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.










Thursday, October 9, 2014

the basis for the bodhisattva work of non-violent intervention


Photo credit: hrustall from morguefile.com

I was on the bus this morning and I saw a woman hurrying across the street in front of us. She was clearly anxious and as she passed the large, wide front bus window, I noticed a ball of tension rising within me. Looking at her struggling, I felt a resistance, a not wanting to "deal" with her appearance in my life.

And it hit me - this was the confused mix of compassion and control I often respond to the human-filled environment with. I felt whatever she was experiencing trying to enter me, and I both wanted to heal it, and banish it at the same time. While desiring to heal or help someone is a compassionate feeling, it often tied to a self centered desire to significantly reduce the amount of time you have to spend witnessing another person's suffering. Wanting to banish suffering can also be a noble impulse, but too often this impulse is tied to violence and/or hatred.

"Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can't be faced or turned away from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instruction,
Bind grasses to build a hut, and don't give up."

We are called to learn how to see ourselves, and others, completely - moment after moment. That turning "the light o shine within" allows us to act in the world, as opposed to react to it.

Shitou (author of the above) , lived a lot of his life in intimacy with the planet as it was. The ancestral trees, grasses, medicine plants, waters, mountains - these were as much his teachers as any human, if not more. At the same time, familial and cultural human ancestors probably played a large role in his life. Another reason perhaps why it took only two poems to cement his place amongst the great Buddhist teachers. He didn't need a lot of words because he had taken everything in, and wasn't controlled by it, but could engage with it fully.

Things are probably more complicated for a lot of us living now, but at the same time, there are these lines from the Sandokai:

"In the light there is darkness, but don't take it as darkness;
In the dark there is light, but don't see it as light."

Bumping up against human stress and suffering might be more concentrated now, but still is not all that different from twelve hundred years ago. The stress and suffering of the planet is probably much more in our faces now, but decay and death have always been with us.

At the same time, we don't have the luxury to just copy what the various ancestors did. Or we can, but it won't bring the liberation we say we're seeking.

In responding to changing weather conditions, soil conditions, sunlight and moonlight conditions, each generation of trees grows somewhat differently from the previous ones. And yet, through the seeds, their ancestral lineage remains fully intact.

The basis for the bodhisattva work of non-violent intervention is being able to see ourselves, and others, completely - moment after moment. And then acting from that clear seeing.



Friday, September 26, 2014

Che Guevara, Buddhism, and Jumping to Conclusions

What the hell does Che Guevara, the infamous Cuban revolutionary, have to do with Buddhism? I'm guess it's probably never been on the radar for most of you, and I'm also imagining that the very mention of the name sparks powerful reactions for some of you. Freedom fighter. Compassionate doctor. Communist troublemaker. Armed terrorist. Maybe one or more of these phrase fit how you place him. Certainly, the man has been romanticized on the one hand by people on the left who sport t-shirts with his image, and/or have seen movies like "The Motorcycle Diaries" or who have read his writings about the impact of colonialism, capitalism, and the dream of a unified American continent (north and south). Whatever the chosen image, he almost always seems to be larger than life.

As part of my continued exploration of Latin American Buddhism, I'm reviewing some articles from the Spring 2001 issue of Turning Wheel, the magazine of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Thanks to the Jizo Chronicles for the reminder about this issue of Turning Wheel, which I had, long forgotten, tucked away in my closet.

Lourdes Arguelles, in her guest editorial, writes of a humid Cuban day in late 1959 when she, as a high school student, was sitting on the steps of the University of La Habana, reading a book of Pablo Neruda's poetry. She says she was waiting to march in one of the many demonstrations that occurred at that time in Cuba when she looked up and say Che Guevara standing next to her and her friends. He asked what she was reading, and after some approval of Neruda on his part, she said she, for some reason asked him "Someone once told me that Neruda had lived in Asia and was interested in the Buddha. Do you know if he has anything written about that?"

Arguelles goes on to say she really didn't know why she had asked him that, of all things, and how her friends wondered, in amazement, why she spoke of the Buddha of all things to this powerful political figure. And then she writes that a few weeks later, her father, who worked closely with Guevara at the time, arrived home one day with a package. It was another book of poetry, with a letter in it that said "Che said to tell you he looked very hard for what you wanted but couldn't find it. He sends you another book of Neruda poems for your collection." What's totally interesting to me is that her father knew nothing of the earlier exchange; he simply brought the message and book home to his daughter.

Now, maybe this is just a nice story, you might say. In fact, some of you might think it's propaganda to support a more positive image of the man. Whatever you think of Guevara, it's worth noting that this story is a great example of how people - especially well known people - are usually much more than we see. The human mind tends to compartmentalize well-known people, or even people we know, by ignoring the whole picture, or assuming there's nothing beyond what we know.

This iconic figure who sought an end to capitalism and injustice globally, and who also relied heavily on violence measures to do so, was also just another person in the world. This simple act of kindness on Che's part, never mentioned in the biographies and love-ographies or hate-ograpies, brings him back down to earth. It's also the case that we could probably easily find stories about the guy making mundane mistakes, which again would temper the dramatic, larger than life character he has become.

It seems to me that it is our job, as Buddhist practitioners, to drop off all pre-conceived stories about both those in our lives, and about those who lived in the past, and to be ready and open to be surprised. This story of Arguelles provided a moment of surprise, an opportunity to shake the story I had about Guevara as solely a sometimes inspirational, sometimes destructive revolutionary. Maybe he had no interest whatsoever in the Buddha and his teachings; that's irrelevant. What is relevant is that he took the time for this young woman, even if that effort was at least partly motivated by ties to her father or to desires that she would support his politics. She wasn't anyone important, so even if his motives were tainted in the ways I just suggested, it really didn't benefit him much. So I see this as an act of caring. Someone asked him about a writer he loved, and he tried to find something else out about that writer for the other. As a writer who loves many other writers, both living and dead, I completely get this act. I've done it myself, without any belief that I would gain by locating information about writer X.

Maybe this is a somewhat naive take on this situation, but I really don't get the sense that Arguelles is lying about her story. She finishes up her introduction to the issue of Turning Wheel saying that even though she has rejected Che's "modernizing and violent insurrection philosophy" and that his efforts brought "grief" to her life and the lives of countless others, she nevertheless dedicated the issue to his memory.

He clearly left a powerful impression on her as a teenager, with that simple act of kindness. And I offer this to you now as an effort to shake those images you have of whomever you have deemed "evil" or "horrible beyond repair." We are never solely our worst acts, or our best acts even. Our actions in total are the ground upon which we stand. May we remember that every day, for the rest of our lives.

And just for your reading pleasure, here's a favorite poem of mine from Neruda entitled "Ode to the Lemon." Enjoy!


Ode To The Lemon
by Pablo Neruda

From blossoms
released
by the moonlight,
from an
aroma of exasperated
love,
steeped in fragrance,
yellowness
drifted from the lemon tree,
and from its plantarium
lemons descended to the earth.

Tender yield!
The coasts,
the markets glowed
with light, with
unrefined gold;
we opened
two halves
of a miracle,
congealed acid
trickled
from the hemispheres
of a star,
the most intense liqueur
of nature,
unique, vivid,
concentrated,
born of the cool, fresh
lemon,
of its fragrant house,
its acid, secret symmetry.

Knives
sliced a small
cathedral
in the lemon,
the concealed apse, opened,
revealed acid stained glass,
drops
oozed topaz,
altars,
cool architecture.

So, when you hold
the hemisphere
of a cut lemon
above your plate,
you spill
a universe of gold,
a
yellow goblet
of miracles,
a fragrant nipple
of the earth's breast,
a ray of light that was made fruit,
the minute fire of a planet.

*Note, an earlier version of this post appeared on Dangerous Harvests on 11/29/09

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Mainstream American Yoga Avoids Suffering


After co-teaching a workshop on yoga and other movement practices in our social movements, I have been watching folks talk online about Yoga Journal and the state of American yoga these days. There's a lot that can be said in this regard, from the continued influence of colonialist narratives, to the heavy commodification of the practice. However, today I'd like to focus on this:

Much of the modern American yoga world avoids suffering.

Thinking that people are already challenged enough, yoga teachers, studios, and the like spin everything towards bliss, or its poorer cousin comfort.

Which seems to be a balm for the mundane stress of office jobs, traffic, or dealing with upset children, but leaves people absolutely stranded when something like loosing a parent happens. Or how to process the ongoing imperialist war machine. Or how to face, and possibly effectively challenge systemic racism, sexism, or homophobia. Or how to be and act in ways that resist eco-cide, and promote eco-centricism on an individual and societal scale. In other words, how to be a liberated being in the world.

For several years now, I have regularly said this verse at or near bedtime from the 8th century Buddhist monk Shantideva:

There's nothing that does not grow light
through habit and familiarity,
putting up with little cares,
I'll train myself to bear with great adversity.

These four lines have been more useful to me than a thousand yoga platitudes. But they also are, if you actually put them into practice, challenging words to swallow. When I bitch and moan and fuss about the "little cares," I'm forgetting them. When I fake being happy, or dismiss something bothering me as "nothing," I'm forgetting them. When I indulge in easy hatred towards the folks in power positions that are creating so much hell in the world, I'm forgetting that buddhanature is boundless, and that my liberation is bound up with everyone elses'.

Over the years, I have worked with perhaps four or five excellent yoga teachers. All of them gave suffering a fair shake; all of them understood the balance between challenging people to face their lives as they are, and also to be kind to yourself and relax; and the majority of them saw the teachings not just as individual tools, but also as gateways into understanding and acting in the world around us. In this, working on a political campaign or being part of a collective effort to develop new alternatives was just as worthy of a dharma talk as facing emotional challenges, or becoming more intimate with the breath or some other object of meditation. Along these lines, taking up Warrior Pose (see teaching image above) can more easily be seen as a training ground for cultivating the strength to stay grounded in the midst of a protest, or picket line, or heated meeting with a public official.

As I see it, American Yoga is not devoid of bodhisattvas - to use Buddhist language - it's just flooded with people who are essentially trading in the destructive addictions our our society people use to cope, with something that is more beneficial, but ultimately is still just a coping mechanism.

Being able to cope without destroying yourself is a big plus. But what happens when the bottom falls out on the coping mechanism? What if, in being able to cope more, you're also aiding the continuation of the systems of oppression and suffering that brought on much of the very misery you sought relief from in the first place?

The best medicine goes straight to the roots, taking out that which feeds all the surface-level disorders. Sometimes, it acts swiftly; other times, it slowly seeps in, like Shantideva's words above have for me.

In any case, perhaps American yoga can take a cue from the Buddha and turn more directly towards suffering, individually and collectively. This won't solve the myriad of issues with the American yoga scene, but in my book, it would be a step in the right direction.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Buddhist Peace Fellowship National Gathering is This Weekend!



I'm heading to Oakland this evening to attend the Buddhist Peace Fellowship's National Gathering. There, I'll be co-teaching a workshop on Movement for Right Action, yoga and other movement practices for social activists. Will give a report when I return.