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Why Does God/Buddha Nature Let Bad Things Happen?

Why Does God/Buddha Nature Let Bad Things Happen?

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Humans have been struggling with this dilemma for ages: God is good – even synonymous with love – and all-powerful, so why does God let bad things happen? Why does He continue to allow such suffering in the world? For a Zen Buddhist, this question is phrased like this: All being is Buddha-nature and this empty world is inherently precious and without defilement, but still the world is full of suffering. It feels as if there are two separate realities – and much of the time it seems they have nothing to do with each other. How do we integrate them? Is it possible?

Here’s the good news: the need to integrate what can seem like two separate realities is just one of the many stages of the spiritual path. Which means it’s possible, there’s more to come, and it’s worth forging ahead.

Note: the struggle I am talking about here is not about doubting whether God is good, or whether all being is Buddha-nature. That’s another struggle, and a fruitful one. What I’m talking about here is learning how to live wholeheartedly once you have a deep, personal conviction there is a profound and redemptive foundation to everything that embraces all the suffering and makes it, somehow, okay. This is conviction is wonderful, but at some point simply taking refuge in it, however comforting, begins to seem hollow and unhelpful.

I once wrestled publicly with this dilemma of two realities (see Wearing My Heart [and Doubt] On My Sleeve). After that event, my days were been consumed by normal, mundane activities like emails, databases, housecleaning, and worrying about money. At times it seems the doubt had dissipated, or was only a dramatic description of a momentary experience, but it was still there. It lurked like grief, which stays with us for a long time but can lie dormant, waiting for the right thing to wake it up.

Then one evening, happily munching on a veggie burger and not thinking any particularly deep thoughts, I was reading a passage from Ross Bolleter’s Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment. (1) My husband sat next to me reading his ipad, and I asked if I could interrupt him to share something. As I read the passages out loud from Bolleter’s book, I started to tear up. I couldn’t quite finish the section I meant to share because the words got stuck in my throat. (Fortunately, my husband is used to this and wasn’t alarmed.)

Strange – before trying to speak the passages out loud I knew I related to them, but I didn’t realize how deeply. Someone was putting words to my experience. Even more importantly, someone was identifying my experience as part of a larger process of awakening to reality and learning how to be a full and authentic human being. The depth of my doubt didn’t mean I was a spiritual failure, or that my spiritual path is ultimately useless. In fact, it was a sign that deeper understanding and integration was possible.

I want to share with you the passage in Bolleter’s book that so touched me, but it needs a little introduction. In this particular chapter Bolleter is talking about the fourth “rank,” a place in spiritual practice where we have personally experienced something transcendent (in Zen it is a realization of emptiness, in other traditions it might be an encounter with the divine, or a personal relationship with Christ) and now we are trying to integrate that experience with the often brutal or bleak reality of life.

In Zen, the transcendent is called the absolute, or essential, and the reality of daily life is called the relative, or the contingent. Bolleter offers commentary on a line of ancient poetry that describes the fourth rank, “No need to dodge when blades are crossed.” He writes:

“Crossed swords represent the opposition of darkness and light, which correspond to the essential and the contingent, respectively. Given that advance or retreat are equally impossible, we stay put and open to life where we are… Forgetting emptiness, we face up to hard-nosed particularity and oppositional circumstance, treating them as all there is. Yet, although we avoid taking refuge in emptiness, we nonetheless deepen and mature our experience of emptiness by facing up to the challenges we encounter…

“The image of the crossed swords may also symbolize a dilemma: we encounter the crumbling edges of our life and practice, where we sense that whatever we’ve realized can’t light up the darkness and grief of estrangement, or magically resolve our inability to forgive. We must respond by allowing this dilemma, filled with painful confusion and uncertainty, to be just what it is. This is the crux of the matter of not dodging when swords are crossed.”

All of this may sound rather academic or philosophical, but it’s not. What it means is that when I go to visit my friend who is a more or less housebound with extremely painful rheumatoid arthritis and asthma, I refuse to comfort either her or myself with platitudes about how life is ultimately precious, or how if we can just appreciate this moment our suffering is just a concept. These observations about the essential or the transcendent are true, and we may need to take refuge in them at times in order to sustain ourselves. However, they do not make the suffering go away. They do not in any way make the suffering less real.

The way forward, is through the suffering. Not turning away, not reaching back for comforting convictions. Meeting the suffering directly, on its own terms. And I’m not just talking about the acute suffering involved in physical pain, disease, death, injustice, etc. I’m also talking about the daily suckiness of anger, confusion, and the general frustration of being unable to grab hold of lasting peace and happiness.

Heading into the suffering seems crazy, right? Isn’t the whole point is to alleviate suffering? It may be completely counter-intuitive, but according to the teachings of our great spiritual masters, leaving behind our answers and throwing ourselves into direct relationship with the messy, ambiguous nature of the contingent eventually allows us to function even more effectively at alleviating suffering. It does not mean turning our back on the divine, the pure, the transcendent, because that is not actually possible. Our convictions are part of who we are and will manifest in everything do even if we do not consciously hang on to them.

Wow. Maybe, just maybe, if I learn not to “dodge when blades are crossed,” I will someday be able to experience the fifth rank, where (according to Bolleter) “all that we have regarded as the essential and the contingent are found to be none other than each other. The polarities of the earlier modes are annulled, and the algebra of the spirit disappears without remainder into our lives lived as the Way.”

Don’t you think the defining characteristic of a compassionate sage is functioning in the fifth rank, where essential and contingent, divine and human, are realized to exist simultaneously – occupying the same space and time without separation? Think of the saints and other radiant people who have seemed more awake to the world of suffering than most of us, but who also seemed to be not of this world. As long as I let go of any idea that “I” might become such a person, the way forward seems clear.


(1) Dongshan’s Five Ranks: Keys to Enlightenment by Ross Bolleter. Wisdom Publications, 2014.

 

 

The Importance of Sangha Part 5 of 5 – Sangha As Service

The Importance of Sangha Part 5 of 5 – Sangha As Service

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Part 5 of the Importance of Sangha (see Part 1Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4):

There are many, many more benefits of Sangha I could go into, but I’ll end this series of posts with how Sangha can become a practice of generosity and service to others. Let’s say you’ve been part of a Sangha for many years and your Zen or Buddhist practice is strong. You have a pretty good understanding of the Dharma, you can see your Dharma friends outside of Sangha events, and you’ve experienced a fair amount of polishing from potato practice (whether within Sangha or elsewhere in your life). Why keep participating in Sangha?

A short answer is this: as a strong practitioner, you strengthen the Sangha with your mere presence, and thereby make it a better refuge for others. Putting aside the relatively superficial differences between Sanghas in terms of overall flavor and style, healthy, mature Sanghas tend have a certain energy or tone. They feel stable and resilient as a group – and therefore able to accept new members and endure upsets and changes without fracturing. Strong Sanghas have a clear sense of their purpose and their commonly-held practice or tradition, so newcomers are less likely to be able to hijack Sangha discussions or events (this sometimes happens when new people bring particular agendas with them).

A strong Sangha will also feel – and this is a little difficult to describe – sane. Individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can sometimes feel to others, energetically, as if they’re vibrating at a higher or a discordant frequency, or, alternatively, as if they’re a drain on the energy of others. The more sane, strong practitioners there are in a room, the more the overall energy of the Sangha will feel sane – grounded, tuned in to reality and the experience of others, and able to behave appropriately.

This is why it’s important us to keep participating in Sangha even if we don’t feel so much of a personal need to do so: our sane presence grounds and strengthens the Sangha so it can hold people even when they’re new, uncertain, anxious, neurotic, on a soapbox, oblivious, obnoxious, or struggling with tragedy or mental illness. In other words, people who are really suffering need our support. A teacher or priest can’t provide a wholesome, stable, safe container for vulnerable or vibrating individuals all by themselves, so – ironically – the stronger and older your practice is, the less you may feel you need Sangha, but the more you have to offer the Sangha – the more Sangha needs you. Even when you don’t have a special role to play at a given practice event – or even especially when that is that case – you make a substantial contribution with your steady and enthusiastic participation.

I’ll close with some words about Sangha from revered Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Taking refuge in the Sangha means putting your trust in a community of solid members who practice mindfulness together. You do not have to practice intensively – just being in a Sangha where people are happy, living deeply the moments of their days, is enough. Each person’s way of sitting, walking, eating, working and smiling is a source of inspiration; and transformation takes place without effort. If someone who is troubled is placed in a good Sangha, just being there is enough to bring about a transformation.”

– Zen Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, from Cultivating the Mind of Love

 

The Importance of Sangha Part 4

The Importance of Sangha Part 4

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Part 4 of the Importance of Sangha (see Part 1Part 2 and Part 3):

 

Potato Practice: Benefiting from Friction with Others

Being asked to include everyone in the Sangha with an open heart is a very, very different scenario than “out in the world,” where for the most part everyone picks and chooses who they want to spend time with based on their preferences, without feeling the slightest need to look any deeper than that. In Sangha – ideally, at least – everyone belongs as long as they have a sincere interest in the Dharma, behave with a basic level of consideration and respect, and don’t pose a threat to others. This means an open Sangha of any significant size is inevitably going to include people who annoy you or even who trigger negative karmic reactions in you.

You may experience a negative reaction to someone as soon as you walk through a Sangha’s door, or only after many years, but it’s important to recognize this as an opportunity and not as sign that the Sangha treasure isn’t working for you. It’s tempting when we feel negatively about someone to take off, or ask the other person to change, or try to maneuver things so you don’t have to encounter the person much. However, if you stick around and face your interpersonal friction or conflict instead, you may be able to resolve major issues that would otherwise follow you for a lifetime!

The value of learning from interpersonal friction is actually so central to Zen practice, we have a term for it: potato practice. If you ever need to wash a whole bunch of potatoes, float them all in a big sink full of water and then tumble them against one another with your hands. By bumping into one another, the potatoes become amazingly clean! Another commonly-used analogy is that practicing in Sangha is like being a sharp-edged rock tossed in a rock tumbler with a bunch of other sharp-edged rocks: Eventually, we polish one another until we’re shiny and smooth (or, put in practice terms, self-aware, humble, authentic, compassionate, etc.).

This benefit from interpersonal friction within Sangha happens whenever interactions between people provide a “mirror” of sorts for one or more of the people involved, allowing them to become more aware of their behavior and views. For example, potato practice happens when an overbearing Sangha member eventually notices no one wants to work with them, and they finally get some gentle but honest feedback about their behavior. It happens when a new person arrives and you feel a powerful negative reaction based on some aspect of their personal appearance or manner of speaking, revealing a “sharp edge” of yours that may be tied to past experiences or an insecurity of your own. You don’t get to exclude someone from the Sangha just because, when you’re around them, you feel annoyed, judgmental, defensive, inferior, needy, etc. As long as you don’t exclude yourself from the Sangha, you have a chance to experience some spiritual polishing!

Note: The fact that potato practice is valuable doesn’t mean anything goes in terms of Sangha behavior – that no matter how outrageously someone acts, it’s just an opportunity for you to examine your own karma and learn not to be reactive. Taken to extremes, potato practice can result in abusive and dysfunctional situations in Sangha. (This has happened, particularly in Zen communities, so watch out for it.) Sometimes what you need to learn from potato practice is how to skillfully and appropriately speak up and ask for what you need, or to point out how harm is being done.

On the other hand, the vast majority of human interactions that cause friction or conflict are not actually serious matters. Most people – including myself – could benefit from erring on the side of acceptance, non-reactivity, and inclusiveness about 99 times out of 100 when we feel a negative reaction to someone or their behavior.

Resolving Lifelong Karma through Relationship

If you’re part of a Sangha for many years, you will probably get a chance to experience an even more significant aspect of the “potato practice” discussed above. Chances are, you’ll encounter at least one other long-term Sangha member you just can’t get along with to save your life. They may bug others as well, or just you, but once again you’re faced with an opportunity for deep practice and transformation. When we have powerful, negative karmic reactions to certain people, it’s usually because our unresolved issues are butting up against their unresolved issues. It can be an uncomfortable process, but as long as both of you remain in the Sangha and do your best, eventually you may be able to help one another recognize and overcome significant inner obstacles.

To illustrate what I mean, I’ll share an example from my own practice. My monastic Dharma brother and I had to live and practice together at a very small Zen center for many years – we’re talking about encountering each other just about 24-7 for meditation, work, meals, everything. I triggered him in ways that made it difficult for him to trust me, probably in part because of my extroverted habit of demanding responses from him that would validate me in some way. This made him withdraw, which only made me more insecure and desperate for approval. All of our interactions felt to me like complete misunderstandings at best, and stressful struggle at worst. In order to mitigate the tension, our teacher mercifully assigned us daily work that would minimize the amount we had to interact.

Eventually, I recognized my lifelong pattern of gravitating toward people who I felt judged and rejected me, in order to impress them and ingratiate myself with them. I tended to judge myself on how well I was able to anticipate what would generate disapproval in the person, and then adapt my behavior in order to shift the reaction to approval. Recognizing this tendency at last, I decided I didn’t want to do it anymore. Instead, I began reminding myself, whenever I perceived disapproval (real or not) from my Dharma brother, it was his responsibility to tell me if he had a problem with me. I would try to act respectfully and kindly, but not twist myself in knots over someone else’s reactivity to me. This helped a lot; it let me relax, and therefore it helped my Dharma brother relax!

Eventually I took practice with this problematic relationship one step further: I realized I wanted my Dharma brother to love and respect me, but even more than that, I wanted him to assure me that was the case. I wanted him to address and overcome my doubts. Sadly, he took my barely-camouflaged demand for reassurance as a sign that I didn’t trust him! So, one day, I decided to recklessly act as if he loved and respected me. I mean, if I really thought about it, I had to admit he probably did. Doing this felt a little scary, but heck, I was really tired of my old way of operating. Beautifully, miraculously, my relationship with my Dharma brother opened up and blossomed. Mutual trust grew, and we remain deeply grateful for the valuable interpersonal lessons we taught each other.

The Importance of Sangha Part 3

The Importance of Sangha Part 3

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Part 3 of the Importance of Sangha (see Part 1 and Part 2):

Forming Dharma Friendships

Most of us also find social connection within a Sangha. It’s very precious to end up with friends who share your aspirations and the language of your spiritual practice. Personally, I find it very rare to have conversations outside of Sangha that are as deep and meaningful as the ones I regularly have with what I call “my dharma sisters and brothers.” I remember being amazed when I first joined a Sangha that adults anywhere would get together, admit they weren’t perfect, and sincerely discuss their aspirations to work toward greater wisdom and compassion. I continue to be amazed that I can talk with people in the Sangha about the profound bliss that can be found gazing mindfully at a spot of sunlight on the carpet… and have them understand!

Practice in the midst of everyday life is challenging, and it can be valuable to have a trusted friend – or two, or three – to talk to about it. Friends can give us inspiration, encouragement, and comradery – and sometimes they’re the ones who can ask us the most useful questions. A teacher may be of some support to us, but sometimes it’s easier to be totally honest with friends – we let them hear us complain or despair or express anger. A good Sangha friend will hold what we say in confidence, without judgement, but also without entirely believing us, either. They know our aspirations and encourage us to remember them. In the Mitta Sutta, Shakyamuni Buddha described a good friend:

“He gives what is beautiful,
hard to give,
does what is hard to do,
endures painful, ill-spoken words.

His secrets he tells you,
your secrets he keeps.

When misfortunes strike,
he doesn’t abandon you;
when you’re down & out,
doesn’t look down on you.”[1]

Another profound aspect of Dharma friendship within Sangha is that gradually, over time, the people in Sangha get to know us. If we allow it to happen, we end up being seen for who we really are – including our strengths as well as our weaknesses. It can be incredibly healing and encouraging to find we’re still accepted by the Sangha despite the end of our anonymity, and regardless of the fact that – eventually – we let our guard down or fail to keep our act up. Many people carry around the fear that they will be rejected if others find out what they’re really like – but wonderfully, that fear tends to be unfounded because we’re our own worst critics.

 

Taking Responsibility for Our Social Issues and Reactions

Of course, while it’s lovely to think about Dharma friendships and healing acceptance, few people find social interactions easy. In fact, the realm of interpersonal relationships and communication is one of the most challenging places to practice! It brings up all kinds of issues for us: the need for validation and approval, sensitivity to criticism, judging others, competition for popularity, fear of rejection, avoidance of intimacy… you name it. Whatever social neuroses, habits, and conditioning you had before encountering Sangha, you’ll bring with you when you participate in one.

For all their aspirations, I don’t know that Zen and Buddhist practitioners are, on average, any more socially skillful that anyone else. In fact, Zen in particular tends to attract introverts because the central practice involves silent meditation – so it’s not at all uncommon for people new to a Sangha to end up standing awkwardly by themselves during informal social breaks! The introverts who have been in the Sangha longer have finally managed to find friends, and the last thing they want to do is try to chat up a stranger. If you find yourself feeling socially awkward or isolated in a Sangha, the best thing to do is find someone who looks even more awkward and isolated and offer a friendly word.

What’s beautiful is that, within the Sangha, we have a wonderful opportunity to examine and work through our social issues. The basic premise of Buddhism is that we’re responsible for what happens within our own minds and hearts – that we’re touched and influenced by the world around us, but ultimately nothing outside of us has to make us feel or react in a certain way. When we’re practicing, we look within ourselves for the cause of a negative feeling or response before we place the blame outside.

Therefore, it’s not enough just to say you don’t like someone; you need to ask yourself what within your own mind causes that reaction. It’s not enough to say you don’t like a certain social environment, you need to explore what makes you uncomfortable about it. Once people have been doing Sangha practice for a while, they’ll be asking themselves the same thing, about their reactions to you.

The result is an environment where, for the most part, people aspire to accept and embrace all Sangha members equally, and then take responsibility for their own negative feelings and reactions. Naturally you’re going to gravitate toward particular people, but the background aspiration, based in Buddhist practice, is learning to let go of our attachments and preferences, and to treat all beings with openness and compassion. Particularly if you struggle with social anxiety, this invites you to relax, because if someone has a negative reaction to you, that’s their practice. If their reaction is about something you’ve said or done that needs to be addressed, it’s their practice to let you know. You can stop worrying about others, and focus on what you can influence: your own mind.

 

[1] “Mitta Sutta: A Friend” (AN 7.35), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 4 July 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an07/an07.035.than.html.

 

 

 

The Importance of Sangha Part 2

The Importance of Sangha Part 2

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We learn from sangha when our ideas are challenged – and the most important ideas that get challenged in the midst of Sangha are ideas about Sangha.

 

Challenging and Clarifying Our Understanding

Even if you’re a really self-disciplined person and don’t need others to keep your practice strong, and even if you feel you can learn everything you want to know about Buddhism from books, there are still important reasons to practice with Sangha. The first of these is that our ideas about practice get challenged when we encounter teachers, peers, and people who have been practicing longer or more intensively that we have. It’s like attending a class on something; through the interactions with others and by engaging the material in a social situation, we’re exposed to new ways of looking at things.

We may think we’ve understood a teaching or practice but then find out our ideas are incorrect or incomplete. When we’re questioned by a teacher or Sangha member and try to give an answer that reflects our understanding and experience, we may struggle for words and realize we haven’t clarified something for ourselves as much as we thought we had. Even coming up with a question is a valuable process, as we have to look inward and find the edge of our understanding.

Frequently, the questions and experiences of others in the Sangha – whether seniors, peers, or newcomers – helps us realize something. It’s amazing how often I say something over and over as a teacher, but a student won’t really get it until another Sangha member says more or less the same thing, but in different words and from a different perspective. Overall, participating with other people in Buddhist study and practice can teach us a lot.

 

Accepting We’re All Just Ordinary Beings

However, in case you hear this and expect Sangha discussions to always be deep and edifying, I should point out that the most important ideas that get challenged in the midst of Sangha are ideas about Sangha. That is, ideas about how Buddhist practitioners should think and act – including ourselves. Sometimes people feel disappointed when they first participate in Sangha because these supposed Buddhists don’t seem to have very deep understanding, or they’re still rather opinionated, rude, or oblivious when they communicate. Sangha members may reveal weaknesses, mistakes, problems, confusion, and doubt – and these things can make us doubt the efficacy of the Buddhist path, or deflate the hope we had that Buddhism would solve all of our problems and quickly make us into gracious, enlightened beings.

I had been part of a Sangha for a year or two and was hard-core into Zen when I overheard someone ask one of the senior practitioners, “How have you been?” The senior was a woman I admired who had practicing for 10 years or so, and she responded, “I’ve been awful!” I was surprised, confused, and disappointed – how could someone who had been practicing for 10 years feel awful?!

After many years, I realized and accepted the fact that Buddhist practice doesn’t relieve us of our humanity. We still make mistakes, have weaknesses, and encounter problems. We still feel, from time to time, sad, depressed, confused, and discouraged – but practice lets us see that we are larger than these experiences; they come and go, and don’t define who we are. We learn to face our issues head-on rather than distract ourselves or live in denial. We become more honest with ourselves and others. We accept ourselves and our humanity, and ironically taste enlightenment as we do so.

In the context of Sangha, this is what we should look for: Humble people who are working hard, not people who are already perfect. As the 18th century Japanese Zen master Hakuin wrote, “As with water and ice, there is no ice without water; apart from sentient beings, there are no Buddhas.”[1] We may hold an ideal of Buddhahood that contrasts greatly with the imperfect, fallible people we encounter – but Buddhas are nothing other than imperfect, fallible people who have awakened!

 


[1] “The Song of Zazen” by By Hakuin Ekaku Zenji (http://dharmamind.net/readings/the-song-of-zazen/)

 

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