Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Maladjusted Buddhism

I read this fascinating talk that Martin Luther King Jr. gave during the last year of his life at the American Psychological Association's annual conference. It immediately reminded me of how married convert Buddhist practitioners are to mainstream psychology, and how that isn't necessarily a good thing. This passage in particular is worth considering in more detail:

There are certain technical words in every academic discipline which soon become stereotypes and even clichés. Every academic discipline has its technical nomenclature. You who are in the field of psychology have given us a great word. It is the word maladjusted. This word is probably used more than any other word in psychology. It is a good word; certainly it is good that in dealing with what the word implies you are declaring that destructive maladjustment should be destroyed. You are saying that all must seek the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities.

But on the other hand, I am sure that we will recognize that there are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted. There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.

Psychology as a discipline, "social psychologists" notwithstanding, has tended to focus on individuals and their varying levels of adjustment to mainstream norms. Pathology is basically understood as thoughts, behaviors, and patterns which do not conform to the norms, and also are significantly disruptive to the general functioning and well being of the individual displaying them. More often than not, there's an attendant sense that the pathology also is significantly disruptive in some manner or another to others, and society in general. A person with bipolar, for example, is considered difficult to work with, moody, inconsistent, and a whole variety of unsavory characteristics. Instead of being viewed as a whole person with the vastness of depth of anyone else, they're frequently reduced to a diagnosis and a certain subset of characteristics (which may or may not be enduring or consistent). It's as if in order to be viewed as "healthy" and "socially adjusted," there's a certain level of "going along" required. A certain necessity to give up, suppress, or refine behaviors and patterns that are disruptive to the norms of society. If I have the impulse or desire to run naked in the streets, it's probably a good idea for me to overcome that somehow. Lest I be viewed as "crazy" and "sexually perverse," and if caught by the authorities, subject to all sorts of social penalties (fines, jail, sex offender registration, etc.)

Religions have similar conduct codes built into them, linking the well adjusted person to some form or another of divinity. For Buddhists, the enlightened one or Bodhisattva should quickly come to mind. Of course, anyone who has been around Buddhist teachings and narratives for awhile knows that things are more complicated than that. Well adjusted really doesn't cut it when trying to describe the qualities of a Buddha. In fact, Buddhas sometimes act in ways that are completely in line with MLK's "maladjustment." They're called to disrupt, sometimes severely, patterns of suffering and oppression. That's their job in the world. And that's what we practitioners are vowing to do when we chant the bodhisattva vows, for example.

And yet, I think for many convert Buddhists, a lot of that intelligent, enlightened maladjustment has been erased or downplayed. The aspirations we claim to make frequently seem fraudulent in a certain sense. "I vow to liberate all beings, but only if it doesn't upset my neighbors, make anyone uncomfortable, or employ actions that aren't 'normal.'" The majority of convert Buddhists, in North America anyways, were born and bred middle class or higher up the economic ladder. And regardless of material status, with an allegience to middle class norms and values, including an inherent trust in the teachings and practices of psychology. It's just a given, for example, that it's wrong to steal and that anger is always a negative emotion, even if we feel justified in being angry about something.

When I consider many modern, convert interpretations of the Buddhist precepts, these middle class norms are all over the place. And they're reinforced by concepts and practices of Western Psychology, which up until fairly recently, held the behaviors and patterns of white, heterosexual, middle class males as the highest standard of adjustment. The pole by which all is measured and techniques are sourced from.

While it may appear like I'm rejecting psychology outright, that's absolutely not the case. I nearly double majored in psychology during my undergrad days, and have spent much of the decade or so I've been practicing Zen reflecting on various teachings from psychology and how they might apply to my life. And others. I have no interest in romanticizing psychological disorders, or advocating for some sort of loose, anything goes society. What I am interested in are the ways in which the meld of psychological understandings and Buddhist teachings reinforces white, middle class norms, and limits our understanding both of liberation and how that might unfold into action in the world.

We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.

Let's consider the economic conditions statement. The majority of convert Buddhist sanghas have adjusted to the economic norms of global capitalism. They traffic in various forms of marketing and "selling" the dharma. They structure themselves in ways that diminish the concept of dana to monetary gifts. And they rarely, if ever, participate in opposing, advocate in favor of opposing, or even speak about opposing economic injustices, poverty, or the like. Taking any sort of deliberate stance on these issues is usually seen as "political," or not in the realm of practice. It's as if the Ox Herding pictures end at number 9, and returning to the marketplace is reduced to one's family, friends, co-workers and immediate sangha.

In my view, the very ways in which global capitalism structure society and our individual lives by default, reinforce all of these issues with convert sanghas and their practitioners. Keeping the doors open requires money, and it's easiest to just go along with what works for other non-profit, religious and spiritual organizations. Individual members need to work - usually full time - and are used to the dharma as product model of funding the organization. And speaking out or opposing economic injustice and poverty in deliberate, tangible ways can - and often does - cause a hell of lot of discomfort. It might disrupt the perceived harmony of the sangha. Furthermore, it can and sometimes does bring certain social penalities, including "negative" press and perhaps lost revenue from individuals or organizations tied to coporate interests. I think Buddhists in general throughout history have leaned towards being a more quiet presence in whatever society they're living in. And certainly, there is no end to the list of examples of ways in which Buddhist insitutions have aligned themselves with political and social power brokers who built their livelihood on the suffering and misery of others (and exploitation of the planet).

But that isn't the whole story. There are plenty of examples of sanghas and individual Buddhists - beginning with the Buddha himself on down to Thich Nhat Hanh's order during the Vietnam war era and continuing today all across the globe - of Buddhists standing in the face of injustice. Speaking out against warfare, economic injustic, and oppression. And also doing various forms of action, from intimate service to those in dire need of relief to calling out the social power brokers and the structures that support them. In other words, while our practice has a strong inward bent it by nature, active engagement in the world is not an alien concept, nor should it be.

Our head teacher at zen center likes to say that zazen is a radical practice. That sitting down and attending to what is right now instead of remaining busy and hooked by our everyday concerns runs against the grain of our society.

I agree with her. Even with the rise of secular mindfulness programs, the art of stillness and dance of not doing are still very foreign in mainstream. Underappreciated and totally devalued.

Yet, this is only one end of the radical pole in my opinion. The other end being the art and dance of engaging in social concerns fully imbued with the teachings and our practice. The active bodhisattva, as opposed to some unobtainable archetype. As I see it, one of the tasks of my generation of convert Buddhist practitioners and those that follow is to help bring alive both ends of the radical pole. To become exemplars of maladjustment in the spirit of MLK's teaching above. And part of the process will be to deeply and critically examine the ways in which white, middle class norms and particularly psychological norms have influenced our understanding of the Buddhist teachings in ways that compromise or limit them. And us.

*Hat tip to Nella Lou from Smiling Buddha Cabaret for the MLK speech.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Tears for the Buddhist Sangha

I have been following Harvey Daiho Hilbert's blog for a few years now, and enjoy his short, clear posts on the dharma and affiliated topics, including social engagement and service. In today's post, he announces the closing of his zendo, and end of the sangha as a non-profit institution. Given that he still intends to teach and work with students, this the huge deal it may sound to be. However, the note at the end of the post is pretty revealing. It speaks directly to one of the major issues convert American Buddhist sanghas are facing these days: failure to truly build sangha.

This decision has many roots and we have been considering it for months. Over the years I have had to make up the rent and other expenses myself most months. I felt good doing that for the most part, because I had faith that eventually the Sangha would be self-supporting. This has simply not been the case. Attendance is down and remains low. In the end, however, I will say that the primary cause of my decision is the evident lack of Sangha cohesion and mutual support of each other as Sangha. We have talked about Sangha often. We take refuge in Sangha. Yet this vow must be more than words, it is action and as a Sangha, we do not act like a Sangha. This was made painfully clear to me when yesterday only Rev. Dai Shugyo, Rev. Shukke Shin and one friend were able to make themselves available to support me as we went through a memorial service for my deceased brother. Many emailed me their reasons for not attending and I understand them. Still, I am deeply hurt. I do not ask for much from members and offer myself to all those in need. It has been rare that I have not been willing and able to set aside my own needs to meet the needs of others at a moment’s notice. This is what Sangha is all about. So, quite frankly, illnesses aside, it was hurtful that Sangha members could not for one morning set their own needs aside to be in support of me during this very emotionally painful period in my life. This is all I will say on the subject.

I have a feeling of sadness reading these words. It's probably true that one could argue that a priest's vocation is to let go of their needs in service of others, and to not expect anything in return. However, there's also the compassionate angle which says that you make an effort to support people when something like a loved one's death occurs. I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing Harvey's response to people not coming may have been different if they had otherwise been a strong sangha. If he hadn't felt again and again that sense that those coming together weren't really a community of spiritual friends, but more an assemblage of folks mostly doing zazen and studying in the same room.

I feel fortunate to be part of a sangha where this aspect of the three jewels isn't so absent. I've felt supported during difficult times over the years, and have offered my support to others as well. And yet, even in our community, I can see holes and cracks. Places where the insidious "me and mine only" consumer mentality seeps in, cloaked in words like "practical," "pragmatic," and even "practice." There's something a little off when people "have the time" to show up for zazen and dharma text study. And yet rarely, if ever, have the time to show up for a sick sangha member, or to help stuff envelops or sweep the zendo floor, or to simply sit and listen to the struggles of another in the samgha, even if you don't know each other well. Thankfully, I have witnessed all of these actions at times in my community. Unlike what Harvey seems to be facing, for my sangha it's more of the degree of care and compassion at issue. It's just not quite in the water we drink together yet. There's definitely effort being to change that, so perhaps it will come with more ease in the future.

What I find interesting about Harvey's situation is that he has a small sangha. Much smaller, I'm guessing, than my sangha, which has somewhere between 120-150 members. Size does matter. It's more difficult to maintain intimacy and foster mutual support amongst hundreds and thousands. And yet, it's pretty clear to me how deep the roots are of the "me and mine only" mentality. Capitalism upholds it. "American dream" narratives stoke the flames. Underneath the same three poisons that hang out in every last human mind on the planet - greed, hatred, and ignorance - are sourcing this mentality.

Whatever folks choose to do to counter all of this, to create more alive sanghas, peeling that onion is going to bring with it tears. There's no way around it. We must cry together.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Digital Buddha Nature

The other day, I was reading about how people are responding to the "ghost" profiles of dead folks on Facebook. Some feel comforted that something is publicly left of their friend or loved one. Others find it an unnerving reminder, an unwanted ghost that keeps reappearing. There's a sense that those who are hooked in to the Facebook world, or social media world in general, are grieving differently. That a certain element of grief has gone public, where not too long ago it probably would have been totally private. I don't think this is bad or good per se, but it is interesting how something digital - like a Facebook profile - can have so much emotion attached to it.

I sometimes feel similarly about old blog posts. This one of mine from over two years ago, about Buddhism and Ayn Rand, suddenly has been receiving comments again. It certainly doesn't affect me in the way the Facebook profile of a dead friend or loved one probably would, but somehow I feel a bit of ghost all the same. Ayn Rand seems to linger in this country in ways I'd rather her and her views didn't. But there's also the blog post itself, words I typed in days gone by, that are returning, great reminders that the past is also the present. No separation, whether I like it or not.

It's easy to think the internet is an entirely different world, or something not real at all, just a playland or workspace for humans. But it's part of this universe as much as the dirt and snow on my boots. That's oddly comforting, and discomforting, at the same time.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Absolute and Relative of Zen Scandals

I was going to stay out of the discussion about all things Zen sex scandal, but then I left a short comment on this post, which essentially supported a major point in a minor way from a recent piece by Zen teacher Brad Warner. Here's the comment I made:

Brad isn't completely off in my view. I don't think it's wise to create 100% prohibitions around this kind of thing. Because every case is different, and not every student that has sex with a teacher is a victim. There is a heavy puritanism that appears whenever American Buddhist scandals break out, something that in my opinion came from our Christian brothers historically. And so, I tend to reject absolute statements about sexuality in general, and sex with teachers in particular.

At the same time, the percentage of "ok" cases is probably very low. Most of the time, I agree that the power imbalance is enough to make such relationships problematic at best. Brad's attitude seems like the reactive opposite pole to the one I spoke of above. He's advocating for the 5% or less of cases where a prohibition isn't needed, while throwing out all the intelligent guidelines and restrictions that support maintaining uprightness. Most of the time teachers just shouldn't go there. That's a given, but I don't think it's as simple as teachers should never go there. If that were so, our precepts would simply be commandments in the Judeo-Christian sense.

And here is response I received from farmer monk, who writes the "Go Cloud, Run Water" blog:

I'm not supporting witch hunting, but if you're referring to prude nature, I prefer puritanism to patriarchy.

When Brad says in his blog:

"Joshu Sasaki has done a great service to American Buddhism. I won’t go so far as to speculate that he did it intentionally. He’s probably just an old horn dog. But whether he meant for this to happen or not, he did a great thing. He helped kill off the image of the Enlightened Master as something beyond human. He did so by leaving a legacy not just of sexual misconduct but of deep, profound insight. I like Sasaki better now than I ever did, even while I wish there had been a better way to do this. Ultimately this scandal just might help save Buddhism in America by transforming it from a cartoon stereotype into something real."

It reeks of entitlement; there are blind spots a mile wide. Like, when the hell did Brad do any American zen practice? He's never done one monastic practice period in America. Guest student stays do not qualify.His polarized response doesn't warrant an analysis. If the 95% of relationships are excusable because the the perpetrator is just a "horn dog," I disagree. This kind of bro-talk makes me sick and is testament to one's own patriarchal entitlement, even if they're not aware of how they sound.

Puritanical witch hunts resulted from superstition and paranoia; Brad Warner brags in his book that he fucked a zen student more times than Richard Baker ever did; this is what he wrote, published, and stands by.

What are the precepts in light of that? That if you're self aware, you can do what you want? His story might still make a good NY times article; The NY times didn't write this story, Brad enacted it and wrote it himself, wearing the Buddha's robe.

So do we stay open and groovy and subject 95% to abuse or do we hold lineage holders accountable and possibly stunt the 5% of these positive relationships?

I was about to leave the following in a comment over there, and then saw it's length and thought it would be better as a blog post. And perhaps useful to some readers out there.

First off, in his post, farmer monk makes an important distinction between teachers and students that Brad seems to be pretty dismissive of these days. Specifically, pointing to the power vested in such a position, and how that power calls for respect and care. What I see in Brad's focus of we are all basically the same is the absolute side of the equation. And in farmer monks rebuttal to that the relative side. They're both needed, and we can't find the truth without considering both.

Overall, I don't care much for Brad's comments on sex scandals. His current post references what happened at my sangha, and dismisses it as simply an "affair." That was only the end point. The last in a series of actions and approaches to sangha and the teachings that fostered an atmosphere built on patriarchy, authoritarianism, and favoritism. As such, I'm not given to minimizing nor trivializing the kind of damage that often comes from these situations. But I do think there's a shadow side and a streak of troubling puritanism in the numerous American responses to these scandals that must also be addressed as well.

"Like, when the hell did Brad do any American zen practice? He's never done one monastic practice period in America. Guest student stays do not qualify."

This is a grave error. Equating Zen practice with monasticism essentially condemns all of us outside the monastery. Including a fair percentage of American Zen teachers, who rarely if ever spend time in monastic settings. I recently listed to a dharma talk by Duncan Williams during which, he spoke about the incomplete history of Soto Zen that we have. We know a fair amount about the early days, Dogen and his immediate disciples. And we know a lot about the 20th century teachers and communities. But very little is said about the period between 1400-1850. In the 1700s, for example, there were either 1700 or 17000 (I can't remember which number) active Soto Zen temples in Japan. And of those, the majority did not focus on monastic training, or even place a heavy emphasis on zazen. You might see that as corrupted dharma, but I see is as diversity of practice. Certainly, some of it was probably of the "wedding and funeral" variety that's seen today in many Japanese temples. But I'm guessing that the rest was variations of what lay sanghas in America are exploring today.

Frankly, lay and monastic folks need to do a better job of respecting each other. And stop assuming superiority or inferiority. Brad's done plenty of practice. That's not the issue. Zen is filled with stories of "junior" students trumping "senior" students in all sorts of settings. Amount of practice and location of said practice doesn't = level of enlightenment or awareness.

I can disagree with 95% of what Brad says about this stuff, and yet still see that he's offering something worth considering. Specifically, that the precepts are more subtle that yes/no or right/wrong.

How can we hold that, and also hold those who abuse power or aid abuse of power accountable? Because if it's just about saying Brad's bad, or Sasaki's bad, and they must be punished - we really aren't much different from fundamentalist Christians.

*Painting by Rothko

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Pool of Freedom

One of the great temptations of human existence is to base your life on contingency. That you will actually take the courageous step once all the conditions are absolutely and utterly right for you. When you have the right boss, when you have the right job, when the car payments have been made, when the kids are through college, when you're on your deathbed. When you're dead. It would be certainly easier then. The though is that if only I can control the climate of my existence and get the temperature exactly right, then when I'm completely comfortable, and have a sense of freedom, and a sense that I'm not beholden to anything, then I'll take a courageous step in my life. Of course, these conditions almost never come.

David Whyte

Yes, this contingency seeking has been a common experience of mine. Tweaking and fussing, hoping and cajoling some situation in my life so that it will be a "safer," more predictable platform from which to jump off of.

Reminds me of the first time I jumped off a diving board. I was in swimming class, probably two or three years older already than most of the kids around me. The class teacher had gotten me to go up the stairs - how, I don't know. My knees were knocking, and I felt quite weak and dizzy as I went up, but somehow I made it to the top. Standing out on the board and looking out over the pool, I couldn't imagine jumping, let alone going upside down.

The teacher held up a long pole with a little hook on it and said I could grab it and use it as a support while I jumped. My young mind believed this for some reason, and I bent down and got into position to dive. Still absolutely scared, but somehow the sight of that pole kept me there. Then I heard the teacher count down - Three! Two! One! I stood still. Completely frozen. Someone said "Jump!" I looked at the huge pool under me and didn't flinch. Someone then said "Try again." And the count down began again. Three! Two! One! ...

As I began to move through the air, the teacher yanked the pole away, and a sudden racing shot through my body. It was too late to go back, and yet the fear ruined my form, and I ended up smacking the surface of the water with my back. I went under, and sunk almost to the bottom of the pool. Thoughts of drowning, which I knew nothing about, but could imagine - flooded my mind. And as it did, I saw the surface of the water coming closer and closer, despite anything in my head. Surfacing, I looked for the teacher, and said something about her taking the pole away, but the experience was clearly an example of the worthlessness of contingency seeking.

Thing is, though, when I look at how I have led much of my life, it's not much different than that little boy freezing, trying to calculate things out. Too much waiting for a pole to show up. Not enough just diving, taking the fears and calculations along for the ride.

But that's not the end of the story. Or even the whole story of what was. Liberation comes sometimes through recognizing the gaps in what you believe.

I've been only that scared and calculating little boy. Leaps have been made, small and large. Keep going there. Keep going there. Just like the breath in zazen. That's the path. That's the pool of freedom, ever ready for you to go swimming in.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Zen Seemlessness

I want to offer a few links to you all today.

First off, I just finished this post on my other blog and thought it would be of interest to readers here. It's a post about mindfulness and relationships, and has definitely been influenced by my spiritual practices.

Next, a few weeks ago, I gave the Sunday morning dharma talk at zen center. Given all the work our board of directors has been doing on the community's long term vision, it was a good opportunity for me to share how I've make that work into a discipline and practice.

And finally, the webzine I have a regular column for - Life as a Human - just turned three years old. My writings have been hosted there from the beginning, and I'm pleased to be part of their ongoing team of writers from around the world. Here's my latest postover there.

*The above is a photograph I took last summer on a bike ride through St. Paul.