January 30, 2006

Taking refuge

You know, I thought I was pretty well set up with the Buddhist precepts. I'm vegetarian, pretty socially conscious, and I quit drinking (I was a pretty light drinker to begin with, so it wasn't areally big transition there.) I figured, all I've gotta do is be more aware about doing the right thing, here and there, and I'm all set.

Not so easy.

The ceremony in which you vow to follow the precepts is preceded by the 'Three Jewels' ceremony, in which you vow to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. In other words, when you're having trouble, look to the Buddha, the teachings, and your community to help give you enough inspiration and love to get you through the rough patches in life. Sometimes it's difficult to follow the precepts, which I think is why the two ceremonies are connected.

Everyone has pressure release valves that they "take refuge in" when they've had a stressful day. For many of us, those release valves include having a drink or two with friends, or watching TV, or snacking, eating ice cream, running or other exercise, etc. For some people, it can mean seeking a rush of adrenaline, for instance through skydiving, or even shoplifting.

Lately when I feel like I need some stress relief, I've been sitting in front of the boob tube with a snack, even if I'm not hungry, even if there's nothing on. Which really sucks. What a waste of time and food. 'Vegging out' in front of crap TV stuffing your face with junk definitely violates the spirit of the precepts, if not the letter. When I catch myself doing that I'm going to try working out instead. Or maybe seducing my sweetheart. :-)

I think this is a different definition of "taking refuge" than was meant in the ceremony. But I think they're related. Hopefully, with the support of the people I love, and with the Dharma pointing me in the right direction, I will be able to muster up the willpower to make that transition from couch potato to active healthy person.

I'm not planning on giving up TV, or reading blogs (another time waster :-)), I'm just cutting out the stuff where I recognize I'm just killing time, where I'm not really, really enjoying it.

January 20, 2006

Challenging Fears

I always had a fear of spiders. When I was about 15 I thought I'd try to deal with this by getting a pet baby tarantula. My Mom was pretty unhappy with this idea, but I suspect my Dad talked her into going along with it.

He was a little guy, with about a 5cm legspan. Well, little for a tarantula, big for a spider. His body was about 2cm long, almost 1cm wide. The pic to the right is the same kind I had, it looks just like him. It's also probably close to the same size, if you have an average-sized computer screen.

I'd throw a half-dozen crickets into the terrarium with him, and he would eat them as he got hungry. One time I built up my courage enough to stick my hand into the terrarium with the intent to let him walk across it. I put my hand in front of him as he was walking, and he stopped as soon as he touched my hand. I just sat there, waiting, my heart pounding.

Finally, I couldn't stand waiting any longer, so I reached in there with my other hand to give him a gentle little push forward. He got scared, and I had never seen him move so fast. He ran quickly onto my hand, up my arm, and under my sleeve, coming to a rest under my shirt at the base of my neck.

Absolutely petrified, without moving my entire upper body at all, I walked to the bathroom. I closed the door, and put a towel at the base of the door. Then I slowly, ever so carefully took off my shirt. There he was, just hanging out on my shoulder. He didn't seem inclined to move, and I wasn't sure what to do next... so I just stood there in the bathroom, looking in the mirror at this tarantula sitting on my shoulder.

I finally went back to my room, put my hand back in the terrarium, and used my other hand to give him a little nudge away from my neck, and he zipped right down my arm and back into the terrarium in less than one second. I had no idea they could move so fast.

He never left the terrarium alive again. Actually, it turned out that my practice of just leaving the crickets in there with him wasn't such a good idea. Tarantulas shed their skin every so often, and they are really soft and vulnerable when that happens. The crickets, detecting their advantage, ganged up on him and ate him.

Mom was delighted.

There's actually a little more to the story. When he obediently ran right back into the terrarium, I was just filled with gratitude and relief. I was so scared, and I realized he was scared too. I learned that day that spiders are just weird little beings that feel fear just like we do. I'm still a little skittish about them, but not like I used to be when I was little.

January 18, 2006

Zen Retreat Recap

This will be a short post since lunchtime's almost over. The retreat was great. It was at Camp Indianola on Bainbridge Island, Washington. To the right is a picture of the beach where we did walking meditation each day. The retreat is actually still going on for most of the group. It's a seven day retreat, but there was an option to just stay for the three-day weekend, which I did since I'm all out of vacation time at work. I took the precepts on MLK day, so now I'm officially a member of the 44th generation of the Lam Te school of Dhyana.

Lam Te is how the Vietnamese say Lin Chi (aka Rinzai, for those more familiar with the Japanese). Dhyana is the Sanskrit word for sitting meditation, which was pronounced "Ch'an" in China and "Zen" in Japan.

UPDATE: I stayed in a very small room with five bunk beds. Thankfully less than half the beds were actually in use. The food was absolutely wonderful. A master of the culinary arts and wonderful lady named Melany prepared organic vegetarian gourmet meals for all thirty-six people at the retreat with separate entrees for the wheat-sensitive members of the group. I was surprised there were so many wheat-allergic folks, I guess almost a third of the people at the retreat couldn't eat breads or cake or crackers or pasta or flour or anything made from wheat. That must really be tough. Being vegetarian is tough enough. Having a wheat allergy on top of that must make it just about impossible to get a real meal outside your own kitchen.

I think we averaged four hours of sitting meditation, with about an hour of walking meditation, every day. The schedule shifted around a bit as some of the time periods were spent in various other activities like the tea ceremony, the precepts and refuge ceremony, and so on. Whoops, gotta go. More later.

January 12, 2006

Buddhist Precepts

This weekend I'm attending a three-day Zen retreat. It will consist mainly of zazen (a type of sitting meditation), probably averaging eight hours a day, but the intent is to stay mindful of the present moment for the full three days. I'll also be participating in a Precepts ceremony, in which I will vow to follow the five Precepts. The first four precepts are pretty easy for me, but I was a bit challenged by the fifth one for a while. But I finally decided to take the plunge with that one too. The precepts aren't like the Ten Commandments. My teacher explained them as a "guiding light" to help us notice when we're veering off the path. If you break one, it's not a big deal, you should just notice when it happens, and think about the choices you made that led up to that. In a nutshell, the precepts are:

1) Don't kill anything. Respect all life, the environment, and this world we live in.
No problem, I've been a vegetarian for around five years. I have always loved nature. I drive an environmentally friendly car. I try to eat organic food whenever possible to prevent seepage of chemical fertilizers and pesticides into streams. I try to save energy, conserve resources, recycle, pick up litter when I see it, and all that PC crap.

2) Behave responsibly with regard to sexual relationships
I'm a happily married man.

3) Right speech - don't lie, gossip, insult, etc. and listen carefully to others
I tend to keep my mouth shut more often that not anyway, though I could be a better listener.

4) Treat others' property with respect
I think this is one we learn pretty early in today's society, but it also kind of goes along with the first precept.

5) Avoid intoxication in all its forms, and be mindful of what you put in your body.
This one was tricky for me, especially in the particular wording my teacher uses. I think it's a good idea to be mindful of the food you eat (which goes along with the first precept too), but the rest of it seemed a little off. The particular wording my teacher uses mentions avoiding the 'toxins' in certain movies and magazines, and that one shound never take any intoxicants at all. Alcohol is so prevalent in our society, it's hard to avoid it altogether. My parents and mother-in-law drink daily. My dad uses the word "teetotaler" to refer to non-drinkers. And I really enjoy having a glass of wine with my parents, or a couple beers with friends. It's a part of my social life.

The first four precepts are already well-integrated into my life, vowing to follow them was a no-brainer. The fifth one represents a significant change in my behavior. I'm not a heavy drinker or anything, maybe a couple drinks a week on average. But those drinks are usually taken with friends or family who have some expectations about drinking together every once in a while.

Now, on one hand, I'm interested in Buddhism because there are things about my life I'm not happy with. There are things about this life that I don't understand, questions I want resolved, and I think Buddhism's got the best shot at resolving them. So I recognize that I'm going to have to make some changes. But on the other hand, I'm very skeptical of trying to live up to other people's ideals. I am who I am, and I'm not going to try to change unless I can see the reasoning underlying the change and see how it will make me a better person.

I had trouble with the fifth precept because I thought it was about cultivating an aversion to alcohol and other intoxicants, trash TV, violent movies, gossip magazines, porn, and all that stuff. Now, I've always thought of all that stuff as pretty harmless compared with all the other 'real' problems out there in this world (war, violent crime, poverty, pollution, discrimination, etc.). I'm not sure I like the wording of saying that certain movies and such contain 'toxins.' And I didn't see the benefit in avoiding all of it. Mostly I thought of alcohol as kind of social thing, something to help one relax and enjoy other people's company more. I've always been pretty anti-censorship. So following the fifth precept didn't sit well with me.

I think all that stuff about avoiding movies and magazines is probably mostly referring to porn or stuff that really has no artistic value at all. Stuff that was never really intended to be anything other than a sort of intoxicant. So I'm OK with avoiding that stuff.

But I have given it a lot of thought, and now I think that it's not about cultivating an aversion to anything. It's about learning to cherish clarity. Now that's something that I think might be a really good learning experience for me.

January 04, 2006

Long Time No Post

Well, it's been a couple weeks since I posted anything here... I've had a great Christmas. My wife and I went to her Mom's place in Tucson, Arizona. There's a lot of cactus in Arizona. One day we drove out to Mount Lemmon. It was a beautiful drive. Gorgeous rock formations, and a forest of saguaro cactus, which changed to majestic pines as we gained in elevation. But nobody wanted to get out of the car to actually walk around in the wilderness, even for just a couple minutes. When we reached the turnaround point (a scenic lookout) they wouldn't even get out of the car for a minute to check out the view. Just happy to watch things go by in the windows, I guess. Oh well, next time maybe I'll ask Mom to drive so I can at least spend a little time looking out the windows myself. Back at Mom's place, I went for a hike, and saw armadillo tracks, and what looked like jackrabbit droppings. The vegetation is mostly prickly pear cactus, barrel cactus, and chollas, with desert broom and the occasional acacia or paloverde tree. I ran across an animal den that looked big enough to house a 60-75 pound animal. Some tracks found nearby led me to believe it belongs to one or more javelinas. I gave the den a pretty wide berth.

Her Mom cooked a fantastic spread, lunch and dinner, every day we were there. It was really, really easy to eat too much. It was nice to see them all again.

Since then, the whole house has come down with a nasty cold. I think I'm over the worst of it, hopefully my immune system will triumph in a few days. I've decided that my new year's resolutions can wait until I'm better. I really need to exercise more, and that's the main focus of my good intentions this year, but I can't see myself working out with a box of kleenex. So next week, unless this cold hangs on that long.

Happy New Year!