The Homelessness of Thoughts

Some years ago while participating in a campaign to raise funds for homeless people around the world, the Dalai Lama said, “On some level, I am also homeless.”

He was most likely referring to the fact that he is exiled from his home, but the statement can be taken another way because on some level, we are all homeless.

07192016The Buddha and his followers were part of the Indian tradition of parivrajakas, or “homeless ones,” men who had “gone forth” from householder life.  To use an old expression, they had “dropped out” of society, rejecting not only homes, but kinship, class, and even their clothes, casting aside usual garments for old clothes and rags.

The bhikkhu’s homelessness, however, is symbolic of a greater homelessness, that of life itself.  As everything in this world will eventfully decay and disappear, there is no real home for anything in this life, no permanent home in any case. According to the Buddha, the same applies to thoughts

In the Ratnacuda Sutra, the Buddha says,

Thought is formless, unseen, not solid, unknowable, unstable, homeless.  Thought was never seen by any of the Buddhas.  They do not see it, they will not see it; and what has never been seen by the Buddhas, what they do not see and will never see, what kind of a process can that have, unless things exist by a false conception?  Thought is like illusion, and by forming what is not comprehends all sorts of events. . . .”

Wandering through realms of consciousness like a refugee, thought looks for a home.  Thought thinks that perhaps by clinging to this or to that, it can find one.  Thought forms attachments with name and form, with concepts such as “is” and “is not,” “self” and “other,” “me” and “mine,” and with emotions like envy, pride, and desire.  Thought forms these attachments in hopes of finding a home.  Thought wants to own a home.

However, ownership has its burden.  It is easy to become a slave to things owned, and a passage from another sutra encourages us to strive to become the master of our mind, rather than let our mind master us. Moreover, since nothing can last, ownership is really an illusion.  Nothing that is unreal can be a home, and in this way, there is no way to avoid being homeless.

To put an end to thought’s endless search for a home, we train our mind.  We train ourselves, to think differently. This is one of the chief benefits of meditation, the way mindfulness helps us bring the mind into contentment and cease its relentless searching for itself.  Through practice, we discover the true nature of thought:

During his meditation, a [practitioner] will find that not even one of the thoughts arising in the mind stays for an instant . . . [He or she] will find that the past mind has gone, the present mind does not stay, and the future mind has not yet come. [The practitioner] will discover that it cannot be found anywhere after an exhaustive search of it in the three times. As it cannot be found, it follows that it is non-existent and that all things (dharma) are so as well.

T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i

We, and our thoughts, are homeless because we are searching for a home that doesn’t exist, a home that we can never own.  But when we let go of that, we realize that we’ve always been home, that home is all around us.  We might call it the “abiding in the home of no-home.” When we open the front door and step in, we are home in the homelessness of Buddha-dharma.

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This is an edited version of a post published in 2012.

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Long Hot Summer: First Level of Intensity

1967, the Summer of Love in San Francisco: groovy music, free love, peace and harmony, Be-In’s, Love-In’s, gentle people, and if you went there, you wanted to be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

But for folks in other cities across America, the summer of 1967 was the “long hot summer” of violence and civil unrest, the summer of riots in Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Tampa, Birmingham, Chicago, New York, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Britain, Rochester, Plainfield, and in Newark.

Newark was the most intense.  Six days of rioting, looting, and destruction that left 26 dead, 750 injured and over 1,000 were jailed.  Mostly African-Americans.  Property damage amounted to more than $10 million.

The background to the Newark riots according to Wikipedia: “In the period leading up to the riots, police racial profiling, redlining, and lack of opportunity in education, training, and jobs led local African-American residents to feel powerless and disenfranchised. In particular, many felt they had been largely excluded from meaningful political representation and often suffered police brutality.”

lyndon-johnsonOn July 29, President Lyndon Johnson appointed a special commission to study the increase in American violence.  The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders was chaired by Otto Kerner, Governor of Illinois, and included such people as John Lindsay, Mayor of New York, and Roy Wilkins, Executive Director of the NAACP.  The commission was directed to answer three questions: What happened?  Why did it happen?  What can be done to prevent it from happening again?

[Photo: LBJ speaks at the advisory commission’s first meeting on July 29, 1967 at the White House,Time.com]

I got a copy of the report shortly after it was published in paperback by Bantam Books.  483 pages.  In his Introduction, Tom Wickers of the New York Times wrote, “This report is a picture of one nation, divided.”  The Commission stated in its introduction, “This is our basic conclusion: One nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

A section in Chapter Two, “Patterns of Disorder,” reads:

“In almost all the cities surveyed, we found the same major grievance topics among Negro communities – although they varied in importance from city to city.  The deepest grievances can be ranked into the following three levels of relative intensity:

First Level of Intensity:

  1. Police practices
  2. Unemployment and underemployment
  3. Inadequate housing”

book-civil-disordersFrom their investigation of the first grievance, the Commission concluded:

“Police practices were, in some form, a significant grievance in virtually all cities and were often one of the most serious complaints.  Included in this category were complaints about physical or verbal abuse of Negro citizens by police officers, the lack of adequate channels for complaints against police, discriminatory police employment and promotional practices, a general lack of respect for Negroes by police officers, and the failure of police departments to provide adequate protection for Negroes.”

The Commission devoted 200 pages of the report to the question “What can be done?”  Too much to discuss here, but what is clear is that in the 49 intervening years since the report was issued, there is more to do.  Police employment practices have improved, some inequalities have been rectified, yet many of the other issues persist.

In this report, the energy of intensity decreases as the levels graduate to higher numbers. The First Level of intensity is like DEFCOM 1, nuclear war imminent.

2016, another long hot summer: more violence against African-Americans, more deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers, and five police who were protecting peaceful protesters at a Black Lives Matter march assassinated.

Kai Wright in The Nation writes, the Dallas ambush is “a reminder that no life will be safe and truly valued until we also confront the broader American culture of violence.”

There is no question that every day police officers around the country put their lives at risk.  We should be grateful for their selfless service and praise their courage.  But  police violence, the excessive use of deadly force, is a serious problem, and no one should try to deny it.  Just as protestors and perpetrators are held accountable for their actions when they cross the line, so too must police be held accountable. Independent investigations and prosecutions can be a deterrent.

And it’s not just police. I’m sure many of you feel as I do, that violence permeates too many aspects of American culture.

Anyway, I thought it was worthwhile to point out the parallels between 1967 and 2016.  Maybe even necessary.  Of course, ’67 wasn’t the only long hot summer, and this stuff didn’t just start in the sixties.  I think we are still divided.  We have further to go, and we will always have further to go.

However, in the immediacy of the present moment, we need some change.

On July 29, 1967, that day when President Johnson issued Executive Order 11365 establishing the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, the #1 song in the nation was The Doors’ “Light my Fire”:

The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
And our love become a funeral pyre

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Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Bantam Books, March 1968

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Nagarjuna’s Golden Bowl

Evidently, there was a Tibetan guru, an alchemist and tantric master, named Nagarjuna who lived during the 7th century.  This Nagarjuna and the legends surrounding him were mixed up with the earlier Nagarjuna (c. 250), known as the “second Buddha,” the founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy.

There is a story about how one of these two Nagarjunas, who was also a metallurgist, turned an iron begging bowl into gold bowl.

bowlOne day, as he was taking a meal, Nagarjuna saw a thief passing by his open door.  The thief noticed the golden bowl and wanted to steal it.

But Nagarjuna saw into the thief’s heart, and to save time, he went outside and gave him the bowl, encouraging the man to go ahead and take it.

The next day, the thief returned and handed the bowl back to Nagarjuna, saying, “Great teacher! When you gave away this bowl so freely, I felt very poor and desolate.  Show me the way to acquire the wealth that makes this kind of untroubled detachment possible.”

The short tale empathizes an aspect of non-attachment that we probably don’t appreciate enough, which is, that letting go of attachments to material things is actually a way to realize great wealth and abundance.

A key element in cultivating non-attachment is said to be renunciation, a word that means to reject something, e.g. a belief, claim, or course of action.  It also coveys sacrifice, giving up.   Naturally, in the context of Buddha-dharma and Taoism, there is more to it.  The Dalai Lama says, “True renunciation is a state of mind.  It does not necessarily mean that someone has to give up something.”

In his version of the Tao Te Ching, the late Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, Chung-yuan Chang translated chapter 59 this way:

In guiding people and working according to nature,
It is best to follow renunciation.
Following renunciation means returning soon.
Returning soon means accumulating attainment.

He goes on to write, “The key word in this chapter is se, or renunciation, which means returning soon to one’s original nature . . . Thus [Te-Ching’s commentary says]: What Lao Tzu means ‘in guiding people and working according to nature, it is best to follow renunciation,’ is that nothing is better than the cultivation of returning to one’s original nature.”

I did an internet search for se and found it defined as “stingy, mean.”  But as the story of Nagarjuna’s golden bowl suggests that non-attachment requires generosity.

Atisha, in Kadamthorbu or “Precepts collected from Here and There”, is quoted as saying,

The greatest generosity is non-attachment.”

And in Nagarjuna’s Guidelines for Social Action, Robert Thurman writes,

Those who . . . simply consume and hoard, soon lose their wealth, just as Nagarjuna states.  It is a fact of economics that the basis of wealth is generosity.”

For us, a key aspect of non-attachment means to go beyond the mere rejection of materialism. Go beyond ‘giving up.’  Spread out into giving.  Non-attachment is a state or quality of mind that helps us develop openness, spaciousness of being.

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Interdependence Day

Tom Tancredo, outspoken former GOP congressman from Colorado, writes on Breitbart News, “Why do we continue to celebrate Independence Day each July Fourth when we no longer cherish independence?  Someday soon, our progressive politicians will propose celebrating the first Monday in July as Global Interdependence Day, and no one will protest as long as it includes barbecues and fireworks.”

The rest of the piece is the standard conservative complaint about the loss of cherished traditional values, the “abandonment of America’s unique character “ and so on, punctuated with lines like “Multiculturalism is not an idea to be debated, it’s the new orthodoxy to be obeyed. Or else!”

Multiculturalism is the coexistence of different cultures.  Not sure why that needs debate.

statue_of_liberty_03bAnyway, you probably don’t need me to tell you that that the views of people like Tancredo, and Trump, the Brexit backers in the UK, and others are largely irrational and based on a simplistic us vs. them mentality.  Furthermore, if you want to talk about cherished values, the idea of closed borders seems completely antithetical to one of the values that most typifies America, the spirit of openness. It’s the spirit behind the words in the “The New Colossus” sonnet by American poet Emma Lazarus engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

I’ve read a number of articles recently that suggest xenophobia and nationalism are on the rise once again in Europe.  It is firmly entrenched here in the US.  I’m sure you also recognize that Trump is not offering the country anything new, it’s just different.  The right wing has been spouting this same gospel for decades.  What is unique about Trump is that somehow he has managed to make being offensive appealing to a great many potential voters.

About Europe, French journalist Jean Quatremer wonders, “How long can the EU, a project born out of the ruins of the post-war period, resist the wave of xenophobia and paranoia that is sweeping across our old and exhausted societies? Instead of going against the current of public opinion built on fear, European leaders on the right and the left have found no better strategy than to follow the extremist parties, as can be seen in France. Nothing seems capable of stopping this return to nationalism, the very thing that is pulling Europe towards the abyss.”

The same thing applies here, where you have people who can’t stand Trump, stand with him because they don’t know what else to do.

What people think about their country is one thing, the terms in which they think about it is another.  We can say the same about patriotism and nationalism.  The former can be a healthy emotion, but to my mind, the latter is almost always destructive.  When the difference between patriotism and nationalism is blurred and religion is thrown in, the mix is extremely volatile.

I don’t see globalization, multiculturalism, and diversity as things to fear.  I think a Global Interdependence Day is a good idea.  Maybe not on July 4th but some other day.  Interdependence should be celebrated.  Interdependence is reality. We should embrace reality.

Thus interdependence is a fundamental law of nature. Not only higher forms of life but also many of the smallest insects are social beings who, without any religion, law, or education, survive by mutual cooperation based on an innate recognition of their interconnectedness. The most subtle level of material phenomena is also governed by interdependence. All phenomena, from the planet we inhabit to the oceans, clouds, forests, and flowers that surround us, arise in dependence upon subtle patterns of energy. Without their proper interaction, they dissolve and decay.”

Tenzin Gyatsu, the Fourteen Dalai Lama, “The Compassionate Life”

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Emma_Lazarus“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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Summer in the Mountains

From Chuang Tzu:

mountains-b1bWandering on the sunny side of Yin Mountain, T’ien Ken came to the banks of the Liao River and met a Man with No Name.  He asked this man, “Could you tell me how to govern the world?”

The Man with No Name said, “Get away from me, peasant! What kind of stupid question is that! I’m busy doing nothing.  You have a lot of nerve coming along with this talk of governing the world and disturbing my mind.”

But T’ien Ken asked his question a second time.

The Man with No Name replied,

“Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, and follow along with things the way they are.  Rest only in inaction.  Relax your body, expel your intelligence, release both body and mind, and all things will return to their root.  Then the world will be governed.”

By “inaction” the nameless man is referring to wu-wei, which means not to struggle with things, to find a more natural way, to let your spirit flow like a gentle summer breeze.

Li Po, the Chinese poet from the 8th century, like Chuang Tze before him, liked to portray himself as lazy.  More than likely it was partly true, but I suspect the representation was also used as a metaphor, as in this poem, “Summer Day in the Mountains”:

Too lazy to wave a white feather fan,
sitting stripped to the waist in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a overhanging rock;
the wind through the pine-trees brushes my bare head.

Happy Summer, y’all.  Have fun, and remember to take it easy.

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Chuang Tzu and Li Po adapted from translations by Burton Watson, Arthur Waley and D. Howard Smith

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