Wednesday, February 18, 2009

mickey's review of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism

Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism, while written in 2005, offers a wisdom that, had we in the U.S. heeded back in the militaristic era of the Vietnam War, might have diverted the awful consequences of our collective negative karma that was the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh is the author of many beautifully simple books both lucid and approachable for Western Dharma practitioners. The term “engaged Buddhism” may have originated with his human rights work in his own war-torn country of Vietnam in the 1960s. The Zen monk’s efforts towards peace and non-violence were attempts to actively apply Buddhist tenets of compassion and mindfulness to impact social change. He was recognized in the west in 1967 when Dr. Martin Luther King, himself a student of Mahatma Gandhi Lama, nominated the monk for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In Chapter One, “Uprooting Terrorism,” the monk describes how he was searched by security guards at the Los Angeles International Airport as he arrived with 120 of his monastic students on their way to a retreat for transformation and healing. The extremely personal intrusion led him to realize the guards “ . . . were not looking for my Buddha nature, they were looking for my terrorist nature. . . . When a civilization comes to this level of fear, it is going in the wrong direction.” Yet how did we, the American people, evolve to this extreme of delusion and paranoia in this most prosperous country in the world?

The angered call to America’s youth for retaliation proclaimed a “War on Terror.” An entire generation responded to fill the ranks of the military. Truly now, “we terrorize others so that they will have no chance to terrorize us. We want to kill before we are killed.” This monk claims that what the military training soldiers going to Iraq receive “makes them lose their humanity” and so “the torture and abuse these soldiers engaged in is the direct result . . . [Y]oung men [and women] going to Iraq arrive there already full of fear, wanting to protect themselves at all costs, pressured by their superiors to be aggressive . . . and be ready to kill at any moment.” This statement is affirmed in the deadly cry of marching Marine Corps soldiers as they bellow out the Turkish word for “Kill!”

Thich Naht Hanh offers hands-on solutions for receding from this collective afflictive state, and continually reminds the reader that the only possibility for social change rests in one’s personal commitment to inner transformation. Deep listening, mindfulness through watching the breath, open the individual to awareness of our complicity in the current epidemic of worldwide suffering. Through these meditative techniques, we begin to understand how our negative over-consumption--via all our senses--has prompted hatred from severely deprived people in other countries. With this understanding we begin to cultivate compassionate generosity, mindful healthy consumption of nourishment and renunciation of our habits of greed.

Listening to those we are attacking, listening to the poor and voiceless, listening to the sages . . . with quiet hearts and open minds: this is Thich Naht Hanh’s precious teaching. O that every soldier chose this little book for protective armor!

Monday, February 9, 2009

I-less in Cincinnati

Yes, today may be Saturday, November 15, 2008, the 18th day of the 9th Pig moon, but those are only conditions, not reality, neither relative nor ultimate, but only conditions. The conditions are not the moment's identity any more than this "I" is the moment's identity . . . the moment is gone. The moment of 12:58pm is gone. Did it exist? Time is now 1:08 pm. There is a mickey who feels depressed and confused here at this glass table facing west, the directional condition of Death, a cultural condition at that. Wet, gray skies are cut into framed pieces by three tall bay windows. This mickey wrote in this very space in October and November of 1978 . . . 30 years ago when she thought she owned a wholly different array of things, car, clothes, youth . . . that now have been traded in for a comfy bed, an altar with a Tara statue, a laptop computer. She's spent 30 years bartering and trading in the flea market of life. And every time the cell phone rings, with its caller ID, she thinks for a moment who she should be for that person; did she do as she should have since their last call, thus fulfilling their expectations of her identity? She doesn't want to disappoint anyone, so here, at 56 years old in this particular lifetime, she dances to anyone's bullets at her feet.

She dreams night after night,year after year of losing her wallet, losing her driver's license, losing her passport, losing her handbag, losing control . . . not being able to carry her important possessions by herself, how they keep dribbling away when she reaches for them, how the wind blasts a newly-raked pile of leaves. The waste of it all! And the great anxiety around those she most disappoints, to whose standards she has yet to live up to: her mother, her monk Teachers, her father, her friends, her son . . . the list is endless. And the expectations she perceives that they have of her makes her want to run away, or, swallow pills to help her fake it if there's no way out. Of course she wants out. The horror of Jonathan's suicide by pills come too close. She could not do this to herself . . . never to her son . . . because she understood its utter futility as a solution to such pain, but she understands the condition of his mind at that time and the desperate hope that life was linear, with a beginning point and an end point to suffering. Misinformation! He went to the miserable realms yet again because of misinformation!

And her? How does this life operate on misinformation? She thinks she should be a good daughter, a good Buddhist, a good nun, a good writer, a good mother, a good Teacher, a good Dharma practitioner, a good student, a good Tarot reader, a good scholar, a good publicist, a good editor, a good dancer, with a good body, a good-looking person. All she wants to do is fly away from under the weight of these self-imposed identities. She grasps at each one of her, desperately trying to prove to herself and the other that she is the best volunteer, the hardest, most selfless worker. What a joke! What an oxymoron! The ego working overtime to be selfless!

She has no idea who "I" am other than what others expect of her. But isn't that the point? She is not an "I". When you point your finger at her to touch her, it is like touching air because she is none of those things, yet all of those things manifest out of this nothingness, this emptiness.

And here come Mom up the steps to deliver what she bought for her at Trader Joe's. Is she looking daughterly enough? Intelligent, diligent enough because she's writing here, looking like the scene from a movie of the impassioned writer whose floor is covered with balled-up pieces of paper, evidence of the frustrated beginnings over and over? Yet she only has wadded tissue that missed the basket as she continuously blows her nose in the gray wet cold of a Cincinnati November day.

And all "I" meant to write was: The only identity, is if there is one at all, is the path, the actual process of the journey. The path is big, huge and replete with a clutter of conditions, themselves created by an infinitude of decisions made by free will. Will the real mickey please stand up? We all stand up. We all stay seated.