Sunday, January 31, 2010

Drama Wars: Are Online Humor and Irreverence Just Paths to Samsara?

Humor. Iconoclasm. Stirring the pot to get some attention. When it comes to making fun of religious and spiritual traditions, symbols, and stories, the lines between these three blur quickly.

Yesterday, John over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt stepped into the center of all this with a post taking shots at the 32 Marks of a Buddha list from the Pail Canon. The story itself was fond in the Hindu Vedas, is from before the time of the Buddha, and so it's place in the teachings might represent more a cultural appropriation on the part of early Buddhists than anything else. John's original post, as I remember it, was playing around with the image created when you add up all the marks into a single "human" body.

I have to say I basically glanced at the post and moved on. But others didn't and 40 comments later, there has been much said about humor's place or non-place within spirituality.

Here are a few of the more "choice" comments. Rejecting what John presented as humor,

Bitterroot, the Buddhist Badger (Yes, we seem to have a lot of animals in the Buddhoblogosphere), wrote,

Yes, there are said to be 32 major and 80 minor marks on the body of one who is in his final rebirth to awaken as a buddha, or a ‘Chakravartin’ king, a universal emperor. These originally were recorded in the Vedas. As the longer Buddhist sutras in which they are described explain, each mark is a symbolic indication of countless lifetimes accumulating acts of compassionate sacrifice for the benefit of others. Let’s take a look at the content of our own lives by comparison to see if we’re in any position to mock this.

And then NellaLou commented:

Let me get this straight then.

If Brit Hume and Bill O’Reilly belittle Buddhism that’s a huge travesty but if someone claiming to be Buddhist does it that's ok? ...

It is one thing for Ikkyu to piss on a statue that he had been asked to consecrate and quite another for everyone involved in Zen to think they have both his iconoclastic attitude and level of understanding.

Supporting his position, John responded:

It seems strange that when I make fun of my own religion people assume that I am making myself more than I am. I purposefully didn’t include references to burning sutras and knocking down statues for that reason.

And then Buddhasbrewing, (Yes, beer and Buddhism sometimes mix), said this in regards to the 32 marks story:

I think Sakyamuni Buddha was great, don’t get me wrong. The signs are nothing more than purest attachment and badger’s reaction proves it. As soon as you start thinking of the Great Physician as holy, you are walking down the road to delusion.

The debate goes on from there, delving shortly into the lack of scientific evidence for such signs among other things. It's an interesting conversation, but in the end, it leaves me feeling kind of empty. And I don't mean an awareness of emptiness, although that could be applied here as well I imagine.

On any given day, I can look around the Buddhoblogosphere, and see dozens of heartfelt posts, some very personal in focus and some very much public in focus (see yesterday's post for more on the public/private divide). While the content of these posts can range from a struggle with fear during meditation to an expression of gratitude for a group of Buddhist peace activists in Sri Lanka, the sharing of an expression of Buddhist practice is often clear, even if it's muddy and fumbling at times. However, with rare exceptions, these posts do not garner a lot of attention, at least in the form of comments. Granted, some of these posts probably don't lend themselves to comments, and are probably well read, but not commented on. But others, ones that seem to be worthy of discussion, even debate, are simply left to the blog archives. Even Brad Warner, who could post the word "Nothing" and probably get a dozen comments, seems to get less attention when his posts aren't contraversial. Which leads me to this: I think it's kind of telling that the posts which routinely recieve a pile of comments are dramatic, irreverent, or deliberately contraversial.

Like flies to shit we seem to flock to what ends up being, a lot of the time, just another pit of samsara. I see it in myself when I'm in a sour mood. I'm looking for it in my everyday life and when I come online - somewhere to drop a few snarky lines or to watch a good pissing match. And yet, what good is any of it? Does any of this do anything to help build a more ethical, compassionate life?

I'm all for humor, and I'm all for critical commentary that's done in the spirit of making the world a more healthier place. But I also think it's very important to take a look at your motives for doing either. It's pretty easy, if you lift that hood of yours, to find a motor running on self-righteousness and attention seeking.

Awhile back, I noticed a tendency in myself to want to be right. In fact, it was so strong at times that I sometimes got into shouting matches about politics and social issues with people who disagreed with me. So, I've taken up the practice of watching myself, noting the arrival of self righteousness in particular, and then working to shift it. In addition, I've admitted to people at times that I just wanted to be right, or at least that I have wanted to be in past conversations. This is part of the reason I have tried to steer clear of long, extended debates online.

Attention seeking can be tied to self righteousness, but it also comes out in other forms. Now, I've posted a few humor pieces over the time I have been blogging, and sometimes have had a few funny lines in other posts. I like being funny, but find that for the most part, being funny online either falls flat or simply becomes a spectacle.

Ah, such a killjoy you might say. And I'd say "Maybe." However, there's quite a difference in my view between joy and a cheap laugh, and also a quite a difference between genuine, intelligent and heartfelt debate and a pissing match like I saw in 2008 between now U.S. Senator Al Franken and then U.S. Senator Norm Coleman. Cheap jokes and cheap shots were the name of that game, and everything of substance was tossed out, drowned out, or pressed firmly to the margins. It was for me, as a well informed and active member of the American electorate, not only angering, but also an experience of sadness. Reflecting on trends I see online feels no better in some ways, but it does confirm for me how difficult it is to uproot the three poisons, and transform suffering in the process.

If you view this post as a condemnation of all religously-themed humor, or of all irrevent statements, you've sorely missed what I've been writing about. In fact, if you see my post as a condemnation of John's post, you've sorely reduced your lenses.
I could have made either of those arguments in a few paragraphs, and then moved on.

"I beg to urge you
life and death are a great matter.
Awaken, Awaken, take heed,
make use of this precious life."

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Telling, Not Telling Line

One of the things I learned from writing an article about Buddhist blogging (which is on the Tricycle editor's desk right now), is that a lot of us really enjoy reading about the details of each others' practices. The ups and downs of everyday life. The sutras, koans, and other teachings being studied. The ways in which we make breakthroughs and also stumble and fall. All pretty compelling.

Mumon over at Notes in Samsara commented about his resistance to speaking too intimately about his own Buddhist practice online. It struck me, and I started thinking about the balance point between telling and not telling. Where is it in any given moment? And what does blogging about intimate experiences do for us, and to us?

Here is Mumon's take on why he stays out of the realm of public disclosure of the personal:

So, for myself, there are several reasons why I do not wish to share my practice:

* It leads those reading this with a practice to want to compare their practice with my practice, and that's just adding more things about which to be attached.
* It also leads to want to compare understanding or development. This would quite naturally lead to division in a meat space sangha, and I have concerns that this is true in cyberspace as well. Moreover, sometimes cyberspace meets meat-space.
* It's natural for one with a good student teacher relationship to leave such matters in the province of the student and teacher, out of mutual respect. (I think therefore I lean towards getting a teacher, but not one who's a guru, but more like an accountable tutor.)

I find the comparison issue compelling because I've seen it myself in comments made on my blog and on the blogs of others. It reminds me of this guy I know who reads too many self help books, and who knows I'm a Buddhist. Every time he sees me he says "Oh Venerable one," and "Oh, wise one." Dude struggles to connect with people, but that's not really the point. He's heard a little bit about my practice - not much really - but he seems to equate whatever I've said to him with being much better than anything he's doing.

However, at the same time, if Shakyamuni had decided to keep everything to himself out of concerns of comparison, we'd be somewhere else today, wouldn't we? Of course, if you read Mumon's post, he's not speaking about teachers. However, what we've seen of the Buddha in the sutras is that he taught collectively, delivering his teachings to groups, not individuals in private sessions - at least, that's not what is presented to us anyway. And this is true of many Buddhist teachers throughout history - that a lot of their teaching was, and continues to be done in groups. That's not to dismiss private teachings between a single student and a teacher, but I don't think that method, so emphasized in Zen for example, represents the majority.

Beyond this, though, I think if you spend a fair amount of time in a Buddhist community, it's pretty difficult to keep everything about your practice to yourself. In fact, part of your practice IS the community, and how you interact within it. People get to know your edges, the teachings that inspire you, and those you dislike. Sure, you can hide a lot, but definitely not everything. And even in highly silent Zen groups there's still some talking, some sharing, even if it's how to do something during work practice or during a ritual. And do you really think your body doesn't give you away, at least in a general sense? How you move, how you look at people, how you bow: it all says something, even if you say nothing.

It might be worth asking, "What is private anyway?" We North Americans, especially, seem to believe very, very strongly in a division between public and private. And yet, how much of that division is simply our own clinging to a place to hide away from the world when we don't want to deal with it?

Even though it may seem like I don't, I actually agree with Mumon that some things in one's spiritual practice are probably better left unsaid, or at least carefully doled out.

I'm actually less concerned than Mumon about comparison mind than I am about being a spectacle for voyeurs to be attracted to. Comparison mind might be a living hell, but it sometimes sparks people to make the changes they need in their lives. Voyeurs, on the other hand, simply waste time gawking, and those who do things that attract voyeurs end up dealing with that and losing their focus on what matters. Of course, you never know what's going to get people's attention, so maybe you end up dealing with a peanut gallery of gawkers anyway.

What do you think? How do you navigate the telling, not telling line?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Those Surprising Influences

I didn't plan on writing about the death of J.D. Salinger. Sure, I read Catcher in the Rye in high school, loved that rascal Holden for a few years precisely because he catered to my own sense of youthful angst and disbelief in the "adult" version of the world. But Salinger's disappearance from the world, and game playing when it came to interviews, always struck me as a bit odd, and pointless. And Holden himself became more of an answer to a trivia question, or the punchline to a joke, as I've grown older. Holden would probably say "You've given in, buddy!," to which I'd reply "If I kept living like you, I would have died a long time ago."

So, I wasn't going to write about the recluse and his little gang of smart mouthed characters, that is, until I stumbled upon the following post by Scott over at the buddha is my dj:

Salinger certainly had an influence over me as a writer. But quite apart from that, he had an influence over my understanding of Buddhism. Or, perhaps to put it more accurately, my particular inroad into Buddhism. There’s a quote from John Updike in the Times’ obituary about Salinger’s open-ended, Zen-like prose. Like Karen Maezen Miller’s daughter, I find that line bogus, and I think Salinger would agree. Somewhere buried in one of his Glass-family stories (I believe it’s “Seymour: an Introduction”), there’s a line decrying the Beat-generation’s fascination with Zen and Eastern mysticism. Clearly, Salinger was not a fan of their particular genus of spirituality.

Which is all my way of saying that my inroad to Buddhism was not through On the Road or Dharma Bums but through Franny and Zooey. This is a blessing and a curse, of course. As much as I admire and love Salinger’s work, I recognize the pretentiousness of his protagonists (and by extension his own); they have the market cornered on real spirituality and everyone else is just a phony.

This cynical view on Americans’ fascination with all things “Oriental” is helpful; it allows one the luxury of not taking claims at bodhisattvahood at face value. (I’m lookin’ at you Kerouac.) On the other hand, it makes one often little more than a curmudgeon, shouting at the Zennies to get off my lawn.

It's funny. I went through a Kerouac phase. In fact, Dharma Bums is still, in my opinion, the most complete thing he ever wrote. It may even been an influence on me in terms of my initial interest in Buddhism, although I'd probably say Thich Nhat Hanh, D.T. Suzuki, and an adjunct college professor who lasted a single year at my undergraduate institution are all higher on the list than Kerouac ever had been.

However, I appreciate Scott's seemingly backdoor entrance through Salinger's seeming dismissal of all things "Eastern spirituality." It reminds me, for some reason, of a co-worker of mine, who feels bad that I'm frustrated with things at work, and often struggle to be positive and upbeat around there. I've told her a few times: "You gotta take the bad with the good," or something along those lines. She's always saying things like "I want everything good for you," to me, and others around there. It's nice to have someone sending out kindness to you, but it's tinged with a desire to avoid that which, at least in appearance, seems "bad." She's said so herself. And yet, you never know what will influence you. In fact, you probably don't know what it is that you actually need to influence you in any given part of your life. It's often later on, long after the fact, that you reflect on how some hated teacher, or cranky neighbor, dysfunctional parent, or even the landscape you live in and maybe despise part of the year (for me, Minnesota in January would be that) - that one or more of these was the influence you needed to turn in the direction that you have turned.

In some ways, when I reflect back, I had a similar kind of spiritual influence that Scott had in Salinger. Mine was St. Augustine. I remember reading the Confessions for the first time and thinking, "Man, what an uptight dude! I don't believe a word he says about "sin" or much of anything else." I never had been interested in going to church, and neither of my parents were either. But I still found myself reading the Bible at times and being fascinated by church architecture. Yet, I've never heard a sermon that didn't spark a riot of boredom within me - no matter what church I found myself in (Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.). What's interesting to me is that even though I never once felt like I wanted to be a Christian, it wasn't until reading Augustine that I understood why the whole thing didn't work for me.

Having found myself going back to Augustine once in awhile since then, I have seen how powerful his words are, and why he had such an impact on future church doctrines and understandings. The Confessions narrative is compelling in both it's soap opera quality stories, and also in it's narrative of redemption. Some have argued that Augustine was the influential Christian writer of all time, and when you see his influence, it's hard to completely disagree with such statements.

In this way, I kind of love that overly repentant old coot. He wrote a powerful narrative that spoke to me completely, giving me clarity on just why I found myself nodding off or getting ticked off whenever I landed in a church pew. "You've got to take the good with the bad," precisely because there's no way, really, to separate them.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

U.S. Historian Howard Zinn Dies

Started scrolling through the blogroll and quickly stumbled on a post at Integral Options Cafe about one of favorite writers and historians, Howard Zinn. His desire to write about everyday people, to re-frame our understanding of history in terms of regular people working together to change their individual and collective lives, has inspired me for most of my adult life. Even moreso, though, was the man's courage to be active, involved, and unafraid to speak unpopular views that sliced through the hubris and power-imbalances in our world. His commitments to social justice, grassroots democracy, and non-violence have been models for my own life.

Beyond all this, though, was the deep sense of optimism that pervaded the writings, speeches, and general manner of the man. Clearly, he was in touch with what we Buddhists call buddhanature, as no matter how bad things seemed to be in this nation, or anywhere, Dr. Zinn was able to punctuate his critical views with an unencumbered view that people are capable of doing great things at any time, no matter what. Dogen spoke about having one foot in the deep ocean, while swimming on the surface at the same time. And I think Howard Zinn was able to do this, and as such, he's an inspiration to many of us.

Zinn wrote in his autobiography, "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train" (1994), "From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than 'objectivity'; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it." Beautiful! And his actions brought these words to life.

For anyone interested in his work, his most well known history text is People's History of the United States. Further writings are available at his website. May his work continue to inspire.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Who's that Pissed Off Guy ...

Maybe the loud, rude, blunt smoking 20 something clowns that got on the bus, harassed a young woman, and then talked shit for the rest of the ride to my workplace were a sign. Or maybe it was my own reaction: the moment I saw them at the bus stop, I swore under my breath and started wishing for them to get on the other bus that stopped there. Ah, avoidance.

The workday wasn't much better. Students who needed more attention than usual. Lessons that weren't quite going right. A request for yet more paperwork to be remembered and filled out, all on my time. After two pay cuts and a slew of other decisions that have negatively impacted my position over the past year or so, I'm feeling generous no more.

This is where the practice is essential, but also where all the goofy ideals and ideas that you have about the practice come on strong. Who's that pissed off guy staring hard at those others on the bus? Who's that guy staring out the window at work because he can't find the energy to refocus? Who's the one sloughing off on the last few lessons, doing only the bare minimum? Who's that one swearing up a storm because of some silly request for extra time sheets?

Identifying with all of this is an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, there isn't a single, fixed person behind any of this. On the other hand, not taking some responsibility for the sloppiness is a cop out. On the third hand, clinging too hard to a sense of responsibility is just another form of delusion. And, in addition, thinking you have to always "have it together" is also delusional.

Seeing the perfectionism rising and falling away. Seeing the avoidance of conflict rising and falling away.

Sometimes, there's a messy edge to everything and no matter what you do, the noise of it all won't go away until it's ready to.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Social Action and Attachment to Fixed Narratives

Algernon over at Notes from a Burning House wrote a companion post to the one I did on Monday about Haiti. His take was to expand on the notion of "idiot compassion" to speak about the imperialistic history in Haiti. He even coined a term for it - imperial compassion - which I think very accurately describes any number of military/economic interventions over the past several hundred years. The U.S. is definitely not alone in these actions - in fact, there are nations on almost every continent that have taken over others, subjected the people there, stolen resources, and claimed to have compassionate aims.

In response to Algernon's post, one of his regular commenters, Pam, wrote the following:

"Damn, looks like we just can't do anything right. Don't know why we should bother anymore.

No matter what we do or try to do we come out the bad guys."

I've certainly felt like this at times. In the face of all the ugly historical evidence, it's pretty easy to collapse and feel like giving up. We all do it in certain situations; I can recall similar statements I have made about my current workplace over the past year.

Buddhist practice, in my opinion, calls for us to not let these kind of narratives get firmly embedded as truths. Why? Because they aren't true.

If you look at Pam's statement, you can see both an attachment to "national image," as well as an attachment to outcomes. Although I don't spend as much time as I used to speaking about patriotism and it's discontents, this seems like a good time to bring up a few points. First, the image of any nation is, like most of life, fickle and ever-changing. Just think of the last year. President Obama takes office, and the U.S. receives praise from people all over the place. People in the U.S. have hope for a better nation, and people outside of the U.S. are relieved that the U.S. might be turning a corner. Within nine months, his administration is supporting war escalations and has little of concrete value to add to global climate change conversations, and national image, both inside and out, goes down the drain. One of the main problems, as I see it, with patriotism is that it's an attachment to a fiction. The borders of the U.S. were arbitrarily drawn, and any story about the country, positive or negative, can never be the whole story. So, what is it that you love and defend anyway?

As for the rest of Pam's comment - there isn't a one of us who hasn't displayed that giving up energy. And what I have come to see about this energy is that it arises precisely when one grabs on to a desired outcome, or set of outcomes. Specifically, the propensity to "give up," to turn nihilistic, comes when one believes that not only is it impossible for their desired outcomes to occur, but also that such lack of occurrence is a terrible thing.

When a disaster like the earthquake in Haiti occurs, I think it's the responsibility of people in nations that can offer tangible help to both offer what they can, and also do some deep reflection on why they are offer said help, and the ways in which offers of help in the past might have caused damage. The uncomfortableness that arises when seeing how, for example, the U.S. played a historical role in the poverty of Haiti is a consequence of that history.

It's no different, really, than reflecting on ways we have failed to help others in our personal lives. How the repeated advice to a sibling kept backfiring, or the gifts to a child didn't soothe their suffering.

What's fascinating to me is that I've met people who are very good at analyzing national and international situations, and seeing very clearly where past interventions in conflicts failed miserably. These same people might even be able to come up with excellent approaches to the same conflicts, but then when it comes to their personal lives, it's one big train wreck. On the opposite end, I know others who are very proficient at analyzing their personal lives, seeing the blind spots and working through them to have better relationships with others. But when it comes to national and international conflicts, the resolve they've shown in their personal lives disappears completely.

As far as I'm concerned, the way of the Bodhisattva is to bring these two people together. To be able to shine a light of awareness on any situation, be it the struggle with an aging parent, or the crumbled nation of Haiti, and to hang with whatever comes up without being tossed overboard. No easy task, but it sure is a beautifully expansive vision to work towards.

* Cartoon above is from Doug Savage's Chickens page.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Haiti, Dharma, and Idiot Compassion

Spent part of the morning, post meditation, discussing Haiti with a few sangha friends. The more I read up on the history of the country, and recall some of the events in my own lifetime, especially connected to former President Aristide, I find myself wondering if we're going to witness yet another privatization and neo-colonialist effort.

The immediate support, financially and people power, to care for the injured, clear the damaged buildings, and get things started over is essential, and it's wonderful to see so many groups offering something up to aid in the process.

Carole over at Zen Dot Studio wrote the following:

t reminded me that this arising of compassion is so natural when we see suffering in the world. If we remember not to turn away, if we can step outside our own small worries, we cannot help but feel the tug to help. You can see this as people everywhere watch the news and respond by opening their hearts and wallets. In situations like this people go to amazing and creative places to offer food and supplies, and prayers.

It is interesting to watch because not only does it help those in need and trauma but it brings people together, it knits us into a tighter community with a common cause. We become a giant, slightly rumpled sweater of humanity offering warmth and comfort to those in need. And in our helping, our hearts open, our spirits are lifted and we experience our "Buddha nature". We feel generous and alive and connected to our human family. And as the Dalai Lama points out we experience compassion.

I think Carole is completely right not only about the outpouring of compassion in the face of traumas, but also the shared experiences that help us live interconnected in a more concrete way. Generosity, as I'm noticing in reading the Diamond Sutra for our center's practice period class, is the fluid activity that breaks down all barriers and constructions, mental or otherwise. The first go around I had with the Diamond Sutra looked quite different, much more heady and intellectual. Now, I'm seeing generosity throughout the text - such an interesting development.

If you're still looking for places to donate to that aren't tainted like crazy, like the Red Cross is for example, check out the links in John's current post for more details.

However, I'd like to make a few observations about Carole's comments above, that maybe you'll view as sour grapes, but which I feel need to be made.

1. The feeling of interconnectedness that rises during traumatic experiences like natural disasters seems to be very transient. It's tapping into the great interdependence that is our natural life, but in the end, it's kind of flimsy. The people along the Gulf Coast in the U.S., or in any of the several countries hit by the 2004 Tsunami, know this all too well. For awhile, maybe several months, people pour money, material resources, and people assistance into your place. Media attention is high, and prayers are consistently offered for you and your nation. Some of the rebuilding work occurs, people immediate physical wounds are addressed, and the dead are mostly buried. Then the world shifts to the next big thing.

Now certainly, there are always a small number of people who made deeper connections while helping out during the crisis period, and maybe these people continue to work with those who experienced the trauma for a long time afterward. But the vast majority move on, and the connection that might have had with those people, or that place in crisis, fades off. In fact, sometimes I wonder if some of it was just an imaginary connection made out of a desire to help out, but which in reality doesn't really exist in the real world.

Which brings up idiot compassion. Trungpa Rinpoche, among others, have spoken of a kind of faux compassion that we get tricked by, and which actually is mostly about the small self and what we think someone else needs. I've noticed all sorts of narratives in U.S. media outlets, and coming out of the mouths of world leaders, that imply that "they" know what is best for the people and nation of Haiti. In addition, you have hundreds of thousands of people pouring money into organizations that are known for wastefulness and corruption, like the Red Cross, because these organizations have the money and brand-names to get out the word about themselves to millions and millions of potential donors. In addition, you have people supporting the efforts of companies like Coca Cola, who make donations for disaster relief in places like Haiti, knowing full well that they'll probably profit greatly in the near future from both the positive publicity and the sweetheart deals that occur in the chaos of devastated nations.

Fun stuff, eh? I can recall people telling me how wonderful Wal-Mart was for sending truck after truck of material goods to support people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Never mind that Wal-Mart has a terrible labor record around the world, routinely destroys local businesses, and generally could give a shit about the environmental damage done to the planet in the sweat shops that make the cheap ass products they sell. No, none of this seemed to matter to some people. What was burned into their minds was the convoy of Wal-Mart trucks that
drove into New Orleans not too long after the Hurricane. It was a sad state of affairs, with a federal government giving a half-assed response at best to a major disaster, and a corporate giant like Wal-Mart being one of the first large groups to offer tangible assistance to the area.

All of this makes me wonder what we can do,individually and collectively, to steer the beautifully true activity that Carole wrote about away from idiot compassion and savior narratives. Personal practice is part of the answer, but not the whole answer. Those who say that our job as Buddhists is only to meditate and become liberated are missing something in my opinion.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Alcohol, Japanese Monks, and Young Adults in Buddhism

For those out there who have made comments about how "stale" and "overly traditional" Buddhism is in Asia, and how the "real" innovation is happening in North America and Europe, here's an interesting story out of Japan about a monk running a bar to spread the word about Buddha's teachings to younger folks. The story itself doesn't represent the many changes and innovations that are underway in Asian Buddhist communities, but it does point to the fact that wildly unconventional approaches to the dharma can spring up anywhere.

In a similar way as Ethan Nictern and others have taken here in the U.S., the story reported above is one that mixes popular culture and Buddhist teachings. The monk in question, Zenshin Fujioka, is concerned about the concentration of grey and white-haired folks at Buddhist temples, and has chosen to break out of the box, and maybe break the precepts in the process, in order to get his message to the younger generations. His "Monk Bar," serves Buddhist teachings with a glass of booze, in modern language, with a side of hip hop. It's enough of a departure to probably make the minds of most Buddhist practitioners spin, but I wonder if there isn't something to this whole thing.

There's always a danger with any spiritual innovation that the changes made will take people away from the core teachings, and create too heavy a focus on superficial elements that might flash and catch attention, but ultimately don't lead one to have a deeper, more connected life.

I honestly wish the reporting in the story weren't so choppy and sloppy because I don't get enough of a picture to understand the full motives of Zenshin Fujioka, or what actually happens in the bar. Is he just catering to the vices of his patrons, and giving them spiritual excuses to live unexamined lives? Or is his bar an entry point for people who may have otherwise never bothered to examine their lives any deeper?

Nate over at Precious Metal takes up this story, and examines the Fifth precept primarily from a focus on whether or not it points to a prohibition of alcohol. I wrote about the 5th Precept over the summer during a wave of blog posts in the Buddhoblogosphere about said subject, so I'll let you all take a look at that post if you're interested.

But I think that these dramatic in appearance approaches, happening in at least two continents now - Asia and North America - require more than a simple "Yea" or "Nay." It's too easy to say "cool! I want in" and it's also way too easy to say "they're screwing with the dharma and should be condemned."

What do you think?

Dysfunctional Spiritual Communities - Ever Been in One?

Irisha over at An Appropriate Response had a great post about the potential pitfalls of being a member of a spiritual community, or any group for that matter. She writes how she came to realize the value of community recently, but also the troubles that can come when you don't stay focused and fresh as individuals and as a group. Keeping the beginner's mind together I'd call it.

Here are some of the traits that I noticed a group could develop that can take it into a different direction than the one intended from the start:

* Being nice - syndrome: Socializing can take over and overshadow the initial purpose for which the group is created. People start getting to know each other, get comfortable with the ideas of others and themselves, develop friendships and …new attachments. To help each other grow we need to be open to fuelling our practice by dealing with whatever comes up when the Pandora’s box is open. Conflicts? This, too. I believe a teacher can help in a situation like that by rattling the cage now and then and bringing in the element of discomfort and uncertainty.

* Rubbing the wounds - syndrome: Groups can help us notice our neuroses and work through them; they can help us heal. Groups can also amplify our neuroses by sustaining our ego and feeding it. We can get stuck in exchanging our stories rather than moving beyond them.

* Us vs them – syndrome: While the underlying intentions of a particular group/community might be those of integration and inclusion, the vocabulary used in a group and the sense of sharing something that is unique to this group can contribute to creating the us and them - attitude: us Buddhists vs them non-Buddhists, us evolutionaries against everybody else, us men vs women in men’s groups, etc.

Having spent nearly a decade in my current zen center, and also having been a part of a team that created and developed a non-profit education organization together, I've seen all three of these at work. "Being nice" is especially troubling because it leads so easily to so many other problems as people bury disagreements, lose a sense of freedom to express themselves, and eventually either give up membership or explode in anger and rage.

In addition the the three categories Irisha provided, I would like to add a few more. As someone who would like to see more community in my neck of the woods, and also someone who sees the online world as having some potential to be another community, I think it's valuable to explore the ways in which groups - especially spiritual groups - function in healthy ways and not so healthy ways. This post is focused on the unhealthy, but I can envision future posts about healthy communities, and in some ways, the post I wrote yesterday about children in Buddhist communities is pointing towards one aspect of a healthy community (i.e. it's cross-generational).

So, here are a few other issues I have seen that greatly impact the energy and focus of groups:

1. Co-dependence Syndrome - Not to be confused with Buddha's teachings on interdependence and co-origination. Co-dependence is referring to those beliefs and behaviors that create unbalanced relationships between members of a group that have, at their core, spoken or unspoken demands that are basically non-negotiable without creating serious conflicts. For example, the teacher or leader who expects a student or small group of students to do all the work needed to sustain the organization when these same people also have jobs, families, and other issues to take care of. Another example is when students come to rely on a teacher, or more experienced members of their spiritual community for answers to everything in their lives. Should I get up at 4 am every morning for group zazen even though I'm falling asleep at work everyday? Should I eat more tofu - is that spiritual? These may seem like stupid questions, but I've seen this kind of behavior before, and it's indicative of co-dependent relationships where one side has given up the basic reasoning skills people have because they believe the other side (teacher, elder, etc.) will give them all the answers to their problems.

2. Expansionist Syndrome - So, you have this wonderful community. People are doing great things and learning so much. And then you go and say, "We have to bring in more! More people must experience what we are experiencing!" Now, to some extent, the lifeblood of any organization is maintaining and developing membership. However, when the focus of the group becomes all about expansion, that's when the trouble hits. Much has been said about Genpo Roshi's "Big Mind" work and his center in Salt Lake City. In my opinion, one of the biggest missteps there was an over-emphasis on expanding the reach of the Big Mind programs to the point where money and power overtook the original healthy impulse. When you need exponentially more money to fund a project, it tends to take over, and the power within an organization, which before may have been more healthily distributed shifts towards those the money and those who are producing the "products" that bring in the money. Healthy expansion within a spiritual organization takes time, and is done so in accordance to the ethical teachings of the tradition the group represents. When almost everything goes up for sale, in order to "spread the gospel," you know that those ethics have been tossed out the window.

3. Perfectionism Syndrome - Things are going well. People keep coming back. They respond positively. Disagreements are handled respectfully. Finances are good. But we lost two members last year. What happened? How can we get them back? Was it something someone said or did? There's no excuse for people feeling bad here.

This kind of thinking is troubling because no matter what, someone in any group, at any time, might decide it's time to go. And maybe it WAS something that was said or done that triggered it, but maybe that trigger was unavoidable, or simply an excuse for an action that was coming anyway. People come and go in spiritual communities like anywhere else. Sometimes, there are real grievances that need to be addressed. And other times, the person's stay was over, they needed something else, or they're confusion about life lead them to leave. Bending over backwards to keep everyone happy is a certain sign of dysfunction in any community, and especially in a spiritual community, where the teachings presented are often designed to push discomfort to the surface.

Overall, it's really important to remember our intentions for joining a spiritual community in the first place. Sure, a sense of belonging and shared values are probably high on the list. But I'd also guess that just as high, or even higher, is a desire to be liberated from all the screwed up ways in which you relate to the world.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Buddhist Children? What to do about Budddhism with the Kids

John over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt posted his thoughts about raising children in a Buddhist context. In particular, he very clearly rejected overtly teaching children Buddhism in a way that indoctrinates them.

Western Buddhist Centers that want to provide some child care is fine but when it is something that involves religious indoctrination it makes me ill. I know that this is going to come off as insulting but when I think of anyone of any tradition or religion telling my daughter what to believe it makes me physically ill.

First, here's what Merriam-Webster has to say about indoctrination.

Main Entry: in·doc·tri·nate
Pronunciation: \in-ˈdäk-trə-ˌnāt\
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): in·doc·tri·nat·ed; in·doc·tri·nat·ing
Etymology: probably from Middle English endoctrinen, from Anglo-French endoctriner, from en- + doctrine doctrine
Date: 1626

1 : to instruct especially in fundamentals or rudiments : teach
2 : to imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion, point of view, or principle

Now, what I would like to say is that I am a member of a "Western Buddhist Center" that places a heavy emphasis on working with children. We have a fully-functioning bi-weekly program for children of all ages, with classes broken down by grade level that work on basic Buddhist teachings through discussion, play, art, and even some meditation and chanting. Is it indoctrination? Yes, in the sense of definition number 1 above. Part of the problem with the word indoctrination is that it's meaning is so broad, almost any learning environment could be said to be indoctrinating.

John writes, "We (my wife and daughter) are a family but we are not Buddhist and I don’t want to raise or convert anyone to Buddhism. I don’t want to raise a religion. I want to raise a person. A free-thinker. An individual."

Before I joined our board of directors, I was a teacher in the 2nd-3rd grade class at our meditation center. I loved working with kids this age because they are inquisitive, active, and haven't given in yet for the most part to softening the answers they give, or the questions they ask. I watched parents struggle with the bluntness that occurred at times, but I felt it was wonderful to have kids sharing stories with each other about what they loved, what they hated, death, animals, bugs, going to the bathroom, and, well, you get the drift. We had a very simply chant to open the class that was basically a vow to take care of each other, animals, the planet, and our toys (gotta remember those toys, right?). A few of the kids didn't want to chant, or would make up their own words, but to me, it was most important that we do something together to mark off the time as our group's time. That's a value of ritual, even a simple one that takes 30 seconds. If you consider me a tyrant for imposing a bit of ritual on those classes, so be it.

I sometimes wonder if much of Buddhist practice is going to survive here in North America because we're so hellbent on maintaining our individuality that we can barely see the value of community. In fact, I'd argue that most of us have a deep longing for community that competes with this individualism, and this is partly why it's been so difficult to develop healthy "brick and mortar" sanghas. I also think this issue plays out in a slightly different way in the online Buddhist community. Specifically, the desire to be right, to make a great point about practice, sometimes trumps sharing space with others and working together to come to a greater understanding about an issue.

John's distaste for the controlling, life numbing methods of religious instruction seen in some of the monotheistic communities of North America is something I share. And yet, at the same time, if a parent practices Buddhism, or any spiritual tradition, the child will be influenced. There's no way around it. Why is it wrong for the sangha the parents attend to provide classes for their children?

What I find with the parents at our center is that they want to practice and have their family. They don't want to divide everything up, disappearing to do their zen thing for a few hours a week, and then trying to run a household the rest of the time. They also want their children to spend time in a community that isn't their school. But mostly they just want to be with their kids, and not have to shuttle them around whenever they want to go to Sunday service, or take a class.

At the end of John's post, he quotes a comment that a mother who practices Buddhism left on another blog about raising children. She writes:

Whenever we are trying to impose anything – a way of thinking, a belief system, the expectation of an outcome – it is not satisfactorily resolved. We resolve this question only through our own practice, as we let go of the notion that there is anything dogmatic that will benefit either ourselves or our children. Satisfied with things as they are, we can be ourselves, and let our children grow up to be themselves as well, each of us on a path that is entirely our own

I think it's worth striving for not imposing your views on your children, but let's face it: parents impose things on their children, sometimes even without knowing. I'd even say the desire to raise a child as a free thinker could become an imposition if the children becomes dogmatic about something in a way that the parents consider wrong or destructive. Even teaching basic safety, healthy habits, and respect for other requires that a parent stop their children from doing and thinking things to the contrary. Sure, these issues are different than religious teachings, but I don't think there is a clear cut answer to the question of indoctrination posed by John and also raised by the mother in the quote above.

The way I see it, it's fine to skip the overtly Buddhist teachings if that works for your family. And I also think it's fine if you want to have your children in an overtly Buddhist program. I'm well aware that the complexities of every family means a different approach in every family. But I have to wonder if some of the concerns about indoctrination are coming from memories of Sunday Schools or their equivalents.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Quick, Fiery Note on the Massachusetts Senate Election

I left the following comment on a blog post urging people to get out and vote for the Democratic candidate running for Ted Kennedy's old seat in the U.S. Senate.

If even 20% of the energy spent on electing Obama in 2008 had been put into developing long term, grassroots community groups that actually did something in their communities, maybe some real change might come to this nation. Getting elected officials to change requires that people enact their dreams as best they can on a smaller scale. Look at every major progressive movement that occurred in the last century and a half - it always began locally, and spread out from there, until the people in power at the time had no choice but to do something.

It never ceases to amaze me how people will vote for politicians who turn around and slit the throats of every good idea that they spoke about during their campaigns. And then the same people who voted for these frauds shout down and slander those of us who were willing to stand by our ideals, and work on the ground to make them happen. I'll take a slice of idealism and some hard work in my community any day over the false hope and backstabbing that comes from putting your eggs in the basket of corporate-dominated politicians.

In a way, this fits in with the previous post about sticking with a practice and not bailing when things get uncomfortable. You want to see a greener, more eco-friendly world: get off your ass and do something in your own community. You want better health care: start lobbying the doctors and nurses you know to step out of their corporate positions and open up a non-profit clinic in your neighborhood. Stop looking for elected officials to fulfill your dreams of a better world. I promise you, when whatever movement you help start reaches the tipping point in terms of numbers, the politicians will still be there, hanging out in their comfortable offices, and probably more ready to listen to what you all have to say.

Ah, and while you're at it, remember that old Buddhist idea about letting go of all hopes of fruition. A good thing to remember when things appear stalled for years on end.

Discomfort is a Part of Life

I was surprised to stumble upon two posts that said almost the same thing in completely different ways. Algernon wrote about a weekend meditation retreat, as well as some issues plaguing him and his wife, and focused on the importance of just staying with it. It's like the old dog training thing - "Stay! Stay! Stayyyyy. Stayyy." No trying to turn away, wriggle out, or get more comfortable.

I think a lot of us really want to be comfortable all the time, myself included. We want things to fit into our lives at every turn, and to have access to a cozy couch, a blanket, and a bottle of beer whenever the slightest bit of discomfort arises. The problem is that it's a lost cause. Every time you get comfortable, something else comes to take it away. Maybe it lasts a few hours, or a day - maybe even a week if you're on a an exquisite vacation, but eventually the ease slides away and something less easy appears.

Along these lines, over at Barbara's Buddhism Blog, she writes today about accepting exactly what is offered to you. Although the post is focused on accepting whatever is presented by a teacher or sangha, I think this statement also applies to our entire lives. Accept was is offered by the world, as it is. No easy task, and I think none of us, not even people like Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama are completely perfect at doing so.

It's important to awaken to the fact that at least some of the discomfort that comes with spiritual practice is built in, and that the only way live a more authentic life is to be uncomfortable some of the time. This morning, right before work, I popped out my laptop in a public place to check my e-mail. I've got various projects right now requiring that I keep tabs on.

As soon as the screen flash on, a woman leapt from her seat behind me and said "Would it be possible for me to find an e-mail address..." An odd, indirect question, but I also had about 5 minutes before I had to catch a bus to my job. I looked at her and said "No. I'm working. Good bye." The good bye wasn't needed, and I felt a small twinge of guilt before realizing that it was just one of those situations. Letting her check for some random e-mail address could have made me late for the bus. And not doing so meant she might be disappointed or ticked off or something. In other words, it was a situation that was basically uncomfortable.

Barbara comments, "Eventually you stop chattering to yourself about whether you like what's offered, whether you'll be good at it, whether you'll fail, whether you'll be rewarded." Now, the example above is really small, and not at all threatening. And yet, it's the kind of thing that used to always trip me up, especially because I wanted to be perceived as "nice" and "kind." I would feel the need to give the "right" response in a situation like that, to make sure the woman walked away feeling ok.

Here's how it could have looked from the inside.

Oh, no, that lady is going to ask me something. She wants to use my computer. I don't have time. I don't like her. I don't need this shit.

How can I tell her off without telling her off? Maybe I can say I don't know. Yeah, right, you don't know how to use e-mail. Maybe I could listen to her story and then say I have to go, but then you won't have time to actually check you're own e-mail.

Damn, what if I start a conflict? I don't want any trouble. She's just another person who deserves attention and support like you.

Maybe she feel happy if I let her use the computer. The others around here will remember that I helped her. Maybe it's the very thing she needs to ...

How exhausting is all I can say. Instead of all that, I kept it short and simple this morning, even though part of me wanted to run through all the old narratives and gyrations, trying to make everything alright.

In the same way, one can burn through an endless amount of teachers, sanghas, and spiritual programs, jetting the moment things get tough, or when something is called for that disrupts our free time, or when someone says something that isn't too "friendly" or "spiritual sounding."

My experience has been that, after awhile, any teacher you study with will start to repeat him or herself. In fact, this might happen quite frequently. It's inevitable that you'll bump up against feeling bored, wanting to hear or experience the next profound, groundbreaking teaching. The same is often true of any sangha or spiritual community. You spend enough time with one, you get to know enough of the people, and you start to bump up against a desire for novelty. To me, this is where the rubber really can hit the road in your practice - or it's the exact place where you opt to just hit the road again.

Sometimes, I think the stories we have been handed about the lives of our ancestral teachers - people like Bodhidharma and Dogen - are sources of trouble for us modern folks. We hear that Dogen rejected what was offered in his native Japan, went off on a pilgrimage, and found the dharma more alive in a completely different nation. Inspiring, sure. But also dangerous. Dogen didn't just take a sip of the Zen waters in Japan and decide it was a shitty brew. He drank in as much as he could, stuck with it for many years, before finally deciding it was time to go searching for something else. How many of us can say the same, that we've stuck with something for a decade, two decades, taking in what was offered as well as we could?

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Complete Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. day in the United States. He was an amazing leader, writer, and public speaker who continues to influence so many of us more than forty years after he was murdered. However, King's legacy is often whitewashed in the mainstream, leaning heavy on his words from the 1963 "I Have a Dream" address, and dropping completely the man's later career as both a leader of the Civil Rights Movement and a fierce critic of American politics and economics.

Over at the blog Racialicious you can read some of his more "radical" statements.

Among those statements, I'd like to highlight the following. First, there's this one.

"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

Now, we can disagree about who should run such programs - i.e. whether the government should use billions of dollars to run social programs, or whether other groups, such as local non-profits, should be given a larger percentage of our collective incomes to run programs of social benefit, but the fact still remains that military spending in this nation is obscene, and definitely indicates a societal sickness in my opinion.

Along these lines, King severely critiqued the imbalance of wealth and power that existed in 1960's America, and is, in many ways, worse today. "True compassion," he said," is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." He repeatedly questioned the U.S. government and corporate backing of dictatorships in Latin America, and asked why we continually worked to suppress the revolutions of "the shirtless and barefoot people" around the world. This isn't the cozy picture of harmony many of us have when we read or listen to King's earlier speeches that call for people to come together and be respected for the "content of their characters."

From his Poor People's Campaign, which sought to unite people across the racial divide who were powerless as individuals economically, to his ardent calls for an end to the Vietnam War, the later years of Dr. King's life are not only more intriguing to me, but also provide those of us who are actively engaged in social justice work lessons we might be able to apply to today's situations.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haitian History, Phoney Blame, and Taking Responsibility

*Photo from the Associated Press

I've kind of been at a loss when it comes to the devastation we're seeing in Haiti. It instantly reminds me of the 2004 Tsunami that hit several nations along the Indian Ocean terribly, killing over 200,000 people and damaging some places irreparably. Haiti has been one of the poorest countries in the world for decades, and it's population has suffered for so long, in so many different ways, that it's hard to know what they - and those of us who wish to help - should do. Millions of dollars are pouring into charity organizations, the U.S. has sent military personnel, and groups all over the world are offering some form or other of assistance.

People seem good at responding in crises like this, and yet it's often barely enough to get a devastated place back up to speed, let alone the kind of support that might prevent future disasters from occurring. Someone pointed out recently that the earthquake that hit San Francisco in 1989 and the current one in Haiti were of a similar magnitude and location (i.e. both were close enough to major cities to cause a hell of a lot of damage to human infrastructure.) And yet, less than 70 people died in the San Francisco area, whereas over 100,000 are likely dead in Haiti. One of the main reasons for this is the poverty of Haiti, coupled with a tattered government system that has never developed a strong set of building codes to address issues like earthquakes.

Concerning the origin of the current disaster, outrageous comments have been made by people like Pat Robertson, and then presented in a "cleaned up fashion" by establishment commentators like the New York Times' David Brooks, who wrote the following a few days ago:

There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

Earlier in the column, he gave a nod to Haiti's colonial history, and yet basically dismisses it's impact by saying that other former colonial nations are doing much better than Haiti, despite the history.

Mumon posted what I'd consider a healthy, much needed rebuttal to this kind of thinking on his blog Notes in Samsara. Quoting from an article from The Guardian newspaper, he cites the following:

As Stephen Keppel of the Economist Intelligence Unit puts it, Haiti's revolution may have brought it independence but it also "ended up destroying the country's infrastructure and most of its plantations. It wasn't the best of starts for a fledgling republic." Moreover, in exchange for diplomatic recognition from France, the new republic was forced to pay enormous reparations: some 150m francs, in gold. It was an immense sum, and even reduced by more than half in 1830, far more than Haiti could afford.

"The long and the short of it is that Haiti was paying reparations to France from 1825 until 1947," says Von Tunzelmann. "To come up with the money, it took out huge loans from American, German and French banks, at exorbitant rates of interest. By 1900, Haiti was spending about 80% of its national budget on loan repayments. It ­completely wrecked their economy. By the time the original reparations and interest were paid off, the place was basically destitute and trapped in a ­spiral of debt. Plus, a succession of leaders had more or less given up on trying to resolve Haiti's problems, and started looting it instead."

It's obscene that the slaves and their descendants were forced to pay "reparations" to their abusers.

It's obscene that this has never been redressed.

It's time for France (and the U.S. too) to step up and help make Haiti whole, after the rebuilding is done.

Send charity, request justice.

I'd like to second Mumon's call for more than just charity, while at the same time cautioning leaders, and any of us not from Haiti, to be careful about "rebuilding narratives." What is it that the people in Haiti need? What do they desire collectively? How can their nation, which has struggled for so long, be healthy again? I certainly don't know, and I'd rather the Haitian people themselves lead the way - the rest of the world provides whatever support we can, and the Haitian people lead the way.

The first thing we can do, besides giving the crisis support already occurring, is to push for wealthy nations who prospered from colonialism for two, three, four hundred years, to put an end to any debt schemes currently hog-tieing the Haitian government (IMF, World Bank, are you listening?), and to offer enough tangible financial and material support without repayment strings or sweetheart corporate deal strings to get the country rebuilt in the ways the Haitian people want it to be rebuilt.

The months and years to come will be very challenging for Haiti, and I'm certain that there will be a lot of arguing and disagreement about what needs to be done, both from within the country and without. But I truly believe that any approach which fails to place the people intimately involved at the center is, in the end, a failed approach.

Peace and blessings to all sentient beings suffering in Haiti.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Competitive Zazen and Trying too Hard to Win

Over at the blog MindDeep, Marguerite writes about how she became competitive during a meditation period, while counting each breath.

Looking at the clock more and more often. Meanwhile keeping up still. I am going to make it to the end. Never mind nascent headache. I notice some people taking a break, and having some tea. Not me! Counting, counting, competitive streak is taking charge. By the end of the session, I inherit dim satisfaction from drill well done, and discomfort from full blown headache.

It's interesting, this wanting to do something better than others, or to stick it out when others have decided to move on. I can remember a few times during meditation retreats where I pushed pass pretty strong discomfort in my knees and lower back in order to skip sitting in a chair or adding a pile of props under me. Some attachment to form if you ask me now. Back then, though, it was trying to hang with the big kids - the seasoned meditators in the group. Then there was the half day retreat I did in December with Brad Warner where I sat in half lotus too long because I wanted to be an example for the more novice meditators in the group. Again, a certain attachment to form when I look at it now.

When I first read Marguerite's post, I thought about my days playing organized sports. As a kid, I played on baseball and soccer teams. During high school,, baseball dropped me (eye sight changes) and broomball found me. It would be lying to say I didn't have a competitive streak, and in fact, I still find that energy cropping up in my life. I don't see competitiveness as a bad thing, or a good thing - it's just another provisional form of life. However, when I was younger, I often didn't have a very good handle on how to ride this kind of energy.

I remember in eight grade, the year after our baseball team won the city title, we were back in the playoffs. Our team was actually better than the previous year's one, and we thought we were a shoo-in to repeat as champs. However, we ran into a team with an excellent pitcher, one who we found out later was over the age limit, but it was too late by then to do much about it. (This was in the days before the hyper-involved parents who fight coaches, file lawsuits to overturn the results of little league games, and generally cause more trouble than its worth.)

Anyway, we made it to the last inning tied, even though their pitcher was mostly killing us with curve balls (something most of us had never hit before.) They scored a run in the top half of the inning after a disputed call at second - I swear the guy was tagged out to this day! And then we came up to bat. My friend Dave, the only regular left handed batter (I switch hit), got a single, which made us all excited. The next guy struck out, leaving it up to me and one other batter.

I had been timing the pitcher's pitches behind the backstop, and felt ready to finally breakthrough, even though I was scared of the curve balls he threw. I stepped to the plate and dug in. Lots of competitive energy ripping through me. I was also still pissed about the safe call the other team had gotten during the top of the inning. I was going to show that ump who's boss, yes I was.

The first pitch came in the way eight others had that year. I was hit by a pitch 8 times that year, and thought this was going to be the 9th. Once, a guy plunked me because I had gotten two doubles in the previous at bats. I was a good hitter, and probably too confident at times, like this one. Moving out of the way, I heard the ump call "Stirrrikeee!" I turned around and glared at him. Super pissed. Then stepped back in for the next pitch. This one came in even closer, so close to my eyes that I thought my head was it's target, but it bent in at the last second and, as I fell to the ground, I heard "Stiiirrkkee Two!" I wanted to smash the ump's head at this point. This is the fallout from aggressive competitiveness - you start targeting others as enemies to take out, instead of harnessing that energy to hit the ball, or throw the ball, or whatever it is you need to do.

I got up and stepped in again, completely ticked off, and completely scared at the same time. The pitcher knew it. My coach knew it. Everyone knew it. I don't even remember seeing the last pitch, only taking a huge swing at it, and missing by a mile. What I do remember is stomping behind the backstop, throwing my helmet at the ground, and getting an ear-full from my coach about bad sportsmanship.

Needless to say, the next guy struck out too, and the game, plus the season, was finished. In fact, it ended up being the last game I'd ever play for a team - not much of a way to go out, but definitely one with lessons for the taking.

So, what does the picture above have to do with this post? Nothing maybe. Although when you notice competitiveness gone amok, it's definitely as ridiculous as a red barn advertising a live reptile show. What the hell happens at a reptile show, anyway? Is it just a bunch of cages to look at, or is there some kind of event, competition even? Snakes hissing at each other and at us - the perfect send off for this post. SSSSSSSSS

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Craving of Human Failures and Faults

Well, winter is working it's "magic" on me. Feeling effectively irritated, on the edge of sickness, and already dreaming of gardening, green leaves, and streets not mucked up with dirty ice and snow. My blogroll seems to have it's share of cranky commentaries as well, so I guess I'm in good company. The topics that have been most prevalent in the Buddhist blogosphere over the past week, with the exception of the earthquake in Haiti, are striking me differently than in the past for some reason. Maybe it's the cloudy weather and hazy body, or maybe it's the exhaustion with focusing on decrepit pundits, horseshit political situations, and anything that has to do with the Christian Right.

Pat Robertson says the Haitian earthquake was the result of a pact with the devil. It's such a damned stupid narrative that I can barely give it a sentence worth of attention. Ann Coulter says us Buddhists are trying to become our "own gods." Yawn. Brit Hume and the Tiger Woods 9 Iron Band continues to re-emerge as if it were an 80's hair metal band in search of a flammable, second rate rock club to play in.

What I find interesting is how attractive focusing on this kind of stuff is for most of us. The desire to find fault, to focus on fault, and to ferret out every last ounce of fault in any given situation seems so powerful at times that I wonder if it's hardwired in us. It makes me think of the Second Noble Truth - the origin of suffering is our cravings - and here, the craving is to get to the bottom of it all, to have a complete catalog of the ways in which people have screwed up, wronged others, wronged us, etc. It seems different than recognizing a pattern of social injustice and then doing what you can to restore justice.

I've been reflecting lately on how pervasive the lack of trust is in this world we live in. The very fact that legal codes fill entire libraries should be a testament to how far down the rabbit hole we've gone. And with trust goes vision, great vision, the kind of vision needed to envision a more compassionate, loving society. I'm not interested in providing scientific evidence for this - who the hell needs a pile of research to see how destructive a lack of trust, as well as a belief in something larger than yourself (be it God, buddhanature, or simply the dynamic working of the planet). It's all rather tiring, this endless effort expended to try and prove everything before we can believe in it, don't you think? Even though I love research, love studying and learning, I've fallen out of love with having to back up, to provide tangible proof for every last idea I have.

I'm kind of convinced that this endless pursuit of evidence is tied to a lack of trust. And when you think about craving of anything, that's what is behind it. Illuminating the idiocy of Ann Coulter's view of Buddhism might provide an opportunity to "right the record," but at the end of the day, it also feels like continuing to spin around in the sinkhole of samsara. And when this pattern repeats itself over and over again - taking to task every right wing Christian saying something you don't like - then you have to wonder where trust is in all of this. (And I include myself in this statement because even though I haven't written a ton beyond some posts on Brit Hume, my mind's finger wags pretty damn often when it comes to the Christian Right.)

If you examine the establishment news media, as well as much of the alternative sources, what you see is a mirroring of our human craving for anything that will fill the void of trust we have in the world and in our lives. Every fallen politician, every murder, every rape, every greedy corporation - all are the carcasses that we come to graze on, while we tell each other without saying it: "See. This is why we can't trust anything!"

Yasutani Roshi wrote,"The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there." I've found it interesting how often the blog posts that focus on some kind of fault finding, even if that fault finding is absolutely necessary for righting social injustices, that these are the posts that generate the most discussion. It seems very much in the realm of "We are here," and those other people "are out there." Don't you think?

I guess a lot this comes down for me to the question "what is most important?" And/or "how can I use this one precious life in the most beneficial way?" Sometimes, for me, this means being decisively critical of destructive behavior. But more and more I feel compelled to discern as much as possible, and to choose only those situations where it seems like whatever I say or do might have some kind of impact. However, beyond that, there's just this nagging sense of something being way off when my focus is too heavily on what's "wrong" in the world. When I feel the desire to tear into some public figure or group of people who are acting stupid, or causing trouble - not because I want to help rectify the situation for everyone involved, but because I want to point out how fucked so-and-so's views are, so that it's clear who's "compassionate and caring" and who's "cunning and callous".

Daido Loori translated the sixth precept as "See the perfection—do not speak of others errors and faults" and the seventh precept as "Realize self and other as one—do not elevate the self and put down others." Now, as some of you know, the Buddhist precepts are not black and white, right or wrong kind of propositions. In fact, approaching them in such a way is doing so out of a lack of trust. When every error that is made, either by yourself or by others, is run through the ringer of the precepts to see if it passes or fails what is written, there's not much trust in the inherent perfection, the buddhanature if you will that pervades our lives beneath the noisy surface. And at the same time, I think every act that we do out of a lack of this deep trust is a violation of the precepts.

So, maybe there's a place for calling out Pat Robertson's comments on the earthquake in Haiti, but I feel more compelled to send any material support I can and dedicate my meditation practice to the people suffering there. And maybe continuing to parse the words of Ann Coulter, Brit Hume, Rush Limbaugh, or whomever serves in a small way to correct the balance of information out there, but I feel more compelled to stay quiet for the most part, to conserve my energy for something else, if only just to keep the next breath coming.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Foggy Inside and Out

I was kind of shocked at how agitated I felt all morning, and into the afteroon. There were a few external triggers, but nothing really all that serious. In fact, the school has been fairly quiet today - not the usual noisy chaos we seem to have. So, I wondered what was going on.

Around the middle of my first class, I did a few yoga poses. Felt very stiff and my brain was foggy. Then, a few hours later, I came into the office and saw one co-worker on the floor franticly looking for a piece of paper. Another co-worker was wandering around without any seeming purpose. And a third was doing a few yoga poses at her chair and complaining about feeling stiff.

I looked outside and saw the fog, and very damp streets. After two weeks of subzero weather, it's finally warm out and the snow is slowly melting. Maybe all the muck that's built up within our bodies - every flinch at the frigid wind and cuss word muttered at the cold that was stored in the body is now slowly dripping out of each of us.

Or maybe not, but anyone that says the weather doesn't affect them is surely lying.

*photo from Strathmore, CA Union Elementary School Website

Americanization of Mental Illness

Working with newcomers to the United States provides a very unique view into your own country's impact on the world. Thanks to Rev. Danny Fisher for posting this fascinating article about mental illness and its discontents. The article's author, Ethan Watters, argues that modern, primarily U.S. driven psychology is changing the way mental disorders around the world are both being treated, and how they occur in some cases. He writes:

For more than a generation now, we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. We have done this in the name of science, believing that our approaches reveal the biological basis of psychic suffering and dispel prescientific myths and harmful stigma. There is now good evidence to suggest that in the process of teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we’ve been exporting our Western “symptom repertoire” as well. That is, we’ve been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures. Indeed, a handful of mental-health disorders — depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia among them — now appear to be spreading across cultures with the speed of contagious diseases. These symptom clusters are becoming the lingua franca of human suffering, replacing indigenous forms of mental illness.

As a long time supporter and user of alternative forms of medicine, I see parallels in the way "western" medicine has influenced the world. Some of my students, who in their native countries often relied on cultural forms of medicine, now rush to the doctor whenever there's a problem. In some cases, they reject the simple herbals, the shamans they used to trust, or other indigenous approaches, and gulp down pharmaceuticals that fail to address the underlying traumas that are producing the physical symptoms in the first place. Surely, there are times when the allopathic approach is better than traditional methods, but the sometimes wholesale faith I see refugees and immigrants place in this system is painful. Of course, it is no different with many of us who were born here, which is why the Watters' thesis is so compelling to me.

One of the examples Mr. Watters brings up is anorexia in Hong Kong. He follows the work of a dr. Sing Lee, who was researching the disorder during a period of change in the country. Given all the discussion of the media's influence on perceptions of religion lately, notice how the Hong Kong media influenced perceptions of anorexia.

DR. SING LEE, a psychiatrist and researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, watched the Westernization of a mental illness firsthand. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was busy documenting a rare and culturally specific form of anorexia nervosa in Hong Kong. Unlike American anorexics, most of his patients did not intentionally diet nor did they express a fear of becoming fat. The complaints of Lee’s patients were typically somatic — they complained most frequently of having bloated stomachs. Lee was trying to understand this indigenous form of anorexia and, at the same time, figure out why the disease remained so rare.

As he was in the midst of publishing his finding that food refusal had a particular expression and meaning in Hong Kong, the public’s understanding of anorexia suddenly shifted. On Nov. 24, 1994, a teenage anorexic girl named Charlene Hsu Chi-Ying collapsed and died on a busy downtown street in Hong Kong. The death caught the attention of the media and was featured prominently in local papers. “Anorexia Made Her All Skin and Bones: Schoolgirl Falls on Ground Dead,” read one headline in a Chinese-language newspaper. “Thinner Than a Yellow Flower, Weight-Loss Book Found in School Bag, Schoolgirl Falls Dead on Street,” reported another Chinese-language paper.

In trying to explain what happened to Charlene, local reporters often simply copied out of American diagnostic manuals. The mental-health experts quoted in the Hong Kong papers and magazines confidently reported that anorexia in Hong Kong was the same disorder that appeared in the United States and Europe. In the wake of Charlene’s death, the transfer of knowledge about the nature of anorexia (including how and why it was manifested and who was at risk) went only one way: from West to East.

Western ideas did not simply obscure the understanding of anorexia in Hong Kong; they also may have changed the expression of the illness itself. As the general public and the region’s mental-health professionals came to understand the American diagnosis of anorexia, the presentation of the illness in Lee’s patient population appeared to transform into the more virulent American standard. Lee once saw two or three anorexic patients a year; by the end of the 1990s he was seeing that many new cases each month.

Now, I'm always a little wary of arguments that state any given influence occurred one way, so the tone of this is too totalizing for my taste. However, there's still something very compelling here, given the shift in case numbers and the way the disorder was approached after the Charlene case.

Maybe some of you are saying "So what? Why does any of this matter?" Well, there are a number of reasons, in my opinion, that make this something worth caring about.

1. The McMental Health Approach

Believing that a single model is the best "medicine" for every mental disorder around the world is the end logic of what's now occurring. Just as the explosion of McDonald's, KFC, and other fast food joints have contributed to the deterioration of indigenous foods all over the world, so too, in time, will indigenous forms of therapy disappear because of the spread of the bio-chemical linked with psychotherapy model to mental disorders.

2. Destruction of Diversity leads to a Destruction of Autonomy

When a single model of anything becomes not only the standard, but the "only true way," any group of people who deviate from that approach face either marginalization or forced conversion. Individual and group autonomy, as well as agency of choice, dwindle under such circumstances. A great part of this is simply from the gradual weakening and even disappearance of the knowledge and forms that made up the systems that are now considered inferior. The struggle of the Dakota Indians in my home state of Minnesota to maintain their language is a perfect example. Nearly everyone who spoke it fluently has died, and only a percentage of Dakota care enough to attempt to learn and preserve that which is remaining. The pressures of modern life make such choices challenging, and those who engage in preserving and practicing forms on the margins often are privileged members of their communities in some ways.

3. The Spread of One View as Gospel Leads to a Failure to See Reality

Buddha warned us constantly to be wary of the views we have attached to. Giving authority to a single view of mental disorders is, and will continue to lead to great mistakes when it comes to assessment of what's happening.

4. Bankrolling Big Pharma

It's hard for me to ignore how wonderful the spread of "Western" psychology is for the pharmaceutical companies. Every reliance on their drugs leads to more. I say this not to completely dismiss their work - some drugs are useful to some people in some cases - but it's so obvious to me that the continued spread of our approach is completely and fully tied to drug companies.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Haitian Earthquake

There has just been a powerful earthquake in Haiti. Having had connections to people who have worked and lived in Haiti over the years, I know a little bit more about this challenged little nation than most Americans do. Here are the first two paragraphs from the AP report:

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – The largest earthquake ever recorded in the area shook Haiti on Tuesday, collapsing a hospital where people screamed for help. Other buildings also were damaged and scientists said they expected "substantial damage and casualties."

With communications disrupted there were no reports of deaths or injuries soon after the quake, as powerful aftershocks shook the country.

Natural disasters are great reminders of how small each of us is in the grand scheme of things. We come from the earth, and the earth can take us away in a matter of moments. Below is a darani that is found in the chant books of many Zen communities. It's often chanted for those in danger, those who are seriously ill, or who are having great troubles. My guess is that there will be people in all three of these categories in Haiti. If you feel compelled, please chant this darani for the many who are now suffering in Haiti, and elsewhere in the world.


"Marvelously Beneficial Disaster Preventing Darani"







A Christianist Terrorist?

Thanks to Integral Options Cafe for posting the following about religion and terrorism.

I've written about the issues of gun violence, terrorismand the psychology of labeling in the past. And specifically, I've made comments about how media outlets and the general public in many nations routinely label violent acts done by Muslims as "Islamic terrorism," while at the same time, pointing to similar acts done by Christians, Buddhists, Hindus or others as having nothing to do with the person's religious background. Here is the first two paragraphs from the article posted on Integral Options Cafe:

Jury selection starts this week in the trial of Scott Roeder, who has confessed to the assassination last May of George Tiller, a doctor vilified by pro-lifers for performing late-term abortions.

(There's a trial because Roeder pled "not guilty''; since he considers abortion to be murder, he doesn't believe he committed a crime by walking into Tiller's Wichita church and shooting the doctor in the head.) Roeder has a history of mental disturbance but he's also deeply religious, according to his ex-wife, who says he "turned to the church and got involved in anti-abortion.'' So was his the act of a nutcase? Maybe, instead, we should consider it "Christianist terrorism''?

Scott Roeder's case was what prompted me last spring to really consider how commonplace this kind of mislabeling is. Have you ever heard the phrase "Christianist terrorist" anywhere? I know I haven't. And is it even accurate? Where in the Bible is there a call to murder doctors who are performing abortions? Where is there any justification for murder whatsoever?

There continues to be a lot of hand-wringing over the case of Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan, who murdered 13 of his colleagues and injured 30 more in November. And yet, nearly every description of this horrible act is explicitly linked to Islam, whereas Roeder's acts is almost never linked in such a way. Both Hasan and Roeder took very extreme views of certain teachings in their faiths, and then chose to act in the most extreme way possible. However, neither man represents even a conservative view of their traditions. They've stepped out of bounds with their acts, and as far as I'm concerned we need to condemn their acts individually, and not attach any religious tag on it. In addition, we need work to understand why people use religion to justify horrific acts like terrorism, and look for systemic ways to prevent such things from happening in the future. And when I say systemic, I don't mean body scanning machines, which are simply reactionary measures. Maybe they provide some level of security, but they don't root out terrorism.

Buddhism is all about going to the roots, and uprooting that which is preventing us from being liberated. I believe this is what will be necessary to change the cultures of terrorism that have stolen religious teachings, and taken down so many lives in the process. Lets begin with how we label acts in the world - using simple, clear speech instead of labels bathed in suspicion and hatred.