December 31, 2010

Donate to Dharma Cowgirl

Attempts to add a PayPal donate button to the WordPress blog have been manifestly unsuccessful at WordPress does not support embedded buttons. So, if you would like to donate to the support of Dharma Cowgirl without creating a PayPal account, please click on the button above. And thank you very, very much!

December 26, 2010

The End is Nigh ... No Really, This Is The End

“…respect your ability to communicate, and use it [your mouth] to say only what’s timely, beneficial, and true.” – Thanissaro Bikkhu, “Lessons in Gratitude (Part 1),” Shambhala Sunspace blog, December 22, 2010

Since this summer I have been contemplating a new format for the blog. I am very much in favor of allowing things to simmer, be tasted, new ingredients added, stirred, and waiting for ideas to boil in their own due time. In the meantime, things have drifted along, rudderless, content to follow the fickle winds and somewhat more predictable tides. Well, the pot has boiled, lunch is eaten, and it is time to come up from below deck and put two hands firmly back on the tiller.

Firstly, this blog is retiring. Blogger can no longer support the features I desire. So, with regret, I am putting this venerable steed who has carried me so far out (almost 400,000 words published over four and a half years) out to pasture. What began as Buddhist in Nebraska and recently morphed into Buddhist [from] Nebraska shall remain, but this is her last post. Henceforth, the blogspot address shall be an archive.

Secondly, Dharma Cowgirl will launch on January 1, 2011. As the new year begins, the new blog will start at a new location with a new name and a new focus. It is hosted by Wordpress, a similarly well respected blog machine. The design for the blog is for now utilitarian, but I hope to customize it in the future.

Thirdly, Dharma Cowgirl will have six sections which will be updated regularly – On Dharma, Horse Sense, Riding Lessons, Campfire Stories, Drunk Talk, and Bygone Times. All new posts will appear in chronological order on the main page, but thereafter will be archived under their subsections tabs. The first two will be weekly features. On Dharma will contain the more academic posts referencing current topics of study or research, often in relation to my coursework. There will be a weekly Horse Sense feature relating to a topic currently in the news or blogosphere ala my old opinion column style. The next two sections will be updated on a biweekly or monthly basis. Riding Lessons will deal specifically with lessons learned from and about college – how to write papers, deal with difficult professors, manage time, or work in student government, etc., – with a naturally Buddhist perspective. Campfire Stories is just that, stories from my life or those related to me from others. The final two sections will be updated randomly, as the mood strikes. Drunk Talk is a catchall for wandering thoughts whether composed while drunk or sober (as most no doubt will be). Bygone Times is a place to revisit old ideas and expand on topics explored at the old blog. Overall, I’m shooting for about a dozen posts each month.

Forth, I hope all of you who follow the blog as an RSS feed, via Blogger, or Google Reader will migrate over to the new blog at I’ll be waiting to meet you there in a few short days. I thank all of you who have honored Buddhist in/from Nebraska with your attention these last years and hope you’ll continue this trail with me.

Fifthly, you may be asking “To what end?” I have certainly been asking myself that these past few months, as I contemplated the Noble Eightfold Path. One may believe that keeping a blog falls under Right Speech, and for the most part, I would agree, but the Noble Eightfold Path is interconnected. Each part both relies on and is found within each other part. Right Speech and Right Action can be very similar and both feed into Right Livelihood. However, each of these three is predicated on Right View and Right Intention, which are both informed by Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Some call the first three (speech, action, and livelihood) ethical conduct, the middle two (view and intention) wisdom, and the last three (effort, mindfulness, and concentration) mental discipline or Samadhi. However, they are all of a whole. We can contemplate them separately or together as one path, a single path. That is the path I hope to tread more firmly in light of this change.

Also, as a side note to Right Livelihood, you will notice for the very first time there will be advertising on the blog. Yes, I hope to make a little money on the side, because if I can do that it will preclude me from finding a part-time job and give me more time to write (this is the theory). You will also be able to make donations to this effort soon, via Paypal. I will not harangue you about it, but the button shall shortly be there and it will remain. Any donations you choose to make to the new blog shall not go to a charity or non-profit or organization; they go to me, Monica, a person in her own right. I will probably use them to buy groceries, or books, or go to a movie. I make no promises not to use donation or ad revenue to buy meat (unlikely, but not impossible given my spotty vegetarianism), alcohol (though I promise it be good alcohol), or other dubious (but always legal) or frivolous (choooocolate) things. And no, you’ll not get a receipt or tax deduction, but you’re likely to receive a hearty thank you and undying gratitude (plus karmic brownie points).

So, finally, there is little more to say that “See y’all next year!”

December 24, 2010

The Sky

I drank the sky, the whispers of clouds, the ruler-straight contrails leading to and from Denver International Airport now five minutes behind, but mostly just the brilliant blue of the sky. There really isn’t much sky in Los Angeles. It’s brown and hazy and muted or flat and grey. The San Gabriel Mountains are just a brown smudge to the north, not like the dark, jagged rise of the Rockies here in the east. So I stared out the window of the car of the friend who had provided the means for my escape, stared at nothing and everything and smiled.

We slept in, the golden sun streaming through his south facing window. We slept in anyway and cuddled and found fun things for which words are not needed. I took a blistering hot shower and tracked him downstairs to the smell of cooking eggs and sausages. In the afternoon, I sat on the couch in the living room, occasionally looking up at the sky and watching the honking geese pass. We went to the mall parking lot and he taught me how to drive a stick shift. I only managed to stall half a dozen times (at least) before starting to figure it out.

Today is Christmas Eve and I found an early email from my mother waiting for me. She detailed the normal Christmas Eve goings on, her five-meat chilli in the crock pot, cinnamon rolls rising and ready to bake, family coming over later, her strange little cat acting strange. “I miss you,” she wrote. I miss her too.

But at least I’m not in Los Angeles.

December 12, 2010

After Action Report - Fall 2010

Exactly four months ago, I arrived in California on a Southwest jet with my mother, father, and swiftly detoxing cat as carry-on luggage. Mom and Dad went home five days later, but the cat stayed. Together we settled into a small house with an easy-going and often-absent roommate in a sketchy neighborhood in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles. I started coursework in the Master of Divinity program for Buddhist chaplaincy at University of the West, a three-mile bike ride to the southeast. The cat stayed home, sniffed curiously at the smoggy air and feral kittens just beyond the screen door, and napped on my new Ikea furniture.

On August 23rd, I began four classes: Interfaith Chaplaincy, Spiritual Formation, Buddhist Meditation (which involved no actual meditation), and Religion, Science, and Society as an independent study. I also joined the Kung Fu Club, the Buddhist Students Club, the newly formed Chaplaincy Club, and got myself appointed and then elected Treasurer of the Student Association so I could carry out my ongoing mission of boldly making trouble for the administration as no one has made trouble before. I also joined an online dating site and began contemplating (or re-contemplating) my future career plans. I made a clean break with my old life and now the decision before me is whether or not I ever want to return to the design world, or if I might choose another path.

Now the semester is over. My term papers are written, fifty-four pages in total. I wrote a spiritual autobiography I am most proud to say I managed to condense into sixteen pages; by far the hardest task was brevity. My shortest paper was also my most academic, regarding the role of renunciation before and during Buddhist meditation practice. I double-dipped on the research for the last two, one an “idiot’s guide” to talking about God for non-Christians and the other in response to the question of why God matters to Christians. Though their source material had much overlap, each thesis/purpose is unique. I am satisfied with my grades outlook.

Despite a constant low-intensity search, I have yet to find a job. Nor do I have any hope in that respect. Unemployment is three times higher here in the Los Angeles area than in Lincoln, and the campus I attend is not conveniently situated next to a large technical and professional employment base as UNL was. I can live on my financial aid alone, a welcome surprise and difference, but the timing of the aid disbursements from the school is problematic, to say the least. Which means I have a target for my trouble making.

I’ve met three guys through the dating service, but with no real sparks. I’ve put things on hold until my financial situation improves. It’s hard to invite guys out to coffee when I can’t really afford to be buying even coffee every week. I’m too stubbornly egalitarian to let them pay (plus it would just be rude to expect it). I have realized some important things through these adventures. I’ve reached a place in my life where not only do I want to date and be in a relationship – I want some romance, some dressing up, putting on makeup, going nice places, being surprised type romance. I want to be excited. I want him to be excited. I’ve never particularly wanted that before, but, as the Buddha said, impermanence.

Some other things I’ve learned: Ninety percent of all traffic accidents in this city could be prevented through the consistent application of courtesy. I can now ride my bicycle without using my hands (after how many years of practicing?). I like being unemployed. I want romance. I like riding in tanks with men. Theories of spiritual formation are like horseshoes, hand grenades, and tactical nuclear weapons (apparently, close is good enough). The world needs to move past mere tolerance of differences. Everyone should be in a weekly support group. Everyone, but especially college students. Religion and secularism is a false dichotomy. Hulu has a bunch of new Japanese anime to watch. Though I love books, the Kindle is awesome. And no one ever died of an unrequited crush. C’est lavie.

Now as the five unoccupied weeks of winter break loom before me, I have some thinking to do. Am I going to join the Navy? Am I going to give up on reforming design education pedagogy in favor of a more chaplaincy oriented future? What am I looking for from these dating experiences or in a relationship? What direction do we want to take the student government in next semester and where could we do the most good? Am I going to find a sangha? Am I ever going to start meditating regularly? What book should I read next on my new toy? What do I have to do to get my doctorate from the Irish School of Ecumenics in Dublin? How is this novel I’m writing going to end?

As I said in my spiritual autobiography: Willing not to be right, but to be wrong. Willing not to find, but to seek. Willing not to succeed, but to try. Willing not to dream, but to wake up. I can spend this time learning, just as I’ve spent my entire life learning. Maybe next semester will be better (though this one wasn’t too shabby) and maybe not, but I’ll find out soon enough. This dry summary doesn’t cover a tenth of the last four months, because I don't fully understand everything that has happened myself, but that too will come in time.

One down, five more to go.

December 04, 2010

Riding the Horse (MDIV 555)

This is the last journal for MDIV 555 Spiritual Formation, posted late (sorry). For the last few weeks, we have been reading Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior and Journey Without Goal both by Chogyam Trungpa. As you may have noted, I have not written in response to these materials as I did for the previous books by Fowler, Brazier, and Kornfield. There is a reason for this.

Journal for November 30, 2010

I have not explored the vajrayana materials in these journals. By temperament, I don’t think I’m suited for them, at least at this time in my life. I have a predilection to want to figure things out on my own, but I believe the warnings that say when it comes to tantra, this is a bad idea. I certainly haven’t mastered the preliminaries anyway.

However, in addition to the warnings, tantra has always seemed a bridge too far. My people are very practical and pragmatic. Complexity is acceptable as long as it’s orderly. Learning through direct experience is emphasized, but only where the initial instructions are fairly simple. Everything else operates under the KISS principle, not because it’s easier, but because it’s less wasteful.

It takes years to learn how to ride a horse. But where I come from, if you get an hour-long lecture before being tossed into the saddle, that was too much talk. You’ll never learn how to ride with your boots on the ground. No matter how skilled your teacher, she can’t ride the horse for you. You can’t wait to trot until after you learn to post.

Every horse is different. They all have their own personalities and they are very intuitive. You have to be able to listen to them, with your body and your mind, the same way they are listening to you. Mastering a horse is a matter of will. My mother is not a woman who goes gooey over her children. The only time I ever heard her brag about my riding to a relative, she wasn’t praising my form or technique. She was proud that I was not afraid. To her, this was the most important thing a person could learn about horses.

The average horse weighs close to a thousand pounds. You can’t master a horse through strength of arm. The saddle and the bridle help, but in the end they’re just tools, like the cushion and the bell. Sitting on the cushion and ringing the bell doesn’t mean you’re meditating (as an expert at not meditating, I ought to know). However, unlike the gomden, if you’re not paying attention, the horse is likely to toss you in the dirt.

Everyone gets thrown. You know that the moment you climb into the saddle, but you do it anyway. The best advice for getting thrown anyone can give you is to not let go of the reins. If you let go of the reins, you’re going to have a long painful walk home. But if that happens, there’s no use sitting there grumbling, you might as well pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start walking.

You might get hurt. In fact, at some point, it’s likely you will. When I was ten, Aunt Donalee broke her upper arm coming off a horse. They put a rod in it. She borrowed my Mom’s English saddle. It was a little small for her but it was also light enough to fling up on a horse with one hand. Work doesn’t wait to be done until bones have knit. She got back up on the very horse that had thrown her.

Four years ago, cousin Jim came off a horse. No one saw it happen. They just found his horse wandering with grass in its saddle and Jim on the ground nearby. He was in a comma for several weeks and when he woke, he exhibited the symptoms of a stroke. He had to learn how to speak, walk, eat, and dress all over again. He got back up on the horse and is still ranching cattle in southern Colorado.

What got them back on the horse wasn’t bravado or stupidity. Courage is not ignoring the consequences, but knowing them and doing anyway. No amount of teaching can prevent those consequences, though experience helps. The number of commands any horse knows is limited, but their moods are infinite. There are all kinds of techniques you can apply, but in the end, horses are actually simple. All you have to do is pay attention.

I often think the dharma is like that. Tantra just seems like a bunch of different techniques to learn how to pay attention. In that way, it’s valuable, but until (unless) I learn those techniques, I can’t comment on them. It’s like trying to learn to ride without the horse. You’ll never understand how the instruction to push your heels down is going to help keep your ass in the saddle while you trot until you actually do it. It doesn’t make much sense and that makes it easy to criticize.

For now, I think I’ll learn to ride the horse before I teach it to fly.

December 03, 2010

Be Grateful For Our Suffering

As individuals, we are deeply, deeply flawed. Which means, collectively, as institutions we are deeply, deeply flawed. Which means, further, as society we are deeply, deeply flawed. In Christianity, they would call this sin. The grievousness of one’s sin is measured by one’s distance from God, from perfection. Many have asked if God were perfect, why would he create us, suffering, flawed, imperfect beings? Maybe he didn’t. For Buddhism teaches that although, yes, we are flawed, we are also perfect, each one of us endowed with indestructible, eternal, buddhanature.

I often wonder if God didn’t actually create us perfect (if God created us). If God wanted us to love one another and care for one another and understand the consequences of our actions and the nature of reality, then what better lesson than suffering? What better lesson than change? What better lesson than impermanence? What better lesson than self and nonself?

How can we love without compassion? Compassion means to suffer with. I have been told that suffering breeds kindness. I have seen this to be true. For though all who came to speak and listen were filled with disappointment, dissatisfaction, anger, worry, frustration, and suffering, all showed kindness. ALL showed kindness. The issue was personal and distressing, as we who had come to celebrate, suddenly found ourselves mourning. So we sat in a circle and talked. All listened. All spoke with care and with heart. All gave thanks.

Someone told us to pray. Pray for wisdom, for guidance, for compassion. I will not pray. I have no one to pray to. God is an idea I like to play with, like dark matter or quarks. Buddha is dead. So I will not pray. But I will hope, and I will aspire, and I will be grateful. The spirit is much alike. But I will not pray because I do not believe what we seek is out there. What we seek to cure our flaws, our sinfulness, our suffering, is within.

We are all perfect, or have the capacity to be so. Which means, collectively, as institutions we are all perfect. Which means, further, as society we are all perfect. We are perfect not because we do not suffer, but because we have the capacity to learn from our suffering. No one ever learned to ride without saddle sores. The Buddha did not become the Buddha without first suffering. He became the Buddha because he suffered. They say to be grateful to our enemies for they are our greatest teachers.

Be grateful for our suffering, too, because it just might wake you up.

November 26, 2010

Happy Turkey Day

People swirled in an out of the kitchen like leaves riding eddies in a gurgling stream, always moving, never colliding. I sat on the bank, safely out of the way, watching and listening to happy chatter, and wanting to be elsewhere. The stream flowed out onto the large deck, following the food and drink and socializing. People stood eating, balancing cups and plates on the wood railing. Between the mountains in the distance and the international gathering on the deck, green palm trees and arbor vitae jumped above the rolling landscape of concrete driveways and tile roofs. Chinese and Indian food predominated. I sat in a corner and wished in vain that my spiced cider was spiked cider and tried to limit my urge to make inappropriate comments. It was an odd mood that urged me to turn everything into innuendo, a game I’ve often missed (Buddhists are sometimes too ‘nice,’ I think).

I had fun despite myself and due mostly to the infectious cheer of my fellow classmates. I danced the square, four-step dance we all learn in junior high school with Jun and was impressed that Mike managed the twirl and dip without dropping me, not once, but twice! The motley crew of graduate students, young professors, and monks even managed not to fall into obscure religious dialogue. Venerable Kit closed the vertical blinds and set up the projector in order to play Super Mario Brothers, no doubt made more interesting by people still coming in and out through the patio doors.

I rode home as the sun was setting and dove back into the distraction that had captured my attention since rising that morning – Chapter Fifteen. Instead of reminiscing, I chose creating, and managed to rescue one of the main characters from torture and escape in sixty-five hundred words before calling it a night. I called my parents and told them I miss them and love them and Happy Turkey Day, gobble gobble gobble. And I spent Thanksgiving evening watching classic anime on Hulu, teasing my cat, and practicing being thankful for all my good friends here.

I left the whiskey in the cupboard.

November 23, 2010

Riding In Tanks With Men

The world looks different when you’re staring at it down the barrel of an M1A1 Abrams tank. Relative to you, the turret and barrel of the tank is a stationary, solid thing, while the landscape flows by like waves on the ocean. The tank is safe, while everything beyond is potential danger.

The ride is smooth, even over dips and ruts, but when slowing down or speeding up, the gear change kicks like a mule and you’re glad to have that heavy helmet on. Inside the turret is all metal and hard angles. The tank doesn’t roar or growl. From the outside, there is only a low hum and the clicking of the treads on their wheels. Inside is a loud, high-pitched whine and the constant rattle of metal against metal, drowned out by noise cancelling headphones attached to the helmet. Despite that, hearing loss is common among tankers. The tank exhaust is invisible, just a heat shimmer and strong blast, but the dust it kicks up can be seen for miles depending on the terrain.

The gunner’s seat is narrow, with a dizzying assortment of dials, knobs, and buttons closer to your face than most people keep their computer screens. The only way to see the world outside is with one eye either pressed to the digital scope (with range finder and night vision) or the backup optical scope. Every function has a manual backup, so if hydraulics go out, you can still adjust the attitude of the barrel with that control, or if the electronic trigger fails, you can still fire manually with this knob here.

Behind the gunner is the tank commander and to his left, the loader. Each can stand on their seats and be half out of the two top hatches, but the gunner is stuck in the metal cocoon of the turret. Somewhere forward, in the main body of the tank, is the driver, physically and visually separate, connected only by the thin thread of a helmet radio, despite being only a few feet away.

Standing on the loader’s seat, I watched the desert flow by, all dust, scrub brush, and dramatic mountain ranges in the distance. My left shoulder pressed against the mount for the M50 machine gun, now empty. To my right, LT Guerra, the tank commander stood, talking with the driver over his helmet radio and occasionally giving me a thumbs up to ask if I was okay. I was just watching the scenery, enjoying the motion of the solid tank under my boots, and crunching dust between my teeth.

But this isn’t how it would be if they were in the field. There’d be no lazy interest, no idle curiosity. Instead, they’d be scanning the landscape, constantly on watch for insurgents and improvised explosive devices. Kind of like LT Guerra was doing now, for all his relaxed shoulders and innocuous chatter with the driver. His head was still turning slow and steady and I had the impression his eyes behind those tinted glasses were sharp. My own attention suddenly sharpened and I found myself scanning the area ahead and to the left of the tank.

The lookout isn’t just responsible for their own life, maybe even hardly concerned with it at all, but his buddies in the tank crew depend on his vigilance. Maybe they’re part of a convoy, and the tankers and truckers behind them are depending on him too. That brings everything into very sharp focus, or so I could imagine. Spend a day in the field like that, or even half a day, and then try to just turn that kind of hyper-awareness off. I can’t believe it’s easy. I’m just a silly little girl who’s hardly seen a lick of danger in her life, but I am grateful if I gained even ounce of understanding from that twenty-minute joyride.

The soldiers of the 1-185th Armor Battalion of the California National Guard were good to me during my time at Fort Irwin. Delta Company let me tag along during driver training. Headquarters Company welcomed me in as a fly on the wall to their staff meetings. No one seemed to mind as I stood shadow to their chaplain candidate, learning a little bit about what a military chaplain does. They were all real happy to hear I was considering military chaplaincy. Some of them tried to talk me out of it when I mentioned Navy, but others were encouraging. There were enough old sailors in the unit with wisdom to share.

“I used to be Navy. With the Navy you get to be out doing stuff, putting your training to use,” Sergeant Scott told me. “The Army is like Nascar. It’s like you’re a mechanic and you’ve spent thousands of hours working on this car and making it fast and perfect, but then you never, ever get to drive it.”

The 1-185th has deployed overseas twice during the most recent conflicts. “When a tank shows up, the action just stops,” one soldier told me. The insurgents know they can’t tangle with an Abrams, but who knows how many they’ve wounded or killed before the tank arrives. The last time the 1-185th deployed, they left their tanks at home.

I followed Chris around as he went from company to company, from one small group of soldiers to another. “Ministry presence,” he called it, just being available to the troops if anyone should have an issue. A few times a soldier would pull him aside for a personal issue or he’d just shoot the breeze and get a feel for overall morale.

“I’ve lost four since we got back,” the Command Sergeant Major said around his cigar. He shook his head as he ticked them off on his fingers. “Two motorcycle accidents, one car crash, and one suicide.” He didn’t say it, but his tone made it the regret clear. Here they were supposed to be safe. Then he made a crusty old joke and the guys laughed.

There was a Lieutenant in Fox Company who reminded me so much of the cadets I’d worked with at the ROTC, a handsome young man with beautiful cheekbones and a square jaw, hair trimmed short. He looked like LT Wellensiek, who got himself blown up and put back together with bolts and rods. Or LT Gaspers, who died.

By the end of the first morning, my green boots were caked with the tan desert dust. In the afternoon it rained. The wind was always there and I was glad I’d brought my stocking cap and gloves. The guys kept asking me if it was too cold, or too wet, or the food was too bad, or the work too daunting, or the sleep too little. The truth is, it wasn’t that bad. It’d be hard to do everyday, but I think if I were in proper military trim, I could manage it. Though I can see why the Army runs on coffee. Saturday night I still had enough energy to sit up and write postcards to my family. The guys teased me about that, but they approved of my choice (it had a tank on it). On Sunday morning, I woke up hungry. That has literally never happened before and I took it as an encouraging sign.

I can never convey enough thanks to the soldiers of the 1-185th AR, especially to LTC Murphy for allowing me to tag along, LT Guerra for the ride, and, of course, chaplain candidate 2LT Chris Mohr for setting the whole thing up and taking such good care of me while we were out there. I highly recommend this kind of experience to everyone going into the chaplaincy field, whether they are contemplating military chaplaincy or not (and whether they get to ride in a tank or not). Watching Chris work showed me a highly fulfilling career in which the dharma is being put to immediate use for the benefit of many people.

To the men and women of the 1-185th, I can only say “Hooah!”

Not Home for the Holidays (MDIV 555)

Journal for November 23, 2010

I’ve never missed Christmas. I missed Thanksgiving once. I saw my whole family together the day before, but on Thanksgiving itself, I hopped on a plane to Boston to attend Shambhala Training Levels IV and V at Karmê Chöling. But I’ve never missed Christmas with my family, even though I haven’t been a Christian for longer than I was.

Our family traditions are simple. On holidays, we get together for a big dinner either at my folk’s house or Granny’s house. We sit, we eat, we visit. Later, there will be football and usually we’ll go out to a movie in the afternoon. Then we all come back and take a nap. The biggest change in the last few years has been the addition of April, my sister-in-law. Sometimes she and Brandon don’t stay as long because her family is also getting together, but they always still manage to come over.

Sometimes Aunts and Uncles and cousins will come to spend the holiday with Granny or Granny will go out to spend the holiday with them, but my family usually stays home. Traveling in winter in the Midwest is always an iffy proposition and likely to change the day of. Granny can leave days in advance, but those of us who must work don’t always make it out ahead of the snow. Last year, we had intended to go out to my mother’s sister’s ranch in central Nebraska for Christmas, but we ended up snowed in for five days in Omaha.

I am very lucky in my family. We all get along. We comfortable, like old shoes. Sure, we disagree and we argue. But we don’t yell or shout (too often) or slam doors. Mostly we just hang out. Visiting is a family sport. When other families get together, they have activities, card games, charades, Pictionary. We just sit around and visit, often for hours. People break off into groups. Someone will go take a nap or read a book. The sports fans will watch the game. The moms will sit around and talk about Melinda’s new baby. Eventually, I’ll go out for a walk by myself, even in knee-high snow, just because I like to be outdoors every day.

We almost always go to a movie on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, whatever the big new blockbuster is that week. We might stop for ice cream on the way home. No one leaves the house on Black Friday. None of us like crowds or shopping that much. On Christmas, we’ll come home and watch more movies, because someone always got a DVD (or two or three) in their stocking. Christmas morning, I always handed out the presents, probably because I was the youngest and least patient. We wait until everyone has a present in their hands and then all unwrap and ooh and aah. Mom takes pictures and Dad makes goofy faces.

I’ll miss all that this year and I’m not sure how that will affect me. On Thanksgiving, I’m going to Shakya’s house for a dinner Mike has organized with about fifteen other family-less students. It sounds like a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to it. I’m not sure how Christmas will go. Like the rest of my family, I’m pretty pragmatic, so no wailing and weeping. But still…

One of the great teachings of Buddhism is that we will eventually lose everyone and everything that we love. The three marks of existence are suffering (or nirvana if you read Thay), impermanence, and non-self. It sounds like a very dreary teaching, but it can also be incredibly empowering. It points right at the Second Noble Truth, which in turn brings up the Third Noble Truth. Suffering is caused by desire and suffering can end.

For the most part, I don’t think it’s fundamentally a problem that I want to be with my family on Christmas. I think that’s healthy and good. It’s up to me to decide if that desire is going to make me miserable because I didn’t get what I want, or make me happy because it reminds me of all the love we share.

I don’t know if I’ll quite manage the later, but we’ll see.

November 22, 2010

Religion & Relationships (MDIV 555)

Journal November 18, 2010

Where in my spiritual formation does another person fit? I’ve been dating recently. This is a new experience. I’ve never really dated or had a serious, exclusive relationship, but a few months ago, I signed up with an online dating site. I’ve met three people and exchanged emails with a dozen more. None of them are Buddhists. The only one with whom I’ve discussed religion was a mildly hostile (to theism, not me) atheist.

Women look to the future. It sounds cliché, but when we meet a guy we size him up for deal-breakers. “Oh, he’ll be bald someday. Can I live with that?” You eye his hairline over your coffee cup. I find it ironic, considering I’m not really the settling down type, but the programming must be genetic. And now I’m wondering, what if he’s not Buddhist? Can I live with that? What if he’s Mormon? Muslim? Mennonite? Could I live with that?

I’ve seen some great Buddhist couples and some not so great. I guess, living in Nebraska, where Buddhists were so thin on the ground, I just got used to the idea that if I wanted to date, it would naturally be across religious lines. The idea of finding a Buddhist partner was about as likely as winning the lottery.

But I’m not in Nebraska anymore. So I have to wonder, why am I going out for coffee with these non-Buddhist guys? Surely, if I can find a Buddhist partner anywhere, it would be here.

And yet, does it matter? Some of my best religious friends aren’t Buddhist. If I wrapped their brains and their theology up in a single, mildly-attractive, age-appropriate male package, could I live with that person? Sometimes I think I could.

Then I think of the two years I worked for the Military Science Department. I was surrounded by handsome, young Army cadets whom I respected, but I never once considered dating. To serve in the military was to accept the premise that sometimes violence is the solution. That was a deal breaker.

Kornfield mentioned relationships in passing, usually noting how someone who isn’t a well rounded individual and hasn’t dealt with their own psychological problems is unlikely to form a healthy relationship. Assume that isn’t the case, assuming one can form a healthy relationship, how precisely does that contribute to each partner’s spiritual development? What role does relationship play? And what happens when your partner’s spirituality is quite different from your own?

Is it enough if that person is as critical with, thoughtful about, and committed to their spirituality as you are about yours? Do you need to share certain fundamental doctrines like compassion or charity? Is more needed, like compatibility of belief on specific subjects such as God or enlightenment? Can a diversity of opinion enrich both partner’s lives? Or are the differences likely to push you apart? Or is it utterly a matter of the two individuals involved and completely different for each couple?

I attended three weddings during the summer of 2008 and they could not have been more different. The Lutheran minister stood before the alter talked about how the happy couple was now “one person” in a triumvirate marriage of husband, wife, and Jesus Christ. The Buddhist teacher sat in the stupa and talked about how we are all fundamentally alone even in (especially in) marriage, where we think we’re supposed to have someone who understands us completely when no one ever really can. The third marriage was just a whispered exchange of secret vows between the couple in a flower garden. Each of those couples were in fundamental agreement on matters of religion. But what if the Lutheran had tried to marry the Buddhist or the non-religious, or any other combination?

Is religion always important in relationships?

November 17, 2010

Trust & Doubt (MDIV 555)

Journal for November 16, 2010

There has been a long debate throughout the history of Christianity as to the nature of God and how he can be understood. Some theologians and traditions maintain that God is a mystery, a paradox, and cannot be described using words or concepts. That He is beyond concepts and both outside and other than but also permeating the physical world. Others assert that understanding of God can be achieve by human reasoning, thought, and logic. He is both knowable and describable.

I wasn’t really surprised at these two interpretations. They sound a lot like Buddhism. There are some forms that are esoteric, hidden, designed to open the mind like a flash of lighting. Then there are forms that are systematic, categorical, logical, designed to cultivate virtues and mental qualities over decades, if not lifetimes. We could only discover whether one is better than the other by following both paths over the course of many years, which is practically impossible. The only way to really evaluate them is to look at their more immediate effects, look at the people walking ahead and behind. Are they good people?

So that leaves us with the question of what makes most sense for us personally. Of course, where I use ‘sense’ other people will use ‘heart.’ They’ll follow the tradition that speaks most strongly to their heart, the one that feels right. This is, most likely, why I cannot follow Trungpa’s teachings.

On page 114, he writes about the moment you experience secret drala. “It does not contain doubt or disbelief at all,” he says. But I cannot trust what I cannot doubt. The idea that “you experience a state of mind that is … free from hesitation and disbelief” seems very dangerous to me. After all, history is full of dictators who were certain they were creating a better world while slaughtering thousands, millions of people.

Reasoned doubt is what keeps us balanced, on the right path. If a blind person steps forward with certainty that the path will be there, they may fall right off the cliff, whereas, with a little doubt, they will question first, moving forward slowly and catch themselves before pitching into open air. If someone tells me not to question, I immediately distrust them. If a teaching cannot stand up to questioning, what good is it? If someone tells me I will feel complete trust (i.e. as an experience of secret drala), I am skeptical. How do they know what I will feel?

But let’s go back to that earlier statement: I cannot trust what I cannot doubt. Think about that. I cannot trust what I cannot doubt. That whole statement seems to preclude any possibility of enlightenment, doesn’t it? Seems to me there is a place, a state of mind, of existence, that is beyond trust and doubt, beyond ‘I,’ where one sees truly because one is no longer invested in what is to be seen.

“We can only tell the truth when we cease to identify with the part of ourselves we think we have to protect. ... I can never be straight with you if I need something from you,” Ram Dass wrote in Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita.

I think we can only go beyond trust and doubt when we no longer have anything left to lose. I don’t mean that in the cynical, hit bottom sense, but in the powerful, self-less sense. When we have gone beyond ego, beyond conceptions of ‘I’ and ‘other,’ then there is nothing left to lose and nothing left to gain. We have nothing and have everything.

This started with a discussion of means. One path is mystery. One path is reason. It’s not that mystery requires trust and reason requires doubt. In order to walk the path of reason, we must trust our own mind is up to the task. In order to walk the path of mystery, we must be comfortable accepting doubt, accepting what our heart doesn’t know. I can make no claims that one path is better than the other or that they are equal.

I just don’t know.

November 09, 2010

A Dharma Cowgirl is Willing (MDIV 555)

Journal for November 9, 2010

For four months in 2007 I lived in the Colorado mountains, most of that time in a spacious green Army tent on the side of a steep hill amidst the ponderosas. I was working at Shambhala Mountain Center. I had a little office in the maintenance shop, near the sewage lagoon. It was stuffed full of files, maps, and plans, almost eaten up by a large drafting table, but it had an east facing window from which I could see the ducks and a bold chipmunk who would come in to visit me. I was usually on in it half of any given day. The other half, I could be anywhere in the valley, marking down the location of utility poles, transformers, tent platforms, water valves, and new buildings.

When I first arrived, there was snow on the ground, even though it was already May. It snowed the night we were to move into our tents. They had to be collapsed and re-raised the next day. My hair was long and the wind would often howl through the valley, so I wore it stuffed up beneath a tan wool newsboy-cap, but as the summer moved in to stay and I became accustomed to the warm high-altitude sun, that wouldn’t do. I bought two hats, one nice to wear to teachings and events, another for everyday to keep the sun out of my eyes.

The second hat turned out to be more important than I could have guessed. It was a simple straw cowboy hat, made in Mexico, one size fits all. I wore it with a kind of familial pride, pulled low over my eyes. I dressed in jeans and sandals, my feet soon acquiring a brown layer of permadirt. I was never without my rosewood mala and often also wore a denim, cowgirl-cut jacket, complete with rhinestones and silver snaps. So they called me dharma cowgirl.

It wasn’t a title I’d earned, of course, but I didn’t discourage the nickname. I didn’t identify with it precisely, but something about it pricked at me. I didn’t know much about the dharma and I never was a cowgirl, not like other women in my family were and had been. But it was an idea, like ‘warrior’ or ‘bodhisattva’ or ‘stream-enterer,’ that just wouldn’t go away. It was different though, somehow the wisdom of the East conflated with the West. Here, by West, I don’t mean the Western hemisphere, the United States and Europe. I mean the Western half of North America, the rugged country settled by pioneers and outlaws around a hundred-fifty years ago. That kind of West is a horse of an entirely different color, but it has a wisdom of its own.

I wrote about it, and wrote, and wrote, and wrote, but I stumbled on what I was looking for by accident. Seems rather poetic, when you think about it. This idea, this ‘dharma cowgirl,’ isn’t about courage or compassion or wisdom, though those are in there too. It’s about will, about being willing, and about comprehending one crucial thing – it’s up to you. No one else can do it for you.

This should not be confused with the classic fantasy of solitude or ultimate independence. Even in the middle of a crowd, surrounded by family, friends, and teachers, this truth remains. It does not violate emptiness or interdependence or inter-being. But as much as those things are true, so is this. There’s even an appropriately cliché Western saying, something about a horse and water. We need others to help lead us to the water, but only we can drink. To do that, we must be willing.

It’s not a new idea, of course. It’s all over Buddhist teaching, Western (i.e. Greek) philosophy, Abrahamic religion, and common wisdom. The idea of dharma cowgirl (or cowboy) simply reframes it in light of new myths.

For a little while, in the mountains of Colorado, I lived those myths. I wandered the valleys and ridge lines, listening to the wind, soaking up the sun. I rode a strong black horse through the trees and beneath the full moon, searching for empty country. It was no rugged tale of survival, but a quiet journey that took place within the mind and perhaps the soul, if such a thing exists. I did a lot of thinking that summer and a lot of simply paying attention.

But the time I valued most was not sitting in meditation with the others, vision curtailed by the white walls of the shrine tent, facing the image of the Rigden King. No, I much preferred the bench in the courtyard, beneath the ponderosa trees, near the rock garden, where I could watch the changing sky, the chipmunks and the magpies. Or the stone in the aspen grove along the trail, where I could hear the water. Or high on the bouldered peaks where I could see the snowy mountains to the south. It took me a long time and a lot of attention to realize I was seeking exactly what those sitters in the shrine tent were seeking three times a day.

We are all willing to seek it knowing we might never find it because no one else can ever show it to us – that’s a dharma cowgirl (that, and a hat).

November 07, 2010

The Cat Is

I have this cat. Her name is Isis. She is very unremarkable in most respects, a little black and brown tabby, except for the manner of her sheer presence. When she occupies a space, she makes herself the center of it, no matter where she is sitting. Not a moment goes by when she is not directly in one's field of vision or one's hearing, if not in actual physical contact. It is not what she does. It is just what she is - she is here.

So naturally, when she is not here for longer than a few moments at a time the absence becomes very glaring. It may sound silly to say that if I do not see her for five minutes, I go looking, but it is simply such a rare occurrence that it naturally causes concern. It's like suddenly noticing that you've stopped breathing or that your foot has fallen asleep. You immediately feel the need to do something about it. So when she is not here, and doesn't respond when called, nor is she in the bathroom (where her litter box is), nor the dining room (where if food dish is), nor the living room where Harry and his buddies are watching basketball, something is certainly wrong. She is not a cat who hides. If she is in a room, any occupant of that room will immediately know it.

The house is not that big, so it leave only once place she could be. That place, unfortunately, is very big. Since moving here, she has had the habit of sitting in front of the screen doors, smelling, listening, and watching. Frequently, I hear her complain and turn to see her at the door, tail all puffed up, hissing and cussing. There is a big black cat that comes around, to silently look in from the darkness. She does not like him one bit. Despite that, she has recently decided she to be a brave creature.

Tonight was the third time she has escaped the house. She has never gone farther than the driveway between the two houses and has always deigned to be slowly herded back inside. Tonight I had to play the slow, wandering game round and round until I could reach down and grab her front leg where she sat under the bumper of Tek's giant truck. She protested loudly as I swung her up and tucked her under my arm like a football, one hand gripping the nap of her neck. She hates that. It pressed on her kitty off-switch and makes her legs all rubbery, but she didn't struggle as I carried her back inside, where she immediately announced her return to the guys gathered around the giant flat screen in the living room.

I try not to worry about her, not to let fear get the best of me. Truth is, if she gets out, she gets out, and there's really very little I can do about it, especially if it should happen when I'm not home. She's small for a cat, under eight pounds. She has no front claws, so it's unlikely she'll get herself stuck up a tree. She hates other animals, so she'll probably try to stay clear of the other stray cats, but that doesn't mean they'll stay clear of her. I worry most that they'll drive her off and she'll be unable to find her way back, or she'll get in a fight or struck by a car.

For now, she's safely home, lying on my desk to the left of my computer monitor, complaining when I reach out to pinch her ears. Harry knows to keep and eye out for her and shoo her away from the door. My worry makes me sad more than fearful. She's such a little bundle of personhood, a very powerful and reassuring presence. I miss her when she's gone.

If she gets out, she gets out, and there's no much I can do.

November 06, 2010

Those Left Behind Ghosts

I often think of the ones the stories left behind. What would it be like standing beside them watching what I’m watching? James and Lilly Potter. John and Mary Winchester. Gilraen. If they could see their children as I have seen their children, would they want to, knowing the trials and troubles they would go through? They’re fictional, of course, just like the stories are fictional. I think about them anyway.

If I were ever tempted to write fan fiction, that is what I would write. Not about the heroes themselves, interesting though they might be, but about the people they left behind. About those people somehow still watching and participating in the lives of the ones they loved so deeply. Maybe this thought is where the idea of heaven comes from? I feel so strongly that those people died with questions unanswered, that they would truly want to know what became of their children.

But the stories always move on. Obi-wan falls and the story moves on, though his voice stays with us. Lilly Potter’s dying grace protected her infant son and destroyed the darkest wizard the world had ever known. John Winchester traded his life and his soul to the demon who killed his wife in order to preserve the life of his son. Wouldn’t they want to know? Not that it was worth it, precisely, but what all parents want to know about their children. Would they cry for them, be proud, scold them?

I also often wonder what figures of the past would think about this world. What would Martin Luther King Jr. have to say about Barrack Obama? Don’t you think he’d want to know? Would Miyamoto Musashi even recognize Japan today? Would he hate it or love it?

I don’t know why I wonder such things. I only know that I always have. Ever since I was a small child, I have imagined a person of the past walking beside me, seeing what I see, reacting in their own unique way. I explained the layout of the solar system and rotation of the moon to Galileo. I discussed atomic physics with Newton. I told Emperor Meiji about the second World War. They say teaching is the best way to learn something, so I taught ghosts in order to understand things myself. Often, the ghost and I wouldn't interact at all, but I would still imagine them there, flaberghasted by automobiles and miniskirts.

And when I watch films, television shows, and read books, I feel their ghosts looking over my shoulder, the unwritten characters who died too soon. I don’t mind. It is an old habit. I often wonder if it comes from a desire for attention myself, but usually I am the one who is fascinated by imagining observing them, watching the watcher. They are less imaginary friends than imaginary bystanders.

When I was very young, I would pretend that everything humans could imagine actually existed somewhere out there in the wider universe. We were all just looking through windows at each other, or, even more fantastic, that the imagination itself had the power to create whole worlds. Of course, my imagination never managed to create a world where I didn’t have to go to school or got to stay up an hour later.

Some stories lend themselves more to pondering the left behind than others. Harry Potter is one of those. The images of James and Lilly come to me forcefully every time a new trailer comes out. As much as I am looking forward to seeing the movie myself, I am fascinated by what they would think of it. We’ll never know, of course, not unless J.K. writes a companion to the novels. I doubt others are as interested in such questions as I.

And I don’t know why, but I’ve never told this to anyone before, at least, not anyone who was real.

November 04, 2010

Friends We Need (MDIV 555)

Journal for November 4, 2010

I met Jake at the Daily Nebraskan. The DN is the independent student newspaper of University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Jake is a young man with a wide, cheerful face, unruly brown hair just a bit too long, and the air of a young history professor, complete with glasses and questionable fashion sense. We were both became opinion columnists the same year, but we never encountered each other until Jake became an assistant section editor. Later, Jake would become opinion section editor and I his assistant editor. We edited each other’s columns for a year and a half.

Jake always wrote as a Christian about Christianity. He might also talk about politics, lifestyle choices, or environmentalism, but it was always from that viewpoint. He wasn’t above printing scripture in the otherwise staunchly liberal and slightly irreverent newspaper. It was our policy to give our columnists their head and recruit a diversity of viewpoints, so Jake and I were no exception. I wrote from the standpoint of a cultural critic, and if there was Dharma in my columns, it was only ever subversive.

It was our duty, as an editor, to make our writer’s columns the best they could be. Jake and I spent hours critiquing his argument against premarital sex so that it didn’t come across as sanctimonious or religiously repressive.

“So God wants people to refrain from sex until marriage?” I typed into Google chat. Jake and I had conflicting schedules, so we couldn’t edit in person.

“Right,” he typed back.

“So what’s God’s motivation? Why does he want that?”

“God’s motivation? Well, I suppose…”

Our conversations, both in person and via chat, could last for hours. Jake was a student of religion, philosophy, history, journalism, and literature, but knew nothing about Eastern philosophy. It wasn’t taught at UNL at that time. My viewpoint was much narrower by comparison, so there was a lot to learn.

“So Buddhists are existentialists,” Jake typed once.

“I don’t know. What’s an existentialist?”

Jake sent me a link to an essay by Sarte. Together with the dead philosopher, he set about explaining existentialism.

“I suppose you could say Buddhists are existentialist, to a certain degree, at least in regard to mental concepts. But Sarte seems to have a nihilism Buddhists don’t agree with,” I replied.

“Why not?”

“Well, because…”

Now Jake and I are even more separated, but our friendship has survived, partially because it already had a strong online presence. He’s in Minneapolis, working in a wine shop, attending a wonderful church where his close friend is pastor, and contemplating his ThD application to Duke. I knew it was only a matter of time until he went back for an advanced degree, despite his own misgivings about graduate schools.

We both blog and Jake has a set of loyal commentors, mostly personal friends from within his Christian circles – and one Buddhist who delights in tossing philosophic grenades in from left field.

“I enjoy your comments at the blog. You mess with the theists and the atheists. It's awesome,” he told me via Facebook today. He once told me he thought I was a good Christian, which made me laugh. I often tell him he’s a better Buddhist than I am, which makes him smile. We don’t always agree with each other, but we find joy in the disagreements.

These are the kinds of friends we all need.

Siddhartha & Samsara (MDIV 555)

Journal for November 2, 2010

Years ago a friend gave me a copy of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. It even made the trip to California with me, when many other books did not, despite being just a possibility on my shelf. After reading the quotation of Siddhartha’s final realization in Kornfield’s book, I was curious enough to finally pick it up. I skipped lunch and felt my tummy grumble pleasantly through the last few chapters, but I managed to finish it in an afternoon.

It’s frickin’ brilliant.

No doubt is has been critiqued and criticized sufficiently since 1922, some of it deserved, some not. That’s beside the point. Here in a short 152 pages is a succinct description of the main Buddhist teachings presented in the guise of a story, told from the mind of a character about whom the reader can truly care. It is pared down, with lavish description of context and landscape spared and spent instead on mental states, philosophy, emotion, and realization. It is a novel of the mind.

On page 75, the chapter called Samsara begins, in which Siddhartha spends twenty years as a merchant. He becomes accustomed to luxury, acquisitiveness, and gambling. I believe this, of all the chapters, is one to which people can relate most strongly.

A friend recently said that he didn’t want to have much in way of possessions. He liked to live in a simple home, take public transit, not have a lot of things to be responsible for. To some people this sounds like cowardice, fear of life, fear of “growing up.” It may be partially so, but to me it sounds very wise.

The summer after I graduated high school, my parents moved out of our house. My brother, two years older than I, and a group of his friends moved back in. Our folks bought a townhome nearby, something smaller than the five-bedroom ranch, where they didn’t have to mow the yard or shovel the snow. A year later, my brother and I bought the house. We continued to rent out three of the bedrooms.

I remember how proud I was of being “independent,” being a homeowner, even in a home I couldn’t really afford unless it was shared with strangers. I was always trying to “improve” my home, because that’s what homeowners do. I wanted a new rug for the dining room, new curtains for the living room, a larger television, flowers for the yard, to repaint my bedroom, remodel the bathroom, remove the dying tree. Beyond just the necessary maintenance, I wanted more than I had. I put a lot of money into these tasks, probably more than I could afford. There was an entire list, and by the time I had completed everything, I would have undoubtedly added a dozen more things I wanted.

Looking back now, I remember that mindset was permeated with a kind of misery. Outwardly, I had everything I was supposed to – a house in the suburbs, yard with the dogs, a car, a good, white-collar, nine-to-five job at the bank, financial independence, and an ongoing college education that kept me in class until ten o’clock four nights a week. When I was home on Friday and weekends, I cleaned, mowed the massive yard (which I came to hate), did repairs, watched too much television, read novels, and did laundry. I wasn’t really unhappy, but life was permeated by dissatisfaction.

Brandon moved out to live with his girlfriend, now wife. I rented his room. My close friend, Melissa, moved in. We remodeled her bedroom and bathroom. I went part-time at the bank and returned to the University full-time to study architecture. I worked two or three jobs on the side. We took out a second mortgage to pay for my first year back in college. My mother took out a parent’s student loan to pay for my second year. I ran up my credit cards to fill in the gaps. One of my dogs died. And I did the budget and did the budget and did the budget, until I realized I just couldn’t afford this massive, five-bedroom, mortgage in the suburbs.

I was never so happy as when I lived in Lincoln. We sold the house at a loss of three-hundred dollars, but it was finally gone. I gave my furniture to Melissa, who rented an apartment with two of our former housemates. I found a little, one-bedroom condo in an old building next to the State Capital on foreclosure sale in Lincoln. My parents bought it outright using the equity on their townhome. I paid my mortgage to them.

It took a while to get out of the mindset of samsara. I wanted to endlessly improve even my little condo. But the credit card payments drained my extra income and eventually I learned to be happy with what I had. I honestly got over the need for new curtains and rugs and televisions. I was delighted when I found a set of shelves left out by the dumpster. I stopped shopping in retail stores and bought my clothes second hand. Eventually, my closet shrank to a third its original size, and I didn’t mind. I didn’t drive my car everyday and I didn’t buy gas more than once a month. I learned to enjoy walking and riding my bicycle everywhere, being in the world rather than travelling through it wrapped in glass and metal. Eventually, I let the credit cards default and then declared bankruptcy, finally letting go of the last pretense of financial “independence” and “responsibility.”

Siddhartha walked away from his wealthy life as a pampered merchant and went to live as a ferryman in a small hut on the edge of the forest, growing crops, tending the orchard, weaving baskets, and listening to the river. Such a dramatic transformation is unlikely these days and I am no Siddhartha.

But I get it, and I think other people can get it, too, if they’re looking.

October 31, 2010

Meaning of Worlds & Words

The universe is meaningless. This is good news. Many existentialists have followed this train of thought to a depressed, nihilistic conclusion without realizing the liberation it actually entails. A universe without inherent meaning is one in which meaning is only ever assigned. Something is either good or bad because we say it is. Therefore the bedrock of moral absolutes on which we stand suddenly turns to the sand of relativism, or so they claim. However, I believe that morality is not founded on inherent meaning, but rather shared humanity. Because we are capable of assigning meaning, we are capable of understanding one another and sharing meaning, including a common moral code. It may not always been in perfect concordance, but a close study of many traditions from around the world will reveal much striking and profound agreement.

Meaning, of course, is never objective. It is not quantifiable. It cannot be measured or recorded. Rather, the most common way meaning is communicated is through words, which are imperfect representations of sometimes ungraspable concepts, feelings, perceptions, and ideas. Because meaning is by its nature subjective, ephemeral, and changeable, some people say that it doesn’t exist.

However, this claim falls afoul of common sense. We can't even agree or disagree with it without refuting it. To even label it true or false is to apply meaning, because true and false are words laden with connotations. Truth is good, or so we are told, and falseness is bad. Synonyms for falseness include dishonesty, deceit, disloyalty, and treachery. Meaning is everywhere, even when we do not intend it to be.

“You latest writings have a deep sadness to them. Almost a cloud on your soul,” a friend commented. It is very poetic and made me smile. I may have to use that again. It is just that good. Yet I wondered, "Is it a cloud, or the shade of a willow tree on a hot day?"

It may be true that my writing has not been overly cheerful of late, but it is also true that I am not unhappy. This may be because when writing, we tend to write what comes easy, and sadness for the poet flowed ever so much stronger than contentment. I have mentioned before how bad moods make for better writers. But remember, meaning is changeable. It is changeable because we are changeable.

My life has changed rather dramatically in the last few months. I may have dwelled on the disappointments. I have done some deep thinking about my path. Sometimes reflection is upsetting, and sometimes profound, but more often than not it is merely puzzling. And we live in a culture in which everyone must always smile. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” One who doesn’t smile must have failed at the later, given that the first two are more or less provided free of charge. The third we must construct from our own effort.

Oddly enough, I think the Buddha would agree.

Every week on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, the guests are asked what is making them happy this week. We Buddhists know nothing can ever ‘make’ us happy, or sad, or angry. We choose based on the meaning we assign to the things that happen in our lives.

The Third Noble Truth says that suffering can end. Pain does not, nor old age, sickness, and death, but the suffering part we can choose. If we view these things as so sorrowful and frightening we must fight against them, then we will suffer. Of course, it is not easy to chose the other way. Sometimes we feel trapped by our karma, by our habitual patterns that choose for us, but we recognize them for what they are. We are on the path.

It is hard to choose not to suffer. Often we will be sad or lonely or confused, but we can chose to give a meaning beyond suffering to those emotions. Sadness upon the death of family can be good. It means we loved. Loneliness can help us seek out others, understand their loneliness, and start to heal together. Confusion can send us in search of wisdom. All these clouds on our souls can be a path to the end of suffering, to happiness. That path starts with little things.

My family sent me a care package. In it was a heavy brown Jedi robe, white tunic, and light brown belt. There were also two feel-good novels, the local design awards insert from the Omaha World Herald, a paper mache pumpkin, and a bag of Legos. I am happy because my family cares and knows me well enough to understand what would make me happy. I’m thirty years old and my mother still makes my Halloween costumes. How delightful is that? She does a damned good job, too. My mom is so cool.

Once we know what the little things are, it’s easier to find the big things. The IMPORTANT things that help us find satisfaction in life.

Star Wars was probably my earliest introduction to ideas of morality, philosophy, and wisdom. It might have just been a story, but stories are important mediums for conveying meaning. One of the greatest things I learned from Star Wars was about redemption. In the end, Darth Vader, the bad guy, saved everyone. What meaning I assign to that is a belief that good can be found in even the darkest heart, that believing people are good is a worthwhile endeavor. That’s not quantifiable datum. It’s not objective or measurable. But it is important, because if I had assigned some other meaning, I might not be where I am today. It would be that much easier to give up on people, to not even try to help them, because they’re just evil and don’t deserve help, or worse, can’t be helped.

I used to worry that my family’s relative lack of dysfunction meant I was fundamentally incapable of understanding traumatized people and, as a result, I wouldn’t be able to help them. However, what I’ve also realized is that my family has provided me with a good model of what a healthy family relationship looks like. They know how much I love Star Wars and what it means to me, so they don’t belittle or demean my geekdom. When the design awards insert comes, they save it for weeks in order to send it to me because they hold me in their thoughts. I get more than what I ask for, so I try to give the same back, keeping my eyes open for little things my Mom would like or would make my Dad laugh or my sister-in-law ooh and ahh. Of course, we’re not perfect, but we’re fundamentally workable so that even the familiar fights come with a possibility for growth.

These things are more important than Jedi robes or Legos, but one is indicative of the other. They have meaning. Learning to find one’s happiness is essentially a search for meaning. But meaning isn’t something that starts outside and we are on a grand quest to find. Meaning is something we give the world. And to this, I give the word “good.”

A meaningless universe is one in which we all have the power to create our own happiness with something as simple as a word.

October 28, 2010

Shambhala to Here (MDIV 555)

Journal for October 28, 2010

The first time I met other Buddhist was in August of 2004. Until them, my knowledge of the religion came entirely from books and the internet. The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh had the greatest impact on me. There was a Soto Zen temple in Omaha, but somehow I had never talked myself into going. It was far from my home and Zen didn’t really sound like my cup of tea anyway. I had come to the point where if I wanted to know more, I would have to do it in the company of other Buddhists. So, without discussing it with anyone, I did some searching and shortly ended up buying a train ticket to Denver.

I told my parents about a week before I left, by way of asking for a lift to the train station in Downtown Omaha and for them to look after my cat for the weekend. I was going to someplace in northern Colorado called Shambhala Mountain Center. I had only moved into my apartment in Lincoln the weekend before and was preparing to begin classes and a new job at UNL in two short weeks. But before my free time evaporated I was going to attend a program called Shambhala Training Level I: The Art of Being Human.

They typically withheld their opinions and agreed to my request. The train across Nebraska left at eleven o’clock at night and arrived in Denver around seven in the morning. The path from there to the mountain center involved an expensive taxi, large bus, and then ride in a beat up old hatchback driven by one of the center’s summer staff. Off and on during that journey, I read snippets from the book I had picked up ahead of time, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior.

“The clouds were so big and close overhead, as though I could reach my hand and run my fingers through their soft undersides. I could hear the wind roaring and rushing, but rarely felt it in the protected valley. Otherwise it was quiet and I counted only two birds on the mile or so hike back to Red Feather,” I wrote two years later.

“The lovely Farradee introduced the woman in the teacher’s chair as Cynthia Kneen. She was about my mother’s age and smartly dressed in a business suite with her brown hair artfully styled and makeup done. She was someone I expected in a board room, not a tent in the middle of the mountains, but she had something about her that seemed to make her perfectly at home and perfectly suited to this time and this place. She had a softness I had never seen before in another human being.

“That evening, she explained with a soft voice and a gentle laugh about basic goodness and how wonderful it is to be a human being. I confess I didn’t understand it all, but most of it made sense, and something in her manner told me I would come to understand it in short order, even if I didn’t tonight…

“After a couple of hours and a very sore back from sitting on the meditation cushions, called a gomden and a zabuton, my head felt full and soft. I was still slightly skeptical, but happy. We adjourned for the night and the large group left almost as quietly as we had come. Some stopped at the entrance to bow to the shrine. I did not.”

I returned to Shambhala Mountain Center in 2005 to work on the set up crew for two weeks. In 2006, I make another pilgrimage for spring break in March, when the snow was thick on the ground. I was there again in May, but this time I was stolen from set up to do some mapping and drafting. The Director of Expansion and Planning, Richard Swaback, had discovered my skills in AutoCAD. It was after that visit, on June 22, 2006, that I began the blog.

“I needed a sense of belonging badly by the time I was able to return to the mountain center. ... I have so few to share it with you truly understand. …It is hard being a Buddhist in Nebraska,” I wrote in that very first post. Since then, I have returned to the mountain center several times, including the entire summer of 2007, mostly to work for Richard or to take student groups from the College of Architecture to conduct site visits for design projects. There have been ups and downs, but the good generally outweighed the bad. Despite this, I never felt Shambhala was the right tradition for me, nor was I inclined to study at Naropa, having met many of the students from there.

I think that is for the best, as it seems to have led me here.

Dog? (MDIV 555)

We have moved from Jack Kornfield's book to Chogyam Trungpa's Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior.

Journal for October 26, 2010

I have always struggled with Trungpa. Quite aside from the wild tales of the man himself or the odd results sometimes observed among his followers, I find more than enough to quibble with in his books. Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior was the first I read, and one of my earliest dharma books. I remember thinking to myself as I read it, “Well, that sounds good,” but somehow it never really sunk in and I have remained skeptical. (Big surprise.)

For this reason, I’m not going to discuss this book in these journals. I know myself well enough to realize I can be very critical, sometimes to an unwarranted degree. It is an aspect of my personality enhanced by formal education. Architecture is a very critical profession. Often enough, that comes in handy in other areas of life, but in some places it is simply habit.

Instead, I’m going to try a new tack entirely and write about a decision I’m contemplating. I’m thinking of getting a dog. It may sound frivolous, but it is a large decision given the uncertainty of my future. Animals are very important to me. They are some of my best teachers and have facilitated my growth as a human being, morally and spiritually. Though my intellect tells me it is unlikely, experience often seems to indicate they are little buddhas in fur coats.

As a young child, we had a shaggy white mutt named Andy and a sour calico cat called Joker. When my parents’ business failed and we moved back to Nebraska from South Dakota, they couldn’t come with us. We moved from a big old house in a small town to a small apartment in a big city just before I began kindergarten. I missed them. In many years we had only guinea pigs. Mine was named Frizzle, because she had curly hair. Sometimes we had baby pigs to give away. Sometimes they died.

Just before sixth grade we finally got dogs again. Because my brother and I fought over everything, we each got a dog. Mine was a shaggy grey mutt named Jordon. Brandon got a small white miniature poodle called Benjamin. Our mother was a rancher’s daughter who grew up training horses and working with cattle dogs. She took us immediately to 4-H for obedience classes. Turned out Brandon wasn’t a dog person, but I was. In the end, I had Jordon and Jordon had Benjamin. They both slept in my bed. In our home we didn’t have pets, we had fur-people.

Two years later, my close friend Christine brought my mother a small black kitten as a Mother’s Day present. Dad hadn’t wanted a cat, but couldn’t get out of it when Mom insisted it was a gift. (Prearranged, but a gift nonetheless.) Dad sulked for two weeks, but in the end, even he enjoyed having Spook around. Benjamin and Spook were about the same size and used to play together. They were great friends. Since I was eleven years old, those critters were my best friends and my greatest responsibility. I still relate better to dogs than people. When I visit peoples’ homes, their kids remind me of things my dogs would do, but I’ve learned the parents don’t usually appreciate the characterization.

Benjamin died unexpectedly of kidney failure at the age of fourteen. I held Jordon in my arms and felt his heart stop beating as the overdose of anesthesia was injected when he was fifteen and a half, mostly deaf, mostly blind, entirely senile, and suffering from horrible arthritis. But he was still my dog and I cried. That was five years ago.

I have a cat, Isis. She is very small and very noisy and a constant source of amusement, but I miss dogs. They were probably the first animal to be domesticated and have a better understanding of human communication, words, gestures, and tone, than even our closest primate cousins. Now I need to decide if it is time to get a dog. I have a house here with a small yard, but it will complicate things when I inevitably move elsewhere. Giving them away is not an option. I take such commitments and responsibilities seriously.

I have wanted a dog for five years, but I’ve managed not to listen to that urge. I’m in college. I figured one day that would change, but as I’ve decided to pursue a PhD track, that one day seems much further away and far too long to wait. However, now that I’m here, that desire has grown stronger, but I have to wonder if it isn’t taking the place of something else. I don’t like it here. I miss Nebraska. Heck, I miss where I lived in Boulder as compared to here. I miss the tent I had during the summer I worked at Shambhala Mountain Center. I felt more comfortable there. I don’t feel at home here and I wonder if I’m thinking of getting a dog as a consolation prize, to try to make this place home. I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing. And I recognize the commitment required.

I’m just wondering, would it work?

October 25, 2010

The Wind & The World

El Monte is a city of ten square miles smack dab in the middle of the San Gabriel Valley, the eastern suburb of greater Los Angeles. One-hundred and twenty thousand people are squeezed into those ten square miles in one or two story houses, apartments, and trailer parks. Next door, just to the west, is the city of Rosemead, is five square miles of slightly nicer homes and retail businesses. There are more lawns and flowers, and the city is bordered to the south by the large green expanse of the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area and Golf Course, ringed round by a tall, impenetrable fence. In both cities, the businesses along Garvey have tall fences and close their gates at night. The guard dogs watch silently as people pass.

Water is flowing in the Rio Hondo, which separates the two otherwise indistinguishable cities. A hundred years ago, life would have come with the water, but now the river is no more than a concrete gutter. It was more cheerful when it was dry. With the water comes a reminder of all the possibilities lost, all the birds, plants, and animals who otherwise might have had a home.

Sunday morning I escaped to Pasadena. A short bicycle ride to the utilitarian concrete expanse of the El Monte Bus Station and thirty minutes later found me on the corner of Lake and Del Mar. The shops on Lake are nice in the commercial sense of that word, chain stores for soccer moms and football dads. The outdoor seating area is larger than the indoor one at the Corner Bakery next to Macy’s. I sat with a cup of chai, not my usual fare, chatting with a nice guy to whom I felt no connection, and watching the numerous dogs come and go. It was my second date with a second person set up through an online dating site. Honestly, I was more interested in the dogs. There was even a shaggy grey mutt so like my Jordan. I miss him.

Afterward, we said a lackluster farewell and I headed off to wander down Lake. There was a small arcade trying very hard to look British, complete with red telephone booth. I peered in the windows of a little kimono shop, smiling at the Hello Kitties with wagging tails. It was a short walk through a nice residential neighborhood to Caltech. Right on schedule there came three geeks walking side by side as I crossed onto campus. They were actually rather handsome young men, in wire-rimmed glasses, gesturing with animation, one holding a sheaf of papers.

I spotted two green domes to the south and wandered down to discover a quad between buff stone buildings with arched colonnades, each capped by the green end-dome. On the far end the quad, a tall, modern, cruciform tower rose between the older long, low buildings on either side. The contrast was striking, between decades, ornamentation, shape, size, and color. No doubt that was the point, as only a Modernist architect can make it. On the far side of the tower was a reflecting pond, a low bridge crossing it in a gentile arc. Three guys dangled their feet just above the water, watching as the clockwork fountain spun in response to water hitting unevenly on its many disks and leafs.

On the far edge of the reflecting pool was the first of a series of several small ponds, connected by a winding stream, bordered by a winding trail, all under the dappled shade of tall, old trees. I found the turtle garden. There were two tortoises sunning themselves on the rough concrete edge of the pool, each the size of a salad plate. I knelt down next to them and watched closely as the nearest one tilted its head ever so slowly to fix its beady black eye on me.

“Are they real?” one of the guys called out as I rose to head down the path.

“Yeah, they’re real. One of them moved, just vee-rry slooowly.”

At the bottom pool a family with children were gathered around the largest pool, where dozens of tortoises had gathered. A large, fluffy dog romped beside an older couple, alternatively sniffing the silent reptiles and giving happy barks.

“Labradoodle?” I asked.

“No, English Golden Doodle,” the lady answered.


“Yeah, her mom was an English Golden Retriever.”

“Oh. Does she speak with an English accent?”

“No, a Canadian one,” the man replied with a smile. The canine in question gave an affirmative bark. It had a distinctly “ay” sound to it.

I passed the outdoor seating area for a large café, only a few tables occupied, and made my way north back towards Del Mar. I realized here on campus was the first place I felt truly comfortable and at home since moving to this state. I liked it here. I liked the evenly spaced buildings, trees and gardens, the event and room for rent flyers posted on the bulletin boards, the studious look of people reading at the café, the crowd of patrons gathered in front of the museum. I wanted to stay, but I headed back to the bus stop at Chester and Del Mar anyway. Half an hour later, I was back in El Monte.

I hit a curb wrong half a block from the bus stop and tipped myself onto the sidewalk, landing hard on my left arm. Today it’s a bit sore, but typically I’ve nothing to show for it. I peeled off some skin, but didn’t even manage to bloody myself. Despite my good fortune, I grumbled my way home, feeling quite sorry for myself.

Today, as I sat reading in the courtyard after class, my head came up to a familiar sound. Wind. There’s no wind here, just the occasional breeze. I looked up to see the tops of the arborvitae swaying together. I could feel the wind tangling my hair, hear the rustle of the trees and the skirl of dried leaves across pavement. I breathed that sound in deep into my chest. I have missed that. It made me sad.

Of all the places I have been, fens, forests, fields, moors, mountains, flat rivers and narrow canyons, skyscrapers and suburbs, dark earth and clean sand, windy hills and silent sea, only in one place have I ever failed to hear the heartbeat of the world, and that is the desert. I am reminded this is a desert. It’s covered over in concrete and cut, green lawns and strange trees, but where the ground is torn what it reveals is dust, not soil. I am surrounded by noise, children screaming, traffic rumbling, machines humming, music playing, choppers passing, dogs barking, and I am constantly oppressed by the silence. There is no wind here.

I am confronted once again with the knowledge that I do not like this place. I like what I am doing, who I am sharing it with, why I am doing it. I even enjoy that I am able to do it at this point in my life. But I do not like where I am.

This was made all the more clear by my recent walkabout at Caltech. Somewhere like that I think I could be okay. I could trade my lost wind for some turtles and fountains. I could forget the desert for a while and hide in the safety of the well manicured campus. I know it’s fake. But it was also vital in a way that El Monte is not, yet in a way Lincoln was, and Boulder, Ithaca, Philadelphia, Denver, and Toronto were. I tell myself I should be okay here. It really isn’t that different from the other places I’ve been. It’s safe enough, full of kids and families. But there are no bookstores, no cafes, no neighborhood parks, no hills, no trees to climb so I can feel the wind on my face, and no wind, only the downdraft of low flying choppers.

I miss hearing the heartbeat of the world; here it’s all muffled in concrete and stifled by dust.