Thursday, September 22, 2011

RIP USA 1776-2000

Lately I have been reading a searing, vivid, powerful memoir entitled Every Man in this Village is a Liar by Megan K. Stack, a young journalist who is featured as one of the speakers at an upcoming Literary Festival at Old Dominion University, a few miles away from where I work in Norfolk. I had picked up a copy of her book at Kramer Books in Washington, DC, and was immediately captivated by her precise images and her moral passion, so I bought it, and have scarcely been able to put it down since.

The book is mesmerising in its vividness and eloquence, but her subject matter--the war zones of the Middle East where she was sent as a correspondent by the Los Angeles Times--is utterly appalling. She records what she sees and experiences, first in Afghanistan, then on the Israel/Palestine border, then Iraq (and later elsewhere) with such clarity, precision, candor and pathos that you feel it in your bones.

However, reading this account of the sheer cruelty and horror of war on all whom it touches has also left me in even greater despair for my country than ever, particularly because she is eyewitness to innumerable atrocities wrought not only by the so-called "terrorists" (whatever the hell THAT means) but by the US military as well. For indeed, we are guilty as hell in all of this--except, of course, that "we"--the majority of American voters--never actually had any say in this ongoing crime against humanity, since the Bush Regime hijacked the country in 2000 and 2004, and Obama, who was legitimately elected (for a change) on a promise of ending the war and putting an end to the perversion of justice in horrific places like Guantanamo, has only continued these heinous occupations in the Middle East and the ongoing atrocities in which "our boys" are complicit every day.

And so indeed, my original fear has been validated--that the United States of America, as a concept with any real basis in the enlightened ideals of Thomas Paine, the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights, ceased to exist on December 12,2000--the day a shamelessly partisan Supreme Court overrode the rule of law and validated the theft of an election. The great hoax of 9/11/01 thereafter only confirmed the hijacking of our nation by this pernicious criminal syndicate of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. And since then, the former "United States of America" has become a neofascist, corporate sponsored, pseudo-democratic zombie nation, living a lie, murderously stalking the world while muttering empty platitudes about "freedom," "democracy" and the "global war on terror."

I wish I could renounce my citizenship and move elsewhere--I can't. But then, it does not matter whether I am a "citizen" or not, since the nation of which I was once a proud citizen no longer exists. So instead, I have no alternative but to proclaim myself a citizen of Gaia, like my role-model Thomas Paine, who said "the world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion." And a citizen of Gaia can live anywhere on the planet and still be at home. In fact, all nation states are just mental formations--arbitrary lines drawn on maps. We are bound by their laws, but the only laws that matter, ever, are those that are compatible with the Laws of God (i.e. love your neighbor as yourself) and the Laws of Gaia (This is because that is). If any given laws enacted by any human government are compatible with these, we obey them; if not, we engage in Satyagraha.

Monday, September 5, 2011

My daily practice

"Wherefore by their fruits shall ye know them." --Jesus.

With this luminous quote, the Palestinian Jewish Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth, gave us the only reliable litmus test for evaluating another person's belief system or practice--its "fruits"--that is, the Karmic consequences of that belief and/or practice on everyone else.

So I share my own evolving practice not in any prescriptive sense--not "this is what you should do"--but rather simply for the curiosity of anyone who encounters these words, now or in the future: this is what I do, at this time. I would encourage everyone else to likewise share his or her practice routine, for in this way, we can all learn from each other and develop a personal practice suited to our own particular path. So here is the protocol for the practice I have evolved, in its latest incarnation:

First I read some Dharma. Right now, I am reading Pema Chodron's exegesis of Shantideva, entitled "No Time to Lose." I try to read a little bit of this each morning, in order to focus my mind on practice and diffuse whatever shenpa--whatever obsessive thoughts--have been provoked by my reading of the editorial page over breakfast. Then, but only when I sense that I am mentally and emotionally ready, I enter into a ceremonial space by taking off my sandals before I walk upstairs to my sanctuary in the attic. I have found that the tradition of taking off one's shoes before meditation makes good sense, because immediately we become more mindful of each step we take, and this, likewise, prepares us for formal meditation.

Then, after bowing to my Indonesian wood-sculpture of the Buddha, I practice the Qigong longevity sequence that I learned from the eminent Tai Chi master Gabriel Chin, with whom I had the joy and privilege of learning and practicing while we lived in Michigan in the early 90's. He was one of my first and finest teachers.

The longevity sequence consists of a set of simple exercises to generate chi or vital energy, and enhance its balanced circulation. The first exercise is to simply jiggle up and down like a puppet on a string, about 100 times or so. Next is to do 10 arm rolls (like a crawl-stroke and back-stroke while swimming) forwards, then backwards. Then I do 10 "scooping of hands" (or Hands-in-Clouds) moves, right and left, while keeping my eyes on the center of each palm as it comes up. Then I do another swimming move, this one like a butterfly stroke, forward and backward 3 times. Then I swing my arms around, hands down, on a level plane, 5 times each: left-counterclockwise, right clockwise, then left clockwise, right counterclockwise. Next I do the "snake"--joining palms over my head, I make an "S" motion down along the axis of my body, then back up again--3 times alternately in both directions. Next I do an exercise called "crane stretches its wings:" Hands straight forward, palms up, inhale--then exhale, drawing hands smoothly to the chest (3 times); then hands out sideways, palms up (inhale)--then exhale, drawing hands smoothly to the shoulders and relaxing them. (3 times). Finally--and this is the most difficult--I go up on my toes as I push my open palms straight back behind me, then purse my fingers as I draw them under my armpit and up to my shoulders--all on the inhale--then blow it out (thrusting my fingers forward forcefully with the sudden exhalation, while keeping each thumb over the middle of the palm). (3 times) This, according to the tradition, expels "stagnant chi" from our bodies. The original sequence goes on much longer, but at this point I foreshorten it by going into a Shou Gong (closing) exercise--on three full breaths. On the first inhale, lift open hands up to the sky, gathering the ambient Chi, then bring them down toward your scalp, in effect "pushing" the Chi right down your spinal column. Then, on the first exhale, elbows out, bring open palms straight down your center line, past your ears and straight down your center axis to your dantian (the fulcrum of your body, 4 inches below your navel) where--on the last inhale, you turn your palms out, so your fingertips, still parallel to the ground, are just touching--then, on the last exhale, rotate your palms outward in opposite directions, and bring them in toward your dantian, one over the other (for males, right over left; for females, left over right). If done correctly and mindfully, you can actually feel the subtle "buzz" of chi (which is the electrical force-field around your body) radiating through your palms from the core of your body.

After my Qigong sequence, I then do 3 prostrations, incorporating the Vinyasa sequence from hatha yoga. Getting down on hands and knees, I look up toward the Buddha, and leading with my rump, I crouch into a "pose of a child" asana, joining my palms above my head; then, leading with my shoulders I curl my spine up, roll it out, and repeat--3 times. On each prostration, I take refuge in, and contemplate the meanings of, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha--the "Three Jewels" of Buddhist tradition.

It took me a while to get into doing prostrations; with my western ego, I initially considered them as a vestige of eastern superstition and obsequious bowing before princes--something that, with my all-American commitment to universal equality, I wanted nothing to do with.

But then I have gradually realized, more and more, the inner logic behind these ancient practices. By prostrating, we not only exercise our spines, but also we humble ourselves--we sacrifice our egos, in effect, before the altar of something greater than us--in this case the long tradition of transcendent wisdom, passed from one generation to the next--to all of our teachers. So in bowing to the Buddha, I am also bowing to Lao Tzu, to Jesus, to Guru Nanak, to St. Francis, to Gandhi, to Martin Luther King, to Nelson Mandela, to Wangari Maathai, to Thich Nhat Hanh, to the Dalai Lama, and to Pema Chodron--to all Bodhisattvas whose teachings have lit my own path toward greater understanding and compassion.

After the Three Prostrations, I am then ready for formal meditation--in my own case, because of congenitally tight hips, I prefer to kneel on my 3-legged stool, rather than sitting cross-legged on a cushion.

Once seated and poised, I generally start by picking up my copy of Earth Prayers, a beautiful anthology of 365 poems, invocations, and prayers from diverse cultures all over the planet, that honor the Sacred in all life. Selecting one, usually at random, I read it, either silently or aloud, and then pick up my sandalwood mala with its 108 beads, that serves as a timekeeper, and also reduces the likelihood of spacing out or getting distracted by my thoughts.

Then I ring my beautiful, bronze bowl-like bell, sitting on its cushion in front of me--or as Thich Nhat Hanh likes to put it, I "invite the bell." As the pure, resonant peal of the bell fades into its overtones, I begin my formal practice with my standard, home-brewed ten-breath guided meditation, advancing a bead on each breath: Breathe, Observe, Let Go; Be well, Do good work, Keep in touch; Learn, Teach, Heal, and Create.

From there, I spend the rest of the bead time (usually 30-40 minutes), either on each in and out breath (if I have limited time) or one full in-and-out breath per bead (if I have lots of time), following my breath and experimenting with a few of the techniques I have learned. These include the following:
  • Tonglen (breathing in Samsaric pain, breathing out Dharmic blessings, in radiating circles, first for myself, then for those I love, then those I know, then those I don't know, then those I don't like, and then those I am inclined to despise, and finally, every living being in the universe.) This is the most powerful, yet also most demanding form of practice I know.
  • Various guided meditations on the in and out breath, (such as Thich Nhat Hanh's "Flower-fresh, Mountain-solid, Lake-clear, and Space-free).
  • Metta meditation, based on the Four Brahmaviharas (or "limitless qualities"): loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
  • Chakra meditation (focusing in turn on each of the Seven Chakras, from the base of the spine to the crown of the head).
  • Mantra practice (e.g. "Om Mani Padme Hum" or my own tenfold mantra)
and so on...whatever useful practices I come across. But I also like, periodically, just to sit--to calmly abide in Alaya, or undifferentiated Being, devoid of all thought.

Quite naturally, distractions come up all the time--whether planning my classes, worry about stuff going on, fantasies, fears, resentments, or political apoplexy. Whenever I catch myself in such mental distractions, I try to name them, and then go back to breathing, observing, and letting go. I find that I am less likely to get distracted, however, if I read some Dharma before meditation, and thereby focus my mental chatter on the Dharma, rather than on all the usual egoic stuff.

When I reach the end of my Mala, I generally bow three times again to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and then sound the bell, letting the bell fill my consciousness again.

Then I get on my exercycle, and start pedaling. To avert boredom while bicycling, I have recently taken up mentally reviewing each injunction of the Eightfold Path, sometimes out loud, while pedaling: Right Understanding, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Contemplation. If done with any depth or commitment, this will take up 4-5 minutes quite easily.

Finally, I close with a Native American-inspired observance (with parallels in indigenous cultures throughout the world), which consists of picking up a hand drum and bowing in turn to the Six Directions and all their connotations: East (Sunrise, Spring, Starting Anew); South (Mid-day, Summer, Growth and nurturing); West (Evening, Fall, Fruition and harvest); North (Night, Winter, Death, Impermanence, and quiescence) And then I conclude with the two poles: Heaven (looking up--the Divine Mystery) and Earth (looking down--Gaia, the Manifestations). Often with the last two, I will repeat the line from the Prayer of Jesus: "Thy will be done in Heaven...and on Earth."

Then I am ready for my day, my mind and soul clear and refreshed...

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Darth Cheney and me.

"When the world is full of evil, transform all mishaps into the path of Bodhi"
--The Lojong slogans.

"Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to them that despitefully use you." --Jesus.

"When Jesus instructed us to love our enemies, he didn't say we had to like them." --Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Hatred is a form of subjective involvement with the hated object." --Commentary on the I Ching.

This evening, I got caught up in a familiar obsession: seeking out snarky reviews of Dick Cheney's recently published memoirs, and working myself into a lather of sympathetic outrage as I read through the innumerable scathing comments of readers. "Darth" Cheney is truly a loathsome excuse for a human being--perhaps the most evil, vicious, hateful, truthless, sociopathic monster in the world today--the zombie-like embodiment of everything that has gone horribly wrong with America in the years since the Bush Coup of December 12, 2000 and the great 9/11 hoax (masterminded, no doubt, by Cheney himself). At the very thought of his smug, malignant, sneering face, I feel the familiar tug of what the Tibetans call shenpa--the almost visceral temptation to wallow in moral outrage and sheer obsessive hatred.

In effect, Cheney has infected my mind. But the honest recognition of this fact can be, in itself, a path to awakening, if I choose to take it. For when I indulge in such obsessive, apoplectic hatred of Cheney, I in effect become just like him--a troglodytic monster dripping with malice.

Several years ago, after a dharma talk in Hampton by Geshe Lobsang Tenzin of the Drepung Loseling Tibetan Center at Emory University, there was a Q & A session, during which I asked the Geshe the following question:

"How do you deal with blockages? That is, I try to generate compassion for all living beings, but then there are some for whom I feel such profound loathing that I can't get past it--and one of these is the President of the United States (George W. Bush). Is there a way to generate honest compassion for people you despise?" (The same is true, of course, even more so for Cheney).

The Geshe first acknowledged that this is very difficult, but then he told a parable. "Imagine," he said, "that you encountered a horribly abusive person who threatened you and screamed vicious insults at you. Naturally, you would feel fear and hostility toward him, and maybe even hatred. But then imagine that another person came along and told you that this person had just escaped from a mental institution and was profoundly disturbed. Your ill-will would then change immediately to a sincere desire to get help for him, because you realized that his abusive behavior was the direct result of his own profound suffering. So it is as well," (he said with a smile) "for anyone for whom you feel hatred--even George Bush."

About six months later, I was attending a workshop with a fairly advanced teacher (I forget her name) in Norfolk, who finally enabled me to awaken compassion for Bush. She told us the story of his childhood--how at the tender age of eight, he had lost his 3-year old sister, whom he dearly loved, to leukemia--yet his parents had not told him anything about her disease. They just took her away one day and she never returned. (The senior Bushes--George and Barbara--were of the same World War II generation as my parents, a generation who had seen such immense suffering throughout the world, both during the Depression and the war, that they tended to be very stoical, and desperate to protect their own children from suffering by suppressing their own feelings.) After the death of this child, the situation was made worse by the fact that young George's mother became depressed, withdrawn, and emotionally distant from him--so that not only did he lose his beloved sister, but he felt abandoned by his mother when he needed her the most. As a result, he was inwardly traumatized and strove thereafter, unconsciously, to "get back" at a world which had cruelly taken away everyone he loved. This was manifested in his early teenage years by his habit of torturing birds and animals, and later by his drinking and his feckless, self-indulgent behavior, his embrace of fundamentalist Christianity, and his later obsession with killing people, both as Governor (when he signed far more death warrants than any governor before or since) and President (when he gleefully invaded Iraq and smirkingly took pride in extrajudicial murders.) But all this sociopathic behavior was rooted in intense, unacknowledged inner pain and suffering. So, no doubt, it has been for Cheney.

Reflecting thus, we can find it possible to cultivate compassion even for monsters like Bush and Cheney. It is not easy--it takes serious introspection. One possible path to this realization is in a passage cited by Maureen Dowd in her (typically sardonic) review of his book, in which, toward the end, after an ugly litany of spin, smarmy self-justification, and lashing out at others in his own and the later administration, he indulges the reader with a sentimental moment, as he recalls drifting into unconsciousness before his most recent heart surgery, and having a very realistic dream that he was relaxing joyfully in "the Italian countryside, somewhere north of Rome." This is the very locale, dear to my heart--Tuscany--where my wife and I have spent two idyllic months during the past two years. Yet Cheney will never be able to go there himself, without fear of being immediately arrested as a war criminal. So at that moment, ironically, in his dream-state, it is as if Cheney and I became one. And we are one, much as I am loath to admit it, not only in our capacity for hatred, but equally in our capacity for joy that is free from suffering...for the sunny, ancient hills of Tuscany.

I'll see if I can say this honestly: May Dick Cheney know happiness, and the roots of happiness. May he be free from suffering, and the roots of suffering. May he know the original joy that transcends all suffering. And may he know the great equanimity, free from passion, aggression, and prejudice. May he one day awaken to his own hidden Buddha nature, and--for the benefit of all beings--may he see the light at last...

To be honest, the above words do not feel as sincere as they should--but I'm trying. Loving your enemy is the hardest injunction of all--but also the most essential. For Bodhicitta eludes us if we leave out anyone at all--even Dick Cheney.

Wangari Maathai: A Gaian Bodhisattva

I am currently reading a book that is both painful and inspiring: Wangari Maathai's latest book, The Challenge for Africa. It is, by any standard, a tour de force of historical insight, deep cultural awareness, moral clarity, compassion, perseverance, and hope--she is a magnificent role model, not only for all Africans, but for all Gaians--that is, for all of us. Here is one sample--her normative definition of democracy, which jumped out at me with the force of a revelation:

All political systems, institutions of the state, and cultural values (as well as pathways toward, and indicators of, economic growth) are justifiable only insofar as they encourage basic freedoms, including human rights, and individual and collective well-being. In that respect, democracy doesn’t solely mean “one person, one vote.” It also means, among other things, the protection of minority rights; an effective and truly representative parliament; an independent judiciary; an informed and engaged citizenry; an independent fourth estate; the rights to assemble, practice one’s religion freely, and advocate for one’s view peacefully without fear of reprisal or arbitrary arrest; and an empowered and active civil society that can operate without intimidation. By this definition, many African countries—and indeed, many societies in both the developing and developed worlds—fall short of genuine democracy. Likewise, “development” doesn’t only entail the acquisition of material things, although everyone should have enough to live with dignity and without fear of starvation or becoming homeless. Instead, it means achieving a quality of life that is sustainable, and of allowing the expression of the full range of creativity and humanity.

Wangari Maathai (Nobel Peace Prize Laureate)

The Challenge for Africa (Random House/Anchor Books, 2009), p. 56

What more needs to be said about the asymptotic goal toward which we all should be striving?