Sunday, 26 December 2010

An Invitation To Practice

I don't believe in God.  I see no evidence for his existence.  But last night I found myself wishing he did exist.

You see, last night I broke down.  After spending several nights with little sleep, getting up every few hours to change my one-year-old's diaper and apply the cream to his diaper rash while he cried in anger and pain, and wondering when the fuck will his intestinal flu go away, I broke down.  I stood in the shower while trying to wash him as he wailed nonstop.  I stopped what I was doing and screamed out of sheer frustration at the situation.  My wife, who was herself feeling ill, had to get up and finish the job herself.  In my mental state, there was no way I could have taken care of him.

Patience has never been one of my strong points.  And waiting for my son to recover ever since he came down with a virus last Tuesday has been torture.  I have started hating - HATING - every farting noise coming out of his body that signals that once again, his diaper needs changing (which he dreads because his rash burns and wiping it apparently makes it burn even more).  Every diaper change has been like a mini-jujutsu tournament where he kicks and screams while I try my best to remove the soiled diaper, gently wipe his body, apply the ointment for his rash, and put on a new diaper - all while desperately whispering reassuring noises and words.

Last night, in my stressed mind, I was practically screaming at his pediatrician "Are you even doing your fucking job right?  Why isn't he getting better?"  Later as I lay sobbing in my wife's arms, I knew: I had hit a wall.

Hitting a wall sucks.  It always sucks.  And because it sucks, it is a huge opportunity to learn about yourself.

I learned that much as I like to think of myself as a rational and reasonable man, I can get pretty irrational when emotionally agitated (like everyone else, I suspect).  After all, I was having an imaginary conversation (okay, it wasn't really a conversation because in my head I was yelling and cursing while the doctor just listened).

I learned that while I don't believe in God, my Catholic upbringing still exerts a powerful influence on me.  I caught myself wondering if I'm being punished for my newly found atheism and Buddhism.  I learned that the belief in a divine being was truly irrational, because it was only in my moment of irrationality that the thought of divine punishment occurred.  I caught myself wishing there was a God.  Then I realized that I wasn't really wishing for a God, I was wishing for a GENIE: someone who would hear my wish for my wife and son to get better and make it happen.  A genie named God who would, with the proper spell or prayer, give my wishes priority over the wishes of those who are suffering from even worse illnesses and situations.  I mean, I am glad that neither my son's illness nor my wife's is life-threatening - but I want them well goddammit!

I also learned why it is that a Zen Buddhist practices Zen:

I practice because no amount of reasoning (no matter how sound it is) will be enough to get me through the tough times.  Because there's a difference between knowing that even pain and suffering are impermanent, and KNOWING this - KNOWING not just intellectually, but KNOWING FULLY that even pain and suffering are impermanent.  With my entire being.  And it is this KNOWING FULLY that is pretty much the point of Zen practice.

To know fully, to truly understand and accept the impermanence of existence; to manifest and express Buddha nature; to live with my walls and embrace them in order to learn from and ultimately breach them; to embrace my irrationality even as I seek to be rational; to hold Life with all its joys and sorrows in my heart;  to live as a Buddha, an Awakened One; and finally to just LIVE: this is why I practice.

That wall was an invitation to practice.  I think all walls are.

Friday, 17 December 2010

God = Purpose = Meaningful Life?

Somebody with the username of dunbar posted this comment on on a certain topic in Filipino Freethinkers:

"I believe we all are created for a purpose. and it transcends than just the "here" and "now". i hold on to the truth that my soul is destined for eternity. i am living in a temporary world, yes for NOW - thriving in a temporary shell/body, but I am created by God for His greater Glory.. now my question to you guys, where will you go after death? is death the end of you?? if you answer yes, then i pity you! you must have not known your purpose afterall! you must have lived in just a boring routinary circus without knowing where it leads you.. my friends, life without God has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning! God loves you, and He cares so much about you!!"

Here was my response:

"I do not need your imaginary Deity to have purpose. My purpose is to live. When I die, my purpose will have been served. I see no reason to make a dubious investment in an afterlife that may or may not exist. If there is indeed an afterlife, then how I will have lived my life prior to death will affect the quality of that afterlife. If there is no afterlife and there is no longer any "I", then there will no longer be any "I" left who will complain that there is no afterlife. Either way, I will have lived a happy life. 

Oh, and I am okay with impermanence. Yes, this "I" will sooner or later end - and what is so wrong about that? We live, we die. It is when we insist on clinging to one state that we suffer. Then we invent all sorts of fantasies to comfort us from the knowledge of our impending death. Fantasies just like yours. 

Comfort yourself all you want, but know that your pity for me and other like-minded people who have chosen to free our minds is unnecessary and a waste of your emotional energy. Your notion that life for a person like me must be a "boring routinary circus" is mistaken, for I am quite happy with the way I'm living."

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

From Godly to Godless in Ten Years

I just realized last night that it's been ten years now since I first picked up the book that would change my life.  No, not the Bible.  It was Neale Donald Walsch's "Conversations With God."  I cringe now with embarrassment, but that time I first read it it really changed my life.  It's true - and I say this with conviction despite my wincing at my use of such a clich├ęd phrase.

You have to understand that I was a Roman Catholic - born, baptized and confirmed.  I didn't drink the Kool-Aid, I'd been swimming in it ever since I was born.  I believed in God.  I went to Church.  I took Communion, made the Sign of the Cross as I said my prayers, went to confession.  I didn't exactly agree with the  Church's stance on sex, but so what?  I admired Pope John Paul II and envied those who were able to see him in person when he last visited the Philippines - so what if I disagreed with him on some things?  He was still the Pope.  I had zero knowledge of other religions.  I'd never heard of the term atheist.

The previous year I had read John Shelby Spong's "Why Christianity Must Change Or Die", but somehow it didn't move me that much (though I found the idea of God being a "Ground of All Being" fascinating).  CWG, on the other hand, just blew me away.

Why?  Because the idea that "God is so big you can't miss" was entirely new to me.  So was the idea that an unconditionally loving God would never send me to Hell or get pissed off and punish me, or the idea that no church or religion had a monopoly on God.  Of course I'd learned about other religions in Social Studies - but in a Jesuit-run school in a predominantly Christian country, they just had no real relevance to me.  And I couldn't grasp the idea of such godless religions like Buddhism and Taoism.  And nobody ever mentioned atheism, not so much because it was a taboo word, as it was because it was just unheard of.   But I digress.  The point is, prior to reading CWG, there was so much I didn't know about other religions.  As far as I was concerned, religion = Christianity.  Islam?  Well, they were welcome to believe what they wanted.  But Christianity was the best.  I mean come on!  Who died on the cross for the Muslims' sins?  Nope, not Jesus.  We got dibs on him.

I say all this to illustrate just how much of a surprise it was for me.  All of a sudden, everything I knew to be true seemed to be standing on a foundation of sand instead of rock.  And I was happy and excited.  For the first time I felt free.

I eagerly devoured the second and third books of the CWG trilogy, and I didn't stop there.  Within a year I dove head first into New Age, the occult, yoga and meditation.  Looking back now, I think I was lucky that I didn't find myself in a cult.  Because I just kept searching and searching for God everywhere.  I still went to Mass, but it was no longer the same.  My view was, what's the point of going to Mass in a stone building when God is EVERYWHERE?  I'd had enough of meeting (or I should say not meeting) God in church.  I wanted to meet God everywhere else.

The first meditation group I attended was the local Brahma Kumaris.  My teacher was a woman who would later become my first Aikido instructor.  I attended a few sessions where I would sit for several minutes staring at a painting on a wall and listening to a guided meditation tape.  I learned a little about the ideas of Brahma Kumaris: about positive thinking, chakras (of which the most important was the one on the forehead), the different types of yoga, and other stuff that I can no longer remember clearly.  I stopped going after a few sessions.  Why?  Because I learned something very important: meditation is tough.  Not to mention boring for the most part.

My search for the spiritual waxed and waned.  And it mimicked the search of the hippies of the 60's: a mix of yoga, pseudo-science, "Eastern" mysticism, incense, and um.... er... "medication."  We didn't have LSD here in Davao (which is probably just as well), but we had weed.  Lots and lots of weed.  So my search for the spiritual high quickly became the search for the next herbal high.  The irony here is that around that time, my friends and I had formed a weekly Bible study group.  Every Saturday we'd meet at our friend's house where his mom's friend would lead the Bible study session.  Afterwards, we'd have dinner.  Then we'd either stay there after the group leader left or we'd leave for my house.  And we'd get high.  And drunk.  So first we'd get spiritual.  Then we'd get psychedelic.  For a while, that was my world.  From being a vast and mostly unexplored landscape of possibility, it became reduced to a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke.

Within a few years I made some unskillful choices and a lot of stuff happened that I don't care to go into detail here.  Suffice it to say that by the second half of 2004 I was angry, depressed, lonely and weed-less.

Without the ability to get high, I turned once again to the spiritual search.  This time, my search took me to paganism and Wicca.  I learned about Aleister Crowley, the Wiccan Rede, pentagrams, athames, the significance and difference between deosil and widdershins, how to cast a circle, how to call the corners, etc.  Over time however, my interest waned.  I felt that I was just substituting one god/dess for another, one religion for another.  I didn't really believe in that stuff.  I WANTED to believe, but there's a difference between wanting to believe and believing.

Eventually my search led me to two godless paths: Taoism and Buddhism.  I initially identified more with Taoism.  But eventually I began to be more and more drawn towards Buddhism.  Something about the Middle Path resonated with me.  Maybe it was the moral code that was both strict and yet liberating, or the attitude that this life mattered - that it wasn't about trying to escape life but living it and thus finding freedom from the very stuff that imprisoned me - or maybe it was both and more.  Whatever it was, it hooked me.

And so towards the end of the decade I became a Buddhist.  And I eventually and a bit grudgingly admitted to myself that I just could not believe in God anymore.  Not only that, but that I couldn't care less about life after death.  It's not that I'm no longer afraid of dying.  It's just that I no longer see any point in wondering about what happens after I die.  Because so long as I'm alive what matters is that I truly live this life.  That instead of living my life now as a dubious investment in a future life, I just live.

So is that it?  Is that the end?  No.  The end of my search for a path, perhaps.  Certainly the end of running around looking for the next high, the next escape - be it spiritual, chemical, or any other kind.  I'm done with looking outside myself.  I'm also done with looking inside.  I don't have to look anywhere.  I don't have to go anywhere.  I just have to live my life.  That's all.  That is my practice.  That is my path.  After ten years of wandering, I've begun to walk the first few steps of my path.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Reading Humanist Manifesto III

I'm currently reading and savoring the Humanist Manifesto III, the successor to the two previous Humanist Manifestos made in 1933 and 1973 respectively.
It starts with an explanation of what Humanism is, which I find appealing to my liberal tendencies:

"Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.
The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance."

What I like about the manifesto is that it does not set things in stone. I do not get the sense that "this is what Humanism is, as it was in the beginning, now and forever shall be, world without end, Amen." It is continuously growing. If you read the previous two manifestos you'll see what I mean. It is an organic philosophy that, like water taking on the shape of whatever container it is poured into even as it retains its wateriness, adapts to the changes of life even as it retains its basic nature.

I also do not find it to be incompatible with Buddhism* - while it is by no means a "Buddhist" school of thought, the following affirmations below do not run counter to Buddhist teachings:

"This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.

Life's fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals."

Well, except maybe for that last line. But not so much in the sense that Buddhism argues the opposite - that Life's fulfillment does not emerge from "individual participation in the service of humane ideals" - as in the sense that fulfillment isn't the point as far as Buddhism is concerned. That being said, there is nothing wrong with wanting to participate in the service of humane ideals. I, for one, choose to participate in this. Just because life is impermanent and life is dukkha (I prefer to use this term instead of the usual English translation into "suffering" because of my Catholic upbringing - the word suffering brings the image of crucifixion to my mind) doesn't mean that it is wrong and pointless to work to improve the quality of human life.  Let's continue:

"Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature's integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.
Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone."

Here, Buddhism and Humanism agree. Yes of course there are things and events that occur beyond our control. But although we do not have full control (and we shouldn't even bother trying to have full control if we want to keep our sanity), we do have some degree of control. We are not responsible for the uncontrollable events in our lives - we are however, responsible for how we choose to live.

To read the Manifesto III in full, click on this sentence.

*A disclaimer is necessary here: I am speaking here out of my own understanding of Buddhism.  I do not represent the whole of Buddhism, and other Buddhists may disagree with me.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Girl Gone Geek's Blog, Sandman, Tattoo Tuesday

While stalking the people I follow on Twitter I saw that Neil Gaiman (THE Neil Gaiman of Sandman and American Gods fame) retweeted a short link leading to this page: It's full of pictures of Sandman tattoos. It made me wish that I got a Sandman tattoo instead of the World from the Major Arcana Tarot. *sigh* Unfortunately, Japanese society (of which I'm a part of because of my marriage to a Japanese) doesn't look kindly on tats, associating them with yakuza members. Last year I went to the local pool in my wife's hometown and the lifeguard asked me to cover my tat. I spent a good part of the time with a towel strategically slung over my left shoulder so as to conceal the artwork on the shoulder blade. Talk about inconvenient! All this means is no more tattoos for me. All I can do is look at these beautiful tats and drool.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Beatles Were Wrong: Love Is Not All You Need

"You should have told your mothers to have aborted you!"

That was just one of the insults hurled, along with "Satan get away from us!", by members of Pro Life Philippines at supporters of the Reproductive Health Bill.  Click here to read the article (where I got the video below).

I easily feel so morally superior to people who - well, people who act like they do in the video.  "Oh I'm a Zen Buddhist, I practice the Middle Path, I sit Shikantaza zazen, I am above all that drama!" is a regular feature in my mind.  This is one of my weaknesses.  So bear in mind that while I am pointing out the obvious hypocrisy of some of the members of Pro Life Philippines I am doing so in the knowledge that I am also a fallible person with my own moral failings.

Look: I watched the video and I read the article.  I even read the comments.  I am outraged.  And yet, even as I feel outraged, even as I feel the urge to send a big FUCK YOU to Pro Life Philippines President Eric Manalang, the CBCP, the Roman Catholic Church, etc.  I also realize that we're all just sentient beings trying our best to live our lives in a good way.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that despite this fact we can't all "just get along."  Yes, there is no "us" over "here" vs. a "them" over "there".  Still, we often find ourselves "here" and others "there".  It is sad but true:  the Beatles were wrong: Love is NOT all you need.  

We all have love.  Catholics have love.  Buddhists have love.  Atheists have love.  So why is it that we still find ourselves fighting each other?

If love were all we needed, the Eightfold Path would have been unnecessary.  Buddha would have simply said, "Just love."  No need for Right View, just love (because love is blind, anyway).  No need for Right Intention - just love (never mind that the road to hell is paved with good but unskillful intentions).  No need for Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood - just love, man and everything you say and do will be right!  No need for Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration - Just loooove.

No man.  Love is not all we need.

It helps - and I believe it helps a lot (as Marvin Gaye sang, "Only love can conquer hate).  But it's not absolutely all we need.

Sorry, Beatles fans.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Being A Daruma Doll

I confess that I have not practiced in several days.   No Zen, no chanting the Heart Sutra, no Metta meditation, no yoga.  Nothing, nada, zilch.  So why blog about this?  It's my way of pushing myself back to the yoga mat and makeshift zafu.  I figured maybe the knowledge that someone will read this will somehow pressure me to practice again.

Although now that I think of it, this effort of blogging for the sake of motivating myself to sit zazen could be better used to actually sit zazen.   Still, I'm here typing so might as well make the best of it by continuing.

The thing about Zen practice is that even when I'm not practicing that is still considered a part of the practice.  I'm not trying to rationalize or excuse my lack of practice, by the way.  It is inexcusable for me not to practice because I only need to sit Zen for about half an hour and there are twenty-fucking'-four hours in a day.  But this struggle to motivate myself is also the practice.  Because when I miss another zazen session and tell myself, "Tomorrow I'll do it" or "later I'll sit" THAT is what I need to practice with.  When I feel lazy I need to practice with that.  When I catch myself berating myself for not practicing, that is what I need to practice with.  So no, I'm not talking about making excuses.  Quite the opposite, actually.  I'm talking about constant practice.  I'm talking about constant living.  About constantly putting one foot in front of the other.  And about falling down and getting up again and again.  I'm talking about being a daruma doll.

That's enough writing for today.  Time to practice.  As always.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Sonic Landmarks

My wife and I recently had a conversation about a particular quirk I have, which is basically my mysterious (well, mysterious to her) ability to recall songs, the bands or artists who played them, and how old I was when I first heard them. We had this conversation over several bottles of beer while watching my sister's ex-boyfriend's rock band play. She expressed her bemusement as I strained to hear her over the sounds of 90's rock and grunge. And so I did my best to explain.
And my explanation was that I tend to measure or track my life in terms of songs I've heard. Every song I've ever heard is like a milestone, a distinct sonic landmark that I associate with certain periods of my life. When I hear, for instance, Radiohead's Creep I'm thirteen years old again, and I can almost see my old classroom with my old classmates. I can feel the awkwardness, the shyness, the desire to be cool. When I listen to the Dave Matthews Band, I'm back in my college days hanging out with my friends as we drink and pass the joints around, getting stoned and wasted. I hear a Nirvana song and I remember the summer of '95 when I rediscovered Nirvana (rediscovered because Kurt Cobain had already been dead for a few years) after seeing a copy of the band's biography. I remember wishing I was cool and punk as Kurt, Chris and Dave. Looking back, I'm glad I didn't end up like Kurt, but I still like listening to Smells Like Teen Spirit.
The point is, I cannot imagine my life without all these songs. I guess it's the musician in me - that part of me that got hooked to music whether it's hearing it or playing it. Music, after all, was my first mistress, my first lover, who seduced me in my adolescence and has been my constant companion ever since. But I didn't tell my wife that. I didn't want to make her jealous.