Thursday, June 30, 2011

Trainings of the Mind in Diversity

In the comments section of my last post, Buddhist blogger Ji Hyang, author of the wonderful blog Natural Wisdom, offered the following mind trainings from Thich Nhat Hanh for all of us to work with.

Trainings of the Mind in Diversity

1. Aware of the suffering caused by imposing one’s own opinions or cultural beliefs upon another human being, I undertake the training to refrain from forcing others, in any way—through authority, threat, financial incentive, or education—to adopt my own belief system. I commit to respecting every human being’s right to be different, while working towards the elimination of suffering of all beings.

2. Aware of the suffering caused by invalidating or denying another person’s experience, I undertake the training to refrain from making assumptions, or judging harshly any beliefs and attitudes that are different from my own or not understandable to me. I commit to being open-minded towards other points of view, and I commit to meeting each perceived difference in another person with the willingness to learn more about their world view and individual circumstances.

3. Aware of the suffering caused by the violence of treating someone as inferior or superior to one’s own self, I undertake the training to refrain from diminishing or idealizing the worth, integrity, and happiness of any human being. Recognizing that my true nature is not separate from others, I commit to treating each person that comes into my consciousness, with the same lovingkindness, care, and equanimity that I would bestow upon a beloved benefactor or dear friend.

4. Aware of the suffering caused by intentional and unintentional acts of rejection, exclusion, avoidance, or indifference towards people who are culturally, physically, sexually, or economically different from me, I undertake the training to refrain from isolating myself to people of similar backgrounds as myself and from being only with people who make me feel comfortable. I commit to searching out ways to diversify my relationships and to increase my sensitivity towards people of different cultures, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, physical abilities, genders, and economic means.

5. Aware of the suffering caused by the often unseen nature of privilege, and the ability of privilege to benefit a select population over others, I undertake the training to refrain from exploiting any person or group, including economically, sexually, intellectually, or culturally. I commit to examine with wisdom and clear comprehension the ways that I have privilege in order to determine skillful ways of using privilege for the benefit of all beings, and I commit to the practice of generosity in all aspects of my life and towards all human beings, regardless of cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual, age, physical or economic differences.

6. Aware of the suffering caused to myself and others by fear and anger during conflict or disagreement, I undertake the training to refrain from reacting defensively, using harmful speech because I feel injured, or using language or cognitive argument to justify my sense of rightness. I commit to communicate and express myself mindfully, speaking truthfully from my heart with patience and compassion. I commit to practice genuine and deep listening to all sides of a dispute, and to remain in contact with my highest intentions of recognizing the humanity within all people.

7. Aware of the suffering caused by the ignorance of misinformation and the lack of information that aggravate fixed views, stereotypes, the stigmatizing of a human being as “other,” and the marginalization of cultural groups, I undertake the training to educate myself about other cultural attitudes, world views, ethnic traditions, and life experiences outside of my own. I commit to be curious with humility and openness, to recognize with compassion the experience of suffering in all beings, and to practice sympathetic joy when encountering the many different cultural expressions of happiness and celebration around the world.

8. Aware of the suffering caused by the cumulative harm that a collective of people can impose on individuals and other groups, I undertake the training to refrain from consciously validating or participating in group processes, dynamics, activities, decisions, or actions which perpetuate the suffering that these trainings describe on a familial, social, institutional, governmental, societal, cultural, or global level. I commit to exploring, examining and eliminating the ways that I consciously and unconsciously ally myself with forces that cause harm and oppression, and commit myself to working for the benefit and peace of all.

Also, if you have time, take a look at this article by Larry Yang from the East Bay Meditation Center, from which this version of the mindfulness trainings was taken. The short introduction to them that is offered is helpful in my view.

May you all be well.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Appearance of White American Buddhists

I have to say that the explosion over the post by Tassja over at Womanist Musings has jolted me. You'll have to forgive me for not moving on yet. Because I'm not moving on yet.

Given my life experience, race and racism are never far from my awareness. However, the genuine nastiness, callousness, and defensiveness that have come in response to this single article has been a reminder of just how screwed up people still are when it comes to race.

This morning, I read the following, a post by another young woman of color offering her own take, and standing with Tassja in the process.

I would like to tell you how Buddhism influences my father’s treatment of his patients, every one of whom are criminally insane. I would like to tell you how Buddhism plays a role in the way my mother lends the money she doesn’t have to spare. I would like to tell you of how Buddhism sustained my aunt through the famine and my uncle through the war—I would like to tell you how it gave some measure of peace to those who did not survive.

Because this is what we mean when we say that Buddhism flows in our blood.

I would like to tell you, but I am afraid. I am afraid of you Barbara O’Brien, Kyle Lovett, and Anonymous Commenter. I have a bone-deep fear of the things you will say about my father, my mother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my grandparents, and my three-year-old brother. I am terrified because I can see my future in what you are presently doing to Tassja.

You might tell me that Buddhism belongs in the meditation center and not the hospital. You might tell me that the war is over so what does it matter. You might tell me famine is a state of mind or any number of other things equally indicative of never having helplessly watched a child starve to death. You could discount all my family’s blood, sweat, and tears and the way they flow into and out of the Buddhism I live everyday.

I don't personally know either of these women. Just as I am a disembodied person to them who writes a blog about Buddhism, they are disembodied Buddhist writers to me. We are, even with the most heartfelt, passionate of words, abstracted from each other. Which makes it that much easier to toss labels about, make casual dismissals, and generally ignore the living, breathing being behind the words trying to break through their suffering.

It's quite easy to note the demonstrated lack of compassion amongst some of the white Buddhist commentariat. One man, who claimed to have written two books on the Pali Canon and to have practiced 23 years, repeatedly referred to Tassja as a "silly cow." Another commenter suggested that she needs to find a teacher, so she can deal with her anger.

I won't go on with more examples. Some of you will, no doubt, be saying to yourself "Stop pointing fingers at others and look at yourself." And that's fine. I don't care. I have spent years facing the legacy of race, racism, whiteness, and oppression that I have inherited. And I imagine I will continue to have to face it until the day I die.

Actually, though, what's even more apparent to me, when surveying all of the responses to Tassja's post, is the deeply fragile appearance of white Buddhist practice. Notice I said "appearance" because this isn't to speak of all white convert practitioners, but to speak of how we might collectively appear to people looking in from the outside.

How we, for example, appear to fail at the most basic teachings of compassion and generosity of spirit. How we appear to be fighting a turf war, and demanding to be acknowledged as "legitimate dharma students." How we appear to spin around and around in old patterns of guilt, denial, and blame the moment someone speaks a few critical words about "our race." How we appear to be smug in our book knowledge of Buddhism. How we regularly appear to make appeals to diversity, but then flip out the moment that diversity threatens the vision we have of "Buddhist practice."

All intentions aside, this is how "we" - white American Buddhist converts - collectively appear in this conversation. And it's how "we" have collectively appeared in discussions about race, privilege, and oppression for decades. Twenty years ago, then Tricycle magazine editor Helen Tworkov made the following ludicrous statement, "so far…not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism," which set off a firestorm that looks terribly similar to the smaller online version I am writing about today.

It's important to me to bear witness to the fear, sadness, anger, and suffering reflected in the voices of the Buddhists of color who either wrote blog posts like Tassja and Prajna (the author of the piece I quote above), or who left comments on these posts. Even if we have divergent views at times, we are all practicing under the umbrella of Buddha's teachings.

I offer this post as a tiny seed in the vast, seeded field of race in America. It is so much bigger than us Buddhists, but we are, like everyone else, embedded within it. It is our collective karma, to be faced or not.

May we choose to leap, again and again, into the dragon's mouth.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Responding to Criticism of Buddhist Practice by Practicing

I almost never delete a post once I put it up, but after reading and responding to a comment by Robyn, a regular reader here, I realized that most of this post needs to go. It's excess talking. So, I'm taking down the original post, and offering a few pithy statements from it that get at what I wanted to say without the confusing attempts to continue the discussion from yesterday's post.

1. Respond to criticism or perceived criticism of your spiritual practice by practicing.

2. Many of us "overdo" race talk. Few of us are willing to sit with race like a koan, listen for whatever wisdom is there "behind the curtain," and then speak from that.

3. Minimizing, denying, blaming, trying to "fix," and/or judging are the standard forms of acting out in response to something we don't like, or don't want to hear. Knowing that, now what?

4. If I choose to not listen to the pain and suffering beneath someone's words today, they’ll be someone else expressing something similar tomorrow.

5. Forget trying to get all your ducks in a row. You have to act, or not act, as it is, moment after moment.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Buddhism and Race Again

This post, written by a young woman from Sri Lanka who lives in Minnesota, has been getting a lot of attention in the Buddhist blogosphere. It's not an easy to read post. And it's gotten a bit of negative attention already, as well as dismissive comments about how she's a just a young, angry, and/or ignorant woman.

This paragraph is probably the one where the rails fall off for many white Buddhist readers.

Much like the commercialization and appropriation of Yoga serves as a profound source of anger and frustration to many South-Asian Hindus, I'm alternately befuddled and angered by white appropriation of Buddhism. No, I don't care how many times Richard Gere used his private jet to visit the Dalai Lama, stripping a belief system of its cultural context and putting it on like a pair of shoes, without acknowledging the struggles and realities of the people whom that culture belongs to, is imperialist, disrespectful, and mostly racist. The shallow ease with which Whiteness claims to understand the experiences of cultures of colour continues to bewilder me. How can you claim something as part of your identity, on par with people who grew up living and breathing that culture everyday? How can you claim to own something you've never had to defend, or fight for? And please, spare me the details of how your white Lutheran parents disapproved of your visits to the meditation center.

I'm not going to write a long commentary on the pluses and minuses of this piece.

While I don’t agree with everything she wrote, I think it’s worth really sitting with her voice if you’re a white, convert practitioner. Yes, she’s young. And yes, she doesn’t really seem to have any sense of how Buddhism has spread, and been re-invented to some extent in every place it has gone. But I have seen some quite hasty and defensive reactions to this post online already, which mirror reactions I have seen in local sanghas to issues brought up by practitioners of color.

Point blank: white practitioners need to stop defending themselves, and pay closer attention to what other Buddhists are saying and thinking. Doesn’t mean we have to agree with each other, but if people are really serious about all the “diversity” talk that goes around convert sanghas, then demonstrate it. Be willing to be with the uneasiness of conflict and difference. Be willing to accept that you might be wrong. Be willing to listen, and perhaps then, you might also be listened to.

This is one of the major pieces of work for the modern, worldwide sangha. I'm convinced of it. So, let's do it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Interactive Blogging

Hi Everyone,

I thought I would write today's post in the form of a letter. A recent post by Peter over at Moment by Moment got me thinking about blogging, audience, and what it is we're doing here anyway. I say "we" because my writing and your reading (and commenting) go together. They aren't separate. People like to talk about "my blog," but actually there is no "my blog" anymore. The moment I started putting it out there, and the first of you started reading it, it became something else.

This morning, I read several blog posts that I could have offered commentary on, or simply shared with you all. There's some "hot button" stuff about race and Buddhism out there right now, as well as a few lovely posts contemplating the planet and practice, just to name a few places I might have gone.

But what I keep going back to is the participatory nature of blogging. The shared experience that too often, we fail to acknowledge. Although I haven't joined in on it, I have always admired the "post swaps" that Nate from Precious Metal has organized. And others, like Al who created The Zen Community, seem to understand the interactive quality of blogging, and are interested in elevating the "community" element of what we are all doing.

So, in the spirit of that, I thought I would open the floor to suggestions from the readership.

Is there any burning topic you'd like to see me address on Dangerous Harvests?

Are there any past posts you'd like to see revisited and maybe updated on here?

Is there anything else you can think of that might enliven the general experience for readers here?

As I stated above, I had plenty of things I could have written about today. Although I don't away have a ton to say, the well certainly hasn't run dry. In fact, I'm considering some ideas behind the scenes that might expand what I'm doing online, but would enjoy hearing from you all as well.

Happy Friday! All the best,

Thursday, June 23, 2011

One Instant Zen

One instant is eternity;
eternity is the now.
When you see through this one instant,
you see through the one who sees.

Wu Men (Hui-k'ai)(1183 - 1260)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Woo in "Western" Yoga and Buddhism

Carol Horton has a new post on her blog Think Body Electric concerning woo and yoga communities. It has a lot of thought provoking stuff in it, as she seeks to - in my opinion - come to a more balanced attitude about ideas and practices that might fall into the "New Agey" category.

I would like to take up the following comment, that comes after some discussion about abusive yoga gurus and manipulative, control based yoga communities that seem heavily reliant on woo. Carol writes:

I strongly believe that it would be helpful if the yoga community developed a much more active connection to relevant dimensions of Western psychology. This has already happened in the convert Buddhist community, where excellent work connecting meditation and psychotherapy has been going on for decades. In the yoga community, however, there’s much more of a default toward New Age thinking. Generally speaking, I think this is a problem.

When I first read this paragraph, I had a pretty strong reaction. Why? Because I believe the marriage of western psychology with Buddhist teachings in North America has been the penultimate double-edged sword. On the one hand, there have been books like Harvey Aronson's Buddhist Practice on Western Ground, which have offered practitioners a wonderful window into exploring the connections, as well as great differences, between psychological theories and Buddhist teachings. And certainly, for those coming from psychologically damaged backgrounds who have entered Buddhist communities or taken up Buddhist practices, having an emphasis on the psychological element of Buddha's teachings has often meant the difference between sanity and insanity. Probably even life and death for some folks.

However, there is another side of the coin. It's quite easy to find teachers, books, and entire Buddhists communities that have reduced the dharma to primarily or solely about the psychological and emotional dimensions of life. Amongst this subsection of Western convert Buddhists, teachings that are vast and subtle, and which contain layer and layer of pointers, get shunted into what amounts to a self-improvement project in Buddhist clothes. While everything in the dharma points to the extremely fluid and limited life span of emotional reactions, this is where the bulk of time is spent amongst these folks, fixating on every last tinge of anger, fear, and sadness, as if in doing so, perhaps one day they might become the "perfect" human animal, able to exude some peaceful calmness, not influenced by anything in their past (especially their childhoods) under all conditions.

Furthermore, because psychology and Western convert Buddhism have been so cozy, it is has attracted a lot of psychologists, including active therapists who have risen to the ranks of teachers. And unfortunately, this had led to some troubling blurring between spiritual practice and therapy, between Buddhist teacher and therapist. The exchanges between Brad Warner and Barry Magrid during a recent dharma talk at Ordinary Mind Zendo constitute a weird example of this dynamic in action. But on a more mundane level, you have all those students who struggle to not treat their interactions in the sangha with others, especially the head teacher, as a form of therapy.

All of this is to say that I think merging western psychology with any spiritual practice is best done with great care.

And when it comes to the North American yoga community and it's "woo problems," I'd argue that this more so due to the continual efforts to divorce the spiritual teachings and philosophy of yoga from the physical practices. As well as the failure to integrate meditation, and the other subtle practices, into the physical work (asanas) in such a manner that it brings people the foundational ground upon which to unfold their lives on. Too many people want to drink Yoga Lite - something heavy on body work, and less filling on everything else. And they'll defend that almost to the death if necessary, never mind that non-attachment is at the core of everything yoga.

In some ways, the sweaty, physical asana classes peppered with happy sounding phrases and self improvement cliches is the yoga community's version of the Western convert Buddhist self-improvement project. Both offer an opportunity for better health, less destructive thinking, and more grounded behavior. All nice benefits, and certainly not something to dismiss. But at the same time, neither of these approaches are focusing on the profoundly vast awakening teachings at the core of both Buddhism and yoga.

Reducing the woo in yoga communities comes when there is an increasing focus on the whole works of yogic practice and thought. It comes when teachers, students, studio owners and yogic writers stop offering placating sugars, and start offering holistic, well-balanced meals. That can include servings of intelligently considered psychology, but must be more than just using psychological theories as the missing "healthy vitamin" to an otherwise fast-food like practice diet.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Zen Master Unborn!

A certain priest told [Zen Master] Bankei, “You teach the same thing over and over again. Wouldn’t it be a good idea, just for the sake of variety, to tell some of those old and interesting stories illustrative of Buddhist life?” Bankei said, “I may be an old dunce, and I suppose it might help some if I did tell stories of that kind, but I’ve a strong hunch that such preaching poisons the mind. No, I would never carry on in so harmful a way. Indeed, I make it a rule not to give even the words of Buddha himself, let alone the Zen patriarchs. To attain the truth today all one needs is self-criticism. There’s no need to talk about Buddhism and Zen. Why, there’s not a single straying person among you: all of you have the Buddha-mind.

Zen Master Bankei (1622-93) was known as the teacher of the "unborn." That's how he summarized everything that he ever learned. Whatever is, is unborn. Everything else, including birth and death, is just delusion. He first came upon this dramatically, in his mid-20s, sick with tuberculosis. After a doctor told him he would die, Bankei experienced the following:

“I felt a strange sensation in my throat. I spat against a wall. A mass of black phlegm large as a soapberry rolled down the side...Suddenly, just at that moment...I realized what it was that had escaped me until now: All things are perfectly resolved in the Unborn.

I find it kind of hilarious how powerful the images of his story are, given Bankei's insistence on not "telling teaching stories" to those who sought his guidance as a teacher. But I suppose that he realized that any story told pales in comparison to one's own experience.

Still, I like a good story, and Bankei's narrative is pretty power, even if his teachings were repetitive and lacking in "flavor."

When his teacher gave him inka-shōmei, the seal of recognition that a student has awakened, Bankei grabbed the document and tore it to shreds.

Thinking that conventional Japanese views around gender were extremely limited, he offered this to the women who came to study with him:

I understand that women feel very distressed hearing it said [in certain texts and from many teachers] that they can’t become Buddhas. But it simply isn’t so! How is there any difference between men and women? Men are the Buddha-body [Dharmakâya] and women are the Buddha-body, too…. In the Unborn, there’s no difference whether you’re a man or a woman.

While he would tell people such odd phrases as "Don't get born," at the end of his life, he told people to just listen to the sounds of everyday life.

He was both dramatic, and completely ordinary. A man who nearly died in his 20s, and who went on to live another 45 years (which, coincidentally is the amount of time the Buddha spent teaching the original Buddhist sangha.)

I fully appreciate Bankei's sense that stories are a weak broth that can never substitute for drinking the soup of life.

And yet, I like a good story. I think most of us need a good story now and then. So, I offer this bit about Bankei for all of you to ponder.

May your life be well.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"A Gay Girl in Damascus" - A Blogger's Response

As a blogger who aims for integrity, and views blogging as part of his spiritual practice, I have found myself drawn to the discussion around the blog "A Gay Girl in Damascus." Obviously, things have gotten pretty awful over in Syria, and there's no way to know if it will take a turn for the better anytime soon. "A Gay Girl in Damascus" became an overnight sensation, gaining a large following, as well as positive coverage in the mainstream, "western" media. In fact, when the blogger was reported kidnapped a few weeks ago, thousands of GLBTQ folks and their allies hit Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets, creating petitions and writing impassioned pleas in hopes that it might lead to the woman's safe return.

As the protests and Syrian government crackdown advanced, the blog seemingly offered a window, from the point of view of someone whose very existence is considered immoral by many in her society. There was only one problem. Last week, the Washington Post revealed that the blog was a fake, and that it's author was a 40 year white male from Virgina.

The man, Thomas MacMaster, wrote an apology on his blog which included the following:

“While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on thıs blog are true and not mısleading as to the situation on the ground,” he wrote. “I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”

When I first heard this, I thought, yeah, right buddy. Then I thought, but maybe he did open a space for dialogue on some of the issues brought up in the blog. And then I started reading some other reactions to the whole thing, as well as seeing more of what the guy has said about his blog, and all I have left now is a sick feeling in my stomach.

Consider this, from an article on the webjournal Colorlines:

Yesterday Salamishah Tillet, the anti-rape activist, Africana Studies professor and a friend whom I can say I’ve seen in person, texted me about how the MacMaster and Graber hoaxes remind her of the 1838 James Williams Slave Narrative most likely penned by a white abolitionist.

“Like in the controversial and fake 1838 ‘Narrative of James Williams,’ these [modern] white men posing as oppressed people makes it even harder for people to take ‘real’ concerns, demands and freedom writing seriously,” she wrote. (Seriously, she texts this way!) “Now, actual Arab lesbian bloggers will have to go to greater lengths to prove that they are in fact Arab and lesbian, and they’ll have to prove why their radical to liberal politics should be taken seriously. Aaargh.”

Or this, from the magazine Just Out:

nothing about the progression MacMaster describes in his apology letter seems accidental. While misrepresenting himself in online discussion forums may have begun as a relatively benign experiment, no one forced MacMaster to contribute columns to Lez Get Real as Arraf, to create a blog to support the false identity or to accept interview requests with major media outlets like CNN and The Guardian.

McMaster, who admitted he “enjoyed ‘puppeting’ this woman who never was,” even went so far as to establish involved online relationships with Sandra Baragria, a Canadian woman sometimes identified as Arraf’s girlfriend, and Israeli blogger Elizabeth Tsurkov.

The whole thing reeks, absolutely reeks of privilege. White privilege. Male privilege. Class privilege. And straight privilege.

Beyond that, however, it is incidents like this that make it even more difficult for a blogger who might have something vitally important to say to be taken seriously. For all the inroads bloggers have made in recent years, blogging is still commonly considered to be solely the stuff of vanity writers and nerdy hobbyists.

My own experiences here on Dangerous Harvests have turned me from a curious dabbler into a spiritually-motivated blogger. Readers and fellow bloggers have reminded me in various ways of the value that patience, fact checking, and compassion have in creating material that supports the kind of world I wish to live in. Even though this blog is a fairly small pea in the huge pod of the blogosphere, I feel a compelling responsibility as a Zen practitioner, yogi, and writer to offer a blog with integrity, to avoid misrepresenting who I am, and to respond to comments with respect and honesty, even if the same hasn't been given to me. It's not always easy, and sometimes I flop a bit, but that's all part of the process as I see it.

Perhaps MacMaster's blog can be used as a tool for speaking up about the value of blogging with integrity, and as a demonstration of what can happen when integrity is tossed aside.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fast Forward Buddhism

There continues to be a lot of discussion surrounding the scope and events of the recent Maha Buddhist Council held at the Garrison Institute in New York. As an off shoot, another discussion has started up again around Buddhism and "niceness," represented by these two posts. I have left a few comments on posts about the council, but to be honest, neither of these issues sparks me enough to write anything more significant on the blog here. Maybe I'm just not in the mood to debate. I don't know. It just seems that, in both cases, the trigger point has sprung open so many of the fundamental quandaries for "Western Buddhism" that it's hard to really offer anything coherently without writing a thesis.

So, instead, I'll just offer a fun, speculative question to the readers out there. If you could leap into a time machine and go 100 years into the future, what would you expect to find when it comes to Buddhist practice?

Silly and serious replies are welcome. Have a good day!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Zen Hitting

Always a sucker for baseball stories, I found this one about former outfielder Shawn Green to be a good fit for sharing with you. Some of the Zen purists out there will probably cringe a bit, but such is life.

During his playing days, Shawn Green was probably the most widely recognized Jewish player in the Major Leagues. He once sat out an important late season game with a division rival in observance of Yom Kippur, just to give you an idea of where he was coming from. And yet, like many others in monotheistic traditions, Green began to become interested in Buddhism, and particularly Zen, initially in part due to the practical qualities of having a regular meditation practice.

In his book, Green wrote the following:

"We believe we are our thoughts and egos and nothing more. I always suspected there was more to my true essence than my incessant and repetitive thoughts and the insatiable desire of my ego. I had been searching for that greater part of me via the exploration of Zen and meditations, but it wasn't until that work took root in my swing that I truly began to disconnect my thoughts and connect with my deeper of being."

By "swing" he means his hitting swing in baseball. As he began to learn more about meditation, he applied it to his hitting, turning batting in baseball into a form of meditation. And as he saw both positive results on the baseball field, and also this deeper form of awareness unfolding about life, it became more than just about dabbling in something that might help his baseball career. Retired from playing baseball since 2007, he continues to practice, and is now teaching his eight year old daughter a little bit about it all.

I'll be interested to see what else he has to say when I read the book.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Peace Cranes

Just thought I'd share this one. Perhaps the story is familiar to some of you.

Sadako Sasaki (January 7, 1943 - October 25, 1955) was a Japanese girl who was two years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945, near her home by Misasa Bridge in Hiroshima, Japan. Sadako is remembered through the story of attempting to fold a thousand origami cranes before her death, a wish which was memorialized in popular culture.

Sadako’s story has become famous all over the world as a little one who wished for, prayed for, peace. There is a legend in Japan that if one folds one thousand paper cranes, a crane will grant one wish. Sadako wished to be healed from her leukemia and for peace on earth. She viewed the 644 cranes she did fold as messengers.

"I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world," she said.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Maha Council - Meet Some Asian Buddhist Statistics

Over at the blog Dhamma Musings, Shravasti Dhammika writes today on the decline in Buddhist affiliation amongst younger folks in Singapore. What's interesting to me is that some of the reasons I, and others, have suggested as to why younger folks North America and Europe aren't coming into Buddhism at the same levels as their older counterparts appear to be at play in parts of Asia:

Sorry to say statistics from Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan show a similar trend. Buddhism is failing to speak to young, well-educated, modern people. A visit to a good number of temples and Buddhist societies will show the reasons for this trend; commercialized spirituality, absence of Dhamma education, lack of social engagement, poor leadership, etc. The almost complete absence of networking between Buddhists also doesn’t help either. ‘You do your thing. I’ll do mine’ is the norm for Buddhist groups, temples and organizations.

I made a comment on David Chapman's blog related to the Maha Council conference that fits in here. In part, the comment went as follows:

I currently am the board president of a Zen sangha in the Midwest, and am also amongst the Gen X practitioner crowd, for whatever that’s worth. My experience as part of the leadership here is that for the most part, each sangha is on it’s own. We had a teacher scandal several years back. Got help from some teachers of other sanghas, but the lion’s share of debate, discussion, policing, and moralizing was internal. It was a much smaller version of what happened with Trungpa, Baker, Shimano, Genpo, Maezumi, etc.

My point in mentioning this is that I don’t think there’s ever been a strong collective effort to do much of anything in Western Buddhism. We don’t have a large-scale ethics body to appeal to when teachers abuse power. We don’t make collective public statements about anything, political, social, or otherwise. In fact the “we” has always – in my view anyway – been largely about individual groups that are loosely associated with each other, partly in religious name only, and partly through some form of teacher lineage.

Furthermore, when I think about some of the major natural disasters in North America in recent years, I'm hard pressed to come up with any significant Buddhist-driven aid and/or support effort. At least amongst Certainly, individual Buddhists have helped, and certainly individual sanghas have done things like given money to the Red Cross and whatnot. However, the kinds of efforts that regularly come from, for example, teams of Christian churches working in tandem to raise money, bring in supplies, and help people rebuild houses and other structures just isn't easily found amongst convert Buddhist communities.

Why bring that up? Well, because we don't seem to be to good with being part of a larger community. And this plays out internally, where groups of individuals sanghas can exist within 50 miles of each other, and yet rarely, if ever, collaborate on major projects and endeavors. And it exists externally, where a given sangha might be located within a particular community, but has membership that primarily is from outside of that community, and also doesn't do a whole lot of connecting with others in that community, regardless of their affiliation.

Now, from what I have seen, organized religion in general is tottering on the edge of oblivion. It might be a slow death, but it is possible that holding this stuff together may be like practicing on a sinking ship. However, at the same time, there are plenty of people longing to be a part of more vibrant communities, ones that acknowledge and even aid in uncovering the deepest, richest parts of our lives. So, there's kind of a push-pull going on between individualism and community, one that seems to offer the best of each side (while condemning the worst of the opposite side), but which fails to bring any fruitful reconciliation.

I don't know where any of this is going to go in the future. It does seem though that those statistics from Asian nations about Buddhists are linked, in some way, to the some of the struggles sanghas are having here in North America and other parts of the "West." And certainly, whatever the goals of the Maha Council (and other meetings like it), there's a desire to address said struggles.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Homeless Zen Retreat

I don't have too much to say about this post, other than it's so much more inspiring than a lot of the stuff I have read over the past week.

When I went on my first 9-day retreat, I felt claustrophobic. There was no place to run and nothing to do but sit with my thoughts. What came up was sometimes poignant and sometimes scary. I spent many hours marveling at the tenderness of my own heart. But I also had to face my lifelong habit of wriggling away from anything that required true commitment. I was so afraid that I would wither away if I stayed in one place or dedicated myself to one thing. But only through going on retreat—and subsequent meditation practice—did I begin to dismantle those fears, and gradually build an organization in which I, and hundreds of homeless youth, could experience a true sense of belonging.

But as I learned last month, dreaming of going on retreat and actually going on retreat are worlds apart. Taking twelve homeless youth to a Zen-Buddhist monastery for 3 days was an experience that I could not prepare for. And while I had designed the experience for them, I too had to open myself to learning along the way. As it turned out, one of the first lessons appeared even before we left the city.

The post goes on to detail the experience. I loved how the retreat leaders and monastics at the retreat center seemed to balance holding the container of a retreat with the basic needs of teenagers who have lived quite unstable lives.

Amidst wranglings over the intentions of Buddhist teachers at some conference, or endless dissections of the behavior of a Congressman named Weiner, writings like this are a reminder to me to stay focused, and let whatever seems like a distraction roll off my back.

Giving homeless youth the gift of a Zen retreat is the kind of engaged practice that makes my heart happy to hear. May we do more of it. May it become commonplace.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

So "Drunk With Media," Who Are You?

Over at the online Zen community Treeleaf, I found an interesting discussion, that began as a question about self-hatred, and opened up into several other topics. As someone who has a strong interest in education models, ad who has taught both children and adults, I found the following comments blogworthy:

Zen Teacher Jundo Cohen wrote:

Hmmm. I have had teachers in America tell me that, over the last many years, there is such a tendency to tell every child that "he/she is a winner", that everyone in the contest must get "some prize", that "all children are special" ... that it has backfired a bit. These kids, entering school and then the workplace, then insist that they should get rewarded and be treated as a "special winner" without particularly earning it or exerting themselves.

This is something happening in Japan too, as the kids have been a bit more spoiled these last few generations, and there has been more equalitarianism in the society.

Dosho, an American member of Treeleaf responded:

My oldest is just finishing kindergarten and I haven't seen much of that "everyone's a winner" mentality. His school tries to emphasize each kid's strengths and how they compliment those of the other kids. His class seems to work very well together and his teacher told us he will often cheer on other kids having trouble with some activity. He is scheduled to start t-ball in the summer and they have already indicated everyone gets a trophy, so we'll see how he reacts to that. However, when it comes to sports he participates though doesn't really ever seem that concerned about mastery. He just likes being around other kids, whatever they happen to be doing.

And later on Taigu, the other teacher at Treeleaf, said this:

The world has changed, education can't catch up.
Most of the kids I teach are clueless about themselves and the world, drunk with media , games and computers and very negative. And yet, still an amazing light shines through. Japanese education is not better than Western education. We are in a global hazy zone. My job is to tell these kids that the world is not going to end and that there is a place for beauty, love and peace. My job is also to teach them that work has a profound meaning.

Taigu's comments are particularly of interest to me. When I saw the line "drunk with media," the whole conversation expanded beyond education for me. I started thinking about how prevalent media is in many of our lives, and how "drunk" with various forms of it a hell of a lot of us are.

I used to read a lot of social and political comments. Would scour up to a dozen indy media sites daily, trying to keep up with what the alternative voices to the mainstream were saying about the events of the day. Some of it is brilliant stuff. A lot of it is a rushed attempt to have something noteworthy to say about a particular hot issue. And some of it is just plain noise and nastiness. Actually, you don't have to look very hard to find that plain noise and nastiness, and frankly, going down such rabbit holes is quite addictive.

When I first started Facebook, I had similar drunk experience around collecting "friends," offering comments, and reading people's "stuff." Noise is what much of Facebook is about. A lot of people seem to use it for goofing off, smarting off, and just plain getting off in some form or another. None of this is right or wrong really, but if you spend too much time there, you're life becomes saturated with that kind of energy.

Even blogging has this kind of push-pull. I am still quite curious about blogs, and find myself looking for new voices to follow on a regular basis. However, I have had to recognize the same addictive qualities to the noise and nastiness that I experienced with social/political media. It's so easy to get sucked into a good drama and/or head bashing of despised figure or idea X, and once that happens, who are you?

That's what really came from Taigu's "drunk with media" comment for me. Who are you, when you are drunk with media? Do you know? Can you know?

Even though the internet and other tech devices have spread the ability to drink media far and wide, this isn't a new problem. Upper crust English folks were drunk with the memoirs of other upper crust English folks back in the early 19th century, just to give one example. And it certainly goes back long before that.

Going back to the comments above, the point Jundo Cohen makes about the "everyone's a winner" mentality, which has been an undercurrent of American childhood in recent decades, is another piece of this story. Specifically, by artificially propping up the "self-esteem" of children, adults who do so are failing to allow kids to learn "Who they are?" But you know, the same adults who so readily rely on such methods probably don't know themselves well at all either. Because from what I have experienced and witnessed with adults who are more in tune with their "deeper selves" - (oye, language is failing me here) - these adults are much more likely to interact with children as they are, and aid those same kids in seeing who they are, beyond their trophies, test scores, Facebook pages, video game prowess, etc.

These kids of discussions often devolve into sound byte simplicity statements. I don't want to go there. As much as the AA model of total abstinence works for some alcoholics, the reality is that most of us are not out of control drunks. We don't need to abstain from everything that might cause suffering if abused, and go off to live in the woods somewhere.

What we need to do is to keep the question "Who are you?" close. To learn to recognize our drunkenness in all it's various forms, and shift our actions accordingly.

Really, any spiritual practice worth it's weight is about re-educating yourself about the world, using the world itself - as it is, not as you imagine it to be.

When the Buddha spoke of renunciation, I believe more than anything, he was imploring us to renounce our views of the world, all the ways we think things are that we cling to, as if they were the whole truth.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Samsara as Dharma Gate

Our head teacher at the Zen Center, Byakuren Ragir, is starting to get into the blogging thing now. She's got three posts up this month, including this one, which contains the following passage:

When Roshi Reb Anderson was at Clouds, the sound byte that stuck in my mind was “You can’t beat samsara”. Then my husband heard that and amended it by saying “You can’t trump samsara.” What does that mean? It is very similar to the first noble truth that human life contains within it; dissatisfaction, anxiety and suffering. No matter how “good” our spiritual life is, we are not divorced from the swirling ups and downs of samsaric life.

How can you truly find peace amidst the vicissitudes of human life? We need to have some deep visceral connection with that which is beyond up and down.

The 8 worldly winds are the vicissitudes that constitute the human world. They are:
Pleasure Pain
Gain Loss
Success Failure
Praise Criticism

How can we practice when the 8 worldly winds have us caught and gripped? Sometimes, I feel, I can’t even sit down to do zazen. My practice at these pressurized points in life, often has to do with Buddhist Prayer, the chanting or saying over and over of certain phrases. Trying to interrupt my habituated energy and compulsive thinking with more wholesome, dharmic thoughts.

This immediately brought to mind the wild fox koan, which I have written about sometime in the past. The myriad of causes and conditions that make up each moment are something that we can't escape, as long as we are here in this body/mind.

But what's funny is that it's possible to take the comment from Reb Anderson in a different way as well.

"You can't beat samsara," instead of meaning you can't escape it or avoid it, could also mean "This is the best training ground you could possibly have for awakening." Do you get it?

I think it's a generally habitual human pattern to think of our sufferings, miseries, and anxieties solely in terms of being hindrances. And yet, when looked at only slightly differently, these same things can become the very medicine that we need to take.

Foxglove, a fairly common garden flower, has a long history of medicinal use, addressing a wide variety of ailments, from serious heart conditions to asthma. It also has a long history of poisoning, as people who were either unfamiliar with the power of the plant, or overzealous in their application of it, overdosed on Foxglove remedies. In other words, the line between medicine and poison is often hard to discern.

This is also the case with our lives. Those "pressurized points" Byakuren speaks of are packed with great liberation potential. And yet, all too easily, that potential becomes a poison to us, as we sway between avoidance and overindulgence.

Too much Foxglove might kill you. However, just the right amount of Foxglove, at the right time, could save your life.

I wouldn't recommend experimenting with Foxglove, but I would recommend experimenting with the sufferings in your life. Can you work with them in such a way as to find the gate of liberation contained within?

I think this is a major part of our practice. Maybe all of it really.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Relational Yoga, Relational Zen

We are studying the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in teacher training right now. As much as I have enjoyed studying poses, anatomy, adjustments, and the rest, the Sutras are the kind of juicy stuff that gets me going. In great part, I think, because I have never felt considered the physical practices apart from the spiritual teachings.

Patanjali reminds me a little bit of the famous Buddhist patriarch Bodhidharma. Both are almost larger than life figures. And both might have been credited with writings and discoveries that they, themselves, didn't actually make. In fact, so much of their actual lives remains a mystery, which probably only has added to the great esteem with which people have held them with in the centuries since their passing.

I was struck yesterday upon reading more closely the following:

“In daily life we see people around who are happier than we are, people who are less happy. Some may be doing praiseworthy things and others causing problems. Whatever may be our usual attitude toward such people and their actions, if we can be pleased with others who are happier than ourselves, compassionate toward those who are unhappy, joyful with those doing praiseworthy things, and remain undisturbed by the errors of others, our minds will be very tranquil.”

- Yoga Sutra 1.33, Translation by TKV Desikachar

This passage zeros in on the relational quality of yoga. And just as is the case with Buddhist teachings on our relationships with others, there is a strong emphasis on equanimity here - the kind most of us struggle to locate in our everyday lives.

Given my own predisposition to serving in the world, and to doing what I can to help right injustices, what I find so wonderful about a teaching like this is that it's a reminder that the most powerful place one can come from is built on a foundation of joy and equanimity.

In Buddhism, a similar teaching is found in the four divine abodes, where lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity are the foundations from which all that is good in life springs forth.

For me, the biggest challenge is to remain "undisturbed" by the errors of others, especially when those errors are greatly destructive, oppressive, and highly productive of misery. And yet, "undisturbed" doesn't mean untouched, or unfeeling. It's really a quality of not being flipped over by, troubled by, or excessively excited by something, all of which make it very difficult to have clear perceptions and to do intelligent, beneficial action.

*painting by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Westerner" on a Spiritual Pilgrimage

I stumbled upon this story on the Yoga International magazine website. What's fascinating is how, if you strip off the first part of the following quote, you might think: Is this another Eat, Pray, Love privilege-fest being quoted here? But it isn't. Not for the most part anyway. Although it's true that anyone able to fly half way around the world to do a "spiritual pilgrimage" has some level of privilege.

I grew up in the Midwest with native Chinese parents. Although they hung paintings of Kuan Yin in the living room, they weren’t spiritual types. They didn’t assemble altars with plastic light-up Buddhas, burn incense, or chant. Instead, they planted fruit trees in our yard, baked lasagna, and ballroom danced. Once, when I was a girl, I asked my mother about the Buddha. When she told me that he was a wealthy Indian prince who gave up everything he had, I decided that he couldn’t be trusted.

In my late 30s, I began to attend a Tibetan meditation center in Seattle. Soon, my sitting practice deepened. I chanted the Heart Sutra and I learned that the Buddha was indeed someone I could trust. But impatience hindered my budding practice. No sooner would I fold my legs into lotus pose and relax than I’d begin to fidget or drift off to sleep. When I did manage to stay awake, my mind would chatter away about the dental bill, the beastly project at work, and the benefits of espresso versus chai. Buddhism just didn’t seem to fit in with my American lifestyle. I was too busy and too occupied with modern distractions.

I told myself that all I needed was a journey to the motherland and click, my meditation practice would activate. What I needed was to go where people practiced Buddhism for real, lived it, and not because it was some trendy lifestyle promoted by celebrities or the spiritually correct.

This is quite an interesting mix, isn't it? A middle class Chinese-American woman finding in mid-life, of all things, Tibetan Buddhism, and then taking a trip to Tibet to "jump start" her practice.

It gets better.

The monk asks me where I am from. My guide translates between Tibetan and Mandarin.

"America," I reply.

The monks look puzzled. "America?" They lean in and glance at each other. "How can that be? She looks Chinese."

In all my travels in China, I’d never encountered this reaction. If anything, my response—that I was Chinese American—usually explained why my familiar accent was hitched to my odd grammar.

"My parents were born in China," I explain. Surely they’d heard this story before. But the monks stare at me, their faces riveted to mine. "But they moved to America. I was born there," I finish.

I might as well have said that I was born on Venus. "But she looks Chinese," they say again. They discuss this perplexing matter. I look at Zhuo Ma. She shrugs.

"Westerners have blonde hair and large bones," one monk insists to Zhuo Ma. "Her parents must look very

You gotta love how all these assumptions hit the fan here. The author's assumptions about what might constitute "real" instead of "trendy," as well as her views related to what the trip might do for her Buddhist practice. The monk's assumptions about who the author is and where she's from, as well as what they believed all "Westerners" look like.

If I had quoted only the second and third paragraph above from Ms. Tai's article, would have pictured a Chinese-American Buddhist practitioner who grew up in the U.S. Midwest?

Somehow, I bet not.