Friday, July 8, 2011

The 35 Buddhas of Confession

Sounds awfully Catholic, doesn't it?  Problem is, I don't think you could fit all 35 of these brightly-colored, omniscient beings into one of those little closet-sized confessionals - plus, there'd be no room for prostrations!  Nonetheless, I thought I'd ride the inspiration from my last post to explore some things I'd like to confess about myself which might shed light on why I profess such a non-traditional view of Buddhism.

One of the greatest conundrums for western Buddhists is the fact that our day-to-day lives are nothing like those of our traditional Asian counterparts.  This is problematic because the mind learns best by example.  Trying to follow an example that is completely alien to our own experience is quite difficult, if not impossible.

Most of the literature available to us and most of the teachers we have access to come from one of these perspectives: 

The "traditional" Asian, monastic perspective - A typical biography might look something like this:  A boy is born somewhere in Asia.  Usually, this boy belongs to a family living in a remote, rural area, without much in the way of worldly possessions.  Either the kid is recognized as someone's reincarnation, or is given away to a monastery at an early age because there isn't enough money to feed him.  He spends his entire adolescence growing up in a secluded monastery, surrounded by other monks, under the strict observance of novice vows.  If the kid shows some kind of intellectual promise, he's given a monastic religious education and takes up a teaching position somewhere in the world.  Maybe he spends some time meditating on retreat somewhere... but maybe not.  How can a person like this be expected to understand what it's like to be an American?  He's led a completely sheltered life, devoid of the kind of day-to-day experiences that we're all familiar with.  There's no way he can relate to us, so how can he be considered to guide us along some spiritual path?  It doesn't make sense.  Not to mention the fact that this world is completely male-dominated and rigidly conforms to traditions that have been extant for centuries. 

The "wannabe" Asian, monastic perspective - In this scenario, a middle-upper class, overly educated white guy (or sometimes girl) gets sick and tired of being a Christian or a Jew and decides to adopt Buddhism as their new religion.  What usually happens here is the person gets involved with some kind of traditional Buddhist center somewhere, adopts their teachings word-for-word, gets ordained, lives in some kind of monastic-like environment for a few years, maybe spends some time meditating, quits after having sex with one of the other monks/nuns, starts a new Buddhist center and begins teaching.  Maybe this perspective is a LITTLE more appropriate for us... but really, who the hell wants to hang out with one of these guys?  They end up being so goddamn full of themselves that their center ends up looking more like a cult than anything related to Buddhism. 

Here's a list of 6 reasons why I can't (and won't) practice traditional Buddhism. 

I feel the need to share this information with you because I'm hoping to give a voice to other people out there like me who have no interest in completely changing their entire lives to fit into some predetermined image of what it means to be a Buddhist... but still persist in trying to cling to a spiritual path.  (Also, because it's somewhat cathartic to air my dirty laundry on the internet.)

1. I just got off the phone with my little brother.  He's in prison.  I can't fully explain just why he's in prison because I don't really understand all the ins and outs of our legal system, especially as it's interpreted by the rednecks who threw him in there.  All I know is that its got something to do with heroin and the fact that he escaped from a state-run rehabilitation facility.  He spent several months living on the run, but recently he was captured.  When we spoke, he struggled to communicate how much he loves me and despite the fact he's in prison, feels so much better mentally now that he's off drugs.  He struggled with his words because it was hard for him to talk without bursting into tears and reverting back to that innocent platinum-haired child that I remember as my little brother.  Had he started crying, it was basically guaranteed that one of the toothless meth-addicts standing nearby would try to either bash his face in or make love to him. 
Wanna kiss this mouth?

So, we settled for talking about less emotional things. He asked me to send him some books.  Being the Buddhist that I am, I tried to think of a book that would help him cultivate a peace of mind that could somehow make the endless hours of confinement seem less daunting.  Here's a perfect illustration of just how BUDDHISM SUCKS:  What the hell book am I going to send my brother who's sitting on his ass in a concrete jail cell, trying his best not to lose his shit or get fucked by his homicidal cellmate?  Should I send him something by Pema Chodron?  How about a scholastic text on the prajnaparamita?  Or what about one of the million books on how to overcome anger?  Shit... the only thing he's got in there to protect himself from the onslaught of gang violence IS anger!  Fuck that.  I think I'll settle for something by Brad Warner.  At least he won't look like a pussy reading it, right? 

2. My mother and I haven't spoken to one another in over a year.  That's not entirely true.  She has been sending me emails every now and again.  In the last one, she basically told me that I'm an ungrateful sociopath, pretending to be a contributing member of society, but that eventually everyone would figure me out and I'd be in for some kind biblical-scale punishment.  Oh, and she also issued a curse on the lives of my two unborn children much like that given by the gypsy character in Stephen King's Thinner.  So I ask you, in the 21 Meditations on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lam Rim) where it explains that we as Buddhists are supposed to visualize all sentient beings as our mothers, should I imagine this guy?

3. My father, who is a toothless alcoholic and similar in behavior to Gary Busey at his finest, recently fell down a flight of stairs and broke his goddamn neck.  Don't worry, he's not paralyzed or anything.  He did however spend several weeks on the intensive care ward and was eventually discharged... not home... but to a mental institution.  I had the good fortune of visiting him there, along with the few remaining family members that haven't completely given up yet.  I'm not sure what was worse, talking to the man he shared a room with who was completely insane and thought everything in his life was a government conspiracy or watching my uncle unabashedly steal food from the trays of other patients.  Hmm... sounds like fun, huh?  So, when my suicidal father asks me (while I'm shaving his beard for him because he can't move his neck) what's gonna happen to him or where he's gonna live when he gets out of the looney-bin, what should I, as a BUDDHIST, say to him?  Here are a couple of choices:  (1) Just be mindful of your breathing, dad, and focus all your attention on the impermanence of life.  (2) Just dedicate the merit of your actions to the benefit of all sentient beings and you'll become a Bodhisattva. (3) This is karma, you old bastard.  Just hope that in the next life, you have the good fortune to be born as a Tibetan monk!

Grandma - Rockaway Beach - early 1930's
4. My 93-year-old, pink-haired, Leprechaun grandmother died recently.  Shortly after this picture was taken, she got married and basically spent her entire adult life either pregnant with or working hard to raise her eight children.  Although she was fortunate to see all eight grow well into adulthood, she spent the last five years of her life sinking steadily into the murky waters of elderly dementia.  At the very end, she was spending approximately 6-8 hours a day looking for a McDonald's hamburger that she lost sometime in the 1980's.  She looked everywhere for that son-of-a-bitch, but she never did find it.  (Of course, no one had the good sense to go out and buy her a new one.)  A few weeks before she died, I was able to sit with her for a few hours at a family wedding.  In between diaper changes (I'm serious), she sat in her wheelchair gripping my hand like a lost little girl.  I looked into her deeply lined face, searching her haunted looking, icy-blue eyes for a sign that she knew who I was.  At one point, she actually connected with me and her expression cleared for an instant.  "I'm scared," she said.  "What, grandma?" I asked.  "What are you scared of?"  "Just scared," she whispered, looking off into the distance.  She stretched the word S-C-A-R-E-D out like a parent does when they're trying to get an infant to pronounce something correctly.  I knew what she was scared of; she made that clear enough.  It was death.  It was painted on her old face like a mask.  What was I supposed to say to her?  Should I have explained the bardo?  Should I have told her to look for the Clear Light of Awareness?  No.

Death looks different in a book.  It sounds different when a Lama talks about rejecting fear and embracing it.  Death is fucking scary.  

My daughter's 2nd Birthday Party - Guest of honor: Segyu Choepel Rinpoche
5. I had a kid when I was seventeen.  It was your typical, Lifetime after-school special: unprotected sex, running away from home, dropping out of high school, collecting food stamps, etc.  The only difference in my situation was that instead of developing a major drug habit or running for the hills like many teenage fathers do, I chose to deal with what was happening to me a little differently: I became a devoted Buddhist.  Just in case you are curious about what it took to be considered a "devoted" Buddhist in my book back then, take a look at this checklist:

1. Shave your head
2. Become 100% straight-edge (no drugs, alcohol, caffeine, fun)
3. Carry prayer beads 24/7
4. Wear only monastic-style clothing
5. Take every vow possible (refuge, bodhisattva, tantric, etc)
6. Stop eating meat
7. Hang out with as many dudes in maroon robes as humanly possible
8. Only read books published by Snow Lion or Wisdom

I remember when, after a lengthy search, I was finally able to secure a bona fide Tibetan Geshe as my "root" teacher.  The excitement of being able to sit in the presence of this man, an 80-year-old monk who literally WALKED OVER THE HIMALAYAN MOUNTAINS, kept me literally on the edge of my meditation cushion.  I remember this one night in particular.  A bunch of people were at the center for a teaching on Vajrasattva.  We spent some time in between Geshe-La's bits of instruction on the sadana, meditating on the image of the deity.  At one point, I thought I felt the Geshe entering my mind while I was meditating.  I opened my eyes to find him staring directly at me with a strange grin on his lips.  This was all the encouragement I needed to think that I was someone "special" in the world of Buddhism.  Instinctually, I knew that I was on the "right" path and that hhe would teach me great things.  (Little did I know that Geshe-La always meditated with his eyes slightly opened.  The grin was nothing more than the natural shape of his lips.)  After our session, I approached his little throne feeling like I was the most special person in the entire world.  I had so many questions for him about my practice... specifically about how a seventeen-year-old father could practice while raising a little girl and sweating my ass off working in the kitchen of a shitty restaurant.  I don't remember my exact words, but it went something like this: 

I approached his little throne submissively, my palms pressed together, and said, "Geshe-La, thank you for your teaching tonight.  I think I'm really beginning to understand Vajrasattva now." 

"Good... good..." he responded, lips still curved into that pleasant grin.  

"I was wondering if I could ask you some questions... you know, about my practice?  Do you have the time?" 
"Yes, yes.  Questions good."                                                            

"Okay, great!  Here's my situation.  I have a daughter.  She was born a couple of months ago and I'm trying to decide if I should marry her mother... and you know, have sex with her and stuff.  I'm a Buddhist now and I want to do the right thing.  You know, so that I can become a Bodhisattva and all...  What do you think I should do?" 

(Hear how naive I sound?)

"Ah... yes!" he exclaimed.  "Good questions."  Again, the smile. 

He rocked back a little on the platform of his throne and took a long, knowing breath.  Looking deeply into my eyes he asked, "Do you have car?"   

"A car, Geshe-La?"  I was confused. 
"Yes, car.  Do you drive car?" 

"Yes, Geshe-La, but I don't see how..." 

"Ah, Good!  Then you take me to grocery to buy meat for my stew, yes?" 

"Take you to the store?" I asked. 

"Yes, to buy meat for stew.  Wait while I get my coat." 

With that, he bounded up off his throne and went off looking for his maroon, pull-over fleece jacket.  There's no need to go into detail about our little trip to the store.  We did exactly as he said.  We drove there in silence, I helped him find the perfect cut of top round for his stew, and dropped him off back at the house.  He did happen to give a blessing to the checkout girl, which was kinda cool, but other than that, the night was pretty uneventful, spiritually speaking.  He never did get around to answering any of my questions.  
Geshe Jampel Thardo
 My point in taking this time to recreate one of my experiences with the Geshe is to illustrate the fact of how difficult it is for a young American to relate to an elderly Tibetan Lama.  Geshe-La was a brilliant scholar, an accomplished meditator, and a well-known teacher.  If I had a question about the Guhyasamāja Tantra or about how to outwit a Cittamatra in debate, he'd be right there with me... but when it came to the everyday struggles that an American practitioner faces, he was clueless.  And how could I blame him... when he was seventeen, he'd already taken full ordination vows and was living in total seclusion at a monastery in Tibet.  How could he hope to understand the pains of a teenage father? 

6. My great-great-grandfather was arrested and fined for punching a horse in the mouth.  Twice.
Talk about some crazy-ass, non-Buddhist behavior, huh?  Someone should've told him that violence isn't the best way to become a Bodhisattva!  Be careful when doing genealogy.  You might just discover that the fruit dangling from the branches of your family tree is rotten as shit.  

In Buddhism, there's this whole tradition of the "precious human rebirth."  Supposedly, if you are born human with access to the Buddha's teachings, it means that your karma is so fucking good that you basically owe it to yourself to be the best Buddhist you can be.  The first thing you should do is meditate your ass off on just how great it is to have this precious human rebirth.  Enlightenment is on the horizon; you just gotta get out there and grab it. 

What do you do then if your DNA is riddled with predispositions to depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, narcissism, and ANIMAL CRUELTY?  Just how precious is this human rebirth exactly?  Instead of teaching people how to sit around and think about how lucky they are to be born human, I think it might be a better idea to MODERNIZE that shit and teach people how to cope with some of the problems that our society seems to be plagued with.  Then maybe we can have some Buddhists out there who are actually DOING something constructive instead of just gazing at their navels or visualizing the trillion arms of Avalokitshevara

This is an excerpt from an actual article written about my ancestor that I found in the
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, dated October 9, 1901