Sunday, August 23, 2015

Buddhist Tensions: the Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong

Picking Flowers

If you want to pick flowers, you have to hike.
Climbing up, don't worry about your weary bones.
Pluck the low branches, pull down the high.
Enjoy alike the spent blossoms, the tight buds.

Ho Xuan Huong (1772-1822 / Vietnam)

Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong was a powerfully independent and outspoken woman living at a time when that was very rare. The energy and mastery of her poetry was so high that it helped elevate the status of Vietnamese to that of a literary language. Although her words are infused with Buddhist understandings and images, Ho Xuan Huong had a defiant, highly critical relationship with the Buddhism of her native Vietnam.

One of the tension points present in her work revolves around sex and sexuality. She was a frequent critic of the pious sounding Vietnamese monks who scoffed at women expressing themselves sexually, but then courted and slept with female devotees and concubines. In addition, she fiercely questioned the double standards of a patriarchal society where men did as they pleased when it came to romantic relationships, while women were confined to roles of dutiful quietude.

Ho Xuan Huong was anything but quiet about sexuality, as the following poem attests.


Praise whoever raised these poles
for some to swing while others watch.

A boy pumps, then arcs his back.
The shapely girl shoves up her hips.

Four pink trousers flapping hard,
two pairs of legs stretched side by side.

Spring games. Who hasn't known them?
Swingposts removed, the holes lie empty.

Many of Ho Xuan Huong's poems read like expressions of freedom. Not longing for it, but actually living and breathing it. If you want to pick flowers, you have to hike. Climbing up, don't worry about your weary bones. Literally, there's the experience of climbing up a hill or mountain. Where I'm living right now, there is a small mountain that the locals like to climb to get exercise and look out over the city in the valley below. I have climbed to the top multiple times. Every time, there has been a point where I consciously chose to be ok with having some aches and pains, and then - as if by magic - I experienced a jolt of renewed energy that helped me reach the summit. Metaphorically, the same lines of the poem can taken as a directive for life. If you want to reach your dreams, you have to let go of fretting and obsessing over every, little obstacle that appears along the way.

As many great poets do, Ho Xuan Huong captures beautifully the fleeting quality of our lives. Particularly that of high moments, and how a wrong decision while on top of the mountain can bring you tumbling down. In another poem laden with sexual images and tension, Huong offers both high level pleasure and a caution to not go too far.

The Jackfruit

I am like a jackfruit on the tree.
To taste you must plug me quick, while fresh:
the skin rough, the pulp thick, yes,
but oh, I warn you against touching --
the rich juice will gush and stain your hands

Beyond pleasure, the richness of the natural world explodes from Huong's poems. Clearly in love with all the wonders of the waxing seasons, spring and summer, she readily invokes the beauty and vibrancy of each in her words.

Spring-Watching Pavilion

A gentle spring evening arrives
airily, unclouded by worldly dust.

Three times the bell tolls echoes like a wave.
We see heaven upside-down in sad puddles.

Love's vast sea cannot be emptied.
And springs of grace flow easily everywhere.

Where is nirvana?
Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten

Here, Huong offers a poem that appears to be passive, but actually is active and full of tension. A gentle, somewhat melancholy start paired with a fierce, declarative ending. Talk of sadness coupled with the deepest expression of love itself.

Overall, she leaves us with an overriding message pointing directly to spiritual liberation. One that isn't separated from the seemingly mundane and material world around us. The pulpy jackfruit is love. The sad puddles are love. The hike to pick flowers is love.

And love is liberation. Available to all, regardless of who we are perceived to be (or not be) in the world.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Study the Whole Self, Not the Marketed Self

Photo credit: mensatic from

Marketing of the self. Aren't we taught to do that pretty early on in life? You gotta stand out or you'll be forgotten, right? You better promote or you will never be successful, right?

I believe there is a double bind around all of this in modern societies. The human tendency to self cherish is the main dish. Humans have been eating it, probably since the beginning of our species. In addition to the main dish is a set of side dishes called consumerism, capitalism, and commodification. Ever seductive, they add endless flavors and textures onto the main dish. I suppose it might be the case that plain old self cherishing gets kind of dull after awhile. It's so much more exciting to be the hot, new product on the block. Or the respected, reliable old one.

The pressure to be a product is damn strong, so much so that even spiritual teachers are falling for it in droves. Being a person with some wisdom mixed with a bag full of delusion doesn't feel good enough. Being a person who takes a shit and can't quite wipe it all clean isn't sexy enough. Being a person who is articulate one minute, and has nothing helpful to say the next just doesn't cut it. And so, we end up with teachers with trademarks at the end of their names. Teachers who spew endless amounts of flowery language. Teachers who market themselves as healers, and then end up abusing the hell out of anyone who gets close to them.

It is any wonder that so many of us are so confused in this life?

Dogen said we need to study the self to forget the self and be liberated by the whole of the universe. This is a great teaching ... and if you think that the self doesn't include the world around you, you're missing the boat. If you think the self doesn't include the racism, sexism, classism, consumerism, warfare, and violence done in the name of religion that we see going on every day, you're simply not studying the self.

I think a lot of Buddhist folks end up studying the "marketed self," as opposed to the whole self. The marketed self might be full of emotional warts and conflicted narratives, but it somehow is treated as a stand alone object, outside of the culture of the society it lives in. This is particularly the case for folks living fairly privileged lives. It's easy to ignore that the murder of black folks in the streets by police officers is just as much about you as the feelings you've held for 30 years about the challenges you had in your childhood.

Some people get really irritated with me when I start talking about systems and collective conditions. Speaking up about white supremacy and systemic racism in white dominated Buddhist centers, for example, tends to create some upset and discomfort. People say things like "spiritual practice is about you. Focus on yourself and stop pointing the finger at others." But this isn't about being petty and judgmental. It's about cultivating an awareness of the larger patterns that are influencing our thinking and behavior. About seeing much of what we see as "normal" and "true" isn't, and that to the extent that we continue mindlessly eating it, we'll be used and controlled by it. And finally, it's about being willing to change and act in support of liberation for all, not just the privileged few.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Green Zen

Photo credit: schmitee from

Today's post comes from my herbal medicine blog at NGTHerbals. Here is an excerpt.

Sometime in the middle of the 8th century, a Zen hermit living in China penned a now famous poem entitled "Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage." It begins with the following lines:

"I've built a grass hut where there's nothing of value.

After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.

When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.

Now it's been lived in - covered by weeds."

Whenever I work with the plants, I try and remember these words. The relaxed attitude about it all. The lack of fixation on certain things having value. The surrender to the fact that no matter what, there are always weeds. All around us, and inside our minds as well.

I try and remember, but more often than not I forget. Or loose track while I pick, pluck, and hack away, claiming the burdock roots for their liver health giving properties, while thrusting away the overgrown grape vines that have no clear use.

If we truly want to be healed and liberated, we need to bow down to the mystery of it all.

Friday, June 19, 2015

On Charleston, Terrorism, and the Future of America

Photo credit: erdenebayar from

Nothing short of an extended, ritual purification and reconciliation will do at this point. Removing and burning Confederate flags is only a starting point. We must burn the entire house of white supremacy to the ground. Every last root needs to be dug up, and held high to the sky until the sun of our hearts dries it to a crisp. All the laws, institutions, and national myths that uphold a largely white elite, and pit the rest of us against each other, must be taken down to the river of our tears and drowned forever.

Remembering, or perhaps learning for the first time, that the terrorism of Dylan Roof is the terrorism of Eric Casebolt is the terrorism of Darren Wilson is the terrorism of your white neighbor, white co-worker, white family member blaming black and brown folks for the ceaseless police violence against them is the terrorism of Monsanto the terrorism of Koch Industries the terrorism of Lockheed Martin the terrorism of Goldman Sachs the terrorism of Wells Fargo the terrorism of US Bank the terrorism of Corrections Corporation of America is the terrorism of Wall Street, J Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue is the terrorism of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement is the terrorism of a Calvinistic prison system is the terrorism of Pearson Education, CASAS, and the hegemony of standardized testing is the terrorism of endless privatizing of public lands is the terrorism of gentrification is the terrorism of Fox News, NBC Nightly News, CNN, ABC, CBS, the TImes, the Post, the Tribune, the USA Today is terrorism. Beneath the gloss, grit, and surface grime, we are terrorism.

And that's ultimately what we will be as a nation. Until we find a way to reconcile with each other and with the Earth that is our home, our subsistence, our very breath.

Those of us who benefit the most under the current system in particular are being called upon to turn away from the terrorism that built this place. To turn and keep our hearts and minds in the direction of justice for all those who suffer so mightily.

Let's remember that everyone's liberation is intimately tied together. Let's stoke the furnace of a love that moves mountains, even if it takes lifetimes to accomplish.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

On Systemic Racism, White American Buddhism, and the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

Unless you've been totally asleep or hiding under a rock, you're probably aware of the unrest in Baltimore over the police murder of Freddie Grey. Odds are that some of you are upset about the property damage that happened during the peak of the protests, and are amongst those calling for peace, just as was the case last fall when protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri.

Here's what I think. The United States is, by design, a nation of violence. It was born through the execution of genocide against Native populations, and was built in large part via theft and slave labor. Our domestic and foreign policy continues to be driven by endless forms of theft and violence, and people of color across the globe bear the brunt of it.

Under these conditions, we should be applauding the fact that the vast majority of protests in Baltimore and elsewhere across the nation in recent weeks have been non-violent. Furthermore, white Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners would do well to restrain themselves from finger wagging at people of color led social movements that aren't conforming to their ideas about "Right action."

I wrote the following in response to some comments on a post made by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship on their Facebook page a few days ago.

White supremacy has infected the majority of white people living in the US to the point where they almost instinctively side with the mostly white ruling class. Otherwise known as the 1%.

Every last calm, rational, dare I say "peaceful" attempt by people of color and their allies to illuminate the endless ways in which the three interlocked poisons of white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism is met with another triple treasure: minimizing, denying, and victim blaming.

And when the heat turns up to the level of revolt, including property damage and injuries, it's always fierce verbal resistance from the white masses, a ratcheting up of the oppressiveness from the state, and even more minimizing, denying, and victim blaming.

White Buddhists have a fondness for making appeals for non-violence, and yet far too few are actively working to dismantle white supremacy, and the oppressive economic and social systems that were built to keep it in place, keep us divided, and guarantee that the ruling class stays in place.

In meditation, we're often cued to watch for and unearth our habitual patterns. I have watched these patterns within the US Buddhist community and in the nation as whole unfold for a good generation now, but our history as a nation is built on this kind of call and response. There's never been a house that wasn't thoroughly divided, and riddled with the bullets of inequity, injustice, and systemic, cold blooded murders in the name of maintaining order. Whatever non-violent action has come in the past 500 years - and there has been much - has ALWAYS come against the odds, on land and air so saturated with violence that everything, right down to our water tables, is poisoned.

If you're feeling compelled to condemn the breaking of windows, the burning of buildings, "black on black crime," the injuring of police officers, etc - how about instead taking a pause, and doing some deep reflection on the legacy of this nation. On the endless cycles of violence here and abroad that have led us to today. On all the ways in which the white supremacy that Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, and so many others were resisting in Baltimore well over a century ago is the same white supremacy the protesters are resisting today.

BPF's post contains an article from The Atlantic well worth the read.

I'd like to that it's vitally important to remember that the non-violent social movements that many of us uphold as models - such as the U.S. Civil Rights movement - took years, if not decades to develop. And along the way, there were uprisings that included property damage, injuries, and even deaths. Living in a society that does everything in its power to divide and oppress, and make war and violent conflict seem normal and inevitable, every generation needs to learn anew how to build sustained movements grounded in a diversity of non-violent tactics.

In addition, every new social movement is forced to counter the propaganda of the elite, which aims to render all tactics of liberation as violence. For example, many in the general public, especially amongst white folks, saw the freeway blocking or pop up lunch demonstrations in the months following the Ferguson uprising as illegitimate or somehow worthy of condemnation. Never mind that these are precisely the kind of non-violent tactics necessary to disrupt the narratives of white supremacy and get people talking about possible solutions.

When all other avenues of gaining attention and working to address grievances are shut down, is it any wonder that people sometimes resort to property destruction and physical conflict?

Like many of you, I long for a sustained social movement built on non-violence that leads us towards liberation for all. Let's make the effort to be allies to each other. Instead of assuming the worst of people that are out in the streets fighting for their rights, lets have a more generous understanding of what's going on. Which includes a knowing that there are already many individuals and groups within a movement like BlackLivesMatter working to build creative responses based in non-violent action. The mainstream media would have you believe otherwise, but then again, they're owned and operated by the very people that keep us divided and fighting amongst each other.

Yesterday, I was a part of our annual May Day march in Minneapolis (see photo), which this year merged with a rally and march for BlackLivesMatter. The crowd was highly diverse, and speaker after speaker pointed to the beautiful possibilities that could become reality if we come together, instead of remaining apart. It's time for a critical mass of white American Buddhists and other spiritual practitioners to step up, be supportive, and join the #BlackLivesMatter movement in whatever ways they can.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mansplaining Away Rape Culture: Waylon Lewis' "Strange" Partial Defense of Yoga Guru Bikram Choudhury

Waylon Lewis of the popular spiritual webzine Elephant Journal has a history of ... ahem ... troubling behavior. In 2011, I wrote a post about racism on EJ, which Waylon sought to defend as humor. The same post and comments section goes into other problematic editorial choices, as well as pointing out how criticism tended to receive a combination of snarky and inflammatory responses from Waylon. That was 4 years ago, and for the most part, I haven't given Elephant Journal any attention. However, that post routinely falls in my top 5 weekly reads list, and new comments have come long after the original issue had died down.

This morning, my attention was drawn to a new controversy. For some odd reason, Waylon has chosen to make a video pleading with us to maintain an "innocent until proven guilty" attitude when it comes to the sexual assault and rape case against Mr. Hot Yoga Empire Dude. Aka Bikram Choudhury.

Of all the people in the yoga world, Bikram is probably the last person in need of such "support." He's amongst the uber wealthy in this country. He's taken the privatization of ancient spiritual wisdom and practices to new heights. And, most importantly, there's an endless string of lawsuits and allegations against him going back well over a decade in some cases. Sure, it's technically true that Bikram is in a court of law innocent until proven guilty. However, throwing your weight behind someone with Bikram's track record is a dangerous proposition. Especially if you're another privileged male. The slide from well intentioned supporter to upholding the good ole boys club and patriarchal oppression is swift and almost inevitable.

But this video wasn't just a call to not indict Bikram prematurely. It was a powerhouse load of horseshit commentary on the nature of sexual assault and rape, as well as the supposed responsibilities of victims experiencing threaten, or potentially threatening conditions. Here are several rebuttal comments from women, as reported in the Wonkette article I cited above, that offer some insight into what I mean:

“Hey Waylon, I think it is a mistake to combine rape culture education awareness together with the Bikram case….I think you make a mistake to pit a feminist approach against a men’s group approach.”

“Placing the responsibility for preventing rape on women, and placing blame on women for not saying no, however gently, has been around for decades. It hasn’t prevented rape.”

“I fear that the way you approach these issues and this topic is confirming the reasons why women do not come forward….I hope that you can listen to this feedback, watch this video yourself, and start to have more awareness of yourself and these issues.”

“I just found it to be a regurgitation of society’s lack of understanding of the depth and breadth of this issue.”

“The way that you have attacked commenters who have had the courage to speak to the confusing and upsetting tone of this video is disturbing to me.”

“The video is a mass of contradictions and confused thinking about rape/sexual assault. Consensual sex is not sexual assault….Weirdly, despite your entire video lamenting acts of sexual assault, you appear not to know the difference.”

As a survivor of a sexual assault via a visiting male professor during my undergraduate days, I find so much of Waylon's take on these issues painfully ignorant and highly damaging. He's since apologized for producing an "offensive" video, but really, offensiveness is the least of my concerns. If Waylon were just some random yoga blogger dude offering such tropes as go report your concerns to the police and they'll take care of it and "just say no" I'd probably just shake my head and perhaps leave a brief comment with some educational links attached to it. However, for better or worse, Waylon runs a magazine with a fairly large following and has become a public figure of some standing in the American yoga and Buddhist communities. Which frankly is a big problem.

I'm guessing that this post will be dismissed by some in spiritual circles as being "personal," coming from "wrong speech," or lacking compassion. In my opinion, though, staying silent on such issues when you have to opportunity and ability to say something corrective is lacking compassion. Furthermore, as a man who is bone tired of the numerous ways in which patriarchy and colonialism have oppressed, damaged, and destroyed people of all genders, I feel that it's long past time for men to see it as normal to call out the bullshit of other men, and work towards creating a more liberated society for all.

So, Waylon and any other man tempted to defend his take on rape and sexual assault: YOU DON'T HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT! Please, go educate yourselves. You can find some eyeopening statistics and other information here to start with. I can tell you that I didn't say a word to anyone about my assault for a year and a half. I lived with feelings of guilt, shame and confusion that no one sans other survivors really can fully understand. Men are even less likely than women to report such incidents than women, but overall reporting rates are really low, and attitudes like your own only help to guarantee a continuation of that.

Furthermore, don't - in response to what I just wrote - offer "sorries" to me or other survivors for what we went through. Sorry does nothing to put an end to rape culture and the patriarchy that spawned it. Instead, do your homework and start asking what you can do to change the culture.

And whatever you do, stop putting out videos defending notorious male yoga gurus. Just stop. Bikram is more than well equipped to defend himself as it is. So much that even in the face of piles of damaging evidence, he might go free when the odds are he shouldn't.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

We Are Becoming Strangers to Each Other

Photo credit: JessicaGale from

The other day, I was on a bus heading to work. There was a guy sitting near me with his headphones turned all the way up. Across the aisle, another guy talked loudly into a cell phone about banalities to some other guy he'd never met before. At one point, head phone dude turned to the woman sitting next to him and said, "This is why I got these headphones. For idiots like that," pointing to the guy on the cell phone. Then he returned to bopping his head to the techno music the entire front end of the bus could hear.

When reflecting on this scene, a few things come to mind. First off, the ways in which simple connecting and interacting with strangers or relative strangers is often sorely lacking in modern urban life. The invasion of technology, as well as multiple generations of people indoctrinated to fear their neighbors, or be suspicious of the actions of those they don’t know, has made something as basic as conversations between strangers a rarity. In addition, the disappearance of public space in many cities has eliminated the majority of opportunities to even have those conversations – to make connections with people who you probably would normally not connect with otherwise.

Public spaces are being privatized by the minute. Spending more time in downtown Minneapolis recently, it was interesting to read this article, which points out how little public space is actually left for people to gather together downtown. Not only does the lack of public space lead to more segregated places, but it also creates severe limits on the ability of people to exercise basic rights, such as the right to petition the government and conduct public demonstrations about social issues.

At the same time, remaining public spaces, like buses, are filled with a mixture of invasions into personal space and a lack of healthy, shared interactions between people. On another ride filled with people on cell phones, blackberries, and head thumping music, the guy sitting next to me tried to strike up a conversation with me. However, since I’d spent the previous half an hour bombarded by the noise of cell phone conversations and music from ipods, I could barely follow what he was saying.

And maybe it's just me, but just having a conversation with a stranger for the sake of it seems to becoming rarer and rarer. People want money. Or a cigarette. Or to borrow a cell phone. Or a lighter. As soon as such requests are fulfilled or not fulfilled, the interaction is over. It's totally understandable that someone who is destitute and desperate will be focused on getting their basic needs met. However, I'm seeing this behavior all over, seemingly regardless of background and needs. And I can’t claim to be all that much better. Sometimes, I try to interact or at least smile at people I meet on the street or on the bus. Other times, I avoid eye contact all together, hoping to avoid an expected request that I can’t, or don’t wish to fulfill.

How much of this is a regional, or national theme? I don’t know. It would be interesting to hear other folks’ experiences with these issues. Do you think it’s more difficult to have actual conversations with people in public places? Do you ever strike up conversations with strangers? Do you have any interesting stories related to this topic to share with the rest of us?