Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Silence of White American Buddhists on Ferguson



"Not terribly long ago in a country that many people misremember, if they knew it at all, a black person was killed in public every four days for often the most mundane of infractions, or rather accusation of infractions – for taking a hog, making boastful remarks, for stealing 75 cents. For the most banal of missteps, the penalty could be an hours-long spectacle of torture and lynching. No trial, no jury, no judge, no appeal. Now, well into a new century, as a family in Ferguson, Missouri, buries yet another American teenager killed at the hands of authorities, the rate of police killings of black Americans is nearly the same as the rate of lynchings in the early decades of the 20th century."

Since this is a blog about Buddhism among other things, I'll start with this statement. The majority, perhaps the vast majority of covert Buddhists sanghas in the US will have nothing to public to say about Ferguson. They will not deliberately open their doors, as East Bay Meditation Center is doing today, as a place of respite for the outraged, weary, and sad. They will not issue any public statements about racial injustice, the suppression of peaceful protests, or anything of the like. They will not offer dharma talks on Ferguson, state sanctioned violence, or the militarization of our police departments. They will not show up, in any significant numbers, at protests or solidary events. They most likely won't, in any real tangible manner, demonstrate that the above, quoted reality is a total travesty, and that the only way to stand behind and support our black brothers and sisters is to reject the status quo, and work together to build a more just, and truly peaceful society.

I want to be wrong about all this, but I probably won't be. It's just far too easy for white dominant Buddhist sanghas to minimize, deny, or ignore all this. We don't want to "take sides." We don't want to upset anyone. Politics have no place in the dharma. We don't know the whole story. The list goes on and on.

Part of me has compassion for the fact that this is the karma of hundreds of years of settler colonialist propaganda. That spiritual bypassing, ignorance, and even flat out prejudice and hatred in some cases can drive the words and actions of so many of my fellow white Buddhist practitioners.

The other part of me says for fucks sake, wake up!

I watched the protests in Ferguson on livestream last night for a good hour and a half. Occasionally, I had flashbacks to protests I've been involved in over the past decade. But what they were dealing with was worse. More calculated and oppressive. Tear gas canisters flying everywhere. Military vehicles all over the place. Guns aimed in all directions. It looked like a total war zone.

Apparently, some mainstream media outlets made a huge deal out of a handful of fires. A couple of burning cop cars and buildings. There was plenty of noise made about protesters throwing rocks as well. It sounded way too much like Gaza. Looked way too damned much like Gaza!

We live in a nation built from the fruits of genocide, slavery, and widespread economic oppression. Our leaders support and wage wars across the globe. The United States is, for all intents and purposes, the embodiment of the three poisons (greed, hatred, and ignorance).

Defending the "rule of law," means supporting greed, hatred, and ignorance. Choosing to hang out in the absolute realms, far too common for U.S. Buddhists, especially white ones, means being okay with the endless suffering around us, and within us.

We are a few days from Thanksgiving. A holiday that covers up a legacy of human genocide (that of our indigenous brothers and sisters), while committing one annually against an animal community (our turkey brothers and sisters). And lest this post get consumed by people defending meat eating, I'm not talking about the reverent taking of life to sustain one's own life. I'm talking about 45 million turkeys slaughtered annually, many of them raised in giant factory farms, all for a holiday that is sustained by a settler colonialist myth about the "beginnings" of the nation.
Forgive me for not feeling thankful for any of this.

A few days ago, a 12 year old black boy, Tamir Rice, was shot and killed by Cleveland police. That a boy that young is so readily seen as a "threat" so "dangerous" he must be shot speaks volumes about the state of our affairs. That Darren Wilson is free, but Marissa Alexander in prison and facing another possible 5 year sentence, demonstrates just how fucked up things are - and have been for a long, long time.

And yet, I'm guessing that the coming weeks will be similar to the previous few months when it comes to Ferguson and white majority Buddhist sanghas and practitioners. Mostly silence. And not the kind of silence that comes from meditation practice offering metta and prayers of support to the directly suffering, but more the kind of silence that comes from privilege and settler colonialist thinking.

I spent significant time at my zen center over the past 3 days. I love my sangha, and often feel proud of how far we have come over the years, even on such difficult issues as systemic racism and oppression. And yet, even so, I'm honestly not sure I can go for refuge there on a day like today. I'm just not sure there's space for the mixture of outrage, sadness, and a desire to do more than just sit, although I need - so many of us really - need that too.

This afternoon, I will head to one of our local solidarity demonstrations. It isn't nearly enough, and at every one of these someone speaks to how it's just that: not enough. But until more answers forward arise, we have to do something, say something.

I pray for more awakening, more liberation, to penetrate the hearts and minds of this nation. May the wood of the empire rot, and a new house be built that lets all of us, all beings, thrive.














Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Winter Herbal Meditation



Last weekend, we set our clocks back, and early sunsets ensued. This weekend, the temperature has dropped. Way down. Below freezing at night, and barely above during the day. Even though it's only the second week of November, winter has essentially set in.

For plant lovers, this can be a tough time of year, especially for those of us living in Northern climates. Without access to a greenhouse or some other large, indoor environment, we're left with a few windowsills to fill with pots. Knowing full well that despite our best effort, what we potted in October won't be what's left in the window in April.

And yet, there's something calming about this time of year. The darkness invites a slowing down that our hyper-speed culture rejects the rest of the time. The browns and greys that fill the landscape call out for us to see beyond the surface, to imagine beyond the image we have of being alive. Just because the trees have dropped their leaves doesn't mean they are dead. Just because this year's Yarrow patch is gone doesn't mean that it is gone.

Herbalism seems to attract a lot of literalists in a certain sense. Seeking solutions to the body's various health issues, it's understandable that this would be the case.

However, health is more than a material experience, and plants are so much more than demulcents, anti-inflammatories, and adaptogens.

Don't get me wrong. I love talking and learning about these things. It's commonplace that I get asked about beneficial herbs for various illnesses and conditions and, as a way of introduction to a plant, I offer it's specific, material gifts in response.

You're dealing with low grade depression. Maybe you could try Lemon Balm.

Your throat feels scratchy and you're worried about getting a cold, Elderberry might snuff it out.

But there's so much more to the story. There's so much more to our own stories.

I have overwintered Lemon Balm plants for several years now. What I've noticed is that they always grow to a certain height and volume, and then the leaves start to dry out around the edges. It doesn't seem to matter how much I water them, how large of a pot I offer them, or how rich the soil is that I offer them.

If I sheer off the growth, they slowly grow back during the darkest months.

If I let it go too long, they die.

Bountiful lemon balms almost smile at you with their bright and shiny leaves. They stand tall and proud, filling the air around them with a light, lemony scent. At their height, they bolt towards the sky and burst forth dozens of tiny, white flowers.

There is a slow build up, and then a reach towards infinity. Given just enough of the right conditions, they'll make greatness ensue. However, if the conditions aren't right, they either stay in check or wilt.

For the living, the winter months are mostly about building up and staying in check.

For the dying, regardless of the time of year, everything is wilting.

The difference is often subtle. There doesn't seem to be enough soil, so the roots stop growing, give up on seeking nutrients.

No amount of ingested lemon balm plant material will heal a person whose roots have totally stopped, and completely given up on seeking nutrients. It may kick start the body's engine, but it's only through re-cultivating the personal soil and learning how to stand tall and proud again that a depressed person will truly thrive.

Learning to see beyond the material world is a way to experience true health. Health beyond the immediate body symptoms or emotional ups and downs. The plants can be a guide for us. Watch them, take their medicine. And be well.

* This post originally appeared here.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Buddha Transfigures


Photo credit: noesis from morguefile.com

Transfigure is an interesting word.

to give a new and typically exalted or spiritual appearance to : transform outwardly and usually for the better

In a way, it sounds like another attempt to lie. To deceive. When I saw that definition, an imagine of a friend of mine sitting with a plastic smile on her face during an event she didn't want to attend arose immediately. That smile was about hiding; she told me as much.

But when I reflect on transfigure further, it brings to mind the ritual of placing one's robe on before meditation. The rakusu, the kesa - they symbolize the buddha within, and the way of being a buddha in the "outer" world. (Outer and inner are really just distinctions of the relative world.) Placing the rakusu on my head, I chant the following, and then unfold it and place it around my neck.

How great, this robe of liberation
a formless field of merit,
wrapping ourselves in Buddha's teachings
we free all living beings.

The rakusu is just a piece of sewn cloth, and yet if you look at that verse, it's also a transfiguring. Ordinary being to Buddha. With nothing excluded.

In my life currently, I don't particularly like

the slow speed at which my new professional life is unfolding
the often not knowing what exactly needs to be done next
the awkwardness of being a non-driver in car-centric culture
the desire for light in this mostly dark time of year
the conflict avoidance I still give into sometimes
the attachment to political views and anger that sometimes comes from it
the way fears can keep you from taking the important leaps

but putting on that rakusu is an act of transfiguring all of that, without any agenda. It's moves all of this, as well as anything I think is a wonderful or beneficial part of who I am, beyond good and bad, beyond needs of removing or enhancing.

And I can put that rakusu on in every moment if I choose to - but more often than not, I simply don't choose to. The physical object need not be there to evoke the spirit of it.

How do you work with delinquent qualities? Certainly, many of you reading this blog could say meditation, but what a pat answer that would be. All of this I've seen about the rakusu is from my meditation practice, from putting it on my neck over and over again. But it's not just that. Caring for the details of life is an intimate, original practice, different each and every time.