December 31, 2010

Donate to Dharma Cowgirl

Attempts to add a PayPal donate button to the WordPress blog have been manifestly unsuccessful at WordPress does not support embedded buttons. So, if you would like to donate to the support of Dharma Cowgirl without creating a PayPal account, please click on the button above. And thank you very, very much!

December 26, 2010

The End is Nigh ... No Really, This Is The End

“…respect your ability to communicate, and use it [your mouth] to say only what’s timely, beneficial, and true.” – Thanissaro Bikkhu, “Lessons in Gratitude (Part 1),” Shambhala Sunspace blog, December 22, 2010

Since this summer I have been contemplating a new format for the blog. I am very much in favor of allowing things to simmer, be tasted, new ingredients added, stirred, and waiting for ideas to boil in their own due time. In the meantime, things have drifted along, rudderless, content to follow the fickle winds and somewhat more predictable tides. Well, the pot has boiled, lunch is eaten, and it is time to come up from below deck and put two hands firmly back on the tiller.

Firstly, this blog is retiring. Blogger can no longer support the features I desire. So, with regret, I am putting this venerable steed who has carried me so far out (almost 400,000 words published over four and a half years) out to pasture. What began as Buddhist in Nebraska and recently morphed into Buddhist [from] Nebraska shall remain, but this is her last post. Henceforth, the blogspot address shall be an archive.

Secondly, Dharma Cowgirl will launch on January 1, 2011. As the new year begins, the new blog will start at a new location with a new name and a new focus. It is hosted by Wordpress, a similarly well respected blog machine. The design for the blog is for now utilitarian, but I hope to customize it in the future.

Thirdly, Dharma Cowgirl will have six sections which will be updated regularly – On Dharma, Horse Sense, Riding Lessons, Campfire Stories, Drunk Talk, and Bygone Times. All new posts will appear in chronological order on the main page, but thereafter will be archived under their subsections tabs. The first two will be weekly features. On Dharma will contain the more academic posts referencing current topics of study or research, often in relation to my coursework. There will be a weekly Horse Sense feature relating to a topic currently in the news or blogosphere ala my old opinion column style. The next two sections will be updated on a biweekly or monthly basis. Riding Lessons will deal specifically with lessons learned from and about college – how to write papers, deal with difficult professors, manage time, or work in student government, etc., – with a naturally Buddhist perspective. Campfire Stories is just that, stories from my life or those related to me from others. The final two sections will be updated randomly, as the mood strikes. Drunk Talk is a catchall for wandering thoughts whether composed while drunk or sober (as most no doubt will be). Bygone Times is a place to revisit old ideas and expand on topics explored at the old blog. Overall, I’m shooting for about a dozen posts each month.

Forth, I hope all of you who follow the blog as an RSS feed, via Blogger, or Google Reader will migrate over to the new blog at I’ll be waiting to meet you there in a few short days. I thank all of you who have honored Buddhist in/from Nebraska with your attention these last years and hope you’ll continue this trail with me.

Fifthly, you may be asking “To what end?” I have certainly been asking myself that these past few months, as I contemplated the Noble Eightfold Path. One may believe that keeping a blog falls under Right Speech, and for the most part, I would agree, but the Noble Eightfold Path is interconnected. Each part both relies on and is found within each other part. Right Speech and Right Action can be very similar and both feed into Right Livelihood. However, each of these three is predicated on Right View and Right Intention, which are both informed by Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Some call the first three (speech, action, and livelihood) ethical conduct, the middle two (view and intention) wisdom, and the last three (effort, mindfulness, and concentration) mental discipline or Samadhi. However, they are all of a whole. We can contemplate them separately or together as one path, a single path. That is the path I hope to tread more firmly in light of this change.

Also, as a side note to Right Livelihood, you will notice for the very first time there will be advertising on the blog. Yes, I hope to make a little money on the side, because if I can do that it will preclude me from finding a part-time job and give me more time to write (this is the theory). You will also be able to make donations to this effort soon, via Paypal. I will not harangue you about it, but the button shall shortly be there and it will remain. Any donations you choose to make to the new blog shall not go to a charity or non-profit or organization; they go to me, Monica, a person in her own right. I will probably use them to buy groceries, or books, or go to a movie. I make no promises not to use donation or ad revenue to buy meat (unlikely, but not impossible given my spotty vegetarianism), alcohol (though I promise it be good alcohol), or other dubious (but always legal) or frivolous (choooocolate) things. And no, you’ll not get a receipt or tax deduction, but you’re likely to receive a hearty thank you and undying gratitude (plus karmic brownie points).

So, finally, there is little more to say that “See y’all next year!”

December 24, 2010

The Sky

I drank the sky, the whispers of clouds, the ruler-straight contrails leading to and from Denver International Airport now five minutes behind, but mostly just the brilliant blue of the sky. There really isn’t much sky in Los Angeles. It’s brown and hazy and muted or flat and grey. The San Gabriel Mountains are just a brown smudge to the north, not like the dark, jagged rise of the Rockies here in the east. So I stared out the window of the car of the friend who had provided the means for my escape, stared at nothing and everything and smiled.

We slept in, the golden sun streaming through his south facing window. We slept in anyway and cuddled and found fun things for which words are not needed. I took a blistering hot shower and tracked him downstairs to the smell of cooking eggs and sausages. In the afternoon, I sat on the couch in the living room, occasionally looking up at the sky and watching the honking geese pass. We went to the mall parking lot and he taught me how to drive a stick shift. I only managed to stall half a dozen times (at least) before starting to figure it out.

Today is Christmas Eve and I found an early email from my mother waiting for me. She detailed the normal Christmas Eve goings on, her five-meat chilli in the crock pot, cinnamon rolls rising and ready to bake, family coming over later, her strange little cat acting strange. “I miss you,” she wrote. I miss her too.

But at least I’m not in Los Angeles.

December 12, 2010

After Action Report - Fall 2010

Exactly four months ago, I arrived in California on a Southwest jet with my mother, father, and swiftly detoxing cat as carry-on luggage. Mom and Dad went home five days later, but the cat stayed. Together we settled into a small house with an easy-going and often-absent roommate in a sketchy neighborhood in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles. I started coursework in the Master of Divinity program for Buddhist chaplaincy at University of the West, a three-mile bike ride to the southeast. The cat stayed home, sniffed curiously at the smoggy air and feral kittens just beyond the screen door, and napped on my new Ikea furniture.

On August 23rd, I began four classes: Interfaith Chaplaincy, Spiritual Formation, Buddhist Meditation (which involved no actual meditation), and Religion, Science, and Society as an independent study. I also joined the Kung Fu Club, the Buddhist Students Club, the newly formed Chaplaincy Club, and got myself appointed and then elected Treasurer of the Student Association so I could carry out my ongoing mission of boldly making trouble for the administration as no one has made trouble before. I also joined an online dating site and began contemplating (or re-contemplating) my future career plans. I made a clean break with my old life and now the decision before me is whether or not I ever want to return to the design world, or if I might choose another path.

Now the semester is over. My term papers are written, fifty-four pages in total. I wrote a spiritual autobiography I am most proud to say I managed to condense into sixteen pages; by far the hardest task was brevity. My shortest paper was also my most academic, regarding the role of renunciation before and during Buddhist meditation practice. I double-dipped on the research for the last two, one an “idiot’s guide” to talking about God for non-Christians and the other in response to the question of why God matters to Christians. Though their source material had much overlap, each thesis/purpose is unique. I am satisfied with my grades outlook.

Despite a constant low-intensity search, I have yet to find a job. Nor do I have any hope in that respect. Unemployment is three times higher here in the Los Angeles area than in Lincoln, and the campus I attend is not conveniently situated next to a large technical and professional employment base as UNL was. I can live on my financial aid alone, a welcome surprise and difference, but the timing of the aid disbursements from the school is problematic, to say the least. Which means I have a target for my trouble making.

I’ve met three guys through the dating service, but with no real sparks. I’ve put things on hold until my financial situation improves. It’s hard to invite guys out to coffee when I can’t really afford to be buying even coffee every week. I’m too stubbornly egalitarian to let them pay (plus it would just be rude to expect it). I have realized some important things through these adventures. I’ve reached a place in my life where not only do I want to date and be in a relationship – I want some romance, some dressing up, putting on makeup, going nice places, being surprised type romance. I want to be excited. I want him to be excited. I’ve never particularly wanted that before, but, as the Buddha said, impermanence.

Some other things I’ve learned: Ninety percent of all traffic accidents in this city could be prevented through the consistent application of courtesy. I can now ride my bicycle without using my hands (after how many years of practicing?). I like being unemployed. I want romance. I like riding in tanks with men. Theories of spiritual formation are like horseshoes, hand grenades, and tactical nuclear weapons (apparently, close is good enough). The world needs to move past mere tolerance of differences. Everyone should be in a weekly support group. Everyone, but especially college students. Religion and secularism is a false dichotomy. Hulu has a bunch of new Japanese anime to watch. Though I love books, the Kindle is awesome. And no one ever died of an unrequited crush. C’est lavie.

Now as the five unoccupied weeks of winter break loom before me, I have some thinking to do. Am I going to join the Navy? Am I going to give up on reforming design education pedagogy in favor of a more chaplaincy oriented future? What am I looking for from these dating experiences or in a relationship? What direction do we want to take the student government in next semester and where could we do the most good? Am I going to find a sangha? Am I ever going to start meditating regularly? What book should I read next on my new toy? What do I have to do to get my doctorate from the Irish School of Ecumenics in Dublin? How is this novel I’m writing going to end?

As I said in my spiritual autobiography: Willing not to be right, but to be wrong. Willing not to find, but to seek. Willing not to succeed, but to try. Willing not to dream, but to wake up. I can spend this time learning, just as I’ve spent my entire life learning. Maybe next semester will be better (though this one wasn’t too shabby) and maybe not, but I’ll find out soon enough. This dry summary doesn’t cover a tenth of the last four months, because I don't fully understand everything that has happened myself, but that too will come in time.

One down, five more to go.

December 04, 2010

Riding the Horse (MDIV 555)

This is the last journal for MDIV 555 Spiritual Formation, posted late (sorry). For the last few weeks, we have been reading Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior and Journey Without Goal both by Chogyam Trungpa. As you may have noted, I have not written in response to these materials as I did for the previous books by Fowler, Brazier, and Kornfield. There is a reason for this.

Journal for November 30, 2010

I have not explored the vajrayana materials in these journals. By temperament, I don’t think I’m suited for them, at least at this time in my life. I have a predilection to want to figure things out on my own, but I believe the warnings that say when it comes to tantra, this is a bad idea. I certainly haven’t mastered the preliminaries anyway.

However, in addition to the warnings, tantra has always seemed a bridge too far. My people are very practical and pragmatic. Complexity is acceptable as long as it’s orderly. Learning through direct experience is emphasized, but only where the initial instructions are fairly simple. Everything else operates under the KISS principle, not because it’s easier, but because it’s less wasteful.

It takes years to learn how to ride a horse. But where I come from, if you get an hour-long lecture before being tossed into the saddle, that was too much talk. You’ll never learn how to ride with your boots on the ground. No matter how skilled your teacher, she can’t ride the horse for you. You can’t wait to trot until after you learn to post.

Every horse is different. They all have their own personalities and they are very intuitive. You have to be able to listen to them, with your body and your mind, the same way they are listening to you. Mastering a horse is a matter of will. My mother is not a woman who goes gooey over her children. The only time I ever heard her brag about my riding to a relative, she wasn’t praising my form or technique. She was proud that I was not afraid. To her, this was the most important thing a person could learn about horses.

The average horse weighs close to a thousand pounds. You can’t master a horse through strength of arm. The saddle and the bridle help, but in the end they’re just tools, like the cushion and the bell. Sitting on the cushion and ringing the bell doesn’t mean you’re meditating (as an expert at not meditating, I ought to know). However, unlike the gomden, if you’re not paying attention, the horse is likely to toss you in the dirt.

Everyone gets thrown. You know that the moment you climb into the saddle, but you do it anyway. The best advice for getting thrown anyone can give you is to not let go of the reins. If you let go of the reins, you’re going to have a long painful walk home. But if that happens, there’s no use sitting there grumbling, you might as well pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start walking.

You might get hurt. In fact, at some point, it’s likely you will. When I was ten, Aunt Donalee broke her upper arm coming off a horse. They put a rod in it. She borrowed my Mom’s English saddle. It was a little small for her but it was also light enough to fling up on a horse with one hand. Work doesn’t wait to be done until bones have knit. She got back up on the very horse that had thrown her.

Four years ago, cousin Jim came off a horse. No one saw it happen. They just found his horse wandering with grass in its saddle and Jim on the ground nearby. He was in a comma for several weeks and when he woke, he exhibited the symptoms of a stroke. He had to learn how to speak, walk, eat, and dress all over again. He got back up on the horse and is still ranching cattle in southern Colorado.

What got them back on the horse wasn’t bravado or stupidity. Courage is not ignoring the consequences, but knowing them and doing anyway. No amount of teaching can prevent those consequences, though experience helps. The number of commands any horse knows is limited, but their moods are infinite. There are all kinds of techniques you can apply, but in the end, horses are actually simple. All you have to do is pay attention.

I often think the dharma is like that. Tantra just seems like a bunch of different techniques to learn how to pay attention. In that way, it’s valuable, but until (unless) I learn those techniques, I can’t comment on them. It’s like trying to learn to ride without the horse. You’ll never understand how the instruction to push your heels down is going to help keep your ass in the saddle while you trot until you actually do it. It doesn’t make much sense and that makes it easy to criticize.

For now, I think I’ll learn to ride the horse before I teach it to fly.

December 03, 2010

Be Grateful For Our Suffering

As individuals, we are deeply, deeply flawed. Which means, collectively, as institutions we are deeply, deeply flawed. Which means, further, as society we are deeply, deeply flawed. In Christianity, they would call this sin. The grievousness of one’s sin is measured by one’s distance from God, from perfection. Many have asked if God were perfect, why would he create us, suffering, flawed, imperfect beings? Maybe he didn’t. For Buddhism teaches that although, yes, we are flawed, we are also perfect, each one of us endowed with indestructible, eternal, buddhanature.

I often wonder if God didn’t actually create us perfect (if God created us). If God wanted us to love one another and care for one another and understand the consequences of our actions and the nature of reality, then what better lesson than suffering? What better lesson than change? What better lesson than impermanence? What better lesson than self and nonself?

How can we love without compassion? Compassion means to suffer with. I have been told that suffering breeds kindness. I have seen this to be true. For though all who came to speak and listen were filled with disappointment, dissatisfaction, anger, worry, frustration, and suffering, all showed kindness. ALL showed kindness. The issue was personal and distressing, as we who had come to celebrate, suddenly found ourselves mourning. So we sat in a circle and talked. All listened. All spoke with care and with heart. All gave thanks.

Someone told us to pray. Pray for wisdom, for guidance, for compassion. I will not pray. I have no one to pray to. God is an idea I like to play with, like dark matter or quarks. Buddha is dead. So I will not pray. But I will hope, and I will aspire, and I will be grateful. The spirit is much alike. But I will not pray because I do not believe what we seek is out there. What we seek to cure our flaws, our sinfulness, our suffering, is within.

We are all perfect, or have the capacity to be so. Which means, collectively, as institutions we are all perfect. Which means, further, as society we are all perfect. We are perfect not because we do not suffer, but because we have the capacity to learn from our suffering. No one ever learned to ride without saddle sores. The Buddha did not become the Buddha without first suffering. He became the Buddha because he suffered. They say to be grateful to our enemies for they are our greatest teachers.

Be grateful for our suffering, too, because it just might wake you up.

November 26, 2010

Happy Turkey Day

People swirled in an out of the kitchen like leaves riding eddies in a gurgling stream, always moving, never colliding. I sat on the bank, safely out of the way, watching and listening to happy chatter, and wanting to be elsewhere. The stream flowed out onto the large deck, following the food and drink and socializing. People stood eating, balancing cups and plates on the wood railing. Between the mountains in the distance and the international gathering on the deck, green palm trees and arbor vitae jumped above the rolling landscape of concrete driveways and tile roofs. Chinese and Indian food predominated. I sat in a corner and wished in vain that my spiced cider was spiked cider and tried to limit my urge to make inappropriate comments. It was an odd mood that urged me to turn everything into innuendo, a game I’ve often missed (Buddhists are sometimes too ‘nice,’ I think).

I had fun despite myself and due mostly to the infectious cheer of my fellow classmates. I danced the square, four-step dance we all learn in junior high school with Jun and was impressed that Mike managed the twirl and dip without dropping me, not once, but twice! The motley crew of graduate students, young professors, and monks even managed not to fall into obscure religious dialogue. Venerable Kit closed the vertical blinds and set up the projector in order to play Super Mario Brothers, no doubt made more interesting by people still coming in and out through the patio doors.

I rode home as the sun was setting and dove back into the distraction that had captured my attention since rising that morning – Chapter Fifteen. Instead of reminiscing, I chose creating, and managed to rescue one of the main characters from torture and escape in sixty-five hundred words before calling it a night. I called my parents and told them I miss them and love them and Happy Turkey Day, gobble gobble gobble. And I spent Thanksgiving evening watching classic anime on Hulu, teasing my cat, and practicing being thankful for all my good friends here.

I left the whiskey in the cupboard.

November 23, 2010

Riding In Tanks With Men

The world looks different when you’re staring at it down the barrel of an M1A1 Abrams tank. Relative to you, the turret and barrel of the tank is a stationary, solid thing, while the landscape flows by like waves on the ocean. The tank is safe, while everything beyond is potential danger.

The ride is smooth, even over dips and ruts, but when slowing down or speeding up, the gear change kicks like a mule and you’re glad to have that heavy helmet on. Inside the turret is all metal and hard angles. The tank doesn’t roar or growl. From the outside, there is only a low hum and the clicking of the treads on their wheels. Inside is a loud, high-pitched whine and the constant rattle of metal against metal, drowned out by noise cancelling headphones attached to the helmet. Despite that, hearing loss is common among tankers. The tank exhaust is invisible, just a heat shimmer and strong blast, but the dust it kicks up can be seen for miles depending on the terrain.

The gunner’s seat is narrow, with a dizzying assortment of dials, knobs, and buttons closer to your face than most people keep their computer screens. The only way to see the world outside is with one eye either pressed to the digital scope (with range finder and night vision) or the backup optical scope. Every function has a manual backup, so if hydraulics go out, you can still adjust the attitude of the barrel with that control, or if the electronic trigger fails, you can still fire manually with this knob here.

Behind the gunner is the tank commander and to his left, the loader. Each can stand on their seats and be half out of the two top hatches, but the gunner is stuck in the metal cocoon of the turret. Somewhere forward, in the main body of the tank, is the driver, physically and visually separate, connected only by the thin thread of a helmet radio, despite being only a few feet away.

Standing on the loader’s seat, I watched the desert flow by, all dust, scrub brush, and dramatic mountain ranges in the distance. My left shoulder pressed against the mount for the M50 machine gun, now empty. To my right, LT Guerra, the tank commander stood, talking with the driver over his helmet radio and occasionally giving me a thumbs up to ask if I was okay. I was just watching the scenery, enjoying the motion of the solid tank under my boots, and crunching dust between my teeth.

But this isn’t how it would be if they were in the field. There’d be no lazy interest, no idle curiosity. Instead, they’d be scanning the landscape, constantly on watch for insurgents and improvised explosive devices. Kind of like LT Guerra was doing now, for all his relaxed shoulders and innocuous chatter with the driver. His head was still turning slow and steady and I had the impression his eyes behind those tinted glasses were sharp. My own attention suddenly sharpened and I found myself scanning the area ahead and to the left of the tank.

The lookout isn’t just responsible for their own life, maybe even hardly concerned with it at all, but his buddies in the tank crew depend on his vigilance. Maybe they’re part of a convoy, and the tankers and truckers behind them are depending on him too. That brings everything into very sharp focus, or so I could imagine. Spend a day in the field like that, or even half a day, and then try to just turn that kind of hyper-awareness off. I can’t believe it’s easy. I’m just a silly little girl who’s hardly seen a lick of danger in her life, but I am grateful if I gained even ounce of understanding from that twenty-minute joyride.

The soldiers of the 1-185th Armor Battalion of the California National Guard were good to me during my time at Fort Irwin. Delta Company let me tag along during driver training. Headquarters Company welcomed me in as a fly on the wall to their staff meetings. No one seemed to mind as I stood shadow to their chaplain candidate, learning a little bit about what a military chaplain does. They were all real happy to hear I was considering military chaplaincy. Some of them tried to talk me out of it when I mentioned Navy, but others were encouraging. There were enough old sailors in the unit with wisdom to share.

“I used to be Navy. With the Navy you get to be out doing stuff, putting your training to use,” Sergeant Scott told me. “The Army is like Nascar. It’s like you’re a mechanic and you’ve spent thousands of hours working on this car and making it fast and perfect, but then you never, ever get to drive it.”

The 1-185th has deployed overseas twice during the most recent conflicts. “When a tank shows up, the action just stops,” one soldier told me. The insurgents know they can’t tangle with an Abrams, but who knows how many they’ve wounded or killed before the tank arrives. The last time the 1-185th deployed, they left their tanks at home.

I followed Chris around as he went from company to company, from one small group of soldiers to another. “Ministry presence,” he called it, just being available to the troops if anyone should have an issue. A few times a soldier would pull him aside for a personal issue or he’d just shoot the breeze and get a feel for overall morale.

“I’ve lost four since we got back,” the Command Sergeant Major said around his cigar. He shook his head as he ticked them off on his fingers. “Two motorcycle accidents, one car crash, and one suicide.” He didn’t say it, but his tone made it the regret clear. Here they were supposed to be safe. Then he made a crusty old joke and the guys laughed.

There was a Lieutenant in Fox Company who reminded me so much of the cadets I’d worked with at the ROTC, a handsome young man with beautiful cheekbones and a square jaw, hair trimmed short. He looked like LT Wellensiek, who got himself blown up and put back together with bolts and rods. Or LT Gaspers, who died.

By the end of the first morning, my green boots were caked with the tan desert dust. In the afternoon it rained. The wind was always there and I was glad I’d brought my stocking cap and gloves. The guys kept asking me if it was too cold, or too wet, or the food was too bad, or the work too daunting, or the sleep too little. The truth is, it wasn’t that bad. It’d be hard to do everyday, but I think if I were in proper military trim, I could manage it. Though I can see why the Army runs on coffee. Saturday night I still had enough energy to sit up and write postcards to my family. The guys teased me about that, but they approved of my choice (it had a tank on it). On Sunday morning, I woke up hungry. That has literally never happened before and I took it as an encouraging sign.

I can never convey enough thanks to the soldiers of the 1-185th AR, especially to LTC Murphy for allowing me to tag along, LT Guerra for the ride, and, of course, chaplain candidate 2LT Chris Mohr for setting the whole thing up and taking such good care of me while we were out there. I highly recommend this kind of experience to everyone going into the chaplaincy field, whether they are contemplating military chaplaincy or not (and whether they get to ride in a tank or not). Watching Chris work showed me a highly fulfilling career in which the dharma is being put to immediate use for the benefit of many people.

To the men and women of the 1-185th, I can only say “Hooah!”

Not Home for the Holidays (MDIV 555)

Journal for November 23, 2010

I’ve never missed Christmas. I missed Thanksgiving once. I saw my whole family together the day before, but on Thanksgiving itself, I hopped on a plane to Boston to attend Shambhala Training Levels IV and V at Karmê Chöling. But I’ve never missed Christmas with my family, even though I haven’t been a Christian for longer than I was.

Our family traditions are simple. On holidays, we get together for a big dinner either at my folk’s house or Granny’s house. We sit, we eat, we visit. Later, there will be football and usually we’ll go out to a movie in the afternoon. Then we all come back and take a nap. The biggest change in the last few years has been the addition of April, my sister-in-law. Sometimes she and Brandon don’t stay as long because her family is also getting together, but they always still manage to come over.

Sometimes Aunts and Uncles and cousins will come to spend the holiday with Granny or Granny will go out to spend the holiday with them, but my family usually stays home. Traveling in winter in the Midwest is always an iffy proposition and likely to change the day of. Granny can leave days in advance, but those of us who must work don’t always make it out ahead of the snow. Last year, we had intended to go out to my mother’s sister’s ranch in central Nebraska for Christmas, but we ended up snowed in for five days in Omaha.

I am very lucky in my family. We all get along. We comfortable, like old shoes. Sure, we disagree and we argue. But we don’t yell or shout (too often) or slam doors. Mostly we just hang out. Visiting is a family sport. When other families get together, they have activities, card games, charades, Pictionary. We just sit around and visit, often for hours. People break off into groups. Someone will go take a nap or read a book. The sports fans will watch the game. The moms will sit around and talk about Melinda’s new baby. Eventually, I’ll go out for a walk by myself, even in knee-high snow, just because I like to be outdoors every day.

We almost always go to a movie on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, whatever the big new blockbuster is that week. We might stop for ice cream on the way home. No one leaves the house on Black Friday. None of us like crowds or shopping that much. On Christmas, we’ll come home and watch more movies, because someone always got a DVD (or two or three) in their stocking. Christmas morning, I always handed out the presents, probably because I was the youngest and least patient. We wait until everyone has a present in their hands and then all unwrap and ooh and aah. Mom takes pictures and Dad makes goofy faces.

I’ll miss all that this year and I’m not sure how that will affect me. On Thanksgiving, I’m going to Shakya’s house for a dinner Mike has organized with about fifteen other family-less students. It sounds like a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to it. I’m not sure how Christmas will go. Like the rest of my family, I’m pretty pragmatic, so no wailing and weeping. But still…

One of the great teachings of Buddhism is that we will eventually lose everyone and everything that we love. The three marks of existence are suffering (or nirvana if you read Thay), impermanence, and non-self. It sounds like a very dreary teaching, but it can also be incredibly empowering. It points right at the Second Noble Truth, which in turn brings up the Third Noble Truth. Suffering is caused by desire and suffering can end.

For the most part, I don’t think it’s fundamentally a problem that I want to be with my family on Christmas. I think that’s healthy and good. It’s up to me to decide if that desire is going to make me miserable because I didn’t get what I want, or make me happy because it reminds me of all the love we share.

I don’t know if I’ll quite manage the later, but we’ll see.

November 22, 2010

Religion & Relationships (MDIV 555)

Journal November 18, 2010

Where in my spiritual formation does another person fit? I’ve been dating recently. This is a new experience. I’ve never really dated or had a serious, exclusive relationship, but a few months ago, I signed up with an online dating site. I’ve met three people and exchanged emails with a dozen more. None of them are Buddhists. The only one with whom I’ve discussed religion was a mildly hostile (to theism, not me) atheist.

Women look to the future. It sounds cliché, but when we meet a guy we size him up for deal-breakers. “Oh, he’ll be bald someday. Can I live with that?” You eye his hairline over your coffee cup. I find it ironic, considering I’m not really the settling down type, but the programming must be genetic. And now I’m wondering, what if he’s not Buddhist? Can I live with that? What if he’s Mormon? Muslim? Mennonite? Could I live with that?

I’ve seen some great Buddhist couples and some not so great. I guess, living in Nebraska, where Buddhists were so thin on the ground, I just got used to the idea that if I wanted to date, it would naturally be across religious lines. The idea of finding a Buddhist partner was about as likely as winning the lottery.

But I’m not in Nebraska anymore. So I have to wonder, why am I going out for coffee with these non-Buddhist guys? Surely, if I can find a Buddhist partner anywhere, it would be here.

And yet, does it matter? Some of my best religious friends aren’t Buddhist. If I wrapped their brains and their theology up in a single, mildly-attractive, age-appropriate male package, could I live with that person? Sometimes I think I could.

Then I think of the two years I worked for the Military Science Department. I was surrounded by handsome, young Army cadets whom I respected, but I never once considered dating. To serve in the military was to accept the premise that sometimes violence is the solution. That was a deal breaker.

Kornfield mentioned relationships in passing, usually noting how someone who isn’t a well rounded individual and hasn’t dealt with their own psychological problems is unlikely to form a healthy relationship. Assume that isn’t the case, assuming one can form a healthy relationship, how precisely does that contribute to each partner’s spiritual development? What role does relationship play? And what happens when your partner’s spirituality is quite different from your own?

Is it enough if that person is as critical with, thoughtful about, and committed to their spirituality as you are about yours? Do you need to share certain fundamental doctrines like compassion or charity? Is more needed, like compatibility of belief on specific subjects such as God or enlightenment? Can a diversity of opinion enrich both partner’s lives? Or are the differences likely to push you apart? Or is it utterly a matter of the two individuals involved and completely different for each couple?

I attended three weddings during the summer of 2008 and they could not have been more different. The Lutheran minister stood before the alter talked about how the happy couple was now “one person” in a triumvirate marriage of husband, wife, and Jesus Christ. The Buddhist teacher sat in the stupa and talked about how we are all fundamentally alone even in (especially in) marriage, where we think we’re supposed to have someone who understands us completely when no one ever really can. The third marriage was just a whispered exchange of secret vows between the couple in a flower garden. Each of those couples were in fundamental agreement on matters of religion. But what if the Lutheran had tried to marry the Buddhist or the non-religious, or any other combination?

Is religion always important in relationships?