Another sample chapter from Buddhism for Dudes can be read at my publisher’s website:
Chapter 6: Karma and Rebirth
From Buddhism for Dudes
When I chose to follow the Middle Path, I knew very well that, even though traditional Buddhism is short on the metaphysical, there still would be aspects of the belief system I would find hard to swallow. One was rebirth, which I’ve come to grips with, even though I’d really rather believe that it isn’t true in a certain literal sense. Samsara, the ceaseless cycle of birth- death- rebirth, isn’t about fun; it’s about suffering. Over and over again, until you can rid yourself completely of the thing that causes suffering.
The other is karma. What is karma? Translated literally, karma means “action,” and it basically refers to actions- and-their-consequences—but it does not have anything to do with, as many people suppose, the rewards or punishments people reap as a result of their actions. Karma can be understood simply through cause-and-effect. Smile at a child, the child smiles back. Kiss your wife on the back of her neck while she’s at the sink, and you get a purr and a twerk. Tickle a baby, and she giggles and wiggles. Yell at your dog for running away, he runs farther away. Get good grades in school and you get into college. Get too drunk and obnoxious and say the wrong thing, and somebody might kick your ass.
I analogize karma this way: if you’re an appliance repairman, you are more likely to retire comfortably than a murdering, thieving thug. But that doesn’t mean that life somehow guarantees that a murdering, thieving thug won’t kill you on your way home from your retirement party. Bad things still happen to good people, and there’s no use trying to figure out why—it’s kind of just crappy luck. Let’s get real here. Buddhism is a “how- to” ethic for living a good life, not a way to put the Whammy on anybody.
Karma does have its metaphysical aspects, however. I will point out that Buddhist metaphysical beliefs, like Christian ones, include both a heaven and a hell. The heaven versus rebirth issue is a complicated one that I’ll avoid speculating about. I’m as clueless as the next guy about the reality of either option, and like everyone else, I’ll just have to take whatever the end of life dishes out. However, regarding rebirth in a heaven or a hell, Buddhism says you won’t be stuck in either realm for eternity. You might not get to stay in heaven forever, but the good news is that even people who land in hell have a chance to work their way out. I guess what karma boils down to is that your volitional actions impact your present life and factor into whatever happens when it ends. If life continues past what we define as death, then karma helps determine the nature of that continued life. If you live virtuously, good things happen. You might not reap rewards right away, but rest assured that positive actions have positive effects.
One day when I was living at the Sri Bodhiraja Monastery, the chief priest summoned me to his office, which was in a small clay hut—the coolest place on campus. Bhante Sobhita was expecting a visitor in a few days. It was a white woman from New Zealand who became a bhikkhuni—a Buddhist nun. She was coming to ask him a specific question: How do Buddhists deal with the issue of free will? He wasn’t familiar with the term, especially in its religious context, so he wanted to ask me about it.
I told him that to understand free will he needed to know its opposite, predestination. I told him that some Christians believe that God predetermines everyone’s fate, and that people can do nothing to change it. Free will, I told him, is the idea that each man has the power to determine his own fate.
The monk’s usual scowl deepened, and he considered what I told him. Finally, he said, “But both are untrue. Everything is connected to everything else.”
This is what I like about Buddhism: it’s simple.
Most of humankind cannot bear the notion that some essence of them does not persist after death. For the life of me, I don’t know why. What’s so bad about ceasing to exist? Do I want to be me for the rest of eternity, even if I wind up in heaven? Then again, I’m not sure I can bear the notion of being reborn—of hitting the “reset” button for another life of suffering and misery.
Many people use the term “reincarnation” where I would say “rebirth.” There is a difference between these two ideas. Reincarnation might be something along the lines of General George Patton’s belief that he returned again and again as warriors in the great battles of history. Rebirth is the result of ignorance of the way to avoid it.
There are many stories that indicate that rebirth is real, but things have also happened in my own life, particularly in my Buddhist life, that seem strongly to suggest that the force of actions in past lives does exist. In 2002, when I went to Sri Lanka, my original destination was Pakistan, and in 2003, when I went to Sri Lanka again, my original destination had been China. But between the Taliban, SARS, and opportunity, I ended up immersed in the Buddhist world for six months, landing at the feet of three of the most eminent theologians in the country. It was like I was meant to be a Buddhist.
From Buddhism for Dudes: A Jarhead’s Field Guide to Mindfulness, Wisdom Publications, Inc. 2015
Lunch with a Large Bison
From unpublished memoirs.
Oh, gosh. I’ve been fortunate enough to observe otters and crocodiles and coyotes and Komodo dragons and beavers, and even elephants in the wild. But the most amazing wildlife encounter I ever had was lunch one afternoon with an American bison, otherwise known as buffalo, or “buffler” if you’re from Texas.
It was late June 1978 when I lived and taught school in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was anticipating the following summer on the Appalachian Trail. I headed for the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming on advisement of a co-worker and fellow outdoorsman who said that in Wyoming all the tourists go to the Tetons and the Wind River Range and Yellowstone, but if I wanted a mountain range all to myself, then the Bighorns were the place to go.
The Bighorns experience was a disappointment; there had been a June snowfall, and I couldn’t gain any elevation past about 6000 feet without crashing through the snow crust up to my hips. I pitched a tent and spent a few days up there, sitting in the snow, and finally I gave up, descended, and headed back east toward the Twin Cities.
I stopped east of the Black Hills and did a day excursion in the South Dakota Badlands – I am a sucker for anything or anywhere fossiliferous, and I was quite taken with the terrain, which was rugged, the weather, which was hotter than hell, and the promise of seeing buffalo in the wild. At the end of my day-hike I stopped by the information station to talk to a Park Ranger. I would not be allowed to backpack in the Badlands proper, but I could next door, in the adjacent Buffalo National Grasslands, which were bad-land enough, as I was to discover. There were only two rules: carry a gallon of water per day per person, and no hiking alone. Like either of those rules was going to stop me. I was a Marine. I knew how much water I needed.
In the mountains, back in the days when it was OK to drink from springs without treating the water, I usually carried only a one-quart canteen, but in Dakota I had to supplement my water carrying capacity, so the morning before my foray into the Grasslands, after I stayed at a KOA and got my first shower for a week, I went to Wall Drug, had a western omelet, and I bought plastic jugs – an additional one quart, and also a two-quarter. These I filled with ice water, and at the trailhead I jettisoned my tent, parka and sweaters, cut off the legs of my wool pants, and stuffed the half-gallon jug of ice water deep into my sleeping bag – my Holubar Arctic sleeping bag.
There was no trail to speak of. But I could see my destination – a little butte at the end of a shallow valley that was surrounded like a set of parentheses with sharp little knife ridges formed by the prairie wind. There wasn’t a tree within a hundred miles. The valley floor was flat and negotiable, but it had a meandering, thirty-foot-deep cutbank snaking through it, with little puddles of alkali water in the mud at the bottom – the only surface water around, and probably fouled with buffalo snot.
It was pretty hot that day, close to 100 degrees, and as I trudged down the valley I knew that it was inevitable that I would have to cross the cutbank a few times to reach my destination. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do that, and when I approached it for the first time I was dismayed to see how deep and steep it was. But soon I discovered the way across: the buffalo had to cross the cutbank, too, and I found their muddy, steep staircases defined by the size of their hooves. Not easy to negotiate with forty pounds of pack, but not impossible, if you walk down backwards like you were descending a ladder.
I started to get hungry in the early afternoon, and I thought that I might climb up to the top of one of the low, sandy ridges, and maybe I could catch some breeze up there while I washed down peanut butter and crackers with judicious sips of my now-lukewarm water.
And so I veered left and climbed the ridge, and just as I reached the top, I was startled to find, not fifty yards away, the most enormous bull buffalo you can imagine, grazing in the prairie grass, off to live the rest of his life happily alone after years of dominating his harem, fighting other bulls, and spreading his seed. In other words, he was as big as he could get, and just past the peak of his powers. He was like a Gunny after a twenty-year hitch. He was the baddest denizen of the Badlands and had never had to fear predators in his lifetime, human or animal. He was magnificent. And he was also quite potentially dangerous.
I formulated a getaway plan before he noticed me. First, I had to very quietly take off my backpack. Then I could run. If he decided to come after me, since there wasn’t a single tree, climbable or not, all the way back to Deadwood, I figured I would haul ass straight back to the cutbank. Of course he could easily have caught up with me half way there and gored me to death, but if I made it I figured to dive into it head first, and then if I didn’t break my neck hitting the mud below, he could take his leisurely time climbing down to me using the buffalo escalator before he trampled me to death.
And so I inched my hand toward the buckle of my pack’s hip strap, popped it open, “click,” and the bison’s enormous head rose from his grazing and slowly moved around, listening for another foreign noise, squinting his eyes trying to find me on the horizon, which was easy enough to do even with his poor eyesight, since I stood right on the apex of the ridge with the blue sky behind me. Like I said, I was a Marine. I knew better.
I let the frame pack slip from my shoulders, and I propped it upright with my hiking stick, which makes for a tolerable back-rest when you don’t want to lean back against some grubby, buggy tree. Maybe if I had to run for it he would mistake the pack for me, and gore it to death instead. That commotion prompted him to trot toward me, not in any hurry, and soon the fifty yards of separation we had between us shrunk to maybe thirty-five feet. A little more than a first down away.
I was paralyzed, not with fear, but from admiration. He meant me no harm, he was just checking me out, and as soon as he deemed me no potential harm to him, he went about his business of lazily nibbling the tops off the prairie grasses, so close I could hear him tear and chomp, and breathe. He was a loud breather.
I didn’t make any sudden moves, but I got my peanut butter and crackers and water from my pack, sat down with my back against it, and we had lunch together. And to cap off the afternoon, he flopped his three-quarter ton body into the dirt and rolled on his back like a puppy dog, kicking up a cloud of dust, and obviously having a sensuously good time. It looked like he could have said the bison equivalent of, “Ahhhh, Jesus, that feels good.”
Then he returned to his feet and gave a great shiver, so that half the dust he’d accumulated on himself dissipated into the air like steam.
“Thank you,” I said aloud, and he grunted back at me.
We got to be friends. Two full hours had passed. I sensed his sentience, twenty-five years before I studied the Dharma, and I have never had a relationship like that with another animal until my rescue dog Trixie came into my life. I hated to leave him, we were having such fun. But eventually I packed up and descended the ridge and eventually reached the top of the little butte with enough time for an hour’s sunbathing, stretched out naked on the tarp to my abandoned tent. The half-gallon of ice water I’d stuffed into my cold-weather sleeping bag was still icy! After hiking in the sun and the heat all day, I couldn’t have imagined anything else I would have preferred to drink. Ahhh, Jesus, it felt good.
From “The Vigorous Life,” Confessions of Buddhist Gunslinger, Kindle Books, 2011