Monday, November 30, 2009

Celebrity Addiction and it's Discontents

Those who know me well know that I often have zero interest in popular culture. Sure, I like a good ballgame and follow my local sports teams with more than a passing interest. But when it comes to celebrities, television, "human interest stories," trivial banter, and famous-people gossip, I'm usually tuned out deliberately. Anything I do end up learning about these things is often because our society is so saturated with this crap that even people like me aren't immune from it.

Take the recent "Obama party chasher" couple. Apparently, these two have spent a long time cultivating a high-rolling, pseudo-famous image, to the point where they have now entered our public consciousness by breaching White House security and living it up with the leaders of two nations. Besides the general concern I have for our President and his family, who will probably wonder about security at all future events, I find myself in awe at the level of meaningless nonsense people have deemed important in their lives.

I came upon this relentless article by writer Chris Hedges about the addiction Americans have to pop culture and various other trivial bits of information. He writes:

Will Tiger Woods finally talk to the police? Who will replace Oprah? (Not that Oprah can ever be replaced, of course.) And will Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the couple who crashed President Barack Obama's first state dinner, command the hundreds of thousands of dollars they want for an exclusive television interview? Can Levi Johnston, father of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's grandson, get his wish to be a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars"?

The chatter that passes for news, the gossip that is peddled by the windbags on the airwaves, the noise that drowns out rational discourse, and the timidity and cowardice of what is left of the newspaper industry reflect our flight into collective insanity. We stand on the cusp of one of the most seismic and disturbing dislocations in human history, one that is radically reconfiguring our economy as it is the environment, and our obsessions revolve around the trivial and the absurd.

Of what value is knowing what's "really" on with Tiger Woods? How will knowing that, gasp, Mr. Woods is a flawed guy make the world a less violent, more compassionate place? In fact, how much of wanting to know the "dirt" about famous people is just an effort to feel smug about yourself, to be able to share a moment of glee with your friends at the expense of famous person X? I can hear the emphatic cries now: "I told you Tiger Woods wasn't perfect! I told you so!"

Haven't we heard similar comments about Buddhist teachers whose squeaky clean images are suddenly cracked in half by some scandal. It's as if we have plugged our ears to every teaching the Buddha gave about about the fluctuating, unstable nature of people and their characters.

Take a deep breath after reading the following statement from Hedges, which I think points to the grave trouble that comes from an emphasis on the trivial and meaningless:

Celebrity worship has banished the real from public discourse. And the adulation of celebrity is pervasive. The frenzy around political messiahs, or the devotion of millions of viewers to Oprah, is all part of the yearning to see ourselves in those we worship. We seek to be like them. We seek to make them like us. If Jesus and "The Purpose Driven Life" won't make us a celebrity, then Tony Robbins or positive psychologists or reality television will. We are waiting for our cue to walk onstage and be admired and envied, to become known and celebrated. Nothing else in life counts.

Now, I don't think everyone in the U.S. has a dream to become a celebrity, but certainly there are a lot of us who do. Why else would reality TV be so pervasive, to the point where people like the parents of the "Balloon Boy"(I couldn't escape that one either) would feel entitled to involving real public officials and police officers in a chase for their future fame? Ir would ignorant, in my opinion, to assume that the Balloon Boy scandal, or the White House Party Crashers, are simply isolated incidents of hubris.

Take the show "American Idol," just to give one example. During the last season of the show, 624 million votes were cast for the contestants of the show. In fact, during a single episode in May 2009, 100 million votes were cast. Think about that - almost 1/3rd of the nation felt it was "important" enough to speak their mind about someone singing a pop song on TV. Not pretty.

I could probably fill pages with theories about why all this has come about. Everything from a void of meaning in people's lives to the end logic of a capitalist society might apply. I'd like to think that Buddhist teachings might be of some help, but some days, I'm not sure if even Manjushri's sword could cut through this pervasive, collective delusion.

Maybe it's like chopping down a tree with an axe in that it's going to take many, many hacks from a hell of a lot of us, repeatedly, to shift the madness.

There's nothing new about cults of celebrity and the fantasies that drive them. But when you look at the cultures that became consumed by variations of this theme, such as ancient Rome, it's hard not to see what's coming next: collapse and misery.

In a way, we're already seeing signs of it. People going on shooting rampages. An expansion of overt racial and religious hatred. The commodification of anything and everything, including our deepest, most intimate ethical and spiritual values. And I'm sorry folks, but these aren't just symptoms of a temporary recession: they are balls of collective karma we have been rolling down the mountain for decades.

Not too long ago, I got into an argument with a friend about the level of talent on our local American Football team, the Minnesota Vikings. He said they weren't really as good as their record is, and I disagreed. This went on for a few minutes, some back and forth defending our points with trivial minutia, until I realized that I just didn't care. It didn't matter whatsoever whether I was right or he was right.

And yet as I write this post, I am aware that even I have a bit of this addiction floating within me. This is the power of collective addictions - they have an impact on even those who participate the least in them. May we each wake up, and may we work together to help each other wake up, from these dangerous dreams we cling to.

Riding Mistaken Perceptions

A practice I like to do, and have written about before, is bus meditation. Not just watching people quietly, but actually doing zazen in a moving bus. It looks no different from zazen in a chair at home or at your meditation center, but it certainly can be a challenging, but worthwhile experience.

This morning, on the way to work, I did a little bus meditation. It takes somewhere between 10-15 minutes to get there, perfect for a a short sit. Sometimes, I can settle in quickly, stay focused on my breath, maybe offer metta or lovingkindness to myself and those around me on the bus. Other times, my mind is zippy, ragged, paranoid. This is really no different from any other meditation I've experienced - it changes constantly.

So, I sat and watched old movies this morning. A few thoughts arising about my job. Return to the breath. Memories of nasty, racist comments a few people in my step family made at Thanksgiving, and some judgment of them. Back to the breathing. Pain in my lower back, neck, and shoulders - trying to stay with that - then letting it be. Then, towards the end of the ride, the bus came to a stop and the driver said "We'll be waiting about a minute." This happens fairly often. Sometimes, I have no issue with it, enjoying another minute of breathing. Sometimes, I get this righteous voice in my head about how "controlled" the drivers are by the schedule, and how I wish they weren't so. Still other times, I'm just impatient, anxious, wanting to be out of there for some reason. This morning, as the driver's words came to an end, I noticed a little knot forming in my stomach. No story yet, just a knot. And I was able to see it, and let it pass. The minute stop was no problem, and needed no story.

However, as we started up again, I got ready to get off. In the seat in front of me, a woman also got ready to get off, so I stood waiting for her to get out of her seat. She turned, looked at me, and said "Back door," cutting in front of me. Another moment of righteousness arose - "Geez, why the hell bother" I thought. And then it came to me how the surprise of her not doing what I thought she was going to do tossed me. The effort I made to be kind and wait suddenly was a wasted one in my mind. How interesting!

In this moment, I saw a resistance to the unknown, to the world surprising me. And also an attachment to an outcome that my mind deemed "successful," in order for the effort made to be considered worthy. All attempts to judge the effort, in fact, are simply stories. Good effort, bad effort - does it ever really describe what's happening?

And when I think about the impulse to be kind, to wait for another to do something first, and how that can easily turn sour if that other person surprises you, I kind of cringe. This stuff happens every day. I do it. You probably do it. My guess is that nearly everyone has these moments where there's a shift away from buddhanature because of some surprise that occurred.

Zen talks a lot about "don't know mind," and yet I think most of us get lost in the nice sound of those words. Don't know mind means, in a way, to be constantly surprised by the world without being tossed about by that surprise. Not really an easy thing to do without some practice. And if you're not aware of it even, not aware of the many ways in which your views of the ordinary are fixed and conditioned, then you might talk a good game, but mostly are sleepwalking through your days.

What does the mind and heart that is "don't know" truly look like? How does it feel? Do you even see it, feel it, when it's happening?

Be careful when you step on the bus today. Or get into your car. Or eat lunch. Or whatever it is you do regularly. Appearances are so damn tricky. Don't be fooled by that which looks the same as it was yesterday.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Che Guevara, Buddhism, and Jumping to Conclusions

What the hell does Che Guevara, the infamous Cuban revolutionary, have to do with Buddhism? I'm guess it's probably never been on the radar for most of you, and I'm also imagining that the very mention of the name sparks powerful reactions for some of you. Freedom fighter. Compassionate doctor. Communist troublemaker. Armed terrorist. Maybe one or more of these phrase fit how you place him. Certainly, the man has been romanticized on the one hand by people on the left who sport t-shirts with his image, and/or have seen movies like "The Motorcycle Diaries" or who have read his writings about the impact of colonialism, capitalism, and the dream of a unified American continent (north and south). I have to say that, for myself, some of what he had to say resonates very strongly for me, even as I reject the violent, excessively Marxist parts of his approach. If you take his life and views as a whole, it's kind of impossible to see him as anything but a mixed bag.

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

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

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

Now, maybe this is just a nice story, you might say. In fact, some might think it's propaganda to support a more positive image of this man who clearly caused his share of suffering in the world. And yet, doesn't it also speak of how we compartmentalize well-known people, or even people in our lives, by ignoring the whole picture, or assuming there's nothing beyond what we know? This simple act of kindness on Che's part, never mentioned in the biographies and love-ographies or hate-ograpies, brings him back down to earth. He was, like the rest of us, a human who cared about others, even if his care was sometimes tainted by misguided ideology and destructive action.

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

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

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

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

Ode To The Lemon
by Pablo Neruda

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Problem with Always "Getting Along"

Nella Lou posted another very thoughtful commentary related to the recent Tricycle article "Dharma Wars" and it's not so subtle bashing of the online Buddhist community. Among her comments are the following lines:

There is an old saying “If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything” If one is unaware of what they stand for, what their ethical limits are, then all manner of atrocity is possible.

If one does not “draw a line in the sand” sometimes then one is tacitly accepting and even collaborating with that which occurs. I have made my stance very clear here. I have asked to be detached from that which I am aware has caused harm. At this point I want no commercial relationship with the Tricycle establishment. Even if this distancing is only symbolic it is my position. And I stand by it.

That does not mean that there is no future for a relationship, once a dialogue between Tricycle and it’s readership occurs, if it occurs.

Now, let's move beyond the whole Tricycle issue, which a fair number of the readers here probably don't care that much about. I think there's a tendency amongst many of us Buddhists to try and "play nice." We seem to lean too much towards what we believe are the compassion teachings of the practice, and this leaning means we're simultaneously leaning away from the prajna, or wisdom side of the teachings, which don't always look so nice and friendly on the surface. My guess is this is reinforced by images of popular teachers like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh as these always peaceful, often smiling figures that should be emulated. But really, isn't it foolish to believe such images? Do you really think that the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and others like them are always gentle, soft, and friendly?

It's pretty reductionist to place such dynamic people into a soft, warm-fuzzy box like that. But beyond that, how often do you the same with yourself? How often do you eliminate the wisdom side by leaning too hard on some false definition of compassion?

The most compassionate thing to do with a situation like the one currently going on with Tricycle magazine is to communicate very clearly why you think what was done went over the line. For us in the Buddhist world, if we don't hold our publications accountable to our own ethical teachings, the backbone of our practice, then we aren't really practicing that well.

We're all in this life together, whether we like it or not. No one lives in a vacuum, and everyone's actions are like drops of water in the ocean - each drop may be small, but it is inseparable, really, from the entire body of water.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Flashpoints of Mexican Buddhism

I continue to be fascinated by Buddhism in Latin America. Partly, this is spurred on by a longstanding interest in the history of the Americas as a whole, and how that history has shaped the present.

Here is an article from the New York Office of Tibet, the Dalai Lama's official organization, detailing the fragmented, somewhat cloudy history of the arrival of Buddhism in primarily Mexico. It's definitely not an exhaustive piece of writing, nor even a very good piece of writing, but there are a few nuggets hanging around in it. The opening paragraphs suggest that connections between Buddhists and indigenous Americans occurred long before the Asian missionaries and immigrants that came in 19th and early 20th centuries.

Chinese artifacts found in ancient Mayan, Toltec and Aztec ruins in Mexico over the first half of the twentieth century, as well as the legends of the historic god king Quetzalcoatl of eastern origin, whose arrival in the kingdom of Tula in central Mexico during the first millennium of our common era, brought about the knowledge of agriculture, architecture and astronomy to the Toltec people, suggest a first link between Mesoamerica and the cultures of the east.

Other Indian narratives speak about shaved headed robed priests who came from the east in order to spread the knowledge of truth and "the way things are". It has thus been said that the ancient peoples of America are culturally closer to Asia than to Europe.

In another article I read, a strong connection is drawn between pre-contact period indigenous Mexicans and Hinduism. How much of this is true, and how much just interesting speculation, I don't know. However, the many similarities are difficult to simply dismiss as mere coincidence.

Fast-forwarding now to the early 20th century, two major figures in the development of modern Mexico, Jose Vasconcelos and Francisco Madero, had more than a passing interest in Buddhism. The former, in 1908, commissioned a large carving of Buddha for the government of Mexico's Ministry of Education palace in Mexico City.

And then there's this, which continues the narrative of Asian teachers who came to the U.S. and then either left an imprint in Latin America through repeated visits, or who moved their work completely into Latin America: "In the 1970's Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche visited Mexico and thus became the first real Tibetan to set foot in Latin America. At a small house in the picturesque city of Patscuaro in the state of Michoacan, he is said to have discovered the mind "terma" which later inspired his Shambhala teachings."

I'm guessing that few people, when contemplating the myriad of Buddhist practices occurring in the world today, would make a link between Tibetan Buddhism and Mexico. And yet, one of the six "Tibet Houses," or official organizations dedicated to preserving Tibetan history, culture, and spiritual traditions is located in Mexico City. In addition, there are at least 12 zen centers or zen affiliated organizations in Mexico, including centers in the lineage of Suzuki Roshi, Norman Fischer, and Maezumi Roshi.

As the stories of Buddhism spreading to the Americas continue to be developed and spread, it's essential that we work toward a more whole picture. It is my hope that posts like this add a little bit to that conversation. It isn't just about history: learning how others in the various countries of the two continents are implementing and practicing the dharma can only enhance the development of our own practices here in the U.S. Even though we fail to see it so often, the Americas are deeply linked and constantly influencing each other in subtle and not so subtle ways. The flourishing of the Buddhadharma is yet another place of connection for us "Americans."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Genocide/Gratitude - Two G's of Thankgiving

I have long had mixed feelings with today's holiday - Thanksgiving. Actually, for the most part, when I think of Thanksgiving, what comes to mind is the murder of millions of turkeys, and the miserable history of Native American genocide that occurred both before and after the advent of this holiday. The traditional story of Thanksgiving is a propped up, whitewashed bail of lies that does nothing to soothe what I know came afterward for my nation's Native populations.

And yet, there is also gratitude. Being thankful. Without gratitude, we are all in trouble I think. There is much to be grateful for, when you pause and reflect. You can begin with the breath you are taking right now, and extend outward from there. Every day is filled with the opportunity to live a grateful life.

I think our hearts can hold both of these truths. We need not forget the past, nor forget the murdered turkeys, to allow gratitude to flourish.

Here's a little poem by a poet who was able, I think, to hold them both. He saw the horrors of World War I, as well as the that of the civil war in his own nation, Ireland. And yet he produced gems like this one again and again. Happy Thanksgiving.

Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors
William Butler Yeats

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Parallels Between North American and Brazilian Buddhism

I just finished this fascinating article about Buddhism in Brazil. If you want to read in it full, you have to find it in volume 1 on the page I linked to. The author, Cristina Moreira da Rocha, writes of the history and development of Buddhism (primarily Zen Buddhism) in Brazil, beginning with the arrival of Japanese immigrant laborers in 1908 up to the present day diversity of approaches Buddhism and Buddhist communities. What I have been struck with is how many parallels there are to the North American Buddhist story.

1. The initial arrival through Asian immigrant communities. Although the establishment of Buddhist institutions appears to have been delayed in Brazil - "In 1932, Joodo Shinshuu established the first Brazilian Buddhist temple in Cafelândia in São Paulo State. - like in North America, Buddhism was almost exclusively the territory of Asian immigrants and their children in the beginning.

2. Oppression of citizens and immigrants of Japanese descent during World War II. While both Canada and the U.S. has shameful policies towards the Japanese members of their nations, including internment camps, Brazilian policies were maybe not as harsh, but still followed along the lines of viewing those of Japanese descent as potential enemies.

Among the Brazilian policies were the following: "During World War II, Japanese schools were closed, Japanese language newspapers were prohibited (there were four Japanese daily newspapers published in São Paulo with a total circulation of around fifty thousand[17]), and speaking Japanese in public and private (including houses of worship) was banned."

3. The increase of Buddhist "missionaries" and teachers arriving during the 1950's. As in North America, Brazil experienced an increase level of Buddhists coming to the country specifically to teach and spread the word about Buddhism. "The schools of Nishi Hongwanji, Higashi Hongwanji (Joodo Shinshuu), Joodo Shu, Nichiren, and Sootoo Zenshuu sent missionaries to Brazil in the early 1950s." However, unlike in North America, where many of these teachers ended up working with primarily non-Asian convert groups, the Buddhist missionaries in Brazil almost exclusively worked within the Japanese-Brazilian community.

4. The issue of whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. "Furthermore ... one has to be aware that for most Brazilians, Buddhism is more a "philosophy," a "way of life" than a religion. Zen Buddhism is often viewed as a meditation technique that helps to relieve stress. " A few things to ponder about this quote. First, is the author lumping the opinions of all Brazilian Buddhists into a general statement, or is she committing the common error here in North America by "convert" Buddhists of simply making statements about their communities, and forgetting about the views of those in predominately Asian-American and Asian-Canadian Buddhist communities? Second, how much of this view is the influence of North American and/or English language Buddhist publications that have been translated and are being used by Brazilian Buddhists?

Take a look at this fascinating story, for example, of the Brazilian woman who became the leader of Busshinji, a zen temple in Sao Paulo that was founded in the 1950s by the Japanese-Brazilian community:

Claudia Dias de Souza Batista was ordained in Los Angeles under Maezumi Rooshi in 1980 (when she received the Buddhist name of Koen) and lived in a monastery in Nagoya for six years thereafter. Koen took the abbess position at Busshinji and soon started enforcing all of the activities more strictly than they had been before. One Brazilian of non-Japanese origin practitioner observed:

When Moriyama was in charge of the temple, he tried to adapt Japanese Zen to Brazilian culture. It was more flexible. With Koen, as she recently arrived from Japan, she tries to maintain the patterns and rules by which she lived in Japan. She tries to impose everything, the rhythm, behavior and discipline of the Japanese practice. She is very inflexible (Cida, 40 years old, astrologer).

What makes this case more interesting is that traditionally, the Japanese-Brazilian community maintained some diacritical cultural traits preserved and away from Brazilian society (among them were the language and the religion) for the maintenance of its ethnic identity.(35) Although second and third generations have started assimilating into Brazilian culture (36) and are quite integrated into the country today, the abbess position in the only Zen Buddhist temple in São Paulo is not one that the community can leave in the hands of a "foreigner." How, then, did a Brazilian nun get the highest position in a Buddhist sect, and furthermore, how could she have been accepted by the Japanese-Brazilian community?

What's even more interesting is that her predecessor, Moriyama Rooshi, studied with Shunryu Suzuki in San Francisco during the 1960's and caused a lot of stir when he arrived in Sao Paulo because his approach to teaching went against what the Japanese-Brazilians of the temple wanted, and attracted a number of non-Japanese Brazilians, who previously were not part of the temple sangha.

5. A certain level of Christian influence. "Because of the prevailing Roman Catholic environment, much of the terminology used in speaking of Buddhism in Brazil is Roman Catholic in origin. For instance, rituals such as funerals are called "missas" (masses); the abbot is called "bispo" (bishop); and there are mentions of "paraíso" (heaven), "inferno" (hell), and "rezar" (to pray)." Here in North America, you also have the use of the terms like "heaven" and "hell." There's the Buddhist Churches of America. And I know that some Buddhist monasteries in North America have studied Christian monastic models as a way to develop a Buddhist monastic tradition here. I'm sure there are other examples of this kind of overlap as well, but these are a few good examples of it.

Fame, Fortune, and the Writing Life

Came across the following quote on another blog.

“Lifetimes seldom fill a hundred years
why suffer for profit and fame”

- Shih-Wu (1272-1352)

It instantly reminded me of a post Brad Warner made about six months ago, in which he says the following:

I have chosen to try to make my living through my art, to be a professional writer and to devote myself to that craft rather than doing it as a side business. I am also a Zen teacher, but that's something I do for the love of doing it rather than to make money. Yet I write to make money. I don't have any qualms about this fact and I have made it clear on numerous occasions.

In order to make your living as an artist you need to be famous. No two ways about it. In order to earn as much from any kind of artistic pursuit as even the lowest level worker in any office or factory you have to spend a whole bunch of time effort and energy on promotion. So, yes, I pursue fame. But I pursue it not for the sake of being famous, which is mainly a pain in the ass. I pursue fame for the sake of making it possible to earn a decent living as a professional artist. And, as I just said, this has involved taking a massive pay cut. If you're thinking of pursuing a career as a writer, do not do it for the cash.

As a writer who has made almost nothing financially on his writing (a single $5 check), I do sometimes wonder about these kinds of questions. I'd love to have much work out there, have a few books published and get read by some people. And I'm also the opposite from Brad in that I'm not a big self-promoter, nor do I have any interest in "pursuing fame." Nether approach seems very smart in the end, though, as far as I'm concerned. This pursuit of fame business seems fraught with pitfalls. On the other hand, simply having my writing land anonymously in slush pile after slush pile hasn't exactly produced much, other than a healthy collection of rejection letters. What's interesting is that the longer I have practiced Zen (and yoga), the less drive I have towards being a famous writer. It's not something I aspire to anymore.

And yet, maybe one can have the passion to write, be published and read - to be heard and maybe have some little impact on others through "word creativity" - without that passion being tied to fame and fortune. I do think it's possible. What I find so troubling about the pursuit of fame, as artist (I write and I take photos), is the blur of motivation. How can you remain sincere, honest, thoughtful, and truly open creatively when you are also trying to please people, piss people off, get certain people's attention, etc.? Maybe it's possible, but I highly doubt it.

But let's face it: Shih-Wu is also asking us with his quote: What are you going to do with this precious life which goes so quickly?

No matter what, if you loose sight of questions like this one, you're going to slide away from the heart of this life. And that, even if it's surrounded by piles of adoration and money, is very sad.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Dharma WarsII

I continue to see a lot of posts on the article Dharma Wars in Tricycle magazine. If anything, the heavy negative slant of the writing, especially towards online forms of Buddhist practice and discussion, has stimulated some critical thinking, along with a few slices of angst, frustration, and other forms of quality messiness.

John over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt made the following observation in this recent post:

The only real statement that I can make is that this blog as well as most of the blogs that are listed to the right and a bit below the fold are all honest, day-to-day practitioners of a variety of Buddhist schools, sects and viewpoints. Most are respectful but all are respected.

This is one thing that Tricycle is missing for the most point. We engage with each other through different mediums to broaden, expand or focus our practice. By following the pitfalls and triumphs of these everyday peoples we have a more complete practice.

This morning, I was down at my "in the flesh" sangha for morning service. I'm trying to push myself a bit more because I'm now part of a more intensive study group there, and we all agreed to "up our practice." So, I woke up early and went down for two of the three sittings (I usually just do one), and then stayed afterward to talk to a few dharma friends about, guess what - different modes and variations of practice, and how best to support and challenge a householder community of practitioners. Some of the same issues we talk about on here. It's happening all over the place, which shouldn't be a surprise. And yet, for most of my "in the flesh" community, the online world is pretty foreign - they've not spent much time thinking about the possibilities. Partly a generational thing, but definitely not only that, especially since a fair number of bloggers and teachers online are of the same Boomer Generation as the majority of my sangha is. It makes me wonder if this is all part of an emergent struggle to bridge the gap between the "brick and mortar" and the "digital." Surely, universities have started to do it, so why not spiritual communities? (Note: the results of projects like online university courses and online schools in general is pretty mixed, but I do think something of value has come of it all.)

Richard over at My Buddha is Pink wrote an excellent post on the Dharma Wars article addressing right speech and asking the right questions. Here is a snippet of Richard's commentary that I found especially interesting:

it seems to me the Tricycle article failed to deliver on its supposed premise because the author asked the wrong question. The article’s summary asks this question: “What is it about the Internet that turns Buddhist teachers into bullies?” This question presumes that Buddhist bullies are not responsible for their bullying behavior because the Internet made them be bullies. It’s the old, “the Devil made me do it,” argument, a premise that conveniently absolves one of any personal responsibility. The other flaw with this premise is that it’s based on the notion that there is something about the written word appearing on the Internet that provokes disharmony, that it is more likely to encourage unskillful discourse by virtue of the fact that it appears on the Internet, which seems rather odd to me because after all, a written word is nothing more than a written word, and whether it’s placed on parchment or a computer screen is moot. It all comes back to who wrote that word and what were his or her intentions in writing it and was his or her action skillful? If a Buddhist teacher behaves like a bully, it is because the seeds of a bully were already present; the Internet did not create that seed. So it would seem the more appropriate question to ask is, “Are Buddhist teachers who respond with anger and behave like bullies worthy of receiving attention?”

Earlier in the post, Richard rightly questions some of the responses to the article by bloggers and the online community at large. What I find interesting about all that I have read, both posts and comments to those posts on this article, is that there's a tinge of defensiveness, and sometimes a very heavy one, to much of what is said. And I can definitely understand that; the article's author really did little to hide his disdain for online Buddhist practice and discussion. However, like everything else, it's important to go back and ask "What is being defended? What can be defended even?"

Over the past few months, our sangha has been studying Sengcan's HsinHsinMing, or "Trust in Mind." I've written a fair amount about it on here, but this morning the following koan was mentioned during the morning dharma talk, which features teacher Sengcan.

A monk asked the master Sengcan:

“Master, show me the way to

Sengcan replied: “Who binds you?”

The monk replied: “No one binds

Sengcan said: “Then why do you seek liberation?"

I enjoy discussing and debating practice, teachings, and forms as much as the next person. In addition, I believe that these kinds of debates are essential to keeping our spiritual lives and communities alive, vibrant, and dynamic. But it also seems really easy to let others' words and views "bind us," which really is about each of us, and not those who are critical of our variant practices.

Fake Buddha Quotes

I came across this post a little bit ago. It's not the first post I have seen about made up quotes attributed to the Buddha, but I think it points to an issue we have to look at much closer: authenticity of nice sounding spiritual quotations.

The author of the blog bodhi tree swaying writes:

I came across this on Twitter today, tweeted by Buddha_Bones: “RT @Sharon_Phoenix “When words are both true and kind, they can change our world.” ~Buddha”

This can be found in various books attributed to Jack Kornfield, the Buddha, and Shunryu Suzuki.

What's interesting first off is the locale of dissemination: Twitter. I can imagine that, given the highly condensed, sound bite like appearance of Twitter, lots of fake spiritual quotes are being shared there every day. But Twitter is just one example; fake Buddha quotes are all over, including being published in books by well-known dharma teachers.

On the one hand, you might say "Who cares? If it's uplifting, positive, and supportive of practice, what does it matter?" In some ways I agree with that sentiment. However, on the other hand, false quotes can easily lead to ignorance about the same spiritual teachers and teachings the quote was meant to stand for in the first place.

There have been a lot of translation issues when it comes to ancient spiritual texts. Older English translations of Buddhist texts are riddled with a Christianized language and framing that highly muddles the original teachings. Some newer translations of the Bible, bent on upholding socially conservative political agendas, insert the word "gay" into lines of the Bible that are frequently used to substantiate anti-GLBTQ political propaganda. These are just two of the many examples of issues that come up with translations, which don't account for all fake spiritual quotations, but definitely a fair amount of them.

Given the speed of technology, and our general ability because of it to spread information quickly, it's important that we do our best to not create any more confusion than there already is.

Although fake Buddha quotes might feel good, in the long run, they might not be the best medicine.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hate Speech as Political Discourse?

The level of public discourse in the U.S. is heading straight for the gutter. The billboard above, currently posted in front of a car dealership in Colorado, represents the kind of wild associations and free floating hatred that has bubbled up in the year since Barack Obama was elected President. The owner of the billboard, Phil West, said the following in defense of his sign, which among other things, links the President directly to the Fort Hood shootings:

"Everything I have read about Mr. Obama points right to the fact that he is a Muslim. And that is the agenda of what Muslim is all about. It's about anti-American, it's about anti-Christianity."

You can read more about it in this article.

Signs like this, and speech like that of Mr. West, are all too commonplace. It's only a matter of time before this kind of misinformation, often linked to barely veiled hate speech, is going to boil over. Even though I don't agree with our President on all that much politically, I'm concerned for him and his family. However, what's more troubling is the potential for the kinds of attacks like this one, on a Greek Orthodox Priest mistaken for a "terrorist," will start occurring with much more frequency.

As a supporter of free speech, I believe that people like Mr. West have the right to express their views. But if they think freedom means to be able to say what they want without any consequences, they are sorely ignorant. Buddhists, and others who value peace and justice need to do our best to expose the seeds of greed, hatred, and ignorance behind these kinds of acts, and the speech that goes with them. That starts with sitting down, and cultivating patience and compassion. But it can't end there. There might be nothing we can do, ultimately, to prevent violence from unfolding, but if we don't make an effort, even a small one, then we'll be nothing more than a circle of monks and nuns sitting in the center of a burning house.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dharma Wars Warring

There has been a lot of discussion about a recent article in Tricycle magazine. The article, Dharma Wars, is, among other things, heavily slanted against the Buddhist blogosphere. And while I agree with some of the critiques made, overall I find the article sloppy, littered with generalizations that could easily apply to "real life" sanghas as well if you take a closer look.

Here is the letter I wrote to the editors of Tricycle. It is my wish that it helps to open a dialogue, instead of merely being critical of the article at hand.

Dear Editors,

I'm writing to express my disappointment in the commentary "Dharma Wars," by Zenshin Michael Haederle. First of all, it is riddled with generalizations about the very broad, diverse online Buddhist community. For example, there's this line "In cyberspace, we can craft whatever persona we choose and call our blog whatever we want, and Buddhist bloggers often inflate their experience and understanding." Even though there is some truth to this, there is also a corresponding level of genuine sincerity and honest practice displayed online. In addition, as a longtime member of a "real life" sangha here in St. Paul, MN - I think it's problematic to say that bloggers often inflate their experience and understanding, but not also comment on how people do the same thing in "real life" in different ways.

Second, as a writer who seeks to be published, and an editor of a literary journal who makes publishing decisions, I question the ethics of quoting the comments from James Ure's "The Buddhist Blog without his permission. Mr. Ure was, according to a recent blog post, never contacted about the article at all. This, to me, suggests a lack of respect on the part of Mr. Haederle towards the online Buddhist writing community, and frankly, throws the rest of his criticisms toward the Buddhist bloggosphere in question.

Your mission statement points to a desire to explore Buddhism's many forms. You write: "The mission of The Tricycle Foundation is to create forums for exploring contemporary and historic Buddhist activity, examine the impact of its new context in the democratic traditions of the West, and introduce fresh views and attainable methods for enlightened living to the culture at large"

Do you intend to publish commentaries by some of us in the blogospere as a counterbalance to this current commentary, which no matter how you read it, is giving a very dim view of the online community? And if it is indeed true that Mr. Ure was quoted without permission, will you contact him and make amends in a manner that respects his efforts?

I do think that "Dharma Wars" makes some valid points about the level of nastiness that does occur at times online. And how there is a struggle to wade through misinformation and bloated commentary to discover true insights and valuable writing. However, the overall dismissive tone of the article towards those of us blogging and using online resources for part of our practice is antithetical to your mission in m opinion.

As a fellow Buddhist practitioner, I sincerely hope that this opportunity to open up a broader dialogue about the ways in which Buddhist practice is changing and adapting to modern life will be taken up by Tricycle, and not simply be dismissed as a passing disturbance.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Violent Monks, Misleading Labels, Feminism, and Getting off Your Ass

There's so much interesting stuff in the blogroll today. Even though I wrote this morning, I'm going to post a few links and short commentaries on the links.

1. Over at Barbara's Buddhist Blog is the following post about increased tensions and violence between Buddhists and Evangelical Christians in Sri Lanka. There are some powerful responses in the comments section to this post as well, so please read them as well.

A few thoughts. First, regardless of what the Christian missionary groups have been doing in Sri Lanka, we in the larger Buddhist community should speak out against any violence done in the name of Buddhism.

Second, the volatility of this situation is most likely fueled by extremism on both sides. The newcomer Christian missionaries desire to convert "souls for God" at all costs, and care little about the culture or religious legacy of the people they are attempting to convert. This is a form of violence that eventually can spark physical, life threatening violence in those on the receiving end. On the other hand, Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka have been fighting a bloody civil war for more than a generation. A complicated situation for sure, and not solely religious in nature. However, Buddhist teachings have been used in Sri Lanka to justify violence, murder, and suppression of minority groups. Here's an interesting article that addresses some of this, as well as Sri Lanka's history, and how that has shaped some of the issues occurring today.

Third, we have to figure out a way to examine the connections between violence, terrorism, and religious extremism without leaning towards either demonizing an entire religious group, or letting others off the hook. Marcus from Marcus' Journal called me out recently for basically going too soft on Fort Hood killer Major Hasan. I stand by the comments I made in that post, and the comments section in response to his. However, the one error I made was failing to find a way to talk about how his act of murdering 13 people was an act of terrorism.

The main point with that post was to address the disturbing level of violence in the U.S., especially gun violence perpetrated by out of control men. I felt then, and continue to feel, that the media and much of the general public jumped to the conclusion that Major Hasan was a radical Muslim terrorism - a conclusion that never occurs when a Christian shoots up a schoolhouse, workplace, or murders an abortion doctor in his own church and declares he was doing "God's work." We need to learn, collectively, to start from a premise that violent, murderous acts are all acts of terrorism. It's not Islamic terrorism, or Christian terrorism - it's just terrorism, period. Continuing to label terrorist acts with the name of an entire religious community only serves to create more confusion, more hatred, and ultimately more suffering.

Beyond this issue of labeling, though, is the very real issue of the influence of religious extremist groups. There's no doubt in my mind that Scott Roeder, who murdered abortion Dr. George Tiller in Kansas last spring, was influenced by the teachings of groups like Operation Rescue - who claim to be doing God's work to protect the "unborn." It's absolutely clear that the 9/11 terrorists were influenced by the teachings of groups like al-Queda, who also claim to be doing the work of Allah. And it's clear that the Imam Major Hasan contacted several times over the past few years, Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, is espousing extremist views including the justification of murder in the name of religion which may have had an influence on Major Hasan. So, how do we address these influences without perpetuating stereotypes and falsehoods about entire religious groups? If we really want to works towards ending terrorism, questions like this have to be asked, reflected on, and must eventually guide the way we individually, and collectively, handle terrorism cases.

2. Justin over at Progressive Buddhism posted this heartfelt commentary on why we need to do more than just sit to alleviate suffering in the world. I don't have all that much to add, other than that I feel for him and his wife, and their struggle to have a child - I wish them all the best.

3. And finally, this thought-provoking post by the Dalai Grandma on War, the military, and what she terms a "failure of feminism." Again, not much to add here, other than that this commentary fits in with the work I've been doing to examine violence in its many forms.

Happy reading to you all, and to all a good night!

Surrendering to Your Life As it Is

We usually open our Wednesday evening classes with about 20 minutes of zazen. Given that most of us are coming from work, and we are Zen students, it makes sense to start with meditation. Yesterday evening, I had a lot of painful muck coming up during zazen. Some of it was grief and exhaustion related to my job, but most of it was undefined energy throbbing in various parts of my body. Tight stomach, clogged lungs, clenched shoulders. As the bell rang to end the sitting, I felt relief - when it's like that, even 20 minutes can feel like an eternity. And then I heard one of the class teachers say "I want to rearrange the schedule tonight. I'd like to do my talk in the form of a guided meditation. We're going to sit for about a half an hour now."

I watched my mind blow a gasket - "Not now! I don't want to do that! Anything but sit more." And then I let all that go and went back to the muck coming up within. The intensity increased; the unpleasantness increased. I struggled to follow what we were being guided to focus on, but basically it was about meditating on how what we like, and our attachments to what we like, shape how we view the world. It's kind of ironic that I was sitting through that in what I don't really like - grief, physical pain, confusion.

This experience, I think, is one reason why I value sangha. Being in a group of sincere practitioners, some of whom were also struggling during that very same period of zazen, gave me the support needed to stay with it. Sometimes, I can stick with it when I'm sitting on my own. Other times, not so much.

Being in a group, and giving up your preference to be done with zazen for the day, just to give one example, is invaluable in my view. Can this happen for lone practitioners who are solely relying on internet practice communities? Sure. But it's probably not as easy to do.

Regardless of what form your practice takes, how often do you opt to check out or go too easy on yourself? What role does surrendering to what's coming up, no matter what, play in your practice?

It's important to keep questions like this in mind. Or else your practice might end up looking like the desk in the photo above. Maybe it's there right now. Have you checked lately?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Heart of Buddhist Practice?

Where does the heart of Buddhist practice live? Is it in zazen, or sitting practice? Is it in the rituals of practice? Is it in our texts? Over at The Zennist blog, I just read the following post. The post is primarily about the hermit monks interviewed in the documentary Amongst White Clouds, a wonderful film I viewed on my summer break in August. The Zennist writes the following commentary on "Western Buddhism," (a term I find very clunky, but will use for now because he is using it):

Not in any showy or pretentious manner, these hermits keep the tradition of Buddhism alive through their practice. From what I could see, their practice seems not to have succumbed to any of the modern tendencies which seem, regrettably, to have made inroads into Western Buddhist practice. One regrettable example is the enthronement of zazen or seated meditation over the text, not to mention the psychologization of Buddhism, in general, changing its focus to self-help.

For anyone who reads The Zennist's blog regularly, you'll know of his love of the Buddhist text. Texts are, for him, the heart of the practice.

Given that, I wonder the following questions. First, how does one work with texts knowing that oral tradition was a driving force of the practice for centuries?

Second, are the only texts worthy of study those of old, or will there continue to be texts added to the "canon"?

Third, are the many, many Buddhist practitioners across the world who either don't read texts, or whose practice is not text-based simply second class practitioners?

Fourth, how does an emphasis on text - on words - change the nature of our experience of, and interaction with, the world?

The way I see it currently, answering the question what is the heart of Buddhist practice? with any of the following answers - zazen, texts, rituals, work practice - it seems to miss the mark. In my opinion, emphasizing texts places too much value on literacy as a means to enlightenment. Think about it. Under this view, if you're illiterate, or lack the literacy skills needed to read these complex tomes, you're out of luck. (Of course, there is the practice of reciting and memorizing texts and dharma poems, which could remedy this problem to some degree. However, I don't think this is what people like The Zennist are getting at.) Overall, the emphasis on texts doesn't necessarily wash with the history of our practice, which is filled with all kinds of folks who, in various ways, came to enlightenment. Texts are one very good path, but there are many others as well. I think it's better to remain open about this kind of question, than to declare an answer strongly as the gospel truth.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Second Life Buddhism

There's been a lot of people writing about a virtual zendo called Kannonji in the online game "Second Life." Included are this post by Dosho Port, who plans to give a "talk" there, and this commentary on Open Buddha. The double virtualness of it all is a bit dizzying in my opinion, but it certainly points to a key issue we humans have: our heavy reliance on constructed stories about our lives. In a way, much of what we believe is "true" is no more true than this virtual zendo is real. And yet, at the same time, more than one teacher has said "You have to take care of your stories, too." In other words, even though the stories aren't really true, if you try and exclude them, you're missing the mark.

I'm not really one for role playing games, which is what Second Life basically is. But I love a good experiment, especially when it has to do with our "spiritual lives." So, good luck Second Life zendo! May you jolt a few minds out of their slumber.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bike Dharma

As a few of you know, I am an avid bicyclist. In fact, I do not own a car, and use public transit when biking isn't feasible. It's a benefit of living in the city, and an opportunity to stay healthy and support planetary health as well.

This weekend has been filled with odd bike mishaps and shenanigans. Saturday morning, I started down a bumpy alley I often ride, only to hit a hole too hard. The back tire was already weakened from an early run-in with a pothole, so this time, it didn't take much to blow both the tire and tube. It sounds more dramatic than it was. I knew almost right away it was happening, slowed down and got off to the sound of a hissing tube. Those in the area might have made a double take, wondering where the snake had come from, but I was just fine.

The interesting thing is what happened next. I just turned the bike around, and walked it home. No fussing about it. No worrying that I was going to waste my day away. Nothing.

Once home, I decided to try and patch both this tube and another tube that I had in the closet. Some might say "Great job reusing and recycling!," but mostly this was an example of me being cheap. As I patched the first tube, I also got the bright idea I could speed up the process by blow-drying the glue around the patch. Impatience in full bloom you might say. After a few minutes of that, I got the air pump and fit the tube into the tire, then around the rim. It held for about 10 minutes before the air emptied out again. At this point, I decided to patch the other tube and let it dry. In the meantime, I'd use the slower, but very dependable mountain bike for the rest of the day.

All was well until I came out of the coffee shop I was studying in last night, hopped on the bicycle, and nearly fell over as the seat slammed down. Someone had stolen the bolt that held up the seat. I just stood there for a moment, wondering why in the hell anyone would steal a bolt. "Why not take the seat, too?" I thought. And then I just laughed at the silliness of it all.

Getting back home, I got the tube for the other bike, the patch now well dried, and fixed the tire. Good to go. The air held and everything. After an hour, I checked again. Still holding. So, I put it back on the bike, chanted the HsinHsinMing and Formless Atonement, then went to bed.

In the morning, I had about twenty-five minutes down to the zen center for morning meditation. Plenty of time usually. Heading down the back alleys on the way to the hill that goes down into downtown St. Paul, I felt the fresh, crisp mid-November air on my face. It's been warmer than usual here in Minnesota, a treat after a very wet and cold October.

Turning the corner and onto the hill, I began to sense something was wrong. I looked down, and listened. It wasn't as loud as the day before, but my new best friend the tire snake had returned. I immediately realized that if I got off, and the air pump didn't work, I'd miss the morning sit. In the past, I would have been pissed, very pissed that my tire was going flat in a situation like this. In fact, not only that, but I would have carried that energy through the day, and probably would have told everyone I met about my misfortune. However, this morning, I simply got off the bike, tried to pump the tire back up, and then walked the rest of the way. It was a beautiful morning, and there was no need to hurry, not even to try and get to meditation before it was over.

For the weekend, my dharma teachers came in the form of two bicycles, and some anonymous person who, for some reason, wanted an old bolt. We're given these kinds of opportunities all the time, but if you're like me, you miss a lot of them. Luckily, they keep coming and coming, the 84,000 gates of practice.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Who am I? The Identity Game We Play

This short, to the point post by Marguerite over at Mind Deep resonated deeply with me because in many ways, here and I are in a really similar places. Marguerite writes:

Strangers ask, what do you do? I say, I am in transition. Been doing a lot of meditation. Taking time to discern what to do next. All true. Response seems to satisfy questioners. I am the one who's struggling. Wishing I could rush to an answer, quick. Yes, I am a social worker. Or, I am starting a nonprofit. Or, even more dramatic, I am becoming a nun . . .

Instead, I am to follow the path of the heart, that requires no less than complete authenticity. At present, the truth lies in not knowing what other role to play yet, beyond that of wife, spiritual seeker, and hospice volunteer. And in knowing fully naked self, moment to moment.

I had conversations this past week with a few friends wanted to know what's up with me. It's been somewhat of a struggle lately, and I haven't been very outgoing and energetic. There have been a lot of offers of help, which are very kind, but also sometimes feel a bit anxiety-driven. It makes me think of people who have severe psychological disorders or physical disabilities, how sometimes offers of help are tinged with a desire by the helper to return the other person to some sort of "normal" state, or at least to something which is more comfortable for them.

This definitely hasn't always been the case in my recent experience, and I have been blessed to have people in my life who will just listen, and maybe offer a question or suggestion at the right point. However, like Marguerite, when you feel naked and without the ability to really name all that is going on within you, there is more sensitivity and awareness of the actions and reactions of others. At least, that's been the case for me.

It's really challenging at times to stick with not knowing, not having a clear answer or answers to questions like "What's going on with you?" or "What do you do?" The funny thing is that no matter how things are going in your life, any answer you give misses the mark in some ways. How can we ever pin it all down?

And yet, as Katagiri Roshi said "You have to say something." Of course, I'd add, not always. Sometimes, silence is what's called for, even when others want an answer, or are scared that no answer means something is terribly wrong. I'm trying to learn how to let others deal with their own stories about me, to let go of the feeling that I have to fix or reassure or prop up a fake "self" to keep things comfortable. It's not too easy, letting all this go, and realizing that how others view you is just that, no matter what you do. But really, what else is there to do with those stories? They're out of your control, like most of this life is.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Obama, Pesticides, and Food Interdepence

I'm aware that Buddhist practitioners come of all political persuasions, and clearly the teachings don't lead anyone to any particular set of views when it comes to governments, social structures, and laws. However, maybe we share a collective interest in a healthy, sustainable food supply? Naw, I doubt it. I can imagine there are practicing Buddhists out there who have no major qualms with things like GMOs and toxic pesticide use.

This morning, I came across this article about U.S. President Obama's nominee for a major post in the Department of Agriculture. You'd think that after his wife planted an organic garden at the White House, and after all the talk about "Change We Can Believe In," that at least there would be a shift in the way we handle food. Unfortunately, like so many other issues during the first year of the Obama Administration, we've gotten a lot of pretty talk, but no real change. (Full disclosure: I voted for the Green Party's Presidential Nominee Cynthia McKinney last year, having long ago given up on the Democratic Party to represent the kind of change I desire to see.)

The reason why I have had fantasies about a collective Buddhist food policy is that the way we approach the growing and distributing of food impacts everyone, and everything. In some ways, it is the most obvious manifestation of interdependence.

Here is the first paragraph from the article written by Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones magazine:

When Michelle Obama announced plans to plant an organic garden at the White House, nearly everybody thought it was a great idea. Everybody except for the pesticide industry. Representatives from a branch of the industry's main trade association, CropLife America (CLA), wrote to the First Lady asking her to respect the role of "conventional agriculture;" they added in a separate note to supporters that the thought of the White House's chemical-free vegetables made them "shudder." But the public swipe at the president's wife didn't stop the administration from nominating senior CLA executive Islam "Isi" Siddiqui to a key post: chief agricultural negotiator for the office of the US Trade Representative (USTR). If confirmed, Siddiqui will be responsible for, among other things, negotiating international agreements governing the use of pesticides.

It is impossible to use the large quantities of pesticide that modern, corporate level farms do and not negatively impact not only people, but planet. Groups like United Farm Workers, started by Cesar Chavez as political movement to illuminate the human side of the equation, regularly highlights the cases of worker poisonings, increased cancer rates, and other negative health impacts that plague farm workers who spray the produce many of us eat. Numerous groups, including Organic Consumers Association,have examined in great detail the impacts of pesticides on people eating chemically-enhanced foods. Still others have examined environmental impact of the use of pesticides, including many University agricultural researchers. Hell, even the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has it's own Ecological Risk Assessment because it's impossible to ignore the damage that is being done.

However, when it comes to leadership, Obama's choice of a pesticide-loving, pro-big agribusiness representative is very much in line with the way things are, and have been for decades, when it comes to food policy. Again and again, the interconnectedness of food with everything else is denied, ignored, or sold to the highest bidder. It never ceases to amaze me how little public outcry there is about these kinds of issues, and how easily people swallow lines like "We have to use pesticides to have enough food to feed the world's people."

What I find extremely interesting about arguments like that is the great lack of trust and faith many people now have in the planet. People rightly point to the population explosion of the past century as a cause of concern, and yet at the same time, have accepted apocalyptic stories linking organic (i.e. traditional) agriculture with the world's starving, as if somehow the earth has betrayed it's populations by being too limited. What's challenging about all this is that there are limits, and there are serious problems environmental problems that could end in catastrophe. Global Warming, rain forest destruction, and desertification are just a few of the many major issues we'll be facing in the coming century and probably for much longer. And yet, when it comes to food, ignorance is powerful and pervasive.

How many of you know where our food came from, how it was grown, and what impact that method of growth had on the workers and the planet? Probably more of us than thirty years ago, thanks to efforts of groups like those mentioned above, but still not the critical mass needed to transform all of this. How many of you have actually grown your own food, even just a little of it? Maybe a fair amount, but again not enough for that kind of knowledge to be wide spread and commonplace.

President Obama is like many of us, simply acting out of the money-driven, capitalist mentality that has become collectively accepted as "common sense." He's no different than anyone who chooses the bottom line over all else out of a desire for some tangle sense of security. The only real difference is that when someone like me chooses the bottom line over ethical, environmental, and spiritual wisdom, the impact is kind of small. But when the President makes that choice, the impact is much greater. But all of these acts are acts of destruction, great failures to see and embody our lives in a fully awake way.

I, personally, desire my practice to be one that continues to spark questions about ALL forms of "common sense," and to lead me to make changes based on those questionings. Ah, a goal for your practice, you might say - isn't that "against the rules"? Well, anyone that says they have no goals for their practice should be - questioned!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

I-Sanghas, Twangas, and Playing the Congas

During a class at my zen center last night, a few comments were made that might be put into the "real life" sanghas and connections with teachers are best camp. Similar comments were made in the following post by Brad Warner, who has regularly made negative statements about internet-based study and practice. On the opposite end, John over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt made several points in favor of online practice and study.

I think it's worth quoting both posts at length. First, here are a few paragraphs from Brad Warner:

You can get very lost in the twisty twirly world of Internet communication and easily lose sight of what's real and what's not. These days I often hear people say,"I was talking with my friend..." And I'll ask, "Were you actually talking with that person or were you chatting online?" Often it's the latter. There is an enormous difference between these two activities. Yet many people these days seem to regard them as being essentially the same thing.

I'm keenly aware of this because so much of what I do is in the form of written communication either here on this blog, in my books or thru a million emails I have to write each day. Often when I meet people who only know me through these forms of communication are really surprised when they encounter me in person. I am not at all what they expected.

You don't get the tone of voice I would say these words in. You don't get my facial expression. You don't get the smell of my breath. You don't get the subtle electrical energy that human beings exchange when they're near each other. There are far more missing elements than I can possibly list. All of these things matter a lot.

I have to say that Brad has some very valid points here. It is easy to get lost in the twirling of the internet, if you aren't paying close attention to your mind and it's many monkey games. And there are definitely missing elements that can make it difficult to connect and communicate effectively with others online.

However, at the same time, I think these same "barriers" can also be gateways of practice. Given the limitations of the internet, you have a great opportunity to learn about all the games your mind plays, and all the stories it makes up, because everything is stripped down to words and some images. No smells to conjure up old memories of past lovers, or dead family members, or the bully from fourth grade. No crowds of people in real time to distract you in various ways. No confused body language to discern. It's funny, but all the things that greatly enhance communication and connection in "real life," also can be the very things that hold us back in real life. Think about how a slight shift in facial expression can create doubts or questions in your mind about what is being said, even if there is no sinister intention behind the facial change.

John's post in favor of online practice also brings another interesting issue: that of where practitioners are in their lives. He writes the following:

I was lucky enough to find a sangha to practice with but I still find a huge amount of support and encouragement, as well as interaction and engagement from my iSangha.

For me the iSangha is like the night school of Zen. When I was in college I would giggle at online degree schools or night school. With the thought that they were inferior or their students dumb. Now with two jobs and a family, I realize what their purpose was and how helpful they are to people with many constraints. The same concept applies to Zen and Buddhist practice.

This is a very real conundrum for so many practitioners living in North America. Many of us are busy, overworked, and struggling for the time to give to unfold our lives in a much deeper way. And we're also, collectively, trying to reinvent lay practice in ways that maybe haven't been tried before, and might not fully be possible.

I seem to pivot around the idea that if you take Buddha's teachings fully into your life, then your life should be transformed completely. Not just a little bit, but completely. This includes questioning every last bit of "common sense" agreed upon by our families, communities, cultures, and societies, and becoming liberated from fixed positions about any of it.

Ah, but doesn't that sound heady. So, let me be more specific.

Doesn't it seem that at some point, the idea of maintaining a practice and an overly busy life filled with tons of activities and attempts to uphold a certain level of material wealth should come under deep scrutiny? It feels pretty crazy to me actually, even though I'm guilty of it myself to some degree.

And doesn't it seem that at some point, if there is too much leaning towards meeting people "where they are at" that we'll lose the necessary fires of contradiction and surrendering of self-cherished approaches, and will only be helping people prop up their current, suffering-filled lives?

I actually think that both of these questions can apply to either "real life" sanghas and online-based practice. The main difference is that it's easier to pick and choose, to maintain your preferred ways of thinking, acting, and being if you're only doing practice and study online. How much easier? I don't know. But I think facing your peers, facing your teacher, in a "real life" setting makes it a little harder to hide all your shit - and I'd emphasize a little because clearly people can and do become masters at hiding and shape-shifting in person.

I sometimes wonder, though, overall, if too much of our practice on a collective scale is simply working to soften the edges of our harried, pressured lives. There's definitely value to that, but is an approach of making life a little less crazy sustainable in the long run? Will there be a practice of liberating all beings 100 years from now if we focus too much on just getting through our days a little better? I guess what I'm asking is whether there will be any vitality to our varied Buddhist traditions here in North America? (I'm aware that speaking of place is a bit odd when the online community is worldwide. I guess what I mean to do is to look at the practitioners that live and practice in North America, regardless of what forms their practice takes.)

This is the characture I wonder about: The lay practitioner who gains some psychological benefit from practicing meditation and studying Buddha's teachings. They are a little kinder, little more self aware, and maybe cause less conflict in their lives. A good thing? Sure. And yet, the same person rarely questions the social and political structures of his/her's society and world, and then makes changes because of that questioning. Rarely questions the way he or she interacts and thinks about animals, or the natural environment, and then makes changes because of that questioning. Doesn't have time to wonder if the level of material wealth, and the work needed to maintain it, is really compatible with the teachings? Or doesn't have the time until they're retired and falling apart. An extreme vision? Sure. Maybe even a straw man argument, but really, if we're going to play the Buddha's congas, don't you think we should be aiming to play them wholeheartedly, with everything we've got? What form this takes will always depend on causes and conditions. Some will play right in the middle of the busy world. And others in a more quiet, monastic setting. That's not the point. I think what is is the Ninth Precept, "Taking up the way of not attaching to anything, even the truth." Real life sanghas: no problem. I sanghas: no problem. Can you let go of all assumptions, and practice whole-heartedly to point of being transformed? That, to me, is the question at hand.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Crow Zen

Yesterday afternoon, I took my class outside for a short writing exercise about autumn. I asked them to write about the current weather, and then tell the rest of the class three things they saw that were signs of the season. As I looked around myself, noticing the bare tree limbs, and fallen leaves of various shades of orange and red, I heard a call. Shifting my eyes until they were filled with crow - a very large one, perched atop a tree across the street - I forgot my class for a little while.

The sun had fallen behind the houses, and there was a slight, cool wind: just enough to make the skin shiver. I found myself standing still, letting it all in: my students discussing vocabulary, the cool air, the bare tree limbs, the quiet houses, and the crow. It, too, was still and, occasionally, very loud. Almost too loud to just be viewed as another bird in a tree making noise. I kept looking back at this big, black bird that somehow so easily sat on the edge of a thin reed of wood, as if it had given up worrying about logistics, and simply was being who it was in the moment. I heard my students discussion vocabulary, struggling to string together sentences in a second language, as this bird and I took in the world together.

What I find really interesting is how I seem to be more and more drawn to the commonplace. Everyday conversations with friends and family. Simple walks through my neighborhood. Crows and squirrels, two of the most common animals in the city. I have always been someone who loves being outside, loves the natural world to the point of refraining from deliberately killing even it's not so pleasant of manifestations. And yet, it wasn't too long ago that a crow in a tree, a falling leaf, or a scampering squirrel were just things going on that I mostly ignored.

In a lot of ways, Zen practice, or any spiritual practice worth its weight, is about stripping away the need for the extraordinary. Not that rare, unusual things, ecstatic states, or colorful events are bad, but we seem to have too much desire for them, at the expense of the vast majority of our lives.

The sound of that crow cawing rattled its way through my body as yet another reminder to pay attention to your life as it is. And as it did, I noticed the talking had quieted down, and the writing had almost stopped. I looked at one of my students, and she asked me a question. It was time to go back in, and finish the rest of the class.

Quick note: the little bird in the tree of the photo is not a crow.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Violence Within and Outside Of - No Separation

Thanks to Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist, I found this blog post on the debates over Buddhist Chaplains in the military. It's a complicated issue, and in light of the recent mass murders at Fort Hood, all the more important in my opinion. I continue to be compelled to examine the roots of violence both within myself, and out in the world. No separation, right?

This morning, on the way to the zen center on my bicycle, I noticed that old, familiar tightening in my stomach that occurs when cars come too close, or ignore my safety, or do something I just "don't like." my practice when I notice this, or even beforehand if possible, is to chant the Jizo Dharani. Jizo Bodhisattva is, among other things, a protector figure for travelers(not a God per se, but a manifestation of buddha energy in the world). As such, the chant is perfect for people on the go, and I have found it especially helpful in working with anger, fears, and violent energy that arrive during biking trips through the city.

It's a simple chant.(Om ka ka kabi san ma e sowa ka)

Easy to remember, and rhythmic enough to break through the muck that is arising. Sometimes, I chant it for an entire bike ride, and sometimes just for a few blocks. The original impetus, to stop getting so angry at careless drivers, has morphed into a deeper awareness of the very act of traveling brings up all kinds of challenging emotions and energies. And when I don't pay attention to those energies and emotions, they get lodged in my body, and control my thinking. Arriving at work after an "unconscious" bike ride, for example, can bring on a depositing of negativity on co-workers or my students that didn't need to occur. This is how violence begins on a small scale. People dump on each other, or jump on each other in small ways, and over time it builds up. If those builds up go unexamined, and uncared for, violent outbursts can be the result. At an extreme level, people rape, torture, blow up things, and kill each other. Do you really think that you are all that different from Major Malik Nidal Hasan? I think we can condemn his actions and, at the same time, see how razor thin the difference is between people who snap like him, and the rest of us.

In fact, it seems imperative, in a world filled with violence and hatred, to take these kind of steps. To stop separating people into rigid victim and perpetrator categories, and start examining how the roots of violence are in us all.

How are you working with violence in your own life? In your community? Around the world even? Sitting with, and reflecting on these questions, and others like them, seems like an important place to start this work. May we all give non-violence in all it's manifestations our best shot.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The First Precept, Mass Murders, and Male Gun Obsession

Every time some American man shoots up a building full of people, I feel a deep sense of outrage. Even with years of meditation and Buddhist training, it's still there. No matter how many arguments I have heard from gun rights advocates, I've never been able to swallow the obsession with guns many men in the U.S. have. I'm aware that this is true in other nations - and clearly armed groups of men terrorize people in war torn and oppressed countries all over the world. However, given the last few days in the U.S., I feel called to question again, as a man, why we American men are so attached to our guns.

Many of you probably heard a few days ago about the Major who killed a dozen of his fellow soldiers and injured at least thirty others in Fort Hood, Texas. And then yesterday, a disgruntled former employee walked into his old workplace and killed one person and injured half a dozen others. Two days - thirteen dead, dozens of others injured. Is this another form of war?

The gun lobby, lead by the National Rifle Association, is powerful in the United States. It seems near impossible to get quality health coverage for all Americans, but you sure as hell can get a gun if want one. In fact, recent estimates suggest there is almost one gun per person in the U.S. And let's face it, even though a woman finally stopped the Fort Hood shooter, most of those owning the guns, and doing the shooting, are men.

The first Buddhist precept is a vow of non-killing. It's not an injunction against all killing, and indeed we are always, even in taking a breath, killing something. However, I believe that this precept calls us to examine deeply our desires to kill and to refrain from all killing that is unnecessary.

I can hear the hunters in the audience cringing a bit when I say this. Maybe they will even think I am judging them. Well, I've never had a clear answer when it comes to hunting. On the one hand, how many people in the U.S. have to hunt out of necessity. On the other hand, the common imbalance of populations of deer and rabbits, for example, create their own problems, and hunting, I suppose might be one solution to the problems they create. Hunting is, in a lot of ways, a separate issue from gun violence. However, groups like the NRA are filled with hunters whose numbers and financial contributions contribute to the blocking of laws that might prevent some of the gun violence that happens in the U.S.

But laws themselves are never enough. We men, especially those who own and use guns, must get reflective about why we're so collectively prone to violence. How much of our collective obsession with guns is a feeling that we are powerless in our lives? How much of it is a mistaken belief that in owning and using firearms, we might gain control of our lives? Why is it that it much easier to find men who are publicly, even politically passionate about guns rights than it is to find men who are as passionate about health care rights, just to give one example? And how much of this is driven by unexamined fears, including the fear to be a man who shows fear and vulnerability?

This is something I have never understood. If a man joins and serves in the military, he is heroic. It's especially true if he is killed while in the military. And yet, if a man devotes his entire life to quietly volunteering to nurse the sick, feed the poor, educate the next generation, etc., the word "hero" is almost never heard. Why is that? Why is military service privileged above that of doctors, nurses, teachers, farmers, community organizers, and a myriad of things people do that greatly benefit others?

Now, I've always found the word "hero" a bit dubious. It implies a sense of solid self and individual agency I don't really think is true. When we uphold someone as a hero, I think we often also continue the mythology of a fixed, separate self going on a public scale. And yet, since it's a term we hear often, it's worth paying attention to where it's used, and to question why it's being used.

Here's another question I have: when the word "hero" is applied to a solider who is killed, is this partly an attempt to deflect our attention from the violence that occurred?

Thich Nhat Hanh said the following about the first precept:

It is not just by not killing with your body that you observe the First Precept. If in your thinking you allow the killing to go on, you also break this precept. We must be determined not to condone killing, even in our minds. According to the Buddha, the mind is the base of all actions. It is most dangerous to kill in the mind. When you believe, for example, that yours is the only way for humankind and that everyone who follows another way is your enemy, millions of people could be killed because of that idea.

I've never supported state-sanctioned warfare of any sort, and thus all the questions about the military. However, this issue is much bigger than the military. When you live in a nation where there is almost one gun per person, and where over 9000people were killed by firearms in a single year (2008), and where men last year where demanding the "right" to enter Presidential candidate speeches armed with weapons, you start to wonder what the hell is going on.

Even though we are tiny minority of the U.S. population, we Buddhist practitioners have the tools within our practice to be peace, and help manifest peacefulness within our communities. We can do the hard work of examining our minds and our actions, and to learn and promote more non-violent ways of living together and dealing with conflict. Many members of other religious/spiritual groups are out there, doing different work with similar aims, and are ready to join us. Will gun violence and gun obsession disappear if we do this challenging work? Probably not. But if each of us, in the breadbasket of our spiritual practice, doesn't work to offer more nourishment to peace and non-violence, it's almost certain we will become surrounded by murder and mayhem.