Monday, June 29, 2009

Engaged Buddhism

Well, I stumbled upon the blog Tengu House because of a post about President Obama and Buddhists that I felt compelled to comment on. And then I noticed a few articles on Engaged Buddhism, and decided to take a look. Needless to say, the posts got me a bit riled up, and so I give you my response below. I'm pretty sure that the use of the word "lobby" in terms of Buddha's actions with prominent figures of his day is probably not correct, or maybe too strong. But anyway, here's what was said.

The author of Tengu House wrote: "We can protest private corporations, government agencies, elected officials and media outlets until we’re out of oxygen and our arms fall off from holding our signs. All of this may have the effect of making us feel better, momentarily, but this isn’t what the Buddha taught us. The Buddha taught us to find the peace that is already within us, and then to teach others to find the peace that is already within them, if they want."

And I responded, "Actually, I disagree. Why suggest practice is only one way? It's possible to discover truth about life, about the moment as it is, right in the middle of a protest, or negotiating a piece of legislation with a legislator, or coming together as a community to clean up a toxic waste site. I've experienced this myself, and it's been beyond whether or not 'my side' of an issue 'won' or was the 'right' one.

I think you're tossing the baby out with the bathwater.

Yes, it's disappointing that Buddhists are pigeonholed as all 'liberals' who support in the case of the U.S. the Democrats. That's false. And it's unfortunate when people toss out their sitting practice, and/or fail to keep digging into their own greed, hatred, and delusion because they are too busy working on political causes. But I take very seriously the teaching that there are 84,000 dharma gates - anything and everything can be a point of awakening for us. And I'd argue that, in working on a collective scale to change something, you learn a hell of a lot about your life - about where you are attached and where you have been freed - by being in the middle of such group efforts.

And the Buddha himself, for the record, often lobbied political leaders, military people, and business people who were not members of his sangha. He directly attempted to stop conflicts between warring groups in his home region at least twice, the second time having to watch as his efforts failed (at least in the short term). Now, this was not the lobbying or intervention we know of today, but it, along with Buddha's teachings in the Pali Canon on 'good governing,'
suggest that Buddha felt the social/political world was not outside of his teachings.

As for someone chaining themselves to a tree - how do you know for sure that this is not Buddhist? How do you know for sure that this act is not upholding the precept of not killing? What is Buddhist anyway?

Do you know the koan about Nansen cutting the cat in half?

Nansen saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. He seized the cat and told the monks: `If any of you say a good word, you can save the cat.'
No one answered. So Nansen boldly cut the cat in two pieces.

That evening Joshu returned and Nansen told him about this. Joshu removed his sandals and, placing them on his head, walked out.

Nansen said: `If you had been there, you could have saved the cat.'

Was it Buddhist to kill a cat? Is it Buddhist to cut off any part of life and say it's not practice?"

Here's the link to the original post. (Sorry it's not easier to use - I can't seem to figure out how to paste a link in so you can just click it.)

I'm very interested in others views of Engaged Buddhism, or simply Buddhist practice and "activism" in its myriad of forms. Feel free to drop a comment if you're inclined.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

God, Guns, and the Good Ole US of A

The photo above is from the New York Times of Pastor Ken Pagano getting ready to use a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun at a shooting range. (Click on the picture for the full image; sorry it got cut off somehow.) This is probably not the first thing you think of when you imagine a church leader, but I suppose a reality check is always helpful for all of us who might suffer from wishful thinking.

Yesterday, the Pastor invited the members of his church in Louisville, Kentucky to bring their guns to the service, which he called a "celebration of our rights as Americans," and considered a prelude to the upcoming Fourth of July Independence holiday. In an interview with the New York Times Wednesday, Pastor Pagano is quoted as saying "Guns and God were part of the foundation of this country."

Well, part of me vehimently wants to argue against that, citing the fact that most of the "founding fathers," for example, were not members of Christian churches and/or had very ambivilent relationships with organized religion in general. And while it's true that symbolically, at least, our government gives a strong nod to Christian-based images, holidays, and sayings, it's also true that from the beginning, there was a strong emphasis on freedom to practice or believe what one wanted to. This is pecisely because people like George Washinton and Thomas Jefferson felt it was important to support a diversity of spiritual beliefs, and even those who had no belief in spiritual life.

But I have to say at the same time that this brazen display of gun support by Pastor Pagano and the members of the New Bethel Church actually represents an important, if very sad, part of U.S. culture. We are a nation that began in violence, often with the use of Christian teachings as retorical underpinning. We continue to be a nation that too often resorts to violence as a means of dealing with conflict. And we believe that it is our right not only to own the weapons that help us commit those violent acts, but also that it's essentially a God-give right to use violence whenever we are, or feel, threatened.

When the leader of another church spoke against Pastor Pagano's efforts, here's how he responded "When someone from within the church tells me that being a Christian and having firearms are contradictions, that they’re incompatible with the Gospel — baloney. As soon as you start saying that it’s not something that Christians do, well, guns are just the foil. The issue now is the Gospel. So in a sense, it does become a crusade. Now the Gospel is at stake.” Sure sounds like fightin' words, doesn't it? I'm not intending to suggest the Pastor is out to shot anyone who disagrees with him, only to point out how quickly this issue turns from an exchange of opinions to strong willed, almost militant defense. I've seen this happen in discussions with members of my own extended family, who really don't have time for talk of peace or compassion.

I find myself at a bit of a loss when facing this reality. Every year, countless people in the U.S. are murdered over trivial things or during trivial arguments. Every year, we have more than our share of home grown terroristic acts by men (almost always men) driven over the edge by their own anger, intolerance, as well as some series of issues in society that effected them personally. By no means is the U.S. the worst off place when it comes to violence, but we have such a profound disconnect between how we see ourselves and portray ourselves to the rest of the world - as a nation of freedom, peace, and democracy - and how we actually behave as a nation, and as individuals.

Sometimes, I reflect on words like the Buddha's from the Dammapada:

In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.

And I wonder if they are too simple or unrealistic to address the complicated mess we have when it comes to guns and violence, and the ways in which we have collectively and individually supported or rationalized that violence over the centuries. I am personally one that really thinks it's important to apply our spiritual learnings to the issues in the greater community, and world as a whole. Just sitting isn't enough for me, even though I feel so tremendously supported by that sitting practice. And yet, even on the individual level, it's no small task to whittle away at those seeds of violence within. Hatred seems to have endless masks, some easy to recognize, others very difficult to.

Even though I often find myself tripped up by the violence present in the world, and in my own life, I continue to feel it's essential to work on both edges - to be tempered by the fires within and without (to use our familiar, dualistic language markers). Just being an "activist" trying to change gun laws or address the violence in our culture is a recipe for burnout and arrogance. And just sitting while the house burns down all around us seems a bit foolish.

I suppose a good place to start is to not demonize the Pastor and those who follow him. That doesn't seem to hard. At least it's a beginning. You gotta start somewhere.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Eckhart Tolle's New Alliance

I got this video from over at the Zen Mirror blog (see my blog list for the link). Now, I like Eckhart Tolle's work. He's aware, insightful, and clear enough to get into the minds and hearts of many who will probably never step the door of a zendo or other spiritual community. Although he often gets lumped in with other New Age types, like Deepak Chopra, I don't think it's a fair assessment.The one criticism I have had of Tolle's work is that the sangha seems to be missing, as is a deeper reflection on social issues and how our spiritual lives might help address the societal ills of the day. However, unlike many of the New Age superstars, who sell sugar coated positive thinking, Tolle does his best to get us to break down our ego attachments, and to see what is actually present right now in our lives. He's not always soft, and easy to digest, and I appreciate that.

But I have to say I find this new alliance with the Queen of Pop television - Oprah - troubling. Sure, some may say that this is a good way to get his teachings out to an even wider audience, and I suppose that's true. And yet, as you'll see in the video, there's a hell of a lot of consumerism behind this project, which is always the case when Oprah is involved. Oprah's rise from poverty may be inspiring, but her promotion and excessive indulgence in material goods, materialistic viewpoints, and western capitalist solutions to national and world problems has always left a bad taste in my mouth. A great example of this is the elitist girls school she founded in South Africa in 2007. Not only has the school had a pair of sex scandals, but it also is an example of the soft colonialism that continues to occur in Africa. In other words, the school is well meaning, but it really doesn't take into account the cultural and community dynamics at play, nor the impact of taking a small group of girls from their homes and placing them in a very materially rich, closed environment for months or even years at a time.

As for Tolle and Oprah working together, it's difficult for me to believe that the bit of "edge" Tolle has will continue to be present. And will this become just another money making, ego inflating enterprise for both of them, despite their best intentions? Already, Tolle's workshops are out of reach financially for a lot of people. But add to that the selling drive of Team Oprah (i.e. her corporate backers), and you have a recipe for the feel good spiritual product of the century.

I can imagine a fair amount of readers on here already view Tolle as watered down and lacking depth. But regardless of how you view his work, I do think that what he has done up until now, and what he does in the future has some impact on how the dharma sets itself in the West. Why? Partly because I've personally met a fair number of people who have become zen practitioners at some point after reading Tolle's books, and can imagine this is true in other places as well. In addition, although Tolle doesn't claim a spiritual tradition, his emphasis on the present moment, deconstructing our personal stories, and letting go of attachments are easily linked to Buddhism and Buddhist teachings.

Is all this something to loose sleep over? No. But at the same time, I do think it's worth reflecting on, not only in terms of how money and materialism effect spiritual teachings, but also in terms of how celebrity can influence what is being taught and how.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Thoughts on "this fleeting world"

I woke up this morning and checked my e-mail before heading out to work. The headline on Yahoo read "Farrah Fawcett dead at 62." Now, I barely follow anything about celebrities, and didn't quite place her as one of Charle's Angels,but I seemed to have some vague recollection of her. Then, arriving at work, I was told that the 6 year old son of a student had drowned in a lake last night. Again, I never met the boy, and the student was not in my class - but there was a lot of sadness at work today regardless. And questions. Where were the teachers? How could he have been underwater 20 minutes without anyone noticing? It's sometimes hard to fathom a little boy dying, even though it's not all that uncommon in a lot of places around the world. And finally, late this afternoon, my sister called to tell me that her favorite singer as a child - Michael Jackson - had died. I still remember the on-fire hair from that Pepsi commercial, and can't tell you how often I tried to do the moonwalk. Sure, Michael had some "issues" in later years, but he was 50 years old, barely past the mid-point for some people.

No matter what, this precious life is going to go by quickly. There is no way of knowing when the end will be for each of us. And even though we speak of there really being no birth and no death in Buddhism, there's still this body and this mind which will go at some point, not to return in the same form again.

The Diamond Sutra reminds us that it's not only the "great death" of your body and mind, but also that every moment is its own death. Nothing is standing still, and everything in its own way is fleeting. Even rivers. Even mountains. I'm reminded that Lake Superior and everything around it, was completely frozen less than 20,000 years ago. Less than 200 years ago, vast parts of my home state of Minnesota were covered with thick forests of pine and deciduous trees. And I remember the summer twenty five years ago when nearly every tree along my grandparent's block in St. Paul was chopped down, victims of dutch elm disease.

At the end of the Diamond Sutra are these words, which I have posted on my wall to keep me in check on day when I'm obsessing over some little problem, or generally being cranky and ridiculous.

"So you should view this fleeting world
a star at dawn
a bubble in a stream
a flash of lightning in a summer cloud
a flickering lamp
a phantom
and a dream."

That flash of lightning always gets me. What I find ironic about it though is that the line in the sutra, a thought about a flash of lightning, and an actual flash of
lightning all seem to cause me to slow down and pay closer attention. The world is fleeting, but if you rush, trying to keep up or trying to "do" everything, you miss it all.

So, peace and blessings to all who have died today, and all those who cared about them. May we all awaken, and stop missing out on own precious lives.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Moving George Morrison

My recent visit to Lake Superior got me thinking of one of my favorite visual artists: George Morrison. I'm not sure how well know he is outside of the U.S., or really even outside of "art people" circles, but for me, his life and work was deeply spiritual and endlessly beautiful.

George was born in Chippewa City, Minnesota in 1919. A member of the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa, he grew up and spent much of his life on the edge of the waters of Lake Superior. To say the lake influenced his artwork is nothing short of an understatement. A student of the Minneapolis School of Art and the New York Art Student's League, Morrison was part cubist, part abstract expressionist, part landscape painter, and all George Morrison. I've never really seen anyone else doing work quite like his.

Although I never met him (he died in 2000), I was privileged to work in a museum that owned and displayed one of his amazing driftwood collages for nearly a year and a half. Looking at the poster of it on my wall now, I vividly recall the days I was able to stand before it, trace the dozens of pieces of wood he had glued together to make an almost painting-like surface. The story goes that he would recruit neighborhood children to scour the beaches of Lake Superior, and also for a time those in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he lived and taught for awhile during the 1960's. The children would bring him piles of driftwood, which he would then sort through, tossing roughly 80% back to shoreline, while the other 20% would be carved, sawed, and shaped, almost like a jigsaw puzzle, into a "wood painting."

One thing that can be said about Morrison is that he was a man of texture. The many, myriad textures of the wood that came together to make the wood paintings being one example. Another being his abstract and semi-abstract cubist paintings, which often contain several overlapping layers of paint.

Another thing about Morrison's work was it's preoccupation with the horizon line, mostly based on that which he experienced living on the shores of Lake Superior. I remember one day my boss came in and said we had to empty out the gallery with the Morrison in it. The museum was moving, and we had spent the previous week packaging the older paintings, as well as a room of sculpture by the local artist Paul Manship. Moving art can be a tedious process, but also one in which every once of mindfulness is called upon, given how easy it is to damage whatever it is you're moving. The day before, I had gotten into an argument with my boss about the proper amount of slowness called for in spinning a 19th century landscape painting around to place on a cart. This, as the two of us held the painting on either end, I turning just slightly faster than he, and his heart beating just slightly faster than mine. It had a fancy, gold flaked frame on it - beautiful to look at, scary as hell to move. As we jabbered at each other, it seems that our hands knew better, and got the painting down to the cart - no problem - while our lips flapped on and on.

None of this prepared us for the Morrison collage.

It was fastened to the wall with four large, very sturdy pegs. The same cart we had used to remove the landscape painting the day before sat between us, positioned in such a way that we just had to remove the collage and set it down on the cart. Or so we thought.

Two of us, including myself, grabbed the top edges of it and began to remove it. The other two got under each edge, ready to grab it as it came off. We were prepared, all except for one thing: the weight. As it came off the pegs, it became clear that George not only had created a beautiful landscape out of wood, but also a very, very, very heavy one. Coming off the pegs completely, it swayed fast, almost tumbling out of our hands altogether. The others quickly ran under it, and raised their hands to meet the center-front of the collage. But it continued to sway for a moment, even with four of us holding - or attempting to hold it up. I recall seeing a line, about two thirds of the way up along the side of the collage - Morrison's horizon line which landed in nearly every abstract piece he did after 1950. It didn't occur to me then that this was a sign to lighten up, to not hold too tightly to either the collage or to the idea that it was going to fall. But somehow, we managed to get it down, flip it around, and fit it safely on to the carrying cart. I imagine somewhere George was watching, laughing at us for not thinking about the weight of the thing, and also appreciating that we cared so much about his work.

George Morrison was, among other things, a breaker of molds and stereotypes. At a time when any art - be it art done by Native peoples or done by whites appropriating Native images - that was associated with Native Americans was expected to be filled with teepees, totems, and other stereotypical images, George's work was decidedly his own. He had a foot in the door of the new establishment as an artist who did abstract work, and yet he also had a foot out in the wilderness as an artist intimately influenced by a Minnesota landscape, Ojibwe spiritual and cultural traditions, and the making of art out of driftwood, among other things.

He once told an art critic "We were made to be ashamed of being Indian. In my own way I believe in a lot of the old Indian ideas ... I like the idea of prayer to give strength, to make you well."

It strikes me that his paintings, collages, and other works of art were each little - and not so little in the case of those collages - prayers offered to us as images that might, if we look closely and take them in, make us well. I know that collage has done so for me over the years. Even looking at the poster of it on my wall can restore my calm. Isn't this what art is all about, reminding us who we are when we have become lost?

A few Morrison resources:

George told his life story to Margot Galt in the book Turning the Feather Around

Here's a link to one of George's wood collages - sadly, the museum I worked at doesn't have an image of the one I moved on it's website.

And Wikipedia page.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The One Seat

I just returned from my garden, where I had a bit of a tussle with an old hose and hose carrier that decided they didn't want to behave by my standards. Found myself covered with water and mud, and filled with irritation as I tried to fix the connector hose, which had broken off the carrier. It's long overdue to be retired, just as the chair in the photo above is I suppose. But who decides such things? And why? What is the motivation for rejecting old objects like this, just because they don't fit the pattern we want them to fit?

Bending over to remove the plants I had deemed unworthy of continuing, I thought of how curious it all is - this picking and choosing we seem to love to do. Sure, the now tall, lush tomato bush certainly has more value and appeal to me than the Canadian thistles that kept threatening to snuff it out. But what about those thistles? What is their one seat amongst all this?

I have what most would describe as a very weedy garden. Not that I don't pluck, but that I don't pluck as often as most do. Partly, this is out of awareness of the medicinial value of many of our weeds, as well as the plain beauty of some for which I have no "use" at all. Like those thistles. Unlike their cousins the milk thistle, these Canadian thistles don't seem to of much value to us humans. But take a close look at them sometime if you ever get a chance. I admire their toughness, their resistance to drought and their sheer willingness to grow tall and wide. And anyone getting close won't miss their thorniness, which bends and twists the plant's leaves in all sorts of interesting shapes. Certainly, they aren't what you want your foot to land on when you step, but then again, the poke I received this afternoon was enough for me to drop the fussing about the hose.

So, where do they fit in? Where is their one seat in this world? Or maybe it's better to ask where is our one seat in this world? Your seat? Mine?

When you sit to do your meditation, do you view that place as yours? Or are you one of those who claim to be beyond such thoughts, seeing this seat as a temporary place of being?

I think both of those answers miss the mark a bit.

Back to the thistles for a moment. When I view the garden as "mine," I'm more apt to remove every last "invader" that arrives in the soil. And when I say I'm beyond such thoughts, everything is suffocated by the few plants that can invade well and take over.

There's something about this crusty old chair that reminds me to not be so fast to have an answer. It sits in my garden, year after year, getting rustier and less attractive. Covered with snow in the winter; covered with vines in the summer. Sometimes, I sit on it. Other times, I don't. Visitors aren't so keen on it I think; even the neighbor's cat skips along past it without even a glancing consideration at the seat.

Sometimes, it's the very things that cease to have a function or value in our lives that can most teach us to be present in this world. But even if they teach us nothing, what about that? How can we move past the need for something, or someone else, to be of function or value to us?

I believe that when you are able to take your one seat, then the root of all of these questions will be clear.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

At Lake Superior

Just returned last night from a short trip to Gooseberry Falls State Park along the shores of Lake Superior. Seeing as I live in the center of the continent, Lake Superior is the closest thing we have to an ocean. It's an amazing place that easily sets one's mind straight about how tiny and not so significant it is in the grand scheme of things.

A few fun facts about Lake Superior.

1. It's the largest of the Great Lakes of North America, and the largest fresh water lake in the world by surface area (31,820 square miles (82,413 km2).

2. One of the two largest indigenous groups in Minnesota, the Anishinaabe (or Ojibwe), named the lake Gitchigumi, meaning "big water".

3. Over 80 species of fish have been found in the lake.

4. The water surface temperature ranges seasonally between 32°-55°F (0°-13°C), meaning it's an awful cold swim most of the time!

On the rocks above the shoreline, I did zazen before heading home yesterday. Waves crashing in, gulls and crows squawking, cool wind hitting my still body as breathing occurred, blending in with everything else. There was no need to do anything, no need to even try and let go of what was arising in my mind. Sometimes, I think we get too fixated on the idea of attachment - ironic isn't it - and have this view that every last ounce of attachment must disappear from our lives for us to be truly living the Buddha way. But what is attachment beyond a warped sense of love which needs to be tended to. And what about translation issues, how the word "craving" might be more accurate, that it is our cravings that cause us so much suffering? Yet, isn't it also true that we get fixated on eliminating those cravings, so much so that we can loose track of the bigger world alive and at work within us, all around us?

In front of Lake Superior in the picture above is a yarrow, a powerful medicine plant. According to Greek mythology, Achilles used yarrow intensively to cure his war wounds - hence it's Latin name Achillea millefolium. According to herbal medicine traditions, the plant is not only a wound healer, but also a healer of colds, fevers, sore throats, infections, and skin irritations. I have personally watched the crushed leaves end the bleeding of a cut with such suction that the skin was nearly sown back together again in less than 10 minutes.

Like myself, the yarrow in the photo was a tiny presence in a vast landscape. Neither of us were really much compared to the giant lake, and yet isn't it also true that both I and the yarrow plant contained it all, every last drop. A good reminder to not do anything more than just be who you are, as fully as you can be. I bow to the tiny yarrow plant, and the giant lake behind it for waking me again.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Terrorism and Interdependence

Mainstream news reports here in the U.S. widely cover the actions of Muslim extremists as "terrorism," the same isn't true of the actions of homegrown, native born citizens. In addition, while organizations linked to Muslim extremists are routinely put on national terrorist watch lists, and are heavily scrutinized and sometimes shut down by the Federal government, the same isn't true for groups linked to native born citizens doing acts of terrorism here in the U.S. That is, unless they linked to environmental action groups like Earth First, whose members have been labeled terrorists for acts not of murder, but of property damage.

Frankly, the words "terrorism" and "terrorist" have become problematic because they are not used by power-holders in society in an evenhanded way. And I would argue that because of this, we are failing to get at the root causes of the violence that comes from school shootings, abortion clinic murders, the murders of GLBT people, and so many others.

Take the recent killing of Dr. George Tiller. Suspect Scott Roeder has not, as far as I have seen, been labeled a terrorist in any mainstream source of media. And yet he stepped into a church during a full worship service and executed Dr. Tiller point blank in the head. When the media fails to accurately portray what someone has done, that influences how people in society view the action in question.

In addition to the labeling issue, there are two other issues that should cause us to pause and reflect. Despite evidence that he had vandalized a woman's clinic in Kansas City, Kansas twice in the week before the murder, neither local police nor the FBI addressed the situation. Finally, prosecutors in Kansas have decided that Tiller's murder does not qualify for the death penalty. (Now, I am firmly against the death penalty, but I find this element of the case very interesting.)

If he was an immigrant Muslim would he be treated differently? Is the fact that Scott Roeder is a white, native born Christian playing into how he, and the case, is being treated?

Let's go further. The anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, as led by Troy Newman, has spent the past seven years focusing almost solely on the work Dr. George Tiller. They moved their headquarters to Tiller's hometown of Wichita, Kansas in 2002. Newman and others have written books about Tiller, publicly demonstrated at Tiller's clinic, and have linked Tiller's abortion related activities to cold blooded murder. Now, none of that is really out of the ordinary. All pretty standard activity for anti-abortion groups (across the U.S. anyway.) However, what isn't standard is statements like this one. At the execution of Reverend Paul Hill in 2003 (Hill had murdered an abortion doctor nearly 10 years earlier), Operation Rescue leader
Troy Newman said "There are many examples where taking the life in defense of innocent human beings is legally justified and permissible under the law." Furthermore, in a book he co-authored with Operation Rescue's Senior Policy Advisor, Cheryl Sullenger, he suggested that murder is justifiable when working to protect the unborn. In addition, the same Cheryl Sullenger was convicted in 1988 of attempting to bomb abortion clinics in the San Diego area.

Now, I am not attempting to pin responsibility for Dr. Tiller's murder on Operation Rescue. However, when at least two of an organization's leaders have been linked with violent statements and/or actions of a similar nature to the crime in question, and have led an organization whose main work has been a public witch hunt of the very man who ended up being murdered, how can we say there is no connection? If we in the various Buddhist communities believe anything of the teachings of interdependence or dependent co-arising, how can view acts like this as individual actions alone?

Right wing, white dominated Christian organizations like Operation Rescue seem to get a free pass here in the U.S. You don't hear about FBI raids, state or local police investigations of these organizations. And the news media may do some investigatory coverage on these groups, but rarely, if ever, will you see the kind of exposes that follow groups linked to Muslim extremists. In addition, those who commit violent, terroristic acts in the name of the causes these groups espouse are treated as sick individuals who acted completely alone.

In the wake of D. Tiller's murder, will there be a thorough investigation and public examination of Operation Rescue? I sadly doubt it. And until things like that change, the terrorism being done in the name of Christianity here in the U.S. will continue to create much suffering and misery for us all. If we can make the link between extremist Muslim groups that advocate terrorism and those who commit terrorist acts, then we better well make the same links between Christian groups and individuals doing the same.

*This column was inspired by a letter posted at Algernon's blog, Notes from a Burning House.

Please check out his letter, and if you are inspired, send one of your own to groups like Operation Rescue.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sincere Practice

Thanks to all who participated in the discussion about racism and the National Review cover. Everyone was civil, respectful, and had thought out ideas, which isn't always the case when disagreements arise over volatile issues.

Now, back to Suzuki Roshi, from Not Always So, a book of his talks that was published a few years back.

"What is sincere practice? When you are not so sincere it is difficult to know, but when you are sincere you cannot accept what is superficial. Only when you become very sincere will you know what it is. It is like appreciating good art. If you want to appreciate good art the most important thing is to see good work. If you have seen a lot of good work, then when you see something that is not so good you will immediately know that it is not so good. Your eyes have become sharp enough to see."

I remember back in grad school hearing something similar about writing. My poetry teacher, Deborah Keenan, would appear at the beginning of each semester with a packet of photocopied poems. Not a few, but many. And not from a few authors, but many. he wanted us to read widely, but also read those who were - to use Suzuki's simple term - good. It was really something one day when I came across a poet's work that I didn't really like, but recognized was still very good. There was a leap beyond preference to awareness of the talent and skill present in those pieces. It was kind of an awakening for me because I also realized that I could learn a lot from poets whose work I didn't really like.

Let me give you an example: Margaret Atwood. She seemed to pop up an awful lot in grad achool for some reason. And I often wanted to take out my writer's mallet and wack her back down like in those Wack a Mole games. Her work seemed to me to often feel bitter, fatalistic, and down right suffocating at times. And yet, it was impossible for me to say her work isn't any good. In fact, she's a hell of talented writer, and prolific too. She's written over a dozen novels, over a dozen volumes of poetry, several short story collections, volumes on literary criticism and politics, children's books, even a few TV scripts and a libretto. One thing I have always been attracted to are people with broad minds, that cross boundaries and work to tie together the most disparate of things. And Atwood has definitely been that, if anything.

At some point during grad school, my interest landed on Canadian poetry and history. And soon after this, I discovered Atwood's book Survival, which among other things, attempts to create a framework to view the development of creative writing in Canada historically. Well, that's no small feat, and she sure gives it her best. I wrestled with that book for weeks, looking up the writers she mentioned, reading their work in dusty old books on library shelves, and finding myself writing comments all over the book itself.

Now, frankly I have to say that Survival is as much a mythology that elevates some very weak and minor writers to places of central importance as it is an uncovering of forgotten truths. However, the book did it's main work of keeping the reader engaged. So much so that I can write about it several years later, having barely picked up the book since then.

So, what the hell does this have to do with zen practice and Suzuki's quote?

Well, for starters, I believe sincere practice means being able to step past your peferences to see the greater picture. And to see that the greater picture contains your preferences just fine, no need to destroy them or worry too much about them. I can have a certain dislike for Atwood's work, and yet be enriched by it all the same. Or not at all. It stands without needing my approval, or anyone elses really at this point.

In addition, I really think there's a need for radical openness for sincere practice to be present. Reb Anerson Roshi recently visited our zen center, and spoke of this saying, "welcome the unwelcomed." This seems similar to stepping past your peferences in the above paragraph, but I think maybe different in that after awhile, there's not really any effort. It just happens.

But that brings up the third thing - that sincere practice is calling for a kind of working energy, that you can't just sit zazen a few times and be there, just like you can't just read a few poems, and then be a master of poetry.

Which reminds me - I need to get on my zafu soon. Happy reading, and sitting, to you all!

Friday, June 5, 2009

What's with the National Review Cover?

Well, even though I posted just a few hours ago, seeing this cover was enough for me to add another quick post.

For those who aren't familiar with the woman who is so oddly depicted as Buddha, she is Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the current nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. The headline under the magazine cover imagine, "The Wise Latina," is a reference to the following line from a speech Sotomayor gave in 2001:

"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

Many conservative politicians and commentators have used this line, as well as a few of Sotomayor's case decisions, to peg her as a racist - never mind that racism, by it's very nature, is a social construction and action derived from the power and privilege afforded to the majority or controlling group of a society. Since Sotomayor is Puerto Rican-American, it's ridiculous to suggest that she is racist, or that her actions and words could be considered racism. I suppose a more accurate word, if you find fault with Sotomayor's actions or words, would be "prejudice." (I personally have no issue with either the above quote, nor the court decisions mentioned by conservatives as "racist."

However, what I do find troubling is this National Review cover, not only because it flirts with racist WWII anti-Japanese propaganda poster images, but also because it seems to be taking shots not only at Sotomayor, but also at Buddhism itself. Now, I think it's healthy to laugh and kid around about your religious or spiritual tradition. I have no qualms with cartoons and jokes that make light of foibles or eccentricities within a given tradition. In fact, I view it a big sign of trouble if you have no sense of humor about your spiritual life.

But this particular image seems to be doing something else. It's twisting the concept of Buddhist wisdom, and the image of the Buddha, into nothing more than a vehicle for delivering a cheap shot on a political opponent. Furthermore, it portrays a prominent Latina American using stereotyped Asian facial features - which makes one wonder what kind of message this image is really sending about race (and racism) in the United States. I'd say it suggests we have a long way to go on the road to a society beyond racism.

The Hopeful Continuation Narrative

"Can lifestyles that are unsustainable be moral?" asks Sulak Sivaraksa, a Thai Buddhist, social activist, and cultural critic. It comes from a wonderful little book entitled Seeds of Peace, in which Sivaraksa deeply reflects of the politics of capitalism, especially in his native Thailand, and then offers a new vision of society based on Buddhist teachings.

I have written about this quotation before, in an early post on the blog. Some of what you will read here is copied from that post. (Apologies to anyone who happened to read that post - although I don't think it was all that many.) Sivaraksa's quote continues to strike me as provocative, especially for those of us living in lands of over-consumption. It brings up not only big questions about consumerism, but also how we interact with the planet, the choices we make around war and peace, the way we run companies and our households - really, most everything we do.

Over the past few months, I have continued to hear a set of messages coming from world leaders, business leaders, neighbors, friends, and even strangers that I would describe as the Hopeful Continuation Narrative. The first message is that "the economy" is going to turn around soon, maybe in six months, maybe in a few years. The second message is that we must do everything we can to preserve the companies and financial institutions that are major cogs in the system. In other words, you let the banks go down, and places like General Motors, and there will be mass amounts of unemployment and misery. The third message is that, at least here in the U.S., the economic plans of the Obama administration are going to "work" and get us "out of this crisis." The fourth message is that all of us must sacrifice now - and are sacrificing now in the form of smaller paychecks, layoffs, etc. - for a "better" tomorrow.

What strikes me about these messages is that there is the deep assumptions that lay behind them. A: our happiness and general well being are linked to a thriving capitalist system. B: government propping up of established institutions will allow us "average people" to continue to have work, income, housing, etc. C: it will all go back to "normal" in a short while, we just have to weather the current storm.

Implicit behind all this is the view that the current economic system, which is more and more global in it's reach everyday, is the "best," most intelligent way of working with the stuff of the world. I think it's really important to see how economics is not just about money and companies, but really about how we as humans interact with the material world completely.

I have asked, and continue to ask the following questions:

1. Do we really want the economy to "turn around," to go back to something resembling what it has been? In other words, do we really wish to continue to support, participate, and drive an economy that thrives only when there is over production, over consumption, and excessive amounts of greed?

2. How do Buddhist ethics and wisdom teachings fit into a life enmeshed within a globalized capitalist model?

3. What have gained from putting our energy and time into the current economic model and what have we lost?

What's fascinating to me, even as I find much of our current economic system wanting in terms of ethics, is how it has provided us with a clear glimpse of interdependence. When you see stock markets falling at the same time across the globe, for example, or banks struggling on every continent - it's more difficult to believe that things are separate and have no effect on each other.

It seems in all this we as a species have an opportunity to really examine what it is our lives are built out of, and to ask the kinds of questions that destablize stories like the Hopeful Continuation Narrative, which currently are considered common sense. What comes after that, I don't know. Maybe a whole lot of change, maybe not.

I think these words from Sulak Sivaraska are a helpful guide. "To alleviate suffering, we must always go back to our own spiritual depths - to retreat, meditation, and prayer. It is nearly impossible to sustain the work otherwise. It is easy to hate our enemies - the industrialists who exploit us and pollute our atmosphere. But we must come to see that there is no 'other' ... It is greed, hatred, and delusion that we need to overcome."

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Desire to Communicate

The last post had generated a lot of interesting comments. Thank you to everyone who has added something to the mix.

It strikes me that one of the pivotal issues behind all of that which I discussed in the last post is how we address conflict. The title of one of Reb Anderson Roshi's books, Being Upright, always comes to mind when I think about conflict in my own life.

Many times, I have fallen too far backwards when in conflict with others. The passivity of withdrawal, or false agreement, or repressed silence is what I mean here. It's kind of like sleeping in zazen.

Other times, I have fallen too far forward when in conflict with others. The agressiveness of anger, harsh criticism, or flat out nihilism is what I have in mind here. Kind of like trying to force your mind to have no thoughts at all during zazen.

This "Being Upright" is what our meditation posture looks like, feels like, acts like - just as it is. And I think it also is useful for envisioning one's self in the middle of conflict and being at peace with it. Not too far back, and not to far forward. Easy to write; not so easy to do.

Here's are really interesting Q and A from Trungpa Rinpoche's book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.

"If you have conflicts with other people, making it difficult to relate to them, what do you do?

Well, if your desire to communicate, which is generosity, is strong, then you have to apply prajna, knowledge, to discover why you are unable to communicate. Perhaps your communication is only one-directional. Perhaps you are unwilling for communication to come from the other direction as well ... we have to be careful to see the whole situation, rather than just being keen to throw something at the other person."

I'm really interested in this view of communication as generosity. Really seeing it in that way changes how it is approached. In a way, if you are attuned to the moment, and open to what is being called for, then you can't help but be generous. This might mean pulling back and staying quiet. Or it might mean praising someone's strong points, even if they also are displaying a lot of weaknesses. It might also mean clear, precise criticism driven by an intention to help someone see something they are missing. Or a calmly stated correction to someone who has spoken falsely, or wrongly, about something.

Trungpa Rinpoche says "Essentially, we have to provide some kind of space and openness." So, whatever is it we intend to try and communicate with someone, our job is to do so in a way that allows the other some room to work with.

In addition, it's really important to be open to receiving something in return, even if it comes in a form that isn't so easy to digest. In other words, it might be helpful to ask yourself now "How am I going to deal with the next 'ego insult'?" Instead of waiting for the next "fuck off" or "you're an idiot" to arrive in your e-mailbox, practice now, so it might not be such a shock later.

Let's go even further. Maybe those kind of blunt things roll off your back. Or you just ignore them. How about something a little less easy to tease out? Something like "I'm surprised you say it's ok to have an abortion. How can you be Buddhist and pro-choice?" My guess is people get comments like this often: not overtly nasty, but testy none the less because they call to question one's identity - that is, if there is strong attachment present.

So, it might be a good idea to practice receiving these kinds of comments as well. Because really, if you think about it, communication is not only what we say and do, but also how we receive what others say and do.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Online Practice?

I was scrolling through the blogs on my list the other day, and stopped at one of them to see a new posting. As I read, I was surprised to find that the usually very thoughtful and articulate blogger had said some things about another blogger that I perceived as just plain personal attacks. Now, there's no lack of nastiness and petty behavior on the internet, but my surprise was that this was coming from someone who seems to have a pretty strong Buddhist practice going, and definitely pays attention to the subtleties of Buddhist teachings.

So, I did something I have only done a few other times online: I sent the blogger a comment questioning the use of disparaging language towards another.

The result was a very fruitful and respectful dialogue that brought up all sorts of questions for both of us.

Right now, I'm interested in how internet use, and specifically blogging and other sorts of online spiritual dialogues can be done in such a was as remain to true to our deepest values and intentions. In other words, in my case, how does one blog and dialogue online in a dharmic way? And even more to the point, how can we disagree, question, or even show compassion in this format?

In some ways, I think this is another example of the technology developing at a much more rapid pace than the human mind's ability to work with it. We can do all sorts of things with the internet, and have made connections that were unimaginable even twenty years ago, and yet at the same time, people routinely say things about others online that they would never say to someone in person. Check out any chat site dealing with politics: discussions often quickly turn into pathological shouting matches where the "other" is turned into the most awful devil imaginable, or said to be the most stupid person or people on the planet. Go to the sports discussion pages, and you'll find people threatening to kill each other because they disagree about the talent of Tom Brady or the greatness of the New York Yankees. Slip into the romance and sex chat rooms and you'll find all sorts of destructive fantasies being played out, and all sorts of degrading talk occurring. And even here in the land of spiritual people - the oh, that kind of stuff doesn't happen here land, right? - yeah, even here, you'll find people battling it our over who is more "pure," or who is "better" because they are "more traditional" or "more non-traditional." It's all pretty crazy if you ask me.

There are numerous examples of the content of people's online writing having very direct consequences in the "real world." People have been not hired or fired based on comments made on their Facebook or Myspace pages. It's clear that some politicians, including current U.S. President Obama, have gained office partly out of the efforts they and their supporters put into online writings. There have numerous cases of teenage girls being seduced online by adult sexual predators, and then those same writings have been used to prosecute the adults in question. There have been other teens who have committed suicide as a direct result of comments made to them or about them online. The list goes on and on.

But these kinds of things are pretty easy to see. They are the high impact cases, the ones where it's easy to see that someone's words have done something - have changed things in some way.

What about the "little stuff" though? What about the "fuck you" to some other blogger? Or the anonymous personal slam of someone commenting on a blog piece? Or those pissing matches you got into with someone online that you have justified as "just blowing off steam"?

If you wonder about any of these questions above, try this: take a look at the comments section of Zen Teacher Brad Warner's site - Spend 15-20 minutes just reading the comments section and then notice how you feel. Then think of the blogger himself, and how he might be experiencing all this. (I get the sense that he doesn't read the comments all that often anymore, but at some point, I can imagine he did.)

I guess my question is this: Are we dropping the dharma - our spiritual teachings about interacting with each other - off at the door when we come online? And if so, what does that say about our practice, and our experiences online as spiritual practitioners?

There a few things that I think are important to remember in all of this. First, there are some serious limitations to human interaction on the internet. We don't get to observe body language, or speech tone, for the most part - so major parts of communication are cut off right there. Second, we're all struggling to express ourselves in words - and when it comes to talking about the big, deep questions of life, words struggle to express it, and are at best, pointers towards that which we are trying to actually speak of. Finally, like anywhere else, the internet is a location of samsaric activity - in other words, suffering is unfolding on here just as it does in the rest of the world, no matter what.

These are my initial thoughts about this. Maybe some of you have more. I welcome comments, but mostly I hope to spark some questions for us here in cyberspace to contemplate.