Category Archives: manifesto

generosity

Hui-Hai, when asked how one might enter the gate of his school, says, “by means of giving,” literally dana paramita. when asked to clarify he says something startling that might be translated as, “giving means giving up,” or perhaps “giving over,” and adds that all the other practices that make up the Bodhisattva Path are realized through dana. this giving over is what it actually means to be free from suffering in this moment – “naked and free in the midst of the bustling marketplace”. without it even the most diligent practice is just spiritual athleticism and the most meticulous study is empty Zenology. it is what allows us to draw sustenance from the fabric and shape of everyday life and, even at the most difficult of times, find space to turn around.

in any encounter, even the most straightforward, the self-construct stakes out a position because that’s how its works. but, if we pay close attention, it’s easy to see that this act of staking out a position, drawing up categories and making up stories about them is exactly the thing that impoverishes our experience causing us to suffer and bring suffering to others. it’s the source of what the Buddha called “self clinging”. the most intimate request of practice, whether we’re sitting quietly in the Zendo or out wandering around in the World trying not to bump into things, is to relinquish our precious position and move into the very center of the encounter. to stand as close as possible, neither grasping or turning away. this is the essence of dana and, through it, practice is fulfilled.

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why it’s like this

in a nutshell, in order to be modern humans, i.e. language-using beings with a robust capacity for detailed, long-range planning, we need to imagine ourselves as separate, persistent and singular. much of what it means to become human, both in terms of child development and the long-term human evolution consists of the elaboration and reification of this self-construct. the self-construct is constantly chewing over past activity and building plans for the future. these retrospective and prospective narratives come with emotional tags that are used to rate and evaluate them. it is constantly, assuming, generalizing, jumping to conclusions, explaining and rationalizing. and, as anyone who has tried to meditate for more than 10 minutes will tell you, it never, EVER seems to shut up.

the problem with all this is that we’re not really as separate, either from each other or from the wider world, as we imagine ourselves to be. nor are we particularly persistent or consistent, even when considered on relatively short time scales. the fundamental agendas of our self-construct are often, perhaps constantly, in conflict with the ever-changing, fundamentally ungraspable nature of the reality in which they are inextricably embedded. we want the world and the beings in it to be the way we see them – the way we need them to be. we imagine that both the world and our relationship with it are static and intelligible. we want more of what we think we want and less of what we think we don’t want. we resist change as though our life depended on it. all this in spite of the fact that life is a gift beyond measure and the world, just as it is, is a miracle beyond our wildest imaginings.

no wonder we want out.


how it feels

20110531-090329.jpgwhat is it like to be human? we should all know this, of course, but it’s surprisingly hard to pin down – mainly because we have so many conflicting ideas about how it is and ought to be.

sitting at the kitchen table in a house full of family and the smell of home-made bagels it’s easy to see that life can feel wonderful, but we know it’s not always like this and we’ve been telling each other about it for millennia. the literary output of humanity from our most ancient texts to the pop du jour is full of attempts to capture (and complain about) exactly what this feels like. there are two things things that are striking about these. first, they often use metaphor, which underlines the fact that the experience is embodied and palpable for us, and second, there is an astonishing degree of cross-cultural agreement about the nature of the experience itself.

so, how is it?

we feel fettered and trammeled – “un-free”. Goffin and King say, “my baby’s got me locked up in chains” the “Blue Cliff Record” talks about “wearing stocks” or being entangled in weeds and vines.

it’s like like we’re groping in the dark. in a particularly evocative turn, Krishna in the “Bhagavadgita” says, “dark inertia binds the self with heedlessness, indolence and sleep.” the metaphor has become so common in modern parlance it needs no further citation here.

we fear our actions are futile or fruitless. Shakespeare’s Macbeth pretty much sums this up when he says that life’s “a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more,” and “a tale told by an idiot.” the ancient Greeks had their myth of Sisyphos.

we ache and feel a lack. in fact, we got a whole lotta lack. we just can’t get enough. we can’t get no satisfaction. the pie is too small. the pond is too tiny and seems to be drying up. the golden age is over and we’re in some other age made of some other, less glamorous metal and so on and so on. Code Monkey lack Fritos(tm), lack Tab(tm) and Mountain Dew(tm)…

these and other related factors are so much a part of human life that they’re like the air we breath and the ground we walk on. to review human history, or just to look back honestly on how the last day or week went, is to see how much suffering we cause ourselves and each other by acting out the mindset described here. and, ever since people started to take notice of them we’ve longed for relief. we long for it with a power and persistence that, it can be argued, trumps all of our other desires and leads us astray more easily than just about anything else. all of us seem to harbor some private conviction that if only such and such were true – if only we had more money, a better job, a more compliant (or less compliant) lover, if our spiritual attainment were greater, if we were smarter, better read, more like person X or whatever particular set of criteria we’ve framed as an ideal – then we’d be free and feel completely alive, untrammeled and full of purpose.

but, here’s the really good news. there’s nothing any of us can do to stop being who we are. period. exclamation point!