This post is part of a continuing series launched in October 2016. It is an experiment to bring the Noble Eightfold Path more deliberately into my life, to walk the Buddhist path in 21st century California.
December Update: Right Effort
I knew this one would be a strange month. I started late, holidays, family, and work obligations made any kind of regular schedule unlikely from the start. Yet, I met these goals fairly well for about two weeks mid-month and I felt better for it.
Round 1: Nail that routine. Pre-decide and stick to it, for work, relaxation, and necessary self-care.
- Morning routine: Nailed getting up on time and putting in an hour of work; frequently skipped the meditation. That’s so like me.
- At work routine:Took more walks, which gave me more exercise and more dedicated thinking time, which benefited my projects. Didn’t knit. Still fell a little behind each week, but didn’t sweat it due to factors beyond my control.
- Evening routine: Pretty good, but when I say walk the dog every day, that really is every day. Not every other day, not two out of three. Every day. Did my reading. Didn’t meditate. So what else is new?
- Saturday goals: Took this day off as planned, but now it’s January and I’m going to be working Saturdays until I finish my qualifying exams in six weeks. Then I plan to return to no work Saturdays as it’s been good for me and my relationship.
- Sunday goals: Did good, keep it up.
What I Learned
I was really surprised that I was able to get up so early so consistently. I think I even surprised my parents, who were visiting for a week, by my pre-dawn routine. I’ve read that one’s circadian rhythm changes as one gets older. I believe it, which also makes me think it’s criminal to insist teenagers start school anytime before ten in the morning.
I don’t know why, but after all these years, I still skip the meditation. Ten minutes shouldn’t be too much to ask, right? But nope. Some days I just forget and some days I remember, but choose not to do it. It’s all the same in the end.
One thing that threw me off a little this month was reading. Over Thanksgiving I took up a series of novels on the flight to Omaha. It was a series I’d read before, so I thought I’d put it down when we returned. That was not the case.
Years ago, I gave up reading novels during the ‘school year.’ When I get into a novel I don’t get out until it’s over, homework and projects be damned. So I gave it up and confined my literary adventures to winter and summer break. During spring and fall breaks, I’d usually reread something I was familiar with, so as to let it go when I returned.
The problem this time is that I chose to reread the first novel of the seventeen book Foreigner series by C.J. Cherryh. And then I just couldn’t put it down. I did manage to confine my reading to evenings, which is more than I could manage with a new book. Still, I think there were a few hours I should have spent working on my exams rather than on the world of the atevi.
It really makes me wonder about my own mind, that can leave me feeling so choice-less sometimes about the things I do. I want to meditate and make a commitment to do it, then don’t. I don’t want to read and make a commitment to avoid it, but then do. I understand exactly why Shantideva urges us to tame the mind. Now, how to do it?
January Plan: Right Mindfulness
That brings us to January and Right Mindfulness. There are about a thousand books, podcasts, YouTube videos, weekend retreats, webinars, and 8-week courses out there to teach someone about mindfulness. Some of them are even good. Some of them are just good marketing. Despite all that (or perhaps because of it), I still don’t feel like I have a good understanding of just what mindfulness is.
Years ago, I attended five weekend retreats in the Shambhala tradition based around introducing western students to shamatha meditation and the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa. They were very good and still form the basis of my meditation practice, such as it is. I wrote about each one at the time and have written about my struggles with meditation – mostly with my struggle to just plain do it. I have yet to integrate meditation into my life in any regular way, although I am recently coming to realize that it has nevertheless had a profound effect on my practice as a chaplain (more on that later).
But is meditation what the Buddha meant by Right Mindfulness? I don’t think so. I believe mindfulness and meditation are conflated due to the Anapanasati Sutta (MN 118) which demonstrates how mindfulness can be used in or applied to meditation and because meditation is a good method for teaching basic mindfulness. But Right Mindfulness is mentioned in several other contexts in the Pali Canon in which it can best be understood as paying attention, but not just to anything, to the right things, including the other factors of the Eightfold Path, doing what is right and abandoning what is wrong, and mindfulness of death.
I was very mindful of my commitment to practicing the path during October, when I used a habit tracking app to monitor my progress. I was less mindful in November and December, except, of course, close before and after my blog posts. This is also because I have a task management app that reminds me to make an update about my path practice.
Naturally, when the Buddha advised us to be mindful, I don’t think he meant to get an app. But even in his time and into the present day Buddhists have used the social equivalent – rituals. The morning chant in Thai Forest Monasteries such as Wat Metta, (available online here in both audio and text) still include reminders of the Four Noble Truths, Three Refuges, Three Hallmarks of Existence, and many other factors of which basic, daily mindfulness is extremely helpful in our practice. Likewise with the evening chants, meal chants, and regularly monthly and annual ceremonies. Rituals such as these were the original app, a social and cultural mechanism for the maintenance of mindfulness of the Dharma. It works beautifully within such an intentional community.
What is the place for something like this in the layperson’s life? Especially the layperson not active in a sangha? Those questions are part of this entire experiment. The purpose of this path practice is mindfulness of the Buddhist path, in a concrete way someone can develop and follow for themselves no matter what kind of life they lead. Where can rituals, apps, and the nine-to-five job all come together?
Round 1: Daily and weekly mindfulness
- Meditate, dammit! Ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the evening, five days a weeks. Track progress with a meditation app.
- Keep a mindful journal and make at least three entries a week based only on “Where was my attention today?” Limit entries to ten minutes at a time.
- Reflect on the mindful journal at the end of each week.
- Continue habits established in October (except about no-work Saturdays) and daily routine established in December. Remind oneself about these comitments once a week.
Round 2: Monthly and yearly mindfulness
Round 3: Mindfulness over the lifespan
February: Right Concentration
In October, I announced the start of an intentional practice of the Noble Eightfold Path on a rotating monthly cycle. During October, I worked on Right Action and during November, I will work on Right Livelihood. Below is my progress on last month’s path and my plan for next month.
November Report: Right Livelihood
Round 1: Live frugally, reduce harm, and give back what you can to the benefit of others.
As I did not use a goal tracking app, I am giving each goal a letter grade.
- C: Do not waste food; eat what we have on hand and pack lunches for work at least 3 days a week. I managed about two weeks of proactive lunch packing, then tossed it out the window when life got busy. During the Thanksgiving holiday, I wasted a lot of food by buying too much before we left to visit my family and then, while I was with family, not making use of leftovers as much as I could have. I’m not used to eating the way they do anymore.
- B+: Aside from essential groceries, do not shop during November, including for entertainment (i.e. movie rentals, new books, etc.).I did really well with this goal except for the two days we were visiting family in Omaha. One of the things I miss about my family is going shopping with my dad. So we went shopping. I bought two shirts and some gifts and we had a good time.
- B+: Limit ‘going out’ to dates with partner or social gatherings (no hitting the drive through to avoid cooking). I had to remind myself about this during the first week of the month, but after that I did really well at NOT hitting the drive through.
- D: Reduce reliance on disposable products. I’m not certain I made any progress here, although I tried to use fabric towels more and paper towels less.
- C: Payoff remaining credit card balance. I made good progress at the beginning of the month. Then my car broke down. Someday, I’d like to have enough savings for things like that. ‘Nuff said.
- A+: Put at least $500 in savings in November. Did that. Then my car broke down.
- A: Identify and support a local charity, a global charity, and a Buddhist-based charity or project in need. In my most recent post, I identified several of each kind to support.
Overall, I would give myself a C+ for this month. I made progress, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
What I Learned
I’m actually happier when I limit my spending. I feel proud of myself, accomplished, and content. When I’m more free with my spending, while I do enjoy things I buy, I also feel a little bit anxious, worried, and discontent. These feelings are usually so subtle they’re hard to notice, but it reminds me of what Thich Nhat Hanh likes to write about the seeds we plant. I do see how they grow over time.
Poverty can cause a lot of suffering. When you’re so poor you worry if you’ll be able to buy soap or bread or have enough change to take the bus rather than walking three miles – that’s a lot of stress. It occupies your mind and lives in your body. You carry it around through your day like a bag of sand, each little worry another grain that adds up to a ton.
I think relative wealth can also cause suffering. In October, I was worrying about my wardrobe. It seems ridiculous now, but I was worrying about my appearance and where I could find a certain item that I felt would make my wardrobe complete. Those kind of anxieties also cause stress.
It seems so ridiculous now. As soon as I set my goals for November, I stopped worrying about my wardrobe by pre-deciding not to buy anything. That stress went poof. When I was poor, I wish I could have made my stress about soap go away like that. It’s not the same and it’s all still stress.
December: Right Effort
This is going to be an interesting month to work on Right Effort, with a holiday and winter recess right at the end. Academics are some of the only people I know who say “I can’t wait for the holiday. Then I can finally get some work done!” I usually try not to join them, but this year I am firmly in that camp.
I’m coming into December feeling behind. You’ll notice this post is coming out on the 6th instead of the 1st. I feel behind at work and in my personal work, my qualifying exams for my doctorate. I also feel a little ‘behind’ in my personal life, like I haven’t given my partner enough attention lately and that I’ll have to make up that deficit somewhere.
So what do I do? Just start.
I actually learned that years ago. When you feel behind, just start. When there are a hundred dishes in the sink and it feels overwhelming, just pick up the first one and wash it. Don’t commit to anything beyond that. Just start.
Then there’s usually a momentum to it. I’ve never stopped after one dish, one folded shirt, one page read or written. Sometimes, I might only get to two or three before something else intervenes, but even then I feel infinitely more accomplished and ready to come back to it later.
Round 1: Nail that routine. Pre-decide and stick to it, for work, relaxation, and necessary self-care.
- Morning routine:
- Out of bed at 6:30 am
- One hour of writing on exams from 7-8:00 am
- Ten minutes of meditation
- Out the door by 8:45 am
- At work routine:
- Start with the daily schedule on the yellow pad
- Mid-morning walk for 15 minutes
- Lunch in the dining hall with knitting
- Mid-afternoon walk for 15 minutes followed by green tea
- Complete tasks on the daily schedule or re-schedule them within the same week before leaving
- Evening routine:
- Take the dog to the park (every day, no excuses!)
- Eat dinner with Colin and hang out in the living room for at least 1 hour
- Read for exams at least 30 minutes
- Ten minutes of meditation
- No other work in the evenings
- Saturdays goals
- No work at all
- Run errands and do chores in the morning
- Hang out with Colin when he gets up
- Sunday goals
- Take the dog to the park for a double walk
- Write at least two hours on exams
Of course, I already know this is all going to be shot to hell because I have an all weekend board meeting coming up and then my parents are visiting before Christmas and then we’re all flying up to spend the holiday with Colin’s family and then winter break. But, oh well, might as well try anyway.
Round 2: Re-align life and work priorities in relation to values.
Round 3: Retreat for spiritual renewal.
January: Right Mindfulness
Black Friday, no, thank you. Let’s stay home and play cards and make quilts and laugh.
Cyber Monday, meh. I’ve got to go to work.
Giving Tuesday, huh, I guess I’ve finally gotten to a stage in my life where I have money to give. I should probably support something, huh?
In fact, in this political climate, I feel it is imperative to put my money where my values are. Therefore, I’m supporting the following people and groups this Tuesday. The first two are people I know personally and gladly vouch for. The next three are organizations that I have personally benefited from for many years, without ever supporting. The last four are defenders – of civil rights, of women’s rights, of the world. Please consider supporting just a couple of these groups on this giving Tuesday. Spread the dana.
Engaged Buddhist Alliance
Three of my good friends from University of the West started this non-profit in order to bring the Buddhist teachings into prisons throughout California to increase rehabilitation and curb recidivism. They are trying to offer college-level courses in Buddhism to men and women at what Venerable De Hong calls “unnatural monasteries,” where he often teaches meditation in the desert heat. Please help them raise $1,000 to continue their work.
Compassion Without Borders
My friend, Dr. Khim Berling, a professor of Buddhism here in Southern California has been raising funds without pause to assist the victims of the April 2015 Nepal earthquake. Her most recent project involves providing medical care for one of the families she has been assisting after their father was struck by a motorcycle that broke his leg. He can no longer continue working to rebuild their house. Please help Khim raise $1,500 to bring them a toilet and clean water.
Before the Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood was my only source of medical care. I received free annual exams and cancer screenings (including one biopsy) from them for four years. Although I couldn’t pay at the time, I can support them now and I hope you will too.
I have listened to NPR for over ten years without sending them a dime. I am addicted to their podcast app, especially the podcasts under humor, science, and the social sciences. As much as I paid for my college education, I think I’ve learned at least as much from NPR over the years absolutely for free. It’s time to give back.
Speaking of college, what student would ever get anywhere without Wikipedia to point the way? As I tell my own students, you can’t stop your research at Wikipedia (and for Buddha’s sake, don’t cite it!) but you sure can start there to get a great overview of something new and find better references. I have found their Buddhism portal to be comprehensive and accurate, right down to the diacritical marks. Support them through the Wikimedia Foundation and support the democratization of knowledge.
American Civil Liberties Union
I have never before felt the need to support civil rights organizations. I do now and I hope you will too. I anticipate many court battles in the years to come as the current government attempts to undermine freedom, oppress minorities and women, end freedom of religion, and exploit the natural environment for profit. Don’t let them. Support civil rights for all.
End violence against women, especially sexual assault and harassment, by supporting the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. RAINN operates help lines for victims, programs to prevent sexual violence, justice initiatives, and collects some of the best and most comprehensive data on sexual assault in America. No one deserves to be grabbed by their pussy, or any other body part. Help end it by supporting RAINN.
Southern Poverty Law Center
Continue the work of King to end hate, preach tolerance, and dispel the mechanisms of economic inequality. With the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center is going to be on the front lines of watching and fighting harmful rhetoric and legislation from the new government. Support racial harmony and equality by supporting them.
Our Children’s Trust
Again I’m supporting an organization that will fight in court to protect something we all value and depend on – the Earth and our children. This group just won an important legal victory that gained a group of children the right to sue the U.S. government to do more about climate change to protect their futures. Support their case in order to support the protection of our environment, win the war against climate change science, and show young people that they do matter.
Facebook post at 9:09 am on Tuesday, November 8
I voted. If you can vote, you should vote. Don’t waste this chance. Please, I don’t know how to be more straightforward than this. I don’t know how to convince you if you weren’t planning to vote. Just do it because I asked and because a lot of other people are asking. Go vote. Thanks!
Facebook post at 9:32 pm on Tuesday, November 8
Stay calm everyone
Facebook post at 7:04 am on Wednesday, November 9
This morning I am thinking of the three hallmarks of existence: dukkha (suffering), anatta (non-self), and anicca (impermanence). I can’t help but think on a day like today that last one is supremely good news. Changes comes to our joys and sorrows alike.
Today please remember that suffering begets suffering. Hurt people hurt people. Hate doesn’t end by hate. Only by love alone, can hate be quelled. Love yourself. Love one another. Love people who voted the other way. Love the world and do what good you can with what you have.
It may be too soon for some people to love. It’s okay to be sad, angry, enraged, disappointed, frustrated, shocked, but please do not hate. Hold out against hate. Conquer hate with love and look with eyes of compassion on your fellow Americans. We’re all going to need lots of compassion if we’re going to heal so much hate. I love you.
Facebook post at 8:07 am on Wednesday, November 9
If you need to talk, the campus chaplain will be available this afternoon. I will be in my office (AD139, across from Marketing) from 1:00 pm onward.
Facebook post at 1:40 pm on Wednesday, November 9 (longest post I’ve ever written)
To my friends who voted for Trump,
No, I will not unfriend you. I hope you will not unfriend me. I understand that many friends and families are breaking apart as a result of this election. I respect people’s decisions about who they associate with and understand that a decision to disassociate can be a powerful step towards self-care and away from damaging relationships. That said, I hope we can remain friends.
Please understand that I have other friends who are terrified right now. Not upset, not sad, not angry (although those too), but TERRIFIED. They are afraid not for their jobs or their laws, but for their very lives and the lives of their families. These are people who are already disproportionately targeted for violence and discrimination on the basis of their skin color, religion, gender, orientation, or immigration status. Many have already been physically attacked at least once in their lives and all have lived with the financial and social damage caused by systemic discrimination. Please help me PROTECT THEM.
The president-elect and many members of the congress-elect will not protect them. They have vowed NOT to protect them. They have advocated for more physical violence against them (people of color, LGBTQ, Muslims, women, and others who disagree with their policies) and more systemic discrimination through laws, executive orders, and law enforcement processes. Instances of hate-crimes have already been reported, less than 24 hours after the election. After the Brexit vote, hate-crimes rose in Britain. Please don’t let that be America.
Please do not resort to violence. Please intervene (safely, if possible) when you see it happening. Please tell others using hateful rhetoric or advocating violence to stop. Please tell others using racist, misogynistic, or xenophobic language to stop. Please tell others insulting entire groups of people based on their color, religion, gender, orientation, or immigration status to stop. Do not advocate for hate.
Students at my school are terrified that their families will be broken apart. They are afraid to travel outside of California for fear that they will be physically attacked for the color of their skin. They are afraid they will lose their health care and die of treatable diseases or injuries. They are worried they won’t be able to get good jobs. They are afraid of being sexually assaulted. They are afraid to let anyone know they aren’t Christian.
When our government proposes immigration reform, which they will, please remember the families that could be torn apart. When our government proposes health care reform, which they will, please remember that people without insurance DIE because they are denied treatment. When our government proposes environmental deregulation, which they will, please remember that environmental degradation kills humans as well as animals and plants. When our government proposes economic reform, which they will, please remember that my students just want to work at jobs where they are safe, productive, and can’t get fired based on who they love in their own home.
I’m not trying to guilt trip you. I’m trying to explain why my friends who did not vote for Trump are terrified right now. I’m asking you to remember them, care for them, love them, and remind our elected leaders to do the same, even if we disagree. I know you have that capacity. That’s why we’re friends. Thank you.
I later changed this post’s settings to public when people started sharing it.
Facebook post at 11:51 am on Thursday, November 10
Community gathering for blessing and healing in Locke Hall in 10 minutes
Facebook post at 1:28 pm on Thursday, November 10
Please don’t shame others for being afraid or traumatized by this election. Their lives, freedoms, and families are literally at stake. Hate crimes and explicit racism are already up. Suicide hotlines are overwhelmed. Deportation is a real threat. Please don’t expect everyone to be okay with this or go back to normal the next day. Have compassion. Show love. Thank you.
Facebook post at 5:38 am on Friday, November 11 (in relation to an article about increasing racial, sexual, and religious discrimination, harassment, and hate crimes)
Please do not let this be the new America. If you have privilege, I am personally asking you to intervene. Please tell people this is not okay and protect people being threatened. If you have white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, hetero privilege, able-bodied privilege, citizenship, class privilege, or education, please use that privilege to protect the targets of hate and violence. Please google “bystander intervention” and learn how to do so as safely and effectively as possible. Please report people who engage in this activities to police, teachers, and employers. Don’t let it proliferate. It’s not okay. (PS – You know you have privilege if this has never happened to you or you could never imagine it happening to you. If you are not afraid, you have privilege.)
I think that’s all I have to say right now. I’m sorry if it’s redundant for my friends who follow on Facebook. I’m usually not so politically active on Facebook, but this is important. There were other posts, shares, and announcements, but I’ve omitted them. This is the important thing. Love is the important thing. Peace is the important thing. In all thoughts, words, and deeds may you alleviate suffering, your own and others, and not perpetuate it.
In October, I announced the start of an intentional practice of the Noble Eightfold Path on a rotating monthly cycle. During October, I worked on Right Action by setting myself several goals. During November, I will work on Right Livelihood. Below is my progress on last month’s path and my plan for next month.
October Report: Right Action
Round 1: Action to care for the body and mind.
I wanted to take care of my body and mind this month by focusing on long term benefit over short term comfort. My success has been mixed. I used a habit tracker to monitor my progress and it gave me scores for each of my goals.
- 86% – Eat a healthy breakfast each work day before leaving the house.
- 86% – Drink 1 cup of coffee per day or less; green tea in the afternoon is okay.
- 88% – Do not drink soda or other sugary drinks; fruit juice is okay in moderation.
- 68% – Eat vegetarian at least five days a week.
- 57% – Exercise five days a week by walking/jogging with the dog at the park; intersperse with push-ups and pull-ups on the park exercise stations.
- 67% – Meditate at least five days a week.
- 80% – Do no work on Saturday; spend time with my partner, friends, and pets.
- 50% – Thank my body and mind for what it has done at least once a week through guided meditation or writing exercises.
What I learned: It is easier for me to stop an old habit than to start a new one. Walking and jogging regularly in the park improves my mood and productivity during the week, even if jogging leaves me tired for the rest of the evening. I quickly stopped bothering trying to do push-ups and don’t feel at all guilty about that. I forgot my no-work-on-Saturday rule the day after I made it, but I remembered the rest of the month. At first, it seemed silly because here were five, six, eight, ten hours that I could be working on my exams, but wasn’t. Then I noticed my productivity during the week went up considerably, especially in the morning before work, when I’d often get several pages down before breakfast. At work, my productivity was also higher. Meditation remains spotty, but I always function better on days that I meditate. Although I’m most likely to skip meditation on the ‘busy days’ when I really need it, so I have to figure that out. I will continue to monitor these habits for at least another month or until they’re just a part of my daily routine I don’t have to think about anymore.
What this basically tells me is that my body and brain are deeply deluded about what will actually bring suffering and what will actually bring happiness or satisfaction. I don’t have to want to run in order to run. And not wanting to run doesn’t prevent me from deriving satisfaction from it or feeling better in the long run. When it comes to tanha, craving, we can’t trust it to bring us happiness. We have to test things and see for ourselves.
The next time I return to Right Action will be in June 2017, when I will focus on actions that care for my home and family.
November: Right Livelihood
During the last week of October, I began to think about, first, finishing strong on my current goals, and, second, how I understood Right Livelihood. During this time, I’m also working on a scholarly paper about the Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva. I spent a lot of time in the chapters about carefulness and diligence and it helped me consider my approach to my work.
Luckily, I work for a non-profit university, so I neatly avoid all the Buddha’s admonitions against harmful careers such as dealing in weapons, making intoxicants, or killing animals for a living. That doesn’t always mean, however, that I don’t harm anyone in my daily business, let alone my ‘lifestyle.’
In fact, as time goes by, I seem to become more conscious of the harm I have and can cause at work – to students, coworkers, and others. I am also more conscious of the time I waste, both at work and in life in general. I’ve written before about my struggles with diligence and effort, but reading Shantideva has brought my own habits into stark relief.
In the Pali Canon, Right Livelihood is understood as an ‘honest’ living (SN 45.8) that avoids “Scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling, & pursuing gain with gain” (MN 117). The second sources elaborates:
“One tries to abandon wrong livelihood & to enter into right livelihood: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong livelihood & to enter & remain in right livelihood: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities —right view, right effort, & right mindfulness — run & circle around right livelihood.”
It was difficult to determine where to start and I was tempted to jump straight into Round 2, but at this point in my life I believe it is still very important to train in frugality and doing the least harm possible through simply living. At one point, I was fairly good at living green, but those habits proved harder to maintain in LA. I’d like to return to them.
Since I began working full-time again, my spending and consumption habits have risen to match. Psychologically, I was tired of being poor; it’s exhausting. However, we’ve now established ourselves in a much more frugal apartment with a smaller commute (for me) and have just about everything we need for a comfortable existence. I would therefore like to start saving because, first, this is hardly the last time we’ll move, and, second, my student loans are going to be devastating when I finally graduate (even with income-based repayment).
Round 1: Live frugally, reduce harm, and give back what you can to the benefit of others.
- Do not waste food; eat what we have on hand and pack lunches for work at least 3 days a week.
- Aside from essential groceries, do not shop during November, including for entertainment (i.e. movie rentals, new books, etc.).
- Limit ‘going out’ to dates with partner or social gatherings (no hitting the drive through to avoid cooking).
- Reduce reliance on disposable products.
- Payoff remaining credit card balance.
- Put at least $500 in savings in November.
- Identify and support a local charity, a global charity, and a Buddhist-based charity or project in need.
Round 2: Cultivate right relationships at work among all people.
Round 3: Encourage ethical practices within your institution, organization, or company.
December: Right Effort
I can already see hitting the books to finish my qualifying exams coming at me.
The other day, Edward Ng posted a beautiful piece about making refuge over at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Within he redefined refuge in a way new to me. (He also included a critique of the over-focus on “mindfulness” and “happiness” as goals of Buddhist and secularized quasi-Buddhist practices.) He wrote:
As professed Buddhists, we take refuge in the Triple Gem: the Buddha as exemplar, the Dharma as path, the Sangha as community. By taking refuge we give wisdom and compassion a chance to flower from the groundless ground of our mortality. Refuge welcomes vulnerability and entangles the self with others and the world. Hospitality towards what is not-self is necessary; otherwise how do we repair broken worlds, heal the harms we suffer and inflict on one another, or invite shared hopes and aspirations for a more promising future? The taking of refuge is hosted by an act of promising.
The making of refuge for one another is a ceaseless task, precarious work. Refuge places a universal demand on us to take response-ability for the conditions of safety shared by humans and nonhumans in this precarious world; but this promise of refuge for whomever and whatever can only be fulfilled by giving ourselves over to the contingencies of the particular.
The promise of response-ability attends first to grief and loss and harm, not happiness.
When we become responsive to grief and loss and harm, we begin to heal damaged lives and repair broken worlds; we hold the door open for justice.
[Emphasis in the original.] Read his entire article here; it is well worth it.
Refuge has been on my mind recently. Refuge where? Refuge in what or who? Refuge how?
Buddhism has traditionally offered three sources of refuge: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha or the teacher, teaching, and community. I have struggled to find refuge in a living teacher and in a Buddhist community, but I have always found comfort in the beauty and truth of the Dharma, which also means truth or natural law.
This idea of refuge is affirmed in the Pali canon:
“Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.
“And how, Ananda, is a bhikkhu an island unto himself, a refuge unto himself, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as his island, the Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge?
“When he dwells contemplating the body in the body, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world; when he dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, the mind in the mind, and mental objects in mental objects, earnestly, clearly comprehending, and mindfully, after having overcome desire and sorrow in regard to the world, then, truly, he is an island unto himself, a refuge unto himself, seeking no external refuge; having the Dhamma as his island, the Dhamma as his refuge, seeking no other refuge.
“Those bhikkhus of mine, Ananda, who now or after I am gone, abide as an island unto themselves, as a refuge unto themselves, seeking no other refuge; having the Dhamma as their island and refuge, seeking no other refuge: it is they who will become the highest, if they have the desire to learn.” (DN16, Mahaparinibbana Sutta)
In the Pali canon, the historical Buddha extols both the Three Refuges (or Triple Gem, as in Khp 1, Dhp 188-192, SN 55.1) and the practice of being a refuge unto oneself, relying on neither the Buddha nor Sangha, but only the Dharma. The second instruction is repeated in several places within the suttas (DN 16, SN 47.13, SN 47.14).
Yet, in my experience, the Three Refuges are emphasized more. They are the vow that ‘makes one’ a Buddhist and are repeated daily in chants and rituals throughout the Buddhist world.
Is this a contradiction? If so, how are we to reconcile it?
One of the most common tools in Buddhist hermeneutics (or the interpretations of meanings) is the teaching of upaya or skillful means. Donald Lopez points out,
The Buddha is said to have taught different things to different people based on their interests, dispositions, capacities, and levels of intelligence. Furthermore, the tradition maintained that as a Buddha, an enlightened being, his teachings must be free of error and contradiction. (p. 3 of Buddhist Hermeneutics, “Introduction”)
Therefore, upaya, although rarely mentioned in the Pali canon itself, was adopted as a principle for interpretation of the sutras by Theravadin exegetes and later expanded upon greatly in Mahayana and Vajrayana literature. Lopez cites Peter Gregory, who points out that later Chinese understandings added a layer of context to the hermeneutics of upaya, (p. 5) which is necessary as the buddhadharma crossed cultural borders. And,
As George Bond shows, the Theravadin exegetes based their hermeneutical strategy on the idea of a gradual path to enlightenment. Hence, they delineated a typology of persons, based on factors such as level of spiritual development and temperament, to whom the Buddha addressed his teachings.
In other words, they placed the different teachings within a hierarchy from lowest or most relative, provisional, and contextual to highest or most ultimate, universal, and non-contextual. Theravada traditions were not alone in this strategy. It can be found in Kukai’s ten stages and the various bhumis of the Bodhisattvas. Different schools chose different texts as their representation of that highest, ultimate meaning. (p. 6)
So how does that help me? How does that help folks like me, who struggle to find a teacher and and a sangha in which they can ‘be vulnerable and entangle themselves,’ as Ed Ng puts it?
I have not yet found a sangha in which I felt I could be myself, could be that vulnerable, could be welcomed for my griefs and failings. I always felt like I had to be someone else, according to their expectations of how a Buddhist ‘should’ act or be.
Perhaps that’s actually okay. Shouldn’t our teachers and communities also encourage us to be better, to grow and change in beneficial ways?
When the Buddha applied upaya, which is sometimes also translated as “teaching aids,” he did so with full knowledge of that person’s or community’s starting point. He understood and accepted where they were now. Then he offered a teaching that could draw them into a better place, a better understanding, a better life. They chose to follow that teaching or not.
This is not the sense I get from the Buddhist communities I visit today. I do not believe they understand where I am now, nor do they want to accept me as I am today. To be clear, they’re under no obligation to do so. Different sanghas serve very different populations and cannot be all things to all people, nor should they try.
Much of what they attempt to teach me is not for the purpose of enlightenment, but for the purpose of “fitting in” so that they feel more comfortable with my presence, rather than the other way around. This is harmony through conformity and it is practiced equally by western, progressive, mostly-white sanghas and more traditional, mostly Asian and Asian-American sanghas.
The tension and anxiety I feel in such environments creates an unnecessary barrier between the audience (myself) and the Dharma.
I take the greater share of responsibility for this. As a highly sensitive introvert, it is literally how I am wired. More relaxed or extroverted persons may experience the exact same context very differently than I do. This does not mean I am powerless. A 5’8″ tall person can become a great basketball player, but they don’t do it by getting taller. I also believe that meditation has at least some ability to rewire the brain, but not to rewrite the genetic code. This body, and it’s temperament, are my karma; they’re what I have to work with.
Which is why I find the two ways of understanding refuge to be outstandingly good news. The genetics that lend me my temperament and contribute to who I am today came from somewhere. Which means there were probably highly sensitive introverts during the Buddha’s time. I can only imagine he met them. Perhaps this teaching is for us?
Yet, why was the teaching of the Triple Gem the one that was passed down and emphasized so strongly? Well, that’s what communities do, right? They perpetuate themselves and the things they value. That’s what they’re for. And our tendency to create hierarchies may have contributed to the promotion of the Triple Gem over the Refuge Unto Yourselves idea. Lone hermits, on the other hand, rarely have heirs and are rarely interested in promoting hierarchies of any kind.
Luckily, we can all be a little bit of both. Being introverted doesn’t mean I hate people. In fact, I love people, especially one-on-one or small group interaction about important things. That’s why I enjoy being a chaplain. Intimate talks are where its at for introverts. And I can still visit temples and Dharma centers and sanghas from time to time. In fact, I can visit many different ones and get a broad understanding of the flavors of Buddhism. I can also learn from many teachers – all the inner buddhas of the world, in fact.
So it’s not entirely a case of either/or, just both/and in different measures. I may not have felt refuge from others the way Ed Ng describes, but I still take up his sacred challenge. I want be that kind of refuge for others – and for myself.
I have a sneaking suspicion that I should want a child more than I want my next travel adventure. As I have never wanted to be pregnant, give birth, change diapers, or go to school plays more than I have wanted my next trip to London, Tokyo, or even just Denver, I think not having children was probably the right decision for me.
“But you can do both!” parents and parents-to-be will cry. “I’m a parent and I still have a life!”
Yes, that’s true. But it’s hard. I learned that from observation. I knew that by the time I was five. (I was that pain-in-the-ass kid.)
I actually have good role models in my parents. They were married five years before they had their first child. We were both planned. They’ve now been married 40+ years and have spent more of their married life child-free than child-rearing. (Although, yes, they’re still parents after my brother and I moved out.) They both worked full-time while raising two kids and my mother even finished her bachelor’s degree by going to night school while we were in elementary. They have passions and hobbies and full, complete lives outside of us and that was deliberate on their part, from what they’ve told me.
Nevertheless, somehow, both my brother and I decided not to have kids and found stable, long-term partners who feel the same. I actually feel worse for my parents than for myself, because I think they would be wonderful grandparents. But with my brother and I now in our late thirties, I think they understand that’s unlikely.
For many years, I wondered if I would ever have children. I left the possibility open. The answer was always “not right now, but maybe someday.” I know people change; I know I change. I always wondered if I might have a child for the sake of a partner who deeply wanted one, especially if that person had an excess of those nurturing instincts I don’t find much in myself.
As I get older, I grow more thankful of my decision and more resolved not to have any children at all. And, yes, I do look around at people my age (or younger) with kids and think “I’m so glad that’s not me.” I’d lay down my life to protect a child, any child, but I don’t want one of my own.
They’re lovely parents and lovely children. I can see how enriching it’s been for that person to have a child, what a good job they’re doing raising their baby, and how wonderful that child is as a tiny person. But people who run marathons also find it personally fulfilling and I don’t want to do that either.
The decision not to have kids, however, is a little more loaded than the decision about whether or not to run marathons. Society feels like it has a right to weigh in and judge my character based on that decision. This has always baffled me completely.
I feel like it’s simple. If you don’t want kids and take the necessary steps to not have kids, then good on you. No social intervention (or even any commentary) needed.
If you don’t want kids and end up with one (or more) or if you do want them and can’t have them – then that’s where society may get involved. Adoptions agencies and fertility clinics exist for these reasons and they do a fairly good job of trying to help people get what they want one way or the other, despite the stress of either situation.
To me, kids are like small alien creatures that don’t make much sense. They’re fascinating and baffling and frustrating all in turns. I understand my dog better than the average tiny (or adult) human.
What it really comes down to is that I don’t want to reorient my life around being a parent, not even for the decade or two of primary child care. I love my life just the way it is. I watch parents sometimes in public places and they have their mind on their child all the time. Even when said child is sitting quietly and the parent is reading a magazine, their eyes regularly dart to check on their kid. That’s what a parent should do, but it’s just not something I want to do.
And I’ve heard all the accusations of selfishness, but don’t people also have kids because they want to? Aren’t both decisions ultimately about what I/we want?* Children conceived accidentally are joys to people who ultimately want to be parents in the long run. Even ‘accidents’ never considered have a way of turning into gems and I often wondered if this would happen to me, all the while doing everything I could to prevent it.
Once the child arrives, a certain amount of altruism is necessary to keep them alive, healthy, and happy, it’s true. The same could be said of keeping a company running or volunteering for a local charity or any form of social advocacy. With monastics as the Buddhist ideal of an altruistic life, I have many living role models of both paths, both ways to be selfless in the service of others. I try to be selfless everyday (and fail everyday) through a career that helps others.
There are lots of socially compelling reasons not to have children: climate change, overpopulation, resource depletion, growing inequality, etc. For those compelled by such reasons, adoption becomes even more attractive. That’s not why I made my decision, however. I simply don’t want to be a parent.
Siddhartha Gautama named his newborn son “Rahula,” which is translated as “fetter.” He then ran away from home to become the Buddha. Many people, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, have rightly questioned this.** Are children really fetters? Was Siddhartha being cruel? Did he ever regret his action, either before or after his awakening as the Buddha?
I think Siddhartha maybe just saw a simple truth of parenthood – that life as a parent has a tendency to revolve around your child(ren), at least for many years. Who can meditated on the interdependence of all phenomena when the baby needs changing or the screaming toddler is throwing spaghetti?
Many modern Buddhists do just this, in fact. But it’s hard, I’ve hear them say. Many have incorporated parenthood into their practice and achieved greater wisdom as a result. Rather than being incompatible, parenthood and practice can be complementary. This is praiseworthy, but if it were the only way to wisdom, those monastics I know would be out of luck and that doesn’t seem to be the case.
There are great things about being a parent that make the diapers and the spaghetti stains worth it (to others). Those wonderful times (one hopes) also draw the full attention of the parents, but it’s an attention I’d just rather spend on other things. Being an astronaut is also awesome, I hear, and I don’t want to do that either.
I’m now 36. I’ve felt this way since I was 16. I’ve taken the steps I needed to not have children. I’ve used every hormonal method of birth control out there (some of which have since been recalled) and they all come with bad side effects for me (though I know they can work better for other women). I’ve used every other form of birth control as I should and it’s worked so far, but not without a good share of anxiety and fussing I could happily live without.
Now that I am 36, however, my doctor didn’t question me when I raised the topic of tubal ligation, that is, permanent sterilization. Moreover, the procedure is now far less invasive than when I was 16 or even 26. It can even be done laparoscopically, just like my dad’s knee surgery, as an outpatient procedure. And, it’s finally covered by my insurance. This was a crucial step since for many years it either wasn’t covered at all or I just didn’t have insurance.
I am interested to hear from women who’ve had the procedure so I know what to expect and so I can weigh the pros and cons of my two options (essure or clips). For those of you who’ve read this far and are still thinking “How horrible!” or “She’s so selfish!” or “She’s sure to change her mind!” I don’t need to hear from you. You’re welcome to your opinions, but please share them elsewhere. I’m good.
*For folks living in developed countries with some level of female empowerment, access to reproductive health care, and bodily integrity. Without these, having children is often not much of a choice at all, especially for women.
**Siddhartha, the prince, did not leave his child in poverty without care. As the Buddha, he eventually returned and Rahula and his mother became disciples who, purportedly, obtained enlightenment themselves.