We Can Be Heroes

Ah…the first post of the new year. Must be time for some resolutions…or, as I prefer, “revolutions”. Of course, I’m not talking about the kind that involve violent overthrow of a government, or lots of weapons, or that make international headlines. I’m referring to what we Buddhists call human revolution. It won’t be televised. However, if you want to make a real, long-lasting, and effective change in your life (for the better!), you can’t beat it. Much better than making the obligatory list of “resolutions” that are notorious for their short lifespan…sometimes lasting no longer than a champagne hangover.

Buddhism involves a lot of self-reflection. This doesn’t mean merely turning our attention inward, or focusing on ourselves to the exclusion of the rest of the world. The idea is not to perfect your own life while ignoring the unhappiness of those around you, but to work on yourself in the midst of your relationships with others. The major source of unhappiness is thinking that happiness and empowerment are outside us, or are at best only tenuously connected to our lives. With this belief, the desire for happiness and self-empowerment will be eternally in vain. You may seem to have acquired one or the other at times, perhaps even both at the same time, only to see them slip away. This impermanence is the reality of our material existence.

But impermanence can work both ways. Just as a momentary glory can fade, so too can a hellish unhappiness. As much as we long to hold onto the good stuff and can’t, the trade-off is that we get to shed the bad. In fact, often it’s letting go of the bad stuff that lets the good in. It’s difficult to simultaneously hold onto a grudge, for example, and have a good relationship with someone. But if you can let the grudge go, the relationship immediately begins to improve, even if you do nothing else. Imagine what changes you can effect by deciding (and taking steps) to make it better!

On New Year’s eve, I like to make a list of all the things I didn’t accomplish in the old year, including anything I wasn’t able to change or that made me sad, such as losing a friend or failing at something…or personality traits I think I’d be better off without. I also add in my friends’ problems…everything that seems not conducive to happiness. Once I get a nice, long, comprehensive list, I fold it up, toss it into the fire, and watch it burn. It’s a great feeling. Off with the old, on with the new…with the painful stuff gone, there’s room for the joy.

Making resolutions, setting goals-these are good things to do. We have to overcome the tendency, however, to scrap them at the first sign of failure, or if they don’t fall into place within the timetable we have set. This is how we defeat ourselves. If “genius is the art of taking infinite pains”, then idiocy must be taking no pains at all; in other words, without at least making the attempt to shape your life, you will be forever shaped (warped?) by such seemingly random circumstances as may befall you. Or as Daisaku Ikeda says in Buddhism Day by Day, “One of the epithets of a Buddha is, ‘Hero of the World.’ A Buddha is a valiant and noble champion who has conquered the sufferings of life in the real world. Nichiren writes: ‘Buddhism is like the body, and society like the shadow. When the body bends, so does the shadow.’ People cannot live apart from society. But to be constantly at the mercy of society’s ups and downs is a miserable existence. It is crucial for us to be strong and wise. The ‘body’ Nichiren refers to is, on the personal level, our faith.”

Faith can begin as a simple desire for a better life. In the context of religion, it’s usually defined as belief, either in a deity or a doctrine. In Buddhism, developing a deep and lasting faith requires more than an unsubstantiated belief or a superficial desire for self-improvement. Buddhism advances through an ongoing relationship between mentor and disciple, in which neither can exist without the other, and the expectation is that the disciple will surpass the mentor, becoming a mentor to others, and so on. This is nothing exotic; even the geniuses of the world had teachers. There’s really no such thing as ‘self-taught’. Life is continuing process of learning, building on what came before, and adapting. If that process stopped, life itself would end. Our responsibility is to keep that from happening…and yes, we do have that capability.

It’s that old choice: should I be a hero or a villain? Some prime examples of villains are Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and Kim Jong Il, who achieved wealth and power through inflicting misery on others. But everyone has the capacity to be a villain, even if it’s not on such an epic scale. Amassing worldly wealth and power, even at the expense of others, can be seductive, and it’s easy to forget your resolutions (and your faith) in the pursuit of it. But as Nichiren also says, “It is better to live a single day as a hero than to live to 120 and die in disgrace.” When you seek the good, you add to the good of the world. It’s easy to view the world’s problems as something outside your life, and either try to ignore them or feel overwhelmed with hopelessness in the face of them, but this is not the way to “conquer the sufferings of life in the real world”. Only by painstaking daily efforts can we fundamentally change the reality of our existence, but by doing so, we change the world. For the better.

Whether or not you consider yourself a Buddhist, you have the condition of Buddhahood within you, ready to flower. We all do. As David Bowie says, “we can be heroes, just for one day”.

One day. Then another day. And another. And so on…

Die, Monster! DIE!

I’ve never been one of those eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth advocates. The idea of cutting off thieves’ hands for stealing, stoning adulterers, or hanging the treasonous, has always seemed barbarous. I’ve also never been entirely comfortable with the concept of capital punishment, but there was a time when I thought that, in cases of particularly heinous crimes for which the persons committing the crimes showed absolutely no remorse, perhaps it was appropriate. Even after becoming a Buddhist I wrestled with this issue. I wondered if such people had, through their actions, severed their ties to civilized humanity and forfeited their right to live. As they were unlikely to contribute anything of value to society, their continued existence seemed pointless. And what if they were released from prison? Having already shown such disregard for life, wouldn’t they be likely to kill again? Execution seemed the only sure way to safeguard the decent, the innocent, the non-killers. I was still more or less opposed to the death penalty, but I did think that sometimes, in some cases, there might be some justification.

After decades of Buddhist practice and study, though, I’ve changed my mind.

It’s not that I haven’t listened to the arguments put forth by supporters. I’ve listened, discussed, argued, and given it serious consideration. I’m anti-war, but I reluctantly concede that there may be some instances where some kind of military action is unavoidable (no preemptive strikes, please!). I’m against violence, but if someone’s attacking me, you can bet that I’ll do my best to survive, even if it means killing my attacker.

Of course, I hope I’m never in that position. Killing…ending a life…is never something to be taken lightly. Nichiren says “a single life is worth more than the major world system”, not differentiating between the life of a good person or an evil person. Our human tendency, however, is to assign differing values to other people’s lives, even if we are not actually called upon to decide whether someone should live or die (as I would have had to do in that hypothetical situation of killing an attacker). Because I was defending my life against someone whose intention was to destroy it, the karmic effect would presumably be less for me than it would be for the aggressor. There would undoubtedly be a police investigation, and possibly a trial, but I’d probably be exonerated. However, because there is no cause without a simultaneous effect, I would still have to deal with the resulting karma that I incurred by destroying life…even though it wasn’t my idea to be attacked in the first place. Something in my life, past or present, led to this moment, allowed this to occur; at minimum, it is my responsibility to determine the direction of my future to prevent it from happening again.

Proponents of capital punishment put forth this hypothesis: What if the victim was your child (or brother/sister/mother/father/wife/husband/etc.), who didn’t deserve to die? Why should the killer, that monster, be allowed to keep living, when the innocent is dead? In the TV version, it would happen like this: evil bad person kills good person in front of impeccably reliable witnesses. He’s summarily arrested; incorruptible police officers diligently gather incontrovertible evidence; skilled, impassioned prosecutor proves killer’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; he’s sentenced by a stern but fair judge and jailed briefly, just long enough for the scene where he shows no remorse, proving that he really, really is a monster who deserves to die. And then he’s injected with poison or electrocuted and it’s all over. Mission accomplished, justice done. Collective sigh of relief as we all move on…murderer descends to hell and suffers its torments for all eternity. No ambiguities: no cops being pressured to close a case quickly arresting the wrong person, no paid informants telling lies, no eye witnesses’ mistaken identification, no tampering with or suppression of exonerating evidence, no sleeping public defender, no incompetent judge, no jury manipulation, and absolutely no possibility of a wrongful conviction, ever. Die, monster, DIE!

That’s not the reality. In real life, all of the above have happened, and innocent people have been put to death, in some cases, their “crime” being poor and/or non-white. That reason alone is reason enough to outlaw capital punishment, all other arguments aside.

But to get back to the hypothesis, only those who have endured this emotionally devastating experience can answer the question meaningfully; for anyone else, it’s merely theoretical. Reactions differ. Some people crave a revenge that can only be satisfied with the killer’s execution. Some think that will satisfy them, only to realize afterward that the removal of what they perceived to be the cause of their suffering didn’t actually make it go away. Still others work through the pain by struggling to find meaning in their loss, even trying to forgive the killer. Sometimes they even succeed.

Does the killer deserve forgiveness? Perhaps not. Even if the answer is yes, that doesn’t extend to the jail doors being thrown open and his going about his merry way, possibly to kill again. But forgiveness is really more for the benefit of the person who has something to forgive, not the one who has done something unforgivable. The law of cause and effect trumps the laws of society, so no one who murders gets off scot-free, regardless of what takes place in a court of law. Does it benefit the life of the person who has lost a loved one to harbor feelings of anger, resentment, and a desire for revenge in his/her heart? Does that honor the life of the person lost? It does not. At best, a rage against the crime and the criminal may temporarily help you to avoid the pain, or fill the emptiness caused by having you love violently torn from your life, but it’s not possible to sustain for long without creating your own hell on earth.

To address the idea of the death penalty as a deterrent, it only (provably) deters the person who has already killed from doing it again. If it were really a deterrent, surely people would have stopped killing long ago. Life in prison accomplishes the same thing; the real problem is that a life sentence, even “life without parole”, doesn’t always work that way. There have been too many tragic cases where paroled killers did indeed kill again. But the solution to this problem is not capital punishment; it’s reforming our justice system, an issue that I’ll address in another post. A sentence of life without parole (barring a case of wrongful conviction) should mean just that. The killer should have to remember every day why he is in prison. Keeping him alive makes it at least possible that he will some day realize the enormity of what he has done. Execute him, and there’s no hope of that. Plus, the execution doesn’t happen by itself; actual humans have to carry it out. Why does this matter? From a Buddhist standpoint, destroying any human life is one of the worst causes a person can make. It’s less of an offense, perhaps, to kill someone after due process and according to the laws of society, but it is still an act of destruction, and the opposite of creating value. After all, even good people can benefit from an inner reformation; realizing that we all have the capacity for evil, we can strengthen the good in ourselves while seeking the good in others and encouraging its growth. We don’t need to be more angry, more vengeful, or more hateful, even though at times it seems completely justified. When we do, we are “feeding the monster”…making it even more likely that the unrepentant killer we sentenced to die will return again and again, lifetime after lifetime, perpetuating the cycle of death and destruction. Until we can break that cycle, the monster will never truly die.

Darkness, Darkness

Fundamental Darkness and Clinical Depression are not one and the same, but if they were guests at a dinner they’d surely sit near one another, comparing notes on how to degrade the human spirit and destroy happiness. They’d probably move around the table, too, to spread the misery, taking special care to target anyone who already looked like he/she wasn’t having a good time. And those who tried to get away from them would probably be followed from room to room, unable to escape the persistent voices telling them such things as “you’re not good enough…smart enough…attractive enough…” and/or “no one cares about you…you’re a nobody…a failure…nothing you do matters”.

Okay, so I got carried away. “FD” and “CD” aren’t really actual people, although sometimes it can seem that way, especially when you hear those kinds of words coming at you out of other people’s mouths. Clinical depression (hereinafter referred to as “depression”) is a form of mental illness that takes away your volition. For starters, it can make you sleep too much or not be able to sleep, affect your appetite, your sex drive, and ultimately make you think life is not worth living. It’s different from the sort of “situational sadness” that most of us feel from time to time when something bad happens, that time and friendship and new experiences ease. Depression is essentially incompatible with life…it can make you feel as though you’ve been poisoned, possessed by demons, disconnected from yourself, and then cunningly convince you that the “alternate you” is who you really are, and that there’s no way out.

If depression can do all that, you might ask, what’s left for fundamental darkness to do? Short answer: plenty.

While not everyone will suffer from depression, we all get to experience some other manifestation of fundamental darkness. The SGI dictionary defines fundamental darkness as the “inability to see or recognize the truth, particularly, the true nature of one’s life” (read more here: http://www.sgilibrary.org/search_dict.php). It’s the opposite of enlightenment. Fundamental darkness is the source of all human sufferings (including depression), and as it’s inherent in life, there’s no getting rid of it. The worst thing about it is how insidious it can be. It’s not just a voice in your head that tells you bad things about yourself, that you could maybe drown out with good music and strong drink. Essentially, it’s the negative function in your life that exists to prevent you from becoming enlightened, and it takes many, many forms.

Suppose you have this great idea, but you’re afraid to voice it. If it’s that great, you tell yourself, someone else has probably already had it. Or maybe it’s not such a great idea after all. If I tell anyone about it, they’ll think I’m crazy, or they’ll steal it from me. Meanwhile time is passing, and if someone does happen upon the same idea and does something with it, you find cold comfort in the idea that you were right all along. It just wasn’t meant to be, you tell yourself. I’m obviously not the kind of person who makes things happen.

Or, someone really screws you over. You’re hurt, but tell yourself it’s no big deal, you should just let it go, but inside you the anger boils and seethes. You fantasize about all the wonderfully horrible things that could “just happen” to that person…how happy you’d be, that someone got what he deserved.

Or maybe you have a special talent. You’d like to develop it, but what’s the use? Someone else is always going to be better, or get the recognition, fame, adulation, respect that should be yours. Or perhaps you do pursue your dream, but you can only feel good when your rivals fail. You live for that…at least, that’s what you call living.

These examples may seem too extreme, too dramatic, too over the top. You can be a good person, a happy person, with a family that loves you and a circle of good friends. Why should you concern yourself with this fundamental darkness stuff, and what’s the point of enlightenment, anyway? Life is good. Everything’s fine. (Cue dramatic music…for now.)

Here’s why: life is constantly changing. We are all different people, and yet we are all connected, so even when you think everything’s fine, someone in your life may have an entirely different perspective. Fundamental darkness isn’t always about big emotions and murderous impulses. Sometimes it shows up as boredom, or inertia. That person you thought you’d love forever suddenly irritates you. You realize that years have passed and you can’t remember anything in particular about how you spent them. You have vague plans, hopes, wishes, but you never do anything to make them happen. You accept the status quo and consider yourself lucky that things aren’t any worse. You compare yourself to others and decide that all in all, you’re not so bad.

And that’s how fundamental darkness can work in anybody’s life. Though it’s always lurking, you can minimize its effect on your life, and even transform it. Yes! You can actually make fundamental darkness work for you. The first step is to recognize it for what it is. Life is forward motion; life is progressive. When you feel something is holding you back, when you think you are stuck, when you don’t want to move at all, that’s when you need to make the greatest effort. It’s like spiritual resistance training. When fundamental darkness weighs you down, you push back, and every time you do, you become stronger. I use my Buddhist practice to do this because I love turning the bad stuff into good karma, but even if you’re not a Buddhist, you can learn to recognize negative functions in your life. It’s vital to remember that the negative function is not “you” (nor is depression); the real you is a human being capable of enlightenment, and fundamental darkness may slow you down sometimes but can’t take that away from you.

Imagine the conversational possibilities when you find yourself seated next to “FD” at the dinner party. “So you’re Fundamental Darkness? I’ve heard so much about you!” you proclaim in a bright, carrying voice. “Is it true that you love making people miserable? Do tell…”

Because there’s nothing like telling the truth for making FD shut up.

Now. This Instant.

Ever have one of the moments when you really, really wish you hadn’t said something? I have. Actually, I’ve had many…too many to count. But one stands out in my memory. It was so bad I can’t even tell you what it was. I was a teenager, I didn’t know I was a Buddhist…but it was so vile, so out of character even for the person I was then, that I still cringe when I remember it.

Ever do something you wish you hadn’t done? I’ve got a few of those too…here’s one. I was at my best friend’s birthday party. She had invited a man she was interested in, whom she thought was showing signs of being interested in her. She was an accomplished pianist, and I sang. We had tried performing together, but I wasn’t used to a piano accompaniment, so I ended up singing a capella. Somehow, after I’d finished singing, I found myself out on the porch with “the man”, reluctantly accepting a kiss from him. I don’t remember being especially attracted to him, but I was flattered that he seemed attracted to me. I had to let him know that nothing more was going to happen without letting him know why. It was a horrible, awkward moment. In an instant I felt myself transformed from sophisticated chanteuse to inarticulate, clumsy friend-betrayer.  Things got worse when I found my friend sobbing in the kitchen, surrounded by her other female friends who all looked daggers at me, and I started crying too as I tried to explain what had happened. Eventually she forgave me, but our friendship was never the same. After I married a man she despised, and she married one I thought was just as bad if not worse, we lost touch, and I never saw or heard from her again.

And then, of course, are the times when you wish you had said or done something…not just esprit d’escalier moments, but real soul-searing, wee hour insomniac regrets for feelings not expressed, or actions not taken…you ask yourself why, why, why didn’t I?

A Buddhist maxim is to live your life so that you have no regrets. Another important concept is “from this moment on”…in other words, whatever regrettable things you may have done in the past, what’s important is what you do now, because that’s what truly shapes your future. And then there’s the quasi-Buddhist saying “be in the now”, which sounds kind of exotic and cool until you try to figure out what it actually means. To be “present”, to be “mindful”, to “live each moment as if it might be your last”…how does that work, what does it mean in terms of reality? And why, why, why, despite our best intentions, do we find ourselves doing something that we instantly realize was a big, big mistake.

Remember T’ient’ai? His studies of the Lotus Sutra led him to formulate the theory of ichinen sanzen, or “three thousand realms in a single moment of life”. This sum of three thousand was meant to include the entirety of one’s life. Here’s how he arrived at that number: he took the ten worlds (see previous post, Seeing the Elephant) and multiplied them by ten because each of them also possesses all the others, then multiplied that by the ten factors (describing the nature of life itself; read more here http://www.sgilibrary.org/search_dict.php) and then multiplied that by the three existences of past, present, and future. So that’s 10 x 10=100 x 10=1000 x 3=3000. Each moment of life thus presents many more possibilities than it seems to, which is something to think about at those times when it seems like our choices are limited to only one or two.

How, then, can we insure making the best possible decisions in life? Buddhism speaks of the “crucial moment”, but if we’re supposed to “be in the now” and live each moment as if it might be our last, isn’t every moment crucial? Being on high alert at all times, afraid of failing to make the most of every moment, sounds like a miserable way to live. Plus, those moments are not ours alone, so we can’t simply eliminate those who might diminish the quality of our “now”. The reality is that as human beings, we rely on a certain amount of infrastructure, a status quo, so that we don’t have to agonize over every moment. The downside of this approach is that we can become attached to our present circumstances when they’re good, devastated when things go wrong, and paralyzed when it comes to decision time.

That’s when a Buddhist practice comes in handy. Being mindful doesn’t have to mean agonizing over every moment. When we chant twice a day, we are in effect renewing a vow to live in the wisest, most compassionate way possible. And if we do happen to say or do something (or not say or do something), it’s usually not irreparable.

If the world is an ocean, our lives are like sailing ships. If we fail to chart a course, we can still sail, but we’ll drift along at the mercy of tides and currents, and we may never arrive at whatever we hoped our destination might be. Even if we’ve planned everything to the last detail, there will be storms, or maybe icebergs, other ships that aren’t being steered, or pirates. We don’t sail alone, either, so there’s always our “crew” to consider. Any of these factors can lead to a “crucial moment” where the wrong decision could result in the ship running aground, or worse. Nichiren says, “One who listens to even a sentence or phrase of the sutra and cherishes it deep in one’s heart may be likened to a ship that crosses the sea of the sufferings of birth and death.” By centering our lives on the law of cause and effect through our daily practice, we develop a depth of understanding that enables us to move freely and joyfully across “the sea of suffering”.

Now. And for the rest of our lives.

Seeing the Elephant

Buddhists, bear with me…you already know about this. For my non-Buddhist readers, I want to explain two key Buddhist terms before I launch into any more topical issues. The first concept is the mutual possession of the Ten Worlds. The ten worlds (or conditions of Life) are hell, hunger, animality, anger, humanity, rapture, learning, realization, bodhisattva, and Buddhahood. (For a more extensive explanation, you can check out the SGI Dictionary of Buddhism, http://www.sgilibrary.org/search_dict.php.)

In short form, hell is a state in which your life is all misery and suffering; it’s slavery in its most extreme form, in which all your actions tend only to make matters worse. In the world of hunger, you cannot be satisfied; it’s the world of addiction, where nothing is ever enough. In the condition of animality, you revert to your basest instincts of kill or be killed; everyone else is an enemy or a potential enemy to be erased or at least subdued (or sucked up to, if too strong). In the world of anger, your ego becomes overpowering; there is no room for anyone else’s feeling or point of view. These four worlds comprise the “four evil paths”.

Things look up a bit as you “ascend” (more on that in a moment) to the next world, humanity. This is the state of a “good person”, who tries to control his/her emotions, think rationally, get along well with others, and who also aspires to an even higher life state. Then we have rapture…also known as “heaven”; it’s that wonderful feeling you get when a desire is realized or when you’re relieved of suffering. But that’s not as good as it gets! In fact, these two worlds added to the four evil paths comprise the “six paths”, and are still considered “lower worlds”. That’s because when we’re in these conditions we are subject to influence; you could say we’re at the mercy of our surroundings, so that we can go from humanity to anger in a nanosecond, or plummet from rapture to hell faster than the blink of an eye.

Next up? The “four noble paths”, beginning with the world of learning…it’s that condition where you are not satisfied with the status quo of the six paths, when you determine to be a better person and start finding out how. Realization, the next world, is when you put your research to use; as you begin to understand the nature of your existence, you make the causes necessary to improve it.

Sound better still? Yes, BUT. In the old days, such persons were considered incapable of attaining Buddhahood, because they tended to become excessively concerned with themselves, enchanted with their own growing wisdom…smug. Not so good after all…which leads us to the condition, or world, of bodhisattva. As a bodhisattva, you realize that your happiness is connected to others’ happiness…even that you cannot be truly happy unless you are also helping others become happy. This is the world of compassion; it encompasses, yet transcends, all the preceding worlds.

Which brings us to the world of Buddhahood. This is a state of absolute freedom, of boundless compassion, of being fully attuned to the nature of life. Early interpretations of the sutras regarded “the Buddha” as a deity; the state of Buddhahood was thought to be removed and discrete from the reality of human suffering. Likewise, each of the ten worlds was thought to be separate from the others; a person whose life tended to manifest a particular state was generally regarded to be “stuck” there. The best he might hope for was to somehow “move up” in his next life. (I’m using “he” because women weren’t even considered part of the equation.) Fortunately, T’ient’ai, a 6th century Chinese scholar, realized this was not the case at all.

In fact, each of the worlds contains and is contained by each of the others. When I first started practicing Buddhism, I had a hard time grasping this. The idea of the Ten Worlds was easy, especially when emerging once again from the world of anger and feeling that my inner Buddha was as distant as a star. But “mutual possession”? Huh? How’s that work?

I tried to come up with various ways to describe it. I thought of circles within circles…colors…no analogy seemed completely apt. But it’s such an important principle; I want to understand it fully. My latest idea is to consider Buddhahood as a stage production, with each world represented by an actor. Each actor has a role to play, has a “star turn”…and each is an understudy of all the other parts. The audience sees a continuously changing cast of alternating heroes and villains. The killer in today’s Act II becomes the rescuer in tomorrow’s Act I. Today you’re hissed and booed; tomorrow your path is strewn with flowers. But then the next day you may be in for more hisses…it’s all in the part you choose to play.

Because none of us is all good or all evil. We all (no exceptions) have the capacity for both. The ideal of Buddhism is to make Buddhahood your prevailing condition. As a human, this can seem impossible. One manifests one’s Buddhahood through bodhisattva behavior, resisting the urge to fall back on the “I’m only human” defense (but I am! We are!)…or worse yet, wallow in the evil paths. But with the mutual possession, even when one is playing the villain, there’s still a hero inside…however deeply buried. And that’s why we have to help each other bring out that hero. That’s the bodhisattva way.

Remember the old parable of the blind men and the elephant? Each of them gropingly encounters a different part of the elephant, attempts to describe the entirety based on his limited experience, and (at least in some versions) they end up in violent disagreement as to the true nature of the elephant. Our state of life colors our perceptions in much the same way; when in hell, all the world seems hellish. When in rapture, the world seems beautiful. When angry, we see angry people everywhere. And so on… In another version of the elephant story, the men are not blind, but they encounter the elephant in a dark room with the same results. I’m now imagining the ten worlds as those people in the dark room with the elephant with eyes shut and blindfolds on…Hell, Hunger, Animality and Anger duly touch the elephant, draw their conclusions, and get into a huge fight over it. Humanity tries to stay out of it, tries to calm them down, and wonders what else to do. Rapture’s blindfold slips, but won’t come off all the way. Learning manages to get the blindfold off and eyes open. Realization finds the light switch. Bodhisattva turns on the light, helps the others take off their blindfolds, and encourages them to open their eyes.

Buddhahood? Well, Buddhahood always knows about the elephant. Buddhahood always sees the elephant. Buddhahood is something that’s inside all of us, and within all of those other worlds. Attaining Buddhahood isn’t like climbing a ladder, with each of lower worlds representing a rung. We don’t attain it so much as reveal it, just as the elephant is revealed. All we have to do is take off the blindfolds, open our eyes, and turn on the light.

Cash and Prizes!

I’ve heard it before from some people who’ve just attended their first Buddhist meeting…sometimes even from people who have been around for awhile.

“People were talking about getting stuff,” they complain, “it sounds so materialistic. I thought it would be more spiritual…”

Does being a Buddhist call for deprivation? Should one eschew worldly comfort in the pursuit of more lofty aspirations? Is it non-Buddhist to ask for a raise? Is it okay to chant (pray) for the well-paying job, the hot boy or girlfriend, the expensive car, the dream house?

Short answer: to the first three questions, no. To the last question, yes indeed. Go for it!

There’s a concept in Buddhism that “earthly desires are enlightenment”, which may seem confusing in the light of it being a spiritual practice. It’s said that before he became a Buddha, Shakyamuni employed all sorts of ascetic practices to attain enlightenment, including prolonged meditation and fasting almost to the point of death, before he realized that denying one’s earthly needs was not the way to overcome suffering. The point of Buddhism is not only to overcome suffering, but to achieve happiness in this world. Our desires are the impulsion that keeps us moving toward this goal.

It is a worthy goal, though there are those who think that the pursuit of happiness is somehow frivolous. But even if you believe that this brief existence is all there is, and that when you die you will be judged and sent to heaven or hell for the rest of eternity, does a life of misery make any sense at all? Buddhists believe that we return lifetime after lifetime, so why not make each existence the best (happiest) it can be?

What is happiness, anyway? Is it simply a matter of getting “stuff”, like the good job, the car, the dream lover, the gorgeous house, the winning lottery ticket? And does “earthly desires are enlightenment” mean that it’s okay to take whatever you want in life (even if it belongs to another) because “hey, it’s my enlightenment!”?

Um, no. True happiness can’t be had by making someone else unhappy, and desires fulfilled don’t always guarantee happiness. There are two kinds of happiness, relative and absolute. Relative happiness is the fleeting kind that you get from getting something or someone you wanted. Absolute happiness? That’s when you realize that you can be happy even when you don’t get what or whom you wanted.

Paradox? Maybe…but life itself is our “vehicle” on the Road to Happiness; the stuff and things are merely accessories. We live in the world; our desires for the things of this world are in effect the gas that runs the vehicle. We’re constantly looking for more gas, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the spiritual aspect of our existence needs fuel as well. That’s why the practice of Buddhism requires that in our pursuit of happiness, we bring others with us along that road.

A road, by the way, that’s filed with karmic pitfalls. Karma is often referred to as “bad” or “good”, but it’s both. And neither. Simply put, karma is the accumulated effects of all the causes we have made in our lives. Everything we think, say, and do is a cause, and it has a simultaneous effect. (This is the law of the universe, which, like gravity, functions whether or not you believe in it.) To carry the analogy of the road trip further, sometimes those effects seem to come out of nowhere, just like that driver that suddenly changes lanes into the one you were already in. Your karma may be such that you have an open lane to switch into, or the driver of the other car sees you in time and moves back over, or there may be a collision. Similarly, you may have the capacity to make lots of money, but lack the fortune to hold onto it. You may be brilliant, yet desperately unhappy. You may be attractive enough to draw all eyes when you enter a room, but have no friends. This is all a function of karma. The good news is, you can change it! By continually moving forward, perpetually renewing ourselves, being conscious of our thoughts, words, and actions and controlling them accordingly, we can rid ourselves of nasty karmic buildup.

There are only three prayers that will never be granted: a prayer to harm someone else, for the physically impossible (say, to sprout wings in one’s sleep and fly to work in the morning), and for something that if you got it, would destroy your life. Otherwise, anything goes. If it’s cash and prizes you want, enter the contest as many times as you like. Just remember (cue Mick Jagger), ”you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need.”

Everyone’s a winner…

Alone Again, Or…?

Yeah, I heard a funny thing
Somebody said to me
“You know that I could be in love with almost everyone
I think that people are
The greatest fun”
And I will be alone again tonight my dear

Yeah, that’s from a song. “Alone Again Or”, a love song (of a sort), and a Love song (written by Bryan MacLean of Love…the band). In our culture, we are inundated with the concept of love: the need for it, the damage caused by lack of it, the gaining and the losing of it, etc. It’s not just the songs; movies, books, television, all speak to us of the necessity of love. If you don’t find your other half, you are doomed to a miserable, pathetic, lonely existence (you will never have “a life”). Of course, what most of them mean by “love” is what’s come to be known as romantic love, the idea that two people find each other somehow across the universe and complete each other, two halves of a whole. There’s someone out there for everyone, and all you need do is, oh, transcend time, space and reality and you will somehow find the one. You will be together forever, you will always love each other, and you will always be happy. Relationship problems? Must not be the one. Better keep looking…

I’m sure it’s no newsflash to anyone that having such an expectation almost always leads to broken hearts, failed relationships, and unhappiness all around. You may have found your ‘soul mate’, but eventually you will have to realize that keeping him/her requires work. Your ‘soul mate’ also happens to be a human being, a separate person of flesh and blood and differing opinions and…belches and farts. Ah, romance…

But what does ‘love’ mean to a Buddhist? Buddhism views all people as possessing the capacity for enlightenment, or Buddhahood, the condition of absolute happiness. The closest concept in Buddhism to this idea of “love” is the lower world of rapture. It’s considered a lower world because it is transient…not meant to last. The idea of a “soul mate” doesn’t really work either, because Buddhism does not support the idea of an eternal soul, at least not as is commonly meant. In Buddhism, life itself is eternal; the manifestation of an individual human life at a particular time, in a particular place, and in a particular form, results from the accumulation of causes made in one’s previous life (karma). One’s next life will manifest as an accumulation of causes made in this life, and so on and so on throughout eternity. While there is a certain level of continuity, there is no fixed, unchanging eternal soul that either ascends to heaven and finds its other half there, or is reborn again and again to resume the search on earth. Though it seems likely that the people we meet in each lifetime were known to us in previous lifetimes, in our current manifestation we can’t really know that for certain. To fixate on finding that “missing half” (as well as dwelling on who we were in past lives, and/or what evil karma we might have created) is detrimental to our present happiness. What’s important is to focus on one’s present existence, keeping the future in mind because it is shaped by the choices we are making now.

But what about the Love song? Are there really people who can “be in love with almost everyone”? And is that a good thing? What is love, anyway? Buddhism recognizes the idea of love, but not as life’s purpose. That would be the enlightenment (Buddhahood) that we work toward, a process that emphatically includes helping others to achieve enlightenment as well. Buddhahood, as defined by the Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism, is “a state of complete access to the boundless wisdom, compassion, courage, and other qualities inherent in life; with these one can create harmony with and among others and between human life and nature.” However, it must be remembered that a Buddha is not a deity; we can attain this state of life as the common mortals that we are. In theory, I suppose we could “be in love with almost everyone” (or anyone) in this happy state. But because we are also common mortals, we are constantly at war with our lesser selves. We feel as though we are at the mercy of our desires, and our desires lead us to particular people, not anyone and everyone, when we love.

There’s nothing wrong with desire; the pursuit of our desires fuels our lives. It’s the attachment to those desires (and even worse, setting a timetable for their fulfillment), at the expense of all other considerations, that leads to unhappiness. This is particularly the case when the object of desire is another person; no matter how strong one’s desire, there is no guarantee that it will be reciprocated, and it can’t be forced. We tend to attach too much value to the “love relationship”, as though the other relationships in our life are of lesser value or don’t matter. This in turn creates an excessive burden of expectation, so when a love relationship changes, evolves, or ends we feel a corresponding sense of failure.

But…that feeling of being in love…it seems so real. Our senses are heightened, our perception changes, the whole world seems different. The idea of being “in love with almost everyone” seems absolutely abhorrent when you are in love with the one. You want to be with that person only. No one else seems to matter, or at least not as much. As to why you love that person and not someone else…how to explain that?

From a scientific standpoint, we can look to biology and chemistry. Life must reproduce itself to continue; it’s the biological imperative. Studies have shown that people are drawn to each other by such factors as smell. But this seems problematic as well. From the sublimity of Buddhahood we plunge into the lower world of animality. Do we really, really want to be controlled by our biology, at the utter mercy of our senses? Surely there’s more to it than that. And what if we’re drawn to people who seem completely wrong for us; should we assume that nature knows best, and go with it?

This is where choice comes in. It just might be karma that has brought this person into your life. It may be that you are meant to have some kind of relationship with him/her, but it may have nothing to do with what we think of as “love”. Or…maybe it does. You decide to enter into a “relationship”. You don’t know if it’s meant to last a lifetime or not. This is what the two of you will have to determine. If left to chance, you may outgrow each other. At times you may feel indifferent; at times you may hate each other. You may feel anything but “love”. The physical attraction usually fades over time; if that was the sole basis for your coming together, and you have never carried the relationship further, you will invariably move away from each other. It’s not that the feelings you had weren’t real, it’s just that they didn’t last.

So. What’s the best way to be a Buddha, yet enjoy all that love has to offer? We are not meant to live on such an exalted plane that we don’t get to experience the pleasure of our senses. It is not necessary to eliminate our earthly desires to attain enlightenment; the two are inseparable. This is what we have to remember when “love” makes us suffer. In a sense, if what we most desire is to maintain a solid relationship, we could “be in love with almost everyone”-as long as we remember that. Shared values, respect for yourselves and for each other, and a shared determination to make it work are what keeps a relationship going long past what might have been its “sell by” date. It’s important to remember that no matter how much you may love someone and feel happy in that person’s presence, ultimately you alone are responsible for your happiness. Love may “make the world go ‘round” (yet another song), but our Buddha attributes of boundless wisdom, compassion, and courage are what enables us to keep it alive.