Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mindfulness and the Body

During our core session at yoga teaching training last night, we were working on alignment in standing poses. Given the way the schedule has fallen, I have also attended two other classes focusing on alignment and adjustments in - you guessed it, standing poses. So, I'm more aware of the differences between standing and sitting, for example, right now. There's nothing terribly profound about that, but it's still interesting.

As you may have noticed, I have had a lot of posts up over the last week, and many of them were dealing with heavy subject matter that brought up some reactions. Reactions from readers and reactions from myself. But what I noticed yesterday was the postures my body was taking, while writing, while considering what I was reading, while sitting on a crowded bus.

When I reading something I didn't agree with, or was confused by, there was a tension in my stomach and I was more hunched down towards the computer screen. When I was intent on making a point during a particular comment, I felt pressure in my fingers and neck, and leaned in even closer to the screen. While on the bus, I noticed a desire for more space competing with attempts to squeeze my body inward and become smaller. And after all of that, I arrived at yoga training, was asked to do Warrior pose, and the teacher noticed right away how tense my shoulders were.

The thing is, I wasn't really upset, anxious, sad, or angry while reading and writing online. And the bus ride wasn't that bad, but perhaps the combination of three or four hours of poor body posture and a dislike towards feeling "boxed in" led to the struggle between body and mind I was experiencing. However, what is true is that I wasn't paying very close attention to body posture, only glimpsing it now and then as I got lost in what was happening around me. While I might have been mindful about choosing my words, and interacting with others when there were others to interact - I was mostly mindless about the body, as if it wasn't even there.

The Kayagata-sati Sutta has this to say about mindfulness and the body:

"There is the case where a monk — having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building — sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect and setting mindfulness to the fore. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.

"Breathing in long, he discerns, 'I am breathing in long'; or breathing out long, he discerns, 'I am breathing out long.' Or breathing in short, he discerns, 'I am breathing in short'; or breathing out short, he discerns, 'I am breathing out short.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.' He trains himself, 'I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.' And as he remains thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, any memories & resolves related to the household life are abandoned, and with their abandoning his mind gathers & settles inwardly, grows unified & centered. This is how a monk develops mindfulness immersed in the body.

"Furthermore, when walking, the monk discerns, 'I am walking.' When standing, he discerns, 'I am standing.' When sitting, he discerns, 'I am sitting.' When lying down, he discerns, 'I am lying down.' Or however his body is disposed, that is how he discerns it. And as he remains thus heedful, ardent, & resolute, any memories & resolves related to the household life are abandoned, and with their abandoning his mind gathers & settles inwardly, grows unified & centered. This is how a monk develops mindfulness immersed in the body.

When I am intensely interested in something intellectually. Or when I am really struggling to accept thoughts, emotions, or events in my life. It is at these times the most that I revert back to the old mind/body splitting that is common in our society. The years of Zen training and yoga practice have broken through a fair amount of this conditioning, but it's kind of like a dandelion - you can cut it back again and again, but just a little water will make those roots sprout right back up.

A few nights ago, I was waiting for a bus on the way home from another yoga training class. Under the street light, my eyes traced the cracks in the road, appreciating the texture, as well as the image as a whole. It was the kind of thing I curse at while biking sometimes, mostly out of worry about an impending flat tire. But at that moment, there was nothing but breathing in, breathing out, broken asphalt and smooth asphalt.

In a sense, everything else was abandoned as I stood there. And in that abandonment, all could be taken in fully.

This is what I think is missed when things get split off. When the mind cuts off the body. Or when you try to cut off the mind.

It's in the functioning all together, that an awakened life is lived.

* I took the photo recently in a cobblestone alley.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Buddhist Blogger Round Up

While I have been fixated on natural disasters - maybe you all missed the recent earthquake in Burma - there's been other things going on in the blogosphere.

Please keep Jeanne, from over at the blog The Dalai Grandma in your thoughts and prayers. She has had a lot of health challenges in recent years, and currently is struggling.

Over at Open Buddha is a post about the continued game playing of Genpo Roshi. Is he a Zen teacher or not? Is he stepping down or not? Is anyone going to do anything or not? The whole thing has gotten tiring, but if you're interested, there's also an excellent analysis here that includes some pointed remarks about the persistence of sexism in convert Zen circles.

Algernon has a good post on the U.S. role in Lybia, and particularly how it's being framed by the Obama Administration.

Maia Duerr's new blog, The Liberated Life Project, has been a treat to see unfold. Her current article takes lessons learned while being a non-profit executive director and applying them to one's life in general. It's worth a read.

Daishin offers a good reminder to us all that you'll have to check out if you are curious.

And finally, Nate over at Precious Metal takes up the dicey question "Is rebirth relevant?"

Happy Wednesday! Enjoy!

Narratives in Blogging on Social Issues

To those who have been reading my comments in relation to disaster relief, and few clarifications.

1. I am not blaming the Red Cross for all ills that occur after natural disasters.

2. I am not advocating that locals in disaster areas should do all the work themselves, and that "outsiders" are just a problem.

And most importantly 3) When writing about social issues, I tend to focus on areas I feel either aren't being explored, or are underexposed views. Sometimes, they are the views that I prefer, and sometimes they are ideas that I'm trying to understand better through writing about them, and may or may not see them as "my take on things."

I see this both as a practice of trying to "see more of the whole" myself, and also as a way to offer something to others that isn't repetition of what's already out there. One thing I have learned from Zen is to interrogate personal narratives through questioning, problematizing, and letting them go. And I extend this practice to everything else.

One dominant narrative around natural disasters is that "experts" and "professionals" should run the show because they know what to do in such situations. I see questioning that as practice, not just in terms of offering a different view on the particulars of natural disaster work, but also because it helps train my mind to question narratives. In other words, even if some of my conclusions about the particulars in Japan end up being wrong, the practice of investigating the story, researching other views, and checking my own biases is beneficial. In addition, I'd like to think that in offering viewpoints that are not mainstream, and that perhaps even are uncomfortable to hear, I am offering others the opportunity to reconsider whatever story they have around an issue.

Sure, I like it when others agree with me, but in the end, if whatever I write both gets readers' minds turning, and/or aids in loosening the grip readers' have on their view - then I'm happy.

And when I receive respectful and thoughtful disagreements in the comments section, this offers me the opportunity to experience that which I am sending out.

Anyway, I think it's helpful sometimes to share the process behind the process of writing.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Disaster Relief: The Damages of Excessive Outsider Reliance

A few days ago, I wrote about the Japanese Soto Shu's questionable disaster fundraising decisions. This story, about a Soto Zen priest staying in his temple not too far from the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors, offers a few additional points I'd like to make about Soto's Shu's decision.

Mita is a kindly, round-faced man in his late sixties, and is not concerned with his own safety. His job—to tend to anyone who is suffering and in need of comfort—is a growth area in a shattered economy. “I would only leave if I were the last person standing in this town,” he says. Fear of radiation may make his prediction a reality. The temple, which is of the Sotoshu or Zen sect, is located about twenty-five miles from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

The temple’s precise distance from the plant places it in bureaucratic limbo: outside the mandatory twelve-mile evacuation zone imposed by Japanese authorities, and just beyond the twelve-to-nineteen mile “stay indoors” zone. Skeptical of official pronouncements, residents at the twenty-five-mile mark have no particular reason to feel secure. And all the roads down from the temple, which is on a hill, lead to Iwaki; to get supplies, my relatives must cross into the “stay inside” zone.

Food, water, and gasoline in Iwaki City remain scarce. A few stores have supplies, but shopping requires standing in line outside for two to three hours at a time. Supply trucks reportedly refuse to enter the city for fear of radiation, forcing residents to find creative ways to cope. At the temple, the family survives in old ways and new. Mita’s wife, Ryoko, goes to her neighbor’s house once a day to pump water from a well and to fill up buckets and canisters so she is able to cook.

One of the things I have noticed with many of the natural disasters that have happened in recent years is that there is an over-reliance on "outside experts." Or, perhaps it might be more accurate to say that large organizations like the Red Cross have become so default that when something devastating happens, national leaders in a given country will automatically see these groups as the main - even only ones - capable of handling the heavy, difficult work of finding missing people, and cleaning up the destruction.

Now, I bring this up not to diminish the importance of, and general goodwill of, outside groups aiding in situations like what happened in Japan. I bring it up to point out that those who are most intimate with the conditions on the ground - the people, culture, and the land - the locals - tend to be displaced. In fact, they themselves might discount their own skills and abilities to serve their neighbors, friends and family who are suffering, and/or are told by the powers that be that whatever they do must be subordinate to the directives of those "outside experts."

Another issue that comes with this reliance on outsiders is that the most dangerous, devastated, and/or outlying areas often receive the least support. The story above demonstrates this, and I recall recently reading an article about more rural areas in Haiti that were left barely touched by aid work months after the earthquake that happened there in early 2010. Because conditions might be considered "too risky" for aid workers, or because the groups in charge simply don't know about outlying villages or are approaching things from a numbers game - how can we help the most people - others are left to fend for themselves under miserable conditions.

And at the same time, even with these miserable conditions, there might be individuals and groups who have the skills and wherewithal to do something, but their reach ends up being limited by the lack of resources and support.

When I wrote that the national Soto Shu could have used donated money to support their people on the ground, I wasn't saying they should try to become like a mini-Red Cross. What I was saying is that they could have figured out ways to get money and relief goods (food, clothing, medical supplies) into the hands of those like Head Priest Mita, who are in the middle of it all, and are intimate with the current needs being presented.

I see all of this as part of a larger pattern of mistrust - internally and externally. National religious bodies like the Japanese Soto Shu decide not only that they aren't capable of doing anything helpful, but that they also can't trust giving funds over to their local temples to distribute. Government officials, who tend to come from privileged backgrounds, don't trust the "common people." Outside groups, like the Red Cross, present an image of being trained to deal with everything in a disaster situation. And so collectively, being in the middle of the storm of suffering, the different forms of leadership turn their back on whatever wisdom and skills they have, believing that the outsiders must have a better sense of what to do.

The realities tend to be more complex. Outsider groups bring certain gifts, and insider groups bring certain gifts. And when those two realities are recognized, wonderful things happen. However, too often, the insider groups - especially those made up of everyday people - are either considered of secondary importance, or are completely overwhelmed by the outside experts. In fact, sometimes their efforts to help their fellow neighbors are completely blocked, and considered wrongheaded by people who have little or no knowledge of the cultural norms of the community in question.

I fully support outsider groups offering skills, expertise, and a sense of calm in crisis situations. However, I believe it's extremely important to support organizations that deliberately make partnerships with those who are of the communities impacts - that they exude a sense of trust in the people of the place to know what directions are most appropriate to go in, and which are not. That they know how to work with people whose communities have been destroyed in such a way that, through whatever they are doing, it's more possible for the local leaders to tap into their wisdom and skills, and trust themselves enough to help lead the relief work.

In some ways, just blaming the Red Cross or Soto-Shu, isn't a deep enough analysis. The pattern of believing in outside experts isn't limited to disaster relief - it's a human trend, especially when issues become complicated. Sometimes, experts are the correct remedy. And sometimes they are a great hindrance. Consider the recent discussions about Zen teachers, and the teacher/student relationship. When students cling too much to their teacher, crappy shit tends to happen for everyone involved. And it also seems to be the case that when students take the loner role, thinking they can do it all on their own, crappy things often happen.

Right relationship, whether you're talking about disaster relief or teachers and students, requires more fluidity, shared wisdom, and a more intelligent form of intimacy.

Monday, March 28, 2011

"Cult of Positivity"

Over at the blog Recovering Yogi is an excellent post by Kimberly Johnson about the excessive positivity found in many yoga communities. It's also a problem in Buddhist sanghas, and other spiritual groups, and one I have written about before.

That secret code is the code of constant positivity within the yoga community.

In the yoga world, you are not supposed to disagree—even though everybody does—and you certainly are not supposed to be disagreeable. Of course, most people have strong opinions about which kind of yoga is better (their kind) and what the other schools don’t understand, because if they did, clearly they would convert to the right school. The right thing, in yoga, is always the thing that you do. But most people don’t express it openly. Better to feign peaceful coexistence and call it “acceptance.”

However, I have found both in myself and in my peers a lack of courage to engage in truthful dialogue around teaching philosophy and practice. I didn’t have the nerve to tell my friend that she was giving the same dharma talk in every class and it was getting old. No one had the nerve to tell the male teacher to stop serial-dating his students. There is this gaping hole of communication, as if egos are so fragile and every class so personal and precious that there is no room for dialogue.

The feelings of guilt and betrayal I felt when exposing my truth in my last Recovering Yogi article were the tiny echoes of a victim/abuser relationship, where the victim feels protective of the abuser, says things to defend the abuser, and is afraid to speak truthfully about the experience publicly.

What I like about Kimberly's post is that she show how a failure to disagree, debate, and offer criticism when appropriate actually weakens the whole project. When people choose to smooth over destructive behavior by teachers or fellow students, it makes it less likely that anyone in the community will benefit from the teachings and practices. When getting along is privileged over getting at the truth, everyone misses out.

I witnessed an interesting exchange a few weeks between a male yoga teacher and two female yoga students. The teacher was expressing caution around doing women inversions while on their period, and cited a long history of teachers agreeing on this point. One woman said "Almost all of those teachers were men. How long have women been practicing yoga?" This was followed by another woman who basically disagreed with the male teacher, citing potential health benefits and personal narratives of her students and friends. In fact, at one point during the discussion she said, point blank, "I'm just expressing my disagreement with you, is that ok?"

I didn't get the sense that the male teacher leading the class was comfortable with this kind of disagreement. Perhaps he worried about loosing control of the class. Perhaps, there was some bit of sexism going on. But I mostly think it was about maintaining that harmonious yoga environment which people tend to expect to be there. As someone who really appreciates debates and discussions of different views, even if I'm not directly involved, the way things played out was a disappointment, and it's something I have repeatedly experienced in spiritual community settings. Things start to get juicy and the "happy face" is held up by leaders and/or students to get things back to the safe "norm."

So, perhaps the next time a debate or disagreement appears in your sangha or yoga class, instead of being part of the effort to get rid of it, be a part of the effort to explore it, examine it, and respect it as part of the process.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Japanese Soto-Shu Not Helping Earthquake Victims

Jundo Cohen from the online zendo Treeleaf, and who lives not too far from the worst hit areas in Japan during the earthquake and tsunami, is trying to get the word out about the current actions of the Japanese Soto-shu. As the head organization of the Japanese Soto Zen sanghas, and which also has offices in North and South America, and in Europe, it's an organization with a lot of potential to be doing beneficial work for those currently suffering in Japan.

However, it seems they have chosen to focus internally. They have decided to "re-donate" 70% of incoming funds for earthquake relief to the Red Cross, and use the remaining 30% to repair/rebuild temples. Now this isn't an organization lacking in people or resources. As Jundo writes:

However, I am also sure that the Soto-shu in Japan, with its 14,000 affiliated temples nationwide, universities with medical and dental schools, thousands of priests and lay followers, substantial financial and material resources, could be doing --just as much, if not more-- than other religious bodies do, even smaller and less organized.

Under the circumstances, re-donating is a lazy approach which delays much needed support. In addition, the Red Cross is not exactly the most squeaky clean organization itself, and certainly some of that money will be lost in "overhead" costs alone.

Personally, I'd recommend that anyone currently desiring to send money to aid earthquake victims in Japan consider Tzu Chi, a Buddhist relief organization, or Doctors Without Borders.

It's disappointing that the leaders of Soto Zen in Japan aren't leading their sanghas into the center of the fire of suffering, to offer support to those in need. Not only are they ignoring the great need of their fellow citizens, but they are also failing to support the priests and members of individual temples who could do much more than they already are with increased resources. I wish it were surprising, but the Soto-Shu's actions seem consistent with those of other large religious and secular bureaucracies. When times are tough, they look to save their own asses first, and sometimes only.

Update: Here is another report from an American Zen priest living in Japan about Soto efforts from individual temples. It seems clear from this letter that individual priests and monks are doing their best, and that there is more confusion this time around than during the 1995 Kobe earthquake, during which over 6000 people lost their lives.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Relaxing in All Conditions

Another early post for you, from April 13th, 2009. Enjoy!

Patience is, it seems, a buzzword in many spiritual communities. People sincerely want to cultivate it, and are very much aware of how our speed addicted, multitasking society fails to support it. And yet, how many of us know what patience looks like, or how it manifests in our lives? How often do we simply believe that patience means putting up with something we don't like until it changes or until our mind changes around it?

Pema Chodron speaks of patience as being able to relax in any conditions. You can see this when you're able to step back from your thoughts and reactions to a particular situation and are able to see it for what it is. And yet, I'd like to also add that patience is not only an in the moment quality, but also a long term process which manifests moment by moment. During yoga, in down dog, the ease of it tonight came out of a several month commitment to daily (or almost daily practice) without knowing what the results would be. A year ago, every time into down dog was a trip into stiffness and some pain, even though I didn't push beyond my limits. So, patience is a quality of practice that manifests in the moment, but is birthed moment by moment in practice. In other words, you aren't going to just wake up one day and "have it;" you have to cultivate it.

Overall, it's in the ability to be ok with not knowing for sure, both in our practice and in the rest of our lives, that we learn how patience will manifest in just the right way, moment after moment. In a way, patience is loving what is, exactly as it is. It's a simple, and complex, as that.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Yoga Meets TV

This was one of my first blog posts, originally published in the Yoga Journal's online community back in 2008, before I started DH. The neighbor in question has quieted down significantly since then, and my mind during yoga asana practice also tends to be quieter these days. I still don't like TV, however.

I've come to really dislike television. I haven't owned one for about 6 years now, and other than a few hours with friends or family, I simply don't have any interest. Given that, I've found it especially funny, and difficult at times, to have moved into a building with a neighbor that watches her television all day and often late into the night. And very loudly, so much so that I spoke in person with her a dozen times. When that failed, a few months ago, I asked the landlord to do something about it, which he did - but still maybe once a week or every two weeks, I end up pounding on ceiling to get her to turn it down. It once was driving me to look for a new apartment; now it's a small annoyance, and interesting experience as far as my practice goes.

This evening, I was doing an immunity sequence from the new Yoga Journal. There I was just beginning my warm up salutations, when the sound of - you guessed it, TV commercial dialogue and music - crept into my ears. Now I've practiced compassion meditation for this woman, have tried to be friendly when I see her, have even returned her mailbox key to her when she left it in the mailbox - yet, it's amazing how quickly my mind can return to nasty thoughts about her and waste of time all that TV is, etc, etc.

So, here I am in prasarita padottanasana (a yoga pose), feeling my legs stretching and having this dialogue/argument in my head about the sound of the TV. It's kind of embarassing, and yet fascinating because I remembered a basic teaching which goes something like if you can do something about it, do it and if you can't, let it go. And so, I went into the next pose, standing forward bend, and watched my mind and also listened as the TV seemed to creep up a little more (I sometimes wonder if I'm imagining it getting louder, or if it's really all about the volume fluctuation for the commercials). Anyway, at the end of the pose, I decided it had gotten too loud, and I hit the wall a single time. She turned it down, as she pretty much always does, but I then worked into the next pose, and watched as a rush of irritation and adrenaline filled me and then passed through.

It's amazing how much I crave silence sometimes, and struggle when I can't get it. I know partly this has to do with working at an overly cramped little school, where my attention in constantly challenged. And also living in the middle of the city, which I love, but sometimes probably need a break from. Maybe you, too, have similar cravings you struggle with?

Somehow, it seems so silly to have spent so much energy on thoughts about a TV, and yet I have. So be it, that too will be compost for the pile.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Consumer Buddhism?

Continuing with the anniversary posts, this one (originally published April 3rd, 2009) echos sentiments all over the Buddhist blogosphere in recent weeks. And it shows that I've had this topic in my mind for a while now.

Lately, I have been reflecting on how, if you really dig deep into any spiritual path and actually do the work it's calling for, then how can it not radically change who you are and how you live. Given this, there is a great rub, then, between that belief and the level of consumerism and capitalistic influence on Buddhism here in the U.S.

This issue goes beyond the cost of classes and retreats at Buddhist centers, although it includes that as well. It goes beyond the mindless buying of things we don't need, although it includes that as well. What I see as a great rub is the collective and individual efforts to maintain a sense that the lifestyles we have built here in the United States are compatible with the dharma. In other words, we can become kinder and more aware through our practice, and keep our exploiting, over-consuming economic patterns as well.

Now surely there has been a lot of hand wringing in Buddhist circles over all this. And there has been a lot of efforts made support increased recycling, buying less, restoring damaged landscapes, and increasing use of "green" products, among other things. Also, there has been more discussion about fees for dharma teachings, and the impact of money on the make up of sanghas(communities). All very good steps.

Yet, at the end of the day, how often do we subvert the power of our own teachings in the name of keeping the economy going, or supporting leaders and policies that keep greed and exploitation front and center (but give some of us cheap products), or going along with the way things are because we are too afraid of really looking at how we live as "economic beings" and making changes?

Buddhists in the U.S., including both Asian-centric sanghas and convert sanghas, still are a small proportion of the overall population. Any effort to change the economic structures of this society, as well as the way we related and interact as economic beings, will only occur in coalition with other groups, secular and spiritual, who wish to create a new economics.

So, I'm not suggesting that somehow we in the Buddhist community are responsible for changing everything. But what I do find odd is how rare it seems that anyone, let alone large groups of U.S. Buddhists, steps outside of the capitalist box and articulates an alternative economic vision that is informed by Buddhist teachings. Are we just so individually and collectively blind to the need for something greatly different than what we currently have? Is the fear of falling into the old communist/capitalist trap still holding people back? Are people just too comfortable, or too busy to worry about such things?

Surely all the concerns about global warming, pollution, and disappearing 401ks have to be sinking in at a deeper level somehow. But beyond that, how about the old adage that money can't buy happiness? Doesn't it seem like there's an awful lot of anxiety, depression, and misery here in the U.S., despite the fact that we have this powerhouse economy that has brought us tons of material wealth and support?

I guess I don't believe it's enough to just become kinder and more compassionate. Now, the more of us that do, the better. But if we do so, and maintain this out of control economic system - one that now is truly global and must be looked at globally as well as locally - then it might not matter much in the long run that we're kinder and more compassionate.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fearlessness and Fragility

Continuing the anniversary week, here is a post from April 1,2009.

In the current issue of Shambhala Sun, zen teacher Joan Halifax Roshi is described by one of her students using the two title words for this post: fearless and fragile. Having spent much of her adult life caring for the sick and dying, and teaching others how to do so, Roshi Joan, as she is called, is currently recovering from a fall that broke bones and slowed her down greatly. 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 are reminded - that is, until it's our turn to be sick or to die. I've long felt that our society deals so poorly on the whole with death - we often seem to lack the courage and compassion 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.

Let's all slow down a bit, and engage a little deeper in our every relationship. Maybe then, when the time for death comes, there will be less suffering to go around.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dangerous Harvests: 2nd Anniversary Post Week

This week, the blog turns two years old. How did that happen? Honestly, I had no idea what would come of this when I started it, but here we are.

The following is the first post I ever made, back on March 23, 2009. A lot has changed in my life since then, but other things aren't all that different really.

Anyway, here it is. I'll plan on reposting more of those early pieces, in part because they came before I had much of an audience. But also, because it's kind of fun to look back. Enjoy!

Let me begin with a quote from Dogen, a 13th century zen master, from his teaching "Tenzo Kyokun."

"Under no circumstances allow anyone who happens to be drifting through the kitchen to poke his fingers around or look into the pot."

Now, let's take yourself/myself. You and I, we probably enjoy entertainment, right? In fact, we probably are more than willing to let someone drift into our world if they will entertain us away from our problems, our suffering. And isn't it probably also true that, when faced with another who is suffering greatly and in need of someone who is willing to just listen, to bear witness to that suffering, and maybe make a pointed comment or two when necessary - we, well I anyway, is often more than willing to be that person that meddles with the situation by entertaining, or excessively agreeing with what is being said, or by simply "poking my fingers" into something that needs to stew awhile yet. And why? Because there is such a strong desire to be rid of the misery, to have a "happy" or at least "ok" friend, or lover, or co-worker, or even stranger. Maybe it's time we face up to this fact, our desire to turn away from life as it is. What do you think?

Continuing the "cooking" theme of Dogen, he said "A dish is not necessarily superior because you have prepared it with choice ingredients, nor is a soup inferior because you have made it with ordinary greens." I ask you all this: if we cannot embrace the "ordinary greens" of our lives, then how can we be but ghosts chasing after something superior that never quite comes?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Buddhism and Wealth Continued: Liberating Economic Narratives

To continue yesterday's discussion about Buddhism and wealth, it seems to me that when faced with the enormity of situations like global economics, a few responses are commonplace. One is to go totally inward and focus only on yourself. Algernon called it the "inner peace fetish," wherein the view is basically that the world's fucked up and always will be, so I'll just try and create an oasis within myself. Another common response is to do the opposite. To jump on every last social issue on the planet, and try and offer your view, action, time, and money in an effort to put out the fire of suffering. A third common response is to try and combine pieces of the first two responses and then call that "the middle way."

Now, I have lived periods of my life in all three of these. I don't think any of these responses is completely wrong, and in fact, they each seem to contain elements of truth and awakening. But in the end, none of them feel whole to me anymore. They seem off the mark, ways of being that aren't unified expressions of the total dynamic functioning of this world of ours.

Turning away from the troubles of the outer world in search of an inner oasis is ultimately a false expression of renunciation.

Turning towards the troubles of the world, but away from the manifestations of your "inner" heart/mind is ultimately a false expression of compassion.

And cobbling together elements of both of these approaches is ultimately a false expression of the middle way.

In terms of wealth and right livelihood, one of the challenges I see is that too many of us, even many who are influenced by Buddhist teachings, look around at the larger social/economic environment and see it as a fixed story. Some love it, and say we've reached a pinnacle of wealth and innovation. Others hate it and see all the exploitation, suffering, and inequalities occurring. But for most of us, it's a stuck narrative and we talk about either trying to cope with all the shitty stuff, or about all the ways it might be beneficial (like developing new technologies to deal with energy crises.)

However, not only is this "global capitalist" narrative we have going on not permanent, but it's also not even all that old. It's a really tall tree with entirely short and weak roots. The roots are in our head; but they aren't embedded in our body/minds. So, while it's true that we have to do the hard work of facing what's going on now - it's also the case, in my view, that if enough of us do more deliberate pawing and clawing around those roots - through shifted thoughts and actions - that the tree could be tumbled to the ground.

In other words, we don't know what the future will look like. Not in our own life. Not in the ways in which our communities and nations will be held together, or broken apart. We don't know.

Two weeks ago, several thousand people in Japan woke up and went about their days in a regular fashion. A few days later, they were gone. Their houses: gone. Everything they owned and loved: gone.

Twenty five years ago, people in the former Soviet Union woke up every day and thought "This is it. We live in this Communist country. We can only do what we do." Some loved it. Many hated it. And there was a lot of suffering to go around.

How many of those people could have written the fast crumble that came?

How many had the audacity to orient their lives from some deeper place, and imagine something different?

There had to be some folks with that audacity. Just as there are folks today trying to shift their orientation and imagine something different from global capitalism.
But this is big sounding stuff - probably befuddling to a lot of us. I feel befuddled by it fairly often myself.

Which brings me back to two commenters on yesterday's post, Richard and David, who both basically pointed to the fact that individuals need to each make the pivot in their lives, in order for social change on a massive scale to occur. And I think, ultimately, that this is true. That change might be incubated alone. It might be incubated in collective silence. It might be incubated while in the middle of collective action.

Returning to the original topic, whenever you talk about economics from a Buddhist perspective, renunciation somehow comes into the picture. So, here are two questions to consider.

What are the marks of renunciation? Do they look the same for each person?

Liberating economic narratives, narratives around how to work with the movement of material stuff in the world, doesn't seem to be any different from liberating anything else. And renunciation is a big part of it. Although I'd argue that renunciation may not be at all what we think it is.

So, perhaps an exploration of renunciation is in order. May your meditations be fruitful.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Buddhism and Wealth

I have long struggled with how to consider material wealth within the context of Buddhist teachings. One reason is that unlike many of my fellow American converts, I have experienced some "poorness," have always lived on the financial edge, and have worked with, and heard the stories of poor people much of my life. I frequently see the unexamined classism in the larger convert Buddhism community, and wonder how much of that impacts the way we interpret Buddhist teachings on money and material wealth.

There is a small discussion over at the Tricycle blog about all of this. It takes off from a recent column by Lewis Richmond in the Huffington Post. Lewis wrote:

In my 1999 book, Work as a Spiritual Practice, I introduced the idea of right livelihood as conscious livelihood. In other words, regardless of our job (or lack of a job) we should be aware of the implications and consequences of what we do. Though Work as a Spiritual Practice, by intention, emphasized the choices and changes an individual could make in his/her workplace, I also feel that conscious livelihood should not be limited to individual awareness and action. Society at large also has a responsibility to be conscious of the consequences of its economic and employment policies, even more today than in 1999 when when the economy was booming. It is not clear whether the Buddha thought of right livelihood in this way, but it behooves us to do so now.

I read his book perhaps three years ago. It's pretty decent, and asks some important questions about what work is, how we do it, and what Buddhism might have to say about it.

However, the larger questions around accumulation of wealth, what constitutes "need," how teachings about Right Livelihood fuction (or don't function) in a globalized capitalist environment aren't addressed as head on as I would have liked.

Nor are they in this current article.

Clearly, the Buddha saw prosperity and financial security as a good and appropriate activity for laypeople; "rightful means" meant any occupation that did not cause unnecessary harm to other living things. In the simple economy of 500 B.C. this meant avoiding occupations such as butcher, tanner, or soldier -- if possible. It also meant to be honest and ethical in business dealings -- not to cheat, steal or lie, and in general make one's living in an upstanding way. I daresay that all religions have ethical principles of this sort regarding making one's living -- certainly the Judeo-Christian tradition does.

I'm not sure what he means by "prosperity and financial security" here, but I'm not sure the Buddha was all that concerned about "security" of any kind. Why? It doesn't really exist. Beyond this, though, the word "prosperity" in the average American mind, even amongst Buddhists, means having a lot of stuff, a good job, retirement funds, and the rest. And when all of that is "yours" - in the relative sense - it's pretty easy to have a lot of attachment, which certainly isn't too helpful in term of liberation.

A commenter called Wtompepper on the Tricycle blog post who earlier had questioned the accumulation of wealth we tend to support in the U.S. - even amongst middle class types - wrote the following interesting response:

I don't think I've ever heard Buddha referred to as a pragmatist, or the "middle way" compared to pragmatism. I cannot imagine you mean that in the true sense of pragmatism. However, there is no need to "tie oneself in knots" avoiding anything--instead, just DO something that makes such knot tying less necessary. I hear the "tying in knots" argument all the time; it is too hard to figure out how to make the world better, so we all want to think that Buddha would have thought everything we are doing is just fine, and that all we need to do is avoid things we already wouldn't do (slavery, weapons trading); but we can't just feel better about ourselves through ignorance. Well, we maybe can, but that's not awakening. Didn't Buddha also say "Strive with diligence"?

And I really think it is important to remember the difference in historical period. Buddha recommends that lay people produce wealth, but he could not possibly have meant investing in the stock market. Remember that money was a very recent invention, and it is the coining of money Buddha is referring to with the term "gold and silver." The accumulation of wealth in a pre-monetary economy meant producing more useful goods and storing food, not having a 401k. Buddha does encourage such production, but warns against the delusion of money, for anyone hoping to become enlightened.

It's interesting to think about the abstractions that have come into the wealth equation in modern society. Paper and coin money. Stocks. Bonds. Credit Cards. Derivatives. I think it's true that the historical Buddha wasn't talking about these things, but the fact is they are here, part of a lay life - so now what? How do you work with them in a way that exemplifies Right Livelihood?

I have often thought that after a certain point, we should figure out ways to pool our surplus wealth to use for developing/supporting our communities. That what is already happening with skill swaps, free exchanges like Freecycle, and grassroots money pooling should become the norm.

This is where things get really sticky I think. "Buddha does encourage such production, but warns against the delusion of money, for anyone hoping to become enlightened." And I'd argue, he warned against the "delusion of money," not necessarily against having money for lay folks. But that same argument I have heard taken as a license for millionaires to keep squirreling money away, or for huge corporations to rake in billions and justify that by offering millions in charity.

And one of the problems I have always had with this is that you end up with a small number of wealthy folks determining a large part of what is "socially good." A single couple, Bill and Melinda Gates, have the power and financial resources to decide what's worth spending money on, and what isn't. There is something greatly screwed up about this in my view. Some might say they are bodhisattvas in the world, but it often seems more like paternalism to me.

What do you think about all of this? How do material wealth, especially accumulating wealth as individuals, fit into Buddhist teachings? Is the pursuit of relative financial "security" always a hindrance, or is that a new "necessity?" What is Right Livelihood to you?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Planetary Despair

I don't have a lot to say today. Here's an excerpt from an interview with Joanna Macy that I really like:

Personal Transformation: In our society, we talk about despair as if it is primarily a psychological matter, coming out of personal life. Your understanding is that despair also comes from a different source.

Joanna Macy: Yes. I learned, when I began to work with groups 20 years ago, that despair arose in relation to something larger than individuals, personal circumstances. There is a complex of strong feelings that I call ingredients of despair. One is fear about the future based on what we’re doing to each other and to our planet. Another is anger that we are knowingly wasting the world for those who come after us, destroying the legacy of our ancestors. Guilt and sorrow are in the complex. People in every walk of life, from every culture, feel grief over the condition of the world. Despair is this constellation of different feelings. One person may feel more fear or anger, another sorrow, and another guilt, but the common thread is a suffering on behalf of the world or, as I put it, feeling "pain for the world."

In American culture, we are conditioned to try to keep a smiling face and remain chipper at all costs. A lack of optimism somehow indicates a lack of competence. Feelings of despair are treated reductionistically as a function of personal maladjustment. This doubles the burden individuals carry. Not only do they feel bad about their world, but they feel bad about feeling bad.

I honestly find myself sometimes really pissed at how much of this reductionism occurs in spiritual circles. It actually brings up anger for me. Whatever people's current positions are on things like nuclear power, one thing I see a lot of is despair. And it's ridiculous to reduce this to some individual psychological attachment or maladjustment, but you can bet this is going on. Maybe you're doing it yourself, or your teachers or students are doing it. Maybe the book or article you are reading is doing it.

In any case, I'd like to offer the following. Instead of thinking things like "oh, this is ego clinging" or "if only I weren't so attached to what's occurring on the planet" - why not just let all of that go. Let every last explanation for what's coming up go. And just be with what is, recognizing that whatever is occurring on the planet is us too. It's all functioning together. And maybe if we listen more closely to the despair and whatever else is coming, we'll know better what our next steps need to be.

Peace to you all.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nuclear Power: My Comment Round Up

I have been writing various responses related to nuclear power on blogs and on Facebook. So, instead of writing a detailed post trying to reconcile all of that, I'll just share what I have already written.

Claudia over at her Ashtanga Yoga blog offered a post questioning the level of panic being sparked by major media outlets about the reactors in Japan. Even though it's a very dangerous, unstable situation, I agree with her about the panic issue. Here's what I wrote:

The problem with much of this is that producing panic in the short term is just adding to the suffering already occurring. It does nothing to address the issues at hand.

It may be that what ends up happening in the next week or two isn't as terrible as the media is reporting. But with radiation, it's what happens in the next 20, 30, 40 years that really matters. People who have great financial interest in nuclear have routinely downplayed and even denied the causal links between chronic illness and death spikes that occur years after these kind of disasters.

And I for one think the truth on those issues must be put front and center. Furthermore, the truth of the completely out of whack consumption patterns of those of us in industrial/post industrial nations that leads to heavy investment in dangerous energy sources also should be front and center.

So yes, the short term panic isn't helpful, and certainly keeps people buying papers and consuming media. But I'm greatly concerned that too few of us will connect the dots between our greed driven, excessive lifestyles and the "need" for heavy reliance on destructive energy sources.

Over on Facebook, I shared a link to an article about nuclear power by the writer Norman Solomon. A friend of mine, who is in a Materials Science & Engineering grad program responded to the article with this:

Many of the problems with the current nuclear power infrastructure are not intrinsic to nuclear energy. While I agree that the current defense of nuclear energy by our leaders in response to japan's tragedy is reflexive, it is equally refl...exive to rail against the "split atom" and any attempt to harness its potential. Issues of meltdown are artifacts of a 50 year old technology that needs to be moved away from. Current technologies incorporate high temperature power limiting, which slows the reaction as temperature increases, eliminating the possibility of meltdown, which Japan is struggling to stave off. Issues of nuclear waste are bound up in States Rights and the NNPT. Right now we could very easily reduce volume of waste in the US by 90% through purification/separation and recycle nearly all purified remainder eliminating need for further mining. No system is perfect, there will always be disasters, spills, etc and harm to life is now and always will be repulsive. However, while immediately more shocking, that damage pales to the lasting damage of burning every carbonaceous scrap on this earth. We are 6 billion people on 1 planet and we need energy. We desperately need better conservation, but even then we need more energy than can be made renewably (solar, bio, wind, hydro, geothermal ...). I will take a state of the art nuclear power plant over a coal burner any day.

This issue of either nuclear or more coal/oil is a troubling one, and certainly something that needs to be considered. However, there are other, perhaps bigger issues to consider. I wrote:

I figured you'd disagree on this. I understand there are other issues involved, and that things can be done to make the whole process safer. In fact, I don't doubt that there are modern technologies being created that better facilitate the ...issues being experienced in these older reactors.

I'm also convinced the coal burner issues won't go away. Even if more nuclear ends up being available for use, people will find ways to justify continued coal use and mining. This is an issue of human greed in my opinion, maybe more so than safety.

I have stood against nuclear for my entire adult life. Maybe longer. For some reason, it's been a topic I have had interest in since at least my high school days. No one has ever presented an argument that makes it seem worth doing, and I have seen many - some much more articulate and considerate than others.

The way I see it, we humans need to learn how to live as one of the many members of this planet. We use too much of everything, and expect to be able to maintain lifestyles even our recent ancestors would drop their jaws at. There have been some great changes around issues of recycling, better technologies for vehicles and electronics and the rest, but none of it has addressed the larger issue of humans - especially in industrial/post-industrial nations - living completely out of balance with the natural world. As much as the lack of safety is an issue for me, the larger issue has always been that industrial and post industrial nations are filled with too many entitled people - us included- who have lost touch with the very planet they live on, and were born out of.

It's an issue of perception and way of being, in my view, as it is about any particular form of energy.

This is really where my Zen and yoga practices come in. As I see it, too many of us have really "wrong views" of our relationship with/to the planet that we come from. Too many of us have entirely centralized narratives telling us all the time "You are separate from the planet. It's there for your benefit. You can have anything you want if you just figure out how to use it." This is a grand, collective delusion, and until more of us start facing it together, we will continue to be spinning our wheels between poor choices like coal and nuclear power that, as they are being approached right now, are just the props of our addiction.

My father responded that if my friend wants more nuclear, he can put it in his own backyard. Now, there's plenty of worthy criticism when it comes to NIMBY arguments, but I think they are wonderful tools for talking about energy issues. I've spent lots of time in Western Pennsylvania, which is part of the eastern U.S. "coal region." I don't get the sense many folks out there love living next to coal piles and strip mines that have destroyed the land, and polluted the water supply. And many of the people who do live next to all of this are poor or barely middle class, and either relied on mining or associated industries as a source of income, or couldn't really afford to move away. And when it comes to nuclear power, especially nuclear waste, it's a similar situation, at least here in the U.S.

Finally, in response to a previous post, Petteri commented:

"We have the tech to dispose of nuclear waste, and produce nuclear power in a way that's safe and sustainable. We're not doing it. The reason is the same as why we're not producing more of our electricity from solar or wind power: it costs more."

I do think there are better technologies available now, and that some of the issues of these older nuclear reactors could be dealt with. However, I'm not convinced we are really close to actually being able to work in a fairly "safe" way with nuclear energy. The levels of human hubris are, like the radiation in Japan, too high as far as I'm concerned.

I have heard plenty of people say we have the tech to deal with waste, but I honestly don't believe it. Too much money is tied up in nuclear - it's a huge cash cow. And I'm convinced that greed is driving some of that sustainability talk.

As for solar, wind power, and the rest. Unlike nuclear, coal, oil - all of which have had decades of government financial underwriting in many nations, and corporate focus - wind, solar, and others have really not be financially supported.

I don't think nuclear is a black and white issue. It's possible that someday, it could be harnessed and dealt with in a safe way. But I'm absolutely convinced that worldwide, we still haven't really moved to put the majority of our eggs in the box of things like solar, geothermal, wind power. And until those forms are given the heft that oil, coal, and nuclear currently have, we'll never know if they are truly viable or not.

So, there's a somewhat wide-ranging discussion of all of this. Last night, I realized that I have had an eye on the power and threat of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons ever since I was a kid seeing images of Chernobyl. I was 10 years old when that happened, just old enough to realize how awful what happened there was. And I guess that sparked an interest that, for example, led me to fall in love with the writing of Buddhist and environmental activist Joanna Macy. Her work around issues of nuclear energy has certainly influenced my own views.

I'd like to conclude by saying I honestly don't know what the collective path to a healthier relationship with the planet is. I believe that some shift in consciousness and action in that direction has already begun, despite the continued greed, views of separation, and disasterous mistakes. But what I do know is that it cannot stay at the level of debating energy sources, light bulbs, and recycling tactics. That's all useful to some degree, but without a larger shift in consciousness, it's just moving shells around within the frame of the same old game.

So, while we offer our prayers, donations, and metta to the people in Japan, lets consider the bigger picture questions - and lets be willing to hold them, day after day. To give them our attention, even if the answers never come in our lifetimes.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Comparison Mind Again

I have been collecting an interesting assortment of blogs/websites of folks writing about stepping outside of the norm somehow. Many of them are alternative career related - but others, like The Art of Non-Conformity, have a much broader theme.

Given what I wrote about comparison mind in my post yesterday, it was interesting to find the same topic appear before my eyes again today. Chris from Art of Non-Conformity writes:

When we falsely compare ourselves to others, we needlessly belittle our accomplishments. We also give weight to the wrong idea that venturing out of our comfort zone is “no big deal” or that small successes are “overrated.”

But actually, doing what other people expect you to is what’s overrated. The external rewards for pursuing a dream may or may not arrive, but regardless, you should feel proud of doing so. The first steps are more important than the later ones, because they’ll provide inspiration and security for everything that comes later. Just keep walking!

Never despise small beginnings, and don’t belittle your own accomplishments. Remember them and use them as inspiration as you go on to the next thing.

The anticipation of external rewards or punishments is, I think, exactly why we get trapped in comparison mind. And I've also noticed how easy it is to dismiss the tiny beginnings that emerge from your efforts to do something different, take a different direction, or see the world in a different way.

It's like being a gardener that only pays attention to the growth that has moved far above ground, and deems slow rising little shoots as signs of future crop failure. I remember one year thinking in the middle of May that the previous year's mint must have died out because it hadn't returned yet. So, I went out and got some more, only to watch the old stuff reappear a few weeks later, twice as big as the last year.

Impatience, false expectations, and a failure to pay close attention are all part of comparison mind. Now I know the mint comes back a little later than some of the other perennials, and that it's basically a weed - really hard to kill off, even after the worst winter.

I'm trying to apply all this to the rest of my life. To accept that the walking being done may not be pumping out clearly visible results, but that doesn't mean nothing is happening.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Tantric Yoga Weekend (and a short comment on Japan)

First off, Japan is really devistated right now. Thousands dead. Many more homeless. I just read a report that said the earthquake even shortened the Earth's day length a tiny bit. But what concerns me most is the state of the damaged nuclear reactors. There has been a resurgence of hype over the glory of nuclear power to replace oil-based energy sources, coupled with a downplaying of the possible dangers, which are many. I'm pretty sure I have written something about nuclear power in the past, but for now, I'll just say, given where we are at in terms of containment and waste storage - it's absolutely idiotic to think nuclear power can be a global energy savior. I hope the folks working on the damaged reactors in Japan get it under control really soon, but some damage has probably already been done.

Meanwhile, I spent the weekend in a pressure cooker of a yoga workshop. Jim Bennitt is a Chicago based teacher of tantric vinyasa yoga. His classes were well rounded, but really challenging. In terms of asana or physical pose work, I'm used to Iyengar-based classes that focus on holding single poses, watching alignment closely, and learning to embody the pose to the point where your mind moves deeply inward. Kind of posed meditation you might say.

The same meditative movement inward is a desired outcome of vinyasa, but it's more through regular body movement and breath coordination and awareness that the same thing comes about. In the past, I did a short stint of Kundalini yoga, which has a fair amount of flow in it's asana work. But I don't recall doing the kinds of challenging poses and variations of those poses as we did this weekend.

I had a couple of periods where I got lost in worries that I wasn't much of a yogi, and similar such negative self talk. This morning, just having fears about doing headstand (which I ended up doing a modified version) spun me out for a good ten minutes. I fumbled up basic asanas like table pose that I had been doing all weekend, and was jittery in others enough that the teacher ended up doing multiple adjustments and then stood in my general area for part of the pose sequence.

I'm writing this in part as a reminder that beginners mind can be easily obscured when you've been doing something a long time. In fact, as soon as I settled into a triangle pose this morning, and forgot about the coming harder poses, and also whether I "looked good" doing any of it, everything seemed to flow just fine. My years of experience were mostly irrelevant, as was the fact that I didn't have much experience with this kind of fast paced, asana practice. I was just there, doing each movement, watching each breath, and letting it unfold as it would.

An experience like this, where you are with a large group for a period of time is also a great opportunity to witness comparing mind. During the pose sequences, a person could easily go from "wow, I'm so great at this!" to "I'm absolutely terrible!" in a matter of minutes. It happened to me a few times. Friday night, I had a few rounds of "I'm terrible at this," as I barely kept up with the pace. And this morning, I had another moment of I'm terrible in the beginning of practice, and then a moment of "I'm pretty good" as I held shoulderstand up tall and straight while others around me struggled. While sitting meditation yesterday, I was aware of the years of zazen practice behind me as several people around me had a hard time staying still. So, lots of comparing mind was had by me, and I can imagine plenty of others in there.

As with longer Zen practice, doing a more intense period of yoga, especially when it incorporates much more of the eight limbs than your average asana-heavy class, is really beneficial. In fact, it's easier to be more well rounded when you have more time. I have seen it in my own life, where either the yogic asana with a tiny bit of pranayama or the Zen zazen and sutra chanting dominate. It's been rare that both have been balanced expressions for me. Or, perhaps the balance is stretched out - one season more focused on one, another season the other.

Part of doing yoga teacher training is to try and develop more synergy between these two sets of practices (and two powerful, cousin spiritual traditions) in my life. It's been done before, so I know it's possible. And that's the direction I have been heading in for awhile now.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Japan Earthquake: Blogosphere Round Up

As many of you probably know, a massive earthquake and tsunami have hit Japan, killing hundreds. The Buddhist blogosphere has a fair number of members in it from Japan, so I took a look around to see if there is any news to share.

Jundo Cohen over at Treeleaf Zendo reported:

We lost part of the roof, this and that ... but it's just stuff. Everyone okay.

No power, so may be out of touch for awhile.

Land moves, heart is still.

Gassho, Jundo

Joseph at Somewhere in Dhamma puts in a plea to keep blogger Marcus in our thoughts and prayers.

Most of the Buddhist blogging community knows Marcus from his former blog, Marcus’ Journal, and from his current writing on Wake Up and Laugh.

He’s been a special friend to me since we met through Chong Go Sunim’s Saturday talks and taking our precepts together at Hanmaum.

Recently, Marcus moved to Tokyo, and I’d just like to ask everyone to include some thoughts that he and his family are safe and together, along with your thoughts for all those also affected by the earthquake.

Thank you.

Here are some bloggers commenting on Facebook:

Markus Uku Laitinen reports that Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima and family are fine.

Danny Fisher reports "I'm really happy that my old pal Alister Zenryo Kim and his family are safe in Japan."

Rachel Ishiguro reports "So far, my friends and family in HI and Japan have felt some big tremblors, but everyone is OK. Still worried about a couple of friends of friends."

If anyone else has anything to report, feel free to comment.

May everyone in Japan be freed from suffering.
May they be happy, and may they heal.
Peace and blessings.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Stirring Up Hatred: Rep. King's "Muslim" Hearings and the Afghan-Pakistan War

(U.S. Rep. Peter King as beauty pageant contestant.)

The news around the U.S. and in other parts of the world is beyond depressing today. I've gone through waves of anger and depression all morning, and plan on stepping out of the news cycle for the afternoon to take in some fresh air. Among the more ridiculous is the Congressional Hearings on Islam in the U.S. - lead by master ring leader and bigot Rep. Peter King of New York. As this article points out, the dude's story about "radicalization" in the U.S. is not only fictional, but is actually going after the wrong targets.

When asked why he is singling out the Muslim American community and refusing to investigate other forms of terrorism, King has responded by saying that “it makes no sense to talk about other types of extremism, when the main threat to the United States today is talking about al Qaida.”

Yet as a January 2011 terrorism statistics report — compiled using publicly available data from the FBI and other crime agencies — from the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) shows, terrorism by Muslim Americans has only accounted for a minority of terror plots since 9/11. Since the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, Muslims have been involved in 45 domestic terrorist plots. Meanwhile, non-Muslims have been involved in 80 terrorist plots.

In fact, right-wing extremist and white supremacist attacks plots alone outnumber plots by Muslims, with both groups being involved in 63 terror plots, 18 more plots than Muslim Americans have been involved in.

Meanwhile, the same people leading the witch hunt herein the U.S. seem to make zero connections between the continued war in Afghanistan, the undeclared war in parts of Pakistan, and events like the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, formerly the only Christian member of Pakistan's government cabinet. Pakistan is a key U.S. ally, and is set to receive more than $3 billion in aid - including over $2 billion in military aid. It's government is in complete shambles, and terrorism in various forms has become commonplace, both against religious minorities and majority Muslims. In addition, fascist legal changes like the draconian blasphemy law, are being used to silence any dissenting voices to extremism, including Muslim voices.

After Bhatti's assassination, President Obama remarked:

Minister Bhatti fought for, and sacrificed his life for, the universal values that Pakistanis, Americans and people around the world hold dear - the right to speak one's mind, to practice one's religion as one chooses, and to be free from discrimination based on one's background or beliefs,"

Nice words, but the government's actions demonstrate more interest saving face by continuing imperialist war efforts.

So, Rep. King and Co. are using the floor of Congress to stir up hatred and ill-informed suspicion. The Obama Administration is fighting an endless war in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, while sending billions annually to increase Pakistan's military "presence." And all the while, people continue to die, hatred and ill will continue to increase, and piles of money continue to be wasted on feeding destruction and corporate greed.

What a horror-show!

Oh, and then there's Wisconsin. Don't get me started on that one.

It's time to head outside. May humanity wake the hell up before it's too late.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Why Charlie Sheen Kind of Matters

It's kind of amazing. I haven't owned a TV for years, nor do I really pay attention to TV shows on the internet. Rarely do I care at all about an American-made movie enough to go see it in any form. I mostly skim the newspaper these days, and get 95% of my news and information online. I occasionally listen to 5 or 10 minutes of talk radio just to get a snicker, or hear what the latest bullshit tag lines are on the days social issues.

And yet, the meltdown of actor Charlie Sheen has still made it into my world. Repeatedly, from several angles.

So, I don't do much pop culture. It's one of the ways I'm "different" you might say. Until I saw a photo of Sheen in a Cleveland Indians jersey, I'd completely forgotten he was a star in a movie I watched over and over again as a baseball obsessed teen. I have a very strong memory, even for tiny details, but remembering such things as the stars of movies or TV shows is completely irrelevant to me most of the time.

However, since good old Charlie has been tossed into my pop culture deprived life, I'm gonna offer a few bones about it all.

I have long felt dismayed at the amount of celebrity and hero worship in U.S. culture. Certainly, this is not a uniquely U.S. phenomenon , but perhaps the level of pervasiveness is. It's tainted everything, from the way we elect public officials to how we view our spiritual leaders. Riding the elevation to a peek with a celebrity, as well as participating in an almost ritualized form of character destruction when they fall, are both elements of a collective addition around famous folks.

Tiger Woods, who featured heavily in parts of the Buddhist blogosphere last year, is a great example. Millions upheld this man as an image of the perfect modern man. He was astoundingly good at his sport. He was articulate, mostly polite, and rarely combative with those competing against him. He was a "family man." As a man with a diverse racial background, he was also considered - like President Obama - to be a "representative of a more racially balanced future." Lots and lots of projections. And then, when it came out that he was a serial cheater, all hell broke lose. The man on the pedestal, the great role model for young people, suddenly was a lightning rod for pent up hatreds and grudges which often had nothing, really, to do with him.
And lost in all of that was the small sliver of intelligent criticism looking at, amongst other things, the way some celebrity men embody deeply abusive attitudes toward women, and how often their sexism, and even violence towards women, is dismissed or minimized in an attempt to keep the celebrity around, doing what they do best.

Charlie Sheen is also a great example of this. His drug abuse has been long know and yet was, for a long time, just considered part of the "bad boy" image that looks good on TV and movie screens, never mind that it is cause of a hell of a lot of suffering. Incidents of domestic abuse were dealt with lightly by the legal system, and apparently had little impact on the hyper popularity of Sheen's recent show Two and a Half Men. In fact, running the line between laughing at the stupidity of sexist behavior and finding sexist behavior funny seems to be a theme of the show itself. Sheen's history of using racial slurs (here's one example, also, apparently had little impact on his overall public image. It seems that like the slow downfall of Mel Gibson, it took a lot of odd, public ranting in the media and some strange twisting around anti-semitism to finally bring the guy down a notch. But odds are he'll now just be dismissed as wacko who hates Jews and believes in conspiracy theories, which really does nothing to address the cultural sickness around celebrities, nor the worst behavioral manifestations amongst the "fallen icons."

Then, there is the Elephant Journal post I linked to above, which is not only one of many Sheen posts on that spiritual website, but also one of many Sheen posts on many spiritual websites. Again, the guy is everywhere. Author Kristoffer Nelson (of the Ele post in question) is trying at humor, while also offering a bit of spiritual wisdom in the process. He writes:

What I find most interesting about our social obsession with Sheen’s insanity is that his ramblings aren’t too far from what the tradition’s masters claimed as the enlightened experience. There is a fine line between insanity and freedom. If Rajneesh said, “I have tiger blood flowing through my veins” would we laugh in dismiss or sign-up for a retreat? If a Yogi Bhajan said, “I closed my eyes and in a nanosecond I cured myself… I have a disease? Bullshit. I cured it with my brain.” would we completely disregard the comment or buy his book hoping to achieve the same? Make a vision board, anyone?

Given a different context, less porn stars and blow binges, Sheen could possibly be our next Eckhart Tolle: “Apocalypse Now will teach you how to live inside of a moment between a moment.” Sound familiar?

Sheen is easy to dismiss because we think we’re not him.

Yeah, I like the last line. It's a good reminder.

But the whole post is also too damned cute, and represents this sort of amused, compassionate gaze that some spiritual types like to offer that takes the bumbling idiocies of celebs and uses them for some individualized spiritual development offering. Which is fine in one sense. Recognizing the suddenly strong reactions against a fallen pop culture icon are probably more about yourself than about the icon is healthy. And that celebrity X's "bad behavior" is something you could easily do under the right causes and conditions - again, a healthy attitude.

However, the same amused, compassionate gaze fails to address the systemic, root reasons behind both the allowed excesses and abuses of the celebrities themselves, as well as our collective additions around the rise and fall of these people. There have been numerous articles and discussions online in recent months about the role of unquestioning, fawning students and sanghas in the rise of Buddhist teachers who abuse sex and power. And also numerous articles and discussions pointing out that there's something seriously wrong with just blaming a fallen teacher for their bad behavior. The way I see it, this could easily be expanded to pop culture, politics, and other areas of life - because all of it has been deeply tainted by forms of celebrity and hero worship.

The title of this post is "Why Charlie Sheen Kind of Matters." I say "kind of" because it's not really about him particularly, but about what he represents. Like Kobe Bryant, Ben Roethlisberger, Mel Gibson, Rush Limbaugh, John Edwards, Newt Gingrich - the list goes on and on - Charlie Sheen is a highly privileged male celebrity who has done plenty wrong, gotten away with more than the average person would, and now has become the fodder for jokes, gossip, hatred, and general public abuse. The lovable, charismatic bad boy paid millions to entertain is now a lowly, crazed thug.

Aren't you all tired of going on this roller coaster ride already? I know I have been for awhile now.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

No Meditation for Those Yoga Folks?

There's an excellent article and discussion over at Elephant Journal about yoga and meditation. Author Philip Goldberg opens with the following:

I’ve always found it odd that so many dedicated yoga practitioners don’t have a regular meditation practice. More puzzling is that yoga teachers who can practically recite the Yoga Sutras by heart don’t sit regularly either, and they know that Patanjali gives hardly any attention to asanas but has a whole lot to say about the mind. In fact, the whole text can be seen as an elaboration of the second verse, in which the sage defines yoga as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” (I prefer “cessation” to “suppression” and other terms that suggest force.) You would think that hundreds of scientific studies on meditation, not to mention the surge in yogic literacy, would have made meditating as common as stopping at Starbucks for a caffeine fix. Instead, a great many yogis are like the teacher with the New Years resolution: they know it would be a good idea, but they don’t get around to it.

Why don’t they? There are many reasons, of course, perhaps chief among them the rebranding of yoga as a physical fitness regimen and the almost exclusive identification of yoga with asana. But that doesn’t explain why people who know better neglect Patanjali’s dharana, dhyana, samadhi denouement.

The comments that follow the article are really engaging. One of the interesting points a few people made is about meditation students who neglect their bodies, and how it might be harder for long time meditation practitioners to start up an asana (yogic posture) practice. I have, from the beginning, had both asana and meditation practices, and in recent years, have added elements of pranayama practice and other pieces of the yogic path, while also expanding into writing Zen poetry forms and maintaining this blog as a practice as well.

So I'm probably not the best person to speculate on whether or not going from years of meditation to a more active physical practice like yoga asana is really difficult or not. One thing that is true though is that the older you get, the harder it is to add new body practices - whether that be sports, exercise routines, or spiritual practices like yoga. This isn't to say that people can't - older folks are doing so all the time. It's just that it's like learning new languages - the younger you are, the easier it often is to pick up.

Back to the original issue of yoga students not doing meditation, in addition to the obvious packaging of yoga as a money making exercise regimen, there are other factors in why so many yogis and yoginis don't make the connection.

1. Students are trained to pay close attention to their breath while doing the postures. The couple of more exercise-based yoga classes I experienced years ago were all about getting "your groove on." The loud huffing and puffing in the room had nothing to do with directed breath work, and had everything to do with developing hot bods.

2. Teachers fail to do justice to Savasana, which is essentially a form of lying down meditation. My Iyengar teacher regularly had us in savasana for a good 15 minutes, sometimes longer, knowing that it not only gives the body a chance to integrate the active work that had just been done, but also because he saw practice as a continual flow between active and receptive, between movement and stillness.

3. Teachers aren't, themselves, experienced in meditation, and aren't trained to view yoga practice as the whole 8 limbs, not just asana. And anyone who has taught anything before knows that it's hard enough to figure out how to teach what you know. If a yoga teacher isn't a regular meditator in some form or another, they just aren't going to go there - so the students in their class won't either, at least in the yoga context.

Saying this, it's certainly true that there are plenty of yoga practitioners out there doing the whole works. And also many others like me who have strong Buddhist meditation practices and also are yoga students. But it's interesting to consider how the dominant trends go along with the general mind/body/spirit split that permeates Western cultures. A split that is beginning to be broken down in many ways, but still bogs us down in so many other ways.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Art as a Gateway to Early Western Buddhist History

*Painting by Hilma af Klint, 1862-1944.

Those who have been longtime readers of this blog know that I have an affinity for late 19th and early 20th century painting. I also am quite fond of reading about the artist's lives, in great part because some of them were really wild folks. In addition, the vast majority of my favorites were interested in "Eastern" religion and philosophy, to the point where their artwork is influenced to a greater or lesser extent by it. In addition, in terms of this blog, this time period was the beginning of more deliberate movement of Buddhists and Buddhist teachings to North America and Europe, and thus is important for developing an understanding of the ways in which teachings, rituals, cultural and religious structures were adapted in response to new surroundings, both by Asian immigrant Buddhists and by the mostly white North American and European types who either studied, cherry picked, or eventually converted to Buddhism.

Swedish artist Hilda af Klint was, like many others of the period, influenced primarily by the teachings of Theosophy. In a lot of ways, theosophy paved the way for the New Age movement, especially with it's emphasis on blending spiritual and religious teachings and focus on the evolution of consciousness. It's an interesting, if odd mixture of things, and certainly one can argue that Blavatsky and others cherry picked and culturally appropriated a myriad of traditions to suit their needs. However, it also can be viewed as the spirited, if overreaching reaction of spiritual people to a world that suddenly was becoming globally connected right before their eyes. We are in a similar period now, with the internet and other technology, making the gap between nations even smaller - and in the process, shaking up the entire way we - as humans - understand and interact.

Klint was, by all accounts, a sane and balanced artist, who also happened to be regarded as a clairvoyant, driven to paint by an unseen "guide," and whose art somehow repeatedly anticipated and demonstrated principles that would appear years later on the canvases of famed European and American modernists and abstractionists. In addition, she was fairly secretive about her work, showing little of it publicly during her life. Her dying wish, in fact, was that her paintings not be shown in public for twenty years. Perhaps she wondered if people would be able to handle them.

Several of her paintings have to do with the integration or merger of two figures, or dualities. Of this, Ronald Jones and Liv Stolz wrote:

Between 1906 and 1915 she completed ‘Paintings for the Temple’ (182 paintings divided into a number of different series) in which she sought to represent the path towards the reconciliation of spirituality with the material world, along with other dualities: faith and science, men and women, good and evil.

I have often felt that a central feature of our life's work, and which is demonstrated in Buddha's teachings, is reconciling ourselves with the myriad of dualities at play in our lives.

In addition, it's interesting to consider that Klint often painted following a period of meditation. Yes, her meditation probably looked little like "our" meditation, but that's of secondary note in my view. What's fascinating is the merger of meditation with a focus on reconciling the opposites, something Buddhists can certainly appreciate, if anything.

I suppose some of you might be thinking. Ok, so what? Well, even if you could care less about art or weird occult stuff, there is still something worth considering from a Buddhist practitioner standpoint. Late 19th and early 20th century white Westerners who ended up adopting Buddhism were products of this time. For better or worse, they were influenced by the synthesizing processes present in both the philosophies of the time (such as theosophy), as well as the art of the time (which included more famous artists influenced by synthesized spirituality. Searching for the "essence" of traditions, and "stripping away cultural baggage," two highly contested issues amongst contemporary Western Buddhist circles, were the calling cards of the day back then. People wound up about Stephen Batchelor and friends today might consider that Henry Steel Olcott, one of the first white convert Buddhists, was merging Buddhist teachings with Western science, philosophy, and rationalism, over 120 years ago.

In other words, issues that seem to be the product of our current wave of Buddhist expansion have their roots in the past. So, while we continue to struggle with defining what it is that we mean by Buddhism in the West, perhaps it would be valuable to go further back in time, and consider more thoroughly how the planks we stand on today were laid. And if nothing else, there is plenty of beautiful artwork and interesting life stories just waiting to be re-discovered.