Monthly Archives: April 2011

Thoughts; Do They Define Us or Not?

We are what we think, The Dhammapada begins. All that we are arises with our thoughts.

Yet, at the same time, a thought is nothing other than a passing wave of the mind, Suzuki Roshi says, in the classic, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I remember another Zen master likening thoughts to bodily secretions. He was reminding us not to take them seriously. A thought is nothing other than an inconsequential emission, like sweat, which evaporates on its own, or a burp, which is gone as quickly as it arises, without a single trace. It is why, in Zen meditation, we don’t try and stop our thoughts. Like a revolving door, they will come and they will go, of their own accord. Those incessant emissions don’t define us any more than the steam from a boiling cup of tea defines the quality of the tea leaf.

Or do they?

Perhaps thoughts are more like the emissions from an old Chevy…black and heavy, betraying our old, outdated, carburetor engine, and the total lack of smog control. The smoke and soot sullies up everything, and we breathe in all the black pollution. As The Dhammapada suggests, our thoughts give us away, and we can hide our identity no more than a ’57 Chevy can hide its smoke. We think ugly thoughts and we wear them.

The Resolution:

Thoughts are passing waves, but there’s a catch…if we let them pass. They come and they go…if we avoid getting attached to them. And this is where mindfulness starts. With this realization, we can avoid the karma that clings to us, like gum getting stuck to our shoes, every time we fixate on those thoughts.

So both ideas are true. They can live together, side by side, without conflict. Like a light wave, there’s no necessary contradiction with regard the different viewpoints: it’s a wave or a particle, depending on which way you look at it. Our thoughts are only secretions when we recognize them as such and then let them go—a useful trick, when it comes to what Buddhists would call unskillful thoughts, and what the Yogis would refer to as negative thoughts. The problem surfaces when we habituate. Then we get stuck; then we get in our own way; we prevent ourselves from moving along;  we wear it on our faces; we exude it in our demeanor, and it affects every aspect of our relationships, our lives and our worlds.

Seen in this way, our thoughts have tremendous power and define us, if we let them. So we can let them, in a skillful way, or in an unskillful way. That’s where spiritual training comes in. As one of my favorite yogis, Swami Sivananda reminds us, in Thought Power, by raising only thoughts of mercy, love and kindness, we bring happiness upon ourselves and others. Conversely, when we are stewing in hatred, pain is sure to follow. In this way, we use thoughts conscientiously, with deliberate aim.

Similarly, in Kundalini Yoga, we are taught to convert negative thought forms and tendencies, rather than fight against them or wait for them to go away on their own; we use them skillfully to good purpose. For example, we may put the tendency toward anger to good use, by directing that anger toward ourselves for not being more patient, or we may turn our greed into the noble desire to become enlightened.

So, it seems we have two choices, we can let negative thoughts settle on their own, without the validation of judging them, or even naming them. Or, we can convert them. In both cases, we are willfully using our mind rather than the other way around. We are the master and are working with our thoughts in a decisive way.

Whatever you give attention to, thrives—especially habit patterns. Water the grass and it grows. Water the weeds and they grow. Water the thoughts and we become those thoughts.

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Poetry Page Updated!

I just uploaded almost all of my poetry. It is divided up based on form.

I have been fascinated with sonnets for a long time and have amassed quite a few through the years, so those are first. Further down are the Haiku, followed by those in loose form. I also included the date of each poem, next to my signature.

I have heard that poetry is a hard sell and this baffles me, for, as each art form does in its own way, poetry provides us with an elusive snapshot of this mysterious thing we call truth, and it does this by going beyond the discourse, debate and argumentation. Thus, as with all art, its valuable place in human life seems to me, unquestionable. I have also heard that poetry is easy to write and this baffles me even more, for, just like prose, a good poem has needs and requirements to tend to. A poem requires knowledge of form, a feeling for meter, a feeling for rhythm and a good sense of rhyme. There are decisions to be made, and like prose, even the decision not to make any at all, is, after all, a decision. And the decision to leave it all behind, requires knowledge of what it is you’re leaving behind. It’s like when someone says, “anybody can sing.” Sure, anybody can sing, but not everybody can sing!
~DQ

What’s New?

I am currently writing a follow-up to the article I recently wrote for Elephant Journal. Like the first article, it takes the reader into my classroom, where together, we explore important questions arising from Buddhist philosophy, like how on earth I’m supposed to be happy when the world is falling apart.

Yesterday, my lecture on Emptiness was filmed. We’ll see how it turns out – hopefully it’ll be uploaded to Youtube within the next week or two.

And although I haven’t added a blog post lately, I have added a POETRY page (see the horizontal index on top), which will allow me to house some of the poetry I’ve written over the years. I have so much, that it will be a project in itself to upload a fair portion of it in some sort of organized way, but that’s next in line, after the Elephant Journal article.

But most exciting of all, is that my publisher just gave me word that my book is expected in their warehouse TODAY! The release date is May 11th, but I should have a copy in hand before that – can’t wait!

Close Your Books! Teaching Meditation in a Community College Classroom

I’m thrilled to be a part of elephant journal!

Following is an excerpt from my article, Close Your Books and Forget the Thinking: Teaching Meditation in a Community College Lecture Hall:

In the East, knowledge is all tangled up with the religious and so it is that the western categories of philosophy and religion don’t quite fit. Knowledge comes via direct experience, rather than cogent arguments. Truth is found in the stillness of the quiet mind, rather than on the pages of competing theories and the very pursuit is to drop the pursuit. We rediscover, rather, what we already know, uncover what was already there—what Zen calls your original face, what Hinduism calls your true self. But we have to get real still, so that we can see without looking and hear without listening.

I explained all of this. Then, I dimmed the lights.

“With your attention only on your breath, jot down, in your project books, each thought you become aware of. But don’t write me a composition! And, as strange as it sounds, don’t try to write stuff—because that means you’re following your thoughts. Just scratch out any key word and come back.”

I tiptoed around and stole glances over their shoulders. Some had no more than five words, even though five minutes had passed, even though we’ve got thousands of thoughts streaming by in the blink of an eye.

I interrupted the silence with two hits of my handheld meditation bell.

“Anybody care to share?” I asked. “Was there some thought you kept coming back to?”

“Yeah, that I can’t wait to eat, after class!” one said.

“Me too–I couldn’t get lunch out of my head,” a girl in the back added.

“Sounds like what we used to call ‘sick dreams’, as kids,” I laughed.

“So, we’ve got burritos on the brain. What kind of thought is that?” I asked.

“A future thought,” offered one quick student in the front.

“Exactly!” I said.

“So, here’s part two of our experiment: Next to each word, write a ‘P’ next to the past thoughts and an ‘F,’ next to the future ones.”

Read the whole article here!

Reincarnation and Presence: A Contradiction?

We talked in class, about the importance of presence, and the role of meditation in bringing us back to the only moment that has ever, and that will ever, exist—Now. And then a student asked a question:

“But Hindus believe in reincarnation—isn’t that a future-worry?”

At the heart of meditation, in Hinduism, and in all the Dharmic traditions, including Buddha Dharma and Sikh Dharma, is the importance placed on nurturing our power of focused awareness. It strengthens the mind’s ability to consciously choose, in anew in each moment, where to focus its attention. As it happens, the best thing to focus on is now, and although there are countless reasons why, these are the three most important ones:

  1. Now is the most incredible and momentous event of our lives.
  2. Now is the only time and place joy lives
  3. Now is the only time and place we can discover how the mind really works, and thus, get it to work better.

Now starts with the simple sensation of our own breath flowing in through our noses, and down into our lungs. Watching this is where presence begins and where true meditation begins.

I can appreciate my student’s concern about reincarnation, and the idea that if it happens at a future time, then thinking about it would seem to constitute future thinking—a direct contradiction to the enterprise of staying present.

However—and this is at the heart of my response—Just because you know the rest of the staircase is there, doesn’t mean you ever walk more than one step at a time!

The subtler nuances of my response concern the idea of reincarnation itself, which may be conceived of in myriad ways.

Ask a Zen Buddhist what she thinks of reincarnation and get one answer. Ask 10 others and get 10 more. Ask a Hindu, get another one still. Life and death happens every moment. It happens because you change every moment. In each and every moment, the forces of creation, preservation and destruction happen within you and without you, on every level of your physical, spiritual and mental existence. On the cellular level there is a war going on, and in the world of our minds, as meditation clearly shows us, we are forever duking it out.

But we only notice the aftermath and inevitable changes that follow, when something moves us and shakes us to such a degree that we’re thrown into shock—when we’re sure nothing will ever be the same again. We must remember though, that at any moment, we may proclaim with absolute certainty, that nothing will ever be the same again. We always notice only later, when, seen through the bittersweet palette of our mind’s eye, we gaze nostalgically back upon the events of our lives.

Reincarnation, conceived of in the most brute sense, as the soul taking up residence in a new physical vessel, after the complete physical death of the prior, is still just an extension of the way life is already—you know there’s a tomorrow, but you don’t live there. You know you’ll die, but you choose to live, while you’re alive.

In this unrefined interpretation of reincarnation, the soul’s rebirth is determined by the karmic balance left after our physical existence is done. But in the meantime, and in realtime, through meditation, we can redeem our innumerable debts. When we say we choose to live, we can really do it, by waking up now. The Hindus call it Moksha. We can all call it liberation.

As written for Spirit Voyage.