Posts Tagged ‘dharma’

I just finished reading a very interesting and infuriating article that I highly recommend you read. It is by Michael Moss and is an adaptation of his new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The article focuses on the way that food companies design and market foods to appeal to the consumer and to make sure they eat as much as possible as frequently as possible. It examines the way that the food companies intentionally manipulate their recipes to ensure that their customers can’t help but come back for more. In other words, how they design their products just like a drug. As someone for whom junk food has been a nearly constant companion for 35+ years, I can assure you that, yes, these foods are addictive and that breaking that addiction is incredibly hard. I’ll let the article speak for itself and encourage you to check it out. There are a few things that did strike me as interesting and I thought were worth commenting on from the perspective of a Buddhist and as someone who has suffered because of the way these foods are carefully crafted to encourage a consumer to eat more.

One of the food scientists that Mr. Moss interviewed is Howard Moskowitz. He was responsible for revolutionizing things like spaghetti sauce, Dr. Pepper and the MRE’s that are served to members of the Army. His approach is thoroughly grounded in research and experimentation. His models plot hundreds of data points in order to identify a range of configurations for these foods that people will enjoy and want more of. His work has influenced the entire processed food industry and it changed the way that the food companies formulate and package their products. When confronted with the negative impact that his research has had on the lives of millions of people, he had a very interesting defense.

“There’s no moral issue for me,” he said. “I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature. As a researcher, I was ahead of my time.”

When I read this line, I had to stop for a few moments and take a few deep breaths. I have to ask, when did being a moral creature become a luxury? I understand the pain of struggling to survive. I grew up in a home that, while not in poverty, was certainly not affluent. Free lunches and food stamps were a part of my life growing up and I have struggled as an adult to provide for my family. It is hard to do, but at no time did I ever consider maintaining my morals to be a luxury. Two parts of the Noble Eightfold Path are Right Action  and Right Livelihood. These two components encourage us to end suffering in ourselves and in others by acting in a way that will not harm others and by choosing a profession that does not bring harm to another being. Mr. Moskowitz did not approach his career or work with this kind of mindset and, in so doing, millions of people have suffered from obesity, cancer, hypertension, stroke and early death or been effected by a loved one who did. Here we see the way that the actions of one person have had long term negative ramifications for more people than one could hope to count. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more stark example of just how important living according to the principles of the Eightfold Path are in relieving or preventing of suffering.

Frito-Lay spent $30 million a year to develop snacks that would appeal to changes in consumer tastes. According to the article, Frito-Lay learned that

Eating real meals had become a thing of the past. Baby boomers, especially, seemed to have greatly cut down on regular meals. They were skipping breakfast when they had early-morning meetings. They skipped lunch when they then needed to catch up on work because of those meetings. They skipped dinner when their kids stayed out late or grew up and moved out of the house. And when they skipped these meals, they replaced them with snacks.

In response, they developed snacks that would be more appealing as meal replacements. They worked with scientists, marketers and psychologists to design new snacks to appeal to consumers who were in a hurry. New flavors added to current product lines were designed to maximize “bliss” so that eating these new snacks would become a regular thing rather than an occasional thing. They created products that encouraged people to forget about regular meals and, as has been examined in other places (herehere and here) encouraged the decline in cooking and food preparation skills.

In this case, I believe that a lack of right mindfulness, right effort and right concentration on the part of our society as a whole allowed the food companies to replace cooking with convenience. We have lost the aptitude to take time for making simple things in exchange for constant movement and stimulation. Having foods that are easy to heat and serve or to open up and dig into make the effort of cooking superfluous.  Why make spaghetti sauce when you can open a jar and heat it up? I’m at the top of the “guilty” list for this kind of behavior and I have the physique to prove it. I went to culinary school and I find great enjoyment in cooking and preparing food but I still reach for the box or the jar or the can in order to save time. Here’s a basic recipe that I have used before to make tomato sauce. It’s very low in sugar because of the natural sweetness of the carrots and considerably lower in sodium than any pre-made sauce you can buy. The tomato paste is the closest thing to a prepared food item in the list and it is not really necessary and (at 1 teaspoon) is really just a flavoring agent and not a significant source of salt or fat. I prefer to use fresh parsley, basil and garlic but, if you are working on a time crunch, those ingredients can be found in “convenience” versions (pre-chopped, dried, etc.). This sauce takes 45 minutes to make, assuming that chopping the onion, carrot and celery takes you a long time. It’s possible to make this in large batches and set it aside in the freezer for future use. It’s also a fairly simple sauce and is the base sauce for a lot of other really delicious and nutritious options. The foods we eat don’t have to be from cans or boxes or bags, but we have to be willing to put forth the right effort to make sure we are not falling prey to the food giants any longer.

2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small carrot or 1/2 large carrot, finely chopped
1 small stalk of celery, including the green tops, finely chopped
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried basil or 2 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
1 28 oz. can whole tomatoes, including the juice, or 1 3/4 pound of fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 teaspoon tomato paste (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 Heat olive oil in a large wide skillet on medium heat. Add the chopped onion, carrot, celery and parsley. Stir to coat. Reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally until the vegetables are softened and cooked through.

2 Remove cover and add the minced garlic. Increase the heat to medium high. Cook for garlic for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, including the juice and shred them with your fingers if you are using canned whole tomatoes. Add the tomato paste and the basil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a low simmer, reduce the heat to low and cook, uncovered until thickened, about 15 minutes. If you want you can push the sauce through a food mill, or blend it with an immersion blender, to give it a smooth consistency.

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Happy Rohatsu

Today is the eighth day of the twelfth month. In Japanese, that’s what Rohatsu means. Why is that important? Because it’s also Bodhi day. This is the day where Buddhists commemorate the historical Buddha gaining enlightenment. The Buddha had spent the previous few years living a life of extreme asceticism where he practically starved himself to death trying to gain an understanding of why there is suffering and death. Before that, he had spent years studying meditation and spiritual matters. He had been so successful in those studies that he was asked to take over the schools of his teachers. He chose not to follow that path either as studying deeply did not answer his question.

Eventually, after having tried extreme spiritual practices and extreme ascetic practices he realized that the answers he was looking for were not to be found there. This is when he realized that there had to be a better path, what became known as the Middle Way—avoiding extreme materialism or asceticism. At that point, the story goes, he decided to sit under a Bodhi tree and meditate until the problems of suffering and death were finally solved. According to many accounts, he sat for 49 days in meditation and finally received enlightenment and the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path were revealed.

As will happen with any tradition that is over 2000 years old, a lot of other stuff gets added on and the historical accuracy of some of the stories can often be hard to come by. Whether this is a completely accurate account of what happened or not, it’s been a consistent enough story for two and a half millennium that I feel comfortable with the story as it is traditionally told.

For me, Rohatsu is special because it reminds me of the importance of the Middle Way. I have found in my own life that this is extremely important. I have tried dealing with my suffering through excess indulgence. All it got me was an extra hundred pounds of fat. I have tried living a life of extreme spirituality and found it to be lacking and unfulfilling. When I walk the Middle Way, I find balance and peace. I may never gain enlightenment but I can still walk the path and follow the teachings. I can meditate and choose to live a life in peace and harmony with the world around me. In this I have found a way that makes sense, a way that actually addresses life just as it is, a way that doesn’t push me to extremes of imbalance. I will go through today and keep in mind the importance of walking the Middle Way and of pursuing it until I find the way to save all sentient beings from suffering.

On another note, Rohatsu is in December so, when someone wishes me Happy Holidays, I consider this to be the one they’re wishing me happiness for. What holiday you choose to be happy on is up to you.

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This is the second part in a multi-part post about why I started following a Buddhist path.

As I said in my last post, I had left my faith behind but I still had a lot of questions about suffering and the nature of suffering. I was still suffering and was dealing with depression, excess weight, a host of family problems and a general pessimism about life that made living seem almost unbearable.

Cover of "Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful ...

Cover of Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life

Eventually, I reached a point where I broke down. I could no longer go on living the way that I was. I knew that if I didn’t make some serious changes in my lifestyle that my physical and mental health would deteriorate rapidly and I would find myself dying early. As bad as my outlook on life was, a basic desire for self preservation would not allow this to happen. When I broke down, my wife shared a book with me that she had recently picked up. The book was called Savor. It was written by Thich Nhat Hahn and Dr. Lillian Cheung. The book was looking at the problem of obesity from a Buddhist and a medical perspective. As I read through the opening chapters, I began to see just how important the issue of suffering was to Buddhism. Eliminating suffering was the foundation of the entire Buddhist perspective.

I had studied a bit about the basic beliefs of Buddhism in college as part of a World’s Religions class. I had a basic understanding of what Buddhists believed but this was the first time I had ever seen Buddhist principles put into action. It amazed me at how simple and straightforward the application of the Four Noble Truths could be.

The other thing that struck me at that time was the almost single minded focus Buddhism put on the world as it really is. There was no mystical magic being to relate to. Buddhism always brought things back to your self. In the Buddhist perspective, there is no external world that exists outside of the self. The mind is the final arbiter of the world that we perceive. Everything in the world comes to us through our five (six in the Buddhist view) senses. We then add meaning and context to that sensory information and start to relate to it. This is how we build up the world and this is where suffering begins and ends. Finally, I had found a reasonable explanation for what causes suffering and what can be done about it.

I decided that I should give Buddhism a try. The approach was so simple and pure and the practice was designed to integrate into ones daily life. It was a practice with a purpose. It meant I would have to learn how to meditate but I figured that having tried so many different ways to deal with suffering that one more couldn’t hurt. I did some research and found that in the town just north of me there was a Zen Center so I gave them a call and arranged a visit. My experiences with Zen and what I thought about the experience will have to wait for part 3 of this series. However, before I end this, I’d like to share a quote from Brad Warner in his book Zen Dipped in Karma Wrapped in Chocolate about his experience in discovering Buddhism. He’s a great writer and his words capture my feelings better than my words can.

When I say that Buddhism worked, I don’t mean that it was a magic solution to my problems. Nor do I mean that any miracles happened or that I was able to erase all doubt and fear from my mind through some kind of special power. What I mean is that Buddhism…provided the most truly realistic and practical way of dealing with life. It isn’t spirituality, but it isn’t materialism either…Buddhism does what no other philosophy I’ve ever come across is able to do. It bridges the gap between these two forever mutually opposing ways of understanding reality. It negates both spirituality and materialism yet simultaneously embraces them. And it’s more than just a way of thinking about things. There’s a practice involved — zazen. You cannot separate the philosophy from the practice. If you don’t do zazen practice you cannot ever hope even to come close to comprehending the philosophy.

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I saw a story over on openbuddha.com about the Occupy protests that have been taking place in Oakland. Obviously, the protests in Oakland have been some of the more eventful ones and there have been things done on both sides of the events there that are inappropriate. Since I’m on the other side of the country from Oakland, I’m not going to attempt to add a lot of commentary about it. My only awareness of what has been going on has been what’s been covered on the national media and I’m sure that means I’m too uninformed to be able to make any type of valuable contribution to the discussion. However, I did see some pictures from the events in Oakland that I found to be very moving and wanted to share them here. These are all available to be seen on Flickr

I found these images to be very moving. There have been a number of times when I have heard Buddhists being accused of not being active in addressing social problems. While I do not necessarily agree with that accusation, I do understand how it can sometimes appear that this is the case. After all, when you see someone meditating, it’s not all that exciting. If you have not meditated, you could ask quite reasonably what is the point of it. However, if you have or have ever had, a regular meditation practice you understand that meditation is a powerful tool for transformation. Through the act of meditation, you are forced to confront your own mind and you begin to cut through the illusions that our minds construct to define the world. The important part is that, when you leave the meditation cushion, you take that clarity and insight with you. An active meditation practice means that you have an active interest in transforming the entire world. When I am more aware of the way my mind works, I am more prepared to deal with others in a way that is less self-serving. I see others in a more positive light and am more concerned for their well being. The clarity that one gets from meditation can and does put you in a place where you want to help everyone possible.

Meditation is powerful action that we can take to bring about change. As you view the pictures above, consider the emotional impact that they have. These two men (there were others meditating also) are making a powerful statement without saying a thing or raising a hand against anyone. I look at this picture and wonder if I would be able to sit in meditation while the person sitting next to me was being arrested, all the while knowing I was next. Probably not.

If you have never meditated, I highly recommend giving it a chance. Find a quiet place and sit in whatever way you are most comfortable. Allow yourself to relax and focus on your breathing. Allow your mind to do what it will. Eventually it will quiet down (a bit). Keep focused on your breathing and clear your mind. Even 5 minutes is enough to get started. Eventually, you will start to see small, positive changes taking place in your understanding and your outlook. Then, you’ll understand just how important an activity meditation can be.

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Form does not differ from emptiness
Emptiness does not differ from form
— The Heart Sutra

The first time I encountered the heart sutra was on June 23, 2010. That was the first time I went to the Zen Center to see if exploring Zen would be as interesting in practice as it seemed in my mind. For someone with a mind as analytical and ultra-rational as mine, the above statement reeked of contradiction and absurdity.



When you first read the statement that form is emptiness and emptiness form, how does it strike you? Seriously, does that even make sense? To me, it seems pretty obvious that those two things are about as opposite as you can get. In this corner, weighing in at 300 pounds, we have Form! In this corner, weighing in at zero pounds, we have the challenger, Emptiness! Doesn’t seem like a fair fight does it?

Even with this apparent contradiction thrown at me as part of one of the first activities of the evening, I decided to keep an open mind and allow the contradiction to slide. I figured there had to be some bigger mystical meaning behind it. After all, they really didn’t mean that form and emptiness were one and the same.

It wasn’t until a little later that I learned they really are saying that form and emptiness are one and the same thing. What I dismissed as an apparent contradiction that was obviously some sort of metaphor or deeper statement is pretty much to be taken at face value. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Deal with it. How am I supposed to deal with that?

This statement forced me to confront my attachments to name and form and to emptiness. In my rational and analytic state of mind, I built up various objects and concepts and things and I categorized each one and put them in their proper place apart from each other. In other words, I was creating a world in my mind where I existed over here and everything else in the universe was over there. In Buddhist terms, this is called ignorance. It is also considered the primary cause of suffering. When we build things up in our mind and think that they are separate from us, it leads to clinging and attaching and to suffering.

I won’t dig any deeper into this subject in this post but it’s amazing how much ink has been spilled over the centuries examining these concepts. However, at some point, the contradictions and confusion about the concepts of form and emptiness went away. It no longer strikes me as a strange concept. I think I really started to get this concept over that past few months when I was really dealing with a lot of depression. One of the problems with depression is a serious feeling of emptiness. I had such an overwhelming feeling of emptiness that I really did realize that it had a form all its own. Emptiness had form and that form was emptiness. I know that this isn’t the assertion of the heart sutra but it was the catalyst I needed to gain the insight into this that made it seem much less a mystery.

What I now understand is that the Buddhist concept that we attach the English word “emptiness” to is not a nihilistic or negative word. Instead, it means seeing things as they really are without constructing a lot of extra stuff around it. If you allow a blade of grass to just be a blade of grass, it’s going to have the form of a blade of grass. However, without a lot of mental baggage about that blade of grass, “it’s green, it’s long, it is the same color as the leaves on the tree” etc., it is “empty” So, even though it appears to be a contradiction at first, the phrase really does capture a deep truth. Brad Warner, writing about this phrase in his book Hardcore Zen had this to say about it and I will give him the last word.

This kind of understanding cannot be expressed symbolically in words used in the usual way. To the extent that it can be expressed symbolically, the phrase “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” really is as clear as it gets.

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I’m sitting here in the early morning, drinking my coffee and watching the sun come up. It’s slightly foggy outside so everything is just a little soft around the edges. The fog is catching and reflecting the colors of the sunrise and generally making this a beautiful morning. In a very short while, the fog will burn off and we’ll have a clear, crisp autumn day. The way the fog is behaving reminds me of something that is said in our school about keeping a clear mind. A clear mind is like a mirror, when red shows up, the mirror is red, when blue shows up the mirror is blue. A clear mind reflects whatever is in front of it at that time. That’s what this fog is doing. Reds and yellows and oranges come and the fog reflects reds and yellows and oranges. When I see this, I find great beauty in it. Why do I find beauty in it? Fog is usually something that has negative associations. If someone is feeling foggy, it’s a bad thing. If someone is confused, we say they’re in a fog. Yet here I am enjoying the beauty of this early morning fog. I am finding beauty in it because the fog is doing what it is supposed to do. It is reflecting whatever light hits it.

A clear mind is also a thing of beauty. It reflects the world around it and does not interfere with it. When we encounter clear mind, we encounter beauty. I think this is because we innately admire a thing when it simply does what it is intended to do. A clear mind is not a complicated thing. A clear mind is easy to understand. A clear mind is what it is without pretense or posturing. A clear mind eats when it is hungry and stops when it is full. A clear mind does not feel the need to dip into a pint of ice cream to change its mood. A clear mind doesn’t have “moods” in the way that we understand them. This is why I spend 40 minutes a day in meditation: to develop a clear mind. And now, with my mind clear from my morning meditation and my morning coffee (hey, drinking coffee can be a type of meditation too!) I am ready to go out into the day and face each moment as it comes.

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One of the benefits of sitting meditation is that it forces one to face the mind and how it works. When you are sitting quietly, your mind is given unfettered access to your attention. When this happens, it becomes like a little puppy who just wants to run and play and chase squirrels and pee on everything it sees. It’s only after some experience with meditation that some measure of control over the mind is gained. The puppy needs to be trained and learn to heel and not run off and not pee on everything. It’s hard work and often surprises newcomers to meditation just how challenging it can be to sit quietly and keep a clear mind.

Why is keeping a clear mind important? Because all of our suffering can be traced back to the mind as the source for all suffering. Our minds tell us that something is good or bad, pretty or ugly, smells good or bad, is nice or unpleasant or useful or not. Another function of the mind is to act as a DJ, spinning thoughts and memories around and around without stopping. When you combine these two functions, judging everything and looping through thoughts, you end up with an ideal recipe for suffering.

How? It’s quite simple. First, the DJ picks a memory out of its huge collection. It puts it on and gives it a spin, then the judging part of the mind kicks into gear and all of a sudden you’re giving context to the thought: “I like this”, “I don’t like that”, “that was a great experience”, “why did I say that?!”, “I should do that again”, “I hope I never do that again”, “I’m so embarrassed by that”, etc. Before you know it, you’re out on the dance floor and the DJ is going to keep you dancing all night long. As you go through this process over and over and over, it begins to take its toll on you. As you construct scenarios in your mind to replay the good thoughts or avoid the bad ones you plant the seeds of suffering. If you have a good thought, you’ll suffer when it’s over. If you have a bad thought, you suffer because of it. Rinse, repeat.

As you sit in meditation, this dance becomes easier to observe. Meditation allows you transition from being a dancer to a chaperon trying to keep order over the dancers. It’s at this point that the rules that make up the dance become clearer. There are three ways that the mind reacts to thoughts cause the dance to go on. All three add to suffering but understanding how these things work makes you a better chaperon so that you can keep things from getting out of hand.

  1. Checking – This is the process of constantly replaying thoughts. It could be thinking about something you said, or did or didn’t say or do. Regardless of the content of the thoughts, the process is the same. You think about something and then you react to it. Constantly going over things and judging them. Not only do you check your own mind/thoughts/actions but you check others too. It is checking that so often keeps us running around in a circle like a new puppy.
  2. Holding- This is like checking on steroids. The process of checking usually doesn’t last too long. As your mind wanders, you check whatever it comes across. Holding is where you refuse to let something go. If someone did something you don’t like, if you’re upset about something, if you are with someone you like you hold on to these things. Holding is what keeps us stuck in a place of suffering. We hold on to things for any number of reasons. However none of those reasons are ever good ones.
  3. Making – When we get tired of checking or holding we often float into the realm of making. This is the most esoteric of the rules as it is where we construct the “what ifs” and alternate realities that make our present reality so difficult to deal with. Thinking about something you will do or say tomorrow and then constructing a hundred different scenarios that could play out in response is just one example of making. The process of making keeps us from our situation and robs us of the moment we are in. Making is the process of living in the future or the past. It is often the response to holding. As we hold on to something, we try to think of ways to deal with it. We construct elaborate stories about how we handled the situation with grace and style and our prowess was on display for all to see or we know that when we put our plans into action everyone will be amazed at our brilliance and they’ll immediately come over to our side and sing our praises. When compared to reality, who wouldn’t prefer the worlds we create when we are making?

What all of this comes down to is that we make our own suffering. When we check, hold and make thoughts, we experience their effects. The end result of those effects is suffering. That’s why the founding teacher of the school of Zen that I am a part of used to say, “Big mind, big problem. Small mind, small problem. No mind, no problem! Ha ha ha!” Over the past few months, I’ve been doing a lot of checking, holding and making. It’s been so intense that it has kept me from being able to focus on what really matters. It has contributed to my weight gain and robbed me of my motivation to live a healthy lifestyle. It prevented me from sitting in meditation for quite a while too since sitting meant I had to confront all of the checking, holding and making that I was doing. However, I eventually did begin to sit again in spite of my mental state and I began to see how to get things in order. I saw clearly how my mind was working and I have adjusted to stop the cycle and keep a clear and calm mind. My mind still checks, I still hold on to things and I’m still making, making, making but at least I am aware of it now and I have the ability to stop myself instead of trying to chase the puppy around to keep it from peeing on everything. Without someone to chase it, the puppy gets bored and calms down on its own. At least until it sees another squirrel.

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