James Martini archive

Category : Buddhism (19)

Three Jewels and Taking Refuge

Categories: Buddhism
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Published on: December 1, 2011

I should probably start this series of blog entries with the disclaimer that I am not a scholar, expert or in any way to be looked to as an authority on anything. This is first and foremost an exercise in regular writing and a means by which I can identify gaps in my own knowledge for future study.

The first on the Buddhist list of lists is the three Jewels, the three things that lie at the heart of Buddhism: the Buddha, the Dhamma* and the Sangha. Different traditions and sects have a variety of ceremonies regarding officially becoming a Buddhist but when you strip everything extraneous away it comes down to little more than a simple statement of commitment to awakening usually in the form of “taking refuge”.

Taking refuge is best described as looking for shelter from the pain and vicissitudes of life. People do it all the time and in a variety of ways, in the US it’s mostly by seeking distraction. Taking refuge for a Buddhist, however, is a statement both of faith and intent. Faith that through study and effort we can perceive our true nature, the nature of the world around us and, in doing so, free ourselves from pain, fear, worry and doubt as well as the intent to pursue that end.

Taking refuge in the Three Jewels generally goes something like this:

I go to the Buddha for refuge.
I go to the Dhamma for refuge.
I go to the Sangha for refuge.

We take refuge with the Buddha as our teacher who points the way. We take refuge in the teachings of the Buddha as a guide, in it’s study, and practice. Finally we take refuge in the community of monks and fellow Buddhists.

As the first Jewel, the Buddha is pretty self explanatory. The Buddha was the awakened teacher who realized the nature of suffering**, its source and how to be free of it.

The second Jewel is the Dhamma i.e. the teachings of the Buddha recorded in the various sutras and commentaries. Essentially this is the roadmap.

The third Jewel is the community of Buddhists. Technically this probably meant the the community of monks but those are few and far between. I’ll settle for simply meeting up with a small group of local Buddhists for discussion and meditation.

Driven by fear they go to many a refuge, to mountains and forests, to parks and tree shrines.

That is not the secure refuge, not the supreme refuge, that is not the refuge, having gone to which, you gain release from all suffering & stress.

But when, having gone to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha for refuge, you see with right discernment the four noble truths:

suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the noble eightfold path that leads to the end of suffering.

That is the secure refuge, that is the supreme refuge, that is the refuge,
having gone to which, you gain release from all suffering & stress.

Dhammapada 188-192


* I tend to use dhamma and dharma interchangeably, the first is Pali, the second Sanskrit. Tomato / Tomahto
**I’ll go on about why I hate using the word suffering in another post

Buddhism: It’s really just a list of lists

Categories: Buddhism, Journal
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Published on: November 30, 2011
Buddhism is big on lists and when I say big on lists I mean really big on lists.

  • 3 Jewels
  • 4 Noble Truths
  • 8-fold path
  • 5 Aggregates
  • 4 Immesurables
  • 10 Perfections
  • 37 Qualities in 7 sets
    • 4 frames of reference
    • 4 right exertions
    • 4 bases of power
    • 5 faculties
    • 5 strengths
    • 7 factors of enlightenment
    • 8-fold path (again)
  • 3 Marks of existance
  • 5 Precepts
  • 8 Precepts (5 + 3 more)
  • 10 Precepts (because 8 wasn’t enough)
  • 10 Defilements
  • 5 Hindrances
  • 4 Stages of enlightenment

That’s not even remotely all of them, just the ones I can come up with off the top of my head and a little confirmation from wikipedia when I think I’m repeating things. It’s pretty overwhelming when you look at it if it weren’t for the last item on the list.

  • Innumerable Buddhas

Bad Buddhist

Categories: Buddhism, Life
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Published on: November 22, 2011

I occasionally frequently have days when I wonder if self identifying as a Buddhist isn’t a combination of irony and an attempt to pull the wool over other people’s eyes. I’ve been reading a lot more books on Buddhism and Buddhist themed blogs recently and I’m constantly struck by the gulf between my experience and the experience of other middle class white Americans who similarly self identify as Buddhists.

I don’t care about enlightenment. This isn’t false modesty, I don’t doubt that there some state of being in which one perceives and groks the nature of existence but such a state seems so distant from my daily mental locus that it’s like looking at the moon; beautiful but infinitely out of reach. I struggle just to not be a dick to people in my immediate vicinity

I think dharma names are silly. Maybe it’s because I did the whole goth thing back in the 90s and hung out with people who referred to themselves with fanciful names dripping with angst and import (you know who you are). I think it’s great that Rob Wierzbaski from Scranton has taken up meditation and instruction from a saffron robed teacher from the roof of the world. I admire his dedication and the discipline of the vows he has undertaken. When, however, he is referred to or refers to himself as Tendo Dorje I either have to stifle either a smirk or a sneer.

I’m suspicious of dharma transmission. I have a very different and more mundane take on the Flower Sermon. The Buddha silently holds up a flower, everyone is wrapped up in what he means by this, one person, looking at the flower, smiles. I’m sure that somewhere an enlightened tulku just had a shooting pain in his left arm as a result of how wrong I am but it honestly makes more sense to me than mental telepathy.

I masturbate about as frequently as I meditate. Okay, a lot more frequently. I sometimes wonder if there’s really that much of a difference but, in general, I’m far more relaxed after one than I am the other.

I have an Indonesian style Buddha head statue on my desk that was given to me as a wonderful gift by my loving wife. I don’t bow to him. I don’t pay homage to him. Truth be told, I don’t even dust him all that often. I do, however, wonder what music he listens to when I use him as a rack for my headphones.

I guess when it comes down to it there is a lot about Buddhism that speaks to me. The Four Noble Truths make sense although I’ll admit the third is a leap of faith. A lot of the things you’re supposed to strive for as a Buddhist strike me as things we could use more of in the world. Kindness, introspection, inner and outer peace, all pretty good things.

I saw Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back as a kid and wanted to be wise like Yoda. I had a philosophy professor in college who one said I had sainthood within my grasp which is a hell of an ego boost for a twenty-something year old but, in retrospect, is more like a gypsy curse that has taken the form of the 800 pound gorilla of unrealized potential.

Anyway, time to wash the dishes and vacuum the house.

Okay so the Buddha, the Pope and a Rabbi walk into a bar…

Categories: Buddhism
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Published on: November 20, 2011

This morning it was my turn to “lead” the discussion at the UU Buddhist Meditation group (four or five guys that meet weekly, gab, and sit). I spent some time over the last week trying to figure out what I was going to talk about, wrote down a bunch of notes regarding the nature of impermanence etc and finally opted for a version of a joke about the Pope debating a Rabbi. More fun than a discussion of the First Noble Truth and much more in keeping with my attitude towards Buddhism i.e. lets not get too serious and forget that we’re supposed to be working towards being happy.

I’m happy to say I didn’t have to read it but told the story without consulting my notes although it wasn’t exactly word for word. I did, however, add some dramatic flair and the discussion afterwards was no less interesting than any other time.

The Gentle Art of Zen Mondo

The Joshu region of Japan is known for the dry winds that bluster down from the mountains and for the konnyaku plants that grow in the fields. The plants’ potato-like tubers are sliced and dried, then boiled and shaped into deliciously chewy patties, which are also called, simply, konnyaku.

In southern Joshu, on the outskirts of the town of Annaka, there lived a konnyaku maker named Roku. Born and raised in Edo, he might have spent his whole life there, but a tendency to drink heavily, gamble unluckily, and frequent houses of ill repute made that untenable. Having exhausted a lifetime’s worth of credit in just 20-some years, he left the big city behind, worked hard to learn his present trade, and was eventually able to set up his own shop. He had a certain charisma and soon came to be seen as the unofficial head of his neighborhood. Occasionally, young men who had been living too fast in Edo would show up on Roku’s doorstep and he never failed to help them.

Hachigoro showed up in somewhat worse shape than most. Not only had he parted with his last yen, but due to a bout of venereal disease, he had lost all of the hair on his head as well. Roku, though, saw this loss as a possible advantage and said, “I think I may have a job tailor-made for you.”

The nearby temple had been without a resident monk, without a bikkhu, that is, for some time. Gonsuke, the temple boy kept the place tidy, but he was too young to take over as head bikkhu. Hachigoro didn’t know a sutra from a koan, but he was old enough. “And besides,” added Roku, “you’ve got the look. Your head is pre-shaved! Come on, you can wing the rest.”

Thus Hachigoro was appointed head bikkhu. The original plan was to have Gonsuke give him a crash course in the basics of Buddhist ritual and, in fact, they did manage to pull off a funeral together. However, they also spent quite a bit of time over dice, with Hachigoro teaching Gonsuke the basics of gambling ritual. As a result, novice Head bikkhu Hachigoro was grossly unprepared when, one bright morning, a traveling bikkhu appeared at the gate and issued a mondo dialogue challenge.

Gonsuke met this real, bona fide bikkhu out at the gate and returned to the temple pale and short of breath. “Now we’re in trouble,” he told Hachigoro. “You can’t turn him away. In Zen Buddhism, and this is a Zen temple, you know, if a bikkhu is challenged to a mondo dialogue, he must accept. And if defeated, he must hand his temple over to the challenger.” Hachigoro rubbed his bald head and whined, “You mean he’s trying to drive me out of my own temple? That’s not fair. I don’t do mondo!”

The two decided to do the only sensible thing. Hachigoro hid in the closet and Gonsuke told the traveling bikkhu that his master was out of town. The bikkhu replied that he would return tomorrow, and the next day if necessary. In fact, he would come every day for the next year.

When the coast was clear, Hachigoro emerged from the closet, sneezed, and declared that they had better take the statue of Buddha and the other paraphernalia, skip town, and sell everything to an antique dealer. He and Gonsuke were busy packing when Roku came by to see how ritual practice was going. “Zen dialogue?!” he guffawed, “What are you worried about? That mondo mumbo jumbo, how hard can it be?”

“Harder than konnyaku, I’m afraid,” sighed Gonsuke.

“No sweat. I bet the guy’s bluffing. I’ll tell you what: tomorrow I’ll dress up as head bikkhu and we’ll see if he’s for real.”

The statue of Buddha was returned to its pedestal. Next morning when the traveling bikkhu arrived as promised, Roku was waiting for him in the main hall, seated in full regalia with his head freshly shaved.

After a deep bow, the challenger posed his first question: “When wind blows through a pine tree, a unique sound is made. Respectfully I ask, is it the voice of the wind, or the voice of the pine?”

Roku hadn’t a clue, so he said nothing and simply glared. At first, the traveling bikkhu was puzzled, but then it dawned on him that this was surely the advanced, deeply esoteric “silent mondo” technique. He nodded, closed his eyes for a moment, then glaring back, he placed both hands in front of his chest and made a circle with his thumbs and forefingers.

Roku shook his head and held up both arms in a big circle. Next the traveling bikkhu thrust out both hands with his 10 fingers spread. Roku responded by thrusting out his right hand only, fingers spread. The challenger bowed in acceptance, and held out his right hand with just three fingers raised. Roku threw his head back and, with his right hand, pointed to his right eye. With that, the challenger sighed, stood up, and walked out.

Gonsuke had been watching the entire mondo from a crack between the sliding doors. Still, he didn’t know what to make of the exchange, so he ran after the departing bikkhu and asked how it had gone.

“Well, I made a circle in front of my chest, asking your master, of course, about the state of the human soul. He responded with a large circle, meaning “as spacious as the spheres.” Then I inquired about the Ten Directions of the world. He indicated that the Five Great Laws would preserve them. When I asked about the Three Great Teachings, he pointed out that they are always here right before our eyes. That’s when I realized he was far too enlightened an opponent for me. I’ll return years from now, once I’ve attained a deeper understanding.”

Gonsuke was truly impressed. Who would have imagined that Roku, the konnyaku maker, was a Zen expert!?

But back inside the temple, he found Roku fuming: “That bastard must have passed by my shop and seen me working or something. He starts his mondo thing, but then stops, gives me a good looking over and a knowing little nod. I could tell he recognized me, dammit, because he made the shape of a konnyaku with his fingers. He was saying, ‘Your konnyaku’s about this small,’ so I made a jumbo konnyaku with both arms to show him how wrong he was. Then he asks, ‘How much for 10?’ So I show him, you know, 5 yen. Now get this! That bikkhu asked for a stinking discount — ‘Give ’em to me for 3 yen.’ Well, that’s when I told him to stick it in his eye!”

 

 

Achievement Unlocked: The Third Gem’s The Charm

Categories: Buddhism, Life
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Published on: November 13, 2011

My friend Jim has restarted the Buddhist meditation group at the local Unitarian Universalist church. I’d gone previously a few times when it was being run by James Ownbey (so many Jameses) but didn’t really stick with it. At the moment it’s being held at 10am in the office of the minister rather than in the main hall. The down side is that the office faces onto the foyer and the church is quite active before 11am services so concentration is proving to be challenging.

It’s pretty nondenominational in terms of the school of Buddhism. While the previous James seemed more involved with the local Tibetans, Jim is decidedly zen in his leanings. It’s probably best described as Reformed Western Buddhism.

The central UU webside still lists James Owenby as the primary contact and links to a URL that no longer exists. I’ll have to talk to Jim about getting that fixed at some point.

Persistence of memory

Categories: Buddhism, Family
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Published on: October 6, 2011

Emily was interested in amnesia today when I picked her up from school. She got around to it by asking about automobile accidents and brain damage but eventually settled on amnesia; what it is, how you get it, what you forget and for how long. I can’t say I’m an expert on brain damage but we spent the drive to her choir practice discussing memory and it’s loss.  One thing that she asked that particularly stood out was her question of whether you changed who you are if you lost your memory. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went (it’s like rain on your wedding day) but here’s the gist of it.

We’re always changing. Who I am now, this moment, is slightly different from who I was a moment ago but is quite different from who I was ten, twenty or thirty years ago. We don’t notice the changes because they’re small but they do add up over time.

The other side of that coin, however, is that my memory of who I was yesterday, last week, last month and last year acts as a guide for who I will be tomorrow. I remember being a daddy and an engineer and a Buddhist yesterday so there is a very good chance that tomorrow I will continue to be a daddy and an engineer and a Buddhist. Remembering who I was yesterday, I’m going to get up in the morning and go into where I worked yesterday, life is very much the same. The chance that I’ll get up and go get a job making coffee at Starbucks is pretty slim.

But what if I’d lost my memory and didn’t remember who I was or where I worked? The chance that I would go out and get a job working as a java monkey is going to be a lot higher. I like the way coffee smells and, not knowing I have the skills of an engineer, it might seem like a good thing to do. Without the memory of who I was yesterday there is suddenly a much larger chance that my life is going to take off in a wildly different direction.

But that’s just my job, where I live, what I think my name is. Is that really me? Will I still be grumpy in the morning if I don’t remember being grumpy? I could see her trying to work out what part of who I am was left when my memories of who I was were gone.

The drive ended at that point but I think we’d agreed that I’d still be grumpy in the morning.

Shaving the Buddha

Categories: Buddhism
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Published on: September 17, 2011

I like shaving. A lot.

This might be surprising to friends and family because I frequently sport a day or two’s growth. You’d expect that as my favorite grooming activity I’d do it as frequently as possible but there’s a cap on how often you can reasonably pick up a razor without going after other parts of your anatomy.

Quite a lot of meditation is wrapped up in focus and, at least in some traditions, mindfullness. There are entire traditions based almost entirely in simply paying attention to what is going on, what you’re doing, what you’re thinking and being focused on what is as opposed to what was or might be.

I don’t think there is any other activity that so absolutely focuses the mind as drawing a piece of incredibly sharp metal across your throat. When sitting my mind wanders and drifts. When shaving there is only the blade. Lack of attention or attempting to hurry is rewarded with immediate correction. When I think about it, I’ve picked up a razor and put it to my throat far more times than I’ve sat on a cushion and attempted to train my wandering mind which is probably why, in those few moments, I have what I struggle for the rest of the day: presence and patience.

For one minute, a few times a week, everything falls away and I’m absolutely connected to what is happening. I’m not worried, I’m not afraid, all the mental static goes silent. A tool designed to divide what is one instead unites what is divided.

Is Buddhism Really That Depressing?

Categories: Buddhism
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Published on: September 9, 2011

I’ve been reading What Makes Me Not a Buddhist and although it’s a short book I find that it’s going very slowly. Not because the content is particularly challenging, the first couple chapters are essentially a rehash of the story of Siddhartha Gautama, but because on the surface it appears to paint a very drab and pessimistic picture of life, the universe and everything. This has to be confusing for the outsider because the general public image of Buddhism here in the west is that of smiling monks in maroon and saffron robes.

I think that things generally go awry when discussing two basic principles of Buddhism: suffering and emptiness.

Nihilists
These men are not Buddhists

I want to /facepalm every time I hear the phrase “life is suffering” uttered or written in reference to Buddhism because it is so pernicious a misstatement and so counter to our everyday experience of life. It’s no wonder that people unfamiliar with Buddhism reject it as some strange nihilistic philosophy. How can anyone accept a philosophy with the statement “life is suffering” as one of its basic principles when life so obviously can be pleasant, joyful, beautiful and even ecstatic?

Part of the problem is that the original word, tanha, doesn’t mean specifically physical suffering although that is part of it’s meaning. It also means unsatisfactory, unfulfilling, and incomplete so when we say that all emotions and pleasures are suffering it makes absolutely no sense to the casual listener and we sound like a bunch of pretentious emo douchebags.

Life is unsatisfactory and incomplete. We and yearn and ache and shop looking to find that sustaining joy or pleasure and always come up short. We know deep down that the new clothes will fade and go out of style, we know that the new car will break down and, in our honest moments, we know that we will age, sicken and die. We pursue pleasure and flee from discomfort. Our now isn’t perfect so we feel nostalgia for the past and look to the future, to the horizon, never mindful of where we are and what we are doing. Certainly everything has within it the seed of dissatisfaction but honestly, all life is suffering?

Emptiness is another phrase westerners run across with respect to Buddhism that seems to get thrown around and misunderstood. I’m not going to get into it right now but say what you like about the tenets of Buddhism, at least it’s an ethos.

It’s Like Deja Vu All Over Again

Categories: Buddhism, Family
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Published on: August 20, 2011

I’ve been an asshole today. It started out okay, I went out this morning and picked up donuts for my daughter and also surprised my sister-in-law and niece with some as well. There was some confusion regarding what Jyllian wanted and what I thought they were called so I picked her up a big cinnamon roll. Pickings were scarce and the bakery was like a combination mob scene and Running Man food riot.

Anyway, I was feeling all good about myself and puffed up with what a good Dad and all around great guy I was when I brought Jyllian coffee and the cinnamon roll. What I didn’t remember was that she’d gotten sick after eating a cinnamon roll a couple weeks before. She said “ugh” as her stomach rolled over and handed the plate to Emily which completely let all the air out of my inflated self esteem. I didn’t get the praise and accolades I was looking forward to. How dare she!

With my vanity wounded I barked out something that inadvertently hurt her feelings and went downstairs to nurse my bruised ego. I ended up working out in the yard; mowed the grass, cleaned up dead leaves, watered the plants and moved the woodpile to it’s new location, holding on to my anger and wounded pride the entire time. I finally had to come in as it was after noon, over a hundred degrees and I was flirting with heat stroke.

After a shower and some water I sat down in my office to finally have a cup of coffee and that cinnamon roll while I read only to find that Zak had vomited hair into the top air vent of my desktop computer. All the anger came rushing back and I spent the next hour cleaning my office and generally barking at anyone who came within twenty feet of me. I got my office clean but made my daughter cry and barked “I’m not angry!” at Jyllian which would have been funny at any other time.

The girls went out to go swimming while I continued to work on my office and clean up the house. With the quiet and lack of targets for me to blame for my assholery I had to admit that I was the one acting out and that my girls had been trying to find a way to help me feel better.

I’d love to say that I’ve learned and grown from this experience but to be honest this isn’t the first time I’ve just been a general ass to everyone around me simply because things weren’t going my way or I’d had my pride stepped on. Next time maybe I’ll pull my head out of my ass a little more quickly though.

I txted Jyllian an apology and spent some time hanging one of the strings of prayer flags she and Emily got me for Father’s Day which have been buried in the general chaos of my office. I also made space for another present that Jyllian got me, my Buddha Board, by putting my desktop machine under my desk where the cat can’t vomit on it as easily.

Tibetan prayer flagsI’ll hang the second string soon but have to trim the evil holly bush with the sharp leaves before I can get a clear run from the house to the tree. I’m sure there’s some lesson lurking in that statement but, to be honest, I’m a little too wiped out at the moment to try being profound.

I shouldn’t love this but I do

Categories: Buddhism, Gaming
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Published on: August 15, 2011

 

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