Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Zen of Blog Comments

The following is a short selection from a larger writing project I am working on. Given the shenanigans that went on over at Barbara's Buddhist blog yesterday and today, it seemed like a good thing to post.

In my opinion, making and receiving comments on blog posts should be treated in a similar way to how you would act with someone face to face. If you are committed to a spiritual path where honesty, compassion, and kindness are at the core, then it’s important to extend these traits into cyberspace. Although it’s harder to see and feel, what we say online can have just as much impact – positive or negative – as anything said in person. And because of the lack of non-verbal cues, it’s probably even more important to choose our words carefully while interacting with others online.

What I have witnessed online is that commenting on blog posts brings out the best and worst in us. When people are at their best, you can see ripple effects that spread across the world. A well timed supportive comment can mean all the difference to someone who is struggling and feeling isolated. A clear declaration of the truth in the middle of an embattled debate can shift the entire conversation. And sometimes, something someone says “goes viral,” spreading from blog to blog, across Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites, positively impacting the views of hundreds and thousands of people.

And unfortunately, the same thing goes for comments on the worst end of the spectrum. A single personalized attack on a writer can shift an entire discussion in that direction. Lies can and do spread online, sometimes at an alarmingly fast rate. And the internet is littered with the wreckage of angry, hate fueled arguments that sometimes have spread into the flesh and blood world with terrible consequences.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Zen of "Not Enough"

Over at the blog Ox Herding yesterday, Barry wrote the following:

I've practiced steadily for nearly 22 years so you'd think I'd know better . . . but lately I've watched my mind whip itself into a frenzy of not-enough.

Not enough attainment. Not enough clarity. Not enough enlightenment. Just not enough of something that I think is different from what I actually have.

In the midst of my self-generated dust storm, I came across these words from Kwong Roshi in No Beginning, No End:

This is what the training should do - defeat you, defeat your thoughts, defeat your idea for the preservation of yourself.

Well, this sound wonderful to my thinking mind, but my gaining mind won't tolerate it. So I've been struggling.

Yep, I've been there too. I can imagine anyone who does this life project long enough is going to hit up hard against personal expectations. You know that it's not about self-improvement, and intellectually, you understand that we're all Buddhas in every moment, but sometimes, none of that matters.

When it comes to this "not enough" in my life, it often seems directly tied to comparisons. Comparing myself with other Zen practitioners. Comparing the current self I see with the past self I saw. Or simply comparing one day to the next, thinking that if things are a real mess one day, I should have my shit together the next. Which doesn't always happen.

I haven't had a lot of this "not enough" thinking in recent months, despite living in a lot of uncertainty about career goals and the general direction of my life. I can feel something unfolding, shifting my aim in life a bit, but it's not clear yet, so I'm just sitting with it. And for whatever reason, "comparing mind" has mostly gone on vacation. I'd like to think it's relocated permanently, but I'm not that foolish.

The other thing about "not enough" thinking is that it's intimately tied to a gut level feeling of lack. Some people call this "poverty consciousness," or "living in scarcity," but whatever you want to name it, it's really a pervasive distrust in the world's ability to support you, moment by moment. That somehow, there is enough, even if just barely. Which isn't to say that it's ok for the people in Somalia to be starving right now (it's not), but that even each of them have something amazingly powerful running through their lives, despite the severe lack of food, water, and decent shelter. I worked with famine survivors in my ESL classrooms, and whether they called it God or Allah or simply good fortune, it was quite clear to me that each of them got it, on a gut level, that we are enough as we all.

We are enough as we are. As opposed to having enough. Many of my students' family members didn't have enough to the point of physical death. But for every moment they were alive, they each were enough. While we always can "improve a little bit," as Suzuki Roshi said, it's important to remember that having and being aren't the same. In fact, when I think about, notions of having seem to come from the view of the self that Kwong Roshi says needs to be defeated.

What can we really have anyway?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hope is Lazy

Over at Zendotstudio, Carole has a good post on hope and Buddhist practice. She writes:

The Oxford dictionary defines hope as "expectation combined with desire." Hmm, from a Buddhist point of view, we're not starting with the best recipe ingredients, are we? Hope implies something we want in the future. It may be something perfectly wonderful, like world peace or a new subaru station wagon. And baked into that hope are the seeds of suffering, if we don't get what we want.

Pema Chodron says something like, "we bounce back and forth between hope and fear", this is the common human state. When we hope we may also feel afraid that we won't get what we hope for. And then there is the disappointment when we don't get what we hope for, which inevitably happens if we're filling our shopping backs with a list of hopes. And after a while we feel the bruise of all this bouncing back and forth. In fact we may feel like a human bruise.

Lately, I've been noticing that hoping seems to come out of a kind of laziness. When I'm lost in hope, I actually am trying to conjure up a future reality, and the hang on to that picture, regardless of what's actually happening. I'm not willing to put in some work, take some risks, and let go of results. It's just "I hope this will happen or that won't happen" and then, usually, some perseveration on possible outcomes I don't want to happen.

In fact, what I have also noticed is that when I'm actively putting in some effort towards something, and/or living without attachment to a particular outcome, hope doesn't really enter into the equation. It's entrance into such a place would be just extra, like adding sugar to already naturally sweet enough apple juice.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sexual Desire and the Platform Sutra

The root cause of purity
is the lust nature,
For once rid of lust,
the substance of the nature is pure.
Each of you, within your natures;
abandon the five desires.
In an instant, see your nature–
it is true.

from Hui Neng's Platform Sutra

Over at my other blog, I have been writing a lot about romantic relationships. It's kind of an endless topic if you think about, all the things that can and do happen between people who come together and make some form of partnership, however long or short, strong or weak it may be.

This morning's dharma talk at Zen Center referenced some lines from the Platform Sutra that sparked my interest. They were not those I have quoted above; in fact, when I heard them at 10 o'clock this morning, romantic relationships were not on my mind. However, as I took a look at the Platform Sutra this afternoon, I came across the quotation above, which comes almost at the end. (I flipped to the end for some reason.) And when I saw what you read above, something clicked in.

What, you may ask?

The fact that my mind still too often views "getting rid of" as meaning just that when it comes to sexual desire.

That my actions around sexual desire are still too often subtle shifts of avoidance or indulgence - and not coming from a liberation from those two.

Notice in Hui Neng's words the centrality of lust, of sexual desire - how it's considered the "root cause of purity." This is a long way from the land of prohibitions and shame that tend to follow from religious moral codes, even amongst some Buddhists.

Hatred and disgust of the body, and all that seems to come from it, are easy to locate in spiritual teachings. And of course, there is plenty of the opposite in the "everyday world" - obsession and indulgence of the body, and all that seems to come from it.

So, I see Hui Neng's words zeroing in on that dichotomy, and seeing it as a platform for complete liberation. For how could anyone truly be "rid of" sexual desire that has already arisen? Where could I possibly toss this albatross of energy that has already engulfed this body?

The five desires referenced in the last part of the quote above are basically these: comfort, sex, food, sleep, and good reputation. There are other slightly different translations of them, but this one seems to be the most flexible, but also easy to work with one.

When I think about romantic relationships, and consider those I have had in the past, all five of these desires played a role. More specifically, I can see how attachments to, or aversions towards, one or more of these played roles in causing a lot of suffering in those relationships. My attachments and aversions, and my partner's attachments and aversions.

For example, my early years as a vegetarian coincided with the first long term relationship I ever had. My girlfriend was neither vegetarian, nor terribly health conscious around food. And so, we often struggled around eating together. I judged her choices; she was irritated by mine, or felt guilty about mine. It was pretty damned unpleasant.

During the same relationship, I am well aware of times when I placed my own comfort over the well being of my girlfriend or the relationship itself. Once, having grown tired of staying in her parent's messy and noisy house, I basically made my girlfriend drive me home. We were nearly three hours away, and it was during the middle of winter. Not the proudest moment in my book.

In a more recent relationship, I frequently worried about my reputation as an ESL teacher because my girlfriend had been a student of mine. Never mind that she had long since left my classroom, I still wondered if my bosses and others at the school I worked at would judge me harshly for being with her.

These examples, and many others, are one of the reasons I see intimate partnerships as one of the most powerful practices a lay person can engage in. Both their presence and absence can be powerful catalysts, provided you approach intimate relationships as deep practices. In that way, they are like a monastery for us, exposing all the rough edges and hidden qualities - just as monks and nuns do in practicing and living together in monastic settings.

Even for those of us lay practitioners who are currently outside of those partnerships, there are still the memories of the past, the fantasies of the future, and the desires of the now to practice with.

The form of intimate partnership may or may not be present; the material coming up still seems to be fairly similar, doesn't it?

What are your thoughts?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Humid Zen Fog

So, the writing well has been empty over the past few days. There has been too much heat and humidity here in Minnesota, and my brain is just running slow.

In the meantime, here's a little poem for you all, from Issa (1763 - 1828).

even poorly planted
rice plants

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Zen Finances and Practice

Algernon over at Notes from a Burning House has a thought provoking post about, among other things, the costs of running a Zen center, retreats, and the power of having to ask for help. I agreed with a lot of what he had to say, but did find myself thinking a bit differently about a few points. Algernon writes:

Buddhist centers are in a bind because the dharma should be free for all. This value does not apply to rent, repairs to a roof, heating and cooling a space, utilities and insurance, or flying a teacher to the location for a retreat. Deming Zen Center is almost 100% donation-only, and sometimes that bites us in the back. Operating a Zen Center on the basis of dana is very difficult even when everyone chips in. Sometimes people don't.

So there is a need for fees, even though it establishes financial gates and is a factor in the oft-reported trend that Buddhist practitioners are middle-class and up. Privileged, in other words.

One of the commenters on this article also points out the difficulty of retreats, not just because of fees but also time. Very few people are able to take time away from work to participate in 7-day retreats or longer. Many centers (including ours) do shorter retreats on weekends to allow for more participation, but this is a compromise: a short retreat is very different than an extended retreat.

Unfortunately, the commenter is led to question the importance of retreats: "It's possible that the problem lies not with the cost of retreats but with over-emphasis on the retreat model altogether." Note we are now embracing the language of capitalist enterprise: the retreat is spoken of as a product, part of a business model.

Now, here are my thoughts.

1. I think there is something valuable behind the guy's point about "retreat models," even if it's a bit off in terms of view.

As a long time Zen practitioner who has done retreats, but isn't doing much in that vain right now, I notice an in-group, out-group flavor amongst convert Zennies. If you're doing retreats fairly regularly, you're seen as "deeply practicing." If you're not, or never have, then your practice is viewed as suspect. I think this kind of division is a false one built up around the models of practice we have here in North America and in Europe. Sesshin practice, though quite powerful and excellent, is simply one form available to us.

2. To me, there is sacrifice and commitment on the one hand, and there are issues of privilege and life circumstances on the other. Katagiri Roshi used to tell parents with really young children that their main practice was "shikan-baby." Which makes sense to me. And I think there are plenty of people who have practices that don't "look deep," but whom are powerful, compassionate people in the world. My own experience has been one of working with the ebbs and flows without pressing, or doing things mostly for approval. Which has been challeging at times, given my position in our sangha, and the years of practice I have behind my belt.

3. I'm right there with you about the benefits of practicing "the ask." I have had to ask for fee reductions and wavers at zen center several times in recent years, and it's been a learning process about trust and letting go of "image." In fact, I kind of wish there were a way to create that opportunity for everyone in our sanghas. The closest thing seems to be - at least in our sangha - asking the teacher to do jukai or become a priest. But a lot of folks never go that far, so maybe there are other ways to do it for the average lay practitioner.

4. Finally, I also support breaking middle class norms in order to place your spiritual practice in the forefront. This is something I have done constantly, choosing to have much, much less in disposable income and material possessions, so I could have more time and opportunity to practice in different ways.

I'd like to expand on the point about "asking for help," especially financial help, but maybe that would be a good post on it's own.

So, what are you're thoughts on all of this?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Buddhist Blogosphere Round Up

There are a lot of interesting posts floating about right now. I have a few things I could write about, but will today offer you a taste of some other blogs instead.

First, here's a piece by our head teacher at zen center touching on Huineng’s Platform Sutra. Byakuren has been posting writing about once a week now, and yesterday during her morning dharma talk, referenced how she's loving blogging. So, go take a look.

Arun reports that Ven. Hong Yuan, the Buddhist nun who was recently wrongfully arrested in New York, will now not be charged by the Manhattan DA's office. My understanding is that a number of Buddhist bloggers and readers sent various forms of messages to the DA office about her case, and although there's no way to tell if that had any impact on the case, I personally think it probably did something. Having numerous voices from around the nation (world even) writing in about an obscure case lifts some of the obscurity, and maybe makes those involved think again about the situation simply by bringing it to mind.

The perspectives on what constitutes Right Action around food and diet seem to be endless. Debates about vegetarianism swirl round and round, while the world's Buddhist populations are all over the map in their eating habits. Here are a few lines from a post on the blog Zen Mirror:

The Vinaya, then, is quite clear on this matter. Monks and nuns may eat meat. Even the Buddha ate meat. Unfortunately, meat eating is often seen by westerners as an indulgence on the part of the monks.

I have been vegetarian for almost half my life now. However, I still don't view it as the only way, and feel that issues such as geographical location and body make up need to be taken into consideration when it comes to diet.

And here is an interesting piece by Tom Armstrong recalling the Buddhist economic ideas of E.F. Schumacher and considering the current state of things here in the U.S. Personally, I think we are at a major crossroads. While too many people are still wooed by a mishmash of beliefs derived from the capitalist market fundamentalism gospel, the actual structures and landscapes that have been built through such views are crumbling all around us. I had a wonderful conversation with a friend from the zen center board yesterday about what might be called the "two Detroits": crime ridden, falling apart former auto empire on the one hand, and wildly creative and re-inventive collection of communities on the other. To me, the "two Detroits" symbolizes the general status of our entire nation. And so, while there is a lot of misery to be found, there's also an abundance of opportunity and possibility to reshape how it is we live together.

* Photo of urban farm projects in Detroit, Michigan.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Buddhist Yoga

In the Bhaddekaratta Sutta, the Buddha taught, "Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom," a teaching that echoes Patanjali's definition of asana (yoga postures) as "stable and easeful". In both the Anapanasati Sutta (Awareness of Breathing) and the Satipatthana Sutta (Foundations of Mindfulness), the Buddha tells us to observe the breath and then extend our awareness out to include the whole body. He says that the practitioner should be aware of the movements and position of the body, "bending down, or standing, walking, sitting, or lying down."

--from Breath and the Body by Frank Jude Boccio

I found this quoted today on the blog Blue Lotus Seed, and thought, yes! There it is! An example of yoga teachings and Buddhist teachings brought together. Now, this is hardly novel, but often the link is made without specific reference points, in a sort of abstract way.

During yoga teacher training class last night, we were asked to speak a little about how we would run a yoga class, and what might be guiding the ways in which we are choosing to do so. I have been setting up practice class structures, with postures and meditation and whatnot, getting ready to do a bit of practice teaching. Anyway, when I started talking about how I was approaching teaching, it always came back to how to bring people into the present. How to help folks develop awareness and mindfulness. And how to plant the seeds that these practices are really gateways to liberation, not simply a way to feel good or be physically fit.

One rub I have had during this program is that many of my fellow students haven't spent much time with meditation, the yoga sutras, or other deeper aspects of the practice. It's harder for some of my classmates to view the physical postures as a form of moving meditation, which they can be if approached in certain ways. And so, what has happened is that there is a lot of energy around discussions of alignment, posture variations, health benefits of poses, and the like, and less around meditation, yoga philosophy, and mantra practices. It's not a lack of interest, nor is it a lack of attention given by the program - it's more about where the bulk of the students are at.

One of our instructors recently spoke of coming into yoga from the opposite end that most Americans seem to do. Like me and one other guy in my core class, she has had a long term meditation practice. And because of this, the way she approaches yoga classes is much different from the average yoga teacher. I have found that there are a few other instructors like her in our program, as well as a few more students in the larger group like me and the other "meditation-based" guy in my core group. But we're in the minority, a fairly small one I'd say.

So, it was interesting to speak about how I'd run a class to my classmates. How I would bookend any asana practice with meditations, or how I'd sacrifice excessive talk about alignment in favor of drawing students to stay with whatever they are experiencing in the pose they have come into. Or just the use of silence, of allowing people to be without too much teacher talk. Even the little bit of yoga teaching I did with my old ESL classes, I offered some silence to my students - in fact, I did that a lot even during the language class itself, developing activities that allowed for group silence at times, knowing how busy and chaotic many of my student's lives were.

As I told another classmate who spoke of having a fast flowing class with lots of music: "I love that kind of thing too, in small doses." My way isn't necessarily the better way. I have been in fast moving, intensely physical yoga classes with a teacher who had a deep sense of the whole of the practice and was able to convey that depth regardless of the outer form. Which was pretty amazing to me.

It all comes back to how best to point people in the direction of "stability and freedom." There isn't a single way, but certain approaches are much more likely to get people there than others.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Samsara of Intimate Relationships

A few months ago, I started writing another blog - one about dating and relationships. I know some of you took a look at it when I first started, and a few are probably even following it, which is cool. Thank you. I really enjoy writing both Dangerous Harvests and the relationship blog, and so far, I've done well keeping them both going, but also allowing a day or two to skip by if I'm not feeling the urge to write anything. In fact, having two active blogs has actually, in some odd way, helped lessen the internal "need" to post all the time. Perhaps that's because on any given day, I have two different options to do my writing for instead of always trying to fit my thoughts into a single thematic basket.

Anyway, what's been on my mind today is all the ways in which people can be shallow, unkind, unrealistic, stingy, and downright crazy when it comes to dating and relationships. It shouldn't be that much of a surprise, given how intimacy - and the desire for intimacy - tend to unearth all the muck beneath our "calm, cool, and collected" surfaces. Besides deeply diving into one's spiritual life, finding a partner and being with a partner might easily be the most challenging and thus potentially enlightening experiences a person can go through.

After reading and participating in some discussions about dating and relationships today, I can palpably feel the immense levels of pain and suffering many people have. Bitter single folks. Bitter married folks. People who have been burned by others in the past. People who have been in, or currently are, in abusive relationships. People who are deeply afraid of rejection. People who have such a sense of entitlement that they can't even see why others get so angry with them. People living in fantasies that can never be reality. People lost and confused and lonely.

Each of us has experienced a little piece of this in our lives, even those who are the most awakened, and have had the most wonderful of relationships. And some of us have had more than our share of misery around dating and relationships. But in the end, in some form or another, the samsara of intimate romantic relationships touches us all, even those who choose to renounce such relationships entirely. I'll never forget some of the conversations I had with one of the Catholic nuns I used to work with. She was always interested in how my dating life was. And she'd tell me stories about men she had met in the past, and how she occasionally wondered "what if." I never once got the sense that she regretted her decision to join the sisters, but that didn't mean she wasn't touched by the power and challenges of intimate relationships.

As you go about your day, especially if you're encountering someone whose ideas or behavior really rubs you the wrong, remember that he or she, too, has been touched by deep suffering. Perhaps that remembering might soften your response or judgement a little bit. Be well.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

"Life is One Continuous Mistake"

David over at The Endless Further had a bit of a run in with comment responding yesterday.

He writes:

In response to yesterday’s post, someone left this comment, “based on this you just might be a stream entrant who just doesn’t know it yet.” Now, I don’t know if he was being sincere or not. It occurred to me that it might not be a compliment, but I figured he probably meant well. Anyway, it’s late in the evening here and I had a brief moment of flippancy and unfortunately it ended up in my reply. It was a small attempt at humor, apparently very small . . . and he took it the wrong way.

You know, I get so few comments that when one comes in I really hate to screw it up.

I have totally been in this position, and I'd imagine anyone who has blogged for awhile, and has a regular readership, probably has also been here. If, that is, he or she has been paying attention, and is operating out of sense of care for those who come to these spaces.

There are so many things that can get confused when it comes to blog commenting. One or both people misread what is said. A reader says something that sounds like an insult to the blog writer. A writer says something that sounds like an insult to a reader. Humor misfires. Words or concepts aren't clear, or are not understood by one or both participants. A person responds to a comment not directed at them. The list is kind of endless.

This is the comment David received from reader Mike:

based on this you just might be a stream entrant who just doesn’t know it yet

Now, for those of you who don't know, stream entry is considered to be one of four levels of awakening along the Buddhist path. And as such, it is usually a mark of someone who has dedicated him/herself to practice, and demonstrates a fair amount of depth and insight. You can learn more about the four levels here.

However, it's also the case that stream entry, being the first level amongst the four, has been a site of ridicule, a sort of punching bag if you will in some of the classical Buddhist teachings. Those considered stream enterers are sometimes set up as foils to others who are "further along" on the path, and so it's possible to view a comment like the one Mike made as a form of insult, knowing it's use in the teachings.

Beyond that, it's even more likely the case that people leaving clipped off comments like that are merely trolling, looking to stir up trouble. Faux compliments are standard fair amongst trolls, and in the Buddhist blogosphere, dropping lines about a writer's wisdom, enlightenment, or insight are commonplace. So, those of us who have been around awhile, reading and writing blogs, are gonna wonder about any such comment, especially if it isn't backed up or elaborated on. This is especially the case with someone who has rarely or never commented on our blogs before.

The way I see it, the back and forth that followed Mike's initial comment demonstrates both the easiness of making errors online, but also the willingness on both sides to return to practice and to respond out of a position of caring and listening. It's really in that kind of way that we are actually living our lives fully, and not doing whatever to protect our small selves and "precious ideas." David and/or Mike could have simply decided to flip off at the other, again and again, until one or both grew tired of flinging insults and projections. But they both didn't.

The rest of us can learn from that as well. It's not just the perfectly handled comments, or blog posts, that offer wisdom. This is something I have learned through doing this blog the past two and half years.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Buddhist Nun Accused of Being an "Unlicensed Vendor" in New York City

Police in the city of New York recently arrested a Buddhist nun over her attempts to raise money to help rebuild her burned down temple. Officials argued that she was acting as an "unlicensed vendor," and during a court hearing, the district attorney offered a deal that included a guilty plea. However, she refused, suggesting that the charges should be dropped in the interest of justice. I agree. Handing out prayer beads and collecting donations shouldn't be cause for arrest.

I can't help but think that former NYC Mayor Rudy Guiliani's crack down on the poor policies are behind some of this. In the name of "restoring the quality of life," Guiliani and the NYC Police Dept. shut down and locked up panhanders, peddlers, and beggars, deeming these folks the cause of all the city's problems. Meanwhile, racially charged incidents coming from police actions rose sharply, including the brutal murder of Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo, shot 19 times by officers who claimed the man's wallet looked like a gun. Yeah, right.

Although Guilinani has long since been replaced by the less harsh and perhaps more fair Mayor Bloomberg, New York city police continue to employ at least some of the old Guilinani-driven policies. And in the case of Ven. Hong Yuan, the nun who was arrested, something else is off as well, even if you agree with the pandhandling laws. A local newspaper, Our Chinatown, reported about Ven. Hong Yuan's fundraising efforts just days before her arrest. So, she's not some anonymous person whose story is impossible to confirm.

Arun, from Angry Asian Buddhist, writes:

The DA offered a plea deal where Ven. Hong Yuan will serve “one day of community service in exchange for a disorderly conduct, non-criminal guilty plea,” but the nun has refused.

We should support Ven. Hong Yuan in her pursuit of justice, especially in encouraging the DA to drop the charges against her. This situation is a fantastic opportunity for Buddhists to reach out and support each other across racial, cultural and geographic lines. If you follow Ven. Hong Yuan’s story, it should be clear that she could definitely use the assistance of supporters to show the DA that this nun has the support of an entire community behind her.

You can read more background at this previous post with information from the earlier articles at DNAInfo and Singtao Daily.

The current NYC District Attorney is Cyrus Vance. You can locate contact information for him on this website. Or for those of you on Twitter, you can take the advice John, of the blog Point of Contact offered:

@manhattanDA is on twitter. Why not take a moment and ask them why they are prosecuting a Buddhist Nun for handing out beads?

And here is the info. for anyone interested in offering financial gifts to Ven. Hong Yuan's temple:

Atlanta Pu Xian Buddhist Association, Inc., 3140 Shallowford Pl., Atlanta, GA 30341. The association can also be reached by telephone at 678-436-3607.

May all charges be dropped, and may her temple be rebuilt.

*Photo credits to DNAInfo/Shayna Jacobs.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Downloading Dharma Books and Ethics

There's an excellent discussion going on over at American Buddhist Perspective about the ethics of downloading dharma books. The post centers around a site called Buddhisttorrents, which I have visited once or twice, but never really looked at closely. In fact, it's only now that I see the site has an extensive collection of dharma books available for free download. The few times I glanced at it, I thought it was a book review website.

Here's a clip from the ABP blog post:

One of the most common defenses of torrents made in the comments at Buddhisttorrents is that the people downloading books are people who could not have bought them otherwise. To the extent that this is true, torrents don't hurt authors or publishers. Another comment made many times is that the torrents actually increase sales by exposing more material to people. To the extent this is true, torrents actually help authors and publishers. I would love to see some empirical evidence for either of these.

The same goes for the music industry. In reading up a bit on the laws of music downloading, I found this:

And album sales aren't haemorrhaging in the doom-mongering way we have been led to believe. Single sales have dropped, but 28 million more albums were sold last year than a decade ago, including digital sales. Live performances, which account for more than half of the industry's profits, are unaffected by downloads – and may even be boosted by the opportunity they offer for young people on tight budgets to sample the music they might like to hear at a concert.

So the music industry survived, and continues to thrive. And movie box-office numbers don't seem to be going down as more movies end up on the internet. So, can publishers and authors continue on? I hope so.

I think what may be needed is a new business model. Perhaps a Netflix of books. Or more use of advertising so that free content makes money.

I definitely agree that new business models are needed. As a writer in multiple disciplines - from spiritual blogging to poetry, I find the current flux in the publishing world quite confusing. Just a decade ago, I was in a graduate level creative writing program, learning how to write query letters and locate which print journals I could publish work in to build a case for getting, for example, poetry books published. Online publishing, including blogs, was mostly the realm of hacks, tech nerds, and amateurs with little interest in actually going through the hoops to get their work published "legitimately." It's amazing how quickly things can change. Although the old ways of getting your writing published still work to some extent, the internet has opened up so many other opportunities, and with that, a lot of questions.

Of course, as a Buddhist, all this brings to mind the second precept. Here are a few translations.

Thich Nhat Hanh's version is very specific.

"Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I undertake to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I undertake to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth."

And here's a more simple version from a dharma talk by Kusala Bhikshu

I accept the training precept not to steal, not to take what is not given.

One of the challenges of the economic system many of us currently live under is the lack of generosity it displays in it's very roots. The intellectual property rights laws and framework, which I and any publisher might use to "protect" whatever writing we seek to publish, create a logjam around it that frequently discourages sharing. At the same time, simply ridding ourselves of this system basically means leaving millions of writers, artists, and others in a financial lurch.

In some ways, I have always thought that finding ways to decouple the income of artists and writers from the specific "end products" they make is part of the answer. Having to sell every last piece of writing or chunk of pottery to make ends meet financially has always seemed like a crazy expectation to me. And yet, if you talk to the average middle level manager of a Fortune 500 corporation, or rank and file elected official, you'll probably find little sympathy for writers and artists. Produce a crap load of marketable stuff, have a "real" job, or stop doing it all together will be the three comments you'll most likely hear from these folks, and many others. Some of these same people will have offices filled with art and books, and can't imagine a life without some "culture," as long as that culture comes as a cheap afterthought of course.

So, it's hard for me - as one of those writers and artists who makes next to nothing on his work - to know how to respond to something like pirated dharma books. I can say I have downloaded maybe four or five books over the years, almost exclusively things I figured I would never see a paper copy of in a bookstore. I also had a short phase of downloading music files, but that was years ago, before Napster's downfall and the lawsuits that followed. There are other things I do download, like articles and podcasts, which mostly are being offered freely by the people who made them. Overall, though, I'm just less of a collector than I used to be. So, even if I'm really into something like a writer or musician, I'm rarely rushing out to find all the material he or she has produced anymore.

But I keep coming back to a question. How can we all be more generous? What can be done to maximize generosity towards writers, artists, publishers, and the rest of us participating in the circle?

That's what I'll offer today. Those questions. Feel free to add to the discussion with your comments and questions as well.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Two Large Vanilla Iced Nirvanas

Two Large Vanilla Iced Nirvanas - I just overheard the guy behind the counter at the coffee shop I'm in shout this statement. I looked up and saw another guy pick up two ice cream drinks and bring them over to a friend sitting at a table. I have written much commentary on here about the ways in which Buddhist terms, phrases, and images have been co-opted by capitalism. But today, just hearing and seeing this, I thought
"how strange! what was that?"

Which actually is pretty similar to a practice I took up awhile back. Asking, and sitting with the question "what is this?"

Friday, July 1, 2011

Overly Busy Buddhas

In response to my recent call for topics to talk about, regular reader Was Once offered the following:

Address the act of "doing," and why so many people are always busy... avoiding "being."

This is an interesting thing for me to consider right now, given that I have had an extended period of not working a regular job, not having multiple volunteer gigs to juggle, and generally not having a lot of "fixed" things I "need" to do. One thing that has become crystal clear during this time is how much I have, in the past, pinned my identity to what I do, what I accomplish, and what I haven't accomplished. There have been a number of times during the past several months where someone has asked me "What do you do?" and I have fumbled about, trying to list off the things I'm working on, instead of just saying something like "I'm in transition." I realized at some point that there was an underlying anxiety in these situations, a voice saying something like "Throw them a bone so you don't look lazy. Or confused. Or whatever it is you're afraid of looking like."

The reality, though, is that the question itself, one people seem so given to tossing around, demonstrates that sense that a person is only worth something if they do something. Lurking behind the question is often another one: "What have you done in the world lately?," which can easily turn into "Are you worth my attention or not?" in our fragile little minds.

So, when I think about why it is so many of us seem to be busy much of the time, it quickly becomes tied to a desire to demonstrate worthiness. Worthiness to yourself and to other people.

This is probably one of the main reasons why a lot of folks struggle to do practices like meditation on a regular basis. It can seem like doing nothing in the grand scheme of things, and isn't terribly impressive to offer in response to the question "What do you do?" or similar such questions. So much of the world seems to have succumbed to the view that life is solely, or mostly, about a series of social and economic exchanges - and that living a "good life" is built around "doing" as much as possible. Think of how much, for example, people with chronic illnesses or diminished capacities - even people who have given so much of their lives to others - think of how much they often struggle to accept a mostly being existence.

The first lines of Shitou's "Song of the Grass Roof Hermitage" go like this:

I've built a grass hut where there's nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it's been lived in - covered by weeds.

There's a demonstration here, I believe, of the balance between action and non-action. Between doing and being done through. One of the problems with always being busy is that it sets forth a momentum of always being busy. Trying to get off that kind of karma train is pretty difficult. In fact, because of it's fierce momentum, it often takes something dramatic, something traumatic, to get derailed. And even then, many of us think that this derailing is something horrible, something that is going to destroy our very worthiness as humans, and so we put all our effort into catching back up to the very train that brought us down.

What do you think is behind your "busy"? What has helped you not do so much?