Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Are the Blogisattvas About Building Community?

Some of you out there may have noticed that I have said nothing at all about the Blogisattva awards. For those of you who don't know about them, these awards were started in 2006 as a way of highlighting quality Buddhist blogging, writing, and unique voices in the Buddhoblogosphere. Tom Armstrong, the driving force behind the original awards, and blogger over at Sacramento Homeless Blog, is, himself a unique writer deserving of more attention.

Anyway, I'm not one to be terribly concerned about awards. They are certainly nice to receive, but the drive behind this blog is to write about spiritual practice, social justice, and community building. So, I was a sidelines sitter on the Blogosattvas until yesterday, when I took a closer look at the guidelines and felt something was off.

Here is the last major paragraph in the guidelines:

Nominations will be taken until November 1st. Upon receiving the nominations, the panel will convene and pick 5 deserving bloggers from each category and will have a run-off vote. This run-off vote will be done by the public, the blogosphere. Our nomination process uses forms built through Excel spreadsheets, which is how the end voting will be put together as well. We believe this is the way to keep things fair and square.

The Run Off vote is what concerns me. Say you have 5 blogs, and two of those blogs are people with several hundred followers, a wildly active Twitter account, and connections to Facebook, MySpace, and whatever other social media outlet you care to name. And the other three blogs are people with few or none of those connections, but whose writing and voice are either just as good or even more worthy of awarding than the former two blogs. What do you think happens with the vote?

Consider it this way. Derek Jeter is the shortstop for the New York Yankees. He's been a great player, and will certainly go to the Hall of Fame when he's finished with his career. But let's face it: the guy could hit .200 and still be elected to the annual MLB All-Star game. Why? Because he plays for the most popular, and most wealthy, baseball team in the world. After a certain point in his career, it really ceased to matter if he was actually THE BEST shortstop in baseball that year. It only mattered that he was Derek Jeter of the NY Yankees.

Now, maybe that analogy is a little ridiculous, but it does point to the potential pitfalls of public votes like the one being proposed for the Blogisattva awards.

So, here's the thing. I'm 34 years old. I've received academic awards. I've even received a few awards in my community for service work. It's an enjoyable, but mostly very fleeting and not even all that tangible experience. However, what I have noticed is how awards can help bring together or divide communities. Even nations and the world. Consider the Nobel Prize, which has really been as much a political commentary tool as it has been about elevating great peace work and bringing together peace-minded people.

So, I guess what I'm interested in how awards like the Blogisattvas might support the broader Buddhist blogging community. How they might foster interest in new voices, unique writing, and authentically expressed practice life. Maybe that's not what all this is about - I guess I don't really know what these awards are really about - but I do know I've seen them written up on enough blogs to understand that people are interested, maybe even excited about them.

But what if all the winners end up being the most followed, most popular blogs? Maybe it won't matter much and like I said, for me, awards aren't a big concern. However, helping to start a non-profit, being an organizational leader for my Zen community, working in immigrant communities - all of this has changed me. I see the ways small things can trigger larger issues in communities, no matter what there makeup, and so when I feel I can say or do something to support said communities, I will. (I've also been learning to shut up and sit (thanks Brad!) when that's called for.)

Anyway, I'd really be interested in what people think about awards and community because it seems like a discussion that isn't happening.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

In What or Where do You Take Refuge?

Katie from over at the blog Kloncke has been doing a series of really engaging posts over at the feminist blog Feministe. Her current post asks the question "Where do you take refuge?" She begins with the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, but then, given the diversity of her audience over there, extends refuge into more everyday things like dancing, spending time with a pet or a good friend, things like this.

Here's a little more of her post to consider:

Hopefully, our refuge will not be a means of escaping our suffering, but of engaging it from a different angle, which aids the process of letting go. Sue Nhim described this release beautifully just today on an earlier thread here:

this states so clearly what I have been feeling for the past few months, where before I denied that harm was done to me and yet I suffered, and then I accepted that I was harmed and still suffered, and now I understand that just because I was harmed/ damaged doesn’t mean that I have to suffer and hold on to my anxiety and anger, I can just let that go. It doesn’t negate the fact that I was harmed or mean that I should just ignore it, but it happened and what I can do to win is to not suffer and go on, wiser happier better. My mom calls it a state of grace, all I know is that it doesn’t hurt to go outside anymore.

So where do you take refuge? What are your best tools for letting go of suffering?

I can imagine many of us would quickly respond something like "Oh, I take refuge in the three treasures. Or I take refuge in my meditation practice." These are true for me. And yet I'm interested in what you all might have to add to those two. Or what Katie's questions mean to you.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Anger as Entertainment

I have had one of those days where, for whatever reason, the longer the days goes, the less I want to interact with others. In fact, the past three or four hours, I've had waves of crankiness that haven't been so pleasant. Crossing a busy street, and getting cut off by cars in both crosswalks when the light was green didn't help. Nor the struggles I'm having with my second ESL class, which recently became a combined level class due to a colleague resigning. The old "leave the position empty" and "reallocate" game.

What's interesting about all this is that I work up early and did a longer period of zazen than I have been recently. Most mornings, I'm lucking to get 10 minutes and/or chant the refuges and bodhisattva vows before going out the door for the bus. Not only did I sit a half an hour, but also did a longer chanting service. I've always been more of a evening/night meditator, so whenever I can start a weekday morning doing both a morning sit and chanting service, it's always a plus.

Given this, the emotional contrast between this morning and this evening is vast.
Pema Chodron, writing about karmic momentum, has some interesting commentary to consider. She writes:

We entertain ourselves with anger, with fear, with grief —All kinds of thoughts are better than nothing— is our motto. The bodhichitta practices, and actually all meditation practices, are about learning to stay still and going through what I always refer to as the detox period of finally connecting. Sometimes it feels like stillness and peace, but if that happens it will also alternate with this restlessness and this unease.

Curious. I didn't feel like I was "entertaining" myself. However, if we broaden the definition a bit, it actually fits. With the class, the anger was really a diversion from experiencing disappointment, loss of my old, higher level class, and also just exhaustion with the seemingly endless rounds of change in the student body. In term of the cars in the crosswalk, the anger was a response to pedestrian unfriendly city planning, as well as a quick leap from the fear of getting hit.

I'm not one of those people who considers anger always an inappropriate response. The three poisons are greed, hatred, and ignorance - but many translations have it as "anger' instead of "ignorance." There are times when a flash of anger might be the appropriate response, but it's far less than what most of us express on a daily basis.

The thing is that it's hard to stay with what's coming up when the world seems to be calling for some kind of action from you. In fact, even in situations like the street crossing, where you need to get to the other side, afterward it's terribly easy to get lost in stories about "those assholes" blocking the crosswalk. The opportunity to hang with what's coming up is there, and yet it gets lost pretty fast if you allow yourself to get hooked.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Yoga as Coummunity, Not Commodity

A few weeks ago, I wrote some rather sharp comments stemming from a post with comments from the blog Eco Yogini. As I stated at that time, I thought the blog owner herself was a pretty dedicated practitioner, and that I was mostly focusing on others' comments to her post. So, what a delight it was to read her latest post about starting a free yoga in the park day as way to develop community around yoga practice. No fees. No pristine yoga studios. Just people practicing together, sharing their lives together.

Now, there have been some challenges. They've wanted to have teachers join them, but none have taken up the offer. And the few teachers that showed some interest felt that there should be payments made if they were going to come and offer anything that could be considered teaching.

Unlike the comments section from that previous post, the comments made on this one are informative and thought provoking. Even one writer, who disagreed with some of the post, makes some excellent points about the often real struggles yoga teachers have in terms of earning a decent living. I made some follow up comments after hers addressing what I see as the strong sense of privatization that is occurring with yoga - one of the main reasons why there is such a dearth of "yoga" community, especially when it comes to studios. People arrive for class five minutes before to five minutes after it starts, the teacher teaches the class, and then everyone runs out the door. Maybe a few people stay around to chat for five or ten minutes afterward, but that's about it. I've seen this at three different studios here in the Twin Cities, and I've read plenty of others writing similar stories, so I know it's not just going on here.

This is nothing like having relationships with people for years, where you've shared the best and worst of yourselves, and practiced diligently together like I have experienced in my Zen community. So, it's wonderful that Eco Yogini shared her story, and not only do I wish their group all the best, but I hope that others in other places will read our posts and start their own groups.

*Cat yoga photo from

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Does a Vegan or even Vegetarian Diet Reinforce Self Identity?

The teacher Bodhipaksa has a fascinating postconsidering the issues surrounding vegan/vegetarian diets, Buddhist,and identity. Responding to another article, he questions that writer's views that choosing to be vegan, for example, is a sentimental choice that can easily reinforce attachments to an identity.

He writes:
While I agree with Dayamati’s point that our dietary preferences can become unhealthily clung to as an identity, I don’t think he sufficiently takes into account that it’s possible for us to live on a vegan or vegetarian diet without it distorting our identity. He does say, “Needless to say, there is no invariable causal relationship between deciding to be a vegan and becoming incapable of thinking carefully and impartially.” That’s welcome news.

I’m more bothered, however, by the following:

As long as one makes such decisions whimsically and realizes that the decision is a manifestation of sentimentality, everything is fine. It is only when one begins to think that there is something rational and righteous about the decision that one begins to get into spiritual (and philosophical) trouble.

I’m not sure quite what he means by making a decision to eat a vegan diet “whimsically.” If he simply means “with a lack of attachment” then that’s fine by me. If he means that we should only decide to eat a vegan diet on the basis of a passing irrational impulse, then I disagree. I think it’s possible to seriously consider the effects of our diet, and the sufferings that farm animals experience, and decide not to eat animal products. It’s only when I disengage my thought processes and refuse to consider these things that I can eat animal products. It’s when I surrender to the passing irrational impulses of hunger and craving that I find myself eating dairy products or eggs.

The suggestion that we should realize that “the decision is a manifestation of sentimentality,” leaves me puzzled. The word sentimentality implies that we have a disproportionate emotional response to a situation. Actually, our situation as a species is grave. We’re seriously messing up our world, and the problem is caring enough — our brains just aren’t well designed, it appears, when it comes to thinking about long-term consequences and the suffering or large numbers of beings.

I have had a vegetarian diet for about 15 years now. I have never felt compelled to become vegan, and I do have to say that I've met more self-righteous vegans than self-righteous vegetarians, but certainly that could just be my experience. In addition, although some would argue differently, I don't think being Buddhist means you must eliminate all meat from your diet. It seems more complicated than that.

I remember reading a chapter in one of herbalist Christopher Hobbs' books about how, after 20 years of not eating meat, he started experimenting with the use of fish oil supplements. He had been experiencing a lot of joint pain, so much so that he was concerned about his long term health. And he discovered that consuming fish oil for short periods of time - a few months each year - his quality of life dramatically increased.

That's just one example. There are plenty of others to consider out there. What do you all think about these issues? For example, what do you make of being vegan? Or are you already one, and can offer your perspective here?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Holding the Bag of Life and Death

*Gustav Klimt "Life and Death" 1916

My father sent me this essay a few days ago about aging, "unwanted" medical miracles, and the challenges of having a family member with a terminal illness that goes on and on. I had to stop reading it the first time through, my eyes wet, sitting in a coffee shop full of strangers. The second time around, I see all the ways in which death flips the switch on every one of us, turning all "conventional" wisdom and behavior on its head.

Here's a short excerpt from the essay:

I don’t like describing what dementia did to my father — and indirectly to my mother — without telling you first that my parents loved each other, and I loved them. That my mother, Valerie, could stain a deck and sew an evening dress from a photo in Vogue and thought of my father as her best friend. That my father had never given up easily on anything.

Born in South Africa, he lost his left arm in World War II, but built floor-to-ceiling bookcases for our living room; earned a Ph.D. from Oxford; coached rugby; and with my two brothers as crew, sailed his beloved Rhodes 19 on Long Island Sound. When I was a child, he woke me, chortling, with his gloss on a verse from “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”: “Awake, my little one! Before life’s liquor in its cup be dry!” At bedtime he tucked me in, quoting “Hamlet” : “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”

Now I would look at him and think of Anton Chekhov, who died of tuberculosis in 1904. “Whenever there is someone in a family who has long been ill, and hopelessly ill,” he wrote, “there come painful moments when all timidly, secretly, at the bottom of their hearts long for his death.” A century later, my mother and I had come to long for the machine in my father’s chest to fail.

Last winter, after what was probably about 10 years of Alzheimer's and a myriad of other issues, my grandfather finally died. I think that, like the woman who wrote the essay, many of us in my family had that similarly odd desire for it all to be over. That last year or so, grandpa had become a young child in an old man's body, barely able to remember the food he'd just finished at dinner. He frequently repeated questions about people who had died twenty or thirty years ago, and wasn't really sure that the house he'd lived in for thirty years was actually his house. He was fond of bright, moving objects and people in the way a toddler is, filled with a curiosity that was matched only by his ability to forget.

Who was this guy anyway? He became, in his final years, a strong, visceral reminder of the lack of a solid, unchanging self and frankly, even as a Buddhist, this was terribly unsettling.

Thanks to advanced medical technologies, elderly people now survive repeated health crises that once killed them, and so the “oldest old” have become the nation’s most rapidly growing age group. Nearly a third of Americans over 85 have dementia (a condition whose prevalence rises in direct relationship to longevity). Half need help with at least one practical, life-sustaining activity, like getting dressed or making breakfast.

My grandfather was 89 when he finally went. The last six or seven years of his life were spent in need of progressively more constant care, primarily from my grandmother. She told my sister once "I hope we go together," but that didn't happen - grandma is still here, experiencing a life alone for the first time in over sixty years.

I can't recall how many "miracles" were performed on my grandfather, but one sunny day a few summers ago, I stood in the center of one of them. Grandpa's blood sugar had dropped to almost nothing and he was barely responding. I was sleeping in the basement of my grandparent's house, only to be woken by the sound of my grandmother screaming out the window, thinking everyone had gone hiking in the nearby hills.

Groggy and confused, I didn't come upstairs until the ambulance arrived in the driveway. Grandma was surprised to see me, said something about grandpa's blood sugar, and then made for the front door.

About fifteen minutes later, Grandma was handed a saline solution bag from one of the paramedics, which they went through some check list with her. She held the bag over my grandfather as the contents slowly dripped into him. I stood next to her, stone silent, with no idea what to do or say.

As they went through the check list, Grandma got more and more animated. "No heroics! None!"

She turned to me at some point and said, "I can't do this any more. Please take the bag."

It was a strange feeling, being handed the very thing that was between Grandpa and death. For a moment, I felt resistance, not wanting such responsibility, but really, there was no place to go.

The whole experience reminds me of Dogen's commentary on the Seventh Precept.

"When the dharma body is manifested, there is not even a single square inch of earth upon which to stand."

Looking down and my grandpa, I thought, "Maybe this is it. We leave for home tomorrow; maybe he's going too."

And then I watched as this bag of clear liquid went into his veins, and within a matter of minutes, he went from death's doorstep to cracking jokes with the medics. It was like a scene from a Monty Python movie, happening in real time, and there I was, right in the middle of it, completely speechless.

What was it that was happening in those moments? What was it to be a man living in a body that had a mind that barely functioned? What was I doing there, holding that bag, reviving someone who couldn't remember I was his grandson?

Even now, I really don't find that any words adequately describe all that was then. In fact, the whole disintegration of my grandfather's memory, and eventually his character (as we knew it), seems like a mystery.

Our minds want to point to that last breath as the moment of death, but there's something about an illness like Alzheimer's that makes such a view feel foolish, even if there is a certain truth to it. If you don't even have a sense of what death is, and how it functions in your life, how will you ever be able to truly die when the time comes to do so?

Australia's Amazing Political Upheaval

Falling asleep last night, I heard the news about Australia's new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. It's astonishing to think that a non-religious, single, pro-trade union woman could oust an up until recently popular leader before an election, but it happened in Australia. The worldly winds are certainly blowing about, aren't they?

I can't imagine anything like this happening in the U.S. Almost everything about Gillard, including her gender, would render her unelectable here in the "great democracy" we call the U.S. If you think I'm being dramatic, go talk to Hillary Clinton, who spent a good two years listening to idiot, genderized comments that had nothing to do with her skills as a leader.

Even if Gillard turns out to be yet another politician maintaining the status quo, it's still amazing that she's been given the opportunity to lead, to show a nation that you need not be "traditional," religious, and/or male to be a leader. I wish her well, and would love if she ends up being an example for us all to learn from.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Will Meditation Liberate You? Part 2

The previous post had so many interesting comments, I decided to continue the discussion in today's post. Thanks to everyone who wrote in so far.

First off, part of the reason I posted The Zennist's commentary is because I found myself in agreement with more of it than in disagreement. Like many of you, I keep going back to his blog because there is something to learn, whether it be about specific sutras or teachings, or if it's just a way viewing things that helps shift my own.

In fact, because the guy takes the time to write informed posts, I find that when I disagree, there's usually something to work with just as much as when I agree with him. That's refreshing in this age of pithy sound bytes that get a reaction, but ultimately do nothing to further our inquiry into our lives.

Mumon commented:

1. American/Western Zen students generally could use more cultural and historical familiarity with how Zen actually arose. The students and teachers of old spent most of their time working, and this is where practice was.

2. In the Rinzai tradition, there's Hakuin. Hakuin was big on practice in the midst of everyday life. The Zennist is at least partially Rinzai-flavored (more Chan than Zen, if I recall correctly.) If this practice stays on the cushion you might as well be in Las Vegas.

I've written about history on this blog before as well. Particularly, when it comes to Buddhism moving into North America, and the fact that many convert Buddhists have almost no knowledge about the 100 years of practice that occurred before Suzuki Roshi and others arrived in the 1950s to herd all those hippies and Beat folks. I also have a pretty dense book on my shelf that our sangha studied years ago, which looked at the emergence of Chan historically, focusing on the ways Taoism, Confucianism, and indigenous spiritual paths influenced the Buddhism that arrived "from the west" (i.e. India). Makes me instantly think of the Sandokai, which is a fairly early teaching of the Chan (Zen) school, and clearly is indebted to Taoist sources.

Nella Lou makes an important point about the internet and assumptions about who someone is when she writes the following:

And anonymous makes a whole pile of assumptions based on entries in a very focussed blog. Just because someone doesn't spread out their entire life for worldly consumption doesn't mean that they have no life to spread out. It is not possible to say "Nah" to any of those questions since you don't know the answers. Your theory of what is and isn't important to the guy who writes The Zennist lacks any sort of substantial evidence and sounds like a projection of your own thinking on his life. A few statements on a blog do not encompass the whole by any means.

I have over 100 blogs in my list, and when I consider the nature of them individually, they range from the very academic, "heady" writing of people like The Zennist, to blogs that are very personal, full of intimate details of life and practice. All of these blogs give you a taste of what someone is like, but none of them could possibly encompass an entire person.

The older I get, and the longer I've practiced paying attention to my own life, the more it seems that any narrative I have about anyone, including myself, is partial. Surprise, even with a parent, lover, or longtime friend is readily available if only you turn a little to the left or right.

Marcus, who regularly reminds people online in various ways to return to the teachings, writes:

And the emphasis on the Sutras? Good thing. Again, studying the texts alone will not get you there, but we need signposts and they are the best we have. And their study has always been one of the main activities of Zen throughout the centuries. The Zennist, when he holds up the Sutras as a benchmark, is fully in line with the Zen tradition.

I have to say I prefer the way Marcus says it here. Frequently, I get the sense that the sutras are IT for The Zennist, which maybe isn't his point, but the way he writes (I think) makes it hard to come to a different conclusion. But Marcus' point is important, and I'd like to add to it this: Let's endeavor to be influenced by a variety of teachers and teachings - not just Dogen, or Suzuki, or Pema Chodron. Let's actually dig into some of the Pali Canon, and also those old Chinese guys like Shitou. I'm saying this knowing that some us out there are already doing this, but perhaps not enough.

Or, if it's only about the Pali Canon for you, or Dogen, or whatever - go deep, really deep.

And finally, Algernon brings up some questions I often have when it comes to these kinds of discussions.

Occasionally, when someone mentions a post like this one, I'll go read the Zennist. I do not leave comments simply because I get no indication he is interested in dialogue or other perspectives, and that's fine with me -- it's his blog.

When I have read him, very often I wonder what his sangha experiences were, positive and/or negative.

Why live? What's our job? Is our job just to understand the sutras "correctly" and that's it? What if you understand the sutras but you're such a jerk you can't love anyone or inspire them?

One of the struggles I have had with blog posts like this one from The Zennist is that the specifics of daily life feel so absent. Maybe this isn't the case, but the only really strong touching down on the ground that occurs in the post is when The Zennist speaks about meditating in an abandoned mine. I actually enjoyed that detail, but it doesn't help me make the connection between discussions of the absolute and my daily life. Somehow, in my view, when a person is Zenning (a new verb for you all :) - Somehow, when a person is Zenning they need to figure out how to demonstrate the total dynamic functioning occurring in every moment. It isn't just the absolute, nor is it just the daily, relative events and manifestations. Maybe I'm just too dense to get it in The Zennist's writing, but I often come away thinking he's leaning too heavily towards the absolute, which if you dig into any number of Zen koans, you'll find a myriad of warnings about such leanings.

When it comes to writing about Buddhism online, why do it? What's your intention? Maybe this is ground worth considering for all of us Buddhist bloggers. It might even be interesting if people wrote about their intentions on their blogs, and even offered updates when some shift occurs (because intentions do shift). As I have gone on, this blog has become a part of my practice, and so I have tried treat it as such. That's one intention for me I suppose: to blog as practice. There are others as well.

I honestly don't know what The Zennist's intentions are with his blog. As much as I quibble with some of his conclusions, I'm thankful he's been out there plugging away.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Will Meditation Liberate You?

The Zennist blog used to "hook me" fairly often. The guy who writes it makes decisive, unwavering statements that often cut against the tenor of nearly everything convert Buddhists are doing. Some might call him a "hater," but I think that would be missing the mark.

Having read a lot of his posts now, I have a sense of where he's coming from. Dude still surprises me, which is a good thing. And I still rarely find myself agreeing with his conclusions because they so often point us back to textual studies of the sutras as THE only way to awaken. I don't buy that, and never will. However, I think a good cage rattling is helpful from time to time, so here's one especially for the Zen folks out there:

Doing zazen (lit., sit down meditation) will not open the door to enlightenment. Only mind can do that. In fact, zazen is almost counterproductive since enlightenment is independent of whatever condition the body is in, sitting or standing. This perhaps explains why Zen master Ma-tsu said that “Not cultivation and not sitting is the Tathagata's pure meditation.”

Yikes. Zazen is "almost counterproductive." It's gets better later in the post.

While there are benefits to zazen or even the practice of hatha yoga, the benefits don’t disclose ultimate reality. But both zazen and yoga can help us cope with the stresses of the everyday world. Sitting still in a quiet place recharges our batteries so to speak. When I used to sit in zazen in an abandoned mine on my ranch (especially during the summer when it was hot outside), it seemed like more of me calmed down as compared with doing zazen in a group.

Hmm, this guy doesn't think much of sangha, does he?

And then there's the final blow so to speak:

Especially in modern Western Zen, there is still the belief, although for the most part unstated, that zazen and shikantaza are sufficient unto themselves to get us to yonder shore of nirvana. But if this were actually the case, then every time a person did zazen, the Lankavatara or the Avatamsaka Sutra would become clearer. Every Sutra would eventually make perfect sense. But this is not the case.

Interesting stuff, eh? Here's what I have to say.

First, zazen (sitting meditation) is an expedient means, and really one amongst a myriad of methods. It could be considered one the more effective practices, but it's still just that, a practice which may or may not aid you in awakening. So, in this sense, I agree with The Zennist.

Second, it's curious to me that he ties awakening (or enlightenment) to an unfolding of understanding of Buddhist scriptures. I've sometimes heard comments that fall in a similar vain when it comes to reading Dogen, or other famous and often confounding Zen masters. The longer I sit and the more I sit, the better able I will be to figure out what that old rascal Dogen said. To which I say, maybe.

And yet this whole discussion makes me think of the lines from the Diamond Sutra:

"The Tathagata is not to be recognised by the thirty-two marks because what are said to be the thirty-two marks are told by the Tathagata to be no-marks and therefore to be the thirty-two marks. Subhuti, if there be a good man or a good woman who gives away his or her lives as many as the sands of the Ganga, his or her merit thus gained does not exceed that of one who, holding even one gatha of four lines from this sutra, preaches them for others."

The question for me always comes back to how you live your life in the world WITH others. Now, certainly, one could spend their life meditating in a cave, or in an abandoned mine, and becoming more and more lucid about every last Buddhist sutra. That could bring some benefit to others. However, that vast majority of us can't, or won't, be taking that route. So, then the issue is now what?

Third, and finally, I'd like to point out that I think it's worth investigating this point from The Zennist's post:

Especially in modern Western Zen, there is still the belief, although for the most part unstated, that zazen and shikantaza are sufficient unto themselves to get us to yonder shore of nirvana.

One could ask a similar thing about the nembutsu or Amitabha chants, or even exclusively relying on Sutras, as The Zennist frequently implores us to do.

How do you view The Zennist's post? Where does liberation come from anyway? And is such a question even important in the first place?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Understanding Context as a Path Towards Peace

Well, another blog post got me going this morning. Marcus, over at his new shared blog, has a quality commentary about a recent Buddhist-Christian dialogue in Korea. I firmly believe that more conversation and sharing across traditions, and beyond that, across all views, religious, spiritual, and secular, is a path towards peace. We need more shared experiences, and less boneheaded fighting, no doubt. But there are steps that must be taken to get to that shared place - it doesn't happen overnight, and it requires, among other things, deep listening to narratives that you don't want to hear.

A few comments Marcus made in his post brought forth some responses for me.

He writes:
My point is that Buddhism stands on its own three feet, and while some western practitioners automatically and instinctively look for points of contrast with Christianity, focusing on areas of convergence is a much healthier approach.

Why not just see what the moment calls for instead? Sometimes, focusing on commonalities is exactly what's called for, and sometimes the differences need to be examined.

I agree with you that there are plenty of baseless and sometimes nasty comments made about Christianity in the English speaking, covert Buddhist blogosphere. I've probably made few myself.

In contrast, many of the English-language Buddhist blogs often express a surprising degree of hostility towards Christianity. But this mostly comes from young converts with little experience of life in Buddhist countries and often with uncomfortable experiences of the Church. Such people are naturally keen to draw boundaries between the Buddhism they’ve adopted and the faiths they’ve left behind.

Maybe, although "young" might not be all that accurate. There actually aren't that many teen and 20 somethings amongst the regular Buddhist bloggers I've come across.

Also, how about the fact that you are saying all this while living in a nation that is predominantly Buddhist? I and the others from the U.S., Canada, England, Finland, etc. live in nations where the predominant religion is a form of Christianity. It's default in the way Buddhism is default in Thailand and many other Asian nations.

Why does that matter? Well, we are surrounded by people who display all manners of the Christian faith so to speak, and their actions often directly impact us, for better or worse. Nearly every elected leader in the history of my nation has been Christian, and while some have been just fine at leading without trying to impose religious views on the public, others regularly have made impositions. Our mainstream media outlets have few Buddhist representatives, and even though the Tiger Woods and Brit Hume dramas were mostly drama, they did point out the serious lack of representation in the media of people who have any understanding of Buddhism. While you can easily find devout Christians in power positions of major U.S. corporations, I can't think of a single Buddhist leading a similarly placed company. In other words, when I as a Buddhist look around, I see almost no one in leadership positions that is "like me." It is challenging, in such circumstances, to maintain "the high road" of embodying peace and compassion.

I'm not providing excuses for bad behavior here. However, the context matters. Those Christians in Korea, Thailand, Japan, etc. are in the vast minority - so it benefits them to develop kind relationships with Buddhists. If things in the country turn bad, those relationships might mean the difference between freedom and oppression. Here in the U.S., in contrast, Christians need not reach out because they already are the vast majority, and hold most of the power positions. And yet, some do. And despite what you see online, some of us Buddhists reach out to develop relationships with Christians as well. Partly, I would guess, because it benefits us socially.

You know, I totally agree with you that there are similar desires for peace, joy, and awakening that play out in these two religions, and really in all of them. There are connection points, and it's worth the effort to make those connections explicitly in our daily lives.

However, whenever I see religious-based hostility, I want to understand the social context more because people aren't acting in a vacuum. If my recent discussions with a few people about the situation in Gaza taught me anything, it is that you can't get to those commonalities between groups until you understand the threat narratives, petty gripes, and disagreements between the groups. I could point out endless similarities between the Israelis and Palestinians to my Jewish friends, for example, but it wouldn't matter - they were stuck on defense of Israel mode. And these are people who live fairly privileged lives here in the U.S., thousands of miles away from the actual dangers. It isn't all that different for most of the convert Buddhists spewing stuff at Christians, or drawing distinctions in the sand. But in my view, it's way to easy to just say these people are ignorant and inexperienced, and call it a day.

All of these people are my friends, family, neighbors - if I just use their stories as examples of bad behavior (and I do this sometimes), I'm just objectifying them for my own benefit. I feel that the only way to truly develop peace, to get to those commonalities in a healthy way, is to do my best to understand where those on different sides are coming from. To listen to the narratives I find abusive, destructive, or just plain wrong. And then to be willing to present my own narratives as honestly as I can, in a spirit of sharing.

In the end, the only real commonality might just be that we are humans sharing our stories. Can I accept that? Can you?

This might be the true peace, I'm coming to see.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Locating "Good Buddhists"

Wisdom or dharma candy? This post has nothing, really, to do with the above book, but it definitely does have to do with this question.

Marguerite over at Mind Deep had a recent post about determining who is a "good Buddhist" practitioner worth following on Twitter. Now, full disclosure - I have no Twitter account, and don't really feel compelled to open one. However, her post could easily apply to other online writers, or even to people in one's "regular" life I suppose. I started writing a response to her on her blog, and then realized it kept going on and on like a blog post, so I just moved it over here for others to consider.

Here is her criteria for locating people to follow on Twitter:

The picture:
Don't weird me out. Don't look too sexy. Smile. Even better, dress as a Buddhist monk (or nun) :)

The bio:
No new age-ish linguo, please. Instead sprinkle one of the magic words like 'meditation', 'Vipassana', 'zen', 'Buddhist', 'Dharma', etc

The website:
I prefer you don't sell stuff. I love it when you blog about the Dharma.

The ratio of 'followers' to 'following':
Greater than one usually tells me you've got something to say. But there are exceptions!

How recent is the activity?:
At least within the past month, and fairly frequent. Otherwise, how can I have a conversation with you?

List titles:
'Dharma', 'Buddhist', 'zen' lists tell me you are interested in the stuff.

The first page:
Do your tweets ooze mindfulness, loving kindness, authenticity, and Dharma intelligence?

And here is my response:

All of this might help I suppose, or maybe not. Honestly, some of those who "appear" to fit what I think constitutes a "good Buddhist" actually turn out to not offer much. And at the same time, I've found writers/bloggers/people who have none of the obvious trappings and might even use languaging that irritates me, but who are real teachers for me all the same.

In fact, on my own blog, I've only barely mentioned my dharma name, and there's no picture of me in my rakusu. If I had a twitter account, it would be the same. Maybe someday, that will change, but I've felt it better to just do my writing, and not worry too much about appearing to look a certain way.

It's funny, but the longer I'm online, the more I'm interested in people who may not always uphold their vows or precepts per se, but who are putting something of their life out there that causes me to stop, reflect, maybe even react strongly. The abundance of great dharma quotes and comments out there actually is weakening the effect for me. It often feels like eating sugar now, reading yet another Thich Nhat Hanh or Dogen or Suzuki Roshi gem. There's so much of it all, and so many people gushing about how wonderful teacher X is, or teaching y is, but I find myself saying "so what" more often than not.

What's fascinating is that the same quotation from great teacher X might, in a different context, jar me awake - I've had that experience of repeatedly running across a line from someone, only to have it hit the twentieth time because it was within some unique context (and I had changed somehow). So, it's not about rejecting often repeated dharma teachings; it's more about the excesses of "good" perhaps.

It's kind of like having shelves and shelves of dharma books. After awhile, it just feels like collecting slightly different perspectives on the same thing. I've always had a bit of academic in me, and love to research subjects at depth, but lately I've felt the need to check that some because I wondered how much it was benefiting my life and practice. I mean, does it matter if I can cite seven different takes on the Heart Sutra? Maybe, under the right conditions, but often not I think.

In some ways, it just seems to come down to what really teaches us to live our lives more fully. If everyone I follow online confirms what I already believe, or appears as I think a Buddhist might appear, then what I will receive is almost the same as what I already am experiencing.

It reminds me when I was in undergrad psychology classes, learning about confirmation bias. I remember that different teachers who were from different schools of psychological thought approached this issue differently. The social psychologist emphasized the role of community, nation, and other groups and how they impacted what we saw. The cognitive psychologist emphasized the way human thinking generally works. The developmental psychologist talked about life stages and common biases within them. In other words, the larger frame impacted the smaller frames contained within it. So, if your frame it too limiting, or too slanted in a certain direction, it might not be all that beneficial.

The thing is, like Marguerite, we all have lists like this playing out in our lives. They aren't a terrible problem, but if you believe in them too much, watch out! But beyond that, though, it's really worth investigating who you think your teachers are, or who you think a good teacher for you would be. Because it might turn out to be someone or something entirely different from what you think.

What do you think about all this?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Can Lifestyles that are Unsustainable be Moral?

Given all the talk lately about the Gulf oil spill, drilling policy, and energy use in general, my new post on Life as a Human seems timely. Here is an excerpt to get you all started:

I look around at my own life. It’s fairly minimalistic as far as lives here in the U.S. go. No TV, no car, few appliances, some home-grown food, mostly organic purchased food, mostly used clothing, lots of recycling and giving to others the things I don’t use.

And yet, I’m still light years ahead in negative environmental impact compared to most of the rest of the individuals in the world. Is even my lifestyle unsustainable? I’d argue, to some degree, yes. And in doing so, I’m not interested in creating a wild guilt complex in myself, or within anyone else reading this.

We have to go deeper than simply talking about what we use or don’t use, or how much money we are going to invest in green jobs and new technologies. In my opinion, it’s really time to question the morality of our economic systems as a whole because they have gone global, for better or worse.

What do you think about this? How do you feel your practice informs how you move through the material world?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Tornado Dharma

Extreme weather is always a good reminder of our rightful place in the world as one of many kinds of living beings, and not in charge domination experts we humans like to think we are. Yesterday afternoon and evening, a series of powerful storms ripped through my home state of Minnesota, killing three, injuring dozens, and destroying parts of several towns.

As I sat inside my basement apartment, listening to reports coming in, I couldn't remember a time in the past when there had been so many actual tornado touchdowns in a single day. It was heading right towards us in St. Paul/Minneapolis, and even though a lot of storms seem to weaken as they enter the cities, this one wasn't getting any weaker, so I found myself popping in and out of the apartment building, watching the sky. Around 8:30, I noticed a fierce yellow/orange tinge to the dark clouds that we're rushing overhead. Soon, the color had shifted to red, an odd bright, but also dark red with gray-black clouds intermingled. A few drops of rain began to fall, and I went back in to check the reports.

Nothing. Regular programming had returned to the radio. Another twenty minutes went by without anything else happening. I looked out again, wondering at the beauty of the sky, but also surprised that the rain had stopped and only a fairly strong wind remained. Another twenty minutes went by, and the colors faded into darkness as the sun went down for the day. Not another drop of rain fell in St. Paul, nor did the winds pick up beyond a strong, but not really dangerous gust. The thrust of the storms had missed us.

Recently, I wrote a post about threat narratives, and for those of us living in the Twin Cities, these storms are an interesting parallel to the way those stories play out in our lives. You take something dangerous that might possibly happen, blow up into something that absolutely will happen if you don't do or say certain things, and then even if it doesn't happen, what you experience is still ramped up. Indeed, even though the "storm" misses you, the threat narrative continues to live on because it could have been bad, really bad - you just barely escaped, right?

However, unlike a line of severe storms producing tornadoes, which can and often does cause real damage, many of the threat narratives people have are completely devoid of connections to reality. And yet, think of all the internal tornadoes you've had in your lives because you thought something was going to happen which ended up not happening, and probably had little or no chance of happening in the first place. My city could have been hit by a tornado last night like the others that did get hit in Minnesota; there was little chance that the arguments I was having with one of the directors at work was leading to me getting fired, even though I feared this for several weeks. Not that it couldn't have happened, but it was a long shot really because even if she wanted me gone, she had to convince the other two directors, as well as establish a new precedent - no one's ever been fired from our workplace, at least in the six years I've been there.

After an oppressively warm day yesterday, and those storms, the weather today is calmer, less humid, and almost windless. Pretty interesting how this all happens, isn't it?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Yoga's Answer to Excessive Achievement Drive and Wanting

I recently took a yoga class with Yves Oberlin, an Austin-based Iyengar teacher who was subbing for my teacher Louie Ettling. He gave us a relatively generous eight-minute savasana, first instructing to find the pose in our bodies, tucking our shoulders under and so forth. Then he said, “After a while, don’t move. Don’t keep adjusting and re-adjusting. Just accept that this is the way things are.” (Something to that effect.)

Who knows about my classmates’ reactions, but that struck me as a profound statement. Sure, he was referring to an asana, but I projected it to life itself.

Don’t we all eventually (and sooner rather than later) need to accept the realities and live with them? To stop questioning, seeking, trying to change what might very well be “it”: who we are and the lives we’ve created for ourselves.

This is from a blog called the Yoga Spy, a blog I've followed for a long time, but haven't mentioned here before. I had to snicker when I saw the comment about the "generous eight minute savasana, given that my teacher often devotes 10-15 minutes at the end of each class to it. Which I think really helps one embody a sense of not fussing about, not trying to improve anything.

I'm definitely someone who has a lot of achievement drive. I want to keep growing, feeling that just doing the same things and thinking the same old ideas is being a dead person. At the same time, I have been seeing how this drive, when allowed to take over, makes everything right now feel unsatisfying. I can imagine some of you out there can relate with all this.

It makes me think about how privileged I am. That I have the necessities covered, and am not in survival mode. That I'm educated and socially intelligent enough to make headway in my community. That having the time others use just to hang on can be a hell of a lot of trouble if you don't pay close attention to what you're motivated to do with it and why.

Maybe this is why people who are really wealthy still struggle a lot to be joyful and engaged in life. And maybe it's partly why there is so much stress, depression, addiction, and other issues in wealthy nations like the United States.

It's funny; I rarely have issues doing savasana. Somehow, even though I can struggle with wanting to "be more, achieve more" in my life, I most often can settle down into savasana at the end of a yoga session and just be. Maybe this is slowly creeping into my life and I just don't see it all the time.

Whatever the case is, I do think this is a great teaching, "After awhile, don't move."

p.s. photo is not of the author

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Threat Narratives, Personal and Collective

Fear and ignorance have a way of creating massive story lines about reality. Anyone who has watched the news lately, or read a mainstream newspaper, has seen articles about drug related violence in Mexican border towns that is supposedly sliding into the United States. Indeed, if you listen to nearly every politician these days, you would think the United States is close to being under attack by roving Latin American drug gangs. The Obama Administration which, when it took office was claiming a new, more humane approach to immigration in general, and the U.S./Mexican border "issue" in particular, has rolled out more of the same in dramatic increases in militarization and undocumented immigration detention monies. Others, like Republican Senator John McCain or his counterpart in the Arizona Governor's office, Jan Brewer, are drumming up hysteria with draconian legislative efforts and talk of a nation under siege.

I found this interesting article this morning, which looks at the actual murder rates in U.S. border towns, and considers them in relation to national perceptions about the border. The following lines I found particularly compelling:

The same week Obama announced his troop increase, Texas Sen. John Cornyn—who wants to redirect $2.2 billion from the stimulus for border security—wrote in an op-ed: “Our porous border endangers every American, yet Washington refuses to make border security a priority.” When reporters pressed Cornyn in a phone conference about the violence he so feared, the senator got stuck. “As far as the Texas border is concerned, to my knowledge, we have not had spillover violence, per se,” he told reporters. It was actually “the threat of potential spill over violence,” he later clarified.

More accurately, it’s the perception of that violence. Because the realities simply do not support the rhetoric about public safety in border states.

Perceptions. Ah, anyone who has spent some time in a Buddhist community or even in a psychology classroom should some familiarity with how faulty are perceptions can be.

Now, I'm not going to say that things along the border are peaceful; that would be another lie. There is some trouble and it's coming from many directions. Latin Drug gang members. Rogue U.S. Border Security members. White Supremacists who think they are border guards. Starvation and dehydration amongst undocumented people attempting to cross into the U.S. There are many locales of violence one can point to, but it's not flowing in the single direction the mainstream media and our political leaders are claiming. And yet, poll after poll, including one by CNN after the passage of the controversial Arizona immigration law, suggest that many Americans believe our nation is in some kind of grave danger:

The poll, which questioned American adults rather than registered or likely voters, revealed the following changes:

* Those who want the number of illegal immigrants decreased went up three points in seven months to 76%
* Those who want all illegal immigrants expelled increased four points to 41%
* The split on whether immigration reform should focus on normalization or enforcement increased from 41/56 in December 2005 to 38/60 today
* Support for border fence went from a steady 45% over the last 4 years to 54%
* Support for stiff employer fines rose from 58% in 2006 to 71%
* Increasing federal agents at the border now supported by 88%, up from 74%

The reporting source of this information itself, Numbers USA, is one of the many anti-immigrant think tanks spreading lies and distorted information into the U.S. media, government, and corporate worlds. In fact, if you take any time to examine such things as polling questions about immigration, you'll quickly discover that they are frequently leading questions littered with loaded words. In other words, it's really easy to lose track of the realities when it comes to issues like immigration and violence.

Here are a few statistics to contrast with the attitudes expressed above:

The murder rate in San Diego, Calif., dropped by 25 percent last year. Phoenix’s decreased by 27 percent. El Paso saw a 29 percent drop in murders, bested by Tucson, Ariz., which saw a 46 percent decline in murders. The national murder rate went down just 10 percent from 2008 to 2009.

When it comes to violent crime more generally, all four of these border cities hover around four to six violent crimes per capita, just under the national average of 6.6.

Here's the thing about all this: it's pretty easy to go back and forth about statistics in an effort to defend your position. I expect someone will probably try this tactic with this post because every immigration-related post I have done, especially those where I have explicitly called out the racism behind a lot the "security measures," has had such responses. That's easy. I've heard every argument under the sun in support of border security, stopping undocumented immigrants, and lowering immigration numbers in general - and I can argue U.S. immigration policy and history with the best of them. But you know what, who cares?

I'm more interested these days in how people, including myself, get tripped up in faulty perceptions. And how belief in those perceptions leads us to do things which increase our suffering in sometimes dramatic ways.

White people living in border states like Arizona, who believe their state and country are under attack, live with a hell of a lot of stress, don't you think? And how much of that stress is linked to realities, and how much to perceived threats?

Americans of any racial background who feel our nation is gravely threatened by "invading Latin American drug cartels," and who support the funneling of billions of our tax dollars to border security related measures, are often also the same people who are struggling to make ends meet financially and are seeing the few government safety nets, however flawed they are, being destroyed because the money is going to security and war efforts. The "freedom isn't free" crowd is slitting their own throats in my opinion, and taking the rest of us with them for the ride.

I won't apologize for the blunt, direct, and yes, opinionated language of this post. As a Buddhist, and as an person active in my community, I feel that the ramped up perception of threat narratives we are manifesting daily are probably some of the most damaging around. they eat away at community connections, drive nationalistic xenophobia, feed war machines, and compel our leaders to drain collective financial resources and misuse defense forces so terribly that we can't access them in times of need.

Think of how many natural disasters have happened in the U.S. over the past decade, and how often there was a lack of National Guard troops or others available to intervene quickly and minimize the damage that occurred. Or look at the Gulf Coast oil spill. Even though President Obama authorized 17,500 National Guard troops to be
used to help with the disaster, only about 1,400 are currently in action. Now, there are probably various reasons for this, including interference from BP officials, but it's hard to imagine that the high numbers of National Guard members out patrolling mostly quiet border lands, or who are deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq, are not impacting the numbers being used in the Gulf.

So, this is one example of a collective threat narrative which is causing suffering for everyone involved. However, even if you don't believe the myths about the border, if you are like me, you still have threat narratives that rule parts of your life. I've had plenty of threat narratives tied to my current job over the past few years. A few of them turned out to be true, and the rest were either somewhat misguided or totally false. I've had similar experiences when it comes to romantic relationships, friendships, and even about family members. The fear, grief, and lack of trust behind these narratives can't emerge from the depths if we don't first pay attention to the stories, and see them for what they are.

What about you? What "threat narratives" have gripped you and how have you worked with them?

In the end, we can agree or disagree about immigration policy and whatnot, but it's what we do with the various threat narratives in our lives that is most important. In fact, I'd argue that the well being of our practice, relationships, and communities depend upon us facing these narratives head on, and not giving into their drama and seductiveness.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Dharma of Fish Paste and Stupid Golf Books

My girlfriend, her kids, and I were having a little picnic behind my apartment yesterday afternoon. It was kind of a hazy day, cloudy and humid, but still enjoyable enough to be outside. Among the food they brought over was a spicy noodle dish that I was offered and immediately turned down. The fishy smell was extremely strong, so much so that I struggled to take it in for a good ten minutes. It was a surprise to me, how strongly I reacted, and got me thinking about how humans often take such reactions, insert some commentary about "hating," and then end up transforming something neutral into suffering.

This morning, I came across this post about one of those golf books that applies spiritual concepts to golfing in an attempt to do something - make one a better golfer?, better person? - I don't know for sure. I'm not fond of golf. In fact, I associate it more with colonialism, uber-capitalism, and environmental destruction, than with being a sport. It would be a stretch to say I hate golf, but I don't like it much, and I find these Zen Golfing, Spiritual Art of Golfing, Golfing with God kind of books vacuous at best.

In fact, although I usually try to spin that everything is a dharma gate, with golf and spiritual golf books, I find I have nothing positive to say. When I came upon the post this morning, the second about a golf book I've seen in the past week or so, the first thought was "I'm tired of seeing these damned books." Seems pretty trivial as I write it. I mean, who cares if there are zen golf books out there and that some rich guy with a club thinks he's so spiritual because he is "in the moment" with his ball?

It's interesting how different objects hook different people in different ways. And of course, then there's the internal reactions to being hooked. Oh, why don't you calm down! It's just a book. No one cares that you don't like golf anyway, don't go on and on about how bad golf courses are for the environment. There can be a lot of chatter, often long after the original object has disappeared from your life.

Back to the fish paste. I had a physical reaction to the smell. A bodily intensity that is, I suppose, linked to past encounters with strong fish smells. But it really had nothing to do with where I was, or who I was with. I had a few minutes of muddled thoughts around feeling bad that I was "disrupting the harmony" of our time together. As if every moment must be about harmony and easy-goingness.

At some point, my girlfriend said something about the fish paste, and I just blurted out "Yeah, it's just a really strong smell. That's why I'm acting odd." Somehow, she seemed to understand this with ease, and we all talked about food for a few minutes before moving on whatever it was we moved on to.

What's interesting about the whole thing is that I saw how easy it could have been for me to have gotten completely hung up on this rejection of the food. And I also saw how, in many situations, we don't have to do all the work ourselves to break through - that moving beyond stuckness is a relational thing. My girlfriend said something that opened the door for me to say something which opened a door for a short conversation that allowed us all to go on with our day.

In a way, this is an aspect of "don't know mind," don't you think? Seeing the relational quality of living every moment, you can't help but let go of thinking you, alone, have to figure it all out.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bike Buddhas, Car Buddhas, Weebles, and Soccer

I have a new post over at Life as a Human webzine. It's about the World Cup, sports economics, and a bit of nostalgia. Check it out.

Continuing with the tangentally related posts, here is a wonderful post about biking and all the excuses people make for not biking. I don't expect everyone will suddenly become bike commuters from reading stuff like this, but maybe, as Barry from Ox Herding said recently, everyone could shift their behavior 1%. Maybe you'll bike that 6 block drive to the store you are currently making. Or you'll skip the drive to the gym and take a ride through the park on the weekend instead. It's one way to address oil spills, at any rate.

Here's a cool little post about meditation and Weebles. You may remember playing with Weebles as a kid. Maybe not. Either way, you might be asking what does a kids' toy have to do with zazen? Read Lawrence's post to find out.

And finally, here's a short announcement about Buddha figures for use in people's cars. I've seen people place many objects, including Buddhas, on their dashboards in a sort of alter style. As someone who wants to dismantle the car-centric culture we have, I kind wonder what to make of such displays. On the one hand, it's very true that people often spend a lot of time in their cars, and that such space is just as "sacred" as anywhere else. Yet, I also wonder what it means when millions of folks adorn their cars in ways that make them more central to their lives than even their homes.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

"Twilight Zone of Buddhism"

There's a thoughtful post over at the blog The Dojin Roku addressing some of the many ways people get attached to the forms, rituals, and ceremonies of Buddhist practice. It's an interesting issue that brings up all sorts of madness. Some people want to be rid of all that stuff and just meditate together. Others want to be "perfect" at every form, and can't stand the "sloppiness" that comes with entire sanghas full of people doing the forms and rituals together. Still others are attached to debating the merits or lack there of when it comes to such things as zendo etiquette or oryoki meals during meditation retreats.

However, the thing that struck me most about the post didn't really have to do these issues. Or, more precisely, the stuckness around these issues brought up another set of issues for me. Yesterday, I posted this link to a guest post over at Sweep the Dirt Push the Dust. One of the things Andrea, the author of the post, wrote about was the lack of a sense of welcoming she felt amongst Buddhist communities in the U.S.

She was speaking particularly as a woman of color, but I know that this issue exists to some degree regardless of a person's background. Despite its arrival in pop culture, actual Buddhist centers and temples are still foreign territory for most Americans. People have all kinds of crazy ideas about what we Buddhists are doing, and why. And those who actually are curious and want to experience a Buddhist service, or learn about meditation, often have to make a leap into the unknown. Some will argue this is a good thing. A real taste of the practice if there ever was one, and I partly agree. And yet, if this leap is followed by anything less than kindness and openness to the mixture of curiosity, anxiety, and confusion many people have coming into a Buddhist community for the first time, then what you get is a lot of one time visitors who never return.

So, what struck me about the Dojin Roku post was the following:

I remember when I decided to return to practicing Zen beyond just zazen, I searched for a sangha in my local community and found a Zen center. I was thrilled and contacted them right away. I was informed I would need to attend a mandatory class before I would be able to attend and sit with the group. Thinking that was for people unfamiliar with zazen, I let them know I had been practicing meditation for a minimum of 20 years. “It doesn’t matter. You have to come to the class, and we aren’t doing another class for a couple of months.” I wondered what could be so incredibly critical about sitting as to require such deep instruction. Had I crossed into the Twilight Zone of Buddhism? I wondered. Through the years I have heard similar stories from many frustrated zenners. “I was so panicked about making sure I was doing everything just right that I couldn’t meditate!”

I've heard stories like this about other centers across the country. They are, in my opinion, extreme examples, but they cause me to pause every time I hear them.

My own sangha has made many efforts around manifesting welcome-ness. We have greeters at the door during all services and events. We have introduction sessions that are open to all, but not required of all who walk in the door. We offer beginning level classes on a regular basis to support the budding practices of newer members and others in the community. And we have been more recently expanding the social element of community through all sangha events like camping weekends, and through individual members kindly opening their homes to have others over for meditation and socializing. I'm sure we could come up with other ways to enhance what we're already doing, but it's a far cry from the exclusiveness that the Zen center mentioned above seems to display.

In my opinion, having places that are open and welcoming to all are vital to developing a lively lay Buddhist community, which is what most of us will be a part of for better or worse. There just aren't that many people who can, or will, become monastics, and you have to have a thriving lay community to support the monastics anyway.

So, this is our work as I see it, to be more open and welcoming in whatever ways we can. Cause the Twilight Zone might have been fun to watch on TV, but I doubt many of us actually would want to go and spend any time in a place like that.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Little Sound byte Dharma For You All

Yes, our lives are often complex. But sometimes, a handful of sound bytes is exactly what we need. Enjoy!

"This Trans Formative Shit Called Zen"

John's blog, Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt has been home to some interesting guest posts. (The idea of having people guest post is also a nice way to keep your blog running when you don't have much new to say.) I wanted to share today's guest post because it was enjoyable, and a different perspective on Zen.

Here's a juicy snippet to get you started:

Typically, when Black folks have problems, we don’t sit and we don’t go to therapy. Some drink, some use drugs, some sit around hating the world. But we almost always end up in church. We’ve learned generation after generation to look up, not in. The church is like going home after a long vacation. My momma, her mamma, their grand mamma and all them, go to church. Everybody knows and it doesn’t have to be explained. And if your next question is ‘knows what?”, that is exactly my point. People who look like you, care about you, and sometimes gossip about you, welcome you with open arms. This home away from home is usually in the middle of a neighborhood that people move out of as soon as they can. They are not just in the neighborhood, they are a part of it. From feeding the hungry to neighborhood legal clinics.

I’ve yet to come across a “help the local community,” “grassroots” type of activity organized by Buddhist. I am unaware of any Zen centers in a neighborhood where I can guarantee there is a church. So how exactly are my fellow sufferers with no money, nothing but problems and no inkling of the world outside of their own neighborhood going to discover this trans formative shit called Zen?


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Yoga and its Discontents

Hand's up if you hate a particular yoga pose? Seriously, anyone who does it enough will find a pose or two that drive them batty. I'm not so keen on headstand, mostly because I'm afraid of screwing up my neck. Over at Eco Yogini yesterday, there was a bit of a hate fest on a favorite pose of mine: corpse pose or savasana.

Now, the original post makes some good points about arising anxiety during the pose, and also pain in her sacral area. She didn't seem to be aware of the various modifications that you can do for corpse pose, but many of the comments that followed offered modifications for her.

What bothered me, though, was the level of "me, myself, and mine" focus that flowed through the comments on this post.

The first comment begins:

girlfriend, remind yourself that yoga practice is about YOU and no one else! your booty hurt? sit up and chill in your own way! your back hurt? do what you gotta do! the important thing is that you already understand the intention of the pose. you don't need to ask permission to do what makes you comfortable, and if your yoga teacher has the nerve to tell you to do something else, tell her/him they can kiss your sacrum, ahahaha

Fun sass, but last I checked yoga or any spiritual practice isn't about "what makes you comfortable." Of course, if you turn it into being about exercise, then "chill(ing) in your own way" probably makes sense, even if it's in the middle of a class full of others.

A few comments down, there is one that appears right on when you first read it, but then that thread of "self-focus" comes through.

There are actually lots of people who can't do that in a lying flat position. So, try lying on your side (which is actually what we learned in YTT to recommend for pregnant women - curled on the left side with pillows as needed). Or, try bending your knees to take stress out of your lower back. Or, just sit up and meditate like you want to. Seriously, this is the one pose that you can pretty much guarantee that NOBODY is watching - cause they all have their eyes closed!

I totally agree that some people can't do certain poses, even ones that look easy to the rest of us. A friend of mine has been working in yoga classes for paralyzed folks, and what they do versus what the rest of us do is clearly a different experience. And yet, when I read this comment a second time, I thought "no where in here is anything about the class teacher." It's as if there isn't a teacher even, or at least, what the teacher has to say or offer really doesn't matter much. I can't imagine just getting up and starting to do kinhin during group zazen because "no one is watching," but I suppose the way people approach yoga and Buddhist practice is different in some ways.

A few comments after this is the following gem: "ha ha ha - this was a reason why I don't do yoga classes, I hate being told to lay down and relax." At least the writer is honest and not attending classes where she wants it to be her way all the time.

And here's one last comment worth the price of admission:

This drives me batty!

The fact that the teacher doesn't say, "Come to savasana or any relaxation pose or sitting pose that YOUR BODY NEEDS RIGHT NOW..."

Or some such thing. Those are the words I use and I can't imagine the point of yoga if we aren't to teach students to LISTEN to their OWN bodies. OYE.

YOU shouldn't have to ask or tell the teacher; they should know.

Apparently, yoga teachers are now clairvoyants who can see the thoughts and struggles of every last student that arrives in their classes.

Thankfully, someone finally makes what to me felt like an obvious point by saying "Have you talked to your teacher about what's going on for you in savasana? They might not have any idea that you are having these huge reaction to the pose."

It seems to me that one of the main reasons for attending yoga classes, or working with any teacher, is that you're aware that this person might be able to teach you something. That they might have learned something about life that could help you. And even though it ultimately comes back to you, and is about "your practice," or "your life," if you haven't learned the scales, you can't play much music. Right?

If you read through the entire thread of comments, you'll see there are some wonderful insights from people who are probably practicing yoga sincerely, and with depth. I've read the blogs of a few of these folks, including Eco Yogini, and it's clear that they aren't just out for nice bit of exercise and a tight bod.

However, with all the popularity, commercialization, and competition amongst studios to get students in the doors, I think a hell of a lot gets compromised in the yoga world overall. This doesn't mean there aren't wise teachers grounded in the spiritual teachings out there - I've studied with four excellent teachers over the years. Nor does it mean that most yoga students are "all about the fluff" - I've met plenty who are sincere, dedicated, and becoming wise in their own right.

And yet, this post isn't unique at all: there are tons of posts bemoaning the many problems with yoga "in the west." So, something is certainly amiss, don't you think?

I don't have any answers, and for the most part, all I can do is do my own yoga practice as best as I can. And write a post like this once in awhile, just to keep the issue fresh in people's minds.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Buddhist Bloggers Digging In

There are some powerful posts hanging around out there in the Buddhoblogosphere today.

Tom Armstrong has a fascinating post examining the languaging on homelessness in a newsletter for a branch of Loaves and Fishes in Sacramento. The newsletter opens with a quote from Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, and then goes on to make a decidedly Christian statement about homeless people:

They may look like humble clay as they trudge along 12th Street towards Loaves & Fishes but the stress of shared homelessness cracks open their humanity and gives us glimpses of the spark of divinity within them.

Tom goes on to comment, "Catholics, like other Christians, see people as essentially sinful. The Buddhist view is the opposite: People are essentially noble and good."

Check out the whole article for more; it's worth looking at partly because I think some convert Buddhists, who were immersed in Christian traditions before becoming Buddhists, really struggle to flip over the narrative that people are "sinful by nature."

Algernon, over at Notes from a Burning House, writes in his current post about the narratives banging up against each other in the Middle East, and the power beneath them.

Among his points, I found the following insight most important:

When truly committed and honest negotiators appear on both sides of this conflict, they will necessarily begin talking about concessions and compromises. In other words, there will be a discussion about conceding and sharing power.

On the rare occasions that people speak that way and mean it, what happens to them?

If you don't know the answer to that question, you'll have to read the rest of his post. And even if you do, read it anyway.

Barry, over at the Ox Herding blog, has been burning brightly lately. I've felt inspired by his posts recently, and am glad for his presence amongst us bloggers. his current post continues on the theme of making small shifts in one's life, and how this is often the way our life really opens up, contrary to the idea we often have lurking under the surface that we must give up everything, join a monastery, and forget about worldly life all together.

"Often the urgencies of life requires only the smallest action, such as a gift of flowers or a simple Thank You. And yet often we fail to make that gesture.

I've seen in my own life how hard it is to stay present to the requirements of the moment. It takes more than attentiveness to the shifting phenomena of feelings, impulses, thoughts and perceptions.

It takes a genuine commitment to love this world, no matter how it appears. It requires us to set aside our self-centered stories, to expose ourselves to the real.

Please go over to his blog to read the story behind these words.

And finally Maia, over at Jizo Chronicles, posted a dialogue between bell hooks and Thich Nhat Hanh that is definitely worth considering. Maia's blog is often a source of access points to socially engaged practice, something sorely needed in this day and age.

Here is a striking snippet from the dialogue for you.

bell hooks: And lastly, what about fear? Because I think that many white people approach black people or Asian people not with hatred or anger but with fear. What can love do for that fear?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Fear is born from ignorance. We think that the other person is trying to take away something from us. But if we look deeply, we see that the desire of the other person is exactly our own desire—to have peace, to be able to have a chance to live.

I've been reflecting on how Thay's comments about fear point to what I've been experiencing with my career life. This struggle with the director I dislike has a lot to do with fears that what I want the organization to do, or what I and others are already doing, will be struck down by the desires of this director, who currently holds much of the power.

May we all be liberated a bit through each others' words.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Hatred, Love, and the Dhammapada

"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,"--in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.

"He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,"--in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.

For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love alone.

These lines are from the first chapter of the Dhammapada, one of the best known collections of teachings from the Theravadan Buddhist canon. A few thousand years later, they are still completely relevant and contemporary.

After my parents divorced, my mother met a man that triggered a lot of hatred within my teenage mind. He could be highly controlling and demanding at times. I still remember him lingering over my should as I washed dishes, waiting until I was finished so he could inspect for spots, and make me wash them again. I hated him then, and for years afterward, whenever his name came up in conversation, or his image came into my thoughts, a tirade of miserable commentary poured out.

I haven't fully broken through all of this, some fifteen years after I last saw him, but it's become so much clearer to me now, how almost everything I thought and said during those days and up until recently just added to my own misery, and those around me. In this way, he was a great teacher for me - someone I never want to see again, but who gave me the opportunity to experience a hatred deep enough to understand the damage hatred causes. None of my childhood "enemies" did this really; I never hated them hard enough or long enough to experience what I have as a result of my connection to this man my mother dated for several years.

Yesterday morning, a group of us met at the zen center for our monthly meeting. It's a kind of experiment, this group. A lay training group you might call it, although we have at least one member aspiring to become a zen priest in the future. Anyway, among other things, we had a discussion about various forms of self-hatred that seem commonplace in people living in the United States, and maybe many other places as well. The way I see it, "self-hatred" need not be just about the psychological; it's about anything you cut off or avoid in your life. Yes, there's no fixed, centralized "self" - however, most of the time, most of us are operating from a place of believing in one, so a concept like self-hatred is a useful construct, if nothing else.

During our meeting, I related how more than anything, what I try to cut out, deny, or downplay is things like the story above. Currently, I have an extreme dislike towards one of the directors at my workplace. I honestly don't respect her, nor desire to work with her in any capacity. In fact, after meeting with our education director for my annual review, I realized that while there are other issues I have with my workplace, much of my suffering is linked to the miserable relationship I have with that particular director.

Do I hate her? No. But I have felt ill will towards her plenty of times. And my response to this ill will arising and being expressed is usually to follow it up with some effort to soothe it, soften it, or think ill of myself for thinking so ill of her - anything but just experience the rawness of the dislike and lack of respect.

The thing about the Dhammapada quote above is that people often want to leap from one end to the other. Don't you think? Instead of doing the difficult work of experiencing the pain and roughness of what's present, we want to have that shit over with so we can go on appearing more and more bodhisattva-like in the world. It just doesn't work that way though.

This is why we have to do continuous practice. Not just sitting meditation, chanting, going to sangha events - but acting out our intention to be mindful with every step, knowing we won't be mindful at every step. Making the effort, and letting go of gaining any benefit from that effort. This is our way, and what working with teachings like the verses from the Dhammapada means.