Thursday, October 20, 2011

Basic Buddhist Vegetables: A Dhamma Diet

Buddha as part of a Southeast Asian temple
The founder of the HartCenter for Human Actualization offers personal insights into the practice of Buddhism
By Alan Lopez
In my student days there was a dish I would prepare for my housemates. Caught short for time I would fall back on a preparation called Basic Buddhist Vegetables. At the time the title meant nothing to me. The choice was purely instrumental: quick, simple, healthy, and satisfactory to the vegetarian faction. Yet unwittingly I was serving up a dhamma dish. The distinguishing mark of the Buddha’s teaching is taking the basic ingredients of our life as the path.

Religions (and other philosophies) sacrifice the actual for the Truth. Religions claim to teach the Truth, the Ultimate Truth. This is what up lifts the believer, is the obsession of the scholar, and the message of the preacher. What is lost in our praise, devotion, and longing for this Final Truth is the actual. That is, what is actually going on in our body/mind and the circumstances of life as we immediately encounter it. This is what I’m calling Basic Buddhist Vegetables—no special sauce added.

The Buddha had attitudea different attitude.
Without needing to deny, his teaching was not Shiva-centered, Yahweh-centered, or Allah-centered. It was human-centered. But even more so it was centered on what the Buddha called our proper range or field, what I’m calling the actual. He tells a story of a bird that flies out of his range and has an unfortunate encounter with a hawk. Stay within your appropriate field of investigation and action—the available sensory based experience in the here and now. If we begin to take speculative flights, we may, like the bird, meet an unkind fate.

In contrast to other approaches, the Buddha was putting aside the Truth for a journey into the actual. The meditation the Buddha hit upon, vipassana or insight meditation, is precisely this venture into the actual of moment by moment experience. The cardinal characteristics of the actual came to be called the Three Marks of Existence, unsatisfactoriness, impermanence, and no-self. This trinity constitutes the facts of life from which we can run but cannot hide. It is the basic Buddhist fare.

The actual implies engagement. The marks of existence as well as other basic teachings, such as The Four Noble Truths, are not simply street signs describing the neighborhood, but are more like directional arrows pointing the way. Each of the Four Noble Truths has a kiccanana, an accompanying responsibility. The unsatisfactoriness or dis-ease of life demands that we know it—nothing more or less—while the eightfold path, the road to freedom, asks us to walk it. The Buddhist facts of life are not to be taken as a doctrinal model separate from us but as part of our person, our consciousness, and our response-ability.

A practice of the actual grounds us in a simple sanity that imparts a quiet integrity. We are present and aligned because we are attending to the everyday content of experience while keeping grand theories, dogmas, and speculation as a mere side dish. What emerges as a primary interest is how we can relate to the actual and how it works. Our guiding interest is focused on what a contemporary psychotherapist called the “now/how”. What is occurring right now and how does it occur? The Buddha expressed this commitment in his simile of the forest leaves. Scooping up a handful of leaves, he asks his cousin Ananda, are there more leaves on the forest floor or in my hand? He explains the obvious answer by saying, “What I know is like the leaves on the forest floor, but what I teach is like the leaves in my hand.” He teaches what aids our liberation. He doesn’t feed our cognitive appetites.

The confidence that working with the actual is enough relieves us of the burden of spiritual ideals and big Truths. While openness to new possibilities is helpful, the pursuit of ideals leads to vexation. The actual is sacrificed to the ideal. Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center, cautioned his students against being “too idealistic”. Frustration, discouragement, and despair are the shadow-symptoms cast by the ideal.

This contrasts with the solid optimism that grows from an aware acceptance of the actual. We become friendly with what and who we are by embracing ourselves (and the world), not as we fervently believe or wish ourselves to be, but as the very texture of this moment, the actual. Yet facing the facts of life with all their warts and freckles is not a one shot catharsis; it is a daily practice of getting used to “what is”. We eat our Buddhist vegetables one mouthful at a time.

A daily practice to stay connected to the facts of life is to recite the following chant:

The Five Remembrances
I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change; there is no way to escape being separated from them.
My deeds are my closest companions. I am the beneficiary of my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.
The practice brings us back to our existential condition. The speed of the recitation can be of our choosing. If there is a particular refrain that hits us we can pause to more deeply access its relevance. Resistance to the practice signals our avoidance of “what is”. The chant jolts us out of our frantic busyness or sobers us up from our latest infatuations. The Five Remembrances support an authentic awareness that reminds us, “This is it.”

Whether we consider ourselves Buddhist or not, we need a balanced diet that includes basic veggies, a life staple. While not as filling as meat and potatoes or as alluring glazed desserts, with each serving we are absorbing what is organic to our life, learning to appreciate its flavors by coming into an awesome alignment with the actual. We are finally able to set aside our ideals and beautiful truths and begin to work with what is actually on our plate.
Alan Lopez, Ph.D., maintained a private psychotherapy practice in the Hartford CT area for more than twenty years. He trained mental health professionals in Body Centered Gestalt Therapy in both the USA and Germany. Alan has a lifelong involvement with Eastern spiritual disciplines and presently resides in Asia where he teaches Buddhism. He also offers counseling via internet/video and workshops on his visits to the USA.
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