Friday, March 29, 2013

The Zen of Monsanto and Weeds

On the whole people might be better off if they threw away the crops they so tenderly raise and ate the weeds they spend so much time exterminating. Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus

I have a fondness for weeds. For the forgotten, dismissed, and marginalized. Anyone who visits my garden in mid-summer probably wonders if I'm just not tending to it. Which is true. I'm not. Partly out of neglect, and partly out of a love of the wild.

When I saw this quote today, the first thing I thought of was Monsanto and the GMO revolution. A revolution not being televised, and one I have zero interest in supporting. Never mind the human dietary consequences, the push by Monsanto and other giant companies to control and manipulate plant life is about murder. About death to the wild diversity that brings our planet alive and makes it what it is.

Murder to the point of extinction for short term profit. It has to be one of the stupidest moves humanity's elite has made throughout it's history.

I had a poem about Monsanto published recently at Turning Wheel Media. One of the things it speaks to is our human desire for comfort and ease, and how giant corporations like Monsanto thrive on that. In fact, some of us become to attached to their products that it's akin to having another lover in your life. I recall the mother of my sister's childhood friend who drank a case of Diet Coke daily. You read that right. A case. Maybe not a full a case everyday, but she probably averaged that over the long run. She didn't live to 50. And I'm guessing that even after she found out about the negative health impacts of soda pop, she kept on drinking it. Wedded to it, and the company that makes it.

Weeds are the antithesis of ease and comfort. In the practical sense, their appearance mucks up uniform lawns and tenderly raised garden beds. Psychologically, weedy thoughts can stir up all sorts of emotions, from confusion to perverse desire. Spiritually, it is the lowly weed that frequently blows through the seemingly perfect answer we offer to life's deepest questions. How often have you thought "I've finally got it," only to have some simple and forgotten thing appear right along side the answer, almost as if in mocking.

The lowly dandelion, with it's bright yellow head, can grow in almost any soil, thriving in some of lousiest conditions imaginable. Every spring, I'm amazed at it's early appearance here in Minnesota, when the weather is still up and down, sometimes even poking through fallen snow from the tiniest cracks in sidewalks.

Eliminating weeds means destroying our toughness, tenacity, and flexibility. Whether we do it for profit or out of a mistaken sense that the best food comes from weed free conditions, the results are the same.

When I look back at the history of Buddhism, its best teachers might be considered weeds. Wild and unruly. Their ideas spreading in all directions.

Who the hell could tame someone like Ikkyu or Milarepa? You might, like the best of gardeners, manage some of the mad growth of their life stories, but that's about all.

Apparently Milarepa was fond of drinking nettle tea. So much so that his skin turned green in some accounts. You might wish to prune that detail away. Seems like anything bordering on supernatural or unexplainable is being pruned away by a lot folks these days. But there's no doubt in my mind that regular consumption of weedy teas changes you. Just as drinking diet Coke changes you.

Weeds remind us of this. They get in the way of our notions that we're separate. That we can keep out anything we don't want to deal with. If Monsanto or some giant oil company poisons the soil 1000 miles away, it impacts all of us. There's no escape.

I've tried cultivating weeds in my garden. Deliberately up-earthing them and giving them a specific home. The only ones that ever survive are the ones replanted in a mess. They respond to uniformity by shriveling up and dying.

If we keep giving in to the push for uniformity, comfort, and ease, we'll go the way of the House of the Hapsburgs. Liberation is a dandelion splitting though the spring soil. Bend down and touch it, breath in the bitter sweet fragrance. This is what you are truly longing for.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sex, Consent, and Buddhist Right Action

With the verdict in the Steubenville case has come a lot of discussion about rape and sexism, and the state of culture in our supposed "post-feminist" America. I say supposed because like those who speak of a post-racial America, folks who say frameworks like feminism have outlasted their use are either woefully unaware or deliberately trying to reverse the gains made during the second half of the 20th century. At the same time, every framework or set of frameworks has its limits. Which is why I'd like to take up this interesting post from the IDProject blog on Right Action and consent.

Caroline Contillo, the author of the post, argues that Buddhist teachings around sexuality point towards the creation of a culture of consent. The term "enthusiastic consent" was hot stuff back in my college days (mid-1990s) and has returned to the forefront in recent years to address a diverse range of sex scandals, including Steubenville. While I agree with the principle behind enthusiastic consent, it's always felt a bit too black and white of a response to what is decidedly a not black and white world. People consent to sexual contact, as well as many other forms of action, in a wide variety of ways. In addition, people make rejections in a wide variety of ways, which is why the focus on verbal rejections in rape and assault cases is problematic at best, if not a great way to privilege the rights of the accused over the rights of accusers.

There's a lot more I could say about the intricacies of consent, but what I want to dig into goes beyond that. Here's a selection from Contillo's post:

The emphasis in all three aspects of Right Action is consent. The need for another sentient being to agree with your intentions and provide you with an emphatic agreement. To take a life, to take possessions, or to force sex upon another human being against their will is unwise and "wrong" because it is selfish and creates suffering for all parties. Right Action is about using our intention and mindfulness to encourage a culture of consent.

Now, these aspects of Right Action have been framed as things one must abstain from doing. But what if we reversed that and created things that a Buddhist *must* do?

We must encourage life and health (perhaps by learning permaculture, perhaps by taking an interest in health-care reform), we must participate in selflessness, and we must seek an emphatic and freely-given "yes!" in all sexual situations.

I am reminded of something Acharya Eric Spiegel said during the Refuge Vow ceremony I took part in, when discussing the precepts. One of the precepts, in the vein of Right Action, admonishes the participant to refrain from unwholesome sexual activity. Acharya Spiegel made sure to explore this concept in depth. He told us that to him, even flirting your way out of a speeding ticket could be considered a flouting of this precept. "Using your personal charisma to manipulate someone into giving you something" is how he phrased it. That has always stuck with me. If we take this advice to heart, then Buddhism really is a philosophy that puts incredible emphasis on consent.

First off, I reject the notion of "must" she offers. It doesn't reflect the dynamic functioning of Buddhist teachings that are responding to the ever changing world we live in.

But what I'm more interested in is this focus on consent she's offering. I like that she's brought it in here. I don't think I've seen Right Action framed in this way before. At the same time, there's something off about it. Because people consent to things that cause suffering all the time. Either deliberately or out of ignorance. Whatever the case, though, mere consent doesn't really shift us towards a culture of lessening suffering and moving towards liberation. It emphasizes individual freedom and autonomy, but fails to uphold our wider interdependence.

An experience from my college days comes to mind. One night, I was hanging out with a pair of friends playing games and having a few drinks. The male friend of mine had a crush on the female friend of mine, but she didn't share his feelings. In fact, she was interested in me, and that entire evening, I struggled to reconcile my interest in her with my desire to not hurt my other friend. As often happens with college students, we had our share of drinks - not too many, but enough to cloud our judgements a bit. My female friend started flirting with me, while my other friend cooked something for us all in his kitchen. It was a delicate situation to say the least. Eventually, her and I went outside for a bit. It was a warm summer evening, the moon nearly full overhead. We made out for awhile in the alley about a block from his apartment. She repeatedly gave consent, quite enthusiastically I might add, for us to have sex right there in the alley. I continued to struggle with loyalties to my male friend, but continued to consent to an escalation. That is, until we were half naked and at the point of intercourse. Perhaps it was as much about not having protection as about my concerns about our mutual friend back home cooking for all of us. I'm not interested in painting my 21 year old self in a heroic light. However, what happened next - when I told her we should get back to the apartment now - wasn't just about rescinding consent. It was really about weighing the potential consequences. The upset my male friend might have felt about us disappearing to have sex. The possibility of destroying the friendship all together. Unplanned pregnancy. STDs. (I really didn't know her sexual history.) The lists goes on. I already felt guilt about the sneaking around we had done. It didn't make any sense to keep going just because we both wanted to, and agreed to.

I suppose it's possible to argue that consent contains all the rest of the stuff I spoke about. But more often than not, I don't think it does. I certainly have consented to having sex when I probably would have been better off saying no. There seems to be an assumption by the author that when folks are consenting, they're doing so mindfully, with at least some awareness of what that might mean in terms of the Eightfold Path or the precepts. But really, how often is that the case? And how often is consent mainly driven by horniness or lonliness or some other powerful emotion?

What do you think of all this? I'm especially interested in ways folks have reconciled Buddhist teachings around sexuality in our sexually diverse, modern society. Because one of the things I enjoyed about Contillo's post is that she attempted to do just that.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On the 10th Anniversary of the Iraq War

In honor of the 10th anniversary of the Iraq war, I offer this post from nearly 4 years ago. This was back when a small piece of me was still "giving Obama and the Dems" a chance to prove that they indeed wanted something different than the military industrial complex we are built on here in the U.S. That small piece of me is long dead, and truly it was only an olive branch to my liberal friends and family who wanted to believe. While most of the troops have been removed from Iraq, the fighting goes on in Afghanistan. U.S. sponsored Drone warfare is ever increasing in other nations. Our "justice" system is more likely to imprison and torture whistle blowers like Bradley Manning than the leaders that drive our foreign policy, and justify murder and environmental destruction with whatever flimsy bullshit they can come up with. Those of us who actively oppose war are more likely to be considered threats to the nation than those profiting off of death or those authorizing the draining of social safety nets to feed the war machine.

Democrats. Republicans. Little or no difference when it comes to war. Nor big oil and energy policy, it seems.

We live in an age of false polarization, fueled by ignorance, fear and hatred. The greed that drives our nation's government and economy is so obvious now, and yet still missed by so many. What will it take for folks to wake up?

The post below is riddled with questions. I don't really know what it will take to truly bring a lasting peace to the world. Or at least a lot less war than we have now. Sometimes, I think that this is just the way our world is. A plane of existence fraught with difficulties and suffering - offering each of us a chance to experience that and move on. Whatever is the case, I have no interest in giving up dream of a more just and peaceful world for us all. Whether such a world is possible or not is mere speculation. That's the same way I view the Bodhisattva precepts as well.

Supporting War as a Buddhist?

In recent days, President Obama and his defense department team have made proposals to increase troop levels in Afghanistan and to add another $83 billion dollars in "special" funding to an already huge defense budget. This, at a time when the U.S. economy is in shambles, job losses at a thirty year high, and nearly 50 million Americans (including myself) are without health insurance. The shift in focus from Iraq to Afghanistan (again), as well as the increase in war spending, is justified as necessary in the "fight against al-Qaeda." Is it just me, or does none of this seem to add up?

I'm well aware that many Buddhists, along with millions of other excited Americans, cheered and went wild when Barack Obama won the 2008 Presidential election. And it was, indeed, a historic moment, and hopefully, in terms of race relations, another turning point in the long struggle for equality, dignity, and respect that people of color and their allies have worked so long to achieve. In addition to that, all the talk and desires of that election squarely sat on the shoulders of change. And I think in many minds, not tiny changes, but real, substantive change.

I feel it's important for me to disclose that I voted for the Green Party ticket because I continue to greatly question the politics and decisions of both the Democrats and Republicans. And yet, even I was relieved that Obama won, hoping that his win would eventually signal a shift away from the war madness, oppressive domestic policies, and sometimes wildly delusional tactics of the Bush Administration.

Given this, the calls for large sums of money and troops to go into a country (Afghanistan) which has suffered thirty years of nearly continuous warfare strikes me as not only sad, but downright inhumane. Never mind that some of the funds are going for humanitarian aid, how is devastating an already crippled nation and then handing out some food and clothing a compassionate answer to what's going on there? It frankly inexcusable to continue to use the September 11th attacks, and the hunt for a scattered band of terrorists (who may or may not be members of al-Qaeda), as an excuse to invade other nations, murder civilians, and destroy infrastructure and ecosystems.

External wars represent the worst manifestation of the internal wars we have within each of us. The deep belief in separation, which plagues most of us (even those of us who are steeped in Buddha's teachings of interconnectedness), is the driving force behind the hatred and fear that spirals into killing and war in the world.

What then should be done in Afghanistan and Iraq exactly? And how do we address terrorism? I don't think there are any easy answers to these questions, and yet, continuing to fight massive scale wars in the name of creating peace is like repeatedly sticking your hand in a fire and believing that one of these times, it won't be burned.

The escalation of the war in Afghanistan, as well as air strikes in Pakistan, is a call to Buddhists and all Americans who voted for President Obama to reflect on what they really wanted when they made that decision. Even if you were aware that Obama's plans all along included some kind of increased presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, how do these decisions feel to you now knowing that our nation is in a deep recession? And how do these decisions mesh with your desire for a major change from the Bush Administration? How is fighting wars in the name of destroying terrorists any different from fighting wars against communism and communists? And of what value are teachings like the first precept of vowing not to kill, or the Bodhisattva vow to free all beings if one also supports massive war operations in other nations? In other words, can you really liberate anyone through large scale destruction?

I personally would love to be in an age where the United States is known as a nation of peace, and model of non-violent conflict resolution. But knowing this will take a very long time, if it ever happens at all, it seems reasonable to at least stand tall against state sanctioned warfare and do my best to learn about and promote other ways of thinking and acting. And even for those out there that support some military interventions, doesn't it seem insane to be increasing military spending at a time like this with all of our economic problems? Or isn't questionable to be escalating a war in a nation that fought off the old Soviet army, and fought off the British years before that?

May we all discover a way to true peace in this world.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On Catholic Popes, Buddhist Teachers, and the Organizations that Uphold Them

So, there's a new Pope at the Vatican. Pretty exciting for a lot of folks. Depressing for many others. And for the majority of the world, it's news that has little or no importance for them at all. I long had a fascination with Popes and papal history. There's something quite different about their place in the world from other religious figures. Perhaps it has to do with the hordes of money and political influence they've had for nearly 2000 years now.

Anyway, fellow Buddhist blogger Justin Whitaker seems to have won the race for the first Buddhist blogosphere Pope post. He suggests that Pope Francis might be a shift for the better, given some elements of his track record. Maybe. Hell if I know. The guy is also linked to some fiercely anti-gay rhetoric (more so even than the average conservative Catholic), aided the Argentinian dictatorship during the 1970s, and generally seems to hold the standard Vatican line on all things sex and reproductive rights.

But honestly, I don't care much anymore about parsing Papal biographies. It seems to me that instead of hoping for something of a savior figure, it's time for something more radical: institutional collapse and regeneration.

Why such bold words? Because the whole relationship between religious leadership and everyday members needs to be deconstructed and re-imagined.

I write this not just about the Vatican, but about organized religion in general, including Buddhism. The seemingly endless number of power abuse scandals amongst North American Buddhist communities speaks to one side of the issue: namely that when people place spiritual leaders on too high of a pedestal, at the expense of their own agency and wisdom, all hell breaks loose. On the other side of the coin is the fact that all over the "Buddhist" world, younger folks (and some older folks as well) are either turning away from, or simply uninterested from the start, in organized Buddhism. In Buddhist sanghas. In traditional forms. Longtime readers may remember this post about a Japanese monk opening a bar in order to try and connect with more young folks and teach the dharma. It may not be as bad here in North America, where Buddhism and meditation in particular is still fairly fashionable in a certain sense. However, anyone involved in sangha leadership would probably concur with my feelings on the issue. Plenty of people come through the doors. Some of those people stay for awhile. But it's a fairly small percentage that actually stick around and become rooted in the community.

The problems of the Vatican and the Catholic church are in many ways different and probably greater than what Buddhists face. And yet, it's hard for me to not see some similarities, beginning with patriarchy. How leadership is constructed, what it means to be a "follower" or student, and how the organizations are built and run: these things seem marked by patriarchy. Even often with women in leadership positions. You may see fewer power abuse scandals with women leaders, but I don't think it's a great shift when an all powerful and knowing father figure is replaced by an all knowing and powerful mother figure. For years, I watched issues come up in my own sangha around our head teacher, who wouldn't fully step into that powerful mother figure role some of the students seemed to desire. Whenever she attempted to move in that direction, there was backlash. And, often at the same time, there was suggestions that she wasn't a "strong enough leader." Seems to me that this back and forth was about much more than a conflicted teacher and her conflicted students. It represents the binary set up by patriarchal leadership models. You either have a powerful top dog or someone who's always facing questions about their strength and leadership skills. And you either have an obedient, mostly passive flock of students/community members, or you have a rebellious bunch filled with conflicting desires.

Several members of the staff of my former workplace were nuns of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, one of the groups under constant watch during Benedict's years as Pope for their progressiveness. When I look back on conversations I had with my co-workers about the church and their position within it, it wasn't all that different from what I described above about my own Zen sangha. Like us, they were decidedly in the "rebellious" camp, fighting against what they felt was crappy leadership while continuing to have some lingering sense of loyalty to the institution and spiritual teachings as a whole. Obviously, what they faced was - and continues to be - much more troubling and serious than anything I and my fellow sangha members have been dealing with over the past half decade or so. But at the root of it, in my view, are the very notions we've had about what a priest's "job" is, what it means to be a spiritual student, and how it is that we construct and maintain community containers to support these two interdependent roles.

Instead of spending a lot of energy on parsing Papal biographies, and hoping for change like so many did when Obama was elected (both bloody times), it's time to inspire reorganization and renewal. To uphold groups that have broken new ground without abandoning most - if not all - of the past in process (like the secular meditation folks, or ex-Catholics who have adopted science as their new savior). Note: there's nothing wrong with either of these diverse groups of people, but I don't find their conclusions particularly inspiring. Much of the New Age community feels equally uninspiring for different reasons - although all of these groups seem to be variations of the theme. Either made up of rebellious individuals who have rejected the whole notion of spiritual leadership and communities, or who have simply recreated the father/mother dynamic in a new form (plenty of New Age guru scandals to go around, to cite one example of that).

I think humanity is longing for something beyond the patriarchal binary. And I think there are examples out there on a smaller scale of "communities" that exemplify that something beyond. Something more holistic that incorporates the best of the past with the creative spirit of today. The Pope is a ghost leadership figure in my opinion, as is the "traditional" Buddhist priest and teacher. They're dead, but haunting us because we haven't figured out what to do now in this modern, changed world of ours.

Some of us cling and defend, and others rebel and hope. But none of that will put the ghosts to rest.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Just Returned from Vacation: New Writing Soon

In the meantime, meditate on this photo of one of the beaches of the Yucatan in Mexico.