A Point of Perspective – Our Place in the Universe

This world has over 7 billion people
Living among untold myriad lifeforms
On a planet circling a star,
Pulsing heat alongside the galaxy’s millions more.
And this enormous galaxy, mother of countless stars:
One small clump among a cosmic ocean of them.
All in a universe that is billions of years old.

Yet, you worry about the meaning in your life,
In your day,
In this instant.

Banalities of consumption
And a navel-gazing rendition of “me”
Those certainly must be
Of universal concern.

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When I was young, I used to entertain myself this way before falling asleep. In my mind’s eye I would see myself lying in bed. I would zoom back like a camera to include my house in my neighborhood in Boulder, in Colorado, in the United States of America, on the continent of North America. Then I would look at the planet like a globe, including India, where I was born; Tibet, where my father and mother were born; and Scotland, where I learned to speak English. Then I would picture Earth as a beautiful blue sphere floating in blackness. I would make the picture bigger, including other planets in our solar system with the sun in the center. The most amazing thing was to see earth disappearing into the darkness as a speck. Then I would imagine the outer planets of the solar system. The sun would disappear as I imagined all the stars in our galaxy, which seemed endless. I would dissolve our galaxy into one star, one light, and make that light very tiny, surrounded by other lights in the darkness, which weren’t stars, but galaxies. Then I would think about how small I was, and how strange and wonderful it is to have been born.

Everybody we know was born. Everyone we see was once a baby. First they weren’t here, and then they were. We don’t often contemplate birth–we’re too busy worrying about money, food, the way we look, the way other people look, what other people are thinking about the way we look. But birth is a profound passage. Seeing a chick peeking its way out of an egg is moving and powerful. Even though in being born we suffer, birth can happen in such love, such openness. And like death, birth shows us the fragility of life.

We’re just these tiny vulnerable beings riding on a blue dot in space. Yet sometimes we act as if we’re the center of the universe. The enlightened alternative is to appreciate how incredibly rare and precious human life is. The enlightened alternative is to appreciate everything. By appreciating whatever we encounter, we can use it to further our journey of warriorship. We are good as we are, and it is good as it is. Once we have this understanding, we’ll see that we are living in a sacred world.

— Sakyong Mipham, Turning the Mind into an Ally, pp. 140-143

2 Experiences of Compassion

I’ve recently been engaging with the Way of the Bodhisattva and have thus been practicing and studying prajna and karuna (wisdom and compassion). Compassion is an unfortunately misunderstood and watered down term in general usage/discussion–something I will return to another time. For now, I’d like to share two recent and seemingly connected experiences.


I have been attending a sangha (a Buddhist community) meeting run by a former instructor and personal inspiration of mine. While at the most recent session, I meditated, and as per usual, I felt the discomfort of the half-lotus sitting position, the coughs and wheezes of nearby practitioners, and the turbulent memories and thoughts about all the transition and pain of the last few months which still pulse in my life. Yet, I felt an intense warmth and utter gratitude for everything. I felt profound connection with all those in the room around me. I could sense the whirrings of their thoughts, their difficulty breathing, also their serenity and presence. I felt such deep joy and sadness all at once–too big and profound for words, filling up my chest to the point of nearly bursting. Such tenderness lies within the awakened heart.


The next day, I walked around my work building on a shared break with a co-worker. We make 2 laps around during our breaks. Near the end of the second lap, an injured bird lay before me on the sidewalk–directly in my path. I slowed and gently tried to pick it up so that I could put it in one of the bushes or tufts of grass nearby–hopefully protecting it from further injury and allowing it to heal. As I daintily cradled it in my hands, it fluttered to life, and I could feel its sheer terror at this situation–no longer able to move and flit about to safety and comfort. It flew just enough to come out of my hand and plop back onto the ground. I had to try again a few times, feeling the visceral fear each time I held the bird. Eventually, I carried him a few feet off the path, and his attempted escape landed him in a bunch of grass where he could rest. I walked away.

The last time I had such a compassionate moment of protecting a helpless bird, my life fell into complete chaos not too long after and that was likewise preceded by experiences of profound joy-gratitude-sadness (all mixed together). What comes this time? I know not–perhaps that synchronicity is only apparent. Either way, such beauty has seldom shone through as a moment of being awake in my life.

Karuna

In the service of all sentient beings,

Gassho.

Love, Rebounds, and Relationships: Part 2 – Love as a Word and as a Concept

Disclaimer: I wrote most of this section some time ago but have found it difficult to return to and post. It’s a continuation of the previous post with the same title Part 1. This post expands in a very philosophical direction – giving a terse analysis of our understanding of words and concepts and how these influence our experiences and understanding of them. In particular, this is about our concept/experience of Love. This will likely be my longest post thus far, and I plan to post more on the topic of Love in the near future. Please read through this post and write any comments or questions. Thank you, fellow negotiators of the Way. Deepest gratitude to you all!


In my discussion of Love, I’ve tried to emphasize the sense of “I”, ego or identity, that comes into play. Yet, I would argue that identity, who we “are“, if we really “are” anything (by this, I mean being something permanent. This is precisely what is at stake with much speak of “who I am” – being an entity: identity), is a conceptual core of what we understand of Love. It is hardly an open-ended experience; rather, in being involved in our own personal narratives and expression, it is a conceptually interpreted, filtered, and compiled experience. In fact, much of philosophy would question how it could be otherwise. We have a small conundrum here related to the philosophy of language. The concept of Love is hardly as clear or concrete as something like the concept of “chair”, so our understanding and usage of it allows for a lot of variance, slippage, and ambiguity. This may seem a contrived position, but with some observation and personal experience, such hesitation doesn’t hold. In recent times, I’ve read others’ writings about Love and its significance, but in trying to read into and understand what they were saying about life and Love from their statements, it was not clear at all beyond the initial knee-jerk of perceived understanding–of a preliminary, personal interpretation. Was it speaking of acceptance? Gratitude? Emotional support? Joy? Compassion? It really was unclear. All of these ideas and more can find their place in our concept of Love. However, in speaking with friends, it seems that one person to another varies in their understanding of what Love is based on their own experiences, upbringing, and likely, education. In a sense, we could all benefit from the investigations a The Symposium of our own. To return to the philosophy of language at this juncture, I take these immediately preceding comments and follow them with these snippets from Stanley Cavell’s The Claim of Reason. I quote them at length because of his deeper insight and mastery of this philosophical approach as well as the very human implications in his expression of these issues:

Consider an older child, one ignorant of, but ripe for a pumpkin (knows how to ask for a name, what a fruit is, etc.). When you say “That is a pumpkin,” we can comfortably say that this child learns what the word “pumpkin” means and what a pumpkin is. There may still be something different about the pumpkins in his world; they may, for example, have some unknown relation to pumps (the contrivances or the kind of shoe) and some intimate association with Mr. Popkin (who lives next door), since he obviously has the same name they do. But that probably won’t lead to trouble, and one day the person that was this child, may for some reason, remember that he believed these things had these associations when he was a child. (And does he then stop believing or having them?) And we can also say: When you “I love my love” the child learns the meaning of the word “love” and what love is. That (what you do) will be love in the child’s world; and if it is mixed with resentment and intimidation, then love is a mixture of resentment and intimidation, and when love is sought that will be sought. … To summarize what has been said about this: In “learning language” you learn not merely what the names of things are, but what a name is; not merely what the form of expression is for expressing a wish, but what expressing a wish is; not merely what the word for “father” is, but what a father is; not merely the word for “love” is, but what love is. In learning language, you do not merely learn the pronunciation of sounds and their grammatical orders, but the “forms of life” which make those sounds the words they are, do what they do – e.g., name call, point, express a wish or affection, indicate a choice or an aversion, etc. And Wittgenstein sees the relations among these forms as “grammatical” also. Instead, then, of saying either that we tell beginners what words mean or that we teach them what objects are, I will say: We initiate them into the relevant forms of life held in language and gathered around the objects and persons of our world. pp. 176-178

This passage gives a clear background of what happens in learning a language–we learn the usage of words in a very particular way, a very human way that resonates in our lives. We learn not just the word for love, but what love is. In other words, our understanding of it as a part of the world is shaped and imprinted in us. It is a conceptual-experiential background to our engagement with our lives and world. With this in mind, compare these ideas about learning forms of life in learning language to the following passage about another imagined child’s difficulty in learning “kitty”:

But although I didn’t tell her, and she didn’t learn, either what the word “kitty” means or what a kitty is, if she keeps leaping and I keep looking and smiling, she will learn both. I have wanted to say: Kittens–what we call “kittens–do not exist in her world yet, she has not acquired the forms of life which contain them. They do not exist in something like the way cities and mayors will not exist in her world until long after pumpkins and kittens do; or like the way God or love or responsibility or beauty do not exist in our world; we have not mastered, or we have forgotten, or we have distorted, or learned through fragmented models, the forms of life which could make utterances like “God exists” or “God is dead” or “I love you” or “I cannot do otherwise” or “Beauty is but the beginning of terror” bear all the weight they could carry, express all they could take from us. We do not know the meaning of the words. We look away and leap around. pp. 172-173

The most complicated concepts/experiences/forms of life will always be somewhat ineffable or at least overflow the limits of our expression. We speak of Love as a self-evident word, but with a moment of pause, it is clearly anything but. We can throw out a whole barrage of related concepts such as acceptance, support, desire, compassion, concern, care, deep want, reverence, adoration, nurturing, gratitude… None of these alone, nor all of them together, exhaust the myriad complexity of Love. They clearly point the way to some shared notes, some of the core intricacy of one of the most sought and expressed human experiences. However, Love remains so familiar and powerful yet so impossible to express; it is like using words to express the most profound piece of artwork you’ve ever experienced. No matter how elaborate the expression, our concepts come up short, fragmented, and ultimately, without that pause to see this slippage or difficulty of reference in our language, we can get too wrapped up in our very words. We fall into holding on to our expression as Truth with certainty that we know precisely the full weight of our expressions, unlike the profoundly eye-opening statements of Cavell above. If we can’t see the fundamental inexpressibility of our most human, complex, what I might even call “sacred” (in a very Buddhist sense of the dynamically profound unfolding of the absolutely real in this moment) experiences, then we cling to concepts as definitions–as forms of certainty rather than as placeholders, as forms of wonder.

Such a deep word…

In overlooking this inexpressibility, we fall into the fragmentary forms of life that Cavell describes in the first quote: love as tinted with resentment and indignation due to the learning of a Word, that is: of a concept as certain. It takes little pause to realize that Love is not nearly as certain, in the sense of clearly definable, as “chair”, “rock”, or “book”. We haven’t quite learned its form of life. If you think about it, this explains a lot about the apparent oddities in others behavior and moreover reasoning related to Love. Here then, in closing a chapter, a proposition: we want to understand Love, and as such, we’re quick to use this word without hesitation, but ultimately, these expressions don’t “express all they could take from us” (Cavell). This isn’t meant to say that these words are pointless or that they refer to nothing. Rather, they refer to something that defies a ready conceptual understanding, a form of life that overflows with meaning. As such, speak carefully, and to really understand these aspects of existence, open yourself to surprise, wonder, and uncertainty. Meditate rather than declare. In order to know, be ready to learn rather than thinking that you’ve already got it in saying that “Love is X” (in this I mean that you can’t pin it down simply as one thing). So, we have another challenge to our myth of completion and identity; here we have an embrace of the hyper-abundance that can’t quite be pinned down. In returning to the premise of identity from the beginning, a challenge: what do such musings about words, concepts, and forms of life bring to bear on “I am X” or “I”?

The Way is in the Heart

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This simple mug, found at a local Ross for a few dollars, has a profound message. The way of an engaged and authentic human life is not to be found in the abstract ideals of dogma and speculations about eternal metaphysical systems. Rather, it is to be found in the concrete embodiment of this body, in the compassionate beat of your heart.

The opening of Jack Kornfield’s book, “A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life”, expresses this lesson deftly:

In undertaking a spiritual life, what matters is simple: We must make certain that our path is connected with our heart. Many other visions are offered to us in the modern spiritual marketplace. Great spiritual traditions offer stories of enlightenment, bliss, knowledge, divine ecstasy, and the highest possibilities of the human spirit. Out of the broad range of teachings available to us in the West, often we are first attracted to these glamorous and most extraordinary aspects. While the promise of attaining such states can come true, and while these states do represent the teachings, in one sense, they are also one of the advertising techniques of the spiritual trade. They are not the goal of spiritual life. In the end, spiritual life is not a process of seeking or gaining some extraordinary condition or special powers. In fact, such seeking can take us away from ourselves. If we are not careful, we can easily find the great failures of our modern society–its ambition, materialism, and individual isolation–repeated in our spiritual life.

Of course, we are individuals, bodies with extremely sensitive nerves which intimately map all the pains and pleasures that the world offers us. We seek out the positive sensations that these senses perceive, and as such, of course we desire these higher goods, ultimate “goods” or the purest pleasures one might say, promised in spiritual pursuits. This is what gets us started. Otherwise, why would we begin? In any path, even if advanced, there will be some small shadow of that egoistic motivation. That’s why Dōgen, one of the greatest Zen ancestors, says: “Those who greatly realize delusion are buddhas. Those who are greatly deluded in realization are living beings” (Genjōkōan in the Shōbōgenzō). To put this as simply as I can, as embodied individuals with a limited perspective, we struggle to realize the greater picture of a huge, interconnected, flowing universe of which we are part (in fact, not “part” per se as this can imply separation–there is no separation). We create elaborate stories of “Me” and accumulate myriad possessions as “Mine”. One particularly cutting and separative term I’ve experienced many times of this type is “My Truth”. This individualizes and upholds the ego’s limited perception above all else, thereby glorifying the Self as spiritual ideal (what Chögyam Trungpa would call “spiritual materialism“) and misunderstanding the concept of truth as well (for example, while a schizophrenic’s experience of a hallucination is true insofar as we can believe that he or she experiences it, it is not true in the same sense as “Water freezes at 32°F.”). From our limited perspective, we can aspire to greater understanding, insight, and experience. This is why buddhas greatly realize delusion–out of their self-centered motivation, they begin practice. They are also living beings (a buddha is clearly a living being!), still feeling some sense of separation and individuality even when realizing the greater truth that all is one. Hence, they are greatly deluded in realization.

The danger here for Dōgen is as Kornfield mentioned. A path without heart can mean: “Furthermore, there are those … who are deluded within delusion.” Those are the practitioners of spirit who get trapped in their pictures of the world, their fabrications, and their value systems. They fall into their own fantasies of being heroes or heroines. Rather than compassionately and vulnerably opening their hearts to the universe, this is selfishly putting on armor to protect their ego, their persona, their “story”–it’s a security blanket.


I’ve said that a way with heart is embodied rather than abstract and openly vulnerable and compassionate rather than egoistic and self-protective. The Buddhist idea of bodhicitta is the perfect expression of this. It translates to “awakened heart” or “noble heart”. However, citta in Sanskrit means both mind and heart in English. They don’t have quite as clear of a distinction as we do in the English language. However, this is apt – the heart (poetically meant) has an understanding–a very visceral and experiential one that grounds more than the airy concepts of the mind (from our Western understanding of “mind”). The heart pumps life throughout our entire body day in and day out for our entire lives–taking the air and nutrients from the world and circulating it through our entire bodies, making that external stuff into our bodies and taking the waste of our bodies to be returned to the world. Last, but perhaps most importantly, the heart is the symbolic organ of compassion–with phrases like “opening your heart” or “have a little heart”. The heart chakra is a perfect example of this in the Indian energetic system of the chakras–the point of connection, compassionate connection rather than individuated separation, with all life and existence. It is the symbolic seat of being open to and aware of the sacredness and wonder of everything rather than the self-centered idea of “My Truth”. In fact, in some of my reading about the heart chakra, I’ve read that developing and focusing on the energy of this green, open chakra can be the most fundamentally beneficial energy healing practice, and this position resonates well with the symbol of Yin-Yang (actually called Tai Chi, meaning supreme ultimate or universal harmony) in the Chinese energy practices of Qi Gong and Tai Chi. My point is that bodhicitta, “the awakened heart”, is the open, tender connection of the spiritual practitioner to the universe. It’s the compassionate engagement that brings a gentle support of all people–recognizing their confusion, pain, and human ways, ways needing compassion and guidance without the self-certain way of dogma (which is basically rigid opinion) or the sterile and abstractly disembodied ideals of some belief systems.

Bodhicitta, the perfect example of a way with heart, opens us to wonder at the universe and to compassionate action towards all. Like Ganesha on the cup, bodhicitta removes obstacles in our way, giving us a path forward, without it being a pre-constructed one; rather, we create the path with each engaged step of practice. This is a way that is in the heart and protects us from Kornfield’s identified failures of ambition, materialism and individual isolation.

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To those seeking a path with heart,

Gassho

Water’s Flux

Indigo waters gently stir
Under a night sky, black as emptiness
Foggy lights behind – the only luminescence
Ripples gently skim the surface,
Lapping at the dock’s beams
Lip, lup, lap, lup…

The water shimmers as it moves
Undulations in dim, pale light
A glittering, indigo, velvet flow
With each lap, the lake changes,
Water moves, dirt and particles shift
With every moment, fluctuation

The lake remains, but
It is imperceptibly different
I meditate – looking on the splendor
Of flux, of impermanence
As each ripple rolls toward me
Breathing in and out
Changing microscopically
With the lake
The “I” that appears the same
Just as the lake seems constant