Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Progressive Buddhism as a (more) Secular Approach

When you study the history of Buddhism(s), you see that it has always shifted as it entered different cultures to be appropriate to the place and time. Tibetan Buddhism is clearly distinct from the Indian Buddhism before it; Chinese Buddhism is very distinct from Indian forms, and Japanese Buddhism yet again different from the Korean and Chinese traditions that preceded it.

Even the scripturally conservative Theravadin schools of Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand inherit large amounts of their thought and practice from Buddhaghosa, a 5th century commentator on the Pali Canon.

And this is, I think, both the intention of the Buddha based on his way of teaching and a very good trait of Buddhism. The Buddha taught in different ways depending on who he was speaking with. With learned Brahmins, he often showed the error of specific beliefs. Sometimes they'd become Buddhists, sometimes they'd just walk away (leaving the reader/listener to understand the errors of Brahmanism). With kings and princes he spoke of good governance and altruism. With laypeople he offered basic sets of values and teachings on generosity. With his monks he laid down rules of conduct and expounded on his full path of ethics, meditation, and wisdom.

This great variety of teachings allowed the Buddha to appeal to a wide variety of listeners. Some, of course, would grasp at particular teachings and 'get stuck' - loudly proclaiming that they had the way and everyone else was wrong. In the Buddha's own lifetime, the schismatic attempts of his cousin Devadata show that the propensity to cling to one's own way is nothing new.

Buddhist teacher and regular contributor to our Progressive Buddhism facebook group, Ken Leong, has a provocative piece there now titled, "Religious education versus secular education." In part he writes:
Great progress has been made in the way we teach. First, modern education is student-centered. Every effort is made to promote student learning and student well-being. Traditional religious education, on the other hand, is teacher-centered and doctrine-centered. The focus of traditional religious education is the propagation of the religion and its doctrines. Second, the modern educator does not believe that he has all the truth and wisdom. Rather, modern pedagogy assumes that students are creative and capable of coming up with new ideas and discoveries.... Traditional religious education, on the other hand, assumes that the teacher—the master, the guru, Buddha or Jesus--has all the truth and there will not be any major new discoveries by the students. The students are treated as passive and inconsequential in such traditional setting. Third, modern education is democratic. The teacher is more a facilitator of learning than a boss. Traditional religious education, on the other hand, is authoritarian in nature—there is much imbalance of power between student and teacher, which often leads to abuses.
He goes on to point out the 'magical thinking' of some today (presumably many Buddhist teachers and practitioners) who deify teachers who are, like the Buddha, only human. Noting the Kalama Sutta, he suggests we see the Buddha as a great teacher, but one who still needs to be challenged as we take on new ideas. We are not to take them on blindly.

The ethos of the Buddha: to explore, to challenge, to work foremost on oneself can easily be lost - both by those new to Buddhism who just want (easy) answers and by old 'masters' who might know the teachings well but don't know the world around them. Old teachers and expounders thus militate against feminism, social equality, and other new developments in teaching and understanding the Dharma.

This, of course, is not all old teachers. Many I've known have turned out to be the most open, flexible, fun-loving and yet serious in practice, human beings. But we continue on with this cautionary tale. Titles, age, years of practice are no balm to dogmatism and regressive views.

Our current age is one of growing secularism. Buddhists have thrived in this age not by brutishly asserting their 'truths', but in working to understand people's needs for practice, community, and inquiry. This edge of Buddhism is and will continue to be the Progressive Buddhism we promote and discuss here. 

Sunday, 27 May 2018

The Sutra to the Kalamericans

The Kalamericans Go to See the Teacher

Thus have I seen on YouTube:

A great speaker, a great wise Teacher was to give a TED talk from the city of the many universities. Word spread of this, and tickets to the event were very difficult to obtain, such was the excitement generated by his appearance. He was known as a great Teacher of all from young to old, to all genders, able to heal political wounds, crosser of chasms beings had self-imposed. His wisdom was said to be all pervasive, his teachings good from start to finish, and able to be understood by all. With skillful means he could explain his teachings to all, regardless of his or her capacity, each able to understand as if it were only they who were being taught.

Many who came to see him waited outside the stage door, some taking selfies, some asking for autographs, some calling out their names, some silent with awe. They then all proceeded single-file through the metal detectors at the main entrance to the theater.

The Kalamericans ask for guidance from the Teacher

Before the formal talk was to begin, the audience members spoke of others who had come to offer talks, what they’d seen on other TED talks, either in person or on the internet, things that had been attributed to the Teacher others posted on social media, some genuine teachings, some not, and virtually all stripped of context, short sound bites shown on the various news sources the people had come to rely upon for their information, and what had been written about the Teacher on blogs of many types. Some felt compelled to explain their own beliefs and doctrines or the opinions of what they believed to be the doctrine of the Teacher, some thought it appropriate to complain about other Teachers, or about the doctrines that others followed, including those of their fellow audience members. Being unable to reach any consensus whatsoever, they asked the Teacher to give his answers as to what the correct teachings were, who the reliable sources of true teachings were, where to learn about the truth, and what sources to avoid, those sources they reviled as “fake.”

Before the audience descended into pure chaos, with each attempting to prove the validity of their own beliefs by speaking louder and louder, the Teacher quieted the crowd by offering calming gestures and with his seemingly irrepressible smile. He then spoke to the assembled listeners:
"It is proper for you to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what you find dubious. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; repeating something enough times does not make it true. Do not rely solely upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon soundbite; nor upon an axiom; nor upon conventional wisdom; nor upon a bias towards a notion that someone else has, nor upon another's apparent fame or talmt; not on what you read on Twitter, not on Facebook, not on Politico, not from Fox News, not from MSNBC or CNN, proclaiming, ‘This guy tells it like it is,’ because someone told you how to think it is, or that it validates what you’ve come to think from your exposure to all the media and from other who share your point of view, avoiding those who do not, eschewing the company of those with whom you presuppose you don’t agree. But yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are troubling; these things are censured by the wise, these things lead to harm and ill.’ So, abandon them. Abandon them!”

Greed, hate, and delusion
“What do you think,my friends? Does greed appear in a man for his benefit or harm?"
The audience was divided on this point. The Teacher continued, somewhat perplexed, but not entirely surprised due to his talent to read a crowd as if he possessed an omniscient eye.

“Overtaken by his greediness, he may kill, may steal even from those who have less, tell lies, and commit adultery. Then he tries to get others to do the same. How do you think this will work out, to his benefit or not?”

“Well, maybe,” from one side of the room, and “Of course! You’d have to be stupid to think that isn’t true,” were the most unified responses the Teacher received. It seemed to the Teacher that the audience had separated, migrating to one side of the room or the other, depending on whom those opinions they agreed with most.

“And what do you think, mis amigos? Does hate appear in a man for his benefit or harm? "My friends,  by hating, he may kill, steal, lie, and commit adultery. How is this going to work out for him?
“Harm, unless he’s right about who he hates.” The audience was more united than previously, but still not totally in agreement.

“What do you think,friends? Does delusion appear in a man for his benefit or harm?"
"For his harm."
“Yeah, delusions are bad.”
“If a person is under the spell of his delusion, he may do all the things you’ve said are harmful, and what may be even worse, he believes his own lies, and doesn’t even see that anything he does is harmful. Is delusion going to help or harm?”
The assembled seemed to agree on this.

Kalamericans, you yourselves know: "These things are bad; these things are harmful, and lead to problems,"Abandon them!”

The criterion for acceptance

“Kalamericans, do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon guesswork; nor upon an axiom; nor upon conventional wisdom; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been that’s been over by someone else; nor upon another's apparent fame or talent, nor on what you read on Twitter, nor Facebook, nor Politico, nor from Fox News, not from MSNBC or CNN or saying this politician is our Teacher. “Kalamericans when you yourselves know: 'These things are good; these things are not troubling; these things are praised by the wise; these things will not lead to arrest and prison, these things lead to benefit and happiness,' abide in them. Abide in them!

Absence of greed, hate, and delusion
“What do you think, my friends? Does absence of greed appear in a man for his benefit or harm?"
There was disagreement amongst the audience again.
"Kalamericans, not being greedy, and not killing, not stealing, not cheating on his wife, not telling lies; he prompts another to do likewise. Will that be for his benefit and happiness?"
"Yes, I guess benefit” came from one section of the audience.
“Of course” from the other.
The Teacher raised one eyebrow quizzically and looked over at his assistant Andy, who could only reply with a shrug.

“What do you think, comrades? Does absence of hate appear in a man for his benefit or harm?"
One member of the audience coughed uncomfortably.
"Kalamaericans, being not given to hate, and not doing hateful things, is this beneficial?”
Once more, the Teacher was met with silence.

“What do you think, Kalamericans? Does absence of delusion appear in a man for his benefit or harm?"
"For his benefit!,” coming from all quarters.
The Teacher considered that he may have gotten the crowd back on the path.

“What do you think, Kalamericans? Are these things good or bad?"
“Good, great Teacher."
"Problematic or not problematic?"
"Not problematic,."
"Vilified or praised by the wise?"
"Praised, of course."
"When you think about it, do these things lead to benefit and happiness, or not? what do you think?"
"They lead to benefits and happiness. That's how we see it. In most circumstances.”

“Therefore, what was said is this, 'Come my fellow Kalamericans. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon assumption; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been said by someone else; nor upon another's apparent fame or talent; nor on what you read on Twitter, nor Facebook, from Politico, nor from Fox News, not from MSNBC or CNN or saying this politician is our Teacher.

“Let’s have a brief recap. Greed, good or bad?”asked the Teacher.
“Can we get back to you on that?”
“Hate, good or bad?”
In unison, the crowd roared back, “Bad. Except in certain circumstances!”
“Delusion, good or bad?”
“We’re confused, can you use it in a sentence.”
Again in unison, “Depends!”
The crowd caucused amongst themselves, finally coming to the conclusion, “Bad!
The Teacher smiled again.
"Bad. Mostly. Depends on whether you can get arrested for it?”
The smiled dropped from the Teacher’s lips.
“Okay, how about committing adultery?”
“Bad...but only if you get caught, and if you do, deny it, and then you can pay someone off to keep quiet about it, and if that doesn’t work, deny it again.”
The Teacher glanced at Andy again, and again Andy just shrugged.

“Kalamericans, when you yourselves know: "These things are bad; these things lead to prison; and upon careful consideration in your heart of hearts, these things lead down a dangerous road, you will abandon them!”

The Four Exalted Dwellings

“The righteous, who in this way is devoid of greediness and ill will, seeing the truth clearly, clearly comprehending and mindfully, dwells with the thought of friendship, with the great, exalted, boundless thought that is free of hate or malice for all of humanity throughout the world.”

"He lives with the thought of compassion; he dwells in the world of compassion because it is good for all humanity, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, boundless thought of compassion that is free of hate or malice.”

“I don’t know about this ‘whole world’ stuff" someone yelled from the back of the room. “We come first!” Another chimed in with, “OK, I’ll be compassionate, but I’m not sharing any of my money to do it. And I don’t want anything going to a bunch of bums too lazy to work.”

The other side of the room tried to raise a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya,” but was unable to do so, having both the voices and the nature of a herd cats with a crying shepherd running in many directions.

The Teacher took on the delivery of an old-time country preacher.

“He lives with the thought of love for all people, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of gladness that is free of hate or malice. He lives with equanimity towards all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought that is free of hate or malice.”

It was as if the entire audience rolled its collective eye.

The Four comforts

“The Great Student,  Kalamericans, the Great Student who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom comforts are found right here and now.
"'Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill, a heaven or hell. Then it is possible that at the moment of death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.”
He continued, “Suppose there is no heaven of hell, and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and happy, can say, “At least I’m good in the here and now.’.
From the crowd came, “I swear to God there’s a heaven, and there’s sure as Hell a hell!”

"'Suppose evil befalls an evil-doer. I, however, think of doing evil to no one. Then, how can it affect me who doesn't do anything evil?' Suppose evil outcomes do not befall an evil-doer. Then I see myself purified in any case.'
“It’s win-win-win-win, no downside, so long as you are hate-free, don’t act with malice and do harmful things to one another. Heaven or hell, no-heaven, no-hell, no matter, you experience the knowledge of a great life right here & now.”

“Hmmmm. Yeah? Really?” murmured the audience. The Teacher with his his omniscient eye regarded them as coming around, albeit slowly. He saw that their desire for freedom from their day-to-day lives hadn’t provided them any freedom, let alone peace.

"The followers of the Great Ones, my Kalamerican friends, who have a generous mind, a  hate-free mind, an undefiled mind, and a purified mind, is one who experiences a wonderful life!” The Teacher saw that their desire for comfort, even from a place of greed and clinging could have a positive result. The crowd pondered momentarily, being presented with ideas that deep-down they knew were right, but were also seemed so far from what their day to day lives were like.

Then they responded surprisingly but with some reservation, “Okay!”

A spokesperson rose from the crowd. “What you say makes sense. A person who has a hate-free mind, an undeluded mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom, here and now, can have a good life. But it’s not easy, Great Teacher. If we do it, and we’re back in with everyone else, who doesn’t live like this, we’re screwed!” The crowd now muttered in agreement to this statement.

The spokesperson continued, “But we’ll try it. We’ll try to pay attention to your teachings, and we will look to others who also follow them who can give us support when it looks as if we might backslide. Is that good enough? We’re just regular Joes, Joe the Plumber-types, not great spiritual beings, you know? But, what the hell, what have we got to lose? If it works out, that’s great. I think I can speak for all of us, and much to our surprise, your teachings do make sense. It’s like you point the way to someone who is lost or to carry a lamp in the darkness, thinking, 'Those who have eyes will see what there is that’s visible,'

The Teacher replied, “Excellent, excellent, my good friends. Well said, well said. But this teaching, as well as the others you may encounter from repeated hearing; tradition; rumor; what is in a scripture; guesswork; an axiom; conventional wisdom; a bias towards a notion that has been that’s been over by someone else; another's apparent fame or talent, on what you read on Twitter, Facebook, Politico, nor, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN or following politician who ‘tells it like it is, all these things, even what I’ve told you today can only be proven by putting them into action. Don’t take my word for it...but you’ll see it’s correct.”

The crowd gave the Great Teacher a rousing round of applause, even whistling their approval and yelling “Woot, woot.” The Teacher saw as if with an omniscient eye that some would follow the teachings faithfully, others would for a period of time, others would say they’re followers of the Way but their actions would prove otherwise, still others who will disregard the teachings altogether, even disparaging the Teachings. But the Teacher was also aware that these thoughts of the members of the crowd are as subject to change as much as everything else. One who agrees wholeheartedly today may backslide tomorrow, the denier of today may eventually lead a virtuous life. Even with the outcome of his teaching being any of these scenarios, he was still satisfied.

The Teacher and Andy packed their few belongings and prepared to leave the building through the stage door. As they did, they both heard a member of his audience say, “Now if only the other half of this crowd weren’t so stupid and agreed with this great teaching!”
The Teacher smiled at Andy, Andy smiled quizzically back. Andy said, “Teacher, they still don’t seem to get it.” The Teacher replied, “We’ll see how their actions speak, either because of or in spite of their words. They are Kalamericans, and their minds are changing, changing, changing.”

Andy nodded in agreement, despite his desire to smack some of the audience in the head. As a faithful follower of the Teacher, the Teachings, and who found support in followers of the Teachings, he refrained from shaking any of the audience members.

Thus have I seen on YouTube.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Fears Exist

The Heart Sutra contains the lines, “...The Bodhisattva depends on Prajnaparamita and the mind is no hindrance. Without any hindrance no fears exist…” Rather than as some intellectual concept  that is to be learned, does that have any real application to real life as we live it? Obviously, there is fear. People are afraid because of some imminent threat or a projection of a threat that is in the future, and therefore hasn’t happened, isn’t happening at this moment, and possibly won’t happen. It’s one thing when there’s a hungry-looking tiger in front of you, and you’re wearing a suit made out of steak. It’s a different type of fear  to think, “Maybe this isn’t a good day to wear a suit made of steak, because it might attract hungry tigers.” Both of those are good sense, based in the reality of the moment, because you’ve heard of other people’s experience that tigers do attack and eat people, tigers like steak, ergo, this may not be a good combination and backing away from said tiger would probably be a good way not to be eaten. The second type is based on others’ experience much like the first, but while a projection, it’s not unreasonable to think that learning from others’ mistakes might be a good way not to make the same mistake.

Sometimes “learning from others’ mistakes” is classified as ‘wisdom,” but I think that stretches that definition far beyond what I’d say is just common sense. Perhaps “wisdom” might be earned by looking at Lady Gaga’s meat dress idea, and saying to yourself that tigers or no tigers, that wearing a suit made of steak was just a plain old garden variety bad idea, never was a good idea, and in a very small number of cases will never be a good idea, unless attracting hungry tigers is your aim. I can’t imagine where that would be a reasonable aim, but I’m not so bold as to think it’s beyond the realm of possibility. Likewise, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to wear a meat dress to an awards show, and not just because I don’t have the legs for it. If people were looking at my legs when I was wearing a meat dress, I would be reasonable to think that a parallel universe had been entered where meat-based clothing was the norm. But then there’s that other kind of fear, the fear that is a hindrance. In this case, it might be that you’re convinced that wearing a meat dress even with your legs is a good idea, but the start second-guessing it as soon as you are ready to go on stage.

This type of fear could also be called worry. If the fear is based in how others might perceive you, and what in turn they’ll think of you, and how they’ll treat you, and what they’ll say behind your back, then that is worry. While the “imminent threat” type of fear may only rarely come up, and the notion that if you do A, then B might be a reasonable result, while that may be fortune-telling, it’s not fact-based, if not in this particular moment factual. If you think that not drinking to excess might lead to drunk driving, which in turn might lead to a ticket, arrest, loss of driving privilege, and worse yet, getting involved in a accident and getting injured, even worse than that, that someone else might be who gets injured, then the foresight that not drinking and driving would lead to a better outcome than the possibilities that drinking and driving might lead to is a pretty good analysis of potential future situations. I’m not sure that it’s anything that I’d spend much time meditating on, because one would hope that I’m not contemplating going on a bender after I leave the cushion. But that may be a viable focus point to others, so I won’t discount it.

I've live with someone who is spending a lot of time crossing from legitimate “this could kill me fear” to “what if” worry a lot lately. It's a situation that deserves as much concern as can be applied to it, in fact. To briefly recap my partner’s health issues over the last 18 months or so, first was the breast cancer, followed by radiation, which may have contributed to her pneumonia during the fall and winter of that year. Not just pneumonia, but COP: cryptogenic organizing pneumonia. The key word there is “cryptogenic,” as in, “Well, it's not bacterial, because antibiotics aren't doing anything. And it's not a virus either. We don't know what it is, but we do know it's pneumonia, so we'll give it an important-sounding disease name that sounds a lot more important than ‘we don't know what in hell it is.” That was treated with over a year of Prednisone.

A follow-up X-ray revealed a neuroendocrine tumor or her pancreas, which was successfully removed, but with about half her pancreas being removed with the tumor.  Somewhere between that and the year of meds, we ended up in the ER one day to find out that not only did she have diabetes, but she also had a small stroke. There was an old MRI which when compared to a new one, corfirmed the stroke. Another week or two go by, trying to figure out the lancets, test strips, and the glucometer, and something was not quite right again. Back to the ER, admitted again, another MRI, and there was evidence of a second stroke. Her vision was affected by the strokes, but none of her motor skills. The dizziness seems to have abated. She's on a slew of medications now, dealing with everything from the breast cancer to the diabetes to the stroke.

And here's the rub--there is copious worrying about a recurrence of pneumonia, whether the Prednisone had anything to do with that and/or the diabetes, and what she'd be treated with if she had another bout of pneumonia. To me, two strokes in a month was the lurking hungry tiger, the specter of pneumonia and the meds were in the back of the bus. Her daughter’s well-meaning but potentially misplaced concern about hiring a cook for the diabetes, finding a new pulmonologist for the pneumonia recurrence which hasn't happened, to needing to find a different doctor to deal with the brain-based vision issues, has only fed my partner’s feelings of concern. We've got a tiger right here in the kitchen, and as much energy is spent worrying about the potential other tiger that isn't here yet and she's not wearing a meat dress.

One of the hindrances to Awakening is what I translate as “worry.” Sometimes it's said to be “doubt,” but I think that is a miss. I'd even throw “second-guessing” as an alternate. It's that type of fear that's not only based in projection, but a paralyzing racing-thought type of fear. The challenge is to help keep her from getting too stressed out by just talking to her daughter and others. My middle-type fear is that her getting too wound up is probably not a good thing for someone who has had two strokes. I can't say for sure that will lead to another stroke, but not poking that tiger seems reasonable. Where it gets tricky, requiring real observation, analyzing situations as they arise, and not compounding what's already tenuous, is how to do this with compassion. Inside my head there's a little voice saying, “Enough with the pneumonia! You've had two strokes!” What comes out my mouth has to have a touch more finesse than that.

But how about this “no fears exist” part? The part where the Bodhisattva relies on what creates no hindrance, and with no hindrance, comes no fear. The practice of Zen is to accept what reality is. The reality is that as of  today, she has diabetes, but pays attention to her diet and takes her meds, and so far as we’re aware it’s under control. Acknowledging that there is a history of health issues, and that they may return or that others may yet come, that’s also reality. A sense of mortality for her is probably very different for her than it is for me, and regardless of how accurate either of our thoughts about it are, that’s reality. Reality also includes that sometimes there will be worry about it, and fear.

Being able to face all these facets of reality, just facing them, acknowledging them, just dealing with feeling them when they’re there, letting them change into the next feeling, letting the next element of reality come along, acknowledging that it’s here and going to go, even when that means it might be even more unpleasant when this reality moves into the next unfolding reality, and facing that head on, that’s fearless. That’s looking the tiger in the eye without hindrance. For this moment, no fears exist, and when we next feel fear, we’re not afraid of fear.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

You’re Soaking in It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Killer and Killed, Right Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 16 February 2018

Thunderous Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

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

A guest post by Robertson Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Accept, Not Settle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Loving Life and Lovingkindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Bringing Progressive Scholarship to Contemporary Buddhism: an exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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