Friday, June 29, 2012

The Buddhist Precept of Not Stealing in a Colonized World

I have been spending a lot of time contemplating, and talking with others about, how commodified our lives have become. It seems like nearly "owned" by someone, in need of being bought or payed for by others. It's insidious, and deeply problematic in my opinion.

Yesterday, I was picking raspberries with two friends of mine, and I remarked about how I often travel the alleys in our city during the summer, picking berries from the various bushes behind garages and back yards. As I said this to them, I immediately thought about the way in which I feel sort of anxious doing this quite natural activity. By mid-July, most of these bushes are literally loaded with raspberries and blackberries. A single, healthy bush produces enough berries for a family to snack on for several weeks. The abundance is sometimes mind blowing.

The reality is that while most of these bushes are unattended to, and even completely forgotten to some extent, they constitute "private property." When I stop and pick even a few berries, often there is an anxiety accompanying this act. I frequently look around and wonder about being perceived as stealing, never mind that the bulk of the berries end up dropping to the ground and are either eaten by animals or return to the soil untouched.

In the past, I have attempted to ask permission to harvest berries, as well as a few apples from the trees in a neighbor's yard (most of which, again, fall to the ground untouched). These requests for a small bit of sharing have tended to be met with puzzlement. Who is this guy and why should I give him my fruit?

As a Buddhist, I have vowed to uphold the precept of not stealing. But in a society so colonized and commodified, to the point where even some simple counseling to support mental health has been turned into a product for sale, what is stealing?

How can the man I spoke to about those apple trees, who does next to nothing to aid the growth of the trees, and lets the lion's share of the produce go to waste, claim ownership over them? Frankly, how can anyone claim ownership over the life of a tree or a berry bush?

I can rarely afford to purchase organic fruit, especially berries. They are outrageously expensive, even in conventional, big box supermarkets. In fact, even much of the fruit that is covered in pesticides is expensive and to some degree out of reach for poor and low income folks.

However, even in many urban areas, there are an abundance of fruit trees - especially in middle and upper class neighborhoods. While poor folks struggle to pay for a small bag of pesticide-ridden oranges that were picked weeks ago in someplace far off, middle and upper class folks not only can afford to purchase the organic fruit in the stores, but also often have fresh fruit right in their backyards for part of the summer at least.

I am fortunate to have a garden behind my mother's place, where I have slowly planted a few berry bushes, including a raspberry bush that's beginning to produce fruit. Furthermore, some of my friends and are are starting to do neighborhood networking around planting community fruit trees and bushes, as well as cultivating the idea of fruit sharing from plants in private yards and gardens. All of this is in the beginning stages, and hasn't produced much "fruit" yet, but I do believe it will in the future.

And yet, I keep going back to this issue of stealing and not stealing. Something as natural a human activity as picking berries is probably considered theft by a large percentage of people in this country - and many others no doubt. It strikes me as a form of insanity, controlling access to something so basic. And I'm convinced that we will more collectively be faced with the deeper implications of this as things like water privatization impact wide swaths of the population - people used to having easy access to something which is of life and death importance.

Recently, I read a declaration written by indigenous peoples in response to the Rio+20 summit held in Brazil last week. It's a powerful document, one I find myself aligned with in so many ways. For those of us living in post-industrial nations like the U.S., it's a deep indictment of much of what we consider "normal." Odds are, a lot of American readers will simply dismiss it as utopian fluff, or "unrealistic." I can imagine plenty will find it an affront worthy of outrage. How dare these people blame me for their problems, and for the destruction of the Earth? Can't they see that we have some great solutions to the climate crisis?

Here is a selection from the document that demonstrates both the tenacity and also, in my opinion, the optimism of these people - whom I consider brothers and sisters:

We will continue to unite as Indigenous Peoples and build a strong solidarity and partnership among ourselves, local communities and non-indigenous genuine advocates of our issues. This solidarity will advance the global campaign for Indigenous Peoples rights to land, life and resources and in the achievement of our self-determination and liberation.

We will continue to challenge and resist colonialist and capitalist development models that promote the domination of nature, incessant economic growth, limitless profit-seeking resource extraction, unsustainable consumption and production and the unregulated commodities and financial markets. Humans are an integral part of the natural world and all human rights, including Indigenous Peoples’ rights, which must be respected and observed by development.

We invite all of civil society to protect and promote our rights and worldviews and respect natural law, our spiritualities and cultures and our values of reciprocity, harmony with nature, solidarity, and collectivity. Caring and sharing, among other values, are crucial in bringing about a more just, equitable and sustainable world. In this context, we call for the inclusion of culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development.

I don't know what it's going to take to right the climate ship. It's a gigantic question that we all much sit with everyday. But I do know that something seems deeply flawed about the idea that picking berries, or apples, constitutes theft. Perhaps in a very narrow, literal way it is the case. But there is something life denying about that kind of view.

No one owns the berries, nor the bushes they grow on. Just ask the birds and animals that go snacking on them when you're not looking.

*Photo is of the golden raspberry bush in my garden.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Hope Isn't Really a Buddhist Teaching

Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.

By Thich Nhat Hanh

I disagree with this statement. It panders too much to the stickiness that lies behind hope. The longing for a future that may not come. The desire for something comfortable and stable to rely on. The fear that things will "get worse." I have written on this blog before, and continue to believe, that hope is mostly a hindrance. Thus my disagreement.

Given that many of us live in places where hope narratives are really strong, using the word "hope" can be a skillful means. Telling someone "I hope you feel better soon" can be skillfully supporting them, as can offering optimistic views of the future. That's where comments like Thich Nhat Hanh's above might be pointing us in a useful direction, but you have to reflect on where that might be.

We can come from a place of offering that is open, and not caught up in the futurizing of hope. I can imagine hospice workers and chaplains have to work with such language all the time, and must consider the people before them and what is most skillful in the given situation. But I think there are ways to work with really difficult situations like families facing terminal illnesses that are both realistic in the now, but also optimistic about life as a whole.

Optimism is different from hope in my opinion. Although it tends to be linked with hope, I think optimism is grounded in confidence and a trust in the boundlessness of the world.

My mother is a pretty optimistic person. And although she gets caught up in misleading hope narratives like the rest of us, what I tend to see from her is a great trust that things will unfold in the way they need to unfold. The other day, her car broke down on a freeway ramp. She was initially irritated about it, and worried about having to get a new car. However, within a few hours, she had shifted all of this. With a friend of hers, she'd considered some of the possible outcomes, and then let it go to the mechanics to deal with. And although she had a hunch that it wouldn't be too bad (which it wasn't), what I mostly saw was that she trusted that what needed to happen would happen.

Optimism also, in my view, is seeing everything as an opportunity to learn, to become more fully yourself. That whatever comes, there's a way to integrate it into the whole of your life. I don't see hope doing that. Hope is usually about a desired outcome or set of outcomes. And a rejection or avoidance of other outcomes.

Now, even the word optimism is tied to a binary: pessimism. It feels a little clunky to me as I write this, but I'll opt to use it anyway.

As a final thought, I'd like to ask people who feel hope is essential a few questions. When you say hope, what exactly do you mean? How does it actually function in your body and mind when you hope for something? And what happens in your body and mind when you don't get what you hope for?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Queer Dharma: Thoughts on Buddhism and Sexuality

The author of the Open Sky blog, Rev. Lawrence Grecco, has spent a lot of time over the past week debating others about the content of this post. His contention is that the way the article, as originally worded, was biased against GLBTQ practitioners. That instead of being a statement of equal treatment, it was a subtly imbalanced argument that ends up privileging heterosexuality.

In a letter Grecco offers in his current post the following comments:

In the case of what I am addressing, some context needs to be applied here. It was only 40 years ago that homosexuality was de-classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. Before that, there were many theories as to “why” someone is born gay or lesbian. All of those reasons have been proven incorrect time and time again, yet some still look for reasons to explain why LGBT people exist, but don’t pose the same question when any talk of heterosexuality arises.

So it is indeed offensive that when a simple question such as “Is it ok to be gay?” is asked, the answer and the comments that follow include statements about past life explanations, precepts, sex and lust. A correct answer would have simply been something like: “The Buddha never spoke about homosexuality so there is no scriptural references condoning homosexuality as might be found in the Christian bible.”

But instead, the author belied his/her prejudices in the second to last paragraph of the original post by inexplicably talking about "changing preferences over the course of many lifetimes", and saying people are “born gay/lesbian due to past life influences.” This implies that there needs to be some explanation for the very existence of an LGBT person, yet this has nothing to do with the initial question. When one tries to come up with causes they are pathologizing an entire group of people. And there are some who are still practicing reparative therapies (under the guise of psychology and/or religion) which have been repeatedly debunked both ethically and scientifically.

It's important to note that the original post has been altered, and much of the offending material has been re-written. Grecco wrote an earlier post, which contains the old material, which I can confirm is accurate, having read the post and comments the first day the post was up.

What do I want to add to this conversation? First off, I'd like readers to view the discussion on the original post. It's instructive in terms of what happens to people from sexual minorities who question interpretations of the dharma that involve sexuality. In addition, there are citations from the Pali canon that are worth reading and considering.

Secondly, who knows for sure what causes and conditions lead to any person's sexuality? The human mind loves to speculate, test, theorize, and the like, but as far as I'm concerned, whatever we come up with is partial. Furthermore, there is more fluidity to what we call "our sexuality" than many of us would like to admit. Some may always be attracted either to the opposite sex or the same sex, but how that looks, feels, and is engaged in across time is markedly different during different periods of a lifetime. Others experience attraction and intimacy more independently of biological body form. While still others may, for example, be attracted to men earlier in life, and then find their focus shifting to women in mid life, and then have a more mixed experience in the last third of their life. We could consider the myriad of combinations along a "spectrum of sexuality," where one's position can, and usually does, shift at least a little bit throughout a lifetime. My dharma friend Katie likes to think of it more as a "the field of sexuality," suggesting that the spectrum approach might not contain it all.

Whatever fluidity is present in sexuality, this is not a justification for the kinds of "sexuality conversions" promoted in some Christian communities, nor is it an excuse for arguments that suggest GLBTQ folks should suppress their attraction in any shape or form. Speaking of fluidity is about liberating sexuality from fixed notions and from the commonplace default binary of "gay" and "straight." In other words, I'm trying to complicate the standard narratives because my experience, and that of many of my friends and past lovers, confirms things are more complicated.

Thirdly, as Grecco says in one of his posts, "Gay and lesbian people are all too often viewed solely as sexual beings."

This is a vital point. Whenever discussions of GLBTQ dharma folks are underpinned by a focus on lust, desire, and/or sexual activity, things have often gone awry. Whereas heterosexual people are usually considered whole in and of themselves, members of the GLBTQ community frequently are reduced to being in sexual relationship with another person or people. Even if they aren't, currently, in such a relationship.

It's just about who I am with (or not with) romantically. It's about how I experience attraction and intimacy. It's really about the way I (each of us) view and engage the world.

I could say more, and perhaps flesh out some of my points more, but I want to get this out there. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Extreme Buddhism?

There has been a fair amount of discussion online in recent weeks about what is, and isn't "extreme" when it comes to Buddhist practice. This is stemming from the debacle in Michael Roach's Diamond Mountain community, which has made it into the mainstream news.

Buddhist blogger Barbara O'Brien, in one of her posts on the Diamond Mountain situation, writes:

I've been thinking about long meditation retreats. Silent meditation retreats can be intense, and three years is extreme. My understanding is that in the Tibetan traditions, three-year retreats are undertaken only by people who already have been nuns or monks for at least a dozen years. So they are already well acclimated to the discipline of monasticism and have experienced many other silent retreats. The three-year retreat is not going to be a complete shock to their systems.

No matter how you slice it, a three year retreat is extreme for the vast majority of people. It may, however, be the perfect level of challenge for a select few whose practice has moved in a direction where such an experience might be exactly what is called for. Odds are for these people, too, it's still "too much" in certain ways, and yet the way they handle that too much is probably markedly different from the way that most of us do.

Zen teacher Brad Warner had this to add in another post:

The early Buddhists did three month retreats during the Indian rainy season when there wasn’t much else anyone could do. This tradition is carried on in many places in the form of what Japanese Buddhists call an ango, a retreat lasting around 90 days that typically occurs in the Summer (though spring, winter and fall angos are common these days too). Three months is pretty intense and there’s a good reason Buddha never recommended doing retreats any longer than that.

While reading the story I found myself wondering just how Mr. Roach Geshe justified such an excessively long retreat. A clue can be found on their website which says, “The word ‘enlightenment’ sounds vague and mystical, but the Buddha taught that it is quite achievable by deliberately following a series of steps. The three-year retreatants have been studying and practicing the steps very seriously for the last six or more years, and by going into the laboratory of solitary retreat they hope (to) realize the final goal taught by Lord Buddha.”

So they figured that if they went at it really hard for three years they’d get enlightened.

Sometimes, I get the sense that the historical Buddha's story gets fetishized. That even though thousands of others have followed widely divergent paths in the past 2500+ years to some form of awakening or enlightenment, there is this idea amongst some that we have to follow in the exact footsteps of Shakyamuni. Never mind that we couldn't even if we tried. The guy grew up and lived in a different pattern of causes and conditions than any of us live in today. So, while we are inspired by his teachings, and use forms that are in some ways just like what he and the first sangha used to practice with - it's not the same. Nor even similar really. And that's for the best in my opinion.

Over at Mumon's blog is a partial rebuttal of a previous post of mine, which also ties into this discussion. Mumon highlights this quote from my post:

In the minds of many Buddhist men historically, and even some still today, enlightenment was a man's domain. And any man who wanted it better "man up" in his practice. The obsession with marathon meditation retreats and hardcore, "balls busting" koan studies you see in some convert Zen communities reminds me a lot of this ancient mud.

And then, later in his post, has this to say:

But the other comment, well, I think that comment is not informed by the experience of which I know.

The fact of the matter is, the historical Buddha himself went to extremes in his practice. Eventually he realized a middle-way course of action, but not before hitting the rails. Typically that's the way practitioners work. Again, you can't say "how much is right" without addressing areas from which motivation comes. Note: the point is not to go anywhere near the rails! The point I'm trying to make is without an ongoing commitment, a resolution to effort no fruits of effort are ever realized.

Yeah, Soto folk: I'm saying even to just sit that requires effort. At the very least the effort required to make the commitment to do so. much effort?

Well, I'll get to that, but first off, but in the spirit of Bill Maher, I'd like to posit a new rule: Soto folks shouldn't opine about koan ( 公案) practice. Seriously folks, what is your point about writing about it if you don't know what it is, and if you haven't practiced it. And just because a Soto teacher "told you" about 公案 practice doesn't mean that teacher knows anything about 公案 practice.

First off, Mumon's right: I don't really know shit about koan practice. A lot of Soto Zen folks don't know shit about it. We've studied some koans in a cursory manner, maybe even taken up a few with our teachers in a much more direct manner. But I'm guessing it's not a central practice for the majority Soto Zen practitioners.

At the same time, there seems to be some that old Soto/Rinzai ax grinding going on here. And I want to stay on track with the issue of right effort and extreme practice here.

In the post Mumon quotes from, I was essentially equating certain forms of extreme practice with men. And by extension, suggesting that the sexism that pervading Buddhist history also has impacted our very notions of what it means to make right effort, and what is considered "enough" and "not enough." He dismisses this link, something that I will admit pissed me off when I first read it. Because frankly, sexism is pretty pervasive in our world. And little is untouched on the relative level.

However, I then went back to earlier in Mumon's post, where he wrote the following:

I'm trying to say that, for at least the reason of how ideation is verbalized, that someone with a less than titanium composure might commit to more than effort than he is able to commit, because he can't ideate the notion of "too much."

This points to the fact - I believe - that going to some sort of extreme is basically necessary. That each of us "won't know" we've gone too far until we do. And from those experiences, we then get a better sense of who we are and where we are at.

None of which justifies the kind of extreme measures being employed at Diamond Mountain, which already led to one person's death. Nor the kind of macho Zen I wrote of in that previous post which is both present, and problematic.

There's room for questioning the extremes, and also recognizing the value of extremes in our lives.

What do you think about all of this?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Joys of Our Ancestors

I remember sitting with my great grandmother two summers ago on the back porch, chatting a little bit and mostly, sitting in silence listening to the birds. When we did talk, the conversation was basic. Nothing really "profound" was said. And there was a sharing that went beyond words, regardless of whether we were talking or not. I'm not sure I ever asked great grandma what she though of the world today, and she's gone now. However, I know that one of her favorite things to do was to play cards with family and fiends. Sitting around a table chatting, goofing off, and occasionally cheating (more than once, that needed ace or king "magically" appeared from under the table) - that was the good life to her. Nothing fancy. No designer gadgets. No virtual game systems. Sound systems.

If we don't remember the joys of our ancestors, we'll lose apart of ourselves. Our lives cross all of space and time, if only we'd let them.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Man Up - Zen Style

Spoken word artist Guante has it right. The phrase "man up" sucks. Big time. It's riddled with sexist connotations, homophobic notions, and is generally damaging - in my view - to anyone who doesn't conform to gendered norms. In fact, I'd argue it's really all about conforming. All about creating a hostile environment for male-identified people.

“Man Up” assaults our self esteem by suggesting that competence and perseverance are uniquely masculine traits. That women—not to mention any man who doesn’t eat steak, drive a pickup truck, have lots of sex with women and otherwise conform to gender norms absolutely—are nothing more than, background characters and props in a movie where the strong, stoic, REAL man is the hero. More than anything, though, it suggests that to be yourself—whether you, wear skinny jeans, listen to Lady Gaga, rock a little eyeliner, drink some other brand of light beer, or write poetry—will cost you.

So, what does this have to do with spiritual practice? Well, in my opinion, everything. Buddha taught about the perils of attachment. And of the numerous attachments, gender is high on the list.

It's no accident that monks and nuns of Buddha's order shaved their heads, wore patchwork robes, and abstained from sex. Among other things, this was an attempt to help cut through attachments to both one's biological body form, and also the socially constructed narratives around gender.

At the same time, it's impossible to ignore how difficult it was for the men of the Buddhist sangha throughout the centuries to break from their attachments to patriarchy. Even as they taught the perils of attachment, they themselves demonstrated a deep attachment to gendered narratives about wisdom and enlightenment.

In the minds of many Buddhist men historically, and even some still today, enlightenment was a man's domain. And any man who wanted it better "man up" in his practice. The obsession with marathon meditation retreats and hardcore, "balls busting" koan studies you see in some convert Zen communities reminds me a lot of this ancient mud.

On the one hand, "man up" is a pop culture phrase that probably is rarely heard in Buddhist circles. On the other hand, we do not live in a vacuum.

Growing up in sexist societies only increases the potential level of attachment to gender a person can have. Not only do you have the biological sex components to work with, but all the warped stories about what a woman is supposed to do, or what a man is supposed to do. Notice there is no room for a healthy gender spectrum here. Little wiggle room to explore and be flexible about identity. This is starting to change, but for every step towards more openness, there seems to be two going back.

If you take anything from this post, please consider this: gender is an important realm of practice. The path to awakening ultimately will take you through your beliefs about being a man, a woman, or gender non-conforming. Certainly, many never examine it at all. Being a "man" or a "woman" is simply a given. Others choose to ignore or bury such concerns, afraid of what they might find.

Don't be like that. Leave no stone you are aware of unturned.