Sunday, May 30, 2010

All Things Carrying Out Buddha Work

Our sangha took over a pair of campsites at one of our state parks this weekend, and my girlfriend, her children, and I made it down for the day today. What a great time! I'd recommend it for any sangha interested in enjoying life together outside the zendo.

We did meditation around campfire pit. Our teacher gave a dharma talk on a piece of a Dogen fascicle. A large group of us did a walking meditation along one of the park trails. The children and some of the adults played games in a field. We all ate lunch together, and then some of us hiked down to the river to take a dip, and have fun in the sand.

There was nothing extraordinary about any of this. Nor really ordinary. Birds squawking in the trees; mosquitoes biting, being murdered one by one. Even though the trillium blossoms had faded, and the wild strawberries hadn't ripened yet, everything was just as it should be. Even the rain that drove most of us out around 3 o'clock, that too, felt just right.

Here is a snippet of the snippet of Dogen (from Bendowa) we studied this morning:

At this time, because earth, grasses and trees, fences and walls, tiles and pebbles, all things in the dharma realm in ten directions, carry out buddha work, therefore everyone receives the benefit of wind and water movement caused by this functioning, and all are imperceptibly helped by the wondrous and incomprehensible influence of buddha to actualize the enlightenment at hand.

Some minutes of our meditation period, I was visited by flies, mosquitoes, and a few ants. There was squirming, thoughts of "how can I get rid of them?," and movement from my legs. A few hours later, the hiking group took a wrong turn and ended up on a narrow path, almost tropical looking with it's huge ferns, bent over trees, and mushy river bank soil. It was already humid, and the insects were out in full force. And yet, somehow, it was simply joyous to go on, not knowing for sure if we were on the right path or if we would get there. Bodies of water frequently do this for me, through me, through the water, each breath buoyed by the continuous movement.

This continuous movement is so easy to forget, to miss, even to deny, in the middle of our busying that we do. How strange it is to think that doing too much, being too busy, actually blurs out the continuous movement of the world. But it does, don't you think? We get fixated on gross actions and miss the subtle. Get fixated on tomorrow's work, and miss the slow wearing away of stones. Get fixated on the poke of a mosquito, and miss the coming rain.

And yet "all things in the dharma realm in ten directions, carry out buddha work," even our fixations, if we'd only let them do so. Everything is your sangha. That's one of the blessings of spending time in sangha - that you can begin to see the truth of this for yourself.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

On the Poet Leslie Scalapino's Death

Although I don't write a lot about it, I also have been a member of the poetry reading and writing community for years. A few minutes ago, a friend posted on Facebook that Leslie Scalapino just died. While I was in grad school, she visited our program for a reading and interview. Those of us who enjoyed experimental work, loved the wild ride of her poems, some of which were influenced by Buddhist writings. One of things I found fascinating about Leslie was that her interactions in person felt almost exactly like her poems. She spoke like she wrote, and almost seemed to move through life like her poems did. Sometimes, you had absolutely no idea where she was coming from or what she was talking about, but the way the language appeared on the page, in your ear, rattled what you thought you knew to be true. I don't know what happened to her, but I'm grateful that she's been an influence on my writing, even if only in small ways most of the time.

Many of her writings were the size of novellas. Poems that simply couldn't stop at a single page, or set of pages. So, I'll just offer you a small taste, from Avril, which is from "The Forest is in the Euphrates River."

People cruising

Toyotas the rose desert breaks

everywhere because they are on its surface then

a woman ignorant and from eyes blank gloating savaging
others speaking only no one speaks there they’re

not reflected in her eyes her

either for her anywhere

tyranny of inverted in her/gloater’s being defined as the
social outside

their kindness a train hurls on tiers seen in the sky

no sight admitted
into the gloating one savaging others then doesn’t make

sights cattle came to a blossom

in others

Here are a few resources for those of you who love poetry, or who might just be curious.

A short write up of her life and death.

An essay considering her writing, including comments on Buddhist influences.

A blog post about her.

A link to some of her poems.

Another, more complete obit

(Updated) Gulf of Mexico Clean Up Efforts and Human Failures to Change Consumption Patterns

The whole situation in the Gulf of Mexico has been sickening to me. Endless finger pointing. Generations worth of environmental damage. Right wing blathering in support of BP, and against the Obama Administration. The Obama Administration's tepid response. And you know what, I still don't hear many people saying "Damn, maybe I need to figure out a way to drive less and use less oil."

I have a soft spot for pelicans, and it seems that every disaster like this ends up having images of pelicans coated and choking in oil. And to be honest, I think almost no one who hops into their car to drive six blocks to get a loaf of bread or a soda thinks for a second about their connection to these pelicans. And the same is true for all of us who are purchasing endless amounts of plastic crap because we "have to have it!", whatever "it" is.

I'm not feeling terribly charitable or kind about all this today. I've tried not to write about it much because it just makes me so angry, and sad, and not very balanced. Mostly, I look at that pelican in the photo above, and think "I'm letting you down. We are letting you down."

Maia over at Jizo Chronicles has a post today about some clean up efforts being organized. If you have an interest in going down there to help, or offering financial support to those who want to go, check out her post. I can imagine there will be a lot of opportunities to do so for a good long while. May we all wake up to suffering we are causing in the world.

Update: Barry over at Ox Herding has some additional resources to consider in his current post.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Red Thread of Passion: A Few Thoughts on Buddhist Sexuality

Rev. Harvey Daiho Hilbert-roshi, over at his blog, has been considered the Buddhist precepts, or ethical guidelines one by one. His current post is about the precept on sexuality, which tends to stir up a lot of confusion for most of us.

No sexual misconduct: I vow to use my sexuality to enhance and nurture the lives of others

Consider this vow as it is written. How often do we understand our sexual behavior in the context of its power to enhance and nurture? It seems to me we spend an awful lot of time fretting about the morality of sex and far too little time on considering its humanizing, spiritual, and healing potential.

This spring, our center was planning on having a class to examine these very issues. So few of us signed up that it was canceled. To me, that speaks volumes about our collective baggage around sexuality.

I remember after the debacle in our community, which among other things involved a sexual breach between a student and the former teacher, there was a ton of energy around developing a detailed set of policies and procedures for addressing issues like sexual misconduct. In and of itself, this was necessary, and the work done continues to be a benefit for the sangha. However, when reflecting on the comments Rev. Harvey made, as well as that canceled class, it strikes me that my sangha, collectively, represents the heavy lean in society towards prohibitive, puritanical views about sexuality.

A few upfront observations: Just as we are eating beings, sleeping beings, or breathing beings, we are also sexual beings. Just as killing and stealing can be disruptive to community life, sexual conduct has the power to destroy individual lives within community. Sex is at the center of much of our waking life. We spend an awful lot of time in denial about our sexual nature. We spend the rest of our time trying our best to act it out. Personally, I have little time and patience with our societal neurosis over sex. We do it or we don’t and we should not infuse sexual conduct with notions of moral purity or impurity.

Pretty strong language, don't you think? I personally like it. It's refreshing. No mincing words. No trying to massage things to keep people comfortable.

I don't want to be comfortable with puritanical thoughts about sexuality; I want to be liberated in all that I do. Sex can be wonderful, healing, joy producing, and maybe even a source of liberation. We all know about the horrors of misuse, but most of us haven't deeply explored the flip side. That's my guess. Tell me if I'm wrong. But all nudie mags, how to orgasm books, and sex toys aside, do you really feel like you have fully embraced and experienced your sexuality? Do you have a holistic sense of it? Or is it another part of you life compartmentalized, fragmented off as "not spiritual enough," a "hindrance," etc?

These questions go for those of us who have, or desire to have, active sex lives, and those who are celibate. No one gets around the red thread of passion. Best to go at it head on, with eyes wide open.

* Image is of the painting "Red Thread of Passion" by Patricia Brown. For more of her work, see this link.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

It was 20 Years Ago Today...

A reminder of living history came from Danny Fisher's blog today. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for most of the last twenty years, since being elected leader of her nation. Various residents of Burma have experienced miserable oppression not only over the past two decades, but really for much of the last two centuries. My state of Minnesota is now home to a few thousand Karen, one of the many ethnic minority groups from Burma threatened with extinction. Yes, "with extinction" is not an overstatement. Things were bad for them before the military dictatorship came in; since then, it's been a slog for survival for the entire 5-7 million members of the now worldwide Karen community. (Here is some more information about the Karen in Minnesota, in case you are interested.)

For the majority Burmese, the past thirty five years or so have been no picnic either, as the continued imprisonment of Suu Kyi symbolizes. The military not only threatens to destroy all the minority groups, but also has long suppressed its majority brothers and sisters. Obviously, Buddhists around the world remember images of Burmese monks marching and getting beaten in the streets of Rangoon in 2007. More recently, Human Rights Watch put out this report highlighting the continued abuses of monks who were connected to those protests. I've written about all of this before, and I know Danny Fisher and other Buddhist bloggers have posted about conditions in Burma many times as well.

It bears repeating though. We cannot ignore the suffering in this world. Maybe there isn't much tangible people outside of Burma can do right now - but the more of us that are free to speak in support of a Burma liberated from this dictatorship, the better.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Fully Enlightened Dharma Heir Required for Establishment of "Western" Buddhism: Film at Eleven

I enjoyed writing that piece on clothing and naked buddhas this morning, but when I looked at it again this evening, it felt a bit too metaphoric. So, I took it down for now. Maybe it will reappear again, but in the meantime, here's a big bone for everyone to chew on, courtesy of today's Tricycle blog:

In Tricycle’s most recent issue there is a piece titled “It Takes a Saint.” In this piece, Tai Situpa Rinpoche shares his beliefs on what it will take for Buddhism to become truly established in the West. He writes,

“I’ll make it simple: One Western person must attain full enlightenment in the same way as Marpa, Milarepa, or Padmasambhava. If one Westerner—man or woman, doesn’t matter—attains that level of realization, then pure dharma will be established in Western culture, Western language, and environment, and so forth. Until that time, dharma can be taught in the West, which is already happening; it can be practiced in the West, which is already happening; and it can be recited in Western languages. But it’s not yet one hundred percent complete.”

Read the whole piece here.

For me, it was love at first sight with this article. I remember reading it for the first time and holding back the urge to cheer while reading certain passages (particularly when Tai Situpa speaks of what would happen if such a Mahasiddha rose above New York City while singing the perfect dharma song for New Yorkers). Yet before long I realized that what was striking me so deeply was not necessarily what he was saying, but where the piece was taking me in my mind—to a West where the Dharma was utterly thriving. THAT is what had me on the verge of joyful cheers. Once I noticed this, I began to question his main point and I realized that while I don’t necessarily disagree, I don’t necessarily agree either. I’m not sure what the answer to the question is.

The writer of the post goes on to interview a few people he knows, asking them what they thought. One said the dharma is established, but just young. Another felt we needed a strong monastic tradition before any claims of established dharma can be made. Neither answer does much for me, but this "established/not established" argument does bring up a question for me. What is behind these kinds of discussions anyway? Are people trying to measure up? Too focused on what has fruited, and not enough on all the seeds being planted? I guess I don't know for sure, but before long - maybe 50 or 100 years - this kind of talk will be history. And then what? Maybe there will be a different issue to deal with - like an "established" dinosaur that doesn't attract anyone's attention.

I personally rather enjoy this somewhat unsettled, often experimental, and sometimes confused thing called Buddhism here in North America. Where else could you have a 100 year old + Buddhist organization be considered both "youthful" and open to major changes? Among other things, said organization, the Buddhist Churches of America, has had an ongoing debate about adding practices like sitting meditation that appeal to non-Japanese practitioners. Now, similar debates and changes are being made in sanghas in places like Thailand, but the difference is that in the United States, the traditional practices aren't really that old. And if you look at the oldest groups, be it the BCA or a place like San Francisco Zen Center, major changes and shifts in emphasis have been more normal than long periods of consistency.

And although it can certainly be a source of confusion, conflict, and sloppy dharma, I have to say that living in the middle of such a flux is pretty damned interesting. Whether or not a viable practice called Buddhism has been established, I'll let the philosophers decide that issue. How about you?

*painting by Rene Magritte

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What Are You Afraid of?

Yesterday, our class had a short discussion about snakes. A few of my students had the idea that there aren't any snakes in Minnesota because they hadn't seen any. Living in the city can do that to you. But mostly, what was interesting about the conversation is how we ended up talking about some very large snake from Burma that seemed to scare a fair number of people. Things got detailed when discussing this snake - hand gestures to show size, comments about how it can swallow a buffalo - which got me to thinking about how we humans get about the things we fear.

Now, I'm not so afraid of snakes, but that storytelling I experienced yesterday certainly reminds me of favorite approach to fears. Namely, to get lost in exaggerated stories.

What am I afraid of? Well, I still haven't been liberated from good old fear of death yet. And I still have a fear of failure more often than I'd like. And there are days when I get the feeling that I'm completely afraid to fully step into my life as it is.

Life as it is. I've been contemplating the fact that when things aren't going well, I believe stepping fully into them will somehow prolong the misery. This is a curious negation of all I have learned on the path, and yet I can see myself doing it daily when it comes to my current job, and what I need to do to get to the next one. I find myself saying things like "If I just accept everything here," I'll never leave here. Or I'll only leave here if someone pushes me out."

It's a story. I don't know what would happen if I completely accepted things as they are at work because I haven't done it yet. What's interesting is that I've tried everything else I can think of. I've stopped arguing about every last thing I disagree with. I've done zazen on breaks. I've done metta meditations for everyone I work with, even the few people who I really clash with. The list goes on and on. But I have never truly, fully accepted where things are at.

When it comes down to it, I think all fear is tied in some way or another to death. Not just death of the body, but also of parts of our life that have become familiar, comfortable, loved, or even hated. And I've found that when you get to stage where something, or someone is on life support, all sorts of stories arise that can get in the way of letting death come. The roller coaster rides of the end for both of my grandfather's certainly taught me this, if nothing else has.

So, can you let the stories just be stories? Can you accept them too? I say this to myself, but also can imagine you all who are reading this have your own stories to work with.

What are you afraid of anyway?

*Litho of Edvard Munch's "The Scream"

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Sangha of Writers

I have a new post over at Life as a Human about meditation and Lake Superior. Check it out.

Also, if you get a chance to pick up the current issue of Inquiring Mind, our center's head teacher, Byakuren Judith Ragir, has an article on addiction I'd like to direct your attention to. After three and half years of focused attention on leading our sangha back to a healthy place, she's finally got some time and energy to do other projects.

Finally, another member of our sangha, Tracy, started a new blog last month. If you like poetry, biking, and a little dharma, you should take a look!

* The photo above is of the center of our zendo. Once a warehouse building, the Northern Warehouse is now a community of artists, a few non-profits, a noodle shop, a coffee shop, and one Zen Center. Pretty cool, eh?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Dharma of Sangha Building/Rebuilding

The post I wrote a few days ago about sangha and exclusivity certainly sparked a lot of interest. It's great to know that others out there are considering some of these issues seriously.

Here are a few of the many quality comments that are worth looking at a little closer.

Adam wrote:
I have no idea how to deal with offering Buddhism to new comers while keeping the identity and culture of Buddhism alive and well.

In a lot of ways, this is really the challenge and blessing of building Buddhist community in places without ancient, established roots. Maintaining the integrity of Buddha's teachings, and honoring those who came before and made it possible for you to live this path is an essential part of our work. This is one reason why I'm pretty hard on those who want to strip off anything they find foreign or difficult about Buddhist practice; it's just plain disrespectful to our collective ancestors. At the same time, we are always creating things anew in a certain way, even when we invoke ancient rituals and forms. And if you look at spiritual organizations who insist on keeping everything "the same" as it was in the past, they're basically dying.

Along these lines, Barry commented:
I have been thinking lately about the differences between techniques such as MBSR (and I'll include Goenka-style Vipassana in this) and more traditional practices such as Zen or Vajrayana Buddhism.

Jon Kabat-Zinn has been very careful not to overposition MBSR as anything other than stress reduction. It's a powerful tool for this function, but no one considers it fundamentally transformative.

Perhaps that's because it doesn't force us into a head-on confrontation with our attachments to opinion, views, thoughts, and beliefs.

Traditional Buddhist practices, on the other hand, shove our faces into our attachments. ("I don't LIKE chanting" is a common one.)

There's another sangha here in the Twin Cities that has done a lot of teaching around Kabat-Zinn's approach. They frequently offer classes teaching the MBSR techniques and I'd guess that a fair number of their members came precisely because of those teachings. Although the classes have been successful and people are benefiting from them, it's also the case that, as a group, there seems to be some resistance to the rituals and forms of Zen practice. Now, this is probably true to some degree for most of us newcomers to Zen to some degree. But I think that the emphases we choose to place on dharma talks, workshops, classes, and other sangha events will impact who comes, who stays, and what stories they come to believe about Buddhist practice. In other words, if it's too much about stress reduction, you'll probably get people who mostly want more of that. If it's too much about just sitting, just meditating, you'll probably get people who just want that. If it's too much about socializing and togetherness, you'll probably get more of that.

On the other hand, Robyn writes:
I say that as someone who bristled at all the bowing, robes, incense, etc.. I hated it, thought was was stupid, blah, blah, blah. It was the teacher's talks and the sitting itself that kept me coming back. Little by little, I have grown to see the wisdom and, yes, compassionate gift of all those other things.

So, it's helpful to remember that the way people see and experience things will change over time. What originally drew someone to the community might have little or nothing to do with what is benefiting them now in the same community. Our sangha's head teacher often mentions how when she first came to Zen, she wanted to get away from all the messy relationships in her life and just sit quietly. And now, she views how she does relationships with others and the world around her as the core of practice. Zazen practice is still key to her, but it's not about hiding away anymore.

My point in bringing this up is that part of life in a healthy spiritual community is placing trust in that which has been handed down to us. Generation after generation have had more awakened, more wisdom and compassion-filled lives as a result of embodying the ethical teachings and practices of Buddhism. Like Dogen's Instructions for the Zen Cook points to, there's a place for community planning and goal setting, and simultaneously, there's an opportunity to let it all go and let arise what will arise.

About an hour ago, we finished our monthly board meeting. It was one of those meetings where you almost can just sit back and watch the flowers sprouting from the soil. In February we set out to develop a strategic plan for the sangha, and now it's really happening. The Board is totally engaged and excited about the possibilities, and the discussions we are having feel directed and thoughtful in a way I haven't experienced before in my term on the Zen Center's board.

It's been a great teaching for me in embodying good old Dogen's instructions. I have put a fair amount of work into keeping things on track, but I have probably done an equal, if not greater amount, of staying quiet, listening, and not meddling with what's actually happening.

Somehow, it seems to me that this lesson of knowing how much to plan and deliberately direct, and knowing when to step back, listen, and not meddle is the very thing needed when addressing group dynamics and functioning. I remember during the class our center had on Dogen's cook instructions, someone brought up a rule of four. That is, three fourths of our time should be spent listening, observing, and not meddling. And one fourth of our time should be action-oriented. Not exactly what you think of in this face paced world we live in, is it?

And yet, I think this is a way we might better embody our teachings as we go about working within our sanghas, or offering ideas about what sanghas of the future might look like. At the end of his comment, Barry points to the newness of this whole Buddhism in "the West" project - and I think that it's worth constantly remembering that even the longest steeped amongst us - those fifth and sixth generation Chinese and Japanese Americans living all over North and South America - even they are still finding their way as members of a spiritual minority not financially or culturally supported by the society around them. Even though there are plenty of differences amongst the various Buddhist sects developing outside of Asia, this experience of being outsiders is one we all share to a certain extent.

Knowing this, I feel it's important to remember to be kind to our fellow practitioners, regardless of what tradition they practice in, or how much we might not agree with their practices. Some folks have been pretty damn hard on the Soka Gakkai communities amongst us, and maybe most of that criticism is right on, and should be considered by these groups. However, if this criticism isn't tempered with some kind of softness, some kind of compassion, then it's just more brutality in an already brutal world.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Are You Being Spoon Fed?

A good reminder from Marguerite over at Mind Deep, based on her work in a Zen Hospice program:

So many things I take for granted. Like the capacity to pick my own spoon, and the food I want to eat. Or being able to feed myself, when I want, and where I want. I am feeling so incredibly grateful!

So easy to forget all that is going well for you in this life. Frequent reminders are always helpful. Thanks Marguerite!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Is Convert Buddhism too Clubby and Exclusive?

Peter over at living and dying with eyes wide open had a post yesterday which has been hanging with me. The major thrust of the post is a questioning of the ritualistic, highly monastic forms and language found in most convert Zen communities. I appreciate his desire to open the doors to more people, and the wondering of how that might happen, but I'm also a bit troubled.

First, here's his post:

Something’s been troubling me about this thing called practice. When I first came to Zen, my personal likes and dislikes got in the way. I didn’t like chanting lines in Japanese and Sanskrit, thought there was too much bowing, too many robes, too much mumbo-jumbo. Over time that very practice has helped me to see such “obstacles” for what they are, namely ego-based impediments that have little or nothing to do with living a good life. I’m now grateful for the ethical framework that Buddhism provides. It guides me through the chaos of everyday existence and people tell me that I’ve become more gentle and less judgemental. So far so good.

Recent conversations with friends about someone they believe would “really benefit” from meditating but “won’t come for x-number of reasons” cause me look a little closer at what I take for granted. If it’s such a good thing, this practice, why aren’t more people coming to it? What gets in the way? What turns people away from trying and what, should they give it a try, prevents them from returning? What barriers might we remove to provide freer access?

In a practice that stresses non-duality and inclusivity, I’m struck by texts and images that seem clubby and exclusive. In our city (which is anything but a hotbed of Buddhist activities) meditation opportunities are offered in several flavours, including Tibetan, Shambhala, Vipassana, as well as Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Soto, and Rinzai Zen. Teachers sport such arcane titles as Reverend Master, osho, sensei, rinpoche, venerable, lama, priest, and roshi; others are called elders, monks, shusso, benji, doan, ino, or by given names in Asian languages. Websites refer to proper etiquette (such as when and how to bow, and which foot to put first when entering, how to hold your hands while walking, and so on). Pictures show people wearing special outfits (some crown-like hats), burning incense, bowing to statues, sitting on round cushions while facing blank walls, walking lock-step in close formation, ringing bells, hitting wooden boards, and holding their hands in what may well be prayer. Hello !!

All that so people can sit still and pay attention to their breath?

I know of formally trained teachers who have taken off their robes and offer meditation with little jargon, titles, and ritual. In some traditions, Vipassana (as taught by SN Goenka) for instance, the emphasis is on silent sitting and focusing on the breath: no Buddha images in sight. Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), widely used in American hospitals, teaches patients meditation techniques to help lower blood pressure and improve immune systems. Abundant research attests to MBSR’s benefits, its Buddhist roots are rarely mentioned.

I've written plenty about my disagreements with those who wish to strip everything cultural (i.e. Japanese, Chinese, Korean ...) from Buddhism to expose some "core" of practice. It's folly because everything develops within a cultural/societal framework, and although it will change whenever it moves, it still will also contain influences from its native setting. Zen itself is a hybrid - but it would be absolutely silly to suggest that nothing of Indian origins of Buddhism is left in Zen. The search for a "core" in Buddhism is as fruitless in my view as the search for a "fixed self."

What Peter is considering here may contain a bit of that flavor, but I don't think it's driven by a goal of finding some pure essence of Buddhism. Having read his blog for awhile now, I can see the deep respect he has for how he's learned to practice.

The thing I get stuck on when I consider his comments above is that everything seems to come down to meditation. Buddhist practice is more than just meditation though, as even any monastic would tell you. But just as Yoga's arrival in North America, Europe, Australia, etc. led quickly to a very heavy emphasis on asanas (physical body poses), so much of convert Buddhism has has a heavy emphasis on meditation practice.

Look. I practice Soto Zen, whose founder, Dogen, emphasized seated meditation. It makes sense that zazen would be a prominent feature. But if it was only about getting people to sit down and watch their breath, then why in the hell did Dogen write a huge pile of texts concerning ethics, relationships, ritual, work, and awakening, amongst other topics? What's the point of writing an entire manual on how to be a Zen Cook if the core practice is meditation?

The reality is that every major spiritual tradition includes some form of meditation. It's really not unique to Buddhism, and so even though people like Kabit-Zinn (founder of MBSR) took their cues from Buddhist forms of meditation, they might have produced similar results secularizing something like Centering Prayer. So, I think it's important for those of us who are interested in creating "more access" to, or "opening the doors of Buddhism to" more people, to see that meditation isn't what makes Buddhism unique.

A point I made over at Peter's blog in response to his post yesterday is that just as there are many flavors of Buddhism, so, too, are there flavors of Protestant Christianity. And just as there are many ritualistic aspects to Zen, so, too, are there ritualistic aspects to Catholicism. Clearly, this turns many off. But others thrive in it. Different flavors are needed for different people is the way I see it.

Peter writes: "In a practice that stresses non-duality and inclusivity, I’m struck by texts and images that seem clubby and exclusive."

I have been too, but in different ways most likely. Convert Buddhist communities have been notoriously race and class unconscious, for one thing. It's hard not to get a bit cynical when you step into a Zen or Tibetan center and see fifty or seventy five white, middle and/or upper class folks and a hand full of well off people of color in the room. Another thing, which my own center has addressed pretty well in my view, is stepping into a room where there are no children, few elders, no food, and little socializing at all. We have taken steps to develop a more well-rounded community, one that actually feels like a community, and not just several dozen people coming together for a few hours every week to meditate and listen to a dharma talk. We have elders. We have lots of children around. We are socializing more. We even have food to share pretty frequently now.

I love doing meditation in a group. In fact, it would be hard for me to sustain a meditation practice without access to fairly regular group sittings. After several years, I can do it on my own. But it's easier when you have a group to go to and work together with.

However, sangha is more than just silently practicing together, and I suspect that this is something Peter's post is aiming at without directly saying so. Newcomers, who don't know what's going on and feel very out of place, are probably more likely to never come back if a group doesn't have a prominent social element.

So, I'd be interested to know what you all think about this. Is convert Buddhism too clubby and exclusive? If yes, in what ways? Do you feel, like Peter, that there are too many "bells and whistles"?

Even though Buddhism has been in North America over 150 years, it's still true that it's a newcomer, and people are still finding their way. So, it's important to have these kinds of discussions, and consider what we might be leaving the generations that will follow us.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Are you an Asker or a Guesser?

Here's something fun to consider, and given the heavy posts I've made recently, might offer some of my readers a little relief. Others will long for another "deeply" considered post, which brings to mind the old adage "You can't please everyone."

Anyway, are you an Asker or a Guesser?

I found this Good over at the webzine Good. A simple name, Good, isn't it? Maybe too simple. But I'm enjoying some of the articles anyway.

Back to the question above. Here's the selection, originally from a Guardian newspaper article:

This terminology comes from a brilliant web posting by Andrea Donderi that's achieved minor cult status online. We are raised, the theory runs, in one of two cultures. In Ask culture, people grow up believing they can ask for anything—a favour, a pay rise—fully realising the answer may be no. In Guess culture, by contrast, you avoid "putting a request into words unless you're pretty sure the answer will be yes … A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won't have to make the request directly; you'll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept."

Neither's "wrong", but when an Asker meets a Guesser, unpleasantness results. An Asker won't think it's rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a Guess culture person will hear it as presumptuous and resent the agony involved in saying no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may be an overdemanding boor—or just an Asker, who's assuming you might decline. If you're a Guesser, you'll hear it as an expectation. This is a spectrum, not a dichotomy, and it explains cross-cultural awkwardnesses, too: Brits and Americans get discombobulated doing business in Japan, because it's a Guess culture, yet experience Russians as rude, because they're diehard Askers.

Now, I'm always wary of generalizations about entire nations. Nothing, in and of itself, "explains cross-cultural awkwardness."

But maybe we can just put that aside, and think about ourselves individually for a moment. I definitely lean towards the Guess end of the spectrum. In fact, sometimes I get frustrated that I can't just go out and ask more often.

What's interesting to me from a Buddhist perspective is that I can see attachments that can come up for both extremes of this pair. Askers probably struggle with entitlement, thinking they deserve more than they really do. Guessers, like myself, often struggle with rejection, and worries that we'll appear pushy, demanding, and unlikeable.

Yet, like any dichotomy, no one is something all of the time. In the classroom, as a teacher, I'm definitely more of an Asker. Which makes me wonder how much this has to do with power, and/or perceived power, within a given situation.

There have been many times when I've felt powerless in my life. In fact, my current work situation has brought up plenty of this feeling. And this has corresponded in a shift away from directness in general, mostly out of a fear that being direct might cost me my job.

On the other hand, as our Zen Center's board chair, I've grown comfortable enough to do the opposite. It's obvious that my sangha friends and colleagues on the board respect my work, and leadership, and so being an Asker isn't so risky.

Now, a person doesn't have to have the kind of defined power of being a Board Chair in order to be more on the Asking end of the spectrum. It's about perception as much as anything that determines our behavior. A person who has little defined power could easily be very forward with requests of others if they are tapped into an "internal" sense of power. One might move beyond the word power and speak of this as being aligned with one's buddhanature, to use Buddhist speak.

In any case, my own experience has been that when I'm trusting life as it is, I'm better able to respond to the situation at hand. And maybe that situation calls for being an Asker and maybe it calls for being a Guesser.

How about you?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Soka Gakkai, Buddhism, and Wanting to be "The Best and Only,"

Adam over at Home Brew Dharma has a heartfelt, in depth post on his experiences with a Soka Gakkai Buddhist community. He brings up a lot of troubling issues, which Soka Gakkai in general has been accused of by many others. The first point Adam makes seems to be the lynch pin for the rest of what follows:

1) Nichiren Buddhists claim that Nichiren Buddhism is the only “true Buddhism™” and all other teachings (and schools of Buddhism) are “lesser” teachings. Even the different schools of Nicherin continually attempt to refute eachother and claim ownership over true Buddhism. It’s all over SGI publications and I’ve heard it at several meetings as well. They characterize “old Buddhism” as being fatalistic, not open to the masses, rudimentary, and not generally valid. In the SGI, they talk about priests and monks as if they were just money-hungry hucksters trying to trick people into worshiping them.

Whenever groups start getting into the "we're the best and only" kind of messaging, it's trouble. I've seen and heard comments in Zen texts and from Zen teachers that are the same thing disguised as something the Buddha supposedly said. Mahayana groups have a long history of denigrating Theravada Buddhists, and it's also true that some Theravadas dismiss everything beyond the Pali Canon as fictional rubbish. So, any claims being made by SGI of superiority are certainly troubling, but aren't really unique in the Buddhist world. The fact is every school has had, and continues to have powerful individuals and groups who claim they are the best, and that everything else is lesser. It's sad, but true.

For some reason, I have felt compelled to offer SGI and Nichiren communities in general the benefit of the doubt. Partly, because they have routinely been the most diverse Buddhist communities out there - attracting people of wide ranging racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. And knowing this, I'm also well aware of how often groups that support poor people and people of color regardless of economic background are easy targets of hate campaigns. The whole ACORN scandal comes immediately to mind because it was so obvious that the flaws of the organization were blown completely out of proportion by the mainstream media, conservative politicians, and corporate leaders who wished to see it disappear.

Adam's commentary doesn't appear to be coming from this kind of place at all. It's really trying to make sense of what sounds like a difficult experience with a spiritual community. It makes me wonder if it's something about that community that is happening. Or if there are certain teachings within SGI that can lead to extremism if any individual group isn't well led or grounded. I don't feel I know enough to really say one way or another.

It does offer us a reminder, though, of the challenges that can come in communities. People want to be united, on the same page. And sometimes, things get terribly twisted in order to get people to think alike and behave alike. And "being the best and only" is a particularly easy way to hook people because all of us have some of that desire within us, so if you are able to be part of a group that claims it is top dog, even if you're life is a mess, you can say "I'm still part of this wonderful group."

So, maybe SGI communities have more problems with this, but it's an issue facing each of us, everyday, in all our interactions.

*photo of members of the Bharat Soka Gakkai group in India.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thailand On Fire: A few thoughts

Thanks to Maia over at Jizo Chronicles for the following concerning events in Thailand:

The International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) has just issued a statement on the situation in Thailand. Here it is:


All Lives are Sacred: A plea to put an end to massive killing in Bangkok

International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB)

Since the beginning of the demonstration by the United front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), aka “Red Shirts”, on 12 March 2010, there have been many hundreds of casualties. In the past five days, attempts to disperse the demonstration in Ratchaprasong have become been violent, with a further effect of provoking violence. The government’s actions have so far failed to deter the demonstrators.

The present clash of political views is one of the great crises in Siam’s modern history. The country was previously acclaimed for settling conflict peacefully and democratically. Now it appears that both sides, the government and the UDD, are clinging to an illusion of victory over another. The entire nation is hostage to their conflict. Buddhist wisdom is relevant for those absorbed in hatred, greed and delusion. The Dhammapada, Verse 201 says:

Victory breeds hatred, for the conquered is unhappy.
Persons who have given up both victory and defeat, the contented, they are happy.

The International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB), representing a diversity of socially engaged buddhists from around the world, is gravely concerned about this standoff. We wish for all parties address the conflict with reason and tools of peace, to recognize the ancient Buddhist wisdom that neither the so-called winner nor loser will be contented and happy. We encourage those who do not fall into one of the two camps can help this process wherever possible. Only through peaceful negotiation and dialogue can all parties concerned return the country to its true nature as a flourishing democracy and a peace-loving nation.

Our heartfelt plea is for both parties to stop any act that may cost lives and injuries; to reclaim the time-tested wisdom of reconciliation and nonviolence.

Whenever INEB can help bridge the gap between the opposed parties we are willing to do all that we can.

We trust that in the light of upcoming international Vesakh celebrations in Thailand, supported by the United Nations 22-26 May 2010 and the subsequent local Vesakh celebrations, commemorating the birth, enlightenment and the passing away of the Lord Buddha, all parties will unite in taking responsibility for their conduct and for bringing about lasting peace, transformation towards social justice and shared wellbeing for future generations.

To close, in Verse 5 of the Dhammapada the Buddha proclaims:

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By love alone is hatred appeased. This is an eternal law.

Given how many of my students are either from Thailand or lived significant portions of their lives there, this situation feels close to home for me. We have had a few discussions as a class about some of it, but I've mostly skipped bringing in news articles about the daily events there. Being members of ethnic minorities who were mostly just tolerated in Thailand, my students have a complicated relationship to the nation. Some want to go back. Others never want to see it again. Some have a deep hatred of the Thai police and leadership, others speak glowingly of the ailing King who has been on the sidelines during this current conflict. In addition, few of the people in our school who lived in Thailand spent much time in Bangkok, where most of the conflict is occurring right now. However, none of this erases the fact that Thailand was home for years, even decades - and that for many, when they speak of homesickness, it's Thailand they are missing and longing for.

As a Buddhist, I sit with images like the one above, having no idea really what it's like to be that monk. I've faced some difficult things in my life, but the kind of upheaval going on in Thailand right now is foreign to me. Sending metta and peaceful energy seems like a small gesture at best. Writing blog posts also seems like a small thing. Supporting groups like the International Network of Engaged Buddhists might be helpful, but ultimately, as the letter above points out, the people in the conflict will have to wake up from their delusions. Let's offer our meditation practices to them, that enough of the people in Thailand may wake up before too long.

Monday, May 17, 2010

You Can't Take the "Spiritual" Out of Your Social/Political Leaders

Many of you know that I take seriously the idea that Buddha's teachings and grassroots, social justice work need to come together more. In fact, despite all of the miserable failures throughout history when it comes to linking religion to social issues, I still think it's foolish for people who aren't secular to act totally secular in society at large. I suppose for some of you this might put me in the same camp as the Taliban, Christian conservatives, and the Jewish conservatives currently running Israel, but I'd beg to differ.

In the first place, anyone who has seriously embarked on a spiritual journey, be it within an established religion or something on their own, isn't able to truly be uninfluenced by that while working and living in the world. Asking President Obama, or former President Bush, to completely drop off the Christianity while governing is pointless. In addition, asking social activists leaders like Grace Lee Boggs and Joanna Macy to drop their spiritual lives at the door makes no sense either. None of these folks would be able to anyway because the way they see the world is colored by their spiritual paths, for better or worse.

Instead of requesting that people play shell games with their spirituality while leading in our multicultural society, we might instead start insisting on deeper examination of motives behind actions, both individually and collectively. Is there a desire for power and control behind actions being taken? Is there an attempt to get people to convert to a certain religion or spiritual path? Will the actions being taken lead to a hostile environment for those who disagree with the religion/spiritual path of the leaders of a given project?

Speaking of Grace Lee Boggs, who is yet another elderly woman whose actions in the world are anything but elderly, it might be worth a look at her latest blog post about Detroit to get an idea of what I'm talking about. Writing about a new documentary about Detroit's history and potential future, she says the following:

My closing comments make clear that the new American Dream emerging in Detroit is a deeply-rooted spiritual and practical response to the devastation and dehumanization created by the old dream. We yearn to live more simply so that all of us and the Earth can simply live. This more human dream began with African American elders, calling themselves the Gardening Angels. Detroit’s vacant lots, they decided, were not signs of urban blight but heaven-sent spaces to plant community gardens, both to grow our own food and to give urban youth the sense of process, self-reliance, and evolution that everyone needs to be human.

Now, as a Buddhist, talk of "heaven-sent" doesn't do much for me. However, what I do understand and connect with is a return of reverence for the Earth. And the fact that these people, leaders in their community, came to this view through Christianity, Islam, and other religions shouldn't be ignored. Could these people have come to the same conclusions, and began making the same decisions, from a completely secular standpoint? I suppose. Is it likely they would have? I doubt it.

Now, this is a ground up kind of work going on in Detroit for the most part. And obviously, when it comes to top-down examples of leaders influenced by their religion/spirituality, the track record sucks the big one. Here in the U.S., even current President Obama, who has made more efforts than most to speak of the diverse spiritual and secular landscape of our nation, still supports things like the National Day of Prayer, which is decidedly Christian in nature despite attempts to broaden its scope. In Europe, many nations still have state religions, even as the population becomes more detached from those religions. And in places where Buddhism is dominant, like Sri Lanka, it's obvious that the particular blending of religion and leadership present is terribly troubling.

All of these top-down examples tend to be brought up by Buddhist practitioners who want nothing to do with social action informed by spiritual teachings whatsoever. I can understand this, and yet I think it's short-sighted. Why? Because the kinds of social movements that might address things like environmental destruction, degrading education and health care systems, and racial, sexual, and other oppressions come from large groups of people transforming. And where do you often find large groups of people with some common ground already? In churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and Zen centers. And when you think about it, these people also tend to congregate together on the internet as well. Obviously, the secular folks out there aren't in these places, and they, too, have their congregation centers. And this is precisely the point. Social changes starts where you are, with whomever you are with regularly.

I frequently listen to people wailing about the state of world, including myself, and then think "What do Buddha's teachings have to say about all this?" The leap from that thinking to some sort of engagement by a group of Buddhists doesn't seem that terribly hard of one, and yet my experience has been it's a very hard leap. I have an interest - dare I say passion - in making that leap less difficult. Which is why I write so much about social issues and Buddhism, and also why I act in the world informed by my practice.

Now, it's time for me to go to work. May you all be well.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Independent Buddhist Sitting Groups: A Wave of the Future?

For awhile now, I've been interested in the ways sangha is manifesting or not manifesting in the 21st century. In addition to the varieties of online activities which may or may not be "sanghas" (or Buddhist communities), I've noticed a number of bloggers living in areas where there isn't much in the way of established Buddhism starting their own sanghas. Last month, Kyle over at Reformed Buddhist started up a Zen group in his Virgina hometown. And this morning, I ran across this post from Jordan, who is stationed over in Okinawa, Japan, and trying to start a group as well. I've seen others doing similar things, including members of my own home sangha, who have started up sitting groups on the side.

It's an interesting experiment, isn't it? There's a great democratic spirit in all this, and clearly an intention to fill a gap being called to be filled.

I also wonder about leadership issues, training in working with group dynamics, messages being given about Buddha's teachings. Things can get messy fast if you don't have some grounded people around helping to navigate everything.

What do you think about these groups popping up? Is this a sign of the future of practice? A temporary stepping stone to something else? A road to trouble?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Engaging Your Environments Fully

More rain today here in Minnesota. It's been twenty degrees colder than normal all week, and wet, very wet. The stuff of gloomy thoughts and haunted blog posts, like the one I wrote yesterday.

I remember being about twenty and telling people "the weather doesn't impact me at all." I was the guy who rode a bicycle in -20 degree weather and who did two mile hikes on one hundred degree days without eating. Of course, there was burned skin and dehydration, but I didn't see it as a problem. I just trucked on, not considering how much the environment shaped my life.

With more life behind me, and more experience, it's obvious to me now that if you don't engage with how both the planet and the human-made environment are impacting your life, it will simply be another thing controlling you.

Do we talk about this much in Buddhist practice? I'm not sure. Some people write beautiful spiritual poetry about nature. Others examine the stress that comes from driving, living far away from your workplace, etc. Still others are involved in various environmental projects and activist work, from community gardening to Buddhist-inspired ecology work like the Ecodharma Centre.

Yet, so much of what I see is caught in a binary manifestation - either it's mostly about an "external" focus or an "internal" focus.

How do we bring the two together? This seems to be the pivot question I've lived with for most of my life.

If you don't engage with how both the planet and the human-made environment are impacting your life, it will simply be another thing controlling you. I was on the bus this morning and I saw a woman trying to cross the street in the crosswalk in front of the bus. She was clearly anxious and in a hurry, and as she passed the large, wide front bus window, I noticed a ball of tension rising within me. Looking at her struggling, I felt a resistance, a not wanting to "deal" with her appearance in my life. And it hit me - that this was the confused compassion mixed with control I often respond to the human-filled environment with.

I felt whatever she was experiencing trying to enter me, and I both wanted to heal it, and banish it at the same time. Neither of these are working with total acceptance of the present, the basis for the bodhisattva work of non-violent intervention.

Back to the weather - living in a place like Minnesota, filled with temperature and precipitation extremes, it's really easy to get hung up on the weather. In the winter, it's too cold, too snowy, to bitterly windy. In the summer, it's too hot, too humid, too stormy. In the spring, it's too wet and the temperatures fluctuate too much. In the fall, it's too dry and the temperatures also fluctuate too much.

All that talk is letting one's self be controlled by the natural environment.

What would it look like to engage fully with both the human made environments we live in and also the natural environments, the two of which always overlap in some way or another?

Some of you may have noticed the lines from Shitou's "Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage" in yesterday's post. I've been slowly reading a book of Suzuki Roshi's talks about Shitou's other great dharma poem, Sandokai, and interestingly, lines from the other poem keep appearing to me during my days. These lines in particular seem to apply to the question above as instructions:

"Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can't be faced or turned away from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instruction,
Bind grasses to build a hut, and don't give up."

We have move beyond seeing "ancestral teachers" as only old Zen folks. Shitou, himself, lived a lot of his life in intimacy with the planet as it was. The ancestral trees, grasses, medicine plants, waters, mountains - these were as much his teachers as any human, if not more. At the same time, familial and cultural human ancestors probably played a large role in his life, and another reason why it took only two poems to cement his place amongst the great Buddhist teachers. He didn't need a lot of words because he had taken everything in, and wasn't controlled by it, but could engage with it fully.

Things are probably more complicated for a lot of us living now, but at the same time, there are these lines from the Sandokai:

"In the light there is darkness, but don't take it as darkness;
In the dark there is light, but don't see it as light."

Even though we "moderns" have "more to deal with" in a certain way, it's really not all that different than those living their challenges in the past. Not the same, but not all that different. So we don't have the luxury to just copy what the various ancestors did, just as new generations of trees, for example, aren't able to replicate their ancestors' ways of growing and being. However, like the trees, we aren't cut off from that past, nor the environments around us today.

So, as it's raining outside, I'm offering this to you, and also considering my own life's ingredients. Let's work together for a more complete expression of practice, and more complete lives in the process.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ghosts of Empire

Walking to the bus stop this morning, I noticed the effort people put forth in cities to contain the growing environment. The streets, sidewalks, alleys, trees circled by grates and other holding devices - all of this to keep things in place which won't stay do so. "When it was completed, fresh weeds appear. Now it's been lived in covered by weeds." Anyone ever heard these lines before? This is like all our building efforts; projects that are destined to decay and be covered over.

Over a hundred and fifty years ago, American artist Thomas Cole painted a series of paintings charting the rise and fall of Empire. I remember first discovering them during a traveling show of 19th century American landscapes several years ago, and being in awe of the grandness of the images. Now, though, they feel like ghosts taunting us "modern Americans," living as we do in a crumbling empire.

I remember grade school discussions of what the world might look like after nuclear war. What would last? Rats. Cockroaches. Twisted up trees perhaps. It's hard to have a real sense of what nuclear bombs can do when you are nine years old, but you're mind is open to possibilities in a way adult minds' rarely are. So, things get strange, very strange. Elephants with rat heads flying through black smoke.

Today, I suppose children are more worried about terrorists destroying their homes than a nuclear war, although the latter is still a lingering possibility. There is an endless array of future specters to haunt us when those of the past don't spook us enough. I've heard people use various Buddhist terms to describe this day and age, but more and more, the Hungry Ghost Realm seems most appropriate.

"Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?" I would. My guess is you would too. Stripping the garden of weeds so others are impressed. Withholding something that needs to be said another in order to avoid discomfort. Researching every last detail of a political issue so I can be right no matter what someone else says. Standing up against injustice by putting those who are injust down. I see all of this as "arranging seats" to entice others to "my side" of life. And this is the mode we're taking too often collectively as well, attached so deeply to what we think this life must be, now and in the future.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Are You Calling Me a Radical?

For a good week now, I've been haunted lines from a song. It just kept arising, in various situations that seemed completely unlinked. This morning, I was thinking that the song was from a band a friend of mine loves, but then it appeared again - five minutes ago - on the soundtrack in the coffee shop I am in. I knew it was time to do some research.

Supertramp's "The Logical Song" was a hit single in 1979, when I was 3 years old. It's a song about the experienced freedom of childhood, and how growing up, "getting educated," and getting evaluated by others creates some major identity confusion.

What's interesting is that there have been a few posts lately dealing with some of this. Robyn from My Fair Isle speaks of homeschooling, unschooling, and her children struggling to enjoy a program at a Waldorf school. From the bits I've read of Robyn's ideas about learning, there's a deep desire to provide something for her children that runs counter to the kind of education the Supertramp song speaks of, and which most of us experienced. Having spent years teaching, and exploring learning theories and experimenting in my classrooms, I completely agree with Robyn that the standard models of education for either children or adults fail us in many ways.

On a different, but related note, The Zennist posted recently about leaving childhood ideas of the world behind and taking responsibility for our lives in adulthood. At one point, he brings up the perennial topic of guru or spiritual teacher exploitation, suggesting that attachment and enacting views of the world we developed as children probably play a role in being involved in these kinds of relationships later in life. The "I wasn't "saved" by mom or dad, so I'll seek out a savior figure spiritually" kind of thing.

Going back to the song, the entire thing hinges on not knowing one's self. The chorus of the song is of a man desperately seeking identity:

At night, when all the world's asleep,
the questions run so deep
for such a simple man.
Won't you please, please tell me what we've learned
I know it sounds absurd
but please tell me who I am.

My guess is that all of us have been here, even if we never say it out loud to others. Wanting confirmation that you "are someone" to "somebody," we take what others say about us as true, or seek out more opinions when what we hear doesn't sound so good.

If my Zen training has done anything, it's taught me to turn within and let all that chatter go. Not at all any easy task, and in many ways, it's felt like another form of unschooling, breaking a trained pattern of acting in the world, seeking confirmation or rebuke, and then acting based on that response. Sometimes, I have wanted to fit in, so I'd go along with that which stifles the living precepts and suffocates my life. Other times, I wanted to be seen as the "radical," and so I trotted out my views in situations where they weren't called for.

Behind all that, though, seems to be this deeper search for identity. Who am I? What am I supposed to be doing here on this earth? What is my deepest intention now?

All of this has been up for me a lot lately, as I've navigated career issues, a fairly new romantic relationship, a leadership role in my sangha, and everyday life. I feel very blessed in many ways, and in other ways, somewhat stifled still. However, the gift of dharma teachings that remind me again and again not to place my faith in the transient things of life, while also caring deeply for those same transient things, are invaluable.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Swing and Miss of Manjushri's Sword

We had another barn-burner of a staff meeting at work last Friday. Just to give you an idea of the tone, at one point, while discussing yet another major change to our classes and workload, I turned to one of the directors, pointed directly at her face, and said "What have you sacrificed?"

It was a tense moment brought on by a long-standing frustration with this particular director, whose department in the school has increased over the past two years while the rest of us have had to reshuffle our decks, take pay cuts, and generally feel demoralized. The director got defensive. I said she was always trying to "push" projects through. She called me a "negative person." I said "look around, everyone here is burned out." Then a hallelujah chorus broke out from the other teachers on staff, who seemed to have been waiting for that particular elephant to be driven out from under the table.

However, I misspoke in the beginning, to ramped up to ask the correct pointed question. It should have been "What has your department sacrificed?" But instead, I made it personal, which is what we do most of the time when were frustrated and not thinking too clearly.

Genkaku has an interesting posttoday that points to why I felt so frustrated with what was happening.

He writes:
Nobody likes a bullshitter, but what occurred to me this morning was that getting my tail in a twist was a bit of an overreaction ... a long-standing habit based on the harm I have experienced at the hands of an over-active intellect, i.e. an over-active imagination.

When each person is confronted with the bullshit in their lives -- the disconnect between talking the talk and walking the walk -- when, in fact, there is not much other than bullshit to work with, then working with bullshit is simply the name of the game. It is a way of encouragement and effort, a flash of lightning that may, in fact, help to put the saddle on the horse. The fault does not lie with the bullshit itself but with the unwillingness or inability to investigate and make whole what is for the moment disconnected

I can see now how I was reacting not only to the director's continued stonewalling about the whole picture of the organization, but also to the sloppiness of the question that shot out of my mouth in such a ramped up manner. I wanted to be Manjushri in that moment, because the situation was crying out for such action, but the cut of my sword missed, and more suffering was the result.

Do I feel bad about all this? Not really. Mostly, I find it interesting how often it takes a messy series of exchanges in order to bring anything buried to the surface. We'd all been going along, trying to try, when the reality was there was so little morale and so much burnout that all the collective effort to be cooperative was killing us. I'm pretty sure that not saying such things as "we have little energy or morale left" is a product of the "do good at all expense" culture I find so pervasive amongst non-profit types. It's making me take a step back and consider what it would mean to have a healthy, balanced organization that serves others because they seem so rare to me. I've experienced short periods of collective balance in non-profits and other service groups, but it never lasts.

And I think Genkaku's lines about bullshit are an important pointer here because it does always seem to come back to talking the talk, but not walking the walk, doesn't it?

* For more images linked to the one above, go here.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Cat Zen: Revisited

A few Buddhist bloggers have done retrospective postings of popular old posts and people seemed to enjoy it. Obviously, it gives the writer a break, while offering newer readers a chance to see something they didn't see the first time. (I often wonder if anyone ever digs through the archives of this blog, or any blog, beyond a few weeks back. I've done it on a few blogs, and found it delightful, but it's a rare practice even for me.)

Anyway, I'm going to take up the theme of "On this day one year ago," and offer you the post I wrote May 9th, 2009. Happy Mother's Day!

This is a photo I took of my mother's cat, Baby Jesus. Now, just where exactly the name came from, I'm still not sure. My mother isn't Christian, nor does she really have a lot of interest in Jesus, as far as I know. She told me the name just came to her, and really, maybe that's just how it was - things seem to come to us when we pay attention closely.

Now, Baby Jesus, also known as "the resurrected animal," has in some ways outgrown the baby. He's a big cat, probably weighing in at close to twenty pounds. He's very much a dominant presence in the house in a way a kitten can never be. He lounges effortlessly, leaps often, and attends to laps like an expert physician attends to surgery.

I have long thought that cats are good roles models for us muddling, sometimes meddling humans. Having lived with cats most of my life, and having experienced the cats of many friends and family over the years, I really think that, for the most part, cats are good at expressing and living out their catness.

Even though there are as many different personalities as there are cats in the world, there seems to be a directness and clarity that cats naturally have, and which people spend often entire lifetimes trying to cultivate. Emotions are expressed easily; actions are done without tons of calculating and over-analyzing. And anyone who has ever lived with a cat, or spent any significant time with one, knows that cats can focus their attention on something (a mouse, a bird, a fluttering dust bunny) and keep it there for a very long time, often without moving. They seem to have object-based meditation down pat, even if there is an end goal in mind (catch the moving object, eat the moving object, etc.)

Cats also have had their role in zen literature, most famously perhaps in the koan of Nanchuan's Cat. Here's the case, along with Mumon's comment and poem.

"Nanchuan saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. Seizing the cat, he told the monks: 'If you can say a word of zen, you will save the cat.' No one answered. Nanchuan cut the cat in two. That evening Zhaozho returned to the monastery and Nanchuan told him what had happened. Zhaozho removed his sandals, paced them on his head, and walked out. Nanchuan said, "If you had been there, you would have saved the cat."

Mumon's comment: Why did Zhaozho put his sandals on his head? If you can answer this question, you will understand exactly that Nanchuan's action was not in vain. If not, danger!

Mumon's poem:

Had Zhaozho been there
He would have taken charge.
Zhaozho snatches the sword
And Nanchuan begs for his life.

There is so much that could be talked about in this. And so many landmines I could step on in talking about any of it.

But one thing I have always found so intriguing is this business of silence on the part of the monks in response to Nanchuan's request for a word of zen. You can imagine that these guys might have spent hours or maybe even days arguing with each other about this cat, each side certain that they had the right answer to the issue at hand. And what issue was that? Some say it was an argument over whether the cat had buddhanature. But maybe it was something more mundane, like whether the cat should be in the monastery, or who's turn was it to clean up after the cat. Discussions of buddhanature or the ultimate nature of things are fairly rare, even in a place like a zen monastery. But discussions about cat shit, if a cat lives nearby, are fairly common. Hard to escape those everyday details, but very easy to get hung up on your view of those everyday details.

So, you can imagine these guys fighting with each other in some puffed up way over this cat. And Nanchuan stepping in, seizing the cat, and startling all of them silent.

At this moment, all certainty goes out the window for the monks. Just a moment before, they were divided just as so much of our lives get divided by our black and white biased minds. Yet, in this silence there's an opportunity, and Nanchuan isn't going to let that opportunity go. He speaks his words of zen to the monks, but then they stay stuck in silence, unable to join the conversation, the expression of life.

Even though speaking itself places a divide across the world by naming and separating, as Katagiri Roshi said "You have to say something."

Or do something. Maybe be a little bit like Baby Jesus, but not too much, not copying him. Baby Jesus jumped into a box, as you can see. How about you?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Stumble Upon Sangha?

Have spent the past hour or so setting up a new account at Stumble Upon, which is a social networking site that lets you link to anything you want on the internet. It seems like a cool way for us bloggers to get more traffic, discover new websites and blogs, and maybe even meet new people.

You can check out my profile here. I have linked to a few of my fellow Buddhist blogger posts, and plan to do so more in the future. Maybe a few of you will join me?

Anyway, enjoy!

p.s. You can read more about the Buddha image above here.

Language Translation is So Sexy!

From the New York Times: ""For the last two years, the Shanghai Commission for the Management of Language Use has been trying to clean up English-language signs and menus to rid them of their malapropisms, like these examples."

I spend most of my weeks teaching English to adult immigrants. It's hard work, and beyond my wonderful, grateful learners, often a thankless job. So, sometimes a little humor is in order.

The New York Times has several more examples available here.

Happy weekend!

Friday, May 7, 2010

British Elections as Dharma Lesson

I woke up in the middle of the night to a cold room and the beginnings of a cold. A few years ago, I started the practice of immediately taking some elderberry tincture at the first signs of a cold or sore throat. It's a powerful plant, and usually does the job.

After taking my medicine, it was clear I'd be awake for awhile, so I turned on the radio and listened to commentary on the British elections. One might say that I'm a bit of a political junky, although I'd just call it an interest in what's going on in the world, knowing it will impact us all in some small or great way.

Anyway, for those of you who don't know, Britain isn't used to trying to cobble together a coalition government, which is what they have to do now. The BBC reporters repeatedly spoke of how people are used to having an election one day and a "smiling new Prime Minister" the next. What was so interesting to me was how the coverage was so dramatic, and felt similar to that of the disputed Presidential Election in the U.S. ten years ago. In addition to the "smiling Prime Minister" comments," there was also repeated efforts to distinguish Britain from the rest of Europe. "We're not used to European-style elections." "This happens in Europe, but not in Britain." Statements like this. Eventually, I fell asleep again, but obviously an impression was made that I can write about now, six hours later.

This morning, I thought: Isn't this just like how our minds work! Always making everything into some special case that has to do with who we think we are. People often accuse the United States of being a nation filled with self-absorbed people who know little about the world around them. There's some truth to that, but I think it's also true that every nation or large body of people reflects to some degree the very "illnesses" Buddha saw afflicting all of us as individuals, namely that we think we are special, better or worse than, and completely separate from others around us.

The drama currently unfolding in Britain, including the potential negative economic impact, is both a real issue in the relative world and also a grand example of the kinds of disturbances that arise and fall in our minds everyday. It's a little bit like getting a sore throat - maybe it will lead to a long, terrible hardship, but probably not. And really, when you look at the long view, that hung parliament or sore throat are just manifestations of something that's been developing for a long time. Karma coming to fruition.

Every single event is both a blossom of the past and a life of it's own.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Faith isn't for the Nearest Dumpster

These words from Marcus' latest post seem very important this morning:

I’ll happily admit to being a beginner. I’ve tried, but cannot reach the most difficult philosophical heights of the Dharma. I’ve been to many Buddhist discussion groups where I’ve been lost at the complexity of it all. And I’m rubbish at meditation. But I look around at the good people in the temples, in Thailand and Korea, the places I know best, and see that Buddhist life is the precepts, generosity, chanting, and reliance upon the Buddha. That is enough. And difficult enough.

So faith is vital to me.

It's too easy to dispose "faith" into the nearest dumpster, feeling it's only for those "God" folks. But I think all of us, secular, religious, spiritual, or whatever - all of us need to place faith in something greater than ourselves in order to live healthy lives.

Chanting to myself silently on the bus this morning, I came to the lines about sangha in the refuges -

I take refuge in sangha. May all beings support harmony in the community, free from hindrances.

There have been times I've felt myself stuck on this line, seeing it as reinforcing excessive niceness and passivity.

However, this morning, it feels more like a calling from the world to see that even in the middle of conflicts and confusions, there is always a certain "harmony" present which is "free from hindrances."

I've felt very haunted by life lately. Not a haunting of personal, past experiences, but something bigger and less defined. I can feel it in my heart, in my breathing - what is it? This harmony perhaps, trying to break through the mud caked over it perhaps?

During a podcast with poet and spiritual writer David Whyte, he spoke of how in order to truly awaken, he feels one needs to experience an exile from one's self. I'm still sitting with that one because it feels really accurate, but kind of odd at the same time. Reminds me of a talk I had with one of my senior dharma sisters at our center. At one point she told me, "whatever all this is you're going through, you might never get any more clarity about it."

This points to, in part, I think this exiled quality - that there are some things in life that just remain mysterious no matter what we do to try to figure them out.
This post feels like that. May you not throw faith in the dumpster because sometimes, it's all you have.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

On-line Sangha Life - Is that so last year?

Here's an interesting post I stumbled upon about blogging, writing, and personal/professional goals behind blogs. It got me thinking about discussions awhile back concerning whether Buddhist blogging, chat rooms, and collective sites (like The IMC Community)constitutes an on-line sangha.

The longer I have spent blogging, the more I have seen how fickle the on-line world can be, even amongst us "Buddhist-types." Individual bloggers come and go. On-line communities come and go. Sustaining conversations about much of anything for longer than a week or two seems challenging at best, and sometimes next to impossible. Or, when something does get a lot of focus, it tends to be that which is dramatic and highly charged, like taking good old Genpo Roshi and his buddies down a few pegs.

On the flip side, there are more and more teachers doing online classes and workshops. And there are long running forums like Zen Forum International and communities like Treeleaf which seem to offer some of the stability and consistency you might see in a brick and mortar sangha.

Regardless of the amount of change, there is a beauty in sharing with others something you have learned, or are confused about, or just curious about. This can occur without more formal bonds, just seeming strangers sliding into each others' lives for a few minutes.

But I also wonder about all that talk about online sangha life. Was that just last year's bit of dukkha, or has it just transformed into something else?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Requirement of the Moment"

A few people found some of my recent comments about human reason and Buddhist practice questionable. I can understand this. Yet, the more I reflect on it, the more valuable it seems to me to keep questioning "calls for reason."

Here's a small segment of a post by Ajahn Sumedho on the blog Buddhism Now:

If we are intellectual, we are always up in the head, thinking about everything. Emotionally we might not be developed at all-throw temper tantrums, scream and yell when we do not get our own way. We can talk about Sophocles and Aristotle, have magnificent discussions about the great German philosophers and about Ramakrishna, Aurobindo, and Buddha, and then somebody does not give us what we want and we throw a tantrum! It is all up in the head; there is no emotional stability.

I'd like to offer the following statement for consideration. Many of us well educated in the academic sense types are attached to reason. In fact, even though Buddhist teachings point us beyond our own thoughts and understandings, we're so comfortable in the realm of reason that we think it is the answer to all of our "problems." That if we just think things out better, analyze things a little more rationally, we'll break through the confusion and emotionalism, and figure it all out.

Barry over at Ox Herding took up fear this morning in a way that I think could add to what I'm considering here.

Recently my teacher said:

Fear is the absence of presence.

I don't often experience the quivering of full-on fear, but I'm well acquainted with its young sibling, anxiety.

And when I look into the familiar, queasy feeling that comes with anxiety, I sometimes can see the refusal embedded within the feeling.

It's my refusal to show up to the requirement of the moment.

It's this last sentence that I keep going back to. When I made the statement that I didn't think reasoned out arguments about immigration would be of much service in the current political climate, it wasn't because I have, or want, to give up on it all. No, it's about stopping and wondering what the "requirement of the moment" truly is. Is it more data and analysis? Is it deep listening? Is it marching in the streets? I'm not sure.

However, what is clear to me is how many of us "educated" types can come up with a myriad of ways to emphasize reason, and discount and/or diminish everything else. Oh, all that talk about emotions is fluffy, new age shit! Oh, why can't just be more reasonable! What good will all this focus on intangible things do (insert all things emotional and spiritual here) when the world is falling apart?

All of this just points to imbalance in my view. We need not toss out the wonderful skills of human reason to appreciate the wisdom that comes from other sources, including emotions we'd just assume be rid of. Yet, so often, we do, hanging hard on reason until it breaks, and then getting wildly emotional because we don't know how else to respond.

It's pretty screwy if you ask me. Why not strive for some balance, and having a tool box with many types of tools in it, because certainly the requirement of the moment keeps on changing, doesn't it?