Friday, December 20, 2013

For the Love of Zen Diamonds

"All existence is like a dream, a phantasm, a reflection. Even though you are seeing it and touching it, it has no actual substance. I'll give you a concrete example. An electric news screen ... When you look at it from afar, it certainly seems like those letters are flowing, but when you go up close and look at it, it is just some light bulbs going on and off, and there is not a single flowing letter." Hakuun Yasutani, on Dogen's Genjokoan.

The first sentence in the quote is a reference to the final words of the Diamond Sutra, also known as the Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion Sutra. Among other things, it's a deep calling to wake up to the impermanence of this life, and to cut through the view that you, and everything else, has a solid, unchanging self.

Think of how a diamond can cut glass, how strong it is after all those years in the earth being formed. And then, think of using your mind like a diamond whenever a story arises about something in your life, anything really - but especially those stories that hook you into troubling places. You know, the ones that go something like "I did X, and so I'm a terrible person" or "I did Y, so I'm the best person ever." Or some other variation. It doesn't even need to be about yourself particularly. Many of us have strong stories about politics, or religion, or some other topic. You can use your diamond mind on those too, cutting through the muck to express the heart of the matter.

In the same chapter of Yasutani's commentary, he writes "One must realize that in a single day one passes through this change about six and half billion times." In other words, there is constant arising and falling away of life - and every label we put on whatever is happening can't capture it.

But this doesn't mean words are useless, that there's no meaning, and that we should just give up because it's all impermanent anyway. No, we need to think, to speak, to act, to live.

The commentary above is calling us to develop a continuous openness to our lives and the world around us. To drop off our seemingly endless efforts to find and claim some sustainable bit of solid ground.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Rape and Sexual Harrasment Claims Filed Against Yoga "Guru" Bikram

A few years ago, I wrote a post about the greed of the Bikram yoga empire. In it, I also spoke about the guy's blatant sexism and sexualized teaching, both of which you'd think would be big enough red flags for folks. The response to the post was mixed, which has been the case for many stories I've seen about Bikram and his yoga program.

Now he's got a power abuse scandal on his hands. Students accusing him of rape, sexual coercion, and all sorts of rotten shit.

Some of the Bikram branded studios are breaking away from his corporation, which is a start. Perhaps this will also be the wake up call some of his devoted followers seem to desperately need.

But the thornier issues of guru/teacher worship, power dynamics in classes, creating an identity based solely around your spiritual practice, and turning spiritual/religious practices into capitalist products remain.

Bikram is just the latest in a long line of mostly male power abusing spiritual and religious leaders. It's a tired, old story that we humans just seem prone to repeating, despite all our best efforts to not do so.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Louis CK's "Boredom" Routine Meets the "Mindful" Parent

I've never been one to look to celebrities for great wisdom, or profound opportunities to learn something about life. However, they're still people. Living on this planet. Which means they need not be ignored, or treated as all fluff and emptiness.

Skewering pop culture icons is a favorite past time of hip spiritual types these days. It's usually a different flavor from the fire and brimstone condemnations of religious conservatives, but in the end, both groups tend to display an "above it all, holier than thou" attitude. Something I'd argue derives from a false sense of separation, as well as an allegiance to some form of "transcendence" from the muck of this world.

I say all this because I have been guilty of such hip skewering. And recognize the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) superiority complex that lingered beneath those criticisms. It's a form of criticism that moves beyond examining particular people and social structures, and goes into the territory of "don't bother looking for wisdom or insight here. Because you won't find any." And by here I mean from this person, or this form of pop culture, or in such and such activity. No doubt, there are plenty of tried and true paths for humans to embark and wake up on. However, it's also the case that every last one of our paths to awakening is unique, with points of awareness and wisdom discovery coming from all sorts of unlikely places.

By now, many of you have probably seen the clip of comedian Louis CK talking about boredom with his young daughter. Specifically, in response to his daughter repeatedly saying she was bored, he says:

“I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say ‘I’m bored.”

It's not exactly the response of a heartfelt, gentle parent. I don't think I'd say it exactly that way myself. In fact, I kind of wonder if some of the extra bluster there is simply Louis playing it up to get us to laugh and pay attention to how we feel about such interactions with our children.

Anyway, fellow 21st Century Yoga author Matthew Remski doesn't care much for Louis CK's humor on this one. In fact, he basically rejects the idea that CK's comments are a point of spiritual wisdom.

his now-famous admonishment that his daughter shouldn’t be allowed to be bored is not a borderline-spiritual encouragement for her to seize the day. It’s a transference of anxiety. If we’re laughing, it’s to protect ourselves, as he does, from the most difficult question a child will ask: “What should we do now?” The truth is that nobody knows. If we wanted we could let that soften us, but that softness won’t make anyone laugh.

What to make of this? Even though I'm not a parent, I have had more than enough experience with children and their questions to agree with him that questions like "What should we/I do now?" when you don't have an answer can be anxiety producing. Uncomfortable. In part, I think, because the lack of a ready made answer blows through the idea of being the "all knowing adult." Which is great in one way, because it's an instant opening for co-creation between child and adult. On the other hand, it can leave both with a sense of confusion or even heightened fear. The child thinking, "If he/she doesn't know, then what do we do? Who can help us find the answer?" The adult thinking, "I'm useless here." Or "This kid is seeing through me now." Or "How long will it be before they reject me as trustworthy or as an 'authority figure' all together?" Which eventually could lead the adult to the same question as the child: who can help us find the answer?

However, is the laughter about protection? Or is it, at least for some folks, about recognition of the mucky challenge of that situation?

After making what I would call an unfounded character assumption about Louis CK, Remski goes on to offer this:

Let’s focus instead on the fact that his answer is both untrue and ineffectual. On the untrue side, every four year-old knows that the world is great, big, and vast. And no four year-old has seen none of it. In fact, her entire being is trembling at the threshold of the all of it. The four year-old has had plenty of time to navigate her internal worlds. She knows that stories, dreams and fantasies go on forever. So yes, Louis. She understands these things, and feels much more than she understands. “I’m bored” doesn’t mean “I’m uninterested”. It means “I don’t know who I should be. I feel empty and full. I feel confused and sad. What should I bother doing?”

On the ineffectual side, the answer pretends to kindle the girl’s wonderment, but it actually burns the tenderness of her question. She’s asking a question about how to manage emptiness, and his answer is to overwhelm her with stuff. Instead of letting it be an open moment in which the parent can share in the revelation of uncertainty that the child makes new for him, Louis crams irritated gumption and panicked work-ethic down her throat, guilting her with what she already knows but was too innocent to accept, guilting her for naming a condition to which we dare not confess, guilting her for being so rude as to ask for help. We laugh because he releases the valve on our own guilt over doing the same thing.

My initial response to this is that Remski over estimates the "knowing" of a young child. Personally, I'm not convinced that every child, or even most children, fit the vision he's putting forth. It feels like an adult projection on children. The whole children are adults in small bodies kind of thing. Regardless of whether that's accurate or not, I think it's more useful to come from a place of not knowing here.

CK assumes that boredom means uninterested. Remski assumes the child knows and understands a whole lot about the world and is interested, but confused. Both are assumptions. Assuming the latter might be more expansive and helpful, but it still creates a limited story around the situation that limits the possible responses. Sometimes, children are flat out uninterested in the current situation. If you say otherwise, you've totally forgotten your own childhood.

The problem is that adults are far too prone to coming from a place of knowing in general with children. Because we're supposed to know. Because they usually expect us to know. And because our social structures reinforce the idea that the only right way to interact with children is to be the authority, the leader, the one who knows.

What I see in these pair of responses (from Louis CK and Matthew Remski) are the flip sides of the "adult as knower" coin. One is the gruff, no nonsense side and the other is the soft, tender side.

Where is not knowing in all of this? How might it look different (even just a little bit) if entered into without managed scripts?

As a side note, the feeling tone I get from Louis CK's comments is kind of hostile towards children. Whereas Remski's comments feel hostile towards adults. He goes on to speak about how adults often shift their own self criticism and doubts on to their children. Which is totally true. And yet, his commentary feels devoid of compassion for the struggles of parenting (or being an adult role model) adults face everyday. There's also a particular skewering of Louis CK that in my view seems almost a desire for us - the readership - to see him as an untrustworthy narrator. Someone we'd never look to for wisdom, and also someone who is probably a poor parent to boot.

The way I see it, the brilliance in some of Louis CK's commentary about parenting is that he deliberately unearths all the contradictory, mucky thoughts that adults feel when with children. Especially children who ask lots of questions that have no clear or ready answers. Questions we've been struggling with our entire lives. Sure, if it's true that he's saying all of this stuff to his daughter, that wouldn't be too great. However, I'm not convinced that his comedy stick is a verbatim blow by blow account of his interactions with his daughter. It feels like a compressed version of those moments when the well of energy, caring, and compassion have dried up. And no matter how much you want to be the "best" parent or role model, you just can't offer much. So, a little of that inner crap spills out. Maybe the words sound good, but the tone is standoffish or curt. Or maybe the tone is right, but the words aren't so helpful.

I agree with Remski that Louis CK only offers one side of boredom to us. However, his response to the whole thing feels like a rejection of adult struggles, and also perhaps a subtle rejection of adulthood (beyond being a mentor/parent to children) itself. He writes:

We have to let our children be bored, so they can explore safely the endless horizons of time, and softly confront the abyss. If we take their lead, we can also let ourselves be bored, but not with resignation or apathy. We can be comfortably bored with the endless Big Red Dog, the counting of spaces on board-games.

On the one hand, yes - we can totally share boredom with children. Without trying to come up with some great answer or resolution for it all. And furthermore, there has to be space for kids to get bored and not know what to do in the first place, something the hyper scheduled world we more and more seem to inhabit is failing us - all of us, children and adults alike.

And yet, boredom need not always be shared. In my view, there's a bit of the sacrifice mentality behind these words, and this article as a whole. As if an adult is always selfish or guilty of poor role modeling if they opt to not read the Big Red Dog for the 1000th time today. Or if they respond to "I'm bored" for the 50th time by saying something a little like what Louis CK did. With much younger children, there's definitely less room for this without also doing some harm, even if unintentional. But part of learning how to deal with issues like boredom involves having the space and time alone to face the unknown of it all. And also learning, little by little, that adults have lives beyond you. That you aren't the only person in their world in need of something, even if they are your parent. And that they, too, have needs, which sometimes conflict with yours.

I may be wrong in reading it this way, but Remski's commentary sounds like the flip to the opposite extreme of adult children whose parents frequently sounded like Louis CK's comedy routine. The distant, dismissive, authoritarian, gruff parent, is replaced by the soft, self sacrificing, doting, parent who idealizes their child, in large part out of fear of "damaging" them in some way or another.

Odds are I will get some flack - either written or unwritten in some reader's minds - for writing so much about this as a non-parent, but I'm convinced that both of these extremes are pretty damned common in our society, and neither is leading to more enlightened children, nor healthy, fulfilled parents and adult role model figures.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Zen Desire

The world before my eyes is wan and wasted, just like me.
The earth is decrepit, the sky stormy, all the grass withered.
No spring breeze even at this late date,
Just winter clouds swallowing up my tiny reed hut.

Zen Master Ikkyu, 1394-1481

I have been thinking this morning about delay. Specifically, how delay is felt, experienced, and the desire behind it. When things don't come to us when we want them to, or expected them to, we call it a delay. We say we are in waiting, putting a future focus on what's happening now. And often, in the process, stepping out of the now all together.

Something was desired to occur at a certain time. It didn't. Now what?

When faced with that now what, we tend to experience a taking over by desire. Instead of using our desire energy to move through life, we become owned by it. Controlled by it.

Although it may not have been the case, in Ikkyu's poem, I sense a bit of longing for spring. Both for the literal spring and, also, the spring of waking up to some part of his life he continues to miss.

When desire owns us, everything seems to be colored by lack.

When desire is a tool used by us, there's no lack of abundance.

Being in waiting for something can live in either of those fields. You can wait for spring without being controlled by it.

But that's easier said than done. Those winter clouds too often feel ominous to me. Even when there's no storm in sight.

May this be the winter of burning through the hut's flimsy walls.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Winter Buddha

I woke up this morning feeling a little "under the weather." Not quite sick, but not quite right either. When I went to bed last night, my apartment was warm. Waking, it was cold. This is how it goes, living in an old building with a middling heating system and a slightly cheap landlord.

It's not winter yet, but the past few days have felt like winter. Winter in Minnesota is a long slog, so much so that every moment which breaks through the icy grip on us is a moment worth celebrating.

However, many ways in which we Minnesotans tend to reject the dark, harshly cold days of January for example, are similar to how humans choose to reject whatever experiences and emotions they don't wish to experience.

In other words, our tough doggedness comes with a side of bitching and moaning.

I remember a story about Zen teacher Katagiri Roshi, during the early days of Hokyoji, a retreat center in southern Minnesota. He was doing zazen outside with a small group of students and it was cold, very cold. Someone asked Roshi how he was taking it, the cold I mean, and he responded something like "When it's cold, just be cold. When it's hot, just be hot." I can imagine this guy sitting in his robes with his teeth chattering as he said this. It's a pretty funny image, and also a quality example of not adding on to one's experience.

Talking about the weather is a common point of connection here in the land of 10,000+ (frozen) lakes. We use it as a gateway to bonding, an almost fool proof mechanism to bring ease between even the most dissimilar of people. But I think most of that talking is just adding on, and in many cases, in ways that promote rejection of what's present.

How to engage "weather conversations" differently?

Today, no answers. Just one frosty breath after another.

*Photo: Minnesota snow storm. December 2010.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

One Way to Let Go of Your Attachment to an Identity

Photo credit: clarita from

I originally wrote this post a few years ago, but find it's message still very relevant. Enjoy!

I walked into a coffee shop I hang out at a bit in downtown St. Paul. Among the folks in there was what I've come to term "the family." Over the last ten years or so, I've found myself in the company of this couple and their increasing number of children on dozens of occasions.

The scene is always the same. The children, in various states of unkemptness, run wild, while the man, older and dominant in a quiet sort of way, pontificates to his younger wife about some Bible passage. He frequently takes shots at all organized churches, and includes them among Satan's work. Meanwhile, for a long time, I wondered if the children were even getting home schooled, given how little they seemed to be able to read, write, or interact socially.

So, there they were doing there thing today. I sat down, and the guy sitting behind me starts leaving a message on the phone about a Bible study session. For a moment, I thought "Man, you're surrounded," then let it drop.

Over the years, I've struggled to not run a litany of judgments through my mind about that couple and their kids. Until a month ago, I'd never said a single word to any of them. Then the wife turned to me, as I was working on a blog post, and said "Aren't you that guy who goes to that Buddhist place?" I said I was and she looked at me, paused, and then said "I always found it funny that people would worship a guy who isn't a God." I smiled because it probably is funny from the outside, what we Buddhists are doing.

I'd forgotten that exchange this morning as I sat down and opened my laptop. As the couple gathered their children and started to leave, I was reading a post on someone else's blog. For some reason, I looked up just as the wife said "I'm wondering if ..." (short pause) "if you'd ever consider being challenged on you views?" Now, in the past, I probably would have been interested in such a debate. To prove that I could stand up as a Buddhist, even if the discussion went nowhere. However, as she said those words, I just thought "Life's too short for this." So, instead of engaging, I just said "I don't think it would be worth our time." And she nodded, stepped back, and said "Everyone has free will." And walked out.

The guy behind me, who was reading a passage in the Book of Romans (he'd said as much in the phone message he left), says "Do you know that woman?"

"Barely," I said, not knowing how else to explain this odd connection we'd had over the years.

"What was that all about?" he said. And I sat for a moment, wondering if telling him what it was about would just open up the same issue I had just cut off.

"We could have a long discussion about it, but it probably wouldn't be worth it."

He laughed a little at that, and said something about how that had been an odd exchange between her and I. I agreed, and then he went back to his Bible, and I to my blog. Which is where I am now, no less worn for wear.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Buddhist Liberation from Hatred

"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,"--in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.

"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,"--in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love alone.

These lines are from the first chapter of the Dhammapada, one of the best known collections of teachings from the Theravadan Buddhist canon. A few thousand years later, they are still completely relevant and contemporary.

After my parents divorced, my mother met a man that triggered a lot of hatred within my teenage mind. He could be highly controlling and demanding at times. I still remember him lingering over my should as I washed dishes, waiting until I was finished so he could inspect for spots, and make me wash them again. I hated him then, and for years afterward, whenever his name came up in conversation, or his image came into my thoughts, a tirade of miserable commentary poured out.

It took a dream I had a few months ago to finally break free of any lingering rage and hatred I had towards this man. Some fifteen years after I last saw him. He came to me in the dream seeking to hear my side of the story. Of the suffering I had experienced. And so I told him what I could, while we wound around the city in different forms of transit, until I suddenly woke up and immediately realized something had shifted completely.

In this way, he was a great teacher for me - someone I never want to see again, but who gave me the opportunity to experience a hatred deep enough to understand the damage hatred causes. None of my childhood "enemies" did this really; nor anyone else since.

The thing about the Dhammapada quote above is that people often want to leap from one end to the other. Don't you think? Instead of doing the difficult work of experiencing the pain and roughness of what's present, we want to have that shit over with so we can go on appearing more and more bodhisattva-like in the world. It just doesn't work that way though.

This is why we have to do continuous practice. Making the effort, and letting go of gaining any benefit from that effort. This is the way, and what working with teachings like the verses from the Dhammapada is all about.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veteran's Day: Another Abstract American Holiday

This "holiday" today originally was called Armistice Day, marking the end of the hell that was World War I. After at least 20 million deaths, and entire nations left in rubble, it was supposed to be a reminder of the call "Never again!" from survivors. Including many leaders of the day. It wasn't about abstractions like "heroism," "freedom," "patriotism," or even "service." It was about remembering the millions of humans murdered in a conflict that WWI veteran Harry Patch described in these terms "if you boil it down, what was it? Nothing but a family row. That’s what caused it." Even though the nature of Armistice Day shifted quickly towards honoring military veterans, I choose to honor the original spirit. The end of war. The weariness of ever going there again. The desire for peace to remain, however fragile it may be. I think it says a lot about a country, what it's people choose to honor and celebrate. We're entirely too fond of celebrating war and those who participate in it, colonialist notions of "freedom," genocidal "heroes" like Columbus, and events tied to the colonizer form of Christianity. And the major holidays like Valentine's Day and Halloween, which aren't intimately tied to those narratives, are driven by consumerism. Regardless of what good folks make out of all this, it says a lot about how the U.S. is in the world, and where our collective energies are still going to in large degree. And so, in honoring the original spirit of Armistice Day, I call out to that place in each of us that is peace incarnate. That recognizes kinship with all beings, across arbitrary lines and divisions of any kind. What a day like this truly should honor, so that we might all come back to ourselves, put an end the petty battles and greed driven land grabs before they put an end to us.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Seizing the Seasons: On Identity and Zen Effort

There is no I and there is no other.
How can there be intimacy or estrangement?
I recommend giving up trying to get there by meditation,
But rather, directly seizing the reality at hand.
The message of the Diamond Sutra is:
Nothing is excluded from our experienced world.
From beginning to end,
It inevitably exposes our false identities.

Layman P'ang (740-808)

This is quite a jolt of a poem, don't you think? This whole "exposure" process is interesting. Natural. How every spring, the snow melts away and reveals both a round of casualties and, also, a round of new life. Body of a squirrel. Barren tree. Rotting couch cushion. Tulip blooming. Burst of bee balm. Newborn robin. Shiny bicycle.

How every autumn the trees go bare, the grass goes brown, the wild growth of summer goes underground.

Natural, and yet how often are we simply afraid of being exposed. Of undergoing this expanding into view, and/or stripping away?

Spring comes to our identities. And so does winter. I once taught in English classrooms; now I do not. I once was afraid of public speaking; now I do it all the time.

But being in this movement between the seasons is easier said than done. Especially given how our mass culture tends to highly discourage such flow. And how so many of us are disconnected from the actual seasons themselves, the planetary ebbs and flows happening all around us.

This fierce call to "seize" from Layman P'ang, to me, is a reminder of that disconnection. How our minds figure out so many ways to impede our life from bursting forth completely. And because of this, there's a need for strong effort. For rousing up a willingness to be exposed again and again.

It seems to me that we have the option to be proactive, deliberately choosing to explore our various identities and ways of being in the world, or to be dragged by the world screaming and kicking into such work. Either through bottoming out experiences, or at the end of our lives, when there's no time left to live out the insights.

I invite you all to reaffirm your commitment to being more proactive. To reconcile with the seasons - inwardly and outside of yourself.

Today, I embrace late autumn, with all its cloudy, cold winds, sweeping away whatever needs to go.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Peace Isn't What We Tend To Think It Is

Photo credit: krosseel from

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 Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life for many 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.

Sitting here now, I can see where this teaching is a gateway into an utter calm and peace. All of 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. Meeting them, however, isn't mere acceptance or some kind of resignation. It's not putting up with; it's allowing flow. Accepting what is in one breath, and then doing what you're called to do in the next.

In the cycle of samsara, the pain in your back during meditation, for example, can easily lead to tension, and then irritation, and then some kind of acting out. A few nasty words from some passerby on the street can easily lead to your own shouting, an escalation of conflict, and in some sad cases, violence and even death.

Many people come to Buddhism seeking calm and peace, but don't really understand what calm and peace actually are. And so whenever something disrupts what we've deemed to be calm and peace, we get upset and our lives are overturned.

I used to meditate like mad, associating calm with boredom, and thinking zazen was kind of an endurance contest I had to win somehow. Seems to me the "peace" I sought was otherworldly, some hyper chill state that couldn't possibly be located in the middle of this chaotic, suffering filled world.

In this, there was no room for the world to fully enter, to be "confirmed by the ten thousand things" as Dogen once said.

Things "growing light" does not depend upon outer conditions. As a social activist, I seek a more just, eco-centric, and peaceful world. However, if I get too attached to whatever is "lacking" now, or whatever vision I have for "the future," the flow of fully living stops. And the synergy of accepting what is and taking the next called for step can't happen.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Blogging the Buddha Here Again!

Yesterday was my final post over at Buddhist Peace Fellowship. They have a rotating Guest Editorship that is designed to feature a new writer every quarter, and I invite everyone here to continue checking out the work over there. You can also read co-director Katie Loncke's send off post on my efforts here.

What's next isn't fully determined yet. I have a few writing project ideas, and maybe someone else will come calling for more of my work :) Meanwhile, I'll be writing here again more.

Talk with you all soon!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Being (Or Not Being) "The Good Zen Student"

Recently, I met with our head teacher to talk about my practice (as well as some zen center board-related issues. Fairly early on in the conversation, she asked me point blank,"Why don't you do 'group practice' anymore?" The question was followed by a number of possible reasons she had come up with, but at a certain point she stopped that and waited.

I paused. Looked inward a moment. And then said, "Well, I'm not sure what you said is true. I'm still coming to Sunday services. Attending classes when I can. Etc. What you're really asking about is sesshin, right?"

After confirming this, I basically responded, "I feel called to practice in the world right now." And then I went on to tell her about how, for example, I meditate and/or do chanting practice before (and sometimes during) protests and rallies. And that I do a lot of "public" zazen, meditating on buses, park benches, in fields, in my garden during spring and summer ...

But really, what it comes down to, is that for the most part, I'm over worrying about what constitutes "being a good Zen student."

For most of the past three or four years, I have been skipping out on retreat practice. I have done a few half day retreats and some more intense periods of practice with others at Zen Center, but none of the multiple day or week long sesshins. It's kind of blasphemous to admit, given that I've been on the path over a decade now, and past the kind of initial fears folks have about meditation retreats before experiencing a few of them.

Lately it has occurred to me that doing meditation retreats is something that many Buddhist communities - including my own - view as part of being a dedicated practitioner. Which is totally understandable. Buddha's path to enlightenment flowered open after intense, sustained meditation. However, "dedicated" is really just another word for "good" when you look at it closely.

For a long time, I got hooked when it came to wondering what my fellow dharma brothers and sisters were thinking about my absence from retreat practice. It's kind of silly - wanting to be "seen" as a "good student" - because in the end, Zen isn't about that at all. Being respected and elevated within a community doesn't mean squat when it comes to breaking through greed, hatred, and ignorance. And yet, like the rest of life, outward markers easily get mistaken for wisdom and depth.

It's so easy to forget all that when you've spent much of your life trying to be liked and cared for by others. I occasionally still get tripped up by this stuff when I'm at zen center, talking with my dharma friends.

Odds are, there will be another period in my life when lots of inward reflection and retreat practice of some sort will call me.

For now, I will go with what is moving me. This experiment of practicing in the middle of the swirl of daily life.

There's a natural ebb and flow movement between "inward" and "outward" that, once you recognize, you can allow yourself to move with it.

Form and emptiness, emptiness and form. Every breath can be a sesshin, if you allow it to be.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Dalai Lama Supports Legalizing Medicinal Marijuana

Currently in Mexico, where a debate over the legalization of marijuana is heating up, the Dalai Lama told an audience that he supports the medicinal use of the plant.

The Tibetan spiritual leader, speaking at an event hosted by former Mexican president Vicente Fox, said that "the exception" for smoking marijuana would be if it has pharmaceutical virtues.

"But otherwise if it's just an issue of somebody (using the drug to have) a crazy mind, that's not good," he said after being asked his position on legalization at the outdoor event at the ex-president's Fox Center in the central state of Guanajuato.

Over at the Buddhist Blog, James Ure offers the following in support of the Dalai Lama's comments:

For eons, marijuana has been used medicinally by humans to treat ailments. Historically, marijuana has been legal for use up till only recently. Ironically, legalizing marijuana will simply return it to its historical status of acceptability. Marijuana truly is a miracle drug as it alleviates so much suffering from a plethora of conditions. It helps relieve my chronic depression to the point of saving me from suicide a few times. In addition, medical marijuana blunts the aches and pains of my bursitis to enable my body to meditate properly. Why wouldn't compassionate-minded Buddhists support the use of a healing, natural, herbal, non-addictive medicine such as marijuana to treat symptoms of medical conditions?

As a non-user who doesn't have a personal stake in the plant's legality, I also support decriminalization. Billions of dollars have been spent across the continent in the futile war on drugs. We have prison cells filled with folks whose main or only crime is using and/or selling this plant. There is a heavy racial bias towards men in color particularly when it comes to arrests and incarceration, one symptom of a broader pattern of systemic racism that could be alleviated through decriminalization. Like alcohol prohibition, marijuana prohibition has only increased the power of drug gangs and cartels, while also providing governments across North and Central America an excuse to ramp up the militarization of law enforcement agencies.

All in all, prohibitions have been an immense failure. It's time for another way forward.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Marketing the Self and Spiritual Discernment

Marketing of the self. Aren't we taught to do that pretty early on in life? You gotta stand out or you'll be forgotten, right? You better promote or you will never be successful, right?

I believe there is a double bind around all of this in modern societies. The human tendency to self cherish is the main dish. Humans have been eating it, probably since the beginning of our species. In addition to the main dish is a set of side dishes called consumerism, capitalism, and commodification. Ever seductive, they add endless flavors and textures onto the main dish. I suppose it might be the case that plain old self cherishing gets kind of dull after awhile. It's so much more exciting to be the hot, new product on the block. Or the respected, reliable old one.

The pressure to be a product is damn strong, so much so that even spiritual teachers are falling for it in droves. Being a person with some wisdom mixed with a bag full of delusion doesn't feel good enough. Being a person who takes a shit and can't quite wipe it all clean isn't sexy enough. Being a person who is articulate one minute, and has nothing helpful to say the next just doesn't cut it. And so, we end up with teachers with trademarks at the end of their names. Teachers who spew endless amounts of flowery language. Teachers who market themselves as healers, and then end up abusing the hell out of anyone who gets close to them.

It is any wonder that so many of us are so confused in this life?

Some people get really irritated with me when I start talking about systems and collective conditions. They say things like "Zen practice is about you. Focus on yourself and stop pointing the finger at others." But this isn't about simple judgment. This isn't about damning those trademarked teachers to hell. It's about cultivating an awareness of the larger patterns that are influencing our thinking and behavior. About seeing as conditioned much of what we think is "normal," and that to the extent that we continue mindlessly eating it, we'll be used and controlled by it.

*If you haven't seen them already, I have multiple new posts up over at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. You can check them out here.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Violence Will Not Cease Without Facing Our Fears of Death

The first Buddhist precept is a vow of non-killing. It’s not an injunction against all killing, and indeed we are always, even in taking a breath, killing something. If we want to embody a non-violent way of being and acting in the world, we have to come to terms with life and death as unified. Inseparable. That living and dying are occurring in every moment, no matter what we choose to do or not do. On the whole, American’s don’t handle the death side well. When faced with any inkling of it, we’re prone to turn away, minimize, or deny it. The increasing, mostly male obsession with “self defense” and resorting to violent measures to carry out such defense, feels intimately tied to this issue. Men look around and see other men killing each other and they don’t want to be next. Never mind that 2/3rds of gun deaths in the U.S. annually are self inflicted, the fear of being mowed down by some other is widespread. It’s not the slow fading away from chronic illness or quick passing during an accident that haunts many of us. It’s the messy end by bullet.

You can read the rest of the post here.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

New Buddhist Blog and Post Roundup

Buddhist publisher Wisdom Publications has a new blog. My understanding is that they intend to begin linking to us bloggers, as well as sharing teachings, book excerpts, and Buddhist news related items. It's a nice looking website, but since they've just started the blog, the content is fairly sparse at this point. Here's an interesting essay from Bhikkhu Bodhi about the Pali Canon from over there. I invite any interested bloggers or readers of Dangerous Harvests to contact them with suggestions.

My new post over at Turning Wheel covers Obamacare and practicing with hot button issues. Head over there and check it out! Also, Buddhist Peace Fellowship is running it's annual fundraising campaign. This year, one of their goals is to finance a national gathering of engaged Buddhists in 2014. You know I'm totally excited about that!! If you're excited about the work BPF is doing, and/or want to thank them for supporting and featuring my writing this summer and fall, offer a donation or spread the Indiegogo link.

Readers are often asking me for suggestions on good reads. If you're looking for books on zen check out the link included.

There's been a lot of discussion about this post about Zen teachers and money over at Sweeping Zen. I contributed to the comments section, which has several interesting perspectives. One of our regular readers, Mumon, offered a whole post on the topic as well.

Finally, Kobutsu Malone of the Engaged Zen Foundation is trying to raise funds to help pay for the medical expenses of a Thai Buddhist monk from Oklahoma who was brutally assaulted during a robbery in late August. Please share his story with your networks.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Impatient Social Activists and the Comparing Mind

One thing I have also noticed, in my own life, and in the social activist world, is how easy it is for me/you/us to dismiss the tiny beginnings that emerge from our efforts to see the world differently, and then do something to take a different direction.

It’s like we are gardeners that only pay attention to the growth that has moved far above ground, and deems any slow rising little shoots as signs of future crop failure. Never mind the “invisible” growth that still lies beneath the surface.

I remember one year thinking in the middle of May that the previous year’s mint must have died out because it hadn’t returned yet. So, I went out, got some more mint plants, and plunked them in. About six weeks later, I was faced with a new problem. Not only had the old mint plants suddenly reappeared, but now they were fighting for space with the new mint plants I had bought to replace them with. In fact, the ones I thought had died ended up growing back twice as large as the previous year. Hence the space issue.

Impatience, unexamined assumptions, and a failure to pay close attention are all part of comparison mind. Focusing on the wrong things, such as the most tangible, immediate results, can derail our efforts – sometimes for generations.

You can read the rest of the article here. Enjoy!

Also, help support the Buddhist Peace Fellowship to do more great work in 2014 by spreading the word about their current Indiegogo campaign, and/or donating yourself. Thank you!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Navy Yard Shooter and America's "Permanent" State of Violence

The awareness of how fragile our lives are should prompt more compassion, and more willingness to actively pursue the kinds of changes that might bring about a much more peaceful society. So often, though, these incidents quickly devolve into heated, ugly debates about motives or gun control. They are also rife with frenzied attempts to attach or detach numerous labels, as well as a desire to create as much separation from the perpetrators as possible. We seem prone to hurried burials. Wanting to put into the ground not only the bodies of the dead, but also every other aspect of disturbance itself. Instead of lingering with questions, we rush to fixed answers. Instead of living with open grief, and letting it disturb business as usual, we do whatever we can to push through it, or stuff it, and move on. Buddhists do this. Christians do this. Humans do this. It’s something we are wont to do.

And yet, there’s something about living in an empire nation that makes it that much more the case. Quick burials are our specialty. The business of profits and power won’t be blocked by such things. We’ll just bury the dead, offer some tidy narrative about the killers, and privately attend to the grief stricken families. It’s all very predictable.

You can read the rest of the post here.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Warping of Buddhist Generosity

We live in a society that reinforces financial privilege so much that it makes it quite difficult to break patterns whereby the financially well off are the ones who get to “serve,” “do ongoing activist work,” and get all the feel good accolades in the process. The only reason I was able to give so much time and energy to the causes during 2011 and 2012 was because I had built up a financial cushion many folks my age don’t have. However, it wasn’t nearly enough to sustain me over a longer haul period, and I’ve spent the last year or scrapping by (often with family help) every month just to pay my modest bills.

One of the things this experience has taught me is that we must build fiercely robust and creative organizations that can support communities devoting themselves to social change work. As long as social transformation and justice are side projects Buddhists do if they have the time, not only will we fail to be a main part of any major solutions, but it will primarily be the privileged few getting to do anything on a long term basis. Which tend to reinforce the kinds of savior and charity complexes that have kept the capitalist train going all these years.

You can read more from my latest article at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship here.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Zen Master Dogen and the Crisis in Syria

It’s been a very interesting few days of developments in the crisis in Syria. The Syrian government agreed to a Russian proposal to hand over its chemical weapons and sign the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons treaty, which currently has 189 signatures on it. President Obama and his administration continue to press the case for military intervention, even as the diplomatic front has opened up. And recent polls suggesting a clear majority of Americans still oppose military action have been followed up by anti-war demonstrations all over the U.S., including here in the Twin Cities.

Reporting on the civil war in Syria tends to divide the conflict into two groups: the government-led military against an armed opposition composed of a mixture of grassroots Syrian groups and foreign “insurgents” from various terrorist organizations in the region. This fairly tidy, simplistic picture has actually been one of the reasons why so many Americans oppose military intervention. While plenty of folks truly reject warfare and military policing as a way to deal with international conflicts, others are driven more by a desire to avoid supporting either side, feeling that the choice between supporting the Assad government or a group of “terrorists” or “Islamic extremists” isn’t a choice they want to make.

Lost in all of this is the fact that the resistance movement started as a non-violent one, became violent in part because of U.S. arming of the rebel groups, and that non-violent efforts continue in Syria alongside the armed conflicts. When I wrote last week that Americans have a “crisis of the imagination,” this is a part of that. Odds are, if you polled the populace here, very few would even consider that non-violent resistance exists in Syria, or that it was the driving force early on in the conflict. This is the case, even though they were probably exposed to some news reports of the movement back in 2011. There are a variety of reasons for this, including Anti-Islamic sentiment and stereotyping, mainstream media coverage fixated on violence, and a general lack of awareness of the history and prevalence of non-violent resistance worldwide.

What would have happened if the U.S. and other nations had found ways to support the non-violent resistance movement back in 2011 that didn’t involve weapons? What if the international powerhouses put all of energy into an all out public campaign supporting non-violent resistance, encouraging their populations to help finance, document, and send prayer and meditation energy to the Syrians on the ground?

You can read the rest of the post here.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Be Generous to the Human Condition

A few years ago, I had a meeting with our head teacher at the Zen center. Zen people tend to call these meetings dokusan, although the way it unfolds can be anything from a one minute blundered koan presentation to a long conversation about life - it really depends on the teacher's style, as well as the circumstances behind having the meeting in the first place. Anyway, during this meeting, the content of the conversation seemed to lead us both to the phrase I titled this post with: "Be generous to the human condition." It has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? But what does it mean exactly?

I’ve been reflecting a lot on war again, given the crisis in Syria and the Obama Administration’s pressuring for military action there. My current post over at Turning Wheel media digs deeply into all of that. Warfare is, ultimately, a surface approach to a below the surface set of problems. Societies built on greed and power mongering. Pervasive poverty. Human fear and ignorance. You can cut off the top of a dandelion again and again, but it's only through uprooting it completely (and eating it's health-giving body :), that you'll be rid of it.

As such, we can use the phrase "Be generous to the human condition" as a reminder of our individual and collective struggles to go deeper. Our tendencies to seek quick and easy solutions, even when we might know that they're ultimately doomed. It is about recognizing all the foolish and destructive behavior that comes from our individual and collective delusions. To be able to just breath it in, and touch what it's like to be human in this world at this time.

Not because you're better than anyone else - you're not - but because doing so is one of the ways to soften the edges, develop compassion, and see that we're all in this together.

This practice, and life in general, is hard work. Not always, but often. And so even as we offer fierce critiques, or sit silently with the world's turmoil without any coherent response, it's helpful to remember to be generous to the human condition. Moment after moment.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

White Buddhist Race Talk

"Think of all the violence and oppression it has taken to “settle” the continent during colonialism. And then consider how this process of “settling” has been internalized generation after generation. Every non-indigenous group has ingested some of this poison, which in my view, also appears whenever racial discussions get heated, divided, and/or shut down. Given that white folks have been at the top of colonial pyramid in North America and elsewhere, our commonplace, default responses to “race talk” are to seek “settlement.” Some aim to put it all in the past. Some aim to create a definitive list of “good guys and bad guys” and then work to position themselves as one of the former. Some aim to defend themselves and the status quo. While some simply aim to avoid it all together. Regardless of the form, what I notice is the desire to have it all settled. Finalized. Done. Which mimics colonization itself. Both in the violence of it, and also the way in which it seeks to control collective stories. To suggest that there must be a single, final way to view reality and how we are together."

You can read more, including a lot of discussion in the comments section, here.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Buddhists Hate Change

The Buddha’s teachings are filled with pointers and commentary about impermanence, the fleeting quality of life, and the opportunity each of us has to “wake up” because of this. Amongst the world’s major religions, Buddhism not only emphasizes change the most, but it appears to unabashedly embrace change. Upon Shakyamuni’s death, there was much sadness and pleading in the original sangha. However, there were also a few practitioners, said to be “awakened,” who responded to the Buddha’s death by saying “All compound things are impermanent. What’s the use of crying?” Later Buddhists would come along and speak about an opposite appearing, but similarly free response, of crying completely and fully, leaving nothing left to let go of later. Regardless of the “face” of the response, the focus is on the truth of continuous change in the relative world, and how not to be ensnared by it.

When I look at the Buddhist world, though, it really does appear that Buddhists hate change as much as anyone. Why use such a strong word? Because softer words tend to get ignored or provide a cushion that maintains ignorance. That’s one of the ironies here. Our unwillingness to embrace change keeps some things the same. And usually, what gets propped up are paths of suffering. Structures, views, and actions that breed misery and oppression, the very things we say we’re seeking to transform.

You can read the rest of the post here.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Buddhist Prayer

*This post originally appeared on DH back in 2010. The conversation back then was rich, so I decided to repost it today.

We had a ceremony this morning at zen center commemorating the Parinirvana, or physical death day, of the Buddha. It was a short ceremony, attached to our regular children's precept ceremony, but I noticed that, at one point, the doan (basically a chanting leader), spoke in language that could be called a prayer. He said something to the effect of "May Shakyamuni Buddha continue to support and lead us through our lives." Now, it's important to note that there isn't a belief here of a deity hovering over our world, determining what is happening and what will happen in the future. If anything, a statement like this is calling forth the buddhanature - enlightened energy - within each of us to continue to manifest in our lives.

About a week ago, there was a post over at Barbara's Buddhism Blog about prayer in Buddhism. She basically takes the stance that we Buddhists do not pray because prayer assumes a petitionary stance towards some outward deity or spirit. In the comments section that follows the post, there's a fascinating set of exchanges between Barbara and a commenter named Jeff Wilson. Wilson brings up that many Japanese Zen practitioners, in everyday life, make petitionary prayers in daily life to such figures as Kwan Yin, Jizo, and other bodhisattvas, while at the same time, believing in the core Buddhist doctrine of interdependence. He parses this activity out as an example of working within the relative or practical world, while at the same time, maintaining the ultimate view that there is nothing separate in this world. Barbara was having none of that, and defended her position, getting snotty at the end in my opinion.

All of this, though, raises the question for me of why such discomfort with the word "prayer" and activities that would fall under it's domain? I don't get it. Possibly it's tied up the definition Barbara seems to give, that prayer is basically done towards the outside, suggesting a belief in a supernatural being having an ability to control some aspect of your life. Well, maybe. But does it have to be? Can one not pray, even petition for something or some quality, but from within?

I'd answer a resounding yes! Look at the old Sufi poets, who spoke constantly of God, but were often, if not exclusively "praying" to wake up what was already within them. I "pray" to Jizo fairly frequently, especially to call from within me that equanimity that seems to disappear when I am biking in traffic.

The fuss I have seen when it comes to prayer - and I've seen it in people in my own sangha, as well as people writing online - seems curiously limiting to me. Because those monotheistic folks do prayer, we Buddhists better eschew it. Or because it sounds like a petition to a deity, we better say we don't do it. Or because Buddhists are about meditation, we don't pray. Honestly, I can only guess at the myriad of reasons for eschewing prayer in all forms, but it all seems like a reaction to other traditions, an act of separating Buddhism from other spiritualities, which seems like a waste of time and energy to me.

In her post, Barbara suggests that Zen folks don't pray, but we do "invoke." The main definitions of invoke are "to petition for help or support," or "to appeal to or cite as authority." Sounds like prayer if you ask me. And I see no issue with it at all. My petitions to Jizo do not change my view that there is no separate God out there. And I can imagine that plenty of Buddhists around the world can invoke, or pray, to any number of deities and still maintain a similar understanding. And maybe some do think there are separate bodhisattvas floating around out there, protecting and helping people. I guess I'm not all that interested in judging these folks as "wrong practitioners" for believing in such things.

*Jizo image from the Michigan Aikido blog.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Zen Action

Another week has flown by. This summer has been a whirlwind, filled with lots of writing, adventure, gardening, biking and hard work. I find myself barely able to keep up with it all. An opportunity to let go of needing to be "on top of it all," to just do what I am doing thoroughly and completely.

On Sunday, I gave the dharma talk for morning service at zen center. It's always interesting to notice the differences between sitting in the crowd and sitting in front of the crowd. How various worries about self image arise, attached to fear in the belly. How meditation seems over in a split second when I'm on the teacher seat. How there's so much more going on than talking. How listening while speaking somehow seems to both happen, and be required for connection.

The talk was focused on anger and the ninth precept. If that intrigues you, I invite you to take a listen.

Meanwhile, I've been plugging away over at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship's website. Yesterday's post takes on the issue of fossil fuel addiction and how that impacts the way we view/practice the dharma. Another post, from last week, contains the follow lines that were incorporated into my Sunday dharma talk:

What I also find is that convert Buddhists on the whole are terribly averse to anger and rage. They’re highly prone to suppression, deflection, and other spiritual bypassing techniques. In my opinion, we need to actively experience the anger and outrage that comes from living in conditions of injustice, oppression, and environmental destruction. We absolutely must be willing to plunge into the depths of the despair, greed, hatred, and ultimately fears of various forms of annihilation that lay beneath the surface of that anger and outrage. We cannot simply toss around statements about love and expect to create a society built on love. Just as we actively work to dismantle forms of oppression and violence in the world, we also have to actively be vigilant on the anger and outrage that compelled us to do so in the first place. To transform it at the roots, and learn from it what might become steps towards a better society for all.

And there are multiple excellent interviews, including one posted today with dharma teacher Larry Yang on diversity in our sanghas and renouncing what he calls the "colonial self," as well as an interview I conducted a few weeks back with Lakota activist and hiphop artist Troy Amlee.

May you all be well. Talk to you soon!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Why the Genpo Roshi Controversy Just Won't Go Away

I was going to write about something else today, but when I opened the blog today, I had a comment waiting on a postfrom over two years ago. The infamous Genpo Roshi article during the height of his implosion back in 2011. This post is, by far, the most read piece ever published on DH. Almost 10,000 views and 67 comments to date, a crazily high amount given that most of my posts get a few hundred views and a handful of comments, and then essentially stay quiet in the archives.

Something about Genpo's story keeps people hooked. There have been plenty of other Zen teacher scandals in recent years. Several have broke open since Genpo. I've written about more than one of them here, and while those posts gained a lot of attention as well, none have had the lasting power of the Genpo post.

Sure, there's kind of a flies attracted to garbage thing around these scandals in general. Gawking at the downfall of folks with some elevated level of wisdom is a popular pastime these days. Maybe it always has been. And certainly these stories always give the opportunity for dissecting delusion, and offering warnings and insights into how to practice - especially with teacher figures.

But for some reason, the Genpo post in particular lingers on. If you type in "Genpo Roshi controversy" into Google, the post comes up #6 on the list, so that's probably part of it. I tend to think that the big money making of "Big Mind" also plays a role in continued interest. Power scandals that involve lots of money are always major attention grabbers. Along those lines, the most recent commenter said this:

It interesting to me that as soon as someone, particularly someone who is teaching something in the spiritual sphere, makes money from what they do then it's a scam.

Good on Dennis Merzel for having the courage to share his work and charge what it's worth, the world is a better place because of it.

This linkage between making money and what's being offered being considered a scam is worth investigating. Living in a capitalist society creates a lot of challenge for spiritual lay teachers, writers, and others on similar paths. The safety net of support from a community, or even societal norms that monastics traditionally have experienced, just isn't really there for most lay folks. Even monastic sanghas in countries like the U.S. are finding it difficult at times to support the needs of its individual members, and also offer teachings and/or practice opportunities to the broader community without cost (or at low cost.)

In capitalist societies, those teachers, spiritual writers, and similar others who are able to give freely most of time are often in economically privileged places. They aren't dependent upon students or interested folks giving them money for the time and energy they give teaching. And the expectation that this be the case - that they not be dependent for material needs on their students and interested others - is a really curious warping if you think about it. Instead of figuring out ways to develop communities of giving and receiving that encourage a general flow of material support to those teaching, writing about the dharma, etc., we've mostly imposed a capitalist framework that turns offerings of the dharma into products for purchase. So, either teacher X accepts the commodified exchange, or they have to get their material needs met elsewhere. Usually in the form of a job or career of some sort.

So, in one way, what someone like Genpo does is really just an exaggerated form of compliance to the capitalist framework imposed upon the dharma. Charging piles of money for the teachings he is "giving" ensures that he'll be able to keep functioning for a long, long time as a teacher within the framework. Most others charge much less and either barely get by, work somewhere else for pay, or are privileged. But in all cases, what's reinforced is the notion that an individual "I" is fully responsible for covering his/hers material needs at all times. A notion that really runs counter both to the teachings of interdependence, as well as the ways in which sangha and "enlightened" societies are supposed to run.

The greed that I see in folks like Genpo streams forth from this collective place. When you are indoctrinated from a very young age to believe that "a good citizen" is someone who always produces, always has enough money, always takes care of their needs on their own or within their own immediate family, it's terribly likely that you'll feel compelled to take more than you need when you can. That you'll horde and justify hording. That you'll exploit others in small ways or great ways. Because in the back of your mind, you don't want to be viewed as "a failure." You don't want to be at the mercy of something like a faceless government bureaucracy, unforgiving family members, or random strangers on the street. It doesn't matter how much you pile up, there's that nagging feeling of lack hanging around which never seems to let up. Not only fears about lack of material goods and/or money, but a lack of self worth as well.

None of this justifies charging $50,000 for a Zen retreat, for example. Nor any of Genpo's power abuse, sexual greed and exploitation of his students either. However, I think that one of the reasons why stories like Genpo's remain "hot" long after they have cooled in a certain sense is that they provoke all the unexamined and unsettled narratives each of us have around need and lack, especially those of us born and raised in capitalist dominant economies like the United States. Where self worth and value is intimately tied up in money making, continuous production and consumption, and "personal" responsibility. And where power is mostly linked with control over the general consensus means of gaining that self-worth (i.e. the jobs, money, and material goods.

Greed is certainly a universal, human predicament. But it's that much harder to face and overcome when you live in a society that essentially is built upon rewarding and upholding acts of greed. And has as a central narrative the rejection of all those "in need," whether temporary or ongoing. We won't get anywhere with issues like power hungry, greed ridden spiritual teachers as long as the communities we built around them fail to address the broader issues of need and lack head on. As a regular, ongoing focus of practice.

*If you're interested in going more in depth on these issues, I highly recommend Scott Edelstein's excellent book.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Abandon Laziness

We can never be sure how long we will be in the bardo of the living. No one can say. When and where we will die is always uncertain. It is completely unpredictable. No matter how rich or clever you are, you can never know how much longer you have to live. Since we're not sure how long this life will last, Guru Padmasambhava advises us to abandon laziness.

Now is the time to increase appreciation and gratitude for our life situation, to arouse ourselves and make a joyful effort to realize great results. We should develop confidence in our way and be happy in our endeavors. Don't just assume that you are worthless and incapable. Don't let this opportunity slip by and have cause for regret. Learn to work effectively, happily, and with commitment.

Venerable Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche
from a commentary on Zhi-Khro

I love the energy of these two paragraphs. The bold, joyful, and resolute sense about it. No hesitation. No wasted words trying to mitigate worries or possible offenses.

Even though I have done a lot with my life already, and have a long resume filled with "good works," I sometimes struggle with laziness.

When laziness is considered as a form of unneeded delay, then I see it as a frequent "friend" hanging about this house of my life. Unneeded delay can appear in almost any form. It might look like the stereotypical forms. The lounging about. The not doing anything. The putting in no effort. I'm that person sometimes. For many of these days, though, it might be in the form of busy, of doing something called work, or even of doing spiritual practices, if they are done to avoid something else. I'm that person sometimes as well.

Noticing this is helpful in my opinion. Noticing without berating yourself. And yet also noticing without going too soft on yourself.

A lot of modern spiritual teachings stop at the not berating yourself, which I think is a mistake. Because our world is so full of distractions now that a person can learn to drop off the inner judgment, but still get lost amongst the tide of non-essentials coming their way.

Zen folks like to talk about discipline, but I don't think that's quite it. Commitment, with joy, seems more true to my ears. May we all tap into this along our various paths.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

On Zen Bicycles and Living Colonial Ghosts

Although I haven't been writing a ton here, I have been writing a whole lot elsewhere.

My current post over at Life as a Human webzine may be familiar to longtime readers of the blog. I continue to use the Jizo chant while bicycling, cutting through whatever anger and discontent arises.

Over at Turning Wheel magazine, I have multiple new posts, including a long poem on the ghosts of colonialism, as well as a revised version of the Eckhart Tolle posts you read here last month.

Enjoy, and have a great Sunday!

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Short Note to Any White American Buddhists, Yoga Practitioners, or Others Who Feel Threatened By "White Supremacy" Discussions

I wrote these points as a response to comments I received on an old post on American Buddhism and race. In light of the Trayvon Martin case, and the seemingly endless rounds of back and forth about all things race and racism, I'm offering them again.

1. Respond to criticism or perceived criticism of your spiritual practice by practicing.

2. Many of us white folks "overdo" race talk. Few of us are willing to sit with race like a koan, listen for whatever wisdom is there "behind the curtain," and then speak from that.

3. Minimizing, denying, blaming, trying to "fix," and/or judging are the standard forms of acting out in response to something we don't like, or don't want to hear. Knowing that, now what?

4. If I choose to not listen to the pain and suffering beneath someone's words today, they’ll be someone else expressing something similar tomorrow.

5. Forget trying to get all your ducks in a row. You have to act, or not act, as it is, moment after moment.

And I'll add a number six to this list.

6. Racism is ultimately a heart/mind issue. Both on the individual level, and also collective level. It's poisons can't be removed by rational debate and statistics.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Buddhist Violence in Burma

Hey Friends! I'm doing a three part series on the violence by Buddhists against Muslims in Burma this week. It's been challenging to write because there's just so many layers to what's happening, and it's damn sad as well. But I think Buddhist practitioners outside of Burma should take note, if already haven't. Definitely says a lot about how causes and conditions can come together to bring about great suffering.

Here are the links to the first and second posts.

Update: please read the final installment here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Do Convert Buddhists Need God?

I found this post interesting, in part because of its provocative title. Which I rephrased above as a question.

From the blog:

When I write that people need God/no God, what I mean is that they should be asking themselves what they are overlooking by rejecting a particular perspective on life, by dismissing a particular orientation to existence. What can't they see or feel or understand because the narrative of life, the universe, and everything that they have embraced and which is bound up in their sense of identity, is closed to certain points of view?

I myself have gravitated between God and no God, including "Who cares?" and "What does it have to do with me? The same with religions such as Buddhism and Christianity and philosophical movements such as compassionate or engaged Humanism.

Yesterday, I was part of a team that visited another organization to discuss potential partnerships. Zen center is currently considering moving, and with that has opened up space for other ideas as well, including developing new collaborations. The organization we visited had a focus on spirituality and healing, with what appeared to be a loosely Christian flavor, although they're folks who explore across spiritual/religious borders. After we walked through their building, a former Catholic convent, our executive director commented on how she was pondering the differences between a Zen aesthetic and a more Christian one. Eventually, one of their folks brought this comment back up and corrected the "Christian" attribution, but I think what was happening there was more about this God/no God issue. And how spaces look and feel based on which side of the fence those who organize them tend to fall on.

During the early days of my blog, I had a lot more heat around these issues. There was within me a "need" for some sort of clear demarcation between theistic religions and Buddhism, for example. Even though I also rejected the fixation on solely rational approaches to the dharma, and what felt like atheistic dogma being applied to our practice.

Something has softened around all of this now. My views haven't changed a whole lot, but the clinging to them is less.

And yet, the wrestling with such issues as "secular Buddhism," or is there a God or not, have been most fruitful for my practice. It's not so much that convert Buddhists "need God," but more that we need to maintain a life of questions. To not give in to the seductive voice of "I know the truth and that's that."

Monday, July 8, 2013

Witnessing Absurdities: Deep Seeing as a Skill for Decolonizing Activist Work

From my new post over at Turning Wheel:

" I want to take a look at one of the elements I think has been lacking in many other American social change efforts: deep seeing or right mindfulness. By right mindfulness I’m speaking of it both as awareness of what’s present “inside” each of us, and also skillful attention to what’s present in the social, collective realm. The first step to waking up, and breaking the chains of a destructive pattern or social system, is simply being able to see what’s present. Not what we think is there. Not what someone else told us is there. But actually witnessing and taking in fully what’s there before us."

Head over there now to read the rest of it.

Also, I have a few other topics I'd like to write something about this week. Hopefully, I'll have time to put up another post here soon. We will see.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A New Sangha of Social Action

Hi Everyone! I've been hard at work over the past week on some new material. As of July 1st, I am the new Guest Editor over at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship's Turning Wheel magazine. It's totally exciting, and to get us all started, here's my first TW post. Enjoy!

Friday, June 28, 2013

An Ode To Trolls

In somewhat of a departure from the norm here, for those of you who like poetry, with a bit of litany and ranting, check out my new poem. It's inspired by an essay in the current edition of Harper's magazine. An essay that laments the perceived rotten state of American poetry, and which has riled up poets, including myself. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Holistic Spiritual Practice

I think a lot of American Buddhist converts are infatuated with human reason. Even though Buddhist teachings point us beyond our own thoughts and understandings, we're so comfortable in the realm of reason that we think it is the answer to all of our "problems." That if we just think things out better, analyze things a little more rationally, we'll break through the confusion and emotionalism, and figure it all out.

Here's a small segment of a post by Ajahn Sumedho on the blog Buddhism Now:

If we are intellectual, we are always up in the head, thinking about everything. Emotionally we might not be developed at all-throw temper tantrums, scream and yell when we do not get our own way. We can talk about Sophocles and Aristotle, have magnificent discussions about the great German philosophers and about Ramakrishna, Aurobindo, and Buddha, and then somebody does not give us what we want and we throw a tantrum! It is all up in the head; there is no emotional stability.

On the other hand, I've met my share of yoga practitioners, as well as some in Buddhist circles, who think thinking is something to be rejected outright. For them, the infatuation may be with the emotional world. Or things more intangible like intuition or "spiritual experience" of some sort.

I think these imbalances represent a lack of integration. Both on an individual level, and also collective level. Yoga in the U.S. is, on the whole, pretty one dimensional. Not too much community. A lot of body-centrism. And only small pockets of folks going beyond the simplest of yogic philosophical teachings. American convert Buddhism, likewise, is struggling to flower in a more mature, holistic manner. Care for social issues and the suffering of "the masses" is still a secondary focus, if a concern at all in many communities. Restrictive definitions of "deep practice" are common, as are watering down efforts to help keep folks "comfortable."

It will be interesting to see what another generation brings to all of this. Some signs are hopeful, others are just more samsara going round and round.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Eckhart Tolle and Social Activism II

I received a couple of comments on yesterday's post that I'd like to give extended answers to.

Was Once wrote:

"I have found that almost everything has it's lifespan, and now I have stepped back (some) to let my natural compassionate self to blossom. It will all fall down or not, but I see the end of my life and it felt like wisdom finally pulled in."

There's an ebb and flow of activity from what I have seen and experienced. Sometimes, you really need to turn inward and focus on yourself, where you are at. In the midst of activity and action, it's easy to loose touch with the buddha-nature energy that illuminates our greed, hatred and ignorance. And if you've been practicing for a long time, it's easy to think you've "done enough," forgetting that the path is vast and endless. Or get seduced by the idea that "you," specifically, must "do it all" in order to be worthy.

In general, this is one of the big challenges for the activist community (or folks committed to service in places like homeless shelters, hospices, etc.) Many have put spiritual or religious practice aside, or rejected it outright, including things like secular forms of meditation. And others who are spiritual or religious simply get caught up in the swirl of constant activity. There's always something to do. Developing the awareness necessary to see when you need to step back, or when to move on, isn't emphasized in these groups for a variety of reasons. And as a result, too many end up burning out, becoming highly reactionary, or totally in crisis. It's a pattern I'd like to make a dent in.

Anonymous wrote:

" if you live in a country where people are so ingrained with the politics of their fathers, and the generations before, that they will take up violence on account of a ‘cause’ and with very little consideration, or inner awareness this focus on the individual is a necessary, and essential, building block, for creating change."

It's necessary, but not sufficient. Let's face it, though, his primary audience are folks in post industrial nations. He's not speaking to people living under dictatorships, in war-torn countries, or other highly volatile situations. That doesn't mean that his writings and talks haven't spread to some in these places, but they aren't the people regularly attending his lectures, buying up every last thing with his name on it, and filling his pockets with cash. When I wrote yesterday that he's marketed as a "non-threatening guru," part of what I meant by that is that he doesn't challenge the economic and social status quo. The CEO of Walmart or Exxon can find some inner peace through his writings, and perhaps learn to treat his family and employees a little better, without ever looking at how damaging the business practices of his company are. Or how damaging some of the larger structures and laws that uphold our economy are to both humans and the planet as a whole.

The thing is I'm not suggesting that folks like Tolle need to be as deliberate and descriptive as I am about social and political issues, and their intersection with spiritual practice. But when you have an entire collection of writings where little or no time is given to how we might consider those intersections, and see the public realm as a clear area of practice, something is off. Furthermore, Tolle basically tells folks that if they just take care of their inner lives, it will all be good. And that this is the evolutionary plan, something inevitable that they're just plugging into.

I think Tolle places too much faith in our capacity to overcome a hell of a lot of social conditioning on our own, and that millions and millions of people doing this will somehow break through all the collective conditioning and structures that currently oppress us. He fails to recognize or acknowledge that even our greatest spiritual/social heroes - Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., etc. - still had issues with social conditioning that impacted their work. Awakening didn't wipe out internalized sexism, for example. It took multiple lobbying efforts to get the Buddha to allow women into the original sangha, and I'm not convinced they ever held truly equal standing under his watch. The original Buddhist sangha was basically doing on a smaller scale what Tolle sees as the key to our evolution as a species and yet women had to beg to gain base level acceptance.

So, while I don't expect someone like Tolle to brilliantly break down capitalism, or advocate for radical action, I do think it's entirely fair to do what I've done in these past few posts. Because this guy has an influence on some of the very people who have the most power and influence in our societies today. And even a little movement from him towards supporting collective social action and directly challenging systems of oppression could go a long way.

*Dragon Float from May Day Festival, Minneapolis 2012.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Eckhart Tolle and Social Activists: Or What's Love Got to Do With It?

Fellow 21st Century Yoga contributer Be Scofield has a provocative, new essay out on the limitations of Eckhart Tolle's spiritual writings, particularly when it comes to addressing systemic social issues. Some folks just roll their eyes when they see the name Tolle, but I think if you want to understand the modern, American spiritual landscape, you gotta pay a bit of attention to his work. Before we go on to look at a few points in Be's essay, I want to state where I stand on Tolle.

First off, I don't think he's a charlatan. The guy seems to me to have some clear insight into how our minds work, and the ways in which humans get trapped by their thinking and habit patterns. In addition, he has figured out how to bring together elements of different religious traditions in a way that speaks across them and beyond them. I'd say this is a positive, especially in terms of spreading insights to the masses. I also like the guy's general optimism about humanity's potential, and that he sees practices like meditation as being a means towards awakening on a larger, collective scale.

On the flip side, like Be, I disagree with Tolle's sense that "inner work" alone will somehow solve the systemic misery that plagues so many in this world. Having read a fair amount of his writing, and listened to some of his talks, I find his general approach to be far too individualistic in focus for my taste. Not only is social and political action downplayed or dismissed outright, but you rarely hear talk about communities, serving others, or anything else associated with being together in groups. Just as is true of a lot of American convert Buddhism, in Tolle's writing you can't help but notice how heavily individual psychology and psychological theories color what's being said.

Beyond all that, there's the fierce, capitalist machine behind Tolle's work to content with. Nearly everything this guy touches these days is being turned into a product intended for "your awakening," and I don't get the sense that he has any problem with that. In fact, I think the packaging of Tolle as a non-threatening spiritual guru has not only lead to wildly higher sales and spreading of his message, but also wholesale rejection of his work by those like myself actively resisting capitalism, colonialism, and the commodifcation of spiritual practice.

Along those lines, let's take a look at a few paragraphs from Be's essay:

In A New Earth Tolle goes so far as to claim all of the atrocities associated with Communism could have been avoided had their been a shift in their “inner reality, their state of consciousness.” Again, his absolutism in regards to the power of internal transformation is quite extreme. If communists would have only stilled their minds, connected to their bodies and dis-identified with their false egoic self he believes countless lives would have been saved. It’s important to understand that when Tolle is referring to shifting inner consciousness, he is specifically talking about stilling the mind, not shifting inner social or political consciousness. Of course the issues are far more complex than Tolle presents. No simple solution like cultivating presence, stillness or embodiment would have changed a profoundly complicated socio-political experience that spanned vast territory and numerous decades. Furthermore, he falsely believes that spiritual awakening supports his social and political positions.

Tolle is suggesting that what communists needed and what environmental polluters need is internal spiritual transformation – not education, training, relationship building, diversity training, political understanding, environmental awareness or anything else. Why? Because Tolle believes in an all-knowing divine power that once channeled knows exactly what to do. This universal intelligence is unfolding and working through humans. If only environmental polluters and communists were to connect with God the world would be a much better place. For those who successfully do, they are contributing to more joy, peace, creativity and happiness on the planet. Spirit is unfolding in a direction and it supports Tolle’s social and political agenda and reflects his social location as a wealthy, heterosexual, white male with $4 million in the bank and a Jaguar in his driveway.

Social positioning, and specifically a lack of critical consciousness around his position in society, are major players in Tolle's philosophy. It's so much easier for folks from privileged backgrounds to focus on "inner" transformation, and to dismiss addressing systemic social issues. Not only do they benefit from the status quo, but they're are less likely to see how the status quo creates suffering in their own lives, let alone anyone else's. Be's absolutely right to point out this failure in Tolle's work to critically examine social positions, and how they're plugged into systems built on patterns of injustice and deliberate oppression.

However, I have to say that the qualities Tolle focuses on folks cultivating - being present now, joy, stillness, and general awareness - are pretty lacking amongst social activists as a whole. There's decidedly too much ego, reactivity, and unexamined motives driving individuals within political and social movements, and also the collective actions of the groups they belong to or associate with. Instead of figuring out how to place the outrage, sadness, and fears into the furnace, where they might be transformed into wisdom and wise action, too often social movements either explode or sputter into the ground through power grabs, ego battles, and undigested patterns of greed, anger and hatred.

Which leads me to where I disagree with Be. Be writes:

The reason, of course, that environmental experts don’t recommend mind-body practices like meditation or yoga in order to stop worldwide pollution is because they are entirely unrelated.

This is just the opposite extreme to what Tolle's arguing, no more or less dualistic in my opinion. And while I don't think everyone involved in social justice movements needs to suddenly become a yogi or meditator, it sure wouldn't hurt for more folks practicing these things to be a part of such movements. And furthermore, that a general culture of cultivating qualities like compassion and awareness be normalized amongst activists, regardless of the forms taken to bring about those qualities.

The systems developed under colonialism, and patriarchy before it, rendered a myriad of things separate in social consciousness and practice. Foremost amongst these being the creation of the categories "spiritual" and "secular," and then the slow depositing of various activities and ways of thinking into either box. Perhaps that period of separation was helpful at some point in human history, but it's clearly become little more than a driver of oppression and misery. And when I say that, I'm not saying that everyone should be "spiritual" or something. What I'm saying is that the categories have become calcified, to the point where the vast majority of folks fail to see them as expedient means at most.

What am I talking about here, you may be asking? I'll try an offer some concrete examples. Take a person's view of the environment, specifically those who aren't concerned about exploitation, global warming, or human impacts on the planet. Or who have some concern, but whose greed or ignorance override that concern.

Person X

Claims the identity of secular, and rejects religion and all forms of spirituality. Elevates human reason above all other qualities a person might possess. Sees the point of life to fulfill your needs and desires. Might have some concerns about his children's future, for example, but is mostly focused on how to have a "good life now." (One of Tolle's limitations, by the way, is his obsession on "the now" and failure to temper that with something like a seven generations approach to viewing and acting in the world.) Enjoys "nature, but feels humans are "better" or "smarter" somehow.

Person Y

Claims the identity of Christian. Views the planet as a God given resource to be used to fulfill human needs and desires. Believes the afterlife in heaven is where "the good life" truly is, and that life on Earth is mostly about being trials and tests by God. As such, she isn't really concerned about the future of the planet, or even her children/grandchildren because what's important is their salvation, not the preservation of the Earth.

Person Z

Claims the identity of spiritual/not religious. Sees the popularization of meditation, yoga, and other "consciousness" practices as the key to a better life for all. Any concerns about the future of the planet are turned into a messianic approach to spreading the "good news" of yoga, meditation, shamanism, and the like. Pays little attention to politics and systemic social issues, seeing all that as being "lower vibration" stuff.

The main point behind these rough, incomplete sketches is the sense that solidifying around the deepest level separation of spiritual/secular can lead to some disastrous consequences for (in this case) the planet. And it's not just about folks on the extreme messing it up for everyone else. Each of has this dualism playing out in our lives because it's in the cultural water, and pretty much all of us taken a drink to some degree or another. So you may not be an oil tycoon profiting off the tar sands, but odds are your daily actions are still negatively impacting the planet in some manner or another.

Which brings us to love. And our collective struggle to understand and embody it in it's various forms. Be writes:

Love isn’t progressive, socialist or limited to any political position. People of all ideological persuasions fall in love, make love, experience love and act in love. Is global transformation really based on raising the “love” vibration on the planet? After all, Glenn Beck’s latest gathering was called “Restoring Love.” There was lots of “love” amongst Protestant and Catholic Christians in Nazi Germany. Love for spouses, children, families and God. People were kind, caring and compassionate to members of their own kind while turning a blind eye or supporting to the horrific crimes of the state. What frequency did their love vibrate on and how did it matter in the larger scheme of things? Love is not the sole property of either progressives or conservatives. If both a pro-choice and a pro-life activist group based all of their methods, techniques and actions in love who would win?

One of Be's biggest concerns in this piece, and in others I have seen, is the view that cultivating certain qualities and/or doing certain spiritual practices are THE means needed to get to a more progressive, inclusive society for all. I share that concern, and agree that practices like yoga can be used by anyone without having a transformational impact on their politics and social views, and that simply cultivating qualities like presence or basic compassion aren't nearly enough to liberate the world from systems of oppression and injustice.

But love. Love has the capacity to blow through separations of all sorts. To break through and heal the kinds of thinking that create solidified divisions in the first place. It's not limited to, nor even necessarily represented by, the forms Be presents in the statement above. It's easy to get cynical about something like the power of love to liberate folks from systems of oppression, just as it's easy to get suckered by some limited form of love (like love of family or country) as the recipe for a better world.

If anything, the intersection of social justice and love is a koan, one we might take devote ourselves to, even if we never gain any final resolution.