Lifestyle Gurus and Devas

Recently, I was amused to read this article by the New York Times about the business of lifestyle gurus. Definitely read this before continuing. ūüôā

I have often noticed a trend where lifestyle gurus frequently and selectively borrow Buddhist teachings and incorporate it into their own, which is confusing for someone who’s not actually familiar with Buddhist religion, and thus conflating the two.

Reading the article above reminded me of the traditional Buddhist wheel of rebirth. Recently, I talked about people who in this live life as if they’re in one of the Buddhist hell realms, undergoing constant torment, or are the tormentors themselves, both doomed to find no peace unless the cycle is broken. Such hells do exist in a sense, for both humans and animals alike.

On the other side of the Buddhist spectrum of rebirth are the devas.1 These are the original gods in India that were worshipped through ancient texts called the Vedas, which researchers now call the “Vedic Religion”, since it predates all known religions: Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.

Of these devas, early Buddhist texts mention gods like Indra and Brahma as protectors of the Buddha, and the Buddha explained how the devas dwelt in 33 heavenly realms, with the lower realms focused more on sensual pleasure, and the higher realms on more ethereal, cerebral delights.
Further, the devas live very long lifespans, as time flows differently in the heaven realms:

That which among men is four hundred years, Visakha, is one night and day of the Tusita devas, their month has thirty of those days, their year twelve of those months; the lifespan of the Tusita devas is four thousand of those heavenly years…

— Visakhuposatha Sutta
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.043.khan.html

…but there’s a catch: even the devas die.

In Buddhist religion, the devas have extremely long lifespans, and live a life of ease and power that is well beyond humans, and yet even they are subject to decline. In one apochryphal story, the king of the gods, Indra (a.k.a. Shakra) forsees his next rebirth as a pig. As the king of the devas, he has nowhere to go but down, and greatly frets about this.

Thus, the heaven realms are not seen as a long-term solution on the Buddhist path. A person who lives an especially good life (regardless of being Buddhist or not) may end up being reborn in the heaven realms, but that is a double-edged sword because on the one hand you have a life of ease and great mental and physical powers, but on the other hand, it’s a distraction and a hindrance until it’s possibly too late.

Getting back to the original point of this post, I sometimes like to compare lifestyle gurus and people who aspire to follow them as devas. They live somewhat removed and oftentimes elevated lifestyles compared to the mundane lives of other people: a life of relative comfort and ease, sumptuous foods, health spas, nice homes, clothing and lively parties with their friends. But there’s something that will inevitably nag in the back of their minds, and that’s their own mortality.

You can eat the nicest organic foods in the world, drink the finest wines, have the best most satisfying sex in your life, or enjoy the taste of victory, but these are temporary things and in the end you will still face old age, decline and ultimately death.

How you face that death is really important, and may be the most important problem to solve in your life.

You can’t buy your way out of that problem, either. It’s something you must work out yourself, and the answer can be a bitter pill to swallow, but a bitter pill is good medicine.

So, it’s important not to conflate lifestyle gurus and their advice with actual Buddhist teachings. The two have little in common, and ultimately arrive at different ends if followed to fruition. One is focused on here and now, while the other is more forward-thinking.

1 Deva is cognate with English words such as “divine” and such.

Buddhism and Domestic Violence

I was originally going to make a different video tonight, but after hearing my neighbors two houses down fighting (with a toddler crying in the background), I decided to make this video instead.  I wanted to explore how the states of rebirth in Buddhism are real states of being, and that people undergo these states all the time.  Some of these people are living in a kind of hell now, and need help, even if they know how where to find it.

This is even more important where children are concerned because they have no control over their environment.  They are thrust into a terrible situation, and that is all they will know until it is too late.

So, while I don’t have any real concrete advice about dealing with domestic violence, I do want to address people who are tormented (or tormenting others) and tell them to get help. ¬†It doesn’t always have to be like this, especially with children involved. ¬†There is a way out, and it can begin by asking for help.

Thank you,

Doug

Mindfulness Works

There are plenty of articles on the Internet explaining the benefits of meditation, including Buddhist mindful meditation, but I felt this article was particularly interesting, because it explains why the alternative (a wandering mind) can be harmful. ¬†The idea is that the wandering mind builds up all sorts of anxiety and unease that may have no actual connection to real-life, but tends to take on a life of its own within our minds. ¬†If left unchecked, this can make us suffer when there’s no need for us to.

Although I haven’t been very diligent about meditation in the past, I found this article made a lot of sense for me. ¬†I found that when I get really worked up about something, it helps to stop and take a deep breath for a moment, and just take a moment to pay attention to whatever I’m doing.

Certainly better than the alternative… ūüėČ

Do, Or Do Not

WOpf0Sf

While writing an earlier post, I found an old blog post of mine, which had a really great quote by the late Ven. Yin-Shun, the highly influential Chinese Buddhist monk. ¬†Late in his book The Way to Buddhahood, he takes up the topic of “sudden” vs. “gradual” enlightenment, and writes:

Those who study Buddhism therefore ought not to go on about “sudden” or “gradual” enlightenment, for this is all empty talk! ¬†It is better to examine one’s own state of preparedness! ¬†Modern Chinese Buddhist thinking is very eccentric: it gives no consideration to people’s particular blessings or causes and conditions. ¬†What are their capacities? ¬†How are they provisioned in terms of blessings and wisdom? ¬†After making the resolution to study Buddhism, they want to be enlightened suddenly and want to become buddhas immediately. ¬†Without examining themselves and their own resolve, they think that such and such teaching is the great teaching that will enable them to become a buddha easily. ¬†This can be compared to wanting to become a leader and deciding to run for president without first pausing to examine one’s academic record. (pg 346)

Speaking from experience, I’ve often sought “that one teaching” that will make it all somehow fit together, but never quite found it. ¬†Ven. Yin-Shun continues:

Some people are even more ludicrous. ¬†They admit that they are of dull capacities and face strong karmic barriers and shallow wisdom, but they think that they can practice and easy doctrine and become a buddha. ¬†Such thoughts do not accord with the true Dharma. Those who truly resolve to study Buddhism should practice diligently. ¬†One should accumulate spiritual provisions, build sharp capacities, and have a firm mind. ¬†Without asking about sudden or gradual enlightenment or about when one will become a buddha, one should just keep cultivating….(pg. 346-347)

This second quotation really strikes me every time I read it. ¬†I think a lot of people incline toward “easy paths” in Buddhism because they lack confidence, or think only of the distant goal and¬†obsess over what is required (or conversely, not enough, then wonder why they’re not enlightened). ¬†Sometimes, I think the argument for Dharma Decline while in Buddhist scripture,¬Ļ can get abused as a kind of¬†crutch or excuse.

In a way, it’s a lot like losing weight. ¬†There are plenty of diet fads, exercise machines, low-fat meals, special “routines”, etc. ¬†But none of these are really sustainable in the long-run. ¬†The key to losing weight really is just lifestyle changes: eating a balanced diet and getting more exercise, and then doing it for the rest of your life. ¬†It’s a lifestyle change, not a special “technique” or “project”.

I for one need to get down to at least 220 pounds or less, and I still have about 15 to go. ¬†I accomplished this once in my life before my second child was born, then gained it all back. ¬†The problem was that I was treating it as a “project”, and when I had no more time for that project, I neglected my weight again. ¬†Since I suffer from some weightrelated ailments,¬†I realized that losing weight alone isn’t enough, I really do need to change my lifestyle for good. ¬†They’re not huge changes, but if I don’t change my lifestyle, the problems will just return. ¬†The target weight isn’t important so anymore¬†because I need to just take it one day at a time, and just eat better and be more active. ¬†It’s the only real viable long-term solution.

Or it is like learning a language. ¬†Suppose you want to learn Japanese or Korean, or some other language. ¬†Right now, you’re probably terrible at it. ¬†You’ll find websites promising to learn language X faster, or become a fluent speaker in 60 days or something, but if you ever travel to that part of the world, you’ll discover very quickly that such techniques do not prepare you for the messier, chaotic life in that country. ¬†Instead, you have to do things the old-school way: build up the basics slowly but surely, and just take it one day at a time for 10,000 hours if need be.

Speaking of one day at a time, or ichi nichi ichi zen (šłÄśó•šłÄŚĖĄ) in Japanese, my wife once scolded me about obsessing over the goal of Buddhism, and what technique or sect of Buddhism¬†“works”. ¬†Don’t think about it, she said. ¬†Just take it one day at a time, and try to be a better person. ¬†Don’t worry if you’re making progress or not (would you even recognize if you did?). ¬†Looking back, that was really good advice, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it until now.

Little by little,¬†I believe progress is possible, even for middle-aged lay people raising children. ¬†Instead of looking for an escape route or shortcut,¬†or worrying about one’s own progress or lack thereof,¬†just take it one day at a time.

¬Ļ A number of sutras allude to the gradual decline and fading of the Buddhist institution (not the underlying Dharma), but the main sutra quoted is the Sutra of the Great Assembly because it divides the periods of decline in neat 500 or 1000 year blocks. ¬†Thus, many Buddhists use the chronology of this particular sutra to argue that the Dharma is beyond the point where anyone can put it into practice. ¬†This is not unique to any one school.

However, having thought about it lately, it’s better to take those numbers with a big grain of salt. ¬†I’ve never read that sutra (and I don’t think an English translation exists anyway), but somehow I feel it sounds a bit too formulaic to be authentic. ¬†We all know that the “84,000 doors of the Dharma” was never intended to literally be 84,000 for example. It’s obviously a metaphor. ¬†Similarly, it’s easy to forget sometimes that the Mahayana sutras were composed by mortal men¬†and have to be weighed against the older sutras which are the closest thing we have to the genuine words of the Buddha.

Taking Time Off

This post is just to let readers know I will be taking a kind of “retreat”1 at home for a week or two. I will still be working and taking care of family but I will turn off Twitter, Blog and News and focus on non-technical things.

It’s a good opportunity to get some more rest, relax a bit, and maybe find some inspiration.

See you soon!

1 Kind of ironic after this last post. ūüėČ

A Bandage-Fix

The IT industry can be pretty stressful. When I was younger I thought I could manage the stress better if I meditated often. I was new to Buddhism and was eager to meditate so at work I would find an empty office and meditate maybe 15 minutes or so. Sometimes I chanted something too.

When I was done, I felt great. I was peaceful, my mind was alert, and problems at work didn’t bother. This feeling lasted an hour, at most.

Looking back, I realize that I wasn’t really fixing the real problem. I was trying to compensate for the real problem. In the IT culture we sometimes call this a “bandaid fix” or a “bandage fix”: you’re covering the problem up, but you’re not really fixing it.

The real problem is that I work in a demanding job. I didn’t have stomach-problems/gastritis until this job. Co-workers told me the same thing: they got stomach problems too after working jobs like this. Meditation hasn’t fixed the gastritis either.

I realize now that meditation will never really fix this. Vacations won’t fix this, retreats won’t fix this, therapy won’t fix this, etc, etc. It is a different kind of problem. It’s a lifestyle problem. It’s a problem of environment. As Robert Buswell wrote, the reason why Buddhist monks can make good progress is because they live in a healthy, wholesome, structured environment. The Buddha stressed the importance of being in a healthy community, with helpful people over a particular kind of practice.

Meditation and such are important, but it just won’t always fix the problem if it’s the wrong kind of problem.

So I have to face the fact that if I truly want to fix my stress, I have to get out of a stressful environment. But if I do that, I may have to give up other things too. I’m not ready not to do that right now, but I shouldn’t fool myself either. As long as I want to continue to live the life that I live, I have to accept that this is the price I will pay.

As the Buddha said:

371. …..Heedless, do not swallow a red-hot iron ball, lest you cry when burning, “O this is painful!”

In other words, know what you are getting into and know the consequences. That is real insight.

Early to Bed, Early to Rise

Kaneitsuho

Recently, I learned the following phrase from my wife:

śó©ŤĶ∑„Āć„ĀĮšłČśĖá„ĀģŚĺó
Hayaoki wa sanmon no toku

The meaning is “If you wake up early, you can get 3 mon.” The word mon (śĖá) just means an old type of Japanese coin, probably similar to an American quarter, or even a Canadian dollar coin (“loonie”). But remember, a quarter was a lot of money 100 years ago, and so was 3 mon.

Of course, in English, we have a similar phrase: Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise, which is attributed to American founder Benjamin Franklin:

BenFranklinDuplessis

Even the Buddha himself gave similar advice:

Sleeping late, adultery,
Hostility, meaninglessness,
Harmful friends, utter stinginess:
These six things destroy a person.

Interesting how different cultures express the same idea, even if the words are different. Truly, we are all human.