Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Three Kinds of Anger

I came across this little commentary by Phra Maha Vuthichai Vachiramethi about three kinds of anger on the Tricycle blog (Three Kinds of Anger).

Anger may manifest itself in the following ways:

- Like a line drawn across water, anger that disappears quickly.

- Like a line drawn in the sand, disappearing when a wave washes ashore.

- Like a line carved into a stone, surviving all kinds of weather conditions over thousands and thousands of years.

Anger is not a physical entity, but once it appears, its destructive potential is far more devastating than any nuclear weapon.

It got me thinking about the formless atonement verse I chant every night before bed. At some point about a year and a half ago, I decided that even if I didn't sit, do walking meditation, or any other deliberate practice during the day, at least I would end the day chanting the following three times:

All my ancient twisted karma
from beginningless greed, hate, and delusion
born of my body, speech, and thought
I now fully avow.

In some ways, I see this chant as a broom. When the day is done, I sweep away the dust that has accumulated as a result of my actions.

In other ways, I view it as a promise. When the day is done, I'm reminding myself of the vows I have taken, and am readying myself for a new start in the morning.

In light of the Vachiramethi quote above, this chant can also be viewed as a means of breaking though, if only for a short time, some of that longer held anger - the kind that cuts across the generations. Every effort we can make to disrupt these kinds of patterns is important, even if we have no idea how long it might take to break down those lines drawn across the stones of our lives.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Blown About by the Wind

Well, autumn has ripped straight through the fairly warm, dry air we had been having here in Minnesota. Yesterday afternoon, rain arrived, wind gusts over 40 mph arrived, and temperatures dropped a good 25 degrees in a matter of a few hours. The wind gusts continued today, and the weather forecast called for overnight lows only a few degrees above freezing. How things can change quickly.

Potting the tender perennial herbs in my garden to take into the house this evening, I noticed how I was rushing. In fact, like most of the day, a low grade irritation was eating at me, producing stories filled with little, nasty comments in them about how things weren't moving fast enough, or weren't going right. Isn't it funny how the mind can mirror the weather! Here I am bending over a little pot, trying to fit a bulging lemon balm plant into it, thinking "Damn thing is too big; now my hands are covered with dirt too." I love gardening; I even enjoy having soil covered hands, a very obvious connection to the planet. And yet, this prosperous lemon balm plant and the soil attached to it meant nothing to me but another problem I had to solve quickly. Why quickly? No reason at all. I didn't need to hurry. There was plenty of time to survey the garden, locate what needed to come in, and re-pot it before the sun went down. But I didn't want to deal with it. I had just finished work, had missed the connecting bus, had to sew a little tear in my backpack, and get over to my mother's place, where the garden is. It sounds like a lot, but it really wasn't. I just made it feel like a lot by buying into the "not having enough time" story, and letting my mind be blown about by the wind.

As they usually do, the plants taught me something. Looking at the neighboring lemon balm, which was even larger, I realized it was time to slow down. I took a few breaths, and then put the blade of the shovel in and carved around what had become a little bush over the past four months. I'm always amazed how quickly lemon balm grows, and how just a few dashes of the hand through the middle of the plant gives off a wonderfully strong lemon scent. Of course, it probably shouldn't be much of a
surprise that lemon balm is a calming herb, a perfect thing to make tea with after a long, stressful day. I snipped a few leaves off, and savored their flavor as I plunked the rest of the plant into a large bucket. Then it was on to the Thai pepper, lemongrass, and sage plants down the row.

They're now tucked safely on the front porch. A few might not make it because that's what seems to happen every year. The rest are settling into their new, temporary homes. Isn't this just like our own lives? - seemingly grounded, but really just a series of transplantings, each one an attempt to set down the roots that have, in the vast scheme of things, always been there.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wild West Zen

I just finished reading the comments section on a recent post by Zen Teacher Brad Warner (Bye-Bye Tokio). It's probably been two months since I have looked at his blog, primarily because it was easier to find drama and pissing matches than dharma discussion. Of course, you can learn a lot from drama and pissing matches, but they're everywhere, so why go looking for them in dharma blogs.

Opening the post above, though, and seeing the lengthy exchange below it - 185 comments to date - was like stepping into a wild west movie. I say movie because it's hard to tell what's real and what's not, and the whole thing unfolds so much like a movie script, complete with chattering extras adding their two cents to the drama.

Some of you may know that there seems to be a long standing conflict/drama between Brad Warner and another dharma heir of Gudo Wafu Nishijima, who is known for, among other things, his excellent translation of Dogen's Shobogenzo (which he completed with fellow translator Chodo Cross). This conflict is at the center of the comments made on the post by Brad Warner above.

The drama unfolds complete with a set of letters that supposedly were exchanged between Warner and Nishijima, during which Warner resigns as head of the Dogen Sangha International(Establishment of Dogen Sangha). The kicker is that Jundo Cohen, the other dharma heir, was cc'ed on all the messages, and decides to make them public by posting them on Warner's blog.

I can see it now: James Bond as Dogen 07. As the camera pans in on the squabbling zen students and their teachers, Dogen 07 leaps into the center of the screen, wearing a Dogen Sangha International t-shirt, and pointing his trusty gun at the villainous zen teacher (you pick which one). The villainous zen teacher drops his incense, and throws his hands in the air, clearly scared. Dogen 07 cocks the trigger of his gun and says "You forgot, venerable one, to forget the self!"

Throughout the months I have been blogging, I have noticed how much people seem to gravitate towards drama, myself included. A few conflictual comments can easily turn into a full scale, online fight in a matter of hours. This is true in real life as well, which makes me wonder if people struggle to actually enjoy peace. Most all of us talk about wanting peace, and yet how easily we seem to get bored with it. Quiet, beautiful sunsets, or everyday chores like sweeping the floor, are just fine for awhile. But if a car crash, domestic dispute, football brawl, or loud action film is available, how quickly many of us (zen teachers included) will drop the calm and peaceful and run straight for the drama.

It's something to look into, this desire to stir up the shit, instead of staying with what is present. And in the meantime, maybe I should start writing the Dogen 07 screenplay, just in case the quiet sunset doesn't hold up.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dharmic Internet Dating?

I stumbled across this article by an editor of Tricycle magazine about "dharma" internet dating(Dharma Dating). Having done way more than my share of internet dating over the past six years, I was definitely laughing and agreeing a lot with Anne Cushman's comments about her own experiences. Here are a few lines in particular, though, that struck me.

Perhaps dating is just a way to practice keeping the door of my heart open to intimacy - without attachment to results. In the process, I can notice the habits of contraction that keep me feeling separate from other people: judgments, expectations, fears, busyness, guilt, chronic feelings of insecurity or superiority.

As the regular readers of this blog know, I'm one who tries to see the dharma in everything. Not that this is an easy task all the time, but it definitely is more effective than constantly dismissing things, or people, or experiences as meaningless. So, dating is yet another dharma field - in my opinion, a kind of strange, chameleon-like dharma field.

One of the things Anne Cushman is how, when you meet people in the flesh, you spin stories around them based on what you see and experience. There's some initial connection, whether it's simply sexual attraction, shared interests, or something deeper than that. However, when you meeting someone after seeing a profile and e-mailing online, your mind ends up creating a story about everything. Although you have more information about the person in a certain sense, you have none of the tactile, concrete, on the ground information that often makes or breaks both love relationships and friendships.

When you pay closer attention to all of this, there is a wide field of dharma hanging out here, waiting to be tapped into. First of all, the identity issue I spoke about in the last post comes up constantly. How do you present yourself on-line? Does it at all match who you really are? Can it ever? Second, there is a ton of "picking and choosing" going on. Now, you most definitely have to do some of that, but it's amazing how easy it is to dismiss people you have never met for trivial things you'd never dismiss in real life. And at the same time, it's also amazing how easy it is to get attached to other things someone says. Actually, attached is too light a word - obsessed to the point of blindness is probably more accurate. "She's a Buddhist too, we must be a match in heaven!" "Oh, my god! She uses the word 'partnership' in her profile, and loves to read dharma books by the lake under the full moon. Me too!" Third, all of your self-absorbed qualities get plucked in this process as well. You write in your profile that your kind and patient, and then during the date, you have an argument about politics. She writes that she has been practicing Buddhism for a long time, and then you discover that she actually only reads about it in magazines like Tricycle, and thinks that "it's a bunch of cool ideas" she'd like to follow some day. And finally, there's the good old red thread - sex. Only the rude or overly aggressive bring it up on a first date - unless, of course, it was the stated goal of both parties from the beginning. And yet, unlike meeting people in real life, the whole sex issue coupled with on-line dating is almost guaranteed to produce some wacky off-spring. Some want to maintain a "pure" image in the beginning, and worry that any talk about sex will automatically make them appear to be sex crazed. So, they date for awhile, start to really like each other, but then find themselves faced with a wall of anxiety concerning sex because going there might "ruin" the image they have created. Some never say a word about sex, but end up in bed with each other after a few hours over dinner and then wonder why, a few weeks later, they can't stand each other. (This is different from the in person fling or one night stand because, at least in theory, these people have some common interests and should have something to talk about.) Still others don't talk about sex, but then drop a person after a few dates when the sex doesn't happen. And then there are those who state "I just want to be friends in the beginning," which is definitely a good sentiment, but because the whole thing began on a blind date, creates an awkward energy around sexuality and physical intimacy. After awhile, one or both people start to wonder if they are "just friends" or if "it's something more." This happens in real life meetings as well, and the line is often blurry no matter what. However, at least in real life, there is more of a chance for a natural progression from friendship to love relationship. The friendship wasn't artificially imposed as a means of slowing things down, in other words.

What's really comical is that, even though I have been on and off the online dating thing, I have ended up dating only one woman I met online for longer than a month. The three year relationship I had during the middle of that six year period was a woman who I met through a friend. However, I can't completely dismiss the online factor because the friend and I had been talking about online dating when he brought up the woman I would eventually spend three years of my life with.

And yet, I have found many teachings out the process of dating strangers I have met online. It's taught me plenty about myself, as well as what I really value in a potential partner. But I do hope that someday, this part of my life goes offline for the duration.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Rotten Floorboards of Identity

In the old version of Dogen's commentary to the precepts our sangha used to chant was the following line attached to the seven precept (Not elevating oneself above others) - "when the dharma body is manifested, there is not even a single square inch of earth upon which to stand." I've always gravitated to this line for some reason, even in the earliest days of my practice. Why? I don't entirely know, but this image of "not even a single square inch of earth" has always been a felt thing for me. It trips up all the talk and naming that we do because it points to the life beyond names and naming.

Yesterday, I resigned my position on the board of directors of the ESL school I helped start five and a half years. It was a very difficult decision that came after several nights of fitful sleep that kept pointing me in that direction. Today, I walked into my workplace - another ESL school - and watched a few more floorboards crack in half. At least three of us (out of a staff of 12) are considering leaving soon. We spent part of the morning arguing about standardized tests, and then during the afternoon gave those very same exams to our learners. The school has no functioning strategic plan, a board of directors led by people who are still living out the "good old days," dysfunctional executive leadership, and is struggling to bring in enough money to keep up with the needs of the place. Even though I haven't left yet, my days are most likely very numbered there.

I have been an ESL teacher for the better part of the last 11 years. Many people know me primarily as a guy who is passionate about adult education and immigrants, so much so that he has been willing to volunteer hundreds of hours over the years to "the cause." But now, here I am, in the middle of this identity disappearing. It might even be on it's deathbed, for all I know.

I've watched the reactions to my resignation from the first school. Confusion. Shock. Lots of questions. It's so obvious living in the middle of all this how strongly we attach to identities, both our own and those we impose on others. I deliberately chose the word "impose" because that's often exactly what is being done.

We so want to peg each other down, and then when the other person fails to fit the image we have, we do all kinds of things to either try and make them get back in the box, or to get them out, out, out of our lives.

But let's face it - there's never been a single square inch of earth upon which to stand. Every last attempt to label someone, to know someone completely through and through using words, is a rotten board. That doesn't mean that we toss out labels all together - no, that would be silly, and rather sad. However, as long as you, or I, believe that we have someone else, or even ourselves, totally pegged as a zen student, or mother, or teacher, or jackass, or liar, or absolute saint - as long as we believe these labels, we're living in a house built of rotten boards soon to crack, split, and crumble.

I'm getting the sense that a lot of the grief I'm experiencing right now, as well as a lot of the stress, is tied directly to the back and forth between letting the labels dissolve and rushing back to shore them up somehow. Sticking with this mess is not easy at all; parts of my body are riddled with pain right now. However, I'm taking this as a place to experiment with Dogen's line, to do my best to be in that place of groundlessness, without knowing at all where I am.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Commenting on Blog Posts as a Dharma Practice

I have been making a lot of comments on blog posts today. I also have really gotten into reading the comments made on posts as well, finding so much to learn in the dialogues that occur. Some people are generous with kind words and support. Others are very generous with sharing what they have learned through their practice. Still others are full of scholarly information that help set straight what has been presented. And then there is the conflict, which is all over the board.

There have been some amazing debates filled with intelligent point/counterpoint positions that, when viewed by the rest of us, are aids to enhancing our understanding and experience of the dharma. There are also other posts that I've seen quickly fill up with nastiness, brutal personal attacks and rage-filled tirades. As Jack over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt said to me recently, "I don't agree with the removal of the worst (and sometimes) most honest comments. We learn from them and we learn to argue better or at least to be more accepting of others."

So, I have come to believe that commenting on blogs is a dharma practice. Actually, this isn't too much of a leap for me because I try to see everything in this way. Dharma practice isn't just the sitting and chanting I did this morning with my zen community, or the sitting and chanting I do before bed almost every night. It's every moment, even though for most of us, myself included, there's a lot of forgetting and getting swept up in the current samsara.

I have written about the subject of "digital practice" before - (Online Practice?). However, I really have been noticing the ways in which commenting on posts bring out the best and worst in us.

Here are a few issues that fall on the "worst" side, as well as some thoughts and questions about each. I'd like to think that even though I am focusing on online commenting, this could also apply in certain ways to all speech, and how we relate to others in our "in the flesh" lives.

1. Loudly angry, bordering on rage-filled comments - you know the ones. They're filled with cussing, capital letters, broad accusations, and sometimes personal attacks. Now, I don't really think there is a clear line that can be drawn between comments that have some justifiable anger in them, and those which are simply inflammatory. I like to cuss now and then in my posts, for example, and feel it's not really so much about cussing as it is about intent, and how the other might read the comment. I think it's important to get a sense of the writer first, by reading some of their posts, and seeing how they respond to others' comments. Some people enjoy fiery banter, and seem to have no trouble with a bit of anger or intellectual scathing for example. Others don't handle it so well. Which leads me to number two.

2. Defensive responses to comments on your own post - I think all of us have certain issues that might prompt a defensive response. I know I have had a few during the months I've been blogging. And clearly, on a basic level, defensiveness is an easy pointer to the attachment and clinging that we're all working with in our lives. However, beyond that, think of all the energy drain that comes from back and forth arguments that stem from defensive posturing on the part of the blogger who made the post.

Now, I'm not talking about clarifying misinterpretations here. I'm talking about the "how dare you question my view" type of energy. Having been in a few of these pissing matches myself, I have started the practice of asking the following question concerning my own posts: "What is the goal or intent of your comment here?" This really has seemed to help slow me down, and see when I'm just wanting to one up someone who said something snarky or disagreeable to me.

In addition, I have also been using this question when responding on others' blogs, so as not to add any more muck to the pond. (Of course, no matter what one does, there will be muck, but it's worth the effort to try and reduce it.)

3. Rapid Fire Responses - the speed of the internet allows people all over the world to make comments to each other other in a matter of seconds. This is pretty cool, but also can be dangerous. How often have you gotten in trouble in your "in the flesh" life by saying something you didn't think through first? It's really no different online, and unlike in person, where your body language and relationship with the person can inform what's being said, online it's only words, so the languaging is very important. what I find interesting is that an initial reaction to a post can actually be quite fleeting. You might get triggered by a phrase, sentence, or paragraph, and then later look back and see that you actually really like what the post has to say. Or you might simply misread something because you were multitasking at work. There are endless possibilities, but if you respond based on that initial reaction, then you have the extra work of apologizing or re-framing your comments at a later time. And sure, there's value in cleaning up one's messes, but I'd rather make fewer messes in the first place.

4. Humor that falls flat and causes confused or conflictual responses - I really think humor is tricky online. I'll throw a few lines or phrases I think are funny in my posts, but I generally delete as many "funny" lines as I end up posting. Those who are able to be consistently funny are gifts to us all. And if you can't laugh at your practice and at Buddhism in general sometimes, then I think you're in trouble. However, when it comes to commenting on others' blogs, I think it's helpful to ask yourself if the other person might think what you want to say is funny. Sometimes, it's obvious and spontaneous and you don't have to think about it much. Other times, it isn't so clear. I know I have used humor on occasion to either get attention or to shift attention away from things I find uncomfortable. These seem to be the exact places where trouble arises because the humor is self-focused, and not about providing joy and laughter to those around you.

How does one fully live the Buddha Way as a householder in the 21st century? How does one move from having a practice to being the practice in every moment? These are a few of the questions I'm most interested in these days. And if the practice is to truly include on-line experiences, then I really think it's important to give some thought as to how these two questions might apply. This is not to say we should hesitate and ponder endlessly about every comment we make online. It's more about paying closer attention to what we are doing, no matter where that action is taking place.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Getting Old Or Aging Gracefully?

Some of the regular readers may know that I'm kind of a split practitioner - a zen student yogi might be the best way to put it. When you take yoga from it's complete practice, and not just as the high buck exercise craze that has swept across North America, the similarities between yoga and zen are many. Which shouldn't be a surprise since Buddhism and Hinduism are close cousins (Hinduism the older cousin), and forms of yoga have been part of both traditions.

So, I was inspired by the comments of a long time yoga teacher, Patricia Walden, in an article from the current issue of Yoga Journal. Yoga Journal is an interesting publication. In a single issue you can move from the absolutely fluffy, feel good talk of self help land, to terribly loud, glossy advertisements, to very detailed descriptions of physical postures, to nuggets of deep wisdom. In a lot of ways, the conflicts in the Yoga world are very similar to those in the Buddhist world, but that is probably worthy of another post all together.

The comments of Patricia Walden have to do with aging, yoga practice, and the spiritual life.

Sometimes I'll wake up stiff and wonder what my body will feel like if I start doing backbends. Then I begin practicing, and I forget that I'm 62.

That first sentence is so indicative of the "small-self" doubt we all experience a.t times. It's so easy to just believe the story that you can't do something, because for one, it allows you to stay in the comfort zone.

And notice how, when she is practicing, she stops identifying with the woman who is 62 - in other words, the "old woman." And what's fascinating is that she does this not through becoming disconnected or suppression, but through completely embodying her life as it is.

As we get older, we have to be careful of the tricks our minds can play on us. Sometimes your mind tells you to be careful for good reason, but sometimes it's telling you that your body can't do something that it can do.

I see these tricks even in my own life, and I'm still a fairly young pup. I've been practicing yoga for over a decade now, and yet I'm still mostly afraid to do inversions like headstand and handstand. The rare times I do actually attempt them, I find that I get into the pose, and then talk myself out of being in the pose. It's pretty damn interesting! I'm upsidedown in handstand and my mind is chattering about how I can't do it still.

And this teaching definitely applies to other areas of my life. The "I can't do it" mantra is so pervasive at times that it can dig its way into everything. And what interesting about this is that, when that mantra is running strong, I find that I am more judgmental and less accepting of both myself and others.

Even though we know it isn't effective, we often try to talk people into what we think they should be doing. That's a prison. It takes time to plant new samskaras (patterns). There is such freedom in letting people do what they want to do.

Think of all the energy wasted on trying to talk people into doing something, believing something. We all do it to some extent, but i think one of the benefits of aging gracefully is waking up to the fact that you don't have to try to control the world. In fact, it's pointless to try and control the world. I'm still working on that one. Some days, I'm pretty accepting. Other days, not so much.

There is such freedom in letting people do what they want to do.

This sentence disembodied from the rest of Walden's comments is troubling. But when you look at everything she is saying, the sentence is pointing at a liberation from needing to fix everything. Sure, if someone is doing something destructive, you might say something, or do something in order to try and jolt them. However, in the end, it's up to that other person to awaken to the destructiveness of their thoughts and behavior. You can't do it for them.

This might be a useful reminder for those of us who are regulars in the on-line world. There's plenty of damaging talk floating about in the relatively anonymous cyberspace, but beyond a certain point, it's really impossible to do a whole lot to change that. I make comments now and then when I think they might be helpful, but otherwise it seems the only beneficial thing I can do is to watch my own behavior, and the intent behind my comments. I've erased plenty of comments over the past year I quickly realized were driven by spite, or a desire to "one up" someone. Sometimes, some of that energy still slips through, but hey, that's why practice never truly ends.

Things can change at a moment. Why not be happy now?

There's a good mantra to replace the "I can't do it" mantra. It's so hard to remember sometimes, but really, why not be happy now. What's holding you back?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Health Care and Generosity II

A few weeks back, Algernon (Notes from a Burning House)and Aaron suggested I do an op-ed piece on health care and Buddhism, based on comments I made in this post ( Health Care and Generosity). Well, I wrote the following article and sent it around to both newspapers and to a few of the well-known Buddhist magazines (you can guess which ones.) So far, not a peep, not even a one line rejection e-mail. As a writer who sends out work frequently enough, I'm used to the silence on the other end. It's no big deal, really. So, here's the article for you all to read. I continue to reflect on how much this whole discussion about health care in the U.S. has had a strong undertone of miserliness, even as we spend billions and billions on our military and on underwriting the bad deeds of our financial institutions.

Health Care and the Spirit of Generosity

There has been an enormous about of animosity displayed in the recent health care reform debates. People toting guns and signs morphing President Obama into Hitler have arrived at town hall meetings to shout at politicians they disagree with. Others, running events in support of President Obama’s plan, have banned from attending anyone who supports a single payer system or anything different from what’s currently being offered. And people on all sides of the issue have ramped up the rhetoric against immigrants using the health care system, especially those who are in the country illegally.

Once you get past all the screaming story lines, most Americans are looking for the answers to three questions. Whose money will be used to pay for reforms? How expensive will it be? And will such changes benefit me personally? This is true even amongst Buddhist practitioners.

As one of the 47 million Americans who are uninsured, I have a big stake in the outcome of these debates. The longer the issue of health care reform has been bandied about, the more I have come to notice what is missing from nearly every town hall forum, talk show discussion, and political commentary: generosity. It seems that nearly everyone, even many people that support a single payer plan, are trying to figure out a way to not help their neighbors.

The recent economic crisis has been a difficult time for the majority of people in the United States. It’s only natural during times like this for people to cut their spending and start looking more critically at issues like taxes and the expense of public programs. In addition, when times are hard, many people rely on the support of others who are like-minded and understand where they are coming from. Often these people are members of a spiritual community.

What I have observed is that every major spiritual tradition places a strong emphasis on generosity. From Christianity’s call to “love your neighbor as yourself” to Islam’s inclusion of generosity in the five pillars of faith, again and again the call of spiritual life brings us back to giving to others. The same is true of my tradition: Zen Buddhism.

Among Buddha’s teachings is the following: the root of all suffering can be traced back to the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion. When you examine the way much of the debate over health care has gone, it’s easy to see all three of these are largely at play. Those who believe that they government wants to institute “death panels” are terribly deluded. Others are using the debate mainly as an opportunity to vilify President Obama and express their racially-charged hatred towards him. And the vast majority of us are locked in patterns of reactions coming out of our greed. We want the best. We want it now. And we don’t want to pay for anyone who doesn’t fit our criteria of “being worthy.”

What is driving your particular view of the health care debate? Are you, like me, afraid that you won’t receive the help you need when you are sick or in an accident? Are you also, like me, concerned about money a little bit too much?

Another of Buddha’s teachings is that we are all interconnected. That what we think of as our “self” is actually made up of elements of everything else in the world. In other words, there is a fluidity to our lives that runs counter to the notion that we are individuals with no relationship or responsibility to the rest of the world. The easiest way to illustrate this in terms of health is to think about how quickly a virus can spread through the population. Not only can we literally pass illnesses between each other, but for a time, that very virus actually changes our bodies.
I really wonder where the Buddhist voices are on this vital issue. Where are the calls for placing health care into the larger context of interdependence? Where are Buddhist voices working to wake the rest of us from our greed and fear induced resistance to a better health care system? In my opinion, we cannot afford to continue to let the three poisons dominate the conversation about health care reform. No matter what plan is ultimately chosen, we would all be better off if it is driven by generosity, and not out of anger and an obsession with the financial bottom line.

President Obama Delays Visit with the Dalai Lama

You know, I understand that people often allow politics to get in the way of treating each other with respect and dignity. And it's very true that no matter how you slice it, politics will always be attached to the current Dalai Lama. However, it's rather disappointing that U.S. President Obama, who was elected primarily as a "change agent," has chosen to delay a meeting with the Dalai Lama (Obama Postpones Meeting). The President had no trouble meeting with Pope Benedict in July, even though the Pope is controversial in the Muslim world for questionable comments he has made in the past, and also is stirring up dissent in his own church for his ultra conservative approach and leadership appointments.

One of the major disappointments of the many with this current administration is their failure to stand up and denounce human rights abuses in countries like China. If the President hadn't campaigned on these issues, maybe it wouldn't be such a disappointment. For example, in late 2007, candidate Obama said the following:

It is illegal and unwise for the President to disregard international human rights treaties that have been ratified by the United States Senate, including and especially the Geneva Conventions. The Commander-in-Chief power does not allow the President to defy those treaties. (Obama On the Issues)

Now, for those who are regular readers of this blog, you'll know that I didn't vote for our current President, nor have I ever believed that his administration was really going to attempt to make the major changes this nation needs. However, you would think that the President could, out of basic respect and kindness, have a short meeting with the Dalai Lama, and then deal with the inevitable grumbling and fussing that will come from the Chinese government. Even President George W. Bush (who I consider the worst U.S. President in modern history) met with the Dalai Lama during the first six months of his administration. There's something very sad going on when economic power brokering (the Obama administration recently slapped a 35% income duty on Chinese made tires) triumphs over human connection and community building.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Because of grasping and rejecting, you cannot attain it."

Here are a few lines for you all to contemplate from Master Sengcan's Hsin Hsin Ming. I wrote a little about this well known dharma poem in the following post: "Not Cherishing Opinions.

The Way is perfect like great space,
Without lack, without excess.
Because of grasping and rejecting,
You cannot attain it.

What I've been finding very interesting is how often I am wrong in the view I have about what I'm rejecting and what I am grasping after. Before even taking a look and seeing what's actually occurring, there are things (experiences, feelings, people, etc.) that I have decided must be rejected. And why? Because my mind has determined they are exactly what I don't want, don't need, couldn't possibly benefit from.

For example, I was standing next to a guy at the bus stop. Just some stranger who was standing there waiting, and had done nothing at all to cause me any concern. And I felt in my stomach this wild churning arise, and at the same time, I'm looking at this guy and thinking "He's an asshole. I hope he doesn't talk to me." Where this all came from, I have no idea. Could have been stuffed negative energy from work, or maybe from the debates I had been having about politics over the previous week, or maybe from some other source. But it sure wasn't because of anything he had done.

Now, I saw through this particular example pretty quickly, but it got me to thinking about how often this kind of stuff goes on. Some bodily energy shift happens, then a story arises in the mind, and then you fall for it with no real evidence to confirm it in the real world.

I remember going on a blind date last autumn. We had been e-mailing each other, having really detailed "conversations" about our spiritual paths, creative interests, family, and whatnot. I developed a pretty strong positive feeling about this woman, thinking maybe we would really click in person. Then we finally did meet and we had this really intense conversation that seemed to just take off from where the e-mails had gone. There was a lot of energy flying around, a lot of eye contact, even a little bit of touching - all those signs of attraction you learn to pay attention for. We agreed to get together again in a few days and I walked home filled with joy and excitement, and definitely some grasping as well. The next day I went to work, and had a long day. Nothing too bad, but enough to feel some exhaustion and irritation. But through it all, I kept thinking "I get to see so and so on Friday! Just hang in there." One date and I already was living off the story that I had finally found the person I wanted. I arrived home to find a message from her on my phone. She had changed her mind. She "wasn't ready" to date anyone right now. I was devastated, and desperate. I got on-line and wrote her an e-mail asking her what had changed in less than 24 hours. (She had been so excited to get together again.) I waited a few days for a response, and then discovered she was back on the dating site again looking around. I remember putting the computer down, closing my eyes, and lying back in my chair.

"The Way is perfect like great space,
without lack, without excess."

That dating experience really woke me up to how strong a sense of lack was driving my life.

"Because of grasping and rejecting,
You cannot attain it."

Grasping, I failed to pay attention to the other cues being given that something might have been off about our experience together. For example, how she compared me several times to an ex-boyfriend who she felt was "too into his abstract spiritual practice" or how she hesitated to give me a hug at the end of the date. I remembered these later, but had shut them out during the experience, looking only for what was confirming my story. And then, when she decided she wasn't interested, I initially rejected her answer. It didn't fit what I believed was true. The cycle of grasping and rejecting I went through in those few days was so intense that, when it was all over, it was hard not to see it for what it was.

Sometimes, I wonder if we each have to go through some of these kinds of experiences - maybe many of these kinds of experiences - before the truth of this life starts to dawn within us. Although the experience with the guy at the bus stop was much shorter, less than 10 minutes, it was a compact version of a similar intensity. I really didn't want to deal with the guy, and even wanted to tell him off. It's all very strange when you step back from it, but at the same time, completely commonplace.

May we all open to the great space of this life.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Death and "Small Mind" Doubt

I've been reading Sogyal Rinpoche's Tibetan Book of Living and Dying before my bedtime meditation. I'm aware that Rinpoche was the subject of multiple scandals during the 1990's, so his reputation isn't so good I suppose. But regardless of reputation, and issues with his "in the flesh" teaching, this book is filled with practice gems, and it's illumination of the Bardo teachings for modern practitioners is extremely important. I'm now guessing that this book was one of the first introductions to Buddhism I had because tucked in it's pages, I discovered a pay stub from a job I had in high school, long before I began formal practice. I honestly don't remember reading it during that time, but something must have stuck because here I am.

Bardo, for those of you who don't know, is a Tibetan Buddhist term for "transition." It refers to any transition in life, tiny or huge, but the Bardo teachings are especially concerned with the great transitions of death and rebirth. Even if you do not at all believe in rebirth, these teachings are a path to awakening to this life in a very structured, detailed way. They describe in great detail how the process of death occurs and emphasize that how you die will be a reflection of how you lived. this doesn't mean that those who awaken during this life, and are full of wisdom and compassion, will experience a perfect, painless death. But it does mean that these people will be much more able to remain awake and alert during the process of death. Now, maybe you don't want to be awake for your death. And I suppose if you believe death is the end, that there's nothing else down the road, then it doesn't matter too much. However, it seems to me that regardless of whether or not there is rebirth, our path calls us to awaken and fully embrace our lives, and to give ourselves to the entire world in an effort to liberate all of life.

Ah, big talk, isn't it? But how we die effects those who live as well. Think of the stories you have heard, or even deaths you have experienced, that caused you to re-examine your life. Some might have been miserable, excruciating experiences brought on by drug use or some other bad habit. Others might have been filled with grace and wisdom, even joy. No matter what, there is an impact somewhere, on someone, at some time. You might want to ask yourself how you'd like to die, starting today, because the more you prepare for what will come, the more you will probably be able to embrace it fully when it happens.

Of course, I can hear you saying "Oh, hell, that's a long way off" or "I'm not ready to do that" or "Isn't that just morbid?" Well, here's a quote from Rinpoche's book that struck me.

Our minds ... are riddled with confusion and doubt. I sometimes think that doubt is an even greater block to human evolution than desire and attachment. Our society promotes cleverness instead of wisdom, and celebrates the most superficial, harsh, and least useful aspects of our intelligence.

Cleverness - that's exactly what's happening when the mind says don't think about death right now, you can do that later.

Doubt and confusion - that's exactly the kind of muck we're swimming in when we have given ourselves over to the story lines that often fill our head.

I know the last two very well. The past year and a half has been a time of pushing my head out of the swamp and seeing, only to be pulled back in again by some weight I've re-hitched to my ankles. Maybe you know this game that I'm speaking of. It's something many of us end up playing our entire lives, and for those of you who believe in rebirth, for lifetime after lifetime. Which is why, as a student of the path, attempting to awaken fully for the entire world, I find contemplating death so compelling. It seems to drive everything right home, and doesn't leave room for excuses. Even if I come back as a wise sage in the next life, this unique person only has so long, so it's best not to exclude anything - it's all your teacher, all of it, especially the last breath of this life.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Young Adult Practitioners: Suggestions for the Path

A few people have asked me, as a young adult practitioner, to offer some suggestions on what I think would attract more young folks to the dharma. What's interesting is that the more I reflect on this, the more I can see how some of the ideas I have, or which others have had, really open the door for all of us, not just young people. At the same time, there are some specific issues that do apply to the current generation of young adults and what they are facing. (I'm defining young adult as 18-39).

As someone who is not married, does not have children, and is not earning a "comfortable" salary at his job, I am especially interested in issues that apply to people that have lives similar to mine. However, I am equally interested in examining issues of race, class, and sexuality as they apply to the expression of the dharma in its newer homes.

I continue to be hounded by the question "How do we makes changes to practice that respect what came before us and allow that history and tradition to continue to inform what we are doing today?" It's a tricky issue, no matter how you slice it. So, with that in mind, I will offer some issues and ideas, with the hope that they will be of value to those reading, writing, and practicing in the Buddhist blogosphere.

Note: Some of what I will write about comes from comments made in the book Blue Jean Buddha, which I mentioned in a previous post on young adult practice Young Adult Practitioners. In addition, other material comes from a discussion printed in the winter issue of Buddhadharma. The rest comes from my experience, and comments others have made to me, or which I have stumbled across over the years.

Large Issue 1. Collectively, Buddhist communities in the "West", especially "convert" ones, need to address issues of race and class more head on.

These are difficult, challenging problems that, I would argue, are present in both "in the flesh" Buddhist communities and in "on-line" forms of community. There are teachings within Buddhism that can deconstruct race and class biases, and some teachers, socially engaged Buddhists, and scholars have shown how these worldviews and practices could move us past these issues. For example, people often point to the fact that we all have buddhanature, suggesting that this understanding should promote a sense of equality and openness to all who want to live a life on the path. However, no amount of "possible" dharmic interventions can currently overcome the fact that the Buddhisms that have arrived and developed in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand have done so in cultures dominated by racial and class-based oppressions. We cannot turn our backs any more on this, if ending suffering for all beings is truly our vow.

What does this mean in terms of practice, how it looks and how it might manifest in different, but still authentic ways?

A. We need to change the way our sanghas appear in the physical world.

Scholar John A. Powell has written a lot about issues of white privilege and racial oppression. During a visit to our zen center a few years back, part of what he spoke about was "white space" - how the design, function, and appearance of institutions, including white-dominant sanghas, reinforce the desires and aspirations of the white folks who use them. And he suggested that one of the reasons that people of color don't attend these sanghas in great numbers is that they have had "no say" in the space itself, and do not feel at home in it. For many of you, this might be pretty abstract sounding, but lets bring it into the concrete right now. Have you ever been in places where you felt something was off, but couldn't put a finger on it? Or maybe a place where you almost instantly felt "out of place" right away, despite how the people there acted towards you? In our busy, distracted lives we forget how much physical space effects us. We forget, for example, that one of the main reasons we love our homes (when we do) is that we were able to create it in a way that expressed ourselves, who we are and what brings out the best in us. So, I would suggest that one way to actually open the doors to more people of color is to open the doors on the design and look of the sangha space itself. If a diverse group of people are in charge of designing and recreating the place of practice, maybe a more diverse group of people will also come to use it.

Here is an interesting interview with Professor Powell to give you an idea of his work (Power of Illusion ).

B. We need to address the costs of practice better.

How many young practitioners have gotten excited about finding a community, have become more involved in meditation and dharma study, and then have run up against the cost of classes and retreats?

The commonplace financial instability of the young adult years have barely been addressed by many "in the flesh" sanghas, and I'd suggest this is partly why more young adults are either forming their own little communities and/or using the internet to help guide their practice. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I do think that there's great value in being a part of a multi-generational community, and many of these young people do end up wanting to be a part of a larger group of practitioners at some point. However, it's really challenging to listen to teachers emphasize collective study and retreat practice, and then discover that the price tag for participating is often several hundred dollars and even into thousands of dollars in some places over the course of a year. This gets into the fact that "in the flesh" convert sanghas are nearly all run by members of the white middle and upper class. They are people who have enough income to handle the costs, and are also people who seem to instinctively tie generosity to financial giving to the community. I believe this is a product of being a part of capitalist society; it certainly doesn't reflect the diversity of ways in which Buddhist teachings suggest generosity manifests in the world.

C. We need to diversify how the dharma is structured and taught.

Many dharma study offerings are heavily focused on dense texts and analysis of such texts. This privileges college-educated practitioners, and can be a turn off to those who have less education and have taken more non-traditional paths to learning. One of the suggestions Sumi Loundon made in Blue Jean Buddha was that we need to do a better job of incorporating the arts into our practice. I see this not only as a good thing for bringing out creativity and playfulness, but also as a entry point for people who aren't so into "book study," but who have a strong desire to express their lives through the dharma.

Beyond this, I'd like to drop what could be a bit of a bomb for some people. I think the emphasis on retreat and extensive meditation practice is a huge barrier for many people, and could be one the things that keeps Buddhism in the "West" a small, marginal movement. Even though I have participated in short retreats, and have established a regular practice that, at times, includes a large chunk of meditation in it, I continue to have lots of questions about whether it's the only way. I think there is a lot of subtle and not so subtle shaming that goes on in Buddhist circles around this issue. The "you're not a committed practitioner if you don't meditate everyday and do retreats on a regular basis type" comments. How much of this stems from trying to bring monastic-focused traditions into places where nearly all the practitioners are householders? How much of it also stems from a lack of flexibility around the concept of "commitment"?

Single mothers and fathers, poor people who have to work more than one job and can barely pay their bills, and people who are caring for sick relatives are just some of the examples of those who are, for the most part, shut out of being "committed" practitioners under the much meditation and retreat practice focus. We need to get more realistic about what commitment to practice means, and work from there to help people push themselves and maintain a willingness to challenge themselves within the life circumstances they are living in.

Large Issue 2: We need to integrate technology better into our practices.

This is sticky issue in a lot of ways. On the one hand, I have felt that blogging, listening to Buddhist podcasts, and participating in on-line chat about practice have been beneficial to my practice. On the other hand, I have also seen how it can become a distraction if you don't pay close attention to what's driving your desire to engage in this way.

So, it's going to be a process for all of us to examine how we can best use technology to support our spiritual lives. But I think it begins by having more multi-generational discussions about the use of technology, and for the older generations, this might mean offering younger people an opportunity to lead through teaching about technology as another form of dharma practice. Clearly, given the diversity of ages of Buddhist bloggers I have seen, the use of technology as part of dharma practice isn't just a "young thing." But given that many younger adults have lived most, if not all their lives, in an environment saturated with these innovations, it may be that us young folks should be given the lead on working with these issues in sanghas.

Large Issue 3: We have to develop the "sangha" in more social ways.

The heavy emphasis on meditation, retreat practice, and structured dharma study in many covert sanghas leaves out the social aspect of community. Newcomers are often terribly disoriented by the lack of social interaction, activities, and collective projects present in these communities. Some of this seems to stem from the idealized Asian monastic communities where many of practices came from originally. I say "idealized" because I do not believe that the image of the constantly meditating, constantly in "hard practice mode" view of these places is grounded in reality. Even monastics spend time socializing with each other, working together with each other and being more informal with each other. But beyond this, again the issue of how to transplant these traditions into mostly householder societies is coming up. As householders, we need to socialize. In fact, I'd argue that through socializing with others on the path, we can learn a lot about the spiritual life. And yet, as they are currently set up, many "in the flesh" sanghas are really lacking in social opportunities for their members. And this is also one of the large problems with on-line communities - the people in them never do anything together. They don't play together, work on projects together, talk informally about their lives together.

Even though too much socializing and play can be a distraction, I don't think it's healthy to eliminate it from our spiritual lives, and yet I'd say for a lot of convert Buddhists, it's at best, a weak part of their lives. I think this is one area where "in the flesh" sanghas that are Asian-dominant are stronger. Community seems much more central from the little I have seen and read about, and people know each other better, and thus rely on each other more in both "good" times and in "bad". Maybe this is a generalization on my part, but I think it's worth exploring how communities are manifesting the sangha part of the Three Treasures and seeing how that might impact individual and collective practice.

Large Issue 4: We need to address social issues and problems more directly in our practices.

Another divisive issue, because of the inevitability of politics entering into spiritual practice. But I would argue this: every choice we make has a political element to it. It's unavoidable. If you choose to completely separate politics from your spiritual life, that is a political decision.

So, I'd like to suggest that young adults have, on the whole, more interest in merging their Buddhist practice with social engagement than older generations do. This may be partly due to the place we are in in our lives, being people who theoretically have a long time to live in this world, and want to make a positive impact on it in a broader way. However, I'd also argue that it stems from the questioning many of us have done around what constitutes the spiritual life, and the fact that socially engaged forms of Buddhist practice have become more publicly discussed and practiced during our lifetimes. In addition, many of us have felt a deep desire to address issues of racism, poverty, heterosexism, environmental destruction, economic oppressions, and various other social, collective issues. The vow to "free all beings" seems to imply a social element to more of us, as we live in a world where many of the oppressions have been diagnosed and mapped out, but haven't yet been actually addressed very well through collective action. For poor people and people of color, who are disproportionately effected by these issues, the lack of a social justice drive in Buddhist practice has been both a turn off, and also a spring board to trying to create one.

I, personally, have never been able to separate my spiritual practice from the larger social issues in our world. In fact, I feel that working with these issues is as much of a drive if not more so than striving for "enlightenment." In fact, I'd go further and say that I feel it's possible for some of us to become enlightened through the active engagement of social injustice and planetary destruction. I'm convinced that in really seeing and experiencing the worst of humanity, and working collectively to address that, some of us on the Buddhist path can discover our own original natures. This is clearly not the path for everyone, and also one full of potential pitfalls, but frankly the world is calling for us to be more involved, and I'm one of those who is trying to answer that call.

Large Issue 5: We need to speak more directly about and engage the issues of sex and money, which are huge tripping points in householder practice in general, and in young adult practice specifically.

Discussions of money in many "convert" sanghas tend to revolve around three issues: retirement savings, simplicity in living, and donations to support the sangha. Neither retirement focused discussions, nor donations to the sangha discussions do much for the young adult practitioner. While it's important for young practitioners to give some financial support to the sangha, due to their financial situations, they can often give little and don't feel a part of the larger discussions about financing the institution.

There isn't enough discussion anywhere, in "in the flesh" sanghas or online, about right livelihood. How does a young person choose a career, or even short term job, that might reflect more their spiritual values? How much money is enough? What is money's role in the spiritual life and how does one spend, save, and use it in a manner that uphold one's spiritual values?

Oh, and then there is sex. I have to say that the dominance of monastic driven teachings in many of our communities is fairly disastrous for us householder practitioners. Look at all the sex scandals than have occurred in "convert" sanghas, for one thing. But beyond that, how many of us have much clarity about how to actually be sexual beings who are, at the same time, expressing our spiritual paths? I sure as hell don't. There is way too much emphasis on the negative - don't do this, don't do that - and almost no discussion on how to express sexuality in a dharmic way. And let's face it: this is a huge issue for young practitioners, and collectively, we're blowing it off, pushing it under the rug, and just simply not doing enough about it. In an age where it's fairly easy to get an STD, including the looming potential for AIDS, I feel we have a responsibility to be more forthright about sex and sexuality. The suffering that comes from disease, broken relationships, sexual abuse, rape, and exploitation are simply too great to continue to rely on a prohibition driven model mixed in with some talk about supporting marriage for all people. It's not enough, nor does it reflect the diversity of relationships occurring in the world, and the particular problems that come with being young and learning about your sexuality. I'd also offer it doesn't do much for those older adults who are sexually active in evolving relationships and as people live longer, the reality is that more older folks, well into their senior years are coming face to face with new issues around their sexual lives as partners dies or divorces occur. It's time to get on the ball with this, and to stop separating our sexual lives from our spiritual lives.

I offer these five main issues and their sub-issues as spring boards for contemplation and discussion. I really do believe that even amongst the most conservative of practitioners, every generation of practice looks and manifests somewhat differently. We are no different, and it's time to push some of the issues I and others like me have brought up into the forefront of practice.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Young Adults and Stress Reduction Meditation

I only have time for a short post now. There have been a few blogs commenting on option of more secular mindfulness meditation programs as something that could appeal to young adults. Here's an article from one of the blogs on young adults attending meditation retreats as a way to reduce stress in their lives (Young adults turning to meditation. I do agree that this approach is one that might help address the lack of young adults engaged in Buddhist practice. However, I have a few concerns, most of which have been said by others in the past, but are definitely worth repeating.

1. Can a focus on stress-reduction lead one to deeply examine their lives?

2. Where does ethics come into a practice solely based on stress reduction?

3. How is this different from western forms of therapy? Does it move beyond therapy or is it just incorporating meditation into a therapy paradigm?

4. Will there be a long term, significant impact on the way people live their lives, or will they just "feel better" and use meditation as a form of medication when they're stressed out?

5. Where do the social teachings of Buddhism fit into this model? Does it matter?

I have more to say about this, but it's time for work.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Patience and Opinions

I plan on returning to the posts on young adult practitioners, but I experienced something during my first day back teaching I would like to share. As many regular readers know, I am an English as a Second Language teacher for a small, adult education organization. Lately, my students have been primarily fairly conservative Baptist converts and Evangelicals from Burma, Thailand, and Ethiopia. It's been an interesting process getting to know them and, inevitably, conversations around religion and politics tend to arise.

This afternoon, the students wrote about what they did during the break we just had. As we went around, people spoke about vacations to Duluth (about 3 hours north of us), taking family members to the clinic, and visiting friends. Finally, we got to the fiery little woman from Ethiopia, the same one that asked me why I wasn't married yet a few months ago. She started talking about a visit to Miami, Florida that her and her church group did, and as she read, I began to sense what was coming. She spoke of "men with men" and "women with women" and then her arms started waving a lot as she said that they wouldn't listen to her about the Bible. Another student piped in with the word "gay" and off the class went into a litany about why God didn't like people being gay.

I've been through this before in my classes. If it isn't something about the gay community, it's something about how men are stronger and smarter than women. What's interesting is that I often find that initially when one student voices a strong opinion about a topic like this, others tend to either stay silent or agree. But when I push a little bit, ask different kinds of questions or just make a statement in a different direction, the varying opinions that people actually have then come out.

I have to say today's conversation started out in a way that really ripped at my guts. I felt the "need" to intervene, to use this as a teachable moment about gay rights and the hatred and oppression the gay community has experienced for so long.
But something inside me told me to wait, to not press my opinion on top of my students. (This is an issue with teachers in ESL classes because our learners tend to come from countries where teachers are given much more respect. So, what we say is given a lot of weight, which can be a problem when we get too forceful about an issue.)

So, I waited and listened, and stayed with the pain I felt inside as some of the students continued to express why they didn't like gay people. Then one student, a woman from Mexico who hadn't said anything up until that point, started telling a story about her nephew. She said she had had an argument with her brother because he was always screaming at her nephew and trying to kick him out of the house. Why? He is gay. She kept telling this story and the other students went silent and listened. As she spoke of her nephew's suicide attempts, and how she had taken him into her home for awhile, the others were with her every word. Then she said the words that seemed to break the early conversation - "I just want to love my family. I don't care what sex they like. I just love them."

As she finished, I knew had I jumped in earlier with my opinion, this story probably wouldn't have arrived. And as I watched the other students faces, I knew that we would have all been worse off if we had missed that story.

It's likely that this single story won't change the opinions of the other students in the class. However, maybe it will soften those opinions a little, break down a little of that abstract dislike and nastiness that comes from clinging hard to a few lines of text in a spiritual book, and having those lines reinforced by their church leaders again and again.

I can see myself in all those roles during that class - clinging somewhat hard to my views in the beginning, listening to my students during the middle, and opening to a simple expression of love towards the end. All of this occurred in less than 40 minutes, which shows you just how quickly, and on a variety of levels, your practice can be put to the test.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Young Adult Stereotypes and Buddhist Practice

It's difficult, given the variety of ways in which Buddhism is being practiced in the world, from monastics to "digital dharma practitioners," to determine how large the gap is between numbers of older practitioners, and those who are young adults. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests the following about U.S. practitioners:

A plurality of Buddhist respondents (40%) are between 30 and 49 years of age, with another 30% being between 50 and 64. Less than a quarter (23%) are between 18 and 29 years old.

Here's a link to the summary of the study - Buddhism by Numbers

There are at least a few problems with this study. First, it appears that the study primarily addressed "convert" Buddhists, which really fails to give us an accurate picture of Buddhism as a whole in the U.S. Secondly, my guess is that some, if not most of those who primarily are "digital dharma practitioners" (i.e. practitioners who learn of the teachings primarily on-line and who consider their "home sangha" to be primarily other on-line practitioners), are left out of this research. I have no idea how many of these people there are, but given the growing presence of the internet, it's foolish to assume this is an insignificant group.

So, I really don't know what the actual numbers are in each age group. However, I'm going to stake a guess from what I have seen, and read, and hear about from other young practitioners, that there's a fairly large gap between percentages of older adults actively practicing and percentage of younger adults. And I believe this is too large to just dismiss as due to focus on schooling, career, or from lack of interest.

Stereotypes of Young Practitioners

I remember asking a visiting teaching, who was applying for the head teaching job at our zen center, the following question: Why do you think there is a lack of young adult practitioners around here? Her response was basically that we were focused on other things, and that people usually get interested in the spiritual life after they've gotten settled and discovered they're still unhappy. What a curious assumption, one I can understand, but disagree with.

Stereotype #1 - Young adults aren't interested in the spiritual life.

Let's face it, we do live in a culture saturated in stories about how happiness and the good life come from getting a good job, getting married, having children, and putting money away for retirement among other things. There's a strong push to identify our deepest desires with shallow, very fleeting things and experiences. And yes, a lot of us get caught up in those traps, and some stay there their entire lives. However, to leap from an understanding of our consumeristic, often shallow culture as a pressure on young adults, to the wholesale dismissal of young adults as mostly uninterested in spirituality, is way too big a leap. It suggests a kind of elitism, that younger people can't possibly have as much depth and wisdom as their elders. Do older adults have more experience? Sure. Is it important for younger adults to learn from and give respect to their elders? Sure. But I can understand how these truths got translated into younger adults have little or not interest in the big questions in life.

Stereotype #2 Young adults don't have enough experience to appreciate Buddha's teachings.

I've heard this one before as well. I don't get it. It doesn't stand up at all to the history of our practice, filled with young monks and nuns expounding great teachings and doing amazing things. It also assumes that experience is always linked to wisdom, including having enough wisdom to realize the importance of a spiritual path in one's life. This is a false assumption in my opinion, and one that needs to be examined.

Stereotype #3 Young adults are too fickle; they don't have the patience and commitment to stick out the tough stuff in the practice.

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. The same is true of any age group.

Stereotype #4 Young adults just want the practice to be accommodated to their personal whims.

What I find so curious is that some of these views are coming from people who, as young adults, found Buddhist practice. Like those of us in the current younger generation, they stumbled along, suffered a lot, made various wrong turns along the way. Some of them stuck it out, and others dropped it all together. And their teachers recognized that they had to focus on parts of the practice that would most appeal to these young people. In North American "convert" communities, there was a heavy emphasis on sitting meditation because that was what the teachers saw as being most needed at that time, and that was what the students most gravitated towards. There was less emphasis on ritual, and on ethics and the precepts, just to give a few examples. Why is it any different today?

There is a difference between watering down Buddhist practice so that it can be consumed by people who don't want to be changed, and emphasizing different aspects of the practice to meet where a group of practitioners are coming from. Every generation makes the dharma new in some way or another - it's not a static practice, even in the most conservative of places.

I'm not interested in watering things down; I'm interested in discovering the skillful means that will open the gates of practice for younger folks.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Young Adult Practitoners

I've been reading the book Blue Jean Buddha,a collection of essays written by young Buddhists about their experiences as practitioners. BJB ed. Loundon It's already eight years old, but many of the issues presented in it, from lack of young adult practitioners in Buddhist sanghas to how the practice exists differently in the lives of younger adults, continue to be very pertinent.

Having just returned from Sunday morning service at my zen community, I was reflecting again on how, even with a small influx of people from 20-40 years old in my community, the majority by far of active members are of the Baby Boomer generation. I have heard that even in Asian dominant Buddhist communities in North America, this gap still exists to some degree. And I know that we Buddhists are not alone - I have friends in Christian communities who are experiencing similar issues.

Now, age in and of itself, isn't too important. However, what is important is an awareness of how the dharma unfolds differently in people lives at different stages. And also how some people never fit into the conventional stages of life, and thus manifest a practice in different ways than the rest of the practitioners.

What am I talking about? Well, I am talking about the issues that come up when you are young, not married, financially unstable, and still finding a direction in life, just to name a few. You know, issues of right livelihood, for example. Or issues about relationships, for another example.

When you hear yet another dharma talk filled with comments about 401k's, retirement, and spending weeks on end in meditation retreats, you begin to wonder how it applies in your life.

Now, I've gotten used to this feeling, and don't have too much trouble finding ways to apply teachings to my life, regardless of examples and context. I can take Dogen's Instructions for the Zen Cook and apply that careful attention and preparation without attachment to outcome in other areas of my life beyond cooking. But I've stuck it out. I've made my commitment and am willing to be part of the minority of younger adult practitioners.

At the same time, I have watched so many young adults like myself pass through the doors of the zen center and never return. Or others who stayed for awhile, and then faded off. Clearly, some of this is the basic attrition that occurs when people are trying things out, and either don't take the practice seriously, or, more likely, just find it doesn't fit for their lives. However, now that I'm slipping out of young adulthood, and getting closer to middle aged, I really am wondering how many people simply left because they didn't feel what was being said included their experience. That this practice, somehow, didn't apply to them. That it was for older people, struggling with different issues, yet somehow more settled in their lives.

In addition to reading the book I mentioned above, I have also been listening to some recent podcasts from the Buddhist Geeks, including this one Episode 132, a dialogue with Reverend Danny Fischer that touches heavily on some of the challeges and opportunities for young practioners.

I have asked a few teacher about this lack of young adults before. One said to me what I have heard a few other older practioners say "Oh, they're busy establishing their lives. They will be back when they get older." Yeah, that's a nice story, but is it true? And what about this 15-20 year period when many major life decisions are being made? Is is really intelligent to just assume that many young people are too busy to care enough to have a spiritual live?

Clearly, the number of younger Buddhist bloggers, as well as the attendance at young adult retreats at places like Spirit Rock suggests otherise.

This is sort of a preliminary post, and I'd like to really dig into these issues more in the future. It seems to me vital that we learn to go beyond simply inviting all people into our practice, and actually start looking at what skillful means might be necessary to truly open to the doors of practice to anyone who might arrive at the doorstep, or virtual doorstep for those who are primarily on-line.

Otherwise, we might start looking like the barn in the photo above - kind of stately, but basically a structure in slow decay.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Comments on the Fifth Precept

There has been a lot of talk in the Buddhist blogosphere about the Fifth Precept and specifically about alcohol consumption. It's been very lively with wide ranging opinions. Here are a few of the posts that you can check out to get a taste.

Dharma Drinks

The Fifth Precept


What's interesting is that this precept is one of those which has been hotly debated for most of the existence of our tradition. People in the zen schools are probably aware of stories of monks and zen masters from the past who were both highly realized and big drinkers. Those in the Tibetan Buddhist communities have similar stories, and in both cases, there are also contemporary examples of well-known teachers who have imbibed plenty in their lives. Other schools and sects of Buddhism either seem to have less of these kinds of stories, or I'm simply unaware of them.

But what does the fifth precept actually say? And how might it apply differently to different groups of people?

The translations are all over the board from what I have seen.

John Daido Loori's translation:

Proceed clearly; Do not cloud the mind.

Bodhidharma, speaking from the 5th century, said "Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the intrinsically pure Dharma, not giving rise to delusions is called the Precept of Not Giving or Taking Drugs."

Here is Thich Nhat Hanh's very detailed take:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.

Less than a year after I began practicing at the zen center I am a member of, the former teacher there offered a class on the precepts. It was designed for those who were doing a ceremony known as jukai: a public ordination for lay practitioners during which they receive the precepts. I was very interested in the ethics of our practice, and feel fortunate that both our previous teacher and current one have placed these teachings high up on the list as focal points. It would be five years before I, myself, did jukai, but during that original class, we studying a book by zen teacher Reb Anderson that illuminated the precepts for me in many ways. I offer the book, Being Upright, as a well thought out, complex take on the ethics of our path.

One of the important teachings I have taken out of that book is the three ways in which to work with the precepts - or the three ways the precepts manifest in our lives.

1. The literal way - that is, just how the text reads. If it says no lying, we don't lie.

2. The compassionate way - that is, you approach any given precept with a mind towards liberating yourself and others, towards reducing harm and suffering. In this way, you may lie to another if it means saving the life of someone else, for example. This is in lines with the teaching of skillful means, or upaya, which is a practice of deep paying attention to situations that arise in your life, and then acting in ways which are in accord with the given situation. It can mean, for example, that the way you speak with a person will depend upon what you think are the words they might best respond to. This is just one example; there are infinite ways.

3. The ultimate way - that is, beyond right and wrong, there is no, when it comes down to it, breaking or keeping of the precepts.

Before I make any further comments, I have to say that during the past several years, I have gravitated most often toward the compassionate way. This isn't to say that I don't refrain from drinking, for example, because I do - but definitely not always. Nor is it to say that I ignore the third way, but frankly the ultimate level is very tricky, and easily used as an excuse for sloppy, damaging behavior, so I see it more as a reflection point rather than something I can actually manifest and declare to others.

When speaking of the fifth precept, Reb Anderson and Norman Fischer, among others, have placed an emphasis on "intoxication" as the directive of the precept. That intoxicating yourself is the means of breaking this precept, and that which leads to the sometimes terribly damaging behaviors that we have seen with alcohol abuse. However, there are two other reasons for focusing on intoxication in my opinion.

First, these teachers and many others who are working in "convert" communities in North America and Western Europe, recognize that alcohol use in these places has a long, deep history and that it might just be that it's more skillful to focus on intoxication than to come in and declare to all those interested in the Buddha Dharma that they must quit drinking alcohol now and forever. In addition, maybe these same teachers, who are primarily either Asian immigrants or their white students, may have more complex views of the precept themselves, and don't simply see it as a call to refrain from alcohol and drug use.

This leads us to the second, and in my opinion, more important issue. Focusing on intoxication allow us to broaden our view of the application of this precept. Let's take a look at the phenomenon of the "dry drunk." You've probably met someone who fits this definition. They have quit drinking, or have quit taking illegal drugs. And yet, removing the drinking or drugs didn't really address their issues. They are still angry, cruel, destructive, overindulgent, addicted (lots of chain smokers, but beyond that, the addicted habit pattern wasn't shifted by quitting alcohol), etc. So, one might say that even though this person is following the fifth precept on the the literal level, they really are still a mess.

But let's move beyond alcohol and drugs. Thich Nhat Hanh's take on the precept really gets at the idea that one can be intoxicated by almost anything. On the extreme level, some are intoxicated with "saving life" and end up blowing up abortion clinics and killing doctors because of their intoxication. Terrorists, as Marcus has seen firsthand in Thailand, are intoxicated by their ideas about religion and purity, and end up killing others and destroying communities as a result. Still others are intoxicated by their sobriety, and violently condemn (in words and sometimes even in actions) people who drink or take other substances.

However, one need not go to these levels of extreme to become intoxicated. How many of us can say we have never gotten fixated on an idea we felt was "right"? How many of us can say we have never eaten too much of a food we really like, or have pined for another in lust?

It's really easy to become intoxicated, the more and more you look at it. And I really feel that, no matter what side of the fence you fall on concerning alcohol, that this wider approach of intoxication is a very essential practice for us.

I say this as someone who has, at least twice in my adult life, stopped drinking all together for six months or more to watch myself, and to promote other changes in my life. I've experienced the prohibitive side, the literal side, or this precept, and believe that it's probably something every Buddhist practitioner should attempt sometime in their life, even if they end up deciding it's ok for them to drink. Stopping something that you take as normal behavior actually helps you to see the constructed, conditioned nature of that behavior. You actually see how something like drinking alcohol, is attached to things like comfort, and friendship, and even how your mind craves it. These learnings might lead you to stop drinking all together, or they might lead you to recognize when you are using alcohol to sooth negative emotions or just to fit in with a group, both of which I have observed in myself and have worked hard to refrain from drinking when either of those conditions are present.

When the Buddha told the sangha at the end of his life to be "Lamps unto yourselves," he was telling them, and now us, to experiment and learn the truth through our lives. So, that's how I live as much as possible. I see the precepts as vital tools to guide that experimenting, and in the case of the fifth precept, I continue to learn all the ways in which intoxication manifests in my own life.

just refraining from doing something, like drinking, never would have taught all this - at least for me. I can imagine that for some, refraining might be exactly what is called for. What's skillful for one, isn't for another. The Buddha Dharma truly is vast and subtle.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Individual Clinging - Yes! Collective Clinging, Not My Department!

The late Brazilian bishop Dom Hélder Câmara once said: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist." Oh, how painfully true this statement is. I have been reflecting on how resistant we are, collectively and individually, to change. How we will come up with any excuse, no matter how outlandish and out of touch with reality it is, to keep from making changes in our lives. And even when those changes end up coming anyway, because they always do somehow, we'll still concoct stories about how nothing has happened, or how we'll hold on to whatever if it kills us.

It's all pretty crazy, and the end result is an enormous amount of suffering. Individual clinging and it's impact are constantly talked about by Buddhist practitioners, no matter what their background. I've noticed, though, that at least amongst "covert Buddhists" in North America, there's a fair amount of resistance to going beyond the individual, and addressing these same clingings on a broader, social level. I, myself, have been called a Marxist and a Communist, for standing up for a single payer health plan here in the U.S. - by other Buddhist practitioners.

Brooke over at Wandering Dhamma has been researching modern Buddhist writings in Thailand Focus on Benefits, and has discovered that a lot of them focus on the practical benefits of meditation for individual practitioners. Although "socially engaged Buddhism" has been gaining steam over the past few decades, and includes "famous" Buddhist teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, there still seems to be a strong gap for some between individual practice and the application of Buddhist teachings to large-scale social issues.

One of the criticisms I have heard of Buddhism by members of the "big three" monotheistic traditions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - is that there doesn't seem to be a visible social justice component in our practice. At first, I felt like they were simply misunderstanding Buddhism, and still do so to some extent. However, the longer I have practiced, the more I have started to see that there is some validity to their concerns.

I, personally, have a difficult time with arguments along these lines: 1) if I practice and become a kinder, more enlightened person, that benefit will be the best thing I can offer others. 2)getting too involved with social and political issues is too much a distraction from the "real" work of meditation and sutra study. 3) I don't have my own life in order enough to truly help others.

These are all positions of privilege. Saying these statements requires, in my opinion, that a person has a certain level of stability and opportunity in their lives. Reflect for a moment on the monks who took to the streets in Burma in 2007. Or the monks and nuns of Thich Nhat Hanh's community currently struggling in Vietnam. Do they really have a choice to be fully disengaged? Can they just sit in their temples and do their practice as they always have? I don't think so. Even though both of these groups are doing what they can to maintain their way of practice, they also are including the social element as part of that very practice. No separation. And why? Because circumstances have compelled them to do so.

I would consider myself a member of the "burned out on anger driven protests" method of engagement. My entrance into Buddhism coincided with the beginning of the Bush Administration here in the U.S., and I spent those early years marching and chanting and getting enormously upset. And eventually, I grew tired of it - not the engagement, not the efforts to build a more just and compassionate society, but the brutal negativity and enemy-making that often happens in groups claiming to stand for peace and justice. It's easy to go overboard, and jump into action in ways that actually add to the problem. I've been there; I understand that. But frankly, I find too many, in the "convert Buddhist world" at least, unwilling to upset the apple cart of their middle and upper class lives enough to say something, or do something beyond vote in political elections or give money to charities (both of which are important, but also primarily passive, not too threatening acts). If you live in Afghanistan or Zimbabwe, for example, then voting takes on a whole different meaning. But how many "convert Buddhists" live in nations like those two?

A few days ago, I wrote about not needing to know what to do before getting involved in something. I think that message applies here. Most of us, myself included, don't really know what to do exactly about the many social ills going on. We get overwhelmed by it all; the suffering is just too much to get a handle on. And yet, how can those Bodhisattva vows remain solely in the realm of ourselves, our family, and maybe our friends and a few well-liked neighbors? To me, it's too much of a leap into the absolute to say "well, if I become enlightened, that will benefit the entire world." Sure, in some ways, that's absolutely correct. However, if the Buddha had stuck with that, he would have just continued to wander the forests, enjoying his clarity. There would have been no community of practitioners, no teachings, none of that. Just one guy giving out what amounts to trickle down enlightenment.

I can imagine some of the comments now. I don't have time. I have a family to raise. I don't have any idea what to do.

Yep, I hear that. It's very clear that not everybody, or even the majority of people will be front-line, devoting their lives "in the trenches" types of people.

The reality also might be that you are doing something already, but see it as separate from your spiritual practice. Well, why is it separate? How is your work at the homeless shelter being informed by your spiritual practice, and in what ways are you resisting that cross-over? How often do you resist asking questions about the causes and potential solutions of problems like homelessness, and instead opt out for the much easier action of volunteering at the soup kitchen once a year?

I'm not interested in creating guilt and shame. If that were the point of my writing, I'd really just be adding to the problem by pressing people into more self-absorption - the "why am I a bad person" or "I'm sorry I'm no good" types of ruminations that make it even harder for a person to engage their actual lives.

No, that's definitely not my goal.

If anything, I'd like to spark some questioning about your practice, why it is as it is, and how it might be different.