Tag Archives: buddhism

Morning Sequence

The following essay was written one week into the presidency of Donald J. Trump–in the wake of the controversial travel ban and ensuing protests. The essay appeared in Sunstone, Spring 2017.

slide_383974_4580904_free.jpg

photo credit: Amy Goalen

Morning Sequence

By Lon Young

Tree Pose

For a minute or two, we’ve created our own sacred grove—twenty of us swaying in the sweaty breeze of the gym fan, arms drawn heavenward. Our left legs are lifted off the floor, knees swung wide, heels propped against the inner thigh of our standing legs. I feel a slow burn in my foot and ankle; sense the hum of a thousand gyroscopes steadying me.

We are practicing the art of staying centered, of remaining rooted yet supple, yielding to the gusts of life, trusting in the strength of our core. When a woman two rows up starts to topple, I hear my thoughts reassuring her: Don’t panic. Find your drishti—your focusing point.

This was my posture just after the presidential election. Equipoise. Balance and counterbalance. I consoled myself by trusting in the core values we share as Americans. Surely our commitments and traditions ran too deep to be uprooted, no matter who occupied the White House. Certain protections were enshrined in our Constitution, weren’t they? And a safeguard of checks and balances? The new president’s bluster and bravado were simply that, and would be drowned out by swelling choruses of Kumbaya. We who are committed to peace and justice comprise a vast forest: we breathe in what is noxious and breathe out what sustains.

And then came the inauguration. As I write this, it is the sixth day of the first week. The sixth day of smashing things, breaking things, uprooting things. A tornado full of chainsaws. And God saw everything he had unmade, and behold, he declared it was very very very good. The best ever.

And how can I stand now, safely planted in my privilege as a straight, white, non-Muslim male, humming hymns in arboreal bliss while chainsaws are buzzing in the borderland?

The Warrior

I move into Virabhadrasana, Warrior Pose. My stance is charged: thighs taut like crouched panthers, arms extended, hands blades. Once, when his beloved Sati was persecuted, Lord Shiva tore a lock of his hair and threw it to the ground. A moment later, Virabhadra sprang up from the earth—the incarnation of Shiva’s wrath—and hacked his wife’s tormentors into pieces.

For much of my life I didn’t allow myself to feel anger. It was an emotion unworthy of the narrative I was writing for myself. I would begin each day with the prayer of St. Francis in my heart: Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. But it’s getting harder and harder to know what peace should look like. And this warrior posture feels . . . well, it feels kind of right.

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 11.14.34 AM

photo credit: Amy Goalen

Pema Chodron says we should be bodhisattva warriors: warriors of wisdom and compassion who do battle against ignorance and hatred. And Paul says the struggle isn’t with flesh and blood but against rulers of darkness, against wickedness in high places. But these metaphors make me wary. I know our history, both as Mormons and as Christians: we sing strike for Zion, flash the sword above the foe, but whenever we have too zealously wielded the “Sword of the Spirit,” it has become stained with real blood. And I know my own heart. I know how readily the kindling of righteous indignation flares into the searing heat of hatred.

But what would it say about our moral conscience as Mormons if we were not angry, not roused to action? What if we sat upon the throne of our privilege, to use Captain Moroni’s blistering phrase, in a state of thoughtless stupor? I hear him now in my head. Yea, will ye sit in idleness . . . while there are thousands round about in the borders of the land who are falling by the sword, yea, wounded and bleeding? Do ye suppose that God will look upon you as guiltless while ye sit still and behold these things?

When I shift into Warrior II, I remember the bodhisattva warriors and the apostle Paul and Captain Moroni, who did not delight in bloodshed. And I think also of Virabhadra, and a mountain meadow in southern Utah, and the oath of vengeance that our Mormon progenitors swore in the Temple of the Lord. I catch myself in the mirror, arms locking into a horizontal plane as bright as a spear.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

The Corpse

We are led through what seems a lifetime of asanas: forward bends, backbends, chest openers, twists, up-dogs and down-dogs, poses for balancing, poses for binding. It’s a sequence of battles in a campaign we seem to be losing. There’s no way to flush out the lactic acid fast enough. Our muscles stiffen from the onslaught until we are unable to deflect the next attack—to decry, denounce, or defend; unable to uphold truths we mistook to be self-evident.

We ease our backs onto our mats as if they were stretchers.

Our yoga teacher says Savasana is our chance to relax, to pamper ourselves with a few minutes of peace and quiet. We go along with this fiction because we prefer it to the truth: this is the part where we are supposed to die.

Closing my eyes, I stretch out my arms and wait for it, following the rise and fall of my breath.

My first attempt at dying was at age eight in a makeshift baptismal font of stacked cinder blocks lined with sheets of clear plastic. It failed, of course. As a Mormon, I have been taught to strive, to multiply and increase, to rise through the ranks, to seek the validations of worthiness that qualify me for thrones, kingdoms, and exaltations. But I have not been taught how to let go, how to subtract myself, descend below, forfeit status and standing. Teach me how to die like a god—how to stretch out my arms in profound love and say Father, forgive us all, for we know not what we do.

For it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

It is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

You must reduce yourself to zero, Gandhi said many times and in many ways. He lived in India, of course, where the only number that can hold infinite emptiness was invented. This surrender, this annihilation of the ego, became the source of his spiritual victory, but it also generated the energy—the soul force—that sustained his courage, his resilience, and his unfailing faith as a satyagrahi, or truth warrior. As I lay here in the darkened room on my mat, body splayed out in defeat, I wonder if I can reduce myself to zero.

A voice in the darkness says, “Turn your wrists to the sky.”

We are left in corpse pose for I don’t know how long. I congratulate myself on surrendering my own ego—not my will, but thine be done—even as I’m listening for the flutter of dove’s wings and the rending of the temple veil. (Shouldn’t there be some kind of fireworks?) But when our teacher tells us to wake our fingers and toes, to regain a seated position, I suspect it’s still the same old me rising from the mat.

Half Lotus with Anjali Mudra

The lotus flower blossoms where there is mud. It rises up from the muck, through the murky water, until its flower, floating on the surface of the pond, blooms with such sublime beauty that religions throughout the East have adopted it as a symbol of purity, enlightenment, and the transcendence of suffering.

Last night we took our children to “Meet the Muslims.” The imam spoke of his congregation’s anxiety-ridden decision to hire security guards to protect them as they gather to pray. But then he gestured to the room of non-Muslims—mostly Mormons—who had come. He said that because of the election, because of the attempted Muslim ban, hundreds of us have been coming each week to express our support. I remembered the Utah March for Refugees and how State Street leading up to Capitol Hill had become a river of solidarity. Love flowing uphill. Lotuses rising from the mud.

We end in a seated posture. I’m in half lotus because I’m still not flexible enough for full lotus . . . and my head still hasn’t cleared the mud. (Someday.) My left foot is cradled in the fold of my right hip; my right foot is supporting my left knee. Everything embraces and sustains its opposite and the result is a balanced, upright posture.

I am trying to listen to people whose perspectives are different than mine. I am trying to remind myself that we are not separate, that our well-being is not separate. If I have learned anything as an unorthodox Mormon over the last few years, it is to be aware of the harm we do when we reject one another, when we deem some people acceptable of our fellowship and others not.

As we join our hands together in anjali mudra—prayer gesture—I think of Jesus inviting us into a relationship of wholeness, teaching us that the space we create in our hearts must include the whole human family. No one excluded. I have room for the downtrodden, but do I have space for the bully stomping on them? And is there room for the 63 million voters who handed him the boots?

Until our hearts can stretch that wide, we sit half lotus. We pray for the supple grace of a tree, the fearlessness of a warrior, and the pure heart of a flower that blooms in the mud. We lay our pride and self-interest on the altar and practice dying a little more each day. And when we rise from our mats, morning after morning, our sacred work awaits.

 

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 11.36.48 AM

photo credit: Amy Goalen


“Morning Sequence” first appeared in Sunstone, Spring 2017

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 10.43.36 AM

 

 

Pioneer Spirit: Reclaiming our Spiritual Imagination

pioneer: noun. 1. one who originates or helps open up a new line of thought; one who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc. 2. one of the first to settle in a territory.

Pioneer Day. Our day to celebrate how our spiritual progenitors followed their leaders to the Promised Land and made the desert bloom like the rose. That willingness to subjugate self-interest in the service of the common good is a legacy bequeathed to us by those forebearers. In the Mormon beehive, we’re all taught to hum the same tune.

But there’s another meaning of the word pioneer. According to Merriam Webster, a pioneer is one who originates or helps open up a new line of thought; who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc. 

In this sense of the term pioneer, can modern-day Mormons also claim a spiritual heritage? If so, to what extent has institutional and cultural Mormonism kept the “questing spirit” alive? Do we hold the conviction, burning bright in Joseph Smith’s day, that the door of knowledge swings open only when someone with a question comes knocking?

This, I’ve written before, used to be the essential spirit of Mormonism, and Joseph Smith was its primary advocate, resisting all attempts at reining in his expansive, even audacious,  imagination. This may be seen as an embarrassment now, as Church leaders are left with no intellectually honest way to reconcile theologically incompatible teachings, or to harmonize early doctrines with subsequently taught doctrines, but it’s also the reason we arrived at a theology as paradigm-shattering as that presented in the King Follett Address.

Surely the Church is more than a museum to protect historical artifacts from breaking. Surely its leaders are more than curators, ensuring that nothing gets knocked over. The terms prophet, seer, and revelator used to signify particular roles. Are any of those roles reflected in the phrase, maintaining the status quo? 

Even in religious life, a breakthrough requires a breaking through.

As I’ve been grappling with the question of how a Church once infused with the questing spirit could now view public questioners as faithless and subversive, warranting extermination from the beehive, I stumbled quite accidentally on a passage from a book* I’ve been reading that presents a cultural critique of Buddhism. The author, Stephen Batchelor, points to a general trend among religions. He explains that the founding figures, possessing a genius for imagination and the “capacity to express an authentic vision that responds creatively to the needs of their particular situation,” attract an eager following. (And surely there is nowhere a more apt description of Joseph Smith!) But once established, the new faith’s enthusiasm for new ideas soon cools. “For while the founding figures were imaginative and creative, imagination and creativity were rarely qualities encouraged in the schools and orders they established.”

Why not? Why doesn’t the institution perpetuate that founding spirit of innovation and creativity?  The author’s conclusion is that over time, “the preservation of orthodoxy became the main priority.” He elaborates:

While originating in acts of imagination, orthodoxies paradoxically seek to control imagination as a means of maintaining their authority . . . and to suppress authentic attempts at creative innovation that might threaten the status quo.

The more hierarchic and authoritarian a religious institution, the more it will require that the creations of imagination conform to its doctrines…

This is what I see happening. It’s not new. An honest appraisal would acknowledge that Joseph Smith himself fended off challenges to his authority, sometimes ruthlessly. But at least that Prophet was not afraid of a free marketplace of ideas. Why the insecurity now? Do we not believe, as the apostle Hugh B. Brown believed, that in that marketplace, “truth emerges triumphant?”  That apostle went on to say, “Only error fears freedom of expression.”

Batchelor finishes his observation by stating that religions may find it convenient in the short term to silence those who ask what is possible,

Yet, by the suppression of the imagination, the very life of dharma practice is cut off at its source. While religious orthodoxies may survive and even prosper for centuries, in the end they will ossify. When the world around them changes, they will lack the imaginative power to respond creatively to the challenges of the new situation.

On this Pioneer Day, I celebrate those among us who open up new lines of thinking, who invite us to reexamine our assumptions, who keep knocking on the door of knowledge. I celebrate the bishops and Sunday School teachers and neighbors who maintain a space for people who ask questions. I celebrate the breakthroughs–the breaking through–we’ve experienced in our short history after enough people dared to raise their voices against injustice or inequality or incomplete truth-telling.  I celebrate those among us sufficiently awake not to be lulled into thinking All is Well in Zion. These are Pioneers worthy of our legacy. And this is their day.

 

 

* Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. (p.108)

Leggo of my Ego: An “East”er Look at Atonement 

HAVE YOU EVER STOOD BEHIND a Buddhist at a hot dog stand? It’s always the same thing:

What would you like?   

Can you make me one with everything?

This craving for a sense of one-ness is at the heart of my spiritual practice. I want to dissolve the boundaries of self that separate me. I know that sounds like New Age mumbo-jumbo, but I’m hard pressed to think of any spiritual tradition that doesn’t try to tackle the problem of alienation.

the-prodigal-sonChristianity, for one, explains this alienation as the “fruit of man’s first disobedience” and nothing less than the sacrifice of God’s Beloved Son could appease the decree of Divine Justice and thereby reconcile us to God. And in the Jewish narrative, alienation takes the form of exile and the promise of return, a theme woven throughout Hebrew myth and history. In the East, Vedic traditions (Hinduism) make Yoga–or Divine Union–the aim of their spiritual disciplines, which entails penetrating the facade of individual selfhood to realize the Divine Spark that infuses the whole of creation.

Buddhism, for its part, understands this sense of separateness as a dream, a delusion from which we must awaken. The notion of having a “self,” some enduring entity, is considered to be a trick of the mind, just a deeply entrenched mental construct. I find myself resisting this idea, sometimes viscerally. Other times, I’m drawn to it. Especially as I come to understand the idea more clearly.

tumblr_kunc3zNFEx1qatlijo1_1280You see, it isn’t so much that Buddhism rejects the notion of a self, but it rejects the notion of a separate self, a self-contained, independently existent identify. The truth, in this way of thinking, is that we are not independent, but interdependent. This is a spiritual ecology: we are woven into the web of all existence, and each strand is inextricably linked to the whole.

And yet, how persistent is the delusion, how unshakeable it’s resulting feeling of isolation. Einstein offered us a Humanist’s lens through which to understand this phenomenon when he observed that:

Albert-Einstein-5-900x1440A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

I know this. I bow to the beauty of this. So why am I still locked up inside that prison? Why do I persist in labeling everything in terms of “Me” and “Not-me,” depending on which side of my epidermis it happens to be? Am I destined forever to view myself, to borrow a phrase from Alan Watts, as an “isolated ego inside a bag of skin”?

Ah, the ego. That “I” which renders us so utterly myopic. There’s a term in Vedic philosophy—ahamkara in Sankskrit —that means, literally, “I-maker.” It refers to the part of us that creates a sense of selfhood. So, does the universal instinct to create a sense of self arise because this, in fact, accords with reality? Or is it merely a mirage? an abstraction? a term for something imaginary, like the number zero, which doesn’t actually exist but is nonetheless useful? And whether real or imagined, how do we keep the ego from overstating its place in the cosmos?

For Zen Buddhists, the practice of zazen, or seated meditation, is one way to silence the ego, or at least blur the lines between us and other. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Roshi Suzuki explains that, during breathing meditation,

When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say “inner world” or “outer world,” but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, “I breathe,” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door…”

 

zazen

This is part of my spiritual practice, and it works for me. At least it works until I notice it’s working. Then my ego stands up to take a bow (Look at me! I’m so . . . enlightened!) or else, ignored too long, it throws a tantrum and starts banging its tin cup against the bars of my mind.

If sitting cross-legged isn’t your cup of green tea, I’m happy to let you in on a secret: the prison warden has also (temporarily) let me out of my ego-cell at the following moments:

  • drifting in a kayak at Monterey Bay with sea otters
  • partaking of the sacrament of communion
  • sitting in a field of birds (without my field guide and lists)
  • those first two minutes of the “Adagio” in Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, as interpreted by Julian Bream
  • in the union of love-making with my beloved
  • watching a camp fire when everyone’s done talking
  • lying on my back facing a big sky
  • bowing to a bowl of soup at Deer Park Monastery

6ac287a7b4e6ddc9c36184b34b07120c_fullThese are fleeting moments of liberation, to be sure. But they suggest more is possible. What they teach me is that, regardless of whether that “bag of skin” I call myself in fact envelopes an enduring identity or is just a soul-stunting illusion, I can experience times when I am deeply connected to those around me—indeed, with the whole universe.

For now, I choose to think of my identity as a constituent cell of some vast and beautiful organism. That cell has shape and definition, and perhaps a crucial function to perform, however small. But the vitality of that cell—that individual self—requires that it be encapsulated in a membrane that is not sealed off from the rest of the organism. In biology, these kinds of cell walls are said to be semi-permeable. The osmotic exchanges upon which life depend happen only when a cell is willing to give and willing to receive—to remain open and vulnerable to possibilities.

In the meantime, if I can’t be subsumed like a dewdrop into the ocean, then let me, like the poet, say to all the universe, Let there be commerce between us.

 

dewdrop.jpg.html