Monday, February 28, 2011

Romanticizing and Dis-ease

A few days ago, I wrote a post that mostly lamented the level of alienation present in our society, which is at least somewhat linked to how we are using new technologies. This interview digs into that theme even more. Here is the beginning of it:

Brooke Jarvis: When did you start thinking about the connection between economics and happiness?

Helena Norberg-Hodge: Thirty-five years ago, I had the great privilege of living and working in Ladakh, or Little Tibet. People there seemed happier than any people I had ever met. To me, this seemed to come from a self-esteem so high that it was almost as though the self wasn't an issue. Even among young people, there wasn't a need to show off, to act “cool.” I remember being impressed that a thirteen-year-old boy wouldn’t feel embarrassed to coo over a little baby or to hold hands with his grandmother.

But as Western-style development came to Ladakh, so did the message that the people there were primitive and backward. They were suddenly comparing themselves to romanticized, glamorized role models in the media—images of perfection and wealth that no one can compete with. You began to see young people using dangerous chemicals to lighten their skin. In Ladakh, there is now a suicide a month, mainly among young people. Not that long ago, suicide was basically unknown—there would have been one in a lifetime. That’s a really, really clear indicator that something is really wrong—and the dominant economic model is what had changed.

In countries around the world, in fact, there is an epidemic of depression and suicides and eating disorders. With this film, we’re trying to show that, when you look at the big picture, these social issues—as well as our environmental problems—are linked to an economic system that promotes endless consumerism. Fundamental to that system are trade policies that promote the expansion of giant multinational corporations.

I found these lines particularly interesting:

People there seemed happier than any people I had ever met. To me, this seemed to come from a self-esteem so high that it was almost as though the self wasn't an issue.

It's dangerous upon reading something like the account above to romanticize the past, and long for the simpler life that people like those in Ladakh possibly had. However, just as they can't go back to what was, neither can any of us. So, now what?

Our minds are really good at hyper-focusing on what we perceive to be negative. What seems wrong. What we don't like. Anything that causes dis-ease.

That's true on an individual level, but it's also true collectively. In my opinion, the vast majority of our global economy is built on the intertwining of our collective dis-ease. In addition, I'd argue that the hyper-focus on "the economy and economics" itself is a product of this. That the majority of humans spend much of their lives these days swirling around issues of money, "gainful" employment, material possessions, profits, and the rest points to how far down the dis-ease rabbit hole we have gone.

One of the main points of the interview cited above is that locally-driven economics is tied to greater levels of happiness. I think this is true, but let's move a little further.

Why are things like community gardens so popular? Because people literally become re-in touch with the earth, with their neighbors, with the food they grow. And in doing so, are back in touch with themselves. Sometimes to the point where the "self" is forgotten.

Sounds great, right? Well, this can be romanticized as well.

One of the reasons I think people in the "digital age" struggle both with the damage the consumer culture has done, but also with sustaining more healthy, vibrant alternatives to that culture is that really touching the earth, touching one's self means embodying it all.

With great joy often comes great fear riding in right after. And then all the games people play trying to avoid or act upon that fear.

The individual who took a risk by leaving their corporate job, downsizing their life, and disappearing for awhile to attend meditation and yoga retreats begins to see a new way of being, feels profound joy, and then is bombarded with fear - inside and out - and chooses to cut off the budding vision, or to only maintain that which is socially acceptable, at least to some degree.

The group that took a risk by abandoning the established models of approaching life's big and little questions, big and little issues, begins to embody a new way of being, which challenges the status quo, brings threats and other difficulties, and suddenly the mechanisms of power and control appear, steering the group in another direction, either out of deference to establishment or in defiance of it. And either way, something vital is lost.

It seems to me that whatever any of us end up doing, individually or as a group, in response to dis-ease - it absolutely has to be grounded in teaching ourselves and others to stop believing in romanticized stories about anything. And at the same time, to learn how to vision and imagine far beyond what we think we see in the world and in our own lives.

Sounds contradictory almost. However, I don't think so.

Even though I've never been suicidal, I'm not all that different from those young folks in Ladakh. Just as they have romanticized something being imported into their homeland, which itself is already romanticized, I'm given to longing for some place where life is simpler. Just as they have failed to look beyond what's being presented to them, and how they "don't have that," I often find myself languishing in the many manifestations of "dis-ease" around me, unable to imagine steps towards a more joyful, liberated life.

Like anything else, there's a duality at work that most of us fail to see. Simplicity and Complexity. Some of those youth in Ladakh are probably really drawn to the complexity of modern technology, business economics, and science. Some of us in the U.S. are really drawn to the simplicity of doing dishes mindfully, owning a lot less stuff, and Zen haiku. Both, however, are forgetting that it's all functioning together, that simplicity and complexity can't be fully separated. This is how romanticizing gets humans in trouble.

So, let's get real. And at the same time, imagine what isn't currently real, but might be in the future. Let's do it together. Even when it's difficult.

*Image: "National Romantic Painting" - Hans Gude, 1847

Saturday, February 26, 2011

This Spiritual Scandal Brought To You By...

Because after too much time getting lost in the Zen tabloids:

His brain feels more like this:

Than this:

"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Albert Einstein

"This is my maiden voyage. My first speech since I was the president of the United States and I couldn't think of a better place to give it than Calgary, Canada." --George W. Bush, as reported by the Associated Press, Calgary, Canada, March 17, 2009

“My only dharma is my karma” Genpo Merzel

"Cover me when I run
Cover me through the fire
Something knocked me out' the trees
Now I'm on my knees
Cover me, darling please
Monkey, monkey, monkey
Don't you know when you're going to shock the monkey." Peter Gabriel

Had your fill of monkey mind yet? Happy weekend!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Living in a More Alienated Society

Now for something different. Over at Daishin's blog "living and dying with eyes wide open" is a short reflection on the digital age. Since starting my yoga teacher training, I'm spending more time on buses, and around people with all kinds of tech gadgets. The same is true wherever I go, even in public libraries, where the noise and busyness levels are much higher than I remember them being when I was younger.

Daishin writes:

What’s happening to plain conversations between two people — you know, they kind involving eye contact, occasional pauses, close listening, and actual presence? What makes people walk down the street with eyes and thumbs focused on a tiny screen, quite possibly ‘communicating’ with someone walking right next to them? What happened to listening to what’s naturally around us — a birdsong perhaps — instead of electronic sounds coming from earphones? And have we abandoned privacy and courtesy as we subject others to every shouted word on our cell phones?

The other day, I was on a bus heading to a yoga class. There was a guy sitting near me with his headphones turned all the way up. Across the aisle, another guy talked loudly into a cell phone about banalities to some other guy he'd never met before. At one point, head phone dude turned to the woman sitting next to him and said "This is why I got these headphones. For idiots like that," pointing to the guy on the cell phone. Then he returned to bopping his head to the techno music the entire front end of the bus could hear.

It's interesting Daishin mentions privacy. I'm not sure what privacy means anymore. In fact, the whole public/private line has been blown open, and in ways that aren't healthy on either end of the spectrum. Public spaces are being privatized by the minute. Spending more time in downtown Minneapolis recently, it was interesting to read this article, which points out that there is little public space in downtown for people to gather in.

At the same time, other public spaces, like buses, are filled with a mixture of invasions into personal space and a lack of healthy, shared interactions between people. On another ride filled with people on cell phones, blackberries, and head thumping music, the guy sitting next to me tried to strike up a conversation with me, but I mostly was checked out, struggling with the bombardment of noise around us.

And maybe it's just me, but just having a conversation with a stranger for the sake of it seems to becoming rarer and rarer. People want money. Or to know what time it is. Or to borrow a cell phone. Or a lighter. But as soon as such requests are fulfilled or not fulfilled, the interaction is over. It's totally understandable that someone who is destitute and desperate will be focused on getting their basic needs met. However, I'm seeing this behavior all over, regardless of background and needs.

And you know, I'm finding myself more shut down as well, less willing to interact or respond because so often it seems that I'm just seen as an object, a means to an end. Even looking someone in the eyes while walking down the street can quickly lead to a dance around not having a cigarette to offer, or a watch on my wrist.

Where all this is going I don't know. The prevailing trend here in the U.S. is to privatize everything, get people hooked on a view that the "good life" means being able to do whatever you want whenever you want wherever you want, and make sure everything is so sped up and blurred together that the majority of people can't see what's actually happening in their lives.

I remember sitting with my great grandmother last summer on the porch, chatting a little bit and listening to the birds. A simple conversation. Nothing really "profound" was said. However, it the was the best half hour I had the entire trip out there (she lived in Michigan). I'm not sure I ever asked great grandma what she though of the world today, but I know that one of her favorite things to do was sit at a table with family and fiends, talking, eating, and playing cards. Nothing fancy.

On Monday, we had a class on the 4th precept - taking up the way of not speaking falsely - where person after person spoke deeply about different challenges they had with upholding this teaching, and where everyone else listened just as deeply. The sharing was rich, and the energy of the room was loving and respectful.

Both those examples feel so different from the general movement of society, which seems to be creating more alienation within each of us.

*Photo from Chernobyl zone - Ukraine

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Zen Scandal Dialogues

For those of you who are tired of all this "scandal talk," I beg your indulgence for a little longer. I want to write about other things. There are so many other things to write about, right? However, this morning I saw this letter from Zen teacher Chozen Bays, in response to the letter from Kirsten Maezumi I wrote about in the last post. Not only is Chozen's letter a great teaching for us all, but below it is a heartfelt response from Kirsten Maezumi which illustrates the fact that the internet is, indeed, a real space with real impact.

Chozen writes:

Zen teaching is a profession. Professionals have an obligation not to betray the trust of their students/clients/patients, trust that is essential to the work of spiritual teaching or therapy. When we take on the profession, we take on the responsibility to maintain proper boundaries with those we are caring for. If a patient tries to kiss a doctor or a minister or a therapist, it is the professional’s responsibility to stop the behavior. A doctor or even a lawyer who has repeated sexual contact with clients can lose their license to practice permanently.

The American Zen teachers also have written letters to the Board of Kanzeon — and before that, to the Zen Studies Society — because we have a special concern about women. When male teachers have sexual relationships with women students, it creates a very difficult situation for these women. They are enrolled in the secrecy that is so corrosive within a sangha. Or within a partnership — one woman told me that her marriage was failing because her husband blamed her for her relationship with a teacher. Also, when a teacher sleeps with a woman and then transmits to her, it puts her credentials in doubt. “Horizontal transmission” it’s jokingly called. If women are to have a respected place as teachers of Zen, this behavior has to stop.

The experiences you described so vividly in your letter struck me and many others to the heart. This is exactly why the Zen teachers acted, so that wives, husbands, children, and students don’t have to experience the kind of suffering you described. And so that your father’s legacy, his wife, you and your brother and sister, and his many Zen descendants, can continue to bring benefit to the world.

I am very sorry for any suffering my role in these events caused in yours or your family’s life. In an earlier letter you asked me how I could have behaved in this way? What have I done about it? I will give you the simplest answers first. Then some longer explanations.

I took my own role in the events at ZCLA very seriously.

I did specifically focused therapy.

I did specific repentance work.

I realized that the best form of repentance was to change my behavior — for good.

I educated myself about clergy misconduct.

My husband and I emphasize the importance of the precepts in their literal form in our Zen teaching.

We have helped other Buddhist groups that requested assistance with issues of ethics and misconduct by teachers.

I have never had an inappropriate relationship with a student, nor has my husband.

I have been in a faithful marriage for 27 years.

Here are the longer explanations.

I left ZCLA in 1984 with the feeling, “If this is an example of what we have been touting as enlightened behavior (and I include my own), I want no part of it. “ For several years I did not practice Zen. I explored other religions. I got a job and spent more time with my children. I met many people who had never heard of Zen or who had no religion at all, who were kinder and wiser than we had been. Gradually I began to sit again, and rediscovered the purpose and power of practice. I felt renewed gratitude to your father for the invaluable gift of dharma that he had given us all.

I decided to educate myself about what can go wrong in spiritual communities, and I did a lot of reading, for example, about the Rajneesh group – which was then making headlines for all kinds of misconduct – and other communities. From that study I concluded that early warning signs that a group is headed for trouble are these.

1. over-adulation of the teacher
2. too much power residing in the teacher, with lots of “yes” men and women, and no checks and balances
3. believing that the ends justify the means (as in having healthy young people go on welfare at ZCLA so they could be on “staff”)
4. talking about us “inside” who know the truth and the “outside world” who do not
5. resultant loss of outside perspective
6. lack of clear ethical guidelines, maintained first and foremost by the teachers
7. resultant misuse of power – monetary, sexual, etc.
8. secrecy
9. manipulation, intimidation, coercion or threats

I also studied clergy misconduct. I read books such as Sex in the Forbidden Zone: Why Men in Power – Therapists, Doctors, Clergy, Teachers and Others – Betray Women’s Trust by Dr. Peter Rutter, and Is Nothing Sacred?: The Story of a Pastor, the Women He Sexually Abused, and the Congregation He Nearly Destroyed by Dr. Marie Fortune. I invited Dr. Rutter to give a presentation at a White Plum meeting in Palm Desert.

My husband Hogen and I took a professional workshop on clergy misconduct sponsored by the Alban Institute and Faithtrust Institute. We have since been invited to give this training at Buddhist teachers’ conferences and at the invitation of Buddhist groups in crisis. I’ve learned a lot by talking to many survivors of abuse by Buddhist clergy. Their stories are poignant, their wounds long-lasting.

I learned that often, in the chaos of an acute crisis, the wife of the offending teacher gets pushed aside. As I read your letter, I realized that nothing has been written about the suffering of the children. I’m glad you have begun our education about how children in the community are traumatized, too. (I had assumed, wrongly it seems, that when your father went into recovery and your parents reunited and moved out of LA to Idyllwild, that you had eleven years of good family life before your father’s untimely death in 1995.)

There is even more to her letter, but I have offered the bulk of it because it's just so powerful. Personally, the last paragraph rings painfully true. I've seen it in my own sangha, where what happened continues to impact both our former teacher's ex-wife and his children, still part of our community, years later.

Kirsten Maezumi's response is also illuminating, and shows that one point I made in the post yesterday was false.

Dear Chozen,

I was so happy to talk with you the other day and I appreciate the candid way you answered my frank questions.

Honestly the most helpful insight I got out of our illuminating conversation, is the one into the nature of the affair you had with my father as you say, ” It was mostly an affair of the heart, taking intimately about dharma and translating Dogen Zenji.”

That you didn’t feel her victimized you, or that your vulnerability was preyed upon, or that sex was the only reason for the affair.
I think that is important… NOT that it makes it right, or appropriate, but that it was not, in its nature, an abuse of power.

It was a love of the dharma.

I think this could be the case in many of the consensual affairs that happen in sanghas between teacher and students.
Again, NOT that it makes it right at all! ; it is just another shade of grey in the black and white of right and wrong…and of being human.

It makes the line so much more complicated.
That there are other reasons than abuse of power, desire of position, lust or addiction, that cause these lines to be crossed.
How will these be judged?

I am saddened that many responses seemed to think that I thought forgiveness was all that was asked of us in this situation concerning Genpo Roshi.

I was just a shocked and devastated as his family and the Kanzeon sangha, and absolutely something should and is being done.

I was also very happy to hear about your “reformation”, spiritual re-awakening, and the work you are doing at your Zen Center with your husband.
And although it is healing to hear, what compelled me to write my letter, was not a personal attack on you.

It was the fact that I knew no one who was involved in this investigation who was not at one time directly involved in a similar situation. I am not saying they do not exist, just that I don’t know a single one.
And yes, times change, thank god! but could there be something else at play?

Jealousy? Fear? Resentment? Guilt?
Or like a reformed smoker, more sensitive and intolerant to smoke?

It is just such an ironic, dark corner to shine light into.
I am sorry it was seen as a bitter attack on the messenger.

I cannot blame you for my fathers drunken bad behavior, or many affairs, which were the cause of mother to taking us and leaving, but the affair between you and my father stands out in my mind because of the close personal ties you had with our family and the length of the relationship.

I honestly don’t know that names of anyone else.

The point I was doing my best to make was, if my father had been removed from any position of teaching from that time on, indefinitely, and you stripped of your titles as well, even the Inca received from Genpo Roshi, that would not have been justice either.

I am also very happy that you addressed the fact that many of the women that have affairs with teachers also receive transmission.
This is of course a VERY VERY dubious, irresponsible and almost always hurtful way to establish a link in a lineage, but coming back to what you described as the “heart connection” you shared with my father, it may be one of the reasons.
I of course have no answers, its just knowing some of the “victims” myself, well, they don’t seem like victims at all.

It is great that you outline your own reformation for others to consider.
And your safeguards for your delusion and rationalizations. :)
We all need that, and I think that is the role of the Sangha in its truest sense.

I know, with all my heart, that when a person is ready to accept responsibility for their behavior, and have seen where their ego and self will take them, they can change.
Most of the time it seems to take a rock bottom to have this opportunity.

I wish we could have had this conversation years ago; its true as Al Rappaport said in the sweeping zen thread, “Maezumi is dead and gone”, yet this karmic knot is something we are left with to unravel.

I appreciate Kirsten's nuanced view of all of this. (Please go and read the rest of her response here). Even though I have written quite fiercely about the need for teachers to be held accountable, as well as the ways group dynamics reinforce destructive behavior, I agree with Kirsten that seeing all of this in a totally black and white way doesn't aid us in finding the skillful means necessary to develop and maintain healthy spiritual communities.

Beyond this, I'm kind of in awe right now at how the public discussions and offering of letters like these are leading people to do the work of untangling old karmic knots. That Buddhist blogs are offering sites where people might spring board into healing and reconciliation from. Pretty amazing. May it continue to be so.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sexism in the Sangha Scandals

I have felt disturbed by some aspect of the ongoing discussions, both within my sangha and also online, concerning the various Zen teacher scandals. Up until now, it was really just a feeling, some sense that something was off, but what that was wasn't very clear.

As I read through this letter from the eldest daughter of Maezumi Roshi, and the subsequent comments, suddenly it started to dawn on me: there is sexism going on here.

Kirsten Maezumi's letter details the painful fallout that occurred during and after an "affair" between Maezumi and Zen teacher Chozen Bays. This was before Bays was a teacher, but after Bays had gotten married, and become the Maezumi's family doctor. It's quite a messy tangle, one that really doesn't reflect the majority of cases where Zen teachers have treated students like sex objects as part of an abuse of power pattern.

What struck me about Ms. Maezumi's letter was her utter defense of Genpo Roshi as a teacher, coupled with a lack of defense of Chozen Bays as a teacher. While acknowledging that Genpo's repeated offensives were greatly harmful, she goes on to write quite glowingly about the future of Zen and Genpo's place in that.

Of course what Genpo Roshi did was wrong and caused a great deal of hurt and pain to his wife Stephanie, his children and the sangha.

Does this mean as punishment he should be cast out and not allowed to teach or be recognized as a senior Zen successor?

To do this is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Genpo Roshi is a wonderful teacher and humanitarian, and I feel that his contributions to Zen in America and the raising of consciousness now and in the future are of great importance to continue on my father’s work and his own personal vision as an American teacher of Zen.

I think to deny what he can offer in the evolution of Zen in America would be a travesty.

On the other hand, Chozen Bays receives forgiveness, but no glowing account of her value as a Zen teacher. Even though Chozen has led peace missions to Japan to honor those killed by American atomic bombs, has done endless amounts of work around various spiritual forms of healing, and has co-led a growing sangha for over two decades, without the accompanied power abuse baggage since becoming a teacher, her value as a teacher to Ms. Maezumi is decidedly low. Certainly, this is a personal issue - that she's probably too close to the situation to offer anything more than forgiveness, but there's such an uneven sense of adoration for Genpo presented, especially since his offenses have impacted more lives in similar ways to what happened in Ms. Maezumi's family.

What's more interesting, though, are the comments that follow. At one point, a male commenter dismisses Ms. Maezumi as "delusional," never mind that she does raise some troubling questions about a relationship that involved multiple power line bending over each other (Zen teacher and family doctor). Moving beyond Ms. Maezumi, there are multiple arguments that display a decidedly sexist (in my opinion) approach to all of this.

One commenter, Mary Rosendale, writes the following:

Can we please get away from this idea that female practitioners are low-hanging fruit for any Zen teacher? It is sexist and demeaning to women. I think I know a fair number of Dharma sisters who are devoted to their teacher. Without exception, all of them have a strong moral compass, do their best to keep the precepts and do good for others. Kirsten reminds us that it takes two to tango and points out that the other willing partner in the relationship with her father broke more than one vow; she slept with a patient; slept with the father of other of her patients and consistently lied to a friend (and probably her husband) for 5 years. This is not a passing indiscretion. These are wilful and deliberate acts. Both consenual participants were responsible for the break-up of Maezumi’s family.

This comment is fascinating to me because Rosendale points out that sexism is at play and then goes on to use the "it takes two to tango" line, which denies the validity of other women's claims that what happened to them was abuse of power. Consider that in all the prominent cases, it has been male teachers sleeping with female students. And that unlike the Bays/Maezumi situation, most of these students have not had a corresponding power base (like being the family doctor) that they were coming from. Yet, the arguments that 1) it's always only been about sex and 2) that the sex was consensual are commonplace.

Beyond this post, there have been a fair number of calls for Zen students to take responsibility for themselves, to reclaim their power, etc. I support this, and believe that blind faith and idealization on the part of students have aided in teachers going wrong. However, let's consider the circumstances again. These calls for Zen students to basically grow up are coming as a result of scandals in which female students are the main victims. And yet, sanghas are not all women working with a male teacher. What about all those male students? Why is it taking numerous scandals where women have been the primary visible victims to get us to call for students to "grow up"?

I was a male student in my sangha under a teacher who crossed the power lines. As a relative newcomer, I didn't have enough insider knowledge or status to do a whole lot about our situation, but there were plenty of male practitioners who could have. We men, too, needed to grow up as students, and stop idealizing and/or blindly following our teacher. And this is true of the men in Genpo's sangha, and Shimano's sangha, and all the rest.

What it comes down to is that the male students of these broken sanghas are mostly invisible. Whatever mistakes they made, including ways they ignored or allow abusive behavior to go on, are also invisible for the most part. While at the same time, the women, especially those who were involved sexually with the teacher, are totally exposed.

So, even though calls for zen students to reclaim their power and responsibility are evenhanded in intent, I believe the appearance of the calls is directly tied to a stereotypical image of a female Zen student who is emotionally vulnerable, and idealizes her teacher.

In my view, it's important to note that these questionable at best gendered lenses are being used by both women and men. That despite all the efforts of numerous women and feminist-minded men in the broader Western Zen community, there are still unexamined patterns of sexism that I would argue are influencing who we consider to be "great teachers" and also how we treat those who have been in abusive situations.

If Genpo Roshi were a women with the same sordid track record, would there be so many people willing to defend his teaching, and offer that he's a "humanitarian" and that his "contributions" to Zen must be continued? Somehow I think not so much. And that should make all of us pause.

For those interested in learning more about the dynamics of power and sexual abuse in spiritual communities, check out Scott Edelstein's excellent book.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Yoga Teachers Join the Wisconsin Protests

We woke up this morning to another pile of snow here in Minnesota. Winter has officially gotten old. Meanwhile, in the neighboring state of Wisconsin, protests against Governor Walker's anti-union, anti-worker budget plans have made it a week so far. I have been to Madison many times. I have even lobbied in the state capital building, back when I was an undergraduate college student. So, seeing all of this happening is totally exciting, no matter the outcome.

Amongst the protesters have been a couple of yoga teachers, seen above striking a pose.

It should not be ignored, given what's been going on all over the Middle East, that one of the first things Governor Walker did was threaten to bring on the National Guard. Apparently bringing in the military isn't just the favored option of dictators. Meanwhile, complaints about teachers shutting down schools, and bringing their Cadillac Health Plans pile up from both right wing pundits, and average citizens whose diets have too many mainstream media calories. It's really sad to watch middle class and poor people beat up on other middle class and poor people because they have just a little more. And this is really what it has come down to. Greed and envy are stoked amongst the general populace, which then spills into anger and hatred.

Some people get really frustrated with my insistence that the social and political can't be separated from our spiritual lives and practices, but it's hard not to see how they are inter-related in situations like this. Corporate interests have spent the last 70 years whittling away at collective bargaining, and all forms of unionization, to the point where barely 10% of U.S. workers have anything resembling group workers rights. And corruption in some of the largest unions has added to this disintegration, both in terms of limiting average worker rights, but also by giving corporate interests an easy target.

So, it's quite a challenge for the average employee in a company or non-profit to look around, see the step up that many unionized workers have, and not feel some envy. And when you couple that with political parties, corporations, and corporate driven media outlets all saying things like "Look at those greedy people! They won't give their fair share during these trying times!," it's even more difficult for the non-unionized masses to have some equanimity - enough to examine the dominant trends, and see what's happened historically that has led to this present.

I want to extend some empathy towards members of the Tea Party groups. While it's true they have been stirred up and partially funded by wealthy power brokers, they are also composed of mostly middle class folks who are responding to increasingly difficult economic conditions. I don't agree with most of their conclusions, but I see the grassroots quality of the local groups, and recognize that both Tea Party folks and, for example, those protesting in Wisconsin understand the value of collective effort. Both sides "get it" that those at the top have mostly turned their backs, and need to be shaken out of their privileged slumber.

I even want to feel some empathy for those uber wealthy folks, most of whom mistakenly believe that they are entitled to their millions and billions, and that they did it all themselves - that they earned it all, and shouldn't have to give it up. The massive delusion of earning it all yourself. The willful ignoring of all the publicly financed infrastructure, big business friendly laws, labor of one's employees, even the good fortune of the sun coming up every day are habitual views deeply ingrained and hard to remove. And they are one of the things that have actually trickled down from the wealthy. I can't count the number of times that "I did it myself" thought has arisen for me, as well as an accompanied stinginess around money and material possessions that I have, but don't ultimately NEED.

In all honestly, I rarely feel any empathy for corporate and political elites, but the more I at least make the attempt, the easier it gets. And empathy doesn't equal apathy. My criticisms of the now globalized military-industrial complex are often too fierce for even some of my closest friends. This is where spiritual practice steps in. You balance fierce questioning and skillful means, with empathy and non-enemy making. At least, that's what I aim to do.

The gross imbalances between those at the top of the material possession pyramid and the rest of us can't be ignored. In fact, I really can't locate a place within the spiritual traditions I am a part of where I can support those imbalances. They are not only unethical, but could be considered forms of violence. Violence against our selves and others. Violence against the planet.

So, certainly, doing asana or meditation at a protest won't be the thing that changes all of this. However, much of mass social changes is about the accumulation of tiny drops into the pond. The little shifts in consciousness. Even the accumulation of little failures that eventually lead people to Right Action on a larger scale.

While the snow piles up here - and in Wisconsin - drops of justice and liberation are being added to many ponds, across the world. Step outside, and listen to the birds. What is that sound you here?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Arizona Attempts to Ban Karma, Sharia Law, and All Forms of Intelligence

There has been some stir up online about a bill currently being considered in the Arizona state legislature. Members of the American Muslim and Buddhist communities have pointed out the religious bigotry behind the bill, but there is even more behind lurking behind the words of this bill.

The 2010 “Arizona Foreign Decisions Act” has been reintroduced in 2011 as HB 2582. Among other (statutory) provisions:

* Declares the acceptance of Arizona into the Union was a “compact”.
* Declares “Congress has no authority to preempt state regulation of state courts.”
* Prohibits courts from implementing, referring or incorporating or using “a tenet of any body of religious sectarian law” and specifically includes sharia law, canon law, halacha and karma.
* Exempts from the above prohibitions decisions based on Anglo-American legal tradition, laws or case law from Great Britain prior enactment of the statute, or the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, “and the principles on which the United States was founded.”
* Prohibits use of any case law or statute from a non-U.S. jurisdiction or “foreign body”, including the United Nations.
* Declares decisions that make use of a body of religious sectarian law or foreign law declared void and usages declared to be grounds for impeachment.
* Declares these provisions apply to Federal courts sitting in diversity jurisdiction.
* Requires any state or Federal court that construes this statute must do so in a way to confine the power of Congress and the federal judiciary.

I'm going to be quite blunt. This is a secessionist piece of legislation driven by privileged WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) racists intent on driving people of color, religious minorities, and anyone else deemed a threat underground, or out of Arizona all together. The inclusion of canon law, no doubt, is a pointed shot at the predominantly Catholic Latino/Latina community, which has been a frequent target of all varieties of hatred under the sun in Arizona. Religious and racial oppression have often been linked in the United States (and many other nations), precisely because religious minorities are also, at least in part, racial minorities.

But this bill's stated contempt for not only national law, but also international law, adds another element - that of secession from the union - which I haven't seen highlighted in other discussions. The snow birds and others who have become accustomed to enjoying all those pristine golf courses and perfectly green lawns - courtesy of the disappearing Colorado River - want to drive out all the "impediments" currently blocking their paradise on earth.

The three poisons of Buddhism come to mind - greed, hatred, and ignorance. It's tough to see them coming out in such oppressive terms, but there they are none the less. Across the U.S., similar, if less wide-reaching laws are being considered in over a dozen states. While states are claiming near bankruptcy, and millions of people are struggling to find jobs, pay bills, get decent health care, and generally cover their basic needs, this is the kind of horseshit being peddled in response.

For those of you outside of the U.S., or whom aren't up on your history, there are a few interesting things to consider about Arizona.

1. It has only been an official state for 99 years, having become part of the Union on Valentines Day (lol!) in 1912.

2. The vast majority of white Arizonans arrived there only after statehood, which makes the claims of white supremacist groups and their sympathizers all the more ridiculous.

3. Arizona was part of a broad imperialist expansion of United States territory to the Pacific ocean that occurred in 1840's and 1850s.

4. Although much has been made in recent decades about undocumented Latino/Latina immigration across the Mexican/U.S., fairly large Latino/Latina communities have made parts of Arizona home for at least three centuries.

5. Navajo, Hopi, and other indigenous groups have called Arizona home for even longer than that.

Given that there isn't close to a majority of Arizona legislators currently publicly backing this bill, it probably won't become law. But I don't think it would be wise to dismiss this as the effort of some tiny fringe group. We might not have reached the stage of government ousting that has spread across the Middle East, but things are really flammable in the U.S. right now, and there's no telling what exactly could come next. All the more reason to keep training yourself in the tools of non-violence, and to help spread those tools to others, however you can.

*Photo is a graphic representation of the three poisons.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What's Liking Your Teacher Got to Do With it?

I've had a few spiritual teachers in my day. A couple of Zen teachers. Maybe four yoga teachers, if I don't count the one time only events. Of those, I worked closely with about half the group, and can't say I felt dislike for any of them while I worked with them.

But is liking your teacher necessary? Or even beneficial?

This post could easily be applied to any spiritual teacher or guide in my view. It's focused on yoga teachers though, and given my interest in teaching yoga - and presence in a yoga teacher training - it's a totally fascinating issue to consider.

Most Westerners focus on personality. Most want not only for their teachers to “like” them but, if they are also teachers, for their students to “like” them. Behavior is modified and softened. In other words, students kiss their teachers’ behinds, while teachers refrain from any criticism that might offend.

Yoga has grown very “social” in the West. Teachers and students often become friends (or more than friends). Personally, I steer clear from yoga cliques. In the primary relationship between teacher and student, however, I do seek real rapport. But is this necessary? Or am I filling another need in myself, too?

I remember wanting to be liked by my first Zen teacher. We had a pretty strong in-group, out-group thing going on in the zen center at that time, which I think was one of many issues that lead to the unceremonious exit of said teacher. I can still recall the first day of the first retreat I did, feeling entirely petrified for several hours as I tried to do the rituals and the rest "right," and worried I'd be called out for being a screw up. The intensity of my fear was so great at times that I could barely sit upright, let alone focus on my breath or much of anything else. And I can see now that at least some of that was tied to wanting to be accepted into the "in-group," to be liked by the teacher and more senior students, and thus be amongst those who could be called "the good Zen students.

Looking back, I can see this is both a totally normal thing to do, and also is quite indicative of a self-focus on overdrive. Being liked or disliked by a teacher really has little bearing on one's spiritual development, but at the time, I must have thought that it did.

Let's consider the "social" aspect mentioned above. I personally believe that it really can be wonderful when communities spring up around yoga, for example, because there is a decidedly privatized, individualistic streak running through the larger North American yoga world anyway. Many people arrive at a class 5 minutes beforehand, the class is run entirely by a teacher talking people through poses, and then everyone rushes out the door to their next destination. So, when genuine communities develop where people actually share their experiences, talk about the practice, think about the deeper questions behind the body practices, and just have fun together - that should be celebrated. I'll certainly celebrate it.

On the other hand, no doubt there can be yoga cliques in ways that are like what happened at my zen center. And no doubt healthy communities can devolve into insular groups where people reinforce the worst in each other, thinking they are doing the opposite.

But back to the specific issue at hand, it's interesting to consider how wanting to like, and also to be liked, might impact yoga practice in communal settings like studios. I love discussion, and even debating, when everyone is treated with basic respect, regardless of their opinions. I remember times in my Iyengar classes where our teacher would bring up some challenging topic for discussion, one or two of us would say something, and everyone else would just stare silently at the wall in front of them. What's this about? Many things perhaps. Maybe they don't know about the topic. Maybe they have no opinion. Maybe they had a rough day, and just can't think clearly. Plenty of possibilities.

But I also think that one reason could be that silence on a topic you might disagree with someone on in class, especially the teacher, maintains a sense of ease in the relationships there, and also keeps the likability factor up. There is certainly a risk if you disagree with your teacher. And if you have a regular group of students you're in, there's a risk in disagreeing with them as well.

However, what happens when people don't take risks, don't share what they have experienced or have learned about in such settings? In my view, everything stays on a more surface level. Your teacher may like you and you might like your teacher, but the learning lab you work in together gets stale at a certain point, and the murky, challenging issues of life fail to be surfaced and considered fully. On a recent post about yoga and men, a few commenters mentioned angst towards the syrupy, feel good language of some yoga classes, and that can end up playing a role in all of this. Yoga becomes a place to get a "feel good" hit, and then people go back to their "regular lives" and struggle until their next yoga class.

To flip the coin over, though, I personally have never been attracted to yoga teachers, zen teachers, or really anyone who defaults to harsh, almost militaristic methods of teaching. There is a strand of Zen teacher ancestors who regularly beat on students, called them names, shouted at them, etc. - all in the name of waking them up. I can imagine this benefits some people, but I don't think it's needed for the majority of us. In addition, the issues around liking a teacher can come up for people no matter how a teacher teachers. People can seek to cozy up to the drill sargent just as much as the gentle spirit: it just might look different.

In the end, though, I'll just repeat what I said earlier. Being liked or disliked by a teacher really has little bearing on one's spiritual development. So, perhaps it's most important to check in on your motivations and intentions when considering your relationship with spiritual peers and/or teachers. The same goes for teachers who feel a need to be liked. I certainly had that while teaching ESL and had to learn to have more open conversations with students, to disagree respectfully when certain viewpoints came up, and to be honest with students when, for example, they missed too much class or were arguing too much with classmates (this happened sometimes).

One of the challenges I see with yoga classes is that more often than not, there isn't really a somewhat stable community of students working with a teacher. So, the trust level needed to take risks, share painful stories, and to explore more difficult, uneasy issues is often lacking. Part of my interest in yoga teaching has to do with helping to develop more communities, so that the depth of the practice can be accessed for more of us, as well as to just bring about more coming together, being together, working together in a society that is filled with the opposite.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Unravelling Structural Oppression in Buddhist Thailand

Maia Duerr from over at Jizo Chronicles and Liberated Life Project just returned from a month in Thailand. Having had many students from Thailand, as well as friends who have taught English over there, I'm always interested in what people's experiences are.

Maia writes:
During my time in Thailand, I’ve loved spending time with my friend Ouyporn Khuankaew. Ouyporn is one of the most courageous people I know, and a true example of what it means to live a liberated life.

This post opens up by pointing out that so much of what we think is the "truth" is really social conditioning from culture, family, and other sources that we have just accepted as the only realty. And as someone who has often questioned even the most basic things and ideas, one of the reasons why people struggle to break through social conditioning is that even questioning much of it brings great resistance from others.

Ouyporn’s life could have turned out like so many other women. But she took a different direction.

In 2002, she co-founded the International Partnership for Women’s Peace and Justice with Ginger Norwood. For the past nine years, she and Ginger have led retreats and workshops at IWP for activists and people from marginalized groups, including sex workers, trans-gendered, and people with HIV. (To learn more about IWP, see this story from Ms Magazine.)

Ouyporn is a self-identified radical feminist lesbian who teaches people how structural oppression works and how it can be unraveled. And in this intensely Buddhist country, she reminds women that the Buddha’s original teachings on karma were not meant to be used as an excuse for unjust conditions.

Interestingly, the IWP site is right next door to the house that Ouyporn grew up in. Her aging mother still lives there. So Ouyporn has managed the unique feat of staying close to her roots while at the same time living a life that is completely true to who she is.

I can only imagine how difficult this work has been for Ouyporn, and yet also probably very rewarding at the same time. Mistaken notions of karma as some sort of fixed destiny or punishment for past life misdeeds are pretty commonplace, even amongst people in North America. But again, I think a major reason for this is just an acceptance of ideas that have been spread around without examining them closely. Someone hurts another, then gets hurt themselves, and people think "Oh, it's their karma coming back around." I don't think it's as simple as that.

In addition, bring up the phrase "structural oppression" in any nation, and tie it to specific structures, and you can watch the sparks fly out of people's heads. "There's no structural racism! It's just some bad apples." How many times have you heard that one?

Anyway, I love sharing stories of people who are challenging the dominant narratives, and questioning the social conditioning that otherwise would run their lives. Ouyporn's work is inspiring.

May we all be liberated in this life.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Miserys of Guilt and Shame

Do you struggle with guilt and/or shame? I certainly have had periods where I was overwhelmed with both. Doesn't happen as much any more, or for as long when it does, for which I am grateful for.

This post from Yoga in the Dragon's Den is equally relevant to both yoga and Buddhist practitioners. Here is an excerpt:

Having grown up in a culture in which shaming or "guilting" people into doing things is such a big part of everyday life, I am aware that it can be an effective tool to get people (and even myself) to do things. But I just think that the emotional/psychological baggage created by guilt can't be good for one in the long run. So a few years ago, starting from around the time when I began to do yoga, I resolved that, even though I am far from being a perfect human being (are there perfect human beings out there? Please get in touch with me: I want to get to know you :-)), I am going to try my best to live life on my own terms, for better or for worse, and to try not to look back and feel guilty about stuff I could have or should have done.

Now, I think there is value in separating guilt from shame to take a closer look.

In my experience, guilt is always self-focused, overly attached to a solid self that "screwed up." Feeling guilty about yelling at your kids, or stealing money from the petty cash jar at work doesn't do anything to rectify the situation. In fact, it maintains thew focus on yourself. The person or group of people who have been harmed by your action confront you and you say something like "Oh, I feel so guilty. I wish I hadn't done that." And sometimes what happens here is that the other person or group of people end up talking to you about your guilt. Or they end up having to accept that you felt guilty, and that nothing else can be done about what happened. Of course, sometimes nothing else can be done, but that's not really the point.

Shame is more tricky, although I don't think in the end, it's any more helpful. For the most part, shame just universalizes a mistake or set of mistakes into a totalized view of one's self. Instead of feeling bad about a particular behavior and it's consequences, you see yourself as a "bad person" who will "never get it right."

Indulging in either shame or guilt, in other words, not only doesn't help rectify the original situation, but also creates a stickiness around the mistaken behaviors that keeps them fixed in your mind and body. You keep thinking about what happened. You create a negative image of your self around what happened. And so you end up carrying what happened, often long after others might have forgotten it.

What Buddhists, for example, tend to point to as a more proper response is a feeling of remorse. Remorse is tied to repentance for specific actions, which then can lead to a sense of compassion for yourself and others who have made similar mistakes. Being remorseful help break down the self-focus, and also burns through attachments to misdeeds through both the act of repentance, and also any decisions that aid in rectifying a situation.

What have your experiences been with guilt and shame? Do you see them as helpful or harmful?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Yoga and Men

As a male yoga practitioner, I have long found it interesting that most studio-based yoga classes are dominated by women. Given the history of yoga in it's various forms, and how men dominated it, it's quite interesting to see the reversal happening now. The core class for my yoga teacher training, which started last week, is split almost right down the middle - 5 men and 6 women. The studio owner was excited, and said it was the first time this had happened.

Makes me wonder what it is about yoga right now that has attracted so many women, and not all that many men comparatively? I have some theories, but nothing that really feels like it addresses the whole works.

There has been some discussion online about the current issue of Yoga Journal, which has a man on the cover for the first time in nearly a decade. Media representations of yoga certainly have played a role in the great disparity in numbers between male and female yoga practitioners.

The discussion over at the blog Yoga Dork has an interesting mix of views. If you want to read a few rants by yours truly about consumerism, racial and gender stereotypes, it's there in the comments as well. Here is a snippet from the original post:

Meet LA yoga teacher and George Clooney’s cousin’s doppelganger, Matt Pesendian. Rumor has it this is the first time in 8 years a male yogi has graced the glossy face of YJ. Congratulations! Men are yogis, too, even if some still think ‘that shit is hard.’

Yet, as another commenter deftly pointed out, this yoga thing is also about accessibility. Matt doesn’t teach a separate “meat and potatoes” dude yoga, but he is, essentially, a man who practices yoga. A helpful thing when yoga culture in the West is fem-dominated. (it is. see Yoga Journal)

So sure, it’s easy to pick on YJ, being the biggest publication of yoga representation, currently, and in all fairness, we have certainly seen men featured within the pages here and there, and naturally we admire this gent, but you tell us, does this help you men out there more inclined to get the yoga-ing?

What do you think about all this?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

"Spiritual" Animals

This "power kitty" is courtesy of the Yoga Dork.

I have had a lot of heavy posts recently. Many of my fellow Buddhist bloggers have had a lot of heavy posts recently. Some of the yoga blogs have also been pretty damn heavy.

So, it's time for a little fun!!

Considering yoga ethics in a capitalist society is tough work. Sometimes, you have to take a break from all of that, and take your dog to class.

There is an old saying about meditation practice which goes "not too tight, not too loose." In honor of Groundhog Day, here's a little buddy whose form maybe needs a bit of improvement.

Sad to say, but I think this bear has me beat in the flexibility category...

Does a rat have buddhanature?

This guy seems to make appearances both on the yoga mat and on the meditation zafu. Hmm...

And seriously, monkeys get a bad rap amongst the Buddhists.

Hell, they even sometimes handle sangha better than people.

Of course, it's good to have a balanced view of things. Like this photo of members of the Buddhist blogosphere attacking Genpo Roshi's car.

Maybe after the dust settles, we can all listen to the words of that famous post riot American peacemaker, Rodney King:

Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to work it out.

Fist bumps to you all. Meow!

Zen, Power, and Zhaozhou's Koans

I'm scandaled out for a while. Which is fine. Plenty of other things in life to consider, right?

An old grad school classmate drilled into my mind and others a trinity on power from philosopher Michel Foucault. He said what people do to maintain power, and also often do in response to power abuse is to minimize, deny, and blame. I have seen a ton of this online this week in relation to various Zen teacher scandals, most notably Genpo Roshi and Eido Shimano Roshi. Blame the teacher. Blame the student. Minimize the actions of the teacher as "mere sex." Minimize the responsibility on both sides of the equation, as well as the collective responsibility of the wider Zen community. (Why are all these Zen students and teachers even talking about something that doesn't involve them? To which I'd respond, why is nearly the entire world, down to nearly every last political leader paying close attention to, and commenting on, events in Egypt and other Middle East nations?) Deny the impact of teacher's action. Deny the validity of grievances of said teacher's students. Deny the agency of said students, suggesting they are nothing but helpless victims.

The list goes on and on. Foucault's trinity is a wonderful lens for considering such things. Maybe I'll go into in more another day. Not today though.

Today, the weather here is finally warming up. It's cloudy, but snow is melting. You can almost feel spring in the air.

Hanging out with the college meditation group yesterday was a treat. We did zazen and kinhin, and then considered the following koan:

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “For a long time, I’ve heard of the stone bridge of Zhaozhou, but now that I’ve come here I only see a simple log bridge.” Zhaozhou said, “You just see the log bridge; you don’t see the stone bridge.” The monk said, “What is the stone bridge?” Zhaozhou replied, “Asses cross, horses cross.”

This is case 52 in the Blue Cliff Record for those interested.

Now for those of you who aren't too familiar with Zhaozhou, he's well known for being a toned down, ordinary kind of guy. He wasn't a flashy teacher, nor was he given to pounding on students, shouting, or any of the other "tools" of some of the old Zen masters. One of the first stories about Zhaozhou I ever heard was Nanchuan's Cat, where his response to bickering in the hall, and subsequent cutting in half of a cat by Zen master Nanchuan, was to remove his sandals, place them on his head, and walk out silently.

As a cat lover, I have always gravitated back to that koan, partly out of a sense of sadness for the cat and the people involved who seem so entangled. And aren't we all entangled in something? Aren't we all caught up in clinging too hard to one side or another, sometimes to the point where someone ends up spilling blood? After several years, I still don't know what to make of Nanchuan's act. At times, I've thought cutting the cat was just a metaphoric act, showing the ways in which humans cut the world into dualistic parts all the time. At other times, I have thought that he did kill the cat, and it was in order to help his students wake up. Still other times, I think he just acted rashly, and blew it.

Zhaozhou's response there always has felt more in line with the truth for some reason. He seems to deeply get the entanglements that are present in the situation, and placing his shoes on his head, considered a sign of mourning, show a respect for and perhaps also sadness for what has happened.

Going back to the first koan, Zhaoshou's actions in both koans are a reflection of what seems to be a knowing that both asses and horses cross to the "other side." This "other side" being nirvana, awakened and liberated life. Like the end of the Heart Sutra - "Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha" or gone, gone, completely gone across to the other side. And the "asses" and "horses" you might take to be the delusional and the awakened, which if you believe Zhaoshou both "go across the bridge" to nirvana. But while the monk in the koan asking Zhaoshou about the stone bridge thinks there is a location to "go to" to reach nirvana, Zhaoshou's answer seems to be an indicator that trying to find a some location, or bridge, or magic entry point is off the mark.

Going back to power, I think a wise - even liberated - understanding of power is the ability to see both "the stone bridge" (the absolute) and "the log bridge" (our relative, everyday stories and lives) and to take care of both. And considering power isn't just about Zen teachers, or political leaders: it's about how each of us conducts our lives in the world, understanding that our actions do have an impact, however tiny it might be. It's an understanding that cause and effect doesn't disappear if you see into the nature of things, and that humility, compassion, and taking care of the stories in our lives are lifelong processes.

That's all I have for today. Have a great Saturday!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Zen Teacher Scandals, Group Dynamics, and The Swamp of It All

I'm feeling a bit disturbed today. My great grandmother, at almost 102, is probably on the way out of this life. It's amazing that this spunky, sassy woman has lived so long, and mostly in pretty good health, so it's hard to feel to down about it. But there's still some sadness.

Secondly, I was thoroughly dressed down on the thread of this post from a prominent feminist website. I enjoy learning about new issues and theories, especially when they might aid me in seeing through some of the warped cultural conditioning I have inherited. My only comments about what happened there was that my mistake was not shutting up earlier, and that I feel this kind of behavior amongst people "on the left" for lack of a better term is one of the main reasons social movements have gone nowhere in recent decades here in the U.S. (Please, no feminist bashing in response to these comments; it's not about that, it's about how people struggle to work together across differences, and end up tearing each other to shreds in the most uncompassionate ways.)

Finally, this Zen teacher scandal business moved from wherever it had been down to my gut this morning. An anonymous commenter left a comment on my recent Genpo Roshi post that basically defended Genpo through absolutism, and I kind of went off on that person.

This whole defend the "victims" at the total expense of the "victimizer", or defend the "victimizer" at the total expense of the "victims" is a pair of sick delusions that we all need to wake up from.

James Ford over at Monkey Mind has some great comments this morning about the state of "Western Zen":

There are those who say we need to grow up and walk away from Zen teachers.

I respectfully say you can. And you may well find a true and useful and healthful path. It won’t, however, be Zen.

The Zen way has evolved within a system of training, or rather a cluster of training systems, all of which require spiritual direction.

The way Zen came west, through individual teachers with limited supervision, and then establishing centers that are more or less isolated from each other has created a cultish system. That’s the problem, aggravated, of course, by the inflated language of transmission. I’ve explored both of these issues before.

I’m confident we are also at the edge of a time where people are no longer dependent upon keeping a relationship with a specific teacher or giving up the practice. In some ways the scandals reflect that reality. We don’t have to put up with the inappropriate in order to have access to the way.

Over at Sweeping Zen, Erik Storlie has an even more provocative essay about Lineage, Dharma Transmission, and teacher scandals.

So long as American Zen relies on dharma transmission as a credential, there will be one Shimano after another – and dharma heirs who will go to great lengths to protect the master that conferred authority upon them. For if the master who has declared me awakened has erred, if he does not, indeed, “dwell in the Absolute,” then my own credential is called into question – along with my prestige and authority in the community and my ability to confer this power upon others.

Even if the magical claims of dharma transmission are discarded and it is recognized as an ordinary human institution, it still should not be retained as a method of training Zen meditation teachers. No truly meaningful credential can be conferred simply at the pleasure of one person. Indeed, as a method, it creates toxic interpersonal dynamics in communities, for the future recognition or preferment of a student is entirely dependent upon pleasing a dharma heir, or a presumptive dharma heir. If I wish to rise in this hierarchical system, I must pay court to the dharma heir and his or her favorites, and as a courtier in such a system, I can never openly acknowledge my self-interested pursuit of attention, for my goal is always, theoretically, “spiritual” development. Yet, of course, my ability to please a dharma heir and receive, in my turn, recognition and/or authorization will give me status and even employment opportunities. The dynamics of court, courtier, and courtship create endless distortions of human behavior even in ordinary institutions – a business, political party, or college. These run wild when the king, queen, pope, or dharma heir has imputed “special” powers. Anyone connected for a length of time to a Zen Center can cite examples.

This is perhaps a bit cynical. I don't think that dharma transmission has created "a toxic" environment in all the "Western Zen centers" out there. Or even a majority. However, the delusions around the student/teacher relationship on both sides of the equation are certainly exploding all around us, and I agree that attachment to stories about lineage, dharma transmission, and teachers as mostly perfected bodhisattvas are major concerns that need to be addressed.

Anyway, it's all very swamp-like to me today. I'll be heading over to see my friends at the local college meditation group this afternoon, which seems like good timing. Take care everyone.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Squirrel Watching as Meditation

This blog is almost two years old now. After the morning sittings during our lay practice intensive at the Zen center, I walked through a park in downtown filled with fat and people friendly squirrels. Those experiences reminded me of this post, one of my first on DH. Enjoy!

They are ubiquitous here in the city. On days when the sun splits through every tree branch, and the air has warmed sufficiently for the comfort of feet, it seems like every turn of the eye brings sight of one.

Squirrels: bane of gardeners, cranky homeowners, speeding drivers, and hungry winter birds.

You might be asking by now, what do squirrels have to do with meditation?

In the Genjo Koan, Dogen wrote, now famously, "To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things."

Have you ever stopped and watched a squirrel? I don't mean for a few seconds, nor do I mean having an "awe, cute" moment. I mean stop, fully, and be with the squirrel, and yourself.

Try sticking with it for a minute, two minutes. If you don't move much and your lucky, maybe you can even go five minutes with the same squirrel. All sorts of things arise in the mind, especially if you're in the city. Labels. It's fat, skinny, sick looking, grey, white, brown, black, bushy. Judgements. It's ugly, cute, anxious, crazy, goofy, stupid, smart, thieving. Opinions. I like this squirrel. I don't like this squirrel. I hate this squirrel. I have better things to do than watch this squirrel. I love watching squirrels. Paranoid thoughts. What if it leaps on me? What does the neighbor think of me standing still here in the middle of the sidewalk?

And if this isn't enough, the odds are also fairly good that, during this period of watching, you have failed to "watch" some portion of the time. A car rolls by behind you. You turn away for a few seconds. The neighbor steps out of his door for a smoke. You turn away again. From somewhere unknown, a loud sound, and you turn away again. You become bored, and you turn away once more.

It's hard to stay fully with the same squirrel, the same old stories in your head, the life that you have at this moment. And to the extent that we can't stick with it, we miss an opportunity to dig in and really wake up to who we are. I miss a lot, you probably do too.

We are fortunate then, to have so many squirrels in the world to remind us to come back to ourselves. To come back to our lives right now, as they are. I bow to the squirrels for their teaching.

Sweeping Zen Needs Your Help

Sweeping Zen, a virtual warehouse of all things Zen, is quickly becoming a great resource for folks interested in the convert Zen world. Adam Tebbe, the editor, has spent countless hours doing interviews with Zen teachers, assembling links to various Zen communities, collecting teacher bios, and many other things. He's currently trying to raise a little money to support hosting the website. His ask is quite modest, and I figured I'd offer my readers an opportunity to help Adam grow this resource.

Here's an excerpt from his current post:

This website has been growing in popularity, which is a wonderful development I’ve been working toward for the last two years. From month to month we receive more visitors and, recently, there has been a huge spike in visitors averaging about 1000 visitors per day this month. That is encouraging and I hope to see this trend continue. The problem may be remedied by a simple cache mechanism being put in place. However, with 72 hours to bring down CPU, my goal is to have a backup plan (ie., dedicated server for hosting). If we garner enough monthly support I will upgrade to a dedicated server as we’ll need one at some point in the future, given the trajectory of statistics.

I have considered adding a pay pal button to Dangerous Harvests, in part because I haven't been working for the last five months, and so money is going out, but not really coming in. Making money on this blog was never on the radar before, and I'm still not terribly concerned about it one way or the other.

But I do like to support my fellow bloggers out there, many of whom graciously share their experiences, research on topics, and questions about life to all of us, and who rarely ask for anything in return. Adam's blog is one of those, so if you have few bucks, send it his way. Thanks.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Yoga, Anorexia, and Gross-Level Fixations

This post will have some yoga practitioners stopping in there tracks. I hope. And even for those of you who could care less about yoga, it's still worth consideration. Why? Because what's described here is part of a larger set of cultural issues around body image and narratives about spirituality that need to be deeply questioned.

The sadness that spawns from the passing of Isabelle Caro, a French model who died of anorexia two months ago, weighs heavy on those of us who teach and coach body awareness.

The starkness of her posing naked for the Italian photographer and billboard graphic is unforgettable. Toward the end of her short 28 years, she decided to expose the under-belly of the modeling world, the objectification of women, and the cultural fixation on the body-lite.

Upon reflection, I feel that the visual pre-occupation we have around the body overwhelms the kinesthetic feel of just being in the body. For instance, in the culture of yoga today, the outer glossing of the pose is all too visible—on the cover of Yoga Journal, the back of the Special K cereal box, or on television adverts marketing everything from mattresses to mood altering over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. Yoga, like fashion, gets reduced to simplistic posing, and the outer form stands significant. That is the warp.

Then there is the infatuation with the weightless body. This is not confined to the runways. The act of being light and the steps necessary to get light are part and parcel of yoga practice, and have been for centuries. The impulse to be thin is rampant throughout yoga studios in West Palm Beach, Santa Monica and Scottsdale, Arizona.

One of the interesting things here is the issue of lightness. I believe that most of the time, we fail to operate on a subtle level. We mistake gross appearances as the real thing, or the only thing. The lightness of yoga, or Buddhism for that matter, isn't about body weight. Nor is it about being a shiny, happy person sending rainbows to everyone all the time.

Lightness, to me, is about flow. It's about being the one who isn't hung up on every little thought or action. The one who isn't constantly manufacturing more "self" during their interactions with others.

Fasting, holding your breath, balancing on your arms, and doing kapalabhati (a breathing technique where the abdomen is pumped while exhaling forcefully) all suggest attempts to defy gravity. Levitation, being completely weightless, is the quintessential yogic device to demonstrate accomplishment (siddhi) in classical Indian lore. Stories of the levitating yogi abounded in the mid 20th century, as described in the popular Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. The third chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras suggests that the yogi who has gained mastery can float “as light as a tuft of cotton.” Today, yoga on sweat-drenched sticky mats, juicing fasts, raw food diets and power yoga work-outs are intended to drive the body into obedience and to make it weightless. Yoga, like anorexia, is driven by an impulse to gain control over physical (and mental) limits.

I'm not sure I agree with the author if he's suggesting the above practices are always, or even mostly, part of the problem. What I see going on is a misperception issue, one that maybe has been present amongst some practitioners for centuries. He's quite correct that levitation narratives are pretty easy to find amongst yogic literature, just as there has been a strand of Zen writings that have highly focused on dynamic, sometimes wild satori experiences. Going to extremes, and/or emphasizing extremes as methods and/or end points of spiritual practices is commonplace. You'd think Buddhists would be "cured" of such things, given the Buddha's historical narrative, but I don't think so.

However, the other practices, including inverted poses and breathing exercises, don't have to be about going to extremes. My experience has been that they can re-calibrate your equilibrium, offering a different balance point to work from than that which you're used to.

I sometimes think it might be helpful to long time Zen students, who have sat years on end in zazen, to be flipped over. To do handstands or headstands during meditation retreats. Why? To shake things up. This is one of the reasons I have always had a dual practice. I have noticed how stale meditation practice can get in a bodily way, which impacts the mind as well.

And those detox diets that are so popular? Well, it depends upon how they are viewed. There's no doubt that the level of toxins from human made products is much higher today than in the past. In addition, even a person who eats a relatively healthy diet can get plugged up with fats, chemicals, etc. from time to time. Eating certain foods to flush out toxins is a very old practice, and one that doesn't have to lead to unhealthy obsessions about the body.

However, like the author, I can see how all of this, the detox diets, the inverted poses and breath techniques, and the flat stomached yoginis on magazines covers, can easily tie into the commonplace destructive cultural narratives about body weight, body appearance, and self image. And to those out there who have the attitude that anything goes when it comes to yoga, or any other spiritual practice, have to consider the consequences of that attitude.

Furthermore, though, I do believe that it's also the case that in every major religious and spiritual tradition I can think of, there is a strand of body-hatred tied to desires to transcend the Earth to some "heavenly plane" that is essentially invisible, bodiless, and perfect because of that. Yoga has it. Buddhism has it. The Big Three Monotheistic traditions certainly have it.

So, partly what I see today is a convergence of long standing distrust of anything "earth based," including our own bodies, with the rampant consumeristic narratives that have created impossible standards of "beauty" that are also entirely superficial and meaningless in the end. It's a really curious mixture if you think about it.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Genpo Roshi Falls Again

This was a surprise to stumble upon, even though I suppose it really shouldn't be much of a surprise.

Owning My Responsibility
A Personal Statement from Genpo Merzel
I have chosen to disrobe as a Buddhist Priest, and will stop giving Buddhist Precepts or Ordinations, but I will continue teaching Big Mind. I will spend the rest of my life truly integrating the Soto Zen Buddhist Ethics into my life and practice so I can once again regain dignity and respect. My actions have caused a tremendous amount of pain, confusion, and controversy for my wife, family, and Sangha, and for this I am truly sorry and greatly regret. My behavior was not in alignment with the Buddhist Precepts. I feel disrobing is just a small part of an appropriate response.

I am also resigning as an elder of the White Plum Asanga. My actions should not be viewed as a reflection on the moral fabric of any of the White Plum members.

As Genpo Merzel, I will continue to bring Big Mind into the world and to train and facilitate people who wish to study with me. I will not give up on, and will still be available for people who wish to continue studying with me as just an ordinary human being who is working on his own shadows and deeply rooted patterns.

With great humility I will continue to work on my own shadows and deeply rooted patterns that have led me to miss the mark of being a moral and ethical person and a decent human being. I appreciate all the love and support as well as the criticism that has been shared with me. Experiencing all the pain and suffering that I have caused has truly touched my heart and been the greatest teacher. It has helped open my eyes and given me greater clarity around my own dishonest, hurtful behavior as well as my sexual misconduct. I recently entered therapy and plan to continue indefinitely with it. I am in deep pain over the suffering I have caused my wife, children, students, successors and Sangha.

With Sadness and Love,
D. Genpo Merzel

The response to this announcement from the Whte Plum Asanga is as follows.

Special Announcement
The White Plum Asanga Board of Directors has accepted the resignation of Genpo Merzel from White Plum Asanga membership as well as an Elder of the White Plum. This resignation is a result of his recent disclosures regarding sexual misconduct with several of his students. Please see the Big Mind website for their statement. On behalf of the White Plum organization, I extend our support for Genpo's efforts in recovery and treatment and to the teachers and members of the Kanzeon Sangha in their efforts in healing and realigning their communities. --- Roshi Gerry Shishin Wick, President, WPA

Anyone who happens to follow the ongoings in the Buddhist 'blogosphere' will be well acquainted with the broad criticism Mr. Merzel has been subject to over the past years. I don't intend to rehash those criticisms here, but would rather like to briefly consider Mr. Merzel's announcement and how it reflects patterns of behavior in the larger Buddhist community, of which this is simply one example amongst many.

Genpo is no stranger to this blog or many others. His money making Big Mind process has been torn apart by so many in the blogosphere that there is too many to count. Now he joins the ranks of Zen teachers who have fallen prey to power, and lust, and in the process, have harmed many people in his trust.

Some outsiders are already thinking that this whole teacher/student relationship thing in Zen is a disaster, and should be abandoned. Some insiders, or former insiders, feel the same, including the guy who offered the post.

He wrote:

Mr. Merzel has, with his announcement, chosen to adopt the approach of admitting his misgivings, professing a willingness to humbly accept the consequences of his actions by disrobing as a Buddhist priest, giving up his 'Elder' status, entering into therapy, and to "spend the rest of my life truly integrating the Soto Zen Buddhist Ethics into my life and practice so I can once again regain dignity and respect." Yet, at the same time, Mr. Merzel has expressed the intention to continue teaching Big Mind, and "will not give up on, and will still be available for people who wish to continue studying with me". This strategy, although not without risk, seems to be quite successful in some Buddhist communities. Rather than indefinitely adhering to the position of strict denial, or, perhaps more commonly, after an initial period of strict denial and subsequently being forced to give up that position, the teacher attempts to appeal to others' appreciation for human fallibility; something most can sympathize with to some degree. However, when this occurs in the case of someone in the role of a teacher, it is not at all uncommon for that person to subsequently be praised for his/her admissions and, paradoxically though it may seem, the entire situation may be turned around such that in the end, the teacher actually enjoys a better standing amongst his peers and followers than beforehand! It is precisely due to the delicate psychical intricacies at play in potentially harmful situations such as these that I would offer a strong word of caution to anyone considering engaging another person as a 'teacher' in a religious context, whether it be (Zen) Buddhist or otherwise.

I think this view is too extreme. In fact, it's driven by a fear that humans are incapable of healthy, deep intimacy, and so we best remain on guard. You could take this and extend it out to psychologists, spouses and lovers, deep friendships, and in the end, you'd be left unscathed perhaps, but also untouched by the best parts of life.

But it does bring up some good questions for me. First off, how do you handle the incoming news about power and sex abuse in sanghas, and other spiritual communities? More specifically, how do you maintain openness and trust, while also being intelligent about and responsible for whatever relationships fall under the "deeply intimate" category? (Note: intimate here isn't about sex, if that isn't already clear.)

Another interesting issue brought up in the comment above is the reputation of a fallen teacher after the admission of abuse occurs, especially if it's done in a reasonably above board manner. It's worth pondering. The examples I can think of off hand, including what happened in my own sangha, are examples of repeated denial and never really taking full responsibility. In all those cases, views of the teacher in question were or are mixed afterward, as some folks who stayed loyal stick by the teacher in question, while others make efforts to keep the record set straight about the messes that were made. And then there are all those who never heard about the past, and so aren't working from the fault line so to speak.

It is a fault line, when you think about it. Genpo's narrative in the world will now, for many people, hover around the admission point. And when you think about how humans tend to handle big screw ups in general, this is a major fixation for us. Someone is sent to jail for robbing a bank when they are 20 years old, and for the rest of their life, that robbery plays a major role in how others see him or her, even if the patterns of behaviors that led to that event have mostly or completely disappeared. You would think a practice like Zen would loose up this kind of thinking, but probably not to the extent that it should, given the teachings we study and sit with for years on end.

Given the commonplace quality of teacher scandals in "Western" Zen communities over the past 50 years, perhaps the following larger issues need to be examined, along with things like community ethics policies:

1. the ways people are trained to think about major ethical breeches and criminal activities, and how our teachings either support that, or ride against it

2. the hardened narratives around those who have committed such acts in the past (i.e. things like "Once an abuser, always an abuser.)

3. how to protect groups and individuals from predatory behaviors, while also maintaining an attitude of "don't know" openness about the future of the person whose behaviors caused major harm

4. the role of teacher/student relationships in a more horizontal, democratic social context

Some of these things do come up in discussions of teacher scandals, but they tend to play a back role to commentaries about ethical violations, development of ethics policies, methods to heal communities harmed by scandals, and ways to train and "police" teachers on a larger scale (regional, national, etc.)

May all those harmed by Genpo's behavior be healed and be able to move on. And may Genpo wake up in the face of his big mistakes, and step more fully into his life as it is.