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.

October 21, 2010

Hunting Yoda (MDIV 555)

Journal Entry October 19, 2010

“[Some people] find it hard to let themselves be taught by anyone. …Often this attitude stems from unfinished problems with authority figures…” Kornfield describes in Chapter 16, You Can’t Do it Alone: Finding and Working With a Teacher (page 232). He’s partially right, but also partially wrong, which is not surprising given that he is obviously not one of these people. His dedication to Achaan Chaa and other teachers over the years, his glowing illustrations of the miraculous powers of gurus, and his descriptions of interactions with his own students demonstrate his orientation towards the teacher-student relationship.

“In working with a guru, we undergo a process of surrender, a stripping away of our own self-centered ways, as a vehicle to develop an openness and selflessness infused with the guru’s spirit,” he explains on page 234. This kind of surrender may indeed be useful for the letting go of self, however it has always struck me as an inherently dangerous abdication of one’s own spiritual and moral responsibility as well as simply misleading. Kornfield even describes this danger earlier, on page 231, found in the attitude of students who believe “The master will enlighten me in due time.”

“…it is more important to realize one basic fact: No one can enlighten us; no one can mature for us; no one can ever do it for us,” Kornfield reminds us on page 241. This is always the way I have approached my practice and my life.

I am not a person motivated by external factors. From a very young age, neither bribery nor punishment was sufficient to get me to do anything unless I understood the reasons for it and agreed with them. Naturally, I was grounded a lot and in detention a lot, but that never really bothered me. Nor could anyone convince me my own judgment was insufficient to making decisions. Upon reflection, this was perhaps a bit ridiculous for an eight-year-old to believe, but there it was nonetheless.

This put me into conflict with “authority figures” quite often. That conflict was not characterized by any form of genuine exchange, but rather a “because I said so” attitude, which was NEVER a sufficient reason. Quickly, those who employed such tactics, who invested their own self-worth in the authority they could wield against a physically and mentally inferior opponent, who failed to even engage in a battle of wits (must be because they don’t have wits), immediately lost the argument and any respect I might have had for them. Therefore, whatever they had wanted from me was obviously without merit.

A few individuals were able to recognize that I was not an inherently unreasonable child (in fact, I was rather too obsessed with reasons). As a result, they treated me more or less as an adult capable of making my own decisions. If that decision was between a ridiculous homework assignment that would teach me nothing and half an hour in detention, I usually chose detention, but those adults respected that choice and so earned my respect. Which was the first step in making me start to believe they might actually have a point of their own.

I recognize this history has tainted any relationship I might now have with a spiritual teacher or guru. However, it is not for the reasons Kornfield cites. He believes those who cannot accept a teacher do so because they cannot respect anyone above themselves, cannot believe anyone else might be right, know more than us, or be trustworthy. We might also be insecure on how to act in the presence of a spiritual teacher. In some cases, he might be correct, but I tend to believe he is greatly oversimplifying the matter.

I have looked for a teacher for the last several years, but it’s really only led me to believe that perhaps my experience and personality (which came first?) are simply unsuitable to having a teacher. I can and do learn from many different sources, but I have never been able to make a connection with a single lineage, sangha, or teacher. In the meantime, I’ve built a custom path designed for one person, which will make it even more difficult to change if and when I do encounter my teacher, should he or she exist.

There are many, many people out there who are wiser than I am, know more, and deserve my respect. I recognize that, but it’s all moot if I myself am too screwed up to recognize it when I see it. It’s like telling a blind person to find the blue marble. Others will put faith in a true master to be able to make themselves seen by determining the best method to reach that student. Perhaps that’s so, but I haven’t met that person yet.

I’m hunting for my Yoda, but I don’t know the way to Dagobah.

The Weight (MDIV 555)

Journal for October 21, 2010

“We can understand the workings of karma in our lives most clearly by looking at this process of cause and effect in our ordinary activities and by observing how repetitive patterns of our mind affect our behavior. For instance, being born in a certain culture at a certain time, we learn certain habit patterns.” A Path with Heart, by Jack Kornfield, page 275-6.

The idea of karma is very interesting to me for two reasons. I simply try to understand why people do the things they do, myself more than most simply because I have more knowledge to work with. Understanding why other people do the things they do is at least as puzzling, especially as I don’t know what they are thinking. The role culture plays in one’s karma, I feel, is often far larger than we give it credit for. We are all products of our culture and we act in the manner to which we have been culturally habituated. Even counter-cultures suffer from this influence.

That is not to say we have no free will. It is only to say that so long as something goes unrecognized, it goes unaddressed. Culture is usually either entirely unrecognized or misrecognized. For example, my friend Jake once posed the playful question “If you could live at any time and place in history, when and where would you choose?” My other friend and I looked at each other, then at him. “Are you kidding?” she asked. “This one, of course.” Jake was surprised to hear that answer from a fellow history major, but we explained, “Jake, if we lived at any other time or place in history, we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be studying at the university, wearing pants, or even talking to you without supervision.” It had never occurred to Jake that for a woman to go back in time would involve her submission to cultural dictates which did not apply to him as an educated, white, Christian, male. That was his karma. Shortly after that, he began an exploration of women’s issues.

I know I come with a lot of karma, from my DNA to my culture to all the choices I’ve made in my life. Often the weight of it feels almost overwhelming, as though it is a great burden I’ll never get out from under. I feel like whatever successes I have had in changing my karma have been so very small. For example, as a teenager, I stopped chewing my fingernails, a lifelong habit. But really, how important is that? Some days I feel it’s a great victory and at other times entirely superficial.

Oddly, I often feel that cultivating good qualities, like generosity and equanimity, is almost easy compared to how difficult it is to let go of bad qualities, like obstinacy and laziness. The minute a bit of unkind gossip comes out of my mouth, I can recognize it as unskillful, but I can’t call it back. Getting to that beginning spot of unskillful action is so very hard. On the other hand, creating a beginning spot of skillful action seems much easier. Sometimes the intention behind the skillful action hasn’t been exactly pure, in fact, at times it’s been quite grudging, but it feels like I can actually make progress towards purifying that intention. Whereas on the other hand, I can’t even find the intention behind unskillful actions until it’s too late.

Perhaps it’s uncharitable, but I don’t feel like whatever good I do when I cultivate skillful qualities balances out the harm of my unskillful thoughts, words, and deeds. Things are so much easier to break than to build. One catty remark can taint someone’s opinion forever and then they close their minds to a thousand compliments. I feel like the only place bad karma can be undone is at the very beginning, at that intention. It can’t be balanced or redeemed or purified through a million good deeds.

That is a very heavy weight. Yet bearing guilt for all one’s past misdeeds is also karma, and not very helpful karma at that. I don’t think guilt is a good motivator of skillful actions, it’s not a pure intention. When one acts out of guilt, one generally acts to make the guilt go away, to make oneself feel better. I try to let go of guilt, but the responsibility for finding the roots of my future unskillful actions, no doubt numerous, still weighs on me.

What kind of intention does that breed?

October 19, 2010

Problems of Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism

There are three standard attitudes of religions towards one another: exclusive, inclusive, or pluralist. The exclusivist states their religion and only their religion is true and offers a path to salvation, or in the Buddhist sense, the end of suffering. The inclusivist privileges their own religion, while recognizing and valuing similar traits of other religions and, in some cases, even recognizing their stereological efficacy. The pluralist places all religions on equal footing, equally capable of salvation, and equally valid as life choices. However, each of these attitudes is problematic.

Buddhism cannot be exclusive because it makes no claims to ontological truth. Indeed it can make no claims to ontological truth given the nature of sunyata, or emptiness. In fact, no religion, philosophy, or any claim whatsoever can be said to be ontologically true due to the inability of language to exactly describe existence. (I reserve judgment on the realm of mathematics and, by extension, physics, but only by assuming an “evil genius” or “Matrix” like situation does not pertain.) Buddhism, as compared to other religions, merely emphasizes this recognition.

Buddhism is and has been broadly characterized as inclusive. Historically, Buddhism adapted to and, in some cases, even merged with indigenous Asian religions in countries to which it spread. In many cases, Buddhists practicing in one country might not even recognize the practices of another country as Buddhism upon cursory examination.

Here in the West, it is continuing to adapt. Recent scholars have even asserted it is not a religion at all, but rather a philosophy, perhaps in part due to the lack of ontological truth claims discussed above. As a philosophy, they hold, it is entirely accommodating of all world religions. Any religion can include Buddhist ideas or be included within Buddhist practice either in whole or in part.

However, I believe these claims to be misleading, altering the face of Buddhism to suit one’s personal preferences (i.e. anti-religious bias), superficial (i.e. misunderstanding the Dharma), or simply wrong (i.e. causation being antithetical to a supra-causational divinity). In addition, inclusive attitudes run the risk of damaging both Buddhism and other religions by removing the “agreeable” aspects from their larger framework and reinterpreting them in a new and, perhaps, wildly incorrect manner.

Yet at the same time, Buddhism cannot be entirely pluralist. The Buddha stressed that different practices and teachings are more suited for certain individuals at certain times (he even discouraged conversion from one's native theology to Buddhism), but this should not be interpreted as relativism. To say Christianity or Hinduism is just as good as Buddhism is to devalue not only Buddhism, but the other religions as well. It entirely ignores the merits of each religion in question and closes off opportunities to exercise discriminating awareness. If any path is just as good as any other, then no path is just as good as any path, so we might as well sit on the couch all day eating potato chips and watching soap operas. In addition, Buddhism has been characterized as a stereological phenomenology, that is, concerned with the effects and efficacy of various practices leading towards the end of suffering, not their underlying claims of truth. Therefore, a Buddhist cannot help but evaluate other religions by their effects and efficacy, which neither over the long course of history nor between modern-day individuals can be described as equal.

In some ways, Buddhism must be a little bit pluralist, a little bit inclusive, and, yes, even a little bit exclusive. In so doing, however, it is really none of the three, but rather an as-of-yet unnamed fourth position. Of course, this a really brief and very dirty characterization of the three recognized positions and the trouble of each. A Buddhist view of other religions may, in the end, fall so close to one of the three as to be practically indistinguishable. Yet, my intuition tells me there is a fourth way.

We could call it the Middle-of-the-Triangle Way, but that’s a bit of a mouthful.

October 17, 2010

To Write Like Music

Would that I could write like music. A single piano to stir our hearts and make the most bitter cry tears of joy. The aria of the electric guitar to boil our blood and make the tired crowds scream with excitement. The endless reverberation of taiko drums to shake our bones and make the deepest sleepers dream of supernovas. I wish I could write lines like that.

I have only humble letters on pages. With them I search for the star heart of feeling, of longing, love, and sadness, of joy, rage, pain, and bliss. I paint pictures of a hundred-thousand words, always knowing them incomplete, trusting the mind to fill in the missing. I seek the depths of a human soul and know it to be bottomless. And I dream of writing words like music.

I would capture the strike of every raindrop, the brush of every leaf against leaf, the voice of the wind and the tone of sunlight. I would know the sound of heartbeats and breath coming fast and the silence of palms pressed together in prayer. I would tell it to you, if I but knew how. It is a dream ever undone, never unworthy.

There is a hollow place inside my chest I seek to fill. I want to gather a thunderstorm and compress it into my hands, a whirling, stirring, striking, calling cage of lightning. I want to swallow it down and let it light me up so that I might finally be. I want to hear it all roaring in my ears and passing away into calm. I want to feel so that I might know peace. I want the crescendo and what comes after, like in the songs. I want to have it and to know it and to share it and to give it away and to lose it and to remember it.

But I could never play. I could never read the music. I can only listen and wonder and seek other ways to know the aching call of love and sorrow and fear. I press my palms in prayer for what I know does not come. Fold my fingers over and together and hang on, hang on, hang on to this nothingness, this everything.

There is color in the music, light and smell and taste and touch, like in the wind or wave. In it are all the sounds of the breeze in the grass, the meadowlark, the oak, and the ocean. From this we call ourselves human. Oh, we may think and reason, walk upright and speak, too much usually. But it is in the music we feel and share that feeling. We break our own hearts, scatter the pieces, and put them back together again with the shards of other people's hopes and dreams. We make beauty out of thin air for no other reason than it is beauty.

Would that I could write like that.

October 14, 2010

Write to Explore (MDIV 555)

Journal for October 14, 2010

I’ve noticed something appearing in the tenor of these journals. They’ve become very presentational, and from that sense also very egoic and possibly self righteous. They haven’t been as exploratory or engaging as I’m used to. I think that’s in large part due to their topical nature, meaning, I am writing in response to a topic presented in the reading and discussed in class that week. A lot of these feel like topics I’ve already explored, at least in part. Further exploration would involve starting in the middle, which isn’t fair to the reader. On the blog, I don’t worry about that so much. I can just reference an earlier post and leave it to the reader to decide if they want to spend time on the back story. Things are different when presenting work to a teacher.

In starting from the beginning, I seem to be presenting a “this is how it is” story. I’m Monica. I’m a white chick from Nebraska. I’m stubborn. I like cheesecake. I don’t meditate. So there. Oh, and I’m mildly bored because I feel like I’m repeating myself and that’s just not very engaging as a writer, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this.

This attitude is not helpful. Journal writing should be and has been, for me at least, an exploration. It’s not about what you want to present to a reader, but what you want to understand about yourself as a writer and a person. Often, the best journal entries start from the basis of a question, sometimes an unspoken wondering. They explore things nobody knows, including me.

The other day I wrote about an incident with my grandfather. It happened many years ago. My entire family was present at the time. But I don’t think anyone ever knew precisely how impactful that incident was, including myself. Through writing about it, I was able to reflect on it, explore that moment and how it has shaped my life, and come to understand something new about myself.

The single most frequently read post on my blog is about inherent existence. I wrote it because I was trying to understand this strange new concept of emptiness. I wrote that post in October 2006, mere months after the blog began. In July 2010, Google started tracking and providing statistics on the blog. That old post has received over twice as many page views as any other single post (the main site address doesn’t count). The search keywords ‘inherent existence’ bring more traffic to my site than any others. Yet I didn’t write the post because I wanted to tell others what I though inherent existence was. I wanted to figure it out for myself.

The main difference (besides length) between these journals and my normal blog posts is topic choice. For the blog, topics of exploration come up naturally. In these journals, they are assigned. Certainly, I still have options. Many topics are covered in the weekly readings. And perhaps I’ve been a bit lazy. I write the journal for each class when I find I have something to say, and not necessarily something new. I end up quoting myself, recycling old material, and summarizing old topics in a shortened format.

This is not a good thing. In the future I will try to do better. Writing is my main form of practice. Sometimes people talk about their practice becoming stale, routine, and thereby loosing meaning or power to make positive change. Writing is no exception. I need to be more vigilant in my approach, apply effort and diligence a little more mindfully.

After all, there’s still a lot I haven’t figured out yet.

Sans Cushion (MDIV 555)

Journal for October 12, 2010

I don’t meditate. Not really. I learned how, of course. I took the Shambhala Levels up through number five, which are the basics of samatha. I’ve never done vipassana. I’ve sat in some guided meditations in various workshops and learned a smidgen of tonglen and loving-kindness meditation. I’ve read numerous instructions for meditation, both basic and specific, and listened to plenty of podcasts. Everyone agrees on its importance. Even I agree on its importance, at an intellectual level. I’ve even recommended it to others from time to time. I just don’t do it.

For four and a half years I’ve tried to set up a daily meditation practice. Morning, midday, afternoon, or evening, none seemed to stick. Going to a weekly group practice didn’t last long either. I lived at Shambhala Mountain Center for a summer and thought surely here of all places, surrounded by a sangha that practices three times a day, I’ll be able to build good habits. But, nope.

I ask people about it and they all tell me the same things over and over. “Just sit. You just have to sit. You’ll see. You can’t get there if you don’t sit.” It all just bounces off and nothing really convinces me to change my slacker ways. No one’s ever managed to slap me down hard enough.

It’s not that I don’t believe them or think I’m somehow special so I don’t need to sit. Quite the contrary. When I do sit, my experiences are very typical. I usually have very little to report to my meditation teachers. When the subject of motivation comes up, we just go back to the same admonishments and instructions I’ve heard before.

However, I have found that while my experiences during meditation are typical of what teachers describe as occurring on the cushion, many of my experiences outside of formal meditation are also typical of what teachers describe as occurring on the cushion. A lot of bells rang for me while reading chapters five through nine in Jack Kornfield’s book, yet at the same time I got a little bit tired of his constant references to meditation. It just didn’t reflect my experience. (There’s no reason why it should, of course.) All of Kornfield’s anecdotes center around realizations that have occurred as part of a person’s ongoing practice of meditation.

So the question comes up: if I’ve had similar experience that weren’t part of meditation practice, where they genuine or am I just deluding myself? Teachers don’t deal with this question because, in their experience, these realizations and experiences always happen within the context of an ongoing formal meditation practice.

When I reflect on my past, I see a number of practices that are sorta, kinda, maybe like meditation. These go way back, to my earliest memories when I was very small. When I describe these practices though, I am always told, “That’s not real meditation. That’s just daydreaming or spacing out or sleeping or judgment or self indulgence or identity building. You need to do real meditation.” Then they go on to tout the benefits of “real” meditation and I think, well, I already have a system for doing that. This is how I keep myself calm and balanced, how I deal with anger, how I identify hidden problems and analyze their causes, how I allow insight to arise in difficult situations. I know they work because I remember the destructive and unhappy person I was years ago.

I’m still cognizant of a lot of stumbling blocks. I’m stubborn and contentious, but now that manifests in much more constructive ways than when I was, say, thirteen or even twenty-three. When I was eighteen, I was so frustrated and impatient I couldn’t survive five weeks at the university. By the time I was twenty-two I returned with a new mindset and made it all the way through. I did it by changing myself because sure as anything, the university didn’t change.

I’m still deluded. The question is just how deluded and about what? Am I deluded about meditation? Probably. Am I deluded about what I can attain without it? Highly likely. But am I deluded about the experiences and realizations I’ve had in my life sans cushion?

I doubt it, but I’ve been wrong before.

October 08, 2010

Unexpected Flow

I’ve been surprised lately at how well my writing is flowing. The blog goes on as it generally does, but some larger projects have been making more progress these past few weeks than is typical. In terms of words on paper, the number remains few, but in terms of sorting out critical pivot points in the plot, laying out scenes, and understanding narrative, things have been coming together in my mind.

Earlier this week I wrote a piece about my Grandfather. That essay will now serve as the cornerstone of the ongoing project of Dharma Cowgirl, a memoir I have been struggling with for a few years now. Around that piece I can organize several earlier pieces of writing that get to the heart of what I want to say in the project. I am going to spend some extra time on it this semester as part of the “spiritual autobiography” we have been assigned as a final project in our Spiritual Formation class. I’ve been struggling with how to start this project for almost as long as I’ve had the blog. I’ve even published many drafts here, only to ultimately discard them, but now I have something which I finally feel some kind of lasting satisfaction with.

The other project which has been in the forefront of my mind lately is an as of yet unnamed series of science fiction novels. I’ve had the critical final scene in mind for years and it wasn’t until three weeks ago that I figured out why, not how, but more importantly why the characters need to go from here to there. Last night I had a major breakthrough in understanding and laying out the scene that will articulate the main character’s motivation. This is critical, heady stuff, which allows me to actually sit down and write the body of the work with some kind of integrity.

Of course, I still don’t have all that much time to write. I’m reading a lot for class. One thing I’m not doing is creating. I’m not designing. I don’t have any projects. Sayonara, studio! In moments of discursiveness my mind tends to rearrange my mental surroundings, shuffling furniture, moving walls, reorganizing function, layout, and landscaping. But I get the impression that’s just habit, the way an ex-smoker chews gum or gnaws on pencils.

What really seems to absorb my mind in moments between appointments is my writing, and mostly these two projects. I want to be writing and I have a hard time avoiding it when in proximity to a computer. I’ve taken to doing my reading assignments in the living room, away from my keyboard. I’ve even started jotting down hand written notes when ideas come to me while I’m waiting for class to start, or during breaks, or, Buddha forbid, in class itself.

I have daydreams of actually being able to finish one or the other of these projects. I tell myself I’m at a point in my life where I could take the time. I don’t need to get a job. For once I’m getting by on being a student, if only just barely. I could invest the time in myself. I could actually take a bet on myself.

But what a bet it would be! Even if a book is written, it’s hard to get published! It involves editors and agents and someone else has to be willing to take a bet that the book will sell. And in the end, let’s face it, I’m not a trained writer. I didn’t study English or literature or journalism. No, I studied architecture. Now I study Buddhism. I have no objectivity by which to judge the market value of my work. I’ve never received a professional opinion on either of these projects.

For now, I’ll keep going with the flow, but as a hobby. I enjoy writing. I’ll keep chipping away at these projects, but slowly, steadily, the way one eats an elephant (if one isn’t vegetarian). I love the story I’m weaving in the one projects and the things I’m discovering about myself through the other (even the ugly things). Someone once said "It is better to write for yourself and have no public, than write for the public and have no self." (Assuming one does not quibble with the quote on Buddhist grounds.) I think I'll keep doing that and let my rearranged creative energies sort themselves out as they wish.

Without the shade of skyscrapers, trees can grow.

Joy of Struggle (MDIV 555)

We have moved on from Buddhist Psychology by Brazier to A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield, which has a much more narrative and flowing style. This post makes reference to several earlier posts from this blog.

Journal for October 7, 2010

The meditation at the end of Chapter 2: Stopping the War in Jack Kornfield’s book A Path With Heart is probably the most daunting meditation I have ever heard.

“Continue to sit quietly. Then cast your attention over all the battles that still exist in your life. Sense them inside yourself. … Be aware of all that you have fought within yourself, of how long you have perpetuated the conflict.

“Gently, with openness, allow each of these experiences to be present. …Let it be present just as it is. Let go of the battle. Breathe quietly and let yourself be at rest.”

The last instruction isn’t so daunting, really. It’s fairly simple, if not easy. The trouble is just getting there. If I need to learn all my battles, all my struggles, I’m going to be sitting there for a very, very, very long time. Maybe that’s no different than anyone else, but see, I sort of like the struggle.

Kornfield talks about all the negative aspects of the “war within,” the ways we struggle with and repress powerful emotions. He also talks about the violence we do to each other and the way our modern society perpetuates struggling and striving. He describes our struggling as ways of getting things we want, pushing away things we don’t want, and hiding behind delusions of how we think the world ought to be. Struggle is an outcome of our attachment, aversion, and delusion.

What he doesn’t talk about is when we are attached to the struggle itself. What he doesn’t seem to recognize is the joy of struggle. I know. It’s neurotic. It’s mildly self-destructive. It’s certainly a hindrance to renunciation and awakening. And I’ve found when I try to escape it, I just end of struggling against my struggling. I once wrote:

“When stubborn rises up, I feel very little desire to be right, but simply a desire to be stubborn, to hold fast, to push and be pushed. I view it in the same way a sportsman may view a worthy opponent or a connoisseur a very good bottle of wine.

“This is, perhaps, a mistake - more than a mistake, a perverse irony of my nature, for I have often also written of the suffering of obstinacy. That I sometimes feel that I am being stubborn not out of spite, but rather in spite of myself and my own higher reasoning. Yet I make a virtue out of what is sometimes a flaw in character. Why? Because I’m damned good at it. This, then, is also pride, and pride is ego. In order to believe that ‘I’ am ‘good’ at something, there must first be an ‘I’ to be good, or bad, or any other adjective.

“…I have no desire for it [self] to be right, no desire to be vindicated in this mockery of a belief. In the end, what I desire [non-self] and what I cling to [self] are completely separate from and often in contradiction of one another. It’s the great irony of suffering. It’s wanting the person you are arguing with to be right, but more, to be able to prove they are right in a way that somehow pries open our minds and cuts the strings of our attachment. We are all seeking that ‘Eureka!’ moment, on the cushion or anywhere else. Some of us are waiting for the bell to ring, while others of us are demanding it like a slap in the face. I’ll settle for nothing less - nothing less than being completely and utterly wrong.

“That is what stubborn is.”

Being stubborn brings with it all sorts of opportunities for struggling. It’s part of a contentious nature I’ve never been able to escape. My Google Chat status reads “Willing to argue at the drop of a hat.” I like combative sports. I fenced (yes, with a sword) for five years. “I wanted to feel like I was doing the best I could, even if I was losing. I loved the challenge of fencing someone who was just a little bit better than I was. I loved how damned hard it was.” Now I’m learning kung fu. I would be lying to myself if I said I just wanted the exercise. Almost every dream I have is about struggle.

When my Grandmother died, I wrote: “Time heals. Time untangles the knots. Tears tie them tighter. Tears I fight and in the struggle tie the tangles tighter. Should I stop fighting? I don’t know. Not in my nature to stop fighting. Not in my nature to be who I am.”

Maybe it’s in my nature to be who I am not?

October 05, 2010

My Cowboy Myth

I do not recall ever seeing Grandpa Dale on a horse, except in photographs. By the time I was born he was more carpenter than cowboy. I remember him as a wiry man, not particularly tall, with a hooked nose and bald head always hidden beneath a simple farmer’s cap. He wore blue jeans, work boots, a belt, and long-sleeved, button-down shirts no mater the weather. On Sundays he wore pressed slacks, usually brown, and good boots to church.

Grandpa Dale built things. He built the first house I remember from a small barn when he and Granny Delmira were living on the outskirts of Ainsworth, Nebraska, a town which lays official claim to being “the middle of nowhere.” He and Granny Del made all six of their grandkids child-sized teepees when we were little. I used to drag mine out into the yard on nice days and stay there for hours. He built the table, bench, and shelves in our kitchen in the house in Westmont. He built bookshelves into the walls of our basement in the house in Gretna.

After they sold the red barn house in Ainsworth, he and Granny moved to Omaha and Grandpa Dale built things for Habitat for Humanity. We worked as a project foreman for them since I was little. My older brother, Brandon, would go work with him in the summers when he was a teenager, roofing or painting or hanging drywall. I went along a few times, but I was too small to be useful and easily bored.

Grandpa Dale was a gentleman, but not in a lofty way, but in the manner of a truly gentle man. He was raised a cowboy when cowboys still took their hats off indoors, answered questions with “Yes, Ma’am,” and “No, Ma’am,” worked hard, and looked after the all beings in their care. He was always willing to lend a hand to those who needed it. He knew horses and dogs and cattle. Mom told stories that made them seem to do his will unbidden. Even our neurotic little miniature poodle, who hated all men, loved Grandpa Dale.

He raised his children on the ranch. My mother and aunt worked alongside their brother in the pastures and the hay fields. When Granny got a job in town, she sewed her own suits. Mom and Aunt Donalee were expected to have dinner on the table when she got home in addition to the outdoor work. All of them participated in 4-H training horses. Mom told me that even after she married and was living forty miles up the highway on the outskirts of Valentine, Grandpa Dale still brought her a newly broken horse to train.

That was all over by the time I came along. The closest I have come to seeing the cowboy my grandfather was, is in his brothers and his descendants. My great-uncle Vernon still raises, trains, and sells horses. He and great-uncle Bob still wear their jeans, cowboy boots, shiny belt buckles, long-sleeved shirts, and dove-grey cowboy hats. Uncle Dean, my mother’s brother, and his two boys do likewise. Even my littlest cousins had cowboy hats and boots of their own almost before they were old enough to sit a horse, something that comes very early. Little cousin Cole earned his first rodeo belt buckle at the age of five. He roped a dummy steer in a competition. Aunt Donalee is also a rancher, though her two boys favor farmer’s caps and baseball hats over the cowboy look.

My mother married a city boy and settled down first in the sprawling metropolis of Valentine, Nebraska, population twenty-six hundred. After a short stint in South Dakota, where I was born, they returned to Nebraska and have lived on the outskirts of Omaha since Reagan was president. I grew up dreaming of horses and every time we moved I begged my Mom to move to a ranch. I didn’t connect the idea of a ranch as a business with a ranch as a place to live. Unlike her brother and sister, Mom didn’t study agriculture in college and she had not married a rancher. She studied pre-medicine and anthropology before finishing a degree in accounting when I was in elementary school. Dad studied business and has worked in the same industry his entire life, the one he was raised to work in by his father, coin machines. Going to work with Dad was always fun because it meant being around video games, pinballs, pool tables, dart boards, and juke boxes. But no horses.

It’s been twenty years since I gave up my dreams of being a cowgirl, but I still dream of horses. It’s hard to find them. One can’t just borrow a horse like one borrows a car. I still have hopes that someday I’ll be in a position to have horses of my own. I have saved my mother’s saddles in anticipation of that day.

Part of this is tied up in the myth of my Grandfather, who died when I was nineteen, and in the myth of my mother as she once was, that cowgirl I never met. Part of the myth is written in the land our ancestors settled a hundred years before I was born, countryside good for cattle, not crops. The anticipation is kept alive by the myth of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. I’ll never be a cowgirl or a rancher. I’ll never work as hard as they or know as much about cattle or corn or markets, but I still have hopes about horses.

I did not realize until after Grandpa Dale died quite what I had missed. He was seventy-six, with at least seventy years of hard work behind him. I would have loved to learn carpentry or cabinet making, but as a teenager I had more of an eye towards work that paid and things I could buy. I don’t value money so highly now and sometimes wish I had valued it less back then. Maybe had we known each other better I could have learned other things, like how he came to be so gentle, so sure, and so generous.

He yelled at me only once that I recall. It was the year Lena lived with us, a spoiled, vain girl from a wealthy Ukrainian family. I was fourteen and she fifteen. We fought a lot and I freely commented that I hated her, right there with the entire family and Lena present at the dinner table in my Grandfather’s house. I don’t remember what he said to me, but I do remember he was angry. No person should hate another and certainly no one should be so flippant about it. I recall I was ashamed and shrunk down in my chair, but I learned something important. It changed me.

At his funeral, Reverend Bill told the story of how the church built the education wing. The members met to discuss the need, but the consensus was that they could not afford to hire a contractor. Dale Oatman stood up and said “We’ll do it ourselves.” So they did. Reverend Bill fell off a joist and slipped a disk in his back, but under Grandpa Dale’s guidance and a lot of hard work from everyone, the education wing was built and is still being put to good use.

Grandpa Dale is buried in the Ainsworth cemetery, a spot beside him waiting for Granny Del. After he died I asked my parents where they wanted to be buried, in Valentine or Ainsworth. They said those towns weren’t their home anymore. They are very practical about such things, my parents, and perfectly happy to be cremated and spread to the wild winds if my brother and I want it that way. I think it appropriate that Grandpa Dale is buried in the earth, though. In so many ways he lived a life so much closer to that sandy soil for so much longer. The time I knew him, when they lived in Omaha, was really just a small fraction of his life.

Granny Del still lives there, just a few miles from my parents, but lately she has been talking about moving back west, to Ainsworth or Bassett where she went to high school or Broken Bow to be closer to Donalee. She still has friends out there, and a myriad of relatives I’ve never met, all just as long-lived as she. She’s never really liked the closeness of the city (or more accurately, the suburbs), with people crowded together cheek to jowl and no space to breath.

There are still tools in my mother’s garage that say “Oatman” on them, both power and old fashioned hand tools. Dean’s boys, my cousins, are the spitting image of their grandfather, Jim especially. Between Jim and Jeff there are now three more little Oatmans to carry on the name. There’s also Donalee’s two boys. All of them carry on the work.

Brandon, my brother, looks a lot like Grandpa Dale, with that same nose and thin build, but he’s a product of city life. I am too, I suppose. I got the build, but not the nose or the name or even the personality. In the last respect, I’m far closer to my Dad’s cantankerous uncles than my Mom’s family. But I think I got other things from my Grandpa Dale, quiet things, unspoken things. I love animals and sometimes I feel I know them in a deeper way than I know people. I like to build things. I like to help people. I listen for the sound of the wind in the grass and the coming of storms. And I try not to hate.

I hope Grandpa Dale would like that.

Double Dipping (MDIV 555)

The spiritual formation journal entry for today is the previous post, Seeking, slightly edited for length. I liked the longer version, so I will not post what I handed in here, but our professor has requested assignments be a page in length. Sometimes this means I fudge the margins, but I generally try to follow the guidelines.

New work on Thursday!

October 04, 2010


I dreamt I was stalked by an unknown danger, real, named, but unseen. My family came to be with me, but they did not know how to protect me. I lived in a home with many tall rooms in a strange city with snow laying white upon the darkened streets. And there was something I had to do, an important errand to find another I had lost. I left my family in the bright rooms and ventured into the white ways, where the danger might find me, but I might also find what I sought. I encountered many people and animals. I saw violence, blood, and death, but always I kept seeking, among tall, stone buildings, in deep snow on empty streets. Someone called to me and I turned back, but I would not stop. I turned to go, took a step forward, and woke with the gentle light filtered through the avocado trees beyond the window.

I was at Metta Forest Monastery and it was seven o’clock in the morning. I lay for a moment looking at the shapes of leaves and the lightening sky beyond the curtain, feeling the solidity of the floor beneath me barely cushioned by the sleeping bag I lay on, smelling the chill breeze coming through the window above me. I took my ear plugs out and heard the sound of voices and the rhythmic chopping of vegetables just outside my door. I shimmied into my jeans and went out to find them, leaving behind danger, violence, cold, and darkness. But I think I took my seeking with me.

That afternoon someone asked Ajahn Geoff about longing. Often we hear that we must let go of our desires and attachments and yet also cultivate the longing to be free. It is the raft to which we cling until we reach the other shore. When we are there, we will no longer need it, but until then it is a skillful means we should not let go.

Ajahn Geoff if formally called Thanissaro Bikkhu. He was unknown to me until very recently, when his essays were assigned class reading. He is a monk in the Thai forest tradition of the Theravada, the abbot of Metta Forest, and also a very hairy man. He is an American, the stubble on his shaven head long gone white and the fluff on the shoulder bared by his simple brown robe following suit. Otherwise, I could not tell you his age, except that it seems in all things he is old enough to know better. He wears gold rimmed glasses and speaks with a calm, strong voice.

He rides heard on a group of seven younger monks, mostly tall, thin, bald, white guys and one Thai. The Thai families who drove up for the Sunday alms giving, chanting, and Dharma talk bowed to the elaborate golden Buddha statute in the simple wooden hall and then turned to bow to the eight monks on their platform, touching forehead to floor three times in succession. I followed along, as is customary, but though I felt reverence for the giant metal statue, I felt nothing but courtesy for the anonymous monks in their brown bed sheets.

I understand in an intellectual sense the reverence many Buddhists show to monks and nuns, yet I cannot bring myself to share it. It was not the culture in which I was raised. I show courtesy to all, respect to some, including clergy, but reverence to very few. There are many who deserve my respect, more than perhaps I sometimes show, and a greater number than I can fathom whom I might do well to revere, but, to put it simply, I do not know them. I have not met them, and if I have, it has been on such short acquaintance that I have been unable to discern such things.

Ajahn Geoff seems close to such a person. It may be disrespectful to include notes on his back hair in describing him, but I mean to paint a thorough picture – a picture of an American man totally at ease and entirely unselfconscious regarding what in many from our culture would be cause for vanity or embarrassment. He was patient in answering our barrage of questions, though they seemed unending. His responses were clear and precise. He did not pretend to knowledge when asked about other systems of Buddhism with which he was not familiar, but still attempted to offer some guidance. And he was most generous, turning a group of Buddhist grad students loose in the monastery’s book sheds with the guidance to take whatever we like. (In some cases, it was more than one could carry.)

I learned many things on this trip. I learned that a malfunctioning camera responds well to a happy monk. Nuns can juggle. Monks arm wrestle. Politely accepting ginger candy may endear you to a stranger more than the candy will endear itself to you. The coolest place in the afternoon is the shade in the avocado groves with the hum of the sprinklers giving life to the trees in what is otherwise desolate hill country. And that I am still seeking.

I did not ask Ajahn Geoff any questions, but I listened to many answers. Sometime I wonder if I am depriving myself of a great opportunity for the sake of pride, but no honest queries came to mind. I often feel as though I know so little, I do not even know what to ask. I wait and I listen and when I start to think I know a little bit, then I have many questions. Likely whatever I think I know is, by that point, wrong. Perhaps that is the unknown danger that stalks us all, when we think we know what it is without see it, and we go out alone into the darkness seeking anyway.

My cat was glad to see me home and bit my feet until I removed my socks. I lay one on my desk in front of me and she rubbed and rubbed against it, then went to rub and rub against my shoes.

I do not know why, but I was happy to see it.