Abandon Negativity

Abandoning negative places, disturbing emotions gradually subside;

Being free from distraction, the practice of virtue spontaneously increases;

With brightened awareness one feels confidence in the Dharma;

To adhere to solitude is the practice of the bodhisattvas.”

  • the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Verse 3.*

We need to be aware of where we’re going and what we’re doing. Sometimes in life we just do things and don’t give it much thought. The truth is that everything can be part of our spiritual journey. Actually everything is, whether we like it or not.

What do we mean when we say things like “Abandon negative places”?

Sometimes in life we feel trapped. In a job, in a relationship, in a social group, whatever. Rarely are we as trapped as we think we are. None of that really bind us. In the song “Already Gone” by the Eagles there is the line: “So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains and we never even know we have the key.”

I love that line. It really says what I’m getting at. You are not trapped. You can empower yourself to get out of anything. That’s what we’re talking about here. Staying in a situation that doesn’t serve your growth gets in the way. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for to get ourselves out.

I’m being vague on purpose here. I can’t tell you what is or isn’t a negative place. I can’t tell you if your job or your friendships or your relationships are toxic. But you know. With just a little introspection you know exactly what situations would be good to get out of. Also, it’s true there are some outlier situations where people are really trapped. I do need to go out of my way to mention that. Speaking just for myself, I’ve felt like I was trapped and been wrong before. I have usually had more power to get out than I believed I had.

I think we can add habits to this too. What are the habits that keep us away from our spiritual journey? And then what habits can we add to our lives that inspire more practice?

The Ornament of Sutras says:

The place where intelligent ones practice

Is well supplied, an excellent dwelling place,

An excellent soil, endowed with good companions,

And graced by yogic bliss.”

Several years ago I got divorced and I was really struggling. I stopped trying to cultivate mindfulness and virtue and just sort of wallowed in my struggle.

Then I started going to a Buddhist temple all the time, the Rime Center. I wanted to spend some extra time dwelling in a sacred space and also meeting good companions, people with the same spiritual goals that I have.

If you go less often to the places and situations that get in the way of your spiritual journey, then that can really help. If you go more often to the places and situations that help inspire your spiritual journey, then that can help too. I want to compare it to filling your diet with vegetables so there’s less room for chips.

And it doesn’t have to be a temple, of course. Plenty of people feel motivated and inspired by going out to the woods or something. Your mileage may vary, but I think you probably know already what things and places work for you.

I still like to go to the Rime Center to feel inspiration, but I also have a statue garden in my backyard that I can go to for that. Where do you go?

Nagarjuna said, “One remains in a place that is conducive and relies on holy beings.”

The Buddha said that having a community is important. I think he was right. Getting together with other people that have the same goals as us can motivate us in a way that nothing else really seems to. Some people want to put that aside because they’re introverted. I am sympathetic to that, I used to be quite introverted myself and I still am sometimes.

The Buddha’s student Ananda said, “You know, I think spiritual friendship is half of the path.”
And the Buddha replied, “No, Ananda. It’s the whole path.”

I don’t, however, need to appeal to authority really. I can point to my own life. In the past I spent time with people who looked down on and made fun of others often. And then I stopped. And I could really see my own personal growth, just from getting out of those situations.

That’s really what it comes down to here. Spend time with virtuous people. You don’t have to go to a temple or join a group to find them. You just have to pay attention to the people in your life and dedicate time to the ones who have qualities that you think are positive. That’s it.

Obviously we still have a lot of work to do on our personal growth, but spending time with positive people really puts you ahead.

Spend more time in the places that inspire you. Spend more time with the people that inspire you.

That is how to unleash your potential.

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*all quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa

Buddhism Works

Buddhism works. I said it. I meant it.

There are those that say we shouldn’t talk about how Buddhism helps us too much. I’ve seen a lot of teachers say things like this over the years. There’s this idea that if we think about how Buddhism helps us too much, we are going to wind up getting really goal oriented and that will get in our way.

I want to respectfully disagree with that point of view.

Someone once asked me, “How do you find time for Buddhist practice when you have four kids at home?”

And I replied, “I don’t know how anyone is able to parent multiple kids without Buddhist practice.”

The teachings and practices in my spiritual path have changed my life in ways beyond measure. Buddhism has made me kinder, more patient, more attentive, less anxious, less self centered, more able to deal with the obstacles that are a natural part of human life.

I am known by some as a person with a lot of patience. That didn’t just happen. I’m not just naturally a calm and patient person. I cultivated these qualities through Buddhist practice. I used to struggle with empathy, with understanding and relating to the thoughts and feelings of other people. Buddhism helped me transform myself. I used to struggle with anxiety too and Buddhism helped me develop a calm and even mind. If I’m going to be honest I still struggle with anxiety sometimes, but I used to struggle with it all the time and it’s gotten more and more rare. Which, while I’m on that subject, Buddhism has helped me learn how to be more honest with others AND with myself. I think most of us lie to ourselves way more than we lie to other people.

Buddhism is our refuge in a world full of suffering. It’s not just a weird thing we’re doing. It has a big purpose. We are working to transform ourselves and improve the way we move through the world. Buddhism is about transformation, about reaching our potential. And it can help a lot of people if they know that.

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Freedom and Riches

At this time of having obtained the rare great ship of freedoms and riches,

To listen, reflect, and meditate, without any distraction day and night,

In order to liberate oneself and others from the ocean of samsara

Is the practice of bodhisattvas.*

This is the first on the list of “The Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva” which was written by Gyalse Togme in the 1300s. This text is part of the mind training tradition of Buddhism, which is a tradition I like very much. I think I’m going to go through the 37 practices one by one. A bodhisattva is one who strives to cultivate compassion and wisdom for the benefit of others. This is what I aspire to be.

There’s some stuff to unpack here.

The rare great ship of freedoms and riches is our human life. The word ship is a metaphor because, like riding in a ship, we are in this body for a while and it takes us places, but then we’re not in it anymore. Now, plenty of us probably think some version of “My human life is not filled with freedoms and riches” because we’ve all had struggles and we’ve all been kicked in the heart at times. This was a struggle for me when I learned about it. To me it helps to think of it in this way. You were born as a human being in this time and place. You could have been born as a rat or bug or fish. But you weren’t. You were born as a human. Just by nature of that you have opportunities that many many other beings do not have. Additionally you were born in the modern world. You could have been born hundreds or even thousands of years ago and faced many more hardships than people in the world today must face. Not only that but also, as a result of being born in the modern world, you have access to information that people even a few decades ago couldn’t have fathomed.

In the context we’re talking about here we can think about the availability of teachings. If you’re Buddhist you have access to more teachings translated into your language than ancient people would have thought possible. And the possibility of communication with teachers from all over the world too. This applies to other religions just as much, I’m sure. Just a few centuries ago people were practicing Christianity without having the ability to read the Bible for themselves. And also the standards of health and cleanliness. We are so lucky to live in this time and place where we are aware of the germ theory of disease and where we have access to flushable toilets and running water. We don’t appreciate these things as much as we could.

So, so what? Why are we talking about this?

Because we have a rare and great opportunity and we shouldn’t waste it.

The text “Letter to a Friend” by Nagarjuna says:

Since it is extremely difficult to obtain a human birth,

By practicing the holy Dharma make it meaningful!

And “Way of the Bodhisattva” by Shantideva says:

Based on the ship, the human body,

One becomes liberated from the great river of suffering.

We have this opportunity. We can squander it chasing after sense pleasures that never bring happiness and obsessing about the trivial things that come about as a result of our confusion. Or we can try to rise above, to lessen the suffering of ourselves and others by pursuing wisdom and compassion. We can live in a better way and reach our potential.

How?

To listen, reflect, and meditate, without any distraction day and night,

In order to liberate oneself and others from the ocean of samsara

This passage is really letting us know how important this journey can be for us. We can change our lives and the lives of people around us for the better by engaging the Bodhisattva path. By listening, reflecting, and meditating.

The ocean of samsara is the ordinary world of suffering and death that we find ourselves in. We are suffering because we find ourselves stuck in greed, hatred, and delusion. But this path does offer us a way to overcome these struggles. We can learn how to be more aware and awake. We can learn how to be more at peace with the world around us and to stop making enemies out of everything all the time.

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*all quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa

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The Things We Carry

I think we’re all carrying weight based on our life experiences.

I carry some weight around the subject of death.

Back when I was in college in my early 20s it was unusual that my parents aren’t around. Now I’m in my 40s and it’s much less unusual. Lots of people my age don’t have parents anymore. Some people say college was the best part of their lives. I was grieving the whole time. It wasn’t the best part of my life. Now is.

My father died at the age of 56 and my mother died at the age of 58. I was born when they were in their 40s, so they’ve been gone since I was a teenager. Sometimes I call myself an orphan and that’s not really accurate because I was 19 when I was on my own. Technically I was an adult, but if you’ve ever met a 19 year old you probably know we should be saying “adult”.

And, at that time, I knew it was a tragedy when dad got cancer and died and three years later mom got cancer and died. Of course it was a tragedy. They left behind me. But I didn’t realize the simple fact that they were so young. My parents had gray hair and were older than any of the other parents that were around with kids my age, so I didn’t have that awareness that 56 and 58 are YOUNG.

In total honesty, I didn’t get a vasectomy because I was certain I didn’t want any more kids. I got a vasectomy because I knew I really didn’t want to have any in my 40s…just in case.

Now, what I want to say is: these cancers were not the scary hereditary kinds. At least that’s what my doctor tells me. So at least there’s that. And my rational mind is fully aware of that. But, you know what?

There’s that other part of my mind that isn’t rational. So the baggage of “i could get sick and die” is still with me and probably always will be. I don’t need to carry that baggage, I don’t need to think about that.

But at the same time, does it help me appreciate life? Maybe. It definitely helps me appreciate time with my kids. And it helps me want to create value in this world. I want to do good things because tomorrow is not promised. Life is impermanent and the truth is we should all remember that.

Anyone can die at any time. So don’t waste your life. Love more, share more, be kinder. And bring all your energy and focus to the things that matter.

Tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us.

Stewardship

Steward is a word that has a lot of different connotations.

According to the Oxford Dictionary Stewardship is “the job of supervising or taking care of something, such as an organization or property.”

A steward is someone who takes care of something. Stewardship is the act of taking care of something. Some churches have stewards who take care of funds and property. A steward of the environment is someone who does a good job cleaning up and taking care of the world around them.

I’m a Union Steward, which is defined as “An employee of an organization or company who represents and defends the interests of their fellow employees as a labor union member and official.”*

So, as I said, a steward is someone who takes care of something. In my labor union context it’s someone who takes care of other people. In the Christian context it’s someone who takes care of the Lord’s creation or is dedicated to service, to a higher calling. Christians are called to remind themselves that nothing belongs to them, they’re stewards of things but not owners.

I’m not a Christian, but I like this concept very much.

It’s not far removed from the Buddhist concept of the Bodhisattva, who is helping others on the spiritual path.

A Bodhisattva is one who has “generated a compassionate mind and strives toward awakening and empathy in order to benefit all beings.”*

I don’t want to be a Buddhist. I want to be a Bodhisattva.

And I don’t want to be a union representative, I want to be a steward.

See what I did there? It’s bigger and more significant. It’s not a job, it’s a calling.

That is the intersection between my spirituality and my career. My spiritual practice helps me to develop empathy, patience, and mindfulness. And all of these things help in my role as a steward. I want to take care of people, I want to help them. And I want to use a tremendous amount of my time and energy to do that because it is so important.

I don’t know if I’m the only Buddhist Union Steward in the United States, but I’m the only one I know. And it seems like a good fit to me. It took me a long time to find my life’s purpose and this is it.

A look back: Dharma School

I ran the Sunday Dharma School at the Rime Center for four years. It’s a Buddhist Sunday School for kids, not unlike the same kind of thing many churches have. There I taught kids how to meditate and shared many lessons about kindness, wisdom, and mindfulness. We usually had 10-15 children and we ran for 90 minutes while the Rime Center Sunday Service was going on. Parents could drop their kids off to meditate with me or they could stay with them. It was an incredibly rewarding experience, but also often exhausting. I never really got the amount of help I needed, which is probably true for anyone that runs a volunteer-based program. I have a whole lot of patience for kids and I’m pretty good at communicating with them, so I feel I was pretty effective in this role.

One day someone offered to take it over and I stepped away. That was nearly 7 years ago. Now I regret it. But I do think stepping away gave me the chance to get some perspective. For a while I wanted to contribute to the Buddhist Community in other ways. I wanted to lead meditations, I wanted to teach classes to adults (you know, REAL classes), I wanted to figure out how to do more outreach type things.

I somehow thought running the Dharma School was not *really* contributing, like meditating with kids is somehow not serious and important.

I was wrong.

All kinds of service have value and all kinds of service are important.

We want to carry these teachings and practices forward into the future. And part of the strength of the community is making sure families can participate. It shouldn’t be a situation where you have to go away from your family in order to practice your religion. But a lot of people feel like that’s exactly what they have to do.

And it’s good for the kids too. I think I would have been enormously helped by some meditation training back when I was an unhappy child. It would have brought great benefit to me to have all these teachings earlier in my life. And it can be a kind of refuge, a place for kids (and parents) to come together and just have a chance to feel like they belong somewhere. How many kids feel like they don’t belong anywhere? Many. Kids are the future and if we want these teachings to go into the future then they need to be included. And I think the benefits of meditation are well known these days. Meditation helps us improve many things that kids need to get through life: focus, emotional intelligence, empathy, communication skills, equanimity, even things like bravery. We need to cultivate these kinds of qualities and of course kids do too.

So it’s with all of this in mind that I’m really aching to get back to leading meditation and spiritual practice for the next generation. Because I can belong in Dharma School and you can too.

The temple the Rime Center is in right now doesn’t have enough space for a children’s program to be possible. They had to purchase a new space and it’s smaller than the old one. Once the new Meditation Hall is built there will be plenty of room. That’s the only way I can have a potential opportunity to lead Sunday Dharma School there again.

If what I have written is meaningful to you, please consider donating to help make this a reality.

Laziness

Sometimes we need to talk about laziness.

I think laziness is probably a universal human trait. It gets in the way of our confidence and strength.

Talking about our struggles and reflecting on them is how we overcome them. Laziness is a thing that gets in our way. It stops us from reaching our potential and achieving our goals. Sometimes laziness can almost be like poison and really ruin things for us. Most of the time it’s not that serious.

In Buddhism laziness is sometimes described as having three aspects. In his book “The Bodhisattva Handbook” the Dalai Lama describes the three aspects of laziness in this way:

1) Having no wish to do good

2) Being distracted by negative activities

3) Underestimating oneself and doubting one’s ability

I think that’s a pretty good list of things that get in our way. We may not think of all of these as laziness, but it can be helpful to think of them as similar. We often talk about how these can get in the way of our spiritual practice, but really they can get in the way of anything we’re trying to do.

Having no wish to do good.

This is when we know what the right thing is and we just don’t want to do it. We can think of anything. Eating vegetables, flossing, paying attention to our kids when we don’t really want to, paying attention to our work when we don’t really want to.

And we can think of spiritual things too, obviously. Doing our meditation practice. Being generous, showing compassion when it’s not easy. And many of the other things we do. This is the laziness of “I don’t feel like it.” It’s probably the main thing we think of when we think of laziness.

Being distracted by negative activities

I’ve seen this called “The laziness of busyness” and I don’t know if that works as well to explain as this version. That’s when I’m not doing the things I know I need to do because I’m distracted. I’m not eating vegetables because I’m too busy eating too many chips. I’m not paying attention to my kids because I’m arguing with strangers on Facebook. I’m lying to make myself look good instead of being genuine and telling the truth. I’m gossiping instead of focusing on my job at work. There are probably many of examples of this.

That’s not to say we can’t spend time eating chips or scrolling through Facebook, but just that we should be mindful of what we’re doing and what it’s taking us away from. “Negative activities” might seem like a heavy term to handle but the point is that we know when we’re indulging in things that aren’t great for us and others. If we’re honest about ourselves, we know. And if we’re keeping ourselves too busy with things that aren’t what we need to do, that can have a big impact on our quality of life.

Underestimating oneself and doubting one’s ability

This is the idea of “Can’t win, don’t try.” This is basically an excuse. It’s thinking that you can’t help everyone, so you may as well not try to help anyone. It’s thinking that your kids are going to be messed up no matter what you do, so you may as well not try your best to parent. It’s overall this thought that we all have sometimes. I’m not good enough. Sure, other people can be great parents, but not me. Sure, other people can be good at their jobs, but not me. Sure, other people can attain enlightenment, but not me. Sometimes we really believe these negative things about ourselves. Other times they’re an excuse to not take a certain action. I could try harder, but it probably won’t work anyway.

So, we’ve identified problems. What can we do?

For the first two kinds of laziness, a thing that helps is learning how to plan and prioritize. Sit down and write out a list of goals. Then remind yourself, in whatever way you need to, not to let things get in the way. Now, this is harder than it sounds. We are going to have to remind ourselves again and again and again. But the truth is just naming this problem takes away a lot of it’s power.

The third kind of laziness can be a little more tricky. We have to learn how to have compassion and kindness and grace for ourselves. For some people it’s a lot easier to show kindness to others than to ourselves. One thing we can also do is learn how to be mindful of our own intentions, to know when we’re making excuses. If I think I can’t be pitcher for the Royals that’s true. But if I think I can’t handle getting a little healthier so I can play tag with my kids without getting winded, I’m wrong. I can get healthier and get that energy. I just don’t want to so I make the excuse that I can’t. Think of your own examples, I bet you have plenty.

Buddhism teachings that we all have the seed of awakening within us, that every human being has goodness at our core. This can be a tough thing to grasp because we know ourselves. I know everything bad I’ve ever done. How can I be good at the core of my being? But I am. And you are too. This can be such a hard thing for us to wrestle with. But this is true for everyone. You get there by realizing you’re already there.

And, most importantly, no one gets left out.

You’re a Zen Buddhist, Right?

I went to a study group that’s reading “Way of the Bodhisattva”.

It’s one of my favorite texts. I feel like Shantideva is one of the greatest Buddhist teachers of all time. We studied the chapter on Patience and then we studied the chapter on Diligence. It’s been such a wonderful opportunity. The group is called Younge Drodul Ling-Kansas City and they’re part of a bigger community. It’s called a “Rime Practice Lineage.” I think some people call this group Dzogchen Buddhism or Vajrayana Buddhism. It’s been a great experience studying this text with this group.

Someone at this group said to me, “You’re a Zen Buddhist, right?”

I was a Zen Buddhist. I don’t know what I am anymore.

I became a Zen Buddhist and even did some training as a monk. I realized I didn’t want to be a monk but I kept studying and practicing Zen for a long time. I resisted anything else even though I was practicing with a Tibetan Buddhist community called the Rime Center.

The truth is that I don’t sit facing a wall anymore. I sit facing a Buddha statue in my living room. And I’m studying all the Bodhisattva teachings instead of the Zen teachings. The Bodhisattva teachings are what have carried me. And I’m doing a liturgy in front of my statue in the living room every day.

The truth is I was telling myself that Zen is more secular than it is anyway. I’m not the only one. Buddhism is a religion (sorry) and I’d argue meditation is a spiritual practice too. I think plenty of people don’t like hearing that but I think I want to be honest about such things. I’ll always probably have a soft spot for some of those Zen teachings though.

I set up a statue garden in my backyard that I call “The Garden of Virtue” I read a text that said Buddhas and Bodhisattvas dwell in sacred spaces like that. I’m starting to wonder if that’s true. I’ve never been someone to believe in such things. What I know is that the thing that’s been growing in my statue garden is me.

I’m not a Zen Buddhist. I follow the Bodhisattva Path. And that could be enough.

Maybe I’ll become Dzogchen Buddhist. I’ve had some empowerments (other things I used to not believe in) and maybe I won’t.

But also maybe names don’t mean anything anyway. I don’t know what kind of Buddhist I am and I don’t need to know.

Company (podcast)

“If, while befriending someone, the three poisons increase, The activities of study, reflection, and meditation degenerate, And love and compassion disappear, Then it is the practice of the bodhisattvas to give up this company.” -The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva, verse 4. 

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