Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Pain of Living a Bifurcated Spiritual Life


This morning I was thinking about some of the issues I wrote about in an essay published a few years back. For today's post, here's a selection from that piece.

I have practiced yoga in some beautiful, almost immaculate studio spaces over the past several years. And I’ve often felt gratitude for the care that’s put in to the upkeep of these places. The same thing can be said of Clouds in Water Zen Center, with its pristine meditation halls and gathering spaces. At the same time, however, it’s become increasingly clear to me how such practice environments reflect the ways in which so many of us are split off from the very earth we are made of. The nearly pristine floors. The rationally ordered props and altars. The air conditioning in the summer. The centralized heating in the winter. The severe lack of wildness.

Throughout most of its history, yoga has been practice either outdoors, or within the simplest of structures, designed mostly to protect people from the extremes. And whereas Zen has been long practiced in monastic buildings, monks and nuns traditionally spent much of their day outdoors, gathering materials for cooking, traversing the villages, and even meditating along the roads and in the fields. Something of the depth of wisdom is lost, or difficult to locate anyway, when the practices are cloistered off in today’s tamed environments. It’s really easy to forget, for example, that the Buddha became enlightened while sitting at the foot of a tree. Or that many of the postures we practice in yoga were directly taken from observations of animals, plants, and elements of the Earth.

Simply put, humans have become too alienated from our own planet. It’s notable that yogic practices developed around the time this alienation seemed to be forming. Buddhism came later, with Zen forming as an offshoot some 1500-1600 years ago. For all the benefits we have received from agriculture, as well as the development of cities and societies, much has also been lost. The litany of abuse people have unleashed upon the earth, especially in recent centuries, is clearly a sign of deep disconnections, so deep that for some that they might destroy the entire planet in the long term, if it meant big material profits in the short term.

Probably from the beginning, this disconnection has been tied to the oppression of women. Ecofeminist Susan Griffin suggests that we have been living in a “bifurcated system” where the natural world has been turned into something in need of “mastery and domination.” In this system, emotions, vulnerability and tenderness have become “forms of submission.” In the process, women have been socialized “to be more connected with the body than are men, for whom this connection represents a threat.” Even the very ways in which we conceptualize and relate to the Earth have been greatly distorted, and used “to justify the social construction of gender.”

Perhaps those early yogis and Buddhists intuitively felt some of this separation occurring. Maybe they were offering a way for people to re-pattern themselves amidst the unhealthy current around them. Given that yoga, and to a somewhat lesser degree Buddhism, remained primarily the domain of men of elite social status until recent centuries, however it’s obvious that some of that separation had already penetrated quite deeply.

*Photo of Thistles by author.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tree Zen


Photo credit: mrmac04 from morguefile.com

I don't often find myself in agreement with The Zennist, but his current post strikes a chord for me. In particular, the first paragraph:

One of the dangers of over humanizing Zen, which is an attempt to locate truth in our human experiences, is that we may end up identifying our human experiences with truth. This may further lead us to the inescapable truth (a human truth) that our human life, at its most fundamental level, is meaningless (i.e., there is no ultimate reality). This means also that our human experience can have relative meaning but not final meaning. Stated otherwise, this is Protagorian relativism, that is, “Man is the measure of all things.”

Over the years, I have noticed how the non-human world is diminished in modern Zen. It often seems like merely a backdrop for human awakening, or reduced to a "place" - "nature" - where we humans "go" to let go of our worries and perhaps find some inspiration. Exploring the commonplace narratives of the human mind around the non-human world, including "nature as a resource" or nature as "brutish, nasty realm," just isn't on the plate. Beyond this, though, there's the duality at the core that seems almost threatening to consider. Namely, the human/non-human divide.

What if Zen Master Joshu's response in the old koan was mainly about pointing away from human-centric thinking? Let's go further than that. What if Joshu was demonstrating being so wide open that he and the tree could speak with each other, communicate their respective wisdoms across the relative body divide?

Many of us moderns balk at such irrational stuff. listening to trees. Talking with trees. Learning from trees not what we think they teach us, but something else entirely, something our minds can't conjure up. That kind of thing seems to be nothing more than "magical thinking," the stuff of our "ignorant" ancestors.

Well, I'll be honest. I think much of modern religion, including Zen and other Buddhist schools, is dependent upon a suppression of our direct kinship with the planet. No matter if we're speaking of gaining the keys to God's kingdom or those who can become enlightened, it's always humans on the top with everything else below - usually far, far below.

Now, on the one hand, given that we are humans, it's understandable that we would think we are the top dog. The smartest and most awakened. On the other hand, there are numerous examples throughout history, and even today, of cultures that reject such notions, cultures with spiritualities built fully on dynamic kinship, where something like having regular conversations with trees or bees is quite normal. And where a recognition of wisdom cuts across the human/non-human body divide.

The fact is that plants were here on earth before us. And many insect and animals were also here before us in some form or another. We're in so many ways the new kids on the block, and it shows. Who else would poison and destroy its own nest in order to acquire power, fame, and/or material items? Who else would be so foolish as to think they can outwit the entire planet, and even beyond?

What if the Zen koans are so "tough" for most of us precisely because they speak to experience beyond the human-centric trappings we've built around them?



Thursday, June 5, 2014

Buddhism in an Age of Manufactured Impermanence


Beautiful iris. Soon this photograph will be all that is left. Some might say the same of the Earth itself. That because nothing lasts, we shouldn't care that much if fracking has become a worldwide activity, or species extinction is happening at an alarmingly fast pace these days, or that the rainforests that many of these disappearing species live in are also disappearing, being shredded for profit. It's all inevitable, some say. I even here this kind of thing from some Buddhist practitioners, using the absolute side of the teachings to justify not attending to the care the relative side is calling us to do, especially when it comes to the non-human life on this planet.

Greed and utilitarianism seem to compete on a moment by moment basis with the recognition that the poisoned water is us. That the murdered pelicans are us. That the oil soaked land cannot possibly be separated from the marrow in our bones.


This majestic oak tree has thrived in a park near my house for longer than most of the residents in St. Paul, myself included, have been alive. Someday, like everything else, it too will die. Will it die of natural causes, or will humans take its life for some mundane or sinister purpose?

Modern civilization seems to be in the business of manufacturing impermanence. We create purposely defective products. We kill far, far more than we need to sustain ourselves. In the name of security, we blow up and poison everyone and everything in sight that is deemed a "threat." In this worldview, dandelions are terrorists. Children murdered in warzones are collateral damage. Endless hours and dollars are expended on creating technology whose sole purpose is to kill, eliminate, obliterate.

In the climate we live in, the impermanence teachings of the Buddha ancestors feel pretty impotent after a certain point. They might be of great help in creating a certain freedom of the mind. However, when applied too much to the social/world context, they become little more than reinforcement for the nihilism that's behind all the murder and destruction. It doesn't really matter that the teachings themselves are not at all nihilistic. The subtleties are too easily swamped, the raft too easily sunk.

Here's another thing. There's not enough love of the non-human world in much of modern Buddhism. Especially Empire Buddhism - that which thrives part in parcel with colonialism and the capitalist economies it spawned. Sure, we talk about love sometimes. But almost always with a healthy dose of non-attachment as a side dish, or even main dish. It's as if we do not trust the process of learning and awakening that comes with the maturation of love. Instead of living through the needed ferociousness of passionate attachment during love's formative years, too many of us opt either to be detached wallflowers or stunted puppies who endlessly miss the opportunities to grow out of infantile attachments that can't possibly help us to serve the world.

Ironically, I think it's time for some manufactured impermanence. Only instead of directing it at all the things that sustain life, let's direct it at all the things that destroy life.

For Empire Buddhism, this might mean burning down some of the cozy huts and being willing to step into an attachment to the well-being of the planet that we accept is desperately needed, even if it's a hindrance to "individual" enlightenment. It may also mean a need to tip the scales away from focusing on the impermanence teachings. Or to reconsider how to offer these teachings in a more targeted way, so that their profundity doesn't just become another cliche in service of destruction. One way to begin to address this is to stop seeking balance. Perhaps emphasizing impermanence when speaking about mind states, for example, but emphasizing protective love when speaking about social concerns and the planet.


What good are the bodhisattva teachings if we aren't willing to wildly apply them to the very Earth that gives each us our breath? Doesn't it strike you that without a planetary focus, all our efforts to help other humans won't amount to too much more than rearranging chairs on the Titanic?

Do not take that last question as minimizing human service and support of other humans. That, too, is always needed. And no doubt for many, it will be the main, if not sole focus of their efforts in life.

What I'm saying is that on a collective level, it's necessary, but not sufficient anymore. We no longer can be a self absorbed species, endlessly living out a collective adolescence. That is, we can't continue doing so without serious, most likely dire consequences as a result.