Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Being (Or Not Being) "The Good Zen Student"

Recently, I met with our head teacher to talk about my practice (as well as some zen center board-related issues. Fairly early on in the conversation, she asked me point blank,"Why don't you do 'group practice' anymore?" The question was followed by a number of possible reasons she had come up with, but at a certain point she stopped that and waited.

I paused. Looked inward a moment. And then said, "Well, I'm not sure what you said is true. I'm still coming to Sunday services. Attending classes when I can. Etc. What you're really asking about is sesshin, right?"

After confirming this, I basically responded, "I feel called to practice in the world right now." And then I went on to tell her about how, for example, I meditate and/or do chanting practice before (and sometimes during) protests and rallies. And that I do a lot of "public" zazen, meditating on buses, park benches, in fields, in my garden during spring and summer ...

But really, what it comes down to, is that for the most part, I'm over worrying about what constitutes "being a good Zen student."

For most of the past three or four years, I have been skipping out on retreat practice. I have done a few half day retreats and some more intense periods of practice with others at Zen Center, but none of the multiple day or week long sesshins. It's kind of blasphemous to admit, given that I've been on the path over a decade now, and past the kind of initial fears folks have about meditation retreats before experiencing a few of them.

Lately it has occurred to me that doing meditation retreats is something that many Buddhist communities - including my own - view as part of being a dedicated practitioner. Which is totally understandable. Buddha's path to enlightenment flowered open after intense, sustained meditation. However, "dedicated" is really just another word for "good" when you look at it closely.

For a long time, I got hooked when it came to wondering what my fellow dharma brothers and sisters were thinking about my absence from retreat practice. It's kind of silly - wanting to be "seen" as a "good student" - because in the end, Zen isn't about that at all. Being respected and elevated within a community doesn't mean squat when it comes to breaking through greed, hatred, and ignorance. And yet, like the rest of life, outward markers easily get mistaken for wisdom and depth.

It's so easy to forget all that when you've spent much of your life trying to be liked and cared for by others. I occasionally still get tripped up by this stuff when I'm at zen center, talking with my dharma friends.

Odds are, there will be another period in my life when lots of inward reflection and retreat practice of some sort will call me.

For now, I will go with what is moving me. This experiment of practicing in the middle of the swirl of daily life.

There's a natural ebb and flow movement between "inward" and "outward" that, once you recognize, you can allow yourself to move with it.

Form and emptiness, emptiness and form. Every breath can be a sesshin, if you allow it to be.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Dalai Lama Supports Legalizing Medicinal Marijuana

Currently in Mexico, where a debate over the legalization of marijuana is heating up, the Dalai Lama told an audience that he supports the medicinal use of the plant.

The Tibetan spiritual leader, speaking at an event hosted by former Mexican president Vicente Fox, said that "the exception" for smoking marijuana would be if it has pharmaceutical virtues.

"But otherwise if it's just an issue of somebody (using the drug to have) a crazy mind, that's not good," he said after being asked his position on legalization at the outdoor event at the ex-president's Fox Center in the central state of Guanajuato.

Over at the Buddhist Blog, James Ure offers the following in support of the Dalai Lama's comments:

For eons, marijuana has been used medicinally by humans to treat ailments. Historically, marijuana has been legal for use up till only recently. Ironically, legalizing marijuana will simply return it to its historical status of acceptability. Marijuana truly is a miracle drug as it alleviates so much suffering from a plethora of conditions. It helps relieve my chronic depression to the point of saving me from suicide a few times. In addition, medical marijuana blunts the aches and pains of my bursitis to enable my body to meditate properly. Why wouldn't compassionate-minded Buddhists support the use of a healing, natural, herbal, non-addictive medicine such as marijuana to treat symptoms of medical conditions?

As a non-user who doesn't have a personal stake in the plant's legality, I also support decriminalization. Billions of dollars have been spent across the continent in the futile war on drugs. We have prison cells filled with folks whose main or only crime is using and/or selling this plant. There is a heavy racial bias towards men in color particularly when it comes to arrests and incarceration, one symptom of a broader pattern of systemic racism that could be alleviated through decriminalization. Like alcohol prohibition, marijuana prohibition has only increased the power of drug gangs and cartels, while also providing governments across North and Central America an excuse to ramp up the militarization of law enforcement agencies.

All in all, prohibitions have been an immense failure. It's time for another way forward.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Marketing the Self and Spiritual Discernment

Marketing of the self. Aren't we taught to do that pretty early on in life? You gotta stand out or you'll be forgotten, right? You better promote or you will never be successful, right?

I believe there is a double bind around all of this in modern societies. The human tendency to self cherish is the main dish. Humans have been eating it, probably since the beginning of our species. In addition to the main dish is a set of side dishes called consumerism, capitalism, and commodification. Ever seductive, they add endless flavors and textures onto the main dish. I suppose it might be the case that plain old self cherishing gets kind of dull after awhile. It's so much more exciting to be the hot, new product on the block. Or the respected, reliable old one.

The pressure to be a product is damn strong, so much so that even spiritual teachers are falling for it in droves. Being a person with some wisdom mixed with a bag full of delusion doesn't feel good enough. Being a person who takes a shit and can't quite wipe it all clean isn't sexy enough. Being a person who is articulate one minute, and has nothing helpful to say the next just doesn't cut it. And so, we end up with teachers with trademarks at the end of their names. Teachers who spew endless amounts of flowery language. Teachers who market themselves as healers, and then end up abusing the hell out of anyone who gets close to them.

It is any wonder that so many of us are so confused in this life?

Some people get really irritated with me when I start talking about systems and collective conditions. They say things like "Zen practice is about you. Focus on yourself and stop pointing the finger at others." But this isn't about simple judgment. This isn't about damning those trademarked teachers to hell. It's about cultivating an awareness of the larger patterns that are influencing our thinking and behavior. About seeing as conditioned much of what we think is "normal," and that to the extent that we continue mindlessly eating it, we'll be used and controlled by it.

*If you haven't seen them already, I have multiple new posts up over at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. You can check them out here.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Violence Will Not Cease Without Facing Our Fears of Death

The first Buddhist precept is a vow of non-killing. It’s not an injunction against all killing, and indeed we are always, even in taking a breath, killing something. If we want to embody a non-violent way of being and acting in the world, we have to come to terms with life and death as unified. Inseparable. That living and dying are occurring in every moment, no matter what we choose to do or not do. On the whole, American’s don’t handle the death side well. When faced with any inkling of it, we’re prone to turn away, minimize, or deny it. The increasing, mostly male obsession with “self defense” and resorting to violent measures to carry out such defense, feels intimately tied to this issue. Men look around and see other men killing each other and they don’t want to be next. Never mind that 2/3rds of gun deaths in the U.S. annually are self inflicted, the fear of being mowed down by some other is widespread. It’s not the slow fading away from chronic illness or quick passing during an accident that haunts many of us. It’s the messy end by bullet.

You can read the rest of the post here.