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.