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the body is the teacher

musings on the wisdom of incarnation

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June 2016

“No Birth, No Death”

When reading Buddhist writings, you may come across this notion of “no birth, no death.” When you first encounter this, you may be shocked and incredulous. You’re supposed to be. That’s the whole idea: to invite you to question the beliefs and assumptions that are so obvious and apparent to you that you would never think to doubt them.

Nirvana means “extinction,” as in the extinction of a candle’s flame. First and foremost, nirvana means extinction of all concepts and notions. Our concepts about things prevents us from really touching the reality of the present moment. 

Negating concepts like “birth” and “death” can be good medicine for us sometimes, as it may help us loosen our grip on those concepts. But “no birth and death” can also easily become simply a new concept that we grab hold of. Although dogmas arise in response to questions, they may be an expression of a desire to eliminate those questions. Questions spring from wonder, which is the experience of the inadequacy of all concepts in the face of the reality of the present moment. It is hard for us to dwell in the emptiness of that place of questioning, in the openness of wonder. But that is the only place we are ever truly alive.

So please feel free to investigate what arises in whatever manner appears best to you. The wonder and openness that we experience in mindfulness leads to questions. Embrace these questions. Sometimes the questions lead to doubts. Embrace these doubts. As the Buddha said, “Right it is to doubt, right it is to question what is doubtful and what is not clear.” We are not called to blind faith. We are invited to inquire, investigate, and form questions arising from our wonder, openness, and curiosity. Buddha did not establish a system of orthodoxy or epistemological authority, but rather a way of practicing that embraces and incorporates open investigation: “As the wise test the purity of gold by burning, cutting, and examining it, so should you accept my words after examining them and not out of regard and reverence for me.”

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The Unreality of “Things”

What we can perceive – and therefore know – is limited to objects of consciousness. In the Buddhist teachings, every phenomenon that we can experience is either physical/material or mental. Every object of consciousness is one or the other or these two categories. Physical or material phenomena are rupa; mental phenomena are nama. Everything that we perceive is either rupa or nama. What we ordinarily experience as reality is the interplay of rupa and nama, coming and going, arising and then fading away. They are nonpermanent, effervescent, like the bubbles on the surface of a glass of soda. There is no persisting entity residing at the center of this play of phenomena, no abiding self. There is just consciousness of rupa and nama. On the basis of these two our egoic mind may contrive various illusions and imagined entities as convenient organizing principles – things such as “self,” “other,” “tree,” “rock,” and so forth. But reality is actually simply the continual arising and passing away of material and mental phenomena.

For example, what we experience as a body is a collection of rupas that are constantly arising and falling away very rapidly. The cells that make up this body are constantly changing, being born and dying, and being replaced by new ones in a process of endless replication. And at the subatomic level we know that this apparently solid body is actually mostly empty space, a temporary and fortuitous phase or field of essentially unpredictable energy and motion. The body is an effervescent foaming up and dissolving of rupas. Nothing in it abides. Nothing in it is lasting. It is constantly being born and dying. The idea of the body as an abiding thing is an illusion. It only exists in the appearance of its temporary effervescence in this present moment. Mind creates and maintains this illusion of abiding through persistent projection, through a continual rapid-firing of namas, through the constant churning out of thoughts, ideas, concepts, and assumptions. The “body” continues as long as there are conditions to permit it to arise. But those conditions can be taken away at any time. When those conditions are gone, then the “body” “dies.” The conditions for the appearance of the “body” as “alive” are no longer present, and the conditions for the appearance of the “body” as “dead” arise instead. Eventually the conditions supporting even the appearance of anything resembling a “body” fall away and there is only the material descendants of the “body” to be absorbed into the larger body of the earth, wind, water, and energy that makes up life. Continue reading “The Unreality of “Things””

Slogans for Mindful Parenting

One of the most profound guides to spiritual practice that I have encountered is the set of lojong (“mind training”) slogans that have been practiced in Tibetan buddhism for centuries. The following is a set of slogans inspired by lojong.

1. Drive all blames into one.

Do not blame anyone else for anything. This includes your children. It especially includes them. Recognize that if you are feeling irritated or angry, at the heart of this is an aversion to feeling blamed and the desire to avoid that feeling. At the core, you simply do not want to feel small, weak, confused, ashamed, and helpless. You do not want to feel open and vulnerable. You are recoiling against humility. But that is the heart of enlightenment. That is bodhichitta. That is the goal, and you are actively trying to run away from it. So stop. Look for the trapdoor of humility. Open yourself to the blame. To all of the blame. Cultivate a completely open heart.

2. Be present. Continue reading “Slogans for Mindful Parenting”

Incarnation Is the Only Wisdom

During the early stages of spiritual development, it is easy to see truth as residing in some remote realm curated and presided over by an elite priesthood of scholars and figureheads. We are invited to discount our own experience of life in favor of traditional expressions of official doctrine expounded and defended by credentialed experts. We come to see the most profound truths as something distant, external, other.

But eventually, if we are to fully realize our divine nature, we must recognize that true wisdom dwells within each of us already. It turns out that the basic package that we have each been given — this marvelous body — is all we need. Indeed, it is our only means for identifying and participating in ultimate truth. This is the profound wisdom of incarnation.

Courage of the Moment

Any moment that does not require courage is a moment we are not truly living. To face the present moment directly, fearlessly, in all its fullness just as it is: that is incarnation.

Of course, in one sense incarnation is inevitable and unavoidable. Embodiment is our reality, whether or not we accept that fact. We can only seek to reject this reality through the insistence of delusion, through a persistent commitment to ignorance. Yet in another sense, realizing incarnation is an intentional act, an act of the will. We face this basic, foundational reality as it is. And in doing so we reveal our essential nature.

No Vishy-Vashy

One of my qigong teacher’s favorite words of advice is “No wishy-washy,” which, in his German-Indian accent comes out as “No vishy-vashy.” At the end of each qigong session, as each of us stands breathing quietly with our hands folded over our tan t’ien (our center or core), he scans the room, making eye contact with each of us while wagging a resolute index finger finger and kindly exhorting us to speak and act in a way that embodies forthrightness, directness, and honesty, while at the same time being imbued with compassion and love. “No vishy-vashy,” he reminds us.

Reflecting on this principle has revealed to me just how often I get tangled up in vishy-vashiness. I see how often I approach conversations and situations as a constantly evolving field test, of the kind that the Army or Navy might concoct to train soldiers. I analyze the situation and imagine multiple options for responding and the likely effects of each. And then, after selecting a course of action I may indulge in a round of second- or even third-guessing — either simultaneously or after the fact. This kind of scenario analysis can sometimes take a considerable amount of time, during which I end up just being silent. (Hopefully I at least remember to smile.)

This doesn’t mean that my goal is to be tactical or strategic; usually my purpose is simply to be kind — optimally kind, in fact. And I think there is some value in being somewhat circumspect: surely it is better to temporarily annoy someone with awkward silence than to say or do something unskillful that may result in anger, confusion, resentment, or blame.

Yet, as my teacher reminds me, “No vishy-vashy” (wag, wag, wag). True communication comes from the heart, from our core being. That is the way to be truly kind, truly loving. That is the way to be truly responsive to life as it unfolds in each moment.

Drive All Blames Into One

The first substantive slogan that we must confront is “Drive all blames into one.” The “one” into which we are to drive all blames is ego. Other beings are not to blame. Circumstances are not to blame. Only ego is to blame.

Looking deeply, we can see that the cause of all conflict is ego. It is ego that makes beings selfish, fearful, and greedy. It is ego that causes them to misguidedly seek their own pleasure at the expense of the suffering of others. It is ego that causes them to believe that they are alone, unloved, unworthy, destitute, hopeless. It is ego that causes them to suffer and to render them incapable of caring for and transforming their suffering instead of compounding their suffering and others’ suffering by lashing out. Ego lies at the core of all anger, hatred, aggression, anxiety, and despair. It is the root of all evil. Continue reading “Drive All Blames Into One”

Lojong: An Introduction

For over a thousand years monks in Tibet have been developing and following a set of aphorisms or “slogans” for training the mind. A core set of 60 slogans is attributed originally to Dipakara Srijnana (982-1054), commonly known as Atisha, a monk who founded the Kadam School in Tibet. Atisha transmitted the slogans to his disciple Dromtrönpa, who transmitted them to his disciples, down to Geshe Chekawa (1101-1175), who compiled them in a written collection titled Seven-Point Mind Training. This text was passed down over the centuries, with numerous scholars writing various commentaries to accompany, explain, and amplify the root slogans.

Although lojong mind training is an ancient practice, and the slogans themselves are over 900 years old, you may be surprised to find how relevant they are for our everyday lives today. “Lojong” literally means “mind training,” with the sense of indoctrination. But we can perhaps think of this practice, within the context of our mechanistic, scientific culture, as a sort of reprogramming of the mind. We now know that ordinarily most of the activity in our brains and the other systems of our bodies connected with the brain function automatically, with little or no input from our conscious minds. Most of the time we operate on autopilot, so to speak. Or to use a computer analogy, there is a basic operating system in our minds full of various programs that are constantly running in the background, taking care of 90% or more of our actions, attitudes, behaviors, habits – and often what we perceive of as conscious choices and decisions. Continue reading “Lojong: An Introduction”

Impermanence

Everything is impermanent, constantly changing. But it is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not. Impermanence is a great blessing. Thanks to impermanence, we can transform suffering into joy, samsara into nirvana. We can convert this mind away from creating, perpetuating, and preserving ego toward cultivation of love and peace. That can be done. It is a miracle, but it can be done. It simply requires letting go of everything, including everyone and everything we love, everything we fear, everything we desire, and everything we hope for. It means letting go of myself and my life completely. It means seeing that all things are born completely new in each moment.

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