The Ox-Blade Incident

Several years ago, Alice Walker, activist and author of the novel The Color Purple, made the following comment in an interview with Democracy Now:

Life is abundant, and life is beautiful. And it’s a good place that we’re all in, you know, on this earth, if we take care of it.”

I’m sure you agree that not only should we take care of our planet, but we should also take care of life itself.

All spiritual traditions teach that life is precious. In Buddhism, human life is called the “precious human rebirth” because the traditional teachings say it is a rare thing to be reborn a human being, and as the Dalai Lama tells us, “[One] has unique possibilities to free oneself from the cycle of rebirth.”

Not everyone is on board with rebirth. Whether you are on the bus or off is incidental to the matter of sustaining life. Chuang Tzu had some thoughts about it in a passage I’ve adapted from some translations:

Human life is limited, but wisdom is limitless. To use the limited to chase what has no limit is dangerous; and to suppose that one really knows can be fatal!

In doing good, avoid fame. In doing bad, avoid disgrace. Find the middle course and use it as your compass. This way you will guard yourself from harm, preserve your life, fulfill your duties to friends and family, and live a full life.

ox_2Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. With his every movement, he sliced in perfect rhythm, and this caused Wen-hui to say, “Your skill amazing.”

Cook Ting put the knife down and said, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began to cut up oxen, I saw before me whole animal. Now, after three years’ practice, I no longer see the ox at all. Now I am able to work with my mind and not with my eye. Insight and training have been replaced by instinct, which alone guides my movements. I follow the natural structure of the ox and slice in the big grooves. Then I move my blade through the large openings, and follow things as they are.

“A good cook will only change his knife once a year because he cuts, and an ordinary cook, once a month, because he hacks. I’ve had this knife for nineteen years and it is just as good as it was when it first came from the grindstone. Whenever I come to a place that is tough, I gauge the difficulties, steady my hand, and gently glide the blade. And when I am done, I wipe the knife off with a degree of satisfaction and put it carefully away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to nurture life!”

Unlike some cooks I’ve met, Ting was not a perfectionist, and yet, by following the path of natural action and abiding in a state of detached equanimity, he found a level of perfection. Life is precious and beautiful and it is a process of constant change. So we say that the best way to nurture life is to flow with its natural rhythm, letting things be themselves, letting go.

You can find the Alice Walker interview, along with her poem, “Democratic Womanism” at Democracy Now.

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Being Alive

I’ve had problems concentrating recently, which is why blogging has been slow, intermittent. It is partly due to my recovery from major surgery and the medication they are giving me, and partly due to other matters that have been pressing on my somewhat compromised mind, such as the death of a dear family member.

Fear of death (thanatophobia) is a phobia shared by most people. Almost everyone is afraid of dying. Buddhism teaches that when we develop a deep understanding of the inevitability of death, we can overcome this fear and face death with courage.

Another aspect of fear of death is a reluctance to talk about death, or think about it. But the subject of death should be discussed and pondered, and I feel our reflection on death should lead us to an appreciation of life.

There are times when it is difficult for me to remember just how precious life is, times when I begrudge my life.

It is easy to lose track of what is important. The old adage about stopping to smell the roses is a good one, because as Thich Nhat Hanh says,

When we learn to stop and be truly alive in the present moment, we are in touch with what’s going on within and around us. We aren’t carried away by the past, the future, our thinking, ideas, emotions, and projects.”

Nor are we preoccupied with feeling sorry for ourselves, bemoaning our disappointments, and so on.

Life is not fair. Life is uncertain. Death is not fair. Death is uncertain, but inevitable. Every moment of life counts, every breath is precious . . .

There is only one important point you must keep in your mind and let it be your guide. No matter what people call you, you are just who you are. Keep to this truth. You must ask yourself how is it you want to live your life. We live and we die, this is the truth that we can only face alone. No one can help us, not even the Buddha. So consider carefully, what prevents you from living the way you want to live your life?”

– Dalai Lama XIV

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The Pendulum of Life

If you’ve been on Google today then you have seen their interesting graphic of Leon Foucault’s Pendulum, saluting the physicist’s birth on this date 194 years ago.

One of my favorite places in Los Angeles is the Griffith Observatory, which I really think should be named the James Dean Memorial Observatory in honor of the fact that Rebel Without A Cause was shot there, but that’s beside the point, which is that one of the treasures of the observatory is the Foucault Pendulum in the Rotunda.

Foucault Pendulum at Griffith Observatory (laparks.org)
Foucault Pendulum at Griffith Observatory (laparks.org)

The pendulum has been a feature at the observatory since it opened in 1935, and it’s one of the largest pendulums in the world.  The device demonstrates the rotation of the Earth. It has a 240-pound brass ball, suspended by a cable 40 feet long, that swings in the same direction all the time. To an observer it appears that the ball changes direction, but it’s actually the earth that is moving. Every eight minutes the ball knocks over a dowel to illustrate the rotation.

Now, everyone knows that the Earth rotates once in about 24 hours. But that is from the point of view of the sun. From the point of view of the stars, it’s once every 23 hours 56 minutes and 4 seconds. And what you may not know is that the Earth’s rotation is slowing down. That means days are longer than they were in the past. Because of Los Angeles’ latitude, the rotation time for the Foucault Pendulum at the Griffith Observatory is 42 hours.

Recently, I blogged about Soyen Shaku, the first Zen master to visit the West. In 1906 he wrote a piece called “The Pendulum of Life”:

[People] want to live, and they do not know that their living is really their death. This contradiction causes them an immeasurable amount of suffering. Apparently they are living, that is, they are moving bodily in the world of contrasts and opposites, of pleasures and pains, of sorrows and joys, of good and evil; and yet they want to escape from this actual state of things, they want to enter into a region where they have only monotony, stagnation, and abeyance, and even extinction. For are they not trying to keep the pendulum of life always up on one side only? The pendulum owes its existence to a constant swinging from one side to the other. When this is stopped, it ceases to be itself and exists no more. To live is to move, to change, to walk up and down, to come in and out, to enjoy and to suffer, to -smile and to weep. To refuse to do so is simply courting death.”

This reminds me of the famous quote by Norman Cousins that the greatest tragedy is when something inside of you dies while you’re still living. Cousins was a American journalist who fought heart disease by taking large doses of Vitamin C and laughing. He claimed that Marx Brothers movies were a key factor in his healing, and he was no quack, but rather served for a time as Adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities for the UCLA School of Medicine. Another way to describe his struggle is to say that he beat death by learning how to live.

What Soyen Shaku meant when he wrote that so many people court death is that they don’t know how to live. And what Buddha meant when he taught that life is suffering was that there is a undeniable quality of suffering in life, a malaise, an ill-ness, and that its cause is that we live the wrong way, for the wrong things. We often feel we are seeking enjoyment, happiness, but the things that we think will make us happy, bring pain and unhappiness in the long run.

Bust of James Dean at Griffith Observatory
Bust of James Dean at Griffith Observatory

Later in his piece, Soyen Shaku says, “Life, according to Buddhism, is worth living, because it enables us to do something.” Is this “something” merely to live fast and die before our time like James Dean? Or to learn to live while we are alive?

There is suffering, and there is happiness, too. The Buddhist way of life is to cling to neither suffering nor happiness, to be like Foucault’s Pendulum, without changing direction in our plane of swing between the two extremes. Through the practice of equanimity, the state of psychological stability, we can learn to remain undisturbed by life’s rotations.

Evidently, the gunman in Monday’s Navy Yard rampage was a convert to Buddhism. His last known residence was in Fort Worth, TX where he shared a place with the owner of a restaurant whom he’d met at a nearby Thai Buddhist temple. According to the roomate, the gunman spent a great deal of time at the temple “meditating and chanting.”

It’s tempting to speculate on the depth of his Buddhist practice, to wonder if the teachers at his temple had ever mentioned equanimity. I doubt it would have made any difference. The gunman was a pendulum swinging wildly and his psychological problems were so severe that he needed the kind of help that only professionals can provide. We may never know exactly what was in this man’s mind, but it seems that such individuals reach a point where they feel there is nothing left for them except to kill others and be killed.

For the rest of us, or most of us at least, we can do something else, we can learn to live while we are alive.

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Use Life

Once at a four-day teaching in Los Angeles, during a question and answer period, the Dalai Lama was asked, “What is the quickest and easiest way to attain enlightenment?” The question caused the Dalai Lama to break down in tears. When he recovered his composure, he began to tell a story about the Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, who facing death, was giving his last instructions to a disciple and showed him the calluses on his behind. Milarepa said, “Look at this, this is what I’ve endured, this is the mark of my practice.” Just as the translator was relaying this, the Dalai Lama interrupted and, in one of the few times he spoke English during that teaching, exclaimed, “Don’t think quickest, easiest, cheapest!”

The next day, the Dalai Lama said that it really doesn’t matter if one becomes enlightened or not. The purpose of existence, he said, is to be of benefit to others, “and if a person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose.”

Consider the words “purpose of existence.” It implies that there is purpose to life. Naturally, people see that purpose differently, according to their own world-view. The view the Dalai Lama was speaking from was that of the bodhisattva, who undertakes the mission to relieve the suffering of others.

Shi Ming: “Use Life”
Shi Ming: “Use Life”

The Chinese term for “mission” is shi ming, which is made of two characters when put together literally mean “use life.” Outwardly, the bodhisattva’s mission is an altruistic one, but there is a more fundamental task at hand, and that is to use life, not to waste it.

There are those who fear that in service to others they will become subservient, or that in the practice of compassion, others will take advantage of them. But these fears are based on a limited view of what service means, what to be of benefit to others entails. Creating art is a benefit to others. Building a road serves others. A smile can help relieve someone’s suffering.

The point is to go beyond the routine of life, to use life, not merely live it. It means to regard each present moment as an opportunity to do something. Great or small, it doesn’t make a difference. Just do something that goes beyond yourself.

One of the greatest challenges of life is learning how to use it. When we use life in a meaningful way, we gain a sense of purpose. When we gain a sense of purpose, we have a mission. When we are dedicated to the fundamental mission of using our life for something worthwhile, we find myriad ways to be of benefit to others. Then everything we do can be a form of service. Nothing is wasted. Each moment is like a small drop of water poured into the ocean that lasts until the ocean itself evaporates.

So, use life.

 

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Smile

In response to yesterday’s post, someone left this comment, “based on this you just might be a stream entrant who just doesn’t know it yet.” Now, I don’t know if he was being sincere or not. It occurred to me that it might not be a compliment, but I figured he probably meant well. Anyway, it’s late in the evening here and I had a brief moment of flippancy and unfortunately it ended up in my reply.  It was a small attempt at humor, apparently very small . . . and he took it the wrong way.

You know, I get so few comments that when one comes in I really hate to screw it up.

I have some sacred cows, but not many. Me, myself and I are certainly not among them. I’ve made light of myself on this blog from time to time. Even though I have never been known for having a particularly jocular personality, still I find that I can only be serious for so long and then I have to crack wise.

Besides, I like humor. I’m not any good at being funny, but I like it. And I have a tough time finding funny stuff these days. I haven’t had a really good laugh in a long time. I prefer humor that is rather dry, like a good martini. Haven’t had one of those in a long while either. What passes for humor today, which seems to be mainly about bodily functions, leaves me cold.

I like Tina Fey, but I don’t think 30 Rock is very funny. Aside from her and Alex Baldwin, I can’t stand anyone else on the show. By the way, when receiving the 2011 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Ms. Fey remarked how she was only the 3rd woman to receive the award, and then she said something to the effect of how nice it will be when we no longer chart women’s progress by numbers. Think about it.

"Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand."

I used to like Dennis Miller. I’d watch his show on HBO and laugh so hard I cried. But, alas, he was a fake. With his 60’s references and rock ‘n roll and drug references and lines like “Inaction is more entrenched in Washington DC than Rush Limbaugh in a hammock,” I pegged him for a liberal kind of guy. That was just a smokescreen. After 9/11 he revealed his true self. It turned out he was a right-wing reactionary all along. And now, he appears on the Bill O’Reilly show. On Fox. That’s just sad.

I hated to see Al Franken enter politics. He has a very dry sense of humor. Then he had to get serious. Politics can be very funny, but it unfortunately turns funny people into bores.

My philosophy is similar to that of Abner Doubleday, the founder of baseball, who famously said, “Don’t take the world serious. That’s it! The world serious . . .”

I’ve never given anything away on this blog, but I am willing to give a free no-prize to anyone who can identify the source of the Abner Doubleday line. Not only that, I will give 2 free no-prizes to anyone who can tell me where the concept of no-prizes originated. (On the latter, you have to be very specific.)

Life is too short to take everything serious. I am facing some rather serious health challenges right now, so keeping things lighthearted is not only a strategy, it’s a necessity. To paraphrase someone (I don’t remember who and I’m too lazy tonight to Google it.) I can’t afford the luxury of a negative thought. I have a tendency to be too serious, and negative, anyway.

This is probably as boring as a political speech, and I apologize. I also apologize to the commenter if he thought I was being sarcastic. I was, but not towards him. This ties in with what I wrote about yesterday. Another way we make Buddhism overly-complicated is by taking it all so seriously.

Well, it is serious. But I remember a teacher telling us that we should practice with joy. And he laughed all the time.

So, I say laugh and feel happy as much as you can. Do it today, before the vortex of suffering comes along and tries to suck all the laughter and happiness right out of you.

Here’s a poem that I first read over 40 years ago and it reflects my thinking right now. It was written by a young Jewish girl who was in a Nazi death camp:

From tomorrow on I will be sad
From tomorrow on
Not today, today I will be glad
And every day no matter how hard it may be I will say
From tomorrow on I will be sad
And not today.

And now I am going to watch Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights.

This, however, is from Modern Times:

"Smile."

Smile tho’ your heart is aching,
Smile even tho’ it’s breaking,
When there are clouds in the sky you’ll get by,
If you smile thro’ your fear and sorrow,

Smile and maybe tomorrow,
you’ll see the sun come shining thro; for you

Light up your face with gladness,
Hide ev’ry trace of sadness,

Al -‘tho a tear may be ever so near,
That’s the time,
You must keep on trying,

Smile, what’s the use of crying,
You’ll find that life is still worth-while,
If you just smile . . .

Lyrics by John Turner and Geoffery Parsons – 1954
Music by Charles Chaplin – Modern Times theme

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