samsara

Drops in the ocean: Buddhist reflections on David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas”

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cloud atlas book cover

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, is a ripping good read with plenty of action and suspense. It’s also a cautionary tale of karma-vipāka (how our actions set up complex results, short- and long-term) and how failing to choose is itself a choice just as much as a conscious decision is.

Populated by clever and colorful characters from different places, pasts and futures, the six stories making up this diverse sampling of human experience nonetheless weave together, surprisingly, into a poignant and epic tale of suffering and kindness. From the story of a rather naïve young man on a return voyage to San Francisco from the South Pacific, in perhaps the 1800s, to a nearly Lord of the Flies reorganization of tribal life in far-future Hawaii after humans have pretty well trashed the environment, the reader is zoomed from one kind of crisis–ranging from the personal to the global–to the next. Each of the characters have challenges unique to their time, place and situation. Yet these challenges, specific as they may seem, do not eclipse their all-too-human needs and desires, which all of us share.

Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-037-55072-5-0
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

When you have a landscape that covers this many diverse stories over such a sweep of time, the main point(s) of the overarching story could get lost. But Mitchell makes us care about the characters, and their grappling with their fates, not just by evoking all the richness of lived experience but by helping us connect our hearts to that of each character. In the end, what I was left with wasn’t just another display of the whole gamut of human cruelty, ignorance and greed. In each story, most of the characters realized something more about themselves and their world, prompting me to examine myself, my values, and the world around me. Putting myself in their shoes, I wondered: how can I better use awareness and kindness to respond to the confusion and unsatisfactoriness in and around me? A book that makes you question, maybe makes you squirm — that’s an excellent use of one’s reading time, no?

I felt richly rewarded with well-evoked characterizations, some who could rightly be called “a piece of work,” who employ all manner of picaresque language such as:

Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.

Agog is one of the basic human states, I think; it was a pleasure to live there while reading this book.

Though Cloud Atlas is not a Buddhist book, I found certain Dharmic themes reflected in the prose. The strongest of these is the Three Characteristics of Conditioned Existence (impermanence, non-substantiality and unsatisfactoriness), which seem woven throughout the narratives. Or maybe, like when I first fell in love with old Volvos, I just see them everywhere. In one brief scene, from a time maybe 200 years from now, a humanoid fabricant being, somni-451, is being shuttled from safe-house to safe-house, avoiding the corporate/government authorities. She is being hunted down as the (reluctant) figure-head in an emerging revolution of the have-nots against their ‘beloved masters’. She is taken to what had been, centuries before, a monastic complex with many temples and shrines somewhere in Korea, perhaps. Visible across the river gorge is a carved, serene, seated, cross-legged figure, the worse for wear and tear, in huge bas-relief. Somni-451 comes out just before dawn, and sees the elderly headwoman who is sitting, contemplating this figure. She is the abbess, who, as a young girl, had trained briefly as a nun and is the only survivor from the time of rehabilitation (or death) of those who practiced the old, now-banned, religions. She tells somni-451 about this Siddhartha and how he taught freedom from suffering. But she can’t really tell her the stories, because they have all been lost. Nonetheless, she abides, and helps those who come to this place seeking freedom.

Cloud Atlas, written as a palindromic enigma, reveals itself gradually. Each chapter focuses on the story of a particular character, time and place, starting with the past (roughly the early 1800s). Working forward in time we reach a time in the far future (maybe 500 years?), and then the order reverses where we find the denouement of each character as we proceed, backwards in time. However, words, phrases, shadows of names, and roles of characters reverberate back and forth among the chapters. It’s exciting and also uncomfortable. I find myself once again sucked into the vortex of a dystopian vision, and find myself wondering why I am drawn to this. As the survivor of a personal apocalypse or two (although thriving now, thankfully) perhaps I can’t help being fascinated by fictional apocalypses. Even though I know there is no safe ground in saṃsāra (the world-as-we-know-it: the ocean of suffering and beauty we inhabit), and even though I deeply believe that no one is free until we’re all free and saṃsāra is emptied of the suffering of craving, aversion, and confusion, I can’t quite look away.

This is a book of disturbing conceptions, but of such conceptions that we ought, ethically, to be disturbed by. In the paired sections named “An Orison of Somni-451,” a dystopian future is presented wherein the population of “purebloods” exists by the caring grace of the “corpocracy” and cannot survive without their “franchises and gallerias.” Meanwhile, fabricants from corporate wombtanks live in complete servitude, unable to survive without a special nourishing but soporific substance , and poisoned by regular food. They labor, die, and then become — Soylent Green-style — the food that supports the whole enterprise.

This book has riled my inner revolutionary. I want the victims rescued, injustices revenged, and the evil punished. But also it takes genuine talent for a writer to make a reader care that all the villains, no matter how contemptuous and evil, are really just so sadly deluded. This makes for some painful reading in certain moments. The truest revolution is the wish for all villains to see with new hearts and be transformed.

There is a sad eloquence generated by beings not considered by others as sentient. Somni-451 is not alone. It doesn’t matter if that being is different by way of gender, age, color of skin, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, or genomic construction. All of that is portrayed here and often it is wryly funny. As one character, the only slightly decrepit yet elegant Veronica explains, “Oh, once you’ve been initiated into the Elderly, the world doesn’t want you back… We–by whom I mean anyone over sixty–commit two offenses just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts, and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down it cannot abide. Our second offense is being Everyman’s memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight.” Ow. And I say this partly, yes, but not completely because I, too, am over sixty.

Another treat this book offers is a sort of comparison of technologies past, present, future. From our current vantage point, we can never see very far how our choices play out in the future, but maybe we should keep trying to see. Science and technology have brought wondrous things to pass. Many have been the entrepreneurs who by connecting dots have opened the way for people to make a better living for themselves and their families. Leaders and organizations can help whole communities flourish and creatively respond to challenges to the common good. And it can and has and will all go horribly wrong unless we’re smart about it and practice good ethics.

But what to do, as a practicing Buddhist, since I cannot look away–from this book, from ongoing life? I am riled, I am moved–but to what? How exactly, does the bodhisattva save living beings? I wanna know; I’m also afraid that the answer might be that it is beyond me. Truly, it does seem beyond the abilities of “me,” this un-Enlightened, ordinary, human woman.

Adam Ewing (our young guy from the 1800’s), who had both observed and suffered much cruelty from his fellows aboard ship makes it home to San Francisco determined to use his newly-awakened passion for justice for the abolition of slavery. He intends to spend his life

shaping a world I want Jackson [his son] to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit…[yet] I hear my father-in-law’s response: ‘Oho, fine, Whiggish sentiments, Adam, but don’t tell me about justice. Ride to Tennessee on an ass & convince the rednecks that they are merely white-washed negroes & their negroes are black-washed Whites!…You’ll be spat on, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified!…He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’

Well, okay then; whatever! But the last line in the book, the son’s silent answer to his father-in-law is strangely comforting, and perhaps our next-step-clue: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

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Facing Samsara, making a difference

Climate change. The economic downturn. Terrorism. And now there’s Haiti. A client and I were conversing recently about the mess our world is in. She was feeling overwhelmed. How do we, as individuals, respond in the face of such huge problems? I won’t be so presumptuous as to claim to know the answers. But I thought you might be interested in hearing what she and I discussed.

When we look at the mess our world is in, it can seem hopeless.

But let’s think back for a moment to another era that also was pretty bleak. During the early 1900’s, there were tons of intractable problems, too. I’m no history expert, but a lot seemed to do with forces of modernization getting out of hand. Urbanization, overcrowding, and industrialization were feeding into an unsettled political climate around communism, fascism, and democracy. Then the two World Wars followed. I’m sure people back then felt just as overwhelmed and helpless about their world as we feel about ours. Maybe more!

There’s a whole universe of causes and conditions that continually rebalance themselves somehow. That’s just what they do.

And yet, see what’s happened since. Not that everything has turned rosy, but the world has moved on. Those issues got settled through means we never could have predicted. Everything’s changed. There’s a whole universe of causes and conditions that continually rebalance themselves somehow. That’s just what they do. They always self-correct or at least just move on. It’s possible the entire earth will blow up or become uninhabitable from the damage we’re doing to it. This is also part of the rebalancing. The world will move on somehow. And I’m just a speck of dust in that giant process.

…I am part of those swirling causes and conditions. … I can do my part to contribute toward the direction I’d like to see the world go.

That doesn’t mean I get passive and do nothing, of course. Because I am part of those swirling causes and conditions. The power of the many of us put together is great. I can do my part to contribute toward the direction I’d like to see the world go. What’s beyond my control, I let go of and trust that greater forces than me will work it out.

The Buddha observed that samsara (a way of living in the world that causes suffering) will always be with us. That’s because humans have such a strong tendency to cling to our desires, push away what we don’t like, and act out of general ignorance. It’s when we project those attitudes out to our world that we create suffering for ourselves and others, endlessly. We cannot FIX samsara – at least not until we can change the attitudes of every living being on the planet!

The only way we can find our way out of samsara is to work on our own tendencies, and loosen the hold that desire, aversion, and ignorance have on us.

The only way we can find our way out of samsara is to work on our own tendencies, and loosen the hold that desire, aversion, and ignorance have on us. We can’t change the world, but we can each do our own part. That’s the only thing we have control over – changing ourselves. That’s the only responsible thing I can do.

There’s a Buddhist parable that applies well here. When the world seems too rough for us — strewn with sharp rocks and thorns – we could try to soften it by wrapping the entire earth so we can walk on it. But wouldn’t it be much wiser to put shoes on our own feet? With shoes, we’re in a much better position to help others, and to do so quickly.

In case you might be thinking that putting shoes on our own feet is selfish, here’s something to consider. I recently came across a study that showed that if I’m happy, I have a measurable effect on the happiness of those around me. For example, a friend living less than a half mile away has a 42% chance of being happy because of it. The effects were still there even out to three degrees of separation. Multiply that out to the countless people I encounter every day, and all the people THEY encounter, and the effects can be huge! I assume this is true for other states of mind, too. If I’m in a bad mood, I must have a similar negative effect. So my own thoughts and actions as an individual really do have an effect on the world. (I wrote about this in my blog here.)

The big challenge for those of us who are committed to serving others is how to stay sensitive to their suffering without falling victim to it ourselves. For me, when I get caught up in someone else’s suffering, or feel overwhelmed, it’s because it brings up my own feelings of fear and insecurity. The more secure I feel in myself, I’m less likely I am to get sucked in. So once again, this suggests that there’s real inner work to be done on ourselves.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we stop reaching out to help those we can. But let’s take care to do it mindfully. Let’s make sure we put shoes on our own feet first — take good care of ourselves physically and mentally so we’re standing on firm ground. I’m an optimist. When we take our stand in the world that way as positive individuals, we do make a difference.

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G.K. Chesterton: “The true object of all human life is play.”

G.K. Chesterton

The bodhisattva moves through life elegantly, “in the zone” and in a state of playful “flow,” and he can do this because he has abandoned any clinging to the idea of self. “Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering,” Bodhipaksa tells us.

I think Chesterton was absolutely right when he said that the object of life is play. The best kind of life we can live, I believe, is one in which we love, laugh, and learn: one in which we can be serious without being down, and can laugh irreverently at life’s difficulties without being facetious or trivializing them.

One problem is that we sometimes get into a habit of deferring happiness. We know we’re overdoing things now, taking life way too seriously and failing to nourish ourselves. We know that our needs aren’t being met. We’re aware that we’re stressed. That we’re over-working and spiritually under-nourished. But we live in hope that in six months, or next year, or after this big project is over, we’ll be able to start enjoying life. But we’ve been through this before, and we forget that six months, or a year ago, or before the last big project, we thought exactly the same thing. And here we are. And life’s still hard.

Because we think it’s “over there” we don’t try to create heaven here

Chesterton seems to fall into this way of thinking as well. In the full quotation he adds, after “The true object of all human life is play” the words, “Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” Even if he’s being metaphorical, the metaphor serves to distance us from happiness. Here we are on earth, with all our worldly cares. Heaven is somewhere over the horizon, and because we think it’s “over there” we don’t try to create heaven here.

Buddhist language sometimes can be interpreted in the same way. We talk about the life of frustration, stress, and suffering as being samsara. The literal meaning of samsara, “the faring on” suggests a long, hard slog. And then there’s nirvana, which is the “extinction” of delusion and suffering (although not, as some people used to argue, individual existence).

Also see:

Nirvana, as the end of suffering, is the beginning of an unshakable state of peace; a joyful equanimity; a wise, compassionate, and serene way of being. It’s rather like earth and heaven, and often I hear people talk about the two as being separate places.

Other Buddhist metaphors reinforce that notion; we talk about practice as being “a path” and what does a path do but lead from one place to another place. And if there are two places they must be separate, and they may even be separated by a great distance. Some Buddhist schools (mainly now extinct, interestingly enough) used to see nirvana as being immeasurably far off, and only attainable after millions of lifetime of practice. While that may have emphasized how amazing enlightenment is, it also made it hard to take it seriously as a realistic goal.

Nirvana is ‘arriving’

But earth and heaven are not places separated in space. It’s not that samsara is one place and nirvana is another. There’s only one reality, and we can see it in different ways. We can look at the world we live in with a mind that’s always seeking — always “faring on” through experiences, never really resting in the present moment, never really appreciating what’s going on right now, but always hoping that things are going to be better later on. We’re always thinking about what we’re going to do next, but when we get to that next thing we’ll be thinking of what’s coming after that. There’s always the promise of fulfillment, but it never quite arrives because we’ve not arrived. That is samsara.

And nirvana? That’s the same world — the world of children and commuting and deadlines and international conflicts — but seen with a different attitude. Nirvana is “arriving.” It’s letting go of the “faring on” attitude. It’s letting go of looking for fulfillment just over the horizon, and realizing that fulfillment is possible right here, right now.

Spatially, samsara and nirvana are the same place, but mentally they’re very different. When we talk about “the path”, we’re talking purely metaphorically. We’re not fundamentally talking about getting away from our current lives, but about changing our relationship to our current lives.

Samsara and nirvana are the same reality seem through different mental lenses

Sometimes, to be true, there are times when we do have to move on from a job, a relationship, a place, in order to find happiness. Sometimes the particular circumstances we find ourselves in are so difficult that we really need to get out. But in the end we realize that we take ourselves with us. We carry our own attitudes along with us wherever we go, and it’s all too often those attitudes that get us into difficult circumstances in the first place. Eventually we have to let go of the idea that happiness will come from getting circumstances in the outside world right, and accept that happiness will come by getting our attitude to life right.

As Sunada points out in her post, Playing our way through life, the life of the bodhisattva — the person who is “arriving” in life rather than “faring on” — is characterized by play, or līla. Līla means not just play, but grace, beauty, elegance, and loveliness. The idea is a life where we deal with difficulties gracefully, where our attitude is beautiful, where find elegant solutions to problems, where we appreciate the loveliness in others.

Another aspect of līla is “mere appearance, semblance, pretence, [and] disguise.” This doesn’t mean that spiritually advanced Buddhists are running around in disguise! It suggests that the bodhisattva is living in the world in a different way from the rest of us. Samsara and nirvana, remember, are the same reality seem through different mental lenses. The bodhisattva is living in the same world as we are, but isn’t confined by the same self-imposed limitations and assumptions. Crucially, the bodhisattva is aware that protecting our “selves” is the worst thing that we can do for ourselves. Let me give an analogy to explain.

Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering.

Imagine a basketball player “in the zone” or in a state of “flow.” There’s no thought of “Oh, here I am, and I have the ball, and there’s the opposition, and there’s the hoop, and I have to get past all those guys and score.” Instead, what you have is the complete absence of any sense of self and other. There’s simply a playful and spontaneous response to circumstances. He’s flowing around the court in a state of līla, with grace, beauty, elegance, and loveliness. Now consider the basketball player who does think all those things: he’s dead on the court. He’s wooden, because he’s either afraid or trying too hard for results. He’s paralyzed by his own self-consciousness and his awareness of others as obstacles who might stop him getting what he wants.

Bodhisattvas are very like that, but in terms of life as a whole rather than just what goes on on a basketball court. There’s freedom from the idea of there being beings to help, which is how the bodhisattva can help them. He can also help them because he has no idea that he is helping other beings — he just responds spontaneously, in the zone, in a state of flow.

Two different attitudes within one reality. It’s up to us to choose. And we can make remarkable changes in our attitude in the space of a moment. When we let go of our mental rigidity, relax, and create a mental space for creativity to appear, we can very quickly find a sense of play, of līla, bubbling up from within. Let go of your sense of self; you have nothing to lose but your suffering.

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Stop samsara, I want to get off!

IPhone

Finding contentment in a materialistic world, or, how our author didn’t buy an iPhone, and then did, and then didn’t again.

I admit I struggle with an attraction to shiny objects, and in my mind nothing shines with quite the seductive luster of a latest-model iPhone. When I first heard that the iPhone was in the works, about three years ago, I was filled with what can only be called technolust — a powerful desire to own the latest shiny toy (which at that point was not even available).

So what’s the big deal, you may ask. Isn’t it normal to be full of craving for something you want? And isn’t craving an iPhone a pretty mild form of desire? True, it is normal to experience craving. The thing is that craving hurts. It’s painful to really, really want something. There’s an element of pleasure involved in craving, to be sure, because in our mind we see ourselves possessing the object and so we experience, in our imagination, the pleasure and joy of holding the shiny toy in our eager hand. But that element of pleasure is outweighed, vastly in my experience, by the pain of the sheer wanting.

In English, the word “want” means both “desire” and “lack”

An interesting thing in the English language is that the word “want” means both “desire” (“I want to talk to you”) and “lack” (“I want for nothing”). What I find interesting about this is that sometimes when I “want” (desire) something like an iPhone it points to a “want” (lack) of something in my life. Back when the iPhone was just a glint in a marketer’s eye, I found myself thinking more and more that I barely even needed a cell phone. I had one, to be sure, but I was on a pay-as-you-go plan and even at a hefty 10c per minute I struggled to get through $50-worth of calls in a year. (Yes, I talk on the phone for less than 500 minutes a year. I guess you could say I’m not a big phone user.) And I already had an iPod to listen to music on and a Palm LifeDrive, which was a super-duper PDA (remember those?) that could also play music and videos as well as storing all my contacts, calendars, and allowing me to email and surf the web wirelessly. Basically all my information, media, and telephonic needs were taken care of. So why was I jonesing so heavily for an iPhone?

One obvious answer is the sheer beauty of the product itself. The iPhone is a joy to look at, to hold, and to use (my two-year-old daughter loves zooming in on photographs by spreading her little fingers, and adores swiping through screens. And so do I). And this is one problem — the continuing emergence of better and more attractive technological toys. You buy an iPod (as I had done) and find it beautiful. You just want to look at it, touch it (carefully, so as not to smudge the stainless steel), and play with it. And then after a shockingly brief amount of time a new, improved, model comes out. You look at your iPod (perhaps now 6 months “old”) and it no longer looks as sleek and attractive. It’s now apparent that it lacks the functionality that you’ve seen in the newer models — functionality you now want. And despite your most paranoid of attentions, dings and scratches have begun to dull the luster of your lovely device. Really, you now want — really want — a new iPod.

Samsara is the endless round of desire, disappointment, and renewed desire

And this cycle will continue indefinitely. You succumb to temptation and upgrade, only to find a few months later that your current model is woefully out of date. (I remember going into Best Buy to get some attachment for my one-year-old iPod only to be told that they didn’t stock accessories for “older models”). This is an illustration of what Buddhism calls samsara, or the endless round of desire, disappointment, and renewed desire. In the Buddha’s day iPods, of course did not exist, but the Buddha expressed the dissatisfactions of materialism by saying “Even a shower of gold coins will not take away craving.”

There’s a deeper level to my wanting an iPhone, though. When I crave an iPhone I’m not just wanting (desiring, lacking) a new device, I want (lack, desire) to be The Kind Of Person Who Owns An iPhone. I want to be seen as cool, hip, and ahead of the fashion curve. I want people to look at me and my iPhone and think that I’m as cool as the shiny toy I’m carrying. So I’m craving approval — approval from other people.

But wait, there’s more! Why am I craving approval? Why’s it important for me to be seen as the kind of person who’s cool enough to own an iPhone? Why do I need approval from others? Surely it’s because I don’t give myself enough appreciation. I don’t love myself enough. In the sheer busyness of life, keeping up with writing books, recording, publishing articles online, teaching in prison, doing people favors, taking care of my family, etc, I forget to pause and remind myself that I’m a pretty cool guy. I forget to remind myself that if I let go of craving I can be happy. And because I forget to do this, I feel a “want” of appreciation. And because I feel a want (lack) of appreciation from myself I “want” (desire) appreciation from others. That, I think, gets closer to the root of my painful craving. Without that factored in, whether or not to buy an iPhone is just a question of deciding what technology I need, rather than scrabbling to be seen as a particular kind of person.

If I let go of craving I can be happy

This too is samsara, the endless round of trying to fill a need in an inappropriate way. Getting appreciation from others on the basis of owning a cool gadget is another cycle, not just because cool gadgets don’t stay cool for long (or because other people are not necessarily a reliable source of appreciation), but because it just doesn’t work. Appreciation from others can never replace a self of self-appreciation. Giving myself appreciation is more reliable. It cuts right into the cycle of craving and allows me just to be.

Another way to use iPhone craving as a basis for insight is to appreciate that the object of desire is impermanent. When I find myself craving a new toy, I can visualize it gathering scratches, breaking, and being consigned to the landfill, where it is buried with old banana peels and soiled diapers. Looked at as a process and not as a thing, even an iPhone seems less attractive. (And eventually, by seeing through, once and for all, the shell game that is neurotic craving, we let go of it altogether. That’s we call Enlightenment, but let’s leave that to one side for now).

Anyway, did I buy an iPhone three years ago? No, I didn’t, because I realized that I didn’t need the phone, although it would be handy to having something that was like an iPhone but wasn’t a phone. And then the iPod Touch appeared (something that was like an iPhone but wasn’t a phone), and I sold my LifeDrive on eBay and gave my iPod to my wife. And it was only when my iPod Touch broke, several months ago, that I decided to get the iPhone, reckoning that the ability to check email and get online anywhere would be a handy asset, and that I could simplify the ecology of my pockets by having just one device (iPhone) rather than two (iPod Touch plus cheapo cellphone).

But now the iPhone 3G S is coming out, which has rekindled the whole “should I upgrade” question. But no, I’m not going to upgrade until I have some good, objective reason to. Perhaps when the battery life on my current model is impractically short, or when I can upgrade at minimal cost, I might then decide to get the latest iPhone. For now I’m going to step off of the painful round of samsara, or at least the part that’s involved in craving iPhones. I’ll content myself by living with an appreciation of my own merits — the good qualities I embody and the good things I do — and recalling the impermanence of my objects of desire. And that’s more fulfilling than any shiny new toy.

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Prisoners of samsara

Prisoner of Zenda posterOver the years that Bodhipaksa has worked in prisons he’s observed that some of the inmates he works with are among the freest people he knows. So if freedom can be attained even in prison, what is freedom, and how can we find it?

Just about every week for the last six years I’ve met with inmates at the state prison for men in New Hampshire. I enjoy going there. In fact it’s the highlight of my week.

I’m used to the peculiarities of the place now. Sometimes the guards there can be unwelcoming, but mostly they’re now accepting. The room we meet in can be rescheduled at a moment’s notice, but you learn to roll with the punches. The succession of barred doors that lock you away from the outside world is something you get used to. The constant shaking of the floor in response to those same doors slamming shut every few seconds is something you just tune out. The place is drab, but I don’t go there for the décor anyway.

Some people are freaked out by the idea of spending time with convicted criminals, who in the case of “my guys” include murderers, rapists, and pedophiles. But one of the rules for prison volunteers is that we shouldn’t ask people what they’re inside for. Inevitably I do find out in many cases, but by that time I’ve usually gotten to know the man as a person, often a likable and intelligent one who shows every sign of being unhappy with his life and with a burning desire to become a better person. And that brings me onto what it is I most like about teaching at the prison.

I love, more than anything in the world, seeing people change, and seeing people working at trying to change themselves. For me, that’s the most inspiring thing I can imagine, witnessing people as they take responsibility for themselves, develop an “ethical sense of direction,” and strive to become more aware, more thoughtful, kinder, and more responsible beings. It’s a privilege to observe this happening.

These men have tough lives. Imagine being looked in one building for years on end — a building not much larger than a high school, and with about as many people in it. And many of those people they are forced to live with are poorly socialized, aggressive, and manipulative. And you’re stuck with them 24 hours a day. You have to share a room (designed for one person) with one of them. Or maybe you’re in a room (designed for four people) with another seven of them. And the people in charge have immense power and can make your life a misery. They can take away your property at any moment, search you at any time, treat you like a child or an imbecile. I found high school to be hell at times without all that other stuff, but at least I could go home in the evenings. I think prison would drive me mad.

And these guys have felt all that pressure of losing control, have realized that they’re living in a hell realm, and have come to seek an escape. So they learn to meditate and come to see that although conditions around you may be tough, you don’t have to react to them. They learn that there are inner choices you can make that change your relationship with the world and with yourself. They learn the dangers of letting the mind react: how anger and fear multiply their suffering. They learn that stepping back from and observing their experience creates a space in which calmness, compassion, and wisdom can arise. They find they can be happy and sane, even though the world around them is tormented and crazy.

It’s because the conditions they live in are so extreme that they find it so crucial to practice mindfulness and compassion. Perhaps this is why some Buddhist traditions say that there are more “Buddha seeds” (potential for enlightenment) in the Hell Realms than in any other place.

The interesting thing is that escaping from the worst aspects of prison is an internal process, and what it amounts to, as I’ve described it here, is escaping from your own mind’s habitual patterns of reaction. It’s having reactive, out-of-control minds that got all those men into prison in the first place. It’s the mind’s tendency to lash out, to become hooked on quick and easy pleasures, and to pursue gratification without regard to the welfare of others that resulted in imprisonment for all of these inmates. As the Buddha said, “Nothing can cause you as much harm as your own untamed mind.”

To that extent we’re all prisoners of our own habits, or our own untamed minds. We’re all prisoners of our habitual tendencies to pursue courses of action — in the outside world or in the mind — that cause us suffering. This enslavement to destructive habits is what Buddhism calls samsara. Samsara means “faring on,” and it’s not hard to see how we “fare on” driven by unhelpful or harmful habits. We all suffer from thoughts that we find hard or even impossible to tame. Sometimes it’s like being strapped to a wild horse.

We find ourselves compulsively feeling irritable and critical; or longing after things we can’t have, that will harm us, or simply won’t satisfy us; or worrying about things we can’t change, or even letting our anxiety paralyze us and stop us from engaging with the things we can change; or being led in circular thinking that confirms our poor opinion of ourselves. These patterns of thought are prisons that cause us daily and debilitating suffering, and that lead us to inflict suffering on others.

Sometimes when people hear of terms like samsara and nirvana (liberation from suffering) they think of them as being like different places. As if we’re going to escape from the difficulties of this world and go live somewhere nicer. But it’s not like that. Samsara is a way of relating to the world. Nirvana is a different — and healthier — way of relating to the world. So escaping from samsara doesn’t involve actually going anywhere — it means breaking out of habitual ways of seeing the world and of reacting to our experience with aversion and craving.

We’re all prisoners of samsara. And sometimes we just put up with it. We accept — or sometimes don’t fully notice — the background hum of suffering that grinds us down. And we accept — or again don’t fully notice — the suffering we’re causing others. Or we just don’t realize that there’s an alternative. Maybe the first thing we have to do before we can plan our escape is to realize that we’re in prison.

But there is an alternative to faring on. The alternative is to escape our unhelpful mental habits. We can learn to stand back from our emotional reactions. We can learn to create the mental space in which to find creative responses to the challenging situations we face in life. Rather than faring on in the old habitual ways, we can escape into the more spacious realms of mindfulness and compassion. We’ll probably still be in the same world of work and home life and leisure that we’re in at the moment (unless we chose to make changes in those things, which sometimes happens) but our attitudes will have changed. We’ll be freer from aversion and craving. Situations that would have sparked off anger or depression are now no big deal — opportunities for reflection, or humor, or connecting more deeply with another person.

We can escape from samsara at any moment. It might not last long — just a few moments or a few minutes — but long enough. Long enough to stop of doing, or saying, or thinking something that’s going to heap up the suffering even more. Some of the inmates I work with are among the freest people I know.

We can escape from samsara at any moment. And we don’t even need to go anywhere. We just have to stop reacting.


BodhipaksaBodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.

As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/bodhipaksa or join him on Facebook.


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The greatest story ever told? (Independent, UK)

groundhog day movie poster

Andrew Buncombe, The Independent (UK): A 1993 romantic comedy starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell is being hailed by religious leaders as the most spiritual film of all time. Today, as the US town of Punxsutawney celebrates Groundhog Day, Andrew Buncombe reports on an unlikely parable.

Fred knew a thing or two about redemption, about the willingness to change, about turning one’s life around. Sitting drinking beer from a bottle in a dark, late-night bar in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, as a blizzard blew up outside, he explained, “A few years ago, my son was about 12 or 13 and it had got to the point where he needed me around more than I was. I was working for a gas company, making $55,000 [£30,000], which is good money for these parts. But I just walked away from it. Now I sell trailers and low-loaders, anything, and I doubt I make a third of what I used to. But I’m always there for my boy. Now my son’s a star athlete at high school and a grade-A student.”

Fred put down his bottle, tugged on the peak of his baseball cap and glanced at the snow coming down outside. “I’ve done some pretty stupid things in my time, but I can walk down the streets of Punxsutawney with my head held high.”

Today, the people of Punxsutawney will be holding their heads as high as any. For the 117th consecutive year the people of this small town will hold aloft a small, rat-like creature and, by its subsequent behaviour, seek to forecast the weather. Records suggest that the forecasters usually get the prediction correct, but either way the town’s Groundhog Day has become world famous, and tens of thousands of people will flock to this part of Pennsylvania to participate in it.

Much of that has to do with the success of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a brash TV weatherman who is dispatched to Punxsutawney to cover the annual festival. Yet the movie has achieved far more than simply luring crowds to a Pennsylvanian town – what is usually described as a romantic comedy has become a crucial teaching tool for various religions and spiritual groups, who see it as a fable of redemption and reincarnation that matches anything that Fred could tell me at the bar.

“At first I would get mail saying, ‘Oh, you must be a Christian because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief’,” the film’s director Harold Ramis recently told The New York Times. “Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists! Well, I knew they loved it because my mother-in-law has lived in a Buddhist meditation centre for 30 years and my wife lived there for five years.”

Firstly, a brief synopsis of the film: Murray’s arrogant and curmudgeonly character, Phil Connors, having been sent to Punxsutawney for the fourth year in a row, finds himself inexplicably trapped in a seemingly endless cycle in which he is forced to repeat that 2 February day over and over again. Nothing he can do – not suicide, not prayer, not visits to the psychiatrist – can break the circle. At first he uses the repetitious cycle to his advantage, learning to play the piano and to speak French in an effort to seduce his producer, played by Andie MacDowell.

It is all in vain. Every day at 6am he wakes up in the same bed with the same crushed pillow in the same small hotel, the same tinny radio on the bedside table playing Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and the same obnoxiously cheerful local-radio presenter reminding everyone – just in case they had forgotten – that it is Groundhog Day. It is only when, an endless number of days later, Murray learns humility, understanding and acceptance of his fate that he breaks the cycle.

Unknown to Fred, and probably to most of the people in snow-bound Punxsutawney, Groundhog Day is now associated in the minds of many spiritual seekers with redemption, rebirth and the process of moving to a higher plane. Professor Angela Zito, the co-director of the Centre for Religion and Media at New York University, told me that Groundhog Day illustrated the Buddhist notion of samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth that individuals try to escape. In the older form of Buddhist belief, she said, no one can escape to nirvana unless they work hard and lead a very good life.

But in the teachings of the slightly more recently established Mahayana Buddhism, no one can escape samsara until everyone else does. “That’s why you have what are called bodhisattvas who reach the brink of nirvana and come back for others,” she said. “The Dalai Lama is considered one living bodhisattva, but Bill Murray could also be one. You can see [in the film] that he learns.” Zito shows the film to her undergraduates in New York without any explanation beforehand. “Most of them know the film,” she said. “I think they find it interesting.”

But Ramis is quick to point out that it is not just Buddhists who are able to draw parallels with the film. Scholars of Judaism have also leapt on it, and Ramis claims that many Buddhists in the US started out as Jews. “There is a remarkable correspondence of philosophies and even style between the two,” said Ramis, who was raised in the Jewish tradition but practises no religion. “I am wearing meditation beads on my wrist, but that’s because I’m on a Buddhist diet. They’re supposed to remind me not to eat, but they actually just get in the way when I’m cutting my steak.”

Dr Niles Goldstein, the author of Lost Souls: Finding Hope in the Heart of Darkness, is rabbi of the New Shul congregation in Greenwich Village. He recently said that there was a resonance in Murray’s character being rewarded by being returned to earth to perform more good deeds, or mitzvahs. This was in contrast to gaining a place in heaven (the Christian reward) or else achieving nirvana (the Buddhist reward). He is considering using the film as an allegory when he speaks to his congregation. “The movie tells us, as Judaism does, that the work doesn’t end until the world has been perfected,” he said.

As Ramis has been told by Jesuit priests among others, the film clearly also contains themes found within the Christian tradition. Michael Bronski, a film critic with the magazine Forward and a visiting professor at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, where he teaches a course in film history, said: “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever-hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays. And when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect.”

Not everyone in Punxsutawney buys into the Groundhog Day cult. Rev Mary Lewis of the town’s First Baptist Church felt the idea that the film illustrated resurrection was taking matters too far. “However, to me, in terms of Christian values I see that [Murray] is growing as a person. He starts out as a creep only out for himself, but gradually he begins to actually become a better human being.”

The morning after the night in the bar, I drove up to Gobbler’s Knob to inspect Phil’s temporary home. Bill Cooper, the president of the Groundhog Club, and Butch Philliber, another member, were shovelling away the overnight snow and throwing down salt in anticipation of today’s crowds.

Cooper, an affable banker from Pittsburgh who moved to Punxsutawney some years ago, knew all about the religious groups who had jumped on the movie, and he appeared to approve of the spiritual element attached to the event. “With the forecasting, it depends who you listen to,” he said. “Some people say we get it right a lot, others say we usually get it wrong. But if you’re the sort of person who is going to come and argue about that, then Groundhog Day is not for you.”

[Original article no longer available]
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