Sunday, February 28, 2010

Radical Trust and Radical Patience

Subhuti said to the Buddha, "World Honored One, in the future will there be living beings, who, when they hear such phrases spoken will truly believe?"

The Buddha told Subhuti, "Do not speak in such a way! After the Tathagata's extinction, in the last five hundred years, there will be those who hold the precepts and cultivate blessings who will believe such phrases and accept them as true.

"You should know that such people will have planted good roots with not just one Buddha, two Buddhas, three, four or five Buddhas, but will have planted good roots with measureless millions of Buddhas. All who hear such phrases and produce even one thought of pure faith are completely known and completely seen by the Tathagata. Such living beings thus obtain measureless blessings and virtue.

From Chapter 6 of the Diamond Sutra

I read these lines this morning to open a seven hour board retreat for our zen center. In terms of working with issues of institutional sustainability, these words spoke deeply to me. However, looking at them now, what stands out is the emphasis on having faith.

Faith doesn't seem, on the surface, to be a heavy teaching in Buddhism. Partly, it's the word, faith, which is probably associated (in many North American minds anyway) with monotheistic traditions. However, I think if you replace "faith" with languaging like "radical trust," then you can certainly find the Buddha lurking about.

I think it's really hard, in this high paced, violent, heavily materialistic world of ours to develop radical trust. All that talk we do about everything having Buddha-nature and how everything is dynamically functioning together sounds great, but often feels like just nice talk when you spend any time reflecting on the relative world of our everyday lives.

The selection above from the Diamond Sutra above points to, among other things, a quality of time beyond the regular notions of time we have. In others words, it's calling for us to develop a radical patience along with that radical trust, while at the same time doing the work to "plant good roots."

At our retreat today, I felt we did a bit of root planting. And I feel like our sangha is at a point now where we can place some sustained work into enhancing and refining our organization for the long term (instead of simply the year to year way we've functioned for the past several years). A wonderful place, filled with potential.

At the same time, the largeness of some of the topics, and the level of effort required to bring about fruition of some of the projects discussed, is calling for us (I believe) to develop both a radical trust and radical patience. Radical trust that we will find the ways we need to go and be able to come together to do what needs to be done. And radical patience in that we need to renounce completely any attachments to outcome.

I must admit that towards the end of the meeting, taking in the whole of what had been proposed, I, as board chair, felt a deep panic. Just an hour earlier, our guiding teacher experienced something similar, and we both had a little laugh about our shared experience there. Together, we resolved to let it go for the evening - to not fixate on what needed to be done next. I didn't completely drop it, as this post probably shows, but I don't feel panic or anxiety at all right now - only interest (curiousness) in the process unfolding as a whole.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Backwards Buddhist Mantra

Have noticed more than a few comments on a comedy routine Bill Maher recently did about Tiger Woods and Buddhism. Rod, over at The Worst Horse blog dug into the content more than most, but others have had various things to say as well. I honestly didn't plan to wade in on the whole thing because keeping up with the viral mainstream media is like trying to dig a well with a spoon. However, the following line from Maher caught my attention, and made me pause.

Craving for things outside ourselves is what makes life life — I don’t want to learn to not want, that’s what people in prison have to do.

Isn't this what we think most of the time, even us Buddhists? There were plenty of boneheaded jokes in Maher's routine, but this particular line points to one of the major fallacies that humans struggle with in life. Even the prison comment is an accurate view of the way most of us think of renunciation and letting go of all the things we want. Giving up whatever it is that needs to be given up feels like our freedom is being taken away, doesn't it? Don't lie - you know you've felt this before, maybe often. So, I think Maher is doing us a service by summing up in a single line a false view that many of us have a ton of trouble with.

There's great value, in my opinion, in having something clearly pointed out for you that you want to cease believing in. Too often, I think we walk around talking about compassion, helping others, and not being driven by the three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance. But how much of the time does this occur in a kind of sweet, hazy daze?

Maher's conclusion, if this indeed is his conclusion and not just another joke, is completely wrong. But it's dead on clear, and as such, a way to mark the craving that occurs on the path.

When you feel like you need something outside yourself to "be alive," or that giving up something is like being in prison, just remember Maher's line, a backwards Buddhist mantra of sorts.

Chile Earthquake

I've been offline for the last 24 hours, and have no TV, so I didn't hear until now about the earthquake in Chile. A few hundred have died - nothing like what happened in Haiti - but still plenty of damage and suffering to go around. John over at Sweep the Dirt, Push the dust has some links, as does Richard over at My Buddha is Pink. And now there are also tsunami warnings out for Hawaii. Metta and peace to everyone in Chile and in Hawaii.

Friday, February 26, 2010

How are You?

Thanks to Paul Lynch over at his blog Zen Mirror for this little commentary from a book introduction Robert Aitken wrote for Zen Master Seung Sahn.

How are you?

Sŏnsa-nim begins his letters by asking “How are you?”, and his students take up the question too. “How are you?” they ask in turn in their letters to their teacher. We begin to notice this most routine of American greetings as though for the first time.
Does Sŏnsa-nim’s “How are you?” differ from his students’ “How are you?” Is their “How are you?” just an echo? Are they being imitation Sŏnsa-nims? If so, that won’t do. Sŏnsa-nim stands on his own feet, you stand on yours, I stand on mine.
If you stand on your own feet, then what do you say? “Fine!” might be all right, or maybe you are just temporizing. “Temporizing” there’s an interesting word. It means you are gaining time, but gaining time for what? The next question and the next temporizing? When will you come to terms?

“How are you?” “Fine!” That’s more like it. There are other questions like this in this book. Please pay attention.

I don't know about you, but the "How are you?" often feels like a throw away question. Polite. Trite. Slightly curious. Filler. These are a few of the ways I see it, even when I'm saying it often. Not always, but often.

And answering it, especially when I'm either in a lousy mood or feeling like I have nothing new to say, is equally throw away. "Fine" is often a lie, even if in the ultimate sense, it is exactly true. "Good" is a wildly inaccurate judgment, as is "Bad." And beyond those three words, most responses seem to be an effort to fixate on something that might draw some interest, or at least offer some satisfaction. "Oh, I'm happy because the weather is warmer." "Oh, I'm not so good because work is stressful." "Oh, my writing is doing well. How about you?"

Yesterday, during my ESL class, we studied using "How about you?" An interesting phrase. I can show care for another, or can simply be a way to pass the buck to another. I really don't want to talk about the intense suffering I'm feeling about X or Y, so lets just stick to pleasantries. Or, I really don't think you will understand the joy I'm experiencing about learning something new about the medicinal properties of Rosemary plants, so let's just stick to pleasantries. That kind of passing the buck.

I often don't really know how to become intimate with another, and I can imagine neither do you. Lots of fumbling about, judgments, defensiveness, and confusion - not as much actual liberated interaction. Even though people say a lot of things when it comes to why they started practicing meditation, the precepts, and the Eight Fold Path, I'm starting to think that the misery of failed relationships - all relationships, from the slightly off stranger on the street to your parents - is one of the main reasons people start all this.

Yesterday, there was a televised forum on health care reform here in the U.S. Lots to yawn at in my opinion, but one thing that came out very clearly was that these people - representing people like me and some of you - aren't very good at relationships. Listening without snap judgment is at a minimum. Curiousity is almost out the door, as is openness to new ideas. These supposed leaders are like many of us, stuck in auto pilot, firmly convinced we have everything under control, when in fact we haven't a clue what's really going on.

"How are you? Can you ask it, and/or answer it with heart? To hell with knowing for sure, can you answer it from your heart? Far from being some soft request, this, to me, is becoming the gateway question for liberation.

How about you?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"It Sucks Everywhere!" Speaking in Accord with Reality

Subhuti, the Tathagata is one who speaks of things as they are, speaks what is true, and speaks in accord with reality. He/she does not speak deceptively or to please people. Subhuti, if we say that the Tathagata has realized a teaching, that teaching is neither graspable nor deceptive.

Diamond Sutra, Chapter 14

Being a wisdom teaching heavy on lessons about the emptiness, or no independent existence of all things, The Diamond Sutra is filled with passages designed to wear down human conceptualizing and clinging to ideas and views. It's a challenging teaching, filled with little sword-bearers waiting to slice apart any sense of "I've got it!" that might crop up.

Yesterday, I felt slightly sick and fairly cranky. It's spilled into today, which led me to start reflecting on crankiness itself. There were two or three exchanges I had with others about my job yesterday that quickly slide into sourness. At one point, I told a former co-worker who now just volunteers once a week: "You got out at the right time." She said something back, and then I responded "Yeah, well, around here, it's more work, and less pay." Later, I wanted to add "And no respect."
She responded, "That's seems to be happening all over the place." Which is true, but I didn't want to hear it.

And why not? Because I wanted to be heard as unique, that the issues I and the other teachers at my workplace were experiencing shouldn't just be lumped in with everyone else in this recession-era economy.

Truth telling is an interesting activity. I wonder how many business leaders, non-profit leaders, government leaders, etc. around the country are walking into meetings and telling their employees: "It sucks everywhere. That's a bummer. You'll just have to suck it up." Certainly, there's a lot of truth to that statement, and yet is it also deceptive?

Somewhere recently, I read the statement that objects and experiences are just triggers for your responses - they don't actually produce those responses. This is something I have long seen as valid, and yet it's so easy to forget. Nearly every time I hear someone in a position of power say something like it sucks everywhere economically right now, there's a bristling inside that arises. And sometimes, this even leads to acting out.

After work, I was asked by an acquaintance how work was going. I said "I haven't killed anyone yet." Not the most skillful statement, and the "yet" implies a rage that just isn't present, so it wasn't a very accurate statement either.

Later on, I got to thinking how often we rely on dramatic language that isn't a clear reflection of reality. Partly, it seems that in this media saturated, multi-tasking, overworked society of ours, just saying "Oh, I'm irritated about work today" isn't interesting enough to keep many people's attention. However, the dramatic statements like the one I made above either slide into terrible, life sucking gossip or they shut down things all together. In my case, the woman I was speaking to quickly saw her way out of the conversation.

If you take a look at crankiness, it's pretty easy to see that it's made up of non-cranky elements. In my case, there is sadness, disappointment, and a tinge of outrage at the very least. And the triggers of today, like that overly equalizing statement about the economy, are simply tapping into older wounds, including a fixation on injustice that, when it gets like this, doesn't benefit anyone.

But this isn't all about me and my reactions. That's too simple, too easy. Failing to see how Buddhist teachings like the Diamond Sutra are all about relationships is a pretty common mistake I think. How does one speak in accord with reality anyway?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Truth, What truth?

Check out my latest post on the web-magazine Life as a Human. I take a rare - for me - dive into a popular movie as a metaphor for an aspect of our minds. Some of you may have seen an earlier version of this post several months ago, but for others it's brand new. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fools, Metta, and Skillful Means

Found an interesting post over at the Insight Meditation Community website about relationship dynamics, anxiety, and other issues. What particularly piqued my interest was the following comments by Paul Waters, who was responding to the original post:

Now I'm at a stage, where I don't have any problem interacting with people (i.e. no shyness or fear or meeting new people) but I do find myself having negative feelings (ranging from boredom to contempt) for people in my extended social circle. This is mostly towards some of my wife's friends and family members. These people are harmless enough but don't have much in common with me and I tend to judge them as "unskillful" in their conversation and actions.

I don't enjoy spending time with these people but am obliged to every now and again. I realize that it's not very skillful of me to judge these people but it's generating a lot of anxiety for me.

I feel like there's two directions I can go with this:

1) I think the Buddha said something about not associating with foolish people. This seems like the easy way out for me though and I'm not sure if it really applies here as these people aren't exactly war criminals, they're just muddling through life like the rest of us. Also, this judgment call ("Fools!") tends to feed my Dukkha and throws me off my practice a little.

2) Apply Metta. I first got interested in the Dharma while trying to resolve some of these issues and in one particular case applied the idea of seeing my "enemy" when the were a defenseless child and imagining their fears and hopes throughout their life. I saw that in Stephen Batchelor's book "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and it caused a breakthrough in my relationships with my "enemies" (who were actually members of my extended family).

Now that I've written this I think I've answered my own question - #2 above: I need to start seeing these people as they actually are and not characters (the "bad guys!") in my personal movie. I also need to relax a little bit about how I perceive my time being "wasted" on these people.

I have to say I have similar reactions to Paul when interacting (or avoiding interacting) with some people. In fact, just sitting here in this coffee shop this evening, I attempted to avoid a pair of conversations with aquaintances who I just ddidn't feel like engaging. I had some work to do, but mostly I just felt like not engaging.

Other situations, like certain folks at work for example, are different. There are underlying issues, patterns of behavior and decision making on both my part and theirs that have led us to struggle to interact in healthy ways. I think Paul is dead on when it comes suggesting that applying metta is a skillful means of working with tangled relationships. I've seen how, in very surprising and curious ways, that doing lovingkindness meditations and including those I'm having great conflict with has broken down barriers that previously were there. The internal hangups ceased, or lessened, even if the relationship itself never went anywhere else. Gripes over old co-workers disappeared. Grievances about past girlfriends faded away. Old family issues dissolved. So it makes a lot of sense to approach difficult relationships with metta.

But I have to say, I also believe there are times when the Dammapada commentary about not associating with fools is the absolute right path to take, even if someone's feelings are temporarily hurt in the process.

Verse 61 from the Dhammapada

If a wayfarer fails to find
one better or equal,
steadfast he should fare alone
for a fool offers no fellowship.

Of course, like most everything along the Buddha path, it's not so black and white as just cutting out "fools."

Check out Verse 63

Conceiving so his foolishness
the fool is thereby wise,
while ‘fool’ is called that fool
conceited that he’s wise.

The reality is, no matter what, you are going to encounter and need to interact with people who are doing foolish destructive things sometimes. And maybe something, even just your presence, might be of benefit if you are able to maintain some level of detachment when it comes to whatever is being done unskillfully.

But I sometimes notice that there's a certain bending over backwards mentality amongst spiritual types who sincerely want to support and embody a more peaceful, loving existance, but who also confuse being nice with basic respect for each other.

In the case of the two people who came up to me in the coffee shop, I made the effort to drop off the irritation, engage in a short conversation, and then made it clear I had work to do. Maybe this was easy enough because they didn't reach the level of "enemy" in my mind, as Paul spoke of above. I didn't get into the storyline that they were interrupting me and I wanted them to go away, which surely could have happened if I hadn't caught the irritation in time.

Certainly being Buddhist, or being a compassionate person in the world, doesn't mean that we hand over our entire lives to whomever stumbles into our path. Just because some friend of a friend or family member is rattling on and on about celebrity gossip, doesn't mean you are obliged to engage that person. Just because you work together doesn't mean you are obliged to listen to every opinion that person has, or soothe every "negative" feeling that arises as a result of workplace conflicts.

I think this is one of the reasons why having some sort of sangha is of great benefit. You can choose to spend time and energy with people who are doing their best to remain upright and deeply examime their lives. It's an excellent counterbalance to the times when you just have to deal with sloppy, unskillful behavior, including your own.

But beyond sangha, I think one of the best ways to respect people is to let them take care of their own thoughts and reactions. Maybe someone feels a little hurt that you don't want to spend time with them. Or maybe they could care less. Maybe someone is terribly unskillful in their speech, for example, and you can see that nothing you say will help shift that, so you remain silent or walk away. Or maybe you say what you need to say, and then let it go. The way I see it, the way of the bodhisattva includes knowing when to intervene (not so often) and when to just be.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Rejecting Winter-Rejecting Life

Was out with a good friend and her family yesterday, basking in the warm, February sun that was melting snow piles along the Mississippi River. That feeling of the coming spring was very evident, enough to make the messy, half frozen puddles and slush piles we stepped in almost enjoyable.

Winter in Minnesota is a long slog, so every moment that breaks through it's grip on us is a moment worth celebrating. But I got to thinking that the many ways in which we Minnesotans mostly reject the dark, harshly cold days of January for example, are similar to how humans choose to reject experiences and emotions they don't wish to experience.

I remember a story about Katagiri Roshi, during the early days of Hokyoji, a retreat center in southern Minnesota. He was doing zazen outside with a small group of students and it was cold, very cold. Someone asked Roshi how he was taking it, the cold I mean, and he responded something like "When it's cold, just be cold. When it's hot, just be hot." I can imagine this guy sitting in his robes with his teeth chattering as he said this. It's a pretty funny image if you ask me, and yet, it's a quality example of not adding on to one's experience.

Yesterday, one of the children with us said her feet were wet and cold. Accurate enough. And then someone said something about wishing the snow was gone, which is exactly what most of us do when faced with anything we don't want to face.

I walked into class this morning and did my best to face my least favorite student and say "good morning" to her, recently recognizing how much energy I had been wasting trying to avoid her in such situations. It's a lot of work trying skip out on your life, just as it's a lot of work to bitch about the weather. It requires energy and enough thought to come up with something that someone might respond to if you are with someone. Because you want a conversation, right? So, you have to say something kind of provocative. The weather is a bit unpleasant. probably won't spark much interest. But Man, this weather fucking sucks! probably will do the trick.

And yet, what good does getting into a long, drawn out bitchfest about how cold it is, or how much snow there is? Does it change anything? The same might be asked of a lot of complaining we do.

But maybe not all of it. Contrary to what this post might suggest, I believe it's possible for complaints to be a source a wisdom, and worthwhile pursuing in certain cases. In fact, one may stumble into a bitch session, become aware of it as such, and then use that as a pivot point to turn the conversation towards a more beneficial place.

You might say, why not drop the bitching all together, and part of me agrees. However, it strikes me that some circumstances call for slogging through slush piles for a bit before drying out under the sun. I can't think of a good example right now - maybe someone out there can give one - but it seems to me that the seeming purity and perfect clarity of Katagiri's comments that cold, winter day were what was appropriate to that moment. They're still teaching us, and yet clinging to them as the only way to act is rejecting anything that doesn't fit their expression.

Sometimes pure and clear. Sometimes dirty and sloppy. This is how it is while we are longing for something else.

Reiki Ban: Catholic Bishops Taking One More Step into Oblivion

*photo from The State Journal-Register | Springfield, IL

Sometimes, I wonder if the Catholic Church is attempting suicide in slow-motion. There was Pope Benedict's recent call to disgruntled Anglicans to "come home" - i.e. return to the Catholic fold, which of course, assumes these people actually left them at some point in recent history (best be careful in assuming that the 16th century is recent history). There have been the repeated efforts to diminish, minimize, and punish the GLBT community, especially those who actually practice within the Church. Even though sex scandals and attrition have significantly decreased the number of men interested in priesthood and Catholic monastic communities, Church leadership continues to hold on to the view that only celibate men can become leaders in the church. Women continue to be second-class citizens in many facets of church life, and there has been an on-going "investigation" - read as "witch-hunt" - occurring amongst communities of liberal and progressive nuns who are, in my experience, actually doing their best to truly live Jesus' teachings of love, compassion, and justice. And now, this little gem, from Paul Lynch's Zen Mirror blog:

The U.S. bishops have issued guidelines that call Reiki therapy, an alternative medicine originating in Japan, unscientific and inappropriate for Catholic institutions. They outlined the position in "Guidelines for Evaluating Reiki as an Alternative Therapy." The guidelines were developed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Committee on Doctrine, chaired by Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut. They were approved by the USCCB Administrative Committee, March 24, during its spring meeting in Washington. The Administrative Committee is the authoritative body of the USCCB to approve committee statements.

Where to begin. First, there is the intervention of a religious institution into the health matters of it's members. Second, there is the laughable use of science as a defense from an institution that spent centuries historically damning scientific endeavors. Finally, there is the deliberate focus to discredit a healing method that has attracted a large number of Catholic nuns. A coincidence: I think not.

As far as I'm concerned, this is another example of patriarchal oppression. Why such strong language? Because think about it. Women in the church have learned something that is giving them the power to heal others. People in Catholic communities struggling with all kinds of issues are going to these women, instead of the priests in their churches. Jealous, the male church leadership condemns Reiki as unscientific and superstitious, fearing that it's continued spread will undermine their authority. This probably isn't the whole story, but I'm almost positive it's a large part of the story.

I suppose people out in Buddha-land are happy to not have to deal with such issues, and happy to be part of a religion that isn't so controlling. Of course, that's simply a false happiness, when you look under the surface. We've got out own baggage around these kinds of issues, from sexism in sutras, to male dominated leadership systems. And the way I see it, the longer these issues go on being poked at and massaged, but not really being addressed in an upright and honest manner, the more likely it is that the probable future of Buddhist institutions will be similar to the probable future of the Catholic Church. Everything crumbles to dust eventually, even well fortified, powerful systems.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

What's Terrorism Got to Do, Got to Do With it?

Richard over at My Buddha is Pink made some very interesting observations about the man who crashed a plane into the side of the IRS building in Austin, Texas.

Joseph Stack was a troubled man; that is not too difficult for anyone to see. His despair must have been profound. Yet, when you read his manifesto, it becomes very clear that he accepted no personal responsibility for his actions. He quite plainly took significant time to justify in his mind what he intended to do (remember, kamma is based on intent): “I would only hope that by striking a nerve that stimulates the inevitable double standard, knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are. Sadly, though I spent my entire life trying to believe it wasn’t so, but violence not only is the answer, it is the only answer.”

What a desperate and deluded mind to reach such an ominous conclusion. And we learned that it wasn’t just the people in that building in Austin who were being targeted by his delusion. Prior to his fateful flight, the night before, he had a terrible argument with his wife, who fled with their daughter to spend the night elsewhere. Thank goodness for that. For the next day, Stack set fire to his home before he fled to attempt mass murder.

Excellent points. And they lead directly to one of my points: namely, the way the whole story was framed. Both the act of crashing the plane, as well as burning the house and even probably, the fight with his wife, were all acts of terrorism. You heard me, terrorism.

One of the many reasons, in my opinion, that there is so much violence in the United States, especially the dramatic stuff like mass murders, is that we collectively fail to call a spade a spade.

When the young Nigerian man failed to blow up a plane heading to Detroit, he was almost immediately declared a terrorist by the U.S. government, the media, and most of the population in the United States. Why? He was black and Muslim. Period. Instant recipe for having your violent act called terrorism.

Meanwhile, the middle aged, white computer techy whose rage at the IRS and others nearly turned deadly was declared not a terrorist by the U.S. government, and is widely being framed as a man who flipped, went too far, etc.

The reality is that both men committed acts of terrorism. And the same can be said of Professor Amy Bishop, who recently murdered three of her colleagues on a campus in Alabama. The same also, though, can be said of most people who kill others, those who commit rape, those who beat their spouses, those who create a pattern of verbal abuse and threats that keep others under their control - the list can go on and on. These kinds of actions can occur within the context of a family or other group of intimately linked people. And these kinds of actions can also occur within communities, even entire nations (Burma and North Korea come to mind currently). Along these lines, no matter how seemingly "noble," every act of warfare is an act of terrorism.

One of the many problems with the terrorist label is that it's a fixed identity, one that has become affixed to certain groups of people, and is almost never used anywhere else. When you consider from a Buddhist perspective anyone who is labeled a "terrorist," they are completely made up of non-terrorist elements. In fact, the vast majority of their lives would probably be considered non-terroristic, even for the worst of offenders. No one is able to maintain a single mode of behavior over the course of even a single day, let alone a lifetime. The label, in other words, fails completely to give an accurate picture of reality.

It would be more accurate to focus on the actions themselves. The origin of the word "terror" is from the Latin for "to frighten." A deliberate act of trying to instill fear in another, or group of others. As such, everything I spoke of above fits into the category of terror.

Why does any of this matter? Why am I rambling on and on yet again about "terrorism"? Well, consider the line Richard pulled from the Five Recollections:

I am the owner of my kamma, born of my kamma, related to my kamma, abide support in my kamma – whatever kamma I do, skillful or unskillful, to that I fall heir.

When we label one person's actions, or one group's actions as terrorism and spend countless amounts of energy,time, and resources pursuing these people in an effort
to eradicate them, out of a fear that they will eradicate us - and at the same time, label other people's actions as simply the deeds of a loner, lunatic, or fringe group, we fail, both individually, and collectively, to see the full impact of the kamma created by all such actions. In other words, we create a skewed image that we then attach to as "the truth," and then allow it to guide our thoughts, responses, and actions. Pretty unskillful if you ask me.

What would it look like if we routinely and pervasively labeled warfare as terrorism? What if every act of rape, mass murder, pattern of coercive speech was publicly declared terrorism? And what if we we put as much time, energy, and resources into preventing such acts, as we do chasing rouge Muslims across deserts and investing in tanks, bombs, and other weapons of mass destruction?

Perhaps things would be different. Don't you think?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Buddhist TV Circuit

Over at the website The Worst Horse, I just learned that the Dalai Lama will be on the Larry King show on Monday.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be on Larry King Live this coming Monday night. The LKL site says he will talk “about China, human rights and Haiti in his only interview after his controversial meeting with President Obama.”

This, just days after Thich Nhat Hanh was interviewed on Oprah.

You may be waiting for the hard hitting analysis on pop culture, television, and the fluffy nature of TV programming these days. I could certainly do that. I haven't owned a TV since 2003, and almost never consider anything on TV worth dropping whatever I am doing to watch when I am in places with a TV. However, I think it's just fine that these two powerful teachers and peacemakers are doing these shows. In fact, it might help make a dent in the flawed perceptions that arrived, or were enhanced, during the whole Fox News, Brit Hume kerfuffle.

Meanwhile, Tiger Woods appeared in public for the first time in several weeks and had the following to say:

“I have a lot of work to do, and I intend to dedicate myself to doing it. Part of following this path, for me, is Buddhism, which my mother taught me at a young age. People probably don’t realize it, but I was raised a Buddhist, and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years. Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint."

Interesting that Woods chose to use the word "faith" to describe Buddhism. I wonder if he deliberately used the term out of hope that it might bridge him with Americans of monotheistic traditions, especially Christians. Or maybe the devotional aspect of practice was most prominent in his childhood home, and thus Buddhism does really feel like a faith to him. In any event, it's easy to see how fame and fortune could sway someone like Tiger away from his spiritual path. Any of us could have been like him, and in our own ways, are exactly like him. Maybe his easy to understand statement about craving and the search for security will awaken others to question the ways they've investing in fleeting things, hoping for a happiness that will never come.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"Spiritual Realism"

Over at one of my new favorite blogs, Katie wrote the following:

Having used the literary concept of “magical realism” on a few occasions to describe my experience at Goddard, I’ve lately begun exploring an idea of “spiritual realism.” It’s a phrase that speaks to many of my experiences in the last two years, and to my spiritual philosophy in general. I’m interested in the spirituality of everyday life, in the most mundane places — ugly, resplendent, boring, and everything in between. I’m especially drawn to spiritual practices that address the suffering inherent in social oppression. That’s why I practice Vipassana meditation at donation-based centers; that’s why I sit with a sangha led by and for people of color and queer folks (also on a donation basis); that’s why I live and work with the Faithful Fools, a street ministry in the Tenderloin of San Francisco.

I love her term "spiritual realism." Buddhism has a lot to say about those ugly, boring, or difficult internal places, and a lot of us were drawn to the practice precisely because of that. Learning how to work with, be aware of, and simply accept the muck within one's self is a core part of any spiritual path, but I think it's especially emphasized in Buddhism. However, what's so refreshing to me about Katie's view is that both the "internal" places, as well as the "external" causes and conditions that impact us are considered important.

In my yoga class this evening, we did some breath work that cued me in on this point. Doing a set of balanced breaths, where you gently make the inhalation and exhalation the same length reminds me now of how important it is to balance inner work with outer action. This is true not only for social justice work, but really anything one does in life. Unless you are a monastic with few responsibilities (how many of those are there really?), or are ill or otherwise not needing to do a lot, too much inward focus isn't such a great idea. The same is true the opposite way.

Doing a breath that focused on the exhalation reminded me of how it's important to act in the world with quality, not quantity, with confidence, but not aggression.

And while in corpse pose, where it's easy to fully feel one's inhalation, (and exhalation for that matter), reminded me of how refreshing and healing giving yourself time for contemplation and inner work is. I sometimes push too much, do too much, and find it hard to settle down. Even with all these years of yoga and meditation, I still can fall into shallow breathing patterns that reflect my external scatteredness and rushing.

Going back to the breath and the body is an easy, and always available way, to return to deeper awareness. It may seem obvious, but most of us forget our bodies and our breath more often than we care to admit. Part of "spiritual realism" is being deeply honest about everything in life, be it the impact of racism on a nation or the four hours that you rushed around overworking and forgetting your bodily home in the process.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Winter Hell in Mongolia

The Montana Buddhist Badger, not to be confused with the east coast Buddhist squirrel, has a new post on the deteriorating conditions in Mongolia. Extreme temperatures and piles of snow have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of domestic animals, perhaps even millions of animals. People are stranded and isolated behind snow drifts, and medical access is limited in many areas due to the weather conditions. The Badger has some excellent links on his post, as well as on a few earlier posts on his blog. Here is an excerpt from Badger's current post:

More heavy snow across the country this week is isolatin communities, killin thousands more head a livestock, leavin the Mongol herders even more desperate. Here’s how Ms. Flowers wraps up the spot, after detailin all the countries that are ponyin up aid except the US:

But I think at this point what’s needed now is very much a humanitarian focus looking at getting the food, the fuel, the warm clothing, blankets out to affected populations and also the medical equipment and medicines, but also moving trained people in or finding ways of getting the vulnerable population, the elderly, the children and the pregnant women out.”

This is because we’re at the point where children, for example, are startin to die from treatable illnesses, not being able to get through the snow to the nearest clinic.

Extreme weather is part of the output of climate change. This isn't to say every incident of extremity was caused by human damage to the environment, but it's foolish to think we have had no hand in some of this.

In addition to finding ways to support those in Mongolia right now, we may be intelligent to take this as another sign that the greed and fear driven over-consumption of rich nations needs to be transformed dramatically. It's easy enough to dismiss Mongolia as some remote place where Ghengis Khan once lived, but weather doesn't pick and choose, and climates aren't static.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Super Bowl and Human Longing

Please head over to Life as a Human to view my new post on the Super Bowl and Human Longing.

Here's a teaser for you from the post:

Stillman Brown speaks of the Super Bowl as a “hungry ghost situation on a massive scale” and I’d have to agree. I say this as a more-than-casual fan who knows many of the players on many of the teams by name and stats. The wall-to-wall, week-long coverage and advertisement wagon attached to it, as well as the game itself, are loaded with unfulfilled desires. Longings to be successful, or connected in some way to success. Longings for relationship and community, especially when it comes to “fitting in” and group membership. Longings for happiness, as well as longings to escape everyday sufferings. For some, the Super Bowl even offers an avenue to release unfilled aggressions, dreams of battlefield glory, and other such unsavory feelings and ideas.


All this talk about race and class has led me back to the Diamond Sutra, which my sangha is studying for our winter practice period. Here's a few lines worth contemplating that somehow seem related to this who discussion.

From Chapter 10: "'self-existence is said by the Tathagata to be no existence. Thus it is called 'self-existence.' Because Bhagavan, it is neither existence nor no existence. Thus it is called 'self-existence."

The desire to erase the very real impact of racial constructs within our world is like living in the well of emptiness.

And placing all of one's emphasis on racisms, discriminations, and racial identities is a failure to touch the deeper truths of life, i.e. our buddhanature.

We have to learn to hang with both of these ends, because there is no way to be an authentic, awakened human being without doing so. Dwelling too hard in either the absolute or the relative is just a recipe for misery.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentines Day Post on Life as a Human

If you want to read a little bit of commentary about single people on Valentines Day, go over to my new post at Life as a Human journal. Or just take a romp over there for the fun of it because it's full of interesting articles on all sorts of subjects.

More on Race Talk and Buddhism

I had a few misgivings for awhile about the post I made yesterday, but then realized that even a somewhat flawed, incomplete commentary about race that gets people talking is better than nothing. And really, like anyone else, anything I can offer will be incomplete.

One of the commenters, Flying Pig (gotta love that name), brought up some issues I would like to address further.

First off, I'm not at all interested in spearheading a diversity campaign or acting as if I have all the answers. Because I don't. One thing I am interested in is getting more white practitioners to talk about issues of race, and/or reflect on how race does, indeed, impact their lives, even if they don't desire to see it. I am also interested in sharing perspectives of practitioners of color, out of the belief that in doing so, other practitioners of color might find themselves feeling less alone or have some new way to speak about their experiences, and so that white practitioners might have something new to consider. Maybe these intentions are flawed, or misguided - I don't honestly know. I only know that they keep coming up for me, as a sangha leader, dharma practitioner, ESL teacher, and member of a society filled with racialized institutions.

Flying Pig brings up class, and says that the dharma is open to everyone. Yes, I agree, And yet, think about the cost of classes, retreats, etc. at any North American dharma center with a decent sized membership. It's out of reach for many people, including that single mother barely able to feed her children Kyle speaks of in his comment. Sure, almost all centers offer some free services, but there often ends up being a "price" to access working deeper with the dharma in North America. It's one of the reasons, I suspect, that there are more people doing online practice. As the board president of my sangha, I continue to reflect on how best to balance the financial needs of running an institution with making what's offered financially accessible to as many people as possible. There aren't any easy answers, but if we never ask how what we are doing is effecting people, including ways in which we are possibly excluding people, then we're failing to handle the grains of rice as if they are our eye balls, to paraphrase a line from Dogen's "Instructions for the Zen Cook."

Flying Pig asks: "Are we just creating an issue and is our drive to integrate Buddhism evidence of some racist assumption that everyone's practice should look the same?"

A fair question. I think there is some truth to this, especially when narratives about race are solely about "inclusion." I'm trying my best to come at this from a different angle, to not just say we need more people of color in our sanghas. What does that prove anyway? Even if our sanghas remain segregated, our everyday lives are not always so. Many of us walk into work, into the grocery store, into schools, and struggle to relate to each other, in great part because of race. This is increasingly true in suburbs and even in some small towns with factories employing recent immigrants - racial diversity is not just a city thing anymore.

Buddhism, it seems to me, keeps pointing us back to relationships, to how we interact with each other on a moment by moment basis. If you can't communicate effectively with your child's teacher because he or she is of another race, that's kind of a problem don't you think? If you struggle to relate to your boss or your co-workers because of their racial backgrounds, it's hard to get the job done well, don't you think?

Race is political. Race is personal. Race is relational. Even as race is an empty social construct, it still impacts almost everything, from bank lending practices to elementary school test scores. It seems like the perfect dharma topic, because it demonstrates so clearly both the emptiness of forms, as well as the power of forms in everyday life.

As for "creating an issue" from the question above, I've had sangha members of color speak very personally and honestly, both in public and in private about their frustrations with the unexamined assumptions of the white majority in our sangha. And our sangha has made efforts to be more upfront about race, which maybe is why these folks felt ok enough to speak about their experiences. So, this isn't an issue I made up. In fact, our sangha, like some others, have supported people of color practice groups that specifically focus on the intersections of race and dharma - so I don't think this has to be about making everyone's practice the same.

Flying Pig writes: "the women of S.F.Z.C worked hard to make their presence known. No one else could have done it for them." Yes, it's very true that the women of SFZC had to do the work to become leaders. The men of SFZC could not have led the charge to develop and institute female leadership.

But the men there, certainly, didn't remain static in their views. How could they have? My guess is that those men who wanted to maintain a male-dominant practice either left, or have ceased to be in the majority. It was probably a gradual shift, one that's still going on, but there had to be a shift of some sort for conditions to be right enough for women leaders to actually succeed.

As for the correlation between women and practitioners of color Flying Pig made, it remains to be seen. There are far more white women in North American "convert" sanghas than people of color of any gender. And there aren't all that many white people, or non-Asian people for that matter, landing in sanghas that were started by Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans in the U.S. and Canada. Spiritual segregation remains the name of the game for the most part.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Race Talk and White Dharma Practitioners

In response to a dharma talk she listened to by Noah Levine on MLK day, Lori Pierce over at Urban Refuge had an excellent, and challenging post about white Buddhist teachers and discussions of race. It seems to me this could easily apply to blogging, and I have personally experienced how difficult it is to blog about race and religion effectively and honestly. Just the mention of phrases like "white privilege" can set people off in hard to handle ways.

I personally feel that Buddhist practice isn't worth too much if it doesn't help us address deeply damaging social issues. Clearly, anyone who reads my blog regularly can see that. We have to address the personal and the collective, even if in the end, it's only in tiny ways.

As a white male - the double privileged class - I find it's difficult to travel the path of attempting to be a deliberately anti-racist ally. How often I have found myself in conversations that tread into "dangerous" territory, only to find that my lips can't find a way to word what it is I'm feeling and thinking about the situation at hand.

An example: during a break from a weekend workshop, a visiting white teacher at our center broke into a story about impoverished, young black males who fell into drug dealing. I don't recall why this story even came up, only that it slid quickly into what felt like pity, and that everyone in the room seemed to get increasing uncomfortable. I wanted to say something, but couldn't pinpoint what it was exactly that I was reacting to so strongly. Finally, the only person of color in the room spoke up, saying she was tired of hearing white people endlessly retelling these poor, sorry black people narratives. The rest of us sat in stunned silence as the visiting teacher struggled to apologize, while clearly ignorant of what she was actually doing. Although some of us went up to woman who responded later on, the whole situation felt all to familiar, and I was disappointed that none of us white practitioners had added anything during the actual conversation, or had been the first to interrupt the story in the first place.

I choose to remain focused on issues of race and class. That's the first lesson any white, middle or upper class practitioner must learn. We get to choose; people of color and those in poverty, regardless of race, don't get to choose. It's in their face every day. My choices of careers, as well as who I have made friendships with, definitely have shaped this desire to remain racially conscious, and willing to examine how I live and act within structures that are "raced" in all sorts of troubling ways. However, even with that experience, it's still only been because I have repeatedly made myself keep looking, keep reflecting, keep putting myself on the line in conversations and actions that has brought me to where I am today. It's so easy for us white folks to turn away, to forget, to deny, to blame, or any other number of things rather that simply sit with the uncomfortableness of it all, and try to act as best we can to make some kind of dent in the daily injustices occurring not only nationally and globally, but right on our streets in our own neighborhoods.

One of the criticisms other religious groups in North America have made of Buddhism here is that it's too individualistic, and doesn't seem to have much to say about social issues. Even if it isn't completely accurate, this criticism falls upon all of North American practitioners, whether we are white or practitioners of color. Part of the reason I started this blog was to make a tiny dent in that perception, to be an example of a practitioner who is trying to balance the introspective and socially active elements. And yet, when it comes to race and Buddhism, other than a small spurt last summer, I haven't seen a whole lot of deep examination in the Buddhist blogosphere, especially from white Buddhist bloggers. There are definitely exceptions to this statement, but generally race talk about Buddhist talk seem curiously all too separate.

My guess is that this will be taken as a guilt trip by some - that's not my intent. First off, guilt is a self-focused emotion as far as I'm concerned, and the kind of action it promotes, especially when it comes to things like race, is not very helpful. Secondly, if you never write about race on your blog, that's fine with me. Everyone blogs for different reasons, and maybe stepping into such a sensitive issue in such a public forum isn't your goal.

Regardless of if you are a white or a person of color blogger, it's your choice as to what to write about. But in daily life, only one side of the equation gets to choose when it comes to race. If you are white, and especially if you are white and surrounded by white people in your daily life, you never have to wade into the morass that is race in North America. The dharma brothers and sisters of color in the audience, and in our sanghas, don't get that choice.

So I choose to stand with them as best as I can, and to encourage others to find ways to stand with them as well. It doesn't have to be on a blog, but if you're not reflecting on race and society on a regular basis, you might want to ask yourself why.

Here is a list from Lori Pierce's blog post that are worth reflecting on no matter who you are. May we all have the courage to face our lives as they are, moment after moment.

Five things NOT to do when you’re a White dharma teacher and you want to give a talk on race:

1. Don’t do this on MLK day. Don’t do it in February. Don’t save it for some special occasion or when disaster has struck or when a Black guy gets elected. Doing this suggests that you, like most White people, don’t think of this as a daily reality that effects non-White people who might be listening to you or trying to figure out how the dharma can help us survive. For us, race isn’t like a holiday sentiment that rolls around once a year. We live here all the time and would appreciate the occasional acknowledgment of this struggle as an on-going part of our existence.

2. Stop globalizing. It’s a common strategy for Americans to externalize a problem by globalizing it. White Americans can relate to the oppression of the Chinese in Tibet, for example, because it is miles away and they don’t have to experience the guilt of the oppressor OR the suffering of the oppressed. As the cliché goes, think globally, act locally. When you talk about race, talk about the experiences we live with here, too.

3. Talk to everyone, even if you can’t see them. We’re here in your audience and some of us are genuinely moved and touched by your teaching. But we’re also angered and alienated when your perspective is so clearly delimited. A talk about race on MLK day that is not a serious engagement with the legacy of White privilege and how White Buddhists can become allies for POC is disappointing, to say the least.

4. Stop being abstract. I’ve heard dharma teachers speak with great passion, humor an humility about their own experiences and limitations and use their lives as a means to help us understand what it means to “go against the stream.” But this invariably breaks down when it comes to “the race talk.” Is this because they don’t have any non White friends with whom they can engage in a discussion about the daily violence of personal prejudice? Do they not know anyone who lives with the threat, the fear, the doubt that comes from living with the cultural legacy of discrimination, privilege and racism? There’s a lot to do without taking on more problems, I’m sure. But in my mind, the power of the dharma in an American contexts is that it has the potential to shed light on this most intractable of issues. If American Buddhism is going to contribute anything to the spiritual evolution of the world, I would hope it would be to engage the dharma and practice in a sustained discussion of these issues.

5. Help us. I find that when I listen to dharma talks I myself have to push the lesson to the edge. I stop the podcast or put down the book and think – how does this help me address the problem of prejudice? How can awareness help me deal with a kind of abstract anger that comes when you see the depth, breadth and scope of racialized social injustice? How can meditation help me see stereotypes? Is “right livelihood” really an appropriate teaching for people with NO livelihood How do I really live the message “don’t take it personally” when someone slams the door in my face, or almost runs me down because I’m invisible? How long do I do this before my mental health breaks down?

Frost Meditation

Early morning wake up,
the frosted needles
piercing every last thought.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Haiti and "Poor People Frames"

One month later, Haiti still lands on the front pages of newspapers and news reports, but the flood of the focus is moving on and soon Haiti will be just another place in the world dealing with devastation. This article on the blog Racialicious asks us in wealthy nations to not only not forget about Haiti, but to use the situation there as a spring board for reconsidering the whole structure of globalization itself.

Shannon Joyce Prince, the author of the article, writes:

My former Ghanian boyfriend once asked, “How is it possible for the formerly colonized nations to be in debt to the colonizers? How can we owe those who stole resources from us?”

It's clear that one of the major problems for poor nations around the world is debt to world powers like the U.S., China, France, and Britain. But beyond debt is the ways in which people in wealthy nations view those from economically poor nations.

Imagine if, after the Holocaust, the victims who were used as slave labor in concentration camps had been forced to pay reparations to the Nazis – that the Nazis had convinced the world that they were legitimately owed because they had lost their human property. Imagine if those victims’ peoples were impoverished for the next century and a half paying back those who had enslaved and killed them. Then imagine if their maimed and miserable communities were trapped in an endless cycle of debt and poverty as a result. No one would tolerate such a crime – the punishment of slaves and their descendants for being enslaved and the continued enrichment of their enslavers and their descendants – when the majority of the victims are white. But for Haiti and throughout the “Third World,” such crimes are perfectly acceptable. I believe that Holocaust victims deserve all the respect and compassion in the world – so, too, do other victims of slavery and genocide.

I will add that colonization hasn't been only a white over brown/black people issue. Powerhouse Asian nations like China and Japan, where much of the Buddhist practice in the Americans originated, have histories of colonizing and victimizing other Asian peoples - and one might consider China's current corporate "ventures" in Africa to be a continuation of colonization in a modern, globalized fashion. But there is no denying the white over black/brown narrative and the centuries of damage tied to it.

When non-white individuals in non-white countries force other individuals into “debt bondage,” the practice is recognized as an ethically indefensible form of slavery. When First World governments, banks, and organizations do the same thing – on an even greater scale – to poor nations, the practice is considered acceptable – and is even construed as “aid.”

This paragraph might piss some people off, and I'm fine with that. I can imagine there are counter examples out there, but really, who gives a damn about defensive posturing? Wouldn't it be more helpful to see that there's truth hanging out in the above statement, and that truth implicates what many of us in wealthy nations view as "the way to help." Indeed, what we often say is "compassion."

As I mentioned in my previous essay, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are each loaning Haiti 100 million dollars, so despite all the talk going on about debt forgiveness, the cycle of debt is just continuing. It took Haiti a century and a half to pay 60 million francs in reparations to France. How many centuries will it take Haiti to pay back 200 million dollars?

This isn't just about history, it's about now. Right now.

I remember in 2000, there was a campaign to suspend this kind of debt production. I also remember that same year that Catholic Pope John Paul made a famous in which he apologized for all kinds of misdeeds done by the Church throughout it's history. It was a big, breezy affair, complete with pangs of guilt for mistreatment of Jewish people in several centuries, and heartfelt sadness for violating "the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and [for showing] contempt for their cultures and religious traditions." Even though I knew the Church itself wasn't going to change anytime soon, I was moved by John Paul's willingness to admit to some of the wrongs done historically, and to offer to world an olive branch at a time when religious conflict was terribly, terribly high.

However, one of the problems with offers coming from the Catholic Church in Rome is the same problem with offers coming wealthy nations and their apendages: the view of superiority, as well as the mechanisms that maintain that view, are never overturned and abandoned. Just as the Catholic Church still pronounces it's teachings as the only highest truth, so to do wealthy nations and their apendages (World Bank, IMF, etc.) still consider themselves the best and only determiners of economic, and global policy in general.

Too often the media shows us images of children starving until they’re merely skin and bones or corrupt Third World dictators without showing us the First World’s hand in the creation of both. That an earthquake broke the country of Haiti is a terrible tragedy. If that earthquake doesn’t also shatter the way we think of the First and Third Worlds, that tragedy will be redoubled.

I challenge you to look beyond the horror-filled images and quick and easy commentaries. Haiti isn't that far away really. It's right inside of you and I, just as we are right inside of every Haitian. There's no way, in this tiny world, to not be connected deeply.

And one final note from Ms. Prince:

P.S. Please consider donating to Partners in Health’s “Stand with Haiti” campaign The organization has been serving Haiti since the 1980s, and their commitment and skill in extending healthcare as well as justice and dignity to Haitians is unparalleled.

For those of us who have a few dollars and are rightfully eschewing the obvious "aid groups, here's an alternative.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Going with the Flow, Screw the Flow

I was called into a meeting a few days ago at work to be held accountable for comments I made at another meeting the previous week.

To make a long story short, the adult basic education field, which ESL teachers are a part of, is experiencing a top-down "professionalization" effort and I'm resisting.

The specifics during the meeting the other day had to do with why I said I wouldn't do the continuing education hours that suddenly appeared on our plate from government agency X. And maybe you, too, are wondering. It's simple, really - it's another unfunded mandate that came from people who have no idea of it's impact on those of us actually doing the work. Sound familiar? I imagine it does, and I can also imagine plenty of folks out there saying "Oh, shut up - injustice is everywhere. Suck it up. Move on. Don't waste your energy. Go with the flow."

Go with the flow more. This is exactly what one of the directors at work told me I needed to do. It's an interesting statement, don't you think? There's buckets and buckets of commentaries on "not attaching" and "not grasping" in Buddhism. Endless energy is expended by teachers and dharma peers on these issues, pointing to us the struggles that occur when we cling to anything, even the truth.

I'll admit there is clinging to the truth going on when it comes to my workplace, and my current field's slide into standardization and faux accountability. I'll also admit that I'm absolutely fed up with people defending these changes, and suggesting that people like me, who disagree, need to shut up and go with the flow. Taoist teachers like Lao Tzu may have advocated doing exactly what I'm resisting, but it feels like nothing more than a hollow platitude designed to keep the sheep as sheep.

As far as I'm concerned, there's no liberation to be found in being a sheep - if you always follow along, you never learn a damned thing about who you are.

I also see, however, that the attachment present in my life about the injustice of the situation is probably keeping me in this workplace, when it's probably past time to move on. In an ideal Buddhist wonderland, I'd be fully able to dance with this situation, instead of the sloppy, awkward steps of reality. Sometimes free, something terribly stuck in the three poisons (greed, hatred, and ignorance). Or maybe another ideal would be to just walk away, which many people in my life have suggested on a frequent basis.

One of the sticking points for me is that this isn't just any old job. I care deeply about adult education and feel that lifelong learning is not only of value, but should actually be at the core of our experience. And the people I work with, and that my colleagues work with, are at the margins of society, and often the last people to be given a chance in most areas of their lives. My students struggle with feeling inferior because of their struggles with English, as well as the fact that most of them had their education curtailed in their homelands by oppressive governments, warfare, and other conflicts. Other colleagues of mine work with people who grew up in the U.S., but failed to gain a high school diploma or any kind of post secondary education and are trapped in a cycle of poverty they want to break free from, but just can't quite break free from. These are the people politicians love to demonize as system welchers, as they hand out millions to corporation X, bank Y, and defense contractor Z. It's such a cosmic joke, I sometimes want to throw my hands up and say "fuck it, why bother!" But then I go to work the next day and look my stuents in the eyes, and "fuck it" just isn't in the cards.

I've been considering other options for doing this work outside of the beast of a system known as Adult Basic Education. I know it's possible to work on the outside, but I have some resistence to that as well. Why? Because it's a hell of a lot of work, and there's a distinct possibility that you'll end up broke and crawling back to some system in the future. I suppose that's not the worst thing in the world, but I feel tired, and want a break from the hard work.

Which is really the crux of the issue - wanting a break. I think we all want a break sometimes, and probably need it. I'm fully convinced that the way we are supposed to live in a capitalist society like the U.S. is killing most of us. It's inhumane. It's absolutely insane. And yet, the vast majority just "go with the flow" and view it as "common sense."

I can't do that. It's just too much to give up this life to "fit in" and "get along."

But I also know that the resistence I'm experiencing is both a teacher and a hinderance. What to do? What to do?

I sat in zazen last night during our Diamond Sutra class, with muck running around in my head, but no need to go anywhere, or do anything about the muck.

That's a good start - a way of going with the flow you might say. But there has to be a return to life, to the world of action, with that sitting. Otherwise, you're just fooling yourself, and slowling becoming a sheep of some sort. And don't be fooled by appearences - even serene monks can be sheep to the form of being a monk.

Escalation along the Burma/Thailand Border

There has been an escalation of the situation for the Karen people along the Burma/Thailand border.

At 9:00 am on February 8, 2010, 200 soldiers of the regime (from Light Infantry Battalions No. 362 and 367, under No. 10 Military Operational Command) attackedTee Mu Ta Village in Nyang Lay Bin District, destroying a mobile health clinic and 38 homes of internally displaced families. Following this, at 6:00 pm on the same day, the regime soldiers continued on to K’Dee Mu Der village and burned the village of 15 homes, a middle school, and a nursery school. In total, because of these attacks, 50 families from Tee Mu Ta and 30 families from K’Dee Mu Der villages have been forced to flee and are now hiding in the jungle.

You can read the whole report over at Rev. Danny Fisher's blog. Please send these people some lovingkindness during your meditation and prayers.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Killing the Buddha May be Bad For Your Health

In one of the myriad of commentaries Red Pine scoured through to put together his book on the Diamond Sutra, there was this from late 4th century Chinese monk Seng-chao:

"When your practice and understanding meet, you will see the Buddha."

An interesting line, don't you think? One that immediately sparks for me thoughts of time, and steps made in one's life. Ultimately, we are told, there isn't any time in the way we humans understand time. What we regularly view as time is just a construction. So, when is this "when" being spoken about?

Zen tends to toss out developmental approaches to practice, pointing it's students back to the now, to your breath, to your life in this moment. And yet, even to speak of a "moment," or of "now," is a construction. So, what now? There's not even a single square inch of earth upon which to stand, said Dogen, in a commentary on the Ten Grave precepts.

This kind of talk tends to upset most of us if we actually take time (laugh, laugh) to let it sink in. Hearing it, intellectualizing it feels good - maybe even dead on. But when you actually start to experience groundlessness, it's kind of scary, don't you think?

It could be said that in this moment, as I type these words, practice and understanding are meeting. Or now, as I type and watch the snow fall outside. Or now, as the car passes. Or ...

At the same time, if you don't do the work of meditation, chanting, applying teachings to your everyday life, then any appearance of the Buddha in your life will prompt you to commit murder before its time.

Monday, February 8, 2010

White South Africans Declare Buddhism is too "Intellectual" for Black People

Having an interest in Buddhisms cropping up in sometimes surprising places, I was interested to see what John had to say over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt about Buddhism in Africa. The first half of the post considers the challenges of setting up sanghas in South Africa. Interesting stuff which might sound familiar to many of you. The second half of the post, however, brings up the presumed racial composition of Buddhism in South African sanghas, using some really unfortunate stereotypes. John is not the author of these comments; he's just reporting them because he found them compelling, and probably provocative, which they certainly are.

On a different note, Buddhism and Africa by Michel Clasquin and Kobus Kruger has mentioned that majority of Buddhist practitioners in South Africa are largely middle-class and white with one commentor in the book stating that

Buddhism does not fit all that naturally into the present black social or religious mentality

As well as it being…

too foreign to their accustomed ways of thinking: too intellectual, philosophical and introspective.

This is classic coded racism in action if you ask me. Instead of saying black South Africans are intellectually inferior, the author of these comments framed the argument using what appears to be neutral languaging, but actually accomplishes the same thing.

Clearly, sanghas like the Nichiren one pictured above were never considered, or maybe simply didn't exist at the time these comments were made. However, I cannot help but think of a talk given at our zen center a few years ago by Professor john a. powell (he uses lower case letters for his name; i'm not sure why). Professor powell spoke a lot about "white space," and how many convert sanghas in the U.S., were developed primarily by middle class whites in a way that catered to their assumptions about what constitutes Buddhist practice. Now, clearly the same might be said of black dominant U.S. Christian churches, but the difference is that there is often little awareness within white convert Buddhist communities about how race impacts the make up of their communities. Specifically, there's often no correlation made between the racial composition of the leadership of these groups, and the composition of the community as a whole. Lots of hand wringing might occur about the "lack of diversity," but because white Americans struggle as a whole to first see themselves as a racial group, and then second see the ways in which power and race are intertwined, the steps necessary to create a truly racially diverse community rarely, if ever, occur.

South Africa has a markedly different history from the U.S. in terms of race, but there are some parallels, especially when it comes to whites in both groups using their own characteristics as defaults. The author of the comments reported by John made assumptions about both whites and blacks in South Africa as a whole that probably don't hold up very well. What does is mean to be "introspective" for example? Does it always look the same, or is the author missing the diversity of forms introspection can take? The same questions might be asked of the term "intellectual," although I would also add that the associations I have with the word - college educated, for example - suggest that privilege (racial and class) is often tied to this term in unexamined ways.

Using the racial composition of certain Buddhist communities as a template for speaking about Buddhism's appeal, or lack of appeal, to anyone else is totally problematic. If the above fails to show that, I don't know what will.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Buddhist Prayer

We had a ceremony this morning at zen center commemorating the Parinirvana, or physical death day, of the Buddha. It was a short ceremony, attached to our regular children's precept ceremony, but I noticed that, at one point, the doan (basically a chanting leader), spoke in language that could be called a prayer. He said something to the effect of "May Shakyamuni Buddha continue to support and lead us through our lives." Now, it's important to note that there isn't a belief here of a deity hovering over our world, determining what is happening and what will happen in the future. If anything, a statement like this is calling forth the buddhanature - enlightened energy - within each of us to continue to manifest in our lives.

About a week ago, there was a post over at Barbara's Buddhism Blog about prayer in Buddhism. She basically takes the stance that we Buddhists do not pray because prayer assumes a petitionary stance towards some outward deity or spirit. In the comments section that follows the post, there's a fascinating set of exchanges between Barbara and a commenter named Jeff Wilson. Wilson brings up that many Japanese Zen practitioners, in everyday life, make petitionary prayers in daily life to such figures as Kwan Yin, Jizo, and other bodhisattvas, while at the same time, believing in the core Buddhist doctrine of interdependence. He parses this activity out as an example of working within the relative or practical world, while at the same time, maintaining the ultimate view that there is nothing separate in this world. Barbara was having none of that, and defended her position, getting snotty at the end in my opinion.

All of this, though, raises the question for me of why such unconfortability with the word "prayer" and activities that would fall under it's domain? I don't get it. Possibly it's tied up the definition Barbara seems to give, that prayer is basically done towards the outside, suggesting a belief in a supernatural being having an ability to control some aspect of your life. Well, maybe. But does it have to be? Can one not pray, even petition for something or some quality, but from within?

I'd answer a resounding yes! Look at the old Sufi poets, who spoke constantly of God, but were often, if not exclusively "praying" to wake up what was already within them. I "pray" to Jizo fairly frequently, especially to call from within me that equanimity that seems to disappear when I am biking in traffic.

The fuss I have seen when it comes to prayer - and I've seen it in people in my own sangha, as well as people writing online - seems curiously limiting to me. Because those monotheistic folks do prayer, we Buddhists better eschew it. Or because it sounds like a petition to a deity, we better say we don't do it. Or because Buddhists are about meditation, we don't pray. Honestly, I can only guess at the myriad of reasons for eschewing prayer in all forms, but it all seems like a reaction to other traditions, an act of separating Buddhism from other spiritualities, which seems like a waste of time and energy to me.

In her post, Barbara suggests that Zen folks don't pray, but we do "invoke." The main definitions of invoke are "to petition for help or support," or "to appeal to or cite as authority." Sounds like prayer if you ask me. And I see no issue with it at all. My petitions to Jizo do not change my view that there is no separate God out there. And I can imagine that plenty of Buddhists around the world can invoke, or pray, to any number of deities and still maintain a similar understanding. And maybe some do think there are separate bodhisattvas floating around out there, protecting and helping people. I guess I'm not all that interested in judging these folks as "wrong practitioners" for believing in such things.

*Jizo image from the Michigan Aikido blog.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Deportations to Burma; Connections Half Way Across the World

Maia over at the Jizo Chronicles posted the following article about Thai government efforts to deport Karen refugees back to Burma. This is just the latest for the Karen, an ethnic minority group that has been long been persecuted in their native Burma. Their story, as well as the stories of other ethnic minorities of Burma, tend to get lost in all the general coverage about the Burmese dictatorship's crackdown on Buddhist monks, as well as the nearly two decades long house arrest of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Karen communities, for example, were hard hit during a cyclone that hit in spring 2008. That cyclone killed over 200,000 overall, and left over 1 million people homeless. And the Burmese dictatorship's efforts to keep out international aid was a horror for all those involved, but especially for ethnic minority groups already living under layers of oppression and threats to their lives few of us living in countries like the U.S. have any concept of.

I have a deeply personal connection to the Karen. Over the past three years, the majority of my English as a Second Language students have been Karen. I have had the privilege of learning about their lives, attending their New Years' celebrations, meeting their families, and making fumbling efforts at learning their language. A group of women in my classroom have taken to feeding me nearly everyday, as I have written about on this blog in the past. And for various reasons, I have found myself more touched, more connected, and more drawn to these people and their lives, personal stories, and history than any other group I have worked with over the years. I can think of students from countries all over the world that have been amazing members of my classroom, and who have entered my life and become teachers to me, as I have been a teacher for them.

But for some reason, my connection with the Karen has gone beyond individuals, even as it has been individuals who have made that connection possible. Kind of an interesting paradox. You only truly learn about any group through individuals of that group.

I still remember the day we had a discussion about religion in class. Although a mixed group in terms of spiritual beliefs, including indigenous traditions, Buddhists, and Christians, the vast majority of my Karen students have been Baptists (most 3rd to 5th generation of the original converts). Their perceptions, as I was to come to find out, were that white Americans were mostly Christian, so my "coming out" as a practicing Buddhist was something of a surprise to them. It might have been especially a surprise given that the majority of my co-workers are Christian, including have a dozen School Sisters of Notre Dame who speak freely about their faith.

We had an interesting discussion that day, one which reminded me religion and spirituality differences need not be the roadblocks we often make them into to. In fact, one of the women who seemed to be most surprised by my Buddhist practice later looked me straight in the eyes and told me, when I said I meditate almost everyday, "You meditate everyday. Everyday! Ok?" She'd be a good Zen teacher, don't you think?

I wish there were an easy solution for the remaining Karen refugees in Thailand, but I don't think there is. And the Thai government, over the past decade, has made it increasingly clear that their goals are in favor of ending refugee camps, and sending people on their way. Moving beyond refugee camps is probably something most people, in principle, can agree on. But what that looks like, and what it means for those who live in them currently, is a completely different issue.

Forced repatriation to countries where ethnic cleansing and terrorist campaigns are going on certainly isn't the answer, and this is unfortunately what the Thai government has started to do, both with the Karen and Hmong refugees in camps on the other side of Thailand.

May enough hearts and minds shift to bring about a compassionate solution for all.

*The photo above is from the birthday party my class gave me last year. The Karen woman in the photo, Mi Mi, is a long standing student of mine. She's short, sweet, and sometimes really giggly. She was a medical lab technician in her refugee camp in Thailand, and someday hopes to get back into the health field here in Minnesota.

New Buddhist Online Communities

Thanks to Arun and Danny. Check out the links to a new Queer Buddhist community, and a community for Buddhists of color and allies. Seems there are new groups popping up all the time. I've given up trying to keep up - a good thing :) - but it's great to see such activity.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Rebirth Can't Possibly Be True Based on What I know Scientifically!

We've been studying the Diamond Sutra for the past few weeks, and will continue to do so as a sangha for the next several weeks. It's a sometimes confounding teaching, filled with efforts to undercut just about every idea you have about your life and the world. Personally, I'm enjoying wrestling with it again, and plan on writing a few posts about it in the coming weeks.

One thing I'll say now, though, is that this is one of those Buddhist texts that is easily irritating to anyone who works with it too rigidly or literally. I can imagine it's probably been tossed out of consideration by more than a few people who have come across it, saying that it has nothing to do with their everyday experience. And maybe that's true, but like the easy rejections of rebirth and other aspects of Buddhism I sometimes see and hear, I question any quick tossing out of the Diamond Sutra.

It's not terribly often that I agree with The Zennist, but his post this morning resonates in a way that surprised me. Seeing the title, "Rejecting Buddhism based on Personal Knowledge," got my juices going for some reason, and I was, (laughing now), ready to reject his post before I even read it. Instead, I opened it up and found this:

It has become accepted in modern circles of Buddhism, particularly in the West, that the doctrines and teachings of the Buddha shouldn't be accepted just on the basis of belief; rather one should follow one’s own personal knowledge when deciding which doctrines are to be accepted and which ones are to be rejected.

All this sounds great. But is it? Not to mince words, and cutting to the chase, it is a flawed methodology that decides which doctrines and teachings of the Buddha should be observed and which should be rejected based on one’s personal knowledge.

Now, I'm a bit tired of his heavily negative commentary on "modern, Western Buddhists," but that's not the point of this post, so let's move on. What's important to note is that it's not about accepting teachings with blind faith - I don't think even The Zennist would say that. It's more about the way in which we place our personal experience and perceptions ahead of teachings that have functioned in the lives of millions of people for centuries. The kind of thinking that says, Based on what I know scientifically, rebirth can't possibly be true. Or all these teachings about renunciation don't apply to me because I live in the "real" world, not in a monastery.

Here's The Zennist doing what he seems to do best, writing a line that is similtaneously insulting and worthy of considering.

"In fact, the huge majority of people that populate this planet live most of their lives without accepting or rejecting things or ideas based on any degree of personal knowledge."

One the one hand, the stench of elitism is like a rotting corpse in the midday August sun here.

On the otherhand, if you shift it a little bit - say instead of the "huge majority of people," you say "nearly all of us spend a lot of our lives" it's probably fairly accurate. Think about it. How often are you running on auto pilot, accepting common views of things without examination, and letting others (government officials, spiritual leaders, parents, cultural norms) guide your life? How often are you "too busy" to examine anything that's going on? How much of your Buddhist practice is confined to your sitting, chanting, and/or sutra studies?

I think most of us think we know enough to pick and choose what to "believe in," when the reality is that we barely even know ourselves, let alone the world around us.

"Who" is it that knows, for example, that rebirth is a false teaching from a superstitous past? Who is it? And where did such an understanding come from?

My experience (snicker, snicker) is that a lot of what I think I know ends up being full of holes, like the telephone pole above. Lately, I'm putting much more faith in the questions that appear in my life than any definitive answers. And maybe The Zennist, in his own, overly confidently way is pointing us back to the questions as well. What do you think?