Good afternoon. Maybe today when we’re studying together we can hold Japan and everyone affected – including us, by the earthquake and tsunami – in our hearts. I thought I’d start today with a passage from an email I got yesterday from Peter Levitt. For those of you who don’t know Peter Levitt, he’s an American Zen teacher and incredible poet and translator of Dogen. He currently lives on Salt Spring Island. Here’s part of an email he wrote. “To really allow in what is happening, and the scope of it for the Japanese people, their future, much less their present losses, is a cause of incalculable sorrow. I don’t mind being in that with them, but I sure mind them being in it at all. The Japanese people were sacrificed so that all may see the horror of nuclear war. And now they have been sacrificed again in less than 70 years so that all may see the horror of nuclear peace when faced with actual life and its circumstances, as opposed to drawing board nuclear perfection. It’s a horrible sacrifice to have to make and I grieve for them as one of many who do.”
I think Peter said it well. Part of this course is about recognizing interdependence. I think one of the interesting things about this situation that we’re all touched by is how we’re all embedded in the situation. So much of the suffering that we’re watching in Japan is not just from an earthquake but from the human-built world, and the effect of the human-built world on humans. So there’s some lessons that all of us can learn, but first to really feel what’s going on, in whatever way you feel it, and throughout the day it might be different. One of the ways we feel now as humans is that we have this social media where our hearts can open to something so far away. It’s at such a distance and it’s so close at exactly the same time.
I wanted to talk about the precept of aparigraha. As some of you know my interest is in bringing together Yoga and Buddhist practice. And the style of Buddhism that informs the way we’re approaching the precepts is Mahayana Buddhism, which is this notion that one of the best ways we can live our lives is to aspire to live as a bodhisattva, which is someone who gains the tools necessary to serve others. We see this as a process of waking up. We don’t wake up alone, and we don’t just serve others, we wake up with others. We’re all doing this together, and we need others in order to practice.
Early western interpretations of both Yoga and Buddhism looked at both as psychological, logical rational practices, and I think this is how Buddhism is being incorporated into our culture right now, especially at a university level. But it also accounts in part for Buddhism’s newfound accessibility. It’s logical, it’s rational, there’s no real belief system and it can help you. I think this arises because it’s a contrast to the religion that many people grew up, or many people’s parents grew up in, which is faith based and maybe even a little superstitious. Buddhism is so appealing by contrast. You hear descriptions of the teachings of the Buddha as a kind of secular, scientific, verifiable teaching. I think a lot of people who hear the dharma taught that way, when they go to Buddhist countries they can’t believe what they see. Because traditional Buddhism doesn’t look like that. It’s what we’ve done through our material lens with Buddhism and how we’re able to receive it. That’s one of the reasons we’re looking at The Lotus Sutra on Tuesday nights, to stretch a little bit the way we take in these teachings.
Mahayana practice: ‘Yana’ means vehicle and ‘maha’ means great, which basically means you can carry a lot of people in your vehicle. It really emphasizes a fullness of emotion in practice. It underlines the desire to unite with other people in their suffering. To really feel other’s suffering and to connect with them in their suffering. And to love each other with big religious love. Big fat religious love. Also what you find in Mahayana practice is devotion and gratitude to community, to the interdependence that is community. So many of us get caught up in spiritual practice with the desire to get somewhere, and sometimes we can forget about the way we open the door for somebody.
One tendency in Buddhism is the desire to escape samsara. There is a wheel of habit, of conditioned existence, that we’re in, and one’s tendency in practice is to get off the wheel. Another tendency in the practice is to feel a devotion to all human beings, and this is like a spectrum with two ideals at either end. One is to get out of here, and one is to serve every single being until every fish and creature is served. I don’t know about you, but when you read the bodhisattva vows, perhaps the first one makes sense to you. I’m going to serve all beings. And then it becomes more and more impossible. “I’m going to attain the Buddha way.” How do you save all beings? By seeing that there are no other beings. How do you attain the Buddha way? By seeing there’s nothing to really attain. That the attainment comes from seeing yourself connected to all human beings.
In the western vipassana culture, which many of you are familiar with, there’s no ritual, it’s a culture of meditation, and if you really drop deep into the nature of reality, it’s a bare bones way of transmitting that tradition. I’m stressing western vipassana. In western Zen there is some ritual, but when you start reading the Lotus Sutra and you hear about the 18,000 worlds and the 80,000 bodhisattvas, and light coming from between the eyebrows of the Buddha, that’s rarely touched on. And likewise you see this in Western Tibetan Buddhism, all the mumbo jumbo and colours and deities are interpreted as archetypes, patterns in you that are potentials. I would say that western Buddhism is not so emotion focused, it’s not so devotional, and maybe it’s attractive for that reason. The danger of that versioning is that it doesn’t really get to the koan level of ethics, of the precepts.
**Real and Unreal**
For Mahayana Buddhism everything begins with emptiness, and once you see that the foundation of everything is empty, you’re free to do what you want. You can teach in innumerable ways, but you see that the core structure is not fixed. If you asked a traditional Mahayana Buddhist practitioner 800 years ago: are the deities in the 18,000 worlds really there? They would probably say no, and then they would probably say that nothing is real. Everything is real and unreal, so everything is as real as you and as unreal as you. As real and as unreal as radioactivity.
We really believe that our thoughts are real and our emotions are real. And so we’re real. Or we don’t believe we’re real, but we still think that our emotions are the realest thing we can experience about ourselves. But other realms are definitely not real. I’m a little more real than another realm. We are experiencing ourselves through our material lens. I think that Buddhists of the past don’t really have this material hysteria that we do, and I think the reason is that they weren’t so literal and they really valued the imagination. I think our imagination is impoverished, I think if you don’t have an imagination you can’t hold the feelings that we are, and so I wanted to talk about the relation between imagination and the precepts in order to talk about greed.
Imagination, which meditators are really down on, is actually the most real thing that you have. It’s what organizes what goes through your senses, it’s more real than your nose, and to know what your nose is you need your imagination. In order to know what your eyes see, you need your imagination. It’s actually with your imagination that you intuit interdependence. I think imagination can hold us in a more real way than our thoughts or our eyes, and in the modern world we’ve created such an emphasis on materialism that we’ve crowded out imagination. You can fly anywhere in the world within 24 hours, materially, but not necessarily imaginatively.
**Your thoughts are also the natural world**
How would you define the difference between imagination and thinking? It’s like having some respects for thoughts, especially the ones that aren’t yours. Say you’re writing a sentence, and you want to explain something. What you reach for to explain something is a metaphor. You can’t really think your way to a metaphor, it arrives from somewhere else. Sarah Selecky has a wonderful exercise that she uses in her writing courses, we should try it. Remember your first phone number, the earliest one you can remember. Just close your eyes and think back. Then she gets the group to remember a number three phone numbers ago. The purpose of the exercise is to feel in yourself the two different places you went to. You go to different places, the information comes from a different place. It’s a nice exercise to see how imagination is not always something you think, it’s how the natural world comes to you in the form of a metaphor or a good idea. Not that it doesn’t get reworked, it’s immediate and an addition at the same time.
**Asking the Dead**
I remember once giving a talk at Esther Myers studio and there was a monk in attendence. I mentioned that I didn’t believe in life after death. After the talk was over the monk said to me privately, that here in the west no one believes in life after death. In Tibet, on the other hand, we’re absolutely sure that there’s life after death. And you’re absolutely sure there’s not. Our argument is that you can’t verify what happens on the other side. You can’t verify that there is life after death. And their argument is nearly the same: you can’t verify that there isn’t life after death. The point is that psychically, in our world, that is so focused on the material, we’ve lost something, and it’s unstable to be certain of one point of view. The great Mahayana teachings of the Lotus Sutra brings back a focus on the imagination, and shows that at the centre of any view is emptiness. You can’t get fixed.
I think without imagination we lose track of how to feel interconnectedness, how to feel love. We lose track of ourselves. The precept that we’re exploring today is aparigraha, which is usually translated as not being greedy or not being stingy. Originally the way I was going to teach was to give you statistics about greed in our culture, but I think we know this already. So I thought we could work on the koan level, but I also want you to really use your imagination, to think about all the ways we can be acquisitiveness, we can collect more than we need. And of course the opposite is generosity.
I’ve retranslated aparigrapha is non-possessiveness, and you can see if that’s true for you. It’s only in the last few days that I’ve been working with this translation. I also like stinginess, you could say that stinginess is turning away from relationship. Some of us are stingy with ourselves, some of us are stingy with others, and some of us with both. Aparigraha is not about repressing possessiveness or greed, it’s about an active expression of the opposite. It’s about generosity. On Tuesday I was really excited to have a couple of hours alone, and then my son’s mother needed me to drive him to March break camp. And I did so with resentment. It messed up my whole day, because my day was planned. I was going to practice, and read the Lotus Sutra and have time by myself. Instead, I had to take him to camp. Maybe he picked up on it and maybe he didn’t, but the act wasn’t done with much generosity. It’s Thursday now and I’m getting over it. Some parents never get over it. You can also practice generosity when you’re alone, when something really excites you and you want to share it with someone, that’s a good thing.
**3 Categories of Giving**
There are three different categories in traditional Mahayana Buddhism for gift giving. So again we’re talking about non greed in a positive sense: generosity. The first category is material gifts. The second category of giving is the gift of fearlessness. And the third is the gift of the dharma. I’ve added some other ones. Love. All your possessions. Your time. Privilege. Your body. Especially your body at death. How to treat death as a practice of generosity? I have rarely heard anyone talk about death this way. Mostly we talk about death as a kind of taking away, which I think is a greedy way of thinking about dying. But what if you also think about death as a generous act.? OK, I’m giving it away now, this thing that never really belonged to me.
Material gifts are kind of obvious, it means giving within your means. Because we’re focusing a little on the koan level, I really want to look at the gift of fearlessness. Traditionally, the gift of fearlessness means liberating beings from captivity, bondage or torment. I would say this includes prisoners, releasing prisoners, releasing birds… Fish farms, wild animals, kids, parents. Liberating beings by releasing them from our grip, our human grip. Another form of fearlessness is by recognizing that others are Buddhas.
Just as the precepts teach us to live in a way that is upright, we can use this posture to give something of ourselves to others, and maybe one of the best things you can give on a daily basis is your face. Really giving your face to the street car driver. Really giving your face to your friends. I have a friend who is a focus puller. Do you what that job is? It’s a part of the camera person whose dedicated job it is to change the focus. She works on Hollywood films, and said that the more famous the actor is, the less you’re allowed to look at them. There’s some actors, as soon as they’re not acting they wear shades, so no one will look into their face. Part of the etiquette of being a focus puller is never to look at those actors, into their eyes. I thought this was really interesting. I think there is a relationship between holding onto ourselves and the way we can let people into our own face. Maybe one of the ways you can use aparigraha is to really give your face away. And notice when you hide your face. And I’m not talking about your true face, before you were born.
Another form of fearlessness is dependent co-arising. An early Buddhist teaching on interdependence. Everything that arises, arises intimately connected or interdependent, or dependent co-origination is one of the main translations, with everything else. So for example, in order for the eye to see a form, there has to be a form, they arise together. The experience of eye consciousness and form arise together. In order to be here and study this way, there’s a teacher and a student, and eventually these conditions change, and maybe with some of you I’ll be the student and you’ll be the teacher. We play these games, and being able to see those games, see that dependent origination, is also fearlessness.
I want to read a little passage about that from Reb Anderson. If you don’t know him, he is a Zen priest at Green Gulch Farms in San Francisco. “My students want me to give them dharma gifts, but what does my daughter want from me? She doesn’t want to hear about Buddha dharma. But she does want her father to give her the dharma treasure. For a number of years my daughter felt frustrated in her relationship with me. Sometimes she would get angry and call me the worst names she could think of. She wanted to see if she could get to me, if she could rock her father’s boat. And for a long time she couldn’t. I would usually just laugh. As an infant she vomited in my face and I wouldn’t mind. I trusted in her love so much, that nothing she could say could shake me. But her inability to move me was frustrating for her. She had to see that she could move me in order to realize our interdependence. Finally one day she was able to show me clearly and accurately something about myself and I was able to acknowledge it. We showed our interdependence, and that was a great moment in our life together, the dharma gift we gave each other.”
That’s beautiful, although I find it’s written in a kind of cold way at the same time. I would like to talk to him about that. But it’s true we can have so much equanimity that we’re not human anymore, and we don’t feel. Here the daughter is trying to get her father to show something, that’s fearlessness, and it’s fearlessness for him to show it. Reb Anderson is a very powerful person, he irons his robes before every session, he cuts a majestic figure. I can imagine how hard it is for his daughter to break down that wall., to find something real.
To live without being greedy is not just to live without being greedy for things. It’s about being generous, generous with your time and your face and your imagination. Sometimes I want to replace this last precept and simply say: take refuge in the imagination. To literally re-imagine the way you see the world, over and over again, as an act of generosity to your own mind, and the minds of others, to your own heart, to the hearts of others. To re-imagine the way you do your life is to be not greedy. I think ethics are a great way into the imagination. You need a strong imagination to hold your emotions, you need a strong imagination to hold what you think of as your life. Last week we talked about sexuality and sexual fantasies, you need a strong imagination to hold all that. But these days, I find for most of us, what we talk about is not healthy imagination, we talk about health. Are you healthy? How do you get more healthy? That’s what most people want. Health. I think it would be interesting the next time you think about your own health to also think about the health of your imagination. And what you can do to create elasticity in your imagination, because if there is some way for us to work in the fissures of nuclear power plants right now, it’s going to be with our imagination. We have to reimagine a life style that is more sustainable.
Fearlessness as non-greed. To not be scared of giving someone your face. Giving your face is like having a steady hand. You just give someone your face. Or giving your face is also like giving an honest answer, an honest response. You can do this with people when they’re locked up, who you’ve locked up, or with people who are dying, and if you’ve ever been with someone whose dead, it’s really nice to give your hand to a dead person. I remember when my uncle died nobody was there. Just being able to sit with him and holding the hand of someone who is dead, and it still feels like giving. This is the inter-being level, the imaginative level, the koan level of aparigraha, not being greedy, not being stingy, not being possessive. Or generosity. Giving. Giving fearlessly.
In the Mahayana framework this division between what you’re doing and how you’re doing, isn’t acceptable. In the framework it matters how you’re doing and what, and why and where. All those levels matter. The reworking of the idea of karma from the Mahayana perspective is it’s not just what your intention is, in how you do you work, but that the actions you take actually make a difference. So it does matter what you do. I think this takes it to the koan level: it’s quite idealistic. Your actions have to make a positive difference. It’s easy to say that your intentions are really pure. You find a little bird on the ground and you pick up the bird, you kiss the bird and feed it organic seeds, I’m sure there’s an app for when you find the bird, you take the bird home and put it on a raw diet and you cuddle it, and then you find out that the bird got kicked out of its nest so it could learn how to fly and you’ve just interrupted the whole process with your good intention. I feel so bad for the bird I’m going to take over, because you didn’t get it, you didn’t see the cycle. Your intentions were so good, but your actions were not so skillful in the grand scheme of things. This is the dance, this is what puts you into your life.
I think a really skillful thing a parent can do is to teach the co-arising of parent and child so that children can see that their parents are not their best friends. When the child needs to be a child there’s a parent. And at other times the parent needs to be other things. And the child needs to be other things. But sometimes we hold ourselves in the alignment of parent and child and it’s a disservice to the relationship, but it takes some fearlessness to go into that territory. To see our parent as a person is an act of generosity.
Asteya means not taking what is not given freely. And aparigraha is more about hoarding. They’re very closely connected, as every precept is.
The imagination piece is the underpinning of all of the precepts. Whenever we have a tendency to shut down experience or polarize and create binaries, that’s when the imagination goes missing.
In The Heart Sutra not having walls in the mind is the end of fear. It takes some courage.