Saturday, June 22, 2013

Learning Buddhism Through Slogans

Practice with Slogans

Slogan are a great learning and teaching devise, especially in Tibetan Buddhism. The Lojong, Atisha's 12th century teaching, is a systematically ordered series of 59 aphorisms, or slogans, arranged under seven headings to show us how to transform our day-to-day difficulties into open, compassion, other-centered, peaceful and clear hearts and minds.

This blog is an exploration of the first slogan, “Train in the preliminaries,” which has four aspects, also known as the four reminders.

1.     Maintain an awareness of the preciousness of this life.
2.     Always remember that while the time of death is uncertain, death itself is certain for all of us.
3.     Know that whatever you do–with body, speech or mind–leaves a karmic imprint.
4.     Remember that judging everything good or bad and then wanting more of the stuff you like and less of the stuff you don’t like will never make you happy.

There are online commentaries galore on the Lojong. Popular now in book form are those by Pema Chodron. Also, there’s an interesting Japanese Soto Zen interpretation of these slogans by Norman Fischer. The aim of this blog and future blogs on the Lojong, is not to provide a commentary but rather to present a few of the slogans as practice tools. In this blog, we will explain why we start with these four and how to work with them. Also, we will be taking aim at the “Yeah, I get it” phenomenon.

Let’s start with the ‘Yeah, I get it” phenomenon. You’ve already read the first slogan. If you’re like many of my students, you’ve put a check mark next to it, said to yourself: “Yeah, I get it; life is precious” and then you dismissed it as done. In classes, when I ask students to explain why life is precious, I get blank stares or vague statements that really don’t address the question. When I pry, students often seem, to their surprise, dumbfounded.

If we are to become people of compassion, people in whom peacefulness arises naturally, we must start with a realization that this human life is precious. One very effective way to accomplish this is to practice with the slogan. How?

I suggest you start my making the slogan physically present all through your day. Put sticky notes on the dashboard of your car and the corner of your desk at the office, on the bathroom mirror and the refrigerator door. Wherever and everywhere. Make it your screen saver. Buy a composition book, there are 25-30 lines on each page. Write the slogan once on each line. Do a page a day until you finish the book.

Next, set an intention to contemplate the slogan everyday. Sit in a comfortable quiet place, gently watch a handful of breaths, allowing yourself to quiet, then begin thinking about the slogan.

Start with the broadest questions about its general meaning and work toward tighter and more detailed questions, more narrowly focused questions. Think hard and stay focused, but let you mind go wherever it needs in this contemplation, as long as you don’t stray from the slogan. Establish the slogan as the most important thing you could possibly consider in that moment; keep delving into it. Question every thought, every phrase, parse each word that arises. Also, ask yourself how you would explain this to a 10-year old, then rehearse (actually say it out loud so you can hear yourself!) explaining it to that youngster. Do the same with a peer who isn’t likely to understand it easily. Rehearse. Finally, rehearse how you might explain this is a dying parent. Each of these daily sessions should be only about 5 minutes, 10 at absolute max. Doing this daily will allow you to slowly delve deeper and deeper into its meaning.

Sometimes, and you can be anywhere, just have the slogan to flood over you. Encourage and allow it to arise from deep inside you when you are showering, dressing, eating, exercising, working, relaxing, getting ready for bed. Gently play with it whenever it arises, then let it drift off. Eventually, it will just become a part of you, resetting your default intention to a place from which compassion arises without hesitation and peacefulness ensues whatever the conditions.

The goal is to have these slogans as ingrained as the ones we grew up with, like “A diamond is forever” and “They’re Gr-r-r-eat” and “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” and “The best part of waking up, is….

Another view of how to practice with these slogan comes from Zen Roshi Norman Fischer:

The best way to develop a mind-training slogan is to work with it initially on your meditation cushion. The technique is simple enough: sitting calmly with breath and body awareness, simply repeat the slogan silently to yourself again and again, reflect lightly on it, breathe it in with the inhale, out with the exhale.

The point is not to sit and think about the slogan as much as to develop it as an almost physical object, a feeling in your belly or heart.

Doing this repeatedly will fix it in your mind at a level deeper than is possible with ordinary distracted thinking. After this initial fixing of the slogan in the mind, you can think about it more, journal about it, talk about it with friends, write it down, repeat it to yourself—maybe when you are walking or driving, or any time you remember to do it—committing yourself to holding it in your mind during the day as often as you can. You can post it on your refrigerator; float it across your computer screen.

When you suddenly notice you have forgotten it and your mind is muffled with anxiety or worried rumination, use the very moment of forgetting as a cue to remembering rather than as a chance for self-judgment. This is, after all, mind training. Of course you are going to forget! But noticing that you forgot is already remembering. Mind training requires commitment, repetition, and lots of patience.

If you practice with a slogan in this way, soon it will pop into your mind unbidden at various times during the day. Hundreds of times a day instances will arise that seem germane to the slogan you are working with. In this way, you can practice a slogan until it becomes part of your mind—your own thought, a theme for daily living. –

Fischer, Norman. Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong

There isn’t one correct way to work with a slogan, but with a little practice and experimentation, you will find the ways that work for you to make the slogan yours. Just remember, it takes patience and commitment to make these slogans ours, to make them work for us.

The important thing about the preliminaries is that they nurture a very special attitude toward life, one which makes us realize the importance of being here and motivates us to act for the long term benefit of all beings. We start by realizing the preciousness and importance of each moment, it’s impermanence making it so valuable, and from there we move to resetting our intentions so that our karmic thrust leads us more and more toward the peacefulness that arises from helping others rather than being self-serving, which always leads to some level of discomfort. Finally, we conclude from this short sequence of practice that it is being of benefit to others that really makes us wholesome and happy, not acquiring more.

A few weeks, or months, or lifetimes on these four and we will be ready for the second slogan!