Saturday, July 31, 2010

Privileging Suffering - Anti-Mosque Sentiment in New York

Hatred and ignorance, two of the three poisons, are flying all around the United States these days. In fact, I'd say the third poison is also present in the form of a "greed for ease and comfort" attached to the other two. If you have heard about what's been going on in Arizona when it comes to immigration laws, you've probably been off the grid lately. In addition, there has been an uproar over a proposal to build a mosque near the site of the former World Trade Center. The usually right wing suspects - Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Fox News commentators - have been stoking the barely latent, commonplace bigotry towards Muslims for weeks now. However, the most ridiculous statement I have heard yet came yesterday from the leader of the Anti-Defamation League.

“It’s the wrong place,” Mr. Foxman said. “Find another place.”

Asked why the opposition of the families was so pivotal in the decision, Mr. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, said they were entitled to their emotions.

“Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational,” he said. Referring to the loved ones of Sept. 11 victims, he said, “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”

Wow! This is rich. I am going to say something that might upset some people. The Jewish holocaust is not the only act of genocide that has occurred in this world, and anyone who has been to a major city in the United States knows that there are a plethora of peoples who have lost family and friends in genocides all over the world. There are a certain segment of the American Jewish population that privileges their suffering over everyone elses', and this statement is a perfect example of that.

The sad thing is just as the percentage of violent, hateful Muslims is pretty small, so too is the percentage of Jews who think nothing of oppressing other people so that they can live comfortable. And yet, both of these groups have gained a lot of power, precisely because they cater to the unexamined fears and prejudices within each of us.

Obviously, the backlash against the mosque in question is more than just a small group of Jewish folks. It includes Christians, atheists, agnostics, and probably a fair number of Buddhists as well. Ah, maybe you're thinking "No, not Buddhists - aren't they supposed to be 'liberal'?" Yeah, well, I've met a lot of self proclaimed liberals who have no problem hating brown and black skinned Others.

What I find so interesting about Mr. Foxman's comments is that he moves from the messy feelings that people have, to using the feelings of a particular group as the justification for determining the building policies of an entire city.

Even the conservative Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, who is Jewish himself, rejects this leaping from the feelings of one group to city policy.

“What is great about America, and particularly New York, is we welcome everybody, and if we are so afraid of something like this, what does that say about us?” Mr. Bloomberg asked recently.

One of the ironies about hate campaigns like this is that most of the very same people harbor fears of a dictatorship of the likes of Iran, or Saudi Arabia - where only one group of people have any real freedom or power, and everyone else is second class at best.

I expect knee jerk reactions to a post like this. Things like "You have to protect people from terrorists" or "Get back to your fucking practice!" Things like that. I've heard plenty of it. It's old hat.

Practice life includes the sufferings in your community, nation, and world - end of story. This particular story impacts me because some of my students are Muslim; I've witnessed hatred expressed towards them. If I fail to examine, speak out, and aid in uprooting these kinds of hatreds, fears, and ignorance, then what's the point of my practice?

I have to say that I, too, have been Mr. Foxman on a small scale. Feeling entitled to my misery-driven views, I, too, have tried to twist collective actions in favor of that which would be most comfortable for me. This is where the practice must begin - by examining how something on a macro-level also plays out in your own life. However, too many of us Buddhists stop there, thinking that this is enough.

I, for one, want to move beyond this privatized view of practice. I want to be committed to life as it while I'm on the meditation cushion, doing walking meditation, chanting or bowing. And I also want to be fully engaged in the work of liberation, in the myriad of forms that it might take.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Zen, Rats, and Landmines

After all this discussion about American Zen scandals, and whether there is a need for institutional oversight or not, I offer the following post excerpt from the Buddhist Geeks website:

The dojo of Morogoro

Africa. Is it possible to make a Soto Zen sangha flourish in a small rural town in Eastern Africa? Apparently, it is. This article describes the dojo of Morogoro town, in rural Tanzania, but also explores my feelings of amazement when I visited it. For years, I have asked myself how to reconcile the need to attend the sangha back home, in Europe, with my deep passion to work in developing countries as a humanitarian nutritionist.

In February this year, during a sesshin in Spain, I asked my Zen Master Roland Yuno: “…I have lived for many years in developing countries and I have realized that my practice has become stiff, lonely and sometimes sterile because of the absence of a sangha. Soon I will go back home to Kenya and I do not know what I should do really”. The Master, in the most direct and easy way ever, popped up the solution I had been seeking for years (and I never dared to ask): “Well, my Belgian disciple lives in Tanzania (neighboring Kenya!). He also works in humanitarian activities, and has set up a sangha. He is an ordained monk. Why not get in touch with him?”

A few months later, I started my two-day journey from Nairobi to Morogoro, a pleasant small town in a green hilly region of inland Tanzania. An appointment was previously arranged with the responsible of the only Soto Zen sangha existing in this part of this huge continent.

It's totally fascinating to me how Soto Zen, a school of Buddhism slowly disappearing in it's native Japan, has been popping up on nearly every other continent in the world, often in places you wouldn't imagine it to do so. Anchorage, Alaska, Sao Paolo, Brazil, and Morogoro, Tanzania, just to name three locales, are all home to Soto Zen temples. Pretty wild, don't you think?

In February, I did a post on Buddhism in South Africa. Like that post, I do think there are some potentially challenging issues around race and class that could be present in the post quoted from above. The author himself points to this when he says the following:

I met with one of the Tanzanian guys, Francis, nineteen years of age and studying to become a tourist operator. He answered with a question to my question about the reason why he practiced Zen: “Why do all you wazungu (white men in Kiswahili) keep on asking me why I practice? A German guy visiting us here asked the same thing a few months ago. Zen helps me. That is it”. Thanks Francis, good lesson you gave me.

It's excellent that this white European guy was able to take a quick race lesson from a Tanzanian teenager, but it does make me wonder what will happen when black African Soto Zen practitioners become "seasoned" enough to be teachers and sangha leaders? Will their white European teachers be as generous and supportive as many of the Asian immigrant teachers were, and continue to be, to their primarily white American students?

The author's sincerity and excitement about Zen practice in both Tanzania, and in Kenya, where he now lives, is infectious. And clearly there are people coming to practice. I will be interested to see what happens over the coming years, if Soto Zen will be a point of convergence for a multiracial, shared-leadership kind of practice, or if it will become yet another battleground of race and class.

Many bows to the experiment. May it continue to go well.

*photo is of Alfredo Adamo, a member of a team working with trained rats to rid Tanzania of unexploded landmines. The Zen teacher leading the temple there, Bart Weetjens, wrote the following paper about the project. Zen, rats, and landmines are a combination almost beyond the imagination, yet there it is, in real life.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Institutional Oversight of Zen Part Two

Algernon over at Notes from a Burning House continues the conversation about institutional oversight of Zen with his current post. It's a real barn burner of a post, and I'm interested to see what comes in the next few posts he's going to write about these issues. Here is the first half for you all to consider:

He was a Zen Master, and he wanted my girlfriend.

I am not certain that he wanted to fuck her. Maybe so. What is certain is that he wanted her to move across the country to live at his Zen Center, work there for him full-time; and he fixed her up with a young postulant monk who was also living there. She disclosed to me that he said things to her like, "One day, I will give you inka."

(Inka is when an authorized Zen teacher recognizes your maturity and authorizes you as a teacher. It's considered a big deal, and the desire to become a teacher is a common pitfall in developing a consistent lifelong practice. Using that desire to hold students in place and get them to do things for you is rather awful.)

During the couple of days where she disclosed to me her sexual relationship with this young monk and her plans to move to that Zen Center, she received phone calls and emails from the teacher encouraging her to make a clean break from our relationship, hurrying her along, manipulating her and using her obvious attraction to him to his advantage. It was a weird way to break up with somebody. In hindsight, the lady was clearly ready to move on anyway. It broke my heart at the time but that's how it is with young love. (The lady's life took quite a few turns after that and although we are not often in contact these days, she appears to have a wonderful, happy life with a terrific husband and a baby.)

A short while after this went down, I learned that this man got into some serious professional trouble, which suggests his abusive behavior was not limited to his work as a Zen teacher.

It has been well over ten years since that incident took place. I have not written about it and have rarely spoken about it, for the most pragmatic of reasons: this Zen teacher has a following, and he or his organization could likely sue me. Talking about it all requires me to omit details that could be used to identify the person or his organization.

One of the things I have found interesting is how many people believe that those involved in religious/spiritual communities should be "responsible adults" who are "in control" of their reactions and interactions in said communities. A few comments on my recent post about institutional oversight suggested this, and I've seen others saying similar things on various blogs, in commentaries, and on chat boards.

Let me unpack this a little further. Clearly, Buddhist teachings point each of us towards taking radical responsibility for our "body, speech, and mind." The precepts, or ethical teachings, are designed to train us to check our motivations, watch our actions, and review everything we are thinking and doing. Zazen, or meditation, is all about accepting everything as it is, without any wiggling whatsoever. In fact, on the surface, the whole works of Buddhism can look an awful lot like the political philosophy of personal responsibility, that is, if you ignore that we really aren't separate selves and that everything occurs within an interdependent context.

What does any of this have to do with Algernon's post?

Well, first, when you look at the situation, there's a tendency to leap to hand full of conclusions. The teacher is a jackass would be one. Another might be that the students involved were naive and earned the suffering they incurred because they acted stupidly. A third blunt response might be something like this is just like those Catholic priests, and shows why we should just say fuck it to religion completely.

Those are nice anger rails, but they are cardboard cutouts when it comes to working with what happened.

What happened in Algernon's post, or at my zen center, or at San Francisco Zen Center, or any number of other places is complicated, messy, and involves both individual and collective responsibility.

Do you hear that people! Both individual and collective responsibility.

And you know what, it's bigger than that even. Just as parents pass down certain traits and habits to their children, and had their own set of traits and habits passed down from their parents, so, too, do communities of people - hell, entire cultural groups and nations even - pass down certain traits and habits to the next generation. Now, each person has the opportunity to work with that material, but we're not the "free agents" we think we are.

So, the history of Zen communities, for example, plays into what is happening today. How could it not. And yet, I still find it pretty easy to locate people who will basically say "All of that is fucking irrelevant! You either take responsibility for everything in your life, or you're fooling yourself."

Sounds a lot like Glenn Beck Buddhism if you ask me.

Towards the end of Algernon's post, he writes:

In the west, this history [of Zen center scandals] gives rise to a natural question: is there a need for a large institution to hold Zen teachers accountable for actions like this? Can we leave this to the organizations that support a particular teacher's work? Or should the various schools and traditions band together and make one large institution that is empowered to act when a teacher gets weird?

This is something we are good at: making institutions and conducting hearings.

And power and sex abuse scandals continue to occur despite those institutions and hearings, which shouldn't be a surprise.

This is what I find pretty fascinating about all of this, as a member of the Zen community. For people who spend hours and hours investigating our individual minds, and seeing how they work in ways many others never learn, we suck at understanding group dynamics. Many of us sit in silence together day after day, or week after week, and yet when something explodes in our community, be it a sex scandal, or a simple argument over a teaching, too many of us act shocked, confused, or even appalled that these things are occurring. And how often does one of these explosions turn into an effort to locate the perpetrators, so the group can assign blame, and "move on" with it's calm, happy day.

I want to be very clear. The teacher in Algernon's story, as it is written, abused his power and should have been held responsible for that abuse of power. It sounds like life brought that responsibility to his doorstep in a different form.

However, in writing what I did above, I'm pointing to the problem inherent in either arguing that it's all personal responsibility or it's all institutional/systemic responsibility. Clinging to either side is simply being lost in dualism.

This is one of the issues I see in creating a large institution to deal with "bad Zen teachers" and whatnot. In fact, it's one of the problems I feel is almost inherent in legal systems themselves - you end up abstracting actions and intentions that occur within a particular context. And let's face it: individuals get away with doing some pretty awful things because the legal system doesn't have a law to address the exact particulars of what they did. (I'm not suggesting that we should do away with laws, or get rid of all large institutions, but it's important to see the potential limitations of such things.)

On the other hand, Brad Warner's suggestion that Zen teachers should be treated like individual "artists" fails to take into account the impact said teacher can have on students and/or followers. And the calls for people who experience harm at the hands of spiritual leaders to buck up and take responsibility for their own safety and well-being are not only pretty callous, but also suggest that people have a kind of freedom that is rarely, if ever, possible. The enlightened Siddhartha still had to deal intimately with clan warfare, corrupt political leaders, gender issues within the original sangha, and possibly even being poisoned at the end of his life. All of those issues, and others, shaped not only his own life, but also the ways in which he taught the first sangha, and thus the teachings that were handed down to us. In fact, the long lists of monastic precepts that have come down to us are probably a direct result of the group dynamics that played out in that original sangha at that particular time and place. Had Buddhism developed in another place at another time, I'd bet that those lists would look at least somewhat different.

So, this long post is pointing to a few things.

First, I think taking a long, hard look at the group dynamics manifesting in Zen centers today probably would be worth doing, regardless of whether it ends up reducing the number of power abuse scandals. Each community could do this and perhaps national surveys of such issues could be conducted.

Second, even though all of us must take radical responsibility for our lives, and to drop of the tendency to blame others for our lot in life - we must also recognize that there ARE group dynamics at play in everything as well. Katagiri Roshi called it the total dynamic functioning of the universe, this interplay of the individual and collective, the relative and absolute.

And finally, I'm convinced that there really aren't any easy answers to dealing with power breaches in spiritual communities. Because if there were easy answers, we'd already have figured them out, and put them in place.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Get Moving You Lazy Ass!

Here are some lines from an old Pema Chodron article from the blog Awakening the Buddha in Us:

Traditionally, laziness is taught as one of the obstacles to awakening. There are different kinds of laziness. First, there’s the laziness of comfort orientation, we just try to stay comfortable and cozy. Then there’s the laziness of loss of heart, a kind of deep discouragement, a feeling of giving up on ourselves, of hopelessness. There’s also the laziness of couldn’t care less. That’s when we harden into resignation and bitterness and just close down.

You know, I have to say the hard part for me about confronting my own laziness is that I often have the idea that it means I must work harder, get my ass more in gear so to speak. However, Pema suggests in the next paragraph of her article that this attitude might actually be just another form of laziness. Instead of sitting with the muck and confusion coming up, and making whatever decisions and doing whatever work is being called for now, there's just rushing around, doing things for the sake of doing things.

It has only been over the past year or so, as I have forced myself to slow down at my job, in my volunteer efforts, and in life in general, that I have been able to see how all that running around and doing, doing, doing was both laziness and a way to avoid feelings of not being good enough.

It's tough in a speed-addicted, overworking orientated culture to slow down. Even harder to do so with balance, and not just become a sloth.

Built into the human predicament seems to be the assumption that we should eliminate our failings; as adequate and worthy people, we should be able simply to leap over our weaknesses. So perhaps the grown-up thing to do would be to blow up laziness with a bomb, or drop it into the Atlantic Ocean with a huge weight so it would never reappear, or send it off into space so that it would float out into infinity and we’d never have to relate to it again.

I have put myself into work situations that require a lot of energy, attention, and well, work. Other than a short stint as a low level postal worker, and a year or so as a museum security guard, I have had jobs that have been all about serving others. So, manifesting laziness in the workplace in any of the forms Pema mentions has often had a quick turn around - in other words, it's caught by someone pretty quickly, put back in my face, leaving me to address or avoid it.

Beyond work, I have volunteered my time over the years in positions demanding a similar kind of attention and energy, and with their own rapid laziness feedback loops.

And even as a kid, I was plugged in sometimes as a faux parent for my sister, master housekeeper, and generally laden with responsibilities earlier than most children.

So, that feedback loop has often been with me, along with the social admonishments against laziness that seem to drive people to overwork and then crash again and again. The feedback loop is probably a benefit, you know, because I have had enough opportunities to face these forms of laziness that now I can actually see them some of the time. I can even hang with them more than in the past.

However, there's still that narrative right behind my ears, saying "I'm tired. I don't want to work any harder. Enough already." And maybe there's some truth to that story, but I think it's also true that it is a story coming from believing that all effort feels the same, has the same impact on the body/mind.

Yet, when you face your laziness, or anything else coming up really, there's actually a shifting that goes on with your effort. It might be difficult for awhile, but eventually that difficulty burns away.

We join our loss of heart with honesty and kindness. Instead of pulling back from the pain of laziness, we move closer. We lean into the wave. We swim into the wave.

Somewhere in the process of staying with the moment, it might occur to us that there are a lot of unhappy brothers and sisters out there, suffering as we are suffering. In becoming intimate with our own pain, with our own laziness, we are touching in with all of them, understanding them, knowing our kinship with all of them.

In my own experience, it really has been the moments of awareness that each of us going through variations of the same things. That it isn't just my laziness, but the laziness that appears within all of us from time to time. I still am challenged at times by thinking that I'm not doing enough in life, and that I have to work harder to be a "better person." It's easy to know this is a false narrative intellectually, but not so easy to let go of when you have believed and acted out of it for a long time, and a lot of people around you also believe it and are acting out of it.

We reinforce each other, for better or worse. It's foolish to say otherwise. So, breaking free of these kinds of stories, which are pretty common in our society, means standing out and perhaps being viewed in a negative light. This is where I think having a deep sense of one's balance points, coupled with the courage to do what's necessary to maintain that balance, is so utterly important. Because it's so much harder to face laziness, or anything else, when you're out of balance.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Power and Balance

I've been reflecting on power recently. Obviously, my previous post on institutional oversight has to do with macro level power. However, I'm also interested in how power manifests in day to day, moment to moment life. The way words are said, a shoulder is shrugged, and/or an eye is shifted, and how that can impact others in certain ways.

We had a meeting this morning at zen center about a topic which I might be blogging about more in the future. However, the topic isn't what I'm interested in right now. During the meeting, several versions of a story about the potential unfolding of the idea came up, and we deliberately talked about how those stories needed to be aired so that any personal disagreements could be examined in the open. As we went around, it was clear that the kind of thing that happens in the game Telephone - pieces of information getting passed around and, in the process, becoming blurred or bent out of shape - had occurred. And it was from the ground of that blurred or bent out of shape information that a lot of us in the group were working from and reacting to, which obviously can lead to trouble.

So, what does this have to do with power? I've been listening to a set of Buddhist teacher Ken Mcleod's retreat podcasts called the "Warrior's Solution." You can find them and other retreat podcasts here. In one of the podcasts, he speaks a lot about balance and imbalance, and when comes to power, I'm convinced that this is critical. Most of us in this group meeting this morning were a little off balance in our understanding of where things were, and thus, it was really helpful to go around, speak to that imbalance, and go forward from a more balanced place. The macro level abuse issues I was speaking about in the post on Friday have to do with, among other things, how groups fall out of balance and how they might best re-align themselves.

In some ways, focusing on balance and imbalance is a way to step out of the "good/bad" and "us/them" dichotomies that frequently come up within groups experiencing minor difficulties, like our group had this morning, or major difficulties, like the various sex and power abuse scandals that have rocked several U.S. Zen centers over the past 30-40 years. Viewing organizations as in balance or out of balance could be a way to deal with the tricky ethical issues arising without assigning blame to any one person - because no matter what, it's never just one person. And on a personal level, each of us can assess where our own balance points are so that we might better function within the various relationships we have in our lives.

I'll have more to say about all this after I finish sitting with the rest of the retreat podcasts, but I thought I'd write this short reflection because my experiences this morning and the post of a few days ago seemed linked enough to say something now.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Institutional Oversight of Zen

Time shift gears for a moment, and get back to the macro level issues. Brad Warner's blog often provides a lot of drama, which isn't so helpful. But the guy says some important stuff sometimes, even if it's perfectly useful material to disagree with. His most recent post has to do with another by Zen teacher James Ford, both of which address institutional structures in American Zen, spurred on by the recent resignation of Zen teacher Eido Shimano. There have been countless posts covering the details of the allegations against Shimano, so instead of getting into all of that, I'm going to focus in on the issue of oversight and large, national or even international institutional bodies.

James Ford advocates that here in the U.S., we need a stronger national institutional body to oversee the various Zen institutions that have developed over the past century or so.

Here I see the lack of larger institutions that oversee teachers and communities is a major problem. Not just about sex, but it is a good placeholder for all the complex issues of human relationships.

Ford goes on to point out that many Zen Centers don't have well developed policies and regulations for dealing with breaches of power within the sangha.

"At this point the only larger institutions to emerge that have ethical codes with teeth are the San Francisco Zen Center and the Kwan Um School of Zen, both institutions having experienced very rough times around sexual conduct of teachers pretty early on."

I'm not sure where exactly Ford is getting his information from about all of this. He very well could be right. I will say, though, that my own center, Clouds in Water doesn't fall into the groups Ford mentions, but does have a pretty rigorous structure for dealing with ethical violations, both of the student-teacher variety, and between members regardless of status. The development of this began long ago, but the "teeth" if you will, was added after our own teacher scandal situation, which resulted in the departure of our former leader. I can't imagine that we are the only other example, besides SFZC and Kwan Um that has developed healthy oversight mechanisms to serve their communities.

Back to the issue of a national oversight body, Brad Warner is totally against it.

I have to completely disagree. Because the Holy Roman Catholic Church is a gigantic institution with a very toothy ethical code and still sexual abuses of all kinds continue. Sure, when ethical abuses occur there are consequences. But only when the code is properly enforced by ethical people. And I’ve seen too many instances where that has broken down to believe that the simple existence of a big institution with an ethical code with teeth will always prevent abuses, or even prevent most abuses, or even prevent the worst abuses.

In the case of Zen, there is also something much more fundamental at stake, and that is the very existence of Zen itself. I don’t believe Zen can really be practiced at all unless its teachers are totally autonomous and not beholden to institutions.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, I feel that Zen teachers are more like artists than like religious instructors. If you bind artists to institutions, you kill their ability to create art.

The interesting thing about all of this is that from what I have seen here locally, even the idea of getting Zen centers together nationally to work on these kinds of issues is kind of like herding cats. Here in the Twin Cities, we have nearly half a dozen heirs of Dainin Katagiri who lead Buddhist organizations. They all know each other well, having practiced together for years. And while they periodically meet to exchange ideas and support each other, working together on something like a co-operative oversight board for the Twin Cities just hasn't happened. There have been attempts at times to get something more collaborative to occur, but beyond the occasional dual sponsored visiting teacher event, it's really each organization for it's own.

And James Ford points out that the national American Zen Teachers Association "isn’t even a professional organization. It is basically a listserv and an annual gathering of peers without bylaws or, codes of conduct."

In addition to the AZTA, there is the North American office of the Sotoshu, which could be the kind of body that Ford is suggesting needs to have a stronger influence, but certainly doesn't act in the way the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy does.

In some ways, Brad's comparison between the Catholic church and Zen institutions isn't very helpful. However, the issues of power and sex abuse cases make it hard to not make such a comparison.

In fact, Ford himself makes a different comparison using the same two groups in this totally fascinating paragraph:

My rough analogy for this deconstruction is that we’ve shifted our understanding of the Zen teacher in a manner somewhat similar to the shift from a Roman Catholic understanding of its priests to an Anglican understanding of its priests. The myth of apostolic succession has been seen through and replaced with the understanding that it is a good, if imperfect symbol. The Zen teacher is a construct of medieval China and has been adapted in our own times to stand as a person with many years of training and authorization by another such within a broad community of practice. Whatever the titles (and I’m living proof they’re inflated), the reality is that among the Zen teachers who are mostly meditation teachers, there may be some genuine masters.

A large part of the kerfuffle going on over at the Treeleaf community seems be about this very issue. Is the teacher enlightened? Should we talk about enlightenment? If yes, how so? What level of authority should a teacher have, and how much does it depend on his/hers' level of understanding/attainment?

The student that was tossed out of the Treeleaf community directly challenged his teacher's understanding and experience repeatedly. He also pointed to his own experiences, suggesting that even if he's a student, his view shouldn't be dismissed as mere attachment. We could have a long debate about whether Chet, the student at Treeleaf, is being arrogant and ridiculous, but that's not really the point. I think what James Ford is trying to get at in his post is that because of the causes and conditions present here in the U.S. and in other nations outside of the Asian nations where Buddhism originated, the Zen teacher and the Zen institution functions differently, and needs different kinds of structures to address what's occurring.

At the same time, I can't help but thinking that Brad Warner's argument against national oversight bodies might have some validity to it.

Also, institutions tend to reflect the lowest common denominator of what their members understand as acceptable behavior. They are bound to come up with the most conservative definition possible. People who don’t agree that democracy is best often speak of democracy as the “tyranny of the masses.” And this is what happens with Zen institutions. It becomes more about what the greatest number of members think they want than what’s actually necessary for Zen teaching to occur. This can never be decided democratically.

Now, clearly Brad likes to be a "free agent" so to speak. He's got a bit of former Major League baseball player Curt Flood in him. That's not a bad thing, necessarily, but anyone looking at baseball these days would say that free agency has caused plenty of trouble, even if it has given players more freedom and much higher salaries.

However, I do think that whenever large institutions get heavily involved in anything, creativity and uniqueness of expression get challenged. And if you look at famous Zen teachers and students throughout history, there's an awful lot of creativity and uniqueness to be found, and also plenty of examples of free agent types who were shunned by the majority of people, but who's stories have lived on and inspired people hundreds of years after those who shunned them have died and disappeared completely. Mediocrity might make for a certain kind of longevity, but it doesn't inspire people to awaken to their true nature.

With that said, I still think a free for all isn't really helpful. The very forms of our practice - the chanting, bowing, zazen postures, etc. - provide a base to spring off of. They might not all be necessary for any given individual to awaken in this life, but they do seem akin to learning the scales in music. What this means in terms of providing leadership for Zen at a national level - I don't really know. For every James Ford advocating for strong national oversight, there are probably as many Brad Warners out there, even if they wish to deny any linkage with him.

For those of you in the broader Zen community, what do you think needs to be done, if anything, about ethical issues occurring in sanghas? Is it the job of each sangha? A regional or national body? Both? Neither?

And for those of you outside of the Zen community, what do you make of all of this?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Jaws of Clarity

I wrote the following post last October. Seems the same stuff has come around again. You never step in the same river twice, but water is water no matter what river you step into.

"Seek movement and there's no movement,
Seek rest and no rest comes instead.

When rest and no rest cease to be,
then even oneness disappears."

Sengcan "Xinxinming"

I'm a clarity junky. I love being clear, and being able to demonstrate to others that I have that clarity. A confession? Yes. One with a swamp of guilt and shame attached to it? No.

Clarity in life is a beautiful thing. when someone can see through the wild muck of a situation and clearly declare its truth in words and/or actions, much suffering can be alleviated. However, this same skill can become an addition, and lately, I have seen how this is the case in my own life. I've wanted to have an answer about my career future so badly that there's no space for anything new to arrive. And at the same time, I have desired a break from the very same chase for answers so strongly that my actual "rest" (i.e. sleep and free time) has been anything but restful.

The opposite of clarity is cloudiness, or being unclear. Preferring one over the other is just as much trouble as preferring any other member of a binary (Gain or loss, Praise or Blame, etc.). Being clear and decisive, however, seems to be a preference for all of us humans. I've met very few people who actually enjoy living in the mud of not being clear. Sure, many of us are attracted to altering our minds with drugs of various kinds, and like the "cloudy high" that comes from drugging ourselves. But just hanging with the mud that comes up on its own in our lives without any monkeying around? That's not something we humans seem to like much because it's such a strong reminder of how little we control in this life.

How often are you in the jaws of clarity?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Putting on the Filth

"Don't be like the young Buddhist novice, who, after speaking to a woman, washed himself because he believed he had become filthy. It was not the woman, but his own notions that made him 'impure.' Purity has nothing to do with morality."

Sokei-an Shigetsu Sasaki

We dress ourselves in filth everyday. Most of us. It's a habit we have been trained into, believing that doing so will make us the successful, problem solving, smart ones on the planet. Problem is, it's the very way we step into hell and get burned.

I seem to be drenched in fear lately. At work, I walk around thinking all sorts of things about how no matter what I do, it won't be good enough. Not enough students will pass their standards, and I'll get fired before I can find another job and move on. The idea of getting fired plays into all my failure narratives, and also into the hook of drama itself. The reality is, it's probably slim to none I'd get fired anytime soon, so all the stories around that are just filth I'm wading in.

The monk in the story above is not only displaying the mysogenist strain that runs through our tradition's history, but also a variation of the same spin I'm doing at work. Fears of being found out as a failure, a screw up, and not the profound spiritual guy he desires to be.

It's a boring thing, really, seeing these tapes roll on and on in your head, and experiencing the fear, confusion, and dissatisfaction that arises in the body/mind because there's still some hooking on going on. However, trying to wash away the mud in your mind doesn't really work either, so you have to approach it some other way.

I was sitting with the following koan today, which seems to have some connection to this discussion in my mind.

Chao Chou’s Seven Pound Shirt - Blue Cliff Record Case 45

The Koan:
A monk asked Chao Chou, “The myriad things return to one. Where does the one return to?”
Chou said, “When I was in Ch’ing Chou I made a cloth shirt. It weighed seven pounds.”

Most days, maybe everyday, I get the sense that I'm putting on that seven pound shirt. Do you understand what I mean? And as I was sitting the question came to mind "Do I have to remove it, or can I just let it rot right here where it is?"

The first half of the question is about doing something; the second half is about letting be what is. Both require effort, don't you think?

In a way, when I look at the long narrative of my life, and many of the decisions I have made, it has been a lot like this monk - if different in content. Pushing to the edge in workplaces, but bowing down to authority to avoid the black mark of getting fired. Saving money to the point of having a "cushion" in the bank, even though I've never made above twenty thousand in any given year. Making every last payment on time, to the point of getting into a argument with a creditor solely to avoid a black mark on my credit record. Marching in protests and rallies, but running off or standing off the moment things get tense, and arrests are possible. Seeking to find points of agreement too soon in arguments with others. Failing to look people in the eyes when I am angry, scared, or profoundly sad. In other words, more often than not, I have opted to be "on the safe side," even when doing so has sucked some life out of me. And really, this is the kind of error being displayed by the monk in Sokei-an's story above. Like him, I've wanted to be viewed as pure - but we both have mistaken the very nature of purity, thinking it resided in some moral or behavioral code.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Developing Patience with Communal Samsara

Maybe this post won't interest too many people, but I have a little extra time, so I'm going to write it.

The post I wrote this morning about the Treeleaf online community, and the tussle they recently had with one of their members, wasn't one of my better ones. I didn't want to take a firm stand for or against the leaders of Treeleaf, who decided to eject the member in the middle of the tussle, because I really don't know what to think of the situation. It raised a lot of questions for me about online Buddhist practice, and communities - many of which don't have clear answers. So, I wrote the post this morning without a lot of clarity, and failed to make it clear that I wasn't sure what I felt would be the best approach in dealing with challenging behavior in an online setting.

To be honest, what most interests me about the situation is how everyone, including the teachers involved, struggled to work online with the messiness of the various narratives playing out within their community. I saw similar strugglings in my own sangha several years ago, during a major upheaval. And I've seen them at my workplace, in my family, and most everywhere at different times.

Working with communal samsara is tough, sometimes brutal. And even people with great wisdom don't know how to proceed all the time, or maintain the peace. There isn't always clarity available when circumstances arise, and action is called for. You have to do the best with where you are at, and who you are with.

I'm interested in this lack of clarity because I've been experiencing a lot of it in my own life lately. What I have found in my own experience is that not being clear can manifest in many different ways. You can become mousy and subservient, afraid to say or do anything. You can become loud and defensive, feeling like everyone is against you. You can become pious, thinking that if you act the "right way," maybe you will find the way out of the mud. And you might even become nihilistic, saying fuck it to everything because hanging in the murkiness for a long time is just too challenging.

One of the things I've seen online over the time I have been active on here is that there isn't a lot of tolerance for this kind of muddiness. The various kinds of "acting out" that occur in peoples' writings tend to be responded to with another form of acting out. Not always, but pretty often. People struggle to be kind and generous when others are acting out, myself included, which is why I think it's too much to simply slam Treeleaf and call it a day.

This post feels a little clearer then the last one. Maybe some of you would rather I shut up until I knew what I was talking about.

But that is precisely my point. If there is no place in sangha - online or "brick and mortar" - for struggling, confusion, and messiness, then what's the point? If the teachers must always be beacons of wisdom and excellent action, and the students always good and righteous followers, then why bother having a community at all?

Banning Online Buddhist Practitioners?

Online Buddhist practice seems to be on my mind a lot lately. I think I have a pretty strong interest in seeing the internet become another arena for spiritual life, and feel that there are already steps being taken in that direction. In my view, unless the vast majority of us all unplug, we need to treat what we do online as part of our practice no matter what. Otherwise, there's just more compartmentalization and separation going on.

I found this today over at Gniz' blog about Brad Warner:

Everyone around these parts is aware of Jundo Cohen (leader of Treeleaf Sangha, sometimes feuding dharma brother of B. Warner). Jundo has frequently come on Hardcore Zen in the comments section and whined about how ill-treated he's been by Gudo and Brad and others, even to the point of posting a bizarre deposition about a fight that took place in Japan some time ago.

Recently, I took a gander over at the Treeleaf site and found this thread.

I believe it's a very telling thread in as far as bringing to light the basic way in which Jundo appears to operate. Behind closed doors, Jundo seems to be a very different guy than what he lets on in public. When called out on this seeming "difference" in his private and public persona, he gets indignant.

I went over and took a look at the thread in question. It was a messy affair no doubt. The principle player, Chet, is someone who has been what you might call an agitator in the Treeleaf community for a while now. Having spent some time as a lurking observer over at Treeleaf, I've found Chet to be one of those people who has some pretty quality questions, and comments, but who also can be highly combative and offensive at times. There was a great thread awhile back about the Benefits of Being Bad, during which Chet displayed all of this in his comments.

Anyway, Gniz' post is about what led up to the decision to "ban" Chet from commenting on Treeleaf. Gniz takes the position that the way all of this was done is an indication that the teachers over at Treeleaf, especially Jundo Cohen, are "passive-aggressive" liars.

Well, I don't know about that, but I do know that in my own "brick and mortar" sangha, our teacher has had to ask a few people to leave over the years. This isn't done lightly, but I think there is a place where the sangha as a whole must be placed above the needs of any one person in it.

When I look at the Treeleaf thread in question, I do wonder if this would have played out differently in person. Would those involved have been able to work through their disagreements in a way that allowed everyone to remain in the community? Or would it have just happened quicker, the ejection of Chet?

What all this brings up for me is the struggle a lot of spiritual communities seem to have with issues of power and authority. This blog is called "Dangerous Harvests" partly because I have been in situations like Chet, being the only one to openly challenge something a power figure said - it's a scary place, kind of like walking across a rope bridge over a thousand foot gorge. And like Chet, I've gotten defensive and combative at times - all the while trying to hang with both what I've learned from Buddhist teachings and with the heart of whatever it was I had to say.

The fact is that in a forum like the one at Treeleaf, all the people involved have are each others' words. Body language is missing. The context of how a person's day is going is often missing. Smell, touch, hearing, and taste are missing.

My point in bringing all this up is that it's easier to be dismissive of people who are a pain in your ass when they are reduced to mere words on a computer screen.

In saying this, I do not wish to be dismissive of online practice opportunities like Treeleaf - I want them to continue to develop because there are people out there who need this kind of approach. However, I do think it's incumbent on those of us involved in the "online practice world" to remember the limitations present, and to act accordingly. It's especially important for those who are in leadership roles, such as the increasing number of Zen teachers doing online-based practice, to figure out ways to be examples of how to conduct oneself online. It has to look different in some ways than how one approaches "regular life" situations.

For example, Jundo's comments sometimes have sarcasm in them. I think online this often fails. People react to it differently, and rarely in a "haha" kind of way. This is a very minor criticism of Jundo, and I'm really in no position to say one way or another whether his removal of Chet from the Treeleaf community was justified or not.

However, I do wonder if this situation is another example of how the technology is further along than the humans using it. We have the capability to interact with people all over the world, but we haven't quite figured out that this experience calls for paying attention in a different way than talking to our neighbor does.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Blogs are Useless

Buddhism is a face-to-face transmission. When Buddhists say that Buddhism is not in books it's because Buddhism cannot be contained in books. Books are a good way of pointing in the direction of Buddhism. But they always fall short. Blogs, by the way, are pretty useless in doing even that much, if you ask me.

Good old Brad Warner, stirring up shit again. During the same post, he also says Buddhism is not a religion, another quality doozy.

Anyway, anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I would disagree with Brad about his point that blogs are useless. My own experience is that this blog has become a part of my practice, and that it's pushed me to be more focused on how Buddha's teachings impact my day to day life. And writing in public about large scale social issues, convert Buddhist practice life, how sanghas function, and about my own personal life has forced me to be more attentive to it all, and also has provided another bullshit detector - all of you - in my life.

But today, I'd like to say that I also agree with Brad. It's mostly useless, in the same way that meditation is mostly useless, rituals are mostly useless, and sutras are mostly useless. Why is that? Because that which is useful is all about being serviceable for an end, or being productive somehow. In other words, it's about gaining something - and at the end of the day, there's nothing gained from blogging or meditating, for example, even if we think there is.

I suppose that could be depressing sounding. It is to the mind that was trained to be productive and useful in this society.

And yet, when I think about all the effort I have made, or have been told I need to make, to prove what I'm doing is useful and productive, it seems to be just as useless as everything else, and more harmful than some other activities because it just keeps some "I", some construction of a "me," hanging around.

Effort isn't the problem. Effort is necessary to keep life going. But effort to prove one's usefulness or value is about as helpful as reading 80 percent of the comments on Brad Warner's blog.

In case you've never visited Brad's blog, here are a few choice comments from the post I referenced. Enjoy and happy blogging!

"Help, I used the Enlightenizer™ and am experiencing anal leakage. I've just ruined my favourite brand new zafu!"


"I became a Self-Debunker through the Fire of belief, through research, and practice, just short of taking up rattlesnakes and drinking poison."

"I like the idea, to be blogging in a useless comment section of a useless blog.
Let us all be useless."

Friday, July 16, 2010

Living on Dogen Time

Over at Ox Herding this morning, Barry has a post referencing a selection from Zen Master Dogen's teaching Uji, or The Time-Being. Sometime prompted me to go back to the whole teaching, and take another look myself. I found this:

Although the views of an ordinary person and the causes and conditions of
those views are what the ordinary person sees, they are not necessarily the
ordinary person's truth. The truth merely manifests itself for the time
being as an ordinary person.

How do we take care of what we see without getting caught by it? This is what I seem to be working with these days.

I had a wacky period of zazen before bed last night. Burning ball of fire. Floating upwards and out of my body, all except a tingling in my fingers as they tensed in mudra. Deliberately sending Metta towards those who abuse others in the world, wishing them liberation from hatred. A breaking calm followed by a return of "ordinary" mind chatter. All of this in about a half an hour.

I think I have spent much of my life caught up in a pressurized sense of time. It's a time punctuated by achievements, failures, and fears around both. A time littered with longings clung to and avoided; a time that feels relaxed when things are viewed as going well, and frantically calling for fixing when things are viewed as not going well.

This probably sounds familiar to many of you. I don't know anyone who doesn't get caught up in the appearance of things sometimes. Perceiving nouns where there is only verbing naturally leads a person to that.

When I was 13, my mother's father died of cancer. He was like a second father to me, and for various reasons, his funeral ended up being a traumatic experience. At one point, I was sitting with two or three of my cousins, waiting in the funeral home for something I can't recall now. My grandmother came up to us and, responding to our wet eyes, said "Don't cry. You're grandfather wouldn't want you to cry."

I haven't cried easily in the twenty years since. And recently, I've found myself wanting this release, talking to myself to just let it go. In fact, this has come up during difficult periods for much of the time since I started meditation practice. An awareness of this blockage and a desire to get it to move, believing I'd be more alive to the pain of the world if I just cried easier.

Death and crying. Both releases that really can't be forced. Even a person who is murdered, whose death appears to be forced, still dies in his/hers' own way. The release comes when it comes, in other words.

How do we take care of what we see without getting caught by it?

Begin by not getting caught up in getting caught up.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Losing "Yourselves"

I spent the day watching various strains of bullshit arise in my mind, and then fade away. A few times, I got hooked into it, but that only lasted a couple of minutes at most. I have had this dual - or what feels like dual - experience going on over the past week or so. Various things in my life seem to either be unraveling, or are being revealed as relics in need of letting go. Some of it is job related, some relationship related, and some even related to writing.

To the fellow bloggers I interviewed last winter, both drafts of the article I wrote for Tricycle were rejected. The second rejection came a few days ago. I intend to submit it elsewhere, and will publish sections of the first article on here when I get around to it.

The article rejection came on the heels of a non-interview call from a prospective employer I thought I had a good shot at getting hired by. I was fooled by a general e-mail they sent out telling candidates they were about to set interview dates, and would get back to us.

About a month and a half ago, I was midway through an interview with another prospective interview - one that was going well and seemed equally promising - when I brought up the fact I didn't own a car. I figured given that it was a community gardening organization focused on eco-friendly urban environments, that such an admission would maybe even be a plus, showing some commitment to what I preach. The
job was mostly in an office anyway, and didn't seem to require much outside travel, and all the travel was in the city anyway, all pretty easily accessible by bus. The director ended the interview two minutes after I said "I don't drive."

So, there's this identity thing going on. The tugs of how I have lived, and how I want to live, and how I have probably hung too tightly to certain narratives and ways of acting in the world.

I had a meeting today with the new director at my workplace. Things will be changing there no doubt. Things are already changing there actually. I can feel it, even as the residue of the previous two plus years of fighting, struggling, arguing, bitching, and surviving live on. I shared a little bit of that with the new director, mostly because he asked for it - for an honest assessment of what has been going on from my perspective.

At the same time, I was listening to his responses. The ways in which he both agreed with me and disagreed with me, sometimes simultaneously. It was kind of fascinating to just experience the whole thing - I barely got the words "Expect for this year, we have mostly met our standardized test goals" out of my mouth, and he shot back "No, we didn't. Don't tell me we did because we didn't." And I sat with that about ten seconds before saying "And how do our scores compare with the other schools?" And his tone became a little more quizzical, even as he stuck to the idea that we needed to be more "accountable" as an organization.

We could have been talking about anything - apples, terrorists, the price of printer ink cartridges - but the repetition of the whole accountability issue stood out for me, as it's one of the main reasons I've lost passion for the work I'm doing. More and more, the emphasis is on making sure whatever collective of outside forces (government agencies, wealthy foundations, and hotshot individual donors) are pleased, that they feel like the money is being spent "wisely." I used to think I might have some positive impact on this conversation. Maybe even make some political impact on some of these issues. Now, after about 12 years volunteering and working in this field (adult basic education), I'm just ready to move on.

So, it was totally interesting to be in the middle of what could have been a heated conversation and being able to see that I had the choice to speak or be silent, and also the choice to defend or let pass any given statement he or I said. There was a pause available in other words, one I don't think I often felt in the past at work.

The same, for some reason, has been present as my relationship with my girlfriend has seemed to unravel. I've experienced plenty of sadness, longing, and some anger even over the past three or four days, and yet almost parallel to this has been this calmness that no matter what, things will be alright.

I'm honestly not terribly happy that all this stuff is happening one thing after the other. In fact, it kind of feels like a lot of who I have been is sort of tumbling down a hill, very intent on getting to the bottom as quickly as possible. I can feel the fear around this experience, not really knowing what it means in terms of the future. And yet, why wouldn't there be fear? If anything is universal, it's fear.

And love -
but unlike fear,
the mind has a certain investment in love
that must be watched over
by the heart
again and again.

*Van Gogh's self portraits seem particularly apt for illustrating this discussion.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Grasping to Let Go

I have heard many times others teaching that grasping at things is, according to Buddhism, the cause of suffering. In the Sandokai, a staple teaching in many Zen sanghas, there is even the line Grasping at things is surely delusion. I can imagine many of you have a negative view of grasping as it occurs in your life. You'd like to diminish it's power over you, or maybe even destroy grasping all together. Last Sunday, our head teacher introduced a koan I had heard once before, and I found myself grasping for some kind of understanding of it. It befuddled me completely. But really, none of us need a koan to feel the intensity, stickiness, and icky feeling of grasping. Food. Sex. Comfort. Ease. I've grasped for all of those. I can imagine you have too.

Grasping is an interesting word. A noun and an adjective, it has several related, but not exactly similar meanings.

In adjective form, it points to desiring to acquire, to excessive wanting of wealth and/or material possessions.

In noun form, there are the following meanings:

1. gripping something tightly with one's hands

2. the activity of managing or exerting control over something

3. understanding with difficulty or after some difficulty

Other than noun definition number three, which maybe resonates with how many Buddhist practitioners experience their lives and practice out there, grasping sounds like trouble. however, I came across the following teaching from the Alagaddupama Sutta that speaks of grasping in a different manner, suggesting that we need to learn how to grasp rightly in order to awaken in this life.

Here is the Buddha speaking to a group a monks:

"Suppose there were a man needing a water-snake, seeking a water-snake, wandering in search of a water-snake. He would see a large water-snake and grasp it by the coils or by the tail. The water-snake, turning around, would bite him on the hand, on the arm, or on one of his limbs, and from that cause he would suffer death or death-like suffering. Why is that? Because of the wrong-graspedness of the water-snake. In the same way, there is the case where some worthless men study the Dhamma... Having studied the Dhamma, they don't ascertain the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment. Not having ascertained the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment, they don't come to an agreement through pondering. They study the Dhamma both for attacking others and for defending themselves in debate. They don't reach the goal for which [people] study the Dhamma. Their wrong grasp of those Dhammas will lead to their long-term harm & suffering. Why is that? Because of the wrong-graspedness of the Dhammas.

"But then there is the case where some clansmen study the Dhamma... Having studied the Dhamma, they ascertain the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment. Having ascertained the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment, they come to an agreement through pondering. They don't study the Dhamma either for attacking others or for defending themselves in debate. They reach the goal for which people study the Dhamma. Their right grasp of those Dhammas will lead to their long-term welfare & happiness. Why is that? Because of the right-graspedness of the Dhammas.

"Suppose there were a man needing a water-snake, seeking a water-snake, wandering in search of a water-snake. He would see a large water-snake and pin it down firmly with a cleft stick. Having pinned it down firmly with a forked stick, he would grasp it firmly by the neck. Then no matter how much the water-snake might wrap its coils around his hand, his arm, or any of his limbs, he would not from that cause suffer death or death-like suffering. Why is that? Because of the right-graspedness of the water-snake. In the same way, there is the case where some clansmen study the Dhamma... Having studied the Dhamma, they ascertain the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment. Having ascertained the meaning of those Dhammas with their discernment, they come to an agreement through pondering. They don't study the Dhamma either for attacking others or for defending themselves in debate. They reach the goal for which people study the Dhamma. Their right grasp of those Dhammas will lead to their long-term welfare & happiness. Why is that? Because of the right-graspedness of the Dhammas. [6]

The sutra goes on to introduce the famous simile of the raft, the view that we ride the dharma across the river and then, not needing it anymore, we can let it go.

Translator Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes:

Many a casual reader has concluded from the simile of the raft simply that the Dhamma is to be let go. In fact, one major Mahayana text — the Diamond Sutra — interprets the raft simile as meaning that one has to let go of the raft in order to cross the river. However, the simile of the water-snake makes the point that the Dhamma has to be grasped; the trick lies in grasping it properly. When this point is then applied to the raft simile, the implication is clear: One has to hold onto the raft properly in order to cross the river. Only when one has reached the safety of the further shore can one let go.

It's interesting: in studying the Diamond Sutra with my sangha recently, I never got the sense it was saying we had to let go in the way he says. Maybe I missed it; that's certainly a possibility.

Anyway, for those of us who are practicing or are influenced by Zen, I think it's really easy to read the teachings of the Zen ancestors and conclude that a line like "grasping at things is surely delusion" is the definitive teaching to live one's life by.

Well, as Suzuki Roshi said, "Not Always So."

So, let's look at a rather mundane example of this. You want comfort, right. You want to feel that everything is not only ok, but that it feels "good" somehow. Now, think about it. If you immediately leap to "I shouldn't grasp," then you might be bypassing the opportunity to fully understand what comfort looks like, feels like, tastes like. In other words, you might abandoned the raft before you cross the river, and because you have let go too early, you end up drowning in suffering and confusion later.

Here's the thing: grasping is delusion. And yet it's only through our delusions that we awaken and are liberated. Right?

So, I believe the Buddha is trying to tell us not to shun, bypass, abandon the stories of our lives too early. We have to have patience in other words, something I sometimes do well, and other times not so much.

I've read a lot of stuff about staying with the appearing, intensifying, and disappearing of emotions in the body. A lot of "western" convert Buddhists take these teachings to heart, myself included.

And yet, life is more than emotions, and Buddhist practice is more than just refraining from everything that causes suffering.

In fact, it might be that we have to do a lot of sloppy grasping in order to learn to grasp rightly so that we can let go. Sounds crazy, doesn't it?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Blogging Retreat

Here's an interesting experiment to consider: a sangha doing a blogging retreat. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche and some of his students in Malayasia did just this over the past few days. One of his students, Jamie Khoo (aka Paris), wrote the following on her blog about the retreat:

We've had a special past week, full of everything I love - writing, blogs, pizza and air-conditioning.

Inspired by Rinpoche's blog a big bunch of us have been engaged in a special one-week retreat to study the many teachings and posts on the blog, write comments and create dialogue within the blog. It seemed a shame really that so much goodness should just stay within the blog and collect cyber dust. We felt it was time to shake things up a bit and get some dialogue and interaction going on within the blog. If we weren't going to do like Pabongkha Rinpoche and enter Lamrim retreats, then this would be the closest we'd ever get to it. It may look all shiny and sleek, pulled up my very splendid 15inch Macbook pro screen, but every post in Rinpoche's blog finds at its heart a profound Dharma teaching - it is all Lamrim, beautifully packaged for our attached and desiring 21st-Century minds.

There was a dual purpose - first, to expand our own minds and challenge us to think about the teachings on a deeper level, especially how we can apply them to our own lives. Secondly, to promote the teachings to other people; to bring more awareness to both Rinpoche and Kechara, thereby building the platform for KWPC in the future as both become more well-known throughout the world.

After a year and a half of blogging, I have learned that when you actually pay attention to what you write, how you write it, the responses that come in, and how you choose to respond to them, there is much to learn. Take a particular teaching you've been studying and try and write something about it in an engaged way that might inspire or provoke others. It's not that easy. Take a discussion you've had within your "brick and mortar" sangha and try to convey it to the world. Again, it takes some effort. Take something you've read online and try and write something else that isn't just rehash or snarky reaction. All of this is an extension of practice as I see it.

Does this replace established practices like meditation retreats? No. But I do think that there will be more of these kinds of practices developing in this 21st century digital world, and I for one think we shouldn't be afraid of such innovations, especially if they are offered along side the "tried and true" methods we already have. Frequently for me during the weekdays, it's blogging in the morning and zazen and/or dharma class in the evening.

What do you think of the idea of blogging retreats?

*photo of bloggers at work from Jamie Khoo's blog.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Violence, Control, and "Freedom Loving" People

Oscar Grant was a young black man murdered by a white police officer on New Year's Day 2009. A few days ago, that police officer was convicted of a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. In one way, the fact that he was convicted of anything is a change from the past, where white law enforcement officers would walk away free men following such killings. On the other hand, both the lack of a stronger conviction, as well as the sickening portrayal of protests in Oakland following the verdict as "riots" requiring more excessive police force are reminders that injustice still is commonplace.

There is some interesting discussion and links on the blog Racialicious.

In addition, one of our own Buddhist bloggers, Katie over at Kloncke, was at the protests and wrote an excellent post giving us an insider view of what people experienced and what those of us on the outside might consider when it comes to police, communities of color, and violence.

Take a good look at that photo of Oscar Grant. He was 22 years old, just beginning his adult life. He'd made some mistakes as many young people do, and yet on the night of his murder, he was basically in the wrong place at the wrong time. For many white Americans, a face like his is the lurking bogeyman of their individual and collective psyches. Including some law enforcement officers unfortunately.

Writing about the protests a few days ago, Katie's words echo this sentiment:

Media and many non-profit folks repeatedly called for “non-violence” from the crowd, but besides one small fight that was quickly broken up, the only violence I witnessed was cops in riot gear beating on protesters. (The blurriest of my photos shows cops taking down and arresting a friend of mine. They whacked him over the head, tackled him to the ground, cuffed him, threw him in a car, and are apparently charging him with a felony.)

Again, it’s important to distinguish between property destruction or the looting of a Foot Locker, which did happen among the crowd, and violence, which is what the police were doing, did to Oscar Grant, and do to poor of-color communities in general.

I'm trying not to disrespect law enforcement officers in general with this post. Many do their best under difficult circumstances, and are in life threatening situations that most of us non-police officers can't even imagine. Police officers should not be considered "enemies," "evil," or "other" in my view. They are us. And I think too often, the majority of people in communities actually expect that the police will use a lot force, will take down "the bad guys," and this only serves to increase the appearance of excessive force in my opinion. In fact, any excessive force done by law enforcement is, in my view, the responsibility of the entire community said officers serve. As such, even if the officer who murdered Oscar Grant had been convicted of the greater charge, the damage done to both his police department and the city of Oakland would still have been present. For better or worse, the people of Oakland and the police of Oakland are intimately tied to each other.

My hometown police department, which had been noted as a regional, if not national, leader in community/police relations, had some of their fragile work damaged in my view because of events that occurred two summers ago. The Republican National Convention came into town, and the mass arrests and general clamp down that came with that convention tossed the image of a police department working with it's community out the window. Granted, a lot of the logistics and decisions were in the hands of federal law enforcement, so it would be unfair to lay responsibility on solely on the St. Paul Police Dept. However, they did eagerly take millions of federal dollars to purchase tons of riot gear, military-style vehicles, and cameras for nearly every intersection downtown (as well as other major intersections around town). In addition, even though 95% of the arrests made during the week-long convention ended up having no grounds, our Dept. repeatedly stood behind nearly everything that was done during the convention. Even though 30 journalists, including Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, were among the arrests, there was barely even an apology to be found from either our police department, or our city's leaders.

Between the cement blockades and wire fences that lined half the streets downtown, to the 2-3000 police officers in riot gear, to the 24 hour a day helicopter surveillance, to the 800 + arrests that had no grounds to them, it was nothing short of overkill. And yet, this kind of militarization done under the claim of "public safety" seems to be trend now whenever mass protests occur, especially amongst people who have long been disenfranchised, like those in Oakland. It should be unsettling, but when I hear people calling for more police control, more head bashing, more prisons, and more violence in the name of safety, it doesn't surprise me in the least.

I'm writing this piece in a very direct, blunt, and "slanted" way because anything less would fail to spark some questions we all need to consider.

What is the nature of our fears? Why are so many of us tossed away by our fears about others, to the point that we'd rather see entire groups of people oppressed than face what we are afraid of?

Why is it that people who claim to want a "free society" are also so quick to call for more police, more military, more video cameras, more prisons, and more generalized state control over their communities?

Why is it that when someone tosses a brick through the window of some corporation, people want "the thugs" dealt with, but when an unarmed black man is killed by a police officer, our nation ends up split almost in half as to whether or not the killing was justified?

All the meditation in the world won't bring liberation if we're blind to how these kinds of issues impact our lives.

Katie's post makes an important comparison between state-sanctioned violence and intimate violence or domestic violence. I think there a link is there, and worth exploring more.

No one who lives in a place controlled by violence or threats of violence escapes unscathed. We owe it to ourselves to examine the origin of violence both within our own lives, and in our communities and nations. And furthermore, we owe it to future generations not even born yet to take action now, in whatever ways we can, to liberate our minds and hearts. Some try to do this on the meditation cushion. Others try to do this in our communities. It's time that more of us bring these two together.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Responsibilty, Leadership, and their Narratives

Feeling a bit in a funk the past few days. At work, we now have a new director. I met him this morning. He probably will be successful, and elevate the organization. He seems to be a person who knows what is necessary to get things done. And at the same time ... I think it's still time for me to go. But to what and how?

Barry over at Ox Herding recently had some posts about making a one percent shift in your life, our communities, even in our nations' current trajectories. He points out that such a shift will lead to others, and that it's often the first action step that is the hardest (in our minds.)

This is me, stuck on that first shift, not only in my job, but really in much of my life. I have plenty of ideas. Yoga teacher training. Studying herbal medicine. Going back for a PhD in Education. Getting a driver's license for the first time in my life. Starting another non-profit. Lots of ideas, but that's where it all is at right now.

I have a great fear to be honest that I will end up being over-committed and responsible for even more than I already am. This has been my life's storyline. Being the "responsible one," the one that is fairly self-sufficient, doesn't need a lot of help, volunteers in multiple capacities, and generally lands in positions of responsibility. It's a story, certainly. But also one with enough truth to it that it's hard to simply let go.

Before I was 10 years old, I had already become part parent to my sister, was responsible for a lot of the house cleaning, and had collected an internal narrative that I also was "responsible for maintaining the peace" between my then often fighting parents. Into my early teens, I began volunteering at my local rec center, and also "acquired" my mother's overbearing boyfriend's list of non-negotiable helping demands. I've rarely felt deep hatred towards another - I very much hated this man even long after he had exited my life.

Moving on, into college, I began acquiring extracurricular positions, eventually landing on the University's Student Senate, where I chaired multiple committees in addition to averaging 16 credits a semester. The end of college was, for this reason, both a time of loss and a relief. However, it wasn't six month and I found a new way to get involved, this time as a volunteer ESL teacher. That was 12 years ago. In the meantime, I have finished grad school, helped start a non-profit adult education organization and a literary journal, been an ESL teacher in three different organizations, and have risen to board chair of my Zen center.

And I have made so little money over the years that it's taken every last bit of frugalness, and probably a pound of stinginess to boot, in order to make it this far. No car. No health insurance. Living at home until three years ago. Lots in unusual decisions in the eyes of the average American. Honestly, I think I've done alright though, and there is little or nothing I'd change in my past even if I could.

Maybe this gives you all an idea about why taking the next step, making that one percent change, isn't so easy. Because I can feel the trajectory of my life being ready to reflected differently in some way, and yet can also feel all the fears and doubts attached to what might come.

Really, I'm afraid to fail - kind of silly when I view it from a teachings perspective - but there it is.

I've been told before by people who don't know me well, and could care less, to shut the hell up, suck it up, and move on.

Uh huh. That's a nice blunt offering. Sometimes very true too. Then again, the same person could just give me the bird and call it a day.

From a practice perspective, I think I've always had a major rub between the silent, contemplative, meditative aspects and action in the world. Anyone reading this blog for more than a few weeks would know that one though, so it's barely news. I find myself sitting in zazen, or walking around my neighborhood, listening. Maybe expecting answers to come and/or a direction to take as well, which I can see is probably a hindrance. Thing is, in the past, that direction, and the actions required have come to me - as you can see by how much I've done in my life.

So, I'm feeling impatient. Thinking maybe I just have to leap in some direction, and letting what comes come. Wondering if the whole leaping off the hundred foot pole teaching is foolish if done in haste. And what is "in haste" anyway?

I like to be a confident person. I like to have some sense of what I'm doing, and to be able to support others in finding that sense for themselves. It's part of the reason why I love teaching. But being in a lead role too often makes it that much harder to feel confusion, directionlessness, and incompetence because not only do you expect the opposite of yourself, but others come to expect you'll have your shit together as well.

Over the past week, I have felt less resistance to these decidedly "non-leaderly" qualities I am experiencing. In fact, I can even say I am curiously attending to them a little more. But it's still a challenge, one I can handle, but which seems to leading me slowly away from familiar territory.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

One Step at a Time

Sometimes, it's good to have some inspiration. Someone or a group of someones who do something so outlandish that you can't miss it's significance. Here's the story of a man who has spent much of his life living and breathing alternatives to oil-dependency.

When the Gulf oil disaster first hit the headlines, John Francis got a series of calls and messages from friends across the country offering condolences and apologies. Francis isn’t from the Gulf but he has spent years trying to answer the question that now looms large in public debate—what does it mean to end our addiction to oil?

It took an oil spill and a tragedy to get Francis to radically change his life. Francis grew up in a working-class African-American family in Philadelphia and moved to California as an adult. He was in his early 20s in 1971, when he witnessed the aftermath of a collision between two oil tankers in San Francisco Bay. The resulting spill coated shores from Berkeley to Marin with oil and killed thousands of birds and fish. That event and the death of a friend a year later profoundly shook Francis. He gave up driving and riding in motorized vehicles for 22 years.

One day, as an experiment, he stopped speaking and realized that the experience opened up deeper modes of communication with others. “From this new place [of silence] lessons come,” he writes in his memoir, Planetwalker. “The first is that most of my adult life I have not been listening fully.” He spent the next 17 years in silence, began a pilgrimage on foot across the country, pursued a Ph.D. in environmental studies in Wisconsin at one of the nation’s foremost graduate programs, and became an expert on oil regulations. He taught courses at the University of Wisconsin—Madison without speaking and took an oil regulations policy job with the U.S. Coast Guard without driving.

The journey has made Francis into a kind of moral, spiritual, and symbolic leader for the environmental movement. He considers himself to be living proof of the idea that a single person and simple actions can reach millions. He has since resumed driving, riding, and speaking, but continues to promote environmental education, walking, and personal empowerment, especially among children, youth, and college students, and through lectures across the country.

As a person who has never owned a car, and only driven a few times, I feel a kindredness with Mr. Francis. But his commitment to embodying a different way, as well as his ability to show how one can still be successful in the U.S. without being a driver, makes anything that I have done pale in comparison. And that's good. I'm glad to have been greatly outpaced.

What's profound about this man to me though is the vow of silence he held for 17 years. Stemming from experiences of arguing with others about his ideas, the vow of silence was a return to the deep listening that every spiritual tradition calls people do if they wish to fully awaken in this life.

Think about this. During the 17 years Francis didn't speak, he completed three college degrees, including a PhD. He taught graduate classes, and walked halfway across the country, from Oregon to Wisconsin, to enroll in his PhD program. In addition, he covered he entire "lower 48" states of the U.S. and also walked to South America during this time. And all the while he listened to others' stories, ideas, hopes, and fears, responding only through writing, gestures, or playing his banjo.

In 1994, Francis came to a crossroads, opening to the idea that he could be a more effective environmentalist if he again used motorized transportation. It feels like a koan in my own life right now, as I, too, have been considering the seeming contradiction between being eco-centric and being a licensed driver for the first time. I haven't decided yet, and have no plans to go out and purchase a car anytime soon, but I can see how standing apart from the driving culture as I have has been extremely valuable, and also creates certain limits that it might be time to transgress.

Francis still walks a lot. He even did an extended walk along the Great Ocean Road in Australia last year for a film being done by Tourism Victoria. This, in itself, speaks volumes - that the commitment to a way of life and expressing one's vision can outlast even actions that seem to contradict it.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Poverty Dharma(s)

Genju over at 108zenbooks offers the following provocative teaching in her post this morning:

In her retreat at Upaya, Joanna Macy spoke of being satisfied with just what we have. A retreatant asked how that could possibly be useful to the people in Haiti (the earthquake was very prominent in our thoughts on that day) who now had less than what had been already a horrendously impoverished life. Roshi Joan Halifax, adding to Joanna Macy’s response, pointed out that the dharma was aimed at our perceptions and she closed with this statement:

“Do not foster a mind of poverty in yourself and others.”

Yikes! When I first read this, it felt like a mountain we are called to climb without the use of our arms or legs. In fact, as soon as I saw the word "Haiti" I was ready to disagree with the whole thing, waiting for yet another soft, warm and fuzzy teaching from some privileged person aimed at "helping" the "poor masses." I've experienced enough of this kind of stuff now that my mind is on alert for it. There are benefits to thinking like this, but it also, in itself, can be an example of that "poverty mind" if one isn't careful.

“Do not foster a mind of poverty in yourself and others.”

One of the challenges this kind of teaching brings up for me is that it's only subtly different from all the languaging people in power positions have used throughout time to oppress others. The endless droning on these folks and their attendants do about "those whiny, pathetic people always asking for handouts." People of color in the U.S. know this kind of shit all too well, although they are only one example. I distinctly remember being poor enough to only have government cheese and powdered milk available in my house, and how the clothing my mother purchased at garage sales rendered me other amongst many of my elementary school classmates. It's hard not to develop a mind of poverty when you have lived in some form of material poverty, and have been repeatedly given the message that it's your own damn fault and that you or your family should shut the hell up and get a job, or a better job. In other words, it all becomes about material position, and so it's hard not to develop, and then foster in others, a "mind of poverty" because this is what is constantly being reinforced around us.

Yes, there is repetition in this post. Repetition is required for people to learn, or unlearn in this case.

Roshi Halifax and Joanna Macy are pointing to the ways in which we forget the boundless, totally generous functioning of this world. That beneath all the human constructed miseries there is that something greater pulsing through us in a totally generous, beyond poverty and wealth kind of way.

This is an important teaching for us, and yet one that isn't always easy to know how to apply.

How would a materially privileged person from a nation like the U.S. or Canada enter into a materially poor nation like Haiti and not foster the mind of poverty?

There is a rub because you can't separate the relative conditions from the absolute. If I, a lower middle class (by U.S. standards) white guy from Minnesota, went around a tent city in Port Au Prince and told people to "be satisfied with what they have," I'd probably get punched in the face. Or at least some dirty looks. This is the trouble with just repeating teachings to others, thinking they will instantly understand because somehow you think you understand.

One doesn't have to go all the way to Haiti to experience this fumbling about. I can think of countless times I have fostered some kind of poverty in myself and/or others. How I have hooked on to some form of "there is lack" here, and just went with it. How I have failed to hold both the real economic injustices that occur all over the world and the boundless, totally generous functioning of this world at the same time. Because when you are able to do this, you can speak clearly about those same injustices in a way that still fosters that boundless generosity - I've felt it in myself, and from others at times.

“Do not foster a mind of poverty in yourself and others.”

How can it be done? The answer might start with listening.