The Problem with Deserving

From a Dharma talk delivered at the Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship 7/8/2018

Let’s start our talk today with a few questions – how many of you have rationalized or justified something that you knew wasn’t good for you because your “deserved it”?

How did your thinking go? What logic did you use?

Have you ever watched in glee when someone you couldn’t stand “got what they deserve”?

How do you think our sense of deserving has contributed to our global environmental crisis?

If you think about it, we are addicted to reward and punishment – mostly our reward and others punishment.

For today’s Dharma talk, I want to continue on with the theme of my last talk a few Sundays ago regarding gratitude and some of the obstacles to experiencing deep and profound gratitude –

We talked about the problem with “entitlement” and how it cuts us off from experiencing a deep and profound gratitude and today I want to talk further about that but instead of using the word entitlement, I want to use the word deserve –  which Is a lot more common in our daily language and thinking.   I think with entitlement it is easy to say, I’m not really entitled, I don’t feel entitled, I’m too poor to be entitled, it’s really easy to see when someone else is being entitled a little more difficult when we are – But when it comes to deserving, that is  is different, because we all think we deserve a myriad of things or not deserve a myriad of things – both are true and many times both are not true.

But deserving is problematic. Often we get tangled in a tangle of words – I deserve this, I don’t deserve this on a spiritual level such words often distract. Deserving can be problematic because one the definitions and connotations’ of the word deserve “is to earn”  It is this kind of deserve that I want to address –

One of the problems of deserving is this: This is from Peter Schaller who runs the Tattooed Buddhist Website:

“Deserving implies, in a not so subtle way, that the world owes us something. If we work hard, play by the rules, and refrain from doing harm to others, then happiness should be our just reward. However, the world was here much before any of us, and will, despite the imminent threat of climate change, be here for much time after we’re gone.”

I think he makes a good point – the world is not ours, we are the world’s – I think that is important and I want you to remember that – I want to come back to this quote in a bit.

Being a martyr was my profession – I was good at it – it is based on the idea that if gave so much and was amazingly understanding and so boundless in love that I was left with nothing then I would not be abandoned.  I used poetry, tears and an abundance of patience and whatever manipulation I could muster to earn the love I so deserved because of my “sacrifices”  Here is a line from one of my poems,

I was watching you slowly disappear on the orange couch

next to the green chair, So I broke apart the wooden bookcase

a built a cross – a climbed up on it -and spread my arms wide.

See how much I love you.

When she left like the others, I wallowed in my “I don’t deserve this” I argued with reality for over a year.

The outcome wasn’t about deserve or not deserve  – it was all about my skillful and unskillful action, my perception of reality –   that love is earned.

We are bound to this idea that we must earn love, acceptance, compassion as if our connection to the world was simply an economic transaction, if I do X then I will get Y if I don’t get Y it is Xs fault or because the world is unjust.

Here is a great quote from Halldór Armand

“Life’s hard. Really hard. And here’s a fact. In nature there’s no such thing as deserving or not deserving something. There’s no fairness. The human myth of fairness is a beautiful one, though—probably one of our best. It was a step out of nature of sorts, a rejection of its chaos. We strive to make our world fair and to do this we constantly have to battle our own internal contradictions. We are both the goal and the enemy.

But when fairness is our goal it’s easy to start thinking that fairness is actually the world’s fundamental principle in every aspect rather than a distant, shining star we try to follow as best as we can. We’re all familiar with this. I believe I deserve to be with the love of my life. I’ve fought so fucking hard for it. Don’t you too? Don’t we all deserve love? Don’t we all deserve happiness? Why did she say no? Why did I fail? Why Lord?

Both the Buddhist from earlier and the Existentialist are making good points. That deserving an non-deserving do not exist as a moral formula in the natural world and that in reality.  “Life’s hard. Really hard. And here’s a fact. In nature, there’s no such thing as deserving or not deserving something. There’s no fairness. We understand that implicitly, as our children grow older we tell them, “who said life is fair” and yet we really do – at least we operate under some misguided notion, that it is,  so much so that when it doesn’t work out for someone that is should we start the victim blaming.

In my own practice, I am committed to transcending this very notion of “earning”. anything, because beyond the egoic need to control my environment, that is where true compassion and understanding; where the ground of true being lies.

I have come to realize that, in many profound ways, the dynamic flow of life is a “gift economy”, where there is what is given with no implicit return or reward in the future. The ego, on the other hand, looks to earn love, the reward is of what we do or say, the expectation is to receive love, acceptance, compassion, and meaning.   I have learned from the insight of the Buddha, that love is not an object to be purchased, love is not transactional, love is the way of living in the world in love with all beings.

Gyomay M. Kubose has taught,

“We must find the way of love rather than that of being loved.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I know that a lot of us struggle with feeling that we don’t deserve love, or that we don’t deserve compassion.  A lot of this feeling undeserving comes from what is implied by deserving, the earning or meriting love.”  I don’t deserve to be happy, I don’t deserve to be loved because I am incapable of doing the things to earn love, or I am so defective, so filled with darkness, depression – I am unworthy of love. let me say that it is healthy to begin to feel like you DO deserve to be loved, but I challenge you to keep going, to go beyond deserve and not deserve.

I think this is the role of the myth of Amida Buddha in a modern context.  Amida Buddha represents at its core the inherent gift of love, of accepting one’s self as one is,  the gift of life, of simply being you, of being alive- because the archetype of Amida doesn’t love you because you are good – or you have earned it because of all the good you have done –what is funny about the Pureland tradition of Shinran, is that you deserve love in spite of any good you can do or any bad that you do.   It is all these attempts to earn love that bind love to outcome forced by will – In an absolute sense, the Amida archetype tells us that we are loved simply by the miracle of our existing – from this perspective everything, all things are loved – it’s nothing that you earn – it is nothing that you are entitled to – it is a natural inherent grace.

amida zu
Amida Buddha accepts you even when you do not. This is a drawing showing the Amida and the Bodhisattvas dragging those who feel unworthy to the Pure Land.

We love our concepts of deserving, it gives us a sense of controlling our worlds., I am not saying that we do not need to “earn” a living or do the things that we need to do to be responsible for our families, what I am saying is that our sense of “deserving” is skewed.

Life is more complicated than some formula – how many things happen every day that people don’t deserve, who many things have you received in your life, that you did nothing to merit but still have in abundance?

How many times have we held back compassion because, “they got themselves in that mess, it is their own fault”? As we pray every Sunday,

We want to remember that,

In compassion do not look for cause and blame

we give no thought to effort

Compassion transcends “deserving”

it is only concerned with the suffering that is there.

A digression.  I would like to share a story I once heard and it has stayed with me ever since.

” There once was a Christan preacher, preaching on the street near a temple. A young novice monk was walking by the preacher when the preacher asked him if he believed that Jesus died for his sins?  The young monk just shrugged.  The preacher then told the young monk that if he didn’t accept Jesus as his savior he would go to hell. The young monk stopped and thought for awhile and then asked the missionary, “are they a lot of suffering people in your Christian Hell, OH YES! said the missionary excitedly – The young monk all of sudden smiled a big smile and said,   “Good! That seems like a good place for a Buddhist Monk.”

So why this talk about deserving and not deserving – because it creates a view of the world  that cuts us off from experiencing life as it really is  – it can separate us from one another and because it is almost impossible for us to enter into a profound gratitude, a transformative gratitude while we are stuck in the cycle of reward and punishment – we are only marginal grateful for the thing we earn and unable to accept the gift that is unearned which is most of your life.

Lastly,  because it can be delusional – because of our time here on earth so little of what we do is earned by ourselves but by the support of the earth and the processes that give us life, our ancestors that brought us into this world, our fellow beings, and lastly the dharma. All the countless others that have made your life possible, as Gyomay sensei teaches,

“There is no I apart from others.”

I want to leave you with this

Let’s aspire together to transcend deserved and undeserved to live in Oneness, come as we are and appreciate and be grateful for all the gifts we have been given especially the ability to come together today and to learn from one another.

Namu Amida Butsu

Listen to the Podcast

Meditation Can Hold Feelings, But Only Other People Heal Our Pain

a Repost from  T he dharma teacher at DharmapunxNYC since 2005; visiting teacher at Zen Care & Against the Stream. Josh’s talks: dharmapunxnyc.podbean.com       http://www.huffingtonpost.com/josh-korda/meditation-can-hold-feeli_b_7840596.html

“Dear Josh. I have been struggling with a great deal of loneliness and fear of late, and feel the need for some new meditation techniques to get through it. Would love to schedule a meeting with you to gain your insights.”

As a Buddhist teacher, mentor and, yes, podcaster (for the last 10 years at Dharma Punx NYC, and a visiting teacher at other spiritual communities) I’ve received countless emails in a similar vein to the above. The answer, each time is, “Sorry, but that’s not possible.” The issue isn’t my availability or willingness, but rather recognizing the limitations of meditation in and of itself.

Human beings are social beings; its how we’re hardwired. Our innate drive to companionship has allowed us to survive, indeed prosper over the ages. Note, for example, that neanderthals were not only bigger than us, they were stronger, faster and even had larger brains. But their gray matter was largely claimed by the regions that process eyesight and body movements; our brutish cousins were far more likely to scrounge for resources alone rather than in cooperative groups.

Our gray matter, conversely, balances toward large frontal hemispheres, which provided the capacities for language and socializing emotions, both of which are necessary for lasting, secure interpersonal connections. Almost all of our friends at one point started out as complete strangers — indeed, potential adversaries for resources. Somehow we managed to put aside our ingrained suspicions, and engaged our empathetic skills; we managed to slowly drop our defenses and coordinate our plans, developed a willingness to disclose our secrets and empathize with each other’s emotions; we relieved our burdens and shared our abundance. So we exercised our great survival advantage, an attribute that has been honed over millions of years. To the degree that human evolution was set in motion with a plan, the underlying goal achieved its fruition when we fire up our empathetic synapses and disclose our sadness, frustrations, joys and fears to each other.

Indeed, while we may like to believe that we are creatures of reason, what we long for is connection. Emotional connection, based on eye contact, reassuring expressions, safe, reassuring embraces, are as essential to psychological health as food and exercise is to the body. Baseline happiness studies, from the esteemed research of Sonja Lyubomirsky, Jonathan Haidt and Roxane Silver, to the World Happiness Report, have demonstrated what is referred to as the “hedonic treadmill”: we adapt to changes in financial security far more quickly than we suspect. For example, people who win the lottery, after roughly six months, return to the same level of happiness they sustained before picking the right numbers. But the loss of relationships leave lasting residues in the psyche; this is why those who retire often experience anxiety and depression — not the loss of income, but the loss of interpersonal connections found at a workplace. Indeed, happiness research shows that the connection with close friends is the single greatest determinant to peace of mind — and while connection to friends is largely under our control, genetics, alas, is not.

Given the importance of connecting with and caring for others, we might well wonder how can we secure our relationships? Decades of research into relationships by the renowned psychologist John Gottman shows that human links are cemented by the way we respond to each other’s bids for attention. Do we put aside texting on our smart phones, look away from Facebook or the television screen and turn our attention to each other and empathize? If so, Gottman’s studies show we’ll stick together, and be the happier for it. Alas, if we shrug off bids for connection as unimportant, or avoid working through interpersonal conflicts, choosing avoidance rather than communication, then we placing our psychological health in jeopardy, no matter how much money we make or what accomplishments we achieve.

Of course, given how painful experiences of abuse, rejection, abandonment and shaming can feel, how long the wounds can last, its understandable that many of us seek virtually any solution to numb our emotional pain rather than risking new connections. We’ll seek pharmaceutical solutions, binge on Netflix, work ourselves into grave before taking on the peril of disclosing our authentic emotions to a friend, therapist, spiritual guide. Yet it is precisely through disclosure that our distress is finally mitigated; this is the nature of the human experience, like it or not.

So when we think of deep spiritual practice, we might visualize a christian renunciate, buddhist monk or hindu yogi sitting in unaccompanied silent reflection, these cultural tropes reveal a widespread misapprehension. Meditative practices performed in isolation can help us recognize and process our emotional states, but true healing lies in those most vulnerable moments, when someone looks us in the eye, sees our pain and provides us with the mirror we so deeply seek.

Link.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/josh-korda/meditation-can-hold-feeli_b_7840596.html

Amazed and Confused

For those who are first introduced to Shin Buddhism, there can be some initial confusion about the tradition. This can even be more confusing since our fellowship is Shin-Zen hybrid and not a traditional Shin Buddhist Sangha.

For most of  people and for those in our community, the confusion usually revolves about Amida Buddha and the Pure Land and how to these symbols can make the Shin tradition seem like some form of a theistic Buddhism, with Amida Buddha as a Savior/ God figure and the Pure Land like some sort of Buddhist heaven. This is understandable. It is important to note that we are dealing with a religion in translation, where language can fail us or at least get in the way. When dealing with the language and diction of Shin Buddhism we can get caught up in old meanings and previous contexts of words such as “saved” “sin” and “evil” (especially for us who come from a Christian background). In translation, the same words may have been used in a previous context but when they are used in relation to Shin Buddhism, the original intent, and meaning are lost. The language used can be similar but not the same, the words can get in our way.

So let’s clarify. It is obvious that Shin Buddhists venerate Amida Buddha, and the compassion that he symbolizes, and yet veneration is different than worship. To venerate someone means that there is great respect or awe inspired by the dignity, wisdom, dedication, or talent of that person. To worship someone would be more accurately, the act of showing respect and love for a god especially by praying with other people who believe in the same god: the act of worshipping God or a god. So with Amida Buddha, there is veneration but not worship, because Amida Buddha is not God, did not create the universe, and does not judge man. In Mahayana Buddhism, there are many different Buddhas, and none of them, are worshipped as gods. Simply put, Buddhas are not gods, they are awakened beings, exert no force, that simply teach the Dharma and the path to liberation. Here is a story from Shakyamuni Buddha’s life about this very question,

” ‘Are you a deva?(God)”

“No, brahman, I am not a deva.”

“Are you a gandhabba? (demi god / celestial musician), “No, brahman, I am not a gandhabba.”

“Are you a yakkha?” ( a protector god or trickster diety)

“No, brahman, I am not a yakkha.”

“Are you a human being?”

“No, brahman, I am not a human being.”

“Then what sort of being are you?”

“Remember me, brahman, as ‘awakened.'”

AN 4.36 PTS: A ii 37

From my perspective, in Buddhism –when it speaks about deities, bodhisattvas, and Buddhas, it is a symbolic representation of different aspects of awakened humanity. Or even characteristics of reality itself, but do not refer to any god. Amida Buddha is venerated because he represents the perfection of compassion and wisdom; and the capacity within each of us, to be perfectly compassionate with others and ourselves.

When I first was introduced to Amida Buddha and the Shin tradition I was amazed at the openness and compassion that I felt within it and at the same time, it did seem like Amida was Jesus without the blood. There are similarities, but as I said earlier, similarly does not mean the same. At the core, they are very different. In Christianity, a person is separated from God by sin. The separation of God and man occurred when Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God in the Garden of Eden. Their sins of disobedience caused all of mankind to be separated from God. For some Christians, this means that each person born into this world is separated from God, doomed to Hell, and will not be allowed to enter Heaven. As Paul wrote to the Romans,

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Romans 3:2-5

This disobedience caused a separation from the moment you are born, and the only way to bridge this separation is to have someone pay the price for the disobedience. In enters Jesus Christ A Christian writer John Piper has explained,

“Since our sin is against the Ruler of the Universe, “the wages of [our] sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Not to punish it would be unjust. So God sent his own Son, Jesus, to divert sin’s punishment from us to himself. God “loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation”—the wrath-absorbing substitute (emphasis added)—“for our sins”

1 John 4:10.

So the role of Jesus is to stand between man and God and pay the price of our wrath inducing disobedience. How does one take advantage of what Jesus has done? By having trust in him and by calling on his name and he will, by his mercy and grace allow those who do to enter into the rest of the lord. Ok, now that does sound familiar, especially when we read also that Amida Buddha saves all who intone his name, namu amida butsu, even if just once with a pure heart; that they will be born in the Pure Land. So it is like Jesus=Amida or Amida = Jesus. On closer inspection, we discover that they are actually quite different, even if the way to access their symbolic aid is similar. Here is an example of how this idea of disobedience and sin just does not relate to Amida Buddha.  Here is a quote from D.T. Suzuki. Suzuki was one of the most important people in spreading Zen in the West.

“Far as Amida is concerned, he is all love, there is no thought in him of punishing anybody, such discriminative judgments are not in him. He is like the sun in this respect shining on the unjust as well as the just. A sinner comes to the Pure Land with all his sins, or rather, he leaves them in the world where they belong, and when he arrives in the Pure Land he is in his nakedness, with no sinful raiments about him. Karma does not pursue him up to the Pure Land.”

D.T. Suzuki Essays on Shin Buddhism

Literal vs. True

For many Christians, Jesus is a literal physical being existing somewhere else besides where we are now. That also could be said for some Shin Buddhists. There is an anecdote that goes something like this. There are two members that are arguing whether Amida Buddha is a literal Buddha is some far off land, one says yes and the other says no. Later on in the day and at different times they as the resident minister for clarification. The one who believes that Amida Buddha is more literal ask the minister if Amida Buddha was symbolic or literal. The minister smiles and says the Amida Buddha is more  of a symbolic representation than a literal historical being. The man walks away shaking his head.  A little later the second man approaches the resident minister and asks if Amida Buddha was symbolic or literal. The minister smiles and says the Amida Buddha is not symbolic at all but a literal historical being. The man walks away shaking his head.

For some Shin Buddhists, those of a more modernist bent, Amida Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life is a potent mythopoetic symbol.  The Buddhist Patriarch Huineng, explains how a symbol works, that symbols can be…

“likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”

Amida acts as symbol, is the finger pointing to the truth of Reality as it is. Dr. Nobuo Haneda has explained.

“Mahayanists were interested in identifying the universal source (or basis) of the inspiration that awakened and produced Shakyamuni. And they identified it as the Dharma or universal Buddhahood. In order to show this spiritual basis of Shakyamuni in a more concrete human form, Mahayanists created the concept of “Amida”—an ideal human being, a “humble and dynamic” human being who embodies the Dharma.

As we can see, Amida is not a god, nor a wrathful judge, not a creator, nor lawgiver and there is no such thing as sin per se in Buddhism, simply delusion. Amida is not like Jesus since there is no god, not god to disobey, to be wrathful, or who needs to be appeased because of our disobedience and finally no sacrificial requirement to make man/woman right with God.

A yet, Shinran Shonin, the founder of Shin Buddhism, has said that Amida saves whoever has sincere faith in him. The question then would be what does he save us from?

The Buddha taught us in the first two of the Four Noble Truths, that Life is Suffering and suffering is caused by attachment to a false sense of an anonymous separate self. From the Buddhist perspective, being “separate” or “separated “is an illusion of our true state, and that there is no real separation to the Oneness of Life, whereas in Christianity, man is in a fallen state and the state of separation is a reality. The Compassion of Amida Buddha, then could be said to acts as a symbol that helps a person to, overcome their delusion of being separate from the Oneness of Life, and “saves” one from a misunderstanding of the Dharma, of Reality as it is and of being anything less than their innate Buddha nature. Again from Dr. Haneda,

“Thus, as far as our personal attainment of Buddhahood is concerned, this second meaning of “Amida” as a symbol of the Dharma (or universal Buddhahood) is more important than the first. The goal in Buddhism is that we personally become Amida Buddhas. The Buddhahood that we are expected to attain in Buddhism is not the historical Buddhahood of Shakyamuni, but the universal Buddhahood that is symbolized in “Amida.” We cannot totally identify with Shakyamuni, because we live in a different historical context than that of Shakyamuni. However, we can and should identify with the universal aspiration that Dharmakara symbolizes, strive to fulfill it, and become Amida Buddhas. We must realize our deepest reality, our true selves, which is what the realization of Amida Buddhahood means.”

 

Amida Buddha acts not as a reconciliation of a person to God, but the reconciliator of a person to themselves and to the understanding, as Jeff Wilson has written,…” of the true nature of all things as liberated suchness.”
The story of Amida Buddha gives us an alternative narrative to our ego- entangled story. Amida is not God but a symbol of the feeling or sense that many of us have, of a loving immeasurable mystery at the heart of existence. Entrusting in Amida Buddha is trusting in that sense and is the source of the Great Compassion that frees us from our delusory ego-self – of shame, separation, and lack. When we turn to entrust in the Compassion of the Oneness of Life as symbolized by Amida, a path opens before us for us to experience true compassion. Entrusting in Amida Buddha is a skillful means to access the reality of the Oneness of Life that lies beyond language; that comes from the very wisdom and ever-present grace waiting for us at the core of becoming fully human.

Namu Amida Butsu.