Friday, June 11, 2004

Dharma, Desire, and Daily Life

I was talking to a buddhist friend who has been practicing on his own for a while, and he mentioned that he no longer has the energy to chant for more than fifteen minutes at a time. Although this is a perfectly good amount of daimoku, it is considerably less than he used to do when connected with a group and considerably less than some people find is optimal to keep them centered. It occurred to me that this may be due to the lack of connection to the other aspects of the practice, which combines chanting with study and being part of a community, interacting with others about buddhism, for a kind of triad of buddhist practice. I have always found that when these three elements are combined, practice is strongest, its effect is most pronounced, and the prayer is most focused and purposeful. Practicing independently of a sect or community (sangha) presents challenges in these areas, and I have often found myself looking for study material. Some good materials can be found on the internet and other places. However, as a writer, I wanted to do my part to contribute to the pool of literature and share what others have shared with me and what my brief experience has taught me.

I believe it is important to write on interesting topics as they relate to buddhism. It is very easy for doctrinal analyses to become tedious and self-referential, lacking a direct connection to the world and our role in it. A friend once visited a certain temple near him and complained that the study materials were lacking in relevance. Though such a judgment is inherently subjective, I wanted to select topics that are of interest to the practicing community whose primary objectives in life relate to their families, professions, communities, and interests. This is the bulk of practitioners, for whom practice is a way of staying centered, balancing their lives, and doing what they have to do most effectively.

The thing that first interested me in the practice was the assurance that it can be used to succeed in anything. At the time, I had some exciting professional pursuits which I genuinely wanted to advance. I cared very little for wisdom, peace, compassion, and the other effects associated with buddhist practice. In retrospect, I never achieved what I wanted, and I am glad I didn't, because I really don't think I was ready. I still struggle professionally, and still have goals I am actively working toward. I have also found that one of the biggest obstacles to success in any undertaking, professionally, socially, or otherwise, is fear, as people tend to get in their own way. The irony is that this fear is typically associated with the very self-serving motives that often drive people's actions in the first place, and it is those very buddhist qualities of compassion, wisdom, and peace that help to ebb away at egocentric fears.

An oft-quoted buddhist saying suggests that earthly desires are enlightenment. I have heard this debated at length, and certain sects of buddhism find it to be a cheapening of the real doctrine. Without wanting to get involved in such a debate, as I think that doctrinal disputation often leads away from the harmonious interaction between people that is so central to buddhism, I do want to offer a few comments. As a buddha is a common mortal, because the supreme being is nothing other than the self that is awakened to its true identity, so the religious philosophy of buddhism should be no different from a secular philosophy, and so a buddhist truth should coincide in some way with secular truth. In this case, I believe it does. It is the well established idea that struggle builds character. It is the one teacher in this life that cannot fail to build strength, wisdom, and patience. It has a lot to do with the fact that the ultimate reality in buddhism is often realized when delving into the deepest muck of this world and is related to the beautiful image of the lotus flower growing up in a muddy swamp. It is the transformative power of struggle that turns anger to a sense of justice, anxiety to patience, and loneliness to compassion. It is the crowning effects of lifelong struggle that build individuals of dignity and strength.

The struggles come in two forms, the ones that come by themselves through misfortune and the ones that the practitioner selects. The traditional four buddhist sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death, are the kind that come by themselves. It is a certainty that most individuals will encounter some of these struggles at one time. However, life would be a pretty sullen enterprise if the only obstacles were randomly thrown in our path by fate.

Happily, we can choose our own. These are the ones associated with any undertaking, any goal we choose to pursue. Whether in the realm of social life, family, finances, or profession, the goals that people pursue will inevitably create obstacles. There is something exciting in encountering an obstacle to a goal one has chosen, and it is more easily approached with a sense of challenge and eagerness. When fate throws a random hurdle that we have not chosen, it is natural for resentment, anxiety, or even depression to result. However, when the obstacle relates to a goal that we have chosen because of its meaning to us personally, it it much easier to approach it in a constructive and rational way. The excitement of trying to make our goals a reality can provide this energy.

It is the desires that reside in the human heart that help to define who the individual is, and it is the pursuit of these desires that are some of the truest expressions of the human being. Especially when tempered by buddhist practice, it is often the case that desires are developed in a way that brings benefit not just to the practitioner but to others as well. As Deepak Chopra once related in his Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, each person has something unique to offer, and their goal in life, or dharma (to use his terminology -- different from the buddhist dharma) is to discover and develop that ability, to be of service to others. This is the ultimate fruition of desire, when its fulfillment is of benefit as much to others as the self.

There is nothing wrong with desires of a purely self-oriented nature, and they are essential to functioning as a human being. But the deepest fulfillment is achieved when personal desires are merged with the larger connection between the individual and others, whether it be their immediate family, the larger sphere of life on the planet, or anything in between. To find the nature in ourselves that is capable of fusing the personal desires with the fulfillment found in service is seldom an easy task, and it is often through a painstaking and time-consuming course of trial and error that this happy fusion can be found. It is like the saying that when you find what you were meant to do, you will be happy. It is like the new-age notion that you will not succeed with a task until you find the one that is what you were meant for. It is often only in the long view of retrospection that the real meaning of failures comes to light, and it is said that if you put your whole heart into a pursuit, no effort is wasted. It is a matter of building faith through experience to understand this on a deep level and no longer to question the purposefulness of efforts that seem superficially vain.

And so around the world, people find fulfillment in myriad capacities according to their own nature, as gardeners, lawyers, mothers, and anything else you can think of. It is not necessarily the pursuit itself, but the individual and their relationship to it. It is deeply personal and highly subjective.

The dharma that Chopra is talking about is not necessarily something that can come through a rational process. It is often found in letting go and accessing a part of yourself that is not always conscious, not always amenable to reason. Many ways exist of accessing the hidden voice that allows one to know his or her purpose, but certainly the practice of buddhism and the steady and regular chanting of gongyo and daimoku can help. It is the view that the daimoku of the lotus sutra is your life itself that makes it possible for daimoku to illuminate the self. It is the idea that there is no enlightenment outside of the self that ultimately relates our own deepest desires to our truest nature and relationship to the world.

Art? That's a Man's Name (Andy Warhol)

Art is one of the truest expressions of the human being. Like buddhism, art is involved with expanding life to a wider horizon and deepening it to greater fulfillment. It is not surprising that some of the most profound buddhist (or any) scripture is also great literature; all truth is beauty, all beauty, truth. A moment of artistic rapture, whether in the creation or the experience, is a moment of enlightenment. Like a moment of intimacy, it involves a deep connection with another person; it involves the obliteration of the self and the absorption of the spirit in the experience of beauty. The more complete this obliteration, the better art can be created or experienced, without expanding the pool of karma. It is then that its experiencer attains a wider self-awareness to include not just their own experience but that of the artist and his or her life. Art requires the obliteration of the self and provides its truest expression.

Art is also an expression of society. It is the voice that is not heard, the echo of a civilization's unconscious and ancestral past, the voice that allows a society to know itself. It is the breath, the heartbeat of civilization. There is no process, internal or external, by which an individual or society can know itself more intimately than the creation and experience of art. There is no better way to look inside, take the pulse, and know the innermost nature. We live in a society that has achieved extraordinary heights technologically, scientifically, economically, and in many other ways. By contrast, in an important respect art does not advance, but remains perennially as it started -- the voice of life itself.

Myriad obstacles exist to the expression of the creative self -- similar to the ones that inhibit experience of the buddha nature, the inherent darkness of self-doubt and fear. Perhaps the greatest fear of all is of experiencing one's own power. It is not so much fear that we are small and impotent but that we are infinitely powerful that compresses the human spirit, as Nelson Mandela has observed. Like all fear, it is self-centered -- ironically in that art is a reaching out, an attempt to go beyond the confines of the self to share its inner recesses with others.

Doubt about one's ability can also be an obstacle. Often, people are not encouraged creatively because artistic expression fails to live up to prevailing measures of achievement. Julia Cameron cites the artist's mirror as an all-important means of assuaging this doubt -- the presence of another who will watch, listen, or experience one's work and offer encouragement. In an important respect, creation has nothing to do with ability; it is a means of expression, of fulfillment, an end in itself. As a founding member of the Julliard School of Drama once said to a student concerned about her ability, "it's not your business."

So often the artist is enmeshed in his own issues -- the stereotypical tormented creative -- incapable of disseminating or marketing what he or she does. Still, the creation itself of the beautiful work from the artist's inner torment is akin to the growth of the lotus flower in the muddy swamp, or of a person of strength and dignity from the ashes of their struggles, through the transformative effects of buddhist practice.

This same practice can sometimes connect the artist with the part of himself beyond doubt, which affirms his own worth and the creativity he is capable of, and by extension the worth of others, whom he is then better able to reach. He has experienced his own power, seen the light in his own life, used it to illuminate a larger path beyond himself, and has relinquished fear. His power fortifies him rather than burdening him with doubt. He has evolved into a functional poet, painter, or dancer who creates without impediment, who can tap the unimpeded flow of creativity from his own life and from outside, serving as a channel for a universal energy. He is an artist. He is a buddha.

The creating, the experiencing, and the sharing is the cyclical process of buddhist practice and of artistic life, i.e., the creation of a higher life condition or a work of art, and sharing it with someone else. It is said that one goes to church and to the theater for the same reason, to experience the self. Van Gogh was reputed to have said that when he paints the stars, he finds religion. Much has been said to encourage this highly personal process. Rilke said that a poem is a work of infinite loneliness and cannot be reached with any critical theory but only by the heart of another living being willing to experience what the artist is saying. Out of this creative emptiness comes what Poe called the quest of the moth for the stars, just as Rumi has pointed out that it is from the nothingness of outer space that giant planets are spinning and hurtling at dizzying velocities.

It is the same when two people are talking, trying to understand. The suspension of preconceptions and agendas is necessary to listen -- to hear the place where another person is coming from independent of one's own cares, putting aside one's own karma to learn of another. It may be this suspension of the self that the lotus sutra refers to when it talks about the ultimate reality being shared between buddhas, i.e., those who have suspended the filter of their shallow nature to take in the true message of another. It is related to what Sunryu Suzuki calls the "beginner's mind" and why preconceptions make it difficult to appreciate a new kind of art or a new genre of song.

Artistic expression is a personal process, as is the development of the self through buddhist practice. Only the practitioner can know the inner struggles that need to be transformed, that need to be expressed. Only the individual can know the details of this process, the colors, the words --the prayers and the determinations. A mentor can be there to encourage, to listen, to share in this process -- not necessarily to instruct.

The distinctly individual nature of artistic creation derives from the absence of governing rules; it can only emerge as a spontaneous product of an individual soul, when he or she reaches for the message being conveyed. It is as Sylvia Plath once said, "I write only because there is a voice within me that will not be still." This undefinability is a key feature of art and is why as great a rhetorician as a Supreme Court Justice was unable to distinguish art from pornography more articulately than to say, "I know it when I see it." This effect derives from the absence of deterministic rules in the creation of art, which goes beyond the machinery of the mind and into a field that has sometimes been described as quantum -- beyond the classical realm that is bounded in time and space. It is why digital computers cannot be programmed to compose inspired music; the process is not mechanical, it is something that only an artist in the process of creating can access -- not in the analysis but in the creation. It is not different materially from the rapture of an athlete in the process of a spectacular play -- both go beyond the narrow confines of the classical, ratiocinating, mechanical mind. It is akin to the finding of the true self through buddhist practice, which may not be recognizable from the calculating preconceptions of one's former identity.

If art is underappreciated and underemphasized in modern society, often playing a backseat to popular entertainment and more material pursuits, causes can be found from within the artistic community as well as the establishment. Perhaps this division is a manifestation of other societal divisions and the polarization that exists on so many issues. If the society sometimes undervalues artistic contributions, perhaps the artists have occasionally forgotten the importance of understanding the terms on which society is willing to communicate. Perhaps it is relevant that certain societies, notably the Greeks and Elizabethans, less separated art and entertainment. Instead, the popular plays of their age were also the most uncompromising drama. In this respect art parallels a fundamental duality within buddhism: art is the eternal law; entertainment is the expedient means. Art is subjective wisdom, entertainment is objective reality. Art is eternal, entertainment is transient. Entertainment without art is vacuous. Art without entertainment is impotent, self-ingratiating.

Not only is art an important contribution to the society, but society is equally important to the artist, providing sometimes a subject or inspiration and often the means of sustenance, without which there would be no brush or pen. In this mutual dependence, reminiscent of buddhism's dependent origination, is a humility and an appreciation, bringing art and society onto a common plane, neither above and neither beneath the other.

The civilizations of antiquity are remembered for their artistic, philosophical, and religious achievements more than for their economic or technological ones. Perhaps the balance between the hard and soft sciences, between technology and art, between economics and religion, may be more fully appreciated, as the limits of purely secular and material pursuits are recognized, for a balance between the creative spirit inside and the material realm outside.

Monday, May 31, 2004

Doctrine and Conscience

Here are a few thoughts on the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin I put down about a year ago. Since then, I've tried to move away from the concept of Nichiren Daishonin as a guide to the practice. This is my defense of individualism and conscience in the context of teachers, doctrine, and scripture. Today, my views are even broader -- there are many teachers of relevance to the practice of daimoku, many of them nonbuddhist -- and one need not be bound doctrinally to enjoy the benefits of the practice.

The independent movement referred to below is the group of practitioners of the daimoku, many of whom regard themselves as Nichiren Buddhists, independent of the major sects, e.g., Hokke Kempon, Rissho Kosei-kai, Nichiren Shoshu, Nichiren Shu, Soka Gakkai.


The purpose of the independent movement (indies), as I understand it, is to enable people to practice the buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin in an autonomous context, i.e., where the parameters of the practice are determined by them. In light of this, how shall we understand the following traditions:

1) The mentor-disciple relationship
2) Interpretation of the gosho
3) The boundaries of the practice, i.e., if we can essentially "do what we want", what justifies our being part of a common group/sangha?

I would like to offer my own reflections on the foregoing, and equally I would like to hear how others would respond. Hopefully, we can work together to form a common sangha where we can all practice this faith and advance our lives together.

Mentor-disciple is certainly one of the traditions of the buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin, emphasized more in certain sects than in others. It is a very eastern concept. Not that westerners don't have the idea of a teacher, but the concept of mentor-disciple is sometimes understood well beyond this, such as that the mentor is the prayer, the disciple is the action to fulfill it. This interpretation lies in stark contrast to the western idea of individual conscience, where the practitioner determines a truth that resonates for him or her.

By way of reconciling the mentor-disciple relationship with the primacy of conscience, I would paraphrase an insight by the Greek philosopher Socrates, who once said that all learning is recollection. He is referring to the so-called eternal truths and implying that they don't need to be taught, but merely uncovered. They are already within us, and it is the function of the teacher, in conjunction with the student, to uncover them, so they can become a living reality in the lives of both.

This mode of learning particularly conduces to interactivity, where the process of discovery is a joint enterprise. It also contains a built-in defense against any excesses by the teacher (whether intentional or not), i.e., the student can refuse to go along when the teacher is wrong or when the teacher's ideas are not resonating with the student. The teacher, being human, will inevitably make mistakes, and it is important to have an understanding of the relationship which facilitates their identification and correction. When the teaching relationship is unidirectional with no remediational mechanisms, the shortcomings of the teacher are multiplied by the number of students, creating, in certain cases, a cult-like effect.

Another question is, "who is the teacher?" In saying a sect traces its lineage to Nichiren Daishonin, it is strongly implied that the teacher is Nichiren himself and that he will be held as the standard by which other teachers or interpreters are measured. However, Nichiren himself equates the buddha with the common mortal, not exempting himself. If a common mortal can be wrong, then why not the buddha? Inherent in his teachings, then, is the paradoxical justification for interpreting them flexibly, not fundamentalistically.

Viewed another way, Nichiren has said that no essential difference exists between ordinary mortals and the great buddhas like Shakyamuni. One way of denying this equivalence is to deny our own buddha nature. Another way is to deny the lower nature of the teachers, i.e., Shakyamuni, Nichiren, etc.... Again, a flexible interpretation of their teachings is implied.

The foregoing would be true even if the teachings of buddhism were not adaptable to the place, time, culture, and audience. However, since buddhism is compassionate, it makes no sense to dump it on someone with the admonition, "you figure it out," and walk away. On the contrary, it behooves those who would share the benefits of this beautiful practice to ask, "what is the best way for me to do so?" Sometimes the best way is to say nothing and merely to be the best person one can be. Other times, it may be to quote verbatim from the scripture. In between are many ways in which one can interpret or convey buddhist truth, again militating against a fundamentalistic interpretation.
Who are the valid interpreters of buddhism? Since its purpose is internal transformation, anyone who has achieved this effect is qualified to share their process. People will naturally vary in the extent of the transformation, the method used, and the ability to articulate that process to others, but the important point is that we are all, in some capacity, capable of sharing our experience. This is akin to the Quaker interpretation of Christianity, on the left wing of the Protestant reformation, that all are qualified to understand their faith. So they did away not just with priests but with ministers and the church, too, leaving them with wooden pews and people offering their insights into faith.

This is an overview of how I see the independent movement fitting into the tradition of buddhism handed down through the ages, from Shakyamuni, through and beyond Nichiren, to the present. Even Shakyamuni, genius that he was in the minds of many buddhist and non-buddhist teachers, was simply human, capable of error, a product of his age, and influenced by the people who came before him. This does not even address the question of how authentically the sutras record his original teachings, or for that matter how many of the so-called gosho were really written by Nichiren Daishonin.

I think the important thing, in adapting these teachings to this place and time, happily possessed of a philosophy of pluralism and tolerance, is to do our best to understand them in our own way and relate them to our own lives. Then we can come together, compare notes, and hopefully come to a fuller, more complete, and more successful integration of these ancient teachings into our lives for the benefit of all concerned. There need be no supreme leader for achieving this effect, but a strong ichinen to learn and to share is as important in this as it ever was.

Postscripts:
1. I just received feedback on this article from a friend who said words to the effect that there are some who need guidance in the beginning of their practice. I wrote back that I agree entirely, and that a democratic system is intended not to replace but to facilitate this process. In my own case, I might learn faster when I am learning from people with whom I really can participate as an equal, so I don't feel like I'm resisting control structures.

2. I wrote this a while ago, and my view has evolved to the point that I'm not sure I even want to call what I practice buddhism or nichirenism. I'm reminded of the first line of the Tao Te Ching, "The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao." By the same token, as soon as a name is attached to this practice of chanting the daimoku, it becomes about the ism, the doctrine, the org. I think I've had enough of this. I want it to be about the human being, nothing else.

The Practice of Daimoku

The practice of the daimoku is both simple and subtle, consisting of recitation of the Lotus Sutra and repeating its daimoku, or title, nam myo-ho renge kyo. Twice daily is recommended, although any frequency that one is comfortable with is okay. As with most types of mind-body conditioning, the greater the frequency, the greater the impact. So for a given amount of time spent in a week, the allocation of that time daily is more effective than three times a week, and twice per day works better than once,and there is nothing wrong with doing "extra" in the afternoon or before bed. The twice daily rhythm is ideally suited for the workaday world.

Perhaps the first guideline is consistency, as with any type of personal development. The amount of time spent on the practice is secondary and will adjust as practice deepens. Focus also determines effectiveness. An appropriate tempo is five daimoku every six seconds. This can vary enormously from school to school and group to group, but I have noticed this is the comfortable tempo in contexts where I have engaged in the practice. Too fast -- people can't keep up. Too slow -- they get restless.

The Lotus Sutra itself is also recited -- usually the second and sixteenth chapters in the Japanese rendition of the Kumarajiva translation. The rhythm of the practice is a key ingredient of its effectiveness, and this translation provides a good rhythm.

The Gohonzon is sometimes used as the focus of one's chanting. It is a scroll that says nam myo-ho renge kyo. Scripturally, the Gohonzon derives its significance as the embodiment of the enlightened life of Nichiren Daishonin. Empirically, the Gohonzon has made a big difference in the practice of many. It may be obtained in various ways -- usually from one of the traditional organizations practicing Nichiren Daishonin's buddhism, or, more recently, from the internet. Considerable controversy surrounds Gohonzon conferral. Certain Gohonzons are alleged to be authentic, and others, counterfeit. Organizational hierarchies have been known to use their monopoly on "legitimate" Gohonzons to bolster their authority. I do not comment here on the merits of these views except to say that I have felt a difference between Gohonzons, though I regret that this has been used for political manipulation. Nonetheless, the choice of Gohonzon remains an important and personal decision.

The scientific rationalist will question the use of a Gohonzon. Assuming they can accept the practice of chanting itself, why should an external object matter, especially since the buddha is in your life? The best answer I can give is that it is okay to chant without one -- to a blank wall, for instance, as many have done before obtaining one. The practice does work this way for those who prefer. Nonetheless, as someone who wants to believe that no external object is necessary and who has been unamused at how Gohonzons have been used politically, I can attest from experience that the scroll impacts how I feel during and after chanting. For those who question why the type of Gohonzon matters, I can only reply by asking why having a Gohonzon should matter at all. The answer clearly lies in the realm of mysticism, or nonlocality, to use a fancy term (or nonlocal, i.e., nonclassical transfer from the source to the Gohonzon) and may never be amenable to rational analysis. The attempt to explain mystical phenomena in scientific terms remains an active and controversial area of philosophy.

The mechanics of the practice impact its effectiveness but must be accompanied by the appropriate spirit to avoid empty formalism. I know of no word in English comparable to the Japanese ichinen (literally one mind) to denote the appropriate attitude. Perhaps the closest term is focus, i.e., what is your object, your interest, your desire, your attitude, and the strength or degree of these things. This will strongly impact the result of your effort, as in anything.

I am reminded of the fast-food slogan, "just how hungry are you?" The idea is closely related -- the more you want to see results in your practice, the more you will see them. A yoga teacher once described the fruits of practice as attainable, "but it takes constant practice, and you must have a strong desire for liberation." An Olympic trainer once said he could identify future champions not by their athletic performance but by the look in their eye. There, the windows to the soul, is revealed the secret to success in buddhist practice: determination, or ichinen -- the single-minded focus to bring about the transformation that you seek. All other clues to the practice flow from that, i.e., the more you desire to understand, the more you will understand.

The basic principles of attitude are few and can take a lifetime to develop. It is like juggling -- you can learn the basic patterns in a few minutes and spend the rest of your life mastering them with greater and greater numbers of balls. And you will certainly have plenty to juggle as you get into the practice, fortunately.

I would highlight focus while chanting as the second guideline -- to strongly determine with minimal doubt or distraction what you are trying to achieve with the practice. For some it may be peace; for practitioners of traditional sects, emptiness and nonattachment; for those accustomed to more modern and materialistic interpretations, it may be material gain or even the fulfillment of hedonistic desire. In my experience, the object of focus matters less than strong determination. Daimoku is omnidirectional, and daimoku focused at one area of life will affect others. Profound changes can result in one's life condition and attitude from chanting single-mindedly about even the most seemingly petty desires. This is another effect that is difficult to explain but which many have experienced. Perhaps it relates to the expedient means of buddhism, taking people from where they are to a deeper understanding. Or perhaps it is as Vivekananda once said, that there is no incorrect understanding, just moving from truth to higher truth. Other things one can chant for include inner peace, world peace, a job, a better job. The point is that no matter how selfish or selfless, the practice has an expanding effect. I have known people to chant for illicit drugs or even unprintably ebarassing things, only to find changes come over them far more profound than anything they had envisioned. Again, the object of focus is of considerably less importance than the degree of focus.

This is not to say that the object is unimportant. Although it is important to focus on what one feels strongly about, sometimes trying consciously to choose something outside yourself, such as the welfare of a friend, can have a particularly expanding effect. However, for some, this ability to focus outside oneself may not occur right away but grows with experience.

This leads into a third guideline of practice, which involves encouraging others. In the closing strain of the lotus sutra's life span chapter, Shakyamuni declares his constant thought to be how he can help all others attain the buddhist way, or "the body of a buddha," to quote Burton Watson's alliterative translation. To attain this way, it helps to practice with the same thought -- how can I encourage someone else?

The ways to encourage another are as innumerable as there are practitioners. It could be a smile and a warm word. It could be sharing an experience that relates to another's circumstances. It could be coordinating a meeting as a forum for people to pray together. A key element of encouragement is that of sharing from a position of equality or even from below, rather than expounding as if one has it figured out -- a sure sign that one hasn't.

The lotus sutra is part of Mahayana buddhism, which is about others. Mahayana means greater vehicle in that it is alleged to have greater transformative power than practice directed solely at oneself because hatred, worry, fear, anger, and many of the other emotional burdens stem from self-focus. Liberation from the shackling effects of ego, arrogance, self-deprecation, and the like, can be found in reaching out in appropriate ways to share the benefits of the practice. As Nichiren once said, one cannot light up the path of another without lighting one's own. No qualification is necessary except the desire to share one's own experience. Ichinen is important here, too. How much do I want to help, and how far am I willing to reach out? The answer ultimately depends on one's own desire for liberation, compassion, and the desire to live in a better world, which fuse into a single, mutually reinforcing, goal. The practice for others is an ideal channel for the anxieties that arise from tumultuous world around us filled with struggle and destruction. It is a way to resolve not to be helpless, to have something to offer. The effect can be dramatic in the experience of liberation. Then the effect of the momentum and the positive determination to help others or to at least encourage them in a constructive manner carries over into the rest of one's life, and slowly one is freed from the ego-bound friction that commonly afflicts interpersonal interaction.

The logical extension of this process is sharing the practice with others who do not currently embrace it. Sometimes known as proselytizing or even the more staccato Japanese term, shakubuku (literally, to break and subdue), this practice can be controversial. It is best to view it as a way of sharing something with a friend, like a new gym, diet, hair-stylist, to see if they are interested. Humility is key -- understanding that you are merely sharing a subjective experience, combined with a heartfelt belief that you may have something to learn from the other person, too. Proselytizing at its worst is an expansion of the wealth and influence of religious leaders. At its best, it is a friend making a difference in the life of another by sharing a transformative experience. Given the myriad destructive influences in modern society, I think that within reasonable boundaries, this practice can be ethical.

A fourth guideline is the checking of attitude, monitoring one's thoughts for arrogance, presumption, and other forms of disparaging people. This includes monitoring thoughts for self-disparagement, like the epithet a person calls himself on making a mistake, or even just denying one's own potential for fulfillment. These are all sometimes called slander -- of oneself and of others. To see the potential for growth in oneself is to see it in others and to treat oneself and others with appropriate respect. Nothing in daily living goes deeper to what it means to live as a buddhist than to honor this infinite potential in everyone and in every way -- not less ourselves than others, as it is difficult to respect others before respecting oneself.

This monitoring of one's thoughts and attitudes is one of the most difficult aspects of the practice. For people who have had difficulties with these destructive tendencies their entire life, it is unlikely they will eliminate them in short order. Patience, over the course of years or even decades, is essential, as the process is slow but discernable, and the first step is self-forgiveness.

Many other guidelines exist to assist in this practice, but these four, consistency, focus, encouragement, and checking attitude, are as fundamental as any, and they all take continual monitoring. It is doubtful whether anyone ever "gets it" fully, but diligent and persistent attention to these matters will pay off handsomely in the results received from the practice.

Individuals, Organizations, and Angst

Whatever this truth is that most religions seem to be aiming at appears to have something to do with other people. It is somehow in relation to others that we define ourselves either as people with something to offer or as self-centered, or more often, some hybrid. Even when we find a space just for ourselves, in helping us define who we are, it poises us for deeper interaction with others. There is no way to avoid this connection between self and other, and it is primarily when this connection is overlooked that trouble develops in people's lives, and the trouble is often alleviated when the connection is restored in a healthy manner.

Beyond this native connection is the expedient in a common religious practice of sharing insights so that each can benefit from the others' experiences, and through this cross-fertilization, a community of supportive and mutually reinforcing practices is developed.

Such a community can be of friends who meet as a small group. Sometimes, however, especially if what they're doing is effective at achieving its desired result, the community will grow and becomes difficult to manage without some kind of administrative infrastructure, or organization. This "o-word" is a source of consternation for many, and understandably so.

Organization brings with it control, authority, and sometimes gossip, as well as a host of psychodynamical effects that are sometime described in organizational psychology. These difficulties can be compounded by the fact that it is sometimes the most troubled people who seek the salutary effects of religion, and these same people sometimes have the most narcissistic need for authority and control. In extreme cases these effects combine to create a cult. Innumerable permutations on these issues exist, but for many, organization is spelled T-R-O-U-B-L-E, and hence the repudiation of organized religion by a large segment of the population.

Other effects include group think, the departure from the group of those who do not accept its axioms, and a corresponding increased concentration of those who do, creating a self-reinforcing society that may seem at best strange to objective observers. Gossip and rumor are other effects that break down trust and the friendship it makes possible, for an organization that is spiritually and socially weakened.

So there you have it. The community that makes it possible for people to share their faith experiences together can create an organization that makes it impossible for many to stay.

Is there any way to have the best of both worlds? Much has been written on this, and I am not sure there is any easy answer. To some extent it is just a trade-off: the more community, the more organization, and the less organization, the less community. Nonetheless, within a given structure, measures can be taken to mitigate certain organizational effects, including:

Elections and juridical mechanisms

Free _expression and dialogue, as opposed to rigid doctrine

Disclosure

Local autonomy

Many organizations employ elections to select officers. Though this can work well, the downside, especially for election of someone with wide authority, is that elections are not always the tidiest of processes. A top-down appointive system is an alternative, and this can be tempered by the need for an appointment to be ratified by the group over whom the appointment is operative. Sometimes in a group, there is one person who is the obvious choice as its leader. This process can work particularly well in the presence of adjudicating procedures where a leader can be removed by action at a lower level for ethical lapses or by-law infringements. As one who participated in an appointive organization, with its advantages and disadvantages, this hybrid system balancing top-down and bottom-up elements has an appeal to me.

Another check on the kind of issues that sometimes plague organizations is free speech and free _expression. To some extent, it must be true that the more successful organizations are the more open ones, just as the more successful societies are the more open ones (as George Schultz is reputed to have said to Mikhail Gorbachev). Problems can be brought to the surface and dealt with. The best disinfectant is sunlight.

Concomitant with this is freedom of information, i.e., the lack of freedom of the leadership to operate in secrecy. Someone once said that secrecy is the essence of power. Most important, perhaps, is financial disclosure. As financial transparency is increasingly viewed as necessary for integrity in the corporate world, so it is to some extent in religion. An organization with nothing to hide should disclose its finances and owes at least this much to those who fund it. No matter how sincere a practitioner may be at first, the intoxicating and corrupting effects of money cannot be discounted when that person rises to a position of authority. Money for some acts like a drug, providing solace, and some seek it for the same reasons they seek faith.

The downside is that with free _expression comes possible dilution of the founding ideals and common purpose of the group, and in certain cases personal recriminations. Although measures can be implemented to mitigate these effects, some risk accompanies free expression, as in any democratic system. There may also be times secrecy is desirable, such as when an organization's leadership is attempting to deal sensitively with someone in difficult circumstances. Perhaps striking a balance is all one can do.

Localization is another way of mitigating the effects of authority and organization. Although a localized unit, e.g., a church, can never extricate itself fully from internal organizational considerations, through localization and autonomy, it can at least free itself from the bind of larger administrative structures. This consideration needs to be balanced with a need for some uniformity, i.e., the commonality of purpose for which the group was originally founded, which can be codified in bylaws or a charter.

A facet of localization is divisibility, so that, when a rift occurs, it is possible to split into two groups that still embrace a common purpose without the differences degenerating into antagonism. Like a divorced couple who remain friends, this is sometimes the best arrangement possible. This divisibility is most difficult when common assets are held by the group. Perhaps renting is a way around this.

These are a few ideas on how to create a happy marriage of community without too much organization. The effects are akin to democratic mechanisms of any modern democratic state, and like any democracy, it is far from perfect. Then again, it may be better than practicing one's faith alone.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Desire, Daily Life, and Dharma

I was talking to a buddhist friend who has been practicing on his own for a while, and he mentioned that he no longer has the energy to chant for more than fifteen minutes at a time. Although this is a perfectly good amount of daimoku, it is considerably less than he used to do when connected with a group and considerably less than some people find is optimal to keep them centered. It occurred to me that this may be due to the lack of connection to the other aspects of the practice, which combines chanting with study and being part of a community, interacting with others about buddhism, for a kind of triad of buddhist practice. I have always found that when these three elements are combined, practice is strongest, its effect is most pronounced, and the prayer is most focused and purposeful. Practicing independently of a sect or community (sangha) presents challenges in these areas, and I have often found myself looking for study material. Some good materials can be found on the internet and other places. However, as a writer, I wanted to do my part to contribute to the pool of literature and share what others have shared with me and what my brief experience has taught me.

I believe it is important to write on interesting topics as they relate to buddhism. It is very easy for doctrinal analyses to become tedious and self-referential, lacking a direct connection to the world and our role in it. A friend once visited a certain temple near him and complained that the study materials were lacking in relevance. Though such a judgment is inherently subjective, I wanted to select topics that are of interest to the practicing community whose primary objectives in life relate to their families, professions, communities, and interests. This is the bulk of practitioners, for whom practice is a way of staying centered, balancing their lives, and doing what they have to do most effectively.

The thing that first interested me in the practice was the assurance that it can be used to succeed in anything. At the time, I had some exciting professional pursuits which I genuinely wanted to advance. I cared very little for wisdom, peace, compassion, and the other effects associated with buddhist practice. In retrospect, I never achieved what I wanted, and I am glad I didn't, because I really don't think I was ready. I still struggle professionally, and still have goals I am actively working toward. I have also found that one of the biggest obstacles to success in any undertaking, professionally, socially, or otherwise, is fear, as people tend to get in their own way. The irony is that this fear is typically associated with the very self-serving motives that often drive people's actions in the first place, and it is those very buddhist qualities of compassion, wisdom, and peace that help to ebb away at egocentric fears.

An oft-quoted buddhist saying suggests that earthly desires are enlightenment. I have heard this debated at length, and certain sects of buddhism find it to be a cheapening of the real doctrine. Without wanting to get involved in such a debate, as I think that doctrinal disputation often leads away from the harmonious interaction between people that is so central to buddhism, I do want to offer a few comments. As a buddha is a common mortal, because the supreme being is nothing other than the self that is awakened to its true identity, so the religious philosophy of buddhism should be no different from a secular philosophy, and so a buddhist truth should coincide in some way with secular truth. In this case, I believe it does. It is the well established idea that struggle builds character. It is the one teacher in this life that cannot fail to build strength, wisdom, and patience. It has a lot to do with the fact that the ultimate reality in buddhism is often realized when delving into the deepest muck of this world and is related to the beautiful image of the lotus flower growing up in a muddy swamp. It is the transformative power of struggle that turns anger to a sense of justice, anxiety to patience, and loneliness to compassion. It is the crowning effects of lifelong struggle that build individuals of dignity and strength.

The struggles come in two forms, the ones that come by themselves through misfortune and the ones that the practitioner selects. The traditional four buddhist sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death, are the kind that come by themselves. It is a certainty that most individuals will encounter some of these struggles at one time. However, life would be a pretty sullen enterprise if the only obstacles were randomly thrown in our path by fate.

Happily, we can choose our own. These are the ones associated with any undertaking, any goal we choose to pursue. Whether in the realm of social life, family, finances, or profession, the goals that people pursue will inevitably create obstacles. There is something exciting in encountering an obstacle to a goal one has chosen, and it is more easily approached with a sense of challenge and eagerness. When fate throws a random hurdle that we have not chosen, it is natural for resentment, anxiety, or even depression to result. However, when the obstacle relates to a goal that we have chosen because of its meaning to us personally, it it much easier to approach it in a constructive and rational way. The excitement of trying to make our goals a reality can provide this energy.

It is the desires that reside in the human heart that help to define who the individual is, and it is the pursuit of these desires that are some of the truest expressions of the human being. Especially when tempered by buddhist practice, it is often the case that desires are developed in a way that brings benefit not just to the practitioner but to others as well. As Deepak Chopra once related in his Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, each person has something unique to offer, and their goal in life, or dharma (to use his terminology -- different from the buddhist dharma) is to discover and develop that ability, to be of service to others. This is the ultimate fruition of desire, when its fulfillment is of benefit as much to others as the self.

There is nothing wrong with desires of a purely self-oriented nature, and they are essential to functioning as a human being. But the deepest fulfillment is achieved when personal desires are merged with the larger connection between the individual and others, whether it be their immediate family, the larger sphere of life on the planet, or anything in between. To find the nature in ourselves that is capable of fusing the personal desires with the fulfillment found in service is seldom an easy task, and it is often through a painstaking and time-consuming course of trial and error that this happy fusion can be found. It is like the saying that when you find what you were meant to do, you will be happy. It is like the new-age notion that you will not succeed with a task until you find the one that is what you were meant for. It is often only in the long view of retrospection that the real meaning of failures comes to light, and it is said that if you put your whole heart into a pursuit, no effort is wasted. It is a matter of building faith through experience to understand this on a deep level and no longer to question the purposefulness of efforts that seem superficially vain.

And so around the world, people find fulfillment in myriad capacities according to their own nature, as gardeners, lawyers, mothers, and anything else you can think of. It is not necessarily the pursuit itself, but the individual and their relationship to it. It is deeply personal and highly subjective.

The dharma that Chopra is talking about is not necessarily something that can come through a rational process. It is often found in letting go and accessing a part of yourself that is not always conscious, not always amenable to reason. Many ways exist of accessing the hidden voice that allows one to know his or her purpose, but certainly the practice of buddhism and the steady and regular chanting of gongyo and daimoku can help. It is the view that the daimoku of the lotus sutra is your life itself that makes it possible for daimoku to illuminate the self. It is the idea that there is no enlightenment outside of the self that ultimately relates our own deepest desires to our truest nature and relationship to the world.