Monday, December 20, 2010

Living in the Moment (No, Really!)

I have just a couple of weeks left with Zen Buddhism, which means I have to start drawing a conclusion or two. Having nearly finished my time now with the Quakers and with Boundless Way, I am just beginning to realize the massive extent to which I have to skate across the surface of each tradition I am taking up. But I am forcing myself to stick to the premise I set for myself last summer—short periods of immersion in each tradition—in order to allow me to survey a wider range of religious beliefs and experiences.

This week I want to focus on two lessons I have taken from my time with Zen Buddhism, the first of which comes in the form of a cliché that you hear people repeat all of the time: living in the moment.

Today is Monday, December 20th. In four days it will be Christmas Eve, which initiates a great few weeks for me: mass and then dinner with friends on Christmas eve, Christmas day with the family, then a trip to Disney world, a visit with my father, and then a couple of weeks remaining in winter break for me to write and get ready for the semester.

But there are four days until that wonderful sequence of events begins, and for all I know it won’t be nearly as wonderful as I hope: someone will get sick, our plane will get grounded in a snowstorm, it will be raining in Florida, and so on. So I have only now begun to understand—while I won’t begrudge myself the pleasures of anticipation—that waiting for the future means ignoring the present. I have the gift of four full days to savor between now and Christmas Eve, and every one of those days holds the promise of as much joy and meaning as any day I might spend in my glorious few upcoming weeks.

But everyone knows that, right? Live in the moment; don’t while away your days wishing for tomorrow, when you have today here to enjoy it. I would have said that before I began sitting with Boundless Way, and I doubt anyone reading this would disagree.

So the second thing that I have learned over the past couple of months has been the wide gulf between speaking that sentiment and living it. Instructing yourself to “live in the moment,” without making any effort to understand what that means , or to practice doing it, can be a hollow exercise—as it would have been for me just a few months ago.

Sitting in meditation practice has taught me the techniques that help actually put this philosophy into practice (and which are described more fully in recent posts): sitting quietly, back straightened, concentrating on your breathing, and clearing your mind of everything but what you notice around you. I find that I get better at all of these techniques with each day of practice, and that they all help me live more fully in the moment.

If I am driving along in the car and I find myself wandering into worry about the future, I turn my attention to my breath and those unpleasant thoughts just drift away. If I find my attention wandering away from the present moment, I look around me and see what I notice: this warm café in which I am sitting, the hot chocolate on my table, the snowflakes and people drifting by outside, the medley of conversations around me. In every one of these things I can see reason for gratitude. In every one of them I can experience the present.

Of course none of us could survive without thinking about the future from time to time, or reflecting on the past. I still probably live more in those places than I do in the moment. But, at the very least, I have learned from the Buddhists to make an effort to make every day sacred.

Each day, like each moment, offers the potential for peace and joy—as long as we learn how to live in it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Buddhist (and Christian) Family Values

One of the most interesting and defining moments in the biography of the Buddha comes when he decides to leave his father's palace and head out in search of a remedy for human suffering. When he embarks upon his quest, the Buddha is turning his back on the pleasures of earthly life—-but he also leaves behind a wife and newly born son.

“Before leaving home,” writes Karen Armstrong in her biography Buddha, “he crept upstairs to take one last look at his sleeping wife and their baby, but could not bring himself to say goodbye. Then he stole out of the palace . . .”

Huston Smith and Philip Novak describe it like this: “Making his way in the post-midnight hours to where his wife and son were locked in sleep, he bade them both a silent good-bye, and then ordered the gatekeeper to bridle his great white horse.”

In both descriptions, note that the Buddha leaves his wife and son without explanation, without goodbye. It's not too difficult to imagine why, of course. Leaving behind your infant child in the hopes of searching for a remedy for all human suffering seems like it might be a difficult conversation to have with your wife on a Tuesday at midnight.

Of course the story ends well—-for Buddha. He achieves enlightenment. In the wake of that achievement, though, he has left behind a fatherless son and a bewildered spouse.

But before throwing stones at the Buddha, remember that Jesus—-despite what Republicans might suggest to us about “Christian family values”--also preached the gospel of renouncing your family to seek spiritual fulfillment.

“In truth I tell you,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark, “there is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children or land for my sake and the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times as much, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land—-and persecutions too—-now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life.”

Or how about this one from the Gospel of Luke:

“His mother and brothers came looking for him, but they could not get to him because of the crowd. He was told, 'Your mother and brothers are standing outside and want to see you.' But he said in answer, 'My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice.'”

These are the moments and words in the life of our great spiritual sages that we try to pretend don't exist. I would love to hear the folks who expound upon the importance of family values, and count themselves as followers of Christ or Buddha, explain what they mean. I would love to know how to reconcile them with my intuitive sense that leaving behind my wife and five children, or turning my back on parents and siblings, in order to seek enlightenment would be a morally reprehensible action.

So what do we do with these actions and words? Do we try to explain them away as parables, or as symbols? Do we ignore them and do as best we can with all of the other commands that we are willing to follow?

Or are they hard and strange enough to make us want to chuck the whole enterprise?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Life of Buddha

Family obligations made me miss last week's session at Boundless Way, but I tried to makeup for it by digging more deeply into my research on Buddhism and its founder. I finished Karen Armstrong's terrific biography of Buddha, and have been making my way through Huston Smith and Philip Novak's Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. A Buddhist day of commemoration is coming up this week, so in preparation for that, I thought I would share a bit of history and some thoughts on the historical figure of the Buddha.

The word “Buddha” is just like the word “Christ”--a title that has been transformed into what most people consider a personal name. The word “Christ” actually means “the annointed one,” which is the honorific title that Jesus's early followers gave to him. Joseph and Mary were not addressed as Mr. and Mrs. Christ. Jesus would have been referred to as Jesus of Nazareth if you were meeting him at the wedding at Cana, as in:

“Who's that guy doing the chicken dance?”

“That's Jesus of Nazareth.”

Similarly, the word “buddha” actually means “the awakened one,” and also was a descriptive title that the one we know as “Buddha” gave to himself. The given name of this historical figure was Siddhatta Gotama, and he was an aristocrat who lived in the 5th century BC in an area that now lies around the border of India and Nepal. Most of the facts we have about his life come down from a wide range of historical and mythical accounts, none of which were written down until hundreds of years after his death.

A couple of quick highlights: Gotama was born to privilege and wealth, and destined for earthly and political power. His father wanted to shelter him from all pain and suffering, and so kept him secluded and distracted with earthly pleasures as much as possible. While in the early prime of his manhood, though, he encountered a series of jarring sights—a sick and elderly man, a corpse, an ascetic monk—and was so disturbed by his sudden awareness of suffering in the world that he left his wife and newly born son and went out to wander in search of a remedy.

He studied under gurus, practiced extreme forms of asceticism, and performed yoga and meditation until finally he felt he had begun to discern the way. As he neared what we might consider his final insight or revelation, he sat beneath a Bodhi tree (pictured above) and vowed not to rise again until he had achieved enlightenment. The day upon which he reached enlightenment and attained Nirvana—a complicated concept that I won't take up here—is one that will be commemorated this week, on December 8th. As one of the teachers at Boundless Way put it jokingly a couple of weeks ago, you can think about this date like Buddhist Christmas.

So while you are hanging tinsel and Buddha ornaments off your Bodhi tree, I'll offer one subject for reflection—one of the aspects of Buddhism that I find both frustrating and attractive.

After Buddha attained enlightenment, and began to teach others how they too might achieve it, many followers asked him questions about how he saw the structure and meaning of the universe and our lives: Who made the world? What happened to us when we died? What Gods should we worship?

Buddha steadfastly refused to answer these kinds of questions. As Armstrong puts it, “these matters might be interesting but they would not give a disciple enlightenment.” Buddha told a parable in which he explained why focusing on such matters was a futile and distracting pursuit:

“It is as if a man had been wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and kinsmen were to get a surgeon to heal him, and he were to say, I will not have this arrow pulled out until I know by what man I was wounded, whether he is of the warrior caste, or a brahmin, or of the agricultural or lowest caste.”

For the Buddha, we should put our focus on finding distance from the relentless demands of the self, which would enable us to learn to live happily in a world of sorrow and decay. Buddhism is an eminently practical belief system in some ways, with a constant focus on the practice of training your mind and body to turn themselves towards right thinking and action.

In some ways I find this to be a wise perspective. Nothing leads to useless anxiety more than worrying about things which are out of your control—as the structure of the universe will be for most of us. And I have little doubt that the more we can tame the wild desires of our egos, the more we are able to find satisfaction and pleasure in our everyday lives.

At the same time, I have always enjoyed speculating about the big questions we can ask about the world, and talking about these questions with others. The very existence of this blog, and my book project, stem from my ongoing interest in those larger questions. I also am not convinced that we should divorce our everyday actions and beliefs from larger convictions about our lives and the universe.

But I have a few more weeks with the Buddha, so I will continue to give him the benefit of the doubt for now, and continue with my reading and daily meditations. Thoughts on all of this, as always, are welcome below.