Friday, 26 February 2010

Race, Diversity and Buddhism: Thoughts and a Proposal

crossposted from:

Although I have been an activist for a long time and during my college years helped lead a student protest movement for diversity, to this day I dread discussions about race, the feelings they bring up in myself and others, the conflict that arises, and the ultimate and inescapable dissatisfaction with the ways things end. But recently I've been stirred and inspired by Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist, and even more recently by posts and comments by Nathan at Dangerous Harvests, and Katie at Kloncke.

At the same time I am concerned by the generally unsatisfactory discussion about race and diversity on many Buddhist blogs. These discussions have been full of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, hurt feelings all around, blanket statements, and a general lack of compassion or insight. Its often as if we don't really hear what others are saying but are separately instead engaged in a discussion with ghosts from previous discussions with all the accumulated baggage. At times we shout past each other, selectively hearing and cherry picking what is said for more fuel to add to the fire. It is even more regrettable when these discussions involve Buddhists because there is just extra arrow added on top of extra arrow, increasing suffering and seemingly disdaining the skillful means we as Buddhists should be developing and practicing.

Why have or participate in these discussions then? For me personally at a certain level there really is no choice. From a very young age, standing up to racism or asserting myself in a forum with racial overtones was part of an existential struggle. I felt like if I didn't speak out, stand up and fight back, I would not exist as a person and any risk was worth taking to prevent that. Those times I was silent or didn't fight back, I would torture myself again and again remembering my failure, cowardice and humiliation and despising myself for my weakness.

With meditation I have started to realize that the cost of anger is a steep one - the loss of personal balance and objectifying the focus of my anger which in other words is dehumanization and doing to someone else the very thing I don't want to happen to me. That's not to say I still don't get angry but the intensity has lessened and its not as all consuming. There is the awareness on some sort of fundamental level that the anger is not me and I am more than just the anger. I can be somewhat objective and watch it as an observer.

Also there is the realization that not every battle has to be joined, not every comment answered. We can choose not to accept those "gifts" as Goenkaji calls them (reminded of this by a post on Kloncke). There is something powerful in standing up for oneself and fighting back. There is also something powerful about restraint, abstaining, taking the time and space to just be.  

What comes next after the fighting and then the restraint and abstaining? How about a try for the middle way? I have been listening and working on Gil Fronsdal's Concentration series at Audio Dharma. At one point he describes concentration meditation like fishing - too much slack and the fish gets away, too forceful and the line will break. Perhaps these discussions on race needs to be the same - enough creative tension to get people thinking outside of their normal assumptions but not some much as to make them defensive. Easier said than done but adding compassion, trying out equanimity and remembering we are all in this together could help. What if at the point where someone says something that brings on very strong feelings of aversion and rejection - we try and label these feelings and then watch them with non reactive awareness? What would happen if we could get angry at someone else's limited and seemingly bigoted perspective but then put that feeling in a "larger container" and watch its power fade?

What if we could listen to each other for what lies behind our words?

Could there be a simple and shared desire to be heard, acknowledged and appreciated?

Would this premise be worth testing? How about a Buddhist bloggers' roundtable or panel discussion on different topics related to race, diversity and Buddhism? But the goal would not be to show how someone is wrong or convert others to your viewpoint, it would be to practice what Katie calls "mindful blogging" and do it in the challenging context of a dialogue about race, diversity and Buddhism.  

Sooo... Anybody game? I guess this is somewhat presumptuous since it assumes people are actually reading my ramblings...Is anybody out there?

ps - just in case someone is out there, I want to again acknowledge influence and inspiration from Kloncke and Dangerous Harvests for this line of thought - thanks!

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Koans & Zen Poetry

(Cross posted at The Reformed Buddhist)

Master Un Mun, or perhaps better known as Master Yun Men in China, wrote a large number of Koans, many of which are still meditated on and taught with to this day. Here are my three favorite koans by Master Un Mon(Yun Men).

A monk asked Ummon, "What is Buddha?"
Ummon said, "A dry shit-stick![Kanshiketsu!]"
A monk asked Ummon, "What will happen when the leaves fall and the trees become bare?"
Ummon said, "Golden Wind!"
A monk asked Ummon, "What is the kind of talk that transcends Buddhas and Patriarchs?"
Ummon replied, "Rice cake!"
But why so blunt, so direct in these koans? Master Un Mon was very much a master at writing koans; and in his extremely direct expression of Zen practice embodied within the koans he wrote, he pointed to a bare, raw and basic interpretation, setting aside over intellectual ideals in favor of a minimalist approach to teaching. Indeed, much Zen Poetry, exemplified by the haiku, was born out of this spirit of minimal intention, and flowed very much like many of these koans. In China, and later Korea and Japan, this style of minimalist, direct poetry flourished well into the 20th century, and can still be seen and experienced in today’s modern writers and teachers. Here are a few of my favorite ones.

Ikkyū - 14th Century - The model of a Rinzai iconoclastic Japanese Zen Priest.

My Hovel

The world before my eyes is wan and wasted, just like me.
The earth is decrepit, the sky stormy, all the grass withered.
No spring breeze even at this late date,
Just winter clouds swallowing up my tiny reed hut.
A Fisherman

Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind.
A solitary tune by a fisherman, though, can be an invaluable treasure.
Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking in and out of the clouds;
Elegant beyond words, he chants his songs night after night.

Matsuo Bashō - 17th Century Japanese master of the Haiku style of poetry.
Summer grasses:
all that remains of great soldiers’
imperial dreams

Nothing in the cry
of cicadas suggests they
are about to die

Ryōkan Taigu - 19th Century Japanese Soto monk who is famous for both his poems and calligraphy.
When all thoughts
Are exhausted
I slip into the woods
And gather
A pile of shepherd’s purse.
Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent.
The wind has settled, the blossoms have fallen;
Birds sing, the mountains grow dark --
This is the wondrous power of Buddhism.
It is truly amazing the power that a few words, placed so skillfully together, can have to a reader or a student. Keeping alive that magnificent spirit of raw minimalist expression, that the patriarchs perfected over 1,500 years ago, these poems and koans do indeed speak directly to the heart of Zen practice.

Friday, 19 February 2010

The good of (Really Good) good deeds

The preachers at the rescue mission typically berate "good works."

The justification for this is reasonable, but doesn't cover all the motivations people have for good-deed doing.

The preachers decry the effort that some make to "buy their way into heaven" ― if I can call it that ― by hoping to build up a storehouse of credit for having done good in the world. The Pharisees, typically, thought this way. The Pharisees, with great self-satisfaction, gave money and did good things while carefully maintaining their exclusive upper eschelon status in the society of their time.  I think the Ps expected a bigger mansion and a larger crown in the Land of Eternity.

[As an aside, I have very much the same problem with how the mechanism of karma is typically believed to work: Good actions get rewarded in a future lifetime; bad actions get punished, eventually.  I don't believe that, and, more important, I think that focusing on trying to create good karma for oneself is a twisted way to live and be.  From what I understand, knowledgable experts in these matters instruct that karma (if it exists at all) functions much differently that what is popularly believed.]

Anywho, getting back to Christianity and assessments there of good deeds.  Christ taught that it is who we are on the inside that counts. And that our effort should be to better our inner selves, and not to try to impress God with activities that are demonstrably God-lovin' and people-lovin'.  Altruism that is focussed on being a show of "what a swell guy am I" is uncool.

Ayn Rand with her Objectionist philosophy made a comprehensive argument against altruism, generally, that is compelling ― but also pretty damn spooky and cruel if imposed on all of humankind as a way we are to see ourselves and others.  [It comports to the worldview of the Orange vmeme in Spiral Dynamics.]  Basically, she believed that individuals have a right to act wholly in their own interest, but must recognize, and give sway to others, all of whom have the same unfettered rights as self-interested individuals.  In her collection of essays "The Virtue of Selfishness," she wrote:
The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.
Hers is a belief in rational, unemotional Individualism.  Hers is way of life that is spiritually retarding.

Human beings, unlike cockroaches, are social beings with a panoply of emotions.  Also, truly, we do not exist as individuals though we have an "I" and experience the world as a self and act 'through" the body (that we drag around with us) and via the mind (that acts like a very unreliabe encyclopedia we can thumb through).

So, while thinking of ourselves as individuals (almost exclusively) and pursuing our own ends (almost exclusively) is pretty much the default way of existing, SEEING into our existance and getting fully in-touch with the reality of other sentient individuals being "just ourself in other clothing" brings a heartfelt, wonderful realization.  It knocks the block out from under the delusion of individuality, and propels us toward altruism as something we must do ― for, as the Zennists say, no reason.  Being altruistic becomes integral to who we are and to that which we've always been. [This comports to the Green vmeme in Spiral Dynamics.  Green, btw, is just another color.  And Spiral Dynamics just another way of organizing people's worldviews.]

Nonetheless, it must be said and known, that those who are determinedly self-interested are us [or, me, in my case] very very very much also. As are all the bank robbers and mother rapers and nose pickers and tax dodgers in the world. And as are all the peacocks and weasels and wolves and pterodactyls that there are or have ever been. And as are all the saints and holiest of men and women. And as are all the cutest of children and liveliest of puppies.

The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.

Yet, you must neither strive for truth nor seek to lose (or keep) your fundamental delusion.

We have two eyes to see two sides of things, but there must be a third eye which will see everything at the same time and yet not see anything.

The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.  We will feel as if we've been befriended by Alzheimer's.  We will hope for and receive somebody to help us, maybe.

Doubt and chaos. There is nothing else. Frantic, we will search for a door. Any door. We might suppose that NOT being frantic is the answer, as we search for the answer ― or even THE answer ― instead of the door. We will get dizzy and fall. It is inevitable.

Suffering. So much suffering.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Honking the Snow Horn of Dukkha

(Cross Posted at The Reformed Buddhist)

(This story is about a week old from when i wrote it.)

So we are digging out, 21' inches and it's still piling up.

Due to the blizzard, I stayed at a hotel in downtown DC last night so I could report to work this morning on time. Lucky me, I was put on the backside of the hotel which was right across the street from 'Frat Row' of George Washington University. I think with all honesty I can say mixing a Friday night, college kids, booze and a blizzard together is one of the least conducive conditions for getting any amount of sleep.

But they weren't the reason I wasn't able to get to sleep, apparently at around 11:30 some guy got blocked into his parking space by a couple other cars and out of frustration starting beeping his horn...over...and over....and over. At first I thought it was a car alarm, but quickly I noticed the pattern shifting, so I called the front desk to see if they knew anything about this car horn. They told me due to the blizzard the cops weren't going to come out just because of an angry guy beeping his horn.

At about 1am, just unable to take the incessant car beeping anymore, I went down stairs, hoped out in the pelting blizzard in just a T-shirt and jeans to see if I could find this 'horn master.' Sure enough, there he was, in his BMW, obviously quite drunk, laying on his horn, spinning his tires and flicking off the passing college kids who were all laughing at him. But I thought, where could he go even if there weren't two cars blocking him in? It was near whiteout conditions, 30-40mph wind gusts, horizontal snow and completely impassable roads, there was no way that car was going anywhere, blocked or unblocked. Standing there in that blinding snow, watching this man's anger rage non-stop, stuck there unable to go anywhere, it reminded me of this old Zen story.

A monk who had once been an enthusiastic practitioner had lost his way. He was escaping over the wall of the monastery every night, going to the bar and drinking. Next morning he'd wake up at 4:00 a.m. and bob sleepily through zazen and then drag himself resentfully through the day.

Finally, the teacher invited the monk into his six-feet-by-six-feet meeting room and said to him, “Every night you get drunk. Your sitting, chanting, and working have no energy. This is not Zen. If you are not going to train, GET OUT!”

The monk was furious. “Fine! I’ll leave.”

Just as the monk approached the sliding paper-screen door behind him, the teacher shouted, “That door is not for you!”

The monk went to the door to the right. Again the teacher screamed, “That door is not for you!”

The monk went to the door to his left and again the teacher screamed, “That door is not for you.”

Then the monk exploded, “You told me to get out but then you say ‘That door is not for you.’ What should I do?”

Calmly, the master replied, “If you cannot get out, please sit down.”

The monk went on to become the teacher’s successor.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Bhutan 4 Christ and a potential backlash

This is just in from "Wisdom Quarterly." It documents the recent rise of Christianity in the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan.

In the post, also found at Digital Tibetan Buddhist (dated to last November), the author responds to his worry for Bhutan with a divination:
As reported earlier... there have been devastating earthquakes, unusual weather anomalies, insidious acts by troublemakers, epidemic illness, and now, from Pemagatshel, comes word of a plague of grasshoppers.

Because I care very deeply for this place -- very deeply -- I decided to do a divination. In some ways, I wish that I had not, because what I saw is not going to make anybody happy.

It came to me that the cause of the misfortunes is the Western fundamentalist Christian missionaries who have been allowed to visit Bhutan and set up shop. These missionaries have caused a number of people to break samaya, and to forsake the Dharma. This breakage and outrageous abandonment of all sentient beings has caused the oath-bound protectors to rise up in anger. Numerous other things came to me, but this is the essential point.
Click here for more on divination in the Tibetan tradition.

Blaming natural calamities on other people's religious beliefs? Sounds like... Pat... Haiti...

While I'm all for respecting other people's practices and not being a darned Buddhist fundamentalist, this just seems wrong. Declaring a state religion - even if it's Buddhism - and restricting the activities of others is a recipe for disaster. Brian Victoria, an ordained Soto Zen priest and scholar of Japanese Buddhist Militarism, has lectured and written widely about this. Those who have followed the war in Sri Lanka, too, know the price of nationalized religion and the demonization of "outsiders." Tibet, too, was hampered by excessive suspicion of outside forces; as H.H. the 13th Dalai Lama foresaw the rise of China and sought to modernize and reach out to other powers, he was blocked by conservative forces in his own government.

Bhutan stands as perhaps the only "Buddhist" country yet to fall completely to outside forces, military rule, or resort to internal violence. What, ideally, should they do? For the most part, they've done great. The king instituted democratic government and voluntarily abdicated his throne. At the same time he's carefully balanced maintaining sovereignty and cultural integrity with opening to the outside world for "progress."

On of my old professors, a philosopher of technology, Albert Borgmann, predicted that the country would fall the way so many indigenous populations have when exposed to the corrosive effects of technology. He gave the example of Inuits who had begun to use GPS and within years were completely dependent on them - no longer able to navigate by landscape and the stars as they had for generations. Will Nepal soon find itself dependent on outside forces and technologies, never to return to the "Shangri-la" ways of its past? Is this necessarily a bad thing?

While we can think about Nepal in this larger context, it is wise not to lose sight of the specific issue at hand: Christian missionaries want desperately to convert the nation. What should they do? And what can/should we do (if anything) to help?

The Purpose of Meaning

(Cross Posted at The Reformed Buddhist)

If there was one thing that stands out as a great testament to our human endeavor as a species here on earth, it has been our wild ability to use the world around us, to mold, shape and create form from it, in order to better our living conditions and our material lives. Humans have an uncanny ability to twist the objects in the world, creating some of the most brilliant and mind boggling inventions, making countless discoveries of the properties of matter and form and have advanced our society to feats many thought unattainable just a few hundred years ago. The great minds of our scientists and pioneers that have made these advancements possible are due partially to accidental discoveries, but more importantly, it has been the ability for these people to view the objects of the world as having infinitely more potential that what is its stated purpose, its accepted meaning.

To see an ordinary stick on the ground, most of us would be able to think of 50 ways we could use that stick to our advantage; sharpen it for a weapon, peel the bark to make rope, use it to fish, create shelter, etc. In our minds however, many times, the thoughts that arise within us, we attach to them, end up applying stark rules of purpose, casting ideas and concepts into a definitive meaning and rigid roles. When we do that, I feel sometimes we are robbing both ourselves and these objects of the world of all their marvelous potential, inhibiting all the things they can and will become. To see the world in this stark contrast of such stringent use, we are greatly limiting ourselves and our nature.

Since our Buddhist practice is not meant to turn off our endless stream of thoughts, but rather to understand the nature of our existence more clearly, we certainly shouldn't shun the thoughts that arise within us nor label them into any unbreakable purpose. Indeed, it is when we can live our lives, realizing this mind of ours is an amazing tool, full of endless potential and unremitting possibilities, beyond the confines of absolute meaning, beyond the prison of purpose, that we can perhaps better understand the boundlessness nature of our infinite mind.


An untroubled mind,
No longer seeking to consider
What is right and what is wrong,
A mind beyond judgments,
Watches and understands.
Know that the body is a fragile jar,
And make a castle of your mind.
In every trial
Let understanding fight for you
To defend what you have won.