Thursday, 27 June 2019

The Third Treasure

After a recent very pleasant afternoon spent in the companionship of a beloved sangha-mate, I've fallen to contemplating the blessings of the Third Treasure.

This is the hardest one for us hermits to acquire. The Buddha is in the can. He's been and done, and left his priceless teaching and even more priceless (less priceable?) example.

The Dharma too is freely available. In fact, good ol' Donum Secundum is the great strength of my path. House-monks must cobble up an artificial, human-dependent Dharma to simulate the flow of the River we wild boys see in the sky each night. If in their rituals our domesticated brothers and sisters sometimes take direction from Les Nessman-roshi, it's that mocking up a universe is not for the faint of heart.

But we hermits, having sniggered at their choreographed pantomimes, must quickly return to the endless task of pulling Sangha out of plants, animals, mountains, tools, stars, meteorological events, water features…

Which isn't crazy at all.

For their part, cœnobites enjoy free and convenient access to, like, companionship. So much so that it becomes burdensome. Leonard Cohen, asked if he missed the days of his own Zen centre residency, diplomatically replied that monastery monks are "like pebbles in a bag, polishing each other smooth". He then pointedly dropped the subject.

But Sangha is critical, if for no other reason than to triangulate one's own attitudes and actions. A human being alone first becomes weird (guilty) and then insane (charges dropped for lack of witnesses), wandering off on ego-deflected tangents until simple reason, to say nothing of enlightenment, becomes impossible. Any sincere solitary will tell you that mindfulness of this dilemma, and self-monitoring of our course over the ground, claim much of our cushion time.

But as vital as all that is, it's not Sangha's greatest gift. There's also endless wisdom and insight; the times a fellow traveller solves a koan you've been working on for years in two or three words, and a tone that implies "…you dumbass". Then you return to your own practice liberated, in the Buddhic sense, and game to seize the next quandary.

But even that is not Sangha's highest power.

That would be simple companionship.

Here in the industrialised world, where humanity itself is roundly considered weakness, if not sin, we generally insist that social interaction is a luxury, and a superficial one at that. We absolutely do not recognise that refusing same is equivalent to denying food and shelter.

If we kept food from prisoners, there would be scandals, hearings, forced resignations, ruined careers; more advanced nations would levy the satisfying irony of prison sentences.

But when we lock people in dungeons, nothing happens. No gavel strikes, no activist shouts "hey-hey ho-ho", no candidate makes promises – even ones she has no intention of honouring – to eliminate this particularly caustic torture.

To cite a single case, a large percentage of incarcerated Americans are daily buried alive in solitary confinement. Not for days (24 hours being the maximum the average person can endure without permanent damage), nor even weeks, but years. Even sentences of ten years without the equivalent of food and shelter are considered trivial in American courts.

All of which is on my mind in the wake of four hours spent catching up with a close friend and comrade in Zen. I cleared the tea things much lightened, instructed, and renewed, and very aware that when the Buddha called Sangha one-third of Enlightenment, he wasn't being twee.

The equivalence is mathematical: in Buddhist practice, Sangha is of equal necessity to the Buddha and the Dharma.

Or to put it another way, you'd be entirely justified in locking your Buddha statue in a closet and replacing it on your altar with photos of your peers.

The Rinzai side of me is already smirking seditiously.

(Photo of "A Few Good Men" courtesy of Vibhav Satam and Unsplash.)

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

WW: Cactus flower

(Opuntia sp.)

Thursday, 13 June 2019

The Dharma of Doctrine

Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Mara Demons Recently heard on Bhante Sujato's Dhammanet podcast (available from the website and the usual aggregators):

"A man found a piece of truth on the ground and picked it up. Seeing this, Mara smiled.

"'Why are you smiling?' asked the Buddha.

"'Just give him five minutes,' Mara answered. 'He'll make a doctrine out of it."

(Nepali painting of Mara's retinue courtesy of the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art and Wikimedia Commons.)

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

WW: Capitol deer

(Behind the Washington state capitol in Olympia.)

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Bad Dreams

One of the advantages of eremitical monasticism is the freedom to adapt practice to needs and conditions. Among the disadvantages is having life make its own changes without consulting you first.

Recently my meditation practice was largely eliminated by unsupportive circumstances. Then I got it back, as new conditions imposed themselves. And that's precipitated some valuable insight.

Meditation causes bad dreams.

This isn't my first experience with this. Most dramatic was ango, the salient features of which were a monastery-grade meditation schedule and unhappy REM sleep. Not nightmares per se; just reviews of personal regrets and fears that left me sad and circumspect.

But this is the first time I've noticed the causal relationship. When I'm prevented from meditating deeply or regularly, the bad dreams go away. Then I start getting more reliable cushion time, and they come back. Why?

I might spin a few hypotheses. One is just the free exercise of my whole brain. When you don't meditate much, you're actively firing only a small chunk of your neural net. Most of your mind runs in the background, cataloguing details and mapping associations while you drive ignorantly on. But meditation uses all the plumbing, and that stirs up rust and mould and silt that's settled quietly for years.

None of which is news to beginning meditators. The sensational tilling of ancient strata is one of the top ten results of new practices, and the main drive of the famous "burning off" of accrued delusion that Zenners often report at that stage. My own was a veritable inferno.

But apparently something more is going on. I generally get more courageous, in all facets of my life, when I practice consistently. "Composed" may be a better word; the mind-set Thich Nhat Hanh calls "mountain-solid". It's an un-macho, un-histrionic sort of gravel; I don't become a soldier or a warrior (thank God). I'm just more willing to "go there", where I otherwise might dither.

I think this is related to the bad dreams; whoever it is that edits that content when I'm not meditating regularly becomes less squeamish when I am. And the fact is, with further sustained practice the monk starts inserting himself into those scenarios.

"Well," he says, "we can always leave."

Or he confronts a critic: "Remind me again what business it is of yours?"

Or he apologises. "I should have thought more carefully before I made that decision. I shouldn't have assumed I knew what to do about this."

I'm still wistful during and after these dreaky movies, but I wake up informed at worst, and sometimes gratified.

Any road, as sincere sitters know, meditation isn't about feeling better or fixing things; it's about confronting and accepting them. I'm no greater fan of bad dreams than anyone else, and if I had the choice I'd skip that part, but I deeply value the insights they offer, and particularly the sense that I'm in greater control and that something useful and productive is happening between my ears.

(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and a generous photographer.)

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

WW: Red-flowering currant

(Ribes sanguineum)