Thursday, September 30, 2010

Just Who Do You Think You're Standing Up for?!

Over at the Reformed Buddhist, Kyle has a strongly worded post taking aim at the lack of public commentary from American Buddhists about a pair of Buddhist centers being denied legal support from local governments for new buildings. He contrasts this with the clear, and sometimes very visible public support some convert Buddhists have given to the U.S. Muslim community in general, and to the Park 51 project in New York specifically.

Personally, I think there is a fundamental difference between the Mosque issue and these other issues of religious intolerance. From the Mayors office in New York City, to the Governors office in Albany to even words of encouragement by President Obama, the group building the Mosque have been given the green light to start construction in NY since all the necessary statutory requests and permits have been approved by each of the governmental agencies involved. Conversely, there are currently two very significant religious freedom cases in progress, one in Walnut, California and one in Rankin County, Mississippi, where Buddhists have been denied by the local governmental officials the right to build religious buildings, and therefore have been blocked from their constitutional right to exercise and practice religion freely. What ever my personal feelings are towards taking a side in the New York Mosque public debate, how we act as a untied front can not and should not overshadow the very real, illegal, baseless and cowardly governmental interference in Mississippi and California. One issue signifies direct actions against our rights and freedoms guaranteed to us in the United States Constitution, the other, the NY Mosque controversy, is ultimately nothing more than taking sides in a public debate.

I disagree with Kyle about the utility of publicly supporting members of another religion that has been routinely demonized in this nation. Staying silent because something has become a political spectacle and doesn't have any other clear and direct action isn't my style - period. (Although, I wholeheartedly support sitting silently when that is what's called for :)

Let's consider the rest of what Kyle says. He's absolutely right that in both of the Buddhist center cases, people have an opportunity to speak up and perhaps influence a specific action of discrimination. We can write officials in these two towns, write blog posts, get the word out to others. And I support all of that, which is part of why I'm writing this post.

FYI: Kyle has a previous post with contact info available for the Walnut, California case.

However, one thing I'd like to point out is that in great contrast to the Park 51 project, which has been front page news for months, the first time I - a fairly big news hound - heard about these two Buddhist center cases was a few weeks ago. How many American Buddhists have any idea about them? Probably not many. How many know about the NYC Islamic Center debate? Probably a vast majority.

It's not at all surprising that Buddhists are commenting about the very public debate over Islam, but not about these two Buddhist center cases, or issues like them. Buddhists aren't the "sexy enemy" that many consider Muslims to be. The mainstream media won't make a ton of money reporting about such issues, and even though the Federal government is intervening in at least of the cases, there's zero public pressure for the kind of statement President Obama made about the Park 51 project.

Oppression manifests in many different ways, and much of it occurs outside of the general public's eye. Which makes it that much more difficult to address. This is why I believe it's important to not only tackle specific instances of oppression, but to do what we can to promote a more just and liberated world in general. It's much less tangible, and we may never see the results of said actions, but sometimes a meditation for peace in the middle of an angry crowd is the most skillful offering one can make.

Update: here's my letter to the Walnut, California officials.

Dear _______,

I'm a Zen Buddhist living in St. Paul, MN. I recently became aware of the conflict over a building permit for the Chung Tai Zen Center. I'm not in the practice of writing local officials about building permits; in fact, I don't recall ever having done so. However, the debate over the Cordoba House Project in New York City has brought renewed attention to legacy across the United States of religious discrimination, especially when it comes to non-Christian religious communities.

I honestly don't know the actual reasons for denying the permit for the Walnut,California. What greatly concerns me is that at least two members of your Planning Commission, according to the U.S. Department of Justice filing, appear to have unreasonable objections to the permit. Mr. Hall's suggestion that the center would be used to "recruit and influence" nearby middle school students is not only outrageous, but would probably never be uttered about a Christian church community in the same proximity. And the argument that the Zen Center would be a "tourist attraction" seems very similar to me.

My guess is that, given the intervention of the Dept. of Justice, your office and the others will not be giving out much information about this case. So, although I would prefer to know why this Zen Center building is being blocked, I will simply offer my view that this situation could expand into something more damaging if decent reasons aren't offered in some public manner. The Cordoba House project had people for and against it, but in the end, the press coverage was a big headache for the city of New York. Perhaps your town, and this Zen Center aren't as interesting to the media, but you never know what issues they will choose to take up and exploit for profits and sensationalism.

The Walnut Planning Commission might ultimately be in the right on this issue. Since I don't know the whole story, I am willing to entertain that possibility. You need to understand, though, that being a member of religious minority group in this country isn't always welcomed, and as such, sometimes we must speak out and make sure that our freedoms are being upheld, just like anyone else in this nation.

I sincerely hope that this conflict is resolved soon, and that all parties involved are given due respect and treated with the utmost fairness.


Nathan Thompson
St. Paul, MN

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Western Buddhists Don't Know Anything"

So basically says our old friend The Zennist, doing his best to ruffle the feathers of "Western" Buddhists again.

There are times when you have to face the facts. Something isn't right in Buddhism. Many Buddhist writers I am familiar with, not to mention the bulk of the Buddhist public, don’t read much of the Pali canon or the Mahayana canon, enough to know what it actually contains (this includes Asians). This is guessing, but I think their Buddhist reading list may only contain two discourses they’ve actually read such as the the Kalama Sutta and the Heart Sutra. Of course there are others. But these two seem to be the main ones.

First off, I wish I or someone could come up with a better term than "Western Buddhists." The whole west-east thing is tired.

Anyway, The Zennist's post is an interesting set of observations. I think he's onto something as well. The Kalama Sutta seems wildly over represented in the blog posts I have read online over the past two years. And at that, it's mostly reduced to a paraphrasing of section 10, which reads:

The criterion for acceptance

10. "Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' enter on and abide in them.

I think it's probably fair to say that not a lot of Buddhists in general are very well versed in the original teachings. We are currently studying the Anapanasati Sutta at our zen center, and before this did a class on the Diamond Sutra and also one on the Third Chinese Zen Patriarch's poem Hsin Hsin Ming. I know other sanghas in the U.S. also have rigorous study of some of the ancient texts, but it's probably also true that other sanghas don't. The "Just Sitting" mindset amongst some Dogen-centric communities seems to lead to not much studying of anything besides Dogen. The same might be said of communities that only study Nichiren's writings. I'm just throwing out some examples here of groups that study a single teacher, sometimes to the exclusion of all others.

The Zennist continues:

The popularity of these two Buddhist discourses [the Kalama and Heart Sutras] tells us more about the modern ethos than Buddhism. In fact, if this is all of the Buddhism someone has read, they don’t know much about Buddhism, especially about its mystical side, for lack of a better term. In fact, the mystical side is really what Buddhism is all about or in the words of Bodhidharma, “The most essential method, which include all other methods, is beholding the mind” which is not our ordinary mind but is the very spiritual stuff of the universe.

I'm interested in this. There are times when I do think modern Buddhist writers and teachers focus too much on things like mindfulness while washing the dishes, or how to work with difficult emotions. These are very important, but they aren't the whole works.

There's been some interesting posts recently on the blog On the Precipice about the value of monastic practice, and the need to give it more support in "Western" nations. I left the following comment on today's post:

One thing I think is important to consider is the lack of records on lay practitioners historically. Most of what we have been handed down has been recorded by monastics about monastics. Occasionally a figure like Layman P’ang shows up, but it’s a rarity. And I think this is especially important to women in our practice today because we really don’t know a lot about the Buddhist women of our past, monastic or lay. I have three or four books on my shelf written about historical Buddhist women, and the authors’ research was often years in the making, and yet they only have stories about maybe 20 or 30 wise Buddhist women. So, I’m kind of convinced that we don’t have a really well rounded view of the different ways people have practiced and potentially awakened throughout Buddhist history.

Why is this relevant to the rest of this post? Well, I think there are a few overlapping issues going on that tie together. First off, The Zennist's general point about practitioners having little knowledge of what the ancient teachings actually say. And second, the fact that many of those ancient teachings are coming from monastics writing about monastic experience. One of the benefits of going through the Pali Canon is that there are lay practitioners found in it, and the Buddha directly addresses them, tailoring teachings towards lay life. However, once you move past the Pali Canon, at least amongst Zen records, it's mostly monastics and wandering loner types whose stories and teachings are available. All this to say that I'm not terribly convinced we have a good sense of what's it's been like for lay Buddhists throughout history. And along with that, since we don't have, for example, lots of enlightenment stories about lay practitioners, it's been generally assumed that lay people almost never experience enlightenment.

One thing I have to say about The Zennist's criticism of modern, "Western" Buddhists, which gets nastier at the end of his post, is that it's probably more the case that the majority of people in every religious/spiritual tradition are, and have always been, lacking in depth of knowledge about the actual recorded teachings of said tradition. How many Christians do you know that can rattle off entire sections of the Bible, and easily cite a wide diversity of quotations from early Christian scholars and theologians? How many Muslims do you know who can do the same with the Qu'ran and early Muslim scholars?

Part of the problem those of us who do read in depth have is that we are reading material written by other people that were privileged enough (i.e. had the time and resources) to be able to present a more complete picture based on a variety of historical teachings. If we had a better sense of what lay practice was like historically, and how people grew wise or not through it, perhaps the monastic/scholarly approach might be seen as one path amongst many to awakening.

*Image is of a flag from the American "Know Nothing" movement - mid-19th century.

Monday, September 27, 2010

A Hollywood Romance Gone Bad: Obama and Leadership Expectations

Theatre. This is what a lot of us seem to want from their leaders, be it political, spiritual, or whatnot. The actual decisions they make, or ethics they display, tend to drop off to the side, that is, until we begin to experience the impact of said leaders.

The following is from an article examining U.S. President Obama current image amongst the American public.

Obama performs the presidency badly. Over the past two years he has managed to come across as aloof, detached and occasionally dithering. On a human level his professorial demeanour makes him look like a leader who understands but does not necessarily feel. On a presidential level it makes him look like a leader who prefers to think than to act.

This dislocation is particularly acute because his candidacy – rooted in the promise of change – endowed his presidency with expectations of transformation both symbolic and substantial that no individual could possibly meet.

This became painfully apparent last week during a televised town hall meeting when Velma Hart, a black woman – the demographic bedrock of Obama's base – expressed her frustration with his presidency. "I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are right now."

Obama acknowledged hard times but went on to answer with a laundry list of achievements. His answer was competent but at no time did it emotionally connect with her or anyone else. Afterwards, Hart told the Washington Post: "I think he has made progress. I just thought by now the progress would be more evident for the man-on-the-street level. I thought there was something special and secret he knew that would make things operate differently."

Asked if she thought her expectations had been unrealistic, she said: "Absolutely. It took decades to get here. He's only been in office for two years. But I guess I started to believe, on some small level, that he had a magic wand."

Now, I think there are a number of factors playing into the diminished approval of Obama's "performance," racism and a shitty economy high on the list. But what I'm interested in is the expectations people place upon leaders, specifically the desire to experience a personal, emotional connection with said leader.

Expecting a Miracle Worker

Those who know me know that long before the 2008 Presidential election, I declared Obama to be yet another centrist Democrat with little intention to upset the status quo. Part of me wanted to be wrong, but I wasn't. In fact, while friends and members of my family drooled over the man's speeches, I read the transcripts and pointed out exactly what candidate Obama was saying behind the excitement. You might say I was a bit of killjoy, but it was clear to me early on that people were placing an endless amount of projections on this one man, and his potential to "wave a magic wand" and create a better, more just nation.

Expecting a Personal Barometer to Connect with

The article above points to what I'd call "the emotional gap" between the President and many in the American public. People want him to be angry when they are angry. Sad when they are sad. Questioning when they are questioning. And well, you get the idea. After eight years of the faux folksy, tempermental like a teenager leadership of President Bush, the arrival of a calm, cerebral Obama was welcomed by a majority of Americans, even some who didn't vote for him. And yet, those same qualities are now viewed as a disconnect, as if the President "doesn't feel our pain." And maybe he doesn't. Many of his policy decisions seem to suggest as much. But even if the man sincerely wishes to do what's best for people who have long suffered in this nation, he doesn't "act like it."

Wanting to be Seduced

When it comes to politics, I'm pretty convinced the majority of people would rather be seduced by a charismatic actor than select the person who's ideas best fit what the current situation calls for.

And you know what, the same is often the case when it comes to our expectations of spiritual leaders. If Bishop Eddie Long and Barack Obama were in a competition for the leadership of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church before each had risen to fame, Long would have won hands down. The guy oozes emotional charisma and connectivity, even in the face of a sex scandal that could bring his downfall.

Admit it. You want to have the kind of teacher who sweeps you off your feet with their brilliance, feels your every last pain and grief, and always knows how to make you smile. You don't want to learn, and work hard, and take responsibility - you want a Hollywood romance, complete with an enlightened ending. Never mind that many of these kinds of leaders tend to create serious messes in their wake. Never mind that every good piece of theatre you've ever seen contains it's share of conflict and misery. You want the impossible and you want it now!

Velma Hart and the millions of others like her who have spent countless hours "defending" the Obama Administration are mostly trying to maintain the walls between the Hollywood romance they thought they had gotten, and the reality that actually is. It is a mistake that we all make in our lives about something, but one that seems exceptionally poignant when leaders are involved because of the heavy consequences that tend to follow.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Morning at the Zen Center

I had a busy morning down at the zen center today. As part of our sangha's annual meeting, three of us gave short dharma talks about issues related to board work and running communities. I spoke about the next generation of practitioners, suggesting that the continuation of our sangha into the future will require us to stay in-tune with the ways people, especially younger folks - are finding Buddhism these days. And we will have balance adaptations like online classes and blogging, for example, with a preservation of the thrust of the practices and teachings that have been handed down to us.

Following the dharma talks, I was back "on stage," this time as the chairman of the board of directors leading the annual meeting. We've got a lot of stuff on our plate - discussions about our space and changes coming in the neighborhood our center is located, a new development plan that's designed to guide the organization's next 3-5 years, our current budget and the prospects of breaking even this year - it's a lot to consider.

A little over five years ago, our sangha was nearing the tipping point towards closing, after having lost 40-50% of its members and its head teacher. So, it was petty amazing to be standing in front of a vibrant, energetic group this morning, and to be considering long term goals of sustainability, instead of short term goals of survival.

And when I consider my own life, and how much basic shyness and worries about self image I had as a teenager and early 20 something, it was kind of surprising to find myself where I was at this morning - in a position of leadership, where people wanted to hear what I had to say. Perhaps some of you who have been reading this blog wouldn't find that terribly surprising, but I can still remember how resistant I used to be to making new friends and other connections. How sacred I was of expressing ideas that didn't match up with what others thought. And how, even if I found myself in a leadership position, that my lack of articulateness (due to being too closed up and attached to outcomes) often weakened my presence and impact greatly.

So, I guess I'm feeling grateful to my sangha for all the years of support, and to the teachings and practice in general for opening my life up in such a way that I might be able to lead effectively. Just before I gave my part of the morning talk, I said to myself "Just be open to the wisdom in the room. Let it run through you." And that it did.

We are always supported, even when it doesn't feel like it.

*Imagine of Clouds in Water Zen Center Zendo.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Get Married To Yourself

I found this post by Brianna Ecklid on Elephant Journal. It's basic enough, for sure, but I think that's what's called for sometimes. Get married to yourself is the gist of it. Stop hoping something outside of you will make you happy and wise, and start waking up to your life as it is.

I have spent too many years trying to control my life and I have learned that the harder you grasp at the sand the faster it slips through your fingers. I tried in vain to lead a life I thought was good enough for others and found myself severely unhappy. I have suffocated under stress that was unnecessary and suffered from the desires of my mind. It is time to take life and find happiness, joy, and spiritual fulfillment for myself; to reach out for my hand and firmly believe that I will find what I seek.

I placed a ring on my finger and silently promised myself that it would not move until I have found that which I seek. I suppose, in a way, this is my Bodhi tree and I am not going to move from it until I find that which I seek. Plus, I might get to have a reception and realistically…what is better than cake and presents?

What she writes about in the first paragraph sounds really familiar to me. The only difference I'd make is that "marrying myself" wouldn't be just "for myself." And of course, there's also a danger of getting taken over by the "seeking" mind, trying too hard to locate some answer to your deepest questions, whether in the outer world or within.

But I think she's onto something here. It's so easy to want something or someone to "complete you," but no one and nothing can do so.

That pit of dissatisfaction we each are attempting to fill with other people, achievements, food, drink, and whatever else is always asking for more.

Perhaps committing yourself to yourself, just as things are, moment by moment, the growling that comes from that pit might cease to overwhelm.

It's worth a try. You already have done the divorce thing with yourself thousands of times. Why not try something new for a change?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Buddhoblogosphere as Collective Practice

As someone who has made blogging a part of his Buddhist practice life, I was excited to see this post about yoga and blogging as collective practice. Carol, the post's author, brings up a lot of interesting issues to consider, including this:

those of us who want to continue discussing yoga and culture shouldn’t seek to avoid controversy and debate. Instead, we should practice working with it skillfully, both for our own benefit and that of the larger community.

Much of Carol's post is an attempt to consider the ways in which online debate can turn into hate-filled drama. She has a sincere desire to see the ethical principles of yoga practice extend into online activity, and from what I have seen in her blogging and responding, she's doing a good job of being a role model. I have the same aim in my blogging and online activity, and it would be wonderful if all of us could be civil and ethical with each other, even if we are in complete disagreement about whatever is being discussed.

However, although the ideals of Buddhist ethics or yogic ethics should be present, it's probably more fruitful to work with a question like this:

As members of the Buddhist blogging community, how can we respond when discussions/debates spiral into personal attacks and other such nastiness?

I think this is more challenging than it might appear on the surface. Here's why:

1. Offering generalized appeals to behave ethically usually fall flat. When someone says "We should follow the precepts" or "Buddha taught people to be kind to each other" it sounds patronizing or pious at best, and sometimes leads to even more arguing.

2. Uber-rational comebacks filled with direct statements of fact and dharma quotes also tend to fall flat, and can serve as alienation mechanisms to those who are heated.

3. Attempts to guess at someone's intentions for writing something nasty tend to be wrong, and sometimes serve as points of escalation, especially if the intentions suggested sound negative.

So, I think for those of us online speaking about Buddhist practice, and perhaps doing so as something more than just for amusement, it's worth considering how we might aid in supporting healthier dialogue. Here are a few ideas I have. Maybe you all have others to add.

First, it's good to remember that whomever you are arguing with, whomever you are arguing about, or whomever you see arguing, is another person living somewhere in the world. For all our vastness and diversity, we're never very far from each other.

Second, I have found it helpful to look for the spirit behind comments and try to respond from there. Sometimes, the flaming is loud, but an underlying message might be very important, if only it can unearthed.

Third, ask questions. Especially if you're unsure of motives or if you think there might be something of value lurking beneath the madness.

Finally, learn to walk away. It's true in real life, and so also here online. Sometimes, the best way to let a fight die down is to just leave it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Zen of Personal Narratives

As part of an e-mail to an old co-worker this morning, who was asking me how my life is now, I wrote the following:

The hard part for me lately is the feeling that I will always be one step short from achieving my career goals, having a healthy, long term relationship in my life, and living my spiritual path fully. This is probably just a story that I'm trapped in, but it's had a grip on me for awhile, and I also know that I hold myself back too much at times out of fear.

This narrative is actually an old one, but when you have a lot of free time on your hands, and no clear direction, the old narratives can get really loud.

What I find interesting about this particular story is how it points directly to the way grasping at something doesn't work, and how it is, in that way, completely true. I can't really "have" any of the things on the list. The fulfilling career. The great relationship. The unfolding path of wisdom and awakening. They aren't graspable in the way I want them to be.

I've been considering desire lately. The desire to awaken for example. I think we get a little too black and white about desire, deeming it all trouble, all the time. It isn't. There has to some desire to awaken, or to have healthy relationships, or to do something more than the same job over and over, otherwise there's no movement. But at some point, the desire has to be let go of, to flower or disperse on it's own as it will - or else everything gets really warped.

What I see in the narrative I have cherished above is that everything I have sought - the continued career achievements, the loving relationship, the unfolding wisdom - has been something "out there," outside of me, that I feel I have to possess in order to be complete.

I'd still love to experience all of this, but it needs to be approached differently - I can see this, feel this, now. The desire energy, the wanting - it's time to respect it more, engage it differently, and to see it as another raft that, if ridden intelligently, will take me across the river.

*Image by Harry Northover
see website for details

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rewriting History

Barry over at Ox Herding has a short, but sweet post about forms of second guessing and efforts to re-write the past.

I've noticed that three words play an important role in this storytelling:

Woulda Shoulda Coulda

You probably also have some experience with this line of thinking.

For sure I have. The thing is that all of these attempts to rewrite the past never seem to make it feel any better. It's like some part of me knows that it's a lie, a story, a piece of cake that doesn't really offer a deep satisfaction to whatever hunger I have.

Reviewing your history can offer great insights. Sometimes, you might even discover that what you thought happened actually didn't.

Trying to rewrite the same history, however subtly, is something entirely different. It's not only about a lack of acceptance, but it also is a sure fire way to steer yourself away from the truth of your life.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Challenges of Ending Relationships

Relationship endings aren't often what we would like them to be.
I found this post on the Elephant Journal. What I liked about it was that the author is writing about trying to shift a longstanding pattern of guilt and enabling when it comes to her friendships. This isn't something I experience in many of my friendships, but I do think it has colored a few of them over the years, and it certainly has colored a couple of romantic relationships I have been in.

Of one friendship in particular, she writes:

I started to notice that “Shelby,” the girl I had called my best friend for the last several years, kind of wasn’t anymore. I saw that our relationship revolved almost entirely around me either accommodating or assisting her in troubleshooting her various crises… often crises of her own making. After years of patience, and telling myself that Shelby was just going through a tough spell, it slowly dawned on me that Shelby was addicted to drama, and determined to keep me embroiled in it. I began to feel like an accomplice every time I humored her through a conversation about how untrustworthy her husband was and how justified she felt in hacking into his email to see whether or not he was doing anything fishy. I started to view her as the untrustworthy, fishy one.

But when I tried to step away from the crazier aspects of our relationship, or express my real opinion about her behavior, her resistance was palpable. It was all downhill from there. After months of painful pull-aways and one teary but pointless confrontation, I eventually resigned myself to being one of her many “ex friends.”

If you have had a strong connection with someone for a long time, it's hard to let go. And I think those of us steeped in discussions about compassion, kindness, and being ethical can easily get trapped into trying to find "the perfect" way to end things. The desire to live up to the values you believe in can get really intense when a long-standing relationship is involved, precisely because most of those values tend to be tied to how you interact with others and the world around you.

I had a good friend for many years who became increasingly destructive and abusive. We used to have wonderful discussions about philosophy, politics, religion, and writing. We'd go to concerts together. Hang out at coffee shops and pubs together. I consider him one of the people who helped me break out of my social shell and connect more with others. So, there was a lot to like about our friendship, and I'm glad it happened.

However, as the years went on, he got increasingly rigid in his views, and also paranoid about how others related with him. The bosses at his jobs were always conspiring to get rid of him, and never listened to anything he had to say. Other friends were turning against him, as had his mother, step father, and sometimes his sister as well. I went along with these conversations for too long. I wanted to be supportive, but mostly I ended up just aiding his paranoia and sense of persecution. Then, I found myself having to stand up against a decision he made that negatively impacted others, and I, too, started being viewed as an enemy. Things unraveled slowly. We'd fight about the same things we used to freely discuss. I would call him on his drinking and driving, and he'd get pissed. I started to stop calling him, and ignore his calls. And finally, there was an ugly incident where old arguments flared up while out at the bar, and he decided to respond by pouring a pitcher of beer on me.

He tried contacting me, first directly, and then through a mutual friend for several months afterward. But I had no interest. It was done. And I felt there was nothing I could say to him that would make the ending any better, nor do I think I could now. This came in the early years of my practice life, and probably the only difference is that this friendship most likely wouldn't happen now. Our interests and ways of living just wouldn't match up the way they had when we first met.

Over the years, I have watched myself longing for "good endings." It's an impossible place to be because it requires you to try and control what you can't control. No matter how "Buddhist" I act (whatever that means), the relationship is going to end however it ends.

What is your experience with relationship endings? What have your learned?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Mind-Body Contemplations with Cyndi Lee

Well, it turns out some of what I was feeling on Friday was just being sick. I've had a low grade fever and little bit of congestion all weekend. It's just enough to feel drained, but not really sick, if you know what I mean.

I do think the body and mind often mirror each other. They aren't separate and unrelated, no matter how we might think them to be.

One of my favorite yoga teachers is also a student of Buddhism. Cyndi Lee has written books combining teachings from both traditions, as well as done combination retreats, showing how the various practices can reinforce each other. A lot of people know that yoga and Buddhism are close cousins, but I often find the attempts to link them are superficial and fluffy. Cyndi Lee, I think, does a good job working with the two paths in a way that honors both. She also somehow manages to do some work in secular fields, like teaching yoga and meditation to business people, while still being about to maintain the spiritual depth of the teachings in her other work.

I found an old interview that Elephant Journal did with her in 2008. It covers a lot of ground,, including Lee's view that we need more people going out into the world to teach yoga, and less people starting up yoga studios. I like that idea a lot.

But I want to go back to the mind-body connection. Here's a great example from a yoga class Lee brings up.

Yoga is great because everything happens in yoga. It’s all in your body. All of your emotions are stuck in your cells, so a lot of stuff comes up. Type A people are going to go, “My knee hurts but I’m going to keep going, damn it!” I had a guy who was so desperate to touch his toes. I say: “Here’s a belt. Bend your knee…but I can touch my toes, and it’s not making me happier than you.” [Laughs] I did whatever I could to cut through his craving to touch his toes. I’m like, “Look, this isn’t that thrilling. Big deal!” And he didn’t believe me. Later, he got injured in a gym, and he couldn’t exercise at all.

So he decided to meditate, and the whole thing changed. Being able to watch your mind while you work with your body is practical, and you might not get injured! “What am I feeling in my body? In my mind?” Whatever it is, it’s interesting. It’s not good. It’s not bad.

I like to think of yoga and zazen as balancing each other for me. There are times when I am too stuck in my head, lost in thoughts, memories, misery - and this is exactly when I can do asana (poses) or pranayama (yogic breath control methods). Other times, maybe I'm exhausted, or too busily moving around, doing too much, and this is exactly when zazen might be called for.

Obviously, this isn't about being formulaic, or only doing these practices like this, but it's of great value, in my view, to be tuned in enough to choose the practice that the situation most calls for.

Remember the question: “Where does one end and the next one begin?” Can you draw a line between your body and your mind? Can you draw a line between your body and your breath? Can you draw a line between your breath and your mind? Not really. They’re fluid boundaries.

Your body is in decay if you’re over the age of 25—I’m sorry, it’s true. It’s sad, but it is what it is: all of life is a vinyasa [flow of movement]—arising, dissolving. You’re arising until you’re about 25, then you abide, then you dissolve and you’re dead. And then, if you believe in reincarnation, you arise again.

If your body is neglected, it will affect your mind. If your feet hurt, you won’t want to walk anywhere, which shrinks your possibilities. If you have bad posture, it’s going to affect your breathing capacity and the muscle of your heart, and you get depressed. It’s interactive. Everybody, across the board, cheers up when they exercise.

All of life is a vinyasa - how often do you fight against that? I know I do an awful lot.

I've been contemplating some of the discussions I have seen online lately. One of them being the one that's been going on around socially engaged Buddhism. There's a fair amount of disembodiment going on - and not just because it's happening online, although that's part of it. I've heard similar a disembodiment in "face to face" conversations, especially when people turn to big issues - speaking about politics, philosophy, religion, science. There's a lot of head banging together that occurs, but where is the rest of us?

I can't exactly explain what it is, but something is often missing. And it's not about medium always because I have read blog posts, articles, and discussions online that feel totally embodied, even though the participants might be spread half way around the world.

Meditation is asana practice for the mind. People think it should be easy? Nobody thinks that yoga is easy, at first. If they start to sweat and quiver, they go, “Well, yeah? Maybe it’s hard and I’m feeling resistance to it, I’m sweating and quivering, but that’s what I’m here for: I’m getting strong.”

But then in meditation, it’s “Oh, I thought this was supposed to be peaceful, chill!”

ele: You feel crazier!

Cyndi: A lot of yogis say, “I didn’t realize what my mind was like! I’m disturbed, I want to move, I’m not doing it right. I can’t do it. I can’t sit still. This is for other people.”

I say, “This is awesome for your mind.” It’s like push-ups: [when you notice a thought, you say] thinking, and come back [to the breath], thinking, and come back. It takes exertion. It takes commitment. And then it takes letting go.

Any worthwhile relationship takes exertion, commitment and letting go.

Exertion, commitment, and letting go. Yes. There's a teaching to hang on your bathroom wall. Perhaps to put on your blog as well, to remind you how to engage with others online.

Well, it's time for me to eat lunch. Both body and mind are pointing to it. Be well everyone.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Just Die Completely

I was digging through the archive of the Buddhist Geeks magazine, and came upon this post by vipassana practitioner Joel Groover. Great title! "Relax, You're Already Home." Yeah, that's an easy thing to forget, isn't it?

I can understand why masters like Linji felt a need to whack their students over the head—literally—with such messages. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I repeatedly forget to relax and just be during the mundane activities of daily life. In part, this is because I have reserved paying full attention for some future moment when I am back on the cushion. Likewise, I repeatedly fall into the trap of becoming fixated on transcendent states or attainments that I have heard or read about. This imagined future takes me away from the actual present, as does the frenetic pace of our materialistic and technology-obsessed culture, which puts a premium on speed and seems to actively encourage distraction.

Right now, I feel dull, a little cloudy-headed, and congested. Almost no motivation to do anything. In fact, writing this is mostly about giving some effort when I'd rather not. I don't usually feel like this about blogging, but this is where I am in life right now - slowly groping along in the dark, swallowing the end of certain parts of my past, and not knowing what's coming next.

During a similar period in her life, Reb Anderson told our teacher at the zen center to "just die completely" or something along those lies. Let go of identities. Old habit patterns that don't serve you. Repeated emotional states. Let it all drop off.

I've been noticing how, during meditation practice, I tend to try and control the breath - at least for awhile. Eventually, that drops away and there is just breathing, but it sometimes takes good, long while. It seems to relate to how I have handled the last few months of my life.

Having no trouble letting go of some of the past, especially related to my old job, and feeling grateful for the ease of that. But also trying to hold on to what I think I want to keep, or not lose, from the same past. Worrying that letting go of it all means I lose everything somehow.

I wonder what "loss" really means to me. Not the textbook absolute "there is no loss" definition, nor the textbook relative world definition of loosing either. What does loss mean to me and how is that functioning in my life?

I'm starting to think that a lot of thinking about the future is really an attempt to protect one's self from some kind of loss experience. Not basic planning or creative envisioning mind you. But much of the rest of it. Instead of accepting how mysterious the future really is, you try to coddle yourself with full throttle hopes, wild minded fears, or simply long winded idle fantasies.

Perhaps this is the source of a lot of conflicts. Bumping up against each others' disparate futurizings, we feel like our whole lives are threatened, and so we go to work dong anything we can to protect the vision that we have, even if it's a nightmare vision.

Being in this bardo period if you will, I can feel how much part of me wants to react, to create some sort of narrative to live in. My body feels worn down; my mind kind of tired and jumpy. But it's workable. I can hang with this too. Just like the breath in zazen, whatever is holding on will let go eventually if I just stick with it long enough.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Follow up: Socially Engaged Buddhism

Adam over at Fly Like a Crow has a nicely balanced post taking on some of the discussion about socially engaged Buddhism. Here are the comments I left in response:

There has been a bit too much drama about this in my opinion. I don't give a shit what people call me - the labels are irrelevant to me. I'm not a professional activist, and in fact, my active engagement with large-scale social issues ebbs and flows. Sometimes, I'm very involved, sometimes I'm resting. I don't run around announcing my status as a Buddhist when I'm lobbying at the legislature, or doing protests, or organizing programs in non-profits, but I do deliberately reflect on Buddhist teachings, and the work I do is shaped, at least in part, by what I have learned. And if people ask me, I talk about that Buddhist influence.

The way I see it, if you look at "engaged Buddhist" efforts in other nations, where everything has gone to shit, the choice to sit out is a pretty crappy one. The folks in Thich Nhat Hanh's community, during the Vietnam war, could have sat in the monasteries. But the results probably would have been miserable. Their engagement with the vast suffering around them came about partly through seeing that you can't separate the inner and outer realms, and partly because the large scale "outer world" was staring them down, demanding a response.

It's easy enough for us middle class Americans to sit around and get heated about whether or not we should be involved in these kinds of situations. But I'd be interested to see how the conversation changes when we don't have the privilege to keep all of this at arms length. What happens if there is huge social crisis here in the U.S., and we aren't able to ignore it anymore because it impacts greatly too many of us?

Among the interesting things Adam's post considers is whether diversity of political opinion might have a place in socially engaged Buddhism.

Something I’ve been digging at lately is the topic of abortion. Certainly it is a social and political issue. Does Engaged Buddhism allow for both Pro-Choice and Pro-life social activists? (I think I’ll save my personal thoughts on this for a later post.) If “economic justice” is included in Engaged Buddhism, does a Buddhist Tea-Partier that believes we shouldn’t tax the wealthy at a higher rate than the poor have the same voice as the liberal who believes we should tax people because they are wealthy? One could argue issues of economic “justice” for either side depending on one’s politics. Maybe that’s where things are getting messy for some. Maybe it’s that people are bringing their politics into Buddhism, rather than bringing their practice to their politics.

A few thoughts. First off, although I haven't done any research, I can imagine there are Buddhist organizations that would fall under the "pro-life" umbrella. For many people, myself included, the pro-life/pro-choice divide isn't as stark as it appears to be. Working with the first precept has made it even harder for me to ignore the complexities around abortion, for example, even though I'd argue that the pro-choice/pro-life divide is about much more than abortion.

It strikes me that, given the tremendous amount of suffering present in abortion debates, Buddhists who are actively involved and/or interested in the issues could provide an airing out amongst sworn enemies by calling for deep listening, and working with people on all sides to expose the complexities of an issue that currently is portrayed as pretty black and white.

One of the misconceptions I see, both within some circles claiming to "socially engaged Buddhists and from the "outside," is the suggestion that actions will lead to a particular outcome. It's exactly the opposite. If one engages issues around abortion, it should be from a place of detachment from any potential result. Otherwise, you just end up clinging to a particular side, and then adding yourself to mess that's already there.

There's a difference between acknowledging how you currently lean, and clinging to that view. I think it's important to acknowledge, whenever possible, where you currently stand on an issue, while also doing your best to be open to change. I lean pro-choice, but I've had enough discussions with, for example, women who have felt deep grief over having had an abortion, or women who were pro-choice until they got pregnant, or with men and women who lost relationships over abortions, to know that how I stand is, in part, due to not having faced these kinds of dilemmas. Being open to vastly differing opinions is something anyone can do, regardless of their religious or ethical beliefs. However, the particular ways that Buddhist teachings open us can contribute to both discussions, as well as helping to shape any actions taken in the world.

In addition to everything above, I think we also must be willing to fail together. Large scale social issues are such because they are messy and complicated. If the right conclusions were obvious, and/or they were easily solved, then we wouldn't be talking about them.

Update: I wrote the following response to Andy's "Socially Engaged" post, and I'd like to include it here because I think it applies to much of the discussion going on.

I really wish people would read more about what people who fall under the label are actually doing, and perhaps even talk with some of us in depth, before making declarations about what it is we're doing and not doing. The label is of no concern to me; but I really think a lot of this debate is coming from a place of ignorance about what people are actually doing and how they go about such actions.

Go interview people from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Or people working with Sulak Sivaraksa, Thich Nhat Hanh, or Joanna Macy. Or the Zen Peacemakers. Or the Tzu Chi Foundation. Or any number of other groups.

Here are two books you could read.

Queen, Chris; King, Sallie (1996). Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia. New York: Albany State University Press. ISBN 0-79142-843-5.
^ Queen, Christopher (2000). Engaged Buddhism in the West. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-159-9.

There are more out there, but these will give an introduction to some of what people are actually doing. It's not a homogeneous movement, and there are a lot debates even amongst people and groups who fall under the label of socially engaged Buddhism.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hot Topics: Socially Engaged Buddhism

There's been a lot of debate lately online about socially engaged Buddhism. This on the heels of last month's Zen Peacemaker's Socially Engaged Buddhism Symposium, which was held in the U.S. state of Massachusetts.

Posts from The Reformed Buddhist and, to a lesser extent, from Point of Contact argue against the notion of socially engaged Buddhism, suggesting that Buddhist practice should not be conflated with actions involving large scale social and political issues. Both suggest that it's just fine to be actively engaged with these issues, but that Buddhism should be left out of those engagements.

In another recent post, found over at Notes in Samsara, Mumon offers that those who view Buddhist practice as a means to "change the world" are clinging to a gaining idea.

The current post over at Notes from a Burning House points to the fact that when spiritual/religious folks attempt to rock the social/economic boat, they're often marginalized, shunned, and sometimes end up murdered. (Think Martin Luther King Jr. for example.) The post then goes on to ask where the middle ground is between hard core social activists and those who shun all Buddhist inspired engagement with the social/political realms.

Finally, the latest post over at Jizo Chronicles offers Diana Winston and Donald Rothberg's Ten Guiding Principles for Socially Engaged Buddhism.

For the purposes of this discussion, I think principle number two has the most relevance:

Interbeing and Co-Responsibility:
We look at our tendencies to separate “us” and “them,” and “inner” and “outer.” We see in ourselves the same structures of greed, hatred, and delusion that we seek to change. We realize that there is ultimately no “other” to fight against, yet we also recognize that some are indeed in positions of greater responsibility for suffering and oppression.

In response to a comment John from Point of Contact made wondering how the principles were any different from "mundane/non-engaged/boring Buddhism," I said the following:

I get the sense that you and others are wanting a separation where none can really be made. If you truly live the practice, anything you do in the social/political realm, regardless of whether you label it or not, will be influenced by your practice. People seem to be fussing a lot about the labels, but I really think that’s a red herring. This is an old, old debate between those who argue Buddhism is about working to disengage from worldly concerns, and those who see Buddhism as a path that includes coming back to “the marketplace” (Ox Herding Pics) if you will. I think everyone is on a continuum between these two extremes, from solitary monks living in the mountains to lifelong social activists whose work is deliberately guided by Buddhist teachings.

As for the list, #2 and #4 explicitly point to a deliberate interaction with and engagement of systemic manifestations of suffering. The list isn’t pointing to just everyday activities like washing the dishes, being kind to co-workers and strangers, etc. It’s suggesting that there are a wide array of ways we might engage in the world springing forth from our understanding of Buddhist teachings. All of it is part of the path in my view. No one person need be “engaged” if you will in all facets of action within the world suggested by these principles, but to suggest that all social action work is outside the realm of Buddhism is, as I already said, creating a separation where none can be found.

I'm going to be honest with you all: I've had some trouble figuring out how to respond to all these discussions. I have made a few comments, but mostly I've read and watched others engage.

The thing I keep going back to is the idea that for better or worse, one's belief system will influence how one acts within the larger social/political world. An atheist or secular humanist will look at things differently from a devout Christian or Jew. Perhaps, they end up making similar decisions, but the reasoning behind, as well as the path that led up to said decisions will be different. And I think it's important to consider those differences because they help us understand how the whole of humanity is interacting together to form the world we live in at this particular time.

Beyond this, I believe there are ways to be inspired by, or driven by, one's spiritual practice that don't lead to the kinds of oppression seen in theocracies, for example, or to the kinds of self-righteousness seen in individuals who believe their path is superior in solving social problems than all others. I understand that even saying this will cause some to believe that I'm no better than folks in the "Christian Right" arguing to outlaw abortions and for a return of prayer in public schools. Perhaps this is the case. I honestly don't know.

I just can't see how it's possible to divorce one's spiritual life from how one engages the big issues in the world.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The "Ownership Society" Sucks

(Buddha art from fellow dharma practitioner Carole of Zendotstudio. Please check out her blog for more wonderful art and writing.)

I had a conversation with a friend and fellow meditation practitioner yesterday about material possessions - and attachment to them. We both are fairly minimalistic in our actual felt need for stuff, but we also have a few things we're pretty attached to. For me, the laptop I'm writing this on has become pretty important in my life. I felt a lot of concern when it was on the blink a month back, and wondered if I'd have to get a new one. There are a few other things, objects attached to memories, that I'd certainly have a hard time parting with. And some of my books - I'm definitely into books. When I think about most of the things I have some attachment to, it's the lack of replace-ability, or difficulty to replace, that seems most prominent.

A letter or gift from an old friend, family member, or lover. An autographed book by a favorite author. A live, bootlegged recording of a concert. All of these things, once gone, can't come back. And yet, when you consider it more closely, they are merely symbols for what is already gone, already lost in a certain sense. The value to us is in the ability the object has to make us recall, to experience again what we once experienced. But this re-experiencing is itself different, and although it may feel wonderful, or bitter-sweet, it can never be the same as the original.

So, there's something curious about attachments to objects. And I think those of us who live in wealthy nations, and have a lot of stuff, are highly prone to having lots of attachment to many objects. And it's causing a lot of misery, don't you think?

I found this interesting article on the website for Yes! Magazine, a personal favorite of mine. Writer John Robbins takes on issues of measures of wealth, happiness, and poverty amongst others, making comparisons of people from around the world in terms of how they report their general sense of well-being.

He writes:

Of course, the lowest life-satisfaction scores come from the world’s most destitute people. The happiness numbers for homeless people in Calcutta, India, for example, are among the lowest ever recorded. But, according to research by psychologists Robert Biswas-Diener and Ed Diener, when these people have enough money to move off the street and into a slum, their levels of happiness and satisfaction rise and become nearly equivalent to those of a sample of college students from 47 nations.

Psychologist David Lykken, summarizing his extensive studies on the subject, says that “people who go to work in their overalls and on the bus are just as happy, on the average, as those in suits who drive to work in their own Mercedes.” How about the ultra-rich? According to a study by Ed Diener and his colleagues, the Forbes 100 wealthiest Americans are barely happier than the average person. The happiness scores of the richest Americans, in fact, are only slightly higher than those of Masai tribesmen, a semi-nomadic African people who live without electricity or running water.

My friend works with homeless people here in Minnesota. Part of our conversation got into how some of her clients handle ownership, and the impact that has on their sense of well-being. One the one hand, she spoke of a guy who had been in an accident and while he was in the hospital had all of his stuff confiscated by some zealous police officers. When my friend offered to help him get it all back, he said "No. It's no big deal. I can get a new tent and clothes." On the other hand was a "hoarder" who had lost his home because the obsessive collecting had caused too much damage to the place where he had lived. even though he was trying to, he just couldn't quite handle getting rid of things he hadn't needed for years. As homeless folks, people who hoard tend to struggle horribly because they not only have the burden of trying to lug around the actual objects they have, but they also live in constant worry about losing said stuff. And given the circumstances, protection of precious items is pretty damned hard at best.

Obviously, there are probably many differences one could point to between these two guys that would help explain why they handle their situations differently. But one significant factor is the amount of attachment they each have to the objects in their lives.

Commenting on the U.S. as a whole, Robbins writes that

While we’ve been on this multi-decade shopping binge, our rates of depression, obesity, heart attacks, divorces, and suicides have skyrocketed. Antidepressants are now the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. As a nation, we consume two-thirds of the global market for drugs prescribed to combat chronic sadness and hopelessness. One study found that today, the average American child experiences higher levels of anxiety than did the average child under psychiatric care in the 1950s. And yet, when Americans were asked in a survey what single factor they believed would most improve the quality of their lives, the most common answer was “more money.”

More money is probably a very useful thing for someone who is currently homeless, or who is on the edge of being homeless and/or hungry. In fact, it probably would be a significant factor for most in terms of their sense of well-being. However, the same logic seems to be mostly faulty for the rest of us - those who have enough to have their basic needs covered. In fact, the very application of this same logic across the board seems to be making a hell of a lot of us sick and miserable.

The thing is, though, that it's not just about wealth or poverty. People can, and often are, attached to objects that have zero monetary value. The three sentence letter my grandfather wrote me about his pocket watch a few years before he died wouldn't get me a single slice of bread in a trade. I'd rather not lose it, at least for now. It's probably not something that will cause me great misery if it is suddenly gone, however if a building fire took away all such things in my life at the same time, I certainly have enough attachment right now that I'd feel pretty damned miserable.

And maybe that's okay for a short period of time. However, there's a difference between healthy grief and the madness that comes from over-identifying with objects that ultimately can't last forever.

How have you approached or considered the objects in your life?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Reflections on 9/11

Nine years ago today, I was at a school district training for what turned out to be line year as a elementary school teaching assistant. Just as the training was about to begin, there was some commotion in the large district headquarters building hallway, and I went out of the conference room to see what was going on. Someone had plucked a TV at the end of the hallway and two or three dozen people had gathered around it. I saw the Twin Towers on the screen, the smoke coming from one of them.

People were asking what was going on. A fire? A plane crash? There was an unease in the room that was about to shift into horror.

The second plane crashed into the Towers right before our eyes. I hear gasps. Someone shouted "This is America! How can this happen?"

I have to say that as the Twin Towers collapsed on the TV before us, and my fellow co-workers broke out in cries, shouts, and wails, I just stood there - not quite numb, but also not feeling at all part of this group. The first words in my mind as all this happened were "It finally happened."

I didn't loose anyone close to me that day. I have never even been to New York, so I clearly lacked the kind of connection that can lead to heightened emotion. However, I can't help but think that all the misery that has been spawned in the name of this single event very much reflects our collective failure, as a nation, to see how we are, and have always been, just as vulnerable as any other nation.

I'm not patriotic. In fact, I have long viewed the nation-state as a rotten invention that has caused more trouble than good. As the flag bearing and waving increased in the weeks and months after 9/11, I found myself feeling more and more isolated, and wondering how to respond to the actual tragedy that occurred without papering over the vulnerability that is a mark of all of our lives.

In a way, 9/11 probably helped speed up my entrance onto the Zen path. I found myself increasing frustrated, increasingly angry, and increasingly confused as the war in Afghanistan began, and I watched as people who had claimed to be peacemakers called for blood, saying "This one is different. We have to fight it!" Then, I found myself marching in protests, surrounded by people who hated the war, hated President Bush, hated, hated, hated. And slowly, I began to realize that true peace could not come from protests alone. I saw painfully that the hatred of the peacemakers and the hatred of the war-makers was the same hatred.

The events that happened on 9/11/01 were not a surprise to me. They were horrible, for sure - but no less horrible than many other terrorist attacks that have occurred around the world. And the dramas that have been unfolding over the Cordoba House project and the proposed Qu'ran burning in Florida show just how far we as a nation are from truly understanding our place as one amongst the many. As long as too many of us fail to realize that no amount of moral grandstanding, military prowess, or technological advancement can keep us safe, we will continue to be fixated on 9/11 in ways that distort nearly every collective social and economic decision being made.
That doesn't make us unique; every nation seems to have it's historical issues that suck collective energy. But the scale of the destruction, coupled with the reactions that followed, make 9/11 both a potential nation destroyer, and also a catalyst for a major societal shift, if only enough of us could wake up to that truth.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Homer Simpson and Bumbling Buddhas

Bookbird has a wonderful post about being pretty new to Buddhist practice, and feeling like our buddy Homer Simpson. It's interesting. I've been doing this stuff for almost a decade now, and yet, I don't feel much differently. And given where I am in my life right now, it seems like one big, bumbling "don't know" after another. Bookbird writes:

I feel like Homer Simpson, walking into walls and shouting D'oh! That is me. I kind of wondered to myself, what business is it of mine to have anything to say here? I dont know anything!

About a year ago I was talking to my friend M, and we were saying what a bummer it was to realise life was a delusion and that we were creating our own suffering. Now that I am woken up in this way I CAN NEVER GO BACK. I want to, sometimes. I want to get mad at people and blame them and eat cookies and reinforce that it was completely the fault of my childhood. I don't want to remember that if I am mindful I can work with my anger, and my cookie addiction.

Yeah, you know sometimes I feel like all of this practice has just screwed me. Why? Because even when I blame others for my situation, I just don't believe it for very long. The story doesn't hold up, and then I'm left with seeing what's there, and how I contributed to it. The cheap and easy pleasure of saying some fuckhead caused my problems, or that the system (whatever system) is totally responsible for my sorrows, is gone. Like Bookbird, I get deeply that sense of never being able to go back.

Even though I feel screwed sometimes, I don't want to go back. The internal extremes and ever-ready manufacturing of misery that marked my teens and twenties just isn't worth repeating, even if I had a few more close friends, and little more "fun" than I do now.

You know, I like Homer though. He is eternally optimistic. He gets scared. He tries new things. He looks like an idiot. He laughs a lot. He feels things deeply but can also let things go. He's not afraid to be himself. He loves people. .... Maybe it's not so bad to be Homer afterall. ;)

I think much of my practice in recent years has been about letting go of what made me angry in the past, and also some of what I thought would bring joy and wisdom into my life. It's not easy like focusing on others is. Truly practicing forces you to pontificate less, listen more, and see how the complexities of life are often never fully teased out. It all sounds really heavy and serious, but it need not be. (I'm still learning that lesson.)

With that said, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's actually more enjoyable overall to be awake to your life as it is. Not because things are easier necessarily, but but because you don't get mired in the muck so damned much, nor do you cling to the fleeting highs so hard. In fact, it's easier to embody those "good" qualities of Homer Simpson, and also, I'm seeing, to be the bumbler who just doesn't know what's going on.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Misery of Not Making Mistakes

The following little talk is from our center's monthly bulletin. It is from the same lay teacher, Ken, whose zazen in a chair I wrote about last week.

I began our conversation with a story, oh so important at the moment. Like many of our stories, a self-centered complaint: I had screwed up quite publicly in my sesshin assignment, just how I don’t remember, but it confirmed mistake-making as a tendency of mine, one I didn’t like. Tenshin-roshi’s response took me by surprise. “Are you OK with that?” That’s all he said.

I saw the reactions come up: “Of course not, why would I be OK with my mistakes? Why would I have brought it up?” But I heard him loud and clear. He had simply pointed out that I was only adding suffering to suffering with my story. I had set up camp in a notion of myself as a person who makes mistakes and I wanted to fix that.

We want to get things right, and with care we often do. My presence and clarity of mind are far from perfect, however, and my actions don’t always live up to my standard; I don’t always get it right. Moreover, I live in a radically interdependent way with all beings; “I” am not in control. I remember Katagiri roshi saying that because of our complete interdependence, we cannot live for a minute without forgiveness.

There is suffering in making a mistake: the simple realization that my actions didn’t measure up, and maybe my action caused discomfort for others. Oh, but I said public screw-up didn’t I; how about the everyday suffering of a little bruise on the ego? A mistake and its consequences need to be seen and felt, which is to say fully acknowledged, confessed. But then if I do not see its emptiness, how much suffering do I add by dwelling in the world of regret, by—and this is what it amounts to—hating rather than accepting what arises as the life of this moment?

Spending a lot of time on my own recently, I've been noticing some things about mistakes and my attitude towards them.

First, like Ken, I'm often not terribly happy with screw ups. Especially public screw ups that involve others. At the same time, I seem to be ok when a mistake doesn't appear to impact anyone but myself. Or if it's just a little screw up that doesn't "make much of a difference."

Second, I have a strong coward-bone that pushes me to do all sorts of things when I let it. Instead of taking a risk, I'll avoid something to minimize potential mistakes. Instead saying things directly and clearly, I'll try and soften my words, or make qualifications that will ease disagreements. Why? Because sometimes, my mind tells me that disagreements are mistakes, and sometimes I believe that mind.

Third, I don't regret very often. I'm not one to wallow in that kind of energy, or if I do, it's not too long.

Fourth, I'm coming to see that when you are always "trying to get it right" or "do it right," you are in a prison. Why is that? Because you believe you know where you need to go and what needs to be done, and then inevitably you'll fall short of the story. Living like this also saps creativity, spontaneity, and flexibility. It makes you heavy, anxious, and on guard towards others.

Fifth, I can feel the fears of being abandoned, rejected, and alone behind the concerns I have about mistakes. This isn't a little fear, either; it feels bone-deep at times.

To be honest, I find it challenging to be ok with the fact that much of life is out of my control. That even my best efforts might still result in mistakes. That I can extend all the kindness and generosity possible, and still might be met with abandonment and rejection. And that each of us is alone in a certain sense, even if we are also interwoven with everything else in the world.

The methods of damage control I employ around mistake making really are about avoiding these truths. And, also, fixating on them too much - as if I'm always going to be condemned, no matter what I do, which is just another story.

Most of the mistakes I have made over the years involving others have been quickly forgiven, or brushed off as not important or worthy of worry. In fact, as I have learned to tone my own reactions/judgments down, I have come to also be able to see when someone is over-reacting to something I did. Or over-reacting about something they did.

However, I'm still prone to wanting to "get it right," and might never be rid of that. And you know, I suppose I can learn to be ok with that wanting. It's not like I have to act on it.

Regardless, the way I'm starting to see it, it's kind of miserable to be one who puts extraordinary amounts of energy into not making mistakes. Perhaps you minimize some hurt doing this, but in the end, your life seems to be minimized in the process.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Dark Side of Core Values

This entire post is an excellent romp through some of the dark side of the yoga world, but I was particularly struck by some of the comments made.

Someone named AMO said the following:

When a person is surrounded by gorgeous young bodies, vibrating around their energy and exclaiming - "oh great yogi god of mine, teach me, teach me!" it is too much power for most people to handle. I know ego is my greatest character flaw. Especially ego connected to my deepest value, the value of helping others, of being of use. The dark side of that value, and all our values have a dark side, is I can slip proudly into the role of YOUR TEACHER if you show any signs of worshiping me.

Oye! I know this one all too well, having been an ESL teacher for many years, as well as an organizational leader in a non-profit, and at my zen center. Spending the past few weeks in this liminal place I'm in, I have watched this wanting to be helpful and loved because of it energy arise again and again.

Last Monday, I went over to an old student's apartment and tried to fix her computer. Even though I really didn't do much, she was grateful for a little bit of my time and also was asking if I might help out with some other things. I hesitated to offer more time on another day, and then later realized that this has been a strong pattern for me. I had to call her and tell her I didn't have time to help out right now because I knew if I did, I'd be playing that role again, and not getting the opportunity to examine it more closely.

What I have seen is that when I feel useful, helpful, or am "doing good," all seems "right" with the world. When what I am doing or not doing doesn't seem to be useful or helpful, all seems "not right" with the world. This isn't true 100% of the time, but both poles are a common experience for me.

There is an addictive quality to being considered the "teacher" or the "do gooder" and it can be at its worst with spiritual leaders precisely because they are so close to the source of all experience.

Another commenter, YogiOne, added this provocative paragraph:

Yogis expect Yogis to act better than others (We should know better). Christians expect Christians to act better than other people too. Same for Buddhists, Muslims, Jains, Hindus, etc. Perhaps these expectations are not realistic. Perhaps the identification with Yoga (or any of the other groups) rather than with our personal practice is part of the problem.

This identification process is insidious, and actually - in my experience anyway - is pretty subtle. In the beginning, you start taking in these new ideas, and there's a level of excitement. Maybe you see some tangible improvements in your life. You aren't as angry or sad, and/or maybe your body feels healthier. And then you become committed to the path you have chosen. You have scrutinized your life, made deliberate changes, and have become more willing to watch your faults. It's really easy to assume under these conditions that you "should be acting better" than others. In fact, sometimes it's completely true that you can handle things better, and people begin to uphold you as someone who can handle things better, which just adds another layer.

It's important, at the end of the day, to not idealize even the most life-affirming teachings and values. Everything can be flipped over in ways that bring tremendous suffering, perhaps especially that which can awaken and liberate us.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Buddhist Magazine Wars Revisited

Last December, there was a lot of heated commentary about the ways in which Buddhism are portrayed in the prominent magazines Tricycle, Shambala Sun, and Buddhadharma. I wrote a few posts, made a lot of comments, and even ended up getting an offer to write an article about blogging for Tricycle. It was a heady time, full of considerations about a wide range of questions. How do these magazines represent Asian-American and Asian-Canadian practitioners? Are they covering online Buddhism in it's many forms or are they dismissive? Do they provide a wealth of teachings for practitioners and interested folks, or are they offering mostly a watered down, commericalized view of Buddhism in North America? Those are just a few of the many questions people raised during that time?

Given some distance from those conversations, I can see that much of this has to do with two interconnected questions:

1. What does dharma practice really look like in North America?

2. How will dharma practice be represented to the general public?

In a post I wrote mostly about an issue of Shambala Sun, I offered this:

I agree that there has been a lot of commentary on Buddhist magazines lately. Some of it has been driven by angst and other misguided frustrations, but there have also been many important critiques of the publications that, for better or worse, often represent us in, at the very least, North America. Obviously, much of this has been focused on Tricycle magazine, but there have been questions, for example, about the lack of representation of Asian-American Buddhists, and the forms of Buddhism that are predominantly Asian-American in membership, which go beyond the current focus on Tricycle.

Marcus highlighted some of the wonderful articles in the current issue of Shambala Sun. I have been a subscriber of this magazine for about three years now and, before that, read it in bookstores and occasionally even purchased it. In other words, I think it's a quality magazine in many respects. However, the point I made in yesterday's post about sugary spirituality can even be applied to Shambala Sun. As I said before, it's not that the magazine has no substance - it has a lot - it's that the editors seem, for some reason, to be compelled to publish some "soft" stuff to either soothe the readers, sell more copies, or both.

Much of what I wrote then I'd still say today, although after another year of Shambala Sun, I have dropped my subscription because the "soft" feels more prevalent than in the past.

But let's look at the representation issue a little deeper. Back in December, some people argued that it's ridiculous to expect magazines to be fully representative of Buddhism, and that, as magazines, they have to do what's necessary to make enough money to survive. Having sat on this for several months now, I think these are fair comments when looking at the magazines in and of themselves. However, I have come to believe that the burst of conflict that arose over the "Big Three" magazines last winter really wasn't about magazines - it was about the transmission of the dharma to the next generation. This group is not just younger practitioners, but also middle aged and older ones who haven't already discovered Buddhism.

One of the interesting things about those magazine wars is the underlying assumptions that such publications are a main entry gate for newcomers, and also a main source of information about practice to outsiders. I have to say that both of these views seem faulty. Reading about Buddhism as a entry point is perhaps commonplace amongst the middle/upper class, college educated, predominantly white convert practitioners. However, even amongst this group, which includes myself, I have heard of many other entry points that have nothing to do with books or magazines. And when I hear people say they "read their way into Buddhism," what they read is almost always books by another "Big Three": Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and Pema Chodron.

Let's look at the second assumption: representation to the general public. Last winter and spring, the downfall of golfer Tiger Woods thrust Buddhism into the media spotlight. Beginning with these comments by Fox News commentator Brit Hume, there was a cycling of news articles, TV interviews, and commentaries about Buddhism in America. And if you look at where the writers of these articles got their info about Buddhism, it's all over the place: everywhere from the Pali Canon to evangelical Christian websites. Certainly, the "big three" magazines were probably consulted by some of these media folks, but my guess is that their impact on how these people viewed Buddhism in America was rather minimal. In other words, with the fairly easy availability of the internet, as well as the spread of a diverse array of Buddhist institutions across the continent, print magazines aren't the powerful influence they once may have been.

So, I think the debate about these magazines, and other Buddhist media, is primarily an inside job, even if some outsider views are impacted in the process.

I would love to see other bloggers take up "Buddhist media" in general (online and in print), and perhaps magazines in particular because even with the comments I have just made, I do think there are important issues that need to be considered. Collectively, online and in print media will have a strong impact, for better or worse, on how Buddhism is transmitted to the next generation.

* Image - Donald Rumsfeld reveals to the world that poor eyesight prevents him from both reading Tricycle Review and seeing warfare clearly.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Science and Religion Wars

Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch broke through the bigotry wall many in his party have built over the past few months by saying the following about the controversial New York Muslim community center project:

Let’s be honest about it, in the First Amendment, religious freedom, religious expression, that really express matters to the Constitution. So, if the Muslims own that property, that private property, and they want to build a mosque there, they should have the right to do so. The only question is are they being insensitive to those who suffered the loss of loved ones? We know there are Muslims killed on 9/11 too and we know it’s a great religion. … But as far as their right to build that mosque, they have that right.

I just think what’s made this country great is we have religious freedom. That’s not the only thing, but it’s one of the most important things in the Constitution. […]

Can't say I have ever supported much of what the Senator has stood for over the years. But clearly on this issue, he understands that's it better to reach out to your neighbors than condemn them as enemies.

Somehow, that message seems to be lacking in the debate over physicist Stephen Hawking's new book, in which he claims that a creator God had no role in creation of the universe. I can imagine there's a lot more going on in the book than that, but a fair number of religious leaders are apparently pretty pissed at Hawking, running around making public statements denouncing Hawking's book and views. And Hawking hasn't exactly been innocent himself, making statements like the following a few months ago:

"There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works."

Talking about winning and loosing is just as ridiculous as seeing heads of religious institutions flipping out over the comments of a single scientist who may be influential, but certainly isn't THE definitive leader, even in his own field.

The battle over Hawking's book, as well as over the Cordoba House project in New York, are both dramas of insecurity, and the enemy making that comes from it.

Science and religion are not enemies. Christians, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists are not enemies. Republicans, Democrats, and the rest of us are not enemies.

It's all in our heads - how so and so is an enemy. The more of us that learn this, and act from this learning, the better.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Dogen and Generosity

Good old Dogen, Soto Zen founder, had a few words to say about generosity and giving. After Kevin's comment on the last post referring to the Tenzo Kyokun, I happened upon phrase hung in my bathroom (yes, Dogen graffiti) from Bodhisattva's Four Methods of Guidance.

To leave flowers to the wind, to leave birds to the seasons, are also acts of giving.

I take this to mean leaving alone what doesn't need to be meddled with. It's a great reminder that sometimes the way to give free of attachment and desire for reward is to do nothing. To let be. How often do you miss seeing this kind of non-doing as giving?

Not only should you make an effort to give, but also be mindful of every opportunity to give.

Dogen is trying to get us to expand our view of life, to be open and receiving moment after moment, and to understand that even recognizing the opportunity to give in a situation is an act of a bodhisattva.

A king gave his beard as medicine to cure his retainer's disease; a child offered sand to Buddha and became King Ashoka in a later birth. They were not greedy for reward but only shared what they could.

You don't have to do anything more than you can. I sometimes forget this. I also sometimes have too narrow of a definition of "what I can." So, these words are both a call to pay attention to my thinking around giving, and also to learn my limits more clearly, so that I may more fluidly move between doing and non-doing, offering something and leaving things be.