In Remembrance of the Buddhist Beastie Boy

Like many people across the country and around the world, I’m mourning the untimely loss of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch (aka MCA).

While Yauch may have attained popularity as one third of a group of New York Jewish rappers who got their start helping at least one generation of suburban white boys “fight for their right to party,” his personal spiritual evolution into Tibetan Buddhism was one major reason the Beasties’ music ended up going in such amazing and ever-surprising directions for over a decade.

RIP MCA. In remembrance, here’s an excerpt from MCA’s 1994 interview with the Buddhist Journal, Tricycle:

Yauch: The bottom line of all the problems on this planet and that all human beings are working on is this basic misconception of not-enoughness, feeling like we’re not enough. This is some strain of that, of feeling that if the dharma is presented in this way, or if these other people become interested in this or get excited about it, it’s going to take something away from me. It’s this basic misconception, this feeling of not-enoughness.

Tricycle: Do you see any difference for your own generation?

Yauch: One of the monks said something that’s relevant here. He noticed this huge separation in America between the kids and the adults that doesn’t exist where he comes from, and that there’s a real polarization between adults and youth. Where they come from, when there’s a celebration—or a dance, or a party, or music—the little kids and the grandpas are all dancing and singing together. That’s something this country could definitely grasp hold of. Our polarization of that is more extreme than it needs to be.

Tricycle: Are you hopeful about your generation?

Yauch: I’m pretty hopeful about the evolution of humanity in general. I think that all of us here on the planet at this point have come into these lifetimes and into these bodies because it’s a crucial time in the evolution of the planet and humanity. It’s a transitional phase, and I think that everyone has come in at this time to be a part of that, to be part of the Big Show.

PS: To the uninitiated: Adam is the one with the backwards cap…

A Single Tree is Really a Whole Forest: Zen Wisdom for Tu B’shvat

In honor of Tu B’shvat – the Jewish New Year for the Trees – I offer you these lovely tidbits from “Trees and Spirituality: An Exploration” by Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, who teaches Environmental Studies at Evergreen State College.

Happy Tu B’shvat – and may your roots discover hidden spheres of growth in the coming year!

Trees link us to enlightenment. Their ubiquitous shape and form, their persistence through time, and their “rootedness” in the soil, remind us of the connection between earth and the heavens.

Buddha sat mediating under a Bodhi tree. When dawn came, the sun brought enlightenment to him.

As if to reinforce this universality, we see tree forms everywhere – in rivers, caves, blood vessels, lungs – and in the form of Zen Buddhism itself. Historically, temples follow lineages, like family trees. Each temple was brought into a hierarchy, with branch temples under main temples and each level responsible for the one beneath.

Like other living beings, trees “breathe.” Through photosynthesis, they help supply the most basic of needs of humans – giving us clean air to breathe. This connection to breathing links trees to meditation and reflection.

The Hebrew word for breath – neshama – is the same as the word for soul. Our spiritual life force comes by way of air and respiration.

In the services I attended this fall, the most powerful moments were the moments of silence – the time between speaking and hymns. Buddhist silence, samantha – stopping, calming, concentrating – is very important. It is the same as the stillness I see when I look up at a tree on a windless summer day. Trees are rooted in the ground and make no sound. They epitomize samantha.

…In Zen practice, you do not strive to delete all thoughts. Rather, you discover the emptiness that is present within the form of thoughts, experiences and realities.

Most researchers who study the forest focus on the trees and animals – the forms. In contrast, Dr. Roman Dial studies the emptiness within the forest. He uses a laser to get distances to branches and leaves, making images of their “negative space.” These are stunning in their beauty and also in their significance. How does a bird negotiate through space? How does a pollen grain move? Or a termite queen, or a particle or pollutant?

According to Buddhist thinking, the idea of a separate “self” is an illusion. There is no external individual being apart from interaction with the world. Although we each have a separate set of perceptions and sensations, the idea that there is a fixed “self” is a false inference.

Trees remind us of this because a tree is a modular being. Most animals, including humans, develop and grow as a single entity. In contrast, the seed of a tree germinates into a root and a shoot, which in turn differentiates into branches, with buds that become the next generation of leaves, flowers, and fruits, and so on. Along the way, genetic material can undergo mutations and changes.

Thus a mature tree contains thousand of separate branch systems, each a separate “lineage,” a separate genetic entity. Fruit growers know that certain branches produce much better fruit. They can graft the best branch and start another tree that will produce to that type. So a single tree is really a whole forest. There are many in one.

Trees help humans tell time; they spell the seasons. Nothing tells us about the passing of time more clearly than autumn colors or the tender green of emerging buds.

Forests teach us about the dynamism of nature – the need to accept change even if it seems to be destructive. When I go out to my forest plots and see a fallen tree – a tree I have climbed a hundred times, taken data from, named – I have to remind myself that this is the nature of the forest. Seedlings will grow in the light created by the fallen giant.

Hidden Worlds
Trees manifest hidden spheres. Their roots are underground and out of sight yet provide support for the tree and serve as the gathering apparatus for water and nutrients. The belowground world sustains the aboveground parts. Tree roots can symbolize that which we hide from ourselves and others – our troubles, failings, ill-health. To be truthful – full of troth – like a tree, we must recognize that these hidden parts are an important part of us, not something to discount, just as soil-covered roots of a tree are essential to its being.

(From Northwest Dharma News, October/November 2002, pp. 10, 13)

Don’t Expect Applause

From Pirke Avot 1:3 (translation by Rabbi Rami Shapiro):

Antigonus of Sokho received the Teaching from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say:

Live without hesitation.
Dwell not on outcome or reward.
Act with full attention.

The 59th and final “slogan” of Atisha – a revered Buddhist teacher from present-day Bangladesh (980-1052 CE):

Don’t expect applause.

Commentary by Acharya Judy Lief, writing in Tricycle Magazine:

Another problem with the hunt for approval is that it to gain approval you must buy in to the dominant values of the society around you. If what gets approval is getting rich, that is what you strive for; if it is beauty, that is what you obsess about; if it is power over others, that is what you focus on. The desperation for outer rewards goes hand-in-hand with an increasing sense of inner poverty. If you are successful in your quest for recognition, you may be able to ignore what you have given up to achieve it. If you are unsuccessful, you may simply blame the system. But in either case, since you have given over our power to others, you are left empty.

Today’s practice
When you notice you are expecting applause, explore what lies behind that expectation. Notice the subtle shift between when you have done something and when you begin to look around you for recognition.