Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Send Yoga, Guns, and Money

You ever seen anyone with a pistol come into your yoga class? Me neither. With that said, I'd like to recommend that folks go over to the blog Think Body Electric and read Carol's current post, which takes up the topic among other things. For our purposes here, though, I actually want to address a comment Carol made to another reader on her post, which I believe offers some interesting nuggets to chew on.

I take it as a given that any spiritual or religious practice is going to be integrated with the culture that surrounds it in one way or another. If it didn't, it wouldn't be meaningful to anyone.

Therefore, it's not that yoga "needs to be associated with cultural liberalism" - the fact is that, historically, it has been (e.g., all Eastern spiritual practices became much more popular in the US after the Beatles went to study TM in India in the 1960s). During the 2000s, it's become more commercialized and mainstream, and more associated with the cultural nexus represented by women's magazines (self-care, self-help, fitness, beauty, etc.). Now, I see another shift happening, with yoga starting to become more associated with the cultural right (used to train the military, promote Ayn Rand, etc.). All that is simply empirical observation.

When it comes to values, mine are that I'd like to see yoga (and meditation) play a progressive role in our culture. That doesn't mean rehashing the existing conservative/liberal, right/left divide, which is destructive and dead-end. We need something new.

That said, because I care about social equity, civil rights, environmental protection, etc., that put me very much on the left-of-center side of the spectrum. But I see the Occupy movement as the start of something new. Ideally, I'd like yoga to have something positive to contribute to that. I think that what Michael Stone is saying in that regard is great. I'd like to see more in that vein.

When I first read this, I thought of convert American Buddhism. Because debates about the political orientation of practitioners have been widespread in recent years. Like what Carol is pointing to above with yoga, there has also been an increasing number of folks who claim both Buddhism and more conservative political viewpoints. And with that, much discussion has come as to what role, if any, social and political issues have in the practice.

In her post, Carol makes reference to both Buddhists and yoga practitioners who also are gun owners. And then goes on to address the issue of gun ownership specifically for self-defense purposes, something she - and I, for the record - am not enamored with. In fact, I was in a discussion yesterday with a member of our local Occupy group who once was a member of the Tea Party, in large part because of second amendment rights. When I mentioned the fact that pro conceal carry laws have greatly expanded over the past two decades, he basically shrugged, saying he felt the need to continue fighting for his rights.

While I personally would love to be in a world without guns all together, I also don't think that mere gun ownership is an issue in and of itself. Furthermore, it's vitally important that both convert American Buddhism and American yoga be open and accessible to anyone, regardless of their political views.

However, what concerns me - and perhaps is the main underlying issue for Carol as well - is the sense that the self-defense arguments of certain gun enthusiasts tend to run counter to the non-violent aim of both Buddhism and yoga. Note that I said aim, as in non-violent intentions, and also making whatever effort you can towards manifesting non-violence in your actions, knowing that we all fall short.

I'm actually most interested in a community, or collective standpoint, and am less interested in focusing on the common self-defense narrative of a single incident where someone successfully (or unsuccessfully) defends themselves during a crime.

Living in communities where anyone, potentially, could be packing heat increases the general anxiety and fear of the entire community. Not only do you have to be concerned about people who have unlawfully acquired guns, but also with those who have them legally, and might be responding to crime with their weapons. This is probably especially true in densely populated, urban areas, where people are more anonymous, and where crime is more of an everyday occurrence.

Consider these words from Thich Nhat Hanh:

The philosophy of "an eye for an eye," only creates more suffering and bloodshed and more enemies. One of the greatest casualties we may suffer results from this wrong thinking and action. Whole societies are living constantly in fear with their nerves being attacked day and night. Such a state of confusion, fear and anxiety is extremely dangerous. It can bring about another world war, this time extremely destructive in the worst possible way.

Part of the problem I have always had with second amendment enthusiasts who aren't hunters (hunting is a different discussion in my opinion), is that their arguments tend to focus on individuals defending themselves against individuals. Occasionally, someone will also bring up being able to defend "ourselves" against a rogue military or government, but mostly, it's about protection from individually targeted crime. Which isn't the whole picture.

What's the overall impact of more guns on our communities? On each of us? On the environment? Can a society that upholds gun ownership as a collective response to potential violence also be aiming in the direction of overall non-violence?

Although I tend to support any efforts to reduce the number of guns in circulation, the larger issue is really one of approaching the violent seeds each of us carry within ourselves, and which also come together collectively in our communities and nations. Whether someone in my yoga studio or Zen sangha owns a gun is less important to me than how they handle violence in their lives. At the same time, it's difficult for me to forget the periods of history when large groups of Buddhists twisted elements of Buddha's teachings to support warfare and violent oppression. Given the collective energy here in the United States, it's possible something similar could happen in the future.

I'd like to leave you all with the plea from the end of the Thich Nhat Hanh essay quoted above. However each of us move forward, it seems pertinent.

Spiritual leaders in this country need to be invited to raise their voice strongly and speak up for peaceful solutions to the world problems and bring about the awareness of the teaching of compassion and non-violence to the American nation and the people.

By understanding the nature and cause of the suffering of humanity, we will then know the right method to begin to heal the great problems on this planet.

* A nod to the late musician Warren Zevon for inspiring the title of this post.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Thought on Trust in Mind

I pulled out Zen Master Seng Ts'an's dharma poem "Trust in Mind" (Xinxinming) again. Here's a line that caught me:

"If you wish to see the truth,
then hold no opinions for or against anything."

"Trust in Mind" (Xinxinming), Zen Master Seng Ts'an

Take a look at those first words - "If you wish to see the truth." How often do you truly wish to see the truth? And how often do you do anything in your power to turn away from it?

This line seems to point at the choice that's required of each of us in every moment to want to see the truth. We have to aim ourselves in the right direction - or, more accurately, allow ourselves to be aimed in the right direction by life itself. If we're too busy being obstructionists, propping up sham arguments about ourselves and others, there's no room for the truth to seep in.

In the second part of the line, the word "hold" stands out. Recently, I was in a conversation about politics, and felt myself holding tightly to my particular opinion. I noticed how that tightness manifested in my shoulders and lower back, and how the guy I was talking with seemed to be mirroring me - tightening around his own opinion. So, I decided to pull back, and let go of the point I was trying to make. We continued to talk, and I fairly quickly experienced an uncoiling of that tightness as breath calmed, and my need to be right diminished.

How to treat all opinions like this? Let them be birds, floating across the mind's landscape: accessible, able to be conveyed, but also free to pass on through at any time.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Genpo Merzel and Moralistic Gnashing

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post in response to the myriad of ways in which others were writing about Big Mind Zen teacher Genpo Merzel. One of the issues I wanted to address was the moralistic blasting Genpo was receiving from Buddhists, particularly those who deemed him in various ways "irredeemable," as if he were a Catholic priest being punished under Catholic doctrine. Buddhist ethics has nothing to do with fixed, finalized narratives about good and evil. And Buddha never taught about such a thing as "irredeemable" persons; in fact, he brought people into the fold that had been firmly rejected under the moral codes of the day, precisely because he saw through the story of such codes.

So, when I received the following comment on the old Genpo post from a reader named Jamie, I had to smile:

I've been on the path since 1978, I'm not a "priest" of any sort, but would like to offer one observation. As Hsin Hsin Ming said in his discourses in The Book of Nothing - Discrimination is the gate to hell. As far as I can tell, there is one discrimination worth making, am I acting consciously or not? If yes, there is no blame, and indeed no karma. If my actions cause others suffering, then it will be their teaching. If no, then I am in hell, because nothing good can come of it. Genpo seems to have acted in a way he regrets. I would ask him, is it because you were acting unconsciously? Or because others have judged you immoral? There is nothing moral or immoral in concsiousness, or conscious actions. The addition of morality in the evaluation of someone's actions comes from interpretations of Buddha's teachings, I can't find it anywhere in his teachings. I do find a lot of teaching on how morality is a set of fixed ideas which have nothing to do with consciousness, in this moment. It has to do with ideas carried constantly over from the past. In short, to act consciously is to act rightly. To act unconsciously is to act in darkness. If Genpo is apologising and feels guilty, then I think he should disrobe as a teacher, not because sleeping with students is immoral, but because he doesn't understand how to be awake and act consciously, so how can he teach others? If one looks cursorily at one of the greatest teachers in the last century, Trungpa, and his actions with his students, one cannot go on and on about morality. He made a huge joke of it, as indeed many other great teachers have done. But no one ever deals with that, it simply is pushed under the rug, while the "priests" talk about morality. So, Genpo, my suggestion is to wake up and act consciously, and if you are consciously sleeping with students then it is right action, but then there will be no question of considering others' opinions, or even suffering. You have a family, perhaps you should ask yourself, am I conscious with these people, awake, completely in the moment? Or behaving according to society's expectactions of what a "family man" is? When Buddha left his wife and child to meditate before his enlightenment, was he behaving as a good family man?

There's obviously a lot to unpack here, much more than I plan to do.

First off, I believe that the Buddha offered the precepts - our ethical teachings - as a method of liberation from the heavy, often life sucking moral codes that exist in every society. Of particular importance is the way in which they are imbedded in overall Buddhist teachings, and the ways in which any given student might work with them. Not misusing sexuality - the third precept - isn't a fixed imperative that must be followed; it's like reed through which we can blow our actions through, until eventually, even the reed itself disappears and there's simply continuous, awakened activity.

Using Jamie's language above, when people are acting in deeply unconscious ways, they don't even think about the precepts. They can't hear the music of the dharma. Others, who are hovering on the edge of conscious living, lift up one of those reeds and attempt to blow their actions through it. They hear the dharma off to the distance and attempt to seduce it into coming home by deliberately employing precepts. And then there are those who are demonstrating awakened action. They have recognized that the music of the dharma is everywhere, and they simply tune into it and act.

This is a much different view of things than what many of us are used to. And it makes assessments of situations like Zen teacher scandals more challenging. I can stand behind calls for someone like Genpo to stop teaching, but at the same time, I can't stand behind totalized rejections of the man himself.

Secondly, there's a danger to treating things simply as a cosmic joke, which Trungpa did seem to do a fair amount. Even if there's truth to such a stance, it can easily become an excuse for saying or doing any old thing under the sun, including things that trigger a hell of a lot of suffering.

There's plenty more I could say here, but I will stop for now. Your thoughts?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Loneliness During the Holidays

This time of year tends to be challenging for me. I would guess the same is true for many others out there. And what's interesting to me is that although the level of activity with others is often ramped up, so, too, can the feelings of loneliness. Seems like a contradiction, doesn't it? Maybe, and maybe not.

The frantic pace of the holidays, coupled with the darkness and unheeded calls to turn inward and reflect on our lives, make one ripe for loneliness.

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."

How often I have felt that, and then done that, in so many ways. I bet you, too, have a fairly long list if you take a little time to reflect on it.

Yet, what is interesting is that, there have been times where I have simply sat with it, breathed into that ghost inside me and watched as it inevitably changed. Not that it always went away completely, but there nearly always has been a softening of the energy when I have given it some space through breathing and meditation.

Given the increased focus on slowing down and paying attention while I've been with people in the past few weeks, I'm finding that there's been less loneliness floating around these parts. Furthermore, when it comes, I'm letting go of identifying myself with it. Just like any other experience, loneliness doesn't define who I am.

How about you? Do you experience loneliness this time of year?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The "Spiritual" Denial of Love and Sexuality?

I recently started my annual re-reading of selections from 20th Century Catholic monk Thomas Merton's journals. For the past few years, I have kept gravitating towards volume six, which arguably contains the most controversial section of Merton's life. Also, having read nearly all seven volumes from cover to cover over the years, number six is the most thought-provoking and revealing of Merton's life and how he understood the world.

At the center of this volume is the illicit relationship Merton had with a student nurse during the spring and early summer of 1966. I remember being shocked when I first stumbled on these entries in the journal, but now I find that there is something so shockingly human about it all that my shock has become reserved for why we're so unwilling to accept and work with the complexities of love, sexuality, and intimacy.

Author Mark Shaw came out with a new book in 2009 addressing this relationship, and how love, sexuality, and lack of both profoundly affected Merton's life and his views on religion and spirituality. Given the discussions about fallen Zen teachers like Genpo and Eido Roshi, as well as the numerous sex scandals that have rocked monastic communities of various religious traditions in recent decades, much of what Shaw has to say is important.

As some of you may know, Thomas Merton was broad in his interest of world religions, and dabbled to some extent in Zen towards the end of his life. He was visited by the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh, long before either were world renown figures. He read everything he could find on Buddhism, and was at a conference of spiritual monastics in Thailand when he was electrocuted by a fan and died in December 1968.

Of Merton's wild, fairly destructive young adult life, and his subsequent entry into the monastery, Shaw writes the following:

Becoming a monk was supposed to cleanse him of these sins, but from his own private journals, I knew this was not true. Instead, Merton’s failure to understand what loving, and being loved were all about caused him frustration, turmoil, and even depression. Beneath the mask of holiness, the plastic saint image promoted by the Catholic Church, was a sunken man who yearned for love while realizing he could never truly be one with God until he found it. Then, as I wrote in the book, the skies opened up and there was a gift, the love of a woman. It is no wonder Merton grabbed the chance to experience love despite the risks involved. And Margie taught him about loving, and being loved, opening up a path to freedom Merton never knew existed.

Anyone who reads the entries in Merton's journal about his time with Margie will immediately feel the profound struggle that went on for Merton between his understanding of the spiritual life and the manifestation of in the flesh love that was right before him. Although at times the way he words things sounds almost like a teenager in love, I really believe, like Shaw, that this was much more for Merton.

I have always found the deep split between the spiritual and sexual in nearly all religions, including Buddhism, very troubling. While it's possible to argue that Buddhism has less of this than Judeo-Christian traditions, I'm still convinced that there's a gap in the teachings that has lead to an enormous amount of confusion, condemnation, and suffering.

Merton took a vow of celibacy in a church that has has a long standing doctrinal split between sexuality and spirituality. The depth of sex scandals that have ripped through Catholic communities in recent years point to this split, and how destructive it can be.

But what if Merton had been a Buddhist monk? He still would have been breaking his vow. And yet, how does this vow square with a spiritual tradition built upon the awareness that everything in life is impermanent? In other words, what happens to a person who takes what might be viewed as a permanent vow (at least in this lifetime), and then discovers along the way that upholding that vow is causing more suffering than liberation?

It's too easy to say that Merton should have either dropped the relationship and kept his vow or should have left the monastery. This was no novice monk; by the time of his relationship with Margie Smith, he was a world renown spiritual writer who was, despite his independent, anti-authoritarian streak, considered to be an important asset by the Church. Walking away from the monastery would have proved to be very difficult, and returning to his vows as they were was impossible. The last two years of Merton's life, following the relationship, proved to be his most exploratory in a spiritual sense, and it's possible to argue that he may have been tossed out of the church at some point if he had lived longer. To suggest that the relationship with Margie had nothing to do with this late life spiritual journey would be a great spiritual denial in my opinion.

In writing this, I'm not arguing that vows of celibacy are wrong, or that breaking those vows should be done any time someone feels constrained by them. That's not my point at all. I do believe we should strive to uphold whatever vows we make in our lives as best as we can.

However, I'm also convinced that how vows manifest in life changes over time. And when it comes to sexuality and spirituality, how much clarity can most of us claim to have when our spiritual traditions are littered with prohibitions, shame, blame, and non-discussions about the intersection of the two?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Practicing Conflict - a Path of Generosity?

Image from Crazy Dog T-shirts.

Here's are really interesting Q and A from Trungpa Rinpoche's book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.

If you have conflicts with other people, making it difficult to relate to them, what do you do?

Well, if your desire to communicate, which is generosity, is strong, then you have to apply prajna, knowledge, to discover why you are unable to communicate. Perhaps your communication is only one-directional. Perhaps you are unwilling for communication to come from the other direction as well ... we have to be careful to see the whole situation, rather than just being keen to throw something at the other person.

I'm really interested in this view of communication as generosity. Really seeing it in that way changes how it is approached. In a way, if you are attuned to the moment, and open to what is being called for, then you can't help but be generous. This might mean pulling back and staying quiet. Or it might mean praising someone's strong points, even if they also are displaying a lot of weaknesses. It might also mean clear, precise criticism driven by an intention to help someone see something they are missing. Or a calmly stated correction to someone who has spoken falsely, or wrongly, about something.

Trungpa Rinpoche says "Essentially, we have to provide some kind of space and openness." So, whatever is it we intend to try and communicate with someone, our job is to do so in a way that allows the other some room to work with.

In addition, it's important to learn to be open to receiving something in return, even if it comes in a form that isn't so easy to digest. In other words, it might be helpful to ask yourself now "How am I going to deal with the next 'ego insult'?" Instead of waiting for the next "fuck off" or "you're an idiot" to arrive in your e-mailbox, practice now, so it might not be such a shock later.

Let's go even further. Maybe those kind of blunt things roll off your back. Or you just ignore them. How about something a little less easy to tease out? Something like "I'm surprised you say it's ok to have an abortion. How can you be Buddhist and pro-choice?" My guess is people get comments like this often: not overtly nasty, but testy none the less because they call to question one's identity - that is, if there is strong attachment present.

So, it might be a good idea to practice receiving these kinds of comments as well. Because really, if you think about it, communication is not only what we say and do, but also how we receive what others say and do.

Your thoughts?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Public Space is Vital to Maintaining First Amendment Rights

I had some requests to post this op-ed piece I wrote over the weekend. Although it's very specifically focused on events and issues here in Minnesota, there are also broader points that I feel cut across any given location. \

As winter approaches, and the Occupy movement continues in Minneapolis and around the nation, the issue of public space has risen to the forefront. Not only have the Occupy groups challenged the ways in which 1st Amendment rights are being upheld in public spaces, but we have also demonstrated the severe lack of free, open and available space for groups to assemble, demonstrate, and exercise their rights. Nowhere is that lack of public space more evident than in downtown Minneapolis.

Other than the Hennepin County Government Center Plaza, the only other significant public space in central downtown is Peavy Plaza. Neither space is very large. While Minneapolis alone has nearly 400,000 residents, it’s unlikely that either location could comfortably accommodate more than 1500-2000 people at a time. This not only places a limit on politically motivated gatherings like Occupy, but also upon opportunities for free, public entertainment like concerts, outdoor theater, or seasonal celebrations.

Even in the recent cold weather, we had between 400-600 people attending two major demonstrations in support of our continued presence on the plaza. Furthermore, while the regular standing crowds of protesters have dwindled to less than 20, we regularly squeeze between 30-60 people in the skyway attached to the Government Center for our General Assembly meetings. And beyond the General Assembly meetings, there are several committees that meet in locations scattered all over downtown. Simply put, the Occupy movement has outgrown coffee shops and church basements. In order to do the work of participatory democracy, we need public spaces to gather, free from the harassment and unnecessary restrictions that have come from the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Department, in cooperation with the County Commissioners. The fact that Occupy needed to file a lawsuit to defend the right to publicly display political signs on the plaza should cause everyone to wonder what the future might bring.

While Hennepin County continues to stand behind claims that the restrictions being placed upon Occupy Minneapolis are about health and safety, the reality is that the county itself is financially under attack by the same Wall St. friendly policies that led many of the protesters to the plaza in the first place. The 2012 Hennepin County budget calls for 3.13-percent reduction, much of that a result of trickle down funding cuts at the state and Federal level. Instead of doing what they can to drive away the Occupy Minneapolis group, perhaps Hennepin County officials should be using our presence to help advocate for a restoration of the 100+ jobs that will be lost under next year’s budget.

The loss of public space to corporate interests, coupled with the kinds of restrictions of freedom of speech and assembly that have been upheld by the nation’s court system, represent a threat to the very health of our democratic society. Regardless of whether or not you support the Occupy movement, it’s vitally important to consider the broader issues of public space and the 1st Amendment. If more people don’t stand up now in favor of the 1st amendment rights of groups like Occupy, the more likely it will be in the future that such rights will diminish or disappear completely. And if there isn’t a sustained, mass effort by the general public to advocate for keeping public spaces, the odds are that what little we have will eventually be gone.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Buddharocks Returns

Some of you may recall several months back some discussion about the website Buddharocks. Specifically, that said website was poaching content from other Buddhist blogs, including this one, without proper acknowledgement. Well, I received the following comment today.

Goodizen said...

I am the designer who volunteered to put up the portal, and I discover this 'complain' only today.

I wonder why none of you bother to contact instead of making wild, actually, almost malicious accusations against the portal all over the Internet ?

In my humble opinion, I think what you're doing isn't very Buddhist, let alone Zennist or morally admirable ...

Let me tell you why ?

The domain was idling and it was me who asked the onwer, Anna why wouldn't she make use of it to do something meaningful ? She says she would like to but she neither has the time nor the expertise to do much. So, I convinced her to let me sync in related information and I thought I might as well hang couple of ad banners at the same time, hoping to generate something for charitiable causes. Sorry to disappoint those who are jealous over this particular aspect, there is no money in what we do. Not at BuddhaRocks. We generated a few pennies and that is all and yes, Adsense has terminated our account citing complaints from ... (you should know who).

Obviously, I didn't know there are enlightenmnet seekers who actually aren't even willing share spiritual information with the masses !

You may ask why didn't I contact you prior to doing anything ?

First, by offering RSS feeds, you have implied you'd like to share (after all, you have full control over the feeds).

Second, it's an impossible task for me to liase with all those involved (there are hundreds of you and I am working all alone, I wish I have the time).

Third, you can always contact should you have any issue. Their contact is clearly printed at the site, something A thief will never do.

Fourth, we don't see aggregrating something from the Internet to share publicly as anything wrong. But we now realise there are one or two people who don't see it that way ... We got the message now,

Except one or two gentlemen who have contacted us with no problem whatsoever, none of those who are not willing to share even bother to contact us. Instead, they go around spreading hate messages and or malicious accusations eg. ... who not only complained at her own blog, but also at other blogs, forum etc.

Is her action justifiable or make any sense, let alone Zennist ?

By the way, I have recently revamped the portal. All old contents have been purged, so for the selfish ones, fret not. Your precious blogs have been cremated.

If you have any idea what can I possibly do to help you and the community at large, please feel free to drop me a note (email to BuddhaRocks, they will forward to me). I am just trying to add something philanthropic to my resume.

Trust all is well now.


I have to say that I find some of Ted's comments rather obnoxious. Accusing writers who simply wanted their blog posts acknowledged and sourced as "selfish" is a silly guilt trip. Furthermore, accusations that those of us who were concerned about the use of our content are "not very Buddhist" is absolutely laughable. Seriously, I'm still laughing as I write this.

Here's the thing: I can see how all of this may have been a misunderstanding. The old Buddharocks layout looked like something done by a person who didn't have much tech savvy, and perhaps couldn't figure out how to properly link and/or cite blog posts.

Since I kind of figured this might be a possibility, after leaving three or four comments asking for proper citation on my posts over at Buddharocks, I clipped the feed, and basically forgot about it all. That was a good 6 or 7 months ago.

Anyway, I'd like to say to Ted, or anyone putting together large, collective blogs to respect the writers whose content you wish to feature. We spend numerous hours producing the work, and the vast majority of us already are offering it for free on our blogs. It's not out of line to ask for a simple link or citation; in fact, I'd argue that it's the only ethical thing to do.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Postures in Conflict

The title of one of Reb Anderson Roshi's books, Being Upright, often comes to mind when I think about conflict in my own life.

Many times, I have fallen too far backwards when in conflict with others. The passivity of withdrawal, or false agreement, or repressed silence is what I mean here. It's kind of like sleeping in zazen(meditation).

Other times, I have fallen too far forward when in conflict with others. The agressiveness of anger, harsh criticism, or flat out nihilism is what I have in mind here. Kind of like trying to force your mind to have no thoughts at all during zazen.

This "Being Upright" is what our meditation posture looks like, feels like, acts like - just as it is. And it's also also our practice for standing in the middle of conflict and being at peace while responding.

Not too far back, and not to far forward. Easy to write; not so easy to do.