Monday, January 21, 2008

Authenticity (and a review of 2007)

I write quite a bit, and most of it scrolls away before many people get a chance to read it. I mostly get hits on this blog from search engine requests (mostly Google) that happen to contain some words or phrases I use on my blog. I also get a few hits from people coming from blogroll links as well as some much appreciated (semi-)regular visitors. So the odds of someone reading this site when a post that speaks to them happens to still be near the top of the page is ridiculously small. Looking back at much of what I have written since 2005, and focusing specifically on what I posted in 2007, a common theme that emerges is authenticity. So here is a brief and absurdly inadequate selection of examples of this theme taken from the last calendar year for those who haven't been slavishly following everything I post. (Yes, then, even edited for brevity's sake what follows runs a little long - it isn't meant for a quick straight read...)

Last January the issue of authenticity was clear when I wrote about Buddhism in Stereo(type). Other than the familiar caricatures I poked and prodded, two more subtle sub-themes emerged - 1) the point of practice is in the heart not in the formality, and 2) something can be lost by trying to make a strictly rationalistic/atheistic version of Buddhism. These issues can point to underlying attachments resulting in clinging to such views...

That said, there is nothing wrong with theory or formality of practice in the right place at the right time, which brings us to another nouvea Buddhist stereotype. These folks think that religion sucks, that spirituality sucks, and that the Buddha's basic insights can and should be liberated from any and all cultural baggage as a strict humanistic philosophy. The fact that so many valuable lessons that go beyond words and reinforce the basic teachings are captured in the literary and liturgical traditions are lost on them. That isn't to advocate slavish obedience to all tradition in Buddhism or deny various cultural influence, but there is a productive middle way here. Such animosity suggests attachments to experiences involving the concepts of religion and spirituality. The lack of a nuanced view of sacred traditions (these parts may be beautiful and inspirational, those parts may be harmful or distracting) is often a tell-tale sign of someone who has had a negative association with a particular branch or branches of groups affiliated with one more sacred paths, and has therefore cast a blanket judgment on all of them. This needn't be an outright condemnation. It can also manifest as an unease or desire to avoid sacred rituals or ceremonies, even icons such as a crucifix or a statue of the Buddha. Often the best way to be liberated from this hangup and be freed from the entanglement of leftover unresolved issues surrounding religion and spirituality is to try practicing it a little. Not necessarily as a full-on "believer", but just to experience a different context, a fresh context for a new and healthier perspective.

Again, these themes/sub-themes aren't new to the blog, but they continued to color the posts more vividly throughout the year. This perspective includes a third sub-theme, which in fact subsumes the other two sub-themes and rephrases or recasts the overall theme. This other facet is the underlying vision of interspirituality, which includes common experiences and insights between different religions even when on the surface they (and some of their followers) seem to clash. This includes accepting and incoporating my own experiences with Christianity. The concern for how different traditions may be expressing shared insights appears early on from a February post titled Just as you are. This post dealt with the work of Paul Tillich and how his concept of the Ground of Being may be relevant to all forms of spirituality. In particular the section quoted and discussed deals with the notion of grace and of of being settled in an absolute sense even when in a relative sense life is still as hectic and uncertain as ever. This last idea forms a kind of fourth leg to the table we are building to support the dissection of what authenticity is in Buddhism.

This dissection picks up that same month with Cause it's how your are supposed to feel,

What, in the various testimonials and dharma discussions and the like, is actually genuine? And, what does/should Buddhism or any other life philosophy, spiritual path, or sacred tradition say or offer to someone who is "down" and just not feeling it, so to speak?

...let's turn to Buddhism, and the Dharma, and Buddha-nature. How many of the people who prattle on about it, or who talk about experiencing frequently, are really "getting it"? How many just hope they are, or wish they were, or think they might be because they have an intellectual assent to the teachings and a regular formal practice? It seems to me that "getting it" is kind of an on or off thing - you do or you do not, there is no try. But at the same time, I don't think "getting it" is and end, either, but more like a constant companion and reminder that stays with us even when we are in the doldrums. Maybe that's why we tend to personify "getting it".

Yet if we can "get it" and still at times find ourselves to be out of sorts, frustrated, or discouraged, then what is our companion reminding us then? What is that message, whether embodied or transmitted through a life philosophy, spiritual path, or sacred tradition, for someone on the outs?

I can't speak for you. I can't speak for "getting it" on your behalf. The next time you are down and out, I guess you will get another shot at hearing the message yourself.

Do you surrender all? was written in March following a short "borrowed" passage from a UU minister's blog (appearing in Just making up my own religion as I go along), which deals with the effects of cynicism and indecisiveness on liberal or progressive spirituality. The surrender post is itself a series of quotations of my previous posts on the topic, so I will let the reader peruse those as desired, but the issues is what surrender means in Buddhism and in some forms of Christianity or other religions - whether it refers to being a mindless sheep or surrendering the ego, and if the latter, what does that really mean?

The embracing a Christian heritage theme saw a few more posts in April, such as Who can celebrate Easter?, Christian Buddhists? Buddhist Christians?, Velvet Jesus, and Don't taint my Buddhism with comparisons to Christianity. Also during that month, the busiest posting month last year, I continued to look for authenticity be reminding myself (again) that Contemplating death gives gratitude for life. It's one of those lessons that makes sense but that I suspect few of us have really fully confronted and assimilated. I also posted a sequel to a 2006 post on the effects of trying to "tidy" up Buddhism to make it presentable to skeptics or make it nothing more than secular humanism with a statue (Humanist Buddhists? Buddhist Humanists). It's also a good summary/quote mine of other posts I've made on a particular topic.

May was also a busy posting month, and the general theme of authenticity was in clear view with a post titled The substance of spiritual practice. I try to address the issue by writing:
The subtle misconception is that a spiritual practice is intended to solve such particular problems. However, it is more accurate and useful to see such issues as symptoms of a more profound underlying cause. As noted, Buddhists tend to see it as a result of a false sense of separate, intrinsic existence and delusion of separation. But that's an academic abstraction, not the living experience and wisdom of the underlying truth upon which the principle is based.

Spiritual practice is not simply a glorified 'self-help' process or support, however, personal transformation is part and parcel of such practice. And it isn't something you can fake or compensate for by how often you impress others or try to impress yourself with your daily acts of devotion or piety. It is being completely honest, more honest that we can usually comfortably deal with. Beyond the sense of identity we keep deep, deep down. That one is a good person. A bad person. An important person without whom the world couldn't keep spinning. An insignificant person whose life is of no appreciable consequence.

It can be scary thing sometimes being that honest and open, listening to the deepest spaces of the heart, but it can also be liberating.
I try to follow this kind of thinking with Effortlessness - simple yet challenging by writing that "perception and intellect are limited - not bad, not something to be shunned or minimized, but also not relied on to grasp the Truth being described. I think to some looking at Buddhism from the outside such admonitions may seem like forms anti-intellectualism or anti-rationalism, given the focus on using various combinations of our intellect and our perceptions to form our basic maps of reality (memory, imagination, etc). But even so, it doesn't take much to demonstrate that both the intellect and perception, while important and useful, are woefully limited." I tried to refine this more by re-writing the traditional refuge prayer in May the Buddha find refuge in me. This line of thinking is also evident in Emptiness and compassion, where the nature of compassion is discussed not as helping but as responding. I try to convey this thusly:
If we still subconsciously or overtly think of people in terms of discrete entities, that even attempts to "help" will be rooted in those misconceptions. This can occur at many levels. Imagine, for example, if someone has a flat tire. You ask if you can lend a hand, and the person ignores you. Or flips you off. Or maybe the person accepts your offer but criticizes you and needles you about the poor job you are doing the whole time. When rooted in duality, you might get angry. How dare this person not appreciate the "help" you so kindly offered. You expect a reward, even if only an acknowledgment that you spoke at all, let alone offered assistance. The interaction is not truly selfless.
Of course this, like much I write, is borrowed wisdom recast in terms of my own experiences and my own form of expression, but it somehow rings true, as do the quotes I begin citing repeatedly in various posts by Lila Watson: "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together."

Another post in May, What is expected? What is required? foreshadows a later concern with nature of the efficacy of practice and what we are willing to give to our practice. This is taken up in June through July as a series of posts based in an interspiritual consideration (which then moves primarily to a Buddhist perspective) on Pondering the meaning of liberation from suffering (see also part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5). While I do not wish to boast, the posts do cover a lot of ground, and they leave us with another dilemma in terms of our authenticity:
We all bear each others burden of suffering in our response to the call from the Source, whether we name it God, Tao, Shunyata/Dharmakaya, etc, whether we encounter it in the person of Jesus, or Amida, etc. Because in seeing our deep interconnection and our true nature, how can we turn our backs? This relationship simultaneously functions as a call to action and the strength to answer the call.
But is that it? We hear and answer the call - we respond to the plight of others. Our suffering can be transformed into liberation and serve as a motivator to act to relieve the suffering of others as well, but is that all we can do? Is it enough?

In Buddhist terms, when we talk about being mindful, or about being engaged, or about exemplifying the four immeasurables of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, what is the impact? Or to put it another way, when we talk about interdependence, what are we really saying? Is the extent of the benefit of our attitudes and practice limited to our mundane interactions (i.e. I write something, it inspires someone else, it causes that person to do great things, which then benefits still more people, and so on)? Or are we connected on a deeper level? If I were stranded on a deserted island and everyone had forgotten about me, but I still kept practicing, would that in and of itself still benefit any sentient being, even if I were never rescued and no record of my life or activities on the island were ever recovered?

I also continued exploring some similarities over the summer between certain concepts in Christianity and Buddhism, especially after an engaging dialogue with a Roman Catholic priest in the spring (Bracing for Buddhist evangelism). For example, examined the similarity between the Four Immeasurables of Buddhism and the concept of Divine Love in Christianity (a.k.a. agape or caritas) in a post fittingly titled Love, love, love... . Ironically this led to some confusion over what I meant by the term love and how it can be (mis-)used. After further contemplating quotes by a Shin teacher and a Chan monk on the importance of death as a spiritual teacher in September (An encounter with spiritual death) and still realizing I had not fully recognized or made use of any such encounter, my concerns over authenticity became stronger and more pointed, as exemplified in To learn and actualize the teachings of just a single Buddha. The concerns are directly expressed with a sense of urgency:
After some trial and error and false starts many practitioners can start to get the hang up the deeper meanings and common insight of emptiness, no-self, nirvana, dependent coarising, etc, and even become quite eloquent in discussing the profound simplicity and philosophical range of such teachings. And each new appreciation of another facet of these teachings and how they all boil down to very powerful common premise can bring a wave of the excitement that comes from deepening your insight. For those who are good learners of systems, models, generalized trends, etc, who like big picture questions and ask what principles underlie the processes observed in society, nature, or the universe itself, many Buddhist teachings are like a gold mine of intellectual treasure to be mined, refined, and processed. But learning of and talking about and even sounding like an expert with regard to such teachings isn't enough. Hence another frequent topic for this online journal is the difficulty of actualizing these teachings, not just the parts concerned with meditation, but ethics and wisdom as well.

There is the rub. This can be especially frustrating when one hears or reads about the experiences of others - how the same phenomena (people, trees, cars, pizzas) are still "there", but a major change in perception has taken place. The way in which these people reportedly relate to phenomena (not just perceptually) is radically transformed, but on the other hand, it is not always that "peak" experience practitioners sometimes expect, some kind of rapturous epiphany. Hence having such expectations can be said to do more harm to our Dharma practice than almost anything else because they lead to frustration and disillusionment, which is, after all, what Buddhism suggests is the source of much of our dissatisfaction with life to begin with! Not only does having a yardstick to "measure" our practice in contradiction to the notion that we don't need to "gain" anything to "achieve" enlightenment, it sets up the very kind of unnecessary and unrealistic expectations we are trying to lose.

Yes, but...

That's right. There is a "Yes, but..." Why? Because there is a difference between thinking "I need to reach this goal to become a fully realized Buddha..." and "Is there a way to tell if the path I am practicing is genuine and efficacious?" In other words, am I really actualizing the teaching of the Buddha? In a sense, one actualized them in doing them, yet there is the question of intention and transformation. Power can be defined as the ability to bring about transformation, so when someone claims certain practices and teachings are powerful, meaningful results should be in evidence for those embracing such practices and teachings. Part of the transformation in all spiritual paths is transforming the heart, allowing it to open and expand. Rather than just going through the motions in a hollow fashion, there is a reasonable requirement that Buddhist practice should be done with the proper intentions. In the Mahayana traditions, this is explicitly spelled out as the liberation of all sentient beings.
An attempt to confront such concerns followed in November with Dharma Dieting:
I suspect that many of the same problems that plague would-be weight dieters also plague would-be suffering dieters such as myself. Old habits. Doubts about where you can really do it. Lethargy and lack of energy/enthusiasm. The prospect of giving up things you enjoy and trading them for things that appear less pleasant or interesting. And in the middle of it all, lack of commitment.

I have tried before, and believe that I failed. I tried again, and failed. Repeatedly. I started to wonder if the effort is worth it. After all, I tend to have such enthusiasm each time I start, then it runs down, my confidence deflates, and my efforts become erratic and eventually fizzle out. I tried again, and failed.

But does that mean that the method or the goal is flawed or just not suitable for me? It could. It is also possible I simply didn't give the program a chance to work. I asked a very wise and patient person about this, and he suggested the same thing. The power of bad habits, the lack of confidence, and the lack of enthusiasm may simply be interfering with the successful application of the Buddha's insights and recommendations that keep them from being effective in producing good results.
This pointed me back to the same things I have been writing for years and hearing from various sources - about nirvana in the midst of samsara not in spite of it, which was encapsulated in the brief post You have permission to be happy.

This concept and its importance to the questions of authenticity I was pursuing then became more focused in December with posts like Sitting as surrender:
So does clarity, focus, and insight come from realizing enlightenment or are they necessary in order to realize enlightenment? Well, your guess is as good as mine, unless you are Fully Awake, in which case you would probably just smile at the question. My response would be - "Yes and both." Which then brings us back to whether one set of guidelines or practices for awakening are universally more effective, or if their usefulness is context dependent...

However, all of this did get me thinking about the image of the sitting Buddha and the context of his sitting in the mytho-historical depiction of his life. He experiences on extreme of lavish material and sensual wealth, and then the other extreme of severe material and sensual deprivation, and then he finds a cool comfortable spot under a tree and sits down. What is often emphasized here is the avoidance of extremes and the importance of the Middle Way. I am not writing against that, but as far as the imagery goes, I see something else. He tried to find happiness and fulfilment by his own efforts and false expectations going in one direction, and then he did the same thing in the opposite direction, and then he finally just let go. He submitted. He surrendered. I am not suggesting he wimped out or just gave up in exasperation, but after all of his searching, he simply came to experience something very profound and yet very simple. Would he have figured it out had he not tried so hard? I don't know - possibly not. It may have been a case of realization by negation and deduction (it ISN'T this, ISN'T this, and ISN'T that, so it must be...AHA!). Or maybe it was simply when he stopped trying and started simply being that he finally "got it." I don't claim to know - who can?

But image-wise, that is how I tend to see seated meditation. It isn't about who can be the best statue or focus the longest on a particular spot or bodily function. Nor is it a complete practice unto itself. It is creating what some theologians refer to as thin places, or circumstances under which the reality and presence of the Divine are more readily apparent even to the less attuned. Sit, stand, chant, or pick your nose - am I still struggling? Not physically, not mentally - beyond that. Relax. Let go. Surrender.
I try to clarify this in a sequel, A little more on sitting as surrender:
This kind of deep existential dissatisfaction is the kind of thing being sacrificed or jettisoned.

And I personally feel that it is this type of dissatisfaction that Buddhism, via the example of the Buddha, is supposed to be addressing. I think it is this type of dissatisfaction that, from what I have gleaned from the various accounts of his life, the Buddha himself shed when he finally sat. When he sat and, we might speculate, when he realized something that awoke an infinitely sublime quieting and peace beyond the deepest doubts of his life, a tranquility not apart from any particular thing but which embraces all things. I obviously cannot know this, but I sense that this is what the imagery and teachings of Buddhism point toward. We can debate whether this really reflects the original intent of the Buddha himself, but regardless, such a tranquility amidst suffering, or nirvana within samsara, is worth knowing. At least it is to me.

Clarification: I am not suggesting there is nothing else “to do”. In fact, it would be closer to the other way around. That is, such meditation, whether done while seated, while standing, while walking, while brushing our teeth, etc, doesn’t get us anywhere, it just reminds us where we are. The result to which I am alluding then, the peace in the turmoil, is not “the end” either (a concept which, when related to our practice, we could all do without). Again, that is about remembering what, who, and where we are. Nor is it escapism – it is not a static blissed-out obliviousness to the world around us.

There is still work we can do, but not for the “sake of” attaining such abiding confidence. The work of the Bodhisattva path, as this ego-centric, un-ordained, and overly outspoken lay Buddhists currently understands it, rests on this all-embracing affirmation that is beyond any beyond concepts like attainment. That work rests on it, it abides with it, and the Bodhisattva finds the will and energy to do this work through it: to cultivate ethics, concentration, and wisdom through the Eightfold Path, to embody the six paramitas, to uphold the foundation of the three Pure Precepts.
Here I see the intersection of various practices and schools. The cross-roads between self-power and Other-power in Shin, the simplicity and clarity of Chan/Zen, the embodiment of the Gohonzon in Nichiren Buddhism, the deity practices of Tibetan Vajrayana, and even the Eucharist of Christianity.

This is followed by an examination of my own practice (in Practice makes perfect, except when it does not), a re-emergence of a topic (faith) not covered as much since 2006 (in Faith is not a fix) and relating it to my thoughts about peace in the turmoil, and a (continued) examination of the value for Western-raised Buddhists in learning about contemplative Christianity (in Manifesting God).

Other posts at the close of 2007 also spring from the theme of authenticity and invite visitors to contemplate the issue themselves - Fighting the good fight and Not taking sides... ask what authentic spirituality means in conflict, and the latter asks whether we are really serious about practicing what we preach:
Here, however, we have a specific example of someone, Thich Nhat Hanh, who did just what I was mentioning. He chose to see Bush as his brother and to appeal to his humanity and his divine/Buddha nature rather than simply mocking him or using angry accusations listing his personal failures and their consequences. So what do we make of this and similar letters, speeches, and other forms of communication? It is certainly something that we can appreciate coming from Thay as he is a world renowned peace activist and Buddhist teacher, but do we really believe that letter, assuming it was received and read, made a difference? And is effectiveness the primary yardstick in cases like this? Do we read things like this and "forgive" Thich Naht Hanh for his simplicity and directness (but also see it as a little naive) because of his status and image? Or is he on the right track, and if so, in what way should we follow his example? ...

Or to be really blunt - does such wording make the author sound like a spacey, out-of-touch, overly naive optimist who needs a reality check and to get involved in really making a difference rather than expressing futile sentimentality? Again, I know many or probably most of you might not think that about Thich Nhat Hahn, or if the letter had come from the Dalai Lama, but what if had come from a New Age guru running a crystal therapy center? Or from a Wiccan college freshman taking a course on globalization? Or from your own desk (assuming you are not a New Age guru running a crystal therapy center or a Wiccan college freshman taking a course on globalization)? That is, if you respect Thay's letter and approach, is it because you respect him or because you respect his letter and approach?

The final three posts of the year, What is your genuine interest in religion or spirituality?, The poor, the sick, the criminal, and the outcast, and Letting go of expectations not efforts, reflect an effort to process what I have been writing and considering regarding authentic practice.

After so much writing about trying to really "get it", I was much encouraged when I read (and later quote) the following perspective that originally appeared the Real Live Preacher blog...
Here are some signs of spiritual enlightenment:
  • The embracing of paradox.
  • The love of mystery in the presence of unanswered questions.
  • The acceptance of your small place in reality.
  • The willingness to engage in spiritual exercises without knowing how they will work or even what it would mean for them to work.
  • The increase of the love, grace, forgiveness, and patience visible in your life.

And perhaps this review of my questions and seeking demonstrates why I recently chose to share this quote from a blog I found by someone trying to build a Shin temple in Romania:
Many Buddhist practitioners are like a man staring at the sun, but with his body in a hole full of shit. He is always looking at the sun, but he never realizes that his body is drowned in shit. Here the sun represents the ideal – Buddhahood to be attained through his own powers. This ideal is of course very beautiful and the practitioner always like to stare at it and to take delight in many beautiful words about Enlightenment, emptiness, Buddha-nature, that we are all Buddhas-to-be, etc. The hole of shit is his true reality of the here and now, his deep karmic evil, his limitations, attachments and blind passions that cover all his body and mind...

I often meet with people that talk a lot of the fact that we all posses Buddha-nature and because of this there is nothing that we have to do, but just realize this truth in our mind. They are always full of wise quotes from Buddhist masters and sages of the past from various schools, about Buddha-nature, emptiness, etc. Usually this kind of people try many types of practices, always going here and there, never being totally satisfied with any school or teacher...

Yup, that fits me to a T. Which is why one the shortest posts of 2007 may also be one of the most apt:

"Even the half-hearted hypocrite can sometimes stumble out of his arrogant stupor and accidentally bump into the simple Presence of the wisdom and compassion he normally gives the appearance of actually seeking."

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