Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Yesterday Buddha's Dragons; Today Big Birds

Feeling in a photographic mood, here are a few pictures of big birds I have taken over the years to inspire your meditations or simply your flights of fancy. Enjoy!

Sometimes, there is confidence.

And sometimes, not so much.

Sometimes, we go around and around, seemingly without end.

But in the end, we're always amongst friends.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Militias, Violences, and Dragon Songs

I'm doing my best to refrain from a long commentary on the militia folks that were arrested yesterday in three U.S. states not too far away from my own. I don't feel all that kind or generous right now, and would rather rip people like this, as well as all those who silently or not so silently support them in any way, than practice patience and understanding. Many of us knew that the election of President Obama would bring out the hatred and violence, and so it is unfortunately.

How do we counteract such violence and hatred? There are plenty of things that need to be done "in the world," but as always, it comes back to how each of us are.

I sometimes chant the Metta Sutta to wake the sleeping dragons within. You don't have to believe in dragons to wake them, only be willing to open to your life as it is. What's a dragon, you might be asking? Anything you have ignored, discarded, avoided, or thought wasn't a part of you.

Maybe some of you have grown irritated by my use of the word "dragon." I suppose it easily conjures up medieval fantasies and geeky teenagers hanging around in dark basements. But really, don't you think all the plain, rational talk of those who desire peace, racial harmony, and an end to oppression seems to be falling flat? Some of us write endlessly about the misery and injustices occurring in the world, and yet most of them continue to go on and on, no matter how much effort is made to change them.

So, maybe it's time for dragon-talk. Time for marshalling all the imaginative forces we have available to us - the very thing modern, scientific and rational societies have disparaged as useless, childish garbage, even as the scientists and thinkers rely on such imaginations to drive their ideas.

Behind the hatred, violence, and bigotry, I can see millions of dragons. Lost dreams. Past hurts. Unexamined fears. Grief. Sadness. Loneliness. Material needs unfulfilled. Bodies and minds treated like lowly machines.

Dragons. When you turn away from them, they find a way to roar! Sometimes so fiercely that damage is done. The kind of damage that destroys families, communities, even nations.

Speaking of dragons, here's a koan and commentary from our old dharma friend the late John Daido Loori:

Singing the Dragon Song

Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori, Roshi
Koans of the Way of Reality
Dragon Singing in a Withered Tree

Featured in Mountain Record 24.2, Winter 2006
The Main Case

Xiangyan was once asked by a monastic, “What is the Way?”

Xiangyan said, “A dragon singing in a withered tree.”

The monastic said, “What does this mean?”

Xiangyan said, “Eyeballs in a skull.”

Later, another monastic asked Shishuang, “What is the dragon’s singing in a withered tree?”

Shishuang said, “It still has joy.”

The monastic said, “What are the eyeballs in a skull?”

Shishuang said, “They still have senses.”

Later, another monastic asked Master Caoshan, “What is the dragon’s singing in a withered tree?”

Caoshan said, “Bloodstream has not stopped.”

The monastic said, “What are the eyeballs in a skull?”

Caoshan said, “Dry all the way.”

The monastic said, “I wonder, can anyone hear it?”

Caoshan said, “Throughout the entire earth, there is no one who does not hear it.”

The monastic said, “Which verse does the dragon sing?”

Caoshan said, “I don’t know which verse it is, but all those who hear it are lost.”
The Commentary

Do not mistake a withered tree for a dead tree; it abounds with life and celebrates each and every spring with new foliage. It’s just that few have realized this. As for the dragon’s song, actually, everyone is able to hear it, because it exists everywhere. And yet, there can be no dragon’s song unless there is a withered tree.

If you can see through to the point of this koan and make it your own, then your own voice will be the dragon’s song and you will be able to make use of it among the ten thousand things. If, however, you are unable to perceive it, then the worldly truth will prevail and everything will appear to be an impenetrable barrier.

You should understand that illumination and function are a single truth, principle and phenomena are not two realities. These old masters know how to simultaneously roll out and gather in. Letting go of the primary, they open the gate of the secondary.

When the great function manifests, it does not hold to any fixed standards. Sometimes a blade of grass can be used as the sixteen-foot golden body of the Buddha; sometimes the sixteen-foot golden body of the Buddha can be used as a blade of grass. All this notwithstanding, tell me, how do you understand the great function?
The Capping Verse

Letting out the hook,
just to fish out the dragons.
The mysterious devices outside of convention
are only for those who wish to know the self.

As I get ready to head to my garden, the "withered trees" are rustling in the wind.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Perils of Job Searching

I have a job. Maybe a career even, as an ESL teacher. But one that is poorly paid, in a field being "professionalized" and "standardized" as we speak. Yawn. In addition, I work at an organization that is, to put it kindly, in "transition." No need to say much more about all that; I've had plenty of job issue posts in the past.

Moving on. People like to do that. I like to do that, too. Of course, we all seem to want to do so on our own terms, which rarely happens. And so, there are lots of silly mind machinations that occur, victim narratives, arguments, frustrations, disappointments, despite questions "Why can't I just have something good happen to me now?" It goes on and on. You probably know this stuff all too well if you're paying attention to your life.

I find job searching to be a humbling experience. There are many jobs you get disqualified for before you even finish reading the description. Others are painfully under paid, or clearly displaying the red flag of overworking. Still others you end up applying for, only to receive a kindly e-mail a month later stating that several hundred people applied for the position and this e-mail is just to inform you that you haven't made the cut. A few others call you for an interview, perhaps, but then choose someone else.

It's easy to forget that sometime in the past, it was you that was chosen and all those others who had to keep sloshing along. It's also easy to forget that none of this is personal, not even when it slides into the personal.

I wanted to check out my graduate school's job site this morning, only to find that they had completely changed it. Now, you have to fill out a questionnaire stating that you have a connection to the school, you're authorized to work in the U.S. and some other fine things. Then you have to confirm your e-mail address. And then, once you're in, you discover that the whole thing is set up to "maximize" matches to jobs. This is all well and good, except that in order to search, you need to get specific, really specific - entering in job categories, locations, filling in a resume helps, etc. etc. In other words, be prepared to spend an hour, or two, just to search the jobs.

What I like to do is search a general category like non-profit work, or education work. I've always been a generalist, a person with a wide range of experience and interest, who doesn't zone in on a specific, end all to end all career. I'm very skeptical of the specialization that seems to have developed in much of the job world. It feels limiting and limited, and I say this as someone who has "specialized" job-wise in adult basic education for most of the past decade. In fact, there is a contradiction between the kinds of specialization I see employers requiring, and the trend towards several careers over a lifetime that clearly is the way most of us under 50 are dealing with these days.

Back to the job search engine, I tried to bypass the specialization being called for by typing in my location, hoping to get any job in the area. This is what I got in return:

The search you have entered will return far too many jobs, and will negatively affect other users response times.

In my mind, I'm feeling negatively affected by this search engine, but press on, adding the "keyword" nonprofit.

A list of 10 jobs is returned, including one dated June 2008."

Pretty cool, eh? I've heard many "experts" speaking about the recession's impact on the job market. There was an article in the local paper about people "adjusting" to new jobs that are two or three rungs down the ladder from their previous job. I laughed while reading it, thinking that two or three rungs down for me would be a part-time overnight gig at Wal-Mart cleaning toilets.

My mother is trying to create her own business, again, with thoughts of quitting the decent paying part-time job she has in the near future. She's doing ok, but not well enough yet to move on. I have had similar thoughts about stepping off the tread mill and making my own mark somehow. Scary. Exciting. Cloudiness.

I have the week off, and this is how it is beginning. No worries, though. The sun is out, and the garden I started Saturday is waiting for me.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Life's Too Short for This"

I walked into a coffee shop I hang out at a bit in downtown St. Paul. Among the folks in there was what I've come to term "the family." Over the last ten years or so, I've found myself in the company of this couple and their increasing number of children on dozens of occassions.

The scene is always the same. The children, in various states of unkemptness, run wild, while the man, older and dominant in a quiet sort of way, pontificates to his younger wife about some Bible passage. He frequently takes shots at all ogranized churches, and includes them among Satan's work. Meanwhile, for a long time, I wondered if the children were even getting home schooled, given how little they seemed to be able to read, write, or interact socially.

So, there they were doing there thing today. I sat down, and the guy sitting behind me starts leaving a message on the phone about a Bible study session. For a moment, I thought "Man, you're surrounded," then let it drop.

Over the years, I've struggled to not run a litany of jugdments through my mind about that couple and their kids. Until a month ago, I'd never said a single word to any of them. Then the wife turned to me, as I was working on a blog post, and said "Aren't you that guy who goes to that Buddhist place?" I said I was and she looked at me, paused, and then said "I always found it funny that people would worship a guy who isn't a God." I smiled because it probably is funny from the outside, what we Buddhists are doing.

I'd forgotten that exchange this morning as I sat down and opened my laptop. As the couple gathered their children and started to leave, I was reading a post on someone else's blog. For some reason, I looked up just as the wife said "I'm wondering if ..." (short pause) "if you'd ever consider being challenged on you views?" Now, in the past, I probably would have been interested in such a debate. To prove that I could stand up as a Buddhist, even if the discussion went nowhere. However, as she said those words, I just thought "Life's too short for this." So, instead of engaging, I just said "I don't think it would be worth our time." And she nodded, stepped back, and said "Everyone has free will." And walked out.

The guy behind me, who was reading a passage in the Book of Romans (he'd said as much in the phone message he left), says "Do you know that woman?"

"Barely," I said, not knowing how else to explain this odd connection we'd had over the years.

"What was that all about?" he said. And I sat for a moment, wondering if telling him what it was about would just open up the same issue I had just cut off.

"We could have a long discussion about it, but it probably wouldn't be worth it."

He laughed a little at that, and said something about how that had been an odd exchange between her and I. I agreed, and then he went back to his Bible, and I to my blog. Which is where I am now, no less worn for wear.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Economy of Language and the Body/Mind

Arun over at Angry Asian Buddhism has an intriguing post about labels used for different groups of North American Buddhists. He takes issue with the term "cradle Buddhists," which lumps together such disparate groups as 6th generation Chinese-Americans and white Zen practitioners whose parents were "converts," yet another tricky term. There are many important points in Arun's post about the problems with this term, but what I'm interested in is the human mind's quest for easy to remember phrases.

On the webzine I've been writing for, Life as a Human, the editor, Kerry Slavens, wrote an interesting post about St. Patrick's Day and the ubiquitous "I'm Irish!" that comes with it in North America. The following comment was made to her post by a guy named Kev:

You know what the Irish can’t stand? (the REAL Irish, as in, born and raised in Ireland) Americans. They are the bane of our existence. Worse yet is Americans who say “I’m Irish”. Worse still are the Americans who say “Oh, you’re from Ireland? Do you know Mary?”.

You are not Irish. You have Irish descendants. You are American. (Well, Canadian in this case but you get my point. By the way, we love Canadians).

I have French descendants actually, my second name is Roche, which is French for something. That does not mean I am French. In fact, every human on the planet has African descendants, that doesn’t mean we’re all African.

It’s a rule. To call yourself Irish, you have to be born here, or at the very least live here long enough to see that the predominant colour of this country is not green, but gray. Gray clouds covering the sky 4/5ths of the year, gray, dull buildings, gray foot paths, roads, dirt and gravel.

I, myself, often say "I'm half Irish," because it's easier than saying something like "Half of my ancestors came from Ireland." This starts to get at part of what's going on here, which is an economy of language issue. We want to communicate. And we also want to do some in a way that people remember what we have said - frequently anyway. Look at any effective political campaign, or corporate advertisement. There's always a catchy slogan or set of slogans that get repeated to the point of being burned into the mind.

And if you pick up any song, or poem - it's all about saying as much as possible in the fewest amount of words. Even several hundred page poems, that deliberately spew language across the page - like Charles Olson's The Maximus Poems, which is a several hundred page romp through a linguistic forest - there is still an effort to erase any excess. To hell with grammar conventions. Forget the "necessary" introductory words, or cuing. No need for pleasantries that might ease a reader in.

Or, on the oppose end, you could take up a Buddhist sutra and notice how much repetition there is. Or how the same introductory phrases, like "Thus I have heard" appear over and over and over again. Even though things are repeated, there is meaning contained within every word of the sutra. People had to recall and speak these things to others, and some still do rely on spoken sharing as a prime focus of their Buddhist practice, even if they have access to books, magazines, and the internet.

So, the human mind loves an easy to remember phrase, and I'd also argue that what's taken in and remembered, also lives in our bodies. I've experienced both ends of this. Seven years ago, I jettisoned my TV for a variety of reasons, but partly because I became highly aware of how my mind, and thus my body, were being colonized by commercials. While a lot of people love that they can recite the jingle for Wal Mart or Coke, I find it to be an insidious invasion that saps energy and focus from my life's purpose. Maybe that sounds dramatic, but think about the saying "You are what you eat." People are now starting to wake up to the fact that ingesting processed, hormone-infested meat, to give just one example, has a highly negative impact on your body and mind functioning. And I'd argue that if you have a heavy diet of corporate advertisements, there is a different, but also negative impact that results.

On the other hand, I have memorized and taken in gathas, dharma poems, and short sutras to the point where they are a part of me, completely. They have imbued my body and mind in such a way that sometimes, they simply appear when an occasion calls for their wisdom.

What I have noticed about the process of learning, though, is that the most compact versions of any teaching are the ones I gravitate towards when going for ingestion. Taking in the most technically correct translation of the Heart Sutra, for example, just doesn't work. A good thing to study, but it isn't going to stick in whole.

And going back to the beginning, part of the problem with the efforts to come up with labels for various groups of Buddhists is that desire for an easy phrase, which can be taken in and sent back out into the world with ease. It doesn't mesh well with the complicated reality we live in, where such labels can only be pointers at best.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Color/s of the Dharma

Some of us Buddhist bloggers have started a new blog to explore the issue of race, racism, and other intersecting -isms as they pertain to our spiritual practice. The first topic we are addressing is the following:

1. Share a true story from your own experience (not someone else's experience) about a time when difference resulted in a negative impact on you within your Buddhist community (sangha) / or in some other community.

I wrote a post about an incident at my zen center last year that heightened, for me, the need for racial dynamics to be part of everyday conversations and practices at American Buddhist centers. Here is a small selection from the post, which I hope you'll read in full over at the blog:

I faded in and out during the entire break, exhausted from the previous session's material and exercises, which had brought up some "shit" for me, for lack of more precise term. At some point, the visiting teacher started in about something about "poor black kids" in Oakland, and how there were so many screwing their lives up in gangs, drugs, and whatnot. I was sort of half listening, kind of irritated by this time by what I perceived to be an unconscious elitism running throughout her weekend narratives.

Please check out the blog for more narratives about race and dharma. Lori Pierce has a compelling narrative about an incident that occurred during a Buddhist academic panel that shows another form of racialized silencing. What's disturbing to me about what happened to her is how normative it appeared, and how the very structure of the situation allowed more ease for her ideas and contributions to be cut off.

I'd especially like to invite anyone who thinks the two things, race and dharma, have little or nothing to do with each other to visit our blog. You might be surprised by what you learn. Our practice is all about being open and present to what is, after all.

Liberation from Theism and Atheism

Over at Life as a Human, I found this fascinating post about walking away from church, God, and theism. There is something profoundly similar in the following description to some of the enlightenment stories I've heard and read out there.

No matter how many meetings I went to or how many entreaties I made or how many ritualistic practices I memorized, I could not be a theist. When I left that last religious meeting, I waited for the hollow feeling in my chest to return, that feeling of deep grief I had felt at 17 over a path lost. I believed then that I might have finally arrived at the end of meaning, and I braced myself for more of the pain I had felt all those years before.

Strangely, though, the pain did not come. In fact, I felt lighter. The tension in my shoulders loosened. I could feel the night air enter my lungs for the first time in years. When I looked within and found myself without God, I felt blasphemously joyful and freed.

There was no God, and yet all the horror and wonder on earth remained. Nothing was changed. I was dumbfounded.

There's been a lot of talk about theism and atheism on the Buddhoblogsphere. John had an open forum over at his blog. Adam had a post in response to the forum. And there have been several posts about Stephen Batchelor's new book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist.

I have to be honest. The whole theism/atheism discussion kind of bores me. Interesting philosophy perhaps, but how does it help my practice, or my life in general?

Seems to me that our path is about a liberation from both theism and atheism. To not get caught up too much in such things because they are concepts that never quite hit the mark of what actually is.

Talk of heaven and God-daddies in the sky always has felt like a screwy attempt to deal with human psychological dramas to me. There are terrible things occurring on Earth, so there must be a God waiting to punish us for our misdeeds, and "he" must be separate from us, otherwise "he'd" be tainted.

And frankly, talk of atheism can quickly stray into something screwy as well. Human reason is the highest power. Only that which is scientifically confirmed is real. There is nothing beyond the material.

Maybe one of these approaches is correct, and all the rest of us are dead wrong. However, if it is true that either there is a Big Daddy God waiting to strike us heretics and sinners down, or that there's nothing but the material world at work out there, I guess I'll just have to be wrong.

Both ends of that spectrum dull the shit out of me, and are, as far as I'm concerned, completely lifeless - deader than the worn out logs currently floating down the flooded Mississippi.

Sitting zazen in my living room this morning, I felt the warmth of an early spring sunlight across my body. Breathing in, it moved through me. Breathing out, it spread throughout the room.

Neither atheism nor theism can touch this experience. Life goes on while we try to label it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Island Disappears and So Does Conflict

Sometimes, the answer to a dispute comes without anyone's efforts. Check out this, from AP reports:

NEW DELHI – For nearly 30 years, India and Bangladesh have argued over control of a tiny rock island in the Bay of Bengal. Now rising sea levels have resolved the dispute for them: the island's gone.
New Moore Island in the Sunderbans has been completely submerged, said oceanographer Sugata Hazra, a professor at Jadavpur University in Calcutta. Its disappearance has been confirmed by satellite imagery and sea patrols, he said.

"What these two countries could not achieve from years of talking, has been resolved by global warming," said Hazra.

Scientists at the School of Oceanographic Studies at the university have noted an alarming increase in the rate at which sea levels have risen over the past decade in the Bay of Bengal.

Kind of unfortunate, given the implications globally. But it also shows the Earth's ability to intervene and dramatically remind us that human life is short, and nothing stays the same forever on this "blue" planet of ours.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Compassion as Humbling Agent

Barry over at Ox Herding has a quality post I'm going to quote in full:

Recently someone new to Buddhism asked how it was that the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Quanyin, could serve as the "patron" of both vegetarians and fishermen.

There was an aggrieved tone in the person's voice: How could she?

I replied that true compassion does not depend on conditions.

Without hesitation, Quanyin offers unstinting compassion to vegetarians and carnivores, fishermen and farmers, and saints and murderers.

That's because Quanyin has laid down the mind that picks and chooses based on like and dislike. She only responds to what is.

Indeed, love can only arise in response to what is. Everything else is fantasy.

These are easy words to write, but to live without dependence on conditions . . . well, that's something else. That's why clear-eyed direction is so important.

I've experienced this firsthand several times during the past few days. After the sloppy board meeting I ran on Sunday, more than one board member assured me that I had done a good job. They we're being patronizing; I was aware of how they were seeing beyond the content and form, and responding to who I am as a person and leader. I felt humbled. and yesterday, a good friend's response to express basic kindness and offers of prayers to her estranged husband, who had caused her a lot of trouble and was on his way out the door and moving away, hopefully for good. She said to me "I don't want to hate him because that follows you. I want to be kind, even if he isn't." I'm even more humbled by her comments, feeling that I could use a little work in embodying compassion more seamlessly.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Pissed Off Cat Teaches About Life and How to Live It

Head over to Life as a Human for my new post. It features my mother's cranky old cat and a short meditation on spring, gardens, and life. Here's a teaser for you:

"She’s less high strung now than in the past, and is more likely to at least attempt to be friendly or curious, even if she can’t quite get herself to go the whole way.

It makes me wonder if like a lot of us – cats and other animals – get tired of holding on and just let go of whatever crap we are hanging on to as well. I’m not about to claim to know what cats think about, or how their minds work exactly. People love to think they know animals well, but most of us don’t, and sadly we seem all too ready to slide into reductionist thinking about animals — assuming that they’re just a bundle of desires and cravings."

Sunday, March 21, 2010

I don't know. I have no answers either.

Sometimes, even if you think otherwise, the best thing that can happen is to have no answers. There's been a lot going on in my little corner of the world. My colleague at work broke her neck in a car accident a week and half ago, and the past week was filled with little dramas about how to continue her classes, or if those classes might be folded into the two remaining teacher's classrooms (mine being one of them.) Lots of assumptions and confusion, as well as a very palpable sense of how old wounds can derail and derange even the most simple conversations.

This morning, we had our monthly zen center board meeting. I arrived kind of tired and feeling unprepared. Due to scheduling, the meeting was only three weeks after our board retreat, which had been a lot of work beforehand, and created more work following. I'm rediscovering how challenging it can be to help navigate a shift in direction for an organization. Even though much of what we're doing now will stay in play and/or be improved upon, our sangha is at a new place in it's life, filled with many interesting directions we could pursue.

In the middle of today's meeting, a board member brought up a question about standing committees, and how the strategic planning work we have been doing fit into, or didn't fit into, those committees and other established organizational channels. This question provoked an interesting set of responses from me. Initially, I just wanted to get finished the committee appointments I felt we needed to do. Then I found myself thinking "I really don't have an answer to how the old fits with the new." Other board members chimed in with more questions, thoughtful remarks, and confusions. And for a few minutes, my mind swam through the mud of "You're not much of a leader, are you!" kind of thoughts. I'm often on top of things, coming prepared with notes, ideas, and something to say. But I had nothing here; I was just as uncertain as the newest of the board members there about how everything was going to work out.

At one point, someone asked me what I thought of was happening, and what we needed to do, and I just threw my hands in the air and said "I don't know. I have no answers either."

For some reason, that opened the door for others to start putting forth ideas, and to make suggestions that they then said they would help implement. It's funny because one of the goals I had had with both the retreat and this meeting today, was to get more active involvement - and that's just what happened. I certainly could have been clearer about a few things going in, and a little more organized, but not knowing and simply stepping back to let others step forward was, it seems, exactly what the situation was calling for. It really wasn't easy because it shook, again, the ideas I had about being an "effective" leader. However, as we finished the meeting, some of the board actually came up to me and told me it was good that I wasn't the "center point," that my relative silence during that half an hour the issues of how to navigate the old and the new came up was helpful.

The thing is, I found that I had to let go of being the leader in that case in order for the group to move through to a place I couldn't have guided us through on my own. It was an unnervingly ungrounded experience, as I moved from listening to confusion to listening again to offering ideas to trying to take notes to just sitting there while my colleagues took up the slack.

I've always viewed leadership as a dynamic, collaborative process that seeks to empower everyone at the table. And yet, when you truly are doing that, embodying that, it often looks nothing like the standard models of leadership out there. I've experienced this in my classroom many times over the years, and yet somehow hadn't quite tapped into that awareness and experience as a board chair until today.

Friday, March 19, 2010

What's "Real" Anyway?

Certain words gain a kind of traction that overtakes all sensibility when it comes to their usage. Lately, I've been noticing that the words "mindful" and "mindfulness" have gone far beyond their homes, landing in such odd places as commercials for unnecessary products and book titles about how to become ultra wealthy. Or how about these word pairings: "mindful partisanship" and "mindful golf". The first one is just a rationalization for maintaining a certain political view, and the second one is an entire website devoted to improving one's golf game. So, what's "mindful" mean anyway?

The same, it seems, is true of the word "real." In fact, it's probably long been true of the word real, but in the age of the internet, and artificial intelligence, it's probably all the more apparent.

Two recent blog posts take this issue up in decidedly different ways. Trevor at the Big Old Oak Tree writes about the perceptions some people have of the vocation of Zen priest here in the U.S.

Folks occasionally mention "the real world," or "a real job" to me, but I think that's a rather shallow way to look at it. Sure, most of my compensation is non-monetary, but I don't think that makes my job any less "real." And landing this job didn't involve all sorts of competitiveness and self-promotion, but that kind of thing seems less "real" than most everything else, if you ask me. I think speaking in that way about my lifestyle is really more about the fact that I model, in some sense, a bit of a different way to live, and I think some folks aren't really sure how to react to that. That might be what's going on. I can't say for certain. Anyway, trust me. My life is very, very real. The more I throw myself into this practice, the more I learn about who I am, the more I drop who I think I am, the more real it gets.

And over at Mind Deep, Marguerite takes on the issue of social media, internet sanghas, and the like, partly by speaking about comments made to a post of hers about a conference. Among the comments she reported was the following:

I personally believe Internet social media and mindfulness don't go well together. There is an element of addiction involved here. One can give excuses like "limiting", "doing it mindfully", "doing it with purpose", "keeping a check" etc. The very fact that one has to look for such excuses makes me suspicious. It is like someone telling drinking alcohol in moderation is ok. Just like one does not need alcohol, one does not need these virtual reality medias. There are tons of libraries, books, real world sanghas and even google to get all the information anyone truly seeking would need.

Both of these examples point to the almost arbitrary assignment of the word real. If you work at a job that directly pays you money for your time and efforts, it is real. Books, libraries, brick and mortar sanghas are considered real, I'm guessing, because of their physicality in the world. And Google, well, I'm not sure why the author of the comment felt Google was worthy of the label "real," but social media online is somehow not. Brand recognition as legitimizing factor perhaps? Kind of like saying Coca Cola is a more real soda than the homemade root beer you're grandfather made, even though it could be argued that the opposite is probably more accurate.

Part of being mindful, as I see it, is to be deeply aware of both the narratives you have attached to the language you're using, and also the ways in which you are attached to those narratives. For myself, I've noticed lately how often the word "respect" is linked in my mind with others behaving in a way that doesn't interfere with my life in certain ways. Like the noise in my apartment building, which is minimal really, but which I sometimes get frustrated with, and start drudging up the "these people aren't respectful" comments in my mind. Certainly, there are times when this comment is true, but often it's just a drama I'm creating because I'm disappointed that it's not completely quiet.

What is it about Trevor's vocation that trips people up so? Are they jealous? Maybe. Are they trapped in a capitalist view of work? Probably. Are they confused? Most likely. And there are other reasons as well, I'm sure.

And the internet - why do so many of us persist in dividing the world in two like this? Concern that computers are going to take everything over? I know I have some of that concern, even as I enjoy being online. Is it also that desire to have something tangible to hold on it? The old empirical standard? Or maybe it's also tied to the commonplace disconnect us 21st Century affluent people have with the earth. There's probably hundreds of reasons for comments like the one made above about mindfulness and social media.

And yet, the same commenter also points to my own concerns about the use of the word "mindful," so it would be foolish to just dismiss him or her as completely off. The point of all this, to some extent, is that for all of us, there is a strong lack of real mindfulness (ha, ha!) when it comes to how we use language. Lots of generalizations, laziness, and reliance on social cues and accepted understandings to get by. Some of that stuff is built into communication, I suppose. But it seems a hell of a lot better to be clear the first time, than have to go back and try to clean up the messes made by not being clear.

And what is "being clear?" I think I'll stop now, before everything gets deconstructed to a pulp.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Correct and Incorrect Lives

We closed our class on the Diamond Sutra last night at the zen center. I always find the end of a practice period a little bitter-sweet. You've worked hard a as a group, meditating, studying, examining the messes of your lives, and celebrating the joys - and then it's done. For now. And for the particular group involved, at that time and place, it's done forever.

Even though I've been ranting a blue streak lately about various issues in what I'm now going to term "Global North" convert Buddhism, including barely examined race and class biases, as well as the struggle to attract lots of younger folks, today I want to express deep gratitude for my home sangha, Clouds in Water.

We have these student talks as a part of each core practice period class, a wonderful opportunity to learn from each other and also prepare something to share with each other. I spoke about a passage from Chapter 6 of the Diamond Sutra last week, which I also wrote about in this post. The week before that, a dharma sister of mine spoke about another section of the sutra, and then gave heartfelt talk about fear and fearlessness, concluding that fear itself often is the very ingredient we need to cultivate fearlessness. And last night, another sangha member, who has been around awhile, but often hanging about on the edge, gave an impassioned exposition on the levels of space present within our own zendo.

A trained architect, he led us through the physical space, speaking of how the towering pillars of our old warehouse building were both powerfully upholding the emptiness of the space for us, and also are still alive in every crack and split present.

He then spoke of the social space present, how the way we set up the cushions, the alter, the screens, and even the unused materials speaks to how we function socially within it. He pointed to the visible and invisible boundaries between each zabuton, and also how those reserved for the teacher or teachers were set apart, the distance between them and the rest denoting a basic respect and reverence for the teacher's seat. He also spoke of how the alter, cushions, and everything else points to "correct" ways to engage, and "incorrect" ways to engage the space.

It was really funny listening to him speak of all this as he stood on one side of the room, clearly in an "incorrect" place. Correct and incorrect here are not about right and wrong, really, but more about how one fits into the flow, or blocks it. This, to me, is an important distinction to make in our lives. There are times when one needs to be in "an incorrect" place, to act in "an incorrect" way, in order to provide a block visible enough to jar people out of their collective sleep and/or madness.

Ne finally spoke of the spiritual space present in the zendo, and how the other two uphold that final one, which is not really describable in words. It's more than a feeling, I'd also say, but I know that every time I step into the zendo, I can feel the heartbeat of meditation practice past, present, and future. There is no denying it's presence once you are open to it.

One of the great values of sangha, as I see it, is the ability to experience different shades of light flashed upon the same teaching. You hear the teacher's wisdom. You hear the wisdom of your fellow students. You also hear the ways in which everyone struggles, is muddled, is overly confident or overly timid. It's a constant reminder that there is no single path to awakening - that each of us moves through the world in slightly or greatly differing ways. And that is beautiful, and also a great vehicle for cracking through our dukkha (suffering).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hair on Fire? Buddhism in Affluent Places

Nella Lou has a wonderful new post over at Smiling Buddha Cabaret about Buddhism and Social Action. Long time readers of my blog know that I see these as practices that are intimately linked, and really not readily made separate. Specifically, I see every action we take as having a social/political dimension, from what we eat to where we work to how we choose to spend our "free" time. There's really no way around this, no matter how much kicking and screaming you do. Simply put, what we do in the world has an impact. There are causes and conditions behind actions, and effects from those actions. That's kind of basic Buddhism.

Of the many interesting points Nella Lou makes, her comments on the difference between "passivity" and "pacifism" really stood out for me.

A lot of the confusion regarding activism in the Buddhist context comes from lack of distinction between the concepts of passivity and pacifism. Passive is the opposite of active. It simply means one who does nothing at all as opposed to one who does something. It means one who is not involved in any way. And in the case of passive-aggressive it means one who is involved, usually in an angry or resentful way and is trying to pretend to themselves and others that they are not either angry or involved. Passive-aggressive behavior is a form of denial and self-imposed ignorance of social and psychological reality.

Pacifism on the other hand means non-violent action. It is a peaceful, as opposed to violent, method of action. Pacifism is based on the concept of ahimsa, which is the Sanskrit term for non-harming, and particularly non-violent action. The very public activism of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King both embraced these methods in the past. Presently organizations such as Amnesty International, PEN International, Zen Peacekeepers, The Interdependence Project, Buddhist Peace Fellowship and people such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn, the latter actually having coined the term “engaged Buddhism”, use methods to bring about change and address social injustice inspired by ahimsa.

One thing I find challenging about practicing Buddhism in a wealthy nation, surrounded by other practitioners who tend to have "enough," is the huge disconnect many have between their spiritual practice and the social environment. This is especially true of white, heterosexual North American practitioners who do not have to face issues of individual and institutional discrimination. Beyond this, however, I continue to reflect on how, for example, Buddhist monks and nuns in Burma, or Tibet, or Vietnam to give a few examples, really don't have the option of making such separations. Their practice and the social realities in their nations are inseparable. They might be able to complete long periods of intensive meditation and study, or they might wake up one day to gunfire, ramped up soldiers, or some natural disaster barreling down upon them. These people do not get to "wait" until they become enlightened, or "wise," to get into the fray of social concerns. They just have to step up, and do their best awakened work.

I often wonder about the statement "practice like your hair is on fire." It's provocative, but what is it really about? More importantly for us in affluent countries, what does it really mean?

I don't have much of an answer right now. But I'm not sure I've seen it much, not in meditation retreats, not in daily practice, nor even in my "activist" work. This might be my own limitations, but I wonder if this is a common thing for us living in affluent places - not really "feeling the fire"?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Will Public Libraries Disappear?

In an interesting post about public libraries and the future of reading, Lorne Daniel raises the following:

In my life and the lives of others, libraries are about much more than inexpensive borrowing. Yet the question remains: would we citizens of the 21st century invent public libraries if they didn’t already exist? Will we even make the effort to keep our current libraries ticking?

The same techno wave that is challenging printed newspapers, magazines and books is poised over libraries. Google, e-books and online downloading are growing exponentially. Many libraries are trying to keep up, and online visits are beginning to rival in-person visits. But what is the future for digital access? It is not likely to consist of thousands of small-town libraries each trying to create unique portals to the same knowledge base.

“Libraries are only taking up valuable real estate after all,” writes Michael Elcock in a recent edition of BC Bookworld. “Who will need downtown libraries when the world’s intellectual works are available in everyone’s home? Eventually we may need only one library… and that may be Google.” As Elcock points out, “Google may be many things, but philanthropic is not one of them.”

As a writer and book lover, I have often wondered about these kinds of issues. I'm an editor of an online literary journal, I blog, and I read a lot of material online, from Buddhist blogs to political commentary. At the same time, I enjoy a trip to the library for many reasons. The coming together of the community being high on the list. It's very concerning how little public space is available in many places these days. How many people must go to the mall to do some walking in the winter, or to gather a group of friends for a night of fun? I don't know about you, but malls to me are some of the deadest, most controlled environments outside of jails and prisons. Every detail is designed to sell and nothing else, and yet, how often do you find public squares, open public buildings, or other public spaces in the suburbs (and even in some cities)? Hell, even sidewalks and parks have been eliminated in some places, victims of the drive to "develop" every last acre of land in the name of the unwritten God of North Americans: the Dollar.

Ben Franklin, and the others who started the first lending libraries in the United States, would probably be wondering what our goals are these days. In fact, they might make a link between lack of public space and the terrible state of pubic discourse and civic action.

*Above is a photo of my community library, complete with public transit vehicle (i.e. Bus). We were fortunate that they completed work on the building a few years before the economy tanked.)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Time is an Illusion

Daylight Savings Time is the perfect reminder of the constructed nature of time. In 1784, Benjamin Franklin, then an envoy to France, suggested that Parisians could save candles by waking earlier. Among his proposals was to fire cannons off at sunrise to wake the populace. Pretty damn funny if you ask me. A little over a hundred years later, in 1895, New Zealand entomologist George Vernon Hudson presented a paper suggesting a two hour time shift be enacted. Later, English builder William Willett lobbied the British government for a similar shift, which was finally put into action in 1916, the year after Willett died. Originally, a device to save time during World War I - kind of sad how often wars are the engines that drive these kinds of changes - Daylight Savings Time eventually became a commonplace time-saving technique.

Genkaku, in his latest post, takes up this issue with the following:

The wall clock read 6:57 this morning, but the computer read 7:57. Here in the U.S., daylight savings time went into effect today, pushing the clocks forward by an hour.

We lost an hour.

Where did it go?

Was something really lost? If so, where did it get to? Did it go on vacation or move to Tahiti or something?

It's a silly question, perhaps, but I think that the assumption of what we call time is something to consider ... and 'losing' an hour is a good reminder of an underlying axiom in our lives.

One of my Karen students recently said to me "Time is really important for Americans." We were reading an article that mentioned something about making appointments, and commenting on why it was important to "be on time."

However, conventional time has long felt like an interesting game to me, a sort of shared delusion that tries to be a guide for directing our lives, but often ends up being little more than a straight jacket.

Just to add to the fun, here's a few lines from Zen Master Dogen's essay "Being Time:"

"You may suppose that time is only passing away, and not understand that time never arrives. Although understanding itself is time, understanding does not depend on its own arrival. People only see time's coming and going, and do not thoroughly understand that the time-being abides in each moment."

The problem with clocks is that they appear to be moving in a certain direction all the time. That is, until we will them, through things like Daylight Savings Time, to move the opposite way.

Given all this, how can we answer a question like "Where does the time go?" There's certainly constant change in the relative, everyday world. Certainly, this body of "mine" has grown, and gotten older over the last thirty four years. And when I look around, everything else has shifted as well, even if only in tiny ways. But it's not the whole story. How could it be?

On a day like today, when there is an obvious shift made on the clock, we have an opportunity to reflect on what time is, and isn't.

Take this opportunity. Now. It's always there, but today it's right in front of your nose, waiting to be smelled like the muddy ground waking from winter.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Desert Zen

"Keep your hands open, and all the sands of the desert can pass through them. Close them, and all you can feel is a bit of grit."

Taisen Deshimaru Roshi

Friday, March 12, 2010

Animal Dreams

I was over visiting with my mother for a bit this afternoon. It's only the second week of March, but the combination of warm weather and melting snow has me itching to get into the garden. Even the piles of dirty snow, dead leaves, and bare limbs of all the weedy bushes I failed to chop down last fall doesn't hinder that desire.

Visiting my mother's house means visiting the cats as well. Crack cat (see above) has mellowed so with age. At 12 years old, she's less high strung, and more likely to at least attempt to be friendly or curious, even if she can't quite get herself to go the whole way. It makes me wonder if like a lot of us, cats and other animals get tired of holding on and just let go of whatever crap they are hanging on to as well.

People love to think they know animals well, but most of us don't, and sadly we seem all to ready to slide into reductionist thinking about animals.

But we people are animals, too, lest we forget. And for all our skills and talents, we sure mess up a lot of things, don't we?

Even though animals are bound to fight, defend their territory, get lost in hunger and comfort desires, I sometimes think that the Buddhist animal realm doesn't really apply to animals at all.

While I am out stomping around in the muddy garden, trying to reconnect with an earth that's been frozen for over four months, Crack Cat and her orange buddy B.J. are hanging around the banister, waxing philosophical about those silly people in their lives. We can only dream what these guys are think about, we humans who can barely figure out our own heads.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Faith/Reason Divide

There seems to be a lot of posts lately that fall into the category of addressing faith vs. reason in Buddhism. It's not always a black and white division, but I kind of find myself scratching my head as to why so much energy is being spent parsing this all out.

Over at Sujato's blog, there is some really interesting thoughts about the intervention of, and support from, the State in religious affairs. However, Sujato also says the following:

The very notion of ‘Supernatural’ is one that, it seems to me, arises from Western philosophical assumptions. the basic idea is that there is ‘this world’, which is rational and subject to explanation according to the laws of physics, and the ‘other world’, which operates according to a quite different set of principles, and where the laws of physics no longer apply.

In Buddhism, however, the essential description of the world is not provided by the laws of physics, or other material phenomena. The most important ‘laws’ are the three characteristics – impermanence, suffering, not-self. And these describe any other state of being just as well as they describe ours. For theistic religions, ‘heaven’ is eternal – that is, not subject to conditions, and independent from Time. But for Buddhists, heaven is just as temporary as anything else.

Interesting - nirvana is often viewed as timeless as well, and Buddhists often split the world into the "relative" and "absolute." Now, relative and absolute are talking phrases, skillful means if you will to describe something that's functioning together in a way our words fail to describe. But I still think most Buddhists most of the time see nirvana as "somewhere else," at some "other time," even if that's a mistaken view.

And you reading this better check yourself before saying you don't because intellectual understanding is nice, but it ain't it.

The Tricycle blog has a link to a review of Stephen Batchelor's new book "Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist," which is followed by a few comments, including this by a reader named Monica:

Buddhism is not about faith. At best, it is about the benefit of the doubt. Did not the Buddha tell us to test, try, and seek to understand through our own experience? Did he not warn us against believing anything someone (include him) tells us just because of who they are?

Even the Dalai Lama has stated that should science prove reincarnation a myth, that would be okay.

What is it with the word "faith" and convert Buddhists? Can't we learn to see it in a different light, seeing that it need not be the kind of faith of bowing down to an all powerful God in the sky? I have no issue with faith personally. For me, it's bound up in a radical trust in the functioning of Buddhist teachings, in meditation, and in the entire world itself.

Kyle, over at The Reformed Buddhist, attempts to address faith in a different manner in a recent post about the Kalama Sutra.

Some people say faith and belief are interchangeable, some people say that faith is trust based on confidence and some say belief is blind acceptance of a concept or proposition based is true with or without direct evidence. Whatever definitions we all choice to accept, I think it is the two rather opposing premises that are of interest:

Following a path because we see or know some truth in it, so we keep following it because we have some trust the next step will bare some truth that we can witness.

Following a path because someone or some book or some cultural inclinations tells us it is true, without any upfront direct experience or personal knowledge of the proposition.

Though I think these two descriptions are of the extreme's, in Buddhism, this always brings up that sutra that is debated over and over again, the Kalama Sutra. Barbara writes:

"Why does this understanding of "faith" not work with Buddhism? As recorded in the Kalama Sutta, the historical Buddha taught us not to accept even his teachings uncritically, but to apply our own experience and reason to determine for ourselves what is true and and what isn't. This is not "faith" as the word is commonly used."

Now as I understand it, the Kalama's were skeptics, confused by all the different religions and faiths being proclaimed by the myriads of wondering guru's, sages and various other "holy" men of the time. The Buddha, seemingly the first of these endless stream of wise men, offered up a teaching to the Kalama's that one should not accept a tradition or a teaching just because someone says it is true, or because others follow it, but only when it abides to ones good judgment and sound sensibilities through experience and reason, that they accept it and follow it through, with an open and pure heart.

Does anyone else feel like the lines about not trusting legends, scriptures, etc. from the Kalama Sutra are played out? They seem over quoted in some circles to the point of feeling like a crutch, even if they are ultimately true. In fact, one might argue that a lot of convert Buddhists have placed faith in these lines, running their practice from them as a basis.

Oh, and then there's Barbara's comment about "applying experience and reason," which it definitely helpful for dealing with many everyday activities, but doesn't really encompass the whole of our practice very well. Reason sure as hell fails me often, and past experience only goes so far as well. Maybe she's pointing to something else with the word "experience," but somehow having it paired with reason makes me think not. Anybody out there ever "break a koan" using reason and/or past experience? Drop me a line if you have because that doesn't seem to fit with what I've seen and heard.

I guess that ultimately, faith, reason, and even experience feel like red herrings to me. Fixing yourself to any of these is just another attachment. Faith, reason, and experience are made up of non-faith, non-reason, and non-experience elements. That's why we can call them "faith," "reason," and "experience." There's really no way to be rid of any of these elements anywhere. Even the most devout Christian, steeped thoroughly in faith, still also displays both a reliance on reason and also experience to some degree. And even the most "rational" Buddhist, like Mr. Batchelor, relies on faith, even if it's a faith in reason, science, and empirical methods.

The faith/reason divide is thus, as I see it, a creation of the human mind. To the degree that focusing on facets of this story helps us become more compassionate, awake people, I support it. But beyond that, it's just intellectual ball tossing, theorizing and speculation that ultimately doesn't really apply to our practice.

Social Dukkha and Buddhist Practice

My new post over at Life as a Human addresses the concept of "social dukkha," and how I see it as essential that our practice is not only individual in frame, but contemplates, considers, and sometimes confronts social issues that impact individuals and collectives. Here's a few paragraphs:

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

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

For more, check out the link provided.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Where are All the Young People Again

Having brought up the issue of a lack of young adults in North American Buddhism several times over the past few months, it was a pleasure to see the issue come up somewhere else. Jiryu over at No Zen in the West took up the issue in a current post:

It would be one thing if Buddhism seemed esoteric or fringe (come to think of it, that would probably help), but part of what gets me is that Buddhism is everywhere. It’s penetrating the culture, the language. Basic knowledge of the Dharma, and contact or experience with meditation, seems more widespread among young people now then fifteen years ago when I was first in college. I visited my old college a couple of years ago to lead some meditation, and I was surprised how many people had “sat once or twice” or at least knew someone who did. People even knew who Nagarjuna was! But why doesn’t that translate into young people commiting? Is it because the Dharma can’t tweet? (Apologies to you Dharma tweeters…) Or has the fact of the Dharma having a place in the mainstream blown the mystique, leaving us exposed as just another group of people trying to do right by some Lord?

One friend has wondered if younger people are more anxious about money and making it then even the whatever-we-ares between the Gen Xs and Ys. Less willing to break away, to adventure and take risks. Is that true?

I have written a lot about issues of classism and racism, and how the frequent lack of focus on these in dharma centers not only is a concern, but also a way in which they get replicated within the sanghas themselves. We cannot escape from the troubles of our society - they slip in the door with each of us, and are begging to be paid attention to more closely.

Commitment is an interesting word, isn't it? I sometimes wonder if we're all on a different page with this word, but believe we think the same about it. What does commitment look like for a young adult? For a married mother? For a single retired person? For a wealthy practitioner who doesn't have to work? People love to point to the practice as being the same for everyone, but that's trapped in emptiness my friends. In the everyday, relative world, each of the practitioners above will have slightly, and maybe greatly differing practices (in form). One might sit long retreats, be a monastic in training, and rise up the leadership ladder. Another might chant for five minutes in the morning before the child wake up crying and everything turns to chaos. Notice that privilege plays a role here, which doesn't mean that those who are privileged shouldn't make the effort to dive into meditation and dharma study, but it would be greatly flawed to tell everyone they have to do the same thing all the time.

Maybe this was one of the weaknesses of those wonderful teachers who brought the dharma to North America. Not seeing and/or questioning the economic and social disparities present in these countries that have such vast wealth and ease present on the surface. And maybe the same might be said of teachers going back centuries in Japan, Korea, China, Tibet, and other nations. As the hierarchies developed, and teachings and approaches became established as the way, questions about socio-economic disparities hindering people from gaining access to, and/or developing their spiritual lives were set off to the side. I don't have a list of evidence for this, but I can imagine it has happened at least some of time. The U.S. and Canada can't be unique in that way.

Here is an interesting take from another Jiryu in the comments section:

At 31, I’m generally considered the baby in the room. I practice at the Village Zendo, which is overwhelmingly folks in their 50s. When people around here ask “where are the young people?”, they all seem to be looking at me.

I know two places that attract young folks. First is Tenshin Roshi’s gritty monastery, Yokoji Zen Mountain Center in SoCal. It had a lot of young men when I lived there. It doesn’t surprise me that Daigan, above, says that the other monasteries have young folks, too. I propose that young folks are largely interested in monastic Zen or nothing at all. The relaxed, community-oriented Zen of lay sanghas has trouble holding us.

But second, Ethan Nichtern’s Interdependence Project here in lower Manhattan is succeeding. Look at Ethan to see what the rest of the sanghas are missing. It may not be that hard: start with a core group of young leaders, write some blogs, teach the dharma in an college-style curriculum with texts and a clear sequence of intellectual learning. But don’t neglect meditation. Get out into the streets regularly to meditate in public. Take action: tutor ex-prisoners, work in soup kitchens. Take a political stand and include local politicians in your meetings.

Now that I write this, it seems brainlessly obvious what young folks want in a dharma center. So: Why do the middle-aged lament the lack of young people, without being able to implement the obvious next steps?

I disagree about the proposed split between monastic training and more community oriented centers. Young adults want community as much as anyone. We long for people to talk to, share with our spiritual lives, as well as just our everyday experiences. I also know that many of us long for a healthier, more grounded social engagement and activism, driven less by rage and burnout, and more by patience, kindness, and intelligent creativeness. You can't do it alone, just as you really can't raise a child alone, or make a business run alone. Even those who do it alone for the most part, get help from somewhere at sometimes. Spiritual communities can lift some of the burden in all of this, and help each of us create space, lightness, and joy within our current work. But that only happens when people feel like they have a sense of home in a community. If that's not there, the rest won't come.

The other reason I disagree about the proposed split for young people is that, despite it's current lack of young adults, I love my zen center. The support I have received from countless people there has been wonderful, and the dedication to the dharma I experience has been invaluable. I'm not sure where I would be without these years I've spent in my sangha. That's why I'm so passionate about all this because more of us could have that experience, and I truly think the multi-generational model is where it's at - we need each other to stay fresh and light, but also stay grounded and patient.

One more point from the comments above. I'd argue that the college-style dharma course appeals wonderfully to us college educated types, but really doesn't do much for the plumber down the street, or the restaurant manager up the road. So, that's another place to take a look at because that 20 something struggling in a low wage job, trying to figure out what to do to make his or her's life less hectic might love to experience Buddha's teachings too!

Finally, here's a comment from Will Sherwin, who spent time in the San Francisco Zen Center system:

I felt there was a lot of untapped wisdom and energy in the young people who were already involved in SFZC.

It also goes back to the hierarchy issue. If you have to wait 20 years to get a voice and power in the community than there aren’t going to be any young people with voice and power and that is not that appealing to many young people.

This is a tough issue. Calls for empowering younger people can bump up hard against issues like dharma transmission and legitimacy. Is it watering down to develop lay leaders who are younger, and don't have 20, 30, 40 years of experience? What happens when the Boomers, who make up the bulk of dharma teachers in North America, die off? How do we maintain the integrity of the dharma, while also developing a more diverse leadership?

Big questions. I'm always full of big questions it seems. I suppose that's enough for you all to chew on for now. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Not Dismissing Anything

Another warm, sunny afternoon here in Minnesota; spring is cracking through every remaining pile of snow and ice as far as the eye can see. I was out walking in a park with some friends, enjoying the sight of people in sweatshirts passing the remaining cross-country skiers. Convergence of seasons; overlapping images. The squawking of crows craning from atop bare branches.

Even though there is half a foot of snow on the ground in some places, we still stumbled upon a fresh patch of creeping charlie - everyone's second favorite lawn nemesis after my beloved medicinal dandelions. Tucked beneath an old oak tree, the sight of this perennial weed made me smile. There's no way to know just exactly where new life will appear, nor anyway to know what will come of the seeds planted in the past. Every bird that snacked the previous summer, and dropped crumbs as it flew off, added to this. Every inch of rain, inch of snow, shining hour of sunlight added to this. Every cloud; every human that ignored this place also added to this appearance.

It's so easy to dismiss something like early spring weeds as "not interesting," or of "no concern," and yet they are reminders to each of us about our own cycles of life. And they are, in themselves, tiny, green buddhas containing the entire universe. Actually, I prefer the word "multiverse," which I first heard years ago from a Native American man being interviewed about his spiritual life.

Apparently, the term itself was coined by the American philosopher William James, but I don't recall ever making that connection when I read his works. A more likely connection, though, would be the science fiction I was stepped in during my late teens and early twenties - especially the novel The Coming of the Quantum Cats by Frederick Pohl.

Here's a plot summary from Wikipedia:

The novel hinges around invasions from alternate Earths in alternate universes. None of these universes are quite like our universe; however, they all have some element or other in common, many of which Pohl develops to satiric effect.

* In one universe Nancy Reagan is the President of the United States and her mostly-disregarded husband Ronald is known as "The First Gentleman". John F. Kennedy is a Senator from Massachusetts who is married to a woman called Marilyn.
* In another universe, America's political spectrum has shifted far to the right, and Ronald Reagan is regarded as dangerously left-wing.
* In the past of some of the worlds, the young revolutionary Joseph Dzhugashvili (not known in these worlds as Stalin) had escaped from Russia to America in the 1900s, taking with him the proceeds of a bank robbery conducted on behalf of the Bolsheviks and using the money to set himself up as a big American capitalist.

The book presents multiple versions of three characters -- Dominic DeSota, Nyla Christophe, and Larry Douglas -- and their interactions as different versions of the characters travel from one Earth to another. Dominic DeSota is the main character, with most of the book told from the divergent viewpoints of three of his avatars (see following), with brief glimpses of numerous additional Dominic DeSotas scattered throughout the novel as anything between a nuclear scientist and a hunter scrabbling for bare existence in the ruins left after a nuclear holocaust.

I remember loving how these characters ran into alternate versions of themselves, and also how their alternate selves frequently appeared together, but never making the connection between each other. Beyond the wonderful speculative quality of the story, it also seems to be a mirror onto our lives. How, you might be asking? Well, first of all, you could view the many Dominics, for example, as comprising the impermanent, shape shifting "thing" we call our self. However, on a larger scale, the way in which tiny shifts in events in any of the different worlds of the book have an impact on all of the others. No action is a throw away action; sounds a lot like the law of karma, doesn't it?

The seeming insignificance of a patch of creeping charlie discovered in early March can be placed into great perspective here. If any of the causes and conditions had been changed, there might have been no creeping charlie in that spot. And thus no smile from me, which then flowed to my friends. This is a small example, but it points to the importance of not dismissing anything. Because every time we do, we are failing to see our own precious life.

Image from Cosmos Magazine

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Grasping Ice

In Chapter 19 of the Diamond Sutra, Buddha says to Subhuti: "the past mind cannot be grasped, neither can the present mind or the future mind."

Thich Nhat Hanh, in his commentary, follows up on this line with a question:

"How can we have as true understanding of the mind if we keep going after different psychological phenomena trying to grasp them?"

Take a look at the photo above. It was taken a few weeks ago along the Mississippi River. Isn't that how your mind works much of the time? You imagine there is something solid you need to get a fix on, and so your thoughts spin around and around like the ducks around that slab of ice. Perhaps, there comes a time when you step onto the ice, or even take a hold of it with your hands, or some other part of your body. But no matter what you do, the ice isn't going to be here long. It's already melting, and soon will return completely to the water. In fact, before it was melting, it had been growing, thickening to become a slab of ice. Yet, never did it leave the river, even if one of those ducks ingested a piece of it and then flew off into a field.

So much effort put into trying to confirm a separation that isn't there. Even when we believe intellectually that everything is interdependent, how often do each of us still act like a cold duck, reaching for that slab of ice as if it were the thing that will hold us up, and keep us from drowning?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Passive-Aggressive Buddhist Moralists

For some reason, I'm enjoying engaging the posts over at Gniz's blog about Brad Warner's blog. (Ha! That's a mouthful, isn't it?) Anyway, I wrote the following comment on Gniz's post yesterday, and then returned today to find myself lumped in a group entitled "passive-aggressive Buddhist moralists" in Gniz's current post. Mind you, he didn't call me out personally, but you read what I said below, and then Gniz's post, you'll find I fit in pretty nicely.

without sustained, deep attention to the precepts or other ethical teachings of Buddhism, meditation practice probably won't do anything in terms of kindness, compassion, and beneficial action.

We have to make the effort to pay attention to moral/ethical issues - to pay attention to how we interact with others and the impact those interactions might have. I see a lot of bitching and moaning online about this and that - Warner's comments section is a veritable dukkha train in itself - and seeing all that, I have to wonder how many of these people just meditate, and really have little interest in the ethical teachings.

Ok, so I'll admit it - I think the ethical teachings are important. Very important. Gniz has the opposite view:

See, this other moral code called the 10 commandments also hasn't made people behave any better over the last few thousand years. In fact, I'd say the success rate of the Ten Commandments is pretty abysmal. There's been all kinds of wars and killing and rapes and thievery by Christians, Buddhists, and just about any other group of humans you could name.

If trying to adhere to a strict moral code such as the precepts makes you feel better, great. I'm not going to tell you to stop adhering to them. But this insistence on the value of precepts is actually rather silly, in my opinion. I've been saying this for years. We've got plenty of examples of why and how the precepts simply don't work. In fact, on the whole they clearly don't make a bit of difference.

Morality and ethics are more a function of community than they are of religion. A list taped to your wall isn't going to make you a better person.

First of all, it seems to me that much of what Buddha taught had to do with community. What the hell point is there to awakening to this life if it has nothing to do with how you function in this world? If Buddha's goal was to teach a completely solitary path, he would have skipped the whole sangha part, and maybe the whole teaching part as well. He had that option, according to every version of his biographical story I have ever seen. Upon awakening, he thought "What now?" and wondered if going around talking to others would be fruitless. That he chose in the end to teach and have a community should say a lot about the direction and orientation of his teachings, all solitary cave dwelling monks aside.

The comparison Gniz makes between the Ten Commandments and the Buddhist precepts is a false one. The precepts are not black and white directives. They are supposed to be subtle guidelines that shake our attachments to wanting what we don't have, and not wanting what we do have. In addition, they are mindfulness trainings for our interactions with others, reminding us again and again to take another look at what we're doing, saying, and thinking about others and ourselves.

As for the precepts not working, and all the terrible, horrible examples of failures out there - well, how does anyone know for sure what it is that comes from "working"? Anyone who reads this blog knows that I am firmly in the camp of non-violence and have never supported any war in any place at any time. However, I also believe that any moment of beneficial, caring action that occurs within any setting is an awakening. If a solider is able to break through the us-them paradigm for even a single moment, that's a "working" in my opinion. It may be tiny, and surrounded by a ton of misery, but it's still there.

Here's another interesting section from Gniz's post:

Religious moralizing breeds arrogance. People that are very religious believe that they are somehow behaving better than everyone else, even though there is absolutely NO EVIDENCE to show that religious folk on average behave better than non-religious.

I totally agree with this. In fact, I know a fair number of people who are atheists and/or secular humanists who are doing just fine without religious codes. However, most of them would probably tell you that they are plenty interested in ethics, and reflect often on how to be a more ethical person in this life. If you don't believe me, pick up any humanist publication, read it thoroughly, and then try and tell me these people aren't deeply considering ethics. Good luck is all I have to say that one. Religions may highly promote the value of ethics, but the value of ethics is way beyond any religion.

Ultimately, although I disagree with much of Gniz's conclusions, I have to say this: he is right in that neither the precepts nor any other ethical teaching make anyone "a better person." None of these teachings are "out there" creating anything. They only function within our lives, moment by moment, to the extent that we engage them - otherwise, they are just lists taped to the wall.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Buddhism Doesn't Make You Nicer

Does Buddhism make you a nicer person? Gniz over at Reblogging Brad Warner thinks not. Citing his own experience, the many ugly scandals throughout the history of Buddhism, and the current wild west shoot out going on over at Brad Warner's blog, Gniz concludes that it's foolish to assume that our practice will make us behave better than anyone else.

Here's what I'd say are the central points of his post:

expecting Buddhists to behave better than Catholics or better than non-Buddhists is just silly, and clearly it's not the case. Why should it be, really? Let's just say that the practice of Zen makes us happier. Well, is it true that only unhappy people are assholes, act immorally, etc? Is everyone involved in war or criminal activities an "unhappy" person? I don't believe so. Not at all.

Morality has nothing to do with happiness.

Although I will agree that I tend to be nastier when I'm feeling unhappy and down, I'm not necessarily a model person when things are going well for me, either.

So my point is, there's almost nothing Zen or any kind of meditation can do to make us better people. Yes, you'll get practitioners TALKING about how much nicer, kinder, more tolerant they've become. But I'm not sure I buy it. Listen to Born Again Christians sometime. They'll tell you that Jesus did the same thing for them. Made them better, changed them.

And yet, from my POV, so many of these religious true-believers are just deluding themselves about how nice they've become, how compassionate they are, etc.

I'm inclined to agree (with some reservations) with Gniz's comparison between convert Buddhist self-assessment speech and that of born again Christians. There's definitely a segment of people who call themselves Buddhists who have simply placed the sheet of Buddhism over their crappy, old bed of the self. And even people who have practiced a long time, with deep sincerity, are still fooled some of the time by the languging they have adopted to describe their behavior. (I consider myself part of that second group.)In other words, you act a certain way, label it through a Buddhist frame, and then move on, failing to see the actual reality.

However, I do think people change. I've seen people in my sangha become more open, more outwardly caring about the basic details of life. I think I have changed too. Others would probably agree with me that I have changed. Not that I've become some saint, or anything, but I don't react and fixate on many things that arise in my life the way I did in the past.

In my opinion, Gniz's focus on niceness is actually a mistake. Being "nice" and behaving "better" aren't really helpful, nor are they really the drive of Buddhist practice. Take the paramitas, for example.

We Zen types tend to focus on the following six, but there are others, depending upon the school of Buddhism.

1. Dāna paramita: generosity

2. Śīla paramita: virtue, morality, discipline

3. Kṣānti (kshanti) paramita: patience, tolerance, forbearance

4. Vīrya paramita: energy, diligence, vigor, effort

5. Dhyāna paramita: one-pointed concentration, contemplation

6. Prajñā paramita: wisdom, insight

Neither being nice, nor happy - which Gniz and so many others have said is a main goal or outcome of Buddhist practice - are really focal points in the paramitas. And as far as behaving "better," based on what criteria? And who's judgment? A few weeks ago, I questioned the origin of a new requirement for us teachers and got half a dozen responses in return. Some felt I was being obstructive. Some thanked me for asking the question. One thought I was brave. Another seemed to be annoyed that the conversation was evening happening. The way I see it, speaking about "better or worse" is usually about narrating the surface of life, without any connection to the wisdom lurking beneath that surface.

Now, anyone ready to dismiss Gniz's questioning and doubts best be careful. I think he's pointing us towards the many ways in which we confuse the surface appearance of things for the whole of reality. I think it's very true that a person can emanate a certain amount of happiness and still commit horrible acts. I remember seeing a collection of photos recently of Nazis in their "off hours" having a wonderful time singing, dancing, and playing with their friends and family. The people captured in those photos did not fit the image most of us have of Nazis working in concentration camps, but there they were, offering a more complex view for anyone wishing to look. That's an extreme example, but think about your own life, how you probably have acted unskillfully at times even when you were happy. One might call this a happiness without wisdom.

Another thing I notice, though, about Gniz's commentary is a certain streak of perfectionism coming through. I don't think Buddhist practice is about being or becoming a "model person." That sounds a little too much like those good old Catholic saints that never touch the ground or take a shit after eating a meal. Again, what constitutes a "model person"? It seems to me to be just another construction to get fixated on.

Now that the snow is melting around here, I'm enjoying looking at the photos I took when there were piles of it. What's under that snow pile in the photo above? There's an easy answer, of course, but are you sure that's the only answer? Look closely. Be patient. Doing so won't make you nicer, but that probably wasn't your deepest intention anyway, was it?