Indra's Net; the ultimate net neutrality

“Zen pretty much comes down to three things: 
everything changes, everything’s connected, pay attention.” 
Jane Hirshfield, poet, translator, Buddhist

The myth of Indra’s Net is used to illustrate the Buddhist concepts of emptiness and dependent origination. Everything in the universe, including each of us, is a pearl at an intersection of Indra’s giant net. Looking closely into an individual pearl, every other pearl is reflected in its surface.

According to the Buddha’s Dependent Origination, everything that exists, exists only in relation to everything else. My biological existence depends not only on each of my parents, but each of their parents and all our ancestors. Additionally, the person I am today is the result of everyone I’ve ever met, and all the things with which I’ve come into contact. This soaks out into the whole universe through the ancestors of everyone I’ve met and all the other things and people that they too have experienced.

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches looking deeply enough into a tangerine to see the grocer, the trucker, and the farmer. And then deeper yet to see, and even taste, the sun, the rain and the soil in the fruit. When I consider the causes and conditions that bring about the sun, the rain and the soil, I can begin to sense that everything indeed relies on everything else. When I look deeply enough at any one thing, I can see everything else.

In emptiness, the Buddha teaches that nothing has an intrinsic, permanent nature; everything changes. Intellectually and emotionally, I am not the same person that I was when I was ten years old. All my cells have a finite lifespan; all gradually die off and are replaced. Physically, I am not the same person I was just a few weeks ago; or even a few minutes ago.

Nothing, and no one, is permanent and the whole process of Dependent Origination begins again with everything and everyone now in my life. This unending process folds the entire universe in on itself with each passing moment. We are continually created and are helping to create everything else, every moment.

In my travels I often see a person standing by the road with a cardboard sign. If I’m caught by other traffic or the stoplight, often I sit uncomfortably in my truck, staring straight ahead waiting for the light to change. Much of the time I don’t have any cash on me anyway. I know I am not alone in this discomfort. I’ve walked through big cities and I’ve sensed my noticing of everything else, anything else, but the abject neediness. And what of the groups of people who are now being actively targeted and oppressed by the current establishment? Am I doing more than simple lip service? How can I be an effective ally? How do I not become overwhelmed by the avalanche of hate? How do I effectively and fully recognize the existence of all the other pearls on the net?

I believe that there is a latent sense in each of us that we exist only in relation to everything else. It seems obvious that some behaviors, like jealousy or embarrassment, come from some understanding that who we are is intricately dependent on the others around us. What must it feel like for someone that we choose not to see? Or to see differently? What ache must there be just to feel fully existed? Indra’s Net shows us the illusion of separation. When I don’t see the full humanity of that person on the street, there is a part of me I don’t see. When I think that someone who looks different or dresses differently is somehow actually different from me, I lose sight of myself.

Dogen wrote “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.” I believe he was speaking directly to this illusion of separation. He was pointing to Indra’s Net; pointing to everything I am, everything you are and everything that is that guy with a sign or anyone else. To ignore any one of those pearls rends our connections; tears at the net. Further, impermanence shows us that the pearls are a part of the illusion. Without a permanent self, our only real existence is in the connections of the net. Tearing at the net is tearing at ourselves. When I fail to offer someone the dignity of a recognized existence, I miss fully existing myself. My path to the Buddha way is directly interrupted.

Martin Luther King, Jr. practically paraphrased the Buddha in his book “Strength to Love” when he wrote “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” There may not be any words more important than these in our current politics. We are stuck in this quagmire specifically because of hate battling hate. Eight years ago, we had an election that some could not accept. The loss of decorum began right away; from Joe Wilson’s “You Lie!” to the near complete obstruction that followed.

Now we are faced with an administration chock full from the top on down with people who have never had to be empathetic. They’ve never had to deal anyone they didn’t want to; never had even one of a whole variety of problems that most of the rest of us face every day.  The new president is a creep and certainly has never had to treat a woman with any respect. Yet, how are the cries of “Not my president” any different from “You lie?” I don’t like the man nor most of his policy prescriptions, but just like eight years ago, there was an election and he won. Lord help us but it is a constitutional fact that he is our president.

So what are we going to do about it? None of this is permanent. We are not stuck with this current situation indefinitely. Most of the people who voted for Donald Trump will not be forever loyal to him. I think many of them simply struck out at a system that had failed them; striking in the only tangible way that seemed available to them. And there really were a great many reasons to not support the other candidate.

In the long run, I propose that we need to break free of the two party system; or at least the two parties that we’re stuck with right now. In the short term, however, we have this less-than-perfect representative republic and this constitution. In order to move forward as a nation, we have to win some hearts and minds. We need to find ways of talking to  and working with people with whom we don’t agree. Not only does this take us right back to “Hate cannot drive out hate;” it takes us right back to Indra’s Net. It takes us back to seeing those others as a part of us and allowing them a recognized existence.

If I accept that a homeless person can sense my not-seeing them, then certainly in the emotionally charged arena of our politics our opponents know it when we dismiss them; dismiss their fears and aspirations. We cannot work together to solve this country’s problems without granting there are people and ideas we strongly disagree with which nonetheless have validity in a democracy. Certainly not all the ideas we’ve heard should be tolerated, but we cannot say that there are no valid concerns in the rank and file of those voters.

I am not saying that we should support President Trump and his administration. They, along with their allies in the Congress, are undoubtedly in the process of overreaching. They act as if they won a mandate when the Republican president lost the popular vote -- again. I am suggesting that democracy is messy and it functions only through compromise.

Those friends and neighbors of ours that supported the other side have valid fears and aspirations that are different from ours. We need to give them the space to feel comfortable. They must willingly come back to negotiating with the rest of us toward shared solutions to our shared problems. They must be allowed to exist in this messy world along with us. The only way forward is working together. The success of this American experiment depends on wholesale changes from the current unresponsive system. Massive changes will only be successful if we have well more than fifty percent of the country behind the movement.

I am more confident in the ultimate strength of our core principles of democracy than I am afraid of this new regime. This Republican unity is fragile. It won’t take much to upset their giddy honeymoon. Nevertheless, we need all the help we can get to change the dangerous course on which our country suddenly finds itself.

My biggest concern is the aftermath when Trump defaults on most of his myriad campaign promises. The objective reality is that he cannot accomplish all, perhaps any, of the things he has promised. Some of the bigger promises, like the return of manufacturing jobs, are so far beyond his control that a many of his supporters will soon be disillusioned, disappointed and angry. I fear that in that fragile bewildered moment, some truly nasty character we haven’t yet imagined will step in to replace Trump as the savior of so-called white working class. Whoever that might be will be worse, and stronger, than Mr. Trump. The bewildered and frustrated remnants of Trump’s movement will be in no position to think clearly and that moment will be ripe for things to get much worse. Our greatest duty in the coming months is to create a comfortable space for those people turning away from Trump to fall toward the center so they are not drawn further to the right.

For those voters bitterly disappointed by the status quo, there was clearly one candidate that was a continuation and another that was a break from the past. The more we howl at the horrible choices that were made, the more likely those hearts and minds will bind up and those ideas reflexively defended.

And, of course, if Indra’s Net includes everything and everyone in the universe, it includes Trump and his gang of deplorables. Regardless, they must not be allowed to tear the net in half. We must vigorously oppose the regressive policies of the Trump Administration while simultaneously allowing many of those who supported him to live and breath among us. I believe we must strive to strengthen the safety net of our human connections in order to maintain room enough for those who seek to rejoin us. When they turn away from the abyss, we must fully welcome them.

“Everything changes, Everything’s connected, Pay attention.” This isn’t permanent, we can make it better; we need to work together in a broad coalition; and we must carefully distinguish between vigorously opposing the policies of this new administration while being careful to be inclusive of those who will begin to turn away from supporting the President.

image used without permission from https://www.scienceandnonduality.com/the-indras-net/


Thunderous Rain Ovation

Way cleaner than my truck.
A penny lay on the floor, in the sand and dust below the steering wheel. Two long sleeved shirts and a couple jackets hung over the passenger seat attesting to the varied weather of the last week or so. The cabinets and cubbies were packed. Work boots and a variety of occasionally used items were under the shelf on my left. A stuffed laundry bag leaned out of the hanging locker to the right. My little electric cooler hummed quietly. Not so quiet were the trucks moving around in the truck stop. The evening rush was on and everybody was looking for a spot to park for the night. I could hear a refrigerated trailer or two braying away at the warmth of the Georgia evening. Shifting colors and flashes of chrome slipped around the edges of my privacy curtain. I straightened the sheets and blanket on my bunk and sat on the edge. A bad knee and a truck cabin with nearly no floor both preclude a traditional meditation cushion. After a deep breath, I relaxed my shoulders and back.

On the little pull-out tabletop over my knee, I set out the tablet with the meditation app and my kindle; because I don’t quite have the Heart Sutra all in my head. Three deep breaths and I adjusted my feet to began the process of slowing down. Down through the dirty truck stop rag rug, through the floor of the cab, into the springs, shocks and air bags of the suspension, past the big rims of the wheels and through the air and rubber of the tires, I try to feel the ground under my feet. With another deep breath, I pushed with my mind through all that equipment to, at least by memory, settle my feet against the earth.

I spoke aloud my minimalist English version of the three refuges and then chanted the Metta Sutra. Picking up the Kindle, I recited the Heart Sutra, almost from memory; forgetting to turn the page until near the end where I almost lost my place. I poked the touchscreen button on the meditation timer and I returned, for the moment, to my breath.

The first temple location in Grand Rapids was a tiny storefront between a Chinese Restaurant and a Hot Dog stand. Without fail, about halfway through our evening meditation sessions, they would start chopping tomorrow’s vegetables next door. Two or three Chinese cleavers going chukka, chukka … chukka, chukka, chukka. Tension filled the room as all of us novices struggled to lose the distraction. The rumbling trucks, slamming doors and grinding reefer units outside my sleeper cab zendo remind me of those days and I smiled.

This particular evening was a few evenings after the great struggle. I just followed my breath again, only counting when I needed to return from a strong distraction. The time went by and I just kept returning to the present, almost as soon as I left it. I couldn’t have cared less about the timer. I had no jumpy limbs; no slimy ball bearings, no separate entities. I just sat.

And then it began to rain - hard. The sheet metal of the truck roof was drumming like some tin-roofed cabin in the woods somewhere.  I was aware of the forecast but the rain was thunderous; like roaring applause. It was as if the entire universe was joyfully clapping for me.  I hadn’t done anything admirable; hadn’t achieved anything of merit. I was no better than anyone or any thing else. And yet the universe was indeed applauding me. Every single other thing was cheering me on, not for anything I had ever done except the simple choice to be there, to breath and, if only in small moments, to allow the boundaries between me and all those other things to begin to dissolve.


Slimy Ball Bearings on the way toward Enlightenment.

Just a few years ago, after more than fifteen years as a hard core atheist and scientific materialist, I was on the cusp of shedding the crusty shell I had been living in. After the long and winding road of my seeking, I was convinced that neither spirituality nor materialism, on their own, could answer all our human questions. I was working with a life coach, and one of my goals from those sessions was to re-read Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’ I was curious to revisit a book that had once been extremely important to me, but one that I felt I had left behind for new ways of thinking. The book had practically ruined my sophomore year at Michigan State. I didn’t want to talk or think about anything else. Seeking out that book was an early sign of Buddhism returning to my life. All the other books on Buddhism that I had collected back in my dorm days had been lost along the way.

Another more recent important book was Eckhart Tolle’s ‘A New Earth.’ My coach, Kathy, had sent me a copy. In ‘A New Earth,’ Tolle describes his theory of the Pain Body; a psychic parasite made up of self-destructive habit patterns. It is a powerful unconscious force with great momentum that seeks to continue those bad patterns and bring us pain. He described this thing like a separate entity inside us, laying dormant waiting for a trigger to set it off. It’s main mission is to absorb and magnify the negativity in our lives. Tolle described the ‘behavior’ of the pain body and how even other people can sense it. His most compelling example was about someone walking into the room and changing the mood in a way that everyone notices. I think we have all experienced something similar. Tolle would say that person was suffering from a particularly active Pain Body. A strangely disturbing recent experience had reminded me of this kind of other entity.

Now any good atheist would scoff at a concept like the Pain Body. Luckily, I was no longer a very good atheist. There were moments, however, when I wanted to throw the book across the room. Mostly out of respect for Kathy, I kept reading. I knew I was learning excellent skills from her that were already helping me change my life.

Honestly, Tolle had convinced me this pain body did indeed exist in some form. It was useful to talk about the pain body like it was an actual separate entity even if, in practice, one only believed that it was a good explanation. The helpful explanation was more useful than quibbling about the biological facts or metaphysical proofs. When the thought rolled through my head that if a concept, like the pain body, could accurately explain something experiential and even lead to good hypotheses about how to deal with those experiences, then it must be considered to be true in some sense of the word.

This loosy goosy interpretation of ‘truth’ would have been deeply offensive to my former atheist sensibilities. It was literally that thought -- that moment -- when I knew for certain that I was no longer the same as I had been before. I knew for sure, right then, that I was no longer an atheist. And further, I was pretty OK with that. I hadn’t fallen down on my knees before some unearthly power, but my view of the universe was expanding.

Fast forward a few years, I found a temple during my time in Grand Rapids. I began to take Buddhism rather seriously and took part in the new temple’s first lay ordination ceremony when I accepted the Precept Vows with several others. Taking the Precepts is similar to a baptism or a confirmation. It is essentially a public ceremony in which one declares their intention to live a Buddhist life. The Grand Rapids Buddhist Temple and Zen Center is still a very important place for me. I have been practicing meditation, on and off, ever since.

When I went back on the road driving a truck, I was back on completely irregular life and sleep schedules. Lots of simple things like sending a card or paying a bill are much more complex from the road.  As a result, my sitting practice went on hiatus for a time. I’ve just written about my joy in getting back on to a regular practice schedule.

Just recently, I had a very strange experience while meditating. One disadvantage of having moved away from what I still consider my home temple, my teacher and my sangha family is that I am far away from any guidance or discussion. The onus was on me, however, and I haven’t called anyone or sought out any help. Nevertheless, I feel it ended well anyway [keep reading].

I’ve had bad times on the cushion before; everyone has. My knees have cramped, my legs have gone restless, my brain has been either foggy or like a monkey on meth. It’s rather amusing to come off a 14 or 15 hour day, exhausted, and try to meditate. I’ve come close to just tipping right over dead asleep.  

This particular day last month, however, was different. My body was restless. Pain and cramps appeared here and there. A leg or an arm would spontaneously and autonomously jerk out of place and I had the willies under my scalp. There seemed to be nothing I could do to stop it; and it seemed to be coming from some “thing” than me.

Holmes Hall
It wasn’t unlike an unfortunate night in the dorm. I don’t remember what was going on in my life. Better yet, I do remember that it didn’t take much of a reason to need to lose control in Holmes Hall in the mid-Eighties. That night I didn’t ‘pick a poison,’ I chose them all. It was a shock and awe chemical invasion; beer, whiskey, tequila and who knows what else. At some point in the evening I realized that I really didn’t feel very well if I was sitting still. It was better, or at least tolerable, if I was moving around. I distinctly remember a feeling like thousands of slimy ball bearings moving around under my skin; surging and flowing. It was kind of gross, but it was way worse if I was sitting or standing still. I started to wander the halls just to maintain my sanity. Sometime around 4:00am, my none-too-amused roommates tracked me down on the fifth or sixth floor of the dorm building next door to ours.

Back to my recent afternoon, sitting in meditation in a sleeper cab truck at a truck stop, I was feeling things inside me again that were not natural; not a part of me. I don’t know if my reading about the pain body contributed to my imagination or whether, in the long run, the reading helped me name it and then deal with it, but I had the sense that my ego was trying to sabotage my practice. It was rather scary but I could feel something -- something else -- writhing inside me like it was trying to regain the upper hand. Even writing it now, I don’t know what any of this means or if it needs to “mean” anything at all.

In previous meditation sessions, if I was going to fall over asleep, I would just stop the meditation timer and go to bed. Other times, when it was a just sore knee or the monkey mind, when I should have stayed at it, I often quit and did something else. For some reason, as this thing within me squirmed and silently howled in anguish, I decided to keep at it; to just sit there.

I might not have been able to stop my limbs from moving around, or stop the gyrating mental distractions, but I was going to stick it out. I was going to just keep watching my breath. Isn’t it funny that when I breathe in, it’s just ‘air,’ but when I exhale, it’s ‘my breath?’ Still, right then, my breath seemed like like the only thing that I knew for certain was me. I was going to stay with that until that god damned chime went off.

I was exhausted when my meditation timer finally chimed. Why it had been so difficult, I had no idea. I didn’t feel any emotion, not jubilant or relieved etc. I didn’t really think about it that much once it was over. My breaks on the road are only ten hours or so. Often when I’ve been doing something else on my break and realize it’s getting late, I just need to drop what I’m doing and try to get some sleep. That’s what I did that night. Sleep came easy after the mental wrestling match.

It wasn’t until I sat down again the next day. When I returned to meditation after that strange session I had a whole new sense of it. Meditating had not always been easy for me; bad knees and a creative mind. I just do what I can when I can, but have always felt like I should sit more often. There was something else, however, that I didn’t recognize. My meditation had an incomplete sense that I had not been aware of. Sitting again, suddenly, it was just me, just sitting. It was as if I had finally left everything behind. I hadn’t known it before but until then, on my own or even all my time at the temple, my meditation had been me … and the timer, and my schedule, and all the stuff in my life and in my head. I had always meditated with my whole life sitting there in my lap. And now, at least in that one moment, it was gone.

This new aloneness was freedom. I don’t have it every day, but I feel like I’m sitting by myself now. I can sit through the session, just me, until I hear the chime. And then life comes back gently. It seems to be much less like two separate mindsets; one in meditation and one living a life. I’m not trying to brag or teach, I just wanted to share this new opening I’ve found; perhaps encourage others who seek such openings. Then again Kodo Sawaki always insisted that meditation was good for nothing.


Hack my news feed, please!

Indulge me to share some positive news from today. It will all make sense in just a bit.

Today was an auspicious day. Just as many good days throughout history, it started like crap. Yesterday afternoon, I had a major flat tire on my cab which lead me to staying put all night rather than running the highway at night as I like. Staying put shifted my schedule and caused a late start this morning. Nevertheless, I managed to get to one of my familiar neighborhoods this afternoon and I was headed to the grocery store. I travel with a bike hanging on the back of my cab, but when I got it down, the threaded cap on the quick release of my front wheel was missing; it must have vibrated loose. The bike was out of action.

None of this sounds like positive news yet, but hang on. Luckily, the grocery store is only about seven tenths of a mile from the truckstop. Even better luck, when I googled “bicycle shop near me” there was one right between me and the Kroger store! I got out my knapsack rather than my bicycle saddlebags and trudged off for the bicycle shop and the grocery.

I expected to have to buy a whole skewer rod assembly or maybe even an entire rim at the bike shop. Yet when I explained my trouble, the bike tech dude grabbed a gallon-size zip lock bag full of random skewer assembly parts out of a drawer. He dug through and found me the threaded cap and the spring that I was missing. After discussing some options for hanging the bike in a better way, I bought a bike fork mount; something I’ve been considering as a solution. With that he threw in the skewer rod parts for free!

So I hiked on to Kroger and picked up several days worth of provisions. At the checkout counter, the sweet older southern lady asked if I had a Kroger card. I checked my wallet but didn’t, so she suggested I try a phone number. I thought about it for a minute and entered a number literally four phones ago; the last time I remember shopping regularly at a Kroger. “Yep, there you go, it took it,” the sweet lady said. “Saved you $8.74!”

After walking back to the truck stop with a full knapsack on my back and eight or ten pounds of fruit in two grocery bags -- one in each hand -- I was a little warm when I got back to the truck. I just happened to be at a truck stop chain where I rarely fuel. I wasn’t sure that I had a shower on my card [truckstops have loyalty cards just like grocery stores and give a free shower with a fill-up]. The back of my shirt was soaked through from the heat of carrying the pack and I was soaking through a couple spots on the front of my shirt. When one of the clerks saw me walking in -- really needing a shower -- he handed me a key freely without checking my card. “Here ya go, man”, he said with a nod and a wink.

So, critical bike parts free, a good grocery discount and a free shower all in the space of two hours or so!  And now for the meat of the project -- hack my news feed, please.  

Some of you may recall that Facebook got in some hot water in June 2014 when it was revealed that they had run a social experiment on almost 700,000 people without notifying them.

From an article in the Guardian at the time:  “One test reduced users' exposure to their friends' "positive emotional content", resulting in fewer positive posts of their own. Another test reduced exposure to "negative emotional content" and the opposite happened.”

A little creepy perhaps, but without taking a side on the issue, this is great news! What an excellent hack: your positive posts lead to your friends being more positive with their own posts, which will lead to all of their friends [including you] being more positive. This is viral by definition; scientifically proven.

We are in control of this and can change all of our lives together. Let’s resist getting mired in the negative bullshit that is so easily trafficked online.

Let’s infect our social media with positive posts!

So, it may sound like I've gone over the edge and I'm singing about unicorns and rainbows in a straitjacket, but ...

                          ...  it could still work. Let's try it.


Hey, y’all, I’m back. [cricket, cricket … ]

Um ... wait ... 
I deactivated my Facebook profile back in August in order to take a personal retreat into my analog life. I wanted to reset the way I was consuming social media and get back to prioritizing those things in my life that align with my intentions and aspirations. I wanted to reinvigorate my meditation practice and I needed to spend more time writing.

Facebook can be an excellent distraction. I drive a truck for a living and can only accomplish other things once I've stopped somewhere. I’m often only stopped for a few minutes, and it was so easy to decide that all I had time for was a quick check on FB. Soon, it was just a bad habit; almost an addiction. I was always hip deep in my news feed, strenuously arguing politics and keeping up with all kinds things that don’t matter me. There was always something else interesting to read. And while it wasn’t endlessly interesting, it was an endless supply of things that seemed
interesting. I have always been a voracious reader but I wasn’t reading things I wanted to read; I was reading the next shiny, interesting thing that came by. After a while I could tell it was only a felt sense of interesting; something artificial. One friend once told another, “you can find Todd on Facebook, he’s always there.” While I am back and a bit ambivalent about being back, I won’t be back in the same way that I was before.

I am working the road hard lately, with the goal of being able to quit by late summer to work full time on my boat. Most truckers don’t have a regular schedule; I am one of those for sure. This has made it tough to maintain a regular meditation practice. Moreover, it’s pretty easy to blame the irregular schedule and get lazy. My meditation became catch-as-catch-can for the last couple years. Even though I actually take Buddhism quite seriously, I had become the proverbial night-stand-Buddhist; I was mostly
Buddhist in what I read at bedtime. With a little extra effort during these analog days, I have managed to return to a regular practice. In fact, I may be sitting more now than I have since the time of the precept ceremony I participated in. I didn’t realize how much I had missed it until it began soaking back into all the corners of my life.

Habits have to be cultivated. Life is good, and quite settled right now, because I’ve taken back control of my habits. When I’m not paying attention to my intentions and the good habits I’ve developed around them, they are easily replaced by habits not of my own choosing. Someone or something else is deciding what direction I should head. I cannot achieve my goals without maintaining habits that contribute to that achievement.

This is the time of year when people talk about resolutions. New Year’s Resolutions are really about developing and maintaining good habits. However, I believe that habits can only be cultivated with daily discipline -- not an annual review. Wresting control from external forces and taking responsibility again for my own navigation was not easy, but it is my only chance to keep making good decisions and get Emma in the water to go vagabonding.

The same effort to live more inline with my aspirations has got me writing regularly again too. There are new posts here at the Zennish Boy blog as well as on the Bubba the Pirate blog. I have also started work on a sailing memoir that will stretch from my very first sail at a boy scout camp in northern Michigan to the present day on the cusp of escaping to sea from the Atlantic Coast of Florida. I'll let you know when it comes out as an ebook. There are also bits of other writing soon to appear over at the Secret Other Blog.

I miss my Grand Rapids Sangha Family.


The Log

I've been meaning to write a post describing working on the highway as a crucible of reactivity. Out here on the mean streets, there are clueless drivers, texters and just plain bad drivers. I was going to suggest that some of these drivers, fourwheelers and other truckers, were endangering the rest of us. It was going to be obvious that some righteous indignation was appropriate. Actually, I was trying to justify my righteous indignation; my overreaction.

As a truck driver, I'd had a couple close calls driving aggressively and long ago decided I better lay off. I first fixed that by aggressively preventing other drivers from being aggressive. Sounds logical, right? Eventually, I just went through a phase of really resenting the drivers who were aggressive, or ignorant of the finer points of traffic law, or just plain stupid. Really, it was about how I was a better driver than them. It was probably always something like that. Finally, I've reached the point where I am just bewildered by how some people drive. I'm not perfect, of course, but I've improved my intention.

The “crucible of reactivity” was going to be the perfect excuse for me occasionally losing my shit behind the steering wheel. Every once in a while it creeps up on me.  And then I heard an old Zen story. Old Zen stories will always get you. The good ones are so stripped down, so human, that you can immediately recognize yourself in one of the characters. This Zen story is in two parts. In the first, you are out fishing in your canoe when you start to feel a little sleepy. You drop an anchor and lie down to take a quick nap. Just as you're about to drift off to sleep, you feel a great clunk and jump up to see that another fisherman has carelessly run his canoe into yours. “What the hell are you doing? Are you stupid? You're a danger to all of us out here?” [sound familiar?]

The second story is nearly the same, you are out fishing in your canoe when you discover that you're a little sleepy. You drop an anchor and lie down to take a quick nap. Just as you're about to drift off to sleep, you feel a great clunk and jump up! “What the … oh.”  Its a log that has drifted down the river and bumped into your boat. You lie back down and take a peaceful nap.

What is the difference between the other fisherman and the log? Absolutely nothing. We have no more control over the behavior of the other fisherman than we have of the log. We can try to argue, like I was going to about other drivers, that the other fisherman should be polite, be responsible, follow the rules.  Can we ever make someone else follow the rules? Or especially, can we make them follow the rules in the way that we would want them to?

We can't. We also don't have any idea what is on the other fisherman's mind or what's going on in his the life. There are a thousand things that could be on his mind stressing him to distraction. Can we blame him? Can we expect him to do what we want?

Then why are we giving the log a pass and not the other fisherman?


Huh, that never happened before ...

There are times when even I am surprised how clueless I can be. Worse yet, I've learned this week that I have to work on my equanimity.

I was driving south on I-95 through Georgia, minding my own business, listening to podcasts from the Secular Buddhist Association. It just happened to be the very last exit in Georgia, when two vehicles were coming down the entrance ramp; a full size pickup followed by a well kept, old style Jeep Cherokee. Now, with well over a million miles on the road, I don't move over for anyone anymore. It is their job to blend into the highway traffic from the ramp. Truck speed limits are lower than those for cars, so I am going slower anyway. Further, it seems to me that it is safer to maintain a constant speed and stay in one place.

The pickup truck accelerated and entered the highway well in front of me. The Jeep, however, waited until he was almost out of room and had to brake hard in order to get behind me. The fool must have been texting, I thought to myself. To make matters worse, just as we cleared a rise in the highway, a construction sign told me the right lane was closed ahead. I signaled, merged left and then saw the Jeep coming around me. He's not happy, I thought to myself. After the lane never closed, I merged back to the right for the Florida Agricultural Inspection Station; the first “exit” in Florida.

Just ahead of me, a four wheel vehicle entered the inspection station. That's weird, I thought to myself. As I entered the station, the four-wheeler stopped at the guard shack, talked to the officer and pulled ahead to park. Oh, he must work here, I thought to myself. It never occurred to me that vehicle was the same damned Cherokee from Georgia.

I stopped at the Ag station window to report that I was just carrying freight for Walmart; nothing agricultural. He nodded and with a grimace, asked me to pull over up ahead to the left. This had never happened before, I thought to myself. I slowly pulled up to the wide spot in the drive and the guy from the Cherokee was standing there, in uniform, fuming. Huh … to myself.

As I rolled to a stop, the officer guy walked around behind my trailer and vigorously motioned for me to get out. I could almost see tiny wisps of smoke twisting in the air above each of his ears.

“What was going on back there? You should be glad that happened in Georgia, because I really feel like writing some tickets right now. In fact, I should call them, up there in Georgia, and have somebody come down and write you up? I could have hit the passenger side of your truck, you know. It's a good thing that I am a quick driver and I could get into the emergency lane,” he spewed all in one breath.

I may be a little slow, but I knew right then and there, I had to play this cool. Not just cool, like smooth, but I had to feign to grovel for this creep because he was a pissed off wannabe cop. If he had actually hit my truck, it was not going to somehow end up my fault. If he was such a talented driver, it would seem that he would have judged the situation more clearly and either sped up or slowed down while he still had room on the entrance ramp. I still think he had been texting.

I apologized. I explained that I never intended to do anything to him personally. I told him sincerely that when traffic is blending, it is safer for me to stay where I am and maintain my speed. In my humble opinion, I said. The cruise control was engaged, I added. And I apologized again.

When I put my hands in my pockets in my best humble-George-Costanza-look, all I got was “KEEP YOUR HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE 'EM!” I stayed calm, apologetic, and moved rather slowly.

He must have got the hidden message within my groveling. For each time I mentioned “blending traffic”, his lizard brain lurched in recognition. He would never confess, especially to me, but I think he began to realize he was way out on a limb. If he was going to push the issue and I didn't roll over but decided to push back, somewhere along the line he was going to have to explain how he got all the way down to the end of an entrance ramp so close to a semi trailer that he had to brake hard to prevent an accident.

I took a small slice of comfort in that I stayed out of the fracas he seemed to want. I kept my own lizard brain sitting on its hands. Presumably, the officer would have loved to have provoked a reaction from me so that he could indeed start writing some tickets. Or better yet, get out those handcuffs he probably dreams about using.

However, four days later, I am still spinning my story to make him sound like a thug. The truth of the story is likely somewhere a little closer to the middle, but I am continue to struggle with my own reaction. I will admit I am somewhat hypersensitive to an authority figure with a shitty attitude; especially a cop. Nevertheless, I truly think that he was simply angry, overreacting and abusing his position of authority for a purely personal reason. That does not change the fact, but actually highlights very well that I have a lot of work to do. Maybe I shouldn't be telling the story at all, but I definitely should not have had to carry it with me; rethinking it for days. I cannot change his reaction to the situation but I should be able to control my own.


Lifestyle or Religion?

Today I was asked if I considered my Buddhist practice a religion or a lifestyle. After some thought, I believe that the frame of the question is incorrect. The question does not make sense to me in a meaningful way. 

It is my opinion that a great many of the maladies that we suffer in our modern culture are caused by the fact that religious people often have lifestyles that completely contradict their professed beliefs. If a person is a true believer of a religion, their lifestyle should be directly affected by, and converge with, their belief system.

Consider right wing politics in the United States of America. The words Conservative and Christian are uttered so often together that "conservative" sounds slightly hollow without its proverbial suffix "christian." I felt a twinge making that previous sentence work in both directions. I know non-conservative Christians, I was raised as one. However, in politics "christian" is rarely heard without its prefix "conservative."

At first this might seem to contradict my thesis. These words are so attached in our lexicon that they must be an example of lifestyle and religion in parallel. However, look at some of the core teachings of Jesus Christ: love your neighbor as your self, love your enemies, refrain from hatred and lust, turn the other cheek, the meek shall inherit the earth, money changers thrown out of the temple and even the story of loaves and fishes. Now try to square even one of these teachings with capitalist economics as currently practiced in the our country and, thanks to our evangelizing, all around the globalized world. Capitalist economics is the economics of choice of so-called conservative christians. I know, I don't get it either. 

I don't want to pick on one religion. There are examples in all religions where lifestyle and religion diverge, especially in a toxic mix that includes politics. Look at ethnic violence perpetrated by Buddhists against a Muslim minority in Burma. If we look at the hellish violence that the United States has perpetuated against whole countries in the Middle East, its easy to understand that "Muslim Terrorist" is an inaccurate, politically naive construct. Yet, there were many places in the world where, pre-globalized politics, Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together as peaceful neighbors for hundreds of years. Moreover in every branch of every religion somewhere there can be found a charlatan leading some number of people astray while profiting from their ignorance. Another very old cliche highlights the difference in behaviors between Sundays and Mondays.

My lifestyle was profoundly affected by my return to Buddhism. I have always enjoyed mixing it up with people and arguing politics, philosophy and religion; as if any of those are truly separate. Old habits die hard, but I am getting better. My religion and lifestyle began to converge when I came to understand that showing by example is more effective than telling with words. I can do more to improve the world by just living my life my way than I could ever do by arguing. Arguing seals another person's mind against what I am saying. There is very little hope in changing the world by words. The world can only change by the application of compassion and loving kindness.

When I was a hard core Atheist, people who believed in a god pissed me off. I could not understand how they could "believe" AND I wanted to convince them of the error of their ways. My success rate in converting others, by the way, was zero. When I began to realize that neither science nor religion possess a monopoly on understanding the world we live in together, I began to soften and eventually returned to the Buddhism I tried to study in college.

Further, my lifestyle was greatly affected by understanding, through my religion, that there is no separation between us, nor between us and the universe. Not only are we *all* made up of the same stuff, we all are the *same* stuff. It helped me to see that I was no different than the Christians who frustrated me. A step backward helped me understand that we are all asking the same questions just with different words. This realization allowed a crusty shell that I had worn for many years to crack open and crumble around my feet. It doesn't matter to me what anyone else thinks or believes because all their questions are my questions too. The dissatisfaction of an unexamined life is something all of us feel to some extent. With that my heart burst open and I could let everyone in because I knew they were all in there already. 

My religion and my lifestyle are so intertwined, I don't know where one ends and the other begins. That being said, I am neither that good a Buddhist or a very good human. Yet, I know that if I have the whole universe in my heart it matters not if I am a good Buddhist or a good human or a good Muslim or a good anything. The illusion of separation is rooted in judgement. Being open and dropping the separation of me from the universe is not only more important than being good or right, it supersedes good and right.


This sounded to me like a good enough exuse to break out Jane Merchant's "The Stars and I" again. When she writes:

    "Till all the stars were shining into me
    And I was all the stars that I could see"

                 ...  my heart swells up and my own boundaries dissapate.


The Stars and I by Jane Merchant

         I want a hill to live on, lone and high,
         Because, when I was small, I used to lie
         Out on a hill at evening, watching stars.
         I didn't care a bit which one was Mars.
         I couldn't find the Dipper or the Bear
         Or anything my elders said was there,
         And why I should I couldn't understand.
         It was enough to lie there and expand
         Till all the stars were shining into me
         And I was all the stars that I could see
         In all the endless acres of the night.
         That was the best of living. That was right.

         The worst was going in to sticky gloom
         And having to shrink myself to fit a room.


Maybe some people aren't assholes . . .

My Buddhist life is starting to come together again. I had let the practice slide, then began to feel I missed it, but struggled to get it back. Out on the road, its hard to maintain anything, but recently, thankfully, I've been able to quietly sustain. It feels like I'm in tune with the world again.

To study the Buddha Way is to study the self,
To study the self is to forget the self,
To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas”
- Master Dogen Zenji

Our teacher at the Grand Rapids Zen Center and BuddhistTemple reminded us in a recent dharma talk, that many people forget Dogen's first “study the self” part and try to jump right to the “forget the self” part without doing the necessary work. With my meditation practice back on track, I'm learning things about myself again. So much nonsense gets cooked up inside the human head; mine especially.

There are very few people in my life that get under my skin. I've always taken some thin comfort in that there were so few people who bothered me. I must be an alright guy; I get along with almost everybody. The first stage of my learning came a couple years ago when somehow I realized that 50% of my issues with these people were my reaction to the situation. A time came that I was going to be stuck spending a weekend with one of those people. Luckily there were to be plenty of other people around. I decided to just let them be and not react, even if I thought they were being an ass. It actually worked and the weekend went more smoothly than expected. I was kind of proud of myself. However, I never did the hard work to think about my half of the issues.

Now it may be that some people really are assholes. I might even be right that you can change your own reaction to that kind of person, but I needed to dig a little deeper. These bothersome people are a small group, but they have occupied an inordinate amount of my time – my brain time. These people are so bad [uh huh …] that I would dream up scenarios about future confrontation. Because I knew what they were going to say [ridiculous] and I wanted to be prepared with my rebuttal [sad, and ridiculous]. I was preparing for battle. Given the right prep work, I would smash them into submission with my powerful words [sad, really damn sad].

Sitting on my cushion and peaking into my life, I've been amazed to find anger. Hey wait, I'm a happy guy, right? A joker. What's up with this? The anger usually showed up around these particular people, but it was coming from somewhere else. It was coming from inside me. I stayed with that, teasing at it like a kid poking at a campfire with a stick – watching it burn down.

My perception of this stuff finally settled to the bottom, like that last big log settling into the embers. The situation presented itself that I was going to see one of those people again. My mind started to build the scenarios and the rebuttals … and then, with a clunk, it was right in front of me. My mind was creating these ridiculous “issues” that would surely lead to difficult situations where I could swing my hammer! [such crap] These situations never actually came up, by the way. I was never right. 

Deep in the cob webs, there was another, totally different issue. This other issue had come up before around this person, likely without malice, but it was something that I didn't want to talk about. It was something that was embarrassing or difficult for me to square. Turns out the issue was mine and mine alone. My pea brain was making lots of smoke to cover this other thing; to keep it hid. I've discovered that nearly all my reactions to similar people in my life have involved something else; something deeper.

It is so good to learn. My brain knows now too, so it doesn't race so easily. I still have work to do, but even if not all the assholes are covered by this new loophole, its really just my work on my issues. Now I don't have to worry about how to react to the other person -- it was me all along.