Love Letter To The Sangha

Reprinted from my post on The Tattooed Buddha 

So I have been meditating almost daily for 7 years. But I have a dirty little secret. Ok, I have several dirty little secrets, but only one that I am prepared to share with you readers. I don’t like to meditate. Yes, you read that right. I really don’t like to.  I have to talk myself into it most days and when I do finally force myself on the pillow I am ready to get up almost immediately.

This wasn’t always the case.  When I first started 7 years ago by going to a beginners’ Zen retreat I was a little scared, but excited. I had been an intellectual Zen student for over 15 years. I had read many wonderful books about Buddhism in general and Zen in particular. I knew it was right for me. But I only read and rarely sat my ass on a cushion. So I was excited to find out that there was a Zen group in my area. I couldn’t wait to do the actual practice. I learned very little at the retreat (by design—those damn enigmatic Zen teachers ya know). But they did put me on a zafu and zabuton and force me to sit still for 15-30 minutes at a time for half a day. It flew by. I’m an introvert, so what better way to spend time with people than having them sit next to me and not be allowed to say anything to me? Plus, it was startling to see the tangled mess that was my mind. I was hooked.

After fast and furious 6 months of meditating once or twice daily I started to notice results. Now in Zen, we aren’t supposed to have a goal with meditation and any benefits you see because of meditation shouldn’t be discussed. They are purely incidental to the BIG AWAKENING. And we definitely can’t talk about that! But dammit, I did have results. I actually noticed things going on around me. I was actually listening to people instead of just hearing them. I was able to see that I was causing suffering in others and was able to at least cut that down some.

All great right? Other things happened too over the first couple of years. And I enjoyed being on the cushion. But sometime, somehow, it started to change. After a few years it wasn’t so fun anymore. I started making excuses about why I couldn’t sit that day. All of the sudden I was too busy. Or didn’t feel good. Or my knee hurt too bad from trying to twist myself into the pretzel full lotus position. I had any number of excuses to not sit and my practice went first to almost daily to a couple of times a week to whenever I felt like it. And I didn’t feel like it most of the time.

But throughout this time I kept going to my weekly Sangha meetings. I started enjoying those more and more. I began to interact with the other members even though, for me, it was painful to do. If it hadn’t been for my Sangha, I am pretty sure I would have given up meditation. But being around other dedicated practitioners, my compassionate teacher, and new people who were just beginning on the path, got me back on the cushion “full time”. I am thankful for them.

Now back to my dirty little secret. Even though I’m meditating once or twice a day almost daily, I don’t enjoy it. It’s still a burden for me most days. But when I have those days where I really, really, REALLY don’t want to do it, I think about how I’m not as big an asshole because of it and how much better I can be if I continue to do it. And I think of my Sangha.  The great group of people that come help me sit on Sundays. Some I’ve known for years. Some I see one time and they never come back. But they all have courage and it forces me to be courageous each time I stare down at the cushion before I sit. My Sangha is my motivation. So if you see any of my Sangha members, thank them for helping me to not be as big an asshole as I used to be.

Don’t Know. Don’t Know. Dooooooon’t Knooooooowwww

As with most great ideas I have had in my life, I find that someone else has already had them. Very often I’m a day late and a dollar short.
 
There are several purposes to this site. Mainly it was pushing back to the overly vocal liberal thought police that are pervading American Zen. But the secondary reason for this site is to show that in most cases, taking one side over the other, especially in politics is wrong.
 
So as I’m reading Zen Confidential by Shozan Jack Haubner ‘s Zen Confidential I come across this:
 
“But ultimately my Zen practice is not political: my politics are beholden to and part of the bigger picture that is my practice. I try to embrace both sides of the issue, then, and search for a personal resolution not in a logical argument for either but in an unspoken and embodied synthesis of the two-“
 
Now, nevermind that he was talking about the one issue that I don’t think there should be a compromise on–abortion. But that is how I wish most people, and especially Buddhists would approach most issues. Before trying to defend yourself, ask how and why the other side came up with their opinion. Is there anything of theirs I can incorporate into mine? Do I HAVE to be right on this? Is there room for compromise? Keeping that “don’t know” attitude.
 
Reading today’s American Zen blogs, I sadly find little of this.

Left Wing Buddha, Right Wing Buddha

I’d guess that if you asked most American Zen teachers if the Buddha was a Democrat or a Republican, the majority would answer that the dharma transcends politics. And they would be correct. But I believe they’d secretly be thinking that the Buddha was a card carrying liberal. I personally don’t know how you can read about the Buddha and not think he was a Libertarian. “Be a lamp unto yourself” could be the most libertarian statement of any major religion.  

My Buddhist friend (everyone should have one) and I were discussing this subject. He thinks most people see the dharma through their particular political lens. Me, I’m a little more cynical. I think that statement is too passive. I think people actively bring their politics into the dharma. I wasn’t alive when the hippies in the Northeast and California started converting en masse, but it set up the American Zen we see today. Well, that and all the New York psychoanalysts that also came to it. But that’s a post for another time.  

This is not a uniquely American Zen problem. Last weekend, I attended a local interfaith event for Pride Month where the themes were “unlearn fear and hate” and “building bridges.” Our mayor, who is openly gay, was there. This event was organized by a local Catholic parishioner and many clergy from the Big Three (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) attended. My Zen teacher joined the group last year. The main speaker was a local Rabbi whom I’ve heard speak many times. I’ve also had personal conversations with him and he’s a very charismatic guy with a wonderful sense of humor. His speech started off great, talking about how important it is to include everyone, regardless of race, creed, religion, or sexual orientation. He mixed in some Jewish sayings with some Jewish humor. And then, bam! Out of nowhere he started deriding the current President, his cabinet members and the people who voted for him. I was dumbstruck. An event dedicated to building bridges and this is how he honors that theme?  

There are better ways to talk about inclusion. I don’t know why this is so hard for our American religious leaders to understand. And to our Zen leaders, once again, I ask you where the political ramblings of Dogen, Rinzai, Bodhidharma, and the Buddha are in the historical record? If the ancestors stayed out of politics, why do we as a sangha feel we need to be involved?  

 

American Bodhisattvas and Engaged Buddhism

Disclaimer — this is an unedited version of a post.  I am going ahead and putting it up because I will be gone for the next 3 days.  I wrote it last weekend but haven’t had a chance to get back to it and refine it.  So it may come off more harsh than I intend for it to, and of course it will be filled with spelling, formatting, and grammatical errors.  Please forgive all of those.

This post loosely ties into a recent post at No Zen In The West that I encourage everyone to read.

American Bodhisattvas and Engaged Buddhism

Before you save the world you must first save yourself.

Before you try to save the world, learn to make an omelet. 

I couldn’t find the author to attribute the above quotes to.  I’ll get back to them in a minute.

What is a bodhisattva?  Wikipedia tells me a “bodhisattva is the Sanskrit term for anyone who, motivated by great compassion, has generated bodhicitta to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.” And without getting stuck in a Wikipedia hyperlink vortex, bodhicitta ‘may be translated as “awakening mind” or “mind of enlightenment”’  In every traditional explanation that I could find of what a bodhisattva is, it is always some variant of someone who helps save others and get them to enlightenment. 

So why in Zen circles do I constantly see and hear people refer to a bodhisattva as anyone that does any generous act?  See a person give a dollar to a homeless man? “Ah, what a great bodhisattva!”.  See a person rescue a kitten from a tree? “Ah, how wonderful!  What a bodhisattva!”  Are these actions true actions of a bodhisattva?  Or are they just people being nice to their fellow sentient beings?  Is there a difference?

I think American Zen is getting sidetracked.  I commented on a popular Zen blog the other day that I don’t know how much good we are doing by feeding the homeless.  I stopped there but should have completed my thought.  I promise I am not that inhumane.  I just come from the school that you should teach a man to fish.  You can feed him while you’re teaching him, but by just feeding him you are not helping him in the long run.  He will always be dependent upon someone else.

So that brings me to “Engaged Buddhism”.  Engaged Buddhism has taken a life of its own since being brought over from the West.  What started there as Humanistic Buddhism, which was a way for our Asian brothers to bring Buddhism literally back to life from the death rituals it had devolved into, has been turned into social charity work.  That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing.  But it seems the focus of American Zen is switching from the permanent cessation of suffering of all sentient beings (the original job of the bodhisattva) to the temporary alleviating of suffering of perceived downtrodden and political activism on behalf of those perceived downtrodden.  I think American Zen is the further watering down of the Dharma.

I believe a bodhisattva’s job is to help people learn how to fish on their own, not just to give them their next fish.  Both are important.  But there are plenty of people and organizations that can help you get that next fish.  How many can help you learn how to fish and cook for yourself?  And Heaven forbid I bring a Theravada point up, but shouldn’t we save ourselves first THEN save the world?  We have to make several omelets ourselves before we can become a chef and make them for others.  Pardon all of my mixed metaphors and parables. 

Zen is about attaining enlightenment.  Over and over again.  Then helping others do the same.  Don’t lose sight of this.

So am I wrong?  Just misguided?  Is a bodhisattva just a really nice person?  Or is a bodhisattva a person whose focus should be primarily on helping others realize enlightenment?