When I Took Bodhisattva Vows I Did Not Promise To Look At The Bright Side by Miriam Sagan

When I Took Bodhisattva Vows I Did Not Promise To Look At The Bright Side

Organized religion has always exerted a push/pull on me. My father was a rabid and bossy atheist who forbid his children any religious or spiritual experience or expression. When I ran off to San Francisco I soon found myself at SF Zen Center, and then married to a Soto lineage monk. In my thirties I studied Judaism with a Hassidic woman teacher, learned a bit of Hebrew, and immersed in a mikvah. Then back to Buddhism—koans with the remarkable Joan Sutherland-roshi. And now, voila, an interfaith Beit Midrash torah study group led by a thoughtful rabbi.
I’m a lightweight ping-ponger by most standards…at best a seeker …at worst shallow. I even like my friends’ religions and find myself from time to time at the Christian Science Mother Church, singing along at Christ in the Desert, or deep in a discussion about Ramazan.
But I also can’t deny that certain experiences have been central, and compelling. I took Boddhisatva vows daily at SF Zen Center, at my first wedding ceremony (the second time I got married it was by ketuba!), and I still chant them as needed, even when I’m driving.

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them
The dharma gate is boundless, I vow to enter it
The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to attain it

…or, variations…I vow to let them save me, The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable/I vow to become it…

In any case, those vows cannot be undone, nor would I wish to. I cannot be a person who never took these vows, in the same way I cannot be an “ex” Jew. Of course, I—or you—could spend a lifetime working with these vows. How does each bit function? What does that mean about today’s mundane tasks? Does this mean I shouldn’t be a drug pusher, or arms manufacturer (traditional Buddhist bans). Can a classroom teacher save all beings? And so on.

Here’s the thing, though. These vows are a promise to live consciously in ambiguity. To get a hold of my reactions, to not overstate the positive or the negative. It even has a name—The Middle Way. And the moderate ancient Greek philosophers would approve.

Which leads me to social media (#drinkthe hemlock?). Sometimes when I blog or post something that has some vulnerability for me, I wish I hadn’t. Because I need encouragement to stay in the middle. Whatever our current problem is, I don’t want to eat lotuses and say life is so delightful I can just ignore it, nor do I want to flip out and declare it the worst thing ever.

And, despite my vows, I’m just not that good at this. But since I knew the vows were impossible, I continue to take them.

Don’t Tell Me To Calm Down

Don’t Tell Me To Calm Down

One thing that bothers me in social media is it seems like dozens or hundreds of people are telling me what to do, how to react, and what to think. I know people are just offering their best perspectives, but far too often this is couched as advice, not opinion. So I’m going to respond to the world in turn.
Don’t tell me to calm down abut Donald Trump’s election. First off, this advice elevates thought above feeling. Thoughts are no more sensible than emotion if you examine them closely. Maybe its an Enlightenment model, or a male model, or an Anglo Saxon model (much as I love the Vikings). Our thoughts aren’t any more real than our feelings.
Next, what’s so great about being calm? I’ve been around Buddhism and Buddhist practioners my entire adult life and sorry to say, I have found Buddhists completely average in their ability to respond to a crisis. Give me EMTs any day. That is, in an emergency, I’d rather be with people who are outer directed and trained to act, no matter their emotional state.
My dad Eli was a complicated sometimes difficult person, but a great role model in terms of standing up to oppression. During the war in Viet Nam, his anti war activities led him to being arrested, a phone tap, and a place on Nixon’s enemies’ list. No one could accuse my father of being calm. He was reactive and scrappy and angry. However, he knew how to act—bravely, spontaneously, and consistently.
My being calm benefits the status quo—not me. If the media tells me to calm down, essentially it is telling me to shop. I’d rather be told—stay upset. Also, let’s not forget, I’m from New Jersey. I was raised in a sub culture where things got worked out through disagreement —sometimes yelling and screaming. I’m not saying this is all good, but it is honest.
Calm is not an ultimate state. It is a coming and going thing, like everything else.
And here is the truth—I’ve never been calm. The simple fact of my existence as a Jewish woman has seen to that. The world has never seemed like a benign place—and that’s because it isn’t. In my twenties I was the victim of a very violent crime. I don’t usually talk about this but it feels necessary today. I hear folks criticizing others for saying they’ll leave the country or take up the means to defend themselves. This might not be my path, but when someone feels unsafe I would never tell them to stay put. And, bluntly, I would encourage women to learn to defend themselves. A self defense course literally saved my life in the course of that crime. I know individual solutions don’t address the larger issue of rape culture—but if society is changing slowly or in this case backsliding—taking care of ourselves and our daughters is never amiss.
So don’t tell me to calm down. Tell me to act. Tell me that even if I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, that’s fine, and the way will emerge. I’ve been hearing “what can anyone do,” and at first I thought that was a pathway to despair. Then I realized I was impervious. Something inside me is galvanized and I’m going with it. You can call it the human spirit.

Kathleen Lee Reads from Her Novel: At Collected Works Book Store

This coming Tuesday, March 31
6 pm
With Rob Wilder, another writer well worth hearing

***

Miriam’s Well: In the novel ALL THINGS TENDING TOWARDS THE ETERNAL, you talk about “traditionless Buddhism” or your character Bruno does. How do you see that? Can you talk a bit about Buddhism as an influence?
 
KL: I’m not sure there’s a clear answer or not one that’s clear to me so here are some partial answers:
1. When traveling in China, I always visited whatever Buddhist temple or monastery was in a town or village, in part to have something to do. So I spent a lot of time around Buddhism, in whatever condition it was in.
2. I found the various traditions of Buddhism a distraction and kept trying to view plain buddhism. Buddhism Buddhism, instead of Tibetan Buddhism or Theravadan Buddhism, or Zen, or Soto….
3. I must have made up the term ‘traditionless Buddhism.’
4. Your (Miriam Sagan’s) first husband, Robert Winson, who was a Zen Buddhist monk, died when he and I were 36 years old and it affected me on the one hand in a completely ordinary and comprehensible way, and on the other hand in a way that remained invisible and mysterious to me. That sense of not understanding what had happened was an irritatant, a seed for writing.
5. Extended, uncomfortable solo travel is its own kind of practice in concentration, not unlike a meditation or koan practice.
6. When my characters meet their own inner emptiness, they realize the wisdom of no-escape.

Miriam’s Well: I feel the novel takes an ethical approach, like the 19th century novel, only in a modern non-overt fashion. The two central Chinese characters exemplify some moral conflict–self vs. family, wealth vs. authenticity, etc. but they come from a rigid world (hard on individuals but good for fiction!). Can you address this–and maybe mention how the other characters fit in to a moral framework?

KL: One of the many things I miss about the 19th century is the loss of a sort of grand, cosmic ethical framework against which people, or characters, throw themselves. I’m interested in that kind of pressure or friction and how it affects a person and since this isn’t the 19th century, that pressure or friction takes place mostly, at least in my novel, within each character; each character has a conscience or not, crosses a line, and suffers, or not. The place that ethics seems to exist now is within the self, and within relationships, and so, in a sense, each person is left to police themselves.

What Is Emptiness?

The current issue of the Buddhist Review TRICYCLE (spring 2010) has an article on using sleep states to practice. Of course this caught my interest, as I am an all nap all the time kind of person. But what interested me the most is a tiny poem by Natalie Goldberg called “What Is Zen Anyway?” The poem itself: “A Japanese corpse/serving tea.”
So what is going on here? First off, I want to know the answer too. What is Zen? At least sometimes. Sometimes I don’t care at all. That Japanese corpse might be Katagiri-roshi, Nat’s teacher. It might be something long gone and dead and unfamiliar. It might be something suddenly animated, like the stone woman in the koan who gives birth in the night.
Serving tea I get–this is the world of form. So perhaps emptiness has invited me to tea. Emptiness seems easy to intuit or scent or even taste, but hard to talk about.
I’m in a koan salon with Joan Sutherland-roshi. These past few weeks in New Mexico fruit trees have bloomed, and then it has snowed and hailed. What is serving me tea? What is emptiness?