Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Matter and Conciousness, Part 1

I have some thoughts coming together around Buddhist relics, shamanism, the movie "What the #$*! Do We Know?", and the notion of self. I could just spew them out, but then this would be just another self-involved web journal entry with a whole bunch of questions and little forethought. So look forward to a series on this topic, which I've realized roughly revolves around matter, thought, and the spiritual realm.

On Friday evening, I went to see Buddhist relics. Actually, it's a roadshow to raise money for a Buddhist endeavor called the Maitreya Project. OK, I must admit that observation alone makes my skepticism hackles rise. I could get sidetracked onto the sometimes weird vibe around the Buddhist tradition of begging for money. This roadshow came with a huge panel describing the Maitreya Project, larger than my living room wall. Posters, brochures and glossy souvenir booklets describing the Project and the Heart Shrine Relic Tour could be had, suggested donations listed on hand-lettered cards. Before I entered the hall, a sangha friend warned me "it's not the way we do things." (Zen is black, white and wood grain, Tibetan is red, gold and brightly colored.) I appreciated the icicle light strands replacing the traditional Tibetan butter lamps. Handy, so American, and moving the tradition into the modern era.

The relics were inside display cases, resting in their little golden urns, alongside close-up photos of the relics. These aren't merely bone bits and ashes, as you would think relics might be, but they say that spiritual masters leave these bits behind as gifts. They have a life, a presence, explained Pema Chidrin, who is travelling with the relics. She said that if treated with respect, relics will often grow, new pieces will become manifest or visible. Likewise if they are treated disrespectfully, they will shrink in size. The collection included relics from Shakyamuni Buddha, some of his disciples, as well as Chinese, Tibetan, and Indian ancestors. H.H. the Dalai Lama donated some hairs and other special items inside a little pouch. Even though he is still alive, they say since he expresses bodhicitta every hair on his head is a relic. Pema Chidrin explained that this tour has been blessed, that two of their relics had increased: Ananda, one of Shakyamuni's disciples, and Kashapya, the Buddha preceding Shakyamuni. (Even the Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition had a question about this. The answer was basically that space-time works in mysterious ways.) Kashapya's had "grown" a big pearl-like piece (looked like a tapioca pearl) and Ananda's had more little opalescent bits. We could see that the photos did not show these bits, and there they were, in the little urns. Lama Zopa, the man behind the Maitreya Project, verified their authenticity. Cynically, I can't help but put two and two together.

I came here thinking I don't know the truth about the Buddhist relics, but that it doesn't really matter whether they came from these past spiritual masters. It matters that people treat them with respect and imbue them with something as ritual objects. That gives them sacred value. Now I am being told that if I am disrespectful the objects will shrink and I'm wondering if my skeptical thoughts are disrespectful. Does anyone voice these thoughts aloud? (whoops, I’m doing it now, will they shrink because of me?) Maybe I don't know everything there is to know, maybe enlightened beings do manipulate matter through space and time. I shrugged inwardly and reminded myself to 'act like the Buddha to be a buddha'.

Skepticism aside, I delighted in the pageantry. A replica of the giant Maitreya statue to be built in India sat on top of an altar as large as a bed. All around the nearly human-sized statue the relics were displayed, along with the requisite candles and bowls of saffron water of Pema Chidrin's tradition, as well as the icicle lights lining the edge. For the opening ceremony we sang "Litany of the Great Compassionate One" and "Adoration of the Buddha's Relics" as passed down by Roshi Jiyu Kennett. Together in ceremony for the first time in many years, members of the Portland Buddhist Priory and Dharma Rain Zen Center led the singing. (This was a very charged moment.) We sang on key as I had never heard before. At least a dozen women and men ordained in Buddhism, representing nearly that many sects, lined up to circumambulate around the relics. The rest of us lay folks followed.

Apparently the abbot of the host temple gets to do the honors, so my priest and teacher Kyogen Carlson gave us a blessing with the relics. We lined up again, bowing and bending forward while he rested the urn on our head and he chanted three times, "Namu Shakyamuni Buddha". Me too. I felt incredibly taken care of, and met my teacher's eyes as I bowed after. (Kyogen also received a blessing, from his wife and co-abbott, Gyokuko Carlson.) This is the same chant we recited during a ceremony the week I became a Buddhist. Was I receiving a blessing from the relics, or from the attention of my priest? Stepping aside for the next person, I knew I had already received this blessing, received it that moment, and continue to receive it, whether the relics had some life of their own or not. The true remnants of the Buddha and these other spiritual masters come to me through these three gems, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Monday, March 22, 2004

March 20 Peace Rally and Stuff

I had been planned to write something about the gay and lesbian marriages happening here in Portland, but I’ve been too busy planning for Portland’s peace rally and march, one year after the invasion of Iraq. It was a great day. Organizers I trust estimate 12,000-15,000 people were there. Afterward I got far too involved in the backbiting so common to the web and as found on Portland’s Indymedia.

There were great speakers. Jim Lockhart of philosopherseed.org captured some great audio. For me the highlight of the day was the keynote speaker, Ramon Ramirez, president of PCUN. He sent chills down my spine. The Portland Buddhist Peace Fellowship brought its ever portable meditation vigil. I was holding the meditation vigil space, not so easy when people in a crowd see open space as a way to move from one spot to another. There's just something about being at a rally and meditating that I wouldn't trade for anything. It's like the music and the speakers directly reach my heart. Ramon really got the crowd fired up. When you're meditating and listening, a lot of it goes deeper than memory, you can't remember the specifics, but you come away with a truth. Some things resound like a bell though, and ring through your head the rest of the day, and longer. I remember him talking about some Republican representative who said we shouldn't protest the war because we shouldn't oppose our people, our troops. Ramon objected. His people?! Our troops aren't his people, they're our people. Our people! Not your people! People of color! Our people! Working people! Not your people! I shivered in response. I wanted to be Ramon's people.

It was easier to hold the space after the march came back. (I stayed at the vigil space.) More people sit down to meditate after marching for some reason. The most we had at one time was six. I think because it was such a nice day the crowd was smiley and bouncy and didn't want to sit still. Then, there were just me and my friend Sam again, and along came this kooky guy. He had blue gloves on, and at first I thought he was acting like a mime. Then he sat down, for a little bit. Then he got up, danced around some, and made motions like he was gathering something in the air and placing it into the ground. It reminded me of tai chi, but it wasn't. Then, as Sam described it later, he was doing some strange hopping about like spiderman. Then he started playing with the buddha peace buttons we had for sale as a fundraiser. I almost thought he was going to take off with the donation box. Finally, he mounted a green buddha peace button in front of the Buddha statue on our little altar, and he bounded away, rather Tigger-like.

So Sam, Sara, and Sara’s friend Bob and I went out to dinner, a yummy Thai place Bob suggested. Sam and I were telling them about this guy, and Sara suggested he was a tweeker. Mind you, it was only a week or two ago that I first came across this word. When I wrote about riding the bus, a woman in California told me I probably share my ride with tweakers too. So I found out what that meant, people on meth, but realized I wouldn't even know it if I saw someone on meth. So now I have an idea...maybe. While he acted in ways completely unpredictable (not mime, not tai chi, maybe crazy, not a thief) I didn't feel like he acted disrespectful. I thought in his way he was being quite respectful.

More than one speaker felt it was important to express public support of gay and lesbian marriages, including Ramon Ramirez. I had the opportunity to write about Buddhism and same-sex marriages for my volunteer gig with NW Dharma News. The Buddhist leaders in the Portland area that responded to my query were supportive, ready to conduct legal ceremonies, and had in fact been conducting same-sex marriage ceremonies for some time. I got the news of the ceremony of a member of my sangha, who was able to get married legally after nearly 22 years in his committed relationship. I had the hardest time getting started on the article. I kept getting weepy. Kinda funny for someone who got married for tax purposes. I am so PROUD right now that I live in Portland, Oregon. I only hope the upcoming court ruling upholds these marriage licenses.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Riding Public Transit

I often get around by bus. Sometimes I have use of my husband's car (something I must state or he'll get mad if I pretend I don't have a car, because he pays for it), but when I go to work or travel about during the day, public transit provides my chauffeur.

I've used public transit ever since I moved here to Portland, but six years ago I really began to depend on it. At first I felt some resistance, feeling like it took time away from my day, especially when I got a promotion that took me further away from home. After around six months though, I realized that I enjoyed my time on the bus. Sometimes I would just sit, not exactly the sort of meditation I was used to, but a meditation more connected with the world. Sometimes I would read. Sometimes I would listen to music. I relaxed, and realized that I literally did not have to worry about watching the road, unless I wanted to look at the interesting signs and buildings along the way. So while it might take me an hour to get somewhere, and with a car it would take fifteen minutes, I don't mind because that time is for me. No chores, no work, no stressful road-watching, no frustration at red lights (although there is frustration at just-missed buses).

Another thing I enjoy about taking the bus is the connection it gives me to other people that I might not otherwise ever rub elbows with. I know many people don't like it for that reason. I share my ride with homeless, drunks, students, skater boys, single moms with their kids, commuters like me, people fresh out of prison, dredlocked new hippies, blind people with their dogs, people in wheelchairs, people with all colors of hair, people with all possible shades of skin, goths, anarchists, liberals, conservatives. (Not many suburbanites, not on my usual routes.) Well yeah, I do rub elbows with all these folks at my job at the library, but there I provide a service. Here I am just one of them, and sometimes we make connections.

Sometimes it's on the way to a peace rally. We're carrying signs. It's a reason to start up a conversation. Sometimes conversations happen at the bus stop. This morning a man attempted to start a conversation with me, I wasn't quite ready or awake enough for that so I brushed him off. I especially wasn't ready to deal with first his request for change, and second, his question if I was on my way to church. When I said kinda...Buddhist temple actually, he wanted to talk some more. D'oh! Actually, I usually might talk some more with a person about going to a Buddhist temple, even if they might proselytize at me. In this case I was about to go meditate, and I wanted to be quiet.

On the other hand, when I was on my way home late this afternoon, I had a lovely conversation with a young man still in high school. Again, he started it, remarking on the warm weather and how he'd missed it, having to work inside all day. He asked if I'd been able to enjoy it. I told him I'd been in and out, that I'm a Big Sister and I had taken my Little Sister to the mall to ice skate. The conversation moved on, he told me about his lame experience with a Big Brother when he was a little kid, how the man had taken the boy to his house and flopped in front of the TV while the kid played pool. I was shocked, since in my experience the whole point of being a Big Sister or Brother is to interact with the kid. He was curious if we got anything for doing this, because he could never figure out why this guy was a Big Brother, since he didn't do anything. I told him at most we sometimes get free tickets such as for Blazers games (which I would avoid like the plague) but I did take free tickets to a Portland Hockey game, which of course led to this ice skating outing. (It was her first time skating and she did great!) I admitted I didn't skate, as I haven't since I was a kid and I was too afraid I'll break my glasses and an ankle. We got on the bus, and as often happens then, our conversation ended. I did thank him for a nice conversation, and opened my book that I'd set aside, choosing to read on my ride home.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Celebrating Buddha's Death

I went to Nehan Festival just over a week ago, the Buddhist celebration of the Buddha's death. I feel as though I've been inundated with everyone's preoccupation with Jesus' death ever since, thanks to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ". I am so not interested in seeing that. Shakyamuni Buddha's death was so different from Jesus Christ's. For one thing, he lived to an old age, and so was able to refine and improve his teachings. The Buddha lived by the begging bowl, and accepted whatever gift of food was offered. Some stories say he knew the food he received was tainted, but for the sake of the giver, he accepted it. Certainly he knew he was dying, and because he lived as a wandering monk, when he could walk no more, he and his followers found a grove of trees where he could lie down. When his students gathered around him, expressing doubt that they could carry on without him, the Buddha gave his final teaching. He said to them, "Be a lamp unto yourself." He told them they already had what it takes, and they could be confident they could express the dharma each in their own way.

During the ceremony, it was as though I felt the presence of Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, in her most goddess like aspect. Her name pinged at me in the chants. The sangha dragon-snaked around the hall, and she inhabited each person that caught my eye. She infused us with great wisdom; in her great compassion she gave us all the wisdom of buddhas and indeed I was seeing buddhas. Our ceremonies usually have the same general format: bows, chants (in this case those used in funerals: The Litany of the Great Compassionate One and Adoration of the Buddha’s Relics), circumambulating while chanting the Heart Sutra, all present offering incense as they pass in front of the altar.

I found myself wondering how much of this vibrancy could be attributed to my improved health. I was recently diagnosed with sleep apnea. The cure is simple: I breathe with the help of a machine when I am sleeping. The litany of health problems associated with sleep apnea is astounding, all stemming from two issues. They told me I stopped breathing up to 80 times per hour. My oxygen levels were 80 percent of normal levels. Each time I stopped breathing, I woke up just enough for my throat muscles to tighten and allow air in, but not enough for me to remember, and consequently I didn't get REM sleep. I realized I had been depressed due to my sudden happiness. The world sparkled again. This ceremony was imbued with rediscovered significance. Of course, this recalls another of the Buddha's teachings, the Middle Way: indulge in neither excess nor asceticism, but maintain good health physically and mentally.