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.