Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Send Yoga, Guns, and Money

You ever seen anyone with a pistol come into your yoga class? Me neither. With that said, I'd like to recommend that folks go over to the blog Think Body Electric and read Carol's current post, which takes up the topic among other things. For our purposes here, though, I actually want to address a comment Carol made to another reader on her post, which I believe offers some interesting nuggets to chew on.

I take it as a given that any spiritual or religious practice is going to be integrated with the culture that surrounds it in one way or another. If it didn't, it wouldn't be meaningful to anyone.

Therefore, it's not that yoga "needs to be associated with cultural liberalism" - the fact is that, historically, it has been (e.g., all Eastern spiritual practices became much more popular in the US after the Beatles went to study TM in India in the 1960s). During the 2000s, it's become more commercialized and mainstream, and more associated with the cultural nexus represented by women's magazines (self-care, self-help, fitness, beauty, etc.). Now, I see another shift happening, with yoga starting to become more associated with the cultural right (used to train the military, promote Ayn Rand, etc.). All that is simply empirical observation.

When it comes to values, mine are that I'd like to see yoga (and meditation) play a progressive role in our culture. That doesn't mean rehashing the existing conservative/liberal, right/left divide, which is destructive and dead-end. We need something new.

That said, because I care about social equity, civil rights, environmental protection, etc., that put me very much on the left-of-center side of the spectrum. But I see the Occupy movement as the start of something new. Ideally, I'd like yoga to have something positive to contribute to that. I think that what Michael Stone is saying in that regard is great. I'd like to see more in that vein.

When I first read this, I thought of convert American Buddhism. Because debates about the political orientation of practitioners have been widespread in recent years. Like what Carol is pointing to above with yoga, there has also been an increasing number of folks who claim both Buddhism and more conservative political viewpoints. And with that, much discussion has come as to what role, if any, social and political issues have in the practice.

In her post, Carol makes reference to both Buddhists and yoga practitioners who also are gun owners. And then goes on to address the issue of gun ownership specifically for self-defense purposes, something she - and I, for the record - am not enamored with. In fact, I was in a discussion yesterday with a member of our local Occupy group who once was a member of the Tea Party, in large part because of second amendment rights. When I mentioned the fact that pro conceal carry laws have greatly expanded over the past two decades, he basically shrugged, saying he felt the need to continue fighting for his rights.

While I personally would love to be in a world without guns all together, I also don't think that mere gun ownership is an issue in and of itself. Furthermore, it's vitally important that both convert American Buddhism and American yoga be open and accessible to anyone, regardless of their political views.

However, what concerns me - and perhaps is the main underlying issue for Carol as well - is the sense that the self-defense arguments of certain gun enthusiasts tend to run counter to the non-violent aim of both Buddhism and yoga. Note that I said aim, as in non-violent intentions, and also making whatever effort you can towards manifesting non-violence in your actions, knowing that we all fall short.

I'm actually most interested in a community, or collective standpoint, and am less interested in focusing on the common self-defense narrative of a single incident where someone successfully (or unsuccessfully) defends themselves during a crime.

Living in communities where anyone, potentially, could be packing heat increases the general anxiety and fear of the entire community. Not only do you have to be concerned about people who have unlawfully acquired guns, but also with those who have them legally, and might be responding to crime with their weapons. This is probably especially true in densely populated, urban areas, where people are more anonymous, and where crime is more of an everyday occurrence.

Consider these words from Thich Nhat Hanh:

The philosophy of "an eye for an eye," only creates more suffering and bloodshed and more enemies. One of the greatest casualties we may suffer results from this wrong thinking and action. Whole societies are living constantly in fear with their nerves being attacked day and night. Such a state of confusion, fear and anxiety is extremely dangerous. It can bring about another world war, this time extremely destructive in the worst possible way.

Part of the problem I have always had with second amendment enthusiasts who aren't hunters (hunting is a different discussion in my opinion), is that their arguments tend to focus on individuals defending themselves against individuals. Occasionally, someone will also bring up being able to defend "ourselves" against a rogue military or government, but mostly, it's about protection from individually targeted crime. Which isn't the whole picture.

What's the overall impact of more guns on our communities? On each of us? On the environment? Can a society that upholds gun ownership as a collective response to potential violence also be aiming in the direction of overall non-violence?

Although I tend to support any efforts to reduce the number of guns in circulation, the larger issue is really one of approaching the violent seeds each of us carry within ourselves, and which also come together collectively in our communities and nations. Whether someone in my yoga studio or Zen sangha owns a gun is less important to me than how they handle violence in their lives. At the same time, it's difficult for me to forget the periods of history when large groups of Buddhists twisted elements of Buddha's teachings to support warfare and violent oppression. Given the collective energy here in the United States, it's possible something similar could happen in the future.

I'd like to leave you all with the plea from the end of the Thich Nhat Hanh essay quoted above. However each of us move forward, it seems pertinent.

Spiritual leaders in this country need to be invited to raise their voice strongly and speak up for peaceful solutions to the world problems and bring about the awareness of the teaching of compassion and non-violence to the American nation and the people.

By understanding the nature and cause of the suffering of humanity, we will then know the right method to begin to heal the great problems on this planet.

* A nod to the late musician Warren Zevon for inspiring the title of this post.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Thought on Trust in Mind

I pulled out Zen Master Seng Ts'an's dharma poem "Trust in Mind" (Xinxinming) again. Here's a line that caught me:

"If you wish to see the truth,
then hold no opinions for or against anything."

"Trust in Mind" (Xinxinming), Zen Master Seng Ts'an

Take a look at those first words - "If you wish to see the truth." How often do you truly wish to see the truth? And how often do you do anything in your power to turn away from it?

This line seems to point at the choice that's required of each of us in every moment to want to see the truth. We have to aim ourselves in the right direction - or, more accurately, allow ourselves to be aimed in the right direction by life itself. If we're too busy being obstructionists, propping up sham arguments about ourselves and others, there's no room for the truth to seep in.

In the second part of the line, the word "hold" stands out. Recently, I was in a conversation about politics, and felt myself holding tightly to my particular opinion. I noticed how that tightness manifested in my shoulders and lower back, and how the guy I was talking with seemed to be mirroring me - tightening around his own opinion. So, I decided to pull back, and let go of the point I was trying to make. We continued to talk, and I fairly quickly experienced an uncoiling of that tightness as breath calmed, and my need to be right diminished.

How to treat all opinions like this? Let them be birds, floating across the mind's landscape: accessible, able to be conveyed, but also free to pass on through at any time.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Genpo Merzel and Moralistic Gnashing

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post in response to the myriad of ways in which others were writing about Big Mind Zen teacher Genpo Merzel. One of the issues I wanted to address was the moralistic blasting Genpo was receiving from Buddhists, particularly those who deemed him in various ways "irredeemable," as if he were a Catholic priest being punished under Catholic doctrine. Buddhist ethics has nothing to do with fixed, finalized narratives about good and evil. And Buddha never taught about such a thing as "irredeemable" persons; in fact, he brought people into the fold that had been firmly rejected under the moral codes of the day, precisely because he saw through the story of such codes.

So, when I received the following comment on the old Genpo post from a reader named Jamie, I had to smile:

I've been on the path since 1978, I'm not a "priest" of any sort, but would like to offer one observation. As Hsin Hsin Ming said in his discourses in The Book of Nothing - Discrimination is the gate to hell. As far as I can tell, there is one discrimination worth making, am I acting consciously or not? If yes, there is no blame, and indeed no karma. If my actions cause others suffering, then it will be their teaching. If no, then I am in hell, because nothing good can come of it. Genpo seems to have acted in a way he regrets. I would ask him, is it because you were acting unconsciously? Or because others have judged you immoral? There is nothing moral or immoral in concsiousness, or conscious actions. The addition of morality in the evaluation of someone's actions comes from interpretations of Buddha's teachings, I can't find it anywhere in his teachings. I do find a lot of teaching on how morality is a set of fixed ideas which have nothing to do with consciousness, in this moment. It has to do with ideas carried constantly over from the past. In short, to act consciously is to act rightly. To act unconsciously is to act in darkness. If Genpo is apologising and feels guilty, then I think he should disrobe as a teacher, not because sleeping with students is immoral, but because he doesn't understand how to be awake and act consciously, so how can he teach others? If one looks cursorily at one of the greatest teachers in the last century, Trungpa, and his actions with his students, one cannot go on and on about morality. He made a huge joke of it, as indeed many other great teachers have done. But no one ever deals with that, it simply is pushed under the rug, while the "priests" talk about morality. So, Genpo, my suggestion is to wake up and act consciously, and if you are consciously sleeping with students then it is right action, but then there will be no question of considering others' opinions, or even suffering. You have a family, perhaps you should ask yourself, am I conscious with these people, awake, completely in the moment? Or behaving according to society's expectactions of what a "family man" is? When Buddha left his wife and child to meditate before his enlightenment, was he behaving as a good family man?

There's obviously a lot to unpack here, much more than I plan to do.

First off, I believe that the Buddha offered the precepts - our ethical teachings - as a method of liberation from the heavy, often life sucking moral codes that exist in every society. Of particular importance is the way in which they are imbedded in overall Buddhist teachings, and the ways in which any given student might work with them. Not misusing sexuality - the third precept - isn't a fixed imperative that must be followed; it's like reed through which we can blow our actions through, until eventually, even the reed itself disappears and there's simply continuous, awakened activity.

Using Jamie's language above, when people are acting in deeply unconscious ways, they don't even think about the precepts. They can't hear the music of the dharma. Others, who are hovering on the edge of conscious living, lift up one of those reeds and attempt to blow their actions through it. They hear the dharma off to the distance and attempt to seduce it into coming home by deliberately employing precepts. And then there are those who are demonstrating awakened action. They have recognized that the music of the dharma is everywhere, and they simply tune into it and act.

This is a much different view of things than what many of us are used to. And it makes assessments of situations like Zen teacher scandals more challenging. I can stand behind calls for someone like Genpo to stop teaching, but at the same time, I can't stand behind totalized rejections of the man himself.

Secondly, there's a danger to treating things simply as a cosmic joke, which Trungpa did seem to do a fair amount. Even if there's truth to such a stance, it can easily become an excuse for saying or doing any old thing under the sun, including things that trigger a hell of a lot of suffering.

There's plenty more I could say here, but I will stop for now. Your thoughts?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Loneliness During the Holidays

This time of year tends to be challenging for me. I would guess the same is true for many others out there. And what's interesting to me is that although the level of activity with others is often ramped up, so, too, can the feelings of loneliness. Seems like a contradiction, doesn't it? Maybe, and maybe not.

The frantic pace of the holidays, coupled with the darkness and unheeded calls to turn inward and reflect on our lives, make one ripe for loneliness.

Pema Chodron writes: "Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It's restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company."

How often I have felt that, and then done that, in so many ways. I bet you, too, have a fairly long list if you take a little time to reflect on it.

Yet, what is interesting is that, there have been times where I have simply sat with it, breathed into that ghost inside me and watched as it inevitably changed. Not that it always went away completely, but there nearly always has been a softening of the energy when I have given it some space through breathing and meditation.

Given the increased focus on slowing down and paying attention while I've been with people in the past few weeks, I'm finding that there's been less loneliness floating around these parts. Furthermore, when it comes, I'm letting go of identifying myself with it. Just like any other experience, loneliness doesn't define who I am.

How about you? Do you experience loneliness this time of year?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The "Spiritual" Denial of Love and Sexuality?

I recently started my annual re-reading of selections from 20th Century Catholic monk Thomas Merton's journals. For the past few years, I have kept gravitating towards volume six, which arguably contains the most controversial section of Merton's life. Also, having read nearly all seven volumes from cover to cover over the years, number six is the most thought-provoking and revealing of Merton's life and how he understood the world.

At the center of this volume is the illicit relationship Merton had with a student nurse during the spring and early summer of 1966. I remember being shocked when I first stumbled on these entries in the journal, but now I find that there is something so shockingly human about it all that my shock has become reserved for why we're so unwilling to accept and work with the complexities of love, sexuality, and intimacy.

Author Mark Shaw came out with a new book in 2009 addressing this relationship, and how love, sexuality, and lack of both profoundly affected Merton's life and his views on religion and spirituality. Given the discussions about fallen Zen teachers like Genpo and Eido Roshi, as well as the numerous sex scandals that have rocked monastic communities of various religious traditions in recent decades, much of what Shaw has to say is important.

As some of you may know, Thomas Merton was broad in his interest of world religions, and dabbled to some extent in Zen towards the end of his life. He was visited by the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh, long before either were world renown figures. He read everything he could find on Buddhism, and was at a conference of spiritual monastics in Thailand when he was electrocuted by a fan and died in December 1968.

Of Merton's wild, fairly destructive young adult life, and his subsequent entry into the monastery, Shaw writes the following:

Becoming a monk was supposed to cleanse him of these sins, but from his own private journals, I knew this was not true. Instead, Merton’s failure to understand what loving, and being loved were all about caused him frustration, turmoil, and even depression. Beneath the mask of holiness, the plastic saint image promoted by the Catholic Church, was a sunken man who yearned for love while realizing he could never truly be one with God until he found it. Then, as I wrote in the book, the skies opened up and there was a gift, the love of a woman. It is no wonder Merton grabbed the chance to experience love despite the risks involved. And Margie taught him about loving, and being loved, opening up a path to freedom Merton never knew existed.

Anyone who reads the entries in Merton's journal about his time with Margie will immediately feel the profound struggle that went on for Merton between his understanding of the spiritual life and the manifestation of in the flesh love that was right before him. Although at times the way he words things sounds almost like a teenager in love, I really believe, like Shaw, that this was much more for Merton.

I have always found the deep split between the spiritual and sexual in nearly all religions, including Buddhism, very troubling. While it's possible to argue that Buddhism has less of this than Judeo-Christian traditions, I'm still convinced that there's a gap in the teachings that has lead to an enormous amount of confusion, condemnation, and suffering.

Merton took a vow of celibacy in a church that has has a long standing doctrinal split between sexuality and spirituality. The depth of sex scandals that have ripped through Catholic communities in recent years point to this split, and how destructive it can be.

But what if Merton had been a Buddhist monk? He still would have been breaking his vow. And yet, how does this vow square with a spiritual tradition built upon the awareness that everything in life is impermanent? In other words, what happens to a person who takes what might be viewed as a permanent vow (at least in this lifetime), and then discovers along the way that upholding that vow is causing more suffering than liberation?

It's too easy to say that Merton should have either dropped the relationship and kept his vow or should have left the monastery. This was no novice monk; by the time of his relationship with Margie Smith, he was a world renown spiritual writer who was, despite his independent, anti-authoritarian streak, considered to be an important asset by the Church. Walking away from the monastery would have proved to be very difficult, and returning to his vows as they were was impossible. The last two years of Merton's life, following the relationship, proved to be his most exploratory in a spiritual sense, and it's possible to argue that he may have been tossed out of the church at some point if he had lived longer. To suggest that the relationship with Margie had nothing to do with this late life spiritual journey would be a great spiritual denial in my opinion.

In writing this, I'm not arguing that vows of celibacy are wrong, or that breaking those vows should be done any time someone feels constrained by them. That's not my point at all. I do believe we should strive to uphold whatever vows we make in our lives as best as we can.

However, I'm also convinced that how vows manifest in life changes over time. And when it comes to sexuality and spirituality, how much clarity can most of us claim to have when our spiritual traditions are littered with prohibitions, shame, blame, and non-discussions about the intersection of the two?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Practicing Conflict - a Path of Generosity?

Image from Crazy Dog T-shirts.

Here's are really interesting Q and A from Trungpa Rinpoche's book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.

If you have conflicts with other people, making it difficult to relate to them, what do you do?

Well, if your desire to communicate, which is generosity, is strong, then you have to apply prajna, knowledge, to discover why you are unable to communicate. Perhaps your communication is only one-directional. Perhaps you are unwilling for communication to come from the other direction as well ... we have to be careful to see the whole situation, rather than just being keen to throw something at the other person.

I'm really interested in this view of communication as generosity. Really seeing it in that way changes how it is approached. In a way, if you are attuned to the moment, and open to what is being called for, then you can't help but be generous. This might mean pulling back and staying quiet. Or it might mean praising someone's strong points, even if they also are displaying a lot of weaknesses. It might also mean clear, precise criticism driven by an intention to help someone see something they are missing. Or a calmly stated correction to someone who has spoken falsely, or wrongly, about something.

Trungpa Rinpoche says "Essentially, we have to provide some kind of space and openness." So, whatever is it we intend to try and communicate with someone, our job is to do so in a way that allows the other some room to work with.

In addition, it's important to learn to be open to receiving something in return, even if it comes in a form that isn't so easy to digest. In other words, it might be helpful to ask yourself now "How am I going to deal with the next 'ego insult'?" Instead of waiting for the next "fuck off" or "you're an idiot" to arrive in your e-mailbox, practice now, so it might not be such a shock later.

Let's go even further. Maybe those kind of blunt things roll off your back. Or you just ignore them. How about something a little less easy to tease out? Something like "I'm surprised you say it's ok to have an abortion. How can you be Buddhist and pro-choice?" My guess is people get comments like this often: not overtly nasty, but testy none the less because they call to question one's identity - that is, if there is strong attachment present.

So, it might be a good idea to practice receiving these kinds of comments as well. Because really, if you think about it, communication is not only what we say and do, but also how we receive what others say and do.

Your thoughts?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Public Space is Vital to Maintaining First Amendment Rights

I had some requests to post this op-ed piece I wrote over the weekend. Although it's very specifically focused on events and issues here in Minnesota, there are also broader points that I feel cut across any given location. \

As winter approaches, and the Occupy movement continues in Minneapolis and around the nation, the issue of public space has risen to the forefront. Not only have the Occupy groups challenged the ways in which 1st Amendment rights are being upheld in public spaces, but we have also demonstrated the severe lack of free, open and available space for groups to assemble, demonstrate, and exercise their rights. Nowhere is that lack of public space more evident than in downtown Minneapolis.

Other than the Hennepin County Government Center Plaza, the only other significant public space in central downtown is Peavy Plaza. Neither space is very large. While Minneapolis alone has nearly 400,000 residents, it’s unlikely that either location could comfortably accommodate more than 1500-2000 people at a time. This not only places a limit on politically motivated gatherings like Occupy, but also upon opportunities for free, public entertainment like concerts, outdoor theater, or seasonal celebrations.

Even in the recent cold weather, we had between 400-600 people attending two major demonstrations in support of our continued presence on the plaza. Furthermore, while the regular standing crowds of protesters have dwindled to less than 20, we regularly squeeze between 30-60 people in the skyway attached to the Government Center for our General Assembly meetings. And beyond the General Assembly meetings, there are several committees that meet in locations scattered all over downtown. Simply put, the Occupy movement has outgrown coffee shops and church basements. In order to do the work of participatory democracy, we need public spaces to gather, free from the harassment and unnecessary restrictions that have come from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department, in cooperation with the County Commissioners. The fact that Occupy needed to file a lawsuit to defend the right to publicly display political signs on the plaza should cause everyone to wonder what the future might bring.

While Hennepin County continues to stand behind claims that the restrictions being placed upon Occupy Minneapolis are about health and safety, the reality is that the county itself is financially under attack by the same Wall St. friendly policies that led many of the protesters to the plaza in the first place. The 2012 Hennepin County budget calls for 3.13-percent reduction, much of that a result of trickle down funding cuts at the state and Federal level. Instead of doing what they can to drive away the Occupy Minneapolis group, perhaps Hennepin County officials should be using our presence to help advocate for a restoration of the 100+ jobs that will be lost under next year’s budget.

The loss of public space to corporate interests, coupled with the kinds of restrictions of freedom of speech and assembly that have been upheld by the nation’s court system, represent a threat to the very health of our democratic society. Regardless of whether or not you support the Occupy movement, it’s vitally important to consider the broader issues of public space and the 1st Amendment. If more people don’t stand up now in favor of the 1st amendment rights of groups like Occupy, the more likely it will be in the future that such rights will diminish or disappear completely. And if there isn’t a sustained, mass effort by the general public to advocate for keeping public spaces, the odds are that what little we have will eventually be gone.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Buddharocks Returns

Some of you may recall several months back some discussion about the website Buddharocks. Specifically, that said website was poaching content from other Buddhist blogs, including this one, without proper acknowledgement. Well, I received the following comment today.

Goodizen said...

I am the designer who volunteered to put up the portal, and I discover this 'complain' only today.

I wonder why none of you bother to contact instead of making wild, actually, almost malicious accusations against the portal all over the Internet ?

In my humble opinion, I think what you're doing isn't very Buddhist, let alone Zennist or morally admirable ...

Let me tell you why ?

The domain was idling and it was me who asked the onwer, Anna why wouldn't she make use of it to do something meaningful ? She says she would like to but she neither has the time nor the expertise to do much. So, I convinced her to let me sync in related information and I thought I might as well hang couple of ad banners at the same time, hoping to generate something for charitiable causes. Sorry to disappoint those who are jealous over this particular aspect, there is no money in what we do. Not at BuddhaRocks. We generated a few pennies and that is all and yes, Adsense has terminated our account citing complaints from ... (you should know who).

Obviously, I didn't know there are enlightenmnet seekers who actually aren't even willing share spiritual information with the masses !

You may ask why didn't I contact you prior to doing anything ?

First, by offering RSS feeds, you have implied you'd like to share (after all, you have full control over the feeds).

Second, it's an impossible task for me to liase with all those involved (there are hundreds of you and I am working all alone, I wish I have the time).

Third, you can always contact should you have any issue. Their contact is clearly printed at the site, something A thief will never do.

Fourth, we don't see aggregrating something from the Internet to share publicly as anything wrong. But we now realise there are one or two people who don't see it that way ... We got the message now,

Except one or two gentlemen who have contacted us with no problem whatsoever, none of those who are not willing to share even bother to contact us. Instead, they go around spreading hate messages and or malicious accusations eg. ... who not only complained at her own blog, but also at other blogs, forum etc.

Is her action justifiable or make any sense, let alone Zennist ?

By the way, I have recently revamped the portal. All old contents have been purged, so for the selfish ones, fret not. Your precious blogs have been cremated.

If you have any idea what can I possibly do to help you and the community at large, please feel free to drop me a note (email to BuddhaRocks, they will forward to me). I am just trying to add something philanthropic to my resume.

Trust all is well now.


I have to say that I find some of Ted's comments rather obnoxious. Accusing writers who simply wanted their blog posts acknowledged and sourced as "selfish" is a silly guilt trip. Furthermore, accusations that those of us who were concerned about the use of our content are "not very Buddhist" is absolutely laughable. Seriously, I'm still laughing as I write this.

Here's the thing: I can see how all of this may have been a misunderstanding. The old Buddharocks layout looked like something done by a person who didn't have much tech savvy, and perhaps couldn't figure out how to properly link and/or cite blog posts.

Since I kind of figured this might be a possibility, after leaving three or four comments asking for proper citation on my posts over at Buddharocks, I clipped the feed, and basically forgot about it all. That was a good 6 or 7 months ago.

Anyway, I'd like to say to Ted, or anyone putting together large, collective blogs to respect the writers whose content you wish to feature. We spend numerous hours producing the work, and the vast majority of us already are offering it for free on our blogs. It's not out of line to ask for a simple link or citation; in fact, I'd argue that it's the only ethical thing to do.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Postures in Conflict

The title of one of Reb Anderson Roshi's books, Being Upright, often comes to mind when I think about conflict in my own life.

Many times, I have fallen too far backwards when in conflict with others. The passivity of withdrawal, or false agreement, or repressed silence is what I mean here. It's kind of like sleeping in zazen(meditation).

Other times, I have fallen too far forward when in conflict with others. The agressiveness of anger, harsh criticism, or flat out nihilism is what I have in mind here. Kind of like trying to force your mind to have no thoughts at all during zazen.

This "Being Upright" is what our meditation posture looks like, feels like, acts like - just as it is. And it's also also our practice for standing in the middle of conflict and being at peace while responding.

Not too far back, and not to far forward. Easy to write; not so easy to do.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Success is... ?

What I am saying is this: the score is not what matters. Life does not have to be regarded as a game in which scores are kept and somebody wins. If you are too intent on winning, you will never enjoy playing. If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.

Thomas Merton

I found this quote in the middle of an interesting post over at the blog Dharmas. I have long loved Merton's brilliant mind and hearty spirit, and feel that he was someone who both fully embodied his particular spiritual path (Catholicism), while also, in many ways, transcending it's limitations.

Anyway, he's right about success. However, I'd argue we can go even further with the point.

How often do we even know what success is in a given situation?

Penn State's football team won an awful lot of games under Coach Joe Paterno, and yet now it appears that the "winning culture" developed during those years also made it easier for former assistant Coach Sandusky to get away with sexually abusing children.

Wells Fargo recently reported record quarterly profits, while home evictions under their watch continue unabated.

I won an award during grad school for my poetry and creative essay writing, and still haven't published the vast majority of the work that garnered the attention.

And so it goes. Every "winning" situation seems to contain elements of its undoing. Everything we label successful is provisional, contextual, and impermanent.

The same can be said about failure.

Whatever label-hat you choose to wear in a given moment, don't let it sink in, and don't forget to live.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Continuous Buddhist Chanting

Here is a short description of the reasons behind a ten day continuous chanting service being held by the Malvern Pureland Sangha in the UK. Some folks in the "Western" Buddhist world tend to look down on this kind of thing, suggesting that seated meditation is required to "be a Buddhist." Personally, I feel that's a limited view, and would rather spread the joy of the diversity present in our ancient tradition.

Amida Buddha is the Buddha of infinite light and life, and by chanting we put ourselves in relationship with this 'ideal'. His sparkling golden qualities rub off on us, just as we become better people when we're in a relationship with anyone wise, ethical and loving.

But this theology, in some ways, is neither here nor there.

What's crucially important (and what feels impossibly difficult to explain) is that we are chanting to connect us to a kind of universal love. And we are chanting for the benefit of everyone.

We are reminding ourselves and other people that we are held by something much bigger and more complex than we can imagine. We are expressing our gratitude for this.

Please go read the rest of the post. A little further down, the author's words remind me of how silent meditation retreats can feel. It looks different, but perhaps heading in the same direction?

Mouths closed in noble silence. Mouths open in Buddha's name.

"Namo Amida Butsu"

May you all be well today.

*Update. I am now on Twitter. If you want to follow me, click the Twitter follow link on the sidebar.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Ayn Rand Meets Yoga?

Some folks in the North American yoga community are quite unhappy with yoga clothing company Lululemon's current advertising campaign referencing Ayn Rand, a darling amongst a certain cross section of conservatives. Here is one of a number of posts on the blog Yoga Dork about this issue.

I don't have a lot of time today, but this is one of the points I made on the original post.

the fact that a a company like Lululemon has become so synonymous with yoga practice that it’s silly bags are actually in need of commentary demonstrates how far much of the modern yoga world has sunk. I long for the day when this company and it’s overpriced products is a barely remembered footnote amongst yoga practitioners. But I doubt that will be anytime soon, given how strongly a foothold consumerism has over us all.

Another point that might be useful to make is that it's foolish to expect a corporation in this day and age to uphold yogic values, even if they claim to do so. Certainly, a small percentage of larger companies are making a good faith effort to be more responsible to their communities and the planet, but I'd place a big emphasis on the word "small."

Friday, November 18, 2011

Beware of the Consumer Driven Mentality

This Yoga Journal article has some interesting stuff in it. I've always liked the idea of envisioning yourself as already awakened, and doing things in your daily life from that place. However, I'd like to take up the following paragraph to consider a little more closely.

This all-or-nothing notion of enlightenment is deeply rooted, and insidious. I often get questions from students who experience an expansion of consciousness and then worry, "But if I keep doing this, will I have to give up my family? Will I lose my personality?" If we think pursuing high states of consciousness means giving up other aspects of life, it won't seem like an attractive option. On the flip side, we may be attracted to the idea of enlightenment yet imagine it to be a way of bypassing ordinary challenges and irritations, and then we may get discouraged if we don't experience an immediate transformation, or get frustrated when we aren't lifted miraculously beyond the everyday demands of work and family relationships.

While I agree with the insidiousness of that all-or-nothing view many folks have around enlightenment, I find the downplaying of renunciation troubling. Although I think Sally Kempton is mostly pointing to not having to give up your most important relationships, or all your possessions, it's really easy to mistake that caution for a declaration that we can basically have it all. It takes effort to break through the consumer driven mentality so many of us are surrounded by and internalized, and as such, it's important for writers and spiritual teachers to take that mentality head on, to assume that it may still be present in the audience members, be they serious students or simply interested parties.

The way I see it, even if you maintain certain relationships, careers, and whatnot, the more committed you become to living a spiritual path, the more likely it is that you'll shed parts of your life that once might have been cherished. In other words, renunciation - either deliberately or more naturally unfolding, will be a part of your life, and it's important to figure out ways to speak about that without sounding dour and/or severe.

When I look at my own life, there are definitely things that have diminished or disappeared completely. And while some of these changes are normal shifts that can happen to anyone, some it is clearly a result of spiritual commitment. Entertainment, like music concerts and sporting events, play a much less central role in my life these days. Friends that were once central figures in my life are no longer so. I don't watch TV anymore; I go shopping much less than I did in the past. I used to be fairly obsessed with "looking good," and more recently appearing "Zen-like" - neither of which have such a major hold on me anymore.

However, more than any of that, I believe that commitment to a spiritual path often leads to a slow abandonment of selfishness and self-cherishing. That is, if you learn to be honest with yourself, and apply the teachings you're studying in a deliberate, sometimes ruthless manner on a consistent basis.

There are other ways you could read Kempton's paragraph above, I simply wanted to highlight what I feel is a commonplace lack of challenging the basic, collective conditioning that hinders so many of us. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Meditator Arrested During Occupy Oakland Raid

The Occupy Movement has now hit home in a fierce manner for those of us in the broad meditation community. Whatever your thoughts about Occupy, the man in the image above was not only arrested while bearing witness during the Occupy Oakland protests, but is now facing deportation. Fellow Buddhist blogger Katie Loncke, who is a part of the Occupy Oakland group, posted the following link, which offers more details about Pancho's case, and also ways you can support him if you so choose to.

Here is the letter I am sending to public officials in California. May we all be liberated in this life.

Dear Senator Feinstein,

I am writing in support of Francisco "Pancho" Ramos-Stierle, who was arrested while doing meditation during the recent raids on Occupy Oakland. He is currently facing deportation, and I am requesting that you step in and stop this action.

While I do not live in your district, I have friends who do. They know Pancho, and recognize his value to the community. This man is not a threat to our nation, nor is he a hardened criminal. He was an astrophysics major at UC Berkeley. He has been active in humanitarian causes for years, as well as violence prevention work in Fruitvale neighborhood. Furthermore, he is promoter of the benefits of meditation, and active non-violence, and was peacefully demonstrating both at the time of his arrest.

Our nation needs more people like Pancho. In fact, I'd argue we're desperate for more folks willing to teach and practice non-violence in our communities.

Please step up and support this man. Stop ICE's attempts to deport him. Be part of the change our hearts are calling for, longing for. It's time.


Nathan Thompson

*Update: Pancho is now free, thanks to everyone who wrote in, called, and rallied in support of him. Check out the article I posted in the comments section for more details.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy Wall Street - Training Ground in Garbage Removal

I was touched by the reflectiveness of a post by Genju over at 108 Zen Books about, among other things, the Occupy Wall Street movement. She writes:

letting go. That was pretty dominant in the two weeks past if only as a realization that I can be releasing my death grip on all manner of fixations, metaphors of Self, and craven desires and what is apparent to the eye or ear could be as simple as a “yes” or “no.”

I practiced this noticing on our (now) annual trip to NYC where we met up with friends, one of whom was running the NYC Marathon. In the days before the race, we toured around the city and as Chaplains we felt it was important to head down to Occupy Wall Street to bear witness to the beginnings of this very powerful shift in societal awareness – as confusing as the process may seem at times. Personally, I still don’t quite know what I feel about it all but I was intent on bringing myself to that place of discomfort and watch the “yes” and “no” surface over and over again. Since the beginning of the Occupy movement, I’ve felt a huge level of discomfort, edging on the hyper-vigilance you might feel if you think you’re being blamed for enjoying unearned assets. I’m beginning to hate those websites that tell you’re part of the 1% or the 99%. (I’m neither unless you consider a global or restricted range as a measure of income.) I dislike now feeling the need to justify what I have, what I bought, what I pictures I upload to Facebook, what trips I take, and what my groceries cost.

I resonate with her discomfort. All the judgments about being wealthy, being poor, and the rest were there before Occupy began, but now it's so much more out in the open, which can definitely be unnerving. As an active member of our Occupy group here in Minnesota, I've been called numerous names over the last month. I and my fellow Occupiers have often been dismissed as lazy, privileged bums, never mind that the majority of us have either spent years struggling to make ends meet, or are completely broke and homeless.

Various "personal responsibility" narratives get trotted out over and over again by public officials, members of the mainstream media, and others, all operating on the basic assumption that if people just worked harder, followed the rules, and kept their shopping impulses under control, they'd be fine. Never mind that in many cases, working hard and following the rules has led folks to the unemployment line, or the underemployment line. Never mind that the entire economy is built on people not controlling their shopping impulses. Never mind ...

Occupy has been a great training ground for letting go of all that noise. Of not internalizing garbage, and also trying not to exude garbage as well. Furthermore, it's an endless schooling on the workings of greed, hatred, and ignorance. I was a part of a conversation the other day which turned way ignorant for a few minutes as two men, one a middled-aged white man and the other a young Native American man, spoke about how Somali immigrants were being handed everything under the sun tax-free. As this shift in the conversation happen, I felt myself getting really pissed, and almost let that enter the conversation. Instead, I decided to just shut up and wait until something else came to my mind.

Finally, it dawned on me that this is the age old pattern of poor people against poor people. Of hatred and ignorance keeping those often suffering most divided.

And so I said to these guys "In my experience, almost none of what you are saying is true. The vast majority of recent immigrants are struggling as much or even more than you are. However, regardless of what you think of that, this is a classic case of the poor pitted against the poor. And it's exactly why nothing seems to change because we sit and fight against each other over small things, instead of come together over all that we share."

There was an immediate shift in the conversation at that point, one that I serious doubt would have happened if I had just torn into these guys.

These kinds of interactions are happening all over the place right now. Strangers, or relative strangers, attempting to speak their minds about complex social issues, and having the opportunity to learn how to listen, pause, and find a common thread between the views being shared. It's messy. Unnerving at times. Some people just can't handle sustained engagement, but I see others really making the effort.

This could be a tipping point towards a more just and engaged society. Perhaps world even. I'm well aware that it all could end and go back to some slightly altered variation of the current "normal," but life isn't worth living if you don't dream big, huge even. So, I'm opting to stand in possibility, to plant whatever seeds I can towards a dream that may or may not come.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The "Bad" Meditator

When I'm in the yoga world, it's not uncommon for someone to say, upon hearing about my Zen practice, "Oh, I'm terrible at meditation" or "It's too hard for me." Sometimes, I hear the same thing as well from newcomers on Sunday mornings down at the zen center.

However, as Algernon says in a recent post, there isn't really such a thing as a "bad meditator.

We are difficult because even when we are drawn to meditation, when we feel some tug to sit down and wash off our minds by doing some very simple awareness practice, holding hands with our pulse, ahhh the difficulty arises: "I'm a terrible meditator. My attention goes everywhere. My thinking is out of control."

Translation: I don't waaaaaannnnaaaaa!!

Sometimes it feels like going to the dentist, and sometimes it feels like soaking in a hot tub. But that isn't really the meditation - that's coming from you and me.

I think there are a lot of stories about what meditation "should" look like that cause people trouble. Such as the view that your mind should always be quiet, or that you are supposed to force all thoughts into silence. In addition, a lot of folks have conjured up an image of the perfect location and environment to do meditation in and then, when such a place isn't available, they decide they can't do it. Furthermore, perhaps they believe the bullshit folks like Zen teacher Brad Warner espouse, suggesting that zazen only happens in certain postures, and can't be "done in a chair." (I agree with Brad, by the way, that meditation is an embodied practice, and that thinking you can do it any old posture doesn't fly. I just don't get his anti-chair position, and in general, am an advocate for more flexibility around form.)

Beyond all of that, though, there's the strong sense of compartmentalization that many of us do with our spiritual lives. Meditation practice is often viewed as something done in such and such a place, time, and manner.

Whereas I have meditated on buses, park benches, in the middle of the Occupy protests, in public restrooms, amongst other places. I also frequently chant while bicycling, and for two winters in a row, did lovingkindness meditations walking in the skyway system in downtown St. Paul. Of course, I also practice in the places many consider "normal" - like on my meditation cushion at home, or in my zen center. But overall, I remain focused on breaking down walls and barriers - infusing practice into my everyday life, and everyday life into my practice.

I encourage you all to do the same. Happy Friday!

*Photo from the blog Meditation Matters.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Continuous Openness

"All existence is like a dream, a phantasm, a reflection. Even though you are seeing it and touching it, it has no actual substance. I'll give you a concrete example. An electric news screen ... When you look at it from afar, it certainly seems like those letters are flowing, but when you go up close and look at it, it is just some light bulbs going on and off, and there is not a single flowing letter." Hakuun Yasutani, on Dogen's Genjokoan.

The first sentence in the quote is a reference to the final words of the Diamond Sutra, also known as the Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion Sutra. Among other things, it's a deep calling to wake up to the impermanence of this life, and to cut through the view that you, and everything else, has a solid, unchanging self. Think of how a diamond can cut glass, how strong it is after all those years in the earth being formed. And then, think of using your mind like a diamond whenever a story arises about something in your life, anything really - but especially those stories that hook you into troubling places. You know, the ones that go something like "I did X, and so I'm a terrible person" or "I did Y, so I'm the best person ever." Or some other variation. It doesn't even need to be about yourself particularly. Many of us have strong stories about politics, or religion, or some other topic. You can use your diamond mind on those too.

In the same chapter of Yasutani's commentary, he writes "One must realize that in a single day one passes through this change about six and half billion times." In other words, there is constant arising and falling away of life - and every label we put on whatever is happening can't capture it.

But this doesn't mean words are useless, that there's no meaning, and that we should just give up because it's all impermanent anyway. No, we need to think, to speak, to act, to live.

The commentary above is calling us to develop a continuous openness to our lives and the world. To forget our efforts to put a claim on solid ground. Basically, to stop wasting our time and energy on that which is futile, so that we may live more fully and alive everyday.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Yoga Standards

There has been a lot of online kerfuffling (yes, I made that word up), over the seemingly sudden departure of three senior Anusara yoga teachers from the ranks of the Anusara certified. Now, I know very little about Anusara, so I don't really have anything to say about the merit or lack of merit of what these folks are teaching. Nor do I really have any interest in trying to unearth some seedy details that might lead us all to some sort of scandal.

It seems to me only natural that after a certain amount of time and practice, some students will evolve beyond the forms and methods they were given by their teachers. This tends to be encouraged in Zen circles. In fact, most of the old Zen koans are, in part, demonstrations of transcending the roles of student/teacher, and of moving beyond one's training. Entire new schools of practice have developed precisely because someone stepped beyond the bounds, and illuminated spiritual life in a different manner. Hell, Anusara itself is founder John Friend's offering of a different direction, which manifested from the years of practice and teaching he has done.

So instead, this post will focus on the broader issues raised in this comment by John Friend from the following interview, which seems to be making the rounds:

There is a licensing of the Anusara yoga name for teachers who met a certain level of standard in their teaching. The essential reason for any licensing of a tradename is to help maintain integrity and quality control in the marketplace. Anyone taking a class from a certified Anusara yoga teacher anywhere in the world can expect a certain high standard. Because of licensing the name of Anusara over the last 14 years, it has greatly helped to give students confidence in the name on a global level.

The near obsession these days with "standards" is deeply troubling to me. While there have always been teachers and groups who have broken off and formed their own variations on the theme, this focus on standardization, uniform curriculum, and the rest - in part driven by groups like Yoga Alliance, but in greater part driven by what I view as a trend in education towards a focus on maximizing results and measurable outputs above all else. I'm near the end of a 230 hour yoga teacher training program which has been a good experience in many respects, but leaves me seriously questioning whether this kind of model develops anything remotely close to excellent teachers. In some ways, when I look around at my fellow students, I see some people who already are gifted and have honed themselves enough through practice to offer something to others. Others seem barely able to do their own personal practice, let alone teach. And still others simply don't have the skills to teach, even if they might be wise in other ways. Yet, in the end, anyone who finishes will have that certificate and be regarded in higher esteem by the general public, regardless of their abilities and understanding.

Honestly, even if Anusara training is more rigorous than the average teacher training program, I really don't see these kinds of issues disappearing. Simply put, the more teachers and teaching candidates you have around, the harder it is to maintain quality control and integrity. And within a capitalist framework, where there's both implicit and explicit pressure to "produce" - in order to stay afloat financially, but also as a means of demonstrating success - it's likely that methods designed to support quantity of teachers over quality of teachers will be employed. My own studio's teacher training program, which I feel is of fairly good quality, has expanded probably twofold in numbers of candidates over the past few years. And why? Because people really like what they hear from others, and the studio is attracted to the financial stability from all that money the training brings in.

This is all so much different, for the most part, from what it's like in Zen communities. Buddhist teachers tend to be steeped in years of practice before anyone calls them a teacher. Most of them have also spent years studying with the same teacher, or small number of teachers, usually within a larger community of practitioners, at least for some significant stretch of time. And while we have plenty of scandals and our share of mediocre teachers, there seems to be more checks and balances available to, at the very least, support and aid any given teacher's spiritual growth.

In other words, if someone is designated as a Zen teacher and has a connection with a specific teacher lineage, it's reasonable to assume that this person has been practicing for awhile. They have some experience to share, and perhaps some wisdom as well. This is true even for lay teachers and most novice priests in training. You can't just plunk down a few thousand dollars, say you've been practicing Zen for X number of months or years, and after several months or a few years, be suddenly deemed "certified" to teach.

Obviously, a fair amount of this issue in yoga is tied to the muddled nature of what is being marketed as "yoga" these days. Everything from busting a move in a gym to deep level tantric meditation practices can be found under the label yoga, and because of that, there are a plethora of teachers, coming from a plethora of teacher trainings. The whole standards push has been a response to this muddled environment, but to be honest, I think it offers more of a false sense of security and trust than anything else.

Which isn't to say the trainings are worthless - like I've said in other posts, I have learned a lot in my training program. But it's hard for me to imagine what it might be like had I done this 10 years ago, when I was an excited yoga newbie like a few of my classmates. Occasionally, people with little formal experience are just blessed with the ability to plunge in and then offer gifts to others. But for the vast majority, nothing beats experience and practice.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Yoga Teacher Fired for Wanting to Teach Yoga

Here is an example of the challenges that yoga teachers committed to the full path can face in North American studios:

Last night, I was fired from my job at Black Swan Yoga for a fundamental difference of opinion. I was ambushed, lured there to discuss my "schedule" and then tag-teamed by a pair with a yoga sutra tattooed on one and a chakra tattooed on the other. (Oh, the irony!) Together, they released me from my duties for standing by my published opinion that asana exists independent of the yoga. I say intention matters. Apparently, they disagree.

One needn't look far to find the basis of my argument. It's right there in the second sutra: "Yoga is the suspension of the fluctuations of the mind (Yoga Sutra I.2)." Beyond that, I know it from experience. I have, many times in my life, practiced asana without the yoga to address discomfort in the body. I think it's safe to say I'm not the only one. Asana is what draws people to the yoga, asana prepares the mind; as my teacher says, "asana makes the ground fertile" for the real yoga to take place, but asana in itself, without the breath, without the meditation, is just exercise. Just gymnastics.

I can imagine myself in her shoes, and no doubt, this blog is littered with posts critical of "exercise yoga," capitalistic studio models, and the lack of meditation practice amongst North American yoga students. Odds are, if a yoga studio was focused on having teachers who all agree on "philosophy," they either wouldn't hire me, or would can me as soon as they found the link to DH.

What I found interesting, though, was how the teacher above spoke of asana (postures). She specifically argues that asana practice, "without the breath, without the meditation, is just exercise."

I tend to agree. So often, we "westerners" separate body and mind practices, even when we aren't deliberately trying to. This particular teacher seems to have a unified vision - especially if you read the rest of her post. Many others don't, and either keep the meditative limbs of yoga separate from the asana, or simply cut them off all together, in the manner that Black Swan Yoga apparently does. Even well respected teachers like Iyengar argue in favor of a focus on asana and pranayama practice - for years sometimes - before students should dive into meditation. In other words, they are practiced separately - until one is "ready," and then they are practiced together. Having read enough of Iyengar's writings, I'm not clear if this is a fixed position he holds, but it's something I have seen in repeated articles and books by him.

The body-mind practice split is something that most spiritual/religious traditions face, in part due to human ambivalence towards our place on the planet. A strand of hatred/aversion toward, or disassociation from, the material manifestations on earth can probably be found in most ancient spiritual traditions, including yoga. Add upon that the long standing mind-body split found in Western philosophy, which has influenced how we view our relationship with/to our planet, and you have a heap of trouble.

In terms of this discussion, that "trouble" manifests through our uneasy relationship with our own bodies. On the one hand, the worship of the "young, strong, and healthy body" that drives many yoga classes, even those with a holistic, spiritual approach. On another hand, the fear/shame/hatred of bodies that "don't hold together," get sick, and eventually die. I'd argue that this second set of issues also drives much of yoga practice in North America, in synergy with that worship mentality.

Now, it's really the case that these kinds of struggles are the fodder of spiritual life. So, in some ways, it's a given that this kind of stuff is going to show up. However, the way I see it, a lot of this stuff remains either unconscious or is treated solely in terms of individual practitioners. You hear stories about yogis with extreme eating disorders for example, but how often are those extremes linked together with the broader "body issues" I mention in the previous paragraph? And then moved from an individual level to a community of practitioners level? In other words, considering both the possibility that yoga studios and classes are filled with people who have various forms of mind-body separation, and that the ways in which yoga practice is being marketed and taught might be either maintaining, or even increasing in some cases, those mind-body separations.

That's a lot to chew on, so I'll stop there for now. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts or other comments.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Community of Excellent Friends

Convert Buddhists have under-emphasized sangha (or community of excellent friends, as one of my dharma sisters frequently says). There are many reasons for this, and I have written about the ones I know about on this blog in the past. For those of us in the United States, there often seems to an extra layer of hindrance to building sangha that comes from the mainstream cultural emphasis on individualistic pursuits and privatized everything as priority.

But enough of the macro-level narratives. Today, I want to share a few stories of sangha actually functioning. Of a group transcending whatever hindrances are there. These are simple stories. Nothing earth shattering.

On Sunday, we had our monthly board meeting. Having just had board elections the previous month, a new member arrived to the group to experience her first meeting. Her dharma name is Gentle Dragon, and for a few years now, her and I often exchange dragon's roars whenever we see each other. Seriously, we roar out loud at each other. It's fun. It keeps us both light. And it's kind of become a way we recognize and support each other.

Anyway, as the meeting opened, I looked over at her and gave a roar. She roared back. And then, the thought came to me to bring everyone else in. So I called the meeting to order, and made the first item of business a group roar.

Here are two other stories with a different flavor. This morning, I had a meeting with our Executive Director to plan a talking circle about our current financial status. There are a lot of big, long range issues on the plate for the sangha right now, and while part of the meeting was planning, part of it was simply sharing our own questions and ideas about how things are going. Our Executive Director is also dealing with the challenges of having an ill family member, and our meeting ended with some sharing about that and a big hug.

And then a little while ago, I opened my e-mail and found that another dharma sister, who works with me on the board, just gave Dangerous Harvests a donation. On the donation e-mail, she wrote:

"I love your blog, Nathan. It helps me to lessen how static I can become."

This from one of the major players in creating our sangha's development and strategic plan over the last year or so, and also someone I consider to be one of those excellent friends on the path.

It's fairly easy to find stories of spiritual communities gone awry. Of sex and power scandals. Of people failing to not only get along, but to truly embrace each other. So, I offer these experiences as a small counterpoint. As a small taste of what it can be like to be apart of a community of excellent friends.

May you all be well today.

* photo is from our Segaki Day/ Hungry Ghost Carnival 2011

Monday, October 31, 2011

Form and Rebirth

There are a few good posts up that I want to highlight for you all. First off, over at the blog of our sangha's head teacher is a post about form and Zen practice. We have been doing a lot of reflecting as a community over the past few years about form, particularly what ritual looks like within a lay practice context. I have written about all of this before, but wanted to share the following words of our teacher:

Precision can easily be usurped by the “manas” or our self-centered consciousness that wants to be the best, be more evolved, to be better than other practitioners. When precision becomes a project it has been taken over by ego-building consciousness.

Perfectionism is the devil in disguise. Outwardly, because of our highly choreographed form, a newcomer can interpret zen’s goal as being perfect in the form. This can become oppressive and obsessive. I would like to see a form coming out of our expression of generosity, inter-being, and spaciousness.

I'm guessing anyone who has spent any significant time practicing in a Zen center or community has probably gotten caught up in trying to do meditation perfectly, bow perfectly, and chant perfectly. This kind of thing is even more common amongst those of us who have done longer forms of practice, like meditation retreats, where there are numerous forms in place that can be co-opted by the self-centered mind. I kind of snicker now when I think back to the attempts I made to wash dishes in a "perfectly Zen way" on my first retreat. The anxiety was so intense at one point that I nearly passed out. Pretty ridiculous, isn't it?

Anyway, head over and read the rest of Byakuren's blog post, and feel free to add comments here (she doesn't have a comments section on her blog).

Over at Barbara's Buddhism blog is a post about rebirth and the population growth. Given how often people, even many practicing Buddhists, are muddled about what rebirth means, I enjoyed the following lines from Barbara's post:

Since rebirth in Buddhism really isn't about the continuation of an individual self, I'd say the answer to the question is "yes." And if you want to know how, stop looking for "extraordinary evidence" and educate yourself as to what Buddhism actually teaches about rebirth. To me, looking for a one-to-one ratio of reborn individuals is like assuming there can be only a fixed number of waves on the ocean.

I don't know exactly what rebirth is, nor how (or if) it actually happens, but I find the reductionist efforts of folks like Stephen Batchelor to "rid Buddhism" of such concepts tedious at best. Life is still full of mystery, even if we are able to "explain" more now than our ancestors could.

Your thoughts?

*I took the photo above at our Occupy MN site this afternoon.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


I've sometimes wondered if a pregnant ghost has come to haunt my body, it's bony shoulders poking at mine, as it's fat stomach presses hard against my own. Every autumn, as the sun's rays slowly fade away earlier and earlier by the day, that acute haunting returns. An old friend - or enemy - depending upon my mindset in the moment, sometimes I call it "loneliness," but that's just an easy label, one that serves a purpose, but really doesn't hit the mark fully.

The well known Buddhist author and teacher Pema Chodron writes: "Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It's restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company."

I was walking around the plaza where our OccupyMN group is located yesterday, feeling just that. That there were plenty of people around didn't matter. That I had had a few good conversations already didn't matter. That I had felt great most of the previous day or so didn't really matter.

A cold wind swirled, and a few errant squirrels scampered across the bricked ground, scared by the movement of too many feet. I watched an argument about food between a half a dozen fellow "occupiers" slowly descend into agreement. Finally, the two men at the center of the conflict, a younger African-American man and an older white man, hugged. It way touching. I've witnessed scenes like this again and again over the past three and half weeks, something the myriad of armchair critics have no idea about, or dismiss as mere "camaraderie."

Still, that restless ghost thumped away within me. Nothing unbearable, and something certainly spurred on by the change in seasons, but definitely not a mere "psychological issue" like seasonal affect disorder. That might be there as well, but I have felt this other "thing" in all sorts of places, under all sorts of conditions, even during and after love-making.

Today, what comes to mind is this: "We fail to trust our hauntings." Fail to trust that this, too, is our life - and yet, it does not define us, does not need to be fought off madly or given into desperately.

The story of Buddha's enlightenment is riddled with ghosts. Various hauntings that come to test him as he sits through the night. Mara is said to be the bringer of these, an almost Satan-like being that continually presses in on Buddha until he doesn't flinch anymore in any direction.

I still flinch a fair amount. I can imagine many of you do as well. That flinching goes beyond any individual "you" or "I."

Just as liberation goes beyond any individual "you" or "I."

What is haunting?

Just this breath, flowing in and back out.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Social Dukkha - Addressing Suffering on a Global Scale

Working with people from all over the world, whose ideas and ways of living are often very different from my own, has definitely helped to jar the sense of self I have.

In addition, the discussions I have had with these same learners in my classes have shown me as much as anything how constructed our views of the “good life” or “proper life” are.

Here’s a simple example of that from a recent class:

A woman originally from Somalia is pregnant, which sparked a discussion about family size and also happiness. She was asked by another learner how many children she would like to have. I believe she said “maybe four” although I may be misremembering that number.

Another woman, a very joyful Ethiopian woman in her fifties, asked, “Why not more?” She went on to talk about her eight children, how she loves big families, and would have more children if she could. Recently, her son graduated from college, the first degree in her family, I believe, and she’s been walking around beaming about his accomplishment, telling anyone who will listen about it.

A few other learners, including ethnic Karen from Burma, gasped upon hearing the desire for very large families. One said something to the effect of “three is enough, thank you very much.” There were other expressions from this group about the hard work and difficulties large families create for mothers. This brought us to economic issues in the U.S. and a short conversation about how expensive it is in the U.S. to have a lot of children. But the woman from Ethiopia didn’t stand down – she still felt that there was more joy in a bigger family.

I have had other learners in the past, from other nations, express very similar views. Yet, even within groups, as should be expected, there is a fair amount of difference of opinion about this question. However, despite wide differences of opinion within any group, it can be said that the culture and social structures of a given society have an influence on how people think and act in the world. Because of this, I believe there has been a failure on the part of many in the covert western Buddhist world to see beyond individual practice, and individual “enlightenment,” as a way to address the suffering of the world.

Dukkha is the Pali term which is usually translated as suffering. It is often viewed as the sense of dissatisfaction or disease a person feels with the world as it is presenting itself in one’s life now. Of dukkha, Buddha said that all of us experience it in our lives – many of us so much so that we are consumed by it.

Yet, as Buddha himself experienced, there are ways to be liberated from it. In terms of Buddhism, these ways are expressed as The Eightfold Path. (Other spiritual traditions have other methods which I would argue also can be gateways to liberation, but discussing those would lead us off track today.)

Returning to the classroom discussion above, the Ethiopian woman seems have pinned at least some of her happiness in life on having a large family. Although I don’t know for certain, it seems that larger families are more common in Ethiopia than they are here in the U.S. When you think of the droughts, famines, wars, and other difficulties that have plagued Ethiopia over at least the past century, it’s very understandable that an emphasis on procreation might be promoted not only in individual families, but much more broadly, as a social or cultural value.

Since she has a larger family, the woman in my class might be viewed in a positive way by others in her cultural group, and she might internally view herself more positively because she has manifested what has value within the larger group.

Of course, many individual factors play into this as well. Her family seems to work together well. Her children are doing well academically, and unlike other learners I have had in the past, she doesn’t come to class with a heavy burden of problems her children are having at home, or at school, or elsewhere. So, it’s very much possible that her emphasis on “big families” is as much, if not more, tied to her personal experience than to cultural or social values or constructs.

Yet I think it’s foolish of us, especially if we believe in the view that there is no solid, fixed self or “I,” to place all our eggs in the individual basket. Any one person’s suffering or joy is a product of a complex uprising of causes and conditions, some of which one might be personally responsible for, but which also include others that are much bigger than any one person.

No one person, no matter how powerful, is responsible for bringing about war, for example. Or environmental destruction, or patterns of patriarchy, or racism, or sexism, heterosexism, or any other number of social ills that infiltrate and effect our lives on a daily basis.

In his excellent book The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory, David Loy spends a lot of time examining these kinds of larger patterns. Using the term “social dukkha,” he argues that Buddhist teachings — the precepts, emptiness, compassion and others — can be applied to broader social issues as a means of potentially reducing suffering on a larger scale.

Now, Loy certainly isn’t the first to say any of this, nor is he a lone wolf crying in the wilderness. But it strikes me that until there is a critical mass of us speaking and acting in ways that might address these larger scale issues, no amount of individual effort on spiritual practice will be enough to greatly reduce suffering in the world.

Maybe if all of us all took up meditation practice and stuck with the practice diligently, there would be some massive change. But I still wonder, even then, if oppressive social structures would simply fall away, or if, in spite of our efforts, we’d still be facing the problems these structures create.

I have a hard time believing that racism, sexism, and heterosexism would simply vanish as a result of all of us individually — or even as collectives of individuals — doing meditation practice. This is not at all to denigrate meditation – I love it – but to suggest that given where we are at on a global scale today, it seems additional, more collective approaches to the dharma are being called for.

*Note: I wrote this last year for the Life as a Human webzine, but given the influx of grassroots, social movements that have sprung up over the past year (all over the world it seems), I thought this article was worth another look.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Squrriel Friends

About a week ago, I noticed an overturned squirrel in the road, mouth and eyes wide open, but otherwise untouched. Maybe a heart attack victim; I don't know.

Yesterday, as I came upon the body while on my bicycle, I found another squirrel pausing, checking out the scene. The living squirrel seemed curious, interested in what was there, without really any extra jumpiness or fear. Just observing fully. For a moment, life and death came together, not separate at all. The living squirrel lifting its leg over the dead squirrel's body as I approached. And then it happened: the living squirrel ran, spooked by the oncoming, spinning bicycle wheel - and the giant figure sitting on top of it.

Seems to me this is how most of us handle life and death. We are curious and interested at times, but too often, something giant and/or spinning scares us away from our true lives.

How to see through the mirage? Time to go sit with that.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Occupy Genjokoan

I was meditating on the plaza where our Occupy protest is going on today, sitting next to the sign you see above. Next to me also sat the book in the photo, a fairly well known academic commentary on Zen Master Dogen. There was a cool breeze, and the air was fairly damp as I sat, watching my breath, and taking in all the various sounds of the folks around me.

Suddenly, I hear the following:

"To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe."

I opened my eyes and saw a guy about my age standing in front of my sign. He said "What's the next line?"

And together we came up with the next line of "Genjokoan" about dropping off body and mind.

We bowed at each other. He said "I saw your book about Dogen sitting there and then read your sign."

It turns out he had been attending services at one of the other local Zen centers, which is where he had learned the Dogen quote from.

We talked a bit more, and then he left to get something to eat. As he walked away, I thought "What a small world it is to have someone walk up to you and start quoting Dogen."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Fearless and Fragile in Life and Death

In an old issue of Shambhala Sun I stumbled upon, Zen teacher Joan Halifax Roshi is described by one of her students using the two title words for this post: fearless and fragile. Roshi Joan, as she is called, has spent much of her adult life caring for the sick and dying, and teaching others how to do so. What I find so inspiring about her life story is this simple, but profound commitment she made after her grandmother's death years ago. Her grandmother, she said, "normalized death" for her by being a caregiver for dying friends when Halifax was a child. However, the grandmother's own death was a long and lonely process, and Halifax later came to realize that much of her grandmother's "misery had been rooted in her family's fear of death, including (Halifax's) own." And so, at her grandmother's death, Halifax "made the commitment to practice being there for others as they died."

The fragility of life is all around us, available at every moment. We don't need the death of a loved one to be reminded of it, although often this is the only time when we allow ourselves to be reminded. Willfully ignoring the fragility of life is a particularly well developed, commonplace human trait. I've long felt that our society is particularly poor when it comes to the whole issue of death and dying. Many of us lack the support, and courage, to open to what is a natural process and a part of all of us. And, as a result, our relationships with the living, and the dying, suffer greatly.

I still remember the day I came home from a day trip to Red Wing with my ex-girlfriend to find that our beloved family cat, Buzz, had collapsed and was put down by my mother and sister while we were gone. It was a shock to realize that the vague glance I gave him that morning, thinking he looked a little tired, was my goodbye.

How many of us have multiple stories like this about friends, family, pets, co-workers? And by this I mean that the story includes some level of loss beyond the loss of the person or animal - a sense that you weren't really there, or had assumed a continuity about the others' life that turned out to be just a story. It seems to me that fearlessness involves being fully alive and deeply engaged in your relationships as much as possible. And not only human relationships, but with animals, plants, your every surrounding. To be able to be open to what is there without rejecting or manipulating - including your fears and failures.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Yoga and Contentment

The second niyama discussed in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras is santosha or contentment. The thinking is easy. In order to achieve great happiness, learn to be content with what you have and accept what is. Let go of expectations and rest easy in the flow of life. Learn that the state of mind does not depend on any external status or material things. The state of your mind and happiness depends on your perspective and willingness to remain calm with each success and failure...

The easiest way to practice santosha is to find gratitude in your life daily. Each day wake up and count at least 10 things you have to be grateful for. In the same way, seek abundance in your life in all that is around you. The sun in the sky, the green grass, the breeze that wisps across your neck. Make the most out of every situation...

The above is from the current post on the blog Capricious Yogi. I think it's a pretty decent summary and practice offering, and obviously somewhat similar to what I wrote in a recent post about gratitude.

Here is a little more specific focus on the verse from the Yoga Sutra in question.

2.42 From an attitude of contentment (santosha), unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction is obtained.
(santosha anuttamah sukha labhah)

santosha = contentment
anuttamah = unexcelled, extreme, supreme
sukha = pleasure, happiness, comfort, joy, satisfaction
labhah = is acquired, attained, gained

Santosha brings happiness and joy: From an attitude of contentment (santosha), unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction is obtained.

Contentment comes from within: We humans seem to always be seeking satisfaction in the external world and our internal fantasies. Only when we comfortably accept what we currently have will be able to do the practices that lead to the highest realization.

I've noticed lately how often yoga teachers and students seem to lean on the translations "comfort" and "happiness" when discussing santosha. I don't think it's an accident, and I do think it can create limits on how people perceive and enact the teachings.

Simply put, finding comfort and happiness are two of the grand addictions of modern, Western life. And even though it doesn't take a lot to see that what the Yoga Sutras are speaking about isn't the same as pop culture is speaking about, the very words can be Pavlovian triggers for many of us, regardless of how much practice we do.

So, what is contentment really? And how might we fully embody and express it?

To me, contentment is fairly easy when things in my life are not too difficult. But what about in those situations where you're mad as hell, and others are mad as hell at you? Or when you're surrounded by people who are upset, depressed, outraged, or even hateful?

How might you fully embody and express contentment there?

If you're like me, you probably tend to go off kilter in these situations. Either you start to take on the energy and actions of those around you, or you create a wall and stuff anything remotely unsettling down into yourself.

I'll be honest, many of the ancient yoga texts are really weak when it comes to addressing living the teachings within complex, communal situations - like in a bustling city for example. Many of the old yogis were elites who separated themselves from all of that, so it's not a huge surprise.

And neither is it a surprise that I have come up with more questions to sit with. It's a skill I seem to have.

Perhaps contentment comes through being at ease with questions...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Attachment to Meditation Practice

I really enjoyed this post by Andre over at Zen and Back Again. Mostly because it's familiar to me, and is something I've written about on here before.

If Zen is the practice of complete non-abiding, requiring the relinquishment of all attachments, then doesn't it serve to reason that we should let go of Zen too? For as I have found, Zen, namely zazen, can become a form of attachment.

We hear more about this regarding koans, where teachers caution their students against attaching to koans, since they are merely a raft to carry us to the other shore. Like the Buddha's teachings, they are upaya, skillful means.

But we seldom hear that said about zazen; instead, meditation, especially in Soto Zen, is regarded as the holiest of holies.

It almost feels anathema to imply that zazen can turn into a form of attachment, but try skipping 0ne day of meditation and you will soon realize how attached you are to the practice. Shame, guilt, anxiety commonly accompany a missed zazen session of mine.

Yesterday, we started a new group down at the zen center for those who have completed jukai. As one of the facilitators of the group, I introduced myself as "an eclectic practitioner" who is always experimenting. Which isn't to say I can stick with a form - such as zazen - only that I've grown more interested in how form flows in everyday life.

Having spent the last three weeks or so reading a lot about Dogen, as well as practicing with a few of his teachings, I find myself returning to some of the same things Andre is speaking about.

Dogen says that sitting is what a Buddha does. But isn't that making zazen something special by elevating it above all of our other daily activities?

The thing about Dogen's writing is that sometimes it really does seem like seated meditation is his sole focus, while other times he uses the word "Zazen" as an action in each moment. Some Soto teachers seem to lean in one direction, emphasizing seated meditation nearly all the time. While others seem to lean in the other direction, saying that Dogen applies zazen to all activities. I'm more inclined towards the latter, but sometimes it feels like a gloss over, an apology for a founding teacher that simply might have gotten too focused on seated meditation.

It's important to note the the openness to, and deep interest in, lay practitioners Dogen had during the middle of his teaching life greatly waned as he got older. At the same time, he maintained connections with at least a couple of lay disciples until the end, spending his last days in the home of one of them in Kyoto. Given the frequent social/political upheaval that marked 13th century Japan, I can imagine there was always a tension for him between upholding the practice of householders, and feeling the need to emphasize breaking away from it all and practicing in seclusion with a small group of dedicated others.

When I go back to Andre's consideration of attachment to practice, I find myself returning to the value of just paying attention. Noticing what kind of stories are arising. For example, sometimes that desire I have "to experiment" has a bit of extra added to it. Like wanting to do something novel, instead of "the same old thing." And sometimes I'm just plain giving in to laziness.

So, I have to stay vigilant around these kinds of questions, lest they become intellectual ways to trick myself, or justify opting out.

And yet, I have always felt a crunchy rub around Dogen's teachings about "zazen," and how they have come to be practiced today. Because just doing seated meditation and some ritual bows and chants doesn't constitute living the spiritual life.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Civic Engagement as Spiritual Practice

I got a bit of a dressing down early this afternoon. A group of folks were discussing the current tent ban for the plaza we are holding Occupy MN on. At one point, a woman said something about making a large banner claiming the County Commissioners were "freezing" out the protesters. I didn't like the idea. It felt unnecessary. Just this morning, the protests in Denver were cleared out because of tents, and I figured it would be better to put in a sustained, good faith effort with public officials before getting provocative.

It's important to mention here that this sign was in conjunction with a planned tent raising to happen tomorrow afternoon. All of which feels rushed, given that we've only been doing this for a week here in Minnesota. I'm all for civil disobedience, but intelligently and strategically done civil disobedience.

Anyway, in response to the woman's suggestion, I made a comment about being specific in who you're targeting. Apparently, the person I mentioned wasn't to correct target, and this woman went off on me, saying she'd worked for the county for sixteen years and "knew exactly how the system works" and on and on.

I felt anger rise within me, but then also sensed a bit of shame twisted in that anger. Because she was right about the specifics. I had to do a lot of deep breathing, and dropping off of my opinion as she yelled at me. It was a humbling experience because I am often the one who gets the details correct in these kinds of situations. Furthermore, because I'm often the one with the details, I'm used to being a position where I get to spread them, to basically be "a teacher." So, this whole situation was a big, internal flip over for me.

As she started to run out of steam, I broke in and said "Thank you for the information. But you know, this is a good way to drive people out of here."

A few of the others agreed with me, and she looked away saying, sarcastically, "Some people don't like to get dressed down."

And one of the other people standing there said "No. We need to work on all this together. Not everyone will know it all. We need to teach each other."

He then looked at me and said "I could feel the tension there."

I said "Yeah, I really didn't want to listen to her after how she said that."

He shook his head. "See. That's what I thought. This isn't how we build this thing."

Later, I thought to myself She'd rather be right than make a relationship.

And I reflected on a few times I had chosen that route, blasting "the truth" and loosing an opportunity to connect in the process.

This is one of the blessings of active civil engagement with a diverse group of people. You get to practice letting go of everything, even the truth. And when you don't let go, there will probably be someone ready to "help" you - perhaps rudely and without warning.

I bow to everyone in that conversation. Thank you for your wisdom.