Refugee

Alexandria Shooting

I am facing overwhelming emotions concerning the shooting yesterday in Alexandria, VA, and the response I read in The Washington Post. James Hodgkinson from Belleville, IL opened fire at a Republican baseball practice for an annual charity game against Democratic Senators. According to one of the people who left the stadium, Hodgkinson asked him what party the players belonged to, and when he had been told they were Republicans, Hodgkinson walked away. Sometime later, Hodgkinson returned and began shooting people. Besides four other people, Senator Scalise was shot in the hip, and was taken to the hospital in critical condition. Hodgkinson died later from gunshot wounds sustained from a shootout he had with the police.

Hodgkins

He was a Democrat who supported Bernie Sanders, and he would send angry letters to his senator exclaiming Trump’s betrayal of the United States.  The media, along with some members of the Republican Party, spun Hodgkinson as a left wing extremist. Rodney Davis, R-ILL, referred to the shooting as an act of terrorism, and Chris Collins, a representative of New York said the Democrats, “need to tone down their rhetoric.” Did they forget the words of Donald Trump during his campaign, and how he offered to pay for the lawyers to represent his supporters who attacked protesters (New York Times March 13, 2016)? Did they forget the veiled threat Trump made should Hillary Clinton be elected? “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although, the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know (New York Times Aug. 9, 2016).” And a final example out of many when Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Ave. and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters (CNN January 24, 2016).” Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims, immigrants, people of color, and LGBT has emboldened many people in the United States to attack these groups without consequence.

Is the Republican Party trying to be ironic? The terrorism the United States has faced before 9/11 and after 9/11 has been, mostly, from white, Christian, right-wing extremists. Where is the crackdown on the extremism from the Right concerning the violent behavior of their constituents? From my perspective, I call bullshit, and I call hypocrisy. One side cannot do consistent acts of violence, get away with their crimes, and cry foul when the opposing side responds in a similar manner. Violence is reprehensible no matter who does it, and the issue isn’t simply political. Besides the shooting in Alexandria, VA on June 14 there was also a shooting in San Francisco at UPS where four people died.

San Francisco Shooting

As I write this there have been 154 mass shootings in the United States this year. It’s June 15, 166 days into the year.  The statistic is similar to what it was in 2016 where there seemed to be a mass shooting everyday.  Like Trump and the polarization of the United States, I think the mass shootings are symptoms of a deeper sickness. Generally speaking, people don’t pick up a gun to kill people and themselves without some kind of grievance. Instead of looking within, they will strike outside themselves to find a form of healing they will never have. They are ignorant of what to do. We are ignorant of what to do.

To break this down, all of us want to be happy, we all want to be free of suffering, and we all want to live in peace. Regardless of our various political stances, philosophies, religions, or socioeconomic status we all want fulfilling lives. To paraphrase The Buddha, all life is suffering, suffering is caused by attachment, we can be free from suffering, and that freedom from suffering comes through right mind, right speech, right action, and right livelihood. What I said was a mouthful, but I think the teachings applicable for the first steps towards a solution. To stop the violence we see in our world, we need to stop the violence in ourselves. We begin the changes by taking a few minutes to focus on our breath, to let our thoughts be, to realize we are not our thoughts, and that we are all interconnected. In these breaths we take refuge  in our own Buddha nature, or whatever holy nature that resonates with you. We take refuge in the Dharma, the teaching directing us to our true selves. We take refuge in the Sangha, or community because that is what we are. All living beings are completely interdependent to one another, and when one suffers, we all suffer.

Buddha2

One of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Jack Kornfield told the story of one of his teachers who was an abbot of a monastery in Viet Nam during the war. There were Christian missionaries who found themselves caught in the crossfire between the Viet Cong and American troops. These missionaries were granted sanctuary by the abbot. The missionaries observed the monks’ constant meditation, and one missionary became so angry he confronted the abbot, “There’s a war going on out there! People are dying, and all you and your monks do is sit here and do nothing!” The abbot nodded and pointed to his heart, “If I don’t stop the war in my heart, I will never stop the war outside these walls.” The missionary took in the words of the abbot, and soon the Christian missionaries were participating in the monastery until they left.  Meditation and breathing seem overly simple, but they seem to work with those who live and serve in violent areas. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to understand change begins within ourselves. Not only do we need to live the change we want to see, but we need to change our hearts and minds to see. The only thing we have to lose is our knee jerk trust in violence.

 

Pererin Pt. 3 The Buddha

dharma bum

In my late teens, I heard the saying “You can’t go home again.” and thought to myself that a person could never reclaim the feelings of safety before they left. I still agree with my youthful conclusion, but only in part. Two years after I returned to school, I transferred to a small liberal arts college in central Illinois, and after graduating and getting married I continued west. My travels were romantic because I recognized I drove through the same towns as Kerouac when he first traveled across America. I believed myself to be Neo-Beat who had, in the bottom of his soul, the same dissatisfaction as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty looking for IT in the rocky, bristly landscape of the youthful frontier; but they didn’t find IT, and neither did I. I still had the same dissatisfaction with no release, but my perception changed in Wyoming when I forgot my phone at a rest stop and a driver met us in Rawlins, WY to return my phone. After four years on the road going across country and meeting different people, I returned to Indianapolis to reconnect with friends I had not seen. I came back to familiar surroundings, but I was not home. People had not changed, I had changed, and I had outgrown many of those old relationships including family. Other relationships took on a new dynamic, and increased in richness.

The country from Nevada to Cheyenne, WY on I-80 is desolate with sand and salt except for the sprinklings of Reno, Salt Lake City, and Evanston, WY. There is no illusion of safety reinforced by concrete and Starbucks, and without kindness from others a person can die from solitude. I felt that same kindness as I joined in the chants, meditation, and teaching at The Shambhala Center in Portland, OR. For me Kerouac’s words came to life as I talked over tea and fruit with people who met him and Allen Ginsberg. The Dharma these people put to me was the same simple approach Kerouac observed through the eyes of Ray Smith wandering across the American landscape living out of his rucksack like the incarnation of Maitreya, the future Buddha, known as Budai. Budai was a poor, Zen monk who traveled around China in the 10th century C.E. He was also an eccentric monk who carried nothing with him but his mala beads and whatever could fit into his bag. Smith received kindness and gave kindness, and survived his trek across the country by living in the stripped down religion based on loving others as he loved himself. This spiritual practice, though did not prepare Smith for what he would face as a fire watcher on the American/Canadian border in Northern Washington. Smith came face to face with himself after his vision of Avalokiteshvara, and all romance disappeared. I went through a similar deconstruction, but I was in southern Idaho with my wife when we almost died from hitting a deer.

My wife and I left Riverton, WY about 3:00 p.m. MDT, and the gps calculated a nine and a half our trip to Boise, ID. Most of the trip would be on a vacant state highway passing through sleepy towns and mountains until we reached I-84 to get to our hotel in Boise. Almost six hours in to the trip we stopped to get gas in Arco and snacks, and proceeded on our way. We were driving along the mountains, and my wife pointed out to some deer on the side of the road. Three of the deer were lounging like cats on the shoulder, and two were standing next to the lounging trio; but one was dancing with indecisiveness. I slowed down to forty, and the deer made a decision. He jumped in front of us. My peripheral vision went black as if I were staring through a cardboard tube holding paper towels. I saw the deer’s body fly up with the hood as the airbag expanded in front of my face. I felt the rumbling of the suv, and I knew I was off road. My foot was pressing on the brake, burying it into the floor, and the only thought in my head was my wife’s safety. Fortunately there were people on the road who helped us and called EMT’s and the local sheriff. After being treated, the sheriff took us to a local motel, and when we woke up, I went outside to see King Mountain across the street. My wife and survived with our bodies intact, and with no distractions or words, I understood the Buddha as I returned to my room full of gratitude.

 

The Buddha

 When Kerouac went up to Desolation Peak to live alone for sixty-eight days as a fire watcher he believed he was due for a vision from the divine—to come face to face with God where he would learn why we live, why we die, and why we suffer in between the two. Kerouac wanted to touch what the Buddha touched under the Bodhi tree and to be ministered by the same angels who ministered to Jesus facing his own devil after forty days in the desert. Kerouac did not take into account the psychological price Buddha and Jesus paid to earn their divine revelation, and how those encounters transformed them. This is the same with the ancient Desert Fathers of Christianity’s early monasticism, and the demons they had to encounter to be fully connected to God—or divinized. Without the distractions of people and wandering, Kerouac had no escape from seeing himself as he was; and the encounter would leave him shaken until the day he died. This shrinking back did not reveal any kind of moral or spiritual weakness of Kerouac—though he had many—, but his need to make up an internal lack with an external substance—even if that substance is an interpretation of Buddha or God. The end of Dharma Bums, though he captured his divine need through the vision of Ray Smith.

Kerouac encountered the tremendous dread as spoken by the theologian Rudolf Otto, and there was nothing safe to protect him under the naked sky. His soul roared the skull breaking words of God to Job bereft of suffering and demanding answers. In all fairness, Kerouac was a mystic and experienced visions of Jesus and The Blessed Mother throughout his adult life. These visions were irrespective of places, and he saw The Blessed Mother while living in an opium den in Mexico City and sleeping with a prostitute. Three years prior to going up the mountain as a fire watcher, Kerouac discovered Buddhism, and the teachings of the Buddha gave him insight to his Catholic background. He studied Buddhism relentlessly putting out his non-fiction work, Wake Up: The Life of the Buddha and Some of the Dharma published posthumously in the 1990s. By changing his perception, Kerouac hoped for the deeper vision explaining all of life and finding a place of peace for his restless heart; and that desire determined whom he met on the mountain one evening.

During his annual nightly meditation, Smith has the sought after vision, the attending angel and Bodhisattva, Avalokitsevara whom he calls the “hearer and answerer of prayer.” In this vision, Avalokitsevara tells Smith, “You are empowered to remind people that they are utterly free.” Smith takes this to heart, begins by reminding himself of his freedom; but this is a freedom he understand superficially, and is forgotten in Desolation Angels. This freedom is not a thing limited to wonder, hope, and no restraints; though, freedom includes those things. Freedom is terrifying, and the ideas and things formed can hide us from the terror of Tillich’s “ground of all being.” There stands God and The Buddha’s teachings empty of our preconceived notions and unrestrained by how we think they should be. They are dangerous because they cannot be controlled or formed by our arbitrary doctrines, and what is horrifying is we don’t know if we can trust them. Run into the buildings and find a dry space in dogma—religious or secular—and never venture out to life’s fullness. In the end Kerouac lost himself in the familiarity of the bottle and the crucifix, and both killed him because he could not reconcile the tension between his own anxieties with a God who cannot be tamed. Like Kerouac or his alter ego, Ray Smith, we are not guaranteed any kind of stability should we take the leap of faith into Desolation, but what is certain is the ground we are standing upon is crumbling and our house is on fire—eventually, we will have a smoldering rubble of impermanent things we forced into permanence. The lessons we take from Ray Smith finding refuge in the Dharma, the sangha, and The Buddha is we are not bound to anything, we need very little to enjoy life, and we are reborn from one moment to the next.

Pererin Part 1

dharma bum

 

I find myself circling around Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums once again. There have been people who say On the Road captured The Beat Generation as Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises captured The Lost Generation; and I agree. On the Road caught my attention, and I resonated with the search for God, IT, and whatever else is bigger than the manufactured grey life; but Dharma Bums shook something deeper in me. The book is not entirely fiction, but a creative non-fiction with the real events novelized to express the longing Kerouac had to find a place of peace in the presence of Jesus. Granted he goes back and forth with Buddhist and Catholic imagery, but for him the two approaches were intertwined, and the teachings of The Buddha are what gave him insight to his own Catholicism. The religious imagery, though, is not what drew me to the book, but Kerouac’s journey from Mexico and across America as a religious wanderer—a modern bikhu (monk) practicing the teachings in The Diamond Sutra. I did not discover the Buddha until my early thirties, but, like Kerouac, the teachings helped me understand my own Catholic faith and why I found the spiritual practice empty. The emptiness was not limited to Catholicism, and I experienced the same lack in the three branches of Christianity. I had become a disaffected Christian as Alan Watts so aptly put in his 1958 essay, “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen” to describe the people in the 1950’s who flocked to Zen Buddhism to become more Christ like. Jack Kerouac’s journey in Dharma Bums can be separated into three parts as the three jewels of Buddhism: “I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the sangha. I take refuge in the Buddha.”

As I wrote this, I realized this post could be a long read if included all three parts. For the sake of brevity, I decided to do a three part series on Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. Enjoy!

The Dharma

The book opens with Kerouac’s character, Ray Smith hopping a train in southern California after getting off another train from Mexico. He was already two thousand miles into his journey, and had another four hundred miles before he reached San Francisco. He met another bum whom he called a St. Teresa bum because the man had taken a magazine clipping of a prayer by St. Teresa who prayed it every day. St. Teresa had been canonized as a saint in the 1920’s, and was a prominent figure in Kerouac’s French-Canadian home. She lived a short life, but one of the things she is noted for is her view of kindness in spiritual practice. For St. Teresa the smallest act of kindness on earth is the greatest devotion to God. When making a stop, Smith asks the St. Teresa’s bum to watch his rucksack while he buys a gallon jug of red wine to go with his bread and cheese. While eating, Smith notices the bum only had a can of sardines, and offers his food. Doing so, Smith noted his act of kindness in the context of The Diamond Sutra: “Practice charity without holding in mind any conceptions about charity, for charity after all is a word.” Smith considered the little bum as the first Dharma Bum he met, but did not realize he had yet to meet the number one Dharma Bum, Japhy Ryder.

Japhy Ryder is based off the poet and scholar, Gary Snyder whom Kerouac met while he was in San Francisco during the Poetry Renaissance. Gary Snyder is often included in The Beat Generation, but he never identified himself as a Beat poet, though he ran in the same circle. At the time Snyder had been translating the poetry of Han Shan, a ninth century poet and hermit, from Chinese into English for the Chinese scholars of Berkley. Snyder saw Han Shan as the original Dharma Bum, but felt a kinship with him as well. Snyder grew up on the mountains of Oregon, and a saw a brother in Han Shan who retreated to the mountains as a hermit synthesizing the religions of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism while meditating and writing poetry. For Snyder, the Dharma was standing on a mountain without any unnecessary baggage—there, prayers and chants could bounce off the mountain, and the echoes would cover the world. After Smith and Ryder meet they both say how the other is like Han Shan, and Ryder tells Smith he needs to climb a mountain. They both make plans to go to the Sierras, and buy the necessary supplies to fit in their rucksacks.

In the presence of the mountains, whom Japhy calls Buddhas that patiently wait for the rest of us to wake up, Smith shares a prayer he created, “I sit down and say, and I run all my friends and relatives and enemies one by one in this, without entertaining any angers or gratitudes or anything, and I say, like ‘Japhy Ryder, equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha.” The Buddha’s first noble truth is that life is suffering, and the second noble truth is suffering is caused by attachment. This attachment has positive and negative connotations because we don’t love or hate a person or thing, but our interpretation of the person or thing. Without our interpretations whoever stands before us can be the recipient of lovingkindness that can go out into the world creating an environment of compassion. Smith does not want a life of material success as a company man or working a job he hates to support a family, but the life of a monk where he can be alone to pray for the world while bestowing his quiet acts on any who come his way. He has no judgment on those who do work and have a family, and the Buddha said the practice of the Dharma is not reserved only for those who have chosen the religious life. The Dharma is what people do to themselves, to each other, and the world outside their front door. The Dharma isn’t about shaved heads and robes but cultivating simple kindness while becoming awake.

Dharma Bums came out in the United States in 1958, and the culture seems worlds apart from today’s culture; but it still speaks. For me, I’ve been attracted to that simple life, and, in some ways, I live it. I’ve driven across country from New York to Washington State in my car or in a car with friends, and I had nothing more than a backpack filled with necessary books, some clothes, and a few snacks. In Kerouac, I found a kindred spirit who was stranded in the wilderness because God had left the church, and he wanted to find the God who became a hobo and walked about the desert. On the road, I experienced unexpected kindness from people I did not know, and on the quiet shore of Cannon Beach in Northwestern Oregon I felt the sea foamed realization of my place in the world. In the quiet, God had become something tangible in how we talk and think about people, and in our small acts of kindness. Reading his other works, and the works of those who knew him, I don’t think Kerouac ever realized that God is not something external, and the divinity he sought was before him, behind him, and within him. That misunderstanding did not negate his efforts or the lessons he learned. Like Ray Smith we are all pilgrims finding our way home, and the best thing we can do on our journey is being kind to one another.