Category Archives: Buddha

Back to Real Life

Colonoscopy, a Peak Experience

As you have read, I went through a real downer after falling down the stairs.  I’m mostly over the episode, the body is mostly healed, and my psyche is on the mend.  Along with the trip down the stairs I got my three year endoscopy/colonoscopy and had a trip to the cardiologist.  I have an appointment with the gastroenterologist coming up for another butt chewing.  Who better than a butt doctor?

The cardiologist wants me to have an echocardiogram to see the extent of scarring on the wall of my heart.  I apparently had a heart attack sometime, and there is some damage.  I don’t remember anything, and my heart function is fine, but they want to check if there could be a problem in the future.

I go to many of Carol’s doctor appointments as well as mine.  I am tired of all the medical offices.  The people there are almost always great, but, the waiting sitting around reading six month old People Magazines.  I guess this gives old retired people something to do rather than sitting in the recliner watching old Law and Order reruns.

All this medical stuff is scary.  A good friend recently had a mild heart attack, but after 40 years of cigarettes, it is seriously scary.  He keeps telling me I need more exercise, but it is mostly projection.  At some level, however, he is right.  He is so scared he devotes much of his time to exercise, mostly pickleball and swimming.  When we have coffee he is usually limping from overdoing it at pickleball.  One of these days his leg is going to fold over backwards at the knee.  Well, maybe not, both of his knees are titanium and don’t fold backwards as readily.

I’m working on diet changes, getting Physical Therapy, and doing more Mindfulness Meditation.  Maybe someday I will start being more mindful when not actually meditating.  That should reduce the falling and tripping.

Other benefits of the meditation are the three refuges:  the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.  The Buddha is not some kind of God.  He was a man, albeit a fully realized man who devoted his life to helping others become realized.  The dharma is the body of his teachings along with the wisdom of his followers over the last 2500 years.  The sanghas are the groups of followers meeting to meditate, learn the dharma, and pay homage to the Buddha.

Sangas aren’t unique to Buddhism.  Christians call it fellowship, the body of Christ.  Human bonding is important for living a spiritual life.  Sunday evenings, the Insight Meditation Community of Denver meets in an Episcopal church near downtown Denver.  As always, it took some time for connections to form, but I now feel close to everyone there, even if they may be from California.  In addition, meditating in a group is always special.

Someday science will figure out what the spiritual energy is that forms within and between people following a spiritual path.  The energy is common to every spiritual path.  Sometimes it is called mystical, but there are many who would say they aren’t mystics.  The only thing blocking the bond is hate.  People can feel a bond of hatred, but it is in no way spiritual.

My hate example is the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka.  One of their tenets is that God hates.  Do you believe it?  A friend is the Unitarian Universalist minister in Topeka.  Their tenets are love and helping others.  The Westboro congregation is actually at cross purposes with their beliefs.  Their protests have brought people together all over the country to stand in opposition to hate.  Love grows.  Hate destroys.

Dukkha

Dukkha is the Pali word originally translated as suffering.  Pali is the ancient Indian language, along with Sanskrit, used to write down the discourses of the Buddha.  Usage of Pali tended to move south to Sri Lanka and South Asia, while Sanskrit was incorporated in the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism.

The Buddhist group I attend is  part of the Theravada tradition, most of those bringing it to the west studied in Sri Lanka or Thailand.  There are differences, but to me the differences can be compared to Lutherans and Baptists.  The essential message is the same.

Dukkha is central to Buddhism.  It can’t be precisely translated.  Discontent, craving, anxiety, dissatisfaction, suffering, and hopelessness are typical translations.  I’m sure you get the idea, we all experience dukkha.  The goal of Buddhism is the end of dukkha.  Without dukkha, a person is totally in the moment, seeing life as it is, not how our egos want it to be.   All our lives, we are attempting to shape our world into what we have decided it should be.  Ain’t gonna happen, folks.

Therefore we live lives of striving or despair because things aren’t what we think they should be.  Well, things are what they are.  That’s all.  I want comfort, security, love, time for adventure, and no Japanese Beetles.  I have love, but the other things seem to be lacking somewhere.  Perhaps the best illustration is the difference between pain and suffering.  My knee hurts, my fingers are getting stiff, and I itch.  I’m human, that stuff is inevitable.  I don’t want it to be true.  I get upset when I itch, and the damn Japanese Beetles won’t go away.  I feel discontent.

Insight Meditation is the practice of sitting and following the breath.  Just the breath.  Not thinking about ice cream, the breath.  When thoughts about ice cream or anything else arise, simply return to the breath.  Later, when thoughts arise, observe them without engaging them and watch them pass away.  That itch in the left ear canal, observe it and note it goes away.  Or not.

The key is not getting involved with the itch.  It is an itch over which I have no control.  I want to stick a Q-tip in there, but it won’t help.  The itch does what it will.  Let it be.  Chill, dude.  Am I good at this?  Not so much.  That’s why it is called a practice.  I have noticed some progress, but it is slow.  I don’t get as irritated in traffic.  I am a bit better at putting up with Carol’s Hallmark Channel movies (not really), and I am a complete failure at accepting the beetles.

I have a touch of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  There is an ongoing, futile attempt to control one’s environment, so strong it becomes ritualized.  For me, the coffee maker has to be in it’s exact place WITHOUT ANYTHING IN FRONT OF IT.  When a cup is sitting there, my neck and shoulder muscles tense, and I utter a quiet oath.  So what’s the big deal anyway?  Nada.  That’s dukkha.  My day will go just fine if the cup stays there.  Surprisingly, it will probably get moved, and there was no need to get all uptight.

Breathe in, breathe out, watch the reaction, watch it pass away.  The world is as it is.

Change

Where We Started

As Neil DeGrasse Tyson points out, we are made from stardust.  It takes a supernova to generate the energy to create the heavier elements.  That stuff diffuses, then gravity slowly congeals into new bodies.  Now this takes time, many millions up to billions of years.  Even geologic time is somewhat inconsequential compared to galactic time.

That’s a reason why we are so deluded with respect to time.  For children, the weeks leading up to Christmas can seem like forever.  It’s no time at all.  However, sometimes when I sit in meditation, time seems to stand still and I get jumpy.  In truth, our lifetimes are meaningless when viewed from even the nearest galaxy to our Milky Way.

The message in this?  Chill, already.  The therapist I saw for my ADD had me put a sticker saying NBD on the dash of my pickup.  No Big Deal.  Universes come and go in the blink of Kali’s eye, and we are obsessed with He Who Must Not Be Named’s tweets.

What is important is what we do with this tiny minute we are here.  I am attempting to connect with that eternal universe I tend to ignore most of the time.  Going back to the roots.  Well, the roots are made from stardust.

My brain gets oxygen and food these days, so it goes into action, what it evolved to do.  The action is thinking.  Thoughts arise, mull around, and pass to something else.  We are physically safe most of the time, so it isn’t really necessary to be on alert all the time.  The saber-toothed tigers are gone.

So, my task is to stop thinking so much, and just be space and stardust.  It’s where we came from and where we are going, so why not just be with that?  When I am able to let the clutter go,  I am more in harmony with the changing universe, not my nearly ceaseless churning of the noise I absorbed yesterday.  What arises, fleetingly, is equanimity and serenity.

In the long run we are all dead, so what’s the big deal?  Maybe we need catacombs, ossuaries we visit regularly to remind ourselves of the impermanence of it all.  I would like ho hold Nietzsche’s skull in my hands.  So much for the Ubermensch.

Can’t we all just get along?  If I remember something, I wand to remember yesterday’s sunset and look forward to the breeze in my face as I walk out of the coffee shop.  Oops, there I am thinking about the future, not enjoying the nice people in the coffee shop.

 

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Meditation

Meditation

Meditation

Humans have been meditating ever since our brains got big.  There are seekers who look around the world for answers to what is essentially unknowable, but we still wonder.  There are always people who will tell you they have the answer, and most people are willing to accept what they say.  I am one of the exceptions.  I am one of the seekers, always have been.   

I looked for the answers with the organizations that say they know.  I was never quite satisfied.  I was raised a nominal Methodist, but it never resonated with me.  For many years I was a rabid agnostic, challenging every belief.  It worked, too, except with those persons grounded in their faith.  I looked into lots of beliefs.  I investigated various flavors of Christianity, existential philosophy (the ultimate refuge of the sceptic), the power ideologies, Zen, radical politics, straight humanism, and scientific atheism.  Nothing worked, and I plunged into some of them fairly deeply. 

I attended college during the turbulent late 1960’s.  Parallel with politics were the drugs. I smoked lots of dope, and it helped me to get more in touch with my feelings.  Paradoxically, marijuana is useful if you just want to numb out while feeling good.  I did that a lot.  Then there was LSD.  Lots of people used acid to have fun and maybe explore a changed way of perceiving reality.  Others, myself included, attempted to use acid in the Quest.   

My friends would take one hit of acid, I tended to take three.  By lying down at night and looking straight up I saw the matrix of universal existence, how the entire universe is interconnected.  The problem is that I always came down, and a lot of what I had seen retreated.  I finally gave acid  and pot up. 

I continued to seek, but I also despaired of finding any answers for the Question.  I did the regular stuff, got married, had a career, and engaged in lots of activities.  I explored the wilderness, bred and showed dogs, hunted, drank quite a bit, and had most of it fall apart. 

I was divorced, lonely, depressed, and starting a new career that was technical rather than person-oriented.  I was in the dark night of the soul.  I fell into Pentecostal Christianity, which puts a lot of emphasis on experiential activities.  In other words, I was a Tongue-Talking Holy Roller.  I experienced the divine.  I literally felt the love of Christ.  I plunged in all the way for a couple of years, but the fundamentalism and the underlying Calvinism did me in. 

I went from the Pentecostals to Charismatic Episcopalian churches.  The evangelicalism pushed me out again.  I ended up a mainstream Episcopalian.  I love the liturgy, the ceremony, the openness to religious exploration.  I had trouble with the Church.  The only time the Church contacted me directly  was to ask for money, and I had been steadily giving.  I had to write the Bishop to get accommodations to my shift worker schedule in order to take the course leading to confirmation. 

I left.  I still think of myself as an Episcopalian, but my churchgoing has lapsed.  During my time as an Episcopalian, I began doing Christian Contemplative prayer.  For most of my life, meditation was almost impossible because my ADD-addled brain would never quiet down. I was finally able to meditate.  

I stayed with the contemplatives for quite a while, going to a weekly group, going on retreat, and reading widely.  The Christian mystical tradition is as ancient as Christianity.  In the west, it survived mostly in a monastic setting.  The Carmelites, the Trappists, and a number of other orders have kept the tradition alive.  Today it is moving out of the cloister into the lay community.  It is still mostly Roman Catholic.  The Roman church has always tolerated the Mystics, as they are vital to the Christian tradition, but they have never very good at following all the rules.  That divine spark within all of us have grows in a mystic.  The presence of God within, and following His will is not always compatible with the Church’s teachings. 

My dissatisfaction with the institutional church eventually drove me away.  I am still a Christian, but not able to belong to anything but the Body of Christ.  I need a spiritual community, however, so I began a search into Buddhism.  Why Buddhism?  Buddhism is grounded in meditation and the search for enlightenment.  It is also essentially atheistic.  All those Buddha statues you see in Buddhist places of gathering and meditation are of a man, not some deity.  The Buddha was simply a man who entered into extensive study and meditation and began to teach.  His teachings were extensive and are expanded into a huge literature.   

The Buddha, one hand touching the earth - staying grounded

The Buddha, one hand touching the earth – staying grounded

There are many strains of Buddhism, not just Zen and Tibetan, although those are biggest here in the U.S.  They all share the same goal, which is identifying suffering and seeking the end of suffering.   There are many practices and beliefs, but they all share the goal of ending suffering. 

My first attempt to find a teacher and sangha was in Zen.  Must of what I had read was in that tradition so to The Denver Zen Temple I went.  There is a strong tradition in Zen to continue almost all the practices followed in Japan.  That means robes, chants, a hierarchy of spiritual attainment and ordination into the hierarchy.  There are also lots of rules, as Japan is also full of rules.  The place where people sit zazen (meditate) is called the zendo.  I could not walk into the zendo without getting into trouble.  I just could not remember all the things I was supposed to do.   

I loved sitting zazen.  It is an excellent form of meditation.  The literature here in the west skips over all the other stuff.  The practices are intended to instill discipline which is fine but they come directly from a monastic tradition where monks devote their lives to Zen.  In addition, the liturgy is in Japanese, Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali, and English.  It was all too much for me and I didn’t especially like the teacher. 

I find Tibetan Buddhism appealing, and the Dalai Lama is a world treasure.  I have trouble with Tibetan Buddhism’s involvement with the spirit world.  The spirit world is all around us, but my belief is that we’re in the physical world to accomplish tasks here, not with spirits.  I have seen the price paid by those who follow that path, whether with benign or malevolent spirits.  The spirits are just that, spirits, non-corporeal. In order to manifest they need energy from us, and losing that energy takes its toll, physically and often mentally.  

Now I belong to the Denver Insight Meditation community.  It is part of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, and is found in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and some other places in Asia.  Theravada is one of the two main traditions in Buddhism, Mahayana being the other. There are differences, the main one is that the Mahayana tradition uses Sanskrit, while Theravada uses Pali, a language contemporary with Sanskrit.   It has a large following here in the U.S. with a good and growing literature.   

The primary teacher in our sangha is Lloyd Burton, a wonderful teacher with a wide knowledge of Theravada Buddhism.  We meet weekly for two hours, spending forty minutes in meditation, a break, then a Dharma talk by Lloyd or another teacher.  The Dharma is the body of Buddhist teachings used as a guide to end suffering.   

Carol and I recently attended a small meditation group close to where we live.  It lasts one hour, thirty minutes of meditation and a thirty minute dharma talk every Monday evening. I think we will be regulars.  Every morning we do a ten minute brain brushing (quick meditation) with our tea.  It is also insight meditation and is a good way to start the day.   

I have found that the more meditating I do the more I want to do.  All the teachers say that a regular meditation practice is the key, just as in prayer.  I fact, my meditation is prayer.  Most of the Buddhist meditations are silent, with the focus on breath.  When other thoughts arise, as the will, one gently returns to focusing on the breath.  With my ADD, emptying my mind is mostly impossible.  I close my eyes and my mind goes into high gear.   

Eastern Orthodox Icon of Jesus

Eastern Orthodox Icon of Jesus

I use a mantra to repeat throughout my session.  This is another ancient practice.  I use the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  This is an ancient Eastern Orthodox prayer, going back to the desert monks in the early days of Christianity.  I match the words to my breathing, and when I drift away, I gently return to the prayer. 

What? A Christian prayer in Buddhist meditation?  Well, yes.  Buddhism is essentially atheistic, and the whole karma/reincarnation thing I just view as a mystery.  Whatever works.  I recommend a strong spiritual practice.  I don’t think it is necessary to follow one specific path.  All the world faiths contain the same basic truths.  One should choose the path that feels right.   

Don’t follow any one person or group who say their path is the only way, give yourself to us.  Anyone who says that is a liar and a fraud, interested mostly in control.  I don’t care if it is one leader with just a few followers or a huge organization with millions of followers, if they say their way is the only way, they lie or are deluded.  The paradox is that many in those faiths do find the way.  It is their individual practice and relationship with the universe that matters, not the framework.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Spiritual Journey

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon

“If a man will begin with certainties,  he shall end in doubts.  But if he will be content with doubts, he shall end in certainties,”.   Francis Bacon, Advancement in Learning, 1605.

Prior to the seventeenth century the Church, the Bible, and the rule of the Nobles were the certainties all Europe relied on.  The social structure was rigid, warfare was nearly constant, and the Black Death had killed much of the population.  Then, things began to change.  Religious inquiry began, governments became more centralized, cities and trade began to flourish, and people started asking questions.

Francis Bacon’s quote reflects the shift in thinking that led to what many now take for granted: critical thinking.  The shift will never be complete, for millions continue to rely on what they take as revealed truth.  Critical thinking requires another condition that we also take for granted: liberty.

The freedom to choose, to say yes or no, to do as one wishes, is a rare thing.  I am lucky my family and my country encouraged independent thinking because I am a seeker.  If anyone tried to fit me into a fixed system they faced rebellion.

I was raised a drop him off at Sunday School Methodist.  It just didn’t take.  Basic Christianity got planted, but the dry services never resonated with me.  The only part of the services I liked was the Doxology.  Those felt Jesus’ and Josephs in Sunday School with the cute little sheep and donkeys on a felt board just seemed silly.

I was confirmed as a Methodist in high school, but just because the cool girls were Methodists.  I didn’t know what to believe, but I kept looking.  I looked into Mormonism, but there is where I ran up against a closed system.  I just could not conform to a rigid system, even if one of the prettiest girls in school was a Mormon.

I needed solid, rational, verifiable truth from the scientific method or a powerful experience of truth. I was finding neither.  Blind faith or the statements of some spiritual minister or guru did not work for me.

I read, talked, searched.  I looked into Zen, but couldn’t meditate.  I got pretty serious about existentialism because I was also depressed after my mother’s death. Camus is depressing.  I looked into right-wing politics and ran into another closed system.  So, I became an annoying agnostic.  I challenged everything.

Then came the late 1960’s and drugs.  Marijuana taught me how to feel.  LSD stripped my ego away so I could see and feel the vast, wondrous, interconnected universe.  The problem with the drugs is that you come down.  I got a glimpse and some of the feeling of the One, but not enough.  Drugs opened the door, but were not the answer.

Jesus

Jesus

Then, in the early 1980’s,I was having a dark night of the soul from a divorce and fell into the clutches of a Pentecostal deacon.  I prayed the prayer, asking Jesus into my life and it happened.  I felt like I was wrapped in love.  It was a tangible, physical and emotional feeling.  I was a Christian instantly in a basement apartment in LaSalle, Colorado.  Two weeks later I was a speaking in tongues Pentecostal.  What a time.  I had experience after physical experience of joy, love, and deep peace.  I felt delivered from many of my old hang ups and was a new person in Jesus Christ.

I put my rational skepticism on hold.  I had found spiritual experience.  After a year I started having problems with the fundamentalism.  Pentecostals are a bit better, but they are still fundamentalists, and took the evangelical ideology and the Bible literally.  The currently popular fascination with the end times and the book of Revelation just did not ring true, and I studied it carefully.  The dire prophesies in Revelation are about Rome, not today.  The Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 79 AD and the Jewish diaspora began in earnest.  No wonder John of Patmos wrote an apocalyptic book about the oppressors.

The profound spiritual experiences began to fade, although I still pray in tongues.  I also moved to Colorado Springs, fell in love (More physical and emotional experiences, and just as meaningful.)  I ended up at a Charismatic Episcopal church that combined the wonderful ancient liturgy with the gifts of the Spirit.  The Episcopal Charismatics are part of the evangelical wing of the church and I ran into the same problem.  I ended up an Episcopalian in a mainstream liberal parish.

Buddha

Buddha

About this time I also found I can meditate, probably a gift of the Spirit.  I looked into Zen Buddhism.  Sitting Zazen, meditating, was wonderful.  All the rules coming from a rigid Japanese culture did not work.  I could not walk into the Zendo, the meditation room, without doing something wrong and getting caught.   Now I use Insight Meditation, part of the  Theravadan tradition of Buddhism, but here it does not carry all the cultural baggage the Zen folks continue.  My mantra, however, is the Jesus Prayer, an ancient orthodox prayer.  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,  have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Try about 3000 repetitions daily.  Read The Way of a Pilgrim, written by a Russian Orthodox mendicant.

I also explored Christian Contemplative prayer.  It is an ancient tradition, starting with the Desert Fathers in Egypt in about the third century.  Today, Thomas Keating,  a Trappist from the monastery in Snowmass CO, and Thomas Merton are the best known from their writings.  There is a large network of contemplatives, mostly Roman Catholic, but from many other denominations as well.

Today, I guess you can call me a Buddhapalian.  I don’t often attend services, but I meditate daily, pray, and do longer meditations almost weekly.  This fits my pattern.  I have big spiritual events, sometimes lasting years, and quiet times lasting years.  I am happy with that.

I have two bits of advice.  Don’t trust anyone who says they know the answers except Jesus and the Buddha.  When you pray, don’t ask for specifics, ask for what is best for the situation.  As for what it all means, it’s a mystery.  I remain a skeptic.