May 29, 2010

It Is Not Enough to Teach

When I first came to Shambhala Mountain Center in August of 2004, I noticed two things: its shear goodness and its chaos. The goodness is evident in the beauty of the land, the open, loving hearts of the people, and the brilliancy of the teachings. The chaos is evident in the neglect, slapdash repairs, dissatisfaction, and neurosis found among the people who live and work here. For all that they are wonderful individuals, they also operate under a system of management, or rather mismanagement, that would not be tolerated in any other organization or institution. In my working career I have been exposed to dozens such places, both the very, very good and the very, very bad, but none of them displayed this level of chaos.

I have hesitated to make criticism. After all, I am not here every day. When I am here, I am not involved in the management of the center, nor do I work frequently with any other departments. I am my own one-woman anti-entropy crew and, given the evident chaos all around me, I like it that way. But, I cannot escape it since, after all, my sole job on the land these past four years has been rectifying past mistakes and neglects.

I will not innumerate them here. I will only say that I have come to the conclusion that Shambhala Mountain Center has been so mismanaged for so long that the responsibility for this state cannot be laid at the feet of any one of the past directors (at least three in the last six years). Rather, it must lie with the board, for they hire these directors and watch as the center slips slowly further and further into chaos.

And as I watch all this happening and do my small best to slow the progress and hope and hope and hope that the genuinely good intentions and genuinely good hearts of the staff, volunteers, donors, and visitors will somehow see us through (as they have so far), I find myself asking a single question: “Where is the Sakyong and the Acharyas?” Why in the name of all the holy deities of Tibet, India, Nepal, China, Japan, Korea, and for the Buddha himself would they allow this to happen? Are they unaware? And if so, why?

It is not enough merely to teach. One must also lead. Yet those men and women who have the realization and the mental space to skillfully deal with chaos (so we are led to believe and so I have observed in my admittedly limited observation of them) choose to absent themselves from it. They come. They sit at the front of the shrine room or shrine tent, they speak, meditate, teach, exhort, encourage, and live as examples. Then they go away. And the chaos remains.

Perhaps they believe anyone who receives their teachings will naturally be able to put them into practice and create the enlightened society Shambhala is said to be. If so, they are mistaken. What has the Seven Points of Mind Training to say about how best to engineer a new waste water treatment system? What can dzogchen tell us about how to most efficiently organizing the housekeeping staff? (Perhaps everything, but you couldn’t see it from where I sit.) How can Sacred Key unclog a toilet? These may seem like nitty-gritty details, but that’s what leadership is – being concerned with the nitty-gritty details.

By this I do not mean micromanaging. I do not mean feeling the urge to do it all oneself. I mean caring that it is done and done well, with a comprehensive understanding of how each task fits into the larger system and a long-term view rather than one that cannot see past next month’s bottom line. The bottom line is important, it is true. This is America after all. But a great deal of damage can be done if that is all one can see.

There is a great blindness here. Those who teach do not lead because in the long run, isn’t it more important we all become enlightened? Those who lead do barely that because the blindness and the chaos have gone on for so long they have become institutionalized. In a strange way, I think those in power must somehow feel rather powerless. What other reason is there for them to fail to act except that they don’t feel they can do anything? What other reason is there for them to willfully turn away from the problems the center faces except that they do not wish to see that which they feel they can do nothing about?

This does not strike me as the tradition that Chogyam Trungpa set about to establish. Here was a man who had his hands firmly in the dough. He designed the uniforms of the Kasung, the layout of the shrines, chose the land for this center, and had a say in all that went on here. Admittedly, some of what went on here would curl your toes to hear of it, but no one could say the man was not wholeheartedly involved. So how has it come to this?

I do not know. I have not been here long enough. I am too far down on the food chain to do much more than I have done. But in doing so, I resolve to learn from this, and to continue to do what I can. I will redouble my efforts. And I will continue to hope and hope and hope that the genuinely good hearts of the people will see us through.

There is a sign taped to the mirror in the women’s bathhouse. “May sanity prevail in this room.” May sanity prevail in Shambhala Mountain Center. May sanity prevail in Shambhala International. May sanity prevail in the world.

And may those who teach also lead.

May 26, 2010

Skepticisim is Free

Yesterday Dharma. Today homework. Of course, the lines are never that neat, but for now let us draw them thus for simplicity sake and then cross over them repeated like skipping rope until, like the flashing rope, the line disappears.

Today, I am writing a paper regarding the book A Theory of Good City Form by Kevin Lynch, first published in 1981. As inevitably happens, my mind wanders and begins drawing connections, relating what I have learned into the larger matrix of knowledge stored in my head. Lynch is a city planner. His books have been well received and even thirty years later, his reputation is solid and his theories strong. (That's a long time in the world of such things.)

In the design of cities he lays down not conceptual metaphors, as others have done relating cities to cosmic order, machines, or living things, but a list of five performance criteria – what a city should do rather than what it should be. Lynch recognizes there are many ways of being, or forms, that are conducive to the same way of doing things, or goals or values. Each may have their merits and be context appropriate. Thus, he makes no attempt, in this book at least, to prescribe singular forms as others have done. He also very specifically criticizes the use of metaphors in attempting to understand and make decisions concerning cities. A city is not a machine or an organism, though it may have similarities to both. And if there is a cosmic order, humanity can hardly agree on what that might be, let along whether or not it is appropriate to apply to city design.

This is a fundamentally different approach to the design of architecture that my professors have emphasized in the past years. They are both design problems, cities and buildings, but in the design of “architecture,” my mentors have continuously upheld the creation of a unifying “concept” as the end all be all. What is the concept? How can that concept be physically represented? For example, in my final project, I used the concept “Earth and Sky” and it was physically represented through the interplay of very identifiable “earth” spaces, close, dark (relatively), solid, protective, and “sky” spaces, light, opening, airy, expansive.

But for all that I can do it – this concept thing – I don’t buy it. Concepts to me seem arbitrary and limiting. Who is to say this concept is actually the most appropriate for this design solution? Might not another concept suit better? What if the physical manifestation of this concept, while appropriate in one aspect, is radically inappropriate in another? Should we carry out the design such that it has integrity to the concept regardless of whether or not it best serves the client? I see this happen all too often, even in architecture we now hold up as masterpieces. There is usually found some little area, that if the integrity of the concept was of even slightly less a concern, a solution to the problem (of a leaky roof or poor solar exposure, etc.) is readily available. So you see, I don’t buy it.

Sound familiar? Did I not just write that concerning metaphysics, and especially their presence in Buddhism, that “I don’t buy it?”

It seems I am always playing games. I am here for a short time living and working at a center where I do not accept much of the fundamental doctrine of the denomination. I can discuss the Tibetan notion of tulkas, rebirth, the bardo, karma, prophetic signs, etc., but I do not buy into it. I attended university in a school which teaches a common doctrine of architecture design, the primacy of concept and how to carry it out, but I do not buy into it. I know the rules of the game, but I recognize them only as such – rules of a game, not truths in their own right or even particularly useful tools towards the seeking of truth.

This is perhaps not unique. I ran across such a description recently while doing research for my presentation on How Architects Think. Rorshach testing carried out on 120 architects in 1959 revealed they often perceive life as a game, not in the sense that it is trivial, but in the sense that there are pieces and rules and puzzles all to be fit together and navigated among. These rules and pieces are very important, but they are also viewed in the abstract as being arbitrary and changeable, their fundamental value always in question. The designer will navigate this world because, first, playing the game is fun, and second, it appears to be necessary to their livelihood, not merely as architects, but as human beings. Everyone plays the game; they are simply more likely to perceive it as such.

It is not to say this manner of perceiving the world is either good or bad, particularly (rather I think it more useful to people of certain temperaments, while others will have similarly appropriate mental tools at their disposal), but it does remind me of the Buddhist admonishment that life is a dream from which we must wake up. It is a dream of a reality broken down and defined by discrete concepts – as if these concepts were actually physical things and not merely mental phenomena – as if they were unchanging and separate from ourselves, endowed with lives of their own.

Reality is complex and infinitely interdependent, so we simplify. A city becomes a machine. A building becomes earth. The inter-action of our thoughts, words, deeds, and their eventual and often unknowable outcomes becomes karma. Life, the universe, and everything becomes forty-two. Simple, one-word answers to offer comfort. Trouble is, like Douglas Adams’ aliens, I’m not sure we ever understood the question.

And that’s the heart it – “I’m not sure.” It’s similar to “I don’t buy it.” No, I don’t buy it, but I don’t entirely deny it either. I just leave it sitting on the shelf. It’s still there. I could buy it later. Maybe later it’ll appear to be worth a dollar twenty-five. Maybe later I’ll see the value of it. I’ll shell out, make the commitment, buy in. Because don’t be mistaken, there is a commitment to be made. As soon as you buy into an idea, belief, or concept you’re closing a door to the alternative. The trick is to keep every door cracked.

This is what a skeptic does. Yes, there are certain things I buy into more than other things. I think Lynch’s idea of performance criteria over outdated metaphors is applicable to architecture as much as city planning. I think if I walk up to a chick in a bar and punch her, I’ll get the tar beat out of me. I call that karma, and see how it operates in a very physical sense if not necessarily in a metaphysical one. Of course, I could be wrong, both about architecture, the chick in the bar (maybe she’s Buddhist too and a committed pacifist), and the metaphysical nature of karma.

That’s the core calling of a skeptic. One cannot be successfully skeptical if one is not first and foremost skeptical of oneself, one’s own convictions and beliefs, even one’s belief is one’s “self” at all. (Maybe androids dream of Buddhist girls?) Starting from this skeptical place, seeing life as a game or a dream, is part of the path of awakening to a reality free of conceptual thinking – and possibly also free of suffering. (I say “possibly” because I haven’t been there yet, thus I am slightly skeptical. Naturally.)

Of course, one could make the criticism that I’m merely wishy-washy. That’s okay. One could ask “How can you live like that? Never being certain of anything?” Well, I generally consider certainty to be a sign of insanity. (And we’re all at least a little mad.) Perhaps this is what Pema once called “groundlessness” and exhorted us to live within even though it may not always be comfortable. Or perhaps this skepticism is pure intellectual masturbation. I’ve been accused of that, too, fairly often, by one of my most delightful and most conservative professor friends. I’m not sure.

But ask this: should we be sure?

May 23, 2010

Being A Bad Buddhist

A friend sent me a quote by Goethe.

“Until there is commitment, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: The moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves, too.

“All manner of things occur to help one that would never otherwise occur. A whole stream of events issue forth from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would come his way.

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now!”

It’s a very pretty quote, but see, I don’t buy it. I don’t know what Goethe defines “providence” as, whether it be God or the Universe or the Force. However, I do not believe any such power outside of myself moves in accordance with my whims, intentions, or desires. For one thing, I don’t imagine I’m that important to the Universe are large. Rather than find that deflating, I’m actually reassured. It means no matter what I do, I can’t screw things up too badly.

I know that it may often seem that providence moves. When we are wishy-washy, we create our own obstacles and overlook our own opportunities. When we commit, we open our mind to seeing things we might have previously overlooked. I have witnessed this many times before – with my decision to return to the University to study architecture, with my decision to take Refuge and then Bodhisattva vows, with my decision to pursue chaplaincy. When these were maybes, there were all sorts of roadblocks. But when they became “Yes, I will do this!” I began to seek them genuinely and in that seeking turned up the needed solutions.

I think this kind of opinion is troubling to many. First and foremost, to theists. But also to many Buddhists. Even those of us who have left our Protestant heritage behind, and all its mythologies and mysticism, still want to believe in some greater power beyond ourselves is at play. We have been inculcated since birth to believe in something. Some of us throw ourselves headlong onto the alter of karma, rebirth, chi, drala, or stories of mystic powers attributed to the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. I do not know if these things are true, but my intuition denies them.

The Dharma often says life is a dream. What if it really is? What if I am mad and gibbering in some mental institution somewhere and all the things and people around me are no more than figments of my imagination? What then should I do? Should I sit quietly and refuse to interact with these figments lest the me who is lost to reality be seen to act like a madwoman? Or should I act on what I perceive to be true as best I know it?

I have perceived nothing in my life to encourage me toward the metaphysical. I believe the physical is quite fantastic enough as it is, and more than sufficient to explain the mysteries of life, the universe, and everything – someday.

This is more or less the premise of Stephen Batchelor’s recent book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, which has been creating quite a stir in the buddhablogosphere. (Tricycle hosted a long comment thread and Huffington Post even published a piece on the issue.) I was surprised when I picked it up how slim a volume it is, but when it comes right down to it, Buddhism stripped of its religious trappings is a rather simple thing. I assume where people are having the most trouble are in the chapters on Rebirth and Culture.

“It is often claimed that you cannot be a Buddhist if you do not accept the doctrine of rebirth. …

“The idea of rebirth is meaningful in religious Buddhism only insofar as it provides a vehicle for the key Indian metaphysical doctrine of actions and their results known as ‘karma.’ While the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted that or rebirth, when questioned on the issue he tended to emphasize its psychological rather than cosmological implications. ‘Karma,’ he often said, ‘is intention’: i.e., a movement o the mind that occurs each time we think, speak, or act. …

“Where does this leave us? It may seem that there are two options: either to believe in rebirth or not. But there is a third alternative: to acknowledge in all honesty, I do know know.

Because I do not know, and cannot know (though I definitely have an opinion), whether the doctrines of karma or rebirth are true, I must choose my actions based on either possibility. I may choose to take the word of others who tell me these things are true and say innumerable mantras and prostrate innumerable times in order to assure myself of a fortunate rebirth. Or I may chose to follow my intuition and do otherwise. This is not to say chanting and prostration have no place. Even in an agnostic view, they can serve definite purpose, as they too have to do with intention as much as any other action, thought, or speech.

In the chapter on Culture, Batchelor mostly warns of stagnation, dogma, and repression of an individual’s ability to question and seek imaginative solutions to their own (and others’) suffering. It is a very sensible warning, for any institution, religious or not. The other day a friend and I were watching Young Victoria and the Queen, newly moved into Buckingham Palace, complained as to the chill in the rooms because no one department could agree whose job it was to light the fires. Any suggestion that something be done about it was scoffed at because “these ways have always served us well in the past.”

While change should certainly be eschewed for change sake and “progress” given a gimlet stare, the idea that Buddhism should adapt to the western culture it now finds itself in does not strike me as at all revolutionary. After all, that is what happened in almost every Asian country Buddhism has ever spread to. Why now the insistence on importing and preserving ancient forms which may or may not be integral to the Dharma itself? Practices which may only serve to alienate Americans and relegate Buddhism to the role of an exotic dish in an ethnic restaurant, rather than a useful medicine for the benefit of all? Of course, there is danger that something may be lost. But this danger exists in either case.

I cannot deny my upbringing – scientific and secular that it is. Therefore, though it may be insulting to Asian traditions, I cannot deny I find the idea of prayer wheels quaint and superstitious, prayer flags cheerful like children’s stories, opening oneself to the “blessings of the Buddhas from heave” lovely in theory, and the notion of rebirth about as reassuring as the belief that FEMA will come and save us from the flood.

However, I most emphatically do not think this makes me any less a Buddhist. Nor is the Buddhadharma any less applicable to my life. Suffering is. I suffer. I can be free from suffering. This is no less relevant should I fail to believe in rebirth or “providence” or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Compassion can never lose relevancy. The search for freedom from self-centered delusion can never lose relevancy. The commitment to helping others can never lose relevancy.

If I am a bad Buddhist for my denial of the metaphysical, whatever label it may bear, well then at least I can still seek to be the best bad Buddhist I can be.

May 22, 2010

Mountain Spring

Spring is late coming to the mountains. The aspen have yet to bud. The grass in the meadow is brown and flat. It sounds with the rustling of dried leaves, not the soft susurration of green shoots. With each gust, fat pinecones drop from the ponderosas like hail.

I have spotted three kinds of striped chipmunk, each of varying courage, and the plain tan ground squirrel. Deer cross the meadow freely and foxes dash from bush to bush. The valley is full of birdsong from dozens of different finches, wrens, swallows, woodpeckers, ravens, magpies, mountain blue jays, hawks, a few lost pigeons, and, after dark, the call of owls. Last night a great shape moved, like a horse made all of knobby knees and elbows, but with the swift, silent gate that seems so improbable in such a large animal. The moose glanced back before disappearing into the darkened forest.

The creeks run fat and swift, overflowing their narrow channels and carving new ones willy-nilly. Though it has not rained in several days, the ponds and lagoons are full, and persistent puddles dot the dirt roads, homes to skimming water bugs. Brilliant white clouds dot the bright blue. The path to the stupa smells of sage and juniper, naturally growing between the boulders on the long slope. It marches upward, ever upward, to the head of the valley where Dharmakaya sits, brilliant white, blue, green, red, yellow, and a shining golden spire. It continues upward beyond into wild backcountry cut by only the occasional four-wheel track. Spring is late coming there too.

But the birds know it will come.

May 20, 2010


The dharma is not rocket science. Life is suffering. Well, duh, we knew that. Sure some of the concepts are esoteric and occasionally things get lost in translation, but fundamentally most of it is pretty simple. ‘Emptiness’ may sound very cryptic, but all it really means is that everything exists with and because of other things – including us. ‘Non-self’ seems counterintuitive until we realize what we call ourselves are really just a complex collection of interdependent and changing phenomena with no fixed existence. If we want to sound really fancy, we can use original terms in Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, or Chinese.

However, the dharma is really very fundamental. That’s why it’s the dharma. The nature of the universe is complex, yes, but it operates according to some very basic principles. Take physics for example. There are really only four forces in the universe: electromagnetism, gravity, the weak and strong nuclear forces. Those four forces may interact in complex ways we can’t always follow or understand, but anything that occurs is a result this interaction.

Likewise, the convoluted thoughts and actions of living beings, humans in particular, are a result of a very small set of driving forces: the desire to achieve happiness and avoid suffering. The trouble occurs not as a direct result of these desires, but from an ignorance about their fundamental nature. The gravity of our ignorance acts like a black hole, pulling us deeper and deeper into suffering. Because black holes give off no visible light, we cannot see them for what they are. But we can feel their effects.

Lucky for us, ignorance is easier to escape than a black hole, which swallows everything, including light. It may take time and some tricky navigation, but all of us have the ability to be free of the forces that push us around, our habitual patterns, karma, and ignorance. The dharma is our star chart, showing us a safe path, warning us where the black holes and supernovas are. It doesn’t take a genius to realize flying through an exploding star is not a good idea. Likewise, seeking freedom from suffering is something we can all find value in.

We’re the ones who make the dharma far more complicated than it needs to be. Just like children, we become distracted by finding shapes in the patterns of the stars, naming constellations, and creating stories to explain why this one looks like a bull and this one like a hunter. They’re just stars. The patterns are of our own invention. They may help us remember the positions and names of each fusion engine, but in the end they don’t tell us anything about why they burn.

Likewise, most of what we actually call the dharma are just concepts to help us understand the fundamental nature of reality. They are not reality themselves. Why are there Four Noble Truths, not three? An Eightfold Path, not ten? Three Hallmarks of Existence, not five? Because these things are best suited to our understanding, the most helpful paths. They operate the same way that finding the North Star is easiest by first locating the Big Dipper. But just like there aren’t actually virgins or lions in the heavens (that I know of), the conceptual thoughts we traditionally call the dharma only actually exist in our minds. We should no more mistake them for existence than we should mistake the letters that spell ‘electromagnetism’ for the physical force the word represents.

So while the dharma may actually be very simple, we, as linguistic creatures, are ever in danger of complicating and misunderstanding it. However, this complexity and misrecognition are not inherent to the dharma itself. Though the teachings may seem daunting from time to time, for their sheer volume if nothing else, the truth of the matter actually remains basic. If we can just keep that in mind, then we can start to feel like, yes, we can actually do this thing called ‘practice’ and, yes, we can actually understand this thing called ‘dharma.’ It is personally accessible to each and every one of us, not just something only a lucky few will ever understand. Recognizing this gives our motivation to actually follow the path a much needed boost.

Keep it simple sweetheart.

May 19, 2010

Shambhala Now

Tiger and I picked up right where we had left off, as though eighteen months had not passed at all. Of course, I don’t expect he actually remembered me. Rather he remembers which bench is his and by sitting in it one enters into a nonverbal but binding contract for affection to his satisfaction. I wouldn’t of thought it possible had I not seen it, but he is even fatter than before, with the pouch of his belly almost dragging on the ground. The staff knows not to feed him, so I can only be impressed at his hunting prowess. As we all should be.

Other things have changed. Naturally. Change happens. But more or less, Shambhala Mountain Center is still Shambhala Mountain Center, with all its chaos and beauty. I’ll be working here for the next ten days, out of a cramped but cozy office on the west side of the Shambhala Lodge, right off the mud room so I can watch people come and go. I’ll be sleeping in the women’s dorm in Shotoku, not far from here, which is good, because I didn’t pack my heavy winter coat and I’ve been told they’re having a cool, wet spring. I don’t think I’ll sit, unless the mood really strikes me. At least, not in the shrine room. I’m sure I’ll while away many a quiet hour under the ponderosas watching the magpies dance just outside the kitchen door. I always liked that better anyway.

I had one day at home. The four days in Chicago with my folks was just lovely. We were all tired by Monday though. Mom and Dad’s knees held out better than I thought they would, especially considering the thousands of stairs we went up and down while riding the L. We saw Unity Temple in Oak Park and Robie House near the University of Chicago and a dozen points in between. I finally got to the Art Institute (third time’s the charm) and spent way too much on a fancy lunch in their fancy restaurant, sitting at the bar talking to a jet setting couple who splits their time between Chicago and DC (and a dozen other points). La. What a life.

The day I spent home doing laundry I kept looking around for my cat, but I’d left her at my folks. Mom and Dad have his and hers cats while I’m gone, since they don’t get along. Isis lives in the basement with Dad and Lucy lives upstairs with Mom. I always miss them, Isis especially. While Tiger is lovely, he’s not allowed in Shotoku to snuggle with at night.

When I left to head west on the train, Uncle Dean and Aunt Ina were in town visiting Grandma. I explained to them my future plans when they asked and they nodded politely. I’m sure I’ll get the scoop from Mom later about the actual reaction of the family, if there is one. But I did my duty. Mom said I had to tell them myself, especially Grandma; she wasn’t going to. I did.

I’m sure in ten days time my beige cube walls and nine to five will seem relaxing, but for now, this does, so I think that’s where I’ll be.

May 13, 2010

Real Travel On The Path

Very often we speak of our practice as a path or journey. Buddhism abounds with travel metaphors. We have The Noble Eightfold Path, after all, not The Noble Eightfold Concentric Circles. Sometimes this is a helpful metaphor, in that it gives us something to strive for, and sometimes it is deceptive because it gives us the impression there is something to strive for. Tricky, that, which is one of the things I love about Buddhism.

However, when it comes down to the very practical issues concerning actual physical travel, what does the buddhadharma have to teach us? After all, travel can be stressful, right?

Perhaps not. I think this is the first myth we tell ourselves. We create this story in our mind about the great ordeal that is modern travel. We have to get up so early and wait so long and go through such a process. But honestly, how difficult is it to stand in a line or sit on a plane?

What is really stressful about travel has very little to do with security checkpoints and weather delays. It has to do with two things: 1) breaking out of our habitual patterns and 2) not being in control.

First, we have to contemplate the very thought of going somewhere new. We have to take time away from work, find the cheapest plane tickets, somewhere to stay, things to do. We have so many questions they buzz in our heads like bees and we don’t know which to answer first. What happens if we get lost? What happens if our luggage is sent to Burmuda? What do we do if the hotel looses our reservation? We have to contemplate all these potential unfamiliar situations and try to plan for contingencies we can’t even think of yet.

When we get to where we’re going everything is unfamiliar. The little coffee shop we always have breakfast at is hundreds of miles away. The weather is different and we don’t know if we’ll need a coat or not. The people may speak oddly and we may not know what is considered polite behavior anymore. All of this can put our mind into a kind of overwhelmed state as we try to scramble to categorize the differences. We want everything to fit neatly into its assigned mental folder, like it did back home, and the filing gets backed up while we try to shuffle these new perceptions. We don’t have our habitual ways of acting and thinking to fall back on.

These habitual patterns are the ways we attempt to control our lives. If travelers are often perceived as grouchy or stressed, I believe it is because travel necessitates placing ourselves in situations over which we have no control. We can’t control when the plane is going to arrive or if the train will be on time. We have to sit and wait on rely on other people, strangers, to take care of us. We have to trust they know how and care enough to do their best. People don’t like this. I’ve watched established businessmen in their tailored suits squirm like three-year-olds when the stewardess announces a slight delay.

“In the West we grow up with the sense that we must learn to take control of our lives. Little is left to the workings of fate. By the time we are adults, we must be able to make decisions and take responsibility for the direction of our lives,” notes psychotherapist Rob Price (“The Solace of Surrender,” Tricycle, Spring 2007).

But you know what? These two things – breaking our patterns and letting go of the search for control – are essential on the Buddhist path.

Meditation is often described as way to cultivate mindfulness. “Mindful awareness frees us from habitual patterns, opening up a space between stimulus and response, allowing us to consciously choose how to respond to things rather than blindly react,” writes Lama Surya Das in “The Heart-Essence of Buddhist Meditation.” (Tricycle, Winter 2007)

But very often even meditation becomes a habitual pattern. We sit for so many minutes at such and such a time and have these kinds of experiences. In many ways we may try to fall into that as we wait in the airport or at the bus stop. Meditation becomes the familiar thing we can carry with us anywhere. While travelling it can be a great source of comfort and calm. It can be very handy to be well practiced in sitting and doing nothing (seemingly) for long stretches when the airport has been closed for the third time in as many hours. That’s shouldn’t be underestimated. However, mindfulness includes being mindful of using practice techniques as a crutch. Luckily, meditation can bring this to light for us as well.

Travel can do the same. Keeping that open space between stimulus and response is essential in new surroundings. Letting ourselves become overwhelmed by our mental paperwork is not a good way to enjoy Hong Kong. Mindfulness can help us drop of the patterning and categorizing and be fully present where we are. After all, isn’t that one of the reasons we travel in the first place?

When we can start to do that, let go of our habitual patterns and simply be present, we can start to realize there really is very little we need to control, let alone can control. “It has often surprised me,” Rob Price continues, “that in the process or surrender what I give up is fear and struggle. A kind of strength comes from truly giving up. Something changes when I genuinely let go and ask for help. The challenge is maintaining this openness, rather than grasping at solid forms or quick solutions to feel safe. It's not that I give up personal responsibility, believing that some external entity is going to rescue me. Rather, I realize that if I truly listen to the innate wisdom of my Buddha-nature, it will guide me, ‘Trust your inner know ledge-wisdom,’ my teacher Lama Tauten Ye, she used to say.”

Oddly enough, I find that when we can let go of the need for control, everything becomes much more workable. Because when we reach for control all we notice is how it slips further and further from our grasp and we work harder and harder. Then when we finally let go, it is a great relief. We realize we don’t have to worry so much. We can trust the gate attendants and stewards and baggage handlers to do their jobs. We realize that even with the inevitable delays and errors, everything is actually fairly easy to fix (barring unpronounceable volcanic eruptions). The system is actually designed with these things in mind.

Travel is a great opportunity to open ourselves to trusting others. I’ve never run into a problem so bad it couldn’t be solved with a please, thank you, a genuine smile, and a little bit of patience. Most folk will actually bend over backwards to help you out, especially if you are genuinely grateful.

So next time you book a trip, remember what an opportunity this is for practice. Don’t cling too tightly to schedules or contingency plans. Leave room for openness. Trust yourself to be able to handle situations as they arise, just like you would back home where everything is familiar. Things are going to happen you can’t control and you’re going to have to roll with it. Trust other people to be there to help you out. Realize that when someone is rude (and they will be), they’re just suffering because they’re out of the comfort zone too.

Travel can make the metaphor of the path very real.

May 12, 2010

Of the World

Everyplace a drop landed a spark lit. A thousand silver dancing lights in black reflective pools. It’s just rain on asphalt under the harsh streetlights. I remember the way the water feels around my ankles, cool and smooth. The pavement was rough and warm from the daytime sun under my bare soles.

And you can hear the rain. Not just the rain, but each individual drop as it makes a sound landing in the skim of water on the empty parking lot. They each make a little pinging sound and each create a ripple in the water, reflecting the white, white lights overhead. And each drop that lands sounds different whether it lands on grass or leaves or water or pavement. Together they blend and mix, add to the shush of tires and the wind in the oak trees to create that sound most people think of as rain.

This is an old storm, its thunder long spent and now it has settled in for the duration. Oh, there’s still a bit of lightning left in her, a big of bang to rattle the windows, but mostly she just rains. It comes on steady, like she knows her job. She’s good at it; she’s done it often enough over the years and there’s no need to be flashy about it. She shooed her rambunctious children before her and they made their presence felt before moving on to newer, more exciting places. Now the rain falls steady as the rhythm of a rocking chair.

For the most part, people don’t notice. At least, they act like they don’t or like they shouldn’t, as though the weather is somehow beneath them. I always notice. I put down my book or turn off my television. I go to my windows; I put on my coat. And sometimes I wander around in the empty parking lot next to my house, splashing in the puddles, listening to the raindrop pings, and chasing their dancing lights.

It’s not just the rain. It’s the city, too. Rain sounds different in the city. It looks and smells differently. It falls differently, as the busy, busy activity of all the little human bees stir up the atmosphere. Storms move differently around cities. Snow makes them soft, rain makes them bear up, and heat makes them press down. Rain isn’t just something that happens to the world. The world happens to the rain.

We need that connection, even though we pretend we don’t. But we invented the electric light over a hundred years ago and buildings still have windows. The best office is the one with the view, and not a view of a parking lot either, but a view of a park. We keep office plants and house plants. We think we control these things and we can shape the world as we see fit without realizing the world has already shaped us. After all, we send flowers to sick friends as a sign of life, hope, healing. We didn’t invent that love. I’m pretty sure the flowers were here first.

Not very many people will go out and walk in the rain. Most are smarter than that. But we all know the way it sounds. We all see every little dancing spark and hear every little calling drop, even if we don’t think we do. Everyone knows how rain smells. But most folks don’t understand they helped make the rain sound, smell, and look at is does. The water feels cool against my ankles because the pavement feels warm because fifty years ago someone decided they ought to pave that lot. So mundane. So forgotten and yet indelible.

People think we’re just in the world; they forget we’re of it.

May 11, 2010

Without the Net

“Do people from the middle of the country just pick up and move to the coasts? I mean, do people from Nebraska do that?” Grandma asked.

She can't fathom why in a few months I’ll probably be moving to Los Angeles. Truth is, I’ve been a coward. I know she won’t understand and she certainly won’t approve (but that was a battle lost long ago), if I tell her I’m going to be a Buddhist chaplain. So, I take the easy way out, sidestep her questions and try to make it about work. The economy is bad. My industry is very bad. Los Angeles is bigger. There are more jobs.

“Well, you might just have to find whatever you can here,” she states with a kind of baffled certainty, as if that should be the end of the matter.

My mother and I have already whacked this bush to death. Even if I found the perfect job here, I wouldn’t stay. They don’t understand that. They value stability. It’s a good thing, stability. I’ve tried to point out that remaining in one area, never living anywhere else, is not good for my long term career trajectory (assuming I have one). I’m not how sure how much that is true, especially if I'm not longer as set on being a licenced architect as I once was. But new architects do seem to move around a lot their first decade or so out of school. Dad backs me up. He’s been reading.

He’s great, my dad. I think he’s never been really sure what it is architects or planners do. I mean, abstractly, everyone knows architects design buildings and planners design cities, but that’s like saying magicians do tricks. So he buys books and reads about architects and artists and listens to the weekly radio program on KFAB about new development going on in Omaha. He saves newspaper clippings for me from the Omaha World Herald and when there are things going on, like building openings or new loft tours downtown, sometimes we go. It’s fun.

“Yeah, I was reading in that book about Julius Shulman [a famous architecture photographer] about all these architects he’s worked with and it seems they were always moving around every couple of years, from this firm to that firm. At least until they started their own practice,” he chimes in. Or more like, rumbles in, given his size and voice.

It’s a big world with lots of cities with lots of buildings and a person can only learn so much from books. It’s not enough to be educated. One also has to be worldly.

It’s true, but it’s also a smoke screen. Because when it comes to my maternal Grandma Delmira I just don’t want to deal. We speak two different languages, she and I. Once, I got a great coffee table book on sale and I was showing it off, so enthralled by photographs of the galaxy. “Why does that matter?” she asked in a clear tone meaning it didn’t. I may not be a little kid anymore, but if I had been you might have thought someone had just thrown my most recent proud crayon drawing in the garbage. So I avoid the conversations with Grandma I’m more than willing to have with anyone else in the world.

My aunt and uncle came down for my little graduation party. I’m a bit embarrassed to say I made them sit outside in the cold the entire time. But it was supposed to be a picnic darn it, and I’d been cooped up inside all week, and I felt good to be outside. It’s May. They aren’t supposed to be predicting snow this week. But anyway, I sat and gave my Aunt Donalee the entire scoop, although she knew most of it already, with my Uncle Dave sitting silent beside her. Beyond him, I’m sure Grandma Delmira was listening for all she was worth, but she didn’t say anything. I know they don’t understand it and they probably don’t agree or approve either. They’re good Christians, so it kind of comes with the territory. But Donalee likes to know what’s going on and she’s never judgmental or disagreeable about whatever it is I’m planning now.

I love my family, and I’ve always had them at my back. Oh, I’ve lived in Colorado for a couple of summers, and I’ve travelled the most out of any of us, usually by myself, but if I need to move a couch or I get a flat tire, they’re never more than an hour away. Mom brought over frozen casseroles to bake for the picnic, because I’d been sick all week and still didn’t feel like cooking. She took care of the fruit and veggies and cups and plates and forks. She even brought me a little bouquet of roses. She paid for it all and never asked me to pay her back, even though I fully intend to when I see her next. Who’s going to do that when I move to California?

I’ll be flying without a safety net, basically for the first time in my life. My folks asked what I wanted for my birthday and I just said I hoped they’d help me move to Los Angeles. That’s enough of a burden on them. But once I’m settled and they’ve headed home, what then?

I supposed if it comes to that, I’ll have a sangha. I’ll have been admitted to the chaplaincy program and there will be other students, classmates, teachers, coworkers, friends. But I’m still just a Nebraska girl and in Nebraska the first resource is family. Sure neighbors help neighbors, especially out in the rural parts of the state where lots of my family is from, but family is first.

I’ve heard when monks and nuns take their vows, they renounce their family, not in a harsh way, but just as a way of giving up ties to the world, attachments that keep up bound up in samsara, the cycle of suffering. Maybe this is one of the reasons monasticism would have such a hard time catching on here in the West. Maybe it’s also because we’d don’t have families as large as we used to, so cutting ties with one child can drastically reduce the size of a family with only two or three.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s what I’m trying to do, in a small way. Let go of attachments – to my family, to Nebraska, to all the habitual patterns I’ve built up in my life (like cowardly avoidance of directly answering my grandmother’s awkward questions). I hope I’m not deluding myself into thinking that I’ll be able to turn over a new leaf the minute I land on the west coast, that I’ll somehow become that person I’ve always wanted to be – diligent, perceptive, compassionate. (Especially the diligent bit.)

But when I do have these kinds of difficulties communicating with people close to me, be they my grandma or professors or just acquaintances, it makes me think the chaplaincy program is exactly where I need to be. I have so much to learn. I don’t know exactly what my future holds. I still hope to go back for a PhD at some point, still hope to find a place in academia, still intend to teach, still want to write, but I’m not entirely sure how these paths will blend together. I’ve never been accused of lacking ambition at least (and that’s a whole ‘nother ball of worry).

So I hugged my grandma and told her I loved her and tried to shrug off the awkward way some of her comments that day made me feel. And I was grateful for my family, especially my parents and brother and sister-in-law and my aunt and uncle who drove all the way down from Custer County just to sit outside in the cold and eat store-bought casserole. I know, if it really hits the fan, they’ll be there for me, no matter where in the world I happen to be at the time.

As for moving couches, well I hear beer and pizza make great bribes.

May 05, 2010

The (Not So) Epic Battle

I was somewhere I should not have been. Or, if we discard notions of should or should not, at least I was somewhere I felt myself the outsider. There were crowds of people gathering for a ceremony and because I was there I was gathered up with them. The community watched as the young people were sent through massive doors and because I was there I was also sent. But I was not one of them. I was there by choice, of my own free will, but I was not one of them.

It was a test, a trial, a bloodbath. Everyone cowered before the young male, the leader, he who had killed before. They kept their distance, explicitly yielding unto him the space he felt was his due. I did not. When he challenged me, and threatened those others sent before him, I took up two straight swords and fought with him. All were surprised that I, the interloper, challenged him. They were surprised I challenged not only him but the assumption that insisted these young people spill each others’ blood for dominance. I didn’t want dominance. I wanted to bring down the very institution that accepted murder as a rite of passage.

He rose to the challenge, full of grace and aggression. Circling me like a cat with a new plaything that fights its own instinct to eat it in order to prolong the play. I would have none of it and remained silent and still, waiting for him. He attacked. I fought with the shorter sword in my left hand, held back to catch his blade, and the longer blade in my right hand, forward to catch his blood. These were not rapiers or foils, nor katana and wakizashi. They were perfectly straight, tapering to an asymmetrical point like a knife, sharpened along one whole edge and along both sides on a third of the length back from the tip. They were designed for stabbing and cutting, but thick enough to catch a much heavier blade without braking. The grips were carved and straight, with no hilt or hand guard – blades designed for attack rather than defense. To survive, the one who wields these blades must be swift enough to leave only air where the enemy aims, or deflect and control the other’s blade, turning it away, giving it nothing solid on which to rest. She must be as a ghost, right up to the moment of attack.

And attack I did. Though I reviled the ritual violence I had been unwitting thrust into, the elders who perpetuated it, the young leader who reveled in it, and though my compassion sang for the frightened youth subjected to this horror, it is also true that I wanted to fight. Not to kill perhaps, if I could avoid it, but yes to test myself and spill blood and sweat and tears, my own and his. I enjoyed it.

He was surprised. I was smaller, lighter, more contained, but I held my ground. I was vicious in my own way. My style was strange to him and might just prove a match, but rather than halting his attack, he reveled in me, much as reveled in him. He fought with a shark’s smile on his beautiful face and I greeted it with death’s grin. There was blood and sweat and tears, but I cannot speak to the outcome, except to say I am still alive.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure this one out, nor even a minor in psychology. The analogy is apparent in the light of day; I was dreaming about college. I forgot it the moment I woke and only remembered hours later, that youth’s blood splatter torso and manic grin a vivid image against the banality of my waking life. The comparison of college to this epic battle seems ridiculous on the face of it – but it’s my struggle, so my ego makes it epic. My subconscious re-presents a complex navigation of misty cultural expectations into a simple fight for victory over the aggressor. If only it came down to that: one fight, one battle, one enemy. Destroy him and the foundation collapses, the system comes crashing down ending everyone else’s struggles, setting them free to live in happiness. Heroic, that. Simple. Delusional.

But someday it’s going to make for wonderful fiction.

May 03, 2010

DN Column - Goodbye & No, I Don't Have A Point

Doesn't that say it all? Except perhaps thanks, once again, to my brilliant editor and partner in crime these past 18 months (and fellow Opinion rat a full year before that), the indomitable Jake Meador. We need to keep in touch.

To readers, UNL: Thank you, farewell


May 01, 2010

Digital Samsara

I have been thinking about the future of my writing. This blog is exactly what it purports itself to be – a journal. However, I am thinking it is time for this to change, if not suddenly, then perhaps gradually, as I am changing both outwardly and inwardly.

“Better to write for yourself and have no public than write for the public and have no self,” English literary critic and writer Cyril Connolly warned. Of course, just to be perverse, I immediately wondered, in the Buddhist sense, “What if I have no self?” But I don’t think that was what Connolly had on his mind, and the meaning is well taken.

As a journal, Buddhist in Nebraska has been of enormous help to me. This past year it has been the source of much catharsis and also much focus. When I find myself trying to settle my mind to work, but not yet quite able to dive into my task I will often write a short post. I do not edit these posts, aside for a cursory read for grammar, and only very rarely do I withhold them. Partially, as a result my neurosis is there for all the world to see. There has been a lot of it this year as my rambling have become incoherent under stress. More telling, perhaps, is the narrowing of focus – on me and my daily goings on.

Earlier in the life of this blog I often explored Buddhist topics, usually topics I myself was exploring, but there has been very little of that for some time. I always try to find the dharma in my thoughts and actions, but it is not always as explicit as it has been. I have not been reading my dharma books; I have several on my shelves barely touched, aspirations more than inspirations. As one who loves books so this nags at me as disrespectful, as though the books themselves demand to be read and I have turned my back on them saying I have no time. It is the same with magazines, blogs, podcasts, and other sources of the dharma.

Also, for the past two and a half years another love has gained a growing role in my life – the Daily Nebraskan. Through my weekly column I seek to persuade, entertain, and provoke thinking within my readers, but that seems to be all the extroversion and coherency I can manage in my writing while also under this level of stress. The dharma is almost always present in my columns, but also almost always subversive. The remainder of blog posts have been fairly egocentric as a result of spending an increasing amount of time at the paper both as a columnist and now editor. (I love being an editor because I get to teach and help other writers.)

And it strikes me – unless you know me personally, these posts may not be of best use to you. In fact, one of the most common entrances to my blog remains to this day a post from October 10, 2006, “Inherent Existence.” I was trying to figure this topic out myself and so, apparently, are a lot of other people. It is the number one Google result and number eight Answers result when you type those two words into a search. (At least on my Google, and I’ve wondered if their lovely algorithms aren’t tailoring my result, but other people do apparently find their way to the blog via Google.) The most recent comment for this post was left on April 9, 2010.

After the main page, “Inherent Existence” is the most common entry point to Buddhist in Nebraska by far. Thanks to my site meter, I can track such things as entry pages, visits per day, referrals, and the geographic location (non-specific) of readers. For example, someone recently found their way to the blog by typing “Buddhist string” into Yahoo! and hitting upon my post “Ball of String” from May 2009. I am also linked to by a number of writers in the Buddhablogosphere, for which I am eternally grateful and somewhat puzzled.

I am puzzled because I generally do not consider myself a great source of Buddhist wisdom or even experience, being more or less isolated from sangha and teacher, only marginally by geography. In terms of “Inherent Existence” I can only hope I got the explanation right. At least, no more educated teacher has commented with a rant about leading seekers astray. Yet.

However, one thing is also clear. In the last year, readership has fallen from over 800 unique visitors a month, always a modest number, to just over 400. Which supports the supposition that my stress-fueled egocentric meanderings are not the most helpful to dharma seekers.

I am shortly to embark on a significant change in my life, not least of which because I will be leaving Nebraska. ("Dear Nebraska: It's not you, it's me...")

“I am glad to hear you like your soon to be fellow chaplaincy students since you will probably be seeing a fair amount of them. That is assuming the college is going to let the likes of you in. Someone should probably warn them about you. :P” my brother lovingly wrote after my return to the prairie states. (He’s not wrong. Someone really ought to warn them. I am not always the easiest of students to have around.)

So as I change and as the focus of my life changes from architecture to chaplaincy, I expect my writing will change too. I also intend to seek more balance. I am certain I will end up working just as hard, but I am hopeful the struggle will die down. The blog may move to a new address, one appropriate to a new focus, but worry not, I’m sure there will still be enough neurotic rambling to go around. Change is constant, after all.

The wheel of dharma turns even in digital samsara.

Strange, Strange World

Another three years of school. At least. Even as the thought crossed my mind, I wondered if I were crazy. Now I know I am, but crazy in a good way.

Los Angeles was greener than I feared it would be and that lifted my spirit immeasurably. The surrounding mountains give the San Gabrielle Valley a definitive sense of place, despite its homogeneous suburban nature. And it is, just suburb after suburb, as I saw thanks to my ride on the wrong bus-of-a-thousand-stops. The difference between here and there is that most of the businesses have signs in languages other than English.

I walked past a brand new Wal-Mart and an enormous and empty office building on my way to the steep drive that leads into University of the West’s hill campus. The buildings are from the sixties, two-story beige blocks with inoperable but generous windows and flat, overhanging roofs held up by square columns. They are set in a landscape of parking lots, steep roads, green slopes, and lush planters full of carefully sculpted trees and blooming flowers.

Although reassuring, more important by far than the setting were the people. Danny Fischer, head of the chaplaincy program, has good handshake and a quick smile under horn-rimmed glasses. He gave generously of his time, making sure I met the other chaplaincy students and sat in on several classes. We talked about many topics, beyond just the mechanics of the program.

The first night I attended a class from the Religious Studies department head, Dr. Locke, that had me sitting forward in my desk. (Or maybe it was because the tiny desks must have been bought at the Guantanamo moving sale.) The hermeneutics of texts sounds amazing dry, but it was actually rather fascinating. Dr. Locke lectures with a great deal of energy for someone who looks like he just walked out of the Andes three weeks after the plane went down. He characterizes himself as a “self-hating professor” who plays the game of academia without buying into it. “My goal for this class is to make a Buddhist cry,” he declared with an evil grin as he passed out the week’s reading assignment. I could get to like this man very much.

I attended two other classes, both of which were on interesting topics and well taught. In one, I was mesmerized by the nun sitting beside me rapidly typing notes on her flashy laptop in what I believe was Chinese. About half of the students in those classes were monks and nuns, or “Venerable” as they are addressed.

On Wednesday, the other chaplaincy students took time out of their day to have breakfast with me. Three of the five are in the Army, and the one lady who was out sick (feel better!) is Navy bound. The final student, Mike, is interested in health care chaplaincy. They assured me I could find somewhere to live nearby for much less than I had feared. That night, Samya, one of the soon to be Army chaplains, Mike, and Venerable Hyun Gok (sp?), took me out to an authentic Thai restaurant and a little sight-seeing in Hollywood. John Wayne has surprising small feet.

As Samya’s car inched through rush hour traffic, Venerable Hyun Gok reached across the seat and gently took my hand. With a feather light touch, she traced my nails and turned my hand over and over, then took the other. She looked up at me, her small face a series of smiling circles. “You’re very independent,” she stated.

“So my mother tells me,” I agreed.

The next day I set sail back to Nebraska. It was a bumpy ride, especially coming through the thunderstorms into Omaha. The young man in the seat next to me tried to carry on a coherent conversation, but architecture styles and construction equipment sales and alma maters don’t seem to be very relevant when your stomach just tried to dislocate your heart and you’re gripping the armrest fit to break the bones of your hand, though I appreciated the effort. The cabin broke out in cheers and applause when we felt the landing gear make definite contact with the tarmac.

My decision is made. This summer I will need to interview with the admission committee. Should their decision be favorable, come August, I’ll be California bound. Yup, me, Monica, the stubborn tom-boy who hated school and fell asleep in church every Sunday until I refused to go when I was fifteen, pursuing her fourth college degree in religion of all things. And more than that, feeling utterly secure making such a choice.

It’s a very strange world, indeed.