Confidence, Patience and Courage

The title of the 7th chapter in Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara (“Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”) is Virya-paramita. As it is used here, paramita means perfection or completion, referring to the progressive stages of practice that allow one to cross over the sea of suffering to the other shore of nirvana. Virya is often translated as energy, zeal, enthusiasm, or strength, while the Tibetan rendering of this Sanskrit word corresponds with “heroic perseverance.”

Buddha001dAll of these meanings are relevant to Shantideva’s message in this chapter, however I am partial to the last two because I feel that one of the prime points he makes is about the strength or courage it takes to ‘hang tough’ through life’s challenges. One translation of the opening verse reads, “Thus with patience I will bravely persevere.”

Patience is an adjunct to courage, as is confidence. The word that matches confidence here is mana, usually translated as pride. It also means arrogance and conceit. Shantideva discusses both the negative and positive aspects of the word, so in the constructive sense, confidence seems more appropriate.

Confidence is trusting the path, a determination to persevere through whatever challenges we may face, and having conviction about the benefits of the altruistic way. It is also self-confidence – not our ego but our self worth, and confidence about the preciousness of all life.

In verse 49 of the 7th chapter, Shantideva says ,

Self-confidence should be applied to virtuous actions, delusions and my ability to overcome them. ‘I alone should do it’ expresses self-confidence with regard to action.”

“I alone should do it” means looking within to ‘see’ your Buddha-nature and trusting yourself, and not relying of things outside of your own life. Believing in our own potential is how Shantideva says that we gain confidence to overcome problems.

Showdown at Boulder Pass

But all I could see was a cactus tree
And a prairie dog playing there
I watched the prairie dog feed on the tumbleweed
That’s his home, way out there

– Bob Nolan for Sons Of The Pioneers

Naropa, the Buddhist university in Boulder Colorado founded by Chogyam Trungpa has had a problem with prairie dogs on its campus for some years now. They say they’ve counted at least 250 of them. I am not sure exactly what the problem is but I’m guessing the cute little critters dig a lot of holes. Anyway, Naropa officials claim they have spent close to $100,000 trying to relocate them. The city and county of Boulder has set aside 2,000 acres for prairie dog habitat, but evidently its full up and there are no vacancies.

DPD2bThe school has applied for a lethal control permit to kill the prairie dogs. After the inevitable outrage over that proposed action erupted, school officials stated they actually have no intention of bumping off the animals, they only got the permit to raise awareness about the issue. That seems a weird approach to me. Maybe it is an example of that crazy wisdom Trungpa was known for.

WildLands Defense spokeswoman Deanna Meyer is leading the anti-prairie dog massacre protest. She told a online news outlet, the Daily Caller, “It is a Buddhist university and the fact that a Buddhist university would even apply for a lethal application for prairie dogs is totally against any Buddhist concepts,” she told the newspaper. Good point.

There’s an online petition to sign. I’m not too fond of the title, but I’m even less fond of exterminating prairie dogs.

Prairie dogs are considered a “keystone” species. That’s an animal that plays a crucial role in a ecosystem. Prairie dog colonies provide safe space for habitats that benefit nearly 150 other species. They are an essential part of our prairies, one of our most endangered ecosystems. Prairie dogs also help aerate and fertilize the soil, which allows a greater diversity of plants to flourish.

What’s more, prairie dogs are part of our heritage, part of the lore of the Old West. Take, for example, this song sung around a campfire by the Sons of the Pioneers. Note that one of those guitar pickers and singers is Roy Rogers, future King of the Cowboys. Lyrics after the video.

A lonely spot, I know where no man will go
Where the shadows have all the room
I was ridin’ free on the old SP
Humming a southern tune

When a man came along made me hush my song
Kicked me off, way out there
As she pulled out of sight I turned to the right
A left and everywhere

But all I could see was a cactus tree
And a prairie dog playing there
I watched the prairie dog feed on the tumbleweed
That’s his home, way out there

So I threw down my load in the desert road
Rested my weary legs too
I watched the sinking sun, make the tall shadows run
Out across that barren plain

Then I hummed a tune to the risin’ moon
He gets lonesome way out there
So I closed my eyes to the starlit skies
And lost myself in dreams

I dreamed the desert sand was a milk and honey land
Then I awoke with a start
There the train comin’ back on that one way track
Gonna take me away from here

As she was passin’ by, I caught her on the fly
I climbed in an open door
Then I turned around to that desert ground
Saw the spot I would see no more

As I was ridin’ away
I heard the pale moon say
Farewell pal
It sure gets lonesome here

Neuroscience and The Circle Time Parade of Changes

Dogen, the 13th century Zen master, said, “Impermanence is a fact before our eyes.” All things in the universe are a temporary combination of elements and they are transitory, constantly changing. Because of impermanence (anicca), and interdependence, Buddhism says there is no inherently existent self (anatman), a soul or own-being (svabhava) that is independent and permanent.

With regard to the mind, we see that thoughts come and go; they are neither stable nor lasting. As far as the body is concerned, it is obvious that it changes with time and many other factors, for these changes are most definately before our eyes.  It is irrational then to stand upon notions such as “I, Me, Mine” for it is so difficult to determine what “I” or “Me” is, or what can be “Mine”, belong to something that in the ultimate sense is an illusion.

Beyond what is obvious, or theoretical, there is scientific evidence which shows that the body-mind is ever changing.

An academic journal, CellPress, published a new research paper that found as people change, their brain undergoes physical changes and that there is no one location in the brain that is responsible for the ability to change what we call our ‘self’.

The paper says,

Scientific research highlights the central role of specific psychological processes, in particular those related to the self, in various forms of human suffering and flourishing. This view is shared by Buddhism and other contemplative and humanistic traditions, which have developed meditation practices to regulate these processes.”

The digital news outlet, Quartz, reporting on the new paper noted,

Neuroscience and Buddhism came to these ideas independently, but some scientific researchers have recently started to reference and draw on the Eastern religion in their work—and have come to accept theories that were first posited by Buddhist monks thousands of years ago.”

Some readers will find the paper interesting, particularly since it focuses a great deal on Buddhist meditation.

As all things are changing, they are ultimately unreal, including our own minds and bodies. The Buddha taught impermanence to awaken people to the folly of seizing and clinging to transient things, the root of human suffering.

Green leaves of summer turn red in the fall
To brown and to yellow, they fade
And then they have to die
Trapped within the circle time parade of changes

Phil Ochs, Changes

The Silence of the Undisturbed Mind

You might have read that about fourteen days ago Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh spoke for the first time since suffering a stroke in November 2014. According to Plum Village, his community of practitioners in France, among his very first words were, “In, out; happy; thank you.”

As difficult as this time certainly must have been for Thay, as his followers call him, I am confident that he viewed his suffering as an opportunity to deepen his practice and further refine the art of ‘deep listening.’ When you cannot speak, what else is there but to listen?

In Buddhist terms, being silent has a deeper level of meaning than merely the absence of sound or a state where one does not talk. In his recent book, Silence, Thay writes,

TNH0921b2When we release our ideas, thoughts, and concepts, we make space for our true mind. Our true mind is silent of all words and all notions, and is so much vaster than limited mental constructs. Only when the ocean is calm and quiet can we see the moon reflected in it.

Silence is ultimately something that comes from the heart, not from any set of conditions outside us. Living from a place of silence doesn’t mean never talking, never engaging or doing things; it simply means that we are not disturbed inside; there isn’t constant internal chatter. If we’re truly silent, then no matter what situation we find ourselves in, we can enjoy the sweet spaciousness of silence.”

It is the action of thought that moves us from silence to disturbance. Another word we could use for silence is quiescence, which indicates tranquility, being at rest. According to Buddhist teachings, when our mind is quiescent, our thoughts are not disturbed and our actions will not disturb others.

This means to look within ourselves and harmonize with the essence of life. When our mind constantly looks outward, this can cause it to be distracted and unsettled.

In the Hsin Hsin Ming (“Trust in Mind Inscription”) Seng-ts’an wrote,

When the mind abides undisturbed in the Way,
there is nothing that can offend,
and when  things no longer offend,
they ceases to exist in the old way.   

The Purple Sky

Today is the birthday of two of my favorite poets: William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) and Hank Williams (1923-1953). They shared the same last name, but as far as I know, were not related. William Carlos Williams was one of the most respected and innovative American poets of the Twentieth Century, and Hank Williams was the legendary singer-songwriter who remains one of the most important country music artists of all time.

I imagine there are still some academics out there who are resistant to the idea of songwriters being designated as poets, but everyone else seems to have gotten past that prejudice. In my opinion, Hank Sr. was not only a great poet but he and WCW had much in common, in terms of writing that is. Take this comparison:

WCW-1bFirst, from W.C. Williams’ “A Love Song”

The stain of love
Is upon the world.
Yellow, yellow, yellow,
It eats into the leaves,
Smears with saffron
The horned branches that lean
Against a smooth purple sky.

Now, Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”

HW-2bHear that lonesome whippoorwill?
He sounds too blue to fly.
The midnight train is whining low:
I’m so lonesome I could cry.
The silence of a falling star,
Lights up a purple sky.
And as I wonder where you are,
I’m so lonesome I could cry.

The similarities of these examples go beyond the use of “purple sky”; here are two men, each alone, thinking of a loved one whom they are separated from by distance and emotion, and both are beset with doubt and a touch of hopelessness. The imagery of a train “whining low” and the “silence” of the purple sky are powerful and evocative. A few lines on in his poem, the William Carlos Williams wonders “How can I tell if I shall ever love you again as I do now?” while Hank Williams wonders “where you are” and if he will ever meet and love her again.

Both poets used a simple style. One was by choice, through experimentation, and the other by the demands of the songwriting craft and the musical genre in which he labored. It’s doubtful Hank Williams had any idea that he was writing poetry or that his songs would last. “He had the ability to write lyrics that the average person could emotionally relate to,” said Capitol Records producer Ken Nelson.1 “He had the ability to write music that the average unmusical person could understand and yet was not trite. His songs were accepted in the pop field because they were realistic, and they were melodically and lyrically understandable to everyone.”

Fred Rose is credited as co-writer on many of Hank Williams’ songs.  Rose was a songwriter but he was also a music publisher and attached his name to the work of quite a few songwriters so that he could share in the royalties. He may have helped Hank polish some of his tunes but the artistry and sincerity that shines through them is straight from Hank.

William Carlos Williams said that with his poetry he was trying to find something like “the natural and subtly varying rhythms of the spoken voice, based on the natural rhythms of breathing . . .”,2 what poet Stephen Tapscott called “some poems of natural speech,”3 the natural rhythms of American English.

In their personal lives, the men could not be more different. Williams Carlos Williams lived a rather conventional life as a married country doctor in Patterson, New Jersey. As for Hank Williams, his life was a rather dissipated affair, he was the epitome of a person who lived fast and died young, passing away at the age of 29, in the back seat of a car while traveling to a New Years Day music gig, of heart failure brought on by excessive abuse of alcohol and pills.

I have shared W.C. Williams’ poetry before (here). His poems are often just snapshots of moments in time, scenes that come and go in the blink of an eye. In this poem, I can easily picture Hank as the subject:


Desperate young man
with haggard face
and flapping pants –

As best they can
under the street lights
the shadows are

wrapping you about –
in your fatigue
and isolation, in all

the beauty of your
commonplace against
the incestuous

and leaning stars –

Very many of Hank Williams songs were rather desolate ballads about lost love.  This tune, which you have likely heard hundreds of times, is more upbeat.  It is tight, and despite all the double entendres, the simple compact imagery faithfully adheres to William Carlos Williams’ famous maxim “no ideas but in things.” I don’t  imagine, though, that Hank knew much, if anything, about WCW.  The song is a little bit country, and a lot of bit rock and roll:


Say hey, good lookin’ – what ya got cookin’?
How’s about cooking somethin’ up with me?
Hey, sweet baby – don’t you think maybe
We can find us a brand new recipe?

I got a hot rod Ford, and a two dollar bill
And I know a spot right over the hill
There’s soda pop and the dancing’s free
So if you wanna have fun, come along with me

I’m free and ready, so we can go steady.
How’s about saving all your time for me?
No more lookin’ – I know I been cookin’
Hows about keepin’ steady company?

I’m gonna throw my date book over the fence
And buy me one for five or ten cents
I’ll keep it till it’s covered with age
Cause I’m writin’ your name down on every page

Say hey, good lookin’ – what ya got cookin’?
How’s about cooking somethin’ up with me?


– – – – – – – – – –

1. Roger M. Williams, Sing A Sad Song The Life of Hank Williams, Ballantine Books, 1973, 105-106

2. Eberhart, Richard, “The Speaking Voice and Direct Wisdom”, Saturday Review, Feb 18, 1956, 49.

3. Terence Diggory, William Carlos Williams and the Ethics of Painting, Princeton University Press, 2014, 87

“The Halfworld” from The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume 1; Volumes 1909-1939, New Directions Publishing, 1991