Mike of Korea

12 January 2016

The one about templestay

    I was reading an excerpt from Catherine Price at Wildmind recently in which she described a templestay experience in Korea.  Her experience is precisely what I have thought of the concept of templestay and the supposed value of its practice. Even though I'm a Buddhist and visit temple often, there is a reason I've never succumbed to the lure of templestay.  The life of a Buddhist monk is one of strict discipline, ordered regimen, elaborate ceremony, and attention to minute details of form and style.  
 
    The rationale for such a culture is that it is supposed to reflect the karmic results of following the Dharma.  It reminds me of the college I attended which believed a devout christian can become completely immune to the temptation to sin through a certain mystical experience. However, a rigid system of behavior enforced members of the college to act as though they had had this experience, whether they actually had or not.  Heavenly perfection was simulated through unbending rules and ceremony, very much like life in the temples.

    It's not my place to disparage the practices of the monks and nuns of the temples.  They live how they've chosen to live, fed by centuries of tradition.  It gives a unique peace of mind to not have to think about how to do something, where to put something, or when to do this and that.  It's all laid out in detail and has been for generations.  I admire the beauty of it and the stalwart nature of those who choose to live that way.

    However, it's not how I feel the Dharma.  The natural chaos of the universe, the lack of design in the nature of the world, that's how I experience the Dharma, a lively conversation among all things everywhere all the time.  That doesn't mean I can't focus on the moment or perceive the karmic values of my choices. It just means that I don't see the need to force patterns upon randomness.  I don't see the need to square circles or flatten hills.  I don't see the need to pass the day sleep deprived because I had to observe a ceremony nor to place my dinnerware with an unyielding exactitude on the placemat and eat the food it in a particularly ordered manner.

    Living out the Dharma is not a matter of discipline; it's a matter of staying pointed in the right direction.  It doesn't matter whether you walk the Path in boots, sandals, or barefoot so long as you walk the Path.  Mind your behavior.  Guard your speech.  Watch your step.  But for goodness' sake, don't worry about whether your chopsticks are on the correct side of the dish or whether you've performed the right number of prostrations.

Mindfulness is not punctiliousness. 







08 January 2016

The one about a letter to a friend

    A while back, after years of study and, at the time, prayer, I had no choice but to conclude that there never was a person Jesus of Nazareth.  The facts were so blatant that to this day I'm embarrassed that I ever did once accept the concept of an historical Jesus.  Consequently, in my writings and letters, this sometimes comes across either consciously or unconsciously as a matter of fact, which I think it is, but I don't always intend to make it a focal point.
    However, not everyone does accept the non-existence of Jesus as a matter of fact, and one friend decided to challenge me on the issue.  He and I attended christian college years ago, but as I began to move away from faith, he moved even deeper into it.  It wasn't unexpected, therefore, when he demanded that I defend my claim that Jesus never existed, but I avoided responding to that for a long time because I knew it would be a futile effort.  My friend had no intention of looking objectively at my findings; he wanted merely to hear statements that he could attempt to refute.
    People of faith find it exceedingly difficult to let their faith live apart from dogmatism.  Their faith is almost always so intimately bound to scripture or systematic theology that it cannot survive without it.  My friend is one such man of faith, a faith linked completely to scripture and his sect's system of theology based on that scripture and nothing else.
    Having spent years reading history and historical method, my desire to slog through a written debate via snail mail didn't appeal to me, especially when I knew the other person didn't have the resources to do his own argument justice and was not predisposed to listen objectively to my side of the argument.  I needed to respond, though, if for no other reason than to demonstrate respect and affection for my friend.
    The letter ended up being short, devoid of many details in order to limit my friend's ability to launch some refutation.  It's not that I fear argument but rather I know how it feels to face the truth, the facts of reality in full force that place one's faith in question.  Though I want my friend to give up his faith and come to accept reality, it's important that each person do this in his own time, in his own way.
    When a person feels compelled by reason to abandon one of the most important aspects of his life, it can cause suffering that may lead to greater problems than being a believer causes.  However, if my letter can warm him up to the subject and set him on his own adventure to reach the truth, that is enough.
    As a Buddhist, I find it painful to deliberately cause suffering.  That is karma:  the nature of every result is the nature of its cause.  If I had written a letter ridiculing my friend's faith and offering chapter after chapter of research which only the most stubborn fool would dispute, the result would be of the same nature, and the relationship with my friend would be damaged.
    Since I am not a believer, it is ultimately irrelevant to me whether my friend keeps or loses his faith.  However, my friend is important to me, and to cause undue suffering is repugnant.  Being right at the cost of love is a hollow victory.  That's the most important thing to remember when dealing with family and friends who are believers.  When stating your ideas to loved ones, say them in a spirit consistent with that love.











08 December 2015

The one about Truth and Reality

There is a quote from the Buddha in Nyanatiloka Thera's book The Buddha's Path to Deliverance that I have not only highlighted, but am making a calligraphy copy to put in my room here in Korea:

"Undisturbed shall our mind remain, no evil words shall escape our lips; friendly and full of sympathy shall we remain, with heart full of love, free from any hidden malice."

It isn't that I observe this perfectly, but it is guidance from the Buddha to inspire me daily to correct my behavior, to live the right way despite any temptations to do otherwise. There is no guarantee that living rightly will take away all trials and troubles.  There is no afterlife salvation to be gained, either.  The only reward for behaving rightly is the behavior itself. 

Some may say that this isn't enough.  They don't want to lose opportunities by having to respect others, by having to be fair and honest in their dealings.  They want. They desire.  They crave.

We know this stems from ignorance, but ignorance can't be dispelled by force.  Ignorance is uprooted not by the force of violence but by steady erosion which little by little undermines it, and grain by grain washes ignorance away.  Once we let go of ignorance, we see the truth of reality.  We see things as they really are.  And we marvel at how long we resisted it!  That is what we call salvation, seeing truth as it is, face to face, and letting that truth govern our every word and every deed.

29 November 2015

Why I Am Leaving Facebook

   Facebook is that social wildfire that has caught us all up with the people from our past and keeps us ever aware of the shiny trinkets of civilization that grab the attention of our friends, family, and acquaintances.
   What have I learnt from my time on Facebook?  First, my Facebook friends and I really don't hold the same views on much of anything. Some unfriended me early on when my liberal values appeared on my timeline, but others just decided to edit what they see and exclude me from their timelines.  We don't see each other's postings, and that includes all the neutral things like outings in the park, trips to faraway lands, and even those cute photos of my darling cats. So why stay Facebook friends?  
   Facebook is just reflecting real life. We grew apart and lost touch for reasons that our Facebook moments just iterate again and again.  We have little to nothing in common except that we attended the same college or the same high school or served in the same unit in the army or worked in the same department.  The memories are both good and bad.  Did I think Facebook would erase the bad ones or make new good ones?  I think I did.
   Reflecting on why I started doing Facebook, it was probably curiosity mixed with nostalgia.  Maybe some part of me thought it was possible to pick up where we left off all those years ago.  That's unrealistic, and I should have known it.  The past is what it was and can't be frozen and thawed later like a delicious lasagna.  Each one of us moved on in the directions we chose.  Our paths crossed once for a time, but then we crossed other paths, and the web of our social intercourse grew with a life of its own, mostly out of our control, widening every year the gaps and chasms between us.  I need to let the past be on its own terms.  It's foolish to impose my current condition upon what was, hoping to relive a happy moment here and there.
   There is another reason for me to leave Facebook.  I have never been able to make solid social connections.  I can't build lasting personal relationships.  It's a flaw that a very small percentage of people have, and try as I might, it's just not going to get fixed.
   Facebook gives me the illusion of social connection.  It is a sort of plaster over my flaw that allowed me to pretend I had personal relationships with these people.  The reason I can't build personal relationships isn't clear, but it manifests itself with impatience and impertinence, often with acerbic attempts to make myself look clever or even better than others.  The people on my Facebook should not be subjected to my little insults, my partisan banner waving and condescending attitude toward their religious faiths.  I love them all, but they would never know it from how I behave.
   Leaving Facebook is from disappointment with myself and my lack of discipline.  There are many places online where a person can be partisan, join in political debate, be a loud-mouthed asshole and ridicule the ideas of others.  Facebook is not that place, but I did it anyway.  I was the drunk uncle at Thanksgiving dinner ruining it for everybody else, and it pains me.
   On New Year's Eve, I'll post something on Facebook for the last time, a farewell of sorts, though my online presence isn't disappearing entirely, though.  Just Facebook.  Withdrawal will be a bitch, but I'll work through it.

14 September 2015

The Really Green Party

The Really Green Party
or
Why a Green Party Webpage Banned Me
by
Mike Raymond

     Several months ago, when I spoke up and suggested that our party leader, Dr. Jill Stein, not run on a Green Party ticket for President because Senator Bernie Sanders holds nearly identical views with Dr. Stein, I encountered a number of Green Party supporters who castigated me soundly for that position. My defense was that we should focus our resources on support for Green candidates at lower levels of government and not compete with Senator Sanders for the White House since he has a better chance of winning that race than Dr. Stein has. My rationale has been that Bernie Sanders can take our Green causes and ideals to a national stage whereas Dr. Stein more than likely could not.
     The Democratic Party race and convention will be front page news next year, and if a candidate speaks up for Green ideals even though not being in the Green Party, I thought that would be a better way to help more people see the value of causes such as the preservation of our environment, stopping war and teaching peace, ending government corruption, eliminating the theft of wealth by the one percent, healing the rift in race relations, and improving the health and stability of the working class in America.
     The causes and ideals that the Green Party represents are what I feel is in the best interests of the future of the United States and of the world in general. I speak up for these causes; but I am not under the illusion that these noble ideals must be wrapped only in the Green Party banner. 
     If a Democrat, Libertarian, or even a Republican were to say, for example, we must stop polluting our water supplies and dumping oil in our oceans, I would cheer and support that person in that endeavor. As the old saying goes, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” I don't care if it's served on a ceramic plate, in a wooden bowl, or wrapped in a newspaper. 
      The causes are greater than any one person; the ideals are more valuable than any one party. For comments and questions along these lines, I was thrown out of the Green Party USA Facebook discussions and banned from contributing to or even reading that page any longer.
     Dr. Stein and the Green Party hold high ideals and harbor a love for our country and our world that is rarely matched among us. But let's stop being party shills, break the mould, and start being spokespeople for ideas. It is ideas that have power and yield consequences, not political parties. A political party is a messenger for its ideas, not an end in itself.
     The Green Party presidential candidate wants to be in the presidential debates, and that would be a beautiful step in the direction of democracy in America. I suggest, though, that in the interest of integrity and honesty, Green Party operatives stop punishing their own people for expressing their opinions and offering their ideas. We are not mindless robots meant simply to drone the party mantras.
     We should allow free discussion without resorting to emotional outbursts or excessively legalistic wrangling and nitpicking. If we won't allow free debate among ourselves without censorship or banning each other, then by what right has the Green Party to ask the nation to let our candidate debate the other candidates in a national forum?


07 July 2014

Emptiness

   When you stop and think about it, there isn't a thing in the universe that can say its existence is independent.  Matter-Energy is all that exists, and the distinctions we make among the objects of the universe are merely the convenience of language.  I'm now looking at a bamboo flute I keep on my desk.  The bamboo itself is dependent on previous generations of bamboo, a seed, soil, rain, and sun, and each of those is dependent on preexisting causes.  A person cut the bamboo with a knife whose steel was worked in a factory that someone planned and built.  One could go back and back listing all the contingencies that created this little flute by which I amuse myself from time to time.
    For convenience, we say the flute is a thing in and of itself, but the reflective mind knows better.  Its current form is caused by millions of earlier causes; there would be no flute without all these earlier events and conditions. We could presumably say that behind its form and our perceptions of the form and our knowledge of how to use the form there is no flute per se.  This object is a construct of the mind.  This is how we arrive at the knowledge of the emptiness of all things.
    Of course, you have to be careful where you say such a thing.  Someone will smack you over the head with a stick, and while you wince, they'll say, “Looks real to me.”  They don't get that the Buddha's teaching isn't that something is unreal but that it's empty of permanence.  They are not the same thing.  Obviously all the atoms and molecules are here and now joined up into a particular form that we can recognize and take advantage of.   Emptiness is that an object is not in and of itself.  It cannot exist by itself.  There is no Platonic “form” out there somewhere from which each object in the universe is a poor copy.
    Emptiness is central to what the Buddha taught us because until we can perceive that objects have no real nature from within themselves, we will not wake up from the dream of the mundane.  I remember a playful argument in college one day in which a friend of mine and I were out walking and saw that someone had taken an old wooden door and bolted it to a couple sawhorses.  I remarked to my friend what a big table it was, and my friend responded, “It's not a table. It's a door.”  You can imagine how this conversation went on and on about the nature of objects:  it's table because of its use, and it's a door because of how it was originally made.  This is how people become distracted from a true perception of the universe.  We look so closely at particulates that we no longer perceive the whole.
    Apart from the objects we encounter every day, there is also ourselves to take into account.  The eye that sees is not an eye all by itself.  Billions of contingent causes present us our current eye.  The same is true of all our other sense organs.  If any of the contingent causes had not occurred, there would be no sensation of sight, touch, taste, and so forth.   We all know about the proverbial tree falling in the woods without a soul to hear it.  Did it then make a sound?  There is a level of truth in this old philosophical exercise.  Without someone to sense sound, there is no sound.  Without someone to smell, there is no fragrance.  This is the principle of emptiness: everything in the universe is connected and inter-reliant.
    Recently I was thinking about my region of northeastern Michigan.  That part of the state was inhabited by Potowatomi settlements before the English and American settlers arrived.  On my desktop I have an old French map from the 18th century of the local places on the two peninsulas, and I recognized several modern place names but with very different spellings.  It occurred to me that these names were the only relics of these settlements.  The aboriginal inhabitants left no structures whatsoever as they were displaced.  When I was a child, they taught us in school about the loggers and French missionaries, but they never taught us about the aboriginal people.  They mentioned them but never taught us about them.  I always wondered about that and learned about them on my own.
    There was a thriving civilization of people in northern Michigan, yet there is no physical trace of them.  Europeans developed a need for permanence and built marvelous edifices of stone to last for centuries and millennia.  You can find houses in France that have had inhabitants for hundreds of years uninterrupted.  There are churches, abbeys, palaces, and forts that are a thousand years old.  But you do not find such things in Michigan despite the many centuries of native habitation.  So I asked myself why not.
    I believe it is because the local people recognized that permanence is impossible.  They didn't entertain the notion in philosophical musing; they understood it as real and incorporated it into their civilization.  Homes were for shelter from the elements and little else.  They were not meant to stand for ever as a challenge to Nature and Time.  What use are monuments when those for whom they are erected are gone and those who erect them will be gone soon themselves?  To live simply and allow the natural cycle of birth and death to continue unimpeded is a much greater monument to a civilization than piles of stone to the memory of people we never knew.
    Sometimes my mind wanders and wants me to play the game of permanence that my European ancestors passed down to me:  A fancy home of granite, my name on a bronze plaque, a monument in the town park.  Of course, it's just a game, and it's fun to play, but fortunately the wiser side of my mind always reminds me that even granite and bronze aren't really permanent.  Nothing is.  And I don't feel deprived because of it.  I feel a sense of propriety, that this is the way things are, and I'm plugged into it no different than any other life form.  It makes me feel connected, and that's comforting. 
    If you ask anyone if there is anything in the universe that is permanent, they'll probably say no.  It's part of some common sense that we all have inside us, but so many people don't like it and live as though it weren't true.  They prefer the dream. 
    Recently I remember responding to someone on Facebook with this comment:  Those who are asleep think the dream is real.  I heard that somewhere a long time ago but don't remember the circumstances.  However, it has stuck with me for a long time and is kind of my personal motto.  In the dream, we can do whatever we like and can guide the consequences to our favor.  In the dream, our loved ones are not gone, our mistakes are forgotten, and we always win at checkers.  But life in the dream isn't real, and when we wake up, that moment of realization contains different emotions.  We can be surprised or disappointed or something else depending on the nature of the dream.  Whatever the emotion, we still get up, get dressed and live our lives.
    Some people do live in miserable circumstances, and the dream world is so much better than the real world.  However, nothing is really ever accomplished in the dream.  It's an unproductive existence. What achievements have you earned in the dream?  What self-improvement have you attained in the dream?  Whose life have you bettered in the dream?  When we pretend that there is permanence and independent existence, it's a dream.  Our growth becomes stunted.  Our path becomes not a way forward but a circuit.