Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Is today’s American Buddhism tribal and myopic?

My answer to the question that titles this article is a resounding YES, but I raise the issue, not to bury Caesar or castigate Brutus -- though I WILL get a castigating swat or two in before this blogpost is through, judgmental pundit that I am -- but to raise the discussion.

Buddhism isn’t about only those of us that claim the designation of Buddhist, but about the circumstance of everyone. It’s not as if we were all Hawai’ians and our discussions were about the archipelago where we live, and things narrowly pertaining to we’uns, the surfing, hotel management and telling tourists about what it's like living close to a volcano.

I submit that Buddhism is about suffering. And, I submit that suffering is universal, endured by all humans except a scant few with a vaulting pole in their head or in a far-advanced stage of dementia. And that suffering is a circumstance that waylays cows and dogs and squirrels from time-to-time and a thousand other species of our fellow traveller animals on this big blue whirling planet. Doesn’t our concern reach out to all of them?

Just as massive air pollution that emanates from here in the US affects the world, suffering all over the world HAS TO affect us, involve us and concern us. And yet, American Buddhists’ interests in the world [at least, when we see ourselves in the narrow category of “American Buddhist” is focused on Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other nations that have significant Buddhist populations. Why is this?

Is the circumstance of a Buddhist suffering of a different order of misery that we should favor it at getting our keen attention, as opposed to the misery of non-Buddhists? Basically, are we all here just to look after the tribe? Is our spiritual maturity that ill-advanced? In other words: Are we all just yahoos (in the Swiftian, not online, sense) on this freakin wayward bus we call earth?

“Our” magazines and some of the buddhoblogs that discuss issues of worldwide significance talk about Buddhism, as well they should and must, but not in the context of suffering soldiers In Afghanistan near Pakistan. Why is that? JUST because there are no Buddhists to frame the story?

Sebastian Junger wrote this tremendous book, WAR, that ventures far afield to a place where intensity and fear and courage are most extreme. Isn’t Buddhism there, no matter that self-proclaimed Buddhists aren’t? Shouldn’t the farthest places be within our reach -- from the heights of heaven to the pits of hell?

Must we go to India or Nepal to find Buddhism? Don’t you think the fount of Buddhism is already close by, and if we don’t know that it is close by and everywhere [and not especially so in those "special" places], haven’t we lost it?

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Stop Screaming! Start Meditating.

Kids are freakin’ nuts these days!  Forgive me for being so blunt.  I’m sure that many of you have children that you love and adore, (or at least a couple of cute little cousins or something that you buy Christmas presents for) but come on, be honest; they’re a little crazy, right? 
From the moment they’re born, we bombard them with external stimulation.  We start by blasting Mozart (or Jay-Z) into their little ears as they’re lying in their cribs.  As soon as they’ve developed enough muscle in their tiny torsos to sit up by themselves, we plop them down in front of the television and assault their brand new brains with mindless atrocities like the Teletubbies.  Not long after we get them hooked on T.V, we introduce them to their first real DRUG:  Sugar.  We fill their baby bottles up with soda and pump their little stomachs full of High Fructose Corn Syrup.
Too Much Mountain Dew
As soon as they develop enough dexterity in their cute little fingers, we hand them a video game controller to teach them how to kill zombies.  Some kids spend six hours a day using their thumbs to shoot at innocent civilians and gore their way through screen after screen of rebel, Nazi soldiers.   Before long, they’ve got their own cell phone, an iPod, a Facebook account, and they’re staying up until 2 AM to watch the latest Saw movie. 
That’s not to mention all the medication we dole out to them in the name of good science.  Kids eat more Ritalin than they do fruit. 
Sounds grim, right? 
Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit… but not by much.  Check out this recent article (one among many) in the New York Times about how electronics are literally changing the physiology our brains: 
Computer Addiction

Here’s a quote from a woman interviewed in this article talking about how her husband’s addiction to his computer has affected him:
 “It seems like he can no longer be fully in the moment.” 
Sounds kinda like ANTI-MINDFULNESS, doesn’t it? 

I spend an average of twelve-hours-a-day with kids.  I teach middle school English.  Yep, Middle School.  You remember it, right?  Think back to that time when your (supposed) best friend went behind your back and told everyone about how you got your period while you were playing volleyball in gym class and then proceeded to launch a school-wide hate campaign against you, complete with pictures of your face decorated with giant Tampons sticking out from your ears and eye sockets…
Ringing any bells? 
It’s gotten pretty bad out there.  In fact, the entire education system in our country is basically in shambles.  Teachers aren’t teaching, school boards are pissing away what little money they have on everything EXCEPT what’s best for the students and politicians are running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to figure out a way to test kids to see if they’re actually learning anything.  I’ve got news for you… most of them aren’t. 
Education Policy = Headless Chicken
For Christ’s sake, there are 12-year-olds committing suicide; hanging themselves in their closets, because they can’t handle the pressure of it all! 
Middle school is crazy.  I don’t know if it’s hormones, or if it’s because they’re just bored as hell, but middle school is kind of like a mini-mental institution.
I’ve taught school in settings ranging from conservative Catholic to urban ‘hoods in New York City.  Plus, I have a twelve year old.  (I’m 30.  Do the math.)  So, I kind-of know what I’m talking about here.  Maybe you think I sound “jaded” or “burnt out”?  Nah… I’m just realistic (and I have a morbid sense of humor). 
The really crazy thing is… I LOVE IT!  Middle school students offer the greatest challenge to teachers because of their unique position in life.  They’re “no longer children” but “not quite adult yet”.  Consequently, I believe they offer the greatest sense of fulfillment and reward to those of use willing to brave the trenches. 
Over on my blog, “Buddhism Sucks”, I’m doing a series of posts on meditation.  Specifically, I’m trying to deconstruct the watered down, heavily commercialized cult of “American Buddhism” in an effort to extract the legitimate, practical instructions on meditation that so many of us desperately need in our lives. 
American kids are suffering. 
She's not getting a good education.  Plus, no shirt. 
Yeah, I said it… S-U-F-F-E-R-I-N-G!  You know, DUKKHA; that overused, played out Buddhist tenet that pops up in every single time you even hear the word Buddhism.  It’s scrawled on every page in every single book and talked about by every single Buddhist “teacher” on the face of the earth.  Sometimes I think we’re so obsessed with the idea of suffering that we’re adding a whole new sadomasochistic dimension to Buddha’s teachings.  Not that suffering isn’t key; it is, but PLEASE STOP CRAMMING IT DOWN MY EVER-LOVIN’ THROAT! 
Or at least give me a chance to swallow before you offer me another bite! 
Plus if we’re so concerned with suffering, let’s open our eyes to the fact that there’s a whole world of underrepresented “sentient beings” out there who are feeling it too!  What’s worse for kids though, is that they’re totally unaware that they are suffering.  They’re too busy texting (or sexting) to notice! 
Whoever’s CEO of the corporation called American Buddhism needs to sit down with his marketing team and switch focus groups from white, upper-middle class professionals and direct some attention to the kids wallowing in our educational system.   
If there’s anyone out there who benefit from a down-to-earth approach to meditation, it’s kids.  In addition to being used as a strategy for dealing with the stresses in their lives, meditation could possibly be the key to reshaping the whole educational system in our country.  I believe that the development of a focused meditation practice within the classroom could be just the thing we need to reshape school culture and create a climate of calm where students from every background would benefit. 
My intention in writing for Progressive Buddhism is that maybe someone out there could use some of the insights I can offer into teaching/practicing meditation with kids.  In the short time I’ve been practicing, I’ve seen enormous benefits both in and out of the classroom.  Conceptually, it’s such a simple practice, but when done correctly and with regularity, I believe it to be enormously transformative. 
Many students have such short attention spans because we’ve developed a society conditioned to INSTANT GRATIFICATION.  This is particularly true when it comes to kids.  They can’t even sit still for longer than five minutes without seeing something explode or a really nice set of tits.  Forget about sitting alone to read a book cover to cover; that’s a joke.  (Unless, of course, there’s a book out there that’s ABOUT exploding tits, that is.)

+ tits = Fun!

Kids begin their day in America’s classrooms carrying more baggage than ever before:
·       Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)
·       Absent father figure/positive male role model
·       Poverty (Especially in light of the current economic situation)
·       Emotional Disturbance (ED)
·       Physical abuse
·       English as a second language (ESL + ELL)
·       The Achievement Gap
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but a taste of the obstacles that many children need to overcome just to receive a decent education in one of our schools.  I didn’t even bother to mention the special needs that many students require in terms of additional educational services (SPED). 
In addition, many of my students don’t eat healthy meals, they don’t have a clean place to do their homework, and they are exposed to sexuality WAY before they’re ready.  What’s worse is that even if they WERE able to transcend these setbacks, many of them aren’t even able to receive a good education because the school they’re attending DOESN’T OFFER ONE! 
What about the kids that do “well” in school?  Those are the ones who are so stressed out and anxious about getting good grades that they’re crippled by the pressure.  Ever heard of Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan?
Read It’s a Funny Kind of Story by Ned Vizzini
Ok, so we can’t really shove Buddhism down their throats.  That would violate their Constitutional right to an education free from religion.  (Not that I’m even advocating that…)
I started teaching meditation a few years ago to a group of 8th grade students at a private, Catholic school in Brooklyn in response to what I saw as a detrimental attitude from other the other teachers I was working with.  I was relatively new to the profession and had never worked in an urban environment before.  The shock of seeing grown men and women treat their students with callous disrespect sickened me.  As a direct result from this treatment, the students reacted with extreme recklessness and a total disregard for their education. 
The "Penguin" can't teach you how to meditate!

Their poor behavior was impacting their education in a negative way and I was uneasy about sending them off to high school without a method for taking responsibility for themselves and coping with life’s stresses.  I felt it was my duty as their teacher to prepare them to be independent, confident young men and women that could interact with their environment in a positive way. 
Although I’d had several years of personal experience with meditation, I’d never worked with kids in this capacity.  Trust me, managing a room full of 32-hormone-filled-teenagers is quite a challenge and doesn’t come without a headache.  But being a person who hated school himself (left high school at 16), I was appalled by the way in which these “experienced” teachers related to their students.  Yelling is not an effective way to deal with teenagers.  I thought meditation would be better. 
I began a program of non-religious, guided meditation, based on what I learned from my Tibetan teachers and practiced myself.  The results were almost immediate.  Behavior improved overnight and the classroom climate became calm and peaceful for the most part.  Not only did I train my students to use meditation as a coping method, but I believe that many of them began to see their practice as an efficient way to deepen their understanding of themselves and escape the drudgery of an overbearing school environment. 
Since then, I’ve gone on to use similar techniques with success in other classrooms.  Below you will find a general presentation of the methods I’ve used.  I hope you find them useful and encouraging.   
Part of the problem with Buddhism in America is that there are so many different traditions, subject to unlimited interpretation.  This diversity can be confusing to navigate and frustrating to a newcomer.  What’s more is that there are so many people out there “teaching” meditation or writing books on the subject who are just relaying traditional Asian instructions that they don’t fully understand themselves.  The result much of the time is that many explanations of how to DO meditation are either very dull and dry, or they are so vague and mystical that they are impossible to practice.  
Watch out for this guy!
Meditation is VERY simple to understand conceptually.  Although it can be a difficult thing to integrate as a concrete practice into every day life, there is no need to surround it with a mystical, other-worldly hype that removes the practicality from it’s instruction. 
These methods are very simple, practical, and down to earth.  Anyone can do it.  You don’t need to be Buddhist or even particularly spiritual.  After all, meditation is foremost a method for self-examination and metaphysical analysis. 
First, a couple of rules:
1.     There is no STEADFAST method for practicing meditation.  There are many ways, as are there many kinds of people.
2.     Meditation is an individual activity.  Just like painting or learning to play an instrument, you can take a class or read about it, but you have to do some work and experimentation on your own to find your own way. 
3.     You have to practice it regularly to see any results.  It’s like working out. 

When I first introduce the subject of meditation to my students, I like to start by initiating a short, simple discussion.  We talk about our pre-conceived notions about meditation and I try to lead them away from thinking about it as a “cool”, “trendy” thing and to understand it as a method for increasing concentration and relaxation within themselves.  We discuss how meditation is a method for spending time alone with your mind in order to understand it better and use it to its fullest potential.  I tell them that one of the coolest side-effects from practicing meditation is a feeling of ease or calm that would help them get through their day at school. 
Since I’m teaching in a non-religious environment, I don’t inject discussion of any traditional “Buddhist” topics such as karma or reincarnation, though if they come up on their own, I try to demystify them and shelve them as topics for a later discussion. 
Also, being that meditation is a very new experience for them, I limit the majority of my instruction to samantha techniques rather than vipassana.  For a discussion of the difference between these two “forms” of meditation, please read my blog (http://buddhismsucks.blogspot.com) as there is an ongoing discussion happening over there.  (Shameless self-promotion, I know.)  Plus, since my students primarily need a way to harness their energy and develop their concentration skills to perform well in school, I believe that samantha is particularly applicable. 
I’m not going to get into a lengthy discussion about what’s the “best” posture to use when meditating.  Some people are so addicted to the Asian method of sitting on the floor, propped up on an expensive PILLOW that the posture actually becomes an obstacle rather than an aid to meditation.  
This is WAAAY too expensive!
The whole point is that you want to “sit” in a position where the body doesn’t distract you from the work you’re doing with your mind.  If it means that you’re standing on your head with your legs twisted behind your neck, fine - whatever floats your boat.  It really doesn’t matter if you look all cool and Buddha-like or not. 
For my students, since I’m usually working with 25-30 kids at once, I just instruct them as they’re sitting in their desks.  The basic principles are the same:  back straight, hands folded, and feet flat.  Relaxed, yet alert.  If you’re at all familiar with Buddhist meditation, you know the drill. 
I’ve trained my class using a bell technique.  Rather than have a set time to meditate, I just choose a point in our busy schedule when I feel they “need” meditation time and I ring the bell once and they know to immediately get into position.  It took a few weeks to train them to get to this point.  Have patience!
Once they’re all sitting properly, I ring the bell again to signal the start of a simple deep breathing exercise to set the tone.  Together, we all take five deep breaths in unison.  It’s very simple, but highly effective in getting a room full of middle-schoolers to feel centered and calm.  Long, slow breaths – in through the nose and out through the mouth – taking in as much air as possible and then expelling it.  In this controlled exercise, it makes the students feel as if they’re starting a serious endeavor. 
There are many different ways to do this.  Just do what feels natural. 
Once this deep breathing exercise is complete and everyone appears focused, we move on to samantha.
At this stage in the process, my students return their breathing to normal.  In earlier classes at the beginning of the year, I’ve trained them to watch their breath by focusing their attention on the small area near the nostrils where they can feel the movement of air into and out of their bodies.  Although there are many variations on samantha breathing meditation, I find it helpful to choose an object that is simple, but very specific.  The subtle sensation of the movement of air felt on the tip of the nose is the perfect object for my students.  They’re clear about what they should be doing and they can wrap their minds around the concept.  Easy. 
Usually, I allow them to watch the breath in this way for about 3-5 minutes.  Sometimes, I provide gentle guidance to them if I feel that they are having trouble staying focused.  I say things like: 
·       Stay focused on your breathing
·       Feel the air coming into your body and keeping you alive
·       If you feel yourself getting distracted by your thoughts, gently remind yourself that you’re breathing right now
Again – just say what feels natural.  The point is to remind them of what they’re doing.  I can usually tell if they’re having trouble staying focused by watching their posture.  If some students start fidgeting of shifting around in their seats, I know that their attention is wavering.  I try to use a gentle, yet authoritarian tone to guide their focus.  On average, I’d say that 90-95% of the students are able to watch their breathing for the entire time period. 
The whole process is very simple and usually takes no longer than 8-10 minutes.  Although it seems like a short amount of time, I find that when introduced into the daily schedule, it gives my students a much-appreciated break and a chance to connect with themselves in a way that they don’t normally get. 
From time to time, I increase the amount of time we spend in samantha, depending on the climate of the room.  If they appear to be focused and we have the time, I let them go longer. 
I ring the bell a third time to indicate that the meditation period is over and we go immediately back to work.  Sometimes, I’ll allow students to contribute comments on their experience.  It all depends on what feels natural in the moment. 
See - very simple and VERY effective.  Nothing weird, mystical, or even particularly “Buddhist” here.  Just a straightforward method for increasing concentration and awareness that consequently can impact student performance. 
From time to time, I like to vary our meditation time with some guided practices.  For instance, when I feel like the students are having a bad day or that the energy in the room is kind of negative, I try a purification visualization with them.  If there have been some conflicts among the students, I’ll have them do a modified tonglen meditation, focusing on developing feelings of compassion within themselves.
If there is any interest in instructions for these practices, please let me know and I’d be happy to do another post. 
No matter what flavor of meditation they are practicing, I find that my students are wholly more focused, calm, and attentive throughout the school day and it gives me a good feeling when I’m standing in the front of the classroom teaching them.  The climate of the environment in my classroom is calm and ordered and I find that communication between myself and my students is greatly enhanced. 
Meditation isn’t an exotic practice.  It’s supposed to be practical and simple.  Don’t worry if you’re not being Buddhist enough!

Wednesday, 17 November 2010


I want to hew close to the bone of life. I want to press myself right up against the grain of its pulse. I want to tongue life's live nerve.

This business is fine-grained. It's going to require a shift in scale. I'm going to have stop living life in chunks of weeks and months, even in terms of hours and days. This is too far from the action, six steps too removed. I'm going to have to live life at the scale of minutes and seconds - at the scale of fractions of seconds if I'm able.

I'm going to have to practice. This is hard to do. I'm going to have bring myself back - again, again, again - to that which is so common, so ordinary, so insignificant as to flit by at life's own breakneck pace. I'm going to have to practice a finely-grained humility that is so modest as to register whatever is given at however small a scale as worth my attention.

The modesty of the scale is hard to swallow. I had bigger plans in mind for myself. I was going to be a contender.

A breath? Really? An itch in my big toe? Really? A breeze tickling the rim of my ear? A brush of a kiss from wife's chapped lip?

Why not? What was I hoping for?

Try the modesty of pressing your full attention into the pressure and resistance of a single deep breath. The whole thing is right here, presented in flagrante, on a manageable scale.

Hope and despair? Cupped in ignorance (or mystery, if you'd prefer), the whole drama unfolds with transparent subtlety on the scale of seconds. Hours, days, years, are hard to get your head around. But seconds . . . Here, the breath ebbs and flows. Hope is inhaled. You're getting what you hoped for, you're getting what you hoped for, you're getting what you hoped for . . . full. Despair is exhaled, exhaled, exhaled. Before your lungs are empty you know you'll have to start again.

Hope and despair do what they do. They come and they go. They ebb and they flow. They rise and they fall. See it on the scale of seconds. See their most ordinary face. Hope and despair on the scale of hours and days and years is just more of the same. But now you've seen what they are. How they work. How they come and go.

Don't be done with either of them. Let them do what they do. Rest in them. Rest in their push and pull, and something else will happen: a great peace and compassion will arise. A tenderness and sensitivity enabled by immense modesty will take hold.

Looking on the drama of hope/despair/ignorance - a drama available in microcosm in each moment - I can look with compassion on how the whole thing plays out, on how the same drama repeats itself in my hours, weeks, and years. I can look with compassion on my vanity, my weakness, my fear and, without excusing or fleeing them, name them for what they are and watch, then, as their grip loosens. They just are what they are: ordinary. I don't need to worry. The worry, spacing me from life, is what wrings the life out of life's passing.

Change scale. You're trying to work with an out-sized canvas. It feels like you can't manage a project on such a scale because you can't.

The meek shall inherit the earth.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Buddhist Manifesto

Glenn Wallis has a sharp post up at his blog entitled: "Buddhist Manifesto" (PDF).

Q. Who is Gotama?

Gotama, Wallis claims, is not a god but "an unsurpassed scientist of the real."

Q. What do we know?

The categories of being. These categories are given in Gotama’s meditation blueprint, the Anapanasati Sutta. The premise of that text is that being arises not in the abstract (as life or existence), but as particular phenomena in particular locations: the body, feelings, thoughts, and sensorium. This, then, is the Buddhist periodical table. Anything and everything that arises in your life, says Gotama, arises as a thing-event in/on/with/through the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. So, awakening is, in the first instance, awakening to precisely the nature of these elements — their function, weight, gravitational force, trajectory, flavor, content, duration, conditioning mechanisms, interrelations. The lab for investigating these thing-events (dharmas/dhammas) is the meditation room. The posture is upright, solid, still, and silent. The lab is empty. Because none are required, there are no paraphernalia. Because none is required, there is nothing superfluous to the investigatory process.

A "Buddhist periodical table!"

The whole post is worth a close look.


Tuesday, 19 October 2010


Take the breath as a monad, a microcosm.

For each of us, the whole world reverberates within the fathom-long frame of our bodies. The "all" resonates in six keys on the sounding boards of our six senses.

But the whole of our resonate flesh also, in turn, reverberates in the breath.

Each breath gathers into one monad a microcosm of the world.

Each breath rings in subtle synchrony with what I'm tasting, what I'm seeing, what I'm feeling, what I'm hoping, what I'm thinking, where I'm sitting.

Can I see it? Can I read in my breath the whole world respiring?

Tuesday, 12 October 2010


In his Principles of Psychology, William James devotes a chapter to "Attention." There, he describes attention as a "reactive spontaneity" that is both passively dependent on what is given and actively selective in terms of its focus.

Without this selective emphasis, the world would show up as a structureless chaos. Attention is a sorting machine that slots the oncoming line of objects into foreground or background, center or periphery, light or shadow. We can only foreground one thing at a time and the criterion used for sorting things is "interest." We foreground those objects that provoke our interest.

Here is James' own explicit definition of attention:
The taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.
It is worth noting that, on this definition, attention implies the necessity of its own withdrawal. We attend to something only by not attending something else. Or, to put it more bluntly: paying attention is the business of selectively ignoring.

It would seem that, of necessity, those who are good at paying attention to stuff will also be those who are good at ignoring at stuff. The cultivation of attention must split this difference: we must learn how to focus by ignoring without also succumbing ignorance.

As a general rule, we can only pay attention to one thing at a time. This "one" thing may well be an aggregate of multiple objects (what isn't an aggregate after all?), but to attend to them all simultaneously we must address them as a "single" thing.

This leads to a secondary definition of attention in terms of "gathering": attention is what gathers out and then gathers together an aggregate.

Or, more comprehensively: attention is what gathers objects, gathers me, and then gathers me in relation to the gathered object. Attention not only gathers objects in relation to me, it gathers me in relation to the anchor point of an object.

Here, attention depends on our ability to generate (unifying) networks of associations. We're able to pay attention to things only to the degree that we have some "place" to put them, some other stuff with which we can associate them, some compatriots with which we can number them.

The opposite of attention is distraction. If attention is a gathering, distraction is a scattering. Distraction is both a dispersion of objects and a dispersion of "me." Distraction is a focusless fog.

Distraction, though, is different from a lack of sustained attention because attention will and must move on. Attention is unavoidably serial in character. We must pay attention to this . . . and then this . . . and then this . . . and then this . . . and then this . . .

Attention is geared to flit. As soon as there is nothing new to notice, it will be on to the next thing. The conveyor belt of attention never stops moving. As James puts it:
No one can possibly attend continuously to an object that does not change.
This serial character may predispose me to hazy distraction, but it is not itself distraction. James claims that the only way to keep our attention from moving to a new object is to constantly work to keep seeing new things in the object we're already attending to. But only novelty can sustain attention: if I don't find novelty in the object at hand, my attention will move on.

In this sense, anicca is the key to samadhi:
If we wish to keep [attention] on the same object, we must seek continually to find out something new about the latter.
It follows, then, that my observation of the object, in order to be sustained, must be intensively interrogative. Every object needs to taste like a koan. Every object needs to be "rolled" over and over as we continually consider different aspects of it.

James also usefully distinguishes a number of different kinds of attention along multiple axises.

We might, for instance, distinguish kinds of attention in terms of (1) whether they are immediate or derived, or (2) in terms of whether the are passive or voluntary.

Objects of immediate attention are those that are interesting to us in their own right. Objects of derived attention are of interest only because we associate them with objects that are of immediate interest.

Objects of passive attention do not require active effort. Objects of voluntary attention do.

The point of connection between these opposed pairs is especially interesting. James claims that voluntary attention is always derived because attention only requires effort when an object is not of immediate interest.

The result, James says, is that when we talk about "sustained voluntary attention" we really mean either one of two things: (1) we're naming a repeated (and ongoing) series of successive (but failed) efforts to pay attention, or (2) we're naming a kind of attention that starts off as derivative and voluntary but then becomes passive and potentially immediate. (In either words, there is no such thing as sustained "voluntary" attention :)

James additionally points out that the better someone is at forming novel associations with an object, the better they will be at paying attention to that object. And, similarly, those whose minds are already equipped with rich sets of associative networks will have an easier time of gathering novel objects into those networks.

Two final notes.

First, there is a connection between attention and memory. Objects that are paid attention to will be remembered (cf. "sati").

And second, the nature of the attentive process (1) involves a physiological disposition of sensory/muscular readiness (one must not discount the role of the body, of posture, etc. in attention), and (2) involves a mental disposition of anticipation, preparation, excitation.

Because this dimension of anticipation is so important, James proposes that we describe all attention as a kind of pre-perception.

The only things that we commonly see are those that we pre-perceive or anticipate as being of interest to us. Attention itself amounts to a kind of "looking for" or proto-desire that screens and selectively emphasizes on the basis of interest.

Though we may initially notice many objects as being of derived importance because they function as "signs" indicating something about some other objects that are of immediate importance to us, the habitual pathways worn by these signs to their referents will soon lead us to skip over the sign altogether and pass directly to the object of primary interest. As a result, pre-perception makes attention possible because it primes us to ignore the habitual.

One thing can come to the fore only if many others recede into the background.

Pre-perception both enables focused attention AND impedes my ability to attend to what is habitual or unexpected.

Here, as elsewhere, the business of cultivating attention will have to grapple (and, almost certainly, continue grappling) with the inconvenient double-bind of attention itself.

Walnut California - A Portrait of Class and Religious Assimilation

(Cross Posted at The Reformed Buddhist)

**This post is a follow up to another post concerning the Department of Justice Civil Rights lawsuit against the City of Walnut, California. Walnut California - Silent Discrimination, Buddhists Second Class Citizens

First off, I want to acknowledge how wrong I was about being vocal concerning the Cordoba House in New York. It is naive to think that a vocal and crushing public opinion, which expresses a view to suppress minority rights, will not produce political candidates that will, by hook or by crook, carry out the wishes of the public. Indeed, it is very important that those who oppose such ignorance and injustice, need to ensure their voices be heard loud and clear, so those in power don't so easily bend to the will of extremism and zealotry.

Case in point, Walnut California. I received an interesting email last night from a government official who wishes to remain off the record, but expressed his thoughts about the City of Walnut's side of the story. While there is much left to uncover about this case, from what I heard from this anonymous person, and through further research, some very interesting and some would say, unusual patterns began emerging.

Some facts and notations:
  • The City of Walnut, California is home to some 32,000 residents, and is considered one of the most affluent areas of the greater Los Angeles County area.
  • The median income for a household is $100,360. The average value of a house or condo in Walnut is $730,000 in 2008, compared to $230,000 for the rest of California.
  • Several publications and news outlets, including Money Magazine and CNN, have ranked Walnut as one of the best places to live due to the high standard of living, income and low crime rate. The citizens of Walnut take great pride in this, and it is reflected in some very strict city ordinances concerning the environmental appearances of housing, businesses and landscaping. Conformance to comply to these standards is strictly enforced by the Planning Commission and City Council.
  • The City of Walnut is home to over 50 religious establishments. Of that number, every single one of them are Christian, with the exception of one small Buddhist establishment (GUANG JIH TEMPLE) that appears to reside inside another building at 831 S LEMON AVE STE A11F. There are no Sikh, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu religious establishments that reside inside the City of Walnut. (There is one Islamic Cultural Center) 
  • In contrast, the surrounding cities of West Covina, Diamond Bar, La Puete, Industry and Pomona are home to dozens of non-Christian religious establishments including Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu temples and mosques.
  • The racial makeup of Walnut California is 55.75% Asian, 28.37% White, 4.20% African American and the rest being Latino. The overwhelming religion practiced is Christianity. 13,800 residents of Walnut were born outside of the United States, Asians representing the vast majority of that number.
  • In the last 30 years, the Chung Tai Zen Center is the first and only religious Conditional Use permit to be denied according the Department of Justice and California public records. The City of Walnut has issued at least 20 religious Conditional Use permits for Christian establishments in that time span.
  • The federal government filed a civil rights complaint, United States v. City of Walnut, CA (C.D. Ca. 2007), against Walnut in 2007 which alleged that 'the City failed to translate election materials and provide assistance for limited-English proficient Chinese and Korean voters.'
  • Beginning in 2003, when the Chung Tai Zen Center began it's application for building permit, several residents of Walnut spoke out rather vociferously against the center, alleging many things, including an allegation that the Zen Center would try to recruit children into their organization. Oddly enough, the majority of citizens speaking out against the Zen Center were Asian.
  • In 2008, a man named Micheal West ran for City Council under the platform of opposing the Zen Center. The issue was such a hot topic, West made the position one of his key planks. His reasoning was the impact of traffic congestion to children at a nearby school.
"I'm the only candidate who took a stand opposing the Zen Center locating in Walnut, due to the excessive traffic congestion it would have caused for the children at Suzanne Middle School- where my child attends." ~ Micheal West
  • According to the Department of Justice, the City of Walnut ordered that the Zen Center have a extremely involved level of in-depth traffic studies done, to which no other religious organization seeking a Conditional Use permit had to face. The vote on the Zen Center was tabled multiple times over the course of 4 years, until the January 16th 2008 4-1 vote that denied the permit, despite the Chung Tai Zen Center efforts to conform to every demand made by the planning commission. 

In my opinion, the denial to issue a permit to the Buddhists was based in part on the strong community desire to maintain a certain public aesthetic. The issue of traffic, an item that has been used to suppress the building of many establishments throughout the United States which the local communities demeaned undesirable, I feel is an obvious cover. A Buddhist temple in a high traffic area of town certainly would disrupt the affluent and hegemonic scene that the citizens of Walnut had so carefully tried to ensure. It is interesting to observe that some would view a Buddhist temple as a negative to a community aesthetic, and that Buddhism somehow represents a lower standard of living. In my opinion, due to Walnut being an enclave aberration of affluent Christian hegemonic milieu, surrounded by other cities brimming with diverse religious and economic class communities, the opposition to the Zen Center was based in part to a partiality of both economic class standing and ironically, due to the majority Asian population, an unwanted cultural differentiation. (My brain hurts after that sentence.)
I find it interesting to note that when weighing the preference of class and religion, that race can be separated in the justifying equation. Furthermore, it is interesting to observe that an endemic cluster can emerge, which has as one of its key defining principals, a conscious effort to distance themselves from their past cultural heritage. The 2007 lawsuit filed by the DoJ shows the city attempted to enforce this assimilation of the affluent class culture and its animosity towards other cultural influences. The Zen Center permit denial seems to be just an extension of this desire for a community to enforce this new emerging economic and manufactured cultural mores. No matter how manicured the landscaping is, or how ascetically pleasing to the eye the hegemony of conforming homes are, no amount of makeup, building codes and whitewashing will hide the true human stories that reside there. That's truly mass delusion.

The Department of Justice I think fails in its complaint to examine this side of the issue. Like the Cordoba House, the strong desire to enforce manufactured cultural mores can be seen throughout all parts of society. For me, the interesting thing about the United States is the fact that most people dismiss that the culture of Americans can be defined by an exceedingly high number of outside cultural influences. Once assimilated and accepted, it becomes part of the norm, something to be protected; but that process can take decades. Ironically, by fighting these influences and change, I feel many Americans really miss out of what this country has at its very foundation. It is a complicated matter, and one that deserves some attention.

Though there is never an excuse for discrimination, I don't think the officials or citizens of Walnut are bigoted against Buddhists as a primary purpose, it is merely a side effect from the attempt to maintain the appearance of coordinated class affulance and a false sense of a hegemonic suburban utopia.

Monday, 11 October 2010

I Do Not Seek

Reading a Thoreau biography, I came across the following from Picasso:
I do not seek. I find.
The saying clears a middle ground between effort and the effortless.

Picasso doesn't enjoin us to seek anything. (What is there to seek if I already possess buddha nature?) But he also doesn't encourage us to marinade in a stupor.

Between seeking and not seeking is the middle way: finding.

This, I think, is the way marked out by Gotama.

Where seeking and not seeking are desperate activities organized by my own selective preferences, finding is a work of kenosis organized by the concretion of whatever already happens to be given.

There is work to be done. But it is not the work of seeking. It is the work of finding.

Monday, 20 September 2010

What is the Essential Meaning of Buddhism?

(Cross Posted at The Reformed Buddhist)

A monk asked, "What is the essential meaning of Buddhism?" Mazu said, "What is the meaning of this moment?"
One of the greatest dangers I see as an emerging trend regarding Buddhist practice is this notion that Buddhism is the means to obtain an end beyond that of overcoming dukkha. Whether it be a pursuit of happiness, or metaphysical attainments, or political goals, or social justice or even racial parity, these kinds of expansions on Buddhist teachings are misguided and very much beside the point. True, I as well as many others acknowledge that Buddhist practice has made for a happier, healthier disposition; but happiness as a goal in itself is just like many of these other strivings, just more attachment and more delusion.
Barbara O'Brien talked a little bit about this pursuit of happiness in a recent post she made:
"Here in the West, happiness -- or an appearance of happiness, anyway -- is such a strong cultural expectation that to admit one is not happy is admitting to a kind of personal failure. So people wrap themselves in whatever they think is supposed to bring happiness and then suppress the little voice telling them it's not working."
Indeed, Mumon discusses some of these same types of issues in a post he made critiquing a recent article by Ethan Nichtern on the Huffington Post that analyzes the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek take on the expectations of a Buddhist practice:
"To Žižek, it is the rapacious "capitalist game" that's the bête noire of human existence and Buddhism is yet another opiate, a palliative, that does nothing to remedy the fundamental issue. This is horse feces as far as this Buddhist is concerned; because regardless of whether or not the capitalist game continues, regardless of whether or not the revolution comes, regardless of whether or not Richard Gere saves Tibet (and wins valuable prizes in doing so), suffering will continue. And dammit, it's incumbent to do something, and if you're not paying attention, you can't do squat. Political battles must be fought. Yeah, capitalism is inherently unstable. But I think Žižek, like many people like him, is so alienated from himself that he doesn't recognize there's a plethora of human functions besides economic and political ones. I have that impression of Žižek's alienation because he posits a straw-man "Western Buddhism" as a foil for his Marxist Critique."
As Mumon later points out, even Nichtern, who I have great respect for with his ID project, posits Buddhist practice as some sort of game changer, something meant to bring about radical social change, or at least the great desire to do so. Nichtern writes:
"Practical transformation is what Buddhist practice is all about. It's also about changing the world. To practice meditation consistently is to push back hard against the tidal wave of materialism that is quite literally killing the planet.
Personally, I haven't met many people who report having realized the radical state of self-acceptance. The ones who have are powerful agents of global change. Does the kind of self-acceptance which Buddhist meditation techniques systematically cultivate in the individual really change the world? Well, no, not alone. Zizek is right about that, as well as the danger of thinking that acceptance is the end of journey and believing in any way that we are "in it but not of it."
I understand and share his concern about keeping people interested, but I'm sorry Mr. Nichtern, "It's also about changing the world" is both subjective speculation and quite 'putting the cart before the horse.' The world will change whether we want it to or not. Furthermore, this "tidal wave of materialism" is only one of millions of other difficulties humans have had to face. I totally agree with Mumon's assessment of Nichtern here when he writes, "He wants to keep 'em once he's gotten 'em in the door. In other words, this Buddhist teacher is applying a goal, a gaining idea to his practice as teacher."

I don't want this to come across as yet another rant against politics or social justice, as these are all fine undertakings, just as much as opening a soup kitchen, teaching a child to ride a bike or making dinner for the family. But when we attempt to justify these endeavors as the purpose or goal of Buddhist teachings, then the practice becomes something other than Buddhism. They are at best, distractions from our practice and are just more squirrel mind running ramped. And at worst, they are delusional additions to Buddhist teachings in order to create an artificial goal of happiness, or social change or whatever the extra desires may be. At the end of the day, this is no better than the gadgets that beep enlightenment into your ears, or that rather disturbing "law of attraction" bullshit or a $50,000 dollar Dokusan to buy expedient enlightenment.
I haven't been big on quotes lately, but I thought of two that fit here rather well.
My daily activities are not unusual,
I'm just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing...
Supernatural power and marvelous activity -
Drawing water and carrying firewood. ~Layman Pang
Love yourself and watch -
Today, tomorrow, always.
First establish yourself in the way,
Then teach,
And so defeat sorrow.
To straighten the crooked
You must first do a harder thing -
Straighten yourself.
You are your only master.
Who else? ~ The Buddha from the Dhammapada

Friday, 10 September 2010

The Panic of Desire

Are you familiar with the panic of desire?

With the way that, another day having past - its minutes spent, its hours emptied - your stomach clenches at the thought that you did not get what you wanted? Whatever it was, whatever was given, whatever was done, it was not enough. The day was not sufficient.

Are you familiar with how this panic gives your throat a squeeze as you cast around for some small way to make good on the satisfaction you had imagined the day would promise, for some way to wring a bit of saving pleasure from the day before it is entirely past - or, at least, for some way to dull the ache of craving?

The panic of desire makes it hard to breathe. Your chest constricts. You're not going to get what you want.

Nothing is ever enough.

The whole world is passing away and you are not going to get it. Your own life is passing away and - even here, even with your own life - you will not have managed to claim it.

Desire desires everything. It wants everything. Desire grieves for all the things it will never have, all the places it will never go, all the people it will never know, all the recognition it will never receive, all the work it will never do. Desire is never done mourning.

Everything is passing away and the agitation of this grief colors everything you do and every thought that you have. All of your planning, all of your hoping, all of your scheming is animated by this grief.

This panic, the panic of desire, is the panic of grief.

The panic of this grief is what squats, like a rock, in the pit of your stomach.

Are you familiar with this stone of grief, this rock of panic? When you walk, can you feel its heft sway?

Have you seen, though, that this rock is, itself, enough?

Quick, better see it again.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Interrogative Mood

Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? consists entirely of questions. 164 pages of questions. Line after line, page after page, chapter after chapter, questions are piled on top of questions without a declaration in sight.

In general, the book reads like a stream of consciousness interrogation where every non sequitur that pops up - in whatever order, with whatever frequency, with whatever gravity - is immediately suspended, concatenated, and catechized. The mood is light but uncomfortably insistent. A sample:
Are you sure of yourself? Do you use the word coordinates? Does a snifter of brandy - swirling, amber, bright, piquant - strike you as a handsome thing? Is there trouble in Paradise? Do wheels have fun? Can there be surcease in the pursuit of charity? Would the number of snake teeth there have been in time exceed or equal or be less than the number of human teeth, do you think? Will you ride a pony? (150)
The questions tend to have one of two effects: (1) asking for facts, they plumb your ignorance, or (2) soliciting opinions, they show by way of sheer volume how trivial your opinions are.

Ignorance and triviality loosen the straight-jacket of the self. Both give us room to breathe.

In part, Powell has just this effect in mind:
Is there anything you'd like to ask me? Are you curious to know what I'll do with the answers you've given me? Do you think I can make some kind of meaningful "profile" of you? Could you, or someone, do you think, make such a profile of me from the questions I have asked you? If we had these profiles, could we not relax and let them do the work of living for us and take our true selves on a long vacation? Isn't it the case that certain people are already on to this trick of posting their profiles on duty while simultaneously living private underground lives? Can you recognize these profile soldiers by a certain dismissive calm, a kind of gentle smile about them when others are getting petty? Is in fact the character of the profile-facade person not that which is called wise? And is the person who is congruent with his daily self and who has no remote self not regarded as shallow? (69-70)
Questioning, the self comes loose but doesn't go away.

Something similar can happen with our compulsion to achievement:
Do you know what famous person complained famously that many men produce only excrement? If a man completed building a model airplane and ordered a subscription to a newspaper on a given day, would he have been more productive than if he had only produced excrement? Would he be better than they if he wrote a beautiful piece of music that was listened to by hundreds of men or even thousands as they produced only excrement? What if a couple of them or even hundreds annoyed by the music turn it off as they produce only excrement? What if the excrement producers regard as holy more or less that production and admit no distraction from their mission? What if they yell from their chamber where they ply their industry "Turn that crap off!" speaking of the music that someone has thoughtlessly left playing at too high a volume for their comfort? What if they have one of those German shelf toilets that allows the inspection of the feces and as they inspect the feces it is established that no one is so inspecting the music to ascertain its quality? Things are a little different now that we have some quality control going down on the excrement end and no quality control going down on the productive-genuises-live-better-lives end, aren't they? (104-105)
Living in the interrogative mood, we just might learn what to give (and not give!) a crap about.


Friday, 20 August 2010


Reach into the rolling surge of a frozen river.

Pull out a gray stone - a smooth, banded oval about the size of your fist.

Put it in the oven for an hour.

Sit very, very still while it warms up.

Swallow it.

Push the stone down into your gut.

Feel it radiate hot weight and hushed light for a day and a night.

Do whatever you do, but now do it with heat and weight and light.

Don't forget to sit again tomorrow.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Cranking the Flywheel

What about the stories - personal, political, religious - that we tell ourselves? What happens to our stories as we start to wake up?

For my part, I don't think that waking up is principally concerned with changing the content of our beliefs or stories. (Let them arise, let them dance, let them go.) But I do think that, in important ways, waking up depends on our progressive attunement to the role these beliefs play in our "psychic economies."

The essential question is not: what do you believe? The essential question is: what do your beliefs do? What roles do they play in shaping, animating, or excusing your clinging and craving? No belief or story - no matter how accurate or insightful - is so pure that it cannot be repurposed by craving as fuel for fantasy and self-justification.

Most of our beliefs - accurate or inaccurate, verifiable or mythological - about ourselves and the world are put to work as props for our fantasies. In particular, our beliefs work to prop up the one fundamental fantasy most all of us share: our fantasy that the world is capable of supporting permanent, satisfied, and substantial selves.

These fantasies - these delusions, these ignorances - are the source of much of our misery.

But extra care must be taken with certain kinds of belief. Supernatural beliefs in particular (whether warranted or not) are dangerous because, lacking push-back, they are especially prone to being co-opted as "havens" for our harmful fantasies. Supernatural beliefs are those places where our fantasies of power, control, and satisfaction are most likely to come home to roost.

In one sense, the key to waking up is learning how to live without beliefs and narratives. In this light, we might describe meditation as the practical business of working loose, layer by layer, of all of the beliefs and stories in which our destructive fantasies hide.

Life and spirit flare up when, beliefs and stories aside, we make contact with our own bare-boned, mineral-thin film of root receptivity.

But what would it mean to live without beliefs and stories?

I want to be quite precise on this point: I do not think it means that beliefs no longer arise and that stories are no longer spun. Were this to happen, one would be something other than human. Rather, I think it means that we no longer believe in our beliefs and stories.

What would it mean to no longer believe in our stories?

It would mean that we no longer use our beliefs and stories to supplement the perceived paucity of the world.

It means that, though we still have beliefs and narratives, we no longer use them to prop up the world, to make things look more permanent, satisfying, and substantial than they actually are.

No longer believing in our stories is like no longer believing in cookies. There are still cookies and we may even still eat cookies (and like them!), but we no longer believe that a cookie is capable of giving us something that it cannot: the satisfaction of desire.

We might generalize this point and say: waking up means no longer believing that any "X" can satisfy desire. Waking up is about sitting with the worm of desire, with the striving of life itself, not about about being "done" with it.

But this belief in the possibility of satisfaction is, I think, the "secret" belief that attaches itself to and intertwines itself with practically all of our other beliefs: we believe in our beliefs about the power of stuff to satisfy us.

When we wake up, the wheels of our beliefs continue to spin, but now they've come loose of the main axle such that they no longer crank the flywheel of our fantasies.

In this sense, I don't think that the Buddha has any objection to a belief in God or the supernatural - so long as we don't believe that our beliefs can ever save us from the friction and mundanity that are the substance of life itself.