Friday, November 30, 2018

Wielding the Sword

When you take a second look at Jesus, there are always a few surprises. Just when you think he’s the guru of peace and love along comes a passage like this: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) “I have not come to bring peace.” Seriously? Just who is this sword-wielding Jesus? Now that would make a cool stained-glass window.
            Throughout the world’s wisdom traditions, spiritual teachers often resort to the image of the sword. In Vedanta philosophy, the “sword of discrimination” refers to our ability to discern reality from illusion, permanence from impermanence, and truth from lies. Wielding the sword of discrimination is an essential skill for anyone seeking liberation from the delusions of conditioned consciousness. If you have no capacity for discernment or discrimination, you remain forever trapped in an illusory realm far from the sanity, refuge, and beauty of the truth.
            The great Buddhist bodhisattva Manjurshri is depicted wielding a flaming sword, his eyes alight with the intensity of a warrior in battle. In his other hand he holds a lotus flower, the symbol of prajna, the fully-realized awareness of the enlightened state. Because you can’t have one without the other. If you want to awaken, you must cut away all that is not real.
Manjurshri, flaming sword and all, is not your soft, cuddly bodhisattva. He is not your mom. He did not come to comfort you with soft words, cookies, and cocoa. He is here to violently cut you free from the things that are holding your back – your egoic delusions of grandeur, your debilitating self-loathing, your cravings and attachments, and the lie that you have more time to waste. Sharp swords have a way of conveying urgency when gentle coddling and doe-eyed ministrations fail.
            It will hurt. You’re going to lose some things – things that you thought were important. But it turns out they weren’t. And since you were unwilling to let go of them, Manjursri came to slash them away with his sword. You made him do this. You could have let go. But you didn’t. You chose attachment. So he had to go to work.
Change is hard because we always focus on what we are losing, never on what is being born from the wreckage. As much as we say we want to be free the truth is this: we like our cages. We feel contained by them, protected even. Safe.
Safety is overrated. Looking back on our lives we realize that it was only when we took enormous risk or weathered great loss that we were rewarded with the sweetness and beauty we had been longing for.
In Daniel Ladinsky’s translation, the Sufi poet Hafiz explains it this way in his poem Looking for Trouble:

           I once had a student
Who would sit alone in his house at night
Shivering with worries and fears.

And come morning
He would often look as though
He had been raped by a ghost.

Then one day my pity
Crafted for him a knife
From my own divine sword

Since then
I have become very proud of this student.

For now, come night
Not only has he lost all his fear,
Now he goes out
Just looking for trouble.

We have all seen that “raped by a ghost” look in each other’s eyes, and even in our own. Haunted by a past we cannot change, afraid to step across the threshold of our own front doors to claim what is ours, convinced that who we really are is not what the world requires, we stay frozen in a thought-cage of limited and limiting ideas that hold us back from living our own best lives.
This is why spiritual teachers from Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and everywhere else talk so much about wielding swords. That’s how tenacious negative thinking is. That’s how powerful lies are. They don’t undo themselves – they must be undone with sharp, bold, decisive action.
What happens when you run and hide from the sword of discernment? In other words, what happens when you refuse to find the courage to relinquish all of your attachments? What happens when you fail to see past the surface of things and into their depths? What happens when you deny the soft and mysteriously paradoxical nature of reality and force the fluid world into hard categories and rigid dogma? In a word, suffering. Suffering, Buddha taught, is the inevitable product of self-centered expectations. In fact, expectations are just future resentments under construction. When you foolishly think that you are in charge, the universe always has a big surprise waiting for you – the flat tire, the sudden divorce, the devastating diagnosis. In those moments the sword of Manjurshri comes crashing down with heartrending finality and in an instant we realize our utter powerlessness. But on the other side of that powerlessness is the freedom of realization, the wordless knowing that as all the forms of the embodied world rise and fall without our consent or permission we, in the eye of the hurricane, are stillness and peace. That there is wisdom in letting go, in saying Thank you for even allowing me to experience any of this. Grief and despair give way to gratitude and reverence. Even rapture.
But why wait? As we learn to wield the sword of discrimination ourselves, before it is done for and to us, we claim our rightful responsibility as stewards of our own best lives. Never stop trying to awaken. It is not new ideas we need, but freedom from all ideas. Somewhere out past all ideologies and doctrines is the wordless wisdom of inter-being, to be touched in our meditation practice, in our sacred service, in our prayers, in our humble appreciation, in our careful study, and in our sweet and innocent loving. Wisdom is not something we know, it is something we do. In this sense, it is possible to be right without having all of the answers, without, in fact, having any answers at all. We relinquish even the need to understand. We face what is, and have on our lips only the holy word yes. This is what it means to wield the sword of discernment.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Sound of a Flower

One day the Buddha gathered his students for a talk. Instead of delivering a discourse on the dharma, he simply held up a flower and didn’t say a word. His students were puzzled, but Kashyapa’s face softened as his eyes met the Buddha’s. Something silent and profound moved between them. From that moment on, Kashyapa became Buddha’s principle disciple.
            For many, this is the origin story of Zen Buddhism’s central idea – that wordless transmission and direct experiential awareness are superior to conceptual, language-based understanding. The Katha Upanishad calls it “spiritual osmosis” – when embodied wisdom flows directly between teachers and students, unhindered by the fog of words and concepts.
            As a guest speaker in various New Thought communities I’ve often wondered what would happen if I showed up on a Sunday morning and instead of delivering a well-wrought sermon I simply held up a flower for twenty minutes. People would squirm. But for the Kashyapa’s in the congregation something profound might happen.           
The 5th century Indian patriarch Bodhidharma defined Zen as a wordless transmission outside the scriptures, a direct seeing into the mind, and the realization of Buddha-consciousness within. In contrast with more elaborate forms of Buddhism already present in China at the time, Bodhidharma spearheaded a stripped-down approach that would evolve into what we call Zen Buddhism today.
At the root of Zen practice is meditation because meditation is the art of breaking free from the grip of the conceptual mind and slipping into the infinite awareness beneath the waves of the thought stream. Prajna, or transcendent wisdom, is only possible when we make this shift, returning to our original nature and becoming that which we already are – illumined beings. We cannot think our way into enlightenment. In fact, it is our thinking that has kept us out.
            This deep state of stillness and concept-free awareness is known throughout Buddhism as nirvana. The contemporary Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh defines nirvana as awareness without concepts. Nirvana is not an afterlife reward for good Buddhists, nor is it a pleasure palace for the senses. Nirvana is a state of awareness free from all concepts – no fixed self, no separate and distinct objects, no cravings, no fears. Reality is finally experienced as it is – a fluid, ordinary, miraculous, sacred, and deeply interconnected phenomenal field without beginning or end. In the wordless depth awareness of prajna, all is one.
When Jesus counsels us to not judge, and seek first the Father’s kingdom, this is what he means – abandon your concepts and come into awareness. When Jesus says “Become again as a child,” this is what he means – to see the world without the paralyzing grid of our prejudices and categories. When Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” this is what he means – to slip free from the conceptual chains we and the world have constructed. When we shift from the complexity of our ideological frameworks and into the simplicity of present-moment awareness, all is right with the world. Nothing but love, gratitude, service, and bliss. Nothing to cling to. Nothing to resist. Complete and utter freedom. From this stance we can now get to work, moving into the actions that will heal the world, ourselves, and each other, but without anxiety, without egotism, and without shame.  
            Who knew there could be all of this in the silent sound of a flower?

Saturday, October 20, 2018

I Believe We Will

Ammar texted me late Friday afternoon. “Can you write a campaign song for us, something I could pull out at events when people ask me to sing?”
            “Hell yes!”
            “Just something off the top of your head, about country over party, and bringing people together.”
            “I’ve been wanting to do this anyway. Let me take a shot at it.”
            I’d known Ammar Campa-Najjar for nine years, first as a student in my philosophy class at Southwestern College, and then as a friend. We’d stayed in touch through the years as he finished his double major in philosophy and psychology at San Diego State University, and as he ran the San Diego office of the Obama re-election campaign in 2012. The following spring he was working at the White House. Lori and I flew out to visit him. He spent the next few years in Washington, first at the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, then at the Department of Labor, getting the education of his life in both the private and public sector. We talked often on the phone. I could hear it in his voice. He wanted to come home and find a way to serve the region that had given him everything he had. And when local congressman Duncan Hunter came up for reelection, Ammar saw an opportunity.
            It’d been a long, exhausting week. It’s hard to cook up a decent dinner on Friday night. After Ammar’s text I hopped in the car and headed over to the neighborhood taco shop. On the way over a chorus started rising up in my mind. At a stop light I grabbed my phone, opened a voice memo, and hit record. When the leaders lie it’s hard to swallow, may the people lead and the leader’s follow, to that shining city on the hill, I believe we will. The beginnings of a chorus. The next morning, guitar in hand, the rest of the song spilled out. Some songs come fast like that. By 9:30 I was texting a voice memo recording of the finished song to Ammar. “I LOVE IT!” he wrote back.

I Believe We Will

America belongs to you and me
America’s a promise we can keep
If we sweep away the lies that say
That there is not enough
To make a place, full of grace for all of us

When the leaders lie it’s hard to swallow
May the people lead and the leaders follow
To that shining city on the hill
Yeah I believe we will, yeah I believe we will

Underneath the mask we’re all the same
So no more keeping score and placing blame
Yeah I believe that we’re the ones
That we’ve been waiting for
So sail with me and we will reach the other shore

Of the shining sea and waves of grain
To the mountains high across the plains
To that shining city on the hill
Yeah I believe we will, yeah I believe we will
Yeah I believe we will, yeah I believe we will
Yeah I believe

            Later that same day I reached out to Jeff Berkley, an old friend and brilliant producer. He texted me right back. “I’m in,” he said, and we huddled up on who the best players might be. I’d handle all the guitars but we needed bass, drums, and organ. Soon I was tracking down Larry Grano, Rick Nash, and Sharon Whyte, who all jumped right in. The first opening in everybody’s impossibly busy schedules was Wednesday evening. We booked it. That meant I only had four days to put the song through all the many rewrites, revisions, and refinements that usually take weeks or months to unfold in any normal songwriting process. But this wasn’t normal. The election was in three weeks and we had to move fast. I sang the song a thousand ways until every note of every line settled into its forever home. (You don’t control this part of the process – the song tells you what it wants to be). I re-jiggered the ending over and over until it finally felt right. It was done. Then Ammar’s text came in.
            “Can you add something about the 50th district or the campaign? And the phrase ‘country over party?’ Just so people can identify it with us specifically?”
            Ugh. A rewrite? Now? But I had to try. I let go of what I thought the song should be. This song wasn’t about me. It was for Ammar and his all-important efforts to bring real representation to California’s 50th congressional district. I needed to make this song into whatever the campaign needed it to be. Collaboration is hard – I’m used to writing songs by myself. But I love and trust Ammar. So I wrote another verse and chorus and put it in the middle of the song.

            Country over party every time
            We’re going door to door and changing minds
            El Cajon, San Marcos, Escondido, Temecula
            We’re digging deep, lifting up the best of us

            Duncan Hunter’s lies are hard to swallow
            When the people lead, the leaders follow
            To that shining city on the hill
            And I believe we will, I believe we will

            I didn’t want to make the song this specific – I wanted it to be more universal about the broader themes of Ammar’s campaign – but he was right and I was wrong. Now it was the fight song we were looking for – big ideas and concrete details – something his thousands of followers, hundreds of volunteers, and crackerjack staff could rally around and feel inspired by. Something Ammar, a talented singer with a beautiful voice, could sing at events. Something to keep us all fired up and ready to go. There was still a lot of work to do. Long hours, endless phone calls, unrelenting print and television interviews, thousands of doors to knock on, long hard days and long hard nights. The good people of the 50th district deserve to finally be heard and have a real voice in Washington. This is all for them. We can sleep after November 6.
No matter how this election turns out we know we changed the lives of thousands of people. Win or lose, Ammar will be fine. He’s a national figure now. Millions of people know his name and his story. He’ll be thirty years old in a few months. He’s just getting started serving this great country that gave both of us, the sons of immigrants, everything we have.
Together, we’re stronger than we are alone. There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be fixed by what is right with America. It is from our union that our strength comes. We will weather the darkness that sometimes sweeps across the landscape obscuring our greatness. We will gather in the clearing, and we will walk together toward that shining city on a hill. I believe we will.

Here's the song: