Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Interogating Happiness

In 1980, the average American CEO's income was 40 times higher than that of the average worker. Today, it is well over 300 times higher.

A new study suggests this rising income inequality in the United States doesn’t just affect Americans’ pocketbooks; it affects their happiness. Over the past four decades, according to the study, the American people have been the least happy in years when there was the widest gap between rich and poor.

The above quote is taken from a recent article in Yes! Magazine, a longtime favorite of mine. Clearly, it's pointing to the level of economic injustice here in the States, the negative impact of which is definitely growing almost by the minute. The Buddha routinely spoke of the three poisons: greed, hatred, and ignorance. And there's little doubt in my mind that the kinds of material disparities we are now seeing are evidence of those poisons in action. All of them.

Hatred, you might be saying? Well, I say yes. Hatred too. Hatred of community. Of what sharing with your neighbors actually means (that we're interdependent and need each on some basic levels). Hatred of poor people, coupled with a fear of becoming "one of them." The list goes on and on.

It's not hard for me to locate the three poisons in either the workings of our economic system, or the beliefs that help drive it. In fact, it's rather too easy. So, let's consider something else in relation to the quote above.

The very linking of one's happiness to material wealth, or lack there of, is at least in part, an acting out of the three poisons as well. Having had our minds colonized by the narratives of consumerism, global capitalism, and the "American Dream," most of us struggle to detach our well being from money, material possessions, and social status derived from job, money, and possessions. The hundreds and even thousands of hours of absorbing advertisements, corporate-driven media news, and corroborating messages from family, friends, and co-workers has left many of our brains swamped in poisons, to the point where some folks can't distinguish themselves anymore.

You may have noticed a rise in popularity over the past decade or so of "zombie" narratives. Movies, novels, faux documentaries, songs - all with zombies at the center. There are many ways to read this phenomenon, but I believe one way to read it is to see how the zombies are, in many ways, forms of "us." An end point, if you will, of the colonization process spoken about in the last paragraph.

And if you think about it, Buddha's teachings - and all great spiritual teachings - have really been about decolonization. Breaking the stranglehold of whatever narratives hold sway for someone personally, as well as those narratives that hold sway over people collectively. Buddha's break with the caste system is an easy example of the latter.

On the flip side, there is also some truth to this linking of happiness (or contentment) with material position. Going without food, clothing shelter, decent health care, safe work conditions, any significant time off from work, and numerous other things are clearly becoming more commonplace amongst Americans. And frankly, it's tough to locate happiness, joy, contentment, or equanimity within those conditions. I fully believe that it's possible to both turn any situation into an opportunity to practice, to find peace and liberation - and, at the same time, to recognize that some conditions are flat out unjust, and worthy of being targets for transformation on a collective scale. In other words, I can choose to place the palette of miserable emotions I might have around economic injustice at the center of my spiritual practice, and at the same time work towards an end of that injustice in whatever ways I (alone and with others) can. And in doing so, might be able to locate happiness, joy, and even liberation in the now, while also honoring the struggles that continue to plague the community, nation, and the world even.

*Image Corporate Wealth Games
by nocwg2010

Monday, August 29, 2011

New On Dangerous Harvests

I can imagine that many of you have noticed the color changes on the blog. A regular reader wrote me a few weeks ago, requesting that I change the color scheme because she was having a hard time reading the old one on her computer screen. Looking at it, I realized that maybe more of you might also be having trouble, especially if reading it from a battery run computer not currently plugged in. Or perhaps on a phone. In any event, I changed the colors to the shades of green you saw last week. And then received some more feedback on those changes, which led to the current blue/green approach. Hopefully, this works better for most of you.

In addition, after all of this talk about money and writing, I decided to add a "donations" button to the blog (see sidebar). I have always felt like Dangerous Harvests is an offering to my readers, something that allows me to share a bit about my spiritual life and views, and also to have excellent conversations with those readers who choose to do so. In the past, I stood against the idea of making income off the work I'm doing here, for a variety of reasons.

As the blog has evolved, not only has it become a part of my spiritual practice, but it has also helped me to extend the notion of sangha, or community beyond the brick and mortar and beyond the local. In addition, as my own understanding of sangha has evolved over the past few years, in great part due to my role as Board president of Clouds in Water - my "home" zen center - I have realized that interdependence also includes offering opportunities for others to give back in the ways that they can. Discussions we have had on our board about sangha finances have led to discovering creative ways to open doors to giving back to the community. Giving time. Giving material items of need. Giving mutual support. And giving money. All of these, and more have come up over the past few years, and have slowly helped reshape my own relationship to giving and receiving.

And so, I'm offering you, my readers, the opportunity to support my work financially through the donation button. I do so without any expectations really. If you feel moved to give a little financial donation, great! If not, no worries. I fully intend to continue writing as I have been, as this blog continues to benefit me in many ways. However, it just seemed time to recognize that it's ok to have a donations ask on the blog, and that doing so doesn't diminish anything being done here.

Thank you to all who have supported this blog through reading, commenting, and offering other means of support as well. It's all part of sangha - of sharing community together, and growing along the way. Bows.

* Photo above is from my garden. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Writers, "Free Labor," and the Politics of Online Media

As a writer, I'm very interested in the ways in which writers are being treated by online media outlets. One of the reasons behind my recent post about Elephant Journal was a desire to see writers, and potential writers, be treated with more respect and dignity. Although I didn't mention it in the previous post, I've grown deeply ambivalent about Elephant's policy of not paying it's regular writers anything. I get the argument that it's still a somewhat small publication in the grand scheme, and not raking in the dough, but at the same time, writers can't pay their bills with the extra bit of website traffic that comes with exposure on a site like Elephant. Where's the balance between making enough income to survive, and recognizing that said income is made as a direct result of the work being done by the writers themselves? In the case of Elephant Journal, I don't know what's appropriate.

However, in the case of the Huffington Post, which has a fair number of Buddhist and other spiritual bloggers amongst it's "staff," the lines of fairness and respect were long ago crossed. Blogger and Buddhist Joshua Eaton makes the following points:

the Huffington Post relies on 8000 to 9000 unpaid writers—euphemistically called “bloggers”—for much of its content. Many balked at AOL’s purchase of the newssite, and two labor unions—the National Writers Union and the Newspaper Guild (AFL-CIO)—have joined a boycott of the Huffington Post started by Visual Art Source. So far, Ms. Huffington has refused repeated requests to meet with union leaders.

This is hardly an isolated incident for either AOL or the Huffington Post. Earlier this month Huffington Post Politics outraged the graphic design community by holding a contest to design their Twitter logo—for free. Back in June AOL followed Huffington Post‘s lead by adding almost 6000 unpaid bloggers to Patch, a network of hyper-local news sites over which Ms. Huffington now presides. (This is aside from the fact that Patch is already run by contracted editors making $38000 to $45000 per year while working 60 to 80 hours per week and freelancers making $50 to $100 per article.)

I encourage people to read his entire post, which includes the shoddy experience he had last year as a candidate for an intern position last year with the Huff Po.

One of the reasons I bring these two publications up in the same post is that fairly or not, the kinds of criticisms being laid upon the Huffington Post are also happening to the Elephant Journal. In some ways, it's irrelevant that Huff Po's budget is in the millions of dollars, while Elephant's budget is probably no better than the annual income at a barely above minimum wage job. People see unpaid writers, increasing popularity, and increasing revenue, and the words "exploitation" and "users" come flying out of their mouths.

Now, to provide a bit of contrast, one of the webzines I write for,Life as a Human, pays it's regular writers a monthly stipend. They have done this since the beginning - I know this because I have written for them since the website was launched in February 2010. Now, the stipend isn't a lot of money, but I do believe it's a recognition of the fact that any revenue coming in to the website is due, in great part, to the quality of writing being presented. In addition, the editorial team has always treated my writing well, and frequently is excited to see new work from me coming their way. Being writers and artists themselves, they chose to share the website with their fellow writers from the beginning, even asking our imput on various design changes that have been made over the past year and a half. Although I hope to someday be bringing in more money for some of my writing than I currently do, the leadership at Life as a Human is an example worth upholding of how to support the talent that keeps it running.

I intend to write more on these issues in the future, as it's likely to remain a source of contention for all writers doing work online. Your thoughts and comments on this are encouraged here as well.

*Image by Mike Licht of notionscapital.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Humor and Buddhism

I read a letter in the current issue of Buddhadharma magazine that took aim at this discussion, about the role of humor in Buddhist practice. During the discussion, Zen teacher Bernie Glassman speakes about wearing a clown nose during dharma talks and doing other silly things during meditation retreats. Another Zen teacher, Norman Fischer, points out that the old Zen teachings are full of humor, and then recounts a story where Suzuki Roshi shook up a student who was attached to his identity as a vegetarian by flipping meals on him at a restaurant, so that the guy was faced with eating a hamburger. There's a lot of juicy stuff in this conversation, but one of the salient points everyone seems to make is how humor can be a great gateway to liberation.

The author of the letter in response to this discussion apparently felt otherwise. She spoke of there being "a time and place" for humor and antics, but sternly disapproved of any goofing off in the zendo, especially during meditation retreats. I can imagine there are many people out there like her, feeling that we must "be serious" about our practice and all.

It kind of made me sad reading that letter, and got me to thinking about how the "adult story" in general seems almost devoid of play, silliness, and fun. And how "adult humor" so often feels tinged with judgments of others, sarcasm, or excessive displays of wit. Or it's flat out stupid due to predictability, like jokes about stoners, blondes, or other such stereotypically laughed at groups of people.

Furthermore, the letter also brought up the general over-seriousness that I think plagues western convert Buddhist practitioners. Myself included. During a recent Sunday service, our head teacher and the assistant were doing the bowing and incense before the talk, and for whatever reason, it all struck me as humorous. A big smile came to my face, and I felt myself starting to laugh, but then stuffed it at the last second, so as not to "disrupt" the ritual. And then I thought: what was that about?

Anyway, this is kind of the flip side to what happened over at Elephant Journal, and the various other stories that followed it. Humor is tricky stuff. It flops fairly often. And yet, without playfulness, well-placed jokes, and even some antics from time to time, life gets really, really heavy. Like a stone pressed to the bottom of the ocean, instead of rolling with the waves.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Elephant Journal's Got Issues

This post might ruffle some feathers. For others, it's probably been their opinion for a long time.

It started with some reactions to the following video, which has been making the rounds on various websites.

I'm not going to comment on the video itself, but want to focus in on one site of "discussion" in regards to the content of the video: Elephant Journal. For anyone not in the know, Elephant Journal is a fairly popular web-journal that centers itself around yoga, Buddhism, and environmentalism. A few years back, I was a regular reader of EJ. More recently, I have been on the fence about EJ - liking some of the content, but also finding some of the content fluffy and feel-good. Yet, while others took shots at the journal's editor, Waylon Lewis, last year after an incident involving one of his former writers, I tried to focus on the issues being brought up by the former EJ writer about some potential corruption in an American Buddhist sangha.

However, with the following display of stupidity and arrogance, all in the name of shits and giggles, I'm leaping off the EJ fence on the side of something else, anything really that is willing to handle issues with more maturity and integrity.

Now, in full disclosure, I was contacted by one of EJ's editors last month, seeking new Buddhist columnists. My subsequent attempts to return that correspondence and find out more details about their writing policies, at multiple e-mail addresses, including the main EJ e-mail address, went unanswered. In addition, about a year and a half ago, another blogger recommended my writing to EJ, and when I sent a few sample columns in, they first got lost, and then were received, but never commented on.

I bring this up because as a former journal editor, I'm aware of the challenges that come with dealing with unsolicited material. We occasionally lost pieces that were sent to us as well, even after taking care to keep everything organized in piles by genre. And so that, in and of itself, is something any writer should be aware of. However, it's quite different if you either have solicited work from someone, or had work recommended to you by another writer. Dropping the ball on those as an editorial team is a screw up, the kind that can negatively impact your reputation. My literary journal lost a set of poems by a fairly well known author and had to send her an apology letter and ask for second copies. Fortunately, she handled it gracefully.

So, I didn't plan on offering the story about what felt to me like fumbled communications regarding my writing with Elephant Journal. However, after reading the post I cited above, as well as this one, from the yoga blogger whose comments sparked the EJ post, and finally this post by another yoga blogger, I felt compelled to say something.

What exactly? Well, first off, when done well, spiritual
humor is absolutely illuminating and sometimes the best teaching anyone could have. That said, much of the humor on EJ doesn't hit that mark. And if you're choosing to raise the bar, and add race into the mix, like the video above does, then you better damned well get it right. Or your flop is gonna be fucking massive. And frankly the comments from Waylon Lewis in response to disagreements about the "humor value" of the Yoga for Black People video are a fucking massive flop.

Secondly, any publication that has 48,000 readers needs to recognize that it has some responsibility on it hands. Even if you cut that number in half - considering the inflation of stats that occur online - that's still 24,000 readers. Not chump change in other words. I have no interest in detailing out what constitutes "responsibility" because that depends upon what you ultimately decide your target audience is, who your writers might be, and what you wish your publication to do in the world.

Which brings me to the third point - Elephant Journal is a publication with an identity crisis. Is it a spiritual humor website? Is it aiming to offer serious content that might teach people? Is it a political website using spiritual content as an enticing companion to pro-Democratic Party propaganda?

What is it?

Perhaps if it were easily identified as a spiritual humor website, for example, people looking for anything other than that might avoid it all together. There still might be heated discussion about issues like the Yoga for Black People video, but at least the focus of the journal, as well as the intent of the editorial team, would be much less in question.

But as it is now, the mission and direction of EJ seem pretty unclear to me. I actually was surprised that anyone from EJ contacted me about my writing, seeing as the work I sent over previously never was responded to, and since then I haven't really seen what I do here at Dangerous Harvests as compatible with a lot of what Elephant Journal is doing. Which again isn't a total dismissal of what's happening over there - I do enjoy some of the writers they have very much. However, I'm just really unclear how my writing would fit in at EJ, which leads me back to the point about mission and direction. If you don't have enough clarity, it's damned easy to stir up confusion and misery.

So, I write all of this knowing that a lot of folks online have already taken a stance on Elephant. Some will defend it nearly to the death. Others desire its death post haste. I'm not in either of those camps. Knowing how much work it is to establish a readership and develop a quality journal, I'm not one to flippantly wish death to a publication. And also knowing how much bs occurs behind the scenes and sometimes on the pages of many journals and magazines, I'm also not one to go soft on criticism when criticism is due.

So, this post is an offering to EJ's editorial team, and to anyone else who is running well read blogs, spiritual magazines, or web-journals. I fully admit that I am not an impartial observer, and that I may not have every last fact available. In fact, I'm not completely sure that I have maintained right speech throughout this article. However, I felt compelled to say something, and share the blog posts of others who had something to say about these recent happenings over at Elephant Journal.

May something beneficial come out of all of this.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Liberated and Habitual Restraint

Over at Kloncke, Katie has an excellent post that manages to link Buddhist teachings, economic critique, dieting, police brutality, and the Planet of the Apes movies together. How did that just happen?

Anyway, one of the issues brought up is the notion of restraint, which is frequently viewed as a positive skill amongst Buddhists, and many other spiritual folks for that matter. Katie attempts - successfully in my opinion - to complicate the narrative around restraint in her post, offering examples that point out the following:

Sometimes, the concept of “restraint” is just another way of saying “Stay In Your Place.” Knowing one’s place is a matter of ‘respectability,’ which does not always foster dignity, and may in fact undermine it.

This brings up all sorts of examples for me. Here's a list for you:

1. The way that white folks often cite the anger and frustration of people of color as being "Un-Buddhist" or "not spiritual."

2. Restraining sexual expression due mostly to the guilt and shame that's continually reproduced in our society - and many others for that matter.

3. The little lies and obfuscations people use to avoid telling someone truths that might hurt in the short term, but actually could benefit them in the long term.

4. Adults withholding child-like expressions of joy, fun, and enjoyment out of a sense that "it's not proper" for adults to act like that.

5. Employees holding back ideas that might benefit the organization out of "protocol," fear of the leadership, or a belief that they aren't "good enough" have something to offer beyond their job description.

I actually think it might be helpful to consider restraint in two categories:
liberated restraint and habitual restraint.

Habitual restraint is the act of giving up, not doing, or not keeping on thinking about that's coming from a conditioned place. It might be a really good idea, like not letting your anger at someone drive you to kill them. Or it might be something that's much more debatable, like not telling your boss that his casual flirting is upsetting you. However, the way I see it, "habitual restraint" is mostly about external authority pressing inward, and you responding to it, often in a habitual way. Your mother told you a thousand times not to cuss as a child, and after getting smacked or yelled at a few times for copying your loud-mouthed father, you now resist the impulse to swear.

But does that kind of restraint lead to liberation?

Liberated restraint is the act of giving up, not doing, or not keeping on thinking about that's coming from you organically. It may be that after years or decades of more habitual restraint around something, you realize something that internalizes the action as being part of living an enlightened life. Or it might just be that you realize that the habitual patterns of restraint themselves are the roadblocks. In either case, whatever it is that is called restraint here isn't primarily driven by external pressures. It might look, for example, that you choose not to steal out of a fear of getting arrested. However, if it's liberated restraint, the act of not stealing just flows forth because you know there's no need to.

So, what do you make of all of this? Do you have any other examples you'd add to the list Katie and I have made so far?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Modern Soto Zen and Social/Political Contexts

I have had a lot of tangled thoughts about various things related to spiritual practice over the past week or so. Nothing terribly clear or even muddy, but writable has come however. Which explains the slight slow down in posts here.

Anyway, I found this, from a post our old internet curmudgeon The Zennist interesting to consider:

Modern Zen has not escaped the problem of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If you check in at your local Zen center, you may not be aware that your modern Western Zen center may have thrown out something resembling the baby with the bathwater insofar as seated meditation or zazen appears to be the centerpiece. But real Zen, according to contemporary Zen master Joshu Sasaki, is not about sitting (cp. Zen Notes XX, No. 8).

Looking back to the early history of Zen it was not regarded as a school based on seated meditation. During the Sung period, a number of Zennists argued that Zen or Ch’an was a synonym for the Buddha Mind (fo-hsin). Zen has nothing to do with sitting and everything to do with realizing Buddha Mind. In fact, dhyana from which the words “ch’an” and “zen” are derived is not about sitting. Sitting is not contained the the accepted Buddhist Sanskrit definition of dhyana.

I think this post demonstrates it's own throwing out the baby with bathwater experience. Precisely, that seated meditation "has nothing" to do with Zen. I have always felt that the Zennist's critique that too much emphasis is placed on zazen in modern Zen circles has some validity. And yet, at the same time, zazen can be a powerful skillful means towards awakening Buddha Mind.

Lately, I have thinking how much social/political context plays a role in the way things are, and how the choices we make around influences from the past and present are often both indicative of the current context, but also help bring forward particular trends and patterns into the future. That's a mouthful, isn't it. Perhaps an example is in order.

Many Western Soto Zen communities seem to have brought forth an emphasis on the teachings of the founder Dogen, while placing less or no emphasis on the teachings of those who followed Dogen over the next several centuries. Dogen's teachings were, at least in part, a reaction to what he experienced in 13th Century Japan, including the perceived staleness of Buddhism as it was during those times. In some degree, I can imagine that the 20th Century Japanese teachers that brought Soto Zen to the U.S., Europe and other places felt a keen resonance with Dogen, given that many of them believed that things had gotten stale in early to mid-20th century Japanese Zen circles. Because my understanding is that there was a period of time when Dogen's teachings had virtually fallen from consideration, only to rise in importance again in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Anyway, consider if the teachings emphasized by Soto Zen communities came from a different period in Soto's history. If perhaps Dogen was considered to be important as a founder, but his teachings not terribly centralized. Maybe seated meditation takes on a different role in modern Zen circles, and perhaps even de-emphasized all together in favor of chanting or bowing or textual study or some other practice form. In great part because the teachings brought forth and emphasized come from a time of reaction against "just sitting." It's happened. Go do some reading if you don't believe me.

I actually think that The Zennist sometimes misreads Dogen as well. Because Dogen himself never said that all of practice is just seated meditation. However, there does seem to be such an emphasis amongst a fair number of convert Zen folks, enough anyway that his persistent ranting has some merit in it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

"Do Your Work, Then Step Back"

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, trans. S. Mitchell

I was struck by this verse from the Tao Te Ching, referenced in a new post by our head teacher at the zen center, Byakuren Ragir. Particularly, I found the line I used for the title of this piece both totally simple, and yet very powerful.

Do your work, then step back. Consider all the "noise" then tends to clog up that process. All the ruminating before doing the work. The grumbling, fussing, and foot dragging that can happen during the work. And all the second guessing, what ifs, and grandstanding that sometimes follow said work.

All that noise is empty. It really only holds us back when we allow it to.

*painting by Edward Hopper

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ah, Classism and Yoga - Like Two Peas in a Pod

Continuing the discussion from the last post, there's another good commentary on issues with yoga teacher trainings on Linda's Yoga Journey. The thread following her post is really rich, and worth reading in full. However, one commenter in particular was fixated on the idea that potential teachers should travel to India, and that such travel and study would be better than a teacher training. In fact, I get the sense that this person might even see such travel as the mark of a "serious yoga student," regardless of one's goals around teaching. I guess as I read her comments, my "class privilege" radar went wildly off.

Below is the comment I left in response. There are other things I could say as well, including the whole Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon of well off men and women collecting spiritual experiences, but for now, I'll just leave it at what I wrote.

I think you’re correct that experiencing life and yoga in India could be of great benefit. But I have to say that you’re speaking from a place of privilege here. There are people who can neither afford teacher trainings, nor trips to India, but have all the experience and teacher-sense about them to be great teachers. In fact, I’d argue that much of the American yoga scene is quite classist, to the point where many working class and/or poor folks simply don’t feel welcome.

As someone who has often straddled the class line – having a middle class education, but barely making ends meet financially – I have often felt this rub. I have sat and listened to fellow yoga students talk about their weekend trips to NY or LA, the workshops they attend, the “special” trainings with so and so famous yoga teacher they’ve gotten to go to, the fancy yoga gear they're purchasing – and I think, this is so not my experience.

Perhaps someday I’ll teach. Perhaps someday I’ll go to India. I did scrape up enough money to take a teacher training, which I’m currently in (after over a decade of yoga practice), and have all the skepticism and questions that many have shared here about the goals and intentions of my fellow students and the studios running the trainings.

But at the end of the day, one of the major things I see when I look around is how fiercely middle and upper class yoga in America is. And how deeply capitalism has sunk it’s teeth into this powerful spiritual practice, and twisted it all over the place. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s a hell of a lot more important to me to keep learning, keep practicing, and to bring whatever I have learned to people who currently are shut out of yoga economically and socially, than it is for me to head off to India anytime soon.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Yoga Jobs?

This selection from the current blog post over at Skeptical Yoga delves into an issue heavy on my mind these days:

I've been pondering about yoga and capitalism. In the early days, students who really wanted to learn yoga had to go beg the teacher to teach them. The guru would make these bright-eyed hopeful students go through crazy difficult tests to confirm their determination for this practice. I guess when the (western) students have experienced the benefits of the practice, they want to share it with people back home. They knew such a disciplined practice wouldn't appeal to the masses, so they've modified and marketed yoga in a way that people would want to try it out. There is nothing wrong with that. I think anyone who has tried yoga has received benefits of relaxation, improved breathing, more limber body, and more. The thing is, when yoga turns into a business, rent and electricity costs money, and studio owners end up having to recruit more and more customers by whatever means they can to pay the bills as opposed to teaching it in the strict traditional form. People would only pay so much money for practice, so all these other things are born - clothing lines, jewelries, expensive mats and mat cleaners, and - teacher training! Initially meant to uphold the quality of yoga teachers, in a capitalist society this screams "career opportunity", and everyone jumps at it, because seriously, being a yoga teacher and make other people feel good feels 1000 times more meaningful than, say, a bank job where you count other people's cash all day, or a secretarial job where you do the most boring administrative paperwork stuff for the rest of your life. Most friends I know with traditional jobs often talk like they work in a prison, or just avoid talking about their work at all.

Regular readers know that I'm currently in a yoga teacher training program. Last night, I did some more practice teaching of a class I'm developing. Things are starting to feel a bit more organic for me in that department. I actually am moving a bit towards feeling competent about teaching people something about the wide ranging practices of yoga.

It was no accident that I waited over a decade to step into a program like this. All the years of practice and study I have done really seem like a vital part of the process. When I see people with little or no experience teaching classes or taking yoga teacher training programs, I really have to wonder. And the whole business about "career making" mentioned above hasn't sat too well with me lately, as I slide a bit closer to potentially running classes for income.

When I consider the "work lives" of some of the teachers in our training program, it makes me pause. Hoping from class to class, studio to studio, several days a week. Two hours here, two hours there. Now I'm teaching Ashtangha. Now I'm teaching a restorative class. Now I'm teaching ...

I guess what I find off about some of this is that the lifestyles full time yoga teachers sometimes cobble together really run against the grain of the messages they are trying to - or say they are trying to teach - in their classes.

Consider the picture of the yoga teacher rushing across town to get to the next class they have to teach. Having little time, they stuff a few granola bars or bagels down their throat while speeding along. Making it to the studio with less than 5 minutes to spare, they slip into a classroom full of students, sit down on a mat, and begin directing folks to breathe deeply and let go of all their worries. And then they run an entire class built around the theme of slowing down, paying deep attention, and being mindful. It's a bit odd if you ask me.

In Zen practice, we often talk about bringing the work off the cushion and into the rest of your life. The same lack of doing so isn't difficult to find amongst Zennies, however even with the increasing numbers of teachers, the bar is set a lot higher to teach, and fakers eventually get called out (although that doesn't often stop them from continuing to do what they are doing).

And yet, even if you add all the marginal and flat out phony Zen teachers up, it doesn't come close to the number of yoga teachers. They're like dandelions these days, popping up from almost any given crack in the ground.

I say this not because it's the most horrible thing in the world, but because it just makes me wonder what it means to be a "yoga teacher" these days. Having been a teacher in the past - English as a Second Language, as well as a short stint doing reading and math with 1st and 3rd graders - I felt the role deeply when in the classroom. It was tangible, even as the outer form shifted and changed. And the times I have taught yoga, I have also felt myself tapping into that role and it's energy. So I get it on that deeper level.

And yet, when I look around at the more relative world level - seeing endless yoga teachers doing seemingly endless things in a sometimes greatly mindless fashion, it just raises a lot of questions. Questions with no clear answers.

You might say I'm often one to be sitting with and raising such questions. It's an interesting gift I suppose.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Working Class Buddhisms

Thanks to Katie over at Kloncke, who just celebrated her birthday, I got to read this cool article on Buddhism and working class folks by Joshua Eaton. He brings up many excellent points in his writing, but what struck me most was a comment left by "amayfaire":

I came to Buddhism as a working class kid, seeking some sort of spiritual home that didn’t require me to rely on fancy clothes, or tithes, or praying to deities that seemed to have little connection to my daily life. I found Buddhism as a spiritual home that argued against all those systems that held me in. Nobody brought me Buddhism, I found it.

Is the problem that the working class needs help finding Buddhism? I don’t think so. I think Buddhism needs help finding the working classes. We in the working classes know all about sangha, because our networks of community are integral to our survival and the survival of our families. We know all about death, and disease, and living in poverty, because we live with it each day. I think that, too often, there is an assumption that a lower income somehow correlates to a lack of intellect or spiritual engagement, as though being working class means someone has to bring “enlightenment” to “the masses" or working class folks are too attached to understand non-attachment. The working classes, however, have much to offer mainstream American Buddhism about what it means to be enlightened, about what it means to be Buddhist. For us in the working class, a spiritual life cannot depend on income, so it does not. We don’t need a sliding scale, nor do we seek a teacher other than the ones we carry within ourselves and our communities. We are a sangha surrounded by struggle, by disease and death, by the realities of a life that requires hard work and social invisibility. And from my sangha I have learned more about being Buddhist than any experience in my life.

As long time readers of this blog know, I have always felt like a "tweener." I have a decidedly middle class education, but have spent much of my life living fairly close to the bone in material terms. So, this comment really resonated with me, and I think that it's various messages have something really important to teach Western Buddhists.

I recall having a discussion with a few members of our sangha recently about personal finances and the larger, slowly tanking global economy. One person was, in particular, struggling with fears of losing her job, and suddenly finding herself homeless or in some other really difficult pickle due to lost income. And she turned to me and another dharma friend who lives close to the bone and said "I worry about you guys."

Now, in one sense, it was heartening to hear such a statement. After all these years of practicing together, I do feel the caring and compassion of the folks who have been there - kept going at the practice, even when it felt like the last thing they wanted to be doing.

I another sense, though, I noticed a difference in view that in some ways is built upon differing levels of material wealth. Simply put, while I do have a bit of fear around going completely broke and having nothing, it's also the case that I don't have a whole lot to lose anyway. Furthermore, like the commenter above, I have developed a network and understand that not only survival, but thriving depends upon deeply interwoven, and sometimes really diverse relationships.

What that conversation got me thinking was this: how would our sangha handle a situation where one or more of it's members faced "financial ruin"? Do we understand "sangha" deeply enough to move past the privatized, post World War Two middle class notions that often divide us, even as we sit next to each other on the cushion?

What do I mean by that last question exactly? Well, to my sangha's credit, we have had an ongoing, informal group called "Hearts and Hands" which was set up to help support members facing some kind of crisis. People have cooked meals and brought them to sick members. Or driven people to appointments. Or taken care of children. As I have seen it, this group - when it's been active - has been a step across the line into a deeper understanding of sangha.

But is that the culture of our sangha? I'd say not really. It's the culture of a subsection of our sangha - something that some of us probably hope would spread throughout the sangha, but which hasn't done so as of yet.

Why? For various reasons. However, I'm quite certain that one of the reasons is class-based. Because middle class folks don't tend to see whatever networks they have as integral to their survival. When the chips are down financially, they usually seek individual or nuclear family-based solutions first, believing - even if they deny it - that personal responsibility trumps everything else. That "I" or "my family" must figure it out, and that "I" or "we" are not going to be "dependent on handouts," thank you very much.

Now, there is some of this attitude amongst working class and poor folks, but not nearly as much. And while some in this wide ranging and diverse group have given in to lives of "gaming the system" and not making much effort, I'd argue that the large majority are living with an understanding of sangha - of community - that is sorely lacking amongst middle and upper class folks.

As the global economy wobbles on the edge of total collapse these days, my mind has shifted towards how to be creative when it comes to meeting material needs. If things really fall apart, I'm convinced that one of our greatest hindrances collectively will be these middle class notions that "I" and/or "my immediate family" must take care of ourselves first, and foremost. We talk so much about breaking down attachments to that "I" on a psychological/spiritual level - but what about on a material/economic level? When will I/we finally see that interdependence actually is our birthright, and is actually calling us to reclaim a much deeper sense of living in community(s)?

There are signs in my home sangha that, if financial crisis hit a number of members, we might be able to break through the shell and support each other. Maybe even find a new sense of what it means to be a sangha. Our collective commitment to working with children, and seeing them as dharma practitioners in their own right, is a great positive. The Hearts and Hands group is another. And our head teacher's desire to diversify the sangha is yet another. At the same time, the privatized, middle class narratives are pretty damned strong, and there is plenty in the broader national landscape working against truly embodying interdependence.

I even wonder about myself, feeling some of that privatized, pull yourself up by the bootstraps narrative floating within my body and mind. I'd like to think that I'm capable of stepping beyond the pride, guilt, middle class "success" narratives and whatnot that help to maintain separation amongst people in community, but I just don't know. So, writing this is part of that process of opening, and/or remembering.

What are your thoughts on all this?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Zen Failure; Zen Success?

There's a slightly provocative post over at No Zen in the West I'd like to draw your attention to. For our purposes here, I want to examine one section of it, which goes like this:

A distinguished Buddhist scholar told me that the burden of Zen teachers he knows is the need to act/be “enlightened”. How heavy! “I’m a Zen teacher, great! Now I have to somehow embody the premise that this way of life and practice makes people better, enlightens people.”

David Chadwick, after decades in Zen circles, hasn’t noticed that Zen practice works, which means that Zen teachers and Zen students everywhere could be off of the hook. If it’s not making us better than other people, it’s not because we’re not doing it right!

The late Rev. John King said that he loved so much going into our San Quentin Sangha because in prison – perhaps only there – “you don’t have to pretend that your life is working”. You don’t have to pretend to be a success, because it’s clear that everyone’s life is a failure. So you can just relax.

I’m feeling something like that about David’s observation. Great! Zen doesn’t work. I don’t need to pretend it does, or convince anyone else it does. I can just do it for the love of doing it, if I happen to love doing it, and forget that any good might come of it in the least. Forget the idea that I’ve gotten any better from it.

Of course, you might recognize that "success" and "failure" are part of the Eight Worldly Winds that Buddha spoke about frequently in various forms. And if you know anything about them, you know that they're always blowing about, shifting and changing like our own breath does.

So, any talk about whether Zen practice "works" or not is coming out of those winds, and as such, doesn't have any ground to stand on. What's considered a success today, is tomorrow's failure. Something gained today is lost tomorrow and regained the next day. Yesterday, I was called a "good Zen student." Tomorrow, maybe I irritate everyone and suddenly am now considered "a bad Zen student." And so it goes.

However, this leaves us in a predicament, I think. Because all of our regular ways for assessing what's happening basically fall flat when it comes to the spiritual life.

Is everyone's life in San Quentin "a failure"? Based upon conventional view standards, I suppose you could say "yes." Yet, that's only one way to see it.

Go a little deeper, though, and you might notice that not only is talk about working and not working, success and failure lacking ground, but it also is all about comparison. And I don't know about you, but when I'm trapped in comparing myself with others, it tends to be a walk down the royal road of hell.

Somehow, if you're really going to do Zen practice, or are really intent on liberation, you have to stop defining whatever it is that you are doing (or not doing) with variations on the Eight Worldly Wind theme. In other words, coming to a place where you can let all the noise of life blow around you and even within you - without choosing to identify yourself with any one or a handful of aspects of it - is pretty key.

Just relaxing - without the need to label "success" or "failure," for example - that's one possibility. Another might be to function with the understanding that all labeling is provisional, just a skillful means for working with the causes and conditions of the moment.

Friday, August 5, 2011

"Widening Circles" and Spiritual Materialism

In her memoir "Widening Circles," Joanna Macy writes of a time with one of her Buddhist teachers, just after she had finished graduate school. Full of excitement about all that she learned, and an eagerness to show her teacher, Khamtrul Rinpoche, how much of a scholar she had become, she told him of her efforts to learn the Pali language and how reading the teachings in their original language was giving her a whole new appreciation for dependent co-arising.

Upon receiving all this, his first question was "Does this help you to increase in compassion?"

It's a powerful moment, one which can pivot us away from the mind of acquisition that is so strong in our culture.

Like so many other forms of materialism that pervade our lives today, spiritual materialism is everywhere, in all shapes and sizes. From new age groups and teachers focused solely on gaining financial comfort, to mega-church Christians who spread the message that accumulating wealth is a path to God and a sign of spiritual favor, the grosser elements of spiritual materialism are fairly easy to spot.

But what about this more subtle issue expressed in Macy's experience with her teacher?

The human mind loves to inquire, question, investigate, discover, uncover, expose, play with, and just plain learn. And often it's really good at doing so.

Yet, reflecting on Macy's experience, and on moments in my own life, I do wonder how often I (we) land in the game of collecting knowledge in order to protect ourselves, make things a little more comfortable, or to stand above others.

Learning is a beautiful experience when it is freed from the confines of self-serving agendas. It strikes me that Khamtrul Rinpoche was pointing at this very thing when he spoke of compassion.

How can we reorient ourselves every day towards learning in order to manifest compassion and do things that relieve suffering for others and ourselves?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Throwing and Not Throwing It Away

In his commentary on Dogen's Genjokoan, Hakuun Yasutani writes "What is essential is to throw away one's own views and oneself. To throw away all one's acquired affectations, which are the knowledge and experience accumulated since birth, to become a pure white sheet of paper, and to bring oneself in accord with the teachings of the buddhas and ancestors."

What is this business of "throwing away"? It's not about rejecting yourself, nor is it about getting rid of something, although maybe there will be a dissipation of certain things. Take the heaviness that accompanies everything that "I" hold on to, cling to as my own. I don't think I can throw that away like a piece of garbage into the can, and simply go on with my day. No, it's more like at some point, when I've gotten tired of gripping tightly whatever it is I am fixed to, the air leaks out, like from a tire, until it is empty and there is nothing left really to hold on to.

Let's move into the garden for a moment. When a plant dies, it's body decays and goes back into the soil, providing nourishment for the next generation of plants - that is, if we allow it to do so. How often do we rip out "weeds," bag them up, and send them with the trash to wherever it is the trash is going? It's all a little too tidy right here for the time being, and yet the stuff has to go somewhere. This is not just about the garden; this is your life too! The words "throwing away" may not be the best translation, at least for us in the "West." Neither is the word "pure" maybe, which plays right into that desire to keep everything neat and clean at all costs, forgetting that the lotus blooms out of the mud, not out of sterile soil.

It's essential to let go of that which has passed, that which is, in the relative world, dead. If the tomato plant has birthed its fruit and withered, nothing I can do will bring it back. And if I try to hang on, I end up missing its current suchness, what it is right now: a decaying body ready to break back into the soil. And that decaying body might be very useful right now anyway, don't you think?