Mindfulness: The Great Challenge

Mindfulness doesn’t live and die on the cushion.
It’s a journey, an opportunity,
In every moment.
I can be here, present:
Composed and compassionate
Serene and serendipitous
Open and observant
Or I can be lost, confused:
Reactive and restricted
Selfish and selective
Dormant and dogmatic.


The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching §64, Trans. Jonathan Star

The Sage worries not about the journeys or tales of yesterday. Nor does he lose sight of the beginning step while looking at the future destination beyond the horizon. Knowing both, he steps forward, feeling every inch of ground in this step–right here, right now. The Sage’s secret wisdom?–This step is the only step. Each step is the beginning step. Each step is the whole journey. The only step to take is the one underfoot right now. The only journey is the current movement of the leg and foot, and there is no greater miracle than this. The Sage takes this step with awareness and gratitude–not lost, elsewhere, and not attached to any outcome.

RAILTRACK 4A


The present is direct and straightforward. Your experience of it is heightened through mindfulness. When you are mindful of your breath in meditation, when you mindful of your thoughts, or when you are mindful of going from the practice of meditation to dealing with the kitchen sink, all those situations are in the present. You don’t borrow ideas from the past, and you don’t try to fundraise from the future. You just stay on the spot, now.

That may be easy to say, but it’s not so easy to do. We often find it satisfying to have a reference point to what might happen in the future or what has happened in the past. We feel more relaxed when we can refer to past experiences to inform what is happening now. We borrow from the past and anticipate the future, and that makes us feel secure and cozy. We may think we are living in the present, but when we are preoccupied with the past and future, we are blind to the current situation.

Living in the present may seem like quite a foreign idea. What does that even mean? If you have a regular schedule, a nine-to-five job, you cycle through your weekly activities from Monday to Friday, doing what is expected of you and what you expect of yourself. If something out of the ordinary occurs, something that is completely outside of the routine of your Monday-to-Friday world, it can be quite disconcerting.

We are bewildered when something unexpected pops up. A flea jumps on your nose. What should you do? You swat at it or you ignore it if you can. If that doesn’t work, then you search for a memory from the past to help you cope. You try to remember how you dealt with the last flea that landed on you. Or you may try to strategize how you’ll prevent insects from bothering you in the future. None of that helps much. We can be much more present if we don’t pay so much attention to the past or expectations of the future. Then, we might discover that we can enjoy the present moment, which is always new and fresh. We might make friends with our fleas.
-Chögyam Trungpa, Mindfulness in Action, pp. 46-47.


May this inspire you to mindful presence in this moment.

Gassho!

 

 

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Visit to the Tsubaki Grand Shrine

Recently, I went to the Tsubaki Grand Shrine–the 1st Shinto shrine built in North America (although moved from its original location in California to the current one in Washington State). It’s only about an hour drive from my place, surprisingly enough.

It’s located in some serene woods northeast of Everett, WA. It sits nestled amidst trees, alongside a soothing river. I can think of no better location for a religious shrine of a tradition that praises nature in all of her rhythms, cycles, blessings, changes, and unfoldings.

There were many altars, laced with traditions and rituals, speaking to the genuine Japanese heritage of this shrine–not some second-rate American attempt. For instance, there was a column with the animals of the Chinese zodiac carved around it, chasing each other endlessly through the ongoing years of the calendar.

Chinese Zodiac Column - Tsubaki Shrine

There was also a basin with long-handled wooden ladles for cleansing one’s hands and face before entering the nearby door to the shrine proper. The basin lay below an awning, keeping the water from being fouled by falling leaves, and a wise, kindly dragon stood above and behind it, his stony visage protecting from spiritual impurities.

A few steps away, a thick rope hung from another awning, attached to a large bell. This implement for announcing oneself at the temple entrance was above another basin–this one empty of water, but the open space was meant to collect offerings from visitors.

Tsubaki Shrine entrance

I’m standing at the entrance in the background, and the washbasin is in the foreground to the right. The description of the shop that follows is hidden behind the washbasin area.

To the right, a window displayed many small amulets and talismans that visitors can purchase for blessings in the year ahead.

My companion and I asked questions about the amulets, and the middle-aged, Japanese woman called out to her “sensei” to help us. She disappeared behind a partition and was soon replaced by a white-haired, Western man in his later 50s who answered our questions with gusto and greeted us to the shrine. He even let us inside to use the restroom despite the entrance having been cordoned off for the day already.

He pointed out a “portable shrine”–a large, golden relic atop wooden struts with colorful supports holding the shrine in place–and explained there are festivals which will require this. One is in Bellevue in September. We immediately agreed to go.

Here it is as well as the shrine’s reverend. This was found on the Northwest Public Radio’s site: nwpr.org.

After this, we walked outside and looked at the other altars for blessings and contemplation below the main shrine. There was a small enclosure, overgrown with moss and populated by some kami. Nearby, there was a board to hang small plaques with wishes for the kami to read and bless.

Guardians

Here are the guardians sitting atop a boulder in that small enclosure.

Further down the past was a large stone orb on a pedestal with instructions for a prayer that should be said three times while rubbing the orb. It is supposed to bring overall well-being to one’s life and relationships. This pedestal overlooked the peaceful course of the river below, which we walked down to and admired after each struggling to pronounce the Japanese prayer (written out for us poor gaijin in Romaji, so it was possible to phonetically sound out) three times. 🙂

Good Luck Prayer

Here I am saying the prayer and rubbing the orb.

Near the pedestal, there was a simple post with the wish that peace prevail on Earth written on it in numerous languages…

May Peace Prevail

The peaceful post with the river in the distance…

Finally, at the end of the path below the main shrine was a small shrine adorned with statues of mystical, white, Japanese foxes–those magical creatures of Japanese lore. This shrine had several of the iconic Japanese arches before it–in red and gold.

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Just beyond the arches, before ending at the fox shrine, there was a large stone in the shape of what looked like the yin from a yin-yang symbol. A plaque explained its meaning as well as the tripartite Shinto symbol made of three of these swirling icons. The plaque said that Shinto beliefs hold that the entire universe down to the structure of subatomic particles is composed of spirals. Thus, the spiral is a symbol for revering the myriad and mysterious unfoldings of nature. I was awestruck by this simple yet profound praise of Nature in a quaint forest glade. Here was a simple pointer to the wonder of All rather than “my” mastery of it.

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“I am sure everyone who visits the shrine is struck by the mysterious and undeniable beauty and the peaceful atmosphere that surrounds it. These are things I still notice everyday when I arrive. I find the earlier mornings at the shrine to be a true treasure because these are the times I can feel the world awakening around me. I love walking down the main path, listening to the birds and the river while seeing the morning sunlight shining through the trees. I can’t help but feel connected at these moments.

I’ve noticed while helping to maintain the shrine grounds it can often feel like you’re fighting an unwinnable battle against the forces of nature. You can pick up hundreds of leaves but more are constantly falling onto the ground, areas that have been cleared of weeds all of a sudden have weeds again a week later, and areas that have been raked soon need raking again. However it has dawned on me that maintaining the shrine grounds is not a struggle with nature but is instead an important part of the natural order of the shrine. Leaves fall and I pick them up; it’s part of the cycle. In a way it’s a balancing act between nature’s chaos and the human need for order. By clearing the shrine grounds, you get to be a part of the process.” — Teddy Rodriguez, a volunteer who helped maintain the shrine for some months–taken from the Shrine’s newsletter

May this adventure inspire you to see your engagement and interaction with nature. May it help you see your place within it, not different, not separate–but a piece of the whole; spirals all the way down.

Gassho!

Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada–Chapter 23: The Elephant

Note: I’m going to move forward in the book to this late chapter and then skip back to a couple earlier sections. Also, the passage below, although long, is not the complete chapter, rather about 2/3 of it. I chose this particular selection from it to emphasize one point of content, honing the Manjushri sword of wisdom.


Patiently I shall bear harsh words as the elephant bears arrows on the battlefield. People are often inconsiderate.

Only a trained elephant goes to the battlefield; only a trained elephant carries the king. Best among men are those who have trained the mind to endure harsh words patiently.

Mules are good animals when trained; even better are well-trained Sind horses and great elephants. Best among men is one with a well-trained mind.

No animal can take you to nirvana; only a well-trained mind can lead you to this untrodden land.

The elephant Dhanapalaka in heat will not eat at all when he is bound; he pines for his mate in the elephant grove.

Eating too much, sleeping too much, like an overfed hog, those too lazy to exert effort are born again and again.

Long ago my mind used to wander as it liked and do what it wanted. Now I can rule my mind as the mahout controls the elephant with his hooked staff.

Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts. Pull yourself out of bad ways as an elephant raises itself out of the mud. — Trans. Easwaran

455 (75)

The well-trained mind will take you along the path like the well-trained elephant carries the rider.

Something about the metaphor in this chapter struck me profoundly. The image of the well-trained elephant is very clear, and yet again, we have a comparison that distinguishes the path to nirvana from the other. In this first passage, the Buddha makes clear that the best quality to cultivate is a well-trained mind. This echoes the main message in the other sections we’ve discussed so far. He emphasizes here, however, that the only thing that will allow you passage to nirvana is a well-trained mind. The previous sections didn’t emphasize this destination.

Perhaps, we should take a moment here and question what exactly nirvana is. Otherwise, we run the risk of falling into undefined terms and elaborate concepts without understanding the intention of this message, rather falling prey to our own fancies and preconceptions. This task of considering nirvana may sound easy, but it isn’t and could be written about at much greater length. The word “nirvana” has a certain exotic and fantastical feel to it, at least from my perspective. I remember using it as a child to indicate having reached some ideal and unassailable state–a perfection of sorts that once attained never falls away. Such an understanding reiterates familiar metaphysical dichotomies of being fallen and transcending our state of lack to a completion in the ideal. The two phrases I just used indicate two familiar examples of this–Christianity (transcending fallen state–the lacking nature of sin–through the perfect grace of the ideal: God and Christ) and Western philosophy’s metaphysical systems in general from Plato onward (contrast of the lacking living world with the ideal one which is the Truth, the Real world behind the shadow one that we are in–appearance vs. essence). While there may be arguments for such an understanding of nirvana from passages in the Pali canon, it does not fit well with this section from the Dhammapada.

This passage makes clear that the path to nirvana is the path of the well-trained mind. The examples here show that the well-trained mind is not swayed away from the good, selfless presence in the world (as discussed in my first selection from the Dhammapada) by lust, laziness, etc. We’re shown through the metaphor of the trained elephant that the mind can be trained so that it does not wander about, and this, just this, is the path to nirvana. It’s not acquiring some special state (which wouldn’t fit with the Buddha’s emphasis on impermanence anyway) or going somewhere else outside the “ordinary” world (Where would such a place be anyway???). Rather, it’s being fully immersed in the world with our mind as it is underneath all the constant layers of distractions and compulsions.

We often think of nirvana as the result of enlightenment, highlighting the profound wisdom in this path/practice (to be enlightened is to have seen the Truth), but we could also cast it as liberation; that is another, if not equally emphasized, “attainment” (there’s really nothing to attain, more like something to lose) of Buddhist practice, and with that re-thinking, we can see that the path of the trained elephant is simply that–liberation from the myriad sufferings of a confused mind. This regal animal can bear us to the core of our own happiness, revealing our own basic goodness beneath the desire, aversion, and ignorance of our untrained mind.

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Walking the path step by step…


In case we conclude that a capitalized Mind is something other than our usual one, Huang Po deflates all delusions about its transcendence.:

“Q: From all you have just said, Mind is the Buddha; but it is not clear was to what sort of mind is meant by this “Mind which is the Buddha.”
Huang Po: How many minds have you got?
Q: But is the Buddha the ordinary mind or the Enlightened mind?
Huang Po: Where on earth do you keep your “ordinary mind” and your “Enlightened mind”?”

A familiar implication is the Chan/Zen insistence that enlightenment is nothing more than realizing the true nature of the ordinary activities of one’s everyday mind. When Hui Hai was asked about his own practice, he replied: “When I’m hungry I eat; when tired I sleep.”

The Pali texts of early Buddhism do not emphasize “everyday mind” in the same way, for they often contrast the consciousness of an ordinary person (puthujjana) with the liberated mind of an awakened arahant. Yet there is the same focus on not-clinging, a notable example being in the “Book of the Six Sense Bases” in the Samyutta Nikaya. There the Buddha repeatedly teaches “The Dhamma for abandoning all.” He emphasizes that practitioners should develop dispassion toward the six senses and their objects (including the mind and mental phenomena) and abandon them, for that is the only way to end one’s suffering.

“Through dispassion [his mind] is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: “It’s liberated.” He understands: “Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.””

Listening to this discourse, “the minds of the thousand bhikkus were liberated from the taints by nonclinging.” The absence of grasping is what liberates.

“Truly, is anything missing now?
Nirvana is right here, before our eyes.
This very place is the Lotus Land, this very body, the Buddha.”–Hakuin

Passage taken from David R. Loy’s A New Buddhist Path, pp. 50-51.

May this inspire you to train your mind and release the mind that grasps so that you too may achieve liberation–the well-trained mind will bear you on the path to nirvana.

Gassho!

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal–Entry 12: Heartmind’s Abundance

Being dumped and left behind, completely forgotten by a great Romantic Love, feels much like being forsaken by a deity. On some level, this is precisely true. Love as great object of inspiration has forsaken you, left you alone to find your way in existence without it. Here echoes the existential dilemma of Sartre: alienation. You’re on your own in finding your meaning in life now, and your choices no longer involve the creation of a shared meaning with another person.

This feeling of forgottenness and abandonment has been biting at me for months. Social media hasn’t helped. I’ve seen the contacts I once had slowly forget my existence. Such is to be expected and is not anything wrong on their parts, but it just emphasizes the feeling of alienation even more. The constant reminder of this in the noise of social media babble has, along with a few other motivations, pushed me to close my main social media account for now. In a strange way, it’s been liberating. I feel that I’m taking up the solitary path that is discussed in the Dhammapada; like the well-trained elephant, I’m learning to take on the trek through the jungles by myself, relaxing in the journey yet staying on course.


Recently, I did a particular meditation for the first time in months. In it, you center for a few minutes while holding your hands over your heart with your thumbs and pointer fingers together in the shape of a triangle. After breathing and centering for some time, you ask yourself, or rather, plant the question: “If I planted my heart, what would grow?”  You then sit with whatever answer comes to form in your mind, not forcing, not judging, just observing. The last time I did this, I had some intense yet interesting experiences (you can read about them here). This time’s experience of the meditation was also intense but very different from the last.

My question first met with a blank, and then, a stalk with a pink flower popped out. At first, it was the bleeding heart flower but became a larger, bell-shaped flower.

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From this:

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To something closer to a single one of these:

Then, another and another popped up. Eventually, they started to lean down and crumple. I had a sudden fear that they were withering and dying from some blight, and indeed, they soon disappeared. However, the ground then gave birth to green leaves, like those from orchids, coming out of the ground by the hundreds, spreading out and out and out. I was struck by the abundance of this–an overwhelming sense of compassion and generosity.

I was almost in tears of gratitude as I came out of this meditation. I realized again, that the problem of this kind of pain only bites and tortures when focused on “me“. The question isn’t what I can, should, or will do for myself. That will continue the focus on the pain that is here, never getting beyond it and keeping the story locked in my orbit, reinforcing that story even. Instead, how can I give to all? If my focus becomes about abundance outward, I’ll find lushness throughout existence. Then, it’s not about me. It’s about the universe. It’s about All.

Identification born of ignorance is a source of grief, and its fading a move toward freedom, as I learned in the days following the death of my only daughter, Ona. She had been congested; her doctor failed to notice her swollen ankles and pale complexion. She was a cherubic child, and we, too, were slow to appreciate the extent of her listlessness. A trip to another physician led to a rush to the hospital; Ona died that night. Her heard had a hole in it and could not keep up with the increased burden of pneumonia.

Days and nights followed in a blur of emotion. Relatives wept with us, visitors came and went, sleep was elusive. The pain made a home in my body and lived there. I had never known such grief. Yet, sometimes, I was able to experience this grief in a nonidentified way, noticing feelings rise and fall, as I did in meditation. And I began to detect a pattern. Whenever a telephone call came–yet another person expressing sympathy–my grief erupted anew. Emotion welled up from my belly through my heart, my head flushed with sensation, my eyes filled with tears.

Watching this time and again, I saw how, at the moment of contact with the caller, an image formed in my mind: the father who lost his child. Instead of experiencing the shifting emotions of the moment–now sadness, now disbelief, now compassion for my wife–I inhabited the image of someone overwhelmed with grief. I identified with that fabricated image, stepped into it as if boarding a train, and became overwhelmed. The immediate suffering was compounded, distorted, and amplified. Knowing this was freeing. Once I discovered this pattern, I was able to watch the train come into the station but not board it. I still felt grief: Ona was of my heart; her absence was confusing and painful. But when I stopped stepping into the mental-emotional construction of “the grieving father,” that pain became less sharp and turbulent because it was not proliferated into a “second arrow” of suffering.

Insight Dialogue:The Interpersonal Path to Freedom, Gregory Kramer, pp. 65-66


Later on in the evening, I read the following in Matthieu Richard’s “Happiness” before falling asleep.

As the pain that afflicts us grows stronger, our mental universe contracts. Events and thoughts continually rebound off the walls of our circumscribed inner prison. They speed up and gather force, every ricochet inflicting new wounds. We must therefore broaden our inner horizons to the point where there are no walls for negative emotion to bounce off of. When these walls, built brick by brick by the self, come tumbling down, suffering’s bullets will miss their mark and vanish in the vast openness of inner freedom. We realize that our suffering was forgetfulness of our true nature, which remains unchanged beneath the fog of emotions. It is essential to develop and sustain this broadening of the inner horizons. External events and thoughts will then emerge like stars that reflect off the calm surface of a vast ocean without disturbing it.

One of the best ways to achieve that state is to meditate on feelings that transcend our mental afflictions. If, for instance, we gradually let our mind be invaded by a feeling of love and compassion for all beings, the warmth of such a thought will very likely melt the ice of our frustrations, while its gentleness will cool the fire of our desires. We will have succeeded in raising ourselves above our personal pain to the point where it becomes almost imperceptible.

Exercise: When you feel overwhelmed by emotions
Imagine a stormy sea with breakers as big as houses. Each wave is more monstrous than the last. They are about to engulf your boat, your very life hangs on those few extra yards in the rushing wall of water. Then imagine observing the same scene from a high-flying plane. From that perspective, the waves seem to form a delicate blue-and-white mosaic, barely trembling on the surface of the water. From that height in the silence of space, your eye sees those almost motionless patterns, and your mind immerses itself in clear and luminous sky. The waves of anger or obsession seem real enough, but remind yourself that they are merely fabrications of your mind; that they will rise and also again disappear. Why stay on the boat of mental anxiety? Make your mind as vast as the sky and you will find that the waves of afflictive emotions have lost all the strength you had attributed to them.

After reading this, I lay there in bed and started winding my mind into sleep. As I closed my eyes, I saw the image of a statue of an elephant’s head facing me. It was ancient, long forgotten in some lost glade of the Indian wilds. It was overgrown with grass and hanging vines, although only partially–his regal head was still clearly visible as well as the details of the carving. The foliage hung gently, emphasizing his calm majesty, and the light green was punctuated at the crown of his head and along the edges of the ears with light pink flowers–the same that I had seen in my meditation. His calm warmth inspired me and reminded me that the selfless path to nirvana is described in the Dhammapada as the training of the elephant. This ancient wisdom is still here to calmly inspire and point out the path, overgrown as the symbols may be, even in the darkest times of our lives. That smiling, beautiful tranquility is right here to be seen. I drifted off with this serene joy.

elephant cc

Something like this guy, but just the head from straight on–face to face, and much closer…


At a retreat about 2 years ago, the shaman in charge told all of us that the point of what we were doing was to get beyond the head and into the heart. He was completely correct, but maybe, it was in an even deeper manner than he realized.

Mahayana Buddhism urges practitioners to rouse bodhicittaBodhicitta is translated usually as awakened mind or awakened heart and sometimes as noble mind or noble heart. The point I want to pull out here is that mind and heart are not clearly distinguished as separate in this Sanskrit word. When we Westerners say “mind”, we generally think only of the intellect, but ultimately, mind is all of our experience. All experiences we have in our lives are filtered by our mind. Our emotions, our thoughts, our perceptions, all take place within our receptive engagement with the universe–consciousness: mind. If anything, part of our problem as Westerners is that our usage of these words has tried to split out emotions, “heart”, from what we’ve made into a more idea-laden space of “mind”. However, psychology would show us that even emotions are tempered by our concepts, (hi)stories, and social constructs. Our experience of heart is not separate from our experience of mind. It really is Heartmind (inspired by Sanskrit’s lack of clear distinction between the two).

Opening the heart and traveling into its depths then is both getting beyond the head AND awakening the mind–the heartmind. Really reaching into these depths of mindheart is stepping past all of our identifications and constructs. It’s finding the empty and open potential for all unfolding in this moment–sheer luminosity. We can call it creative force, Source, Tao, or buddha-nature, but opening to this emptiness behind/within All, shunyata, is the great spiritual journey of the warrior who seeks to awaken the heart. Seeing this, even briefly, goes beyond intellectual constructs of self and lights the abundant fire of compassion that is bodhicitta; it makes the awakened heartmind beat with abundance.


Life is a dream,
the years pass by like flowing waters.
Glamour and glory are transient as autumn smoke;
what tragedy–for with the sun set deeply in the west,
still there are those
lost among paths of disillusionment.

Our heart should be clear as ice.
Forget all the worldly nonsense.
Sit calmly, breathe quietly, heart bright and spotless as an empty mirror.
This is the path to the Buddha’s table.

The Book of the Heart: Embracing the Tao, Loy Ching-Yuen, “On Tao: §3”

May this inspire other warriors to rouse bodhicitta and let their heartminds overflow with abundance. May the training of self, the harnessing of the process of walking the path–the trained elephant–act as a guide and inspiration on the path.

Gassho!

Closing a Book

The following is my last entry from my first journal for morning pages. I felt like it spoke to many of the challenges and growing pains I have gone through in walking the Way in recent months and thereby thought it may be useful to others to share here.

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Well, this is it: the final entry. The last few months have been quite a journey. I’ve continued on the path of practice with all the challenges that arise in such an endeavor, the endeavor to wake up. Furthermore, I’ve endured heartbreak. Perhaps these two go hand in hand…

I just looked back at the first few entries of the journal to get a sense of who I was at the time. I was finishing the Heartbreak Wisdom bootcamp. I was finding my way to digest my pain of the last few months before and transform it into strength as a spiritual warrior.

In some ways, I’m still at these steps, but at the same time, my focus on the open-hearted way is intensifying. I less readily get emotionally reactive, and when I do, I can better stay present with it or subvert it instead of fully running with it.

I more readily see our ways of spinning stories and creating our own drama. I see this all the time in others, and the pell-mell run towards happiness and away from an underlying anxiety leaves a smile on my face. I smile compassionately, and when I’m very awake, I can see when I do these dramatic shifts myself and can center myself with compassion.

Something that has been very interesting for me in recent spiritual adventures is the call to the mystery of being. Getting past the ego’s focus on “me“, on certainty, on the undying (or rather, a yearning for it) opens a door to the profound enigma that is emergence. Each moment is truly a miracle. We fail to see it, so we experience it boxed and filtered through our own interpretation. We throw labels like good and bad, like and dislike, interesting and boring, on everything before we’re even experiencing it. The rawness of it generally eludes us, and it takes a “doing nothing”, a “just sitting”, to open to the miraculous that unfolds every moment in the universe universing itself. This doesn’t mean that our flitting thoughts are to be discarded. They are part of this unfolding miracle as well. However, we generally give them weight–grabbing onto them and holding them as more important than the puffs of breeze we feel softly moving across our skin–but are they really that different? Do they not pass by just as quickly if we don’t flow along with them? Do we try to hold onto the wind or to run alongside it? Wonder is right here to behold, just waiting for an open heart.

Reiki: The Five Precepts (Gokai – 五 戒) – 3rd Precept: Gratitude

Just for today:
Don’t hold on to anger
Don’t focus on worry
Honor all those who came before
Work hard on self-improvement
Be kind to all living things
– Reiki Center App, Windows Phone

Now:
Peace
Faith
Gratitude
Actualization
Compassion
– My shortened mantra of the precepts


“I want”–there may be no more fundamental aspect of our psychology, or at least, our standard psychology of samsara. Freud placed the wanting aspect of the self as the original identity of the psyche. In doing so, he hardly broke the mold (no matter what the psychology or literature textbooks might lead you to think)–stealing from and echoing his precursors in Western philosophy, reaching all the way back to Plato. No, this position is not new or radical. Reading Plato’s “Phaedrus” will quickly disabuse the reader of any notion that Freud’s positions regarding the systems of the tripartite psyche or the driving nature of desires were revolutionary. He took a lot from Nietzsche, Plato, and his mentor, Charcot, at the very least. However, Freud succinctly identified a part of our experience with his descriptions of the id as primary: we feel driven through life by desire. In a certain sense, how could it be otherwise?

On another philosophical note, Aristotle’s entire system is about the becoming of things into their end product (a woefully quick and dirty summary that does not do full justice to this dynamic thinker). His physics and his understanding of behavior are teleological–that is, everything is oriented toward its telos: its goal, its fruition, its end. Desire drives us towards ends. For Aristotle, the end that all behavior aims at is happiness (eudaimonia–which is not quite the same as our standard understanding of “happiness” now; just as one swallow does not make a spring, for Aristotle, a fine moment does not make eudaimonia. Rather, eudaimonia is always in action, always in development through a well-lived life by sets of standards that cultivate excellence requiring an ongoing examination and engagement). We desire happiness and we act to move toward it.

Buddhism actually agrees that we all aim for happiness. However, and in a certain way Aristotle would agree: Buddhism thinks that we misunderstand happiness and its pursuit. True happiness is not to be found in the neverending chase of desire. As Zen Master Dainin Katagiri said, “Desires are endless.” How could we ever think that we could pin them all down just right to get an ongoing sensation of tickled nerves? It sounds silly, but that’s precisely what we do when we seek “happiness” as it is standardly understood. No, happiness is not that, Buddhism reveals; rather, it is finding joy in this moment, whatever arises. This doesn’t mean that we obliterate desire, as some people imagine when they envision a Buddhist monk. Hardly. Meditation and mindfulness are not about blotting out every thought and desire. That’s precisely why Katagiri Zenji said that desires are endless: it would be ridiculous to even posit blotting out the flow of thoughts as a path. Instead, we are supposed to see them arise one by one without investing in them and getting entangled with attachment. From a related perspective:

Desire that has no desire
is the Way.
Tao is the balance of wanting
and our not-wanting mind.
-Loy Ching-Yuen, The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao

Such a path takes a lifetime of training the mind, or rather, it’s an ongoing engagement of a present mind in every moment. Every moment is a journey, walking the way with mindfulness. With cultivation, the happiness of being simply what one is comes forth instead of the ongoing chase after what one wants to be (or have), the anxious flight from what one does not want to face, and the hazy-eyed ignorance of the ways of the universe. As Dōgen Zenji would remind us–every moment is a miracle; miracles are not the grand, crazy moments when huge desires are fulfilled, fears avoided, or laws of nature superceded. On the contrary, every moment is a miracle–even the mundane annoyances like washing the dishes.

A key first step to finding the miracle that is in every moment is cultivating gratitude. Usui-sensei’s 3rd precept tells us to be grateful, and perhaps, its position as the 3rd of 5 precepts, the middle precept, is no accident, as it is the heart of practice. In fact, the precepts are meant to be recited while holding the hands together in the pose of “Gassho” (have a look at my original post on the Reiki precepts for a refresher on this). This gesture is an expression of gratitude. So, as we recite all the precepts, they are framed by this gesture, and this precept of gratitude stands in the middle of each recitation–its beating heart.

The Reiki center app translates this precept as “Honor all those who came before”. True gratitude does not lie in the hazy avoidance of averting your gaze from that which you don’t want to see/admit. That’s merely bad faith. Instead, gratitude sees this moment in all its particulars, all of the conditions at play in it–arising and disappearing, just as they are. “Whatever arises”. True gratitude honors all of these current conditions as well as all of the conditions that came before–the causes and precursors to now, necessarily entangled with this moment. True gratitude is grateful for this unfolding karmic situation, no matter whether “I” like “it” or not.

Again, the moment of washing dishes deserves our gratitude just as much as the moment of a bite of ice cream that made those dishes dirty. Seeing the entire karmic unfolding of each moment and smiling at it, whatever arises, that’s our true path to happiness. If we can even begin to do this for just a few minutes a day as Usui prescribed (30 minutes in the morning and the evening: “Do gassho [the hand position of gratitude and blessing in Buddhism–hands held in front of neck/face with palms together] every morning and evening, keep in your mind and recite” (Steine, The Japanese Art of Reiki”)), we’ll find that there is truth to what he said about the precept recitation practice: it’s a key to health and happiness. This practice can truly grant “happiness through many blessings”. The heart of this happiness beats with the pulse of gratitude.


Buddhist lore states that the Buddha taught the precious opportunity of having a human life. His parable: imagine a planet that is covered by one giant ocean. On the ocean, a wooden yoke floats in the water, tossing violently to and fro with the ebb and flow of the ocean’s waves. A blind turtle swims in the ocean and rises to the surface once every 100 years. Being born as a human being is even more unlikely than the blind turtle rising to the surface and sticking his head through the hole of the yoke by “blind” luck. The conditions of your life are greatly precious, and each moment is an opportunity to take up a path of enlightenment and compassion for all. If you see this preciousness instead of your myriad stories of “me” which are intertwined with a neverending web of desires, gratitude can open to the way things are, and action can be taken to walk this path with open eyes, knowing that the opportunity of this life–the chance to cultivate wisdom and compassion–is not permanent and could end at any time.

May this inspire you to gratitude for your precious life, and through the regular practice of reciting these precepts, may you find gratitude for the way things are as well as the true happiness that goes beyond the eternal game of fulfilling selfish desires.

Gassho!

Previous Reiki: The Five Precepts Post – 2nd Precept: Faith

Grasping at Sand – The Pursuit of Happiness

We pursue happiness,
grasping onto desires–
Justifying this as wisdom, as nature, as fact–
Fulfillment + gratification = happiness!!!
Yet we don’t see…

The heart grasping onto desires
Is like a hand grasping
Onto grains of the finest sand.
No matter how hard we
Try to hold on,
It slips out,
And what remains
Tickles and scratches,
Holding onto the hand
Even if the hand lets go.
Yet we don’t see…

Sand flits out of the hand’s grasp
Blowing away in the wind
Lost, gone, vanished
Like a dream
As though the grains were never there
Just like this
Desires arise and disappear
Ephemeral phantoms taken as solid
Yet we don’t see…
Is there a better way to be?

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Without desire, without distress
we keep to our empty heart.
The beauty of the Way is that there is no
“way”.

No self
No this, no that

Everything, everything is simply emptiness.
– Loy Ching-Yuen The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao (On Tao, §10)

Desire that has no desire is the Way
Tao is the balance of wanting
and our not-wanting mind

Travelers know that steep cliffs mean a long, hard
climb.
Just so with Tao:
No smooth roads without first a few ups and downs.
-Loy Ching-Yuen The Book of the Heart: Embracing Tao (On Enlightenment, §1)

May this help you balance your wanting and not-wanting mind, finding the desire that has no desire. May this help you slowly open the heart that grasps onto desire, one that seeks happiness in selfish fulfillment. May you instead find your way onto the selfless path that brings true happiness: an open heart of bodhicitta (have a look at my discussion of the first chapter of the Dhammapada for more on the selfish and selfless paths, and have a look at this one for more discussion of bodhicitta).

Gassho!

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