Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Library

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Mason Brown

Professor Spohn

Response/Process Paper 5

Writing Seminar II sec. D


The Library

I have never been in a university library before. Or rather, I have never been in such a library and had access to its sacred shelves; its mysterious vaults of knowledge. I found the experience to be simultaneously thrilling and overwhelming: giddily roaming the stacks, clutching my bibliography like a drunk with his car keys, I was lost in a world of wonder.

I managed to find several items on my list: “Music of the Common Tongue”, by Christopher Small, a study of the African contribution to American music; “Singing the Master”, by Roger D, Abrahams, about early African-American culture; and a very interesting study of the “Iconography of Music in African-American Culture”, called “Images”, by Eileen Southern and Josephine Wright. I also tried my hand at searching the article databases and turned up three musicological papers that I think will help me: “American Fiddle Tunes and the Historic-Geographic Method”, by Chris Goertzen; “George P. Knauff's Virginia Reels and Fiddling in the Antebellum South”, by Goertzen with Alan Jabbour; and “Black Musicians in Appalachia: An Introduction to Affrilachian Music”, by Fred J. Hay.

Now I feel that I am adrift on a great sea of information: the tiny raft of my thesis being beaten apart by factual whitecaps, born on a heavy swell of data. I hear the surf breaking on a lee-shore of irrelevance. Should I abandon my fragile craft and swim for it? I try to make peace with my God and prepare for death.

Right Action

Mason Brown

Professor Jobson

Rel 150: Buddhist Journey of Transformation, Sec. A

“Right Action”


Right Action

Right Action is not best considered on its own. It is a facet of the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha. The Eightfold Path is a unitary whole. It is not complete without all of its elements. Any one aspect of this Path is insufficient, in and of itself, to lead to enlightenment, but it is instructive to consider these facets one at a time to better understand them.

The Four Noble Truths, the primary teachings of the Buddha, are thus: Suffering (duḥkha), which is existence ; the Cause (samudaya) of suffering, which is thirst (tṛṣṇa); the Cessation (nirohda) of suffering, which is possible, and the Way (mārga) to end suffering, which is the Eightfold Path . The Eightfold Path consists of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort. Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Of all these aspects of the Eightfold Path, Right Action is possibly the most all-encompassing. It can cover many, if not all, of the others.

The way I have been taught to view aspects of the path, such as Right Action, is not as rules or strictures to be adhered to, but as descriptions of reality, and at the same time, tools for thinking more deeply about the implications and consequences of my actions. My teacher, Hojo-sama Keibun Otokawa, had a story that illustrates this: his new-born son was asleep when Hojo-sama saw a mosquito feeding on the baby. Hojo-sama was recently out of the monastery, and had just taken over as abbot of his family temple, and was very earnest and pious as a Buddhist. He was therefore very conflicted over whether to swat the mosquito, sparing his son the pain of a bite, or to spare the mosquito and allow it to make it's living in the way nature intended. There was no perfect solution. He ended up killing the mosquito, but only after deep consideration of the nature of reality, within the framework of Right Action.

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Mitchell, Donald W. Buddhism—Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press, 1974

Breaking Out of the Cocoon

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Mason Brown

Professor Miller

Contemplative Learning Seminar Sec. F

Preparation Paper 4--Breaking Out of the Cocoon


When confronted with the environmental degradation of the natural world, we aresometimes tempted to enclose ourselves in a cocoon of selfishness and denial. Referring to chapters 7 & 8 in The Sacred Path of the Warrior, and to either the article by Joanna Macy or the one by David Abram, how will you break out of the cocoon and become more “green?” What will you do to heal our relationship with the sacredness of the natural world?

The cocoon is a very powerful image that Trungpa uses to describe the cowardly tendency of human beings to protect themselves. He says:

The way of cowardice is to embed ourselves in this cocoon, in which we perpetuate our habitual patterns. When we are constantly recreating our basic patterns of behavior and thought, we never have to leap into fresh air or onto fresh ground. Instead, we wrap ourselves in our own dark environment, where our only companion is the smell of our own sweat.(52)

In terms of the environment, many of us are in cocoons of consumption and flamboyant selfishness. The Hummer, and other giant SUV's, are good examples of people wrapping themselves in a vehicle, inside of which it is warm, comfortable, and safe, while outside is the dangerous world of others: the enemy. Only when they look out side the windows of their SUV's will they have the possibility to see the suffering of others, and to consider how their actions affect the world. Trungpa says:

We realize that there is an alternative to to our cocoon: we discover that we could be free from that trap. With that longing for fresh air,for a breeze of delight, we open our eyes, and we begin to look for an alternative environment to our cocoon. And to our surprise,we begin to see light, even though it may be hazy at first.(53)

At this point, the Hummer will begin to seem disgusting, and will naturally be abandoned.

Joanna Macy describes a similar situation:

What Alan Watts called ʻthe skin-encapsulated egoʼand Gregory Bateson referred to as ʻthe epistemological error of Occidental civilizationʼ is being unhinged, peeled off. It is being replaced by wider constructs of identity and self-interest—by what you might call the ecological self or the eco-self, co-extensive with other beings and the life of our planet. It is what I will call ʻthe greening of the self.ʼ(183)

For my own part, simply moving from rural Missouri to Boulder, CO, in order to attend Naropa University has done a lot to improve my impact on the environment, and my awareness of it. In Missouri for instance, it is not made easy to recycle. I made a strong effort to do so, but the materials which are allowed are limited, and it is necessary to haul them many miles to the recycling center. Here in Boulder, recycling is made convenient by having a single stream, and by having bins conveniently located everywhere. Also, the miles per week I travel in my vehicle have been reduced by a factor of ten. In Missouri, I commonly had to drive 40 miles one way to get to where the work was. There was also no public transportation available where I was. In Boulder I live within the city, within 5 miles of school, and I often take advantage of the fine public transit system.

In addition to these somewhat automatic changes, which occurred largely as a result of moving here, I aspire to increase my awareness of my impact on the environment and other beings. I hope to reduce my consumption even further by taking only what I need. I also want to renew my intention to refrain from eating other beings. With the support of my fellow students, teachers, and benefactors, I will continue to progress along the Path.

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Work cited:

Trungpa, Chögyam. Shambala: the Sacred Path of the Warrior. Boston: Shambala, 2007.

Macy, Joanna. World as Lover, World as Self. Chapter 17, “The Greening of the Self”. PGW,2007(Publishing information not available)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

How could the Buddha Abandon his Son?

Mason Brown
Professor Jobson
Buddhist Journey of Transformation, Sec. A
“Life of the Buddha”
How Could the Buddha Abandon his Son?

I have heard the story of the Buddha's life from childhood. I have always been inspired by the uplifting sense of hope it contained; by the possibility of actually ending human suffering. I was also fascinated by the details: the miraculous events at his birth and the predictions of the court seer; the almost immediate death of his mother; the attempts of his father to shelter him and prevent his singular karma coming to fruition; his escape from a life of pleasure and leisure to intentionally practice the most extreme asceticism; his abandonment of austerities and discovery of the “middle way”and, of course, his enlightenment and subsequent teaching career. This story always made perfect sense to me. I suppose stories we learn in religious contexts as children often go unquestioned. So I was taken aback years later, after I was an ordained priest and had been a serious practitioner of Buddhism for decades, by a question put to me by my brother-in-law, John: “how could the Buddha have abandoned his son?”

I have to admit, I never considered this question before. It seemed obvious to me that the Buddha had “bigger fish to fry”, but I could hear the pain in John's voice and sense that he had felt abandoned himself, and that what I had taken for granted was not obvious to him. John had been raised in some form of traditional Christianity. I can't remember which one, but When he asked me this question he had just finished his first intensive meditation retreat and, in the context of that, had been told the Buddha's story. This one detail had become a sticking point for him and, though he appreciated the value of the sitting, he had trouble getting past it. “Why should I follow the teachings of someone who would do that to his own son?” he asked me.

Though I tried to articulate some kind of response, I was at a loss and I don't think my answer helped him. I know it didn't satisfy me and I still think about it some ten years later.

When the Future Buddha was informed of the birth of his son, he said: “An impediment [rāhula] has been born; a fetter has been born”(28). The Buddha knew that the attachment of a parent for his child is one of the strongest attachments we develop as human beings. He seems immediately to have instinctively distanced himself from his son in order to avoid such attachment. When he heard that “...the heart of a mother attains Nirvana, the heart of a father attains Nirvana”(28), the Buddha asked himself “...wherein does Nirvana consist?”(28).
The answer came to him that:

“When the fire of lust is extinct, that is Nirvana; when the fires of hatred and infatuation are extinct, that is Nirvana; when pride, false belief, and all other passions and torments are extinct, that is Nirvana...Certainly, Nirvana is what I am looking for. It behooves me this very day to quit the household life, and to retire from the world in quest of Nirvana.”(28)

The Buddha understood that the problem of human suffering was greater than any one person; any one relationship; any one lifetime. He knew that, even if he raised his son with loving and constant attention, as he himself had been raised, that in the end, his son would be subject to suffering, sickness, old age and death. He realized that a way had to be found to end suffering once and for all, and not just for himself, his son and his family, but for all beings.

Still, he seems to have hesitated. He went to take “just one look”(30) at his son. When he saw the beautiful sight of his son and wife asleep together he gazed at them for a moment and said:

“If I were to raise my wife's hand from off the child's head, and take him up, she would awake, and thus prevent my departure. I will first become a Buddha, and then come back and see my son.” So saying, he descended from the palace.(30)

So it seems clear to me that the Buddha did not “abandon” his son, but that the problem he was trying to solve was so big, and the solution to it was so important, that he felt he had to leave his wife and son, who he knew would be well and extravagantly cared for, in order to accomplish his purpose. He did, in fact, return to see his family after his enlightenment, and many of them, including his son, became the Buddha's disciples.

Though I think I have answered John's question to my own satisfaction, I know that it is an imperfect answer in terms of relieving the deep suffering caused by abandonment. But as the Buddha observed, Life is suffering. The only further help I can give, other than my willingness to be in that suffering with him, is to quote the Buddha's final teaching:

“And now, O priests, I take my leave of you; all the constituents of being are transitory; work out your salvation with diligence.”(45)

Work Cited
Stryk, Lucien. World of the Buddha. New York: Doubleday, 1968.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Argument vs. Rant

Mason Brown
Professor Spohn
Response/Process Paper 2
Writing Seminar II sec. D

Arguments vs. Rants

There's nothing like a good rant to make one feel better. That is if you are the one doing the ranting. Someone else's rant can be the most irritating thing in the world, especially if you disagree with his or her point. A rant is not trying to convince, it's trying to vent; to let off steam; to rail against some injustice or instance of stupidity. It can be very effective at ridiculing; at insulting; at calling out inconsistencies, lies or double-standards. It makes me feel good to rant, but if I'm ranting it usually means I'm preaching to the choir. If I'm talking to or writing for someone who I expect will disagree with me, I'm much more comfortable with argument.

Argument respects the other side. The humanity and reasonableness of the opponent. It assumes that, in the face of superior reasoning backed up by iron-clad facts, the other person can be brought around to agree with us. Or, conversely, that we may end up, after weighing the counter-arguments, changing our position. Argument is actually very open-minded. It is willing to honestly confront it's own shortcomings; it's own blind spots. Ultimately it is much more fulfilling than ranting because it is deeper. It must “wallow in uncertainty”, at least for a time.

A rant starts out convinced of it's righteousness, and though it may well be righteous, it is inflexible, shrill and brittle. It can leave one feeling a little ashamed; the way one would feel after blowing up at a family reunion. Better to stick with the feeling of superiority we can get from a solid, articulate, well-thought-out argument. Lovingly crafted and offered to our opponents to deconstruct if they can, with our blessing and approval. I'll bet you can't argue with that!