Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Buddhist Children? - Thoughts on Children in Buddhist Families and Communities

Over at Cheerio Road, Karen Maezen Miller has a post entitled "not teaching children to meditate" that kind of gets under my nerves. I actually agree with some of what she's saying, and appreciate the experience she has had leading a children's program at a Zen Center, and also as a parent. I'm not a parent, so I sometimes feel like stepping in on issues like this aren't my territory.

At the same time, I have had multiple jobs working with children, spent three years as a teacher in our zen center's children's program, and am currently in the middle of a lot of discussions about the place and role of children and youth within our sangha. All of this gives me a small window of perspective. I'm not expert, but I'm also not someone who has no experience with kids, and just wants to pontificate. So, whatever I will say is coming from a somewhat outsider position, and I'd encourage parents who are Buddhist practitioners to chime in on this issue.

Of the comments in the Cheerio Road post, these are the one's I probably most bristle at:

About the spiritual training of young, my view is a bit of the same. How you behave in your home is their spiritual upbringing. I think we have to be careful with all forms of ideological indoctrination, and that is what spiritual training is in children: the imposition of a set of abstract beliefs and ideals. Children will take these from of us, but I don’t think dogma serves anyone for long. After all, I was a very good Sunday School student, the star of my confirmation class, and yet I had my own spiritual crisis to resolve later in life. We all do.

I always remind myself that I’m not trying to raise a Buddhist child. I’m trying to raise a Buddhist mother, and it’s taking all my time! Not only my family, but also everyone everywhere will be served by my devoted discipline in my own training. Not because I’m self-important, but in recognition of the one true reality: no self. We are all interdependent, which means we are all one.

Before I speak about my disagreements, I will say that above all, the behavior of adult mentor figures, whether parents, extended family, teachers, or others, IS of most importance. So, we agree there.

Now to the areas of contention.

1. The Sunday School example - it's no secret that many convert Buddhists grew up and/or had significant contact with Christian or Jewish communities. They have parents and/or grandparents who are, or were, devout Christians or Jews, and who forced them to attend regular religious instruction as a child, instruction that was often about feeding children a worldview that had to be accepted as true. So, there's an understandable desire to not repeat those experiences with their kids. However, how much of this concern over indoctrination valid, and how much is a reaction to what they experienced in Judeo-Christian settings?

2. Uber-Individualism - Buddhists in the "West," especially convert Buddhists, struggle with building long lasting, sustainable communities. Children and teens aren't always welcome, let alone considered vital members of the sangha. But beyond Buddhism, community in general is quite challenged in places like the U.S. Whereas in the past, friends, neighbors, and community elders were all to some degree or another considered part of the extended parenting family, today for most children, these people are often viewed with suspicion. Teachers, spiritual leaders, and other community leaders are also viewed as much with suspicion as being potentially good influences on children. Now, certainly there are valid reasons for some of this suspicion, and I think it's quite important for parents to be careful and minimize risks, but how much of the breakdown in community in general is due to obsession with the nuclear family, and an excessive focus on individuality?

When I think of the Karen, Korean, and Vietnamese Buddhist students I have had, all first generation immigrants, the picture is different. The children are cared for by extended family and neighborhood elders, they regularly attend Buddhist services with their families, and they are considered to be an important part of the sangha. This doesn't mean that these children have perfect lives - sometimes far from it - but whereas native born Americans struggle with community, immigrants and refugees tend to have thriving communities, religious and otherwise.

3. What does a healthy lay practice look like? One of my favorite questions these days. Adam over at Fly Like a Crow also has children, and his commitment to practice looks quite different than Ms. Miller's. I don't think one is right, and the other wrong. What I'm more interested in is about the different ways people can manifest deep practice while having a family and/or living in the world. It's wonderful that Karen Maezen Miller is a devoted Zen priest who not only helps lead a center, but also shares writing regularly about her practice with the world at large. But I think devotion will take different forms, just as how people raise children takes different forms. Even if more people examine the issues I spoke of in points 1 and 2, how they decide act on those examinations will look different in each case.

In other parts of Ms. Miller's post, she argues that children have a natural ability to be present. That they already "practice single-minded attention." And about Buddhist practice in general, she states:

The aim of all Buddhist practice is to return to our natural state of wide-eyed wonder and unselfconsciousness that we can observe in our children many times a day.

I don't agree. Childhood openness is wonderful and beautiful, but is it what "the aim" of Buddhist practice is? First of all, when I think of my own childhood, that wonderful openness she is speaking about was there, but sure as hell not always. And sometimes, rarely. Some of the time, at least, I was completely trapped in fear or anger, which stunted any curiosity or openness. I often acted out of convoluted views about both my own life and the world around me because I was - a kid. I didn't know any better. That's what kids do. And when I was in that more open, perhaps "pure or "natural state" - well, I was there, but I had no idea how to bring those experiences to bear on the rest of my life. Perhaps if I had been in a class where things like meditation and basic Buddhist teachings were taught, things would have been different. Or maybe not. But from what I have seen with the children and teens in my own sangha, they're ability to handle life's difficulties, to transfer that natural openness into the areas where they get closed down, is more advanced than what I displayed as a kid without a sangha.

This gets to my final point. In our sangha, we have a children's and youth program that not only teaches meditation, but also some of the basic Buddhist messages, such as the Four Noble truths and Eight Fold Path. The kids learn variations on the Buddha's life story, and have opportunities to explore it all through arts, crafts, discussion, meditation, yoga, and sometimes service projects. Some might say this is indoctrination, but my own experience as a teacher in the program was that it was about exploration, providing some structures and support for exploration.

And that is probably the main reason why I felt compelled to write all of this. Structures like zazen, chanting, and bowing can be offered as opportunities to explore ones life at an early age. Basic Buddhist teachings can be offered in the same way. If you are a Buddhist parent who is more in line with what Ms. Miller says, I'd like offer the following question: What is motivating your views? I don't ask this because I think you are necessarily right or wrong. It's more a question I think is worth exploring.

A few weeks ago, I spoke of our center as developing a "lifespan" practice field. We have always attempted to program not just for adults, but also for children. And in recent years, we have been starting to think more deliberately about what this means, and how we might better support people in all stages of life. So, I'm interested in what parents think out there. How do you work with children? How should sanghas work with children? How does your sangha in particular work with children?

*The image is of the banner of photos for our center's children's program. I thought about finding something else after I saw the distortion, but actually think it fits well as a visual with the discussion at hand.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Being a Loving Parent to Your Delinquent Qualities

Feeling tired, but not ready to sleep yet last night, I turned on the radio to discover a rebroadcast of this interview with the Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue. As the program went on, I found myself more and more interested, and then was sad to hear that he had died. This morning, I discovered he died in his sleep at age 52, entirely young in modern terms. I barely knew his name before 10 o'clock last night, and yet somehow I wish he were still around, but also thankful for whatever he did give to the world before going.

Here is a quote that seems quite pertinent to my life right now. Perhaps yours as well.

"If you try to avoid or remove the awkward quality, it will pursue you. The only effective way to still its unease is to transfigure it, to let it become something creative and positive that contributes to who you are.
Nietzche said that one of the best days in his life was the day when he rebaptized all his negative qualities as his best qualities. Rather than banishing what is at first glimpse unwelcome, you bring it home to unity with your life…..One of your sacred duties is to exercise kindness toward them. In a sense, you are called to be a loving parent to your delinquent qualities"
— John O'Donohue (Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom)

If you're like me, when you look at yourself, you probably see a lot of those delinquent qualities. Everything from little quirks that feel awkward to larger patterns that seem to be grave flaws. Even if you're also good at noticing what's going well, and/or what qualities are beneficial, it still can be challenging to really face this other stuff, and let go of any agendas for it.

How often have you embraced your habit of interrupting others during conversations, or your pattern of dating people who aren't "good for you," only because you hope that the embrace with change it? Or how often have told others you are "getting better" with taking risks not because you actually are, but because you hope that saying it will help bring the change around?

Agendas are tricky things, but whatever they are, they are not the qualities present in a "loving parent." After awhile along the path, things like avoidance and acting out are easier to spot. You might still do them, but you tend to know you're doing them - or see it much more quickly than before. Those are gross agendas. But the more subtle ones, like the two in the questions I posed above, they're not as easy to spot.

Transfigure is an interesting word.

to give a new and typically exalted or spiritual appearance to : transform outwardly and usually for the better

In a way, it sounds like another attempt to lie. To deceive. When I saw that definition, an imagine of a friend of mine sitting with a plastic smile on her face during an event she didn't want to attend arose immediately. That smile was about hiding; she told me as much.

But when I reflect on transfigure further, it brings to mind the ritual of placing one's robe on before meditation. The rakusu, the kesa - they symbolize the buddha within, and the way of being a buddha in the "outer" world. (Outer and inner are really just distinctions of the relative world.) Placing the rakusu on my head, I chant the following, and then unfold it and place it around my neck.

How great, this robe of liberation
a formless field of merit,
wrapping ourselves in Buddha's teachings
we free all living beings.

The rakusu is just a piece of sewn cloth, and yet if you look at that verse, it's also a transfiguring. Ordinary being to Buddha. With nothing excluded.

I don't particularly like

the longing for a healthy, long term romantic relationship
the indecision over next steps in my professional life
the feelings of inadequacy around being unemployed
the awkwardness of being a non-driver in car-centric culture
the lack of calling towards meditation retreats I'm experienced as a somewhat "seasoned" Zen practitioner
the lack of connection I feel with the Thanksgiving and Christmas season
the desire for light in this mostly dark time of year
the conflict avoidance I still give into sometimes
the lust and desire for sex and the loneliness behind it
the failures to "stand up for myself" in certain situations
the desire to "fit it" or at least not stand out
the attachment to political views and anger that sometimes comes from it
the fears of failure and the risks not taken because of it

but putting on that rakusu is an act of transfiguring all of that, without any agenda. It's moves all of this, as well as anything I think is a wonderful or beneficial part of who I am, beyond good and bad, beyond needs of removing or enhancing.

And I can put that rakusu on in every moment if I choose to - but more often than not, I simply don't choose to. Or I put it on out of a desire to hide behind it, to look holy or spiritual instead of whatever it is that I actually am. The line between these is sometimes very thin - a place worthy of investigation.

How do you work with delinquent qualities? Certainly, many of you reading this blog could say meditation, but what a pat answer that would be. All of this I've seen about the rakusu is from my meditation practice, from putting it on my neck over and over again. But it's in the details that one locates the loving parent.

* Sculpture is "Trans-Figure 1" by South African artist Dylan Lewis.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Black Friday, and the Difference Between Expressions of Love and Expressions of Inadequacy

I was going to skip the commentary on all that Black Friday, holiday shopping madness, but then I stumbled upon this post, and felt compelled to say something.

The author of the post suggests the following:

1. The buying frenzy and subsequent Christmas gift exchange excess are products of a consumerist culture.

2. That Americans, at least, don't have enough joyful holidays, and thus try to stuff all their celebration into this time of year.

3. That those of us who find the consumerist expressions of this season crass and devoid of meaning should suspend our judgment of those sucked into it.

4. That those sucked into the buying and giving frenzy are manifesting love in their own ways.

It all sounds well and good. I'm inclined to go along. Except...

Consider this section of the post:

We live in a consumer world, one where love is often shown through purchases, one where people want to express their deep love for their families by buying them flat-screen plasma TVs and ten-dollar Old Navy sweaters. It is love and that is the form love takes.

The frenzy comes from the fact that Americans don’t have enough holidays, don’t get to celebrate enough. As a pagan I have eight great high holidays a year, all equal in measure, all equally important and significant to the turns of time on this Earth. But most people have all of their main holiday joy packed in to one mad season which has to bear the holiday longings of an entire year. Please go easy on them. Recognize in them a light of love that is bent through the prism of a consumer world, one that not only mediates love for us but also gives us a common, sometimes cheesey language to express it in.

I agree with most of what the author is saying, and yet something is off. All this buying of stuff, often things people don't need or even want - "It is love and that is the form love takes." That strikes me as false. A kind of nice sounding gloss over of what's really happening.

The way I see it, one of the mechanisms of a consumerist culture is to instill inadequacy in people so that they will want more, and buy more. And I think over the years, this inadequacy runs so deep in many people that they feel compelled to give others something of monetary value - often large monetary value - in order to feel ok about the relationship. You want to have a happy spouse - you better give her an expensive ring. You want to have happy children, you better buy them the latest video game machine. You want to keep your friends around, you better buy them some fishing gear, or a new dress, or something worth something.

There's no doubt that people love each other, and want to express that. In fact, it's not even about giving gifts - which is beautiful when done wisely - it's this idea that what's happening at these door buster sales at Wal-Mart and Macy's is all about love. That's bullshit!

How often do you hear it from people towards the end of their lives - that what they want now, and maybe what they wish they had more of in the past, was more time with their loved ones. To tell stories, eat together, walk together, or just sit in silence together. All that stuff amounts to nothing in the end, and people know it deep down.

What I see in the folks buying cheap flat screen TVs, ugly sweaters, ties, useless plastic nick-nacs is a failure to experience love. They love their friends, family, and lovers, but what they are mostly expressing is a need to keep the relationships, to be a "good person" who gives to their loved ones. Sometimes, there is guilt there. Sometimes, there is a sense of duty there. Sometimes, there's a hope that whatever they give will appease their loved one for awhile. But all of it goes back to staving off that feeling of inadequacy, of not "being good enough," for awhile.

Those who actually allow themselves to experience love know how to respond to their loved ones. They override what the dominant culture is telling them to do, and listen for the opportunity to give wise gifts, and then do so. And if they give during this time of year, they do so having reflected upon their loved one first.

Recently, my father made some large bookshelves for my sister and her boyfriend (see above). With the new baby, and a need to make better use of their space, some good bookshelves meant a lot. And that my father actually made the bookshelves himself, taking the time and care to see that they'd fit the space and be functional, meant even more. This to me is an example of wise giving.

Going back to the article I linked to, here's a little more:

If you are looking for quiet this season, remember that quiet can be sought in your heart. It comes best from releasing judgement about how other people do their Yuletide: releasing judgement about the tack and the madness, but to see in everybody that same deep and utter ancient longing for light and warmth, and an impulse to give to others. For many of us, and I do say us, that raw impulse is translated through the media of consumerism, of the mall and the big box store. People work with what they have to work with. The understructure is still the same.

Yes. Releasing judgment of the individuals in your life is vital. That's a core part of a spiritual path in my opinion. However, I also believe that those of us who see the deep damage being done by excessive consumption - the economic yo-yoing, the human exploitation, and environmental destruction behind those TVs, Old Navy shirts, and whatnot - must learn how to express ourselves better with those who don't see it. We must be brave enough to share what we have learned, and share our wishes for the world, with our family, friends, and lovers, even if it causes confusion and upset in the short term. But most of all, we must take the gifts of our meditation practice, our sutra studies, our bowing, our chanting - we must take that and apply it to whatever we say and do around the holidays so that we can express the truths of our lives without placing unneeded an unwanted expectations on others. In other words, we can tell the grandmother who buys us a pile of junk every year about what we most want, and our dreams for the world around us, but we can't demand that she change. And if what we get is more junk from her, then we have the opportunity to accept that junk openly, knowing that we haven't held back.

In my view, a lot of this "not judging others" talk in spiritual communities located in consumerist cultures is tied to the very same inadequacy that drives others to compulsively shop. This "oh, don't judge" voice is often just a cloak spiritual types wear out of a hope that others will like them, see them as "good people." Sound familiar? Think about it. How often do you find yourself biting your tongue instead of saying something that might upset a loved one? And how often does that same comment get labeled a judgment, even if it might just be an observation? This is one of the places I think Marshall Rosenberg's work with Non-violent communication is helpful. Because my own experience has shown me that often when I'm biting my tongue it's driven not by loving patience and wise consideration of the other person, but by a fear that whatever I say will drive the other person away. Or make them see me as a "lesser person." It's no better, really, than impulsively buying them an expensive toy they don't need.

Recently, I commented on a sangha friend's Facebook page that we should move Thanksgiving to another time of year, and reshape the holiday fully around gratitude. Divorce it from it's genocidal past, and perhaps also from it's genocidal present (i.e. turkey murder). As the author of the post I'm writing about said, we Americans need more holidays of joy. Re-framing Thanksgiving could be one way to offer people a chance to express love without piles of material gifts. Some already use it in this way.

Now if only I could figure out a way to liberate all those turkeys...

Friday, November 26, 2010

Bone Deep Fear as a Planetary Exprience

I took a trip over to the website of a long time favorite Buddhist teacher of mine, Joanna Macy. Continuing the theme from Wednesday's post, as well as circling it back to the struggles we have individually to truly open to interconnectedness, here is a selection from Macy's living systems writings:

It helps to recall that in the course of our planetary journey we have gone through positive disintegration countless times. The life living through us repeatedly died to old forms and old ways. We know this dying in the splitting of the stars, the cracking open of seeds in the soil, the relinquishment of gills and fins as we crawled onto dry land. Our evolution attests to this, and so does our present lifetime, as we learned to move beyond the safeties and dependencies of childhood. It is never easy. Some of the uglier aspects of human behavior today arise from fear of the wholesale changes we must now undergo.

To let ourselves feel anguish and disorientation as we open our awareness to global suffering is a part of our spiritual ripening. Mystics speak of the "dark night of the soul." Brave enough to let go of accustomed assurances and allow old mental comforts and conformities to fall away, they stand naked to the unknown. They let processes which their minds could not encompass work through them. Out of darkness, the new is born.

As the winter cold and darkness settles in, I find that disorientation quite palpable in my life. Some anguish too, but more disorientation - a sense that I'm walking down a road after having been spun around. Buddhists like to talk about change and impermanence, and yet how often it is that our minds lag behind, sometimes far behind, whatever is occurring? I can feel myself wanting to know what's happening, and what's going to happen next, but all that wanting just keeps me away from it. Whatever "it" is.

Positive Disintegration is an interesting term. It points to the fact that what our minds see on the surface doesn't account for the wholeness of experience. It suggests that the ice and snow that has come, and killed off yesterday's field of carrots and the rabbits that stayed on too long to nibble, isn't a menacing end point. In fact, I think it points to the fact that we don't understand the ice and snow at all.

There are rumblings of war in Korea again. And certainly a deep level concern that the dictators running the North will finally lose it, and unleash nuclear weapons on the South. Menacing is a fair word to apply to all of this as well, and yet even here, we don't truly know what the conflict on the surface is leading the world to. Since I was a kid, listening to U.S. President Ronald Reagan blathering on and on about the "Evil Empire" and it's nuclear capacities, I have had a gut-level hatred of warfare. It was beyond the awfulness of the human injuries, casualties, psychological misery, environmental destruction, and astounding economic waste that come with "regular" warfare: it was all about survival, and a fear of everything we know disappearing. A menacing endpoint.

And yet, even though the horrors of nuclear war are possible, and people should do whatever is possible to avoid it, I find myself also looking at the sky. How many of those stars are already gone, imploded long ago, the light only reaching us now? How many others have been born, and are flourishing, but whose light have not yet come?

I find myself still afraid of the "wholesale changes that must come" in my own life - partly, maybe mostly because I don't know what they really are. How much more so is the compounded fear emanating collectively from humanity around the changes the world itself, perhaps the greater solar system and beyond, is calling for us to make - changes we don't understand, can't put a finger on, and probably won't live long enough to name?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Reflections on a Buddhist Environmentalism

Discussions and modern Buddhist teachings often feel a little too human-centric. Plenty of talk about interconnectedness, but not much movement beyond the human sphere of affairs. Obviously, being people, we're going to have a disposition towards people. There's nothing wrong with that. My own blog is pretty human centric, whether it's reflections on my own life and practice, or on social and sangha issues.

But perhaps the deep, disturbing disconnect that enough folks have these days, and which has led to environmental pillaging and poisoning, has also seeped into the way we view the dharma.

During a recent interview, Thai Buddhist teacher and activist
Sulak Sivaraksa said the following:

in the late 1960’s, the World Council of Churches requested that the Buddhists teach them. I shared everything from Buddhism. I taught them that living beings are not only animals, but also plants and trees, and that we must care for all. We are all interconnected; we are taught that without trees we could not live. The Buddha himself told us to look at trees as examples. Of course, the Buddha himself was one with the trees. He was born under a tree, enlightened under a
tree. He preached at night under the tree. He died under a tree. The tree is very important to us, and we must care for the forests and for the environment.
In my country, we have a movement for ordaining trees. Once trees are ordained, they cannot be cut. This movement helps to preserve trees. Max Weiner is a monk who has helped to spread a trend which is to ordain trees. He was from Harvard. When the tree is ordained,

Between 1936 and 1973, Thailand lost more than half of its forests. Similar patterns have occurred more recently in many other nations, including notably Brazil, where big agro-business has replaced rain forest with soybeans and other cash crops, and Ethiopia, where diversely forested areas were converted to coffee plantations. And historically, places like the northern United States, where I live, had forests that were almost logged to extinction in the name of profits and human-centric building ventures. All told, human relationships with trees over the past few hundred years have been quite off, to the point where many of us forget the simple fact that trees are major players in converting the air we breathe into breathable form.

One of the reasons why the environment in general, and trees in particular, have been forsaken - in my view - is the disappearance of, or lack of connection to, narratives speaking to the interconnection of people and the environment. Although scientists have done a fairly good job of detailing the many ways people have damaged and sometimes destroyed parts of the planet, what they have learned hasn't really been translated into the kinds of living, breathing stories our ancestors lived on.

The Buddha's story is one of those narratives, one that doesn't need to be updated in order to be powerful. His life was amongst the trees, touching the ground with every step. However, perhaps those of us who live in cities, are sheltered in buildings all day, spending hours on computers, sitting zazen inside, struggle to connect with the fullness of Buddha's experience of interconnectedness. Because of our many physical disconnections, our psychological and spiritual awareness is also cut off - not quite awake to the immensity of the world.

Dean's current post over at The Mindful Moment speaks of his experiences meditating in a cave. From what he writes, it's seems he felt this immensity while being there. However, what happens to that awareness a week, a month, a year after returning to the human-focused, human built "everyday" environment. I have had similar experiences to what Dean describes. I remember the awe I felt sitting on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the Aran Islands. And the sense of how tiny I am while going through the California desert. Wonderful experiences, but ones that tend to get drowned out by life in the city.

But this is beyond a city/country divide. I can go out less than an hour in any direction from the city I live in and find large scale farms loaded with poisoned plants and abused animals, sitting on land that was, a hundred years ago, entirely forested.

Tree ordination seems like a damn good idea in my view. Not only to protect the trees from human greed and stupidity, but also to remind people of a sacredness that is beyond ourselves, and whatever we think we need to live.

It's seems to me, as modern practitioners of the Buddha way, it's essential that we learn how to embody interconnectedness fully, and to act accordingly. And I think in order to do that, the ways we talk about the dharma, teach the dharma, must move beyond a human-centric approach. Just look at the words of the old masters. It's there. They got it. And now we have the work of scientists and environmental activists offering the fodder for new stories, and new ways of being and acting.

Some are out there doing just this. But more of us must take it up, to move beyond pessimism and despair. To make the dharma anew, one more time.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Playing with Formal Buddhist Practice

I've grown quite fond of Buddhist teacher Larry Rosenberg, who's book Breath by Breath, about practicing with the Anapanasati Sutra, our sangha studied this fall. He seems to do a great job of balancing daily life and everyday practice, with the deeper wisdom of our tradition. I love that he has enough looseness around meditation retreat practice to both advocate for it, and also see that it's not the only way in. Brilliant!

During an interview Rosenberg gave several years back, he said the following:

The message of my own teaching involves a certain boldness or directness. My feeling is that a number of people who are strongly committed to meditation are afraid of life, or afraid of relationship, or afraid of work on some level. But in my view, dharma practice is not to hide. It is not to become a hothouse plant—thriving only in a protected environment—it is to jump into life.

I was quite afraid of my life when I began practicing Zen a little under nine years ago. And in the formal meditation and ritual-heavy environment I arrived in, it wasn't long before I dived into practice, and also into hiding behind beautiful Zen words, concepts, and hours of zazen. There's no regret left for those early years, but I can see how I believed that if I sat two hours a day, did retreats and all the classes offered, I'd somehow magically be transformed into a healthier, wiser person.

I discovered a few years ago that the daily life piece is not easy to teach. There is an intrinsic difficulty that comes from the fact that all these people are running around in a notoriously intellectual environment like Cambridge and are not meditating much. My job is to constantly remind them about dharma... dharma… dharma. But also many people basically lack conviction that daily life really and truly is as valuable as, say, the walking or sitting practice. And it is; it really is. It’s not better than. It is not worse than. It is just as much of a problem to set the spiritual life above daily life as it is to consider daily life the acid test for your spiritual practice. There’s just your life, period.

In recent years, I have given over to a lot of experimenting. It's become very clear to me that without some formal form of daily practice, things start to go to shit. But what does that formal form look like? This is where I'm not a purist you might say. One day last week, the formal form was 108 full bows, offering bodhisattva vows with each bow. It's a quite rigorous practice, one that doesn't allow for much wandering mind. (If you mind wanders much, you fall over while bowing, and forget to say the vows). Another day recently, I did chanting and kinhin (or walking) practice, saying the Jizo mantra with every step. Last night, I just sat an hour of zazen, nothing fancy at all.

I have come to feel that it's important to learn how to read where you actually are, and then have enough formal tools in your basket, so that you may give an appropriate response to the situation at hand. Chanting, bowing, kinhin, and zazen are all time-tested formal forms - each one a gate with a slightly different energy and quality to them. As Rosenberg suggests above, it's vital to have regular formal practice going on in your life. It's the balance point. What I'm offering is the element of play and experimenting, to take the various forms of your tradition, enter into each, and see what happens. One woman in or sangha has developed a rich Zen sewing practice, and is now studying with the wife of Katagiri Roshi, who also views sewing as a central practice.

There's a lot of other good stuff in the Rosenberg interview worth checking out. And his book is quite excellent; I highly recommend it.

But most of all on this Monday morning, I want to encourage you to experiment with your formal practice. To play with what you've been given. And in doing so, maybe it will soak into your bones in ways you can't even imagine.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Mass Protests, Spiritual Teachings, and Unquestioned Privilege

There's an excellent post over at the blog It's all Yoga Baby, which was originally published at the ID Project's blog. In it, Canadian Buddhist and Yoga teacher Michael Stone details his experience during the recent protests of the G20 summit in Toronto, and the thoughts he had about trying to apply spiritual ethical teachings in such a context. Scrolling down on the comments, I appreciated Carol Horton's questioning of the value of mass protests in this day and ago, something I've wondered about a lot myself. Carol, the author of the blog Think Body Electric, says the following:

The really disturbing question is: what can we in fact do that might really have an impact on this type of very complex, huge, international institutional apparatus – not to mention the world beyond it? It’s very very hard to answer.

I'm right there with her. I've been involved in many protests over the years, and have found myself increasingly disappointed in the lack of focus, and actual impact they often have. Not all protests are failures, but the increase of military tactics used by law enforcement, plus the lack of coherent, sustained organizations of people behind them has really weakened protest as a force for change.

Anyway, I continued scrolling down the comments section to find this:

November 21, 2010 at 7:29 am

Yvan St-Pierre

What I find difficult with this kind of event as with a large part of the usual political debate, is what appears to be a much deeper barrier than whatever can be built with concrete and steel: it’s how our views of the human world are so entrenched that they can only clash with each other, as if there was no way we couldn’t step outside the conflict and attempt a really peaceful resolution.

When I read Michael’s book on ethics a few weeks ago, I was both deeply pleased by the capacity he had to step away from any rigid frame of thinking, at least from the perspective of Buddhist values, and also quite disappointed by his take on the western tradition of ideas, including what appeared to me like a very crude (mis-) understanding of thinkers such as Descartes or Adam Smith.

Yet for people like me, who’ve grown quite attached to that modern western tradition, with the same sincerity as that of the protesters themselves, events of this kind are also profoundly saddening, not only because people actually get hurt, which is bad enough in itself, but also because dialogue just seem impossible.

I don’t mean the dialogue between protesters and the authorities though, because it is this conflict itself that is the result of the missing conversation. What’s missing first is a capacity on all sides to accept that people who do not share our views may have good reasons for that, and that we should stop thinking that we have some sort of right to force other people out of their differing views.

Democratic institutions are just collective means to apply that idea, through a few relatively simple albeit imperfect mechanisms. Now, I’m certainly not accusing the mass of protesters to have deserved the repression they got, but I wonder why some of them may even have thought for a second that they had any legitimacy in using violence, especially given that we are fortunate enough in this country to have institutions that do allow us to voice our concerns peacefully.

Isn’t this violence precisely the result of attachment and identification to conflicting worldviews? An attachment that is so strong that some of us think it is worth destroying others’ livelihood, “by any means necessary”? Isn’t this a strange concept of peace?

I agreed with the first paragraph, and have struggled myself with the levels of anger present at anti-war rallies I have attended. However, as I went further into Yvan's comments, I , frankly, found myself getting pissed off. That's the honest truth. It brought me back to a hot summer day in 2000 in front of our state Capitol building, where a small group of KKK members held court while a few thousand of us attempted to send a counter message. There were opposing groups in the crowd, including some provocateurs from a black nationalist organization that were trying to pick fights. It was a very hot day. People were already angry that the Klan had gotten a permit to control the entryway of the Capitol building for an hour and a half. And just to add to the fun, there were 200 national guard troops, waiting behind the Capitol stairs, in full riot gear. The fact that the event remained mostly not violent - a few punches were thrown between two guys - was something of a miracle. And from that event, my mind went to the 2008 Republican National Convention that occurred here in St. Paul, and I wrote the following responses:

Reply November 21, 2010 at 12:44 pm


“Democratic institutions are just collective means to apply that idea, through a few relatively simple albeit imperfect mechanisms. Now, I’m certainly not accusing the mass of protesters to have deserved the repression they got, but I wonder why some of them may even have thought for a second that they had any legitimacy in using violence, especially given that we are fortunate enough in this country to have institutions that do allow us to voice our concerns peacefully.”

You clearly are living a privileged life, and probably have not been in the middle of mass protests in recent years. The tactics of police and other “security detail” involved in these kinds of protests now include provoking, interjecting violent, fake protesters into the crowd to stir up passions, as well as to deploy weapons on people before anything at all has happened. I saw all kinds of madness being done in the name of “security” here in St. Paul, Minnesota during the 2008 Republican National Convention. In fact, I’d say that part of my city was basically in lock down for a week – stepping a foot into the wrong area could mean risking arrest, and during protests, those areas shifted sometimes every 15 minutes. It’s all set up to upset people, and it’s ridiculous to expect every last person in a crowd of thousands – even if they were all yogis or buddhists – to remain completely calm and contained.

There’s no way to know for sure how the violence that happened in Toronto started, or what people’s intentions were. And frankly, take a look at what the media covers. I’ve met more than one activist who has given up trying to be heard by staying calm and rational.

Saying all this does not mean that I advocate violence. But property damage is different than harming people or animals. And before you tisk-tisk the protesters involved in violence, you might want to take a closer look at what happened. Canada and the U.S. are freer than a lot of other nations, but there’s a lot more repression going on these days. Step out of your comfortable, middle class neighborhood and take a good look around.

Reply-November 21, 2010 at 12:54 pm


“I don’t mean the dialogue between protesters and the authorities though, because it is this conflict itself that is the result of the missing conversation. What’s missing first is a capacity on all sides to accept that people who do not share our views may have good reasons for that, and that we should stop thinking that we have some sort of right to force other people out of their differing views. ”

Also, you don’t seem to have a sense of the power dynamics here. I’ve mostly stopped going to protests because of similar questions to the one’s Carol above posed. But you seem to posit here some kind of equal playing ground, where people are just not listening to each other. Nice pipe dream that is!

People protesting in the streets have already been shut out of the conversation. Whatever ideas they have were dismissed by those in power long ago. Mass demonstrations are an attempt to be heard when other attempts have failed. They are often kind of desperate acts, and it’s rare to see an actual sustained, intelligent, coherent movement like the Civil Rights Movement be the driving force behind such events. As such, it’s quite difficult to get any message of depth across, even under non-repressive conditions.

So, it’s probably a secondary tool at best. People need to find other ways to change corrupt, oppressive systems.

But if it all boiled down to just getting people in a room to listen to each other, we’d be in a different place. I’ve been “heard” by numerous Congress people here in the U.S. over the years – often as one person amongst large group of constituents – it rarely has done shit to change their votes. If you have money and power, you get heard. If you don’t, you have to find other means.

Perhaps my calling this person out as privileged, and basically naive, sounds harsh. Maybe it is based on my own faulty assumptions; I'm willing to own that. But I think it's important to be honest, and even blunt about some of this stuff, because otherwise we just continue to spin in circles. Kindness and compassion are essential in bringing about more peace and justice in the world, but how that looks, and what it means in a given situation depends upon what the situation is calling for. And in my view, it's absolutely critical that people who are out there talking about large scale social issues get a clue about the ways in which power dynamics and the structures of systems influence nearly everything going on.

People who haven't experienced it tend to vastly underestimate the power that repressive environments have over people. This is one reason why it's important to maintain a regular practice, and cultivate the ability to handle those "little cares," so that if you find yourself in a truly repressive situation, you might be better able to live out the intentions that you have.

p.s. If you're interested, I have new poetry up on my writing blog. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Soto Zen Zombies

Inspired by this hilarious post over at Elephant Journal "documenting" the signs a friend is becoming a yoga zombie, I present to you:

Eight Signs of a Soto Zen Zombie, or an Eight Fold Path not to follow

The person in question is found:

1. Wearing his/hers rakusu while sitting on the toilet. When questioned about this, the person says "I'm meditating on letting go of defilements."

2. Every e-mail the person sends ends with the closing "bows."

3. Every gathering the person attends is disrupted when the person lifts their empty wine glass into the air, and loudly, enthusiastically declares that "all is inherently empty!"

4. The person in question gets fired from their job for sliding into "sesshin talk" too often during important work meetings, and then explains to a state welfare official that they were wrongly fired, and were only offering their co-workers a glimpse of their original face.

5. They have a shrine to Dogen in their home that threatens to overtake both the kitchen and the living room.

6. The person has "Suzuki Roshi said" or "Katagiri Roshi said" tattooed down their arms so that, when on retreat, they can still offer something wise to their fellow practitioners.

7. They now bow instead of give handshakes or hugs, even with strangers.

8. The answer to any and all problems in life, personal or social, is "more zazen!"

"Buddhist Website Shut Down for Posting Too Much 'Free' Music"

Someday soon, a headline like the title of this post could be true. David over at the Endless Further, posted the following today:

This week we’ve had the controversy over airport screenings and pat-downs conducted by TSA or Transportation Safety Administration, a branch of the US Department of Homeland Security. The bill in question amounts to another kind of pat-down and eventually, take-down. The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) received unanimous approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee. It will still require full approval from the House and Senate before becoming law.

In a nutshell, this bill gives the Attorney General the power to “shut down websites if copyright infringement is deemed central to the website’s activities”. Under this bill, a website can be shut down even if no crime was committed. Critics maintain that this bill will allow censorship of the Internet without due process, and the big question is who will determine which web sites should be shut down. The government? Yahoo? Google? ARIN?

As David further points out, this should be an issue that crosses political boundaries, as it impacts anyone doing work online. In my view, it's yet another effort to break down the already thin border between our government and U.S. corporations. Between the enormous corporate lobbying body, the numerous government appointees and elected officials who formerly held or even sometimes currently hold, power positions in multinationals, purchased elections, piles of corporate welfare, and a legal code, as well as a Supreme Court, that tends to privilege corporations over people - it's harder and harder to tell the difference between the U.S. government and corporate America. Sounds cynical? Well, you're damn right in that assessment. And while millions are sitting in front of their TVs watching football, Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, or whatever - bills like the one David mentions above just happen, and the civil liberties people use to defend large scale warfare are disappearing. People can scream "Freedom isn't free!" all they want, but if too many of us are so poorly aware of the state of the world that we can't see how fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have nothing to do with "our freedom," and how legislation like the COICA bill has everything to do with it - well, we'll get to find out what that means soon enough.

For those of you in the U.S. who are interested in speaking out against this bill, you can locate your Senators here.

Friday, November 19, 2010

2000 + Fetuses Discovered inside Thai Buddhist Temple

Here's a story that highlights some of the challenges and contradictions tucked away in the wider Buddhist world. Here in the U.S., we have things like power abuse scandals, money grubbing charlatans, and all kinds of poorly examined class and race issues. In Thailand, they recently discovered this:

Thai police investigating a strong smell emanating from a Buddhist temple have found more than 2,000 fetuses hidden in the complex's morgue that appear to have come from illegal abortion clinics.

During an initial investigation at the temple in Bangkok on Tuesday, police discovered piles of plastic bags containing more than 300 fetuses. Police Lt. Col. Kanathud Musiganont said workers pulled more bodies from the temple's morgue Friday. More than 2,000 have been unearthed from vaults where bodies are traditionally interred pending cremation, which under some circumstances can take place years after death.

Abortion is illegal in Thailand except under three conditions — if a woman is raped, if the pregnancy affects her health or if the fetus is abnormal.

The article goes on to say that amongst those helping to maintain the rigid laws on abortion in Thailand are Buddhist activists. This, in a country where foreign male tourists come in swarms to indulge their sexual fantasies, and where thousands of women and girls have been sold into sex slavery, and where "abstinence education" is probably much more prominent than any well-rounded form of sex education.

It's quite complex. There's a whole layer of the old colonialist, exoticism-based attitude going on with the men using the sex trade in Thailand. The strict abortion laws, coupled with heavy emphasis on abstinence, are hallmarks of an oppressive patriarchy. (In some parts of the United States, there is a quite similar combination going on.)And then there are the Buddhists who are helping to maintain all of this.

It's pretty easy to see how a strict, literal take on Buddhist teachings would lead people to press for limited or zero legal abortions. Awhile back, I wrote a post detailing my own struggles over how to view abortions as a Buddhist. There aren't any easy answers. However, in my view, it's quite clear that when you try to eliminate access to abortions in a place where women are second class citizens (much of the world), you're bound to have trouble.

What do you think about this story? How can Buddhists work with abortion in a way that upholds the teachings, but also isn't oppressive?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Art of Buddhist Practice

The above image is a painting by early 20th century artist Seraphine Louis. Last night, I watched a recent film about her life, and the unusual relationship she had with a well known German art critic and dealer, Wilhelm Uhde, who was also instrumental in bringing to prominence the work of Henri Rousseau. If you can't tell, I'm a bit of an obsessive when it comes to late 19th century, early 20th century art in general, so it was quite fun to discover the story of Seraphine, and her art.

Seraphine was, in 1912, a poor, unknown domestic worker living in a small town just north of Paris when she became the housekeeper for Mr. Uhde. When he discovered one of her paintings, and was told she was the artist, he began to offer support for her work, the same work that had been ridiculed by the few others who knew about it, and which Seraphine spent most of the little money she had on the painting supplies for doing it. The outbreak of World War I forced Uhde to leave France, and leave Seraphine behind, but apparently he never forgot about her. Thirteen years later, he found himself drawn to an exhibit of local artists in which he came upon one of Seraphine's paintings. A well known modern art collector by this time, Uhde immediately began financially underwriting her career, and arranging to exhibit her works.

One might think there's a love story behind all of this. And there was, I think, but not the usual kind. Uhde was gay, a pacifist in war torn Germany, a Jew who later spent the Second World War years hiding in southern France, and a collector of art that, when he began collecting it, was hated or ignored by nearly all the prominent art critics of the time. Louis was a secretive, marginalized, and mostly isolated artist, who was religiously inspired (her paintings were said to be offerings to the Virgin Mary) in such an intense way it seems to have sent her over the edge. So, when I say there was a love story, it is that of two people who recognized each others' uniqueness and, for a time, were intimately connected through that recognition.

This post is thus, in some ways, piggy backing off yesterday's post about the relational quality of Buddhist practice. There is something quite important about being able to recognize the uniqueness of each other, just as it is important to realize that at the bottom of it all, there are no individuals or real differences. It's one of the paradoxes of Buddhist teachings that people enjoy soundbyting, but which probably makes most of us uneasy when we sit with it long enough.

One of the beautiful things about the story of Seraphine and Udhe is how improbable it is on a conventional level. They were from completely different economic classes. Their meeting was, it seems, almost accidental, as was the way in which Udhe stumbled upon an early painting of Seraphine's at a neighbor's house. There was no romantic tie that often is the glue that brings together seemingly disparate people. And then there was the reunion after a World War, and over a decade's worth of time and distance.

In my view, the power of stories like this are in the ways in which they shatter cherished views about how the world works, and what we believe the future will be based upon our past. It's so easy to think you're doomed because of past failures, or that you're bound to be successful because of past "good deeds," but truly, the world functions in it's own way. That's not to say that the past isn't important - it certainly is. But it's not the one to one correspondence that pop culture views of karma often say it is.

The tragedy of Seraphine's later years also, you might say, speaks to this. The Great Depression forced Udhe to suspend the financial support he'd been offering, and Seraphine began having visions of coming of the end of the world, which eventually led to her commitment in a psych ward, where she spent the last ten years of her life, isolated again and uninterested in painting.

One of things I have wondered about for a long time is the intensity that comes with dedication to artistic expression and/or spiritual life. Often found in tandem, the lines between piercing through to the great truths of this life, and going insane, seem very thin and I think this is why many people shy away when they get anywhere near that edge. Van Gogh is probably one of the easiest to recognize modern cases of this edge - an intense young man with a missionary passion who has an equally intense burst of artwork that ends up astonishing people over a hundred years later. And it was all too much for him to handle.

The kinds of intensities experienced by Van Gogh and Seraphine probably feel quite remote for most of us. But I do think their stories can be somewhat instructive to modern Buddhist lay practitioners, trying to "fit it all in" or who might be, in spite of all the teachings, trying to achieve enlightenment, or something of the like. Somewhere along the line, both Seraphine and Van Gogh ceased to be able to navigate the waters of their visions. Although the full stories won't ever be known, regardless of what evidence is available, a few things connect their stories.

1. Isolation. Both artists had intense spiritual longings and visions that were coupled with deprived or strained social lives. The relational aspect was broken down for much of the lives of both of these artists, which I'd say was a major factor in their final breaking points.

2. Marginalized living with "bad habits." Although a lot isn't known about Seraphine's life, it's probable the the years of poverty she experienced had an effect on her physical and emotional health. And certainly, the smoking and lousy diet Van Gogh lived on had a negative impact on his health and well being.

3. Overworking and overdoing it. This is, in my view, where the connection between these artists and modern Buddhist lay practitioners might be most useful. Both Van Gogh and Serphine over did it when it came to their art, and the other work needed to support their art. And it's probably also the case that they both were driven to do this by a spiritual passion, a desire to embody the visions they had into a concrete form - a longing I have had myself, and also see embodied in the art and writing of masters from all periods of recorded human history.

But the danger, it seems, lies in the slide away from some sort of balance, from understanding one's internal compass well enough to know when to push and when to pull back. This has been precisely the place I have been exploring over the past year or so, and it is where many of my comments about lay practice, including the repeated undercutting of the primacy of meditation retreats and hours of sitting practice, are coming from. It's not about denying their impact on people; it's about a deep inquiry into what balance means for a spiritually focused person living in the everyday, busy world.

Just as Seraphine and Van Gogh were compelled to draw and paint the world they saw and experienced, I have, for most of my life, been compelled to write the world I experience in some form or another. And I feel that instead of idealizing the struggles past artists and writers had, and/or loving their art but dismissing their lives as failures in some sense, I feel called to learn from them as the whole people they were.

In a way, I am similar to Zen teacher Brad Warner in viewing Buddhist practice as an art form which, over the course of one's life, can change it's appearance many times. Sometimes, it might be deeply introspective, highly meditative. Other times, it might be radically social, pushing across established social norms and oppressive practices. Sometimes, it's full of faith and joy. Other times, it's almost all doubt and suffering.

These changes are all, in their own ways, quite beautiful. But learning to ride the horse of those changes is difficult, and I think not completely respected by even most spiritually-minded folks. People like routines, conformity, predictability, comfort, and knowing - all qualities that disappear at times if you are truly riding your horse, and not the horse someone else thinks you should have.

So, in writing this, I am offering a vow to my own "horse of life," and perhaps in doing so publicly, it might inspire others. At the very least, maybe you'll discover an obscure, but powerful artist in Seraphine, and find her story compelling in some way or another.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Relational Zen

I found myself quite moved by this post from the blog On the Precipice. In particular, I'd like to look at the following two paragraphs:

If this practice isn’t about relationship, fundamentally, then I’d question what awakening means to the person who claims as much. Whether it’s realizing the no-self, the Self, or the nature of mind–whatever you want to call it, waking up has something to do with seeing the illusion of separation. Embedded in that is relationship. Relationship of observer to observed, of mind to object, of self to other. Buddhist practice and meditation are then not about disengaging with the world but rather engaging with it fully. But this daily life practice, practice in relationship (which is really all of practice, since the body and mind are always relating to experience), can be difficult to do with no support system, with no conditions ripe for cultivating stillness and solitude. Why? Because of deeply embedded habit patterns, grooves of behavior, conditioning. Because, from Reggie Ray: “Relationships stir up the toxins in us, to the surface.” Particularly those where physical intimacy is added to the equation, and much for that reason, I assume Joshu Sasaki says: “The best monastery for Americans might in fact be marriage.”

What’s so complicated is, while relationship itself is the default experience of life, we can’t entirely choose to be in romantic relationship. By far, more than any time in my life, there is real contentment in being alone. I have no interest in dating or casual encounters, certainly. And the prospect of having to make life decisions with only myself to consider is not as daunting as it once was. I credit intensive retreat practice and deep solitude with allowing this acceptance of what is, this clear seeing into our fundamental aloneness. Thanks to a couple of good friends for making me admit it, the undercurrent of my expectation post, however, was that I would like to have more intimacy in my life – namely because I see the mirror of relationship to be an important, if not the most important, element of this practice. And in order to spiritually evolve and grow as a human being, I think it’s essential to be in relationship; and those that trigger the difficult emotions which help us the most can be that much more valuable as a result. But how to want this without attaching to any particular expectation

Although romantic relationships are emphasized in this section, Katherine points out later that living with her parents as a mid-30's adult, and experiencing the old entanglements that come with those parent/children relationships, has been quite valuable as well.

This makes me think of Peter Hershock's dense, but quite interesting book Liberating Intimacy. A PhD philosophy thesis about Ch'an Buddhism, this text can be quite daunting upon first glance, but I think it's worth it. Amongst the major points Hershock makes is the following: both suffering and the liberation from suffering are social, and that Ch'an practice is about being dynamically creative in how we "relate" in the world. He reminds readers again and again that since suffering isn't owned a by person, and since there isn't any fixed self to own it in the first place, that all we experience is profoundly relational, even if we each experience life in a unique manner.

Hermit monks and nuns aside - although even they are in relationships to the places they live, the air they breath, and whomever they came in contact before going off into the mountains and valleys. But leaving them aside, it's fairly easy to see how Buddhist practice is very much about relationships. Monastics have their fellow monastics, and anyone that they might care for or be supporting outside of the monastic community. Householders have parents, friends, lovers, co-workers, neighbors - the lists go on and on.

We "Western" Buddhists are fond of saying practice is about zazen, retreats, bowing, chanting, and whatnot. And it is - to some degree. But what about this "mirror of relationship" Katherine speaks about? In some ways, the influx of psychology into Buddhist circles has elevated relational life, and brought it into consideration. However, I also believe the same thing has also created a veil of language through which people hide themselves from truly experiencing the relational quality of life.

Instead of opening to a moment with a loved one, for example, how often do we - you and I - end up trying diagnose some problem or troubling emotion another person is experiencing, and then shift our attention towards "fixing" it somehow? Or even worse, how often do we reduce spiritual practice to some kind of working with difficult emotions process?

The "toxins" Reggie Ray speaks of in the quote above are much more than emotions, and even though emotions are a familiar gateway to deeper understanding, the relational quality of life is far too vast to limit to something like we all experience anger, therefore we are interconnected.

I remember as a child being fascinated by a large cottonwood tree that was in a yard across the alley from my grandparent's house. Every year, it's huge branches released enough seeds covered in white hairs to blanket most of my grandparent's back yard. A snowfall in late spring is how I saw it. This particular tree had to be near 100 years old, and I remember wondering how it had gotten so big, and lived so long. One time, we took a tape measure and measured around the tree's trunk. I only remember it was "really big" - ah, the clarity of an eight year old mind. Anyway, stepping around the tree meant leaping over the large, exposed sections of the tree's roots - almost like snakes to my kid mind.

It's said that the natural habitat of these trees is near rivers or other muddy places, but that human soil cultivation has expanded the growing range - hence this large cottonwood in the middle of city neighborhood, no where near a river or lake. When I think of that tree and the soil, the rain and the soil, and the soil and the people tended the soil, it's all relational. Try to separate it out, to describe the difference facets of these relationships and you get some nice sounding chemistry and biology - but ultimately a limited story.

Life is relational, and liberation comes through it, but we can't pin "it" down. There often seems to be discussions and debates online about dharma transmission, enlightenment "experiences," and the pitfalls of teachers who don't seem to handle relationships with students or even other teachers well. Lots of talk about all of this - but think about it, whatever is being talked about in these arenas, a lot of it really boils down to the relational quality of practice life. Sure, there are solitary figures throughout Buddhist history who have been considered enlightened without the need of a teacher or sangha, but it's other people who speak of this enlightenment, and in a way, confirm it.

But there's something troubling, I think, about over emphasizing the more solitary aspects of Buddhist practice, including our cherished zazen practice. How do we function as social beings embedded in neighborhoods, communities, nations? How committed are we to being with the people in our lives, no matter how much they are struggling? How willing are we to get close to others, and in doing so, be exposed to the mirrors they each will hold up to us?

Buddha's story is often cut in half in our collective memories. The drama of his leaping over the palace wall and leaving his family behind - that sticks with us. The near death experience he had after starving himself sticks with us. The enlightenment under the bodhi tree sticks with us. In other words, the more solitary parts.

But what about the development of the sangha? The encounters with kings, thieves, and everyday householders? How about the reappearance of several family members, who became part of the new community? The forty plus years of teaching, entirely done with others present?

Less dramatic than the lone seeker part of the story, but no less valuable. In fact, probably much more important because without it, what we have today as practice and teachings wouldn't be here in the way it is. Maybe not at all. Had Buddha gone off into the mountains to live off the grid for the rest of his days, the way Buddhists view suffering and liberation would be - in my opinion - quite different. And frankly, much less beneficial to both lay practitioners and monastics living in communities. Which is nearly all of us.

And thus the very act of a single man 2600 years ago to not disappear illuminates, itself, the relational quality of life.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Suspend Your Love of...

There's nothing that does not grow light,
through habit and familiarity,
putting up with little cares,
I'll train myself to bear with great adversity.
Shantideva-"Way of the Bodhisattva"

These lines have been with me for a good three years now. I memorized them during a fall practice period class, and now silently chant them each night as I brush my teeth. Why then? Well, it's an everyday activity, so I know I'll hear those words running through my mind at least once a day, no matter what.

Why these lines? Well, "little cares" are everywhere. Even on the best of days, something tends to happen that isn't "what I'd want."

Lately, I have noticed how those "little cares" tend to be tied to wanting something or someone, and not getting that. Something goes wrong, or delays me, and I'm not able to achieve some goal I have in mind. Someone doesn't respond in the way I'd hope they would, and I feel a sense of loss. Something I own falls apart, and I have to fix it, do without, or get a new one. The weather changes, and I have to adjust my clothing, or way of getting around. Really, the opportunity for little cares to come up is almost endless.

How does one "put up" with little cares? Not getting hooked is one response. Another might be to suspend the love you have towards the particular storyline you bring to the moment. A third approach might be to simply accept that you don't know what the little care of this moment - the broken pencil, the unreturned phone call or e-mail- means in the grand scheme.

Another thing I've noticed lately is how the mind likes to conjure up the "great adversities," that we're probably hard wired to do so. And since the mind leaps to the big, dramatic place so easily, then the little cares of any given day get attached to the bigger narrative.

Each of us seem to have our own particular grand dramas that we go back to again and again, attaching the little cares of each day to them. When I am able to fall out of love with my particular dramas, those little cares cease to be cares at all. They are no problem really. The unreturned phone call isn't about me as a person. The broken spoon is just a broken spoon. It all grows light in this way, and you can feel that lightness in body, heart,and mind.

What is "great adversity"? Do you know? Sitting hours and hours of zazen might be great adversity for some, but for others it's just a source of pain and suffering. Chronic illness might be a form of great adversity for some, but for others it's just a road to hell. Loosing a job might be a form of great adversity, or just another tick on the "I'm fucked" clock. The death of a loved one might arouse great adversity, or it might be the tipping point of loosing your own life.

It's quite helpful, I think, to recognize that adversity isn't your enemy. That you need not apply the conventional meaning of any word to your experience. We can suspend that habit as well, and become familiar - perhaps - with whatever it is that's actually there, in this life of ours.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Vows and Those Who Live Them

Well, the roof finally fell in on our gorgeous autumn here in Minnesota. We woke to a blanket of wet, heavy snow, enough to force me off the bicycle - for now anyway. There's impermanence for you.

I have a few posts on other blogs to bring your attention to. Seems like the theme lately, eh?

Over at Life as a Human, the webzine I write a column for, I have a short piece on Thomas Merton and the romantic relationship he had towards the end of his life. It's an expanded version of an old post I had on here because I realized what I was most interested in is how vows play out in the lives of those who take them.

Along these lines, I posted a new poem over at my creative writing blog about - vows. I tend not to "explain" the creative work I do much, but I will say that this poem is about both intentional vows, and unintentional vows. Do with that what you will.

Finally, I'm happy to hear that a woman who took a vow to help liberate her nation, Aung San Suu Kyi, was freed today. It's hard to know what this will mean in the end, or even how long it will last. But maybe this is the beginning of real change in Burma. May it be so.

*Image from Tricycle Magazine archives.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Late Autumn Photo Dharma

Here's a recent photo I took. It feels quite emblematic of late autumn. Antique vehicle. Beautiful, but fading leaves. And also that overgrown quality displayed by the garage.

Every day, something in your life is like this. During some periods, much of your life is like this.

Along these lines, here is a somewhat mysterious haiku from the poet Issa (1763-1827)

Shielding an infant
from the autumn wind -
a scarecrow

May you love well this late autumn day!

Online Discovery

It's so strange what happens when you google your own writing online. I found some sites I hadn't seen before. I also found a website called Buddharocks, which seems to be reposting several Buddhist bloggers' writings, without clear linking. And also with some really awful word choice changes made, perhaps to duck copyright issues?

Finally, there's a link to of my posts from here in an issue of the Upaya Center's Newsletter, and I was surprised to find that the post I sent to Buddhist Geeks several months ago was - posted. They never told me. I'm off to e-mail them now, but you can read it here.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Poetry, Yoga, and Zazen in the Park

The renewed focus on my own poetry has brought me back to poetry in general. Not that I was ever really gone from it, perhaps just on a walk down a divergent path. This afternoon, I did a little yoga and zazen under the cool, midday sun, and then took a good look around the park I was sitting in.

During the spring and summer months, the valley below is obscured by the tree leaves. This makes the park feel smaller, a little more closed in, cozy even. Right now, it's wide open. The homes, schools, and fields of the valley below are easy to see. As are, suddenly, the various bare tree trunks and branches.

It's interesting how you can miss something that's always been there. The foliage I guess is quite distracting. Earlier in the autumn, I was probably fixated on the brightly colored displays all around me. And before that, it was just a wall of green, blocking the valley. Those snaking trucks and branches - well, they were being treated somewhat like most of us treat our breath - forgetting it until it feels like it's in danger of being lost forever.

Today, though, it was all trunks and branches. There in their strong, sturdy, quiet dignity.

And also, below one of those trees, the tiny of body of a mouse, turned on it's side - a victim of the first frost?

As I rested in trikonasana, a dog came running up behind me. The man with it had tossed a frisbee, but the dog apparently, lost interest and came bounding after me instead. It stopped before reaching me, and for a second, I looked at it sideways. Then a call from the man caused it's departure, just like these warmer November days are about to depart from us here in Minnesota.

Winter is on it's way. There's no doubt now. Maybe this year, I'll give snow yoga and meditation a try. That whole "When cold, be cold Buddha" thing. I don't know.

This old Rumi poem, a favorite of many, speaks to many things. One might be to the seasons, and their impact on each of us.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows.
who violently sweep your house
empty of your furniture.
Still treat each guest honorably,
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

The art of treating each other, each thing, each experience as an "honored guest" seems rare in these modern times. Maybe it wasn't even that common in the 13th century, or else why would Rumi remind us in such a way?

The gifts of late autumn are like anything else - beautiful in their own way, and soon to be replaced by something else. Replaced isn't quite the right word. Nothing is ever really replaced, not even the rusty bolt on an old bicycle. The new one might look exactly the same as the old one once was, but it's still different.

Guest houses. All. Even the sun, which returns to us every single day in an ever so slightly different form. We are it's guest house. It is ours. If we can't figure out how to honor what comes to the door, then life is nothing but a knocking that never gets answered.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Short Meditation on Grief

I'm having one of those days. There's nothing in particular going on, in fact I'm just sitting in a coffee shop, reading and writing. But for whatever reason, I feel extremely sensitive to the unease within and around me. Earlier, there was a short, but really sarcastic and bitter discussion about the recent elections here in Minnesota. The one guy was talking almost right across the space I am sitting in to two others. I felt the energy run right through me. Then there was a father and daughter sitting next to me, discussing some poor choices she had made, and the disappointment they both felt. And then a woman sat down next to me, and wanted to plug in her laptop. I thought the person on the other side was still plugged in, and as I bent over, said "there's no outlet available." She responded there was, and I turned, saw it, felt a little twinge, and said "I'll just shut up now."

It's easy enough for me to point to a few reasons for this sensitivity. One being that there have been some challenging discussions about the direction of our zen center going on, and I have been in the middle of many of them - doing a lot of listening, some risk taking talk, and some wondering about where it might be all going, and what impact that might have on my practice life. I also have had a few more people in my life flake out on things they said they would do, presenting me the opportunity to either stand up for myself, or let it slide again. And finally, I just think this breath practice work we've been focusing on this fall has opened me up some, but I'm also finding the increased attuned to what's present quality isn't always easy to experience. My own dis-ease is more palpable when it's there, and so is everyone elses'.

I find myself relying more on chanting practice, short mantras like the one for Jizo Bodhisattva, during this time. Even though I'm also doing more zazen than I had over the summer, the slashing through the story lines quality of chanting - even silent chanting - allows for a sense of ease with whatever is return quicker.

Slowing down and taking time to listen to your life's deeper wishes unfolding is not only difficult at times, but it's so completely unappreciated by the culture at large that the alone-ness (sometimes coupled with loneliness) of doing so is striking. Some societies and cultures, in the past and today, have dealt with such pivotal periods more reverentially, which perhaps made the alone-ness each person must go through a little less challenging. I'm starting to see how any loneliness I feel is somehow ultimately tied not to the fact that I don't have a romantic partner right now, or that several friends have dropped out of my life over the past year - no, it's really tied to the fact that there is almost no cultural support for living out the bardo periods of one's life fully, so that transformation may occur.

I think maybe awhile ago, I accepted that for the most part, going fallow for a period of time, being mostly "not productive" in a conventional sense, is not appreciated or embraced. Unlike some people who get lost in their grief and anger over this, I have sought out enough kindred spirits, and learned enough teachings sympathetic to these periods of life, so that I have support to carry me through.

But there's still grief there. I feel it for the time I've spent muddling to get to this point. I feel it for all those who, when faced with an opportunity to listen and be transformed, end up lost in their own fears and confusions and feelings of having no support. I feel it for those who never even reach that point for whatever reason.

I think a lot of people mistake feeling the kind of grief I'm speaking about for depression or some other form of mental disorder. This is one of the unfortunate byproducts of the saturation of western psychology that has occurred. Historically, many people viewed grieving well as a sure sign of an ability to both move on in one's life, as well as an opportunity to transform whatever was lost into the gold of the next stage in one's life. Perhaps, more of us need to return to such a view, to be able to recognize that there is no such thing as awakening without going through deeply felt loss.

p.s. For those interested in poetry, I've posted some new poems over the past week on my creative writing blog. Enjoy!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Oakland Protests, the Paramis, and Creative Practice

The post I offered earlier today was fairly cranky, and the sound byte format probably irritated a few people. That's fine. I think it's interesting to notice how you react to critical statements made about a group or groups you consider yourself a member of. Along these lines, the New York Times reported that protests in Oakland turned violent following the sentencing of a white officer for the killing of an unarmed young black man. Contrast this to the following post, made by Katie Loncke, a member of the Buddhoblogosphere, and who was amongst the arrested during the same protests. Katie took the opportunity to consider the Buddhist paramis, and how they might be applied to a situation as tense and uncertain as a protest about police brutality being broken up by police.

She writes:

I found myself thinking about the Paramis throughout a long Friday night and Saturday, when I was arrested, along with 152 others, for “unlawful assembly”: marching in the streets of Oakland to protest police violence and impunity. I was held in custody for about 20 hours; some people still haven’t been released. (Please consider donating to legal aid for protester defense.)

A concrete detention cell might seem like a strange setting for reflecting on the attributes leading to Buddhahood. A far cry from the bucolic campuses of well-funded meditation centers. On the other hand, many people have famously developed their spiritual practice while incarcerated, or even while being tortured. I’m not saying that every setting is equally optimal for developing every part of dhammic practice. But once you’ve learned some of the basics in a more controlled, safe environment, it’s interesting to see how they can manifest in non-stereotypical situations.

Katie has multiple posts about what happened, as well as a vision she and others out in Oakland have for a radically different way of being together as communities. Even if you don't agree with everything she offers, please go over and take a look at her blog posts. I find both her willingness to be on the front lines, and the dedication to grounding her actions in Buddhist teachings, inspiring.

Some of you might dismiss what Katie is doing as some "activist" appropriation. To which I'd offer the Sutra on The Lion's Roar of Queen Srimala, which is one of the sutras that points to Buddha's social teachings. There's also the Sikkha Sutta, pointing to four different kinds of practitioners in the world. And then there's the Mahanama Sutta, on being a lay practitioner. All of these sutras seem to suggest that involvement in social affairs is compatible with Buddhist practice.

Beyond the social action question, though, is simply the matter of diversity of practice. Once you stick your head under the canopy, it's pretty clear that what Buddha taught 2600 years ago has been taken in many, many directions, and will be taken in many more in the future. I don't consider this a bad thing. It's actually pretty cool. Creativity is, in my view, a hallmark of finding one's way to the heart of the great matter.

One Liners on Buddhist Practice

I'm feeling a bit scattered, and a little bit sick as well today. So, instead of a post on a particular topic, I'll offer some one liners that have been bouncing around in me, some for awhile now.

Too many convert Buddhists seem to divide the world into "inner" and "outer," and then over-focus on their "inner life."

Inner and outer are really just expedient labels to describe the relative.

Everything has a political dimension to it, so let's get over the phobia towards being "socially involved" already!

I've been thinking lately of Dogen's "practice realization" as more of a skillful means to spur on our trust in the moment as awakened on its own terms, rather than as him saying that we are literally enlightened in the moment of practice.

What "lay practice" means in Zen is kind of a mystery.

It's foolish to assume that years and years of meditation practice will bring about boundless wisdom, and yet this is one of the major criteria being used to determine who should teach and who shouldn't.

As our teacher at zen center recently said, the way we Zennies practice probably would look different if women had had an equal or greater share of the decision making power to determine what it all looked like historically.

People tend to not know shit about the actual workings of karma in their lives.

Convert Zen students are too serious. We need more joy and fun in our practice!

Contrary to what Neil Young once sang, it's not better to burn out than to fade away.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Zen and the Three Stages of Efforting

I had a full day at the zen center today, mostly participating in a half day retreat/workshop on chapter 28 of Dogen's Shobogenzo. I'll write something about it another day; I have a bit of a headache from working with it all day. Before Dogen, we had meeting of what we have been calling our "lay training group." We dug in deep on the question of what is "lay Zen practice" anyway, something that I think many practitioners around the world are trying to figure out to some degree or another. I was also scheduled to give the talk for the group, and so I did - about Right Effort, which fits right in to considerations about how rigorous people who live in the world of jobs and bills and family might practice.

One of the things I have experienced this fall is what I will call the three stages of efforting. Perhaps this could be refined into even more subtle breakdowns, but what I have seen again and again are appearances of the three that I will talk about now.

Stage 1: Self-Driven Effort

This is the kind of effort we normally think of when the word effort comes up. It's that pushing, sometimes forcing exertion done to achieve some goal. You push down hard on the shovel head, and soil and rocks come up. You see your mind wandering in meditation and you drag it back to your breath or some other focus.

One of the troubles with this kind of effort is that it's usually done in service to an "I" that you believe is in need of something. It's often also attached to a particular outcome. And there frequently is at least a bit of violence involved, and sometimes much more than that.

Stage 2: Jumpstarting Effort

Jumpstarting effort begins the same way that self-driven effort does, but it's employed differently. It's a push at the beginning to get the ball rolling, but once things are going, it drops away. An example from my meditation practice might help here. One of the phrases in the Anapanasati Sutra, which we've been studying at zen center this fall, is "gladdening the mind." So, during one period of zazen, I decided to ride that phrase on my breath, to work with it. I began by actually saying the phrase to myself as I breathed in. "Gladdening the mind." Breathing out, "Gladdening the mind." This initial push went on for a few minutes, and then it just dropped away, and there was just riding and maybe gladdening going on. So, that's what I mean by "jumpstarting" - it's like the jumper cables on a dead car battery. You don't drive around with the cables on; you only use them to get things going.

Stage 3: Selfless Efforting

This is the point at which the efforting is coming out of total connection to the present. It doesn't feel like "effort" at all, and yet something is happening. It isn't "you" doing it; it's the functioning of the whole works of life. Here, there is no attachment to a particular outcome, nor any specific goal desired to be achieved. You might be aimed in a particular direction - like getting the garden bed ready for winter - but what's happening isn't hitched to achieving that.

From my experience, this is a place of great trust. You have to trust in what's emerging, moment by moment, for this efforting to emerge itself.

Now, perhaps you're thinking that stage 1 is bad and stage 3 is wonderful. I'd like to discourage that kind of thinking.

The first three or four years I practiced Zen, I was very much living a stage 1 effort. Not always, but frequently. I sat hours and hours of zazen. I read piles of dharma books. I pushed myself to do retreats, even when I didn't have much energy. When I saw my mind wander while sitting, I'd get rough, thinking I was failing or not doing good enough because I was always thinking and feeling shitty. (This could be called being "too tight.")

After a certain point, the experience I had began to shift towards the other two stages of efforting. There was more flow, more spaciousness, and less pushing really hard. But at the same time, I was also experiencing what I'd call "burn out" from the previous years, so while things started to open up for me, I also got lazy, and almost quit formally practicing all together. (This might be called being "too loose")

Going through jukai and then becoming part of this lay practice group brought about a refocus for me. And what once was needed - stage one effort - came back into play. It can be considered "wrong effort" in that it's self-driven, but at the same time, I seemed to have to do some of that pushing and driving myself again into order to remind myself why this kind of working in the world isn't terribly helpful. This, to me, is a way to understand how samsara can be said to contain a gate into nirvana. Another way to put this might be to say sometimes you have to do something wrong in order to see how to do it right.

The fascinating thing about these stages is that during a single period of meditation, or while doing a single task, you might experience all three of them, maybe multiple times. You're mopping the floor. It's really dirty in one corner, and you get frustrated, and start pushing hard on the mop. Then you see the rest of the floor, or look at the mop in a certain way, and that efforting drops away. Then maybe the phone rings, you stop, answer the phone, come back, and need to jumpstart the process with a bit of effort, which leads you back into the flow of the moment, and there you are, flowing with the mopping, until you think about your cranky co-worker and get upset and find yourself back at pushing the damned mop across the floor.

I think, in the end, lay practice life is exactly like this. There are times when you have to push, have to ramp it up. There are other times where you subsist well on less formal practice, going along applying what you have learned with an interspersing of jumpstarting. And for some, it's just functioning in that self-less efforting. They do lots of formal practice, or not. But whatever their life is in the moment, it feels fairly effortless, even though the person might be quite busy in a conventional sense.

Anyway, this is what I have seen and experienced recently. Perhaps it might be useful for someone out there. In any case, it's really interesting to take a look at how effort works in your life. Go ahead and check it out for yourself. Maybe you have something to add that I have missed.