What Blows Your Mind?

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I went to my orientation last week to learn to be a volunteer at the natural history museum in Los Angeles. This was the view from the building looking south; these banners are their current marketing campaign:

What blows your mind?

Exactly!

That’s why I was there!

As a kid above all it was the dinosaurs at the natural history museum in New York City that blew my mind. Dinosaurs still do! Even still living dinosaurs (birds).

Since I was a kid there have been so, so many things that have blown my mind, Zen, science and medicine, my family, the opportunities I have had, success, failure, pain and love, art… oh just so many things!

I retired 7 months ago. Another blown mind thing.

My identity as a physician fell away like a snake shedding its skin. Well, maybe even easier than that. Note that I am not talking about how I feel about my patients (or ex patients) and colleagues, just my role, my identity, as doctor.

There are others who can now enter that space for my patients, for the world. Making room for them to do so, and making room for new experiences for me. Awesome, win-win.

It was a bit stickier about my identity as an “expert.” I really knew a lot about my specialty of inflammation in the eye. Yes I read a lot, did research, went to meetings, but I also had over 25 years experience, immersion, getting to know the nuances. Now, again, other people will take on that mantle, and anyway I wasn’t the only such expert.

It wasn’t tough walking away from being an expert in this rare corner of the medical world, as much as not being a world class expert at all at anything of substance that I found was a bit stubborn for me. For several months I still had fantasies that I will gain that level of world class expertise again in something else somehow.

Eh, maybe, but probably not.

While I hope to get some expertise in whatever I chose to do, say being a docent at a museum, it certainly isn’t going to be full time immersion for 25 years!

Not interested. Not a fantasy worth pursuing. Let the young and hungry go after that. My ego doesn’t need that carrot on a stick to keep me going.

That too is falling away…

I want what blows my mind.

Mind blowing to me means the spontaneous, unaffected, expansion of how your mind sees the world, a new perspective, associated with joy and wonder.

I love to share mind blown with others.

What I am doing is volunteering at the California Science Center (which is free to all!) and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles (many school groups, including inner city). Great excuse to read about non-medical biology, but that’s secondary. What it is about is sharing being mind blown with kids, teenagers, and adults. As they say, kids of all ages.

Maybe some will become interested in science and nature in a deep and abiding way. Maybe one will cure a disease, find a new, cheaper way to store carbon or create energy without pollution. Solve plastic. Or just find a potential career or lifelong hobby.

On the other hand, none of that may happen with anybody I interact with.

Just being mind blown, well that’s enough. That’s what it is about.

It is a form of deep compassion, “feeling with.” Being on the same wavelength of awesomeness.

So how wonderful to be greeted with those banners at the natural history museum as I was pursuing this. a bit of unexpected clarity!

Of course, that’s not all that I do. I also spend a bit more time at the Zen Center. I volunteer for democrats (will be canvassing with Grassroots Democrats HQ in a couple of days), I am still on the board of Swipe Out Hunger, which helps feed food insecure college students (many of whom now come from poverty, are first generation, are single parents, older, looking for a second chance), and I have done a bit of volunteering with Homeboy Industries, a job and life skills program for ex gang members.

Feeding people, taking care of the environment, doing your job, being kind, helping others, voting out republicans, donating to worthy causes, helping the sick and dying, yes, being useful, that’s all compassionate too. Please do all of those things that you can. We need all hands on deck.

But so often those activities become props for our egos, to assuage our guilt, to deal with our fears, to help us feel special.

Do it anyway, if it is good for others, but watch yourself. At least that’s been my experience. Compassion is what you do, who you are, when selfishness and fear and neediness, and anger and neuroses and conditioning don’t confuse you, don’t bog you down. It isn’t how you justify your existence, real compassion isn’t another ego  boost (though I’d rather one “acts as if” and does something helpful for others, than do nothing because their motive wasn’t “pure” enough and they get an ego boost! Do good and observe: if your ego is there, it is a learning opportunity!

In my case volunteering at the museums, whatever that leads to in the long run, however long it lasts, is it own reward. No goals to meet. No accomplishments to attain. Of course society is better if people appreciate nature. If people know joy, are well educated, we are all better off. But even that, however benign, however useful, still tastes a little of “doing”, that is, the ego wanting to excel, to have a job, to justify itself.  This “doing,” this “accomplishing,” this ego, can be very subtle! Well, that’s what practice is about.

So consider:

What blows your mind?

For me sharing my most authentic, spontaneous wonder, mind blown, is love, is compassion. That is my practice. That is my best life right now.

 

 

 

An Update On Free Will and Mind

 

I have recently been in a couple of situations where free will (or lack thereof) has come up.

I know some people seem to be helped, more able to forgive and be compassionate, to release praise and blame, by embracing the view that conditioning and contingency determines all we do in life. A radical view of no free will at all, it is a story we tell ourselves, nothing more. Of course, they have to say that supposition is their conditioning and biologic predisposition (a biologic conditioning tempered by the environmental effects on biologic development), but that’s not a problem, just how it is.

Some others say:

What about responsibility? Well then, the counter is: conditioned, or just a social fiction.

What about compassion? The counter is: a biologic imperative perhaps (there is altruism in nature) or a delusion, more social conditioning.

I find it interesting that in reading Buddhist texts, at least in translation, I do not run into a specific use of that term, free will, though it is implied in that there is liberation, enlightenment, practice…

And we should ask: free of what? Free to choose without constraints? Sounds like an ego wanting to play God. Obviously, most of our existence does not embody a local/personal free will. Our activities are clearly often determined by our biologic propensities, including brain development, our social and psychological conditioning, and our environmental and social constraints (our opportunities and external limits).

But is that it? Buddhism, and for that matter many spiritual or religious teachings, have an agency implied, or why bother having teachings and practice? Why have terms like enlightenment or liberation?

In Buddhism there is karma, and even the Buddha had karma. Restraints and constraints, a life and a death in samsara. Granted there are Mahayana teachings that say the Buddha’s life and death, final illness and ageing, was just a game Buddha played, in essence, that we all play as we are part and parcel with Buddha Mind. Perhaps a similar teaching is found in other spiritual paths. I recall Yogananda saying something like God is having fun playing hide and seek (I paraphrase, and seem to remember it was couched in a female principle. The Mother was playing hide and seek. Someone can correct me)

It is Mind that has free will, liberation, and sets the constraints, not our limited perspective and ego. Or is that too dualistic? Where is the dividing line?

We certainly seem to have agency, will. We can change our body with exercise, break habits with effort, even change our brains with our brains, say in meditation, as is well demonstrated.

Who is it that makes these choices?

Are they real choices, or just a combination of genetic predisposition and conditioning, with the environment favoring one road over another road.

After all, Buddhism does teach that all composite things, all dharmas, all events and manifestations (which are ultimately events) are contingent. Dependent origination, cause and effect, cycles and karma.

Yet we still talk of enlightenment and practice and liberation, delusion and the idea that we can create new karma.

Maybe it just isn’t important how we frame it. Maybe this is too conceptual, getting trapped in words.

I’m with the Dalai Lama. Forget isms. Learn to give a shit. Can we do that?

While it is a common observation that people don’t often change in substantial, profound, foundational ways, some do.

My favorite example is not some Zen Master or the Dalai Lama or Yogananda. It is nitty gritty, street and here and now. It is Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles (look them up and get Father Gregory Boyle’s books; he walks the walk. Compassion at work. for decades. Donate. Please). Former gang bangers, some even murderers, baking bread with former mortal enemies. Raising families in a way they never experienced. Many fail. Some seem to thrive. Sure, maybe it is just another conditioning, but it sure doesn’t look like it or feel like it. But it is a demonstration of change despite the odds, despite the clear restraints. People don’t end up in gangs coming from mildly dysfunctional homes. These ae people who have been in hells most of us can’t imagine. And in Homeboy they find “radical kinship”, and some truly seem to thrive.

There are students who were brought up poor or even homeless, people trying to change their lives, who are now in college and professional schools. Organizations like Swipe Out Hunger founded by a former UCLA student, Rachel Sumekh, who needs to run for office (full disclosure I am on the board) help them eat. There are groups like Los Angeles Room and Board founded by a dynamic young man, Sam Prater. Or Students 4 Students, run by an engineer, Louis Tse who lived in his car while in grad school so he could start something to help homeless students. This are just a couple I know personally. These are people acting out of compassion, acting as if it mattered, that people have choice, can change, and aren’t totally constrained by how their lives have been and how their lives look. Introducing you to these three is arbitrary, just people I have some contact with. Of course. You likely have many examples. I just felt like showing them some love. My choice. My mandala. Of course there’s Doctors Without Borders, people who dedicate their lives to saving the world politically or with social or. environmental activism. Or who do their jobs helping people. Teachers like my daughter. Doctors like my former colleagues (I have retired). People who act as if.

Or just you and me, in this moment or that, when we make some effort, however small. When we chose to care about someone else, even a bit. Whether expected of us or not. But we do it.

OK maybe more delusion, more conditioning, but why put that set on limits on the universe? Is that just another story too?

So, I chose (!) to act as if. As if I have agency. As if compassion and responsibility and the precepts can make a difference in my life and the lives of those around me. As if there is delusion and clarity. As if when I fall, I can choose to pick myself up.

Maybe that’s just my conditioning, and certainly to a large degree it is. At least it is in part a function of the opportunities I have been afforded.

This is not to deny that free will, to the degree it might exist, is limited in our finite lives. For all of us. And that view can allow us to be more compassionate, as we are all in the same boat.

But the danger is that it becomes, as I have recently seen, an excuse for bad behavior, for poor effort. For not taking responsibility. For self-deception. For lethargy, inertia, not making the effort to make the world a kinder, safer, more livable place.

There is a rationale to that choice (!) of acting as if we have some modicum of agency, of choice, of what some call free will, besides a calculus of empirical usefulness. The way I see things, a core Zen teaching is that Mind is Buddha. Even philosophically, intellectually, non-dualistic idealism has an appeal to me (read Bernardo Kastrup). Mind is foundational, ultimately duality is an illusion if not delusion. Mind is making choices, the me/we are Mind doing that.

Is that not just a belief, another concept?

I suppose so. Let’s call it a working hypothesis.

But one I think, after all these years of exploring it, of whatever wee itsy bit of change, peace and insight this path has afforded me, still worth exploring.

That is, if you choose to!

 

 

 

Retirement and What Practice and Compassion Are For Me Now.

I have taken a break from writing on this blog for some time, mostly because my retirement was on the front burner.

First there was the process of retiring. Not just the nuts and bolts stuff. As a physician I had months of saying goodbye to patients, some of whom I have known most of their lives, from childhood through teen years to adulthood, with careers and family, some as long as 20 years. Others I have seen go from young adults to middle aged, or middle aged to elderly (like me!). Even those I have known for less time, the bonds often grow thick and fast. Some serious diseases, adventures, trials, we shared.

Saying goodbye. Many, many tears.

Of course, with most patients it wasn’t so intense, but for some it was a major deal for both them and me.

Now I have been retired for 3 months, and in that time it has been about seeing what my new life is. That process is ongoing.

And no, while I miss my patients and colleagues, I do not miss the identity of physician. Others will step into that role, the world goes on. I never believed that defined me. It was right livelihood, and I love that I did that. Now I don’t do that. Letting go of people and relationships was difficult, of my role of being a physician was easy.

So now:

I do a bit more at the Zen center.

I have arranged volunteering, for example canvasing and phone banking with the Democrats (this is a critical time, obviously), and with groups like Homeboy Industries (the world’s largest gang reintroduction program for those seeking a life after crime). I am on the board of Swipe Out Hunger (swipehunger.org) that is involved in food insecurity in colleges, a major problem for those trying to improve their lives though education. Even conservative republicans should want to help out with that! Bootstraps and all.

I have always had concerns about the environment as a high priority; it was part of what led me to the commune I lived on when I dropped out 45 years ago, and I am currently getting more educated and active.

I mean, you do know 16 year old Greta Thunberg is right, don’t you? We are on fire. Ecosystems are collapsing. I don’t buy that all life on earth is at risk from the increased CO2 and warming. Life bounced back from much worse climate change. We have already started a mass extinction, and many species, perhaps most, wont survive, of course. Including some that have lasted hundreds of millions of years. But that doesn’t mean life on earth wont survive. It has survived mass extinctions before. But on the other hand, the toxins we are releasing (including plastics) are more of a global long-term threat to life that we can barely even guess about, let alone quantify. that could be a real game changer, in the worse way, much more than climate change.

For us humans climate change is a different matter. We are set up so precariously, our civilization is so fragile, our population so large, that climate changes our ancestors would have barely noticed (they did go through all sorts of climate changes, ice ages, then warming and sea level changes, etc) can wipe us out in a few decades.

Don’t you just want to cry? I do.

Speaking of Greta, at first, I wasn’t such a fan, but then I realized it was the rhetoric around her that put me off. The whole “from the mouths of babes thing.” I thought that if it took Greta to wake you up, you weren’t paying attention for the last several decades! That’s of course true, but that’s not her fault, I realized. No, she just started doing her thing, and somehow it started getting attention. Good for her. She is fantastic. I believe that she is sincere, she doesn’t want fame, she wants the dumb shits who aren’t doing what they should be doing to stop being dumb shits and listen, not to her but to scientists, and for all responsible people in any position of power and influence to do what they should be doing. And for the rest of us to push them (and ourselves!) to do the right thing, to do more. Not find excuses for inaction: it’s too big, too tough, this or that wont do enough, some say. It wont matter. Well duh, probably not, but doing nothing is even worse. That certainly guarantees failure. Doing anything, even a tiny bit, helps set the tone of the discussion, shows you care, and can seed bigger action, as long as it doesn’t become an excuse not to do even more if and when you can.

Kids should speak up and yes, we should listen out of compassion; they are looking at severe devastation in their lifetime if Trump and other outlandishly greedy willfully ignorant people have their way, and if the rest of us just go about our lives as if it will take care of itself and there’s little we can do.

Being rich wont prevent anyone from being crushed by this as it gets worse. The rich think it will, but they will be in prisons of their own making. They can’t escape for long. The social disruptions in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, central and South America, and so in the US and Europe, the demagoguery and populism, the difficulties this will bring, will eventually be impossible to escape no matter how rich you are. Climate change is  already causing significant disruptions and problems politically and socially. The rich and willfully ignorant are just too greedy and so too stupid to see it. They hope they can run out the clock, or buy their way out, blinded by their desires and delusions. It won’t work forever. This is too big. You can’t print money or bitcoin to buy your way out of it. (aside: do you know how much energy bitcoin uses? A travesty). Hungry ghosts, no satiating them, even if it hurts them and others.

As for my interests and practice, I find it is not enough to think about Cosmic Truths and philosophy, quantum coolness, entanglement, and non-dualism. And even meditation can be just a waste of time, IF we don’t use any wisdom and sanity and energy we generate to put compassion into action to the best of our abilities and resources.

I am not saying you shouldn’t read and think about all that, certainly I am a big fan of practice and meditation, which over all I do now more than before, I am just saying right now, the interface of science and Zen, and philosophic insights about non-dualism, is not the heart of my practice. That is all foundational, but I find I have enough to go on and it is time to realize it, to make it real. Yes, I look forward to reading the next book on Biocentrism by Robert Lanza when it comes out. But for me now, to express my practice in my life is what matters. I am not waiting for anutara samyak sambodhi, ultimate enlightenment, or the next great book or scientific-spritual-philosophical insight.

Don’t let practice be an excuse, a prop for your ego. A reason to disengage.

At least, that’s how I see it for myself right now.

Certainly, we can’t all be scientists, policy makers, or Greta. But we can do whatever we can do. Practice without compassion is limited at best, and compassion without expression is conceptual nonsense, an oxymoron, or perhaps just simple self-indulgence. Mental masturbation.

If you are too hurt by your life, so destroyed by the world, sure, take some time and get it together. But in the meantime, how about, if you at all can, acting “as if.” As if you had compassion and some ability to function. It needn’t be big stuff. It can be very little stuff. Baby steps. But we need all hands on deck, doing whatever little you can.

Even just offering a bit of encouragement to those who can do more and are trying, maybe just showing gratitude and respect, is something, is enough, if that’s all you got.

Oh, and please no hand wringing about the Trump impeachment proceedings. If it loses us the election, then we would have lost anyway. If our country is that ethically and morally bereft, and there is evidence unfortunately that it is, then worrying and plotting and strategy wont help.

We have to do this impeachment proceeding. It is clearly the right thing to do. It is at the foundation of any fair system, especially a democracy, that no one is above the law and that getting a foreign power, or for that matter any power, person or any institution, to help you crush your enemies outside of the law and due process, is an abuse of power.

So, we already won! The truth is out there. That is sufficient.

You think it has to be more? It has to be that the senate, miracle of miracles, finally comes around and sets Trump packing?  Republicans get sane and fair? Puhleeeese! Okay, maybe there will be such a miracle. But do you think we will be better off if we have Handmaid’s Tale Pence in the white house with his theocracy? You think he’s a closet environmentalist (well, he may be in the closet… just not that one) who will save the day?  I want Trump out, sure, our future depends on it, but if it means by the election so be it. In fact, putting Pence in the office might make it harder to elect a Democrat (some moderate republicans and independents will use it as an excuse not to vote Democrat) and prevent doing something about climate change.

Yes, the Dems did little about the environment, and did some bad things, let some stuff get by on their watch, but they did some good things. They at least tried. Now we are driving headlong toward the abyss, republican foot heavy on the pedal…

And again, if we lose the election, let’s lose it by doing what is right, not by over thinking it or cringing in fear.

Okay, you know all this. Sorry. Had to get it out there in case there was any hesitation or lack of clarity. This is our lives now.

If you need it in spiritual terms: think of it as our karma, a quest, a spiritual challenge, a cosmic battle, a spiritual test of who you are in your heart, your gut, deep, deep down. You know, like the stories where the beggar turns out to be a saint or god testing you. Whatever inspires you. Whatever story gets you out of your head into action, real compassion.

We need to be on this.

And I likely will get back to more spiritual themes and maybe math and science and maybe some more cosmic vision, sharing some of my fiction, etc. Lighten up a bit! We’ll see.

But for now, this is where my practice, where Zen and Science, has led me, and I promised from the beginning I would be honest with you, that I’d share my journey. Otherwise what’s the point? I am not after likes or followers.

 

We Cant Wish Ourselves Out of Any of This (wish we could!)

Hakuin Zenji the great 18th century Japanese master, pipe dreams himself as an old woman former prostitute poet.

 

It is incumbent on us not to be married to the stories we tell ourselves.

That is not an excuse to think that nothing you think matters.

Of course, “matters” is relative and subjective, a product of mind.

But then, so is existence.

I have of late been concerned, as I bet you have, about the state of our nation and world. It is awesome in the sense of being overwhelming. Stunning in the sense of of being hit in the gut and having your breath knocked out.

What level of greed and delusion is our species capable of?

Look around.

A wall in Berlin

 

I was speaking to a friend of mine who is a professor of history. We don’t only learn from history in the sense of studying events that have occurred long enough ago to somehow be at a sufficient distance that they are described in summary form in textbooks and can be “processed,” that is, to have developed a coherent story about the events that relates to our world view (the big stories we tell ourselves). Events aren’t made into history after some respectable time has elapsed. Everything you experience is history. The “now” is too fleeting to grasp. Science teaches us that energy must reach us, cause changes in energy states in our sense organs, change the membrane states in the nerves that feed our brain, then our brains must sort the data about these energy transformations and decide how it relates to your stories and experience; all in time and space.

So, your “now” is a result of transformations that happened in the past.

It’s all history.

In my personal life I have sought liberation by pursuing my practice. More and more I appreciate the wisdom of Lily Tomlin’s statement that forgiveness is not wishing for a better past. That is true when seeking to forgive others and to forgive your self. That is especially true when you consider that to the extent you perceive, think, feel, and conclude anything about anything, you are experiencing the past.

I admit it. I find that I often wish for a better past. A past where delusion, ideology, racism and greed didn’t run our country and many other countries around the world. Personally, there are times I wish I zigged instead of zagged in my life. There are times I wish those near and dear to me zigged when I hoped they would, when it would have fit my image of the way things should be, when my ego would have been more supported, but they found zagging to be what they needed to do.

But wishing is delusion, it ends up causing more pain and suffering. It is an attempt to reify our stories, what we think we need instead of want, our conditioning, our egos.

We get disappointed when reality doesn’t fit our model of it, our stories, our wishes for a better past. As Stephen Gaskin said over 45 years ago, you have to appoint to be disappointed.

Of course, this can devolve into just more concepts, an excuse to give up, to not care. In Zen we say don’t pick or choose. Well, be careful about how you parse words and concepts. Compassion is at the base of Buddhism, of any religion or philosophy or world-view that isn’t just a way to rationalize greed and delusion. We may not want to be slave to our egotistical, conditioned picking and choosing, but we discriminate a rock from a potato, a kitten from a cobra, compassion from greed.

Hakuin Zenji not deceiving himself and occupying the ground he sits on

In Zen we say start where you are. Occupy the ground you stand on. Maezumi Roshi stressed no self-deception. Easy to agree with; what else would make any sense? Actually doing it, I find, is not so easy. How often do we like where we find ourselves? It isn’t always pretty, is it? But what else is there? Where else can you start, and what other strategy but no self-deception would possibly matter (see above)?

In the past few months I haven’t been too interested in math and science, other than as a professional medical scientist. Seemed a distraction. I have enjoyed taking a bit of a philosophical/metaphysical turn (in the sense of philosophizing about the implications of science) reading, for example, Bernardo Kastrup. Then last week I was talking about the coolness of quantum mechanics talking to a friend at the Zen center who has a strong math background, and I found myself fired up, going back to review some math and science and loving it; so pure, so elegant, so inherently not greedy, insane and devious.

Dogen said to study Buddhism is to forget the self. At least when delving into how an abstract logical construct like linear algebra ends up being a way to describe quantum phenomenon, I can, for a bit, forget myself. OK, that’s not totally true, and it certainly isn’t what Dogen was really saying. He said body and mind fall away, and mine hasn’t, not even when absorbed in new material. But still, it seems to at least give me a little break from all of the noise.

I like that you can’t cheat it without, well, cheating, and what’s the point of that? And it can get deeper as you return to it. You might have a certain understanding of a mathematical operation, but seeing how it works in another context, say linear algebra in quantum mechanics, brings you deeper; very cool.

Myths and stories can do that too, and I do like creative writing and have been doing some of that as well. I read somewhere you might as well do art; worse that can happen is it sucks, then you toss it. I like that. Nice if it doesn’t suck though, but hey, gotta start somewhere.

 

Of course, the ultimate art, the great performance piece, is our lives and our deaths.

Keep on dancing!

 

 

See You In Hell

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I have flirted with despair and anger, feelings of betrayal and even hopelessness, over this election, as have many people I know.

But time to “cut it.”

Time to get real.

Along those lines, the Dali Lama and Desmond Tutu, a couple of old friends, have a new book I picked up as an “impulse buy” last week called “The Book  of Joy.” I find it timely and helpful. Not because it is chock full of deep or subtle dharma and cosmic vision, or that I even agree or resonate with all aspects of their conversations, but these old guys have been through hell and have some credibility, or at least experience, when it comes to dealing with hard core, vicious and violent racism and oppression.

And we are going to need those skills!

As the ground of our Buddhist practice is compassion, it isn’t just a matter of being compassionate when it is easy and the lines are clear.

As the grounds of being a liberal, progressive, or a sane person without political agendas, is fairness and justice, not idealism for its own sake, we have to be clear and real about what that means.

Yes, we need to care about the refugees, many of whom were displaced, directly or indirectly, by our interventionism. And we need to care for minorities and marginalized people.

But to have any meaning our compassion has to also be for the blue collar worker or woman or hispanic who, in fear and loathing, voted for Trump!


Our tradition says the Bodhisattva Guan Yin goes to hell because she hears the cries of the suffering. Not just the suffering of people she approves of. Didn’t see that in the fine print.

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The memorial to victims of war and oppression, Berlin. You see a statue of  a woman cradling a dead young man. The red on either side are two wreaths of flowers. It is Guan Yin in hell.

Did we (progressives, democrats, reasonably sane and caring people of all stripes) really do that? Michael Moore warned us that we were tone deaf or worse.

Where were the Democrats when big pharma and my fellow docs were pushing oxycontin? Too busy raising money to buy votes they couldn’t earn? I heard 20 million opiate addicts now and each has, or had, a family…

Our tradition says anger just gets more anger. Natural to feel anger and shock that our neighbors are so driven by fear and despair (and yes, in too many cases, outright racism and hate for the “other”), but how long do we indulge our anger and despair?

If we are all one, no separation, or if we say we are for the “people,” we have Trump and over 50 million actual people who voted for him to be “one” with! It isn’t a matter of having to like or agree with them, but we can’t just dismiss them or hate them. Despair and rage is counter-productive. 

Our tradition says buddha stopped a war caused by his family being arrogant and deceitful. Until he didn’t the second time and his clan was wiped out.

Our tradition says buddha’s cousin tried to kill him.

Yet he kept buddha-ing!

He didn’t give up even though (or maybe because) it looks so hopeless, because desires and suffering beings are inexhaustible, numberless.

30 Kushan Buddha

I love that about our tradition!

And remember: we DID get the majority of votes, despite a flawed candidate who to many represented the very  unsatisfactory status quo.

You and me, we are not alone. We can do this dance together.

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We were in a bubble, but it was a pretty big bubble; together lets pop it and get to the hard work of opposing fascism, fear and racism, not out of anger and hate or because of some progressive agenda, or some concept of a left wing paradise, but because it is right effort, because it is what is right, period!

Whatever system we find ourselves under (as did our spiritual ancestors), whether we are ruled by an emperor, shogun, republic, democracy, socialism, feudalism, whatever, we stand for justice and compassion if we have a Mahayana  practice, or if we have no formal practice but simply have two synapses that work and we care at all and aren’t just as selfish and short sighted as the people we decry.

This blog Zengut  is in large part about the visions of science and zen. Well, in both science and zen we deal with what is in front of us, we don’t waste time and energy wishing it were different, imagining and hoping for a better past or different universe so we could have a more comfortable future that matches how we think it should be. We don’t indulge in fantasy and dogma. We see what the data says in science and we don’t fake it or fudge it, and we own the ground we stand on in zen; no difference there.

I’m not saying be passive. Stand up for what is right. Racism and misogyny and homophobia and climate denial and the fox guarding the hen house are NOT OK. It’s not “all good” and we are not going to be alright. When someone says “oh, we’ll survive this”, I get chills down my spine. Like we survived WWII? The Cultural Revolution in China? The monks and nuns in Tibet? Like kids in Syria? Like our own devastating civil war? Like so many throughout history under colonization and oppressive regimes throughout the world of all colors and beliefs?  No, I am not saying it is all good, we will be fine. We may be a failed evolutionary experiment, and if so, it will be painful. This may be how this chapter of the greater story ends.

Neither Buddhism or science is sentimental about suffering or survival.

So:

Be strong. Be loud. Effect change. Fight the good fight for truth and justice. Out of human decency. But not out of anger, not out of hate, and not out of fear or despair.

That is our tradition(s) at its(their) best.

And it is our only hope.

Love, and see you in hell.

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Buddhist Ethics

 

 

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There are all sorts of precepts, rules of behavior, in different schools of Buddhism. Some are just for monks, others for nuns, and these are further pared down for laypersons. The basic formulation of the “four truths” that appears in early sutras include the eight fold path of “rights;” not legal rights as in the constitution, but these “rights” are about the right way to proceed, like right livelihood, right effort, right speech, etc.

But those are not the crux, the heart, of Buddhist ethics.

Nyogen Roshi says that Maezumi taught that no matter how smart and good, however benign, we will cause pain if we come from our unenlightened personal agenda. You can’t just memorize the rules. That might be ok as a guide, something to fall back on when in doubt, when you know you are in a confused state and can’t see clearly, but if it isn’t coming from you, from your very being, if you have an agenda, it won’t stick.

Zen teachings say we don’t pick and chose. No aversion or desire/grasping. That doesn’t mean we don’t discriminate. Our school teaches no self-deception, take responsibility. You know a kitten from a rattlesnake, as Nyogen Roshi says. Trust your mind to function.

We don’t ascribe to precepts and decisions about behavior as being driven from above, as is the case in many religions. It isn’t about guilt, praise and blame, standards of good and bad by fiat from the heavens. We aren’t concerned about some dictate about purity versus sin. It is about compassion, it’s about not letting our egos dictate the limits of our universe.

We can start by not indulging in the poisons: greed anger and ignorance. Buddhist ethics is about not being run by your desires and fears, your conditioning. That takes care of it. You do that, you come from that place, just pay attention without trying to fit your life, other people, the Universe, into your idea of how you want it to be, you will be ethical.

You wont justify and rationalize doing bad shit. You will do good shit.

Robert Lanza, one of the authors of the books “Biocentrism” and “Beyond Biocentrism,” gave a talk at the Hazy Moon Zen Center. He pointed out that there is no separation. No dualism. We are all one. As taught in Buddhism, no self and other. If you believe that, if you really get that, he said, why would I hit you? When I  hit you, I am hitting me.

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Without greed, without fear or anger, why would you hurt others, why would you not care about the environment, why would you cheat, what would you do that would be unethical? Why would you be a republican?

‘Pay attention’ is the ultimate Zen teaching according to some. Be awake. No self-deception, no agenda. If you do that, you will function as a Buddha. A Buddha knows how not to cause suffering.

One thing I have noticed is that we often think our own suffering is the exception. Not necessarily worse than the suffering of other sentient beings, but somehow just different enough, special enough, that we and our suffering are exceptional in the sense of being exempt. Justified.

I do not mean to blame the victim. You probably did get hurt. We all live lives mired in samsarra, the relative material world of self and other, surrounded and embedded in delusion. Sometimes a firm hand, a strong stance is in accordance with the Way, with dharma. There are people who do very bad things out there, and we need to stand up to them. We need to be strong and brave in the face of injustice.

But more often than not, if it all seemed to go wrong when you thought you were doing the right thing, if it isn’t flowing (the great Way has no difficulties we are told by the ancients) you were likely indulging your delusions, delusions that we all often have a blind spot for, which is why they are called delusions.

When we decide that we have a good reason to not to be constrained by the niceties of avoiding anger and being responsible when we are causing others to suffer, we open the gates to hell. Look carefully next time you fall down and have to lift yourself up. See whether you somehow justified it, rationalized your behavior. This one was so different…it wasn’t fair…I just had to…

Yes sometimes we do just have to. That’s the practice. Being clear enough to know the difference between doing it because of our ego needs or because it is Dharma, the Tao, the Way. Having no agenda that blinds us. We discriminate, not because we want it this way or that, not out of desire/aversion, but because that’s how a Buddha functions.

That’s who we are  without delusion.

Or at least, so I am told by those who seem to know. I’m thinking it’s true. It fits what I see, anyway.

Nyogen Roshi says the ground of Buddha Mind, that is, our minds undistorted by the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance, our minds not limited by our ego driven need to protect ourselves against our fear, by our dualistic delusion of self and other, is compassion.

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Avalokiteshvara, who became the female Guan Yin in China, hears the crying of those who suffer. That’s what the name means. She goes down into hell to comfort the suffering. She embodies compassion.

That’s old school Buddhism.

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Entropy, Ego, What’s the Point?

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Rather than launch into a technical description of entropy and the relationship of energy and entropy lets try this first.

More entropy means more disorganization and more ignorance. Low signal to noise. Less information. Like static preventing the faithful transmission of data. Think of loud static on a radio when you are trying to listen to music on your car radio.

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If I tell you I mixed up the numbers one through ten and put them in a bag, then I picked out two, say a 3 and a 7, all you know about the next one I will pick is that it is not a 3 or 7. So they are mixed up, disorganized, and we have a bit of ignorance about some aspect of that system. Relatively high entropy. If I throw in some letters or blanks into the bag along with the numbers, i.e. static, you are even less able to predict the next thing to come out of the bag!

Now I tell you I ordered the numbers from ten down to one. There are no blanks or letters. I picked out a ten. Next picked will be… nine! Very good. You had little to no ignorance. But I had to put extra energy into ordering the numbers compared to throwing them in the bag. I had to have some way to assure they stayed in order as well. Low entropy, but it took more energy.

Meditation can be seen as aiming for high energy, low entropy. But I am not sure that’s quite true for zazen. You’d have to ask a Zen teacher. Certainly “mindfulness” is like that.

A circle is low entropy. You know everything about it and it took energy to create it (minimally mental energy, in addition perhaps energy to move the pencil or program and run the computer).

Symmetry is not ignorance. True, by definition symmetry is present when you can’t tell something has changed, like someone else spinning a circle while your eyes are closed, so that seems like ignorance. But to do that experiment, you need to know that the experiment was planned and then do it! That’s a lot of knowing, organization and energy!

Information is low entropy. It takes energy to put 0’s and 1’s in some order and that is one aspect of what information is. Ordered dualism.

Meaning is how we interpret and experience information. It is our perspective on it. It is contingent to the max. It is easily colored by our wishes and desires, by our egos.

I just read that the Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who unified the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces (along with others, of course; anyway major physics achievement) wrote: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

That seems very nihilistic and depressing. Perhaps that’s how he meant it. If so, somehow he had dealt with it because some four decades after writing that he is still writing books!

On the contrary, that seems very Zen to me. And liberating. It relieves us of arbitrary values and goals. The kind the ego sets up to measure ourselves by, so we can achieve them and reassure ourselves. Except when we don’t.

What ultimate, objective, cosmic, universal, non-dualistic “point” could there be? Any point we could articulate would be a human construct, limited and contingent, a dualistic notion of use in only a very small corner of time and space.

Matthieu Ricard writes in his book “Altruism” that the ego is the crystallization of our identity. He writes that we try to protect it. That’s pretty good, but I am not sure that it is quite right. There is no single anatomic brain space that houses the ego. I think the ego is the process by which we protect our identity. The identity is our sense of who we are based on our conditioning (biologic and psychological, contingent on where and when we are). It is how we organize our sense perceptions and react to them. It is our karma, if you will. It is how we try to make the world comprehensible, to find a point. The ego is the process of having and wanting there to be a point. A point is like a location, a beacon, a polar star that the ego can refer to on the horizon to measure itself and its position by so it can better protect us as we cruise through the world of time and space, the world of the six senses.

So as the universe becomes comprehensible, what we comprehend may not be to our ego’s liking. It may not put our bodies (brains included) at the top of the heap. It may remind us that our limited sensory experience is a pretty pale reflection of the vastness of the universe. Of course comprehensible in this context means the forces of nature. The things physics studies. That which can be measured. It does not mean the whole shebang.

To be clear: I am not suggesting a lack of values. I hope you value compassion. I hope you don’t value your suffering and especially not the suffering of others. I am only suggesting not being seduced into thinking that is the “point.”

Or is it? We can chose to embody compassion, we can aspire to the low entropy high energy state. Is that the “point” of our lives, our minds, the dream, the whole show? Some think so. I admit to liking that view. But maybe that’s the point! It is a goal to like, admirable to be sure, but do I like it because it makes me feel better about myself? Is that my ego protecting me?

No “point”? Perhaps that’s kind of like “ordinary mind is the way.” Or the miracle is chopping wood and carrying water. You don’t need a “point” writ large to the universe to eat when hungry, or to be compassionate. That is the functioning of the universe. What needs to be added? What would be the point?

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Love and Marriage

 

Caring

Desire

Partner

Hormones

Conditioning

Biologic imperatives

Expectations, voiced or not

Innocence lost, innocence gained

How close is too close, how much is too much?

Not understanding, understanding

Different worlds, same world

Why do I want to be angry?

Glorious and amazing

Wishful thinking

Commitment

Projection

Entangled

Creative

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Guan Yin (Kannon in Japanese) , Bodhisattva of compassion, in female form. The male form was originally named Avolikiteshvara. She is the “hearer;” she hears the cries of all suffering, and will go down to the pits of hell gladly when she is called.

After 41 years of marriage to a woman I love, that’s about the only way I can understand it or express it, with poetry. And I rarely write poetry.

I doubt this is gender specific or sexual orientation specific from what I can see. And there are many relationships that are long-term and loving that I imagine do not encompass many of these things. This is simply what spilled out of me about my 44 years of a committed relationship with a woman I love as best as I know how.

I’ll come up with other poems about other relationships.

The real point is that I suspect there is something very deep and profound that these impressions of my life in love and in marriage circle around, that even the most solid day-to-day love can only approach or maybe only dimly reflect as long as egos and agendas are involved:

A love beyond conditioning and expectations.

Abiding compassion.

I think that is the flavor of Xin, the heart of Mind, the taste of existence.

And it doesn’t get old.