The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha wasn’t a god; he was a man with eyes in his head. Any person with the ability to observe the world can deduce the simple facts the Buddha taught: suffering exists, things are impermanent, and the quality of our contentment isn’t necessarily related to our external circumstances. There are unhappy people in paradise and people who find contentment in hell. All things change, but there sits at the root of our nature certain enduring tendencies: the grain in the wood of personality, the slant of our inclination and the direction of our days.

The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha wasn’t a god; he was a man with eyes in his head. Nothing the Buddha taught needs to be taken on faith: you can test anything he said against your own experience, against what you yourself have seen and lived. If you don’t believe that suffering exists, scan the headlines in the nearest newspaper, tune into your favorite TV news channel, or ask the person next to you how things are going, really. Or try sitting with nothing but your own thoughts for ten, fifteen, or thirty minutes: as long as you can stand. How long does it take to sink beneath the skin of surface contentment to find the existential angst beneath?

The Wall at Central Square

If you don’t believe things are impermanent, try loving a child, an old person, or an elderly pet. Whenever you see someone change, grow, or age before your very eyes, you’re seeing impermanence in action. Or take a long view of your own relationships and your own self. How many of the people you loved ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago are exactly the same now as they were then? Take a good, honest look in the mirror. How have you yourself changed over the past decade? Even the most stubborn, entrenched personalities grow old, grow sick, and die.

The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha wasn’t a fortune teller; he simply was observant. He was, as I keep telling you, a man with eyes in his head. He closely observed the people around him, and he carefully monitored the coming and going of his own thoughts. The Buddha was like Isaac Newton sitting beneath an apple tree: he didn’t see anything particularly unusual, but he had the intelligence to notice the patterns that underlie the seemingly random nature of our days. Apples fall and seasons change. If you don’t believe me, go sit under an apple tree and see for yourself.

The Wall at Central Square

One morning this week, I wrote my journal pages outside, sitting at our backyard patio table. The bird feeder was empty, so there wasn’t the usual flapping, energetic throng of birds, but still there were squirrels foraging overhead, robins singing in the neighbors’ yard, and chipmunks scurrying through dead leaves. There wasn’t a single moment in even my quiet backyard that was truly quiet: there was a constant soundtrack of birdsong, animal rustlings, and insect humming.

The Wall at Central Square

You don’t have to set foot outside—you don’t have to move from wherever you’re reading these words—to experience the constant activity that is impermanence in action. Shut your eyes and turn your attention inward to where your thoughts chatter without ceasing. Try to follow the flow of your own thoughts: the way they inevitably jump from one thing to another. Even when the world around you is quiet and serene, your mind is agile and electric, jumping from one thought to another like a squirrel leaping from branch to branch. People erroneously think that meditation is about “stilling the thoughts,” as if this were possible. Stilling your thoughts is as possible as stilling your own heartbeat or the stopping the flow of blood in your veins. Even if you could do it, why would you want to?

The Wall at Central Square

Several weeks ago I spent two hours writing in downtown Boston at rush hour. I sat in a café facing a wall of windows with a clear view of a steady stream of people walking down the sidewalks on either side of a narrow one-way street. Occasionally, there was a burst of vehicular activity: at one point, several cars, a taxi , and a police SUV cruised down the street, followed by a lull in traffic. Although the cars moved in sporadic bursts, the flow of pedestrians was constant: people walking singly, in pairs, or loose groups; people talking on phones, gesturing to friends, or pointing to landmarks. One man stopped to take a picture on his phone, then three people passed in a kind of parade, each one steering a vendor’s pushcart: lemonade, hot dogs, Italian ice. Each person who passed was on an errand known only to them, and this activity never stopped during the two full hours I observed it. Trying to stop the rush hour flow of people walking, cars moving, and cyclists pedaling is impossible, as this activity is simply the nature of a city.

The Wall at Central Square

So is the nature of our minds. Our mind is a road at rush hour, with a constant traffic of thoughts moving past. Sometimes these thoughts come singly, one after the other, and sometimes they arrive in bursts of activity. Sometimes these thoughts slow and quiet, and we think we’ve reached the end of them…but inevitably they return, always arriving from unknown origins and wending toward unspoken destinations.

The Wall at Central Square

Sometimes our thoughts get stuck and we find ourselves endlessly obsessing over a single idea that returns again and again like a car that keeps circling the same block. But just as it’s impossible to count much less stop every single person that passes down a busy city street, it is impossible to stop the stream of our own thoughts. Thinking is the mind’s job, so it’s both foolish and futile to try to stop it. Why not try to cover your ears, stopper your nose, or paste your eyes shut?

The Wall at Central Square

The contentment that comes with meditation doesn’t come from stopping one’s thoughts; it comes from making peace with them. As I sat typing on my laptop and watching the stream of people pass by that rush hour coffee shop, I had no quarrel with any of them. If I had been sitting in traffic, I would have wanted it to move faster or slower: I would have had an interest in controlling it. But as a mere observer watching the people who pass, I didn’t have to worry about their pace, direction, or destination. When you simply observe your thoughts move through your mind like people passing down the street, there’s no need to worry over them. They’ll find their own way without any interference from you.

The Wall at Central Square

It isn’t our thoughts themselves but our impulse to control our thoughts that drives us crazy. Because the Buddha had eyes in his head, he realized this. If you spend time watching your thoughts, you’ll quickly realize that crazy thoughts, calm thoughts, happy thoughts, and angry thoughts all come and go. These thoughts arise and pass away without reason: there’s no need to try to excuse or explain them, just as there’s no need to excuse or explain the passing of people and vehicles during rush hour.

The Wall at Central Square

We suffer when we cling to impermanent things, and that includes thoughts. If we cling to the idea of “baby,” we’ll suffer when our child grows into an adolescent then adult. If we cling to the idea of “youth,” we’ll suffer when we see our bodies gray and wrinkle. If we cling to the idea “I am a good person,” we’ll suffer when angry, lustful, or selfish thoughts arise. If we cling to the idea “Meditation will make me peaceful,” we’ll suffer when we find our minds to be noisy with distractions.

The Wall at Central Square

The Buddha realized that all things, including our thoughts, are impermanent because he himself watched them pass. It was an observation anyone with eyes in their head could have made. Right now, look around at the people who pass, then look inside to the ebb and flow of your own thoughts. What can you hold? What can you take with you after you’re gone? If you have eyes in your head, you too will see the whole world is passing, and the only instant we can claim is the very moment at hand.

The Wall at Central Square

The other night, I made a list of demons. I suppose “fears” is a more accurate term for the items I typed into a private Google document, but “demons” is also a fitting description. Now that it’s summer and I have time to work on the nonfiction book I’ve been largely procrastinating over the past few years, I decided to grab my personal demons by the horns by listing all the fears that have been keeping me from writing.

The Wall at Central Square

In about 15 minutes, I came up with about the same number of fears, many of them contradictory. I’m afraid I won’t finish the book, but I’m also afraid I’ll finish and it won’t be perfect. I’m afraid I’ll never publish the book, but I’m also afraid I’ll publish and face the letdown of not knowing what to do next. I’m afraid that if I finish and publish the book, nobody will read it…but I’m also afraid people will read it and think I’m pretentious, hypocritical, or self-absorbed. I’m afraid, in a word, to write the book, but I’m also afraid not to write it.

With this particular menagerie of demons in mind, I went back to a list I wrote sometime in the late 1990s, when I was hopelessly mired in the middle of a PhD dissertation that refused to be written. What I wrote then sounds entirely familiar:

The Wall at Central Square

I scare myself when I think that…

1. I won’t finish my dissertation.
2. My dissertation won’t be good enough, or scholarly enough, or theoretical enough.
3. I won’t be able to get a job after graduation.
4. I’ll leave something out of my dissertation.
5. I’m already too far behind.
6. I’ll get stuck.

The Wall at Central Square

Apart from the fear about getting a job after graduation, the demons I wrestled with while writing my dissertation more than a decade ago are pretty much the same as the fears I face today, as I try to write a book-length piece of creative nonfiction. The fear-demons that plagued me when I was working on my dissertation didn’t, in retrospect, have anything to do with that specific project, which I did indeed finish. Instead, they had everything to do with me tackling a big, daunting task that threatened to take forever to finish. That task could have been a dissertation, a marathon, or a mountain: regardless of the goal, the demons kept whispering “You can’t” and “You won’t” and “Who are you to dare think you could?”

The Wall at Central Square

It shouldn’t be surprising that I or anyone would face this sort of insecurity, as even the Buddha himself wasn’t immune from this kind of thinking. One of my favorite stories about the Buddha involves him sitting down to tea with his arch-nemesis, Mara the tempter. Mara is the demon who besieged the Buddha with doubts and fears the moment before his enlightenment, trying to distract him from his meditation with lascivious thoughts, arrows of fear, and the niggling question, “Who do you think you are?” The prince who would become the Buddha wasn’t immune from such thoughts…but he became the Buddha because he persevered in the face of his fears, touching earth to ground himself.

The Wall at Central Square

In his later years, Buddha went a step or two further, actually befriending Mara. According to one legend, Mara the tempter visited the Buddha late in life, after they’d each settled into their roles as Enlightened Teacher and Cosmic Distractor. Instead of rejecting Mara, Buddha asked him into his home for a cup of tea, and Mara complained he had grown tired of his job. “It’s so frustrating to be the bad guy who everyone hates,” Mara lamented. “It’s so tiring to be the good guy who everyone worships,” the Buddha countered, “with people constantly invoking your name and seeking your assistance and approval.”

The Wall at Central Square

After a pot of tea and conversation, Buddha made peace with Mara, the two of them deciding they weren’t that different, after all. Buddha, in fact, beseeched Mara to continue in his role as tempter, because without Mara the tempter, there could be no Buddha the teacher. Instead of enemies, Buddha and Mara are a kind of couple—a cosmic Good Cop, Bad Cop—who work together in tandem, each working off the other.

The Wall at Central Square

So who am I to think I could write a big, daunting project without sharing a cup of conversation with my own demons? Without fear, there can be no accomplishment, and as every gym-rat knows, without pain, there is no gain.

It’s important and helpful to count your blessings, but it can be fruitful, too, to count your fears. Buddha knew that he couldn’t hide or escape temptation; instead of even trying, he was wise enough to befriend his demons. Now that I know the things I’m afraid of when it comes to writing this current work-in-progress, there’s no reason not to write it. That is, after all, what I’m doing right now, with both the Buddha and a gaggle of demons looking on.

Wall at Central Square

The Buddha touched the earth with his right hand the moment before he was enlightened, but he continued to touch the earth with his two feet for the rest of his days. When we typically imagine the Buddha, we picture a sedentary figure seated in contemplation, but in the immediate aftermath of the Buddha’s life and death, the icon that represented him wasn’t a seated person but the image of a human footprint.

Pretty / Boston Strong

Picturing the Buddha as a walking rather than a sitting man is suggestive on many levels. Picturing the Buddha as a walking man reminds us that Buddhism isn’t primarily an idea; it’s a practice. What you believe isn’t as important as how you live: do you walk the walk? As an awakened man, the Buddha was fully engaged in the world: he wasn’t as unmoving and aloof as his statues would suggest. If you want to follow the Buddha’s teachings, you needn’t pay lip service to anything he said; instead, follow in the footsteps of what he did.

Warhol RIP

It’s significant that the cornerstone summation of the Buddha’s teaching is known as the Eightfold Path. A path is something you have to walk: a path is useless if you don’t use it. The Eightfold Path tells you how to live an enlightened life if you are willing to take the steps to get there: looking at or merely thinking about the path will get you nowhere. You have to put one proverbial foot in front of the other if you want the Eightfold Path to be efficacious.

B&W

Walking demands balance: if you are lopsided or top-heavy, laden down with worries and obsessions, you won’t be able to walk well…but the very act of walking will help you find balance, your wobbly steps gradually becoming more stable and assured. The Eightfold Path is often represented by the eight spokes of the Dharma wheel, each spoke balanced in turn. A one- or two-spoke wheel won’t get you very far, so you need to walk the fine line between excess and abstention: a just-right state the Buddha called the Middle Way. It is by walking the way of the eightfold path that you find your own inner balance.

Create more, consume less

The Buddha’s footprint is evocative of many things. A footprint is grounded, and it is also balanced. A footprint marks a journey, and it marks the incremental steps from “here” to “there”: a journey of a thousand miles, the saying goes, begins with a single step. People who fly, float, or otherwise transcend the earthbound world don’t leave footprints: only people who take things one step at a time do. Walking upon two even feet replicates the repetitive coupling of inhalation and exhalation: a two-beat routine that will take you wherever you need to go, and every place in between.

Ajar

Early depictions of the Buddha don’t feature or fixate on his face, for the Buddha could be Anyman. By the scandal of particularity, the historical Buddha was a particular person born to a particular family in a particular clan in a particular tribe. By the scandal of particularity, the historical Buddha was an Indian prince born to a life of ease…but anyone, anywhere, can wake up. If you fixate on Buddha’s face, you might think he is different from you: a person of a different time, tribe, or personality. But if you contemplate the Buddha’s footprint, you realize this is a path you too can walk. The focus isn’t so much who you are as where you are going, and how.

Wall at Central Square

How might we live our life? This is the question underpinning the Buddha’s teaching, particularly the concept of the Eightfold Path. We do not set out to perfect ourselves through conscious striving for this goal; instead, we ramble and wander, often unaware. But if we persevere in practice, continually bring our mind back to this present moment (the ground under our very own feet), we gradually attain the grace the Buddha himself described. By following in the Buddha’s footsteps, we come into a right and well-aligned relationship with the world.

After dark

Footprints mark the spots at which a particular person touched the earth. A celestial or purely cerebral person doesn’t leave footprints; only people who are down and dirty, grounded in the actualities of life do. The Buddha’s footprint reminds us not to be too ethereal or too pure. Like a lotus flower rooted in mud, we lead lives that are silted in the nitty-gritty details of mundane life. Without our feet planted on the earth, we can’t reach, strive, or grow.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

It’s a simple enough story. A few moments before the Buddha attained enlightenment, he was confronted by Mara, the tempter, who tried to interrupt his meditation. Mara tried the usual techniques, assailing the Buddha with lovely women and fearsome demons. Upon seeing the Buddha wasn’t swayed by desire or fear, Mara launched his most dangerous assault, leaning low to whisper a single question into Buddha’s ear: “Who do you think you are?”

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

It is a troubling and pervasive question. Who hasn’t heard an inner voice asking some semblance of this question, which is simultaneously an accusation and an invitation to doubt? Who do you think you are that you can attain enlightenment? Who do you think you are that you can offer wisdom to the ages: who do you think you are that you can have something to say, and actually dare to say it? Who do you think you are that you can dare dream to do something with your life: who do you think you are to dare do?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Buddha did the wisest possible thing in this situation: he refused to engage the question. Instead of launching into the puffery of autobiography—“Look at me and all I have done, accomplished, and learned”—the Buddha vanquished Mara by throwing him off kilter, off center, and even off his keister. When Mara asked Buddha “Who do you think you are,” Buddha said nothing but merely reached one hand toward the ground and touched earth with four gently straightened fingers. Who am I? Here I am.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Traditional accounts of this tale say that after the Buddha touched earth, the earth and all its denizens themselves bore witness. What does that mean, exactly? To my ear, that means the Buddha returned to this moment, pulled himself out of the mental wrestling match that is obsessing on your own identity, and became aware (at last!) of what was transpiring around him in the natural world: green grass, towering trees, and flourishing flowers.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

You don’t have to be a Buddha to touch the earth, nor do you have to wait until Mara is staring you down, confrontational. At any moment, the earth endures; at any moment, the earth is largely ignored. Today, outside, what is happening right here, right under my feet? Today, right now, if I stretched my hand to my side, what would I find under my fingertips: grass and soil, sidewalk and concrete, carpet and upholstery?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

It never hurts to return to the present moment, to the senses, to whatever is happening right now. Even in painful moments, there is no harm in returning to the raw, unadulterated experience of suffering. What does it feel like, really, to suffer, to ache in one’s innards, to grieve, to lament, to cry? Forget the story of grief you’ve long told yourself—the narrative of blame and regret, accusation and accountability. Some things just hurt, and there is no explaining it: in the absence of explanation, then, what does the pure, unedited experience of sorrow actually feel like? In the absence of interpretation, what experience is actually true?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

When I was a child, long before I became a Buddhist, I used to dissect my own headaches. As a child prone to allergies, I was also (and still am) prone to sinus headaches: an awful kind of pressure that builds within your skull and makes you feel like you have a large, hulking animal standing on your face. Some sinus headaches relent with the use of decongestants; others fade in the face of painkillers. Other sinus headaches, however, simply stay, pressing into the crevices of your skull and aggressively arching against the contours of your own skin.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Whenever as a child I encountered one of these obstreperous headaches, the kind that medicine is helpless to heal, I would consciously become quiet, hunkering into my own consciousness with a single-pointedness that only a studious child can muster. With the same attentiveness with which I watched marching lines of ants on a summer sidewalk or stalking herons picking off pond frogs, I observed and analyzed my own physical pain. Where did it originate from? Was it solid and confined, with clearly defined borders, or did it send snaky roots into distant synapses, sprawling? Was it a hot pain or a cold pain? A fat, burbling pain or a sharp, shooting one? Did it quietly creep or thunderously stampede? What color was it at the center, and what color faded delicately to a fringe at its edges?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

When you clinically dissect your own pain, you might discover, as I did, something interesting. Physical pain at its root isn’t essentially unpleasant. Instead, it is a combination of elements that each in their own right is entirely neutral: a feeling of warmth combined with a sensation of pressure, or a pinprick of cold coupled with a sudden surge of tension. Nausea might strike as an overwhelming wave of motion; a stomach ache might feel like a slightly too-ripe fullness. “Pain” is a terribly imprecise word: surely we can do better than to lump so many disparate and ultimately interesting experiences—the one thing we all reliably share—under such an imprecise umbrella.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

One of the things I’ve learned from meditation—the eventual corollary to that childhood experience of simply observing my own suffering with a spirit of open curiosity—is that an adequately bored mind will contemplate anything you plunk before it. The operant word here is “contemplate,” not obsess. Obsessing is what we do when we attach a fixed narrative or agenda—an explanation—to our experiences: “I am hurting,” for instance, “because I was mistreated by my parents” or “It’s all my own damn fault, again” or “How could they have done that to me” or “I should have known better.” It doesn’t matter what story you tell yourself when you’re hurting: if you’re curious, a skilled therapist can help you untangle the threads of your own particular, favored narrative, or you can spend a day, week, or month sitting in silence, letting time and an inquisitive spirit do the untangling for you. It doesn’t matter what particular story you tell yourself when you’re hurting: what matters is the realization that whatever you tell yourself, it’s ultimately just a story.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” As children, we told ourselves (repeatedly) that words could never hurt us, repeating the rhyme as kind of incantation against harm. But words regularly hurt us, and others: we hurt from the insults and accusations of others, we hurt others with our own hateful speech, and we hurt ourselves—those hidden, horrible wounds—with the thoughts we recite, intone, and repeat in the inner sanctum of our soul: the most vicious kind of spell, because it invariably goes straight to its target, ourselves. (Who needs Mara when we tempt and torment ourselves so terribly?)

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Words do hurt us because we believe them. We tell ourselves (and are told) stories to explain our experiences, and then we trust these words more than we trust our experiences themselves. Believing that “everything happens for a reason,” be batter ourselves with blame; believing that “nothing happens in isolation,” we accost our friends and families with accusations. Maybe it’s a conspiracy, or a willful tendency to self-destruct, or a mind-boggling confluence of cosmic forces entirely outside our control…but somewhere, somehow, something or someone caused whatever is happening to us, and we will cling like terriers to that belief.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

But maybe things just happen. Maybe it’s not anyone’s fault. Maybe suffering is the one universal in a sea of change—maybe the reality and the experience of suffering is the only thing we can rely on in a world filled with uncertainty.

If suffering is universal—if suffering is not just ordinary, but absolutely guaranteed—then it’s not our fault, the fault of our parents, or the fault of our exes and enemies. If suffering is simply inevitable, unavoidable, and omnipresent, like the hatching of blackflies in the spring, then we can save the energy we’d normally spend trying to explain, rationalize, or understand it. Instead of trying to fix the problem by trying to figure out who or what is to blame, we can simply experience the problem, for the experience of any moment of suffering—the experience of any moment, actually—almost always carries within it a suggestion of how it should be handled.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

If you listen to the moment, in other words, the moment itself will tell you how to handle it. Has a grieving mother ever had to wonder whether it is appropriate to cry? No. Her tears come naturally, in their own time, as will her eventual healing. But both the tears and the healing will follow a timeline you probably couldn’t have predicted, and they will arrive in ways you probably didn’t expect.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

So when Mara asked Buddha a seemingly innocuous question—“Who do you think you are?”—Buddha didn’t take the bait. Whatever story you tell yourself to explain Who and What You Are is irrelevant, for suffering truly doesn’t care: I can tell you quite definitively that pain has never retreated after the recitation of an impressive resume. Relinquishing the desire to explain, exonerate, or self-justify, we can listen as the whole wide world bears witness. Touching earth, we connect with the suffering world as it actually is and experience the instant enlightenment known as Truth.

I found this half-written essay in a forgotten folder of free-writes I’d written at last August’s BRAWN Writing Retreat. The random photos illustrating today’s post come from the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham, MA. Enjoy!

Thirsty Buddha

This past weekend, at the 2010 Master Sand Sculpting Competition at New Hampshire’s Hampton Beach, I came face-to-face with my new American idol: the Coca-Cola Buddha, the patron deity of appetite and abundance.

A word from our sponsors

This wasn’t the first sand-sculpting competition I’d been to; last July, J and I checked out the crumbling masterpieces that remained weeks after the New England Sand Sculpting Festival at Revere Beach in East Boston. But among the various sculptures at that event, there was nothing even remotely Buddhist, so I wasn’t expecting to come face-to-face with divinity on the New Hampshire seacoast this weekend. Like any genuine spiritual experience, my Coca-Cola enlightenment came as a complete surprise.

In the interest of iconographic accuracy, I should note that the Coca-Cola Buddha isn’t technically the Buddha; he’s Hotei, a fat-bellied monk who carries a cloth bag filled with treats. If you’ve ever rubbed a Buddha-belly for good luck, you’ve had a close encounter with Hotei, the Buddhist equivalent of Santa Claus: a fat, jolly man who brings happiness wherever he goes.

Lady Liberty

Whereas the historical Buddha is an emblem of regal detachment, Hotei is a reminder of life’s sweet abundance. Buddhist monks live on alms, so a fat monk is one that is particularly well-loved. Because Hotei is such a happy, jolly fellow, his begging-bowl is always full, and he is happy to share that abundance with others.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether the Coca-Cola Buddha is the Buddha, as Hotei carries a bag full of lessons all his own. In his guise as the Coca-Cola Buddha, Hotei reminds us to fully enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Whereas the historical Buddha was a pampered prince who renounced his wealth and then experimented with various ascetic practices, you get the feeling that the Coca-Cola Buddha hasn’t said “no” a day of his life.

Sand ogre

The historical Buddha eventually abandoned asceticism, deciding that the Middle Way of moderation was the proper spiritual path…and both Hotei and the Coca-Cola Buddha take the Middle Way one step further, suggesting it’s better to occasionally over-indulge and enjoy a soft-in-the-middle belly-laugh (and share that glee with others) than be a Seriously Religious sour-puss concerned only with philosophical intangibles. The Coca-Cola Buddha believes, in other words, that life is short, so have dessert first!

The Coca-Cola Buddha also reminds us to, in the words of a famous soft-drink slogan, obey your thirst. In a time when obesity has become an epidemic, it’s easy to view food and appetite through the lens of fear. As Michael Pollan argues convincingly in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Americans suffer from a national eating disorder whereby we obsess more and more over the healthfulness of our food while simultaneously growing fatter and fatter; in the words of Raj Patel, we live in a world that is simultaneously stuffed and starved. Given conflicting medical reports about which foods are and aren’t good for us, it’s no wonder our mealtimes are often fraught with worry.

How to train your sand-dragon

The Coca-Cola Buddha offers diet plan far more simple than even the most popular fad or fast: when you’re hungry, eat; when you’re thirsty, drink. This is the wisdom of intuitive eating, a philosophy embraced by Zen masters, psychologists, and self-help gurus alike.

Too often we allow our head or our heart to make our culinary decisions, eating (or abstaining) from a particular food because we think we “should” or smothering our emotions with aptly named comfort food. If you listen to your gut, however, your body will tell you loud and clear when you’re hungry and when you’re full. The Coca-Cola Buddha knows that our bellies are usually far smarter than our brains. While our brains send us to the kitchen in search of Chubby Hubby to distract us when we’re sad, anxious, or bored, the wisdom of our gut is eager to tell us how much food we really need. Once you’ve learned to listen to the wisdom of enough, then you can share that abundance with others.

Tiger by the tail

Lastly, the Coca-Cola Buddha knows that appetite can be sated only in the moment, and only for oneself. I can dream, imagine, and anticipate the soothing refreshment of a cool drink, but that imagined idea won’t quench my thirst.

Several weekends ago, I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, and in lieu of hot tea, the Head Dharma Teacher left a small pot of ice water in the interview room for me to drink. The day was steamy, so I was sweating beneath my heavy Dharma Teacher robes…and when I raised a cup of cool water to my lips, I was delighted to smell the tang of a lemon slice floating among ice cubes. Just like that, a cup of cold lemon-water was more refreshing than Nirvana, a full serving of Ahhhhhhh soothing my summer-shriveled cells. But as much as I try to describe the deep-seated satisfaction of enjoying a cool drink on a hot day, the only way you can “get” this experience is to go to your own kitchen and pour your own glass: drink up!

Flames

A long time ago in New York, a student questioned Zen Master Seung Sahn about the efficacy of mantra meditation: do I have to understand the words of a chant or mantra in order to benefit from repeating it? Seung Sahn insisted that only three things are important when you meditate upon a mantra: first, your reason for doing it; second, your faith that it will work; and third, your tireless effort to keep that mantra.

“So you can chant Coca-Cola all day long and it will work,” the student asked, amazed, and Zen Master Seung Sahn’s reply was even more amazing. “If someone tells you that the words Coca-Cola have power in them and you really believe that, then Coca-Cola will work for you.”

This is the timeless wisdom of Zen Master Seung Sahn, big-bellied Hotei, and the all-American Coca-Cola Buddha. This Present Moment is a brimming glass filled with both sweetness and sorrow, and only you can belly up to the bar called Life to savor it, moment to moment, good to the last drop.

Click here to more photos from the 2010 Master Sand Sculpting Competition at Hampton Beach. If you want to visit the Coca-Cola Buddha and his sandy friends in person, the sculptures will be on display through June 30th. Enjoy!

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