Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The World Inevitably Exposes Our False Identities


Photo credit: Penywise from morguefile.com

There is no I and there is no other.
How can there be intimacy or estrangement?
I recommend giving up trying to get there by meditation,
But rather, directly seizing the reality at hand.
The message of the Diamond Sutra is:
Nothing is excluded from our experienced world.
From beginning to end,
It inevitably exposes our false identities.

Layman P'ang (740-808)

This is quite a jolt of a poem, don't you think? I have been reflecting on this whole "exposure" process lately. How every spring, the snow melts away and reveals both a round of casualties and, also, a round of new life. Body of a squirrel. Barren tree. Rotting couch cushion. Tulip blooming. Burst of bee balm. Newborn robin. Shiny bicycle.

I think there is a place for hiding in, for holding on to those identities, those parts of yourself that aren't completely right, integrated, alive.

And yet, at the same time, it's foolish to either stay there very long, or believe that you can stay there very long.

Winter comes to all of our identities, and everything that we do.
And spring brings in what's next.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Continued Exoticization of #Asians and #Buddhism in America: On Brad Warner's CNN Interview About #NYPD Officer Liu's Funeraln



The recent funeral of NYPD Officer Wenjian Liu offered, among other things, a clear window into race relations here in the United States. Occurring in the middle of the current police "slow down," the funeral also was used as another opportunity for members of the more conservative wing of the NYPD to protest NYC Mayor DeBlasio's fairly mild reform agenda. With plummeting arrest rates, and no real rise in public safety concerns in New York, the NYPD's actions demonstrate the highly bloated quality of the department. Indeed, some of the very issues being raised by the #BlackLivesMatter protests - the hyper-excessive arrest rates for black and brown folks, the Broken Windows policy, and the general state-sanctioned violence of police forces - are being shown for what they truly are: racist, classist oppression.

Meanwhile, this morning I saw the video above floating around my Facebook feed and I had a moment of "huh," followed by a sigh. The choice by CNN of Zen teacher Brad Warner as the face and voice for Buddhism in the US, and in particular, the one to speak about the rituals at Officer Liu's funeral, speaks volumes.

1. The Asian as perpetual outsider narrative is totally upheld here. Not only does the mainstream media choose a white male to represent Buddhism, but they also cast the funeral of a Chinese-American officer as "exotic" enough to require explaining to their audience.

2. The ignoring of, and/or deliberate suppression of, Asian-American Buddhism narrative is upheld. Numerous Asian-American Buddhist teachers and community leaders could have been selected to do this interview, but they weren't. Furthermore, the robust Chinese-American community as a whole is ignored here, not deemed worthy enough even after several generations on the continent of narrating the story of one of their own.

3. The narrative of celebrity worship. While Brad Warner is barely known outside of Buddhist circles, he's something of a celebrity amongst convert Buddhists. And while Brad's a sincere practitioner and serious student of the dharma, the public persona he's developed, and which his almost cult-like following has propped up, easily comes off as superficial and rebellious in a boyish, teenaged sort of manner.

4. Which serves to uphold the narrative that Buddhism is either trivial or not really something to be taken seriously by the rest of Americans. I have a feeling that Brad's choice to don the robes he rarely uses for this interview was in part coming from an understanding of this issue. He probably knew that the punk rocker turned rebel Zen priest image just wouldn't cut it for national TV news.

Here's the thing. I'm guessing Brad simply responded to the call from CNN and did his best to offer folks watching some insight into Buddhism. I think he did pretty good actually of giving some Buddhist basics in a forum that's horribly prone to superficial sound bytes. In fact, he sounded heartfelt and caring as well, something that often gets downplayed or erased in these interviews. So, understand that this post isn't about bashing Brad; it's about the complexities of systemic racism, and also the dynamics behind marginalizing minority religions and spiritual traditions in a still overwhelmingly Christian nation.

Your thoughts?




Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Is "Western" Yoga Cultural Appropriation? A Few Notes on the Confounding, Conflicting Efforts to Decolonize Yoga


Photo credit: jllfitness from morguefile.com

Back in 2012, when I finished my yoga teacher training, I had already been practicing asana and meditation (the two most recognizable limbs of the yogic 8 fold path) for over a decade. Unlike many of those in my training class, yoga was a normalized part of my life. Something that had already sunk in enough to change me and also provoke a lot of questioning.

Several of my teacher training classmates went on to become regular asana teachers, some even before the completed their certificate. I, on the other hand, have gone on a different path, teaching meditation and a handful of asana classes, all the while living with a sense that I want to - need to - learn more, practice more, to truly shape what I have to offer.

In addition, there's the "Yoga Industrial Complex": this world of commodified, mostly asana practice that brings in piles of money while offering yoga as mild to moderate self improvement, as opposed to a path of liberation. Over the years, my opinion on all this has evolved to the point where I'm fine with offering elements of yoga to folks to improve physical and mental health, but still desiring to undermine the capitalist mentality that drives so much of what's offered as yoga, how it's offered, and by what motivations.

A dharma friend of mine sent me this blog post yesterday, which opens up yet another can of worms. Cultural appropriation. Decolonization. The history of yoga under colonialism.

This is contentious territory, no matter how you slice it. Millions of folks in the U.S. teach and practice something called yoga these days. Lots of white people in this group, but significant numbers of people of color as well. And that's just here. Yoga asana practice in particular has spread across the globe in the past century, to the point where even if "purists" wanted to stop it, they probably couldn't.

And yet, the battles over both what is yoga and who can (or can't) rightfully claim it wage on. I've waded in on these from time to time, but often find myself at a loss in both places. Trying to pin down what constitutes "yoga" - even if we focus solely on the various forms of yogic spiritual traditions - is a messy affair. The debates about ownership and cultural appropriation are muddy at best, and often riddled with contradictions. The Hindu American Foundation's Take Back Yoga campaign, for example, is driven by upper caste Hindu-Americans who seek to frame yoga as universally "owned" by Indian Hinduism, all the while sweeping under the rug the elitist roots of the practice and the caste oppression that kept the majority of folks in India (regardless of religious background) from practicing yoga until very recently. In addition, HAF's position papers are filled with quotations from modern Indian yoga teachers who spent the majority of their careers deliberately teaching "Westerners." The fact that so many 19th, 20th, and 21st century Indian yoga teachers have dedicated at least part of their lives offering teachings to people from North America, Europe, and elsewhere muddies the water significantly on the cultural appropriation arguments. Which doesn't mean it's not worth considering, but it isn't the same discussion as, for example, when white Americans take a weekend workshop on indigenous shamanism and then claim to be shamans.

As such, when I came to this section in the original blog post I cited, I found myself feeling mixed. The author, a white yoga teacher from Vancouver, writes

No matter what happens in the future I know that what I have learned from yoga will always be with me. Being able to feel my body, ground into connection with the earth, introduce breath to places that are tight and hiding, sit through pain and discomfort without immediately reacting – all of these things are lessons that I attribute to my having had practiced yoga for the last ten years of my life. All that said, I can’t take part in yoga the way we share it in the west anymore. It took me along time to admit this to myself and make the necessary changes this realization entails, but what I know in my heart, my mind and my gut is that what we are doing in western yoga is an entitled, willfully ignorant act of theft.

The truth is, I feel, that we are appropriating and destroying the practice that we rely on and love so much.

On the one hand, I think she's hitting on the problematic nature of much of what constitutes "yoga" practice in the U.S. and elsewhere. That gut sense that something is profoundly "wrong" about it all is something I have sat with for a good decade now.

At the same time, chalking it up to solely, or mostly, about cultural appropriation by white folks doesn't really fly for me.

In an article responding to a wave of online commentary about the HAF campaign, Prachi Pantakar raises several issues that create a much more complex picture.

Among them is the origins of modern asana practice, which she argues is a blend of Euro-American body practices and teachings from the Yoga Sutras (and elsewhere I would add).

In addition, there's this:

It should not be assumed that all the Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or Sikh communities embrace brahmanical forms of yoga as part of their culture. Representing South Asia as the birthplace of a mythical homogeneous culture is a crusade of the chauvinistic upper-caste Hindus. We need to consciously learn about and highlight the rich, diverse cultures, histories, customs, and spiritual practices of the vast majority of people in South Asia, especially the Dalit and Adivasi communities who are continuing to struggle to keep their cultures alive. What we need is a constant challenge to the caste-privileged attempt to define Hindu, Indian, or South Asian culture as monolithic and theirs.

Pantakar points out that SAAPYA, the group that the Vancouver yoga teacher cites as one of her influences, is offering a message that appears to be very progressive, but also needs to be unpacked.

Much of SAAPYA’s discourse uses the language of social justice and decolonization, though there seems to be a reluctance to distinguish themselves from HAF and its broader ideology.

Just to add another layer of complexity, Roopa Singh, a founder of SAAPYA, rejects Pantakar's portrayal of the organization in a rebuttal piece that also supports many of her other points.

Singh writes:

SAAPYA is not pro-violence, pro-Hindutva, in fact, it’s not a platform super interested in reclaiming yoga for desis who are Hindu. It’s about fighting segregation and the post-colonial whitewashing of yoga through amplifying voices from across the South Asian diaspora in the west. Press has chosen to describe this effort as a take back and such, but those aren’t my ways of describing it.

In reading through other material on the SAAPYA website, it strikes that they are collectively exploring what it means to decolonize yoga. Which is so, so needed.

I didn't get the sense that, for example, they're message is one of telling white people to stop teaching or practicing yoga. Or that yoga is the "property of Hindus." Or some other simplistic message.

Another reason why I didn't buy into the Vancouver author's stated reason for quitting teaching. In fact, I think her last paragraph points more to the truth of the matter.

I’m going to leave you with a note of painful honesty, because I don’t want to let this go unsaid. This is a community that I have often felt pretty alienated and isolated from. I know I’m not the only yoga teacher out there who cares about social justice and I know that it is not often our intention to stifle these conversations, but the truth is, we do. We often focus more on our latest instagram post of our favourite new pose, than we do on the impact of our actions on the world. I have seen some of the wisest, most thoughtful and inspiring teachers I know leave the yoga world, because their ideas were not well received, because they didn’t want to teach huge vinyasa classes or for very little money – or because they realized that this practice is just not right for them. I would encourage you to not let the people who leave exit your mind quietly. Why are we losing so many teachers and role models who want to challenge systems of oppression? Why do they feel silenced in the yoga community? And beyond that, take note of who isn’t here. Who doesn’t show up to class? Really dig deep and ask yourself why. These questions do not have easy answers.

All of this resonates with me. In fact, it really does a good job of summing up many of the reasons why I haven't joined my fellow teacher training classmates in the ranks of studio yoga asana teachers. My original purpose in taking the teacher training in the first place was to be able to sharpen my skills so that I could bring them out of the mainstream. To my former ESL students and others in the recent immigrant communities for example. That isolation she speaks of was only heightened during my teacher training program, leading me to question the whole notion of yoga studios and their cultures. Over two years later, after a year and a half of teaching meditation in a yoga studio, not much has changed in that regard. We've had three meditation teachers try to establish classes in the time I have taught there, and I'm the only one left. And my class draws tiny numbers compared to the asana only classes. Much more could be said about studios, even ones like the one I teach at which do a good job of offering yoga as a spiritual practice in a longstanding tradition, but I'll save that for another post.

I'd be interested in hearing from others on all this. What does it mean to "decolonize" yoga? What do you think of arguments like those being put forth by HAF? What do you think of the white yoga teacher's reasons for quitting?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Silence of White American Buddhists on Ferguson



"Not terribly long ago in a country that many people misremember, if they knew it at all, a black person was killed in public every four days for often the most mundane of infractions, or rather accusation of infractions – for taking a hog, making boastful remarks, for stealing 75 cents. For the most banal of missteps, the penalty could be an hours-long spectacle of torture and lynching. No trial, no jury, no judge, no appeal. Now, well into a new century, as a family in Ferguson, Missouri, buries yet another American teenager killed at the hands of authorities, the rate of police killings of black Americans is nearly the same as the rate of lynchings in the early decades of the 20th century."

Since this is a blog about Buddhism among other things, I'll start with this statement. The majority, perhaps the vast majority of covert Buddhists sanghas in the US will have nothing to public to say about Ferguson. They will not deliberately open their doors, as East Bay Meditation Center is doing today, as a place of respite for the outraged, weary, and sad. They will not issue any public statements about racial injustice, the suppression of peaceful protests, or anything of the like. They will not offer dharma talks on Ferguson, state sanctioned violence, or the militarization of our police departments. They will not show up, in any significant numbers, at protests or solidary events. They most likely won't, in any real tangible manner, demonstrate that the above, quoted reality is a total travesty, and that the only way to stand behind and support our black brothers and sisters is to reject the status quo, and work together to build a more just, and truly peaceful society.

I want to be wrong about all this, but I probably won't be. It's just far too easy for white dominant Buddhist sanghas to minimize, deny, or ignore all this. We don't want to "take sides." We don't want to upset anyone. Politics have no place in the dharma. We don't know the whole story. The list goes on and on.

Part of me has compassion for the fact that this is the karma of hundreds of years of settler colonialist propaganda. That spiritual bypassing, ignorance, and even flat out prejudice and hatred in some cases can drive the words and actions of so many of my fellow white Buddhist practitioners.

The other part of me says for fucks sake, wake up!

I watched the protests in Ferguson on livestream last night for a good hour and a half. Occasionally, I had flashbacks to protests I've been involved in over the past decade. But what they were dealing with was worse. More calculated and oppressive. Tear gas canisters flying everywhere. Military vehicles all over the place. Guns aimed in all directions. It looked like a total war zone.

Apparently, some mainstream media outlets made a huge deal out of a handful of fires. A couple of burning cop cars and buildings. There was plenty of noise made about protesters throwing rocks as well. It sounded way too much like Gaza. Looked way too damned much like Gaza!

We live in a nation built from the fruits of genocide, slavery, and widespread economic oppression. Our leaders support and wage wars across the globe. The United States is, for all intents and purposes, the embodiment of the three poisons (greed, hatred, and ignorance).

Defending the "rule of law," means supporting greed, hatred, and ignorance. Choosing to hang out in the absolute realms, far too common for U.S. Buddhists, especially white ones, means being okay with the endless suffering around us, and within us.

We are a few days from Thanksgiving. A holiday that covers up a legacy of human genocide (that of our indigenous brothers and sisters), while committing one annually against an animal community (our turkey brothers and sisters). And lest this post get consumed by people defending meat eating, I'm not talking about the reverent taking of life to sustain one's own life. I'm talking about 45 million turkeys slaughtered annually, many of them raised in giant factory farms, all for a holiday that is sustained by a settler colonialist myth about the "beginnings" of the nation.
Forgive me for not feeling thankful for any of this.

A few days ago, a 12 year old black boy, Tamir Rice, was shot and killed by Cleveland police. That a boy that young is so readily seen as a "threat" so "dangerous" he must be shot speaks volumes about the state of our affairs. That Darren Wilson is free, but Marissa Alexander in prison and facing another possible 5 year sentence, demonstrates just how fucked up things are - and have been for a long, long time.

And yet, I'm guessing that the coming weeks will be similar to the previous few months when it comes to Ferguson and white majority Buddhist sanghas and practitioners. Mostly silence. And not the kind of silence that comes from meditation practice offering metta and prayers of support to the directly suffering, but more the kind of silence that comes from privilege and settler colonialist thinking.

I spent significant time at my zen center over the past 3 days. I love my sangha, and often feel proud of how far we have come over the years, even on such difficult issues as systemic racism and oppression. And yet, even so, I'm honestly not sure I can go for refuge there on a day like today. I'm just not sure there's space for the mixture of outrage, sadness, and a desire to do more than just sit, although I need - so many of us really - need that too.

This afternoon, I will head to one of our local solidarity demonstrations. It isn't nearly enough, and at every one of these someone speaks to how it's just that: not enough. But until more answers forward arise, we have to do something, say something.

I pray for more awakening, more liberation, to penetrate the hearts and minds of this nation. May the wood of the empire rot, and a new house be built that lets all of us, all beings, thrive.














Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Winter Herbal Meditation



Last weekend, we set our clocks back, and early sunsets ensued. This weekend, the temperature has dropped. Way down. Below freezing at night, and barely above during the day. Even though it's only the second week of November, winter has essentially set in.

For plant lovers, this can be a tough time of year, especially for those of us living in Northern climates. Without access to a greenhouse or some other large, indoor environment, we're left with a few windowsills to fill with pots. Knowing full well that despite our best effort, what we potted in October won't be what's left in the window in April.

And yet, there's something calming about this time of year. The darkness invites a slowing down that our hyper-speed culture rejects the rest of the time. The browns and greys that fill the landscape call out for us to see beyond the surface, to imagine beyond the image we have of being alive. Just because the trees have dropped their leaves doesn't mean they are dead. Just because this year's Yarrow patch is gone doesn't mean that it is gone.

Herbalism seems to attract a lot of literalists in a certain sense. Seeking solutions to the body's various health issues, it's understandable that this would be the case.

However, health is more than a material experience, and plants are so much more than demulcents, anti-inflammatories, and adaptogens.

Don't get me wrong. I love talking and learning about these things. It's commonplace that I get asked about beneficial herbs for various illnesses and conditions and, as a way of introduction to a plant, I offer it's specific, material gifts in response.

You're dealing with low grade depression. Maybe you could try Lemon Balm.

Your throat feels scratchy and you're worried about getting a cold, Elderberry might snuff it out.

But there's so much more to the story. There's so much more to our own stories.

I have overwintered Lemon Balm plants for several years now. What I've noticed is that they always grow to a certain height and volume, and then the leaves start to dry out around the edges. It doesn't seem to matter how much I water them, how large of a pot I offer them, or how rich the soil is that I offer them.

If I sheer off the growth, they slowly grow back during the darkest months.

If I let it go too long, they die.

Bountiful lemon balms almost smile at you with their bright and shiny leaves. They stand tall and proud, filling the air around them with a light, lemony scent. At their height, they bolt towards the sky and burst forth dozens of tiny, white flowers.

There is a slow build up, and then a reach towards infinity. Given just enough of the right conditions, they'll make greatness ensue. However, if the conditions aren't right, they either stay in check or wilt.

For the living, the winter months are mostly about building up and staying in check.

For the dying, regardless of the time of year, everything is wilting.

The difference is often subtle. There doesn't seem to be enough soil, so the roots stop growing, give up on seeking nutrients.

No amount of ingested lemon balm plant material will heal a person whose roots have totally stopped, and completely given up on seeking nutrients. It may kick start the body's engine, but it's only through re-cultivating the personal soil and learning how to stand tall and proud again that a depressed person will truly thrive.

Learning to see beyond the material world is a way to experience true health. Health beyond the immediate body symptoms or emotional ups and downs. The plants can be a guide for us. Watch them, take their medicine. And be well.

* This post originally appeared here.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Buddha Transfigures


Photo credit: noesis from morguefile.com

Transfigure is an interesting word.

to give a new and typically exalted or spiritual appearance to : transform outwardly and usually for the better

In a way, it sounds like another attempt to lie. To deceive. When I saw that definition, an imagine of a friend of mine sitting with a plastic smile on her face during an event she didn't want to attend arose immediately. That smile was about hiding; she told me as much.

But when I reflect on transfigure further, it brings to mind the ritual of placing one's robe on before meditation. The rakusu, the kesa - they symbolize the buddha within, and the way of being a buddha in the "outer" world. (Outer and inner are really just distinctions of the relative world.) Placing the rakusu on my head, I chant the following, and then unfold it and place it around my neck.

How great, this robe of liberation
a formless field of merit,
wrapping ourselves in Buddha's teachings
we free all living beings.

The rakusu is just a piece of sewn cloth, and yet if you look at that verse, it's also a transfiguring. Ordinary being to Buddha. With nothing excluded.

In my life currently, I don't particularly like

the slow speed at which my new professional life is unfolding
the often not knowing what exactly needs to be done next
the awkwardness of being a non-driver in car-centric culture
the desire for light in this mostly dark time of year
the conflict avoidance I still give into sometimes
the attachment to political views and anger that sometimes comes from it
the way fears can keep you from taking the important leaps

but putting on that rakusu is an act of transfiguring all of that, without any agenda. It's moves all of this, as well as anything I think is a wonderful or beneficial part of who I am, beyond good and bad, beyond needs of removing or enhancing.

And I can put that rakusu on in every moment if I choose to - but more often than not, I simply don't choose to. The physical object need not be there to evoke the spirit of it.

How do you work with delinquent qualities? Certainly, many of you reading this blog could say meditation, but what a pat answer that would be. All of this I've seen about the rakusu is from my meditation practice, from putting it on my neck over and over again. But it's not just that. Caring for the details of life is an intimate, original practice, different each and every time.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Did you hear the one about the Dalai Lama and Lululemon?

Seriously, it's no joke. In an era of ever-expanding capitalist reach, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism is teaming up with a corporation well known for its sexism, sizism, and sweatshop labor practices.

Lululemon and the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education are partnering to “promote mindfulness…to foster heart-mind wellbeing in children and youth.”

Heart-mind well-being refers to ”creating a balance between educating the mind and educating the heart” by encouraging children to develop social and emotional skills, as per the description on the Dalai Lama Center’s website. Thanks to this new partnership with Lululemon and the 250,000 Canadian dollars ($221,900) they’ll provide annually for the next three years (that’s almost a quarter of a million dollars every year), the center’s heart-mind education initiative can be expanded and further research can be done on the connection between the heart and mind, so that more kids will be more mindful, compassionate and able to resolve conflicts more peacefully, for example.

I can already hear the spiritual noise train arriving on track 29. What about 'form is emptiness, emptiness is form'? Why are you bringing politics into all this? Why are you hating on Lululemon again? Why are you hating on the Dalai Lama? WHAT ... ABOUT ... THE CHILDREN?!!!!

Spare me. I'm tired of corporate apologetics, idol worship, and the use of dharmic teachings in the service of maintaining colonialism and the capitalism it spawned. This deal has all the hallmarks of the non-profit industrial complex on it, and really, it's pretty sad that the Dalai Lama Center leadership thinks that an expensive clothing company is the kind of outfit that ready, willing, and most importantly able to spread "mindfulness ... and heart-mind wellbeing in children and youth." I mean, the company's target audience isn't even children and youth. If they want to go this route, perhaps joining up with Lego, Microsoft, Nintendo, or some other such corporation might be in order.

Note that the Dalai Lama Center's press release contains not only the NASDAQ tag for Lululemon (in case folks want to invest in stock?), but also a paragraph long description of the company that appears to be cut and pasted from Lululemon's marketing copy.

What does the Dalai Lama Center have to say about the sexism, sizism, classism, and oppressive labor practices of the corporation they're partnering with? Do they intend to also promote mindful awareness of the systemic causes that allow folks like the on again off again leader of Lululemon, Chip Wilson, to essentially get away with comments about pronouncements about women's thighs and jokes about Japanese mispronunciations of Lululemon? Or, since this is supposedly all about the children, will they speak out loudly against Chip Wilson's support of "Third World child labor"? Sure, Wilson is finally gone after a long power struggle, but concretely addressing his views (and their corporate practices) in the context of the global capitalist workplace would put some teeth into this project.

Finally, I have to say that if Lululemon truly wanted to be a leader in promoting mindfulness and compassion in the lives of tomorrow's leaders, they'd invest a hell of a lot more than $750,000. For a corporation bringing in nearly $2 billion annually, that's essentially pocket change. And also a small price to pay for a marketing campaign to restore the company's long tarnished image.