Monday, February 25, 2008

Gray Hairs & the Dhamma

Posted by Gary
at Forest Wisdom

The other day, my wife let out a wail whilst peering in the mirror. She was upset at the sight of gray hairs mixed in with the usual black color of her locks. Paew (that’s her name) was genuinely shocked and disturbed by the gray hairs reflected in the mirror. Today, I went to the hairdressers and had a trim. As I looked down at the hair falling from my head, the majority of it seemed to be gray, rather than brown. This has been part of a process that’s been going on for a number of years now, as each time I have my hair cut, it appears a higher percentage of the hairs removed are gray not brown.

Reflecting on the aging process over a period of time helps one to accept the fact that one isn’t getting any younger. It’s a natural aspect of life that all phenomena deteriorate with time: even million year old wine won’t be a vintage! And it’s not just living beings that wither with time: looking at the ruins of Angkor Wat, the Coliseum, or the Sphinx, it can be seen how they all are subject to the same forces that whiten our hair over the years. Everything is impermanent (anicca).

Getting shocked, depressed, or resentful over this process of aging is ultimately pointless, if not understandable. None of us want to get old, to have gray hair or lose it altogether. No one desires wrinkled skin, aching bones, and the loss of memories. But, if we live long enough, we’ll see most or all of these conditions arise, and many more that I haven’t mentioned here.

So, what to do? Use the graying head, the wrinkling skin, the forgetful mind as objects for reflection, so that insight into the way the world is may grow in us. This is the way of Dhamma. To notice the facts of existence in both one’s self and the world at large, and to accept them, rather than judge them as being good or bad is the path of wisdom. Sure enough, getting old isn’t something that humans usually enjoy or think is great, but every gray or white hair that appears is a sign to wake up to the way of things and accept it. In that acceptance lies the path to the deathless state that never ages.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Freeway Frustration

Posted by Peter Clothier

It's a while since I made an entry myself in Accidental Dharma.  I do read everything that's posted here, and always enjoy the chance to learn from those who send their stories in.  I'm always ready for more...

In the meantime, I had cause to think about the site on the freeway yesterday, headed back to Los Angeles from Laguna Beach.  I had anticipated a relatively easy drive.  It was a holiday, after all, Presidents' Day, so I thought there would be less traffic and we'd get home in a breeze.  No such luck.  Two accidents ahead of us--one with a motorcycle down in the middle lanes, another collision involving, it seemed, three cars--assured interminable delays.  What should have been a one-hour drive turned into two.

I'm not good behind the wheel, I admit it.  I am by nature somewhat less than patient--as my wife, Ellie, will attest--and traffic is the single greatest stimulus to that impatient side of my temperament.  I fume.  I flatter myself that I do it less now than I used to, and that my meditation practice has served to improve my language somewhat (think Right Speech!), but I do still tend to allow my frustration to surface via the mouth.  I have been known to, well, swear...

Now for the gift.  I give myself good marks for yesterday.  I exercised remarkable equanimity, given the provocation.  I watched for the impatience to arise and was impressed when it did not.  True, I was in no particular hurry to get home, and things might have turned out very differently if I had arranged for, say, an appointment in the afternoon.  But even so, I am happy to give credit where it's due.  It seems that I actually have changed, a bit.  And it was a pleasure to observe it.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Openness on the Forest Path

Posted by Gary
at Forest Wisdom

Recently, I wrote about a conflict with a colleague at the school where we work. (See below: ‘Anger on the Forest Path.’) Mishearing something I said, he snapped and shouted at me using foul language, to which I responded in kind, caught off guard, as it were. I’ve had a couple of weeks to reflect on the incident in the light of the Dhamma, and have realized that self-view (sakkaya-ditthi) played a big role in my initial response to my angry workmate.

I reacted in a state of partial shock and indignation at being verbally accosted: thinking that I knew myself, I felt that Gary didn’t deserve the harsh treatment that he received. This led to nearly two weeks of silence between us, despite the fact that we sit next to each other in the English teachers’ office. All the while I’ve been reflecting on my response to my fellow teacher, pondering how I could’ve handled the situation better.

One thing that I realized was that I grasped at my self-image as a friendly Buddhist that had never said or done anything to offend this guy, therefore undeserving of his verbal onslaught. But, is this self-perception accurate? And even if it is, is it worth clinging to as an absolute truth about myself? Overall, I am an amiable kind of chap, but my dry sense of humor sometimes runs the risk of offending those that don’t understand it. As to clinging to this view of myself, I’m not so sure that that is so wise, however. For, when that image is attacked or contradicted, I’m left feeling unsure of who I am, and open to reacting in an uncharacteristic way. What’s more, considering the ever-changing nature of all things, including this thing called Gary, it’s not always going to be true, putting pressure on myself to live up to an ideal that’s sometimes unattainable.

The late, great forest monk Luang Poo Chah noted that usually people close up when they encounter something or someone disagreeable, such as when we’re criticized. He suggested that when we’re criticized we should open up to the experience, as maybe there’s some truth in what’s being said too us. Intelligent people don’t take offence at criticism, but reflect on it to see if it’s true, and if it is, work to improve ourselves. Responding from the position of awareness, rather than identifying with the viewpoint of self (sakkaya-ditthi), we stand a better chance of using such situations for the development of wisdom, as opposed to simply perpetuating ill-feeling of misunderstanding.

As a footnote, my colleague and I have tentatively begun talking to one another again, being careful not to say anything potentially inflammatory. Opening up to my workmate from the position of awareness, rather than as ‘Gary the Buddhist,’ I’m open to his humanity, both positive and negative. In this state of spaciousness, I can give him the space to be himself, including those aspects that I might not approve of. And in doing so, I actually become a better Buddhist, without clinging to any self-image of myself as such. This is also more compassionate towards myself, as I’m no longer under the pressure to act (and appear) as some perfect Buddhist; just recognizing that whatever’s the case right now is good enough.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Anger on the Forest Path

Posted by Gary
at Forest Wisdom

This week I had a sobering experience at work: I lost it with one of my colleagues. I made a quip to one work mate but a second teacher thought I was talking about him, and objected by shouting and swearing at me. I tried explaining that I was simply joking in reference to the floods that had occurred that morning in Ubon, but to no avail. The enraged fellow continued to bellow foul language at me, and I snapped. I stood up and confronted him nose to nose, and waited for his response; he didn’t react violently, but still didn’t refrain from issuing obscenities. So, I let him have it…verbally, that is!

In no uncertain terms I told him to back down and grow up. I swore at him, telling him to go somewhere alone and shout at himself, and that if he didn’t apologize foe his poor behavior by the end of the day, he’d be ‘screwed’ (or another word to that affect!). No apology was forth coming. This colleague is renowned for his hot temper, so I should have used more wisdom in my dealing with him in this volatile situation. To my regret, I didn’t.

I’m not into putting my (illusory) self down, however. Things happen in life, not always in line with how we’d like them to, and that includes the complicated workings of our minds. Emotions, memories, opinions, and convictions can get all mixed up and work against each other, exploding into the world. Even great Buddhist monks, famous for their peaceful wisdom can sometimes fall victim to their own wayward egos - at least in the earlier part of their monastic careers. Take the following story of Luang Por Sumedho, for example.

Way back when Ajahn Sumedho was still a young monk, he was practicing strict vegetarianism, which is not easy in Northeast Thailand where so much food contains meat and fish products. Despite this, Ajahn Sumedho was generally looked after well, and received decent enough vegetarian food on most days. One day, however, when he was helping to dish out the food to the other monks, another monk got to the vegetarian food first and proceeded to give Ajahn Sumedho a very small portion. Knowing that the monk knew that he was vegetarian, when Luang Por Sumedho gave out the rather strong fermented fish sauce, he splashed it all over the other monk’s food, making it nearly inedible! Ajahn Sumedho has commented that it’s just as well that there are strict rules proscribing violence between Buddhist monks!

Learning from our mistakes is an important part of walking the forest path of wisdom, and sometimes we’ll wander off the straight and narrow. Finding our way back to the path, and making our way through life’s forest can be enriched in the long run by the understanding that grows out of realizing the limitations (and breaking points) of the mind. Hopefully, the incident with my work colleague will prove to be one of those occasions, and not a prelude to a teacher’s boxing match!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Good and Normal...

Posted by John Torcello

He is one of my true friends.

He was born to a set of parents who, as a family, selflessly provided and loved him and his sister; parents who, in their youth, tasted the negative effects of American politics, McCarthyism, in their lives; his mother died an untimely, early death from cancer. A very intelligent sister, who, in her teenage years, began exhibiting 'odd' behavior; resulting in her being diagnosed as schizophrenic. Parents, who, in their love, worked to care for his sister privately in order to avoid the 'stigma' they had felt of 'the mob' mentality and what it would mean for her life.

My friend's wife, facing her employer's imminent bankruptcy...was diagnosed with cancer too. Fearing she could/would not be hired elsewhere, would not be be able to get health coverage because of her pre-existing condition.

His wife had an illegitimate daughter; the biological father absent from his step-daughter's entire life. His wife’s ailing mother lived with them too. They endured together, loved and cared for one another; lived their lives as a family.

The step-daughter married a boy. The two of them living together with my friend, his wife and his wife’s live-in ailing mother. The daughter’s husband was found to abuse drugs, had a gambling habit; and stole from the company, where my friend’s wife had found him a job; he was prosecuted, jailed and ultimately divorced from their daughter.

His wife died from the effects of the cancer and from depression from the situation in which she was leaving her family, her world. My friend was left with supporting and caring for his wife’s aging and ailing mother...He did his best; projecting an image of strength; attempting, I thought, to display to everyone that things continued to be ‘good and normal’.


My friend finds himself, today, living with his elderly, but physically healthy, dad; a dad suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's....They are ‘pals’; he is with his dad 24+ hours a day...patiently having the same conversations with him over and over again...

Recently, my friend's sister, innocently walked into a hospital emergency room with an empty jar. She told the doctors there were ‘bugs’ in the jar and in her hair. She was admitted, with no recourse, to their mental care unit...My friend now visits his sister each day; bringing his dad along too. She hugs her dad; calls him ‘daddy’; but, he doesn’t seem to know her or her situation. She will most likely be institutionalized for the rest of her life.

I do not think this is the situation my friend...his parents, his wife, step-daughter, their son-in-law, his wife's mother or his surviving father...had envisioned for themselves; yet, it is their story; albeit a drastically shortened version of it...All they wanted, I think, was a 'good and normal' life.


This weekend, my friend, and his dad will be coming over to our house for dinner and spending an evening together.

My friend looks forward to the meal, the break from hours upon hours of being with his dad in his current condition and the chance to watch a movie, be served, share in good food, some laughs and conversation...

My friend doesn’t whine about his situation. It just is...He accepts it...He once wrote to me about an argumentative situation we faced:
”Regarding our conflict...I would like to say; yes it took a while for me to get past thought I was doing something wrong and there was no room in your mind for what I thought about my own situation and how to live with it.”

By the standards of ‘good and normal’, most, including myself, would judge my friend as an unhappy fellow finding himself in terrible situations. My friend, however, would not recognize their judgment. He just does what he thinks is the ‘right’ thing to do - day after day - going from what they might consider to be horrible or unbearable; one circumstance to another...

My friend does not believe in a god. His life, his actions, his purpose; his life lived and experienced is probably more ‘saintly’ than anyone I know...He is one who cares for others, who lives compassionately; in spite of my, or others, perceptions and judgment of the appearance that his life has been anything but 'good and normal'.
He has faced a lot of 'shit'. Because of my friend, I’ve come to understand the true nature of living life for the benefit of others. His life doesn’t rely on appearances or just ‘is’...found in the experience of now and in the absolute of emptiness...