Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Will Humans Disappear in 100 years?

For those of you who might have missed it, there was a provocative interview with Thich Nhat Hanh in the environmentalist magazine The Ecologist. He raises a lot of issues related to the state of the planet, from the importance of intentional communities to the potential value of having a vegetarian diet. Today, though, I would like to consider the following:
According to the Buddhist tradition there is no birth and no death. After extinction things will appear in other forms, so you have to breathe very deeply in order to acknowledge the fact that we humans may disappear in just 100 years on earth. You have to learn how to accept that hard fact. You should not be overwhelmed by despair. The solution is to learn how to touch eternity in the present moment. We have been talking about the environment as if it is something different from us, but we are the environment. The non-human elements are our environment, but we are the environment of non-human elements, so we are one with the environment. We are the environment. We are the earth and the earth has the capacity to restore balance and sometimes many species have to disappear for the balance restored.
You might think "That 100 years statement is just alarmism." And part of me agrees with you. And yet, the rest of me says "We're far past the time for alarms." We had a warm winter here in Minnesota. Extremely warm. And dry. It barely felt like winter. The day I was born, the temperature was -20 degrees F. This year on my birthday, it was 53 degrees F. Now, one year doesn't mean much of anything in the grand scheme. I have no idea what the whole planetary story is, nor what things will look like in 20 or 30 years - let alone 100. While Thay says that we shouldn't be overwhelmed with despair, we have to feel it. Have to let it swell up within us, and come forth from us. Again and again. Because something IS off. I deeply know that something isn't right with the world. In fact, it seems to me that only through that grief, that despair, that sense that we might all be gone someday soon - only through all of that came we come to touch the eternal Thay speaks of. Our buddhanature. That which is beyond destructive pipelines, melting ice caps, and diseased body/minds. It's not easy work. Most of us would rather suppress these thoughts, or get lost in righteous anger. But I believe the world is calling us to dive deeply now, and open ourselves widely. May more of us do so.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Microfinancing a Community Change Maker Revolution

These are challenging times economically. With official unemployment rates hovering around 8% in both the U.S. and Canada, and millions more either unaccounted for, or severely underemployed, struggling to make ends meet is becoming more the norm. More and more, the promise of getting a college education and then moving up the corporate ladder is disappearing. Not only is it so much less possible in this age of de-unionization and regular corporate layoffs, but for many people, myself including, it's simply not the story of a fulfilling life.

My entire adult life has been dedicated to being a community leader through grassroots service and organizational development. When given the choice between making more money and potentially making the world a better place, I always have chosen the latter. I live my life by the motto "Serve locally; transform the world!," believing that it is both easier to have a deep impact in one's own community, but also that those benefits have ripple effects across the planet. And given how consumerism and privatization have eroded the majority of our communities, there is really no shortage of opportunities to serve locally.

While it may seem like things are dire, the current economic crisis is also an amazing opportunity to reassess how it is that we work and live together. To challenge the stories we have about what is valuable and what isn't. And to learn to come together in renewed, more interconnected ways.

Having spent most of my adult working life employed in various non-profits, I have come to recognize the benefits, as well as the limitations of such work. In some cases, they are the same. Getting a steady paycheck, for example, is often both a blessing and a curse. It's a curse because it can hinder a person's ability to take proper risks and do the right thing for others. What often comes first, at least to some extent, is personal job retention and/or maintaining the reputation of the organization one works for.

And so, a few days ago, I started a month long fundraising campaign. It is based upon the idea of being an independent community re-development worker. Instead of being tied to a single social service agency or non-profit organization, I have been freely investing time in three different communities that I am passionate about. It is an experiment in giving that I hope will inspire others.

I am seeking your help to continue to do this work. If any of what I have written here has inspired you, or caused you to pause and reconsider some aspect of your life, please consider donating to my campaign and/or spreading the information about it to others. The beauty of microfinancing is that no one person or organization needs to foot the bulk of the bill. Just as we are all naturally interconnected through space and time, through mircofinancing, the work we are all doing becomes a more visible demonstration of that interconnectedness.

The times are calling for us to re-place volunteering and community service back in the center. To cease seeing helping others and giving back as something some people do to fill in their time after work, or on the weekends. Please join me, and spread the word, as we together create a new revolution.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cold Stone Zen

Two retreats ago there was a woman who’s husband had just died, and we all either knew them, or one or two people knew, but it was very clear. And what was so interesting is it became this beautiful time together, because she sobbed through almost every day. She ended up sitting behind me a lot, and I had a moment where my impulse, I could feel her so profoundly because we were still, and I had this moment where I just wanted to touch her, and I had to go through all my rules about: “am I allowed to reach out and touch her in a retreat center, blah, blah, blah,” and then … I realized, “Please.” And I reached out and touched her because it’s my human impulse, and she’ll let me know if she doesn’t want that. And I probably did that three times during the week. And at the end of the retreat she said, “Oh my God, thank God, you touched me. I needed contact, I’m in a freefall.”

This passage was part of a fascinating two part panel discussion on Buddhist practice, trauma, the body, healing, and several other topics. Over and over again, the participants bring up challenges they have faced, and questions they have about the ways in which convert Buddhist practice has been set up here in North America. I encourage folks to read it, and I may take up a few other sections of the discussion in future posts.

Back to the story above. I don't know about other branches of Buddhism, but there's a lot of talk about form and the role of a strong "container" amongst Zen folks. This is especially true in retreat contexts, but even during daily services, attention to precise details, from bowing to offering incense, are emphasized. What's important to note is that that attention is directed towards doing things in a certain way. Not really clinging to rules, but certainly maintaining a particular, shared direction.

Chanting. Bowing. Walking. Maintaining silence. Forms for eating meals. All have particular instructions, and everyone involved aims in the direction of embodying those instructions as best they can.

There's a lot of beauty to this. Being in the middle of a group of 60 adults all bowing at the same time in the same basic way can be life affirming. Listening to an even larger group, including children, chanting the precepts together - which we did at our sangha this past Sunday - is often quite exquisite.

And yet, the story above demonstrates something of an absence I sometimes feel. The lack of touch, especially during retreats, is one thing. However, overall, touch or not, I sometimes wonder where the warmth is.

A few years ago, I essentially stopped doing meditation retreats at my zen center. For awhile, I really struggled with the resistance, thinking it was just laziness, or fear. And perhaps some of both of those are true. However, even when I first started developing the resistance, I knew it was more than that.

Do you know the story of the monk whose hut was set on fire?

There was an old woman in China who had supported a monk for over twenty years. She had built a little hut for him and fed him while he was meditating. Finally she wondered just what progress he had made in all this time.

To find out, she obtained the help of a girl rich in desire. "Go and embrace him," she told her, "and then ask him suddenly: 'What now?'"

The girl called upon the monk and without much ado caressed him, asking him what he was going to do about it.

"An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter," replied the monk somewhat poetically. "Nowhere is there any warmth."

The girl returned and related what he had said.

"To think I fed that fellow for twenty years!" exclaimed the old woman in anger. "He showed no consideration for your needs, no disposition to explain your condition. He need not have responded to passion, but at least he should have evidenced some compassion."

She at once went to the hut of the monk and burned it down.

What I have often felt in Zen meditation retreat is similar to that monk, only it's magnified throughout the entire group. With our current teacher, this has been less so, but somehow the combination of the people attracted + the forms themselves, seems to bring out that cold rock in winter feeling.

One of my dharma sisters has been talking a lot about body practice recently. She's gotten interested in Reggie Ray's work, and since I, too, have been interested in body-mind connections, I have listened closely to what she's said. And I think I hear that similar voice behind her words. The one that's saying "Something is missing."

The thing is, it would be really easy to suggest that this voice is just longing and desire. Coming from a place of dis-ease. I do not doubt for a moment that some of it is. But not all of it. Perhaps not even the majority of it.

Something I learned towards the end of my yoga teacher training were some simple massage techniques to apply in classes. Actually, it might be more accurate to say massage coupled with posture adjustments. The thing that stood out for me in practicing these on classmates was the ways in which, when I let go of trying to "do it right," there was a subtle exchange of what I'd call wisdom that happened. It didn't need words. In truth, that same exchange happened when I was fumbling around, or my classmate was fumbling around, trying to get it right. It's just that the depth wasn't there in those cases.

Is there a gender component to all of this?

The two women in the retreat story shared something. It was beyond words. Sure, it wasn't part of the "retreat plan," but it does seem to me to be part of the awakening plan. Especially for those of us living in the everyday world, dealing with all the challenges of a lay life.

Your thoughts?

Friday, March 16, 2012

No Money in the West: Buddist Blogging, Purity, and Capitalism's Warped Narrative

As money, capitalism, and spiritual practice often seem to be on my mind, I found this post by Zen teacher James Ford to be comment-worthy. It was written in response to a spirited discussion held on the blog No Zen in the West about blogging about Zen and making money, which I participated in.

James writes:

Over at one of the blogs I like to read there’s some reflecting going on about whether to move to a host that will provide some support but who also have advertising. Sort of like what you see to the right of this posting…

The writers of that blog solicited comments from readers.

Of those who chose to respond it appears the majority are disdainful of going with advertising.

The premise seems to be that there should be no connection between the Dharma and money.

Reminds me of something I read a few years back where this perennial theme was once again being hashed out. The thing I recall was how one commentator said his teacher never took money for teaching. And then added how he had no idea how his teacher supported himself. The writer seemed to be suggesting this not knowing was a good thing. Pure.

Personally I found it creepy.

I think it important to make sure everyone has access to the Dharma.

I think there is nothing inherently unclean or unhealthy or impure about money.

In fact if one has any obligations in this world, family, paying attention to making a living is an obligation.

Here is my response.

James, I don't disagree with any of the major points you make. In fact, the example you brought up about the dharma student and his teachers makes me cringe as well.

However, what I saw and participated over at the No Zen blog was not a purity battle. It was a sincere questioning of how to operate as a committed spiritual practitioner in a capitalist environment. I have long been troubled by the myriad of ways in which capitalism has impacted the Western dharma world. It's something I have spent the past decade wrestling with, and this blog is littered with commentaries attempting, from various angles, to unearth and challenge the assumptions that have bled into our practice from our capitalist-dominated society. Like the idea that dana is solely or mostly about giving money. Or the ways in which many Zen communities have made it next to impossible for working class and poor people to be full participants.

The fact that the blog authors of No Zen offered a forum to discuss their decision to join or not join Patheos, rather than simply made a statement of disdain for advertising, should be applauded. Furthermore, as a fellow Buddhist blogger, I appreciated that they raised the challenges of blogging and sustaining one's self financially in public. More of us need to do so. It's helpful for readers to see, and also supportive for fellow writers.

James, something in your post feels dismissive to me. Perhaps I am overly sensitive to money issues these days. At the same time, it's easy for middle and upper class practitioners, who aren't struggling financially, to dismiss debates like the one on No Zen as purity arguments. It reminds me of the manner in which many Democrats love to dismiss Greens, Socialists, and others as stuck on purity. Sometimes they are right, but often it is they who are the stuck ones. Stuck on their own relative power and privilege.

Capitalism may be empty of inherent nature, but in the relative world, it's making a major mess of everything. Money is not inherently evil, but the structures and stories we have built around it are producing a hell of a lot of suffering.

You wrote that "Paying attention to making a living is an obligation." I'd argue that it's more apt to say "Pay close attention to HOW you make a living." In that how is not a call to dismiss money and claim that one is pure because of doing so. It's about overturning the stones, and discerning if that how is sufficiently beneficial to the world or not. Or at least has a good potential to be.

Perhaps you considered all of this before moving to Patheos and decided that was worth it. My decision was different.

Neither of us chose to be very public about what we were pondering though, whereas the guys at No Zen did. Again, I thank them. If I had thought to do so, I would have done something similar on my blog.

Conversations about money and class in Zen are often fraught with bullshit posturing and hand wringing. It strikes me that you got a whiff of that in some of the comments over at No Zen, and it brought up numerous memories of similar discussions you've witnessed. While I am defending No Zen and the discussion as a whole, I also got a whiff of purity from a few of those comments.

However, they do not reflect the whole, not even close. And what you wrote reminded me of so many discussions and debates I have had about money and dharma - in my own sangha and online - where working class and poor folks were marginalized or left out in the cold entirely.

It's time for all of this to become more open, transparent, and frankly risky. Too often, we Zennies speak of liberation, but fail to risk the whole nine yards of ourselves. To place the cultures and social norms we have built ourselves out of on the fire, and let it all be burned straight through if necessarily through deep inquiry.

What's most creepy to me is how willingly many Zen practitioners unquestioningly uphold - and even enforce - middle class, capitalist norms, both as individuals and as communities of individuals. Something has got to give.

In closing, I'll offer one idea I just had. A Buddhist bloggers co-operative. It's been floated before, but here it is again. You get bloggers together under a collective platform, and build a shared fundraising mechanism or set of mechanisms that raise money and other support for writers in a manner that perhaps subverts capitalist norms. Or at least undercuts some of the bite.

The point of offering the co-op idea is to suggest that things can be different. That human minds and hearts can creatively address the challenges we face. Purity/evil. Democrats/Republicans. Capitalism/socialism. All those binaries are tired and wasteful. Dead ends. Lacking creativity. And in the end, clinging to either end of them really does little to solve the myriad of challenges more people are facing as the worlds' major economies are crumbling.

I have said enough. It's your turn. Go at it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Social Dukkha - Moving Beyond Individual Buddhist Practice

In honor of three years of writing here at Dangerous Harvests - where did the time go?! - here is a re-post from the early days. Originally published on Friday, May 22, 2009. Comments welcome as always.

Working with people from all over the world, whose ideas and ways of living are often very different from my own, has definitely helped to jar the sense of self I have. In addition, the discussions I have had with these same learners in my classes have shown me as much as anything how constructed our views of the "good life" or "proper life" are. Here's a simple example of that from a recent class.

A woman originally from Somalia is pregnant, which sparked a discussion about family size and also happiness. She was asked by another learner how many children she would like to have. I believe she said "maybe four," although I may be misremembering that number. Another woman, a very joyful Ethiopian woman in her fifties, said "why not more?" She went on to talk about her eight children, and how she loves big families, and would have more children if she could. Recently, her son graduated from college, the first degree in her family I believe, and she's been walking around beaming about his accomplishment, telling anyone who will listen about it.

A few other learners, ethnic Karen from Burma, gasped upon hearing the desire for very large families. One said something to the effect of "three is enough, thank you very much." And there were other expressions from this group about the hard work and difficulties large families create for mothers. Which brought us to economic issues in the U.S. and a short conversation about how expensive it is in the U.S. to have a lot of children. But the woman from Ethiopia didn't stand down - she still felt that there was more joy in a bigger family. I have had other learners in the past, from other nations, express very similar views. Yet, even within groups, as should be expected, there is a fair amount of difference of opinion about this question.

However, despite wide differences of opinion within any group, it can be said that culture and social structures of a given society have an influence on how people think and act in the world. And because of this, I believe there has been a failure on the part of many in the convert western Buddhist world to see beyond individual practice, and individual "enlightenment," as a way to address the suffering of the world.

Dukkha is the Pali term which is usually translated as suffering. It is often viewed as the sense of dissatisfaction or disease a person feels with the world as it is presenting itself in one's life now. Of dukkha, Buddha said that all of us experience it in our lives - many of us so much so that we are consumed by it. And yet, as Buddha himself experienced, there are ways to be liberated from it. In terms of Buddhism, these ways are expressed as The Eightfold Path. (Other spiritual traditions have other methods which I would argue also can be gateways to liberation, but discussing those would lead us off track today.)

Returning to the classroom discussion above, the Ethiopian woman in my class seems have pinned at least some of her happiness in life on having a large family. Although I don't know for certain, it seems that larger families are more common in Ethiopia than they are here in the U.S. When you think of the droughts, famines, wars, and other difficulties that have plagued Ethiopia over at least the past century, it's very understandable that an emphasis on procreation might be promoted not only in individual families, but much more broadly, as a social or cultural value. So, then, since she has a larger family, the woman in my class might be viewed in a positive way by others in her cultural group, and she might internally view herself more positively because she has manifested what has value within the larger group.

Of course, there are also many individual factors that play into this as well. Her family seems to work together well. The children are doing well academically, and unlike other learners I have had in the past, she doesn't come to class with a heavy burden of problems her children are having at home, or at school, or elsewhere. So, it's very much possible that her emphasis on "big families" is as much, if not more, tied to her personal experience than to cultural or social values or constructs.

Yet, I think it's foolish of us, especially if we believe in the view that there is no solid, fixed self or "I," to place all our eggs in the individual basket. Any one person's suffering or joy is a product of a complex uprising of causes and conditions, some of which one might be personally responsible for, but also which include others that are much bigger than any one person.

No one person, no matter how powerful, is responsible for bringing about war for example. Or environmental destruction, or patterns of patriarchy, or racism, or sexism, or heterosexism, or any other number of social ills that infiltrate and effect our lives on a daily basis.

In his excellent book The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory David Loy spends a lot of time examining these kind of larger patterns. Using the term "social dukkha," he argue that Buddhist teachings: the precepts, emptiness, compassion, and others can be applied to broader social issues as a means to potentially reducing suffering on a larger scale.

Now, he certainly isn't the first to say any of this, nor is he a lone wolf crying in the wilderness, but it strikes me that until there is a critical mass of us speaking and acting in ways that might address these larger scale issues, no amount of individual effort on spiritual practice will be enough to greatly reduce suffering in the world. Maybe if we all took up meditation practices, and stuck with it diligently, there would be some massive change. But I still wonder even then if oppressive social structures would simply fall away, or if, in spite of our efforts, we'd still be facing the problems these structures create. I have a hard time believing that racism, sexism, and heterosexism, would simply vanish as a result of all of us individually, or even as collects of individuals, doing meditation practices. This is not at all to denigrate meditation - I love it - but to suggest that given where we are at on a global scale today, it seems additional, more collective approaches to the dharma are being called for.

Monday, March 12, 2012

A Powerful Nectar

Hello everyone! It's been almost a week since my last post. There have been some exciting developments in my world, including the launching of a new book of essays on yoga in North America. I am fortunate to be one of several talented writers and practitioners in this volume, and hope that you will help spread the word to anyone you think might be interested in reading it.

Please click here for a more in depth write up on the book, as well as a link to our current fundraising campaign.

As for my practice these days, I have been struck lately by the power of perseverance combined with letting go of both attachment to forms, as well as all outcomes.

There is no repeat performance, and no final outcome.

Even if you are doing sitting or walking meditation in the same manner, day after day, it's never exactly the same.

Even when something appears to have proven to be beneficial or not, there is always something new in the next moment and the next.

Some days, I sit still and silent like the ancient ones. Other days, I meditate while moving like the ancient ones.

Perseverance is motivated by something much deeper than any particular form or outcome.

In the realm of the material, the seen world, it's a continual risk taking. For example, throughout much of the time I was writing, I had no idea whether the essay I spoke of above was actually going to make the cut. Writing it was a challenge, and there were many moments when I just wanted to give up, feeling that I wasn't ready to say what I wanted to say.

On the other hand, there is a place inside each of us where there is no such thing as risk. No such thing as succeeding or giving up.

To persevere, you have to touch that house of love, and drink in it's powerful nectar.

Again and again, there is this drinking, and then returning the gift, slightly transformed, to the world.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Seat of Separation: Chairs and the XL Pipeline

What does chronic backpain have to do with the Keystone Xl pipeline? Probably nothing directly, but in a round about way they might be connected.

Recent statistics show the number of adults with chronic low back pain is on the rise. Doctors recommend three courses of action: (1) Lifestyle change, (2) Medication or (3) Surgery. When diagnostic testing reveals no definitive cause, treatment is based largely on the patient accurately describing the intensity of pain on a scale from 1 to 10.

This is from the current post by yoga teacher J. Brown. I enjoyed the fact that he doesn't offer a list of yoga poses to address chronic back pain - enough of that around already. And as I read, I started thinking about that phrase "no definitive cause." And chairs came up.

Chairs originally were a designation of privilege. Reserved solely for royalty, religious and government leaders. It's only been in the past 5-7 hundred years that chairs have become more commonplace around the world, something that might give us pause.

Consider how much sitting you do in various kinds of chairs everyday. In cars. On buses and trains. In offices. In homes. How often do you sit on the floor? Use your whole body in a whole manner?

In my opinion, the way many of us rely so heavily on chairs is a contributing factor to things like chronic back pain.

However, I want to go further. Think about what chairs do. Among other things, they separate humans from the ground. The earth. Just as those original chairs set the elites apart from everyone else, and created a false sense of superiority, chairs today separate the masses (including the elites) from the planet we live on.

Obviously, chairs are not evil. They are simply an excellent symbol of our current state of affairs.

It's not terribly surprising, for example, that we oil pipeline companies making deals with state governments to trounce the rights of indigenous people. Or that their truck drivers are able to, with a straight face, say things like we have “corporate rights that supersede any other law" as they transport tools and materials that will be used to exploit the earth for profit.

Odds are that the decisions that led to the XL pipeline were almost all made while sitting in chairs inside sterile offices. That's just one of the many manifestations of disconnect and separation present in this situation.

Let's go further. Many people want to change all of this. We are waking up to the fact that the planet has suffered greatly as a result of human greed, hatred, and ignorance. However, too often, we are prone to sitting in chairs and in our heads, trying to come up with ways to challenge the status quo. Our meetings are mostly static events, driven by talking, and controlled by tables, chairs, and squared spaces.

Stopping something like the XL pipeline, and envisioning a new way of living, can't really come from this. Not only this anyway. There must be movement. Must be reconnection. Much be creativity when it comes to how we gather, what we do together, and where we choose to meet.

Today, I feel grief and outrage that this pipeline project is going through. That multinational corporations and the leaders of multiple nations, including the U.S., are so myopic that profits trump everything, including the promises of their ancestors.

It's time to move beyond the seats we are comfortable in. Our pain and suffering does have definitive causes, if only we are willing to look much deeper, and begin responding from that place.

Sunday, March 4, 2012


First off, I would like to share this post that I wrote on one of my other blogs. The nuances of oppression have been on my mind in recent months, as I have engaged in various work within the Occupy movement. The post above is a reflection of on being a man, facing sexism, and recognizing some of the ways in which patriarchal structures damage men - even as we benefit in other ways.

Secondly, if you have some time, please take a listen to this interview. I love the way spiritual practice and social activism are blended here. The call for recognizing and remembering the humanity of those you consider enemies resonates deeply for me.

From the interview description:

In this dialogue, I interview Rose[Sackey-Milligan]about her early years during the Civil Rights Movement and her personal entrance into the African spiritual traditions.

We then discuss the relationship between spirituality and social activism and investigate the gifts and limitations of both spiritual and social activist approaches to change, while advocating for a deeper integration of both. We also explore the deep impacts of racism and race experience in shaping human consciousness.

May you all be well. Enjoy the rest of the weekend!