Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Birdman

There's this neighborhood guy that some call "The Birdman." He's maybe about 5 foot 9, has a thick, but somewhat receding head of dark brown hair, and is right around fifty years old. Sometime during his early twenties, he was in a very bad car accident, and, among other things, hit his head hard during the crash. For most of the last seventeen years, he has had a very steady job in custodial - until a series of run ins with his supervisor led to his ouster. After a period of unemployment, accompanied with some depression, he's now working again and is back at his favorite hobby - talking to and feeding the birds and squirrels.

Early this evening, I ran into Mark, the Birdman's real name, just after he finished dumping some seed under a tree. Walking across the street, he whistled into the sky, shifting his sound to mimic his favorite birds. Seeing me, he stopped and said "Cinnamon Girl, you should have seen her, she flew across the alley then dove straight down." He made a swooping motion with his hand, and then said "it was so cool." "I said, "I love you Cinnamon Girl. I know she love's me." Then he laughed in a very carefree way, nothing like the bitter snickering that accompanied his every other word during the long winter of unemployment he had just went through.

Suzuki Roshi once said "Trying to become someone else, you lose your practice and your virtue. When you are faithful to your position or your work, your true being is there."

Some people don't really know how to handle The Birdman. I have watched a few people - all older adults who you would think had left their high school antics behind - set fires under Mark by picking fights with him and belittling his love of the most common of city animals. Others I have seen laughing at his whistling and calling of names into the air - Cinnamon Girl is just one of many that has been given a name. Still others are simply perplexed by the well grown man standing in the alley with a bucket of seed calling sweet nothings into the trees.

I sometimes wonder if Mark isn't a modern day St. Francis, sans the Christian overlay. There are even stories of Francis preaching to the birds of God's love for them. With Mark, the middleman has been taken out, and love is simply transmitted from his heart to birds and back.

In some ways, it would have been interesting to know what The Birdman was like before the accident. However, at the same time, it really doesn't matter much in the great scheme of things. There is something divine in his presence as it is, even though he is just another ordinary guy, with ordinary ups and downs like the rest of us.

And isn't that the greatness of it all - that anyone can let their "true being" be present, even if only for a little bit, and for those of us who notice it, life could never be dull, never be boring. Those birds and squirrels are very lucky, and so is Mark. And the rest of us are better for having met someone like him, who is able to drop off social conventions and just be who he truly is.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Steven and Ondrea Levine

In nine minutes, you'll learn a lot about life and love from these two. I have never met either of them, but the Levines have taught me so much about meditation, awareness, and relationships. I am very grateful to them both. Neither of them is in very good health right now. Ondrea has cancer again, and Steven has some kind of neurological disorder which, as he mentions in the video, has already nearly stripped him of the ability to walk. And yet, even in the pain of their current states, they both still exude wisdom, genuine love, and compassion.

Please check out this video if you have a few minutes.

And please check out this blog letter for more information about the Levine's current state.


I have been told before that I am a pretty confident person. I stand before classes of learners everyday and usually can talk or direct things so that learning occurs. I often speak my mind, even about issues that clearly place me outside the bounds of "normality." I have walked into the offices of State Senators and Representatives, asked pointed questions, and clearly stated what I wanted to see the government do or not do. So, sure, there's a level of confidence present.

When it gets down to it, though, I can feel an instability in that confidence. There have been plenty of times I have stumbled about in fear, anxiety, even spinning anger that sends any sense of confidence out the door. But beyond that, there's a certain lack of trust that runs through me at a deeper level - a kind of whispering that can turn into a roar saying "You're not good enough" or "You'll pay if you fail." Now, clearly, this internal talk doesn't hold me back all the time; in fact, I have gotten to the point now where there are times when none of this kind of talk even arises. However, I can feel a tug to dig deeper, to unearth the roots that still hang on with in me.

Today, I lifted a chuck of soil matted with roots and dead grass and named it for my class: a clod. They peered in on it, and I looked at it too, a little closer. The soil near the dead grass was loose and falling between my fingers as I spelled the word for the class. A warm breeze blew behind us, the sun hitting our backs as we kneeled. I turned the clod over. The soil near the roots was packed tightly, barely moving at all. I could thumb my way through it, loosening it some, but otherwise it stood pat. We talked a little more about gardening; digging trenches, preparing a bed for flowers. Thry knew how to do it all, but didn't know any of the words for it. I said "usually, when we prepare a bed for flowers, we throw the clods out." And then I threw it.

Unpacking the soil around the roots of no confidence, or non-trusting, requires a little more than simply tossing away the manifestations when they arise. After some practice, it's easy enough to cut off negative thoughts, and to eject false story lines into the trashbin. But I think the kind of confidence that stays with us even in our toughest moments is born of sticking with this life as it occurs, moment by moment - in other words, to bring our zazen and mindfulness into everything, not just that which appears while we're meditating, or in a good mood, or in a bad mood, or in a spiritual mood. And I think it also means being ok if you fail to do that, and even if things get a bit messy as a result of that failure.

I'm not always so hot with things being messy. I often like clarity, simplicity, lack of clutter. At the same time, that's not always true. I have no trouble getting really dirty while gardening. I pedal a bicycle all over town and return home sweaty, sloppy, and happily spent. Ah, those internal contradictions.

Here's Suzuki Roshi's words on it all, with an aid from our good buddy Dogen: "In China and Japan there are many stories of teachers who attained enlightenment suddenly like this: 'Umph!' [laughs and snaps his fingers] You may think it was sudden, but it was actually the result of many years of practice and of failing many times. Dogen Zenji's famous words concerning this are "Hitting the mark is the result of ninety-nine failures." The last arrow hit the mark, but only after ninety-nine failures. So failure is actually ok."

Some of my learners have been trying to teach me phrases in Karen and Burmese. I fail often, just as they fail often with English. But all of us have kept trying, and as a result, some learning has occured. Much more on their end than mine, but that's not the most important thing. The effort put forth is necessary, but also being ok with failing, missing the mark.

It's always interesting to me how the ability is always there in some places of your life. And yet, in other part of your life, you just can't seem to transport it in, as if there's a wall holding it back from sprouting forth. Maybe I just need to keep examining the clods a little more, before I reach back to throw them away for good.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Questioner

I have been contemplating my next step career-wise for months now, maybe even longer. It's been nearly five years now at my current position, which is the longest I have stayed at any job. I love teaching. I love that moment when someone, or even an entire group, "gets it," or gains some clarity about something that they didn't experience in the past. I often feel like the learners in my classes do most of the work, and I'm just there to be a guide, or to give a push or two when necessary. In some ways, like a good zen teacher - not handing out a lot of answers, but able to hold a space for the truth of the moment to appear.

And yet, I find myself struggling more and more with the limitations of my work. The endless federal and state laws and directives. The funding issues of schools, which are slamming my workplace hard this year. The limitations of the classroom itself, an artificial construction that often makes learning into something a little too abstracted from the everyday lives of people. Standardized tests which don't measure out of the many ways in which we as people learn, nor get at the plethora of possible learnings and usages people might have while studying. I could go on, but you get the point.

What is it that I'm called to do now? I keep asking this question, but cannot get any sense of clarity about it. I have applied for other jobs over the past several months, but often without a whole lot of strong feeling that this is what is the next thing. I have thought about staying where I am as well, but I don't know how to do that in an awake, fully engaged way anymore. The creativity isn't much there anymore, nor is the desire to try and fight a system that does everything possible to force learners out the door and into jobs before they've learned enough to thrive in the U.S. - and which more and more pressures teachers into teaching "tests" in a similar way to the K-12 system post-No Child Left Behind. I don't feel valued as a creative, passionate person in this system (the Adult Basic Education system), and I don't feel my learners are valued as the intelligent, diligent, and caring people that they are.

I have often been a questioner. In fact, this was true even as a little child, and no amount of schooling and society propaganda was able to beat it out of me. Sometimes, I love it. There's such openness in questioning, and not assuming that you "know" everything, or that something is "common sense," or whatever else people use to solidify their experiences. Other times, though, I find being the questioner difficult, even really lonely. Questioning what is commonly held to be "true" isn't much of a friend-maker. There's a certain anxiety that appears when you place a question in front of a train that that everyone assumes is on the right track. What if four walls, desks, chairs, a white board, and a teacher in front of the room isn't the best way to work with people in the 21st century? What if we view mass education from the standpoint of it's origins as a tool of industrialization and nationalism? How does knowing that make us change or not change what we are doing today?

Maybe I should be in academia, but the same problems are there as well, maybe even more so, given how much many universities have given over to the college as stepping stone to employment approach, or the way in which university funding has become more and more tied to corporate sponsorship.

I keep coming back to Buddha's insistence not to just swallow his teachings, but to thoroughly investigate them in our lives. More and more, I feel this is what our entire life is about - stopping the urge to just believe any old story that's been passed down to us, or which we have come to believe because it made sense when we were children, or because some celebrity or the president, or whoever said it was true. To completely be open and to question everything (not in a small minded, doubtful way, but in a broadminded, wide open way)is so at odds with the way most of our world works, that it's amazing any of us are able to do it at all.

Frankly, it really can be a lonely place. You get a lot more negative feedback and outright dismissals, than you do positive feedback. It's a great place to practice not attaching to the "worldly winds" - praise and blame, gain and loss, fame and shame, happiness and despair. But also, for the same reason, an easy location of suffering when one falls into clinging to one or more of those "winds."

Here are some choice words from Suzuki Roshi, who is popping up everywhere lately due to it being the fiftieth aniversary of his arrival in San Fransciso from Japan.

"the way to understanding yourself is not by understanding yourself objectively or gathering information from various sources. If people say you are crazy - 'Ok, I am crazy!' If people say you are a bad student, maybe it is so. 'I am a bad student, but I am trying very hard.' That is enough. When you sit in that way, you accept yourself and accept everything together with yourself. When you are involved with various silly problems, you sit with the problems you have. This is you at that time. When you try to get out of your problems, this is already wrong practice."

When he says he's crazy or a bad student, here, I don't think there's any attachment to those assessments. The first one, he seems to affirm the statements being said without believing in them as representing who he is. And the second, he offers that maybe he IS a "bad student" without taking that on as a final judgement. Sometimes, I can ask a question I know might ruffle feathers and be right there with Suzuki. Other times, I'm caught by the desire to protect myself or defend my opinion, or some other thing before I even open my mouth.

None of which really does much to get me closer to "What is it that I'm called to do now?" Which makes me wonder if I'm provoked by my own question, and the possibilities it stirs up.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Suzuki Roshi Video as Teaching

Thanks to James on the Zen Community for posting another Suzuki Roshi video. His posting was the first I had ever heard of Roshi speaking, and what a gift. This beautiful sense of oneness with birds and sounds Roshi expresses. And then this video I found posted on Youtube, which is sort of a collage, but which gives some family history about Suzuki, and also gives a flavor of how he taught in an uncleaned up, personal way. I love how he says "you know" over and over after nearly every sentence. It's something you'd never get in his books, or in quotes of him in others' teachings. And the sort of subdued but very full laugh, and mischievous smile ... I very much appreciate these little glimpses into Suzuki's ways of being and presenting the dharma. Anything that makes a person more human and alive is worth the effort to pay attention to, so I offer this video, and the suggestion for those of you who didn't study personally with Roshi to check out others on Youtube. This video is the first of several that offer insights into Suzuki's time in the U.S. and the development of San Francisco Zen Center. To me, this is a teaching in not elevating the teacher too high above yourself, and not abstracting the teacher in such a way that you fail to see the person behind the words and actions.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Dandelion Yoga

A beautiful spring day here in St. Paul, MN. Partly cloudy, a slight breeze, temperatures in the low seventies. I took myself to a local park to do some outdoor yoga. No mat, no props, no book of poses. Nothing but what would arise while I was there.

As I rode into the park, I was greeted by a field of dandelions. Ghost dandelions. Thousands of little, white heads waving in the wind together as if to say: we're not quite dead yet, we're not quite dead yet.

I parked the bike near a bench, and stepped right into the middle, kicking up a dust of seeds and dried silk attached to them. I looked down and saw that my brown shoes were now nearly white. And the thought came to me that I wasn't sure I wanted to do this.

I did a standing forward bend and then came up and surveyed the land. There it was right in front of me: a large tree stump. My escape from the dead.

I nearly lept on it, starting to conjure poses I might do now that I was free from the clutches of the ghosts. I spun my arms around and around, working to open my shoulders. I did half moon pose, to stretch my sides. And then I got up on one leg for Warrior III pose, first the left side and then the right: the opposite of what usually happens when I'm in class, a quirk I blame being left handed on.

And then, on the way up from the second side of Warrior, I saw the stump. Not that I hadn't seen the stump before, but now I truly saw it, the wavy lines that marked the years, the knobs around the edges, the places where it was already beginning to crumble, even though it couldn't have been more than a few years since the tree had been cut. Another marker of impermanence. Another image of death.

It was then that I realized that there was nothing much else I could do on the stump. Sure, I could have done tree pose, but really, how cliche is that. So, I stepped off the edge, the hundred foot pole as we say in zen (ok, maybe not, but maybe so), and into the dandelions again.

Putting my hands on the ground, right into the mess of the dead, I worked my legs into down dog. The sun warmed my back as I heard a bird singing overhead. My eyes landed on the tussle of stems and jagged, green leaves - old friends I was re-aquainting myself with. After a minute or so of just noticing what was there, I saw them: a pair of yellow heads sticking out of the dead, white ocean I had stepped into. The cycle of life, all in one field - why is it so surprising? Even after hearing Buddha's teachings on interconnectedness and impermanence a thousand times over, still this moment of awareness was a little startling.

I patted down a body space worth of the dead, stood up, and threw my arms to the sky. The perfect place for a few rounds of sun salutations, I thought to myself. A few minutes later, arching into up dog, I saw a middle aged man walking on the sidewalk, about to pass. I think our eyes met briefly, although I can't be sure of that. And as he turned away - confused, embarrassed, distracted by the bird in the tree - I smiled, and slid back into down dog, my eyes filled with ghosts, and the leaves that support them still, even in death.

Social Dukkha

Working with people from all over the world, whose ideas and ways of living are often very different from my own, has definitely helped to jar the sense of self I have. In addition, the discussions I have had with these same learners in my classes have shown me as much as anything how constructed our views of the "good life" or "proper life" are. Here's a simple example of that from a recent class.

A woman originally from Somalia is pregnant, which sparked a discussion about family size and also happiness. She was asked by another learner how many children she would like to have. I believe she said "maybe four," although I may be misremembering that number. Another woman, a very joyful Ethiopian woman in her fifties, said "why not more?" She went on to talk about her eight children, and how she loves big families, and would have more children if she could. Recently, her son graduated from college, the first degree in her family I believe, and she's been walking around beaming about his accomplishment, telling anyone who will listen about it.

A few other learners, ethnic Karen from Burma, gasped upon hearing the desire for very large families. One said something to the effect of "three is enough, thank you very much." And there were other expressions from this group about the hard work and difficulties large families create for mothers. Which brought us to economic issues in the U.S. and a short conversation about how expensive it is in the U.S. to have a lot of children. But the woman from Ethiopia didn't stand down - she still felt that there was more joy in a bigger family. I have had other learners in the past, from other nations, express very similar views. Yet, even within groups, as should be expected, there is a fair amount of difference of opinion about this question.

However, despite wide differences of opinion within any group, it can be said that culture and social structures of a given society have an influence on how people think and act in the world. And because of this, I believe there has been a failure on the part of many in the convert western Buddhist world to see beyond individual practice, and individual "enlightenment," as a way to address the suffering of the world.

Dukkha is the Pali term which is usually translated as suffering. It is often viewed as the sense of dissatisfaction or disease a person feels with the world as it is presenting itself in one's life now. Of dukkha, Buddha said that all of us experience it in our lives - many of us so much so that we are consumed by it. And yet, as Buddha himself experienced, there are ways to be liberated from it. In terms of Buddhism, these ways are expressed as The Eightfold Path. (Other spiritual traditions have other methods which I would argue also can be gateways to liberation, but discussing those would lead us off track today.)

Returning to the classroom discussion above, the Ethiopian woman in my class seems have pinned at least some of her happiness in life on having a large family. Although I don't know for certain, it seems that larger families are more common in Ethiopia than they are here in the U.S. When you think of the droughts, famines, wars, and other difficulties that have plagued Ethiopia over at least the past century, it's very understandable that an emphasis on procreation might be promoted not only in individual families, but much more broadly, as a social or cultural value. So, then, since she has a larger family, the woman in my class might be viewed in a positive way by others in her cultural group, and she might internally view herself more positively because she has manifested what has value within the larger group.

Of course, there are also many individual factors that play into this as well. Her family seems to work together well. The children are doing well academically, and unlike other learners I have had in the past, she doesn't come to class with a heavy burden of problems her children are having at home, or at school, or elsewhere. So, it's very much possible that her emphasis on "big families" is as much, if not more, tied to her personal experience than to cultural or social values or constructs.

Yet, I think it's foolish of us, especially if we believe in the view that there is no solid, fixed self or "I," to place all our eggs in the individual basket. Any one person's suffering or joy is a product of a complex uprising of causes and conditions, some of which one might be personally responsible for, but also which include others that are much bigger than any one person.

No one person, no matter how powerful, is responsible for bringing about war for example. Or environmental destruction, or patterns of patriarchy, or racism, or sexism, or heterosexism, or any other number of social ills that infiltrate and effect our lives on a daily basis.

In his excellent book The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory David Loy spends a lot of time examining these kind of larger patterns. Using the term "social dukkha," he argue that Buddhist teachings: the precepts, emptiness, compassion, and others can be applied to broader social issues as a means to potentially reducing suffering on a larger scale.

Now, he certainly isn't the first to say any of this, nor is he a lone wolf crying in the wilderness, but it strikes me that until there is a critical mass of us speaking and acting in ways that might address these larger scale issues, no amount of individual effort on spiritual practice will be enough to greatly reduce suffering in the world. Maybe if we all took up meditation practices, and stuck with it diligently, there would be some massive change. But I still wonder even then if oppressive social structures would simply fall away, or if, in spite of our efforts, we'd still be facing the problems these structures create. I have a hard time believing that racism, sexism, and heterosexism, would simply vanish as a result of all of us individually, or even as collects of individuals, doing meditation practices. This is not at all to denigrate meditation - I love it - but to suggest that given where we are at on a global scale today, it seems additional, more collective approaches to the dharma are being called for.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What is medicine anyway?

Maybe some of you have been following the story of the 13 year old Minnesota boy who is refusing chemotherapy treatment because of religious beliefs. As a strong supporter of alternative medicines and therapies, and one who regularly grows medicinial plants and makes and uses herbal medicines, I am fascinated by this case.

Here is part of today's Associated Press report, for those of you who have not heard about this case.

"NEW ULM, Minn. – Authorities sought to arrest the mother of a 13-year-old boy with cancer who refuses chemotherapy after she fled with her son and missed a court hearing Tuesday on his welfare. A judge issued an arrest warrant and ordered that Daniel Hauser be placed in a foster home and be sent for an immediate examination by a pediatric oncologist so he can get treated for Hodgkins lymphoma.

"The court's priority at this point is to try to get Daniel Hauser and get him the care he needs," Brown County District Judge John Rodenberg said.

The cancer is considered highly curable with chemotherapy and radiation, but Daniel quit chemo after a single treatment. With his parents, he opted instead for "alternative medicines," citing religious beliefs. That led authorities to seek custody. Rodenberg last week ruled that Daniel's parents, Colleen and Anthony Hauser, were medically neglecting their son.

The Hausers are Roman Catholic and also believe in the "do no harm" philosophy of the Nemenhah Band, a Missouri-based religious group that believes in natural healing methods advocated by some American Indians.

Colleen Hauser testified earlier that she had been treating his cancer with herbal supplements, vitamins, ionized water and other natural alternatives.

The family was due in court Tuesday to report the results of a chest X-ray and their arrangements for an oncologist. But only Daniel's father appeared. He told Rodenberg he last saw his wife Monday evening.

"She said she was going to leave," Hauser testified. "She said, `That's all you need to know.' And that's all I know."

Now, I have been following the story since it broke here in Minnesota. What I have found disappointing, yet not surprising, is how quickly any form of medicine or healing method that is not sanctioned by the allopathic establishment - i.e. mainstream western medicine community - is deemed either quackery or simply supplemental. This, coming from a group that has barely more than a century and a half of existence, I find rather funny.

I personally believe many of us worldwide - especially in industrial/post-industrial nations - have fallen into a fixed view about the nature and form of medicine. But given the Buddha's teachings about emptiness, it seems extremely important to ask "What is medicine anyway?" Is it a specific set of methods and/or drugs that are applied in certain ways? Is it something "natural"? Or is it completely dependent upon the conditions of the situation?

And beyond that, what are we talking about when we say medicine? A means to returning one back to a previous state? A method of healing body wounds and pain? An antidote to suffering? Or something else possibly?

I say all this, including my very ardent support for non-mainstream medicines, while at the same time questioning the decision of the boy and his mother. It may be that the best option in this case is to choose chemotherapy combined with a variety of other options, including herbals, accupuncture, dietary changes, and yoga and meditation. However, unlike the doctors and medical establishment, I wouldn't privilege the chemotherapy over the others, even though the chemo might be the only thing that saves the boy's life. Partly I say this to put pressure on the definitions of both "medicine" and "health," hoping that more people will question what it is they really believe when they speak those words. To me, chemotherapy can never make a healthy person, nor is it a medicine that truly heals. However, it may be an essential step on the path for this boy, so in that way, maybe it can be viewed as part of a group of antidotes to suffering.

There is more to this case though. It's littered with layers.

The Hauser family are members of a group called the Nemenhah Band. The Nemenhah Band is based out of Missori, and is organized around indigenous traditions and beliefs, but does not appear to have any significant level of indigenous people as part of it's membership. In addition, the group seems to be built on a foundation of payments, both for membership in the group, and for services such as teachings to be a medicine man or woman. You won't find this kind of focus in Native communities, which leads me to the broader issue.

Historically, and on into the current day, indigenous peoples around the world have been exploited, and their traditions and ideas, co-opted by others in positions of power or influence. Here in the U.S., there is a long, devastating tradition of white people claiming indigenous teachings, romanticizing indigenous peoples, and making money off of indigenous teachings, products, and even indigenous names. the Nemenhah Band appears to me to be just such a group, and the Hausers have bought into this group - to the tune of hundreds or maybe even thousands of dollars - and as a result, have a son who claims to be a medicine man.

There's another issue in this case - the right or not to choose one's course of medical treatment or healing. The family has been court ordered to resume chemotherapy against their own wishes. And now, the mother is a fugitive because she does not want her son to undergo the treatment. Even though I question the view to forgo the chemo, I am very concerned about the precedent this kind of decision sets. Will we now have courts and government officials slipping into other cases involving medical decisions, especially those that are about weighing non-mainstream options against what the medical establishment offers? Will this be a way for insurance companies to tighten the ratchet on alternative therapies, which they already find suspect, and only support due to intense, long term consumer and doctor/nurse pressure? There's something way off about court ordering specific forms of treatment for people - and I say that knowing this is by far not the only case where it has been done.

I truly believe that living out the Buddha's teachings requires one to question the very topics that seem to beyond questioning. In other words, what is considered "normal" or "common sense" cannot be accepted as such if one is truly living Buddha's teachings, and the teachings inspired by Buddha. It may be that after thorough investigation, one comes up with the same view as is considered common sense or normal. But that is very different than just saying, for example, it's just common sense to do chemotherapy when one has this form of cancer. Without questioning even those things that seem most stable, there can be no liberation in this life.

So what is medicine anyway?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Open and Flexible

In the current issue of Buddhadharma, Soto Zen priest Norman Fischer has an intriguing article about the evolution of Buddhism in the "West." Specifically, he proposes that if we do not remain open and flexible in terms of how we teach, learn, and enact the dharma, it's possible that zen, and other forms of Buddhism will either fade,or simply be the province of a privileged few here in the West. (side note: I find the whole west-east language construction problematic, but haven't come up with a better one as of yet.)

Of what Fischer writes, I find this comment fairly provocative: "Buddhism (as Thich Nhat Hanh might say) is made of non-Buddhist elements; that is, while we appreciate and honor Buddhism's many cultural expressions, and recognize their importance, we know that there is no 'core' Buddhism within them that can be extracted and must be protected."

Now, as someone who appreciates many of the forms and rituals of Soto Zen, and feels that they support and inform me in many ways, Fischer's comment is a cause for pause. Not pause out of a fear of attachment to something that developed in another culture, or that I'm simply an American copycating Japanese ancestors. No, the pause is out of the recognition that this statement points to a democractic expression of form and structure when it comes to Buddhist practice. In other words, what it looks like, where it takes place, what forms and rituals accompany it, etc. are really up for negotiation.

The practice we have today, no matter if one lives in St. Paul, MN or in Columbo, Sri Lanka, is different in many ways from the practice that occured during the Buddha's time. This shouldn't come as a suprise for most of us, and yet I do believe that many of us still hold on to a view that somehow things really shouldn't change that much when it comes to spiritual traditions, and that those who innovate and move outside the box are somehow destroying or disparaging the dharma.

It strikes me that the recent "reforms" in the Catholic Church, as led by the ardent traditionalist Pope Benedict, should be a warning to us in western Buddhist communities. There has been a strong effort to eradicate or at least marginalize liberal and progressive Catholics in general, and to remove or demote those Catholic leaders who suggest anything that remotely threatens the hierarchy and patriarchy that runs the Church as a whole. In addition, such long discarded structures as papal indulgences and Latin mass have been reintroduced and promoted as more true espressions of the religion, never mind that they, too, were once new kids on the block. It's one thing to unearth old and forgotten teachings and rituals that might serve people in current times - I'm all for that. But it's quite another to suppress any and all innovations in the name of "keeping the tradition pure."

For those of us in Soto Zen land, it's absolutely important to remember that our founding teacher, Dogen, was something of a rabble rouser back in 13th century Japan. He abandoned what was considered to be The Practice in Japan, and went off to China to discover something more vital, more true to the calling he was experiencing. And upon his return, the emphasis he placed upon zazen, sitting meditation, as the main path to enlightment was fairly unique, and definitely not the norm in those days. Or even now.

It's fairly easy to suggest that things like Jon Kabit-Zinn's mindfuness-based teachings, or sanghas that have dispensed with robes and Japanese rituals, or Buddhist talking groups, or wacky teachers like Brad Warner, or even blogging are expressions of false dharma. But if you go down that route, without an awareness of history, then how can you really point to what is a true expression of dharma?

If we truly believe in Buddha's view that there are 84,000 dharma gates - in other words that there are innumerable ways to awaken - then it's best to remain open and flexible as to how Buddhism should unfold here in the West. This is not to throw out the critical eye that can thwart simplistic and incomplete innovations and expressions, but to recognize that what is skillful and enlightenment producing today may be very different from that which was in the past, or that which will be in the future.

Ah, good old impermanence.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Blogosphere Awards

Well, it's such an honor that both Marcus from and Carole from consider my blog among their seven most favorite. Marcus is a thoughtful practitioner who works the teachings in his life, and writes honestly about his experience. I also appreciate his humbleness, and willingness to share his struggles with us all. And Carole is a wonderful artist, and pretty fearless zen student who writes witty posts filled with examinations of her life and the world around her.

So, I'm supposed to choose seven more blogs to honor, and then write 10 honest things about myself. Hmm --- and I was also supposed to brag about winning the Honest Scrap award, which I'll do so by saying I also got the Lemonade Award, which "is given to bloggers who show a positive attitude, gratitude, and a willingness to share their ideas, support and online friendship. In other words, people who make lemonade when they get lemons!"

Seven Brilliant blogs

1. is a wonderful blog by a yoga student who pays close attention to her life. As I am also a yoga student, I always appreciate seeing what fellow yoginis have to say.

2. is another enjoyable blog. Jennifer writes honestly about her life, has been giving us lots of good Pema Chodron quotes lately, and always leaves interesting comments on my blog page.

3. is the site of my good friend Jake. He's an artist, comic strip writer, into zen, and a general all around good guy. Check out his artwork on the blog.

4. is always interesting. I love that the author covers so many topics, from spiritual practice, to social issues, to literature.

5. has lots of good zen talk and commentary, which shouldn't been surprising given the blog title.

6. is such an ecclectic experience. This guy writes about so many things, from homelessness in Sacramento to zen, to Christianity, even the Talking Heads.

7. is another good blog. Lawrence isn't afraid to tackle difficult issues, like anger and sexuality, and often with a sense of humor to boot.

Now, ten honest things about me.

1. I have never had a driver's license.

2. Even though I am often very repelled by anything sappy, I love the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," which definitely has sappy moments.

3. In third grade, I got sent to the principal's office because I was threatening to hit a friend with my cast. I had broken three fingers on my right hand, had it put into a cast, and got upset with a friend at lunch because I thought he was spitting in my food. Not the brightest moment in my life.

4. I have a fondness for squirrels.

5. I really enjoy dharma magazines like Tricycle, Buddhadharma, and Shambala Sun. There is something about a magazine that is fulfilling.

6. I grow my own medicinial herbs and make my own medicine with them.

7. I'm an excellent speller who sometimes still makes mistakes with easy words.

8. I am a co-founder of a non-profit organization that is in it's fifth year as an all volunteer run organization.

9. I'm left handed.

10. I really like eating figs and beets, but not at the same time.

Monday, May 11, 2009

"My stuff, my stuff!"

I've been reflecting about a pair of stories concerning outrageous attachment to stuff. The first story has to do with my own family. I was out with my father for dinner before heading to a baseball game on Friday. He told me he was going out to Pennsylvania to visit my grandmother, and I asked how everyone was. The response was the following: sometime in the past month or so, a few guys visited my grandmother's house, wondering if she was going to use some old scrap metal that was in the back yard. She said no, and allowed them to haul it away. (She's been in an increased reduction of possession mode ever since my grandfather died in February.) Anyway, a few weeks later, my uncle discovered the "stuff" was gone from the pile, and asked my grandmother where it had gone. When she told him, he got angry and started an argument. Aparently, he had placed some old grates in the pile, and was planning on using them to build a grill. Now, these grates had been aquired for nothing, left in the pile for nearly twenty years, but suddenly they were more precious than kindness toward his mother.

I have no desire to single out my uncle's behavior here, although it is petty extreme. I believe most of us have similar warped places in our own lives, where attachment to something is way out of proportion to what that something means, or should mean, in our lives. But hearing how my uncle got so wound up that the issue lingered for over a week - in fact, probably still lingers - made me pause.

The second story comes from Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg in the current Buddhadharma magazine. In it, she retells a moment from the recent plane crash into the Hudson River that made Captain C.B. Sully Sullenberger famous. She says "after the plane had landed in the river and everyone had to evacuate immediately, one of the passengers was blocking the aisle, reaching into the overhead bin. She kept saying,'My stuff, my stuff!' She wouldn't leave the plane without her laptop or something."

What is this drive within us that makes us risk our relationships, even our lives, for some object? Is it simply difficult attachment that can be broken with a lot of hard work and patience, or is it something more complicated?

Dogen writes in the Genjokoan "with confused thoughts about body and mind, holding to discrimination of the myriad dharmas, one mistakenly thinks his own mind and nature are permanent."

It strikes me that there's something of this belief in a permanent, fixed self that bleeds out into our understanding of objects and their value. How else could someone choose to privilege a set of crusty, old metal grates over his own mother, or anything in a sinking plane over her own life?

Among the many slogans of former President Bush and his administration was "The Ownership Society." Behind this slogan is the view that the more an individual has control over his or hers' material wealth, the more personal happiness one will feel, and the more societial value one will have. In other words, one's life is measured primarily in terms of ownership of stuff.

I would like to argue that even as President Bush was rejected by three-fourths of the U.S. population at the end of his time in office, this old idea of "the Ownership Society" was still beloved by the vast majority, and continues to be beloved today. We in the U.S. love our stuff, and we love the idea that our stuff will make us happy and fulfilled. Which makes it all the more difficult in this tanking economy to find peace, be peace, in every moment. Or even just some of the moments of every day.

So, what is it that you are attached to? What story drives you to cling, and what are your fears about letting it go?

If we don't examine questions like these in our own lives, over and over, how can we ever speak of such lofty things as a kinder, more enlightened world?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Cat Zen

This is a photo I took of my mother's cat, Baby Jesus. Now, just where exactly the name came from, I'm still not sure. My mother isn't Christian, nor does she really have a lot of interest in Jesus, as far as I know. She told me the name just came to her, and really, maybe that's just how it was - things seem to come to us when we pay attention closely.

Now, Baby Jesus, also known as "the resurrected animal," has in some ways outgrown the baby. He's a big cat, probably weighing in at close to twenty pounds. He's very much a dominant presence in the house in a way a kitten can never be. He lounges effortlessly, leaps often, and attends to laps like an expert physician attends to surgery.

I have long thought that cats are good roles models for us muddling, sometimes meddling humans. Having lived with cats most of my life, and having experienced the cats of many friends and family over the years, I really think that, for the most part, cats are good at expressing and living out their catness.

Even though there are as many different personalities as there are cats in the world, there seems to be a directness and clarity that cats naturally have, and which people spend often entire lifetimes trying to cultivate. Emotions are expressed easily; actions are done without tons of calculating and over-analyzing. And anyone who has ever lived with a cat, or spent any significant time with one, knows that cats can focus their attention on something (a mouse, a bird, a fluttering dust bunny) and keep it there for a very long time, often without moving. They seem to have object-based meditation down pat, even if there is an end goal in mind (catch the moving object, eat the moving object, etc.)

Cats also have had their role in zen literature, most famously perhaps in the koan of Nanchuan's Cat. Here's the case, along with Mumon's comment and poem.

"Nanchuan saw the monks of the eastern and western halls fighting over a cat. Seizing the cat, he told the monks: 'If you can say a word of zen, you will save the cat.' No one answered. Nanchuan cut the cat in two. That evening Zhaozho returned to the monastery and Nanchuan told him what had happened. Zhaozho removed his sandals, paced them on his head, and walked out. Nanchuan said, "If you had been there, you would have saved the cat."

Mumon's comment: Why did Zhaozho put his sandals on his head? If you can answer this question, you will understand exactly that Nanchuan's action was not in vain. If not, danger!

Mumon's poem:

Had Zhaozho been there
He would have taken charge.
Zhaozho snatches the sword
And Nanchuan begs for his life.

There is so much that could be talked about in this. And so many landmines I could step on in talking about any of it.

But one thing I have always found so intriguing is this business of silence on the part of the monks in response to Nanchuan's request for a word of zen. You can imagine that these guys might have spent hours or maybe even days arguing with each other about this cat, each side certain that they had the right answer to the issue at hand. And what issue was that? Some say it was an argument over whether the cat had buddhanature. But maybe it was something more mundane, like whether the cat should be in the monastery, or who's turn was it to clean up after the cat. Discussions of buddhanature or the ultimate nature of things are fairly rare, even in a place like a zen monastery. But discussions about cat shit, if a cat lives nearby, are fairly common. Hard to escape those everyday details, but very easy to get hung up on your view of those everyday details.

So, you can imagine these guys fighting with each other in some puffed up way over this cat. And Nanchuan stepping in, seizing the cat, and startling all of them silent.

At this moment, all certainty goes out the window for the monks. Just a moment before, they were divided just as so much of our lives get divided by our black and white biased minds. Yet, in this silence there's an opportunity, and Nanchuan isn't going to let that opportunity go. He speaks his words of zen to the monks, but then they stay stuck in silence, unable to join the conversation, the expression of life.

Even though speaking itself places a divide across the world by naming and separating, as Katagiri Roshi said "You have to say something."

Or do something. Maybe be a little bit like Baby Jesus, but not too much, not copying him. Baby Jesus jumped into a box, as you can see. How about you?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Past moment, present moment

I was just viewing the blog of the old teacher of our center, Dosho Port (Wild Fox Zen), as I have been doing fairly often since starting this blog. In fact, seeing his blog was an inspiration for starting my blog, so I guess there is still some influence going on there.

I only studied together with Dosho a few years, and the break between him and the community wasn't so pleasant, but I for one believe the bodhisattva vows continually call me to recall desires to outright reject anyone. And frankly, the older I get (not that anyone here is calling me "old" by any stretch of the imagination :), the more I see that it's better to consider everyone and everything a teacher, or at least strive to do so. Plus, I just enjoy Dosho's blog.

Note. Dogen: 13th Century Japanese Zen Master.
Dosho: 21st Century American Zen teacher.

So, Dosho was writing today about that famous, or infamous, line from Dogen's Genjokoan. (I can hear the cheers from the Dogen fans out there as I type, and also the groans from everyone else.)

Anyway, for those who don't know, the lines goes as follows "To study the Buddha Way is to study the self." The line is actually the beginning of a set of lines that really point to the heart of Dogen's practice of zen as he experienced it, and taught it.

Now, Dosho's commentary on this line starts like this "What is meant by 'self?' Usually it is understood as our modern self construction - the psychological self with a certain history, preferences, feelings, and longings." This description makes me think of Eckhart Tolle's continual emphasis of the ego, and how it runs amok for us in our world. I have always felt uneasy about this focus on the "egoic" self because it seems to collapse back onto us as individuals a bit too much. Clearly Dosho is also skeptical of this focus when he says "Dogen was a medieval fellow, way back before Freud, Jung, Pearls and Maslow. Dogen's "self" as I'm using the word here, was probably much more of a community-based self, like most people prior to the modern era."

So, what is this "self" Dogen is talking about if it's not solely the psychological self we modern folks like to talk about? A little birdy in my head wants me to say it's everything in the world, but somehow that feels a bit too easy.

Instead, a question comes to mind, not suggesting itself as a concluding answer.

How do we live everything in each moment?

Time to sit on that one for a bit, and see what comes.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Catastrophe Thinking

"I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened." Mark Twain

I've been reflecting on what I will call "catastrophe thinking." You know, the kind of story you build in your head where the absolute worst thing you think can happen does. Like you wake up with a cold and think you're going to die. Or you have a disagreement with your boss and you think you're going to be fired on the spot. Or the one we have been dealing with on a collective scale: "I'm going to get swine flu, I just know it." This kind of thinking.

I'm guessing you are familiar with this kind of thinking, maybe even have experienced this kind of thinking once, twice, a few thousand times.

There's a common saying whose exact origins I'm not aware of at this time: be prepared for the worst. People often use this to run their lives. Businesses often use this to direct their work. In fact, I would say that even entire nations use this line of thinking to direct their policies and decisions, at least some of the time. Various governmental reactions to swing flu, ranging from towns and cities in the U.S. ordering schools closed down when a single potential case of the flu is found to Egypt's order to slaughter all the pigs in the nation, are being directed by the thought that it's best to be prepared for the worst, with a lot of "better safe than sorry" added along the way.

I have to say I'm beginning to think that using "being prepared for the worst" as way of life, and a way to run a country or business, is pretty stupid.

Why? First of all, when you focus all your energy and effort on "the worst," where is there an opening for something positive to manifest? Or where is there time and space to be creative enough to shift what's happening into something beneficial, when all you're doing is fighting off every last threat?

Second, how often does "the worst" happen? Or, even more importantly, how do we even know what the worst thing would be in a given situation? Sometimes, what we think would be the worst possible outcome proves to be a positive outcome. And sometimes it proves to be minor compared to what actually happens.

I'm not suggesting that we give up having plans, give up considering various possible outcomes in any given situation, including very damaging and destructive ones. Nor an I suggesting that we pollyannishly believe that everything will always turn out good and wonderful.

But I am suggesting that excessive focus on "the worst" is a deep form of attachment many of us have, both individually, and on a collective scale. And I think it's part of the path to war, to greed-based economics, to environmental destruction, and a whole lot of suffering on the personal level as well.

To me, the catastrophe is often that you've wasted so much of your life worrying about a catastrophe that never comes. There is often more suffering incured during that time of thinking about something coming than during any actual event.

What is the impact on others of all that anxiety, panic, projecting, etc? And where does that energy go if not into the communities we live in, adding to the abundance of pain and suffering already there.

We could all do with a little less catastrophe thinking, and a lot more awareness of what is happening now. As for looking into the future, sure, there's nothing wrong with that. But can you do it without attachment to goals and outcomes? That, to me, is the real test for those who want to be prepared for anything.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Experiments in Trusting

First a poem:


because there is still a layer of ice
covering the cobblestones,
every step is an experiment in trusting
that the way you have chosen to move through the world
is at just the right tempo
for being now

Now a comment:

I've been writing poetry for years, maybe even most of my life. I even have a masters in creative writing, and have a couple of things published. Pretty exciting, eh? Probably not, but what I have always found interesting about creative writing is how insights about life often appear in one's writing before they fully are living those same insights. I would love to take every step as an experiment in trusting - I'm getting closer to that, but still am a ways off.

I was reading an interview with Allen Ginsberg from 1989 this morning. He was talking about a lot of things, poetry things, social justice things, oppression - but what was so powerful was these questions he asked. "What is it that you most desire?" "What breakthrough are you looking for?" To me, these are dharma questions digging deep into our spiritual lives. And poetry - great poetry - digs deep into our spiritual lives as well, and in doing so can inspire personal, social, political, and spiritual changes. It really can.

Many great zen practitioners have also been poets. I think it's one of the reasons I was drawn to zen: the long standing tradition of belief or valuing poetry as an expression of spiritual teaching and spiritual life.

Capping phrase:

Mistakes are abundant daily, and yet even still
the opportunity to experiment with trusting is there
in this moment and the next and the next...