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

Friday, 29 December 2017

Progressive Buddhism, a reflective evaluation

Recently I was asked, roughly, "what exactly is Progressive Buddhism." 

I had to think a bit. First, our sidebar says:
About Progressive Buddhism
This is a group-blog on the topic of progressive, modern Buddhism - looking at Buddhism in the light of modern knowledge, free from excessive dependence on ancient dogmas; looking at the best ways to integrate Buddhism into modern life and modern societies; discussing and encouraging an empirical or scientific approach; seeing insight and awakening as a living tradition not just a historical one
If you'd like to contribute please get in touch.
How does that differentiate us from other forms of Buddhism? Focusing in on these two terms, 'progressive' and 'Buddhism', how does each inform the other in our lives?

Inner development / outer development

In initial response is two-fold. On the one side I hope to continue to explore how the dharma finds use and meaning in my life. And on the other side I think about dharmic responses to political issues that are shaping my life. This allows me to be open both to new teachings and interpretations of them and to the changing world around me.

Concerning "Progressive Buddhism" specifically, here is a portion of an email I sent out to fellow contributors today:
I'd like to think that we represent a particular flavor or tendancy within all forms of modern Buddhism: a tendency to engage, to listen to people who are different from us (refugees, the homeless, the LGBTQ community, non-Buddhists of all stripes, people from near and far), and to seek connection and to alleviate suffering for all, recognizing that Buddhist practices and ideals of old might not apply and serve today or tomorrow - following the Advice to the Kalamas to test for ourselves and see. We also recognize that systems matter: capitalism, authoritarianism, white privilege, patriarchy, etc all shape the suffering in ourselves and those around us. How can we expect those most oppressed by these systems to see the benefits of Buddhism if Buddhism replicates and enforces the systems too?
This means that we do not leave or look down upon other Theravadins, Zen, or Tibetan practitioners (or the many others out there); but that we do seek to balance our practice and learning with progressive engagement in the world.

Some areas where I'd like to see us work in the year to come include:

  • 'Buddhist' economics (e.g. this interview/book)
  • Climate Change 
  • Promoting Openness in Sangha hierarchies
  • Developing Democracy, decentralized decision-making
  • Promoting women and people of color 
  • Advocating generosity and non-violent responses at home and around the world
  • Showing the benefits of simple life (renunciation of consumerist greed)
Those are all in the more 'progressive engaged' category. What about the 'progressive dharma' side?
  • Key teachings of the Buddha
  • Wisdom from later Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, etc developments
  • The 'dharma' of science and Western wisdom sources

What is 'progressive engagement'?

Engaged Buddhism is a category created by Thich Nhat Hanh, specifically in reference to the need for Buddhists to 'engage' with the crisis of his home country, Vietnam, during the war there. Non-engaged Buddhism, in this instance and after, is that which seeks to avoid politics, avoid worldly affairs, avoid rocking the boat of the powers that be. 

The addition of 'progressive' to the already widespread movement of engaged Buddhism points to specific ideals of inclusiveness and equality

This point invites further development and reflection, which I will leave to a later post. This is different from other forms of engaged Buddhism that might focus on developing meditation centers and translating sutras anew. These are great and are no-doubt part of our own lives and worlds, but they are not necessarily our focus. 

The politics of progressive Buddhism

As we are a global movement, no particular affiliation need be sought. In the U.S., where I live, I think our values align more with the Democrats than with Republicans, though we needn't close our eyes and ears to Republican ideas. We also might align more with the Green or Democratic Socialist parties on many or most issues. 

As suggested above, not every 'progressive Buddhist' will want to be directly or heavily involved in politics. Perhaps for some, new and relevant understandings of dharma in modern life is just what is desired. That is fine. For others, a pretty solid engagement with politics, especially where issues of inclusiveness and equality are at hand, will feel like a natural extension of Buddhist practice.

There is no need to affiliate; though discussions of affiliation are welcome. In the U.S., I know we will be facing major elections in 2018 and I hope we can discuss issues and candidates (and parties) that we feel will best embody the values we hold.

The dharma of progressive Buddhism

For those less interested in politics, please contribute if you can to our understanding of the dharma in your life. What suttas/sutras appeal to you? What wisdom of Buddhism has found its way into your life?

Mentioned explicitly here already is the Sutta to the Kalamas. But other teachings, and practices, will have meaning to us at different times. Let's share those and help one another connect deeply with the dharma in these often trying times.

With loving-kindness and deep bows to all. Wishing you a warm new year and a peaceful and richly connected 2018.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

“Buddhist” Violence

I don't pretend to understand all the nuances of whatever the circumstances regarding Myanmar, Rakhine state, or the Rohingya. My bet is that among the many people who have an opinion about this don't know anything more than what they've read on the internet. I'm curious about how many could find Myanmar on a map or could give its former name. This piece in fact, only tangentially involves that situation.

What this does involve is the drum beating about “Buddhist Violence” and “Buddhist Terrorism,” and the assumptions behind that. Western Buddhists (at least the most visible ones) seem to think that these “other” Buddhists should “know better.” We seem to have an odd attitude about our quaint little fellow Buddhists on the other side of the world, as if we have a better handle on the Buddha’s teachings than they do. To be charitable, let's call it the “zeal of the convert.” To be less charitable, it's another example of Western Superiority, of neo-colonialism.

I'll make a few broad statements here: countries tend to have armies. Armies tend to be armed with weapons. Weapons used by armies by definition are implements designed to inflict harm upon another person. Even “majority Buddhist” countries have armies, and they're armed with weapons. And their having weapons implies that their intent is that they will be used either defensively or offensively, to inflict harm on other people.

Without going too deeply into history, Buddhists have used weapons against other Buddhists and non-Buddhists. I tried looking up some facts about South and East Asian wars just since 1900, and the list was lengthy to say the least. Overall, a good number of these countries have at one point or another been ruled by “military dictatorships,” which is a euphemistic way of saying, “Fellow countrymen, agree, submit, or die.” In some cases, this was extended to “Conquered countrymen…” sometimes to “Invader…”

In no particular order, there were wars between the Japanese and Russians, Chinese against other Chinese, Koreans against Koreans, Koreans against Japanese, Chinese against Japanese, indochinese against Japanese, Vietnamese against Vietnamese, Cambodian against Cambodian, Laotian against Laotian, Burmese against Burmese, Sri Lankan against Sri Lankan, Thai on Thai, Chinese against Tibetan, Nepalese against Nepalese, Bhutanese against Bhutanese, and any number of the above against ethnic minorities and/or separatists within their own borders, and seemingly everyone against the French, British, and/or Americans.

That long sentence should point out that the “peaceful Buddhist” is an illusion. To return to Myanmar/Burma for a moment, think back to how “brutal” the military dictatorship was, as seen in the film Beyond Rangoon, pretty ruthless. It shouldn't be too much of a stretch to think that they're not “over it,” or more or less Buddhist than they ever were. Admittedly, I'm curious about what Suttas Ashin Wirathu and the 969 Movement read that said that inciting violence was a good idea, but I also look at them as representative of the Monastic Order as the Westboro Baptist Church is of Christian churches.

“Buddhism” as teaching is Lovingkindness, Joy, Equanimity, and Compassion. “Buddhists” as humans, are as liable to hate, become violent, become enraged, and commit acts of violence as the rest of humanity. That doesn't mean when we see atrocities that we don't protest them or call the perpetrators on their deeds. But let's not do it out of some sense of superiority or stereotype. Let's do it not because we're Buddhists, but because that is a reflection of ALL beings’ True Nature, not just a “Peaceful Buddhist,” as if there was a monolithic, uniform “Peaceful Buddhist.”

“....Subhuti, when I talk about the practice of transcendent patience, I do not hold onto any arbitrary conceptions about the phenomena of patience, I merely refer to it as the practice of transcendent patience. And why is that? Because when, thousands of lifetimes ago, the Prince of Kalinga severed the flesh from my limbs and my body I had no perception of a self, a being, a soul, or a universal self. If I had cherished any of these arbitrary notions at the time my limbs were being torn away, I would have fallen into anger and hatred.”
Diamond Sutra, Chapter 14 (excerpt) Diamond Sutra.com

There was, however, a peaceful Buddha.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Mindfulness in Waiting

I’m waiting for something to happen. Beyond the existential concept that says we’re all waiting for something, I am waiting right now for information about something very specific. The details of what I’m waiting for aren’t important. The experience of it is what I’m here to discuss.

Most of us can tolerate a certain amount of waiting without too much trouble. We wait in line. We wait in traffic. We wait for our loved ones to come home from a trip. Some kinds of waiting feel benign and others become suffering. This is the suffering kind of waiting. It’s the kind of waiting where I’ve done everything I possibly can to distract myself from obsessing over when I’m going to learn the outcome  and all that’s left is hyperawareness of not knowing.

After becoming bored with developing some killer skills in the game 2048, it finally occurred to me that this is exactly the kind of situation Buddhist practice is designed to address (light dawns on marble head, right?). Mindfulness is the answer! Yes, mindfulness. Be in the present moment. 

Unfortunately my present moment is fused with uncertainty. There is music playing in the coffee shop I’m sitting in right now. I can hear the sounds of the barista wiping the counters and her sneakers squeaking on the floor. I feel the smoothness of my laptop under the palms of my hands as I type. I’ve just eaten. So I feel well-sated. There is a lingering taste of chocolate on my tongue, since I decided to get a mocha today instead of a plain latte. And…there is an underlying discomfort in the background of not knowing this important information. 

It’s a common misunderstanding that the point of mindfulness is to make us feel better, to remove us from our discomfort. Turning back to Pema Chödrön I am reminded that the real instruction is simply to stay. Part of the point of mindfulness is to inoculate ourselves against suffering by practicing staying with the discomfort when it is present, to not distract ourselves or run away from it. Mindfulness in this case is to learn to be with what is, as it is. In learning this lesson, that is how the suffering is released, not by blissing out and just pretending everything feels okay.

Because I am a plan-ahead kind of person, this particular brand of waiting looks like it was special-ordered for me. In order to be relieved from my suffering, I need to stay with the feelings of insecurity and threat I get from not being able to make plans and from not having any kind of control over when or how I will finally get the information I need. I need to examine this suffering so I can become more informed about the result of being strongly attached to a particular outcome.

Having reoriented the purpose of my mindfulness exercise in this case, I bow to this teacher and hope to learn all I can from it before resolution comes.


Sunday, 23 April 2017

Unintentionally Consequential

There's a line between “what we are,” and “what we do.” It's sometimes very blurry, sometimes may even overlap, and sometimes diametrically opposites. It's all based on self-identification. Depending on work, we may conduct myself as an engineer, or banker. If we're in a political mode, the identification might be as Democrat or Republican, Labor or Tory, Trotskyite or Stalinis, Liberal or Conservative. Vegan, vegetarian, omnivore, male, female, gay, bi, lesbian, transsexual, transgender, Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, Forest monk, Shin, Christian, Muslim, Sunni, Shiite, Jew, Orthodox Jew, Hasidic, Reform, etc., and that's a lot of round holes we square pegs might be forcing ourselves into! 

These demarcations often have behaviors we associate with them, and quite often, we make ourselves into cookie-cutter images of what we imagine those labels demand. Likewise the label we pick may even determine what hole we think we should dive into. It's one thing to be environmentally conscious and then become a member of the Greens, it's another to look at them and start acting like we think a Green should act. Neither is particularly good or bad, after all, we haven't necessarily thought of every way to be environmentally conservative and may have something to learn from what appear to be like-minded individuals.

To one extent or another, we also try to force others into round holes, and they may have a totally different hole picked out for themselves. It may come as a real shocker to find out that Hitler was a vegetarian and that he was kind to dogs. Animal rights activists might also be vegetarian dog lovers, but that doesn't mean they also have to be Nazis any more than Hitler was a tree-hugging liberal. “Fascists are evil!” we might say, and then to find out that they aren't evil 100% of the time can shake up some of our deeply held preconceptions. And lest we forget, Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, no tree-hugger was he, at least according to conventional wisdom. These examples of “other-identifications” are as mistaken as our own “self-identifications.”

Following the Buddhist path is to lead to liberation. Following the Zen path leads to seeing things as they truly are, to experience it fully, to see our True Nature, to help others, and thus become liberated. One could even say that we're already liberated, if we looked for something that held us in chains, we'd see that there really isn't anything. And not just in an “emptiness” nothing, but in reality “nothing” except our own thinking. To be liberated from our thinking is to stop thinking “I'm this,” “You're that,” and because of this and that, it means I must do something and you do something else. Dropping this thinking includes even the notion of unity and differentiation, the notion that there's a fallback position when things get difficult. We make difficult for ourselves, and we really don't need a fallback position. That doesn't really exist either. 

The bottom line is that there is no more a reason than an excuse for doing what we do. Negotiating the line I mentioned above can be tricky. Do I not eat meat because I'm a “vegetarian” or am I feeling compassion for all beings and therefore don't eat meat, so I look for the vegetarian section of a menu? Anything I do because I'm a “Zennist” is a poor excuse for doing it. Do I do things because I think it's correct action, and that just so happens to be what the Buddha would have done? Better reason for action. When I go the grocery store, do I put the cart in the little cart hut because that's what a Zennie “should” do? Do I see that someone's livelihood depends on people not putting carts back so he can gather them back up--which is what puts food on his family table? Honestly, sometimes I'll do either, largely dependent upon a whim. 

To use the grocery store example further, when they ask “Paper or plastic?” which do I choose and why? Do I immediately say “paper” because I think of myself as environmentally conscious Buddhist, and the Buddha wouldn't have used paper, so ergo I must use paper?. Making the choice isn't that straightforward if I really look at it. Paper requires trees to be cut down. These trees help the atmosphere, provide habitats for animals, help stop soil erosion and so forth. The power saws used to cut them down requires power, obviously. That power is most likely a fossil fuel, the trucks that transport the timber to the sawmill likewise uses gasoline, the saws at the mill use electricity, which may have been produced by coal, nuclear, or maybe by wind, solar, or water power. The rest of the paper-making process likewise requires power, and on it goes. As it turns out, I bring my own bags, because Northampton Mass has banned plastic shopping bags, so it's a moot point here. Previously I went with paper because for all the shortcomings manufacturing entails, plastic ends up not decomposing for the most part, so the long term result is probably the worse choice. Neither choice is pristine.

Until we stop creating karma, our actions will by and large not be pristine. Some may be wholesome and positive, some negative, and some neutral. The priest at an old Zen sangha I attended once said that meditation is one of the few karmically neutral actions we can make. Virtually any action we take--writing, grocery shopping, driving, being with loved ones, working--all involve other people, and therefore will have consequences. In my estimation, the same action will be perceived differently by others involved in the ripple effect of the action. The same person may have radically different reactions to the same phenomena, depending on the flexibility of perceptions. The reaction is dependent on any number of other factors in addition to the action I have taken. It would be very naive and self-important to think my actions happen in a vacuum, that they're the only stimulus that elicits a response. Even when I'm “just writing” this, the thoughts that come to me, the mood I'm in, my physical environment all figure into creating that “just.” In reality, what is it even possible to “just” do? 

As Bodhisattvas, the job of “saving all beings” may be as simple as trying not to do harm. Maybe the next notch up is to try to be helpful. We can't worry about how this help will necessarily be received, we can't be paralyzed by the possibility that an action may be taken to be other than in the spirit we intended. We do what we can, as skillfully as we can, to be of benefit to not only the one person we're interacting with, but with the realization that the ripples of our action will flow out like Indra’s Net. This is how we save “all” beings--by respecting and taking care of ourselves so we can help the next being with whom we come into contact, 

If we aren't paying attention, acting mindfully if you like, then our blind wandering throughout our environment may indeed result in our actions being “Unintentionally Consequential.”

Other Eunsahn Citta blogs can be found here:


Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Zen and the Art of Tube Feeding

Overall my family and I have been pretty lucky with pets. My parents had two cats when I was growing up. The “baby” had a heart condition and I guess my mom had to give it medicine. That usually translated into my sister giving the cat the medicine, as she was destined to eventually work at a vet’s office.

When my husband and I had cats in the ’90’s through the early 2000’s, both passed after relatively short illnesses at 15 and 17 years of age. Until then, the most exciting veterinary experience we had with them was giving thyroid medication to our calico cat, Sheila. She also needed percutaneous fluids near the very end, but that was only a week or so and only once a day.

Nothing could have prepared us for…tube feeding a cat.

The cats we have now, Ichigo and Angel are total sweethearts. At least when Ichigo is not beating up his brother, they are sweethearts. They’re six years old. We were told at their last veterinary appointment in the summer that they were a little pudgy. So, we tried a few things changing their food around. We tried to exercise them more, but discovered that we really have no idea what is amusing to a cat. Most of our attempts resulted in us getting far more exercise than our fuzzy friends. So, when Ichigo looked like he’d lost a little weight, we weren’t that concerned. For some reason, Angel was spending a lot of time sitting next to him and we thought that was so cute! 

Cats are small animals though. So when things start going downhill (we discovered), they go downhill fast. Next thing you know, Ichigo was lethargic and not engaging in any of his normal activities. We were getting  concerned, but it wasn’t until one of our friends commented on how terrible he looked that I called my sister. Rather than waiting until the next day, she advised us to take him to an emergency vet right away.

  • Resorptive lesions on his teeth - six extractions
  • Pancreatitis - pain meds
  • Hepatic lipidosis (fat stuck in the liver from all the weight loss)
  • Three days in the animal hospital AND
…wait for it…
  • the feeding tube

Those of you who have had infants will laugh at my adventure, I’m sure. Certainly, the idea of chasing down a cat, plunging 48 ml of “slurry” into it’s esophagus…one…milliliter…a…time…six…times…a…day seems like nothing to you. Cleaning the splattered slurry off of the walls after he’s shaken his head vigorously with the tube cap off? Piece of cake. Making the slurry…smelling the slurry…crushing medications and mixing into the slurry? Eh - that’s nothing.

Dreaming about slurry...

In those moments at 2:30 am, after finally figuring out the sequestering the cat in the bathroom for tube feeding is best for everyone involved, there is time to ponder.

I started thinking about mortality and expectations. Pena Chodron once said (quoting someone I believe) “since death is certain and the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” This is a phrase I consider frequently when I’m faced with difficult situations. In this flurry of activity taking care of the cat, however, I was reminded that I actually do take each day for granted. That “the time of death is uncertain” has translated to my subconscious as “some time in the very distant future that I don’t have to worry about now.” I expect everything to keep clicking along just fine.

I’ve been fortunate in life. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I had the opportunity to have relationships with three of my great grandparents and that three of my grandparents lived well into their 80’s and 90’s. My father recovered completely from his cardiac arrest - which rarely happens in real life. My parents’s cats lived to be well over 10 years old - even the one with the heart condition. Our last cats lived into their teens. In my good fortune, I lost perspective on the precariousness with which we greet each day. It simply never occurred to me that Ichigo could die, but he almost did.

I’m trying to hold this thought in my head for a while, think about and manipulate it a little, let it sink in. The tube came out last week and my husband, daughter and I are currently obsessed with his gustatory rhythms. It would be easy to forget now and just go on as I did before. At some point, this lesson too will fade. For now though, I bring my palms together and bow to it’s wisdom. Katz!


Saturday, 31 December 2016

New Year, New Opportunities

"When they go low, we go high," Michelle Obama said during the recent campaign. If you're left-leaning, does this "high" mean we satisfy ourselves with a sense of moral superiority and passivity, at best preaching to the choir, to our like-minded FB followers? I hope not. Does it mean we'll take to the streets, but only when the weather is nice? Likewise, I hope not. Does it mean that we wait, giving the new administration a chance? Maybe to an extent on some issues, but not on others. What doesn't seem to bode well--LGBT rights, rights of minorities, respect for the Constitution, the Environment, Education, Foreign Affairs, Energy, Social Security--they are a few that come to mind without pondering too much. On war, I have no clue what the next few years hold. There have been both uber-hawkish AND isolationist messages, although there are an awful lot of generals running about, and about whom the next administration's "leader" says he knows more than in general.  Generals who have seen war are sometimes hesitant to send another generation into the horrors they've known, sometimes they look to prop up the military-industrial behemoth. 

The time for the Left's triumphalism transpired and has expired. The torch has been passed and in new hands, hopefully won't torch everything with it. these people with whom I so fervently disagree, probably felt the same way over the last eight years. Maybe they were inclined to light it up more then than now. There does seem to be a possibility that the Reagan era "Government isn't the solution, it's the problem" thought may be in evidence. Clear-cutting a forest is one thing when it's literal, and it becomes something entirely different when it's metaphorical. The metaphorical may lead to the literal, or vice versa. Nothing like destroying the environment by first destroying the Environmental Protection Agency. Those of us who see these issues as potential train-wrecks, we need to make our views clear. 

What I need to remember is that my "views" are only that--views. They aren't necessarily a reflection of reality, and even if they are, they're not necessarily perceived correctly by me. We can say "Correct View is no view" all we like, until that means relinquishing our firmly held opinions and what we cling to as Truth. Then it starts to require some efort and there are times when self-pity is just easier. Pointing the finger of blame at "these people" takes the onus of responsibility off our backs; creating a demonized "other" relieves us of any responsibility to do anything about this perceived "suffering" we're undergoing. And that can be quite the relief, albeit a short-lived one, in a really perverse way.

I also need to remember that "these people" have experienced struggles (Dukkha) the same as I have, and not just in a socio-political context. They and I and all others have created our current situations through our actions, words, and thoughts. We've created the karma that has ripened into the fruits or weeds of today. We can create karma which will add to the current situation or create karma that sets a new course. Our actions as a society have created our societal situation. We have allowed mass incarceration, a violence culture, a consumer culture, all to be the norm. If you like all of those things, keep doing what you're doing. If not, try something different. We are where we are because we we created it, as unpleasant a thought as that may be. If it is unpleasant, what do we do, think, say that will change that course? 

A bodhisattva adapts to ever-changing causes and conditions. "Saving all beings" is not one-size-fits-all. If nothing else, our baseline needs to be not to do harm. And we have to realize that what seems like it will not do harm may have unintended consequences. We can't possibly predict them all, but when we get a surprise, we have to pay attention and act accordingly at that moment. As ZM Seung Sahn would point out, there is correct situation/relationship/function. "Saving all beings" means just that--ALL. We need to function correctly depending on the relationship in a situation. Even people we don't like experience suffering and deserve compassion for that reason alone, if nothing else. Pay attention! Respond correctly, do no harm! If the action does cause harm, pay attention! Try another tack. But keep trying until all beings are saved. In that context, we'll have ample new opportunities. 

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Why a Buddhist Would Dig Ani Difranco

Distracted by technology and propaganda, unable to relate to the human condition and nature, who are we today? Ask feminist icon and activist Ani DiFrancno. In an upcoming album release, we look forward to the rest of the songs that share good company with “Binary”. This Buddhist is digging the message.

Her description of consciousness as “binary” and “spinning” reminds me of electrons and the Buddhist idea that nothing is truly separate from anything else. I only relate this because the Tao of Physics is what got me interested in Buddhism in the first place.

This song encourages to “complete the circuit”. This also involves progressive and engaged Buddhism by getting up the face of those who propagate the mythology of separateness by oppression and greed.

Here is her video of the song from the 30A Songwriter's Festival. Thanks, Linda Fahey, for introducing us to this on NPR. *explicit lyrics

Friday, 10 June 2016

Worry - Would It Help?

Over the years, I've tried numerous strategies to quell my anxiety. Truly it remains an uphill battle. Just being a Buddhist has given me a stronger framework from which to understand the mental storms that plague me. It is usually some form of tanha (thirst or craving either for or especially against something) that gets me going. Recognizing that is always easier than putting the brakes on it.

A couple of weeks ago, I remembered a movie I saw late last year. It was called Bridge of Spies. In it Tom Hanks played a lawyer in the Cold War. He was called upon to arrange a prisoner exchange with the Russians for a spy he had defended. Mark Rylance played the spy, Rudoplh Abel. I liked the movie. What sticks with me though is Rylance's character. Whenever there was uncertainty about what would happen to him or when he was in overt danger, Tom Hank's character would comment that he didn't understand how he could remain so calm and ask him if he wasn't worried about the outcome. Rylance's character always simply replied "Would it help?" Of course, the answer was always no.

When I can remember, I've been trying to apply this question to situations that trigger my anxiety. I look at the circumstance I'm in and ask myself, "Is this worry helping?" As in the movie, the question is always a resounding no. What it does do is increase my dukkha (suffering) exponentially. 

I can't tell you that my new mantra is a magic pill that has solved the problem of overreacting to just about everything, but it is a fun variation on the the meditation response "thinking" when applied to an overactive mind. 

Practice, practice, practice. 

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Qualities of a "good" meditation teacher

Meditation has taken off.

Meditation is the new yoga.

Meditation is the new kale.

Meditation is the new Crossfit.

And, maybe, meditation teaching is the new bartending. (?)

The first four of those are my assessments. The last one belongs to Ira Israel, a -you guessed it- meditation teacher.

This and more like it here.
As Israel points out:

Since there is no unanimously accepted meditation teacher training certification or licensure program, anyone can call himself a “Meditation Teacher” with that title currently being as legitimate as “Published Author,” “International Speaker,” “Urban Shaman,” “Sought After Visionary,” “Spiritual Advisor,” “Intergalactic Warrior Priestess,” “Intuitive Healer,” “Life Coach,” “Wellness Expert,”... etc.
This is true. And in today's Western, Progressive Buddhist world, what truly qualifies one as a "Meditation teacher?" 

Historically, the answer would have been something like, "appointment by a recognized master in a respected/accepted lineage." However, as any reading of the history of Buddhism will tell you, the religion is filled with "masters" who have split off from established sects. And, as an eye on the news can tell you today, plenty of established monks/priests/lamas/senseis etc are teaching rather strange things and/or acting in morally dubious (and sometimes criminal) ways.

So it seems that "qualification by lineage alone" isn't going to cut it.

A second option is the completely secular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (along with spin-offs, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and other "Mindfulness-Based Interventions"). But the MBSR route, according to the UMass website, requires:

  1. An 8-week intro course ($545-725 sliding scale)
  2. 4 long retreats ($500-1000 each)
  3. An 8 week practicum (price not advertised)
  4. A "teacher development intensive" (price not advertised)

If memory serves me, though, the whole process runs $10-12,000.

So that's out for most people.

Israel gives five "warning signs" one should look out for in finding a meditation teacher:
  1. They have an IMDB page (perhaps more of a problem around L.A. than elsewhere in the world)
  2. They are self-righteous - obvious enough. All of the meditation teachers I have learned from and respected were also incredibly humble. Granted they are all sharp and smart as a whip and can argue necessary points of doctrine and practice, but they also easily admitted when they didn't know something and didn't seem to go over-the-top when they disagreed with opponents.
  3. Talks like a seasoned brain surgeon (but isn't one). Again, that's a good sign. The medical benefits of meditation have been demonstrated time and again, but often in small, specific populations and with results that are really minimal or simply confusing to the non-scientist. 
  4. They have a publicist (sounds like another L.A. problem)
  5. They have their own "style" (brand) of meditation with no clear lineage. This is good advice. Remember James Arthur Ray, of "the Secret" fame, who led 3 people to their own death in an Arizona sweat lodge? 

So those are some good "warning signs" but what are key qualities for a good teacher? I'd tentatively propose the following:
  1. Meditation Experience: It's tough to say how long someone should have meditated before teaching. 5 years (minimum)? 10? At least 3, in my book, but 10+ is really best. A lot of good work can be done in a short time, especially if some long retreats are mixed in there, but it takes time for all of that work to "stabilize" into a whole life.
  2. Broader Education: Some of my favorite teachers were practicing psychologists, and this gives important foundation and language for understanding both oneself and others in meditative experiences. A solid academic grounding in the history, beliefs, and practices of Buddhism is great too. So is a background in brain science, human behavior, etc. 
  3. An on-going practice: A no-brainer I would hope. Your teacher should meditate. How much though? 10-20 minutes/day 5 days a week? 40-minutes plus, 7 days a week? More? Once again the rule seems to be "the more the better" and certainly if you find yourself meditating more than your teacher, it won't be long before you're having difficulties and/or experiences that he/she won't know how to deal with.
  4. Humility: see above. If you find yourself going to "teacher-x" just to be in his/her presence and to post on instagram/facebook about it, you're probably there for the pure celebrity appeal and not likely to get much of substance out of it. If the teacher actively cultivates a "cult of personality" around him/herself, time to get away, asap. 
  5. Support/Community: Therapists often need therapy, counselors need counsel, teachers need continuing education. So meditation teachers, unsurprisingly, should be expected to need and get ongoing education. 
Other points?