Today’s Chaos in Nepal (TCN), Episode 2 – Politics and Blockade

Oct 14 –  The blockade continues and yesterday there was yet another earthquake aftershock.  My Buddhist classes cannot now be held in seclusion at the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated before bringing Buddhism to Tibet because no cooking gas is left out there.

What is the blockade about?  The Constitution reverses a commitment made when the Hindu monarchy fell.  Electoral districts in the new secular, democratic republic were to be based on population.  Close to half of Nepalis, the Madhesi, who live in the south (the Tarai) where most of Nepal’s food is grown had never been represented.  The Tarai was operated like a colony.  And hill people who, like Doma’s family, are not Hindu were also always marginalized.

The Constitution set by men in the high caste minority who are determined to remain in control defines electoral districts not by population but geography.  They gerrymandered the districts to include enough territory north of the Tarai so all but Province 2 will have enough high caste voters.

Nepal Electoral Districts

The Madhesi began protesting when rumors about the broken commitment emerged.  Their protests turned violent when the Constitution was published.  They began blockading trucks that bring fuel and other essentials from India.

Nepal’s politicians promptly blamed India.  All Nepal’s fuel comes from the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) and they are filling only a small percentage of Nepal’s tankers.  The IOC must be acting on orders from the Indian government but its officials say truck drivers just decided it’s too dangerous to cross the border until Nepal’s politicians subdue the protesters.

Why would India do that?  Partly because they believe Nepal’s marginalized people should be granted equal rights.  More pragmatically because if Nepal suppresses the protests by force, the country could be destabilized and China’s influence on Nepal greatly increased.

The Nepali politicians’ appeal to patriotism – India is threatening our sovereignty! – is proving quite effective, especially in the Kathmandu Valley where there is a long history of prejudice against Indians.  Diverting the blame enables them to focus on jousting for position in the new government.

The “gentleman’s agreement” among leaders of the three big parties to form a coalition government broke down when the leader of the India-friendly traditional party began campaigning for a government of his own party led by him.  The two China-friendly, nominally Communist parties made a new deal resulting in one of them being elected Prime Minister.

In the absence of a government that can act on the blockade, only 10% of the usual supply of gasoline is coming in.  These people were told they could buy 5 liters today.  They queued overnight and into this afternoon.  It looks like they will get none.

Empty Kathmandu Street

That street is usually jammed with vehicles.  Now, motorbikes are lined three deep along the roadside as far as the eye can see.  The white taxi almost hidden behind the pedestrian walking down the road must have queued for hours to get ten liters.  There are no buses to be seen.

So why do I love it here?  Nothing works dependably, it’s poor, dirty, crazy crowded and corrupt.

Doma’s mom’s Tibetan astrology calendar says I have much in common with my long deceased mom. Life was hard for us with very little money when I was a kid in England right after WW2. My mom made our life happy, though, in that tiny remote house with no water, electricity or gas. The cheerfulness of people here in face of constant difficulty must remind me of how she made that time happy.

Classes start tomorrow.  Even the less intense schedule and environment we’ll have instead of 6 am to 9 pm in the sacred cave will be transformative.  And I’m ready!

Today’s Chaos in Nepal (TCN), Episode 1

I was going to call these posts “Chaos in Nepal” but that implies chaos is unusual here.

Oct 2 – Doma’s mom meets me at the airport in a taxi and we speed off to where I’ll stay until classes start.  There’s so little traffic!  That’s because almost no gasoline is coming from India.

What damage was done by the earthquakes?  I see no damaged buildings on the way from the airport.  Most buildings in Kathmandu are relatively new reinforced concrete post and beam construction with three floors or less and most of them survived with at worst a few cracks in the single layer brick walls or the ground floor.  This undamaged one is getting an additional story.

Post and Beam

But it’s very different in the villages higher up.  Most houses there have traditional wood frames and mud walls.  Almost every building in Doma’s grandmother’s village was destroyed.

I check in to the Tibetan-operated Ti-Se Guest House then walk over to the great stupa.  The top must be rebuilt but the buildings around all seem OK.  People are walking reverently round the stupa as usual, and the pigeons are being fed.

Boudha 1

Boudha 3

A blind Sherpa with his Tibetan style guitar in one of the side roads is singing that all of us are in the light while he is in darkness.  He seems accepting.

Sherpa Singer

Oct 7 –  The kitchen is dark when I come downstairs for my dinner of steamed veg. momos (similar to Chinese dumplings) and Tibetan butter tea — it’s not a conscious decision: I just don’t eat meat while I’m here for Buddhist teachings.

I assume it’s dark because hydro plants that accounted for 12% of Nepal’s theoretical capacity were knocked out by the earthquakes and will not be repaired soon.  The rainy season only just ended and there’s already no electricity 8 hours a day. There’ll be none for 16 hours a day when the rivers run low a few months from now.

The young woman at the front desk says the generator will be started soon and takes my order, then we chat.  She recently got a psychology degree in India and very much wants to help women and children here.  Mental illness is very stigmatized in Nepal, though, so how to start?  She will try offering counseling to schoolchildren without pay for a few months to demonstrate the value.

She says Nepal is a mess that’s growing rapidly worse, which makes it all the more urgent to help.   She is especially troubled that people now identify themselves by their religion and regard followers of other religions as enemies.

There has been no progress on the blockade. Private citizens can’t buy gas at all now, taxis get 10 liters per week, microbuses 15 liters every other day.  The politicians are doing nothing but jostle for position in the next government.  They say they can’t do anything because there isn’t yet a government, they were only elected to develop the Constitution.  Meanwhile, the shortage of daily essentials is fast growing worse.  I’d be worried about rioting but Nepalis are all too used to suffering.

 

Happy Birthday Every Day

I was both born and met my death on April 20, 1970.  It also happened on March 25, 1944 when I separated from my mother’s body.  It is happening again in this very moment.

Our universe is energy, in no way fixed, an endless, glorious play of energy.

None of the universe’s energy is created or destroyed.  It simply changes.   That is the first law of thermodynamics.  All energy is conserved.

Physicists have measured the conservation of energy.  It is absolutely consistent across all space and time.

So, along with everything else, what I think of as “me” disappears and is reborn in every instant.  The waves of energy that appeared as “me” when I typed “in every instant” have already changed shape and direction.

Mostly, we notice only the dramatic changes.  Perhaps for a moment we feel the beauty of a flower.  But we do not recognize that our mind-body is always changing.

All the energy that manifested as “me” when I landed in New York forty five years ago remains in this world even though much of it is no longer part of “me”.  Every wave of energy that encountered “me” changed “me”.  The path of every wave that met “me” was changed by the encounter.

How to sense this fundamental truth?  I think of the weather.

The entire weather system is interconnected.  It has no fixed borders yet it is different everywhere and always changing.  The sun is rising in a clear sky above Brunswick Maine this morning.   Yesterday at this time it was gray, windy and raining.  Rain is falling in other places right now.

Tiny actions like the flap of a butterfly’s wing engage with powerful winds that arise seasonally as the positions of the Earth and Sun change.  So many factors change the flow of energy that we experience as weather.

We humans manifest in the same way as weather, all different, all part of the same system, not remaining exactly the same even for a moment.  And, like the butterfly drying its wings, our every action changes the entire energy flow.

Perhaps some of the energy that now creates the appearance of “me” will later join other waves of energy in a summer monsoon to nourish rice in India.  Perhaps a grandchild of a child waking up now in Brunswick, Maine will enjoy some of that rice.  The play of energy makes anything and everything possible.

Our intellect can’t quite understand how our “self” can be imaginary yet cognizant, imaginary but able to choose how it nudges the energy in which it appears.  I’ve learned not to worry about that.

Intellect is what gives us the opportunity to deploy our kindness intelligently.  Becoming better able to do that is my birthday wish.

Doma’s Buddhist Refuge Vow

Buddhists vow to take refuge in the Buddha, in Buddha’s teachings (the Dharma), and in those who commit to act on them (the Sangha).  The teachings are programs that train us not to harm others, to grow more kind.  The Buddha is our kindness role model.

Before I knew what the refuge vow is, my reaction was negative.  “Take refuge?  Never!”

Why?  Because just as our experiences when we are two, three and four years old are formative, so is what we experience when we are minus two, three and four.

When I was minus four, Winston Churchill inspired those I grew up among with these words: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”  I grew up equating refuge with surrender and considering surrender unthinkable.

But surrender has a different meaning in the spiritual and physical worlds.

Some Christian denominations require one to explicitly surrender worldly ways and be “born again.”  In the New Testament Jesus said: “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.”  The Apostle Paul defined the Kingdom of God as: “Not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”   All Abrahamic religions speak of this spiritual kingdom.  The Quran refers to Abraham seeing the “Kingdom of the heavens.”

But if you are raised right, your first birth may be almost enough.

Doma grew up knowing she is Buddhist but with almost no formal teachings.  She was taken to some when she was four or five but nothing later.  Her mother recommits herself to Buddhist ethics every morning and offers water and incense at a shrine in her room, but she has had no teachings.  Despite having so few formal lessons, Doma easily understood Phakchok Rinpoche’s teachings last month.

One evening Rinpoche asked us to say what difference Buddhist practice has made in our lives.  I spoke of empathy for friends and family and indifference to others before I began the practices, then a growing compassion that now arises automatically even, to some extent, for people I dislike (I am also training not to make such judgments).  Others said similar things.

Doma did not speak.  I asked her why.  “I was thinking what I would say but I grew sad because all those people felt bad about themselves before they became Buddhist.  I am so lucky because I always knew to be compassionate.”

It’s good nevertheless to make an explicit commitment to transform our behavior, so, along with four others, Doma took the refuge vow.

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To symbolize what you are abandoning, Rinpoche clips a little of your hair.

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Because you are making a fresh start, you receive a new name.

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And the ceremony ends with Rinpoche casting rice to bless the efforts Doma and the others committed themselves to make.

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(Photo credits: Matt Goult.  Thank you so much, Matt!)

The Practice of Generosity

Could I do a good enough job asking for donations for Doma’s college education?  I’d never done anything like it before.  I knew she would get some of what she needs because I have such good-hearted friends, but how much?

Doma is amazed that fully four fifths of the total has already been given!  She needs only $5,000 more for her first year at Hampshire College.

But what’s left now is the hard part.

We get so many appeals and we can’t give to them all.  Worse, we’re usually too busy when an appeal arrives to figure out if it’s worthy of support.  Will this appeal really make a difference?

Yes!  Doma, an amazing young low-caste Nepali woman, is transforming her own future.   All she needs from us is 50 more supporters to donate $100.

Most of us could do that very easily.  Five $20 bills don’t buy much any more.  Many of us buy $100 items online without hesitation.

So the fact that Doma still needs those donations means I must do a better job.

Maybe it’s time for crowd-funding, aiming to reach people I don’t know?  Certainly, when Doma is here, she can give traditional Nepali dance performances at fund-raisers.

But how much more powerful for Doma if her education sponsor’s friends support her completely even before they’ve met her.  Let’s raise the rest of what she needs for her first year right now.

I never asked you for anything like this before so you know it’s important even if you don’t have time to read what makes it so.   Is there a $100 meal or some other luxury you could forgo?

If you are blessed in this way, help Doma transform her future by clicking here to donate that $100 now.  It takes only a moment.  Ask your friends to do it, too.

Thank you and bless you!

 

 

 

My Father and Doma’s Education

Doma wrote what she learned from her mother.   I wrote what I learned from mine and what I am learning from Doma.  Now I’ve been reflecting on what I learned from my father.  Why would he have made no contribution for Doma’s college education?

We inherit our parents’ life experiences and the roles they model.  My father was dependable and honest in all his dealings.  Also, he was never violent.  He felt it was as wrong to kill Germans he didn’t know as it would have been to kill his wife.  Like his own father who was jailed for three years for refusing to participate in the madness of WW1, he was jailed in WW2.

I’m not certain what my father believed was the right response to Hitler’s actions.  What he knew was that in the years before WW2 he had made a solemn vow that he would not participate in any war, and he was unshakeable when he made a commitment.  Because of that, I try very hard to think through all the implications before I make one.

Hard work was another example my father set, a lesson I learned too well since my mother did the same and neither of them did much that was not work.  Unlike my father, however, my mother did find one form of work that brought her joy.  She cared for babies whose mothers could not keep them.

I’m blessed that my father role-modeled honesty, non-violence, dependability, discipline and hard work.  However — true as it is that our richest source of lessons is our own mistakes, we can also learn much from our parents’.  How they lived formed us, so by understanding their mistakes, we can see what to change in our own behavior.  What can I learn from my father’s mistakes?

Perhaps I’ll write more another time.  Enough for now is that his mother died before his first birthday.  He lived with his grandparents until his father remarried when he was eight.  They moved that same year from England to Ohio and met a man who had bought a citrus farm in extreme SW Texas.  When my grandfather went to manage it there were no citrus trees, only brush.  He built a shack, cleared the brush and planted vegetables.  This was a happy time for my father but his step-mother could not abide the heat, so after three years they returned to Ohio.  Going to a “real” school was another happy experience but then my grandfather lost his job in the Great Depression and returned to England.  My father stayed to finish High School.

The “citrus farm” owner offered to fund my father’s college education but my grandfather refused and sent him a ticket back to England.  My father considered that rejection a matter of principal but all his life my grandfather resented his own father’s refusal to keep him in school after he turned 13.  A US education had no value in England.  My father found a job dredging waterways — secure, worthwhile and very low paid.  Years later, my mother found him a better paid job selling insurance door to door.  Believing insurance is a good thing, he sold it with conviction and worked longer and longer hours collecting payments on more and more insurance that he sold so people could have less to fear from life’s insecurities.

Perhaps because he worked too hard, he grew increasingly depressed about the upheavals he considered life had inflicted upon him, beginning with his mother’s death before he even knew her.    He continued dutifully selling insurance long after my mother died, afraid to stop because that would change his life yet again.  He was hoping for it years before death came to him at last when he was 90.

If we look deep enough inside ourselves, we can see our parents more clearly as childhood recedes.  My unquestioning admiration for my father became muddied with anger as I grew increasingly frustrated by his passivity.  There is a profound difference between passivity and acceptance.  What we commonly term acceptance implies that we must just endure suffering that comes our way.  That was my father’s understanding.  He felt his number one job was to endure.  Buddhism, however, teaches joyful acceptance, how to recognize that this moment is the only one when we actually are alive, and that this is a moment where anything at all is possible.

We cannot control the winds and seas that our ship encounters.  We can, however, learn skills to captain our ship.  And the greatest lesson is that we alone are captain of our ship.  Then we must learn to respond to that not with fear but with relish for the amazing possibilities.  It is so sad that my father did not look inside where he could have seen that truth.

It would not have occurred to my father to make a donation for Doma’s education because he was so preoccupied with his own suffering.  He simply did not notice charitable appeals.  He was committed to his own family’s support and did not feel selfish, but he was in fact self-absorbed.

What I learned from my father’s fundamental mistake is even more important than what I learned from his virtues.  One reason I help Doma, who I have no obligation to help but who is in a position where I can is, I have slowly come to recognize, to dissolve my own selfishness.

I hope my other posts show why it is so worthwhile to support Doma’s college education.  Many of you already have helped.  Some of us are not able to, but most of us really could.  If you can help but have not yet, please click this Paypal Donate button to make a contribution now.  Thank you!




Fireworks, Doma and Impartial Love

I began journaling when I was traveling extensively on business.  I’d see something and sense the potential for insight that would come, if at all, only after I had time to reflect.  That’s when I began making notes as breadcrumb trails to explore later.

Blogging turns out to be better.  It motivates me to try harder to uncover what I can’t see.  Also, I get help.  Some comments start me on long journeys.

Harold, for example, commented on my post several months ago:  “Buddhism is epitomized by how I treat a grandchild, with a great deal of caring and kindness.   Now for some reason as people grow older we stop treating them like we would treat our young grandchildren.”

The first note I made was:  “Caring and kindness seem to be the expression of our fundamental nature.  It manifests without impediment with young children but is obscured with adults by caution.  They are not so vulnerable and could be a threat.  It is more completely obscured with old people by fear.  They are all too obviously close to what we fear most, death.”

Then came this tangential thought:  “Like many teenagers I sought a purpose for my life.  My mental model was trading.  I imagined having an amount of time I could invest for a return and that I must decide what return I wanted and how much to invest.  Maybe this is why I went into business despite an instinct that it would not by itself offer a sufficient return.”

Presumably I added the next note because the discussion started from Buddhism:  “It is easier to see now the only certainty, a time will come when we can no longer enjoy whatever return we assemble because we will die.  We may not even live long enough to assemble any return.”

But next came a segue I couldn’t account for:  “Every October my mom would buy a few fireworks.  Then she would buy a few more.  We never had much money and my dad felt they were a waste.  That’s why my mom only bought a few.  But she loved fireworks.  That’s why she bought a few more.  Then a few more.  On Guy Fawkes night my dad worried the fireworks would set something on fire.  My mom and I enjoyed them.  My dad was relieved when they were over with no accidents.”

Those memories are happy, mostly, and they led me to search for a video of fireworks.   The unhappy aspect is my father’s worry and that his most positive feeling was relief when it was over.

Presumably, that’s what reminded me of something else:  “My mom also enjoyed putting empty toothpaste tubes in the kitchen coal stove where the air trapped inside them expanded until, after a suspenseful wait, there was a loud explosion.  My dad really hated that.”

This morning when I meandered along this breadcrumb trail once again it struck me at last how toothpaste and firework explosions relate to Buddhism.

Rainbows are used in Buddhist teaching as an example of something that is real in quite a different way from what we see.  Rainbows look almost solid.  That’s because we think things are solid even when we know they are not.  We know if we go toward the end of the rainbow looking for a pot of gold, it will keep moving away but nevertheless, the rainbow seems real.  The way we interpret it is deluded.

Our experience of the light display from fireworks is different.  The rainbow persists long enough to appear solid; the display from the firework changes fast so we don’t tell ourselves a story about its nature.   We see a firework as an experience, not a thing.

An exploding toothpaste tube is different again, long anticipation, then, with no way to know when it will occur, an instantaneous blast.  Surprise!  The whack of a stick by a Zen Buddhist master might startle me into seeing past my fog of concepts.  The recollected toothpaste blast just revealed the fundamental difference between my mother and father — one loved and the other hated surprises.

How does any of this relate to Doma?

At school in England in that time of fireworks we got religious instruction, stories from the Bible that seemed to have no relevance to our situation two thousand years later in a very different world.  Jesus’ Great Commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” did penetrate my indifference, though.  In fact, it felt to be the most important principal of all for a good life.  But it puzzled me.  Some of my schoolmates were very cruel, always pouncing on anyone vulnerable.  Should I love them?   And while I had a couple of close friends, it  did not seem worthwhile even talking with most of the boys.

Harold’s comment about Buddhism got me thinking about my practice of prayer to “train in impartial love and compassion.”  I now see what I didn’t see when I was in school, that our actions, good, bad and neutral, are one thing and our fundamental nature is another.  Our impartial love and compassion is obscured by misconceptions and habits that we can train ourselves to discard.

The first love we experience, love for our mother, arises because she nurtures us; it feels good but its root is selfish.  Love for our children is also programmed but is less selfish.  I have no experience as a grandparent but I don’t doubt that it does, as Harold says, tend to manifest more selflessly.  We expect to feel it, so it is programmed, but we feel less need to discipline young grandchildren so we less often trigger their selfishness.  Love for grandchildren comes with fewer expectations.

How this relates to Doma is that my experience as her sponsor was not programmed and it did not accumulate expectations.  We live far apart and she was eleven when we met.  Our interactions developed slowly and grew closer only as she became a young adult.  The feeling I have as a result of that happenstance is something I’d have to call love but it’s a different kind from any other experience I would give the same name.

The feeling that has emerged from my interactions with Doma gives me a sense of how impartial love may feel even though I cannot call what I feel now impartial.  I only help Doma because I judge her to be worthy of help.  I do now have a sense of how it would feel, though, if, instead of first making a judgment about people’s relative worthiness, I had the same powerful desire to help everyone.

What about impartial compassion?  Children love but do not feel compassion for their mother.  They lack any sense that their mother might suffer.  Parents experience compassion for their children — when they’re not feeling impatient, infuriated, disappointed or proud.  But how does impartial compassion feel?  My experience with Doma is instructive here, too.  The way it evolved helps me recognize what she’s feeling without also feeling it myself.

And how does impartial compassion relate to fireworks?  Because Doma is alert, enthusiastic and curious, she will definitely create surprises.  Mostly they will, like fireworks, be happy-making because she has good sense, but surely not all her decisions will be right.   I will need the joyful anticipation of surprises I learned from my mother to maintain impartial compassion no matter what.

Wandering from Harold’s comment about love for grandchildren via my remembrance of fireworks and exploding toothpaste tubes to my experience helping Doma has at last shown me how and why it’s so valuable to train in impartial love and compassion — because I’m not swamped by sharing Doma’s emotions when circumstances spark them, I can more clearly see how to help.

I must continue training in impartiality.  Meantime, please join me in helping Doma’s inspiring journey by clicking the Paypal Donate button to contribute to her education.  Thank you!


Misunderstanding Ukraine, What To Do

Reading “got some insight into my own psychology and how it colors things,” by a friend who confronted a business challenge, I recognized that what Buddhists call karma is what in the West we call psychology, our emotional and conceptual biases that lead us to misunderstand.

My focus right now is on the Nepali young woman whose education I support but I do still notice other things.

Ukraine, for example.  Psychology, which is individual karma, and culture, the karma we share, shape our ideas about current affairs by connecting them with past events that we also misunderstood.  Psychology, culture, karma, whatever we call it, is always distorting what we see and in ways that keep changing.  What is shaping our ideas now about events in Ukraine?

Having suffered 20 million or more deaths in WW2, the Soviet Union established deep buffers against another invasion — the Baltics, Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, all the way to the center of Germany.  It lost those buffers when the Soviet Union collapsed and would face an overwhelming threat if the Baltics, Belarus or Ukraine in particular were to become hostile.

When the Baltics were admitted to NATO, the alliance advanced to less than 100 miles from St. Petersburg.  If Ukraine and Belarus follow, NATO will be only 250 miles from Moscow.

NATO is weak now but Germany transformed from much greater weakness in 1932 to massive power by 1938.  Russia must stop NATO from absorbing Ukraine.

Why would the US government encourage enticement of Russia’s borderland nations into NATO?  Who could that benefit?  Only our weapons manufacturers and military contractors.

Do they control the US government?  No.  But they do have influence just like other wealthy lobbyists and they have at times had insiders like former-VP Cheney whose roots are in for-profit military business.  But even then military contractors do not control foreign policy.  There’s more going on.

We, by which I mean we the American people, have come to believe it is our job to punish other nations.  And because we did not lose our Cold War fears even though the Soviet Union collapsed, we are especially ready to believe we should punish Russia’s leader.

We do not consider President Putin’s reasons for concern about Ukraine.  We simply accept the lies by our politicians and media.

Why do they lie?  Some have financial incentives but most are like us, deluded.

John McCain, for example, is always eager for military action.  Remember President Bush’s axis of evil — here’s McCain in that context wanting to “bomb, bomb, bomb — bomb, bomb Iran.”   He later believed, as did President Obama, that we should bomb Syria.  We’re fortunate he was not elected President because unlike Obama, he would not have been automatically blocked by Congress — and McCain now wants to take military action in Ukraine.

The majority of Americans oppose our military involvement in Ukraine and perhaps recognize that Russia had to maintain control over its Crimean naval base, but few see the great risk in Ukraine is civil war and it was our own and European Union governments who triggered that potential disaster.

I realize that even if he heard them, my words would not outweigh President Obama’s long-formed biases or the nonsense he’s now being told.  There’s little I can do on that front.

What we all can do, however, is work every day to eliminate our own emotional habits and misconceptions.  That really does make a difference.

Facebook Says It’s My Birthday

Today is my 44th birthday and one of my contemporaries just celebrated his 109th.  How can that be?  I began to explain here.  Now I have a better understanding.

I laughed when my friend set his birth year on Facebook to 1905 and I reset mine to when I came to America.  I’ve been celebrating that as Sidwell Day since it occurred to me that if Columbus has a Day for discovering what others discovered thousands of years earlier, I, too, could have such a Day.

But the more I think about it, the less it feels like a joke.  There’s disagreement about when birth takes place, for example.  My mother would have said I was born on March 25th 1944.  That’s when our bodies separated.  But Mother Superior at the Catholic orphanage where she grew up might have said I came into being nine months earlier.

And it’s really a lot more complicated.  What is this “I” whose birthday Facebook says is today?

My body was born in England but so much of why I think and act as I do is because I’ve lived for 44 years in America.  That’s why Facebook says today is my birthday.  But experiences in the 26 years before I came here remain important aspects of “me.”  And those experiences were set in motion by earlier ones, just as my decision to move to America had causes and conditions.

Why did I leave England?  Because my grandfather moved here when my father was 9 and the ten years my father lived here were the happiest of his life.  His experiences programmed me to be happy here.

And why did my grandfather leave England?  Because one of his younger brothers had in 1915.  He came here to make a better future and because he did not want to kill Germans.  Why did my grandfather not come then?  Because he was in jail for two and a half years for refusing to kill Germans.

Why did my grandfather, his brother, another brother and my father all go back to England in the 1930s?  The Great Depression.

So the day WWI broke out and forced my forebears to act on their belief about killing was also a birthday.  Another was the day I read Wilfred Owens’ poems and felt I was in the trenches.  My body did not have that sensory experience but the poetry changed me forever.

Then I went on changing as more “real”, “imagined” and “reconfigured” experiences accumulated.

The closer I look, the more causes and conditions I see that are the birth of my feelings, thoughts and actions.  None of those causes and conditions still exists in the same form.  Their effects still exist, though, but they, too, are constantly being changed by other causes and conditions.

I used to imagine I and other things have an intrinsic nature.  My imagination, desperately seeking a world I can believe in so I can feel secure, fabricated a realm of appearances.

The appearances are real, but not in the way I used to imagine.  Everything, including what I think of as “me” is changing in every aspect in every moment.

This March 25th was, in the conventional sense, my 70th birthday but that no longer feels to be a solid truth.  What feels “really true” is my birthday is in this moment, now this moment, and now this beautiful instant when everything is possible.

Enlightenment and Tumbleweed

I’m thinking about a question on this post, whether or not “adaptations performed by the unfixed self indicate something other than emptiness.”   I was trying in that post to convey my experience of life, not a theory.  I’ll say more about the experience, but first a bit about theory.

Philosophy and religion are how we try to explain our world.  Philosophy is “the study of reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language systematically and based on rational argument.”  Religion is “an organized collection of beliefs that relate humanity to existence.”  Belief is “when one feels certain that something unprovable is true.”

Somewhere in my teens I began to wonder about reality.  I was quite discouraged to realize early on that a definite answer cannot be seen from inside a human body.  We can only see what’s visible from a specific perspective with limited tools.  But the feeling returned that even so, it is worthwhile  to study and reflect.

Religion never appealed to me because it requires feeling certain about things that are unprovable.  Also, I was horrified that both British and German church leaders in WW1 had exhorted their followers to go forth and kill in the name of the same God.  Religion can be dangerous because religious establishments, like all large organizations, amplify power.

After more reflection, I realized the problem is abuse of power: organized religion can be very helpful.  But it still did not seem an effective approach to understand the world.

At last I realized what I was seeking was a training practice to help me interact in the world more helpfully and a system of studying reality based on rational argument.

Returning now to my experience of life, my Tibetan Buddhist practice is helpful in the way I hoped.  Perhaps if I continue searching I could find a still more effective practice but it’s best to use what time I have to do what works.

My practice does include study and reflection on reality, and what Buddhists term “enlightenment” does seem attainable, but it is not yet clear enough to me to articulate.  All I can say is what I tried to express before, that I have less experience of “self” and what’s masked by my apparent self does not feel like an individual.

Tumbleweed and fenceThe analogy that struck me this morning is tumbleweed, “the above-ground part of any number of plants that disengage from the root and tumble away in the wind.”  Looking at all I do, I see only echoes of my past experiences  and those I’ve been close to, habits triggered by circumstances outside my body that all arise in the same way.

It’s like watching tumbleweed, which is empty of intrinsic nature just as I seem to be.  This tumbleweed blown against a fence is also a collection of smaller pieces, each made up of still smaller pieces.  And so on.

But there’s a big difference.  The tumbleweed has no capacity to act — it can only be blown by the wind.  I can act and because my body is alive, I will keep taking action, so I must do all I can so those actions are increasingly helpful.  Study is part of the process, but the goal is better action.