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.

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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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No more boring graff

It’s still raining from yesterday and last night, although “rain” is perhaps too strong a word for this mist that falls without the sound of raindrops. You can see it in the air, and you can see it in the drops and rivulets that gather on impervious surfaces. But you can walk through it, like a cloud, without feeling you’re getting wet.

Two faces

It’s a metaphor often used in Zen that meditation practice is like walking through mountain mist: without realizing it, you get soaked clear through. And I guess that’s how things have been with my own Zen practice: as I do it, it doesn’t feel like it’s working, but all these years later, look at how wet I’ve become.

I think many things are like that: if you do something daily, you get better at it without really knowing it. As Ken Kessel JPSN once said, we become what we practice, or as Malcolm Gladwell writes, it takes 10,000 hours of doing something diligently to become proficient at it.

Wink

I know that over the years, I’ve probably spent 10,000 hours on my meditation mat, and as many hours (at least!) scribbling lines in cherished black notebooks. And I’ve probably spent the equivalent of 10,000 hours blogging, or snapping photos if you could somehow tally the total time it takes to snap, snap, snap day after day, taking bad shots along with the good and gradually learning how to sort one from the other.

It’s not a mystery, this method of doing something every day whether it seems to be working or not. It’s simply the wisdom of mountain mist: an imperceptible influence that cannot be denied.

This is a lightly edited version of this morning’s journal entry, illustrated with images from yesterday’s misty-morning walk down Modica Way in Central Square, Cambridge.

Parking lot view

There is a strong, silent place I’ve found on retreat that lingers: once you’ve mapped the route to that place, you can return to it whenever you need to. That place is not distant, and it takes only a moment’s awareness–the span of a single breath–to return there. But the way to this place is elusive, and many spend their entire lives traveling far and wide to find it, to no avail. Like a dog’s own tail, it slips beyond your reach the more (and the more fervently) you chase it.

Rust never sleeps

There were moments at Saturday’s hockey game, for instance, when I felt myself retreating to that place of calm as I waited, watching and alert, for the precise moment to snap a shot. Photography is nothing more than target practice, and to hit a target, you need an awake and alert eye. It is the strength and solace of that silent place that gets me through overloaded semesters, grading all-nighters, or early-morning teaching prep; it is the strength and solace of that silent place that helps me juggle two jobs when many struggle to handle only one.

Geared up

The secret of this strong, silent place is not secret, but it hides under misleading names: calling it a place, for instance, is already a mistake. If you call it a place, you’ve already wandered from it; if you call it a thing, you’ve already mislaid it; and if you call it a person, you’re already estranged. “It,” after all, is not even an “it”: “it” is neither one thing nor two, incapable of either speaking or being spoken of.

And yet this strong, silent place is the most mundane location of them all: neither far nor near, it’s a place where we all dwell. Everyone knows it without realizing it, or has it without knowing. I think mothers know it best, this strong and silent place from which all things are born and the impossible can be done, but only with great love. Mothers know that life is borne from great pain, and mothers know that love never tires.

Click here for a photo-set of images from the grounds at the Providence Zen Center, where I went on a one-day retreat yesterday: a pilgrimage back to my personal power source.

Dharma room sunbeam

You’d think that last week’s Photo Friday theme, Meditation, would be an easy one for someone who practices and teaches Zen meditation, but the exact opposite is true. Because I practice meditation, I actually have very few photos of meditation.

Dharma room altar

Taking a “meditation” photo offers the same challenge as capturing the ponytail shot in my last post: how do you take a picture of yourself sitting and not taking pictures? The Dharma room is, after all, one of the few places where I don’t carry a camera, so I had to go all the way back to August, 2007 to find a handful of images I shot after practice at the Open Meadow Zen Group one morning. Notice I that I shot these photos after (not during) morning practice. These aren’t photos of meditation; instead, they’re photos of the scene of meditation. Over the years I’ve taken more than a few pictures of Buddha statues, Buddhist ceremonies, and pretty Dharma rooms…but statues, ceremonies, and Dharma rooms aren’t themselves “meditation.” The accoutrements of meditation aren’t the same as meditation itself, and that makes “meditation itself” particularly difficult to capture in images.

Stained glass bodhisattva

Over the years, I’ve illustrated most of my Zen posts with images that don’t look particularly “Zenny.” Rather than returning again and again to the same old images of statues, ceremonies, and Dharma rooms to illustrate the practice of meditation, I usually illustrate my Zen posts with whatever images I have at hand. This is, I suppose, a particularly “Zennish” way of considering the question of how to depict “meditation.” Meditation isn’t a special thing limited to a special room where you sit on special cushions while wearing special clothes, and the simple act of just looking at (and just snapping pictures of) whatever you happen to see can also be a kind of meditation. Yes, the trappings of Buddhist iconography help put practitioners in the mood to meditate, but meditation isn’t dependent upon them. If you don’t have a pretty Dharma room, a cushion in the basement will do.

(Dharma) room with a view

If I had to pick, in other words, the scenes and objects of meditation in order to illustrate what meditation “is,” what scenes and objects wouldn’t I choose? Would I show you the sink where I follow my breath while washing dishes, or the car where I follow my breath while driving between Newton and Keene? Would I show you the streets and sidewalks where I follow my breath while walking, or the bed upon which I follow my breath while folding laundry, reading, or settling into sleep? Would I show the laptop where I sit following my breath as I type these words, or would I show the kitchen table where I will follow my breath while eating a late lunch after posting them?

The scenes and objects of meditation are many, and I’ve spent these past five years quietly blogging them, sometimes affixing the label “meditation” and sometimes not. But even when unnamed or unattributed, meditation is as close at hand as the breath on your lips.

This is my belated contribution to last week’s Photo Friday theme, Meditation. I was tempted to post a photo of virtually anything as my depiction of “meditation” but decided a trip to my photo archives was a more aesthetic (and cooperative) choice.

If you’re intrigued by the pretty Dharma room that illustrates today’s post, you can join us this Sunday for a one-day retreat at the Open Meadow Zen Group in Lexington, MA.

This is not Bread & Circus

These days, I’ve been meditating almost every day after lunch, sitting for fifteen minutes on a mat and cushion stationed in J’s basement with the dogs, one room over from the washer and dryer. J’s basement is dry but unfinished, so the floor beneath my mat is poured cement, and I sit facing a bare concrete wall occasionally adorned with a sleeping spider. On days when either one of us is doing laundry, I meditate to the sound of the washer running through its cycles; on days when the washer is quiet, I listen to the dogs sleep, each snoring on its bed while I sit breathing on a not dissimilar-looking meditation mat.

Tow Zone - No Parking

I mention this to note all the things that my daily meditation session is not. I sit for fifteen minutes, not thirty. I sit after lunch, not first thing upon awakening. And although I sit on a traditional mat and cushion, my practice space is otherwise painfully plain and simple, an out-of-the-way basement nook that looks nothing like this but instead embodies quite literally the truism after the ecstasy, the laundry. My meditation spot in Keene is pretty; my meditation spot here at J’s is plain. Both places are perfectly sufficient for the work of Zen practice, which is simply a matter of waking up wherever you find yourself, whether that’s with the dogs, on a fancy cushion, or one room over from the washer and dryer.

As much as it might be difficult to define exactly what Zen is, it’s easy to define what it’s not. Zen isn’t somewhere distant and removed from the dogs, laundry, and basement spiders of your everyday life, and it isn’t something that requires the purchase of special trinkets or tchotchkes. The smells and bells of Buddhist iconography can make your practice pretty, but such decorations aren’t absolutely necessary. Zen is a matter of practicing where, when, and how you can, and a plain raft will ferry you to the other shore of This Present Moment just as surely as a pretty one will.

Picture perfect

All this week, I’ve still been feeling the blog-blahs I’ve previously described: when I think of something to share, I can’t find time to blog it, and when I find a spare moment to write, I can’t think of anything to share. A typical writing conundrum.

Last night, J and I went to see the New England Revolution play the Chicago Fire at Gillette Stadium, and as always we each took hundreds of pictures. Afterward, I came home, duly copied mine to yesterday’s photo folder, took a quick look at what I’d shot, and turned off my laptop, saving for some hypothetical rainy day another folder of photos that probably will lie neglected on my hard-drive. Someday, sometime, I’d like to sort the photographic wheat from chaff, post the best to Flickr, and post the bloggable…or not. At this point I have an oceanic backlog of photos from three Red Sox games in California this spring, a handful of Boston Cannons lacrosse games this summer, and all the silly random photos I snap from day to day, uncertain when (if ever) I’ll ever get around to re-visiting much less sharing them.

Say cheese

I have no idea when (if ever) I’ll get around to sorting through much less sharing the rest of last night’s soccer photos…but in the meantime, here are two shots of camera-wielding fans I particularly like. This morning I gave consulting interviews at the Zen Center, and one thing I find myself emphasizing time and again to the folks who ask me questions is the importance of simply showing up. Most of the questions people ask me have to do with struggles they’ve been having in their life or practice because they have some idea of how they should or want to be. Across the board, the people I meet in or out of the Zen Center interview room (and I count myself in this number) want to be calmer, healthier, more balanced, sweeter, skinnier, wealthier, smarter, or whatever: more of this, and less of that. And this very thought that “I’m not X enough” or “I’m much too Y” is exactly what keeps you, me, or any of the folks I encounter from realizing that everything, already, is pretty much okay as it is.

And so this morning, I found myself insisting time and again that Zen, life, and everything else isn’t about getting things right, perfect, or “good enough.” Zen, life, and everything else is ultimately about showing up, trying your best, and accepting that as “enough.” Just show up, I hear myself saying again and again, and see what happens. So here I am on a Sunday afternoon, just showing up with the same old blog-blahs and seeing what happens when I toss a couple paragraphs and pictures together: enough?

Ice cream eater

I’ve been scrambling this past week, trying to catch-up with too many to-dos as I prepare to leave for a conference tomorrow. On Friday, in the midst of this schedule-madness, I taught meditation to a classroom of senioritis-inflicted students at Lincoln-Sudbury High School in suburban Boston; on Sunday, I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, stopping to snap a few pictures of some new stencils on the street-art mural along Modica Way.

Ice cream eater with skulls

At both the high school and the Zen Center, I reminded anyone who would listen to come back to the present moment, everything is already complete, and you already have it, you just don’t know it. Ah, the fatuousness of Zen teaching. If I really, truly believed these things–if I’d really attained them at the core of my being–I wouldn’t be scrambling, staring stressfully at my to-do list, or calculating in a panic the hours between now and tomorrow morning when my plane takes off with or without me and my still-to-do to-dos. Or would I?

If everything is already complete, then my scrambling, stressed self is also Buddha; if I already have it but just don’t know it, then part of the “It” of enlightenment is the stressed, worried mind I already have. If Zen is a matter of returning to the present moment, which I’ve taught time and again to anyone who will listen, where do I get this idea that my Zen Self should be placid and serene, as if a smooth lake is the only form “water” is permitted to take?

Bow Wow, etc

This idea that my Zen Self should be calm–this idea that I should have a “Zen Self” that is separate from and more pristine than my Regular Self–is a pervasive form of Zen sickness, an idea that clouds the clarity of This Present Moment as much as any lurid daydream or daunting distraction. This present moment is It, I try to remind myself whenever I find myself listening. The act of scrambling isn’t a matter of rushing to a place where I’ll find It, finally, when all my to-dos are checked off and I have a moment, finally, to let go a sigh of relief. This act of scrambling is itself It: nothing more, nothing less. Had I been listening to myself when I reminded those squirming high school students or those earnest practitioners in the Zen Center interview room, I would already know that.