This Isn’t Like Retreat Unless You’re On Retreat

Recently I’ve read posts, tweets, and even short articles likening the current situation of mostly widespread isolation to retreat.

This couldn’t be further from the truth, unless you happen to be on retreat right now. For the rest of us not on retreat, the likening is confused.

I get it, in a sense. It sounds nice. It sounds hopeful. But it creates the delusion that this is like a retreat. And that’s harmful.

For the teacher I just read about who is covering her colleague’s classes because that colleague is now on a ventilator, is her situation like a retreat?

For the Sangha member who conveyed how difficult it is to work, cook, watch and teach two kids, while she and her partner face losing their jobs, is their situation like a retreat?

For the overwhelmingly black and Hispanic voters waiting hours to vote at 5 of what used to be 180 polling sites in Milwaukee, is their situation like a retreat?

No, not at all, not even one bit.

Each situation is what it is. I won’t attempt to describe those situations beyond the surface details I know. But those surface details tell me they aren’t retreats. They are something else entirely.

As a Buddhist, I have faith that each situation has within it the potential for liberation, like a retreat has the potential within it for liberation. But that doesn’t make those situations retreats. And unless the people in those situations are Buddhists or care about Buddhist pathways for liberation, it’s more harmful than helpful to bring this up.

What is helpful for us all is to understand our situations and the situations of those around us for what they are, in all their differences and particulars, and to respond accordingly. If you happen to be on retreat, then respond to the retreat. If you are that teacher covering classes for your ventilated colleague or one of many black or Hispanic people waiting in dehumanizing lines to vote in the midst of a pandemic, then respond accordingly as you see fit.

From what I have been reading, hearing, and seeing, this is not like a retreat (unless you’re on retreat). And there is power in seeing things for what they are. Only then is transformation possible.

Rituals of Impermanence and Impermanent Rituals (1)

Where does the Sand Mandala live? Its creation, its compassion, its vibrant energy, its dissolution, its impermanence: where is it and what is it?

The Sand Mandala from the previous post, it is there and it is not there. What is created and destroyed, that is the vehicle. But the practice and the teachings of the Sand Mandala, where do they live? Where does their power to cut away at our delusions, greed, and anger live? Not separate from the vehicle, but not identical with it.

It is easy to miss the teaching. I did. Yesterday I was working with a Vietnamese Buddhist monk here in the Springs. I was helping him take down a temple bell. He is slowly taking down a structure that he created 8 years ago. As I was leaving, he said, “Here, just like the Mandala, the dissolution of things. We created it; now, we destroy it. And maybe we will create it again.”

Although it is not a colorful and intricately designed Mandala of Compassion, the structure is the Mandala. How? It is a ritual of impermanence, the embodiment of compounded things coming apart.

The Sand Mandala that the Tibetan monks created and their weeklong process of creation were amazingly beautiful and powerful as a teaching, spiritual practice, cultural practice, and work of art. But if we leave that teaching at the creek where the last remnants of sand washed away, then we missed it.

If we see the Mandala in the falling leaves, the dying plants, the coming and going of all things, then we catch a glimpse of that vast realm of compassion.

May we all catch that glimpse! May we all enter that gate of compassion! May we see the Mandala in the coming and going of the ten thousand things!

 

 

Question your Teachers

My previous post (Humility and Belief Revision) ended with some questions I ask myself as a teacher. It posed further questions for students, but stopped short. The teacher-student relationship in any form is complicated, but that doesn’t mean it must be disempowering for students.

As the previous post made clear, teachers are bounded by history, context, and ideology (not to mention memory, age, and other physically embodied constraints). There is very little a teacher can say without some qualification as to their certainty about what they say. Of course the context may not warrant so many qualifiers. But if you get to know a teacher well enough, and the humility is not present, then let that be a sign to move on.

I find this most pressing in Buddhist teacher-student relationships. The dynamic requires a humbling on both sides, and so requires the student to bend toward the teacher – but in the service of developing one’s practice. That must always be kept in mind!

So ask yourself: what am I being asked to do? And is this teacher full of themselves? Or are they bending while I am bending? Are we both turning in to the Dharma together? If not, well – someone might be selling you something, or trying to control the situation. Not a healthy place to be.

Humility and Belief Revision

774bdfc898db2100b01ea0fdeae9ba8bI am starting a project on Descartes’ Meditations. More than just in the title, Descartes’ work has a deep affinity with the tradition of meditations or spiritual exercises of his time. And beyond the traditions he was familiar with, there is the larger tradition of meditation via doubt especially among the Zen schools that resonates with Descartes’ writing and practice. Although I stumbled upon these connections after I brought my Buddhist practice together with my reading of the Meditations, I am in no way the first to think this; indeed, part of the joy so far has been to read about these connections from authors across various disciplines!

My first encounter with Descartes was at UCLA. It was my first college philosophy class. Professor Joseph Almog strolled in, rolled back his sleeves, and started right in on the Meditations. All we covered that quarter was the Meditations. In fact, I think we only covered various sections from the text primarily around the mind-body problem. And the professor taught it all without notes – just the chalkboard, his mind, our minds, the text somewhere in the background, and abstract philosophical analysis. It was breathtaking (for a naive freshman like myself)!

I took other classes where we covered the standard topics in the Meditations. I taught them in various classes and made sure students understood the role of skepticism, the reasons and arguments for foundationalism, the arguments for God’s existence and their obvious problems, and more. Students questioned me and I gave them my most definitive answers in return. Of course there were subtleties of interpretation, but this was how the Meditations were to be understood.

And from where I stand now, all of that was horribly superficial, and just wrong as a reading of Descartes.

So what happened? History and context and ideology happened. We all learn from someone, and they are informed by their context and history. And learning is constrained by the context of learning – its aims, its political and pedagogical agenda. And we are human and take stands, both intentionally and unintentionally, and that ideological formation impacts our teaching. All this is obvious once you immerse yourself in this way of thinking. And yet just today after reading an article it dawned on me how full of myself I was teaching Descartes as if I knew the work, the arguments, the problems, the answers!

The beauty of this process is belief revision: we can change what we believe. And this impacts action: we can change how we act. And this impacts speech: we can change what we say. And putting all this together requires humility: recognizing our limited or bounded understanding, and bending ourselves to change unboundedly, to unknowing mind, to not being full of ourselves, over and over again.

The inquiry continues. It must continue. Not just about Descartes. But about everything we believe and encounter in our daily lives. And I am left thinking about how to teach in the face of bounded understanding and unbounded change. What does it mean to be a teacher when all these constraints are salient? How can I empower students by guiding them, when I know their guide is positioned in this way? How can I be honest in my limited understanding, while still positioning myself as someone who has something to teach?

There are similar questions for students, whether students of philosophy, Buddhism, or any discipline at all. And there are not so simple answers to all of this. But for now – its on my mind and in my heart. Making amends for my previously limited understanding, moving forward while keeping in mind and heart the way I am formed and bound by history, context, ideology, and teachers, and reminding myself that unbounded change is the path of humility and awakening.