The endless checklist

Endless Checklist - Photo
[Photo Copyright by Stuart Chalmers via Flickr under Creative Commons Licence]
It’s now been only a couple of months since I had one of these little epiphanies on life that somehow change your perspective forever. I realized for the first time that every one of us is running around with an endless mental checklist of things to do in his life. I know, what a mundane insight, but bear with me, there is more.

Not only did I realize that these To-Do lists somehow get build into our minds by society very, very early in life, but they also never run empty of further important items to cross off. Ever.

We start out when we are really young and the first items all evolve around ‘getting bigger’. Then the pressure starts. First it is just ‘learning to walk’ or to talk, but soon enough real life kicks in and the list keeps growing and growing. ‘Learn to read’, ‘learn to write’. ‘Learn a language’. ‘Learn math’. Our society loves to give these lists to children earlier and earlier with every generation.

I was really shocked to learn that my son at the age of eight already put ‘have good grades’ on this private list all by himself. He told me so quite matter-of-factly, because he wants to be able to study medicine. I had no idea. At his age my list had items like ‘get more Lego bricks’.

Soon his list will have real heavy items like: ‘Finish school’, ‘find a university’, ‘get a job’ and so on and so on. There is not a problem with having lists like this per se. It’s useful to know where you are and where you want to go. Also, most people I meet have rather short lists in their head anyway. It’s usually pretty predictable, like ‘get a degree’, ‘meet The One’, ‘have a family’, ‘buy a house’ and ‘ get more money’, etc. This is all neither new or surprising.

What shocked me was to learn that we really never get done with our lists. Not only that, we really hate not having items on the list, too. As soon as, we cross enough things of our list, we immediately come up with new ones to fill the empty space. There is always more stuff to do. I observe the corresponding behavior in the people around me all the time. As soon as someone is free of some important items of his internal list, there is almost immediately the compulsion to run and find something else to do. It’s like not doing something is the enemy. If a spot on the list opens up, it will get filled as fast as possible. One partner is out, another one gets in. Partner is happy, get a child. Getting a child is too scary, buy a dog. Nothing else to do? Get a new car. Got a car and a dog and a child? Well, clearly the house is to small now!

What keeps amazing me is the fact that people rush to fill up their list, even is there is no real reason to do so. The moment one project is finished another one has to start, no matter what. Even if it is complete nonsense. Seriously, it is so obvious, that anyone should notice. However, there is a clever trick. People go out of their way to create more items than they will be able to handle. This prevents you from standing still long enough to realize what you are doing.

From a standpoint of Buddhist psychology this behavior is obviously just another addiction. This form of addiction is incredibly common in the West although almost never talked about in Buddhist circles. In Buddhism the technical term would be bhava tanha. The craving for becoming. With bhava tanha, it is really not that important, what it is, that’s on your list. It is more the fact that there is always yet another thing to strive for.

Reaching whatever you run towards is therefore never a satisfying accomplishment, since it only serves as a placeholder until the next craving comes around. Most of the times we really don’t want to reach our goal anyway, since we unconsciously know very well that we don’t really get anything out of it. Remember, we are addicted to the running, not the arriving.

It’s a very effective strategy if you never want to come to a place of peace and equanimity. I know people who spend their entire life just avoiding to stand still. They just keep running full speed from one point on their list to the next. And everything is always important. If someone questions their priorities, they just turn up the drama-volume. Sooner or later their bhava tanha gets so worse that they forget how to stop and watch altogether. They cannot stop any more, just to breath and wait until their heart starts beating again, because even the idea of not running throws them into a full blown panic attack. I actually have compassion for those people in their hamster wheels.

Not doing anything while everyone around you keeps themselves busy to the point of self destruction is very, very hard.

Deliberately keeping things of your list is frightening.

Society will not like you, to the point of attacking you – if you start throwing things of your list for being stupid.

Staring at an empty list and realizing that there >really is nothing to do< is the very place where you can find wisdom.

It’s quite peaceful.


[Photo Copyright by Gilbert Sopakuwa via Flickr under Creative Commons Licence]

There are a lot of good aspects involved, if your teacher is a trained therapist or comes from a healing background. He or she will be qualified to catch you falling and help you work through any of your traumas. This is awesome and wonderful. There cannot be enough therapists using the Dhamma to help people heal.

However, I also recognize problems every time a meditator with a strong healing background becomes a teacher and starts to give Dhamma talks. Particularly when the teacher wants to make a living out of it. A teacher who wants to earn a living lives in great danger to tell his students whatever they want to hear, so they will come back and bring their friends. It happens consciously or unconsciously. What usually happens next is that you end up with a weird mixture of Wellness and something approaching spiritual tree-hugging. Maybe it’s just me, but contemporary Buddhism seems to overflow with healing teachers who want their students to feel good about themselves.
You don’t get that a lot in Zen circles, however the Healing-Vipassana seems extremely popular these days and it even starts to export the ideas of Wellness-Buddhism back into Mahayana, which is hilarious in its very own way. I actually know a Zen-Place that renamed itself, just so it could get a piece of the mindfulness-business. If you know how Mahayana evolved, than this little fact is just cute.

So, what are the issues with that trend? What is wrong with a teacher who wants to make people feel good about themselves? How can I have possibly a problem with that?

Well, the problem is, that this not what Buddhism is for.
Buddhism was not designed to make you feel good about yourself. Quite the opposite is true. In fact, healing and Buddhism can very well be opposed to each other, unless you are very clear and specific about what you mean by ‘healing’.

Most people talk about the need for healing, if they suffer from anything that restrains or hinders them from participating in conventional reality. This would be the reality that in Buddhism is subsumed under the umbrella-term ‘Samsara’. This is the reality where all your relationships and jobs and careers and all that stuff takes place. Any healing will therefore try to integrate you better into this meta-structure of reality, e.g. to heal the childhood trauma that keeps you from having healthy relationships with your wife. Or fix the idea that you are unworthy and not special enough to get promoted to the job that finally will make you happy. And while we are at it, fix the erectile dysfunction you get because you are secretly scared of women, so you can finally have the house full of children you always wanted. This is when you need to accept yourself and feel good about who you are.

And this, coincidentally, is also the place you should be in, >before< you enter the path of the Dhamma. You should have a place of healing and acceptance and well-being, not because this is the purpose of the Buddha’s teachings, but because this stable ground is needed to apply them.
The job of a Dhamma-Teacher is to bring the whole of the realm of conventional reality to your awareness. A place you hopefully occupy in a stable and healthy way. He will point to the whole of this existence you created for yourself. Everything about what makes you happy, the dreams of jobs and relationships and career and plans for the future and family and almost everything that is dear and close to you… and then shred it to pieces. Because it is all fake and unreal.
(This is why you should be stable in the first place. If your life is a psychotic mess, then a Zen-Sesshin is probably not the best place to address this…)

Buddhism is about deconstructing conventional reality until nothing is left you can use to lie to yourself. Buddhism is not meant to help you function better in Samsara. The Buddha was not about ‘Wellness’. A Dhamma teacher who meets you in your convoluted, neurotic samsaric mess and makes you feel good about yourself is useless. (He may be a good healer, though.) A Dhamma teacher is supposed to challenge you, to irritate you and to heavily piss you of. I once spent a weekend with a Zen-Teacher who was extremely cultivated and well behaved, friendly and polite. One day into the weekend I was ready to punch his face down his throat. The man was a really good teacher. He saw me as a big strong bear and therefor he gently but constantly kept poking me with a stick. Metaphorically speaking, of course. (Although Zen-Masters of the old days were known to use sticks, too.) That is what a teacher is for. Find you in your deluded place and use the right stick to beat you out of there.

I would like to repeat this point, just to really sail this home. If your teacher keeps telling you in his Dhamma talks that the moon does not shine in the sky but in your heart and you go home thinking that this is really, really deep and that the world would be a better place if we all could start and end the day with a big warm group hug, then you experienced something very, very strange, but it was not the teaching of the Buddha.
If a true Dhamma-Teacher finds your exact frequency and hits you with what the Buddha taught, you will end up in tears and shaking, … trust me.
(Yes, I know, you are supposed to grasp the truth and start laughing and dancing, that is another cliché. But this is really for monks, who already turned their back on Samsara and know exactly what to look for. The rest of us, who are still up to the neck in conventional reality will rather shake and cry.)

Now, is the path to enlightenment, which deconstructs conventional reality, not also a form of healing? Is it not a more (for lack of a better word) ‘real’ healing, since it is supposed to free us from suffering for good, while any form of healing in conventional reality is by definition only a painting over symptoms? Yes, of course. This is exactly the case and therefore I started out by saying that we should be really careful, what we talk about, when we use the word ‘healing’.

This is something we have to define for ourselves. What do we want healing from and what is this healing supposed to move us closer to? Is the place the healing got us to a place worth being, or is it really just another sickness. And is the sickness a disease that can be healed by wellness…?

Finding the heart


This time I would like to talk about the heart. Sadly I don’t really understand enough to talk about this one from a teachers perspective, so I will tell a story instead.

Back in the day, around 2008(ish), when my son was a little baby, I used to push him around in his baby buggy all the time, so he would fall asleep already. That could take a while. We would walk through the park, come sunshine or rain, mostly on weekends and early in the morning, and it was quite peaceful. Nobody would be bugging us. Sooner or later he would be sound asleep and I always listened to podcasts. I had a little iPod and I would download the Zencast. I don’t even know if that one is still around. The fun fact about the Zencast back in 2008 was, that there were not that many Zen teachers putting out Dhamma talks on a regular bases yet, it was the very early day of podcasts. So what they did was to just substitute other Dhamma talks. One day, we were walking along the river on a Sunday morning, a guy named Gil Fronsdal started talking in my headphones about something called ‘Metta’. That strange word apparently meant ‘Loving kindness’ and was a key term in Buddhism. I was dumbfounded. Coming from a Zen/Martial Arts background everything related to ‘loving’ obviously had to be some weird nonsense for tree huggers and hippies.

Nevertheless, I listened and eventually even learned. And as it is often with things like that, it somehow got stuck back in my head. Years later, by then deep into Theravada territory, I was still trying to get a grip on the whole Metta thing. It’s not that I did not try, but I never quite understood what is was supposed to be all about. I tried to read smart books about the topic, like Jack Kornfield’s ‘Path with heart’, but didn’t even make it through the first chapter before I kinda lost the epub file. I even bought another copy, hardcover this time, but gave that away, too. I seemed to have the wrong training/personality for this stuff. It’s not even like loving kindness was totally unknown in Zen. During my brief encounter with a Japanese Zen teacher we had little tea ceremonies as a group. I remember him always saying stuff like: “And now we drink tea-givers love!”, and I was like: “Yeah, let’s do that, wait… what?” It was Zen alright. Even love was weird in Zen.

Somehow I made it to a Metta practice anyway. Persistency works. Turns out you don’t have to really get it to just send friendly thoughts to people. You think of someone you like and wish the person to be happy and healthy and peaceful. That’s easy enough. I could do that. So, I did that for a while, just sending out good energy to people and even myself, in a sort of grumbling way, like: “Yeah, I should maybe be happy, too, whatever…”.

So all was well, until I went to a week long meditation retreat in the deep south of Germany with Bhante Nyanabhodi. I signed on on the bases of: I want a retreat, he is a monk, … sold. What I did not know, was that he is the official successor of his teacher Ayya Khema and hence basically running her lineage. I also had no idea that Ayya Khema was known for her very Metta-centered approach to the dhamma training. This is karma for you. I only wanted to go on retreat for a week.
Halfway through the retreat Bhante Nyanabhodi decided to share Ayya Khema’s favorite Metta-practice with us. It was a visualization technique where one imagines a lotus-flower in the middle of ones chest, where the heart is. The flower begins to bloom and sends out light that shines through the whole body, radiating the loving kindness one then shares with other people.
I mean, seriously, a Lotus flower sharing love? Can it possibly get more hippie than that? I remember silently groaning in deep pain to myself, when the instructions unfolded.

However I went along with it thinking something like: “Well, as long as I’m here…”. I come from a strict breath work and Vipassana practice, but I do know a lot of energy visualization techniques from my Tai Chi training. I just never combined both systems. Maybe this is why my approach to this new way of doing Metta meditation proved to be slightly more effective than expected. I basically cried through every meditation for the rest of the week.

After the retreat it took me more than a month to regroup myself and get a grip on my practice again. The results of this simple metta meditation left me in quite a bit of a shock and I still am in awe how such a powerful technique can work in a mind of someone who evolutionary speaking is barley one step ahead of sitting in a tree and wondering why it is not possible to eat stones. This btw, is the reason for the monkey picture I drew and that you find at the top of this post. I like monkeys and I’m really bad at self portraits, so there you go.

Based on my new experience with Metta meditation I have to reconsider a lot that I thought I knew about the Buddhist path. Bhante Nyanabodhi calls Metta the greatest and most powerful integrating force on our way to enlightenment. Especially for us in the West, who are basically divided from others and our self from birth by a society that institutionalizes greed and hate and fear on every step of our childhood.

Also, it is not like this approach to the practice is in any way shape or form new or revolutionary. It is completely in line with the Buddha’s teaching. It is just one more possible way to approach inner development and the Buddha was very clear on this one:

Mettavihari yo bhikkhu pasanno buddhasasane
adhigacche padam santam sankharupasamam sukham.

“The bhikkhu who lives exercising loving-kindness and is devoted to the Teaching of the Buddha will realize Nibbana — the Tranquil, the Unconditioned, the Blissful.”

[Dhammapada Verse 368]

As a last thought I would like to point something out, that Bhante Nyanabodhi said repeatedly during the repeat. He explained that this approach to the Dhamma, a path through Metta, is only for the most brave among the Buddha’s students, since the student has to face his own heart. I thought about this a long time and now I have to agree with him. Whenever I have witnessed a strong warrior backing out of a fight, he was usually facing himself. The more intimate the encounter, the faster the flight. Facing your own heart should therefor be the toughest challenge we can encounter. More than anything else I learned from this experience, I got a certainty that this is the one challenge we cannot run away from forever.

Oh, and btw, I bought another copy of Jack Kornfield’s ‘Path with Heart’ and this time a made it to the second chapter. So, there seems to be hope…

Guarding the sense doors

[Photo Copyright by Anderson Mancini via Flickr under Creative Commons Licence]

Most people in the West know the motif of the three little monkeys that close of their senses with their hands. One is covering his mouth, the other covers his eyes and the third one covers his ears.
Ironically this means something else in Japan, than it means in the West.
The West – in its charming way – interprets the three monkeys as a metaphor for a reality that one does not wish to see, something that one wishes to disavow, pretty much like the picture with the ostrich hiding his head in the sand.
The original Japanese meaning is a bit more complex and is much closer to a Buddhist perspective. Here the monkeys represent a sensory input that is overlooked and accepted by the use of wisdom. The evil is not allowed to touch the mind, neither by way of the eyes or the ears. In the very same way, no evil will escape the mind by use of the mouth.

Within this lies the wish to guard the integrity of something worthy within us by the control of the senses.
This ‘guarding the sense doors’ is a common concept in Buddhism and a very important key to spiritual development.
It teaches to be aware that not every sensory input we submit ourself to is helpful to our development; is not – to use a Buddhist term – wholesome. Once we understand how strongly we can be affected by the wrong pictures in our mind, we learn the responsibility to avoid them.
Nothing could be more important in the age of the internet, where every imaginable (and unimaginable) human abyss is only two mouse clicks away and can easily haunt us for months in our nightmares.
Only with the training of many years we can learn to acquire a responsible attitude in handling our ’sense doors’ and to learn how to deal with unwanted emotional stress.
These days this point can even be shown in scientific studies.
Scientists around Richard Davidson were able to show in 2003 that continuous meditation practice will influence prefrontal brain areas, which are understood to deal with negative emotions.
[Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., et al (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564–570.]
Over a period of eight weeks of continuous meditation practice scientists observed a significant shift of brain activity from the right to the left hemisphere. According to the current neurophysiological understanding an increased activity on this side of the brain is correlated with the ability to faster and more efficiently deal with negative emotions and stress.
In his book “The Sun My Heart” the Vietnamese Zen master Thích Nhat Hanh describes that using a mind trained in mindfulness you can even watch a bad movie or read a trashy novel. [„The Sun My Heart” , Parallax Press, 1988, ISBN 0-938077-12-0]
It means that with the appropriate training one can let his sense doors open without running the danger to get caught by and with the whatever negative influence got through. It would even become an exercise in itself to watch something with an open ‘Dharma-eye’ and use the experience to watch and learn from it.
If, however, the training is not advanced enough (and believe me, mine isn’t) it is highly recommended to watch carefully over everything that tries to sneak past our guard and may involuntarily pull us down.

The Buddha often described the dangers in not guarding the sense doors using quite powerful images. I wrote about that before >here<.


Dangers at high sea (Master of Similes 2)

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There is a lot of redundancy build in the Pali Canon as one would expect from such a huge collection of teachings that were transmitted orally for hundreds of years.

The following simile can be found at different places, two of them would be Majjhima Nikaya 67 / Cātumasuttaṃ / The Discourse at Catuma and an abbreviated version in the Anguttara Nikaya / Book of fours / 122 (2. Uumibhayasuttaṃ – Fear of waves)

This teaching is directed at young monks who after ordination go back in contact with our conventional society. However, I find it also serves as a valuable reminder for every seriously practicing layperson.
(“In the same manner four fears should be expected by a person leaving the household to become a homeless.”)

The Buddha compares the monk striving out into samsara with a sailor, venturing out onto a large ocean. A journey on such a large body of water comes with a unforeseeable number of dangers the poor sailor has to face.

It is interesting how the Buddha throughout the Canon keeps referring to the spiritual journey of the holy life to the journey on, or the crossing of water. He compares his teachings with the vessel you use to cross the water, or he describes the people in samsara how they in deep confusion run up and down the waterline, not knowing how to proceed. (i.e. Dhammapada 85, 86). Among the similes involving water the >Simile of the Raft< is probably one of the most famous images taught by the Buddha. He compares his own teachings to a raft that could be used to cross the river, but should be discarded when one made it safely to the other shore. The raft parable appears in the Alagaddupama (Water Snake Simile) Sutta of the Sutta-pitaka (Majjhima Nikaya 22). In this sutta, the Buddha discusses the importance of learning the dhamma properly and the danger of clinging to views.

Anyway, in this case the person who leaves his sangha (aka the monastery) finds himself alone on the ocean facing four kinds of dangers. (“Bhikkhus, these four are fears to be expected by those ascending to waters. What four?”)

The first danger the sailor faces are Waves. Outside of his protective community the person on a spiritual path will be confronted with people unfamiliar with his practice and equipped with untrained minds. He might be subject to misunderstandings, ridicule or blame. It will be very tempting to react with ill will, anger and aversion. Once his mind gives rise to these destructive states, like a wave that overthrows his vessel, he might soon be thrown of his path and drown under the impact of this strong emotions.

The second danger the sailor faces are crocodiles. A creature like a crocodiles knows pretty much nothing besides eating. It will stop at nothing on its way to a feast and it will forget any caution of danger to satisfy the greed for food. Once it has eaten it will return to do nothing, until the greed rises again. In the very same way a person a spiritual path can become a victim to the greed for food. Especially at a point where the more gross defilements like sexual pleasure, drugs and the constant stream of visual and auditory stimuli are under control. All of these can at least be avoided. However we can never stop eating. The addiction to food is one that can never easily be overcome. Hence it is dangerous like a hungry crocodile.

The third danger the sailor faces are whirlpools. whirlpools will suck you down to your death. The Whirlpool is a synonym for the five strands of sensual pleasures. This would be the pleasure we get from seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and thinking. (Remember that in Buddhism the cognition of a sense information is categorized as a sense.) I find this image to be particularly fitting. The simile is absolutely perfect. See, at the very beginning you don’t even realize what is happening to you. You just feel a slight tug at your body in the water and as you are slowly dragged into a wide circle you might think: “Hey, that’s kind of nice… Wheee!” Then comes the moment where it dawns on you that you cannot leave anymore, but who wants to leave anyway, when the pleasure is so strong. By the time you realize that there is always more and stronger and faster pleasure waiting for you, you will be swallowed and vanish in samsara completely.
You might survive the waves. You might even survive the dangerous animals. Surviving the whirlpool, once you are in it to far is not going to happen. You have to avoid them completely. This simile is so accurate, it’s almost frightening.

The fourth danger the sailor faces are sharks. The shark serves as a synonym for the opposite sex. In the Canon this teaching was directed at monks, so the sharks are a synonym for women. However, it is rather obvious that this would be the other way around if the teaching was given to nuns. The idea is that whatever gender one is attracted to (may it be the opposite or the same) is the one sight that will grab a hold of you and will never let go again. Just like a shark who has found something to feed on. For someone not on a spiritual path this image maybe seems unnecessarily harsh, but for a monastic who is bound by the vow of celibacy this simile is spot on. Nothing gets a monk out of his robe faster then the object of sexual desire, metaphorically and literally. Sexual desire is so strong that it rightly deserves it’s own category next to the whirlpools. Sharks are by far the number one reason for a monastic to disrobe.

So, now you know. Whenever you venture out to sea, be aware of the four great dangers!

Insights on the path of turning forty


[Photo Copyright by Tony Hall via Flicker under Creative Commons Licence]

This year I turned forty and so far I’m not freaking out.
I wondered, however, what advice I would give myself at age twenty, if I had a chance. German as I am, I came up with some structured guidelines. All steps are based on everything I did horribly wrong over the last twenty years.

00 Step zero: Take a break.

Whenever you panic because you need to do something immediately, just stop. I know you think it is important, but it really isn’t. Yes, I know,… but no, it’s not.
Go have a tea. Meditate on the toilet. Breathe until your heart starts to beat again. Take a step back and observe. Especially observe yourself observing. Learn to just wait.

Now, you can start with step one…

01 Find compassion.

Don’t be cruel to yourself. The world will be cruel to you. People will be cruel to you. You have to work with that, however you are not required to help them.
You have to find empathy and you have to use it on yourself, too. You have to feel the pain of others, but you also have to acknowledge yourself as a friend at some point. This is the hardest thing you will ever do. You might as well start early.

02 Don’t let fear make your decisions.

You will end up doing that anyway. At least stay conscious of it. At every time of the day you are procrastinating something out of fear. You don’t have to be afraid all the time.
Everything in life can happen. Especially nothing.
You will die a thousand deaths every week and miraculously live to tell about it.

03 All you need is less.

Gain content in life by minimalizing it. Stop the illusion of needing. Needing is something that is purely in your head.
You absolutely do not need all that crap around you. It blocks the view on your life. Find the place of needing and observe it intensely until it goes away out of pure embarrassment.
Try to reduce your needing until it goes away. Trust me, you don’t really need it.

04 The key to success is showing up.

You have to put in the hours. Stop complaining, nobody cares.
You have to keep pushing. Shut up and do your work. And I said pushing, not killing. There is a difference. To be able to train tomorrow, you have to let yourself survive.
And no, there is no way to bypass the training.
You have to put in the ten thousand hours. Stop arguing, you could have locked in another hour in the meantime.

05 Stay in clear sight of an emergency exit.

Never commit to one plan or one person or one dream or one career full and only. You will change so fast you will be surprised by yourself – if you notice, that is. Never go all in. Always come prepared with a plan B. Prepare for things to fall apart. Because they will. They always do. It’s what they do. It’s in their nature.

06 It’s about the result. Not how you get there.

Define a goal and go for that goal. If you don’t have a goal, don’t go. What you do has to have a desired result. Otherwise don’t do it. If you plan to be active as soon as >xyz< happens, you already lost. Don’t spent time on planning to structure the thinking about the actual doing. Do it.

07 Train to be brave.

Being brave needs practice. Your are not born brave.
Seek out places in your life that make you uncomfortable.
If there’s something scary waiting for you, start running towards it. If something scary lurks behind you, turn around and attack. Move in straight lines towards your fear. Once you arrive, there will be nothing there. I promise.

08 Other people can’t live your life.

Nobody can live your life for you. You have to do it yourself.
You are the only person that can make you happy, nobody else can do that. It is your own opinion that counts for that. If you don’t have one, get one. You have to know who you are, where you are, what you stand for. Wearing other peoples opinions secondhand is useless.

09 Rely on your own power

There is no need to find a greater power outside of yourself.
You can try, but you are wasting precious time.
You are the creator. You create the universe you live in.
Inventing beliefs just to outsource your responsibility is cowardly. So do respect other peoples gods, but don’t rely on them.

10 Go and find yourself

Spend your life searching for you. There is not enough time, so move slowly. Don’t trust the obvious, you’ll change. If it is very easy to catch yourself, you are holding the wrong person. Find happiness and peace and the end of suffering.

Be truly free.

All about knowing

[Photo Copyright by Sandy Roberts via Flickr under Creative Commons Licence]

If someone asks me if I am a Buddhist, my answer is >Yes<. What a mundane message, I know, but bear with me for a second. This simple answer is usually followed by half a dozen disclaimer, which explain what I talk about when I talk about Buddhism. I wrote about that before >here<.

I do this because what most people know about Buddhism usually turns out to be surprisingly imprecise. Also, no matter what you say, half of all the Buddhist schools will immediately come after you with torches and pitchforks because they think you deliberately misrepresent their lineage. If you go on and then ask me >why< I am a Buddhist, I will answer that I simply tried everything else I could find and this is the only thing that ever worked for me.

From there I can go into deeper explanations, if there are further questions.

Most people somehow don’t do that. I learned that when I was younger. Asking people what spiritual path the follow would mostly get me confused looks. If I got an answer at all, it was usually that someone considers himself Christian. When I asked why, I was back to the blank stare.

Once I meet the parents of a girlfriend and they turned out to be some strange kind of fundamental Christians. I thought >awesome<, because if anyone knows their stuff, then the fundamentalists. So I asked a couple of innocent questions. I will never forget the moment when the confused mother turned to her husband and asked: “Honey, what do we believe in?”  

This experience was really baffling to me, since in my life there is usually no shortage on people who will talk for twenty minutes straight about why they chose this particularly model of car and why the choice was crucial for their survival in this world.

Somehow I still think you should always know what you do and why. There is a real danger in not knowing this. If you are unaware of your path then some people might make you follow something you really don’t want to, just because you never bothered to look into it.

You should also know how other religions and spiritual paths look back at you and how the judge you. Small example: Did you know that the Pagans where convinced that Christians are not so much following a god but rather a powerful demon? I think about that, whenever I see them praying to a guy nailed to a tree. It makes me wonder.

I give you another more Buddhist example. Recently I met a wonderful and amazing woman who practices in a certain Sangha. Their practice is to sit in a circle and recite a mantra. The mantra is for healing. The idea is to send healing energy from the Buddha to yourself and others.

We talked about this and I remarked that this is a wonderful practice for healing especially with all the visualizations and that it is a really powerful way help others.

I also pointed out that it is strictly speaking (and if you want to get all technically about it) not a Buddhist teaching, since it is not a practice that is pointed at enlightenment.

I should have kept my mouth shut, because it turns out that her high-level-super-experienced-Tibetan-former-monk-teacher told her very explicitly that it indeed is a teaching that will lead her to enlightenment. She was very upset with me.

I never told her the rest of my thoughts, since it is not my business to criticize other peoples practice. However I thought to myself: If you sit in a circle and recite a mantra and you think that leads to enlightenment and that the quality of your recitation has influence on the speed of enlightenment you are not so much a Buddhist. You are a closet Hindu. You practice exactly that, what the Buddha went out to criticize the Brahmans for. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a Hindu. It’s just.. you might probably want to know about it, don’t you?

There is a crucial point in that story. Buddhism is all about knowing. No excuses. Especially not of the: >But-my-teacher-said-so<-kind. You are not supposed to believe anything a teacher says, or anything you read on some weird guys internet blog. Use your own head. There was a time back in the old days, after the Buddha passed on, when Buddhism was not called Buddhism yet and the monks gathered and wondered what they should call their spiritual tradition. What to call themselves. On idea was vibhajjavadin. The translation is: Those who follow the doctrine of analysis. Or to put it in modern words: Those who break shit down.

It became the name of one of the old sects. However, it’s quite accurate as a name.

It’s really what we do. We break shit down. Down to a point where there is no more breaking down. I say it again: It is all about knowing.

No excuses.

Spiritual Fusion Buffets

[Photo Copyright by Delwin Steven Campell via Flickr under Creative Commons Licence]

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.