Sunday, November 25, 2012

Teacher Scandals: An American Zen Koan

There's another American Zen teacher scandal flaming up the interwebs right now. I knew nothing about Joshu Sasaki Roshi before the current discussion. Other than that he's an old dude. Really old. 105 to be exact.

And about that discussion. It's unfolding so much like the others. Lots of fluffy Zen talk amongst those who wish to defend the teacher. Lots of hell and damnation talk from those who are outraged at the teacher's alleged conduct. More than a little bit of puritanical talk about sexuality. Accompanied by some good ole boy "guys will be guys" nonsense from others. Finger pointing is commonplace. Calls for greater oversight at a level higher than the individual sangha continue to ring loud, if not hollow.

I used to love to dissect all this kind of stuff. It felt very important, vital really - having been from a sangha that went through it's own teacher scandal several years back.

Now. I don't know. We seem terribly muddled about both the power of sexuality, and the nature and forms of power itself. There's a lot of abuse of power, and seemingly endless numbers of people writing about it, trying to figure it all out. Perhaps most humans in general, but American Zen in particular, since that's the focus here. And for all the muck brought to the surface, and revelations that seem to be made, the heavy muddled quality remains.

When you think about it, the intersections of sex, money, and power - the three biggies in nearly all of these Zen teacher scandals - are perfect koans for Americans. We think we understand them, have penetrated their depths, but I doubt many of us do. I sure as hell haven't at this point in my life. In the absolute sense, they're empty of inherent nature, right? But in the relative world, each of them has a myriad of forms that baffle and shift, stick and cause us to stumble.

Yes. Sasaki, like Suzuki, Katagiri, and other founding convert Zen teachers, weren't born in the U.S. However, it seems to me that they plugged right into the particular matrix we have here around the big three. The odd mixture of puritanical views coupled with provocativeness when it comes to sexuality. The curious blend of anti-authority individualism mixed with obsession with heroes and guru figures. The heightened tension between viewing voluntary poverty as a sign of divinity, and the desire for more, more, more than drives the capitalist machine. None of these founding teachers really exhibited all three entry points in the way many American born Zen teachers in scandals have, but they've still be in the matrix all the same.

Will this matrix that's causing so much suffering change, and for the better? I don't know. I'd like to hope so, but that's just hoping, something I don't put much faith in these days. I do think, however, that cracking the koan nut of this matrix - or set of matrices - may be the key to truly establishing a living Zen tradition in this country. As opposed to a struggling copy. Or a lot of "not bad" institutions that are helpful to people's lives, but ultimately fail to foster enlightenment.

Fellow Zen blogger Algernon has a cantankerous post up right now in which he offers the following:

What happens when you have an elaborate ecclesiastical structure meant to support and inspire dharma practice, but the dharma practice is shallow or, worse, pretend? What happens when you have temple full of people who have robes and know a lot about ceremonies and ritual, but they can't function spontaneously and ethically? Well, what you are left with is a dead religion. And when you have dead religion, there is nothing left to do except fight over the property and the money and the social position. This is not unfamiliar in human history, is it? Indeed, many of the teachers who brought their zen to the United States in the 20th century said they did so because this is what happened to zen in their homelands. They wanted to work with hippies who could jump into practice with a fresh perspective. My generation, on the other hand, is a generation of experts. Generation X and Generation Y zenboos organize big, fancy conferences for people in their thirties and forties who have become "Buddhist leaders." So much expertise. And yet. Hmmm.

I have a sickening feeling that a lot of zen in my country is a bad play. A play of the sacred. The stink of zen.

How to stay fresh, responding with right now mind, even when what we are responding to is great suffering? I'm not sure questions like this are being asked enough, especially during "dark times," such as the unraveling of a teacher scandal.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Balck Friday is a Capitalist Trap

I wrote this post two years ago, but a lot of it still rings true for me today, "Black Friday," a faux holiday intimately tied to the "constant economic growth as necessity" narrative. The one that says we must be "good little consumers" who spend our money and buy stuff, regardless of whether it's needed or not, in order to keep the world turning. The more we individual and collectively make efforts to break free from this narrative, and it's attendant actions, the better.

I was going to skip the commentary on all that Black Friday, holiday shopping madness, but then I stumbled upon this post, and felt compelled to say something.

The author of the post suggests the following:

1. The buying frenzy and subsequent Christmas gift exchange excess are products of a consumerist culture.

2. That Americans, at least, don't have enough joyful holidays, and thus try to stuff all their celebration into this time of year.

3. That those of us who find the consumerist expressions of this season crass and devoid of meaning should suspend our judgment of those sucked into it.

4. That those sucked into the buying and giving frenzy are manifesting love in their own ways.

It all sounds well and good. I'm inclined to go along. Except...

Consider this section of the post:

We live in a consumer world, one where love is often shown through purchases, one where people want to express their deep love for their families by buying them flat-screen plasma TVs and ten-dollar Old Navy sweaters. It is love and that is the form love takes.

The frenzy comes from the fact that Americans don’t have enough holidays, don’t get to celebrate enough. As a pagan I have eight great high holidays a year, all equal in measure, all equally important and significant to the turns of time on this Earth. But most people have all of their main holiday joy packed in to one mad season which has to bear the holiday longings of an entire year. Please go easy on them. Recognize in them a light of love that is bent through the prism of a consumer world, one that not only mediates love for us but also gives us a common, sometimes cheesey language to express it in.

I agree with most of what the author is saying, and yet something is off. All this buying of stuff, often things people don't need or even want - "It is love and that is the form love takes." That strikes me as false. A kind of nice sounding gloss over of what's really happening.

The way I see it, one of the mechanisms of a consumerist culture is to instill inadequacy in people so that they will want more, and buy more. And I think over the years, this inadequacy runs so deep in many people that they feel compelled to give others something of monetary value - often large monetary value - in order to feel ok about the relationship. You want to have a happy spouse - you better give her an expensive ring. You want to have happy children, you better buy them the latest video game machine. You want to keep your friends around, you better buy them some fishing gear, or a new dress, or something worth something.

There's no doubt that people love each other, and want to express that. In fact, it's not even about giving gifts - which is beautiful when done wisely - it's this idea that what's happening at these door buster sales at Wal-Mart and Macy's is all about love. That's bullshit!

How often do you hear it from people towards the end of their lives - that what they want now, and maybe what they wish they had more of in the past, was more time with their loved ones. To tell stories, eat together, walk together, or just sit in silence together. All that stuff amounts to nothing in the end, and people know it deep down.

What I see in the folks buying cheap flat screen TVs, ugly sweaters, ties, useless plastic nick-nacs is a failure to experience love. They love their friends, family, and lovers, but what they are mostly expressing is a need to keep the relationships, to be a "good person" who gives to their loved ones. Sometimes, there is guilt there. Sometimes, there is a sense of duty there. Sometimes, there's a hope that whatever they give will appease their loved one for awhile. But all of it goes back to staving off that feeling of inadequacy, of not "being good enough," for awhile.

Those who actually allow themselves to experience love know how to respond to their loved ones. They override what the dominant culture is telling them to do, and listen for the opportunity to give wise gifts, and then do so. And if they give during this time of year, they do so having reflected upon their loved one first.

Recently, my father made some large bookshelves for my sister and her boyfriend (see above). With the new baby, and a need to make better use of their space, some good bookshelves meant a lot. And that my father actually made the bookshelves himself, taking the time and care to see that they'd fit the space and be functional, meant even more. This to me is an example of wise giving.

Going back to the article I linked to, here's a little more:

If you are looking for quiet this season, remember that quiet can be sought in your heart. It comes best from releasing judgement about how other people do their Yuletide: releasing judgement about the tack and the madness, but to see in everybody that same deep and utter ancient longing for light and warmth, and an impulse to give to others. For many of us, and I do say us, that raw impulse is translated through the media of consumerism, of the mall and the big box store. People work with what they have to work with. The understructure is still the same.

Yes. Releasing judgment of the individuals in your life is vital. That's a core part of a spiritual path in my opinion. However, I also believe that those of us who see the deep damage being done by excessive consumption - the economic yo-yoing, the human exploitation, and environmental destruction behind those TVs, Old Navy shirts, and whatnot - must learn how to express ourselves better with those who don't see it. We must be brave enough to share what we have learned, and share our wishes for the world, with our family, friends, and lovers, even if it causes confusion and upset in the short term. But most of all, we must take the gifts of our meditation practice, our sutra studies, our bowing, our chanting - we must take that and apply it to whatever we say and do around the holidays so that we can express the truths of our lives without placing unneeded an unwanted expectations on others. In other words, we can tell the grandmother who buys us a pile of junk every year about what we most want, and our dreams for the world around us, but we can't demand that she change. And if what we get is more junk from her, then we have the opportunity to accept that junk openly, knowing that we haven't held back.

In my view, a lot of this "not judging others" talk in spiritual communities located in consumerist cultures is tied to the very same inadequacy that drives others to compulsively shop. This "oh, don't judge" voice is often just a cloak spiritual types wear out of a hope that others will like them, see them as "good people." Sound familiar? Think about it. How often do you find yourself biting your tongue instead of saying something that might upset a loved one? And how often does that same comment get labeled a judgment, even if it might just be an observation? This is one of the places I think Marshall Rosenberg's work with Non-violent communication is helpful. Because my own experience has shown me that often when I'm biting my tongue it's driven not by loving patience and wise consideration of the other person, but by a fear that whatever I say will drive the other person away. Or make them see me as a "lesser person." It's no better, really, than impulsively buying them an expensive toy they don't need.

Recently, I commented on a sangha friend's Facebook page that we should move Thanksgiving to another time of year, and reshape the holiday fully around gratitude. Divorce it from it's genocidal past, and perhaps also from it's genocidal present (i.e. turkey murder). As the author of the post I'm writing about said, we Americans need more holidays of joy. Re-framing Thanksgiving could be one way to offer people a chance to express love without piles of material gifts. Some already use it in this way.

Now if only I could figure out a way to liberate all those turkeys...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Waves of Samsara

"Samsara - I could not understand it! Then one day I took my dog to the beach; he barked at the waves as they rolled in on the beautiful ocean strand. I realized that all this was reflected in the mind of my dog; he felt it in the dog's samsara - and expressed it."

Sokei-an Sasaki (1882 - 1945)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

You and I Are Probably Both Toddlers of Zen in the Grand Scheme of Things

Yesterday's post was sort of rushed, the kind of thing that comes when you want to say something, but are struggling with writer's block.

Anyway, I received the following comment on that post:

Yes, well perhaps you should actually find "peace and calm" before you attempt to push your idea of what it is onto other people.

If you must act as a mouthpiece for the dharma, we would prefer that you had something real to say about it.

That is just a quick tip from someone who's been practicing a hell of a lot longer than you.

And in that regard, it would benefit you to be open to that which has come before you, instead of pouting and stamping your feet like an indignant toddler whenever you are presented with something outside your comfort zone. As a student of the Japanese tradition, you should already understand that kind of relationship quite clearly, if you are actually serious about such matters.

At this time, I will step aside and allow nature to take its course with you - for better or worse. Good bye and good luck.

Usually, I just leave these comments go, but for a few minutes, I was just pissed off by this one. Not because I think the other post was "wise" or great by any stretch of the imagination, but because this just strikes me as flat out trolling. The kind of thing people do to just piss others off. The fact that it was anonymous just lends to that image, as does the deliberately insulting language.

There's been more of these kinds of comments in recent months. They might be from the same person, or they might be multiple people. I don't know. I have a couple of ideas as to individuals that could be behind them, but I'm not interested in moving beyond cursory level speculation.

One thing I have witnessed in the years of blogging about spiritual practice is a lot of people quitting their blogs over these kinds of comments. They give their writing away. Give their ideas, thoughts, and experiences - however muddled - away, and in return, they're body slammed by trolls and sometime regular readers as well. I'm not talking about bloggers who write obnoxious, inflammatory content. I'm talking about sincere folks, sometimes sharing deep from the heart, or taking a risk in offering something that might not be popular.

Not all of us have the ability to shake or laugh nasty responses off. And while some may argue that you should just develop a thick skin, I argue that if you're life is devoted to spiritual practice, your comments on blog posts should reflect that. Whether my words are soft and supportive, or more harsh and questioning, I try to consider how the other person will take them. Try to see if what I have to say might actually be about communication, and not just bashing someone on the head.

Anonymous, calling me an "indignant toddler" is an asshat move. You want to teach me something? Leave the insults out. If you think I'm a lost cause, that's fine. I never claimed to be an enlightened spokesperson for the practice. I'm a regular practitioner like most of the other readers here. Which I think you believe is a much higher number than it actually is. If your greatest concern is that I'm spreading "bad dharma" - don't worry, this blog's readership is tiny. Maybe you'd be better trolling the blogs of popular dharma teachers you disagree with. It's a better use of your time than pestering a small fry like myself.

What I think some readers easily forget about bloggers is that we're humans first, with all the usual struggles and maladies. Not every post is going to be gleaming with brilliance. Not every post is going to inspire nodding heads, even from the most aligned of readers. Furthermore, and perhaps most important, is the fact that we bloggers - even the most prolific amongst us - rarely cover the full spectrum of our thoughts and experiences of our chosen topic(s).

I'm well aware that public writing can give rise to all sorts of ego trips. I also am aware that I sometimes write contentious posts, during which I sometimes overstep the lines of what I know and don't know in terms of practice. As such, I'm grateful to regular readers who share a different take, show me where I've missed something, or even call out ways I might be violating the precepts I vow to uphold (Marcus, a former regular commenter, instantly comes to mind here.) There are times when even these kind of harsh, not terribly caring comments can arouse gratitude within me. But most days, I just think of all the folks who have quit writing, quit sharing their voices because they felt harassed and hated.

This post isn't a plea for personal sympathy. I've been a public writer for years, and rejection in its various forms doesn't destroy me. No, it's more a plea for more respectful discourse. Online and off. We can stand tall in very different positions and views without tearing each other to shreds. When I consider peace and calm, the ability to do this is one of the main things that comes to mind.

I vow to keep bringing this to mind, again and again, instead of letting the heat of emotion carry the day. That's all I really have to offer today. May you all be well.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Seeking Peace and Calm

There's nothing that does not grow light
through habit and familiarity,
putting up with little cares,
I'll train myself to bear with great adversity.

I've been working with these lines from Shantidevafor about four years now. In order to keep them with me daily, I chant them silently to myself as I brush my teeth every night before bed (for the most part).

Those "little cares" that arrive in our lives have the ability to muck things up greatly, if we can't meet them as they are in the moment. The pain in your back, for example, easily can lead to tension, and then irritation, and then angry acting out of some kind. So it often goes.

Many people come to Buddhism seeking relief from all of this. Seeking something they call peace and calm. But how many of us really understand what calm and peace actually are? It's easy to mistake "relaxed dullness" found through things like television, drinking, eating, and other such commonplace activities, as peace and calm. In fact, such dullness can become so pervasive in your life that you fail to notice the presence of actual calm and actual peace.

I used to meditate like mad, trying to break through the dullness, thinking zazen was kind of an endurance contest I had to win somehow. In this, there was no room for the world to fully enter, no room for the peace and calm that comes when being "confirmed by the ten thousand things" as Dogen once said.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Zen Weeds

As a gardener, I was intrigued by this post, especially the first section:

A few months ago I saw a notice of Zen center calling for volunteers to come in on Saturday to remove weeds from the lawn. I had trouble with the apparent picking and choosing in that, and asked the author if he also saw trouble in his invitation.

I received the response that he was celebrating the life that the weather has brought us, and he was looking for help to extinguish some forms of the life he was celebrating. He explained he was holding two opposing views at the same time, and that's OK. Also, he did not consider the plants that are in certain places to be "bad" plants, nor did he consider certain types of plants "bad" plants. He just had a preference for both the location and types of plants in the landscape, and so he was planning to take out some plants to enjoy others. He felt preferences are not bad per se. It's his relationship to his preferences that can cause suffering, not the preferences themselves.

I felt a bit like he was not seriously addressing the question of whether this weeding was really right action. But I also thought I was possibly being a bit immature in my concepts of picking and choosing and the related Buddhist sin.

About the time I started regularly gardening, towards the end of my undergrad days, I become interested in herbal medicine. And quickly learned that many of the common weeds gardeners, farmers, and lawn enthusiasts tends to despise are, in fact, medicines. Dandelion, plantain, goldenrod, milk thistle, nettle. All of these have excellent health benefits and - their tenaciousness usually translates into invasiveness if left unchecked.

Probably reminds some of you of certain habit patterns you have. The critical thinking that turns into heavy negativity and pessimism. The awareness of potential dangers that turns into chronic worry. The desire to satisfy your sweet tooth that turns into overeating.

Like with "weeds," I've noticed a lot of all or nothing thinking surrounding these things. Note the presence of anti-intellectualism in some spiritual circles, thinking that thinking itself must be eradicated or else it destroy our chance at liberation. Or how people decide to become vegans and remove all possible "toxins" from their diet, not because of it being an appropriate response to their conditions, but because they believe this is the "only way" to be in accord with the precepts.

There's a lot of ignorance when it comes to the nature of ecosystems. Conventional gardeners and farmers think nothing of removing - often eradicating - every last plant they deem "unnecessary." Never mind the medicinal qualities of a given weed, how many folks are simply clueless as to how these plants are supporting other species and the soil, which benefits the plants they want to grow?

The author of the post above seems, in the end, to fall on the opposite side. He tries to sound open to the possibility that removing some "weeds" could be right action, but his words in total point towards not intervening.

Which brings us back to the first precept. The precept of not killing. A lifelong koan because it's impossible on a relative level to not kill anything. Our lives depend upon killing something in order to feed ourselves. That's the bare minimum.

In my own garden, plenty of "weeds" flourish. I leave wild patches grow, which brings in more bees and butterflies. I have a patch of nettles that I trim throughout the summer, both for teas and greens, and also for growth control. I also regularly remove those plants that attempt to take over the plants I'm intending to grow, and use their decayed bodies to enrich the soil.

I'll readily admit struggling with hatred towards the grapevines that spread like mad every year, despite the annual attempts to remove them completely. Perhaps they are my ecosystem teacher, and I probably would do well to accept that I'll never rid that yard of them completely anyway.

Your thoughts?