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RANDOM RAMBLINGS

DISCLAIMER
If you really want to learn about Buddhism, I suggest you check out some of the links highlighted in red. I am not a master, but a student. Until a few short years ago, I was only an academic student. Even now, my practice is intermittent. Below, I'll share some of my philosophy, and try to show why I consider myself a Buddhist.

DEATH DREAM
A couple of months after my Dad died, I had my death dream of him. Whenever a close relative of mine has died, I've had a death dream. Do I think that my relatives are sending me messages from beyond the grave? Probably not. Still, the messages are from them in the sense that their influence on my life is the source of the material in my dream.
In my Dad's death dream, he was laying on a hospital gurney looking very sick. In real life, Dad was robust and active. In the dream, he was emaciated, sporting long, white hair and a long white beard. It didn't look like Dad, but I knew it was him.
As I stood staring at the gurney, feeling sad, Dad raised himself to one elbow and said, "How do you like my joke, Son?"
This dream contains the essence of my spiritual beliefs. As I've let this dream settle into my being, I've come to realize that my Dad was one of the most spiritual people I've known. He was an alcoholic workaholic that never opened a bible and never went to church. He had plenty of other faults that I won't go into. But in the end, I stand by this position.
Every day, he tended his garden. He was in the present, dealing with the present. He accepted whatever situation he found himself in with a matter-of-fact attitude, and practiced good actions. And he did a damned good job of balancing the sacredness of life with the absurdity of life. I'm glad that I got close to Dad before he died, and I've learned to be grateful for the difference his presence made in my life.

VOICES
At this point on my path, I've come to recognize three voices in my own head. Though each voice seems distinct, they're all me (or not-me, as the case may be). These voices don't "look" like anything, but I've created visualizations of them nonetheless.
The first voice is the mundane voice. I visualize this voice as being in the front of my head. The Chinese call it the "monkey voice," and I've adopted the term. This is the voice that chatters on incessantly, usually without discipline or focus. I believe that this voice has a strong influence on how I perceive myself.
When I feel stressed out, I feel caged within the monkey voice. The monkey voice has the podium, and won't let any of the other voices speak. And, at these times, the monkey voice is a doomsayer. I'm envisioning all the worst-case scenarios as though they're already fact. I'm being overly critical of myself and others. I'm feeling overwhelmed; hopeless, helpless and ineffectual.
Waah.
That's okay. Everyone stresses out once in awhile, and everything changes. The more insidious nature of the monkey brain, at least in my case, is it's ability to sabotage my efforts at self-improvement. Left unchecked and unobserved, the monkey brain is great at creating doubt and confusion. In the paradigm that I've created / assimilated, this goes back to the belief that the monkey brain is the primary source of how I view myself.

*
But, you say, if the monkey brain is the source, who is the "me" that is doing the viewing? At this point, Buddhism would say there is no "me," no entity separable from the rest of the universe on which to hang a name tag. When we talk about the self, we are talking about a set of human-created definitions and nothing more. "I" exist because everything exists, and it could not be otherwise.

*
The second voice, I call "Lizzie." It's short for lizard brain, and I named it this because it seems located near the back of my head, where the primal lizard brain is located. As I said before, these voices don't look like anything, but I visualize Lizzie as a sort of biological microphone pointed towards the monkey brain, and having a cord that stretches down to the depths of oblivion (or, more accurately, the third voice that I'll describe shortly).
Lizzie rarely talks, per se, but usually listens and reacts. Lizzie is like a factory, taking components supplied by the monkey brain and manufacturing "me." The downside is that Lizzie takes anything and everything that the monkey brain has to say on face value. So, if the monkey brain is saying things like, "Everything is overwhelming," and, "I can't do this," Lizzie doesn't judge. Lizzie believes, and produces "me" based on that input. Garbage in, garbage out.
There is an upside, though. When I discipline myself to provide positive raw materials with my monkey brain, Lizzie will eventually produce a more positive "me." I guess Lizzie uses a FIFO inventory system, since the process takes awhile.
I equate the monkey brain with the "rational" side of me, though oftentimes "irrational" would be more accurate. Lizzie is closer to the emotional side of me. Lizzie is not the subconscious. Although I normally don't focus my awareness on it, I can be conscious of Lizzie's voice.

*
Again, though, we can ask just who is this "me" that's being created? And again, I would answer that "I" am nothing but an illusion, and don't really exist.
Buddhists also talk about suffering. They say that suffering is universal, and that the root cause of suffering is desire. For a long time, this tenet seemed overly harsh to me. I think that's because the word "suffering" dredges up images of death, disease and starvation. Like most Americans, I've been spared the extremes that life has to offer. In fact, even when compared to many Americans, I've led a fairly privileged life. How, then, can I seriously say that I've ever "suffered?"
At least for me, the trick is not to compare. I've cured bouts of self-pity by observing the triviality of my problems when compared to the problems of others. However, that my problems are less severe is not to say that my problems are less real. There's a flip side. No matter how privileged a life I've led, there are plenty of people who have led even more privileged lives. Even the poorest of African nations has plenty of people who have everything anyone could ever want. And they suffer, too.
If suffering comes from desire, where does desire come from? My original thought was that most desire comes from the monkey brain, but now I think it's a little more complicated than that. I can be fairly anti-social some of the time. I tend to avoid parties and large crowds in general. Still, when I look inside myself as honestly as I can, I sense a primal need for acceptance and, conversely, aversion to rejection. Although the feeling originates further down in my body than the residence of Lizzie, it seems that Lizzie is the "voice" for that urge.
Further, there seems to be an interaction between the monkey and the lizard. The lizard says what it needs, and the monkey tries to provide it. For example, in modern day society, the need to be accepted can be translated by the monkey into the need to be cool. And to be cool, I need a sports car. Without the sports car, I'm not cool and might be rejected. Thus, desire for a sports car is born. A trivial example, to be sure, but hopefully demonstrative of the process.
Let's take one more step back. Why do I have this urge for acceptance? Biologically, I'd say it's a survival trait. Spiritually, I'd say it's the desire to remove the illusion of separation. For all of the talk, I have to admit that most of the time I feel separate and separable from the rest of the universe. While there are times when I experience a feeling of "oneness," or grace, they are rare. When I am in that state of grace, I believe I am touching what most people call God. And that brings us to the third voice: the voice of God.

*
Buddhism doesn't speak of God. It neither denies nor affirms God's existence. To be sure, the religion has adapted itself to the societies it has been exported to, so there are forms of Buddhism whose practitioners pray to God or Gods, but to the best of my knowledge, Buddha himself was silent on the subject.
Taoism, another oriental religion, speaks of the source. Lao-Tzu, the founder of Taoism, said "The Tao that can be spoken of is not the true Tao." I believe that this "source," or Tao, is God.
And the third voice? It can be called the voiceless voice. I said earlier that Lizzie's cord stretched into oblivion. I think that's saying the same thing as that the cord is the connection to the third voice: The voice of Tao; the voice of God.
There are many religions and disciplines in the world that speak of the "center." The third chakra, for example, is located two finger-widths below the navel, and about an inch in. If the third voice has a location, this is where I feel it. It is the wellspring of intuition and illumination. It is the vortex through which we all are connected.
Alan Watts, who popularized Buddhism in America in the 50s, said (paraphrasing), "Each of us is God playing hide and seek from himself." When I read that, it rang true. The playful nature of the image fits well with the trickster myths found in many cultures, and with the humor that I find so necessary in life.
The lizard and the monkey are illusions. The voiceless voice is the reality.

*
I think it's time to stop talking. I'll leave you with a personal koan of mine. The "one hand clapping" thing always left me cold. However, one day I asked myself a question and was immediately transported into that state of grace that I strive for:

Why does the universe not not exist?

The double negative is intentional. I have no way of proving this, but my intuition tells me that the most probable state of affairs is no state of affairs at all. No physical universe. No mental awareness. The very fact of existence, to me, necessitates a higher order of consciousness.

The lizard and the monkey are illusions.

The voiceless voice is the reality.