11 July 2007

Suffering and compassion

Compassion. At least once a day someone says the heart of Buddhism is compassion. Today one of the Venerables – that’s the title of the women in black robes – said instead of getting angry in our minds about the Discipline Master’s actions and barked commands, we should recognize the difficulty of what she’s doing and the selfless compassion that’s involved.

Okay…

My first reaction to that statement was relief: if she felt the need to address angry reactions to what was going on, then at least I had company. I mean, one of my feet was developing a deep blood blister where the cotton shoes were rubbing, my back and thighs were coming up with odd twinges from kneeling and standing motionless for long periods on marble floors, it was over a hundred degrees at midday, and people were yelling at us because we couldn't flawlessly follow dozens of rules we'd just heard for the first time 48 hours ago - in Mandarin. I was feeling especially mortified by my glaring imperfection, me, Miss Teacher's Pet Rule-Follower, unable to kneel when I was supposed to kneel, bow when I was supposed to bow, stand when I was supposed to stand.

That morning, when I’d blown it yet again, and was looking frantically through the chant book, I suddenly noticed the commands to kneel, bow and stand, in some cases, were actually in the chanted words themselves. So most of the people knew when to kneel, bow, and stand because it was actually in the words they were saying, the same words I was chanting but couldn't understand. I started to cry. Right there, in the front row, in my gray and brown robes. I felt like I was six. Unfair! It’s all unfair!

I sat in the air conditioned auditorium afterwards. A nun was speaking Chinese into the microphone up front when the teacher from Torrance passed me a note. It said: "If you would be interested in similar experiences without the frustrations, look into the Shambala Center in Eagle Rock – very American - or anywhere that’s oriented towards laity.”

I scribbled "thank you" on the note and gave it back to her. I was grateful for the kindness of this stranger I’d been wordlessly muddling along with for four days. But I had another reaction as well: Sure, I am pushed to my limits by all this but I don’t think I want diluted Buddhism, one made palatable for my American idiosyncrasies. Certainly not for this project because that would be off-point but I'm not sure I'd want that anyway. First, it’s unfair to think I was learning how to become just another practicing Buddhist when this retreat's very title, "Short-term Monastic Retreat," told me otherwise. I'm quite certain the rigors of clergy training in any faith would put me into the same state, no matter what the religion. But if the point of Buddhism is, as they said, to reveal the true nature we all have hidden by our greed, anger and ignorance, well, it was plain that this retreat was certainly kicking up a dust storm of my defects.

The Venerable standing in front of us in the auditorium was talking about our attitudes towards this retreat, the challenges we were facing in ourselves because of its rigor, she said that the lack of complicated morning skincare should feel freeing. “You should be happy because no one will be looking at you anyway. No matter how good your skincare products, you cannot use them on your mind.”

Someone laughed. I thought it was in appreciation of the idea. It does make its point in a funny way. But the Venerable barked, “You laugh? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Where is your mind? No one’s going to look out for you. We have this structure, these corrections to help you.”

I was shocked. I felt like I’d fallen into some alternate universe where conventional social niceties were violations and what would be rude disregard was a virtue. It sure felt anything but compassionate to me. If that’s compassion, it’s a pretty muscular definition unlike any I’ve known. I don’t think of stern admonitions demanding to know “where is your mind?” as compassionate. But perhaps I should consider it.

My mind is usually on anything but where I am or what I’m doing. Instead of concentrating on the rituals I'm learning, I'm almost exclusively focused on pleasing those around me, doing it "best" and, therefore paradoxically, doing it worst. I've had jobs where practically my entire concern was over what people thought of me rather than the tasks at hand. Right now, I get in the car to drive the boys to school and I swear the car drives itself. I remember none of the actual driving because I’ve nursed whatever worry I have to some kind of action plan for the day. And it's never occurred to me that this might be a problem. I love the world that swirls in my head – most of the time – and I think I even use it to protect myself.

I remember when I first realized that I didn’t have to actually be in the car with my squabbling family, that I could look out the window and conduct thought experiments in my head – If I can see that man walking his dog on the street, can he see me? Will any boy ever want to kiss me? If I broke my leg like Helen Pilling, would as many people want to sign my cast? – and, whatever imperfections I decided my family members had, would fade. I could no longer see them or even hear them.

A lot of the time, I am still that little kid worried about what the world thinks of me. My head is crammed full of it.

On the other hand, the very idea to do what I’m doing came from one of those mind-wandering drives. About a year before 9/11, I’d gotten tired of feeling bewildered when I listened to news reports of people of faith in disagreement or at war with each other over matters of faith so I decided to take two freshman survey courses at the local state university: Intro to the Bible and Intro to World Religions. On my final drive home from the classes, I felt a deep relief that at least I now understood some of the basics of what people believed, of what was actually written in the Bible. But, as my car left one freeway for another, I began to think, "I still have no idea what it feels like to actually practice any religion. What would happen if….?” And this project is what came of that mind ramble. I’m not so sure I want to give those rambles up. Or if I should even try, what the purpose might be, and what any of this has to do with religion.

But the central purpose of Buddhism is to alleviate suffering and there is no doubt that these nuns think suffering comes from our thinking, from an out of control mind. And, believe me, I could see and feel my mind run riot almost moment by moment in the four days of not talking and just doing.

On the retreat schedule, every morning after breakfast, we had a walking meditation. Sometimes it was a normal deliberate walk, other times it was as slow as our breathing. We were supposed to be utterly conscious of our bodies as the weight shifts from one foot to another. We were always in a line, always behind the same person.

This morning, Ven Miao Hsi was busy so we had had a new leader, an earnest young nun who was concerned that we looked so nervous. Well, yeah, we were nervous. There seemed to be so many ways to go wrong, so many ways to be "unmindful." She seemed particularly concerned about my furrowed brow. "You seem worried. I can tell by the lines on your face."

I thought: well, I suppose there's botox for that. Unfortunately, I could ever pay someone to inject paralytic toxin into my face so, instead, I choose to think of the deep lines around my mouth as my "smile" lines and the twin vertical lines over my nose as my "thought plumes." On my sane days, I'm even rather proud of those. But the collision of all of these present moment-by-moment rules with my people-pleasing performance anxiety and churning storytelling brain was eye-opening. I hadn’t considered the extent to which I fundamentally operate from “I think, therefore I am.”

If thinking is the source of suffering, (which it’s pretty hard to argue it isn’t) I think I embrace suffering. In fact, I might go even one step further: I can’t think of a lesson I’ve learned in my life that was worth anything that I learned without suffering. I mean, would I be on this retreat if I didn't believe in the value of suffering?

Well, maybe there is one.

When I gave birth to my sons, I learned I was capable of sustained, unconditional love. I suppose some might argue there was suffering involved, physical and structural life changes, but I can’t call any of it that. Although sitting here right now in front of this keyboard, I can go into the future, the future when, if I’ve done the job right, my boys will leave without a thought for their independent lives and, yes, I will suffer then. I can weep right now, thinking about it.

Is this evidence of the damage thought can do? Is this an example of how not being where you are, where your body is at this moment, can saddle life with unnecessary pain, wiping out present joy?

“Anyone can be a Buddha,” the shorn nun said. “All sentient beings are equal. No one is more likely than anyone else.” We just have to come to know that, to be able to see this “precious pearl” we all have hiding under the muck of our greed, anger and ignorance. And this “compassionate” stress on being present in the here and now is meant to help us see everything that we contribute to our own muck.

One of the Venerables asked if we thought our life was tough, if we thought this retreat was tough. “Easy or tough, depends on your mind. Happiness and suffering all come and go. Nothing is permanent.”

Not even this retreat.









11 July 2007

7 comments:

  1. And if you didn't hold suffering in somewhat of a high regard, you never, ever, would have spent 4 years in public television! lmc

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  2. Compared to what? Network television? How soon they forget...

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  3. ...a comment from Alec C:

    Not sure thought is really the root cause of suffering. Isn't being alive the root cause of suffering? Rocks are homogenous, or at least the ways in which they are heterogeneous do not cause them to cease functioning as rocks. If you split a rock in half it doesn't suffer.

    Airplanes are designed. They have structure and hierarchical systems, but they're still inanimate. So they don't suffer when we crash them. I'm pretty sure I'm borrowing some of this from Dawkins and either the Selfish Gene or The Blind Watchmaker.

    Anything which has a more complex structure and heterogyny - and that also is alive - is going to feel the pain of death and other pains on the way toward death. Plants may not have to think to feel disruption of their systems. Although this may not be "pain" in the way we come to think of it. Disruption of their system from drought, lack of resources, cold, or being chewed, must cause distress or suffering of some kind.

    Buddhism therefore cannot eliminate suffering, what it may offer are techniques by which one can process or relegate that suffering to a place where it "belongs." I may be making a sloppy assumption here that Pain and Suffering are closely related.

    Let's propose this: life is full of pain. It doesn't have to be about pain. But to posit that most existence isn't enveloped in a struggle against death (where death is a force that seeks life's dissolution (i'm using "seek" in an unconscious sense - like the second law of thermodynamics - all energy will seek a lower state) Anything which is foolish enough to attempt to "live" is in a holding pattern or a fight against entropy - a fight that it is doomed to lose and will cause it pain, insomuch as the failure of a system which "feels" as it collapses toward entropy involves pain.

    Maintaining life involves pain. Even if we successfully cocoon ourselves in civilization which defers that pain to a later time or even if have corresponding pleasures which mitigate our proportional sense of that pain - we will get ours. And the deferment or protection of ourselves from pain usually means causing others pain. We eat food, we wear animal skins, we steal resources from other things even if we don't kill them. Fine.

    So maybe leading a quieter life will lead to less consumption, less fight against entropy or more acceptance of the general futility of the dance, but it can't rid of us the likely physical suffering that comes with eventual dissolution.

    So the Buddhists want us to become detached from the world. To retreat from desire which causes a different kind of pain. There is lack and there is loss, right? Both are holes that we seek to fill in. When we lack food, we feel hunger pains, the demand of the body to sustain itself. When a loved one dies we feel the hole of that which is no longer there that used to be - loss. If we learn to care less about the material world, we do not alleviate the suffering of lack, but we may care less about loss. Maybe we can care less about lack as well. Or by doing less physically or mentally we'll burn fewer calories and create a longer period between hunger pangs (of various kinds).

    You rail against or feel like you may be in love with suffering of a sort because you've come to equate a certain kind of striving as being necessary to growth. And you value the growth so you have come to value the suffering as a decent predictor of the reward of growth.

    They were talking about this a few weeks ago on NPR. Give monkeys juice and they are happy. Keep on giving them juice they get bored, we acclimate quickly, we primates. Ring a bell and give monkeys juice and they get happier because now they get to anticipate pleasure. And it turns out we like to figure out causal correlations. The program went on to talk about how certain kinds of successful people take great pleasure in critically examining their failures because it gives them a chance to learn to predict better ways to succeed. On the surface it sounds like a bummer to scrutinize only your mistakes. But the truth is - hard wired into us is pleasure system for increasing our predictive powers by understanding failure thoroughly. Assuming I remember the show properly.

    What does this mean? Ah yes. You like your pain because you value the pleasure you get from accomplishment more. If I wanted to be meaner I would say "so-called" accomplishment.

    I recently read "The Art of Learning" by Joshua Waitzkin (great book) the kid that the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer" was about - a former Chess prodigy and later a World Champion at Chinese Push Hands - a form of martial Arts. He spends his book talking about techniques he has distilled about how to learn. A question that lurked in my mind through-out the book. Ok, so you single-mindedly pursued excellence in Chess and later Push Hands, you are a genius and freakishly unique individual in terms of insight, single-minded focus and all that. Kind of a waste to become a Master at Chess though, right?

    Who cares? Why all this striving, to what purpose? I have answers for that, but let's pretend that we should give that question it's due and put it at center stage.

    Who cares about all that striving? Why? All that effort for what? To become a great video game player? Great prostitute? Great tiddly-winker? Sure different arenas of excellence merit different social cache. To some degree we want to give tons of credit to anyone who masters something, because we know the path to mastery is largely what it's about. But we also know that Master Cancer curer is better than Master Ping Pong Player. Why? Greater benefit to mankind? Greater Level of difficulty? Some of those.

    But what is the point of all of it? Master Cancer Curer is at least reducing suffering for people who get cancer. But in order to achieve all that mastery one has to refuse to become a Buddhist because caring enough to become a Great Doctor is caring too much about the World, which increases suffering.

    It's hard to be a Westerner and value productivity and progress and buy the Buddhist retreat into navel, rejection of earthly desire, reduction of suffering by turning off feeling.

    But are productivity and progress just a silly dance against all-winning entropy? Always liked Norse myths myself with Ragnarok lurking at the edges. The Fenris wolf will swallow the sun. The Gods and reincarnated heroes will lose in a great battle to the Giants. It doesn't matter that we're doomed because it's great to fight the great fight. Seems closer to the way the universe operates to me.

    As far as compassion goes: it seems like the nuns are on target as far as being true to the principles they are engaged to. Tough love is better than molly-coddling that leaves you bereft. Their compassion is not directed at your easily bruised feelings or heels - it is aimed at helping you achieve a Buddhist self - assuaging your soul's suffering by getting you to wake up(or go to sleep). If that takes some metaphorical slapping around, then they are really offering you the greater kindness. The one that is willing to hurt you so you can stop the larger hurt. that's in line with Jesus teach a man to fish and all that.

    What is selfless about this? It strikes me as ironic. They are engaged in the same kind of highly critical assessment of error that is part and parcel of striving. They strive to slap you into waking up. Their sacrifice may be caring enough about your journey to dip their toes back into the unseemly act of caring about progress.

    If that isn't ironic I don't know what is.

    One of the things I was gifted with in college came from me playing hockey. I hadn't played hockey competitively since I was 12. So at 20 I wasn't very good. I had been playing soccer continuously since I was 5. And the contrast between the two sports was revelatory and made me a better soccer human to my lesser soccer teammates.

    Here's the thing: Soccer and hockey are reasonably similar in terms of moving an object between players towards a goal. Specifics are different, but the patterns and interactions of teammates is similar.

    So, because I was a relative novice at hockey, the simple tasks of receiving a pass took so much of my focus that it was very hard for me to get my head up to look for a teammate to pass to. Even tho' my "strategic sense," developed from long years of playing soccer, was solid (you want to be thinking about who you are passing to next, where you are going etc., before you even receive the pass) my brain was handicapped by needing to devote all of it's focus to the physical task of "catching" the puck on my stick. I couldn't think about what to do next, I was thinking about "get the puck." And so I got creamed a lot. Which I enjoyed.

    And it made me more sympathetic to soccer players that I played with who seemed to me strategic knuckleheads, but who may have simply not had enough mastery of the physical things I took as second-nature - freeing my mind to process on higher levels.

    So, you are a master driver (maybe you are a sucky driver) but at least you don't have to think about the mechanics of it all and your brain is free to do other things because you have trained it to operate relatively safely based on years of practice.

    When the Buddhists are telling you to concentrate on your walking. Are they really saying that you are missing something pleasurable and worthy that you have relegated to the background because you mastered it so long ago? Or are they saying concentrate on your walking, your breathing, your folded sheets - in order to force you out of thinking about the rest of the world.

    It would seem to me parts of both. The reason they are screaming at you to pay attention to simple tasks that you have not yet learned is perhaps because they want you to become so immersed in the novice-level that you have no time for strategy. The rote, banal and primitive tasks they want to demand you practice are not the point. They are a means to the end of separating you from your all-too-common masteries which allow you to wool-gather. The problem is that once you have once again mastered walking, sitting, mouth-breathing and all that you will be back in a state of liberation from having to pay attention to the tasks.

    So I bet that they want to put you in novice-desperation focus mode (getting creamed regularly for that being too much too handle) and then teach you to appreciate the way novice-mode forces you out of the headspace of the master. So that when you master the new routine they can guide out of wool-gathering as a habit too.

    Is it all worth it?

    If you are present in the present, won't you at some point feel your body dying? Isn't not giving a shit about your pain simply another form of dis-association - why is that separation phenomenon preferable to making plans for the day?

    It must be acceptance of pain. Not, no desire - so no pain. Just, no unreasonable desire - so no extra pain. But can't we do that same little necker-cube inversion without shaving our heads?

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  4. >>>Alec C wrote: “So the Buddhists want us to become detached from the world. To retreat from desire which causes a different kind of pain. There is lack and there is loss, right? Both are holes that we seek to fill in. “<<<

    I don’t feel qualified to address this yet, Alec, but I’m hoping some of my Buddhist friends might… I don’t think that Mahayana Buddhists (more than half of the world’s Buddhist sects are Mahayana)want us to become detached from the world or the pain and suffering of others at all. In fact, to my current level of knowledge which is, at best limited, the entire point of Mahayana Buddhism (which includes Zen) is the alleviation of suffering of others. That, and to realize for yourself, the fundamental oneness of everything, to appreciate just how dependent and interrelated we all are. Kinda like the economy…


    >>>Alec C wrote: You rail against or feel like you may be in love with suffering of a sort because you've come to equate a certain kind of striving as being necessary to growth. And you value the growth so you have come to value the suffering as a decent predictor of the reward of growth. They were talking about this a few weeks ago on NPR. Give monkeys juice and they are happy. Keep on giving them juice they get bored, we acclimate quickly, we primates. Ring a bell and give monkeys juice and they get happier because now they get to anticipate pleasure. And it turns out we like to figure out causal correlations. The program went on to talk about how certain kinds of successful people take great pleasure in critically examining their failures because it gives them a chance to learn to predict better ways to succeed. On the surface it sounds like a bummer to scrutinize only your mistakes. But the truth is - hard wired into us is pleasure system for increasing our predictive powers by understanding failure thoroughly.<<<

    I am definitely a monkey who likes juice, who likes hearing the bell, and who spends way too much time looking for causal patterns.


    >>>Alec C wrote: You like your pain because you value the pleasure you get from accomplishment more. If I wanted to be meaner I would say "so-called" accomplishment.<<<

    That’s not mean at all; it’s true. Why do you think I found I just couldn’t get excited about anything I could think of doing in the career I’ve had for a lifetime. There is no such thing, fundamentally, as an accomplishment that really matters, if you step back far enough. But since we’re all here, we might as well try very hard to do something that has a chance of helping someone else. While it seems obvious that master cancer-curer has it all over master chess player, I don’t think I even know that with too much certainty anymore. What if master chess player inspired a kid who was on the path to a violent, destructive life to do something different, thereby saving countless lives? All I’m saying is, I’ve come to believe the relative merits of people and their efforts is beyond my paygrade.

    >>>Alec C wrote: As far as compassion goes: it seems like the nuns are on target as far as being true to the principles they are engaged to. Tough love is better than molly-coddling that leaves you bereft.<<<

    I am deeply grateful to you for keeping “molly-coddle” alive.

    >>>Alec C wrote: So, you are a master driver (maybe you are a sucky driver) but at least you don't have to think about the mechanics of it all and your brain is free to do other things because you have trained it to operate relatively safely based on years of practice.<<<

    Sucky driver. No car should be driven by a person with her brain elsewhere. If nothing else comes of all this than an improvement in my driving skill, the world will be a much better – and safer – place.

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  5. I think it was D.H. Lawrence who wrote "Religion is what keeps most people from having a religious experience." I have found that I'm walking a spiritual path these days, but I see it as a spiritual and not religious. Religion can emphasize differences, enhance tribal behavior and provide a rationale for war. (This is going on right now of course.) Religion can be about ossified traditions and ritual. Spirituality is more inclusive, allows for skepticism, embraces the mentality of the Seeker and makes for more open source being. I've been led to Hinduism and Buddhism through yoga; keeps me grounded and also asking questions.

    You're doing a great service with this blog, Heathen. Keep it up!

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  6. Lee, I think I used to agree with you but I'm not so sure anymore. As you can tell from some of what I've written about, ritual was and continues to be somewhat on the outer edge of my reach but, to retreat to a cliche: Don't knock it until you've tried it, until you've really tried to make it fresh and alive FOR YOU.

    Traditions and rituals become ossified because people do them without understanding their meaning, without coming to them on their own. In this one aspect, I think most people who are born into a spiritual practice have something of a handicap in that they grow up doing things without stopping to really ponder why and what it means or might mean to them.

    And, from my POV at this snapshot in time, there are more places of worship than you think which "allow for skepticism, are inclusive, embrace the mentality of the seeker right where they are, etc." Just cause we, who used to be in television news, don't write about those places, doesn't mean they don't exist.

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  7. Just a quick comment about Buddhists and caring/not caring.
    Something I read by the Dalai Lama which went something like this: Buddhists may appear to not react to loss, and therefore not care. But in fact they will feel a loss so greatly and completely that they are able to process it and release it much faster than those of us who continue to hold on to that which is lost.

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I'm interested in any and all comments although it may take me a while to post them.