Unskillful Action: Cultivating Ignorance

The cause of all pain and suffering is ignorance.
Gautama Buddha

I have been thinking of this lately. About how many of us suffer but we do not know why we suffer, we are ignorant to the real causes and conditions of our suffering.  I have also been thinking of a different kind of ignorance.   It’s funny the things that bring other things more in focus. It was the simple reflection on the sound of the word itself. Mouthing out the word slow, by its syllables, I realized a simple thing, the word Ignore is at the heart of ignorance.

The word ignorance in English is passive, “a lack of knowledge, information or experience.” This kind of ignorance refers more to how we don’t realize our reality is not reality, or that there is no abiding self.  We are ignorant to the inherent emptiness of all things. This kind of ignorance can be as simple as never having heard of the Four Ennobling truths, or a guy name Siddhartha.   But the ignorance I have been thinking of the more active form which takes its energy from the verb; to ignore. This is different from the other ignorance since this ignorance is not passive. One who ignores is one who, “refuse to take notice of or acknowledge; to disregard intentionally.” This active ignorance is different from cultivating a not knowing mindset,  which can be a powerful practice of freeing ourselves of fixed ideas. It is a kind of active, ego preserving ignorance that I have been thinking about.  I was thinking of this because of something I read recently in a book titled, Awakening from the Daydream by David Nichtern, a book about the Buddhist Wheel of life.

In the Buddhist Wheel of life there are the six realms of existence at the hub of the wheel is ignorance; both passive and active.  The more active ignorance is the core aspect, the core mindset found in the Animal realm.  As Chogyam Trungpa’s writes, “The animal realm is associated wit stupidity: that is preferring to play deaf and dumb, preferring to follow the rules of available games rather than re-define them. ” Here we are “ignore” information that would require us to change. We do that alot.  Trungpa goes on to say, [we] completely ignore such possibilities. If somebody attacks you or challenges your clumsiness, your unskilled way of handling a situation, you find a way of justifying yourself, find rational to keep your self-respect. You are not concerned with being truthful as long as your deception can be maintained in front of others.

This is an active ignorance.  But this type of cultivation doesn’t just happen in the animal realm of being but, according to Nichtern,  is also found in the other realms, especially when looked at through the lens of our everyday experience. How does ignorance play out even when we find ourselves in what could be considered one of the god realms? Let’s look at it from an everyday mindset perspective.
For us Westerners, it could be said we live in both of the god realms, we are dancing between them from moment to moment, generation to generation. Most of the things we want we can go to the story a select from 12 different kinds and get immediate satisfaction. We live at a level of wealth and prosperity that most of the world can only dream of. We consider all of this not a gift but a “right”, I have earned this. Traditionally, those in the god realm find themselves there because of good karma and from a small perspective we could think that they have “earned” the right to be there. We do that.  Many Americans see our country, or “way of life” as proof of our social virtue, as if we are somehow special and “exceptional” and deserve our prosperity. And that is not just socially constructed but has seeped into religious thinking, think of the popularity of the “gospel of prosperity” taught in some churches. Far from the homeless, communalist, and agitator that was Jesus.

Being in a god realm frame of mind, we like it, we want to stay in it, we want to freely enjoy it, we don’t want to think of consequences, or it ending, of how it affects others, etc. As Nichtern writes,

“we have to cultivate a certain kind of ignorance, actively ignoring any aspect of our experience that is unsettling or disruptive in mood. “

This is very true when we are faced with our impact on the planet as westerners. It is also true that the cost has been more felt by the poorer nations where we get the raw materials from. Those is the god realm mindset, “cultivate ignorance” by denying global warming, by buying cheap products and ignore the fact that they are produced by child labor or that the children making our jeans work in dangerous and toxic environments. This is also true in the Jealous god realm mindset, where we want what the ‘gods of finance” have and we don’t care if we have to get rich on the backs of others so we can live the high life, live in the realm of the gods above us. We cultivate an ignorance of the other and the suffering, anything that can get in our way of achievement. Maybe the election of 2016 was symptom of living in the jealous god realm too long. Some forms of Ignorance are not passive but active. We want we have and don’t want to lose it. That being said, how are you in your own life cultivating ignorance?  I think in a real way, the reason we are trapped in the endless wandering of samsara is because we are continually cultivating the opposite of  awareness. Each time we turn aways from the teachings that sing to us everyday, when we refuse to see ourselves reflected in the faces of others, when we refuse to open up, or accept things as they are, when we feed every self-justification and machination to get or keep that insubstantial thing that is desperately hoped will give final satisfaction and security, we cultivate ignorance and perpetuate our suffering.

As I look at my life, I realize how much I have cultivated ignorance. I have ignored things that looked me straight in face, and were so close I could feel their breath on my skin…a failing marriage, smoking, a drinking problem, childhood wounding, the fact that what I was doing was re-wounding myself and others. This was true when I spent days or years in the mindset of the Animal realm, I chose not to see but to seek after the distraction of sex or alcohol. Sometimes I think my television watching and Facebook scrolling is how I still cultivate ignorance. Doing so has only given me a first class ticket to spend sometime in the arid environs of the Hungry Ghost realm, or subway ticket to the cold and hot Hell realms of the world’s injustice perpetrated against me. Even with all the Buddhas that were always there waiting for me,  I chose darkness over light, I cultivated ignorance, gloried in it.  But the compassionate light of the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas found me. It was the clanking of the six ringed staff (representing the six realms) of Jizo that finally woke me up. …. and still, at times I find myself cultivating ignorance. I don’t want to do this anymore.  As Dogen taught, I am going to seek to know myself to forget myself to be awakened by a myriad of things.

Now my aspiration, my vow is to be like Haya Akegarasu, to dispel ignorance by heeding what he wrote in Shout of Buddha,

“Don’t pass by things you don’t understand as though you didn’t see them at all…. want to see everything.. want to see through the bottom of things,…want to touch everything, to taste everything, to transcend, to enlighten, to embrace everything.”

Yes! I want to embrace everything. Let us free ourselves of ignorance by opening our eyes, our minds and our hearts to everything, having the courage to look into the heart of life, to look into the darkness, to look into the light and not turn away from any of it, to no longer cultivate ignorance and by not doing so wake up.

Deep Listening as Buddhist Practice

A Dharma Glimpse  

I have been thinking a lot about listening lately.  Actually I think about it a lot.  For many years I thought I was a good listener and over time I have realized how untrue that was. But that seems true for most of us;  we have a high opinion of our own listening skill and have  tendency to think we are better listeners than we are.  I know the Buddhadharma has helped me become a better listener.

I first came across the idea of listening as practice  in Taitetsu Unno’s,  River of Water, River of Fire. I had never heard of the idea of “deep hearing”  or Monpo (to listen to the Buddha dharma) before.  What he was talking about was more metaphysical than what I took away from it.  I can appreciate what he was sharing and compare it to the soundless bell that Rev. Gyomay wrote about in the Center Within.  At the same time I also look at it not only in a metaphysical sense, but as a more mundane daily practice of hearing the call of the Buddha in each person I deeply listen to.

 

Our sangha in Salt Lake is looking to become part of a group called Urban Confessionals. This groups whole purpose is to offer free listening to anyone. It is simple, make a sign that says “free listen” and wait for someone to listen to, just listen to.  We haven’t made our first venture out yet but I am looking forward to it. The reason we are doing it in the first place is that we see this as a great opportunity for practice.  To listen to another,  to listen deeply to an “other” can be a great act of compassion. I love this quote from a guy named David Oxberger, “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference “  For me the call of the Buddha to be compassionate would also be a call to listen. Listening is a way for us to open ourselves to other people,  and to ourselves.  We are following the challenge of  Thich Nhat Hahn who has written,

 “We surely have not cultivated the arts of listening and speaking. We do not know how to listen to each other. We have little ability to hold an intelligent or meaningful conversation. The universal door of communication has to be opened again.

This is so much more than hearing someone, it is listening deeply to them and their suffering. and not turning away.  Rev Gyomay in Tan Butsu Ge wrote,   “listening is a very important understanding in Buddhism.  To hear connotes the “I”  hears, it is the ego subjective way of hearing. To listen is to be aware, to attend and has no tinge of ego in it.”   Deep listening is beyond ego, beyond judgement, it is only concerned with the suffering that is there.  That is why, on our altar we have Kwan Yin. The one who hears the cries of the world and does not turn away.  The practice of deep listening is exemplified by this Bodhisattva and we follow her example and have faith that as Thay writes, “While listening, you know that only with deep listening can you relieve the suffering of the other person.”  He goes on to say and we follow the aspiration

 “Aware of the suffering caused by …the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.” This is exactly the universal door practiced by Avalokitesvara.”

Rev Castro of the Seattle Buddhist Church, after hearing a talk given by Reverend Koyo,  taught that “ Our religion should sensitize us to deeply hearing, acknowledge and gassho – whether to life’s pleasures or life’s pains.”  How better to do this than deeply listening to a stranger or to our spouse or our child?  This deep listening of another person is another way of Deep hearing (listening) of the Dharma” it is a way of  embodying the Buddha Dharma in practice.

 

May it be so.

Out of Work Bodhisattvas

Lately I have been thinking of all the out of work Bodhisattvas wandering around smiling with signs saying, “ Will Gladly Share Merit” as people shuffle by with their heads down, some saying, “No thanks, I don’t need any.”  Others just pointing at the goody two shoes, laughing at them, “them bleeding heart liberals” they say, “You gotta earn your own merit boy”, while they walk around dissatisfied, and hollow, singing,  “ I built this! I built this!” scratching their heads because they still feel so unsatisfied.

I think I have always been attracted to the idea of a Bodhisattva. I appreciate the traditional concept of the vow taking and the rebirth back to everyday life, the suprahuman powers to take on a myriad of forms to guide us, help us, teach us and sometimes even pull us begrudgingly toward awakening and always willing to  share with us the merit of their compassion. I also appreciate the more expansive everyday conception of the Bodhisattva as expressed by Taitesu Unno when he writes that the Bodhisattva can be, “anyone who meets the challenge and provides care for the needy…whether that person knows anything about Buddhism or not.”

In the more traditional Mahayana Buddhist view point there is the idea that our positive deeds, acts or thoughts generate a sort of spiritual energy or power that can be accumulated.  This concept is fundamental to the idea of Karma and Buddhist ethics. This view extends to the idea that the merit that is generated by our skillful actions can be shared with other beings. In the early Theravada, it was with  deceased relatives. In the Mahayana that was expanded to all beings.  The Bodhisattva “shares” his merit with all sentient beings to help them toward enlightenment. Taking to its logical conclusion  we see the life and career of Dharmakara Bodhisattva who becomes Amida Buddha.  In the more expansive and less religious definitions, also seen in the writings of Gyomay Kubose and Thich Nhat Hahn, the more mundane merit generated by these Bodhisattvas can come in very concrete and everyday ways.  Something simple as a hand up, a listen and a place to be safe.  Both kinds of Bodhisattvas can be recognized by their practice of  Ksanti, their practice of patience, patience with us and our struggle to receive their help. Patient and out of work until we accept their gifts.  The awakened Bodhisattva knows as Sunada Takagi  has written that life is, “as much about graciously receiving as it is about giving”. 

 The practice of receiving, let alone even asking for help is challenging for many of us. The first time  I really, open heartedly  asked and accepted help wasn’t until I was in my late 40’!  All those Bodhisattvas in my life offering their merit and their compassion and me walking past them, sometimes with my head down, other times mocking them.  In my delusional thinking I believed that to need help was to be weak and to be weak was to be unlovable.

I think at this point it is important to realize that receiving is different than taking. We take food, love, money all the time.  The difference between the two is that when we take, our small-Self is saying, “ I earned this!”  When we get love from our wife or our children, when we get kudos at work, when we eat a lovely meal, we aren’t receiving the love, acknowledgement or food; we see ourselves as earning it. We take it because it is ours.   A similar strain of this construct is when we see ourselves as unworthy to receive anything. This can manifest as self-doubt and shame. In both strains we are stuck in seeing giving and receiving as economic exchanges but how could it be any other way?  I was never taught how to receive. How about you?  Most of us have been taught that it is better to give than to receive but how can that be since to give you need to have someone to receive? Proportionally it doesn’t add up.

Truly receiving is something different from taking. There is an inherent humility. There is an openness of heart, an acknowledgement of our interdependence and an awareness of our dependence on a myriad of things. Receiving is a place of openness and courage in that it implies a vulnerability; we may ask for something in that open space and not get it.   Yet in realizing our lack of control, our inability to fix love, joy and peace in place by somehow earning them, those very things arise naturally. Everything I receive is a gift, a gift to me and a gift to the give. An ever expanding circle of giving, where in the end there is no giver, no receiver and no gift.  A gift is not something earned and the “merit” offered by all the Bodhisattvas is a gift of love of boundless compassion as they watch on in our attempt to control the world. When we insist on ‘earning our keep” and we do not receive the gift , we miss out on the  boundlessness of grace that is offered us by everything and by all of our patient Bodhisattvas waiting for us.  I try to remember that even in the Dharma, what we receive from the teachings is so much greater, exponentially greater, than anything we put into the teachings.

In a previous paper I wrote about the Way of the Nembutsu is the path of gratitude. Before the path can open up there is the receiving; receiving the teachings and the compassion of the Buddhas and for us Pure Land leaning practitioners, receiving and entrusting in the compassion offered by Amida Buddha manifest in the formless form of his Pure Land.  For me the Way of the Nembutsu is the path of receiving the grace of Amida and all the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, of setting aside calculations, schemes and dualistic and conceptual thinking, of sitting and chanting in an awareness of the abundance of the Buddhas and the Dharma and the Sangha.  I challenge myself and you to make room in ourselves to receive, to receive the abundance the Buddhas have to offer us.

When we turn toward our Bodhisattva ready to receive, she turns around her sign and on the other side our no longer out of work Bodhisattva has written this line,

“The buddhas say come, come, and dance.”*

And we dance.

MIBS

*  a line from Sakyong Mipham’s poem titled Come, Come and Dance.

Offerings to the Buddhas

In his commentary of the Tan Butsu Ge or the Song of the Buddha; a section from the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, Gyomay Sensei writes,

“ Ku Yo, of offering is a very important virtue in the Buddha’s Way…Ku Yo is done in relation to someone who is more worthy than oneself…to do Ku Yo is one way of expressing profound gratitude and nourishment for the very source of our gratitude…it is an honor to do Ku Yo.”

The concept of Ku Yo really resonates with me.  To make offerings to all the Buddhas is something that brought me back to Buddhism, after being away for a while.  I have no idea of why this is what brought me back. If I look at my history one would think that this is what would drive me away instead of draw me nearer. Recently I was re-reading the Shorter Pure Land Sutra about how one of the practices in the Pure Land being was to make offerings to countless Buddhas of other Buddha lands. In Sukhavati, it rains Mandarava blossoms  all the time and those flowers are gathered up and then offered to countless Buddhas across the universe. Along with other meditative or bodhisattva practices there is also the practice of Ku Yo.  I love that fact that the offering to the Buddhas is not something that is rare but something that is constantly unfolding. I like to think of the flowers as a representation of the compassion and practice of those living in the Pure Land; the flowers raining from the sky represent the fruit of practice and awakening. As Mark Healsmith has written,  “The flower is a wonderful exemplar of the uniqueness yet interconnectedness of all life “ and makes the offering of them an expression of the interconnectedness of all life and  “profound gratitude, for the very source of our gratitude.”

 

The other reason why Ku Yo resonates with me, is it is something that I have been contemplating. I have been thinking about Ku Yo in the frame of the  “Way of Gratitude” and some of the barriers that impede our cultivation of it.  I have been thinking about the role of humility and gratitude and how humility is one of its prerequisites. I think at times we struggle with gratitude because we struggle with humility. As I have been thinking about this and asking others, I found that for many of us we struggle with humility because we have not really experienced it,  only its unhealthy sibling; Shame.  In humility we are open, we are ready to learn, we show both sides of the leaf.  With shame we close our self off from the outside world and bury our leaf in the darkest hole.   In this state of mind when we see someone with boundless compassion or great practice we do not see it as something we can learn from but they become a source of  further comparison and  a deepening shame of our failures.  That which could give us hope and insight to our Buddha Nature only becomes a testament of our failures. Gratitude gets choked off in the darkness.  Humility on the other hand opens us up to awe and the acceptance of our limitation, it frees us to “keep going” without the burden of judgment and shame.

 

As Goymay writes, Ku Yo practice is  being done in relation to someone or something that is more worthy than oneself.  More worthy than me? A part of us does not like such a statement.  Here is where many of us live in a paradox. In our shame we feel unworthy and yet we bristle at the idea of someone being more worthy than us?  Why is this idea so challenging for some of us? Maybe it is because we  have inherited the karma of “rugged individualism” and a misplaced meaning of “equality”?  In opening services at our Sangha, we recite lines from the opening they use at Plum Village Sangha in France. One of the lines says, “may we be free from the “equality complex””,  to remind ourselves that there are things greater than ourselves, like the three refuges for example; the Dharma, The Sangha and the Buddha. I am grateful that there are things in this world greater than me!  I feel a sympathetic joy and gratitude to those I make  offerings to.  I think that Ku Yo is the fruit of “sincerely seeking the true life” (46) There is no Ku Yo without “true life” and no true life without “Ku Yo”, they “co-arise”.  Offerings to the Buddha inspire us to become Buddhas, they come from the heart, there is no ego in it.” (46) all the time realizing that what bows and is bowed to are the same.

 

I have great appreciation for the more psychological and secular forms of Buddhism and they have been companions with me on my journey. At the same time I appreciate the idea of something greater than my small ego-self, a point of reference that elicits awe, a devotional expression within samsaric dualism, that works dynamically through poetry, metaphor and experience to dissolve all dualisms into the great ocean of compassion.

 

 

My Blind Self: a poem

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vii.

 

My blind self
pierced by Amida’s light
illuminated and dissolved
into the great ocean of compassion

into the Oneness of life –
Palms together, embraced

just as I am.
Each step with the Buddha,
my truest self, my Amida self –

the deep flow of the oneness of realty –
all beings one with me,
palms together

and bowing,
 

“namu amida butsu,”
“namu amida butsu,”

embraced just as I am.

Not knowing is the most intimate.

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From a young age many of us are afraid to be someone who doesn’t know. Maybe we are afraid to be seen as dumb and therefore unacceptable, so we wing it and hope the other person doesn’t see that we actually don’t have a clue. This is not just anecdotal, studies have shown that when children are giving unanswerable questions, they makeup answers, to seem like they know rather than to be found not knowing. This habit sticks with as we grow up, for some of us they become the three hardest words to say. We all know that feeling; usually half way through, when we realize we really have no clue what we are saying and how much easier it would have to simply say, “ I don’t know”. Instead we find ourselves five years old again, dancing around with our made up answers, again hoping no one will notice.

To act as a “knower” is fraught with challenges and pitfalls. Deciding that we know this is the way it is.”….. has a tendency to close us off to a myriad of other possibilities. We become fixed in our ideas and perceptions, our world gets smaller and smaller. Another problem with knowing and being afraid of not knowing, is we can never really be confident that what we know is reality. To paraphrase Mark Twain. “…they think they know something that just ain’t so.”

To be clear, the knowing I am referring to is not confusion or paralyzing doubt and it is not knowing in opposition to not knowing as in not knowing the capital of Nebraska, or even a set of propositions such as the four noble truths. When I say “I don’t know” I am talking the spirit of openness and curiosity a “I don’t know! Let’s find out!” or “Let’s keep going and see what happens,” it is the not knowing of faith. Suzuki Roshi wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “With beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert mind there are few.” Beginner’s mind is the essence of not knowing”. For those trapped in “knowing” the vista is limited, the questions are answered, all is settled, the world is fixed, but in the end, the light at the end of the tunnel is not more knowledge but the Dukkha Express and it is coming fast.

So how can we cultivate the non-dual spirit of “I don’t know”? The first thing is to simply being willing to not know, to let go of the knowing. I have found the world is lighter when I am free of having to know, I am more patient, less stressed, open. Here are two concrete things we can do to cultivate the not knowing.

First there is a good practice suggested by Buddhist teacher, Gil Fronsdal, is to attach “I don’t know” to as many thoughts as possible. For example, when thoughts arise like, this is good or this is bad or I can’t handle this; these become, I don’t know if this is good or I don’t know if this is bad or I don’t know if I can’t handle this. As he says, “the phrase “I don’t know” questions the authority of everything we think.” It allows us to be free of fixed ideas, it can create curiosity and allows an openness to creativity.” He goes on to say that this simple phrase can help us challenge tightly held beliefs and can “pull the rug out from under our most cherished beliefs.” Not knowing opens the world to us, it makes a way for us to be compassionate, patient, kind, honest and help cultivate equanimity.

The last thing that we can do to cultivate the essence of “I don’t know” is bowing. James Ishmael Ford has written about not knowing and how it relates to the act of bowing.

“Don’t know. Not knowing. That is the ancient spiritual practice of bowing in a nutshell…The bow, I suggest, can open our hearts, can take us places we never dreamed of, to a palpable, transformative, endless world of possibility called not knowing. This is what I really want to underscore: this not knowing has endless creative possibilities, to throw in another metaphor, one or two simply aren’t enough for this place, this moment when we surrender to not knowing, when we bow to life: we discover a well that apparently is bottomless, bubbling with life-giving waters.”

I raise my hands in gassho and bow to each of you.

I would like to close with the words of Zen teacher of the 9th century, Dizang, “not knowing is most intimate.”

Namu Amida Butsu.

We are all Refugees.

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Lately the world seems on fire, with mass shootings, mass migrations and terrorist attacks.  People are more polarized of late, cultural shifts, deep old wounds are festering and all of these are changing the landscape, the earth seems to be moving under their feet and many are taking refuge in nationalism, bigotry and fear.  The rawness and depth of this really hit home with me, especially when the little refugee boy washed up on the beaches of Turkey.  I have a boy about this age…the image haunted me for days.  What would make a father put his child at risk like that.  A picture of the city his family left was published with the caption, “this is why you put your children on a boat.”  The city the boy was from was destroyed; a city of skeletons, torn and broken homes, some burning, desolate and abandoned streets, the same streets that had heard laughter and music, the buzz and honk of rush hour, bird song and the heart beats of lover, now was a city of the dead, with only the sound of distant mortars, more a mausoleum of lost hopes, and dreams.  Looking at the picture I was reminded of the words of the Buddha, “The world is burning.”   And it is not just from war torn areas, there are refugees everywhere, there are spiritual refugees, spiritually homeless who have homes, spiritually friendless who have friends, those who know where they are at is not “right” that something is missing. It seems we are all looking for refuge, looking for a spiritual home.

Thinking of the small child dead on the beach, I wondered if that was my child, where could I find refuge from the pain, disappointment and impermanence of it all.  Refuge is a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble, it’s a coming home. But we don’t have to experience the horror that the family from Syrian experienced to ask for or seek refuge.  I have come to realize that as spiritual refugees many of us have wandered through self-help books, careers, relationships, materialism and addictions to find some home, some sort of refuge but only to be disappointed. The Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa explains that anyone who ‘goes for refuge’ must therefore be a ‘refugee’, so that as Buddhists we are ‘refugees from conditioned existence.”

As I have keep going on our journey I have found it, and it has always been waiting for me in the Buddha, the Dharma and the sangha, it was like coming home. I think this makes sense since we go to refuge saraa-gamana which in Pali could be translated as “coming home” we come home to the Buddha, the Dharma and the sangha.

It is my hope that faced with such suffering as the refugees from Syria, I could still find my refuge by taking refuge in the Buddha, in the fact of his Awakening: and the three jewels, placing trust that he actually awakened to the truth, that he did so by cultivating qualities that we too can cultivate. That through my understanding of impermanence and the compassion of the Buddha, that awakening can be my ultimate refuge.”

May it be so.

Myoshin Ross-Leibow