Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The Abominable Offspring of Traditional Buddhism in the West

After pondering the latest few posts here by our own Venerable Brooke Schedneck and Justin, I thought I would perhaps add another hot topic to this conversation; the ability and acceptance of integrating various aspects of conventional forms of Buddhism to form different combinations of study and practice here in the West. From previous posts I have written concerning a Progressive or Western Buddhist tradition, I have found that those who were most strongly opposed to it made the concern that their particular tradition of Buddhism they practiced would somehow be debased and corrupted in order to fit the wants and needs of a different culture. This is both an important and somewhat delicate subject to those new to Buddhist teachings and to long time practitioners as well. Can the different ancient schools of Buddhism have parts of their practice integrated into a newer or more individual convention without destroying, dismissing or detracting from what is already in existence in a traditional sense?

For those who have decided not to choose one particular existing tradition of Buddhism over another to follow, I think the root of the problem they face is found in the simple question, "Is there only one true path?" And if not, can Buddhism is some respects be viewed as somewhat of a philosophical buffet, where one can pick and choose the practices and the teachings that suit their ideological approaches or dispositions the best? I believe the answer to the first question to be an unequivocal no, as it is easy to see that so many great teachers and students have been the product of the vast sea of the great traditions such as Theravada, Zen and Tibetan, just to name a few. Though all these practices have some similarities, by in large, they are greatly shaped by the cultures from which they are rooted. To the second question, of picking and choosing the practices and teachings of each particular existing tradition, I see the answer as both yes and no. Each person is unique, and each path they take and the goals of practice they set and the reasons they are drawn to Buddhism are extremely individualistic. A more tailored approach perhaps will suit one person more than another, and I see nothing inherently wrong with this. However, it is so easy to get on the wrong path, to misinterpret what is meant by the basic Buddhist teachings without some clarification and guidance. I do see Buddhism as having some core concepts, basic fundamentals that extend over all the great traditions, which are intrinsic to exactly what makes Buddhism....well, Buddhism. For instance, I would not call myself a Buddhist if I did not recognize the three 'marks' or teachings of Anatta, Anicca and Dukkha; and I doubt someone would consider themselves a Buddhist if they didn't agree with some of these fundamentals after exploring the concepts and theories themselves.

Also, the differing and varying traditions of meditation and mindfulness can be quite difficult to learn and perfect alone, and the guidance of a good teacher may be necessary to fully realize the potential of such practices. However, many new to the practice may perhaps feel more comfortable with a Vipassana type meditation while others may be drawn to a Tibetan tantric practice while others may find being seated in ZaZen more agreeable. The big question is, are the differing practices of meditation and mindfulness from the varying traditions solely accessible and understandable in the context of the tradition they come from? For example, could I learn a Theravadan insight meditation technique from a Thai monk, but learn the fundamentals of Karma from say a Japanese Zen Master? Could one sit in a group Tibetan chant yet ponder some ancient Zen koans? Do these differences, both subtle and obvious belong unquestionably to the sect they were born from? More importantly, what goals can be attained or realized by the mixing of the different traditions together?

I think given the option, people would prefer the ability to sample and examine all the different variations of traditions that are out there, and that maybe somewhat both of a positive and a negative thing. However, I see the positives to exposure to all the traditions greatly outweigh the negatives, as I tend to view this issue in the light of inclusion rather than exclusion. While, being exposed to many traditions at once could become overwhelming and confusing, I see that it is as a positive thing for one's practice to experience all the different forms and shapes Buddhism comes from as their practice progresses. And what those that strongly disagree with any new Western or Progressive tradition of Buddhism forget or ignore is the basic fact that in every culture where Buddhism has landed, the culture has adapted the practices to fit their existing traditions. This has held true for cultures such as Tibet, Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, etc.etc; why should the West be any different? Will some type of Frankenstein tradition arise in the West, made from bits and pieces of the existing traditions? As I see it right now, I think it is highly unlikely. But if it did, would it be such a terrible thing, just a mutant offspring of traditional Buddhism?

I remember my days as an alter boy in my local Catholic Church and a particular conflict I had with the priest one day after mass. I asked him why I had to tell my sins to him in the confessional instead of just talking with God myself. His answer sticks with me to this day; his blunt answer "Well, you can either take it all or leave it, but there is no middle ground in belief." This is why I find Buddhism so beautiful.

(Photo Courtesy of Brian Solis)

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Mindfulness based therapy and Buddhism

When we were young, we rejected the idea of Buddhism as a religion. We saw it as a philosophy or as psychology. But Buddhism is not just psychology. True Buddhism is not used by the ego to further its goals.
- Taiun Jean-Pierre Faure, my Soto Zen teacher (paraphrased)

I've just completed the first programme in my training to become a teacher of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and Stress Reduction. These techniques are derived from Buddhist vipassana combined with Cognitive Behavioural methods. There are no religious trappings. Some Buddhist teachings are given but the dominant theoretical frameworks are psychological and physiological.

I've been practicing Zen and studying Buddhism for a few years now this puts me in the very interesting position of being able to compare the practices and to compare Buddhist, psychological and physiological paradigms.

The basic model of the difference between therapy and a true spiritual practice is one that I picked up from my psychology tutor.

Spiritual practices differ from therapy in terms of scope. The aim of the latter is for the individual to reach functional normality, while the aim of the former is self-actualisation or enlightenment that goes well beyond normality.
- My undergraduate psychology tutor (paraphrased)

It's quite clear that MBCT teachers see it, not perhaps as Buddhism exactly, but certainly as a practise of what the Buddha taught.

It's the best thing that's happened in Buddhism in 2500 years
- Jon Kabat-Zinn (speaking about the new MBCT '3 minute breathing space' practise, paraphrased)

So, the Buddhists were right. They just didn't know what they were doing. They didn't know about neural pathways - how could they?
- Jini Lavelle, my mindfulness teacher (paraphrased)

There are many similarities - the mindfulness practice called 'choiceless awareness' is virtually indistinuishable from shikantaza zazen. I was expecting the mindfulness to be more goal-orientated perhaps, but both practices emphasise 'being' rather than 'doing'. Sitting in silence with a group of mutually supportive individuals noticing thoughts arise and any reaction to those thoughts and the sensation of air across the skin and the sounds of birds and traffic outside, and with no objective in mind, I could just as easily be at a MBCT sitting as a Zen sitting. And this is the core of both practices. Does it really matter whether the people I'm with came because they wish for enlightenment or inner peace or an end to depression and anxiety? Does it matter whether people bow to a Buddha statue? Surely the fundamental practice is the same and the effect on people's lives is essentially the same?


Some techniques involve focussed attention (breath zazen/breath mindfulness)
Other techniques involve open awareness (shikantaza/choiceless awareness)
People encouraged to have upright and dignified posture
Doing discouraged in favour of non-doing or being
Practice continues off the cushion
Compassion seems to naturally appear


Sitting on cushions is encouraged
Hands in universal mudra
Eyes half open/lowered
Emphasis on mind-body unity as well mindfulness
Mindfulness/mind-body unity practiced with traditional, ceremonial practices
Moral code given (precepts)
Compassion to self and others encouraged
Bodhisattva concept of practicing for the benefit of others
Original purpose is enlightenment which may fade with time
Theoretical framework is Buddhism or Buddhism with a little psychology
Formal refuge may be taken

Most people are on chairs
Hands flat or on thighs
Eyes encouraged to be closed
Emphasis on only mindfulness
Mindfulness practiced with ordinary, contemporary practices
No moral code given
Kindness to self encouraged, compassion to others emerges
Awareness of impact of practice on others but no Bodhisattva concept
Original purpose is therapeutic which may fade with time
Theoretical framework is psychology or psychology with a little Buddhism
No formal refuge is taken

As with anything else, Buddhists tend to fall in a range of attitudes from conservative to liberal about matters like this. I tend to see many spiritual and some psycholgical traditions as doing and talking about the same processes and experiences as Buddhism, just with different doctrinal foundations. So this puts me at the liberal end. Others take the teachings very literally and see formal refuge and belief in traditional views of karma and rebirth as essential.

I have no firm conclusions about this. I'd be interested in people's experiences and opinions about it. Can Buddhist practice be seen as psychology? If not, why not?

According to some it cannot - there is no formal refuge in the Buddha. There is no belief in the metaphysical points of doctrine such as literal rebirth (but this is often the case in Western Buddhism anyway especially Zen). Others say there is no goal of enlightenment - yet how much actual difference does having such an aim make? Also, in Soto Zen (according to most instruction at least - I'm not convinced that there is never intentionality at all) goals are abandoned, and in MBCT/SR there is some aim to become free of what could be described in terms of ignorance, greed and desire. In what fundamental sense is this different from the goal of nirvana - which Buddha described as the perfect peace of the state of mind that is free from craving, anger and other afflictive states?

According to my Soto Zen teacher, the reason Zen cannot be described as psychology is that a practise that is used to fulfill the goals of the ego is not a true Zen practice. I can see what he means, however it seems to me that there are problems with this distinction, namely there is no clear point at which a practise is ego-driven and when it is not. All goal-oriented activity is the ego using an activity for it's own purposes. This includes Buddhist spiritual goals. Also whether Soto Zen emphasises non-seeking mind or not, it is not free from 'contamination' by intentionality and thus ego. I have met a number of Soto monks and nuns for who - it seems to me - practice is being used by ego at least to an extent. To insist otherwise is to idealise Soto. Also, the mindfulness of MBCT is a practice of non-doing just as Zen is. So there is no clear distinction at all in this case.

A tendency I've seen in many spiritual practitioners is to seek to raise their own practise by diminishing others. This 'spiritual snobbery' seems to be not uncommon in Buddhism, including Zen, even though 'not having preferences' is supposed to be practised. Many seem to regard their own practise as 'True Buddhism' while the others are engaged in some sort of corrupted practise. Mahayana refer to Theravada as the 'Lesser Vehicle', Theravadans accuse Mahayana as deviating from and corrupting the original words of Shakyamuni Buddha, Soto Zen accuses Rinzai Zen of chasing insight experiences and Rinzai Zen accuses Soto of 'dead sitting' without insight. Non-Buddhist practises are typically even further down in their estimation. Yet there are others who see the wisdom of Buddha as an expression of a more universal wisdom that may be found in all forms of Buddhism, even the words of Rumi, Christ and in every experience of life.

The tentative conclusion I'm coming to is that there is no fundamental difference, rather merely a difference in emphasis and perhaps depth.

I asked my Rinzai teacher about this, any although he didn't answer my question directly (he had no direct experience of mindfulness based approaches) he spoke of Buddhism and therapy not as the same thing but not just by making a value distinction between them either. Drawing on his experience as a psychotherapist, he spoke about them as equally valid and complimentary.

There is an overlap between therapy and Zen, although they are not quite the same. I see Zen as allowing peple to open up their heart and mind and that spaciousness can uncover various complexes and neuroses, although it doesn't address them directly. Psychotherapy or CBT focusses on those specific problems without giving the wider spaciousness that Zen allows. And although that Zen spaciousness doesn't address the problems directly, it can give room for the issues to untangle.
- Genjo Marinello (paraphrased)

To my mind, the place that mindfulness therapy would fit here is in the middle - primarily creating spaciousness but also enhancing understanding and focussed awareness for the specific problems of chronic depression, anxiety, and stress.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

“Theravada and Vipassana- 2 Different Categories?”

Now that it’s summer and I have finished classes and exams in pursuit of a Ph.D., I was able to read all of the Buddhist magazines that have been piling up on my nightstand. These magazines (I subscribe to Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma, and Tricycle) are truly a treat for me. I enjoy reading the latest thoughts and insights about Buddhism in America. I always find something to spark thought about a topic I am researching as well as about Buddhist practice. During my consumption of a half year’s worth of these magazines, however, I noticed something troubling and that I think needs clarification.

In two different instances I noted an odd categorization of different Buddhist traditions. It seems that now ‘vipassana’ is its own sect of Buddhism in America, and has become divorced from its former home as a kind of meditation practice within the category of ‘Theravada.’ Here are the quotes from these two articles which use these new (for me!) categories:

“A Lotus in Mormon Land” Charles Prebish, Buddhadharma Magazine, Fall 2008
A quick survey of the Buddhist communities in Utah yields roughly the same array of sectarian sanghas that one might find anywhere in North America. Of the twenty-two Buddhist groups I located, six were Zen, four Theravada, three Pure Land, three Tibetan, two Soka Gakkai, one Vipassana, and three non- or multi-denominational (or what Don Morreale called “Buddhayana” in his Complete Guide to Buddhist America, published in 1998).

“Meditation Getaways” Alexandra Kaloyanides, Tricycle Magazine, Summer 2009
As for the style of retreat, just over half of survey respondents prefer their Buddhist getaways in the Zen tradition. Vipassana is a close second, with over 40 percent favoring this style. Not as many spend retreats doing tantric visualizations—only a quarter of respondents choose retreats in the Tibetan tradition. Slightly fewer respondents opt for days of sun salutations in Yoga retreats, but Theravada-style retreats are the clear path less traveled, with only 16 percent preferring them.

I assume that for both of these classifications, ‘Vipassana’ refers to meditation centers that are mainly composed of lay converts and lay meditation teachers, and that ‘Theravada’ refers to monasteries consisting of lay Asian immigrants and Asian monks. But I have at least three problems with this division. 1) I am able to assume the differences in these categories because I have been studying this for a while. However, a newcomer to Buddhism in America might not understand that vipassana is a form of meditation coming out of the Theravada tradition and instead might think this is an actual historical sect. 2) I think if an author makes this distinction they should clarify the types of communities they are referring to in order to reduce this possible confusion. 3) Most importantly, this distinction perpetuates the ethnic/convert bifurcation of Buddhism in America. More recently, younger scholars have tried to debunk this distinction by showing the connections between these communities and focusing less on this ‘two Buddhisms’ model. Meditation centers that focus primarily on practicing vipassana could also invite and host monastic members to teach and could also have Asian immigrants practicing there. As well, ‘Theravada’ communities could also have a number of converts who are members and could set aside time for lay meditation practice. Thus, this bifurcation of these categories is becoming more and more arbitrary.

In the case of the Tricycle article, the author is polling favored styles of Buddhist retreats in America, and because of the way the categories are broken down, this could skew the results. What this author's poll calls 'Theravada' and 'vipassana' may not be what the people polled think of their retreats as. Especially in this census situation, the categories should be clarified for accurate results and less confusion. The author of the Buddhadharma article, Charles Prebish, is a well-known scholar of Buddhism in America. He does not mention if these groups he located self-identify as 'vipassana' and 'Theravada' or if he is creating these categories. I think authors writing for the popular masses interested in Buddhism, as well as academic audiences, might do well to clarify these issues.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Everything Happens for a Reason? - Macro-Karma

I wanted to take a few moments to talk about karma, less in a sense for what it means to humans exclusively, but in a larger sense of‘ a ‘macro’ karma and its role in the relative world for which we are all a part of. I thought it might be interesting to look at this ancient teaching of karma in a different light, outside the realm of its many interpretations to its interaction with the human mind. The cause and effect of karmic entanglements shape the circumstances of our everyday lives and certainly affects how we act, react and define the world we live in. Please feel free to disagree or chime in with your thoughts or comment as these are just some meandering thoughts, exploring karma from a bit of a theoretical perspective.

I hear it all the time; “Everything happens for a reason." It seems to be such a popular mantra for many people in the West these days. But I'm not sure they understand exactly what they mean when they say it; though for many, I believe they think it is some belief that a God creator shapes the way events unfold in life, based on the concept of good and bad, for a particular reason or purpose. Another popular phrase of today is karma. It is without question the most over exposed, over used yet least understood words that Buddhism has ever produced. It is used everywhere, in pop culture or strewn around in every day conversation or used as a catch phrase in a desperate attempt to understand the ups and downs of life. These two ideas of reason and karma are more closely related than one would think. I see there maybe a more understandable interpretation of karma, one that penetrates the real consequences of human and non human activity, and how the cause and effect of these infinite actions spider out like an endless web of motion and condition.

About the only thing that almost all people can agree upon about karma is that it is a Sanskrit word that literally translated means ‘action’ or ‘to act’. Historically karma, as it is best understood though the ancient Buddhist teachings, is the basic law of cause and effect, action and reaction. It is sometimes set in motion by personal motivations or sometimes by the natural world, which create both known and unknown repercussions for themselves and the world around them. It is also known as the actions of a willed life and the resulting consequences can and do usually reach far beyond the actors that it began with. This karma, in essence, is truly just a naturalistic law that constitutes this present moment. However, I realize these are both vague and incomplete interpretations of what karma exactly is.

Science has shown that our reality is shaped by the nature of how the actions of all the relative objects of the universe are affected, in varying degrees, by all the other energy and objects that exist. Both Sir Isaac Newton’s Universal law of Gravity and Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity are perfect examples of how science shows us this intimate interdependency and interaction between objects and energy, even to the point of warping both space and time. It’s a lot like a tangled ball of string, each movement on one string will, in someway, affect all the other strings; some may loosen, some may tighten and some may break. Our actions and the actions of others sometimes have consequences that stretch far beyond our ability to see or know how these karmic actions will eventually play out. In fact, everyday, all the daily activities of our life are affected by all the different actions from the world around us, preceding up to this moment. For many of us, this fact is lost since we tend view ourselves and other objects as separate unchangeable entities that persist through time and space.

If someone is dealt a Royal Flush in poker, they may consider this great luck or perhaps some divine reward or good karma. However, instead of dismissing this incident as some mystical or cosmic magic, we must look deeper into all the events that occurred before the Royal Flush was dealt to understand how actual actions caused the event. For example, say the poker dealer before she came to work that evening was worried about her sick child and was nervously biting her fingernails. When she gets to work she notices her hands and face were sweating from worry, which caused a few of the cards to stick a bit, and her fingernail unintentionally clipped an edge of a card while shuffling, which in turn affected how the card fell into place before dealing. While her actions had direct consequences on herself, unintentionally that particular deck of cards she shuffled ended up dealing a Royal Flush to an unsuspecting person. Then in turn, the person who won a lot of money from the hand decides to go have a blast with his new found wealth, which in turn that creates more karma and other consequences that then in turn affect other things, etc. This maybe written off as luck, but none the less, a series of events took place, perhaps unseen to those around it, which caused the cards to come out a certain way. It is very important not to confuse these events that occurred as something that was willed by a greater being to render a particular outcome, or the result of some mystical force.

Karmic effects, or better yet ‘macro’ karmic effects, can and do reverberate for long periods of time or entangle with the effects of other karmic action. This present moment could be looked at as the product of all karmic activity, all the ever changing and expanding effects of the innumerable activities of all that came before it. In quantum physics they call this causality, which is nothing more or less than the effects of the events of objects on all other objects, or simply the nature of all relative phenomena. However, this does not mean that humans lack free will or suffer some type of predetermination, but only explains the ever changing daily circumstances we all must deal with. How we deal with these circumstances of life is ultimately up to us, with conscious, motivated and willed effort of mind.

In a moral and philosophical sense karma is neither good nor bad, but only interpreted as such by those affected by the actions of the events in their lives. When one proclaims "everything happens for a reason" they are indeed quite correct, however, this reason is an unwilled, unseen and unmotivated resultant set of causality. I think this is where the great error is formed; of believing that there is some great cosmic force that manipulates good and bad, right and wrong to reward the just or punish the wicked. I understand the allure of this metaphysical concept and a lot of people latch on to it and speak about it as a matter of fact. But perhaps, when we look closely, we will see this causality of karma to be nothing more than part of the great law of nature, a wonderful window into understanding the teaching of dependent arising. The selfless and kind deeds we do here, in this life, are the reward in themselves.

Interestingly enough, I caught a program on TV that was documenting and interviewing past members of the Cambodian Khmer Rogue and how they felt about some of the atrocities they committed during their horrible genocide campaign in the 1970’s. One man, who said he was a Buddhist, admitted he acted as a torturer and executioner for the Khmer at its height of terror. Obviously distraught, crying and rocking back and forth during the entire interview, the man expressed great remorse and regret for all the people he killed and spoke candidly about his fear that bad karma would come into his life and cause him great suffering. He looked like a skeleton of a man, living a life in fear and sorrow, and I thought to myself, “You are already living in your own private hell, no bad karma is needed.”

Monday, 22 June 2009

Liberation Park

Last weekend I visited a relatively new forest retreat center called Liberation Park in Norwalk, Wisconsin. This is run by Santikaro (formerly Santikaro Bhikkhu, long-time student of and translator for the famous Thai monk Buddhadasa Bhikkhu). Santikaro lived in Buddhadasa's monastery, Suan Mokkh (which in English means liberation park) for many years and has come to the U.S. to implement this forest monastery/retreat center model.

Liberation Park is open for retreatants and volunteer labor. So if you are in the area and looking to gain some merit, check out the website and Santikaro's blog.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The Squirrel Master

Tom over at Homeless Tom wrote a quite pertinent and interesting post entitled "Is hatefulness outside the realm of Buddhism?" Over the last few weeks I have seen myself, on both sides of the fence, how ignorance, anger and hate have and do propagate through the internet, from Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.

Tom writes;

"But we Buddhists know better than others that America's chutzpah is its Achilles' heel. The arrogance and creaturely neediness of Americans dams the way to happiness" then suggests "The easiest of it ought to be to embrace what seems hateful: to understand it and engage it."

I think Tom definitely hit the mark about conquering hate by embracing it to understand it. Hate is unfortunately inevitable, and we will all at some point in our lives experience both being on the receiving side of it or on the initiating side of it. It can even be argued that hate is the pinnacle expression of destructive human emotions; however, I don't see this as an entirely bad thing. Indeed, if we are mindful of ourselves, and how these types of negative and harmful emotions arise within our own minds, I think it can actually benefit our practice.

Carrying around hate is much like trying to physically hold an angry squirrel in your hand. Ok, yea thats silly, but hear me out....I know first hand that actually trying to hold an angry squirrel is one of the most unpleasant yet hilarious experiences a person can endure. It was brutally hot that Sunday afternoon in July 18 years ago, and the squirrel looked so cute, furry and innocent, so being the teenager I was I took the unfortunate decision that I wanted to hold him. In not one of my more brilliant moments as a member of an advanced animal species I reached down and picked him up like I was picking a flower from a plant. The squirrel obviously startled, proceeded to immediately chomp down into my hand and violently flail about with his claws, trying desperately to get away. My brother, both amused and worried, shouted at me, "Why are you holding that squirrel?" In the chaos of the moment, with the blood and the fur and the squirrel teeth and the little mini claws flashing about me like some slow motion epic battle scene, all I could utter were the words "Fucker bit me!" Despite his unrelenting assault on my arms, hands and face, I sensed I was engaged in a mortal struggle of man vs. squirrel and for some egotistical (i.e. stupid) reason I just wouldn't let go. When I finally had enough and let him go, my brother said I looked like I was attacked by an army of extremely aggressive kittens.

Although extremely humorous now, I had let my pride and ego speak louder than my good judgment and common sense, hence I got my ass kicked by a squirrel. Many times I think we fail to make the connection between hate or other powerful emotions and our own suffering; preoccupying our thoughts and mind with this protection of ego and pride. This is where our knowledge and practice of Buddhism can help us identify the root of hate and understand the nature of attaching to such painful thoughts and emotions. When we make an effort to understand how confusion and suffering arise within ourselves, we can begin to see the beauty of the practice of mindfulness and meditation. It is in this moment, this magical and beautiful moment, when we bring ourselves back to this moment that we can fully understand the connection between mind and suffering, self and dukkha. While we shouldn't celebrate such destructive thoughts, when they do occur they can certainly be embraced to enhance the understanding of ourselves and our place within this world. In that moment of understanding we may be able to finally see the significance of non-attachment and find true freedom of mind.

(And freedom of squirrel of course.)

"Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned."~Buddha

Monday, 15 June 2009

Zen Noir: A Review

This film requires patience. Some experience of long retreats or sesshins wouldn't hurt either for fully understanding the complex emotions of the characters.

If you have both of these, it's a pretty good film. Not great, but good.

According to the trailer page on youtube:
http://www.zenmovie.com If David Lynch, the Buddha and Woody Allen all took acid and made a surrealist mystery, this would be it! ZEN NOIR is a brilliantly funny, award-winning independent film that explores zen buddhism, meditation, life, death and spiritual enlightenment.
I think that sums it up well enough. I'm not sure about you, but I have to be in a particular kind of mood for a Woody Allen movie, and a very different mood for a David Lynch movie, and a different mood altogether for something on Buddhism. So mixing the three together didn't set very well.

The high point, the moment where it all pays off, is a monologue by the aged Zen monk about an experience long ago with his teacher, an orange, and an ominous phone call. Until then the mix of Lynch and Woody Allen styles made it difficult to get into the movie. But if you've managed to get into it even just a tiny bit, to empathize with our main character, to see his suffering as one with your own, this monologue will make it all worth it.

If not,you've just watched a very weird movie. Lynch's haunting and confusing style isn't there enough for you to feel it like you do with "Mulholland Dr." or "Lost Highway," and the wit of Woody Allen, while there at times for a good, if awkward, laugh, doesn't sustain the movie.

Practitioners of Zen might even be more annoyed by the odd portrayals of life in a Zen Temple, the blending of surrealism and actual practices leading more to confusion than "spiritual enlightenment."

This film does deserve our attention, though, as an example of the emerging genre of Buddhist fiction in the West. It will be, whether we like it or not, the first taste of Zen Buddhism for many viewers and I can't help but cringe a bit at that. For instance, I'm not sure if lines like:
"[I'm] just a very dedicated layperson."
"What's a layperson?"
"A person who can still get laid."
give a very good impression of Zen life. But then this is surrealism and the Buddha on acid, isn't it?

I'm very curious about what others thought of it, especially given their backgrounds. I'm no stranger to Zen, but my practice has mainly been in Tibetan and Theravadin traditions. Perhaps insiders will have very different impressions of Zen Noir.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

12 Books that have influenced me

I know this has been hit on before, but I'd like to hear what other books have deeply influenced you, even beyond the realm of Philosophy or Buddhism.

In no particular order:

Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen - A wonderful basic introduction to Buddhism without much of the 'cultral trappings' of the more traditional forms of Buddhism.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki By far, my favorite book dealing with the Zen practice. Suzuki to this day has a tremendous following.

Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana A must have book on the practice of mindfulness, written in an extraordinarily easy to understand language.

Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh Hanh writes is such an eloquent and understandable manner, it's difficult to put the book down for sure.

A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life by Jack Kornfield Kornfield expresses compassion and kindness in his work that bleed from his book into your heart.

The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene A wonderful scientific book that explains modern physics in a way that is easy to understand.

Sayings of the Buddha - Buddha (translated by Thomas Byron) - Basically the Dharmapada translated into English. If you can get this book on tape, I think its worth doing.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson Bill Bryson is one of my favorite contemporary writers and this is his Coup de grâce in my opinion.

The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman Simply the best book on the beginnings of WW1 and the repercussions on misunderstanding between men and country.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking A great read for anyone interested in astrophysics and understanding quantum physics better.

Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World by Lama Surya Das - A great look into a contemporary view of Tibetan Buddhism.

Thoughts Without a Thinker by Mark Epstein A wonderful book that combines the practice of Buddhism with the philosophy of psychology.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Birth of Death

Death. For many it is a topic we are but all too familiar with, and the word itself peels back the unhealed wounds of the past, of loved ones we have lost and the ordeals that surrounded it. For others, it is more of a place only reached in passing thought, for which our end and the end of the ones we love shall only come in some remote time in the extreme future. It is a difficult thing to discuss, and understandably so, as the emotions of fear, denial and terror from the loss of self can leech out like a river that has over flowed its banks. However, death is the ultimate expression of anicca or impermanence and I think it is quite important for us to understand death, accept it for what it is and pass on across to the other side of loss and sorrow before that dramatic moment we all must face comes.

Anthropologists often say, if you really want to learn about a foreign culture examine how they treat there dead. For us, here in the West, our rituals are no less odd or queer than many other cultures that we may define as morbid or bizarre. We place such a high value on the idea of self and it is so clearly expressed in the entire process we put bodies through to prepare them for burial. Long plastic tubes are inserted into the large arteries and the blood is drained into some hole in the floor, then the body is thoroughly scrubbed and washed and the physical marks of death are then erased or hidden away as best as possible. Next, we fill the corpse with formaldehyde or some other embalming fluid to hinder the natural process of decomposition. For many, they will be viewed before burial, so a small team of people apply make-up, cut, comb and style the hair and fit the deceased in there Sunday best to make the appearance of who they were before death. It is not said often, but often thought how plastic or artificial the entire process is, from the McDrive Through Funeral Homes to the very unreal appearance and feel of the body itself.

The headstones we use come in various sizes and shapes, built from rock and mark dates of birth and death, full names and sometimes a religious inscription. It is good we cherish life so much as to place so much stock into death, but I am afraid it is this illusion of self that is the cause of so much of the hurt and pain death brings. Like a dark shadow that follows us around the city at night, so death waits to meet us around any corner, unpronounced and unstoppable in its entrance in to our lives. I fear because of this I think a lot of us protect ourselves by not getting involved in life, not getting in close relationships with others because we all know at the end it must conclude. Beneath all our words, our deeds, our actions; after all our moments have past, and our lives are spent like a candle with no more wax, we all, unremarkably and inevitably must wither and burn no more.

Perhaps death may not be what we really think it is; maybe it is neither nihilistic (non-existence) nor materialistic (unchanging eternal soul) but ultimately something that resides somewhere in-between. This belief in creation and destruction, this albatross of coming into this world and hence leaving this world weights down the heart and wears down the mind. When we can accept who we think we are, is only thoughts and an ever changing body, we can see that there maybe something deeper, something, some would say, that is always there and always switched on, something that is fully engaged and engrossed in every scene and every character.

Then again, perhaps I am wrong and maybe definitions don't or can't apply here.

Death, as we know it, is only the conclusion to the beautiful gift of this life, whose pulse and breath, whose wonder and amazement can only be fully realized because of this temporary nature. The Buddha urged that we overcome this desire of self, this illusion of time and creation and to fully understand the true nature of who we are, where we come from and where we are going. I think we should make some effort in this life to try and pry off this grotesque mask of death and see the emptiness from where it comes.

A raindrop does not begin in the sky and does not end in the ocean.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

What Makes Us Happy?

I have just read a remarkable article in Atlantic monthly by Joshua Wolf Shenk, What Makes Us Happy? It's a question that is central, of course, to Buddhist thought--which is why I embarked on the long article in the first place. The subject of the piece is a 72-year study of 268 men who entered Harvard in the late 30's, following them through World War II, their subsequent careers, marriages and relationships, through fatherhood and grand-fatherhood to old age and, in many cases, death. As readers of my daily weblog, The Buddha Diaries, will already know, I have long had a special interest in men and the challenges they face, as men, in the course of their lives, so the study had an added fascination for me. It's long-time chief researcher, shepherd, protector and curator of the archives, George Vaillant, is the main focus of Shenk's article and--as we discover at the end, a man who has struggled with his own angels and demons along the way.

So what does make us happy? In the course of the article--and, by extension, the study itself--we are invited to observe a great deal of its opposite: broken marriages, abandoned children, alcoholism, feelings of inadequacy and failure, of lives wasted, opportunities squandered, depression, and suicide... all these amongst men of remarkable social privilege and, frequently, wealth. From the Buddhist point of view, I was struck by what Wolf expounds, at length, as Vaillant's "main interpretive lens." I quote from his article:

His main interpretive lens has been the psychoanalytic metaphor of “adaptations,” or unconscious responses to pain, conflict, or uncertainty. Formalized by Anna Freud on the basis of her father’s work, adaptations (also called “defense mechanisms”) are unconscious thoughts and behaviors that you could say either shape or distort—depending on whether you approve or disapprove—a person’s reality.

Vaillant explains defenses as the mental equivalent of a basic biological process. When we cut ourselves, for example, our blood clots—a swift and involuntary response that maintains homeostasis. Similarly, when we encounter a challenge large or small—a mother’s death or a broken shoelace—our defenses float us through the emotional swamp. And just as clotting can save us from bleeding to death—or plug a coronary artery and lead to a heart attack—defenses can spell our redemption or ruin. Vaillant’s taxonomy ranks defenses from worst to best, in four categories.

At the bottom of the pile are the unhealthiest, or “psychotic,” adaptations—like paranoia, hallucination, or megalomania—which, while they can serve to make reality tolerable for the person employing them, seem crazy to anyone else. One level up are the “immature” adaptations, which include acting out, passive aggression, hypochondria, projection, and fantasy. These aren’t as isolating as psychotic adaptations, but they impede intimacy. “Neurotic” defenses are common in “normal” people. These include intellectualization (mutating the primal stuff of life into objects of formal thought); dissociation (intense, often brief, removal from one’s feelings); and repression, which, Vaillant says, can involve “seemingly inexplicable naïveté, memory lapse, or failure to acknowledge input from a selected sense organ.” The healthiest, or “mature,” adaptations include altruism, humor, anticipation (looking ahead and planning for future discomfort), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone attention to an impulse or conflict, to be addressed in good time), and sublimation (finding outlets for feelings, like putting aggression into sport, or lust into courtship).

As I understand it, then, "adaptations" have a great deal in common with what I have learned to recognize, in Buddhist teachings, as "reactive patterns" of behavior, where we get caught up in unconscious, thought-less responses to situations that often bear negative, painful results. The goal, through meditation, is to achieve those "mature" and "healthy" adaptations that lead, instead, to happiness for ourselves and others. Vaillant's analysis of the four categories strikes me as a useful one--and one in which I recognize both the skillful and unskillful strategies I watch myself employ.

Happiness, it turns out--not to my great surprise--has little to do with wealth, profession or career, or social circumstance. It has little to do, indeed, with "success" as it's commonly understood: so many people whose success we might envy turn out to be deeply unhappy people. I suspect, though I have no evidence for this, that the sad death of the actor David Carradine may be but the most recent example of this truth. Happiness is rather the result of the angle of our vision, the way we choose to look at the experience life brings us--the "healthy" adaptation strategies that allow us to see ourselves and others through the lens of what I'd prefer to call "metta"--goodwill and compassion.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Review of Bodhipaksa’s “Still the Mind”

* Full disclosure: Bodhipaksa was my first meditation teacher, way back in 2000-2002, when he taught at The University of Montana and the Rocky Mountain Buddhist Center. I also worked with him in the early days of Wildmind.org and am currently a contributor to the blog there (so yea, I might be a bit biased).

Whether it was yesterday or years ago, most us have seen an image of the Buddha, or of someone meditating. These images of peace, calm, and happiness often have the power to stop our mind in its tracks. And it was likely just such an image that attracted us to meditation in the first place. Bodhipaksa thus wisely introduces this two-CD set on meditation with a recollection of this imagery and the story of the Buddha’s own journey from a wealthy and indulgent youth to the picture of contentment that we know today.

The Buddha’s story, interwoven with bits of Bodhipaksa’s own, serves to connect us to the human realities of the teacher, to in a way reassure us that our reality is not so far removed from his and others who, through the centuries, have achieved the lasting states of joy and calm that arise from a stilled mind. The point of these stories is to show us that we too can achieve this stillness and that just as they did, we must simply start where we are.

With this, Bodhipaksa leads us through a short meditation followed by a discussion of the five hindrances. Here it seems natural to pause the CD and ask ourselves where the hindrances arise most in our lives. Do we live out our days wrapped in the false comfort of anger toward the world, or perhaps indulgence in sense pleasures? With some thought we will discover one or two that are most dominant for us. As Bodhipaksa notes though, the hindrances, “are not really the enemy, they’re just ineffective strategies for finding happiness.” Seeing them as such, we gently uncover these cycles that have unconsciously dominated so much of our lives.

This practice, Bodhipaksa assures us, opens up space for conscious choice and freedom. This space is where we begin to break free of old cycles, to actively become kinder, to develop patience and awareness. In other words, to begin to give light to our own Buddha nature. Just how this works is too complex for now, but rest assured that we are given an expert analysis, free of jargon and filled with authentic and useful metaphors.

By the time we begin the guided mindfulness of breathing meditation on the end of the first CD, we are convinced of not only our own potential for Buddha-like calm and happiness, but also the effectiveness of this simple process for getting us there. This guided meditation, ranging over four tracks, both leads us and piques our interest in the process of meditation, taking what is too often seen as a bland and boring project and turning it into an intricate journey into our own minds.

Session 2.

In our second sitting, Bodhipaksa offers guidance for the long path of developing and deepening a regular meditation practice. Meditation is, as he notes, not a quick fix. We do not listen once to the CD and walk away enlightened. At least I didn’t. But what we do get is one of the clearest guide-maps we will ever find of the territory between us and awakening.

The second CD concludes with two single-track meditations, the first a body scan meditation and the second a mindfulness of breathing (this time filled with much more silence and less illustration and explanation than when this process was introduced in the first CD).

As briefly noted before, these CDs will serve you best if listened to in chunks, with pen and paper handy, perhaps also a cup of tea and some calm music (I’m listening to the Crystal Voices CD, “Sounds of Light” which serves well to block out the acoustic disturbances of the coffee shop around me). Be prepared to pause the CDs often (but not while in the meditations!) to reflect on a point or take a note. But don’t let reflection and note-taking fall into daydreaming and a journaling exercise.

Stay in the process, perhaps dedicating a set amount of time to listen and reflect. I would even recommend trying to start off with a couple hours to take in the whole experience. For me the initial listening was about 40 minutes in a hot bath, just to get a ‘taste’ of the process. Then I came to the coffee shop, where I have now sat for almost three hours listening. In my listening I have tried to keep my mind with each stage, following the introduction, the brief meditation and discussion of hindrances and so on. The layout of the first CD in short tracks with titles such as “The five hindrances” and “What is mindfulness” helps tremendously in keeping this wild mind on the topic at hand.

Typically in closing a review I try to find some sort of criticism or idea for improvement, but today – perhaps feeling overly zen-like after nearly three hours of Bodhipaksa’s calming voice and Scottish accent – I am having a very hard time thinking of anything. These are CDs I will recommend to anyone interested in a clear and direct introduction to meditation practice. It has served me as a valuable reminder of the key steps of the practice and I know I will listen again and again, both for my own practice and as a primer for teaching meditation to others.

(cross-posted at American Buddhist Perspective)

Friday, 5 June 2009

Atheism asks "What's wrong with dualistic thought?"

I try to make it a habit to not critique or criticize others ideas or beliefs from other posts, as I've had it done to me a few times and is rather irritating and sad. However I felt compelled to point out this rather interesting post I found on about.com entitled 'What's wrong with Buddhism?'. Austin Cline, the author and self confessed Atheist, asserts a lot of connections between Buddhism and other religions. Most of the post is spent quoting another source , but somehow he took away from this other persons first hand experience, with what was obviously some cult or dogmatic thing, to be true for everyone who calls themselves Buddhist.

"Although Buddhism seems so different from religions like Christianity and Islam that it doesn't look like it should be in the same category, it still shares with other religions a very basic element: a belief that the universe is in some fashion set up for our sake — or at least set up in a manner conducive to our needs. In Christianity this is more obvious with the belief in a god that supposedly created the universe for our benefit. In Buddhism, it is expressed in the belief that there are cosmic laws that exist solely to process our "karma" and make it possible for us to "advance" in some fashion"

Ummm, ok? I don't understand why he, and many others, try to pigeon-hole all Buddhists, or better yet all people into little different boxes, wrap them up with neat little bows and then proclaim them all wrong, without first seeing or exploring for themselves. I have quite a few self professed atheist friends, including my brother, who are open to the notion that maybe the world isn't black or white, who understand you can't always define every little aspect of reality and who want to see for themselves rather than relying on what someone else says for truth. I greatly admire and respect this trait in those that claim themselves to be Atheist or Agnostic. God or no God, this is the blunder, to think we rely on belief or some holy word or any other extreme view to seek or know truth.

"Although it's more of a problem in some and less of a problem in others, it's still a fairly consistent problem that people are falsely taught that there is something in or above the universe that has picked them out for special protection and consideration."

True enough for most religions, but who told you modern Buddhists are taught this or believe this? If you really think progressive Buddhists think they are picked for some special purpose, then dare I say, you didn't ask any progressive Buddhists? Hell, I may go even as far to say you have a strong opinion about religion itself, as do I, and fit your ideas to match this opinion.

"Our existence is a product of luck, not divine intervention, and any improvements we achieve will be due to our own hard work, not cosmic process or karma."

First off, Luck? Really, luck? Cause God and luck are about the same to me, both words with no real meaning, extreme views on opposite ends of the spectrum. If you believe in luck, why not just believe in a random God, they are both still some belief to be beholden too. Maybe, if you took some time to understand the nature of 'self' you would see ultimately our 'existence' is a product of our own minds. Karma is nothing more than action or cause and effect or as the Buddha said part and parcel to dependant arising. This means we do not exist in a vacuum, but are connected to everything else that is. Time is illusory, and to think things exist as separate objects is the same as the extreme belief of creation or nihilism or non-existence.

"People can try to eliminate these aspects of Buddhism, but they are likely to eliminate so much that it's hard to call the leftover very Buddhist."

You are absolutely correct, I am not a Buddhist; but at the same time I am a Buddhist. If you can see for yourself some truth or logic in this paradox, you will see why we find what is 'left over' to be so valuable.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Reflections on a Jury Trial

I recently sat on a two-week jury trial in a personal injury case, and it continues to preoccupy my mind.  So many issues raised, so many challenges--particularly in view of everything I have learned over the years from the Buddhist teachings.  For example:

MEDITATION: I believe that my daily practice proved a useful resource in a number of ways; first, of course, in simply paying attention, noticing when the mind began to drift, and bringing it back in focus.  Then, too, the practice was helpful in keeping the mind open, even at moments when it was tempted to draw conclusions and make judgments.  I was fairly readily able to discern its movements, one way or the other, and bring it back to center.

METTA--the exercise of goodwill and compassion.  The dharma teaches compassion for all, but I suppose particularly for those who are suffering--in the case, the plaintiff, who claimed to have sustained an (almost) irreversible back injury in the rear-end collision that occasioned his lawsuit.  That was obvious and simple: who could fail to feel compassion for a man in severe pain?  Compassion, though, does not necessarily include approving his suit.  And how about compassion for the young man who ran into him, just 18 years old at the time of the collision, whose life prospects could be seriously impaired by an adverse judgment?  And... what about all the others involved?  It was an interesting exercise, to practice goodwill for attorneys and witnesses on BOTH side of the dispute...

... especially when BLAME and GREED reared their ugly heads.  The mind recoiled at the staggering sums of money--up to $800 an hour!--charged by "expert" witnesses, who therefore had a vested interest in the outcome.  It was hard fair-mind work, to separate out their testimony from their fees.  Then, too, the plaintiff's attorney had "let slip" from the start--during jury selection--that he would be asking $22 million in damages, for a rear-end collision that caused no more than a bent fender on the plaintiff's Mercedes SUV.  Again, the mind reeled, and needed constant reminders to weigh the evidence rather than the money.  

It was necessary, too, to bring some skillful mindfulness to bear on the instinctive, emotional responses--LIKE and DISLIKE--of attorneys, witnesses and principals in the case; to keep reminding myself that this could not be about whom I liked or disliked, but about whether I could believe their story or trust their testimony.  Too often, I watched "like" and "trust" beginning to walk off hand in hand--no less than "dislike" and "distrust."  

Also in play was the not-small matter of KARMA--as least insofar was I understand the subtleties and complexities of this concept.  To what extent can one person be held responsible for the misfortune of another?  I told one of the attorneys, during the selection process, that I don't really believe in "accidents"--but perhaps failed to explain quite what I meant: that every action has its consequence, as much for the plaintiff as for the defendant, whose momentary inattention was clearly the most obvious and immediate cause.  But to blame all the plaintiff's pain and suffering for the rest of his life on a single, relatively minor impact seemed to me inappropriate and wrong.  Once more, however, it was my job to keep reminding myself to keep an open mind.

As jury members, we were presented with two CONFLICTING REALITIES--I hasten to add, in often excruciating detail.  To discern which of these was true, or at least truer than the other, required some skillful discrimination.  It's clear that there are different kinds of "judgment"--one that involves personal bias, instinct, intuition and the other reason, discernment, balance.  The trick is to avoid the first and acknowledge the importance of the latter, and to hold in mind the difference between the two.

Lastly--and I realize I'm beginning to get long-winded, perhaps repetitive--there was the reminder that the AGING  process almost inevitably brings pain along with it.  What we, as jurors, learned about the spine and the deterioration of the disks that form the cushion between the vertebrae was an education in physical decay and in the multiple sources of pain that inhabit the vulnerable human body.  Pain is virtually inevitable as we grow older; but it's important to remember that suffering--our way of clinging on to pain--is optional.  Our plaintiff, now climbing toward his late forties, failed to prove to the satisfaction of the jury that it was the collision, and not in good part the natural aging process, along with other variables, that was the origin of his pain.  Watching the process unfold--with my own aching back!--I could not help but be attuned, at frequent intervals, to the accumulation of my own years and the approach of debilitating age.  At this personal level of SELF-AWARENESS, THEN the trial was in many ways an important lesson and reminder of the profound value of the dharma. 

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Confronting Conflict and Avoiding Extremes

During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived - everyone except the Zen master. Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn't treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger.
"You fool," he shouted as he reached for his sword, "don't you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!"

But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved. "And do you realize," the master replied calmly, "that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?"

Drenched in the blood of martyrs and saints, heroes and villains is the brutal, and sadly sometime necessary human activity of conflict. Whether it takes a singular form, one person versus one person, or a much larger rage of one culture versus one culture, somewhere, before reason was set aside and emotions took the rank of general, there was lost a beautiful and fleeting opportunity for one side to stand naked before compassion and take the difficult road of understanding and reconciliation. Conflict itself can be violent or non-violent, verbal or physical and is one of the most difficult experiences we us as humans must endure. It is the ultimate expression of extreme beliefs we all take.

Everyday, we all in someway or another participate in small scale conflicts, pushing our notions and concepts over others, or enduring others aggression towards us. We may say we can rise above the fray and be above conflict, but we all know it is neither as easy nor practical for us to follow the lead of the Zen Master in the story above. When it comes to conflict, it maybe difficult at times to figure out what the right thing is to do. So, do we stand our ground no matter the cost or do we give in realizing their may not be a absolute right or wrong?

For there may not be much we can, as singular people, do to defuse large scale conflicts and war, but as individuals, as Buddhists, we can most certainly seek a mindful understanding of personal conflicts, whether at work or home, with friends or strangers. When one side see's an attempt of the other side to reach out a hand of friendship and a kind smile, many volatile situations will resolve quicker and with much less hardship than those that make no attempt at reconciliation. However, nobody expects you to relinquish your point of view or conception of a certain situation, and to do so would just lead to you being stepped on and taken advantage of in future dealings. As in all things, a balance is key.

As tired as you maybe of hearing it, we all know there is almost always a middle way. With right effort and compassion, I see we can indeed become a shepherd of compromise, a voice reason, even in the face of intolerance or ignorance. Perhaps we can point out our similarities and the areas we agree rather than exaggerate the places we do not. 'Hate begets hate' and as Booker T Washington said " I would permit no man, no matter what his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. " I promise you, when you make an effort to be kind, listen, compromise, you will shock yourself how far the virtues of consideration, charity and grace do go.

Martin Luther King Jr said
"On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, "Is it safe?" Expediency asks the question, "Is it politic?" And Vanity comes along and asks the question, "Is it popular?" But Conscience asks the question "Is it right?" And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right. I believe today that there is a need for all people of good will to come together with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "We ain't goin' study war no more." This is the challenge facing modern man."