Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Walking up the leaf-littered driveway off Old Canton Road, I almost miss the unassuming little brown building tucked away in the trees, but Bebe Wolfe is on the front porch to welcome me. Wearing a cornflower-blue sweater that makes her sparkling eyes pop with color, Wolfe is there to provide an orientation into the Zen Buddhist ceremony I will participate in.
Not a complete neophyte to Eastern religions, I am still a bit apprehensive. I know that I will be sitting in meditation (zazen) for two 30-minute sessions, with a short, 10-minute walking meditation (kinhin) session in between; Tony Bland, a Starkville-based itinerant Zen Buddhist monk had told me as much on the phone a few days earlier.
Meditation is the heart of Zen Buddhism.
"Sitting is the key; sitting is the practice," Daniel Irby, who underwent jukaiZen lay ordinationin October of last year, tells me later.
The perfumed scent of incense lingers in the air as Wolfe and I enter the little Zen dojo in bare feet. Beyond the small strip of sturdy carpet, the simple symmetrical geometry of the small space, with its unadorned white walls and brown tile floor, emanates peacefulness, and I know immediately that this is a sacred space.
The modest altar is ornamented with a small wooden statue of the Buddha, two modest flower arrangements and incense burners. Neatly folded black meditation mats line the room on two sides; high windows behind the altar let in soft morning light. Two rice-paper screens create the entry.
Once we closed the door, the silence is nearly absolute.
'I am awake'
Buddhism began with a prince, Siddhartha Gautama, born in what is now Nepal in 563 B.C. As he grew, his position afforded him all of the luxuries of the time.
Legend has it that a soothsayer foretold that the boy would either become a world conqueror or a world redeemer, and his father set out to make Gautama a conqueror, indulging his every whim, while shielding him from seeing life as it truly was. When Gautama left the palace the king instructed that servants remove all poor, ill and old people from the prince's path. One day, however, the instruction wasn't followed. In quick succession, Gautama saw an old toothless man, a man wracked with disease, a corpse, and finally, a monk in prayer.
Shocked by his new knowledge of suffering, Gautama renounced his wealth to seek enlightenment. For years he wandered, first seeking instruction from Hindu masters, and then becoming a destitute ascetic. After six years, he finally chose a path between his former life and the deprivations of asceticismthe Middle Way.
Sensing his goal was near, Gautama sat down one day under a tree, resolving not to get up until he reached enlightenment.
There, like Jesus in the desert, evil tempted Gautamanamed Mara in Buddhist legendbut one by one, Gautama resisted or transformed the things Mara put in his path.
"Gautama's meditation deepened until, as the morning star glittered in the transparent eastern sky, his mind pierced the world's bubble, collapsing it to nothing; only, wonder of wonders, to find it restored with the effulgence of true being," Huston Smith writes in "The World's Religions."
"The Great Awakening had arrived. Gautama was gone. He had been replaced by the Buddha."
When asked later what he was֖a god, an angel or a saint֖Gautama said he was none of these. "I am awake," he said simply.
The word Buddha means to wake and know. The Buddha is a man who woke up.
At 62, Bland stands straight and tall, his lean build accentuated by his ankle-length black Zen Buddhist monk's robes and shaved head. On this cold December morning, he's wearing thong sandals when I meet him on the porch of the little Jackson Dojo. I didn't ask, but imagine they're are just easy to get into and out of. It's that kind of pragmatism that differentiates Zen from other types of Buddhism, I learn. While not as prolific as Christian denominations, Buddhism nonetheless has numerous branches split from a central trunk.
Like most Mississippians, Bland was raised in a Christian tradition, attending "a little bitty" Congregational Methodist church in Cumberland, Miss., near Starkville, where he now lives. "I've traveled the world and come back home," he says.
His first exposure to Eastern religions came from a course at Ole Miss in the mid-1960s. "I felt an immediate affinity for the Eastern stuff," Bland says. He remembers thinking, "I like this; it makes a lot of sense."
At the time, scientific skepticism had shaken Bland's Christian faith, along with what he calls a normal phase of youthful questioning. And even though he liked the idea of Buddhism, it would be decades before he developed a serious practice. "It was sort of planting the seed; it needed to stay in the dark for a while," he says of that first encounter.
Irby, who attended a Southern Baptist church in Patterson, Miss., as a child, had a similar seed planted when he was in high school at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science in Columbus.
"Have you ever considered that someone else is being raised, being taught something completely different? How do you know that they're not right?" Irby recalls being asked.
"Of course, I didn't accept it at all at first, but it forced me to think about it," he says.
At the University of New Orleans in the 1990s, the writings of 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza intrigued Irby. "He defines God in a way that is not like anything in Christianity or Judaism or anything you've come to expect," Irby says.
"It's really 'God is that which is unbounded.' It's basically everything, so he sees all things as God."
And then Irby took a course in Eastern religions. "I started to see that maybe (religions) were the same in a way," Irby says. "There was something deeper than the level of 'this is what I believe,' or 'this is what someone else believes.' There's an experience that is at the root of all of them."
Bland, a psychologist, began seeing parallels between certain psychological schools of thought and Buddhism in the '70s especially that of Fritz Perls and Gestalt therapybut another decade went by before Bland made serious inroads toward a Buddhist practice. In the mid-'80s, friends of his brought a Buddhist monk to town for a retreat and Bland attended, getting his first serious taste of meditation.
"I had read about it a little bit in the books and sat down and did what I imagined one was supposed to do about that," he says. "Then I come into this retreat and it was (he pauses and sighs) painful and difficult and also had an enormous appeal to me."
Bland met his teacher, Robert Livingston, in New Orleans in 1985, and he's been practicing with Livingston ever since. Irby met Bland in 2007 when he began a serious Zen Buddhist practice in Jackson.
The Four Noble Truths
"We need to surrender to the fact that all efforts at permanence are hopeless. No structure we can build will protect us from the contingencies of life. But in the midst of that impermanence is the incredible gift of life." Ecclesiastes
Buddhists don't consider the Buddha to be God; however, Buddhist mythology is rich with devils, like Mara, deitiesalso called Buddhasand bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who choose an earthly existence to assist other beings in their quest for enlightenment.
"We keep a sense of ambiguity, perhaps, in what we mean by the term Buddha," Bland says. "There is the historical person, but there's also something bigger than that. We kind of leave that somewhat vague and ambiguous because you're already putting your own interpretation and sense of that into it. So we leave some space for that."
But without God, can Buddhism be a religion? Or is it a philosophy wrapped in tradition and ceremony?
"I don't know if there is 'the' answer to those questions," Bland says. " It's not one of those burning questions for me."
Like any religion, Buddhism deals with basic human problems, he explains. "It really deals with the core of suffering, of what it means to be a human being," he says, exploring questions like "What is a human being?' and "What is this world?"
After the Buddha achieved enlightenment, he spent the rest of his 45 years teaching and meditating, and his teachings are the basis of Buddhism. At its core are the Four Noble Truths, which read a little like a doctor's examination. Buddha diagnosed the "disease," identified what causes it, tells us that we can get well and gives us a prescription for the cure.
The First Noble Truth is this: All life is dukha, usually translated as suffering. That translation, though, isn't very accurate. It's a simplification that can give the sense that Buddhism is pessimistic. Smith offers a better translation: "The word was used in Buddha's day to refer to wheels whose axles were off-center, and bones that had slipped from their sockets. The exact meaning of the First Noble Truth, therefore, comes down to this: Something is awry. Its pivot is not true. This restricts movement (blocks creativity), and causes undue friction (interpersonal conflict)."
Bland adds: "It has to do with the sense that there's something askew, something amiss, something not quite right with this picture. That there is pain, that there is difficulty, that there is trouble in the world, and that's a basic fact."
The second Noble Truth is that dukha is caused by tahha, often translated as desire, craving or grasping. But, again, it's an oversimplified explanation. "Tanha," Smith writes, "is the ego oozing like a secret sore." Tanha is selfish desire, often at the expense of another. It's also aversion to life difficulties and clinging to that which is impermanent.
"There's this aspect of a human being that is endlessly hungry," Bland says, adding that Buddhism suggests that the hunger is not for material possessions, although it manifests that way. "It's about, if you want to use that term, the spiritual hungerthe hunger for Buddha, hunger for God, hunger for your true self, a hunger for what is deeply and most essentially you. [G]rasping at it and trying to get it isn't helpful. It perpetuates the disease."
Buddhist mythology has a particularly relevant character: the hungry ghost. Artworks depict hungry ghosts with huge bellies completely out of proportion to the rest of their bodies. With misshapen mouths and pencil-thin necks, hungry ghosts can never fill those bulging bellies.
Bland describes the Zen way of recognizing the hungry ghost in each of us: "Our approach is to sit with it, look at it, step back a little bit from it, see how it operates, how it's operating in your life, how its operating in your emotional system right now as you sit on the cushion and see it. See it for what it is. Don't try to change it right now. Just see it. Just be with it. Experience it. Experience it in your body. Experience it in your mind. Experience the emptiness of that huge belly, that huge crying out. And just sit with it and just breathe. And as you do that, it starts to change. Or maybe it doesn't change for a while, but if you sit with it long enough it does change. That's the teaching of Buddha, that all things are impermanent."
The Third Noble Truth says that overcoming tanha will stop dukha. There is a way to stop the madness, Buddhism suggests, and the Fourth Noble Truth provides the cure: The Eightfold Path, the Middle Way between self-indulgence and self-denial.
That path is simplicity itself: Right knowledge and right aspiration provides the map and wisdom to proceed; right speech, right action and right livelihood provide codes of ethical conduct (don't kill, steal or lie among them); and right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration provide the mental discipline required to stay on the path.
"There is no human being who does not carry a treasure in is soul; a moment of insight, a memory of love, a dream of excellence, a call to worship." Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
The Eightfold Path is elegant simplicity, but simplicity does not equate with "easy." For Zen Buddhists, meditation is the single most important aspect of their practice, providing the platform from which all other steps on the path follow.
Irby describes how meditation has affected his life: "I have an uncertainty and a fear of not being good enough in life or not doing a good enough job at work, things like that. It's very typical of me to say, 'OK. Why am I feeling this?' and try to reason my way into not thinking those things.
"Instead of that, if I just sit and experience the insecurity as a raw feeling, for me, what it physically feels like is this big emptiness right in here (touching his chest) that's just bigger than my inside could be. It's a vastness that ties to the whole universe. It's a physical sensation."
Simply sitting and experiencing difficulty instead of acting out or avoiding it can be troubling, Irby says, but it can be amazing, too, allowing practitioners to notice their reactions and choose a different way.
"There's no dogma that you have to subscribe to. There are suggestions; Buddha made suggestions," he says. "This idea is that if you follow these suggestions, maybe it'll work out for you, too. But you can't just follow the instructions. You have to examine your own experience and say what's right for you. The Buddha said, 'Be a lamp unto yourself.' You have to look at it with your own light. You can't just go to someone and they say, 'OK. Now you're enlightened.' There's no degree, no certificate you can get to say, 'OK. I've got it!'
It is the lack of dogma and continual exploration of the inner landscape that makes Buddhism appealing, even to people of other faiths.
"You have to create your own practice, your own way of doing and being it," Bland says. "I have people who have come to me for years and sit once a week and never sit at home. They're welcome, too. I have people who are closer to being Christian than they are Buddhist."
Many Americans, in fact, mix multiple faith traditions and practices, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, resulting in the way at least two of my Mississippi acquaintances regard themselves: Zen Baptists.
"It's not a problem from the Zen point of view," Bland says.
'Sins of the Father'
Bland shakes his head when I ask him to explain Karma. Behind a grin, he simply says, "Yeah. I don't know what Karma is," and we laugh. Like many Eastern concepts, Karma is hard to get unless you buy into the myth of cyclic existence, which includes reincarnation. At it's most basic, however, "Karma means action and the consequence of action," Bland says.
"You can see how it operates in a non-personal way, the same sense as 'the sins of the father.' We nowjust to give an obvious example from Mississippiwe are suffering now from what our ancestors did just around racial issues. And that's a way of thinking about it," he says.
In the West, we tend to think about personal, individual responsibility. In Buddhism, however, responsibility is not personal.
"[T]here's a sense that it's necessary to assume responsibility: Maybe you didn't cause this, but you're responsible for dealing with it. So that is acknowledged," Bland says. "I didn't create this mess, but I'm in it. So I need to see what's appropriate, what is the best thing to do, with the guidance of being helpful to all beings, that being one of the primary things that guide us and guide our practice."
There is also the responsibility for what our actions in this lifetime create for those that come after.
"If we started being a little more mindful instead of focusing on who got me into this mess, focus more on what am I leaving for what comes after me, whether that's me in another lifetime, or whether that's my grandchildren, or whether that's just another being. In a sense, that's not such an important question," he says.
"The thing is to be helpful and to try and make it better for the nexteither me in another lifetime or my child or whoever comes after me, or whatever comes after me. It just works better if you're guided by that kind of idea. It works better for everybody."
"No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path." Buddha
If sitting is the heart, mindfulness and compassion are perhaps the breath and the blood of Buddhism.
Defined best with the words "Be Here Now," mindfulness is attention to the present moment, instead of getting hooked by imagination, thoughts or conceptualizations.
"When you are mindful, you are fully alive, you are fully present. You can get in touch with the wonders of life that can nourish you and heal you. And you are stronger, you are more solid in order to handle the suffering inside of you and around you. When you are mindful, you can recognize, embrace and handle the pain, the sorrow in you and around you to bring you relief. And if you continue with concentration and insight, you'll be able to handle the suffering inside and help transform he suffering around you," said Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn to Krista Tippett, host of Public Radio's "Speaking of Faith."
Compassion, more than wishing someone well, comes from being able to see ourselves in each other.
"That's what I think is the starting point of compassion: seeing all beings as suffering beings," Bland says. "Seeing that that's deeply ingrained in the human condition: that all beings suffer. Even those that wish us ill; they are suffering beings as well," even as they perpetuate their own suffering through hatred and greed.
"Compassion means to suffer with, and to see and to recognize and to help someone, and to not react with ill willnot to respond with ill will to what comes toward us with ill will," he says.
Thich Nhat Hahn said this to Tippett: "Well, peace always begins with yourself as an individual, and as an individual, you might help build a community of peace. That's what we try to do. And when the community of a few hundred people knows the practice of peace and brotherhood, and then you can become the refuge for many others who come to you and profit from the practice of peace and brotherhood. And then they will join you, and the community gets larger and larger all the time."
The Buddha said: "Hatred does not ever cease in this world by hating, but by love; this is an eternal truth. ... Overcome anger by love, Overcome evil by good. Overcome the miser by giving. Overcome the liar by truth."
And Jesus said: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again."
Power of Silence
"The day is long and the work is great and we're not commanded to finish the work, but neither are we allowed to desist from it." The Talmud
In the practice of Zen Buddhism, ritual becomes the basis of mindfulness, Bland says, doing everything in the practice with care, intention, precision and attention.
Bring the hands together in the center of the chest, Wolfe instructs in the moments before meditation begins. Enter the space with the left foot and leave with the right. Honor the geometry of the space by turning crisply at the corners of the room as you walk from the entry around the circumference of the room to your seat. Turn and face the wall, bow to honor those sitting with you, then turn and bow to honor those who will sit across from you. Unfold the mat and sit facing the wall. Cross your legs or fold them on either side of the cushion. Sit upright, tilt your pelvis forward, relax your shoulders. Keep your eyes open. Notice your breath.
I find something humbling and uplifting in performing the Zen rituals, even when I get hooked into wanting to know what's going on behind me. Bells ring, incense burns, chants are sungall without my knowing who is doing what. I relax when I realize that those details are unimportant. As I sit for no reason, staring at a wall and concentrating on my breath, time itself disappears as I surrender to the process. I become my own observer as I watch my thoughts and the sensations of my body. I daydream; my foot falls asleep. I'm grateful for the 10 minutes of walking meditation. I feel the floor, hear the sounds, and notice. Everything.
When I bow to others in the room, I do so with the understanding that I am bowing to the universal grace in each of us. The power of silent gesture, Bland calls it, the power of ritual.
"(Buddhism is) not something exotic," Bland says. "It's not about some strange, Eastern mystical woo-woo stuff. Especially Zen is very rooted in this world and practical and pragmatic, and it's available. It's right here. It's not something you have to go to Japan and get, or to India and get, and take these great searching, seeking (quests). It's right here. It's right in front of you."
Beautiful, beyond any voicing of it. Thank you.
- anne mayeaux