No Judgment Day

For those waiting for the Rapture, this weekend was pretty much a bust. Personally, I wasn’t expecting much by way of the end of the world, but I have been thinking lately about accountability.

At a recent Buddhist meditation class, the teacher led us all in a recitation of the five precepts. These are Buddhist ethical guidelines that describe the effort to live a harm-free life. When spoken out loud, the practitioner sets an intention not to kill or take life, not to steal or take that which is not freely given, not to use sexual energy to manipulate others or disturb intact relationships, not to speak in a manner that is harsh or untrue, and not to take intoxicants that will cloud the mind from seeing clearly.

The precepts are considered to be recommendations, rather than commandments, offering the practitioner some direction in life without the threat of a judgy God watching over. But it isn’t as simple as do it or don’t, if you feel like it. There is, in both Buddhism and Judaism, a sense of accountability.

In Buddhism, there is the well-known concept of karma, which identifies that there are future consequences for our moral actions. On its surface it seems like a cause and effect idea, where the choices I make now will produce likely outcomes. If I am a liar, people won’t trust me. If I steal, I could be arrested, etc.

But what happens if the transgression isn’t overtly realized? With no judgy God, is there accountability? I am coming think the answer is yes. I went to hear a talk the other night by Howard Cohn, who leads the Mission Dharma of San Francisco. He said the way to begin to have happiness–the kind the Buddha taught, that is lasting happiness–is to live a good life.

Cohn talked about the reverberations that come back to us from actions that are harmful. Whether these are thoughts, words, or deeds, if they are greedy, angry, or lustful, they result in our own agitation and suffering. To help quiet the mind, develop concentration and mindfulness, it is very useful to think and act in ways that produce more calm effects.

In this way, accountability is largely with yourself. You can create more suffering for yourself or not, based on the moral choices you make. The precepts described above give guidance on how to create less suffering for yourself and others in your daily  life. In this essay on karma and reincarnation, it says that moral accountability is akin to other natural processes.

At its core, therefore, Buddhism has a sense of moral justice, though there is no overseeing arbiter or judge, and no judgment day as such. It might be better to see the process of karma as a natural phenomenon. If you look after a fruit tree carefully, pruning it at the right time and feeding it appropriately, good fruit ensues. If you fail to look after it properly then it will not bear fruit or the fruit will be sparse. In short, we reap the rewards of what we do that is wholesome, and suffer for what we do that is unwholesome.

In Judaism, there is a notion of responsibility which also speaks to the cause and effect of our actions. In the book, Everyday Holiness, which describes the Jewish spiritual path known as Mussar, it says, “We humans are unique among creatures in being able to anticipate consequences to the extent that we can, and as a result, we bear responsibility for our actions…the message here is clear that each of us is called upon to take responsibility now for what we will cause to happen after.” What matters most, Mussar teachers say, is how we relate to other people. So in addition to having responsibility for the moral consequences of our actions, we also must “bear the burden of the other,” or seek the benefit of the other in every possible circumstance.

As a parent, there is something that resonates with me in this concept of responsibility. I find myself every day doing things I don’t necessarily want to do, but that I do anyway to benefit my kids or my family. I have come to accept that I am part of something greater and even though I am sometimes frustrated, annoyed, or grumpy about my obligations, in my finer moments I am grateful for the role I play in this family unit.

I think this is probably a model for how I could come to feel as a human being in general, feeling connected to and serving the greater good of all people. And perhaps, as the Buddhists teach, not only for people, but for the benefit of all living beings. The teachers say this is the way towards happiness. Maybe even, a form of rapture.

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Being There

As a parent, I often feel my children’s pain. They come to me crying and suddenly I feel myself getting teary too. It might be hurt feelings or a bonked head on the corner of the kitchen counter. (Damn that age when they’re just the right height for that!) My response in those moments makes a difference. If I dismiss their feelings – “You’re fine!” – they are left alone. But if I feel it too, they know that someone cares. I don’t necessarily have to fix it.

This is one way of looking at compassion, a trait we have been studying in my Mussar class and one that is also important in Buddhist teachings. Compassion is a sympathetic response to another.

While a parent’s love readily sets the stage for compassion to occur, it is not so easily accessed in other relationships. In the book Everyday Holiness, the primary text we are using for my class on Mussar, it says: “The moral precepts of Judaism demand that we be compassionate to every soul.”

In our class the other night, we puzzled over what compassion really is. Some thought it meant the ability to feel what another is feeling, to put yourself in the other’s shoes. Another thought that compassion meant to have pity on other people. Many of us were not quite sure. How does it differ from love? When is my desire to help another person compassion and when is it generosity?

According to Jewish teachings, compassion has everything to do with how we relate to others. “Compassion is an inner quality that grows within us out of the perception that we are not really separate from the other,” it says in Everyday Holiness. “We have a commonsense appreciation that we are all separate beings but the truth is that we are very much connected at several levels.” When connectedness resonates within us, we are able to feel another’s pain (and happiness) as if it were our own.

Mussar teachings say that is not enough to feel compassion. One must also act on it. “Compassion does not come into being just by feeling empathy,” the book says. “The depth and richness of the emotional connection must be translated into action that expresses concretely how truly moved you are to take care of the other. It is the action you take that turns a relationship or a shared emotion into compassion.”

I am thinking now of the people in Japan who have suffered such sudden and catastrophic disasters in the past week. I feel for the loss of human life, of homes, and of their sense of safety. I worry about the ongoing threat from the nuclear reactors. But what will I do to express that concern? According to these teachings, that is what matters.

Buddhist teachings on compassion also emphasize the call to action. “Compassion is not at all weak. It is the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world,” it says in the book, Lovingkindness, by Sharon Salzberg. “Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal. To develop this mind state of compassion, is to learn to live, as the Buddha put it, with sympathy for all living beings, without exception.”

The goal of our spiritual practice is to be able to understand, to be able to look without illusion at what is natural in this life, at what is actually happening for others and for ourselves. This willingness to see what is true is the first step in developing compassion. More difficult than acknowledging pain, however, is opening to it. This is the second step in developing compassion: opening to pain and establishing an appropriate relationship to it. We may have to do this a little bit at a time.

Salzberg says even very simple actions can make a big difference. “We may not be able to take away the mass of somebody’s suffering, but we can be present for them. Even if through our small act of being present, somebody does not feel as alone in their suffering as they once did, this will be a very great offering.”

I think it is interesting that the presence of another, in and of itself, can ease pain and suffering. Just being there. I guess that is why there is the Jewish custom to sit shiva after a death. In Jewish life, family and friends come to the house of the bereaved for seven days. People eat and talk, but the custom is mainly to come and sit with the person who is grieving. Just being there is enough.

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Cooking in the Dark

In a fundamental way, I feel at home in the kitchen. It is the place where I can get my bearings. If I’m agitated and anxious, I don’t really want to be there. I don’t want to be anywhere, but when I face the stove, suddenly I know this. I can start to deal with it. Likewise, if I am happy and want to spend some time doing something I love, I will often begin to dream up food I want to make.

I discovered this one summer working as a cook at Farm & Wilderness camps in Vermont. F&W is a Quaker place, where silent meetings are held everyday and simple work is valued. It was there in the kitchen, without music or radio to distract me, that I began to sense the connection between making food and some core truth in me.

Food is an important part of spiritual practice. In Judaism there are strict rules around the acquisition, preparation, and eating of food. The rules, known as kashrut, are the body of Jewish law that deal with what foods can and cannot be eaten and how those foods must be prepared. It is not a cuisine or a style of cooking.

In the chapter called “What Jews Eat,” in her book Living a Jewish Life, Anita Diamant writes: “Perhaps the most compelling explanation [for the rules of kashrut] is the idea, restated in modern times by Martin Buber, that kashrut hallows the everyday. The intent of kashrut is not to deny the body’s needs or pleasures, but to turn a natural function into a holy act.”

Another explanation is that it is meant to instill a reverence for life, especially animal life. “The biblical mandate not to ’cause pain to any living creature,’ has been cited as an explanation for the rules of ritual slaughter and as a justification for Jewish vegetarianism,” she writes. Importantly, the rules of kashrut require paying attention to what you are doing.

I recently attended a class on Mindful Eating, taught by a longtime practitioner at Seattle Insight Meditation Society. She introduced us to the work of a number of Buddhists who have a special interest in food and cooking. One of them, Jan Chozen Bays, is a Zen priest and pediatrician, who writes and teaches seminars on the topic.

Bays talks about the seven hungers in the body. These hungers exist in the eyes, nose, mouth, stomach, cells of the body, mind, and heart. How food looks, smells, and tastes can all lead us to eat, regardless of the hunger in our stomach. Our sudden cravings for certain foods when our bodies need a specific nutrient and our emotional needs that we try to meet through food also contribute to our eating habits. Within these, there is ample room for developing mindfulness, Bays says. Why am I wanting this food right now and is this a desire I want to pursue? Can I meet this need or hunger some other way that might be more satisfying?

Our teacher also introduced us to the work of Edward Espe Brown, a Soto Zen Buddhist priest and an accomplished chef. In this article, he talks about becoming mindful in the kitchen. He begins by describing the Zen notion of “feeling your way in the dark,” being careful and sensitive to what is happening. “Your capacity for cooking will grow and develop from your devotion to being in the dark, not knowing what to do, but carefully finding your way,” he writes. “You enter the kitchen and become intimate with cooking through cooking.”

Our ordinary effort is to dream up a picture of how we want things to be, and endeavor to make it come true. Now, in the dark, you feel your way along, and your wisdom flashes: a salad, a soup; the virtue of spinach, apple, and walnut speaks to you. The body becomes alive because you are doing something. Yes, it’s good to stop and sit and allow the usual impulses for motion an opportunity to move inwardly instead of outwardly — beautiful work there. Yet the hands love to be hands. You give them life by allowing them to find out how to do things — how to wash and cut, stir and knead, ladle and mop.

He advises cooks to put recipes aside and instead engage directly with ingredients. In this Q&A article, he discusses how to do this. “In cooking classes I emphasize adding one ingredient at a time and tasting before and after, so you start to know for yourself what each ingredient is doing,” he says. “If you just put everything in the pot and taste it, you don’t know why it tastes like it does. You don’t know what each ingredient is doing. If you add one ingredient at a time and taste it, you start to know what a spice or seasoning can do.”

I am generally a cook who likes to follow recipes. It will be different for me to find my way in the dark without that guidance. I think I’ll start with that eggplant in the fridge.

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Biding Time

I’m always kind of amazed when people honk their horns in traffic. It makes no sense. Not that they should enjoy waiting, no one does. The honking is just blowing off steam.

Impatience comes up a lot in daily life. We have a sense that things should move at a certain pace or we want the instant gratification we have become so used to in our culture, and we are easily frustrated when we have to wait.

But maybe it’s worth it to cultivate some patience. In a lecture on Zen Buddhism, Gerry Shishin Wick writes, “Einstein was once asked about his creativity and he touched upon this subject of patience and effort. He said the search may take years of groping in the dark; hence the ability to hold on to a problem for a long time and not be destroyed by repeated failure is necessary for any serious researcher. His observation can apply to our own practice. We could say the search may take years of groping in the dark; hence the ability to hold on to a problem or your question and your aspiration for a long time and not be destroyed by repeated failure is necessary for any serious Zen student.”

I have been thinking a lot about patience lately, what it means to have it and what happens when I don’t. In Buddhism, one is said to be practicing. We are practitioners. I think patience goes hand in hand with practicing. You are moving in a direction, but you are not there yet. You may never get there, wherever there is. Certainly, it’s not going to come instantly.

There is something a little painful about patience. This is recognized in both Jewish and Buddhist teachings.

Rabbi Abigail Treu, a rabbinic fellow at the Jewish Theological Seminary, writes: “Having patience means not only the ability to slow down in our fast-paced world, but also controlling our impulse to grow frustrated when things are not moving quickly enough or going our way.” To do this, she says “we find a way to trust in a positive outcome…to see what good might come out of a difficult or frustrating situation.”

In the Mussar book Everyday Holiness it says, “Patience is not just about waiting, it’s about bearing.” Enduring and tolerating are also words that come into play.

In the lecture on Zen practice that I quoted above, it says: “To learn to live with patience and not be drawn into anger you must let go of the notion that you can live without pain, suffering, disappointment, injury. Here we are asked, encouraged, to practice living with life’s discomforts.”

Jack Kornfield, a well-known Buddhist teacher in the States had this to say about patience in an essay on Right Understanding:

Work to nourish that quality of constancy, of what’s called, “a long-enduring mind.” It’s not a short game. You know, we’re used to instant food, drive-through, tell the lady through the speaker, “Yes, I’d like a Big Mac, fries and a coke,” or whatever it is. You drive around and you get it and you can eat it while you’re driving; you don’t even have to stop. Instant gratification. This is not an instant gratification thing. It is the longest thing you’ll ever do because it’s your whole life. It’s really to discover how to transform your life from being on automatic pilot to being conscious, to discovery, to play. And it’s wonderful. So it means that you don’t complete it, you actually learn how to play the game and make your life into that.

Patience is having the willingness to hold on to a certain amount of tension. To stay where you are even if it’s uncomfortable, just to see what happens next. Something will, of course. I got interested in this topic after hearing a beautiful talk by Kamala Masters. “Patience is generosity,” she said. “It is a gift of safety and reverence.” I immediately thought of being a parent when she said this, how having patience is an act of generosity to children. I love that.

“Patience is a strong quality,” she said. “You have be humble to step back and be quiet, take a look at the situation and gather more information, then you take the next step forward.” Or as Einstein would say, grope in the dark.


Rules of Engagement

Trust is usually something we think of in terms of other people. Can I trust this person? That is really about whether or not they are honest or have the integrity to do what you think they should do even if you’re not around to see them do it. Trust is also something we engage in when we step into an airplane and buckle up while others prepare to launch this behemoth into the sky and land it safely somewhere else. We feel betrayed if things don’t work out the way we’d hoped.

But on the spiritual path, trust isn’t so much about other people. In Judaism, the concept of trust relates to our limited perspective. “We can only see part of the picture of life at any time, and often only a small part, and so we draw faulty conclusions about what something means,” it says in the book Everyday Holiness. We can’t see the big picture — for example, how something that seems rotten will turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. We cultivate trust, in part, so that we don’t put too much stock in our immediate reactions to life. This is considered to be trust in God.

There is also a sense of a lack of control over our lives, which raises questions about taking initiative. “It is right to put all your powers into taking action to better your own situation and that of the world because you understand and accept your real responsibility,” the book says. “Your obligation is to act, not to determine the outcome.”

The concept of trust comes up in Buddhist practice too. In the book, Smile at Fear, Awakening the True Heart of Bravery, Chogyam Trungpa writes, “The reservoir of trust is a very simple, straightforward idea. If we accept a challenge and take certain steps  to accomplish something, the process will yield results — either success or failure.

Trust means that we know that our actions will bring a definite response from reality. We know that we will get a message. Failure is generally telling us that our action has been undisciplined and inaccurate in some way. Therefore, it fails. When our action is fully disciplined, it usually is fulfilled; we have success.

Trust is being willing to take a chance, he says, acting with confidence that the phenomenal world will respond. “The fruition of our action will always provide us with information,” he writes. “Such trust in the reservoir keeps us from being too arrogant or too timid. If you’re too arrogant, you’ll find yourself bumping into the ceiling. If you’re too timid, you’ll be pushed up by the floor. Roughly speaking, that’s the concept of the reservoir.”

“We begin to feel that we are dealing with a rich world, one that never runs out of messages,” he writes. “The only problem arises if we try to manipulate the situation in our favor.”

I am fascinated by this. Scientists look for the facts, the laws of nature. This seems to me to be about the rules of engagement, trusting in what he calls the dynamic process. “The ancient Chinese Book of Changes, or I Ching, often talks about success being failure and failure being success. Success sows the seeds of future failure, and failure may bring a later success,” he writes. “Whether the situation brings success or failure, it brings an unconditional good understanding.” I can live with that.


Guarding My Tongue

Like most Americans, I am deeply dismayed by the shooting of Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Arizona this weekend. Six people died in the attack, including a nine year-old child. This is a terrible tragedy.

Whether or not the man who committed the crime subscribed to the divisive political ideology that is rampant in our culture, his act has sparked an acknowledgment that the conversation around us is, in fact, dangerous.

As kids we were taught to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” According to spiritual teachers of both Jewish and Buddhist traditions, this is wrong. In fact, hurtful speech carries more power and can do more harm than a single act of physical brutality. In the Mussar text, Everyday Holiness, it says, “Speech is judged more powerful than the sword because a physical weapon can injure only those in proximity, while speech can kill at a distance.”

The first time I read this, I wasn’t sure what it meant. I think I understand it better now. Language that calls for bringing down the government or suggesting that certain districts be “targeted” may be said aloud once, heard by many, and lead to numerous acts of violence. “The primary Mussar guideline for speech is not whether something is true or not but rather what impact our words will have,” the book says. “If our speech may cause people financial, physical,  psychological,  or other harm (or even anxiety or fear), then we are enjoined to hold our tongues.”

The kind of speech in the news today is that of people like Sarah Palin and others in the Tea Party movement who have used violent imagery to get out the vote. They will likely deny that they are responsible for what happened. We should not expect them to do otherwise.

This is discouraging, in part because it feels like there’s nothing we can do. We can express our outrage. We can say it has to stop. But in the end, there is a feeling of powerlessness.

Except that we can do something. It’s true, we can’t change what other people say and write, but we can look at the implications of what we ourselves are saying. I want to tell Sarah Palin that she should guard her tongue, but maybe instead I should think about guarding my own.

In Buddhism, this is called Right Speech. It is part of the Noble Eightfold Path. In this lecture by Abbess Taitaku Patricia Phelan, she explains the concept.

The Buddha was precise in his description of Right Speech.  He defined it as “abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, and abstinence from idle chatter.”  In the vernacular this means not lying, not using speech in ways that create discord among people, not using swear words or a cynical, hostile or raised tone of voice, and not engaging in gossip.  Re-framed in the positive, these guidelines urge us to say only what is true, to speak in ways that promote harmony among people, to use a tone of voice that is pleasing, kind, and gentle, and to speak mindfully in order that our speech is useful and purposeful.

Buddhists have an interesting explanation of why thoughtless speech can be so harmful. Again, Phelan: “I think one of the characteristics of speech is that by talking to others about someone else, we have a tendency to reduce the fullness of that person to a category,” she says. “So, the person becomes ‘that’ kind of person. You know, ‘what would you expect from someone like that?’”

The harm comes from turning the other person into a fixed idea. “It is sort of like taking one frame from a movie and using the picture of that instant to be the whole person, freezing both our opinion of them as well as the way we respond to them,” she says. “I think the more we talk about someone with a third party, the more our opinion becomes solidified, and we mistake this solidity for reality. So, speech can be a conditioning agent whereby we lose our freedom of both perception and response. We, ourselves, become fixed and unable to grow out of a particular opinion of and response to another person.”

If I want to think about what happened this weekend, instead of laying blame on whose actions caused this tragedy, I am going to try to focus on the unimaginable grief and worry of the people injured and their families. I’m going to try to think about the incredible power that words can have to teach, to heal, to comfort, and connect, but also to do real and lasting harm. I am going to try to learn something about guarding my tongue.


Just Do it

Seize the day. Go for it. Just do it. These are slogans, an ad campaign, even the title of a movie. They resonate ambition, courage, and success. That’s why we like them. They’re also a good introduction to the trait of enthusiasm that we have recently been studying in my Mussar class.

According the book Everyday Holiness, “The soul-trait of enthusiasm or zeal carries the sense of awakened energy…The lesson for us here is that merely showing up in life just isn’t enough.” Plodding through our daily routines dodging the slings and arrows and seeking comfort here and there just isn’t going to cut it on a spiritual path. You have to try, stretch, push yourself along.

The Buddhists agree. They would call it bringing energy and intention to your practice. Sitting on the cushion, your back a little slumped, your mind bored and wandering isn’t going to get you to enlightenment. You have to focus, seek, listen.

What does trying mean? For me it starts with the question, “If not now, when?” I read a book about a year ago called How to Live, A Search for Wisdom from Old People. It was a written by a Henry Alford who interviewed a bunch of people who were all 70 or older. I was struck by one woman who commented that you should act now in your life. There is no later. Now is later, she said.

Enthusiasm or zerizut is like that. Do good deeds now. Don’t let the opportunity pass you by. And do it til it’s done. “As important as it is to be quick off the mark, it is equally important  to sustain energy throughout the whole enterprise,” it says in Everyday Holiness. “It takes enthusiasm not to bog down, wander off, or pull up midcourse but to press on to finish the good deed with vigor.”

There is another aspect to this trait that I think is really interesting. It is the idea that laziness is connected to our physicality. That the heaviness of the body or of gravity keeps us from acting with zeal. To cultivate enthusiasm is to counter that heaviness with the lightness or weightlessness of spirit.

I cleaned out my closet last weekend. There were a lot of extra clothes in there, things I don’t wear and honestly some that I had forgotten I owned. This was definitely one of those, I’ll do it later projects. It was interesting to see that while the motivation for diving in and finally doing it was to practice enthusiasm, I thought a lot more about gratitude and generosity. I ended up sorting through my clothes with the idea in mind that someone else might really be able to use these items. I felt grateful for the comforts I have enjoyed in my life and I felt excited to share what I had with others.

The project is not entirely done. I did bring several bags over to the local Goodwill. And there are a couple more that I plan to donate to a transitional housing facility for homeless women. I love walking into my pared down closet now. It is lighter and so am I.


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