It’s so curious: one can resist tears and ‘behave’ very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer… and everything collapses.
I started this blog in November, 2011. It was over a year since the death of my life-partner and my 23 year-old daughter in 2010. Blogging and time have eased the pain of my losses. So today took me completely by surprise.
The day began with me renewing my driver’s licence. Everything went perfect. In fact, today was the first time clerks at the DMV were waiting on people to assist. Fancy that. Like I said, everything was perfect. Then the clerk asked who I wanted to name as an emergency contact. Wow.
In the past this was an easy question. Contact Bruce, because he will be worried; my daughter, too. But today I realized fully nobody depended on me anymore. No one would know if I didn’t get home on time. No calls to hospitals, no frantic efforts to find me. Suddenly, I lost it.
Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.
Yesterday was my birthday. I spent the day reflecting on what I’ve learned. It occurred to me how key to our happiness is our ability to ‘let go’. In fact, our misery is directly proportional to intensity of our ‘clinging’.
This is not just a Buddhist teaching. All the monotheistic religions teach some form of “Let go and let God.” But this only works if we take these slogans off our bumpers and put shoes on them.
Since 2010, the year both my life partner and my daughter died, this lesson has been a constant in my life. This year my grandson, who was staying with me one weekend a month, decided he didn’t want to leave his house on the weekends. Our relationship is changing. Only one thing to do. Let go.
My sister’s home burned down this year and she lost her business. I spent last week trying to help her get some closure. The difficulty of letting go and the consequences of clinging were evident again.
Letting go is more than a neat bumper sticker. When you’re worried about something you can’t change, you gotta just do it.
“America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms,” he chirps. “You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle, without a background check and, most likely, without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?”
al-Qaida spokesman and recruiter Adam Gadahn
This is a post I so didn’t want to write. I’ve avoided it since last weekend. In an election year no politician wants to take on the NRA or the Tea Party over gun control. The time for a discussion about a common sense approach to our unfettered access to ‘rifles of mass destruction’ is not now, if ever. But write this post I must, for no reason other than to sort this out in my own mind.
The first sign I had that serious gun-control discussion wasn’t about to happen was on Sunday. The blogger at American Buddhist Perspective , Justin Whitaker, (I read his blog consistently and respect his opinions), seemed to abandon the gun control debate. He’s acknowledged a need for for the discussion in an edit on Tuesday, to his credit.
Then this morning on my Facebook page a relative and a Tea Party supporter posted this:
“To all of the gun control advocates out there… Ask yourself honestly would things in Colorado been different if one citizen in that theater had been armed?”
Of course, that prompted a discussion between us and, naturally, it changed no one’s mind. Nonetheless, the conversation drives me to comment on the situation I want so badly to avoid.
The issue is a ban on the sale of semi-automatic rifles and their ammunition to civilians.
Here’s how I see the state of the debate.
Taking the position on mental-health
A problem of mental-health, by a magnitude unfathomable, is the number one reason for these massacres. I’ve seen this problem first-hand and admit it’s complicated. As on-site director of a rescue mission while in bible college and as someone whose family has experienced the pain associated with this issue I’ve too much to say about it in this post. Perhaps a comment at some later date. Suffice it to say, but for this issue there would be no need for this post.
Taking the position of helplessness
It’s true there’s no way we can stop these senseless killings. If someone is bent on inflicting massive casualties and fatalities they will find a way to do so. However, we can’t throw our hands in the air and shake our heads in despair. There are innumerable situations we know we can’t completely eradicate but we try to minimize the danger.
One cannot purchase bulk ammonia nitrate fertilizer because of it’s explosive nature, unless he has a government recognized license. This did not stop James Holmes from booby-trapping his apartment with explosives. Yet no one questions the regulations on fertilizer. It’s about making it more difficult to make bombs, reducing our vulnerabilities; about not abetting a terrorist.
Taking a postition using gun statistics
The arguments comparing shooting deaths with gun ownership per country or state misses the point. This is not an average crime with a weapon but a sub-set of it; specifically, an act to maximize the carnage of a single shooting spree. This is precisely where the type of weapons used by the shooter make a difference.
In order to stem the tide of meth amphetamine addiction and the resulting crimes, anyone seeking relief from a cold has their purchase of cough syrup monitored. This has not decreased drug use in America. Anyone who wants drugs bad enough will find a way to get them. But comparing overall drug use to meth addiction is not relevant. We would be more accurate to compare, specifically, meth addiction rates to levels of monitoring.
Even then, we must admit we haven’t stopped the meth scourge. We have made the acquisition of meth amphetamines harder, driven up the price and profit margins for drug dealers. But no one uses this as an excuse to relax controls on cough medicine.
It’s as unproductive to compare sales of cough medicine to meth addiction in any given area as to compare gun ownership and gun crime in a given area. There are so many factors involved in the reasons for cold remedy sales and for rates of addiction, for gun ownership and crime. The numbers thrown out are just so much noise.
The position on Second Amendment violation
Regulating the sale of semi-automatic weapons and ammunition violates the Second Amendment rights of gun owners, goes this argument. Yet no civilian can purchase fully automatic weapons nor armor piercing bullets. They are banned on common sense grounds. This has not infringed on anyone’s right to bear arms. Nor did the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, in place from 1994 until 2004, when President Bush refused to renew it, impede gun owners rights. No one took it to court and overturned it in the ten years it was law. This is an extremist position.
The position for less gun control
My relative’s Facebook argument turns logic on it’s head. In high-pressure situations, with first responders in extreme danger, we can’t have amateur shooters firing weapons into the area of operations. Enough said on this point…this logic fails on it’s own merit.
The real rub is this; everything we hold dear aided James Holmes Interpretation of the Second Amendment guaranteed this Joker wanna-be the right and freedom to purchase a semi-automatic rifle, two Glock pistols, a shotgun, 6000 rounds of ammunition, body armor and military-grade smoke canisters in a period of a few months. Our capitalist system provided the market competition to get the products to him in an expedited fashion. Our love of civil liberties and reluctance to interfere in our neighbor’s affairs allowed his insanity to go unchecked. These factors trumped our common sense.
The only event lowering the potential scale of carnage reeked by this shooter was a simple twist of fate. The AR-15 semi-automatic weapon jammed. Whether because of an inferior product or a lack of training, we lucked out. Let’s not leave the number of victims to the fickle hands of fate anymore. Let’s use some common sense.
Be well, friends.
…I figured I’d leave the area, because I had no ties there anyway except for this girl I was seeing. We had conflicting attitudes: I really wasn’t into meditating and she wasn’t really into being alive.
Some Buddhists teach emotions and feelings are unwholesome. For them, the Holy Grail of Buddhism is to escape anguish, desire and pain by all means possible.
Instead of feeling empathy or passion they urge us to cultivate dispassionate compassion (unfeeling loving-kindness). Seems like drinking dry water while eating a vegetarian steak to me.
To be fair though, there actually was one week out of my life with no desires, no pain, no emotions. When I woke from the coma in the hospital, discovered I’d totaled my car and urgently needed pain medication, suffering returned. So much for perfect bliss.
I think Westerners, in general, find the idea of emotionless existence strange. The problem is probably in our use and definition of the words. Here’s how I see it.
Life without empathy or passion is just bland existence. Every song worth singing, piece of art worth viewing or book worth reading is created from passion and speaks to a shared experience. Without them, we’d listen to musical scales, hang graphs and charts on museum walls and read dictionaries. Can I have my coma back, please?
I’m convinced the problem is not empathy nor passion. Instead, the fault lies with the most fundamental Buddhist teaching; attachment. Identifying with or clinging to these mental states is the problem. The solution? Let go, detach.
When we identify with the object of our empathy, personal boundaries are obscured. We project our resolution onto the situation. We take the outcome personally. We own a situation not our’s. However, out of disinterested empathy, compassion and loving-kindness naturally arises.
Hanging onto our passion sets us up for disappointment, it’s intensity directly proportionate to the scale of our clinging. In the absence of the object of our passion, sorrow, anger and bitterness can cripple us. However, out of unassuming passion arises progress, innovation and empires.
Lao Tzu sums up the wise course of action:
Therefore the sage works without recognition.
He achieves what has to be done without dwelling on it.
from the Tao Te Ching chapter 77
To feel empathy is to be human; to express passion is to live. A wise attitude towards our emotions allows them to operate without owning the outcome. So seize the day…but know when to let go.
Zazen (Zen meditation) is practiced facing a blank wall. However, some use imagery conducive to a meditation. In zazen, visuals aren’t the focus but provide background noise. Choose scenes that whisper. Here’s an idea.
On this site, every Wednesday, we share a wallpaper. I incorporate these in my altar; with a miniature rock garden, candles and two statues. If I’m travelling, my laptop provides a zazen backdrop that feels routine.
Speaking of altars, the Shambhala Sun reports Pat Robertson counseled a viewer to destroy their friend’s Buddhist statue. The author of the article wondered;
“Who in hell does Pat Robertson think he is?… Who in hell does Pat Robertson think Buddhists are?”
As for Mr Robertson, my former pastor’s joke is informative;
“You can always tell a preacher…but you can’t tell him much.”
About his idea on Buddhists, he’s naive. It might surprise him to hear the Zen saying,
“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
When asked about gods, the afterlife or other religious dogmas, the Buddha refused to answer. He thought the questions unskillful. Basically, he said, “I teach one thing only; the cause of and cure for suffering. None of these inquiries furthers my teaching.”
His teaching, in short, was life is full of anguish. We experience dis-ease because we are attached; to persons, places, things and ideas. People leave, places change, things deteriorate, ideas aren’t always reality. Our grasping causes our discomfort. When we ‘let go’ of our belief ‘things must be so’ and accept ‘yes, and this also’, we eliminate suffering.
Pastor Robertson evidently thinks statues are ‘holy’ objects for Buddhists. Buddhist imagery displayed alongside Christian symbols irritates him. One wonders, which image is offending which?
From a Zen Buddhist perspective, two observations;
1. The pastor is attached to the idol of ‘no-image’. He’s railed against Christian idols, too. His attachment to ‘no-image’ worship has become his idol.
2. He could learn about teaching from the Buddha. Rooted in his own belief system, he could say, “I teach nothing but the consequences of and atonement for ‘sin’. Inquiries about statues do not further my teaching.”
We’ll keep posting soft, whispering wallpapers on Wednesdays. Use them unless you’re tempted to worship your laptop. And remember to turn off the display lest visiting friends watch The 700 Club. Laptops are expensive to replace.
Letting Go: Who Are You?
Caterpillar: Who… are… you?
Alice: Why, I hardly know, sir. I’ve changed so much since this morning, you see…
Caterpillar: No, I do not C, explain yourself.
Alice: I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, you see, because I’m not myself, you know.
Caterpillar: I do not know.
Alice: I can’t put it any more clearly, sir, because it isn’t clear to me.
from Alice in Wonderland
At ten years old I regularly sat cross legged in the woods, closed my eyes and asked myself “Who am I?” About my classmates, too, I asked “Who are they?” I’m not sure where I got the idea.
In any case, when ‘seeking’ my Self my body ‘dropped off’ and ‘I rose’ into my head. When looking at a friend, mentally erasing what I ‘knew’, their faces changed. They didn’t morph. It was like a changing perception of an optical illusion. The examples here are informative. I stopped when I had a terrifying feeling of disappearing. Recently I restarted my quest for Self. Here’s what I’ve discovered.
There is no stable, unchanging ‘me’. Who “I am” seems coherent because of a mental monologue; repeated, edited, censored, interpreted and embellished. At any time, this picture in the mind is simply a screenshot of one point in life. From these images we choose a set to define ourselves, depending on our mood and purpose.
We’re a projector, with different sets of slides at our disposal. Complicating things further, our interpretation of our various slide-shows is subjective. Bottom line; we do not have an unchanging identity. We are more a process than a thing.
Buckminster Fuller wrote;
“I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.”
Rather than “I am”, it seems “I amming”. So, what of this foolish talk?
The first bottle Alice encounters in Wonderland says “Drink me”. No description - not ‘what it is’; an action - what Alice ‘should do’. We, too, can actualize our ‘ammingness’. A previous post, here, touches on ‘living it’. Another post on this is due soon.
Basically, quiet the mind. Drop assumptions. Let go of the past and ‘fall in’, ‘give birth’ to every moment anew. To the extent we do this, we call our action “enlightened’.
I was born unreal. My father was in the military so although I was born in VA, I wasn’t a ‘real’ Virginian. It was the start of my destiny.
Children know the difference between real and unreal. The rules are simple; you agree or don’t agree. The former makes you a real friend, the latter, not so real. However children move between these two states at a dizzying pace. They haven’t been properly trained on how to carry a grudge. They’ll learn.
By junior high and high school kids are mastering this lifelong skill. That’s when I first found out how not real I was …not a real boy, at least. Anatomically. yes. But I had trouble staring at the floor in the locker room. And I was alway afriad my best friend’s girlfriend could see I was developing a crush on her guy.
In a gay bar, shortly after graduation, I found myself. But I was still too straight acting. I wasn’t gay enough. The rumor was “Don’t get involved with him. He’s not really gay.”
Where to turn when you’re not real? To God, of course. What could be more real? So I got saved, baptised, headed to Baptist Bible college and married. I threw my self into my studies. Having memorized entire chapters of the bible, weekends would find my street preaching, at the park or on a table at McDonalds quoting scripture.
Bible verse memorization was my downfall. It made me concentrate on what I was preaching. Those verses seemed contradictory and out of context. One night in the van heading back to the college I mentioned this to the other street preacher boys. The van fell silent. Eyes lit up in horror. A low, almost whispery voice said very slowly, “Brother, maybe you’re not a real Christian.”
When we left college my wife, two children and I moved to Florida. My career as a preacher was a distant memory. I took a job to support my family and hoped all would work out. Soon afterwards my wife left with our children to Pennnsylvania. She said I wasn’t a real husband. She was right. I never blamed her for leaving.
I met Bruce, my late life partner, while playing the piano at am LGBT church. While I played hymns, he grinned at me. I was smitten. We bought our house. The internet was new and AOL had a chatroom called “God Is A Myth”. I was online late into the nights. These atheists were pointing out the same questions I had once asked. I scoured the internet for “Historical Jesus” studies. I was learning quickly.
One night a participant boldly stated the Bible was made up fiction written by a Roman Emporer to subdue the population. I suggested it wasn’t that simple. The computer monitor lit up. I was not a real atheist but a Christian apologist in sheep’s clothing. By now I knew the drill.
Her mother and I agreed to move my daughter to Florida because she was having problems in school. She was in the eighth grade. Any parent knows when you taxi your kids to malls, movies and rollerskating you’re the best parent ever. When every other parent globally buys this weeks $200.00 dress for their daughter but you balk, knowing she will die without it, you become a not real parent. You get used to the cycles. Christmas, birthdays, back-to-school and summer vactions parents spend being unreal.
Her second year of high President Bush was running for a second term. The Repulican strategists ran on promises Bruce and I would remain a not real couple. The war in Iraq was dragging on. I joined MoveOn, organized peace protests and worked for John Kerry’s campaign. Yes, I became a not-real Americqan.
My group joined forces with other not real Americans to plot the destruction of the Amuhrican people and the nucular bomb program in Iran. But soon there were whispers; some of our group were not-real progressives. I had dejavu. It wasn’t long I fell afoul of some groups members and I joined the ranks of not real progressive.
I took up the practice of zazen. It was a helpful balance to my un-realness. Bruce went into hospice at our home and I stopped to care for him. I took it back up after I started this blog. It helps me deal with both Bruce’s and my daughter’s untimely deaths. Recently I discovered I am not a real Buddhist. Yeah, you’d think I’d learn. But I disagreed with someone. Old habits are hard to break.
So I thought why not start a group for unreals. We’d have membership requirements and by-laws and….hmmm. What if I disagree with someone there? Will I become a not real, not real? Will that make me real? If I’m real because I disagree with unreals, am I really real?
There’s a koan here somewhere but I bet we won’t agree on the answer.
How Not to Handle a Problem
Life always has surprises, doesn’t it? Wednesday was a case in point. Let me explain.
I subscribe to an RSS feed of an aggregate Zen site. I’ve enjoyed the style and insights of various bloggers there.
Wednesday one of the bloggers wrote this post, “my nigger and yours”, to this aggregate site. The author of the post meant no harm. Nevertheless I was put off by the repeated use of a racially charged epitaph. At first, I unsubscribed from the site. Later, I thought that a knee jerk reaction. I left a comment on the bloggers personal page. At the link above, you can read my objections and the response by the author. My reason for posting my disapproval was this:
In business we are taught for every complaint we get there are 100 people who don’t say anything. They simply don’t use your service anymore. Blessed is the businessman who hears about it.
This reasoning led me to the contact person of the collective site, too. After all, it was his site I’d left. The message was simple. “Have you seen this post (site url)? It doesn’t reflect well on your page. That’s all.”
The site owner urged me to take it up with the author as he wasn’t in the business of censorship. Informed that I was taking it up with the writer and notified him simply because it was his site’s RSS from which I had unsubscribed, he sent the following response:
If you subscribe or unsubscribe, it makes no difference to me. I have no idea how many people use the site and, frankly, don’t really care. It is a free resource to aggregate content by other people. If you don’t appreciate it, don’t use it.
You’re getting your dander up about something one person wrote and, when he ignores you, attempting to have me censor him. I’d say that reflects more poorly on you than the site. I’m not in the business of judging the merits of someone’s post and having a bunch of white guys arguing about the use of the word ‘nigger’ is pointless.
The author had not ignored me. He’d already answered on his site. My response was;
Sorry to bother you. If it were me, I’d like to have feedback on my site. I extended you the courtesy I would like to have myself.
Within seconds this came in:
That’s great, David. Your grand statement will be noticed by all. Have a nice life. No need to write me ever again.
Second lesson one learns in business. If you can resolve an issue with an unhappy customer to their satisfaction. you gain an even more loyal client. Third lesson; most of the time the best response is simply to listen to the complaint. Here’s the rub.
I’ve now subscribed directly to the blog with the article that offended me. He handled the situation with poise and to my satisfaction. I’ll also subscribe directly to some bloggers on the composite site. And, as a favor to the aggregate site, I’ll steer clear of anything that involves him.
There is a lesson here for anyone who deals with people. He who has ears, let him hear
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous….Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
New RSV: Mt 5:43-48
Be at one with the dust of the Earth.
This is primal union.
He who has achieved this state
Is unconcerned with friends and enemies,
With good and harm, with honor and disgrace.
This therefore is the highest state of man.
from Lao Tsu ch.56
Jesus’ quote above is from the Beatitudes, commonly known as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, in the New Testament gospel of Matthew written in the 1st century CE (common era). Under it is a section from chapter 56 of the Tao Te Ching (pronounced dow-duh-jing); a book of 81 chapters purportedly written by Lao Tsu around the 6th century BCE (before common era). The Bible and the Tao Te Ching are the two most printed books in history, respectively.
Both sages’ teach non-discrimination. This is not our ordinary understanding of ‘tolerance’. What Lao Tzu and Jesus are advocating is we treat our worst enemy exactly as we would treat our best friend. Their’s is a radically different approach - no distinction whatsoever.
For Lao Tsu, the cosmos is also our example. Taoism (pronounced dow-ism) is earth centered. The Taoist works with the cycles of his surroundings. Lao Tzu’s ‘highest state of man’ is our ‘primal union’ with ‘the dust of the earth. When we have achieved this we, like our planet, will have no preference between ”friends and enemies’, ‘good and harm’, ‘honor and disgrace’.
How subversive. Such behavior is revolutionary. Can we…?