Monday, February 27, 2012

What Saved Our Ancestors Often Is a Hindrance to Us Now

Suspicious, among other things, is:

"inclined to suspect, esp. inclined to suspect evil; distrustful"

Paying attention to suspicion in my own mind that comes and goes, I'd like to add that it is a desire to pin down, fix, name, and control the unknown.

I have a fairly strong desire for clarity. I want to be able to see through the muck of the world, and live and breathe the truths of my life. Not a terrible thing, in itself. Yet, how much of this clarity seeking is really just trying to solidify what can't be made solid?

Furthermore, how much of this clarity seeking is just creating an artificial division between that which I deem "clear" and that which I deem "unclear"?

Take a simple sour looking look spilling forth from a driver of a car waiting for me to pass on my bicycle. Sometimes, it doesn't take much for my mind to be swamped in worst case scenarios. He's pissed at me. I'm in the way. He probably hates bicyclists.

At the end of the day, the reasons for that look are rarely fully made clear. Even if the guy shouts at me out his window, I don't know the true origin of his anger. In other words, clarity is something usually different than the fixed story I have about it. And whatever it is in a given situation, it's not knowing every last fact and detail about what's happening.

It's likely that this very mind - suspicious mind coupled with a desire for clarity- saved our ancestors from being destroyed by countless numbers of events or predators. however, now it's more likely to be used as a means of standing back from the world. What worked to keep our ancestors alert and clear seeing, now often works to keep us from being fully alive.

Time for some retooling.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Wild and Liberated

I have a new post about the Occupy movement up on one of my other blogs that might interest some of the readers here. It could have been originally posted here, but I want to revive that blog to offer poetry and other writings which might not fit what's been happening at Dangerous Harvests.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Engaged Buddhism and Identity Issues

Over at his blog Notes in Samsara, Mumon has a post that takes up engaged Buddhism and being engaged in one's daily life. In it, he offers the following observation about what commonly falls under the engaged Buddhism banner:

too much of it is cause tourism - and by that I mean it's something people use as an escape from their own position, if the issues in which they're engaged are far removed from their own existence.

Cause tourism. You know, that's a pretty useful term there. And while I might not fully agree with how much of it is going on amongst Buddhist circles, it's definitely something that happens - far too often.

People running off to poor countries to "save the children." Others starting up organizations that end up being more about helping a small number of individual activists maintain upper middle class lives than they are about truly transforming the world. There are plenty of examples of how "vowing to do good" - one of the pure precepts - goes quite bad.

But I'm not interested in that today. What interests me is the rest of Mumon's statement. Particularly this: "if the issues in which they're engaged are far removed from their own existence."

As someone who has been involved in various social justice oriented work and activism for nearly twenty years now, one thing I have learned is that the majority of social issues that challenge humans - or the planet for that matter - are happening right down the street. Or in the next neighborhood. Or just across town. Or less than an hour or two drive from your doorstep.

When most Americans think of slavery, they think of something happening in direly poor nations far away from them, if they think slavery exists at all. (Plenty believe it's something entirely from the past.) And yet, every year, stories of slavery or near slavery emerge right here in the U.S., often involving highly vulnerable, undocumented immigrants, some of whom were forcibly brought to the U.S. in the first place.

Images of Ethiopia, and other Africa nations, are almost always associated with starvation, and rampant malnutrition.

What about the people in your neighborhood? In 2010, 17.2 million households, 14.5 percent of households (approximately one in seven), were food insecure, the highest number ever recorded in the United States.

One of the challenges of living in materially wealthy nations is that for the most part, there are just enough buffers available to provide middle and upper class folks with "a way out." There are the geographical separations that keep people "away" from those who are struggling, and the places they reside in. There are also a myriad of what I would call masks and band aid props that allow people with some means to remain mostly separate from those who don't. Everything from zoning laws that prohibit groups of unrelated people to share the costs of housing, to homeless shelters that are willing to "help out," but are staffed with people who won't challenge systems of injustice play a role.

One of the main reasons why many well meaning people gravitate towards "cause tourism" is the fundamental failure to recognize the fictions of their identity. Both the individual fictions, and also the broader collective fictions. Western Buddhists focus a lot on those individual fictions - the stories we have about ourselves that cause us so much misery, and which our attachments to limit our ability to express the greatness that each of us is. However, when it comes to really deeply uncovering and interrogating the default collective narratives many us of us simply take as "normal life," a lot of Western Buddhists fall far short.

What is this "one's own position" Mumon speaks of? How much influence upon it has collective social forces played? How much freedom do "I" have to move in a different direction, if such movement would result in more justice, compassion, and liberation?

And that is just dealing with the "I." Mumon mentions in his post, and I have had others in my sangha say similar things about taking care of family, and dealing with the issues that are right in front of one's nose. I empathize with that. Furthermore, I don't think anyone should "do" more than one can do. There's a serious lack of self care amongst people in activist circles. There's also a serious lack of self care amongst people who are, either by choice or circumstance, in care-giver roles for disabled, ailing, or otherwise challenged family members and friends.

However, it's serious time for more of us to ask why this is? Why are families so easily treated as individual units responsible for all the struggles they experience - when such families are not, and could never be considered - isolated in terms of their location within communities?

The sixty year old woman who is struggling to care for her 85 year old mother is not separate from her neighbors, for example, even if her and her mother are living miles away from the next neighbor, or are socially isolated from those living just down the hallway or across the street. Furthermore, they are not separate from the social dynamics and systems that led to the conditions they live under currently.

Some might consider all of this to be an intellectual exercise, but I am witnessing people from widely different backgrounds, with widely different levels of social and economic means, asking questions, re-examining choices, and in some cases, directly challenging the very notion that "my problem" is mine alone, and that the only "reasonable" response to something like an ailing parent is to turn inward, and put all of one's extra energy into care giving.

So many of us have allowed our creativity and imagination to be stolen from us. And so many have allowed their basic goodness and abilities to be privatized, to the point where something as simple as group care-giving amongst friends and neighbors is simply unthinkable.

Please don't take this article as an indictment. Furthermore, it's not really about any one, specific choice. Focusing most of one's energy for a time on caring for an ailing parent might be the most appropriate choice for some folks. The point I am making is broader. It's about how our identities get constructed, and how we act - often unconsciously - from a sense that certain things are true, fixed, and solely individual in nature.

Your thoughts?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Green Spirituality

readers will have noticed a down-tick in the number of posts here. There are a few reasons for this. First off, my offline life has been extremely rich over the past few months. Some of this richness has been challenging, but overall, the abundance of the world has been palpable and my gratitude for that has been unwavering. Secondly, I have been writing an essay looking at, among other things, how the physical environments we tend to practice Zen and yoga in reflect the general disconnection many of us have with the planet. The essay will be a part of a book being co-edited by two yoga bloggers that should be coming out later this year. I will share more details on that when they are official.

During the process of writing the essay, I experienced a major block and eventually recognized that the very form of the essay itself - a rational, point by point approach - was reflecting the very issues I was writing about. And while the the finished product will still have a fair amount of that kind of structure, it also includes a lot of personal stories and anecdotes. If I had a larger space to work with, such as book-length, perhaps I would have experimented much more with form.
Because that needs to be happening more regularly. Experimenting. Trying to touch different places within readers.

Frankly, I am coming to believe that we have reached the limits of the analytical, logical approach to understanding. More precisely, the limits of relying on it as the sole or even dominant approach. As I wrote my first draft of the essay, I kept thinking "Where is the wildness here? Where are the weeds? The trickster animals?" And I was asking myself questions like "How can the form itself bring in those missing elements?"

Much of what I see out there as spiritual writing is compartmentalized. Poetry in one corner for a taste of wildness and the unsayable. Memoir to touch the heart with what usually is a carefully constructed story. Well reasoned essay or blog post to examine critical issues, conflicts, or teachings. Interviews that sometimes cross boundaries like these, but which often are cut, edited, or over directed in certain directions by the interviewers.

I'm seeing something similar occurring in the ways many of us make collective decisions. Sitting at Occupy meetings, or in our Zen center board meetings - I have been noticing the headiness of it all. The way certain kinds of talking are privileged. The way we all sit around tables or in chairs and barely move for an hour or two or even more. The way even consensus itself is so often a rational, verbal agreement that ignores the body language, emotional status, wild parts of human and non-human stories, and whatever else is present.

Trying to use language to express all that I am/have been experiencing, becoming more aware of, is failing - but in the failing, I'll offer something I hope.

How do we heal our relationship with the Earth and ultimately with ourselves - since there is no separation? How can anyone speak of enlightenment without also being a life in tandem with the mountains and rivers, crows and dandelions?

In other words, the earth isn't compartmentalized and neither are any of our lives really. Intellectually, some of us know this. Now what?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Regional and National Zen Institutions Revisited

The following is a post I wrote a little under two years ago. It got a lot of attention back then, and I believe the issues discussed in it continue to be on the hot plate so to speak. Locally, there has been a bit more cross-sangha connecting bubbling up over the past few years. Mostly organically, without any formal direction or focus behind it.

However, at our board retreat a few weeks ago, we decided that one of our focuses in the coming years will be to make more deliberate connections with our sister sanghas in the Twin Cities area. One potential long term outcome from this could be a collaborative body for sharing resources, helping address common problem issues systematically, and perhaps aiding individual sanghas with any major inter-sangha conflicts that arise.

Which fits in with the discussion that was had below. It's important to note, though, that one of the driving forces behind the posts cited below was a variety of sex scandals that have plagued Zen communities in recent decades. And furthermore, that the issue at Treeleaf sangha that arises was dealt with long ago.

I am actually more interested today in how neighboring Zen sanghas, and Buddhist sanghas in general, might collaborate instead of compete with each. How through sharing and expanding the base of wisdom, they might each become better communities.

So many of the discussions that happened in the wake of the Eido Roshi and Genpo scandals felt reactionary to me. People advocating for stronger national institutions - myself included - weren't thinking too much beyond sangha protection and addressing abuses. And those like Brad Warner, who rejected such organizations, were thinking mostly in terms of the restrictions and limitations.

There's got to be more to the story. I'd be interested in hearing about any cross-sangha collaborations that are currently going on. Or ways in which you believe such collaborations might be hindered. Your thoughts?

Time shift gears for a moment, and get back to the macro level issues. Brad Warner's blog often provides a lot of drama, which isn't so helpful. But the guy says some important stuff sometimes, even if it's perfectly useful material to disagree with. His most recent post has to do with another by Zen teacher James Ford, both of which address institutional structures in American Zen, spurred on by the recent resignation of Zen teacher Eido Shimano. There have been countless posts covering the details of the allegations against Shimano, so instead of getting into all of that, I'm going to focus in on the issue of oversight and large, national or even international institutional bodies.

James Ford advocates that here in the U.S., we need a stronger national institutional body to oversee the various Zen institutions that have developed over the past century or so.

Here I see the lack of larger institutions that oversee teachers and communities is a major problem. Not just about sex, but it is a good placeholder for all the complex issues of human relationships.

Ford goes on to point out that many Zen Centers don't have well developed policies and regulations for dealing with breaches of power within the sangha.

"At this point the only larger institutions to emerge that have ethical codes with teeth are the San Francisco Zen Center and the Kwan Um School of Zen, both institutions having experienced very rough times around sexual conduct of teachers pretty early on."

I'm not sure where exactly Ford is getting his information from about all of this. He very well could be right. I will say, though, that my own center, Clouds in Water doesn't fall into the groups Ford mentions, but does have a pretty rigorous structure for dealing with ethical violations, both of the student-teacher variety, and between members regardless of status. The development of this began long ago, but the "teeth" if you will, was added after our own teacher scandal situation, which resulted in the departure of our former leader. I can't imagine that we are the only other example, besides SFZC and Kwan Um that has developed healthy oversight mechanisms to serve their communities.

Back to the issue of a national oversight body, Brad Warner is totally against it.

I have to completely disagree. Because the Holy Roman Catholic Church is a gigantic institution with a very toothy ethical code and still sexual abuses of all kinds continue. Sure, when ethical abuses occur there are consequences. But only when the code is properly enforced by ethical people. And I’ve seen too many instances where that has broken down to believe that the simple existence of a big institution with an ethical code with teeth will always prevent abuses, or even prevent most abuses, or even prevent the worst abuses.

In the case of Zen, there is also something much more fundamental at stake, and that is the very existence of Zen itself. I don’t believe Zen can really be practiced at all unless its teachers are totally autonomous and not beholden to institutions.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I feel that Zen teachers are more like artists than like religious instructors. If you bind artists to institutions, you kill their ability to create art.

The interesting thing about all of this is that from what I have seen here locally, even the idea of getting Zen centers together nationally to work on these kinds of issues is kind of like herding cats. Here in the Twin Cities, we have nearly half a dozen heirs of Dainin Katagiri who lead Buddhist organizations. They all know each other well, having practiced together for years. And while they periodically meet to exchange ideas and support each other, working together on something like a co-operative oversight board for the Twin Cities just hasn't happened. There have been attempts at times to get something more collaborative to occur, but beyond the occasional dual sponsored visiting teacher event, it's really each organization for it's own.

And James Ford points out that the national American Zen Teachers Association "isn’t even a professional organization. It is basically a listserv and an annual gathering of peers without bylaws or, codes of conduct."

In addition to the AZTA, there is the North American office of the Sotoshu, which could be the kind of body that Ford is suggesting needs to have a stronger influence, but certainly doesn't act in the way the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy does.

In some ways, Brad's comparison between the Catholic church and Zen institutions isn't very helpful. However, the issues of power and sex abuse cases make it hard to not make such a comparison.

In fact, Ford himself makes a different comparison using the same two groups in this totally fascinating paragraph:

My rough analogy for this deconstruction is that we’ve shifted our understanding of the Zen teacher in a manner somewhat similar to the shift from a Roman Catholic understanding of its priests to an Anglican understanding of its priests. The myth of apostolic succession has been seen through and replaced with the understanding that it is a good, if imperfect symbol. The Zen teacher is a construct of medieval China and has been adapted in our own times to stand as a person with many years of training and authorization by another such within a broad community of practice. Whatever the titles (and I’m living proof they’re inflated), the reality is that among the Zen teachers who are mostly meditation teachers, there may be some genuine masters.

A large part of the kerfuffle going on over at the Treeleaf community seems be about this very issue. Is the teacher enlightened? Should we talk about enlightenment? If yes, how so? What level of authority should a teacher have, and how much does it depend on his/hers' level of understanding/attainment?

The student that was tossed out of the Treeleaf community directly challenged his teacher's understanding and experience repeatedly. He also pointed to his own experiences, suggesting that even if he's a student, his view shouldn't be dismissed as mere attachment. We could have a long debate about whether Chet, the student at Treeleaf, is being arrogant and ridiculous, but that's not really the point. I think what James Ford is trying to get at in his post is that because of the causes and conditions present here in the U.S. and in other nations outside of the Asian nations where Buddhism originated, the Zen teacher and the Zen institution functions differently, and needs different kinds of structures to address what's occurring.

At the same time, I can't help but thinking that Brad Warner's argument against national oversight bodies might have some validity to it.

Also, institutions tend to reflect the lowest common denominator of what their members understand as acceptable behavior. They are bound to come up with the most conservative definition possible. People who don’t agree that democracy is best often speak of democracy as the “tyranny of the masses.” And this is what happens with Zen institutions. It becomes more about what the greatest number of members think they want than what’s actually necessary for Zen teaching to occur. This can never be decided democratically.

Now, clearly Brad likes to be a "free agent" so to speak. He's got a bit of former Major League baseball player Curt Flood in him. That's not a bad thing, necessarily, but anyone looking at baseball these days would say that free agency has caused plenty of trouble, even if it has given players more freedom and much higher salaries.

However, I do think that whenever large institutions get heavily involved in anything, creativity and uniqueness of expression get challenged. And if you look at famous Zen teachers and students throughout history, there's an awful lot of creativity and uniqueness to be found, and also plenty of examples of free agent types who were shunned by the majority of people, but who's stories have lived on and inspired people hundreds of years after those who shunned them have died and disappeared completely. Mediocrity might make for a certain kind of longevity, but it doesn't inspire people to awaken to their true nature.

With that said, I still think a free for all isn't really helpful. The very forms of our practice - the chanting, bowing, zazen postures, etc. - provide a base to spring off of. They might not all be necessary for any given individual to awaken in this life, but they do seem akin to learning the scales in music. What this means in terms of providing leadership for Zen at a national level - I don't really know. For every James Ford advocating for strong national oversight, there are probably as many Brad Warners out there, even if they wish to deny any linkage with him.

For those of you in the broader Zen community, what do you think needs to be done, if anything, about ethical issues occurring in sanghas? Is it the job of each sangha? A regional or national body? Both? Neither?

And for those of you outside of the Zen community, what do you make of all of this?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Expanded Love

I have been contemplating the ways in which we construct narratives recently - and probably much of my life if I'm really honest.

Lately, though, there's been a tug around blogging,
and the ways in which what gets written (here and elsewhere)
tends to be linear,
rather rational,
and well, simply put, organized towards certain messages or outcomes.

How does this impact readers? Or writers for that matter?

What are the limits of this kind of writing when it comes to speaking about -
our spiritual lives?


Let's try something different. And see what happens.

Start with this: Americans alone spend $5.7 billion annually on yoga classes and products.

That BIG. Big Mind Big. Every time I think of folks paying $50,000 to hang with Zen teacher Genpo Merzel, that's what comes to mind.

Big, but not

Not the universe,

moving in the ten directions,
connected if you will
as we are
with the myriad of beings

A few days ago, I came to stop at the edge of the bus stop, as a man was talking to someone on a cell phone, upset, pacing back and forth in the cool, early February wind.

Soon, he stopped too. Stopped talking. Clicked the phone shut. Looked at me. Sighed. Said "Sorry about that. My brother just died."

I stopped again. The "I" who was worried about such a conversation happening.

He started: "Things sometimes happen you know."

I do. But didn't.

"It's just that my sister stole the clothes he left me. I don't know why she did that."

Tears. Coming from somewhere between us
breaking through

for a moment

In meditation retreats. Sitting there, my entire body aching,
I have looked around and saw that nearly everyone else was still in half or full lotus posture.

So, what have I done? Stayed in half lotus, and either tried to cut off the bodily sensations, or intellectualized the pain as being “good for my practice.”

Why do we keep cutting our selves off from ourselves?

This man loved his brother. He was willing to cry with a stranger at a bus stop over his brother.

That's love just as much as the boundless joy of being together is.

Do you really know how to love? Allow love to grow and be?

The body as sex object. The body as an advertising method, and sales tool. The body as a machine. The body as a workhorse, means of obtaining income through labor. The body as powerhouse athlete.

All of these narratives are pulsing through many of us,

stealing the canals of our hearts

threatening to damn us
to lives of
or not so quiet

He called himself "the godfather" of his family,
but also
a "lost cause"
damaged by military service,

and that which remained in silence
whatever it was
which clearly left him limping,

languishing in a certain kind of lack

even as he so easily
lifted the bar, unclasped the belt
to the wheelchair
of a passenger
about to get off
the bus

“alienation from the self is the entire focus of yoga philosophy"
yoga teacher Stephen Cope once wrote

as if we really needed that sentence
and yet

it's all so clear to me now, the way the seeds lay in our fields waiting,
patiently waiting

for the rain to come.