Friday, December 31, 2010

Screw New Year's Resolutions - Part II

At the beginning of the year, I offered the following post. It remains true to me as 2010 comes to a close. It's really interesting how the same themes arise again and again, isn't it? Like this:

Even though I think there is something in the spiritual life that might be called Great Hope, most of what we call "hope" - even in a spiritual context - is simply fraud by another name. If you can find a hope that is not intimately attached to fear, then maybe that is worth having. But be honest, have you ever made a New Year's resolution that wasn't laden with the fear of failure, or some other fear?

I like the idea of beginning anew. Of starting again and again - with fresh eyes. Beginning anew is akin to "don't know mind" in that both, in their process, breaking through fixed views of what is.

Hope and fear. Guess I've been deliberately working with those two for awhile now. I imagine a lot of others are as well.

Here are a few poems to send off the old year, and ring in the new. May we all be liberated, again and again.

On Top

All this new stuff goes on top
turn it over, turn it over
wait and water down
from the dark bottom
turn it inside out
let it spread through
Sift down even.
Watch it sprout.

A mind like compost.

Gary Snyder

now begins
the Future Buddha's reign...
spring pines

Issa (1763-1828)

*Image - winter whimsy from my neighbor's garden.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Eido Shimano and Social Responsibilty for the Wider Sangha

A few days ago, Al over at Open Buddha posted a set of letters concerning Zen teacher Eido Shimano Roshi, who has been embroiled in controversy for nearly three decades now. Memebers of the American Buddhist blogosphere, including the late Robert Aitken Roshi, have been pushing hard on the various breach of ethics issues involved in this case for awhile now. Sex and power abuse scandals are not at all unique to Zen Buddhism, so this can be viewed as yet another one of those cases. But it's also one that has, for various reasons, gone public, including in the NY Times article cited in the letter from Eido Roshi that appears on Al's blog.

This morning, Zen teacher James Ford, who has had some recent involvement with the case through general counsel of leadership at the NY Zen Studies Society, issued an open letter on his blog that includes the following:

I was among those who counseled Shinge Roshi and Genjo Sensei to seek outside intervention this past year. I was heartened that you chose to go with the FaithTrust Institute and specifically the Reverend Dr Marie Fortune. I was less sanguine to learn you, the Board, were not willing to follow their counsel precisely. At the same time I wasn’t there and again I felt my task was to support Roko & Genjo as they sought a way through that could bring healing to Eido’s many victims while allowing your sangha and its important mission to go forward.

With Eido Roshi’s letter it is no longer possible to seek a compromise.

I counsel you as strongly as I can to dismiss the Reverend Eido Shimano from any position of authority in the Zen Studies Society or its affiliates.

For the sake of his victims, for the sake of your sangha, for the sake of the Zen Dharma, I hope you will take this action.

Thank you Rev. Ford. May more follow you publicly, in support of those who have gone before.(The two bloggers cited here are amongst many others.)

I have written a little bit about this situation in the past, but have mostly stayed away from it, given that I am not a member of this sangha, nor intimate with the details of the case. But I've seen what happens to a sangha when leadership goes astray and power abuses are committed, and believe that whatever happens in one community can happen in all of them, if we don't take the opportunity to learn from it. In addition, as I suggested in this post, it's imperative that Buddhist sanghas - especially in places of more recent transplant like the U.S. - take a deep look at the power dynamics of their group and the teachings around power, and put in place specific, concrete plans that address power and use of power within the community.

As I said in April, taking someone like Eido Roshi out of his teacher's position is a necessary, but not sufficient step. Each of us is, in a certain way, responsible for upholding the integrity of the sangha. And you can take that in terms of a specific sangha one is involved in, but also the sangha of the world as a whole.It begins with our commitment to practice, and fans outward from there. May we all wake up together, one step at a time.

* Update: Here is an ongoing discussion from the Tricycle blog.

Here is a post from Mumon supporting the removal of Shimano.

And here's a post reminding us a little about Zen history concerning teachers, and the serious consequences that come from trying to protect corrupt or abusive teachers.

And Nella Lou's current post on the commonplace struggle humans seem to have around leadership.

And finally, here's an amazing letter from Zen teacher Joan Halifax Roshi.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How is Liberation?

I love the wide-open, sometimes gnarly, sometimes snarly, totally in love with life presence of Alan Clements. Last night, I listened to a recent interview with him, and then discovered this interview from several years ago, which covers some of the same territory, but also breaks off in different directions.

One of the beautiful things about this guy is that he is a fierce dissident when it comes to Buddhism in it's institutional, rhetorical, and commonplace forms and views, while still embodying respect and even reverence for the people and practices found therein.

Witness this exchange:

AC: As far as I understand, the Buddhist practice of non-grasping is meant as a means to discover anatta—that‘you’ don’t exist. My point is that we do exist and that we must do all that we can to learn how to embody our existence, our humanness, and not homogenize it or try to transcend it. And to me, that means desire. It’s taken me a long to time to see desire as a beautiful thing. I love drinking coffee in the morning. I love sex. I love...

IM: Don’t you mean you love the satisfaction of your desires?

AC: I love both. I love desire—the heat of passion—as well as the satisfaction of desire when its met. But I can also live with restraint. I did it for years in a monastery and I do it every day of my life. And I’ve taken restraint to some provocative limits. In the monastery I lived for years without sex. Years without touching a woman. But I also found a kind of satisfaction in the desire to restrain one form of sexuality for another expression it. It wasn’t as if sexuality went away. You transmuted it into another form. There was something very erotic about celibacy. There were many other forms of restraint as well. I was silent for many months at a time. Still today, I can cross my legs and sit still without moving whenever I want. I’m not afraid of myself. And to me desire and passion are vital aspects of living as a free human being.

It might be tempting to quickly say he is talking about something else besides desire, but I don't think that would be wise. Sit with it awhile first. Maybe he's missing something - I don't know. But I like the way he's upsetting the apple cart here.

To me, when he says "I'm not afraid of myself." that should be a big cue for all of us. Regular readers have seen me going on about the need to lighten up about forms, to not think that sitting zazen all the time is some great thing, for example. Now here is a guy who has lived the forms, lived in sangha, lived with that laundry list of monastic rules that has tumbled through time, and he's basically telling us - get over your fantasies! These are great tools for learning about what it means to be human, but that's just it - what is it to be human? How do you embody it fully?

If I were to take a poll on my own experience, I have tended to be more of a suppressor. Others lean more in the director of expressing. In my case, this has meant hiding, denying, minimizing, or reframing aspects of experience that either are threatening or too wild and thus scary. This isn't just about what we label as negative. It's also been what we'd label positives. Like holding back enthusiasm for something. Or tamping down the level of caring I have for something or someone. That's how I generally have operated in my adult life - not always of course - but probably the majority of time. And that pattern fits in really well with what I have experienced in my zen community, and others, including what I've seen online to some degree.

The opposite group, those who express readily, are also coming from an afraid place. Maybe it's a deep fear that not expressing will mean they are dead. Or that they believe the world is a scary place and that you best play the drama, or else you'll be stomped on. I'm less familiar with this way of living because I don't do it as much, but I think both are coming from a place of bone-deep fear.

AC:Another complexity I have with classical Buddhism and vipassana meditation in general is its drive towards achieving a state of equanimity, as if perpetual balance is the best way to be in life. A bit too Dr. Spocklike
for my taste. Flat lining the emotions isn’t part of my picture. Nor am I interested in the idea that dispassion and stillness are characteristics of the highest states of consciousness. I’ll be still enough when I die. For now, I like singing. I like music. I like dancing. I like yoga. I like hip hop theater. I like good wine. I like things,most things that is. Unless, I don’t like it. Normal behavior, in other words.

This is a bit jarring for me, given my penchant for balance in recent years. And yet, it does give rise to the question: what was Buddha talking about with "equanimity"? Not what's in the sutras, or some canned definition of equanimity. Lately, I've been thinking that equanimity is being able to ride the flow of life as it is. That all the talk about attachment is really aimed at teaching us how to swim better, not just to be logs floating calmly in a river. Think about it. Good swimmers are buoyant. They have to have a deep sense of lightness, regardless of actual body weight. And they need to be engaged with the water as it is, moment by moment.

And as for cessation of passion and desire - I've always thought that the stories about Buddha and some others seem a little too clean. Even saintlike at times. On this, Clements remarks:

let’s not get stuck in some high, singular note called nirvana and just go on singing silently forever and ever. (Sings) Ahhhhh. Nirvana may be cool and peaceful, but I happen to be a complex, energetic, finite human being who happens to like being in a body at the moment. I don’t like just sitting there all the time
assuming that ‘stillness’ is freedom. I’m an active lover of the dharma, but I believe in finding one’s liberation through living in the world, where it is often messy, and harsh. We need to develop human responses to life, not transcendent ones.

How do we be still while active in the world? This is an important question for me. Because if the deep stillness from which wisdom arises is only about physically being still, we're kind of fucked as a species. If this whole thing is really about permanently breaking away from the active world, one by one, well, that seems no better than Christians who condemn this world as an irredeemably sinful mess in need of being escaped from.

Maybe Clements' take on Nirvana is mistaken. Or he's working too hard to counter it in statements like this. I do think, though, that he's taking aim at the commonplace understanding of liberation being equated with cessation.

Which leads to me think perhaps people have misunderstood the entire teaching around breaking the cycle of birth and death. That cessation, stopping production of karma, isn't about ending human experiences like passion and desire.

That it's about being liberated in such a way that you can swim through all of it, move through all of it, without getting caught, getting stuck. Another way to put it might be that you don't get torched by the flame of life.

There's no way to know for sure that the historical Buddha ceased to desire, ceased to experiences passions. But I'm pretty damned convinced that this guy had a radically different way of living with it all, that whatever passions and desires came weren't taken the way the average person takes them.

At the end of the interview, Clements quotes Elie Wiesel: "Favor the question, always question.” Yes. But I also think this, too, can become a troubling certainty. Like all those who run around citing the Kalama Sutta, and then don't question why it is they are questioning.

So, I'll end with the odd sounding question that titles the post: how is liberation? Liberation being a verb, don't you think? And the how pointing us to process, functioning, movement through stillness. How is liberation for you?

*Image is of a Green Tara

Monday, December 27, 2010

Dark Tunnel Dukkha

For various reasons, this time of year tends to bring out the worst in me. Or that which I don't want to look at, have avoided, am afraid of, etc. This year, it feels quite fierce, given where I am in my life.

After three months of not working, I'm getting a crash course in how difficult it is to let go of external identities and desired support from others, and just be yourself right now. Here is a short list of what's been coming up for me over the past few weeks:

1. Lots of questions about who I am and where I am going.

2. Lack of confidence.

3. Fear. Lots and lots of fear.

4. Avoiding. Lots of avoiding.

5. Frustration with an inability to articulate what's going on to others.

6. Irritation with unsolicited advice.

7. Guilt. I mean, after three months, why don't you have something figured out?

8. Surprise. Why has the harsh critical voice suddenly returned with full force?

9. Anger. A more recently returned guest.

10. The usual seasonal depression, that came later this year, and which I thought I had a decent handle on, but now am swamped in again.

When I left my job at the end of August, my intention was to take time and listen deeply for what it was that my life was really calling for me to do. I had grown tired of doing what a lot of people do - keeping a job that slowly kills them because they're totally afraid of the economic and/or social consequences of leaving it without the safety net of another job lined up.

The thing is, it was always more than about work for me. All signs in my life had pointed to it being time to figure out a way to synthesize what I love into how I live more fully, on a day to day basis. This kind of thinking tends to be dismissed by the conventional world as pipe dream bullshit, and it might turn out to be just that, but I don't want to be on my death bed thinking "Maybe I should have taken a risk to do X."

Anyway, when I left in August, I didn't expect the following to occur.

1. Most of my "in the flesh" friends either growing extremely busy, or simply vanishing from my life all together.

2. The flickering in and out of my life old romances that stirred up various unresolved issues/griefs connected to them.

3. Discussions about what it means to be a dedicated lay practitioner at my zen center, and subsequent requests by a few students in a group I am a part of for added practice requirements (more retreat time and responsibilities for upholding aspects of formal practice at the center).

4. Frequently interrupted sleep patterns and various minor illnesses over the past month.

All in all, I'm finding that other than my immediate family, many of the relationships in my life are either dormant, strained, or disappearing. And I'm seeing how this has sent me spinning more often than I'd care to admit. Even though I have had wonderful people supporting me throughout my life, and know that the universe itself is always supporting each of us in a myriad of ways, it's also true that I have had to do a lot of things on my own. That from an early age, I was called on to be a responsible person capable of taking care of his shit. And what this did to me was create a pattern where I feel I should be competent or better in what I'm doing most of the time, otherwise something is way wrong. Intellectually, I know this to be a story, but deep down somewhere, this story is still fighting for control of my life. And in this time of not knowing about so much, it's rearing its ugly head pretty frequently.

The other thing about this pattern, at least for me, is that I have quite weak skills in asking for help or support. Years and years of having to do it myself, or thinking I had to do it myself, have left me in a tough position now. When you're not good at reaching out in these ways in the first place, and then many of those who you have developed a sense of trust with are not available, you're left to face your rotten skills on your own. In fact, whereas when I'm doing fairly well, I have a good sense of what I need and can usually locate it, or figure out how to deal without it. But being in this place of such fierce not knowing about so much, I also don't know what it is I really need. So, not only am I not good at reaching out for support, but I often don't even know what I'd ask for right now.

In posting this, I am not desiring advice on "what to do." Nor am I fishing for sympathy. I've had darker periods in my life, where not having the tools and insights of a spiritual practice meant swirling around in endless rounds of self-criticism and anger at others for not "getting me." That was worse than what I am experiencing now, even though what I am experiencing now feels like it's going straight to the core of my life. Much more palpable and scary than what I went through when I was younger, but the ride is less maddening you might say.

It's also been interesting to watch momentary impulses to post some sad-sack headline on Facebook, or to write some crying in your beer type post on here. I've watched a few friends use Facebook like that over the past few years, and I don't want to join that crowd. Some blogs get like that as well, where post after post is about the latest misery a person is experiencing, or how decision X or experience Y is another example of how "bad" a Buddhist they are. This is mostly just hustling for a self-esteem boost, and that's pretty damned tawdry if you ask me.

One of the reasons I dedicated myself to both zen and yoga practice is that both emphasize total liberation. If you stick with it, experiment with what you learn, and trust the process, major shifts do happen in your life. And even though there's endless talk about dropping all "expectations for any fruition" - especially enlightenment - I think it's foolhardy to believe that you'll just reach a certain point where you'll have a relatively comfortable "external life" supported by your practice. Actually, I'd say this is exactly what happens to those who seek out practice as self-help, which isn't a terrible thing, but certainly is limited.

When I received my dharma name a few years ago, I found myself pondering "devotion." And one of the things I have realized is that even though on the outside, my "practice" sometimes looks a bit slack, I have always, since I was really, really young, had a fire for uncovering the truth. At five years old, I returned home one day from school and told my mother the kids in class were boring. Why? Because they were mostly interested in playing around and picking on each other. They were being kids in other words.

I played too. It wasn't that I was some learning robot, always focused on serious stuff. But that little boy carried an old man's voice in his head from the beginning I think. Which made me kind of different. And sometimes caused trouble. Like the time I took my sister down in the basement to show her the pile of presents, and tell her there was no Santa Claus. She wasn't even five years old yet.

So, the leap to leave my old workplace, and more importantly, to live in this not knowing place is all about that devotion to the truth. To awakening. To liberation.

And this post is part update about where I am at, and also mostly an attempt to say that I'm not finding it terribly easy right now. Here in Minnesota, we keep getting piled on by snowstorm and snowstorm. I feel like the ground, buried in snow. Except the ground just accepts it, whereas with each additional layer, I'm fighting it more than accepting it.

Perhaps this will all change very soon, or maybe not for awhile. I don't know. I'm doing my best to trust the process. Some days that's easier than others.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Butterflies in Winter

Chiyo-ni (Kaga no Chiyo)1703-1775 began writing poetry at the age of seven. A student of the famous Japanese haiku poet Basho, Chiyo-ni later in life became a Buddhist nun not in order to renounce the world, but out of a desire "to teach her heart to be like the clear water which flows night and day." Her poems frequently reference the difficult gender dynamics of 18th century Japan, a time and place where women writers were highly marginalized, while also maintaining the haiku tradition of exposing the suchness of everyday life.

Amongst her repeated subjects is the butterfly. Sitting under a pile of snow and cold darkness here in Minnesota, butterflies seem far away. Their fragile beauty, strong determination (able to fly thousands of miles), and utterly obvious impermanence (most living less than a year) make them great subjects for Buddhist poetry. Here are four of Chiyo-ni's butterfly haiku. May they inspire dreams, especially for those of us living in the winter darkness right now.

Butterfly on a maiden's path
now behind
now in front.

Butterfly --
you also get mad
some days.

A butterfly --
What dream
is making your wings flutter?

What the butterfly
wants to say --
only this movement of its wings.

*Image can be found here.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Transcending the Past

Moving on from the awards discussion, which has gotten too ridiculous for my taste, here's a story that brought me to tears this morning.

In 1993, Mary Johnson's only child, Laramuin Byrd, was shot to death during a dispute at a house party in Minneapolis. His daughter, Rosalynda, now 17, was born five months later.

Byrd's killer was Marlon Green, then a 16-year-old kid juggling a chaotic life as a reputed street gang member as well as a respected conflict-resolution peer at his high school. Green, who had no previous criminal record, was convicted as an adult of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Though a woman of deep faith, Johnson long thought of her 20-year-old son's killer as a cold-blooded animal. She exchanged harsh words with his mother, Carole Green, during the trial.

But tonight, Johnson will spend Christmas Eve and share a meal with the man who killed her son — a 34-year-old man now known as Oshea Israel and whom she regards as her "spiritual son."

Johnson also befriended Carole Green, 54, who came by bus this week from her home in a Chicago suburb.

I tend to be one that grows tired of all the sappy, feel good stories that appear this time of year, but this story transcends it all.

It's really easy to condemn people for their past, suggesting that because of something they did, or the ways they thought, they are now not worthy to be called humans anymore. The "cold blooded animal" view of those who seriously harm or kill others is very common, even amongst Buddhists I know. It's not so much having such a view in response to trauma and tragedy; it's that people often hold it for situations where they weren't even directly affected. And while it's one thing to go through the kind of rage that brings up such hatred when something happens, it's quite another to justify maintaining that outlook, often for years on end.

Carol, Mary, and Oshea are role models for all of us. Their ability to transcend the past, build relationships in the present, and work towards a better tomorrow is inspiring, and a great reminder that our lives need not be condemned and trapped by the mistakes of the past.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Blogisattva Hatred and the Mind's Passion for Gravitating Towards Criticism

A post over at Nella Lou's blog about the Blogisattvas has spawned some discussion, including this post and this one (I'm pretty sure). Nella Lou comes from a place of strongly opposing the awards, and then takes the opportunity to use the award her blog was given to support the work of another blogger whose work hadn't been upheld.

I actually don't have much interest in hashing out pros and cons about the awards. What I mostly found interesting is how a single piece of writing standing strongly against something spurred a lot of defense of the awards. A similar thing happened regarding the only other post that stood strongly against the awards.

Basically, what's at play is the very common - perhaps universal - tendency to gravitate towards negative reviews and opinions of something you have said or done. There were probably dozens of bloggers who wrote positive things about the Blogisattvas, who congratulated the winners, who were excited and/or humbled to be mentioned at all. And yet, the moment a negative review comes in, the mind fixates on it like it's a cancerous growth, threatening to kill. Or, in this case, many minds became fixated on it, including my own to some degree.

This just shows how challenged many of us are around perfection narratives. Thinking we have to discredit the handful of dissenters to our work, or our ideas, in order to feel ok about it. It's not enough that the vast majority love what you did or said. You want it all. I know I've been like this before.

In some ways, it might even be easier when most are against you. When your ideas or actions are either misunderstood, or totally hated, there's no illusions about being loved. If you keep going, or stand behind what you're saying, it's because you believe you're on the right track. (Obviously, there are plenty of pitfalls here, but perfection narratives like "Everyone needs to love this" aren't one of them.)

I spent a year working as a teaching assistant in 1st and 3rd grade classes. The kids loved me. The two teachers I worked with had great respect for my experience with "difficult kids." The principal of the school nearly cried when she had to tell me the school didn't have the funding to hire me back for a second year. In other words, I was doing a good job. But you know, more time than I'd like to admit was spent fixating on the negative comments made by the other 3rd grade teacher, who I occasionally had to work with. She didn't like me much, and frankly had no confidence in the work I was doing. And even though most of her teaching colleagues found her sour and difficult to work with, I still found myself believing her views of what I was doing. In fact, to the point where my work with the kids was actually worse when she was around.

This was a year before I began practicing Zen, so I'd probably handle it differently today. However, it's also probably true that I'd still get fixated on her views to some degree - even with all these years of "mind retraining."

Gravitating towards criticism, and attempting to mitigate it, is a classic defense mechanism. A habit that's hard to kick.

May we all be successful in kicking it, one moment at a time.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Eclipse Meditation

There Was a Boy

There was a Boy; ye knew him well, ye cliffs
And islands of Winander! many a time,
At evening, when the earliest stars began
To move along the edges of the hills,
Rising or setting, would he stand alone,
Beneath the trees, or by the glimmering lake;
And there, with fingers interwoven, both hands
Pressed closely palm to palm and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument,
Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls
That they might answer him.—And they would shout
Across the watery vale, and shout again,
Responsive to his call,—with quivering peals,
And long halloos, and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled; concourse wild
Of jocund din! And, when there came a pause
Of silence such as baffled his best skill:
Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain-torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain heaven received
Into the bosom of the steady lake.

William Wordsworth, 1798

I listened to the poet David Whyte read this Wordsworth piece last night as part of workshop recording I have of his. This was part of my extended meditation in connection with the solstice and lunar eclipse we had overnight. I chanted the precepts, listened to David's talk, and sat in silence until 1am, about half an hour after the eclipse started.

Hearing this poem stood out for me for a few reasons. First, when I was an English major, I really disliked Wordsworth. I always called him "the guy who got his words worth" because his poems always seemed so long-winded. I'm mean, who writes a several hundred page introduction to another poem (which never really got written by the way)?

Anyway, I was sitting on my zafu listening to the poem being read, when I heard these words a second time:

And there, with fingers interwoven, both hands
Pressed closely palm to palm and to his mouth
Uplifted, he, as through an instrument,

Suddenly, I saw gassho rise up through me. Not just an image, but the experience of gassho-ing. As if I were "an instrument" for gassho.

After the poem finished, I got up and clicked back to hear it again, and this time there was this:

Then, sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprise
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain-torrents

At the end, I turned off the recording, and sat back down in silence. Those words kept rattling around with me as I sat, until finally I turned to look out the window behind me. The sky was cloudy, but I knew the now partially eclipsed moon was there.

I listened.

Something was rattling outside the window. Falling ice? Squirrels? A person?

It didn't matter what. This was the call and response of life at the moment. Bigger than anything I, or Wordsworth, or anyone could capture, but including us too. Yes, including us too.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Buddhists Love Hope as Much as Anyone Apparently

(*Our Good Buddy Manjushri, and his sword of wisdom that cuts through illusions. Always a good presence to have in discussions about things like hope. May we all awaken our "inner" Manjushri.)

Ahhhhh, hope. It seems like a sacred cow, an untouchable almost. The general view is that people have to have hope, or else they're lost.

Well, you'll have to forgive me, but I've always been one to question whatever is generally accepted as true. Gets me in trouble sometimes. I irritate people sometimes. I'm frequently misunderstood. But that's how it goes.

Yesterday's post, as well as Dean's recent post,have generated some valuable discussion in my opinion. One of the reasons why I have used this blog to question things like hope is that it helps people, including myself, clarify what we actually mean. Instead of just saying "hope is good" or "desire is bad" and then moving on, there's an opportunity to pause and consider what we mean, and how things actually play out in our lives.

Dean's post, and perhaps mine, inspired another blogger, David, to write a counterpost that includes the following:

Hope contributes to a positive outlook on life and if that sounds too “new age” or something that’s too bad. Unless you have some sense of optimism for the future, life can be very bleak. It is through pessimism and negative thinking that we create a lot of our suffering. Hope is a necessary ingredient for a satisfied, peaceful life, and it’s sad to me that there are some Buddhists who want to twist it around into something to avoid.

The Buddha way is the Middle Way. The balance between extremes. There’s no question that too much hope can be harmful. Living for the future excessively is not healthy. But to abandon hope and live only in the present is not the way to go either. Hope reinforces the ego only if you let it. The idea that it represents some form of control that we don’t actually have is wrong. The whole point of Buddhism is to train our minds so that we can control our thoughts, words and deeds and gravitate to wholesome states of mind and not dwell in unwholesome states. We want control and if that is just an illusion then there’s no sense in practicing Buddhism.

There's a lot here I could comment on. One somewhat tangential, but I think related point is that Buddhism is NOT about control. The longer I practice, the less I believe in having control, and that's been quite helpful. I'm less uptight, less angry, less rigid, and more responsive to my life than I was in the past. Acts of controlling destructive thoughts and actions can be skillful means at times, but do not represent the fruition of an awakened life.

I still have to control angry commentaries about certain political issues, for example, but that's because I continue to be working with attachments around those views, as well as insecurities about having political views that are outside the norm.

Back to hope, though. Given that many of us live in places where hope narratives are really strong, I think that using the word "hope" can be a skillful means. Telling someone "I hope you feel better soon" can be skillfully supporting them, as can offering optimistic views of the future. However, in both cases, we can come from a place of offering that is open, and not caught up in the futurizing of hope. I can imagine hospice workers and chaplains have to work with such language all the time, and must consider the people before them and what is most skillful in the given situation. But I think there are ways to work with really difficult situations like families facing terminal illnesses that are both realistic in the now, but also optimistic about life as a whole.

Optimism is different from hope in my opinion. Although it tends to be linked with hope, I think optimism is grounded in confidence and a trust in the boundlessness of the world.

My mother is a pretty optimistic person. And although she gets caught up in misleading hope narratives like the rest of us, what I tend to see from her is a great trust that things will unfold in the way they need to unfold. The other day, her car broke down on a freeway ramp. She was initially irritated about it, and worried about having to get a new car. However, within a few hours, she had shifted all of this. With a friend of hers, she'd considered some of the possible outcomes, and then let it go to the mechanics to deal with. And although she had a hunch that it wouldn't be too bad (which it wasn't), what I mostly saw was that she trusted that what needed to happen would happen.

Optimism also, in my view, is seeing everything as an opportunity to learn, to become more fully yourself. That whatever comes, there's a way to integrate it into the whole of your life. I don't see hope doing that. Hope is usually about a desired outcome or set of outcomes. And a rejection or avoidance of other outcomes.

As a final thought, I'd like to ask people who feel hope is essential a few questions. When you say hope, what exactly do you mean? How does it actually function in your body and mind when you hope for something? And what happens in your body and mind when you don't get what you hope for?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Seduction of Hope

Over at the Mindful Moment, Dean has an excellent post about the illusions people have about hope. Whenever concerns about the future come up, I find hope to be like a bottle of quality microbrew after a long day. It's usually something that's nicely packaged, good tasting, and guaranteed to offer some short term relief from the pain. The problem is that hoping takes us away from what's present. And it also diverts us away from the deep source pool from which our future springs forth. To put stock in hope means to privilege an empty story over the wholeness that's inherent in each of us, if we only trusted it more. Dean writes:

In my experience and spiritual practice I've found hope is not a good thing. It's limits ones spiritual development. It isn't good because it in fact is a very subtle form of desire and control that makes us cling to our sense of self and our suffering, prolongs our suffering and keeps us suffering. It is an illusion of a sense of control that we don't actually have. Hope is nothing, it's not even a tangible 'anything', it's just a subtle desire for a future positive event or away from a future negative event.

I'd actually say that it isn't even about positive or negative. Spiteful politicians sometimes spend enormous amounts of energy hoping their political opponents are taken down, or even killed off. Greedy business leaders sometimes invest entire fortunes on schemes built on a hope that doing them will crush the competition. Seriously ill or seriously depressed people sometimes hope to die. Rebellious teenagers sometimes hope to fail exams, and flunk out of school. The common thread, whether the desired outcome is positive or negative in the relative sense, is that desire for control Dean speaks of. Control over what? Change.

I don't know about you, but I have never had any luck control changing. Certainly, I can plant seeds for the direction I'd like to go in, and shift my thoughts and behaviors to increase the possibility of that direction manifesting. And I can regulate my responses to whatever actually does occur. But controlling change itself? I don't think so.

The other thing I actually have come to see about hope is that it puts a lock on the doors of our life. Instead of having everything open and available in any given time, you only have a few doors open. The ones you hope for, and the ones you don't hope for.

That's the place you're operating from. I hope to get a job by the end of the month; I hope I don't go broke. Either one of the two "hopes" happen, or something entirely different occurs. With the former, the pattern of belief in hoping is reinforced. The latter often brings with it a surprise laced with confusion and even bewilderment. I didn't expect to inherit this money. What do I do now? Do I still get a job? Invest it? I don't know. I don't know.

In the end, when you give in to the seduction of hope, again and again, you loose the improvisation skills necessary to fully engage with life as it is.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Artificial Buddhist Personality"

Over at Open Buddha, Al recounts this useful story:

A friend of mine, named “Robert,” used to own an esoteric bookstore in Seattle. Much of his stock and customers were Buddhists, as opposed to the pagans that I normally ran with. It was one of the places where I began to encounter Buddhist books and ideas though. Robert used to mention that one of the problems with Buddhists, in his experience, was “ABP,” or “Artificial Buddhist Personality.” This is the persona that so many Buddhists seem to assume where they take up the trappings, the mental ones as much as any physical ones like statues or beads, of what they think a Buddhist should be and they wear them like a new skin. They aren’t necessarily compassionate, for example, but they know they should be so they go through the motions. The problem here is, of course, that realization is not a persona. It is not something that we take on or assume as mask or role. It is a waking up from masks and roles. The compassion and other attributes of awakening are the natural result, as expressed in the world, of this awakening.

There is an insidiousness to this "ABP" Al's friend pointed to. It's very easy to get into the habit of acting a certain way you believe is better, and avoid looking at the motivations behind it. I think there is some value in the "faking it until you make it approach," for example, but it's also the case that too much of it leads you away from seeing what's actually arising. You do something kind for another, but you miss the resentment or need to be liked behind the surface. Or you refrain from expressing anger at your co-worker, but you fail to express the need for support or honesty from the same co-worker. There's so much energy put into trying to "do the right thing" that you don't have enough to see what's actually present.

When you think about it, there is a corresponding version of ABP in all religious and spiritual traditions. And this tends to be one of the things secular humanists, atheists, and other folks point to when speaking about how delusional these traditions are. The way I see it, they're totally right that these inflated personas, from which those inhabiting them shame and guilt everyone else around them, are certainly delusional.

Another challenge I have experienced with ABP is that when you put on a "good front," people start to expect that from you all the time. Acting like a saint reinforces the commonplace stereotypes about Buddhists being always kind, peaceful, and loving individuals. Not only is it suffocating for us practitioners to try and uphold such ridiculous standards, but it makes it that much more difficult for others to gain any insight into what Buddhism is all about. Not that some general insight into Buddhism by others is all that important. But it's easier, from my experience, to be yourself when there aren't expectations of some form of perfection inside and all around.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Buddhist Lay Practice in History

The Eighth Century Chinese Chan (Zen) Master Layman Pang understood that Buddhist practice does not have a fixed form to be followed by all. But while he is remembered amongst the famous teachers of the past, in my opinion, it was the synergy of the family as a whole that led to such great understanding.

Here is a snippet of their story:

Originally from Hengyang in the southern Chinese province of Hunan, Pang was a successful merchant with a wife, son, and daughter. The family's wealth allowed them to devote their time to study of the Buddhist sūtras, in which they all became well-versed. Pang's daughter Ling Zhao was particularly adept, and at one point even seems to be have been more advanced and wise than her father, as the following story illustrates:

“ The Layman was sitting in his thatched cottage one day [studying the sūtras]. "Difficult, difficult," he said; "like trying to scatter ten measures of sesame seed all over a tree." "Easy, easy," Mrs. Pang said; "like touching your feet to the ground when you get out of bed." "Neither difficult nor easy," Ling Zhao said; "on the hundred grass tips, the great Masters' meaning."[1] ”

After Pang had retired from his profession, he is said to have begun to worry about the spiritual dangers of his material wealth, and so he placed all of his possessions in a boat which he then sunk in a river.

There are so many learnings to be gleaned from this tiny bit of narrative about them. Notice the way material possessions are dealt with. They clearly benefited from having some wealth, given the freed time for Buddhist study it allowed them. In fact, you can take from this that if what you have materially gives you more time to study and practice, then it's beneficial in your life. Yet, at a certain point, there was also a realization that attachment to possessions is commonplace, and a great hindrance, and thus needs to be abandoned. The dramatic sinking of the family's valuables puts one hell of an exclamation point on that teaching, but I do wonder if it might have been more powerful to hear that the Pangs gave their wealth to another family or individual desiring to have time for study and practice. This is one of the challenges I have always had with the heavy emphasis on poverty and material renunciation in the old stories. That works fine for monastics and wandering individuals, but it's unrealistic for most lay practitioners. With that, I still think theirs is an example for all of us today, who struggle with views about both wealth and poverty.

The second learning from this story is the relational quality of practice. This simple story of a father studying the sutras, and a mother and daughter responding to his comments with their own insights is an important reminder to those of us who have been steeped a bit too much in "just sitting" practice. Chan/Zen is relational. Awakening is relational. Whatever wisdom Layman Pang developed over his lifetime and infused into his poems and sayings came together through studies and practice with his family, interactions with his customers (as a merchant), and practice with other Chan teachers of the day. Even if we each must break through the veil covering the truth on our own, it's our relationships (both with humans and with the entire universe of beings) that provide the ground for awakening.

A third learning, which maybe is less apparent, is that if you look closely enough at the old stories, you'll discover brilliance that hasn't been elevated into the traditional canon. We know very little about Ling Zhao, yet her appearance as a young woman of wisdom is just one of many examples throughout old Buddhist stories. And you can bet that for every Layman Pang and Ling Zhao, there were plenty more who lived unrecorded lives, perhaps completely unrecognized outside of the small community they came from.

It tended to be the monastics who were educated, who wrote down the stories, and who passed along what was considered to be the teachings of the day. So, we're left with a partial record of events, persons, and practices - one that privileged monastics, privileged men, and privileged those who had wealth in their lives at some point.

Even so, this doesn't mean we can't uncover some of the wisdom of great lay practitioners of the past. We can. This little story offers a lot, and it's just one of many. Instead of relying solely on the teachings of modern and current practitioners, I think it's wise to dig into the past - to glean what we can from those who came long before us.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"Free Buddhist Press": A Few Thoughts on Elephant Journal and KPC

Writing about controversial topics is challenging. Doing so in a way that both stands tall in the truth, and also expresses your commitment to Buddhist ethics is even more difficult.

In the wake of the Wikileaks uproar, as well as attempted legal constrictions of free speech coming from places like the U.S. Congress, it's becoming important for bloggers to consider not only what they value, but also how they write about what they value.

There has been some back and forth in recent weeks between Buddhist blogger Bill Schwartz, Elephant Journal, and the Buddhist community Kunzang Palyul Choling (KPC). Essentially, the situation began with a post Mr. Schwartz was writing for Elephant Journal that contained criticisms of KPC, which led KPC to send Elephant Journal a legal letter threatening a lawsuit. All this before the article in question was actually published.

Waylon Lewis, publisher of Elephant Journal, said the following in a recent post:

1. I received a letter from KPC’s board with a legal letter attached. I’ve had a ton of communication with them and it’s all been pleasant and respectful.

2. I’m not sure–I’m no lawyer–but I knew that, not being able to afford a lawyer, that was the end of Bill Schwartz’s fun at the expense of KPC on elephant. I’ve encouraged him to write on other subjects. I can’t risk eight years of work and the potential of elephant to be of benefit if I’m without legal representation or the means to afford it.

3. I’d love for something positive to come out of this–I’ll use your wonderful forum as an opportunity to invite both parties to discuss this with the benefit of all sentient beings in mind. If either will take me up on this offer, I’ll serve as a mediator. They can DM me at or

First off, I find it quite troubling that a Buddhist community would respond to an unpublished article about them with lawyers. Even if they have been friendly and respectful, there's something really off about bringing out the legal hounds on a small time religious blogger like Mr. Schwartz, and a niche online publication like Elephant, which is doing quality work for sure, but doesn't even have close the stature as, say Tricycle magazine of Shambala Sun.

This morning, however, Mr. Schwartz published a guest post over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt giving his views on the matter.

The post begins with a short narrative about his interest in writing the post, the potential legal action brought on Elephant Journal, and the subsequent blocking of the writing in question. However, then Mr. Schwartz turns on the Buddhist community in general, making statements like the following:

When Travis May published a blog on Buddhadharma about the KPC SLAPP Scandal the editor removed it. Was KPC threatened? No, it wasn’t threatened. Worse, it simply doesn’t care. Why? It doesn’t care because Buddhists don’t care. None of the glossy Buddhist magazines is willing to cover this story. Buddhists don’t believe in a free press.

But surely Buddhist bloggers care? Nope. One Buddhist blogger informed me he wasn’t interested. It would be too much work. It’s much easier to write about wisdom and compassion instead. His audience will just eat that up and ask for more. There is no upside to a Buddhist blogger in harshing the mellow of his audience over something of such little or no interest to Buddhists as a free press seems to be.

The response of individual Buddhists has been even worse—unsolicited dharma advice on Tonglen, sending and receiving. We are to exchange our attachment to our right to free speech for the peace of mind that comes with caring only about ourselves. I kid you not. That’s what Shantideva taught. This is the path of the bodhisattva. The Buddhist response has been that it’s perfectly acceptable what KPC has done.

In my opinion, there are at least a few fundamental errors being made here. Assuming that this issue with Elephant Journal and KPC is widely known amongst Buddhists is completely flawed. Assuming that whatever responses he received represent the views of either "Buddhist bloggers" or Buddhists in general, is also completely flawed. Third, assuming that the "glossy" Buddhist media - i.e. Tricycle, Buddhadharma, Shambala Sun, and perhaps a few other publications - don't care - or that these publications are an accurate representation of the "Buddhist community" (whatever that is) is also a huge stretch at best.

One of the difficulties in writing powerfully and engagingly about controversial issues is that often, our emotional responses take over, and shut out those who could be potential allies. It's critical in any effort to bring about social change, or to safe guard current rights and liberties, to not alienate the very people who you'll need to do the work on the ground.

It's very possible that both Mr. Schwartz and Elephant Journal have been screwed in this situation, and that we Buddhist bloggers and writers might have some serious issues on our hands, but the sweeping generalizations, unsubstantiated accusations, and lone wolf energy of Mr. Schwartz's post make it difficult for those of us who might be sympathetic to respond and perhaps act.

Another problem here is that there are a lack of specifics that would help readers understand what happened, and why this particular blog post was considered threatening by the leaders of a Buddhist community. We don't have the post in question to read, nor much in the way of specifics about the contents of said post.

As someone who readily applies Buddhist ethics to social action when I deem it appropriate, I have a deep interest in seeing such work represent, as best as we can, the values and teachings of our tradition. Part of doing so is being careful about what issues we raise and engage in, and to ask questions, and be rigorous in our reflections about issues that arrive at our doorstep - such as this current situation.

I'd love to hear from others on either this issue, or how you engage social/political issues through a Buddhist lens.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Writing Violence: Thoughts on Authenticity and Spiritual Bypassing

Here in Minnesota, we woke up to over 16 inches of fresh snow on the ground. Most of the city was shut down last night, and people are trying to dig out today. Me? I was out taking pictures, including the one above of my street.

So, I was interested to see what might come of the last post, which isn't my regular writing style. In particular, what I am curious about is the ways that we can write authentically about difficult, disliked patterns and ways of being in the world. Friday's post was about aggressiveness. Competition. Excessive effort. Turning one's spiritual practice into a contest. And also the voices in our heads that can arise from such energies.

Peter left the following comment, which I can imagine was how others felt that read the post:

I enjoy the energy in your post -- but find all that hard-ass, motherfucker language of little interest. too testosterone-laden and agressive for my taste. neither meditation nor blogging (nor living for that matter) is a contest.

i find that there's enough suffering in the world, without creating more under the guise of practice.

First off, those like Peter who are regular readers of this blog know that I'm not given to tossing foul language around carelessly. Most of my writing steers clear of it because it's not necessary for the situation. I actually tend to respond in a similar way to profuse cussing as Peter did to this particular post. Adding cuss words to angry writing tends to bend both the reader and writer towards more anger. And adding cuss words in other kinds of writing often just causes distraction, confusion, and/or aversion in readers.

However, one of the weaknesses, in my opinion, of much spiritual writing out there is a failure to express the fullness of experience, and then use that expression as a way in to understanding the deep truths of this life. What I find is that the bluntness, rawness, even nastiness that sometimes litters our minds and even our actions gets abstracted, shunted, even turned aside out of a belief that presenting such stuff will just cause more suffering. Or is categorically wrong, a no-no for people on a spiritual path.

Let's take a specific example from Friday's post.

Zazen posture seems to be a big deal for a lot of people. Those who can't do the full lotus posture often spend months and even years trying to emulate it, thinking that this it is a requirement for awakening. And when the body inevitably gets sick and/or old, there's a certain amount of grief and suffering that comes up for those who are attached to sitting full lotus, and now can't.

Being in a group, especially during retreats, can ramp up this kind of energy. I've experienced this myself. You've been doing zazen all day, your entire body aches, and yet you look around, and most everyone else is still in full lotus, or half lotus. And what do you do? You stay in lotus, even though you're literally on fire with pain.

What's the mind look like under these conditions. Well, it's probably something like this: Better do full lotus motherfucker - none of that half-assed seiza bench shit.. If you are honest, that's what it looks like. Maybe your mind doesn't have the cuss words, but the aggression that brought you to keep sitting when you really shouldn't includes an aggressive, sometimes really nasty narrative. There's no getting around that.

So, here's the thing. How do we write about such experiences?

How do we convey them authentically, embedded in the teachings we've been given, so that others might gain some insight?

Maybe more importantly though, how do we stay true to where we are at, express fully where we are at, without minimizing or exaggerating?

Because what I see in myself, and also in so many others doing spiritual writing, from the most beginner student to the most seasoned teacher, is a tendency to dance around the heat of that which we collectively have deemed taboo.

Anger. Hard-assed aggression. Violent thoughts. Rage.

These are some of the experiences that we "spiritual types" avoid, minimize, cloak in psychological or other abstract language. And why? We're triggered. We're afraid. We don't know how to handle it. The teachings tell us these things are destructive, cause suffering, and shouldn't be indulged in.

And it's absolutely true that violence, rage, aggression, excessive anger - all of that is destructive, suffering producing, and blinding us from our inherent wisdom.

Yet, I also think it's no coincidence that these very same places tend to be the most common shadows of people who are in religious and spiritual communities, or who have committed themselves to such a path. We have a sense of the destructiveness of those various forms of violence, and yet instead of truly facing it within our selves, we do all sorts of bypassing and then wonder why we can't seem to be open around conflicts that appear in our lives, our communities, even online.

Consider, in contrast, something that is more palatable to work with. Like grief. Or guilt. Or fear.

I have heard some amazingly beautiful, detailed talks linking deeply personal experiences of grief to profoundly universal teachings about grief. No mincing words. No avoidance. Just raw experience, which is then transformed into wisdom, and in doing so, is an expression of compassion for all of us who also are experiencing grief.

The same doesn't seem to be true when it comes to working with violent tendencies. Grief is embraced by spiritual types, whereas rage, for example, is almost universally rejected from the beginning. And that's the problem. It's rejected from the beginning, instead of taken in, fully experienced and documented, until it drops away.

It is any wonder there is so much war and violence in the world.

I'm fiercely interested in how I, and others, might navigate this territory more honestly, more clearly, exposing enough of the rawness to ourselves and others without falling into the swamp of it. What did the mind of the man who was shaking his fist at that bus Friday afternoon look like exactly? Who was that "me" which came and then went, but will come again and again if it goes unexamined?

Because just saying he was angry, he was indulging in anger, he was attached to an outcome, he was this he was that - just saying that doesn't cut it. It cuts what IT was off.

Last night, I was snowed in. I listened to a podcast interview with Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray, during which he describes a practice called "Dark Meditation." Essentially, it's going into complete darkness and staying with whatever comes up. After the interview, I went into my bathroom, covered up all the entry points of light, and sat for an hour in the darkness. Very interesting. You know your body is there, the bathtub is there, the toilet is there - but you can't see any of it. And it doesn't take long before you start feeling disoriented, not in an awful way, but in a "what is this experience" kind of way. The natural curiosity each of us has, but which often is blocked, comes forth rather easily from the darkness.

Where is the natural curiosity towards the violent, rage-driven aspects of our lives? Why is it that instead of curiosity, so often what arises in response to "internal" violence is guilt, shame, and/or fear?

What was so interesting to me about writing that post on Friday was that when I began, it was mostly going to be about calling out the aggression and attacks I saw in The Zennist's and Uku's posts. And yet, as I wrote the post, it became clear to me that doing that wasn't really fair or helpful. In fact, not only that, but it would have been reproducing the very patterns I'm talking about here. Take a look at these guys. Talking shit about their fellow practitioners. Look at how angry their words are. We should be kinder to our fellow practitioners. Blah. Blah. Blah. All of that is true, but it's only part of the story. I'm like them too. You are like them too. The only difference is that I didn't put a post out like that.

So, what's behind the desire to shame them? What is it about angry and/or violent writing, angry and/or violent thinking, that either seductively draws us in or makes us run far, far away? And what can we do about it?

That's what I became interested in while writing that post Friday. And this post is a continuation of that, in it's own meandering way.

p.s. The Blogisattva Awards are out. This blog won the Best Achievement Blogging Opinion Pieces or Political Issues award. Thank you all for the recognition. But mostly, as I said Friday, seeing all those Buddhist blogs located in one place, where anyone can access them and drink in the wisdom, experience, and folly, is really excellent. Bows to us all.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hard Ass Zen

Blasting holes through misunderstandings and clingings is a familiar tactic found in the Zen stories of old. Teachers and students sometimes seem to be locked in a duel, shouting down one statement after another as off the mark. Certainly, this approach can be exactly the medicine each of us needs at some critical point in our lives. And it's also true that a fiercely thrown wisdom bolt can be extremely helpful in piercing collective lies and falsehoods as well.

Most of the time though, those of us trying to act the hard ass, like old Nanchuan the cat cutter, for example, fall flat on our faces. Not only does the effort made miss the mark, but sometimes it's so unskillful that a lot of people suffer.

The Zennist's posts lately have been running hard ass on Soto Zen practitioners. In my opinion, some of the critiques he offers are very useful, and worth considering. However, then there are lines like these:

The first oxherding picture concerns the adept who is in a life and death search for Bodhicitta—not just behaving like some aspirant dunce taking Jukai in a Soto Zen center aspiring to Bodhicitta as if this were all there was to the matter. A real votary of Buddhism, like the oxherd boy, discerns fully (hence wisdom) they have lost something dear and vital. What they are searching for is their lost Buddha-nature or absolute Mind that hides in the jungle of the ordinary deluded mind.

Dude. Where's my dunce cap?

Seems to me that there's a hell of a lot of aspirant dunce in most of us, whether our ass is on fire searching for the truth, or we're just fumbling about in spiritual la la land. Confidence slides into arrogance rather quickly, especially when making comments about the validity of other people's ways of accessing the truths of this life. I've crossed this line before, and probably will do so again, so this post is a check on myself as well.

Along these lines, there is the following post by Uku about the Blogisattva Awards. While I can appreciate some of the sentiment (i.e. what's the point of blogging contests), the level of angst feels quite misplaced:

I understand it's a good opportunity to nominate wonderful bloggers but I don't see those finalists under-read. And listen folks, I don't have nothing personal in this. I'm not against bloggers or blogs, not at all. I'm against contests. I find it silly when people are putting all those badges "oooh, I'm a finalist!" in their blogs and posting blog posts "ooh, I'm nominated!". Yeah, I'm a hypocrit right now while acclaiming that in my little Buddhist bubble contests are pretty stupid. I don't think this world needs celebrity-awards-contests-glamour-shit. I find those Buddhist blog contests to be very lame. Who's got the biggest dick? Well, not me.

Here's the thing. Had there been a several month period of ongoing talk and announcements leading up to the Blogisattva Awards, then a dressing down would have been appropriate. Like Uku, I have a deep distaste for the commercialization and glamorizing of certain aspects of Buddhism, and certain teachers. And some of it calls forth the need for fierce response, even if that response isn't pleasant to experience.

However, the Blogisattvas were announced several months ago. In fact, I had a highly discussed post back then asking if these awards fostered a sense of community or not. After the first wave of announcements and discussion, there was mostly nothing for a good four months. Those working on the award website collected blog links, nominations, and whatnot. Once in a while, they would mention the award website. But mostly, it was just something that went on quietly, with almost no hype. So, really, the whole "fuck these awards" commentary smells a lot like teen spirit.

I don't wish to simply pick on The Zennist and Uku here. Actually, I think the stripped down, rigorous qualities of Zen seem to attract a fair amount of hard- assnessed, especially amongst us male practitioners.

No fucking way we're gonna talk about love. Hell, compassion is sometimes too mushy.

If you don't sit several hours of zazen a day, do weeks of sesshin, and need knee surgery at 45, you haven't practiced hard enough.

Better do full lotus motherfucker - none of that half-assed seiza bench shit.

You offer a Dogen quote, I'll one up you with a citation, exegesis, and discourse on why you don't understand that line you quoted.

All of this sounds exactly like that old dharma hall Nanchuan led so many years ago. Here's Case 14 of the Mumonkan:

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

Who are wearing the dunce caps in the eastern and western halls? Might not be as easy as it appears. I'm sure as hell not sure. In fact, every time I go back to this koan, the players involved and their responses look different.

What can we learn from our inner hard-ass?

First off, there are the potential beneficial qualities, such as diligence, commitment, powerful effort, fierceness, and the like.

Secondly, there is everything that might be considered opposite, such as softness, gentleness, kindness, love, balance, and humility.

But let's get fucking real - when you recognize that inner hard-ass running your life, it's a great opportunity to laugh. Because being a hard-ass is pretty damned funny looking. Bulging eyes. Teeth stuck out. Arms flailing all over the place. Mouth foaming. And when you add something as powderkeggish as religion to the mix, it's like puttingHoward Dean and Ted Nugent in a blender. (Man, that would be fun.)

Marguerite's current post over at Mind Deep about her retreat with Buddhist teacher Ruth Denison includes the following lines:

I remember entire evenings devoted to reciting the five precepts, over and over again, and Ruth smiling while we all dozed off and secretly begged to be freed. "Now, one more time . . . "

So damned funny! You can just see that inner hard-ass coming out in all sorts of ways here. "I'm gonna chant every last syllable if it kills me!" "You think I'm a sucker, Ruth, I'll show you!" "BOOOOORRRRring! I'm gonna just do zazen and to hell with this chanting shit!"

The suffering that came before it sucks, but it's really hilarious when you see how something so simple pushes you over the edge. I saw it just a few hours ago, when a bus was twenty minutes late, and I was getting ticked that I wouldn't have enough time to check my e-mail before Friday afternoon meditation practice with the college students. Shaking your fist at a late bus - how stupid is that?

About as stupid as this photo here.

Take that you glamour hound! No blogisattva badge for you!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Late Night Metta Practice

I was lying on the futon in my living room, reading a book. The heat had just come on, and I was snug under a blanket. It was almost 10pm as well, late enough that I was winding down and could have easily went to bed soon. All in all, it was a quite comfortable position to be in. And looking out the window, knowing it was not much warmer than 5 degrees F (or -15 C for most everyone outside the U.S.), the idea of getting dressed and going outside wasn't too exciting. But then I thought "You just wrote that post yesterday, so stop thinking about it and just go!" So, I did.

At one point during my walk, I stopped and stood on a hill overlooking a hospital. My grandmother had been in that hospital last year after some heart problems, and as I looked at the windows, some lit up and some darkened, it occurred to me that there were a lot of people on the edge of life and death in that moment, not just those right in front of me, but everywhere in the world. I wanted to sit down and get into zazen posture, but it was just too cold. So, I stood completely still instead, offering metta to all those in the hospital and around the world who were on the edge of life and death.

And you know, I stopped feeling cold. I mean, it was still really cold, and certainly my body was probably getting used to it, but as I stood there in that late night darkness, warm and cold just kind of dropped off. Everything I'd been thinking about lately also was gone. There was just standing there, breathing in and breathing out the world as it is.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Blogisattva Awards and Dark, Cold Meditation

Hi from the cold, dark tundra known as Minnesota. The seasonal funk has set in, so I'm finding myself challenged by all sorts of mental garbage. Yesterday, I was quite cranky and depressive. Today, the sun is out, and I'm doing fairly well. Don't think the sun's presence is only reason for the change, but it certainly helps.

There's a lot of buzz around the Buddhoblogosphere about the announcement of the Blogisattva Awards. You might call it an insiders guide to the best of the English language Buddhist blogging world. Anyway, I'm a finalist in a few categories, including "Best Achievement Blogging Opinion Pieces or Political Issues."

All winners receive a "Get out of Samsara Free" card, so keep your fingers crossed for me and all the other nominees.

Meanwhile, today is Bodhi Day, or the day many Buddhists commemorate the enlightenment of the Buddha. Lately, I've been doing walking meditation outside after dark, breathing in the cold air with each step, listening to the snow crunch under my feet, sometimes chanting the Jizo mantra, and sometimes just stepping in silence. This effort to return my formal practice outdoors, in the elements, has been growing in me for awhile now. And it feels in line with the Buddha's touching of the earth, calling upon the planet as a witness to the enlightenment he experienced.

I'm not particularly in love with the cold or the dark. Actually, I don't much like the cold darkness at all. And yet, I have found moments while walking where the arrival of a lightning bolt shiver or an ache in my bones instantly reminds me of the vitality of being alive. In other words, I experience it beyond like and dislike. Just like the goofy pigeons landing on the rooftops do. Or the scampering squirrels. Or the feral cats I see along the river sometimes this time of year.

One of the interesting things about being really cold is the intensity of energy movement. How a sudden cold wind blows through you, dislodging an anger or sadness or joy you didn't know was present. I've felt all three of those rip through me while walking outside in the cold darkness, a reminder that notions about "frozen" or "dead" applied to winter landscapes and human experiences of winter landscapes really aren't accurate. It's living differently. Less visual. More visceral.

I keep thinking that one of the reasons why humanity is having so much trouble shifting away from earth-damaging forms of living is too many of us are divorced from the planet's rhythms. Or we've become conditioned to "pick and choose," being "one with nature" when it feels good to, but avoiding the planet like the plague the rest of the time.

Maybe I'll never love the cold, dark time of year the way I do the spring and autumn. However, I'm starting to think that awakening as humans has to be tied back to the planet we are fully interdependent with. It can't just be imagined from inside a warm, cozy building while sitting on a supportive cushion. It must be tasted, drank in fully and repeatedly, breath after breath.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Diving Board Dharma

One of the great temptations of human existence is to base your life on contingency. That you will actually take the courageous step once all the conditions are absolutely and utterly right for you. When you have the right boss, when you have the right job, when the car payments have been made, when the kids are through college, when you're on your deathbed. When you're dead. It would be certainly easier then. The though is that if only I can control the climate of my existence and get the temperature exactly right, then when I'm completely comfortable, and have a sense of freedom, and a sense that I'm not beholden to anything, then I'll take a courageous step in my life. Of course, these conditions almost never come.

David Whyte

Yes, this contingency seeking has been a common experience of mine. Tweaking and fussing, hoping and cajoling some situation in my life so that it will be a "safer," more predictable platform from which to jump off of.

Reminds me of the first time I jumped off a diving board. I was in swimming class, probably two or three years older already than most of the kids around me. The class teacher had gotten me to go up the stairs - how, I don't know. My knees were knocking, and I felt quite weak and dizzy as I went up, but somehow I made it to the top. Standing out on the board and looking out over the pool, I couldn't imagine jumping, let alone going upside down.

The teacher held up a long pole with a little hook on it and said I could grab it and use it as a support while I jumped. My young mind believed this for some reason, and I bent down and got into position to dive. Still absolutely scared, but somehow the sight of that pole kept me there. Then I heard the teacher count down - Three! Two! One! I stood still. Completely frozen. Someone said "Jump!" I looked at the huge pool under me and didn't flinch. Someone then said "Try again." And the count down began again. Three! Two! One! ...

As I began to move through the air, the teacher yanked the pole away, and a sudden racing shot through my body. It was too late to go back, and yet the fear ruined my form, and I ended up smacking the surface of the water with my back. I went under, and sunk almost to the bottom of the pool. Thoughts of drowning, which I knew nothing about, but could imagine - flooded my mind. And as it did, I saw the surface of the water coming closer and closer, despite anything in my head. Surfacing, I looked for the teacher, and said something about her taking the pole away, but the experience was clearly an example of the worthlessness of contingency seeking.

Thing is, though, when I look at how I have led much of my life, it's not much different than that little boy freezing, trying to calculate things out, and waiting for a pole to show up. Not the worst thing in the world, but I think I'm finally getting tired of doing things that way after all these years.

Which brings me to the famous koan that has floated around with me for several years now.

The Gateless Gate Case forty-six

Master Shih-shuang asked, “How will you step forward form the top of a hundred-foot pole?” Commenting on this, another ancient master said, “Even though one who is sitting on the top of a hundred-foot pole has entered the way of awakening, it is not yet authentic. She must step forward from the top of the pole and manifest her whole body throughout the ten directions. He must step forward from the top of that pole and manifest his whole body throughout the ten directions."

Wumen’s commentary

If you can step forward and reveal yourself fully, there will be no place where you are called dishonorable. So, right now, tell me. How do you step forward from the top of the hundred-foot pole?

Wumen’s verse

Making the eye blind, You cling to the mark on the scale; Throw away body and life, And one blind person leads all the blind.

How will you step forward? When I reflect on it, I've been sitting with this all autumn now. There's a fear of losing control. Of manifesting in a way that completely exposes me to the world. In some ways, we are always exposed, no matter how much we try and hide. And yet, there's something seductive about hanging out on the diving board, being able to see it all, but standing apart from it. I remember my mother accusing me of having a fear of commitment when it came to an old romantic relationship that was crumbling at the time. She was right. I did have a fear of commitment, but it wasn't really about that relationship per se. It was about living completely this life, searching for a certainty that wasn't going to come.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Killing, Eating, and Non-Harming

There's quite a lively discussion about yoga, non-violence, meat eating, and vegetarianisms going on in response to this post over at Elephant Journal. The author of the post, Sadie Nardini, opens with this:

As many of you know, I consider myself a conscious carnivore.

An omnivore, actually, as—unlike some in the more hardcore vegan community may believe– I do enjoy other foods besides meat. And I haven’t been shy about sharing my views on why I choose a diet that includes animal protein.

As a yogi, especially one who is now entered the public eye, it’s even more important to me to provide a role model for those middle path folks; the ones who want to eat meat (or like me, require it to be vital and healthy), and have their yoga, too. Yeah, I said it. I positively know that the two can co-exist.

Nearly one hundred comments follow, including one I just made, which I will offer to you as well because these same issues are often discussed and debated in Buddhist circles, and in my view, how we eat and what we eat is either a major place of practice, or a major source of mindlessness.

A few thoughts as a long time vegetarian and yogi.

1. There's something troubling about this whole appeal to non-judgment that flies around yoga circles. The "I'm ok, you're ok" appeals are a kind of individualistic relativism that gets in the way of having healthy, sometimes challenging discussions. For example, it seems that no one here supports factory farming, myself included. This is a judgment, an intelligent one, but still a judgment none the less. In my opinion, it's important to be specific about where judgment turns into harming and violence. And most often, this is when judgment is personalized, when what someone does or thinks is equated with the value and quality of a person as a whole. In this discussion, that means comments like "Meat eaters are bad people" or "Vegans/Veggies are self-righteous." This is quite different from untangling the various strands of food politics, body constitutions, etc. and determining what is truthful and/or intelligent, and what isn't. Point being, telling people to refrain from all judgment is not only a conversation duller, but also impossible to do really.

2. I'm of the school that recognizes different body types, different cycles within one's own body, and bodies situated within a specific geographical and social context - and thus doesn't believe it's possible to argue for a single diet for all people. In my opinion, it makes sense from a planetary standpoint to lean towards much less meat consumption, but it also is important to lean towards far less chemical usage on the veggies we eat, as well as a shift away from mono-cropping, giant single species ranches, and other abusive forms of food production.

3. I sometimes wonder, when reading comments by vegans in particular, if they are adhering to a philosophy that is based, at least in part, on a fear of and avoidance of death. Even if everyone on the planet ate like me, there would still be death. I will still die someday. And there's no guarantee that a longer life for me, or for any animal, means a more humane, less painful life. No way to know. In addition, every breath I take kills micro organisms, so the idea of never killing is a false one. Just impossible. By all means, I support arguments to kill less, to question our consumption of all food, and to consider what is it we need, versus mindlessly want. But the idea that ahimsa will look exactly the same for all people in all places denies the realities of each co-created present moment.

4. I'd also like to ask meat eaters in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, for example, to remember that even though there are more of us than in the past, veggies and vegans are in the minority, often far outnumbered - and for some, have found yoga to the only arena in their lives where they can express their choices without a need to defend and explain themselves. Even though a post like this generates a lot of challenging comments, those of you who eat meat have an easier time in the mainstream culture, and need to realize that some of the defensiveness and clinging to ideas coming from veggies/vegans is the survival mechanism we built to deal with societies that dismiss us as weird or ridiculous for not eating meat. It's my job, and the rest of the veggies/vegans out there to check our defensiveness and clingings, and hopefully develop more looseness around the decisions we've made and reasons for them. But for those who are meat eaters, never forget that you are privileged to live in a society that doesn't question your choice to eat meat.

How do you practice around food and eating? What teachings support you, or challenge you in regards to food and eating?

*Photo is from my garden. I ate the eggplant in question.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Rohatsu Snowstorm and the Resolution-Driven Mind

Minnesota was covered with another pile of snow last night. After a warm, sunny autumn, we are getting a full dose of winter, teaching us to slow down and stop expecting everything to come fast and easy.

As I have been all fall, I sat with a local college meditation group yesterday afternoon. At the beginning of the semester for them, the room was packed with curious students wondering what this "Buddhism stuff" is all about. I remember a few sessions where all the zafus and zubutans were full, and people were sitting on the floor or in the church pews behind us. Yesterday, we were down to about ten, sitting under the dimmed lighting as light snow fell in the darkness outside. This attrition, due to curiosity satisfied, the increased demands in classwork towards the end of the term, and the demands of practice and spiritual contemplation in general are a natural cycle there. Next semester, there will probably be a new crop of interested students, followed by a similar dwindling.

Have to say, I really enjoyed the small group yesterday. We sit almost an hour of zazen, with a ten minute kinhin period in the middle, followed by a short talk and discussion. The meditation period was filled with rising thoughts and feelings about "unresolved" areas in my life, as well as some discomfort in my lower back, which I'm guessing is from the uptick in sitting I've been doing for Rohatsu.

At some point during my sitting, the following came to my mind: "You are a ball of light." I just sat there, letting this phrase run through me again and again, and although the rest of the sitting wasn't terribly calm, I woke up this morning with a quite mind, able to let the stories I'd been wrestling with just be. Probably, they'll be back and the wrestling with them, but for now, I'm letting that coming back be as well.

This morning, I remembered the title of a post Dean made on his blog The Mindful Moment: "There is No Arriving." It's basically a post about the many ways people lean into the future, believing there is some end point where some part of their lives will be resolved, once and for all. That was certainly my experience with those stories during meditation, and really, some of those stories have been haunting me for a long, long time because of that desire for some form of recognizable resolution. Even if it's the very thing I don't want to happen, part of me would rather have that happen than to hang in ambiguity.

The thing is, in our relative lives, resolution comes on it's own terms. You get the job, or you don't, and how that happens isn't really up to you. The friendship or romantic relationship continues or ends, despite all your efforts to keep it going in one direction or the other. Your pet lives or dies. Dinner tastes good or terrible.

And when you look a little deeper, there really isn't any resolution at all. The beginnings and endings flow together in the way snow covers everything in it's path. After a large snowfall, you look around, and everything is just covered. Whatever was distinct and unique looking is now just white.

So, I guess you could say I'm letting the snow help me let go of some desired resolutions in this life. Because even if they come, the fresh snow is always there, covering every last inch.

*photo of storm from 2008 by spotted horse chick. More can be found here.