Hiatus and Judging

It’s been a while.  Since I began this blog in 2010 this is the longest I’ve gone without posting.  I’m on hiatus, and I plan to stay that way.

No particular reason.  Just don’t have much to say.

On the health front, the latest round of tests show that my cancer has not changed.  It seems to be in a holding pattern right now.  Good.  What’s not so good is the lymphedema or swelling in my legs, which, like metastatic cancer, is incurable.  I’ll spare you the details and just say that the fluid has reached both legs and greatly inhibits my mobility.

I did want to comment about something today…

One of the things we see in Trump’s abnormal behavior that doesn’t seem to get talked about a lot is the way he judges people.  I suppose it gets lost in the nastiest of his jibes.  But when he calls someone a “slime ball,” “crooked,” or “lying,” he’s judging a person’s character, their worth.  Judgments of this sort stem from negative emotions and mental tendencies.  It is not the way for a responsible adult to behave, and furthermore, it sets a bad example for adults and ‘younger people.  It is just one of the many ways in which Trump’s behavior is inappropriate for a person occupying the highest office in the land and another reason why he shouldn’t be there.

“Love is the absence of judgment.” – Dalai Lama

He is trying to define others, define who they are, but what folks with judgmental minds don’t seem to understand is that they are really defining who they are, showing us their true character.

Judging others is a cause for suffering.  Not theirs, ours.  The Buddha taught that judging others prevents us from discovering truth because the judgmental mind prevents understanding and the accumlation of wisdom.

When we analyze the situation from the standpoint of Buddha-dharma, we find that it links with Nagarjuna’s concept of the “emptiness of views.”  In the way I am framing this discussion, judgment, the act of judging others, is nothing more than a view, an opinion.

Venkata Ramanan, in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy, writes,

To abandon [views] is to give up the claim of completeness in regard to what is only fragmentary.  [All] views owe [their] being to lack of ‘direct, unimpeded comprehension of the true nature of things…’  This becomes practically the central point in the philosophy of Nagarjuna.’

If we unpack this statement literally, we see that while we may judge someone as a slimeball, but it’s doubful they are a total slimeball.  We’re merely expressing our opinion on a fragment of their overall character.

Ramanan goes on to say,

The rejection of views which is an essential point in the philosophy of the Middle Way means that no specific view, being specific, is limitless, and no view, being a view, is ultimate.  The ultimate view is not any ‘view.’  ‘Silence is the ultimate truth for the wise.

Trump’s judgmental mind and his unfortunate tweets are just examples of the growing negativity in our society and the way our civil discourse has become so uncivil.   We need to turn this around.

We can do our part by recognizing the worthlessness, the emptiness, of judging others, and we  can take our cue from Thich Nhat Hanh:

Do your best to practice compassionate listening.  Do not listen for the sole purpose of judging, criticizing, or analyzing. Listen only to help the other person express himself and find some relief from his suffering.

I think listening is a more valuable use of our time than criticizing and judging.  Don’t you?

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Thich Nhat Hanh Walk With Me

Thich Nhat Hanh is a very popular Buddhist teacher.  Like the Dalai Lama, he is practically a one man publishing industry, he has so many books out.  Fortunately, he is the real deal.  I’ve never felt peacefulness and quietude as I have when I’ve attended one of his dharma talks.  His words, though simple and spare, are the stuff of poetry, and the wisdom he shares ‘goes beyond.’  Every thing I’ve read or heard of his has provided me with a different perspective, often on the things in life I tend to take for granted.

For instance, I like the way he describes how to eat mindfully in “Peace is Every Step,”

[We] look down at the food in a way that allows the food to become real.  This food reveals our connection with the earth.  Each bite contains the life of the sun and the earth.  The extent to which our food reveals itself depends on us.  We can see and taste the whole universe in a piece of bread!  Contemplating our food for a few seconds before eating, and eating in mindfulness, can bring us much happiness.

In 2014, Thay, as he’s called by his students, suffered a severe brain hemorrhage, a stroke.  He was in a coma for seven weeks and lost the ability to speak.  Since then, his recovery has been slow.  I believe he remains speechless but he has traveled to Thailand and his home, Vietnam.  I assume he is currently at his residence at Plum Village in France.

I’m looking forward to seeing Walk With Me, the new documentary narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch (aka Sherlock Holmes).  The filmmakers describe Walk With Me as a “meditation on a Zen Buddhist monastic community, who have dedicated their lives to master the art of mindfulness with their world-famous teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.”  The film was released into cinemas worldwide during the fall but I don’t go to theaters any more so I’ll have to wait for it to show up on cable.

Here’s the official trailer:

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Thoughts and Prayers and the Violence Within

In the aftermath of tragedies like the Las Vegas massacre, we hear the familiar counsel to offer “thoughts and prayers.”  This week some voices have spoken up to suggest that this phrase is simply a by-word for inaction, that thoughts and prayers are simply not enough to overcome the spiral of gun violence in this country.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted, “Thoughts and prayers are NOT enough,” Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, during his show Monday night, lamented the lack of political action and said, “Your thoughts and prayers are insufficient.”

While I agree that more action needs to be taken to help curb gun violence, the interesting question to me is whether offering thoughts and prayers actually accomplish anything .  My feeling is they mainly help the person generating  the thoughts and/or offering the prayers.  They help us process our grief.  They make us feel that we are taking action, at least spiritually.

This begs another question: do thoughts and prayers transcend space and time?  I would say, yes.  Metaphorically speaking.  Do one’s prayers actually touch and help the person prayed for?  I’m doubtful.  In this context the kind of thoughts and prayers we’re talking about are externally directed, and as a Buddhist, I am skeptical about relying on external solutions.  If we really want to stop violence then we must look within ourselves, for that is where the causes for violence lie.

Thich Nhat Hanh from his book Creating Peace:

“Violence is never far.  It is possible to identify the seeds of violence in our everyday thoughts, speech and actions.  We can find these seeds within our own mind, in our attitudes, and in our fears and anxieties about ourselves and others.  Thinking itself can be violent, and violent thoughts can lead us to speak and act violently.  In this way, the violence in our minds manifest in the world.”

So, to find a real solution to violence, we must look within.  Like “thoughts and prayers,”  “looking within” has become a bit of a cliché, but what it represents, inner-directed reflection, is a universal truth.  Just as universal, I think, is the idea that real social change is only possible when each individual accomplishes a radical change within themselves.  It’s what the famous Gandhi quote means about becoming the change you wish to see in the world.  (There is no evidence he actually said that, but he did say this:  “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”)

Changing the world through changing ourselves is not like sending out thoughts and prayers.  As Thich Nhat Hanh mentions, looking within, developing self-awareness, and actualizing positive inner change manifests in the world through our thoughts, speech, and actions just as our inner violence does.

At Psychology Today, Allen R McConnell Ph.D. writes,

“A variety of theories on self-regulation (i.e., how people direct their behavior in the pursuit of their goals) emphasize that change requires two things: a goal, and an awareness of where one currently is in order to assess the discrepancy between the two.  In short, we cannot reach our destinations without knowledge of our current location on the map.”

If our goal is stop gun violence, then we must to look within ourselves and develop an awareness of our own inner violence.  Thoughts and prayers are not enough.

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You got to go back to Mother Earth

One person I greatly admire is David Suzuki, the Canadian scientist, broadcaster and environmental activist.  He is perhaps the most iconic environmental activist in North America, and in the last ten years or so, he and his foundation has worked to raise awareness and promote dialogue about the critical issue of global warming.

I ran across something on his blog the other day that I want to share with you.  In a post from January, he says,

We can’t just look at the world as a source of resources to exploit with little or no regard for the consequences.  When many indigenous people refer to the planet as “Mother Earth”, they are not speaking romantically, poetically or metaphorically.  They mean it literally.  We are of the Earth, every cell in our bodies formed by molecules derived from plants and animals, inflated by water, energized by sunlight captured through photosynthesis and ignited by atmospheric oxygen.”

feuerbach_gaea2Modern archaeological findings suggest that ancient peoples may have worshipped the earth as a living, female being.  She was part of the mythology in a number of cultures.  In Greek mythology, Mother Earth was a goddess called Gaia (“earth” or “land”) who represented the earth and was the mother of all life (Gaia, by Anselm Feuerbach, 1875 at right).  The Romans called her Terra.  The Hindus knew her as Parvati.  And Damp Mother Earth is the most ancient deity in Slavic mythology . . . As far as I am aware, Buddhism did not have a specific  “Mother Earth” deity, except for some cultural figures in various Asia countries that were independently incorporated into Buddha-dharma.

Nonetheless, Suzuki’s remarks are in line with the Buddhist concept of interdependency (pratitya-samutpada) that maintains we are all inter-connected.  And when we talk about that we don’t mean just people, we are interconnected with the earth, the ocean, the sky, even the most distant stars – everything.

Thich Nhat Hanh has said,

You carry Mother Earth within you.  She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment . . . Many people get sick today because they get alienated from Mother Earth . . . When we recognize the virtues, the talent, the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born . . . We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one.”

I imagine most of you are already on board with this thinking, but it is good to be reminded from time to time that we’ve got to go back to Mother Earth.

In 1951, blues singer Memphis Slim wrote a song called Mother Earth:

You may own a half a city even diamonds and pearls
You may buy that plane baby and fly all over this world
Don’t care how great you are, don’t care what you worth
When it all ends up you got to go back to mother earth

Now you know where Bob Dylan got the idea for his song, Gotta Serve Somebody.

In 1968, a band called Mother Earth recorded Slim’s song.  Here it is, featuring the vocals of the great but still to this day relatively unknown Tracy Nelson.

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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.   

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