Saturday, May 17, 2014

Buddha Jayanti Post 1: One Dharma to Rule Them All: Teachings on Living the Dharma from Middle Earth

I have been practicing Buddhism for eight years now.  For the first six years of that time, I read several great Buddhist authors such as Robert Thurman, Jack Kornfield, Norman Fischer, James Kullander, and others.  Nowadays, I have grown disenchanted by American Buddhist literature, and have hardly read any Buddhist book, except for poetry books, picture books, and novels.  Another thing that has disenchanted me about American Buddhism is that it seems to be dominated largely by people from older generations, and after years of reading and collecting magazines such as Tricycle, Buddhadharma, and Shambhala Sun, I think I found the problem: most of the contributors in these magazines are older people.  Not once have I seen in these magazines an article written by someone in their twenties or thirties.  Moreover, when looking at these publications and Shambhala Publications Best Buddhist Writing series, I notice that these author’s experiences don’t connect very well to younger generations of Buddhists and potential Buddhists.  I read chapters and articles on losing one’s spouse to cancer, unhappy marriages, disillusionment with their professional lives, aging, and other experiences that young people just don’t connect to, however important they are.  Many talk about how they still suffer from time to time, indulge in bad habits, or feel slighted by people.  Many of them are very bleak and confusing, and they never really say anything positive about practicing the Dharma.  I currently have over a dozen Buddhist books in collector’s condition that I have never even touched.  Meanwhile, one of my books, which I’ve had since my early teens, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, is held together with loads of packing tape, with lose pages hanging out.  To me, that just means it’s important to me.  Its contents are still accessible and I still get hours of joy and inspiration from them and other books by Tolkien.  Before my disillusionment with American Buddhist literature, I was lucky enough to come upon Buddhist psychotherapist David L. Loy’s book The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons: Buddhist Themes in Modern Fantasy, which had an amazing take on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  Since then I found a renewed sense of enjoyment in Tolkien’s work as an artist, poet, film buff, and Buddhist.  Before I got the idea for this post, I realized that yesterday was Buddha Jayanti Day, the celebration in the Buddhist world of Buddha’s birth, and thought that I ought to do a post (albeit a late one this time) for that time, like I did with Autism Acceptance Month, and I thought I’d talk about what it means to be Buddhist.  Part of me was struggling from having heard accounts from my fellow Buddhists (all of them older) about what Buddhism and meditation hadn’t done for them and part of me was wondering, “Why practice Buddhism?”  Earlier I had come upon an article called The 10 Best Quotes from Middle Earth to Live By by Selina Wilken, and later I thought back to the article and realized all these quotes share something about what Buddhism does well for people, and that these have been true from all my experiences practicing Dharma.  While looking at articles on The Lord of the Rings quotes I found some that showed me what happens when one practices the Dharma.

“A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day.  An hour of war and shattered shields in the age of men may come crashing down, but it is not this day.  This day we fight!” –Aragorn

This quote was not from the aforementioned article, but it did see that it made a good Buddhist point: be in the present.  There is no need to worry about the age when mankind is shattered because it is not now.  Similarly, we need not dread taking tests, asking out dates, and learning to drive all the time because most of the time, it is not now. 

“All we have to do is to decide what to do with the time that is given to us.” –Gandalf the Grey

                This gets to the heart of the Buddha’s teachings, for one of the most quoted Buddhist axioms is, “Live in the present.”  This simply means to put your hopes for happiness, love, and freedom by what you think, say, and do in this moment, for it is precious, and once it is gone, you can never get it back.  Maybe you’re a student in college at home for the summer, and know a desired sweetheart who will be living off campus next year while you’re still in the dorms, but hey, what if you knew now that she didn’t have a car?  Then you may see her in the dining hall and could hit things up with her, huh?

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, this would be a much merrier world.” –Thorin Oakenshield

            (Spoiler alert) Thorin Oakenshield from Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy gets the ax in The Hobbit, the part that is to be covered in PJ’s third installment, yet says these beautiful parting words to Bilbo on his death bed.  Perhaps dying made him see how meaningless and empty hoarded gold really is, but food, cheer, and song on the other hand?  Well, food, that’s necessary to live, and cheer, well is that not our end goal in all things?  Isn’t everything we do, whether getting our bottom lip pierced or holding out a box of Valentine’s box to your love interest all done in the pursuit of something that will make you happy?  And song?  Well, what does that have to do with Buddha?  Well it’s easy to think in an age of gawdy pop music that music is tacky and commercial, but most of the world begs to differ.  Song comes from within, and by coming up with songs, we can see what’s within. In Senegal, West Africa, music praise the journey to God.  The Dinka of South Sudan sing songs to celebrate love or praise the cattle that their livelihoods depend on.  In war-torn Somalia, songs are composed around campfires celebrating heroes who committed brave and noble acts.  And hoarded gold can easily translate into the hordes of money possessed by billion dollar companies, such as Enron, Chevron, and Haliburton.  Oil companies deny responsibility in cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico, politicians bomb the Middle East while protecting major oil companies, and the CIA overthrows democratically elected presidents in Iran, Zaire (modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo), and Latin America (note oil has been called black gold).  And isn’t the whole point of socially engaged Buddhism to help alleviate greed, hatred, and ignorance-the three poisons in Buddhism-to make this world a better place.  

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered, full of darkness and danger they were.  Sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy.  How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened?  But in the end, it’s just a passing thing, this shadow, even darkness must pass.” –Samwise Gamgee

A famous Buddhist saying goes, “This, too, shall pass.”  Breakups, fear of driving, nasty professors all cause us stress but in the end we forget all about them.  Mentally handicapped people find decent housing.  Tragic losses make people stronger and closer to the people around them.  Life is about hanging in there until change comes around, and when it does, we’re all still here.  Through meditation, we’re able to see that all challenges are impermanent, and we just need to see them through. 

“Not all those who wonder are lost.” –J.R.R. Tolkien

Sometimes we all go down the wrong path: wanting a girl who’s completely egotistical, hoarding objects we think have value to us, snack cravings before we go to bed.  But we eventually our able to see that this girl is very manipulative, that those things we collect aren’t always so interesting, and that we can unwind in bed from the day without food.  Yet these don’t stop us from truly living because we’re in touch with our selves. 

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.  You step out onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” –Bilbo Baggins

Hobbits are particularly afraid of going out their door, particularly beyond the borders of the Shire, their home.  They love creature comforts like good food, an armchair, fireplace, and well-groomed gardens.  Yet Bilbo Baggins discovers that when he decides to take Gandalf and the company of thirteen dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield to reclaim their kingdom, going out into the nasty, uncomfortable, and dangerous wild, he discovers that there is more courage and resilience in him than he previously believed.  This is not to different from the story of the Buddha, who left his palace, sexy wife, and creature comforts to try and live discover how all people could truly live, into the wild, eating very little until he nearly starved to death, or the alluring, obedient women and concubines that strutted around his palace, and found that he was much happier and wiser now that he knew there was more to life than his wild, sex-crazed, drinking, party life.  Today in the West, we have several safety blankets to help make us feel secure in our lives, such as our televisions, cell-phones, professional lives, material luxury, and even religion to make us feel secure in our safe predictable lives to the point where they almost enslave us, and we begin to feel disconnected to all the people around us.  With Buddhism, we can take work, money, relationships, and technology with moderation so we can truly feel loved by and connected to the world.

“But no living man am I!  You look upon a woman.” –Eowyn

This quote is delivered by Eowyn, niece and surrogate daughter of King Theoden of Rohan, who sneaks into battle disguised as a man after she is refused to be allowed to go to battle on account of her gender, right after the king is mortally wounded and her best friend, Merry the hobbit is critically injured by Sauron’s chief lieutenant the Witch-King of Angmar.  Going back to the Witch-King’s beginnings, Sauron used the ring of power he gave his servant, which he made so no living man could kill him.  However, he didn’t foresee a woman riding into battle against him, so consequently, he left a major weakness for his most valuable servant.  While Tolkien did not create a lot of female characters, he left one of the most important acts to one of them.  Similarly, are own differences, whether gender or otherwise, are capable of serving this world to a greater degree.  Companies often hire workers with Asperger syndrome for their ability to recognize and perceive patterns.  During World War II, Navajo Indians gained a place in the war for the fact that they could communicate with each other without the Nazis or Japanese being able to listen in on their plans because they didn’t understand the Navajo language.  The Dharma can help us all understand that while we all have our own unique differences, we are able to use them to contribute to this world.

“It’s useless to meet revenge with revenge; it will heal nothing.” –Frodo Baggins

When people egg you on, you know longer need to respond to them.  The former classmate who makes snide comments at you is really just jealous of your success and is so immature that he thinks when you share it with your high school staff that you’re out to get him.  Snooty middle-age mothers engage victimize themselves for being chastised for their charity which pays more money to its executives, and then make snide comments when you tell them of more accountable charities.  Yet you realize they just want to provoke you into chastising them so they can continue to indulge in self-pity, and when you don’t respond to them, they just look vindictive and snide and hurt their own cause.   

“It is not the strength of the body, but the strength for the spirit.” –J.R.R. Tolkien

Selina Wilken elucidated this quote best when she writes, “When all hope seems lost, Frodo and Sam do not give up; Eowyn fights her way through a world of men; Arwen does not abandon what seems lost; Faramir stands up to a rotten parent…”  Haven’t some of us had to stand up for ourselves when we are physically smaller, been a woman who had to move up the ranks in a male-dominated profession, or pursue a dream when our parents or family aren’t supportive.  Yet we get where we need to go anyway.  Practicing Dharma and meditation allows us to see challenge and adversity with compassion and equanimity.  

“Deeds will not be less valiant because they are not praised.” –Aragorn

These days, pop stars, football players, and reality show stars seem to get all the positive attention from society, not to mention more money than teachers, doctors, and social workers who put more of their lives and energy into fulfilling much more noble pursuits.  Yet for trainee nurses, student teachers, and engineering students, this does not have to stop them from appreciating and valuing their own hard work, for with the Dharma, one is able to see things as they are, not simply as they are valued by society.

“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” –Lady Galadriel

This quote may be in reference to the physical stature of hobbits, who are smaller than other races, including dwarves, yet it is a good metaphor for the potential for ordinary people to make an impact on their own world and the world beyond.  Groups of teenagers are able to save local parks from being built over by chain malls, preteen girls are able to successfully petition large corporations to cut down on their use of pesticides and GMOs, and small groups of concerned citizens are capable of helping mentally disabled men who are fired for their misbehaviors to be reoffered their jobs.  One who truly practices the Dharma is fully capable of living in the face of challenge and adversity and eventually coming out successful.  For when we practice the Dharma, we are able to be more proactive, humble, resilient, peaceable, and adventurous people.  Regardless of whether we are Buddhist or not, Tolkien’s work has some great Buddhist wisdom, delivered in a universal, non-Buddhist package, by which we can all live by. 

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