Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Convenience Zombies

I have written about this topic before, but found the following article fairly compelling. As someone who has a foot in the technological world, but who readily chooses substance over convenience, I found these words to ring very true:

Convenience seems to come at the price of interaction — the sort of day-to-day interactions that make us a part of our communities. Instead of chatting with the person at the grocery store check-out we do battle with the automated self check-out machine. Instead of going to a teller at the bank we find any old ATM to do our banking. Jobs that involve serving the public are quickly disappearing as they are replaced by machines and internet-based services. And I can’t help worrying that the increased lack of human interaction is going to be socially detrimental and isolating.

I really believe that these daily interactions mean something, and I believe that they add richness to my life. I’ve recently heard that Blockbuster is going under and that NetFlix will soon be our primary movie procuring option, and I have to say that I’m very sad about this. In fact, my regular Sunday night trip to the local Blockbuster to pick out a movie with my husband has become something that we both cherish. After dinner we set out on a short walk to the store and hope that “Movie Guy” will be there.

“Movie Guy” is our most trusted Blockbuster employee who can always be counted on to provide excellent recommendations for movies both new and old. It seems that he’s seen every movie ever made and has detailed opinions about all of them. I’m not going to invite Movie Guy to my next birthday party, but we have a relationship nonetheless. It’s a relationship based on similar taste in films, on a shared sense of humour, and on one person doing his job really well and other people benefiting from that person’s expertise.

Ironically, it wasn't too long ago that Blockbuster was the convenience store of movies, putting independent after independent out of business. In fact, some of those Movie Guys had been, at one time, owners of their own rental places, which served not only as businesses, but gathering places for movie fanatics. So, one might view Blockbuster as an intermediate step on the process of moving towards full privatization and individualization.

This is one of the reasons why I have withheld complete support for a view that suggests a person can rely solely on internet resources or books to fuel their spiritual practice. Even a tiny group of people meditating together, yoga together, or studying sacred texts together has an effect one really can't come by doing it all "alone."

Beyond that, though, the larger issue is really the general struggle with community many of us have. Perhaps it won't be a big deal if, for example, Netflix takes over the movie rental industry. In and of itself, it's not terribly important. However, it does play into a trend of ease, that is coupled with isolation and a "checking out" of formerly everyday interactions.

A few months ago, I stepped up to the check out counter at our local library to borrow some movies. The woman behind the desk said, "Have you tried our individual check out yet?" I turned around and saw the row of computer check outs that are rapidly replacing interaction with a live person in our libraries. I wanted to say "Yes, but I prefer working with you." Instead, I just said "Yes" and she proceeded to pull the movies out of their covers, while saying "we're trying to get our numbers up on the check out machines."

The first thing I thought was "Aren't you concerned about your job disappearing?" Although it is the case that librarians are diversifying their skill sets these days, which is a positive, it's also the case that budgets are getting cut routinely. Underwriting billionaires to build new football stadiums seems to be more important than keeping libraries open and filled with intelligent, friendly staff folks.

After that initial thought, I felt a bit of sadness, noting how these kinds of interactions are slowly being whittled away by computerization, and unfortunately, we aren't doing a great job of shifting to a different mode of interacting with each other.

Again, I think it's more the general shift going on that's alarming, as opposed to any specific interaction. I have seen some librarians, for example, spending more time helping people locate information and resources vital to their well-being - so perhaps there a lag I'm witnessing there, which in the end, will result in much more interactive community libraries.

But I'm not sure it's a lag that can be generalized to the broader picture.

The world is obsessed with connectivity. Everyone needs an iPhone, instant access to email and text messages, instant access to products and information and yet I get the sense that we’re all more disconnected than ever. Sure, we can get 60 text messages a minute from our closest friends, but we avoid human beings in public like lepers. We plug up our ears, glue our eyes to our phones, and block out the random people who fill our days. We reject them thoroughly, then go back to our concrete boxes to eat dinner in front of TVs instead of with our families. We know a thousand methods for keeping in touch but we’ve forgotten how to reach out. We’ve forgotten how to say saying hello to the person sitting next to us on the bus simply because they’re sharing our space for awhile.

I would like to think we are in a transition period, where people are still trying to find the balance point working with the new technologies we have. But so much seems accelerated these days, and it takes more effort to be ok with not keeping up with it all. I see it even with people who are dedicated to slowing down, to practicing meditation and other spiritual practices, to prioritizing paying attention over production and speed. All of that is at odds with the demands of their workplace, or their families, or some other vital part of their lives.

In fact, I can see it in myself, having spent the past three or four years advocating with others that our Zen Center get more "online" and "connected with the outside world." It's not that this is a bad thing, but that it has forced a few folks, including our head teacher, to plug into technology in ways they might have not chosen to without the pressure coming from us. And while I believe we are correct to be moving in this direction, it has brought up all sorts of questions about how to apply the ancient teachings that are supposed to guide our lives to what we are doing online.

While my own experiences and learning probably makes me more optimistic than the author of the article I am quoting above, I do think there are more and more people who have become "Convenience Zombies." You even see it amongst people coming to zen centers and yoga studios. "Just teach me how to meditate. Just tell me how to move my body. No ritual. No archaic texts. I want to feel better NOW."

It's all a cause for pause. Because those disappearing "Movie Guys" are symbolic of a larger trend, one that we really might want to reconsider, even if it means slowing things down a bit.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Buddhists Talking Sexual Desire

There is an excellent post and discussion about desire going on over at the blog On the Precipice. Specifically, it's tackling sex and sexual desire, which are, for obvious and not so obvious reasons both major stumbling blocks for humans and also gateways to enlightenment.

To open the discussion up further, let's consider a few of the comments made over there first.

Katherine, the post author, writes:

I didn’t consciously choose to abstain from sexual activity. Initially it was more a consequence of environmental choices I made in my life–namely to spend an extended period of time meditating in Burma, and thus observing the eight precepts. After some time learning in the fish bowl of a retreat center exactly what desire is like, when I went back into the world, the five precepts were just kind of a given. And as long as I’m still in training–knowing that old habit patterns can out-muscle wise and skillful alternatives, in the absence of a committed relationship, there would naturally be celibacy. Believing a particular train of thought that ran through my head at one point, and in the fear that I might somehow be suppressing desire (e.g., note the delusion of this post), I experimented once (while firmly in the world, mind you). In the language of addiction recovery, we would say I “slipped”. Not that I hold the precepts with such moral fervor, but let’s face it, I’m just disappointed I can’t say I’ve been celibate for as long the x years and y months as I’d like.

It's interesting to me that she uses the language of addiction recovery because I believe that is both something that offers insight, and also a place of trouble for a lot of folks.

There's no doubt in my mind that sexual activity, even if just done in one's mind in the form of fantasy, can be quite addictive. When sex is approached in an addictive manner, it's all about objectification and sense gratification. Instead of moving closer to your life, you move away from it, all the while believing that you are getting something that previously was "missing" from your life. That's the interesting thing about addictive sexual patterns. They trick the mind into thinking that whatever actions are being done will fill in or settle that pit of uneasiness we all feel at our core. Another, more blunt way to phrase it, might be "This orgasm will be the one that brings endless bliss, and remove the misery." That's the trick. And actually, if you experience the rise and fall of the trick, you actually start to shoot from a view of diminished returns. Instead of believing that the coming orgasm or sexual high will bring endless bliss or even long term bliss, you're "happy" with a short term relief from whatever misery and/or longing is present.

This is very much like substance addiction. The cycle of rising euphoria and then falling into withdrawal is a pattern of diminished returns, but one that your mind continues to buy into because it can't stand to face that uneasy pit.

Let's face it, that uneasy pit is really, when you strip off all the emotional and conceptual stuff, merely the emptiness of self. The moving sands that make up our lives. And since no amount of dumping stuff or experiences into it will make it a fixed whole, we are basically left to face it full on, without flinching. But most of the time, we opt to keep trying to fill the hole.

Going back to addiction languaging, though, I also believe that there is a place of trouble there. Maybe many. For example, one of the underlying premises of many addiction recovery groups is that the only way to heal is to abstain from that which you were addicted to, usually for the rest of your life. Now, even if one doesn't literally apply a "rest of my life" approach to celibacy, it's really easy to get hung up on a belief that you must "perfect" your sexual self before re-entering being a sexually active person.

This perfectionism is something you see amongst some folks in 12 Step groups. A person who has years of sobriety, and has cleaned up their lives in many ways, might spend months or even years feeling shame and guilt about a single "slip" where they drank, or smoked a joint, or what have you. There's something quite puritanical about this in my opinion, even if the person in question really is better off always being sober.

Furthermore, while there are similarities between sexual addictions and substance addictions, the very fact that substances are something chosen to be brought in from the outside makes them different. Sexual energy can arise without any external stimulus, and indeed, is simply part of our being. And while some people choose to be celibate their entire lives, the vast majority of us do not, and so some other approaches are necessary in my view.

In my comments to Katherine's post, I wrote:

The relationship itself might be the vehicle for both of us to break through the dangling chads of craving we might enter into the partnership with.

I firmly believe that people can enter into an intimate, even spiritual partnership with the intention to awaken with each other. Which is different from trying to break through all of one's selfish desires alone. Now, clearly this is high-level relationship stuff, something that probably requires that those involved have burned through some of their attachments and selfish acting out beforehand.

Which leads to this comment, from Ted Meissner, author of the blog The Secular Buddhist:

The nice thing is that this time, the time for intimacy with just this moment rather than with Other, can help us grow in wonderful ways that can make us better partners in the event we do find someone with whom we can share — this moment.

The "this time' he's referring to is the period of celibacy Katherine describes in her post. For me, this points to a synergistic approach whereby one renounces acting on sexual energy and thoughts for a time, and then chooses to return to being active again.

However, I also believe that for some of us, that returning might not be to that final, wonderful powerhouse spiritual partnership. It might be something other, even something that you might be tempted to call a slip up or mistake. But which in the end, actually taught you something you were previously not seeing before.

Following a long term relationship that led to a period of renunciation for me, I had a couple of short flings that basically ended my desire for sex without a deeper commitment. Intellectually I knew the fleeting quality of causal sex, and personally, I hadn't really engaged much in it previously. However, it was the multiple casual experiences over a short time that finalized a break with any interest in it.

On the other hand, there is this comment from Barry Briggs, of the blog Ox Herding:

Over the past five years, with guidance from my teacher, I’ve undertaken an examination of my own sexual impulses, desires, addictions and actions. From one perspective, it’s been rather gruesome. From another perspective, it’s been liberating.

That "gruesome" aspect is one of the main reasons why people don't want to pay much attention to this area of life, choosing instead to either repetitiously act out of habitual, addictive patterns or severely repress desire and/or wallow in guilt and shame about it. I have been in both of those camps, and they are flat out death beds if you ask me.

So, it's a really tricky balance. For example, with the casual sex examples I mentioned above. Someone who is just acting out of their addictiveness could easily claim their actions are all about "learning," while the reality is more about using someone else.

Which is why I really like this point, from Katherine's post:

There’s a lot of ego and, as such, a lot of dukkha–harm to myself, harm to others–involved the moment an interaction heads south of the waist line. Part of that is our own emotional baggage and habits of behavior, part of it is deeply conditioned on a subconscious level from our parents and ancestors. The good news is we can unlearn some of that. We can lighten the load.

Lighten the load. That makes a ton of sense to me. It's a little bit like the peeling the onion metaphor. That you're stripping off layer after layer as you go.

Moving towards naked if you will.

That's where I am aiming to go. How about you?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Buddhists from Burma Practicing in Minnesota

I'm a bit behind the blogging ball on this one, which happens sometimes. Arun, over at Angry Asian Buddhist, recently put a call out for posts celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Today, he has a round up post offering links to various bloggers who responded with some excellent writing.

First off, if you are interested in doing some more academic reading about Asian-American Buddhists, check out this bibliography.

Second, as long time readers know, I spent many years as an ESL teacher. Amongst my students over that time were a large number of Karen, an ethnic minority group from Burma. While many of them were Christian, I did have a handful of Buddhist Karen students, and they are members of a sangha located in Maplewood, MN.

While the convert Buddhist sanghas, like the one I belong to, have gained a bit of press and attention over the years, that Asian-American and Asian-immigrant dominant sanghas have mostly not - with the exception of the Tibetan communities here in Minnesota, which have mostly been able to ride the coattails of the Dalai Lama.

So, here is a little bit about the Sitagu Dhamma Vihara Buddhist Monastery in Maplewood, from one of their websites:

Theravada Buddha Sasana Nuggaha, Minnesota(TBSN/MN), a non profit organization, was established in St. Paul on May 2, 2004 (Buddha day) (Kason Full moon day of Burmese era in 1365) in order to full fill the crucial requirement for the Buddhists population from Burma, in mid west area of Minnesota. Even many Buddhists with different ethnic back ground from Burma migrated in Minnesota three decades ago there was no Theravada Buddhist monastery in Minnesota. Most of the Burmese Buddhists practice their belief at Lao, Cambodia, Vietnamese, and Chinese Buddhist temples in twin cities area those days.

Four years ago in 2004, Buddhists enthusiastic in Twin cities gathered at Lao Buddhist temple on Burmese New year day and discussed about future establishment of Theravada Buddha Sasana (Teaching of Buddha) association and monastery in MN.
On the full moon day of May 2, 2004, the first Buddhist non-profit organization was successfully formed and named Theravada Buddha Sasana Nuggaha (Supporting to prolong the uncontaminated Buddha Teaching

Meaning of TBSN

Theravada- Preserving the original Buddha’s teaching (canon) from elders Buddhist monk (sanga) until now, called Theravada Buddhism the form of Buddhism practiced in Sri lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, considered to be the most orthodox current form of Buddha Teaching.

Buddha- the Founder of Buddhism, the Enlightened One

Sasana- All Teaching of Buddha.

Nuggaha- Supporters, custodians, preservers of uncontaminated pure teaching of Buddha.

It's so easy for communities like this to go under the radar, barely noticed outside of their membership. The services are held in a house. The websites (here is their main one) are often done in a mixture of first languages and English. And in this case, the English is written by second language speakers. Furthermore, the mainstream media just doesn't cover them. I could only locate the following article about a sangha food fair, which was held last year. And this from a very minor local media source.

Anyway, I hope you take a moment to check out some of the photos on their website, and to consider what sanghas might be under the radar in your community.

*The photograph is from a celebration of traditional Htamane, which is a dish from Burma consisting of sticky rice, mixed with oil, peanuts, Sesame seeds, and other ingredients.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Midwest Tornadoes Hit Home

I'm on the bus last night, coming home from my yoga teacher training core class. It's fairly late, around 9:30 pm, and so some of the people getting on are clearly intoxicated, high, or just plain wound up. This includes a woman sitting in the back, loudly talking on her phone, first to her son, and later to her mother in law.

Felt myself getting irritated. There's no where to go inside of a bus; the intimacy of the space is palpable at times like this.

At one point, she turns to a guy sitting next to her and they start up a conversation. "I've been drinking. I just called my baby. How are you doing baby?" Everyone is "baby" to her apparently.

The tone of her voice swerves from strong to sweet to totally grief ridden and back again.

I'm sitting there thinking "I just want to be home. Have some peace and quiet."

Then she says it. "The tornado destroyed my apartment building!" There's no doubt everyone on that bus heard it. I certainly heard it. It ripped right through me.

As she told the story of being in a basement, listening to people screaming nearby, the tornado closing in on them, all of my thoughts about home and quiet took on a new meaning.

I began wishing the woman well, wondering how the son she spoke to on the phone was doing.

And then I noticed how she kept repeating the story. How the mind keeps going on the territory of trauma, as if in doing so, we can locate what's necessary to heal.

What had been just an irritatingly loud conversation suddenly became dharma.

It's right there under our nose, all the time.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Gay Marriage: A Conservative Response to Conservative Bigotry

I have noticed over the past week or so that a good dozen of my friends on Facebook have signed on to a group stating, "I will vote No on the marriage amendment." Like many other U.S. states in recent years, Minnesota will have a measure on the ballot next year trying to codify in the State Constitution heterosexual marriage as the sole legitimate form of marriage. It's been one of the lynchpin issues of the religious right in this nation, who are hellbent on keeping the GLBTQ community oppressed, marginalized, and vilified.

While I appreciate the sentiment of the Facebook page, and articles like this one, my views on this issue are more complex, and not easily measured by a yea or nay vote.

First off, I plan to vote No on the ballot measure next year because using the Constitution to restrict people's rights is astoundingly stupid in my view.

However, here's where I diverge from the norm.

The pro-Gay marriage movement has always felt like a conservative response to a conservative attack on the GLBTQ community. One of the underlying assumptions being that once gay folks can marry like straight folks currently do, things will be better. Which is true in one sense, but not necessarily true for those who aren't, for whatever reason, interested in getting married.

And those reasons are far more diverse than many of us tend to imagine. Some people are simply players, or afraid of commitment. Some are just exploring. Some haven't healed from past relationships. I know older folks who want to be in an intimate relationship, but have no interest in going through another marriage ceremony. Some are deeply invested in polyamory, and have found ways to sustain long term relationships with multiple people.

One of the driving points behind the Gay Marriage movement has been that gay folks deserve to have the same social rights and privileges bestowed upon married straight couples. And the way I see it, gaining legal gay marriage will certainly open the door to many more people, it doesn't address some of those examples I listed above which can fall under the "long term, committed relationship" category.

There's another issue though. Marriage is a religious ceremony, and plenty of people for a variety of reasons aren't interested in doing religious ceremonies. Furthermore, while I deplore the bigotry of these conservative Judeo-Christian institutions pushing for things like marriage amendments, I feel a strange sympathy towards their general fear of being controlled by the government. The intertwined nature of marriage's current relationship with civil society is problematic when you consider desires for a separation of church and state. At least, it's problematic in my view.

It seems to me that a better course of action would be to leave marriage to the spiritual/religious sphere, where those of us who are members of said communities can choose to partake of these ceremonies as a part of our commitment to our partners.

And as such, the government's role would then be to offer civil union to all who wish to make a commitment to another, with all the financial and social rights, privileges and responsibilities that currently are tied to marriage.

This would open the door for more folks in general, remove the church and state marriage tangle, and also, I believe, would lessen the intensity of opposition from the religious right. Certainly, there are plenty of people who will argue that offering civil unions is still an "affront" to marriage, and I doubt there's anything legally that will get these folks to either stand down or change their minds. However, when the leaders of conservative church X or mosque Y aren't feeling like the government is going to come in and shut them down for not performing a marriage ceremony between two men (that's the standard fantasy), I bet some of them will move on to other issues. It's much easier right now to rally the right wing troops when amongst their worries is one of being told by the government what they can and can't do.

So, I'm not sure what to do about that Facebook group. To join or not join, that is the question.(Not a terribly serious question, but it is the one that led me to this post.) Your thoughts?

Monday, May 23, 2011

How Do You Not Waste Your Life?

The past few weeks have felt kind of odd. All the rapture talk. Tornadoes here in Minnesota and in other parts of the country. A bit of bumpiness at the zen center. Struggling to find flow between the yoga and Zen practices. Confused encounters with a few friends. Flat tire, mistake after mistake Friday the 13th. Dreams of snow destroying my garden.

The shaky, ever-changing ground upon which we stand is, I suppose really evident to me right now. Most of the morning, I've had this tension rolling around in my stomach, directed at nothing in particular really. I read this from a post by Harvey Hilbert about yesterday's tornadoes in Missouri:

For those survivors, life will not be the same. A cold glass of milk, a marshmallow, or a simple daisy will speak to them in ways they never quite imagined. As a survivor myself, I take it as my sacred trust to reaffirm the teaching from the Sandokai: Do not waste time.

And I thought "What does it mean to not waste time?"

There are plenty of Buddhist platitudes I could pull out as a response. Things like not getting lost in acting out habitual patterns. Or spending your days craving things, people, or experiences.

Also, we could sit and quibble over Harvey's framing of the last lines of the Sandokai as not wasting time. The lines are often translated as "I respectfully urge you who study the mystery, do not pass your days and nights in vain."

But you know, none of that cuts it for me right now.

I'll re-frame my question as "What does it mean to not waste your life?" or "How does one not waste his/hers life?"

For some reason, my old fears around making mistakes have been coming up, around with the attendant perfection/non-perfection narratives. I don't really know where my life is going in many ways, so certainly those stories are about finding some ground to hold on to, even if it's old, shitty ground.

In fact, I don't know where this post is going. I'm just writing what's coming up, a sentence at a time.

I think I'm starting to gut level understand why people do everything in their power to resist liberation. In the depths of our heart, we want to be in touch with our boundlessness. But even small shifts towards that, like letting go of some of the conventional things that once defined you (or so you thought anyway) brings with it a palpable fear, confusion, and desire to get back some stable ground.

A friend of mine, who has been struggling to make a few key decisions in her life, recently said something like "I don't want to live the rest of my life doing the same things." But then she goes back to doing so, for now (that's what we all think, for now).

Like my friend, I have done the "for now" return many times.

This returning doesn't define either of us, but it does make me think that the mind is so desperate for things to be stable and predictable, even if it's causing a crap load of suffering.

There are endless spiritual teachings from various traditions about the pitfalls of craving pleasures and avoiding pain. Buddhism is particularly strong in providing such teachings, and they are quite wonderful.

But in a lot of ways, I think it's as much if not more a craving for some of form of stability and predictability that drives our minds - that keeps us from liberation.

Desiring a pleasurable, comfortable life where you always get what you want might be one version.

Another, though, might be to just keep repeating all the jacked up thought and behavior patterns that often bring suffering with them, but which are absolutely familiar, right down to the cells in your body.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Mind Tricks

I have been digging through some old photographs, looking for some images to use for a writing project. Seeing several years of images, and thinking about the stories around some of them, has been an interesting process. Experiences that once held such great charges, positive or negative, now don't. Other experiences, long forgotten, suddenly give rise to emotions they didn't at the time they actually happened.

Memory can be a pretty strange animal, kind of like the photo above, which I took in Grand Marais, MN in 2007.

Kind of makes you wonder. How do you go about getting permission to trespass? And what's so special inside that bland ass building anyway?

Friday, May 20, 2011

The End of the World Post

By now, most of you have probably hear the declaration from Harold "I've gone" Camping that world is about to end. Guess we'll have to see if he's right, but the track record of all those who came before him shouting about the end times is totally abysmal.

Anyway, some of you might be interested to know that Buddhism has an end of the world sutra, The Sermon of the Seven Suns. Here's a taste of it:

The Blessed One spake thus:

"Impermanent, O monks, are the constituents of existence, unstable, non-eternal: so much so, that this alone is enough to weary and disgust one with all constituent things, and emancipate therefrom. Sineru, monks, the monarch of montains, is eighty-four thousand leagues1 in length and breadth; eighty-four thousand lagues deep in the great ocean, and eighty-four thousand above it.

Now there comes, O monks, a season when, after many years, many hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands of years, it does not rain; and while it rains not, all seedlings and vegetation, all plants, grasses, and trees dry up, wither away and cease to be. Thus, monks, constituent things are impermanent, unstable, non-eternal: so much so, that this alone is enough to weary and disgust one therewith and emancipate therefrom.

And, monks, there comes a season, at vast intervals in the lapse of time, when a second sun appears.

After the appearance of the second sun, monks, the brooks and ponds dry up, vanish away and cease to be. So impermanent are constituent things! And then, monks, there comes a season, at vast intervals in the lapse of time, when a third sun appears; and thereupon the great rivers: to wit, the Ganges, the Jamna, the Rapti, the Gogra, the Mahî,--dry up, vanish away and cease to be.

At length, after another vast period, a fourth sun appears, and thereupon the great lakes, whence those rivers had their rise: namely, Anotatto,2 Lion-leap, Chariot-maker, Keel-bare, Cuckoo, Six-bayed, and Slow-flow, dry up, vanish away, and cease to be.

It goes on a fair bit more, until a seventh sun appears, and everything is completely burned away. Anyone familiar with Buddha's teachings will realize that this is exactly how the dissolution of karmic binds is described. Total liberation from suffering, and passing into nirvana, is said to be when all these binds have been burned away, and one leaves not a single trace.

Perhaps the Buddha also was making some kind of prophecy here about how the world will actually end, but I'd also bet that if anyone asked him directly about such things, he'd probably dismiss such talk as a speculative distraction.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Convert Buddhists Hangin' With God and Other Revelations

God talk. Seems like I'm surrounded by it, no matter where I go. Plenty of it floating around the yoga studio where I take my teacher training. Some of it hangs about in my zen center - sometimes offered just as a gesture of connecting with the dominant cultural paradigm, other times maybe it's something more. And for whatever reason, I've noticed a fair amount of it on Buddhist flavored blogs lately.

There was a time when this used to bother me. A lot. I was tired of hearing Bible quotes. Tired of hearing people putting all their faith and energy into a grand deity that may or may not exist. And - if I'm really honest - I was tired of feeling marginalized, ignored, and even held with contempt for not going along with such stories.

Most of that, for whatever reason, has passed on. Finding myself in the middle of a conversation filled with God talk doesn't phase me much. I don't feel the need to identify or not identify with it. I can say what I think on a given day (it changes you know) and let it be. Or say nothing. Or pose some questions. Or just agree with statements like "God is great," knowing that our conceptions of all that are probably entirely different.

But then there's this issue, from Barbara's current post:

I was a bit dismayed by this bit of dialogue I found at Huffington Post

"Once, when I was on a live radio show being interviewed by a Christian talk show host, her first question to me was, "Do you Buddhists believe in God?"

I had only a few seconds to think of an answer.

"Yes," I said.

"Good!" the host said. "And how do you pray?"

I said that we prayed in silence to reach our divine nature.

"I like that!" the host said."

The author, Lewis Richmond, said he wanted to establish common ground with the audience, and I appreciate that. Even so, I think it was a dreadfully unskillful answer. No matter what Richmond means by "God," his "yes" conveyed something to a western Christian audience that is not true.

After a discussion about dating with a fellow yoga teacher student last night, I had a bit of a realization: I still sometimes am too identified with notions around relationships. In other words, I place too much emphasis on either "being single" or "being coupled" - believing, somehow, that one or the other (which one it is changes) is a core identity. Some "thing" that "I" view as "myself."

For people who grew up in Judeo-Christian dominant nations, and/or spent significant parts of their lives as members of one of those religious traditions, it's pretty easy to maintain a certain allegiance with God. Or even identify yourself with God, while still practicing Zen, or any other form of Buddhism.

And, as Barbara's post goes on to point out, there are others who push in the opposite direction, maintaining that one must absolutely have an atheist stance. That because Buddhist teachings deconstruct and dismantle notions of God, we must reject anything remotely sounding like a great divine power out of hand.

Debates about whether there is a God or not were something Buddha put off to the side. Being wise enough to realize that such debates are probably never ending, he sought to point people in the direction of liberation from suffering instead.

And yet, the debates role on, and people go on identifying themselves as atheists, or theists, or agnostics, or whatever. Which seems no different to me than the fussing I do over "being single" or "being coupled." Talking about either is just fine, but when that talk becomes about fixing who I am in this world, then trouble is right behind.

We have a couple of hospital chaplains amongst our Zen sangha. And they often speak about having to offer services and support for the mostly Christian families and patients they're working with. It's been interesting for me to hear both of them talk about letting go of the language and teachings of their Zen practice, and speaking to their patients and their patient's families in the spiritual tongue and forms that they know and love. I don't get the sense that either person has suddenly decided they believe in a God, or identify their lives with God; it's more that they offer up themselves for the others' benefit.

You might think of it as a kind of "identity bardo," which I think is actually a major aim of our practice.

However, it's much easier to just choose a view (I believe in God or I don't believe in God) and then defend the crap out of it. Makes it feel like there's some ground upon which to stand. Some place to call home.

But "home" itself, as we tend to know it, is also just another story we tell.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Dating Within Your Spiritual Community

Here is a topic I haven't seen written about much, if at all, although is tangentially related to the teacher sex scandals in the news lately. The topic is dating someone in your sangha or yoga community.

Take this guy, who is dealing with having an ex-girlfriend practicing in the same yoga studio.

So here I am, a grown, tough man, who has avoided going to yoga for days because I don’t want to see her, hear her, or even smell her patchouli.

I feel like she has stolen my refuge (thank goodness for RY!), and taken my one special place I can go and be surrounded by friends. All I can think when she is in class is “You owe me a ton of money” or “You hit me so hard I puked twice,” or worse. I certainly don’t want to dissuade my classmates from befriending her, as I believe (naively) that I somehow brought out the worst in her, and (hopefully) people can change.

Is she ruining my yoga experience? Yes, undoubtedly. Should I just deal with it and move on? Sure. Is it distracting to the point of infuriating when she is in the same class as me? Oh, god. YES.

Now, dude has some issues to sort out. He's pretty wound up and all. Yet, this kind of stuff happens a lot. Spiritual communities are - or would seem to be - one of the perfect places to meet someone you are compatible with. And people do - meet and become couples in these communities - all the time. And they also go through rough patches, and/or break up. Which certainly can make things awkward, if not unbearable.

I have had some conversations with a fellow Zen sangha member about these very issues. His views are fairly cautious about the whole idea of ever getting involved with another sangha member in the first place. He has, for example, a genuine concern that if things go wrong, the person he was dating might leave the community, or even practice all together. You might think he's placing too much emphasis on his potential influence, but what he's worried about actually happened to him once. So, I get it, and such a concern makes some sense, especially given that our primary purpose for being in a sangha is to practice together - not find someone to date.

Yet, I also have sensed in his tone a bit of the mixture of hands off/negative view that seems to play out in many spiritual communities around sexuality, romantic relationships, and their place within a spiritual life. What do I mean by this? Well, specifically the tendency to focus on what goes wrong in these areas, how sexuality and love relationships can be hindrances, and all the ways we get lost in fantasies driven by lust and other forms of desires. Indeed, due to the unfortunate number of Zen teacher scandals with sexual relationships at the center, many sanghas have created detailed documents sussing out some of the myriad of ways things can go wrong, and how members of the community need to act in order to "not go there." The same has started to happen in yoga studios, in response to overly invasive and/or predatory teachers hooking up with students.

Now, I'm fully in support of such policies. And I'm fully in support of anyone practicing in a spiritual community taking a good look at their desires around sex and love relationships, and making efforts to witness, curb, and/or weed out destructive tendencies.

However, I wonder if, in the process of protecting our communities, some of us have gone too far. Or more precisely, if the majority of discussion around sex and love relationships is focused on how they go wrong, then perhaps everything else is being shoved underground.

During a recent class on the third Zen precept, we split up into talking groups based on gender. There was some lively discussion for sure, but I was also struck at a percentage of men in our group that didn't want to talk about sexuality at all, or who were primarily focused on how much they screwed up when it came to working with the precepts and sexuality. My own comments were tinged with that flavor, which later made me pause.

Going back to the original issue, though, unlike my dharma brother, I have never dated anyone in either my Zen sangha or in the yoga communities I have been in. Have certainly thought about it, but have never made the leap. In part, this was due to time and circumstances - being in a relationship already when meeting someone I might otherwise be interested in. However, I also think there's a part of me that fears being part of a mess that spills over into the larger community, and also doesn't want to be seen as one of "those guys" who hits on women in spiritual communities. Because I'm not. And yet, all of that, in some way, seems to be tied to maintaining a certain image within the community - in my case, one that's pretty "clean" if you catch my drift.

Do people who are church or mosque goers think like this? Somehow, I think not as much. There seems to be a point of dating and/or marrying someone within your religion that doesn't play as strong, for better and for worst, amongst Western Buddhists and yoga students. And perhaps the general lack of attention and care for families and children in particular amongst these communities plays a role here.

A Methodist meeting another Methodist at their church would then, if they have children, naturally would bring those children to Sunday School classes. And if they are committed members of that community, they might have been in counsel with the Pastor from early on in their relationship together.

This scenario, in it's totality, seems so much less common amongst Western Buddhist and yoga communities. Even in my own Zen community, which has long had an active program for children, and tends to support families more so than the average American Zen center, parts of the above example don't seem to play out. People tend to come already matched, and with children, to the sangha. The idea that a couple would meet in the community, develop together, start a family, and then have those children grow up in the sangha is kind of foreign. I can think of a few examples that almost fit that bill, but they are exceptions.

And then there's the flip side of this issue - how to handle break ups with a community. I'm not convinced anyone - traditional church all the way to radical Zen sangha - has figured out some great way of talking about such things. Or of how to help people consider such things as dealing with community gossiping or being ex's and also members of the same community at the same time. And I can imagine there's plenty of repression to be had in your average church, mosque, or synagogue.

Yet, I wonder if the way in which things have been compartmentalized - that we tend to "do our spiritual thing" in one place - with a group of adults - and do most everything else in some other set of places - I wonder if this hasn't created a curious divide around what tend to be our most intimate relationships. That people who do date end up dating another member of their sangha or yoga community do so in a kind of hushed, privatized way. Or that some of us simply don't consider others in these places, thinking it's "wrong" somehow, instead of something to consider more carefully perhaps, given the group dynamics that can be involved. And others, who have dated and then break up, end up either leaving the community out of guilt, shame, or a feeling of having a lack of support.

Lot's of questions in my mind. Not a hell of a lot of answers. How about you? What has your experience been? Have you dating someone in your Buddhist or yoga community? Or have you seen such relationships develop and/or break up within your community?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tapping the Flow: Environmental Urbanism in Bogota, Colombia

Ahh, Colombia. The country that is. Most Americans, I would guess, think of drugs, guns, and violence when the name Colombia is brought up. There's certainly some of that there, but U.S. mainstream media is quite good at presenting reductionist pictures of Latin American nations which are "in crisis," in "need" of U.S aid, and/or are "sliding towards socialism" - not so subtle code for "enemy territory."

I, on the other hand, tend to think that mixed in with a level of stability and struggle, there is a hell of a lot of brilliant societal change going on in many Latin American countries, and Colombia is no exception. Consider all of this, done under the leadership of former Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa:

In just three years, 1998-2001 (term limits prevented him from seeking a second term) Peñalosa’s administration accomplished the following:

Created the Trans-Milenio, a bus rapid transit system (BRT), which now carries a half-million passengers daily on special bus lanes that offer most of the advantages of a metro at a fraction of the cost.
Built 52 new schools, refurbished 150 others, added 14,000 computers to the public school system, and increased student enrollment by 34 percent.
Established or refurbished 1200 parks and playgrounds throughout the city.
Built three large and 10 neighborhood libraries.
Built 100 nurseries for children under five, and found permanent sources of funding.
Improved life in the slums by bringing water to 100 percent of Bogotá households, and buying undeveloped land on the outskirts of the city to prevent real estate speculation and ensure that it will be developed as affordable housing with electrical, sewage, and telephone service as well as space reserved for parks, schools, and greenways.
Saw the murder rate fall by two-thirds. (This was almost all conventional crime; contrary to expectations, terrorist acts are rare in Bogotá.)
Reclaimed the sidewalks from motorists, who traditionally saw them as either a passing lane or a parking lot. “I was almost impeached by the car-owning upper classes,” Penalosa notes, “ but it was popular with everyone else.”
Established 300 kilometers of separated bikeways, the largest network in the developing world.
Created the world’s longest pedestrian street, 17 kilometers crossing much of the city, as well as a 45- kilometer greenway along a path that had been originally slated for an eight-lane highway.
Reduced traffic by 40 percent with a system under which motorists must leave cars at home during rush hour two days a week. He also raised parking fees and local gas taxes, with half of the proceeds going to fund the new bus transit system.
Inaugurated an annual car-free day, where everyone from CEOs to janitors had to commute to work in some other way than a private automobile.
Planted 100,000 trees.

These efforts in such a short time should make a lot of North American's blush and perhaps cringe. Blush because we waste so damned much. And cringe because while other places with far less cumulative wealth are making REAL, substantial infrastructure decisions that are both better for the planet, and also improving people's overall quality of life.

Some people question my deliberate linkage between spiritual practice and social action, but one of the main reasons I believe it's imperative that more people step out of the zendo, out of the yoga studio, and into the public sphere is that the kind of visioning and intelligence needed to create massive changes like those in Bogota only comes from people who can tap into the flow that much larger than themselves.

I believe this ability can come from someone of any background, secular, religious, or spiritual, but I also think that practices like yoga and meditation are directly grounded in opening people to that flow. Furthermore, I think that having a deep awareness of the inter-connectivity of all life can lead to less possessiveness around any particular idea or effort. And in my view, the ability to actually manifest large-scale social change is directly tied to the number of people involved - especially at a leadership level - who aren't attached to power and control narratives, or a desire for great fame and wealth.

There are many more examples like Bogota, including in some places in the wealthy Global North. I'm planning on examining more closely how people are coming together, what lead them to their insights, and how those insights are turned into action.

Have a good weekend!

*Image of one of Bogota's Car Free Days.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Blogger's Technical Difficulties Mirror Life

So, Blogger, which hosts this blog, has been "sleeping" for about a day and a half. They've had some technical difficulties, which included the disappearance of a post I wrote on my relationship blog, and a few comments on my last post. Such is life I suppose.

Actually, it kind of fits with the last 24 hours for me. Last night, I got to stand in front of class and get deconstructed by my yoga classmates as I did forward folds. A weak spot in my yoga asana practice for sure, but mostly, it was a good opportunity to let go of being "skilled" and "good" at something and just be. In fact, I was probably more off in the demonstration than I normally am, which gave the others a chance to practice their observation skills.

This morning, I started off on my bicycle to go visit a friend from the same yoga training group and about halfway there, I got a flat. Fortunately, I had picked a place to meet on a bus line, so I parked the bike and hopped the bus.

Getting off the bus at the coffee shop I thought we were meeting at, I noticed the address wasn't right. I went in, pulled up the internet, and checked to make sure. Wrong coffee shop. The one I was going to was 8 blocks up the same road, so I left and started walking, getting to the correct destination with more than 20 minutes to spare.

All of this happened with only a minimal of frustration on the bus ride - it's a really slow bus. Mostly, I was just going along, watching things unfold without a need to create a story, especially a catastrophe story, around any of it.

Kind of nice not to go there. Sure made things a lot more easy to accept and even enjoy out of curiosity.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Seasons and Life

There is no I and there is no other.
How can there be intimacy or estrangement?
I recommend giving up trying to get there by meditation,
But rather, directly seizing the reality at hand.
The message of the Diamond Sutra is:
Nothing is excluded from our experienced world.
From beginning to end,
It inevitably exposes our false identities.

Layman P'ang (740-808)

This is quite a jolt of a poem, don't you think? I have been reflecting on this whole "exposure" process lately. How every spring, the snow melts away and reveals both a round of casualties and, also, a round of new life. Body of a squirrel. Barren tree. Rotting couch cushion. Tulip blooming. Burst of bee balm. Newborn robin. Shiny bicycle.

I think there is a place for hiding in, for holding on to those identities, those parts of yourself that aren't completely right, integrated, alive.

And yet, at the same time, it's foolish to either stay there very long, or believe that you can stay there very long.

Winter comes to all of our identities, and everything that we do.
And spring brings in what's next.

I tend to be afraid of directly seizing some of the realities at hand. Perhaps a snow will come to that fear soon enough.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Dalai Lama and Gardening Weekend

Hi Everyone! I'm back from my little gardening/break from writing weekend. It was quite fun I have to say. Saturday morning, my mother and I took our annual trip to the local Quaker grade school's plant sale. In 22 years, it's grown from a tiny fundraiser in the backyard of the school, into a three day extravaganza held at the State Fair grounds. Between 9am and around 1pm, when we left to go home, there had already been about 1500 people through the doors. And this was the second day of the sale! The school has been fortunate you might say.

I had planted some greens and few cold season veggies earlier in April, but the winter dragged on this year, and it's really only been in the past week that we have had temperatures safe enough for putting the lions share of new plants in.

And yet, there were some familiar face greeting me as I turned over the soil. Patches of mint. Oregano. Chives. Bee balm. Some berry bushes bursting with new leaves. A whole lot of nettle (which I make medicine with). And dandelions. Another medicine plant friend. Even though I know some of this stuff will come back each year, it's often surprising to me how - even with the worst of winters - some things reappear much larger and more bountiful than the previous year. As if to say "I don't care about the cold; just keep growing."

For some reason, that makes me think of the Dalai Lama, who I saw speak yesterday at the University of Minnesota (photo above). Most of his speech was pretty simple. Be compassionate. More people are paying attention to how our hearts are developing and the way our minds work, and this trend needs to continue. Education institutions need to be more deliberate in helping people learn to train their minds. Religious and secular people need to work together more, because we are all responsible for the world together.

I'd also forgotten how funny the guy is. He cracked jokes about his bald head, and was quite jolly about receiving a U of M visor, which you can see him wearing in the photo.

However, one thing that struck me was story he related about speaking with Queen Elizabeth's mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, back in 1996. Having been born in 1900, the Dalai Lama felt she would have a unique perspective as someone who had lived through the entire 20th century. He asked her "Do you think the world is getting better or worse?" And without hesitation, she said "better." The Dalai Lama went on to comment how issues like human rights weren't even on the table back in 1900, and now are the concern of millions of people around the world. And how in the middle of the century, people were getting together to create nuclear weapons, and now you have efforts around the world to stop nuclear production and reduce nuclear stockpiles - even amongst nations like the U.S. and Russia.

For all the miserable stuff going on, it does help to take a long view, to see how things are unfolding across centuries worth of time. So, I appreciated that expansiveness, which is a good counterbalance to day to day considerations. Both are valuable, but without each other, it's easy to get lost.

So, I hope you all had a good weekend. May life spring forth in your corner of the world this day!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

Creating Potentials for Liberation: More Notes on Osama Bin Laden's Killing

Over at Barbara's Buddhist blog is a post continuing the discussion about Osama Bin Laden and Buddhist practice. One of her main points was that those who are out there judging other Buddhists' emotional reactions are missing the boat on practice. And I totally agree. Whether someone felt horribly sad, http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifoutraged, or elated upon hearing of bin Laden's death, all of those are passing human emotions, nothing more or less. If you were like me, you probably watched a whole stream of these emotions running through you around this particular event. I still am, days later.

Here are the further comments I made, partly in response to Barbara's post, but mostly in response to the combined offerings I have read around the Buddhist blogosphere this week.

What I have noticed, though, amongst folks who clearly believe the killing is justified – including some Buddhists – there is an interesting set of patterns that underlie their responses.

1. As long as Bin Laden was alive, he was an imminent threat to the U.S.

2. The killing was a manifestation of self-defense, and thus justifiable.

3. Bin Laden was like Hitler, Pol Pot, and other historical dictators responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands or even millions.

4. Bin Laden’s death was “needed for closure to come,” and that the celebrations in U.S. cities were more about closure and hope than about rejoicing in bin Laden’s death.

And finally, 5, that there are “evil people” in the world, and so we have to be “prepared” to deal with them.

Now, I personally greatly question all 5 of these conclusions. But mostly, I’d like to say something about “being prepared” for “evil.”

I don’t believe in evil people, but I’d say we could easily label many of bin Laden’s actions as evil. However, what I see missing in a lot of the Buddhist posts and discussions where people are either justifying killing bin Laden, or saying it was wrong, is this:

Even if the ultimate outcome is that someone is harmed or killed, a central theme of Buddhist practice is aiming your life towards non-killing and non-violence. When someone chooses to train themselves, “prepare” themselves through deliberately seeing the seeds of violence and destruction within, and deliberately working to grow the seeds of non-violence within and without, then how they act – even in a highly volatile, violent situation – is markedly different from someone who doesn’t.

So, my main point here is that once any of us accepts the narrative that killing is justified, it’s quite easy to use that as an excuse to ignore the seeds of violence within ourselves.

I honestly figured that bin Laden wouldn’t make it out alive if he ever got caught. But I see that killing as the result of numerous people, including bin Laden himself, having internally justified killings in some form or another before the actual killing occurred.

Another thing I have noticed is that there is - in my view - a false dichotomy that comes up amongst Buddhist writers that appears nearly every time some majorly violent act happens in the world to cause us all to reflect on out practice.

On the one hand, you have a subsection of practitioners who offer a sort of soft pacifist stance, saying things like people just need to do more lovingkindness meditations and the like. The lack of nuance to these positions leads me to suspect that they are coming from quite privileged places, where threats of frequent, imminent violence and/or oppression aren't experienced.

On the other hand, there is another subsection of practitioners who think that any talk of non-violence is basically the stuff of 60's counterculture hippies and idealists. That there is such a thing as "just warfare," and also that some people are "evil," and must be treated as such. There's a lack of nuance to this kind of position as well. It creates a split between good and evil which isn't part of Buddha's teachings. It justifies a kind of pre-emptive murder based on one's previous actions and the possibility that they will do the same again (as opposed to killing someone in direct, real time self-defense.)And furthermore, it creates images of people that are fixed, instead of the fluid reality in which we live in. Bin Laden was evil, a bad man, end of story. Oh really, that's news to me!

Take the flip side. People going wild over the Dalai Lama's recent comments, which suggest that he wasn't against the murder of bin Laden. Whether or not the Dalai Lama supported killing bin Laden, I'd argue that a lot of the negative reactions towards his statements were coming from a fixed view of the guy as "a good man, always." This is one of the major problems that appears in the "soft, pacifist" narrative I mentioned above.

Both of these narratives strike me as exercises in confirming the views one has always had, or long held - as opposed to working practice. When I was younger, I fell more into the soft, pacifist camp side of things, but the longer I worked with my own heart and mind, studied the teachings, and probably most important in my case - spent large chunks of my life actively engaged with people from oppressed and marginalized groups - I began to realize that the most important thing is working deliberately, unflinchingly with the seeds of violence and non-violence within yourselves, and then figuring out ways to spread that kind of work to others.

Which is all about liberation of suffering if you ask me. It's realizing that yes, causes and conditions might be coming together in a violent way and that each of us might end up adding something to the total pile of violence, but that we ARE NOT condemned to doing so. In fact, because of the months and years of watching our minds and hearts, checking out actions, questioning our motives and understandings - we might actually have a chance to shift the entire course of history through our actions. That a single person, or small group of people, or even large group of people who have built up the inner reserves and discipline to not react, but respond by waiting out the most intense conflict without resorting to maiming and murdering.

This is all about doing whatever you can to create the POSSIBILITY during a dangerous situation, as opposed to either coming in with an untrained, naive mind, or with an attitude that everything is already fucked, so we best bust some heads.

Bin Laden's dead. Instead of justifying his murder, or outright rejecting everything associated with that murder, including emotional joy and relief, how about taking some time to consider how you might liberate all of this going forward.

How might you train yourself to be able to enter a conflict - be it a simple disagreement or a life threatening situation - in a way that might open the doors of liberation, instead of close them?

I'll leave everyone with that, and offer that pat answers won't cut. I've been living with a variation of this question for most of my life. And I doubt it will be resolved anytime soon, if ever really.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Men, Crying, and Capitalism

Thanks to Katie over at the excellent blog Kloncke for pointing this article out. Consider this:

The male reluctance to shed tears is relatively new, says Tom Lutz, a University of California, Riverside professor. He traces this to the late 19th century, when factory workers—mostly men—were discouraged from indulging in emotion lest it interfere with their productivity.

Iconic historical and cultural depictions of men crying—in the Bible, Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, for instance—have been overcome by more recent dictates discouraging men from crying. Biologically, and in the context of centuries and millennia, "male tears are the norm and males not crying is recent historical aberration," he says.

As a man who has rediscovered crying in recent years after a hell of a lot of stuffing it, I found this article compelling. Although it's probably the case that socialization at school and other places put it into my head that crying isn't ok for men, the day that solidified it for me was my grandfather's funeral.

I was 13 years old. As one of the pallbearers, I stood at the end of the line, watching the casket coming out of the hearse. Suddenly, I felt weak in the legs and turned away, just at the time when I should have been reaching up. My uncle screamed something nasty at me, jolting me back into place, to do my "job." I think I didn't forgive him for years for that.

Later that day, my grandmother came around and told all of us "Don't cry. You're grandfather wouldn't want you to cry." She was trying to support us, but this is often how grandma's support has been - kind of off. Anyway, her words that day, as well as my uncle's, stuck with me, leading the charge of all the other comments and views I'd heard saying that men don't cry, that we best be "tough," no matter what.

That's my micro-level story. Consider, though, the quote above, pointing to the fairly recent cultural origins of the suppression of male tears. Katie pointed out the ties to capitalism, and I'd make it more specific: the suppression of tears is directly tied to the rise of industrialized capitalism. And why might this be? Well, the way I see it, the worst aspects of capitalism turn humans into machines. Sometimes it's blunt, like forcing people to suppress emotional experiences around their work, and sometimes it's more subtle, like making people work a certain block of time every day, regardless of what their body rhythms are, how healthy they are, or what other needs they might have.

It's really telling how, given the suppression of male tears, there is so much trouble with men around issues of grief and loss. Think of some of the male alcoholics and drug addicts you've known or seen. Consider some of the men who end up behind bars for murders of spouses, partners, former partners, or family members. And what about those over calculating, uber-rational on the surface business leaders who die of heart attacks at age 55 or 60? I'd argue that some of these issues are related to the struggles many men have with crying, expressing grief, and working through grief.

So, I find it kind of promising that one of the beacons of capitalism, the Wall Street Journal, published an article like this. Not that I think it will suddenly help make a cultural shift around men and crying, but perhaps it will give some of those high powered business dudes permission to let go. And that's something at least.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden's Death: A Buddhist Reaction

By now, I'm guessing most of you know that Osama Bin Laden, founder of the terrorist network al-Queda, was killed yesterday by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs. As a Buddhist and yoga practitioner, who has placed non-violent action at the forefront of his life, I was uncertain how to respond to the news when I first heard it last night.

It leaves quite a bitter taste in my mouth that this man was found not in Afghanistan or Iraq, where hundreds of thousands have been killed over the past decade, but in Pakistan. Seeing crowds of Americans cheering the man's death and singing patriot songs at the Capitol, in Times Square, and other places around the country also left me feeling uneasy.

My initial response upon hearing President Obama's speech, where he masterfully justified the War on Terrorism without naming it, equated justice with murdering a man, and generally sounded like a toned down version of his predecessor - my initial response was to stay up late and clean my apartment. Sweeping floors and scrubbing winter cobwebs from the walls, I thought of all those who had been killed. Killed under Bin Laden's twisted direction. Killed by American, British, Canadian, and other soldiers who were told they were defending their nations from Bin Laden's organization. Soldiers killed by terrorists, and other desperate people who were told to hate every foreigner to the bone.

As the reports trickled in on the BBC, playing on my ancient clock radio, I changed the sheets and swept the dust from beneath my bed. It was nearly 1 am when I finally fell asleep and by 4 am, I was awake again, there to lay in bed listening to the birds tweeting in the new morning.

I can imagine that family and friends of those killed on 9/11, or in the Kenyan embassy, or in London, Deir el-Bahri, Egypt, and numerous other places feel some sense of relief that Bin Laden is dead. Some are probably totally elated.

All I can say is that any feeling that justice has been done will be fleeting. Bin Laden's dead, but the roots of terrorism are still alive and well. The guy was certainly the international poster child of terrorism, and an inspiration to all these younger, desperate folks out there taking up guns, bombs, and the rest. At the same time, if you look at recent history, Bin Laden has been a fading figure whose ideas have spread to the point where he hasn't really been needed much anymore.

In the eyes of most people around the world, Osama Bin Laden ranks right down there with the worst of the worst in history. Besides the fact that Bin Laden was a human, just like you and I - something too many of us forget when it comes to people who commit terrible crimes - there's not much to say in his defense.

It's really hard, even for this Buddhist writing these lines and who is committed to the Bodhisattva vows, to feel much compassion for the man. Growing up wealthy and privileged, he opted to use those advantages to destroy life and inspire hatred. He warped the teachings of his religion, and spread that phoney version of "the truth" so widely that it will be generations before the stain he and his followers have put on Islam will fade. All in all, here was a man in a position to be a game changer in a region of the world in need of great leaders, and he was - a game changer in the worst of all possible manners.

Perhaps losing his father at the age of 10 had something to do with this. Perhaps what began as a struggle to overthrow an occupying giant - the Soviet Union in Afghanistan - engulfed this man to the point where he couldn't see through the power, hatred, and prestige. Perhaps witnessing the cynical way of American foreign policy under President Regan aided in turning the man's mind towards world wide terrorism.

Who knows. In some ways, it doesn't matter now because the guy is dead, and the world will be moving on to something else in the coming weeks.

To be honest, I still don't know what to think about it all. It's kind of like we killed a ghost out of belief that in doing so, the world will be a safer place. But there's no knowing if that will be the case.

And even if murdering this murderer ends up leading to a massive weakening of the world wide terrorist networks he inspired and funded, I wouldn't call it justice. Nor do I think it's something to cheer about.

Osama bin Laden is dead and my apartment is clean. Those are really the only two definite statements I can make about it all.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What's a Zen Teacher Anyway?

Daishin has a post up currently that addresses some of the same issues I have been thinking about recently. The subject of Zen teachers in general has been quite hot for obvious reasons, and has probably led more than a few people to consider for going working with a teacher and/or sangha all together. It's understandable, given all the bad news floating around, but might not be the best plan.

At the same time, I think Zen students struggle with the whole notion of a "teacher." What does it mean? Who fills that role? How fluid is it?

If you flip through The Book of Serenity, or any of the other koan collections, you'll find an awful lot of movement between the roles of teacher and student. One minute a teacher, the next a student, the following a teacher again. In principle, this is how life is calling us to be, and yet it's also the case, that we're quite good at designating certain people as teachers for the rest of their lives, often forgetting this fluid nature of things. The designation of someone as "a teacher" isn't the problem. The problems come when people forget the emptiness side and assume that whomever is the teacher is all-knowing and infallible.

Daishin's post brings up another angle on this discussion. Namely, who qualifies as a person able to fulfill the role as "teacher." Specifically here, Zen teacher. He writes:

From time to time the question arises with people coming to my house for meditation (Fernwood Zendo). Having heard about dharma transmission and lineages, they wonder whether I am “a real, you know, Zen Teacher.” Over hundreds of years, as zen moved from China to Japan to the West — bringing with it robes and statues, elaborate ceremonies and arcane language, acquiring occasional scandals and a predominately white middle-class membership — an unwritten code has laid claim to the word teacher.

Today there’s no seminary or university I know of where one can study to become a zen teacher, there’s no set curriculum on how and what to study, and there’s no formal examination or certifying authority. By custom, only certified teachers may certify other teachers: a “closed shop” meant to ensure quality.

Yet we’re all teachers — we teach our children, coworkers, and team mates. Life is a teacher — we learn from experience, by observation and trial-and-error.

Although it's true that we're all teachers, one of the challenges with those last two statements is that the majority of humans aren't very good at seeing what can be learned from a given "teacher." Time and time again, we miss the dharma being offered by the dramatic friend, disappearing lover, or overbearing co-worker. We're good at fixating on the noise, but not so good at sussing out the gold.

Daishin goes on to speak about his background, in conjunction with his role as leader of a meditation group.

For 25 years I taught others ‘how to teach’ in corporate and university settings, earned master’s and doctorate degrees, and wrote about teaching … but after 11 years of earnest study and practice, calling myself a meditation teacher is frowned upon. When I mentioned that I hosted two weekly meditation groups, offered daylong retreats, worked in end-of-life care, and helped others on their spiritual path, a “transmitted” teacher told me that host was right, since you’re not a teacher.

Is that what the Buddha had in mind?

I also have nearly a decade of Zen practice behind me, as well as over a decade of yoga practice. In addition, I have over a decade of teaching experience, working with both children and adults in various capacities. In one sense, who cares. In another sense, I'd like to think that I - and Daishin, and others with similar backgrounds - have figured out a bit of that gold sussing and might have something to offer others.

Being in a yoga teacher training program has kept all of this up for me as well. Unlike some of those in the training program I'm in, I waited a pretty long time before entering. It didn't feel right to me to practice yoga a few years and then take a training and claim myself as a teacher. Certainly, a few people are able to this remarkably well, but I'd also bet that when it comes to yoga teachers, you'll find an awful lot of these quick starters appearing at the local fitness center or corporate yoga center near you. They might be able to run a fine asana class, but how much wisdom is present in their words? How well can they read their students, and even share the role of teacher when a student is offering something that could move the whole class?

The history of Zen is filled with rascals and fools who were dismissed by the majority of people, but who actually were brimming with wisdom. For every polished looking monastic with all the credentials, you can find a wacky, drunken poet or wise grandmotherly figure lighting a match under a monk with Zen sickness. And I think both ends are needed - the formally sanctioned and the outsiders.

For those of you who are really hung up on one side or another - thinking either that Zen teachers are only those who are dharma transmitted or that everyone is a teacher - you might consider it this way. The classically trained Zen teacher with transmission and robes offers everyone an opportunity to have reverence for the form world. That the very formal-ness of their background symbolizes the value of forms. And on the other end, the rascals, fools, and outsiders offer and opportunity for all of us to have reverence for emptiness. That the very informal-ness of their background symbolizes the value of emptiness.

The photo above is of Phil Jackson, the coach of the LA Lakers basketball team. Often referred to as "Zen master" in the sporting world, there's no doubt that Zen has had some definite impact on this man's coaching and way of life. Perhaps you might dismiss his "Zen" as the sugary pop Zen so common in the "Western" world, and you may be right. But it also might be the case that this guy is one of those rascals, appearing in the odd location of basketball coach, offering whatever wisdom he can to guys who frequently struggle with their lives outside of the game. It might be stretch to call this guy a Zen teacher, but it's worth considering the ways in which people often compartmentalize teaching and learning, and how there are countless examples of people acting in the world that break across those rigid lines.