Friday, July 27, 2012

Zen Temple in Pennsylvania Confronts Fracking

Modern slickwater fracking is a mere 15 years old, but it's negative impact on the planet has already been too much for my taste. While the oil and gas industry is making billions of dollars, and claiming to be producing numerous jobs, they're poisoning our water and soil, destroying landscapes, and pushing the vast majority of the profits straight to the elite.

Fracking is a way to keep the old energy paradigm in place. Instead of investing in renewable sources, and changing the way we live to be more in right relationship with the Earth, fracking promotes more of the same. Even as ice caps melt, wild weather sweeps the planet, and even the more skeptical of scientists drop their resistance to global warming, the oil and gas industry trudges on with their 19th century views of the world.

Over at Turning Wheel magazine, there is an open letter about a Zen temple in central Pennsylvania sitting in the heart of a fracking project. Having witnessed the devastation first hand of decades of mining and strip mining in Western Pennsylvania, where part of my family is from, I find myself wondering if there is any section of Pennsylvania left untouched by the oil, gas, and coal industries. The people, animals, and land have paid a high price for the jobs "provided" over the years. My own relatives worked on the railroads for over a century, driving the coal out of the mountains. Kind of epic, but also bloody tragic.

Here's a selection from the open letter. Please go read the rest of it at Turning Wheel.

Mount Equity Zendo is located in the small rural village of Pennsdale in central Pennsylvania, twenty minutes from Williamsport, now called the “Dallas of the north,” the hub of the state’s natural gas fracking industry about 2 hours north of Harrisburg and 3 hours west of Philadelphia. The Abbess, Rev. Dai-En Bennage, trained over fifteen years in Japan at various monasteries before founding Mount Equity Zendo, near her native home of Lewisburg. Fifty members come from 2 to 4 hours away to attend monthly sesshins or other practice events at Mt. Equity.

Mount Equity Zendo is included in the serious threat from the slick water hydraulic fracturing process, known as “fracking,” in the Marcellus Shale. This very deep deposit of rock spans several states, including New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Marcellus Shale contains the largest deposit of natural gas in the United States, an estimated 500 trillion cubic feet, the equivalent of 80 billion barrels of oil. Averaging a mile below the earth’s surface and below the water table, it is now being mined due to new technology that allows fracking, to political pressures to develop our native natural resources, and to diminishing oil supplies.

Slick water hydrofracking was developed by Halliburton and others, and requires up to 9 million gallons of fresh water per well. This water is mixed with dangerous chemicals including benzene, biocides, and hydrochloric acid, which make it “slick” so as to dissolve shale and release natural gas to the surface.

I also encourage folks to offer their views on fracking to public officials and local leaders.

You can support the greater community around Mt. Equity Zendo through the following:

For those who want to help, Mt. Equity Zendo is not asking for personal aid for themselves, but for assistance for their endangered surrounding community. The most effective place in the region to send donations to increase public awareness about fracking is the Responsible Drilling Alliance [], a fine informational resource. Buddhists are also encouraged to contact Mt. Equity Zendo’s national representatives in support of the area’s environment so these representatives know that people outside are watching. Please contact:

Senator Robert Casey, 202-224-6324, [].

Senator Patrick Toomey, 202-224-4254, [].

Representative Tom Marino, 570-322-3961, [].

For more information or to express support, contact Dai-en or Daishin at [].

I also encourage people to research your own communities as well. This is happening all over the place these days. And something has to change soon, before these companies poison everything in their wake.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Aurora Massacre, Guns, and the Debates We Comfort Ourselves With

I have written several pieces over the last three years about guns, violence, terrorism, and Buddhist teachings. All of them were quite "hot" in terms of readership and discussion. Men, in particular, seem to flock to these posts, with very strong views on anything violence related. Perhaps because we are disproportionately guilty of engaging in rape, murder, warfare, etc.

Anyway, the predictable churning of commentary and advice is occurring following the Aurora, Colorado massacre. I say "predictable" because many of the arguments and end point directives are totally recycled. So much so that I have come to believe these discussions function like salves. They ease some of the distress of not knowing what else to do, or how else to respond.

There's a lot of back and forth about gun control, mental illness, and media violence. There's a lot less back and forth about race, and the use of the word "terrorist," but I have seen a few articles about that as well.

In another American city, Anaheim, racialized police violence over the past few days has led to multiple protests and calls for investigations.

While these two situations are more extreme, they represent the general tenor of our nation.

Civil society has broken down. Greed and hatred often trump compassion and sharing. Even in the face of clear and unshakable statistics, too many of us continue to gulp down oil, destroy the land for profit, defend wars on foreign shores, value fluff entertainment over meaningful relationships, and generally place individual (or nuclear family) gratification above all else.

Before accusations of cynicism arrive, I also see numerous counter-cultural movements. Attempts to revitalize community. Rethink what it means to educate and be an educated person. Rethinking and redefining work. Reconnecting with the planet and the recognition that destroying the environment is destroying ourselves.

It's not completely bleak, but those elements of a broken civil society still outweigh everything else. And there's no way to know if we'll reach a tipping point towards a more enlightened way of living together anytime soon, if ever.

All I know is that the level of violence in this country - and in many other nations around the world - won't significantly be reduced until significant social transformations occur. Restricting gun ownership, no matter how much I might support it, is just a band aid. Reigning in police militarization, no matter how much I support that, is only one step amongst many needed.

These two lines from the Dhammapada come to mind:

131. One who, while seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.

132. One who, while seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter.

Until teachings like this - regardless of what tradition they come from - are considered commonplace truths, gross level violence, like the shootings in Aurora and Anaheim, will continue to be far too common.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Zen of Trust

The world of appearances is filled with the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance. Sometimes, our closest people have betrayed us. The world as it appears in conditioned reality and ordinary life, is filled with unpredictable and often unexplainable occurrences that definitely go against how we wish things would be. Because of our unfulfilled desires, we suffer. When I was teaching recently at the prison sangha, The Unpolished Diamond Sangha, one man laughed at me and said, “You might be able to trust out there, but in here, that’s seems almost impossible. There is almost nothing and no one that can be trusted.” That has stuck with me. How to respond to that? Is there something unconditioned that we can trust in?

from Byakuren's Zen Practice blog.

I have experienced a lot of conflict and struggle over the past month or so. A lot of it hasn't been centered on me, but because of my connections with those who are at the center, I have been drawn in. And I haven't always handled it all skillfully.

What it comes down to is that the truths of certain situations have been difficult to sit with. Including the truth of not knowing what exactly the truth is, or how to move forward from that not knowing.

Impatience, acting out of old wounds, and a failure to locate and work from a deeper trust have been commonplace features. I've seen it in myself; I've seen it in others.

The thing about times like this is that appeals to simple nuggets of wisdom often don't do much for folks. Saying the world is "ultimately good" or that we "all have buddhanature" doesn't really help.

That "almost impossible" of the man from the prison sangha must be honored. It must be taken in and digested by each of us in order to find whatever is it that we can trust on a deeper level. Because that "almost impossible" lives, or has lived, within each of us. And it's exactly during difficult times that it pokes its head out, challenging whatever trust in ourselves, others, and the world we have built up in the meantime.

From my vantage point, there are a lot of folks trying to come together in the spirit of peace, justice, and reconnection with the planet these days. That's a beautiful thing, and I am one of these people. However, we must keep reminding ourselves how much damage has been done, and how many generations have been warped and wounded by that damage.

The violence of a thousand years isn't going to be healed in a day, or a year. At the same time, no one knows when the tipping point towards peace and justice will come between any two people, groups, nations.

"There is almost nothing and no one that can be trusted," is a place we need to keep returning to, it seems. Liberation seems to require it. I, for one, have never found any short cuts.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Yoga Platitudes and Great Adversity

I think all of us have an impulse to make everything alright, even if some of us override it most of the time. And some of us believe that every last ounce of misery in the world is part of some divine plan to teach us about ourselves, which perhaps is true, but there's absolutely no way to prove it.

This post takes on the sugary yoga babble that fills so many American yoga classes these days. It's one of the things I couldn't reconcile myself with during my yoga teacher training. The fact that people with 10, 15 or more years of yoga teaching experience could offer such drivel to their students, and that this is one of the main things that kept them coming back in droves. I get it. People are stressed. They want to feel comfortable and safe and perhaps held like children. But is that the purpose and function of these ancient spiritual traditions so many of us have entered into? I seriously doubt it. Which doesn't mean that there's no place for comforting, creating safety, etc. It's just that what I often witnessed and experienced was practice built solely around that.

The thing is, this take the edge off of everything and make it all ok approach is almost the exact opposite of Zen. Almost because there's still a sense of everything is ok, but it's a wide open field ok-ness, something completely beyond the reach of our little-self mind. Let's look at a few pieces of the post I linked to.

Five years ago my mother was diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome – a form of alcohol-induced dementia. That’s when she became a ghost. I was living in Dallas at the time – she in Austin – when one day my little sister called me in a panic, said she couldn’t find our mother anywhere. There’s blood all over the house, she told me. It looks like a murder scene.

I got in my car and made the four-hour trip to Austin that night, calling hospitals and jails on the way. Finally, I got a hold of the attendant at the gas station near her house. Do you know where my mother is? I asked him. She’s the little blonde lady, the one who comes in there all the time to get wine and a cup of ice. I think the police picked her up, he tells me. She walked in here with blood all over her face – I think she fell.

There's really nothing anyone can say to pretty up an experience like this. Nothing.

Yesterday in yoga class I was lying in pigeon pose, when I felt my mother sitting before me. Not the ghost mother, but my real mother. Holding my hand.

The yoga teacher started speaking: “Everything in life happens perfectly and synergistically so the soul can transform and know God.”

I wanted to scream. “Bull$#!&! How the #%& did drinking until her brain withered away teach this woman about God? Where’s the divinity in that?!

The phone in my bag lights up. Mommy Dearest.

“Our challenges,” the teacher continued, “are spiritual lessons that illuminate our disconnection from source and lead us toward awakening. This is karma. Spirit gives us the lessons we need to learn. This is how the soul wakes up.”

Don’t talk to me about Karma, I wanted to tell her. Don’t give me that crap about the Law of Attraction, about how if we just focus on our desires everything we want will come to us. Tell that to the ghost, I wanted to yell at her. Tell her all she needs to do is wake up and ask for what she wants to get better. Tell her she manifested this.

I used to believe that story. I used to believe that adversity inevitably becomes resilience, that the universe conspires to bring us toward transcendence, that if we don’t learn the lesson this time… well, there’s always the next life. But I don’t believe it anymore. I can’t.

I never really have been able to. Believe this. The whole story and how it's packaged. I do believe that adversity can become resilience, but only if someone learns to face their life boldly, without flinching, and recognizes the much bigger picture present. Too much adversity in the hands of someone who can't do that at least some of the time leads to misery and destruction. Leads to variations of the author's mother.

There's a lot that could be unpacked here. The way a lot of yoga teachers have no idea about how karma actually functions. The blame the victim thread that runs through The Law of Attraction and similar stories.

But what I want to focus on is this: much of the modern yoga world avoids suffering. Thinking that people are already challenged enough, yoga teachers, studios, and the like spin everything towards bliss, or its poorer cousin comfort. Which seems to be a balm for the mundane stress of office jobs, traffic, or dealing with upset children, but leaves people absolutely stranded when something like loosing a parent happens.

For a good four years now, when I brush my teeth before bed, I say this verse to myself from 8th century Buddhist monk Shantideva:

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.

These four lines have been more useful to me than a thousand platitudes. But they also are, if you actually put them into practice, challenging words to swallow. When I bitch and moan and fuss about the "little cares," I'm forgetting them. When I fake being happy, or dismiss something bothering me as "nothing," I'm forgetting them.

Over the years, I have worked with perhaps four or five excellent yoga teachers. All of them gave suffering a fair shake; all of them understood the balance between challenging people to face their lives as they are, and also to be kind to yourself and relax.

American Yoga is not devoid of bodhisattvas, to use Buddhist language - it's just flooded with people who are essentially trading in the destructive addictions our our society people use to cope with something that is more beneficial, but ultimately is still just a coping mechanism.

Being able to cope without destroying yourself with the means is a big plus. But what happens when the bottom falls out on the coping mechanism?

*On the positive, there is a cool project being developed by a pair of yogis and scholars to collect the major yoga texts throughout history into a single English language volume. Please check out their Kickstarter campaign for more details.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Zen Images

*Vento Regional Park, St. Paul, MN

I wrote this last night. Thought it was a good fit for DH.


I wrote a beautiful poem,
but the words have now escaped me.
All that remains are
the calls of the sparrows,
sheared lambs quarters,
and a love of the air
moving through my lungs,
ever the reminder
of how being alive
is enough,
no matter what
they say.

This morning, I started a photography blog. Early on in the history of Dangerous Harvests, I frequently featured photos of mine. However, more often than not, the photos didn't really go with the text. Furthermore, I started finding myself going out and looking for pics to illustrate some bit of text. It felt forced, and the quality of the images suffered. So, I stopped.

More recently, my sister started her own photo blog. She has been a professional art photographer for several years now, and decided to experiment with taking and posting images everyday. It's been inspiring to see her stick with it. I doubt I will update mine that often, but not only do I take pictures on a regular basis, but I also have a pretty deep archive of work I can add as well.

May you be inspired by our images. Have an excellent Sunday!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Conventional Responsibilty and the Work of the Bodhisattva

The following is a slightly adapted e-mail I just sent to our head teacher at Clouds in Water Zen Center. She has a new post on Dongshan's five ranks that sparked some reflections I'd like to share.

Hi Byakuren,

Sorry I missed your talk this morning, because I'm guessing it was on the 5 ranks. I just read your blog post. Thank you!

Perhaps you know this already, but I was reminded of Dongshan's death story.

"According to one of the koan of his sect, Dongshan announced the end of his life several days ahead of time, and used the opportunity to teach his students one final time. In response to their grief over the news of his coming death, he told them to create a "delusion banquet". After a week of preparations he took one bite, and told them not to "make a great commotion over nothing", then went to his room and died."

What would it be like if we prepared delusion banquets regularly? Makes me think this could be a useful ritual for letting go anyone could do.

I wanted to comment on one section of your blog post.

4. Arrival at mutual integration

Two swords are crossed
The spirits of the warrior
Like a lotus flower shining in the fire
Soar high penetrating through Space.

Many of us know this state. The state of being a Bodhisattva in the world, working to free all beings. It is a state of being inside of a fire. It has the intensity of sword fighters, not in their militancy, but in the heightened awareness. We feel the suffering of the world of samsara, and don’t turn back. This requires the courage of a warrior. As we return to the relative world, we burn in the suffering, going into greater and greater difficult situations to help. Jizo Bodhisattva jangling his staff to open the doors of hell and entering. The shining lotus flower needs the burning fire to exist and the practitioner has accepted being covered in the mud of the human realm. There is a true freedom in that and no need to have a duality of form and emptiness.

It strikes me that the many are thrust by circumstances into the work of the Bodhisattva. They may or may not know it at the time, but are simply responding as best as they can. It's not really a conscious choice on their part, and when the crisis is over, the many are happy to go back to something resembling the quiet, comfortable life they had. (Obviously, crises tend to change things forever, and maybe the "new life" is much different from the old.) However, I think there is as much retreat (if not more) from samsara as there are those who choose - following the initial life shaking crisis - to go into greater and greater difficult situations.

For all the engaged work I have done, I know that retreat. It's not the needed rest after a round of warrior action. It's the slide back into comfort and false ease, mostly out of fear of heading back into the fires. Part of me just wants to rest on what I have done. To say to others and the world: "I did my piece; it's someone else's work now." I think "true freedom" would be to be able to move between Bodhisattva action and stillness/non-action without such concerns about responsibility.

The more I contemplate responsibility as we understand it in the conventional sense, the more I see a stink of ownership that gets in the way. There's no fluidity in conventional responsibility. It's all about an "I" or set of "I's" who are supposed to "do" something, or not do something. And so often, it's not compassion and wisdom compelling conventional responsibility, but guilt, shame, and/or fear.

Perhaps the many thrust into circumstances have that conventional responsibility transformed by the heat of the particular situation. But I believe in order to sustain Bodhisattvahood, to act more regularly and naturally in such a way, one needs to both deliberately cultivate a mind liberated from conventional responsibility, and also must consciously choose to enter difficult situations when they can.

I have repeatedly had to overcome the fear of making mistakes, and not being "good enough," in order to step in the places I have. Had I waited until I was "ready" according to my mind, I wouldn't have gone much of anywhere.

It seems to me that those who know the "state of being a Bodhisattva" are those who are able to let themselves be burned straight through without getting burned. I get it, and I don't get it at the same time.

What an odd, wonderful world we live in.

I hope you are well. Talk to you soon.