Friday, April 29, 2011

Buddhist Blogger Round Up

Hi Everyone! The weather is sunny and warming up here, so I don't want to spend all day hanging around on the computer today. However, there are some good blog posts I'd like to share before I head outside to play.

First off, I have written two posts on my new relationship blog, including a different take on the British royal wedding that just occurred. I also have put up a few poems on the creative writing blog since last I mentioned it here, for all those poetry folks out there.

Now, on to other writer's work.

Barbara O'Brien's recent post on perfection and imperfection struck a note. As a recovering perfectionist myself, I always appreciate writings that remind me to let go of some idealized image of life, and live it as it is, mistakes and all.

Algernon has some wise words on the idiocy surrounding President Obama's birth certificate. It's kind of astounding that we're still talking about it, over two years after the guy was elected, but hey, humans are talented at endlessly fixating on bullshit, aren't they?

For all of you history buffs, Kyle's recent post is brimming with interesting stuff about social and political changes that occurred in Buddhist nations as a result of events during World War I.

And finally, Emma over at Chronic Meditator recalls a story about Cambodian Buddhist teacher Maha Ghosananda and the power of group chanting during the worst of times.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Yoga of Non-Greed

Here are some notes I made for the presentation I gave last night at yoga teacher training on aparigraha, or non-greed and non-grasping. At the end are some questions you can contemplate and offer answers to - if you're so inclined - in the comments section. Enjoy!

Yoga Sutra II.39

aparigrahasthairye janmakathamta sambodhah

Translation adapted from T.K.V. Desikachar:

“One who is not greedy is secure. He has time to think deeply. Her understanding of herself is complete.”

There are two basic ways greed manifests.
1. Desire for that which you don’t have, or perceive you don’t have
2. Stinginess with what you do have, hording

Wants vs. Needs: This yama really zeros in on our muddy thinking around needs and wants. We frequently mistake want for need, and these mistakes are reinforced by our possession-addicted culture. What is it that you really need in life? And what do you actually own anyway?

Greed and the Material: Those of use that have a lot of “stuff” in our homes and apartments often struggle around taking care of it all. Having more might offer convenience and comfort in the short term, but in the long term, having too much often ends up draining your time and energy.

Greed and the Non-Material: The same can happen to those who don’t have a lot of material possessions, but who lust after ideas, knowledge, or experiences.
Excess time and energy might be spent on, for example, learning every possible variation of trikonasana and the history behind each variation, and then more time and energy spent on defending what you have learned. (Notice the first half of the example demonstrates desire for more, while the second demonstrates a form of stinginess.)

“The final yama in Patanjali's list is aparigraha, or nongreed. This is a very difficult one to practice, surrounded as we are with advertisements that attempt to whip up our desire for more. In some ways our society's economic system is based on greed … Greed is not just confined to material goods. We may hunger after enlightenment, difficult asanas, spiritual powers, or perfect bliss. One way to sidestep the trap of greed is to follow the advice of the sages: Be happy with what you have. This spirit of true renunciation will diminish the power of aparigraha.”

Article by Judith Lasater

Greed and Your Identity: One of the very tricky places where greed manifests is around identity. Think of all the effort you put into building yourself in certain ways, presenting yourself in certain ways, and also in trying to get rid of that which you don’t like or want about yourself. Now, certainly some of this effort is quite necessary for living a healthy, fully engaged life, but some of it is also based in greed. Holding on to certain accomplishments, skills, or personal qualities in order to impress others, fit in with a certain group, or demonstrate your worthiness is one way this happens. Another is in all the attempts to hide disliked or maladapted qualities, lack of skills or lack of accomplishments.

Ultimately, manifestations of greed are really demonstrations of a lack of faith in yourself, and in the divine of the universe. Fearing you won’t be provided for, or won’t be able to get what you do need in the present or future, you take excess or withhold too much.

“By the observance of aparigraha, the yogi makes his life as simple as possible and trains his mind not to feel the loss or the lack of anything. Then everything he really needs will come to him by itself at the proper time.” B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Yoga


What do you really need?

What are some things (objects or ideas/experiences) that you think you need, but actually don’t need?

Where in your yoga practice have you been letting something external define your happiness? Where in the rest of your life?

What can you do differently to practice aparigraha in these situations?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

New Relationship Blog

I have been considering for a long time having a blog to discuss dating and relationships. It's a subject I'm totally fascinated with, and have found myself reading more dating blogs, forums, and discussions in recent months. I'm not only interested in personal stories, but also the ways in which gender, shifting social scripts, and divisions between thoughts and actions play out on a larger, patterned scale. Even though I tend to view my own relationships and approach to dating through a spiritual lens, I want to talk about more than just Zen and yogic influences.

So, I have started another blog. We'll see what happens with it, but at the very least, it will allow me to maintain the focus here, while exploring the other interests I have over there.

Here is the first post. It's a pretty long, somewhat confessional piece about a relationship that continues to, in some ways, break my heart. The writing, I hope, conveys some of the complexities involved, while also demonstrating the love that carried through it.

We'll be back to our regularly scheduled posts soon. Have an excellent Wednesday!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Kanzeon Zen Center Board's Response to Letter from North American Zen Teachers

Even though I have other things I would rather talk about, I feel compelled to share the current response from the Kanzeon Zen Center board in regards to the Genpo Merzel debacle. It's quite a detailed letter, which offers some clarifications that those following the story need to have.

But honestly, after reading it, I just feel sad for those folks. The broken sangha. The loss of revenue. The threats of closure. Criticisms. Suspicions. Confusions. All are very familiar to me, as a member of a sangha that went through a smaller, but similar process several years ago. We almost didn't make it, and given that Kanzeon's financial picture is probably more dire than our sangha's was, they are facing a long, tough road.

Even though I find some of the letter defensive, and frankly kind of confused, I understand the intense loyalty those who remain on the board and in the community have for their teacher. For all of his screw ups, Genpo still offered something to these students that touched them deeply. I can imagine he supported some of them when few others would, during the most difficult of times. It's hard to just turn your back on that, even when such a terrible breach has occurred.

Clearly, from the details of the letter, there's also an understanding that Genpo's Big Mind work might be the only thing that can keep the center afloat financially. Which perhaps another reason why they're so keen on keeping Genpo around right now, when it really makes more sense for him to be taking care of himself and cleaning up his life without tending to a sangha as well. The expansiveness of Big Mind has always reminded me of that Peter Gabriel song "Big Time," which really is a big poke at the love fest American culture has for all things big.

One particular section of the letter demonstrates this most clearly:

As is well known, Roshi has been widely criticized within the Zen community for receiving large donations from people who have attended small Big Mind workshops with him. These people, almost all of them needless to say wealthy, successful in their professions or businesses, have chosen to give amounts which they could just as easily spend on other things, so that they could study with Genpo Roshi. To the best of our knowledge, not a single one has ever felt they wasted their time or money. On the contrary, they are extremely grateful, they gladly allow their expressions of thanks to be quoted, many of them have returned again for additional workshops.

On the other hand, those who criticize these events, and Roshi for giving them, have never attended them. And those who condemn them include not only representatives of the far-flung Zen world, but people in the Kanzeon community itself, the very people who are benefiting from them without realizing or acknowledging it. It is these donations that have enabled Roshi to support Kanzeon’s Salt Lake City properties, full-time staff and office infrastructure, to continue supporting residents, extending scholarships, promoting social action programs, allowing free and partial tuition to many who could not attend at full price, and, by the way, provide Maezumi Roshi’s widow Ekyo Maezumi a place to live and a salary to help sustain her. In fact, contrary to a widely disseminated but inaccurate impression, it is Big Mind that is supporting Kanzeon rather than the other way around, since the local Sangha provides only a minimal portion of the funds needed to support us.

The whole thing sounds a little bit like some of the stories from corporate America during the last decade. Grossly over-extended companies bringing in tons of money from a select portion of their offerings suddenly collapse when the leader or leaders of those offerings are found to be corrupt.

In fact, even the spirited defense of the organization's work, and especially of Big Mind, sounds similar to, for example, the defenses the late Ken Lay gave of Enron. The company, which he repeated said was a good, "honest company," ultimately fell apart in Lay's view because of "public hysteria." During the Enron trials, corporate philanthropy efforts were also used as a character defense for Lay, as were appeals to his Christian faith.

I bring this up because Big Mind has always felt a little too capitalistic for my taste, and the mess left in the wake of Genpo's downfall has the look, in some ways, of a corporate crash. Which I think should give everyone in the larger Zen community pause around the ways in which sanghas are being financed, and how that might impact the nature of the group's development.

It's sad to see how much turmoil is occurring in the Kanzeon sangha, and given the public nature of the scandal, I think they are in a miserable position in terms of damage control. Nothing in the letter changes my mind about the need for Genpo to step away from teaching, and for the need to take what happened with him and others as a sign that something collectively has to be done around teachers and ethics.

However, given the very tenuous position of the Kanzeon sangha, I think all of us outsiders would do well to start offering them some metta. And wish for them that the wisdom required to move forward in a healthy way for all - the remaining sangha, Genpo, and anyone wronged - will come forth and guide them.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Zen of Wild Turkeys and Snakes

It was a beautiful day here in Minnesota. Sunny. Light winds. Spring time temperatures. The perfect conditions for having encounters with other creatures!

Now, I'm not talking aliens. I'm talking wild turkeys and snakes.

After parking my bike this morning, I walked behind a construction site near our zen center. Turning the corner, I came nearly face to face with two wild turkeys. Wild turkeys sightings have become more common in the city in recent years, but I haven't been close enough to almost touch one - until this morning. As they strutted along in front of me, I just stood there, watching their funny necks move, and thinking "what is this?"

What is this? Not just the turkeys right in front of me, but the whole experience of living at that moment. Their appearance startled me out of morning sleepiness, and that general apathy we so often have towards our lives when things aren't "exciting" or "dramatic".

Apparently, being startled into the moment was the story of the day. This afternoon, as I biked on a trail along the Mississippi, I felt myself lost in gaze. The sun shining over the river, and all the little green plants shooting from the ground after a long winter were just too much. Gazing at it all as I peddled, I felt a bit punch drunk, loving spring for being spring. At one point, I vaguely saw something laying in the middle of the trail, and before I knew it, I had run over a snake.

It was a small snake, and I'm guessing I only hit it's hind end because almost immediately after I registered it's snakeness, and my tire going over it, the snake was gone into a patch of brush. I stopped and went looking for it, but couldn't find it.

Later, I took a hike in the woods - maybe a mile away from where I hit the snake. It was a section that had been partially cleared away, where shrub trees mingled with upturned soil, broken beer bottles, and chunks of stone near the river shore. I was enjoying walking around down there when a train came along the tracks and slowed to a stop not too far from me. Figuring I was trespassing, I decided to make a quick exit, walking back up the hill I had come down into the wooded patch from. About half way up, I looked down just as my foot was about to land on - you guessed it - another snake. Two in fact. Almost exactly the same size and color as the one I had hit.

I watched as the snakes slithered away, and then finished the walk back to my bicycle. No creatures were upset the rest of the way home.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Conversation with Zen Master Ikkyu

A group of us had a conversation at the zen center this morning. It sounded kind of like this:

Many paths lead
from the foot of the mountain,
But at the peak
We all gaze at the
Single bright moon.

Ikkyu (1394-1481)

Oh, how things change, stay exactly the same. May you all be well.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Embodied Attention

*Body(s) by Da Vinci (1452-1519)

Yoga teacher training has been an interesting mix of confirmation, ah ha moments, and "oh, my god, I have no idea" experiences. I have felt kind of dumb and boneheaded fairly often, something I didn't anticipate happening. So, I really enjoyed reading this story about another guy's experience with yoga teacher training. Neal Pollack writes about his preparation for, and expectations of the training before he goes. And then, less than two weeks before the training is supposed to start, he pulls a hamstring that impacts his practice the entire training. Almost everything he had expected was thrown off by the hamstring pull, but it seems to have offered him a window into something greater. He writes:

It occurred to me that all matter, thoughts, and emotions are united under some sort of unknowable eternal consciousness. That perception, I thought, is the essence of yoga. But I had also experienced that perception before, and in greater depth. Frankly, I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t encountered it more fully or more often at yoga school. I paid my money, I thought. I deserve pure consciousness.

But the truth is, I don’t “deserve” anything, and that was one of the most important lessons I eventually drew from yoga school. Just like you can’t depend on your body to always be able to do the asana you were capable of when you were 25, you also can’t depend on your brain to constantly exist in the divine realization of pure awareness. When I came home, things were much the same. My kid still howled when his socks were uncomfortable. My Boston terrier still peed in the back room. I still had financial problems. People still cut me off in traffic. And all that stuff still annoyed me.

But I also found myself walking through life with a much greater sense of calm. I had certainly heard about non-attachment, to both positive and negative experiences, but now, suddenly, I began to put it into action. If I felt myself getting angry, or jealous, or otherwise mentally troubled, I would observe my feelings, even cradle them, as a famous rinpoche once instructed, but not let them rule me. For the most part, without even trying, I found myself feeling kinder and friendlier and more generous. Subtly, slowly, and by very gradual degrees, yoga was changing my very nature.

One of the things I have noticed in myself is that from the increased focus on paying attention to bodies, my own and others, I'm much more attentive overall. Feeling my way into different alignments for poses. Watching others do the same. Offering adjustments. Being adjusted. Remembering to breathe. Seeing how I stop breathing. Feeling that stopping. Seeing others stopping and starting. All of this is leading to a more embodied attention, something that didn't seem to come as easily when I was focusing primarily on zazen. In fact, when I have been doing meditation, it feels more organic and less pressured - as if I'm responding to the rhythm of my life instead of an artificial schedule.

I'm also getting to face another layer of perfectionism, which resonates well with Neal's point about the ever-changing quality of body and mind. My mind was really cloudy during last week's core class, and I responded rather confused and irritatedly to the intense yoga teacher doing the class. This week, with a clearer mind and piles of energy, her intensity didn't bother me much, and I just enjoyed myself going with the flow of class. And both of these experiences are fine.

Learning occurs in different ways at different times. And some days, you're just in a fog. It's all part of the process...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Genpo Merzel and Soto-Shu Donation Updates

Some news on a few old stories has surfaced on posts from fellow Buddhist bloggers, so I thought I'd share that this more.

First, Jundo Cohen has an update on the questionable donation practices of the Soto-Shu for victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

This, in particular, I found interesting:

I did write to Rev. Shundo Kushida of the Soto-Shu International Division (cc. Daigaku Rumme of the North America office) to ask for clarification on these matters, and to why donations which are not marked are being all diverted to "Relief funds for temples" and not "general relief". He responded by telephone to me, and seems like a nice young fellow. If I understood the gist of his statements to me, he said that he thought the English and foreign language pages were clear enough. He also said that he thought Japanese people donating to the Soto-shu would be clear that the money might be used for Soto-shu temples, so did not need further clarification. I was left with the impression that the formula advertised here for fundraising as "30% for temples, 70% to be re-donated to the Japan Red Cross" was not actually a fixed formula, and that they were deciding the uses of the money (to Shanti and the like) without being bound by that statement. He did not provide any information on the total amount raised or the amount of that used for temple relief.

Makes you wonder what they are actually doing, doesn't it? I wrote a lot about my dislike of the ways the Red Cross uses it's funds, and won't get into that again here. However, I do think that situations like this are a good reminder to not only do your research about organizations you are donating to, but also to practice giving without attachment once you have given. Even the best of support organizations make decisions with donated money that the givers might not agree with, so while I firmly believe it's important to call out grievous acts of misuse, it's also the case that a lot of us struggle with giving as a practice.

"Monks, if people knew, as I know, the fruits of sharing gifts, they would not enjoy their use without sharing them, nor would the taint of stinginess obsess the heart. Even if it were their last bit, their last morsel of food, they would not enjoy its use without sharing it if there was someone else to share it with."

Itivuttaka 18

The second updated story is about our old buddy Genpo Merzel. There is a new letter signed by 66 Zen teachers, including my zen center's leader, over at Sweeping Zen. Here are the last 3 paragraphs:

We sincerely hope you will eventually find in your heart a way to genuine repentance, and out of that follow a course of remediation that may actually lead to healing. Others have acknowledged misconduct and have made appropriate amends in the past, and been rehabilitated within the mahasangha. May you be encouraged by their example?

However, at this point we see no evidence of good faith action on your part. It seems you continue to hold yourself out as a religious leader, a Zen Master and that the Kanzeon Board has turned and followed your lead. We are concerned for people who may come to you as a Zen teacher. Those among your current students who choose to continue with you have made a conscious decision, aware, we assume, of all the facts regarding your repeated history of exploitative behaviors.

Therefore, as members of the Zen teaching mahasangha deeply concerned for the wellbeing of anyone to whom you present yourself as a Zen teacher, we feel we cannot remain silent. We need to state publicly our belief that you are not acting faithfully within the bounds of our tradition. We reiterate our call for you to enter treatment with people qualified to diagnose and address your repeated unethical and exploitative behaviors. And, we call on you to honor your commitment to step aside from Kanzeon and allow a remediation process to happen there as well.

I think the lack of any official channels to deal with this - and the other similar examples - have led us to offering these kinds of statements. I support the effort to speak publicly and keep Genpo's repeated misconduct and failure to adequately address it in the spotlight. In fact, even if the letter itself isn't fierce enough, it does represent a sense that integrating ethics - especially within the dynamics between students and teachers - is something a lot of Zen teachers and their sanghas are considering seriously. More of us are less willing to just sweep this stuff under the rug, which is a definite positive.

At the same time, given the lack of an organizational channel to work on these kinds of issues, letters like this kind of have a thud energy attached to them. For example, the call to enter treatment might be a correct one, but it just feels like an abstract response to what's happened. One I have made myself in considering the Zen teacher scandals of recent years. Yet, because there isn't, for example, a national or regional Ethics and Reconciliation Council where the specifics of what happened in Salt Lake with Genpo could be hashed out, it's really hard to offer some forms of specific council without sounding overly proscriptive. It seems to me that beyond calling for Genpo to stop teaching, step away from any leadership position at Kanzeon Zen Center, and to stand behind the public declarations he made in February, we're kind of stuck because of the lack of structures.

Perhaps something like a national or set of regional Ethics and Reconciliation Councils would be a way to address the lack of structures, without developing the kinds of overbearing institutions that so many of us in "the West" abhor. For anyone interested, here are the ethical structures and guidelines we have developed and use at Clouds in Water Zen Center. We are continuing to refine the process, but one thing I like about it is that it's a mixture of formal and informal, and those who are members of the "EAR" Council are chosen from the sangha and are not considered permanent appointees.

Seems like this whole post is about dealing with situations where lack of clarity and specifics around accountability have lead to trouble. Interesting, isn't it?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Evolving Your Brain

I watched the movie What the bleep do we know? last night. Somehow, I missed seeing it when everyone was talking about it, which isn't terribly surprising. Anyway, I continue to be fascinated with the possibilities coming out of the field of quantum physics, even if I don't understand a whole hell of a lot of the technical stuff.

One of the researchers interviewed during the movie, Joe Dispenza, has a book out called Evolve Your Brain. I haven't read it yet, but I have listened to some podcast interviews with Dispenza where he shares some of the ideas set forth in the book, One of the things I am keenly interested in is a point he makes about the need for intention to be functioning together with the emotional memory of the body in order for a shift to occur. Just intention isn't enough. And just "feeling good" isn't enough.

Consider this quote from Dispenza:

Our body reproduces different kinds of cells on a regular basis. Some cells are reproduced in hours, others in a day, others in a week, some within months,
and some cells even take years to reproduce. If high peptide levels of shame and
anger are maintained on a daily basis for years on end, then when each cell
divides to make daughter cells, it will respond to this high demand and alter the
receptors on the cell membrane. This is a natural regulation process that takes
place in all cells

This is the neurochemical expression of what we often call in Buddhist circles "habitual patterns" or klesas.

Now, one of the important things in all of this is that given the elasticity of the body, and especially of the brain, we have the ability to change these patterns. We can break the grooves that keep us trapped in repetition and narrow mindedness. And you're never too old to give it a try.

Meditation, chanting, yoga, and other traditional forms of spiritual practice already were taping into this understanding long before the scientists came to language it. But one thing I think those on the scientific cutting edge are offering to compliment our ancient spiritual traditions is a mapping out of the flexibility we all possess. This mapping out, as well as offering studies and research into shifts in the brain and body, are - in my view - further evidence that enlightenment need not be the province of a tiny few. That more and more of us might be able to tap into our greatest potential, and to awaken to our fullest expression of life.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Following Your Dreams

Never thought I'd be quoting Steve Jobs,co-founder of Apple Computers, but then again, a whole post on Charlie Sheen graced these pages not too long ago, so anything's possible. And, just to add to the fun, the Jobs quotes are from a guest post by a former writer for the Wall Street Journal and Fortune, two of the largest mouth organs of Corporate America.

The Jobs quotes came from a 2005 graduation address at Standford University. Jobs had been diagnosed with cancer a year earlier, which maybe adds a bit of context to the following:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool that I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Even though I have felt distracted most of the day, and irritated that a couple of people haven't responded to messages I sent a few days ago, these words are still inspiring. And yet, being in the position I am in - not employed, not sure what the next "big thing" is, and getting stuck at times in thoughts that I'm "wasting too much time," it's easy to take Jobs' comments about remembering death as a call to get my act together before it's too late.

However, when I read the above statements alongside these words from the same speech, I can see how the deliberate meandering I have taken up over the past several months might be exactly the way to keep "following my heart."

“Reed College at the time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class and learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, and about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great.”

“If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, “ Jobs explained, “the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionately spaced ones. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.”

Even though I have always questioned the norms, some of them have still colonized my mind in ways I'm only now beginning to see. The "success" storyline of moving from one job to the next in a linear, preferable upward in responsibility and salary fashion, is one of those norms I have long struggled with. Following my heart is something I have tried to do, while also having a voice in my head saying "yeah, man, people admire you for taking the risk, but in the end, will say 'I told you so' when you fall on your ass."

What I notice right away is the assumption of some future failure in that voice, as well as the view that I'm basically only worthy of support when I'm doing well and being productive somehow. Another thing is that the whole thing is built on caring too much about what others think. It's an interesting defense mechanism, one that I see as an attempt to protect myself in a society that has never valued much of anything I love and stand for.

Part of me wants to say thank you to that inner voice for keeping a fire under me for all these years, for helping me achieve all that I have achieved.

And another part of me is so damned tired of it. Tired of its suck on my confidence and resilience. Tired of its incessant chattering whenever I go on a date, come up with a new career idea, or try a new yoga pose or teaching technique in my yoga teacher training.

Right now, I'm doing a lot of "dropping in," just as Steve Jobs did with that calligraphy class. Where it will all lead exactly, I don't know. But what I do know is that in the face of that I don't know, all the doubts, fears, and norms that have colonized my mind over the past 35 years are coming right to the surface.

And you know, I'm kind of tired of that too. But I can handle "being tired of" - it's workable. The toxins seem to be slowly moving on out.

May we all follow our hearts, however long and confusing the roadblocks in the way might be.

*On second thought, it's not terribly surprising that Steve Jobs would appear on these pages, given his Buddhist practice.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Honesty Isn't Always the Best Policy

Over at the webzine I regularly write for, Life as a Human, there is an interesting post about the problems that come with overemphasizing a single trait or value in your life. Author Lorne Daniel writes:

We have all met the person who loudly proclaims his or her honesty, at the expense of everything and everyone in their path.

“I just like to be honest,” she says, after trashing a child’s new artwork. Or “frankly, this project isn’t worth a dime” at a business meeting.

“I know I’m blunt,” some people will say, “but I just don’t like to beat around the bush.” Yes, there can be too much avoidance and obfuscation in human interactions. Our language overflows with euphemisms.

Yet in the guise of being clear and up-front, the pusher of honesty is often all about a single-minded focus on his own opinions and an avoidance of reasoned thought. It’s easier to be a bulldozer than a listener.

Although I don't consider myself an overemphasizer in this manner, I have been this person who offers blunt, unrestrained commentary before. In fact, I littered my previous workplace with such statements for a several months, until it became painfully obvious that the strategy was failing and that I was quickly burning all bridges in the process.

As a Zen practitioner, I have seen myself and others overemphasize one Buddhist precept above all the others. Speaking the truth, or not lying, is a common choice here. A literal approach is taken - that it is never ok to lie about anything - and action stems from that belief. During a recent class on this precept at the zen center, there was one person in particular who was pushing this view. He rightly questioned others who were defending lying in certain situations, but couldn't see - it seemed to me - how attached he was to truth telling.

Attachment to view is one concern when overemphasizing a single precept or ethical teaching. Another is simply aggrandizing yourself.

The blunt folks in Lorne's example above often come from a place of self-aggrandizement, believing that they alone have the answers. I was damned well convinced during that low period at my old job that I knew what needed to be done. If I just shouted a little louder, repeated myself a little more, it might sink in. It was, in other words, "all about me and my ideas."

Now, certainly I had some insight there. But I was also ignoring the contributions of others, and failed to pay attention to cues as to how I might be heard more clearly. Being honest in the way I was actually created a dynamic where I missed important information from others, and thus over time, what I was being honest about became less and less truthful. Do you see how that is?

The problem with excessive blunt honesty is the same problem that comes with excessive passivity around the truth. The relational aspect underpinning all of Buddhist practice - and really of all of life - is discounted or ignored. And so no matter how truthful one is being in a particular situation, it's off the mark.

Lorne writes:

We all long for simplicity. Hence, the temptation to adopt one virtue as our personal calling card and run with it. “I’m all about honesty.” Or “all the world needs is more compassion.”

Sure, be honest. And compassionate. And rigorous. And flexible. Give a try at a nuanced, integrated application of human virtues.

This nuanced, integrated approach is really exactly what we Buddhists call skillful means. It's a recognition of the unique coming together that makes up each moment.

Thus, the old saying "Honesty is the best policy" is probably useful for chronic liars, but actually can be poisonous for those who "cannot tell a lie."

*Grant Wood's painting "Parson Weems' Fable (1939), which is based on a popularized story about George Washington and a cherry tree.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

4 Buddhist Posts For U

You ever ask yourself that question?

Anyway, here are a few posts for you all to enjoy. First off, take a trip over to Dean's blog The Mindful Moment, where he's promoting a worldwide hour of silence and meditation to be held on June 18th. He writes:

"The Moment of Peace" is a very simple idea; that we as individuals can make a difference if we stop for a while, be mindful, be quiet, and be still, and enjoy the experience of living. Through this, an innate happiness becomes present and we allow for a more sustainable and lasting peace within us and with those around us.

See his blog for more details.

Over at My Fair Isle, Robyn has some thoughts on the Bolivian movement to grant the Earth equal rights to humans in the nation's legal system. While it's hard to know if this will have an impact on corporate Earth exploitation in Bolivia in the near future, the symbolism of the law may help shift human attitudes towards the planet we all live on in the long term.

Katie, over at her blog Kloncke, has an excellent post considering anti-war movements and American Buddhist responses war. Specifically, she considers the divide between mainstream anti-war protesters and U.S. soldiers who desire to organize around GI health issues, and getting out of Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.

And finally, Daishin shares a good poem by an old Zen favorite.

Have an excellent weekend!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Buddhist Anger Strategies

My old friend anger has shown up in discussions here, as well as on some other blogs over the past couple of days. Given how powerful, confusing, and often destructive anger is, it's really good let discussions and teachings around it come right in whenever they appear. Because you never know when you might need them.

Here's a quotefrom Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg:

When we step back and re-vision our understanding of life then we don't need to get so lost in our anger. When we look at anger as it arises, what's important is to look at the very feeling, flavor, and texture of anger. We don't say, "This is wrong," "This is bad," "I shouldn't have this anger." Just pay attention to the feeling.

Once I was sitting at the Insight Meditation Society, the center I cofounded in Massachusetts, and one of my teachers, Munindra, who was visiting from India was guiding us. I was very upset at this moment. Anger had come into my mind and I was thinking, "I've been practicing for four years, I shouldn't be angry anymore but I am. What's this still doing here?!" Munindra could hear how disgruntled I was, how dismayed I was, and he said, "Imagine that a spaceship has landed on the front lawn and these martians have come out and come up to you and asked, 'What is anger?' That's how you should relate to anger."

You don't think "I'm righteous. I'm going to do this or that, get revenge, etc." You just ask, "What is anger?" "What's it like in my body?" "What are the layers of this mood?" "How much sadness is there in it? How much fear?"

I like the "What is this?" focus here. Instead of thinking you know what's happening, you investigate. I know that there have been many times when I have thought I was angry, and actually saw something else when I looked. Grief. Confusion. General irritation. Physical illness developing. Hunger. So, it makes a lot of sense to pay attention, and see if you can see what's there, even if you are in the middle of an argument with someone.

But you know, I also find that Salzberg's example typifies the way privileged, middle class Buddhists tend to talk about anger. Anger is considered in the context of individual relationships, and mostly in individual relationships where the potential for grave damage - like rape, murder, or some other awfulness is unlikely.

Petteri and I had a discussion that bled over into a new post, and which offers some challenge to the "standard Buddhist" view. He writes:

Rather than face the anger, I pretend it's not there; pretend that I'm the kind of person I want to be, or you're the kind of person I want you to be.

I think a great many of our problems comes from this turning away.

Maturing kamma is a messy business, and I don't think there are any magic solutions to completely get rid of the mess, even if there are particular medicines that work, to an extent, against particular poisons.

The upshot is a particular pattern of unskilful behavior. Covert aggression. Exhortations to "abandon the ego" and "let go," to become a Zen zombie floating above it all, like a corpse in a river. Resolution avoidance by walking away from conflicts. Hidden vices. Things left to fester, sometimes for years, until they explode in a fountain of pus. I have a hunch that many of the Zen scandals that have been plaguing the scene lately have to do with this pattern, and I think I can see it playing out in a small way among a quite a few Buddhists.

Avoidance is something I'm aware of in myself. And it's also something I have watched members of my sangha being forced to face in recent years - fallout from our own teacher scandal. Too often, I, we, stuck to just watching, just sitting, and trying our damnedest to speak and act non-violently. Some of that was very skillful, and some of that was noble stupidity.

Petteri talks about times when maybe the best way to "mature karma" is to go at it with each other - to get the pissed off out in some manner or another. I think that might be true, but it also might be a poor idea. I'm convinced that one of the skills to being an awakened being is learning to read situations, so that you have a much better sense of how to approach what's happening. Which is almost impossible if you're really angry. But it might be the case that if you've trained yourself to read situations well, you might get a decent sense of things before you get pissed off. And then perhaps be able to handle being angry within such a situation. Does that make sense?

But there's another level here that isn't on the table. The anger that arises during life threatening situations. The anger that arises from deep, collective injustices. The anger of entire cultures, groups of people who have been oppressed for generation after generation.

Working with this might include a lot of the above discussion, but also requires a different view. A different set of "solutions." For example, shuttling the collective anger of indigenous peoples into individualized patterns and approaches is actually not changing the roots. Collective rage requires working towards collective transformation. And that means working towards justice, and seeing that rage as a manifestation - at least in part - of conditions that must be changed by the multitudes.

While it might be true that certain individuals within a group might have entirely too much attachment and fixation on being enraged - and thus might really benefit from something like doing zazen or examining their fear - it's also the case that there's something much larger than any individual going on there. Which is actually why - going back to Salzberg - the skill of paying attention and saying "what is this?" is really valuable. When enough people experiencing and/or witnessing injustice recognize that what they are experiencing is injustice, then there's an opportunity to address the roots.

So, the way I see it, understanding and working with anger requires that we widen our views of what skillfulness might mean, and realize that while there probably is an individual piece within any manifestation of anger, it's possible that said anger is also arising from some broader, more collective place. Maybe 80% of a given person's anger is just attachment, fear, and shoddy attempts to claim power. But the other 10-20% - that might be something bigger, something calling for larger questions and larger answers.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Being An Online Buddha

*This may just be the guy behind all of those anonymous comments you are receiving.

I'd like to point out a pair of good posts on social networks and online identity. Petteri attempts to map out how his experience online has been, and how he might go forward online in the future. In addition, there's a reflection in the comments section on the social pressures and potential behavioral controls contained within groups like Facebook, Twitter, and even amongst us bloggers.

Petteri and commenter Nella Lou both talk about culling down online connections, and trying to be more focused. I can relate to this. Although perhaps in my case, it's been more that my reading and responding activities have been shifting, and - thankfully - I'm finding it much easier to opt out of online dramas, and to drop off attention to blogs and connections that just serve as diversions or do nothing but stir up emotional reactions.

Katherine has a totally fascinating post about anonymity and identity online. One thing that really rang true for me is a sense of being accountable for your words and actions online, and that doing things like commenting anonymously often are motivated by a desire to hide something. Not only do people act poorly while anonymous, but some also act overly polished, portraying themselves as almost enlightened figures.

And then there is this:

Online, I am drawn to those who allow themselves to be vulnerable and to those who engage in meaningful, personalized dialogue, by way of comments in various platforms. Recently, I also noted how much more connected I feel when someone uses my first name–especially if emphasized, i.e., more than just in the greeting–in our interactions. And as a Buddhist practitioner, it has become virtually untenable for me to be anything but integrated in my online activities.

I feel the same. In fact, I find that even when someone fiercely disagrees with me online, when it's a someone who has a name and a face - someone who's blog I have read or someone who I know in my everyday life - it makes the exchange more intimate. It might also be more painful to go through as well, but that's the risk of vulnerability.

Anonymous comments often feel more abstract, even if they are filled with wonderful reflections. The same goes for anonymously run blogs, especially if those blogs rarely or never delve into the author's personal life. I have actually read a few blogs by people who leave no particular identity traces in their blog profiles, but who are so expressive and intimate in their writing content that it doesn't matter. However, the more intellectual, philosophical or political blogs run anonymously just aren't as compelling to me, and I sometimes wonder what an author's motivations are to keep their identity hidden.

Saying all of this, I also feel that for people who are in dangerous territories - like in extremely oppressive countries or someone writing about abusive relationships while trying to get out of one - anonymity is quite appropriate.

So, overall, what interested me about both of the posts I linked to is a sense of examining one's motivations for online activity, and trying to apply the wisdom of our spiritual lives to whatever we are doing here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Yogic Twisting

Here's a short report from my class last night for yoga teacher training. I spent much of the day beforehand having a lot of intense energy moving around within me. Not exactly sure what was bringing this movement about, but there was no mistaking it. I'd see couples holding hands, and I'd want to cry. I read a blog post about someone who is struggling and wanted to cry. I saw a fat squirrel and laughed so hard people turned to look at me.

Heading in to class, I noticed that none of my core study classmates were there. A few familiar faces were in the room, but no one I had any real connection to. The teacher was one that I really enjoy taking classes from, so that was a relief.

The subject - adjusting twists. Sounds straight forward enough, right?

Well, we started in on some standing twists and I was immediately faced with what you might call "body dyslexia." Switching hands and feet while getting into poses for my partner to practice adjusting. Blanking out on the cues we were just taught. Thoughts of "looking idiotic" to my partner. Trying to take in her comments to me about my adjustments, while also paying attention to where I was standing, how I was breathing, and doing my best to let go of the inner chatter. It didn't help that she had walked right up to me before class, looking me in the eyes, and starting a conversation. What she attracted to me? What's she make of all this fumbling around?

At one point, she said that maybe her asking me to shift adjustments was mostly in her own head, and not necessarily about my adjustments. I responded "We're all learning here. I appreciate the specific feedback."

That was a moment of lucidity in an otherwise muddled class experience.

Near the end of class, her and I sat next to each other, looking out the window. It has been a beautiful spring day and we both commented on wanting to be outside.

Twisting poses are good for, amongst other things, wringing out all the junk - physically and emotionally. It's like ringing out the dirty dish water from a rag.
Leaving class, I kind of felt like that. Rung out. A little exhausted even.

Given all that, biking home with the sun setting and the cool breeze blowing on my right side seemed so appropriate.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Zen Teachers As Professionals - 2

As far as I have seen, this post by Zen teacher James Ford is the only one expressing an explicit support for professionalizing Zen teaching - at least among recent posts in the Buddhoblogosphere. He writes:

Speaking of such, among the Zen blogging commentariate there appears to be near consensus that the idea of professionalizing the status of Zen teachers is a bad thing.

I beg to differ.

Although I have to admit I'm not in fact finding much of a great push for such a thing among the Zen teachers, themselves. Ourselves.

Now, I've run across one or two assertions about the American Zen Teachers Association as trying to become such a thing. Obviously these are assertions from people who have never attended AZTA meetings. As one who has, I can tell anyone interested, it is a very loose gathering, with no officers and no dues, and limited interests beyond being a peer support group. It has a sole committee, a membership committee which with the consent of the larger gathering defines who may be a member of the body. Which has consequences for people who see it simply as the largest gathering of Zen teachers. But it also publicly acknowledges there are many legitimate teachers not affiliated. Possibly, I would add, the majority of the sum total of legitimate Zen teachers in the West.

Maybe I was one of those "asserters" - who knows. Anyway, one thing I'll say is that I have heard the AZTA described in several different manners by people who have been participants over the past few years (before this, I knew nothing about it). So, I'll be the first to admit that I'm not sure what exactly It is, or where It is going. Along those lines, the training guidelines I mentioned in the last post are from the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, for the record.

Ford continues about the AZTA:

This is not a professional organization.

Would that it were...

Ironically, they, we, have been variously dragged over the coals recently for not disciplining errant Zen teachers, one not even a member of the AZTA, the other a founder but not a participant in decades. Then when a number of us, many AZTA, but not exclusively, wrote letters (individually in the first case, forty-four signing a single letter in the second case, chastising them as people while who while flying the Zen flag have committed egregious violations of trust; they, we've been accused of power grabbing, of over reaching.

Come on folks...

Do we want accountability among Zen teachers or not?

I will say it was interesting to see a fair amount of backlash following the public calls from various American Zen teachers for some kind of action in the wake of the Shimano and Genpo scandals. Some of that backlash was clearly directed at members of the teacher group that had their own ethical baggage, but not all of it. In fact, one particularly disturbing case involved a male zen teacher pointedly telling a pair of female zen teachers to butt out of the Shimano case - which basically meant shut the hell up.

So, I agree with Ford that there are lots of mixed messages about accountability floating around.

At the end of Fords post, are a set of interesting questions.

I think we need to reflect on teachers and how they are supported in their work. Do we really think that there is no price to the Dharma means the laborer is not worthy of support? And, if they are, shouldn't there be obvious minimums in preparation for those titles, Zen teacher, Zen abbot? And, shouldn't there be behavior codes that are binding?

One thing that concerns me is the linking between financial support and "obvious minimums in preparation" here. My gut says this is kind of problematic somehow, but I can't - right now - tell you exactly why.

I'm all for some set of binding ethics codes, but how you go about implementing that is another question.

I also do think that Ford is trying to undermine the persistent inking between spiritual teaching and vows of poverty here. Or the view that zen teachers should earn most of their living doing something else. Both of those views seem flawed to me, just as the money raking of folks like Genpo Merzel seems flawed.

Perhaps, as I think Ford himself suggested in another post, there need to be two sets of folks developed. One set of priests trained in a different, but maybe similar way to Christian pastors, and they being in the role of helping to lead dharma centers and ensure that these centers can be open and spread around. And a second group are what we'd consider more traditional Zen teachers - where the paths are less clear cut and more mysterious in some ways.

*Update - I responded to a few questions from Notes in Samsara blogger Mumon below, which help clarify (I think) some of my points above. I'm probably going to refrain from further comments unless something really compels me to jump back in. I'm sensing that I have hit the wall in terms of what I can say right now about this topic in an articulate manner. Anything further would probably just muddy the waters with excess speculation and abstracting, and no one needs that.

But feel free to continue adding comments if you're so interested.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Zen Teachers As Professionals

Brad Warner, in almost punctual fashion, is back at his brand of fist in the face of the establishment Zen. His current post takes aim at what might be viewed as a shift towards "professionalization" amongst American Zen teachers. He writes:

I’ve finally managed to nail down what it is that troubles me so deeply about these organizations. And it comes down to one single word. That word is “professional,” as well as its grammatical variations (professionalism, profession, etc.).

In the fall out from the sex scandals involving Genpo Roshi, Eido Shimano Roshi, Maezumi Roshi, Baker Roshi and whoever else has been caught with their dick where it wasn’t supposed to be, a lot of people are saying the same thing. They say that Zen teachers are very much like therapists, doctors and lawyers and as such should be required to belong to some kind of organization to police their activities the way these other professionals are.

Let me just spell my position out very clearly here.

Zen teachers are not therapists.

Zen teachers are not doctors.

Zen teachers are not lawyers.

I recently came across a piece on the Internet in which someone lamented the current state of affairs in the Zen world and then asked, “Is Zen not, in it’s deepest sense, in the helping profession?”

I also came across a statement by a member of both SZBA and AZTA stating, “the SZBA and the AZTA hold the premises that Zen teaching is a profession.”

These statements are both entirely incorrect. I know it’s far too bold for me to say such a thing when so many people believe that these statements are correct. But this is my firm position on the matter.

Just yesterday at our monthly board meeting, we had a long discussion about our center's ethics and conflict resolution policies. Part of the talk zeroed in on how the nature of conflicts within a group are frequently messy enough that it's not always clear whether something unethical occurred, or whether it's something else - like a disagreement over how to spend community money, or a "personality conflict" between people.

Although it wasn't a feature of yesterday's conversation, I know that appeals to the ethical structures found in professional fields like therapists and doctors have come up in discussions we have had in the past. A few months ago, one of our senior students was speaking about an upcoming trip to do a practice period at a monastery. And our head teacher, during that conversation, mentioned the AZTA's recommendation (I think it's the AZTA's) that anyone who might receive dharma transmission should have 6 months of residential monastic experience under their belt before teaching. And then she asked the senior student something like "that's part of you're reasoning for going, right?"

It was an interesting exchange. This particular student has been a sangha leader for years, and is already a wonderful teacher in many respects. I found myself kind of perplexed by the notion that she "needed" to do more training - specifically in a monastic setting - given that we are an urban Zen center service lay practitioners. Mind you, I'm not against monastic training at all. And in this case, I know it's not my dharma sister's main focus. She wants to do it, and has been mostly waiting for the right to go. In addition, I don't believe that our head teacher is really viewing this trip as something that has to happen either. It seems more that our head teacher is aware of where the ATZA and SZBA are going, and responding during that meeting, responded in a way to support my dharma sister's practice and future.

So, what I was more interested in when that discussion occurred was the broader Zen teacher landscape appearing before us in a specific manner.

In reading about the various recent Zen teacher scandals, I have found it disappointing at times how easily conversations fall into one of two camps. The camp that I'd say some of Brad's comments above represent is the "hands off" approach, where any formal organization and ethical oversight is viewed as problematic, or even as somehow "tainting" what Zen teachers are. And on the other hand, there is a large subsection arguing for a vigorously "hands on" approach, which does seem to be leading to views that Zen teachers are professionals, and that the professional ethics guidelines and training required for others - like doctors and therapists - should be tailored to Zen teachers and applied.

Overall, I probably lean in a more hands on direction, and yet I find Brad's specific disagreement with professionalization compelling.

And it makes me wonder: Can we develop a way to oversee the ethics of Zen teaching without turning it into yet another "profession"?

Brad writes:

I disagree completely with the position taken by the SZBA and the AZTA. They are dead wrong. Zen teaching is not a profession and must never be a profession. A professional is someone who charges for their services and promises some kind of results, even if not necessarily promising what the client views as success. The moment Zen teachers start looking upon what they do in this way, what they do is no longer Zen teaching at all.

I think this brings up another interesting question. What happens when a person considers themselves a "professional"? And more specifically, would have the norm of Zen teachers viewing themselves as professionals significantly shift the ways in which they practice, teach, and lead?

One thing I wonder, as someone who experienced the drift towards professionalization in the Minnesota adult basic education (ABE) field, is the longer term impact. Many of those in the beginning days have been focusing on the benefits - such as teachers having more formal education and training. However, in the case of ABE, the potential negative aspects are either being downplayed or just can't be seen yet. The increased focused on ABE professionalization has come in almost direct response to a rise of high stakes testing that few in the field support. How much of the decisions being made about what constitutes an ABE professional are coming not out of a creative and diverse understanding of the field, but out of a fear that "not professionalizing" will doom all the adult education programs out there?

Which brings me back to American Zen teachers. Is the drive to professionalize Zen teaching coming from, at least in part, a fear that not doing so will doom Zen in America? And if so, is that a wise place to approach all of this from?

I'd be interested in others' views on this issue. It's an ongoing discussion, and one worth having. And I personally am trying to come at it from different angles, asking different kinds of questions, and seeing what comes forth.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Prayers After Disaster

Let everything happen to you, beauty and terror, no feeling is final.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 - 1926)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Brazilian Military Police Go Zen

On one of the recent posts around the buddhist blogosphere related to issues around the term "Western Buddhism" was a comment from a practitioner from South America who felt the concerns of Buddhists in Central and South America are almost never considered under the "Western" rubric. This is quite true.

Awhile ago, I did a few posts on Buddhism in Latin America. This one, which shows the parallels between Brazilian and North American Buddhism, is worth considering in light of the following article I just found:

The government of Espírito Santo, a state located in the southeast of Brazil, is experimenting with a new training routine for some of its military police officers. Instead of learning about new combat techniques, policemen are developing interpersonal relationship skills, emotional balance and discipline in a Zen Buddhist monastery, located 70km from the state capital, Vitória.

Accustomed to the rigid vertical hierarchy of the military, the participants are immediately confronted with the horizontal dynamics of the monks. Everyone, commanders and subordinates, are subject to exactly the same routine, with the same tasks. They start their day practicing meditation, in silence, a radical shift from the traditional morning environment of police headquarters. After meditation, they carry on a number of activities, which range from the creation of ikebana flower arrangements, ceramics, tai chi chuan and even participating in a tea ceremony.

The officers who have gone through the training say that they feel more prepared to deal with their duties in a non-violent way.

Personally, this seems pretty amazing to me. I have long been arguing that one way to really change human reliance on violence to solve difficult conflicts would be to make a major shift in how groups like the military, police, and other law enforcement folks are trained. The more folks trained in non-violent tactics the better. And I can also imagine that one of the benefits of the Brazilian program is that you'll have more officers that understand their own tendencies and triggers, which makes it less likely that they'll flip out and go for their guns the moment things get tense.

And who knows. Perhaps some of those officers have been getting "hooked" on Zen practice, and are continuing on after the training period is over.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Flipping Your Story Over

Now for something different. I'd like to offer two simple practices that I have found helpful for interrupting stressful, stuck experiences.

The first is what I call "Sky practice." It's very simple. If you're a city or suburban dweller, chances are your eyes are almost always at human level or toward the ground. The human-made landscape around us reinforces this in so many ways. And what I have found is that because my very eyes tend to be fixed on all things human, it's that much harder to let go and experience the spaciousness of the world.

So, sky practice. Deliberately stopping and looking at the sky. Letting the sky fill you, until everything else drops off. Give it a try, especially if you're having a difficult day.

The second practice is also for dealing with challenges, especially those related to rejection, failure, and stuckness. What is it?

Doing inverted yoga poses. It's about flipping the world over, which helps to flip your perspective. I recognized this keenly while doing, which is considered the king of yoga poses. However, any inverted pose can offer you the opportunity to see the world anew. Down dog, for example, is a pretty accessible pose for most people. Uttanasana is another one. Inversions offer physical shifts in the body, which assist the mind in shifting as well.

Do you have any particular practices you do to "flip your current life story over"?

* Photo above is from a yoga program for taxi drivers I highlighted a few months back. You can read more about it here.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Questioning Universalizing Statements about Buddhism

I have long enjoyed David Loy's writing. In particular, I very much appreciate his willingness to apply Buddhist teachings to broad, social contexts and to point out how suffering and karma, for example, do not just reside in individuals, but also manifest in collective patterns as well.

This interview from Sweeping Zen takes some fascinating turns, and is worth reading in full. However, one of the turns the discussion took really grated on me, as it went into some of the very territory that a recent post by Arun questioned, and which I followed up on in a post over the weekend.

Loy comments:

Today Buddhism has begun its most radical and challenging transformation of all in its encounter with the modern West. Again, we should expect transformation on both sides, which I see as necessary because each needs the other. I lived in Japan for many years and have traveled throughout most of Buddhist Asia, and it’s obvious that Asian Buddhism is stuck in various ways. The ways Buddhism has been institutionalized, and especially the way in which karma has degenerated into merit-making, is very problematical.

On the other side, the West is encountering Buddhism not a moment too soon. We are in a time of great crisis if not collapse. The globalization of the West has created enormous problems and much of it has to do with a basic worldview that is deluded and unsustainable. So Buddhism has something very important to offer the West. At the same time, Asian Buddhism brings with it a lot of cultural baggage that doesn’t work well in the West, where it tends to get in the way of Buddhism’s liberative potential. Buddhism needs to benefit from the best that the West has to offer, and not only scientifically. There are many magical and mythic elements in Asian Buddhism that we need to let go of. So it’s an exciting encounter on both sides. We are still in the early days but it’s started.

Let's pull a few issues out and consider them. First, the terms "Asian" and "Asian Buddhism." As Arun pointed out in his post "For one, there’s the issue of referring to “Asians.”The category “Asian” is simply too broad. Asia represents 60 percent of the world’s population and an untold diversity of cultures." So, I'd argue that a statement like "Asian Buddhism is stuck" is to broad to be accurate. It doesn't offer people an entry point into specific issues being faced, nor does it assign a clear enough location to where these issues are occurring. Furthermore, a statement like "Asian Buddhism is stuck" universalizes problems that are probably not universal. It's like accusations that American Buddhism is a self-help program for the bourgeois. This might be true in some locations, but certainly not in others. So, while it's clear to me (from readings, reports from other Buddhists, and discussions I have had) that issues like sexism and excessive institutionalization are playing out in many Buddhism communities in Asian nations, the specifics occurring within a given temple, Buddhist school or lineage aren't so clear.

There's also the problematic nature of the first half of the "stuck" statement. Loy says "I lived in Japan for many years and have traveled throughout most of Buddhist Asia..." What's concerning about this is the likelihood that Loy's experiences in Japan, which probably far outweigh the rest, color the whole story he's offering. He spent several years in Japan, and experienced some of the issues they are having. During that time, or afterward, he goes to several other Asian nations and sees or experiences some things that look similar, and thus returns to the U.S. and offers people the story that "Asian Buddhism is stuck." Differences between nations, between regions within a nation, or even from temple to temple, are totally glossed over. And given the experiences in Japan, there's also the question of whether something like confirmation bias is also operating here. You see too much emphasis on male dominated institutions, and merit making in Japan. You head to China or Burma or Thailand, and you locate more of the same. This isn't to say that these issues aren't a wide spread problem, but that the thinking behind the conclusions really needs to be examined.

Along those lines, it's interesting that Loy brings up science. Consider the ways in which scientists and other researchers set up experiments to test their theories. Any scientist worth a grain of salt will make a good faith effort to find opposing views, and allow conditions that might disprove their ideas to be included. Where do people like the Japanese "hip hop" monk and his followers fit into the "stuck" narrative, for example? Or what about the decided plugged in, hip, and modern Kenchara Buddhist center in Malaysia? It would be interesting to know how counter-examples of Buddhists doing creative, outside the box stuff in Asian countries are considered within the larger framework offered.

Finally, what grated on me most was the statement on "cultural baggage" and the sentence "There are many magical and mythic elements in Asian Buddhism that we need to let go of." Now, whenever a religious/spiritual tradition moves from one place to the next, there is a blending of the inherited with the ways of the new locale. And certainly, some elements associated with the previous cultural situation will be dropped in favor of the new locale's ways. This isn't a problem. However, the term "cultural baggage" itself imputes a negativity upon inherited cultural elements that is not only unnecessary, but is also insulting.

In addition, when we get into wanting to shed "magical and mythical elements," this implies a few things that need to be more carefully considered. First of all, there is clearly a privileging of reason and empirically comfirmable phenomenon here. Is that really wise? Second, given that Loy is speaking to a convert Buddhist audience - nearly all of whom have taken up Buddhism only in the past half century, it might be worth considering the question "Do we even understand why those mythical and magical elements are present in the tradition, or if they might be valuable to us in our practice?" It seems to me that even if the majority of convert American practitioners don't literally believe that Buddha was born from out of the side of his mother and that the earth shook upon his birth, there might still be something very important going on in that story for us to practice with.

Mostly, I point all of this out to get people thinking about the way in which board assumptions tend to miss the mark. Over the time I have been blogging, I have offered posts that done the same about different issues. One that comes to mind is a post I made a long while back about the lack of social outreach and social action projects amongst convert American Buddhist communities. In fact, the mistake I made there was to try to get specific based on the general view I had - which has some accuracy for sure, but for the example I brought up - San Francisco Zen Center - was terribly inaccurate. And I got quickly called out on that by a regular reader.

One of the challenges is that there are times when broad statements are helpful and/or necessary to convey a sense of what's occurring. And yet, the mind loves to take such statements and turn them into universalized truths, instead of seeing them as attempts to point in a certain direction. This is true in discussions about large scale social dynamics, and it's also true about more simple, deeply personal issues. Consider how often you make a mistake and then generalize that as meaning you're a screw up. Or for those with an overly strong sense of self cherishing, how often you do something well and think "I'm a bloody genius!"

It's a game we like to play. It's really just another effort to think we have some solid ground to hold on in this ever-changing world of ours. Somehow, it's easier to handle "being a complete screw up" than it is to just be, moment after moment. Just as it's easier to make statements like "Asian Buddhism is stuck," rather than spend the time parsing out all the patterns and manifestations occurring, and then pointing out ways in which they are similar across locales, and ways in which they are quite different.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Yoga, Feminism, and the World of Oppressions

It's been about two months now since I started my yoga teacher training program. Overall, it's been a wonderful experience, filled with little insights, and lots of learning. My own yoga practice has deepened and expanded. I have made some new friends. I have met some excellent teachers. And it's been a great way to burn through the last few months of winter.

Yet, it's also brought up in person some issues I have long read about in the larger American yoga community. The first night of my core class, someone brought up eating disorders and yoga, which tumbled for me into all the warped body issues we have in the U.S., especially when it comes to female bodies.

Another issue that's been on my radar is class. Unlike my old yoga studio in St. Paul which is pretty toned down in terms of things like designer yoga clothing and expensive mats, the place where I am doing my teacher training attracts - overall - a more affluent crowd. Or, at least, there are more people who are visibly affluent, something I've struggled a bit with. Free flowing discussions, for example, about spur of the moment vacations and attendance at high end yoga retreats are dead zones for someone like me, who has no experience doing either, and has never been in a financial position to really do so.

The thing is that I'd argue that this studio is a hell of a lot better than a majority of larger places. The leadership emphasizes the totality of yoga practice, is rigorous in it's class offerings, and doesn't seem to pander a lot to fluffy forms of yoga that might bring in more money, but do so at the expense of integrity. In fact, I believe that these issues I'm speaking about above are as much about how yoga is marketed and has been "branded" in a cultural sense, than anything in particular my yoga studio is doing.

And yet, there's a part of me that wonders what would happen if I didn't "blend" in as well as I do. If I was a little more ragged around the edges - less educated, a little more shabbily clothed. Long ago, I learned how to "pass" for an average middle class white American making a decent living, owning the "normal" things middle class folks do, and being able to afford things like regular vacations to distant educations, expensive accessories, and the latest Iphone.

My yoga training classmates don't know, for example, that I have never owned a car, haven't had health insurance for nearly a decade, and have to debate myself internally on a regular basis about adding anything "extra" to my life, like home internet service - primarily out of cost consciousness. The realty is that I have always been just above poor economically, with a middle class education. So, I'm kind of a tweener when it comes to class, something that can be challenging.

But class isn't the only marker that can cause distress for people who are interested in yoga. I found this excellent post by Natalia Thomp­son (no relation) about yoga and feminism. She writes:

There’s a rea­son that yoga is a con­tentious topic on many fem­i­nist blogs: not only is yoga a “bougie” trend (striv­ing to “just be” is a pretty priv­i­leged state of exis­tence), but the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of yoga car­ries dis­tinctly sex­ist under­tones. Amer­i­can Apparel’s recent reap­pro­pri­a­tion of yoga poses in their noto­ri­ously sex­ist ads is hardly the only offender; Yoga Jour­nal is also guilty of “tap­ping that yoga ass.” The fem­i­niza­tion of yoga has become all too com­mon: as one blog­ger notes, images of yoga fre­quently depict women in “bounded, con­torted, sex­u­al­ized positions.”

Over­sex­u­al­ized ads aside, the roots and phi­los­o­phy of yoga also pose a chal­lenge to fem­i­nist yogi­nis. As one fem­i­nist scholar and yoga teacher explains, “On our mats, we have the oppor­tu­nity to cul­ti­vate a wit­ness to how things are [and] learn to accept real­ity as it is, with­out judg­ment… But as a fem­i­nist, I am not accus­tomed to accept­ing things as they are.” Another fem­i­nist blog­ger trou­bles the ori­gins of yoga: accord­ing to her, it “is wrought from patri­ar­chal ide­olo­gies and power struc­tures that are his­tor­i­cally and con­tem­porar­ily per­va­sive in culture.”

From my own expe­ri­ences prac­tic­ing yoga, I’ve become painfully aware that the yoga stu­dio isn’t always a safe space for women and queer folks. I’ve had male teach­ers who have made sex­ual com­ments and touched female stu­dents inap­pro­pri­ately, and I could cer­tainly empathize with a queer yoga teacher’s account of attend­ing a Yoga Jour­nal con­fer­ence that was any­thing but inclu­sive: the (hetero)sexist norms reflected in yoga ads too often shape the spaces where yoga is prac­ticed. The yoga stu­dio should be a place where we escape the (unwanted) male gaze or the polic­ing of gen­der non-conforming bod­ies, but that’s not always the case.

To my current yoga studio's credit, they have developed a whole series of classes for plus-sized yogis and yoginis - recognizing the ways in which our collective thin people fetish has bled into the yoga world. In addition, there seems to be strong culture of ethics amongst the studio's teachers, which is evident by how much respect students are given, and how - as teacher trainees - we have discussions about things like requesting permission from students to do pose adjustments. This might sound basic to some of you, but the stories I have heard from classmates about experiences with teachers and other studios suggests to me that it's not as basic and commonplace as one would think.

But then there's some of the other issues Ms. Thompson mentions above. I wrote recently about an exchange between a few female students and a male teacher that exposed some of the male-centric, perhaps sexist issues of yoga as a historical discipline. I've written about race issues in Buddhist convert communities frequently, and I think some of that applies as well to the yoga world. During the weekend workshop I took in early March, I remember looking around at one point and thinking "Man, it's a sea of whiteness here." I can imagine the few people of color in the room felt like they were border crossing just to come practice. And then there's the gender-queer dimension brought up in Thompson's post. This one is perhaps harder to tease out, in part because talking directly about sexuality doesn't tend to be on the agenda in an average yoga class. Furthermore, just as I can pass as financially middle class, many queer folks can pass as straight. Or, perhaps it's more accurate to say that they are blended into the heterosexual norm by default. However, if you're a woman with a butch appearance and mannerisms or a decidely femme looking and acting man, it's hard not to stand out in the average yoga studio.

One of the challenges, as I see it, is figuring out ways to bring these topics into the regular discourse of yoga classes and trainings. Being a path of liberation, yoga needs to be more deliberately applied to the oppressive, destructive narratives that we all have ingested by growing up and/or living in this society. And it seems especially important that anyone who feels compelled to spread yoga to "the masses" best get on board with ways to de-centralize the current norms that privilege the experience of white middle and upper class, thin bodied, heterosexual yoga practitioners above all others.

None of this is meant to condemn American yoga as a hopeless cause. Or an indulgent, "bougie" activity. Despite the issues above, there's a lot of wonderful things happening in certain pockets of the American yoga scene. There IS plenty of substance and depth, but you have to look for it. And there are people looking at some of the difficult -isms that plague our lives on a daily basis, if perhaps in a piece-mail way. With more discussion, more sharing of ideas, approaches and experiences, it might be that somewhere down the road, a more thorough and inclusive method of interrogating oppression through yoga practice will come forth. A more total liberation depends upon it in my view. May it be so.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Zen of Pointing at the Moon

I have been writing this blog for a little over two years now. Being a writer has been part of my life since I was a young kid scrawling goofy titles onto otherwise mundane homework assignments. So, you might say that I like to breathe life into words. To do my best to convey the world through this imperfect medium.

After some rocky efforts to explore what I'd call an alternative approach to disaster relief (see posts from the beginning of the week), and continued toe dipping as a man into the muddy world of feminist blogs, I came across this post by Arun from Angry Asian Buddhist. He writes:

Marginalization is a problem, but the issue isn’t race. I’ve typically framed the place of Asians in Western Buddhism as one where we’re marginalized by White Buddhists, but this framework glosses over the very same marginalization between different Asian communities. How often do you see Cambodian Buddhists attending Korean Zen centers, or Chinese Buddhist publications open their pages to Sri Lankan writers? And just as Asians Buddhists marginalize each other, so do White Buddhists.

One of the main themes of Arun's post is that the language he has been using failed to capture what he wanted to say. Furthermore, the language he used may have limited both his own vision, and that of his readers influenced by what he has said.

Now, my toe dipping on those feminist blogs has gone off and on for several months now. There are a lot of disagreements on these blogs, some of them extremely nasty, in part due to the same kinds of language problems. Say a word, phrase, or sentence that sounds like it supports some kind of oppression, and all hell breaks loose. On a few of those blogs, if you're a man who says it, it's almost certain all hell will break loose.

Like the race issues that lead to the argument Arun was in, gender issues are a deeply complex territory filled with people from various "schools of thought" trying to claim to have all the answers. Using language. Something that any of us Zen students worth a lick of salt know can't capture it all.

So, all of this has gotten me thinking about the ways in which people might be reading my writing, and others' writing. How I might be reading others' writing.

Writing that meta post the other day was a lot about the disaster relief discussion I was trying to have, but actually it was also about how everything I offer is partial. It's hopefully pointing in the right direction, a direction that leads towards a more liberated mind, body, and "spirit." However, even so, it's still partial, just as every last spiritual teaching on the planet is partial. Pointing to the moon, but not the moon. Right?

This doesn't mean that all writing is equally valuable. Equally helpful. Equally liberating. Some work aids moving towards liberation, while other work is just a hindrance. There's probably 1000X as much hindrance as there is liberation-centric material.

Yet, one of the things that witnessing and participating in all of these discussions has shown me is that, in order to find a way to speak, to write, in a manner that might spark liberation, a person must wade into the mud. You have to struggle to convey yourself, your understanding, your views, and your confusion - and through dialogue, experience, and even some conflict - the false and inaccurate parts are worn away, and the stone of truth comes forth.

Sometimes, this happens fairly quickly, and sometimes, it might take lifetimes. Battles over gender and race have been going on for centuries; there's no knowing if in my lifetime, enough of us will have liberated ourselves of oppressive narratives in order to shift the social tides. And regardless, it won't happen through language alone. No one can write the way to freedom for themselves, or the world. It's only one piece, an important one perhaps, but still only one form of expressing the total dynamic functioning of this life.

In fact, it's important to remember this even if someone is writing about something seemingly simple, like mindfulness while washing the dishes. That, too, might be a great lesson, or not. Perhaps they haven't found the language yet to truly express their understanding. And perhaps they're trying to express something they have no understanding or experience of at all. I've been on both those tracks. I doubt anyone is immune from doing so.

Every day is an opportunity to work with the particular mud before you, to see it and step right into it as best as you can. In my own life, writing has been one of the major tools I use to do this. It helps me to discern which mud is mine to work with, and which mud isn't.(There's plenty out there that isn't "your mud" or isn't "yours anymore," if you catch my drift.)

Maybe some of you have other major tools you use. Obviously, things like meditation and yoga would fit in here. But maybe you have other things - gardening, dancing, making music, painting - the list is probably endless. What points you in the direction of the moon (enlightened living)? And how do you offer as moon pointers to others?

I'll leave you all with a poem from Ryokan (1758-1831). Enjoy the rest of the weekend!

You stop to point at the moon in the sky,
but the finger's blind unless the moon is shining.

One moon, one careless finger pointing --
are these two things or one?

The question is a pointer guiding
a novice from ignorance thick as fog.

Look deeper. The mystery calls and calls:
No moon, no finger -- nothing there at all.