Editorial: "Our Original Goodness" (September 2013)
Shambhala Sun | September 2013
Editorial: "Our Original Goodness"
Here’ s a Mahayana Buddhist truism: we are a mixture of
wisdom and neurosis. Everything we think, feel, perceive, say, and do has both
an awakened and a confused aspect.
we are a mix of good and bad. This we all know. The important question is which
we really are, which is the deeper reality of human nature. Which is more
original, as it were, the sin or goodness?
we answer that question will define our path to becoming better people—whether
we are struggling against our basic nature or trying to realize it. “You Are
the Sun Not the Clouds,” the title for our cover story in this issue, sums up
the Mahayana Buddhist view.
Buddhist path to becoming a better person is about being who we really are.
That’s our buddhanature, our inherent wisdom and compassion that are always
present, never fundamentally diminished or sullied.
the perfect part Suzuki Roshi talks about. But let’s not be naive about it.
That would be the least Buddhist thing we could possibly do. We have lots of
problems—all we have to do is look at the world around us to know that. So, as
Suzuki Roshi says, we need improvement. But because our stains, confusion, and
neuroses are merely temporary, we can do it. There is no better news than that.
Buddhism, this is called the view, the basic insight into the nature of reality
that informs our practice. One place we can start our path, as
Zen teacher John Tarrant says in our lead teaching on this subject, is with the
wanting itself, with our fundamental longing to be a better person. This too is
a mixture of wisdom and confusion.
is our deepest, most heartfelt wish to be better people—wiser, kinder, more
skillful, more virtuous, more awake, and full of life. In Buddhist terms, we
could say this is the primordial pull of enlightenment. Or we could just say
it’s our simple human desire to be who we really are—to be all we know we are
capable of being.
is deep wisdom and truth in this longing. But what happens when we lose the
view and don’t know where that beautiful wish is trying to lead us? Then, we
seek happiness and a sense of self in externals and dualities: success and
failure, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, and that great plague of our life,
praise and blame. For all its occasional pleasures, this endless pursuit of
external meaning only makes us suffer, and makes us cause others to suffer too.
In fact, one could argue that our very wish to be better people, when
misunderstood and misdirected, is the cause of samsara, of all our suffering.
But when we direct it toward the realization of our true nature, then it is
the path to the home we long for.
don’t have to change who we are—is that even possible?—and there are many
proven techniques to help us deal with those temporary things that need
improvement. One place to start is meditation. Sitting there doing nothing, at
least we’re not making anything worse. In fact, if it’s true that fundamentally
things are perfect as they are, then maybe all we really need to do is stop all
the ways we make things worse.
a simple path, but not an easy one (or we would have done it long, long ago).
It takes a lot of courage to just be who we are. Society has given us so many
reasons to feel bad about ourselves, and so many ways to distract ourselves
from experiencing the tenderness of our human heart and the spaciousness of our
basic being. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said a true warrior is someone with the
courage and confidence to really be themselves. You are already the better
person you long to be. You are the sun, not the clouds.
by Megumi Yoshida
Why Is America So Angry? (September 2013)
Shambhala Sun | September 2013
Why Is America So Angry?
Someday somebody will explain why we're all so mad these days. But for now, says SETH GREENLAND, let's consider what to do about it.
When the guy driving the late-model Volvo with a “War Is Not the Answer” bumper sticker gave me the finger, I knew America had taken a wrong turn. The behavior of this hostile L.A. hippie represented more than a traffic kerfuffle. A Volvo with that kind of bumper sticker is a signifier: college graduate, votes Democratic, listens to NPR, and will think about moving to Canada if a Republican becomes president, or at least attend a dinner party where another guest will talk about it. In other words, we are not dissimilar, and we’re reasonable people, aren’t we, this paragon of liberalism and I? And here he was, my sociocultural doppelgänger, thrusting his middle finger at me, bespectacled, professorial face contorted in rage. Yes, I had accidentally cut him off on Olympic Boulevard—He was in my blind spot, Your Honor!—but did the sixties not happen? Did he not at some point also own a vinyl copy of Sweet Baby James? Are we not brothers?
From the perspective of a blue state resident, it’s easy—and facile—enough to ascribe the anger percolating in America to the political ascendancy of the right. The enviable market share of Fox News and the conservative monopoly of AM talk radio all speak to their dominion. But this is misleading. Perhaps the manner in which they express their rage is more colorful (thank you, Tea Party costume department), but, as my Olympic Boulevard encounter illustrates, anger is everywhere. People talk about the mainstream media’s sense of misguided fairness that makes them treat both sides equally, but here is a fact: America is furious.
The left became unhinged when George W. Bush was elected. Admittedly, given the Florida recount, the worst recession in sixty years, and the most foolish American war since, well, ever, there was something to be angry about. But the hatred expressed toward him was profound; it felt new and stronger than the opprobrium heaped on Reagan when he was in office. Interestingly, even with all of the anger toward Bush, the left pretty much stayed home while he was in the White House. There were a few economic demonstrations and some antiwar activity, but it paled compared to how people hit the streets during, say, the Vietnam era.
Charles Krauthammer dubbed this Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS)— basically ascribing all the world’s ills to the president— and it has become deeper, crazier, and more active now that the virus has migrated from left to right and its symptoms are projected onto President Obama. How else to explain the Tea Partiers, who had no problem with Bush’s vast spending, claiming Obama’s fiscal habits are a danger to the republic? Or the characterization of this barely left-of-center politician who has treated Wall Street with kid gloves as some kind of socialist class warrior and aspiring tyrant? This epic level of anger is most visible on the level of national politics, but it has trickled all the way to the bottom. By bottom I am referring not only to the guy in the Volvo who gave me the finger but also to the comments section of any website that allows them. The Internet has enabled the anger, allowing it to spin like a Catherine wheel, spreading toxicity everywhere.
Why is America so angry?
Someday, someone will write a book about how we arrived at American apoplexy, but for now let’s be more forward-looking\ and consider what some people are doing about it other than consuming massive levels of prescription medication.
One of the things they’re doing is meditating. This explains the rise of what is known as applied mindfulness, which offers practices to develop the capacity to deal with their anger skillfully. People from many religious backgrounds have engaged with this work without giving up their own spiritual identities. They can celebrate the High Holidays and still meditate each morning without annoying their rabbis. They can sing hymns and eat fruitcake at Christmas while still attending their sitting group. Chances are you or someone you know practices a form of meditation. Major universities are researching the effects of these practices. Young children are being taught mindfulness, and not just the ones on Adderall.
Apart from scale, anger is no different on the national level than it is in preschool.
When little Emma takes Jacob’s toy truck, Jacob’s anger springs from his thwarted need to possess the object. He is thinking about what he wants, or thinks he wants. Emma, of course, is thinking about what she wants. A fundamental Buddhist belief is that all people want to be happy and, at root, all of our actions, even angry ones, come from that fact. So this kid thinks the truck will make him happy, when really what is probably going to make him happier in the long run is having a friendly relationship with Emma.
Mindfulness, as it happens, is a remarkably effective way to deal with anger. Anger is about my needs. When you get angry, here’s what you’re really screeching: What about ME? The Tea Partiers who hate Obama are really upset because THEIR ideas about economics are so much better, and why doesn’t he see that?
The hostile left-wing Volvo driver might be shocked to hear it, but he’s not so different from Rush Limbaugh: both lack a filter with which to screen their bile. Meditation practice provides this filter by training us to be nonreactive, to consider our actions, to “check in” and directly experience how we feel physically and emotionally before acting on it. They teach us to see the larger world and our place in it more clearly, and to experience what we are feeling with some degree of awareness.
We don’t need to become Buddhists to deal with our anger but everyone can benefit from what Buddhists have learned from millennia of training. These practices are not a panacea or a cure, but a process through which we learn to see our emotions as dynamic and changing. By undertaking this work, we are less likely to give the finger to the next hapless driver who accidentally cuts us off. Or start a war.
That’s right, Volvo Guy. I’m talking to you.
Seth Greenland is the author of three novels, including The Angry Buddhist, and was a writer-producer on the HBO series Big Love.
IIlustration by André Slob
Q&A: Margaret Cho (September 2013)
Shambhala Sun | September 2013
The Funniest Thing Is a Deep Truth
Q&A with comedian Margaret Cho.
Margaret Cho is Teri in Lifetime’s hit show Drop Dead Diva; she’s a vaudevillian
burlesque dancer who sambaed and waltzed for Dancing with the Stars; she’s a longtime anti-racist, anti-bullying, and gay rights activist. And then there’s her main gig: side-splitting and boundary-pushing stand-up comedy. Her latest show, Mother, takes an untraditional look at motherhood and explores Cho’s sexuality. She says being bisexual is an odd experience: there’s really no representation of it in the media, so she has to make it up as she goes along. “Nothing is sacred,” Cho has quipped about her show, “least of all this Mother.”
Despite the raunchy streak, Cho’s comedy is at heart about compassion. I became interested in interviewing her when I came across her blog post on tonglen, a Buddhist meditation practice that involves breathing in the suffering of others and breathing out compassion and peace. As she describes it, “You’re like an air conditioning filter for the pain and suffering on Earth.”
What was it like growing up as a first-generation Korean American? What’s really beautiful, what’s really funny, and what does it take to be a good actor? These are some of the questions Cho tackled in our interview.
Like most women—maybe most people—you’ve struggled with your body image. Have you reached some peace with that?
I have not reached any peace with that, although now I’m beyond caring, which is maybe peace. I am so sick of thinking about it. There are so many other things that I would rather do than worry about my size. You get bored after forty-whatever years of fretting. You get, like, I’ve got to stop worrying about this because there’s no solution.
How would you define true beauty?
I think it’s peace or tranquility, and also compassion and kindness. It’s being real or authentic. Laughing is an expression of beauty because it can’t be faked. Something is funny when it’s deeply truthful. The funniest thing is a deep truth that is undeniable.
Have you always been funny?
I don’t know, but when I saw that people did comedy and that it was a job, I realized that it would be my job. I just knew that that was what I was supposed to do.
How did you get into it?
I started doing comedy when I was about fourteen. I had a teacher who encouraged me, who saw something in me, and she signed me up for sets at comedy clubs. And then I just kept going. I was in a rush to be an adult. I did not enjoy that period of being an awkward teenager. I did not enjoy school. I did not enjoy my peers. I wanted to be around people who I felt were creative. I kind of escaped my childhood by becoming a comedian.
You seem to be really fearless in your comedy, not afraid of crossing a line or upsetting someone. Where does that bravery come from?
Well, I don’t think privacy is that important. As human beings, we’re capable of experiencing all kinds of suffering. It’s more valuable to share that than maintain this guise of privacy where we have to keep secrets from each other. It really doesn’t matter anyway. Everybody has a body. Everybody has emotions. That experience is more helpful to share than it is to hide. Privacy is something that people want to use to protect themselves, when it’s not an actual protective mechanism. We’ve all felt the same, so we’re never really revealing anything.
You have channeled a lot of very painful experiences into your art. Do you think that there’s truth in the idea of the tortured artist? Does someone have to suffer to be able to create something great?
Everybody suffers, regardless of who we are. If you can utilize your suffering in your art, that’s a great way to express it, but I don’t think anybody is exempt from suffering. It’s the human experience. There is always suffering, but there’s always joy too. So I don’t think that there’s any need for an artist to be tortured because that’s just an identity that you adopt. There really isn’t anything that anyone can do to avoid suffering. It is part of being alive. It’s a value judgment even to call something suffering.
A lot of people who might not consider themselves traditional comedy fans attend your shows. Why do you think that is?
I think that people who come see me are generally people who feel unsafe in comedy clubs. Comedy can be very sexist. It can be very racist or rely on racial stereotypes. It can be very homophobic. It can be very hurtful, used to put people down or hurt people’s feelings, and I’ve never really bought into that. I think that’s what people like about what I do. It’s not about resorting to things like racism, sexism, or homophobia, or hurting people in order to get some kind of idea across.
Your dad writes joke books in Korean, but you don’t find his jokes funny. Why not?
I think he’s a bit wordy. His jokes are in story form and they’re
And why doesn’t he think yours are funny?
He thinks they’re too dirty and that I shouldn’t be talking about sex like that. My parents never told me where babies come from, so they’re under the impression that I don’t know yet. They would rather that I don’t talk so much about sex because they think that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Can you speak Korean?
No, I can’t. My father was deported from the United States when I was four, and when he returned he was determined that my brother and I not have any kind of Korean accent whatsoever, so that we would not be perceived as foreigners. He would speak to us in Korean, but we would have to answer in English. It was so traumatizing that although I can understand the language very well, I cannot speak it at all. My father now has his citizenship and it’s impossible for him to be deported, and I was born here, so I’m not going to get deported. But I feel like if I start speaking Korean someone is going to get deported.
You often mimic your parents’ accents in your stand-up. Do they mind that?
No, they like it. They think it’s really funny.
How do you keep your routine fresh when you’re doing a lot of shows?
Shows are really a dialogue between you and the audience. In live performance, there’s such a level of unpredictability that you have to be so on top of it and really engaged. My shows tend to change a lot every day.
That means the shows are fresh because they really are fresh?
Yes, I think so.
You act as well now. What do you think is the key to being a good actor?
I think it’s really about being able to be compassionate and slip into somebody else’s skin. To be able to understand what it is to look at their life from the inside.
No Time to Meditate? (September 2013)
Shambhala Sun | September 2013
No Time to Meditate?
We think we don't have time, but we do. TINA WELLING on the real reason we don't meditate.
Recently I attended a nine-day Vipassana meditation retreat. The schedule included small group interviews with the guiding teacher. Seven of us sat in a circle and took turns talking about our experiences at the retreat and our meditation practice at home. We each had different experiences of the retreat, but every one of us told the same basic story about practice at home: no time to meditate.
Nora was attending the retreat to pick up her sitting practice after ignoring it for a couple of years. “I don’t know what happened,” she said, “but I haven’t sat much since I last came on retreat. I’d made a special promise to myself then that I would sit every evening for thirty minutes, but once I left here, I just couldn’t find the time. I hope I do better after this retreat.”
Each of us reported how we had failed to maintain a regular sitting practice due to lack of time. I was no exception. But the nice thing about group interviews is that there’s always someone you can tag as being worse at finding time than you.
For me it was Ralph, the longtime owner of a regional country club. I’ve attended retreats with him for six years. Ralph retired four years ago, specifically to have more time for his practice. Still, he reported, he couldn’t fit in a daily sit. Ralph had come to each of the sits during the retreat so far and promptly fallen asleep. I could hear his breathing from across the room. He had done the same thing during the years he was running his club. Clearly, the guy was as exhausted by his retirement as he was by his work.
During the interview session, Ralph said, “I can’t find time to sit at home. Here I’ve been sleeping during the sits and it feels good. Like I’m in a safe place, napping like a little kid, and resting deeply.” (Most little kids don’t snore, but I didn’t mention that.) No Internet access or cell phone signal penetrated the granite mountains of the canyon holding our retreat center. Was that what Ralph had meant by “safe”? Safe from interruptions and demands? I was a bit startled to hear his confession; even more startled to hear what seemed like a justification. As if this sleep was what we all hoped for from Ralph. As if that were the reason the sangha rented the hunting lodge, draped Tibetan scarves over the dead-animal heads mounted on the walls, lit candles, and turned a place that celebrated death into one that honored life.
Yeah, I felt smug.
At least I didn’t sleep.
Though if I’d been more honest, I’d have confessed to the group how much of my meditation time—both on retreat and at home—is taken up with plotting new novels. Plotting doesn’t make noise like sleeping can. No snoring is involved. I did once burst into a muffled guffaw at a funny line of dialogue I’d thought up, though. I pretended it was a cough I couldn’t hold back.
On my better mornings at home, I wake and let my dogs, Zoe and Elliot, outside for a minute and then bring them into my writing cabin. There I have my meditation cushion and shawl tucked beneath the east window. The pups curl up at my knees and wait until I bring my hands together before my chin and dip my head, marking the end of my sit. Then it’s a crazy rush for the door and the breakfast bowls.
However, I’d hate to count how many mornings at home my dogs and I go straight to the breakfast bowls, do not pass meditation cushion. I hang my excuse on Zoe and Elliot: they’re just too hungry for me to put off breakfast forty minutes because of meditation.
My dogs haven’t disputed that decision yet.
We meditators often complain about not having time to sit, and when I do, I often think of the poet William Stafford. Whether he was home or traveling, Bill woke every morning at four or five to write. I accompanied him years ago on one of his poetry tours in the West and heard him read many of those poems that arose from his early morning routine. In his book of essays, Crossing Unmarked Snow, he admits that when people complained to him that they couldn’t find time to write, “I have to avert my eyes, not to look accusingly at them.” Because he knew that all of us have the same amount of time he did.
I imagine spiritual teachers feel the same way when they hear us complain, “I just can’t find time to meditate.”
After the group interview, I realized that I had no basis for my smugness about Ralph. I couldn’t know what was going on in his life or psyche, nor in anyone else’s. And if the retreat gave Ralph deep rest and renewed Nora’s meditation vows once again, I was happy their needs were met. I hoped my own need to be steadier with my meditation schedule would be met as well.
As the retreat continued, I realized that time was a false issue. The struggle is really about something else. Typically, one part of us wants to meditate and another part wants another thing. In my case: to head straight for the breakfast bowl.
When I fell in love with my husband, I was not divided about my goal to spend time with him. And I’ve never heard anyone else complain, “Gee, I just can’t find the time to be in love.” So I decided that perhaps sitting could be viewed as falling in love with wakefulness. I liked the idea. Once a day or more I could give over my time and attention to just that: me, awake.
The problem was in the unconscious messages to myself that suggested I should be doing something other than meditating. Our culture supports “doing,” not “being.” Like many of us, I came from a tradition in which meditating was an alien act that suggested rejection of the religion of my family and society. Even now, decades after our country has been introduced to meditation, too little is understood about it. As a meditator, I have been charged with everything from seeking escape to worshipping elephants. When you’re in the minority, it takes an extra push to step over the bump of being different. This is the value of communities\ and group retreats.
In the end, I decided it would be a good idea to examine my personal issues regarding time. A couple of hooks rose right away. One, I was a dreamer as a child—I still am, although I get to call myself a novelist now—so I was often caught staring out windows and reprimanded by teachers for “wasting time.” Another was a phrase my father often used to hurry me along as I was growing up. “Time is money,” he’d say. Well, it’s not. And I’ll have to work with that.
During our final sit on the last day of retreat, I wished for each of us to find our way out of this struggle with time and, as with falling in love, view our sitting practice
as one of the great joys of life.
Tina Welling is the author of Writing Wild: A Creative Partnership with Nature, which will be published in the spring of 2014. She leads writing and journaling workshops wherever invited.
The Great Vow (September 2013)
Shambhala Sun | September 2013
The Great Vow
Our motivation determines our success on the spiritual path, says SAKYONG MIPHAM RINPOCHE. And the greatest of all is the vow to save all sentient beings.
In Buddhism, it is motivation that defines what kind of practitioner we are. Simply put, the greater our motivation on the path, the greater our potential.
Traditionally, there are said to be three kinds of motivation: small, medium, and large. Within the small, there are three categories: the small of the small, the middle of the small, and the great of the small. This is also a way of describing our evolution as practitioners, and a teaching about how we relate to our lives.
There is motivation in whatever we do. In general, small motivation is when our goal is simply to be happy and content in this lifetime. When this is our motivation, we are not particularly concerned about what happened before we were born or what happens after we die. Our goal is simply to make ourselves comfortable in this lifetime.
If our motivation is the small of the small, we are worldly people who are not engaged in a spiritual path of any kind. The world is the way it is, and there is no need for further exploration. We’re here and we’re going to try to have a good life. Our thinking revolves around getting what we want, and we use purely worldly means to make ourselves content and happy.
If our motivation is a little bigger than that—the middling of the small—we add some spiritual elements to the project of making ourselves content. Some interest or faith arises; perhaps happiness is deeper than just getting what we want from the world. There is something about hearing spiritual teachings that quenches our thirst, so we turn our mind in that direction.
However, our basic motivation is still wanting to be satisfied in this life, and we are very much interested in worldly endeavors.
People with the large of the small motivation operate within the same basic framework—we are primarily interested in personal happiness. However, we’ve seen the pitfalls of samsara. We’ve discovered that on the wheel of suffering, all our attempts to make ourselves happy are thwarted. Passing through one relationship after another, being sick, losing friends and family to death—all these have opened our eyes. And we realize it’s not just us. Pain, suffering, and karma are the basic nature of samsara.
At this point, we are starting to be concerned about the next lifetime. We see there is more to life than just satisfying our immediate desires. We think, “At first I just cared about this lifetime, but maybe there’s something more than that. If that’s true, maybe I should start practicing. If I am the product of a previous lifetime, maybe I should do something now that will benefit future lifetimes.” We do not want to plant bad karmic seeds, so we stop creating situations that take us in that direction. We no longer denigrate our mind and body or cause harm to others.
At this point, we have entered the medium motivation. The cyclic nature of samsara has taught us a few lessons. It’s not that samsara is always bad, but it goes on forever. Things may be good for a while, but then they get worse, so the mind can never really rest. So we are intent on getting out of that cycle. We understand that it inevitably brings pain, and we seek liberation from the round of birth and death. However, at this stage we do not care for others in the way that we care for ourselves. We see suffering, we have renunciation, and we seek liberation—but only for ourselves.
Finally, we have great motivation. Seeing that all sentient beings suffer in the same ways that we do, we seek release from the misery of cyclic existence not only for ourselves but for them as well. We realize that only people who are free from confusion themselves can help others achieve ultimate happiness. We take the welfare of all beings as our responsibility. We strive for unsurpassed enlightenment as the means to bring about that same enlightenment in all sentient beings. This is the view, meditation, and conduct of the Mahayana. This motivation is what it means to be a bodhisattva.
In this culture, it can be hard for us to believe in the reality of multiple lifetimes. However, we can ask ourselves, “What if it is true?” Exploring the possibility of past and future lifetimes begins to shift how we look at things. We see how expansive the mind can be. We have seen the horrors of samsara, and the whole situation has become very vivid. We ask ourselves, “Where am I coming from? What do I think is real? Do I think samsara is real, and do I really think it is going to last forever?” Unless we ask questions like this now, we won’t know what to believe at the moment of death. So we turn our mind toward doing something in this lifetime that will help the next life.
In meditation there’s sometimes a tendency to regard thinking as no good. However, contemplative meditation, in which we focus on particular concepts such as karma or suffering, can change how we think, literally. By contemplating motivation, we slowly but surely change our mental and emotional approach to what we are trying to accomplish in life.
If we get up from our meditation session and find nothing has changed, we have to ask ourselves if we are doing the practice correctly. There is no point to practice if we continue thinking in the same way.
Since we’re bound to be thinking anyway, we might as well be thinking about motivation. That can be very constructive, because as we contemplate our motivation, it grows bigger. The bigger the motivation, the bigger our heart and mind become. As our motivation grows, we become less speedy, less needy, less determined; we’re a little less worried about everything going wrong. We’re able to help others. Whether we believe in past and future lifetimes or not, it is always true that the bigger the motivation, the greater our potential for true happiness.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s new book is The Shambhala Principle: Discovering Humanity’s Hidden Treasure, published by Harmony.
Photo by Liza Matthews
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