Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dogen Zen Meets Guatanamo Bay

When to keep going, and when to let go? Or, what is the amount of effort being called for? I have been sitting with variations on these questions for a long time now, but they have been particularly up during the past few weeks. As I have participated in a meditation intensive focusing on Zen Master Dogen's Bendowa. Which is why I found the following article, on protesting the Guantanamo Bay detentions, really interesting.

Back in 2004, I began about a little over two year active period as a member of Amnesty international. Part of the work of our local chapter was educating folks about Guantanamo, torture, and indefinite detention policies under the Bush Administration. It was grim stuff, and even then, it was difficult to imagine a major shift being made towards a more just, peaceful approach to international conflict. (The photo above is from that period. Our spray painted orange jumpsuits really stood out amongst the crowd of David Byrne concert goers.) Now, over eight years later, and over 11 years since the opening of the detention center, it's almost more difficult to imagine that shift. From any elected U.S. government. Under our current system that is, as it's structured and moneyed. Candidate Obama was outraged by the decisions to maintain Guantanamo. President Obama has entered his second term by signing into law the 2013 NDAA act, which basically cements his position as a defender of the status quo. It's more than a little depressing, even for someone like myself, who has long felt that both major US political parties are ethically bankrupt and representative only of the privileged few.

As I sat through a hazy period of zazen last night, feeling physically off from the fluctuating weather and lack of sleep, I considered sleeping in this morning. Skipping out on one of the last sessions in the meditation intensive. Many others in the group have had commitments that prevented them from being at every session. I thought to myself "You can take a pass too. It's ok."

And in one sense, it would have been. There's no value in killing yourself in some dogged pursuit to maintain your image or for enlightenment. It's easy to read some of the old Zen stories and imagine that the only way to awaken is to meditate yourself nearly into the ground forsaking everything including health and general well being.

However, it would be absurd for me to claim that I was hitting an edge where the kind of rest that called for skipping this morning's zazen was present. It wasn't. Not by a long shot. And so I got up at 5 am this morning, and arrived at my meditation cushion on schedule.

While things are, in many ways, more complicated when considering collective issues like how to respond to Guantanamo, there's something of the same spirit of inquiry involved. Because there is seemingly endless amounts of suffering and injustice in the world, it's easy enough to exhaust yourself trying to do what you can to liberate others and the world. It's also easy enough to endlessly hop from one issue to another, one cause to another. Gobbling up bits of information, stories of suffering, and lists of new "enemy" figures to fight. I have been guilty of both of these to some degree, and I've known plenty of others who have and/or continue to be. At the same time, there are those who stick with something long past the time when either the issue or cause itself is relevant, or the person themselves is able to be skillfully involved the movement of change. I have met more than one bitter, aging Communist reduced to ranting and spouting off lines from Lenin and Marx in my day.

From Dogen's Bendowa, "Training and enlightenment are not two but one." The awareness of, and openness to, the dynamic functioning of life feels very important to me these days - not only as an activist, but also as a human being living a human life. The challenge with recognizing that "one" Dogen speaks of is to not, in the process, destroy the two in the process. We need to make human effort. We need to address the suffering and injustice in our world. It's not enough, in my view, to just do my practice and wish for that practice to - on it's own - somehow liberate the world. And yet, if you can't touch the already liberated world that's present along with our turbulent, suffering filled human realm, then it's near impossible to keep going. To respond to the calls for action, and the calls for silence and non-action, in an appropriate manner.

That's my edge these days. What's yours?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

On the Hyatt Boycott and the Ethics of "Spiritually" Driven Businesses

There was a lot of commentary over the past few weeks about the yoga conference held at the Hyatt Hotel in San Francisco last week. The main reason for this is the longstanding boycott on Hyatt and Yoga Journal's repeated decisions to keep their conference at Hyatt despite that boycott. One of the editor's of the new yoga volume 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, Roseanne Harvey, has been offering frequent posts about the situation. Another member of the 21st Century Yoga team, Chelsea Roff, just offered her own take on the issue. While Roseanne's pieces are clearly siding with the hotel workers and boycott, Chelsea's post attempts to offer journalistic objectivity. Given that I am also a part of the 21st Century yoga team, and have already written about the Hyatt Boycott and it's relation to the yoga community, I'd like to respond to a few comments and questions in Chelsea's piece.

One of the reason's Yoga Journal cites for not moving the conference away from the Hyatt is their contract with them.

Yoga Journal has a multi-year contract with the Hyatt that isn’t set to end until 2015. If the company chooses to pull out of their contract with the Hyatt next year, it would cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars — and in a conference industry that’s already struggling to stay afloat, that could mean no more conferences for Yoga Journal. “There would be a significant penalty to break the contract,” Maggal told me. “And it would severely impact our ability to continue holding conferences in the future.”

Of course, money is a major player here. Does that surprise anyone? Certainly, hundreds of thousands of dollars sounds like a lot. Indeed, I can even see where, in the difficult market magazines have to deal with these days, that kind of money might be "make or break" on the whole business kind of money.

However, let's consider Yoga Journal's particular situation. As of September 2006, YJ has operated as a subsidiary of Active Interest Media, holders of over 75 print magazines, and financed by "a private-equity investment firm with over $1.8 billion in capital under management." As such, while a several hundred thousand dollar penalty isn't pretty, it really can't be upheld as the death knell to future conferences it's being portrayed to be.

Another issue with this dramatic claim being made by YJ is that they have three other successful conferences annually, in addition to the one in San Francisco. Is Yoga Journal suggesting that paying the financial penalty to move from the Hyatt would "severely impact" all of their conferences, or is this mostly a reference to the San Francisco conference? What I find most interesting is that San Francisco is home turf for YJ. You'd think a successful media company would have more options in their home town, where the personal ties and connections tend to be greater. They paint the Hyatt as being the only suitable option.
When they looked into possible alternatives, they found no facilities in the area that could accommodate their size on the date the conference was scheduled.
This in a city of over 800,000 residents. Hmmm...

In my opinion, this is more about comfort and class than about location and financial penalties. The Hyatt appeals to the upper middle class sentiment that drives the North American yoga machine. It's a comfortable fit that doesn't offend the privileged people who attend their conferences. In fact, given their familiarity with the management of the hotel, I'm guessing that the Hyatt SF caters to that privileged sensibility, making sure that everyone on staff keeps the moneyed yogis feeling pampered and fully taken care of in every possible manner.

Towards the end of her article, Chelsea poses the following questions.

Should a company be expected to defend the rights of people in its community? And what is Yoga Journal’s community? Is it limited to the consumers who buy its magazine and attend its conferences, or does the Yoga Journal extend to the American populace in general, which includes workers at the Hyatt?

Personally, the answer to the first question is always yes, regardless of the business. As far as I'm concerned, a company that places profits over the well-being of humans and the planet is a worthless entity. Something lacking ethics, and out of accord with life itself. Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows I have little tolerance for capitalism in general, but it's especially the case when it comes to issues like human exploitation and planetary destruction.

Beyond that, though, it seems to me that companies like Yoga Journal, built supposedly on a mission to spread the teachings of a spiritual practice, have a duty to uphold the values they're preaching. Such as ahimsa: non-harming. Or asteya: non-stealing.

Clearly, upholding these doesn't lead to an unchanging set of answers and responses. It wouldn't mean that the response to any labor unrest is always to move and support the workers. But if the history of labor-management/owner relations under capitalism is any guide, the lion's share of the time, the grievances of the workers are not only true, but only the tip of the iceberg.

Along those lines, amongst the numerous anti-union statements made by Hyatt officials during Roff's article is this telling gem by David Lewin, general manager of Hyatt SF:

Boycotting this hotel doesn’t make any sense – why should my workers suffer? They haven’t received a raise in over three years, all because the union wants to increase their headcount. They’re holding their own workers hostage. In my opinion, it’s just pathetic. Disgusting and pathetic.

Annual revenues for Hyatt Hotels Corp are over $3.5 billion. Hyatt has a practice of subcontracting housekeepers, and also maintaining a mostly part-time staff amongst those they do hire. There's even a federal trial underway in Baltimore that points to both illegal anti-union tactics being employed by Hyatt, and a lack of "trickle down" financial benefits going to workers from the large subsidies given to Hyatt by the city of Baltimore.

In my view, little of what Hyatt says holds up. And frankly, Yoga Journal's stated claims around the conference don't really hold up either. I tend to think that global capitalism and spiritual ethics don't mesh at all, and that's a big part of the reason why an organization like YJ, which probably has a fair number of thoughtful, reflective people involved in it, still struggles to uphold the basic values and ethics of the practice. Collective greed too often overwhelms individual voices. And the very ways in which businesses are structured under capitalist models tend to reinforce that greed, and the various forms of exploitation and violence needed to maintain said greed.

I do think there are other ways to build what might be called "business" that align with our deeper, spiritually-based values and ethics. But that's for another discussion, and given YJ's public position and ownership, I doubt something like ahimsa makes a lot of headway in decisions like choosing to stay at the Hyatt in San Francisco.

I'd like to end with a plug for this cool piece, by yet another 21st Century Yoga author, Matthew Remski. In it, he writes about grassroots built and supported yoga conferences. One excellent response to situations like this.

In addition to resisting injustice, more of us have to embody and create the liberated, just world we desire. It's not one or the other, though. It's both/and. So let's get to it!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The House Sparrows Chant

I recently revised a post about the death of a friend that I offered here a few years ago. One of the elements I added was a small section towards the end about the meaning of words in our prayers. How each syllable can be packed with wisdom, whether we recognize it or not.

You can read the entire article here, at the webzine Life as a Human, where I have a regular column.

Along the lines of prayer, this morning we began a two week meditation intensive at the Zen center. With about a dozen others, I woke up around 5 am and committed to sit with the sangha and study Dogen's "Bendowa" for the next two weeks. There's something prayer-like about this kind of commitment. It goes beyond the act of meditation, or chanting or bowing - all of which we did this morning, and will do during the rest of the period together. In fact, meaning itself isn't really an issue. Whether I know it or not, I am just there, breathing in and breathing out the life that comes.

What was interesting to me this morning is that part of me isn't so fond of the Bendowa. Being from the early period of Dogen's teaching, some of strikes me as excessively disparaging of other approaches to Buddhism. Such as the chanting focused schools of practice.

Kaspalita Thompson (no relation to me) offers beautiful insights into continuous chanting practice in this post.

What the continuous practice gave me then, and still gives me, is a deeper relationship with the practice of chanting the Buddha's name, and a deeper relationship with the Buddha. In the continuous practice you are turning yourself to the Buddha over and over again. Sometimes this happens consciously, but for me it's mostly unconscious. My thoughts wander far and wide but my voice keeps calling to the Buddha - and something sinks in. Something happens at the core of my being - I am pointed towards the light.

Sometimes this is blissful, sometimes it is painful (the light shows me how aching small and flawed I am), and sometimes I don't notice at all.

Sitting zazen with our group this morning felt similar to me. The repeated call back to Buddha occurring on the cushion. In each footstep during walking meditation. In each inhale between phrases while chanting.

Western Buddhists, frequently haunted by Judeo-Christian notions of prayer, often reject the word "prayer" and its attendant "faith." And with that rejection tends to go the actions themselves.

We struggle to live faith. To trust in the emergence before us, in each of us, and all around us.

Going back to Dogen's Bendowa, beyond the bluster and perhaps elitism present in some of the words, there's something else. An embodying of Buddha in form beyond form. I don't know if Dogen would agree with me or not, but as I see it, the repeated return to particular forms - zazen, chanting, bowing, etc. - are about maintaining right direction. In that we'd probably agree.

Perhaps the disagreement would be that I don't elevate one form over another. The dharma gate of continuous chanting of the nembutsu has the ability to re-turn a person to their buddhanature just as seated meditation does. A little differently, but the same as well.

In these modern days, filled with seemingly endless ways to loose one's direction, it strikes me that we'd be wise to have a wide tool box. To recognize that the long term rhythms of each our lives will probably call us to different forms to remedy our spinning, internal weather vanes. Even the devote of zazen, if awake to these rhythms, will practice slightly or greatly different forms of meditation, depending upon the nature of the misalignment.

I often walk the skyways of St. Paul during the winter months, offering metta to those rushing to their jobs, appointments, or meals while on break from work. In the warmer months, I do the Jizo Bodhisattva chant while riding my bicycle to and from various places.

As I left Sunday service this morning, I heard the birds in a nearby parking lot, and stopped. Stood still. Let the freezing cold air penetrate my coat, straight through to the bone. With it, the songs of every bird, and all of them together. Stoking the fires within. Warmth there in the cold.

What is practice anyway? Can you draw any hard and fast lines?

The house sparrows chant; I bow to myself.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Copies of 21st Century Yoga Available

Hi Everyone,

I have three copies of the new yoga anthology 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice left over from a recent book reading and I'd like to offer Dangerous Harvest readers a chance to purchase them. As some of you know, I have an essay on mind/body splitting in yoga and Zen practice in the volume (you can read more about that here.) In addition, there are several other talented writer/practitioners offering a view into a variety of topics, including yoga and healing from addiction, spiritual social activism, and the implications of commodified yoga practice. I'm proud to be a part of this volume, and hope that it will both spark long term conversations about the quality and nature of yoga practice in North America, as well as be an influence on how practice is shaped in the future.

There have been over two dozen substantial reviews of the book since it came out a few months ago, including a writeup in Yoga Journal, and articles about one of our authors featured in the Huffington Post. Here is a recent review to offer you a flavor of the response the book is getting.

If you would like a copy, please use the paypal donation button on the side of my blog. Each copy is $15, including shipping. Any additional donation is welcome as well. Include your name and current address in your donation, and I will mail out your copy the next business day. Or send me an e-mail (ngthompson04 at yahoo .com) with your name and address if you prefer.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

Zen Lay Practitioner's Longing

(I saw in the mist a little village of a few tiled roofs and joyfully admired it.)

There's a stream, and there's bamboo,
there's mulberry and hemp.
Mist-hid, clouded hamlet,
a mild, tranquil place.
Just a few tilled acres.
Just a few tiled roofs.
How many lives would I
have to live, to get
that simple.
Yuan Mei, 1716-1798

I think it's easy to get attached to desired external conditions. I love this poem, but the longing is palpable.

Yuan Mei was, it seems, a fairly busy guy.

Like many of the great Chinese poets, Yuan Mei exhibited many talents, working as a government official, teacher, writer, and painter.

He eventually left public office and retired with his family to a private estate named "The Garden of Contentment." In addition to teaching, he made a generous living writing funerary inscriptions. Among other things, he also collected local ghost stories and published them. And he was an advocate of women's education.

Who is the one that isn't busy? Maybe you've heard that question before.

Conventional busy is the new normal these days. Even those of us who don't have a lot of required stuff on our plates often run the busy default, filling every moment with some activity or another.

But when you consider Yuan Mei's poem, longing for simplicity, while living busy, isn't anything new.

Regardless of external conditions,there are always going to be things ready to fill your days, distract you from your life's true calling.

What is it that you were called here to do in this life? Return there, again and again. The true "place" Yuan Mei - and you and I - long for.