We were in the schoolyard across the street from our house. It was cold and the trees wore red and golden leaves. My brother and his friend were on the teeter-totter. There was a swing set and merry-go-round and those little horses on springs. My brother and his friend told me to look in the crack in the school wall, a dark, jagged tear where the bricks of the sturdy, square building had broken. They taunted me to look and snickered behind their hands. They thought I would be scared, but I felt calm. I looked. I saw cobwebs and skeletons in the black, like a Halloween tablecloth come to life. I didn’t scream or jump or gasp; they were disappointed. I looked at their sad faces, pouting little boys and I thought very clearly “This is a dream.” I closed my eyes and woke up.
I was four years old.
We really did live across from a school. It was a brown brick building with yellow school busses parked out front where my brother went to kindergarten. I have a vague memory of going inside only once and seeing old wooden desks, the kind where the desktop and chair are one piece of furniture. I never attended that school. My parents would sometimes take us to play on the playgrounds, which were not fenced, or my mother would watch us from the porch of our little bungalow to make sure we crossed the street safely. We were the last house on the block, right on the edge of town, so there was very little traffic.
We lived in Tripp, South Dakota, until I was four years old, my mother, father, and older brother, along with a little white dog named Andy and a calico cat called Joker. My parents had moved there just before I was born from Valentine, Nebraska, when my Dad bought a business from a local man. Unfortunately, the seller had lied about the revenue and before I was old enough to start attending the brown brick school, my parents declared bankruptcy, sold what they could, and moved back to Nebraska.
We did not return to Valentine, where my paternal grandparents lived. Instead, we went to Lincoln, the second largest city in the state and where my parents had met while attending the University of Nebraska. I remember the red brick apartment we lived in and starting kindergarten there. But he job my dad had found turned out to not be very good and I didn’t get to finish kindergarten in Lincoln. Instead, we moved to Papillion, a suburb on the south side of Omaha, Nebraska’s largest city. Both of my parents found the companies where they would work for thirty years and counting.
We lived on the outskirts of that sprawling Midwestern city, never more than a block from the nearest cornfield. I attended first through sixth grade at Westmont Elementary and then junior high and high school at Gretna Public Schools. I was not as good of a student as my brother, who never gave his teachers any trouble. I gave them enough for two. We attended a local United Methodist Church every Sunday. We raised Guinea pigs successfully, killed several gold fish, and, when we were older, had two dogs and a cranky black cat.
It was a very normal life, probably so normal as to be exceptional. My parents didn’t fight or drink, only occasionally arguing (very civilly) over money. Most evenings they came home from work, we had dinner as a family, and then everyone settled down to enjoy watching television and reading books. My dad liked sports, especially football and basketball, and my mother knew many hand crafts, including cross-stitch, quilting, and crochet. My brother and I didn’t get into parties or drugs. We both got part time jobs as teenagers and bought our own cars when we turned sixteen. We were all introverted and bookish and, aside from childish squabbles, got along rather well together.
Nevertheless, in the midst of this American idealism, I felt unsettled. I struggled, even though I really had very little to struggle about. I was uncooperative in school and refused to do “pointless” homework for subjects I already understood perfectly well (according to me). I had few friends, was occasionally bullied and often teased, and couldn’t really relate to children my own age. I found very little meaning in church and often wondered what was wrong with me because I couldn’t feel “the warmth of Christ’s love” that everyone was always going on about. I felt like less than a person and I resented it.
So I tried to grow up too fast – got a car, a nine-to-five job, a house, a mortgage – and then realized that adult “independence” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I hated mowing the lawn. I hated getting up early and doing the same thing every day. I made good money, but found the boring night classes at the local community college more fun than my job. I didn’t date and wondered if I ever would. I skipped a lot of the teenage and young adult experiences that many people proclaim as “pivotal” to their development – first loves, first apartments, first road trips. Sometimes I think I was born old and had to learn to be young. By nineteen I had my white picket fence and by twenty-four I had sold it all, but I waited until I was thirty to truly “run away from home.”
That feeling I had when I was four, “This is a dream,” never left me. I just didn’t know what to do about it. I couldn’t close my eyes and wake up.
I just wanted to close my eyes and wake up.
The Buddha is “the Awakened One.” That’s what his title means. He sat down under a bo tree in northern India, 2,500 years ago, closed his eyes to meditate and woke up. He said:
Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before …then I did claim to have directly awakened to the right self-awakening unexcelled in the cosmos with its deities, Maras and Brahmas, with its contemplatives and brahmans, its royalty and common folk. Knowledge and vision arose in me: ‘Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is now no further becoming.’ (SN 56.11)
This he told his ascetic companions in the deer park at Varanasi in what is now Uttar Predesh, India, along the Ganges River. His companions recognized his wisdom and called him “buddha” and followed him the rest of the days of their lives.
The Buddha had seen, years before, the suffering of life. People grow old, sick, and die, and no amount of wealth or love can protect them from this. Moreover, people want what they cannot have and don’t want what they cannot avoid, causing untold stress and suffering. The Buddha also “ran away from home” resolved to discover both the source and the alleviation of this affliction. He was successful in his quest.
My friend and professor, Dr. Drew Baker, recently reminded me that we choose our paths only from the options of which we are already aware. The Buddha chose to become a wandering ascetic, which was common in India in those days, and studied with many different teachers, eventually mastering the meditative disciplines they knew. I chose to move to Los Angeles and become a Buddhist priest and scholar by studying at various universities in the region. I have mastered the arts of library research and ramen noodle cooking.
I draw parallels not to equate myself with the legendary Enlightened One, but rather because I find the juxtaposition humorous, in a nonsensical sort of way. When he sat under that bo tree at the age of thirty-six and fought with Mara’s demons, did he know that 250 centuries later, it would take me thirty-six years of life to type these words on a computer screen? Did he realize I would know his name and follow his teachings, or that anyone would? Or would he shake his head in sadness at how we’ve lost the point entirely in the intervening time?
On the one hand, I read the words attributed to him through the social, cultural, familial, and personal lenses of a woman raised in a time and place so different from his own that I wonder “How can I possibly imagine what really happened under that tree?” On the other hand, we are both human, we both know stress, we both grow old, sick, and die – except that his suffering has ceased while mine continues. The Buddha found an entirely new option and spent the rest of his life ensuring that future generations would be aware of it. What am I to do with this?
Close my eyes and wake up.
I have enjoyed lucid dreams my entire life. I often remember my dreams. I often know that they are dreams when I am dreaming. I can frequently control what I dream. I have a few reoccurring dreams, including the dream of waking up.
I wake up. It is a normal day. I get dressed. I leave home. I arrive at school or work or the supermarket and realize “I am still dreaming.” I close my eyes and wake up. I get dressed. I leave home … and realize “I am still dreaming.” This repeats for what sometimes seems like uncountable instances, occasionally to the point of frustration, but when I do finally, truly wake up, it is absolutely unmistakable. The difference between “waking up” in the dream and being awake is absolutely crystal clear. When I am finally awake, I often lay there for a while and ponder. I’m not so quick to get up and get dressed and go out.
I’ve had this dream since I was a child, but it was only when I began to study Buddhism that I started to wonder if this is comparable to the Buddha’s certainty that he had Awakened. He was absolutely crystal clear. He saw the lure of chasing our desires like a dream to be happily abandoned upon waking (MN 54).
This particular dream keeps me humble. Every time I think I’ve figured something out or had some small insight, I remind myself that I am still just dreaming. This dream has helped me be skeptical and steered me away from dangerous gurus who claimed enlightenment for themselves but later hurt so many people. It has given me some small measure of hope when the teachings of the Buddha’s path seem daunting (impossible! frightening!), because no matter how many days I live while dreaming, I happily abandon all of them upon waking, never looking back.
On August 8, 2015, myself and twelve others were ordained as Buddhist Lay Ministers by the International Center of Chinese Buddhist Culture and Education (ICCBCE). This event has so many layers, I barely know how to unpack it. I could talk about the lineage and organization ICCBCE who made this happen, the precepts masters who administered our vows, the ritual program, the theological content of the ritual and our vows, the practical benefits of ordination to North American chaplains, the ongoing support ICCBCE is eager to provide for Buddhist chaplaincy in America, the generosity of ordaining Buddhists from so many traditions (and insisting they maintain their home traditions) under one organization, the progressive cultural elements of the ceremony, or just the fact that all of these newly ordained people are my friends. For now, let’s just cover a few of the basics.
Three abbots administered our vows, including one who flew in from the Philippines and one from China just for this ceremony. They are seated in the front row in the above photo: Venerable Masters Ben Xing, Chao Ding, and Chuan Yin. This is the first such ordination to be held by this organization in America. The majority of the ceremony and the content of all our vows was in English and I give full props to the abbots for whom this was a clear, but worthwhile, challenge. It is not uncommon for Asian-founded temples in the U.S. to continue to conduct all services in their native language, even when a significant number of non-native speakers are present, so this was a major step simply to accommodate us, English-speaking Americans. The ceremony was held at the ICCBCE U.S. headquarters in Monterey Park, California, and the ordination took place in the beautiful main hall of the Hua Shia Buddhist Association temple.
The ceremony began by inviting the three precept masters to teach and administer the vows, followed by repentance, refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, vowing to uphold the Five Precepts, and making the four Bodhisattva vows. Each section (except repentance) was repeated three times, once for each precept master. Each abbot (precept master) gave a short homily that conveyed how optimistic they too are for Buddhist ministers in America, their hopes for building connections across Buddhist traditions, and their care for us, the first generation. It involved a lot of bowing, prostration, and standing with palms together for those being ordained. The laypeople and monastic volunteers helped us all along the way, indicating where to stand, what direction to face, when to bow, prostrate, and stand, and helped us find our spot when we got lost during the Chinese chanting. It concluded in traditional Chinese chanting followed by endless group photographs. They also prepared a very yummy lunch for after the service. So many people put so much time and effort into a ceremony for our benefit when we are basically strangers to them – it actually makes my heart feel a little bit bigger.
We all received a robe, brown for the men and blue for the women to correspond to the colors of monastic daily-wear robes, stole, mala, and ordination certificate with our Dharma name. In our generation, the Dharma names begin with “pu” which means bodhi in Chinese. My Dharma name is Pu Shan or “bodhi is fit [for enlightenment].” The ICCBCE hopes to hold this event annually. This year seven men and six women were ordained, including Caucasian Americans, Jewish Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Filipino Americans, Chinese Americans, and Taiwanese (apologies if I left anyone out), representing Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions of Buddhism. All are either working chaplains or chaplaincy students obtaining graduate level education in Buddhism and spiritual care to complement years of personal practice. Eleven are students or alumni of University of the West and three are students of Claremont School of Theology (I overlap).
We provide care and conduct our clinical pastoral education (CPE) in hospitals, hospice, addiction recovery, universities, and elsewhere. Ordination will actually go a long way towards helping us continue to find employment as professional chaplains, where it is the norm and our explanations of “Well, my Buddhist tradition doesn’t really do that” don’t get us very far. So this is a powerful professional credential. Moreover, ICCBCE has indicated it’s willingness to support for our ongoing training in meditation, ritual, chanting, and other studies, through their network of temples and by working with inter-denominational partners in the three main branches of Buddhism. The development of training and work-related materials, like pocket prayer books, is also on the menu. Right now the ICCBCE in the U.S. is relying on a Facebook page to spread the word, while developing a more permanent and informative website.
Overall, I am proud to be associated with this organization, humbled to have been ordained, and grateful for the continued support. I’m sure not everything will be smooth in years to come. We have mountains of cultural differences to explore as Buddhism continues its diaspora, but overall I am optimistic and fascinated to watch this lotus flower bloom.
Before I conclude, I must offer a very sincere thank you to a few special people. My classmates and fellow UWest alumni Venerable Guan Zhen, Venerable Kiet Vo, and Reverend Aroon Seeda worked very hard to make this happen. Ven. Guan Zhen in particular is the ICCBCE secretary in the U.S. and in between his own monastic duties, application and acceptance into Columbia University (PhD in social work program), and many trips back and forth to China, he somehow made this happen. He emcee’d the ceremony on Saturday and, while not included in the photo, was undeniably the lynch pin of the entire event. Thank you and deep bows.
No killing. No stealing. No sexual misconduct. No lying. No intoxicants. This is the text of the five precepts I will vow to uphold in two short weeks.
Does this mean I can’t eat steak? Or dink whiskey? Because I like those things and I don’t feel like I’m harming myself or anyone else. Can’t I still…? Do I have to…? Should I even vow…? My clever mind is looking for a loophole to continue my little pleasures, to live my life as though taking on a robe and stole is just a formality. It won’t really change who I am or what I do. Right?
Another part thinks it should change things. Otherwise, what would be the point? I don’t want to make vows I know I won’t uphold.
But what do the vows even mean? Surely it okay to have a little red wine on a Saturday night as long as I don’t get “intoxicated,” as in, falling down drunk.
No intoxicants. That’s what it says. Why is that so hard anyway? I’ve always been a featherweight drinker. A week ago, I left half a carafe of warm sake on the table at a sushi restaurant out of prudence. If I drink once a week, that’s a lot. So why am I trying to wiggle out of what I believe to be the letter of the law?
No killing. I was mostly vegetarian for six years to reduce the suffering of sentient beings. It would be easy to return to that now that I have the means again. I still eat less meat than the average American …
… but I like meat, especially when my partner cooks it for me. I can’t make his life more difficult, can I? Meat is everywhere. It’s so easy…and yummy.
The rest doesn’t seem so difficult. It’s not like I’m into stealing, sexual misconduct, and lying on a regular basis. I can accept those vows gladly.
Surely that’s good enough, right?
But why should I only live by the easy ones?
We received the text of the ordination ceremony today. It says:
“All good men and women! Listen carefully! The Agama Sutras say there are good men and women who observe the precepts without making vows, who thus obtain very little merit. Excellent results can only come to be when precepts are observed along with great vows. When merit is cultivated without making vows, it is like a house built on sand. It is also like pottery that cannot be used without being fired in a kiln. Therefore, after bestowing the Refuges and the Five Precepts upon you, I shall teach you the proper way of making vows. Please join your palms together, repeat after me, and sincerely make your vows in front of the Triple Gem of the Ten Directions.”
I believe that what it means is that doing what is easy requires little effort and makes no real difference in the course of our lives (merit). Only by doing what is difficult, can we shift the flow of our habit energies, the river of our karma, into a better direction. One does not need to bother with a vow to do something easy. Vows are for doing what is difficult. They are for creating intention and commitment. When we uphold our vows, our willpower grows stronger, like a muscle being exercised. Our vow is the foundation of a strong house. Even if the house burns down, if we make a mistake, the foundation (the vow, the intention) remains and the house can be rebuilt.
In this light, the answer seems simple. Of course, I vow and, of course, I keep the vows as best I understand them.
But do I really have to be that good? Does anyone even expect that?
And on it goes.
Today I was productive. In between bursts of productive, I had periods of both genuine rest (still productive) and periods of frustrating, unproductive effort. That’s how I think of it when I feel like I’m expending energy without actually doing anything.
I don’t mean that I did something that didn’t ultimately matter or that I made a mistake and had to redo past work. I literally mean I’m not really doing anything at all. I’m sitting in my chair with my glasses off, rubbing my face, thinking of my next task in a very abstract way (as in “I ought to have a next task”), and not actually directing my effort towards anything in particular. Nevertheless, it feels at though I am expending a great deal of effort. It feels at though I’m pushing a boulder I cannot touch up a hill I cannot see.
Depending on the day, this can last anywhere from a minute to an hour. I’ll look out the window, eat a piece of chocolate, open and close blank browser tabs on my computer, stare at an email inbox with no unread messages, and basically be useless. Yet I feel like effort is pouring out of me like a waterfall.
I’m beginning to recognize this as a kind of purgatory, an intermediate state between someone who has fairly successfully mastered the ability to prevent herself from actively procrastinating but not yet entirely mastered what Buddhist literature calls virya (viriya in Pali) and what American’s call “productivity.”
Virya is often translated as “effort,” “energy,” or “diligence,” but the deeper meaning is actually closer to “effortlessness.” It is part of Right Effort and related to the ability to “generate desire” for skillful and wholesome things (SN 45.8). Think about that for a minute.
To generate desire is to want to do something. When we genuinely want to do something, it tends to take significantly less effort than doing what we don’t want to do, right? Or at least, it feels that way subjectively. A marathon is still a ton of effort, but I can’t imagine how much more effort it would take if you spent all 26 miles thinking of how you wanted to be anywhere but here.
Virya is also part of the five factors of exertion, specifically: “…energy aroused for abandoning unskillful mental qualities and taking on skillful mental qualities. [The practitioner with virya] is steadfast, solid in his[/her] effort, not shirking his[/her] duties with regard to skillful mental qualities.” (AN 5.53) I often feel as though I am caught in between the stages of abandoning and taking on. I know how I procrastinate, the tricks my mind plays, and how to defeat them or turn them to a better purpose. Yet, I still struggle to maintain focus and diligence throughout my day. I’m not surfing the internet, but I’m not really writing that report either. My effort is still being poured into abandoning, leaving little for the taking on.
The Buddha further unravels the roots of effort in the Canki Sutta (MN 95) leading to a long chain of reasoning that rests finally on “conviction.” The Buddha references specifically the conviction needed to visit a teacher and learn the Dharma. You need to believe that person can help you in order to bother going to see them. Likewise, you need to believe that your effort will yield results before you engage in it. I remind myself of this when I’m feeling stuck.
When I am productive, I am terrifically productive. When I can get my mind to settle and focus on a task, I can create an enrollment projection from scratch, draft a three page report, make a twenty slide presentation, or create a five page research summary in a few short hours. And I feel awesome both during and after. I get lost in the flow of the work and receive a deep sense of accomplishment at its conclusion.
The problem is, I completely forget that when I’m in the midst of abandoning the habit energies that keep me unproductive and procrastinating. Having conviction in my own capacity for productivity is the first step out of that trap. It helps that everyday I get to go to work and apply that productivity to making a Buddhist university just a little bit better.
Last week San Francisco State University hosted Mindfulness and Compassion: The Art and Science of Contemplative Practice, a conference largely organized by the Consciousness, Mindfulness, Compassion International Association, which is who’s who of Buddhist teachers and other contemplatives. I attended on Wednesday, Thursday, and half of Friday, leaving before the evening keynote presentation to return to Southern California for a wedding. The conference continued until the end of the day on Saturday, with an optional excursion to nearby Green Gulch Farm on Sunday. These are some brief thoughts on what I experienced:
Words, words, words, so many words and so much to absorb. Nevertheless, some themes emerged.
- First, there is concern for the popular image as “mindfulness as panacea” and growing recognition that it may not be appropriate for all or lead only to beneficial outcomes.
- Second, Buddhists in particular are concerned by the “off label use” (as one scientist dubbed it) of mindfulness in the absence of the other parts of the path, namely ethics and wisdom, and there is some apparent tension with scientists and secular (or non-Buddhist) psychologists over this.
- Third, likewise there was tension between the notion that we are using mindfulness merely to help people cope in a dysfunctional world, making stress a ‘personal problem,’ while avoiding a discussion of ethics that might actually demand change in the systems that cause the dysfunction.
- Fourth, related to this, mindfulness is only the tip of the iceberg for Buddhist meditation; the Satipatthana Sutta and many other scriptures from which Mindfulness Based Interventions (MBIs) are derived contain much more material that may be underutilized.
- Fifth, there is ongoing concern for the growing practice of meditation by laypeople, particularly when done ‘out of context’ of sangha and teacher, as is often the case in the west, and the neglect of other meaningful Buddhist practices still popular among laypeople in Asia.
- Sixth, there is a growing interest in compassion as both a human virtue and a therapeutic intervention, such as through the training programs developed at Stanford and UCSF.
- Finally, the scientific study of contemplative practice via neuroscience continues to blossom.
Each one of these points could expand into a full length post on the topic. For now, I will leave them as they are. I’m sure had I stayed through Saturday, there would have been many more. For now, this is my reaction.
I am glad to hear serious discussion of the limitations of mindfulness meditation as it is currently practiced and a broadening of the scope of the discussion to include other kinds of meditation. It spurred insight into some of my own ambivalence towards breath meditation while also renewing my interest in other forms, particularly contemplation designed to deepen compassion, goodwill, equanimity, and insight.
I believe we need to have a serious discussion about ethics and the role of Buddhists/Buddhism in society. We cannot simply let our practices be adapted for ‘stress relief’ without also doing work to alleviate the sources of stress caused by systemic injustice and cultural maladjustment.
The science is fascinating, but it is still in very early stages. Better understanding must wait until the science is more solid, which, despite the seemingly quick pace of discoveries, is several years away, maybe decades. While this happens, we (contemplative practitioners and scholars of religion) must remain in deep dialogue with the scientists, lest their work goes astray, as some of what I saw clearly had.
This was an important conference highlighting important work. I was grateful to attend and present. I hope I might be a small part of this dialogue as it continues.
Keep in mind that I am a bibliophile. That is, a lover (in the intellectual sense) of books. Therefore, I tend to accumulate more books than I actually have time to read. The following options are from my shelves. I have skimmed or read chapters in a few, while barely breathing on the pages of others.
I leave it up to you, my readers, where I should go next. In addition to the books listed below, you may make your own additions in the comments. I am also a keen fan of audio books for my long commute, so if any are better heard, than read, please let me know.
Leadership is an Art by Max De Pree. This book was assigned for a course I took last year on ‘connective leadership.’ I admit that I skimmed it only, but it seems worth a deeper read. Although originally published in 1989, my classmates raved about it’s relevance in 2015. I must confess, I felt slightly left out in that class due to my own failure to read the book that week.
The 4 Foundations of Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. This exegesis of the Satipatthana Sutta, that classic Buddhist meditation manual, is the 2012 followup to Bhante’s wildly popular Mindfulness in Plain English, which I have also not read. Should I buy and read Mindfulness first, then 4 Foundations, or is the second book good on its own?
Please Don’t Tell: What to Do with the Secrets People Share by Emma Justes. I was originally drawn to this book precisely because I am often the recipient of other people’s secrets, as I have written about here and here. Sharing a secret can lead to great healing, but it can also create suffering in the person who hears it. It can also create ethical dilemmas between the tension to maintain a trust and prevent harm, which may be possible by sharing rather than keeping another person’s secret. For such a complicated subject, the book is short and appears accessible.
Feeling Wisdom: Working with Emotions Using Buddhist Teachings and Western Psychology by Rob Preece. I’m becoming more and more interested in Buddhist psychology. I always was, but now that classes are out, I have time to study it. I appreciate that Preece is dealing with emotions, which I am starting to realize drive our behaviors more than we (and previous generations of psychologists) ever thought. I wonder what Buddhism has to say on the matter?
Finally, The Heart of the World: A Journey to Tibet’s Lost Paradise by Ian Baker is the only memoir currently on my list. I find memoirs to often be hit or miss, but in this case the subject matter is certainly intriguing. And it comes with the Dalai Lama’s stamp of approval. It is also the longest book on my list.
So, dear readers, I place this into your hands. Remember that you can also make new suggestions in the comments. What should I read next this summer?