Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thoughts: Two Faces of Desire

A common question for students of the Buddhadharma is the following:  If desire is the source of suffering and is to be rooted out, what about the desire to be awakened to the true nature of reality without which one will not perservere in the practice?  What about bodhicitta, that praised desire to be liberated and to liberate all beings?

Desire is an unavoidable part of being a human being.  It may be the source of our suffering, but it is also the source of our liberation.  It seems to me to be a tool capable of enslaving or liberating.

The place of desire in practice is a serious inquiry.  It is serious because in spiritual practice, no less than in any other field of human endeavor, desire can enslave us.  One can easily become attached to externalities in spiritual practice and seek "things" in the hope that they will free us from suffering.  For example, there is the confusion that comes from seeing liberation as something to be obtained from another, from "out there" rather than something already present within.  And there are a related set of competitive behaviors: ambition for advancement, desire to be recognized for one's level of spiritual "achievement", wanting to be close to the paramount teacher,even to be the paramount teacher.  This is enslaving desire at its most ordinary; in Chogam Trungpa's words, "spiritual materialism".

Yet absent some drive, some desire, one will not enter and continue spiritual practice.  It is hard and often frustrating work.  To stay with it requires that one look beyond this moment toward something that is not seen as present, toward a different state of affairs, and to deeply want to attain it.  How do we differentiate between healthy and unhealthy desire within ourselves and others?

I recently came upon something written by Zoketsu Norman Fischer that I think is helpful in probing the distinction.  Fischer is a respected Zen teacher, a former co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, and a writer and poet.  In an article in Tricycle, he draws distinction between "imagination" and "fantasy".
Imagination draws its energy from a confrontation with desire. It feeds off desire, transmuting and magnifying reality through desire's power. Fantasy does the opposite; it avoids desire by fleeing into a crude sort of wish-fulfillment that seems much safer. Fantasy might be teddy bears, lollipops, sexual delights, or superhero adventures; it also might be voices in one's head urging acts of outrage and mayhem. Or it might be the confused world of separation and fear we routinely live in, a threatening yet seductive world that promises us the happiness we seek when our fantasies finally become real. Imagination confronts desire directly, in all its discomfort and intensity, deepening the world right where we are. Fantasy and reality are opposing forces, but imagination and reality are not in opposition: Imagination goes toward reality, shapes and evokes it.
I find resonance in this distinction between imagination and fantasy, which Fischer characterizes as the difference between energetically turning toward rather than away from reality.  It touches on a truth about desire's place.  A spiritual seeker is on the right path when desire for a condition of mind other than what is present is channeled toward penetrating what is actually present, and off the path when that desire is channeled toward creating what is not present.  It seems to me that the element that differentiates these, the element that is implicitly assumed by Fischer, is wisdom, insight into the nature of reality and our participation in it.  In Fischer's words, imagination is desire engaged with a reality seen with clarity; fantasy is desire engaged with a reality seen through delusion.  For me, desire partnered with wisdom, with clear seeing, is the path to being awake.

How to see that distinction in our practice?  A useful question to ask ourselves regularly is, "Am I bringing to my spiritual practice the same worldview, the same perspective on self and other, that I bring to everything else in my life, or am I assuming a radically different perspective on myself and my relation to reality?"  If the answer is the former, we are likely engaged in practicing fantasy in our spiritual lives just as we do in the rest of our lives, simply deepening the neuronal pathways that made us masters of that which is ultimately insignificant, that which gave rise to our impulse to seek for something else.  If the latter, we are more likely on the path, deploying desire as a goad to laying down new pathways, fresh ways of seeing that will liberate us.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Books of Interest: Andrew Olendzki, "Unlimiting Mind--the Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism"

Let me start out with simple statement about this book.  I have read it twice in the past two weeks.  It struck me as precisely where I need to go a this time.  I suspect that many new and old students of Buddhism, who find themselves occasionally lost in the vagaries of "Buddha Nature", "the Unborn", the "True Self", "Buddha Mind", "the Source", and "Enlightenment" would find this book a helpful return to the very concrete phenomenological observations that are Buddha's original insights into human psychology and the sources of suffering.  Any student of Buddhism should be intimately familiar with these elemental psychological insights.  It is upon these experiential groundings that all of Buddhism's various traditions erect their scaffoldings, and it is upon them that each of us builds our personal practice.

Andrew Olendzki, who has a doctorate in Buddhist Studies, served as executive director of the Insight Meditation Society and studied in the Theravadan tradition in Sri Lanka.  Through a series of short essays collected together under such topics as "Constructing Reality", "The Practice", "Self and Non-Self", "Karma", and "The Bigger Picture", Olendzki takes us through Buddhist psychology in a way that is very accessible while rooted in his scholarly study of the Pali texts.  He addresses Buddhist psychology both from a theoretical perspective, which touches on such details as the Pali Abhidhamma's minute dissection of the mind's contact with phenomena, as well as from the very practical perspective of one who is seeking relief from suffering both on and off the cushion.

For me, these essays evoke the hopefulness that comes from a deep appreciation of Buddha's psychological insights.  His observation that what we refer to as the "self" is plastic because it is recreated in each moment's contact with reality, and his teaching that the tools for shaping who we as a psychological being will be in the next moment are readily available to us, are the foundation of all Buddhist practice.  To reduce our suffering subjectivity, we need only undertake the simple but hard work of holding a firm intention to follow Buddha's instructions on how to be mindful, and to practice sharpening our ability to see clearly each moment as it arises into the instrument of our own liberation.

Olendzki walks us through Buddha's early teachings in a way that is readily accessible and intuitively persuasive.  Regular resort to these foundational psychological insights would be one of my prescriptions for a solid structure of practice.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Books of Interest: Steven Hagen, "Buddhism Is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs"

I was drawn to this book after reading "Meditation: Now or Never".  I have enjoyed Hagen's suscinct language and his direct teaching.  No soaring language or arcane terminology.  This is an unusually direct book about practice, about Zen practice, about how to be with reality in this moment, this reality, not the past or future or what we wish it was or wasn't.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who is serious about Zen practice.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Book to read: Mark Epstein, "Thoughts Without a Thinker"


At the Tuesday night class, I suggested we pick another book.  One nomination was Mark Epstein's book, "Thoughts Without a Thinker".  The book holds a special place for me as the first Buddhist book that really made me interested in Buddhism--not just sitting meditation, but Buddhism.  It was given to me by a therapist during the period following my first wife's death, when I had begun sitting but had not really delved into the roots of meditation beyond reading Jon Kabat Zinn's "Full Catastrophe Living."  I liked the book very much and re-read it several times and bought copies for friends.  Epstein is a Freudian psychoanalyst in New York and a follower of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  The book nicely presents Buddhist psychological insights.

Let's plan on discussing it a month from November 9th.



Two Weekends, Two Perspectives on A Lawyer's Mind

Well, I've traveled quite a distance physically and psychically the past ten days.  Although this is not a lawyer's blog, today it is.  I need to make it one to bring together two perspectives from two weekends .

I wrote earlier about last weekend and the Mindful Lawyer conference in Berkeley, California.  There, over 180 lawyers and others interested in the benefits of contemplative practices for lawyers gathered.  There, I had a lovely but rare feeling of being held as both a lawyer and a dharma student by the assembled lawyers.  This weekend, the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers in Washington, D.C., an invitation-only organization of lawyers specializing in appearing before appellate courts, gathered over 120 lawyers for their 20th anniversary meeting.  All very experienced and very expert in our chosen line of work--persuading appellate judges and dealing in subtle nuances of constitutional, statutory, and common law and policy.  Because we were in Washington, where the pinnacle of the American judiciary labors, our meetings concentrated on the U.S. Supreme Court.  Panels of populated by the cream of the Washington, D.C. Supreme Court bar presented on the personal characteristics and legal views of the four newest members of the Supreme Court. The presenters knew the justices personally and for many years.  They were skilled speakers, making both the subjects viewed (the justices) and the lens through which they were seen (the presenters) equally fascinating to the audience of advocates.  To cap it off, Monday we all went to the U.S. Supreme Court and watched oral argument, listening to some of the same people who had presented to us. In the evening, we had a formal dinner in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court.  For an American lawyer, it was a visit to an almost holy spot.

For me personally, it was even more intense.  In 1969, after graduating from law school in Utah, I had the great good fortune to drive to Washington in a beat up Volkswagen and to enter that building as a law clerk to newly appointed Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.  The transition from one who had not met a lawyer until I entered law school to working for the Chief Justice at the Supreme Court three years later could not have been more dramatic for me personally. Revisiting the building and again watching arguments was a very intense experience.  And all weekend, as I continually shifted perspectives on myself, on the place, and on the events, I was made profoundly aware of how thoroughly we co-create our reality, how the perspective we take dictates what we see, and how fully the universe shows us precisely what we ask to see.  Our map is not separate from the terrain it guides us over.  Change maps, and mountains are seen as plains, oceans deserts.

Last weekend in Berkeley I felt welcomed as a complete person, albeit one who was distressed often by how the lawyer's role truncates my reality, diminishes my ability to acknowledge all that is going on in my reality.  This weekend, I felt welcomed and in ways deeply nourished by a gathering of people who excelled in occupying a lawyer's role.  I was welcomed not because I was a dharma practitioner, someone trying to be a human who is a lawyer, but as a lawyer first and foremost, there because of what I have done, what I have achieved.  This gathering of lawyers was about being a sharp, accomplished legal instrument, about being a member of an elite.

While sitting in the meetings, and occupying the role that I felt called to, I noted the force of that call.  Being with accomplished people who are prized, and prize, their intelligence and honed skills, I felt a strong tendency to be seduced by that role, to see myself as that role, rather than it simply being one of many roles I occupy, one of many perspectives on reality, none of which provide me complete certainly or refuge.  Watching myself and others in that context, it seemed that while all present understand many subtle things important to manipulating the law and its reality for our clients, and most are richly rewarded for our accomplishments, on another level those accomplishments and skills do not result in the world responding in the way that we perhaps unconsciously anticipated it would when we set ourselves on this course years ago.  We have become good tools for others, but not for our own larger ends.

Comparing the two weekends, one where lawyers spoke of their neglected interiors, and the other where they manifested only their command of exteriors, I was even more deeply convinced that those who occupy powerful roles--in this case lawyers--are almost inevitably the victims of those roles.  The reality that those roles co-create is so seductive, so powerful and compelling, that freeing oneself from that particular reality is a huge challenge, but one I think must be undertaken both for us personally and for the benefit of the law and our society in the long run.  Lawyers, like anyone in a powerful role, implicitly assume that that skills that have brought them that power should be the skills with which all life's questions can be addressed. Yet precisely the opposite is true.  Only by dropping our most cherished roles, our most cherished perspectives on reality, can we hope to see reality whole and our relationship to and inseparability from it.  There is work to do here.

Two weekends, two perspectives.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Mindful Lawyer conference--Tuesday night class for November 2d

I just returned from a Mindful Lawyer conference at the University of California's Boalt Hall law school in Berkeley.  This is a conference that has been years in the making under the leadership of Charles Halpern, founding dean of the CUNY law school.  Originally to host 150 lawyers, judges, and academics to consider how mindfulness practices--contemplation--can improve the lives of lawyers and the law, it swelled to 185 with about 50 in waiting.  A great event.  For me, it was one of the few times that as a lawyer and a Zen practitioner, and a human being, I felt completely at home in one place.  Usually, only one or two of me is embraced by any particular community.  It was a great chance to network with others of similar inclination.  Ground was laid for the possibility of putting together workshops on contemplative practice for lawyers taught by lawyers.  I suspect few of us knew how many other dharma teachers there are who are also lawyers.  I find the prospect exciting.  Given the power of the profession in our society, teaching lawyers to honor the whole person and that this actually enhances their ability to serve themselves, their clients, and society would be a great service.  I hope I have the opportunity to play a role.

Tonight we will be discussing "Buddha's Brain" in our group.  Bring your questions, and your insights.

And please, vote before you come.  Before you vote, remember that each day we awake with two parts of ourselves available -- as Rick Hansen wrote, the Wolf of Love and the Wolf of Hate.  We have a choice which one we will feed, which one will grow stronger that day.  Feed the Wolf of Love before you vote.  The Wolf of Hate is getting plenty to eat these days.