Thursday, December 31, 2009

More on Funding Dharma Organizations in the 21st Century

Like many other Buddhist bloggers, I have a lot of issues with the way Genpo Roshi from Salt Lake City, Utah is promoting his Big Mind work. John's current post at Sweep the Dust,Push the Dirt addresses Genpo's recent interview on Buddhist Geeks, as well as makes some comments about the board of directors for the Big Mind Center. I felt compelled to respond to the issue of funding dharma organizations, given my current position and experience.

Here's my response, for the record:

Well, I have to out myself as the Board President of my sangha. It’s been an interesting experience, focusing on finances and future goals for a Zen community. Our community membership is probably about 130 households right now – the largest in Minnesota, but not terribly big. We have nothing like the Big Mind Center in terms of “products” for sale, and our marketing is very small scale (sometimes even too small). Spending three years on the board has shown me the great complications that come with financing dharma institutions in capitalist countries that have no history of dana or giving to such organizations.

One of my main issues with Genpo and others like him is that they are giving into the view that it’s in our best interest to go along with the global capitalist approach, and somehow, the dharma will just manifest for people if we just use the tools of capitalism to sell it. This is an absolute failure to address both the huge amounts of suffering being produced by this system, as well as the fact that many Buddhist teachings run completely against the grain of a for profit system.

We have to do our best to work within this system, while also challenging the sickness of it all. That’s my view. And because of this, there’s going to be some quandaries when it comes to funding. Do you take money from a questionable source if it means keeping the doors open? What strings attached are ok, and which aren’t? How do you fund an organization through a Buddhist lens in a country that is mostly non-Buddhist?

A few years ago, I actually looked at a grant from the Lenz Foundation for our sangha, not knowing a lot about his history at that time. There was something off about it to me, so I didn’t suggest that our board pursue it. There has been a lot of talk about Tricycle magazine accepting money from the Lenz Foundation, and I agree this is somewhat troubling. However, they have also helped fund the following organizations during the past 8 years: Upaya Zen Center, Zen Hospice Project, Naropa University, Prison Dharma Network, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and Great Mountain Zen Center. They’re also considering a grant for the Insight Meditation Center, among others.

The problem is that there aren’t very many places to go for Buddhist organizations to go to for outside funds. I think we need a national Buddhist funding body, with regional affiliates – this is one idea I’ve had anyway. Because as it is now, the Big Mind approach is kind of attractive if you ignore the impact of giving into the drives of “the shadows.” And if you’ve reject that approach, then you end up taking a look at things like the Lenz Foundation. Or you hobble along like my center does, breaking even or losing some money each year, and hoping to get enough membership money and class payments to make it to the next year. Our center is probably more fortunate than many others in that we have a lot of talented people donating time and effort into making things continue, and we also have a small, but excellent staff group. However, even that isn't enough, and we've headed into strategic planning land, hoping to discover some alternative funding ideas.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Idealizing the Spiritual Life

Arun has an excellent post about perceptions of monastics by people outside of the monastery - which includes most of us here in the Buddhist blogosphere. The post addresses a monk in China was was photographed while on a caster board - which looks like a skateboard. Some observers have been shocked. Others suggest that Buddhism has been corrupted by modern influences. Arun points out the following:

The criticism here stems from misplaced perceptions of monkhood. As a spokesperson for the skateboarding* monk’s temple put it: “People get their impressions from TV or movies, where monks are praying all day long, without any motivation or desire […] But these days monks also enjoy sports like badminton, table tennis and skateboarding in the spare time, as well as praying. They even use the internet and mobile phones to promote Buddhism. This is not contradictory to Buddhism but actually is part of the Buddhist spirit.”

As modern Buddhists practicing an ancient religion, the contradiction blossoms when we expect ourselves to be modern, but our religion ancient.

I personally think it's kind of boneheaded to assume that monks, nuns, or anyone is going to spend their entire lives just sitting in meditation and/or studying sutras. I'm guessing that even old Bodhidharma, who reportedly sat for 9 years in a cave, probably had a bit of fun in his day.

Although it may seem completely unrelated, Uku's current post points to a reality that a lot of us forget when it comes to how we view so-called "spiritual" people - namely, that they've very much as human as the rest of us.

Yesterday and last evening and last night I had quite nasty vomiting disease with nice diarrhea (shits) and when I now say something, I'm sounding like Bonnie Tyler. Throat feels baaaaad.

Although feeling like shit (literally) can makes us feel lousy, those situations can also be very educational, we can learn something new from them. Our mind and body are one and when I had to shit, I had to shit. When I had to puke, I had to puke. There's no way to escape that fact. Sometimes life is not so happy and Buddhist practice can help us to deal with these awful situations.

I like that Uku just says it in all its messiness - shitting and puking. Who amongst us hasn't spent time consumed by these activities? When you reflect on that monk in China, who was probably out just enjoying the day, is he somehow immune from the messiness of the body simply because he's a monk?

Even though it's only speculation on my part, I kind of suspect the same kind of thought process that leads us to believe in superhuman, robotic spiritual images of monastics are behind the millions of dollars being sunk into get enlightened quick programs, especially ones that also tell people they can get rich in the process. The issue of Bill Harris' Holosync program, which is supposed to allow a person to "meditate deeper than a Zen monk at the push of a button!” is one such example. Here is a post about Harris' recent threats to sue a blogger who wrote a piece criticizing Harris and Holosync. Maybe people are benefiting from Harris' expensive programs, but going to a level of defense of said programs that includes threatening lawsuits on individual bloggers should make anyone question the goals and intentions behind them.

Going Back to the bigger point, when you look at the thought processes behind both of these issues, there seems to be a lot of similarities. Wanting to get enlightened quickly, and have that enlightenment be a ticket to riches, is a complete idealization of the spiritual life itself. Behind it is an assumption that, to use a line from the capitalist board game Monopoly, all we have to do is pass Go to collect our enlightenment. And once enlightened, we'll be showered with an ability to see through walls, stop our shit from smelling, and make buckets and buckets of money. Seeing monks and nuns as people who never have fun, who are always serious, and are beyond things like making mistakes is just another take of the same kind of idealistic nonsense.

Here are some wonderful lines from Sokei-an Sasaki that point at the nature of perceptions and our suffering from believing in mistaken perceptions:

"Samsara - I could not understand it! Then one day I took my dog to the beach; he barked at the waves as they rolled in on the beautiful ocean strand. I realized that all this was reflected in the mind of my dog; he felt it in the dog's samsara - and expressed it."

Woof! Woof! May you see through your delusions.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Institutional Buddhist Priorities?

Thanks to Nella Lou over at Smiling Buddha Cabaret for bringing to my attention a wonderful article about a Zen priest working with homeless people in San Francisco. This kind of getting off the cushion and back into the world practice is exactly what we need more of here in the usually pretty affluent North American Buddhist world. What struck me, though, were the following lines in the article:

For an ordained Soto Zen Buddhist priest, Jana Drakka is stressed out.

“How do I live as a monk out here? I can’t beg as a monk would traditionally,” Drakka said recently outside the Royan, a single room occupancy hotel on Valencia Street where she does grief counseling.

“Japanese monks are supported by the community. The Catholic Church takes care of their nuns.” She paused to consider that luxury. “I have to make a meditative effort to not worry about rent.”

The article states that Reverend Drakka received $10,000 from San Francisco Zen Center, but that they also required her to sign a contract saying she'd never ask them for more money to support her work with the homeless. She commented on the article that she still has a good working relationship with Zen Center, has been setting up a non-profit organization, and is doing well. However, all of this makes me wonder about the larger focus and future of Buddhist institutions here in North America.

Maybe it's absolutely appropriate that Reverend Drakka started her own organization; I don't know the details of the story enough to say otherwise. In their defense, San Francisco Zen Center has done a lot of work in the community over the years. Barry over at Ox Herding just reminded me of this, some of which I already knew about. You can check out more here).

Yet, even with this, I still wonder about Reverend Drakka's work. Was it too edgy for the Zen Center? Is it only about doing "safe" projects like teaching meditation in prisons or handing out food for the homeless that will count when it comes to North American convert institutions? Both of those examples are valuable work, and I support them whole-heartedly. However, neither are really all that dangerous to the institution's public persona. In other words, while progressive church communities in the U.S. and Canada take up dicey issues like social justice for undocumented immigrants, or fighting to help people keep their homes and change predatory housing practices - such as subprime mortgages - you rarely hear of "convert" Buddhist communities taking up issues like this. The Zen Hospice Project, which started at San Francisco Zen Center during the worst years in terms of the U.S. public perception of AIDS patients, is an exception. And yet, that program was only part of Zen Center for 5 years before it, like Reverend Drakka's efforts, became an independent non-profit.

There is a perception among some that American Buddhists, especially those of us "convert" Buddhists, are mostly in the practice for ourselves. The view is that we like to meditate, study texts, be nice to each other, but that we aren't very generous, nor all the interested, collectively, in working to make the lives of others better. It's a stereotype, and one based on ill informed opinions for the most part. But there might be some truth lurking around in it.

I know people personally who are working in Christian communities on difficult issues, and their churches have decided that it's more important to try and address the suffering around them, than to be a part of a church that just has a "good" public image and does non-confrontational service projects. This, I think, was the more specific point I wanted to make about San Francisco Zen Center, which I had unfairly criticized as not being involved in the community enough. Barry's right that they could be used as an example of a sangha that puts money and time behind their talk about liberating all beings. But are they, and many of the rest of us, ignoring or opting out of addressing head-on some of the myriad of socially created sufferings out there?

This is really part of a larger issue for all Buddhist communities in the "West" - namely, how to finance our practice and what to do with the money we do have. When priests and lay teachers have to have second jobs, and projects like doing meditation and counseling in homeless communities are left to a few brave people who are willing to risk going broke themselves, we're kind of in trouble. And, on the flip side, you have teachers like Genpo Roshi running around saying things like the following:

"what I heard from a lot of very wealthy people was they’ve always felt that the shadow around money in Zen and Buddhist communities meant they would give a lot of money, if they had a lot of money, and I’ve known people with that, and never be properly thanked or, more importantly, anything given to them that was meaningful."

This is from a long, rather irritating interview with Vince Horn from the Buddhist Geeks, during which Genpo defends the extravagant fund raising projects his community in Salt Lake City has undertaken. One thing you can say about Genpo - he's raising a lot of money and his community has the resources to do something. However, I highly question the emphasis he seems to place on "properly" thanking wealthy people for their gifts, while not really talking at all about the gifts - material or otherwise - given by people who have less financial means. Everyone should receive gratitude, from the wealthiest member to the poorest of the poor.

At the same time, if you are wealthy, the act of giving money or buildings or whatever should be enough - in fact, that act is supporting one's practice of letting go, of giving freely, without attachment. And if you're like me, with not a whole lot of money available, it's still the same. You give time, and a little money when you can, as both an act of generosity to others, but also as a means of letting go of self-centeredness. Wanting to be thanked in a certain way, and catering to that need, only supports the very self-centeredness our practice is trying to root out.

I don't know what the future will bring - maybe the whole institutional Buddhist project will just collapse and we'll all be free floating with others who have left institutional religion. That might be just fine. All of institutional religion might just collapse - I've considered this as a definite possibility over the years. And that might be fine as well.

In the meantime, we really need to consider what we're doing with our institutions, why we're forming and funding them, and how they embody the teachings of our practice. One thing I have considered is that maybe some of the work we want to do will have to be done independent of our spiritual organizations, as was the case for the Zen Hospice Project. But all of it? And what about using the institutional power of our spiritual organizations to help society make more difficult changes that might actually reduce the need for some of those food shelves or some of those prison sanghas?

I keep going back to the fact that if the not so large Catholic Church a friend of mine goes to, a community that isn't exactly gaining in new membership, is willing to publicly challenge the city government, and the federal government over it's use of low-income housing moneys, then why can't some of us Buddhist communities do the same? Why is it that this kind of "outreach" is left to underfunded organizations like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, which I've long liked, but know can't possibly do it alone?

Maybe a lot of this has to do with the struggle to develop and maintain something long term and sustainable. That when it comes to money, most North American Buddhist
organizations are looking to buying buildings, propping up their meditation and Buddhist studies programming, and doing what they can to support their staff. This is understandable, and needed, but I think it's kind of a fallacy to assume that community outreach and/or activism can and will come later.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Heaviness of Being Involved

In doing a little bit of research in the Pali Canon for teachings directed at lay people, I can across the following little Sutta from the Udana. I'm definitely still feeling my way around these original teachings; they just don't get a lot of direct attention in the modern Zen context, which is a great shame in my opinion.

Upasaka Sutta: The Lay Follower
translated from the Pali by
Thanissaro Bhikkhu

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi, in Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's monastery. Now at that time a certain lay follower from Icchanangalaka had arrived in Savatthi on some business affairs. Having settled his affairs in Savatthi, he went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, "At long last you have managed to come here."

"For a long time I have wanted to come see the Blessed One, lord, but being involved in one business affair after another, I have not been able to do so."

Then, on realizing the significance of that, the Blessed One on that occasion exclaimed:
How blissful it is, for one who has nothing who has mastered the Dhamma, is learned. See how they suffer, those who have something, people bound in body with people.

How does one respond to this? Do you feel, as I did upon first reading this, a sense of being put down for being a lay person involved in the world? Maybe you didn't.

What's interesting though is this issue of "having something" and "having nothing." It seems to point towards a way of living in the world which transcends the monastic/lay divide.

If you take a look at the lay practitioner in the story, he first speaks of having been "involved in one business affair after another" - the busy mind, and accompanying busy life that most of us know so well. And the world involved is important, I think, as well.


1. Complicated; intricate: the involved procedure of getting a license. See synonyms at complex.
2. Curled inward; coiled or involute.
3. Confused; tangled.
4. Connected by participation or association: involved in a conspiracy.
a. Emotionally committed: He joined their organization but never really got involved.
b. Having a sexual relationship: They see a lot of each other but aren't involved.

Given the above, we can view a person who is "involved" as one that has something that holds them back from embodying their life completely. When I worry about the future, I have something. When I wallow in guilt or anger about the past, I have something. When I'm overly concerned about the business of the day, whatever it is, then I have something. When I'm chasing after peak experiences, profound conversations, peaceful meditations, or even basic comfort, I have something.

Contrast this to the person who arrives and bows before the Buddha. The words the Buddha greets him with suggests a waiting that has come to an end. As if Buddha was waiting for this guy to return, and he finally has. Almost like the koan question "What did your face look like before your parents were born?"

When I pay enough attention, there's often a sort of longing for some kind of resolution in my life. Yes, sometimes to surface issues, but more so a desire that seems to be like this story, prodding me on towards a return. And yet, I know all too well how heavy my load can get, how easily I get caught up in collecting somethings like a backwards Santa Claus. Much more than actual things: I'm fairly minimalist when it comes to owning stuff. But when it comes to things like responsibilities, desired accomplishments, future plans and ideas, wanting to be liked and not wanting to be disliked, I've got a nice bag full of somethings.

It's kind of like being the car in the photo above - you have to make a lot of effort just to shovel your way out from the place you are stuck at. And anyone living in the middle of the U.S. who had to dig out after this week's snowstorm knows how heavy that stuff was!

The Buddha's words seem to point at both of the issues above - the physical stuff we get and attach to, and the ways in which our mind wraps to tightly around, squeezing the moment for some juice that not only isn't there, but doesn't need to be there. Far from condemning lay people, the Buddha's words are a confirmation of our ability to return to our lives completely and fully.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Buddhism is like a Toothache

The following is from a talk given by Sokei-an Sasaki at the First Zen Institute of America in the winter of 1942. You can read the entire talk here, and you can learn more about Sasaki in my post from a few days ago.

Someone said Buddhism is like a toothache. When you are attracted by Buddhism, you go to the temple, listen to the monks' lectures, give up your pleasure and time, buy books, bring them home, read them without sleeping, spend your life, ten, fifteen, twenty years and, in the end realize: 'I was alright in the beginning, there was nothing to gain.' Well, the toothache is over, isn't it? When the tooth is aching, you run amuck, but when the pain is removed, you just smile to yourself: 'It is over.' I feel the same way. I went through such terrific agony studying this Zen; I lost everything I had and gained nothing. But this 'gained nothing' is wonderful. I am satisfied.

Don't know about you, but there's still a fair amount of gaining mind floating about here. Thinking like "What will come if I do this?" Seems pretty natural to want something to come from your actions. Especially to want something beneficial to come from what you do. And I think we have to steer ourselves in a beneficial direction, even if we ultimately have to give up any notion of benefiting ourselves and/or others.

What is so interesting is this "I was alright in the beginning." Very deceptive, isn't it? When I think back on the guy who stumbled into the zen center back in 2002, he was kind of a mess. Often cranky. Somewhat rigid in views. Anger flare ups. Excessive longing for a romantic relationship. Directionless. How much of that has changed, I don't know. Maybe not very much. But something seems to have shifted during these years of practice, and whatever that is, there's markedly less time and energy that I waste wallowing in various states of suffering.

But variants on that statement crops up all the time in Buddhist teachings and, sometimes, I just don't believe it. If I was alright in the beginning, then why bother making any changes? Why bother with all this Zen stuff?

Gain and loss are two of the Eight Worldly Winds. When you drop your stubborn fixed views of these two, you start to see how fleeting they both are. Today's gain is tomorrow's loss. And tomorrow's loss is the next day's gain.

When I was nearing the end of my classes for grad school, I was called into the office at my elementary school job and told I would be laid off at the end of the year. It had been a good year working there; I liked the kids and the classroom teachers I worked with a lot. I felt I had done a good job, and so did the principal. However, the other teaching assistant had seniority, so I was out - the budget couldn't support two of us.

For awhile, I felt bad about loosing this job. And then it dawned on me: I'm about to start writing my master's thesis. It was perfect timing to be unemployed. So, I spent the next several months working on my master's thesis, before finally getting a new job the next spring.

However, I can look back at that "gain" and recognize another level of loss within it. That school job was the last time I had health insurance. Neither of the employers I've worked for since then have offered insurance benefits. And both jobs have paid just enough to live decently on, but not really enough to pay for an insurance plan that actually covers anything.

So it goes. You can examine any event in your life, and see both gain and loss floating in and out like leaves. Even that which you stick the labels on - no insurance, time for writing - doesn't really care about those labels. They are your mind's article of clothing, not at all really penetrating what's actually occurring.

What is gain? What is loss? Good questions to ponder while on the path.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

20 Actions Towards Peace in the World

There's been a lot of discussion on Brad Warner's blog about war and peace since he made some comments suggesting war is a solution that "works" in the world sometimes. His latest post, which has nothing to do with war, has broken out in another war/peace debate. I've grown tired of the myriad of defenses of war, as well as the "let's all just get along" kind of counter arguments. I'd rather do my best to embody non-violence in the world, and let the chips fall as they will.

In response to all the banter, and a few people asking what to do about war, I wrote the following list, impromptu, of possible peaceful actions. Please feel free to add more, or disagree, or whatever. Peace to you all this holiday season.

1. Be kind to a stranger. Many strangers.

2. Stop watching hours of TV and believing the stories about our supposed "enemies" coming to get "us."

3. Do Metta meditation for yourself, your friends and family, the community, nation and world.

4. Get out in your community, volunteer, help build organizations that address systemic poverty, racism, classism, and all the other isms that are destroying lives and leading to wars.

5. To those who think state-sanctioned warfare (very different from an individual defending himself/herself) is somehow necessary, admit to yourself that you might be wrong.

6. To those who are pacifists, or non-violent actionists, remember that brow beating and inflamed arguing that condemns others is also a form a violence.

7. Raise your children in non-violent ways, and teach them how to solve conflicts without violence.

8. Stop defending the past.

9. Go out of your way to read about people and groups doing peace-promoting actions.

10. Join those groups, or talk to those people, and learn what they're doing and how it might be effective.

11. Stop using the sutras, the Bible, the Koran, or any other spiritual text to defend warfare.

12. Learn all you can from veterans of war. Even if you disagree with their views of it, you can learn a lot about what happens to people in actual combat.

13. Stop believing in enemies coming to get you, even if there might be people who want to kill people like you.

14. Use your imagination to see a world without war, and how we might get there, knowing it's not going to happen anytime soon. (i.e. put that vow to liberate all beings into action in your mind first, and then work from what vision comes, letting go of all possibility of fruition.)

15. Stop thinking you have all the answers, and that nothing will ever change.

16. Do your best, but don't assume that anything you do will ultimately help.

17. Love the one(s) your with. Right now.

18. Use civil disobedience, wisely.

19. Don't assume that any vision you'll ever have of a peaceful world is what it is. Visions, like teachings, are only pointers.

20. Disagree with others passionately, but kindly.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Throw Yourself into the Great Universe

"The power of knowing actually performing within us is Buddha. This is our God. We worship this. We do not bow down to worship this Buddha. We meditate upon it. We do not call it's name; we do not look up into the sky or peep down into the earth to find it. It is in us ... just sit down and meditate. Throw yourself into the great universe. Don't put a little tag "I" on yourself. Peel the label off and throw yourself into the great universe."

Shigetsu Sasaki (1882 - 1945), also known as Sokei-an, was the first Zen master to settle permanently in America, eventually landing in New York and founding the First Zen Institute of America in 1930. His work is overshadowed by the more popular later Zen teachers like Suzuki and Katagiri, but I think it's worth going back to the those who came to the U.S. long before the word Zen became popular with hippies, dropouts, and literary folks. Sokei-an also was one of over 120,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants interned in camps by the U.S. government during World War II. In fact, his health weakened during the time he spent in the camps, and it's possible this valuable early 20th century Zen teacher's life was shorted by the terrible injustice of internment.

What energy his words have. "Throw yourself" into it - this life! I can almost hear him saying "don't be half-assed," too! And drop any notions about an "I" who is doing all this. It's not there. A great reminder for sure.

Check out the archive of newsletters with Sokei-an lectures in them on the website above for more.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sangha? What's Sangha?

John over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt has a very thought provoking post about sangha that I want to take a closer look at. As one of the Triple Treasures of Buddhism, sangha, or community, has been viewed by some as the most important aspect of the practice, and is often something we North Americans have trouble with. Independence. Individualism. Do it MY way. Yes. Community. Collectivity. Shared Responsibility. Not so much.

But what is sangha anyway? Does it mean having an actually group of people you are a part of? An in the flesh Buddhist community that you belong to and practice with? Or is that simply one way to look at it?

I've heard sangha defined in a number of ways. Here are a few of them:

1. a community of Buddhist monks and/or nuns

2. a group of Buddhist practitioners who practice together

3. a group of spiritual friends

4. all beings everywhere

So, in some ways, what sangha is depends on how you view it. And yet, I also think that it's trouble to simply leap to something like definition #4 and say you don't need sangha 'cause you already have it. Yes, it's true that sangha is everywhere. But no, I don't think that means that everything will be just fine if you choose to rumble off on your own into the forest with your little Jeep full of spiritual teachings. Might work for a few tough bastards ready to face themselves, but most of us can't hack it alone on a mountain top.

However, what does sangha mean now that we've landed in the digital age? Are people online a sangha? Can you consider someone writing to you half way across the world on a computer your spiritual friend? Well, didn't Buddhists of old consider others who wrote them letters that took a month or two to get to them spiritual friends? I think yes, but at the same time, we better be careful!

Here is John's wonderful description of himself: "I am a Zen Buddhist practitioner from the humble stretches of the South Jersey lowlands who is currently an expatriate to the Great Plains of South Dakota – Buddhist Purgatory." South Dakota. Not exactly a place where you would expect to find a lot of "brick and mortar" Buddhist communities, or even any Buddhists at all. Although the vast expanses of the plains, and the ruggedness of the Black Hills, seem like ideal settings to work with teachings of emptiness, great compassion, and radical liberation - Buddhist centerpieces.

The question of location, though, is important when considering sangha. If you don't live near an actual Buddhist group, then what do you do? John, responding to a comment made to him about his practice, writes:

I live in South Dakota. So it is a moot point. Those same monasteries put their own dogmatic spin on the Dharma and expect the attendees to follow it. Not my point anyway. Shall I travel to San Fran or Upstate NY to be a “real” Buddhist? Not an option.

Yeah, there's something smug about people who insist that Buddhism is only a practice for people in an established Buddhist center and/or monastery. It seems to fly in the face of "unaffiliated" Buddhists that have existed, and continue to exist, as lone ranger like pilgrims. The Chinese mountain hermits come quickly to mind as one example.

Yet, we North Americans are very fond of everything "do it yourself" precisely because we get to choose how to do whatever it is. The trouble is that when it comes to spiritual practice, "do it yourself" is the gateway to spiritual materialism. Not always, but often.

Any large Organization Buddhist group that I have sat with eventually put restrictions on practice. Some more so than others but there was always a “right” and “wrong” way.

John's definitely poking into one of main problems with organized religion: it's tendency to fossilize around a set of rules and regulations that often places troubling limits on individual practice and spiritual understanding. And when you've lived through some organizational scandals, or have felt a great lack of support from a spiritual community, then it can be difficult to see how a well functioning group can propel your life in amazing ways. (I'd say the same is true of a poorly functioning group, but you have be open in a different way to access those gifts.)

So, if "do it yourself" is filled with pitfalls, and organized groups are often limiting, then what? What's the middle way?

Here's what John says about his "sangha":

My Sangha is made up partly by my “online” friends (those fair-weather ones you described). They support and question my practice. We communicate daily concerning the difficulties inherit in our practice. We don’t always agree but we spend plenty of time working though the tough parts.

My sitting group also helps but to define Buddhist practice by commitment to a group is limiting. If a sangha is simply showing up then I “show up” every morning and occasionally in the evenings. My meditation bell is the sound of my daughter waking up. My sangha is my family and friends and my temple is my house and work. I try to never leave my Sangha and exist with it from day to day. For better or for worse.

I've heard the line about "showing up" before. One of the senior members of my "brick and mortar" sangha here in St. Paul says that all the time. "Just show up." But he often means show up here at the center. Stop wanting it to be in your own way. And while you're at it, help out around here a bit!

I'm with him to a certain extent. As the leader of our center's board, I know better than most how much volunteer energy is needed to keep a spiritual community with over 100 members going. And because I have subordinated some of my "do it my way" energy in order to serve the larger community in various ways, as well as practice with the community in the way set by the community's leaders, I know what benefit can come from that. The limitations can eliminate unnecessary choices. Pointless diversions. Ego-tripping games.

When you have to run a board meeting, or commit to teach 2nd and 3rd graders about meditation, the "I think I'll sleep in this morning" mind gets overridden. You don't let thoughts like "I'll do my practice after the football game" allow you to stay home, watch the football game, and then come up with a new excuse afterward because you had too many nachos, and now have a stomachache. Sure, one can make commitments like this in other ways, without an "in the flesh" practice community. But there's a built-in check and balance system available to anyone that serves in their spiritual community, one different from that of, for example, one's family. Taking care of one's family is an immense practice, very important, and yet it's probably not enough when it comes to deepening one's life in a holistic way. And when it comes to Buddhism, if you view your family as your main or only sangha, what do you do with the teaching of home-leaving? This is not simply a question for monks and nuns who actually give up attachments to family and home; it really applies to us all on the path in some way or another.

My practice is not defined by a place that I pop into once or twice a week. Nor is it defined by the people there. My practice is defined by the only one doing the practicing. Namely me. It is defined by where I am at that moment. Home, work, in the car, alone or with others.

Hmm, the first thing I notice about this paragraph is how much the words me, my, and I appear in it.

My practice is defined by the only one doing the practicing. Namely me. It is defined by where I am at that moment. Home, work, in the car, alone or with others.

I cannot help but think of these often quoted lines from Dogen:

"To study the Buddha Dharma is
to study the self.
To study the self is
to forget the self.
To forget the self is
to be confirmed by the ten thousand things."

Somehow, John's view of practice, as well as most of our views of practice - mine included - tend to feel backward when you put them up to the light of Dogen's teaching. There's little or no space to allow ourselves to be "confirmed" by the world, by all of life, because we are too busy filling ourselves up with our selves.

Too often organizational Buddhism creates far more focus on the finger than the moon. This is not to say that organized Buddhism is bad but from my experience I felt more limited in that environment. For me it was a poor “sangha” indeed. People rather throw quotes around that they heard from their teacher than to think and analyze the Dharma for themselves.

The simple fact is that when I tried to explore Buddhist practice beyond Zen in those places, it was largely ignored or belittled. I realized quickly that small and grass-roots is a better approach to practice and the Dharma.

Small and grassroots - yes, that's pretty good. I like that idea. And yet, what happens when, collectively, you hit a wall? Or what happens when everyone is in similar places, or has very similar views? One of the reasons I love the online Buddhist community - and I think it is a community, if one with a different structure that what we tend to think of when we think community - is that you have people from all over the world, with different geographical, cultural, political, and social lives, and with very different approaches to the same spiritual teachings, coming together. It's hard to keep a diverse group like that together in real life, which speaks to how hard it is for us humans to have healthy communities that are truly diverse. And yet, I think that without some diversity of views, approaches, and life experiences, any group will just get stuck at a certain point. So, small and grassroots might mean a lot of similar people who don't propel each other to examine their lives more deeply. Or it might mean a lot of people with very different lives and views, but who all like the idea of free formed practice and individual autonomy. It's actually really helpful for me, a person who tends toward the autonomy and freethinking, to be part of a community that has people in it who often emphasize the "rules," "forms," and giving one's self over to group practice.

So, given all this, what's sangha anyway? I think maybe we have to let go of any one form of sangha being it. In fact, even though I think certain forms might be more helpful than others, form itself might not be the most important issue.

When it comes down to it, sangha kind of has to be that which wears down the heavy emphasis on the self. Anything that helps drop off the death grip on me, myself, and I. The many colored waters that polish us, lead us back to the home we never really left, but always seem to miss when looking for it.

p.s. The photo is of my ESL class and I during a trip to the State Capitol last summer. Yet another form of sangha.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Peace Grannies and War Toys

I have to say, I'm a sucker for unconventional acts of civil disobedience that draw attention to important issues. We in the U.S. have now spent most of the decade having a pair of imperialistic wars sold, spun, and soft pedaled to us by a pair of supposed leaders. Well, I never have bought into any of the plethora of defenses for our continued aggressions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and neither, I'm guessing, have the Peace Grannies. I don't know about you, but when it comes to issues of war and peace, both at a macro level and a micro level, I have a hell of a lot more faith in the views of grandmothers and great grandmothers than in the pack of pundits, politicians, and military politicos who lead the nation into war. Sure, not every grandmother is going to "stand for peace," like the women in the Granny Peace Brigade do, but I think you'd be hard pressed find enough war positive grandmothers to fill a room, even a small room. Maybe I'm wrong about this, but from what I have seen, the experience of living as a woman on this planet for several decades seems to be enough for most to shatter the stories about warfare as a force for good in the world. Even World War II - the ultimate when it comes to debate about "just warfare" - doesn't seem to hold up really well when it comes to conversations with women who lived during that time. Again, they might believe it was the only thing that could have been done, but there's not much of the glorifying and genuflecting that men seem to do about the same conflict. Maybe I live in a bubble, but this has been my experience anyway.

So, the Granny Peace Brigade is currently "invading" stores selling war-flavored toys in order to highlight a link between childhood play and adult militarism. Here's an article about the campaign, which begins with the following paragraph:

Weary Brooklyn Christmas shoppers were unexpectedly entertained on Friday afternoon, Dec. 18, when a troupe of approximately 20 Granny Peace Brigade members and Raging Grannies sang revised Christmas carols condemning war toys at the TARGET Store in Flatbush's Atlantic Shopping Center simultaneously with a serious demonstration against the toxic playthings. This was the second protest in the grannies' recently-launched campaign called "NO MORE WAR TOYS, NO MORE WARS."

Now, you might think all of this is silly. Or maybe you disagree with the link between war-themed toys and adult beliefs and behavior. Or maybe you're pissed at me for messing with the military. But you have to admit, it's much harder to dismiss a group of elderly women speaking their minds in a public setting than any group of college students and twenty somethings that often are found populating protests.

For the record, here's the statement of Lillian Pollak, the oldest of the group at age 94, "We won't be here forever, and if we can't stop these deplorable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in our lifetime, we must at least do all within our power to convince our grandchildren that they must end the cycle of killing and waste we have been engaging in for far too long. We're determined to continue this struggle to bring back appropriate and healthy toys."

I can only hope to live as long and be as spunky as Lillian is. She's a lot more inspiring to me than anyone currently running our country.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sutra Study Alone Does Not Make a Buddha

Another commentary from The Zennist that provoked me, this time in a less positive way. The following sounds more like a fundamentalism Christian expounding on the Bible's importance than on Buddhism, even in it's strictest, most rigid approaches:

Buddhism has been accessorized to such an extent that it is almost lost its real significance. I really don’t see what purpose all the chanting and ceremonies accomplish except to dull the mind and make it unfit for direct contemplation of the Buddha Mind. It is more likely that someone will awaken to the Buddha Mind if they leave the accessories of Buddhism behind and engage with the Sutras, commentaries and treatises. At least they might come to the understanding that all of Buddhism revolves around Mind—nothing else is of importance.

Among other things, there is an undercurrent of elitism in these words I find very distasteful. This is a special brand of elitism that privileges the written word, or even words themselves, above all else. It's pretty damn funny that I, a lover of words, reading, and writing would say such a thing, but it's true. Words aren't everything.

In fact, Zen Buddhism is well known as a tradition that holds words in suspect, seeing them as missing the mark, even at their best. So, it's very odd for someone calling themselves The Zennist to place such primacy on textual studies. I say that as someone who studies Buddhist texts often, and views them as a central part of my practice. But that need not be the case, and it's foolish in my opinion to suggest that chanting, or ritual, or even Buddhist robes can't be sources of wisdom, of awakening.

Last year, I sewed a rakasu, a small robe that looks like a bib. And with each stitch, I chanted "I take refuge in Buddha." It was a powerful experience. Hundreds of stitches, and all sorts of opportunities to intimately experience the mind in action. Frustration with messing up. Irritation with noise around me. Joy at times when things were running smooth. Stories about what all this meant. Stories about what people would think of me when I was finished. Wanting to be done. Wanting to keep sewing after it was done. Wanting to cut a corner. Cutting a corner and then watching what unfolded when that screwed up the process. And on and on.

I could read and memorize a hundred sutras, and not have had this kind of intimacy. A kind of intimacy that came from embodying a form - in this case, a specific kind of sewing - and then being right there with all that came up. This isn't about disparaging the sutras - it's about pointing people away from the notion that Buddhism is about studying texts and then becoming enlightened somehow.

In my life, I've met some pretty unkind, non-compassionate people who knew a hell of a lot of spiritual texts, and could expound amazing sounding teachings. And at the same time, I've met other people who couldn't quote a single line from any spiritual text, who maybe didn't even have a high school education, and yet embodied the best teachings in their words and deeds in the world.

As far as I'm concerned, the process of "dulling the mind" The Zennist writes about can happen with anything. And I think the obsession with texts, with words as THE source of truth, is a great way to dull the mind. All the scriptural study in the world won't be worth a hill of beans if it doesn't correspond to a radical transformation in how you are in the world. If your perceptions don't shift away from self-centeredness, and if your actions don't shift towards benefiting the world around you, then who cares how many sutras you can recite, or how many commentaries you can expound upon, or even how much you have penetrated into the inherent emptiness of things?

I recall a story from Dogen's personal history that, I'm pretty sure was recounted in the Tenzo Kyokun, that speaks to this issue in a certain way. Ah, the joy of using a story from a text to speak of how the study of texts isn't everything! Anyway, Dogen stops at a certain monastery in China and is taking to some monk about the tenzo (temple cook) there, who happened to be an elderly guy. The young Dogen, who was on pilgrimage and trying to find a more vibrant form of practice, is kind of surprised to see this old guy in a role Dogen considered to be subservient. So, he asks the monk he was talking to why the old guy was the tenzo? Why the old guy wasn't sitting somewhere studying sutras and teaching? The monk told him the job of the tenzo was one of the most important jobs in any temple, and only those with a very high level of practice could be the tenzo. In fact, he basically said that anyone could sit and study sutras, but only those who had manifested the teachings in their everyday life could function well as a temple cook.

This story seems to be a pivot in Dogen's understanding of Zen, and I'd argue that even though Dogen himself was a prolific writer and definitely valued the written word, the way he saw Zen was shifted by this monk and temple cook away from textual study as the highest, or best way to practice.

In the end, even though Buddha places a lot of emphasis on studying your mind, if you extend that to everything is "in your head," it's way too heady. We have to learn to live at the dynamic pivot between the absolute and the relative worlds. When we lean too hard in either direction, you're bound to miss a lot of your life.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Consumerism Gone Wild Posts

Maybe it's because of the meetings in Copenhagen, or maybe not, but there have been a lot of posts on consumerism and/or the environment over the past few days. Here are a few worth checking out.

Vincent over at This Wonder-ful Life posted this powerpoint about bottled water. Bottled water has to be one of the biggest consumer scams of the last century. Companies like Coca Cola making billions on the life-giving source for all beings. Millions of plastic bottles being made and then tossed - creating more than one cycle of pollution in the process. And millions of people deluded into thinking that bottled water is better than tap water, when the reality is, unless there's a major contamination in your local tap source, the bottled water is no better, and might be worse, that what you drink daily.

This is an excellent post on consumerism in yoga over at the blog After the Laundry. For those of you who have, like me, written about consumerism's invasion into Buddhism, it's even worse, in my opinion, in the "Western" yoga world. From uber trendy and expensive clothes, to unnecessary props and "accessories," there's a lot of trouble in the yoga world. People still manage to wade through all that and have deep practices, for sure, but there are plenty of pitfalls for your pocketbook, as well as for your spiritual life, to be had when it comes to yoga.

Here's a blow by blow take down of both plastic and the belief that recycling will save the world. This blog is also an excellent example of someone who is doing her best to navigate the muddy waters of the modern yoga landscape in order to have a real practice.

And finally, as an art lover, this post on artists engaging the current environmental challenges was really interesting.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Santa Claus Professor and his Giant Elves

Jayarava over at his blog Jayarava's Raves wrote the following in his current post:

We also need to be very cautious about thinking that we understand the intentions of other people. Social psychologists have determined that humans are actually quite bad at guessing motivations: we can empathise, that is experience the emotions of another, but when we assign reasons for behaviour we tend to grossly under-estimate the importance of environmental interactions (including the social). This is called the Fundamental Attribution Fallacy. We assume that the individual is an entirely free agent, as we imagine ourselves to be, and in order to understand how another person could act in a particular way we try to imagine what kind of internal state (ignoring the external) might motivate us to act that way. An example very commonly encountered in online communication is where there is a perceived slight, and our first assumption is not that we have misunderstood, or that the person has communicated poorly, or that they are having a difficult time; our first assumption is that they acted maliciously because we can only imagine slighting someone if we were doing it maliciously. Online communication is often characterised by what is known as flaming - hot headed remarks and insults.

Ah, this takes me back a bit. When I was in undergraduate, I became very interested in social psychology. The merger of the personal with the collective that occurs in the work of social psychologists appealed to me greatly, and still does. Most of the learning I did in the area of social psychology, however, was done on my own, despite being in more than one class on the subject.

The social psychology professor at my little University was, to state it lightly, a character. Dressed in old tweed suits, and with full, wild-looking white beard and glasses, his appearance was more like a sophisticated Santa Claus than a professor. He was given to long, loud, and absolutely rambling lectures that almost never hit the mark, and often took turns into the bizarre. Among his frequent topics was a series of stories from his grad school days working with two giants of mid-twentieth century psychology: B.F. Skinner and Carl Rogers. Rogers, well known in psychology circles for his client centered therapy and interest in interpersonal relationship, is sometimes found as a favorite amongst spiritually-minded folks seeking a psychological framework that embraces the whole person. B.F. Skinner, on the the other hand, known for his very labratory experiment-focused work on human behavior, tends to be rejected in many circles as being limited at best.

Now, getting back to Jayarava's post, and specifically to assumptions about people and their actions, my old social psychology professor was very fond of telling us about how these two giants of mid-century psychology were not, in person, what their work suggests. Of B.F. Skinner, who seemed at times to reduce human life to a series of conditioned or conditionable responses, our professor would say he was the nicest man you've ever met. Friendly. Personable. Helpful to his students. And of Carl Rogers, whose writing sometimes gushes with connection and empathy, our professor seemed overly fond to disparage as a bitter guy who did little to help those he worked with, and who didn't really act the way he said he did as a therapist.

I have to say I was surprised the first time I heard these descriptions, and had definitely been one before that to assume the opposite about these two psychologists whose work kept coming up in nearly every psychology class I took.

What's interesting to reflect on now, though, is also how our professor underestimated the environmental factors involved when it came to his assessment. He met these two while in grad school, which is often an overly busy, sometimes not very friendly environment to begin with. Secondly, I'm pretty sure neither of these guys were his primary teacher, given that he ended up in social psychology, a departure from both Skinner and Rogers' work. Finally, there were the conditions he was experiencing at the time I heard these stories.

Having taught over 35 years by the time I landed in his class, my social psychology professor was nearing retirement age. I think both his body and mind were also ready, as was evidenced by those rambling lectures and, among other things, a vast trouble with sleeping. One semester, in particular, stands out as rather strange because of these issues. The professor was enrolled in a controlled sleep study, and had to time the amount of sleep he would get every night. He'd come into class and announce to us in his fairly deep, booming voice: "I had three hours of sleep last night. Tonight I get five." And then he'd start in on some aspect of the sleep study, or maybe something else vaguely related to whatever we happened to be studying. Skinner and Rogers were frequent subjects, and sometimes he was even able to round these tangents in such a way as to make a point with their stories that related to our class material. I often wondered what people walking by thought of the loudness coming out of that room, which most of the time only barely resembled a thought out, coherent lecture.

Despite all that, I had, and still have, a soft spot for the man. Like the image he gave us of Skinner, he was a man that, on the surface, appeared kind of scary and yet, in reality, was kind and generous. I remember entering his office one day to ask a few questions about something I was writing for class, and ending up spending at least a half an hour discussing the history of social psychology experiments with him. When he found out I actually cared about that stuff, his door was open and the conversation flowed without condescension.

Given all this, there is something deeply sad when it comes to how often we fall prey to processes like the Fundamental Attribution Fallacy. How much of life's richness is missed, and how often do we just assume we've "got it" about someone who we probably barely know or understand?

I feel fortunate that I had a taste of all this with my old professor, who now, in retirement, is traveling, gardening, and appearing as a double for Santa Claus to all those who cross his path.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Zennists, Materialism, and some Wild Fox

Everybody's favorite Buddhist text man, The Zennist, has an interesting post worth checking out today. The crux of it comes in the following paragraphs:

For a number of years I have been aware of the infiltration of materialism into Buddhism. It appears in the form of “no-self” or, for example, the questioning of rebirth and karma, or getting in bed with neuroscience which, I would argue, seems bent on a quest to reduce all psychical processes to little strands of molecules.

All this, incidentally, is the result of a serious failure of many modern Buddhists and scholars to read the canon correctly having beforehand (and I would suspect in a trance) put on blinkers to make sure they can’t read Buddhism any other way than being a form of materialism!

I can hear the groans now. More heady zen! Time for a cup of tea. I can dig it; sometimes it's me heading for that cup of tea. But I also think the above is worth considering at some point.

I like science. Some of the research being done on meditation and yoga is very fascinating, and I'm all for more awareness and intelligence when it comes to the human body. We should know our house better, don't you think?

But isn't there also, behind a lot of scientific work, a desire to pin things down, to have fixed answers about life?

And isn't it also true that the very methods of science, especially reproducible results, kind of fly against the basic teaching that life is constantly changing, and that it's folly to hope for things to stay the same?

Maybe I'm missing something. No matter what, I'd never argue to toss science out the door. It's a valid method of learning and understanding. But I have some questions about the heavy reliance on scientific results many of us seem to have.

The Zennist also brings up the questioning of the laws of karma and rebirth as an issue. It's the kind of issue that feels like taking off your boots before stepping into the swamp - a lot of us would just rather avoid it all together. Some just accept it without questioning that karma and rebirth exist. Others see it as a tack on Buddhist teaching that can be tossed off and forgotten about. Both of those positions seem faulty in my opinion.

The Buddha constantly reminded his students to try the teachings out, to not just accept or reject in your head. So, doesn't it seem like we have to, if we're serious about our practice, reflect on karma and rebirth?

Well, here's the infamous Wild Fox Koan from The Gateless Gate collection. Enjoy the ride!

Every time Baizhang, Zen Master Dahui, gave a dharma talk, a certain old man would come to listen. He usually left after the talk, but one day he remained. Baizhang asked, "Who is there?"

The man said, "I am not actually a human being. I lived and taught on this mountain at the time of Kashyapa Buddha. One day a student asked me, 'Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?' I said to him, 'No, such a person doesn't.' Because I said this I was reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. Reverend master, please say a turning word for me and free me from this wild fox body." Then he asked Baizhang, "Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?"

Baizhang said, "Don't ignore cause and effect."

Immediately the man had great realization. Bowing, he said, "I am now liberated from the body of a wild fox. I will stay in the mountain behind the monastery. Master, could you perform the usual services for a deceased monk for me?"

Baizhang asked the head of the monks' hall to inform the assembly that funeral services for a monk would be held after the midday meal. The monks asked one another, "What's going on? Everyone is well; there is no one sick in the Nirvana Hall." After their meal, Baizhang led the assembly to a large rock behind the monastery and showed them a dead fox at the rock's base. Following the customary procedure, they cremated the body.

That evening during his lecture in the dharma hall Baizhang talked about what had happened that day. Huangbo asked him, "A teacher of old gave a wrong answer and became a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. What if he hadn't given a wrong answer?"

Baizhang said, "Come closer and I will tell you." Huangbo went closer and slapped Baizhang's face. Laughing, Baizhang clapped his hands and said, "I thought it was only barbarians who had unusual beards. But you too have an unusual beard!"

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Evolving to be More Compassionate and Collaborative?

Here's an intriguing post from over at the blog Integral Options Cafe.
Research being down at UC-Berkeley is attempting to provide evidence counter to some long held assumptions about human nature. Obviously, as a Buddhist, I'm interested in these kinds of studies, precisely because they could help poke holes in narratives we think are fixed about ourselves. Yet, it's also possible that this kind of research will just replace one fixed narrative with another, which isn't really of great benefit to anyone.

The article opens with the following:

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are challenging long-held beliefs that human beings are wired to be selfish. In a wide range of studies, social scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence to show we are evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive.

I'm always wary of arguments suggesting that people are evolving into something better. And there doesn't appear to be any discussion in this particular article about longitudinal studies that would give data over decades and decades of time to help back up such claims in this case. However, even though there's a lot of conflict in the world, somehow a majority of the world's 6 billion people are at least getting along enough to not kill each other. Some hate each other. Some are on opposing sides in conflicts. And some are simply lucky enough to be out of harms reach right now. But even though far too many people feel constantly threatened, or are so poor they're starving, or are simply scrapping by despite the others around them, it stands to reason that the close proximity, combined with the lack of basic resources in many places would lead to a lot of murder and attempted murder. But somehow, most of us make it through the day, even in the most war-torn of places.

Beyond this basic issue, though, the article points out the social context for our behaviors:

"The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated," Willer said. "But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status."

"Given how much is to be gained through generosity, social scientists increasingly wonder less why people are ever generous and more why they are ever selfish," he added.

Hmm, what about venture capitalists? Power CEO's? Even rank level employees trying to "get ahead"? Our economic system doesn't really support generosity that isn't linked to some personal gain. I suppose you could argue that wealthy folks giving away millions to charity are doing so to help out and also to gain status through generosity. But isn't this just faux generosity? And if so, is it really worth aspiring to?

Now, there are plenty of social counterweights that help allow true generosity to emerge on a daily basis. Even those at the top economically, who benefit greatly from doing things to appear generous, are also overriding the greed habit to do some truly wonderful things. In other words, we all pull off being generous, which maybe supports the research being done.

What do you all think?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Our Way is Better Than Yours and Here's Why

Over at Barbara's Buddhist blog is the following post reflecting on a recent study of U.S. religious patterns and comments made about that study. This quote gives you a good idea of where she stands on the issues of both institutional religion and "free-lancers" who claim to be spiritual people:

It's currently popular to believe that all institutionalized religion is evil, and that one is better off being "spiritual" instead of "religious," which seems to mean that you free to believe whatever drifts into your head that appeals to you. And of course you are free to do that. And yes, institutionalized religion often is corrupt and annoying.

But how else do we remain connected to the visions and wisdoms of the deep past? How do we stand on the shoulders of spiritual ancestors? Without some connection to tradition, each generation re-invents the wheel, so to speak. And something very precious is lost.

Assumptions and Attachments
While I find some of Barbara's comments valid, the lumping of everyone who uses the label "spiritual, but not religious" into a group that believes in "whatever drifts into your head that appeals to you" is both arrogant and absolutely false. As I reflect further on the statements above, I also see both assumptions and attachments behind them. First, there is an assumption that people who are not part of a religious institution are basically flaky. And behind that assumption is a broader view that people in general are too weak and fickle to really ever dig deeply into the spiritual truths of this world. Why else would she, or anyone else, be so quick to condemn everyone that is unattached to an established religious institution?

The way I see it, behind these assumptions is a pair of attachments. First, there is a clinging to the view that institutions are, even with their warts, the best way to keep the wisdom of the past in circulation. And second, there is an attachment to some form of purity and preservation of that purity. In other words, we gotta keep all that New Age crap from contaminating our precious Buddhist institutions. Kind of sounds like boogyman talk to me.

The Five D's
What I find so fascinating is how much "ink" is given over to discussing, debating, defining, and then declaring divisions. These people are "this;" those people are "that." This group is on the path. That group is totally deluded. The pairing of categories with value judgments is especially where, in my opinion, we get in trouble.

Barbara seems to fall on the "institutional religion" side is the best. But I have no interest in just sitting here and picking on Barbara. I'm guessing if every one of you took a look at your own views, you'd have a certain leaning that dominates the others. Some, for example, fall into the "rational," or the let's strip anything that sounds supernatural out of Buddhism approach. Still others fall into the "spiritual, but not religious" approach to Buddhism, claiming Buddhism is more a way of life than a religion. These are terribly sloppy categories themselves, and no one fits neatly into any of them. Which is exactly my point: attempting to parse people and/or groups into clear-cut categories to use for praise or condemnation is next to impossible.

What is being argued for anyway?
Here's a particularly interesting section of Barbara's post:
for both Christianity and Buddhism, their greatest power and value is found in what sets them apart. For Christians, that would be their devotion and faith in Jesus. For Buddhists, it is the realization of prajna -- wisdom -- and compassion. But in prajna, all sacred others, including God, fall away. So, a genuinely 50-50 blend of these two religions requires muting the very parts of them that are most important, most transformative.

For this reason, maintaining the integrity of Buddhism and what it teaches is very important to me. I do not insist that everyone convert it it; just don't dump it into that New Age Spirituality stew.

I completely agree with her that the power of religious and spiritual traditions lies in their differences. People have different makeups, different backgrounds, different needs. Thus, it's important not to just morph everything into some world religion for all, and then assume that everyone will find the truths of this life through that.

But then there is this issue of "maintaining the integrity of Buddhism." What exactly does this mean? Is the zen community I read about in Brazil that has replaced the Japanese mokugyo with an indigenous instrument for their ceremonies destroying the integrity of Buddhism? Or did the same community destroy it when they incorporated elements of Brazilian folk spiritualism into their practice? Or, lets go back further. Did Dogen fail to preserve the integrity of Buddhism when he rejected nearly everything he saw in Japanese Zen and placed emphasis on zazen above all else?

Let's take a look at the meanings of integrity. Here's the entry from Webster's Online Dictionary.

Main Entry: in·teg·ri·ty
Pronunciation: \in-ˈte-grə-tē\
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English integrite, from Middle French & Latin; Middle French integrité, from Latin integritat-, integritas, from integr-, integer entire
Date: 14th century

1 : firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values : incorruptibility
2 : an unimpaired condition : soundness
3 : the quality or state of being complete or undivided

So, which of these meanings is Barbara pointing to? I'm not really sure. Incorruptibility seems pretty impossible when it comes to institutions over the long haul, religious or secular. How about being complete or undivided? Sounds nice, but by whose terms? Zen Buddhist? Tibetan Buddhist? Pure Land? Soka Gakkai? Shambala? Are you tired yet? In some ways, the middle definition seems most applicable - an unimpaired condition, or soundness. And yet, what is it that impairs Buddhist teachings? Is that even a question worth asking?

Searching for Purity is Pointless
When you get down to it, how is it possible to divorce Buddhism, or any spiritual path and it's associated institutions, from the culture and already established practices around it? There's a lot of talk about stripping the "folk" out, and/or stripping the "unnecessary cultural elements" out of Buddhisms here in North America. And some of the same people, as well as others, are also arguing for a preservation of "tradition" and of institutional practices. Seems to me that both of these arguments, if taken too far, are merely opposite ways to get at a purity that doesn't exist anyway.

All this talk about preserving the integrity of Buddhism just seems like a polished way of saying "Our way is better than yours and here's why." And while I'm all for critiquing pop spirituality and trendiness, and challenging the commercialization of, and dumbing-down of, the spiritual life, I have no interest in fixing the location of wisdom into a single place, manner of life, or time.

I'm a member of a zen institution with a lineage that goes back hundreds of years. In fact, I am the chair of this institution's board of directors, so I actually have a strong interest in helping the place maintain and even grow. And yet, I also have some healthy (unhealthy? both?)skepticism about institutions as houses of deep wisdom. I've seen first hand what happens when you bow down to the agenda of a charismatic leader. And there's no end to the stories about religious institutions denying, deflecting, or outright smothering the wisdom of individuals and groups that don't go along with the established institutional views. As such, I have a certain distrust in statements that suggest institutions are the best approach to maintaining the deep wisdoms of the past. And yet, I also see the incredible support an institution can offer to us when it's functioning in a healthy way, and when the individuals within it are able to both put aside their personal agendas, and also maintain their individual uniqueness.

I guess when it comes down to it, I just don't believe in some stable form of purity anymore. Even with all the efforts being put forth by Buddhists today to preserve texts, continue ancient rituals, and to teach in "traditional" ways, there are, and will continue to be changes, modifications, additions and subtractions. It's unstoppable. A generation ago, there was no internet, and thus no concept even of "online Buddhist practice." Now we have heated debates about it that have changed even those people and groups who have completely rejected it. That's just one example among too many to count.

Just when you think you have found the "core," it slips away. Isn't this exactly what Buddhist teachings keep pointing to, the futility of believing in some fixed essence?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Excellent Online Buddhist Resources

John over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt wrote this informative post about Buddhist magazines, which received some very interesting responses as well, including a detailed critique of the environmental waste of the magazine industry by the editor of the online spiritual magazine Elephant Journal. Although I will continue to read paper magazines (there's just something about holding it in your hands), there are also a lot of great online Buddhist resources available.

Here are some that I particularly enjoy.

1. The Journal of Buddhist Ethics - Highly academic in it's writing, but definitely worth looking at if your interested in intelligent reflections on Buddhist ethics and other issues.

2. The Journal of Global Buddhism - Again, an academic journal, but a wonderful resource for writings about Buddhism around the world. A recent post I made about Brazilian Buddhism was highly influenced by an article from this journal, and I just found another article about Brazilian Buddhism in the journal's archives.

3. Mandala - founded by two Tibetan Buddhist masters, this journal is part of a foundation whose mission is to preserve the Mahayana tradition. The two current feature articles online are entitled "Animal Liberation" and "The Practice of Motherhood." Sounds interesting, doesn't it?

4. Audio Dharma - from Gil Fronsdal's Insight Meditation Center in California, Audio Dharma has dozens of archived dharma talks to listen to from a wide variety of teachers. You'll probably never run out of material if you just went here.

5. Pali Canon Translations - so far, this archive is the most complete I have seen in terms of online translations of the Tipitaka, the foundational teachings of Buddhism and the heart of study for Therevadan Buddhists around the world. Most of us in the other Buddhist schools (Mahayana, Vajrayana, etc.) could have much more awareness of these teachings than we currently do, so go take a look!

6. Sweeping Zen - a website that offers articles, teacher biographies, listings of zen centers around the world, interviews, and more. Lot's of good stuff here.

7. Buddhanet - a thorough Buddhist website with buckets and buckets of resources. It probably has the best library of online Buddhist teachings and texts around.

8. Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn - an archive of the wisdom-filled letters of a beloved zen teacher.

9. Suzuki Roshi Dharma Talks - an archive of one of the most well known 20th century Zen Masters. The San Francisco Zen Center continues to add talks to the blog on a regular basis.

10. The Zen Site - has lots and lots of zen teachings, writings on zen history, and other zenny topics. Dogen is highly emphasized, which is much to the joy of all Dogen-philes out there. But there's much more available on this site for those of you who want more than the old, grizzled founder of Soto Zen.

Enjoy swimming in the pond of goodness above!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Be Generous to the Human Condition

I had a meeting Wednesday evening with our teacher at the meditation center. Zen people tend to call these meetings dokusan, although the way it unfolds can be anything from a one minute blundered koan presentation to a long conversation about life - it really depends on the teacher's style, as well as the circumstances behind having the meeting in the first place.

During this meeting, the content of the conversation seemed to lead us both to the phrase I titled this post with: "Be generous to the human condition." It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? But what does it mean exactly?

U.S. President Obama gave his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech yesterday. These lines are, as far as I'm concerned, the heart of what he said:

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

There are so many delusions in the last paragraph. We will never know if non-violent, or at least much less violent, movement could have stopped Hitler's armies because there was never any massive effort to try such methods. The European neighbors of Germany routinely turned their backs on warning signs during the early days of Nazi era, primarily, in my opinion, because they were, at best, indifferent to the fate of the Jewish people. That last sentence is riddled with commas, each a pause for how often we fail to see how the oppression of one group always ends up creating the oppression of many others. My nation, the U.S., has no moral high ground on this issue either. We didn't care until it was too late to do any but join an already smoldering war effort.

Beyond the World War II example (I can already hear the WWII defenders shouting from the balconies), the other example the president gives - Al Qaeda - is really something of a boogyman these days. The kind of terrorism groups like this are doing have no national boundaries of origin, no central headquarters, nor any set of stable leadership. President Obama defends a war on a nation-state, Afghanistan, that is supposedly about protecting the U.S. from terrorism. There's no way this is possible - even "winning" a war there, whatever the hell that means, won't address the root causes of terrorism (poverty, deep feelings of powerlessness, rejection of modernisms, distortion of religious doctrines, etc.)

Ah, and then there's the "Evil in the world" argument - a classic approach that divides the world in two, failing to see that the seeds of evil are within us all, that any of us is capable of creating suffering, destruction, even murder if the "right" set of causes and conditions come into play. Some of us may be, due to our spiritual practices or deliberately developed ethics, much less likely to create such evils as rape or terroristic murder, but that doesn't mean we are completely beyond such acts. There is no way to eradicate evil in the world through warfare because the only way to do so would be to kill us all, every last one of us. I don't think even the most misanthropic person wants this, no matter how much they might glorify things like nuclear warfare and the end of the world.

Warfare is, ultimately, a surface approach to a deep below the surface set of problems. You can cut off the top of a dandelion again and again, but it's only through uprooting it completely (and eating it's health-giving body :), that you'll be rid of it.

So, when I heard about this speech, the old ball of nastiness came up within. I thought about posting some snarky line on my Facebook page about the Hope and Change and the President just to stir people up. And then it hit me, "Be generous to the Human Condition." Posting some cynical line may be fun for a short while, but all it does is add a drop of cynicism to an already cynicism-filled population. There's enough disappointment and despair about President Obama's first year without me adding an "I told you so" line.

Being generous to the human condition is about, among other things, recognizing all the foolish and destructive behavior that comes from our individual and collective delusions - to recognize all that, and then just breath it in, hold what it's like to be human in this world at this time within. Not because you're better than anyone else - you're not - but because doing so is one of the ways to soften the edges, develop compassion, and see that we're all in this together.

So, instead of the snarky, smug words I thought about posting on my Facebook page, I said the following:

"Our president is completely delusional about matters of war and peace. This has been true of all U.S. presidents throughout history. May we someday have a leader who isn't delusional about these issues, and in the meantime, may each of us "regular" citizens strive to embody true peace in our lives."

A small drop in the water, but that's how it goes mostly. At work yesterday, a student who I, and the rest of my class have great difficulties with, was the subject of many disparaging thoughts and comments on my part. I really would just love to toss her out my class forever, and still might do so. But at the end of the day, I came back into the classroom one last time on my way out, and there she was still putting her coat out. There was a moment of wanting to just ignore her, and then the line "Be generous to the human condition" arose again. She said something about how cold it was, and how she was having trouble getting to school because of the snow and lack of transportation. I know this issue all too well.

I turned around, and told her I understood. That I, too, had had to wait a long time in the cold for a bus to come, and been late to wherever it was I was going. And then I said "Have a good weekend" and I walked out.

Part of me really resisted even this, but at the same time, I knew that it would have been just petty to completely blow her off.

This practice, the life in general, is hard work. Not always certainly, but often. And so part of being generous to the human condition is also to be kind to yourself. I extended my hand out to this student a little bit, but didn't try to force it any further. Maybe next time, I'll do a little more. Or maybe she'll cross that final line, whatever that is, and I'll toss her out of class. I'd like to think that such a tossing can be done in a way that is, also, generous to her and to all of us. May it be so.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Buddhist News

Top Ten U.S. Buddhist News Headlines for the Week of December 7th

10. Scientists declare Copenhagen the city with the hottest air for the month of December.

9. McDonalds unveils new McHatsu hamburger just in time for the holidays.

8. Eighty nine year old corn farmer finally sees the morning star.

7. Zen teacher Brad Warner blamed for first winter snowstorm in St. Paul, Minnesota.

6. The U.S. Government gives Monsanto a patent for their genetically modified Bodhi Tree.

5. Monsanto declares their Bodhi Tree will enlighten the entire world.

4. Sales of autographed Tiger Woods zafus and zubutans slip sharply.

3. Cease-Fire announced by silence of bloggers in online civil war with Tricycle magazine.

2. Tricycle pens anonymous blog post in response.

And the Number 1 headline for the week of December 7th:

Buddhist blogger Kyle is outed as a squirrel.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Even if Global Warming isn't as Dire as we Think, Why Keep Doing the Same Old Thing?

As my bicycle, and the rest of my state, rest under a blanket of snow and frigid, heavy winds, the debate over global warming continues in Copenhagen and around the world. It's kind of wacky, being buried in snow and cold and thinking about these issues, but of course, the phrase itself, "global warming," is like any other set of words: it doesn't really catch the full reality.

Here are a few paragraphs from the blog Ecological Buddhism about those infamous e-mails being discussed in some circles that supposedly posed serious doubts about the science behind global warming:

Over the past decade, the gigantic oil corporation Exxon Mobil (among others) has paid millions to organizations and “think tanks” in an attempt to deceive the public about the science behind global climate change. It is no surprise that those same organizations are now doing everything in their power to please their corporate benefactors, by putting together a deceptive “Climategate scandal".

The reality is that emails were criminally hacked from the University of East Anglia in England and searched exhaustively to locate a few "useful" out-of-context comments that could be deployed in a 'black-ops' propaganda exercise. The original comments were contextually distorted beyond recognition, in support of a blizzard of malevolent PR articles, claiming to prove (or just assuming) that climate scientists have "fudged the data" on global warming.

One thing I keep thinking about all of this is that, in Buddhism, we're taught to see through the stories we have about solid, fixed identities, especially our own. Given that, I cannot help but see through the narrative that the current economic model driving so much of this destructive action around the planet has to also be seen as not not fixed, not final, and definitely not a permanent "best we can do." Even if some of the dire predictions about our climate aren't accurate, it seems foolish to me to just keep on trucking in the same direction, focused on an economic growth, consumption, and materialism that supposedly makes our lives better and more fulfilled. When I look around, I see a hell of a lot of misery despite the material abundance. And certainly, it seems that the fabulously wealthy, those many of us have a deep envy of, and consciously or unconsciously pattern our lives around, are just as likely to be living in scandalous, "my life is a disaster" type ways than in ways that anyone would aspire to. Simply put, the end goals of the dominant global economic system don't seem to worth destroying the planet over, even if that destruction takes longer than we think it will.