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Howard Cutler and the Dalai Lama's Art of Happiness Print

Howard Cutler and the Dalai Lama's Art of Happiness

The Shambhala Sun talks to psychiatrist Howard Cutler about The Art of Happiness, the best-selling book based on his series of conversations with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
 

 
Shambhala Sun: What is the basic message you were trying to send in this book?

Howard Cutler: The basic premise of the book is that the purpose of life is to seek happiness, and not only that, but that we can find happiness. To me, it's kind of a radical idea that there's a systematic approach to working with one's mind to become happier.

Shambhala Sun: What did you present as the key elements of the Buddhist approach?

Howard Cutler: One key element is that happiness is determined more by the state of one's mind than external circumstances. Also, I wanted to establish the close link between our happiness and the compassion we feel towards other people. Kindness, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness aren't just warm, fuzzy things that are luxuries in life. They have very real, practical value and are crucial to a happier existence.

Shambhala Sun: As you point out in the book, this view that human nature is fundamentally good is different from the prevailing intellectual, spiritual and psychological traditions of the West.

Howard Cutler: At least for the past couple of hundred years, the view in the West has been that humanity has an innate aggressive side and that things like anger and violence are intrinsic to our nature. The Dalai Lama's view is that human beings are innately kind and gentle. I definitely believe that, and I think Western science is coming much closer to that understanding. Many scientists and researchers now believe that we are not genetically programmed to act aggressively, that there is nothing that compels us to act that way.

In some of our religious traditions as well, there's this notion of original sin-that we're born with a mark on our nature and we're in need of redemption. Whereas the Buddhist viewpoint is that these negative states of mind are not intrinsic to our deeper nature. That appeals to me a lot more than the idea that there's an evil side to us that we can't do anything about.

Shambhala Sun: There's an interesting paradox in the whole question of "happiness." From a Buddhist perspective, it's impossible to say "You can be happy," because it's the very belief in a solid, real "you" that causes the suffering. So you can only be happy when you understand that you don't really exist in the normal sense of the word. To what extent do you present the realization of emptiness as an essential part of the Buddhist path?

Howard Cutler: Within the Buddhist tradition there is the method aspect of the path and the wisdom aspect. I focus more on the method aspect. This book was written for a general Western audience with no prior background in Buddhism. It focuses more on conventional day-to-day happiness that we might all experience in our lives. It's about what can we do to become kinder and to deal with our problems more effectively. To tackle the whole concept of emptiness I thought would be too much for one volume. The Dalai Lama and other great Buddhist teachers have written about the wisdom aspect of the path, and people who are interested could continue exploring that in other books.

I purposely left out a precise definition for the word "happiness" because the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist teachers recognize that there are many different levels and degrees of human happiness. From his point of view as a Buddhist practitioner, the highest level of happiness is when one completely purifies negative tendencies of mind and achieves a state of liberation in which there is no more suffering. But the level of happiness I was addressing had to do more with day-to-day happiness, and from that standpoint, I think happiness would be a sense of joy and inner contentment that results from developing a calm, stable state of mind rooted in affection and compassion.

Shambhala Sun: But even at a day-to-day level, isn't our happiness in direct proportion to the degree we can relax our solid sense of self and personal struggle, and therefore can open compassionately towards others?

Howard Cutler: Certainly, even without studying the concept of emptiness, a lot of the techniques in this book involve seeing one's self differently and letting go of self-grasping. All these practices involve loosening that up a little bit, not being so self-focused and self-absorbed. They also involve using one's reasoning to understand reality a little more clearly. For instance, when you are angry at someone you may see them as one hundred per cent bad. But if you analyze the situation, no human being is a hundred percent bad. You can consciously reflect on the positive aspects of the person and bring your views closer to the reality of the situation. Something like that does bring one closer to reality, although it's not taking that final step in understanding that the fundamental nature of the self and others is emptiness.

Shambhala Sun: Why do you think this book has been so extraordinarily successful?

Howard Cutler: I think a lot of people respond to this whole notion of seeing ourselves in a more positive way, seeing the possibility of living a happier existence, seeing that there are practical strategies for dealing with human suffering. A lot of people tell me about very specific ways the book helped them. They take something away from the book that they can actually implement in their daily lives.

The Art of Happiness, Shambhala Sun, May 1999.

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Richard Gere: My Journey as a Buddhist Print

Richard Gere: My Journey as a Buddhist

By Melvin McLeod

Richard Gere talks about his many years of Buddhist practice, his devotion to his teacher the Dalai Lama, and his work for Tibetan freedom.

I suppose it's a sign of our current cynicism that we find it hard to believe celebrities can also be serious people. The recent prominence of "celebrity Buddhists" has brought some snide comments in the press, and even among Buddhists, but personally I am very appreciative of the actors, directors, musicians and other public figures who have brought greater awareness to the cause of Tibetan freedom and the value of Buddhist practice. These are fine artists and thoughtful people, some Buddhists, some not, among them Martin Scorsese, Leonard Cohen, Adam Yauch, Michael Stipe, Patti Smith, and of course, Richard Gere. I met Gere at his office in New York recently, and we talked about his many years of Buddhist practice, his devotion to his teacher the Dalai Lama, and his work on behalf of the dharma and the cause of the Tibetan people.
    —Melvin McLeod


Melvin McLeod: What was your first encounter with Buddhism?

Richard Gere: I have two flashes. One, when I actually encountered the written dharma, and two, when I met a teacher. But before that, I was engaged in philosophical pursuit in school. So I came to it through Western philosophers, basically Bishop Berkeley.

Melvin McLeod: "If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really happen?"

Richard Gere: Yes. Subjective idealism was his thesis—reality is a function of mind. It was basically the "mind only" school that he was preaching. Quite radical, especially for a priest. I was quite taken with him. The existentialists were also interesting to me. I remember carrying around a copy of Being and Nothingness, without knowing quite why I was doing it. Later I realized that "nothingness" was not the appropriate word. "Emptiness" was really what they were searching for—not a nihilistic view but a positive one.

My first encounter with Buddhist dharma would be in my early twenties. I think like most young men I was not particularly happy. I don't know if I was suicidal, but I was pretty unhappy, and I had questions like, "Why anything?" Realizing I was probably pushing the edges of my own sanity, I was exploring late-night bookshops reading everything I could, in many different directions. Evans-Wentz's books on Tibetan Buddhism had an enormous impact on me. I just devoured them.


Melvin McLeod: So many of us were inspired by those books. What did you find in them that appealed to you?

Richard Gere: They had all the romance of a good novel, so you could really bury yourself in them, but at the same time, they offered the possibility that you could live here and be free at the same time. I hadn't even considered that as a possibility—I just wanted out—so the idea that you could be here and be out at the same time—emptiness—was revolutionary.

So the Buddhist path, particularly the Tibetan approach, was obviously drawing me, but the first tradition that I became involved in was Zen. My first teacher was Sasaki Roshi. I remember going out to L.A. for a three day sesshin [Zen meditation program]. I prepared myself by stretching my legs for months and months so I could get through it.

I had a kind of magical experience with Sasaki Roshi, a reality experience. I realized, this is work, this is work. It's not about flying through the air; it's not about any of the magic or the romance. It's serious work on your mind. That was an important part of the path for me.

Sasaki Roshi was incredibly tough and very kind at the same time. I was a total neophyte and didn't know anything. I was cocky and insecure and fucked up. But within that I was serious about wanting to learn. It got to the point at the end of the sesshin where I wouldn't even go to the dokusan [interview with the Zen master]. I felt I was so ill-equipped to deal with the koans that they had to drag me in. Finally, it got to where I would just sit there, and I remember him smiling at that point. "Now we can start working," he said. There was nothing to say—no bullshit, nothing.

Melvin McLeod: When someone has such a strong intuitive connection, Buddhism suggests that it's because of karma, some past connection with the teachings.

Richard Gere: Well, I've asked teachers about that—you know, what led me to this? They'd just laugh at me, like I thought there was some decision to it or it was just chance. Well, karma doesn't work that way. Obviously there's some very clear and definite connection with the Tibetans or this would not have happened. My life would not have expressed itself this way.

I think I've always felt that practice was my real life. I remember when I was just starting to practice meditation—24 years old, trying to come to grips with my life. I was holed up in my shitty little apartment for months at a time, just doing tai chi and doing my best to do sitting practice. I had a very clear feeling that I'd always been in meditation, that I'd never left meditation. That it was a much more substantial reality than what we normally take to be reality. That was very clear to me even then, but it's taken me this long in my life to bring it out into the world more, through more time practicing, watching my mind, trying to generate bodhicitta.


Melvin McLeod: When did you meet the Dalai Lama for the first time?

Richard Gere: I had been a Zen student for five or six years before I met His Holiness in India. We started out with a little small talk and then he said, "Oh, so you're an actor?" He thought about that a second, and then he said, "So when you do this acting and you're angry, are you really angry? When you're acting sad, are you really sad? When you cry, are you really crying?" I gave him some kind of actor answer, like it was more effective if you really believed in the emotion that you were portraying. He looked very deeply into my eyes and just started laughing. Hysterically. He was laughing at the idea that I would believe emotions are real, that I would work very hard to believe in anger and hatred and sadness and pain and suffering.

That first meeting took place in Dharmsala in a room where I see him quite often now. I can't say that the feeling has changed drastically. I am still incredibly nervous and project all kinds of things on him, which he's used to at this point. He cuts through all that stuff very quickly, because his vows are so powerful, so all-encompassing, that he is very effective and skillful at getting to the point. Because the only reason anyone would want to see him is that they want to remove suffering from their consciousness.



It completely changed my life the first time I was in the presence of His Holiness. No question about it. It wasn't like I felt, "Oh, I'm going to give away all my possessions and go to the monastery now," but it quite naturally felt that this was what I was supposed to do—work with these teachers, work within this lineage, learn whatever I could, bring myself to it. In spite of varying degrees of seriousness and commitment since then, I haven't really fallen out of that path.

Melvin McLeod: Does His Holiness work with you personally, cutting your neuroses in the many ways that Buddhist teachers do, or does he teach you more by the example of his being?

Richard Gere: There's no question that His Holiness is my root guru, and he's been quite tough with me at times. I've  had to explain to people who sometimes have quite a romantic vision of His Holiness that at times he's been cross with me, but it was very skillful. At the moment he did it, I'm not saying it was pleasant for me, but there was no ego attachment from his side. I'm very thankful that he trusts me enough to be the mirror for me and not pull any punches. Mind you, the first meetings were not that way; I think he was aware how fragile I was and was being very careful. Now I think he senses that my seriousness about the teachings has increased and my own strength within the teachings has increased. He can be much tougher on me.

Melvin McLeod: The Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism puts a strong emphasis on analysis. What drew you to the more intellectual approach?

Richard Gere: Yeah, it's funny. I think what I probably would have been drawn to instinctively was Dzogchen [the Great Perfection teachings of the Nyingma school]. I think the instinct that drew me to Zen is the same one that would have taken me to Dzogchen.

Melvin McLeod: Space.

Richard Gere: The non-conceptual. Just go right to the non-conceptual space. Recently I've had some Dzogchen teachers who've been kind enough to help me, and I see how Dzogchen empowers much of the other forms of meditation that I practice. Many times Dzogchen has really zapped me into a fresh vision and allowed me to see a kind of limited track that I was falling into through conditioning and basic laziness.

But overall, I think the wiser choice for me is to work with the Gelugpas, although space is space wherever it is. I think the analytical approach—kind of finding the non-boundaries of that space—is important. In a way, one gets stability from being able to order the rational mind. When space is not there for you, the intellectual work will still keep you buoyed up. I still find myself in situations where my emotions are out of control and the anger comes up, and it's very difficult to enter pure white space at that point. So the analytical approach to working with the mind is enormously helpful. It's something very clear to fall back on and very stabilizing.

Melvin McLeod: What was the progression of practices for you, to the extent that you can talk about it, after you entered  the vajrayana path?

Richard Gere: I'm a little hesitant to talk about this because, one, I don't claim to know much, and two, being a celebrity these things get quoted out of context and sometimes it's not beneficial. I can say that whatever forms of meditation I've taken on, they still involve the basic forms of refuge, generation of bodhicitta [awakened mind and heart] and dedication of merit to others. Whatever level of the teachings that my teachers allow me to hear, they still involve these basic forms.

Overall, tantra has become less romantic to me. It seems more familiar. That's an interesting stage in the process, when that particular version of reality becomes more normal. I'm not saying it's normal, in the sense of ordinary or mundane, but I can sense it being as normal as what I took to be reality before. I can trust that.

Melvin McLeod: What dharma books have meant a lot to you?

Richard Gere: People are always asking me what Buddhist books I would recommend. I always suggest Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind to someone who says, "How can I start?" I'll always include something by His Holiness. His book Kindness, Clarity and Compassion is extraordinarily good. There's wonderful stuff in there. Jeffrey Hopkins' The Tantric Distinction is very helpful. There are so many.  

Melvin McLeod: You go to India often. Does that give you the opportunity to practice in a less distracted environment?

Richard Gere: Actually it's probably more distracting! When I go there, I'm just a simple student like everyone else, but I'm also this guy who can help. When I'm in India there are a lot of people who require help and it's very difficult to say no. So it's not the quietest time in my life, but just being in an environment where everyone is focusing on the dharma and where His Holiness is the center of that focus is extraordinary. 

Melvin McLeod: When you're in Dharmsala do you have the opportunity to study with the Dalai Lama or other teachers there?

Richard Gere: I'll try to catch up with all my teachers. Some of them are hermits up in the hills, but they come down when His Holiness gives teachings. It's a time to catch up on all of it, and just remember. For me, it means remembering. Life here is an incredible distraction and it's very easy to get off track. Going there is an opportunity to remember, literally, what the mission is, why we're here.

Melvin McLeod: Here you're involved in a world of film-making that people think of as extremely consuming, high-powered, even cut-throat.

Richard Gere: That's all true. But it's like everyone else's life, too. It just gets into the papers, that's all. It's the same emotions. The same suffering. The same issues. No difference.

Melvin McLeod: Do you find that you have a slightly split quality to your life, going back and forth between these worlds?

Richard Gere: I find that more and more my involvement in a career, in a normal householder life, is a great challenge for deepening the teachings inside of me. If I weren't out in the marketplace, there's no way I would be able to really face the nooks and crannies and darkness inside of me. I just wouldn't see it. I'm not that tough; I'm not that smart. I need life telling me who I am, showing me my mind constantly. I wouldn't see it in a cave. The problem with me is I would probably just find some blissful state, if I could, and stay there. That would be death. I don't want that. As I said, I'm not an extraordinary practitioner. I know pretty much who I am. It's good for me to be in the world.

Melvin McLeod: Are there any specific ways you try to bring dharma into your work, beyond working with your mind and trying to be a decent human being?

Richard Gere: Well, that's a lot! That's serious shit.

Melvin McLeod: That's true. But those are the challenges we all face. I was just wondering if you try to bring a Buddhist perspective to the specific world of film?


Richard Gere: In film, we're playing with something that literally fragments reality, and being aware of the fragmentation of time and space I think lends itself to the practice, to loosening the mind. There is nothing real about film. Nothing. Even the light particles that project the film can't be proven to exist. Nothing is there. We know that when we're making it; we're the magicians doing the trick. But even we get caught up in thinking that it is all real—that these emotions are real, that this object really exists, that the camera is picking up some reality.

On the other hand, there is some magical sense that the camera sees more than our eyes do. It sees into people in a way that we don't normally. So there's a vulnerability to being in front of the camera that one doesn't have to endure in normal life. There's a certain amount of pressure and stress in that. You are being seen, you are really being seen, and there is no place to hide.

Melvin McLeod: But there's no way you actually work with the product to...?

Richard Gere: You mean teaching through that? Well, I think these things are far too mysterious to ever do that consciously, no. Undoubtedly, as ill-equipped to be a good student as I am, I've had a lot of teachings, and some have stuck. Somehow they do communicate-not because of me, but despite me. So I think there is value there. It's the same as everyone: whatever positive energies have touched them in myriad lifetimes are going to come through somehow. When you look into their eyes, when the camera comes in for a closeup, there's something there that is mysterious. There's no way you can write it, there's no way you can plan it, but a camera will pick it up in a different way than someone does sitting across the table.

Melvin McLeod: How comfortable are you with your role as the spokesman for the dharma?

Richard Gere: For the dharma? I've never, ever accepted that, and I never will. I'm not a spokesman for dharma. I lack the necessary qualities.

Melvin McLeod: But you are always being asked in public about being a Buddhist.

Richard Gere: I can talk about that only as a practitioner, from the limited point of view that I have. Although it's been many years since I started, I can't say that I know any more now than I did then. I can't say I have control over my emotions; I don't know my mind. I'm lost like everyone else. So I'm certainly not a leader. In the actual course of things, I talk about these things, but only in the sense that this is what my teachers have  given me. Nothing from me.

Melvin McLeod: When you are asked about Buddhism, are there certain themes you return to that you feel are helpful, such as compassion?

Richard Gere: Absolutely. I will probably discuss wisdom and compassion in some form, that there are two poles we are here to explore—expanding our minds and expanding our hearts. At some point hopefully being able to encompass the entire universe inside mind, and the same thing with heart, with compassion, hopefully both at the same time. Inseparable.

Melvin McLeod: When you say that, I'm reminded of something that struck me when I saw the Dalai Lama speak. He was teaching about compassion, as he so often does, but I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if he spoke more to a wider audience about the Buddhist understanding of wisdom, that is, emptiness. I just wondered what would happen if this revered spiritual leader said to the world, well, you know, all of this doesn't really exist in any substantive way.

Richard Gere: Well, the Buddha had many turnings of the wheel of dharma, and I think His Holiness functions in the same way. If we are so lost in our animal natures, the best way to start to get out of that is to learn to be kind. Someone asked His Holiness, how can you teach a child to care about and respect living things? He said, see if you can get them to love and respect an insect, something we instinctively are repulsed by. If they can see its basic sentience, its potential, the fullness of what it is, with basic kindness, then that's a huge step.

Melvin McLeod: I was just reading where the Dalai Lama said that he thinks mother's love is the best symbol for love and compassion, because it is totally disinterested.

Richard Gere: Nectar. Nectar is that! [In vajrayana practice, spiritual blessings are visualized as nectar descending on the meditator.] That's mother's milk; that's coming right from mom. Absolutely.

Melvin McLeod: Although you are cautious in speaking about the dharma, you are a passionate spokesman on the issue of freedom for Tibet.

Richard Gere: I've gone through a lot of different phases with that. The anger that I might have felt twenty years ago is quite different now. We're all in the same boat here, all of us—Hitler, the Chinese, you, me, what we did in Central America. No one is devoid of the ignorance that causes all these problems. If anything, the Chinese are just creating the cause of horrendous future lifetimes for themselves, and one cannot fail to be compassionate towards them for that.

When I talk to Tibetans who were in solitary confinement for twenty or twenty-five years, they say to me, totally from their heart, that the issue is larger than what they suffered at the hands of their torturer, and that they feel pity and compassion for this person who was acting out animal nature. To be in the presence of that kind of wisdom of heart and mind—you can never go back after that. 

Melvin McLeod: It is remarkable that an entire people, generally, is imbued with a spirit like that.

Richard Gere: I'm convinced that it is because it was state-oriented. Obviously, problems come with that, with no separation of church and state. But I am convinced that the great dharma kings manifested to actually create a society based on these ideas. Their institutions were designed to create good-hearted people; everything in the society was there to feed it. That became decadent—there were bad periods, there were good periods, whatever. But the gist of the society was to create good-hearted people, bodhisattvas, to create a very strong environment where people could achieve enlightenment. Imagine that in America! I mean, we have no structure for enlightenment. We have a very strong Christian heritage and Jewish heritage, one of compassion, one of altruism. Good people. But we have very little that encourages enlightenment—total liberation.

Melvin McLeod: Looking at how human rights violations have come to the forefront of world consciousness, such as in Tibet and South Africa before that, the work of celebrities such as yourself who have been able to use their fame skillfully has been an important factor. 



Richard Gere: I hope that's true. It's kind of you to say. It's an odd situation. Previously I'd worked on Central America and some other political and human rights issues, and got to know the ropes a bit in working with Congress and the State Department. But that didn't really apply to this situation. Tibet was too far away, and there had been extremely limited American involvement there.

I found also that the question of His Holiness in terms of a political movement was very tricky. It's a non-violent movement, which is a problem in itself—you don't get headlines with nonviolence. And His Holiness doesn't see himself as Gandhi; he doesn't create dramatic, operatic situations.

So we've ended up taking a much steadier kind of approach. It's not about drama. It's about, little by little, building truth, and I think it's probably been deeper because of that. The senators, congressmen, legislators and parliamentarians who have got involved go way beyond what they would normally give to a cause they believed in.

I think the universality of His Holiness' words and teachings have made this so much bigger than just Tibet. When His Holiness won the Nobel Peace Prize, there was a quantum leap. He is not seen as solely a Tibetan anymore; he belongs to the world. We were talking before about what the camera picks up—just a picture of His Holiness seems to communicate so much. Just to see his face. It's arresting, and at the same time it's opening. You can imagine what it would have been like to see the Buddha. Just to see his face would put you so many steps ahead. I think a lot of what we have done is just putting His Holiness in situations where he could touch as many people as possible, which he does every time with impeccable bodhicitta.

I keep saying Tibet will be taken care of in the process, but it's about saving every sentient being, and as long as we keep our eyes on that prize, Tibet will be all right. Of course there are immediate issues to deal with in Tibet. We work on those all the time. Although we had reason to believe a more open communication with the Chinese was evolving, the optimism generated by Clinton's visit to China has not panned out. In fact, the Tibetans, as well as the pro-democracy Chinese, are experiencing the most repressive period since the late eighties, since Tienanmen Square.

Melvin McLeod: I'm always impressed with a point the Dalai Lama makes which is very similar to what my own teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, presented in the Shambhala teachings. That is the need for a universal spirituality based on simple truths of human nature that transcends any particular religion, or the need for formalized religion at all. This strikes me as an extraordinarily important message.

Richard Gere: Well, I think it's true. His Holiness says that what we all have in common is an appreciation of kindness and compassion; all the religions have this. Love. We all lean towards love.

Melvin McLeod: But even beyond that, he points out that billions of people don't practice a religion at all.

Richard Gere: But they have the religion of kindness. They do. Everyone responds to kindness.

Melvin McLeod: It's fascinating that a major religious leader espouses in effect a religion of no religion.

Richard Gere: Sure, that's what makes him larger than Tibet.

Melvin McLeod: It makes him larger than Buddhism.

Richard Gere: Much larger. The Buddha was larger than Buddhism.

Melvin McLeod: You are able to sponsor a number of projects in support of the dharma and of Tibetan independence.

Richard Gere: I'm in kind of a unique position in that I do have some cash in my foundation, so I'm able to offer some front money to various groups to help them get projects started. Sponsoring dharma books is important to me—translation, publishing—but I think the most important thing I can do is help sponsor teachings. To work with His Holiness and help sponsor teachings in Mongolia, India, the United States and elsewhere-nothing gives me more joy.

The program we're doing this summer is four days of teachings by the Dalai Lama in New York. August 12 to 14 will be the formal teaching by His Holiness on Kamalashila's "Middle-length Stages of Meditation" and "The Thirty-seven Practices of the Bodhisattvas." That's at the Beacon Theater and there are about 3,000 tickets available. I'm sure those will sell quickly. If people can't get into that, there's going to be a free public teaching in Central Park on the fifteenth. We're guessing there will be space for twenty-five to forty thousand people, so whoever wants to come will be able to. His Holiness will give a teaching on the Eight Verses of Mind Training, a very powerful lojong teaching, one of my favorites actually. Then His Holiness will give a wang, a long life empowerment of White Tara.

I've seen His Holiness give bodhicitta teachings like these, and no one can walk away without crying. He touches so deep into the heart. He gave a teaching in Bodh Gaya last year on Khunu Lama's "In Praise of Bodhicitta," which is a long poems Just thinking about it now, I'm starting to crys So beautiful. When he was teaching on Kunu Lama's "In Praise of Bodhicitta," who was his own teachers whooosh! We were inside his heart, in the most extraordinary way. A place you can't be told about, you can't read about, nothing. You're in the presence of Buddha. I've had a lot of teachers who give wonderful teachings on wisdom, but to see someone who really, really has the big bodhicitta, real expanded bodhicittas.

So those are the teachings that I believe His Holiness is here to give. That's what touches.


Richard Gere: My Journey as a Buddhist, Melvin McLeod, Shambhala Sun, May 1999.


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A Taste of Freedom Print

A Taste of Freedom


 
After more than thirteen years behind bars, a prisoner's short, bittersweet experience of freedom is a reminder of his guru and the free, cheerful state of mind that is available at every moment.


The guard inside the control center motioned me closer to the glass to I.D. me, and suddenly the outer glass windows of the sally port slid open. I stepped out into the free world, relishing each moment with amazement as I walked down the stone steps of the main entrance to the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, a high security prison hospital in Springfield, Missouri.
The day was absolutely beautiful, not a cloud in the brilliant azure sky. The autumn air was just a little crisp but the afternoon sun bathed me in its warmth. A huge U.S. flag beat smartly in the breeze, high atop its flagpole just across from the main entrance guard tower.

Just short of thirteen years ago, I had arrived at this prison in handcuffs and leg irons, wearing a bright orange, county jail jumpsuit. Now here I was in the free world again, wearing slacks, a sports coat and tie, waiting for a taxi to the airport. After being locked up continuously for a total of thirteen and a half years, I could not believe I was standing there on my own-no handcuffs, no guards, no fear.

It was time for the afternoon shift change, and quite a few staff were coming and going. Some who knew me waved; a few stopped to chat. The rest simply paid me no mind at all. Just minutes earlier I had been an inmate inside a high security prison, where the slightest challenge to authority is met with swift and sure suppression. Now, just because of where I was standing and the clothes I was wearing, I was suddenly seen as a normal human being.
Standing there at the curb, I was a jumble of intense feelings. My father had died just the day before. I was headed home on a three day, unescorted furlough to attend the funeral and be with my family.

My dad had fought lung cancer valiantly during the past seven months. He'd had 31 radiation treatments and four rounds of chemotherapy and seemed to be winning, but a few weeks short of his 78th birthday, his damaged lungs and embattled heart finally gave out.
My greatest fear, losing one of my parents while still locked up, had come to pass. My greatest hope, that my dad would survive to see me walk out of prison for good, was not to be.
The day before, when I found out over the phone that my dad had died, I went back to my cell and fell apart. I cried and cried. Now I was standing out in the fresh air and sunshine, hurting like hell inside and grinning on the outside at the beauty and majesty of a fall afternoon in the Ozarks.

Unescorted funeral furloughs are all but unheard of at this high security institution. The standard practice is to send the prisoner in handcuffs and leg irons with an escort of two guards, sometimes four. You are only allowed to attend the actual funeral ceremony and burial, and you pay all the expenses, including overtime for the guards. I had really dreaded showing up at my dad's funeral escorted by prison guards. As a low security prisoner only six months short of release to a half-way house, I'd long been eligible for transfer to a minimum security prison camp, and the only reason I remained in the high security institution was to continue the hospice work I'd been doing there since 1987. Even so, the warden was sticking his neck out by letting me go, and I was very grateful for his compassionate decision.

Standing gazing into the sky I couldn't help but think of my Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. To this day, whenever I look at the sky, especially a deep blue, cloudless sky, I am reminded of my teacher and the joy I always felt in his presence, even after his death.

I had been in prison almost two years when he died in 1987. I was devastated by my teacher's death and overwhelmed by deep regrets. I felt I had let him down in so many ways. He was my best friend and had given me everything, but at the end I wasn't even there.

During the weeks following his death, I spent a lot of time walking the track in the prison yard. There, his presence was especially potent for me, somehow embodied in the vastness of the sky. Although I expected to be thoroughly depressed, I actually awoke each morning in a very cheerful state, and this uplifted state of mind remained unshakable throughout the day, sometimes approaching a state of elation or mild rapture, especially outside walking the prison yard. Of course, I experienced a powerful sense of emptiness and impermanence as the death of my teacher began to sink in, but these feelings were like ripples in a more powerful and very stable positive state.

Thinking about my dad and gazing at the clear blue sky, I recognized that raw, tender-hearted mixture of joy and sadness Trungpa Rinpoche described as the mark of being truly awake and alive. One of his most important teachings was that we could simply cheer up by connecting with our inherent sanity and healthiness, what he called basic goodness. He taught that there is an unlimited source of cheerful, awake energy always available to us.

Being rather thick-headed, it took getting locked up in prison for me to start practicing enough to realize the truth of this teaching. After years of daily practice and yearly retreats, that unconditional, cheerful mind became the context of my daily life in prison, immediately available even if not always present. To say I'm grateful for this would be no small understatement.
The three days I spent at home with my family were a great blessing, even in the circumstance of such loss and sadness. It was hard to grasp the reality of being out in the free world again. Everything had a surreal quality to it, especially on the day of the funeral.

I couldn't even imagine what it was like for the rest of my family. They had been through all this just four months earlier with the tragic death of my 17-year-old nephew, David -same funeral home, same church, same cemetery. Just short of starting his senior year in high school, this free-spirited and much-loved young man fell to his death while attempting to climb down some river bluffs at night with his buddies. My dad was deeply grieved over the seemingly senseless death of his grandson, and now we were going to bury him, too.

I wanted to take my dad's body back to the house and just hang out with him for a while, at least a few days or a week, like people did in the old days. Now everything is so fast, so busy. I needed more time with my dad, more time to cry and laugh and grieve for him.
The ride to the cemetery was really hard. My mom, who had been very strong and steady up until then, began to have a very difficult time. She said, "I just can't believe we are really doing this-really going to bury your father."

I spent most of my three days at home at my mother's side. It meant everything to me, and I know it meant the world to her to have me there. I also had the pleasure of spending time outside the prison visiting room with Robert, my now fully grown 22-year-old son. We stayed up late together, talking and watching videos. It was also a joy to be with my brother and three sisters and all my nieces and nephews, all grown up in my absence.

It was strange arriving back at the prison in a taxi and asking someone to let me in. Furloughs are so rare at this prison that the guards outside didn't quite know what to do with me. The guard who eventually let me into the prisoner receiving area said, "Welcome back," the irony immediately obvious to both of us.

It took me just a few minutes to be strip-searched ("Bend over and spread 'em") and change from my street clothes back into prison khakis. Dressed again in inmate attire, I was amazed how quickly the attitude of the guards shifted. The usual arrogant attitude and sick, "We've got your ass" prison guard humor started up immediately. Well, at least I knew I was "home."
Despite being busy with numerous projects and my usual intense daily schedule, I've been in a deeply reflective mood since returning to the prison, carried along by a river of complex and unpredictable emotions. Anger and sadness, fear and loneliness, emptiness and longing have colored my days and nights, interspersed with feelings of peace or even joy at moments of acceptance and letting go. It all comes and goes of its own accord.

Nothing prepares you for losing one of your parents-not the hospice work I've been doing here for the past eleven years, not the meditation practices I've been doing for more than twenty years, not even the death of my own spiritual teacher. My father had always been a powerful reference point, a presence I battled with at times. In recent years we had grown very close and talked regularly by phone, finally just days before he entered hospital for the last time. I knew I loved my dad a lot and told him so regularly. But only when I saw his lifeless body laid out in a casket at the funeral home did I fully realize how deeply I loved him. It just broke my heart.

I have let a lot of people down in my life-my mom and dad, my teacher, my son, and many others. Somehow everyone has stuck with me. I have been the beneficiary of so much kindness from so many people. It amazes me and it inspires me to want to do something of value with my life, to be of service in some way.

I have been studying with Roshi Bernie Glassman for the past five years, inspired by his unique approach to contemplative social action and the Peacemaker path he established with his late wife, Jishu Sensei. Roshi and Jishu performed the Zen Peacemaker priest ordination for me in 1997 in the prison chapel.

Roshi's vision for the peacemaker work has evolved into an international, interfaith community of Peacemaker Villages, each having a unique identity and focus. As a member of both the Shambhala community and the Zen Peacemaker Order, I would like to work with others when I get out to establish a peacemaker village centered around prison ministry and prison reform activism. I have lived in this prison world long enough that it's now part of who I am. I could never just walk away from it.

As Buddhists, we aspire to experience all beings as family; I know all prisoners are my sisters and brothers. The prison situation in the United States is getting worse all the time and the challenge is immense-to slow down current trends, bring about reforms, and minister to the needs of the millions of men and women who are living with the realities of the system as it is today. It's sad to say, but it looks like there's an almost unlimited future in prison activism. It's nice to have a mission in life, but it's a job I would very much like to work myself out of.  

 


A Taste of Freedom, Fleet Maull, Shambhala Sun, May 1999.


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Confessions of a Spiritual Shopper Print

Confessions of a Spiritual Shopper 

By 

Don Morreale on checking out the Buddhist scene and finding what’s right for you. (It only took him thirty years to decide.)
 
 
"How does one find one’s direction in life?"
Haieeee! I don’t know. I don’t know."
-the Dalai Lama answers a question at the Peace Jam Youth Conference

Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving-it
doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of
despair. Come, even though you have
broken your vow a hundred times.
Come. Come again. Come.
                                              Rumi


In the ten years since my book Buddhist America first appeared in print, I’ve received hundreds of letters and phone calls from people all over the world wanting to know where to meditate, who the best teachers are, what tradition to follow, and so on. These sound like simple questions, but they’re not. As Seneca, the Roman philosopher, said: "There is no easy way from the earth to the stars." Anyone who’s ever tried it knows that the Buddha’s way is a zigzag path. It’s different for every person who sits down to meditate. The search for a center, a teacher, a tradition, is a part of the path and each of us must walk it for ourselves.

I’ve spent most of my nearly thirty years of on-again off-again, willy-nilly dharma practice trying to answer these questions for myself. I’ve studied in all three meditation traditions and practiced in centers and monasteries and urban temples and living room sanghas from southern California to northern Massachusetts, from Montreal to Rio De Janeiro, from the jungles of Thailand and Malaysia to the mountains of India and Taiwan. After practicing awhile in one tradition or another I’d come to the conclusion that this particular place/style of practice/method/teacher was just not for me, and I’d move on.

Now if you’re thinking that this approach sounds kind of flaky, you would be right. It is kind of flaky. For one thing, you never really quite sink your teeth in, and for another, when the going gets rough, rather than sitting there and facing it, the temptation is to pick up and move. On the other hand, such an approach may be unavoidable, given the fact that there are now upwards of eleven hundred meditation centers in the U.S. and Canada, and those are just the ones I managed to find out about and list in my book. This doesn’t take into account the several hundred ethnic temples in this
country, nor does it include those Buddhist traditions where meditation is not the focus.

Dizzying, isn’t it? I’m reminded of a visit from some Brazilian friends a few years ago. We went into a supermarket where they were bowled over by the vast numbers of choices. In Brazil, they said, there might be one brand of cereal on the shelf. The choice was simple-"Cereal or no cereal"-not "Hmm, let’s see, do I want Coco Blasters, Crunchy Cornballs, or Floaty-Oaties today? Or will it be Nuttin’ Doin, Raisin Cane, or the ever popular Blueberry Bowl Busters?"

Perhaps, had I been born into a country with a single Buddhist tradition, things might have been different. Then again, maybe not. When I visited Thailand in 1986, I was astounded by the variety of teachers, practices, approaches, styles, customs. Some temples meditated and did not study; others studied but did not meditate. There were monasteries dedicated entirely to getting people off drugs. There were sects who wore blue denim paddy pants and saffron sashes and ran vegetarian restaurants. There were eco-activist monks who went around ordaining trees to keep them from being cut down. Every teacher had his or her idiosyncrasies. Some taught the intricate vipassana of the Mahasi Sayadaw, directing the awareness to touch points around the body. Others instructed us to repeat the syllables of the Buddha’s name while doing breath meditation: "Bhuuu" on the inbreath, "Thooo" on the outbreath. Still others taught us to visualize a bright pearl.

Not infrequently, one teacher would tell you that another was wrong, that his or her own method was the true and right one, and that if you would just follow it to the letter, enlightenment in thislifetime would be yours, guaranteed, no problem. I remember sitting in a hotel room in Nonkai on the banks of the Mekong River and feeling all of these competing methods roiling through my brain. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore and returned to the simple technique of counting my breaths on the exhalation, which was the very first method I ever learned.

I did, however, manage to pick up a thing or two from all those years of wandering around in the shopping malls of buddhadharma. I gained a very clear sense of what wouldn’t work for me and also a small glimmer of an inkling of what would. I learned that I did better in solitary retreat as opposed to sitting in a hall with a group. I learned that I thrived around teachers with whom I could be friends and who trusted me to figure it out for myself, and withered around those who were too formal, or pushy or possessive.

I also learned something about tolerance, which seems to me to be in especially short supply when it comes to religion, to what we feel to be the absolute truth. To be sure, if we didn’t believe that our own tradition was the absolute best of all time, we wouldn’t be practicing in it. And that’s precisely where the difficulty lies: if my way is true, then your way must be false. If your way is true, then what am I doing in this tradition?

Somewhere along the line, I began to understand that choosing a way of practice is a matter of the heart, very much like falling in love. Sometimes it’s like falling in love with somebody your whole family thinks is a total loser. It’s a subjective thing. You’re involved. They are not. You’re looking at your sweetheart’s profound soul and delicate sensibilities. All they see is the spiky mohawk, the vacant stare, and that cross tattooed on the forehead.

Another thing I realized in my years of dharma bumming was that if I was going to get anywhere with my practice, sooner or later I’d have to make a choice, take a stand, "fish or cut bait." As for me, I neither fished nor cut bait. Instead, I just sort of plunked along some more at the local Dharmadhatu and then plunked along some more at the local Zen center without ever actually committing myself fully to either style of practice. To further complicate matters, I already knew in my heart of hearts that what I really wanted to do was to practice Theravada vipassana. I just wasn’t ready yet to take the plunge.

Here’s a piece of advice my friend Betty gave to her teenage daughter when she was packing up to go study Spanish in Ecuador: "Keep both feet in the same zip code." I always liked the sound of that. I thought it meant "stay focused" or something, but I wasn’t quite sure. So this morning I called her daughter, Claire, and asked her. "Oh no," she said, "that’s not what Mom meant at all. See, when I was a kid, I used to walk around like a construction worker with my legs all over the place, and Mom was just trying to get me to be a little more refined and ladylike."

Whatever.

The point is that, spiritually speaking, my feet were definitely not in the same zip code. I loved the energy and single-minded dedication of Zen, but was a little leery of what I had come to call "the guru thing," the prerequisite that you commit fully to one teacher and practice with him or her to the exclusion of all others. Also there were guys with sticks who patrolled the zendo and bellowed out stuff like "NO MOVING!!!" whenever you shifted or scratched.

Meanwhile, across town at Dharmadhatu you could shift and scratch all you wanted. I liked the spaciousness of shamatha (tranquility) meditation, but the higher tantric practices-the mantras and mudras, the visualizations and prostrations, the devotion to the guru and so on-held no fascination for me at all.

Pinging around like a cosmic pinball among the many traditions, I found-much to my embarrassment-that I had become the exact embodiment of all the darker implications of my dharma name, which is "Ronin." This name was given to me by Eido Roshi, my first Zen teacher and a lifelong friend and mentor. He even made a calligraphy to commemorate the event and explained that the characters he had chosen-"Ro" and "Nin"-together meant "Cheerful Persistence." Now that, I thought, certainly applied to me. I mean, I’m nothing if not cheerful and, God knows, I do hang in there.

But there were other, less flattering connotations to the name which Roshi took pains to elucidate for me as well. In ancient times, he said, a ronin was a samurai warrior whose master had been defeated and was therefore no longer able to support his troops. Cut adrift, ronin were loose cannon, mavericks, free agents, guys who ran their own show-an interpretation which appealed to my sense of vanity and frontier individualism. My arrogant assumption here was that I didn’t have a master because I didn’t need one.

In reality, though, ronin were by no means masters of themselves. No indeed. Many of them were world class trouble makers who went around plundering and killing with no one to rein them in or to channel their testosterone towards a higher purpose. In modern Japan, Roshi told me, a student who flunks his college entrance exams is called ronin while he is studying to take them a second time, because he’s neither here nor there-neither a student nor not a student-but inhabits a kind of no man’s land, his feet in separate zip codes. Roshi liked to translate ronin variously as "screw-up," and "unemployed," which he often did to anyone who happened to be around. (It’s only now, in looking back, that I’m able to recognize and appreciate the extreme kindness he was showing me here.) So Ronin, then: a cheerful, persistent, unemployed screw-up.

Sometime after the first edition of Buddhist America came out, I just kind of threw up my hands and said, "Oh the hell with it." This is not to say that I gave up sitting. But I stopped going to retreats, formally resigned from Dharmadhatu, drifted away from the Zen Center, and decided to just practice on my own for awhile. Every morning I’d go sit down on my cushion and wait to see what would happen next. I had no particular practice, no sangha around me to speak of, no teacher, no formal teachings of any kind. It was meditation without benefit of buddha, dharma, or sangha.

Which was kind of an odd place to be in when you think about it, because here I was, the guy who’d written the book on where to meditate, and I didn’t have a clue about where to go myself. People would write to me or call me up, and I’d do the best I could to direct them to a center either near them, or somewhere distant that had a decent reputation. But as for me, I wasn’t having any of it.
Somewhere during this period I went to work as a morning news jock at public radio KUVO in Denver. I got disentangled from a long and pointless romance and then established a pretty good one with a woman I’m still living with. I took off for an extended sojourn in South America. I came back and got involved with neighborhood politics. I got serious about making a living after all those years as a marginally funded dharma bum. I bought some rental properties and spent a lot of time fixing them up and renting them out, and I was keeping busy and more or less out of trouble. Then somewhere along the line I sort of woke up and realized that I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing anymore. That I was, if not terribly unhappy, then at least ill at ease and out of sorts most of the time.

It had been seven years since I’d attended a formal Buddhist retreat, and I finally had to face the fact that my dharma practice as a lone wolf ronin samurai wasn’t working anymore, that this whole self-directed spiritual enterprise of mine had pretty much gone to hell in a handbasket. Compounding the error, I had written this book, which ostensibly made me an authority on the subject, thus making it all the more difficult for me to admit to myself, much less to anyone else, that I really didn’t know what I was talking about.

Now for a dharma bum, that’s not such a bad place to start from. In fact, it’s a dandy place, because it’s out of that space of not knowing, of not being filled up with yourown views and opinions about things, that realization can finally begin to flower. "Only Don’t Know!" as Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn constantly admonishes his students. There’s a wonderful saying in an obscure book of Chinese Zen epigrams called The Vegetable Root Discourses: "Life is like an earthen pot. Only when it is shattered does it manifest its emptiness."

I signed up for a ten-day vipassana retreat at the Bhavana Society in Highview, West Virginia, and then proceeded to sit the entire course with a really bad attitude. I walked in there saying to myself, "Awright. If I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do it my way. If that means skipping a sitting and falling on my face for a nap, well, that’s what I’m going to do. And if it means that I don’t go in for an interview with the teacher, then so be it. And if it means spending an entire sitting period spinning out elaborate sexual fantasies, well, that’s my business."

And so it went, slogging it out for the whole ten days like the Buddha’s own bad boy. By the end of the retreat, despite the bad attitude (or maybe because of it), I felt that I was back in the dharma’s loving embrace, and I knew I could do what needed to be done to get myself to retreats and to practice again with renewed dedication.

Not long ago, I went for a walk with my friend Patsie. "It took me nearly thirty years to just get a basic handle on the practice," I told her. "It feels as though I wasted a lot of time."

"Well, maybe so," she said, "but on the other hand, if you hadn’t spent all that time noodling around, you might never have figured it out at all. That’s the way it works. First you try this, and then you try that, and finally, in some mysterious way, it all just comes together by itself."

I’m happy to report that the spiritual shopping spree is finally over. I’ve found a practice that works for me, and teachers that I can relate to. I sit every day and go on retreat every chance I get. Having both feet in the same zip code has made all the difference.
 
Confessions of a Spiritual Shopper, Don Morreale, Shambhala Sun, May 1999

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TuIPOmania Print
Shambhala Sun | May 1999

TuIPOmania

By: “The current dot.com IPO mania is a lot like the 'tulipomania' craze that overtook Holland in the seventeenth century. (It didn't end well.)”

            Some people just don’t get it, or so I am told. They just don’t get that the advent of dot.communism heralds a new age of wealth and prosperity. Let there be no doubt that the innermost desire of everyone is to be a millionaire, and now it is possible.
            Come up with a catchy name and a nifty idea for joining together all members of a “community” (such as snowboarding ex-history majors) in order to sell them stuff, and bingo you too can get a fat IPO (Initial Public Offering of stock, in case you hadn’t heard). Everyone can gleefully order an arugula salad for $13.50 accompanied by a $6.00 bottle of water. The smart people will all be rich.
            This is delusion. It’s madness. And it’s all been seen before. In the opening of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, the author states that people “think in herds” and further that “they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
            This delightful text (available in its entirety at www.litrix.com as well as in bookstores) is not a pop psychology book from the sixties or seventies. Rather, it comes to us from the dusty nineteenth century and the pen of Charles Mackay. A contemporary of Charles Dickens and Karl Marx, Mackay was an ardent Scottish cynic who chronicled the incessant folly of group activity.
            I’ve been wary of crowds ever since I was struck in the head by a baseball bat in a parking lot crowded with boys waiting to have their bats signed by ballplayer Curt Blefary. I remember almost nothing about this now obscure player, but I remember distinctly a big bleeding welt on the top of my head and that nobody much cared. Hey, what’s a little blow to some kid’s head when you have a chance to shake hands with none other than Curt Blefary?
            When we crowd, we act in frightening yet doltish and predictable ways. When my father ran  the 1939 World’s Fair dance hall, crowds mobbed the doors, suffocating and trampling each other underfoot. To prevent this, he would open a door at one end, causing people to rush in that direction, and then open another at the opposite end, causing others to rush back. The crowds dispersed and entered in a more orderly and sheepish fashion.
            Crowds are like this. Their collective frenzy yields to all sensibility, such as in the current IPO craze, wherein a colossal  “burn rate”—how quickly a fledgling company goes through cash—is seen as a mark of innovation, rather than the carelessness and waste it may truly represent.
            The stock prices commanded by “pre-profitable” internet companies can never be sustained. Yet youngsters who have made fortunes overnight are sought out as gurus on how to run companies. There is just the slightest chance they’re not offering the wisdom of the ages.
            This is reminiscent of the true-life parable of tulipomania, the craze that overtook Holland in the seventeenth century so well described in Mackay’s book.
            The enduring national symbol of the Dutch was not native to the region. It was brought from Turkey, where tülbend referred to the muslin used for turbans (a fully opened tulip was thought to resemble a turban).
            When tulips arrived in Northern Europe in the sixteenth century, they were regarded as extraordinarily exotic, like a new operating system.  By 1635, a full-fledged mania surrounded exotic species, so that sums that would sustain a working family for many years were paid to purchase a single bulb. By 1636, tulip marts existed at stock exchanges throughout the country.
            At first, as Mackay writes, “confidence was at its height, and everybody gained.…Many individuals grew suddenly rich…and one after the other, they rushed to the tulip marts, like flies around a honeypot.” Money started pouring in from all around the world and “tulip notaries” were appointed by the government to oversee the trade.    But of course the bottom dropped out of the whole thing, as the bulbs began to be seen once again as what they actually were: something to plant in the earth. Prices plunged.
            As Mackay sums it up, “Many who, for a brief season, had emerged from the humbler walks of life, were cast back to their original obscurity. Substantial merchants were reduced almost to beggary, and many a representative of a noble line saw the fortunes of his house ruined beyond redemption.”
            We laugh, but it is not entirely funny. The buoyancy of the crowd gives way to a lonely despair, and people look once again for something more genuine to chart their course by. What endures, then, comes not from the madness of crowds or from the extraordinary delusions of the day, but from appreciating a flower as a mere flower—beautiful, alluring—but a blossom that inevitably will fade and die away.

Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.

    TuIPOmania, Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, May 1999.

http://www.shambhalasun.com/Archives/Columnists/Boyce/boyceMay00.htm

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