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I’m not a Buddhist. At least, I don’t think I follow Buddhism closely enough these days to qualify for the title. I have studied the religion which is now represented by the many groups (especially in Asia) that profess various forms of the Buddhist doctrine and that venerate Buddha  as a religion and also use it as a philosophy.

A very simplified description of the teaching of Buddha is that life is permeated with suffering which is caused by desire. Suffering ceases when desire ceases. Enlightenment is obtained through right conduct. Wisdom and meditation releases one from desire and therefore, suffering.

I would contend that the path I followed through reading, meditation and even formal study at a Zen monastery was a path of philosophy rather than religion. I never accepted things like reincarnation. I like desire too much.  I consider my path to be a kind of American Buddhism. Some might say it is Western Buddhism.

I don’t use American Buddhism as a negative term, though some genuine Buddhists might see it as such. There are many uses of the word “Zen” attached to everything from playing tennis to the “Zen” of dogs and cats – that seem very wrong applications of Buddhism.  If you were really critical of American Buddhism, it would probably be because you consider it just a kind of self-help program to reduce stress.

It is difficult to define these things. What is Zen Buddhism? On zen-buddhism.net they say that “Trying to explain or define Zen Buddhism, by reducing it to a book, to a few definitions, or to a website is impossible. Instead, it freezes Zen in time and space, thereby weakening its meaning.”

Nevertheless, I will say that Zen Buddhism was an outgrowth of Mahayana, the “meditation” sect of Buddhism. It developed in Japan from its earlier Chinese counterpart. It also divided into two branches.

Binzai is the more austere and aristocratie monasticism that emphasizes meditation on the paradoxes that people may know as koans. (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?)

The other branch is Sōtō which is probably the more popular following. It emphasizes ethical actions and charity, tenderness, benevolence and sympathy, as well as meditation on whatever occurs as illumination.

The Buddhism that seemed to appeal to the American mind offered escape and engagement – two things that may seem to be in opposition. The idea of “10 minute mindfulness” should seem impossibly simplistic and unrealistic to anyone, but the concept sells books and fills workshops.

The latest book I have read related to Buddhism is by Robert Wright. In Why Buddhism is True, Wright uses biology, psychology and philosophy to show how meditation can lead to a spiritual life in a secular age.

You might not know that evolutionary psychology is a field of study. Wright combines it with neuroscience to show why he believes Buddhism is true, and how it can free us of delusions and save us from ourselves, as individuals and as a species.

In a earlier book, The Moral Animal, he wrote about how evolution shaped the human brain. Our mind is designed to sometimes delude us about ourselves and about the world in order to survive. Unfortunately, this leads to much unhappiness.

Some of this comes from natural selection which he says makes animals in general “recurrently dissatisfied.” It leads us to anxiety, depression, anger, and greed. Wright believes Buddhism was a kind of answer to natural selection.

If human suffering is a result of not seeing the world clearly, meditation can clarify that seeing and so will make us better, happier people.

I was first introduced to his new book through an interview with him on Fresh Air. Host Terry Gross asked Wright about how natural selection is at odds with the Buddhist notion that pleasure is fleeting:

“This was in the Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment is that a big source of our suffering is that we crave things, we want things, but then the gratification tends not to last. So we find ourselves in a state of almost perennial dissatisfaction. And, in fact, people may have heard that Buddhism says that life is full of suffering, and it’s true that suffering is the translation of the word dukkha. It’s a respectable translation, but a lot of people think that that word would be just as well translated as “unsatisfactoryness.”

Certainly when you think about the logic of natural selection, it makes sense that we would be like this. Natural selection built us to do some things, a series of things that help us get genes into the next generation. Those include eating food so we stay alive, having sex — things like that.

If it were the case that any of these things brought permanent gratification, then we would quit doing them, right? I mean, you would eat, you’d feel blissed out, you’d never eat again. You’d have sex, you’d, like, lie there basking in the afterglow, never have sex again. Well, obviously that’s not a prescription for getting genes into the next generation. So natural selection seems to have built animals in general to be recurrently dissatisfied. And this seems to be a central feature of life — and it’s central to the Buddhist diagnosis of what the problem is.”

An earlier book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher, was what get me thinking a lot more about mindfulness.  He worked to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society and was the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

The practice of “mindfulness” is a more than 2000-year-old Buddhist method of living fully in the present, observing ourselves, our feeling, others and our surroundings without judging them.

I read his book Wherever You Go There You Are when it wa first published during a time when I was more into formal study of Zen and meditation.

I liked that it treated meditation as a natural activity that can be practiced anytime and anywhere. No joining a group, no props or special cushions.

Mindfulness and living in the moment can be improved with techniques such as “non-doing” and concentration.

Like defining Buddhism, these terms are simple but complex. Non-doing is very different from doing nothing. We live very much in a “doer” culture, and in such a place non-doing is a big change. Sitting down to meditate, even for a short time, is a time for non-doing, but it means you will be “working” at consciousness and intention. Anyone who has ever tried to “empty their mind” knows how very difficult that can be.

There are several chapters in the book on parenting as a form of meditation – and children as “live-in Zen masters.”

I think Kabat-Zinn would agree with Wright on how Buddhist meditation can counteract the biological pull we have toward dissatisfaction:

What I can say about meditation is that it attacks the levers that natural selection kind of uses to control us, at a very fundamental level. … By our nature we just seek good feelings and avoid bad feelings, that’s just our nature. Buddhism diagnosed this as kind of a problem and remarkably came up with a technique that allows you to actually disempower those levers, to no longer respond to the fundamental incentive structure of trying to avoid painful feelings and try to always seek the thing that promises to be gratifying. That’s an amazing thing — that it can work.


More

Listen to the interview with Wright on npr.org

Read “What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t” by Adam Gopnik – The New Yorker

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cow grazing under the full moon

The Moon will be full today in Paradelle at 5:42 pm. It is probably best known as the Corn Moon, Planting Moon, and the Hare’s Moon. The Arapaho Indians referred to this Full Moon as “when the ponies shed their shaggy hair.” It is the Flower Moon in Algonquian.

I chose one of its lesser known names, the Milk Moon. During May cows, goats, and sheep (at least they did and may still if they are free to do so) get to enjoy the newly-sprouting weeds, grasses, and herbs in the pastures and so produce very rich milk.

The exact moment at which the moon is fullest — when the sun, Earth and moon align — won’t be visible to observers in North America, because the moon will be below the horizon. On the U.S. East Coast observers will see the moon rise a few minutes before 8 p.m., 2 hours after the full moon’s peak. (Find out what time the moon will be visible at your location with this moonrise and moonset calculator.)

According to folklore, it is lucky to hold a moonstone, a gemstone that looks like a milky moon, in your mouth at the full moon. It is said that it will reveal the future.

Folklore also says that a the eyes of a cat will be open wider during a full moon than at any other time.

Though the term “moon struck” usually means mentally deranged, crazed or dreamily romantic or bemused, it originally meant a person was chosen by the Goddess and the person was said to be blessed.

Vesak Day is one of the biggest days of the year in the Buddhist calendar and is celebrated by Buddhists all over the world on the day of the full moon in May. Sometimes informally called “Buddha’s Birthday”, it commemorates the birth, enlightenment (Buddhahood), and death (Parinirvāna) of Gautama Buddha in the Theravada or southern tradition.

 

 

 

Pebble meditation is a technique to introduce children to the calming practice of meditation. It was developed by Zen master, best selling author, and  Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Thich Nhat Hanh. In A Handful of Quiet: Happiness in Four Pebbles and A Pebble for Your Pocket, he offers illustrated guides for children and parents.

It can be practiced alone or with a group or family and can help relieve stress, increase concentration, encourage gratitude and help children deal with difficult emotions.

A very simplified how-to of the process:

  1. A participant places four pebbles on the ground next to him or her.
  2. At three sounds of a bell,  each person picks up the first pebble and says, “Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh. Flower, fresh.”  Breathe together quietly for three in and out breaths.
  3. The next pebble is for “Breathing in I see myself as a mountain, breathing out, I feel solid. Mountain, solid.
  4. Pebble 3’s recitation is “Breathing in I see myself as still, clear water, breathing out, I reflect things as they really are. Clear water, reflecting.”
  5. And the fourth pebble has us saying “Breathing in I see myself as space, breathing out, I feel free. Space, free.”
  6. End with three sounds of the bell.

This technique is not only for children. I would compare my own use of a grief stone to this practice. In some workshops, participants may find pebbles that can represent people in their lives and use that pebble when they breathe in and out and feel connection to that person.

There are pebble meditations that focus on specific areas of growth. For example, using the six paramitas, or six perfected realizations, are the elements that help us cross from suffering to liberation. The six are generosity, diligence, mindfulness trainings, inclusiveness, meditation and understanding.

Another pebble meditation uses the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha), another uses  the Four Immeasurables (loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity).

Some people write words on the stones and use them on a regular basis.

What is there about the physicality of a pebble that helps one connect to a particular idea?

 

Here, Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation is presented by Plum Village brother Thay Phap Huu.
(From the DVD, “Mindful Living Every Day,” an orientation to the Plum Village practice of mindful living, available at Parallax Press

Saint Valentine would be surprised, perhaps even angered, to find out that he has become a symbol of romantic love.

As far as we can tell, he was a priest near Rome who was executed for his Christian beliefs in the third century. A feast in his name was first held in 496. For a millennium, he was venerated, not as a saint who stood for love, but as one associated with healing the sick and crippled.

By the late Middle Ages, he was seen as the patron saint of epileptics, especially in Germany and Central Europe, where artworks from the period depict him curing children of their seizures.

It seems that it was not until 1382, when Chaucer wrote a poem describing a February Val­entine’s Day, as a time when birds and people chose their mates.

The birth of the greetings card industry fueled an America Valentine craze in the 1840s. Today, 141 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged worldwide each year. One in ten couples get engaged on February 14.

The change in St. Valentine from being a saint of Christian love into a symbol of romantic love can be discussed as the change in our attitudes towards love over the centuries.

Japan has some interesting Valentine’s Day traditions. It is observed by women who present chocolate gifts (handmade ones are better) to men.

Honmei choco (“true feeling chocolate”) has also become “obligation chocolate” as women are expected to not only gift boyfriends, prospective boyfriends, and husbands, but bosses and almost any guy who has done them some favor.

There is also a reciprocal “holiday” called White Day which is celebrated one month later on March 14th when men buy candy and gifts for women. It is also observed in South Korea and Taiwan. White Day gifts are usually more expensive –  jewelery, white chocolate, and white lingerie are popular.

Black Day (April 14) is a South Korean informal tradition when singles get together and eat jajangmyeon (white noodles with black bean sauce) and is a celebration for those who did not give or receive gifts on Valentine’s Day or White Day.

All these 14th day celebrations bring me back to Saint Valentine, who was martyred on February 14 in 269 A.D. There is an alternate origin story about him and the holiday that is more romantic.

In his time, there was a shortage of soldiers enlisting, so Emperor Claudius II forbade single men to get married in order to increase his army. Valentine’s priestly rebellion was to officiate secret weddings fo the loving couples. When this was discovered, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death.

According to legend, while he was on “death row” he fell in love with the daughter of a guard who visited him. On the day he was executed, he left a note for her professing his love and signed it “Love from your Valentine.” The original Valentine’s Day card?

If you want to turn up the heat a bit on this day, you might consider a Tantric approach to this holiday.

Tantrism appears in both Buddhism and Hinduism and influenced many religious trends and movements going back to the 5th century.

But Tantra in itself is neither a religion nor an “ism” but a fundamental spiritual science.

In the way that Valentine’s story went from religious love to romantic love, Tantrism is better known now by many Westerners in the context of Tantric sex.

It is an ancient sexual discipline inspired by Buddhist philosophy. Generally, it is a slower, more conscious and more spiritual version of lovemaking.

tantric yogaIf Saint Valentine might be offended by his modern holiday, you would think that Buddhism in the bedroom would also be offensive.

In Introduction to Tantra : The Transformation of Desire, you learn that the practice began some 2,500 years ago and was seen as a way to transform desire into a route to enlightenment. It was associated with the early practice of yoga.

A more modern-day and physical take on the topic can be found in Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century and is full of “cosmic orgasms, chakras, firebreath and the clench and hold.”

A middle ground between physical and spiritual, is the aim of The Tantra Experience: Evolution through Love.

It seems very seductive to think that this practice would enable us to contact the ultimate truths, but today might be a good day to start down that path.

I read a post this past week by Parker J. Palmer called “Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods” and I was jealous of his week away. This past week has been tough and escaping to a cabin in the woods on a silent, solitary retreat sounds very good.

He took a few daily notes each day. Nothing formal. And posted them on the On Being blog. Here are a few of his notes  with my own.

It’s 9:00 p.m., an hour before Quaker midnight, but I’m going to turn in anyway. I’m drowsy and at peace. The fire I’ve been staring into seems to have burned away the worries that tagged along with me.

I like this idea of a 10 o’clock “Quaker midnight.” In the woods, camping in a tent or a cabin without electricity, the night is shorter. The daylight goes and you light your little world with a fire, a candle, a flashlight, but you tend to go to bed earlier. That’s a good thing.

The Taoist master Chuang Tzu tells about a man crossing a river when an empty skiff slams into his. The man does not become angry, as he would if there was a boatman in the other skiff. So, says Chuang Tzu: “Empty your own boat as you cross the river of the world.”

I had heard this story before. In The Way of Chuang Tzu, Thomas Merton did his own versions of the sayings of the most spiritual of Chinese philosophers. Chuang Tzu. He is one of the Taoist sages that transformed Indian Buddhism into a Buddhism in China which evolved into what we know by its Japanese name of Zen.

“If a man crosses a river and an empty boat collides with his own skiff, even though he be bad tempered man he will not become very angry. But if he sees a man in the boat, he will shout at him to steer clear. If the shout is not heard, he will shout again, and yet again, and begin cursing. And all because someone is in the boat. Yet if the boat were empty, he would not be shouting, and not angry. If you can empty your own boat, crossing the river of the world, no one will oppose you. No one will seek to harm you”

In solitude, I can empty my boat. Can I do it when I’m not alone? Maybe. “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

That quote comes from Palmer’s book (one of many!), A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life.

This week I have been trying to empty my boat, but the river is crowded and people want to climb in and I don’t feel like I can leave them out there in that icy water. And people are watching me from the shore. And other boats are drifting downstream towards me as I row upstream. I don’t know if anyone is in them. I don’t shout at them, but it is frightening.

I just want to stop fighting the current and drift downstream to a place of peace and serenity.

I watch this film at least once a year. I’m sure there are people who think of this film – seen or unseen – as “just another Bill Murray/Harold Ramis comedy.” I really believe it is far more profound than you would think at a glance. I don’t know that the filmmakers’ intended all of that, but it’s there.

A. O. Scott in The NY Times did a re-review of this existential comedy this past week (watch his video review) and that was enough to send me to the shelf this weekend to watch Groundhog Day again.

I am not crazy in my belief that’s there’s more here than meets the viewing eye. Do a search on “Groundhog Day” and add something like philosophy, Buddhism, Zen, etc. and you’ll get plenty of hits of others who feel the same way.

Harold Ramis (director and co-writer) has said that he gets mail from Jesuit priests, rabbis and Buddhists, and they all find meaning in the film , and use it in sermons, talks and classes. In Buddhism classes, it is often used to illustrate the cycle of continual rebirth.

If you haven’t seen the film, here’s some background: Bill Murray plays a self-centered, cranky TV meteorologist named Phil who gets sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities. He is joined by his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), and a cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott). He does a going-through-the-motions report. When they try to drive back to Pittsburgh, they are stopped by a blizzard (which he had predicted would miss the area) that shuts down the highways and they are forced to stay in town an extra day.

Phil wakes up at 6 AM and discovers that it is February 2 all over again. The day runs the same as it did before, but no one else seems to be aware of the time loop. And it happens again the next time he wakes up – and the next time and so on (38 times by my count).

He realizes that he can use this to his advantage and begins to learn more about the townsfolk. He ‘s hardly noble. He seduces women, steals money, drives drunk and tries to put the moves on Rita (that last one fails).

But this power he has eventually bores and depresses him. He tries to break the cycle and files mean TV reports, abuses residents, kidnaps Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog. Finally, he attempts suicide, but still ends up waking up to the clock radio playing Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” (Give a listen.)

Each time I re-watch the film, I think about another aspect of it. I keep thinking that some day I am going to teach this film in a course.

One scene has Phil dead in the morgue. Rita and Larry are there to identify his body. Is any of these retakes on the day affecting the others?  They don’t seem to remember the alternates takes, but…

A few years ago, I watched it and it led me to explore other movies and writings that play with time loops. There are a lot of them.

One day Phil is in the bowling alley. He asks two guys drinking with him, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?” One guy replies, “That about sums it up for me.”

Are some of us leading a kind of Groundhog Day existence for real?

Other writers online have gotten far more serious in their explorations of the film than me.

This is from thesacredpage.com

Once Phil realizes that in his Nietzschean quagmire there are no consequences to his actions, he also experiences modern philosophy’s liberation from any sense of eternal justice. “I am not going to play by their rules any longer,” he gleefully announces. His reaction epitomizes Glaucon’s argument in Plato’s Republic. Remove the fear of punishment, Glaucon argued, and the righteous will behave no differently than the wicked
and from groundhogdaythemovie.com comes some discussions about the film like this:

I asked what the Reb thought was the turning point in the film. After watching it for the ninth or tenth time specifically to find where the third act begins, I concluded that it begins 4/5 of the way into the 103 minute film, at about the 80 minute mark. Phil is throwing cards into the hat, and Rita points out that the eternally repeating day doesn’t have to be a curse.

Reb Anderson disagreed. He thought the turning point came later, when Phil found he was unable to save the old man’s life. Only here, he said, did Phil realize “It’s not me, it is the universe, I am just the vessel.”

Why did the writers use February 2, Groundhog Day, as the setting? I think because it’s such a nothing “holiday.” It has no religious connections, no cards, no gifts and very little tradition. And yet, it’s not just an ordinary day. The first time I saw the film (wow, almost 17 years ago), I thought that he would relive the day for 6 more weeks of winter. Later, I thought about the day and decided there was something about the end of winter, spring and rebirth going on in the story.

In this piece from 2003, the author suggests that we consider the film as a tale of self-improvement which:
“…emphasizes the need to look inside oneself and realize that the only satisfaction in life comes from turning outward and concerning oneself with others rather than concentrating solely on one’s own wants and desires. The phrase also has become a shorthand illustration for the concept of spiritual transcendence. As such, the film has become a favorite of Buddhists because they see its themes of selflessness and rebirth as a reflection of their own spiritual messages. It has also, in the Catholic tradition, been seen as a representation of Purgatory. It has even been dubbed by some religious leaders as the “most spiritual film of our time.”
Want to have a viewing group (which I would prefer to a reading group these days) and show the film?  Check out the discussion questions on this philosophy site. http://www.philfilms.utm.edu/1/groundhog.htm

The original idea for the story was supposed to have come from the book The Gay Science (The Joyful Wisdom) by Friedrich Nietzsche. In that book, Nietzsche gives a description of a man who is living the same day over and over again.

The writer of the original script, Danny Rubin, said that one of the inspirational moments in the creation of the story came after reading Interview With the Vampire which got him thinking about what it would be like to live forever. Rubin and Ramis have both said that they avoided exploring the really dark side of Phil’s time looping in which he could done some horrible things without consequence, like murder.

And, as a capper to this love letter to the film, I have to add that the film is also funny and sweet. Funny is no surprise. Murray and Ramis teamed up for the film Stripes which is a great, silly comedy that I also love, and that has no philosophy or religious themes at all.

The sweetness is all Hollywood. Phil does learn lessons. He befriends many of the townsfolk that he had mocked. He uses his knowledge to try to save lives and help people. And he finally knows how to treat Rita. His final TV report is a beauty that puts everyone in tears. The  next morning he wakes and finds the circle broken.

When the clock clicks over to 6 AM for you in the morning, what kind of day are you planning to make it?

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