Spiritual Fusion Buffets

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I don’t know in how far you are aware of what era we are in right now. Our current era is called postmodernism. One peculiar characteristic of this era is the disbelieve in any absolute truth.  Rather than trusting any established religious system to provide them with something reliable and permanent to believe in, people in this era have a strong believe that everyone is supposed to come up with their own truth.

This is something very young and new. Back in the old days, telling a major religion what they are wrong about was a good opportunity to get ridiculed, outcasted or plain killed. There was a deep rooted respect for everything spiritual and people would never try to go up against religious establishment unless they are crazy or deadly committed (usually both).

These days everyone is so very confident that they understand a religion or a spiritual path well enough, that they even start calling themselves by that name within days of a celebrity announcing that he or she is spiritual now. Suddenly everyone is a Kabbalahist. The underlying reason is of course the shocking level of superficiality our society has worked itself down to. This superficiality of course is desperately needed, since otherwise our consumer culture would implode immediately.

As a result people approach spirituality these days like they approach a buffet. You can take whatever you like, as much as you like. And since fusion food is totally hip, you can very well combine sushi with cheese in a raw-vegan spring roll. And if you can do that, why stop there? Just get married as a Christian, do Yoga as a Hindu, be a Buddhist on parties and dance with your Lakota spirit at night. The confidence with which people jump spiritual trains or just make things up these days is amazing.

A friend of mine told me that once on a Sesshin, his Zen-teacher strongly admonished one of his students to stop eating like a pig at lunch. The student thereupon told his Zen-teacher that he would keep eating like he wanted and that his Zen was obviously just different from that of the teacher. Now, this answer obviously is by far the most stupid thing I have ever heard in my life, but you can see what happens to people who think they are privileged to construct there own truth.

One would think, that it is self evident why the approach of fusion spirituality is very dangerous. You are at risk to do everything without doing anything correctly.

Consider Buddhism. Buddhism comes from a very, very advanced culture. The Indian philosophies and religions we know about were a thousand years old, before the Buddha even was born. Buddhism is incredibly deep and complex. We have more then ten thousand suttas in the Pali canon alone. And Buddhism is very clear on that there is no room for personal truths. There are the teachings of the Buddha. These point to the truths. One truth. Period. No fusion necessary.

At this point you might think why is he telling me all this. Why is that relevant for me, I just want to meditate to calm my mind. Why can’t I be a Christian who also studies Buddhist meditation?

Well, yes you can. In the beginning at least. However, Buddhist meditation is pointed at enlightenment. You get there by realizing the true nature of your experiences. That everything you experience moment by moment is impermanent, unsatisfying and not self. If you don’t see that, you keep creating stuff that is artificial. Only if you let go of your clinging to artificial mental formations, you are free enough to see that the only law that governs the universe is the law of karma. This ties very closely into Buddhist cosmology and the concept of wandering from lifetime to lifetime … forever.

This is basically the >opposite< of Christianity. If you are talking to God on a regular basis, he (or she) might not be pleased with these ideas. In the eyes of God you have a permanent self that is eternal. It has to be, since you are created in his (or her) image and God is eternal be definition.

The Buddha on the other hand was >very< clear about the impermanent self. Here is how he talked to a monk who misunderstood his teachings to imply a permanent self (aka soul):

„Misguided man, have I not stated in many ways consciousness to be dependently arisen, since without a condition there is no origination of consciousness? But you, misguided man, have misrepresented us by your wrong grasp and injured yourself and stored up much demerit; for this will lead to your harm and suffering for a long time.”

[Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhayasutta / Majjhima Nikāya 38]

This, btw, is what the Buddha sounded like when he was really pissed with someone. Does that mean you cannot use Buddhist meditation as a Christian? Of course not. There is a whole MBSR-industry that was build on the foundation of selling people meditation practice without the spiritual stuff (although I cannot for the life of me figure out why anyone would want that). It just means that we should always try to be very clear and precise about who we are and what it is we are doing and why. Buddhism is all about knowing. Am I a Christian that uses Buddhist meditation, or am I a Buddhist who believes in God? The fist one is possible, the second one isn’t. The first one is not only possible, it is well established. If you have a look at the meditation practice of the Hesychasm monks, you will find there methods amazingly close to Buddhist Samatha meditation.

What exactly it is we strive for is very important, so we don’t practice something, which points in a wrong direction.

 

Let’s talk silence

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A Buddhist proverb goes:
“If you can’t improve on silence, be silent.”

This is part of the whole >restraint< thing that Buddhists are really fond of.

“Good is restraint in body, restraint in speech is good, good is restraint in mind, everywhere restraint is good; the monk everywhere restrained is free from all suffering.”
[Dhammapada 361]

Restraining from talking has the great advantage that while being silent we can listen. There is a another saying that goes:
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

However, while countless articles in psychology talk about the importance of listening as a communication skill, nobody seems to be very good at it.

Studies show that we spend something like 80 percent of our waking hours in some form of communication. Of that time, we spend about 9 percent writing, 16 percent reading, 30 percent speaking, and – sadly – only 45 percent listening. Wait, … it gets worse.
In communication psychology it is common knowledge that from any nice chat you just had with a person, you will remember like 80% – of what YOU said – and about 20% of what the other person told you.

Now we can understand why in Buddhism >silence< is a highly valued resource that is thought to be extremely powerful.

I read somewhere that Zen actually knows three different forms of silence.

At first there is the silence of the student who just does not know the answer.

Then there is the silence of the teacher who knows the answer, but who wants his student to find out for himself.

Finally, there is the silence of the master, who has understood that there is no use in words when describing something that has to be experienced.

It is said that this silence sounds like thunder.

Are you awake?

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Normally, Zen stories are somewhere between confusing and rather annoying to me. Annoying, mostly when they come along the lines of: >Enlightenment is toilet paper at the drugstore!<.
However, every now and then I come across something I find just awesome. This following little story can be found from different sources, the most common one made its way into the Zen classics as case 12 of the Mumonkan. It stars Master Zuigan Shigen (chin. Ruiyan Shiyan, China 830-900) and goes like this:

Every single day Master Ruiyan sat in his quarters calling out: “Master of the house!” and then answering himself, “Yes!” He would then call out, “Are you wide awake?” and answer, “Yes.” Then he would call out again, “DON’T GET FOOLED!” And again answer, “Yes, yes.”

Asking yourself to not get fooled is hilarious enough, but what I find even more genius is to turn to yourself on a daily basis and seriously asking yourself: >Are you wide awake?<
Have you ever tried it?
I personally find the feeling quite uncomfortable. I always feel in my talkative mind that the obvious answer should be a clear >Yes<. However, at the same time I have the constant nagging and quite disturbing feeling that the more honest answer should be >No<.

This is what drives a man to medittion.

Defilements and Coffee-Dukkha

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I was heavily addicted to coffee for a long time.
I used to put cream in there and a ton of sugar and as many espressos as I could sneak in without my heart exploding.
At some point – with my heart racing and swimming in sweat – the realization dawned on me that this habit was maybe not in my best interest. So I kicked coffee forever … like ten times in ten years.
Finding a defilement is easy. Getting rid of it – completely different story.
I tried everything. I tried things that kick like coffee, things that look like coffee, things that taste like coffee, nothing worked. I usually stopped for a month, then I was back on it. I was beyond help. Did all my meditation help me? No. In the end I had to use a trick (as a Buddhist I should rather call it: Skillful mean.) I caught a bad stomach flue and from experience I knew that whatever I eat last before I turn into a living fire hose will be of my menu forever. This time I got lucky and my last meal was a cup of coffee.
So, did I enlighten myself out of the defilement of an addiction to sensual pleasure?
Not really, I used a simple conditioning tool to change my behavior since I notices that it makes me unhappy, even though it disguises itself as happiness. Now, does this mean I won? I won because I don’t drink any coffee any more? No, because I switched from one addiction to another. I switched to something else. I started to drink green tea. And now I was addicted to green tea. And also … I wanted a coffee. After a couple of years of drinking gallons of strong green tea I was ready to acknowledge the problem. So, I stopped drinking green tea … and now I have a shelf stuffed with twenty kinds of organic herbal tea.

By now there should be pattern revealing itself to the reader…

I know that me ranting over coffee and tea may seem childish, but my point is that it is not only the really big things we can’t control. The simple and sad truth is, that we can’t control shit in our life most of our time. However we are still supposed to fix the world while we are at it.
These days Buddhism is supposed to be really engaged in the big matters. War, economy, climate, gender confusions and whatnot. Because we strife to liberate everyone with our practice, supposedly.

In the meantime, there I am in my kitchen, claiming that I meditate for almost twenty years, while even a simple cup of colored water has me up against the ropes no problem. That’s just sad. Also it is an important lesson from the Buddha. It never ends. As long as we are here, there will always be a next thing. Another thing, that will always be followed by a next suffering.
The first important step is to acknowledge that.
You will not be able to eliminate all addictions by doing that, however you will train yourself to realize what it is you are doing. You will start to see these things as the simple but strong conditionings they are. Nothing more than that. Not your personal failure or something to be ashamed of. There will always be another suffering somewhere. This is how this realm of existence is build.

Do you know the Pali word for what we translate as suffering?
It is “dukkha”.
Do you know what dukkha originally was?
Imagine an old school ox chart with big wooden wheels.
Take one of the wheels of and look in the middle where the axis is.
That whole there was called dukkha.
Get it?
It’s a dirty place you are trapped in that goes round and round and round … forever.
It is also known as the wheel of suffering.

In case you haven’t noticed. Coffee can also mean sex, food, work or whatever else you find yourself addicted to.

Also, yesterday I had a coffee at Starbucks. Go figure.