Thursday, December 25, 2008

It's a Wonderful Life (and movie)

I'm one of the few people in this country that never saw Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life until recently.

In this 1946 classic movie, Jimmy Stewart plays the part of George Bailey, a young man who lives in the unremarkable town of Bedford Falls and works for his father's fledgling but well-intentioned and socially conscious Building and Loan.

George is a young man with dreams of leaving Bedford Falls and traveling to distant lands--and this is brilliantly illustrated in a scene where he is in a small local store choosing a suitcase that will be large enough to accommodate all of the stickers (Paris, London, Baghdad) he'll be sure to collect as he travels around the globe in search of adventure, excitement, and true fulfillment--all of the things he assumes he can never find in his home town.

Circumstances repeatedly railroad him into staying right where he is—in Bedford Falls—despite his intense desire to escape and be something other than what he already is. He dreams of doing something big and important and special, and he’s convinced that his small town existence is holding him back from being truly happy. He forgoes going to college so his brother can and eventually gets stuck running the Building and Loan after his father dies.

On Christmas Eve he hits rock bottom. The Building and Loan is busted because his uncle misplaces $8,000 and George sees no way to escape being put into prison as a result.

When he's about to jump off a bridge, an angel named Clarence comes to his rescue. Clarence shows George what the world would have been like had he not been born at all—and this becomes a critical revelation for Mr. Bailey. George gradually realizes what an incredible life he really had, right there in Bedford Falls, and all of the things he experienced as burdens before now seem precious and irreplaceable.

Just when he thinks he’s lost everything, he realizes that in fact he already has it all—everything he needs—and this becomes overwhelmingly clear when the entire town comes together and raises enough money for him that Christmas Eve to help him avoid his impending arrest.

We’re all George Bailey when we try to escape life just as it is in search of something better. We delude ourselves into thinking that if only we had a better job or lived in a better place or had more money, we’d be happy or happier or somehow better off. And when we do this we miss out on the sacredness of each moment and the uniqueness of our lives, just as they are with all of their problems and imperfections.

There is nothing better than life just as it is. There is nothing “over there” that can bring about any more happiness than what we have “over here.” The enlightenment we all seek is right under our noses.

May we all really understand this one day and realize what wonderful lives we already have.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The REAL Secret

I just posted this on some bulletin board which is a forum for people who follow "The Secret." A few weeks ago a woman from our sangha mentioned that she had dabbled with the concepts espoused by The Secret movie and book. Fortunately a Buddhist teacher reminded her that "avoiding negative people" is fruitless and that we all need to learn to deal with negative people, events, and situations.

About two years ago I watched the Secret movie and read the book.

What I have discovered since then is that when we spend so much time and energy trying to "manifest" what we want, all we are really doing is constantly pushing happiness into the future, and always just out of reach, because we are basing it on receiving what it is we think we want or need rather than learning to accept things and embrace them just as they are in the here and now.

Happiness is right here and right now, and no amount of material things will ultimately bring us the kind of contentment we are all looking for--things change constantly and nothing lasts forever.

Developing a daily meditation practice and learning about Buddhism has helped me realize this. The Buddha is quoted (somewhat irresponsibly) in the Secret movie about "what you think you become" and this is misleading. His main message was that we all have the tools right now at this moment to be happy (just as we are), and enlightenment is simply being fully present for your life right here and now just as it is. He did not suggest that we need to visualize a better or richer or thinner or married version of ourselves.

The Secret does put some emphasis on having an "attitude of gratitude" but the overwhelming message is that we all need and want things that we don't have, and true happiness is just around the corner, provided we visualize and believe and manifest these "things" that will supposedly make us somehow more complete.

We are complete already.

I truly hope that you can learn to appreciate yourself and your life exactly as it is right now. I don't say this out of malice or judgment or any ill will, I am just distressed at how many people feel that they need anything other than what they now have to be happy. We are all just fine exactly as we are right now, and until we learn that, we'll never truly be happy and fulfilled.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thankful For This Wonderful Life

My practice has enabled me to see my life more directly and to be involved in it more fully. I'm far from enlightened but there is a measurable difference in the way I react and respond to things today as opposed to how I did just one or two years ago.

I am so grateful to at least begin to understand that joy and contentment can only be experienced when they aren't continually being pushed into the future. And when I'm mindful and present and embrace what is happening completely (regardless of how pleasurable, painful or boring it is) I get these small glimpses of the sacredness that is built into every aspect of this life and it's awesome.

Happiness is constantly staring us in the face but we often move through our days as if we're walking through a beautiful forest with a sack over our heads. We get so wrapped up in what we think are big problems and the moment we "solve" one we're already on to the next and in the process we miss a huge chunk of our lives.

Whenever I leave the hospice I am thankful that I can walk around freely and not be confined to a bed. I am thankful that I can exist without the aid of an oxygen machine or the loneliness or the constant pain and fear that many of the residents feel every single day.

I am so lucky to live in New York City and have a terrific apartment and an incredibly loving and supportive boyfriend and my health and fresh strawberries every night and the ability to sit and be still once a day.

May we all be free from suffering and its causes, and may all of us wake up to the happiness that constantly surrounds us.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Buddhism and Gay Marriage

From the Level 8 Buddhist Blog:

With the recent controversy in California over gay marriage, I thought I would explore the subject. I usually stay out of politics because I don’t want to get my head chopped off, but the comic above really expresses my sentiment (and I am a huge fan of Sinfest anyways). I can’t quite understand why we make a bold and progressive decision to elect Obama as President (and I am thankful we did), but many in California who voted for him voted against gay marriage citing “religious reasons”. This post is to explore the subject of gay marriage from the Buddhist perspective.

Read the entire article HERE

Also the Buddhist Churches of America newsletter has an article about Rev. Briones, a Jodo Shinshu Mexican American Minister who wrote about his experience officiating the wedding of George Takei (Mr. Sulu from Star Trek).

See it the article entitled EQUALITY FOR ALL HERE

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Basics of Zen Teaching Past and Present

Zen Buddhism is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, and the basis is of the Mahayana sutras, written in India and China. The most important among them include lankavatara sutra, diamond sutra, heart sutra and a chapter in Lotus sutra. Also notable are the following points about Zen:

1) The basics of Zen teachings also include the fundamental elements of Buddhist philosophy. The eightfold path, four noble truths, five skandhas and three dharma seals are included in Zen teachings. However, the teachings in Zen tradition are restricted only to Mahayana Buddhism.

Read more HERE

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Zen Death Poems

A death poem (辞世の句 jisei no ku?) is a poem written near the time of one's own death. It is a tradition for literate people to write one in a number of different cultures, especially in Japan. Writing death poems is done by both Chinese, Korean, and Japanese Zen monks (writing either Chinese style poetry kanshi, waka or haiku), and by many haiku poets, as well as those who wish to write one.

Minamoto Yorimasa2

Like a rotten log
half buried in the ground -
my life, which
has not flowered, comes
to this sad end.

Shiaku Nyûdo5

Holding forth this sword
I cut vacuity in twain;
In the midst of the great fire,
a stream of refreshing breeze!

Hôjô Ujimasa1

Autumn wind of eve,
blow away the clouds that mass
over the moon's pure light
and the mists that cloud our mind,
do thou sweep away as well.
Now we disappear,
well, what must we think of it?
From the sky we came.
Now we may go back again.
That's at least one point of view.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Caregiving with Prayer

Yesterday was the 2nd monthly Saturday of chaplaincy training with the Zen Center for Contemplative Care. A lot of the day was spent discussing the power of prayer and its place in chaplaincy work. The three teachers (Koshin, Chodo and Trudi Jinpu) had us talk about our concepts of God, since most in the group don't necessarily believe in the Christian version of God, and many are atheists.

The day helped me realize that we have to put the patient's needs and belief system before our own and not get into some self-indulgent philosophizing about our own sense of God or the lack thereof. I have no problem reciting the Lord's Prayer or a Hail Mary if that is what someone can best relate to (12 years of Catholic School has left those prayers permanently imprinted in my head).

A few of my classmates expressed some concern about how to devise a prayer (especially one that reflects a person's anger) and this is how I see it: just imagine a situation where friend A needs to express something to friend B but A has elected you to be the messenger.

Just being with the patient and either addressing the "Lord" if that's appropriate for them, or making a general intention or statement of understanding about their pain can offer a lot of relief. (May you be free from pain and the root of pain...May you be free from suffering and the root of suffering...May you be happy...")

Ending the prayer with some sort of reasonable request (again, just let the patient be your guide) should do the trick. It doesn't have to be poetic or rhymey, just authentic. Everyday language will do just fine.

If you listen enough you can tell what is foremost on someone's mind and what aspect of their life could use a little healing. It's the job of a Chaplain to put that into words and offer some degree of hope to the patient.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

12 Essential Rules to Live More Like a Zen Monk

I just found a very cool article--you can read the whole piece HERE

1. Do one thing at a time. This rule (and some of the others that follow) will be familiar to long-time Zen Habits readers. It’s part of my philosophy, and it’s also a part of the life of a Zen monk: single-task, don’t multi-task. When you’re pouring water, just pour water. When you’re eating, just eat. When you’re bathing, just bathe. Don’t try to knock off a few tasks while eating or bathing. Zen proverb: “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.”

2. Do it slowly and deliberately. You can do one task at a time, but also rush that task. Instead, take your time, and move slowly. Make your actions deliberate, not rushed and random. It takes practice, but it helps you focus on the task.

3. Do it completely. Put your mind completely on the task. Don’t move on to the next task until you’re finished. If, for some reason, you have no choice but to move on to something else, try to at least put away the unfinished task and clean up after yourself. If you prepare a sandwich, don’t start eating it until you’ve put away the stuff you used to prepare it, wiped down the counter, and washed the dishes used for preparation. Then you’re done with that task, and can focus more completely on the next task.

4. Do less. A Zen monk doesn’t lead a lazy life: he wakes early and has a day filled with work. However, he doesn’t have an unending task list either — there are certain things he’s going to do today, an no more. If you do less, you can do those things more slowly, more completely and with more concentration. If you fill your day with tasks, you will be rushing from one thing to the next without stopping to think about what you do.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Wave and the Ocean

The Heart of Understanding is a short book by Thich Nhat Hahn that offers a simple and insightful commentary on the Heart Sutra.

One of the most confusing parts of the dharma (at least for me) is the paradox of "form is emptiness; emptiness is form".

”Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains form and emptiness this way:…Form is the wave and emptiness is the water…So “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” is like wave is water, water is wave…”

By emptiness we mean that all things are empty of an inherent existence.

To understand this better, consider a glass bowl. We refer to it as empty if there is no food or liquid inside of it. But there is always something inside of it--like air and light for example. So from a physical perspective the bowl is always full of something or other.

But from the Buddhist point of view, the bowl lacks an inherent existence. That doesn't mean that the bowl does not exist, but that its existence as a bowl is dependent upon many other factors and a highly specific set of conditions. Its characteristics don't make it what it is-the glass, the round shape, and the diameter are all qualities of it but no single one of them makes the bowl a bowl. A half of a coconut can serve the same function as a bowl but it is still called a coconut. Other things made of glass are not bowls, they can be many other things like drinking glasses or cups.

Viewing it this way, there is nothing about our bowl in question that is intrinsic to that bowl or any other bowl. The glass material doesn't make it a bowl, nor does its roundness. Its existence depends on several things, because it is interdependent with everything else. In order to be a bowl, it must possess a number of simultaneously existing qualities and conditions. If one of these conditions is tampered with or no longer exists (i.e. it breaks into fifty pieces) then our bowl is not necessarily a bowl anymore since a major aspect of the conditions that contribute to its "bowlness" is no longer in place.

This tells us that the bowl's very existence is completely dependent upon outer circumstances.

Bowls, and everything else in the universe, are empty.