Friday, December 17, 2010

The REBEL Buddha

Review of Rebel Buddha 

                I used to be the type of “Buddhist” guy that bought EVERY new book released by Snow Lion and Wisdom.  At one point, I think I probably had like two-hundred books on my shelf.  That was bullshit.  A few years ago, I came to my senses, went through all my books, and probably got rid of 90% of them by putting them in boxes and setting them out in the lobby of my apartment building.  The last thing I need in my life is a bookcase full of books that I’m never going to read again; even if they just so happen to be about Buddhism.  I mean, who the hell am I trying to impress here?
                Ever since then, I’m very careful about what books I keep and which ones I leave on the seat when I’m riding the subway.  (Most get left on the seat, honestly.)  I don’t usually use the library because I like to mark my books up and generally abuse them.  So, I end up spending a ton of money on books.  On the plus side, there are a lot of people in NYC that probably pick up the books I leave on the subway… so good for them.

                Before I start my review, I’d like to say that I’m KEEPING Rebel Buddha.  Yep, that’s right.  It’s not totally horrible.  Dzogchen Ponlop has definitely taken a step in the right direction with this book.  He comes from a very traditional Tibetan background… and we all know how crotchety those old Tibetans can be, right? 
She's yelling at a guy who hasn't realized emptiness yet!

Notwithstanding, DP makes a sincere effort to step away from the traditional formula of Tibetan-inspired literature.  There’s no text translation, no thangka painting on the cover, and not one single mention of the word TANTRA!  As a matter of fact, DP strays away from using any so-called “Dharma-Speak” in this book whatsoever, which is a big RELIEF!

     There are a few problems.  Why is it that in the world of American Buddhist literature it seems like the majority of “books” out there are not really books, but talks that have been typed out by a faithful follower?  I really hate that.  Not that there’s no merit in transcribed lectures, but there’s really something to be said for authors who actually WRITE their books rather than just stick their name on the cover of some transcribed compilation of talks that they gave sometime last decade. 
What ends up happening to the literature is terrible.  All these “talk-books” end up sounding just a little bit off somehow, right?  The tone is weird.  I always feel like I’m being lulled into a stupor by someone who likes to hear themselves speak at length. 
As stated in the Editors Note in the back of the book, “Rebel Buddha is the result of the coming together of two lecture series on dharma and culture presented almost ten years apart.”  I think this book would have been FAR better had Dzogchen Ponlop actually sat down and written it.  I know that some of the accolades given to American Buddhist literature speak to how “conversational” and “straight forward” the reading is, but I’d like to suggest some phrases that are more appropriate:

“John Doe Rinpoche shatters old myths and sweeps away cultural baggage, but also repeats himself often, chooses poor adjectives when describing things, and pads his chapters with unnecessary paragraphs.”                   
 --John Harrison, author of Buddhism Sucks

“Generic Buddha Book is a seminal work for the growth of Buddhism in contemporary society; especially for those who don’t value well written literature.  Be prepared to skim.”                                                                                          
-John Harrison, asshole on the street who happens to spend all his time at Barnes and Noble reading Buddhist books

You see, one of the advantages of writing something over SPEAKING it, is that you can have the chance to revise and refine your ideas before you send it to press.  Although DP most certainly spent time editing and revising the text that his devotee, Cindy Shelton transcribed, it would’ve been nice to have him actually take the time to WRITE the book.  As Buddhists, whenever a new dharma book hits the shelves, we ingest the message and ignore the writing.  Is it too much to ask that our authors write well? 
Yes, DP’s message is fairly strong and somewhat refreshing, but if I had to analyze his writing, I’d probably say that it was “average”, “repetitive”, and “toneless” rather than “accessible”, “profound” or “thoroughly modern.”
Rebel Buddha is refreshing in the sense that the book is almost wholly absent of typical Buddhist anecdotes and tiresome Buddhist terminology.  That’s nice.  Even though I consider myself fairly well-versed in the whole Buddho-speak thing, it’s nice to read a book in my own language.  DP has a thorough knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism and a sincerity to impart this knowledge to the reader; so from that perspective, it’s a good book.  Not REALLY, REALLY good, but good.  I think he was going for something similar to what Stephen Batchelor did in Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.

There seems to be a growing demand for books like this, written BY and FOR Western Buddhists.  Several have tried, but few have won a prize.  I really enjoyed Batchelor’s work.  The difference with “Confession” though is that Batchelor is a very strong writer.  Plus, he’s a westerner.  DP was totally trying to jump on that bandwagon with Rebel Buddha.  He succeeded… in part. 
(Just wait till I write my book.  Then you’re brains will really bleed.)

here’s the breakdown:


Not that I’m trying to rip the guy a new asshole or anything, but a lot of the book (as a lot of many Buddhist books are) is just a fluffy, Buddhist, spiritual pep-talk. 
There is some real meat is found though. 

DP does a good job explaining the Buddhist conception of mind.  He uses the typical Tibetan construct of the “Two Truths”; Conventional Truth and Ultimate Truth, although he doesn’t use that exact terminology.  As he states, “Another way to describe the mind is to talk about its relative and ultimate aspects.  The relative aspect refers to confused mind; the ultimate aspect is its enlightened nature.  This is not a new construct, but DP explains it in with such nonchalance that he demystifies the concept of enlightened mind and makes it seem more approachable and attainable by us lowly Americans. 
Probably the best thing about DP is that he brings Buddhism down from the pedestal that we’ve put it on. 
For example:
I sometimes wonder why some of you are still at it [US, the American Buddhists], because I see so little confidence in the possibility of waking up now… It’s not the message of the Buddha or the intention of Buddhism to provide a partial recovery from confusion.  The message of the Buddha is that you’re awake now and that you can, if you apply yourself, realize it.
Tell that to all the “scholars” working in the Buddhist academic field. 
When you compare your cultural upbringing to that of Asian teachers or historical figures of the past, you usually don’t see any chance of achieving a realization like theirs.  You probably think of yourself as an ordinary, confused person who’s a product of a materialistic, dualistic culture, while they have the advantage of being raised from birth under special, even mystical circumstances.  Such ideas don’t help you; they actually undermine the path.
I’ve always thought it to be pretty ridiculous how we idolize Asian Buddhist teachers. 
The whole idea behind this book is that it’s supposed to appeal to people like ME!  People who are either (1) not Buddhist, but want to learn a little bit without first becoming familiar with a whole list of new Buddhist vocabulary or (2) are already “Buddhist” but are sick of all the dogma surrounding it.  As “new” Buddhists, DP suggests that we need to reinvent the way we choose to practice and study – rather than just follow in the footsteps of our Asian forbearers:
Just as it makes no sense to hang on to the countercultural forms of the sixties, it is senseless to hang on the forms of a traditional, Asian Buddhist culture and pretend we can fully inhabit that experience in a meaningful way… these forms and activities are simply the means to enter the open dimension of our own mind.
The only problem though is that DP doesn’t really explain HOW to make the transition away from traditional, Asian Buddhism into a newly reinvented Buddhism for today.  He does give some advice though, with regard to how our “practice” should be individualized and tailored to our own personal experiences: 
There is an aspect of traditional study, working with teachers and so on, but the most crucial aspect of the path is the “hands-on” part, where you work directly with your own mind and experience.
Before doing anything else, you must first connect with all your heart to your desire to be free.  Then you can begin to learn the most effective methods for fulfilling your desire.  This means that your individual path must be connected to your own unique experience of life.
The point is that, spiritually, we’re responsible for ourselves.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Rebel Buddha is DP’s explanation of meditation.  As I’ve highlighted in my earlier posts, meditation can be a breeding ground for confusion.  What the Buddhist community so desperately needs are teachers who are willing to demystify meditation and instruct students using practical advice rather than haughty explanations that make little practical sense.

DP includes a great description of meditation in Appendix 1 and goes into great detail on the nuts and bolts of what you’re actually DOING when you’re meditating: 
It’s not about meditating “on” something or getting into a zone where you’re blissfully removed from your mind’s contents.  Instead, the actual meaning of meditation is more like getting used to being with your own mind.
First, we gain intellectual knowledge, then we personalize it through reflecting on it, and then we go beyond that to a whole new state of knowing.

When it comes to the pièce de résistance of Buddhist meditation – MEDITATION ON EMPTINESS – DP does an excellent job of making it sound less formidable than other authors do. 
Scary meditation book

Meditation on emptiness is probably the most confusing, most often misunderstood aspect of Buddhist practice.  Whenever I attend a teaching or read a book on the subject, I usually find myself feeling frustrated.  Of course, to discuss or write about a concept such as emptiness is a difficult task.  DP’s presentation is both heartfelt and simplistic.  The result is that after reading, the concept of emptiness begins to feel a bit easier to understand.  He begins his discussion with a general presentation of Vipassana: 

The tradition of analytical meditation [vipassana] includes a number of logical reasonings that can lead us through a profound analysis of the self and the concepts that sustain our belief in it.

Although he doesn’t venture into the “deep waters” of these logical reasonings, he does leave the reader feeling that meditation on emptiness is a practice that can be done without frustration; that it’s not as hard as it is made out to be.  I believe that he accomplishes this by encouraging the reader to PERSONALIZE their practice:  

If you don’t analyze emptiness, however, if you just take as fact what the “experts” say, then it’s not personal, and it’s difficult to understand or bring into your experience.

Rebel Buddha is a good book.  There are some weak points, but overall I think it met its intended goal: to reach out to curious practitioners who are sick and tired of the same old Buddhist bullshit. 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Research on Meditation

I know I'm behind on my next meditation post... and I promised a review of REBEL BUDDHA! 

I should be done with the review by the middle of the week... and then onto the next meditation installment.  In the meantime, here's a PDF of a research paper I just wrote on meditation for a graduate class that I am currently taking at St. John's University.  I'm finishing up my masters in the spring and I'll be doing an experiment on how meditation affects the students in my class... this paper is a precursor to that experiment.  You certainly don't have to read it, but I thought some of you might find it interesting.  The tone is pretty academic and thus, totally DIFFERENT from how I write on here. 


Meditation Research                                                            

Sunday, December 5, 2010

New Post on Progressive Buddhism

I just posted something as a collaborator on Progressive Buddhism.  It's about teaching kids how to meditate. 
 Check it out! 

Also, I just finished Rebel Buddha.  I'm gonna post a review this week, along with Meditation Part 4.

Don't know what the lady with the "World's Largest Augmented Breasts" has to do with meditation?  Read my post on Progressive Buddhism to find out!!!

Are you excited?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Hilarious Shit on The Reformed Buddhist

I read about the "real" Jesus at my desk in school this morning and nearly fell off my chair laughing. 
Check it out:  Crazy Jesus

Monday, November 29, 2010

Meditation - Part 3 - "What do I meditate ABOUT?"

First let’s recap (without as much humor and sarcasm):

1.      For those new to meditation (and Buddhism), the process of discovery can be long, lonely, confusing, and frustrating.  (See Meditation Part 1)  Since the practice of meditation isn’t common to Western traditions, we have to do a bit of detective work first.  Since we (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) live in a time where meditation (and Buddhism) is considered to be a “cool” activity, there are a ton of people out there claiming to be able to teach you how to do it… usually for a price.  Be careful, stay true to yourself, and keep it simple.  Don’t sign up for anything or subscribe to a particular belief structure before you do some solid experimentation on your own!

2.      Once you get informed and motivated enough to actually DO meditation, there’s a period of time where it really sucks, so prepare yourself.  Since meditation really is an individual, solitary pursuit, when you actually start taking the time to sit down and do it, there’s a lot of shit that comes floating to the surface of the mind/consciousness that can be discouraging and unexpected for a newbie.                          
       It's kind of like starting a new job at the bottom of the corporate ladder.  

      You have to go through all the shit jobs before you can work your way up to something better.  My last post about discovering your true “ugliness” was an exaggeration on this idea.  The first thing that usually happens to a new meditator is that they encounter a whole slew of negative emotions, physical discomforts, boredom, and psychological insight.  It is not uncommon to get “sick of yourself” before you even really get started.
             This feeling of self-loathing is due to the fact that the process of meditation subjects you to a whole new method of introspection.  Think about it - when else do you just sit around doing absolutely nothing?  Sleep maybe?  Since you’re (supposed to be) conscious during meditation, it’s common sense to assume that you’re gonna do some thinking about who the hell you are and what the hell you’re doing.  

       Thoughts about your life and the fact that you’re just sitting here breathing make you question the validity of the practice.  You begin to see just how stupid meditation is and these thoughts could force you to walk away from the practice before you even really get started. 
             Although you will eventually transition away from this self-introspective perspective and move onto more “important” Buddhist practices, in the beginning, meditation is all about getting a handle on yourself.  Think about it, how can you hope to transcend the “self” if you don’t even fully know what it is yet? 

 That brings me to my next topic:  What do I meditate “about?”

 Although Buddhism is a religion that seems to be particularly well suited to “converts,” once you’re knee deep in it, its hidden philosophical complexities can be confusing.  Sure, Buddhism does have a degree of “science” to it and it can certainly hold up pretty well to our “modern” Western logic.  But we cannot forget the cultural baggage that Buddhism carries with it and the vast multitude of philosophical perspectives within the many schools of Buddhism that influence it.  The diversity of these philosophical perspectives is particularly evident when you look at how many “kinds” of meditation there are.  This is particularly true with regard to some of the more “dogmatic” schools of Buddhism – i.e., Tibetan Gelug-pa.  (What's the deal with those hats anyway?)

 This situation leaves many new practitioners wondering, “What do I meditate about?”  Usually, when a teacher is present, he/she can provide guidance with this… but what if you don’t have a teacher?  Or what if (like me) you don’t want to enter into a strictly traditional teacher/student approach to meditation? 

 Here is a taste (by no means comprehensive) of what you (as a card-carrying Buddhist) can choose to meditate about:

           Suffering or the Four Noble Truths
2.                           Impermanence
3.                          This Precious Human Rebirth
4.                           Compassion
5.                          Anger
6.                          Emptiness
7.                          Dependent Origination
8.                          Karma
Then there are various “purification” practices you can do where you recite mantras to particular deities, do prostrations, and confess your "sins" to multi-colored Buddhas.  There is the whole realm of Guru Yoga practices, Tantric Practices, and other devotional, cult-like meditational rituals.  

All kinds of questions begin to pop up in your mind... Where do the prayers fit in?  Should I say them in English, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Japanese, or Pali?  Should I learn to chant?  What about the deities?  Which one should I worship?  Isn’t there some kind of sex involved? 

 You could meditate on a different topic, using a different text, focusing on a different deity, every single day for the rest of your life and never get anywhere with any of them. 

 So, what do you do?  Where do you start?

 Relax, I’m gonna explain: 

 It's good to understand how meditation works conceptually before jumping into it.  I find it helpful to understand that all forms of Buddhist meditation can basically be broken down into two categories.  Now, before all you “purists” out there start telling me that I’m wrong to break meditation down into these categories, let me offer this:  Take this categorization with a grain of salt.  Not all forms of meditation fit neatly into this distinction and some forms can be considered to belong to both categories.  This is merely to simplify meditation into something easy to understand. 


 Meditation can be broadly broken into two “kinds” or "types":

1.      Samantha - (Pronounced Sha-ma-tha) although there is a long, technical definition for this word, all you need to know right now is that it basically means "Concentration" meditation.  For this kind of meditation, you choose an "object" to focus your attention on and you simply hold it there with all your energy and focus.  A lot of stuff ends up happening to you when you get good at this kind of meditation.  For example, usually you feel a sense of calm and relaxation.  Also, your attention span increases and you are able to bring your mind to a place of intense focus that you've never experienced before.  

2.      Vipassana - (Pronounced Vip-ah-sha-na) in this kind of meditation, you use the mind to analyze various topics to understand what makes them tick.  Usually, Vipassana is done after a sufficient amount of Samantha has been accomplished because in order to focus on complex topics like "impermanence" or "dependent origination," you need to be able to focus your mind and concentrate on one object without getting distracted.  

A    A good way to understand the difference between Samantha and Vipassana is to look at it like this:  

       Let's say you've just been given a really nice looking Christmas present from your Uncle Bob.  He hands it to you all wrapped up in a pretty box with a big, red bow.  You rip it open.  It's a really cool hunting knife!
           "Holy shit, Uncle Bob," you say.  "Thanks!" 
           "Take 'er easy there, little fella," says Uncle Bob with a grin.  
"         "This knife is very old and very dull.  You gotta sharpen it before         you can run out and start huntin' with it."   
           "Geez Louise, Uncle Bob," you say.  "I'm just a little piss-ant.  What do I use to sharpen it?"
           "That's easy.  You just use a little Samantha, little buddy," he says.  "Samantha will get the knife good and sharp for you and then you can take it out there into the woods and slaughter any beast that gets in your way." 
           "Samantha?  That's great!" you reply, enthusiastically.  "I can do that.  I'll get started right away!"   

          This knife is your mind:
The holes in the handle are for your brain fingers!!!

        Use Samantha meditation to sharpen that shit and then you can go out and do some Vipassana!
          Wait, Wait, Wait!!! 
       How do you do Samantha meditation, you ask?  Well... you'll be pleased to know that this is the very subject of my next post!  

       Tune in next time for Meditation Part 4... "How to do Samantha meditation"

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Rebel Buddha?

I just ordered the book from Amazon...

Any comments so far?

I'm planning to post a review sometime next week.   I wonder if I'll like it...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Meditation Part 2 - You're Ugly!

Before I start, let me assure you that I’m going to try my very best NOT to use any of the following tired-ass metaphors to describe meditation (or any spiritual/metaphysical practice for that matter):
1.      The subtle knife of wisdom that cuts through the golden turd of ignorance.
2.      Any type of seed that is planted in the ground… including semen. 
3.      A wish-fulfilling jewel. (What even IS that?)
4.      The Four Noble Truths. (Not that it they aren’t valid, but aren’t you kinda sick of hearing about them?)
I don’t know who wrote the book on Buddhist metaphors, but that shit needs to be retired.  No one wants to read another useless, vague book on how meditation will help you attain a tranquil mind.  It’ll put you to sleep!
Chances are, until you are able to establish a regular, disciplined meditation practice for yourself, tranquility will probably be the farthest thing from where your mind is at.  Here are some other words/phrases that might be more accurate:
1.      Exhausted
2.      Bored to death
3.      Horny like you’ve never been before
4.      Depressed to the point of suicide
5.      Anxious about ___________ (fill in the blank)
6.      Worried because you didn’t do ______________ (fill in the blank)
7.      Useless
8.      Pissed
9.      Guilty
10.  Self-Loathing
There are more, but I don’t want to scare you away just yet…
What I will do (and what I think every book/teacher/retreat should do) is give you one big, fat disclaimer:

Meditation is NOT a “one-size-fits-all” kind of activity.  Although there are some techniques available to guide you, they are merely suggestions that worked for OTHER meditators.  Meditation is a practice that must be tailored to the individual.  YOU have to find your own way.  No one can really tell you what to do.  You have to figure it out for yourself.

No matter how many “authentic” teachings you attend, 
No matter how many empowerments you receive,    
No matter how many books you read,   
No matter if you are Asian or not,           
No matter if you’re a Monk, Nun, or Layperson, 
No matter if you have a Geshe for a teacher, a lazy, unemployed bum, or no teacher at all,

You will NEVER understand what meditation is until you practice and develop the skill yourself.  Period. 

And last but not least,
Meditation is really, really, really, fucking hard!

So, still interested?
Take a deep breath.  It’s a long journey.
Some Zen teacher (probably all of them, actually) liken the practice of meditation to using a mirror to examine the mind.  It’s like you get this supreme chance to truly see your mind for what it’s really worth.  Not only that, but once you truly see the mind, you are bowled over by all its magnificent glory.  It makes you feel so good that a sense of peace sets in and you start walking around like you own the fucking place.  It’s a decent comparison.
I have a better one.
Imagine for a second that you are the ugliest person in the world.

I mean UGLY - The UGLIEST. 
Take a second and let that sink in… 

I'm talkin' Uglier than Joan Rivers:

Uglier than Dick Cheney:

Uglier even than that lady from “Throw Mama from the Train”:

Picturing it yet?  

Your face is horrible.  Your skin is more pimple than flesh.  You’re hair sucks - remember the 80’s?  It look like you were in a terrible fire or car accident or something.  Maybe a wild monkey tore off your eyes, nose, and lips  and ate them.  Can you picture it?  I mean UGLY.
As if the situation couldn’t get any worse, the big problem is, you don’t realize how truly ugly you are.  You think you’re the sexiest, hottest person in the world.  You go around the world thinking that you’re god’s gift to humanity.  You never realize how people look at you.  You perceive their repulsion as awe or admiration.
Then one day, the shit really hits the fan.  You’re walking around one day in deluded stupor and you see a flier about some “Zen” meditation group that meets in the local coffee house.  You decide to take a risk and stop by.  Maybe there are some hot girls, you think.
You stroll in there, feeling like a million bucks.  (Everyone else in the room is really trying to act extra Buddhist so that they don’t vomit at the sight of you.)  Then, the Roshi or whoever says that it’s time to meditate and carefully, without really looking at your ugly face, instructs you to sit down on this pillow on the floor.
You close your eyes.
A few minutes pass.  All of a sudden, you get the feeling like someone’s watching you.  You peak and see the Roshi sitting in front of you with this big, dumbass grin on his face.
Then, he reaches out to you, hands you a mirror and says,
           “Hey, man… hold on a second.  Check this out.”
You open your eyes and ….

For the first time in your life, you see that fucking ugly monster face of yours!
It’s just staring back at you, blinking innocently like some kind of a deranged animal!
At first, you can’t believe it.  You ask yourself if you’re dreaming.  You want to slap yourself, but you’re afraid to touch the hunk of raw meat that IS your face.
Then the realization sets in.  That’s your own fucking horrible face you’re looking at.
The shock is too much.  You try to stand up and walk away from that stupid pillow.  You throw the mirror back at the Roshi… But it’s too late.  You’ve seen it.  No turning back.  The image is burned into your mind forever.
Then you pass out.  

That’s kind of like what meditation is.  Or what it’s SUPPOSED to be.  It should knock you on your ass.
That is, if you’re doing it right. 

Next Post: Meditation Part 3 – “I still don’t understand what meditation is.  Can you explain it again?”

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What is MEDITATION? (Part 1)

I'm very new to this whole "blogging" phenomenon.  I woke up this morning and started reading a few other Buddhist-related blogs and saw some references to my own.  Definitely exciting, to be sure, but I'm getting the feeling like there are quite a few people out there who think that I'm too "negative" in my posts.  I can totally see where they're coming from.  This "voice" that I'm using IS definitely hell-bent on negative ranting.  There is a method to my madness however... I'm really not an "angry" person.  I don't hold any grudges against Buddhism.  (That would be impossible.  How do you hold a grudge against an inanimate concept?  If you have any ideas, please let me know.)

I just feel that much of the Buddhist dialogue out there on the vast internet world is primarily academically-oriented and quite frankly presented in a way very similar to some conservative Christian philosophies.

It's like the anti-Buddhism.

Innocent people ask questions or make comments and then the Dharma Police swoop down and start quoting scripture and telling them how "wrong" their view is.  I can see why.  I mean, most of us weren't born Buddhist, right?  We were born Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.  We ran screaming from these religions because we thought them to be too overbearing or authoritarian.  We couldn't identify with some of the dogma associated with their message.  So what do we do?  We go out and "join" another religion and cram its message into the same damn package that we ran screaming from in the first place.  If I hear another person say, "Read your Dogen" again, I'm gonna scream.  (I have read it!)

Academic Buddhism is all well and good.  There are plenty of teachers that you can pay to sit at their feet and listen to them "tell" you what to believe.  You can attend classes at a bunch of different universities that claim to offer lectures of Buddhism, or you can attend another talk on "the secret of happiness" led by one of a million Lamas.  I definitely think there's some merit there.  Everyone should try it.  But there comes a point where you need to start thinking for yourself.  Yes, read the Bodhisattvacharyavatara, study some commentary... but then, THEN, figure out what it means to YOU.

I think that having a primary emphasis on academic/orthodox Buddhism leaves a large group of people without a voice or a forum to explore for themselves.  Who said that you have to be totally up on your Dogen in order to understand Buddhism or accomplish realization?  No one, that's who!  You don't.  For some people, who are academically-minded (myself included, believe it or not), Candrakirti might be appealing reading for the morning commute, but for others, who just want a dose of easily-accessible Buddhism, it's a bit out of reach and it'll put you to sleep.

Of course, there is a danger of straying too far from orthodoxy, right?

Once you start thinking for yourself, dangerous things start happening left and right.  Think of the whole gay marriage debate!  I mean shit, all people want to do is get MARRIED and look at all the trouble that's getting stirred up.  Heteros from all corners of the country are up in arms, throwing themselves into fits of rage just because people want something a little different from the "norm."  Actually, it's not all that different... we're just searching for happiness, right?  I guess we do need to hear a couple more of those talks!

There are other dangers.  If you really let your mind go, you might turn into a "hippie."  Oh shit, can you imagine?  Remember all the trouble they caused?  What would you even do you do with yourself then?  Start campaigning for the legalization of marijuana, I guess.

Here's the worst case scenario:  you could start preaching your own take on things and get yourself labeled as a "radical.  Then, you're really up the creek without a paddle.  Before you know it, you're hanging from a cross on Golgotha, wearing a very uncomfortable crown of thorns.  It looks cool in the pictures, but what a pain in the ass!   You end up dying a miserable death, whereupon all your friends and neighbors get together and decide to start a world religion based on some shit you said right before you died... (you know, when you were hallucinating because all the blood had already drained out of your body and you were starving to death...)

Now we've got another Crusades on our hands, folks!  With the current economic downturn, that's the last thing we need.  I mean come on, the troops are almost out of Iraq, they're leaving Afghanistan soon... do you really want to send them back out there on a freakin' Crusade?

I don't think so.

Eh, maybe it's better to just keep your opinions to yourself... unless you want a bunch of blood on your hands.

For this series on meditation, I plan to be a bit more positive.  Just a bit though, so don't get your hopes up.

The whole reason why I was initially drawn to Buddhism as a "religion" was because I had heard somewhere that Buddhists "meditate."  I think this is a common draw for a lot of us.  Meditation carries a certain mystique with it.  It's kinda magical.  The idea of sitting all alone in a cave somewhere seems so romantic.

I remember sitting in a philosophy class in my Long Island high school, daydreaming about the supernatural powers that I was sure to acquire once I started meditating.  Very immature, I know... but also very common, I think.

A mental picture of a wise, grizzled old monk sitting on a mountaintop developed in my mind.

     "How cool," I thought.  "Say goodbye to depression!  No more teen-angst!
     "Girls would totally dig me if I did shit like that!"

Sure, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration... but not by much.  I think many of us get caught up in the images that are conjured up in our minds whenever we think about any mystical practice.

It wasn't until years later, when I was studying Buddhism academically, that I realized the following:

meditation is hard
meditation is confusing
not many Buddhists actually DO it

During the course of my search to discover what meditation actually was, I ended up getting lost in the library stacks of U.Va.  I found books that talked about meditation in a very scientific, dry way.  I found some that used debate to conjure up the finer points of what was "supposed" or "not-supposed" to happen during meditation.  I even found some that devoted hundreds of pages to what several long-dead people thought about meditation.  But I found few, if any, about how to ACTUALLY DO the meditation.

I mean, how did Tsongkhapa even find the time to meditate when he was writing the Lam-Rim-Chen-Mo?  Even the scholars translating the thing into English don't have the time.  (I know, cause I asked some of them!)

My point is, where does a person go who is not formally inducted into monastic practice, when they want to learn how to meditate?

There are a couple of different options:

You could consult an academic treatise written by an authentic "master."  Sure, it may be basically mind-boggling to navigate through WHICH treatise.  First off... where do you start?  What kind of Buddhist meditation do you want to do?  Here are some options:

Theravada, Hinayana, Mahayana, Zen, Tibetan, Ch'an, Mind-Only, Lam-Rim, Goenka, Transcendentalist, Japanese, Vipassana, Samantha, Breathing, Mindfulness, Emptiness, Tonglen, Lojong, Madhyamika, Yogic, Karate, Compassion, Tantra, Highest Yoga Tantra, Guyasamaja, Kama Sutra, Padmasambhava, Nyingma, Dzogchen, Kagyu, Chod, death meditation, rebirth meditation, past-life meditation, sadana meditation, focusing on your navel, on a candle, on your third eye... 

The list goes on and on.  Pick one!

Sounds daunting, doesn't it.

Ok, let's say you don't want to go the traditional "Buddhist" route.  Let's just take it slow and start with something more "mainstream."  E-A-S-E into it.

Here are some of the search results from when you type in the word "meditation" :
     Journey Into Meditation: Guided Meditations For Healing, Insight And Manifestation by Lisa Guyman
     Opening to Meditation: A Gentle, Guided Approach (Book & CD) by Diana Lang
     How To Meditate: A Step-by-Step Guide to the Art and Science of Meditation [ILLUSTRATED] 
     8 Minute Meditation: Quiet Your Mind. Change Your Life. by Victor N. Davich

It's not that I'm trying to knock these guys for putting in the time and effort to write books.  There's definitely some merit in being able to take the time to sit down and write a book.  But, come on!  These books sound more like descriptions on the back of enema packages than titles to meditation books.  

Which one would you choose?  

Do you really need an ILLUSTRATED guide to learn how to meditate?  What, are there a bunch of pictures of guys sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed?  How is that going to help you?

Is meditation really an art AND a science?  Can I really CHANGE my life by meditating?  If so, how long will it take?  Two weeks?  Two months?  Two years?  

Am I a reincarnated lama?  

Give me a break.  Really.  

Ok, forget books.  Let's try the internet.  What if you do a google search for "meditation?"  Here are the three popular results:

1. Wikipedia - Of course.  Actually, the article is very informative.  There are tons of examples from every world religion.  The problem is, I still don't know which one to choose.  Do I want to do Jewish meditation or what?

2. - This site looks cool... but wait, wait, wait.  That's a picture of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso!  Doesn't the Dalai Lama hate him or something?  No way!  I can't go there.

3. youtube video - This video scared the shit out of me.  There's no way I want to meditate now.  The guy's voice is kind of soothing, but I have no idea what the hell he's asking me to do.  Plus, the model looks like a naked alien.  Forget it, I'm not meditating now.

As you can see... pretty confusing.  

Now that I've established how daunting it can be for a beginner to break into this world, I plan to easily and clearly break down what it means to do this activity called Meditation... and WHY you would even want to do it.

There, that sounds more positive, doesn't it?

Till next time...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In Response to Yeshe Samten

I was wondering when the "Dharma Police" would make an appearance.  I knew it would be only a matter of time before they would swoop down from their high horses in Tushita Heaven to put their two sense in about how I'm not Buddhist enough.  (Not that I go around even really identifying myself as a Buddhist, mind you.)  

So, Sergeant Yeshe Samten stopped by for a visit the other day to "bust" me on my views and comment on my blog.  I've copied the text of his comments below in BLUE, along with my responses in BLACK.  

Please, please, please, all you mighty Orthodox Buddhists out there... feel free to stop by and tell me all about how the things I'm saying are going to lead me down the wrong path to becoming a Hungry Ghost.  I welcome the challenge!  

Sgt. Samten:  

Please tell me that you're an actual Tibetan person and not just some conceited white guy masquerading behind a name that you thought was cool and made you sound more wise.  Also, please tell me that you're NOT the same Yeshe Samten that posted a comment on about how some guy's OM MANI PADME HUM tattoo was done in an "unapproved" place on his body.

Actually... it would be better if you WERE this guy.  More fuel to the fire, I guess.  

You give an impression in your comments that you are some authority on Buddhist practice and that you have spent some time in "realization" yourself... but I wonder how you find the time to "go to the cushion" as you put it, when you spend all your time trolling the internet looking for people making Buddhist Faux Pas.

Before I launch into my full-scale rebuttal of your comments, I'd like to say that my intended audience for this blog is people who are sick of or unattracted to traditional Buddhism.  

Maybe they've had experiences like me with pretentious Americans who worship an imagined mystical Asian race, or maybe they're just looking for a fresh view/interpretation of Buddhism.  Whatever the case, I think that most of the people who comment on my blog understand where I'm coming from.  

My use of humor to deconstruct cultural Buddhism is merely a tool to attract this kind of audience.  

Now, for your comments.  

You said:
I'm sorry, not to cast to dark a shadow on your blog (it seems like a fun way to connect and blow off steam)-- but your comments on Buddhism, emptiness, and "nothingness" sounds more like nihlism than Buddhism. That's all very cute if you are into Nietzsche, but as far as Buddhist practice and philosophy goes, nihlism, just as in eternalism, is an untenable point of view.

My Response:
Thank you very much for assuming that you've cast a dark shadow over my blog.  What's "cute" is your assumption that I'm a nihilist.  You MUST have either done your reading in Madhyamika OR watched "The Big Lebowski" a hundred thousand times.  (Kind of like mantra recitation, huh?)

Let me just set your mind at ease.  The big, bad Nihilists aren't going to jump out of the dark and piss on your rug, they don't live in your closet, and I, my friend, am NOT a Nihilist.  (I tried to get into Nietzche for a while in high school, but his association with Hitler was a bit of a deterrent for me.)

Seriously though, I haven't made any serious mention of "emptiness" or "nothingness" in my blog other than as a play-on-words to make a joke about a cultural stereotype.  Since I've only made like five posts in total, I think it's amusing that you already can peg me as a Nihilist.  You must be a good cop.  

I DO agree with you on one point.  Nihilism is an untenable point of view.  

You said:
I agree that mass-maketed Buddhist stuff can be found in everyday life these days... images of "enlightenment" and "Buddhism" are used to market consumer products, and that's actually kinda icky. Even sincerely practicing Buddhists can get caught up in buying fancy things instead of trying to just open their hearts and minds. But it's also easy to forget that we all live in samsara-- just because we are Buddhist, doesn't mean we are enlightened.

My Response:
The reason I spent some time talking about "mass-market" Buddhism is because I believe it to be a terrible tragedy and a source of great confusion to those of us out there who are attracted to Buddhism, but then have to wade through all the garbage just to get there.  

It's kind of like standing on the banks of a beautiful lake.  There's a cool-looking island floating off in the middle, but to get there, you have to jump in the lake and swim through a thick film of green, stinky algae, bob past floating tires and hypodermic needles, and swim around barrels of raw sewage just to get there.  

Plus, to me, all that shit is really, really FUNNY! 

I never made that claim that all Buddhists are enlightened.  Far from it, my friend.  I posit that since "enlightenment" is such a prominent concept within the framework of Buddhism, there might be even LESS enlightened people that identify themselves as Buddhist then those who don't.  

After all... was Buddha a Buddhist?  Was Christ a Christian?  

And thanks for throwing in the Samsara reference.  How very "Orwellian" of you.  

You said:
You keep mentioning head-shaving and celibacy, as if those are the keys to attaining enlightenment. That's a sweetly naiive view of Buddhism, sort of like saying the fat laughing dude at the Chinese restaurant is the historical Buddha (he isn't). There are plenty of non-celibate non-monastic practicioners who attained full enlightenment (take Vimalakirti, or Padmasambhava...). So while it's perhaps useful to a degree to feel upset that one's non-monastic non-celibate life doesn't "jive" with the lives of some living Masters (such as the Dalai Lama or the Karmapa), that doesn't mean it doesn't "jive" with Buddhist practice or enlightenment.

My Response:
If you had actually READ my posts, you would have been able to infer that my references to "head-shaving" and "celibacy" were quite the opposite of what you're supposing.  I never said that those were "keys" to enlightenment.  Actually, I was saying quite the opposite.  People who get caught up in the outward symbols of Buddhism like: robes, bald heads, and in-tact hymens are in DANGER of being led down the "wrong" path.  Those symbols have NOTHING whatsoever to do with the inner-goals of so-called Buddhism.  

Thanks for mentioning the Buffet Buddha.  I had no idea that he wasn't the "historical" Buddha.  (In case you hadn't caught it, this statement was made using a device called SARCASM.) 

I know that there are/were plenty of non-monastic practitioners of Buddhism.  Please excuse me for feeling frustrated that many of them lived centuries ago.  I guess I'm just bitching about the fact that as "Buddhists", WE have few common-day non-monastic role models.  

Padmasambhava was a great guy, I'm sure.   But, his influence rose to prominence in a country that was not unlike Europe in the dark ages.  I think it would be useful to have some role models that we can actually identify with!  Some people that don't just regurgitate the same old philosophical garbage that they heard their teacher say or read in a book somewhere.  (Sound familiar?)

I never said that my non-monastic lifestyle doesn't "JIVE" with Buddhist practice.  On the contrary, it's my belief that people like me, with open minds to a new way of looking at practice, can offer a rejuvenating look into this belief system and maybe HELP some people.  

There are some people out there who are not college-educated, white, middle-class intellectuals that may want to study Buddhism, but can't because it's not very accessible to them.  

That's why I'm using this language.  

You Said:Last, and this might sound a little harsh... but if you life is so busy/stressful/hectic that you can't meditate or pratice, when did you expect to practice? When life gets easy/simple/peaceful? You'll never ever practice at that rate. This is precisely when you SHOULD go to the cushion, not run from it. If you claim to write or speak from some level of wisdom or authority on what is or is not authentic practice (which your blog claims to do), you should at least DO the practice... othwerise you are just as superficial and full of shit as the guy who markets your cola or your designer jeans with a picture of the Buddha.

My Response:
I NEVER said that I didn't have time to practice.  Re-read my words, dude.  (I'm an English teacher.  Most students make mistakes because they haven't read and comprehended.)  I said that I haven't WRITTEN on the blog because I was busy.  I guess I could've just said that in a sentence or two, but I decided to make the post a but funny... Ok?  

Did you want to have a "who meditates more" contest?  
I can post my weekly meditation schedule if you'd like.  

Part of my "busy" schedule involves teaching meditation to 100 inner-city, mostly impoverished, hispanic students in Manhattan.  Not a day goes by where I don't "practice."  

I find that whenever someone points their finger at another person and says something like, "run to the cushion," I get a strange feeling.  Like maybe... they don't know what the hell they're talking about.  

"So-Called" Buddhists: 0
"So-Called" Nihilists: 1

Wanna go another round?  

For the rest of you... I'll be back to writing my post on meditation now!