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Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

mind poisons, anger, & desire ~

Anger. Greed. Delusion. Ignorance. Attachment. Aversion. The three root Buddhist mind poisons.

The first time I heard them, I knew immediately which one was mine. (Anger, just in case you’re wondering — this will come as no surprise to friends, family & colleagues who hear me rant far too often!)

There are actually five kleshas, in yogic tradition. But Buddhists believe that they all stem from these three. It makes sense.

I’m not greedy, although I often do want ‘more.’ Usually chocolate :) But I can be happy w/ very little: sunlight, a balmy January day, the sight of two manic dogs chewing each other’s jowls.

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And I don’t think I delude myself — if anything, I’m overly cynical, my elder son will tell you. :)

But I am angry quite often: angry at injustice, at ignorance, at the fact that Tulsa had three fatal hit-&-run accidents involving pedestrians in just 3 weeks. One a week? I have to take deep breaths when the cashier is mean to the elderly lady in front of me in line at  Reasor’s, because she can’t make her ATM card work. And when my students tell me of the way the educational system treats them? I’m verrry angry.

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Each of the three mind poisons — certainly anger, with which I’m intimately familiar — stem from desire, from attachment. The deluded desire not to have to wake up, not to have to deal w/ whatever the reality is that they avoid. We all know people like this, who seem to be able to ignore the facts as they please. The greedy are the purest form of desire: they simply want. More. Money, status, material goods, and sometimes things that appear ‘good,’ on the face of it. The greedy may want more wisdom, to the point where it consumes them. Hence the Buddha’s injunction against becoming an enlightenment junkie. :)

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But anger? For me it’s a constant tension. At first I couldn’t see the connection: what’s up w/ anger being about ‘desire’? But over time, as I meditated on it? Yup. I get angry because I desire something different. I’m attached to what I think is the ‘right’ outcome, the ‘right’ action, the ‘right’ whatever ~ It’s not easy, is it, this beginner’s heart?

In the past, I tried ‘channeling’ the anger. Into work, into writing, into exercise. But what I’ve come to realise is that instead of re-directing my anger, I need to re-focus my energy. I need to let go of the idea that I can possibly know everything about even one thing. So how on earth can I think I have the ‘right’ answer(s)?

Here’s my new plan: I’m going to breathe. Just breathe. When I feel angry. When I want ‘more.’ I’m going to take a deep breath and detox. And maybe that’s a start ~

 

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the gratitude journal ~

I keep a gratitude journal. It’s actually a tire grateful for a 2nd life as a journal cover, a gift from my younger son. Since it still smells, even now, of the tire-it-used-to-be, it became a journal I use, but don’t live with. My gratitude journal.

But more than a year after I began it, I wouldn’t want to live without it. My life seems different, as I chronicle 4-5 times a week just what I’m grateful for.

Today, driving with my wonderful husband to breakfast in mid-town, I watched as 60+ Canadian geese cut the blue Oklahoma sky with strong wing beats, each goose within place, soaring and wheeling and stopping all the world’s motion around them. Until all there seemed to be was the climb of geese into the sky.

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A gratitude journal saves these moments. And unlike poetry, which is hard work, all I have to do is record. If I’m in a bad mood, tired or feeling out of sorts, the simple act of listing five things that happened today to be grateful for smooths the rough edges. Days when the bus trip to work seems one long jangle, and the neediness of colleagues, students and even friends almost too much to respond to, a quiet moment of gratitude for  the everyday magic that dances through my life is enough to reframe everything.

Late last fall a friend and I were discussing gratitude journals. She asked how long I’d been keeping mine. Not long, I told her — less than a year. And she said the loveliest thing: she said she thought I must have had one for  quite a while, because I seemed grateful for things. And I listen, she said.

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Because I think of myself as a complete motor-mouth (my father used to tease me that I was vaccinated with a phonograph needle :)), I was deeply touched. She also asked me if I think that keeping the journal has changed me. And I do.

There is great sadness and injustice — even evil — in the world. But there is also so much to love: beauty that stops the breath, music that heals the heart, a sun and moon that rise and set in clouds of light. There is honey from the bee as well as the possibility of sting. There is warmth from the fire that can burn. The thing about a gratitude journal? It helps you remember: life is good ~

 

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Happy Tết/ Chinese New Year!

When I was a child, living in Việt Nam, Tết (Việtnamese New Year) was celebrated with Chinese New Year. We (children were welcome — even American children!) burned clothing for the dead, brilliantly red  dresses and robes and hats and even shoes, each the colour of luck, gilded w/ prosperous gold. We also burned paper money, so the dead would be able to continue in the afterlife in comfort. Those are all customs of Chinese New Year, or Tết, as it’s known in many countries.

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Chinese New Year has had a profound impact on many countries, not just China. It shapes the celebration of religious holidays, like Buddhist New Year, but also insinuates its colourful customs and traditions into countries with only small numbers of Chinese citizens. This year — like many — the US has even issued a stamp, honouring the Chinese astrological sign for the year: the Year of the Dragon.

It’s a lovely holiday, spanning two weeks that this year begin on January 23rd. On New Year’s Eve, families will feast — much like we do on January 1st. And they party, complete w/ firecrackers (after all, they’re a Chinese invention dating back to the 7th century). All of this is a welcome break after days of cleaning house and sweeping away all the past year’s accumulation of bad luck. New clothes are bought, haircuts are in order, and a liberal use of good-luck red is everywhere, including the red packets of money given as presents.

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There is, in fact, a ‘map’ of what is done the 15 days of New Year’s, complete w/ special foods, clothing, and places to visit. Red — the colour of luck, happiness, joy — is everywhere. Lucky plum blossoms and prosperity-bringing narcissus are the flowers of the moment. Many of these traditions are centuries old, and all are invoked with love and laughter. Rich with colour and ritual, it’s a holiday that rings in the New Year for Chinese all over the world, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and agnostic :).

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As with Mahayana and Theravadin Buddhist New Year celebrations, altars are refurbished, cleaned for the New Year. Buddhists often go meatless the first day of the New Year, hoping it will confer longevity. Certainly it doesn’t hurt!

The lead-in to Tết can last weeks. Family altars are cleaned and new offerings placed upon them. Food is bought in huge quantities, since shops will be closed during the holidays. Much of the first day of Tết is spent in rituals: the first visitor, the New Year’s feast, a conscious intention to start this new and unspoiled new year off well.

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At the heart of Tết is preparing for a better new year: spiritually (through visits to temple), w/ the family (celebrating with reunions and family feasts), in learning (the third day of Tết honours teachers!)… Great attention is given to welcoming the New Year in as friendly and auspicious a fashion as possible.

So clean the house in preparation. Cook a great meal. Set out flowers and use lucky scarlet-red liberally. Invite over your friends. Place red envelopes w/ a token at each plate. Make sure your spiritual house is in order — clean your house altar, if you have one, and make an offering to your church or temple.

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Then see if you can locate a local dragon dance; they’re surprisingly common in the U.S. Is it spiritually Buddhist? As much as my city’s Festival of Lights is about the birth of Jesus and Christmas. :) And it’s certainly as much fun! :)

 

 

 

 

Hoa Mai

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teaching, politics, & Buddhism ~

I couldn’t tell you which came first: my concern for folks on the margins, my belief that we’re all connected (a kind of nascent Buddhism), or my didactic teacher-self.

I remember teaching my 2-year-old younger sister to ‘read’ by having her memorise what I read to her. I remember looking at the young mother & child, begging outside the  iron gates of our privileged life, separated from my comfortable 9-year-old self by only years, and thinking: this isn’t right.

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And I remember knowing — before I ever set foot in a temple, and long before I had ever heard a single Buddhist teaching — that threads connected every one of us to each other, to every thing.

So I can’t tell you a story of chickens and eggs :).

What I can tell you is that the old 60s saying “the personal is political” resonates for me whenever a politician invokes ‘statistics’ or ‘tax cuts’ or ‘education reform’ or any of the current buzz words that elide real people’s faces. Politics-speak is a return to the ugliness of ‘collateral damage’ language for me.

In a classroom, poverty has a real face. Teachers can’t pretend, as many Americans seem to want, that people on food stamps ‘don’t want to work.’ Teachers hear — in ALL grades, even in college — about families struggling after lay-offs.  About rural towns gutted when WalMart leaves, and there are no small businesses left to feed the hungry, or employ mothers & fathers. About families moving in together to save rent, and no milk or fruit in the fridge.  It’s endemic.

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I’ve often wished American politicos could teach in a class for a month. A day is far too short. Even a week isn’t quite enough. But in a month, the children begin to open up. They share that dad became a meth addict (the lowest of the low, in Oklahoma) because he was trying to stay awake on long-distance truck routes. I know — NOT excusable. But also not a throw-away human being, as so many politicians seem to believe.

In a month you would learn that the Medicaid which campaigners want to cut means that Grandma, who takes care of the kids while Daddy tries to work, won’t be able to go to the doc now for her high blood pressure. Or her diabetes. And that Daddy will have to drive all the way to Oklahoma City (to the base), from Tulsa, missing work, to get his eyes checked and glasses to drive to his job. And be grateful he has veteran’s benefits, at that.

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It’s just not simple, folks. You want to cut programs for second language learners because you hate ‘illegal’ immigrants? Wellllll, that means legal immigrants also are hurt — refugees from horrible childhood nightmares of places, like Somalia, and the drug war in Honduras. Because they too don’t speak this language.

And free lunch programs? The ‘entitlement’ programs that so many politicans rail against? You’re going to fund high stakes testing, and then make it impossible for hungry children, w/ no food in the fridge, remember, to pass them. Wow.

It’s all connected, folks. The teacher, the student, the refrigerator, the government. The Buddha. Not just in my head, but in real life, where children and their families live. Even when the politicans pretend otherwise ~

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