of drugs kept her up at night she would read that book even though that same cocktail of drugs kept her from understanding much of it in her fuzzy headed state. It would help her find sleep again. I was glad of it. When she died, February before last, I had neither the heart nor the courage to ask for it back from one of her children, with whom I had never been close.

A week ago I purchased a new copy for myself. Saturday morning I trotted down to the Laughing Goat coffee shop on Pearl Street, purchased a pastry and a mocha and sat at a little table near the window to once again read Thich Nhat Hanh's words.

"Buddha was not a god," he writes. Then he continues and begins as the Buddha began, with suffering.

"The ocean of suffering is immense, but if you turn around, you can see the land. The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don't wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy."

Here I sit, clean and healthy, in my nice new second-hand jeans, with a wonderful book I was able to buy with money from my fulfilling new job, in a trendy coffee shop in one of the more affluent cities in, arguably, the richest nation in the world, well fed and well caffeinated, and reading about suffering. Don't get me wrong. This is not about guilt. This is about gratitude. I am so grateful for my job, and my jeans, and this book, and this teacher, and this wonderful city in this free country where I can practice my own path. And I am especially grateful for the Laughing Goat's wonderful strawberry pastries.

At the same time, I know this moment is fleeting. Those jeans I bought will have to last the next five years, maybe ten, until they literally fall apart. Soon I'll be addicted to caffeine again (about the time school starts) and go into withdrawal each morning. I'll be hungry in a few short hours. The job will end and I'll be on the hunt before too long, with an uncertain future. I'll be home in Nebraska, dodging cars who are not as nice to cyclists as they are here. And you know what? That's okay.

That moment, when it comes, will be no less perfect than this moment. In that moment I'll have just as much to be grateful for, if not more, because the suffering which comes with change is my greatest teacher.

"The Buddha called suffering a Holy Truth, because our suffering has the capacity of showing us the path to liberation. Embrace your suffering, and let it reveal to you the way of peace."

Because, let's face it, peace rocks!

June 07, 2008

Cat with a Red Collar

Along the sidewalk stands a wooden fence, the dark, rich chocolate color of the wood making the bright green leaves and small white flowers of the overtaking spirea bushes all the more lovely. Here between the fence and the walk are small flower beds overrun with irises, poppies, and all manner of other flowers. There you will come to two stone columns, a soft pink stone, rising to eye level, each topped with a brass light, quiet now on the bright, sunny day.

The stone columns flank and arbor with a round lattice top, supporting a vibrant rosebush only not beginning to bloom with pink roses. Down that shady tunnel is a gate, which swings open on either side like an old saloon door. The top of the gate is also rounded, so that together the arbor above and the gate below make a perfect circle, through which to glimpse a flagstone path leading to a white door with white trim set in a bright yellow cottage.

There, in front of the white door, sits a dark tabby cat, patiently watching through the window in the door, attention unwavering, still as a statue. His dark tail curls on the light flagstone stoop. He wears a bright red collar with a small silver bell. He wears it proudly, like a cowboy wears his hat or a woman wears that red dress that fits just right.

Beside the door is a little set of shelves, upon which sit pots awaiting flowers, gardening tools, and little birdhouses in need of painting. The garden is just visible, through the disguising branches of the roses and the spirea bushes, and a little blue shed which long ago looks to have been turned into a studio.

And still the little cat sits patiently, you watching him as he watches the door. He turns for a moment to look over his shoulder, looking neither startled nor interested to see you. The bell on his collar dings softly. Then he turns back to his door and you return to your walk along the shady lanes and past the cheerful gardens and sheltering front porches.

But you carry the cat with you, if only as a picture in your mind, of the red collar and dark fence and green, green rosebush and white, white door.

June 06, 2008

Ripping Off the Bandage

This poor guy loaded up his moving van, ready to drive to Chicago the next day and in the morning came out to find out all his stuff had been stolen. He literally lost everything. So he started keeping a blog of all the things he bought since then and why. It is oddly fascinating. It is an extreme exercise in letting go and practicing mindful consumerism. The hard way.


Is it wrong to kinda wish for that?

June 04, 2008


This boggles my mind – in a good way. I like having my mind boggled. Third prize in an architecture design competition was recently won by….wait for it….Studio Wikitecture from Second Life. For those of you who have a sufficiently fulfilling first life, Second Life is an online, real time, virtual reality interface. It’s not even a game, just an environment. People have islands and they can make things with the interactive modeling software. A girl in Germany actually makes a good living making clothing and accessories which she sells for real money in a virtual mall.

Anyway, Studio Wikitecture is one of Second Life’s many groups. Anyone could join and together, in the virtual realm of Second Life, backed up by various forums and message boards, they created an award winning design for Nyaya Health in Nepal. It’s a good design, too. At least I like it. It fascinates me.

I have never been a fan of design by committee, but have always believed in collective wisdom. I think it is wonderful that Studio Wikitecture has created a suitable interface that so many can collaborate so productively on something so wonderful. It gives me great hope for the profession as a whole, that we could find a way to tap into the unending wisdom of individuals, all of whom experience different buildings in different ways.


Kick ass!

June 03, 2008


In my family we rarely keep pets, but we often share our homes with fur-people. These people are generally small, four footed, and often have tails, though not always. They understand English, but seldom speak it. They see no need to encumber themselves with unnecessary concepts and instead prefer to communicate succinctly with body language, facial expressions, ear and tail positions, whisker twitches, nose wiggles, and a variety of uncomplicated vocalizations.

When I was four, we had a dog named Andy, some kind of sturdy oodle-mutt with curly white hair. He was my mother’s dog. One evening I was making mischief as only a four year old can make. I reached down to filch the rawhide bone he had been chewing on all evening. As my little hand closed over it, his teeth closed over my little hand and he growled. I promptly turned to my mother, cradling the white, unblemished skin of my little hand and pitifully crying “Andy bit me!”

”Well, what did you do to him?” my mother asked, not at all concerned, barely looking up from her cross stitch. After all, Andy was her dog, the dog which she had raised and trained, and she knew very well that no dog of hers would draw blood. She trusted her dog far more than her daughter, as well she should have. The dog had far better manners.

This weekend a friend of mine came down to stay with me, a rekindled flame, you might say. My housemate, Anne, was out of town visiting her family and it fell to me to look after Sugar, a scrappy young cattle dog-mutt. Sugar did not like me when I first appeared on her doorstep, but after two weeks of being the regarded as the devil incarnate, she was learning to appreciate me – or at least appreciate that I would let her out of her kennel, take her for walks, and feed her treats. She was also reluctantly beginning to mind. While she was fit to be tied when introduced to me, she took to my friend with not a single bark. Figures.

At least, that is, until it came time to shut her out of the bedroom. She was having none of that and immediately began damaging the door. So into the kennel she went. The kennel has never caused her a moment’s qualm, but not five minutes later there was a furious rattling and then the rapid tattoo of dog paws throughout the house. She had pulled the kennel door in towards her, out of its moorings, bending the locking wires, and tearing off two claws in the process. I have never in my life seen such a thing.

At that point you can only laugh. You have to stay calm and speak calmly and radiate love as you pin down a dog (who’s just ruined your romantic evening, mind) half your own weight and apply disinfectant to her paw. You have to continue with this patience and with diligence apply the disinfectant regularly over the next forty-eight hours as her efforts to evade you become more and more effective. She is, after all, a very smart dog. Smart dogs, like smart people, are always the more difficult of the two.

Being with animals is a kind of meditation. Walking a dog or riding a horse, no matter how well trained and trusted the creature, requires a kind of mindfulness and diligence seldom found in other practices. I tend to think it is similar to the kind of attention parents give to their children when they are out in the world together. Riding a bicycle can never replace riding a horse, keeping an eye on the landscape ahead, the tree branches that would scrape you off, feeling his weight and your weight shifting together, the rhythm of the gate, noticing the turn of the ears which reveal the animal’s mood and attention. When I’m on my bicycle, even in traffic, I can still space out, daydream, go over my to do list. Horses demand your attention, even in an undemanding way. I give my full attention happily to animals the way I seldom have with people.

The ability to evoke that kind of mindfulness makes me think all fur-people are really just buddhas in disguise.