Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

9.5.2017 (p.m.)

In Family, Memoir, Wisdom on September 6, 2017 at 12:40 pm

Two days ago my two-year old granddaughter said something that I’ve been thinking a lot about. We were walking to the park. Her little hand was wrapped around my extended finger. She was looking straight ahead and it was a sunny afternoon. “I’m having a good day,” she said, apropos of nothing. Imagine that. I’m having a good day, said the little two-year old.

Today it has been raining and I’m out in the woods, up on the Appalation plateau, the only participant in a two-week self-designed retreat. I’m in my Airstream so it’s not too much of a hardship. Still, it has been pouring from dawn to dusk. But never is a day bad. It might be a day of bad weather, but the day, well, the day itself is always just that, the day. I try not to categorize by labeling it good or bad. It’s part of a practice, to experience a thing without either latching on to it or being put off by it. Just recognize it for what it is directly, without stamping a value on it.

My granddaughter did not say it was a good day. She said she was having a good day. There is a difference. Picasso said it took him a lifetime to draw like a child. I wish to have a day like a child, to have a day that is simply good and call it out as such, like it is the most natural thing in the world. That is a fashion of drawing like a child, to breathe the air and feel the sun and hold someone’s hand and know it is good.

So here I am out in the woods. It is night and I’m listening to a little music, sipping some bourbon, Lucy asleep on my bed while the rain dances on the roof of my little aluminum abode. I took some long walks today, between storms. This afternoon the wind picked up and I noticed a few amber and orange leaves skittering across the field. Fall is on the way, my favorite season. I spent a good amount of the day in meditation and a good amount of the day with my guitar. I’ve been working on Carcassi’s Allegro No. 1 and am getting better at the transition from the third to eighth position. I made myself two simple meals and didn’t watch any TV. I only have 1X data coverage, so I didn’t stream any videos, hell, I couldn’t even load a web page, which is perfect, given my designs for this retreat.

I like going to sleep to the sound rain falling. I have had a good day.

 

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“…not of the world of me.”

In Adventure, Philosophy, Religion on November 10, 2015 at 6:11 pm

I had coffee with a friend last week, a novelist. I’d just read a draft of a new book he is working on. It’s a historical novel, set in the middle east in the fourth century. It deals with, among other things, the rise of the early Christian church. Although my friend was not aware of it, I know a thing or two about that place and time. I liked the book and was expressing my enthusiasm.

“You know,” I said, “the major world religions, those that were founded, came out of either the hot desert or the frozen mountains.” He looked at me intently. “And we know,” I opined, “that the desert breeds madness, and the mountains, isolation.” He said he’d never thought of it that way. But I had. “Nobody,” said Mohammed, “becomes a prophet who was not a shepherd first.”

There is that old adage that one is either a beach person or a mountain person. (I guess it’s like being either a dog or cat person.) In this context, perhaps one is either a desert believer or a mountain believer. I know my generalization is not entirely correct. The Buddha came out of the Gangetic plain, but his philosophy got the most lasting purchase at altitude. There’s no such thing as beach believers as far as I can tell, other than golden surfers, but that is a different strain of worship.

If pushed, I’d have to declare myself a mountain believer. That will come as no surprise. That is not to say, however, that I discount desert madness as a practice in insight. Not that one would want a steady diet of it–it didn’t turn out so well for John, the Baptist. It is no surprise that William James’s great work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is subtitled, A Study in Human Nature. Give me the mountains and what comes out of them, that is my nature. This is not to say that the desert doesn’t hold appeal. My first trip abroad as a young man found me eating with a family of Bedouins in the Sinai. If the desert was in the offing, I wanted to be on the move like those people.

Three years ago while hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal I came across a holy man living in a cave, attended to by his sister. I paid homage and received a blessing after making a small donation. His cave was filled with iconography and statues. Outside the wind roared; prayer flags flapped. I showed a picture to a friend. “That’s not what I expected,” he said. I think he was expecting something more like a cartoon in the New Yorker.

The isolation of the mountain believer can be dangerous. The Dalai Lama claims that his nation fell to the Chinese because the remoteness of the Tibetan Plateau had made them a backward country, to use his words. Perhaps. It is more likely the Chinese would have invaded regardless of the degree of modernity Tibet had achieved. But dangers persist, regardless, national and human.

Belief without empirical evidence is fundamentally an effort in delusion. I suspect the mystic would not argue with this, the madman wandering the desert with the wild beasts, the recluse scraping by in the mountain enclave. I am envious of such commitment. Go up Cold Mountain and find the great Taoist sage, Li Po: “You asked me what is my reason for lodging in the grey hills: I smiled but made no reply for my thoughts are idling on their own; like the flowers of the peach tree, they had sauntered off to other climes, to other lands that are not of the world of me.” Flowers of the peach tree, indeed.

Zen and Being

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 28, 2013 at 6:00 am
Chinese character for "Tao" -- the way. A gift, as it hangs on my wall, from Zen Master, Sunim Potwah

Chinese character for “Tao” — the way. A gift, as it hangs on my wall, from Zen Master, Sunim Potwah

I used to study Zen with a Korean Zen Master. He said a lot of things I did not–do not still–understand. For instance:

“Any single word loads all sorts of connection and is always valuable as the wholeness of the truth.”rightcol_banner_art

and

“Mistake or error is still good.”

A Zen Master will typically give the student a koan. A koan is like a riddle without an answer–at least most of us would think it is without an answer. The Master, however, might differ. Most likely, the Master would not consider it in such terms. Here is the first koan my teacher gave me:

A Monk asked Zen Master Yunmen the following: “When not producing a single thought, is there any fault or not?”

To which Master Yunmen replied: “Mount Sumeru.”

It would be bad form to discuss it here. That is a matter between teacher and student. But you are welcome to pick it up and noodle it. Mount Sumeru, indeed!

I like Zen in its austerity. Zen has no doctrine, no sacred texts, no gods, saints, or sinners. There is no heaven, no hell,  devil, or superstition. There is simply the practitioner and the meditation cushion. Despite all that, I don’t practice any longer. I cannot explain why. It is the koan of my life, the way I plunge into a pool, dive deeply, then dry off and never swim again. Like I said, some koans have no answer.

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I opened Alan Watts’s classic, The Way of Zen, the other day. Watts was a

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

friend of Ginsburg, Burroughs, and the Beats. He was also a scholar. His book on Zen is considered a classic introduction to eastern philosophy. This passage caught my eye, in particular:

“Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western Thought….It is an example of what is known in India and China as a “way of liberation,”…a way of liberation can have no positive definition. It has to be suggested by saying what it is not, somewhat as a sculptor reveals an image by the act of removing pieces of stone from a block.”

To pull Watts’s metaphor, the working sculptor, a smidgen down the road, let us consider sculpting in clay and sculpting in marble. One day you, the artist, arrive at your studio, lets say, and want to create something three dimensional. You grab some clay and start molding, adding a piece here, a piece there. You form it to your vision, building it, smoothing it, building more. That, it seems to me, is how we live. We build on existence until an object conforming to our vision is created. We call it our life. It is a process of addition. I note that this method does not conform to the Zen Master of New England‘s  admonition to simplify, simplify, simplify.

David, as released from the stone.

David, as released from the stone.

But, should we turn to marble, that is altogether a different matter. That is a process of subtraction, of chiseling away, of polishing and removing until the form is revealed in the rock. Michelangelo looked at the block and saw his David locked inside. As “a way of liberation,” David must have been grateful.

What is inside? is the question. It is the opposite of What should be added? Eastern thought asks the first question, Western thought the latter.

For me, after years of working in clay, building an image to conform to my vision, I wish to turn to the marble block and attempt to release its contents. Now where did I put my chisel and hammer? (Boy, I love exhausting a metaphor!)

Thanks for reading

Foxhole Stoicism

In Death, Family, Life, Philosophy on January 17, 2013 at 6:00 am
Dad (and me in mirror)

Dad (and me in mirror)

My father is ninety years old and has a cold. It is an annual event, his cold. The rest of the year he remains healthy, but for a bit of arthritis and type-two diabetes. My father is stoic, though he could not necessarily tell you what stoicism is. He will tell you, however, that the classroom for this life lesson was a fox hole in the Ardennes Forest in 1943. Why define a concept when your life exemplifies it?

He surprised me yesterday during our visit. “I’m not afraid of death,” he said. “It’s dying that worries me.” My father does not typically talk this way, again the stoicism. But over the recent years he’s said enough to let me know that it is a subject he now entertains. He looked at me keenly.

“It’s been said, dad, that you’re either afraid of death, or your afraid of dying.” I didn’t bother to elaborate on other insights of Julian Barnes. He nodded. “It’s the suffering,” he said, before changing the subject.

__________

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius

“The act of dying is one of the acts of life,” said the great Stoic, Marcus Aurelius (121 AD – 180 AD). He also preached the comfort of ignorance that is the void of pre-existence, birth, with the existential ignorance that will be the void of post-existence, death. That is, you didn’t fret over your non-existence before you were born, why would you fret over your non-existence after your demise?

I subscribe to this way of thinking and find a modicum of comfort in it. But I’ve recently discovered that there is a third concern in dying, not summarized in Barnes’s observation, nor taken up by the Stoics. (For the record, on death, I am not Woody Allen. Concerns of my eventual extinction do not color my thoughts all day long. But, like my father, as my days advance, so does my thinking on the subject.)

The American philosopher, Mark Johnston, makes this observation (as related in the book I finished reading last night, Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt): “The prospect of one’s own most [sic] death is perplexing and terrifying because it reveals that we are not, as we supposed, the fountainhead of the reality we inhabit, the center of the world..” Truthfully, who can’t help but fall into this trap, the concept of being at the center of the reality we inhabit? We have no other way in which to experience the world. He then delivers the body-blow: “It turns out that I am not the sort of thing I was unconsciously tempted to think I was.” How deeply we have given into that temptation seems, to me, proportional to the degree of terrifying perplexity death elicits.

“Know thyself,” advised the Oracle at Delphi. I attempt to march to this admonition, but stumble over what this self actually might be. Johnston’s observation underscores my inkling that at the root of this conundrum is the concept of the self–a concept that gets in the way and ultimately trips us up. It is not surprising that Holt closes Why Does the World Exist?, with an observation by a Buddhist monk: “The world is like a dream, an illusion. But in our thinking, we transform its fluidity into something fixed and solid-seeming.” It was the Buddha, lest we forget, who observed the self as a false concept.

Thanks for reading,

d

Om mani padme hum

In Life, Religion, Travel, Wisdom on June 11, 2012 at 6:00 am

om mani padme hum (in Tibetan)

A friend from many years ago recently saw a current photograph of me and noticed my tattoo. It’s easy to notice, would be impossible to not notice, being large and wrapping my left forearm. She asked what it meant.

A few years ago I got a hankering for a tattoo. It was likely one of those mid-life things, a harmless urge, as mid-life urges go. I’d been traveling a good bit and thought a tattoo might make for a nice souvenir. I remember walking down an alley in Gibraltar to a tattoo parlor. As the alley grew darker and dirtier my courage faltered then faded. Another time, in South America, the mood again struck. Again, I grew hesitent. Carole asked, “Why would you get a tattoo in a place where you can’t drink the water?” A wisely framed question, indeed.

I got the tattoo at home, in Portland.

It was Tibet, in 2004, where I first heard the mantra, om mani padme hum. Subsequent trips to the region, including Bhutan, a return to Tibet, trips to China, India and Nepal, underscored that initial experience. The best travel should afford the traveler an element of the transformational. You finish a different person than the person who set out. (Therein lies the difference between traveler and tourist.) Such was my response to Tibet that I wanted to honor it, and in doing so, found my tattoo.

Om mani padme hum is held to be the summary of the forty thousand teachings of the Buddha. It defies a straight interpretation but most scholars agree that the “heart jewel of the lotus” is a strict interpretation of the middle syllables. It is, as noted, open to interpretation and most practitioners of the mantra are simply repeating the sounds.

Personally, when asked, I prefer a layman’s interpretation. Specifically, the correspondence of the six syllables to what Buddhists call the six perfections. They are, in corresponding order to the mantra syllables:

  • om ~ generousity
  • man ~ self-discipline
  • i ~ patience
  • pad ~ virtue
  • me ~ mindfulness
  • hum ~ wisdom

I’m not keen on soft ideas and squishy notions. I’m a man who needs a philosophy that works. I lean toward the pragmatic. Of these attributes, all I can say is that they are the heart jewels of our humanity. They are tools by which a better self is molded from hard clay. Not a day passes that life does not present me an opportunity to study the ink on my arm.

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Post script: A reader asked if I could put up a photo of the tattoo. Here’s the image that sparked my friend’s question:

Tattoo

Walk On!

In Philosophy, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Wisdom on October 15, 2010 at 1:41 pm

I have new essay is up at The Nervous Breakdown. It begins:

“Despite my titanium hip, and the foot problems from years of marathoning, despite my tender back–one slipped disc–and the general wear and tear on this 55 year-old aging-athlete’s body, I (still) like walking. It does not escape me that my ancestors trekked from the savanna plains of Africa over 100,000 years ago and never stopped. It comforts me that, as a species, we have walked virtually everywhere, planting our feet on most every single spot planet earth has to offer.  It comforts me too, that despite the automobile and the jet, the boat and the train, our first inclination is to get up and walk. I do not take walking for granted. Over the years I have occasionally been in traction, on crutches, in pain or in some other way disposed of my ability to walk. When this has happened, I pretend that I will never walk again. I do this, like thinking of sickness when I am perfectly healthy, as a way to remind myself not to take walking for granted. (This is not unlike the Buddhist practice of going to the cemetery to remind oneself that one day it will all come to an end.) There are a lot of people who cannot walk and I do not want to be one who forgets this.”

To read the full essay, follow to this link: Metaphor: On Walking