Why Not Today?

I was walking to work today listening to Rage Against The Machine on my headphones and at the exact moment in “Guerrilla Radio” where Zack says “What better place than here? What better time than now?” I walked past a woman wearing a t-shirt that read “Why Not Today?”. :)

It is now two weeks since I made a formal decision to not eat meat. Since I made that choice a big weight seems to have lifted off my shoulders. I’m not interested in making a case for not eating meat here, but I want to talk about making decisions.

Going “vegetarian” was something I was considering for a long time, and it had increasingly become a source of stress for me. When it came time to eat I would think a lot about it, feeling guilty about possibly eating meat, then stressing out about it. Then a few weeks ago, a single image struck me, and I made a ‘now-or-never’ choice. Since I’ve made that choice, there is no stress. There might be decisions about what I can eat etc., but what I should eat no longer bothers me. If I get annoyed by lack of food options somewhere, at least I am not being made anxious by my own indecision.

It has occurred to me that this is something I should investigate more. Doug was writing recently about conduct and Buddhist practice and touched on this. One of his bits of advice was:

If unsure, just don’t do it.

I think this mirrors how I made my decision about eating meat. If I was doubting the ethical ramifications of my actions, it’s simply best to not engage in that action. I also agree with Doug when he encourages disciple, which reminded me of the Leo Tolstoy essay which also inspired my decision:

In order to be moral people must cease to eat meat? Not at all.

I only wish to say that for a good life a certain order of good actions is indispensable; that if a man’s aspirations toward right living be serious they will inevitably follow one definite sequence; and that in this sequence the first virtue a man will strive after will be self-control, self-restraint.

I fell that beyond just living in a way I feel to be right, the effort of practising some kind of self-restraint and disciple is helpful.

I’m of course not suggesting that it is easy to just stop engaging in any activity that is causing you anxiety. We all struggle with these things. But what I do think that if it is something that is relatively not difficult, but that it is still causing you grief and you want to give it up….why not today? It was save you anxiety and guilt over it. You might fail, but then you can start again. But you have to start.

Alan Watts and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

If you’ve read any of my blog you will be aware of my love of the work of Alan Watts, who has been one of the most influential people on my own philosophy and outlook. Interestingly, Alan moved in the same circles as two other teachers who have informed my thinking greatly, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche. I’ve outlined before some of the relationship between Suzuki Roshi and Alan, and David Chadwick’s biography of Suzuki Roshi details it much more. In particular, it brought to light Alan’s relationship with Suzuki in Roshi’s final days before his death.

It was interesting then to learn, that apparently Alan spent his last day and night with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Trungpa Rinpoche was a highly influential and revered Tibetan Buddhist lama who came to the West after fleeing the Chinese invasion in 1959. Like Suzuki and Watts he was instrumental in spreading the dharma in the West by helping explain it in ways young Westerners could understand. All three ended up in the United States in the last 60s/early 70s having journeyed from Japan, England and Tibet. And Trungpa, like Alan, was not only a great teacher, but also enjoyed sensual delights, specifically alcohol and women.

Chronicles Radio have a short podcast where they claim that Alan spent his last night alive in the company of Trungpa Rinpoche. Apparently, Watts was one of Rinpoche’s “literary heroes” and he loved reading him. When Trungpa came to America from Britain he was keen to meet Alan. They had their first meeting on Alan’s houseboat where they spent the night drinking and talking.

Afterwards Trungpa remarked that he was “disappointed”, as he was surprised at Alan’s lack of depth about practice. (Alan was definitely a brilliant speaker and ‘translator’ of Eastern ideas but was sometimes criticised for his lack of formal commitment to set practises, particularly meditation). But Trungpa was still keen to meet with Alan and they continued a friendship.

Later, whilst Trungpa Rinpoche was holding his Vajryana Seminary, he went to San Francisco to see Alan, and they spent a day and night together, talking and drinking. Alan went home and passed away in his sleep the next morning.

In an odd footnote, afterwards Trungpa became concerned about Alan, worried that he had become stuck as a ghost at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais where he had a study and library. Rinpoche took some students to his library and told them that Alan was “stuck with his books and his office and couldn’t let go”. He wandered about until he found a spot in the field outside where he though Alan was. He instructed his students that they were going to help Alan by exorcising his ghost. They performed the supplication to the Kagyu gurus and the Heart Sutra. After which Trungpa said “That’s it” and he was happy.

It’s fascinating to note the role these three men had in each others lives, and in each other’s final days. Trungpa himself died years later, in 1987, like Alan with conditions related to excessive drinking.

Chronicles Radio also details Trungpa’s meeting with Suzuki Roshi.

“Your real action right here and now creates the Universe.”

I’m thinking a lot again about the effects of my conduct online. I use Twitter and often find myself firing off jokes at the expense of a politician or public figure for cheap laughs. I don’t think about it too much. But it’s occurring to me that this thoughtlessness can cause harm. My propensity for mischief is in a daily battle with my attempt to develop compassion for all sentient beings.

Brad Warner has published a blog post about the Bodhisattva Vow which drives right to the heart of this matter:

When we, ourselves, become calmer, more rational, more centered, everything we do naturally becomes a fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow. When we make efforts to center ourselves, the rest of the world participates in that effort. It sounds weird, I know. But it happens to be true. The real fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow rarely manifests itself in big, sweeping acts of heroic service to all mankind. It’s usually something very small.

Smiling at your boss even though he is a smug, self-serving royal pain in the ass is the fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow. Shutting up when you spontaneously think of the perfect sarcastic come-back to a rude clerk at the DMV is the fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow. Putting the toilet seat down after you’re done so your sister won’t fall in is the fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow. Staying behind and watcing some of the set by the band who lent you their stuff is the fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow.

Your real day-to-day, minute-to-minute activity right here and right now has immeasurable impact upon the entire Universe. Your real action right here and now creates the Universe.

One of the most helpful statements here is:

Shutting up when you spontaneously think of the perfect sarcastic come-back to a rude clerk at the DMV is the fulfillment of the Bodhisattva Vow.

As Brad says, the real fulfillment of the Vow is in the thousands of tiny acts that can be performed daily. An many of these actions can be non-actions. Instead of saying that thing, don’t say it. How important is it to be said? And if it has to be said are you saying it in the most skilful way? As Mike Monteiro put it, Have I improved the silence?

Your real day-to-day, minute-to-minute activity right here and right now has immeasurable impact upon the entire Universe. Your real action right here and now creates the Universe.

Choje Akong Rinpoche

Choje Akong Rinpoche

Today the terrible news reached us that Choje Akong Rinpoche has been murdered in China.

Akong Rinpoche was a revered Tibetan Kagyu Buddhist master who amongst other things, helped discover the 17th Karmapa and co-founded along with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche the first Tibetan monastery in the West, Samye Ling in Scotland.

I never ‘met’ Akong Rinpoche, (I took refuge with his brother, the Abbott of Samye Ling, Lama Yeshe Rinpoche) but was in his presence. I’ll never actually forget the first time I saw him ‘in real life’. It was my second visit to Samye Ling, earlier this year, and after I arrived and had settled in, I took a walk around the temple before the evening classes to see the new wing of the courtyard that had opened up. I turned a corner and saw a man up at the temple door gently swinging a sweeping brush and I thought “that looks just like Akong Rinpoche…” and low and behold it was, sweeping away some dust that builders had left behind.

Later on I randomly walked past him outside the tea shop. I caught his eye briefly and he looked back and had the sweetest smile on his face. I sadly missed the teachings he gave in Dublin earlier this year as I had a prior commitment.

I suppose everyone is blessed by having such a person live in our times, he was heavily involved in charity work, specifically the Rokpa Trust, and travelled extensively supporting such efforts. I think especially anyone who has benefited from Samye Ling will think of him fondly.

Om Mani Padme Hum.

Anger is an energy

I’ve been thinking recently about anger. In the current climate of austerity there is a lot of anger about and talk of anger. A refrain you hear from time to time is “Why aren’t you angry?” or “If you are not angry you are not paying attention”. I’ve struggled with this as I’ve been trying to practice compassion and non-violence. I think to myself “anger is a bad thing, and an unhelpful reaction” – to quote Yoda “Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

As I’ve thought about this, I’ve also realised that I should “check my anger privilege”. As a straight, white male, in a relatively affluent country, it’s absurd for me to tell other people who live lives far harder than mine “not to be angry”. But I still can’t help but feel that “anger” is a destructive response.

But His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama, of course, has an enlightened take on it. When asked “Is it un-Buddhist to feel anger and indignation?” he replied:

Here the issue is how to deal with anger. There are two types of anger. One type arises out of compassion; that kind of anger is useful. Anger that is motivated by compassion or a desire to correct social injustice, and does not seek to harm the other person, is a good anger that is worth having. For example, a good parent, out of concern for a child’s behavior, may use harsh words or even strike him. He may be angry, but there is no trace of any desire to hurt him.

[…]

anger brings more energy, more determination, more forceful action to correct injustice.

As always in Buddhism, motivation is vital

The deep motivation is compassion, but it takes anger as the means to accomplish its ends.

This is vital to remember when anger arises.

The question is a person’s state of mind or the motivation that causes the action. When we act, that act arises out of a cause that already exists in us. If we act when our inner motivation is hatred toward another person, then that hatred expressed as anger will lead to destructive action. This is negative action. But if we act out of consideration for the other person, if we are motivated by affection and sympathy, then we can act out of anger because we are concerned with that person’s well-being.

This take on it is highly instructive. It transforms anger into an energy which can have very different consequences. If it is anger arising from injustice, than it can be used to drive change (as long as the target of the anger is the injustice itself, not people involved). This was echoed by Lama Yeshe of Kagyu Samye Ling monastery in Scotland. He was giving a talk in Dublin last year and was asked about how to be compassionate to your enemies. As a man who was chased out of Tibet by Chinese soldiers who killed some of his compatriots, he harbours no hatred towards the people who did these deeds. Like most Tibetan’s he wants to change the injustice of the occupation of his homeland, but with feeling anger or hatred towards the occupiers.

As John Lydon once sang, anger is an energy. Where that energy comes from and what you do with it is important. “Anger” in an of itself is not the problem.

Ecological awareness

Thus the point I am making in all these essays is that civilised people, whether Western or Eastern, need to be liberated and dehypnotized from their systems of symbolism and, thereby, become more intensely aware of the living vibrations of the real world. For lack of such awareness our consciousnesses and consciences have become calloused to the daily atrocities of burning children with napalm, of saturation bombing of fertile earth with all its plants, wild animals, and insects (not to mention people), and of manufacturing nuclear and chemical weapons concerning which the real problem is not so much how to prevent their use as how to get them off the face of the earth.

We need to become vividly aware of our ecology, of our interdependence and virtual identity with all other forms of life which the divisive and embossing methods of our current way of thought prevent us from experiencing. The so-called physical world and the so-called human body are a single process, differentiated only as the heart from the lungs or the head from the feet. In stodgy academic circles I refer to this kind of understanding as “ecological awareness.” Elsewhere it would be called “cosmic consciousness” or “mystical experience.” However, our intellectual and scientific “establishment” is, in general, still spellbound by the myth that human intelligence and feeling are a fluke of chance in an entirely mechanical and stupid universe–as if figs would grow on thistles or grapes on thorns. But wouldn’t it be more reasonable to see the entire scheme of things as continuous with our own consciousness and the marvellous neural organisation which, shall we say, sponsors it?

Metaphysical as such considerations may be, it seems to me that their issues are earthy and practical. For our radically mis-named “materialistic” civilisation must above all cultivate love of material, of earth, air, and water, of mountains and forests, of excellent food and imaginative housing and clothing, and of cherishing our artfully erotic contacts between human bodies. Certainly, all these so-called “things” are as impermanent as ripples in water, but what life, what love, what energy is there in a perfectly pure abstraction or a totally solid and eternally indestructible rock?

Alan Watts – Does It Matter?

Consider The Veggie Burger

Last week I completed a mini personal challenge of 7 days without eating meat. It’s the second time I’ve done such a thing recently, both conducted mainly as experiments into how easy I would find it.

For a while now I’ve been considering my stance on meat eating. I’ve been a carnivore my whole life, and never really gave it much thought. I guess I started considering it when I started going out with a vegetarian, but she has never been preachy nor particularly interested in ‘converting’ me. I think the main influence from her has been that since we started living together I began to cook less and less meat until I stopped completely. It became impractical to cook separate meals so often, and as I began eating the same food as her I became exposed to the different ways you can prepare meals without meat. As such, I have bought and cooked meat about twice in the past 4 years or so.

My philosophical viewpoint on meat-eating first began to change as I explored Buddhism. It’s a common misconception that Buddhists = vegetarians, but there is no such ‘rule’ or ‘precept’ that forbids the eating of meat. It is true, however, that Buddhism tends to vegetarianism. The reason being that at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching is compassion for _all sentient beings_. We also have the first precept, which is “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.” Now, this can be interpreted in different ways. Technically, eating meat is not the taking of life. The person at the slaughter house does that. But others argue that by eating meat you are creating the demand for that slaughter to happen.

As it is, there is no compulsion for lay Buddhists to abstain from meat. It is more common for monks and nuns, however, to do so. This isn’t so clear cut either, though, as with the myriad schools and sects of Buddhism ideas differ. It is often taught that monks and nuns should avoid meat, but if they are offered it, should not turn it down.

I practice in the Kagyu school of Buddhism, and recently the head of the Kagyu, His Holiness the Karmapa, ordered that Kagyu monks, nuns and their monasteries and centres become vegetarian. He has stressed the importance of abstaining from meat for Buddhists and has encouraged it amongst lay followers.

Last year I saw a series of talks by Drupon Rinpoche on the generation of compassion during which he spoke of the practice of contemplating that due to countless rebirths, everyone you encounter has at some stage been your mother. Or as His Holiness the Dalai Lama puts it:

the Tibetan Buddhist tradition teaches us to view all sentient beings as our dear mothers and to show our gratitude by loving them all. For, according to Buddhist theory, we are born and reborn countless numbers of times, and it is conceivable that each being has been our parent at one time or another. In this way all beings in the universe share a family relationship.

The Karmapa references this when advising on vegetarianism

If a Mahayana practitioner, who considers all sentient beings to be like their father or mother, eats the flesh of another being out of carelessness and without any compassion, that is not good. So we need to think about this and pay attention to it. All of us Mahayana practitioners, who accept that all sentient beings have been our mothers and fathers, need to think about this. For that reason, it would be good to decrease the amount of meat that we eat.

This is to be taken by Buddhists as a statement of reality but also a powerful practice for generating compassion for all beings. Animals included. As I pondered this, I couldn’t help but escape the fact that eating a beings flesh is not very compassionate.

This planted a seed in my head. This seed then spurred me to consider the topic from a non-religious direction, and to investigate the ethics of eating meat. This reoccured to me when I was watching the movie “Samsara” last year. There is a sequence in a chicken factory where you see a conveyor belt of chickens being sucked up into a machine alive. The scene hit me like a punch to the gut. The more you learn about how animals are treated before they get to your plate, the most you must face up to, and consider your opinion of those creatures.

I keep coming across more and more stuff which challenges my habits. There’s a great documentary called King Corn about two guys who decide to grow an acre of corn and follow it into the food system. The sequence on cattle feeding is disturbing, outlining how for quick and cheap meat, cows are fed corn which their stomachs cannot handle. They are fattened up and kept alive just enough to keep them going til slaughter. If they are not slaughtered, the damage the corn does will kill them anyway. They also barely get to move, so live their lives being force fed to the point of death.

I also discovered David Foster Wallace’s classic essay “Consider The Lobster” – ostensibly about the Maine Lobster Festival, but really about the ethics of boiling live animals for your pleasure. He writes:

Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices? My own immediate reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme—and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that

(a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and
(b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.

For me these two points hit home hard.

I am not a vegetarian, but intellectually I now more or less agree with the stance. Thus I am now attempting to wean myself off meat. The main stumbling block are occasions when I eat out and my own selfish and lazy tendencies. Most pressing is that I am somewhat of a picky eater (although a lot better than when I was younger), and in particular my distaste for cheese and eggs. These are problematic because from my experience of my girlfriend’s dealings with the world as a vegetarian, cheese and eggs are a common options. Again, these are only really issues when eating out – and more acutely when getting sandwiches for lunch (If there is a Subway nearby, however, this problem is solved thanks to their veggie pattys). The common response to this is “go vegan”, and that may be a long term option – but it still doesn’t solve my problems when trying to eat away from home. It also doesn’t help that Ireland is only slowly coming to offering decent options for vegetarians. I’ve seen numerous occasions where my girlfriend rolls her eyes at the bog standard veggie meals offered. I have noticed a sea change though, even pubs and the like getting in on the action with veggie burgers of various styles being offered.

To my end, I am following a few guidelines to help me significantly reduce my meat intake:

  • No meat at home. This is pretty easy, and I’ve become well used to cooking curries and stir frys and the likes without meat. I’ve also become quite fond of meat-replacements like Quorn and Cheatin’.
  • Making packed lunches more and more.
  • If I’m eating out and I like the veggie option, I try and go for that. Also, if I know there are veggie options nearby at lunch for instance, I go for that. This will mean putting my heart before my stomach. Even if prefer the chicken dish, if I like the veggie, dish I’ll order that.
  • Red meat is out. This is a common enough tactic I believe – to gradually reduce the meats you consume. Beef will be first.

I’m not trying to become preachy in all this. I mean, I’m not a vegetarian. But I have caught myself giving out about meat consumption, even whilst I am eating chicken. It’s a personal choice, but one which I am grappling with a lot now. But I am finding it harder and harder to justify eating meat. If I really think about what I am chewing, and I consider the life of that creature, it troubles me.

How to live in this world

We should find perfect existence through imperfect existence. We should find perfection in imperfection. For us, complete perfection is not different from imperfection. The eternal exists because of non-eternal existence.

In Buddhism it is a heretical view to expect something outside this world. We do not seek for something besides ourselves. We should find the truth in this world, through our difficulties, through our suffering. This is the basic teaching of Buddhism. Pleasure is not different from difficulty. Good is not different from bad. Bad is good; good is bad. They are two sides of one coin. So enlightenment should be in practice. That is the right understanding of practice, and the right understanding of our life. So to find pleasure in suffering is the only way to accept the truth of transiency.

Without realizing how to accept this truth you cannot live in this world. Even though you try to escape from it, your effort will be in vain. If you think there is some other way to accept the eternal truth that everything changes, that is your delusion. This is the basic teaching of how to live in this world.

Shunryu Suzuki – Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Have I actually improved the silence?

As the world seems to be falling apart, and social media introduces a new level of cacophony of misinformation, speculation, and downright venomous bile — we should ask ourselves, is what I am about to say better than silence? Am I adding anything to what’s already being said? And possibly most importantly, is my desire to say it keeping me from listening to what is already being said. Because waiting for your turn to talk is not the same as listening.

Have I actually improved the silence?

In a month where between Thatcher and Boston we definitely saw some of the worst of ‘social media’*, Mike Monteiro hits the proverbial nail on the head when he asks us to question our contributions to the digital debate. Twitter just seems to be flowing with bile at the moment. Conversely, I took a dip into Facebook recently following months of having a deactivated account and it just seems so dull, full of banal marketing waffle. Either way, its not very nice to swim in.

Monteiro’s Quaker-inspired creed is a very good way to conduct your online business. As I’ve explored Buddhism more, I think more and more about the effects of my online actions. I’ve become a bit more reluctant to just pump the contents of my brain out there, especially if its for cheap laughs at someones expense or if its throwing a bomb into a heated debate. Mindfulness needs to extend to all our actions, including our tweeting. Indeed, Prickly Goo was born out of a growing dissatisfaction with the tone of my old blog, which had (for me) become simply a rant-fest. Your words have consequences out there in the real world. We really need to think about those, and indeed, our motivations and intentions. Why are we saying what we are saying? I think a lot of why we publish these days is less to do with contributing or debating but more to do with solidifying our own digital ego. As the Boston Bombing story was breaking, you got the impression people were simply tweeting just for the sake of contribution, to be seen to be part of the ‘breaking event’. As a friend pointed out, we get the lunacy of people tweeting that they are speechless. You are telling us you have nothing to say.

*On a side note, there’s been a lot of meta naval gazing about social media’s role in such events. Almost as much discussion to the event itself is now given to how we discussed the event! And in doing so, ‘social media’ has become this almost natural force. Or, to paraphrase the Mighty Mos Def “People talk about social media like it’s some giant livin in the hillside, Comin down to visit the townspeople”

Chop wood, carry water

Thinking more about Buddhism and Marxism the following occured to me. Another way to tackle the subject is this: if tomorrow, miraculously, everyone on planet Earth achieved enlightenment / nirvana / liberation / Buddha-hood, how would we then go about our lives? Remember, this would be the real deal – the reordering of consciousness, not a Hollywood transformation wherein we would all vanish in a flash of light. Despite realising our true Buddha nature, we would still need to live, society would still need to function. But how would a society of Buddhas organize itself? Remember, as the Zen saying goes:

“Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”

Now, of course, by its very nature it is impossible for the unenlightened to imagine enlightenment, much less to describe it. This is little more than a thought experiment to further a discussion, and not a very deep one. But, looking at the scriptures, the discourses, and our own (however paltry) understanding of liberation, how would  you imagine we would ‘run’ our affairs, post-nirvana?

I posit that the society that emerges would look very similar to what is commonly described as Communist (and real Communism at that, not the cartoonish scare story paraded by the right).  I can’t for the life of me think of any other possibility, can you?