Friday, July 31, 2009

Heady Zen; No Body

While perusing blogs this morning, I came across the following comments from Brad Warner at Hardcore Zen:

"In spite of all the foregoing cautionary material, I still believe zazen can be a very good thing for survivors of traumatic experiences. Maybe even the best thing. It can put you directly in contact with the source of the trauma itself. By slowly and carefully removing the psychological barriers you’ve erected to protect yourself from these memories you can finally become aware that the memories themselves are just thoughts in your head. No matter what the content of your thoughts are, they are all just thoughts. This is easy to say but very difficult to truly understand because we’ve been taught since birth to believe in our own thoughts."

Now, I agree with Brad that zazen can be a "good thing" for trauma survivors, but there is something in his comments that needs to be addressed. Specifically, where is the body?

I have noticed that some male Buddhist teachers and students don't talk all that much about the body. In fact, some seem to ignore it all together. Buddhism is reduced to working with thoughts, being rid of thoughts, moving beyond thoughts. But what about the body? How can anyone address trauma without also focusing on the real impact such trauma has on the body?

When you speak of rape survivors, abuse survivors, survivors of war - the body is just as important a point of focus as the mind. Maybe even more so in some cases. Saying that memories of violence lodged inside of someone are "just thoughts" is horribly dismissive, and creates a barrier to healing and awakening for those who believe such ideas. I'm not interested in slamming Brad here, because Brad's words are fairly common in parts of the Buddhist world, both in convert communities and traditional Asian communities. And although I'm reluctant to make gender generalizations, and for the most part believe the way gender plays out is as along a continuum, in the case of addressing the body and dharma, I've seen more women teachers and students doing so than men.

Some of this disparity may be due to cultural conditioning. Men being taught that how they think is more important that what they look like. Although at least in the U.S., there is an awful lot of emphasis on the superficial, physical looks of everyone, so it's maybe a bit more complicated than that.

When I reflect on some of the older teachings I can recall concerning the body, what I remember is the body in the negative. The body as a source of affliction, of transient pleasure, of causes of suffering.(Forgive my lack of specific citations; I'm going to work from impressions today.) These impressions make me wonder if there has been a bit of dualism playing out throughout the history of Buddhism. And maybe some of us are continuing this today by emphasizing the mind over all else.

Here are some lines from Dogen's Fukanzazengi:

"At the site of your regular sitting, spread out thick matting and place a cushion above it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half-lotus position. In the full-lotus position, you first place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus, you simply press your left foot against your right thigh. You should have your robes and belt loosely bound and arranged in order. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left palm (facing upwards) on your right palm, thumb-tips touching. Thus sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward nor backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips both shut. Your eyes should always remain open, and you should breathe gently through your nose.

Once you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen."

Notice how much emphasis Dogen places on the body, where to place limbs, what to do with the body in zazen. Body posture, body movement or non-movement is part of the path to enlightenment. See, some men get it :)

Going back to trauma, in my own experience, returning to those places in the body where physical pain is lodged again and again - that is the path toward freedom. In fact, even after my thinking has cleared, and distorted patterns have broken up, there has still been physical manifestations of things that happened long ago. I can sit in zazen and breath into those places. I can do yoga poses to help shift the energy blockages, and strengthen my body in a healthy way. Or I can get a massage, or take herbal medicines, among other things, to address the physical issues. But the main point I'm trying to get at is that we have to stop splitting the body from the mind. And I'm especially speaking to all the men out there who were taught, either directly or indirectly, that the body is secondary, or a source only of pleasure and pain, or just a troublesome place in need of control by the mind.

This splitting is killing us, and it's creating a lot of bad dharma teaching!

And we all should continue to dig into the history of Buddhist teachings with a critical eye to places where the body is overly de-emphasized, or treated in a way that places it far below the mind in terms of value or importance. I'm grateful to some of the feminist Buddhist scholars out there, such as Rita Gross and Jan Willis, who have dug into some of these issues in recent years. And to men like Jon Kabit-Zinn, who do focus on the body as an integral part of practice.

Maybe you know of others, or simply disagree with me. I'd enjoy hearing what others think about all this.

BTW: The dog in the photo is barking at you! Do you know why? Be wary of easy answers.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What is this life now?

I'm sitting out in a little park near my apartment. Across from me, water pours from statue made by the sculptor Paul Manship (1886-1966), who grew up in St. Paul, and later became famous during the Art Deco period.

A woman appears to be taking photos of the statue, while cars pass behind her. The sun is beginning to slowly set to my right, while another woman appears in the park, walking her dog. Squirrels climb up a pair of large oak trees, maybe seventy or eighty years old. They begin to hiss at each other, as some leaves fall to the ground. The woman finishes her photos and stops to talk with the woman walking her dog.

I'm sitting here typing.

A tiny slice of the present moment, although even as I write it, it's already gone.

Life feels so transient when you pay attention like this. Nothing really is holding still, waiting for you to write about it, see it, do anything with it at all. It's just happening all together - so much so that even the stones lodged in the riverbed and the roots of the oldest, most stable tree aren't what they were before, just a moment ago. Not exactly.

A bee hovers around a tall, yellow flower beside me. The name of the plant escapes me, but it's very distinct, with large, long, and narrow leaves more than a foot in length and half a foot in width. The bee pauses, then dances off to another flower. I am watching, then stop to write. Watching, then stop to write.

Cars pass behind me, in front of me, to the side. What do the people in them see? Do they see much of anything of their lives, or are they just trying to get to some future which may or may not exist?

A woman raises her voice into a cell phone. What does she see as she is walking? What else can come in when we fill our lives up with noise and technology and pasts and futures?

Surely, the dog on the leash and the woman I just turned to smile at - they're taking in more of what is actually here, right now?


And maybe I'm just creating artificial divides like those with all the gadgets stuck in their ears.

Water pours from the statue: sun setting, wind picking up out of the east.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Relationship Assumptions

I've been reflecting on the experience of being single and over 30. It's an interesting place to be, partly because there are a lot of cultural assumptions that come with the territory. Two of my students, middle aged women from Ethiopia, asked me today why I don't have a car. I went into the various reasons - to be more environmentally-friendly, to save money, to get more exercise. They weren't convinced, and the one asked the other "Was he born in Minnesota? Is he from here?" After that was confirmed, the other went on to say "You have a family, you need a car. It's important." I then said "I'm single." They couldn't believe that one either. This opened the door to all kinds of questioning about when I would get married, and if, among other things, a rich woman with "a house and car" asked me to marry, would I do it. The whole conversation was pretty jovial, not heavy at all, but you can see some of the assumptions there.

But assumptions about relationships come not only from my immigrant and refugee students. They seem to arrive from all over the place, even from other 30+ single people. Here are some of the assumptions I have run into as a result of being single for at least part of the past three years - post 30 years old.

1. There must be something wrong with you if you're not coupled by now.

Somehow, it still surprises a fair amount of people that you can be well-adjusted and yet not ever married, or even close to getting married, at my age. Even some 30 plus singles have made comments to me like this, which makes you wonder they thought of themselves, given that we were in the same boat so to speak.

2. What about children? Certainly you want or have children, right?

This one seems to be especially true for female friends of mine who are 30 plus and single. And there still seems to be a cultural stigma around either not wanting children, or questioning whether you want children or not. Never mind that there 6 billion plus people on the planet, and hundreds of thousands of unwanted children languishing away in orphanages, group homes, and other places. It's one thing to wonder about someone like me if you're from a war-torn country where children sadly die fairly often, and where childbirth itself is still a fairly difficult, sometimes dangerous process. Or from a country where family and relationship structures are highly controlled and norms adhered to because of what is considered culturally acceptable. I question these, too, and sometimes have "interesting" discussions with my students.

But to have such an attitude in the U.S., or some other post-industrial nation is, in my opinion, a failure to step outside of the reproduction box to see that not everyone needs to get married and have children to be well-adjusted and happy. I say this more firmly because there has been much more talk about accepting alternative or complimentary approaches to living and being in countries like the U.S. We like to tell other nations we are democratic, open, free, etc. And yet, we still seem to really like our white picket fence, two children, car in the big garage fantasy. So much so that many of us go around questioning and subtly or not so subtly go around shaming those who either don't fit that norm now, or who never wanted to fit that norm in the first place.

3. Are you gay? Maybe even just a little bit?

Lines like this reveal so much. The heterosexual norm is so easy to threaten that simply being an older single raises alarms. And notice how there's a not so subtle bias playing out in lines like this, which link "not normal" with being gay. The same may be said when the word gay is replaced with lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or any other sexual minority. I have a friend who went on a date with someone who questioned him repeatedly about his sexuality solely because he works as a hairdresser. She couldn't believe - because she failed to step out of cultural stereotypes - that he could be both a male hairdresser and interested in women.

And what if someone is part of the GLBT community? Somehow, getting a confirmation on such a question teaches you nothing about why someone is single. I have another friend who has spent much of her adult life single, and really quite content being single, and has only in the past few years started dating a bit. Although she has been attracted to both men and women in the past, she often chose to focus on the work and studying she was doing, and really didn't feel she was missing out on something by not dating.

4. Aren't you terribly lonely? How do you do it?

This line of thinking is understandable in some ways. Most of us want a close companion to share our lives with. And yes, sometimes I feel lonely, but not nearly as much as some people seem to think I would given my situation. However, there is still strong assumptions behind thoughts like this. First, that people want to be coupled at all times, and can barely handle it when they are not. And two, that those who say they are just fine without a partner are somehow lying or maladjusted. Or, as a few have suggested to me, maybe "you should become a monk." In other words, being along like this as 30 plus adult somehow is linked with a spiritual calling in some people's minds. This is not to say that such a link is never true, but it suggests the deep split we often have when it comes to sexuality and relational intimacy on the one hand, and spirituality on the other hand.

I find all of this very curious, and yet clearly it's reflective of not only cultural issues with people that don't "fit in," but also an example of how strongly our minds want to pin things down, have solid answers about what reality is and how it works. A single man in his thirties raises a few eyebrows. A single woman in her thirties seems to raise a few more eyebrows. A single person who's gender you can't quite define raises many eyebrows. And this seems more so when these people have no children. Single mothers and fathers get a lot of grief, too, but the children are markers of normalcy for them. I don't have that kind of marker, and I'm not even sure I want to. And saying this, some might wonder what I think of children, as if the two issues have to be linked.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Violations of Grammar

When I'm not writing blogs, I write poetry. Here's one I wrote over the winter, which feels like it has a touch of dharma in it. Enjoy.

Violations of Grammar

standing at a bus stop, eyes closed, dreaming of a small, dead girl

as the frigid wind slips beneath the shelter, under her skirt

never mind that she hasn’t considered herself “sexy” for years,

do you remember the time? she says , to me, to herself, to no one

the sound of a car horn blaring in front of us, driver slamming

his hands on the wheel, mouth wide open, but still going nowhere–

barely a pause, and i hear her say like it was yesterday, yesterday,

her y’s sliding into her s’s, r’s touching the frosted glass

with her nose, fingers twitching in their little green mittens,

but still no bus, not even far up the road, where the easing down

becomes, for a moment, a hill, just enough of one to break

the crosswinds, slow most of the traffic, make you think twice

before walking up it after the snow has come, not

that it matters, she suddenly says, breaking the silence again,

as if to take back the sighs of the previous statement,

or somehow make it seem a little less obvious

how this world can break a woman, leave her stranded

in stories we never meant in the goodness of our hearts

to have come into being, but somewhere along the way, through

sheer will, and violations of grammar, ended up telling anyway.

Friday, July 24, 2009

State Capitol Visit

I took my ESL class to the Minnesota state capitol yesterday. We toured the building, learned a little bit of history, and also visited state Senator John Marty. For over a half an hour, my class asked him questions they had practiced asking in class for the past few weeks. Not fluffy questions mind you, but important questions about the state welfare system, health care, immigration laws, and other issues directly impacting their lives. even though I have a lot of "gripes" with our government, both at the state and federal levels, taking learners who came from countries where they had no rights and no opportunities to do anything about the laws that controlled their lives, I always feel a little better about our own situation here in the U.S.

Here is an e-mail I just sent to Senator Marty, focused on the current health care crisis and how it impacts me personally. I consider it part of my spiritual life to speak honestly about my life, my opinions about the state of world, and to do what I can to make the world a better place. At the same time, part of this process is to remember that I will never know for sure all the fruits of my actions. Another part of this process is to remain open to other opinions as much as possible. So, it's really an attempt to have a different kind of being politically active in the world - one that isn't grounded in fixed, certain answers, and angry actions. I'm still learning how to do this, to live this way, but every step in that direction, is a step away from three poisons (greed, hatred, and delusion) that seem to infiltrate most political movements these days.

Dear Senator Marty,

I’m writing to thank you again for meeting with our students; they were very energized by the visit, and talked about it the rest of the school day.

I also wanted to share with you a bit of my own personal story, hoping it may be of some value when you are in debates about health care legislation, or when you are on the trail running for Governor in the coming months.

I have either volunteered or worked teaching English to immigrants and refugees for over eleven years now. Since 2002, I have been without health insurance because none of my employers have offered it, and I cannot afford to purchase a private plan of my own. My current employer, MORE School, has talked for several years about offering insurance, but has yet to be able to afford to do so. We are a small non-profit, with fewer than 15 employees, and we’ve been hard like many non-profits during the recession. As a result, not only am I continuing to be without insurance, but I am now taking a 9% pay cut on a salary that was, before the pay cut, less than $25 thousand a year.

Many people have told me to just move on when I have spoken of my lack of insurance. And now, with this pay cut, moving on is a very real reality.

But I have to say there is something very wrong when people are forced to leave work they are really passionate about because of issues like lack of health insurance. There is something unjust about a system that prices out not only individuals, but also most small non-profits and businesses as well. And this is what our for-profit health insurance industry is doing on a regular basis – forcing people to choose between what they love and what they need. It’s foul, and it has to change.

My school is a part of the Minnesota Adult Basic Education system. We serve over 30,000 students across the state, doing a variety of work from ESL and GED teaching, to citizenship studies, job preparation, and other social services. Of the teachers in the system, over 70% of us are employed part time, and many of those without benefits. There simply isn’t enough investment in us, either from government or from the charitable foundation and private sectors, for our system to actually function in a way that support both the learners and its employees. Good teachers quit everyday to find better paying jobs with benefits; many of these teacher quit solely because of financial reasons.

In my opinion, health care is a lynch-pin issue. You tug at it and everything else comes with. One of my favorite philosophers, Joanna Macy, who has combined her Buddhist meditation practice with studies of systems theory, always talks about “solving for pattern.” In other words, you find that which cuts across a variety of issues, and you take aim right there. So, I really think you are correct to place a strong focus on health care, and precisely to suggest that we need a single system that covers everyone.

But I think there needs to be a different approach to those who are against such things. There needs to be a stronger emphasis not on health care as a right for everyone (which I agree with), but on the patterns playing out by the system as it, and how changing it might change much larger patterns.

Republicans and conservative Democrats are often talking about the “flood” of people coming into the U.S. that “don’t speak English well.” Now, there are plenty of ways to address these kinds of comments, but I really think it’s important for people in Minnesota to realize that the very system set up to support English language learning is poorly funded, and has poor teacher retention precisely because of lack of health insurance or opportunities for full-time or close to full-time employment. And because of this, those studying English struggle more because they do not gain the consistency that children do, for example, from having the same teacher or set of teachers over a long period of time. Now, my argument is that if these teachers didn’t have to worry about health insurance, more of them would opt for less pay in order to do what they love. Probably not all, but more than currently do.

Pushing this point further, because English language learners receive inconsistent classroom instruction, fewer of them ever master the language, and thus struggle to achieve financial and social independence. Now, obviously some lawmakers and leaders will never be persuaded by anything when it comes to these kinds of issues. But it strikes me that some might, eventually, if things get presented differently.
I guess the questions I would like to ask you and your fellow lawmakers are these: “How many tens of thousands of people will have to, like me, be forced to choose between what they love to do and what will provide health insurance? How many more dedicated, passionate teachers will have to leave the ABE system before you stand up and collectively do something? How many more people will have to end up in emergency rooms due to lack of preventative treatment, in poverty due to medical bills, or simply dead before you collectively realize that we have to have a completely different model of health care?

I know you support these issues, but I ask you: How are you going to shift the debate in favor of better system? A single payer system? I think it can be done, but it needs to be done differently. There is no better time than now to change the way we care for each others’ health.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Dharma, Race, and White Privilege

There has been some spirited debate about a post that written concerning race and a meditation retreat at Deer Park Monastery in California. Please see the blogs Progressive Buddhism and Angry Asian Buddhist on my sidebar for the thrust of these discussions. (Forgive my lack of in-text links, I can't seem to figure out how to get it in there.)

I believe the following preliminary points are essential when considering issues of race and privilege:

1. Racism, both in individual and institutional manifestations, continues to be pervasive in the United States. We have come a long way as a society, but we have a long way to go still.

2. That pervasiveness includes its presence in our sanghas, no matter how much sensitivity to such issues may be present. This is not to diminish the value of being open and sensitive to racial issues, but to suggest that such sensitivity is not sufficient for eliminating racism in all its forms.

3. White privilege is a separate, but linked, issue. Due to both the historical legacy of oppression, including legalized social and economic favoritism towards whites, and to the continuation today of behaviors and thought patterns that developed during the past, white people (myself included) have privileges that people of color in the U.S. simply do not. One does not need to display racist thoughts of behaviors in order to have white privilege. In fact, often we whites are unaware of how our behavior sometimes falls into these patterns.

4. Buddha's teachings call us to have compassion for each other, and to question all of our stories, including the ones we have about race, racism, white privilege, etc. Above all, I think it's important for each of us, no matter our background, to remain open and to listen deeply when it comes to these issues.

5. Those who suggest that issues of race are distractions to the dharma, and should just be dropped, are wrong, dead wrong.

Here is a conversation from the post on Progressive Buddhism. Arun is the blogger of Angry Asian Buddhist. And Kyle is one of the bloggers on Progressive Buddhism. I want to say beforehand that both Arun and Kyle have been very clear with their comments, and both, in my opinion, take these issues seriously.

Arun wrote to Kyle: "To paraphrase what I’ve written elsewhere, at the very least, being a white American means that you don’t have to deal with the humiliation of your race being shoved in your face day in and day out. After all, you’re the default. When most Americans think of a doctor, soldier, lawyer, engineer, judge, police officer, professor, firefighter or astronaut, they think of white guys. That’s you. Not minorities. Not women. When you apply for a nice white collar job, you fit the subconscious white guy profile they had in mind. You’ve never had someone look at your skin and wonder if you have a criminal record or illegal immigrant in your blood. You’ve never been arrested for opening the door to your own house. It’s nice. It’s a privilege.

The kicker is when your privilege flows thick with entitlement. You know that you enjoy benefits as a white man that people of color don’t. You’re a liberal, well-educated fellow, an ardent Democrat who stays on top of the issues. You’re well aware of the racial inequity that continues to grip our nation. You didn’t ask for this privilege—but that’s the catch. Who asked to be born and raised in the laundry room? Who asked to be the child of migrant workers? Who asked to be the offspring of the plantation hands? They didn’t ask for their socially constructed disadvantages either. It is the apotheosis of white privilege when you can look in the mirror, acknowledge your unearned privilege, and then walk away.

Because I can’t do that. The tens of millions of people of color in this nation can’t look in the mirror, accept that we’ve been given the shaft, and then pretend this socially constructed thing called race doesn’t exist. It is insulting if you expect us to believe that somehow we can live in the same race-free world you enjoy by the very privilege of being a white man in America."

And I wrote: "Kyle, these are important points Arun is making. Recently, I had an experience at our school where these dynamics play out. I am an infrequent visitor to the school I help run, mostly because I'm doing off site work right now. Anyway, the doors of the building are locked, and people either have to be buzzed in or have keys. I have keys and often just key in and go on my way. No questions are ever asked of me, even though a lot of people there don't even know who I am. About a month ago, one of our volunteers, an African-American guy in his mid-20s, was buzzed in. He proceeded to head to the bathroom for about 5 minutes. The office staff decided this was "suspicious" so they confronted him when he came out of the bathroom. He was shocked, and nearly quit volunteering with the school. We had lengthy discussions with the staff on hand, and the person who confronted him apologized, but the whole thing never should have happened. Not in 5 years has anyone asked me, a white male, why I was walking around, in the bathroom, etc. To me, this is just a small example of the way things continue to be in the U.S.

Now, like I've said before, I don't sit around feeling shame or guilt about my status as a white male. Nor do I feel compelled to try and make up for all the misdeeds of the past. That's impossible.

It's very true that race is an arbitrary construction, but it's equally true that our society has loaded this construction with all sorts of associations, and created institutions, laws, and codes of acceptable and not acceptable behavior based on it.

I do think Mr. Le's article was a bit sloppy, and he could have done a better job of drawing out the subtle issues that we at play in the retreat he attended.

I recall years ago sitting in a town hall discussion on race in Milwaukee. It was a messy, kind of miserable experience - mostly because instead of dialogue, it turned into a an argument about who's oppression had been worse. However, I remember at one point, an African-American woman getting up and responding to a white woman's question. The white woman asked 'What should we do about all this?' meaning all the oppression of the past and present. And the African-American woman said, 'Stop asking us what you need to do. Get together and figure out what you need to do yourselves.'

The way I see it, this woman was asking us to a)stop ignoring the issues and b)stop assuming that people of color will hold your hand and give you the answers you need.

I honestly don't know what exactly needs to happen to overturn the current manifestations of racism and privilege. Maybe like you, I sometimes am stumped as to how to respond to comments like Arun is making. But I feel compelled to keep an open mind, and to listen as well as I can, believing that eventually, solutions come from deep listening.

We all end up having partial narratives. You, I, Arun, everyone else: none of our stories about the world, and what is going on, are complete. So, I can definitely question, prod, and respond to what is presented to me. But the moment I assume I know everything is trouble."

And Kyle responded: "Thank you Nathan for those comments. I have very much acknowledged Arun's concerns and I agree with many of them.

Here is what is being missed though, this post is about Mr.Le and his statements. Here is a quote from an another Asian American Buddhist on Arun's site regarding Mr.Le's post:

"What he wrote really didn't sound like something a Buddhist would write - it lacks empathy, understanding, and compassion. I am writing this because I have a higher standard for him, being a rare Asian-American scholar and a Buddhist at the same time. I am, however, disappointed. His post is actually causing MORE rifts between the Asian and Western Buddhists than the offensive Vietnamese native he complaints about, but both you and him fail to see this. There are great examples of white privilege within Buddhist Sanghas which should be made aware by the non-whites, but THIS IS NOT THE CASE. He pursued his agenda with a bad example and now may have ruined the opportunity for real dialog. I am deeply saddened because of this."

While I disagree that Le ruins the chance for dialogue, I think he makes some very valid points. I find it odd that very few people will stand up and say "hey, Mr.Le's comments were very inappropriate and highly offensive." This isn't about Arun's very valid concerns, this is about trying to fix racism with more racism. And just because he is talking about white's doesn't make it one bit less offensive.

But because I am white, am I supposed to not point this out, hold my head in shame and say shame on me for being white? I really like Arun and I think she/he(sorry, I have no clue if Arun is a woman or a man) has a ton of good stuff to say, and I even invited Arun through e-mail to post about these concerns, and help the entire community understand the real pain that minorities go through and how we can best help our community to become more aware and more diverse. And that offer is always open Arun.

The Buddha said 'In this world Hate never yet dispelled Hate, only Love dispels Hate.'"

Now, you might ask - why did I just put my poor readers through all this. Well, partly because I really think it's important for all of us to pay attention to the nuances of each others' stories. It's way too easy to jump on a single phrase or set of comments you disagree with or think are too angry sounding or whatever, and dismiss everything else that is said. But the reality is that it will only be through deep listening, and a willingness to change, if necessary, that these kinds of complex issues will ever change. I have more to say about all this, but instead, I want to invite you to reflect on the conversation above, as well as those in the other blogs, and those in your own lives.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bus Meditation

I have reinvigorated my bus meditation practice lately, mostly out of a desperate need for less reactiveness at work. However, I have quickly rediscovered why this form of sitting feels like a seamless part of my overall zen practice. Sitting upright, with my hands in the cosmic mudra, feet flat on the bus floor, eyes three quarters closed, taking in everything. Sound familiar? You never know what's going to enter the bus, just as, really, you never know what's going to enter your life. This morning, a crying baby, loud music, chatty bus driver, and even a few minutes of silence all entered into my meditation. Like the upset I was feeling about my job, and other parts of my life, I had the opportunity to let it all come and go again and again. There's something about meditating while going somewhere, too, that I find interesting. It's different from being stationary on the cushion, but not lesser than, in my opinion. It's kind of like life is sped up a little bit, and things look different and feel different when you finish your meditation on the bus, if only because your actual location has changed. Another thing I find fascinating about bus meditation is that it's an opportunity to let go of how people might perceive you. What's that guy doing? Why is he sitting so straight like that? Etc. All that stuff comes and goes through my mind as well, even though I'm well aware most people coming on don't notice or care what I'm doing. Which is yet another reason why I love bus meditation: I can extend my practice into a part of my everyday experience without any disruption whatsoever. Sometimes, I think it's good to disrupt your life a bit for practice, but when you don't have to, that's good too!

* On the ride home from work this afternoon, we were treated to a round of hail. As the chunks thumped the roof and side of the bus, a few of the passengers got on their cell phones and gave blow by blow descriptions of the experience. I started laughing as their voices became so animated, almost as if they had never seen hail before - which I'm pretty sure wasn't the case. And then, at one point, the bus turned a corner, and there was nothing, not a single drop of rain nor hail to be found. And then just as quickly as we drove out of it, we drove back into more - pouring rain, hail, the whole works. "Isn't this just like our lives?", I thought, as the bus rolled into my stop.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Land of 10,000 Lusts

The state of Minnesota has a variety of nicknames. One of them is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, which was given to the state by early European settlers who saw the state's many lakes, and felt the nickname would entice more European immigrants to move here back in the second half of the 19th century. It worked. The image of the state as a heavenly place filled with gigantic trees, wide open fields, and beautiful pools of water brought people in droves. Of course, they forgot to mention the brutally cold winters, mosquito-filled summers, and numerous conflicts going on with the native Dakota and Ojibwe peoples, just to name a few omissions. Like all great advertising, the image projected never fully reflected the reality present. And as a result, people lusting after the perfect place to live arrived in Minnesota by the wagon fulls, only to discover that Minnesota was like every other place: a mixed bag.

This seems to be the case for everything we lust after in life.

I was reflecting last night and this morning on how often in the past twenty four hours I have lusted after something or someone. Recently single, the level of lusting after women has definitely increased, even as I have placed more attention on that energy in my meditation practice. Last night, a friend and I lusted after a better nation, a more just and compassionate world, condemning everything under the sun being done currently in the global political and economic realms. While biking yesterday, I lusted after quieter roads and more patient drivers. the weather having been much cooler than normal, I have been lusting after warmth and the sun. Arriving in my garden yesterday afternoon to a load of weeds crowding out some of the vegetables, I lusted after a way to pluck the weeds without getting my new sandals dirty.

Another, more encompassing word for lust is craving. And as most any Buddhist knows, and probably plenty of non-Buddhists have learned as well, the origin of suffering is our cravings and deep attachments. This is pretty basic stuff, but really, it doesn't matter that it's basic. I, you, we get tripped up on this basic point over and over and over again.

Here is an image from the 7th Dalai Lama - Kelsang Gyatso -(1708-1757), translated by Glenn Mullin:

"Hundreds of stupid flies gather
On a piece of rotten meat,
Enjoying, they think, a delicious feast.
This image fits with the song
Of the myriads of foolish living beings
Who seek happiness in superficial pleasures;
In countless ways they try,
Yet I have never seen them satisfied."

Notice that the Dalai Lama uses the word "image," suggesting just as I did above about the Land of 10,000 Lakes that what we see and think doesn't match up with what actually is. And isn't it interesting, too, that the Dalai Lama uses an image to warn us about the lies of images and perceptions. This counter-image, flies on rotting meat, is a means of breaking through our love of the surface. Another way to put it for us modern Westerners is that this counter-image is the hammer on the shiny new car hood, calling for an end to the drooling over it. The hood is already dented, so why long for the body that remains perfect, brand new?

This is the territory I'm living in right now, as waves of disastisfaction run through my life. Not all the time, but more so than I have experienced in awhile. Why is it that I long for the body that remains perfect, brand new? It's very interesting, this place. And I'm not talking just about wanting shiny, new stuff - in fact, that particular problem isn't one that I have very often. But I am in the habit, among other things, of wanting things to come and go fairly easily, wanting clear and definitive answers, wanting to be rewarded for "my good behavior and deeds." These, too, are "perfect, brand new" bodies - in this case, stories - that fail to crack the surface. And even as much of my life goes well, is supported in so many ways by so many people and the world as well, I cling to these rotten pieces of meat, longing for more than I already have.

I'm starting to concluding that much of the talk in our heads is simply chucks of advertising that tries to sell us on something, be it a new toy, gimmicky idea, story about ourselves or the world, or the cute woman smiling across the room at you. Never mind that the toy will break soon, or that the woman across the room has nothing in common with you - you gotta have it, have her, have, have, have.

But what is it that we ever really "have" anyway?

Even our cravings aren't really "ours." They come together through complex interactions that include each of us, but are not limited to me, myself, and I. This awareness, that everything is akin to sand sliding through our fingers, is the very thing I'm trying to remember in the middle of all the lusting and craving.

What is it that you really want when you crave for this and that? Instead of offering some pat answer, I'll just offer the question for you all, and for myself.

May you wake to the advertising of you mind, and let it pass without getting hooked.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Maintaining Oppressions

I'm sitting in one of my favorite coffee shops here in St. Paul, Minnesota. It's in a large, late 19th century hotel building that has been converted to offices and store fronts. It has huge windows that open out onto the street, and very high ceilings - probably 15-20 feet high, which makes the place feel so spacious and yet, cozy somehow as well.

It's a good place to people watch. Author and radio show host Garrison Keillor, who owns the bookstore below the coffee shop, just popped in. The Mayor of St. Paul is speaking with a small group of people in a corner. One of the first Hmong state representatives in Minnesota is sitting in a meeting at a table across from me. And around the corner, the leader of a fairly influential Somali non-profit also sits in a meeting. It's a little unusual to see so many locally "important" people in here, but not unusual for at least a few like this to be here.

I have been thinking about how we are so effective at maintaining of suffering, both individually and collectively. How, even when faced with the truth that nothing is permanent, and nothing has its own stable "self," we're still so damn good at keeping the train going down the side of samsara mountain.

The Reverend Hilda Gutierrez Baldoquin, a Soto Zen priest from Suzuki Roshi's lineage, writes that she has experienced many forms of suffering in her life, including "believing in a reality that has been conditioned by oppression." I'm definitely guilty of this, and when you look around the world and see all the oppressive structures and actions around, you can't help but believe this is IT.

She continues "One reason oppression remains so firmly rooted is because our clouded minds project this distorted reality, and our conditioned selves - who we think we are - are kept very busy maintaining this reality."

To me, the beauty of what Baldoquin is saying is not that oppression doesn't happen, but that it isn't permanent, and it doesn't define who we really are at the core. This is true at the individual level, and it's also true at the collective level, which is so filled with racism, classism, heterosexism, war and other forms of violence. There's no denying the presence of these issues, and it's essential that we continue to work towards breaking them down, and yet they are not who we are - what a relief!

At my yoga class last night, our teacher gave us an assignment: ask for help in a situation where you don't need it. Why do that? Because, for one thing, at the center of all oppression is the twin powers of control and fear, and doing simple acts like asking for help breaks down those mechanisms in the mind.

As I have written before, I believe we are called to act individually through our meditation practices, and collectively through some form of action that aims to benefit the wider community. It's a slow process, this untangling of samsaric knots we have created, but it has to begin somewhere. So, sometime in the next week, ask someone for help when you don't need it. And along the way, watch your mind go through whatever it goes through during the process.

These little acts support our larger acts. I truly believe this. We do not need to maintain an oppressed reality any longer.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Saying NO to Various Extremists

I have been pretty cantankerous the past few days, so it's possible that some of what I write will be a bit cranky, or maybe too straightforward for some people's tastes. It's been really interesting to notice how stating clearly where you're at when where you're at isn't so pleasant isn't what many people really want to hear. The old social formality of "How are you?" really gets put to the test when you answer "I feel crazy" or "Not well." Sure goes against the grain of the socially expected niceties.

So, I have been following a few conversations on various blogs that feel linked, so I'd like to comment on them together.

The first conversation has to do with comments made on a few blogs about mindfulness and meditation. Specifically, there seems to be competing narratives between the view that mindfulness is meditation and the view that mindfulness is a good teaching, but can never replace zazen, shikantaza, or just sitting.

Some of this seems to stem from an article in the recent Shambala Sun by Norman Fischer, which suggests that we might need a "Plan B" when it comes to Buddhism in the West. He offers that in his own practice, and teaching, he has developed parallel practices which compliment each other, and which reach different, but sometimes overlapping groups of students. One practice appears to be much more traditional zen. It emphasizes zazen, chanting, and meditation retreats. The other practice is more experimental, and emphasizes things like mindfulness, stress-reduction teachings from Jon Kabit-Zinn among others, and talking circles.

Now, I have to say that I find Norman Fischer's approach to be a very wise response to the many conundrums of Buddhist practice here in North America. It recognizes that some people will respond most readily to rigorous, "old school" if you will approaches to the dharma. And that others are in a place where they are most likely to respond to much more hybrid approaches that push the boundaries of what is and isn't Buddhist practice.

I can say that I sometimes believe that some of the experiments being done in the name of opening the door of Buddha's teachings are definitely watered down, and problematic. One blog I read recently mentioned that some people were suggesting, for example, that mindfully watching TV or turning down the water heater temperature after a shower were both forms of meditation. As the writer of that blog said: this is nonsense! And really we need to be on the look out for anything that is really TV Dinner Zen - those practices that are "sold" as quick and easy and guaranteed to make you feel better.

At the same time, I am extremely turned off by those who damn any form of experimentation and shift away from what was handed down to us as false or wrong practice. Specifically, I am pointing at suggestions that the only "true" practices are zazen (sitting meditation), sesshin (retreat practice), and chanting as accompaniment to meditation practice. I say this as someone who meditates nearly every day, and who loves "just sitting" precisely because of it's profound impact on my life.

Let's face it: not everyone is ready to hack either sitting practice or retreat practice. Let's go beyond that: millions of Buddhists around the world do neither, and yet I would argue find a way to live Buddha teachings in a way that is no less enlightened than those of us who practice primarily by doing zazen. Let's add a third set of variables: money and time. How many low income single mothers or fathers can regularly do meditation retreats? Or even how many parents of little children in general, or adults taking care of elderly parents, can regularly do meditation retreats? Maybe these people can squeeze a half an hour or hour of sitting meditation in a day. But these same people might be able to do other practices that help them dig into their lives, and maybe even awaken to the truth of their lives in ways that are similar to how sitting practice works for those of us who do it.

It frankly seems insulting to suggest to people who have tons of obligations, or who are poor and must work multiple jobs to pay their bills, that their practices are sub-par, and that things like mindfulness practices and simple mantras and chants are "lesser" practices and can only lead so far. I've grown a bit tired of the middle and upper-middle class biases that are prevalent in much of North American convert Buddhism, and challenge all of us to examine those biases, and recognize that we cannot be a "one size fits all" kind of practice if we truly vow to free all beings from suffering.

The way I see it, we are still in a transition phase when it comes to Buddhist practice in the "West." Things have yet to settle, yet to merge in ways that truly reflect things as they are for us. So, I say it's folly to toss out everything that was handed down to us from the past. That includes some of the rituals, chants, and our meditation practices. We need these. But it's also folly to toss out innovations of the present and recent past. That includes mindfulness based stress reduction, talking circles, revised ritual forms, on-line spiritual communities, etc.

In a way, both those who argue for strict adherence to the traditions that were handed to them from Eastern teachers, and those who argue that we should toss out all forms and rituals from the past are playing with fire. They represent two sides of extremism - one that carries with it a fundamentalist view of the dharma, and the other which plays into the worst aspect of modernism (i.e. the make it new and to hell with the past aspect.)

The debates over what practice looks like, and how it might take form, is a very valuable one. If we have a healthy plurality of approaches in the future, some that appear more similar to those found in Japan, China, and other eastern nations, and some which are very different from that, we will be very fortunate. However, if too many of us act like we have THE answers to how Buddhist practice MUST look in the West, we'll eventually be just like many of our Christian, Muslim, and Jewish brothers and sisters, who can't seem to see that in the end, we are all interconnected, and divine.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


There has been an awful lot of restlessness in this body and mind lately. The desire to be "moving on" to something else, combined with a fear of stagnation and a sense of being very, very tired of old story lines and patterns.

Some of the restlessness is job-related. A deep sense of being called somewhere else, but without the clarity or a direction connected to it to follow.

And some of it may have to do with the recent breakup I had, and this longing for a partnership wherein both members grow and evolve "in tandem," as Stephen Levine puts it.

There are other things I could point to that are contributing to this restlessness, but at the end of the day, it's all just that: pointing.

What is clear is that I have a hell of a hard time staying with, riding the waves we call restlessness. Katagiri Roshi used to warn his students not to get "tossed away" by events and emotions in your life, and this is definitely one place where getting tossed away easily occurs.

I keep asking: how much of this restlessness is simply the failure to fully accept what is occuring in my life right now? And how much of that failure to do so is tied to the view that if I do so, nothing in my life will ever change?

It's all very funny, you know, seeing how easily you can fall into fatalistic thinking. It's so easy to conflate acceptance with resignation, to believe that if you let go of the resistance you have to the things you really don't like about your life, that those things will take over like thistles and quack grass in an abandoned field. And maybe this is just what is needed, to become an abandoned field available to be taken over - but only temporarily. It reminds me of how organic farmers use cover crops to replenish the soil. For a season or two, the whole place is taken over by a weedy legume, which in turns makes it possible for a future of abundance.

When looking deeper at the two issues pointed at above as contributers to the restlessness, it's easy to see how both of them are compounded by fears and fatalisms. With the job situation, there's a strong fear that I don't have enough and/or won't have enough in the future. Tied to this is the more vain belief that my education level and experience have earned me the "right" to have a well paying job that supports my talents and desire to better benefit others.

In the relationship situation, it's very clear that not only is there an attachment to the story I have about what I "need," but also a fear that because I won't just "settle," that it may mean being alone for the rest of my life.

What's interesting is that I already have a job where my work does benefit others. It's very true that my pay covers just the bills and a little extra, and leaves me almost no wiggle room if some emergency spending issue arose. However, it's also true that we in the U.S. have grown up with the idea that success is tied to moving up the ladder, and having enough material wealth to be able to blow some of it on entertainment, travel, and other leisure activities. And, even more importantly, moving up the ladder economically provides us with a level of security that those who are poor do not have. While there is some truth to this, it's also a false sense of security - no one is really safe in this world if you think about it. Zen Master Seung Sahn said "If we look at this life ... we see that nobody guarantees it. Everything in our life is very dangerous: it doesn't exist, it is illusion." Now, all of this doesn't mean I have to stay at my current job, but it does point to the fact that what I think I need and what I really need may be two very different things.

What is this restlessness anyway? Is it just a lack of patience, or does it also contain a calling?

Maybe if I become an abandoned field, I'll find out.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Moments of attention

I’m sitting outside behind my apartment, listening to the soft jingle of the neighbor’s wind chime. The sun is sliding down the western sky; in another two hours or so, it will disappear from here all together. A few minutes ago, I had a short experience with a fat squirrel with a thin tail. Coming out with my book and a few bags – recycling and trash – the squirrel leapt from its place underneath the table when I was heading to sit. Onto the neighbor’s fence I watched it go, clinging as the momentum slowed down – squirrels are damn good at clinging, as are people, though in different ways I suppose. It looked at me, and then scampered under a tree which I then noticed, for the first time, is an apple tree. Maybe a crab apple tree, maybe something else, but it’s filled with fruit.

Sitting down, I cracked the book. A novel by someone I have never heard of – a woman named Sheridan Hay who apparently worked in bookstores for many years before writing a book about, among other things, a bookstore. The novel is two years old; I bought it an hour ago at the local thrift store for a dollar. It’s amazing how fast things travel nowadays.

So, I’m sitting there reading when the squirrel leaps off of the fence and walks down the little sidewalk running along the garage building for our apartments. The sidewalk is maybe 10 feet from the table where I am sitting, which may account for the feeling of startle I had when the squirrel stopped right across from me, looked right at me, and lifting onto its hind legs. It’s funny. I have always really enjoyed squirrels, and yet I have also had this odd, reoccurring fear that one is going to run at me and leap onto me. As it stood in the air for maybe five seconds, I didn’t sense any anger, or even any fear in the stance. Maybe confusion. Curiousity perhaps. Maybe it’s sick. I’m not sure. But as it stepped back, and slowly walked down the rest of the sidewalk, I could sense that it had something it wanted to show me.

Up the fence on the other side of the yard it went, still moving fairly slow, but also filled with that squirrely energy that makes their bodies jerk all over. It was definitely fat, but it didn’t really seem sick or close to dying. I watched it disappear, and wondered if it would return while I was outside.

How we pay attention, it strikes me, has just as much to do with environment as it does with “internal” skill or focus. Squirrels teach one way of attention; turtles another. Semi-trucks still another. Everything around us is like this, going about its business, while simultaneously offering a teaching on attention to whomever or whatever will give it some.

Now, I’m going to enjoy this gift I received by returning to the novel, and keeping an ear cocked for the return of my furry, little friend.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Full Moon Zen

I feel like I have been doing my life a little half-assed lately. Maybe even much longer than lately actually. This probably isn't true on the surface, mind you. It tends to look like I'm very active and fully engaged in my life. But really, I don't feel that way. In my gut, I can sense some standoffishness somewhere, some desire to be doing something else, or to have something be slightly and greatly better than it is.

In his letters, zen master Seung Sahn repeated told people to do things 100% and to "believe in yourself 100 percent." Well, I'm sorry to say I'm not there yet. 70% - maybe. 100% - nope.

What is it, anyway, with this mind that searches for distractions, things to be irritated about, places to hide, or something that is more pleasurable than the present moment? Where is trust in all of this mess, the true trust in life as it is?

It's kind of like doing zazen with one cheek in the air. You sit down for meditation, and instead of placing yourself fully on the meditation cushion, or chair, you lift one side up and dangle it in the air. Maybe you're seeking a thrill, or maybe you really think that having one cheek in the air is balanced. But how long can something like that last before you tip over? And how much energy do you waste in the process?

"Ridiculous!" I can hear you saying. "Whoever heard of someone doing zazen with one cheek in the air?"

But this is your mind, my mind, in action everyday. It's not content to sit down and full moon the cushion completely. It wants something more exciting, more unique, more risque. So one cheek dangles in the air, sometimes all day, all week, all year - maybe an entire lifetime. And as a result, life is missed again and again.

A few nights ago, I did an old bowing practice from the days at Clouds in Water when Dosho Port was our teacher. Essentially, the practice is to do full bows for every female ancestor in our lineage. At the time, our lineage chant contained 46 female ancestors, so we were charged to give this a try for a period of time. To really dig into bowing as a practice in this way, while honoring the powerful women that came before us.

So, what did I end up doing a few nights ago? I stayed up too late talking to a friend, and due to exhaustion, only did 23 full bows. I had to talk myself into doing those 23 at all, since I had to get up early for a staff meeting the next morning. Some of you might say, "well, hell, you did 23, that's more than I would do." Well, maybe, but I actually wrote on another blog that night that I was going to do the full 46. I wrote it partly to be public, to declare what I intended to do to push me along into doing it. This, to me, is part of the practice. Saying to others your intentions. It's important, and I did it, and then fulfilled half the intention.

Now, I'm not broken up about the fact that I didn't do the other 23 bows. It's a small thing; no big deal in the grand scheme of things. But in another sense, it represents the one foot in, one foot out mentality I've had over the years about many things in my life, including, sometimes, my zen practice. Even there, although I feel fairly committed and am definitely not a casual practitioner, still I feel a wall, and block of holding back which is keeping my from doing things like those 46 bows fully, without hesitation.

There was a full moon in the sky last night, and everyday, there is an opportunity to give life your own full moon. This is both an absolutely silly image, and also a serious call to claim the seat of your life.

May you claim your seat. And may your ass cheeks stop dangling in the air in the process.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


Australian Artist Arthur Boyd, 1945.

I have been reading a book about Australian art from the period of colonization to the present. It's been fascinating to watch how the art unfolded and reflected the changes in culture and history in the country. I have often thought that a great way to learn about any nation, and group of people, is to study their art. It tells volumes, as does the writing that is done about it.

One of the main themes throughout this book is the issue of settlement and connection/disconnection to the land of Australia. Specifically, there is this strong tension between the tenuous and ambiguous connection the Europeans who came to the country have towards the land, and the perceived deep inhabitance of the Aboriginal peoples who have lived in Australia for centuries. This tension seems to come to a peak during the years of World War II, when a short-lived, but memorable group of artists dominated the Australian art scene. Author Christopher Allen writes of them: "A truly motivated and extremely vigorous modernism arose in the years immediately before, during and after the Second World War. The art of the Angry Penguins, as they came to be known, was riven with tensions that recall those of early settler art in a new idiom and at a far more acute emotional pitch. It was the paradox of living in the 'Uninhabitable.'"

First off, what an evocative name: the Angry Penguins. And also fitting, given that it's kind of difficult to imagine what an angry penguin looks like (maybe this is from lack of personal experience.)

But what most interests me is this issue of uninhabitability. It seems to be something we all experience with ourselves, our own lives, sometimes fairly often. How often do you turn away from what you are experiencing? Or do something, anything to deflect or enhance the present moment's raw openness? We have a damn hard time living in, inhabiting, our lives as they actually unfold, so it's no surprise that the art of an entire nation seems preoccupied with the issue of inhabiting its land.

Of the Angry Penguins, Arthur Boyd's work seems to most embody the flamboyantness of the group's name. Born in 1920, and coming from a long line of painters and artists, Arthur Boyd was fairly young - in his early twenties - when the Angry Penguins formed. He later would become known for his work done while living in the bush and studying the lives of Aborigines living in and around Alice Springs. But it's his early work, done during the war years and just after, that truly exemplifies this firery struggle to come to terms with our lives as they are.

Most notably among these paintings is the apocalyptic image of Melbourne Burning , which was completed in 1947. Clearly influenced in part by the Renaissance painter Pieter Brueghel, Boyd's painting is filled with screaming, tortured people and animals trying to escape an enormous fire in what appears to be a mythic version of Melbourne as both a modern, industrial center as well as an ancient, pre-industrial city. Cows tumbling into the river; smokestacks spewing soot right next door. It's a very curious image, one that is filled with people attempting to, but not quite fully able to, embrace each other.

I think this burning, imaginary Melbourne is very much like how we live much of the time. Katagiri Roshi called it our "thirsting desire." In his book Returning to Silence, he writes:

"According to Buddha's teachings, sickness is holy truth. This means you have to accept sickness, which is beyond the world of your likes and dislikes. For instance, if you have cancer, how can you be free from this suffering? Buddhism tells us to accept the suffering from cancer. But it is difficult to accept it because you believe to accept the suffering from cancer is to not be free from cancer ... No matter how long you struggle to be free from the suffering from cancer you will never be free. Suffering from cancer is real reality, which is inescapable."

So, if it's inescapable, how do we approach the fires of our lives without getting burned beyond recognition? Is it even possible to do so?

In the center of Boyd's painting, in the middle of the fire, is a single person-like figure. Maybe this is each of us, at the moment when we have given up trying to be something we are not. Maybe even in the middle of what seems to be hell, we can be liberated from the flames of desire.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Short Meditation on Compassion

As for compassion, I have come to view it in a much more complex way than I did before I started praticing. Compassion takes many forms, depending on the context. Sometimes, it’s a very soft and gentle presence. Sometimes, it’s a fierce call to wake up or to stop doing what you’ve been doing. Sometimes, it’s a long discussion that contains a request to change some deep seated habit. And sometimes, it’s just silence while another blathers on and on until they have exausted all the storylines.

I really believe we have to stop viewing compassion as solely a kindly grandmother always ready to feed us milk and cookies. I think of my own great grandmother right now, who just turned 100, and how her sometimes fierce, sometimes gentle brand of compassion continues to inspire me to experiment with life, and let go of hard, fixed meanings.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Another letter

Had a few requests to post the response letter to Mr. Dunagan, so here it is. I made an effort to speak in language that might translate. It wasn't always an easy thing to do. Please see the previous post for the beginning of the dialogue.

Dear Mark,

The best two periodical publications I know covering zen and buddhism in general are Tricycle and Buddhadharma Journals. Both have extensive websites filled with teachings, as well as print versions that come out bi-monthly and quarterly respectively. As for major teachings, The Heart Sutra, The Lotus Sutra, and Diamond Sutra are all high up on the list, as is the Dhammapada. I am a member of the Soto Zen school, which began in Japan in the 13th century, and was founded by Zen Master Dogen, who's teachings are fairly easy to find on-line and in print form.

* Are there any "absolutes"--that is, absolute right or wrong, or is truth

What is fundamental is that we all have buddhnature - that we're all basically good and are enlightened already. This is present regardless of what one does in their lives.

However, this doesn't mean people don't create evil, nor are in no need of cleaning their acts up. We definitely can, and do, create evil in the world, and our practice is about seeing through the ways in which we create suffering for ourselves and others, and learning how we can be of service to others in the world.

Is our path objective or subjective? Well, I'm not sure I can answer this clearly. I will do my best, but hope you will dig into other sources. I'd say it is objective in that every action produces results in the world. We can't escape what we do, so if what we do causes suffering, then we'll experience that in our lives somehow. Same is true with actions that produce joy and happiness.

However, each of us must confirm our understanding of our lives, or the truth of our lives, through our own experience. Koans may seem nonsensical to you, but they are designed to help us break through our conventional thinking and see what is actually happening in the world.

I have to get back to work now. Hope this helps clarify things a bit.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

You Never Know

I sent the following e-mail to Mark Dunagan, a church leader at the Beaverton Oregon Church of Christ, in respose to an article he wrote about Zen Buddhism that his congregation uses to study from. Brad Warner had posted a link to the article in his blog yesterday, saying someone had sent it to him. He called it a "funny" article; I laughed a bit too, but also felt it missed the mark so badly that it was worth a shot to write the author with my concerns. Here's the letter.

Dear Mr. Dungan,

I have been a zen practitioner for nearly a decade now. I came across
your article about Zen Buddhism in a post on the blog for zen teacher
Brad Warner.

It is definitely your right to believe what you wish, including to
elevate your spiritual tradition above others. However, you have no
idea what the living tradition of zen looks like, and your article
spreads falsehoods about our beliefs and how we live as zen

Most of your sources are from writers during early days of zen in the
West - people like D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts - who placed a great deal
of emphasis on the inherent emptiness (or lack of unchanging qualities)
that accompany our lives. This is only part of the story.

We are not nihilistic, nor do we "lack morals" as you suggest. Buddhism
has throughout it's history had a strong set of moral/ethical
guidelines called the precepts. Again, those early writers rarely
talked about the precepts because they were appealing to Westerners who
didn't like Christianity anymore, and who wanted to step away from the
moral grounding of many Christian institutions. I'm not interested in
defending their reasons for running away from Christianity, nor do I
care to debate whether they were right or wrong.

"Soikie-an stated: "Though all day long you are speaking, raising your
eyebrows, standing, sitting, walking and lying, nevertheless in reality
nothing has happened". If this is true, then there never has been any crime or any
good deeds. We have accomplished absolutely nothing. If nothing has
really happened, then Zen would have to deny all human suffering, every
crime, every war, the holocaust, and so on. What possible comfort does
Zen have to offer to the person who has just lost a loved one or has
been the victim of a terrible crime?"

Do you really believe that I, and my fellow zen Buddhists, deny human
suffering, deny war, deny the Holocaust? How could you possibly say
this and keep a straight face? We cry like everyone else. We grieve
like everyone else. We suffer, and most definitely recognize that there
is suffering, like everyone else. And we find comfort and solace in our
teachings, as you do in yours.

My basic goal in writing this letter is to ask that you actually visit
a zen temple, actually talk with living teachers and students, actually
experience who we are as people. I have no desire to convert you to my
beliefs, nor to say that your faith is wrong or lesser than mine,
because I don't believe that. But spreading lies about other religious
systems to covert people, or to tell people that they are the best,
most righteous people, is wrong. And I frankly can't imagine Jesus
telling his disciples to spread falsehoods in his name, so that people
will drop what they believe, and come to him. In the end, it's just
fine wi
th me if you don't feel the tradition I follow is on par with
the tradition you follow. That's your right. But for the sake of your
church members, and out of respect for being truthful, get a better
sense of zen before writing essays to teach others about it.


Nathan G. Thompson

I had no idea if I would receive a response at all. However, I got the following e-mail fairly early this morning. Even if nothing else comes of it, it's always helpful to suspend your assumptions and keep the possibility of dialogue open.

Dear Nathan:

Thanks so much for taking the time to write me. I have no desire to
misrepresent Zen Buddhism and the article was the result of researching this
faith, including talking to individual believers and reading various Zen
sources. You could help me if you gave me a list of fundamental Zen
teachings. For example:

* What would be considered to be the final authority according to Zen? Is
it objective or subjective?
* Are there any "absolutes"--that is, absolute right or wrong, or is truth
* Is there a Zen publication or book that most would consider to be an
accurate portrayal of this faith? What book, or the works of which teacher
would you recommend?

Again, thank you so much for writing.