When I became a Buddhist

I became a Buddhist according to the rules back in April 2008. “The rules” in the Tibetan Buddhist lineage I signed onto say that you take refuge, in the presence of a lama (an accredited teacher, doesn’t have to be a monk), in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The authority, his example and teaching, and the community of practitioners. 

I was involved with my local TB community for about five years after that, if memory serves. Then my husband and I separated and we gave most of our meditation paraphernalia to the community, a move I now deeply regret. (I especially wish I still had the incense burner, a beautifully decorated wooden box, and the gilt statues of Tara and Chenrezig, aka Avalokiteshvara. I don’t regret the separation.)

I think I really became a Buddhist, though, just a few weeks ago, one morning in the shower when I was stretching to wash my back and thought, “Everything hurts”.

I meant that literally; it seemed like every muscle in my body was aching at the simple, normal exertion of taking a shower. But I realized in that moment that I also meant it metaphorically, or universally: Everything hurt. I had realized for myself the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. 

The First Noble Truth is usually translated in English as, “Life is suffering”. That sounds pretty grim, but the word for “suffering”, dukkha, can be translated in a lot of other ways. Western Buddhist authors right now tend to use words like “unsatisfactory” rather than “suffering”. We are perpetually, inevitably dissatisfied with life. We may not be “suffering” like a starving child in Africa, like a family trying to get out of Ukraine, like a homeless addict, but we are unsatisfied, unsettled, never at ease, no matter how much material success or social satisfaction we achieve. Something is wrong with life, or with us.

Everything hurts. 

Over the past few months, I’ve rediscovered Buddhism through author Tara Brach, who is a psychologist as well as a meditation teacher trained in the Insight tradition. I’ve been reading and listening to her books, doing my best to do a bit of yoga and meditation every day (believe me, a little movement first makes meditation easier), and using the prayers I learned from my Tibetan sangha. And while it hasn’t made everything magically better (and under “everything” I include my physical and mental health, the ongoing pandemic, the political madness here in the U.S., and just everyday stress), these practices have demonstrated that they are exactly the tools I need to engage with the mess I’m in. And yes, things are better, just not “magically” better.

In this world / we walk on the roof of hell / gazing at flowers

dogwoodinbloomI don’t know why, but the haiku I quoted in my title came to mind tonight. Of course it is obvious why: Issa might have written this poem yesterday, as everything is blooming while we are confined to our homes and people are dying and essential workers are at risk. The hell of it, to me, is not just the deaths of people around the world, but the selfish terrorists in my own country who are insisting that things re-open so they can go to bars, get haircuts, and see movies.

In this world, we walk on the roof of hell, gazing at flowers. But the flowers are no less real than the hell. In Buddhism, there are numerous hells full of suffering, punishment for evil deeds, but they are no more permanent than human life. There are also beautiful heavens that reward the good, but they, too, are impermanent. Karma is less a reward than a kind of fuel, and whether it’s good or bad, punishment or reward, it burns out eventually. Nirvana is the only way out.

It’s an ideal rather than a reality, but I lean toward the Vajrayana, Tantric idea that nirvana and samsara are the same thing. Samsara, the merry-go-round of karma created and then burned off, of rebirth in conditioned reality, is no different than nirvana, the fullness of freedom and enlightenment–if you are enlightened. Robert Thurman says, in his excellent book The Jewel Tree of Tibet (I am paraphrasing), that to a bodhisattva, the worst sufferings of this world seem no more real than a child’s insistence that there’s a monster under the bed; however, the bodhisattva still helps the suffering, even as a good parent still comforts the child and offers a defense against the imaginary monster.

The bodhisattva already knows that the ultimate reality is joy, is bliss. Julian of Norwich also says, more concisely, “Bliss is lasting, pain is passing.” I believe that, in the sense that I trust the saints, adepts, and bodhisattvas who tell me so, without yet fully experiencing it for myself. So what about walking on the roof of hell? Hell is real, just as the flowers are real, but hell is not all there is to the underworld, just as spring flowers are not all there is to this world. While we are shivering in ice storms and it seems winter will never end, the faery realm below the hills is still feasting in perpetual summer.

If I understand it correctly, the most basic message of Buddhism is that we suffer because we want things our way, and therefore our best practice is to stop wanting things our way and accept whatever happens. That is an extreme simplification of the first stages of Buddhist teaching, I know. But European religious and magical traditions tend to affirm that desire is legitimate and there is some chance of getting what we want, so it’s acceptable to pursue what we want within certain ethical guidelines (such as not murdering people, violating laws of kinship or hospitality or sexual fidelity, or hoarding wealth and resources to the detriment of others). 

There are hints in European folklore, especially in Celtic countries, that the Otherworld is a mirror of our own, rather like the north and south hemispheres of our planet. If it is summer here, it is winter there; if one dies in this world, one is born into the other. If we are walking on the roof of hell here, while the flowers bloom, perhaps in the Otherworld they are joyful and at peace even if the trees are bare. If we cannot venture very far afield in this world because of the coronavirus, we can still cross over into the Other and bring back something of hope and joy.

POEM: For Ryōkan

This full moon? Old man Ryōkan
gave it to me; he said a thief left it behind.
I was having tea with him one day in early spring,
before the cherries had blossomed out,
and after the rain passed over, he took it down
and said he didn’t need it any more.
Do you need it? I have enough light to read his poems by.

(Ryōkan, Zen monk, hermit, poet and calligrapher, died on this date in 1831.)

Truthfulness, gentleness, generosity

I’ve been thinking a lot about ethics lately.

It’s a subject that comes up pretty often for me, in various contexts. If you’re a regular reader, you might have noticed that I’m a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and of the Captain America movies in particular. Ethics is a central concern of Steve Rogers’ story: What is the right thing to do? How best can I do it in my particular circumstances? What if doing the right thing is costly, risky, or just plain dangerous? Steve Rogers doesn’t necessarily respect rules, laws, or orders, but he does have an unshakable commitment to his own personal sense of what is right.

Ethics comes up a lot in magical, pagan, and polytheist circles, too. Is the Wiccan Rede a sufficient guide to moral, ethical behavior? What does “harm” mean in that context? Is hexing or cursing magic ethical? Is there a difference between using magic to attract a lover or persuade an employer and using it to restrain or punish a rapist? If pagan ethics don’t derive from the specific commandments of a deity (as they do in Judaism and Christianity), what do they derive from? These are the sorts of topics I see discussed in the blogosphere and in my Facebook feed.

After over forty years of reading about religion, it’s my observation that ethical training usually starts with the negative. The Ten Commandments have more “shalt nots” than “shalts”. The five core precepts of Buddhism are all negative: no killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, or using mind-altering substances. The ancient Egyptians listed 42 negative confessions for the soul in the afterlife, an exhaustive list of wrong things which the deceased denies having done.

Most religions share an ethical core. Theft, lying, and murder are wrong behaviors that damage social relationships. Prohibitions against sexual wrongdoing seem to me to be related to vows and covenants. If you have vowed to be celibate, don’t have sex. If you have vowed fidelity to a spouse, don’t fuck around. Even if you are under no vows yourself, don’t cause or help other people to break theirs. Specifics on what constitutes wrongful killing or sexual misconduct certainly vary widely from religion to religion, culture to culture, but there’s a fundamental agreement.

There’s also, I think, a fundamental agreement on what constitutes ethical behavior, starting with the reversal of the negative precepts. Tell the truth instead of lying. Refrain from killing and doing physical harm. Be generous and give to those in need instead of stealing or defrauding your neighbor. Make vows wisely and keep them once made. Welcome friends and strangers into your home and consider them sacrosanct while they are under your roof.

I have seen these ideas in pagan philosophy, in Judaism, in Christianity, in Islam, in Hinduism and in Buddhism. There is no religion or source of ethical teaching that says casual killing is ethical. There is no religion that recommends greed, stinginess, and denial of those in need. There is no ethical system in which generosity and hospitality are not virtues. No sage or philosopher has praised a chronic liar.

Yet here in the United States, right now, I see people who call themselves Christian, devotees of Jesus, who are shooting unarmed African-American citizens, eliminating social supports for the needy, profiting at the expense of the poor, and terrorizing immigrants by taking away their children and interning them (and interning is perhaps the most neutral word I can use). I see these people and others like them defending this unethical and definitely un-Christian behavior on legal or religious grounds. And it hurts to see it, to read it, to hear about it, to know that this is how the teachings of Jesus have been twisted and perverted.

I won’t engage in the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. If someone says they’re a Christian, I’ll assume that, yes, they were baptized, they are communicants in good standing of a parish or congregation, they have some sort of spiritual life based on the Bible. But I will, as a pagan polytheist, as a progressive Episcopalian, as an occasional Buddhist, as an ethical human being, argue that racism, sexism, violence, greed, homophobia, transphobia, nationalism, and terrorism have no place in Christian theology or behavior, no place in ethical behavior, whatsoever. Not if their Christ really is the Jewish teacher and healer who rejected nobody who came to him, disagreed with the religious authorities of his own culture, and was executed as a terrorist by an army of occupation.