Friday, April 30, 2010

The Illusion of Borders: Immigration Laws and Interconnectedness

Ah, immigration - sometimes I think it's the visual representation of nearly every major issue people face on this planet. I've tried to stay away from addressing the new law in Arizona that has lit up the United States over the past week. Why? I didn't want to go on and on about how miserable it is, how racist it is, how classist it is, etc. I can do so, but at this point, I don't know what such a display would do.

Maia over at Jizo Chronicles, has a good post about some of the ways in which this law goes against Buddhist teachings, and also a photo protest action being conducted by people on Facebook. I kind of like the photo protest idea, but wonder if it's worth targeting the Governor of Arizona. The issues are so much bigger than a single state, and I don't know if this particular governor is going to be persuaded by anything other than a firm shaking of the economy and by business leaders expressing their frustration. That's the sad state of things - human suffering will often only be addressed if it's tied to profits.

I did something this morning that I really dislike others doing to me - I interrupted a conversation two people were having at the coffee shop I am in. They were sitting right next to me, talking about the man's interest in moving to Arizona, when he broke out in a diatribe about how all the talk of racism in immigration policy is just a smokescreen for failing to address the "real" issue: corporate greed. That's a false dichotomy in my book. These two things are completely intertwined, and as the guy went on about how the level of immigration is unsustainable and whatnot, I found myself growing tense.

After twelve years working in immigrant communities here in the Twin Cities, I've heard it all when it comes to the politics and perceptions of immigrants and immigration. There is tons of ignorance, even amongst people who are sympathetic to newcomers. It's really difficult to remain patient in the middle of all the bullshit being spewed out there.

Anyway, I found myself saying to this guy "Will you ever, ever be asked for your papers in Arizona?" You can guess he was, like myself, a white male. He looked at me, rather pissed off, and said "I'm not getting into this with you!" And I shot right back "You're the one that brought up this hot button issue in a public place!" To which he replied, "I didn't ask you anything. I'm having a conversation with my friend!" A few more rounds were exchanged, but mostly, after he reminded me of my crossing over the line (it's always about crossing the line somehow, isn't it?), I backed off.

The kicker of it all is that a less than a minute after I disengaged he said to his friend "I know racism is part of this." And then a few minutes later, he spoke of his plan to attend the dharma talk at my zen center this Sunday (Reb Anderson Roshi is in town.) It seemed to point to just interconnected we all are, and how foolish it is to be erecting barriers, internally or externally, in an attempt to keep others out. I'm still not sure what a skillful response is to the Arizona law, or to the myriad of injustices in immigration policies all over the globe - (anyone following the British elections will know that immigration policy is a big issue, and the British Nationalist Party, while having virtually no chance of getting elected, has had little trouble getting it's racist, anti-immigrant agenda into the media.). However, I do know that all this fighting over land, borders, and "rightful" ownership speaks painfully to how little we are able to trust other, and how easy it is to hate those who are different from you.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Power Abuse in Spiritual Communities

If you flip over any half dozen rocks out there in the spiritual world, you'll find a scandal. Yes, the Catholic Church has been the major player in recent years, but no one seems immune, and clearly the plethora of problems shows just how challenging it is for humans to handle power in a healthy way.

Over at Integral Options Cafe this morning was a reprinted article that is in process for an upcoming issue of Tikkun magazine. (Tikkun is an excellent mag by the way for those interested in reading articles spanning across religious traditions.) The post this morning had to do with the on-going, unresolved abuse allegations which center around Andrew Cohen and the Integral/Evolutionary Enlightenment crowd. Among those linked with this group are well known teachers Genpo Roshi and Ken Wilber, which is why there seems to be a fair amount of attention (in the blogosphere anyway) being paid to this scandal.

What's so interesting in my view is how the same kinds of issues keep getting played out in such diverse spiritual communities. Money, sex, and power abuses almost always seem to be linked in some form or another - it's almost as if these three are the holy trinity of a spiritual community gone bad. We've seen it in the Catholic Church, in evangelical mega churches, in New Age groups, and even in Buddhist communities.

My own sangha got a taste of all this several years ago, and it's still, in some ways, recovering. Just as you can see with the scandals in these other communities, our sangha split into factions. There were ardent supporters of the former teacher who left the community to join him. There were those who were stunned by the whole thing and dropped out of Zen all together. Others strongly condemned the teacher's actions, but wanted reconciliation. And still others condemned the teacher completely, and wanted nothing to do with him again.

Much of it was left unresolved. There were efforts on both ends towards some kind of reconciliation, but ultimately the sangha moved on, and the former teacher moved on. It was kind of like the way a cracked romantic relationship ends: neither side has owned completely their part in the destruction yet, but both realize it's time to stop adding to the misery. Often, this comes after false departures and returns, or demands of departure from one party that are agreed to by the other party.

One of the challenges I have seen, not only in my own sanghas' case, but also in reading accounts of what has happened in other places, is knowing what actually has happened. Emotions get so riled up, and stories spill from the actual truth to a felt truth which has some validity, but makes sorting out what happened really challenging. This sadly makes it that much harder to pin down abusers because they can easily speak to the over-inflated parts of people's stories, and minimize and deny the rest.

Furthermore, many of us, whether in the middle of such situations, or outside of them, fail to see how the distorted social environment itself plays into both the actual abuse, as well as our perceptions of abuse. You know something isn't right, and because of that awareness your radar is heightened to the point where most everything feels like a mechanism of abuse. To this day, I honestly don't know for sure how much of what I heard in my community was a true account of events, and how much was colored by the pressure of the environment we had been practicing in together. Whatever happened though, what is clear to me is that the social environment of our sangha had spun off center, making healthy spiritual practice impossible.

I'm really trying to refrain from simply pointing the finger at our former teacher and calling him out as a bad guy. Why? Because that's what we humans always do. We point at those with the most power, say they're "evil" or "responsible," and then dig in our heels. And either these people go on abusing their power, like former U.S. President Bush and his buddies did, or we get rid of them, and another comes along at some point to replace them.

I firmly believe that those in power positions have a heightened sense of responsibility in situations. When things go wrong, and they have been at the center of those things, it's theirs to own, no matter what others involved contributed.

At the same time, if we simply stop at holding the leaders accountable, we never get at the roots of power abuse in the first place. And if the work of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo taught us anything, the social environment in any given situation has as much, and probably more, power than any individual within that situation.

In Zimbardo's famous experiment, which was originally designed to be a simulated prison situation, the following occurred:

The experiment quickly grew out of hand. Prisoners suffered — and accepted — sadistic and humiliating treatment from the guards. The high level of stress progressively led them from rebellion to inhibition.

Before we go on, I highly recommend Scott Edelstein's Sex and the Spiritual Teacher. It's a great primer on understanding these issues, and how to take steps to prevent them.

What happened in the prison experiment sounds a bit like what Andrew Cohen and others are being accused of. However, both cases are more extreme than the average. I'm convinced much less actual abuse can occur in a given situation, and still can lead to lots of distorted behavior and emotional states coming from those involved. Once the line between healthy use of power and unhealthy use of power is crossed enough times, the perceived possibility of more abuse often is the most powerful element.

If we are really serious about diminishing the amount of abuse in spiritual communities, and actually developing and/or maintaining healthy power structures and dynamics, then we must move beyond blaming leaders and seeing their removal and/or downfall as the end of the problem. Even if we could hold every last abusive leader, spiritual, political, financial, etc. responsible for their actions, we wouldn't be rid of the roots that will bring the next power scandal. I'm all for holding people accountable, but until we come to grips with the power of social environments, and group dynamics, there will continue to be plenty more miserable abuse stories in the future.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Dharma of Conserving Your Life

This is a post for all of us 21st century digital boys and girls! Katie, over at her blog Kloncke, has a knack for raising up life issues, and then pointing out things the regular commentaries miss. So refreshing!

Today, she takes up a new book by Soren Gordhamer entitled "Wisdom 2.0." Although skeptical of it's self-help feel, Katie digs in anyway and finds actual wisdom within. In addition, she's not afraid to challenge the book, such as here:

The snappy magazine tone isn’t my favorite — partly because it tends to veer into upper-class magazine generalizations, where the only external causes for stress are cranky co-workers and long lines at Starbucks, rather than, you know, institutional racism.

What's funny is that I felt something akin to this last weekend, during a talk and question/answer period at my zen center. The talk was on, among other things, the difference between waiting and patience, which Katie speaks about in her post as well. I enjoyed the talk, but found myself at a loss when the same tired examples came up about impatience while driving, or waiting for the computer to download something or whatever. It says a lot about how tied to these technologies many of our lives have become. And it also speaks to the failure of the "everyday dharma" approach to speak about the ways the teachings can be applied to the deep-seated injustices that some of us experience everyday, due to race, class, disability, sexual orientation or other cultural marker.

All of this plays out everyday in the world, both in the flesh, and online. We need not leave anything out, be it social injustice, traffic jams, or even the following:

That’s another thing: this book is reminding me that waiting can be pleasurable! Waiting for photos to upload, waiting for a page to refresh, waiting for a wireless connection to come through…simply by reworking my own mind, I experience them as moments of rest and alert relaxation, not impatience and weird greedy hypnosis.

How often does something terribly mundane, like slow wireless, cause a tornado to appear within you?

Seems silly to waste so much energy on something barely tangible, and yet we do. And that makes dealing with the more challenging things in life, like the death of a parent, being turned down for a loan because your credit "isn't good enough" (i.e. the bank doesn't lend to people of color), or loosing your lifelong career that much more difficult. Part of what Katie, and Mr. Gordhamer are pointing to is energy conservation. The conversation of your life.

I've heard teachers speak and write about many of us being leaky vessels. We go about our life wasting the precious energy we have been given on the wrong things, or on the right things in the wrong way. And then, when the challenging stuff appears, we wonder why we can't handle it, and are tossed away into rage and blame and sadness and all sorts of sloppy behaviors.

So, I think all the "green" metaphors floating around out there that have to do with a healthy planet, are also available to us for application on ourselves. Certainly it makes sense to conserve one's energy. It also can make sense to recycle old skills, thought patterns, and ways of being into something slightly or vastly different, but made of the same "stuff." We'd also do well to reuse that which we thought was only applicable to a certain job, relationship, or situation.

I have long been of the opinion that you can discover wisdom anywhere, even in junky self help book filled with cliches and soft platitudes. Now, maybe it's better not to wade through hundreds of these books, or go out clubbing every night seeking the wisdom of the barroom or dance floor, but simply being open to such possibilities means that if one of these lands in your lap, you'll be ready. This, too, is how you conserve your life - every lessening of resistance to what's happening now is a way of not leaking away the life you have.

Monday, April 26, 2010

What's Feeds Your Spirit?

Our old friend Marcus, who used to have his own blog, is now part of a cool, new group blog, Wake Up and Laugh!. This morning's post, by Chong Go Sumin, is worth quoting in whole:

The great Korean Buddhist teacher Hanam Sunim (1876-1951) once said that the things we do in our lives either brighten our minds, or darken them. (He said that there’s really no neutral ground, just effects that are too subtle for us to notice.)

I thought of this the other day, when I came across this great line :

Another washing machine, a bigger car, a nicer house to live in? Not much to feed the spirit in all that. (Bangkok Tattoo, 179)

So here’s an open question for everyone: What feeds your spirit?

I suppose some out there might squabble with the word "spirit" - ok, check. Now, move on and reflect on the question.

Here's a short list for myself.

1. Gardening, even the "tedious" parts like weeding.

2. Researching and learning new things.

3. Breathing fresh air.

4. Conversation and time with loved ones.

5. Writing and art.

6. Hiking.

7. Bodies of water.

8. Watching squirrels, cats, and other "wild" animals.

9. Outdoor meditation

How about you?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Beauty of Deception

Arthur Davies, "Sleep Lies Perfect in Them," 1908.

I have long had a penchant for somewhat obscure painters from the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. The social upheaval of those times seems even more dramatic in many ways than what we are experiencing today, so the art from those times speaks to me both of that time and of our own. In addition, it seems that pressured, difficult times bring forth timeless human qualities in a vividness rarely found when life is "going easier."

While working at the currently in transition Minnesota Museum of American Art, I came across a book about Arthur Davies that I ended up buying because there wasn't much else out there about him. Among other things, he was a major player in bringing the works of Picasso, Kandinsky, Duchamp, and other European moderns into the U.S. during the 1913 Armory Show, an exhibit that changed the direction of the American art world.

The interesting thing is that, unlike the rest of the group he associated with, The Ashcan School, Arthur Davies did not attempt to paint the ragged, working class city life that had sprung up around him. His paintings were often decidedly otherworldly, as if, like in the image above, what was going on in the world was entirely divorced from what came through his paintbrush.

Indeed, his personal life was a series of relationships with women who were deliberately kept apart from each other. Painting models, patrons, confidants, and lovers - the line between these seemed to blur constantly for Davies, even as he was also able to, somehow, maintain two marriages with children for the final 25 years of his life with almost no one knowing. I can't imagine the amount of energy he wasted keeping this elaborate set of lies together, but I think his paintings are not only beautiful, but instructive to all of us in terms of the ways in which the mind creates divisions, and then tries to maintain them.

The year Davies painted "Sleep Lies Perfect in Them," 1908, was pivot point in his artistic career. As a member of The Eight, his work was part of an exhibit that shook up the New York art scene at the time, and laid the ground for the Armory Show, and the entry of the avant-garde, a few years later. In the meantime, Davies had settled in with his second wife, under an assumed name, and had already met Lizzie Bliss, who not only became a frequent purchaser of his art, but also became a trusted friend, art and business adviser, and possibly more. So, when you look at his life at the time of this painting, it's become the mixture of success and secrecy that followed Davies to the grave.

Deception has many qualities, and among them, elaborate tales certainly is a hallmark feature. So, too, is a sense of being asleep to the truth of a situation, whether you just don't know any better, or you deliberately ignore everything occurring around you. Davies definitely isn't the first artist to create an alternate reality in his art; one could argue that all art is, to some degree or another, a series of alternate realities. However, what's so striking about the art of Arthur Davies is how little they give us a hint of either the turmoil of the times, or the psychological and actual turmoil of his personal life. Filled with young, beautiful women, perfected landscapes, and sensuous colors, Davies' paintings seem almost completely unscathed, as if he was able to channel the paranoid, guilt ridden tenor of his life into a collection of visual dreamscapes beckoning us to come and rest in.

Maybe this is the most instructive thing about Davies' artwork: when you live a life that fails to place truth at the center, you end up needing an elaborate place to rest in. This is why I both love what Arthur Davies created during his artistic life, and also find profoundly sad at the same time. The beauty that can come from deception can never be divorced from the real life consequences of the lies themselves. Richard over at My Buddha is Pink has an interesting post examining lying and contemplating if it's possible to skillfully lie. He's not sure; I do think some situations call for not telling the literal truth, such as has been seen during holocausts where people lie about the location of others to protect them from being murdered. However, when I at most of the lying I have done in my own life, or have seen in others, I have to conclude that it's usually selfish, and not beneficial to anyone involved.

So, the beauty of the image above is really that it can offer us both a respite from our struggles, and also a mirror to see the true nature of our struggles in.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Complicating Liberation Narratives

Richard over at My Buddha is Pink rightly took me to task for a post I made earlier this week about liberating fish. In his current post, he goes into detail about the many unskillful ways in which people try and "liberate" animals. I'm in total agreement with him, even though I still think there are ways to go about freeing trapped, endangered animals without creating more damage than was already occurring.

The beginning of Richard's post introduces his response to mine, and then takes up the fish liberation that was described on Tsem Tulku Rinpoche's blog. He writes:

The gist of the situation is live fish are kept at a market to be sold as food. A group purchases the fish, then takes the fish to a freshwater lake (the fish are freshwater fish) where the fish are released into that lake. The group’s presumption is that it has liberated the fish, alleviating suffering for those fish, and that the fish appreciate this action. Everyone feels good, take pictures, then goes home.

In his lesson to Rahula at Mango Stone, the Buddha told his son that a skillful person is fully aware of the potential consequences of his or her actions. This awareness is achieved through constant reflection on one’s actions prior to their commission, during their commission, and after they have been committed. The Buddha instructs that, while it may appear that an intended act is skillful prior to its occurrence, circumstances may arise during that action in which it becomes clear that the act is in reality unskillful, that it brings harm to self, to others, or to both self and others. Nonetheless, while completing the act, red flags may not be observed, and the act continues to appear skillful. But we must not stop there, as the Buddha guides us to evaluate our actions post commission and observe the consequences. Because it may be later revealed that there were unforeseen harmful consequences and what was initially believed to be skillful action was, in fact, unskillful and should not be committed again.

In the relevant situation, freshwater fish are being released into a freshwater lake. However, the presumption that this is suitable is a huge leap of logic that may ultimately be found to be incorrect. Does the lake have a suitable food source for the fish? Does the lake already play home to the same species of fish? Can the lake’s ecosystem sustain the sudden introduction of more individuals into that environment? Because the lake has a limited food supply, and yet a greater number of individuals dependent on that food supply are suddenly introduced into that environment, what’s the impact? And are their other species in that lake that prior to this release activity had no predator to worry about? Is the new fish introduced into the lake a predator the other life form previously did not need to worry about? Maybe the fish that were released are “happy” and liberated, but what about the other life forms in that lake? Has this action created suffering that previously did not exist?

As a gardener in a region filled with buckthorn, it's been interesting to watch the evolution of my own thinking. I remember years ago, when I was first learning about herbalism, thinking that buckthorn was beneficial because it had medicinal qualities. I didn't want to remove the tough, sharp bushes from my garden, nor did I feel compelled to help others do the same. It felt too much like the way people foolishly treat dandelions, which are both a beneficial medicine and simply beautiful. Sure, they are also everywhere, and in need of some control, but certainly not to the extent of the carpet bombing and hatred many respond to them today.

Interestingly enough though, both dandelions and buckthorn were brought into North America by European settlers. And like those settlers, both of these have taken over, and in the case of buckthorn, taken over in a decidedly oppressive way. There are so many parallels between the destruction of indigenous cultures and the ecological changes that came to the American land; maybe I'll write a whole post on that sometime. Anyway, here are several reasons why buckthorn, which was introduced to the Minnesota landscape innocently enough in the mid to late 19th century, is trouble:

* Out-competes native plants for nutrients, light, and moisture
* Degrades wildlife habitat
* Threatens the future of forests, wetlands, prairies, and other natural habitats
* Contributes to erosion by shading out other plants that grow on the forest floor
* Serves as host to other pests, such as crown rust fungus and soybean aphid
* Forms an impenetrable layer of vegetation
* Lacks "natural controls" like insects or disease that would curb its growth

Certainly, none of this was on the minds of those people who brought this sharp-toothed bush to the state. These people had no thought of all the hours I and countless others would later spend digging up deep-seated roots and getting spiked by lanky branches; they just wanted a nice hedge around their yards. The same can be said of people who free animals into unsuitable environments, creating more misery than was present beforehand. They want to do the right thing, but the situation is more complicated than they realized.

Part of the reason I felt compelled to make the original post in support of the efforts of Rinpoche's group is that I think, too often, we get caught up in all the messy details of our complicated lives, and fail to act at all until it's too late. I'm certainly guilty of over-thinking, and over-analyzing things, wanting to understand all possible angles. It's easy to see how the desire to liberate animals or plants could be completely sidetracked by analysis and meta-analysis of every last possible impact such actions might have in the future. This is why, sometimes, I simply applaud people who are "just doing something," and try not to analyze too much.

Sitting here now, what I'm seeing from both the action done by Rinpoche's group, as well as the comments made by Richard, is a call for balance. We have to reflect on the possible consequences of our actions, or else we simply end up creating more misery. And sometimes we must act, knowing that we'll never have all the answers. Leaning to heavily towards either action or analysis is simply hanging out in a comfort zone, and failing to be fully engaged in your life.

Friday, April 23, 2010

You Can't Save the Planet, People!

After the short Earth Day post I made yesterday, I came across this essay, which tracks some of the history of Earth Day and the all too easy slide it has made into "green consumerism" as world savior approach. This isn't a happy piece of writing, but let's face it, neither is it a happy thing what we've collectively been doing to the planet.

Here is a particularly provocative paragraph to chew on:

Today, right-wing pundits depict environmentalism as an elite hobby that threatens jobs, while many progressive environmentalists cite the potential for “green jobs” to help reignite economic growth. Both views are sorely missing a central element of what has made environmentalism such a compelling counter-hegemonic worldview ever since the 1970s: the promise that reorienting societies toward a renewed harmony with nature can help spur a revolutionary transformation of our world.

I've long found the argument that technology will save us a tired, doomed to failure view. No amount of wind turbines, "green fuels," or "flex" vehicles will make a major dent in the damage being done. Certainly, some of this stuff provides some benefit, but without a completely different individual and collective mindset shift, it all amounts to whipped cream covering a decidedly bad tasting cake.

This morning, I ran across this commentary by Nella Lou over at Smiling Buddha Cabaret that addresses some of the deep structures that need to change in order for radical environmental action to truly occur. I'm not sure I agree with every last point Nella Lou makes, but I think much of what she says is pointing in the right direction.

Here's an introduction to what she addresses in her post:

Thanks to openbuddha on Twitter, this link to an essay by Leo Babauta called society, reimagined came to my attention. Another person Everett Bogue: Putting Leo Babauta’s ‘Society, Reimagine’ Into Practice has taken up the thought as well.

Leo Babauta has given some provocative and interesting ideas for what society “could” be if we were to start from scratch or reimagine a few things.

I’d like to take up his thoughts and add a few of my own. Leo takes a few areas and outlines a little bit about them. Everett Bogue, a person on a minimalist mission of sorts, adds a couple more.

* The car, junked
* Schools, erased
* Sharing vs consumerism
* A digital world
* Health Care, reimagined, in practice.
* Agriculture, reimagined, in practice.

To these I would like to add such meta-categories as:

* Political structures
* Economic systems and structures
* Relational or marriage structures
* Religious structures
* Ecological considerations and nature

If we are going to reimagine society it needs to be at a structural level. Merely shifting around a few things and essentially maintaining much of the status quo will engender the same kinds of problems that now appear but in different arenas. And deep societal structure are intimately tied together.

So, what do I want to say? I guess I'm interested in the way people who call themselves "Buddhists" address, or don't address, these issues. What I find curious is how often people who are dedicated to examining how their minds work, and how their actions impact their relationships and the world around them, often shut down completely when it comes to social concerns like the environment. Or how they sit in dharma centers day after day, year after year, hearing lectures about interconnectedness and how we aren't isolated, solitary selves, and yet when it comes to social issues, it's every man or woman for themselves. "Green consumerism" seems to be enough for many people who say they are Buddhist. In fact, some argue that it's all any one of us can do, and politics and/or social action are no place for spiritual involvement or application. In other words, spiritual practice is separate from social engagement.

I've written about this a lot in the past. Probably have pontificated enough on it in fact. But it continues to baffle me how easy it is for people to minimize, deny, and blame others (to reference Foucault)for problems which they, by the very fact of being human, are complicit in to some degree.

This isn't to say that everything happening on Earth is a result of human misbehavior. Even though Global Warming deniers tend to go to hysterical lengths to make arguments that are basically designed to defend the greedy, sloth-like lifestyles that many of us have developed over the past 100 years or so, they still are right to point out that the planet is much more than the sum total of human action or inaction. One of the things I have learned from socially engaged Buddhist leaders like Thich Nhat Hanh is that those who you would hold as "enemies" also have truth in their stories. It might be deeply, deeply buried, but it's there, somewhere, and being open to finding it together is a road to peace.

At the same time, from a Buddhist perspective, it's beyond foolish to assume that human behavior has either no impact, or a minimal impact on the planet. The few times I've met or spoken with people who say they are Buddhist, and also view things like Global Warming as complete lies, I've found myself at a loss. One could say these people aren't Buddhists, or have no idea what Buddha really taught, and that might be true. But it's too easy of a dismissal, and doesn't help much in terms of addressing the much broader issues that come from the population of dharma folks that see their practice as an individual effort, and who think "going organic" is going to save the planet.

When you get down to it, a large part of the problem probably is tied to the idea of "saving the planet" itself. This mantra, the often unconsciously driving force behind "Green" activities, assumes a separation. It's like the misreading of the Bodhisattva vow to "Liberate all beings," where one thinks there are countless beings they must go out and free. The planet is a completely interdependent, dynamically functioning life of which we are embedded in. There's no way to step outside of it, at least at this point, in order to "do something" to "save" it. Why? Because "it" is always changing, always evolving, and thus any efforts we make to benefit "it" as a whole must be also in accord with what the earth is today, and not what we think it is.

Maybe all of this is terribly depressing. It might even sound like I'm suggesting that efforts are futile, like grains of sand running through your hands. Well, that's not my intent. In fact, it's not even my intent to suggest that activities such as recycling, building wind turbines, and eating organic food should be abandoned. They have their place in all of this. What I am suggesting is that Buddha's teachings are repeatedly pointing us back to those deep structures that lay behind our collective behaviors as humans, and by failing to address these structures both individually, and collectively, we are simply trying to put the cart before the horse.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day! Remember, You are Not Separate From All that Is

Happy Earth Day everyone! Yes, it's a symbolic holiday, but at least it's an annual reminder. Maybe we should say it everyday, to keep the consumeristic slugs inside each of our heads in check enough to have a healthy planet to live with in the future.

I have a new post that speaks a little to all of this over at Life as a Human. Being "right" with the earth is, in my view, both about what you do as an individual and also what we do collectively. In addition, in true Buddhist spirit, it all comes back to how we think about life on this little rock in space. The more we see how interdependent things are, the better in my view. Because from that understanding has, and will continue to spring the actions, or non-actions, needed to have a healthy planet for all beings.

Adam over at Home Brew Dharma also has a good post about sometime most of us privileged folks take for granted: water. All the privatization going on out there is biting us in the ass, and will only get worse if we keep selling off the rights and control of our water sources. Water and profit making shouldn't be mixed. (Yes, not hard hitting analysis, but if you need hard hitting analysis to understand this, you best get yourself a ladder because the hole you're living in is too deep for me to dig you out of.)

*photo above is looking out on Lake Superior.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Video Kills the Animal Stars

In an odd decision, that clearly shows how strong the disconnect between human suffering and animal suffering is for many in the United States, the Supreme Court struck down a ban on dog fighting videos and other video depicting acts of animal cruelty. It's odd to me, partly because the acts themselves are illegal across the nation. You can't conduct dog fights, but you can sell and purchase videos of them. Somehow, the second degree of separation here allows people to be more at ease with the misery of the dogs involved. They aren't in the room; they're on a screen. It reminds me of comments Howard Zinn repeated made about dropping bombs in World War II. Being in a plane thousands of feet above the ground dehumanized the human victims, and rendered their suffering invisible. And thoughts about tortured animals, destroyed landscapes and ecosystems only came much later, after the damage was done.

I was surprised to read that the sole dissenter on this case was Justice Alito. He's almost always been in agreement with Chief Justice Roberts, to the point of being forgettable.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented, saying the majority’s analysis was built on “fanciful hypotheticals” and would serve to protect “depraved entertainment.” He said it was implausible to suggest that Congress meant to ban depictions of hunting or that the practice amounted to animal cruelty.

Bows to Justice Alito on this one.

I have to say I'm reluctant to limit freedom of speech, which these videos fall under. And I've often said that hate groups, for example, shouldn't be silenced, but held continually accountable for their speech and actions. But dog fighting videos, and others like them, serve no purpose other than as entertainment as far as I'm concerned. And if the Supreme Court doesn't want to restrict them, they should overturn the laws against dog fighting and animal cruelty as well. At least they'd have some consistency in their message.

On a related note, Richard from My Buddha is Pink made some interesting observations on yesterday's post about liberating fish from slaughter. Definitely worth checking out.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Liberating Beings One Bucket at a Time

Here's a few paragraphs about an interesting practice from Tsem Tulku Rinpoche's community in Malaysia:

Once a month Kecharians (kechara members) and guests will put their money together and buy fish from the slaughter market to release. This month, they again purchased 150 kgs of fish, did prayers, blew mantras on to the fish and released them into a nearby large clean lake.

It was a wonderful spiritual and family event. This is arranged under the Kechara Care Dept headed by Liaison Su Ming.

It is something I started to create awareness for the sanctity of all life.

You can see the whole post, with more photos, at Rinpoche's blog.

Some might say this is just symbolic, but I bet those fish don't feel symbolic as they swim away. In any case, it's a great reminder that liberation is a shared experience - the fish need us and we need the fish.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Buddhist Blogosphere

Today, a round up of quality posts for your reading pleasure. First, check out my new post over at Life as a Human about Granny D and social action. Gotta love Granny D!

Next, here's a great post on gardening and intimacy by Genju at 108ZenBooks. Here is a snippet to wet your palate.

I find now a tiny book on my shelf that helps secure the relationship: Teachings of the Insentient by John Daido Loori.

In general, our ecology is based on separation. The teachings (of the Buddhadharma) are about intimacy.

Often when we take on these endeavors, I feel desperate to save things. Save the rose garden, the vegetable garden, the strawberries growing helter-skelter on the fringes of both. Pull every weed, sweep every shaving and dessicated leaf. Sometimes, I’m not sure if I’m saving the garden from damage or forcing a change so I don’t have to see or feel damage. I think in past years, this desperation has prevented intimacy and the reason is ridiculously obvious. Saviours require victims (usually) – a relationship that precludes true intimacy because it is one of power over another. Intimacy requires nothing other than a willingness to be with just what is.

Next is a follow up post Daishin made recently concerning right action and homeless folks. Her original post sparked one by me, which then sparked another by Adam over at Home Brew Dharma. The interconnectedness of the internet in full action.

If you want to study the monkey mind up close, especially that part of it which always wants to be right, step over to Brad Warner's recent post on zazen posture, and read the comments section. People often say "Oh, I have enough drama in my life. I don't need that." Well, maybe. But do you study that drama? Do you see it's roots? And if so, why the hell haven't you plucked them yet? :)

And finally, please check out John's post on ways to help those impacted by the recent earthquake in Tibet. I haven't written about it primarily because so many other Buddhist bloggers have done a good job covering what's going on. Metta to all those suffering over there, as well as to the people of Haiti, and of Chile, still recovering from their own quakes.

by Robert Lee / Mark Mcdevitt
Check out Methane Studios for more details.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Systems Change and Taking Care of Present Moment Conditions

Ever since I first read about him, I've always admired Bernie Glassman. Even if what he does isn't always on the mark (like the recent Vast Sky project with Ken Wilber and Genpo Roshi, which seems tainted by consumerism), he seems to readily engage in ways to merge spiritual practice and social justice work. Here is an excerpt from a recent interview with him:

My biggest interest is in bearing witness to the system. My reflection has been that people honor those who attend those hurt by the system, but we kill those who try to change the system. Many wonderful people, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahtma Ghandi were assassinated because they were changing the system. I think one can both bear witness to the people in front of you and to the system as whole. That is why I’m trying to promote social engagement throughout all of Buddhism. That is a systems change.

You don’t have to choose between meeting the needs of the people in front of you and changing the system. You do all of it. If you run into someone who is hungry, you feed them. It doesn’t prevent you from doing the job training and help get out of welfare, but it is critical to take care of issues that threaten people’s lives.

Some people get upset when they observe how much going is on. They ask, ’how can I do it all? I only have two hands!’. I ask ’what is the best thing I can do now?’ When Kannon makes the Boddhisatva vow of saving all beings, Kannon breaks into tons of pieces. If you think of only what you have, you could think of all kinds of reasons for not doing things. But if you think of the whole world as you, you have many more resources. Leaders need to motivate, mobilize and coordinate entire communities.

I appreciate most this sense of not limiting yourself - but doing what you can to both address immediate needs, as well as systemic change.

Makes me think of the lines from the dharma poem Harmony of Difference and Sameness

"Light and dark oppose one another
like the front and back foot in walking."

A lot of us like to think of spiritual practice and addressing difficult social issues as somehow separate. But how can this be? We walk on this earth, take each step on the very same ground. The only separation is in your mind.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Just a Different Expression

Woke up this morning at 5:30 and went down to zen center for a half day meditation retreat. Just finished about 45 minutes ago. I don't have much to say about it, other than it's good to take a break from the wild, moving, everyday world and watch yourself more closely. It's really no break, just a different expression.

Got to sit with that mud I wrote about yesterday, watch the waves of fear, tightness, and mind chatter rise and fall. Lots of fleeting hang ups, but also a bubbling brook of desire to stay devoted to embodying the bodhisattva vows in my own, unique, lay practitioner life. Everything I wondered about yesterday is still valid, just less frantic and tensed up.

Waking, I bicycled to bird calls.
Stepping back into the world six hours later,
to a greeting of tar
and road construction.
Every breath
moving through it all.

May your lives go well.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Choices, Classism, and Buddhist Living

Thanks to Katie over at Kloncke for this poem from an old favorite, Jane Hirshfield.


by Jane Hirshfield



It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.

Even in this
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.

That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books –

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

Katie talks a little in her post about wondering if she has to choose between deep dharma practice and things like social justice work and relationships. I've felt this divide myself many times. Ultimately, I don't think they have to be separate "things" we have to choose, but how exactly they come together, I frequently feel at a loss.

According to the old narrative, at 34, I'm supposed to have my shit together to some degree. To know my career. Be partnered. Have children or at least own something substantial (house, car, whatever). Well, that's the old narrative, and obviously people in their 50's, 60's, and even 70's are redefining themselves, and/or being forced to by external pressures.

It's a confusing era where there are no sets of blueprints available. It's a liberating era, where the confinements of the past blueprints have fallen apart. Hell if I know how to describe what's actually going on in the greater society right now. But in some ways, it seems that feeling like standing atop that 100 foot pole we Zennys talk about is pretty easy to access. I've felt like I've been standing on it for awhile now, looking all around and not being able to let go and step off.

In some ways, maybe it would have been easier to have grown up in a time and/or place where the options were few, and you hadn't just spent your twenties and early thirties watching the material comforts your parents generation had access to suddenly disappear. Frankly, I find it challenging to listen to Baby Boomer dharma teachers who have retirement accounts and lake homes tell people like me that life is always precarious, and the practice is to let go of hang ups about material wants and desires. Sure. That's easy for you to say. Try living nearly a decade without health insurance, never making more that 20 grand a year because you're trying your best to actually do work that fulfills those pesky bodhisattva vows.

In Buddhist circles, I hear phrases like "we always have choices" in this life all the time. It's true. There's always choices available in terms of how we view this life. Always. Some days, I'm totally able to see the blessings of things as they are. Others, not so much. But when it comes down to it, phrases like "we always have choices" tend to come from places of privilege. Long ago, I remember saying something like this to a student in an ESL class, only to receive a "dharma" lecture about the real-life limitations this person faced being a middle aged refugee with little formal education living in a nation like the U.S.

Honestly, I can feel that redwood tree growing within me, and outside of me as well. The pressure of the roots of confusion and attachment within; the pressure of worsened economic conditions and cloudy social standards on the outside. Making choices is really an act of faith and trust in this kind of environment, and sometimes, I just don't feel up to it. What's a devoted lay practitioner who isn't attracted to monasticism at this point in his life to do?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sandhill Cranes and Speaking from the Heart

Last week, my father wrote me saying that the state of Minnesota was considering opening a hunting period for Sandhill Cranes. My first thought was "How odd? Why?" Sandhill cranes have been protected in our state and many others for a long time now, and besides, they are amazing birds that have been threatened with extinction in the not to distant past.

For many years now, I have written letters and e-mails to public officials, feeling that this is one part of being an active citizen, and engaged member of the community. How wonderful it was, then, to open my e-mail to the following message my father sent to a state DNR official:

Not sure if this is going to the right person but I wanted to voice my families objections to the killing of Sandhill Cranes. With so many other game birds in our state why in heavens name would the DNR put a season on these majestic birds? I can see no good reason. You yourself said that you don't even know the number of Sandhills in our state. They have been protected in our state up to now. They are beautiful and unique and mate for life and should be still worthy of protection. I live in Chisago County and on rare occasions see and hear them. What a site they are standing out in the fields over 4 feet tall and using their loud, unique calls to each other. I know that other states except Nebraska have seasons on them but that shouldn't influence our state and its practices. I am not anti-hunting and understand the need to manage the wildlife we have here, but maybe the state should do more Sand Hill Crane research before they go ahead and kill these beautiful animals.

A balanced message if there ever was one, straight from the heart, but also with enough facts to support what's said. Well done. An example for us all.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Stephen Batchelor, Secularism, and "Wrong View"

The Zennist brings up an interesting set of issues in his current post. Taking on the in vogue Stephen Batchelor, among others, he writes:

One can deplore the incursion of secularism into Buddhism by the likes of Stephen Batchelor and others. But one cannot stop the advance of secularism except by really understanding Buddhism from its own side in which the Buddha is allowed to speak for himself. This is a key matter because there are books about Buddhism that are essentially products of eisegesis. In other words, these books amount to the author reading his or her own ideas into Buddhism when such is not in the Buddhist canon. Stephen Batchelor’s book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, is a perfect example of eisegesis. He interprets Buddhism as being secular, or somewhat the same as being fit for a modern secular world.

A number of modern Buddhist authors have a strong inclination to read into Buddhism what is, essentially, not there, seeing modern ideas in the Buddha’s teachings, instead. This, to be sure, is eisegesis (read into)—not proper exegesis where the meaning of what the Buddha said is drawn out hopefully making it clearer for the reader—but not fundamentally altering his teachings.

I tend to find The Zennist a bit stodgy and fundamentalist at times. However, I find these comments compelling in some respects. It's very true that there are plenty of books, teachings, and teachers out there who have bent Buddha into a pretzel trying to fit into the lives people already have. And then there are folks like Mr. Batchelor, who claim to have stripped the "trappings" away, while doing so through the trappings of their modern, "Western" filters.

I actually don't have much issue with secularism "creeping" into Buddhism. Many of the practices that occur in religious settings can also occur in secular settings - and there's benefit in both. It's not terribly important to me to "guard" the tradition. However, I do think it's valuable to have clarity about Buddha's teachings, and to be wary of people who suggest that they have the "pure" way figured out. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Happy Suffering"

I've been perusing the Buddhoblogosphere, following threads and links, and discovering wonderful new (to me) writers out there. Among the new blogs is one by a spunky, fashion-savvy Tibetan Buddhist named Paris (photo above is of her and her teacher H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche). In a recent post, she says this:

Rinpoche said this today about dedicating your life to working for others: "You don't think of it as work, you think of it as happiness". It was the most perfect expression of what I have been feeling over the last few months and I didn't even realise I've been feeling this way until my father sent me an SMS one day to tell me that I shouldn't work so hard.

I didn't answer the SMS immediately because I didn't know how to answer. It was only after a few days of thinking about it that I realised why the SMS had bothered me so much - the fact that my father had referred to it as "work," which is exactly what I have stopped thinking of it as being.

Since committing to Dharma work full-time and since being given the huge honour to be a Liaison within the Kechara organisation, I have stopped thinking of what I do as work but as something that is living, being, doing. I couldn't imagine doing anything else but this. Rinpoche clarified it so beautifully tonight when he said, "You think of it as happiness" which it truly is. No matter how tired, agitated, frustrated, ill or even angry I get when I'm here, I'd still rather "suffer" it than be anywhere else doing anything else. It is the closest I have been able to get to understand what it means to have "happy suffering."

Having done a lot of volunteer and service "work" over the years, I've certainly had my share of struggles around how to view my various commitments. There are times when I feel great joy in being involved, doing what the situation calls for, and walking with people through the various issues of their lives. Other times, though, it definitely feels like work, heavy, difficult work. But Paris and Rinpoche both are right in point me, and all of us really, back towards the joy of service and walking with others. I prefer the term walking with others, as opposed to "helping," or even "teaching" really, although in my role as an ESL teacher, there's no completely getting around "teacher." However, recently, when I think of the bodhisattva vow to liberate all beings, it points me back to the Four Divine Abodes.

Love or Loving-kindness (metta)
Compassion (karuna)
Sympathetic Joy (mudita)
Equanimity (upekkha)

These are the tools required to live out that vow, as far as I'm concerned. And when it comes to the call to view seeing working with others as "Happiness," the four abodes are the houses from which happiness springs forth. I have to constantly remind myself of this, as I get irritated and overwhelmed at times, and sometimes land in despair over the state of the world. There's a hell of a lot of misery, but that's only part of the story. Thanks to Paris and Rinpoche for the reminder.

Monday, April 12, 2010

"My Wants are Endless!"

Here's a catchy phrase, and a bit of commentary, for you all courtesy of Barry over at Ox Herding:

My wants are endless; I vow to satisfy them all.

Most of us are familiar with this vow, even if we'd never say it out loud. How could we not recognize ourselves in it? After all, desire is one of the "marks" of existence.

The sheer scale of our desires and wants frequently masks the reality of our simple human needs.

I sometimes wonder what our ancestors would think of us if they could arrive in the present. Clearly, desire has always been a human condition that has caused immense amounts of trouble, but it's probably also true that we "moderns" have more stuff and ideas to want than anyone throughout history. We've gone global with nearly everything, and many of us spend countless hours of our lives longing for things that our ancestors neither dreamed of, nor needed to live happy lives. In fact, we don't need most of these "things" either, but have given in to the collective delusion that they are required.

Always one to live on borders - a foot here and a foot there (wherever here and there are) - I have made some decisions that stand out amongst my fellow Americans (oh lord, I think I just channeled George Bush!). I've never owned a car, which has shaped my a bit differently when it comes to certain things - like speed, for example, as well as living in the weather, with the weather, as opposed to being always sheltered from it during travel. I've never had a cell phone, and always find it amusing when people say they absolutely "need" to have one. Until 15 years ago, almost no one had one at all. We've simply reshaped our lives around the convenience a cell phone offers. I suppose it's nice. There have been some benefits for sure, but at what cost?

I always wonder about these issues. One hundred and twenty years ago, in 1890, almost no one had an automobile. Cities and towns were built around public spaces and shared transportation. The phone was flickering invention just starting to be manufactured and used. Electricity was for the wealthy, period. Indoor plumbing as well. And that was here in the affluent United States.

What have we given up as a result of all these inventions and the social shifts that came around them? Buddha taught that cause and effect really aren't separate at all. They function as a team, even though they might appear to be separate across space and time.

More and more, the public is becoming private. I often find myself at coffee shops, enjoying chatter with others or reading and writing over a hot cup of joe. However, these are decidedly privatized spaces that were, in no small part, developed as a result of our collective wants for both quality coffee and a space to be social and drink it in. Coffee houses are by no means new inventions, but the currently form is often much more privatized, and/or grounded in making profits, than in previous generations.

Even the layout of our cities themselves, or the ways in which we change the layout in order to create more freeways and speedways, reflects an attempt to satisfy wants - such as getting to places faster - at the expense of communities. I live on the edge of the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, MN. Once a thriving, predominantly African-American community, it was shattered by the installation of I-94 back in the 1960s. I sometimes wonder what might have been as I bike through what's left of it today.

My wants are endless; I vow to satisfy them all. And I'd add, when we're in this state of mind: no matter what the costs. Something to consider as your mind spins around it's "wants" today.

*Image is from the Credjafawn Co-op Store, 678 Rondo, St. Paul, ca. 1948.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Animals, Zen Center Branding, and Dropping Your Worries

Took a few days to be mostly off-line. I checked e-mail maybe twice since Thursday, and looked at blogs only for about 15 minutes. A nice break. Most recommended for anyone who has been tech-focused, which is a lot of us these days.

Among other things, I did some squirrel meditation yesterday evening while walking. As some of you know, I have been loosely doing a photo project documenting alleys, so I often find that when I go walking, I end up touring alleys and yesterday was no exception.

Behind a large apartment building, I saw a squirrel leap on a dumpster. I stopped, and watched as it lifted one foot to it's chest and looked around a bit. Seeing me, it froze. We locked eyes as the thought passed through my mind "I wonder if people are going to think I'm up to no good back here." The squirrel scampered across the top of the dumpster, stood up, and did the same foot to chest gesture as it watched me.

Breathing in, I saw this pause. Breathing out, I saw a gray flash down the side of the dumpster. Thus was the end of the squirrel meditation.

This morning was a different kind of animal. A Gopher perhaps. We had our monthly board meeting and made some progress on our strategic plan. Lots of ideas and healthy discussions, as well as some specific steps forward. Gotta love that.

Toward the end of the meeting, we got into a discussion about attracting new members. Previously, I and some other board members had brought up the lack of people of color, working class folks, and young people in general in our sangha. So, some today's discussion was about that, but it also veered into the thorny areas of how to "market" programs and classes, as well as what the center should offer to attract people. Kabit-Zinn's mindfulness programs came up a fair bit, as did offering "introductory" classes, in-services, etc. that stripped out the "Buddhist" and "Zen" talk. Our guiding teacher wasn't too keen on putting a lot of energy into these kinds of programming, partly, she said, because those who come in through a more secular gate aren't necessarily going to appreciate or being interested in being an active member of a zen community. It's an interesting point, one that I find myself aligning with to some degree, while also thinking that offering Kabit-Zinn type workshops might be a way to support people in the community who may never otherwise be affiliated with our center.

The elephant lurking behind these discussions is, of course, money. How do you maintain what you have going, and also possibly build upon it for the future? No one on our board, thankfully, wants to be a huge community bringing in millions of dollars and selling off every last bit dharma in the process. However, we seem to be at a crossroads as to how to define ourselves for the coming decade at the very least. It's a very interesting place, and we'll be having a more thorough discussion on these issues in the next few months.

In the meantime, it's a warm, sunny day here in Minnesota. I'm sitting outside a local coffee house as I type this, taking in the fresh breeze and passing people, cars, and yes, squirrels. On days like this, I feel no need to hurry, and no need to worry.

I'll leave you with the words to a Thich Nhat Hanh community song I learned a few years ago.

Happiness is here and now,
I have dropped all my worries.
Nowhere to go, nothing to do,
And never in a hurry.

Happiness is here and now
I have dropped all my worries.
Somewhere to go, something to do,
But never in a hurry.

p.s. Click on photo to see a little furry friend.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tiger Woods - Who's That?

Now that you've clicked on my blog post, I have to tell you this: I have nothing to say about Tiger Woods. Nada. Golf bores the crap out of me. The media, official and us in the "underground," is filled with sex scandal discussion, be it about Tiger, the Catholic Church, or the firing of the Palestinian President's chief of staff. Humans seem to love to pontificate about sexual ethics, but most of that pontificating ends up being a shit ton of hot air. So, there's your click on the catchy headline commentary.

In other news, life as the board chair of zen center is interesting. Lots of opportunities to place your desire to be liked in check, your hopes of appearing smart and on top of things in check, and your fantasies about having things under control in double check. I'm learning how to make decisions and let go of the reactions that come from such decisions. I'm also learning to make compromises without watering down the overall vision and goals at hand. Both positives in my book.

What I find so fascinating about the zen center board, the stagnation of my workplace, and life in general is how much clinging we all do around change itself. Things are good, so we don't want them to change. Things are shitty, but we're oddly comfortable, so we don't want any change. We have no idea what's going on, but it's easier to just sit and speculate about the future than actually strike a course, and move on.

Some people see me as a go getter, someone who has manifested a lot in a short period of time. There's some truth to that. But I can also sit and spin with the best of them. Two and half years ago, when the former leader of my workplace was about to retire, I told many people "I can guess what's coming, and so I'm leaving when she leaves." Well, I did pretty much guess what was coming, but two and half years later, I don't feel any clearer about what my next step is. Maybe a little clearer, but not that much.

Meanwhile, one of the hot topics of conversation at work this week concerned a broken down dishwasher, and whether it's time for a new one, or if people were simply misusing it. The thing has gotten run 4-5 times a day, 5 days a week, 49 weeks a year, for at least 6 years. It's finished. Bury it already. But these are the kinds of quandaries people get fixated on when the overall ship is sinking.

The grass is greener at the zen center, which is a blessing. But you know what spring is prone to bring with those well cultivated flowers most of us love to gaze at, don't you? Wild weeds, mosquitoes, humidity. That's kind of how I feel right now in the middle of developing our strategic plan - we've got a lot of wonderful flowers growing, and also some of those other three "friends" cropping up in the patches in between. Today, I've been taking up the practice of being curious and interested about those weeds, mosquitoes, and that surprise bit of sweaty heat. It's kind of fun. I've even laughed some about it all with a sangha friend of mine whose helping with some of the planning work.

So, to all of you out there. May you enjoy some lightness in your life, and may you be able to be curious and interested, even in the middle of the muck.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Soka Gakki, the Catholic Church, and Human Power Abuse

While the newspapers are filled with daily revelations that are either "petty gossip" or grave power abuses of the Catholic Church, some members of the Buddhist community continue to debate the merits and/or demerits of the controversial Buddhist organization Soka Gakki. Barbara over at her Buddhist blog posted the following about a recent monetary offer to help pay for work on a park in San Francisco:

I defend Soka Gakkai International (SGI) from accusations that it is a cult whenever I see them. I sincerely do not think it is a cult, and SGI members I have met do not seem to me to be brainwashed. But news stories like this don't make defending SGI easier.

SGI has offered to give $180,000 to the city of San Francisco in exchange for naming a gate to Franklin Square Park after SGI President Daisaku Ikeda. The gate would include a plaque to Ikeda's mentors. According to the city's Recreation and Park's Department, $80,000 would be used for construction and landscaping of the gate, and $100,000 would go to the Recreation and Park Department for "general operating support."

Yesterday the offer was on the agenda of a Recreation and Park Commission public meeting , but I don't yet know if the city has decided to accept or reject it. Given the economic crisis in California, that much money would be hard to turn down, I would think.

What little local reaction I have seen has been negative, however. President Ikeda has no connection to the park, which makes the proposed dedication of the gate an act of transparent vanity.

This post is followed by nearly 30 comments that delve into cults, Ikeda's leadership, and other power issues. It's a different version of the discussion about the Catholic Church in my opinion.

I don't feel like I know enough about SGI to make any conclusive statements on their organization's power structure. However, it's well known as the most racially and class diverse Buddhist group (in North America at least). And their members seem actively engaged in social justice work around the world, which in my book is a big positive.

It's interesting to me that spiritual groups with charismatic leaders tend to be lightning rods no matter what they do. Maybe SGI is littered with corruption; I don't really know. But would they're be so much criticism of them if Ikeda was just a dull figurehead, and they were just another large religious organization with a lot of money coming in the doors? Clearly, there are plenty of mega evangelical Christian churches here in the U.S. - bringing in millions of dollars behind breathy preachers who exude confidence in their message. However, it's only the Rick Warrens and Ted Haggards of the world (and their churches) that get thrust into the spotlight.

Does anyone really think the smaller (but still sizable) evangelical communities out there are free of scandal? Or us smaller zen communities? Or any smaller spiritual group out there?

How much of this angst towards the Catholic Church, or Soka Gakki, is simply finding an easy target for the struggles with power that occur all over, and which we seem, as humans, to have no easy answers for?

*photo of my friend Colin hiding behind a fence the day before the 2008 Republican National Convention

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"None of Them Preach Terrorism"

I found this interesting news article about inter-religious dialogues going on along the Idaho/Oregon border thanks to Arun over at Angry Asian Buddhist. The article focuses in on Christians who have been attending open house introductory talks at various religious institutions in their area. Here is a section of the article:

While the Toneys said they believe in a soul as Christians, they also found similarities between Christianity and Buddhism — and the other religions the Lifelong Learners group has explored.

“Out of all the religions we’ve studied, none of them preach terrorism,” Dave Toney said. “They all preach the same way. ‘Do unto others’ in a different way.”

Payette Church of the Nazarene Secretary Judy Goff said she was surprised to learn that Buddhists don’t actually worship the historical Buddha — Siddhartha Gautama, the prince born in India who established the religion — but rather focus on his teachings.

“The idea of Buddhism and the balance of wisdom and compassion — there’s nothing wrong with that at all,” Goff said. “I think if more Christians practiced more wisdom and compassion, there would be a lot less hate in the world.”

Reducing ignorance is such an important step to peace in the world. The people participating in these dialogues are getting an opportunity to check their assumptions and open up their awareness, both huge positives.

The model of religious institutions collectively opening their doors, and offering presentations to the public, not to covert, but simply to promote awareness and understanding is one that is worth serious consideration everywhere.

At the same time, I do wonder about the overall impact of such work. Do these open houses only attract people who are already fairly open, but just don't understand the specifics of the various traditions? And will these people turn around and share what they have learned with others they know who are more fearful and threatened by religious diversity? Are these open houses spawning deeper relationships and cross-religious connections, or are they ending up being one shot deals?

Anyway, the particular open house talk being focused on in the article occurred at the Idaho OregonBuddhist Temple. A Shin Buddhist community, the temple is led by Reverend Joshin Dennis Fujimoto, who recounted the following wonderful story in a dharma talk a few years ago:

Rev. Taitsu Imai was a minister at the Tacoma Buddhist Temple. In one Dharma talk, he relayed a story of an elderly couple. The wife was born and raised by a family which was devoted to listening to the Dharma. As she became an adult, she also came to enjoy the Shin Buddhist life of listening to the Dharma. She came to the temple regularly, and tried not to miss opportunities to hear the Dharma.

A well-known Sensei was coming to speak at the temple, and she and her friends were looking forward to the day he would be here. She continued with her usual work and chores around the house, but she was anticipating the upcoming service. The night before the service, she said to her husband, "Tomorrow, there will be a well-known sensei visiting our temple. I will be attending to listen to his sermon with my friends. We all have been looking forward to his visit."

Her husband, who rarely attended the temple, replied, "That's good, but I have always wanted to ask you this question. You have been going to the temple to listen to many sermons for a long time...probably over thirty years on your own, and for many years before that with your parents. What have you been listening to all these years? Either you don't really listen, or you should have made it to the Pure Land by now. If you haven't made it by now, don't you think it is a waste of time? Why don't you just stop going?"

The wife kept silent and thought a little while. Finally, she said to her husband, "Every night I make dinner, and every night you have a drink with your meal. You have been drinking every single evening ever since we were married. Don't you think you've had enough of drinking? What good is it? You should have had enough of it by now."

The husband became angered, and told her, "Don't be a meddler. I work long hours...when I come home, my body and mind are both exhausted. When I have a drink with dinner, I am able to relax and enjoy the evening. I feel better, and I am ready for the next day."

The wife smiled, and told her husband, "That is the same reason I enjoy listening to the Dharma. Listening is much the same as eating meals. We eat meals three times a day. Also, you drink at dinner to help you from your fatigue. Even though we eat today, we still need to eat tomorrow. With each meal, we gain energy and feel refreshed to face what comes next in life. No matter how many long years we listen, no matter how we think we understand, we need to listen to the Dharma constantly so that we will be reminded of life and how to live with awareness and meaning."

*Photo is of an Obon Odori dance performed at the Idaho Oregon Buddhist Temple.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Buddhist "Green" Network

A member of the excellent Buddhist of Color and Allies network Urban Refuge, Ananda Leeke, has had another Buddhist social network going for awhile which I just discovered.

Go Green Sangha is "for people who practice mindfulness, green living, creativity, diversity, the healing arts, innerpreneuralism & service." Go check it out!

Tough Shit! The Challenges of Giving Yourself Permission to Make Mistakes

For a variety of reasons, the following from a post over at Yoga Journeys struck me:

One of the hats I wear is that of ESL teacher. Last week in class, my students were struggling with a difficult listening exercise, and I found myself saying I give you permission to be wrong. I wonder if that shifted anyone's world the way it shifted mine. I give you permission to be wrong. How often do we explicitly receive or grant ourselves this permission? It's true that we are often told that it is OK to make mistakes as long as we learn from them, but in fact I think the overarching lesson of our society is that to be wrong is a terrible thing.

Giving yourself permission to be wrong is the first step down a path to unknown discoveries. It is the first step to learning, exploring, discovering and growing as a person. By not only walking that path fearlessly but also explicitly giving others the permission to be wrong, we can give the world a great gift.

Even after several years of Zen practice and even longer with yoga practice, I still get hooked pretty easily by mistakes. Sure, I think I can say that little mistakes, like bowing at the wrong time or forgetting to make enough copies at work, don't get to me too much anymore. But I sometimes find myself mired in fear of larger mistakes, larger wrongs that might occur. Being uninsured brings up a lot of this. There's the mistake of staying put in a job that doesn't offer heath insurance in the first place. And the mistake of being in the wrong place or doing the wrong thing and getting injured. And also the mistake of not getting some kind of medical help and getting sicker in the process. This is just one set of examples of potential trouble spots in life - difficult to "correct" mistakes and wrongs that society forgives poorly, if at all.

When I'm trapped in this kind of mindset, life is heavy and miserable. And I become more passive, more willing to believe all the bullshit our culture puts out about being self-sufficient and in control of your life at all times. People who know me know that when it comes to finances, and trying to be self-sufficient with not a lot, I'm near the top of the class. And yet, for all my frugalness, I'm still one step away from bankruptcy and yet another "burden" to the "taxpayers." The reality of that there's no way to be fully self-sufficient precisely because we don't live in a vacuum. In addition, there's no way to go through life without mistakes, including maybe some big ones that make things messy.

However, even knowing that, I still sometimes have a hard time giving myself permission to let go, live 100% alive, and maybe screw up a few things in the process. And why is that? Partly because I still can be a mirror of our wider society, terribly unforgiving, and relentlessly striving for perfection at the cost of my wellbeing.

I also find though that there's a class element to all of this. If you are a poor person, perpetually on the edge - your big mistakes easily can be your undoing. In fact, over the course of my lifetime, a sizable chunk of the middle class now hovers just above those at the bottom economically, and we, too, now experience the real perils that mistakes can bring. You put your retirement money in the wrong mutual fund? Tough shit! No retirement for you. You son got pneumonia and had to stay in the hospital and now the insurance company denies you coverage? Don't you fucking dare ask the taxpayers to bail your ass out. (Never mind that you are a taxpayer, too.)

Actually, this post is starting to piss me off. When you reflect on it, the lack of compassion and genuine concern and support for others in this country can be so astounding that you wonder how the hell we've made it this far in one piece. And I sometimes mirror this lack of compassion, pick your self up by your bootstraps mentality, mostly towards myself, which makes it all the more painful.

"By not only walking that path fearlessly but also explicitly giving others the permission to be wrong, we can give the world a great gift." I think we have to learn simultaneously step into our fears about being wrong, and making mistakes, and we have to figure out ways to wear out of some of this collective shame and blame in our society. How? I don't know exactly. This is where we have to start.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Liminal Lines: Life, Death, and Art

Last Sunday, I visited a friend of a friend, who was in hospice with terminal cancer. I'd spent maybe half a dozen times with Brian and my friend Lois, joyfully eating late afternoon snacks, drinking white wine, and talking about the great questions of life. Brian was in seminary for some of that time, contemplating some of the wild cats of modern Christian theology - I remember a long conversation about John Shelby Spong, a favorite of my friend, who's argued that Christianity needs to radically change or it may just die off. It was always interesting to participate in these cross-religious dialogues, to consider Jesus as an outsider, and to have outsiders consider Zen and Buddhism with me.

During the visit, it was clear that Brian was fading. He tried to talk to us, but really couldn't muster the strength to say anything coherently. I remember looking into his eyes, and saying "I miss our talks" and I'm almost sure he tried to say to me "Maybe we'll have another." Well, we won't. He died Thursday. Not even 60 years old, he still left a small mark on the world by staying on his path, and doggedly pursuing the mysteries of this life (even with cancer ravaging his body, he stuck out his seminary studies longer than most would have).

The painting above is by another man who died young, but left a mark on the world. Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis was a Lithuanian painter and composer who, despite living only 35 years, composed nearly 250 pieces of music and completed almost 300 paintings. A contemporary of people like Kandinsky and Franz Marc, Ciurlionis was highly inspired by both spirituality and nature. His paintings, like the one above, are frequently bursting with intensity, while also almost being so liminal as to slide into abstraction. Some credit him with beating Kandinsky to the punch when it comes to modern abstract painting, although the American painter Arthur Dove also hangs in there as an early experimenter with 20th century abstraction.

Some of Ciurlionis' paintings are like Zen koans - images you cannot grab onto with your rational mind, like grains of sand sliding through your hands. At times, they contain reference points that might lead you to think "I've got it!" But then, as you take the image in a little more, you realize that you don't got it, and probably never will in the way you usually do. This guy seemed to always be on the border between this life and another, just as my friend has been over the past few years.

Really, we're all like this, don't you think? Maybe it's not in our face as much, or that we have to work a bit to keep the liminal alive in ways that Ciurlionis, Brian, and others out there didn't have to. But it's there regardless of how much you or I miss it - those little and great crossings between here and there (whatever "there" is), the footsteps we take between our many homes.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Right Action on the Streets

Here's an interesting post for you all to consider from Daishin, whose blog is also worth a deeper look.

The neighbourhood I live in has a high number of people begging in the street. Individuals and groups sit near stores and the pub. Each time I go by, I’m faced with a dilemma. How do I reconcile my desire (my vow!) to be of service, to practice compassion, to alleviate suffering, with the fact that no amount of money I give will make a dent. In addition, my critical voice notices cell phones, to-go coffee cups, and cigarettes in plain sight and, in many instances, alcohol and drugs not far behind. Sometimes I feel anger arising for being ‘made to feel’ un-generous and privileged.

I’ve watched myself react in different ways: avoiding certain corners altogether; crossing the street in anticipation; looking down as I pass the person; saying hello and gesturing sorry no change; giving a few coins; giving all the change in my pocket; picking up a muffin and offering it on the way back. None of these are satisfactory solutions; often the same person sits at the same spot each time I walk by and there are more people looking for a handout down the street.

I’m at a loss of what to do. How do you handle these situations? What would be ‘right action’ from a Buddhist perspective? I’d be grateful for your advice and insights.

Last spring, I dated a woman who worked with homeless folks. She was out on the streets everyday, doing what she could to help people find homes, social service resources, or to just be available to listen to people's stories. I deeply respected her easy-going attitude about all this, coupled with a sincere passion to make a dent in homelessness, and all the assorted problems attached to it.

One thing I noticed for myself during the time I spent with her (about three months) was the variety of responses I had in regards to people I encountered begging on the streets. Often, it was sadly dependent on how I felt that day. If I was feeling open and generous, I'd smile or chat for a moment with someone. Maybe offer some change, or maybe not. If I felt closed, exhausted, or irritated, I'd either avoid the person completely, avoid eye contact, or simply rush to the judgment that they wanted money and I wasn't having any of that.

In this dog eat dog capitalist society we have, homelessness and poverty in general are simply givens. The whole house of cards is built on the fact that some people will simply be screwed no matter what they do. Certainly, some folks make a pile of decisions that aid in being the ones who are screwed, but others do everything they can and still are amongst the screwed. So, it's a deeply complicated pattern of personal decisions and social structures interacting within any person's life (yours, mine, people on the streets.) A few people even stay on the streets by choice, and really don't feel the need, for whatever reason, to have a steady roof over their heads or a steady job. Other people fake homelessness to get some extra cash for a habit, for rent, for food, any number of things really. So, what you see may not actually be what is. People like to indulge in righteous anger at these fakers, but the reality is they tend to be in trouble too. Most people don't choose to beg on the streets for shits and giggles.

The thing is, though, that for those of us who have steady jobs and steady roofs over our heads, we're terribly prone to reducing humans on the streets to caricatures.

There's the "transactional" image, where a person is simply a beggar of money who needs to be given to or not given to.

There's the "poor them" image, where the person is simply a victim.

The opposite of that one is the "too bad sucker" image, where the person is simply an irresponsible, lazy bum who made bad decisions and now is being punished.

And finally, there's the "poor me" imagine, where the person is simply an irritation or a burden for the other person or people passing them.

Daishin asks what "right action" is when it comes to interacting with people begging on the streets. Well, I don't think there's any fixed answer. One thing that comes to mind though is that to the degree any of us can look past assumptions and appearances, and simply engage what or who is in front of us, that to me seems to speak of how close or far we are from "right action." It's not about giving money or not. Or even talking to someone or not. It's much bigger than all of that, and yet contains those pairs as well.