Monday, August 30, 2010

Challenges of Generosity

The paramita of generosity is a great teaching for our time. (Or any time, but let's stick with our time for now.) Whether one gives material goods, deep listening, or a few words of dharma, the ability to share with others in a non-attached, open way is one of the most underrated qualities I can think of in the wild and crazy world of ours today.

And yet, I think it's important to examine both how we define generosity, and also the differing levels of impediments that hinder people from being giving in their lives. It is commonplace, at least in my country, to immediately link generosity with money and other material gifts. This doesn't mean people totally ignore non-material gifts, but from what I have seen, material gifts tend to be highly privileged. For example, the IRS provides tax breaks for people who donate money or valuable material goods to non-profits and other charity organizations. If I give X number of hours to the same organizations, I cannot expect to receive anything equivalent, unless, perhaps, if I work for a large corporation that offers incentives to its employees in exchange for their service, which is considered a "gift" to the corporation's public image.

Now, here's one of the rubs. Everything I described above seems to be giving that has some attachment laden in it. Wanting tax breaks for donations isn't freely giving. Corporations wanting good public images, and more profits as a result, taints the giving being done in their name. And beyond all of this, there is a continued emphasis on some sort of material value to giving, which is not in line with the depth of the teachings on generosity in Buddhism.

Khentin Tai Situ Rinpoche offers a short teaching on the paramita of generosity, beginning with this:

The practice of generosity is to give what is worthwhile and to give it with non-attachment. This can be studied through three main aspects: giving things, giving loving protection and giving loving understanding. The teaching on the first of these, material generosity, explains what is proper generosity and what is improper. We should abandon improper generosity and practice the proper one.

Motivation is very important when we give. If we give with a wrong motivation, such as making gifts which we hope will harm others or which we intend to bring us fame, or if we give with an inferior motivation such as through fear of future poverty, then that is improper. What we actually give is also important. A Bodhisattva should never give what is harmful, for instance, when he gives something suitable it should be generously, not meanly. To whom we give to is important - always pandering to the wishes of the crazy and the gluttonous would not be proper generosity. Finally, how we make our gift is important. The Bodhisattva avoids reluctant giving, angry giving, disrespectful giving and scornful, derisory giving, all of which are improper.

When it comes to living in societies that obsessively link giving with material value, and by extension with power, I think it's pretty challenging to tease out proper giving from improper giving. In fact, I'd argue it's challenging for many of us to actually see generosity when it's occurring because we have accepted a certain definition of giving, and any action that falls outside of that definition isn't even considered. In other words, generosity is happening all over the place, but our conditioned minds just leap right past it, over and over again.

Consider these lines from a recentpost on the blog Feministe:

Which brings us to the idea of a gift economy. [Seth] Godin suggests, and I think he means well, that a gift economy is something like an exchange of acts of great art and generosity without expectation of return. He suggests that it creates a virtuous circle of gift exchange that turns the givers into indispensable people who, in the natural course of things will eventually be rewarded.

What would a gift economy look like? What does it have to do with women’s pay?

In 1995, the United Nations estimated that women around the world generated work for which they were not paid to the tune of $11 trillion, or $15 trillion in 2007 dollars, as Raj Patel notes in his book, “The Value of Nothing.” Patel says that in 1995, “The daily work of rearing children, maintaining a household and engaging in civic work … [was worth] more than half the world’s total output.”

Godin suggests that offering wonderful, useful work as a gift will eventually draw a reward. Yet women’s gifts of necessary work, often microtargeted to the exact needs of a particular family, not only bring little compensation, they’re often barely noticed.

Now, certainly in these days, some men have joined the ranks of extensive family caregiving. However, women still do by far the majority of this kind of work, and yet how often do you hear people speak the word "generosity" when it comes to raising children, for example? There are, by extension, a whole array of activities that are either ignored or downplayed by societies which are, in fact generous. Deep listening to another who is suffering. Helping neighbors with basic chores. Telling funny stories to sick children. All hospital volunteer work or caregiving to sick folks. Offering kind words to stranger.

And it goes beyond gifts to people. Liberating animals, planting trees on formerly damaged lands, and simply limiting your general impact on the planet - all of these, too, can be acts of generosity.

Materially driven societies, however, aren't apt to uphold these kinds of actions because frequently have no "value," don't add to the "bottom line," and in some cases, actually hinder the all mighty "productivity and growth" that are seen as keys to a successful nation.

So, for many of us, cultivating true generosity requires that we run against the grain of our entire society. It requires that we break through the conditioning we have around what it means to be generous, and how such generosity looks. And it requires that we let go of getting anything in return.

At the same time, I believe we have to be more engaged about generosity on a social level. By doing what? I'm not sure exactly. But maybe a good place to start is to be more generous with what you see as generous. Second, be willing to call out acts of generosity that are normally ignored or downplayed. Third, it might be helpful to recognize that women, for example, probably have more of their generosity ignored collectively than men do. Or that acts of generosity by poor folks are often rendered invisible by the current social standards and mores.

At the end of the day, wanting to be recognized for acts of generosity is an attachment, and thus a hindrance to actually being generous. However, that absolute perspective must be balanced by paying close attention to, and working with, conditions in the relative, everyday world.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Zen Forms and Everyday Life

This morning's talk at the zen center was given by our elder lay statesman, who recently turned 70 years old. There are plenty of kind things I could say about him, especially how his focused, humble dedication to the various Zen forms and practices is such an inspiration to many of us in the community. However, today I just want to speak about something simple, which actually on the surface, might appear to "break form."

When I arrived in the zendo this morning, one of the usual zabutons (sitting cushion) at the front of the room was replaced by a chair. It was a small detail, but I noticed the difference right away, and thought about the debates I've seen online about meditation posture.

As Ken began his talk, he pointed to the chair and said "this is one of our new chairs - it was made for chello players - and so it has a nice upright back on it, good for zazen practice." Now, I know he had just led a one day retreat the day before, and perhaps his knees were tired from all that sitting. Thus, the chair. But he said nothing about that. Just pointed to the benefit of the chair for meditation practice, and then sat down and gave his talk.

To me, this was a great demonstration of our way. Not a lot of fussing about, and focusing in on the heart of the matter. And it also gave everyone in the room this morning permission to relax about form, even as he also emphasized the importance of form as well. You can sit upright and be fully attentive to your unfolding life in many different ways - including in a chair.

Not too tight, not too loose. Have you heard that before?

It's important to remember that there are forms and rituals mapped out for us in very specific ways. And then there is our everyday lives, unfolding as they do, swallowing every map we try to make or use, and spitting out something else entirely.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Being Stingy With Discomfort

Over at Notes from a Burning House, Algernon offers a somewhat different take on the issues of race and religious intolerance. It's a refreshing, dharma-centric post that includes the following:

Discussions of race are hard because there is a stigma about feeling uncomfortable. If you admit that you feel uncomfortable with people who look, smell, or live differently than you do, someone might jump on you and equate you with the KKK. So people don't "go there." And it's a shame, because "going there" in an atmosphere of compassion and wisdom would really clear the air, benefit us as individuals and a society.

But admitting to discomfort and living with discomfort are, in themselves, troubling ideas. We are trained to believe that happiness is the elimination of discomfort. Impossible, kids. This idea of "happiness" itself arises from the noble truth of discomfort.

It is okay to be uncomfortable with the Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, even though they have a right to build it. It is okay to be uncomfortable with Glenn Beck's rally, too, but if you're feeling angry -- have a read of Dr. King's speech. The sad love for humanity in that speech, and its great purpose, extend to the Glenn Beck followers of the world, too.

I totally agree with Algernon that we need to be willing to "go there" more often. It's an essential step, both individually and collectively, to making peace. Not some powder puff, shiny happy people kind of peace, but true peace - the kind that comes through a liberation of hearts and minds.

Let's step back from these large scale issues, and look at the more mundane, daily life kind of experiences.

When you sit zazen, how often does discomfort arise? And when it comes, how do you approach it?

When you are with family or friends, how often does discomfort arise, and how do you approach it when it comes?

When you are with co-workers or others you know, but not very well, how often does discomfort arise, and how do you approach it when it comes?

When you are with strangers, how often does discomfort arise and how do you approach it when it comes?

Is there any situation in life that is free of discomfort? Don't just believe Algernon's comments above about discomfort, check for yourself. Start with yourself, when you are alone, or not deliberately engaged with others.

I'm really interested in this issue of not "going there." How so many of us, myself included, get hooked on the idea that the best life is one free of discomfort and dis-ease. And how when those things are present, we either press them into hiding, or we exaggerate the hell out of one surface aspect. The eighth precept speaks about not being stingy with anything, but how many of us practitioners actually share freely our experiences of discomfort and disease? And even more importantly, do so in a way that isn't imposing or dumping upon others?

When I look at all of this through the eighth precept, it's pretty clear to me that I'm often possessive, often stingy when it comes to discomforts and disease. Sharing these experiences, especially when they are full blown in the moment often scares the crap out of me. I don't want to appear to be a mess. Sometimes, I fear rejection. Other times, I'm worried about having to fend off unwanted offers of "help." Mostly though, when I think about it, I'm stingy because I don't expect anyone to truly listen to whatever is occurring for me - and unfortunately, this is often the case in life.

The reality is that every moment of sharing is a moment of risk taking. There's no way to know how anything you say or do will be taken, even by your mother, lifelong partner, or best friend. So, all you can really do is assess the situation, feel out if the timing might be right, and then decide whether to share or not.

I think a large part of the reason why the big social issues go round and round with variations on the same old story is that each of is doing much the same in our own lives. Leaping on fear and hate bandwagons is so much easier than sitting with a sense of being exiled from one's self, which is another way to look at discomfort.

How often does exile arise for you, and when it comes, how do you approach it?

I plan on sitting with this question for awhile. If you'd like, please join me.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Race, Racism, and the Buddhoblogosphere

As seems to be the case about every three or four months, there has been a lot of discussion in the Buddhoblogosphere about race, racism, and dharma practice. It's very telling how race and racism tend to tip over people who otherwise demonstrate clear thinking and compassion in their words. People just struggle terribly with these issues.

Obviously, the generations and generations of hatred and ignorance spawned by both individual and systemic racism aren't going to suddenly disappear. It's going to take a hell of a lot more listening, a hell of a lot more refraining from spouting off from whatever woundedness we each have, and a hell of a lot more willingness to change (individually and collectively) in order for a more just world to emerge.

Here are a few quotes from different posts addressing the race and racism. The first is from a more secular source, the blog Feministe. Tami, a woman of color, writes:

Today, when an “ism” shows its face, too much public sympathy rests with the offender and not the offended. As I’ve written before, in these times, hearing someone branded a racist is likely to upset more folks than encountered racism. Stick any bias in there–sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia…and the result is the same. It is, I think, the way the status quo defends itself when it gets tired of treating certain people equally.

One thing I will quibble with is labeling "people" racist because it's really a particular set of thoughts, words, and actions that are racist, and not any entire person. In addition, anyone wanting to have a dialogue with others whose thoughts, words, and/or actions are racist probably shouldn't begin with labeling said folks "racist."

With that said, I really find Tami's points so painfully true, at least in the United States right now. The reality, President Obama notwithstanding, is that the lion's share of power and privilege in this country still lies with white folks, individually and collectively. The historical legacy, which continues to play out today, very clearly favored white Americans in every sense from the nation's founding. This is our collective karma, whether you like it or not. As a white male, even though I have had my struggles, and have experienced direct injustice, it in no way, shape or form is equivalent to that of people of color living in my nation. I don't walk around feeling guilty about this, but I do make every effort to listen, pause, and re-examine my views around these issues - precisely because as a member of the most privileged group in my society, it's so easy for me not to. Just as the practice of meditation might be viewed as a radical act in a society addicted to speed and instant gratification, so, too, I think is the act of remaining vigilant about race and racism when everything in society supports doing the opposite.

Adam, over at Fly Like a Crow, recently wrote this:

Recently, a fellow blogger Kyle wrote a bit about race and privilege and then there was quite a discussion in the comments. Check it out if you want, though you won’t see any comments by me.

That’s because I don’t want to talk about race. I know that it is an important issue. I know that issues about race are bound to come up when dealing with Buddhism, bloggers, and inflated egos on the internet. Some of these discussions are very important. But I don’t want any part of them. And it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m white. I’ve simply had it with issues of race. (and yes, I understand the irony of this post)

I think most every has had it with issues of race. I know I have. I'd love to dump all the samsara on the planet into a garbage can and go on with my life, too, but it's not going to happen.

Before you take this as a condemnation of Adam's view, I think it's important to recognize that where he is coming from right now is a place all of us have been about some issue or another in our lives. Exhaustion and burn out happen, and during those times, it's best to do what you can to rest. I think it's important when considering large scale social issues that have impacted people for generations, to realize that they require a wide variety of responses over a very long period of time from many, many, many people. No one person will end racism and the suffering behind it. And I really think that sometimes, the most appropriate response one can offer is simply to offer metta to all beings during your meditation - that we all may be liberated from the misery of racism.

On the other hand, it's vitally important to recognize that opportunities to rest are not equivalent. I remember what it was like to be a white teenager hanging out on the streets, in parks, at school, and in other public places with black and latino teenagers. Whenever authority figured entered the picture, it was rarely I who had pressure or heavy questioning placed upon me. And it was often I who received comments like "You're smart. You should do something more with your life than hang around with these guys." In fact, some of those guys even said as much, never mind that they were intelligent and capable themselves. When I behaved "badly" or questionably, the presence of my "smarts" alone seemed to allow me a pass most of the time with teachers, school administration, and other authorities that came into my life. The same wasn't true for my friends of color.

So, I'm convinced that both the opportunity to rest, and the quality of that rest, are privileged. Race, class, gender, and sexual orientation all play roles in how much opportunity people have to step away from any given social problem that's impacting their lives. (Hint: every social problem impacts all of us, regardless of who we are.)

The wonderful thing about Buddhist teachings is that even though these disparities are present, anyone, from any background, can learn to how to rest better, listen better, respond better - and most importantly, anyone can be liberated through practice, regardless of circumstances.

However, part of awakening in my view is learning to be fully present to our conditioning, to see that how we are cannot be divorced from the history of where we grew up, as well as the actual people and places we experienced.

Maia, over at Jizo Chronicles, provides some of this wider perspective in comments she wrote right after Hurricane Katrina five years ago. As the people down there continue to struggle in many ways, it's vital to continue to consider why it is that certain groups in certain places are allowed to suffer more than others.

To witness the travesty that has been New Orleans over these past five days is heartbreaking beyond belief. And outrageous.

Phrases comes to my mind, and at first I thought them too inflammatory to write here. But I will anyway, because I want to wake us up. I want to wake myself up. Genocide. Ethnic Cleansing. Economic Cleansing. What else to call it when thousands of poor, Black people are allowed to die in front of our eyes? And not just any death – excruciating deaths, brought about by lack of food, water… drowning deaths because people have waited for rooftop rescues which never came, and while they watched other corpses float by… children dying, old people dying, disabled people dying.

The really sad thing is, I’m not sure much has changed since August 2005.

May all beings be safe.

And may we all be liberated. Peace.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Forms of Taking Responsibilty

Over at the blog Yoga Journeys, I came across the following in the current post:

Today it became obvious that someone has a problem with me. Now I think most people encounter difficult relationships (or difficult patches in good relationships) from time to time. My self-talk in these moments tends to oscillate between, This is totally not my fault. There's nothing I can do. This person has her own issues, and, I'm a horrible person. I've ruined another relationship. It's all my fault. If only I'd..., I could have prevented this. Most of the time (and probably in this case), it's somewhere in between the two extremes. But also, placing blame is beside the point.

Yep, this definitely describes my reactions to relationship difficulties, at least part of the time. In my case, when these extremes occur, it seems to be coming from a misguided sense of taking responsibility. I mean, we hear all the time in Buddhist teachings about various forms of taking responsibility, right? There's even that old koan about the Zen cook who, upon learning he left a snake head in the soup by mistake, promptly ate it. No bitching, no excuses. He just ate it.

One major difference, perhaps the only real difference, is that the misguided responsibility taking that appears in the Yoga Journey's post, as well as in my own life, is "self-focused." It's all about me. I'm right or I'm wrong.

The form of responsibility taking in that old koan appears to leap past who is right and who is wrong. It's not interested in assigning personal blame; it's about addressing the situation at hand. I'm learning how to do this more in my life, but definitely still leap towards the habitual form of taking responsibility, which just causes more trouble.

What's interesting about the whole "I've ruined the relationship" narrative described above is that, in my case anyway, I'm coming to see that I often over-estimate the impact of conflicts I have with others. There's no doubt that on certain issues, I am direct, outspoken, and clearly outside of the norm in my views. And this does ruffle some feathers. However, given a shift that I'd like to credit my Zen and yoga practices for, what seems to happen more often these days is that I experience the intensity of emotion tied to whatever issue I speaking about with someone, but what I actually say and how I say it doesn't seem to cause the kind of intensity I'm feeling. In other words, it feels like I'm saying something that could cause a major rift between myself and others, but the actual action doesn't do so.

On the flip side, the "This is totally not my fault." narrative is an underestimation of my general impact in an given situation. In fact, it comes up most fiercely when I actually do have some responsibility, but don't want to take it, or want the other person to step up first.

Both of these narratives play into, for me anyway, a larger story I have long held onto having to do with finality. I tend to lean towards clear resolution rather than ambiguity. This isn't too smart in a world full of ambiguity.

For example, I remember dating a woman a few years back who did a few odd things about three weeks after we started dating. Nothing awful, just things that caused question marks for me. However, instead of getting to know her a little better and seeing if these were regular patterns, or isolated incidents, I went for the jugular and ended the relationship. Now, this could have been for the best, but looking back, I see how that decision was mostly about protecting myself from the ambiguity of being with someone who might turn out to be "wrong for me" later. But isn't that true of every romantic relationship in the beginning? We don't really know, no matter how many sparks fly.

This isn't to say that every situation calls for hanging around, watching, and waiting with uncertainty. Some situations demand decisive action, and some relationships require clear and unambiguous yeas or nays. But that decisiveness needs to come from something much larger than "I or my," otherwise it ends up reinforcing the very separate sense of self that we practitioners hope to break down.

This might be a useful way to check in about any form of responsibility. Is it about protecting "me, myself, and I" in someway? Asking that question could be a way to let drop off those dramatic forms of claiming experiences in our lives that don't, at the end of the day, serve to awaken. Or, at the very least, it might help you pause, even if you can't determine if you are responding appropriately or not.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

First "Western" Female Priest in the Nichiren Order

A few bloggers have already posted the link to this article, but I think it's worth repeating.

Editor's Note: Buddhist Myokei Caine-Barrett is the first woman of African-Japanese descent, and the only Western woman, to be ordained as a priest in the Nichiren Order. She is the resident priest and guiding teacher for the Myoken-ji Temple, home of the Nichiren Buddhist Sangha of Texas. She talks about her journey to Buddhism in "The Black Pulpit," a weekly series that explores faith in the black community.

Caine-Barrett goes on to speak of her wide ranging spiritual path, beginning with Biblical stories and taking her into a Nichiren community. The last two paragraphs, I think, are especially important, given the continual bubbling up of discussions about race, racism, and "Western" sanghas.

The practice of Buddhism has much to offer communities of color; however, it may be difficult to find teachers and practitioners with the necessary experience. There is no national directory. We exist in myriad traditions and cities throughout the U.S. Ordination in many traditions is often difficult and expensive, and finding teachers willing and able to address issues relative to being African-American is sometimes impossible.

Yet, progress is being made as we create sanghas within communities of color and assume the roles of clergy and lay teachers. It is definitely time for practitioners of color to step up and make ourselves known. Our communities need us to be present now.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Garage from Hell and Its Gifts

Spent part of the day yesterday over at my sisters, helping tear down the garage from hell. It's been an all summer long process because the thing is a beast of a building, and we had to haul off all the debris ourselves. I've only put in a few afternoons worth of work on this project; my sister's boyfriend and my father have really done the lions share.

Anyway, as we pushed down part of the old garage frame yesterday, exposing this huge, wide open expanse that had been covered by the building for fifty years, it felt like my life. It WAS my life at the moment. But also this tumbling over of the old, and seeing the wide openness behind feels very true to me today. And just as that space in their backyard is undefined as of now - it's future use not yet determined - so too is a lot of my life.

We pulled the lawn table and chairs into the newly opened space yesterday and sat down for a drink, some pizza, and conversation. I had a bit of a melt down when a question was asked about my old job, a reminder of how challenging it can be to hang with the uncertainty and instability of the relative world. But beyond that, there was a quality of spaciousness there I think we all felt - both the actual open space we sat in, but also something deeper. Looking around, everything was there. The beautiful, new fence my father and my sister's boyfriend had built. A pile of dirt, broken glass, and other rubble. The remains of the last third of the garage, waiting to be taken down. A pile of old lumber. A pile of new lumber.

I've spent a lot of time in my life trying to build, grow, succeed and maintain, but the flip side is always there, too. Yesterday, it felt abundantly clear to me that no matter how much fussing I do on the surface, building this and tearing down that, life will always be in some kind of transition. I will always contain some of that rubble, some of that broken down shell of a garage. And I need to remind myself again and again that that's just fine.

*Photo of my sister's boyfriend snoozing in the new space after a long day's work.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

"Virtual" Priest Oridination - A Sign of Things to Come?

Speaking of online sangha and practice, the following event occurred recently and was announced on the Treeleaf Zendo blog on the Shambala Sun website:

Taigu and I (Jundo) are very content to announce that, last Thursday, our Treeleaf Sangha ordained three new novice Soto Zen priests in the traditional manner.

What was not so traditional, however — and rather groundbreaking and somewhat controversial — is that it was, we believe, the first time that a Buddhist Ordination has been performed simultaneously on three continents (with the preceptors, Taigu and Jundo, in Japan, and our three ordainees in Canada, Germany and Sweden) all linked by audio-visual media via the internet.

Like it or not, things are changing, at least to some degree. Although Treeleaf seems to be alone in doing these major ceremonies, it's very clear that Buddhist teachers are taking to the online world with classes, Buddhist practitioners of all flavors are taking to the online world with our blogs, virtual communities, and discussion boards, and Buddhist folks online are having an impact on the practicing world around them.

Gotta wonder what's coming next? And how will all this impact our practices? Certainly, I have written about these issues before, but I continue to find the crossroads between the internet world and the "in the flesh" world totally fascinating.

A pack of crows just flew over my head. Have a good weekend!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Learning About Buddhist Practice Online

Two personal notes, the second leading into today's post. First, I quit my job yesterday. It's a scary leap, but I was tired of the spinning I have been doing over the past few years about it, and feel that the move will open up the space for what's next. Luckily, I've lived frugally, so I can handle a period of joblessness right now.

Second, both drafts of the article I wrote for Tricycle, and which about 20 of you provided generous interviews for, were rejected. I'm going to publish parts of the first draft on my blog, while continuing to work on the second draft for submission elsewhere. Today's post is part overview of blogging and part discussion about the question "Have you learned anything online about your life and Buddhist practice?” Feel free to leave comments about what your response to this question is.

Among the many online features available to Buddhists, the blog appears to be especially popular amongst practitioners across the world. In the English language alone, there are hundreds of Buddhist-centric blogs regularly maintained by both individual practitioners as well as groups of practitioners. The diversity is astounding, spanning across political and social boundaries that rarely are traversed in established Buddhist sanghas or practice communities. Even the group-run blogs are unusual in their breadth, from the Buddhist Military Sangha, a blog maintained by Buddhists in the U.S. military, to the Zen Community which showcases over 20 Buddhist bloggers, ranging from beginning Zen practitioners to well established Zen teachers like James Ford and John Tarrant. In fact, there has been so much activity by Buddhist bloggers over the past several years that a term for us has been coined: the Buddhoblogosphere.

Why the interest in blogs? What is this writing activity about, and what does it have to do with the Buddhism? As a main part of the research for this article, I interviewed over 20 members of the Buddhoblogosphere to find out what drew them to blogging, why they think it’s important, and what they believe the impact of the internet will have on Buddhist practice in the coming years. All blogging in English, these writers represent six nations and at least half a dozen different branches of Buddhism. Among their commonalities was an expressed enjoyment of writing and a general belief that the internet is proving to be a great vehicle of access when it comes to Buddhist teachings and resources. Beyond that, there is much disagreement as to what all this online activity means, and how it might benefit or hinder our spiritual lives.

There were a wide variety of answers to the following question: “Have you learned anything online about your life and Buddhist practice?” Among those answering in the affirmative was Marcus Laitinen, author of the blog Zen - The Possible Way and a teacher in the Dogen Sangha Finland group in Helsinki, Finland. He spoke of his affinity with the teachings of the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen, and how he struggled at first “because in Finland we didn't have anything related to Soto Zen.” The internet, especially e-mails between him and his teachers, Nishijima Roshi and Peter Rocca, provided him the opportunity to both develop his own practice, as well as the sangha he currently helps to lead. Another member of the group who said he had learned a lot online was Adam Johnson, author of the blog Home Brew Dharma. Unlike Marcus, though, Adam specifically cites blog reading as a major source of benefit to him Buddhist practice. Not only has he developed friendships with other bloggers, but he says that reading the blogs of other practitioners “provides real life lessons in the dharma,” which gives him “a new way to look at” his life and Buddhist practice.

Others, however, weren’t so enthusiastic. Justin Whitaker, who began his blog American Buddhist Perspective as a student in England, said there’s nothing he has learned online that he hasn’t also learned in “real life.” And James Ishmael Ford, whose blog Monkey Mind chronicles his dual path as a Zen Priest and Unitarian Universalist minister, commented that he has “seen little directly affecting my practice out of my online experiences.”

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Time for a Bigger Boat

Daishin has a nice post today about expanding your awareness, and watching the way you label experience. The first paragraph resonated with me a lot.

In her book Seeking peace: chronicles of the worst buddhist in the world, psychologist Mary Pipher chronicles her ”polite breakdown” when, after many years of building a successful career of helping others and a happy marriage, everything fell apart. Something in the healer broke. Then, somewhere along the road toward wholeness, she recalls a scene in the movie Jaws where the big bad shark suddenly rears up behind the little boat and the captain shouts “We need a bigger boat.”

Yes! Yes! I feel this right now. I have spent years working in Adult Basic Education, making connections, doing advocacy work with my students, training myself to be a better, more diversely skilled teacher. For almost a year, I worked to build a healthy, lasting relationship with a wonderful woman and her two children. I've spent years dedicated to my sangha, volunteering hours of my time, sitting and walking and bowing and chanting and studying hours and hours with my sangha brothers and sisters.

And when I sit with all of this right now in my life, there's a cracking open going on, a standing at a crossroads kind of experience going on that's kind of scary to be honest.

Of the three, my relationship with my sangha is probably most stable - whatever that might mean. I just feel like how I'm relating to the practice, and to the community, is shifting somehow, in ways I can't label right now.

The other two situations seem to have broken wide open, pointing me towards the need for a bigger boat, or reminding me that too close of an identification with careers, or relationships, or even one's root sangha is a road of suffering. By "identification," I mean viewing who you are through the lens of work, or relationship, or sangha, or even all three of them.

You can be completely intimate with a lover, with work, with a sangha, and yet still see that your life is vaster than all of it. You can look into any one of these situations and see the vastness of the universe expressed within it.

I've experienced both of these. But those experiences have been fleeting. The boat I've been working with is too small. Or it's that the boat I "see" is too small. Because mostly, I'm get tangled in identifying with, or trying not to identify with, various parts of my life.

How's your boat these days?

*Cool boat, eh? You can read more about it here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What's Happiness Anyway?

Over at Ox Herding, Barry is writing about happiness. My mother recently borrowed me the memoir of a founder of the online shoe company Zappos, Tony Hsieh, whose known for innovative ideas about how to build group culture (he also likes to make lots of money, but we'll leave that aside for now). The title of his memoir is Delivering Happiness. Sometime last year, I wrote something about the Dalai Lama's book, The Art of Happiness, and perhaps it was there that I questioned the notion that happiness is THE experience we all want, and strive for.

Hsieh's book is interesting for me because it's way outside of my normal reading box (a wide open, diverse one for sure), but certainly has never contained memoirs by rich guys talking about building companies. I've also been reading the blog of another quirky business dude, Seth Godin.

Now before a few of you start worrying, I don't intend to become a big time capitalist or anything like that. In fact, I'm getting some good practice in watching the critical mind come up with objection after objection as I read. However, one of my mottoes you might say, a simple teaching I like to share with others, is that "anything and everything can be a dharma gate." So, I'm digging into material right now I'd normally toss on the burn pile in order to see what's there.

Reading Hsieh's memoir, I'm finding that he's really not talking about happiness. What he seems to be talking about is connection to something larger than yourself, developing quality friendships, liberating your imagination, finding your passions and talents, and putting all that into building something with others together (in his case, companies). It's not quite dharma per se, but it certainly feels bigger and more interesting than the pursuit of happiness.

I guess I kind of wonder what it is we really want when we speak of happiness. Even though I can point to plenty of examples in my life when I experienced something I can label as "happiness," there's still something really vague about that word, and also about how most of us talk about it. What do you make of happiness?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Why Eat, Pray, Love Might Be Valuable Inspite of Itself

Trevor from The Big Old Oak Tree published parts of a really cool discussion he and some friends had on Facebook. At the center of it was the book and now movie Eat, Pray, Love. I have to say I find Gilbert's writing pretty self-absorbed, and also littered with unexamined privilege, spiritual materialism, and exoticizing (oh, those lovely, spiritual Asian people) kind of crap.

And yet, at the same time, beyond this, there is that appeal of the spiritual journey being documented which is worth considering. Gilbert is, like the rest of us, just trying to figure things out.

Both of these view points appear in the discussion Trevor and friends had. Just behind them, though, is really an effort to consider what it means to practice in the middle of a capitalist, material driven society.

On the one hand, you have this:

Koji Rick Dreher
i came to buddhism through punk rock, i have a different angle than most of my peers and teachers in dharma. this leaves me feeling pretty isolated and sometimes i want to scream from the rooftops to see if there's an echo. michaela echoes, robert aitken echoed, david loy echoes, gudo uchiyama echoed, ajahn amaro echoes. to me, the robe is 100% save all beings, 100% fuck capitalism, and 100% fuck self-interest. i'm gonna have to bum some people out if i'm gonna say what i think. i'm against mainstream, secularized, self-indulgent yoga culture, i'm against the omega institute, i'm against esalen, i'm against cafe gratitude, i'm against work, and i'm against the economy. i'm coming out! chant down babylon!

A lot of this echoes for me as well, but the "100%" and "against" spirit doesn't quite work in my opinion. It feels too dramatic, and also too much like all these other groups throughout history that have been reactions against, rather than responses to, a dominant culture. Do you understand the difference? Reactions against are stuck in duality, whereas responses to can include what's present, but transcend the limitations of what's present (and also what's absent).

On the other side of Koji's statement is this:

Maybe one day, some of you here will be in the position to offer practice discussion. And maybe one day a 'rich, white, skinny lady' will come to you and sit down in front of you and fold her yoga-clothes clad legs and speak to you about suffering. How will you respond? Hopefully not with the contempt and judgement I hear in some of these posts. I hope, for your sake as well as hers, you will respond with compassion. Now I know compassion can look a lot of ways and can even include a slap and a shout, but I don't feel that's the kind of slapping and shouting that's happening here. It's contempt and judgement, plain and simple, and it's just as toxic as spiritual materialism. So please be careful.

Koji -- That "nuerotic self-obsessed rich lady on the vacation of a lifetime" is caught in a cycle of suffering and while you say that this doesn't have anything to do with genuine spiritual practice, nothing could be further from the truth. Those yoga clothes have the first noble truth written all over them. Our vow is to meet the person behind the clothes and help them.

Y'all are raising excellent, important points about spiritual materialism and I'm glad you're doing this. I hope you never stop using your sharp wits and critical thinking to ferret out hypocrisy and I hope you will always raise your voice against what's lurking in the shadows. But I also hope you can find a way to keep doing that without using them as a weapon against your fellow human beings.

The last two sentences seem to be the crux of dealing with a lot of life. How to renounce being nasty towards others without also going soft, and being "nice" in the process. I do bristle as the comment "Our vow is to meet the person behind the clothes and help them." Maybe it's just the word "help," which I also use a lot, but feel is sloppy at best, and at worst, creates a mental power imbalance that often translates into an actual power imbalance when working with others. The old director at my workplace used to say "We don't help people, we walk with them." This is closer to what I feel the vows I took were talking about.

Without the success of Gilbert's book, these kinds of discussions might not be happening. So, even though I have a load of reservations about the actual product and the syrupy-sweet reception many people are giving it, I'm thankful that the book and now movie have given people an opportunity to really consider what they are doing with their lives, and how "the spiritual life" might occur in these challenging times.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Intolerance and Obama's "Freedom of Religion" Comments

I took a short look around the internet at responses to U.S. President Obama's comments in support of the controversial Cordoba House project in New York. All I can say is - fucking ugly. It's amazing that a conservative Democrat who has maintained 90% of Bush era policies is considered the number one threat to the United States. And yet he's being called everything from "evil" to the "Sharia Law President." The racism and religious bigotry behind many of the responses is so painfully obvious. The general ignorance displayed about the state of the nation, and how it got be this way, is even more painful.

What I find so fascinating is that President Obama's comments, while referring to "non-believers" and Hindus a few times, fall almost completely within the tradition of viewing the U.S. solely in Judeo-Christian terms. And yet for some Americans (mostly of the white, Christian variety), it's as if the wrong form of apocalypse is coming, and they are about to be exterminated.

Here are just a few of the thousands of comments attached to one article I found while opening my e-mail this morning.

"The Mayor of NYC and Obama and all those who agree with them with be cursed of God according to the bible."

"Obama is a disgusting traitor and should be treated as such!!!!"

"America was founded on Christian principals, not principals of the Karan - Islamic Faith, which deems woman as second class, no rights for woman, woman must practice shame by covering up in public, anyone who does not support the Karan is an infidel, including you. America must not allow a religion practice beliefs of hatred...its a big difference. These people are hiding behind the "freedom of religion" to destroy you, your way of life and your country."

"After hearing about his decision, I really was not surprised. Our so called president is the biggest enemy our country has. He continues to make decisions based on his own personal beliefs, and up bringing. It makes me wonder if he is a true born citizen of the United States. I am not and have never been a supporter of Obama Hussein. I know it is hard to trust any politician, but it is sad when true citizens have to second guess every single word that comes out of our leaders mouth. We live in a great country, still the best in the world, unfortunately I believe it is being destroyed from the inside by our very own President. I greatly feel sorrow for the families and those lost or hurt in the 9/11 tragedy."

I struggle to have empathy for these people. They are my neighbors, fellow country-mates. Hell, some of them are even members of my extended family. I struggle to understand the flavor of their outrageous fear and horrible hatred, even though I know how easily intense fear and hatred can distort my own views. Most of all, I think I have a hard time maintaining some level of equanimity in the face of what I believe is complete destructive madness.

It's one thing to disagree with the Cordoba House project. The funding of any huge building project, especially when it's linked to a religious institution, can bring up some red flags. However, it's quite another to make statements like those above, and yet here in the U.S., they are commonplace.

All of this is a place of practice for me. Seeing the intolerance I have for those who have such fierce intolerance, I know I have work to do. Notice I said "intolerance for those who" and not "intolerance for intolerance." There is a difference. It's important to not slide into easy relativism in order to placate people spreading hate and oppressing others. But at the same time, if I reject others wholesale for hating group X or Y, then I'm just doing what they do, and so the wheel of samsara turns.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Where's Your "Original" Face?

I found the following story on the blog Nuts Zen Bolts. The whole post is worth a read in my opinion, as it takes up some of the same issues I took up in yesterday's post about weather-related disasters.

I heard this story from a carpenter friend. He was walking with a fully robed Thai Buddhist monk through downtown Vancouver. Hasting Street, poorest neighbourhood in Canada. It was late at night. As the carpenter and the monk were passing a bar, a rather large, hairy, tattooed man, wearing a torn and studded blue jean jacket, draped with chains, lurched intoxicated out of the bar. When the man saw the monk, he started yelling, threatening to wipe the road with the monk. “I’ll teach you,” he kept saying. The monk, a tiny man, placed his hands together and said, “You are magnificent. I have never seen a man with such wonderful power.” A few simple words. The hairy man paused, said, “Well, you better watch it next time,” and wandered off.

The monk's response startled me. I can imagine it startled the drunk guy as well. It leapt completely past the ground level of the situation, and pointed directly to the inherent buddha within. Pretty cool.

I took a step in this direction a few weeks ago. A car was waiting to cross an intersection. The driver had decided to wait partly because she thought I was going to keep going straight, and pass her. Instead, I was turning on the same street she was waiting on.

As I turned next to her, she yelled at me "Where's your turn signal?" Funny how things work. If another car had been going along and suddenly decided to turn at the last minute, there probably wouldn't have been a comment. Yet, somehow us bikers are held to the same standards as drivers by drivers, but also treated differently.

Anyway, I felt a wave of anger fling through me, but instead of shouting something nasty back at the driver, or offered the bird, I paused, and then out of my mouth came "Where's you face?!"

Where's your face? I still have no idea exactly where that came from, but the oddness of it diffused the situation completely.

Later on, it occurred to me that this goofy question isn't that far off from another, more famous Zen question.

Hui-neng (638-713) once asked “Without making good or bad in that moment, what is your original face before your parents were born?”

There may be no connection whatsoever, but I find the liberated quality of spontaneous action to be very connected to one's original face.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Flooding in Pakistan Meets Humidity in Minnesota

The tropical heat here in Minnesota, and the recent flooding in Pakistan have me thinking about weather's continued impact on human life. Many of us living in post industrial nations like to think that we have plucked much of weather's fangs with all our technology and whatnot. And yet, that really isn't the case. In fact, you might say that the fact that people rush into air conditioned buildings on hot, humid days like today points to the fact that the weather is still more powerful than any of us.

It's also the case, though, that those in poverty, are negatively impacted by weather much more than the wealthy. Poor individuals in rich nations get hit harder, and poor nations suffer far more damage, injuries and deaths from storms and earthquakes than rich nations do. According to FEMA, there have been 63 "declared disasters" in the United States this year. Certainly, these disasters have caused a lot of damage, suffering, and even some human casualties. And yet, when placed side by side with what's happened in Pakistan, or what happened earlier this year in Haiti, the collective destruction across the U.S. probably still doesn't come close.

The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting report today about the disparate effects the flooding there is having on people of differing socioeconomic backgrounds.

Desperation is growing among those too poor to evacuate this agricultural town in the heart of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, where the worst flooding in 80 years has decimated crops and homes and forced the evacuation of some 250,000 residents, according to the town’s chief official.

As the flood waters continue to spread south, the Pakistani government has issued fresh warnings to towns in southern Punjab and Sindh affected by the overflow of the Indus River, which runs the length of Pakistan, as well as rising levels in the Chenab River, upon which the town of Muzaffargarh is located. Pakistan’s Flood Forecasting Bureau has said that flooding is expected to peak Aug. 14.

The calamity has brought into focus the stark divide between the rich and poor in Pakistan. Those with their own transportation, or the means to hire rented trucks, began leaving the town at the start of the week, and nearly all shops, offices, and banks are now closed. But some 100,000 residents remain homeless and stranded.

This is so sadly reminiscent of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Those with the means got out before the flooding occurred, while the vast majority of those who died were basically too poor to get out until it was too late.

At least 1600 people have died in Pakistan already, and over 10 million lives are currently being impacted by the floods. You can bet those most in danger are people on the bottom, who were just surviving before the disaster hit, and now are fighting for their lives.

If anyone knows of any quality aid organizations readers can donate to, or give their time to, to help the people in Pakistan, please offer your ideas in the comments section. I've become pretty cynical about the big aid players in the world, and frankly don't have any good answers as to how one can offer support for these struggling folks.

I'd like to suggest that readers of this post take some time to reflect on how the material wealth you have, individually or collectively in your nation, offers you support and protection from the storms in ways that those with little or none of that wealth don't have. Furthermore, go beyond that and try and imagine a world where those things which offer protection from storms might be more evenly distributed. What would it look like? How would it feel? What might you have to give up personally or as a community/nation in order for such a world to be possible?

I honestly don't believe we humans will become immune from the weather anytime soon, even if our world's material wealth is spread out more. However, if we truly desire to reduce suffering, to embody the bodhisattva vows, then we have to begin to imagine a world that is less marked by economic, social, racial, and gender-based disparities. And from these imaginings, we must act, as best we can.

Metta to all those impacted by weather-related disasters in Pakistan, as well as around the world.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A "Natural" Affinity for Powerlessness

Emma over at The Chronic Meditator has a post that really resonated with me this morning. Much of it is about her relationship with her mother, and the patterns that are passed from one generation to another. However, in the middle of it is this broader section addressing powerlessness:

I've done a lot of volunteer work with refugees in the past, and am still involved in researching refugee claims. This kind of work means that I listen to asylum seekers stories about what happened in their home country (usually a country we wouldn't be holidaying in, like Iraq, or the Congo), and then I try to find supporting information to corroborate their claims.

I end up reading a lot about life under dictatorships. It struck me this week, while I was meditating, that I've always had a natural affinity and empathy towards the stories of people who've lived under a dictatorship. I then realised that this affinity resulted from the feelings I felt growing up.

If I had to put this feeling into a few short phrases, it was the feeling that it didn't matter what I felt, it didn't matter what I did - there was some authority figure standing above me that was going to control what happened. It was the feeling of complete powerlessness, a 'knowing' that there was no use resisting and no use hoping for something different because I had no control over what would happen.

Much of this is about my life, too. I have spent more than a decade working with immigrants and refugees who felt powerless in their homelands, and often continue to feel some powerless here in their new country. "Empowerment" is something I have seriously been about as I've worked with students to develop language skills, knowledge about American culture and society, and social action through lobbying government officials, protesting, and letter writing. I've never been just an English teacher, and part of the reason is that I don't particularly like powerlessness, and the folks I work with experience a lot of it.

Beyond this, though, I have often felt powerlessness at the workplace. I have never been in a leadership position, and frequently have found that my experience, ideas, and approaches are either taken as threats by leadership, and actively are resisted against, or are considered "not realistic," and are passively worn down by leadership until I drop them. This has happened at multiple workplaces, across different kinds of work - so I know the narrative pretty well by now.

Digging further, it's easy for me to see how much of my childhood was riddled with powerlessness. This is probably true of most children just because they are children, but if you add an unstable family, the near death of a mother, a divorce, a father who wasn't available emotionally for a large chuck of time, and the early death of a grandfather who had been a father figure, it's hard not to view the world - from the eyes of a child - as being a place where you have no power.

Now, at the absolute level, power and powerlessness are empty. They don't hold any water so to speak. And neither do their lesser cousins control and no control. And yet when I look at my life, I can see how much tussle there has been between all of these - how I have sought to have power, to embody power in a healthy way (an I'll be different that those who have held power over me kind of way), and also how much effort I have put in to avoiding powerlessness, and banishing it when it does come.

While visiting relatives in Michigan, I noticed how often I simply withheld information about my life, not wanting to really be there fully and openly. In part, I felt it wouldn't be fair to inflict on folks I rarely see stories about the various challenges I am having right now. But also it was about self-protection, knowing that my life and way of thinking is pretty different from most of my extended family. I didn't want to have arguments about my spiritual life, or my work with immigrants, or my political views, or my muddled romantic life. I wanted to keep control of the narratives I have, even if that meant shutting down opportunities to learn.

Perhaps you do this, too. Shutting down opportunities to learn and grow because you want to maintain control, and keep out anything that feels like powerlessness. It seems like a pretty commonplace approach, one that's operating at a macro-level even in warfare, power-hungry governments, corporate consolidation, and various forms of systemic oppression.

In some ways, sensing how common this pattern is lightens it a little bit. However, it's also kind of depressing that we humans are so entrenched in this kind of behavior and thinking.

For myself, I'm convinced that I am "in training" to reshape the entire way I experience power and powerlessness. It's already happening to some degree, but you know, it's kind of tough going. Like those days when you have to return to your breath after wandering off a hundred times during a single meditation period, I feel the same about this whole power/powerlessness thing.

It's easy to tell others, and yourself - just meditate more. Just drop your stories and help others more. Just do this or that. Easy.

However, the longer I live and practice, the more I am convinced what while the tools and teachings available are pretty much the same for everyone, each of us really is going to digest this life completely uniquely. That may sound like a totally obviously statement, but check yourself when you are with someone else, and tempted to offer advice on some situation.

I remember a few years ago having a lot of students running off to get jobs in slaughterhouses. Miserable work that doesn't even pay very well anymore, and is part of long cycle of exploitation of both humans and animals. I wanted better for my students and still do. And yet, to this day, I recall a short conversation I had with a co-worker who had been a refugee herself many years ago. As I told her of my frustration and disappointment with what was happening, she agreed with me, and then said "Everyone goes their own way, no matter what you do."

That conversation changed the way I related to my students. I stopped trying so hard to "empower" them to locate a decent job, stick in school as long as possible, and perhaps challenge the system along the way. Instead, I began to listen more to what they wanted, how they felt, and how they were experiencing life in their new country. I found natural avenues to discuss things like injustice, and the challenged social history of our nation, offering information and conversation that might actually have supported the next steps for some of those in my classes - instead of just being some interesting information that helped them learn the language, but ultimately did nothing else for them because it was imposed.

I'm beginning to see how power and powerlessness are intimately tied to how you listen to the world, and then respond to it. That when you have the patience to pay attention and take things in, you manifest healthy power, but also recognize that you really don't have any power at all at the same time. This is a different kind of "powerlessness," one that stems from understanding that you can't control others, nor do you really need to.

In a way, we all have a natural affinity for powerlessness, but we get attached to the wrong view of it. I, for one, am working to flip that view on it's head.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Blogroll on Robert Aitken Roshi's Death

While I was in Detroit, I missed the death of Robert Aitken Roshi. I have long admired him not only as a powerful zen teacher, but as someone who always seemed to bring together the social/political and his spiritual life. He wasn't afraid to take on the big issues of the day. To call out corruption, corporate greed, environmental destruction and its causes, the war machine, and various other collective issues. He also spoke out repeatedly on issues of power abuse in American Zen sanghas, and served as a watchdog when others turned their backs. And his book on the precepts and zen ethics, Mind of Clover, is one of the best American commentaries available.

In honor and in gratitude of all the work that Roshi did, I have collected some of the blog reflections/rememberences for you to read. May his work live on for many generations.

Read Algernon's short post here.

Here is Barbara's excellent write up.

This site contains a detailed memorial notice.

Lots of wonderful comments and thank yous can be found on Roshi's old blog.

Maia over at Jizo Chronicles has a short post worth reading.

Barry has this short memorial, and has also been doing daily offerings of Aitken's teachings all this week.

Rev. Danny Fisher writes of an experience of almost getting to meet Aitken.

And Shambala Sunspace offers an array of links to Roshi's teachings, as well as some more blog tributes.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Detroit Rock City

I'm back from a four day road trip with family to Detroit. Even though I brought the computer, there wasn't any internet available, and I decided to take the opportunity to break from the digital world. A few choice moments for you all from the trip:

After about eight hours on the road and no sleep, my father responded to a comment about watching the same news program repeatedly "They play it ten times so that I will remember it!"

My uncle, who recently became a Catholic after years of having no desire for religion whatsoever, reported on the way out to Saturday mass that he wouldn't have a beer beforehand, but the party could start once he returned.

One of my younger cousins arrived on Saturday enthusiastic about this year's Detroit Lion's team. When someone pointed out that they had won 2 games last year, she said something like "See, things are looking up."

My great aunt's neighbor likes to feed birds. All the birds in St. Claire Shores (a suburb of Detroit) seem to know. It was almost like being in a Hitchcock movie, sitting there on the back porch as the power lines filled one by one.

My great grandmother, who is 101 years old, purchased a gold $1 coin this year for all the great grandchildren under 18. For some reason, she thought I was 15 this year, so I came home with an unexpected gift.

Yesterday, I sat down at the table, and great grandma called me by my father's name.

She's still got enough energy to flit from room to room to visit with people.

I did zazen twice in a hotel room 20 floors up, overlooking the Detroit River.

Many bows to my yoga teachers over the years, as the long car rides didn't destroy my body or mind as they have in the past.

As we stepped out on the curb this morning at 5am to leave the hotel, a white van pulled up and a guy from the film crew of the movie being shot there got out. If you ever see a movie called LOL let me know how it is. I have no idea if Miley Cyrus or Demi Moore were around, but there were a lot of film crew types sitting on boxes and moving cameras around. Pretty exciting, eh?

Now back to your regularly scheduled blog, already in progress.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Hopelessness and Death as Guides Along the Way

I pulled out an old favorite, When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, and opened to the chapter entitled "Hopelessness and Death." Pretty interesting having someone advocate that giving up hope and dying in every moment are keys along the path, but there it is. I was particularly struck by the following this time around:

When we have reminders of death, we panic. It isn't just that we cut our finger, blood begins to flow, and we put on a Band Aid. We add something extra - our style. Some of us sit there stoically and bleed all over our clothes. Some of us get hysterical; we don't just get a Band aid, we call the ambulance and go to the hospital. Some of us put on designer Band Aids. But whatever it is, our style is not simple. It's not bare bones.

Hope and fear, both close friends for me lately, seem like "style" themselves. I can feel them trying to lodge in the body, tickle the mind, anything to stay alive. And whatever they are doing, it's loud. Attention seeking. Sometimes fiercely hungry, demanding to be fed.

I have no doubts about still being afraid to die. The big one, I mean. Because I'm still learning to how take the small ones in stride. You know, the everyday changes that bring an end to something before you want it to end. Sometimes, I can hang with it well, take whatever comes. Other times, I'm piling on the style, trying my best to avoiding taking in what's actually happening.

A few days ago, I watched a powerful, old movie entitled The Burmese Harp. Finished ten years after World War Two, this Japanese directed film is all about the futility and misery of wars - both "inner" and "outer" in my view. In one of the final scenes, the main character, a Japanese solider who abandons his unit to become a Buddhist monk determined to bury all the war dead in Burma, responds to calls from his buddies to return to Japan with them by playing a song on his harp. A single tear falls from his eyes while he plays, and for moment everyone is silent, just listening. And then, when he is finished, the new monk turns, and walks slowly away from his friends for the final time.

There are numerous scenes in the movie detailing how difficult the decision is for him to leave his unit and abandon hope of returning to his native country. So, this final one, which may sound a bit stoic, actually is the culmination of that equanimity Buddhist teachings always talk about. The life he had as a member of the military, as a defender of Japanese interests, and even as a well liked man trusted to do difficult missions and keep his fellows soldiers at ease, is all dead. So, too, is the man who could turn his face from actual death, and the ways in which war destroys humanity. He dropped off all "style," and became very bare bones about life.

I'm finding that the "style" in my life isn't a single pattern. I can be overly stoic, somewhat hysterical, and even a bit designer now and then. Perhaps this is true for everyone.

For today, I will just hang with the style as it is, giving up hope of catching it all. That's where I am at. May we all be liberated.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Ground Zero: Mosques, Churches, and Shared Interests

A few days ago, I wrote this post about the uproar over building a mosque and community center near the 9/11 "ground zero" site in New York City. Frequent commenter Marcus pointed out that another religious institution, St. Nicholas Church, a small Greek Orthodox community, has spent much of the last nine years trying to get their church rebuilt alongside the "ground zero" site.

The talks between the church and local government authorities have broken down over the past year. A year and a half ago, the New York Times reported the following

In July [2008],the Port Authority and the Greek Orthodox Church announced a tentative plan to rebuild the church just east of its original site, at Liberty and Greenwich Streets. The authority agreed to provide the church with land for a 24,000-square-foot house of worship, far larger than the original, and $20 million. Since the church would be built in a park over the bomb-screening center, the authority also agreed to pay up to $40 million for a blast-proof platform and foundation.

In recent negotiations, the authority cut the size of the church slightly and told church officials that its dome could not rise higher than the trade center memorial. The church, in turn, wanted the right to review plans for both the garage with the bomb-screening center and the park, something the authority was unwilling to provide. More important, authority officials said, the church wanted the $20 million up front, rather than in stages. Officials said they feared that the church, which has raised about $2 million for its new building, would come back to the authority for more.

I have to say I find this story complicated. It brings up all kinds of issues around how the whole "ground zero" site has been treated since 2001, and how many people who suffered there on that day have experienced various forms of injustices.

When it comes to the St. Nicholas project, here are a few issues that come up for me.

First off, the $60 million offered by the Port Authority back in 2008 for the building project. I am against government funding for religious institutions. We already provide religious institutions tax free status, and many (mostly Christian) religious communities have and continue to garner millions of tax dollars through the Faith Based Initiatives Office started by former President George Bush and expanded under current President Barack Obama. So, I find the $60 million offer for a single church building troubling. And I will also say this, if there is any government funding being put towards the controversial mosque and community center project, I stand against it. Maybe there is some justification for helping to fund the rebuilding of St. Nicholas, given it's demise in the 9/11 attacks, a highly unusual event. But how much, and in what ways exactly? I'm not sure.

Secondly, St. Nicholas Church has been taken up by the same people who are spreading anti-Muslim sentiment and trying to shut down the mosque and community center project. New York Congressional candidate George Demos recently used the church's conflict with the Port Authority as a rallying point against Islam, suggesting that "Judeo-Christian values are under attack in our nation" because city officials have supported the mosque project, but continue to block the St. Nicholas project. This is the kind of sickening drama and hate mongering that pisses me off. I don't see any evidence that leaders of St. Nicholas are desiring this kind of press, but it's sad that their church is being used to spread bullshit anti-Muslim propaganda.

Third, there are some questions about the nearly $3 million raised by the church community for the rebuilding project. A few months ago, the President of St. Nicholas' Parish Council resigned. Although the resignation was due to health reasons, John Pitsikalis repeatedly questioned where some of the monies donated to the church were going during his tenure as President. Sound familiar? One of the major issues people have been bringing up with the mosque and community center project is its funding. Millions of dollars from unspecified sources in Saudi Arabia. Large sums of money and religious institutions/spiritual organizations seem to have trouble going together in an "above board" kind of way, don't they? The Zen community need only look to Salt Lake City, Utah to find their own highly questionable funding practices.

Marcus kind of challenged me to publish a post about St. Nicholas, partly to see if I am a one trick pony about supporting religious institutions.

Well, actually, when it comes to religious institutions in general, even Buddhist centers, I find myself unsure how to approach them. I've written a lot of posts about being on my zen center's board, and taking a leadership role there. I continue to do this work, enjoying being able to contribute to our community's flourishing. At the same time, I have an ingrained distrust of institutions, especially large ones with excessive amounts of money and bureaucracy.

So, when I write that I am in support of the mosque project for example, it is due to a solidarity towards people who have suffered longstanding persecution in my nation. It is not because I'm terribly enamored with the institution they want to build.

And so, I can say a similar thing about St. Nicholas. Being the church of a small, fairly recent immigrant group (most Greeks have come to the U.S. in the last 100 years), I find myself sympathetic to their cause. Given that their religious community was destroyed in the devastating 9/11 attacks, I want to see them back on their feet, if only because the return of their community would be another sign of renewal.

In fact, it actually could be quite remarkable if the leaders of St. Nicholas paired with the leaders of the mosque project, and spoke out against hatred, and in support of their respective religious communities' needs. Perhaps, the necessary funding and local support might come through on both sides as a result of the good will expressed on both sides.

My guess is that each group will continue to toil on their own. Clearly, the circumstances of each situation are very different, but they do share the bond of being religious institutions that are part of the ground zero rebuilding controversy.

Update: I just saw the comments from New York Mayor Bloomberg and the decision to remove the final sticking point blocking the project. Might make the partnering up talk I spoke about moot.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Blogging as Practice

Instead of just responding in the comments section, I thought I would write a little about this whole blogging thing for me, as it has been lately.

I know I've been picking a bone with the separateness narratives in my life lately. In many ways, it is a response to "things falling apart," as Pema Chodron would say. What's falling apart, you might ask? Good question. What is there to fall apart?

So, part of blogging for me lately has been to present what's coming up for me, while also watching how I am experiencing the act of writing it itself. There is some editing going on, but not as much as I usually do.

In the post I wrote yesterday, I actually felt the shifting that occurred between talking about myself and making more generalized observations. I think sometimes this is the natural, appropriate shift - an offering to those in the world who are reading what I have written. Other times, such shifts are mostly about skipping over something in my own life that I'm either not sure how to write about, or am not ready to write about.

Putting writing like this into the world isn't always easy. I can feel the resistance, the desire to withhold certain intimate, messy details or observations, and also the desire to offer something useful or at least interesting to my readers.
When I can let go of all of this, and just write and edit as is called for, the post that appears tends to do it's work. People comment. Or not. But there's a certain flow to it all which I can't quite explain.

When clinging is present, and I'm trying to "do something" or not talk about certain things, then other dynamics occur. Sometimes dead silence. Sometimes a lot of comments with mixed responses. People poking at the edges I didn't want to speak about.

Regardless of clinging or not clinging, polished or sloppy, presenting a post on a regular basis is a practice in just showing up. It helps reinforce the same thing in my daily life. Doing it here help me do it at work. Or at the zen center. Or with my family. Or while standing on the bus stop.

Writing has always came easily for me. Before learning yoga, zazen, kinhin, and chanting, writing was often the one activity I could turn to for grounding, releasing, reflecting, and burning through. So this blog is an attempt to bring all of these activities together, as well as others - it's a practice in breaking down divisions, even though sometimes I end creating or enhancing them.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Making Peace With Instability

The Right Rev. Danny Fisher (lol, I love playing with titles) has an excellent post on practicing with a broken heart that, in my opinion, is a must read. Over the past month, I have had my own experiences with all of this, as a relationship went from daily discussions of buying a house together and perhaps opening a business together, to a land of great uncertainty about the whole thing at best. It may be over. It may be on hold. I honestly don't know.

Danny writes about a relationship that ended two years ago, and it's lasting effects on him.

I may be a peace-loving Buddhist, but clearly I’m still as big and as vain a moron as any other guy. Yes, she was knowingly careless with my love; indeed, she rode roughshod over this heart that was never as happy as it was in the short time it belonged to her. But I also know that life has not always been kind to her. Actually, I would say that it has often been aggressively the opposite of kind: no one should have to go through any of things that she has had to endure. I’m not sure that this necessarily means she should get a pass on everything vis-à-vis me, but it does put things into some kind of perspective; it engenders some important measures of compassion in a situation that is otherwise charged with strong emotions.

“Matters of the heart are the hardest,” as the old platitude goes. It’s hard to sit with all these feelings and act skillfully: I adored her like no other and was completely devastated when she ended the relationship. It’s hard to come to the realization that much of my suffering could have been avoided had I paid attention to what was actually happening and not let myself get carried away by my hopes for and fears about that relationship. It’s hard to see that the outcome would have been the same no matter what I did or didn’t do. What she really wanted was just to not be alone—and who could blame anyone for that?—but I wouldn’t see the truth. I simply saw the green light, inviting me to at last let out all the love for her that was in my heart.

I have certainly experienced my share of getting carried away with hopes and fears, not only this time around, but every time around. I can also see how this is true of anything I love, or have loved, in my life. Hopes and fears around career. Hopes and fears around friendships. Hopes and fears around family. Hopes and fears around Buddhist practice. Hopes and fears around living and dying itself.

These hopes and fears are all opportunities to come face to face with yourself, to become a liberating agent. They also are vast caverns we can loose our lives to, winding our way along the ragged edges, trying to force the map to conform to our desires. It's very much like those old European cartographers, who drew beautiful maps of worlds that never existed, and then handed them to explorers, who landed in places they thought were somewhere else entirely.

When I hear “you’re a failure,” that’s my ego talking. It’s a cop-out—a way I try to let myself off the hook in terms of the hard work of being a Buddhist practitioner. The tradition expects me to show up in all circumstances and learn from my mistakes, otherwise there’s no waking up. I must recognize the opportunities here. This situation and my increasing awareness of the places where I am still very stuck, like anything else—like everything else—are opportunities, invitations, to go deeper in my practice.

As I strive to remember this, the words of one of my teachers, Frank Berliner, come back to me again and again: “It’s called the noble truth of suffering, not the shitty truth of suffering.” In other words, as long as I insist on shrinking from suffering—instead of recognizing it as something that might teach me if I’m brave enough to look at it—progress on the path simply isn’t possible. Difficult as it can be, letting the world “tickle my heart,” as Frank’s teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche would say, is imperative to real spiritual development. If I can really experience suffering, let my heart be tickled, I can understand—I can grow.

I think part of our problem as modern people is that we believe that everything in the world is completely understandable, explainable, reduce-able to human-sized bites. The "noble" truth of suffering reminds us both that we can discover the roots of our misery and work to liberate ourselves, but also that the world's functioning is pretty mysterious still, despite all the inroads we have made as a species. The Buddha's first words in the Bringer of Light Sutra are:

"I considered: ‘This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise.

We 21st century digital boys and girls could use a little less confidence in our basic understanding of how the world works and a little more bowing to mystery. Maybe mystery isn't the perfect word here, but I'm sticking with it none the less. Why do things happen exactly the way they do? What makes you think that you can know for sure? Or even that good, old Shakyamuni was so clairvoyant that he could see and understand everything that occurred in the world?

Romantic relationships, with all their intensity, twists and turns, really defy explanations most of the time. And if they last awhile, they are bound to stir up a lot of shit, and create sometimes profound levels of instability. I'm not talking about psychological disorders (although this can happen too), when I say instability I mean a shaking, sometimes to the core, of what one's identity is. All the attachments to a certain image of one's self come to the forefront, get poked at, and/or directly challenged. This is part of the reason why humans struggle so much with these kind of relationships.

Humans don't like instability, even though it's really what the relative world is all about.

Making peace with instability itself seems like a path worth walking.

Danny's trying, I'm trying, we all are in our own ways, trying to make peace with instability. How it happens exactly, though, I really don't know.