The Bodhisattva Path in Dark Times: Post-Election Thoughts

buddhaThe election is now over and a narcissist without moral compass will soon take the reins of the most powerful nation on earth. However much we wish it otherwise, this is now true.  We have no real knowledge of just how badly this might turn out—whether he will be an American Mussolini or merely an American Berlusconi.  All of our hopes and fears are just mental projections.  None are real. 

But we mustn’t delude ourselves.  There is a real potential for serious misfortune and harm: the collapse of efforts to protect our planet from global warming; the disruption of the international order; the detention and arrest of political dissidents; curbs on freedoms of the press; the misuse of modern techniques of surveillance; the end of access to healthcare for millions; an end to abortion rights; an uptick in racist, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBT crimes by emboldened alt-right groups; and so it goes.  Some of this may come to pass; some might not.

How dark this all becomes depends largely on us.  Will we collaborate or resist?  Will we be proactive or merely reactive?  Will we persist in the face of fear?  Will we stand up for our neighbors and have each others backs? Dark times call for a courage unneeded in easier times. This is when we find out what we’re made of.

One can stand up courageously without viewing the world dualistically as an “us vs. them” situation—without hating Donald Trump or the people who voted for him—with an understanding of the reasons why people might have voted for him: disillusionment with politics as usual, anger at both parties for abandoning the working class, and anger at liberals for their condescension and cultural disdain. It’s possible to see how we’re part of the problem—how we contributed to this perilous moment. Donald Trump and the Republicans didn’t create this alone.  We all did our part.

Now that we’re here, we have our responsibilities.  We can be part of an historic non-violent resistance to fascism in whatever forms it takes.  We can strengthen the institutions of civil society that serve as a bulwark against the forces of greed, hatred, and delusion—forces that operate in each and every human heart regardless of party.

The bodhisattva path is not dependent on good times.  It’s the same in easy times and dark times alike: show up, pay attention, and do whatever is necessary to take care of the things that fall within our purview.

May we all have the courage to live up to our bodhisattva vows.

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Thoughts After Shukke Tokudo

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I recently ordained as a novice Zen priest in a ceremony officiated by Sensei Daiken Nelson at White Plains Zen. The traditional Soto shukke tokudo ceremony included some textual emendations courtesy of the Zen Peacemaker Order along with a priest’s pledge Daiken and I cowrote that was loosely based on an earlier pledge that originated with the High Mountain Crystal Lake Zen Community.  Our version read:

“To be a priest is to serve sangha and world in accord with the Buddhadharma. I pledge to care for the Sangha, manifesting and maintaining practice and places for practice; transmitting and renewing its liturgy, rituals, and values; acting as a celebrant and mourner for rites of passage; and offering pastoral care in moments of need. I will study, embody, and share the Dharma. Taking the backward step, I will turn the light and shine it inward. As my robes signify the potential for awakening available to all, I will wear them with dignity. I will strive to actualize the fundamental point in each moment, practicing whole-heartedly, cultivating an intimate, careful attention to all things, bearing witness to the world’s cries of suffering, and fulfilling my vow to help all beings awaken. This is the way of the priest.”

The role of the American Zen priest is—like everything else—in flux. It’s clearly different from that of the traditional Japanese Zen priest who inherits a family-run temple and conducts funerary rituals. It’s also different from that of the Sensei who’s recognized for having achieved a certain level of spiritual attainment and is authorized to offer teisho and daisan. The novice lacks the full priest’s authority to teach, offer jukai, or preside over marriages and funerals. What the novice priest essentially has is the authority to chop wood and carry water—the exact same authority one had prior to ordination—that, and the right to wear the inner and outer robes of the priest and to learn how to conduct onself with menmitsu no kafu—the exquisite, careful, considerate, and intimate attention to detail that uniquely characterizes Soto Zen activity. In a culture addicted to fame, competition, consumption, and acquisition, the robes are reminders of the Enlightened Way to all who wear and witness them.

In American Zen, the path of the priest opens up opportunities to engage in pastoral counseling, chaplaincy, interfaith collaboration, presiding over rites of passage, and promoting social justice. It’s a means of both transmitting Japanese liturgy, ritual, protocol, and etiquette and also of thoughtfully adapting them to American needs. The priesthood embodies the Bodhisattva ideal of service to all beings. Since retiring from psychotherapy, I’ve sought to use the skills I acquired as a therapist—listening, presence, holding a space, using language to unlock potentiality—in some new role unconstrained by the dictates of professionalism, the medical model, the fifty-minute hour, and the insurance industry. It’s my greatest hope that the priesthood will prove to be a path that allows me to offer my skills in the service of wisdom, compassion, and awakening.

My Buddhist journey is a fifty-year arc: the adolescent student attending Alan Watts lectures in the 1960s; the psychologist on internship at the Center for Mindfulness in the 1990s; the yogi on retreat at the Insight Meditation Society and the Springwater Center; my jukai and shukke tokudo in the White Plum Asanga lineage and Zen Peacemaker Order. I went from being a Westerner interested in Buddhism, to a Buddhist sympathizer, to a lay Buddhist, to an ordained Buddhist—each of these stations on a journey towards greater commitment to a path that has continued to enrich my life beyond words, and for which I am profoundly grateful.

I have some concern as to how my fellow sangha members may react to my robes. Robes have the potential to signify something else for others than they do for me. It’s possible that the robes may be experienced—subtly or unsubtly—as somehow putting a separation between me and others. I hope that concern proves to be unfounded. While fully dedicated to zazen and awakening, many of my sangha members do not identify themselves as being “Buddhists,” and some are skeptical of and even averse to Japanese tradition and ritual. They lean towards a modern, American Zen—spiritual, but not necessarily religious—rather than towards preserving Zen’s Japanese heritage. I’m sympathetic to that—I’d have never found my own entry into Buddhist practice through more traditional Asian Buddhist forms. I’d probably have run the other way. My first teachers, like the late Toni Packer, stripped sitting and awareness down to its barest essentials, making it possible for a skeptical Westerner like myself to relate to them. 

On the other hand, I’ve become more of a traditionalist over time, worrying about what may get lost in translation. I find traditional Japanese forms of practice beautiful and inspiring, and find great value in an etiquette based on infinite respect for all things, the spare Zen aesthetic, and a careful, intricate attention to detail. They remind me of my interdependence with and gratitude/respect for all-and-everything. They also serve as an antidote to the modern Western overemphases on individualism, the network of “me-ness,” and our focus on forever trying to arrange things closer to our preferences and desires. As the saying goes, “only don’t pick and choose.”

We’re all beneficiaries of an ancient flowing tradition. I’m grateful for that tradition and wish to continue to honor it as we step into the future. Not every aspect of it—not the authoritarianism and sexism, for example.  But much of it. The dialectical tension between traditionalism and modernism affects every aspect of Buddhist metaphysics, ethics, and practice. It always has and always will as Buddhism has historically crossed and continues to cross cultural and temporal boundaries. I’m glad to be deeply rooted in and a part of an evolving tradition, and to be intimately engaged in the never-ending dialogue over how to shape its future. 

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Photos courtesy of Bunny Solomon

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Authenticity and Zen

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I just finished reading Jiryu Mark Rutschman-Byler’s excellent Two Shores of Zen, a searingly honest personal narrative comparing his experiences in American and Japanese Zen practice settings.  Rather than review the book (which I highly recommend) I want to explore its chief theme, the search for Buddhist “authenticity:” What is real Zen?  Above all else, we want our Zen to be “authentic,” and we want to practice “authentically,” whether these two are the same thing or not — the first having to do with whether our Zen is really the Zen of our ancestors, the second with whether we can wholeheartedly practice without some inner division, false consciousness, or “as if” quality.

The first question — “Is this the Buddhism/Zen of our ancestors?” — seems to be a perennial question which some of my earlier posts (Tokugawa Zen; Greek Buddha; Everything Changes, Buddhism too; Buddhism Learns to Stand on Its Head) have touched upon in piecemeal fashion.  Every Buddhist school makes its own claim to authenticity and plays fast and loose with history in service of this goal, but every successful Buddhist movement to restore an idealized past inevitably ends by re-creating a new Buddhism for its own historical era. These Buddhisms can’t help but reflect the consciousness of their time. If, by some miracle, they could somehow resist infection with the Zeitgeist (even while, at the same time, heroically opposing it), they’d be of no real value to their practitioners who, prisoners of their own place and time, would be incapable of genuinely inhabiting the consciousness of a previous era. This relates to the issue of the second type of “authenticity”—one’s ability to fully inhabit and embody a practice.

Dogen’s thirteenth century journey to China to find the “real” Zen is but one example of the process of recreation through “looking backwards,” as is Menzan Zuiho’s eighteenth century rediscovery of Dogen’s Zen.  In addition, innovations in Buddhism have historically tried to justify their “authenticity” by invoking mythological pasts. Zen “lineage charts,” Nagarjuna’s “recovery” of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, and Tibetan “revelations” of esoterically hidden termas are all examples of this tendency, and Christopher Beckwith’s Greek Buddha suggests a similar process may underly Theravada claims to having “preserved” the Buddha’s “original” teachings. Buddhism has always looked forwards by looking backwards. It’s always decaying, dying, dead and gone and then—presto-chango!— reborn again, the same but different. This, perversely, is one way the doctrine of rebirth turns out to be literally true.

As the narrative of Two Shores of Zen begins, Rutschman-Byler, a resident practitioner at California’s Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, finds himself increasingly repelled by certain features of American Zen. He is an exceedingly — one might almost say “painfully” — earnest practitioner who finds himself questioning the authenticity of what he sees as a vitiated American Zen with its diminished promise of genuine awakening.  He is scornful of non-celibate monastics, the democratic weakening of monastic hierarchy, comfortable monasteries with heated rooms and gourmet meals, and Zen teachers who act as spiritual friends and who encourage one to find one’s own answers rather than inspiring wholehearted devotion as enlightened beings.

He goes to Japan searching for a purer, more authentic Zen practice, but what he finds are the twin aspects of a declining Japanese Zen: on the one hand, a nearly moribund family-temple “funeral” Buddhism, and on the other hand, an austere, demanding practice with an “enlightened” master who — while possessing all the hallmarks of “authenticity” — is aging and infirm and has left no Dharma heirs; whatever tradition he represents is dying with him.  His temple is populated by Japanese students who, failing to duplicate the master’s enlightenment, sneak off in the night, and Westerners attempting to devote themselves to an ascetic ideal that’s no longer possible for postmodern Westerners and which is complicated by the fact that they’re practicing within an alien culture that stubbornly resists understanding.

Rutschman-Byler struggles with the austerities and politics that characterize monastic life along with the unruly resistance of his own human nature—cravings for sex, romance, carbohydrates, and protection from the bitter winter cold—trying to sincerely apply himself to a practice that eventually threatens to undermine his sanity and harden his heart. He returns home at the end, as all journeyers must, more or less reconciled to an imperfect American Zen, concluding:

“Whichever path is better, or more traditional, or more conducive to real spiritual understanding and compassion, the basic fact that I’m left with is that simply I am a Western Buddhist, and that try as I might, my… Western Buddhist values underlie my practice.  I have tried, and failed, to force myself to think that [Japanese-style] monastic practice is better than, or finally even necessary at all for meaningful, everyday worldly practice.  Have I lost anything in that?  Yes. Have I gained something?— indeed, my whole life, just as it is, reclaimed and renewed as precisely the territory of unsurpassed enlightenment.”

This search for authenticity — to be authentic, to find something authentic to cling to — is an inevitable aspect of postmodernity: we feel adrift amidst competing traditions which have lost their compelling authority, and competing visions of ourselves that call out for embodiment and enactment.  Which path constitutes a genuine movement of the “true” self in its unfolding and actualization, and which is mere play-acting and posturing — something ill-fitting, ugly, ungainly, and grafted on?  Is there a “true self” to develop and express, or is “emptiness” and “formlessness” our real home? If nothing is genuinely “authentic,” how are we to fashion ourselves? What are the goalposts and guidelines? What do we even mean by “authentic?”

We Western convert Buddhists find ourselves in an awkward position. We’re postmoderns par excellence —doubters, questioners, and searchers — rejecting our birth religion and setting ourselves adrift.  We want to ground ourselves in something authentic, but are incapable of the kind of faith and trust in our new religion that we rejected in our old. 

There are, however, aspects of this new Buddhism that are uniquely suited to our postmodern sensibilities—most specifically the Zen ideal of “not knowing.”  In addition, the doctrine of emptiness fits hand-in-glove with the process-relational aspects of postmodernism, the understanding that at bottom there is no bottom: no unchanging essence that stands behind us or anything else.  It’s process and flux all the way down, and the bits and pieces we borrow to create ourselves are not “ours” but borrowings from the detritus of our culture, memes afloat in our hive mind. The question is, which borrowings and adoptions carry something valuable forward — liberate and actualize potentials in a positive way—and what criteria should we adopt in evaluating our progress?  Western Zen reinforces and develops a number of criteria — presence, awareness, whole-heartedness, integrity, openness, and  interconnectedness — that resonate with Western romanticism, psychoanalysis, phenomenology and existentialism — and weds them, as (David Chapman rightly points out) to contemporary Western liberal ethics with its emphases on empathy, mutual understanding, compassion, fairness, justice, and liberation.

Is this an “authentic” Buddhism?  Thanissaro Bhikkhu doesn’t seem to think so, as he makes clear in his cogent historical analysis of the genesis of Buddhist romanticism, but he’s an apologist for the Theravada agenda, shoring up arguments in support of his own existential commitments.  Of course he’s right in a sense: It’s not your grandfather’s Buddhism.  It’s not Theravada. It’s not Bodhidharma Zen. It’s not Dogen Zen.  But Western Buddhism is completely authentic in another sense.  It’s authentic in that we can completely get behind it. It’s a platform on which we can authentically practice without pretense, without cutting off or eliding what we, as postmoderns, sense deeply and irrevocably in our bones. 

Will it take us to the other shore? Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi, Swaha?  Thanisarro Bhikkhu argues that it won’t, but do we really believe in that other shore anymore?  Something wholly transcendent, a final destination, permanent, beyond all suffering?  Does it make any sense? Does it ring true to postmodern ears? Do we really need it? Have we met anyone who’s attained it?  Not someone who said they attained it, but someone we genuinely believed actually did? Do we live in Mappo, the degenerate Third Age of Buddhism, when attainment is no longer possible? What good is an “attainment” no one ever ever actually attains?

What Western Buddhism can do is move us continually beyond our old selves, breaking the chains of habit, prejudice, and character, opening us to deeper levels of interconnectedness and Being, opening our hearts, lessening our clinging and egocentricity, developing our equanimity and acceptance, and enabling the continual questioning that makes our never-ending journey an adventure worth living. That’s not another shore exactly, but it’s a process we can sincerely believe in.

This isn’t the final Buddhism; its just ours. The next historical era will require something new — something drawing different water from the Buddhist well and blending it with the insights specific to its own time and place.  Alfred North Whitehead wrote that “philosophy can never revert to its old position after the shock of a great philosopher.” Every great philosopher changes the world so that we can never quite see things the same way again.  We can’t live as if Hume, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger never existed — whether we’ve read and understood them or not, our culture has already been changed by them, and we’ve been changed along with it. In the future some new philosopher will no doubt think new thoughts and change the possible ways our descendants can understand and use the Dharma.  As a 2,500 year old conversation on awakening and liberation, the well of Buddhism is deep. It will always have something valuable to contribute.  And once again, it will be reborn, the same but different.

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Shine As Brightly As You Can

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A friend read my recent post on Dogen, Spinoza, and Whitehead in hopes of finding reason for hope.  Dogen and Whitehead posited meaningful universes fit for humans to dwell in — Dogen’s universe nudging us towards Enlightenment and Whitehead’s towards greater novelty, complexity, and beauty. That sounds pretty hopeful, doesn’t it?  My friend worries about his mortality and about the future his children will inherit.  He wonders whether we humans have a future.  He wants to hope so.  He wants to believe, like Martin Luther King, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” that our lives are a journey into a better future.

Is there reason for hope?

Maybe not.

In the short term, we’re all mortal; in the longer term, all things are impermanent — things fall apart.  Astrophysicists say our sun has a limited shelf life.  Cosmologists tell us our universe will eventually succumb to entropy or collapse.

The intermediate term isn’t much rosier.  There’s the so-called Fermi Paradox — the contradiction between the fact that our universe contains an astronomical number of potentially habitable planets and our failure to detect signs of intelligent life elsewhere.  There are many possible reasons for this, including economist Robin Hanson’s notion of the Great Filter — a theoretical barrier which reduces the odds of any evolving intelligence surviving beyond a critical point.  Whenever a species reaches a certain level of technological sophistication, they — like the unfortunate Krell in the 1956 Sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet — unintentionally create the conditions leading to their own extinction.  We humans seem well on our way towards a multitude of Doomsday scenarios of our own devising: environmental catastrophe, nuclear holocaust, genetically engineered plagues, or potentially hostile artificial intelligences, just to name a few.  The odds of our inadvertently causing our own demise seem fairly high. While the universe may, as Whitehead thought, be generally evolving in the direction of greater complexity, intelligence, and beauty (at least in the short-to-intermediate term), it’s not placing all of its bets on us. We’re one of an almost infinite set of variations on an evolutionary theme, and the universe may well be indifferent to our specific success or failure. 

So hope may be unwarranted.

Except for this.

I once worked in a rehabilitation program for people with spinal cord injuries and other neuromuscular impairments.  All of the clients — without exception and against all medical evidence — believed they’d one day walk again. Their doctors sometimes advised them to “get real.”  It wasn’t going to happen.  One of the clients — a former dancer, now both quadriplegic and blind — responded to doctors’ attempts to disabuse her of her “unrealistic” hopes by educating them that “hope is what gets you through the day.” Hope is what gets you through a dark time to a better time when nothing else sustains you.  I learned never to discourage hope, however unrealistic, unless I’d something better to offer in its place.

Yet for me personally, hope for the future seems somehow unnecessary.  I prefer “not knowing” to “hoping.”  Not the “not knowing” of ignorance, but the “not knowing” of understanding that all ideas, conjectures, predictions, and expectations about the future are just that — merely ideas, conjectures, predictions, and expectations and nothing more — a gossamer web of thought.  The future is unknowable, yet to be born. We all have our ideas about it — we’ll moulder in the grave, or live in Heaven, or be reborn; the universe will keep on expanding or will collapse; the laws of physics are immutable or impermanent; the human race will become extinct or we’ll survive as space travelers, dwelling in the light of foreign suns.  We may have strong or weak convictions about all this, but really, who knows?  How many of your past strong convictions have already proven to be incorrect?

Suzuki Roshi once said that life was “like stepping onto a boat which is about to sail out to sea and sink.”   I like his perspective.  We don’t need assurances about rosy futures.  We’re here briefly and then we’re gone.  That’s it.  What use are we to make of our brief but precious lives?  If there’s to be a future, it will be due to the collective effect of our individual actions. There are no assurances that what we do will matter in the end — but what difference does that make? If we survive it will be because we’ve acted with sufficient awareness of our interconnectedness, sufficient intelligence, and sufficient compassion and love. If we don’t survive, if we’ve just one brief moment to strut upon the stage, why not make that brief moment one of presence and awareness, of love and connection?  Why not shine as brightly as we can? 

Regardless of our hopes and fears, every one of our actions is a vote for or against the future.  Every action we take, every dollar we spend or invest, every word we speak, ripples throughout time, changing the world in some small way, tilting the balance in one direction or another. Shine as brightly as you can!

Change happens. The last two centuries have given birth to a gradual extension of rights to people of color, women, and the gay and transgendered.  We’ve seen the fall of the Berlin Wall and an end to Apartheid. We’ve seen the emergence of new concepts of international law and universal human rights.  We’ve seen fragile, tentative movements towards international cooperation through institutions like the United Nations and the European Union.  We’ve seen sixty years of relative “peace” between the competing great powers who, while testing each other through gruesome proxy wars, have — so far— resisted direct combat and global catastrophe. 

There’s reason for hope.

On the other hand, we’ve endured the two world wars, genocides in Turkey, Nazi-occupied Europe, Cambodia, and Rwanda, fratricides in Yugoslavia and the Middle East, the Soviet Gulag and the Ukrainian famine, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, endless enmity between Pakistan and India, repression in Tibet and saber-rattling in the South China Sea, bloody American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Vietnam and Cambodia, the spread of Jihadism, and a thousand other failures of humanity. 

There’s reason for despair.

Are things getting better?  Are they getting worse?  Flip a coin.  Hope and despair are both “something extra” — projections of thought into the unknown.

Let thoughts drop away.

All we have is this moment; use it well.

Shine as brightly as you can!

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Happy Fifth Anniversary!

IMG_2849_2For those of us who like nice round numbers, today marks The Existential Buddhist’s fifth anniversary and its one hundredth posting.  Since July, 2010 it’s attracted 215,000 visits from readers in over 150 countries. If you’ve been a loyal reader, thanks for sticking around.  If you’re a newcomer, welcome.

Although the Buddha taught that all things are subject to change, The Existential Buddhist’s mission has remained relatively constant: to investigate Buddhist teachings through the twin lens of reason and personal experience, and further the dialogue between Buddhism and Western science and philosophy.  Although the mission has remained constant, the content of the posts has not. I’ve tried not to repeat myself, so many of the basics of Buddhism (beginning meditation, the precepts, karma, the eightfold path, the nature of awakening) were covered in earlier posts, never to be taken up again. If these are the topics that interest you, please browse through the older posts; their content is timeless.

The reader who, for some unknown reason, plows through all one hundred of these posts will probably note that the earlier posts draw more from Theravada teachings, while the newer posts draw more from Zen. This parallels a change in my personal life: I moved from one geographical location to another, choosing a new practice home on the basis of convenience and congeniality rather than staying rooted in one tradition. As a consequence, many later posts reflect my growing understanding and appreciation of the theoretical and practical differences between the traditions.  Some of the posts reflect changing times, focusing on disputes regarding secular versus religious interpretations of Buddhism, the ordination of women in Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhist response to climate change, and responses to politically-based critiques of mindfulness.  Others reflect the vagaries of my reading list — something I read in Dostoevsky, Dogen, or Aristotle that sparked my interest.  And then, of course, there are the personal matters that inevitably arise in the course of Buddhist practice, some perennial, some fleeting, that can always be relied upon to provide new grist for the writer’s mill.

Taken as a whole, these essays reflect my ongoing love affair with Buddhist practice and my ongoing lover’s quarrel with antiquated dogma. They’re my attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff.  I’ve no special qualifications for this task. I’m neither a scholar nor an authorized teacher. I haven‘t received Dharma transmission or achieved Enlightenment. The only reason to read these essays is that you might enjoy my companionship on your own journey.  You’re more than welcome to adopt me as a spiritual friend as we travel the path together. 

I’ve learned a thing or two on my journey.  The first is that Buddhism is not one fixed thing.  In fact, it’s not a “thing” at all.  It’s an evolving set of traditions, multiple branching streams that have the Buddha’s teachings as their initial inspiration.  Buddhism is a live and ongoing conversation about the nature of awakening that’s undergone countless revisions, reinterpretations, and transformations throughout its 2,500 year history.  Some people will try to tell you otherwise.  They’ll tell you they know precisely what the Buddha said, even though none of his teachings were written down until centuries after his death.  They’ll tell you the Buddha was infallible and that everything he said must be true.  They’ll tell you they know the one true path to Enlightenment.  If you meet these people, it might be a good idea to run the other way.

I invite you, instead, to trust logic and your own experience; to read the words attributed to the Buddha in all their various incarnations; to listen to authentic teachers from all the traditions; to practice a variety of forms of meditation; to compare and contrast the Buddha’s teachings with those of the great Western philosophers; to discover for yourself what works and what does not, what’s transformative and what’s tripe, what makes your life virtuous, heartful, intimate, and whole, and what makes it cramped, dull, and inauthentic; to take what’s useful and leave the rest.  This is how modern Buddhism is evolving.  Not through top-down proclamations, but through the simple daily choices of millions of practitioners.

I’ve called this practice Existential Buddhism to distinguish it from traditional forms. It isn’t based on the authority of Buddhist scripture; it’s informed by it. I don’t believe every word of the Suttas and Sutras. I don’t believe in reincarnation or supernatural versions of karma. I don’t believe in permanent and perfect Enlightenment. What I do believe in is the reality of impermanence and interconnectedness; in the virtues of equanimity, non-grasping, and compassion; in meditation as a path of intimacy with the world and with oneself; in mindfulness and discerning wisdom as a way of being in the world; in paying attention and listening to life.  These are truths anyone can discover through their own efforts.  I call them existential because they’re something we validate through living and doing, not through reliance on authority. 

The other thing I’ve learned on my journey is that Buddhism isn’t simply a set of beliefs.  It’s not a philosophy, something to think about.  It’s something to live, something to do.  That’s why we call it Buddhist practice.  It’s something that seeps into our very marrow, something we embody and breathe.  Tibetans, I’m told, don’t say they have a “religion.”  They say they have a gyu, or “way.” In China, the word Dao also means “path” or “way.” 

Buddhism is a path, and a path is something to walk, not something to believe. 

I look forward to The Existential Buddhist’s sixth year, and I invite us to continue to walk the path together.

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The Politics of Mindfulness

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In his 1942 essay, “The Yogi and the Commissar,” Arthur Koestler outlined two extreme responses to the exigencies of communal life.  One was the belief that social improvement could only occur through collective activity to alter the ownership of the means of production.  The other was the belief that change could only occur through individual spiritual transformation.  Each generation has seen these twinned Hegelian opposites reappear in new guises, viz., the beatniks and young Trotskyites of the 1950s, or the Hippies and Yippies of the 1960s.  Today, this same polarization is re-emerging in response to the introduction of the Dharma to the West.  Some see both Buddhism and secularized mindfulness as, for better or worse, a field of individual spiritual transformation, while others critique both Buddhism and mindfulness for insufficient social engagement. If one listens carefully, one can almost hear echoes of the original Mahayana critique of so-called “Hinayana” Buddhism for its alleged exclusive concern for individual liberation.  

It is Western Buddhism’s peculiar provenance that its early practitioners were drawn largely from politically liberal social strata: beatniks, hippies, peace corp volunteers, psychedelic enthusiasts, and disaffected intellectuals — I count myself among them — people who were alienated from the dominant culture’s emphasis on consumerism and conformity, its empty professions of piety, its worship of celebrity and success, its aggressive evangelization of American Exceptionalism, its insufficiently explored dark history of African slavery and native American genocide, and its profound unease with socially marginalized groups and unwillingness to share its largess with them.  It’s therefore not at all surprising that American Dharma has become an ideological battleground between those wishing to keep it arms length from politics, and those who take the Bodhisattva ideal as a mandate for political activism. Politically active Buddhists almost always continue to pursue their pre-Buddhist Leftist predilections under the Buddhist flag, providing, in some ways, a mirror image to Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christianity’s embrace of right-wing policies.

This debate over Dharma and politics has emerged with renewed energy as mindfulness practices have made their way into corporate America and the military, and the rhetoric of mindfulness has been adopted by wealthy elites.  The Left, reflexively suspicious of business, the military, and the rich, is concerned that mindfulness’s emphases on equanimity, acceptance and non-grasping may make it a tool for pacifying disadvantaged classes, encouraging them not to stand up and fight for what is rightfully theirs. It worries that secular mindfulness, divorced from a larger ethical frame, may help soldiers become better killers. It worries that, accommodating to the American gospel of success, it may become just another vehicle for promoting professional and material advancement.  It worries about a Dharma that “professionalizes” and becomes another way to “earn a living.”  It worries about a Dharma becoming just another brick in the capitalist superstructure.

In “The Yogi and the Commissar,” Koestler understood that the thesis of the commissar and the antithesis of the yogi required some new kind of synthesis, some Buddhist or Hegelian middle way.  On the other hand, he found the prospect of such a synthesis elusive:

“It is easy to say that all that is wanted is a synthesis — the synthesis between saint and revolutionary; but so far this has never been achieved. What has been achieved are various motley forms of compromise — the blurred intermediary bands of the spectrum — compromise, but not synthesis. Apparently the two elements do not mix, and this may be one of the reasons why we have made such a mess of our History.”

In dialectical debates of this kind, truth never abides in one corner. Every voice must be attended to, and hopefully people are not speaking past each other.  In fact, one hopes for dialogue rather than debate. That’s the best away to struggle towards a new synthesis.

That having been said, I have my own particular point of view as someone who is deeply interested in the future of both Buddhism and of secular mindfulness, but who is neither reflexively anti-business nor anti-military.  My general point of view is politically liberal, but not politically radical.  I don’t belong to a marginalized or disadvantaged social group, although I am sympathetic to their claims.  My family has historically benefited from the American experience. My father’s family emigrated to America from Romania in the first decade of the twentieth century to escape the rise of Romanian proto-fascism.  My father’s father was a simple cobbler who died in a work-related accident.  My father never graduated from high school.  He enrolled in the army before the onset of the second world war and trained as a flight navigator in the 8th air force.  When his plane was shot down over the North Sea, he endured fourteen months in a Nazi POW camp. After the war, he went to work driving a truck and then working in a small factory making vertical window blinds.  With a loan from a more successful brother, he eventually bought the blind factory, working long hours personally involved in sales, manufacturing, installation and repair for his product. My mother worked too, supplementing his income as a secretary in the New York City school system. My parents never owned their own home until they retired and used the proceeds from the sale of the business to help finance a small condo in Florida. My mother passed away that year and never got to enjoy it.

My father didn’t cheat or exploit people in his business. He made a superior product that people wanted and sold it at a fair price.  He was good towards his employees.  When one of his employees occasionally wound up in jail after a particularly rough night on the town, he was the one who showed up to bail him out.  My parents made it possible for my sister and I go to college and further ourselves. The American dream has been good for us, but I understand it has not been good for everyone. I also understand that there is some element to my own family’s success that may have been purchased at the expense of other people’s misfortune. The New York State Scholarship, the National Defense Education Loan, and subsidized state university education that enabled me to go to college were not available to everyone, and the monies spent on them might have helped someone else eat or get medical attention. The large corporations like the Chase Manhattan Bank and Union Carbide that bought my father’s vertical blinds for their international headquarters and helped put food on our table were not entirely benign enterprises. Just one look at the Bhopal tragedy attests to that.  I get that.  I only recite my background so that you can understand both my appreciation for and my ambivalence about the American experience.

I’ve also been someone who’s been politically active for liberal causes my entire life.  As a high school student I was involved in the movement to desegregate the New York City public schools, and as a college student, I organized the first demonstration against the Vietnam War in my college town of Binghamton, NY.  As an adult, I’ve demonstrated against the Iraq War and for changes in environmental policy.  I helped organize a chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, am an active supporter of Buddhist Global Relief, assist in my sangha’s soup kitchen, and helped write my town’s climate action plan.  I say all this to clarify my politics — I’m an old fashioned, unapologetic, dyed-in-the-wool liberal — the kind Marxists deride as being hopelessly petit-bourgeois.  

Having clarified where I’m coming from, allow me to move on to what I regard as several key points in the debate about the politics of mindfulness.

First, Buddhism, on its own, does not possess a social theory, anymore than it has a macroeconomic theory or a theory of particle physics.  While Buddhism is anti-greed and anti-hatred, it does not prescribe any specific remedies for social inequity or injustice.  While the Bodhisattva ideal requires us to hear the cries of the suffering and not turn away, it does not supply a social recipe for how to go about ending that suffering.  While the Buddha taught non-killing, he did not advise kings to abolish armies.  While the Buddha accepted women and members of all castes into his sangha, he did not advocate for the ending of the caste system. In saying this, I am not saying we should emulate the Buddha in this regard.  I am only pointing out the historic disconnect between Buddhism and social theory.  We can invent something new, a twenty-first century Buddhist social theory, but we cannot tell from historic Buddhism itself what the specific content of that social theory ought to be.  It will have to be something altogether new.

Second, there is no reason why a new Buddhist social theory needs be dogmatically anti-Capitalist. I can imagine it being neutral about capitalist economic organization, per se.  While the Buddha eschewed personal ownership of more than a robe, a begging bowl, and a razor, he never advised kings to divest themselves of their treasuries.  Some people think that global poverty will only end when capitalism ends, but it’s possible to make the case that capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other form of economic organization.  Socialism in its various forms failed China, India, North Korea and the Soviet Union, doing little to end poverty and alleviate human misery — in fact, in many ways only tragically adding to the level of human misery though terror, collectivization, famine, slaughter, cultural revolution, and the Gulag. Some may argue that these governments were not really socialist, and that one cannot judge socialism by their successes and failures, but then it is up to critics of capitalism to provide a counter-example, any example, of a non-capitalist society that has significantly ameliorated poverty within its borders, and even more so, has done so without endless accompanying terror and oppression.  China and India are only now making great strides at lifting their masses out of poverty after having adopting capitalist methods. It’s true that the mixed-economy social democracies of Western Europe have been successful at both producing wealth and limiting the growth of income inequality — better in many ways than our more gung-ho, free-enterprise, individualistic United States.  Here in the U.S. there are arguments to be made for finding a better mix of planning/redistribution and the free market. There are reasons to think that adjusting taxation formulae, reinvesting in infrastructure development, providing universal day care and pre-kindergarten schooling, improving models of and access to lifetime education, providing for adequate nutrition and universal health care, and reforming the justice and prison systems will help to reduce the current level of income inequality. But this is only an expansion of the ends and goals of the old-style welfare state, not a revolution.  On the other hand, there is zero evidence that radically unwinding capitalism itself  — whatever that means — would lead to human betterment.   Capitalism is far from heaven on Earth, but we could do a lot worse.

There are some who argue that corporations, by their very nature, despoil the environment and exploit workers and third-world countries in their endless pursuit of shareholders’s interests.  One can point to innumerable disturbing examples of this, but there’s nothing inevitable about it. The problem with corporations is that they’re insufficiently constrained by both law and a countervailing moral ethos.  There’s no broad social consensus about how much profit is justifiable and how much is obscene.  There’s no extant social ethos compelling corporations to acknowledge their stakeholders and not just their shareholders.  Corporations can be morally constrained by the larger culture they exist within, but that kind of transformation is primarily an ethical and spiritual matter, and not an economic one. Socially important transformations of consciousness occur all the time — witness the changing world cultural consensus on matters like slavery and women’s suffrage over the past two centuries, or the rapidly changing consensus on gay marriage.  Marxists believe these changes are always economically determined by changing economic relations. While economics undoubtedly plays an important role in determining consciousness, reality is always a two-way street, with ethics and economics mutually informing each other.  We require a moral, social, economic, and political co-evolution — and moral evolution is something Buddhism has a great deal to say about.

In recent weeks I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a secularized version of the Dharma to employees of a large corporation.  I accept no money for this service, since it’s my belief that the Dharma should always be offered freely.  I also do not approve of the product this particular corporation is most famous for.  I do, however, appreciate the employees who come to learn what I have to offer. They are neither evil minions nor exploited workers.  They are people bedeviled by the normal existential issues of life and death, grief and loss, pain and illness, guilt and shame, success and failure that we all struggle with.  These are exigencies that owe little to capitalism, per se.  They are the same everywhere.  The Buddha, after all, taught that life is suffering, not that capitalism is suffering.  I’m happy to pass on what limited tools I can to make a difference in their suffering.  It’s heartening when something “clicks” and a member of the group “gets” what mindfulness is about — not adding to suffering through cognitive elaboration, touching the vital ebb and flow of life itself, becoming fully present, non-grasping and letting be, and finding all mental states ultimately workable.  I have no idea whether or not this will make them better “employees” or further their company’s “mission.”  I am unconcerned with that, and they’re there for their own myriad personal reasons. They come on their own free time and of their own free will.  It’s not a obligation placed on them by the corporation. I’m concerned that they have the opportunity to improve their emotional intelligence and find ways to more fully embrace their humanity.  If I wanted to change their corporation’s policies, I would write a letter to its president, or vote for change at a shareholder’s meeting, or organize a boycott of their products. Teaching the Dharma is an entirely different endeavor, and one that I believe transcends politics. 

In recent months I read concerns about aspects of the Dharma being appropriated by economic elites.  I’ve read criticisms of the Dalai Lama for speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, or Jon Kabat-Zinn for speaking at the World Economic Forum at Davos.  Some people react as if this is a kind of betrayal, as if the Dharma was solely the possession of the dispossessed.  This, in fact, has always been the way the Dharma has percolated through societies. The Buddha advised kings and Brahmans.  It was King Ashoka who spread the Dharma throughout India.  In China and Japan, Buddhism was adopted by elites before it disseminated throughout the broader culture.  Seminal figures like the Buddha, Nagarjuna, Shantideva, and Dogen were members of their respective aristocratic classes by birth, and often taught and advised other members of their class. 

Billionaires need help with the existential difficulties of life every bit as much as you or I.  You may not believe this, but they do.  The very rich, while more cognitively satisfied with their lives’s achievements, are not any happier on a day to day, moment to moment basis than you or I.  The Dharma is for them too, just as the Buddha taught that even the gods needed the Dharma.  Will their exposure to Buddhist ideas make them more socially responsible?  That’s a lot to ask from a brief encounter with the Dharma.  Years of deep and committed practice would probably be transformative, but not a mere dabbling acquaintanceship. On the other hand, for some CEOs, mindfulness can serve as a gateway to serious practice.  It may be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but wealth is not of necessity a barrier to enlightenment.  And then there are always individual cases like the Aetna CEO who learned meditation to deal with his chromic pain and wound up raising the salaries of his lowest paid employees.    

Lastly, let me briefly turn to the issue of mindfulness in the military.  Mindfulness has been introduced to the military as a means of preventing the degradation of attention caused by stress, and perhaps preventing or reducing the post-combat sequelae of PTSD, alcoholism, and suicide. These are all desirable outcomes.  No one wants soldiers, armed to the teeth, making thoughtless decisions in the midst of heated emotion and diminished attentional clarity.  No one wants young men who only wanted to be of service to their country or to escape the jobless poverty of their communities to suffer the life-long consequences of intense stress — burdens they then impose on their families and on the communities they return to.  None of this training is designed to disengage soldiers from their consciences and turn them into more efficient killing machines. The question of whether recent military deployments have been either moral or wise were questions addressed, well or poorly, by men in Washington, DC, and not in the field. The Dharma belongs everywhere, in the boardroom and in the foxhole, and not just in the zendo. 

None of this is meant to be summarily dismissive of critic’s concerns. We need to do more to make our sanghas inclusive and welcoming to marginalized communities.  We need to attend to the ethical issues involved as secularized versions of the Dharma move into the hospital, the workplace and the military.  We need to keep the flame of Dharma transmitted to us by our Asian teachers fully lit, and in constant dialogue with its secularized cousins, as we make slow and careful adaptations to the needs of twenty-first century Westerners. We need to think through what a socially engaged Buddhism looks like as we try to develop Buddhist social theory.  Let’s be thoughtful about the process, and let’s not turn this into an us against them enterprise, whoever “they” may be.  Businessmen, the wealthy, and soldiers are not our enemy.  Greed, hatred, and delusion are.  And let’s not saddle our new Western Buddhism with outmoded Nineteenth Century political and economic dichotomies that do no real service to the complexities of modern life and offer no real assistance to those most in need.

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Buddhism: Elephant or Duck?

IMG_5528At a dinner party the other night the perennial question — “is Buddhism a religion?” — arose once again.  I’m not sure why this question keeps getting asked here in the West— it probably never gets asked in Asia.  It’s only an interesting question if you have a dog in the fight — if you believe that religion’s either a good thing or a bad thing and need to decide which basket to toss Buddhism into so you can know whether you approve of it or not.  Buddhist scholar Damien Keown devoted the entire first chapter of his Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction to the question, thereby making his very short introduction longer than it might otherwise have been.  He enumerated various attributes of religions (ritual, myth, doctrine, ethics, clergy, temples, statues, pilgrimage sites, etc.) and explained why Buddhism ought to be considered one.  In doing so, he compared Buddhism to the elephant in the hoary story of the blind men and the elephant — how it appears to be different things when seen from different vantage points.  Gesshin Greenwood — a Californian-born Sotō Zen Buddhist nun residing in Japan — employed a different sort of animal metaphor when she addressed the question more succinctly:

I’m not an anthropologist and I don’t really know how to define religion, but you know how they say, “If it walks like a duck, and swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck?”  ….For me, Zen Buddhism is definitely 100% a duck.

The question seems to comes up more often since I began preparing for novice clerical ordination (shukke tokudo) later this year.  A religion without deity worship perplexes Westerners, so in the past I’ve sometimes resorted to categorizing Buddhism as “a way of life” or “a path” when trying to explain it to non-Buddhists.  Once I decided to become a priest, however, that kind of evasion seemed less credible and illuminating. 

So what does Buddhism-as-religion mean to me?  Is it an elephant or a duck?  To my mind,  religions are — first and foremost — commitments to matters of ultimate concern. Being a Buddhist means making a deep and abiding commitment to wholehearted presence with things as they are; to summoning up all one’s wisdom and compassion —  however meager they may be — and bringing them to bear on each and every moment, moment by moment.  By wisdom, I mean a radical acceptance of the universe-as-it-is and non-clinging to all its manifestations; I also mean a deep and profound understanding of the radical interdependence of Being.  By compassion, I mean an existential commitment to avoiding harm and reducing suffering, taking an active responsibility in the care of beings-and-things within our purview. 

Many of the attributes Keown enumerates — ritual, myth, clergy, temples, statues, and pilgrimage sites — are nonessential attributes. I’m not dismissing them entirely, only assigning them their due place. They help enable the survival of the tradition over the course of centuries, much like the outer protein coat of a virus helps protect its inner DNA. They’re helpful to the extent that they facilitate awakening in moment-to-moment living. They’re unhelpful to the extent that they become objects of clinging and fixation, making us rigid and constraining our heartful, aware response to the exigencies of life. They’re tools that Buddhism-as-religion makes use of — upaya or skillful meansbut not its core — its beating heart.   

So what does it mean to be a Buddhist priest, especially for an existentially-oriented Buddhist who’s allergic to dogma and the supernatural?

The short answer — I don’t know.

The longer answer —  I think it means being a handmaiden to awakening in whatever forms one’s own limited gifts allow.  Finding out — exploring the possibilities that ripen as a consequence — is a path that’s been calling to me for a lifetime, from my preadolescent rabbinical fantasies, to my middle-aged fantasies of becoming a Theravada monk — never a possibility for married men and householders.  Fortunately, history has been kind. The 1868 Meiji Restoration permitted the Japanese Buddhist clergy to marry, allowing me, one-and-a-half centuries later, to investigate that particular path.   

I had a conversation a little over a year ago with Ted Meissner of the Secular Buddhist Association about why, although I’m sympathetic to their project, I don’t consider myself a secular Buddhist.  I talked with him about the centrality of my experience of the sacred — of seeing all manifestations of the natural world as possessing a numinous quality of sacredness, and of the ultimate respect for beings and things that flows naturally from that experience. That particular variety of religious experience has been an integral part of my path. It’s what Buddhism means when it refers to the suchness of things — at least I think that term and my own inner experience share some congruence.  The secular world has no reference point for this.  Non-religious scientists talk about their experience of awe and wonder at the universe, but I’m not sure it’s the same thing.  I think there are dimensions of human experience that science can’t — at least not yet, at least not as it’s currently constituted — include in its account of the way things are. The secular world can assign rights and ethical obligations to beings and things, but never holiness. 

I suppose the other reason I’ve resisted being a secular Buddhist is that I’m an agnostic about many of the non-empirical questions Buddhist doctrine addresses.  I’m skeptical of them, tending towards disbelief, but at the same time open to the possibility that I might be wrong. I see a commitment to secularism and naturalism as closing off possibilities I prefer remain open. So I leave the door ajar a little. You know the saying — keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.

I know that for many, Buddhism-as-religion means something else — something that gives clergy and temples and statues greater centrality  — something that includes merit and prayer, rebirth and pure lands, hopes for protection and good fortune.  But the key question isn’t whether Buddhism is a religion, but what sort of religion it is.  And the answer is it means different things to different practitioners.  I suspect that’s true for every religion — it can be fundamentalist, obscurantist, and dogma-ridden, or it can be an open invitation to explore the sacred, its outer trappings protecting, and at times hiding, a vital inner core.

So, is Buddhism an elephant or a duck?

I personally cast my vote for an amphibious, feathered pachyderm.

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Let Ajahn Brahm Speak

 

Photo from www.bhikkhuni.net

Photo from www.bhikkhuni.net

I recently received an e-mail from Claralynn Nunamaker, a Theravada lay practitioner residing in Scotland, asking my support for her petition to the United Nations Day of Vesak Conference organizing committee urging them to permit Ajahn Brahm to address their 2015 conference.  Ajahn Brahm had been invited to speak about gender equality at the 2014 conference held in Viet Nam this past May, but the day before he was to deliver it his appearance was suddenly and unexpectedly banned. Apparently there was a split in the organizing committee, and Brahm was told that while the Vietnamese hosts supported his paper, the Thai delegation had organized opposition against it. You can read the full text of the excellent speech Ajahn Brahm would have given here.

What was all the fuss about?

Ajahn Brahm is a British-born Theravada monk, a former long-term student of the late Ajahn Chah, who serves as the Abbot of the Bodhinyana Monastery in Serpentine, Australia. In 2009 Ajahn Brahm committed the heinous crime of helping ordain four Theravada Buddhist nuns, or bhikkhunis as they’re called. Since no good deed goes unpunished, the all-male monastic sangha in the Ajahn Chah lineage subsequently severed Ajahn Brahm’s formal connection to it, a kind of Buddhist excommunication of sorts.  You can find Ajahn Sujato’s description of that occurrence here.

According to the Pali cannon, when the Buddha first created the sangha 2,500 years ago, it was initially an all male affair. The Buddha’s aunt and step-mother, Mahaprajapati, requested that he allow her to form an order of nuns, but he initially declined. The Buddha’s cousin and personal attendant, Ananda, then intervened on her behalf, asking if women didn’t the same potential for enlightenment as men. The Buddha agreed that “women are able to realize all the states leading to enlightenment and enlightenment itself.” Ananda then reminded the Buddha of all his aunt had done for him as an infant and child, and the Buddha finally acquiesced. Mahaprajapati founded an order of five hundred bhikkhunis and eventually attained enlightenment.

Fast forward through history: Indian Buddhism failed to survive the Islamic invasion of the sub-continent. The Sri Lankan Theravada order of bhikkhunis passed into history in 1017 AD after the island was invaded by the Chola Empire, and the Burmese and Thais never established their own orders. Cambodia, originally a Mahayana country, once had an order of bhikkhunis, but that order was extinguished when the country converted to Theravada in the 13th century. Since then, the Theravada sangha has been an exclusively all male affair. “Traditionalist” Southeast Asian Buddhists legalistically argued that bhikkhunis could only be ordained by other bhikkhunis, and since there were no surviving Theravada bhikkhunis, Theravada female ordination could never be restarted. (Fully-ordained Buddhist nuns have continued to exist, however, in China, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam where Mahayana Buddhism flourishes.)

Ajahn Brahm stated in a 2013 interview:

I thought too when I was a young monk in Thailand that the problem was a legal problem, that the bhikkhuni order couldn’t be revived. But having investigated and studied, I’ve found out that many of the obstacles we thought were there aren’t there at all.”

His banned 2014 talk goes into depth about the legal, textual, moral, and historical bases for restarting female ordination.

There have been a number of recent efforts to reboot the Theravada bhikhkuni line. In 1996 a Theravada bhikkhuni order was rekindled when 11 Sri Lankan women were fully ordained in Sarnath, India by the Mahābodhi Society with the assistance of Korean monks and nuns. In 2007 the International Conference on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha, attended by luminaries such as Bhikkhu Bodhi and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, unanimously endorsed the revival of full Theravada female ordination. In 2010, bhikkhunis were ordained in a Northern Californian ceremony attended by Bhante Gunaratana, and there was a 2011 ordination at Spirit Rock.  Bhikkhuni ordination was officially banned in Thailand in 1928, however, and continues to be banned within Thai borders.

Claralynn Nunamaker — an auspicious last name, no? —  forwarded her petition — along with over 5,000 signatures — to the 2015 UN Day of Vesak organizing committee earlier this week. I’m happy to be included among the signatories.  I urge the UN Day of Vesak Organizing Committee to correct its historic mistake and take a step towards restoring women’s rightful place within the Buddhist sangha.

Ajahn Brahm

Ajahn Brahm

 

 

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Buddhism and the People’s Climate March

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My sangha, White Plains Zen, is one of over 1,000 organizations co-sponsoring the People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014 in New York City. March organizers are hoping to assemble over 100,000 concerned citizens in support of global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The timing of the march is intended to coincide with the start of the United Nations Climate Summit two days later. The Summit is part of the process of developing a new international climate agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol which expired in 2012. The Kyoto Protocol— signed by 191 countries, but never ratified by the U.S. Senate — set binding targets for industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. At this year’s summit, world leaders are supposed to announce new actions their countries will undertake to mitigate climate change. As the U.S. Senate is incapable of acting due to the crippling influences of fossil fuel industry money, opposition from coal and oil producing states, and the oddball ideology of climate science denial, President Obama wants any new international agreement to fall short of a legally-binding treaty which would require Senate approval. Because of American legislative branch paralysis, the executive branch has had to go it alone through its EPA regulatory authority to reduce automobile and power plant emissions — a process that has, so far, met with judicial acquiescence.

Significant climate change is already upon us. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are now over 397 parts per million — well above the 350 parts per million Dr. James Hanson called the upper limit for preserving the planet. Temperatures are rising and rainfall patterns shifting in ways that affect watersheds and agriculture. Sea levels are rising, coral reefs dying, glaciers and ice sheets melting, and desertification spreading. One quarter of the Earth’s animal species may be headed for extinction by 2050. U.S. temperatures will rise between 4-11 degrees over the next century. Rates of very heavy precipitation in the Northeast U.S. have already increased 67% since 1978.  Rare weather events like Superstorm Sandy are becoming more common. The Pentagon is planning for increased regional warfare due to increased competition over scarce water resources. If we don’t find a way to significantly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, these effects will only get worse.

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Buddhism has a role to play in this world-wide emergency. As Buddhists, we recognize the reality of impermanence, the fragile interdependence of the web of life, and the interplay of causes and conditions. We recognize the importance of seeing things as they are, and our responsibility for the care of all beings. We understand karma — the ripple effects of our actions on others and ourselves throughout space and time. All of our understanding as Buddhists impels us to act with compassion and responsibility. There are things we can do on an individual level to mitigate risk — weatherizing our homes, installing solar panels on our roofs, swapping out incandescent light-bulbs for LEDs, buying more fuel efficient vehicles. But those individual actions, useful as they are, are not enough to make a real difference. We must also work together collectively to change the way we produce and consume energy on a regional, national, and international scale.

It may already be too late. Even if the industrialized nations step up to the plate, the rising nations may not. But we have to start somewhere. Every journey starts where we are. Every successful international movement — consider the abolitionists and suffragettes — starts with individual acts of conscience and a dedicated minority that persists until it prevails. Sitting back and doing nothing because someone else may fail to act is, on the other hand, a guarantee for planetary disaster.

So our little sangha — White Plains Zen — will be marching alongside other Buddhist groups from the New York area — groups like the Brooklyn Zen Center, the Buddhist Council of New York, Buddhist Global Relief, the Downtown Meditation Community, The Interdependence Project, New York Insight, the Rock Blossom Sangha, the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York, the Shantideva Meditation Center, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, the Village Zendo, and Zen Center of New York City, and alongside representatives from other faith communities.

You can find out more information here.

If you’re in the New York area, please join us.

After all, we’re all in the same boat —  fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth.

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The Good Heart

Doestoevsky's notes for Chapter 5 of The Brothers Karamazov

Doestoevsky’s notes for Chapter 5 of The Brothers Karamazov

My wife and I like to read to each other after dinner. One of us reads a chapter while the other of us enjoys listening while slowly savoring a cup of hot tea; then we switch off. I usually add a teaspoon of Kerrygold butter and a half-jigger of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey to my tea. While the Jameson’s isn’t strictly in keeping with the Buddhist precepts, it seems harmless enough, a guilty pleasure. In the past year we’ve completed Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, The Goldfinch, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (how does the Sesame Street song go? “Which of these things is not like the others?”) and we’ve recently begun Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling.

Good books, all of them.

It’s The Brothers Karamazov, however, that’s prompting today’s reflection, one that’s refracted through the lens of this summer’s discouraging news. This has been a particularly disheartening summer, filled with gruesome accounts of strife and mayhem in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Gaza. It almost seems as if the world is coming unglued. Machiavellian leaders like Syria’s Assad, Russia’s Putin, ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau seem to be having their way with the world. Tolstoy wrote that “God sees the truth but acts slowly.” This summer He seems to be asleep. As Mark Twain once wryly noted, “the Eye That Never Sleeps might as well, since it takes it a century to see what any other eye would see in a week.” I suppose its always been this way — from Caligula and Nero, through Stalin and Hitler, down to today’s assorted warlords and tyrants. For we, the observers, however, now and then, seeing evil triumphant — even if just for a hopefully brief moment — raises an almost inevitable and cynical question:

Are we Buddhists deluding ourselves? Is keeping a good heart really so important?

Maybe it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and there’s no such thing as karma. Maybe we’d all be better off if we thought a little more like psychopaths, feathering our nests at the expense of others. In a world of winners and losers, why not be a winner? The temptation to a lesser humanity is always close at hand.

Which brings me to The Brothers Karamazov. At the conclusion of the novel — after all the murder, melodrama, and hysteria has drawn to a close — Alyosha, the Karamazov brother with the saintly disposition, is talking with a group of young schoolboys after the funeral of Ilyusha, one of their comrades. The schoolboys had taunted Ilyusha and thrown rocks at him, but Aloysha helped reconcile them, and the boys learned to treat Ilyusha with kindness during his final days. In the final scene, beside the stone by which Ilyusha is to be buried, Alyosha bids the schoolboys to hold onto the memory of this kindness for the rest of their lives:

“Whatever happens to us later in life, if we don’t meet for twenty years afterwards, let us always remember how we buried the poor boy at whom we once threw stones… and afterwards we all grew so fond of…. And even if we are occupied with most important things, if we attain to honor or fall into great misfortune — still let us remember how good it was once here, when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which made us, for the time we were loving that poor boy, better perhaps than we are… If a man carries… such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving him… Perhaps we may even grow wicked later on… But however bad we may become… when we recall how we buried Ilyusha, how we loved him in his last days… the cruelest and most mocking of us — if we do become so — will not dare to laugh inwardly at having been kind and good at this moment! What’s more, perhaps, that one memory may keep him from great evil and he will reflect and say, ‘Yes, I was good and brave and honest then!’ Let him laugh to himself, that’s no matter, a man often laughs at what’s good and kind. That’s only from thoughtlessness. But I assure you, boys, that as he laughs he will say at once in his heart, ‘No, I do wrong to laugh, for that’s not a thing to laugh at…’ I say this in case we become bad…”

Alyosha exhorts the boys to safeguard their good hearts. This truth, that our good heart — our capacity for love and compassion — is the very best part of us — one that needs protection and nurturing — never seems more important than at times of discouragement, when cynicism seems within easy reach. When we sit zazen we know the warm glow of the heart’s expansion, and the cold chill of its contraction. When we perform acts of kindness, we know the feeling that accompanies them, the sense, for that moment, that we are, as Alyosha says, “perhaps better than we are.” When we are consumed by envy, vengeance, or hatred, some small part of us is still capable of noting that we are permitting a corrosive poison to flow through our veins. This vital answer, that we secure our well-being by nurturing our good hearts, our Buddha-nature, is all the answer we need to defeat skepticism.

Are the warlords and petty tyrants of this world ever truly happy?

Are they happy in the same way you and I are happy, or is their “happiness” in some way an inferior one? Maybe they’re tormented by fears of disloyalty and betrayal, preoccupied with endless plotting and scheming against enemies real and imagined. Maybe they never feel powerful enough, invulnerable enough, in control enough to ever enjoy the fruits of victory for more than an evanescent moment. Maybe they are paranoid and miserable despite outward signs of achievement. Maybe their stone-cold hearts — like the Grinch’s, several sizes too small — preclude their ever feeling fully human, fully alive, fully loved. Maybe there is a rough kind of justice in the world in that people who nurture their humaneness have a higher order of happiness — eudaimonic as opposed to hedonic, a pervasive sense of well-being — that’s hard to shake under even the most trying of circumstances. The sun always shines above even the darkest of clouds; the stillness of the ocean deeps is untroubled by the surface waves.

Maybe. Who knows?

Happiness is, after all a subjective thing, impossible to quantify. We can never know whether others mean the same thing by it as we do. All we can do is observe how our own happiness fluctuates with the expansion and contraction of our hearts. We can think about how much more we as readers love the saintly Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov than his passion-driven brother Mitya, his intelligent, cynical brother Ivan, or his spiteful, murderous half-brother Smerdyakov. All have grown up in the shadow of their narcissistic, brutish father, but only Alyosha has managed to preserve his good heart and enlarge on the better angels of his nature. This is why we read great literature and why we practice zazen — to keep the flame of our humanness lit, to blow on its glowing embers and help it breathe, to experience ourselves and the world more deeply.

So, dear reader, let us follow Alyosha’s admonition. Let us recollect our own acts of kindness and decency, and let us cultivate what we Buddhists call bodhicitta, the heart/mind of enlightenment — the wish to become enlightened for the benefit of others — our own good hearts.

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