Most people seem to live their lives like an accident is happening to them that they are just struggling to survive, rather than a jazz ensemble they are playing in, creating the music as they go. I’m inspired by the Hidden Lamp workshop Sue Moon and Florence Caplow led this past week, and Peter Hershock’s talk on freedom yesterday, as well as the book Creative Confidence that I’ve been reading. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we bring creative improvisation to our lives on the path of Zen.

In the world of design, a brief is the set of specifications used to develop a project, a launching pad for the imagination and experimentation that leads to a finished design that meets particular conditions and criteria. In Zen, we aspire to live a life led by vow, rather than pulled by karma. Our vow is the bodhisattva vow, the vow to live and be lived for the benefit of all beings. How can we design such a life? Here are my reflections on a design brief for a bodhisattva:

  1. Set an intention: a bodhisattva's intention is for the liberation of all beings and the relief of suffering. Never underestimate the power of a meaningful intention. Take your life into your own hands. 
  2. Pay attention. Observe people in all kinds of surroundings. Imagine what burdens they might be carrying, what unseen suffering or sorrows. See how they interact with each other and most of all, stay curious. 
  3. When talking to people, notice signs of vulnerability or pain, contraction or separation.  Look for evidence of fear, longing, anger, or dissociation. These are markers of suffering. 
  4. Study what brings joy, ease, spaciousness and freedom, whether with you or someone or something else. 
  5. Try many small, low-risk experiments in offering a little space, a bit of freedom, a touch of humor, a word or two of connection, or just your own presence. Become a student of possibilities, rather than a prisoner of past conditioning. Interestingly, the designers who become stars are the ones who engage in rapid iteration and field testing, not the ones with the most innate talent. 
  6. Track the data! This is how we cultivate skillful means. We learn what works, and what works some of the time or with some people but not others, what worked in some similar situation but doesn’t work here. We study the data to more deeply understand. 
  7. Don’t be afraid of failure. It’s ok to suck at being a bodhisattva in the beginning, to struggle and to miss the mark. But we never give up. We are in a lifelong training program that began when we took our first breath. The training is delivered in convenient modules that activate all of our own conditioning and offer us endless possibilities for freedom. 
  8. Invent new approaches to intractable situations and habit patterns. Don’t accept the easy out. Instead, give yourself space and time and opportunity to explore creative alternatives. 
  9. Experiment on yourself. Do something new, interesting, and intentional for yourself, often. It may be going to work by a different route, or a trying a new dish, or visiting a place you’ve never been. Create a larger container for life, intentionally. See how you are affected by these experiments. 
  10. This is an adventure in cultivating our capacities for creativity and liberating responsiveness. It is learning how to meet life intimately and without judgment, whatever it presents, because whatever it presents is a design challenge for a bodhisattva. 
  11. Most importantly, we help each other in this design work; it is not a solitary activity, but a mutual one. We are amazingly more creative together than we can ever be alone. 
  12. Enjoy your work. There is nothing more satisfying than this path of liberation for yourself and others, nothing more joyful, nothing more worthwhile. 

It's always interesting to view our practice path from an entirely different lens, discovering new dimensions to our work with the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha that are within us and around us. 

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Appamada is not just the occasional mindful thought or attentive state of mind, it’s actually a commitment to being attentive. It’s more than just a meditative state of mind, it’s more than just being mindful. It has to do with that primary ethical or moral orientation we have in life, with which we bring into being whatever activity we’re engaged in. Whether in formal meditation, in our interactions with other people, in our social concerns, or in our political choices, it’s the energetic cherishing of what we regard as good.

—Stephen Batchelor


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