Monday, August 22, 2016

The Third Buddha

For twenty five centuries people all over the world have been inspired by the wisdom of a 4th century B.C.E. teacher named Siddhartha Gautama who, through his own meditation practice, woke up. As Siddhartha traveled around India and taught for fifty years people asked him, “Are you a guru? Are you a saint? Are you a god?” He would simply answer, “I am awake.” In Sanskrit, the word for “awake” is budh – Siddhartha became known as the Buddha, the one who woke up.

              At the core of Buddhism is this central claim – normal, everyday awareness is a kind of sleep, a conditioned state of consciousness that, it turns out, isn’t very conscious at all. But the good news is, like Buddha, we too can wake up. Buddhism shows us how.

              First, we must acknowledge that life as it is normally lived is characterized by suffering and dissatisfaction. Second, we must come to understand that our suffering and dissatisfaction has a cause, namely, our own cravings and attachments. Third, we must see that if we released our cravings and attachments, our suffering would decrease. And fourth is the Eightfold Path: eight suggestions for changing the way we think, speak, and act. If we follow these suggestions, our self-obsession would decrease, thereby decreasing our suffering. We would move closer toward nirvana, that state of consciousness where the agitation of fear and craving is replaced by the stillness of clarity and insight. Then we would awaken.

              When Buddha died his students struggled to codify and record his teachings and practices. Disagreements arose, splitting his followers into two groups: Theravada and Mahayana. As in the development of early Christianity, core questions fueled the dissent: Who was the Teacher? How should we regard him? Should we emulate his life and embody his teachings, or worship and revere him?

              As a way of approaching these challenging questions, a Mahayana doctrine called trikaya (three forms) developed. Although Buddha-nature is a singular reality, it manifests itself in three distinct forms. The first is nirmanakaya, the physical form, the flesh and blood man Siddhartha. The second is sambhogakaya, the spiritual form of the Buddha that inhabits the celestial realm where he receives our devotion and answer our prayers. The third form is Dharmakaya, the universal form that permeates all reality, including us. In this third sense, everything is Buddha-nature, an ultimate reality beyond the reach of the conceptual mind, but experienced in the awakened state.

              So which of the three Buddhas is the most important – the physical Buddha, the celestial Buddha, or the universal Buddha? It depends on your temperament. For the more devotional among us, the second Buddha has enormous appeal; a sacred power above and outside of us capable of hearing our prayers and offering supernatural assistance. But for the more philosophical and introspective among us, it is the third Buddha that holds sway; the idea that all matter, energy, and consciousness is already Buddha-nature, and we have only to awaken to this reality. In this scenario, the dynamic of spiritual seeking shifts. It turns out there is nothing to seek, nowhere to go, and nothing to become – we’re already there, and we’re already That. The purpose of our spiritual practice is to remove the hindrances that prevent us from realizing our intrinsic Buddha-hood. As the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart put it, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.”
               This is what it means then to awaken -- to come out of the fog of confusion and claim our rightful place in the clarity of this present moment. We are in the Kingdom of Heaven. We never left. We only dozed off for a little while and forgot where we were. Follow Buddha or Jesus or Muhammad is a beginning. But we must be willing to take the next step -- as the embodiment of Dharmakaya or Buddha-nature -- becoming who we have always been. As Japanese Dominican priest Father Oshida put it, "We are not called to be like Christ, but to be Christ." The third Buddha is us.

[This piece was originally published in my "A to Zen" column in the September/October 2016 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Ten Rules of Art

In 1967, Carole King and her husband Gerry Goffin were the hottest songwriting team in the business. As King told David Remnick of the New Yorker, they were walking down Broadway one afternoon when a limousine pulled alongside them. The window rolled down and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records stuck his head out. “I’m looking for a really big hit for Aretha,” he said. “How about writing a song called ‘A Natural Woman.’” The window rolled up and the limo pulled away. That night after putting the kids to bed they sat at the piano and banged out one of Aretha Franklin’s most enduring masterpieces.
In the creation of art, what’s more important, inspiration or perspiration?
When I was finishing up my BA in religious studies at UCSB I had completed all of my required courses and just needed a few elective units. I took a songwriting class in the music department. The instructor was a commercial jingle writer and producer from LA with recording credits in pop, rock, and film. He gave us a simple assignment. Every week we were to write, arrange, record, mix, and present a finished song. We were forbidden from recording any existing material – everything had to be written and recorded from scratch that week. We scoffed. “What if the muse doesn’t strike?” we asked. He sighed. “Look,” he said, “when your client comes to you and asks you for a soundtrack, or a jingle, or a cut for the new album by so and so, you don’t say, O.K., I’ll send you something if and when the inspiration strikes. You just sit down and do it.” As artist Chuck Close said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
As the semester progressed, it dawned on us. Making art is not a mysterious process. Making art is like making anything else – building a house, cooking a meal, planting a garden – most of the battle is just showing up, getting serious, and demanding results. Of course not everything turns out great. It never does. But if you don’t suit up, show up, and do the work, how and when is the inspiration supposed to strike?
In an interview, great American writer John McPhee revealed that in his writing process, he takes a belt from a terry cloth robe and ties himself in his desk chair with a big double knot, then spins the belt around so the knot is behind him. He stays there until he’s put in his shift. If you only write when you feel like it, you’re not a writer. If you only make art when you feel like it, you’re not an artist. You’re a dilettante. In a word, you’re pretending. It’s time to get real.
If you are really serious about creating something of value, you will fight for it, even if the forces you’re fighting against are your own distractedness, self-doubt, sloth, or adolescent mood swings. Oh, you don’t feel like it? Nobody cares. Do it anyway. Does your heart surgeon walk out of the room mid-surgery because he just isn’t feeling it? Does a farmer plant only half her field because she’s not in the mood? Does an architect leave out the bathrooms because, well, they’re not that fun to design, and he’d rather design high-ceilinged foyers, split-level decks, and grey water reclamation systems?
I spoke with prominent artist Douglas Schneider about his process. He was in his Oakland studio preparing another series of paintings for an upcoming gallery show in San Francisco. Schneider is one of those rare artists who has managed to blend commercial success with autonomy and authenticity. His paintings are mesmerizing dreamscapes anchored by everyday objects bathed in an atmosphere of bottomless longing. It is the beauty of the ordinary world that Schneider paints, thereby returning us to the infinite significance of our own lives, a place where mirage-like waves of memory and perception distort as much as they reveal.
When a gallery show comes along, he starts to paint. He knows people are counting on him – his agents, his curators, his patrons, his fans – and he simply gets to work. He often works on several pieces at once, never knowing exactly where the ideas come from or where they’re going. He just begins. All of the technique is there from years of formal education and arduous training, but it’s the imminence of the deadline that impels him, sparking a workman like sense of humility, obligation, and gratitude – gratitude that he even gets to do this for a living. The shock of that fact alone frequently stops him in his tracks. He knows that all work is service, and that these paintings need to be made, for someone. As the deadline approaches, he paints at an increasingly furious pace with a sacred sense of urgency – get out of the way, get out of the way – sometimes even shipping his large canvases wet, knowing they’ll dry by the time they’re installed. As the paintings are birthing it’s terrifying. And blissful. Schneider, like any real artist, knows that inspiration matters and bliss happens, but only after you find the discipline to pick up the brush.
As you reflect on your own artistic and creative process, no matter your medium, bear these ten truths in mind.
1.      Your work is not your own – it belongs to the audience. Put them first. What do they need?
2.      Your work is an act of service, not a private indulgence. Art is communal – it only exists in the space between us, not in the secret heart of its creator.
3.      Inspiration is overrated. Work is underrated.
4.      Be true to your own aesthetic. Don’t chase trends. Don’t pander to your audience – draw them toward you in communion.
5.      Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work. Cut, edit, alter, and delete  with brutal decisiveness. Art is no place for self-indulgent sentimentality.
6.     The one rule: authenticity.
7.     Beautiful and pretty are two different things. One’s abiding, the other fades; one’s deep, the other’s shallow; one’s challenging, the other’s facile. Go for beauty every time.
8.     You don’t have forever. Do it now. Finish it.
9.     Perfection is the enemy of the good. As many have said, art is never finished, only abandoned.
10.  Nurture your love of art like a garden – feed it, water it, sunlight it. Care-take your body, your mind, your heart, and your soul. Drink in the beauty of the world. Read. Listen. Travel. Love. Take risks. Timidity has no place in art. Be bold. But be kind, because kindness extended to others strengthens the heart, the instrument of our creating. Let your art come from your loving.
All of us are artists, and our lives are our greatest work. A well-lived life is a masterpiece. The ten rules apply to the creation of any art project, including the most important project of all – becoming fully human.            

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Big Sur

            Big Sur is impossible. It should not exist. But there it is.
            A crazy road clinging to the cliffs between San Simeon and Carmel. Lapis lazuli waters with sea otters at play. Grey fox pups peering up through the poppies. High above, California condors, back from the brink of extinction, set their ten foot wingspans like sails on the salty updraft. Far below, the plumes of Blue whales spout like geysers.
            Highway 1 was built through these treacherous coastal gorges by convict labor in the years after World War I. It was a simple deal – in exchange for a day on the road crew they cut a day off your sentence. That one misstep could send you pummeling down a thousand foot cliff to your death was better odds than another day in the exercise yard at San Quentin.
The army needed access to the coast to create a frontline defense on the western edge of the country. So congressional funding appeared. War is funny like that. It creates both a sense of urgency and unintended consequences. Were it not for the fear of invasion by sea on this lonely stretch of unprotected west coast, the Big Sur Highway would have never been built. What would have all those peace-loving hippies at Esalen done then?
            The central coast of California has its own personality, its own soul, and its own undefinable borders. Some say central California is everything north of Santa Barbara and south of Monterrey. Others push the southern edge down to Ventura and the northern edge up to San Francisco. But one thing is sure. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
            Southern California has heat, beach culture, Hollywood, and street tacos. Northern California has coastal redwoods, fog, and rutting Roosevelt Elk bugling on the slopes of volcanos. Central California is more difficult to define.
Beginning in the east, the White Mountains run along the Nevada border, home to the Bristlecone pine, the oldest living thing on earth. Moving west you come to the Owens Valley leaping up into the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, crowned by the tallest peak in the continental United States, Mt. Whitney at 14, 505 feet. Called by John Muir “the Range of Light,” the Sierra Nevada Mountains boast both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. That fact alone establishes Central California’s dominance among the three Californias.
            Descending through the foothills of the western Sierras you come upon the Central Valley, an agricultural wonderland that feeds not only the United States, but much of the world. Sure the 1848 Gold Rush, also a central California phenomenon, was impressive, but the real gold comes in the form of peaches, almonds, raisins, and basically everything you could possibly put in a salad, and then some.
            Traveling further west across the coastal ranges you come to Big Sur where the forested crags of the Santa Lucia Mountains tower over the Pacific and cold, clear, mountain streams plunge off of cliffs into azure bays brimming with sea life.
            Once the road was built in the 1920s and 1930s settlers began trickling in, building patchwork homesteads in sheltered, forested valleys perched high above the sea.  Big Sur has always attracted artists, poets, hermits, and other refugees from Middle America looking for something more intrepid, more mystical, and more vibrant than the altogether respectable but underwhelming goal of having a sensible career and your own washer and dryer. At Big Sur, you hardly even need clothes. Let alone a tie.
            So what is it about California, central coastal California especially, that calls out to lost souls all over the world? Why do they come to Big Sur in droves just to drive this remote, dizzying highway and stare bedazzled at the jeweled Pacific curving toward infinity? Some places take on a mythical stature, a sacred sense of place far surpassing any fortunate confluence of geological features or natural beauty. Sure, Big Sur has all of that. But it has more, that quality the French call je ne sais quoi, or I know not what. You can’t put your finger on it, but Big Sur has it: a palpable spirit, an aliveness, a soul, a something you just can’t define.
            When places take on a mythical quality, they become a living, breathing, conscious being. Science, of course, laughs at talk like that. In the western scientific paradigm nature is not a spiritual presence, it is a collection of objects; observable, quantifiable, and explainable with a series of linear analytical propositions. The Salinan and Esselen peoples who originally inhabited this region for 10,000 years before the Conquest didn’t quite see it that way.
            For Native peoples, an alternative epistemology holds sway. They see the realm of nature not as a field of disconnected objects, but as an interconnected web – pull one thread, and you touch it all. From this perspective, it doesn’t make sense to talk about plants in the abstract, but only about this plant, in this soil, in this valley, in this weather, on this day, near this stream, in this season, in relationship with these birds, rodents, snakes, and insects…and now us as we observe it, for we too are an inseparable part of the whole. As John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” There is no meaningful and ultimate distinction between the observer and observed. In deep seeing, we become both invisible and indivisible. There is only one. We, in the end, are the universe observing itself.
            That’s what makes a sacred place sacred: the hidden interconnectedness shines through the surface and reveals itself. Once we see it, or rather, feel it, we carry this expanded awareness everywhere we go, returning home with new eyes. And then we realize the real truth, the truth that was staring us in the face the whole time, only we did not see it. Every place is a sacred place.
            If any place is sacred, every place is sacred.
            When we spring to life somewhere, we spring to life everywhere.
            This is the value and vital importance of travel, especially pilgrimages to extraordinary places like Big Sur. Standing on a bluff, the sun on your back, held fast by the curving arms of a cedar, you experience an interchange: through every pore of your skin you feel your spirit and the earth’s spirit pouring into one another, the way a freshwater stream and the Pacific Ocean pour into one another in the estuary of a Big Sur beach. No more struggle, no more strain, because you are part of something bigger than yourself and you always have been. You don’t do anything alone. How could you? That was an illusion. One of the many, many illusions stripped away by the willingness to realize your authentic nature.