Saturday, 17 March 2018

You’re Soaking in It

Something we hear, see, even taste, touch, or a thought pops into our heads generates some interest. And, that interest piques our curiosity, and then we want to find out all we can about it.mAccumulating information about the Patriarchs and Sages, the Ancestors, their quotes their teachings, nothing wrong in it. And then...

Zen. One of the Great Teachings of Zen is there is no teacher, no teaching to be done, and no one to be taught. That's not just Zen teaching; it's in any number of Sutras. But even the Sutras say there's no teaching. And even though the word “teach” is used, that's not quite the gist of any of the Noble Truths, or Absolute Truth, or Relative Truth. It wasn't like the Buddha was inventing something new, nor did he ever say he was. All these things were already “Truths,” not theories. One could say that the “Four Noble Theories” would be an interesting twist, but the existence, cause, end, and means to end struggle and dissatisfaction are givens; they're there even if we don't notice it, even if we deny it. Believe the earth is flat all you want, but there's this evidence to the contrary, and then….

Ironically, “Teaching” is referred to all the time, sometimes within a Sutra or Kong’s-an that states there is no teaching. Rather than teaching, the Buddha and the Sages revealed, uncovered, clarified, reduced, and explained a methodology. Sometimes with all the lovingkindness, and sometimes less so, at least on the surface. The Shurangama Sutra could have been retitled “The Tathagata Reads Amanda the Riot Act Sutra.” The overall feel of it is, “Were you paying attention?!? After all these years, right by my side, and you think what?” Perhaps I'm projecting too much of myself into that, but there's a lot of refuting and clarifying in that Sutra. The Sutras tend to go along those lines--ask one of the bhikksus a “What do you think…” question, followed by a “Well said, well said,” and then a little more explanation. Somewhere between, “What do you think,” and “Well said,” the student answers with the Truth that had been there all along.  That's all any of the Sutras are: Skillful explanations of Truth.

Likewise, Zen teachings are no more than explanations. For some, the explanation lit that Great Cosmic Lightbulb over the listener’s head, sometimes it may have taken a touch more work on the part of both student and teacher. Sometimes that work involved a shout, the obligatory stick hit, maybe even some grandmotherly kindness, sometimes cutting a cat in half. In all cases these were a means to get to something: Truth. Be it Noble, or True Nature, just Truth. And what is Truth? It is reality, nothing more, nothing less. No exaggerations, no back stories, no embellishments, no falsehoods, no deception or denial, just reality as it is. Philosophers may debate whether Truth exists, or if it’s purely subjective, but what they’re debating isn’t Truth. It’s not not-Truth, the debating is Truth, the answer isn’t necessarily. Call it Truth, Facts, Reality, Bob, or “Just this,” Truth is. Or maybe more accurately, Truth is…”....”

Delusion, denial, destitution, dereliction, birth, no-birth, rebirth, no-rebirth, karma, no-karma, self, no-self, peace, war, and anything else that can be imagined is Truth too. The fact that we do, think, or say all kinds of really wacky things is Truth. It happens, we do it. Facts is facts, but fighting against facts is facts too, along with fighting ourselves over having fought the fact. All that may be less than noble, but it’s Truth. “True Nature,” at its heart wouldn’t include greed, anger, and delusion, but Truth does. Realization of One Mind is Truth, but so is clinging to a stubborn self-centered Self.

How do we get to the Truth? There’s no getting away from Truth. We needn't move anywhere, we needn't amass more information, and most of all, needn't have the false notion that we are lacking something. Does that mean we give up study, reading, and listening just because they use words? Using reasoning and reading won’t do it, even though we read and reason, and therefore that in itself is Truth. Rather than trying to accumulate more information and knowledge for anything other than to know more things, thinking that will deliver some ultimate Truth, maybe trying just to notice what’s right here, right now, right in front of, around, and behind us, all ten directions.

Rather than going on some eternal search, a quest to attain some Great Spiritual State only to arrive where we never left. It’s not thinking more, it’s not thinking less, it’s not not-thinking, it’s just paying attention. What was your original face before your parents were born? Don’t give it a second thought, or even a first thought. If you think thought is bad, think again, or not-think again, just pay attention. That’s all Truth, but it’s not a big deal. Just doing something that is helpful to someone else is True Nature, it’s Truth.

I’m soaking in Truth. We’re all soaking in Truth. Don’t bother with the towel, it won’t dry you off. Truth? You’re soaking in it.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Killer and Killed, Right Now

Ahimsa is the Sanskrit word that is typically translated as not-harm. It’s the ethos, a principle as reflected in the First Precept: Honor life, do not kill. That’s pretty straightforward. Complications from corollaries and conditions come into play, and then there’s confusion about what is fairly simple. Honor life, do not kill. Don’t harm. I must admit, there are causes and conditions that all Precepts are subject to, but for me, those causes and conditions have never arisen. Much to my consternation, those causes and conditions may turn out to be as impermanent as everything, but maybe cause and condition won’t cross, and cause a condition I’d rather not encounter.

Right now, at this very moment, I have no intention to do any harm. I’m not doing any harm. I’m assuming that is the case for you as well, that as you are reading this, you are simultaneously not doing any harm. I’ll go out on a limb here, and say that even the most evil, vile, and violent person you can think of (I’ll wait, it’s a long list), that even they were not doing harm twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. They may have incited violent behavior in others, they may even bear responsibility for creating a climate where violence is encouraged and acceptable. But at least while they were asleep, on a micro level, they weren’t intentionally personally doing any harm or acting in a violent manner.

We can see things conceptually, abstractly, macroscopically, even jingoistically, and say that humans, or omnivores, or North Koreans, or Muslims, or Israelis, or Americans, or Evil Empires, are by nature violent. And we can also pontificate about banning guns, deporting immigrants, quarantining the “others” from the rest of us “good” people, but really, that’s nonsense. Even at our collective worst, not everyone is participating in violent actions constantly, no matter what we’ve been told. And past violent acts don’t necessarily mean future acts. Even Angulimala was converted from his serial-killing ways by the Buddha.

Regarding ahimsa, there’s a subtle difference between not doing harm, and not being violent. Violence is a subset of harm. Standing by and watching harm being done is de jure participation in the perpetuation of harm, if not de facto harming. The intention is to stand back, look the other way, talk about the weather a bit, and come up with some excuse cloaked in the costume of reason not to step in. In this case, Inaction is not-Right Action.

You’ve probably all seen some image of a Buddhist monk or layman self-immolating. Some say it’s a totally selfless act, a self-less act, a sacrifice for the greater good. I have to wonder how effective those acts are. Is it the act of a Bodhisattva, or an act of despair? We can’t really ask what the intention was after the fact, the only evaluation is its effectiveness in changing the situation that caused the immolation. Did the monk on fire do anything to change the Vietnam War of the Chinese occupation of Tibet? As of this moment, no...and yes. No, in that those situations are how they are as of this moment, and they can’t be another way than how they are. And yes, because the effects of the immolation have not necessarily be fully borne out, so change may yet come.

Ahimsa doesn’t just apply to those we like, or those close to home, or those with whom we feel some commonality. “Like,” “home,” and “commonality” are nothing more than empty concepts (as if a concept couldn’t be). As Buddhists, we may think we like other Buddhists, because of that commonality. We may at least feel some affinity toward our Buddhist brothers and sisters. Then again, maybe that affinity only applies to those whom we see as “good” Buddhists...not like those 969 guys in Burma who are massacring the Rohynga. For them, we have contempt, feel the righteous indignation that entitles us to criticize those other Buddhists, who must not be actual Buddhists anyway, because they sure aren’t practicing the First Precept particularly well, and besides that, haven’t they even heard of ahimsa? Were they absent that day in Buddhism 101?

And yes, what’s going on in Burma certainly seems horrific, although we’re really only seeing part of whatever story the media would like us to see, as the shock value of a violent Buddhist defies the stereotype. There are somewhere in the vicinity of twenty armed conflicts involving death at this moment. Odds are, someone is dying at the hands of another in armed struggle right now. Throw in acts of violence in non-war situations, the numbers climb. Odds are you’re probably only aware of two or three of these conflicts if that, maybe none of the other violent acts if they didn’t happen nearby, or involve multiple casualties in a school or a parking . Someone is killing someone else right now. Not as an abstract statistical concept, someone is killing someone right at this moment, and at least in twenty geographical instances, because of a nationalistic, jingoistic sense of threat and perceived superiority or perceived weakness. Mao said that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. Right now, tragedy. Now. And now. All deaths are one death.

A Bodhisattva doesn’t check what flag someone waving before s/he decides whether the save that particular being. To lean into the Absolute if I may, nations, religions, weakness, strength, and all the rest are just empty stories we convince ourselves to believe. “All beings” doesn’t discriminate between one being and another. There are no Kurds and Turks, or Kurds and Iraqis, or Kurds and any number of Syrian combatants. There are no “sides” in Syria, or Burma, or Burundi. There is a person with a weapon killing another person (who may also have a weapon) right now. One on one, one on many, face to face or anonymously, somebody is seeing the “other,” and thinking that it is correct action to kill them.

I can’t decide what correct action is for anyone other than myself. I practice ahimsa as best I can, from moment to moment. I can only hope that you as an individual will also see the wisdom the Buddha pointed to in his teachings of not doing harm. Perhaps if enough people start practicing ahimsa individually, then the stories about self/other, same/different, will be seen as nothing more than stories, as empty as everything else. Compassion fatigue may set in because of the sheer number of violent situations. But only if you look at concepts like flags and countries and religions and everything else that creates the story that separates one from another. But right now, someone believes the story, and is pulling the trigger. Right now...

Friday, 16 February 2018

Thunderous Silence

In the Vimalakirti Sutra, Manjushri asks the assembled Bodhisattvas to define non-duality. They all come up with answers, but none of them really nail it. Their explanations speak of entering into non-duality, but all of the 31 explanations descend into duality. Manjushri then poses the question to the layman Vimalakirti, who is silent. Then more silence. And then a little bit more. Manjushri then praises Vimalakirti, as having been the only one who correctly answered.

Sometimes silence is appropriate, sometimes not. Not-silence can often turn into polemics, proselytizing, and preaching. The thoughts behind the words may themselves be as accurate as Vimalakirti silence, but their delivery is less than skillful. The listener’s (or reader’s) ears may glaze over, or maybe they elicit praise, maybe they elicit anger. Same words, different responses, how so, great a Bodhisattva? The listener or reader determines how they feel about what the other person said. I could say to someone, “You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny,” and similar feelings can result. Friends who know me and my tongue firmly implanted in cheek delivery might laugh, ones that don’t might just look at me a little funny and back slowly out of the room, and the remaining may become extremely hurt by my evaluation of their physical characteristics and fashion sense, the others may get very angry to the point of thinking about being violent, and the last few might actually scream and throw a punch. All from seven little words strung together in a particular order. (Or are you too stupid to see that?) What just happened then?

I teach a class that involves the Eightfold Path, and that’s one of my questions for the students regarding Right Speech—can your words make someone feel a certain way. Almost always their answers involve negatives, how words can hurt someone. I use the above answer about their responses being made by thinking. What’s really at the heart is the state of the speaker or writer’s mind. What are my intentions behind the words? Do I intend harm, do I hope to bring laughter, am I just blathering on to hear myself talk? Both of speaker’s and reader’s sides both involve a large amount of “I.” To use Zen grammar-speak, subject and object. Mighty dualistic, wouldn’t you say? (What just happened there.)

In the state of Florida, there was just another mass shooting at a school, with 17 fatalities. There are plenty of people who’ll pontificate about banning guns, others that contend that if there were a “good guy with a gun” that lives would have been saved. Others will offer “thoughts and prayers.” What do all these words exhibit? So far as I can tell, there’s a large amount of “I.” “I know better, the Second Amendment must be preserved at all costs,” or, “I know more better, the Right to Bear Arms be damned!” These statements will result in any of the possible reactions I showed above, maybe some I hadn’t even considered.

All this subject/object is just duality, opening the door to potentially vehement agreement or disagreement. It could be that how the words are expressed more skillfully than they had been, and the result might have resulted in something more than involving at least one of the Three Poisons of “Greed, Anger, and Delusion.” I can’t really tell you how you should feel, let alone what you should do. Maybe at best I’ll give you something to think about you hadn’t considered before, but most likely that depends on how skillfully I present it. I can consider my intentions, and how much I consider your potential response.

My action of responding to the shooting at the Florida High School is that I took a personal vow to be nonviolent. Ahimsa, it’s called, to do no harm. I may not always exhibit metta, or lovingkindness; hopefully I’ll at least avoid doing harm. I haven’t been in the situation that the students and teachers were, so I can’t even say for sure how I’d really react. I only can hope that as I develop everyday my wish for doing no harm, that it becomes more habitual think and act that way than a knee-jerk hard left/right, right/wrong descent into duality. At times like this, my own thoughts, intentions, and speech are all I can control. At times like this, I’d hope that even Vimalakirti wouldn’t be thunderously silent.

May all beings be happy, safe, and secure, and have the causes of happiness, safety, and security.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

How Can We Build Coalitions in This Critical Moment of History?

A guest post by Robertson Work

Shared vision and shared values are the keys to collaboration and coalition building. It is natural for each individual, organization, and movement to have different priorities and strategies, but they can still share a common vision and common values to guide their work and cooperation. The environmental movement obviously is passionate about mitigating and adapting to climate chaos, promoting renewable energy, and protecting the natural and built environment. But it can share a common vision with other movements to create a compassionate civilization or some other vision. It can also share common values with other movements, such as equality, justice, participation, tolerance, peace, and obviously, sustainability. Likewise, individuals, and organizations within each movement will have their own focus and priorities but can and indeed need to share common visions and values.

In my new book, A Compassionate Civilization: The Urgency of Sustainable Development and Mindful Activism, I put it this way: 

What is collaboration? Collaboration involves team work, the promotion of synergy and creating collective intelligence, mutual respect, trust and learning. It involves honoring diverse perspectives and gifts, moving beyond one's own ego, achieving common vision and values and self-organization. One of my favorite examples of this is within the private sector. To invent the Visa card, Dee Hock had a group of diverse individuals work together with only two things in common – a shared vision and shared values. Out of their collaboration emerged the design of the Visa card based on the collaboration of competing businesses who were committed to using the Visa card for business transactions.

“And as for us, I believe our common vision is sustainable human development or what I have identified as an emerging civilization of compassion. And I believe that our common values include not only sustainability but equality, justice, participation, tolerance, and peace. But we must invite everyone to participate in this brainstorming on vision and values.” pg 132-133 ACC

And further: “What then is collaborative leadership? Collaborative leadership is a dynamic, creative, self-organizing team of orchestrated, diverse perspectives and gifts driven by common vision and values. To launch a rocket into space many technicians must collaborate intimately. The entire enterprise of science requires careful collaboration among many scientists around the globe. A choreographer must collaborate with individual dancers to produce a great work of art. Architects of communal spaces must collaborate with the public to design workable solutions. Within whole-of-government, collaborative leadership is the commitment to honoring every individual and every agency’s insights and knowledge in the creation of open, transparent and accountable governance systems responsive to the voices and priorities of every citizen, especially the most vulnerable.”pg. 134 ACC

And continuing: “This critical moment of history requires everyone’s participation and collaboration. . . .   What are some of the most effective methods and applications of collaborative leadership? The most effective methods of collaborative leadership that I am aware of include group facilitation (such as the Technology of Participation, Appreciative Inquiry and Open Space), use of integral frameworks addressing individual mindsets and behaviors and collective cultures and institutions, social artistry processes that enhance sensory, psychological, symbolic and unitive experience; as well as systems thinking, strategic planning, effective team building and peer learning-by-doing.

“Collaboration is not only worth the effort; it has become a necessity if we humans are to enjoy sustainable human development on a healthy planet.” pg. 134 - 135

Robertson Work is NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service adjunct professor of innovative leadership, founder and facilitator of the Collaborative for Compassionate Civilization, and as a facilitator and trainer for the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, UN-Habitat, and the East-West Center, among others. Additionally, Work is a Fulbright Senior Specialist assisting universities overseas and a Fellow of the NYU Wagner Research Center for Leadership in Action and author of A Compassionate Civilization: The Urgency of Sustainable Development and Mindful Activism—Reflections and Recommendations, now available at Amazon and major book retailers. His blog is A Compassionate Civilization.” You can read more from an interview of Robertson at Buddhisdoor Global on Creating a Compassionate Civilization.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Accept, Not Settle

One of the virtues for followers of the Great Way is to be in a state of equanimity. This is expressed in a number of ways, the Buddha’s teaching to Rahula, “Make your mind like the earth. Make your mind like water. Make your mind like fire. Make your mind like wind.” Others have said, “Don’t make good and bad,”and “It’s OK.” They all say the same thing. Equanimity, along with lovingkindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy are called the Four Immeasurable Minds, and one of the Ten Perfections (in some schools) is equanimity also. Important thing, this equanimity!

Equanimity is sometimes thought of as aloofness, but in the sense of Buddhist practice, that isn’t a particularly accurate understanding. Just looking at the other three Immeasurables shows this not to be the case—can one really be compassionate or exhibit lovingkindness and simultaneously be aloof? The subject and object are dispensed with, and rather than being disconnected from everything, it’s all connection. The Middle Path of imperturbability isn’t one of compromise of principles, it’s seeing things as they truly are.

Perfections and Profligacy, Vices and Virtues, are all elements of reality. Where does the nose end and the face begin? A philosopher might say something about good/bad, evil/righteous being subjective judgments, and not without reason. In this vast grey area exists one person’s vice being another’s virtue. There can be a sense of imperturbability even in the midst of the chaos that has others wringing hands and rending garments on both sides of any argument.

Between what appear to be polar opposites, for the Buddhist practitioner there’s non-attachment to either end, and no attachment to the midpoint between them. The Middle Path could be mistaken as compromise, the result of which might be a take on the Precept to refrain from killing as, “OK, from now on, I’ll only maim and not kill,” and refraining from intoxicants by saying “I won’t shoot as much heroin.” So if the approach isn’t disconnection from situations or ignoring them under the guise of non-attachment or compromising, what is there to do?

Accept reality. It’s reality, and denying it is only to descend more deeply into the morass. Rather than pondering the philosophical concepts of right and wrong, we can resond correctly to the situation. If there is a child about to run into traffic, no thought is required to perform the correct action and grab her before the car comes. If someone is hungry, talking about recipes won’t feed them. If harm is being done, then do no additional harm. There is hunger, there is injustice, there is harm. It’s reality. You can’t think your way out of it. Accept it. It’s not only accepting what we like, it’s accepting all of it.

But accepting that there are like/dislike, harm/no-harm doesn’t mean passive acceptance. I accept that there is injustice. Stopping there is only being complicit in the injustice by choosing to perpetuate it by inaction under the rubric of equanimity. Unjust war isn’t ended by acquiescence, it requires action, maybe activism. Correct action is that before-thought state of seeing harm, accepting the reality that there is harm, then acting skillfully to end the harm. At the very least, we don’t contribute to more harm. Living in denial and despair of reality doesn’t change it.

To the barricades!, But with lovingkindness, with equanimity, with compassion, and joy. Our minds can be like water; we can accept without settling,

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Loving Life and Lovingkindness

Prajna arises from unexpected places - sometimes even trolls. Some of you may remember a troll who stopped by the Progressive Buddhism Facebook page a few weeks ago. She left this insightful pearl of wisdom: “I’m sorry, but this is all just New Age nonsense.” (I paraphrase, since I can’t find the original post) Most days I ignore trolls. This time something prompted me to click on her name to investigate her public-facing information. 

Not much was there. I understand. I also keep public posts to a minimum, but one visible item did intrigue me. It was a YouTube link to a portion of a talk by anti-theist Christopher Hitchens answering the following question from a member of his audience: 

“If there is no God, why do you spend your whole life trying to convince people that there isn’t? Why don’t you just stay home?”

Hitchens’ response perfectly verbalized my frustration with organized religion. I’ll leave his words intact here: 

“what I find repulsive about especially monotheistic, messianic religion, with a large part of itself it quite clearly wants us all to die. It wants this world to come to an end. You can tell the yearning for things to be over whenever you read any of its real texts or listen to any of its real, authentic spokesmen.”

Yes! Nailed it! On balance religion pulls us away from the present moment, replacing it with fantastical images of a glorious unearthly future. In doing so, the good that can be done in the present moment, the compassion and care that could be shared in the present moment is marginalized. Being oriented toward piety in exchange for some final reward, there is little incentive to make the most of the present moment.

Buddhists are equally as guilty when they bow to mirages of perfect inner peace. Obsessing over reincarnation, enlightenment, and nirvana, many practitioners become tightly attached to defeating samsara. Focusing on ontological endpoints prevents the practitioner from fully engaging in the present moment. In Hitchens’ words:

“so the painful business of living as humans and studying civilization and trying to acquire learning and knowledge and health and medicine and to push that far can all be scrapped and the cult of death can take over.”

In Pema Chödrön’s teachings, there is a parallel lesson. We have to “learn to stay” with our uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and physical difficulties. 

It would seem that most religions actually discourage staying in the present moment. Similarly to those who have detailed plans for what they will do when they win the lottery or when they retire, religion encourages practitioners to imagine a world in which they don’t have to work and where there is no frustration or pain. 

I remember a former patient who was a busy well-respected surgeon. He and his wife had been looking forward to his retirement when they were finally going to relax and travel. Unfortunately, the surgeon developed an inoperable brain tumor six months after retiring. This couple reached their endpoint, but without their expected reward. 

One antidote to craving a final reward is to embody “don’t know mind” in terms of our assumptions about existence after death. Maybe there is a heaven where we are reunited with our family and other loved ones. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe we reincarnate repeatedly until we reach enlightenment. Maybe not. Maybe there is nothing but annihilation of the consciousness and it’s over. 

I return to Pema: 
“Given that death is certain and the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?”

My answer: Live now. Love now. Be kind and generous now. Be awake and engaged now. Make this time and this place the best that is can be. The afterlife will come when it comes. Only then will we understand. 

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Bringing Progressive Scholarship to Contemporary Buddhism: an exercise

A guest post by Scott Newhall
Why, for instance, should those interested in progressive Buddhism be looking at the work of Alperovitz?

Why, indeed! The moment I started formulating an answer I was immediately confronted by my own assumptions about what progressive Buddhism represents, and to keep this exercise manageable, I hold that these two traditions both share a concern for the welfare of all people, the common good, including the living ecosystems we depend on. While Buddhism recognizes the ecological interdependence and inherent value of all phenomena, progressivism, as it is being currently reimagined, concerns itself with social justice and reducing suffering. I would even say that progressivism reflects in some measure the core of the Four Noble Truths, inasmuch as progressivism seeks a political alignment with basic ecological realities and constraints, i.e., living within ones means, while Buddhist insight into the nature of uncontrolled greed and desire is a global problem in search of pragmatic political solutions. I would also suggest that in their highest expressions, the moral and ethical values of both traditions become less distinct, as they both respond to the challenges of the day.

Gar Alperovitz has been a progressive activist and scholar for most of his adult life and his insights are extremely valuable for a citizenry that is trying to come to grips with the era of Trump. His contention is that the ravages of corporate power and rising inequality are inevitable consequences because organized labor is no longer powerful enough to perform their historical role of keeping corporate power in check. 

It is this raw power equation that Alperovitz emphasizes. The battle for a dignified life for people and planet is not so much about finding solutions to modern problems as it is about reclaiming sufficient political power to hold unaccountable corporate power in check. Here is where the author’s work shines, detailing the enormous potential of alternative relationships that can empower a progressive agenda. We needn’t reinvent the wheel; practical alternatives have already been imagined, and the author’s book, “What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution” is the playbook. Obviously, this next revolution will be played out on many fronts, whether it’s agitating for health care, ecological sustainability, or social justice issues, but working in concert we can build a unified front.

The sobering news is that this next revolution will require an enormous amount of work and may extend years into the future. The good news is that Alperovitz’ message predated the electoral successes of 2017, and the electoral forecast for 2018 is looking pretty good for progressives.

Join the discussion here or at our facebook group, Progressive Buddhism

Friday, 29 December 2017

Progressive Buddhism, a reflective evaluation

Recently I was asked, roughly, "what exactly is Progressive Buddhism." 

I had to think a bit. First, our sidebar says:
About Progressive Buddhism
This is a group-blog on the topic of progressive, modern Buddhism - looking at Buddhism in the light of modern knowledge, free from excessive dependence on ancient dogmas; looking at the best ways to integrate Buddhism into modern life and modern societies; discussing and encouraging an empirical or scientific approach; seeing insight and awakening as a living tradition not just a historical one
If you'd like to contribute please get in touch.
How does that differentiate us from other forms of Buddhism? Focusing in on these two terms, 'progressive' and 'Buddhism', how does each inform the other in our lives?

Inner development / outer development

In initial response is two-fold. On the one side I hope to continue to explore how the dharma finds use and meaning in my life. And on the other side I think about dharmic responses to political issues that are shaping my life. This allows me to be open both to new teachings and interpretations of them and to the changing world around me.

Concerning "Progressive Buddhism" specifically, here is a portion of an email I sent out to fellow contributors today:
I'd like to think that we represent a particular flavor or tendancy within all forms of modern Buddhism: a tendency to engage, to listen to people who are different from us (refugees, the homeless, the LGBTQ community, non-Buddhists of all stripes, people from near and far), and to seek connection and to alleviate suffering for all, recognizing that Buddhist practices and ideals of old might not apply and serve today or tomorrow - following the Advice to the Kalamas to test for ourselves and see. We also recognize that systems matter: capitalism, authoritarianism, white privilege, patriarchy, etc all shape the suffering in ourselves and those around us. How can we expect those most oppressed by these systems to see the benefits of Buddhism if Buddhism replicates and enforces the systems too?
This means that we do not leave or look down upon other Theravadins, Zen, or Tibetan practitioners (or the many others out there); but that we do seek to balance our practice and learning with progressive engagement in the world.

Some areas where I'd like to see us work in the year to come include:

  • 'Buddhist' economics (e.g. this interview/book)
  • Climate Change 
  • Promoting Openness in Sangha hierarchies
  • Developing Democracy, decentralized decision-making
  • Promoting women and people of color 
  • Advocating generosity and non-violent responses at home and around the world
  • Showing the benefits of simple life (renunciation of consumerist greed)
Those are all in the more 'progressive engaged' category. What about the 'progressive dharma' side?
  • Key teachings of the Buddha
  • Wisdom from later Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, etc developments
  • The 'dharma' of science and Western wisdom sources

What is 'progressive engagement'?

Engaged Buddhism is a category created by Thich Nhat Hanh, specifically in reference to the need for Buddhists to 'engage' with the crisis of his home country, Vietnam, during the war there. Non-engaged Buddhism, in this instance and after, is that which seeks to avoid politics, avoid worldly affairs, avoid rocking the boat of the powers that be. 

The addition of 'progressive' to the already widespread movement of engaged Buddhism points to specific ideals of inclusiveness and equality

This point invites further development and reflection, which I will leave to a later post. This is different from other forms of engaged Buddhism that might focus on developing meditation centers and translating sutras anew. These are great and are no-doubt part of our own lives and worlds, but they are not necessarily our focus. 

The politics of progressive Buddhism

As we are a global movement, no particular affiliation need be sought. In the U.S., where I live, I think our values align more with the Democrats than with Republicans, though we needn't close our eyes and ears to Republican ideas. We also might align more with the Green or Democratic Socialist parties on many or most issues. 

As suggested above, not every 'progressive Buddhist' will want to be directly or heavily involved in politics. Perhaps for some, new and relevant understandings of dharma in modern life is just what is desired. That is fine. For others, a pretty solid engagement with politics, especially where issues of inclusiveness and equality are at hand, will feel like a natural extension of Buddhist practice.

There is no need to affiliate; though discussions of affiliation are welcome. In the U.S., I know we will be facing major elections in 2018 and I hope we can discuss issues and candidates (and parties) that we feel will best embody the values we hold.

The dharma of progressive Buddhism

For those less interested in politics, please contribute if you can to our understanding of the dharma in your life. What suttas/sutras appeal to you? What wisdom of Buddhism has found its way into your life?

Mentioned explicitly here already is the Sutta to the Kalamas. But other teachings, and practices, will have meaning to us at different times. Let's share those and help one another connect deeply with the dharma in these often trying times.

With loving-kindness and deep bows to all. Wishing you a warm new year and a peaceful and richly connected 2018.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

“Buddhist” Violence

I don't pretend to understand all the nuances of whatever the circumstances regarding Myanmar, Rakhine state, or the Rohingya. My bet is that among the many people who have an opinion about this don't know anything more than what they've read on the internet. I'm curious about how many could find Myanmar on a map or could give its former name. This piece in fact, only tangentially involves that situation.

What this does involve is the drum beating about “Buddhist Violence” and “Buddhist Terrorism,” and the assumptions behind that. Western Buddhists (at least the most visible ones) seem to think that these “other” Buddhists should “know better.” We seem to have an odd attitude about our quaint little fellow Buddhists on the other side of the world, as if we have a better handle on the Buddha’s teachings than they do. To be charitable, let's call it the “zeal of the convert.” To be less charitable, it's another example of Western Superiority, of neo-colonialism.

I'll make a few broad statements here: countries tend to have armies. Armies tend to be armed with weapons. Weapons used by armies by definition are implements designed to inflict harm upon another person. Even “majority Buddhist” countries have armies, and they're armed with weapons. And their having weapons implies that their intent is that they will be used either defensively or offensively, to inflict harm on other people.

Without going too deeply into history, Buddhists have used weapons against other Buddhists and non-Buddhists. I tried looking up some facts about South and East Asian wars just since 1900, and the list was lengthy to say the least. Overall, a good number of these countries have at one point or another been ruled by “military dictatorships,” which is a euphemistic way of saying, “Fellow countrymen, agree, submit, or die.” In some cases, this was extended to “Conquered countrymen…” sometimes to “Invader…”

In no particular order, there were wars between the Japanese and Russians, Chinese against other Chinese, Koreans against Koreans, Koreans against Japanese, Chinese against Japanese, indochinese against Japanese, Vietnamese against Vietnamese, Cambodian against Cambodian, Laotian against Laotian, Burmese against Burmese, Sri Lankan against Sri Lankan, Thai on Thai, Chinese against Tibetan, Nepalese against Nepalese, Bhutanese against Bhutanese, and any number of the above against ethnic minorities and/or separatists within their own borders, and seemingly everyone against the French, British, and/or Americans.

That long sentence should point out that the “peaceful Buddhist” is an illusion. To return to Myanmar/Burma for a moment, think back to how “brutal” the military dictatorship was, as seen in the film Beyond Rangoon, pretty ruthless. It shouldn't be too much of a stretch to think that they're not “over it,” or more or less Buddhist than they ever were. Admittedly, I'm curious about what Suttas Ashin Wirathu and the 969 Movement read that said that inciting violence was a good idea, but I also look at them as representative of the Monastic Order as the Westboro Baptist Church is of Christian churches.

“Buddhism” as teaching is Lovingkindness, Joy, Equanimity, and Compassion. “Buddhists” as humans, are as liable to hate, become violent, become enraged, and commit acts of violence as the rest of humanity. That doesn't mean when we see atrocities that we don't protest them or call the perpetrators on their deeds. But let's not do it out of some sense of superiority or stereotype. Let's do it not because we're Buddhists, but because that is a reflection of ALL beings’ True Nature, not just a “Peaceful Buddhist,” as if there was a monolithic, uniform “Peaceful Buddhist.”

“....Subhuti, when I talk about the practice of transcendent patience, I do not hold onto any arbitrary conceptions about the phenomena of patience, I merely refer to it as the practice of transcendent patience. And why is that? Because when, thousands of lifetimes ago, the Prince of Kalinga severed the flesh from my limbs and my body I had no perception of a self, a being, a soul, or a universal self. If I had cherished any of these arbitrary notions at the time my limbs were being torn away, I would have fallen into anger and hatred.”
Diamond Sutra, Chapter 14 (excerpt) Diamond

There was, however, a peaceful Buddha.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Mindfulness in Waiting

I’m waiting for something to happen. Beyond the existential concept that says we’re all waiting for something, I am waiting right now for information about something very specific. The details of what I’m waiting for aren’t important. The experience of it is what I’m here to discuss.

Most of us can tolerate a certain amount of waiting without too much trouble. We wait in line. We wait in traffic. We wait for our loved ones to come home from a trip. Some kinds of waiting feel benign and others become suffering. This is the suffering kind of waiting. It’s the kind of waiting where I’ve done everything I possibly can to distract myself from obsessing over when I’m going to learn the outcome  and all that’s left is hyperawareness of not knowing.

After becoming bored with developing some killer skills in the game 2048, it finally occurred to me that this is exactly the kind of situation Buddhist practice is designed to address (light dawns on marble head, right?). Mindfulness is the answer! Yes, mindfulness. Be in the present moment. 

Unfortunately my present moment is fused with uncertainty. There is music playing in the coffee shop I’m sitting in right now. I can hear the sounds of the barista wiping the counters and her sneakers squeaking on the floor. I feel the smoothness of my laptop under the palms of my hands as I type. I’ve just eaten. So I feel well-sated. There is a lingering taste of chocolate on my tongue, since I decided to get a mocha today instead of a plain latte. And…there is an underlying discomfort in the background of not knowing this important information. 

It’s a common misunderstanding that the point of mindfulness is to make us feel better, to remove us from our discomfort. Turning back to Pema Chödrön I am reminded that the real instruction is simply to stay. Part of the point of mindfulness is to inoculate ourselves against suffering by practicing staying with the discomfort when it is present, to not distract ourselves or run away from it. Mindfulness in this case is to learn to be with what is, as it is. In learning this lesson, that is how the suffering is released, not by blissing out and just pretending everything feels okay.

Because I am a plan-ahead kind of person, this particular brand of waiting looks like it was special-ordered for me. In order to be relieved from my suffering, I need to stay with the feelings of insecurity and threat I get from not being able to make plans and from not having any kind of control over when or how I will finally get the information I need. I need to examine this suffering so I can become more informed about the result of being strongly attached to a particular outcome.

Having reoriented the purpose of my mindfulness exercise in this case, I bow to this teacher and hope to learn all I can from it before resolution comes.