Monday, August 31, 2009

You don't have to know what to do

Last night, I opened the new issue of Yoga Journal and began reading the editor's little essay. (If you haven't noticed, I'm a bit of a magazine junky - not an out of control, can't see my floor because of the piles magazine junky, but I do like my mags.) Anyway, the editor wrote about an experience she had while driving. She came across a wounded bird, and thought to herself "I don't know what to do with a wounded bird." But she stopped anyway, and as she got out of the car, another car came along and she waved the driver down. The woman in the car got out, and the editor said "Do you know what to do?" And the other woman picked up the bird, said "yes," and got back into the car with the bird tucked in her coat.

What was most interesting about this story was the editor pointed out that we don't need to know what to do in order to be of service. We can step in and offer ourselves as we are, and that in itself might be enough to bring about the wisdom the situation is calling for.

So, what a surprise it was to be on my bicycle this morning, not twelve hours after reading that story, and find myself in a similar situation. Almost exact actually. I started crossing a busy street near my apartment, and passed a little bird that was parked just far enough into the road to be in danger. The bird should have flown off - I was definitely that close to it in passing. But it didn't. And instantly, I thought of the editor's story.

I got off my bicycle and looked down the road. A truck was coming. I didn't know what to do, so I stood there and watched the truck go past, missing the bird. Then I looked again, and saw nothing coming on either side. So, I started toward the bird, still not knowing what the best course of action was. I stuck my hand out fairly close to the bird, and it twitched a bit. I leaned in a little closer, not enough to get bit, but almost. And to my surprise, the bird took off into a tree along the street. Getting out of the street, I saw the traffic coming again.

You don't have to know what to do to be of service to others.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

You Never Know Where Wisdom Will Appear

I've been a baseball fan nearly my entire life. Growing up, I prowled the outfield for several rec teams, dreaming like many Minnesota kids back then of becoming the next Kirby Puckett. For several of those years, my neighbors were a trio of boys with the last name Mauer. Summer days, when weren't with our teams, we'd take over the alley, and proceed to get in trouble with any number of adults who were broken from their TV sets and conversations by the sound of a tennis ball smashing against a back door, or window. It was a magical time for us, and now one of those boys, little Joey as I will always call him, is the star catcher for the Minnesota Twins.

So, I still follow the game. And this morning I came upon the following article, about the successful, but aging pitcher John Smoltz. Smoltz Regains Identity The basic story is this. For 21 years, John Smoltz pitched for a single team, the Atlanta Braves. His career began around the time his team, and ours - The Twins - both had amazing turn around years, going from last place to first in a year, and landing in the World Series against each other. The Braves were an easy team to root against. Smug owner. Racist nickname. And "the Tomahawk Chop," which boils down to being a stadium full of people participating in a fake Native American war chant, complete with arm chops. John Smoltz was a member of the young, very talented pitching trio that led Atlanta for a good decade or more of success.

Fast forward nearly twenty years to early spring, when Smoltz received a call from the general manager of Atlanta, saying he was being released. To say Smoltz was upset would be an understatement. He soon signed with another team, the Boston Red Sox, determined to show his old team that they had made a mistake, a big mistake. He had a big grudge, a chip on his shoulder, any and all the usual cliches would apply to what he was being driven by. Anything but clarity, and a focus on the present moment.

He pitched poorly, very poorly, and found himself sitting on the bench in early August after a terrible outing against the Red Sox hated rival, the New York Yankees, reflecting on what could be the end of his career.

“I sat there for four more innings,” Smoltz said. “Just sat there. And I said to myself, ‘This is it.’ My career was ending. I needed to watch it. Not because I thought I deserved it, but I wanted to take it in and see who I am.”

How many of us have been in this place in our lives about something? An ending relationship, a failing career, the death of a loved one ... these moments that something is clearly changing, but before there is clarity as to what exactly is coming next.

Smoltz reflected on all that had happened in past several months, and as he did, he realized that what he was being driven by, anger at his old team for releasing him, was destroying the remainder of his career.

“Not only was it {the grudge} a joke,” he said, “it was not who I am.”

It was not who I am. A moment of awareness of the buddhanature we all have. We are not the many emotional disturbances that float through us through the course of a lifetime. True, they are included as part of our life. But they are not who we are.

“The self-inflicted strife that built up wasn’t what I needed to pitch,” Smoltz further said. “I wouldn’t call it anger. I just didn’t let go. That chip on my shoulder didn’t get me results. On that mound, you have to be clear-minded. I didn’t handle it well.

I just didn't let go. Isn't that the truth. Every one of us have said this line. Have felt the misery of what this line means. And at the same time, when we finally say it, that saying it is the letting go. I've come to see how letting go of anything that has caused suffering in the past is usually a process of little shifts, little letting gos. Until finally it's not an issue any more.

Since those initial reflections, Smoltz has lost his job with the Red Sox, been signed by a new team, the St. Louis Cardinals, and has proceeded to regain his good pitching form, all in less than a month.

You never know where wisdom will appear. So keep you eyes open, ears unplugged, and heart ready - it's all around, all around.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Hurricane Katrina and Impermanence

Today is the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the most destructive and deadly storms to hit the United States in the past century. Although completely dwarfed by the tsunami that devastated South Asia less than a year earlier, Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, killed more than 1,600 people in Louisiana and Mississippi and left behind more than $40 billion in property damage.

For the past four years, the people living along the Gulf Coast have struggled to rebuild their lives. They have repeatedly been ignored or shafted by the local, state, and federal governments that supposedly represent them. Corporate interests, including housing developers and for-profit charter schools, have swarmed in on the city of New Orleans, making millions off the suffering population there. Private citizens initially flooded to help in the aftermath, and money and supplies generously flowed during the first months after the storm. However, like most disasters relief efforts, the rest of the world moves on, and mostly forgets about what happened and the continued needs present.

Many of those who died in the aftermath of the storm were stranded in the city of New Orleans, unable to flee. Mostly poor and working people, predominantly people of color, these folks often didn't have access to vehicles to get out of town the way the rest of the population did. And while there were the stubborn few who wouldn't leave even when offered help leaving, the media over emphasized these examples, and under reported on the struggles of the others.

Despite all this, there has been a lot of progress, primarily as a result of grassroots efforts on the part of everyday residents and their allies. Disasters seem to bring out both the best in humans and the worst. People who never knew each other, who maybe lived on the same block in the same city for years, now can't imagine not working together to make a better life. Even though I have never been to the Gulf Coast, since the storm happened, I have tried to keep tabs on the whole thing. If anything, doing so is a reminder that such devastation can happen rapidly, and that impermanence is everywhere, bringing changes we often never imagined possible.

My guess is that many who live along the Gulf Coast have a greater appreciation for their lives. It reminds me of the zen message that is often called out to the assembly after a session of zazen - "Take heed! Take heed! Make use of this precious life!" I don't think you need to lose everything in a hurricane to wake up to the meaning of this call.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why "Western" Buddhism, among other terms, often fails

We humans love to make distinctions. We really want to have things put into nice, tidy categories that we can then employ whenever a situation arises that seems to call for category x. This is what our mind likes to do, sort and tidy, sort and tidy. But the problem is that every category, every label we make up is always at best partial, and usually not very accurate at all. A well thought out label may point at the truth, but it can never actually account for all the complex mixing and intermingling of our lives each moment. This doesn't mean we should toss out labels all together; that's a complete impossibility really. However, it does mean that we should pause when employing words that may generalize, stereotype, marginalize, or just plain misrepresent that which we want to speak about.

One of the categories that has been causing a lot of angst lately is that of "Western Buddhism." Sub-labels that have been spawned from the larger one include "convert Buddhist" and "Western Buddhist," and then, in an attempt to differentiate groups, the labels "Ethnic Buddhist and Ethnic Buddhism" and also "Traditional Buddhist and "Traditional Buddhist" have appeared. I'm not sure which came first, but they all seem to be tied together, and none of them really have a clear meaning when you start to dig below the surface.

I always find digging up some history to be a good approach to beginning to understand what is happening today. Usually, the more I trace historical events linked to a particular issue, the picture becomes much more nuanced and harder to pin down. This isn't a bad thing; it's our life.

First Arrivals
The first arrivals in modern history to arrive from Asia into the United States came around 1820. More significant numbers, especially from China, began arriving after the California Gold Rush in 1849. The first Buddhist temple in North America was built in San Francisco not long after in 1853 (Buddhism in the U.S.). So, in terms of Buddhism in North America, we are looking at a period of a little more than 150 years at most. In Canada, where the first temples were established in Vancouver around the turn of the 20th century, the history is only a little more than one hundred years. There is also a small Buddhist community in Mexico - about 100,000 total in a nation of over 100 million - but I haven't been able to find any historical records about it.

Great Depression of 1873
Back to the United States, where during the 1870's, several events changed the landscape and began to set a direction for both Buddhism in America and for Asians in America. The first event was the Great Depression of 1873, which lasted nearly six years, caused the economies of several nations to tank, and elevated unemployment rates to at least 14% in the U.S. as a whole. It was much worse along the West Coast though, where railroad jobs were at a premium and where white migrants were often in competition with Chinese immigrants.

Here's an interesting quote from an article about that period, which gives some parallels between that economic crash and the current one.

Another factor setting off the crash was the implosion of the Jay Cooke & Company. This was a major component of the banking establishment. It collapsed when it found that it was unable to market several million dollars in Northern Pacific railway bonds (does this sound familiar?). At the time, much of the investment banking establishment was salivating for railroads much like our recent investment banks went off the edge with real estate. When the funding source dried up or too much over building occurred, multiple external forces collapsed the market.

After the Civil War many people found employment in the railway boom. Outside of agriculture it was the largest employer and also had the most money at risk. In fact, there are many parallels with our current employment situation and how many people are dependent on the finance and real estate industries. Once that industry imploded, many people found themselves out of work.
See:The Long Depression of 1873

So, what does this have to do with Buddhism or with the Asian communities in the U.S.? Well, first off, there was a huge backlash against Chinese laborers, who were blamed for driving down wages and causing the economic collapse. (Never mind that it was the rich, white male bankers who bought into the rich, white male railroad owners speculative deals. And never mind that the same white railroad owners deliberately drove down the pay for their workers to make more profit, and hired Chinese immigrant laborers because they could pay them significantly less.) This backlash spread across the nation, and into the halls of Congress where, in 1875, the first of the Chinese Exclusion Acts were written into law. This is really the beginning of U.S. immigration law in many respects, and the fact that it began by excluding based solely on race and country of origin says a lot about the problems we still have today when it comes to immigration law and racial biases. A similar, if slightly less harsh act was declared in Canada in 1885, which set a financial penalty on any Chinese immigrant coming into Canada. All of this points to the fact that Buddhism, which originally was transplanted in North America by these same immigrant communities, already had a strike against it.

Efforts to "fit in" from the start
Beyond the issues of race and immigration, Buddhist communities had to deal with the perceptions of their religion by Christian majorities in both the U.S. and Canada. Following the Parliament of the World's Religions, held in Chicago in 1893, and during which Buddhism became more "on the radar" for the average North American, the first Jodo Shinshu priests arrived in San Francisco. Six years later, their first temple was built, and the Buddhist Churches of America formed.

Why the use of the word "Churches"? First, the white public backlash that had began during the Depression years extended into the next century, targeting the "invasion" of an "alien" religion. Newspaper accounts regularly used phrases like this. Here is an example, taken from an otherwise fairly respectful (for the times) article on the first temple, from the Atlanta Constitution, July 1901.

"the outpost in San Francisco is not all of the invasion. Already the founder of the mission here, Sonoda, is in Berlin, where on April 7th, Japanese officers, legation attaches and travelers joined in the celebration of Buddha's birthday. Nishijima, who came as Sonoda's assistant, is in the interior of California, paving the way to the establishment of missions at Sacramento and Fresno. At Sacramento a temple is about to be erected, $6,000 having been raised already for buying the ground. In London is the Right Reverend Kozui Otani, son of the titled High Priest Kioto, who will return to Japan after a long tour of the world, devoted to close study of social and religious conditions." See: First Japanese Temple

Even though the Christian majority viewed the small Buddhist minority with great suspicion, what's fascinating is that Buddhist Churches of America, from the very beginning, attempted to open their doors to non-Asians interested in Buddhism. In addition, they deliberately modified their temples and services to fit in more with the greater, Christian dominant communities they had moved into. Writing about the founding period nearly 100 years later,the Rev. Masao Kodani comments:

An important part of this was the growing Buddhist temples and Christian churches. Following the example of the Young Men's Christian Association, the Buddhists formed the Young Men's Buddhist Association. Buddhist gatherings took the form of the chanting of sutras followed by sermons, informal talks, or more formal lectures. Study classes were conducted on Saturday nights with services and more formal lectures on Sunday. With growing non-Japanese interest in Buddhism, services and lectures for "non-Asians" were conducted on Monday nights. From its very beginnings, Jodo Shinshu Buddhism was purposely adapted to Christian America. This can be seen in the format of its "services," its lectures, and in the name of its temples as "Buddhist Associations (bukkyokai)" or "Buddhist Churches (bukkyo kyokai)" rather than the more proper title of temple. This ambiguity would have greater implications in the future when later generations, whose understanding of Jodo Shinshu was not as great and whose inability to access the Japanese language resources that helped explain the doctrine, would take over. It was not, for example, until the 1970s and the growing publication of English materials explaining the doctrine of Jodo Shinshu that these Buddhist Churches began to change their names to Buddhist Temples.
See:The History of the Buddhist Churches of America

Early White American Interest
In addition to the issues presented during the establishment of the Buddhist Churches of America, another interesting trend occurring during this period (approximately 1870-1920) was the growing interest of white North Americans in "Eastern philosophy and religion." The Theosophical Society, dedicated to the study of Hinduism, Buddhism, and mysticism of all forms it seems, was founded in 1875. The first fairly well known white American to publicly convert to Buddhism, Henry Steel Olcott, a former U.S. army colonel during the Civil War, also occurred around this time. And even before this, such prominent figures as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson gave large nods to both Buddhism and Hinduism in their writings.

A little later, in 1905, the first Zen Buddhist priest, Soyen Shaku, was invited to stay in the United States by a wealthy white American couple. One of Shuku's students, Nyogen Senzaki, came over from Japan soon after, and in 1922, began giving dharma talks in English. Another zen priest linked to Soyen Shaku, Shigetsu Sasaki, eventually settled in New York and established what would become the First Zen Institute of America. Among those who would become active in this group were Ruth Fuller Everett, and her son in law, Alan Watts, both prominent figures in the rise of interest in Zen amongst future white converts in the 1950's and 1960's. Ruth Fuller Everett eventually married Sasaki, and spent most of her later years hopping between Kyoto and New York, doing Zen training, and translating Zen texts into English.

So, the blurring of lines began well over a hundred years ago, long before the arrival of what are often considered to be the first "convert" focused Zen Buddhist communities in the late 1950's. Who is a "Western Buddhist"? What is "traditional"? Can the terms "The West" and "The East" have any meaning, given this kind of history? These are just a few of the questions that should come to mind after reflecting on this history.

Some Current Statistics
Just to muddy the water even more, here are a few current statistics. C.N. Le writes "According to the 2000 U.S. census, Asian Americans make up 4.3% of the total U.S. population -- that's about 12 million people who identify themselves as at least part Asian" Population Statistics. In an article on Buddhism in America, Ryuei Michael McCormick writes the following, attempting to get at the number of Asians, Asian American or Asian immigrant, that practice Buddhism in the U.S.: "The Ethnic Buddhists consist of an estimated 2.2 - 3.2 million immigrants from Asian countries who have established Buddhists temples (or churches) to meet the social, cultural and religious needs of their many diverse communities. This group includes the older Chinese and Japanese communities which go back to the 19th century, and the new waves of immigration from Korea, Vietnam, other Buddhist countries in SE Asia, as well as fresh waves of immigrants from China"Buddhism in America First, it should be noted again noted that there are far more non-Buddhist people of Asian descent living in the U.S. than there are Asian-American Buddhists. Second, the statistics given by McCormick are somewhat flawed, given that, for example, Asian-Americans who converted to Buddhism in adulthood aren't included. In addition, the languaging here focuses in on ethnic community-based religious practice and uses race and national origin as a defining marker of such groups. Yet, this can easily leave out the complex interplay of origin cultures and U.S. cultures, among other things, giving a false impression that what happens today in a Buddhist temple in San Francisco started by Japanese immigrants a century ago is somehow "traditional" and what happens in a Zen Temple founded primarily by white Americans half a century ago in the same city is somehow "Western" or "modern" or whatever label you wish to attach to it.

Among groups that tend to fall into the category of "convert" Buddhist groups, there are probably over a million followers of Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, and the Theravadin derived Vipassana meditation practices. Although some efforts have been made at diversifying these groups, they continue to be primarily white, middle to upper class, and highly college educated. Another larger, but lesser known group, the Soka Gakkai Buddhists, have upwards of 300,000 members, and are much more racially and socio-economically diverse. As of 2002, according to their survey, SGI-USA's membership is 42% white, 15% black, 23% Asian, Pacific Islander, 6% Latino, and 15% mixed race (Buddhism in America. Groups like Soka Gakkai on the convert end, as well as the many groups whose predominant populations are people of Asian descent, by and large receive much less coverage in mainstream American media than do the convert groups dominated by white Americans. As such, getting an accurate picture of the many Buddhisms being practiced on the continent is a difficult task, and can definitely be one reason people are relying on terms like "Western Buddhist," which sound nice, but fail to convey clarity.

Provisional Labels
In my opinion, we are just starting to actually sort all of this out, and terms like Western Buddhism will someday be viewed a provisional labels that served as markers of the times, and not as very accurate reflections of what actually is going on. It will be very interesting to watch how Buddhist practice continues to unfold in this newest of its homes: North America. May we find more accurate ways to speak of this diverse path, and may we see all the struggle to uncover those more accurate ways as another dharma gate among the myriad of dharma gates.

Taking Things Personally

There has been a lot of heated discussion about race in recent weeks in the blogosphere. I've been on numerous sites, Buddhist focused and non-Buddhist focused, and similar discussions are there. It mirrors the heated town hall meetings and discussions here in the U.S. about health care, which really have as much to do about race and power as they do about any health care plans.

Much of the talk that I have seen on-line are sincere efforts to bring some clarity to this most muddy of issues. However, there is also some definite talk out of frustration, which is understandable, but given the forum of the internet, usually leads to more talk out of frustration.

Unfortunately, part of the issue tends to be that people are taking things personally. It's the mind of "This something that was written was written directly about me. I have to respond, I have to stand up for myself." Of course, the reality is that it's never really about you. Even when someone is directly saying it IS about you, it's actually some image that person has conjured up about who you are and/or what you have done.

Now, this doesn't mean that we should just let things go all the times. Being passive isn't called for in some situations. But there is a very big difference between responding and reacting .

When we respond to a situation, we are aware of the impersonal quality of what is occurring. Life is occurring, and we are part of that life occurring.

When we react to a situation, we view what is occurring as a personal threat, as an attack, or as a punishment. Life is happening ONLY because I did something, or I am something someone does not like, or I did something that deserves to be punished.

Now think about about, does the world really work that way? Is it really possible that things are occurring solely because of you, and the interplay between you and one other person? It's pretty damn unlikely. There are a myriad of factors that come into play in any given situation. The "you" and "I" are only part of the equation, and usually a tiny part at that.

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: "When we cannot communicate, we get sick, and as our sickness increases, we suffer and spill our suffering on other people."

A major part of communicating effectively involves coming from a place of non-reactiveness. Being calm enough to take in the jumbled, confused expressions around you without having to defend some territory called "I." It's really not an easy task, and most of us - me included - fall flat fairly often.

But if I'm learning anything from blogging, it's this way of communicating with others. To be who I am without clinging so hard to the I.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Buddhist Army Chaplain - A contradiction of terms?

There has been some interesting discussion over at the Tricycle blog about the U.S. Army's first Buddhist chaplain, Thomas Dyer. You can read it in full here. First U.S. Army Buddhist Chaplain, but I will also provide an excerpt below.

He has left his boots at the door of the temple, but in the temple room he wears a standard Army camouflage uniform. Instead of a cross or crucifix on the right chest his uniform bears the “dharma wheel” insignia as a symbol of the Buddhist faith.

This is a description of Thomas Dyer, 43, of Memphis, Tennessee. Dyer is the US Army’s first Buddhist chaplain, according to the (Memphis Online). His conversion to Buddhism at first caused waves in his family, but his wife finally made peace with his decision: “I actually thank God in a way because I wouldn’t have gone as deep in my own faith if I hadn’t been challenged,” she said. “I think each individual’s suffering is personally designed for that individual to lead him to God.”

Dyer, who was at first a Presbyterian and then a Baptist, felt Buddhism addressed questions whose answers had otherwise eluded him:

“The question that arose in my mind is, ‘Why is there so much suffering?’ Christianity did not have a satisfactory answer. I wanted to be happy. The idea that we have to live with suffering until we die just did not make sense to me—the idea that God wants you to suffer so you can then enjoy heaven.” Dyer kept asking, “Is this all there is to life?” As a Christian, he had been interested in mysticism. That led to meditation. Dyer studied Buddhism, then visited the temple near his home in Raleigh [a neighborhood in Memphis]. Right away, he says, “It was like, ‘Whoa, I’m home.’”

Now, amongst the discussion is whether or not being a chaplain in the military is compatible with Buddha's teachings. I think this is a challenging question, especially for those of us who despise war, and aren't all that fond of the military in general.

Here are the comments I left on the post over at Tricycle.

“Freedom isn’t free” type arguments are propaganda, as is the idea of a “just war.” These are fallacies that people buy into to rationalize large scale acts of violence that mostly done to support the “moneyed interests” of society and/or to keep those in currently in power, in power. Although I agree that assuming a completely non-violent approach is probably an impossibility in today’s world, in my opinion, Buddha’s teachings implore us to move in that direction as much as possible. For me, this means rejection of all state sponsored war, any form of terrorism, and all corporate and government efforts to support the continuation of these.

However, I have to say that people like Thomas Dyer, in the role that they are playing, can actually be fulfilling the Bodhisattva vow to liberate all beings. Bodhisattvas are said to be unafraid to enter into any situation in order help others. They don’t “pick and choose.” So, even though I’m not a supporter of many of the actions done by the military, I think people like Mr. Dyer have the potential to benefit others from within a damaging system.

On a related note, I feel fortunate to live in a city where the police chief is also a zen buddhist practitioner. Even though I have disagreed with his decisions at times, I do believe he is much more thoughtful and mindful of the impact of his decisions and words than your average chief. It sounds like Jamie (another police officer who posted comments) may have had similar changes as a result of his practice, and it’s impact on his work.

I think there is a tendency for those of us who support peace, and are against military actions, to leap into demonizing the people who are in the military. Furthermore, we sometimes (me included) fail to see how a person's actions within a damaging system or institution might actually be absolutely essential to transforming the nature of that system or institution. This doesn't mean that someone who becomes a chaplain, for example, can't loose sight of the teachings and become an enabler - he or she definitely could be. But at the same time, maybe that same person is one of those in the tipping point towards a new way of being for the whole group.

Samsaric muck is the fodder for enlightenment, is it not? To me, the intensity of suffering Mr. Dyer faces in working with his fellow soldiers is enormous, and as such, is also that much more of a opportunity for his practice to strengthen and have a very beneficial effect.

I wish for him continued openness, deep awareness, and a willingness to continue to challenge perceptions, as he did when he first converted to Buddhism.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Google and World Peace?

I was listening last night to a recent podcast done by the Buddhist Geeks. It was an interview with Norman Fischer about what Fischer sees as the need for Buddhism to branch out beyond its traditional appearances - i.e. Buddhist temples and centers and the accompanying set of rituals and teachings that are distinctly labeled Buddhist. Beyond his regular teaching work, which includes leading the Everyday Zen sangha in Oakland, California and five other zen groups along the West Coast, he also teaches in a variety of "non-Buddhist" settings, including most famously at Google. Yes, that Google!

You can listen to the podcast here. Plan B?(By the way, the Buddhist Geeks are looking for financial support for expanding their programming, so if you like what you here, consider checking out their new projects and donating.)

As you will hear, the interview is partly a follow up on both an article written by Fischer about why he thinks Buddhism needs "a Plan B," and also an article about the work being done at Google (Google Searches.

Mostly, I want to talk about the work with Google. One of things I have always been leery of is spiritual work being brought together with large, profit making enterprises. Think of the mega-churches in the United States that have coalesced around the tenants of the prosperity gospel - which essentially teaches that being wealthy is a sign of God's favor, and that capitalism and Christianity are twin engines in the drive towards salvation. I personally don't believe it for a minute. And while I'm sure some people are benefiting from attending these huge institutions, there's also a ton of money being made, and clearly enough scandals - financial, sexual, and otherwise - to lead one to wonder about the missions of these places. And clearly this isn't just an issue in Christianity. We need only look back a few decades to what happened at San Francisco Zen Center to see that a drive for wealth, and power, can cause a hell of a lot of suffering. Along these lines, here's an interesting article by Stuart Lachs examining the role and history of lineage and power structures of zen communities, offering that "the trouble at the San Francisco Zen Center, and at many other prominent Zen Centers, across the country to this day, is caused by a lack of understanding as to how the ideas of Dharma transmission, unbroken lineage, and Zen master have been used historically" (Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi. Although it may feel like a digression, my point in bringing up all this is that when you mix power and some degree of wealth, problems and distortions of the truth often occur.

So, even though I want to get excited about the work being done at Google, I find myself being skeptical, especially when I hear quotes like this one from Norman Fischer. He had been talking in the Shambala Sun article about how the people at Google ask refreshingly open questions because they want to know why they should take meditation and other Buddhist teachings seriously. Then Fischer says of Google "Their main value is not the hard-nosed, hard-edged, profit-seeking mind. It's the creative mind, the altruistic mind. They really believe that if you give room to and foster the creative altruistic mind, you will make money and you'll be able to do good things." Now, Google is definitely known for being a different kind of workplace. They don't have traditional boss-worker hierarchies, they seem to emphasize play and experimenting over structured sets of work duties, and employees have a lot of freedom to develop projects that inspire them. However, the same company, Google, posted 2nd quarter earnings this year of nearly $1.5 billion. Yes, you read that correctly, for a single quarter year. In addition to their very large earnings, Google has been criticized for their use of cookies that collect data from personal computers, as well as their collaboration with the Chinese government to censor search results deemed dangerous to the Chinese authorities.

Why does all this matter? Well, one might say that a program like the one started at Google could transform the way business is done in the world. It could, as Fischer and those working with him hope, lead to more peace and less greed driven, bottom-line driven companies.

And, in my opinion, it also could be a great tool for expanding the wealth of corporations, and at the same time, not really lead people to address the gross economic inequities being created, nor the social and environmental damage being done by the same companies. You might have happier employees who are much more mindful in their personal and professional lives, but will this translate into a deep transformation of corporate culture and practices?

The lead player behind the Google effort, and the one who convinced Norman Fischer to join the effort, is a very energetic, super happy looking man named Chade-Meng Tan. An early employee at Google, he became a wealthy man after Google's stock was taken public. He sees the work of the program at Google as a method to create world peace. And when you see this guy, and read his writing about the project, it's difficult to dismiss the work all together. He's positive, but also seems grounded in research. The fact that he chose a respected Zen teacher in Fischer to help lead the work also lends credibility to the project.

I have to say, I want projects like this to succeed. At the same time, I also want to see that they are doing the hard questioning that has to be done around wealth, capitalism, and social injustice. As of now, I don't see it with the work at Google. Maybe it will come in time; the program is only a few years old. But I also wonder if this will become just another spiritual project co-opted by capitalism, and turned into another commodity to enhance earnings and make people feel good in the process.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Good Reads II

Here's a wonderful commentary by a Canadian about both their health care system, and U.s. perceptions/misconceptions about it. NellaLou pegs a lot of the hot bottom boogyman issues that people are using to fight against any sort of government system. Health Care Debates

Here's a nice little reminder from Donna about practice and interpersonal conflicts over at a new blog find - DQ's Windmill - I Said, Sit Still!

And finally, here is a nice little piece on the practice of Japanese political candidates using lucky dolls in the shape of Bodhidharma to aid their chances of winning. Bodhidharma and Japan's Elections

I'll be back to writing something longer soon. But I also want to spread the wealth of other wonderful Buddhist-inspired blogs to you all. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Plugging Good Reads

Here's a wonderful article about a twenty-something African-American woman practicing Buddhism in Kansas. Young. Black. Buddhist. Woman. I find her inspirational in a number of ways, including the fact that her writing exudes kindness to nearly everyone she mentions. She also writes about how, given the small sangha and where she lives, that she uses the internet as a way to support and enhance her practice. Given that this is true of many of us writing on-line, I think that is also worth noting. Kyle over at Progressive Buddhism points out the hybrid aspect of her practice, suggesting that this is a trend we'll continue to see more of in the future. Hybrid Practice

Those of who have access to a lot of sanghas, a larger Buddhist community, and who are in the racial majority of our sangha (in the case of most convert Buddhists that would mean white), should do our best to remember we are fortunate. Or ... maybe not. Richard over at My Buddha is Pink writes the following:

"It’s been my experience that “sanghas” or other Buddhist organizations initiated by Anglo individuals tend to attract people who call themselves Buddhist as long as they are comfortable with the “demands” made on them by whatever doctrine they are exposed to. As soon as the requirements become uncomfortable, such individuals discard their “Buddhism” like an ill-fitting garment."

You can read his full article here. Buddhism Light?

Maybe it's more difficult for those of us who have it easy in terms of choice, background, etc. Easy to get greedy and lazy, wanting everything to be just as you think it should be.

Just a few thoughts for you to ponder. Have a good day.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Health Care and Generosity?

Having been swamped in readings and conversations about the health care issue here in the U.S., one thing I have come to see is just how many reasons people have for not helping out their neighbors. This is across a wide spectrum of folks, from all political angles. Most people support zero help for undocumented immigrants, for example, and scream bloody murder at rallies whenever even the word "immigrant" is brought up. A sizable number of people in the U.S. continue to stand firm against any form of government plan, partly on the reasoning that they shouldn't be paying for "handouts" for their neighbors. Yet another group of people support the single payer government run plan, and yet have absolutely nothing but hatred for anyone that works in the insurance industry, never mind that these people, too, are our neighbors.

It's kind of amazing how so much of this boils down to the fact that generosity is slowly becoming a foreign concept in our nation. I'm sure I'll get more mail saying I'm advocating "forced generosity," "socialism," or whatever flavor of the week the boogyman is now. Sure, a lot of us volunteer and give money to charities and all that. It's not that we aren't generous; it's that on the whole, we push for a set of economic and social structures that promote greed and social injustice at every turn. And this under the guise of "individual freedom" and "liberty."

Well, I think it's kind of sad. You would think with something so basic as health care, something which no matter what does effect everyone of us - think of epidemics for one thing - that we as a nation could find a way to reach out and support everyone living here. It makes plenty of sense to debate options, and while I have my opinions, I'm willing to admit they are partial, and incomplete. However, I keep coming back how, in this extraordinarily wealthy nation, we have millions of people who are basically looking for ways to NOT help their fellow neighbors. It should really give us all pause, especially those of us who claim to be students of the Buddha way.

It pains me to think of the ways I have refused to help, withdrawn from easy ways to assist, or simply copped out over the years. I'm not talking about situations calling me to overextend myself, I'm talking about everyday turnings away. I cringe at the times I have reduced people's pain and suffering to dollars and cents, arguing that so and so should have been more responsible. And even if it is true that they should have been more responsible, what does it help to harp on that point? Have you ever responded to such criticism when you weren't responsible?

Generosity is really at the heart of Buddha's teachings. Over and over again, you hear people like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama saying that generosity and openness are the basis of our way. It's seems so simple, but then you look around and see how muddled everything has become, how much in our society can push us so far away from being generous.

You know, maybe advocating for a single payer system isn't about generosity, but I would like to think that working in some way to help all people living here have the health care they need is. Maybe there are other ways to do this; I know that what I'm supporting is a bit of a gamble.

But I know one thing. A society that must reduce everything to dollars and cents isn't a healthy one. Without wide spread generosity, we're in trouble, grave trouble. So, no matter what your position or solution to this health care crisis we are in, maybe it would be a good idea to reflect on how much of it is driven by greed. And maybe fear while your at it. I'm willing to admit I have fears about continuing to be uninsured, and that partially drives me in the direction I am taking. What about you? Have you really reflected on why you've taken the position you have on this issue, or are you just sticking with your usual talking points, your usual party platform, that which feels most comfortable, but maybe in the end is completely against the values you claim to live by?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Be Grateful to Everyone

Time for a break from the health care debates, and back to another lojong slogan. Even though I am a Soto Zen guy, I find myself landing back with the Tibetans from time to time for a shift in perspective. It's definitely true that I have always been an ecclectic, so this hopping isn't all that surprising. My dharma name, Tokugo, means "devoted to enlightenment" and the way I see it, everything can be a dharma gate. Dogen texts, lojong slogans, watching squirrels, eating nettles, health care debates, people that like you, people that don't like you: everything.

So the title of the post is pretty obvious, although much harder to actually do. How do you be grateful to people who harm you, for example? Or people who would like to kill you? Those are big, tricky questions.

And what about the more mundane. Can you show gratitude to the dust that fills your closets? Or the junk mail that fills your mailbox?

What about the boredom you feel on a rainy day? The cloudy states of mind you have when all you want is to be clear about something in your life?

Chogyam Trungpa writes about this slogan, "without this world we cannot attain enlightenment ... by rejecting the world we would be rejecting the ground and the path."

I think we're pretty effective as humans at rejecting our lives. It's probably a science by now, so well ingrained in each of us that we pass the skills onto the next generation without even knowing it, so well developed are they.

Somehow, it's essential to flip around the idea that the things we experience as obstacles are obstacles. The definition of obstacle is something that impedes progress or achievement, stands in front of, blocks the way. But I think the Buddha way is to flip that over, to learn to embrace what comes, and fold it within our lives on the path. To see everything as a dharma gate.

I've been discussing with another practitioner on-line about what he sees as the prevalence of anti-Christian sentiment amongst some of the on-line Buddhist community. I'm at a loss about how best to address this issue - I do agree with him to some degree - and yet I also understand some of the sources of the anger and upset that drive western Buddhists to make such blanket statements.

How can we show our gratitude to the evangelical Christian who says we are going to hell? That everything we practice is the devil's teachings? What does that look like without becoming a doormat in the process?

During the last three years of the Bush Administration, I took a vow to stop making personal attacks on the President, and I included him in my loving-kindness meditations. I actually upset some of my friends and family when I started saying things like "I don't believe the President is stupid." Some people had no idea how to respond. This didn't at all change the fact that I wanted him out of office, and believed that his policy decisions were destructive and created massive amounts of suffering. But I felt that continuing to make personal attacks opened the door to personal attacks on anyone, including myself.

I can actually say that President Bush, and those who worked with him, gave me the opportunity to see how fruitless personal attacks are - or maybe more correctly, how much negative fruit is created from personal attacks.

I don't think this fully answers the question above. Maybe it's a start. Every situation is different, and calls for a different approach, even if only slightly different.

So, there it is - Be Grateful to Everyone. Or, everything as I see it. Now on to actually doing it! There's the work of our lives.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Complimentary Healing Methods and the Heath Care Crisis

The discussion of health care continues, both all around the U.S. and also here in the land of 10,000 blogs. It's been pleasing to see so many people commenting on this issue, and bringing diverse perspectives to the table in mostly respectful ways. Today, I would like to address an element of health care that is always on my mind, but which hasn't directly appeared in this current discussion.

J9 Anonymous - who I think is different from the first Anonymous that posted on here, wrote the following, addressing the high cost of western, allopathic medicine (the current, dominant medical model:

"Another thing people could do for better free food is to forage in season. Every fall in NYC, the old Chinese ladies go around to places in the parks where the gingko trees are and collect the nuts. Nutritious plants that might be in your area:juneberries, highbush cranberry, thistle, stinging nettle, lamb's quarters, burdock, dandelion. There are lots of library books on the subject. Because foraged food is more nutritious you don't need to eat as much volume because it is so rich."

In a later post, she went on to speak about going to alternative/complimentary healers, saying the following:

"I don't want to say doctor because it excludes homeopaths, naturopaths, OMD'S, midwives, lactation consultants, Native American healers, etc. Most of the healers I deal with are single person operations so they don't even have a secretary. In the city, you might go to their office or apartment but out here in the country, we actually go to their house or they come to ours. None of them have ever asked about my income so there is no such thing as making too much or too little if you need a break. This is face-to-face human interaction and compassion that I am talking about."

To me, these comments strike at the heart of the problems of western, allopathic medicine. Not only has it become to exclusively dependent on a single approach to health, but it also has lost, in a lot of ways, the human connection/interaction component that is so necessary to healing.

The passion I have for a single payer model is mostly driven by the desire for all people to have access to western, allopathic medicine when it most counts: during a crisis. Time and time again, western, allopathic medicine proves to be wonderful when it comes to putting us back together again after a major accident, or dealing with life threatening conditions like heart attacks and strokes. And these same issues are so horribly expensive that those of us without insurance, or who have poor insurance, are doomed to an added fear of huge bills to pay at the very least, and often bankruptcy and other economic crises that follow us for years after the actual event. Beyond that, the fact that many people end up waiting to get care until it's an emergency means that there is an added level of suffering which never needed to be there in the first place. Isn't that our vow - to end all suffering. Even if it's impossible, I say it's worth putting every effort we have in that direction. Saying "too bad" or "poor you, better save more money next time" to those who don't have health insurance coverage isn't the Buddha Way in my opinion.

However, the comments of J9 bring up both the deficiencies in our health care system, and also the deficiencies in the basic care knowledge of the general public. In less than four generations, the basic knowledge about common medicinal plants and wild foods that most of our ancestors, no matter where they came from, had, is now dangerously rare. Although it's true that in recent years more people have taken an interest in alternative/complimentary medicine models, it's also true that most people look at me in great surprise when I say they could eat stinging nettles not only to detoxify their bodies, but also as a source of plant protein. Here's a link to some more info about nettles Nettles - Medicinial/Nutritional Information

There many easy, safe, and inexpensive ways to prevent disease that people have forgotten due to the rise of the current medical model, combined with the rise of large scale corporate farming, supermarkets, and convenience-based living in general. A man named Samuel Thomson in the early to mid-19th century built an entire system of populist medicine around a pair of plants, one of which is the cayenne pepper. Who hasn't heard of chili peppers, and yet a lot of people have no clue that peppers are a great preventative medicine, and can also be used for such basic ailments as the common cold and the flu. Here's a link to Cayenne info. Cayenne Pepper Health Benefits

When discussing health care, and changes to the current system, I also think it's essential that we consider what it means to be healthy, and how might approach both preventative medicine and healing from illness. One of the benefits of not having health insurance these past several years is that it has increased the intensity of my interest in other ways of creating and maintaining health. I have truly come to believe at a lot of suffering and illness present in modern societies is directly related to how disconnected we have become from our natural environments. And even though I still see a need for a national, single payer health care system, I also believe that it's imperative that we return to the knowledge of ancient therapies, plant medicine, and wild foods.

p.s. The photo is of the nettle patch in my garden. It started as a single plant I discovered in an alley three years ago, which I transplanted and let grow in its new, more soil-healthy environment.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Health Care, Anonymous Commenting, National Priorities

The flurry of comments on my recent post about Health Care in the U.S. Whole Foods, Health Care, and Buddhism led me to talk a little more about it.

First, I would like to point out the comments of Kris, who brings another important issue to light. She writes "The health care debate has been heart wrenching and maddening, but I'm grateful for all of it. Grateful that even the most wretchedly greedy and ignorant views are being heard. I'm hopeful that those views will help to "turn" the direction of the country toward a more compassionate, generous way of life. When we hear views so obviously rising from greed and fear, how can one not feel some twinge, some quake inside that says— 'this cannot stand!'" I absolutely agree with her. Without making the widely varied ideas we have about health care, or any major issue for that matter, public, it's hard to really address where we stand as a group, and move forward in any direction. This is the great struggle, and value of living in a more open, democratic society. To the degree that we have suppressed dissenting views, or have used wealth and power to talk over other viewpoints, our nation is all the more weaker for it. I, personally think the U.S. has a lot of work to do when it comes to being an active, democratic nation, but the lively discussions and debates about health care show that it can be possible.

Second, I'm very intrigued by the repeated comments made by some "Anonymous" person. I find anonymous commenting, especially repeated commenting against the position being stated, to be questionable. It's one thing if the person doesn't have an account, or a blog, and has to publish anonymously. But quite another if the person is choosing to be anonymous in order to say things that they wouldn't ever say to someone in person, or even online if their name was attached to it. The fact that this Anonymous commenter has never attached his/her name to any of the comments makes me wonder a bit about the intentions behind them. Many bloggers on here have had to change their open door policies following attacks from anonymous writers, which I think is sad. James over at Monkey Mind stopped accepting comments on his blog all together awhile back, which makes you wonder what kind of rot he must have been receiving, and for how long. More recently, Reverend Danny stopped accepting anonymous comments due to, I'm guessing, a similar level of repeated nastiness. These are just two examples of what I would argue is a downside of the internet - namely that the relative anonymity is an excuse for some people to let all their "bad behavior" spill out. I'm all for discussion, disagreement, even sharp tongued language about issues and ideas being expressed. But leveling personal insults and attacks while hiding behind a computer screen is not only cowardly, but also - for those of us who claim to be following Buddha's teachings - is disparaging the third treasure of sangha. As of now, the comments of the Anonymous on my current blog haven't quite plunged to the level of personal attack, but a few seem to teeter on the edge of doing so. I'm not interested in parsing out what has been said in these terms; mostly, I just find the whole issue of anonymous commenting to be problematic.

Finally,said Anonymous commenter displayed a lot of interest in the national debt, and in people not spending "beyond their means."

The total estimated U.S. national budget expenditures for 2009 are around $3 trillion. Now, here for me are some interesting numbers within that budget.

# $408 billion - Medicare
# $224 billion - Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)
# $70.4 billion - United States Department of Health and Human Services

Total - $702.4 billion

# $515.4 billion - United States Department of Defense
# $145.2 billion(2008*) - Global War on Terror
# $37.6 billion - United States Department of Homeland Security
# $44.8 billion - United States Department of Veterans Affairs
Around $190 billion in appropriations for the Iraq War and Afghanistan War.

Total Approx. $930 billion

What I would like to know is where are these same people who complain about the cost of health care when the defense budget and all it's attachments are released? Are they out protesting about the fact that nearly 1/3 of our entire budget is spent on military and military related costs? I somehow doubt it. Deficit hawks are only hawkish when it comes to certain programs. When the government is feeding the military industrial complex, and keeping in place the veneer of safety and security, the hawks are nowhere near their squawk boxes.

Here are a few more interesting numbers.

# $1.21 trillion - Individual income tax

# $949.4 billion - Social Security and other payroll taxes
# $339.2 billion - Corporate income tax

Total Approx $1.29 trillion

Frankly, that corporate income tax number seems pretty damn small. But again, that tends to be off the board when it comes to most defecit hawks. Meanwhile, the CEO's and upper management of large corporations, and the rich stockholders of the same companies, walk off with millions, sometimes billions of dollars. What does any one person or family need that kind of money for? Why does Bill Gates need $57 billion? Why does Warren Buffett need $50 billion? Why does the Walton family collectively need more than $70 billion?

And why do many of us in the United States believe such a system that allows these kinds of excesses is worth supporting, and even touting as the greatest way to run an economy?

There is no scarity of resources here in the U.S. We could address our deficit, and still provide health care for everyone here, if our collective priorities were different.

The Buddha pointed out time and again that greed, hatred, and delusion are at the root of every issue we humans have. This issue is no different. In my opinion, if our collective priorities don't change, we'll continue to be swamped in a murky soup of all three poisons.

Monday, August 17, 2009

More on the Body

Reading and writing about the body and meditation appears to a big a draw for me right now. It seems to be corresponding to a certain internal shift I've felt over past several months which most easily can be described as "feeling the ground more fully." While walking, I actually feel my feet moving up and down, for example. And when one or both feet are flat, sometimes they even feel like they are slowly sinking into the ground below. Not some sort of scary, quick sand sinking, but more like a raindrop slowly settling in between blades of grass.

Back to the article from BuddhaDharma Start With Your Body.

Phillip Moffitt responds to a question about being mindful of the body with the following: "I start guided meditation by saying, Bring attention to the body - not your body, the body. I'm pointing to a phenomenon occurring right now."

This is a very interesting set of comments, even if, on the surface, they look obvious or not all that earth shattering.

How often do people actually experience their bodies as they are in the moment?

Isn't it more often the case that we're lost in our ideas about what is happening? Or we're swimming in conditioned thinking about what we look like? Or are swamped in the details of some diagnosis given by doctors? Or are in competition mode, wishing we had a flatter stomach, stronger arms, or less flabby ass, like those models in the magazines we read, or in the movies and tv shows we watch? Or maybe are locked in a battle with memories from some physical trauma from the past?

There are so many ways to spin out from the body as it is right now.

Phillip Moffit says the three most common modes of relationship we have with the body are judging, comparing, and fixing. And at least here in the U.S., these three modes are nearly state sanctioned, and law codified as not only appropriate ways of relating, but actually the most important. All popular forms of media reinforce the notion that you must look a certain way, feel a certain, and if you don't, you better damn well fix it so that you do. And sadly, people spend billions of dollars on products, procedures, and programs (The 3 P's) that are designed to prop up or create an image of their body that is more in line with the popularly accepted images of beautiful and handsome. Make no mistake - this isn't a single gender issue. We all can, and do, fall for these lines of thinking and acting.

As Moffit comments, any time we land in one of the three common modes of relating with our bodies - judging, comparing, and fixing - we're trapped in dualism, and creating a solidity to our experience which isn't actually there. I know for myself, there have been plenty of times during meditation where some slightly intense energy will appear, be it physical pain somewhere or emotional pattern or whatnot, and I can spin in stories about what might happen. If I let this go, will it get more painful? Will I have some sort of medical emergency? Will I die? These are fleeting thoughts, but sometimes I stick to them, and not surprisingly, tension expands and makes things "feel worse."

And beyond that, although I'm not all that prone to the 3 P's, I have been known to fuss over my hair way too much, worrying I don't "look good," whatever that means. I might not buy a bunch of products and services, but I have repeatedly returned to the restroom to check and recheck the day's hairstyle. Is it hanging in the right place? Did the wind blow it all over? Just the other day, I walked up to the window of a closed restaurant because the wind had picked up, and I thought things had gotten "too messy."

How much of our lives do we waste on this kind of stuff?

It goes far beyond taking care of your body and your appearance. It's just plain neurotic.

I think it's important, when recognizing these kinds of behaviors, to not fall into punitive land about it. Harshly judging the neurotic relationships we have with our bodies just continues the cycle of separating from the present moment - from what's actually happening now.

However, at the same time, cultural conditioning around the body is so dense, and so powerful, that we really don't have any time to waste. What good is a spiritual practice if it doesn't work to undo the layers of cultural conditioning we have? I say it's time to stop saying yes to every whim and fear we have about our bodies, and to start paying attention to what's really there.

Let's drop the three modes, drop the three P's, and embody the home that's been waiting for us.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Whole Foods, U.S. Health Care, and Buddhist Teachings

I have been a little bit reluctant to directly link the current health care debates going on in the U.S. to Buddhist teachings, but feel compelled to so following an article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey Whole Foods Solution . The following post will address some of the issues I see with the approach outlined by Mr. Mackey, and also consider how spiritual practice might impact how one sees these issues.

First, my own story. I work at a small non-profit that cannot, due to funding, afford to give us health coverage. I have long been passionate about my work, teaching English as a Second Language, and feel strongly that it's been a good line of work for me. However, not only does my employer not cover me, but I can't afford to purchase a plan that doesn't also have a 5-10 thousand dollar deductible. More than once, I've been told "move on, get another job." And I am looking, but this brings up the larger issue of telling people to leave careers they are passionate about, or even which are “good enough” because of something like lack of health care coverage. It's kind of a stupid set up if you ask me. I have watched many talented teachers leave the adult basic education system I work in because of low pay and no benefits. And this isn't just our system's issue; people are losing their benefits, or getting much weaker plans, on a daily basis.

So, I support a single payer system. I don't believe that a government run system is a perfect answer because there are no perfect answers. I imagine my readers from Canada, England, and other places might have a few words to say about government health systems. But as far as our own goes , I truly believe it is driven by greed and profit margins, and that too many in the U.S. have forgotten that medicine isn't about making money, but about caring for people and reducing suffering. What I keep coming back is the question “What is most effect way to address the individual and collective dukkha in our society around health and health care?” And the answer that keeps coming back is single payer.

Now, to the Wall Street Journal article. John Mackey's position is fiercely in defense of "free market" system health care. The way he writes about it is exactly why I believe we are in trouble here in the U.S. Let's take a look at some of his lines.

1. "While we clearly need health-care reform, the last thing our country needs is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system."

When did health care become an "entitlement"? I just don't understand how we have gotten to the point where people can say something like this with a straight face. Here you have a rich, white male, who has assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, who most likely lives in a gated community, and who has people in his company who do all of the “menial” and “lesser” work for him – and he’s speaking about entitlements. It’s laughable.

Here’s a few things for us in the Buddhist communities to think about. It’s definitely true that everything is impermanent, including our health. That we shouldn’t cling to anything, including our body, believing it will last, because it won’t. But isn’t it also true that we have teaching after teaching speaking about how this human body is a vehicle to enlightenment and that we better “take heed, and make use of this precious life!” And beyond this, what about the emphasis on generosity, and not being stingy? Obviously John Mackey is probably not a Buddhist, but I’m not about to think that all Buddhists disagree with his position, because I’m pretty sure he has some supporters among us out there. So, the question is “How is basic health care for all people ‘an entitlement’, and how does that square with Buddha’s teachings?” I think even if you disagree with Mackey, but support any form of health care system that leaves out large numbers of people – as the current one does – this question is for you.

2. The government should "Remove the legal obstacles that slow the creation of high-deductible health insurance plans and health savings accounts (HSAs)."

Mackey argues that high-deductible plans are one of the wonder-drug answers to the health care problem. And sure, they're great for large companies because they cost the company less, but what about the individual who is supposedly covered? As if poor people, or even a lot of middle class people, have an extra couple thousand of dollar tucked away to pay for a medical exams, a broken arm, or even a handful of regular visits and follow-up visits. I paid nearly $200 for a ten minute exam at a low-income clinic four years ago, because my meager salary was over the federal “poverty” guidelines. That was just for the visit, with no exams, no medications, no nothing added. Mackey writes in a way that suggests Whole Foods is compassionate because they offer these crappy health insurance plans, and then give their employees some money to cover some of those costs they might incur.

What I don't understand from a business stand point is how all this red tape - having to set up HSAs, and having someone keep track of all the paperwork involved, is such a cost-effective solution for big business. Many of these companies have huge departments full of people whose main jobs are to deal with insurance claims, coverage for employees, and all the paperwork under the sun. How is that cost effective? Is it that they are so blinded by their belief in the power of the markets that they can't see how, in this case, they are being drained economically? Of course, for every CEO like Mackey, there is another one who sees this very thing, and decides to do away with health insurance for some employees all together. Or simply eliminates half the jobs in the company under the guise of “restructuring.” We have a serious compassion-deficit in corporate America, regardless of what people believe is the best way to address the current health care crisis.

3. "Repeal government mandates regarding what insurance companies must cover. These mandates have increased the cost of health insurance by billions of dollars. What is insured and what is not insured should be determined by individual customer preferences and not through special-interest lobbying."

This strikes me as a great way to increase the number of denials for coverage from the already denial-happy insurance industry. Let's face it: they love saying no because it increases their profit margin. And eliminating regulations that mandate certain issues and procedures be covered will only make it easier for these companies to throw ethics out the window in the name of the bottom line.

4. "Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care—to equal access to doctors, medicines and hospitals. While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?

Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges. A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That's because there isn't any. This "right" has never existed in America."

Ah, the good old Constitutional argument. I guess while we’re at it, let’s go back to the days of slavery, the days when women and people of color could not vote, the days when Senators were chosen by the state government and not elected by the people. Whenever someone uses the "It's not in the Constitution argument," we should all pause.

Let's go further with the above statements, especially the line about no intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. This is the end point of free-market capitalism - you toss the suffering of others to the wind. You say that they are personally responsible for their problems, for their lack of health care or food or whatever, and you deny that there is such a thing as collective responsibility. In other words, as Buddha might say, "You believe way too much in a solid, separate self."

5. "Even in countries like Canada and the U.K., there is no intrinsic right to health care. Rather, citizens in these countries are told by government bureaucrats what health-care treatments they are eligible to receive and when they can receive them. All countries with socialized medicine ration health care by forcing their citizens to wait in lines to receive scarce treatments."

This is the classic fear tactic being pummeled into the minds of Americans again in the drive to demonize any alternative to the privatized system we currently have. Never mind that people are routinely denied coverage for treatments deemed "unnecessary" by private insurers. Never mind that people are routinely denied the option of choosing doctors "out of network" by their insurers. Never mind that there are plenty of waiting lines for non-emergency procedures under the current system, run by these same private insurers. There is no such thing as complete freedom of choice, regardless of the system. And in terms of choice, I'd argue that in many cases, we living under the privatized U.S. system actually have less choice. As for the scarcity argument, it can't get any scarcer for me than the no access until I'm falling apart that I have now.

6. "Unfortunately many of our health-care problems are self-inflicted: two-thirds of Americans are now overweight and one-third are obese. Most of the diseases that kill us and account for about 70% of all health-care spending—heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and obesity—are mostly preventable through proper diet, exercise, not smoking, minimal alcohol consumption and other healthy lifestyle choices."

Now, I agree that taking care of yourself, including making wise eating decisions and exercising, are beneficial to one's health. And that some people's decisions definitely have a negative impact on their health. I'm not going to argue against that.

But the above position is a privileged one, made by someone who:

a)probably lives nowhere near a toxic waste dump, commercially poisoned water supply, waste treatment facility, or nuclear power plant - all of which seriously impact people's health, regardless of what the do personally. People of color and poor whites generally face the brunt of these issues because they lack the resources to move elsewhere, and struggle to get their voices heard by decision makers who could change the situation.

b)has the economic resources to pay for healthy food at all times. Many people, especially poor people, live in areas where there are simply no grocery stores at all, or only grocery stores that sell low grade, highly processed foods. These same people, if given the opportunity to purchase high grade, healthy food often don't have the economic resources to do so. Farmer's markets, community gardens, and home gardens help to some degree, but aren't sufficient answers to the problem of obtaining quality foods, especially in northern climates, where the growing season is much shorter.

c. has access to preventative care, which can help stem problems like obesity and high blood pressure at a much early stage. This is not to say that those of us who are uninsured or under-insured can't learn to eat and behave healthier - we can. However, as a group, we often have less free time, and have to work more just to make ends meet, and thus have less time to research healthy solutions, or get help adjusting our lifestyles to better support our health. A lot of people forget that regular access to the internet is, itself, still a privilege not shared by many of those on the bottom end of the economic scale.

Frankly, personal responsibility only goes so far, no matter what one does. And using personal responsibility as an argument against something is often a smoke screen for something much less polite sounding: it's your problem, don't ask me to help you with your problem. It's not a very generous way to live, or to run a society. In addition, it weakens the ability to effectively use that argument when it's called for. Sometimes people do need to "take personal responsibility," but when it's applied to everything over and over again, the meaning gets diminished, and people either tune out, or follow blindly.

7. "Whatever reforms are enacted it is essential that they be financially responsible, and that we have the freedom to choose doctors and the health-care services that best suit our own unique set of lifestyle choices."

As far as I'm concerned, the best of the various options to fulfill this call is single payer. It eliminates the middle man (private insurers) and all the costs associated with their bureaucracy. It allows more freedom of choice in terms of doctors. And it extends these opportunities to all of us, not just those who have the financial resources and/or good fortune to have employers who offer coverage.

Beyond this, I personally feel that covering basic health care for everyone is most in line with Buddha's teachings. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I'm a deluded treehugger or whatever. But those of you out in the Buddhist world who disagree with me, please tell what system you think might best address these issues, and also tell me how your spiritual practice aided you in coming to that decision.

If you haven't guessed already, I'm of the firm belief that if our spiritual practices don't aid us in how we approach the social issues of the day, they aren't really getting at the marrow of this life. This doesn't mean we all must become activists, or that monks living in seclusion aren't "doing the practice." But it does mean that our spiritual lives should lead us to care more about others, to pay more attention to issues that effect us collective, and to do what we can to lessen suffering and increase joy.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Craining to Experience the Body

I had a pair of "body" focused experienced this morning, and then finished reading the article I wrote about yesterday. The first experience happened while biking. I had just crossed a bridge over the Mississippi River, and was enjoying the wind blowing at me, as well as the legs pumping, pushing the biking up the gentle slope. The problem was that I was looking down a little too much, and so didn't see what was ahead of me until I was almost on it. Just a moment before passing, I looked up and saw the eyes of a wild turkey, its neck stretching out from behind a light pole. The sight shocked me, being in the heart of the city, this huge bird that didn't seemed phased a bit by my passing it so closely. I stopped and looked back at it. It looked at me, and I felt my heart racing and a roar of laughter fly out of my throat. A few cars passed, and I saw the drivers also smiling, maybe at the two of us together, maybe just at the bird.

The second experience was an outdoor meditation by one of the many lakes in Minneapolis. To any of you who have never actually done zazen outside, I recommend it highly. This is how it has been done for most of history, and many people continue to meditate solely or primarily outside around the world. So, what's different about it? Keeping with the topic, partly what's different is that it's easier to feel the body. Maybe this is especially true with the wind blowing, but I noticed how easy it was for me to tune into my breathing, and to focus on different sensations occurring within. It's possible that this was just "how it was" today, or that I'm more comfortable with natural sounds like birds calling, dogs barking, and the wind, and thus am able to experience those without the need to judge or comment internally. Also, the flow of changes outside - such as the wind shifts or ducks squawking - the natural rhythm of that seems to cue me in to my own rhythms in a way that I don't experience indoors. I often have to work at dropping story lines about the bangs, clunks, shifts in temperature, talking sounds, etc. that I experience indoors. In other words, it takes longer for me to "get out of my head" and fully embody my zazen, life itself at that moment.

In some ways, this feels like an artificial division, and certainly, zazen is zazen no matter where you are or what is coming up.

But when it comes to attention to the body, and shifting away from that "heady zen" I spoke about a few weeks ago, sometimes a shift in location (or wild turkey) is called for.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Objectified Bodies; Sexual Puritanisms

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Buddhism and the lack of attention many of us pay to the body Heady Zen, No Body.. Not long after that, the new BuddhaDharma magazine arrived in my mailbox, containing an article entitled "Start With Your Body." Apparently, this is on a lot of people's minds right now. Here is an except from the article you can check out, if you don't have the magazine. Start with your body

I haven't finished the article, but I would like to offer some reflections based upon what I have read so far. In my opinion, this is an essential issue to address in our practice, especially as Buddhism is unfolding in its newer, non-Asian dominant homes.

The mind/body split that has been so strong in "Western" countries since at least the enlightenment period, and probably could be easily traced back to figures like St. Augustine (354-430), is slowly being examined. In fact, I would argue that part of the appeal we convert Buddhists have to the practice is that the teachings seem to address this very split. However, attraction to holistic teachings is one thing, and implementing them in a holistic way, both individually and collectively, is quite another.

In the article cited above, Reggie Ray, who has spent years developing practices around meditation and the body, said that in "our Western culture" we "objectify the body as somehow separate from our awareness, separate from our minds." Now, I'm wary of his totalizing language about culture. There is no single "Western" culture. Think of all the different subgroups of people just in the U.S. - they don't all believe and behave in the same ways. But I would say there is a dominent strain of thought that does help create this objectification Ray speaks of.

The body as sex object. The body as an advertising method, and sales tool. The body as a machine. The body as a workhorse, means of obtaining income through labor. The body as powerhouse athlete. These are a few examples of the ways in which we objectify our bodies, splitting it off from the mind, and our spiritual lives.

Frankly, the first of these, the body as sex object, tells so very much about the state of things. There is a lot of hand wringing over following the third precept, for example, and what it means in a non-monastic, not quite fully lay oriented practice. Once you get past the issues of rape, incest, and pedifilia, which most people agree are not healthy nor in accord with Buddha's teachings, then all hell breaks loose. What about adultery? That seems to be time and time again rejected in Buddhist teachings, and yet a fair number of the sex scandals in "Western" sanghas have involved adultery. What I find interesting about the issue is adultery is that it instantly brings up impermanence. Our relationships don't last, at least in the way we want them to, even the ones that do last until one or both partners die. The obsession with an ever-lasting monogamy in the "West" seems to really be tripped up when you start to dig deeply into the ways in which our lives actually unfold.

I, myself, desire a long-term monogamous relationship, and hope the next one is the one that lasts for the rest of my life. But experience tells me that it's probably more likely that the next one won't be the last one. I don't think this is being sour or pessimistic - it's reality. So, given the tension between our desires and what actually happens, what's an intelligent, maybe even dharmic way to proceed?

The whole movement for Gay Marriage feels like another example of this tension between the storybook stories we have and realities. On the one hand, it's wonderful that the love of couples, regardless of gender, is starting to move into the mainstream. And along with this movement, an effort to equalize the playing field when it comes to the social/economic benefits of marriage. I support these changes wholeheartedly.

And yet, at the same time, it's still focused on a certain type of relationship, and specifically the one kind of relationship held up as THE BEST and often the only form of acceptable relationship in Western societies. Which leads to the question of those queer folk, or for that matter, straight folk, who choose to commit themselves to others in a different way. Where do they stand? Where does the couple that chooses not to marry stand? Where do those people who view love differently from "death do us part" fit in? Are their decisions not as worthy or loving as those who choose to marry?

And what about all the problems that arise when people feel they have to get married to be able to live together, or to have access to economic and social benefits, or to live in the country their partner is from?

How do we address this in light of the Buddhist precepts? In other words, what do we mean when we vow to "not misuse sexuality"? And I'm specifically pointing at that "We" because I think we in the convert Buddhist communities haven't really looked at these issues enough to have any clear answers.

And why? Because talking about sex, sexuality, and how it impacts our spiritual lives isn't something a whole lot of us are comfortable with. Which takes us back to the whole mind/body split - even though we talk a good game about believing in the interconnectedness of all things, how we really believe that out of the mud of our lives, the lotus will grow, when it comes to sex and sexuality, it all falls apart. Sure, we do a good job lamenting with others how terrible it is that everything is sexualized, or how today's children are learning about sex "too quickly" or "from the "wrong sources" - in other words, we convert Buddhists can bitch with the best of them about social ills.

But really, are we collectively, as a spiritual group, any more enlightened about sex and sexuality than say, the evangelical Christians so many of us like to lambast?

How many sexual puritanisms have we, consciously or unconsciously, incorporated in our efforts to establish sanghas and Buddhist practice in the "West?"

I'm pushing the envelope because it needs to be pushed. Dishonest, greedy, controlling, unexamined sex lives bring an enormous amount of suffering into the world. It seems to me that if you really take the Buddha's teachings seriously, this has to include deeply examining issues of sex and sexuality. And I think this has to happen individually, with those we have relationships with, and in our broader spiritual communities.

Hopefully, I'll have more to write about when I finish the article. But for now, that will have to do. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Abandon Poisonous Food

I've been musing on how easily we sucker ourselves into believing impossible, ridiculous things. Take the people who have decided their mission in life is to expose U.S. President Obama as a non-citizen. The stories are wildly entertaining, and yet terrible distractions from the very real problems of this country, not to mention being tinged with racist undertones. Take the birth announcement issue. Two Honolulu, Hawaii newspapers reported Obama's birth in August 1961. There was nothing special about either announcement, nor really about Obama's birth for that matter. Neither of his parents had any celebrity importance in 1961, and the announcements were a mere few lines at most, tucked away in the back of the papers. And yet there are a not small number of people in the U.S. who believe those announcements were faked somehow, that someone "went back" and "forged" every copy of those newspapers that exists. It's so mindbogglingly stupid I can contain myself, and yet thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands of people believe it, and ideas like it.

Chogyam Trungpa wrote a book about Tibetan Lojong practice Training the Mind which is centered around the use of slogans, or pithy sayings, that help cut through the bullshit of the mind. The title of this post, Abandon Poisonous Food, is one of them. Specifically, this slogan is speaking about any and all thoughts we have about our spiritual practice that are related to self improvement or self aggrandizement. He says these are poisonous foods we love to eat. If I sit meditation for x number of years, I will be a better person. Because I am into Zen, I'm a better person than you. It's thoughts like this that this slogan was originally designed to address.

But I really believe that it can be applied to ideas like the conspiracy theories mentioned above. Think about it. Why do these people hold views like this? Sure, it's about politics, and not liking President Obama's particular brand of politics. However, it's more than that. It's about destroying the validity of the man. About believing that he is inherently not worthy of leading the U.S. And when it gets down to it, the people who hold these beliefs consider themselves and others like them to be superior than our current President. It's not simply a strong disagreement about his political choices (I have plenty of those myself). No, those who argue that President Obama is a foreigner who does not deserve to be the leader of this country are people who have abandoned their intelligence in favor of eating a big load of poisonous food.

Let's face it though. Even though you and I may see through conspiracy theories like this, we all have our own set of conspiracies we have decided are true, no matter what the evidence. From the tiny, every day personal story lines like so and so is an asshole because he cut me off on the freeway, to probably the biggest conspiracy theory of them all (I am a solid, fixed, unchanging, separate self.), these poisonous foods tempt us like chocolate ice cream on a hot summer day. Eat me. Eat me. Come on, you know you want to. And we do, over and over again.

So, even though I similtaneously laugh and cringe at the stories about Obama's birth, I know better than to think I'm above those kind of thought patterns. This doesn't mean I will stay quiet in the face of ridiculous political stunts, but it does mean that part of my job is to recognize the person behind the ridiculousness. That, too, is a way to abandon poisionous food.