Thursday, July 17, 2014

Seeking Peace

Photo credit: Penywise from

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.

I chanted these lines from Shantideva daily for about four years, and still bring up them up from time to time.

Those "little cares" that arrive in our lives have the ability to muck things up greatly, if we can't meet them as they are in the moment. The pain in your back, for example, easily can lead to tension, and then irritation, and then angry acting out of some kind. So it often goes.

Many people come to Buddhism seeking relief from all of this. Seeking something they call "peace" and "calm." But how many of us really understand what peace and calm actually are?

It's easy to mistake a kind of relaxed dullness for peace and calm. Some think things like television, video games, comfort eating or drinking, and other such commonplace activities will bring them peace and calm. Others reject such notions, and try to avoid those activities all together, thinking that a certain "purity" will bring peace and calm. Of course, neither way "works."

I had a period of the latter during my early years of Zen practice. In some ways, I think the extreme of cutting out and avoiding all together many commonplace activities was helpful. A form of renunciation needed to gain clarity. However, it wasn't true renunciation, because I was still attached to "not doing" those activities. My identity of being a Zen student seemed tied to it in some ways in fact. Not eating meat. Not watching TV. Not drinking a drop of alcohol for a period. Never playing video games and similar "distractions."

Avoidance based renunciation is useful for breaking old habits, however in the end, it becomes a cage. It also ends up being a way to stall or push away the little cares of life. You can hide out in your meditation practice. Hide out in your view that you are a "good Zen student." And you can rationalize away whatever problems that arise, blaming others or dismissing them as not existing at all.

Those who are mostly lost in comforts and dullness, and those who live in ivory Zen towers, are easily thrown off balance when adversity arises. And this is often when learning to "put up" with little cares can slowly lead one to the peace and calm that is our birthright.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Degenerate Zen

Photo credit: Ladyheart from

Having taught weekly meditation classes for over a year now, one of the repeated themes that comes up is that of the "bad meditator." It's rare that a month goes by without hearing someone say something about not being "good" at meditating, or having tried it "once," but found that their minds were really noisy, or that they couldn't sit still.

There are a lot of stories about what meditation "should" look like, and most of them are hindrances. You're not doing it right if you're mind is full of thoughts. The "goal" is to force all thoughts into silence. You have to sit in full lotus or half lotus. Meditating on chairs isn't meditation. If I can't find a perfectly quiet room to meditate in, I can't do it. The list goes on and on.

I have meditated on buses, park benches, in the middle of protests, and in public restrooms amongst other places. I also frequently chant while bicycling, and for two winters in a row, did lovingkindness meditations while walking in the skyway system in downtown St. Paul. Of course, I also do the normalized formal practice on my meditation cushion at home, at zen center, and in my classes at the yoga center.

And sometimes, I do none of the above.

One of the problems with meditation culture in general, and Soto Zen in particular, is a fixation on one practice. As if it's the only gateway to awakening. Or even the "best" one. I personally think it's an excellent gateway, but that's about as far as I'll go.

Meditation has been a good friend for most of my adult life, always ready to hang out and just be, regardless of how I am. But I have other spiritual friends, and actually, I think we all do, even if we've given in to the notion that whatever practice is the one and only for us.

The dharma name I was given is Tokugo, which translates to "Devotion to enlightenment." Not "to zazen" or "to Zen," but to awakening itself.

I sometimes wonder how the old Zen masters really lived. Not the carectures that have been handed down to us, but the actual people. I'm guessing they weren't really like what we think they were.

The Buddha predicted the eventually decay of the teachings, and lately I've been wondering if we aren't living in the degenerate age he spoke about. There's obviously high levels of social corruption and oppression present in the world today. However, the past was no where near perfect either. The main difference, as far as I can see, is that we have become more efficient as a species, globalizing many of the hells that once were localized.

When I think of all the noise and distractions in the world today, it's hard not to wonder if even issues like "the bad meditator" narrative aren't indicative of causes and conditions of a degenerate age, where the dharmas of awakening are easily overshadowed. At the same time, I'm open to the idea that Joanna Macy and others are putting forth that we are in the middle of a "Great Turning" that is transforming the way we are in the world towards a more awakened, shared experience.

Perhaps both sides of the coin are true together. Devotion seems to keep calling me in that curious direction.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Pain of Living a Bifurcated Spiritual Life

This morning I was thinking about some of the issues I wrote about in an essay published a few years back. For today's post, here's a selection from that piece.

I have practiced yoga in some beautiful, almost immaculate studio spaces over the past several years. And I’ve often felt gratitude for the care that’s put in to the upkeep of these places. The same thing can be said of Clouds in Water Zen Center, with its pristine meditation halls and gathering spaces. At the same time, however, it’s become increasingly clear to me how such practice environments reflect the ways in which so many of us are split off from the very earth we are made of. The nearly pristine floors. The rationally ordered props and altars. The air conditioning in the summer. The centralized heating in the winter. The severe lack of wildness.

Throughout most of its history, yoga has been practice either outdoors, or within the simplest of structures, designed mostly to protect people from the extremes. And whereas Zen has been long practiced in monastic buildings, monks and nuns traditionally spent much of their day outdoors, gathering materials for cooking, traversing the villages, and even meditating along the roads and in the fields. Something of the depth of wisdom is lost, or difficult to locate anyway, when the practices are cloistered off in today’s tamed environments. It’s really easy to forget, for example, that the Buddha became enlightened while sitting at the foot of a tree. Or that many of the postures we practice in yoga were directly taken from observations of animals, plants, and elements of the Earth.

Simply put, humans have become too alienated from our own planet. It’s notable that yogic practices developed around the time this alienation seemed to be forming. Buddhism came later, with Zen forming as an offshoot some 1500-1600 years ago. For all the benefits we have received from agriculture, as well as the development of cities and societies, much has also been lost. The litany of abuse people have unleashed upon the earth, especially in recent centuries, is clearly a sign of deep disconnections, so deep that for some that they might destroy the entire planet in the long term, if it meant big material profits in the short term.

Probably from the beginning, this disconnection has been tied to the oppression of women. Ecofeminist Susan Griffin suggests that we have been living in a “bifurcated system” where the natural world has been turned into something in need of “mastery and domination.” In this system, emotions, vulnerability and tenderness have become “forms of submission.” In the process, women have been socialized “to be more connected with the body than are men, for whom this connection represents a threat.” Even the very ways in which we conceptualize and relate to the Earth have been greatly distorted, and used “to justify the social construction of gender.”

Perhaps those early yogis and Buddhists intuitively felt some of this separation occurring. Maybe they were offering a way for people to re-pattern themselves amidst the unhealthy current around them. Given that yoga, and to a somewhat lesser degree Buddhism, remained primarily the domain of men of elite social status until recent centuries, however it’s obvious that some of that separation had already penetrated quite deeply.

*Photo of Thistles by author.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tree Zen

Photo credit: mrmac04 from

I don't often find myself in agreement with The Zennist, but his current post strikes a chord for me. In particular, the first paragraph:

One of the dangers of over humanizing Zen, which is an attempt to locate truth in our human experiences, is that we may end up identifying our human experiences with truth. This may further lead us to the inescapable truth (a human truth) that our human life, at its most fundamental level, is meaningless (i.e., there is no ultimate reality). This means also that our human experience can have relative meaning but not final meaning. Stated otherwise, this is Protagorian relativism, that is, “Man is the measure of all things.”

Over the years, I have noticed how the non-human world is diminished in modern Zen. It often seems like merely a backdrop for human awakening, or reduced to a "place" - "nature" - where we humans "go" to let go of our worries and perhaps find some inspiration. Exploring the commonplace narratives of the human mind around the non-human world, including "nature as a resource" or nature as "brutish, nasty realm," just isn't on the plate. Beyond this, though, there's the duality at the core that seems almost threatening to consider. Namely, the human/non-human divide.

What if Zen Master Joshu's response in the old koan was mainly about pointing away from human-centric thinking? Let's go further than that. What if Joshu was demonstrating being so wide open that he and the tree could speak with each other, communicate their respective wisdoms across the relative body divide?

Many of us moderns balk at such irrational stuff. listening to trees. Talking with trees. Learning from trees not what we think they teach us, but something else entirely, something our minds can't conjure up. That kind of thing seems to be nothing more than "magical thinking," the stuff of our "ignorant" ancestors.

Well, I'll be honest. I think much of modern religion, including Zen and other Buddhist schools, is dependent upon a suppression of our direct kinship with the planet. No matter if we're speaking of gaining the keys to God's kingdom or those who can become enlightened, it's always humans on the top with everything else below - usually far, far below.

Now, on the one hand, given that we are humans, it's understandable that we would think we are the top dog. The smartest and most awakened. On the other hand, there are numerous examples throughout history, and even today, of cultures that reject such notions, cultures with spiritualities built fully on dynamic kinship, where something like having regular conversations with trees or bees is quite normal. And where a recognition of wisdom cuts across the human/non-human body divide.

The fact is that plants were here on earth before us. And many insect and animals were also here before us in some form or another. We're in so many ways the new kids on the block, and it shows. Who else would poison and destroy its own nest in order to acquire power, fame, and/or material items? Who else would be so foolish as to think they can outwit the entire planet, and even beyond?

What if the Zen koans are so "tough" for most of us precisely because they speak to experience beyond the human-centric trappings we've built around them?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Buddhism in an Age of Manufactured Impermanence

Beautiful iris. Soon this photograph will be all that is left. Some might say the same of the Earth itself. That because nothing lasts, we shouldn't care that much if fracking has become a worldwide activity, or species extinction is happening at an alarmingly fast pace these days, or that the rainforests that many of these disappearing species live in are also disappearing, being shredded for profit. It's all inevitable, some say. I even here this kind of thing from some Buddhist practitioners, using the absolute side of the teachings to justify not attending to the care the relative side is calling us to do, especially when it comes to the non-human life on this planet.

Greed and utilitarianism seem to compete on a moment by moment basis with the recognition that the poisoned water is us. That the murdered pelicans are us. That the oil soaked land cannot possibly be separated from the marrow in our bones.

This majestic oak tree has thrived in a park near my house for longer than most of the residents in St. Paul, myself included, have been alive. Someday, like everything else, it too will die. Will it die of natural causes, or will humans take its life for some mundane or sinister purpose?

Modern civilization seems to be in the business of manufacturing impermanence. We create purposely defective products. We kill far, far more than we need to sustain ourselves. In the name of security, we blow up and poison everyone and everything in sight that is deemed a "threat." In this worldview, dandelions are terrorists. Children murdered in warzones are collateral damage. Endless hours and dollars are expended on creating technology whose sole purpose is to kill, eliminate, obliterate.

In the climate we live in, the impermanence teachings of the Buddha ancestors feel pretty impotent after a certain point. They might be of great help in creating a certain freedom of the mind. However, when applied too much to the social/world context, they become little more than reinforcement for the nihilism that's behind all the murder and destruction. It doesn't really matter that the teachings themselves are not at all nihilistic. The subtleties are too easily swamped, the raft too easily sunk.

Here's another thing. There's not enough love of the non-human world in much of modern Buddhism. Especially Empire Buddhism - that which thrives part in parcel with colonialism and the capitalist economies it spawned. Sure, we talk about love sometimes. But almost always with a healthy dose of non-attachment as a side dish, or even main dish. It's as if we do not trust the process of learning and awakening that comes with the maturation of love. Instead of living through the needed ferociousness of passionate attachment during love's formative years, too many of us opt either to be detached wallflowers or stunted puppies who endlessly miss the opportunities to grow out of infantile attachments that can't possibly help us to serve the world.

Ironically, I think it's time for some manufactured impermanence. Only instead of directing it at all the things that sustain life, let's direct it at all the things that destroy life.

For Empire Buddhism, this might mean burning down some of the cozy huts and being willing to step into an attachment to the well-being of the planet that we accept is desperately needed, even if it's a hindrance to "individual" enlightenment. It may also mean a need to tip the scales away from focusing on the impermanence teachings. Or to reconsider how to offer these teachings in a more targeted way, so that their profundity doesn't just become another cliche in service of destruction. One way to begin to address this is to stop seeking balance. Perhaps emphasizing impermanence when speaking about mind states, for example, but emphasizing protective love when speaking about social concerns and the planet.

What good are the bodhisattva teachings if we aren't willing to wildly apply them to the very Earth that gives each us our breath? Doesn't it strike you that without a planetary focus, all our efforts to help other humans won't amount to too much more than rearranging chairs on the Titanic?

Do not take that last question as minimizing human service and support of other humans. That, too, is always needed. And no doubt for many, it will be the main, if not sole focus of their efforts in life.

What I'm saying is that on a collective level, it's necessary, but not sufficient anymore. We no longer can be a self absorbed species, endlessly living out a collective adolescence. That is, we can't continue doing so without serious, most likely dire consequences as a result.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Zen Failure?

Photo credit: Alvimann from

"In China and Japan there are many stories of teachers who attained enlightenment suddenly like this: 'Umph!' [laughs and snaps his fingers] You may think it was sudden, but it was actually the result of many years of practice and of failing many times. Dogen Zenji's famous words concerning this are "Hitting the mark is the result of ninety-nine failures." The last arrow hit the mark, but only after ninety-nine failures. So failure is actually ok."

Shunryu Suzuki, 1904-1971

Although I just dug up this quote from an old post I wrote several years back, it's message has been on my mind a fair amount lately. Last weekend, the board at Zen center, sans myself, made the decision to choose another candidate for our Executive Director position. Having served the sangha in a variety of capacities, including as chairman of the board for the past 4 1/2 years, I thought I had a really good shot at being hired for the position. Needless to say, I was really disappointed when I wasn't chosen. Given the precarious state of my finances, the decision also leaves me hanging on the edge that I've become so familiar with.

For a few days, I also experienced some stories that might be called "failure narratives." Thoughts that maybe if I had done a little better at the interview, things might have turned out differently. Or, on the flip side, seeing the board's decision as a failure to consider the long term picture, as opposed to immediate needs. Whatever truth elements are present in stories like this, they don't really satisfy the cravings beneath. The desire to have things go the way I wanted. The desire to be right. The desire to have my efforts be rewarded. The list goes on and on.

What is failure? And what is success anyway? Even the confirmation of enlightenment the old monks and nuns experienced didn't mean the end of pain or even suffering completely. "Success" for newly awakened ones simply meant a new beginning that didn't erase the old, but instead enfolded it within a much broader field, transforming the previously stuck into flow.

My arrow was pointed at a specific job at zen center, but there was so much that was out of my control. Failure narratives assume a kind of control that wasn't there, just as had I gotten the position, to say I was "successful" really wouldn't accurate either.

I've had some pretty miserable moments in the past week, and it's good to acknowledge recognizing the ultimate truth in things doesn't always bring instant liberation. Which makes me think that there are some really juicy stories missing from all those pithy koans and biographies of the Zen ancestors.

Dropping off body and mind probably included some wailing and grieving and even a bit of outrage I can imagine. Not just beforehand, but during and even afterward.

Yesterday, I was plucking dandelions to make medicine with. Anyone who has gotten beyond the commonplace hatred of these weeds Americans have knows that they're really bitter plants. Good for digestion and liver health, and all sorts of other things. But still real bitter to the taste buds.

Over the years of consuming bitters like dandelions, I've come to appreciate the flavor. Even find a certain joy in it. Although it's more difficult to locate that in things like not being chosen to step into a new leadership role in my sangha, I have found some appreciation still. Having given the process my all, I know what it's like to give fully and not receive what you wanted in return. (Obviously, this isn't the first time I experienced this, but it was a really clear example in this case.) I also feel the deep abiding okayness of the world, of "my" world, regardless of outcomes and regardless of how I feel about it all in any given moment.

Success and failure, gain and loss. It seems our job in life is to keep aiming and re-aiming our arrows, regardless of what comes our way.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Boko Haram, the 969 Movement, and Owning the Evil Humans Produce

After posting an article dissecting the current responses to the Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria, and the ongoing imperialist agenda in Africa by the US and NATO allies, a friend of mine left a comment on my Facebook page that included the following lines:

"These men aren't Muslims. Let's be clear on this."

I started writing a response to her, but then realized it was getting long, so I'll offer it here as a blog post instead.

There has been a similar debate amongst Buddhists around the globe in response to the hatred driven violence of a group in Burma called the 969 Movement. I wrote this article last summer, and it's gotten worse over there since then, as the movement's influence has spread.

While I think these folks have gone off the rail, and have completely distorted Buddhist teachings to support their agenda, they're still Buddhists. Saying they aren't not only erases their identity, but also allows a false sense of separation from the evil they're producing.

So many Buddhists can't imagine that their religion/spiritual path could be so horribly co-opted and used to justify horrific actions and hatred, but this is only the most current example of a long history of such behavior in different nations. I think it's better to own all of this, recognize that nothing is beyond corruption, and join public calls to clean house. It's a subtle distinction perhaps. I want what the 969 Movement is doing to end, and those who won't stop to be stopped, even if it means they're disrobed, jailed, and tossed out of the Buddhist order (many of the leaders are monks). The difference is the starting point for me is their chosen identity, one which has often been lifelong, however wrong they've gone. What drove these Buddhist people to join this movement and believe the leaders of it? Why are they now turning on neighbors they've lived peacefully with for decades? These are the kinds of questions I have asked.

While I readily agree that the men in Boko Haram do not at all represent what Islam is about, I disagree that they are not Muslims. Especially if they have spent much or all of their lives as Muslims, and haven't just converted to join the fight. Which doesn't seem to be the pattern here. One of the biggest challenges is that this is so much more about poverty, human exploitation, sexism, fallout from colonialism, and fossil fuel power games than about religion. Many of the perpetrators were/are also victims of the elites in control of Boko Haram, and those dying and suffering from their actions are a cross section of Christians, Muslims, and folks with other backgrounds. Instead of saying they aren't Muslim, I ask "What drives these young Muslim men to join this group, and become murderers and oppressors? In addition to calls for this ending, how can we in the world community help diminish the likelihood of this happening again?

It may seem like semantics here, but I actually think it's crucial that these kinds of situations do not be treated as the actions of some small, evil "other." They are us, these folks who perpetrate the worst of atrocities in the name of whatever religion or philosophy they claim supports their actions. Nothing, however sacred and life-giving it may be, is beyond the realm of corruption and co-option. Owning up to this, and claiming the people who act so horribly as part of our communities, is the path towards peace and liberation.