Buddha's Brain

"Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without." ~ Buddha

The Unexamined Life

Posted on August 26, 2015

“[38a] and if again I say that to talk every day about virtue and the other things about which you hear me talking and examining myself and others is the greatest good to man, and that the unexamined life is not worth living, you will believe me still less. This is as I say, gentlemen, but it is not easy to convince you. Besides, I am not accustomed to think that I deserve anything bad. If I had money, I would have proposed a fine,”

Plato – The Apology ( Plato’s version of the speech given by Socrates)

In every one of the higher religions, there is a strain of infinite optimism on the one hand and on the other, a profound reality that often comes across as pessimistic. They all teach that, in the depths of our being, an inner light resides…..but an inner light which our egotism keeps, for most of the time, in a state of more or less complete eclipse. If, however, it so desires, the ego can get out of the way, so to speak, can dis-eclipse the light and become identified with its divine source…..hence the unlimited optimism of the traditional religions. What’s viewed as their pessimism springs from the observed fact that though all are called, few are chosen for the sufficient reason that few choose to be chosen.
It has not been easy for me to always meet my ideals. In life, we have so many changing and transitory beliefs besides the ones most central to our lives. I hope that what I often write or say doesn’t sound too simple….for me, these are constant reminders of how to follow this path I’ve chosen to take.
I know that it is my deep and fixed conviction that man has within him the force of good and a power to translate that force into life. For me, this means a pattern of life that makes personal relationships more important, a pattern that makes more beautiful and attractive the personal virtues of: courage, humility, selflessness, and love.
I used to smile at my mother because the tears came so readily to her eyes when she heard or read of some incident that called out these virtues. I don’t smile anymore, because I find I have become more and more responsive in the same way to the same kind of story. And so, I believe that I both can and must work to achieve the good that is in me. Socrates words often come to me: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” By examination, we can discover what our good is, and we can realize that knowledge of good means its achievement.
I know that such self-examination has never been easy. The Buddha maintained that it was “the soul’s eternal search.” It seems, to me, particularly difficult these days, in a period of such rapid material expansion and such widespread global conflict. The Buddha taught the belief, which follows from this: If I have the potential of the good life within me and the compulsion to express it, then it is a power and a compulsion common to all men. What I must have for myself to conduct my search, all men must have: freedom of choice, faith in the power and the beneficent qualities of truth.
What frightens me most, today, is the denial of these rights because this can only come from the denial of, what seems to me, the essential nature of man. For if my conviction holds, man is more important than anything he’s created, and our great task is to bring back again, into a subordinate position, the monstrous superstructures of our society.
I hope this way of reducing our problems to the human equation is not simply an evasion of them. I don’t believe it is. For most of us, it is the only area, in which we can work…..the human area, with ourselves, with the people we touch…..and through these, too, a vicarious understanding with mankind.
I watch young people these days wrestling with our mighty problems. They are much more concerned with them than my generation of students ever was. They are deeply aware of the words equality and justice. But in their great desire to right wrong, they are prone to forget that nothing matters more than people. They need to add to their crusades the warmer and more affecting virtues of compassion and love. And here again come those personal virtues that bring tears to the eyes.
My Teacher, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama reminds us often that men have put forth enormous efforts to make their world a better place to live in. But, except in regard to gadgets, plumbing, and hygiene, their success has been pathetically small. As the proverb stated, ‘is paved with good intentions’. And so long as we go on trying to realize our ideals by bad or merely inappropriate means, our good intentions will come to the same bad ends. In this lie the tragedy and the irony of history….and of non-examination and questioning. The Buddha taught us to examine and question all….”Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.
Can I, as an individual, do anything to make future history a little less tragic and less ironic than history past, and present? I believe I can. As a citizen, I can use all my intelligence and all my goodwill to develop political means that shall be of the same kind and quality as the ideal ends which I am trying to achieve. And as a person, as a psychophysical organism, I can learn how to get out of the way so that the divine source of my life and consciousness can come out of eclipse and shine through me.
I am confident that what seems a hopeless battle to eliminate disease, poverty, starvation, war, human abuses, human tragedy…..is merely the beginning of the end of our tolerance to such human abuses…..the beginning of the end to this cycle of using fear, pain, violence to right what one (person, community, nation, religion) deems wrong. The power of good within us all is real and comes there from a source outside and beyond ourselves. Otherwise, I could not put my trust so firmly in it.

Light of Day

Posted on July 20, 2015

“Do not feel lonely, the entire universe is inside you.
Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.
Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.”   ― Rumi

Recently, I was invited to be a part of a Values and Ethics discussion panel in Boston that will take place in early 2016. Among the many general questions on the application form about myself, stood the old standard, “What belief do you hold to? What do you believe in?”  I wondered if they really wanted to hear what I had to say.
It’s a difficult question to answer, because for me, this perspective propagates and morphs daily……such as: I believe that every child has the right to an education; that no child should ever be subjected to being forgotten, to neglect, abuse, or trafficking; that no human being belongs to or need be enslaved by another; that animals are much wiser and more innocent than humans and not one should be abused, used or killed for the purpose of man’s greed and/or entertainment; that no religion (or it’s holy book) states that violence and abuse are the seeds by which positive change and success grow; that men and women are indeed equal; that optimism outweighs pessimism…..the situation doesn’t matter, it’s our reaction to it that does; that family is so very dear and true friends are a very, very rare gem that we are lucky to, perchance, find once in our lifetime; that love cannot be defined by anyone else and only the heart can speak to its Truth; that lies, dishonesty, gossip hurt and cause permanent scars; that forgiveness and compassion free ones soul from burden; that fear is detrimental and limits growth, knowledge and possibility; that hard work builds values and sets roots; that the only true prison, is the prison of the mind; that I would rather be in nature on any given day than in a shopping mall; that in our tech savvy world, we forget how to appreciate the beauty of our natural world and the simplicity of a summer day.
So many answers filled my mind, but from my soul, I wrote “Faith”…..faith wrought into life apart from creed or dogma. By faith, I mean a vision of good one cherishes and the enthusiasm that pushes one to seek its fulfillment, regardless of obstacles. Faith is a dynamic power that breaks the chain of routine, and gives a new, fine turn to old commonplaces. Faith reinvigorates the will, enriches the affections, and awakens a sense of creativeness. Active faith knows no fear, and it is a safeguard to me against cynicism and despair.
After all, faith is not one thing or two or three things. It is an indivisible totality of beliefs that inspire me: Belief in the Universe as infinite goodwill and all-seeing Wisdom, whose everlasting arms sustain me walking on the sea of life. Trust in my fellow men, wonder at their fundamental goodness and ability for compassion…and confidence that for so many facing sorrow and oppression, they will rise up strong and beautiful in the glory of morning and freedom. Reverence for the beauty and preciousness of the earth, and a sense of responsibility to do what I can to make it a habitation of health and plenty for all men. Faith in immortality because it renders less bitter the separation from those I have loved and lost, and because it will free me from unnatural limitations, and unfold still more faculties I have in joyous activity.
Even if my vital spark should be blown out, I believe that I should behave with courageous dignity in the presence of fate, and strive to be a worthy companion of the beautiful, the good, and the true. But fate has its master in the faith of those who surmount it, and limitation has its limits for those who, though disillusioned, live greatly.
It’s a terrible blow to my faith to know that millions of my fellow creatures must labor all their days for food and shelter, bear the most crushing burdens, and die without having known the joy of living. In knowing this, my security slowly vanishes forever, unable to regain the radiant belief of my younger years that earth is a happy home and hearth for the majority of mankind. But, faith is a state of mind. The believer is not soon disheartened. If he is turned out of his shelter, he builds up a house that the winds of the earth cannot destroy.
When I think of the suffering and famine, and the continued slaughter of men, my spirit bleeds. But the thought comes to me that, like the little dumb, poor, ugly and naive child I once was, mankind is growing out of the darkness of ignorance and hate into the light of a brighter day.

The Price of Practice

Posted on June 15, 2015

Over the course of the past few years….let’s say, five years….a growing number of polarizing topics have appeared on meeting agendas across monastery and meditation centers. Many of the points of debate are rooted in a topic very few are willing to address honestly in public. The price tag associated with the Dharma…studying with a particular teacher or at a particular center. Personally, I struggle to even try to put a price tag on a teaching, let alone charge someone a “set fee” or “investment” for something that not only has no price, but that was offered so freely by the Buddha. Many of my students often hear me say, “the Dharma is free”…an ethos that has been woven into my being from my first encounter with the Dharma. Certainly I didn’t pay a financial price to study with any of my dear teachers (past/present), and I, a simple nun, would not think myself better than they were/are, to charge students exorbitant fees, to study with me.
Now, of course, I often hear the arguments, “the lights need to stay on, the air, the heat, the building maintenance, tax, insurance, food, educational materials, etc.”, but in my estimation, these are not necessities. For instance, at CYM, my home monastery, we do not have air conditioning, and heat is at a minimal, generally only on nights that fall below 40°F so as to prevent water pipes from freezing and bursting….lights are only on as needed and we are a 100% donation based monastery where monastics (like myself) are responsible for 99% of the general maintenance and daily responsibilities….the 1% accounts for building/property/food safety regulations that are monitored by the State of NY. This is also the case with Namgyal. And both centers have a wonderfully committed team of volunteers that help us.
The difficulty lies in that as some monasteries or centers choose to stand with the traditional “Dharma is free” ideal, others charge obscene amounts to study and practice. These other centers have recently come under scrutiny as they continue to remove options for scholarship, work study programs and programs for the truly needy. The “new normal” in modern Buddhist centers seems to be: pay a large “investment” so that you can say you studied under ‘______’. Unfortunately, this has laid the groundwork for something the Buddha vehemently rejected in his day…the caste system. The system of the haves and have nots.
This very delicate topic is one that has weighed on my mind for several years. As my teachings progress, I am often encouraged by outside sources to charge an “investment” from students. Everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject, yet, it’s something I cannot, in good conscious, do. One of the beautiful things about Buddhism is that our practice teaches us every single day, in every single moment, in every single breath…..when we stop long enough to look around and be present, we are living the true Dharma. A masterful teacher can tell/teach you this a million times, but only you can experience and practice it….and it’s free!! :o) I’ve had students who have struggled financially in varying degrees….single parents with multiple jobs, homeless men, women and children, the struggling college students, drug addicts, people with a terminal illness, the middle class, the blue collar and many no collars…..I’ve also taught many corporate professionals who had it all and somehow, lost it all…money, house, a spouse, sobriety, a child….you name it. The Buddhadharma teaches us the Truth of Suffering (First Noble Truth) followed by Eightfold Path, and while suffering takes on more forms than I can possibly imagine, it is ubiquitous, non discriminatory and we all wish to be free from it.
Yesterday, I had the true pleasure of meeting a gentleman I have only met through letters, emails and writings. His name is Brent Oliver and he is a writer based in Lexington, Kentucky. I “met” Brent several years ago via CYM when he reached out to connect with a Sangha, any Sangha, that was online and communicating teachings freely over the internet. None of us were so savvy then and the tools required to host such teachings cost a great deal more than they do today. Brent is someone who was striving to connect deeply with a Sangha…a community and a teacher. A self-proclaimed “troublemaker”, Brent found his way to the Dharma through centers and situations as I note above. His persistence has taught him about self-practice, has opened his eyes to the truth of Buddhadharma practice and has recently made him an advocate for nominal or no-fee based programs in community centers. His article in Tricycle magazine (below, should you care to read it) raised many an eyebrow! I greatly appreciate Brent’s right effort in addressing a topic that many centers, teachers and students choose to look away from, so that his fellow human beings will all benefit and come to share in the right understanding of the Dharma. I sincerely wish him all the best in the practice of the Middle Way.
In Peace, 
Ajahn

White Trash Buddhist

Do you have to break the bank to break into the upper middle way? A Kentucky native shows us what practice looks like on minimum wage.

Brent R. Oliver

I am forever in debt to the handful of teachers, writers, and thinkers who introduced me to Buddhist practice, provide constant inspiration, and continue to shape my knowledge of this path.
Actually, I’m just forever in debt.
Every time I get in my 12-year-old car and rattle away to the nearest retreat center, I’m reminded that I’m a poor white trash Buddhist. It’s a good thing none of those luminaries will ever try to collect, since I can’t even afford the practice as it is. That’s a shame, because the dharma saved my life.

Once a miserable creature, I was crushed by depression and pursuing self-destruction with a level of dedication that would have made even Fight Club’s Tyler Durden cringe. When I came across a little book on Buddhism, I scoffed. It wasn’t an ordinary scoff, either. It was the abrasive, well-practiced derision of the outspoken skeptic. I bought the book because I was skeptical of even my own mockery.

Just a few chapters in, I understood that I’d always been a Buddhist. After the briefest descriptions of anicca, dukkha, and anatta, I felt their truths ring in my bones. These teachings didn’t just make sense; they described an innate philosophy I’d always possessed but couldn’t articulate.

This was 1998, before I had that newfangled Internet, so my search for a dharma group was confined to the listings in the back of Tricycle. I practiced as well as I could on my own, which was not very diligently. When I found a local Shambhala center, I signed right the hell up. I was ecstatic. Buddhism! In my town! I was going to fling myself at the dusty brown feet of an old Tibetan master, posthaste.

But when I showed up at the center, I made a baffling discovery: it was infested with upper-middle-class white people. I glanced around furtively for the maroon-robed saint I was sure must be nearby but found no such person. I considered slowly backing out of the room and slinking away, but it seemed rude.

So I stayed. For five years. I never officially joined, because I couldn’t pay. The membership fees were beyond my means. Thanks to some kind administrators, I was able to attend several programs. I even managed to live at one of Shambhala’s retreat centers in Vermont for two months.

There were two main groups of dedicated practitioners at the center: You had your older, upper-middle-class folks with professions, vacation time, and plenty of disposable income. Then you had your young people—generally of the same class—with no real jobs, who were content to live there in temporary poverty as long as the accommodations came with a spiritual teacher, vegetarian meals, and an honest shot at enlightenment.

The Shambhala retreat center was staffed by the latter and attended by the former. I was on the work-study crew, which meant laboring in the kitchen in exchange for room, board, and access to a large room full of cushions. I was 27 and had a job out in the world waiting tables that was quite real but not at all professional. And that’s where I got tangled up. Waiting tables, like other low-paying jobs, isn’t a gig with many benefits. I had health insurance, which is almost unheard of in the industry, but the perks ended there. No sick days, personal time, or paid vacation. Taking time off threw my bank account into convulsions. I would never have been able to put my job on hold for two months had I not lucked into an unexpected financial windfall: my grandmother, in a moment of feverish generosity, gave me some cash for no reason other than that I looked like I could use it. With my savings thus bolstered, I had my first opportunity to seriously commit to practice.

Once settled at the retreat center, however, I was disconcerted to find I didn’t really belong to either dominant demographic. Most of my fellow work-study staff had quit forgettable jobs to live in a tent behind the main building and devote themselves to Vajrayana practice. I couldn’t do that. Buddhism had saved my life, but it hadn’t transformed me into a dharma bum. Some of these kids had traded financial stability and careers—at least in the short term—to wander wherever the teachings led. Most either had a college degree, familial connections, or a padded curriculum vita to fall back on. I got to know several self-identified “dharma brats” who grew up in convert Buddhist households with the wherewithal to support their spiritual escapades. My own parents were blue-collar folks (Protestants, at that) who had built a successful business by working like mules. They saw my Buddhist practice as an Eastern oddity that should take a backseat to figuring out an honest career, and I’d inherited enough of their no-nonsense ethic to at least partially agree. I was drawn to Buddhism because of its practicality in daily life; I didn’t want to withdraw from the world.

And I definitely wasn’t one of the well-heeled professionals parking an Acura in the gravel lot for a pricey 30-day retreat. These were the parents of the future work-study staff. Middle-class Buddhists tend to produce more middle-class Buddhists, which is great, but I wasn’t one of them. I could only afford a little bit of the dharma, for a little while.

After my two-month immersion in the world of Shambhala, I decided to move on. I’d never gotten comfortable with its mixture of middle-aged affluence and youthful nonchalance. I stepped into the realm of Zen looking for some no-bullshit clarity, but the same class issues were lurking in this new austerity. Here too, retreats and programs were cost-prohibitive to someone in a rickety tax bracket like mine. I worked mostly nights, so it was hard enough to get off for group zazen on Wednesday evenings—and that was free. Finances weren’t the only burden, either: it can be rough trying to connect with a sangha when your schedule deviates from the nine-to-five Monday through Friday grind, the established upper-middle-class routine. During my affiliation with the Zen group I was one of only a few who didn’t have a serious connection to the larger sangha. I missed casual gatherings, community potlucks, meetings with the Zen master, formal ceremonies, and weekend programs because I had no cash and lived outside the 40-hour work week. I never for a second felt unwelcome, but I also knew that I didn’t fit the dynamic.

With all that in mind, I had gone to trade school to get licensed as a massage therapist. I thought it might let me set my own hours and claw my way up out of the restaurant trade. Even though the cost of a trade school was much cheaper than a college degree, I racked up some intimidating debt. When you’re broke, debt is the easiest thing to accumulate because it seems like the only road to a better life. I was struggling as a server, and the only way to acquire new skills that might let me rise above my station was to pay for them. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s the new American way: spend money you don’t have, to bet on a well-paid future.

My gamble didn’t pay off. I unknowingly walked right into another profession chock-full of no benefits. Zero sick days, zero vacation time, and every hour I spent away from the clinic was an hour I didn’t get paid.

It seemed as if my practice would never mature. I continued to sit at home and learn mainly from books and the Internet. Like many working-class Americans, I found that my lack of a traditional college education narrowed my employment opportunities. And education had become so ludicrously expensive that it was far out of reach.

I wasn’t alone in my dinky little job. In 2012, the National Employment Law Project found that 58 percent of jobs created since the recession ended in 2009 were low-wage, paying less than $13.83 an hour. Even worse, the Economic Policy Institute had declared in 2010 that 28 percent of Americans would be trapped in low-wage jobs for ten years. On the whole, poverty-level jobs are far outpacing the general economy’s recovery.

So my practice suffered. I kept massaging but got a second job waiting tables. It wasn’t even easy to score that job, because lowly as it was, a lot of people needed it. Still the debt rose. My zazen felt shaky without the guidance of a teacher, and I was becoming disillusioned with Zen on the whole. I was no good at striving without striving or thinking nonthinking.

By now I’d started studying writings from several Theravada teachers as well as early Buddhist sutras. Maybe I was what Chögyam Trungpa would have considered a spiritual materialist, but I was just looking for something to resonate with me as deeply as my first contact with the teachings had. Vipassana turned out to be that thing. I looked around, but there were no Vipassana or Theravada organizations in my town. If I wanted to go to a costly retreat I’d have to travel, which added another expense to the menacing pile of debt. My Internet searches for nearby centers kept widening. As the concentric circles spread out, I could practically hear my battered credit cards sighing at the prospect of plane tickets or car repair bills. My injuries couldn’t absorb another insult.

I’m not bitter about the retreat system in America. There’s no doubt that retreat is the best way to solidify and deepen one’s practice, and of course it can’t happen for free, because centers have to pay rent, bills, and teachers. I get that. People like me are just lost along the way. We don’t feel the overwhelming urge to simply leave the world behind and go live in a temple. Yet we don’t have enough money—or the right kind of jobs—to focus our practice in a serious, formal setting. To be sure, there are options that help us along: Work-study and financial aid are two big ones. I’ve utilized both before, and I will again. I have no choice. But it’s still painful. For the first Vipassana retreat I attended, I received a scholarship that covered half of the fee. At the end of the day-and-a-half program, we heard the usual talk on dana (generosity). It’s important. These were local teachers with day jobs, not international dharma celebrities with book deals and podcasts. Our donations would compensate them for their time. But my face was hot and my hands shook as I pulled out the only tenant of my wallet to slip in the envelope. A five-dollar bill was what I had to contribute to someone who had just spent 42 hours guiding my practice.

By this time I had somehow managed to turn a lifelong passion into a vocation. The only thing I’d ever really wanted to be was a writer. During my short stint in college, I figured that by age 22 I’d be a gentleman of letters, putting out a novel every couple of years for which I’d be paid, oh, I don’t know   . . . a million bucks? But in the 15 years since the dean had bounced me out of school for aggressive jackassery (my declared major had been English, but my unofficial area of study was alcoholic high jinks, which seemed pretty in line with the writerly lifestyle), I’d figured out that being a rich novelist was hard. I was finally getting paid for writing, though not in the way I’d always imagined. The beginning of a freelance career is a delicate thing, and selling nonfiction articles wasn’t something that made my lifestyle comfortable enough to start hopping off to retreats every couple of months. Luckily, writing was exactly as lucrative as my previous jobs, so I didn’t have to suffer the sudden shock of fortune and leisure.

In 2013, Mother Jones reported that the month of July had seen 47,000 new jobs in retail and 38,000 more lucky folks like me working in food service. I had given up massage but was forced to keep waiting tables as I struggled to attract publishers for my work. The Zen retreat I’d just attended was on a Saturday, and that’s kind of a big deal for restaurants; I would’ve made more money waiting tables than the retreat cost. It was difficult. And not just because of the money that I would lose at the restaurant; I had writing deadlines to meet as well. Every word I typed had the potential to bring in new clients with new dollars to create the life I wanted, the life that could lead to the eradication of debt and grant me privileged access to upper-middle-class dharma.

And I’m on the upper end of the low-class dharma student spectrum. My main concerns are battling debt and trying to escape the economic quagmire these crappy jobs are perpetuating. I still have health insurance, but millions don’t. When a practitioner can’t afford a simple checkup or mammogram, a weeklong retreat is out of the question. My wife and I have no children and no elderly relatives to care for, but those who do have issues that clearly dwarf mine. Any serious practitioner who has to cough up for childcare or assisted living is in a spot so tight it squeaks, especially if they had a decent middle-class gig that evaporated during the recession. A 2012Washington Post article reported that mid-wage vocations accounted for around 60 percent of vanished jobs but made up only 27 percent of job growth during the recovery that year. I’ve never had a job worthy of disappearing in a recession; I’ve worked in the midrange of poverty ever since I entered the job market. But a lot of folks who used to have reasonably comfortable lives are now saddled with problems that seem insurmountable. Where are their dharma dreams?

Typical white-collar American life is quite conducive to dharma pursuits. But for those of us who don’t have access to that lifestyle—or have lost it—the path is doubly frustrating. We wind our way through the minefield of financial insecurity while trying simultaneously to cultivate a fulfilling practice in solitude. Those of us in the lower class have no real disposable income, no truly “free” time, and we have to keep up a break-neck speed just to break even. We get up early to sit before heading to a job that we can tolerate only because we sit. We meditate before bed to alleviate some of the daily stress that would otherwise keep us up all night. Economically and spiritually, it’s always a battle just to stay put. Just to not lose ground. At any given moment, our quest for awakening has to be sidelined as more mundane matters become paramount.
Sometimes it’s not possible to attend a retreat if you need to crank out a piece on how hard it is to be a poor white trash Buddhist in America. But you can’t rise to financial stability without sacrificing that retreat in order to complete the work that will later make the retreat possible.
And even if it does become possible, what of others like me? As America’s middle class withers, fewer will be left to carry on Buddhist practice here. The well-to-do have had no problem making Buddhism work for them. What kind of collective mind this cultivates remains to be seen. Now the most important question regarding the future of Buddhism in America might well be: whose?
Brent R. Oliver is a writer based in Lexington, Kentucky.
Illustration by André Da Loba
Published in Fall 2014 Tricycle Magazine
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