Monday, October 31, 2011

Form and Rebirth

There are a few good posts up that I want to highlight for you all. First off, over at the blog of our sangha's head teacher is a post about form and Zen practice. We have been doing a lot of reflecting as a community over the past few years about form, particularly what ritual looks like within a lay practice context. I have written about all of this before, but wanted to share the following words of our teacher:

Precision can easily be usurped by the “manas” or our self-centered consciousness that wants to be the best, be more evolved, to be better than other practitioners. When precision becomes a project it has been taken over by ego-building consciousness.

Perfectionism is the devil in disguise. Outwardly, because of our highly choreographed form, a newcomer can interpret zen’s goal as being perfect in the form. This can become oppressive and obsessive. I would like to see a form coming out of our expression of generosity, inter-being, and spaciousness.

I'm guessing anyone who has spent any significant time practicing in a Zen center or community has probably gotten caught up in trying to do meditation perfectly, bow perfectly, and chant perfectly. This kind of thing is even more common amongst those of us who have done longer forms of practice, like meditation retreats, where there are numerous forms in place that can be co-opted by the self-centered mind. I kind of snicker now when I think back to the attempts I made to wash dishes in a "perfectly Zen way" on my first retreat. The anxiety was so intense at one point that I nearly passed out. Pretty ridiculous, isn't it?

Anyway, head over and read the rest of Byakuren's blog post, and feel free to add comments here (she doesn't have a comments section on her blog).

Over at Barbara's Buddhism blog is a post about rebirth and the population growth. Given how often people, even many practicing Buddhists, are muddled about what rebirth means, I enjoyed the following lines from Barbara's post:

Since rebirth in Buddhism really isn't about the continuation of an individual self, I'd say the answer to the question is "yes." And if you want to know how, stop looking for "extraordinary evidence" and educate yourself as to what Buddhism actually teaches about rebirth. To me, looking for a one-to-one ratio of reborn individuals is like assuming there can be only a fixed number of waves on the ocean.

I don't know exactly what rebirth is, nor how (or if) it actually happens, but I find the reductionist efforts of folks like Stephen Batchelor to "rid Buddhism" of such concepts tedious at best. Life is still full of mystery, even if we are able to "explain" more now than our ancestors could.

Your thoughts?

*I took the photo above at our Occupy MN site this afternoon.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


I've sometimes wondered if a pregnant ghost has come to haunt my body, it's bony shoulders poking at mine, as it's fat stomach presses hard against my own. Every autumn, as the sun's rays slowly fade away earlier and earlier by the day, that acute haunting returns. An old friend - or enemy - depending upon my mindset in the moment, sometimes I call it "loneliness," but that's just an easy label, one that serves a purpose, but really doesn't hit the mark fully.

The well known Buddhist author and teacher Pema Chodron writes: "Usually we regard loneliness as an enemy. Heartache is not something we choose to invite in. It's restless and pregnant and hot with the desire to escape and find something or someone to keep us company."

I was walking around the plaza where our OccupyMN group is located yesterday, feeling just that. That there were plenty of people around didn't matter. That I had had a few good conversations already didn't matter. That I had felt great most of the previous day or so didn't really matter.

A cold wind swirled, and a few errant squirrels scampered across the bricked ground, scared by the movement of too many feet. I watched an argument about food between a half a dozen fellow "occupiers" slowly descend into agreement. Finally, the two men at the center of the conflict, a younger African-American man and an older white man, hugged. It way touching. I've witnessed scenes like this again and again over the past three and half weeks, something the myriad of armchair critics have no idea about, or dismiss as mere "camaraderie."

Still, that restless ghost thumped away within me. Nothing unbearable, and something certainly spurred on by the change in seasons, but definitely not a mere "psychological issue" like seasonal affect disorder. That might be there as well, but I have felt this other "thing" in all sorts of places, under all sorts of conditions, even during and after love-making.

Today, what comes to mind is this: "We fail to trust our hauntings." Fail to trust that this, too, is our life - and yet, it does not define us, does not need to be fought off madly or given into desperately.

The story of Buddha's enlightenment is riddled with ghosts. Various hauntings that come to test him as he sits through the night. Mara is said to be the bringer of these, an almost Satan-like being that continually presses in on Buddha until he doesn't flinch anymore in any direction.

I still flinch a fair amount. I can imagine many of you do as well. That flinching goes beyond any individual "you" or "I."

Just as liberation goes beyond any individual "you" or "I."

What is haunting?

Just this breath, flowing in and back out.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Social Dukkha - Addressing Suffering on a Global Scale

Working with people from all over the world, whose ideas and ways of living are often very different from my own, has definitely helped to jar the sense of self I have.

In addition, the discussions I have had with these same learners in my classes have shown me as much as anything how constructed our views of the “good life” or “proper life” are.

Here’s a simple example of that from a recent class:

A woman originally from Somalia is pregnant, which sparked a discussion about family size and also happiness. She was asked by another learner how many children she would like to have. I believe she said “maybe four” although I may be misremembering that number.

Another woman, a very joyful Ethiopian woman in her fifties, asked, “Why not more?” She went on to talk about her eight children, how she loves big families, and would have more children if she could. Recently, her son graduated from college, the first degree in her family, I believe, and she’s been walking around beaming about his accomplishment, telling anyone who will listen about it.

A few other learners, including ethnic Karen from Burma, gasped upon hearing the desire for very large families. One said something to the effect of “three is enough, thank you very much.” There were other expressions from this group about the hard work and difficulties large families create for mothers. This brought us to economic issues in the U.S. and a short conversation about how expensive it is in the U.S. to have a lot of children. But the woman from Ethiopia didn’t stand down – she still felt that there was more joy in a bigger family.

I have had other learners in the past, from other nations, express very similar views. Yet, even within groups, as should be expected, there is a fair amount of difference of opinion about this question. However, despite wide differences of opinion within any group, it can be said that the culture and social structures of a given society have an influence on how people think and act in the world. Because of this, I believe there has been a failure on the part of many in the covert western Buddhist world to see beyond individual practice, and individual “enlightenment,” as a way to address the suffering of the world.

Dukkha is the Pali term which is usually translated as suffering. It is often viewed as the sense of dissatisfaction or disease a person feels with the world as it is presenting itself in one’s life now. Of dukkha, Buddha said that all of us experience it in our lives – many of us so much so that we are consumed by it.

Yet, as Buddha himself experienced, there are ways to be liberated from it. In terms of Buddhism, these ways are expressed as The Eightfold Path. (Other spiritual traditions have other methods which I would argue also can be gateways to liberation, but discussing those would lead us off track today.)

Returning to the classroom discussion above, the Ethiopian woman seems have pinned at least some of her happiness in life on having a large family. Although I don’t know for certain, it seems that larger families are more common in Ethiopia than they are here in the U.S. When you think of the droughts, famines, wars, and other difficulties that have plagued Ethiopia over at least the past century, it’s very understandable that an emphasis on procreation might be promoted not only in individual families, but much more broadly, as a social or cultural value.

Since she has a larger family, the woman in my class might be viewed in a positive way by others in her cultural group, and she might internally view herself more positively because she has manifested what has value within the larger group.

Of course, many individual factors play into this as well. Her family seems to work together well. Her children are doing well academically, and unlike other learners I have had in the past, she doesn’t come to class with a heavy burden of problems her children are having at home, or at school, or elsewhere. So, it’s very much possible that her emphasis on “big families” is as much, if not more, tied to her personal experience than to cultural or social values or constructs.

Yet I think it’s foolish of us, especially if we believe in the view that there is no solid, fixed self or “I,” to place all our eggs in the individual basket. Any one person’s suffering or joy is a product of a complex uprising of causes and conditions, some of which one might be personally responsible for, but which also include others that are much bigger than any one person.

No one person, no matter how powerful, is responsible for bringing about war, for example. Or environmental destruction, or patterns of patriarchy, or racism, or sexism, heterosexism, or any other number of social ills that infiltrate and effect our lives on a daily basis.

In his excellent book The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory, David Loy spends a lot of time examining these kinds of larger patterns. Using the term “social dukkha,” he argues that Buddhist teachings — the precepts, emptiness, compassion and others — can be applied to broader social issues as a means of potentially reducing suffering on a larger scale.

Now, Loy certainly isn’t the first to say any of this, nor is he a lone wolf crying in the wilderness. But it strikes me that until there is a critical mass of us speaking and acting in ways that might address these larger scale issues, no amount of individual effort on spiritual practice will be enough to greatly reduce suffering in the world.

Maybe if all of us all took up meditation practice and stuck with the practice diligently, there would be some massive change. But I still wonder, even then, if oppressive social structures would simply fall away, or if, in spite of our efforts, we’d still be facing the problems these structures create.

I have a hard time believing that racism, sexism, and heterosexism would simply vanish as a result of all of us individually — or even as collectives of individuals — doing meditation practice. This is not at all to denigrate meditation – I love it – but to suggest that given where we are at on a global scale today, it seems additional, more collective approaches to the dharma are being called for.

*Note: I wrote this last year for the Life as a Human webzine, but given the influx of grassroots, social movements that have sprung up over the past year (all over the world it seems), I thought this article was worth another look.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Squrriel Friends

About a week ago, I noticed an overturned squirrel in the road, mouth and eyes wide open, but otherwise untouched. Maybe a heart attack victim; I don't know.

Yesterday, as I came upon the body while on my bicycle, I found another squirrel pausing, checking out the scene. The living squirrel seemed curious, interested in what was there, without really any extra jumpiness or fear. Just observing fully. For a moment, life and death came together, not separate at all. The living squirrel lifting its leg over the dead squirrel's body as I approached. And then it happened: the living squirrel ran, spooked by the oncoming, spinning bicycle wheel - and the giant figure sitting on top of it.

Seems to me this is how most of us handle life and death. We are curious and interested at times, but too often, something giant and/or spinning scares us away from our true lives.

How to see through the mirage? Time to go sit with that.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Occupy Genjokoan

I was meditating on the plaza where our Occupy protest is going on today, sitting next to the sign you see above. Next to me also sat the book in the photo, a fairly well known academic commentary on Zen Master Dogen. There was a cool breeze, and the air was fairly damp as I sat, watching my breath, and taking in all the various sounds of the folks around me.

Suddenly, I hear the following:

"To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe."

I opened my eyes and saw a guy about my age standing in front of my sign. He said "What's the next line?"

And together we came up with the next line of "Genjokoan" about dropping off body and mind.

We bowed at each other. He said "I saw your book about Dogen sitting there and then read your sign."

It turns out he had been attending services at one of the other local Zen centers, which is where he had learned the Dogen quote from.

We talked a bit more, and then he left to get something to eat. As he walked away, I thought "What a small world it is to have someone walk up to you and start quoting Dogen."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Fearless and Fragile in Life and Death

In an old issue of Shambhala Sun I stumbled upon, Zen teacher Joan Halifax Roshi is described by one of her students using the two title words for this post: fearless and fragile. Roshi Joan, as she is called, has spent much of her adult life caring for the sick and dying, and teaching others how to do so. What I find so inspiring about her life story is this simple, but profound commitment she made after her grandmother's death years ago. Her grandmother, she said, "normalized death" for her by being a caregiver for dying friends when Halifax was a child. However, the grandmother's own death was a long and lonely process, and Halifax later came to realize that much of her grandmother's "misery had been rooted in her family's fear of death, including (Halifax's) own." And so, at her grandmother's death, Halifax "made the commitment to practice being there for others as they died."

The fragility of life is all around us, available at every moment. We don't need the death of a loved one to be reminded of it, although often this is the only time when we allow ourselves to be reminded. Willfully ignoring the fragility of life is a particularly well developed, commonplace human trait. I've long felt that our society is particularly poor when it comes to the whole issue of death and dying. Many of us lack the support, and courage, to open to what is a natural process and a part of all of us. And, as a result, our relationships with the living, and the dying, suffer greatly.

I still remember the day I came home from a day trip to Red Wing with my ex-girlfriend to find that our beloved family cat, Buzz, had collapsed and was put down by my mother and sister while we were gone. It was a shock to realize that the vague glance I gave him that morning, thinking he looked a little tired, was my goodbye.

How many of us have multiple stories like this about friends, family, pets, co-workers? And by this I mean that the story includes some level of loss beyond the loss of the person or animal - a sense that you weren't really there, or had assumed a continuity about the others' life that turned out to be just a story. It seems to me that fearlessness involves being fully alive and deeply engaged in your relationships as much as possible. And not only human relationships, but with animals, plants, your every surrounding. To be able to be open to what is there without rejecting or manipulating - including your fears and failures.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Yoga and Contentment

The second niyama discussed in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras is santosha or contentment. The thinking is easy. In order to achieve great happiness, learn to be content with what you have and accept what is. Let go of expectations and rest easy in the flow of life. Learn that the state of mind does not depend on any external status or material things. The state of your mind and happiness depends on your perspective and willingness to remain calm with each success and failure...

The easiest way to practice santosha is to find gratitude in your life daily. Each day wake up and count at least 10 things you have to be grateful for. In the same way, seek abundance in your life in all that is around you. The sun in the sky, the green grass, the breeze that wisps across your neck. Make the most out of every situation...

The above is from the current post on the blog Capricious Yogi. I think it's a pretty decent summary and practice offering, and obviously somewhat similar to what I wrote in a recent post about gratitude.

Here is a little more specific focus on the verse from the Yoga Sutra in question.

2.42 From an attitude of contentment (santosha), unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction is obtained.
(santosha anuttamah sukha labhah)

santosha = contentment
anuttamah = unexcelled, extreme, supreme
sukha = pleasure, happiness, comfort, joy, satisfaction
labhah = is acquired, attained, gained

Santosha brings happiness and joy: From an attitude of contentment (santosha), unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction is obtained.

Contentment comes from within: We humans seem to always be seeking satisfaction in the external world and our internal fantasies. Only when we comfortably accept what we currently have will be able to do the practices that lead to the highest realization.

I've noticed lately how often yoga teachers and students seem to lean on the translations "comfort" and "happiness" when discussing santosha. I don't think it's an accident, and I do think it can create limits on how people perceive and enact the teachings.

Simply put, finding comfort and happiness are two of the grand addictions of modern, Western life. And even though it doesn't take a lot to see that what the Yoga Sutras are speaking about isn't the same as pop culture is speaking about, the very words can be Pavlovian triggers for many of us, regardless of how much practice we do.

So, what is contentment really? And how might we fully embody and express it?

To me, contentment is fairly easy when things in my life are not too difficult. But what about in those situations where you're mad as hell, and others are mad as hell at you? Or when you're surrounded by people who are upset, depressed, outraged, or even hateful?

How might you fully embody and express contentment there?

If you're like me, you probably tend to go off kilter in these situations. Either you start to take on the energy and actions of those around you, or you create a wall and stuff anything remotely unsettling down into yourself.

I'll be honest, many of the ancient yoga texts are really weak when it comes to addressing living the teachings within complex, communal situations - like in a bustling city for example. Many of the old yogis were elites who separated themselves from all of that, so it's not a huge surprise.

And neither is it a surprise that I have come up with more questions to sit with. It's a skill I seem to have.

Perhaps contentment comes through being at ease with questions...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Attachment to Meditation Practice

I really enjoyed this post by Andre over at Zen and Back Again. Mostly because it's familiar to me, and is something I've written about on here before.

If Zen is the practice of complete non-abiding, requiring the relinquishment of all attachments, then doesn't it serve to reason that we should let go of Zen too? For as I have found, Zen, namely zazen, can become a form of attachment.

We hear more about this regarding koans, where teachers caution their students against attaching to koans, since they are merely a raft to carry us to the other shore. Like the Buddha's teachings, they are upaya, skillful means.

But we seldom hear that said about zazen; instead, meditation, especially in Soto Zen, is regarded as the holiest of holies.

It almost feels anathema to imply that zazen can turn into a form of attachment, but try skipping 0ne day of meditation and you will soon realize how attached you are to the practice. Shame, guilt, anxiety commonly accompany a missed zazen session of mine.

Yesterday, we started a new group down at the zen center for those who have completed jukai. As one of the facilitators of the group, I introduced myself as "an eclectic practitioner" who is always experimenting. Which isn't to say I can stick with a form - such as zazen - only that I've grown more interested in how form flows in everyday life.

Having spent the last three weeks or so reading a lot about Dogen, as well as practicing with a few of his teachings, I find myself returning to some of the same things Andre is speaking about.

Dogen says that sitting is what a Buddha does. But isn't that making zazen something special by elevating it above all of our other daily activities?

The thing about Dogen's writing is that sometimes it really does seem like seated meditation is his sole focus, while other times he uses the word "Zazen" as an action in each moment. Some Soto teachers seem to lean in one direction, emphasizing seated meditation nearly all the time. While others seem to lean in the other direction, saying that Dogen applies zazen to all activities. I'm more inclined towards the latter, but sometimes it feels like a gloss over, an apology for a founding teacher that simply might have gotten too focused on seated meditation.

It's important to note the the openness to, and deep interest in, lay practitioners Dogen had during the middle of his teaching life greatly waned as he got older. At the same time, he maintained connections with at least a couple of lay disciples until the end, spending his last days in the home of one of them in Kyoto. Given the frequent social/political upheaval that marked 13th century Japan, I can imagine there was always a tension for him between upholding the practice of householders, and feeling the need to emphasize breaking away from it all and practicing in seclusion with a small group of dedicated others.

When I go back to Andre's consideration of attachment to practice, I find myself returning to the value of just paying attention. Noticing what kind of stories are arising. For example, sometimes that desire I have "to experiment" has a bit of extra added to it. Like wanting to do something novel, instead of "the same old thing." And sometimes I'm just plain giving in to laziness.

So, I have to stay vigilant around these kinds of questions, lest they become intellectual ways to trick myself, or justify opting out.

And yet, I have always felt a crunchy rub around Dogen's teachings about "zazen," and how they have come to be practiced today. Because just doing seated meditation and some ritual bows and chants doesn't constitute living the spiritual life.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Civic Engagement as Spiritual Practice

I got a bit of a dressing down early this afternoon. A group of folks were discussing the current tent ban for the plaza we are holding Occupy MN on. At one point, a woman said something about making a large banner claiming the County Commissioners were "freezing" out the protesters. I didn't like the idea. It felt unnecessary. Just this morning, the protests in Denver were cleared out because of tents, and I figured it would be better to put in a sustained, good faith effort with public officials before getting provocative.

It's important to mention here that this sign was in conjunction with a planned tent raising to happen tomorrow afternoon. All of which feels rushed, given that we've only been doing this for a week here in Minnesota. I'm all for civil disobedience, but intelligently and strategically done civil disobedience.

Anyway, in response to the woman's suggestion, I made a comment about being specific in who you're targeting. Apparently, the person I mentioned wasn't to correct target, and this woman went off on me, saying she'd worked for the county for sixteen years and "knew exactly how the system works" and on and on.

I felt anger rise within me, but then also sensed a bit of shame twisted in that anger. Because she was right about the specifics. I had to do a lot of deep breathing, and dropping off of my opinion as she yelled at me. It was a humbling experience because I am often the one who gets the details correct in these kinds of situations. Furthermore, because I'm often the one with the details, I'm used to being a position where I get to spread them, to basically be "a teacher." So, this whole situation was a big, internal flip over for me.

As she started to run out of steam, I broke in and said "Thank you for the information. But you know, this is a good way to drive people out of here."

A few of the others agreed with me, and she looked away saying, sarcastically, "Some people don't like to get dressed down."

And one of the other people standing there said "No. We need to work on all this together. Not everyone will know it all. We need to teach each other."

He then looked at me and said "I could feel the tension there."

I said "Yeah, I really didn't want to listen to her after how she said that."

He shook his head. "See. That's what I thought. This isn't how we build this thing."

Later, I thought to myself She'd rather be right than make a relationship.

And I reflected on a few times I had chosen that route, blasting "the truth" and loosing an opportunity to connect in the process.

This is one of the blessings of active civil engagement with a diverse group of people. You get to practice letting go of everything, even the truth. And when you don't let go, there will probably be someone ready to "help" you - perhaps rudely and without warning.

I bow to everyone in that conversation. Thank you for your wisdom.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Another Online Buddhist Temple

I found the following on the Lotus in the Mud blog. Although they apparently have never heard of Treeleaf, this is still really interesting - especially the bilingual aspect.

Keisuke Matsumoto, a Buddhist priest, is the mastermind behind Japan’s first online Buddhist temple called Higanji Temple.

If you’re looking for a building with Buddhist alters in Tokyo, you won’t find it at Higanji’s Temple’s Web site.

The temple is connected to today’s world and social media sites such as Twitter, YouTube and FaceBook.

“Our temple’s online presence in English and Japanese offers something for everyone regardless of their religious beliefs, background or age,” said 32-year-old Matsumoto. “This is the first Buddhist site that I know of that offers something for people to weigh in their mind or get spiritual help online.”

The temple has a counseling service in which Buddhists priests advise people on ways to solve their problems or listen to them. He says it is important for Buddhist priests to find the cause of people’s problems and help work out a solution for them.

At any time of the day, people can click on the temple’s site.

If you look at the website, it's a bit sparse at this point. Perhaps the Japanese version has much more content.

I continue to believe the internet will play an increasing role in our spiritual lives, and as such, it's vital that we remain mindful of what we are doing online. It's become another dualism - online vs. "meatspace." And those of us who spend a significant amount of time in both are especially in need of facing that dualism head on.

If you have a moment, go check out the blog posts on Keisuke Matsumoto's site. They offer a small window into the life of a young Buddhist priest.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Gratitude Solves All Problems"

Over the past year, I have been collecting the blogs of people living "alternative" forms of career. Or, you might say, doing lives in a form different from the wage an hour, 9-5 setting. One thing I've noticed amongst nearly everyone writing these blogs is a passion for life that bleeds through their words. Even when they're writing about something miserable, about some form of suffering, there's still an energy quality present that I find myself attracted to. An underlying joy or ease perhaps? I haven't quite pinned it down, and don't think "it" ever will.

One of the blogs I follow is called "Zen Habits." It's author, Leo Babauta, is clearly influenced by Buddhism, although I don't know whether he actually practices or not. This is what he says his writing is about:

"Zen Habits is about finding simplicity in the daily chaos of our lives. It’s about clearing the clutter so we can focus on what’s important, create something amazing, find happiness."

Now, much can be said about what might be called the "simplicity movement." I know Katie over at Kloncke once made some astute criticisms about how simplicity advocates tend to speak to middle and upper class folks, and often fail to comment on forms of systemic injustice that often stand in the way of poor and working class people benefiting. Another way to look at it is that it's often an individualist or nuclear family centric approach.

So, wit that said, I like Leo's blog because while it does appeal to that middle class, consumerist crowd in need of "downsizing" their attachments to stuff and other clutter, it's not limited to that. Some of the articles could easily be used by someone who is totally broke and trying to figure out how to financially support themselves in a more beneficial manner. And some of the posts are simply redirecting our attention, drawing from Buddhist and other spiritual teachings.

Anyway, I don't want to just plug Leo's blog here, but to bring up what he wrote in a recent post.

Gratitude solves all problems. I am grateful for having this friend, or stranger, in my life, and I’m grateful for the chance to even be here, and for the incredible life I have.

Sounds really simple, doesn't it? Also might sound like nonsense to the practical mind. And it's true, "problems" in the relative sense don't get "solved" by simply being grateful. I've spent large chunks of time down at our Occupy Wall Street offshoot in Minneapolis this past week precisely because there are complicated social issues that need to be approached in a radically different manner.

However, go back to that first sentence. "Gratitude solves all problems." I think this is a perfect way to describe the tapping into one's buddhanature. The universal energy flowing through everything all the time. That "place" where it is all ok right now.

Gratitude breaks through suffering. I've felt that over and over again in my own life. May you have as well. And for all of our ability to produce endlessly "profound" spiritual teachings as a species, it so often does come back to something simple that we can rely on. Trust in. While working to address all the complications standing before us.

So, bows to Leo for the reminder. May you all experience gratitude today.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Zen Practice in Action

The word brought up visions of invasion, people marching in to take over. I also saw a consciousness of us holding down specific territories (turfing) that seems to persist as the way to conquer. Then I wondered about the consumption of our attention and time being occupied leaving little energy for us to find ways to feed and house each other. How are we going to survive the mess we are all in?

The paragraph above is from a post by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel's blog, an excellent blog worth taking a closer look at by the way. I feel she brings up some great points about the choice of the word "occupy," which also has triggered many indigenous activists and their allies as well, given the legacy of the past half millennium.

Having spent significant time now this weekend either at our "Occupy" protest in Minneapolis, or discussing it with people in other places I've been at, I believe there is both the possibility to transcend that word, and also to be hindered by it. While it's "just a word," it's also a powerful reminder, really, of how the entire continent of North America was "settled." How our commerce, governments, and other social structures were shaped.

Yesterday afternoon, I started seeing bright yellow signs with the words "Occupy MN (Minnesota)" on them. They were peppered amongst those on the marches through downtown, and were handed out to people in the plaza. I had this moment of deep aversion upon first seeing them. Followed by a sense that the word itself might perhaps become a point of public "practice" - to use Zen talk - that in coming together under what might be considered old paradigm languaging, perhaps - if this lasts long enough, that language could serve as a pivot point to a new approach and way of going forth. Already, people are writing articles and making videos speaking about the interconnected web of diverse interests present in these gatherings, and how the lack of centralized power, and a single controlled narrative is a strength. Something I agree with, and also recognize as being befuddling to anyone who is still wedded to the current mainstream.

Furthermore, I can feel my Zen and yoga practices getting tested. In every conversation, and non-conversation. In how I write. In what I choose to do, and not do. Today, I woke up with a head cold and decided to mostly rest. And yet I felt the tug to be "down there" - at the protests - and recognized some old patterns behind that tug, such as the need to "prove myself," and to "sacrifice my health and well-being" for "the good cause."

And it wasn't like I did nothing in relation to the movement unfolding before us all. I spoke to several folks at my Zen center about what's going on, partly prompted by the fact that someone saw me being briefly interviewed on local TV about the protests. I'm writing this post now, and filled my Facebook page with articles and photos. And I even debated a friend online who is a staunch Democrat and thinks the whole Occupy Wall Street "thing" is basically a "naive," "muddled" outcry.

Even looking at that list, none of it was required. I didn't "need" to do any of it. It mostly just happened organically, starting with the morning conversations and flowing into the rest of the day.

Odds are that this burst of action/activist energy I'm experiencing will ebb and flow just like the movement, and all movements do. Learning to remain open to and riding this is something I don't recall experiencing when I did social action work in the past. (This blog, for example, will not become "an Occupy movement" blog - which is probably a huge relief to many regular readers :) And yet, I can feel how all the writing and thinking I've done on this blog over the past few years in relation to spiritual practice and social action are informing how I am right now, in this moment.

In other words, it's palpable all the practice that's been done. It helps me see the underlying potential of a grassroots social movement without attaching too much (I won't lie- I'm not completely unattached) to any outcome.

May you all be well.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Occupy Minnesota: Zen Style

The Wall Street Occupation has landed in Minnesota. I spent the past six hours in downtown Minneapolis, amongst a crowd of several hundred that slowly swelled as the afternoon went on. It was quite an interesting experience, and I plan on heading back tomorrow afternoon as well.

After being down there a few hours, I came upon a man sitting zazen in the grass. I sat down and joined him for about 20 minutes, sending out lovingkindness verses to everyone in the plaza. Calm energy seemed to rise within me during the meditation, and I carried that back into the crowd, having several conversations with people over the next few hours. At one point, I came upon three people with extremely different viewpoints debating. Listening to a guy who was very pro-free markets, and essentially came down to the protest to "talk" with folks because he didn't "get it" why we were there, I recognized strong aversion energy balling up in my chest. I decided it was an opportunity to sit again, so I did, watching the ball of energy morph and move around before dissipating. There was a strong desire to join the conversation at times, and to debate this guy who's views I really disagreed with. But as I had plenty of other opportunities to engage during the day, this one was all about staying quiet, and not being reactive.

In the middle of the afternoon, someone appeared with some markers and other sign making material. As I sat thinking of what to write, I decided to "out" myself as a Zen practitioner.

My sign read "Zen Warrior for Peace and Justice. Liberate the Economy; liberate each other."

It got a fair amount of attention, including a newscaster from one of our local TV stations. I haven't found any of the footage, so I might have gotten cut, but I did get interviewed.

What was extremely pleasing to witness was how numerous people went out of their way to thank the police and law enforcement officers around. Even though I have been deeply ambivalent about the role of law enforcement officials in protests, the acts of simple recognition and kindness were contagious - as I left the plaza this evening, I found myself telling several sheriff department officers to have a good night.

And really, that's how most of the day was - peaceful. People gave strong voice to their concerns and wishes for the country and the world, but the energy was positive, healthy, and occasionally bold and colorful.

Like the guy in this photo, whose box says "Emergency Clown Nose."

I have no idea what the future will bring for this movement - either here, or across the nation. I wish for it to be the start of some great transformation, but know that there's no way to know if that's possible at this time. Regardless, may the peaceful and bold energy I experienced today go out into the world, and keep coming back to us in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.

Minnesota made me proud today. We have entered the movement. It's about time.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

On Those "Meaningless" Zen Sex Scandals

"Genpo Roshi is quite active here in The Netherlands. But his influenced has waned considerably lately. It's hard to tell if that's just because of the very highly publicized and largely meaningless sex scandal or because people realized what a joke the whole Big Mind® thing was.

The above comments are from Zen teacher Brad Warner's current post on Zen in Europe. For anyone who hasn't read Brad's writing before, his persona is frequently smart ass and irreverent. Furthermore, he loves to take shots at Dennis Merzel(Genpo), to the point where it's almost become a cliche.

Anyway, what struck me in the above comment is the decidedly cavalier attitude Warner takes in regards to the "sex scandal" that rocked Genpo's sangha several months ago. This is not a new view from Brad, nor is it an uncommon view around the convert Zen world. In response to various posts I have written about the scandal that happened in my own sangha, as well as what happened with Genpo and other Zen teachers in recent years, I have received many comments suggesting that "it's no big deal" and/or that the grievances are "all in the students' head, completely blown out of proportion."

This morning, as I reflect on all that I've experienced, and also what I have read about sex scandals in spiritual communities (which are almost always about much more than sex, I find myself thinking about how our attitudes about sex really explode the holy masks so many of us love to parade around in.

There are endless streams of Buddhist writing about compassion, and yet when it comes to suffering borne at least in part from sexual relations, how often does that compassion get tossed under the "emptiness" bus?

Or on the other side of the coin, how often do we resort to fast and easy moral judgments about those involved, be they teachers or students?

In other words, how often do we simply choose a relative or absolute shortcut, essentially out a desire to avoid the karmic mess before us?

For every cavalier statement like Warner's, there are as many or more final and total condemnations of teachers like Genpo, or of the "infantile" students that held their former teachers on a pedestal.

Perhaps it's not terribly surprising, but it is sort of ironic that a lot of Buddhists seem entirely unable to demonstrate compassion when it comes to their fellow dharma brothers and sisters.

And I believe that when it comes to something with such intensity as a sex scandal, which tends to unravel a knot of power abuse along with it, one of the main reasons that so many of us fail to embody compassion is that we can't figure out what compassion truly is in such a situation.

On the one hand, there's a need to deal with the facts of the relative world. A need for some accountability and responsibility taken.

On the other hand, there's the emptiness of the situation, that in an absolute sense, what happened was "no big deal" or that, anyway, "it's ok as it is."

If you think about it, this struggle between addressing the absolute and relative plays out in every moment of our lives. However, the power of sexuality seems to not only highlight the two poles, but effectively blasts all but the most seasoned of practitioners into one camp or the other. If I consider my own experience, it's been filled with a lot of swinging between the two ends, and more recently attempting to find some middle ground in what I say, write, and think.

Nagarjuna's tetralemma comes up for me in all of this. It's essentially a warning to not get attached to any of these four views:

X (affirmation)
non-X (negation)
X and non-X (both)
neither X nor non-X (neither)

When I have deliberately worked with this, examining "answers" or "conclusions" about something, at some point, I have found myself empty handed. Without anything to hold onto. It's startling, so much so that I've noticed getting stuck to being startled. To the point of paralysis.

Yet it seems to me that this is the pivot point, the opportunity to truly embody compassion and liberate suffering. However, ever desiring some solid ground, some fixed right or wrong, we tend to miss the opportunity time and time again.

I'll leave you with this poem from Zen master Ikkyu, no stranger to sex and sex scandals, to ponder.

From the world of passions,
returning to the world of passions.
There is a moment’s pause --
if it rains, let it rain,
If the wind blows let it blow.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Are Bearing Witness Retreats Sugar for the Privileged Practitioner?

Over at one of her blogs, Buddhist blogger Nella Lou writes:

There’s a lot of these witnessing retreats going on where the bourgeoisie pay substantial amounts to be with suffering, whether that be located on the homeless streets, at Auschwitz, in Rwanda or elsewhere.

This to me turns the extraordinary suffering of people into a circus. The spectacle of suffering.

The purpose seems to be to assuage some kind of privileged guilt. You can’t buy that. Give your money to a refugee organization and your time to a literacy campaign.

I know people who have gone on these kind of retreats. Mostly Buddhist folks who have gone with Bernie Glassman to meditate at Auschwitz.

Glassman, founder of the Zen Peacemakers, has done some powerful, innovative work weaving together Buddhist teachings and social engagement (in my opinion). He seems to be someone willing to try a lot of different approaches out, to take risks, and let go of whatever doesn't work. And he's hilarious to boot.

However, I can also see Nella Lou's point about things like the Auschwitz retreats, although I do wonder if some of this is largely context dependent. For example, if someone dedicates their life to service and social action, and attends one of these retreats as one step along a larger life path, then I'd say there's no problem. Furthermore, there's a particular attraction to Jewish Buddhist practitioners to the Auschwitz retreat specifically, which often has both a personal healing element, as well as a collective recollection of, and reclamation of, past injustices to it. I don't know if Bernie and the others who started that particular retreat have also been concerned about the re-emergence of Nazi groups in Germany and eastern Europe during the past few decades, but that's something which comes up for me in connection to the Auschwitz retreat.

On the other hand, I wonder how often it's the case that at least some of the attendees of these kinds of retreats are mostly there for themselves, for some experience to take back home with them. Or how many of these folks are also actively involved in their communities.

So, I don't know. What do you think about all of this? I guess another question might be around the idea of "bearing witness" and why people feel compelled to go half way across the world to do so. Especially when suffering is all around us.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

What is Productivity? Why Do So Many of Us "Need" to Be Productive?

A political post I made yesterday on Facebook suddenly, and kind of surprisingly to me, exploded into a debate between several friends that continues a day later. The specifics of the debate aren't terribly interesting, however a short exchange between my friend John and I seemed quite worthy of posting.

John: Our society seems to place a fundamental value on "productive" citizens. I think thorough internalization of that value is nearly universal.

Nathan: That's a totally interesting point. And one that people really ought to reflect on. What's productive mean? Is it our main mission in life?

The conversation rolled on from there into other issues, but I remain fascinated by this issue of productivity. Probably because it ties in with a lot of the other questions I've been having as repeat visitors over the past few years.

When I hear people speak about a strong need to be productive, I often wonder what's motivating it. Sometimes, I get the sense that they're trying to produce or achieve something in the world to make up for a poor sense of self esteem. If only I get that promotion or finish that project, then maybe I won't feel like such a loser. In other words, they basically think "I am only valuable in the world if I am doing X, Y, or Z."

Other times, it's fairly clear that productivity is tied to survival. The person is always running around, getting things done, because if they don't, they think the boss will fire them, or their children won't get fed and clothed, or a whole host of other things. Some of the fear driving this behavior is very real and accurate. However, odds are, some of the things they're "getting done to survive" aren't really needed.

I often wonder this: How much of our "need" to be productive is driven by external pressures that are more about making someone else rich and/or powerful, than about fulfilling some internal human desire?

If we structured our society differently, so that basic needs weren't an issue the way they are now, how might productivity look different? Would we even be talking about such a thing?

Are you driven by a need to be "productive"? If so, what is behind that drive?