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