How are we to understand interbeing? We desire explanations- this is how it works, perhaps a scientific explanation, a plus b equals c. This is no freedom in this. How can there be freedom when something is in “concrete” form. Drop the “I am a cloud,” “I am the rain.” These are merely words from the master in order to teach his students. They are not the essence. If this is the case then how are we to understand interbeing? I don’t think we can – at least not fully. It is like an iceberg. The part we perceive, we recognize is just the small part but the great mass is out of view, until it isn’t. I do not think it is a matter of “understanding” interbeing so much as it is as experiencing through accepting what is already there throughout the cosmos. All we need to do, as the Chan patriarchs say, is to drop body and mind. This means letting go of all notions and attachments, the things that bind us, the things that separate us from our true nature, our great potential. Interbeing in not a matter of trying to understand. Any experience of understanding is only revealed to us, like discovering the creamy center of a chocolate candy. No, the experience of interbeing is not understood through the mind but rather from a deep seated utterance of the heart. This utterance of the heart, if we allow it, becomes a grand symphony. How deep and wide is the heart? As deep and wide as the cosmos. Why? Because they are one in the same.
The Buddha and the Indian patriarchs spoke about dwelling in emptiness. This is to dwell in the openness and vastness of non-duality. This is also the middle-way, the place between this and that. This is also dropping body and mind. Only when we dwell in this boundless space do experience the true interbeing. There are two intereings. One is the conceptual understanding which are the bones. The other interbeing is the marrow, the true interbeing, which is open, free, embracing, fearless, and beyond words and concepts, completeness of the the present moment. It is not something we create. How can we create something that already is and has been since the beginningless beginning?
Because we do not dwell in the true interbeing we search for something to fill the void. Maybe we use the first kind of interbeing to fill that void, relying on the intellect instead of the heart. It is like reading a book but not grasping the words. Perhaps this searching leads to unwholesome things. Perhaps this search leads us to wholesome things. Perhaps we go to monasteries, churches, to books, or to a teacher. But what we search for, this connection, this fullness of life can only be found in one place, that which is already present within us. Drop body and mind and the cosmos blooms before you.
I am here at Rose Apple in central Vermont. It is early Sunday morning and I am sitting in an Adirondack chair overlooking the pond. It is cool and overcast and the birds are singing their morning symphony. Winter has had its finale and there is just a small mound of snow under the trees at the forest’s edge. The various plants are just starting to send up their shoots. The leaves on the some of the trees are are just starting to unfurl. Some are still just buds. It is a time of transition.
We often use the phrase “I am in transition,” when referring to going from one aspect of our lives to another. Usually, they are large aspects that seem to make the stuff in between not as significant. It could be said that due to the impermanent, ever changing nature of life, we are in a constant state of transition. However, it really doesn’t convey our perspective on the specific events that mark our lives, or that are turning points in our lives. We transition from job to another. We transition from an apartment to a house, perhaps moving from one city or state to another. Perhaps “transition” means a change in a relationships, such as a break up, a divorce or separation or transitioning into a new relationship. I remember years ago a news magazine, yes, the printed kind, used to put the obituaries of predominate people in a section called “Transitions.”
Sometime transitions are short in duration sometime they are long, taking what seems an entire lifetime to get there, whatever there is for us. Sometimes transitions are difficult, taking everything we have to “make” that transitions, such as a coming off an addictive drug or how some struggle to leave an abusive relationship. Sometime transitions are smooth and seemingly effortless. I remember the process of deciding to be come a monk. When people ask me about my experience I usually start out by saying that there was no big event, no great suffering, no great vision. I did not see Avalokita in a dream telling me in some cryptic words to go forth, and I did not promise my mother on her deathbed. I’m sure it has disappointed some. No, it actually seemed like putting on a comfortable pair of sneakers. It all seemed to fit, somehow.
I’d like to say that that taking up the seemingly seamless path of transition is due to following our own heart, which usually knows better than our intellect. Perhaps it is true in some cases. But we cannot dismiss our inner voice when it seems to take us on a difficult path or a path of great uncertainty. In either case, the important transitions in our lives, it seems, are the ones where we listen to our hearts, our inner voice, and this is something I feel that I haven’t done lately. It is just as easy to get caught up in life at the monastery as it is “out” in the world. It is also easy for us human beings to go on automatic, ignoring the things of the heart, and there is a price to pay. Perhaps we are not as motivated as we used to be, perhaps we become more frustrated with life, not as fulfilled, and so on. We all have our own expressions of a half-filled life.
All this having been said, I have recently decided to take a year-long sabbatical from my life at Deer Park. This is why I am writing from Rose Apple here in Vermont. I have been here for the past few months. For those who might remember, Rose Apple is the former Maple Forest Monastery. In 2007 the community decided to close up shop in Vermont to establish a larger monastery in New York State, Blue Cliff Monastery. The couple that actually ownes the property of Maple Forest, Pritim and Ann, decided to keep the buildings available to the monastics. So here I am. The reason for my sabbatical? To rest, to cook, to eat, to walk, to sit, to listen to the birds, the crickets, the frogs, to watch the snow melt and the leaves open, to find clarity about my life – to listen to myself.
After nineteen Dharma years in this fifty-eight year old body I have decided to take up the advice of the late Joseph Campbell, to “follow your bliss.” There is something that I have been wanting to do for quite some time now, an aspiration so to speak. The monasteries are a great thing. Many people come to practice and I have constantly over the years listen to people share about how much they gained from the experience. I hope the community in the monasteries will always be there to help those along their path in life. However, as many know, the monasteries are not accessible to a great many people, for one reason or another.
As I have toured the US in the past what really struck me was how so many practitioners, even long -term community practitioners never have and probably never will go to one of the monasteries. For many, I was their only connection with the our monastic tradition. Following my bliss, in this case is to spend a good portion of this year and beyond to visit the local sanghas. I don’t necessarily mean to go to a community give a talk, lead a retreat, perhaps a day of mindfulness, although these things would be good, but to really spend the time to connect with people. So instead of flying in, supporting an event or two and flying out, how about spending a few weeks to be there for the community. This of course is solely dependent upon the various sanghas and what they would like, this monk is just offering.
As I’ve mulled around the idea of this new direction, the thought of this new direction excites me, sometimes to the point, OK, I will admit this, of being rather giddy. A new adventure. But with this new direction I have also encountered the abyss of uncertainty. It reminds me of the old koan: You are on the top of a hundred foot pole and you have to take a step. We all like certainty in our lives. We desire to know the end game, the final destination, that everything will work out they way we dream it to be. In my case, when a monastic leaves the monastery for a sabbatical, or decides their life in the community no is no longer working for them, it is a bit like leaving the safety and security of a mother’s womb. The community takes care of all one’s needs: Food, clothing, medical needs, medicine and so forth. Once you leave the womb you are pretty much on your own. Those things are not so readily available and one needs to come up with their own resources. So here I am, on my extended sabbatical, on the one hundred foot pole and ready to take that step. At the same time I am looking into the abyss of uncertainty. Regardless of how excited and certain about this new direction there looms underneath the uncertainty of it all, with its manifestations of doubt, worry, questioning one’s motives, one’s self worth and so on. What happens if…?
I tend to believe that life is mostly about the practicalities. When I look at the mindfulness practice I think it is pretty much about the practicalities, tending to one thing and then another, and then another, and then another, being mindful, being present in our daily lives to whatever unfolds, to whatever we encounter. No abstraction, no underlying idealism, no type of psychological or philosophical system. Just you and thus. Now I can do one of three things. One, I can continue on my sabbatical and not travel and visit the sanghas, two, I can forget about both and go back to the monastery, or three, I can follow my bliss, with all the things that go with it, whatever it may be, to embrace the knowing and uncertainty of it all, and go forward. This is the duality I need to come to terms with, to embrace the duality is to put down the duality. In the end, however, as it manifests in this life of mine, it comes down to a choice – a choice of living a comfortable half life or the uncertainty of a full life. I think today is a good day to step from the pole. Today, I think I will chose the full life.
I was gleaning through the various internet news sources and a particularly interesting title came up: “The Moment a Black Man Hugged a Neo-Nazi.” This particular article was from Euronews, however, as I searched around, the story was picked up by other news outlets as well. As far as headlines go and I don’t remember where I heard it, probably some cheesy B movie years ago as a kid – when a dog bites a man that’s not a news story; but when a man bites a dog…. A bit of a sensationalist approach but it worked on me. It’s also not a headline that I would expect to see. Tragically, it would be more in the tune of “Neo-Nazi Beats A Black Man” or “Neo-Nazi Kills A Black Man” but not “A Black Man Hugs A Nazi.” How can one resist such a hook?
After reading the article from Euronews, and a couple of other news sources, I formed a fairly full picture of what had happened between the “Black” man and the “Nazi.” The event took place among protesters of a Richard Spencer event, the celebrated or notorious white nationalist, depending upon who is critiquing, in Gainesville Florida this past October. As what seems to be part of the landscape these days, there were protesters and protester protesting the protesters. As the inevitable confrontation between the two groups became more heated, Aaron Courtney, aka, the “Black Man,” took another path. Confronting Randy Furniss, aka, the “Neo-Nazi,” Aaron asked “why do you hate me? What is it about me? Is it my skin color? My history? My dreadlocks?” Randy stood there silent. It was then Aaron asked Randy for a hug. At first Randy resisted. Aaron asked again, and then a third time. As it is said, “third time the charm.” It was that third time asking that Randy acquiesced and embraced Aaron
“I don’t know” is an important concept in Buddhism. It is the basic definition of the Pali word avijjā, or avidy in Sanskrit, meaning ignorance. It is a very significant concept because Buddhism considers ignorance the prime factor for difficulties and suffering in our lives. Not only does it pertain to one’s life time but it is also seen as the prime factor for countless rebirths, the cycle of samsara. Typically, I don’t delve into aspects of rebirth; one, because I’m not sure that I believe in it, two, more importantly, how we take care of here and now affects our future. So when attend to the here and now we are attending to our future, regardless of rebirth or no rebirth. The Buddhist Dictionary by Nyanatiloka, a classic work, defines ignorance as “…the primary root of all evil and suffering in the world, veiling man’s eyes and preventing him from seeing the true nature of things.” Putting the outdates use of “man” aside, this is a powerful statement of the human condition.
Ignorance in Buddhism generally refers to some specific things such as being ignorant of the Four Noble Truths: The truth of suffering and difficulties, the truth of the origin of suffering and difficulties, the truth of the cessation of suffering and difficulties, and the fourth, the truth of the path leading away from suffering and difficulties. There is also ignorance of the impermanent nature of things. We assume, we believe that something is permanent, always around, perhaps always available, but in fact that is not the case. All things are impermanent, even if it doesn’t seem so. Another aspect of ignorance in Buddhism and that is the dependent, or interconnected, nature of all things. No thing exists on its own. In a very real way, it is ignorance that creates the separation of “you” and “me” in our lives.
One can look at these aspects of ignorance and think that it’s about being ignorant of the Buddhist doctrine, and it may be. However, the teachings are observations of the human capacity for suffering. Is there suffering and difficulties in our lives, I’d say so. What in the world is permanent? Even the world itself is impermanent and ever changing. The very ground we stand on moves. Tectonic plates, right? All things are dependent upon other things to exist. Any brief exploration can demonstrate this simple idea. So, it’s not so much about “Buddhist doctrine” as it is about the human conditioning of our perceptions and how we process those perceptions.
But wait, there’s more – not only is there the ignorance of this and that, there is the ignorance of ignorance, meaning, we don’t know that we don’t know. What a dilemma, not knowing that you don’t know! We think everything is fine, no problems, life is good, this is the way it’s supposed to be and we don’t have the notion to question anything or look deepely into something. Why bother? Everything is fine. It’s one thing to know that we are are ignorant of something. There is some kind of opening one can work with. However, with ignorance of ignorance, we build our lives just as much unconsciously as consciously, perhaps more the former. Through our ignorance of our ignorance we become the victim of ourselves. We may look outward to find the scapegoats of our suffering, he is the problem, she is the problem, they are the problem, its always them. Of course, how can it be any other way? But in actuality, we create the suffering within us and usually it affects our lives; how we perceive that which is around us, our situations in life, the people we come in contact with, and so on. Perhaps we learn this from childhood, perhaps later in life. But, nonetheless we continue in life day after day, week after week, year after year, perhaps our entire life is lived out this way. Unless….
Awakening is an interesting thing, a rather compelling thing. Awakening is the opposite, the antidote, to our ignorance. We go from not knowing to knowing. It is those moment of clarity, moments of “ah hah,” that we begin to view things in a dramatically different way. It is the door opening to another path, another story of one’s life. Some may experience and run with it. Some may be startled at first – not sure what to make of it. Some, unfortunately, experience it and then ignore it. Perhaps it is too frightening for them, too outside the realm for them, too outside their box, so it is shunned.
Many of us, who are in the practice aspire for the great awakening, as the Buddha experienced, you know, the big enchilada. This is quite an aspiration, for in the Mahayana sutras it’s expressed that it is an endeavor that takes a multitude of lifetimes. This puts a new slant on one’s long-terms goals. But one doesn’t need to peer into the cosmic future for an experience of awakening. I certainly don’t. I am perfectly content about the small awakenings experienced throughout my life, the pivotal points that were life changers – no I didn’t need to turn to alcohol as my father had, it was ok to be gay, emotions didn’t have to rule my life, I could find peace within my turbulent heart and mind, and so on.
Sometime we look back at our lives through the eyes of “what if?” Usually, it’s with a negative slant, creating doubt, regret, perhaps remorse. I want to look back to see what if I didn’t experience those moments of clarity, how things could have been if I continued the way that I was going and be grateful and totally amazed. I have no idea how those moments of awakening came about. As the Buddha said “conditions are numerous.” They are also mystifying. Perhaps it’s our Bodhi Nature pushing through the walls and caverns of our hearts, a little crack here, a little crack there.
As for Randy. I really don’t know much about him, his life story, nor how he came to be where he was that day, nor his relationship with neo-Nazism, nor his encounter Aaron. The news stories of the encounter are like most others, mere boxes to peer into, a moment, a happening, which leaves too much for the imagination. What has happened to Randy since? I don’t know. Other than that snapshot, I am ignorant of his life. I can’t help wondering, however, that perhaps Randy experienced a moment of awakening, that he came to that critical point, where all the mysterious conditions came together, and through the one simple question “why do you hate me?” began to see something he hadn’t seen before.
Why is the sky blue? This is a pretty simple question. It is a question a child might ask, and why not? The sky is right there in full view and it is blue.
Actually, thinking about it, this question can be asked of someone of any age. It certainly was a question of early scientific inquiry. It was Issac Newton who played around with prisms that ushered in the early understanding of color, light and perception: discoveries to build upon. Perhaps I should not say played around with. Sir Issac Newton was a very sober individual who probably wouldn’t have appreciated describing his methodical efforts in such simplistic terms. Nonetheless, the question before us is, why is the sky blue?
Thanks to Issac Newton and countless scientists over the years, we can safely answer the question, why the sky is blue? It is no longer a mystery. It may be a mystery for those who don’t yet know but one can easily look it up or google it.
The explanation is straight forward and easily found. Mystery solved. Usually the explanation goes something like this: As light travels through the atmosphere most of the various wave lengths pass through. The shorter wavelengths, say 450-495 nm, what we would call blue, have a different path, a different relationship. Those shorter wavelengths undergo what is called rayleigh scattering, meaning those wavelengths are absorbed by gas molecules of the atmosphere and scattered about the sky, hence a blue sky. So far this explanation has stood the test of time and has been the standard answer for the question, why is the sky blue?
Despite all the efforts applied over the centuries and the detailed explanations based on solid scientific pursuits, I have found the conventional response somewhat lacking. The more I approach and explore this simple question, the more there seems to be to it. Something unacknowledged and unsaid lingers in the background.
What is it? What is in the background? What is in the background are million of photoreceptor cells in the back of the eye, some shaped like cones, some like rods. It’s the cone shaped cells that respond to the wavelengths that are interpreted as color. This is an alternative response to the question, why is the sky blue? When certain wavelengths make contact with the cones, in this case the 450-495 nm range, the cones sends a message to the bipolar cells which in turn send a message along to the ganglion cells, then through the optic nerve to the brain. In other words, the eye comes into contact with the 450-495 nm wavelength and produces a visual consciousness, a visual experience of the color. As that visual experiences becomes recognizable, the linguistic symbol blue is then associated with that experience. Somewhere, sometime in our human history someone or a group of someones associated the experience with the word blue (or rather the equivalent in some past language.) Since then, the naming has been handed down from generation to generation to us today.
This alternative optical scenario is another way to explain why the sky is blue. In this answer, the blue sky is dependent upon our perception, which is all very scientifically sound. In fact, color is very dependent upon our perceptions because our friend Newton, all those years ago, also discovered that objects do not have intrinsic color. Objects absorb some wavelengths and reflect others. Our eyes receive the reflected ones, hence, we experience color.
In effect, the red Maserati is not really red, the orange orange is not orange and the burnt slice of bread is not really black. It still tastes bad (unless you like burnt toast), but it is not really black. And yes, the sky is not really blue. It is all perception and interpretation: Perhaps an illusion. If we did not have the faculty of perception then there would be no experience of color. On the other hand, if there were no wavelengths to perceive, again there would be no color. In the wider view, perhaps we can see a larger picture: The two explanations are parts of an integrated whole.
This is an interesting proposition to me due to the fact that we are talking not on a spiritual, metaphysical level but on a material and scientific level. Even the physical world speaks to the existence of interconnectedness if we look close enough.
This leads me back to the original question, why is the sky blue? What has peaked my interest in this question is not really the scientific explanations behind it, fascinating and wondrous as they are. What I find compelling is how we leave the element of ourselves out of the explanation.
There is the perceived but no perceiver in these explanations. It is as if the world exists for its own sake and that we are mere bystanders, like mere observers wandering in a natural history museum. We eat, we breath, we walk, we sit in awe, we cry. We are of the universe and the universe is of us.
We did not land here from a distant galaxy or another dimension nor did we just suddenly appear. The story of humanity is the story of the earth which is the story of the universe, of time, of space. Didn’t humanity create science to perceive that which we could not see before? To understand the relationship of it all? This question is not really why is the sky blue, but rather why do we see the sky as blue? Why do we perceive it in a certain way? What is our relationship as the perceiver to the perceived? Are these two aspects actually separate? These questions beg a different answer, an answer about a deeper understanding leading to a deeper meaning and even deeper mysteries. To look to the sky and ask myopically why is the sky blue without a wider view of our own humanity, without a view of our participation in the universe, is a missed opportunity. It is nothing less than a missed-perception.
Window into the Now
Within Buddhism there is the teachings on dependent origination, sometimes translated as interdependent origination. Simply put, as it is often expressed in the early sutras themselves, “if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist.” Some began to interpret the teachings of dependent origination as strictly sequential and linear, a force like a row of dominos, topple one and the others will fall in line, one after another (providing you set them up properly).
Later schools of Buddhism, such as the Huayen school, based on the Avatamsaka Sutra, took dependent origination further. All things are not only dependent upon other things for their perceived existence, but everything can be found in everything else. In other words, we exist in an infinite interconnected universe where everything is dependent upon everything else and everything contains everything else.
For example, as I look outside my window at the pine tree, I reflect on how that tree got there, in this case it was planted years ago, and how the rain, sun and soil are present, sustaining its existence. I also see the pine cones. What are the pine cones? Future potential trees. I also see how it helps produce oxygen, a rather important thing for life on this planet and at this moment, my life. As I observe the tree it becomes part of my experience as a conscious being. The teachings on mind show us that consciousness does not happen independently on its own. We are always conscious of something.
What I find most important in all of this is how this teaching and understanding can be accessed in the present moment, just by exploring. So, here are two questions:
1) Looking at your hand can you see a Tyrannosaurs Rex (no, not a plastic toy one)?
2) What does it take for your present moment experience to happen, both in the past and right now?
Hungry ghosts sport big bellies and thin throats. They crave: happiness, attention, But even when told: How lovely, how smart, They remain unnourished, unable to swallow. How to feed them? What stops their whine? The plea in their eyes?
Don’t say surgery. Don’t schedule a shrink.
Here’s my suggestion: Let’s gather our families and leave our jobs And for an hour inhabit the hungry ghost of our choice. Quickly let’s build a house with sunlit windows, So profligate with love bricks glow.
Now here’s the hard part: Whatever happens, sit still. Maybe the swelling will go down in the belly, Maybe nectar opens the throat. No matter. In this place of vast and stunning beauty, One that fulfills all needs, Let us let go urgent matters and recite together: I am joyful. I am wise. Child of sunlight and flowers.
How to Feed a Hungry Ghost comes from Carolyn White’s book of poems, Climbing The Bodhi Tree (One Bird Publication: 2016).Carolyn is a student of Thich Nhat Hanh and practices with the Lansing Area Mindfulness Community in Lansing, Michigan.
Did you know: Michigan is the only place in the world with a floating post office. The J.W. Westcott II is the only boat in the world that delivers mail to ships while they are still underway. They have been operating for 125 years.
The yogi had spent many years now in solitude looking deeply into the mysteries of life. He had questioned and investigated so many things about himself and the world around him. He spent hours, days, weeks in meditation and contemplation, but yet, there was one question that still eluded him after all those years. Not being content with this not-knowing he decided to leave his solitude and seek an answer from the one everyone was calling Buddha. After several months of journeying, asking where he can find this man Buddha, the yogi was finally in his presence. There were many people there who wanted an audience with the Wise One and so the yogi waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, the yogi was able to approach the Buddha. Continue reading “The Yogi’s Question”→
In the course of Buddhist history, and as far as trees are concerned, the Syzygium jambos, commonly known as rose apple tree, has gotten the short end of the stick. Or, should I say the short end of the branch. Few have actually heard of the rose apple tree, any rose apple tree, let alone the rose apple tree that played such a monumental role in the Buddha’s inward journey. Sure, we all have heard of the Ficus riligiosa, aka, the Bodhi Tree, and how the Buddha attained his enlightenment sitting under one. Continue reading “A Tree, a Memory, and a Path”→
Despite being and non-being, the jig was up. Mara’s fingerprints were all over the place And he was spotted at the scene of the crime. The Buddha determined that life laced with duality Was the real killer. In his mind, case closed.