Friday, December 21, 2012

"Throwing Away" the Oppressions of Old

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. You can't throw that away. When you've gotten tired of gripping tightly to whatever it is you're fixed to, the air will simply leak out, like from a tire, until it is empty and "gone."

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.

I'd like to apply all of this to our society. Today is December 21st, 2012. A day numerous people have claimed big things for. Apocalyptic things. Grand spiritual prophecy things. It's almost over, and nothing of the sort has clearly come to pass.

And yet, perhaps it's more like the tire of our old culture is draining. The grip on things like capitalism, colonialism, and various forms of oppression are slowly weakening. Slowly being "thrown away" by folks who spent lifetimes accumulating them.

May you all be well this Solstice day.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

On Sandy Hook and Grief

Friday evening, I did a bowing practice for those who lost their lives in the school shooting in Conn. And for all of us, really. Our collective suffering. Our muddled, often contradictory views around violence and conflict. The practice was as follows: chanting the Jizo mantra three times, and then doing a full bow. I did this sequence for 20 minutes, one minute for each of the children murdered. I've long had an affinity for Jizo, and seem to invoke his mantra under all sorts of conditions. Being that one of Jizo's roles is protector of children, it seemed even more apt to do so here. And so I offer this to anyone who is struggling to respond right now, or who wants to do a specific practice to offer support, and/or work with grief.

During the day, and ever since, I've been talking with people about the interconnectedness of killing, destruction, and suffering. And how we need to expand our grief pool. Expand our understanding beyond any particular situation to see how interlocked violence is in our society. And many others across the planet.

I wrote the following on my Facebook page after several posts, and some exchanges about the events at Sandy Hook. We can demand gun control laws, expanded mental health services, and the like. I support those efforts, but they really aren't getting at the roots. As far as I'm concerned, there's no way to get at the roots without grieving the past, and present conditions. Accepting fully what is here and how that came about.

"You want to help stop things like school shootings - expand your grief pool. It's not just about 20 children in CT. It's a whole history of violence and genocide. In the soil. In the very air we breathe. More and more, the past is unwilling to stay submerged. The stories of Native genocide. Of decades of police brutality towards people of color. Of the slaughter of animals to near or total extinction. Of disappearing medicine plants. Of destruction in whatever form in the name of profit, or religion, or racial superiority, or species superiority. It's all bubbling to the surface. Demanding to be dealt with now. We can collectively keep pushing it all down, or we can - each of us and together - learn to expand our grief pool, to mourn all that has happened. Give it the respect that it deserves. And in doing so, help break the cycles that have been built. I see no other way but straight through. And this school shooting can be a place to begin, if you haven't already. Those deaths are tied to some many others. Consciously expand the grief pool you are feeling. Even a little bit. It all counts."

*Image of Pakistani children, living under the threat of American drone strikes, offering their support to those suffering in CT.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Real Zen Practice

I seriously love this post by long time reader and blogger Jeanne of the Dalai Grandma blog. Among other things, it speaks to American Zen's obsession with form and "real" practice, and to our collective failure to live compassionately.

Special-endurance Zen is a masculinist tradition whose paramilitary rituals play to testoserone. It is fed in this culture by the failures of the nuclear family, by the American craving to succeed, to be special. It is supported by teachers who write and talk about how important it is for you to have a special understanding born of mystical insight. They don't talk nearly as much about simple everyday kindness. They chant hymns to Kanzeon (Kuan Yin), but are not trained in compassion. Koan study throws fuel on the flame of striving. Robes, hitting with sticks, still worse.

I don't know whether the man who sat next to me so briefly the other night had ever attended that group before, or ever will again, or where he went when he left. I hope it wasn't to a bar. In the discussion of generosity afterward, no one talked about the generosity of heart that should mean you set up plenty of chairs so that every visitor can find a comfortable seat. The compassion that should mean you welcome every person who comes in the door.

In that other Zen group, whose karma lingers on, I overheard one of the regulars tell another about his visit to one of the big East Coast Zen Centers. I've visited there. There were a lot of Lexuses and BMWs in the parking lot. This guy, who was married with children, said, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to go there for a three-month retreat and "really practice?" I kept walking, thinking They don't get it.

Yesterday, I was in a meeting with one of our senior teachers, talking about vision for the Zen Center. As board president, I've been doing this kind of stuff for multiple years now, reflecting together with my dharma brothers and sisters upon what our sangha's values are, and how we might go about implementing those values into functions and structures in the future.

What is it that we are doing well, and what is it that we could improve or change completely? I asked those questions to this particular senior teacher yesterday, amongst several others. His responses were interesting. A blend of we're perfect just as we are, and we could use a little improvement, to echo Suzuki Roshi.

One thing I noticed though - and I've long admired this teacher's calm, wise, and reflective presence - is how there was a current of this "real practice" thing that Jeanne mentions in her post above. Namely, that what constitutes real Zen is found in retreats, periods of sutra study, and lots and lots of upright seated zazen. Now, the chair vs. cushion bit isn't an issue here. The teacher in question moved to sitting in a chair several years ago in response to his aging body. He, in fact, has even given time during dharma talks to speak about this move, and others. Like I said, I've long respected how he carries himself, and so it's important that I offer a more complete picture here.

When I read posts like Jeanne's, and consider my own, twisted and evolving practice, what I think we're getting at is the failure to really practice the relational. That Americans especially, steeped in individualism as we are, don't tend to do community well. Struggle sometimes with basic kindness. And sharing. Working together without lots of conflict. Feeling gratitude for each other. Embodying the relational qualities of Buddha's teachings, in other words.

For those of us who aren't living in monasteries, there's a lot of forgetting - or never knowing really - of all the ways in which Buddha's teachings were born of, and enhanced by, being in sangha together over the long haul. In a much different way than we lay folks are "in sangha." And yet, at the same time, Buddha's teachings were not exclusive to monks and nuns, and didn't emphasize one way of practice to awaken. He offered different forms and focuses for different folks. Those who came along later were the ones that decided certain forms and focuses were "the best" or "only true" ways to wake up in this life.

Even though I have rarely done formal retreat practice at zen center in recent years, I continue to have a love for its ability to support people to let go and see deeply. I wouldn't be the person I am today without the hours and hours of zazen and bowing and chanting and fumbling through oryoki I have done at zen center over the past decade. Nor do I think to myself "I'm done with all that." Not at all. It's more that I'm listening to the rhythm of my life and trying to be the reed for the current sound to come through. Which of late, has meant some unright zazen. And things like walking meditation with silent lovingkindness chanting in the skyways downtown during lunchtime. Or yoga nidra practice lying on my back. Or studying Dogen with dharma friends in their homes. Or simply offering a kind word, sense of gratitude, or a bit of humor for whomever I see when I'm at zen center.

What is real practice? How do you know?

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Zen of Reacting and Responding

There has been a lot of dharma drama going on amongst members of the American Buddhist internet "sangha" over the past week. If you know about it, you know about it. If you don't, I'll spare you the details, other than that it involves sex, teachers, and students. Big surprise, eh?

Anyway, here's my humble offering to the pot today. Which doesn't require any awareness of the drama mentioned above.

There is a very big difference between responding and reacting .

When we respond to a situation, we are aware of the impersonal quality of what is occurring. Life is occurring, and we are part of that life occurring.

When we react to a situation, we view what is occurring as a personal threat, as an attack, or as a punishment. Life is happening ONLY because I did something, or I am something someone does not like, or I did something that deserves to be punished.

Now think about about, does the world really work that way? Is it really possible that things are occurring solely because of you, and the interplay between you and one other person? It's pretty damn unlikely. There are a myriad of factors that come into play in any given situation. The "you" and "I" are only part of the equation, and usually a tiny part at that.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes: "When we cannot communicate, we get sick, and as our sickness increases, we suffer and spill our suffering on other people."

A major part of communicating effectively involves coming from a place of non-reactiveness. Being calm enough to take in the jumbled, confused expressions around you without having to defend some territory called "I." It's really not an easy task, and most of us - me included - fall flat fairly often.

And sometimes, it's really best to be quiet. To go back into our meditation practice, and let go of needing to fix, or be right, or help, or whatever it is you want your words to do.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Anger as Entertainment

I wrote this a few years back, but it seems like a good thing to re-post right now for some reason. The frantic holiday season? Too many Zen scandals? Anyway, here you go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Teacher Scandals: An American Zen Koan

There's another American Zen teacher scandal flaming up the interwebs right now. I knew nothing about Joshu Sasaki Roshi before the current discussion. Other than that he's an old dude. Really old. 105 to be exact.

And about that discussion. It's unfolding so much like the others. Lots of fluffy Zen talk amongst those who wish to defend the teacher. Lots of hell and damnation talk from those who are outraged at the teacher's alleged conduct. More than a little bit of puritanical talk about sexuality. Accompanied by some good ole boy "guys will be guys" nonsense from others. Finger pointing is commonplace. Calls for greater oversight at a level higher than the individual sangha continue to ring loud, if not hollow.

I used to love to dissect all this kind of stuff. It felt very important, vital really - having been from a sangha that went through it's own teacher scandal several years back.

Now. I don't know. We seem terribly muddled about both the power of sexuality, and the nature and forms of power itself. There's a lot of abuse of power, and seemingly endless numbers of people writing about it, trying to figure it all out. Perhaps most humans in general, but American Zen in particular, since that's the focus here. And for all the muck brought to the surface, and revelations that seem to be made, the heavy muddled quality remains.

When you think about it, the intersections of sex, money, and power - the three biggies in nearly all of these Zen teacher scandals - are perfect koans for Americans. We think we understand them, have penetrated their depths, but I doubt many of us do. I sure as hell haven't at this point in my life. In the absolute sense, they're empty of inherent nature, right? But in the relative world, each of them has a myriad of forms that baffle and shift, stick and cause us to stumble.

Yes. Sasaki, like Suzuki, Katagiri, and other founding convert Zen teachers, weren't born in the U.S. However, it seems to me that they plugged right into the particular matrix we have here around the big three. The odd mixture of puritanical views coupled with provocativeness when it comes to sexuality. The curious blend of anti-authority individualism mixed with obsession with heroes and guru figures. The heightened tension between viewing voluntary poverty as a sign of divinity, and the desire for more, more, more than drives the capitalist machine. None of these founding teachers really exhibited all three entry points in the way many American born Zen teachers in scandals have, but they've still be in the matrix all the same.

Will this matrix that's causing so much suffering change, and for the better? I don't know. I'd like to hope so, but that's just hoping, something I don't put much faith in these days. I do think, however, that cracking the koan nut of this matrix - or set of matrices - may be the key to truly establishing a living Zen tradition in this country. As opposed to a struggling copy. Or a lot of "not bad" institutions that are helpful to people's lives, but ultimately fail to foster enlightenment.

Fellow Zen blogger Algernon has a cantankerous post up right now in which he offers the following:

What happens when you have an elaborate ecclesiastical structure meant to support and inspire dharma practice, but the dharma practice is shallow or, worse, pretend? What happens when you have temple full of people who have robes and know a lot about ceremonies and ritual, but they can't function spontaneously and ethically? Well, what you are left with is a dead religion. And when you have dead religion, there is nothing left to do except fight over the property and the money and the social position. This is not unfamiliar in human history, is it? Indeed, many of the teachers who brought their zen to the United States in the 20th century said they did so because this is what happened to zen in their homelands. They wanted to work with hippies who could jump into practice with a fresh perspective. My generation, on the other hand, is a generation of experts. Generation X and Generation Y zenboos organize big, fancy conferences for people in their thirties and forties who have become "Buddhist leaders." So much expertise. And yet. Hmmm.

I have a sickening feeling that a lot of zen in my country is a bad play. A play of the sacred. The stink of zen.

How to stay fresh, responding with right now mind, even when what we are responding to is great suffering? I'm not sure questions like this are being asked enough, especially during "dark times," such as the unraveling of a teacher scandal.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Balck Friday is a Capitalist Trap

I wrote this post two years ago, but a lot of it still rings true for me today, "Black Friday," a faux holiday intimately tied to the "constant economic growth as necessity" narrative. The one that says we must be "good little consumers" who spend our money and buy stuff, regardless of whether it's needed or not, in order to keep the world turning. The more we individual and collectively make efforts to break free from this narrative, and it's attendant actions, the better.

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

The author of the post suggests the following:

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

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

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

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

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

Consider this section of the post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Waves of Samsara

"Samsara - I could not understand it! Then one day I took my dog to the beach; he barked at the waves as they rolled in on the beautiful ocean strand. I realized that all this was reflected in the mind of my dog; he felt it in the dog's samsara - and expressed it."

Sokei-an Sasaki (1882 - 1945)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

You and I Are Probably Both Toddlers of Zen in the Grand Scheme of Things

Yesterday's post was sort of rushed, the kind of thing that comes when you want to say something, but are struggling with writer's block.

Anyway, I received the following comment on that post:

Yes, well perhaps you should actually find "peace and calm" before you attempt to push your idea of what it is onto other people.

If you must act as a mouthpiece for the dharma, we would prefer that you had something real to say about it.

That is just a quick tip from someone who's been practicing a hell of a lot longer than you.

And in that regard, it would benefit you to be open to that which has come before you, instead of pouting and stamping your feet like an indignant toddler whenever you are presented with something outside your comfort zone. As a student of the Japanese tradition, you should already understand that kind of relationship quite clearly, if you are actually serious about such matters.

At this time, I will step aside and allow nature to take its course with you - for better or worse. Good bye and good luck.

Usually, I just leave these comments go, but for a few minutes, I was just pissed off by this one. Not because I think the other post was "wise" or great by any stretch of the imagination, but because this just strikes me as flat out trolling. The kind of thing people do to just piss others off. The fact that it was anonymous just lends to that image, as does the deliberately insulting language.

There's been more of these kinds of comments in recent months. They might be from the same person, or they might be multiple people. I don't know. I have a couple of ideas as to individuals that could be behind them, but I'm not interested in moving beyond cursory level speculation.

One thing I have witnessed in the years of blogging about spiritual practice is a lot of people quitting their blogs over these kinds of comments. They give their writing away. Give their ideas, thoughts, and experiences - however muddled - away, and in return, they're body slammed by trolls and sometime regular readers as well. I'm not talking about bloggers who write obnoxious, inflammatory content. I'm talking about sincere folks, sometimes sharing deep from the heart, or taking a risk in offering something that might not be popular.

Not all of us have the ability to shake or laugh nasty responses off. And while some may argue that you should just develop a thick skin, I argue that if you're life is devoted to spiritual practice, your comments on blog posts should reflect that. Whether my words are soft and supportive, or more harsh and questioning, I try to consider how the other person will take them. Try to see if what I have to say might actually be about communication, and not just bashing someone on the head.

Anonymous, calling me an "indignant toddler" is an asshat move. You want to teach me something? Leave the insults out. If you think I'm a lost cause, that's fine. I never claimed to be an enlightened spokesperson for the practice. I'm a regular practitioner like most of the other readers here. Which I think you believe is a much higher number than it actually is. If your greatest concern is that I'm spreading "bad dharma" - don't worry, this blog's readership is tiny. Maybe you'd be better trolling the blogs of popular dharma teachers you disagree with. It's a better use of your time than pestering a small fry like myself.

What I think some readers easily forget about bloggers is that we're humans first, with all the usual struggles and maladies. Not every post is going to be gleaming with brilliance. Not every post is going to inspire nodding heads, even from the most aligned of readers. Furthermore, and perhaps most important, is the fact that we bloggers - even the most prolific amongst us - rarely cover the full spectrum of our thoughts and experiences of our chosen topic(s).

I'm well aware that public writing can give rise to all sorts of ego trips. I also am aware that I sometimes write contentious posts, during which I sometimes overstep the lines of what I know and don't know in terms of practice. As such, I'm grateful to regular readers who share a different take, show me where I've missed something, or even call out ways I might be violating the precepts I vow to uphold (Marcus, a former regular commenter, instantly comes to mind here.) There are times when even these kind of harsh, not terribly caring comments can arouse gratitude within me. But most days, I just think of all the folks who have quit writing, quit sharing their voices because they felt harassed and hated.

This post isn't a plea for personal sympathy. I've been a public writer for years, and rejection in its various forms doesn't destroy me. No, it's more a plea for more respectful discourse. Online and off. We can stand tall in very different positions and views without tearing each other to shreds. When I consider peace and calm, the ability to do this is one of the main things that comes to mind.

I vow to keep bringing this to mind, again and again, instead of letting the heat of emotion carry the day. That's all I really have to offer today. May you all be well.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Seeking Peace and Calm

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

I've been working with these lines from Shantidevafor about four years now. In order to keep them with me daily, I chant them silently to myself as I brush my teeth every night before bed (for the most part).

Those "little cares" that arrive in our lives have the ability to muck things up greatly, if we can't meet them as they are in the moment. The pain in your back, for example, easily can lead to tension, and then irritation, and then angry acting out of some kind. So it often goes.

Many people come to Buddhism seeking relief from all of this. Seeking something they call peace and calm. But how many of us really understand what calm and peace actually are? It's easy to mistake "relaxed dullness" found through things like television, drinking, eating, and other such commonplace activities, as peace and calm. In fact, such dullness can become so pervasive in your life that you fail to notice the presence of actual calm and actual peace.

I used to meditate like mad, trying to break through the dullness, thinking zazen was kind of an endurance contest I had to win somehow. In this, there was no room for the world to fully enter, no room for the peace and calm that comes when being "confirmed by the ten thousand things" as Dogen once said.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Zen Weeds

As a gardener, I was intrigued by this post, especially the first section:

A few months ago I saw a notice of Zen center calling for volunteers to come in on Saturday to remove weeds from the lawn. I had trouble with the apparent picking and choosing in that, and asked the author if he also saw trouble in his invitation.

I received the response that he was celebrating the life that the weather has brought us, and he was looking for help to extinguish some forms of the life he was celebrating. He explained he was holding two opposing views at the same time, and that's OK. Also, he did not consider the plants that are in certain places to be "bad" plants, nor did he consider certain types of plants "bad" plants. He just had a preference for both the location and types of plants in the landscape, and so he was planning to take out some plants to enjoy others. He felt preferences are not bad per se. It's his relationship to his preferences that can cause suffering, not the preferences themselves.

I felt a bit like he was not seriously addressing the question of whether this weeding was really right action. But I also thought I was possibly being a bit immature in my concepts of picking and choosing and the related Buddhist sin.

About the time I started regularly gardening, towards the end of my undergrad days, I become interested in herbal medicine. And quickly learned that many of the common weeds gardeners, farmers, and lawn enthusiasts tends to despise are, in fact, medicines. Dandelion, plantain, goldenrod, milk thistle, nettle. All of these have excellent health benefits and - their tenaciousness usually translates into invasiveness if left unchecked.

Probably reminds some of you of certain habit patterns you have. The critical thinking that turns into heavy negativity and pessimism. The awareness of potential dangers that turns into chronic worry. The desire to satisfy your sweet tooth that turns into overeating.

Like with "weeds," I've noticed a lot of all or nothing thinking surrounding these things. Note the presence of anti-intellectualism in some spiritual circles, thinking that thinking itself must be eradicated or else it destroy our chance at liberation. Or how people decide to become vegans and remove all possible "toxins" from their diet, not because of it being an appropriate response to their conditions, but because they believe this is the "only way" to be in accord with the precepts.

There's a lot of ignorance when it comes to the nature of ecosystems. Conventional gardeners and farmers think nothing of removing - often eradicating - every last plant they deem "unnecessary." Never mind the medicinal qualities of a given weed, how many folks are simply clueless as to how these plants are supporting other species and the soil, which benefits the plants they want to grow?

The author of the post above seems, in the end, to fall on the opposite side. He tries to sound open to the possibility that removing some "weeds" could be right action, but his words in total point towards not intervening.

Which brings us back to the first precept. The precept of not killing. A lifelong koan because it's impossible on a relative level to not kill anything. Our lives depend upon killing something in order to feed ourselves. That's the bare minimum.

In my own garden, plenty of "weeds" flourish. I leave wild patches grow, which brings in more bees and butterflies. I have a patch of nettles that I trim throughout the summer, both for teas and greens, and also for growth control. I also regularly remove those plants that attempt to take over the plants I'm intending to grow, and use their decayed bodies to enrich the soil.

I'll readily admit struggling with hatred towards the grapevines that spread like mad every year, despite the annual attempts to remove them completely. Perhaps they are my ecosystem teacher, and I probably would do well to accept that I'll never rid that yard of them completely anyway.

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Zen Time

You may suppose that time is only passing away, and not understand that time never arrives. Although understanding itself is time, understanding does not depend on its own arrival. People only see time's coming and going, and do not thoroughly understand that the time-being abides in each moment.

from Zen Master Dogen's essay "Being Time"

The problem with time is that it appears to be moving in a certain direction. That is, until we will it, through things like Daylight Savings Time, to move the opposite way.

And of, people tend to think they know what time is. As if the question "What is time?" never occurred to them.

Whatever it is, there's clearly constant change in the relative, everyday world. Certainly, this body of "mine" has grown, and gotten older over the last thirty six years. And when I look around, everything else has shifted as well, even if only in tiny ways. But it's not the whole story. How could it be?

The thing is, each of us is a "time-being" in each moment. Inside the movement of life is also a timelessness not separate from that movement.

I think a lot of the resistance I feel to whatever is happening in the now comes from forgetting this timelessness. Being disembodied in some manner or another. Literally out of touch.

That's about all I have to say at this time.

Any thoughts?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Self Care and the Spiritual Activist

The following is from a post I just wrote on one of my other blogs. It's related to the material I tend to offer here, so I though I'd share part of it.

I recently went through another round of what might be called activist burnout. After several months of devotion to multiple aspects of the Occupy movement here in Minneapolis, I hit a wall. Having left a teaching job the year before Occupy started, I was running out of money, and the few potential options for income that had developed during Occupy hadn't materialized. I was flat broke. Getting concerned comments from a few members of my family and friend circle. And when I surveyed the group of folks who had stuck it out in Occupy, what I mostly saw were middle class, white Boomer activists and broke folks like myself. (There's definitely more diversity than this, but this is the makeup of the two largest groups.) And although there have been some amazing acts of mutual care, including a few Occupy members sharing homes and trading skills to get work done without having to hire expensive help - there hasn't, at this point, developed something like a culture of community care. Not a thriving one anyway. It's a minority viewpoint, the idea that part of revolution - a big part of it perhaps - is modeling what moving beyond the privatization of our needs might look like.

If you want to read the rest of this post, please go here. Given how important this topic has become for me in recent months, I'm sure I'll have more to say about it at some point. However, if it's not your cup of tea, feel free to wait for the next post. May you all be well.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Attachment to Meditation Practice

This is a repost from last fall. I've had a lot on my plate recently, including doing work to promote the new book I have an essay in. There are a few blog post topics brewing, so I'll be back with new content soon. However, having spent the last year studying Dogen with several sangha friends, I'm still wrestling with some of the ideas in this post. So, here it is for you.

I really enjoyed this post by Andre over at Zen and Back Again. Mostly because it's familiar to me, and is something I've written about on here before.

If Zen is the practice of complete non-abiding, requiring the relinquishment of all attachments, then doesn't it serve to reason that we should let go of Zen too? For as I have found, Zen, namely zazen, can become a form of attachment.

We hear more about this regarding koans, where teachers caution their students against attaching to koans, since they are merely a raft to carry us to the other shore. Like the Buddha's teachings, they are upaya, skillful means.

But we seldom hear that said about zazen; instead, meditation, especially in Soto Zen, is regarded as the holiest of holies.

It almost feels anathema to imply that zazen can turn into a form of attachment, but try skipping 0ne day of meditation and you will soon realize how attached you are to the practice. Shame, guilt, anxiety commonly accompany a missed zazen session of mine.

Yesterday, we started a new group down at the zen center for those who have completed jukai. As one of the facilitators of the group, I introduced myself as "an eclectic practitioner" who is always experimenting. Which isn't to say I can stick with a form - such as zazen - only that I've grown more interested in how form flows in everyday life.

Having spent the last three weeks or so reading a lot about Dogen, as well as practicing with a few of his teachings, I find myself returning to some of the same things Andre is speaking about.

Dogen says that sitting is what a Buddha does. But isn't that making zazen something special by elevating it above all of our other daily activities?

The thing about Dogen's writing is that sometimes it really does seem like seated meditation is his sole focus, while other times he uses the word "Zazen" as an action in each moment. Some Soto teachers seem to lean in one direction, emphasizing seated meditation nearly all the time. While others seem to lean in the other direction, saying that Dogen applies zazen to all activities. I'm more inclined towards the latter, but sometimes it feels like a gloss over, an apology for a founding teacher that simply might have gotten too focused on seated meditation.

It's important to note the the openness to, and deep interest in, lay practitioners Dogen had during the middle of his teaching life greatly waned as he got older. At the same time, he maintained connections with at least a couple of lay disciples until the end, spending his last days in the home of one of them in Kyoto. Given the frequent social/political upheaval that marked 13th century Japan, I can imagine there was always a tension for him between upholding the practice of householders, and feeling the need to emphasize breaking away from it all and practicing in seclusion with a small group of dedicated others.

When I go back to Andre's consideration of attachment to practice, I find myself returning to the value of just paying attention. Noticing what kind of stories are arising. For example, sometimes that desire I have "to experiment" has a bit of extra added to it. Like wanting to do something novel, instead of "the same old thing." And sometimes I'm just plain giving in to laziness.

So, I have to stay vigilant around these kinds of questions, lest they become intellectual ways to trick myself, or justify opting out.

And yet, I have always felt a crunchy rub around Dogen's teachings about "zazen," and how they have come to be practiced today. Because just doing seated meditation and some ritual bows and chants doesn't constitute living the spiritual life.

What are your thoughts?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Zen Bodhisattva Vow Poem

How Long Must I Wait?

“Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.”
From the Four Great Bodhisattva Vow

For what? I don't know.
Unable to figure it out on my own,
I run straight to the temple
looking for answers.

The questions of my suffering,
like so many yellow leaves
hitting the newly frozen ground.

They, too, must wait
until the rain turns to snow,
until the moon returns,

a blue blossom
in the middle of the forest
where no one,
not even the ever watchful crow,
is at home.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Practice Like Our Hair is On Fire: A Twist on an Old Buddhist Phrase

One thing I find challenging about practicing Buddhism in a wealthy nation, surrounded by other practitioners who tend to have "enough," is the huge disconnect many have between their spiritual practice and the social environment. This is especially true of white, heterosexual North American practitioners who do not have to face issues of institutional, systemic discrimination and oppression. Beyond this, however, I continue to reflect on how, for example, Buddhist monks and nuns in Burma, or Tibet, or Vietnam to give a few examples, really don't have the easy option of making such separations. Their practice and the social realities in their nations are obviously inseparable. They might be able to complete long periods of intensive meditation and study, or they might wake up one day to gunfire, ramped up soldiers, or some natural disaster barreling down upon them. These folks do not get to "wait" until they become enlightened, or "wise," to get into the fray of social concerns. They just have to step up, and do their best awakened work.

Along these lines, there's the statement "practice like your hair is on fire." It's provocative, but what is it really about? Perhaps more importantly for us in affluent countries, who have "enough" and/or are relatively "safe," what does it really mean?

I've seen numerous articles, blog posts, and comments in recent months about the ways in which dharma practice in affluent countries is too often being reduced to stress relief, psychological health, and other individualistic focuses. Even laments over the loss of a focus on enlightenment often sound individualistic, which makes me wonder if this is a byproduct - in part - of living and practicing in relative comfort. Being comfortable with the discomfort and dysfunction that are produced daily in materially wealthy, capitalist societies. There's something about living with most, if not all of your basic needs met, that can lead to a smug certainty about what Buddha was teaching us, and how we "should" apply it.

Is the general history we have about Buddhist teachings and how it's manifested in different countries accurate? Do we in Western affluent nations also apply our own understanding of social activism to that history, and assume that most Buddhists historically were focused on individual liberation?

Vows of poverty and "home-leaving" seem to have as much to do with breaking down separation as anything else. It's more difficult to think it's all about you, and/or you and your family and friends, when you depend upon others, including total strangers, for your food, clothing, and shelter.

In other words, teachings like "practice like your hair is on fire" might be an antidote to the separations commonly attached to affluent conditions. However, I think it's more useful to pluralize it.

Practice like OUR hair is on fire. All of us. The entire planet. Because it sure as hell seems to be anyway.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Off the Mat at the RNC-DNC Yoga Activism Debate Revisited

Some weeks ago, the yoga service organization Off the Mat into the World stirred up a flurry of controversy for showing up at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions with a team of eager volunteers to host The Huffington Oasis.

Their intention? To provide politicians and media delegates with “a refuge where they could come to reconnect with their bodies, minds and intentions,” and perhaps approach the “supercharged environment” of a political convention with more mindfulness and compassion. Sounds innocent enough, right? But the response they received from the yoga community was largely one of criticism and anger...

The above is from the introduction to an interview over at the Intent blog with Seane Corn and Kerri Kelly in response to criticism of the Oasis project. Having contributed my own piece to the discussion a little under a month ago, I wanted to offer some additional response to the interview, as well as other posts I've read in recent weeks.

One of the things I read under the surface of the interview is that Seane and the other leaders of their group are placing a lot of focus on the electoral process. It’s an “inside” approach, something that will never be very satisfying to people like me, who view grassroots action and activism as more important in the current conditions than trying to get X, Y, or Z elected and/or to vote for certain laws. But I can appreciate well thought out and targeted inside efforts that aim to address systemic issues, and disrupt the narratives of greed and injustice that drive so much of current policy making. What I see with OTM’s Oasis and Yoga Votes is some of the “right” language, but not nearly enough clear linking of what they are doing to addressing systemic injustice and oppression.

I actually think the non-partisan stance they have been trying to take is a positive. If this were simply a program to get yoga folks to vote for Democrats, I’d be all over it with criticisms because a) the two big parties are miserable is so many ways that regardless of some differences, they fail to represent (in my view) the needs of the majority of us and b) the sense of working together across party lines on issues that they are aiming at would be totally lost.

What frequently disappoints me about the yoga community (and spiritual communities as a whole) is the ways in which all forms of critical discussion are lumped into the category of judgment, and swept away as being "unyogic" somehow. The kind of rigor needed to suss out wisdom and right action tends to be overwhelmed by simplistic, overly rosy thinking in yoga circles. The Oasis project needs to be critically examined by those of us interested in linking yoga practices with social engagement precisely so that future projects can have clearer visions, and be more likely to create the kind of social change so many claim to desire.

On the other side of the coin, the nastiness amongst some of the critics is also a hindrance. My own original blog post on the topic included a few lines I could have written with less venom. For me, that venom comes from seeing so little respect for critical rigor amongst the general yoga community, and feeling marginalized. Perhaps others amongst the critics also feel this way, and are responding by lashing out at public figures like Seane Corn.

I appreciate her efforts to recognize and check those places within her that block her from connecting with the humanity of others. That's an excellent example for all of us. At the same time, optimism and compassion not grounded in wisdom and awareness of the real conditions on the ground leads to more misery in the end.

Overall, I think social movements and politically active people struggle with is figuring out ways to debate and provide critical feedback about issues without descending into personal attacks and us vs. them thinking. So, it shouldn't be a surprise that such us vs. them thinking has arisen in discussions about the Oasis Project and its affiliates.

How can these different sides come together in respect for the gifts each has? How can those with the tools of critical intelligence respect those with the optimism and positive energy?

I've been sitting with these questions for years, as I've see them unfold into oppositional sides again and again.

We need both, but these qualities seem to naturally spark fear and defensiveness. Seems to me that zeroing in on that fear and defensiveness, individually and in groups, is a key piece of work for humanity.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Book Release! 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice

I am pleased to announce that the yoga book I wrote an essay for is now out! Here is the skinny.

21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice
Edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey

Yoga may be rooted in ancient India, but it’s morphed into something new in North America today.

Precisely what that might be, however, is difficult to say. Yoga is taught everywhere from spas to prisons, and for everything from weight loss to spiritual transcendence. With its chameleon-like ability to adapt equally well to advertising, athletics, and ashrams, contemporary yoga is a fascinating phenomenon that invites investigation.

Written by experienced practitioners who are also teachers, therapists, activists, scholars, studio owners, and interfaith ministers, 21st Century Yoga is one of the first books to provide a multi-faceted examination of yoga as it actually exists in the U.S. and Canada today.

Given my background in both Zen and yoga, I chose to write about both of them.
Entitled "Bifurcated Spiritualities: Examining Mind/Body Splits in the North American Yoga and Zen Communities," the essay aims to consider ways in which fixations on the body play out for many yoga practitioners, with a corresponding mind fixation amongst many Zen practitioners. Another significant theme is the role of gender, and gender stereotypes, in both communities. And the ways in which all of this demonstrates the commonplace separation so many of us have with the planet takes up the bulk of the last third of the essay. Here is a teaser to introduce you to the flavor of the essay.

Since I have a fair amount of experience in Iyengar-based practice, I will consider his approach a little more closely. In Light on Life, Iyengar writes “Technically speaking, true meditation in the yogic sense cannot be done by a person who is under stress or has a weak body.” He goes on to explain that this “true meditation” isn’t just “sitting quietly:” it is a practice that leads us to “wisdom and awareness.” One of the ways Iyengar attempts to get around what appears to be a separation of practices is to repeatedly speak of how meditation is contained within all the other limbs of practice, including asana. Indeed, recognizing the interconnectedness of all the yogic limbs is a large part of the reason he has put so much precision and intensity into teaching asana over the years.

Many students, however, simply can’t experience that interconnectedness within the context of an asana-focused class. They are too busy taking in verbal cues, moving their bodies, and responding to physical adjustments. Furthermore, the entire way in which the practice is often framed – as being about exercise, health, or even wellness – adds another blockage. Even as someone who has long studied the spiritual teachings of yoga, my own experience in the classroom tends to be mixed. Sometimes, everything will settle enough to allow my mind to focus on the present. But other times, I am either trying to figure out what is being taught, or my mind is lost in thinking.

Like the other essays in the volume, mine is well researched, weaves in personal practice experience, and is the product of multiple revisions. In addition, the final section of my essay includes introductions to several "Mind/Body Bridge Practices" I have learned and practiced over the past decade.

I invite you all to go to our website, check out the rest of the material about the book, order a copy, and then send the link to your friends and family.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Power, Perception, and Zen Master Nanchuan's Cat

An old grad school classmate drilled into my mind and others a trinity on power from philosopher Michel Foucault. He said what people do to maintain power, and also often do in response to power abuse is to minimize, deny, and blame. Whenever a spiritual community scandal goes public, you'll see all of these in action. Blame the teacher. Blame the student. Minimize the actions of the teacher as "mere sex." Minimize the responsibility on both sides of the equation, as well as the collective responsibility of the wider Zen community. Deny the impact of teacher's action. Deny the validity of grievances of said teacher's students. Deny the agency of said students, suggesting they are nothing but helpless victims.

The list goes on and on. Foucault's trinity is a wonderful lens for considering such things.

But obviously, scandals are kind of rareified experiences, and so it's probably a lot more valuable to consider these issues in action in our every day lives.

A monk asked Zhaozhou, “For a long time, I’ve heard of the stone bridge of Zhaozhou, but now that I’ve come here I only see a simple log bridge.” Zhaozhou said, “You just see the log bridge; you don’t see the stone bridge.” The monk said, “What is the stone bridge?” Zhaozhou replied, “Asses cross, horses cross.” Case 52, Blue Cliff Record

I suppose that was an unexpected turn. Well, I think it's useful to consider power in terms of perception. Because what we see, and don't see, has a large role in the way power is experienced in each of our lives. As well as collectively.

For those of you who aren't too familiar with Zhaozhou, he's well known for being a toned down, ordinary kind of guy. He wasn't a flashy teacher, nor was he given to pounding on students, shouting, or any of the other "tools" of some of the old Zen masters.

Back to power, one of the first stories about Zhaozhou I ever heard was Nanchuan's Cat, where his response to bickering in the hall, and subsequent cutting in half of a cat by Zen master Nanchuan, was to remove his sandals, place them on his head, and walk out silently.

As a cat lover, I have always gravitated back to that koan, partly out of a sense of sadness for the cat and the people involved who seem so entangled. And aren't we all entangled in something? Aren't we all caught up in clinging too hard to one side or another, sometimes to the point where someone ends up spilling blood?

After several years, I still don't know what to make of Nanchuan's act. At times, I've thought cutting the cat was just a metaphoric act, showing the ways in which humans cut the world into dualistic parts all the time. At other times, I have thought that he did kill the cat, and it was in order to help his students wake up. Still other times, I think he just acted rashly, and blew it.

Zhaozhou's response there always has felt more in line with the truth for some reason. He seems to deeply get the entanglements that are present in the situation, and placing his shoes on his head, considered a sign of mourning, show a respect for and perhaps also sadness for what has happened.

Where is power in all of this? Was Nanchuan's action a powerful expression of the dharma, or a mistake? Was Zhaozhou's action a powerful expression of the dharma, or something more along the lines of passiveness?

In the past, I have seen Zhaoshou's actions in both koans as a reflection of what seems to be a knowing that both asses and horses cross to the "other side." This "other side" being nirvana, awakened and liberated life. Like the end of the Heart Sutra - "Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha" or gone, gone, completely gone across to the other side. And the "asses" and "horses" you might take to be the delusional and the awakened, which if you believe Zhaoshou both "go across the bridge" to nirvana. But while the monk in the koan asking Zhaoshou about the stone bridge thinks there is a location to "go to" to reach nirvana, Zhaoshou's answer seems to be an indicator that trying to find a some location, or bridge, or magic entry point is off the mark.

Now, I have returned to asking questions of the koans.

I think, though, that a wise - even liberated - understanding of power is the ability to see both "the stone bridge" (the absolute) and "the log bridge" (our relative, everyday stories and lives) and to take care of both. And considering power isn't just about Zen teachers, or political leaders: it's about how each of us conducts our lives in the world, understanding that our actions do have an impact, however tiny it might be. It's an understanding that cause and effect doesn't disappear if you see into the nature of things, and that humility, compassion, and taking care of the stories in our lives are lifelong processes.

*Photo is of my mother's cat BJ

Friday, September 14, 2012

Haunted Dharma

When I came upon this tree awhile back, I couldn't help but stop and take a few pictures of it. With its bare limbs raised in the air, and almost everything around it dead as well, it's the perfect image of our repetitive, habit driven minds.

Chan Master Sengcan, in his great dharma poem Xinxinming, wrote "When you try to stop activity, your very efforts fill you with activity."

So, we have a quandary, don't you think? There's the mind dipping back into the past over and over again, bringing forth the same old muck, same old ways of acting and believing. And then there's this line, reminding us that suppression only brings more activity - and I'd say haunted activity at that.

Take a haunted house. How the spirit of someone that lived there, or spent time there in the past, now clings to the walls and floorboards, unable to let go of whatever it was that had happened there. Having no peace itself, the ghost fills the entire house, and everyone in it with dis-ease. It's a miserable existence, being trapped between incarnations, and also caught between the desire for liberation and the itchiness of recreating old misery.

In a way, all of us are like this at least some of the time. Some old event or dysfunctional way of acting or thinking arises and, instead of breathing into it and letting it be as it is, we pour ourselves into it, until we become like a forest filled with dead trees.

I aspire to be the forest in all of it's manifestations.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Despair Isn't All About "You"

Note: I first offered this post about a year and a half ago. It feels accurate for today, and so here it goes again.

I don't have a lot to say today. Here's an excerpt from an interview with Joanna Macy that I really like:

Personal Transformation: In our society, we talk about despair as if it is primarily a psychological matter, coming out of personal life. Your understanding is that despair also comes from a different source.

Joanna Macy: Yes. I learned, when I began to work with groups 20 years ago, that despair arose in relation to something larger than individuals, personal circumstances. There is a complex of strong feelings that I call ingredients of despair. One is fear about the future based on what we’re doing to each other and to our planet. Another is anger that we are knowingly wasting the world for those who come after us, destroying the legacy of our ancestors. Guilt and sorrow are in the complex. People in every walk of life, from every culture, feel grief over the condition of the world. Despair is this constellation of different feelings. One person may feel more fear or anger, another sorrow, and another guilt, but the common thread is a suffering on behalf of the world or, as I put it, feeling "pain for the world."

In American culture, we are conditioned to try to keep a smiling face and remain chipper at all costs. A lack of optimism somehow indicates a lack of competence. Feelings of despair are treated reductionistically as a function of personal maladjustment. This doubles the burden individuals carry. Not only do they feel bad about their world, but they feel bad about feeling bad.

I honestly find myself sometimes really pissed at how much of this reductionism occurs in spiritual circles. It actually brings up anger for me. Whatever people's current positions are on things like nuclear power, one thing I see a lot of is despair. And it's ridiculous to reduce this to some individual psychological attachment or maladjustment, but you can bet this is going on. Maybe you're doing it yourself, or your teachers or students are doing it. Maybe the book or article you are reading is doing it.

In any case, I'd like to offer the following. Instead of thinking things like "oh, this is ego clinging" or "if only I weren't so attached to what's occurring on the planet" - why not just let all of that go. Let every last explanation for what's coming up go. And just be with what is, recognizing that whatever is occurring on the planet is us too. It's all functioning together. And maybe if we listen more closely to the despair and whatever else is coming, we'll know better what our next steps need to be.

Peace to you all.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Stop Wasting Your Life! But how?

"I respectfully urge you who study the mystery, do not pass your days and nights in vain."

Last lines of the Sandokai

What does it mean to not waste your life? How do we do it, not pass our days and nights in vain?

Over the past few years, I have been much more intimate with "don't know" than in the past. Sometimes, it feels like I'm drifting along, which my little mind associates with "wasting life." Other times, it makes total sense. I really didn't know what all was going in the past either; I just thought I did. It's easy enough when you have a lot of the "normal" markers (like a steady job, home to take care of, etc.) in an adult life to forget about not knowing. And to assume that what you are doing is "not a waste," or not a total waste anyway. When you strip away a lot of those normal markers, however, you start to see that your stories might not be terribly accurate.

I'm really getting a sense these days as to why so many of us do everything in our power to resist liberation. In the depths of our hearts, we want to be in touch with our boundlessness. But even small shifts towards that, like letting go of some of the conventional things that once defined you (or so you thought anyway) brings with it a palpable fear, confusion, and desire to get back some stable ground.

A friend of mine, who has been struggling to make a few key decisions in her life, recently said something like "I don't want to live the rest of my life doing the same things." But then she goes back to doing so, for now (that's what we all think, for now).

Like my friend, I have done the "for now" return many times.

This returning doesn't define either of us, but it does make me think that the mind is so desperate for things to be stable and predictable, even if it's causing a crap load of suffering.

In living in a more stripped down way over the past two years, I have been trying to break through whatever it is that makes that "for now" so attractive. Attachment. Fear. Stories about success and failure. Desiring that things are stable and predictable.

It's a long list; I'm not through it all yet, and may never be in this lifetime.

What does it mean to not waste your life? How do we do it, not pass our days and nights in vain?

Keeping questions like these close, refreshed daily. That's the best answer I have to offer right now.

How about you?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Off the Mat Goes Off The Deep End With Yoga at the RNC and DNC

Someday, I might use my yoga teaching certificate, and I'll continue to practice and write about the practice. But stories like this one, covering yoga "activist" organization Off the Mat's jumping off the deep end, are exactly why I want nothing to do with the mainstream American yoga world.

The only thing more embarrassing than Clint Eastwood’s rambling and incoherent speech was the Huffington Oasis, an Off The Mat, Into The World collaboration with the Huffington Post. The Oasis offered up massages, yoga classes, organic food and smoothies for RNC delegates and media.

OTM stated their intention in an Elephant Journal article: “The Oasis was designed to provide the politicians, media, etc. a refuge where, instead of grabbing a Red Bull and burger between sessions, they could come to reconnect to their bodies, minds and intentions in an environment providing sustainable methods for grounding, health and healing in an otherwise supercharged environment….”

This week, they'll be doing the same thing at the DNC. Way to be bipartisan!

Mainstream yoga enthusiasts, who are mostly white and economically privileged, have a way of believing that anything that spreads "the message" of yoga is of benefit to the world. It's such a naive evangelical viewpoint that I find myself wondering if these folks are basically the liberal flip side to conservative, literalist Christians.

A few things about conventions. First off, they are basically meaningless coronations these days. Circuses designed to feed the populace with a bunch of feel good nonsense about their Presidential candidate, and feel bad nonsense about the other party's Presidential candidate. The voting for the party platform is essentially delegates rubber stamping what the elite already approved. Notice that anyone who attempts to buck the agenda in any manner (like those Ron Paul folks) are promptly shunned and marginalized in favor of "party unity." Nothing really important happens at these affairs, and so even the idea of offering a space for people to "reconnect" so that they can make "good choices" is empty. Because the average delegate's choices don't matter in the long run. The biggest thing for them is perhaps getting connected politically and gaining a job or some other position within the party.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of people outside these conventions every 4 years trying desperately to be heard. Because more and more, the issues that impact everyday people and the planet are completely marginalized, ignored, or maligned by both the Democrats and Republicans. I was one of the protesters at the RNC in 2008. The convention was a mere 9 blocks away from my apartment, close enough that I had helicopters flying overhead 24/7 for a week. We could have used some yoga practice. Massage. Healthy food. Anything to help us deal with the 3000+ police in riot gear and military vehicles staring us down and watching our every move. Our messages - widely diverse, and sometimes from opposing sides - were real. Full of life. Not the bullshit lies and propaganda being offered inside the conventions, and shuttled out to the masses by every mainstream media outlet imaginable. The military veterans against the wars, and those supporting them- both could have used some grounding, breathing, and something to eat and drink. The peace activists. The Poor People's movement activists. The environmentalists. The civil liberties activists. The homeless folks. Hell, even the people who were randomly passing by, the watchers - even they could have used some kind of support in that kind of hostile environment.

However, I have no illusions that a few days offering yoga or meditation or organic food is going to spark a revolution. Create the kind of systemic change this country, this world really is in need of. Suggesting that such an offering is anything other than a short term soothing balm is to trivialize practice. To trivialize what takes decades to bring about in individuals committed to the practice. What OTM and Huffington Post are doing is basically offering some pampering to people who are already being pampered. Because they are needed in order to make the circus look real and legitimate.

Furthermore, and this is something that yoga evangelists frequently miss, there is an assumption behind OTM's efforts that convention delegates, media folks, and even the candidates themselves are in need of "learning" about "the gifts" of yoga. When the reality is that some of them already practice yoga, meditation, Christian centering prayer, mindfulness, or any number of other things that help them stay balanced and grounded. And others in situations like a political convention won't pay attention or give a shit about such practices no matter how many fancy asanas are trotted out to entertain them with.

The way I see it, if you are going to do activism, go for the systemic roots. And if you are going to do service, find people who are actually in need. Lord knows that's really not a difficult task. How OTM and Huffington managed to bungle both is an understandable consequence of unexamined, privileged narratives, but still a little surprising in magnitude all the same. Perhaps this can be of service to other groups though of what not to do. There's always that lesson, if nothing else.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"White Space" - Considering Race and Racism in American Zen Sanghas

This post about the 50th Anniversary celebration of San Francisco Zen Center has haunted me since I first read it. The whole thing is worth reading, more than once. For most white practitioners, it probably will take several reads and plenty of contemplation to truly get a sense of all the layers being expressed. Forgive me if that sounds nasty; I'm just keenly aware these days how slow the process of decolonization seems to be. Over and over again, I'm running into well meaning, intelligent white folks - people who look exactly like me - that turn away, act defensive, or posture that we live in a post racial world the moment race is brought into a discussion.

Anyway, back to Sistah Vegan's post.

Yes, overall I really enjoyed the event last night. Great celebration and memories of the Zen center’s past 50 years. Green Gulch Zen Center is beautiful and I have developed amazing relationships there, so I thank the co-founders for making these sites possible. I deeply appreciate what I have learned from Zen Buddhism and the practice’s impact on how I constantly try to be mindful and compassionate– including how I try to teach largely white racialized subjects about systemic whiteness and structural racism. But I have to admit that I am quite disappointed in the mistake of seeing Simone as Angela Davis because that ‘mistake’ potentially represents an overall problem of recognizing the impact of a homogenous Zen fellowship: what does racial homogeneity do to the collective white racialized subject’s consciousness if they participate in a mostly white (and quite financially stable) Buddhist fellowship in a nation in which whiteness is privileged? I actually wish that white dominated Buddhist fellowships would add a rule that everyone has to participate in ‘mindfulness whiteness ‘ sesshins. It would be great if an added tenet to Buddhism, for such congregations, could be, “We shall learn about how structural racism and whiteness impact our Zen practice. We shall be open and loving to transforming ourselves and not become angry as we learn about how white racial formation has deeply affected our Zen hearts.”

First off, mindfulness whiteness sesshins would be a great practice. I fully endorse that idea.

Beyond this, though, there are so many aspects of convert American Zen practice communities that are taken as basic forms and approaches, but actually are rather white in conception. The commonplace blending of psychotherapy with Zen teachings. The curious relationship with the Asian ancestry, which is often either demonstrated through an attempt to strictly adhere to "Asian" forms or a nearly complete rejection of those same forms as "unnecessary," and/or "cultural baggage." In fact, the very manner in which Zen centers are laid out - the use of space - is often "white" in ways that are completely invisible to most of us white folks. Professor John Powell has written a fair amount about "white space." Here's one of his articles, which points out how "public" and "private" space in the U.S. was historically - and continues to some extent to be - divided along racially determined lines and understandings of space.

Speaking of space, over the past year, our sangha has been considering whether to move from our current location or not. As the head of the board, I have been at the center of all of these conversations, a placement that - as a white male - hasn't been lost upon me. I'm finding myself struggling with the tone and tenor of many of our conversations. Over and over again, the issues of "noise" and "disappearing parking" seem to dominate the day. Over the winter, during the board's annual retreat, an initial vision of sangha was produced by a subsection of the board that felt to me, and a few others, like a privileged image. It was essentially a cute, little building on top of a hill with a rolling stream cutting through the front of the location. Although that image was rejected, given that we intend to stay in the city, there still seems to be a strong sense of "needing" to be in a "quiet" neighborhood with lots of available parking and other amenities. The strongest voices advocating for this are long term members who are regular meditation retreat practitioners - nearly all of them white and solidly middle or upper middle class.

As one of the financially poorest members of the community, it's difficult not to think about how class comes into the picture. And when I think about the kinds of images being brought up around space, they correspond directly with predominantly white, middle and upper middle class neighborhoods. Consistent quietness in the city is intimately connected with how white folks with means use space. It's not what you find in poorer neighborhoods, and it's not what you find in mixed race, mixed income neighborhoods. At least here in the Twin Cities. In those neighborhoods, more people are regularly outside. Doing things in groups. Making noise. Having fun. Some are causing trouble too. But the main thing is that the space of the neighborhood is more actively used as public. Shared. Church parking lots double as farmer's markets and playgrounds. People more regularly gather on front lawns or porches. Even the front ends of privately owned shops often serve as gathering spots for those that frequent them.

Furthermore, the emphasis on cars, and parking, feels classed and somewhat raced as well. We have a new light rail train going in that ends right at the doorstep of our current location. The conversation around it has mostly been about the potential noise factor. The few conversations we've had where the train might be a vehicle for bringing in new members, or easing the commute for some current members, quickly sputtered. It's not that people can't see the possible value of a train or public transit; it's mostly that few of them will really consider using it regularly, and aren't really thinking much about folks who do use public transit (like myself) as a significant portion of membership. We, as a group, are off the radar. And the handful of folks like myself that self identify as bikers and public transit riders are mostly considered an anomaly.

I'm not questioning my fellow sangha member's sense that meditation retreats are difficult when there is nightly music right behind one of the walls, and when there is construction going on during the day outside our windows. What I am questioning is the movement from the extremes of our current location - which may require us to relocate - to a set of visions that are essentially devoid of many of the elements that make up urban living.

Oh, and then there's the desire for a better kitchen. Why? Primarily so that the cooking being done for meditation retreats goes smoother, is easier. I've heard next to no talk about, for example, wanting a better kitchen so we could cook more community meals, or to perhaps have a soup kitchen for homeless folks, and any other shared eating activity beyond retreats. Wanting a better kitchen for activity that takes up approximately 3-7 days a month, and involves between 7-20 members of the community, feels like a really limited vision for a kitchen. And an expensive need as well.

All of which makes me wonder who it is that our community really desires to serve. Are we yet another white, middle class organization with a great inclusiveness policy, but which is still driven by the desires of it's white, middle and upper middle class members? What does it mean to want to be located "in the city," and yet also want to avoid at least some of what makes up what I would call a vibrant city? There are great Buddhist sanghas located in cities all over Asia. Some of them also have sister temples located in rural areas, in the manner that San Francisco Zen Center has emulated.

I don't have any definitive answers or conclusions at this point. We are really in the middle of the process. A part of me wonders if I should post this, and that's exactly why I am going to post it. I am deeply grateful to my Zen sangha as it is and, as Suzuki Roshi said, "it could use a little improvement." May we find a more enlightened way forward.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Blogging the Buddhist Near Enemies

There's a good post over at the blog Recovering Yogi about blogging and the Buddhist teaching on the near enemies. Here's the selection I want to consider.

This brings me to the topic of blog comments. A unique phenomenon relatively new to our internet culture, blog comments take the concept of the letter to the editor and make it immediate, anonymous and lethal. There is a fine line between contributing to a discourse and using your opinion to skewer someone else’s feelings. And nowhere does that skewering show itself as more insidious than when the blog comment comes from a place of pity.

In Buddhism they talk about near enemies.

“The near enemies are qualities that arise in the mind and masquerade as genuine spiritual realization.” (citation) Near enemies are the ways an amateur Buddhist might behave under the guise of being “mindful,” without quite grasping the concept in its entirety (which we could have compassion for, natch).

Compassionate, but clear and direct blog commenting is an art. Something I have spent a fair amount of time practicing, both in responding here on DH, but also in comments left on other blogs. Given that whatever we offer is there for anyone around the world to look at, I do think it's smart to be careful what you are doing. No doubt the flamewars some folks have engaged in online have led to some pretty nasty outcomes. Divorces. Job loss. Family rifts. Perhaps even some violent attacks and murders. Beyond any direct correlations though, there's also the general dispersal of negative energy that happens whenever people leave comments that personally attack or demean others, or which are designed not to add to a conversation or challenge an idea or set of facts, but is simply about derailing or diminishing a discussion.

It's so easy to let it rip online, thinking there aren't any "real world" consequences, but that kind of thinking is flat out wrong.

On the other hand, I have noticed that some people err too much on the opposite extreme. Trying too hard to not offend, to appear compassionate, and that as such, whatever they've written is undermined. Sometimes, you misread the emotional state of a blog author or another commenter, and then respond as if they are really angry, or sad, or upset in some way. And they weren't when they wrote whatever it was that they wrote. I've had a few blog posts over the years solicit highly concerned reactions from readers and even a few family members. Posts that were about me trying to write out what I was struggling with, but which weren't indicative of something serious, like thoughts of suicide (yes, that, among other things, has come up.)

What's curious about blogging and commenting is that a percentage of it involves sharing things really publicly that people in the past tended to not share that way. Perhaps they would never say such things. Or only share with people that they were most intimate with. But now we have these ways to offer up whatever we are thinking and feeling - right now - to whomever. Some of us use our real names, and some lurk behind anonymous tags and images, but regardless, there's still this feeling of sharing and wondering how people are going to take it. Maybe it's less dramatic for those who are writing and commenting anonymously, but I'd argue it's still present for them too. Go check out any hot political or relationship blog and you'll see endless amounts of passionate debating, often amongst people whose comments are not really traceable.

I think most people haven't really caught up emotionally, or even intellectually, to what we are doing online. Which is why using the near enemies as a guide while writing and commenting are helpful.

Are you attached to your views? Are you indifferent to the feelings of other commenters or the main blogger? Do you feel envious of another commenter or blog writer for some reason?

I offer this practice for folks to work with. Take the next week or two and notice what you see.

As always, comments are welcome.