Monday, January 31, 2011

"Engaged Buddhism" isn't as popular as some of you think

I have been doing a little debating with Harry over at Bodhi Armour in response to a post about Engaged Buddhism. The blogosphere isn't always an accurate representation of Buddhism. For one, most of us linked together are operating in one language. If you reviewed a collection of Chinese blogs about Buddhism, or Spanish blogs about Buddhism, conclusions about the practice might be quite different. In addition, given the ever fluctuating nature of blog-land, what gets attention and what doesn't changes rather quickly. I remember there being more blogs and even a few discussion boards about Buddhism and environmental issues maybe a year and a half ago. Not as much today. I also recall seeing at least half a dozen regularly updated blogs reviewing ancient Chan and Zen texts (sans Dogen), but those have mostly gone away as well.

Given this, it's fair to say that while there is currently a good amount of writing in the Buddhoblogosphere around what's called "engaged Buddhism," this isn't necessarily an accurate reflection of what's going on in Buddhist communities. Nor is it guaranteed to be a staple of Buddhist blog land in the future.

So, consider this as you read this, from Harry's post:

There's a big hue and cry about 'compassion' and being an 'Engaged Buddhist' coming out of the US. Now, I'm not going to say that there is not merit in that, that it's not a 'good thing', but the transmission of Zen truth is not of one flavour, is not of one point of view, value system, moral code, and is never yoked to a code or creed or accumulating merit. This is its nature and its standard is free action, free conduct, that is responsive to the real situation, not to some 'Engaged Buddhist' set of ideals or compassion club or other movement... don't make me dig out all the koans!

I agree with Harry - and - would point to the fact that Zen emphasizes the importance of "containers of practice." That the structures of zazen, bowing, chanting, sutra study, etc. are the platform from which our awakening can spring forth. They aren't fixed, always required forms - but it's very difficult to embody Buddha's teachings without working from some kind of formal platform some of the time. And I'd say the same is true of social action, social engagement. If you don't individually and as a group have some set of ethics, values, and concrete directions guiding what you're doing, it's really hard to actually act well in the world. The abstractions are never the person, place, or thing you are faced with in the moment, but they are the moon pointers, to borrow a common Zen phrase. Just as sutras, koans, and poems are moon pointers in our practice.

Part of my initial response to Harry's post was this:

What I find disappointing is that most of the blogger critics of engaged Buddhism know little about it. And you know, taking shots at social action work is as old as the hills.

Honestly, I have seen a fair amount of bogeyman making - people conjuring up socially conservative Christians or Muslims - and suggesting that any link between religion/spiritually will lead to the kinds of oppression and righteousness that have come from segments of social conservative groups that get into political power. Harry doesn't do the bogeyman thing, which I thank him for.

Beyond the boogeymaning, though, I see a lot of ignorance about engaged Buddhist projects and issues. Tends to be that Bernie Glassman or a few others are upheld, and then their associations with dubious funding is raised, and swift dismissal of the whole works follows. I have offered numerous links to engaged Buddhist projects and writers, as have people like Maia and Nella Lou, just to offer two examples. I sometimes wonder if critics bother reading any of this stuff, or looking into the actual work being done.

In response to my initial comment, Harry wrote, in part, the following:

As part of our professional social care study/training we explore the whole concept and practice of 'help' via a process of critical reflection: Are we being genuine? Are we projecting our values onto those we are 'helping'? Are we discriminating/oppressing the 'helpee' is any way known or unknown to ourselves due to our perceptions and values and assumptions? Is the concept of 'help' even useful...?

I don't hear much of anything approaching such important considerations in the Enagaged Buddhism adventure. I see a lot of assumptions and spurious values though.

I just find it questionable is all, but I don't mean to tar everyone with a brush. At the same time, the people who are genuinely 'engaged', if you like, really won't give much of a shit about what I think or say about what they do!

I completely agreed with him that the notion of helping, as well as intentions behind any given project or social change effort must be seriously questioned and examined. In addition, it should be routinely reflected upon during the work being done. I recall a point during the work I did with ESL students where one of my co-workers, who had come to the U.S. from Thailand as a child, told me "Your students have to make their own mistakes. You can't save them from that." I was lamenting the loss of students to meatpacking jobs that took them away from their studies and from their families in many cases. Her comment broke through a "helping" view that I had failed to see, and it was something I would return to again and again whenever some issue came up, or some action (like lobbying elected officials) came up.

Coming back to the title of this post, the fact is that in American convert Buddhist communities, and perhaps convert communities across the "West," engaged Buddhism actually isn't that popular. One of the reasons I started this blog was to consider social action and Buddhist practice, and to learn, through my own writing and others, how such work might be done. Several years ago, there was a small uptick in discussion around issues of war and peace related to Iraq. At that time, a tiny group of us got together to try and resurrect the local Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and perhaps coordinate some response to the war. We had two meetings. There were four of us, I believe. That's it.

Harry's role as doubter of validity here is entirely commonplace. Many doubt by saying nothing about social issues in Buddhist contexts. Some others vocally demand a complete separation of Buddhist practice from social issues. Still others offer a bit of sympathy, but that's about all.

I wrote:

But you know, your role as one who finds it "questionable" is vastly more commonplace than those Buddhists who are out there arguing blindly to "help others" through larger scale social engagement projects. After almost a decade of practice in a Soto sangha, as well as significant interaction with three other Zen sanghas in my area, I'd say at best, 10 percent of practitioners have any interest in combining Buddhist teachings with social action work. Plenty of people give money to charities, or volunteer once a year in a soup kitchen, but whenever the larger scale projects or even views about social issues come up, I can feel the aversion energy rise in the room.

Most of the time, what I hear from fellow practitioners are calls to just sit, just study the sutras, and to do whatever else on our own time. This is quite a privileged view in my opinion. During the Vietnam war era, just to give one example, members of Thich Nhat Hanh's order routinely risked their lives to work with people in the poor villages that were under constant threat from all sides of the military conflict. At the same time, they supported wounded soldiers and others from both North and South Vietnam without discrimination.

Yes, this is an extreme example, but there are plenty of others coming from Buddhists not under such dire conditions all over Asia.

I actually think part of reason there are Americans crying about lambasting of engaged Buddhism, and in the process, failing to critically examine what they are doing, is that there isn't very much of it in the U.S. Convert American Buddhist communities are predominately middle and upper class white folks who are being taught by middle and upper class white folks. And their Asian teachers, who mostly arrived in the late 1950s and 1960s, downplayed social activism in part because the people who were coming to Buddhism at that time were surrounded by forms of counter-culture social activism. At that time, it was damned smart to get people to sit down and shut up. And it still is. However, one of the major flaws of that period was a lack of emphasis on ethical teachings, which led to all sorts of innner-sangha problems, never mind the rest of the world.

In terms of my home sangha, we have the privilege to do zazen, study, and the rest in a safe community, where material resources are plenty. There are not regular gunshots around our zendo. We can avoid the starving, the homeless, those with untreated chronic illnesses, etc. This is true of the vast majority of American Buddhist convert communities. It's easy to say practice must "look like this" when all that other stuff is in place. However, with just a slight turn of conditions, forms of practice, and the conduct that comes with it, will need to look different.

Now, I don't want to idealize the situation in Asian nations either. There are plenty of monks, nuns, and lay folks in Asian nations that don't do much in terms of supporting their struggling neighbors, or trying to address oppressive social structures. Others, like the leadership in Sri Lanka, are those upholding the oppressive structures themselves. I'm focusing here on convert American Buddhist communities because that's where I come from, and actually have a foothold of information from which to work from.

In addition, if you look at any given convert American Buddhist sangha, there's also a percentage of people doing volunteer or social action work with secular groups, or other religious based groups. Some these folks want to maintain a separation between practice and "social engagement" activities. Others would probably have interest in doing their social engagement from a collective platform driven by Buddhist teachings, but don't have access to such a platform. The latter has been my experience for the most part.

Speaking of location, I remember some of the stories Geri Larkin, the former head teacher of Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple, shared in her books and a few talks I have heard her give. There was a deliberate choice to locate the center in the middle of Detroit, to offer dharma in a place where many neighborhoods have been mostly abandoned. There was a deliberate focus on meeting and greeting anyone who appeared in the center, or near the center, regardless of their background or interest in Zen. There was a deliberate focus on people being active in the neighborhood (and all of Detroit by extension), working in whatever ways they could to support the health and vitality of the whole. Unlike most American convert sanghas, they have dharma programs and study focused on linking Buddhism with social action, understanding that their sangha's vitality is intimately linked with the vitality of the neighborhood and city in which they are located.

I'm sure they stumble, make mistakes, and develop projects that fail, but who doesn't. I'm sure that some of their members aren't involved beyond meditation and study, which is fine too. To me, what's wonderful about their community is that they see the interconnected, and have a platform for people who are compelled to be involved in social action. Those who aren't out in the community doing support those who are, and those who are "doing," are supporting those who are sitting and studying.

This is a debate that will never end. Involvement, or disengagement from, the larger world has always been a point of contention in Buddhism. So, I offer my two cents into the pot (maybe it's 4 cents), and let what will come.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Middle East Awakenings

I have been watching events in the Middle East with great interest. In some ways, it reminds me of what happened in Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union's stranglehold fell apart. Something beyond the events in any given nation over there is happening. I don't have words to put to it, but seeing powerful, mostly non-violent demonstrations spread from country to country is kind of amazing. And it could be sign of things to come more globally.

Here are few interesting links. The website Common Dreams has a Twitter Feed on Egypt, which is totally fascinating to see, and impossible to keep up with. But that's ok.

Petteri offered a good summary on recent history in Egypt, and the roles that the U.S., Britain, and others have played there.

Reports on events in Yemen aren't as easy to find, and also seem to imply that no ouster of leadership will occur there. I'd say this is speculative reporting, because who knows what will happen?

Meanwhile, President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and the rest continue to spin in circles, avoiding any declaration of Egypt's government as a dictatorship, saying little on Yemen, while suggesting that changes in policies, including aid, might be coming.

Decades of supporting corrupt, oppressive regimes for monetary and power gains is a difficult pattern to let go of. I don't expect our government to do so easily. That, too, might require a grassroots awakening of the populace before any significant change will come.

As for now, may the people in Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere be fortified with courage, compassion, and non-violent presence, whatever comes their way.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Renewal of the Online Buddhist Practice Discussion

Sing it now - "You're own - digital - Buddha..."

Ok. So, it's been awhile since I have seen discussion about the online Buddhist practice/in the flesh Buddhist practice divide. Yesterday, Brad Warner offered his standard rant against the internet as a practice venue.

Computers are very good at producing simulations of reality. But simulations are not the real thing. A zendo in Second Life is not a real zendo. Your time spent reading blogs about Zen, including this one, is not real time spent with a Zen teacher.

There is some validity in this view. People are very good at hiding behind computer screens, chatting away intellectually, but not actually applying the teachings in their everyday lives.

However, I think Brad's view is missing something.

This is what I wrote in response to his post:

I'm with you on concerns about the impact of over-dependence on technology on relationships and communities. Collectively, we aren't skilled with using the internet, cell phones, ipods, etc. in ways that support healthy, engaged lives. Too often, they are tools used to distract, or avoid the rest of our lives.

However, you do seem pretty fixed on separating online land from meatspace, and I believe that separation is faulty. Consider the ways in which laws have dramatically shifted, workplace policies have dramatically shifts, and education have dramatically shifted in response to the real life impacts of internet use. A threat made on Facebook is now often treated the same as a threat in person. People are hired and fired based on what they've said and/or done online. Police looking for prostitution rings or child molesters certainly see internet behavior as more than just imaginary or a distraction.

As a student of art history, this reminds me of how the camera and photography was viewed by other artists in the early days. Lots of arguments over whether photos were "real" art or not. There was also a certain democratization that happened in the art world during the mid-late 19th century as a result of photography. People who couldn't paint, for example, suddenly had access to a tool that allowed them to capture the beautiful and the awful. And they could do portraits, formerly the bread and butter "possession" of painters.

More recently, with the advent of digital cameras, the same debate has reoccurred. Suddenly, millions of people could take hundreds of photos in a clip, and then work with Photoshop or some other program to "clean them up." Film photographers mostly hated the development in the beginning. And then some converted, seeing the advantages. And others split their efforts between film and digital.

But what I see in that story is a turf war between old ways and new ways, the resistance from the "old school" partly intelligent effort at preservation, and partly a power game based on a belief that they have the only "true" way.

Before the internet, you had teachers and students talking on telephones. Students and students talking on telephones. And before that, you had teachers and students communicating through letters, or artwork, and students talking to each other in the same way. Written teachings are all, in a sense, artificial just as the internet is, and yet those teachings are at the center of most Buddhist schools regardless of lineage. Works of art are also artificial in a sense, but they too offer a vehicle through which awakening can be sparked.

Over at Mind Deep, Marguerite takes up the issue in slightly different way, asking whether or not a person needs a physical, in the flesh sangha to practice with.

Because the body and our relationship to it play such an essential role in our unfolding along the path, it only makes sense to also pay attention to the embodied aspect of our spiritual friendships. If the Buddha was to live in our times, I am pretty sure he would be on Facebook, and Twitter, and blogs, AND I have also no doubt that he would insist on maintaining a live practice community.

A few of us responded that there are many practitioners out there who don't have much access to a sangha where they live. I offered a further suggestion that even those who don't have a sangha close by can try and locate friends on the path to practice with sometimes. After a few years online now, I have come to the conclusion that doing it alone, solely relying on online resources, probably isn't advisable. Obviously, I say this as a long time member of a fairly large community. In other words, I don't know what it's like to do all of this alone for years on end.

But I do think that Buddha placed a strong emphasis on spiritual friendship, on having dharma brothers and sisters to practice with, at least some of the time. In fact, having a few strong friendships, where you can really dig into your lives together, might be more important than a larger sangha or easy access to a teacher. Easy access to a teacher, in fact, is probably a fairly modern phenomenon. Most of the old stories emphasize long treks and difficult entrance barriers around working with a teacher. The number of people who could practice with their teacher on a frequent basis was probably much, much smaller than it is today. And the nature of sanghas was clearly different, at least in the early days. Coming together for a few months and then splitting off for awhile seemed like more the norm. Once temples were established, more settled sanghas could evolve, but still the numbers had to be smaller than they are today because lay centered communities were few and far between, if existing at all.

So, when considering this whole issue, I tend to place a stronger emphasis on having multidimensional, long term relationships with a few or more dharma friends, including "in the flesh" practice and study. One of the main weaknesses I have seen online is that there's a lot of disappearance and a lot of fluctuation. Internet sanghas are a mixed bag - for every Treeleaf that seems to keep going with a decent number of people committed to it, there are a dozen others that die off fairly quickly. Some never get off the ground. Others split up over some intellectual row. Still others get entirely too narrow in focus to maintain a healthy sized membership.

Certainly, any of the above can happen with "in the flesh" sanghas, but the fluctuations that happen online seem to have a greater impact than those that happen online. A Zen group with half a dozen members can keep getting together, even if they don't attract many new folks. Whereas an online group with half a dozen members usually dies off.

What do you all think about these issues? If you're a member of an "in the flesh" sangha, how is your community using the internet, and what do your leaders think about the place of technology in spiritual practice? If you're a practitioner without a sangha, what has your experience been with online-based practice?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Let Go of Hundreds of Years

Another day; another early morning of zazen practice at the zen center. During our first sitting this morning, feeling both tired and tense - an odd combination - a line from Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage suddenly appeared.

Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.

First off, this is a plug for regular chanting practice because whatever you chant enough is imbued into you, ready to show up whenever it's called for.

Second, here we are studying Dogen, and what comes to mind but a line from one of Dogen's Chan(Zen) ancestors.

So anyway, I sat, repeating that line for a little while, and then watching old memories come and go. By the end of the first sitting, I felt lighter. By the end of the second sitting, the next few lines had appeared from the poem:

Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations
Are only to free you from obstructions.

Our timekeeper missed the end of the period, thinking we had another 15 minutes, so we all were treated to a 50 minute sitting period. Sitting longer with those lines offered a way through drowsiness, through rising and fading memories, and through the extended sitting time.

And consider this. "I" wasn't "letting go of hundreds of years." It was just unfolding on it's own. This seems to be the way of breaking up karmic patterns. That the effort of sitting, walking, bowing, chanting, and sutra studying is entered into the big stew of causes and conditions in each moment, but that in the end, it's not about "me" doing something in particular.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Bikram Yoga: The End Logic of a Love Affair with Capitalism

This is probably old news to some in the wider yoga world, but I hadn't heard of it until stumbling on the following from an article in Yes Magazine:

Through centuries of evolution as a spiritual practice, any new yoga poses or techniques were automatically incorporated into the tradition for everyone to use. But beginning in 1978 an Indian named Bikram Choudhury, now based in Beverly Hills, copyrighted certain long-used hatha yoga poses and sequences as his own invention, Bikram Yoga, and he now threatens other yoga studios teaching these techniques with lawsuits.

Umm ... yeah... I want to offer some measured words about this, but mostly I view all this as absolutely fucked up.

The Bikram website offers more details about the specific lawsuit from seven years ago, as well as some "cautions" to students and teachers interested in Bikram practice. Here's a taste of that:

Bikram's Yoga College of India reminds yoga practitioners and aspiring yoga instructors everywhere that this litigation serves as a powerful example of why there is no benefit to learning from uncertified and unlicensed yoga instructors who claim to teach Bikram yoga or "something like it."

The simple facts are these:


No one may teach Bikram Yoga classes unless he/she is a certified and licensed Bikram Yoga teacher.

No one may teach or certify others to become Bikram Yoga teachers other than Bikram Choudhury.

No one may offer obvious, thinly disguised copies of Bikram Yoga and represent to the public that it is "their" yoga.

Yoga students should be particularly cautious of those persons who claim to offer teacher training and/or teacher "certification" in Bikram Yoga, or represent or suggest that their yoga teacher training program "is just as good as Bikram Yoga." Nobody may teach others to become Bikram Yoga teachers other than Bikram Choudhury himself.

This lawsuit is proof that the legal system will vindicate Bikram against those persons who exploit and adulterate Bikram Yoga for their own purposes.

Oh, where to start. I find lawsuits of this nature, involving attempts to control the spread of religious/spiritual practices and teachings, quite troubling. Finding the line between an individual or organization's new and original work, and the historical underpinnings of that work is rarely an easy task. In addition, the whole infusion of monetary settlements, patent rights, and proprietary controls, while seemingly a correct response in a capitalist society, creates a shift away from basic protections of religious/spiritual teachers and institutions, and towards a corporate re-culturing.

Bikram wasn't fighting unjust zoning laws, or trying to keep his school open and maintain a decent livelihood: it was all about making shit-tons of money. Consider this:

As of 2006, there were 1600 Bikram studios around the world.

Teacher training fees for each prospective teacher are $7000, much higher than the average yoga teacher training.

Bikram owns more than 40 Rolls Royces and Bentleys, as well as over 100 designer watches.

You can buy almost anything with a Bikram label on it, including a Set of Two Handmade SWAROVSKI CRYSTAL Glasses with Bikram Logo for only $75. Wine after yoga perhaps?

When asked about how much money he's making, Bikram himself responded "It's huge,' he says, 'I'm making - I don't know - millions of dollars a day, $10 million a month - who knows how much?"

Sounds like deep spiritual practice, doesn't it? Actually, Bikram doesn't really talk much about the spiritual background of yoga. There's a lot of talk about health and wellness, which is not a problem. Obviously, like Buddhist meditation, yoga has more and more slid into secular culture, appearing everywhere from corporate board rooms to Christian hospice programs. I've written about some of the downsides of this trend before, but I don't believe secular versions of spiritual practices are always a bad thing.

However, going back to Mr. Choudhury, here's a mouthful he delivered while leading a class of over 250 people:

'Bikram yoga is good for marathon sex!' he shouts. 'Once you do Bikram yoga you can't get it down for 72 hours!' Some manage to chortle, in spite of their contortions. 'The biggest problem in the Western world is divorce! Wind Removing Pose!' In response to this order, everyone lies on their backs with knees bent and pulled up into armpits. 'Why buy the cow if you don't get the milk? If a woman cannot do this posture don't think about getting married ... NO GAPS! If there is gap, instead of nice sex the man will be playing ping-pong under the bed, the husband loses his balls ... '

Nothing like a little sexism, heterosexism, and sexualizing to keep the body going, eh? Perhaps all the GLBTQ students were excused during this part of the program.

There's nothing even remotely enlightened or wise about any of this in my opinion. Bikram makes controversial Zen teachers like Richard Baker Roshi, who also had a fondness for fast money and fancy cars, or Genpo Roshi, whose Big Mind Process has made big money, look like specks of dust. However, all three of them are examples of charismatic spiritual teachers who fell for the lures of greed and power, believing that there is such a thing as a healthy merger of hyper-capitalist business practices and ancient religious/spiritual teachings.

Given the exponential increase of interest in "Eastern" religions and philosophies amongst people in predominantly capitalist nations, it is even more the case that the intersections between the two must be closely examined. It's not enough to just import these ancient teachings and practices, and then say whatever happens with money and finances isn't that important. Or that it's only a matter of not stealing and following societies laws about finances.

There are many fine, devoted communities already grappling with these challenges, including my own sangha. However, I think it's also fair to say that there is quite a dearth of lucid commentaries on the ways in which "Western" Buddhist and yoga communities are actually working with money and finances, how that effort meshes or doesn't mesh with their school's teachings, and how whatever is being learned might be truly applied to issues of Right Livelihood. Denials of, or gross ignorance of classism, for example, is still a hallmark of these institutions. Good intentions aren't enough; everything from membership dues, to class fees, to the ways in which classes are taught and what issues are focused on must be deeply examined.

When I think of working with some of my former ESL students for example, considering their struggle to stay out of deep poverty, to learn a new language and culture, and to come to terms with the violence and/or oppression they experienced in their native countries (and which some continue to experience here in the U.S.), I don't think $200 classes or discussions about whether or not children are "indoctrinated" by being introduced to Buddhism as kids are going to cut it.

I doubt the majority of teachers or organizations will ever reach the absurdity of Bikram and his "yoga school," but extreme examples are always wonderful opportunities to take a closer look at ways in which each of us and our communities are handling whatever issues are involved.

*Photo is of Bikram hanging with his homeys. Ummm, yeah...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

There is Room for It All

Continuing on birth and death,here is the opening paragraph to a powerful post about miscarriage and afterward:

I am and am not a mother. I once believed motherhood to be a concrete state of being heralded by the birth of a child who would grow under my guidance and eventually move into the world on their own. I see now that the situation is more complicated than that. I see that motherhood is a state of mind rather than a biologically determined reality. Motherhood happens even when there is no baby to hold. I wish I didn’t know this, because the route to knowledge was rending and recovery is slow.

It's stories like this that tell me it's best to hang awhile with questions like "What is birth and death?" instead of grabbing for answers. I feel sad with along with the author, Andrea, but also happy for her because she seems to have tapped into a place beyond that which requires specific forms, like a baby. What a difficult learning though!

I've been noticing lately that a sense of having ease with the heart/mind's wrestling with the big questions of life. That thoughts and no thought can co-exist just fine. And that even intense body sensations or feelings that may or may not be connected with thoughts can also exist in the same space.

Andrea writes:

I should have been safely out of my third trimester by now, but instead I feel hollow and deeply sad. I was a mother for just over 10 weeks but my baby is gone and I have no way to prove that I once held a life within my body. And while my arms remain empty for the time being the change has been irrevocable. I was a mother for 10 weeks and I will remain a mother in some way, even if I never manage to bring a child into the world. It was the dream for the future that made me a mother, the hope and love for my unborn child. Nothing can take that away, not even death.

She's doing this work as well. I feel a profound respect for her, being able to hang with the pain and the ambiguity, and to offer others a glimpse into the process of working with it all. It's not just about acceptance, although acceptance of what is, breath by breath, is essential. I think we have to come to love not only the questions, and the often simple, beautiful answers our spiritual traditions offer, but also the flopping about, the intellectual curiosity, and the flailing in grief and bitterness.

There's room for it all.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Birth and Death

As the focus of our two week intensive practice experiment at the zen center - not a full retreat, but 2 or more hours of group practice six out of seven days - we are studying two small teachings from Dogen. It's funny. Having written awhile back about how us Soto folks seem to over-emphasize the founder at times, it seems I've been swamped with Dogen almost ever since. I can almost hear The Zennist's shit talking turning up a notch.

Seriously, though, there's room for questioning any teacher or teachings, while also deeply appreciating the jewels within the offering. And so the eclectic spirit I have always had, as well as a love of discovering forgotten or marginalized wise folks, gets to take a back seat for a few weeks in favor of good old Dogen.

One of the pieces we're studying is Shoji, or "birth and death." And as I sat in zazen this morning, the question came to me "What is birth and death?" It was interesting that it came as "is" and not "are" - and when I rephrased the question as "what are birth and death?" it didn't feel right. So, I left it as "is."

A few minutes after the question came, I heard water run through a nearby pipe. After it had gone, I thought "Is the sound dead now that I can't hear it? Can a sound be born and die? Does it even matter if "I" hear it or not?" Perhaps these questions seem silly. Maybe they are.

But consider human birth and death. When is a person born? How do you know? When is a person dead? How do you know? Even if you just consider the fluctuations of the physical body, it's pretty hard to determine a fixed birth point and a death point. Taking a last breath is a convention marker that helps us navigate death territory, but I think it might be foolish to say "that's it."

What is birth and death? There's your question for the day (or for life). Enjoy!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Greeds: Corporate and Otherwise

Public displays of agreement across spiritual/religious traditions are always nice, but often feel a little fluffy. So, to find a shared willingness to publicly stand together and challenge the abuses that occur under the dominant economic model in the world is always a plus in my book.

This is a few months old, but it's worth sharing.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand/GENEVA, 17 September 2010 (LWI) – A group of leading Buddhist and Christians has underscored the urgency for faith communities to engage with government and financial institutions to transform personal and structural greed and help promote the equitable distribution of wealth.

Thirty leaders, scholars, economists and activists from the two faith groups meeting under the auspices of The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the World Council of Churches (WCC) affirmed that Buddhists and Christians shared similar teachings on greed, which should constitute the basis for engaging today’s economic crisis.

“Engaging Structural Greed” was the theme of the LWF – WCC consultation hosted by Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand from 22 to 26 August.

Participants stated that one of the main reasons for the current global economic crisis was the drive for the maximization of profits by capital owners, and they lamented the de-regulation of the financial markets. The present situation, they said, was a moral and spiritual issue.

“The dismantling of these regulations a few decades ago resulted in an environment for the explosion of personal and structural greed, leading to a debt and mortgage crisis, to unparalleled disparities between the super-rich and those who go hungry every day and to the accelerated degradation of the environment,” states the consultation’s final statement titled, “A Buddhist-Christian Common Word on Structural Greed.”

The consultation included Lutherans, Reformed, Anglican and Roman Catholic Christians, and Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists from 14 countries, and aimed at continuing the host organizations’ ongoing engagement with questions of economic justice.

I recently had a short e-mail discussion with my father and step mother about the American health care system. One of the points I made was that companies should not be allowed to make piles of profits on human suffering, birth and death. There's no ethical position, in my opinion, to justify the obscene amounts of money being made in the insurance, pharmaceutical, medical device, and other "medical industries." My step mother kind of disagreed with me, saying she didn't have any problem with insurance companies making profits(that was the focal point of that particular discussion). We never did get into "how much profit" is ethical, but I think the basic problem with holding the "it's ok" position in this economic climate is that the bottom line is almost always the bottom line, no matter how much bullshit window dressing is applied.

Greed is such a snake you know. I remember taking some pens from work awhile back because I didn't have any at home. Even though I could have easily asked if I could have a few, I decided it didn't matter because someone else had given them to the school. That's a tiny example from my own life, which didn't really hurt anyone else, but which did reinforce sloppy thinking about objects within myself.

During our zen center's board retreat last month, there was a discussion about putting some dharma talks on-line that our head teacher and a few others have done around Buddhism and 12 Step programs. They're quite popular, and a few members of the board felt we could make some money off of them. Something about it struck me funny, but I kept using those talks as examples of "products" we could consider anyway. It was part laziness(I could have easily brought up another example if I had reflected on it for a moment), and it was part offering support for the enthusiasm of my fellow board members. This is one of the quandaries of being the President of the Board - balancing support for each person on the board with recognizing that a discussion needs to be shifted. In this case, I wasn't sure why I felt uneasy about the Buddhism and 12 Step material being sold online, so I let it go. And we ended up getting back together as a whole board (the original discussion had been in a small group setting), and suddenly the topic was raised, and both our head teacher and another board member offered their uneasiness with using that work to bring in profits to the center.

Now, it's important here to distinguish something. Our sangha isn't rolling in money, nor have we had any history of selling stuff online in the way places like Big Mind Zen Center do. We're a low budget, and until very recently, low tech community. It's only been in the past few months that we could consider bringing in money from doing something or selling something online.

However, when I consider the discussions that we were having about money and fundraising, and specifically the one that led into the Buddhism and 12 Step topic, I can see how there was an element of greed lurking about. The three of us in the small group all were trying to figure out what would bring in the money, instead of what might be of most value and support to potential students online. It's not that money should never be discussed, it's that the whole thing was gone about backwards. This is how our economic system tends to organize things. Profits first. Anything else, like ethical considerations, a distant second.

Greed is a snake. Actually, that's an insult to snakes, who are fine members of the world community, thank you very much. But anyway, I think you get what I mean. Believing that for-profit health care entities have human health and well-being first and foremost in their missions is absolutely foolish. Just as taking donated pens from my school and thinking that was ok was foolish.

And as such, I applaud the group of religious leaders that spoke out above, and wish that more of us would drop our allegiance to globalized capitalism and do the same. It's high time people put to rest tired cliches like anyone who denounces the injustices in capitalism must be a communist. Or that global capitalism may be flawed, but it's the best system "we" (whomever we is) have got. Even if it is the "best" (and I wish anyone interested good luck in trying to prove such a view that any economic system is "the best"), that doesn't make it ok to turn our backs on the real suffering being created every day under said system.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Standing Against Isn't Going Far Enough

Carole, over at ZenDotStudio, offered the following towards the end of her current post:

So if we pursue a spiritual path it is as RM Jiyu Kennet said, "we are standing against the world," that is against the conventional outward looking nature of modern human life.

I agree and disagree. When I look at who I am in the world, what I value and how my life "looks," it's absolutely the case that it doesn't go along with the conventional way of living and valuing. I'm not a corporate ladder climber or a somewhat discontented office worker. I don't give a damn about the latest American Idol contest, the newest online video game, or what's in fashion. I'm not motivated by white picket fences, two car garages, and the various lush comforts that our society offers. I often learn about fads after they have started waning or have been replaced by something else. I'm dedicated to a spiritual path, and am driven by social/political values many deem to be idealistic, and even traitorous. In all of this, I would agree with what Carole and Kennet are saying.

However, what interests me is the "standing against" portion of the comment. It's a stance, view, feeling that I know all too well. I have lived it, loved it, hated it, and fear it - that standing against. It can be a deeply lonely landscape to live in, one that offers fingertips into authenticity, but which lacks a connection to the wellspring of divine support we all have access to.

The problem with maintaining a way of being that is standing against is that it's a form of separation, a method of remaining trapped in a dualism. The modern world, with all of it's speed, greed, violence, and madness, is something we want to break away from, take refuge from, disassociate from. In the mind that stands against, the modern world is considered solely a source of poison in need of an antidote. A place of destruction in need of rebuilding. A source of demons to be feared, and from which we must develop a series of elaborate protections (often spiritual practices) to keep us from being swallowed hole.

Standing against is a hallmark of counter-cultural movements. As a social activist, I have stood against all kinds of forms of oppression, against war, against environmental destruction. As a Zen and yoga practitioner, I have stood against mindlessness, greed, hatred, corruption and power abuses, and endless amounts of ignorance. In all of this, I have discovered again and again, that just standing against isn't a full turning of the dharma wheel. It's a half revolution that leaves you exhausted, frustrated, and often isolated (individually or within a small group).

These days I am finding that what I am called to be in this world, to do in this world, is to be able to similtaneously embrace the current conditions in the world, and also to envision a more just and joyous future world, and act in ways that might aid bringing that about. To work to break down war, oppression, and environmental destruction without clinging to any particular outcome. To meet people and places where they are at, as best as I can. And to be confident enough, and vulnerable enough, to stand upright in who I am, and not to stand against what I fear becoming.

We can take a cue from the yoga pose Tadasana, or mountain pose. Standing tall, firmly, but at ease, being in mountain pose looks like doing nothing, but it's far from that. I like to practice this and other poses outside, precisely because they offer great lessons in exposure, in being out of control of your environment (as opposed the regulation available in a yoga studio or in your home).

You embody the pose, embody your life just as it is, and let come what will. And what comes is the rest of the world. The wind. The rain. The snow. The clouds. The beating sun. Ants. Squirrels. Fallen leaves. Blades of grass. Cats. Voices. People Gawking. Car engines backfiring. Gun shots. Yelling. Birds sqawking. Memories of being a child. Crying. The heart beating. Visions of the future. The air moving in and out of your lungs.

You can't stand against anything in Mountain pose. If you try, you'll get exausted, even though it looks like you're just standing there.

Life is just like this. Can you take it all in as it is, and also manifest peace, justice and joy? They need not be opposed.

#Photo is from Bush Yoga, which might offer a good laugh or two from the political peanut gallery.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cult of the Present Moment

Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.

James Baldwin

Continuing the romp through 20th century writers, I stumbled on this quote today and thought: yes!

Unlike Ayn Rand,James Baldwin is an author whose work I continue to love. There is a quality of fearlessness in his writing that matched the way he tried to live his life. He tenaciously dug into the racial dynamics of mid-20th century America. He openly wrote about gay and bi-sexuality at a time when doing so was basically taboo. His early deep commitment to the Pentecostal Church eventually bled into complex considerations of Christianity and Islam, which often clanged heads during in the Civil Rights era. People often underestimate the power and importance of the arts created during periods of great change. The way I see it, those artists and writers are often mapping the new terrain, sometimes without even knowing it. Baldwin was one of those people.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a friend of mine about practice. Buddhist. Yogic. The blur of the two, which has always been the case for me, even though I write primarily on the Buddhist end of things. Anyway, one of her favorite phrases is "accept what is." It's a great reminder when you are swamped in aversion or grasping for something that you don't have. Acceptance has to do with paying attention, seeing what's present, and not flinching away from it.

The present is IT, right? This where life is; past and future are just that.

That's a nice, tidy summary, but it's kind of indicative with what I will call the Cult of the Present Moment.

In the Tenzo Kyokun, Dogen wrote the following:

When you have finished, think about the ingredients for the next day's meals. First, pick over the rice. If there are any insects, green beans, hulls or pebbles, carefully pick them out. While picking over the rice and vegetables, the postulants should chant sutras and dedicate the merit to the kitchen god. Next, select the ingredients for the vegetables and soup and cook them. Do not argue with the store officers over the amount of ingredients you have received. Without worrying about their quality, simply make the best of what you have. It is prohibited to show your feelings or say anything about the amount of ingredients.

During the day and through the night, whether things come and dwell in your mind or your mind turns and dwells on things, put yourself on a par with them and diligently pursue the way. Prior to the third watch take stock of the next morning's tasks; after the third watch take charge of making the morning gruel.

Notice the ease with which Dogen's sentences flow between contemplation of the future, and action. Be fully present without judgment. Envision the future. Be fully present without judgment. Envision the future.

I see a lot of writing and hear a lot of talking about being fully present, but envisioning the future - not as much. This particular passage of Dogen is fairly practical oriented, where contemplation leads to setting intentions about how to function the next day. In other words, it's pretty contained, but there are other places in Dogen's writing where this envisioning is expanded beyond any concept of space and time we might have.

If your only focused on paying attention to the present moment, what happens when the breakup of the world as one has always known it comes? Certainly, envisioning and intention setting can be part of one's present, but Dogen's own emphasis on shikantaza, or just sitting, has perhaps led some folks astray. And I don't think this is just a Soto Zen issue; I'm just more able to speak of Soto since I've been a student of the school.

Even a non-Buddhist like James Baldwin understood the power of paying attention and facing what's present.

"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

However, he also recognized the great importance of imagination, of envisioning a more just and lively future.

"You write in order to change the world ... if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it."

Given a society where sexual diversity was shunned and oppressed, Baldwin created a literary world where same-sex love might breathe for awhile. Given a society where the majority white population couldn't conceive of the depth of suffering endured by African-Americans, Baldwin offered stories like Sonny's Blues as an attempt not only to show that suffering, but also to demonstrate the power of artistic expression as a means to transcending suffering.

I disagree with Baldwin's insistence that writing is about changing the world. I see it more as a diving into a new incarnation of the world, and offering that to yourself and others. It may or may not end up "coming true," but the act of envisioning it, of setting your internal compass towards it, is, itself, a transformation.

Zazen and the other formal forms of practice are often considered to the platforms from which our true, complete lives may spring forth. They act as containers, locations that hold our various horses while they buck and kick and huff. In the same way, envisioning - when done with a spirit of non-attachment to outcome - is a kind of container from with individual and collective futures can spring forth.

Somehow, I think these words about Noh theater from Algernon's blog offer a different, but similar outlook.

As an actor you look at every aspect of yourself (thought, emotion, movement) from the inside, but at the same time you look at your image from the outside. Then you can act. When you do this something emerges, a strange psychological state. This phenomenon is beyond logical explanation. It has no logic, no words, no intelligence, but with experience you will start to understand.

Deep paying attention to who you are is merged with envisioning the life and circumstances of who you are being asked to be on stage. I like the phrase "strange psychological state" because I think this is how the merger is experienced, at least in the beginning. Some of us are really good at paying attention to the present. Others really good at dreaming about the future. But not too many are good at riding the waves that come when two come together.

Baldwin's phrase "the loss of all that gave one an identity" fits in here. Although I'd elaborate here that it's not necessarily that everything familiar is lost, but more that everything that made things familiar is lost. Do you see the difference there?

I'll leave you with this, from Zen poet Ikkyu, who seems to have been good at riding the merger waves.

Form in Void

The tree is stripped,
All color, fragrance gone,
Yet already on the bough,
Uncaring spring!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Buddhism and Ayn Rand: huh?

As a late teen, or early twenty something, I found myself diving into a few of the novels of Ayn Rand. Most notably, I fell in love with The Fountainhead, the story of an architect who chooses to live out his dreams in obscurity, rather than compromise with various forms of the status quo. In part, I believe this story resonated with my interest in buildings, and the childhood thoughts I had about being an architect myself. But I also think the rebellious and defiant determination to bring your dreams to life hit deeply for me then, and still does today.

Following that novel, I picked up a copy of Atlas Shrugged, which initially drew my interest because it's plot included a focus on railroads. On my father's side of the family, we have several generations of "train people," so railroads and trains are part of my blood.

Anyway, somewhere around page 250 (of a 1300 page novel), I suddenly realized what Ms. Rand's general philosophy on life was, and had a physical reaction so strong I threw the book across my bedroom. I tried to read it again sometime later, but found myself continually disgusted by her insistence on the virtue of a merger of selfishness and reason as the pinnacle of human existence.

A few days ago, I stumbled upon this article on one of the websites I write for. In the article, Rick Bateman points out that reading Rand's writing offers us Buddhists a worthy challenge:

If you are a Buddhist, no other books I know of will challenge your beliefs like Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. They will do so because they dig into the very same issues, and, with very persuasive logic and story, argue the opposite of The Buddha’s teachings. Rand chose to convey her philosophy via her novels rather than non-fiction works because of her views on art and romanticism. The worlds and characters of the novels are intentionally stylistic as they are not intended to reflect realistic individuals but rather to symbolize concepts.

I'm not convinced that Rand is working from the "opposite" end of Buddhist teachings, nor am I convinced that much of her writing was even very good, but I do think Rand's work has been influential enough that's it worth considering in terms of understanding some of the thought processes behind today's global economic system. Amongst those who have claimed her as a major influence are U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, former U.S. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, rising star Republican Congressman Paul Ryan,and media personality Glenn Beck. Countless others have been inspired in part by her views, and a think tank inspired by her writings has been running for over twenty five years.

Beyond this, though, it's hard not to see how uber individualism and a focus on self benefit has become a pretty popular way of living. Probably more so than in the past, in part due to the reduced need to rely on each other for basic survival.

It's easy to dismiss someone like Rand as an outdated hack of writer. But perhaps it might be instructive to pick up a copy of the Fountainhead, for example, and take a look at the world portrayed in it. Why? Because even as it is fiction, it offers a view inside the heads of those who embody a philosophy of life driven by self-focus. And isn't that one of the main reasons why people love a good story? That it gives us a chance to see things about humanity we otherwise wouldn't want to look at.

Oddly, I'm feeling a little grateful to Ayn Rand - not a lot. But a little bit.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Buddhist Without Money

Not having a job for the past three and half months, I have had a lot of time to think about money, and my relationship with it. If I were to characterize the dominant theme of my adulthood, it would be fears of lack and actions based on stinginess. Both of these views have loosened over the past couple of years, but they still tend to dominate.

Given the society I live in, that's exactly what is desired. It's the most "beneficial" outcome for a human being in the United States (and many other countries). A belief in lack and scarcity, and deeply seated fears of having nothing, going bankrupt, and being abandoned to starve or die of some untreated illness are hallmarks of a good consumer. Trying to fill the empty pit in your gut is the way the economy runs, the way fat cats get their millions, the way the government has enough money to conduct extravegant wars in far off nations to procure more power and resources to keep the whole thing going. Not only does having material wants and being able to satisfy them make me "a good citizen" in the eyes of others, but it also is one of the very "skills" that supposedly defines me as a person at all.

There's very little I'm fully certain of these days. But I'm quite certain that this way of living, and determining the value of human lives, and other lives for that matter, is entirely deranged.

Heidemarie Schwermer has spent the last 13 years living without money. It's been a deliberate series of choices she made, slowly ridding herself of nearly everything she owns, finding that at each step of the way, she felt healthier, happier, and more alive. Others have does this before her, notibly a woman who renamed herself Peace Pilgrim, and walked over 25,000 miles, criss crossing the North American continent spreading a message of peace.

Schwermer's story, like Peace Pilgrim's, is probably extreme looking to the average eye. However, I'm a firm believer that the world needs people willing to step completely out of the norm and give birth to something entirely different, in order for a new way of thinking and being to spread.

Ideally, Schwermer would like to lead by example and give other people courage to change their attitudes towards money and how they live in and contribute to society. The pressure to buy and to own, she feels, has intensified in recent years. Consumerism is essentially about “an attempt to fill an empty space inside. And that emptiness, and the fear of loss, is manipulated by the media or big companies.” There is a fear, she says, that in not buying or owning an individual will fall out of society. The irony, she claims, is that material goods can never plug a spiritual hole and shopping and hoarding are more likely to isolate people than bring contentment. Does she intend to start a revolution?

“No, I think of myself as planting the seed,” she says. “Perhaps people come away from my lectures or seeing me being interviewed and decide to spend a little less. Others might start meditating. The point is that my living without money is to allow for the possibility of another kind of society. I want people to ask themselves, ‘What do I need? How do I really want to live?’ Every person needs to ask themselves who they really are and where they belong. That means getting to grips with oneself.”

It's been quite interesting to me how often thoughts have come up in recent months that tie my "worth" to monetary earnings and the ability to purchase things and experiences. I have been slowly venturing back into dating again, and those thoughts are often with me. She's going to turn the other way when she learns you're not working right now. It's bad enough you don't drive, don't own a house, etc. I used to feel terrible about all this. I had the intellectual understanding that having money and stuff isn't correlated with joy and awakening, but couldn't break through my fears around "identity," and specifically being a person who doesn't go along with the norm. There was lots of internal battles, and movements back and forth between not giving a crap about money and possessions, and thinking I needed to "keep up" in a modest way so I'd pass for being "ok."

Now, I find that the inner turmoil has lessened greatly, and I'm groping along for a new way to think and be around money and things. It's exciting, but scary at times. I can imagine many people reach this place, and then find the lack of a clear direction just brings up too much fear, so they leap back into the old model: taking some job they tolerate or faintly enjoy, buying more stuff, and trying to prove to their lovers, family, friends, and the world that they, too, are "worthy."

In my opinion, people like Heidemarie are trying to remind us that there is more power, joy, and depth in healthy communities than in privatized, individual lives. Some would say she's an idealist caught in a utopian dream. Some would say she's a Communist. Some would say she's a lunatic. I've been called all of these myself, and I haven't even taken the drastic steps she has.

In addition, the kind of bartering that Heidemarie's life thrives on is actually part of an emerging trend around the world. In some places, skills and material sharing have always been a constant, out of necessity and/or out of a belief that it's the best way to treat others and keep a community alive. In other places, like the U.S. and Germany, skills and material sharing are being rediscovered as people struggle finanically, and also have discovered that having material wealth hasn't brought the kind of happiness and depth of experience they thought it would.

And it's no accident, in my view, that part of the process Heidemarie has gone through has included meditation practice. How do you make these kinds of radical shifts without paying close attention the life you have now, the thoughts and feelings you have now?

Early on, Schwermer wanted to help the homeless. Like a lot of people, she really didn't know anyone who was homeless, or even much about being homeless, and as a result, her efforts flopped. Although she has changed so much through the years, she still hasn't had much "success" with her initial goal.

“I haven’t managed to reach the homeless,” she says. “I did hold lectures for the homeless but only six or seven showed up. They didn’t want to hear it. One of the men there accused me of having ‘connections’, that I’d only been able to do what I have been able to do because I knew people. I do have contacts, that’s what this new world is all about, forging links and contacts. Otherwise it wouldn’t work.”

Lectures probably aren't the way. Who wants to listen to someone who had a middle class life in the past lecture about how to live without money?

However, I think she's totally right that making connections and forging links is a huge part of shifting one's way of thinking and living with money and material possessions.

One of the deepest sicknesses of the modern, "market driven" world is a heart-crushing isolation and disinitigration of community. Some people stay homeless for decades because they can't get anyone to pay attention to them, and/or feel unworthy of that attention. Others lives lives that appear to be functioning "fine" - have jobs, homes, stuff - but are equally bereft of the ability to connect with others, and feel worthy of being connected to. Within all of this there is a personal responsibility to pay attention to one's life, and be willing to cross into an unknown future, often with fears in hand. However, that's only a small part of the story.

The brave few will continue to break through, and offer different ways to live and be. However, until more of us take them up on the offer to fully, deeply, and thoroughly examine our lives - individually and collectively - then they will remain the brave few.

Blaming poor people for having nothing, and not being willing change that, is the garbage of the current model. Striving for more stuff, and fearing profound lack, is also the garbage of the current model. It's a hallmark of this model of living actually: producing garbage.

May we find a healthier, more liberated set of ways.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Revolution of Values - Bringing Alive Again Martin Luther King's Radical Dreams

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day here in the U.S. Memories of a remarkable man, and of a movement made up of millions, will be brought to mind. Dreams of a more peaceful, healthy, just nation will be invoked. No doubt recent tragedies and violence will also be invoked. However, the full story of Dr. King's benevolent radicalness will mostly remain untouched. His "dream" of 1963 will be where most will stop, out of fear of upsetting the precarious balance we have in our communities, or out of ignorance of the later more penetrating visions Dr. King had, which ultimately threatened the very power bases of the nation, and probably led to his assassination.

Here is an excerpt from a speech Dr. King gave in 1967:

It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin...we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

It almost brings me to tears. This speech could be given today, almost word for word. And it would still be as piercingly true, radical in vision, and yet inspiring as it probably was to those who heard it over 40 years ago.

I am still learning from this man, and the movement that helped shaped him. It is up to us - the living - to embody more than just the now palatable to most hopes and dreams of that earlier Dr. King. No, it's up to each of us to bring forth "a true revolution of values," through which all our actions are manifested.

This isn't about American greatness, or American dreams - it's really about the world, the present and future of our world. Every time I return to Dr. King's words, I'm reminded of that as much as from any Buddhist sutra.

It's time to be inspired again. To dream fucking huge again. To step into those dreams boldly, fearlessly, dragging all our fears and doubts with us like the homely children that they are. To let go of the need to be right. To be knowing. To be comfortable. To be safe and secure. To give up the ease of drinking from the trough of cynicism or swimming in a swamp of sugary optimism. To forgo all the privatized dreams we have been fed and to sprout the bodhisattva seeds that lie dormant within each of us.

It's time. Even if a mountain of snow covers the way right now, it can be moved, it can be melted. But only together can such a feat be accomplished. There is no liberation to be found in "I." Liberation is a verb, is us dynamically working and loving together. My effort is necessary, but not sufficient. Your effort is necessary, but not sufficient.

May we each be inspired to awaken, to take our particular oar into the water, and help take the boat to the other shore together.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Killing Ignorance?

I have seen a few people comment on this article by Spirit Rock Meditation Center co-founder James Baraz. In it, he suggests our common enemy is ignorance.

The real villain in this story is not Jared Loughner. It's not the media. And it's not the gun rights advocates. The real villain is ignorance. Because of ignorance, people project their fear and turn those who are different into enemies -- both in their minds and in actuality. This is the history of war, as Sam Keen brilliantly pointed out in Faces of the Enemy. Once you demonize the "other" they become less than human and you can inflict pain on them without guilt or shame.

Seems pretty accurate, right?

Well, then I reading the chapter in Zen Teacher Reb Anderson's book Being Upright about the first precept, and he says this:

If you try to kill ignorance, then you will kill the actual life of your body and mind.

I don't think these two teachers are in conflict, but the focus on ignorance as a "villain" is perhaps a nice metaphorical shift (i.e. moving our anger and blame from a person or group and placing it on ignorance), but it seems to be a good way to lead people astray.

Villains are usually despised, even often by other villains. And violence tends to be about harming or eliminating perceived villains. So it's not hard to see the leap that could be made here. Instead of harming or trying to eliminate others, the sword or gun or weapon of choice is turned inward. In the vast majority of cases, not literally, but more of a sense of "self hatred" for all the ignorance that is found within (and is mirrored in the world).

I have often identified with the bodhisattva figure Manjushri, whose sword is said to cut through delusion. It's easy to get drawn into imagining that he is constantly swinging that thing, like a samurai, but it's really more a representative of realized wisdom which cuts through delusions. So, actual swinging and cutting or not isn't the point.

So, while I agree with Baraz that a collective shift of individuals focusing on the ignorance that leads to demonization and violence would be a good thing, it's important not to slide into something like a war on ignorance, whether as individuals or as members of societies. That's just another dualistic trap in my opinion.

Friday, January 14, 2011

"Like a Skinned Cow"

I was looking at this photo just now, which I took last month during a blizzard. It got me thinking about how our impressions about life get pressed into us, or we press them into ourselves, until they are all that we can see.

Consider this, from a commentary on the sutra of The Four Nutriments of Life.

Simile: A skinned cow, wherever she stands, will be ceaselessly attacked by the insects and other creatures living in the vicinity.

Like a skinned cow, man is helplessly exposed to the constant excitation and irritation of the sense-impressions, crowding upon him from all sides, through all six senses.

Living in a place like Minnesota in the winter, exposure to the cold, to bitter wind, to physical dis-ease is nearly impossible to avoid. Avoiding it would require placing extreme limits on your life, and/or great amounts of energy and cleverness expended.

The same seems true with impressions, whether it be a thought, feeling, etc. Certainly, we can place ourselves in more wholesome contexts, and sit with, burn through, and drop off unwholesome thoughts and views. And certainly, we can work with others to do the same.

But in the end, there's no way to escape the bitter winter winds. You can tighten your arms around your coat and try to turn away, or you can face them head on, with your coat wide open.

Sometimes I fear being frozen to death by it all (not literally of course). But that assumes there is an "I" that can be destroyed by all the pain and suffering and noise and unpleasantness that is present in the world.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Thanks to David over at The Endless Further for this wonderful Gandhi quote, to which I have nothing to add to today:

I must say that, beyond occasionally exposing me to laughter, my constitutional shyness has been no disadvantage whatever. In fact I can see that, on the contrary, it has been all to my advantage. My hesitancy in speech, which was once an annoyance, is now a pleasure. Its greatest benefit has been that it has taught me the economy of words. I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. And I can now give myself the certificate that a thoughtless word hardly ever escapes my tongue or pen. I do not recollect ever having had to regret anything in my speech or writing. I have thus been spared many a mishap and waste of time. Experience has taught me that silence is part of the spiritual discipline of a votary of truth. Proneness to exaggerate, to suppress or modify the truth, wittingly or unwittingly, is a natural weakness of man and silence is necessary in order to surmount it. A man of few words will rarely be thoughtless in his speech; he will measure every word. We find so many people impatient to talk. There is no chairman of a meeting who is not pestered with notes for permission to speak. And whenever the permission is given the speaker generally exceeds the time-limit, asks for more time, and keeps on talking without permission. All this talking can hardly be said to be of my benefit to the world. It is so much waste of time. My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow. It has helped me in my discernment of truth.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Culture Around Us Moves Within Each of Us

I thought it might be helpful to take a short look at Thich Nhat Hanh's version of the fifth precept, which is generally translated as not giving over taking intoxicants.

Thay writes:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.

I have always liked how specific he is here, even if I don't personally follow it to the letter. What's beautiful about Thay's take on this precept is how very clear he sees the interaction between individuals and the social environment around them. In fact, he's really pointing out that popular culture, conversations, foods, and the rest are flowing through all of us to the degree that we ingest them.

Part of the reason I have been so adamant about commenting on the context of the Arizona shooting, and others, is that I can feel it's impact on my life. I can feel how totally not immune I am from the nasty accusations, the denials of responsibility, and the violence of the actual events. It's very palpable, and I live 2000 miles away from the site of the event in question.

When politicians, pundits, and other public persons defend hate speech and violent rhetoric, there's a ripple effect that makes it that much more difficult for truth and peacefulness to blossom.

When politicians, pundits, and other public figures base their visions of the world on personal attacks towards those they oppose, this makes it that much more likely that truthful and reasonable debate will be ignored and tossed aside.

When politicians, pundits, and other public figures turn those they oppose into evil enemies that must be defeated at all costs, then it's that much more likely people will believe that violence is the answer for our collective challenges.

When acts of violence are separated from the context from which they sprung, it makes it that much more likely that the toxins of said context will not be addressed.

When everywhere you turn, someone is taking violent events and turning them into money making sensationalism, it makes it that much harder to uphold any vow to not give or take intoxicants.

When people are more interested in defending freedom of speech than examining the impact of that speech, it makes it that much more challenging to practice and spread respectful, compassionate speech.

The culture around us moves within each of us. When this is forgotten, transformation and liberation are that much more unlikely.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Violent White Men are Crazy!" - Considering Ways Violence is Spun

It's been interesting to watch the appearance, rising, falling, and disappearance of thoughts and feelings within myself in connection with the shooting in Arizona. Being someone who naturally starts looking beyond a given event, seeking to see it embedded within it's larger context, my mind has been all over the place over the past few days.

I'm finding that the myriad of culpability denials, political spinnings, angry tirades, and accusations that have been occurring are hard to swallow. Accepting the collective reality we are creating, not just around this issue, but so many others, feels like fatalism. It's astounding to me, for example, that Buddhists who, in one breath, speak of the importance of the precepts and then, in another breath, say that the angry, violent political rhetoric that has engulfed U.S. politics had no impact on the man who shot up a political meet and greet. But then I remember that I fail to see the depth of the teachings in my own life plenty, so why should it surprise me so much.

People wanna pin the crazy label on Mr. Loughner, but I'd say it's the mass dissociation from responsibility for public speech that's pretty damned insane. Freedom of speech never, ever meant freedom from responsibility, but try telling that to members of a nation swamped in a consumerist mentality that equates liberation with being able to do say anything you want without consequence. Where everything from education to romantic relationships to spiritual practices have become subjects of a multiple choice brand of thinking that places more value in ones ability to dispose of people and practices deemed not "the biggest and the best," than it does on commitment and faith in life's process.

When the Fort Hood shooting occurred, it was hard to locate voices calling for patience from any part of the political spectrum calling for suspension of judgments around motives. President Obama tried, to his credit, but was mostly lambasted for it. No, what happened in that case was the swift and mostly united determination that Major Hassan was both crazy and a terrorist. Everything he read, the lectures he gave, and all of his e-mail correspondences were combed for connections with militant Muslim groups from the beginning, with the news media reporting anything and everything that showed a potential link. In fact, when new sources of information dried up, media outlets and pundits resorted to repeating old story lines to keep the general public primed with a view that this guy was probably a terrorist.

I write this not to defend Major Hassan's actions. He is still responsible for those murders. And clearly the violent rhetoric he read and the correspondences he had with a prominent anti-American, radical Muslim cleric had an impact on his thought and decision making processes.

So, why is it that when white men in America commit heinous crimes it's all about them being isolated, crazy individuals? Could it be institutional racism? I say "Damn right it's institutional racism!"

Anyone remember Joe Stack? If not, he's the guy who crashed his plane into a IRS building in Texas. Some deemed him crazy. Others, like his daughter and members of anti-tax groups, continue to consider him a hero and a patriot. And like the current case in Arizona, Stack's writings on various subjects were quickly deemed the ramblings of an incoherent, angry man, and not tied to any larger context.

Let's broadening out a little more. Around the world, members of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities who commit violent acts are often treated completely differently from members of the majority group who commit similar acts. Consider the way violence by Palestinians is treated in Israel, a tiny nation with quite a power military backed by billions of dollars and logistical support from the U.S. Or consider the way members of the ethnic Karen National Liberation Army are treated by the Myanmar government and Burmese elites. Christian missionaries in Pakistan, Iran, and a few other middle east nations have been murdered or put in jail, often not for committing physically violent acts, but for speaking against Islam, or attempting to convert people. These are just a few of the myriad of examples. They all look different due to the social and cultural contexts of their given places. However, what's similar is how the actions of either single members of, or a small group of, a religious or racial/ethnic minority is considered indicative of the entire group.

Thus, a single Muslim's man's act on a military base was considered by many Americans to be a sign that all Muslims are out to "destroy America." A ragtag group of Palestinians set off some bombs, and it's a sign that all Palestinians are out to "destroy Israel." A few small groups of Christian missionaries try to convert people in Iran, and Christians are suddenly considered so much of a threat that the government begins arresting them.

Yet, if you flip over the equation in all three situations, it's treated completely differently. The violence of white men in the U.S. is almost always treated as a form of individual, pathological deficiency. The violence of Jewish Israelis is almost always couched in a rhetoric of defense, often heroic defense. The violence of Muslims in Middle Eastern nations, especially when that violence is aimed at religious and ethnic minorities, is often either spun off as fringe lunacy or is elevated to heroicism as well.

And this trend is not just linked to oppression of religious minorities. Last night, I watched a film about a small group of young radical German socialists who committed acts of terrorism in the 1970s, and who were then protected by operatives from the East German government throughout the 1980's. Based on research done by the director,the film attempted to show how those who committed violence that supported the aims of the East German socialist government were sometimes considered "sympathetic characters" by the authorities, and worthy of state aid. It was quite telling however that as soon as the Berlin wall fell, and the government began to collapse, the same government officials publicly outed the radicals as terrorists, and destroyed any evidence of past connections with them. This is a great example of the ways in which violence done by members of the majority group in a nation can be spun in different ways, depending upon whether it benefits those in power or not.

Had Jared Lee Loughner flipped out as an American in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, you can bet the narratives being spun about his actions would be different. Had Joe Stack chosen to crash his plane into the White House or the Pentagon, you can bet the narratives around him would also be different. But in neither case would you find serious questioning of the man's religious or racial background, regardless of the circumstances.

I've long felt that one of the weaknesses of Buddhism in "the West" (I really want to figure out a better term for this, but that's for another day.) - is that too many practitioners have a "privatized" approach to the teachings. What do I mean by that? Well, take a teaching like Right Speech. The average convert practitioner understands that attempting to speak from a kind, compassionate place with those within their immediate lives is an important part of practice. However, I can't tell you how often I have heard and seen discussions around large scale social and political issues where Right Speech gets thrown under the bus because people want to either avoid entrance in politics (an impossible task folks!) or because the words in question came from members of the political group a person most affiliates with. I doubt many liberal Buddhists had much to say about right speech in 2006, when former Presidential candidate John Kerry joked about killing "the real bird with one stone" in reference to then President Bush.

Overall, I'd say the use of violent rhetoric is more prominent amongst Republicans and other conservatives right now, but it's certainly not exclusive to them. And while it's quite impossible, and pointless, to try and point out every act of dangerous political speech that occurs, I think it's vitally important that more people both speak out against the trends of violent social/political rhetoric, recognizing that it DOES negatively impact all of us. And perhaps more importantly, more of us need to make efforts to embody a more compassionate and principled way of talking and doing politics and social issues.

This includes beginning to reject electoral candidates that use personal attacks, hate speech, and violent metaphors as central features of campaigns. It also includes learning about nonviolent social movements of the past and present to come to a better understanding about how people have worked with major social issues across political, racial, religious, and other lines. And finally, it includes working with social change groups to promote more non-violent approaches to framing the issues being worked with. For example, I remember walking away from Anti-War protests and a few groups working on those issues because so much of it was about hating Bush, Rumsfeld, and the rest. If I became involved with another group working on "Peace Issues," I'd make efforts to both embody non-violence myself, and also help shift the tide away from wanting to destroy or demonize another group of people.